“Protector Protector?” you say from your chair,
“I’ve heard of him, yes, that’s all true.
But don’t you go hunting
for him or that one thing:
the mask of the skeleton crew.”

You give a small wink, and I fall for the bait;
“What’s that?” I ask, cocking my head.
The fire is bright, but
you say, “Not tonight –
it’s high time you headed to bed.”

I howl in betrayal; you chuckle and say you’ll
begin the tale fresh the next night.
But I sulk and I scream,
“You’re so old and you’re mean!”
and I push you with all of my might.

You stare at me wisely and stroke your thick beard,
while holding me back with one hand.
“I am, but you know that’s
an odd way to show that
my stories are in such demand.

You’re certain you’re hungry? For danger and death?
For hunts ‘cross the great endless blue?
I don’t want to fail, love,
I’ll tell you the tale of…

The Mask of the Skeleton Crew

A long time ago now but not long enough,
there was a small village, obnoxiously tough.
Its people were hardened, haggard and hairy.
They ate crunchy crawfish but couldn’t stand dairy.

They lived near the ocean and rose with the moon,
went fishing all evening and came home at noon.
They snored through the sunlight, blissful and calm;
no reason to worry, no cause for alarm.

There were no intruders or menacing sails;
past foes had been tempted – attempted, then failed.
Invaders evaded, opponents postponed;
the unpillaged village was left all alone.

There was a good reason no blood had been shed:
when threatened, the villagers called on their dead.
The sight of these corpses was too much to bear;
enemies burbled and pulled out their hair.

A decent deterrent but hard on the soul;
in time, this denial of death took its toll:
a disciplined army of fathers and mothers
brought peace to the living, but none to the others.

The villagers wished there some other way
to keep their relentless attackers at bay.
And one day a visitor answered their prayers,
a stranger who went by the name of McNair –

“That’s your name!” I shout, and there’s hardly a doubt
in my heart that I’m right once again.
In each of your stories,
no matter how gory,
you save everyone in the end.

“Indeed, and good ear, but the tale won’t end here;
keep quiet and don’t interrupt.”
I heave a great sigh,
while perched on your thigh,
and you take a long drink from your cup.

McNair came from Elsewhere, pursuing a beast
that swallowed his family: wife, son, and niece.
A horse of the sea that devoured with precision,
Ingens Hippocampusthe last bloody mission.

He captained a vessel of oak and of pine,
his features were hard but his voice soft and kind.
He’d seen things and been things; the lines on his face
were drawn with dark ink, and his cuffs with white lace;
both skin and boots weathered, from storm and from salt,
as if all the woes of the world were his fault.

But one woe was not, and he’d sailed the Atlantic
in search of a power, a curse necromantic.
To him death was sacred, a line in the sand
that should not be crossed… at least not on land.

“The dead should be honored, not made to fight battles;
you’ve got to stop treating your dead like they’re cattle.
Send them with me as my skeleton crew
o’er the froth and the foam of the great endless blue.
We’ll capture a creature, a Demon Aquatic;
large as a barge, but quite idiotic.
We’ll tame it and chain it – a monstrous defense!
No foes will invade if they have any sense,
and that’s when your dead will be able to rest,
so trust me: this must be an obvious ‘yes’.”

The villagers whispered; some anxious, most pleased.
Was this the right choice for their dearly deceased?
It seemed a small price for their elderly souls;
they would be more happy in treacherous shoals.

They nodded assent and then went to retrieve
the mask that commannded cold corpses to leave
their graves far behind them, to fight foreign foes –
the dead always follow wherever it goes.

My eyes are now wide as I soak all this in;
I am hooked like a fish to this tale.
The fireplace glows,
an angry wind blows,
and the roof plinks with small balls of hail.

The mask in his right hand, a dirk in his left,
McNair traveled gravelly paths to a cleft.
The graveyard was brimming with sinew and bone,
the wrecks of old ships in the place of tombstones.

A sign made of flotsam was stuck in the earth,
and on it a message devoid of all mirth:
“Borrow our bodies by wearing this mask,
but bring us all back when you’ve finished your task.”

McNair cleared his throat as he put on the mask,
“My dearly departed, I come here to ask
a favor; you’ll savor this quest, I just know it!
Now wake up and take up your arms, and we’ll go get
a prize of large size. Such a grand acquisition:
“Ingens Hippocampus” —- the last bloody mission!”

And then from that skeletal mass came a sound:
a spine-chilling grinding that made the heart pound.
Femur and pelvis, phalanges and skulls
arose in death throes from beneath splintered hulls.

The ground was soon teeming with hundreds of bones;
funereal silence was broken by moans.
They tripped and they trembled, assembled each other,
a lurching unearthing that made McNair shudder.

With jaws locked in grins and eye sockets in stares,
they swiveled to face their new master McNair
who, faced with attention so rigidly rapt,
found audacity slipping, his confidence sapped.

But he summoned what courage he had to the fore;
from the aft of his throat, he gave a loud roar:
“I hope you’re all ready to fight fish from Hell!
We set sail at sunset, so bid your farewells!”

“You said a bad word, you can’t do that!” I say,
and I fix my best smirk for the taunt.
You chuckle and lift
both your eyebrows, unmiffed.
“When you’re my age, you do what you want.”

Your reasons annoy me; I nearly retort,
but I keep my mouth shut just this once.
Your rocking chair creaks,
the gale outside shrieks,
and the hail comes down heavy in plunks.

As promised, they sailed when the sun disappeared,
McNair at the helm with a freshly-combed beard.
Skeletons swarmed on the deck and the rigging,
the voyage was off to a buoyant beginning.

Four fortnights they sailed ‘cross that great endless blue,
hunting that one thing McNair had pursued
from seas in his Elsewhere to oceans in this one;
Ingens Hippocampus – the last bloody mission.

The sea was quite calm, almost eerily so,
their passage was lit by the moon’s ghostly glow.
No words, conversations, or gossip aboard;
the dead worked in silence; McNair gripped his sword.

On day fifty-seven, surrounded by mist,
McNair lost his temper and slammed down his fist.
You cowardly fish… you’ll wish you had died!
Get up here and face me! Real monsters don’t hide!”

The skeletons watched him with blank, sightless eyes;
they weren’t in the least bit concerned or surprised.
Instead, they stood waiting for further commands.
The ocean said nothing; McNair wrung his hands.

And at this low point in the captain’s career,
beneath the dark waters, he thought he could hear
a fearsome rebuttal, a terrible sound –
“Ingens Hippocampus” at last had been found.

“Harpoons!” cried the captain. “Our quarry’s arrived!”
The ship buzzed with bodies, a hustling hive.
One splash off of starboard, two splashes to port;
the hull gave a groan and began to contort.

Cacophonous clicking was heard from astern,
sulfurous fumes wafted and made eyeballs burn.
Up from the ocean, the motion hypnotic,
rose razor-sharp spines of a Demon Aquatic.

“Now!” screamed McNair, and his army obeyed,
releasing a volley of platinum blades,
which flew through the air toward the monster’s thick armor,
but shattered on contact; no weapon could harm her.

A primal snort thundered from out of her snout;
she lowered her head, and McNair had no doubt
the foul beast had tired of taunting her prey;
in seconds, the crow’s nest was ripped clean away –
the rigging soon after – the mainsail – the mast!
the ship was devoured, and the crew followed fast.

“That’s the end?” I shout crossly. “There’s got to be more!
He has to survive to be you!”
You grin and say roughly,
“McNair, he’s so tough, he
survived with the bulk of his crew.”

McNair held his breath and a piece of his ship
as he slid into darkness: a tense, slimy trip.
Some skeletons followed, were swallowed as well.
Together they tumbled, together they fell.

They landed in piles, in miles of guts,
but McNair was alive (all he had were small cuts).
Around them the stench of digestion was thick:
a roiling embroiling that made McNair sick.

Luminous algae provided some light:
green-ish, obscene-ish but not all that bright.
Invertebrate prey lay decaying in silence:
slugs and sea-spiders – all conquered by violence.

Then deep from the belly… a cry for assistance!
a clear and sheer shriek that became more insistent.
And tucked in the mouth of a giant clamshell
was McNair’s only niece – alive but not well.

Eyes gleaming, tears streaming, he scooped up the baby,
then scanned for the rest of his family; maybe
they’d made their escape from the bowels of this beast?
Alas, he knew not (may their souls rest in peace).

So now they were trapped in mishappenings, frightened;
courage was fleeting, reflexes were heightened.
McNair had his niece in one piece, it was true…
but what did that mean ‘neath the great endless blue?
No food and no water and still they were stuck
in the rank and dank dark of a seahorse stomach.

Then! with the clink and the chink of gears turning,
McNair felt a plan start to form; it was churning
upset like a belly – aha, that was it!
they’d get the fish drunk and then ride the vomit.

“Ewwwww!”I exclaim, and I wrinkle my nose,
my role as the sole audience.
You let loose a guffaw,
and then laugh yourself raw;
you know that I take no offense.

The fireplace gasps as it burns through its last
lonely logs, and it sputters in shock.
The storm is so near, but
you pour some more beer
as the hail pelts the roof like hard rocks.

With one hand McNair kept his grip on the mask,
the other searched pockets, produced a small flask
of ‘Hallihan’s Halberd’ – a powerful rum:
“For throats and knees; potency sure to make numb!”

He uncorked the stopper and emptied the liquor,
then waited, breath bated, his pulse all a’flicker.
The gizzard galumphed with gratuitous squelching,
a build-up, it filled up with billowing belching.

They rode on a wave of gelatinous bile,
a terrible trip that went on for a mile.
Out of its snout and then over the ocean,
they sailed ‘cross the sky on the beast’s gut explosion.

A passing explorer named Donovan Wiles
rescued them, fed them; the man was all smiles.
A self-proclaimed optimist (rare way out there)
had saved both their lives: the niece and McNair.

And they sailed for a time and returned in one piece,
and so did the mask – not a scratch!
But the skeletons sank
with the raw and the rank;
the dead had indeed met their match.

I clap and I cheer while you down all your beer
with panache and a brash elegance.
You wipe your beard clean
and then grin as you preen,
ferociously proud and content.

A knock at the door then, softly at first:
so slight and polite, barely there.
Then a bump, then a Thump,
then a terrible WHUMP,
and a bone-chilling cry for McNair.

Your grin disappears, and there’s fear in its place,
a gasp and a yell right on cue:
“Alas and alack, for
they’ve finally come back for
the Mask of the Skeleton Crew.”

You snatch my hands quick —- I hear a soft snick!
and musketballs blaze through the air.
We tear through the hall
and the sounds of the squall
are mixed with those cries for McNair.

“Protector Protector!” you shout to me then,
“You’ve heard of him, yes, it’s all true!
They called me that name
when I summoned and tamed
the souls of the skeleton crew.

I left them behind when the ship was destroyed,
and it’s clear they’re not here just to haunt;
it took them some time,
but the mask isn’t mine;
don’t cry for it’s my life they want.”

That’s when you left, and I’ll never forget
your expression: a face full of love.
And the skeletons followed
your steps while I swallowed
back tears, though I tried to be tough.

“Protector Protector” protected me twice;
the man was exceedingly rare.
A kind soul but fearless,
a hero so peerless:
my uncle, the Captain McNair.