Fiction | The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey

0
74

Edward Carey


The Swallowed Man


I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten. I have been eaten, yet I am living still.

__I have tried to get out. I have made many attempts. But I must conclude that it is not possible. I am trapped within an enormous creature and am slowly being digested. I have found a strange place to exist, a cave between life and death. It is an unhappy miracle.
__I am afraid  of  the  dark. The dark is coming for me.
__I have candles; they are my small protection. And I have this purloined book that I shall slowly fill.
__Before the last candle dies, I’ll tell my tale. I give you fair warning: I can boast you no battlefields; this is no murderer’s story; there is no great romance. But before all this, back on land, I did an extraordinary thing. An impossible thing. And  for that thing – in order that the world may be put back in balance – I am now paying a severe cost. I shall tell my terrible shame, my tale of the supernatural, though so devastatingly real.

Am I to account myself very fortunate, or entirely devoid of luck? I considered myself, before this last tumble, a very fortunate individual, blessed of more good luck, surely, than was my fair portion. Back on land, after all, I had made a miracle, I had fashioned an impossible thing. But this piece of good  luck is overshadowed by a rather enormous piece of bad luck that I am not quite able to forget, for I live with the fact every day.
__A monster-fish has swallowed me – a shark or relative of that species, I am no expert. It is no small basking shark that has thus contained me, I say that straight, no catfish with grand opinions of himself. I have been taken by a colossus, perhaps the largest of its kind that ever was. Perhaps the last surviving megalodon, of prehistoric vintage. Deep in such a thing do I dwell.
__I had heard of this monster-beast, this hunger-creature, ere I braved the waters. Did I head out in a large military vessel equipped with cannon and musket, with harpoon and barbed hook? No, I must own I did not. I set forth into the watery world on a dinghy, a rather ancient craft. It floated, it was seaworthy, so long as the sea was in good humour. I went out because someone had told me – was it a cruel joke? I wonder now – that my own son was on the water in distress, and I wanted him back. I wanted, to be clear, to save him. But I did not save him. Of that, I am most keenly aware. I bought a small boat. It seemed a solid boat to me, but I am ignorant of such matters, and the further I rowed, the less certain I was.
__Some miles out, the water began to move strangely. Waves, when before it had been calm. My little boat rocking, soon some water spilling in. An increasing storm upon me. My little boat trembling more and more, and then waves breaking and the sea opening – as if it were boiling – and then the great mouth itself was upon me. The hole, rushing forwards. The living tunnel hurtling unto me. Such a size, no hope against such a thing, like the world had erupted. The sea creature, colossus, flesh-mountain. I saw it only fleetingly, for a handful of seconds. Like Moses it split the water, and suddenly before me was a great black depth.
__I fell, for there was no alternative, towards it and within it.
__Into the very mouth.
__I saw its teeth. Arranged in rows two or three deep. A graveyard.
__On I fell, out and away from everything I knew.
__Confined, constricted. Stolen!
__How shall I ever find him now?
__I shall never see him again.

I smashed down the dark tunnel, my body thrown and thumped, dashed and dragged, I was desperate for breath. Down and down, darker and damper, until at last the falling ceased. I had landed and now could breathe again. But what land was this, what peculiar geography? I was up to my knees in liquid. I puffed, I panted – I, somehow, lived! Scraped here and there, dishevelled certainly, bruised and bloody, but  still, no matter the unlikeliness, still alive. And yet what living could this be?
__Rickety and miserable, harrowed by the dank rocking darkness, at last I started feeling about. The floor was moist yet solid enough, but even as I fumbled I could find no end     to it. Timidly I rose, fully expecting my head to strike a surface, but soon I was standing at full height and still I found no roof. I lifted my shaking hands above me with caution, fully prepared for them to strike something solid. But the strike did not come. I proceeded to extend my height as well as I could and yet I touched only more unoccupied space. Only after a moment did rumours of the high ceiling begin to reach me, in the form of liquid dripping from above. I have suffered this small rain ever since.
__Here, then, was space.
__I set out east five paces, no limit; west ten paces, no end yet. The ground, I report, was not even. I tried to walk forwards and stumbled upon objects, pieces of half-eaten sea life, yet still the place went on.
__I called out, and the altered sound of my voice was a terror  to me.
__‘Hallooo!’
__The noise was unpleasant, and there came the response: Hallo! Hallo! Hallo! All the time quieter, the decreasing ghosts of my original sound.
__I felt about further, in total darkness, no hint of anything   but black and black and ever more of black, until I bumped  into something solid. A wall, cast out at an angle, but not of flesh – it seemed to me, somehow, to be of wood. Planks of wood. Curving upwards. Wood? Impossible!
__I followed this wall with shaking hands and, finding its end, pulled myself up onto it. This took some doing, and I failed many times. But then – at the peak of its curve – a flat surface! Flat, here? Flat, true? Flat!
__It could not be. And yet it was.
__I crawled upon this flat and had not been long about it when suddenly there was an opening in the flat ground and I tumbled downwards, into something else. I had fallen again. Not so very far this time; about the height, I surmised, of a full-grown man. There was blood in my mouth. I felt about: more flat … and yet not only. I could not trust myself to believe it.
__Stairs!
__My hands discovered actual solid stairs.
__No! Impossible! But there was no mistake. I had  fallen down a set of stairs. Did this peculiar creature have perhaps a spiral stairway within its intestines? Was there an ornate rotunda to its heart? Twin outhouses of kidneys? Its oesophagus a red-brick chimney flue? How strange, that a great fish should master the concept of right angles.
__On the floor – solid floor, now, this was – I felt boxes, wooden crates spilled about. These were surely not a natural part of my enormous host, I sensed, but rather something consumable, like me. The lid of one I proceeded to break loose, then felt about its insides. Stacked in neat rows, I felt a particular column I was only too familiar with, made, I supposed – O irony! – of whale fat. Candles! Spermaceti pillars, so many night-killers, so many suns. And dry, by my word.
__Hallo, tallow!
__To light one and see again: how lovely that would be. I fumbled about, hoping to find a tinderbox to rescue me, but no such miracle was there. I was so thirsty to see again that I panicked myself utterly. Until in my weeping misery it at last occurred to me that I may have had the solution with me all along.

__Joseph, Joseph, I said to myself, have you ever been the smoker of a pipe?
__Aye, I answered myself, I am part of that fraternity. If there were light, I should show you my right index finger and thumb, be-yellowed by my habit. You would spy the evidence of a staining to the hairs of my upper lip. You would  meet  my teeth, also witnesses of this behaviour.

__So then.
__Ah! Left trouser cupboard? Empty but for the leg. Right side: something else there?

__Careful now, careful, withdraw with steadiness. Is it there? I ask you.
__Oh! It is, it is. Beautiful lady, Lucy, my Lucifer. So then, to strike the box of her, open her eyes.

__I sent up a flare to heaven.
__I lit my vesta.
__I had light.
__Light, ho!
__It may have been a yellow, oily smear to you; it may have been hardly worth the effort; but to me it was the great flame of living. This flower, this beautiful ghost, this miracle of nature! I quickly applied match to candle, amplifying my illumination. I held aloft the flame and looked only into it. Oh, how I adored its darling warmth, its swinging form. I confess tears did prick me, and – good companion – it cried with me: the first splash of hot wax fell upon my hand. Here is light in my darkness, a whole crate of daylight for me. Seven crates in all.
__Now I may fight against the night of the monster’s belly.

I was in a small room, I learned now, a sort of antechamber, that much was plain. There were rooms east and west of me, incredibly, and there again were the stairs. I ascended them now with my fragile flame to better understand my situation.
__Finally I comprehended that I stood upon a ship. By name Maria, from Copenhagen, it says on the stern and sides.
__It seemed my capacious host, as if it were a fine hotelier anticipating my arrival, had set about to provide me accommodation. As it moved through the ocean, it had come upon a fishing schooner. Mistaking the ship for a marvellous morsel, it opened its drawbridge and swallowed the vessel whole.
__And so, you see, I have a home. If you see my son, my love, my art, please have him write to me at my new address:

Giuseppe Lorenzini
The schooner Maria, late of Copenhagen
Inside the Beast
Piscus Pesces

Mediterranean Sea

Her masts are three, mizzen, main and fore. All are cracked and splintered. The tallest reaches up to the ceiling of the creature and has wedged itself there, fish bone-like, and can never, I suppose, be unwedged again.
__Here is my playground, my country, my scene. I have a forecastle, I boast me a poop deck  and  do stroll about  upon the main. I lack not a quantity of soiled sailcloth. There are three hatches down into the ship, with berths within for eight  or ten or twelve. There are hammocks and a captain’s chart room, where this hallowed book was found, and beyond that  his cabin. There are mess tables bolted to the floor in the galley. There is, in short, more space here than in the home I had before, for that place was in comparison rather limited – though I did prefer it.
__But what space I have before me now! I am a monarch of space. Emperor of Inner Sharkland.
__‘Let slip, midshipmen,’ I call. ‘We sail! Hoist the mainsail!’ I have made me a model of my home, in gratitude, out of things purloined hereabouts, as though I might have occasion to sail it like a boy on a Sunday afternoon.

Key
a. to front of monster__ 3. mizzenmast__8. galley

b. to rear of monster___4. bowsprit____9. captain’s chart room
_________________5. forecastle__ _10. captain’s quarters
1. foremast_________ 6. main deck___11. water tanks
2. mainmast________ 7. poop

Can you imagine: a ship.
__I am, despite everything, grateful to the Maria. For when my host swallows a deal of liquid – we are never dry in here – she lifts off the surface awhile and bobs and even tosses a little, from side to side, and in these brief moments of buoyancy I am kept safe by her, escaping the sudden drenching caused by the arrival of the latest great swallow. So then, this is sure fortune for me. And yet I wonder if the fact of the Maria is not in truth a piece of ill fate, since without her I should surely have been extinguished by now, and spared this watery purgatory. I am, I suppose, being ungrateful. This wood is good Danish wood, and I am its captain. And there are treasures to be found within Maria. May I tell you?

List of Life
(Provisions found inside the good vessel Maria)

Tins of preserved meat Hardtack
Bottles of wine
Raisins
Cheese
Coffee
Sugar
Tallow candles
Waxed matches

And in the bow of the ship, at the very bottom, is my life: the water tanks.
__Here indeed is living.
__And? Oh, happy discovery, this. This book. This journal. This sea captain’s log come upon in a gloomy cabin. This tome in my tomb. So that I may write, and keep a little buoyant. Here, in this leather-bound volume found inside a desolate bark, I write my life. The history of my confinement.

_

Edward Carey
is a novelist, visual artist and playwright. His novel Little (Gallic Books, 2018), about the true(ish) story of Madame Tussaud, was longlisted for three major literary prizes and has been published in 20 countries. He is also the author of Observatory Mansions, Alva and Irva: the Twins Who Saved a City, and the YA Iremonger Trilogy. Born in Norfolk, he teaches at the University of Austin, Texas. The Swallowed Man, a haunting retelling of Pinocchio from the point of view of Geppetto, illustrated by the author, is published in hardback, trade paperback and eBook by Gallic Books.

For more information and to buy The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey, visit Gallic Books website.


To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.