The man bites his lip nervously. Thin straggles of his greyish beard catch on his teeth with the tang of caked sea-salt. I’d tried to keep him talking on the way out - trifles, jokes, half-penny little stories - but slowly his mumbled answers turned to grunts, and the grunts to silence, and the silence to a horrible hollow where silence should be. Now his eyes look everywhere but at me, reflecting the colourless nothing of the water, and the only sound is the clump, clump, clump of the lantern against its post as the boat goes up and down. A lot of use that lantern is. The years fall from his face like armour plates as the sea and the fog seep back into his soul - jealously, cunningly they go. All those years of distance, precious distance, from that time and from the ocean, fall away and he is young again: a young father, about to be old, so old, on the night he lost his son. And all the dry, crusty strength of four decades’ forgetting - the water wets it, and it melts like castles in the tide. I half regret bringing him here. But my arms keep the oars going - I have no say in it now.
I touch his hand with mine; he starts out of the dream in momentary panic. The rhythm of the oars is broken, and the lapping dies away to total quiet as for the first time in hours we look at each other. Whether his gaze or mine is more uncomprehending, who could say? But then the sound comes. The rush of ropes and sails and horny feet on deck, the ding-ding of a bell and the clatter of belaying-pins: the whole symphony of ordered chaos which is a great tall ship, but among it not one human voice - and so all that friendly bustle is made cold. And there, where she wasn’t, she is - the Dutchman. She always keeps her time. The waves of her wake buffet us, and I gather the oars in, barely keeping my balance. By the time I get us steady I notice the old man standing as if possessed, as straight as a gibbet, every nervous fidget becalmed as in a painting. He looks straight up at the deck. I follow his stare to the vague wooden rail three fathoms above, but I can see no-one. I call against the wind to ask him what terrible spectre has caught him, but the sound sticks in my throat. I look again and the ship is gone, leaving an evil hole in the mist. The man stands blankly for a minute, then sits. He says nothing. But in his hand he has the only pigment in a heaven and earth of greys - a dash of red, a little, sodden hat, no bigger than a child’s.
Somehow, I get his inanimate body back to the canvas bed in his hut. It is the next day before he half-rises - painfully, wearily - and notices me. And even then I can barely hear what his cracked lips frame as he presses a couple of green copper coins into my hand, along with a cracked earthen pot of vinegar - it could be thanks, or a bribe never to show my face there again.
I take his meagre offering. “Call this a reward? Screw you!”, I exclaim. I beat him to death, loot his clothes and sew his hide into a tier-2 backpack.