The captain of the Passant was reclusive to say the least. I only saw him once, when I was more or less forced to visit him in his cabin on the second day of the voyage. I was bidden by the first mate who sneered a cryptic warning about ‘his better ’alf’.
I entered the cabin as directed and peered into the gloom. Though small by landlubber standards it was cluttered with furniture, books and queer artefacts, all of them carefully bolted to the deck, bulkheads and often one another. The air was musty to the point of being putrid.
‘Over here,’ growled a voice from the far corner.
I picked my way through the clutter until I found the captain sprawled on a narrow cot. He was a lean, haggard man dressed in tatters, and he looked up at me with bloodshot, squinting eyes. By his side was a near-empty Armagnac bottle, and opposite him, dangling from a crossbeam, was a large birdcage covered in a threadbare velvet blanket.
‘Don’t mind the parrot,’ he said in an upper middle class accent. ‘There’s nothing for you there.’
I stammered some reply to this, but he interrupted. ‘Welcome aboard the Passant, priest,’ he said in a distinctly menacing tone. ‘My wife, Mary, couldn’t abide missionaries, and I can’t either.
I just stood there, trying not to mind his venom.
‘She died of consumption a year ago,’ he went on. ‘Plucked from me, she was, by a wrathful God.’
‘Why wrathful?’
‘Because I tormented this blasted parrot, which was her greatest love in life.’
The bird, perhaps sensing that it was being discussed, chose this moment to squawk with astonishing verve. The surprise was such that I barked my shin on a tea chest. The captain shrieked with rage at the creature.
‘Silence, damn you!’ he bawled. ‘How dare thee…’ Rendered inarticulate, he spluttered into silence, his face purpling.
But then a remarkable thing. The parrot gave voice. ‘Villain,’ it said, quietly.
The captain’s eyes bulged.
‘Villain,’ it said again, louder and, did I imagine it, with more spite?
‘My God,’ muttered the captain, grabbing the Armagnac and scrabbling under his cot. ‘Remove the blanket, priest.’
‘Remove the damned blanket from the cage. Behold the monster, if you dare.’
I did as he bade me and nearly fainted at what I saw. There was the parrot, but to my disgust and revulsion only half its feathers remained. The sallow skin that showed in patches was alarmingly similar to that of the captain’s.
‘Give it this,’ mumbled its owner. ‘Give the beast its flesh.’
He handed me a piece of ship’s biscuit soaked in what was presumably Armagnac. In something of a stupor I pushed the morsel though the bars and nearly lost my fingers to the bird’s flashing beak as the creature fell upon it with gusto.
The captain had me feed the parrot two more bits of soaked biscuit.
‘Now get out!’ he screamed at me. ‘Get out, Black Robe.’
I did as he wished, knocking my shin once more in my haste. But as I closed the door, I heard the strangest thing: a woman’s voice, soft and soothing, full of love. As though it were a Siren, the voice almost compelled me to re-enter the cabin. And then the sound of a man sobbing. It was this that stayed my hand on the door handle: the throaty, strangled sobs of a man paralysed with grief.