---------------------------------------------------------------
     Preface from Unicorn Variations: Here is another of  those
short  shorts I dearly enjoy doing when the opportunity and the
idea  come  together.  I  tend  to  see  things  like  this  as
single-panel, briefly captioned cartoons--and I work backward a
little from there.
---------------------------------------------------------------



     It  was  with  them  constantly--the  black patch directly
overhead   from   whence   proceeded   the   lightnings,    the
near-blinding downpour, the explosions like artillery fire.
     Van  Berkum  staggered  as  the ship shifted again, almost
dropping the carton he carried. The  winds  howled  about  him,
tearing  at his soaked garments; the water splashed and swirled
about his ankles--retreating, returning, retreating. High waves
crashed constantly against the ship. The eerie, green light  of
St. Elmo's fire danced along the spars.
     Above  the  wind  and  over even the thunder, he heard the
sudden shriek of a fellow seaman, random  object  of  attention
from one of their drifting demonic tormentors.
     Trapped high in the rigging was a dead man, flensed of all
flesh  by  the  elements,  his  bony  frame infected now by the
moving  green  glow,  right  arm  flapping  as  if   waving--or
beckoning.
     Van  Berkum  crossed the deck to the new cargo site, began
lashing his carton into place. How many times had they  shifted
these cartons, crates and barrels about? He had lost count long
ago.  It seemed that every time the job was done a new move was
immediately ordered.
     He looked out over the  railing.  Whenever  he  was  near,
whenever  the  opportunity  presented  itself,  he  scanned the
distant horizon, dim through the curtain of rain. And he hoped.
     In this, he was different. Unlike any of  the  others,  he
had a hope--albeit a small one--for he had a plan.

A mighty peal of laughter shook the ship.  Van Berkum shuddered.
The captain stayed in his cabin almost constantly now, with a keg
of rum.  It was said that he was playing cards with the Devil.
It sounded as if the Devil had just won another hand.
     Pretending  to  inspect the cargo's fastenings, Van Berkum
located his barrel again, mixed in  with  all  the  others.  He
could tell it by the small dab of blue paint. Unlike the others
it was empty, and caulked on the inside.
     Turning,  he made his way across the deck again. Something
huge and bat-winged flitted past him. He hunched his  shoulders
and hurried.
     Four  more  loads,  and  each  time  a quick look into the
distance. Then--Then . . . ?
     Then!
     He saw it. There was a ship off the port  bow!  He  looked
about  frantically.  There was no one near him. This was it. If
he hurried. If he was not seen.
     He approached his barrel,  undid  the  fastenings,  looked
about  again.  Still no one nearby. The other vessel definitely
appeared to be approaching. There was neither time nor means to
calculate courses, judge winds or currents. There was only  the
gamble and the hope.
     He took the former and held to the latter as he rolled the
barrel  to  the  railing,  raised  it, and cast it overboard. A
moment later he followed it.
     The  water  was  icy,  turbulent,  dark.  He  was   sucked
downward. Frantically he clawed at it, striving to drag himself
to the surface.
     Finally  there  was a glimpse of light. He was buffeted by
waves, tossed about, submerged a dozen  times.  Each  time,  he
fought his way back to the top.
     He  was  on  the  verge of giving up when the sea suddenly
grew calm. The sounds of the storm softened. The day  began  to
grow  brighter  about him. Treading water, he saw the vessel he
had just quitted receding in the distance, carrying its private
hell along with it. And there, off  to  his  left,  bobbed  the
barrel with the blue marking. He struck out after it.
     When he finally reached it, he caught hold. He was able to
draw himself  partly  out  of  the  water.  He  clung there and
panted. He shivered. Although the sea was calmer here,  it  was
still  very cold. When some of his strength returned, he raised
his head, scanned the horizon.
     There!
     The vessel he had sighted was even nearer now.  He  raised
an  arm  and  waved it. He tore off his shirt and held it high,
rippling in the wind like a banner.

     He did this until his arm grew numb. When he looked  again
the  ship was nearer still, though there was no indication that
he had been sighted. From what appeared to  be  their  relative
movements,  it  seemed  that  he  might well drift past it in a
matter of minutes. He transferred the shirt to his other  hand,
began waving it again.

     When  next  he looked, he saw that the vessel was changing
course, coming toward  him.  Had  he  been  stronger  and  less
emotionally  drained,  he might have wept. As it was, he became
almost immediately aware  of  a  mighty  fatigue  and  a  great
coldness.  His  eyes  stung  from  the salt, yet they wanted to
close. He had to keep looking at his numbed hands to be certain
that they maintained their hold upon the barrel.
     "Hurry!" he breathed. "Hurry. . . ."
     He was barely  conscious  when  they  took  him  into  the
lifeboat  and  wrapped  him  in blankets. By the time they came
alongside the ship, he was asleep.
     He slept  the  rest  of  that  day  and  all  that  night,
awakening  only  long enough to sip hot grog and broth. When he
did try to speak, he was not understood.
     It was not until the following afternoon that they brought
in a seaman who spoke Dutch. He told the man his entire  story,
from the time he had signed aboard until the time he had jumped
into the sea.
     "Incredible!"  the  seaman  observed, pausing after a long
spell of translation for the officers. "Then that  storm-tossed
apparition  we  saw yesterday was really the _Flying Dutchman!_
There truly _is_ such a thing--and you, you are the only man to
have escaped from it!"
     Van Berkum smiled weakly, drained  his  mug,  and  set  it
aside, hands still shaking.
     The seaman clapped him on the shoulder.
     "Rest easy now, my friend. You are safe at last," he said,
"free  of  the  demon ship. You are aboard a vessel with a fine
safety record and excellent officers and crew--and just  a  few
days  away  from  her  port. Recover your strength and rid your
mind of past afflictions. We  welcome  you  aboard  the  _Marie
Celeste_."

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