"I've heard the Scrumsiat have no skin but lichen."
"Well I heard the men of Utch don't have no heads and grow flower bulbs between their legs, but I wouldna want to see it."
"What ho, Scrummie boy, you got any cousins with lichen for skin?"
Pilt shook his head at the navigator and kept loading boxes.
"Canna be bad luck having someone like him around if we're cruising the Straits," said the old sailor, whose name was Shackle. He turned back to Pilt. "If we run aground mayhap you can talk to the natives, eh?"
"Don't speak no Scrummie language, sir."
"He called you sir." The navigator chuckled. "Do you outrank him?"
"I canna say I've ever outranked anyone but maybe Pilt. Cause the only person Pilt outranks is that frog-flipper boy what empties the toilet trough."
The two guffawed while Pilt hauled more boxes onto the ship. He hated how right they were. They were still talking about him long after he retired to his hammock belowdecks. As it turned dark, they were drowned out by the sounds of the crew beginning its last-night-on-dry-land debauchery. At least four of his fellow sailors would take a life that night, Pilt predicted. However, odds were that just as many would leave behind their seed to grow into flea-bitten bastards on this backwater island. Things evened out like that in a trading town, salt for spice, bricks for daughters. Everything worked on a logic of exchange.
As Pilt was trying to fall asleep, he felt a weight alight on his chest. He knew before opening his eyes that it was Brumous Morn, the ship's cat. Most sailors Pilt knew refused to set sail without at least one cat on board. They were considered, in the Empyrean faith at least, to ward off bad luck. The cat nosed under Pilt's hand and he obliged by stroking its mottled gray fur, which really did resemble the sky on a foggy morning. Brumey stretched and laid down right on Pilt's chest. It was clear the cat would not be roused till morning. Even when I sleep, someone's using me, Pilt thought, drifting off to a moody slumber.
Pilt rose early with Brumey kneading at his chest and staring down at him with mismatched eyes. One was a sharp green, the other a cloudy orange. He suspected the cat was blind in that eye since he was usually a few feet off the mark when he pounced on a rat. He rose and ate some saltfish from his pocket, throwing the last bite to Brumey. The cat gulped down his treat and sauntered off. The rest of the men were still asleep, but Pilt decided he might as well get a head start wiping the residue of the night's debauchery from the deck.
He had barely finished the task when Captain Bendemeir Blantyre emerged from his quarters. It was still dim out, but the deck was clean. The captain nodded to Pilt and walked to the bow to survey the waters that lay beyond. Pilt walked back to the sleeping quarters, hoping to get in a morning shave before launch. The shave wasn't for his face, as he still couldn't grow whiskers, but for the flaky patch of lichen that grew in the pit of his elbow. The lichen had to be scraped off every day or it would only grow bigger and more noticeable, and nothing good would come of that. Pilt the Scrummie, they called him. Pilt the Lichenman.
Pilt had barely ducked into the sleeping quarters when the hornmaster signaled for all to be at their stations in ten minutes. He made to leave but ran face-first into a wall of fat and muscle he knew to be Honeycutt, an oafish sailor who some said was part walrus.
"Where's our Scrummie going already?" The sound of Shackle's raspy voice was a sign his morning could only get worse. He closed his eyes, hoping that whatever he faced this morning would be no worse than the biting spiders Shackle had hidden in his boots last week. On Shackle's orders, Honeycutt pushed Pilt up against the grimy wall of the sleeping chamber.
"Here we is, fixing to sail through the Straits with a Scrummie mongrel on board."
Pilt sighed, regretting what he was about to say.
"I'm not a Scrummie, Mr. Shackle. I come from Halfboont, just like most men here."
"Aye, so you've told, a little orphan boy sprung from the mud of the River Husk. It makes no difference to Shackle where you say you've come out of, you've got the mark, don't he, Honeycutt."
"He do, he do!" said Honeycutt, giggling as he rolled up Pilt's sleeve to reveal the gray-green lichen on his brown arm. Pilt braced himself, half-hoping Shackle would strip the skin from his arm or even sever it entirely. He would have gladly given an arm to be free of being Pilt the Scrummie, Pilt the Lichenman, one rung above the frog-flipper boy. Shackle raised his voice above the farting chaos of the sleeping chamber.
"Alright boys, a ha'penny gets you a rub of the Scrummie's lichen patch. Canna survive a passage through the Straits without the touch of a Lichenman! Line up, line up, orderly now, plenty to go around and he ain't goin' nowheres till you've all had your chance."
Pilt gave up resisting after the second sailor took Shackle up on the offer. He lay there under Honeycutt's arm while the sailors handed their coins to Shackle and leaned in for a rub of his patch. He felt a tickle, but it didn't hurt the way it did when he shaved the patch. A lichen shave felt like scraping off a huge scab before it was ready to be picked. It always left his skin red and raw.
By the time the last sailor had gotten his good-luck rub, the chamber was empty but for Pilt, Shackle, and Honeycutt. Shackle counted out his takings, keeping the majority for himself but sliding three coins to Honeycutt and one to Pilt. Somehow, being paid for his degradation made Pilt feel even worse.
"A pox on you and your dead uncles, too, Shackle," he whispered to himself as he walked onto the deck. The launch day passed without thought, except for one that kept coming back to Pilt: if his patch was good luck, why was he still Pilt the Scrummie and not Pilt the Bosun? Most days, he would have settled for just being Pilt the Sailor. That night, he stole out of the sleeping chamber and shaved the patch off, cutting himself more than once in the dim moonlight.
For twelve long days, the Huskhorn Maiden threaded its bow through the dark waters of the southern Empyrean Ocean. With each morning, Pilt woke up to find the water had grown greener and his patch had grown larger. It normally took a few days to grow back, but now it was growing back overnight.
On the fifth day, it took Pilt two hours to shave his arm. Not only that, but the shave left behind fungal carbuncles that oozed green slime when punctured. The ship doctor, Wrentham, tried debriding the lichen with a hard-bristled brush, but that only left Pilt's arm bleeding and bruised. The next morning, he found that the scaly growth had claimed half his forearm and most of his bicep.
On the morning of the twelfth day, Pilt woke to find everything smelled different. It was a musty smell with an undertone like sweet manure. A call from the hornmaster confirmed that they had entered the Straits of Scrumsigh. These new waters were green and thick, making Pilt feel he was sailing in an enormous pot of soup.
Within three days of sailing the Straits, the ship was coated in algae, which soon formed into a thorny lichen. Where Pilt's lichen was scaly and crustose, the ship's lichen curved away from the vessel in stubby tendrils as if trying to escape. Soon Pilt was so busy scrubbing the ship's lichen that he no longer had time to shave his own. By the time he and the frog-flipper boy scrubbed their way across the deck the algae had crept onto the sections where they had started.
It was miserable work, made worse by the fact that the frog-flipper boy hated Pilt for sitting above him in the ship's hierarchy. He had no tongue, but that didn't stop him cursing Pilt with his eyes every second they worked together. The web-fingered lad wore a perpetual scowl, broken only by barking laughter when Pilt inevitably fell on his face.
Soon the ship sighted eastern Scrumsigh for the first time, but there was no talk of making landfall. Though traders from western Scrumsigh visited ports across the world to hawk spices and salt, their eastern brethren were an unknown breed. Where western Scrumsiat had small lichen patches like Pilt, the eastern clans were supposedly covered head to toe. They were also rumored to drink saltwater and to throw all brown-eyed babies into the ocean.
"Plan on making a swim for shore, Scrummie?" asked Shackle the day they sighted land. "Seems the wild is calling." He gestured to Pilt's right hand, now entirely covered in lichen. Pilt turned his back and continued scrubbing, but Shackle began hurling rough words at him. Scrummie. Lichenman. Mud rat. Hornsucker bastard. Pilt's lichen arm burned with every insult. It pulsed as if urging revenge. Tiring quickly of words, the old sailor crept up and shoved Pilt, putting him on his knees. Pilt heard Shackle's laugh retreat as he bragged of his cruelty to all who would listen.
Pilt tried to stand but could not gain traction. He spent what felt like hours dancing on the slippery deck to the laughter of the frog-flipper boy. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder and another under his armpit. He spun around defensively, thinking it was Shackle or Honeycutt or some other tormentor, but saw the thin face of Captain Blantyre looking back at him. Pilt expected the captain to chastise him for mucking about, or at least to recoil at the sight of his overgrown limb, but he did neither. He simply looked the mop boy up and down, clapped him on the back, and said:
"Keep the faith, old son. We need you or the whole operation comes crashing down."
"Thank you, sir, but I'm just the mop boy."
"And without you, we'd be neck-deep in piss and algae. Though I guess you must have been shoulder-deep already from the looks of it." He gestured to Pilt's lichen arm.
"I don't understand it, sir. I always had a little patch but since we entered the Straits it's grown so large."
"Nothing wrong with having a son of Scrumsigh on board. Some call it good luck. Just like the cat."
Captain Blantyre left Pilt with a clap on the back and a shake of his lichen hand. It was the first time anyone had touched the hand like it was a part of him and not just some revolting curiosity. Pilt went to sleep with a sense that he might still be better off staying on the ship than swimming for shore. Besides, shore was a long way off, and he didn't think he was strong enough to make it alive.
The duties of a ship captain tend to make one's health a private matter. In fact, the first thing that most ship doctors are asked before being hired is "can you keep a secret?" This is to say that no one aboard the Huskhorn Maiden, except the doctor, knew that the captain had taken ill with an unknown malady the day after shaking Pilt's hand. The illness remained secret until the morning the captain was found in bed, blue-faced and thoroughly deceased. At that point, it was rather difficult to hide.
The ship's officers quickly elected the former first mate, Honus Ayle, to the rank of captain. Ayle, in turn, ordered Wrentham to find out what had killed the captain and what threat it posed to the welfare of the crew. The sailors waited impatiently while the doctor autopsied their captain, each fearing they might be next. Finally, the doctor emerged from the captain's chambers, wiping his hands with a salty rag.
"The captain died of lichen in the lungs!" he announced. The crew went silent.
"Seems he had lichen growing inside his lung and it suffocated him. Now my suspicion is there's spores in the air that the captain breathed in. So, from now on, everyone breathes through a cloth till we're out of the Straits."
"How do we know one of us ain't next?" asked one of the sailors.
Captain Ayle stepped forward.
"I can't promise any of you ain't contaminated too. If you feel short o' breath, you come to Wrentham. We only got one more week in the Straits, ten days at most."
"What if it's a Scrummie invasion?"
Pilt knew the voice before he saw its owner. Shackle pushed his way to the front of the gathered crew, grabbing Pilt by his clean arm before he could slink away.
"Seems I remember seeing our Scrummie mop boy begging the captain to help him when he couldn't stand up on the deck. Seems I remember the captain touching him right on the lichen hand. How do we know it wasn't the Scrummie what infected him? He could be infecting all of us!" Realizing at once the implication of his argument, Shackle released Pilt's arm and stepped away. The crew burst into mutters. Pilt picked out familiar words. Scrummie. Lichenman. Mud rat. Mop boy. The captain quieted the crowd and turned to Pilt.
"Sir, it's true I touched the captain, but it was him who reached out to shake my hand."
"Lies!" said Shackle.
"You didn't even see it, sir," said Pilt.
"Maybe not," replied Shackle, "But I know someone who did."
As if summoned, the frog-flipper boy emerged from the mess of men, snapping at ankles like a caged animal.
"We can't have a mute give proof," said the captain. "How will we know what he wants to say?"
By way of answering, the frog-flipper boy walked up to Pilt, mimed shaking his hand, then pretended to fall down dead. The crew roared with laughter and accusation. Pilt cast his eyes down, knowing he had finally sunk below the frog-flipper boy. He saw the captain conferring with the other officers in furtive whispers. Finally, the captain quieted the crowd and stepped forward.
"Keelhaul the Scrummie."
Pilt's lichen arm throbbed. Keelhauling was a serious punishment, especially on a cargo ship this big. He'd heard tales of men whose backs were so ripped up by the barnacles and splinters of the keel that they ran out of blood before reaching the end of the ship. Before he could say anything in his own defense, Pilt was standing at the stern with a rope tied around his ankles.
The last thing he saw before sinking beneath the water was the face of Captain Ayle looking over the bow. It was not a face of hate, but one of relief. Pilt knew then that the keelhauling wasn't a punishment for him, not really. It was a morale booster, a way of putting the captain's death to bed with minimal fuss. He was suffering in the name of catharsis, not justice.
Pilt floundered in the elemental stew of the ocean, algae lashing to his legs. The water was hot, like a bath. By the time the rope pulled him under the boat, he had already exhausted his air supply. He folded his arms and bowed his head, bracing for the keel's abrasive kiss. He felt nothing. He was barely moving. Then he realized they had no intention of keelhauling him at all. They were drowning him, plain and simple.
Well, he thought, opening his mouth to the cloying pressure of the sea, better I die now than live the rest of my life maimed. Imagine how they'd treat a crippled Scrummie. Imagine.
As the last breath stole away from the deepest part of his lungs, Pilt the Lichenman floated along beneath the keel of the Huskhorn Maiden. Once the air was gone from his lungs, he sunk so low that he hardly dragged along the boat. His last thoughts were of how heavy he felt like he'd swallowed the whole ocean in one gulp.
The body barely bled when they pulled it from the water. No one had much interest in examining Pilt besides the doctor, who was obligated to determine that the Scrummie was indeed dead before they tossed him back overboard. Wrentham checked for signs of breath, finding nothing. Had the doctor been paying closer attention, he might have noticed a carbuncle on the border of the lichen sleeve, which sprayed green pus when he leaned close to listen for a heartbeat. Thinking it was just seawater, the doctor wiped the liquid from his face and licked his lips, noting a strange fungal taste. Wanting to get to supper early, the doctor ordered the grunts to weigh the body down and toss it back.
Tied up in rusty chains, the remains of the mop boy sifted down through the thick water. The crabs and worms of the Straits turned toward the thump it made, hoping for a whale or some other blubbery treat. None got close before they felt the warning pulse of the lichen arm, an ancient klaxon signaling them to beware. The seafloor crawlers gave the body a wide berth, refusing to touch it for fear of the slimy gods who had marked it as their own.
In the span of a night, the algae of the Straits accumulated into a thick blanket over the corpse. When it was totally covered, the lichen arm began pulsing even more intensely. It sent out chemical communications to nearby spores, which rushed from every surface and began alighting on the green carcass. The fungal masters surveyed the work of their algal servants and found it adequate.
It only took half the following day for the fungi to infuse the green algae blanket with a scabrous structure. By midday, the entire body was covered in lichen. While the lichen on the right arm remained green, the rest was a deep yellow. It took another day and night for the lichen to fully infiltrate the chambers and sluices of the body. Once this task was complete, the corpse began flexing and convulsing, its muscles engorged with crackling energy. As the sun rose over the water, the body rolled over, crouched, and launched itself from the seafloor. It began paddling to shore, carried inward by the inexorable force of the tide.
Pilt's eyes opened in the dim sunlight. He tried to return to oblivion, but the slapping waves jolted him back into vicious consciousness. Sitting up, he quickly accepted that he was naked, marooned, and covered in lichen. Pilt didn't know why, but the situation seemed not to bother him. It felt like he was breathing through his pores rather than his lungs, sucking air through the interstices of his skin. His chest no longer heaved with the normal movement of breath, and his heartbeat was present but slower, like it was pumping something thicker than blood.
Pilt turned, looking for the source of the word, but he was alone on the beach save for a few bugs and crabs that scuttled mindlessly around his feet.
Pilt froze. The voice was coming not through his ears but his skin. What was more, it wasn't even coming in the form of sound. He was feeling the words in a language he had never learned but suddenly knew, a tactile language whose phonemes were alchemical elements. At first it felt like the lichens were injecting the sense of the words into his veins, but that wasn't quite right either. The meaning emerged from beneath, flowing out of his heart and lungs to be perceived on the skin. The words were immanent to his being, more so than even his own thoughts.
The lichens repeated their command, and Pilt felt the sensation of east-ness dance on his skin with an imperative texture. Not knowing what else to do, he started walking east. It was muggy, but Pilt did not sweat. He didn't even feel the shells and stones beneath his feet, only the smooth pressure of the lichen on his soles pulsing with the rhythm of his skin-breath.
To his left, the green sea stretched on without form. To his right, a thick forest seethed with the heat of procreation. The growth was so thick that he couldn't even take three steps into the forest before becoming entangled in vines. At first, he had thought the vines were wrapped around trees, but a closer look revealed that the entire forest was shaded by the caps of enormous mushrooms, each taller than any tree he had ever seen.
After a day of walking, Pilt noticed he was not hungry. As long as he stayed beneath the sun and occasionally dipped himself in the ocean, he was perfectly fine. This was convenient, he thought to himself. Better not to have to eat at all. Wouldn't he have given the world for that power when he was a starving street child?
It was three days of walking before he came on the wreck. At first it seemed ancient, but when he got closer Pilt recognized its shape. Though seemingly covered in years of lichen, Pilt could recognize that cargo ship anywhere. The Huskhorn Maiden's hull was rent, likely on some of the jagged rocks that poked from the water nearly a mile offshore. Pilt could see them from the beach, so he was sure the crew would have been able to see them from the ship. Any sane captain would have known how to avoid this disaster. This wreck was the product of either mutiny or hijacking.
"East," said the lichenous gods within him. "Go east."
Since there was no sign of life on the ship, Pilt was about to keep walking. Then he noticed a fluid motion in the Maiden's cracked hull. He crouched and looked into the opening only to have his nose batted back by a small paw. Pilt stepped back and waited. A head poked out of the crack. Brumey's fur had been replaced by a dark green lichen that grew like stringy hair. Pilt beckoned to the cat, who slinked from the crack and began rubbing up against his legs. Pilt noticed then that Brumey's left eye had unclouded and turned back to green. The cat followed Pilt's hand with both eyes and pounced as if on a rat, expertly ensnaring a thumb between his paws.
Pilt didn't think the cat would follow. He was a Scrummie cat now, moving with a wildness Pilt had never seen before. The green tom seemed ready to plunge into that fungal forest and live well off its bounty, so Pilt gave the cat a final scratch on the back and walked on. Brumey sat, licked his paws, snapped at a nearby crab, and eventually, without a hint of bother, followed along.
They walked on towards the sunrise, two sons of Scrumsigh looking for gods to thank.