King Sargasso By Joel Tagert | Art by Moon Patrol

Moon Patrol_SeaWitch_100_King Sargasso_By Joel Tagert
Sea Witch by Moon Patrol

King Sargasso

By Joel Tagert

Art by Moon Patrol

Published Issue 0100, April 2022

Elizabeth Cartwright was famous enough that she knew to wear a wide-brimmed straw hat tied below her chin with a black ribbon, like a nun’s wimple, when she went out boating; not because it would stop the paparazzi from taking photos, but so that when they did, she would give the appearance of attempting to hide from them, which after all only a very famous person would think to do. “All a ruse with you,” commented Donal when she explained this stratagem on the way to the docks. “Probably if we removed your hat the back of your head would be perfectly hollow, like an eggshell.”

“To act you have to be an empty vessel,” she replied airily. “Whereas you are perennially full of yourself.”

He grinned, quite unashamed. “I am filled with the profound insight afforded by true erudition.”

“You’re filled with mimosas.”

When they got out of the car, and Donal went ahead to shake hands with the captain, Katy looked at Liz quizzically. “Do you two always spar like that?”

“Certainly. Why?”

“I don’t know. We never talk that way.”

Liz gave her a fond smile. “Dear Katy. You I look to for kindness and gentle resilience. Donal I look to for world-weary repartee, translation and bag-carrying.”

“What about Andy?” Katy said, nodding toward a golden young man waving at them from the yacht: a diving instructor Liz had drawn into her wake three days ago. 

“Him I just look to. Or at, really.” 

The captain was named Matheson, a lantern-jawed, rough-skinned Englishman, resplendent in a white uniform, who showed them around the eighty-foot sailing yacht with a grim effort at good cheer. There appeared to be only two other crew: the first mate, Ulrich, and the Bermudian cook, Jacob. “Just three people to sail this whole ship?” asked Katy, sounding disturbed.

“Two, really,” Matheson said. “Jacob will stick to the food, barring emergencies. But of course this is just an overnight cruise to the other side of the islands. We could nap most of the way.”

***

The squall arose in minutes, clawing them from the shore with a fury of wind and waves, laying the Javelin so far over Matheson thought for a horrifying moment it might flip upside down, leaving him clinging in terror to the wheel. Such things should not have been possible given the timorous nature of these outings – they were never more than a few miles from land – but the Javelin’s engine had refused to start in the critical moments when they had seen the storm approaching, and they were forced to scud before the wind, or die. 

The hours that followed were like a single crash of thunder. They lost sails and spars, were banged, bruised and bloodied. When they were finally able, deep into the night, he sent Ulrich down to look again at the engine, but the first mate returned shaking his head. Early on they’d set Jacob on the radio, but nothing less than a battleship could navigate this apocalyptic tumult, and if one had, it would have passed by unseen in a wall of horizontal rain. The young diver, Andy, also accorded himself well, calming the other passengers and helping wherever he could.

Then, as suddenly as it arose, the storm ended, leaving them becalmed on glassy seas. Amazed, Matheson pried his cramped fingers from the wheel and stood, limbs trembling, dimly aware of the sound of someone retching below. He tottered to the starboard rail. To the west retreated a flickering wall of cloud; in the east climbed a blood-orange spark of dawn. But the sea was strangely dark and eerily still, glassy and black.

It was seaweed that caused it, of course: the Sargasso strangled the waves. Matheson reached into his coat for his flask.

***

There was one serious injury incurred during the storm: the big bearded professor, Donal MacQuarie, had struck his head exiting the bathroom at the outset of the blow. He now lay unconscious in his cabin, and it fell to Liz to tend to him, with Katy prostrated with seasickness. 

Thus she missed much of what followed that day and the next, absorbed in her anxiety and in what care she could provide for her new patient. Only once did she retreat to her room to nap, and felt so guilty (perfectly hollow, like an eggshell) that subsequently she would just curl up in the padded chair next to his bed in the tiny cabin. Eventually she fell into a restless half-sleep.

She woke with a jerk, confused. They were under the sea, chanting invocations to a figure lying still but fiercely wakeful in his bed, the sea bed. No, no, it was just a dream. But the chanting continued: Sh’íin ti’ leti’ob tak kaambal. Sh’íin ti’ utia’al u keenel. Sh’íin ti’ u táakpajalo’ob jaanta’ …

She shuddered. Donal’s eyes were scrunched shut, but his lips fluttered in that whispered litany. Sweat gleamed on his bulbous nose. Tentatively she touched his shoulder. “Donal?”

“The green halls are waiting,” he breathed. “Come down, come down.”

***

Ulrich got the engine working finally by disassembling the alternator, finding several spots that could have been the culprit. It was a relief to all to feel the motor’s vibration through the hull, but in fact it was of limited help, because the thick strands that enveloped them were also sure to entangle the prop. “Should we try it anyway?” he asked the captain.

With whiskey on his breath, Matheson replied, “We won’t make it ten yards, and be worse off than before. We wait. If no one comes by tomorrow morning, we break out the oars.” 

“No luck with the radio?”

Matheson growled, “The problem is, it’s working fine. It’s just that we don’t receive anything but gibberish.”

Ulrich squinted toward the horizon, the sky a white haze that somehow did nothing to lessen the heat. “How did we get so deep in all this seaweed?”

“Either we’re moving or it is.”

“You can’t tell?”

The captain reached into his pocket and displayed a handheld compass. They both stared in dismay at its wandering arrow. “The stars will come out eventually,” Ulrich ventured. 

“You’d think so,” Matheson said.

***

On day four, after an exhausting and visibly fruitless attempt to row their way free of the endless matted vegetation, and very concerned about the state of their stores, Jacob thought he might drop a line from the stern to see what he could catch before the sun set completely. He didn’t stay long, however. Normally he didn’t mind the smell of the sea; the fishy, decaying reek that permeated many a coastal town usually spoke of pungent life. But there was something genuinely rotten about it here. He could too easily imagine corpses drifting up from the green tendrils. 

Finally he turned to head below, and jerked back in surprise at Matheson glowering at him, just a foot away. The captain had a look he didn’t like, a look that said, I’ll show this black bastard. 

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“The rest of what?”

“The food. I was just down looking at the stores, and we’re short. Where’d you hide the rest?”

Katy, Ulrich and the unconscious professor were down below. The movie star and her diving boyfriend, however, were in sight, talking quietly in what they called the lounge, on the recessed couches there.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jacob said, loudly, gratified to see the couple’s heads turn. “I was just here fishing, trying to get us all something more to eat.”

Matheson seized him by the arm, drawing him close. “You socked something away at the beginning, but now you need to share. Where is it?”

“We took inventory together! There isn’t anything else.”

“Tell me!” 

Jacob tore himself free. “You’re drunk, skipper. Go sleep it off.” 

Matheson struck him. It was a short blow, connecting above Jacob’s left eyebrow, but it shocked him. Matheson had never treated him badly before; but in that moment he felt himself suddenly a slave on this ship, like the slaves on so many ships before, whose bodies no doubt littered the sea bed below them; and Matheson was the monster who had put him in chains. In unreasoning fury, he swung what was in his hand, the steel box he used for tackle. Matheson stumbled back, and Jacob lifted the box overhead and brought it down, right on Matheson’s forehead. He had a single image of the stunned captain with blood running into his eyes before Matheson stumbled backward, over the low rope rail and into the sea five feet below. 

The silence as Matheson slipped into the water was absolute: not even a splash. He might have fallen into a pool of glistening oil.

***

Andy Clausen prided himself on rapid, effective action. Though the whole altercation took place in seconds, by the time Matheson fell, Andy was already out of his seat. He could have leapt in immediately, could have saved him. 

But there, body tensed – he hesitated. He didn’t like the look of those thick, ropy threads – was repelled by a whiff of putrid rot. 

But the captain was not even visible; he must be unconscious, sinking rapidly downward. “Man overboard!” Andy yelled, took a deep breath, and dove. 

***

Liz stared as Ulrich ran on deck, alerted by Andy’s cry. Any second now the young man would surface, the captain borne triumphantly back to the air, back to the land of the living. Because that was what the boat was, she realized: a tiny island in a realm otherwise inimical to human life. “What happened?” Ulrich demanded. “What happened?”

“They’re gone,” she said aloud, not so much in shock as preparing herself for the shock to come. “They’re –”

Matheson burst out of the seaweed, struggling violently, head and shoulders slick with green algae, blood streaming down his face. Vegetal ropes wound tight around his neck; his eyes were wide and red as grapes. He made a choking sound, pressing down with his hands, pressing down the young man beneath him, pressing him into his dark green grave. Seeing the desperate struggle, Ulrich first threw down a life preserver, and then leapt into the sea himself, to aid as he might. “No!” Liz cried. 

Because it was not Matheson, nor Andy, that either was fighting; it was the sea and its viridescent vines, which seized ankle, limb and throat, and pulled them down, down into the green halls of the Sargasso. 

***

On day five Jacob departed in the twelve-foot tender, taking most of the food and water with him. He did not suggest that Liz or Katy should come with him in the boat, much less the unconscious professor, and they made no attempt to stop him. There was still the inflatable skiff if they decided to go that route. It seemed that all day long they saw him rowing toward the verdurous horizon, and then he was gone. 

***

Liz increasingly spent her time shuttered in Donal’s tiny cabin, watching him slowly die. He no longer spoke in his sleep, his body still as stone. Katy chose to stay on deck with a flare gun in her hand, hopeful yet that a plane might pass. The heat was oppressive, but it was equally stifling in the cabins. When waking, she thought of nothing but her five-year-old daughter, Louisa, whom she had left in Tampa for this much-deserved vacation. 

But when she slept, she dreamed of green kings with crowns of broken ships, lying frozen in catacombs of chthonic murk. She woke on hearing the cabin door creak open, heavy steps on the teak deck. 

She had expected Liz, but it was Donal, risen from the dead. His linen shirt hung loose and filthy on his frame. His eyes were full of horror and he held his big hands before him. “I strangled her,” he said in a gravel voice. “She was just like I said. An eggshell.” 

“Stay away from me,” Katy warned, pointing the flare gun. He took a few more heavy steps and fell to his knees. She edged past him, then scurried below.

It was true, all too true. She wept piteously over Liz’s body, wept for hours, and finally curled up on the floor. When she finally ventured above again, Donal had hung himself from the mainmast. 

***

The bodies had surfaced, their faces green and mottled, blood red eyes glaring with terrible anger at the ship and the whole living world. Join us, they whispered. Katy refused, though she was out of food and half-delirious. Her daughter was waiting. 

She might have eaten the bodies of Donal and Liz, but to relieve herself of that option, she had allowed the sea to have them. They joined the others. Still, she would not give in. It was what the Sargasso wanted, what the green king hungered for in his green halls. She refused.

Finally, she dared to edge down onto the swimming platform. She ignored the bodies she knew were there, reached out and seized a slimy strand of seaweed. It struggled in her hand like a snake, but she cut it off from its brethren with a determined sawing of a long knife. Ignoring the smell, she brought it to her mouth, bit and chewed. 

It tasted awful, but she kept chewing and swallowing, chewing and swallowing, the texture like leather. She waited, and she did not throw it up. She thought it would rain eventually; she would collect the water. The red eyes of the green bodies bulged with rage, but after all they were dead, and there was nothing they could do. 


Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.


Moon Patrol is a Northern California-based artist. Taking themes including ’80s cartoons and video games, classic pulp illustrations, and comic book narratives, Moon Patrol remixes these many and varied cues using a collage technique he compares to “Kid Koala’s turntable albums, and in part by William Burroughs’ cut-up technique.” See more of his work on Instagram and snag prints at Outré Gallery.


Check out Joel’s March Birdy install, The Bones of the Earth, and Moon Patrol’s, Mrs. Robinson, or head to our Explore section to see more from these creatives.

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