by Shane Halbach
They say the first thing the sea swallows is your sanity. I suppose if that’s the only part of me it got, I count myself lucky.
I’m not going to say we’ve taken no harm, but here I sit, thank The Lord. It’s still dark, but the sea is quieting, and it’s soft as a whore’s breath in the sails. It’s almost morning now, but we’ll see how far we’ve come when we can see the stars again.
She came up swift and fierce, her winds pushing ahead of her like great fists. Even Little Richard was knocked about like ninepins, and Bill Jukes was almost blown clear out of the rigging.
Nigh on a whole day we tried to run from her, fast and shining like a black fin on the arms of those winds. The Captain was adeck and we all scurried like plank beetles, keeping her flying fast and clean, racing to catch the edge.
There were times in the night when I wasn’t sure she had an edge. There were times in the night when I thought the storm was Old Jack hisself, coming to swallow us up and take the whole world down on an anchor string.
When it caught us, the Captain called out to ride it, calm as you please. It did give me a little heart, I confess, as we struck sails and made fast. I’m not one who was born to it. The sweet trade chose me, as they say. But the Captain sailed out of his mother’s womb surely as I’m writing this, and if he wasn’t scared, then what right did I have?
The waves rose and fell like empires. Sometimes the deck fell so fast that I was weightless as a gull before crashing back to my place. The rain fell so hard the ship could have been sailing upside down. We tried to help the Captain as well as we could, but mostly it was every man for hisself. Some were crying, some were praying, and all of us were holding on to whatever we could. I won’t say which type I was, only that praying for mercy on a man like me seems to be a mighty waste of time.
We aren’t the first bunch of sailors to see fairy lights dancing on the bowsprit, and we won’t be the last. Ed Teynte saw them, and I, and the Captain sure as hell saw them. I saw the fey light echoed in his eyes as he stood lashed to the great wheel, riding down that black bastard of a storm. I thought myself mad then, and maybe I was, though not the only one.
I heard the Captain laughing over the storm as if it were all a tremendous joke. He gripped the wind between his teeth, pointed the bow at that fey light, and chased it like a prize, straight on ‘till morning. I could see in his set he would have chased it down to the Deep if Old Jack had sent it to fetch him.
As for myself, I had no desire to sail with Old Jack, and I crawled below on my hands and knees. I lay on my back in the hold and the ship jumped and lurched beneath me, until I couldn’t tell if we were sailing or flying.
Not even the roar of the ocean or the roar of the thunder could drown the sound of the Captain’s wild laughter.
* * *
A right lot of luck we caught, and more than we deserve, or my name’s not Bartholomew Quigley Smeethington.
Only two souls unaccounted for, Benjamin Cooper and the other Irishman, Sean Boyle. Even running as light as we are, we’ll have no problems sailing her.
And as for the lady, hardly a spot of damage on her. A little trouble rigging the mizzen, but Mister Mason says he’ll have it braced handsomely.
In the meantime, the Captain took her out on a bit of an exploratory. We found land straight away, and Mister Jukes saw natives ashore. Mister Jukes declared that makes this the West Indies, but I’ll wait for a little more proof in my pudding.
Still, to come out anywhere with only two lost and the Roger intact had the mood light to say the least. At only midday the helmsman found a bay and the Captain ordered anchors dropped. The sun was bright, the sea was flat, and the water was clear to the bottom. The Captain ordered double rations, on account of Mr. Cooper and Mr. Boyle, and a finer day was never offered in memory. Cecco brought out his concertina, and we all danced to spite Old Jack. Even the Captain was adeck, and when Mister Starkey asked him for a third ration, the Captain ordered a cask.
A cheer went up and Ed Teynte had the barrel rolled right up adeck.
I don’t mind saying this is possibly the finest celebration the Roger has ever seen. Nothing feels quite so good as being alive.
* * *
I don’t mind saying that I’m a wee bit squiffy right now. There was much rum and also wine in the Captain’s cabin.
The Captain’s a good man. I did not ask the Captain if he saw spirits on the bowsprit. I did not ask the Captain why he turned pirate. The Captain did not ask me why I turned pirate.
Nobody eats with the Captain. I think he’s lonely. I wonder if he were a naval officer. I wonder what he left behind when he turned pirate. I wonder if there were a time when he wasn’t lonely.
Everyone has secrets, even the Captain. But the Captain never would have done the things that I’ve done. Or would he? What’s his secret? The sea has the most secrets.
No, the Captain doesn’t deserve this life like we do, I’m sure of it. The Captain makes me feel that I can be like him and not deserve it too.
* * *
I hardly know where to begin. We were slow to rouse this morning, and our heads were like wooden cannonballs when we did. And then Ed Teynte started yelling like he’s mad, and half the ship was down below, just like that.
His eyes were fey and dancing, just like the Captain’s had been that night, and I thought he’d gone as cracked as a yardarm. He kept shouting, “The rum is back, the rum is back!” and then doing a little kick and a jig.
God save me if he wasn’t telling the truth. It was as if we’d never drunk a drop the whole day before, all the casks back in their places, neat as you please. I would have thought I’d dreamed the whole thing if I didn’t have wool on my tongue and behind my eyes to prove it false.
William Slank seized on a barrel, and I think he would have restarted the party right then and there, but orders came down to make ready. This was rather abrupt, but the only way to respond to orders is handsomely, so up we went.
Except when we got adeck, the lines were lifeless and the crew was at the rail.
I grabbed Alf Mason by the arm. “What the devil is going on?”
He says, “There’s mermaids off the starboard!”
“Either you’re daft or I’m cracked,” I says.
“See for yourself,” he says, and pushed me to the rail.
The harbor surrounds us like a mother’s arms, rocking us gently in a cradle. There’s just enough wind to take a man where he wants to go, and the water’s clear down to the sand. There’s no storm, no fog, naught to confuse my sight, just spring sunshine on a clear day.
On my mother’s eyes, there are mermaids sitting on the rocks, not a hundred yards off the starboard. Four of them, sunning their green, fishy tails and drying their long, tangled hair. Their breasts are like lanterns in the dark, and they’re calling to us.
Cecco shouts to them, and the crew cheers him on to still lewder suggestions. The ladies just giggle and beckon to him.
That’s when I knew. This isn’t the West Indies. We died in that storm, and the good Lord carried us–the ship, the lads, and the rum, all of us–straight on to paradise.
* * *
Old Jack, you black, poxy bastard. Mother Mary, you black bastard.
We didn’t hear it, or leastways we didn’t know what it was. The crew was shouting and it must have come from behind the Roger, or we would have seen it. Now it’s all I can hear.. I can hear it through the walls of the hull, that infernal ticking clockwork. It’s out there, swimming around us, waiting to see if we’re twice fools.
The Captain was adeck, and even he was taken by those black hearted sirens. He ordered boats away, but George Scourie, Nathaniel Leatherby, and Thomas Black didn’t wait. We all had a laugh when they leapt from the rail, hoping to get the first chance.
It was huge, maybe a quarter the size of the Roger. We never saw it, never heard it.
It struck fast, Nathaniel Leatherby first. There was a glint of sun in the water and then gears whining as it opened an enormous mouth studded with jagged metal. Just for a second I saw into its gullet, and it glowed deep down inside like the furnace of Old Jack hisself. Then its mouth slammed shut like a dropped anchor, and Mr. Leatherby was gone, just gone, and the enormous brass crocodile swept under us like a cannonball in flight.
Mr. Scourie and Mr. Black couldn’t have seen what happened, not really, but they scrambled for the ship anyway. The ticking must have been louder in the water.
I was right at the rail, and I threw rope, as did at least two others. I’m sure some must have run for hooks too, but the clockwork crocodile was back again, rending and tearing with those jagged teeth. The Captain was close by, because I lost my ears when he fired his pistol into the beast. It didn’t seem to take a wound or even slow.
There weren’t enough pieces of Mr. Black left to fish out of the water, but Mr. Starkey was practically in the water hisself, hauling George Scourie onto the deck, badly bleeding.
Captain ordered underway, but it took awhile to sort it out, with some of the crew jumping to, some setting to cannon, some attending to Mr. Scourie, and some just staring in horror.
And over all, those fishy devils laughing.
* * *
The wind was good, and we ran in front of it all day. The crocodile’s enormous tail churns the water like a drumbeat, and he easily keeps pace. He shows no signs of winding down.
Ed Teynte stayed awake all night to see if Misters Scourie, Leatherby, and Black would show up in the larder, like the rum.
They did not.
* * *
Robert Mullins thought he saw a boy in the rigging this morning.
First thing, while the ship slept and the mist was creeping over the rails like a raider. Saw him up by the nest, but figured it for an albatross. Me, I would have looked none too closely, but Mr. Mullins decided to climb up and have a look-see.
Mullins can move silent as a spider in the rigs, and he got up all the way to the tops without notice. Sure as royalty, there was someone up in the nest, scrounging around.
“What’re you on about?” says Mullins, and the boy swung around, surprised. Except it wasn’t a boy!
It was short and lean like a boy, but its hair was wild and tangled and it covered itself with rags. Its face was dark with sun and dirt and soot from Old Jack’s fires.
Robert Mullins leaned away quick and the imp leapt into the air, soaring clean over his head like a gull. Mr. Mullins was so surprised he fell out of the rigging. That would have been the end of Mr. Mullins if he hadn’t managed to get hisself tangled up on the way down. Broke his arm like a twig, but didn’t break his neck.
More of the imps rose up like the mist, and swooped and dived so that those adeck were forced below. We barricaded the hatches, and by that time, enough of us were roused to start a watch by the portholes. Turtled up like knights in a castle, we were.
They rattled the hatches and banged on the walls, and Starkey even repelled boarders at the gun ports, before they gave up.
They’re still up there now. I can hear them, gibbering and crowing, chasing each other in the rigging like mad seabirds.
The sea’s not safe, the air’s not safe, and we’ll all turn to rats in the hold before long, sneaking by and waiting to be someone’s dinner.
* * *
No matter which way the Captain sails us, we end up at the island. It taunts us with its perfection.
Every day is a blue sky. Every day the island is lush and welcoming. Every day we’re trapped as sure as a fish on a line. No ships to chase, no prizes to take, and nothing new to eat but fish and ship’s rations.
I feel a fool for thinking Old Jack would have let a bunch of rogues like us slip through his grasp. It’s hell for us, and no mistake.
And always the ticking of our infernal watchdog. Occasionally he leaves, but he always comes back again. No one dares to leave the ship or put so much as a toe in the water without a double watch in the rigging.
Everyone goes armed at all times, for when the imps return. At least they can be run off with cutlass and pistol, which is more than I can say of the old brass croc. After we recovered from our initial fear of them, we realized they were more of a nuisance than a threat.
Most everyone’s up adeck when they can be, and it feels like it’s getting smaller and smaller by the day. The Captain prowls like a shark, snapping and biting, but it’s no use. We can sail where we please, but we’re imprisoned just the same. There’s some who claim a cell is better than a short drop and a quick jig, but silver says they weren’t in a cell when they said it.
The breeze is soft tonight and the swells are gentle. Good for sleeping. I guess it’s like that every night here. Good thing too, because I’ll never again sleep in a bed that doesn’t rock. I’ll never again spend my pay or plant a garden or have a woman.
Sometimes the wind carries the laughing of the mermaids to us, and I imagine my fingers around those pretty, pale necks.
It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about that.
* * *
I could have had him, that black poxy bastard of a twice-cursed imp. Oh Smeethington, you coward and fool! What have I done? I could have stopped him.
I was pulling in the nets and there he was in front of me. He was floating off the rail, fascinated by the silver flopping fish glittering in the sun. Just for a moment, I knew I had him. The net was in my hands and I needed only cast it.
I couldn’t do it. He looked so fierce and wild, with his hair in every direction, flying free off the rail. Not afraid of the crocodile, not worried about the sirens on the rocks. Of this place, not trapped in it as we are.
And then the moment was gone, and he saw me. His eyes glittered black like a shark and he was on me in a flash, pulling a gulley from nowhere and stabbing for me gut. I went over backward and threw up the net to tangle him, but he had me, and he laughed in my face. I knew my doom.
“To me, you foul coward!” shouted the Captain, and there he was, like a scarlet dawn. The imp leapt for him, but his rapier was ready and he slapped the creature’s small blade aside.
The Captain was twice the man, but the imp made up for it in tricks and luck, sometimes fighting from the air, sometimes lunging from behind.
Back and forth they ranged on the deck, and the crew gave them space for the fight, not daring to interfere lest we foul the Captain’s strike.
The imp ducked and rolled, attempting to come in close for a slash with his knife, but the Captain gave him a kick and sent him sprawling across the deck.
A cheer went up from the pirates and a cry from the imps who gathered likewise above.
The defeated hellspawn lay on the deck panting, but the Captain’s good form didn’t waver and he did not strike his prone opponent. Instead, he kicked the knife away.
William Slank and Charles Turely rushed in then to secure the imp, but before they could grab the little eel one of the other twice-cursed fiends gave a cry and threw down a naked blade.
The imp caught it out of the air and swung for all he was worth. Before I could flick a lash, there was a meaty whack! and the Captain was clutching his wrist.
The deck erupted in chaos, but the fiend was up like a shot before anyone could lay a hand on him. Away they went to the island, like a powder cloud in a blue sky. And lucky they did –I would have torn any one of them to pieces with my own teeth if I could have.
Old Jack bugger the little claybrained dandypratt and his poxy band of cowards. My lips to the sea, if I get the chance again I’ll slit him from neck to gizzard. Bugger the island and bugger the old brass croc. Bugger every last Godforsaken one of them.
When we came here, we forgot who we were. We’re bad men, the lot of us, who got spit into the sea for being too rough for the land. We’ve already been judged and found wanting. Whatever we might once have thought, there’s no redeeming us now. We lost our lives, we lost our chance to make it right, and now I’ve lost the Captain his hand for all eternity. There’s nothing else for me to lose. We’re at the bottom of a deep, dark sea and we’re never, never going home again.
The Lord above can’t hear us, so I swear to the one below. On my word as an Irishman. On my word as a pirate. On my word as a doomed sinner, with blood on my hands and evil in my heart. I do so swear to the Lord of the Deep that I will not rest until I have had my vengeance on this place and those thrice-cursed imps. I will spend eternity hunting them down. I will sing them to sleep with my hands around their necks.
It’s time to remember who we are. We were brought here for a purpose. Maybe Old Jack didn’t bring us down here for never-ending torment. Maybe he brought us down to be the never-ending torment.
It’s time to remind the rest of this hell spawn that we belong here too. Now and forever.