Written as a response to an open story request from the spec fic mag Shimmer, for pirate stories. They didn't want it, so here it is, free and clear for all the world to see.
“Every sea is one sea, just like every story is one story.” he said, and pointedly looked at her through the flicker of the oil lantern. His dark eyes were tired but clear.
She said nothing. She had never spoken to him. She had never spoken. It wasn’t in her nature.
He was younger than he looked and he seemed not quite to fit his own image. His cheekbones were high in a salt tanned face, his nose high and straight. Dark hair going to gray, thick and touseled and styled by ocean spray spilled out from beneath a gray-blue bandana. He was dressed in a hodge podge of clothing; an off-white linen blouse under a brown felt coat, bandolier of nylon webbing. Dark red hose covered calves below cut-off cargo pants, and his bare feet were gray and callused. His ears held three rings each, and a diamond stud pinned his nose. But his voice was clear and cultured, at pointed odds to his appearance.
“It probably doesn’t make sense to you, why we’re here and what’s happening. I empathize. But you must know that you’re a fiction, a much told tale, just like everything else here. And you must know that we, that this whole ship of ours, has no business being in your story. But we’re stories too, or once were parts of them. Only we’ve escaped our telling.”
He flowered a thin smile, stretching his rawhide face, pulling at pepper stubbled cheeks, and hinting at intermittent teeth, and then said “It never ceases to amaze me that we in stories don’t ever think about there being other tales outside of our own. I suppose that’s the nature of the beast. And they say you can’t beat your nature. They do say that.” He did not blink.
She sat across from him, still and silent, barely flickering, her light a dull glow, dim in comparison to the lantern, small cuffs of cold beaten iron weighing down her paper-porcelain wrists.
He went on, still staring into her, the intensity of his gaze bordering on violation. “We’ve been here before you know, stolen or traded from you and the Boys, the Indians, Hook and his crew. But you all forget us. It’s that way at every port or boarding. All you that are still told forget us, just like you forget those that join us. Once we take you away, your story fills in the hole you’ve left, and there’s no relic of your ever having been there at all.”
He exhaled heavily. “I wasn’t always Jim Bones, Jimmy Bones, Bonny James. Too many names, and none of them mine. I had another name, a given name, in another place, and maybe you’d even have heard of it, if I hadn’t shipped off and out of that story. It forgets you when you leave. But you remember. As long as you’ve left what you were written to be.” He searched her face, locked on her eyes, and said “That’s what’s planned for you. To join our crew or be our tool, one way or the other. ‘Time to write your own story’, That’s what the Captain says when he sells it. He tells such pretty lies.”
He paused then, and the silence between them stretched long and deep, until they both became aware of the subtle creaking and liquid sloshing of the old ship’s anchored sway. When he started talking again, the words rolled out cool and easy.
“Two weeks past since we left Nemo’s submarine. They fought hard and pushed us back. They’re strong, and have won against us before. This last time we lost three Greeks and a Phoenician, which is little loss and no surprise; the old ones always take stupid chances, and they die easy. Comes from being written to such bloody times I suppose.” Some of the focus had left his face, and he stretched his neck with a sigh before he continued.
“We were pretty desperate to try the Nautilus, but if you can take her there’s always a good haul aboard; pearls and gold and treasure, and raving Nemo has so much, that what we take doesn’t even change his tale. Still, trying to course them is always a long shot and the Captain knows it.” He scratched his cheek, pulled a rueful grimace.
“But we haven’t had much luck for the last month or more. Down to the point where we were running low on food and fat. Took some coconuts and crabs from that island with the shipwrecked Frenchman, and a great big fish from an old Spaniard in a dingy, and that’s about all we had left. Which is why we came back to your little island cove, fairy-girl. Privateers know pirates, and there’s always a chance of a trade. And little to fear here either.” He said it “eye-ther” not “eee-ther”, and the accent hinted at something airy and gentile in his past. Long past.
“I think the Captain is going to have quite a time at parlay with your Mr. Hook, though. I don’t know what we’re like to get in barter for a load of bronze swords and eight ice chests of whale blubber and calamari.”
She sat still and silent on the dirty wooden floor. Her light pulsed gently, like a slow heart beat. She watched his face.
“Then again, the Captain’s quite persuasive, and taking you out of Hook’s curly braids ought to do plenty to set the old gimp’s mind in a mood for generosity. Maybe we’ll get more than just hard tack and tea. There’s many on the crew that would truly kill for an orange or lemon.” His tongue licked his cracked and flaking lips, and his eyes rolled back, as if he were trying to recall an almost forgotten image, or a lost sensation.
He stood up, checked the cheap digital on his wrist. “Full night by now, and most will have gone to the meet, or passed out drunk in their swings.” He pulled a gap-toothed silver key from a battered shirt pocket, and he reached over to unlock her manacles.
He took her small body in his thick weather-beaten hand and held her close, but gently. Her light, flaring briefly when the cuffs fell to the ground, shone between his fingers with an anemic off-yellow glow. He spoke to her then in a muffled conspiratorial hush, though they were no less alone than they had been moments before.
“Listen and pay attention now. You want to be free, and I want to free you. But that’ll never happen if you don’t do as I say. It would be easy if I could just crack a porthole and let you fly away, but we’re in the belly of the ship, and your magics won’t work here. The Captain got a great bellyfull of spells off of that old wizard Prospero some years back, in trade for the indenture of our crewman Caliban. As long as you’re on or near this ship, Prospero’s words will keep you from flying better than those iron cuffs did.”
Her light reflected in the brown darkness of his irises.
“We’ll have to make our way to the ship’s punt and slip away without anyone noticing, or at least without anyone trying too hard to stop us. I’ve given it thought, and I know a way. But you have to keep out of sight until I say, no matter what you hear. A lightening bug the size of a sparrow is sure to raise suspicions in anyone even half-sober.”
His hand carrying her strayed to the breast pocket of his dirty long coat. “So you have to stay in here, and you have to keep your light down.”
He snugged the coat tight and spoke down his collar to her. “Trust me for a little while. Just a little while.”
He opened the door from the small closet of the holding cell, heavy wood and triple-bands of silvery steel swinging smoothly but grudgingly out into a short hallway. She kept her head down, buried in the warm, slightly fishy smelling felt of his chest. He walked briskly and unabashedly down the hall, the manner of his bearing changed, looser, more rolling and slightly hunched forward; at ease, but with a direction and a purpose.
They stepped into a large room, weak shadows hiding in the periphery of the hurricane lantern light, satchels, sheets, and knickknacks dangling loosely from the great beams running overhead, smudged silhouettes shifting as they spun and swung. The whispered susurration of sawing snores drifted from the darkened sleepers hanging in their hammocks like peas on the vine. The whole room had the cluttered, suspended feel of a spider’s web.
“What you at dis night Jimmy Bones?” The voice from his left had a strange strained tone to it, rasping raw and ragged, as if even that subtle whisper were an effort.
He stopped and peered into the dark as he answered, “I’m off duty, Princess. Tired o’ sitting watching ‘at sprite do nothin’. Goin up on deck to take a smoke and idle jealous of those what’s gone ashore.”
The speaker stepped closer, her shape surrendering to the low light around him. She was naked. From the waist up her skin glowed a smoky bronze, her short spiky hair a deep red in the low light. Her features and face were beautiful, though the teeth that flashed when she smiled were a jagged array of random points, the arsenal of a barracuda. From her hips down she was clad in dark feathers, curving and pointing back to a short tail, scaled dark yellow legs ending in ropy talons that left almost invisible scratches as they flexed lazily against the grimy planks of the floor. Her wings were folded tight against her human back, held close in the confined space of the sleeping quarters.
She eyed him hungrily and he knew she wasn’t down here to sleep. She studied him as if he were a small rodent scurrying to its hidey hole and said “I’m in da mind for a tumble and missing da touch of my sisters, Jimmy Bones. I need someone ta ride, and you’ll fit me just fine.” She ran the thick nails of her right hand over her bare chest.
He smiled nervously, and shuffled his feet. “Not right now Sweet Feather, not that I’m sayin’ I ‘aven’t enjoyed myself a’fore. Just wanta get a breath of air and clear me head.” He cocked an eyebrow, and grinned a little broader “Maybe next watch, ‘f you’re still in t’mood?”
She smiled broadly, baring the pincushion of her mouth. “Oh I’ll still be in da mood Jimmy Bones, dough you’ll have to wait your turn by den.” She nodded sideways at the sleepers in the hammocks. “I aim to wake up a few.”
He nodded quickly and repetitively, “Fair enough Sweet, fair enough.” She turned and prance-stepped towards the sleeping area, raising her thin feet high. He watched her go, watched a second longer to make certain she was really going, then turned back towards the far end of the room.
The hatch was covered in oil cloth and plastic sheeting, a secondary barrier against any invasive sea breeze. Though the current harbor was tropical, and the humidity was fairly stifling, many ports of call were decidedly less hospitable. He pushed the ragged sheets aside and pulled at the swollen wood of the door, which protested against its frame as it opened.
He climbed the steeply angled ladder, each step sagging under his weight, his feet sliding into the ruts, cut and polished smooth by two hundred years tread of feet. The salt-tinged wind moved through his hair, pushed into the folds of his coat, and when it caught them they both inhaled deeply. He stood for a moment and let his eyes adjust to scene, at once brighter for the cloudless expanse of stars overhead, and dimmer for the lack of artificial light.
The deck was uncharacteristically empty, seeming at first lifeless, though cluttered with the bulking inanimacy of crates, barrels, and strapped down sacks. Three masts rose like the black trunks of burnt pines. The Captain’s quarters heaped aft of him, the half silhouette of the great ship’s wheel thrown up against the night sky above it. A giant metal cargo container, peeling green and red paint sat in the middle of the deck, blocking his view of the bowsprit. Off to starboard, a larger ship bobbed sullenly on the obsidian water, and beyond it a bonfire lit a distant beach where small figures wove and leapt, their hoots and songs carrying faintly across the waves.
The punt hung suspended on an elaborate gurney of ropes and pulleys beyond his sight and behind the wheel, but he made no move toward it. Instead, he stepped lightly towards the bow, moving on the starboard side of the anachronistic cargo container, which had once held a shipment of running shoes, probably swept from the deck of some great ship in a story of disaster at sea that this crew had never seen. As he moved past it he nodded and grunted in the direction of the six small legs that dangled over its top edge. The Lilliputians, Tiny, Wee and Thumb, were sitting on up there having a smoke, miniscule hand-rolled cigarettes glowing like three steady sparks as they grumbled about size discrimination and how much they would have enjoyed the beach party. They gave him no second glance as he passed by.
He made his way along the rail, passing rows of rifles and harpoons, grapples and boarding gaffs, stowed with surprising neatness in their niches and barrels. Beyond the cargo area, a sailor in cracked and faded denim overalls swore quietly as he worked on an ancient diesel generator in the rich flickering light of a burning torch. On the port side two other sailors, a scarred Persian with glistening muscles, and waif-like girl in a tattered windbreaker, groped each other urgently. No one watched him climb up to the forecastle.
The deck here was clear aside from the massive howitzer inexpertly bolted to the wood, and a strange contraption of heavy hawsers and steel cables, wrapping around and through both block and tackle, strapped to a chair taken from some sport fishing boat in a story that they had wiped completely from the shining face of the sea. Now that he was out of site, he moved toward the bow beyond the chair, where the corded ropes dipped over and out of sight, with a quick stride. He stood for a moment there, looking down into the water, his eyes scanning and searching. The great white whale floated like a listless cork, half submerged in the light chop of the sea. A harness of stitched neoprene wrapped its pale flanks and linked through a great steel eye to the ropes hooked to the chair.
The whale, only a baby at the time they’d taken it from its mother amidst the floating wreckage of the lost whaler, was the ship’s unexpected advantage. With the whale on her bow, tugging away like some great aquatic ox in her harness, the ship was far more nimble than she appeared to be.
The sailor who was not just Jimmy Bones, Jim Bones, or Bonny James, pulled a long bladed knife from the back of his belt and set to work, sawing and prying at the ropes. He knew their weak points and the knots frayed and slipped under his quick hands. Within ten minutes the binding disintegrated, and the heavy ropes slithered like serpents over the decking and splashed quietly into the water below. He peered quickly over the edge, locking gaze with the beady upturned eyes of the great white whale. It stared at him dully, without interest or concern, floating placidly where it lay. It wouldn’t swim far, if it swam at all; it had adopted the ship as a mother, and had grown accustomed to the parasitical sailors crawling on its back, picking barnacles from its hide, and throwing fatty, fishy treats into the water. It didn’t want to go. But re-attaching the harness would still be an urgent and laborious duty.
He turned on his heel, and jumped off the forecastle, bellowing “The Fish’s loose!! She’s slipped her knots again!! Up and to it you bastards!”
The sailors lifted their heads as one, eyes glassy and faces slack as they turned from their activities to slowly assess the situation. A thin blanket of cursing rose from around the deck, and the shuffle of bare feet on bare blanks echoed over the water.
“Hurry up boys and girls! She swims too far and the Cap’ll flay us all!” He was improvising, making the situation more menacing than it actually was, and at the same time running, almost skipping, along the portside deck, back past the cargo crate and up the base of the steerage house. As soon as he touched the ladder his voice went silent, his only sounds the tearing inhalation of his breath, the low thud of his hands and feet on the wood.
He was up and at the punt’s rigging within seconds, moving with practiced familiarity to release the dogged ropes and pull the linchpins. The small boat was rocking in its aerial moorage, moments from dropping down to the sea, when he noticed the excited golden light burning beneath his coat, and heard the Boson’s high voice at his flank.
“What have you got in your pocket Jim Bones?” The Bosun was a tall and tattered man, written all about in Maori tattoos and wearing a sealskin kilt and a faded Ocean Pacific t-shirt. A flintlock revolver sat easily in his palm, and a great axe rested on his hip.
Jim Bones turned from his work at the rigging and smiled toothily. “That’s an old question alright Ser. And I’d like to give you an interestin’ answer, but ahm afraid, ‘tis only a flashlight.” He shrugged, and his right hand fell to his hip. “I’m jess tryin’ to get the punt down so we can go wrangle t’Fish before she swims off.”
The Boson shook his head slowly, strings of black hair dancing around his shoulders. “It’s glowin too bright to be a flashlight Jim Bones…No, I reckon you got that fairy girl, and you got yourself some plan to whisk her away, though I can’t for the life of me figure what that’ll get you.”
There was no stillness then, just a sudden motion from both men, a quick grappling, shuffle, like an artless wrestling match, a grunt and a sigh. They separated briefly, both of them staggering backwards. Blood gushed from the big artery of the Boson’s right leg. He collapsed onto the deck, splayed arms and crooked legs, mouth open to cry out, eyes already rolling back in his head.
The sailor finished lowering the punt, and swung down into it on a thin rope ladder. He peeled back his collar and looked at the small woman flaming inside.
“You almost cost us both, there.” A tired gap-toothed smile peeled across his face. He reached behind to lower the small outboard motor. A whirring chunk from the pull cord and the engine sputtered into grease-smoking life, and the little boat surged into the chop. He turned them away from the shore, and they bounced over the waves for several silent minutes, the ship shrinking behind them. They had gone perhaps a quarter mile into the open water when she flew out of his pocket, her light a bright unabashed white that he could feel burning in his skin. It shone steadily as she hung above him, and he squinted into it, trying to see the shadow of her body.
“Well” he said, “I guess you can fly now.” He seemed tired but happy, her light painting him in clear colors against the darkness of the sea. “I suppose all that’s left is the dénouement.” He let go of the throttle, and leaned back on the gray wood of the bench seat as the motor died, relaxed and rubbing his hands on his knees.
Her wings flickered against her small body and she hummed to the tip of his nose. She circled the boat several times, came back to him; a question in her motion.
When he shook his head and when he spoke he was not smiling. “No, I won’t go with you. I wouldn’t fit in your story. I’m no joke pirate and I’m no Lost Boy.””
Her light flared a black-red, like blood.
“Yes, they’ll kill me. And I imagine the manner of it will be both inventive and brutal. I’ve done it myself enough times. But that’s part of the plan.”
He looked at her and his eyes were clear and still. “I didn’t do this for you. It was my suggestion to the captain to catch you, my thought to press you into our service, and my plan from the beginning to set you free this way.”
He smiled then, and who he had once been, the clever, Machiavellian character he had once been written to be, came through in his expression.
“The Captain told me, when I first found them, that if I joined up with him, I would be free, that I could write my own story. But all this time with them I’ve just been playing another bit part, in a story not of my making. But through this and through you I’ve got my own tale, and it will last long beyond me.” He laughed quietly to himself.
She shot straight into the air, ten feet, twenty feet, thirty feet above the water, like a falling star being played backwards against the night. He watched her for a moment, then turned backward to the ship and the men rowing toward him.