British North America
My father says he’s saved my life nine times. Once at my birth, once when we fled master and overseer through rows of struggling tobacco beneath a sky choked with stars, and the other seven paid out over all our years before the masts of ten different ships.
The oldest two I must take at his word, as I have no memory of either. The first of the seven was the time Pop shut me below when I thought to skip up the rigging to the topmost yard of the Barbry Allen in a near gale off Barbados, the decks awash and the sea yawning up before us. Six years into life and already I was full of the piss and vinegar he taught me to walk with. The kind he said would serve me well no matter what the tide.
“Boys are all piss and vinegar,” he would say as he scraped his grimy razor over my scalp till I was bald as an egg. “It’s what keeps them alive, pet. On the sea or off.”
Mostly I think I’ve saved my own life. I knew enough to listen to Pop from the first moment we stepped on shipboard and learn the ropes from anyone with something to teach. When we came upon the Golden Vanity a few months ago, the bosun handed me the ledger without so much as a look toward Pop, and I signed the articles on my own for the first time.
I grinned at Pop hard enough to blind the sun. He smiled back, but when he thought I wasn’t looking he shook his head, slow and sad.
Pop still thinks we chose poorly, joining the Vanity’s crew. “It’s a brig, pet. Moves slow, like an ox in molasses. We’ll never catch anything faster than a merchantman. We’ll never be able to outrun anything faster either.”
I’ve given up trying to convince Pop that sloops and schooners might be quick but they can’t bring as many guns to bear. Besides, the Vanity’s old man has an eye for ships loaded down with plunder and swears the wind tells him things. And if you’re bold enough to ask what things, he’ll merely wink and say, “Things about things, lad.”
Which is no answer at all, but when you’re the captain and your name is Half-Hanged Henry, it’s an answer you can give a bold sailor who’s a little too curvy amidships to be an actual boy.
We’re flying a Union Jack we stole from our last prize and lying in wait for the next behind a barrier island off the coast of Carolina. I’ll be on watch in another turn of the glass, but for now I’m up on the mainmast yard, my bare legs swinging, the salt-wind curling through my jacket and over my windburned face.
A flurry of seabirds circle the topgallant yard, then dip and glide down to the waterline. But when they gather just above the spray, I flinch hard and grip the mast.
Mother Carey’s chickens.
They’re not proper chickens, not the kind you’d eat. They’re little seabirds, black at the wing with a white stripe across their tails. There are four, and they dance eerily over the surface of the water without ever landing.
I wonder if I knew them. They were once men, and I’ve seen my share of floating corpses since I was a cabin boy. These birds are the souls of drowned sailors who’ve escaped the wife of Davy Jones and returned to warn seamen of storms. Even crews like us who use captured flags to lure prizes close.
I shinny up the mainmast till I reach the topmost yard and can go no higher without becoming a bird myself. The sky is clear and gray. Not blue, but no angry clouds mount. The air doesn’t smell like a storm, and the wind promises naught but a good chase once the prey comes in sight.
“Ha! Almost got that one!”
Hanging over the rail near the bowsprit are Johnny and Black Tom. They signed the articles in Port Royal, no older than me and full of showy false swagger that lasted a single turn of the glass. Pop took pity on them and now they’re our messmates, two sons closer to the big family he always wanted.
Black Tom flings a stone and it misses one of Mother Carey’s chickens by a handswidth.
I’m down the mainmast in a trice and I haul those two coves collar and scruff away from the rail. They go stumbling and fall into fighting stance before seeing it’s me. Then they straighten and eye me warily.
“What gives, Joe?” Black Tom has squinty pig-eyes and a constant white-boy sunburn. Johnny’s the one who’s blacker than me and Pop put together, with ritual scars like Pop remembers on his granddad.
“Don’t you make Mother Carey angry, harming those birds.” I stab a finger at the feathery shadows tiptoeing across the water below. “Or else she’ll call up a storm so she can serve our drowned guts to Davy Jones for tea.”
“You really believe that old yarn?” Johnny asks. “Them’s just birds. Souls go to heaven or they go to hell.”
Eight bells rings, four sets of two peals, short and pert.
These lads must stop. Killing even one of the little harbingers could bring us all to a bad end, and Pop’s grown attached to both Johnny and Black Tom, orphans like him, like he’s terrified I’ll end up. I want to smile at them, to use honey instead of vinegar, but Pop says nothing makes me look less like a boy than when I smile.
“I do.” I say it over my shoulder as I head toward the mainmast. “And you’ll do best to believe it too, ’cause if you let them, they’ll save your life.”
Still no sign of a storm. And we’ve been watching every bearing.
Just after three bells, we weigh anchor. The old man’s got wind of a massive treasure ship limping her way up the coast of Spanish Florida, blown off course and separated from her warship escort.
Prizes don’t get any more tempting than that, and Johnny and Black Tom lead the whooping and speculating.
I’m trimming the staysail when the old man strolls past.
“Joe, you’ll be in the boarding party, got that?”
“Ah . . . beg pardon, sir, but I’m a topman.”
Pop puts down a bucket and edges closer. I hate that I’m glad for it, but I am.
The old man squints at me. “A big strong lad like you? How old are you, Joe?”
I frown, reckoning, and Pop hisses, “Sixteen.”
“And you’ve never boarded a prize?”
“No, sir. I was a runner and a surgeon’s boy when I was little, then a powder monkey and now a topman.”
The old man scoffs cheerfully. “Nah, you’re wasted up in the rigging, moving sails. See Davis after your watch. He’ll give you a blade.”
“But I . . .”
I can splice a line and take a sounding and play a passable hornpipe. I can fight like a bag of wet cats, but I know I can’t kill. Just the thought turns my stomach.
But boys my age are well scarred like Johnny, like Black Tom. Boys of any age are full of piss and vinegar, and they’d be spoiling for a chance like this.
“What is it, sailor?” The old man isn’t smiling anymore.
I signed the articles. I took the ledger from the bosun and balanced it on my left forearm while inking a big shaky J beneath all the other names and marks. I could have handed it over to Pop, let him make a mark for us both and taken my half share like always.
My father puts a hand on my shoulder. His voice is quiet but steady when he says, “Nothing, sir. Right, Joe?”
“Yes, sir,” I mutter, and it’s to both of them, to the old man and Pop too.
The bosun sends me aloft and I’m glad for it, but now I see Mother Carey’s chickens everywhere and I shouldn’t be seeing any when there are still no storms off any bearing. All I can do is wonder what the little souls are trying to warn us of, since birds of this kind never just appear.
When eight bells ring out once more and I’m off watch, I head down to my rack below, snug among the guns. The canvas is still warm from when Pop slept in it earlier, and there’s a little packet of rock-hard ship’s bread waiting for me wrapped in his kerchief.
Pop hasn’t given me his rations since I was nine and laid up sick and sweating with cowpox.
The Golden Vanity runs on bells a lot tighter than most other ships Pop and I have sailed with, but Pop says the old man was in the Royal Navy before he turned pirate, and bells are what he knows.
Pop says it in that voice he uses when he’s hopeful for something but doesn’t want to be. He’s hopeful for one thing, mostly—to crew a vessel that takes a prize big enough that he can retire on an able seaman’s share.
Whenever he talks about it, I smile and nod like I’m eager to put on shoes and petticoats and sip tea in a drawing room, but I already know there’s no way I can follow him. I stopped being a girl that day on the Charleston dock when Pop signed the articles that first time, when he put his hand on my newly shaved head and told the old man of the Veracruz his son would make a fine cabin boy. Pop had no way to keep me unless I spit and swaggered and pissed through the curved metal funnel he made for me out of an old drinking cup.
So even if we do hit a once-in-a-lifetime treasure ship—maybe like the one we’re sneaking toward now—even if Pop does land enough silver and gold to buy that little farm or the tall Boston townhouse he’s always on about, now that I’m old enough to sign articles for myself, I have no desire at all to leave the sea.
But I can’t tell Pop that. Not after everything he’s done to keep me, starting with swinging me on his back that night he fled his future and mine—days beneath the sun and years beneath the lash.
I must have drifted to sleep, for I’m jolted almost out of my rack by an insistent thudding that sets the bulkheads trembling.
Black Tom’s at the head of the gun deck, pale beneath his sunburn, and he bangs on the bulkhead with a stick of kindling to the same wild clang as the ship’s bell.
They’re beating us to quarters.
We’ve come upon our prize.
I’m awake in an instant, and I’m clearing hammocks and sea chests from the guns before I remember the old man wants to see me out on deck, blade in hand and ready to board and subdue the enemy ship. I shouldn’t like how the dagger Davis gave me feels in my hand—sturdy, heavy, menacing—but I do.
As I step out on deck, Pop nods me near. He’s breathing in sharp little bursts as he grips his blade. Pop’s been in boarding parties before, but I’ve never seen this look about him.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say Pop was afraid.
“That’s not a treasure ship,” Pop says in a low voice. “She’s riding too high. Look at the waterline.”
I step to the rail and peer out. And pull in a sharp breath of my own. If the ship were loaded down with treasure, the deck would be only a fathom or so above the waves. Instead all the gunports are clear.
Two whole rows of them.
“She’s a warship, isn’t she?” I whisper.
“And we’re trapped against the coastline, aren’t we?”
This time Pop doesn’t reply because questions I know the answers to I shouldn’t have to ask.
All she’s got to do is come broadside to us and fire. Two volleys and we’re sunk.
We’ve hauled down the Union Jack, since England and Spain are still at war the last anyone’s heard, but flying no flag at all will draw every captain’s eye.
His grapeshot as well.
The bosun’s whistle cuts the clamor, and we fall silent as the old man swings onto the quarterdeck and waves his arms for attention.
“She’s Spanish, all right,” the old man says, “but there’s not a single coin aboard her. We’ll never be able to outrun her, and we’re all dead men if we try to fight.”
A rumble moves through the crew. Unease and discontent and more than a little raw terror. The wind has led Half-Hanged Henry astray.
Pop steps closer so our shoulders are touching. Signing pirate articles means you’re always with a crew that’ll overwhelm an enemy, and any captain worth a damn never starts a fight he can’t easily win.
But that vessel is a forty-gun frigate, and there’s no way we’re sailing past without being sunk or boarded.
Pop and me and Johnny and others like us—we’re done for either way. Half-Hanged Henry and his lawless lot treat us like sailors so long as we act like it, and every seaman brown or white is the same to Davy Jones. But if we’re caught, we’re part of the plunder and hauled in chains to the auction block. We won’t get a show trial or even hang on the harborside gallows like the white pirates.
I can’t speak for Pop or Johnny or the others, but I’d rather be a guest at some underwater table with Davy and his missus. There’s no way I could crouch between rows of tobacco now that I’ve felt the foredeck swaying beneath my feet, tasted salt on my lips, and run before the wind in a little sloop under a sky blue enough to make me forget every storm I ever sailed through.
Mother Carey’s chickens usually warn of a storm she’s busy stirring. At least a storm would take both us and the Spanish warship down to the bottom, where Mother Carey herself would dice up our flesh onto dishes made of shells and use our bones to comb her long green hair.
“We cannot fight her.” The old man is pacing, toying with the spyglass. “If we cripple her, we might be able to run past.”
“Her mainsails are dropping!” shouts Black Tom from the rigging. “She’s coming about!”
The old man snaps the spyglass closed. “Can any man among you swim?”
Pop fidgets with his blade, and at his other elbow Johnny looks utterly greensick.
“C’mon, lads, speak up! There must be one of you who can sink that ship sneakylike, with auger and drill.”
No one says anything. Like as not because none of them can swim.
But I can.
There’s only so much a child can do in squalid ports with ten grogshops per man and not a church in sight. While Pop drank his ghosts to whispers, I whiled away long afternoons in quiet inlets, splashing and collecting shells—and paddling about the shallows and deeps till I could swim like a fish, even in a wind-whipped ocean current.
“There’ll be silver in it for you,” the old man says with an edge of terror I’ve never yet heard from any man who’s turned pirate. “My gold watch too.” He rakes a look over us, shouts, “My daughter’s hand in marriage! What the devil will it take?”
My father has saved my life nine times. He wanted no part of the Vanity, and I was the one who finally wore him down.
“I’ll do it.” I step before the old man. “I’ll sink that frigate if you’ll trade your shares for mine when we find and take the treasure galleon.”
Pop stiffens. That treasure ship is still out there, and a captain’s haul is always seven shares. Seven, when a single share from a prize like that would grant Pop’s hopes thrice over.
The old man shuts his mouth. Narrows his eyes. Looks to the warship. Then he says, “It’s yours, Joe. It’s yours if you sink that ship.”
Everything feels oddly quiet but for the creak of wood and the rattlesnap of damp canvas. I can hear every last one of my father’s indrawn breaths somewhere behind me.
The first mate takes off his belt and Johnny holds out a leather sheath, wide-eyed and solemn. I thread the sheath through the belt and cinch it tight under my jacket. When the bosun hands me an auger, I brandish it like a pistol with more piss and vinegar than I feel before tying it into the sheath.
Johnny laughs nervously, then paws my shoulder in an awkward sort of half-hug.
“Back to your labor,” the old man calls. “If they see us crowded at the rail, they’ll know something’s amiss.”
With both auger and dagger about my waist, I feel a full stone heavier. I can swim well, but I’ve never tried it weighted. I climb up to the rail and peer over. The water below is not a sparkling sky-blue lagoon where little waves lapped around my baby feet, where I dipped and surged with naught on my back but my smallclothes. It’s green-black and choppy, and at the bottom are the bones of sailors who did not have a care for its will.
The wind is sharp from the starboard beam. It won’t be a turn of the glass before we’re pushed close enough to the frigate to force a reckoning.
Pop is drawn tight like a mainstay line. He badly wants to say something but he’s not going to. I’m not even sure what there is to say.
I can’t take my offer back. And I can’t let us be taken.
I face the water. I slip out of my jacket and dive in.
The water is bonechill-cold and the shock of it hits me like a cudgel. I kick my feet and force myself upward and forward, but my shirt and trousers splay out like a jellyfish, clinging and dragging and slowing every limb I thrash.
So I choke and gasp and struggle, fighting out of my clothes. I break the surface and the cold hits me again, rakes over my stubbly head, but I suck in a mighty breath and tread water long enough to steady myself.
Cold. Oh, Father Neptune but it is cold in nothing but smallclothes and the linen I keep wrapped about my chest.
Black Tom’s in the rigging. The old man has the spyglass. One of them’s bound to notice.
I’ll reap that whirlwind once I’m back on board. For now, I’ve got a ship to sink.
I tighten the mate’s belt and make sure I still have both auger and dagger, then I slice my arms through the water in a nice steady rhythm. I start to feel warmer. Every twenty strokes I look up and mark the warship just to be sure I’m on course.
At first it feels like I’ll never get there.
Then she’s within a stone’s throw.
Then I’m right beneath her.
I tread water once I reach the warship, fighting to catch my breath. It’s been a while since I’ve swum this much, and my arms are weak and melty, my eyes burning from the salt. The ship is moving only with the tide, and I unfasten the auger from my waist and feel along till I find a spongy, worm-eaten patch below the waterline.
There’s no way to auger without a grip to hold me steady, and there’s nothing to grip but barnacles. They cake the whole shipbottom like drifted sand, and each is a tiny razor.
I’m too tired to hesitate. I grab a clump of barnacles, and they slice me open clean and thoughtless. And those cuts burn. They burn and burn and I whimper, not an ounce of piss and vinegar left to fight it.
But my right hand is free, and I set to work with the auger. I crank it round and round, round and round. It’s all I do. It’s all I think about.
Before long I’ve bored half a dozen holes clear through the hull. The barnacles have already done the job halfway, quietly eating the wood till it all but ripples beneath my palms. Already I can hear the slurpsuck of water punching through my holes and the panicky shouts of men inside, the clomp and clatter as they flee, the futile clang of the ship’s bell ringing the general alarm.
My arms throb and my whole left hand is numb from scores of tiny half-moon cuts across my fingers. When I fumble the auger against the hull to start a new hole, it wheels out of my hand and drops like an anchor down and down and gone.
I watch it disappear. The job is only half done. All I have left is my dagger.
I force my stiff fingers around another clump of barnacles. New cuts crosshatch the old ones. I pull the dagger from my belt and stab at the pulpy wood like a murderer.
A raw, violent hole appears beneath my blade. Then two, then many.
The warship is taking on water. The shift in pitch is sobering. I’m killing these men. They can swim no better than the lads on the Vanity.
I’ve lost count of the holes I’ve put in, but I’m spent. The warship’s list is bad enough that she’s in no position to fight us or give chase. And if she goes down, I want to be nowhere near.
I’ve earned my prize. Pop’s prize. And half the rum ration of every man on the Vanity whose life I saved sinking this Spanish tub.
I cram my dagger into its sheath, push off the side of the listing warship—the barnacles open up my toes like meat—and thrash through the waves toward home. Each stroke takes all my effort, and halfway there I start to crawl-paddle and sputter out seawater hard enough to set my vitals throbbing.
I won’t make it if I think how bad I hurt.
So I think how to explain to Half-Hanged Henry that I don’t want his daughter’s hand in marriage.
I think of the first time I made it all the way up to the topgallant yard on the Sally Dearest, how I felt light enough to spread my arms and take wing like a bird.
And I think of Pop, who only ever wanted a place of his own and a houseful of babies.
My blind, splashing hands clatter against something hard and wet and splintery. The Golden Vanity. I grab and scrabble for a barnacle handhold, but Captain Royal Navy actually careens them off proper on occasion, and I must weakly tread water.
Up on the foredeck I see faces of the crew peering over, tiny ovals of color against a flat gray sky and sprawls of dingy canvas and a tangle of rigging.
I dredge an arm out of the water in salute. Any moment now a rope will fall over the side. Somewhere in me is the strength to hold that rope, and I will find it.
One by one, the faces at the rail disappear.
Only the old man is left.
“She’s sunk!” I shout. “I sank her. Pull me up!”
The old man doesn’t reply. He doesn’t throw a rope either. He merely shakes his head.
Over my shoulder, the Spanish warship is tilting like driftwood and the whole quarterdeck is in chaos as men push and fight for dry ground. Seeing her on her way down reminds me how hot and weak my arms are, how much of a struggle it is to keep my head above the waves.
“Captain!” I howl, but it’s a mistake because I choke on a sudden harsh mouthful of water.
“Can’t do it, Joe,” he says, and disappears from the rail.
I’m gasping with every flailed stroke and kick, but I manage to free my dagger from its sheath. I punch it out of the water and shout, “I know well how to sink a ship, Cap! If this is how you’ll serve me, I’ll take you to the bottom with me. We’ll all be on Mother Carey’s table together!”
And that’s when Pop appears at the rail, fighting the first mate and the bosun, who have him by either arm. There’s a length of ratline in his hand and he almost gets it over the gunwale before they haul him away, out of sight.
He’ll go to the bottom too.
I open my hand and let the dagger fall, down and down, to Davy Jones.
Pop is roaring like a madman and cursing every Goddamn one of them and shouting at me to stay strong, his last little baby, the only one he could save.
I flail one final stroke and go under.
I’m colder than I’ve ever been, but nothing hurts anymore—not my arms, not my feet, not my eyes, not my guts.
Above me is a dull shadow set against shades of rippling, glinting motion. It’s the size of my thumb, oval but pointed at both ends.
Like the bottom of a ship.
I’m standing before a table on the quarterdeck of an ancient, rotted merchantman. Her mast is a ragged stump and stray chain shot is lodged in the gunwales. At the head of the table is a woman whose face is hidden by shadow and wavered by the movement of the currents around us.
“Jocasta,” she says, and all at once I know who she is. I know it even though I have only a whisper of a memory of her. This is the voice that would lilt through fire-warmed, comfortable darkness when I was small enough to be tucked into a willow basket. Then would come her gentle hand, rubbing my back, smoothing hair from my eyes, pushing away the dim of the room and the grit of the floor and the gnaw in my belly.
I have to swallow twice before I can answer, and it’s no more than a whisper. “Mama.”
“That’s right.” She swims one long graceful arm at an empty chair before a bare, waiting dinner plate. “Come, sit down. I’ve been expecting you. Supper’s ready.”
Pop would never say much about Mama. One day she was there before the fire in our cabin, the next she wasn’t. He’s always saying I was too little to remember her anyway, but he’s wrong.
I remember her voice. I remember her warmth. I remember crying quietly because she hadn’t taken me with her, wherever she went.
And here she is before me.
She leans to set a dish on the table, nudging several others to make room. The table is overflowing with platters, all covered with domed abalone shells.
I reach for the chair and pull it out. It glides through the water like my arm, like my backside as I start to sit down.
Then she smiles at me.
Her teeth are all pointy like a cat’s.
I freeze, my rump hovering above the seat. “Y-you’re not my mother.”
“Mama. Or Madre. Or Mater. All of you with salt for blood are mine.” She slides her lips over her teeth, her voice all Mama once more. “Come now, Jocasta. Sit down. I’ve missed you.”
Out of the darkness, out of everything cold and miserable would come that voice. And somehow things would grow lighter, starting with her and ending with me.
She’s back at her work, carving meat and dicing seaweed and piling everything onto platters made of shells all lined up along the table. This table on the deck of a dead ship.
“Sit.” Her voice goes sharp and she aims her knife at me.
The same knife I buried to the hilt in weak, barnacled patches of a Spanish warship, sending her and her crew to the bottom of the sea.
To Mother Carey’s table.
I flip over one of the shells covering a platter. It’s heaped with severed fingers and slabs of flesh and the odd swimming length of bowel.
I struggle backward, but it’s a maddening swish of water and my arms churn, trying to push away, trying to get clear. Mother Carey grins with her pointy cat-teeth as she lifts a goggle-eyed, limp-swaying Spanish sailor from his seat and cleaves his arm from his torso while he burbles Mamita.
“You will sit,” Mother Carey says as she slits the sailor from neck to navel, “and you will stay. It would be a pity if you didn’t enjoy the fine feast you’ve provided me.”
Spanish sailors with empty, slack faces are taking seats one after the other in chairs that hold them fast as Mother Carey prepares a feast of the dead for herself and Davy Jones.
“You wouldn’t leave me, would you? Sit down, Jocasta. Sit down and be with your mother.”
Mama’s voice keeps coming out of Mother Carey’s mouth as she stands at the head of her table and pulls helpless Spaniards out of chairs much like the vacant one before me. As she cleaves the poor bastards bone from bone and piles their guts on abalone dishes.
I learned to stop asking about Mama. Pop said it was easier that way. That we love people when they’re here, but when they go, they’re gone.
Pop. Who never once thought to leave me behind, whatever the cost.
I don’t sit down. I kick my feet. I start to rise.
Water moves around me and over me and through me, through my hair and my skin, and flutters the scraps of linen that still cling to me. I wing out my arms and glide.
I am growing lighter.
The wind changes shades. The sunlight changes color.
Most of us huddle up close in the sand. But five of us, we feel it. We know what to do.
I become light. I catch the updraft, sway over the waves. The nests on the dunes are distant but safe for now. Out we go, and out.
A storm builds to the north. A storm my mother is stirring, for she and her man grow hungry once more.
Sails beyond the barrier island, rigged for pursuit. When the sky is this color we are drawn to ships, to those who are as we once were.
I angle my wings, slide along the ship’s waterline, pluck up some tiny-shelled creatures to crunch. Dabble my toes against the water, then glide up on a wick of wind.
I am up and into the rigging, toward a brown man with graying hair who sits all alone on the foremast yard, swinging his legs while the wind catches his jacket.
Soon they will go. Capstan chanty, anchor up, ship in sight, beat to quarters. He will be among them. He will grip his blade, swing over harsh water. He is still waiting for his prize. He waits for her even as he curses her.
Around the edge of the sail. Up, and toward him.
The water sings and beckons. The wind wants to nudge me toward the dunes and my nest, and soon enough I will return there, but right now I need to be on this yard with this man. I need to see him.
I need him to look north so he’ll stay on this side of the water and not below, where my mother would put his bones on her table.
He holds out a hand and I cannot help but take wing. Too sudden for the shell of me, too much, even though the soul of me would curl up in his pocket, feel the warm beat of his heart one last time.
I make a pass through the rigging, then sweep down to the waterline. I arc over the quarterdeck, where dark clouds are beginning to mount.
I hover there until he sees.
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