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The race of the thousand cursed captains

Well, you probably know how those things start. Van der Vecken, of Flying Dutchman fame, raised his hands and proclaimed: ‘I must surely be the most wretched of all captains!’

‘You think so?’ Leif Longbeard instantly sneered. ‘Well, I was sailing to Greenland some thousand years before you were even born. After the twenty-seventh day, I shook my fist at the sky and called: “I’ll get there. No flood-wave or sea-serpent will halt me. Do you hear me, Thor? Do you hear me, Ran?”‘

‘And then?’ van der Vecken asked.

‘Well, a moment later a flood-wave rolled in and turned our drakar upside down. Next, a sea serpent appeared and bit it in two. First our ship and then me.’ He folded his arms. ‘I have been sailing for a long time now but I never ever get past Iceland.’

‘Hah!’ Wong Tan called, ‘you think you have it bad? Now, take me. I cursed Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, when my rowboat with a hundred and seven statues of her overturned. Called her a useless bitch who couldn’t even guard her own statues and now the Yellow River has rolled out like a frog’s tongue until it is a billion li long and I haven’t been able to reach Shanghai, even after rowing for three thousand years!’

It came to blows. Odysseus, who had never got to Attica, which shows what liars those poets are, drew his bow. ‘Stop it right now! The next one who touches a cutlass gets an arrow in the eye.’

That helped. The hero never missed and an arrow still hurt, even when you are doomed to wander forever and are effectively immortal.

‘And what kind of argument is this? Who is the most cursed, the most wretched? Is that a way for heroes to talk?

We are all doomed. Let us be worthy then of our diverse curses and spit the gods in the eye! Let us do something even worse!’

Blackbeard nodded. ‘You are right. Now I propose to sail to the White and Immaculate Cliffs of Heaven and steal Petrus’ very own key and skewer that succulent lamb the priests are always nattering about on a spit and roast it!’ He ran to his ship. ‘By the way, the last one to get to his ship is a doddering dodo-bird!’ he called over his shoulder.

And so the race was on: a thousand vessels set out from the Island of the Dead: Naglfar which was built from the nails of dead men, Huskmr with sails woven by poisonous spiders and a steering oar made of a giant mammoth tusk, the cruise ship with the Italian captain who had left his sinking ship in the very first lifeboat…

‘To the White and Immaculate Cliffs of Heaven and all other forbidden harbors!’ their battle cry ran. ‘And the last one to get there is a doddering dodo-bird!’

So ye gods and goddesses, tremble and put padlocks on your dove-cots, patrol your gardens with the Peaches of Immortality! A thousand bravos are coming, salty rascals and rude girls and all you curses are void, because Odysseus, a man polytropos, most clever, has proposed a switch. Now it will be Leif Longbeard who rounds the Cape of Good Hope, Loki who climbs the Cliffs of Heaven to steal Petrus’ key, and Odysseus who anchors in Shanghai’s harbor to ask a certain lady about those missing statues…

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