Oh the bodies rise and fall in slow motion,
As the flesh gives way to coral and her charms.
If you listen hard, you’ll hear the sea is breathing,
And she’s waiting there to hold you in her arms.
— Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians
That one time in Porte Macoute, Tante Ankolee: A wise woman, cunning sorceress. Who buy she-self out-bondage wit’ her own money, make she livin’ wit’ her charm, who owe no debt and leave no insult unpaid. Who all men fear an’ all women come to, ‘specially in them time o’ worst need. Whose magic like the sea itself, so dreadful-strong and changeable, much deeper still than any grave. That one time, she.
Ta she door one day a Navy man come, upright-stiff an’ white in him great blue coat. Him who take him hat off t’address her, same as if she na wear a bone t’rough she lip or bells in she hair. Captain Collyer, that him name, an’ he come ta tell her strange news only she might know how ta deal wit’, offerin’ the King’s penny for she trouble. Need her help, him say, but she know she got no choice, nah really — for even there on the very edge o’things, it nah good form ta turn what that old, cold England-King send ya away.
Tante Ankolee, our ancestress, who no man never make slave, not even when she wear him chain; hush nah, child, an’ listen. For ’tis always useful ta hear of she doin’s, no matter how long time agone, if only ta know what might be possible, under similar circumstance. Ta see proof how a woman of this family can seize hold o’ fate like a damn horse and ride, if only she know how.
Thus, and so: The tale commence, and go now ’til ’tis done.
The Navy man sweated hard in Porte Macoute’s heat, being no doubt unused to such temperatures. Or perhaps it was Tante Ankolee’s presence alone made him so strained and shiny — she liked to think so, for he himself was not ill-looking, for a white man. But from her own experience the better policy by far, if one wished to ‘scape danger, was always to assume nothing.
“You are kin of a sort to the Rusks of Veritay Island, I hear,” he said, one hand at his high-buttoned collar, to which she nodded. Then, studying her closer, seemingly bent on mapping the spray of freckles ‘cross both her tea-colored cheeks: “Some…distant kin, perhaps?”
“Nah quite so distant as them make it sound, no, if it they the ones y’ask. Old Carson Rusk, him buy me Maman at that same market outside me door here an’ get me on her whilst him wife sick wit’ child-bed fever, then keep her an’ me both ta raise him full children while still sowin’ bastards aplenty, wit’ her an’ otherwise. Yet lucky for us, Aphra-Maîtresse an’ Maman cleave together as firm friend once they get t’know each other, much ta Old Rusk’s confoundation.”
Here she gifted him with her favorite brand of smile — sharp-curved lips rimmed in tattoo-blue, with a dull line of teeth just showing, in between — and watched him blush awhile at the way it made him feel, let alone in what region.
“Well, be that as it may,” he replied, at last, once he’d managed to re-order his thoughts accordingly. “I have here in my hand a letter drawn straight from the Admiralty itself, the King’s own seal affixed, that bears your name and requests your aid in a matter of some small urgency and delicacy, both. ‘That the woman known as Angelique Rusk be petitioned to lend her aid in matters magical, for the betterment of all men under the Crown, and the restoration of trade-lines betwixt these waters, the ports of old England and their holdings,’ etcetera and etcetera, ‘as here writ…'”
“Ankolee, that me name, my pretty young man, an’ don’t ya forget it. Though ya may call me ‘Tante,’ if ya so inclined.”
“‘Auntie,’ as the degenerate French would have it? Madam, I believe I will decline.”
“As ya please, then.” And with this, she lifted her skirts to show bare feet, their painted nails like claws, before settling down into a nearby chair and crossing her legs at the ankles, delicate as any lady. “But since y’come so far, ’tis only proper I might as well hear y’out, after so many mile an’ difficulty. So tell me these so-bad troubles o’ yours, Cap’n Collyer, an’ I’ll tell ya how ’tis I can help, if indeed there’s help t’be had for ’em at all.”
Thus invited, the Navy man sighed, crossed his arms, and did.
His tale was an odd one indeed, to say the least, though — the sea being what it was, so infinitely brim-full of all sorts of awfulness and delight — Tante Ankolee might honestly say she’d heard odder. It began with a low-laden ship of the line, set sail with a cargo of various necessaries from out of the Seychelles and headed towards Port Royal. This vessel never reached its destination, though a pair of survivors were later plucked from the ocean, clinging to a spar…not one originating with that same ship, as it turned out, but salvage from another entirely, not to mention so well-encrusted with barnacle-overgrown corals ’twas a wonder the thing could even float, looking as it did as though it had spent much time underwater.
These survivors told a story of their own, which their rescuers dismissed as mere raving: Said they’d been approached mid-voyage by a spectral three-master massive enough as any four ships slapped haphazardly together — the which, on closer inspection, it seemingly proved to be. Blown forth on burning sails from the darkness, this looming, lurching hulk’s ill-cobbled upper deck was back-lit by an unnatural corona blue-green as the horizon’s sunset flash, and on it stood two equal-phantom figures, a careful distance kept between ’em: One a single-eyed rogue done up in piratical finery, so large he made the other (tall enough, by most standards) seem small by comparison, while his mate stood slim and upright with silver-pale eyes in an even paler face, clad head-to-toe in parsimonious black.
With a contemptuous little hand-flourish, knuckles a-dance with sorcerous sparks, this second apparition caused the ship’s frontispiece to split straight down the center, bowsprit dividing, the hull itself appearing to swing open like stove-in casque. Through the spray of this division, the survivors could glimpse a dank interior cavern festooned with weeds and barnacles, garden-stocked with all manner of slimy life most usually found only within the sea’s much deeper reaches. Towards this their own vessel made a sudden little leap, as though hooked, and commenced to plunge straight for what proved to be a veritable graveyard of marine detritus, possibly compiled from the shattered remains of other travelers along the same route — masts and hulls, nets and rigging and wet sails hung slack like popped bellies amongst the corpses of barques, cogs, carracks, plus what looked to be half an entire East-Indiaman torn stem-to-stern as though by some kraken’s beak and tentacles.
Overhead, the first ghost-pirate strode out onto the bowsprit’s right-hand outcropping as though walking the proverbial plank, so uncaring of his own safety he couldn’t possibly be any living man. Roaring, as he did: Them as swears the Articles may stay on, whilst them as feels un-inclined may throw ’emselves over-side and swim — for we’ll have no slackers on board this ill-starred beast, my fellow captain and meself! Ye must serve one of us in our endeavors, no great matter which, or take your chances wi’ She Below, resigning yourself to Her cold mercy!
“And did them choose t’stay?” Tante Ankolee asked, out loud. Answering herself, before Collyer could try to: “But no, couldn’t be, or they nah be here t’tell them tale to you, who tell it me. So them must’ve took t’other option, instead — plunge back out into the waves, clingin’ fast to whatever come t’hand: This spar ya talk of, whah bear ’em back out into darkness.”
“Exactly, yes. Which, when examined, proved to bear a name of both notoriety and ill-repute, for all common rumor brands the ship it’s attached to as having sunk a good ten months ago.”
“An’ what be this name, exactly?”
“Uh…Salina Resurrecta, those were the words found when we scraped it clean. Though it has, on occasion, borne another title, too — one I hesitate to mention, before a female.”
Leaning forward, her eyes suddenly a-flash: “Bitch of Hell?”
“That would be it, yes. Do you know her?”
“‘Twas the name me half-brother give him ship, who sail a pirate ‘long the trade-routes from Seychelles to Jamaica an’ back again — Cap’n Solomon Rusk, Old Maître’s youngest, who I call ‘cousin’ when I nurse him up, even though we close enough linked by blood t’see just by lookin’ if ya stood us both together. Or so ’twas called, ’til the man who kill him take it, and sail her on himself: Jerusalem Parry, who me brother find collared in some Navy-ship hold, bound out for wizardry an’ marked t’swing.”
“Yes, I do seem to recall both those names now, from reports. Yet Captain Parry died too, did he not? Or must have, if he now pilots this monstrosity…”
“Oh my, yes: dead almost this whole year gone for all him considerable power, by fightin’ the curse Solomon lay on him in dyin’ so hard, he finally bring ’bout him own comeuppance. For Parry had me brother keel-hauled, y’see, an’ from that day on couldn’t set foot ashore wit’out he commence t’bleed; spent a good ten year roamin’ ocean to ocean, searchin’ for a place more sea than land yet firm enough t’lay his head on, before doom fall on him at last. As, doubtless, him always knew it would.”
“Ah yes, now it comes back to me. Made a man into a shark, too, didn’t he, with devil-magic?”
“Nah, was t’other way ’round: made a shark take on man-shape just t’guard him from any who might think t’avenge Cap’n Rusk, or imitate him — bid him wear clothes, walk upright, call he-self ‘Mister Dolomance’; fah, pure foolishness, and cruel, too! But they was cruel men both in them own ways, thus makin’ ’em perfect fah each other’s downfall. Since like do call ta like, or so all say…”
“I’m…not sure I take your meaning, madam.”
Tante Ankolee arched a brow at Collyer, skeptical he could choose to miss the point so wide. “An’ you call yaself a sailor,” was all she said — then laughed, long and loud, to see how he flushed once more.
How well she still recalled her first meeting with Jerusalem Parry — my sweet Jerusha, Solomon had called him, probably ’cause he damn well knew how the doing of it made that former blue-coat twitch. For that brother of hers was always a one apt to be over-happy with his own bad behavior, pitch-black in his heart if not elsewhere, yet gifted with such a store of dark good looks and animal high spirits as to make people call him charming, even after they’d already felt the brunt of his thoughtlessness. Parry, however, had just cold self-possession enough to remain unaffected from the neck up, no matter how his traitor nethers might’ve welcomed Solomon’s attentions; never having lived slave before, he was determined to win free, at any cost — to break rather than bend, scorning the softer path, and crush all before him like an earthquake wave, destroying everything for a mile on either side just to make sure Rusk went down along with it.
Lucky how Solomon’s curse made him have ta stay afloat ever after, then, when ya think on’t, she thought. For most, if not all.
“Be easy enough t’make things go smoother ‘tween you two, Master Parry,” she’d suggested, gently, as they sat at her table together, Solomon a-lurk in the background with his long body leant up ‘gainst the wall and his blind eye turned their way, pretending not to wonder what secrets they might be whispering in each other’s ears. Him who she still somewhat saw, without wanting to, as the baby who’d delighted in tugging at her plaits or that man-size boy who’d thought to make her his first adventure — holding her fast to that same brickwork with both hands snuck up under her skirts, while she just nipped at his ear and laughed, reminding him she’d once changed his nappy. “For the Cap’n a man of simple tastes, well-apt t’lose interest swifter than he seem like, you only give ‘im time…”
“I have given him quite enough thus far, I think, by any civilized measure. So much so that he will simply have to count himself satisfied already, from this point on.”
Such clean lines to that devil-stubborn man’s sharp face, profile cut like a coin, even turned ‘way with his odd silver-penny eyes cast down and frowning; Tante Ankolee could well-enough see what it was drew her “cousin” to him, beyond the obvious. A rich vein of magic ran through this one, clear as any needle in quartz — felt it cry out to her equal-strong, almost as hard to pay no heed to, for all she at least both knew what she was hearin’, and was canny enough to keep from trying to answer.
“Where is’t ya get your witch-blood from?” she asked him, as a distraction. To which he shrugged, and answered: “They called my mother such, and hung her for it; I suppose I saw evidence enough to support the charge, of a kind, before the Church took me in and paid for my education. Yet…I never thought it anything but slander myself, ill-will towards one far too young and sharp for safety, from those who were no longer either.”
“Hmmm. An’ who was it got ya on her, in the first place? What man’s name should ya wear, if him care enough t’lay claim?”
Here Parry looked back up, gaze sudden-lit like light off a blade, to show him less than happy with her bluntness — yet quick enough to take offence for most things as she’d seen him proved already, this was an old wound she prodded at now, one he obviously rated not worth the unstitching.
“‘A man of quality,’ was all she’d say,” he replied, at last. “Some squire sowing his oats, more like, content enough to dress up Satan-suited at Sabbat and lay down in the graveyard with a pretty marsh-girl, but not to meet her bastard-price after; same fat scum who signed her warrant, perhaps, little as I could do about it. Let him keep his secret to his grave, and be damned for it.”
“Still think that Good Book-writin’ God o’ yours makes sure o’ such, after all you seen, and done?”
Parry gave a thin variety of smile, cold as Cornwall Christmas. “‘Tis exactly what He’s best at, or so I’ve heard it rumored.”
And: Aye, true enough, she thought, yet did not say. An’ perhaps that’s what you thinkin’ on even now, havin’ made ya mind up t’stay insulted over somethin’ there no earthly help at all for, seein’ it already done and gone wi’ no recall…
Watching close, Tante Ankolee saw Jerusalem Parry cock his fine-made head like a whistled dog, those same words inside her skull obviously equal-resonant in his, and sighed — for he was a puissant one, worse luck, as most wizards never proved.
“So she never teach you nothin’, this Maman of yours?” she asked, aloud. “Leave ya unprotected in this world, knowin’ herself how them wit’ cunning end at the hand of them wit’out, most often?”
“Little enough, in all, and that the Church soon had out of me, or so they thought. I can only suppose she hoped not to have to…”
…and yet, she heard him add, interiorly. To which she chimed back, proving what he knew already: Aye, ’tis true; I nah wish the same on my child either, boy or girl. That bein’ why I go wit’out, for the instant.
They shared a meaningful stare, capped with a tandem nod. And he paused, gathering himself visibly, before continuing —
“I chose none of this, madam, I will have you note. Not magic, like my mother; not the Navy, when I was always to be a parson — small and quiet, useful, in my own place. Certainly not to be called out by my own people for something I cannot help, to have hot iron put ’round my neck and squeezed shut ’til I was forced to expend all my power in healing its touch, or be made some pirate’s…plaything, as a consequence.”
“‘Course not, no. Still, we nah t’know where She bound t’take us in the end, the sea, wit’ all her deep currents. Nah ever.”
An’ even ya stay in that marsh ya Maman call home all y’life, whah guarantee but ya still end up right where y’are? You never made t’serve God, not you — made different, to follow where your magic pull ya, whether you will it or no. Who know but that this ain’t where you should be, right here, with — ??
Though she felt a rage that beggared description well up in him at the very notion, Parry kept fast hold of those courtesies her brother claimed he never forgot; simply shook his head, polite and calm, while at the same time thinking: Madam, no. I will not countenance it.
Solomon behind them, unwitting and arms crossed, with all ten fingers briskly a-drum on their tanned hide; never could stand to wait for long, that one, no more’n a stallion to be haltered. And smiling ownership-proud down at the back of Parry’s head at the self-same time, like he was thinking how sweet it’d feel to kiss the frown from that rigid mouth. Yet never even guessing on the touch of him sickening Parry just as much as it stirred him, and what a terrible harvest he might reap himself, eventually, for choosing not to understand the inside of someone else’s skull could be such a damn different place, no matter how good the rest of him might feel to lay down atop of.
“I would take it as great kindness, nonetheless, were you to teach me what your conscience allows you,” Parry added, soft enough, almost into the highest fold of his neat-tied cravat. “To gift me with whatever you might, that my power continue to grow and I to master it, enough to defend myself against…all manner of dangers.”
Should’ve told him >no, she knew that now; had known, at the time — and yet. For blood did trump magic, or ought to, if most were asked — but when blood and magic both came equal-tied, on either side, what then? What remedy, in such a case?
“One way or the other, this I maintain: If he truly wished anything from me but contempt, then he has gone about it in the least effective manner possible,” Parry had told her later that day, before turning on his heel and stalking off, looking anywhere but in Rusk’s direction. To which she’d merely shook her head, and murmured —
“True that, yes. As him almost always do.”
Less than a half-year on, Tante Ankolee woke suddenly, knowing in her heart how Solomon Rusk had at last found the death he’d so assiduously courted. And a month after that, when word came that the Bitch of Hell‘d been sighted off Porte Macoute’s shores, she went down to meet its longboat, thinking to question Parry directly on how this had finally come about, only to watch him taken short as he stepped but a single foot to sand — saw blood bloom up all over like red pox, flooding his pale skin ’til his eyes rolled back, dulling in an instant from silver to mere muddy gray. That sad shark-creature he’d fashioned had him well in hand, however, begrudgingly saving his life by swimming back with him to the Bitch before he could quite exsanguinate.
So she sent her soul out instead, to save effort, coming to Parry in a dream while he still lay recovering, shrouded head-to-toe in a healing calyx of power — and found Solomon’s ghost sitting beside him, stroking the sorcerer’s sweaty hair with a hand whose coldly insubstantial touch made him flinch only slightly, never knowing why.
Her, though, Parry could see well enough; he raised his head at her approach, haughty as ever, to demand: “Did you…do this t’me, madam? As…payment, for your ‘cousin’s’ end?”
“Nay, fool. For though all our acquaintanceship nah so long, I think y’already know me workings ain’t too hard to recognize — so if I’d any part in ya current condition, you’d nah need t’ask.”
“I…can only suppose this to be true, yes.” He took a struggling breath. “And yet — though I do feel myself cursed, I wonder…how? By who?”
Tante Ankolee shrugged, leaning closer, various draperies seeming to pool as she took a figurative seat by Parry’s bedside, warning Rusk’s too-attentive specter away from them both with a bare, brief finger-flutter. “T’best answer that, let me now tell ya how I come on my witch-blood, Captain Parry, since ya never before think t’inquire — from both side, as it happen. The which be why that brother o’ mine able t’lay the very last of him ill-will on you by instinct alone, wit’out knowin’ he even could…”
So she gave Parry the tale, same as Aphra-Maîtresse had told it to her Maman, and her Maman to her. How there had been three witches once found each other back in Old Scotland, swelled similar-full with talent and wickedness, who formed up a compact to do evil together and passed through the countryside like a foul wind, keeping the Devil’s sole Commandment wherever they lighted: Revenge yourselves, or die.
“All manner o’ bad work they bring to conclusion, these sworn-sisters three — kill an’ eat them enemies’ unchristened babes, then boil the remnants down for flyin’ ointment; ride a man in him sleep or a girl in hers, stealin’ seed from both ta birth monsters; raise storms, sink ships, curse wit’ a touch; blast who them will an’ slave the ghosts t’do their biddin’, after. Yet wit’ one mistake only, all three find ’emselves caught an’ clapped in the Witch-House at Eye, to wait on King James’ Burnin’ Court.”
“Them trust the wrong person, o’course. Like we all apt to, most ‘specially when affection enter into things…”
(And here she cast a glance back Solomon’s way, only to see him turn his head, no doubt not much liking to be reminded of his own folly, let alone the depths it’d sunk him to. But whah can ya do ’bout it now, you great murrain? she found herself thinking, while Parry tilted his head at her once more, shrewd gaze narrowed, as though he might pry out the truth of what so amused her simply by staring closer.)
“Oh, they all roast in the end, sure enough; stake-tied and screamin’, in a lit bucket o’ pitch. But wit’ one, bein’ as fair and fancy as she was, the guards an’ tormentors take them time, which is why she able t’live far longer than either of her two gossips, since she have that big belly o’ hers t’plead on. So twelve month on, her son born just like you, Jerusalem Parry — Judas Rusk, first of the line who make Veritay Island them home, wit’ craft in him veins an’ no name t’wear out into the world but hers, no matter how many fathers him have t’choose from.”
“Is that tale designed to make me feel more…understanding towards Captain Rusk’s memory?”
“Nah, ‘course not. But ’tis true enough you’d have burned th’exact way she did, if the twice son’s son of Alizoun Rusk’s boy’d not found ya so damn good t’look on, he throw his own soul away just t’put you on ya back the once…or more than once, if I know him.”
Parry looked down, lips quirking: Far more, she saw, in the resentful shadow of his eyes. Yet he said nothing.
“As for the Cap’n, meanwhile,” she continued, “don’t surprise me all too much how he end like our ancestress, since he a fool in many ways, an’ greedy wi’ his wants, too. Yet I do think there was more than he ever suspect ‘twixt the two o’ ya, an’ more than you suspect, likewise. Think him lust could have turn t’love, eventually, if only you was to’ve seen ya way towards lettin’ it.”
That same bitter smile, sharp as when she’d last seen it, twisted his mouth yet further. “I have never had any great interest in being loved, by him most particularly.”
“Ah, ya disdainful creature! Would ya truly t’row such a gift away wi’ both hand just ’cause it come wit’out ya beckon it, an’ never ya mind from who?”
“Why, yes indeed, madam. To my dying breath.”
Which, for all she knew any better, had most probably held true ’til Parry himself was laid down likewise, in the end.
They had sat there a moment more, then, with Parry visibly willing himself calmer, both the rustle of breath in his iron-scarred throat and the high pulse that drove it dimming; Tante Ankolee gave a sigh, and gathered herself to go. Only to hear him ask, as she did —
“He isNo more secrets, big sis, not that I was ever good at keepin’ ’em. Ye may speak as ye please. So she nodded, replying: “Aye. He be sittin’ right there beside ya, him hand on ya heart…an’ you can’t even go nowhere t’rid yourself of him now, either, can you? Nah wit’ that touch-o’-land-make-ya-bleed curse on ya.”
Parry gave a shudder of what seemed like pantomime disgust, as though eel-touched; what was left of Rusk turned his face away again at the sight, perhaps annoyed by such cheap dramatics. While Tante Ankolee simply snorted, similarly unimpressed; shouldn’t’ve killed a man on board his own ship, if you didn’t want his ghost hanging forevermore over your shoulder. Even those with no craft at all knew as much, most-times.
An’ you the man-witch thought joinin’ the Navy a good idea, as I recall, when the Admiralty assign one witch-finder at least t’a ship. What was’t they did teach you ’bout the way things are in that Cornwall marsh Church of yours, anyhow?
“If so, I can only assume he does not actually plan to exact vengeance unto death on me,” Parry observed, once the fit had passed, “since, though wounded, I remain still alive.”
“Do seem unlikely. So you’ve years yet t’torment each other, I’m sure, given ya both seem so bent on’t.”
“Well. We will not see each other again, then, in all likelihood — for which reason I will bid you my farewell now, madam. You have been…kind to me, in your way; more so than I deserve, probably.”
He gave her that carved-ivory profile of his once more, still blood-besmeared under its healing-spell’s glow, all unknowing how doing so angled him straight into Solomon Rusk’s view, putting him exactly where the man he’d killed could look his fill, yet never be entirely satisfied. So the man he’d murdered for violated honor’s sake might forever study him in the same hungry way others might some religious book, the far horizon, or their own newborn child.
Thinking only to herself, since speaking it aloud would do no earthly good at all: Fah shame. What-all you two done t’each other, wi’ your ridiculousness an’ botheration? What-all ya done to yourselves?
Turned the coolly assessing eyes of her soul on devil-proud Jerusalem Parry a last time, before replying —
“P’raps. For as much harm been done t’you, ’tis undeniable how ya done equal-much harm, in return — just like me poor Solomon, in that way. So, in the end, might be what you two most deserve…”
(you and him, both)
“…is each other.”
The next morning brought another survivor, a ship’s carpenter named Mipps who claimed to have both taken Rusk’s fabled Articles and spent almost a month aboard what Tante Ankolee had begun to call (in her own mind only, thus sparing poor Captain Collyer’s feelings) the Bitch Resurrecta. His allegiance had gone to Parry rather than Rusk, a decision he did not regret even though it’d ended badly, at least for him.
“‘Twas hardly the Cap’n’s fault the ship sank,” he claimed, eyes darting like a hat-maker’s. “For magic be no fit or adequate substance t’build worthy vessels with, not at sea, no matter how powerful the wizard what wields it — ”
Collyer shook his head, baffled. “Speak plainly, man. The…Salina is sunk, now?”
“No, no, what I meant was that other ship, the one Cap’n Parry cobbled from wrecks and some few sections of deck, sails, what-have you — a mast or two, even, seein’ they have so many, between ’em — and then budded off his and Cap’n Rusk’s first ship, like a flower-cutting. Oh, ’twas a terrible difficult undertaking! Most ‘specially so with those two hard at it all the time throughout, hammer and tongs, for I’ve never seen two such men for quarrels. Rather fight than talk, they would, though it’s true enough how they do do a truly powerful sight of that, as well…”
“No surprise, there — ghost or no, a ship should have one captain only. ‘Tis known.”
“Aye, and there they’d agree wi’ you, sir! Which is why they so long t’make two ships of their one, accordingly, and each sail far away, in opposite directions.”
Humming to herself under her breath, Tante Ankolee let the two men before her talk, busying herself with a bit of ‘broidery she’d tucked into a pocket of her skirt. And as stitch knit to stitch, needle dragonfly-flashing in the morning sun, she used the task’s cover to reach out softly with her soul’s fingers, rifling through that giddy skirl of worshipful fear-crazed memory and outright dream-lit invention Mipps currently termed a brain; there were all sorts of snatches of useful material here and there — albeit only half-glimpsed and barely registered, dimly, in the background of what Mipps considered far more interesting experiences — which she now commenced to pick through, sorting and cataloguing, sifting purest chaff from possibly fertile, only half-chaff grain.
At the top, she saw Parry stalk about restlessly, fair vibrant with impatience, as Rusk and his quartermaster went over the section of the ship’s books regarding food-storage in finest, most niggling detail. New deprivations loomed, probably because their various crews had swelled so prodigiously over the past few weeks; Rusk counseled a push back into nearby shipping lanes, to gather supplies for those who needed them, even if he and Parry did not — take a fresh prize, the old pirate’s answer to everything.
At the suggestion, Parry gave Rusk a look that might have been punctuated by spit, were he a different man. “This is your fault, sir,” he threw up at him, “somehow, and all of it.”
“How, by the Devil’s balls?” Rusk snarled back. “You be the wizard, here; ye know damned well I wot nothin’ of magic savin’ how to recognize the stink of it, when blown from your direction.”
“Enough to curse me.”
“Oh, aye? All men know as much, fool, just as all men would do the same, if only they knew ye as I do. Besides which — I have apologized, and that whole-heartedly, for any wrong I may have done you, back before ye saw fit to take my life in the most unbefitting manner possible…nay, do not dare t’lift your brow at me, sir! Ye saucy bloody knave!”
“Did I? No, please, do go on — I find myself interested where you mean to end, having already begun with a lie.”
“Fish-wife! If ye did not so rail like a woman, ye might find yourself less oft treated like one.”
“You do not impress me, sir, no matter how loud you rave. You never have.”
“Oh, I do think I’ve managed, a time or two. Shall we test it?”
With this, Rusk took a step towards him — short by his reckoning, yet long enough by most others’ — and Tante Ankolee saw Parry’s fingers curl as though longing to warn him off, blue-green sparks striking from their nails. “You will stay in your place, by God,” he ordered, “or — ”
“Or what?” Rusk roared, not retreating. “Will ye kill me again? If only!”
“Would to God I could! Or myself, and be done with you, forever!”
Tante Ankolee felt her head nod, to hear it. Thinking: But this will never happen. For punishments do not work that way…most ‘specially them that seem, i’ th’ main, entirely self-inflicted.
The two of them regarding each other now, panting slightly, while the men around them kept strictly to their tasks, pretending total ignorance of what had just passed. For the overhearing of such arguments were obviously rule rather than exception, when working this particular voyage.
But: “As ye will, then,” Rusk said, almost to himself. “Yet tell the truth for once, my Jerusha, and shame the bloody devil — in all these long years, who is’t ye’ve thought on more oft than I?”
“None, admittedly. Given our circumstances, however, this is surely no great marvel.”
“No mystery, either, seeing how ye yearn after me still, no matter your protests t’the contrary. Can ye deny it?
“As Peter did Jesus.”
“Ha! Well, we all know what happened t’him.”
In Mipps’s memories, Tante Ankolee saw Jerusalem Parry toss his head like a ruffled cat, hiss, and turn his back on Solomon Rusk, thus signaling that their argument was over, for the nonce. While Mipps himself bent even further to…whatever he might have been doing, something frankly unintelligible to her, save that it involved an adze. And now she was pulling herself back up into the here-and-now, where she found Captain Collyer asking, his patience audibly worn thin —
“But how did this new-made witch-ship of Parry’s sink, yet again? And be explicit, this time; ’tis the King’s business we’re here on, man. England herself requires it.”
Mipps touched his forelock, reverentially: “Oh, you can trust me, y’worship! Now, as to the sinkin’…’twas Cap’n Parry’s project from the outset, albeit with my poor aid, and didn’t Cap’n Rusk mock at him for it! Y’see, that ship of theirs had gone down once already, after Cap’n Parry was tricked into setting foot on a floating island; thought he’d beat his curse ’til the ship’s magazine blew, with him too far away to stop it from slidin’ t’pieces ‘fore that shark-man he kept took a bite of him, big enough t’shoot cannon through — ”
“Yet it sails still, this original ship, and multiplies.”
“That’s right! Cap’n Parry swore the place chafed on him, seein’ he’d been trapped aboard almost ten whole tedious years, but Cap’n Rusk maintained he‘d had the worse of it, bein’ caught there just the same for at least as long, and ghostly all that while. An’ though both of ’em thought Parry bein’ dead too would finally loose their chains, by the time his bones’d hit sea-bottom Bitch of Hell‘d already popped right straight back up t’surface an’ started floatin’ westward, with Rusk and Parry at her helm.”
As Mipps told it, the Bitch — already well-used, as was Parry’s habit-turned-hallmark while still alive, to being kept sea-ready with magically garnered donations from the same vessels he and his crew preyed upon — had immediately steered herself into the path of a hapless trader, which soon fell before Rusk and Parry’s combined attack. No ship could long stand ‘gainst a seasoned magician’s assaults, while the sheer shock of being boarded by a one-eyed giant whose flesh blades passed straight through was enough to literally disarm the trader’s occupants, ‘specially once they realized his own blade seemed not even a fraction as insubstantial.
It was Mipps, who’d been part of that first group of “recruits,” who suggested that Parry might be able to use much the same spells — helped along with some simple human carpentry, wherever arcane invention failed — to cobble a command of his own, thus finally separating his and Rusk’s destinies forever. And they’d done fairly well in their attempt (the bulk of whose materials comprised all those missing ships whose absence Collyer had been first charged to investigate), by Mipps’s professional estimation…right up until the moment they’d launched, only to find themselves becoming less stable the further they drifted from the Bitch‘s side, as though every stitch of magic were melting away, leaving only an inadequate half-hull behind.
With all the seams sprung and bailing proven pointless, Parry’d turned to using sorcery for caulk, increasingly baffled by his own inability to keep this tub he and Mipps had sunk their labor into afloat. His last order was a brusque cry of Abandon all hands!, after which he’d been seen to wink out, immediately reappearing back by Rusk’s side, only to find himself smirked at for his pains.
Obviously, such insult could not be borne — or so Mipps assumed, since the last sight he’d had of his former home involved Parry leaping at Rusk with teeth bared, a smoking blue-green blade starting to issue from one palm, followed by Rusk grabbing him under one arm and wrestling him up against the mast, pinning him there by his throat. They were still struggling when the last of Mipps’s work gave way, prompting him to follow Parry’s advice; by the time he resurfaced the Bitch itself was gone as well, flickering away in much the same manner by which it had originally arrived. “Snatched a cask as I went under,” Mipps concluded, “and drifted, using it for ballast, ’til them as brang me here come by. Oh, I was main lucky, I can tell you — never did see any other o’ the men I picked for Cap’n Parry’s detail. But then, them waters is known for sharks.”
“What sort of commander lets his crew flounder, and does nothing?” Collyer demanded, genuinely shocked. “Could he not see your distress? If his skills had returned, whyever would he not use them in your defense?”
“Busy!” Here Mipps gave a sobbing variety of laugh, odd enough to freeze most folks’ blood. “Busy, aye, as they two always was — with each other. For I never did see two men fight so, alive or dead; Cap’n Parry’d rather stab Cap’n Rusk than talk to him, most-times, for all Rusk could pick him, throw him, and did. Yet ’tis easy enough t’see why for, when each fight always ends the same…”
Collyer paled. “Yes, yes,” he put in, hastily; “so I have been informed. You may consider your tale told.”
“Aye, I thank you for’t, Cap’n. I’d cut these sights from my own head, if only I could.”
Tante Ankolee shook her head, tongue clucking, and thought: Ah, chah — men. Got no true stomach on some subject, all them brave talk regardless.
Once Mipps had decamped back to his quarters, where rum enough had been promised him to provide a long, hopefully dreamless sleep, Collyer stood by the window a moment, wincing. Then said, at last, as to himself: “And these are the same shades we must convince to lay their mutual hatred down, at least long enough for them to go…elsewhere.”
“Aye, sure. But did ya have aught else t’do?”
“Somewhat, yes — and you also, I suspect, for all you seem too polite to say so.” Adding, as she grinned, and shrugged: “Ghosts, my good God. How I loathe all such spectral discomfitures…yet with no insult meant, madam, since I know they are part of your purview.”
“None taken,” Tante Ankolee replied, fluttering one dismissive hand. “Ghosts just people wit’ no flesh, only dangerous as you let ’em think they can be — but neither of these no ordinary men, even when they still upright. So ta proceed wit’ wariness an’ caution a damn good thought, ta my mind.”
“Thank you. Proceed where, however? This brother of yours, again begging your pardon, seems little amenable to reason, so logic dictates we apply to Captain Parry instead, to persuade them to cease their depredations. Yet my bo’sun tells me he once ran three witch-finders up his yard-arm and dangled them over a pod of true sharks, using them for bait while that creature of his watched, and giggled. If he’s the one in the pair worth speaking to, therefore, we may already be at more of a disadvantage than I’d imagined.”
“Ya miss the point. Why ask either, when ’tis the very ship herself won’t let them leave?”
Here Collyer turned from his reverie, frowning. “What did you say?”
“The only possible answer. Ship bring ’em back up from below and herself along likewise, or so poor fuddled Mister Mipps say; ship keep me brother as captain even when Jerusalem Parry wear her colors, same as though she see no difference between ’em. So ’tis na she belong to either o’ them, but t’other way ’round — they belong ta her, both, since she all unwillin’ ta part wit’ either of ’em, no matter how they tear at each other, not knowin’ ’tis she keeps ’em bound.”
“I fail to see how negotiation with a ghost-ship can be any more easy than attempting to enlist the help of those ghosts who sail her.”
Tante Ankolee laughed. “Ah, but you forget: that ship a woman, fah all else, just like me, an’ women everywhere know I do my best work for ’em, always. That how I make me livin’, after all.”
She had a plan already, of course. One of which, since Captain Collyer did not think to ask, she certainly did not think to tell.
When things fall foul of salt-water, common wisdom states, they are lost forever; down they go into the dark and wet, never to rise back up again. Yet the sea holds many mysteries. Indeed, with Her help — or hindrance — almost all things are possible.
Thus it came to Tante Ankolee how there were three things she needed to make good the spell she contemplated: Proof of the Bitch‘s love for her two captains, first (poisonous-confining though it might be, as dictated the strangle-close twine and snap of whatever nameless tangle they still felt for each other), by which sympathetic parallel might be drawn ‘tween them, Tante Ankolee and the good Captain Collyer, her unwilling partner in this venture — plus a token from either. Second, to raise two familiar spirits. Third, powers puissant enough they might summon the Bitch ‘cross any expanse, however great, and wielding a love for Rusk and Parry which rivaled even the Bitch‘s own.
In the morning, Collyer had promised they would cast off, back-tracing Mipps’s report to the last place that vessel had made itself known. So Tante Ankolee began her work by taking the coral-set mirror off her consulting-room’s wall, its glass so rucked by the silver-mercury beneath that the images caught within looked almost water-logged, reeled up with hard-bought bait from strange fathoms, and cutting herself ‘cross the palm with a knife made from drowned man’s bone serrated like a stingray’s spine, soft enough to bend, yet sharp enough to bring blood with a single touch.
The resultant mess she smeared over the mirror’s wavy face to sketch sigils with, fluid as words in wet sand, falling straightaway into a scrying trance; she had only a moment to wait before the whole pale burgundy mess blinked open, showing the Bitch‘s deck with its divided crew all uncomfortably a-doze, grumbling in their sleep — for they needed rest on occasion, being mere human men. And since neither of their captains shared that same hunger, they tended to retire during such periods; in tandem, as though to test each’s ability to ignore the other while in close quarters.
Sinking through the cabin door like a mist, Tante Ankolee could see them both now, ghost-bodies fallen automatically into poses familiar from life: Parry propped up reading with his chair’s back braced ‘gainst the opposite wall, revisiting some book he must surely have perused ’til he could recite it by rote, while Rusk lay stretched on the bed in a sly parody of natural sleep, with both hands behind his head and his single eye closed. Yet even as she studied the scene, she noted how Rusk’s lines began to soften, to blend with their surroundings, turn smoky and stretch longingly ‘cross the distance between ’til at last he took shape behind and around the object of his affection simultaneously: A phantom pulse, cold flame-flickering, whose each caress stroked down through Parry’s memory of skin to tease that of muscle, nerve, memory itself.
Rumbling, as he did: Oh my Jerusha, constant treat and torment…so hard of heart, and else-wise. Yet diverting as these nightly conjugal fist-fights of ours have been, don’t you tire of holding yourself always apart, as I do of laying siege to you? Why should we carry our quarrels ever-forward, even now, when we’ve already each managed to take such effective revenge on the other?
To which Parry neither raised his head nor seemed inclined to shiver, even with the threat of those huge hands laid along either side of his jaw — though now she considered it, Tante Ankolee nevertheless thought she might have heard the barest suggestion of a crack in that cool voice of his, just poised on the verge of widening. Asking, in return —
What would you have me say? The great Captain Rusk, who apparently still cannot put himself out to remember my true name after almost a decade locked in mutual combat, let alone to use it?
And here she saw something never brought her way before, not before the man’s death, or after: That not-so-little half-brother of hers look down as if genuinely abashed, bowing his black-maned lion’s head in what seemed like regret, if never quite shame.
I do know it, and you, “Captain,” he replied, quietly. Better by far, I think, than you have ever known me…
I have as much right to that title as any, sir! Perhaps more, given I held the position for twice the length of your own infelicitous tenure, at the very least —
Only because ye used guile and magic, t’gain it!
And how were your colors rated to begin with, exactly? Through polite negotiation and diplomatic compromise? But here Rusk fell silent, leaving Parry to slump. God, how you exhaust me!
So I’ve seen, yes. Yet I might produce comparable effects in far pleasanter ways, if ye’d only see your way clear t’allowin’ me.
I’ve no great doubt but that you think you could. A sigh. Shall I invite you to ‘overbear’ me awhile, then, given there’s little else to divert us? Are you such a slave to your own parts you’d find that offer enticing, no matter how much contempt lurked behind it?
Did such things put me off, ours would be a very different story. But they have not, thus far.
Grip slipping down further, every finger shadow-nailed, brushing Parry’s clothes aside like smoke to get at what lay underneath, in all its lifeless glory. For only ghost can touch ghost, Tante Ankolee’s Maman used to say, amongst so many other things. That why them choose t’ flock together, most-times, ‘stead’a passing by t’the Nightlands or sailin’ the Pearl-Bright Ocean, bound fah th’other side of All. ‘Cause it mean more t’ have just one person remember ’em the way they once was than any preacher’s dream o’ White Christ heaven, ‘specially when them world grow so dark an’ unfamiliar…an’ that even if that other person an enemy, chuck, one ’em hate poison-bad when them both still upright. Fah death a terrible thing, you see, no matter when or how, whah or who — an’ that no part of a lie.
Parry caught his breath, or mimed catching it — he, who did not any longer need to breathe. Ordering: You will take your hands from me, Solomon Rusk.
Nay, Master Jerusalem. I think not.
The chair held them both now, re-sized to fit, stacked one upon the other; Rusk stroking down Parry’s inseam with a rough palm, teasing in such a way as to make that stiff spine arch, rendering him blurred and boneless. ‘Til at last he came settling into Rusk’s over-full lap like a cat, wiggling shameless to find just the right angle, drawing a hiss echoed by Rusk as well — a shared spark hot enough to make them both flicker out, then reassemble on the bed, further entwined. They pressed their lips together, these two dead men, swallowing each other’s snarls as Rusk pushed Parry back with a heave, a groan; Tante Ankolee saw Parry’s eyes roll up, flush mounting, panting: Oh, but I hate you still…
I’ve come t’count on it, sweet-heart. ‘Twould disappoint me sore were you to change your mind now, after all this time and trouble. And here he nuzzled the twitching muscle ‘neath the other man’s ear, musing, with a lick: Should’ve let ye sink with that bloody ship, I’d any sense at all, as many might tell ye. Yet common sense has never been my chiefest gift, neither then nor now —
Damn you, sir, do me no favors! Just stop your tongue; to your task, and diligently!
Rusk guffawed, greatly tickled by such rank hypocrisy, ‘specially when viewed at far less than an arm’s length. Be careful what ye wish for, he warned him…
…then sunk down ‘tween Parry’s legs, applying himself so heartily that at length that cold gentleman was forced to cover his eyes and cry out, hopeless —
Ah, aaah, Christ Jesus — Lord and God have mercy, who harrowed bloody Hell!
To which: Amen, Rusk agreed, grinning wide — and slid back up, rolling his much-beloved murderer’s slack-gone fleshly illusion over, to take what was only his due. Presently, he barked his own climax and clutched him close, gently mouthing his nape while Parry sagged in his arms to bury his red face in the sheets, as though desperate to hide from the same Savior he’d only so recently conjured.
The mirror took it all, drinking deep, leaving nothing behind. And Tante Ankolee shook her head, amazed still by the sheer blunt force of it, after all that’d come and gone.
What need y’have of any Devil’s playin’-ground, either of ya, she thought, when this bed ya share already made so pitiful hard, this double-grave ya dug so deep?
Almost as though he’d heard, Parry shifted, pulling himself free with a wince as Rusk entirely failed to flop one hand out fast enough to catch him; pride-goaded, he sat up, ordering himself briskly. Promising, as he did: Yet this changes nothing — be assured, sir, I will find a way to sever from you, before the end. I will.
I hope ye do, Rusk replied, muffled; for all his earlier gloating, Tante Ankolee almost thought he now seemed suddenly tired as Parry’d claimed to be, before their frolic ensued. A fact Parry appeared wholly unaware of, checking his re-tied hair, before continuing —
Aye, you may well mock, you object, now you’ve had your joy of me. But I might have done great things in this world, if not for our paths crossing.
Rusk sighed, heavily. That ye might, I s’pose, he agreed, without rancor. Better than ye have done, any rate.
(And I too, perhaps, all things being equal…once upon a time.)
Now you do jest, I think.
Ah, you would say that, ye false divine! But I had my better qualities, and much though I may relish th’ mechanics of it, I’ve no great notion to spend my eternity playing out your very own personal ideal of self-punishment.
Parry raised a skeptical brow. Since when?
I will not be drawn. What you did was my due, and I accept it as such — have done, for years now. Yet for all that, I find…I cannot leave you.
With this, in one single snap both ghosts stood again full-dressed, each bent on staring the other down: Rusk with his looming height, Parry his imperturbable haughtiness, sharp as the sword he scorned to wear. Who huffed at his last statement, and replied, coldly —
You still could, I hazard, if you truly meant anything of what you’ve just said. If you tried, instead of talking.
Now it was Rusk’s turn to snort. How d’ye know I didn’t ‘try’ every damn day of my time here already, and fail — how can ye, by Mary’s bastard son? By your own admission, since ye could barely tell I was there ‘less you drank yourself half-blind, ye’d never have known the difference.
Which was true enough, they both knew, and Tante Ankolee as well. Yet as they all three also understood, Jerusalem Parry had never been a man who relished finding himself caught out.
I did take such things on faith, once, he allowed, at last, just as those good Church-mice who raised me preached — gave the benefit of doubt, even where least merited. But that was all quite a long time ago…and if you’ll only trouble to recollect, sir, ’twas you yourself who finally taught me better.
Then he was gone, unsurprisingly; away in a blue-green blink, leaving Rusk to stand there foolish with his mouth half-open, poised to toss the next retort straight back in Parry’s absent face. Tante Ankolee watched him swallow it, instead, grimacing at the taste — sigh yet one more time, glance over at the very corner where her shade stood watching and cock an unruly brow, as if to say:
Ye see how ’tis between us yet, eh, cousin? Well, then: work whatever magic necessary t’ come an’ find us, and do what ye must to bring this long rout to its only proper end. For if I cannot help you, neither will I hinder…
A claim she much appreciated, empty as it might eventually turn out to be when push came to shove, like so many of her brother’s promises. But now she had her first element, she wrung soul back inside shell with practiced ease and came to still hunched before the mirror like a savage before its god, all stiff and sore with her split palm throbbing — after which she rose up, wrapped the bloody glass in one of her Maman’s old scarves and stored it carefully away, saving it for later use.
One down, she thought, cracking her neck side to side.
Captain Collyer’s ship was the Malaga Victory, a trim frigate with two masts and guns aplenty; he was unable to restrain himself from detailing its resources at Tante Ankolee a longish while before finally breaking off, seeing she did little but smile and nod in return. “Well,” he concluded, at last, “I seem to’ve made a proper booby of myself and no mistake, since I doubt we will use our cannon for much more than ballast on this run. You are to be our primary source of ammunition, in such a fight.”
And: “Perhaps,” she allowed, twirling one stiff-locked plait ’round her finger, ’til the bells braided into it gave off just the very faintest of rings. “Or might be no fight at all, we only plan t’ings out accordingly. Yet I may need some small service, here an’ there, in order t’ guarantee me own particular store of powder ready fah action when at last we come to it…”
“Only ask, madam, and it shall be performed. ‘Tis my charter in this affair to make certain you have all you need; use me as you will.”
Once more, Tante Ankolee let her brow arch, smile deepening. “Be forewarned, then, Captain — for one way or t’other, I do aim ta hold ya to that promise.”
Half-mad though his experiences might’ve left him, meanwhile, Mister Mipps proved a fairly good navigator; they made his last set of coordinates in good time, skirting one storm only to dive straight through another, with Tante Ankolee standing prow-set to switch its center-curl aside with a single fetish-clutching hand. Once there, however, they ran into doldrums that slowed them to a stop under a still and bloody sky. The crew murmured, blaming witchcraft, to which Collyer’s gruff bo’sun merely snapped: “Is all weather to be judged unnatural, now, or only if inconvenient t’yer worships? Back to your work, ye dogs, and don’t think t’bother th’ Captain or his guest wi’ such foolishnesses!”
Yet in secret, he in fact did quiz Collyer as to whether or not the sailors might have a point, causing Collyer to later approach Tante Ankolee, in his turn. Night had fallen by then, exchanging shrunken sun for gibbous moon, and he found the decks deserted, crewmen choosing to brave below-decks’ rank humidity rather than risk her overseeing their slumber, since she held much the same place as earlier. As though waiting on his presence, she turned at his approach to show herself wrapped to the tattooed collarbones in an ankle-length cloak of seemingly punishing weight, which — he only realized, upon drawing closer — soon proved to hide nothing beneath it but her own tea-colored nakedness.
“‘Tis in good time you come, Cap’n,” she told him. “Now, are y’ready ta make good on those vow ya made me, earlier?”
And: He did clear his throat a bit, poor man, ever-steady eyes gone a trifle uncertain under that bold gaze, in spite of ’emselves — yet for a moment, only, ‘fore he squared his shoulders and came to attention, straight and tall as any good tin soldier: Well-acquainted with the honor-standard his title required, him! On account of which, she all-of-a sudden felt a stab of true affection, intermixed with just the slightest shred of pity.
For tonight, ya will see things an’ do things ya never before thought on, she thought. An’ even if you prove more than match enough fah such trickery, as I do ‘spect ya will, I still like ya far too much to lie that what’s t’come will leave no mark behind.
“If that is what’s required, madam,” he said, at last, “then…yes.”
The cloak fell away then, unclasped in a trice, yet Tante Ankolee was somewhat impressed to see his gaze held steady; came sashaying towards him ‘cross the deck, each part of her set all a-sway with much the same rhythm as the waves beneath, and stood there with her head tipped back, her own eyes full of mischief: So upright-stiff, still, this big, white man in his unseasonable clothes. Laid one teasing hand on his breeches’-buttons, right under the triangle where one panel of his waistcoat met the other, and let her mouth curve even further, in open invitation.
“You nah a married man, Cap’n?” she asked.
“Me? Lord, no.”
“But no innocent, either.”
So doff that coat o’ yours, forthwith, an’ let’s us see whah may be seen.
Without his uniform to rein him in, the man seemed somehow twice as large and yet more pale, freckled all over. To say it suited him ill would have been to tell lies, however, a habit which Tante Ankolee avoided indulging — less on principle than in the firm belief it was far easier to keep track of details omitted rather than outright inventions, under most circumstances.
“Y’ should be flattered,” she told him, gently. “It nah many men I’d take the bone out me lip fah, under any circumstance.”
“And I do feel special knowing that, yes. But if ‘twould better serve your purposes, madam…feel free to leave it in.”
“Ah ha. You a man o’ unknown depth, Cap’n Collyer.”
“Call me Wilmot,” he replied, his vowels tight — winded thin and dry, all on the instant — as he gathered her into his arms.
There was no great invention to what passed between them next, beneath the unwrapped scrying-mirror’s watchful red-tinged silver eye — hung up beforehand on the prow’s inner rim, just high enough so it would catch Tante Ankolee and Captain Collyer at their recreation, if angled where her cape’s slack length had made a rude, hard bed. Yet both counted themselves well-satisfied by the time its predestined end approached, nevertheless…more so by far, at least, than those two ghost-gentlemen whose sad exploits it had last espied upon.
It was only then, meanwhile — at the veriest height of things, when she rolled atop and got herself re-seated, arching back ’til her hair’s mass almost touched the deck — that she heard this brave young commander finally gasp out loud, his whole world literally turned upside-down. Shifting one of his big hands from hip to slippery fore-folds and guiding him where she needed his application most, prompting him to stir the pot first one way then t’other, fast and faster, ’til it came a-boil at last…
Beneath, as ever, the sea lapped on, so salt and deep and dark. And the will-working that same great power’s adoptive daughter shed like shadow reached out accordingly in every direction at once, feeling through uncounted fathoms — abysses far beyond any human cartographer’s scope to map — to stroke the various creatures whose service she required awake…
Then Captain Collyer gave out a whoop, to which Tante Ankolee added her own flourish, signifying that they were done. And they settled back together, laughing hoarse in their mutual glee, quite boneless-gone with pleasure.
“All magic works like ta like, as ya no doubt heard — from me myself, most recently,” she began once they’d both regained their footing, along with as much clothing as either felt necessary for comfort (less in her case, naturally, though surprisingly not much more than that same pair of re-drawn-on breeches, in his). “So whah we done jus’ now serve t’bind us closer yet to them we seek, by tyin’ us neck-in-yoke wit’ them own sharp-drivin’ wants an’ hungers — for loud as Cap’n Parry make protest, ‘least wherever such-all like Mister Mipps can hear him, he an’ me brother been twined fah too long an’ fast in that net them weave together t’ let go all of a sudden, let alone never comply when one of ’em most crave to take advantage of t’other.”
Collyer sighed. “And you have proof of this troubling thesis, I suppose? …Of course you do; nay, do not feel constrained to prove it me, I beg you. Very well, then — what next?”
She slipped a bag from her cape’s pocket, brandishing it his way. “Next, we fill this back up wit’ some few of the thing Cap’n Parry once keep in him hex-sack, just the way I taught him…one item in particular, knowledge o’ which I have in from me brother’s former bo’sun, Harry Vimes, in return fah a charm t’ render him invisible in Parry’s eyes once him finally flee while next let ashore fah provisionin’. You see, the tide have channels, like the land have lines — places o’ power which them as find ’em can use to travel by devil-quick, there an’ back in a day or less, no matter how far the distance. An’ ’twas by one such channel Jerusalem Parry steer him new-won ship all the way back to Cornwall to retrieve somethin’ he prize almost above all other things, on account of her it ‘mind him of…”
“Some female? But I thought — ”
“Shame on you, Wilmot-boy! Cap’n Parry handsome enough to turn most gals’ heads, in him way — just like bold Solomon Rusk, as it happen, who never shied from pursuin’ anything him take a fancy to, skirt-clad or no. But fah all ya might call th’ one I have in mind Parry’s first love, t’ do so to him face would be…unwise.”
Here Collyer’s forehead creased but briefly, then smoothed again, almost as fast; he was a smart man, after all, as Tante Ankolee rejoiced to see thus re-proven. And —
“Ah,” he said. “You mean his mother, I think. The hangéd witch.”
She cut him a mocking half-curtsy, taking in herself as well, with much the same motion. Answering: “Who else?”
Sent that creature of his to glean it for ‘im, he did, she recalled Vimes explaining, with a shudder. Something hidden in the church they was to’ve gave him rule over, bricked up, in the wall. He wanted it bad, and ’twas us what paid for it…us after, and Cap’n Rusk before. Oh, if only I’d never told the Cap’n what lay in that Navy-ship’s cells, let alone sent him down t’see, with a bloody wink and nod!
Ya knew whah him like best, I s’pose, she’d told him, shrugging, as the man just shook his grizzled head, eyes fair gone wet over her brother’s awful fate. Thinking to herself: And that was danger, always — a tussle’s prospect, wi’ hope of recompense near-equal t’ the hazard’s risk. Never happier than when him life hung i’ th’ balance, the great fool, be it wagerin’ his own snapped neck on the fruit-tree’s highest crop or takin’ some French prize whose cargo seemed well-worth an eye’s loss, so long as him still have one more t’spare…
How she sorely did miss him, now and then, when she cared to let herself feel it. Like a stab under her breast, subtle yet sharp, up-angled towards the beating heart.
“All men do love their dams, ’tis true enough,” Collyer agreed, eyes momentarily wistful, as though he might be thinking on his own. “Yet given these mysterious items must surely rest somewhere on the ocean floor, how do you propose to retrieve them?”
Tante Ankolee laughed. “With help from one who know such places intimately, ‘course. And here him come now.”
On much the same instant, something slammed ‘gainst the ship’s side from just underwater with a combination of wet thunk and unnatural rasp; a squeal of protest resulted, similarly liquid, and brim-full of hate. With almost comic speed, meanwhile, Collyer swerved to grab for his discarded sword-belt and drew, taking up a protective stance between it — whatever it might prove to be — and Tante Ankolee, who felt a genuine softening at the sight: Brave man, this, along wi’ all him other capacity. Brave, foolish young man.
But: “Step back, lest you do yaself a mischief,” she told him. “For in this matter, ’tis really I should be the one t’ put meself ‘twixt you an’ harm’s way, given the power this t’ing you an’ I just call on wield, as well as the power give rise t’ it.”
“Madam, I’ve never run from danger in my life, no matter how unnatural. I do not propose to start now, even on your say-so.”
“Then I counsel you hold fast, Wilmot-boy, no matter what-all come up from the Sea’s own salty bosom — an’ let me do the talkin’ besides, fah Her sake, as well as yours.”
Even as she spoke, within lamentably easy reaching distance, Collyer watched one webbed gray hand rise to grasp at the ship’s railing, nailless pads digging deep, while — mere seconds later — another materialized to slap and strain likewise, beside it. With a groan of effort, something only roughly man-shaped hauled itself over the fragile wooden barrier to land, slippery yet four-square, on the folded-over “feet” of that haphazardly divided tail it called a pair of legs.
This, one might only assume, was a slightly more recent version of the creature Jerusalem Parry had once named Mister Dolomance — converted from shark to man, then back to shark, and insulted beyond measure to find itself once more caught midway through that first metamorphosis yet again. The shark-were turned its blunted parody of a face Tante Ankolee’s way, hissing through a bared grill of teeth piled on teeth (two rows apiece, top and bottom), but found her unimpressed by the gesture, to say the least.
“Fah!” she spat, as though to cough up the very taste of this predator-fish’s carrion breath. “Do nah dream ta ‘proach me, ya shiftless duppy! Did you truly t’ink yaself forever freed from magic’s reach, just ’cause ya kill him who laid the spell what make a plaything of ya? For ’tis nah so easy to ‘scape its grasp, on land or sea…no matter how hot ya hate, or sharp ya bite.”
Here the snarling hiss mounted to an angry teakettle shriek — yet though the mere sound of it sent Collyer a half-pace sidelong and his sword’s blade an inch or so higher, Tante Ankolee held her ground.
“You keep that scaly carcass where I tell ya,” she ordered. “Nah feelin’ none too well, uh?” Continuing, as Mister Dolomance pressed both makeshift hands to where one might only assume his belly lurked, as though finally realizing where the pain that drove him was coming from: “Shouldn’t’ve eat up that fetish o’mine, then, ‘long of all the rest, when you trawled the muck fah the last of Cap’n Parry’s corpse — for since ’twas I give him that to start wit’, it will always come back t’me, if called. But as Parry could tell ya him own-self, ’tis most oft the very act o’ seekin’ on vengeance which drag ya furthest down, in return.”
As Collyer stared, transfixed, Dolomance gave a last variety of begging grumble, to which Tante Ankolee responded by throwing him something he snapped out of the air, choking it down only to almost immediately hack it up once more, along with what looked for all the world like a lump of bloody ambergris. It fell to the deck before her feet and he shuddered, lurching unsteady, entire stumpy bottom-portion gone suddenly gluey-soft from crotch to where most bipeds’ ankles usually lay, already beginning to knit itself back together, while those vestigial arms of his likewise shrank and flattened into flippers. As his ill-sealed gills popped open once more, Dolomance gasped and snuffled, barking a final plea his tormentor’s way — only to hear her tell him, all unsympathetic:
“Be off wit’ ya now; over the side ‘fore ya drown on air, an’ good riddance. Be grateful I consider ya debt paid, fah all the trouble you give me.”
But for a creature so rapidly becoming devoid of anything like knees, the railing proved difficult to manage. Before he had quite formed the notion, Wilmot Collyer found himself lunging to assist, not even thinking to shield his palms from the shark-were’s sandpaper hide. Grimacing as its thrashing drew blood, stripping him of several skin-layers in a trice, he heaved high and let what remained thump over the side, falling waveward with a mighty splash — then paused, exhausted and in pain, to drape himself over the wood for momentary respite, watching the same damned thing he’d maimed himself to aid’s ungrateful top-fin streak back away into darkness.
From behind, Tante Ankolee’s arms came softly ’round him, stroking sudden balm ‘cross his abraded hands. “Fine hero indeed, y’are, me brave defender,” she named him, “ta feel fah such a lost creature. So take this as payment, and give yaself but a moment, while I see what-all the sea brung us.”
“Those…objects you were after, one hopes, given what effort you’ve gone to.”
“Oh, aye. But one can always be wrong.”
As it soon proved, however, her working had paid out exactly as planned: Tante Ankolee dipped the shark-ball into a shallow pan of brine, cracking it end-to-end and furling out a mess of muck she swished briskly, then separated — plucking forth first the promised fetish (dark wood and nail-studded with not one of its many rusty points still wet, as she kissed it and tucked it away), followed by two more treasures: An ivory eye set with skull and crossed bones in jet for her right hand, said trinket having once having beamed forth from Captain Rusk’s own skull, while her left was weighed down by a length of red hair braided nine times nine all wound about with chain-of-gold, like any holy relic.
“Good as new,” she grinned, showing Collyer her haul, rightly proud of her own invention. “Just the keys we need fah raisin’ spirits puissant enough t’ lay our two bad gentlemen back down, right ‘long wit’ the ship who love ’em both best.”
Collyer shook his head, discomfort so far ebbed he almost crossed his arms, before thinking better of what his own skin’s salt might do to his lacerations. “If we can catch them, that is,” he pointed out, wishing — as ever — to be practical.
“Oh, no great task there, I think. Seein’ they on their way tah meet us, already.”
Somewhere beyond compass’s reckoning, meanwhile, Jerusalem Parry felt her magic prick at his without quite recognizing its source — cat-scratch rough, feverish, infectious — and lifted his bleak gaze to peer into the wind. We are sought for, he told his co-captain, the which intelligence made Solomon Rusk’s remaining eye flash with a nasty sort of joy. Suggesting, hand on sword-hilt —
Then let us seek them, in return.
A sniff. My very thought, obviously. Make ready.
I’ve never been not so, ye pinch-faced clerk.
The Bitch turned at their mutual pleasure, as always, bearing to breast this limbo they swam in’s waves — made for where Parry pointed, towards that next most convenient point of opening, to breach the wall between worlds. And Rusk drew himself up full height, seeing two different skies and seas wrinkle like burning paper, one giving way to another.
All hands on deck! he roared to those below. For though ye need not fight on either mine nor Cap’n Parry here’s account if unwilling t’do so, be very sure, nonetheless — any traitors who look t’flee I’ll kill meself, before they have a chance t’ ruin our prize!
At this, Parry raised a skeptic brow, perhaps about to comment. But too late; their transit was made and done already, spitting them forth again into the waking world —
Predictably, it was Mister Mipps who first saw the phantom ship coming, and raised an alarum. Yet while Collyer and his bo’sun both turned to confirm this news, Tante Ankolee spared its arrival only a single glance; she was busy on the fore-deck, laying in the last few touches of her spell-trap, before she quite sprang it to.
The Bitch Resurrecta had both spread and sunk since Mipps last laid eyes on it, riding low in the water, just as its blue-green corona had spread, eddying aurora-style up and down each mast like St. Elmo’s Fire. On its prow, an abominate multiplicity of figureheads formed one several-faced entity; above, Parry and Rusk stood glowering, and though her portholes were not turned the Victory‘s way, the ring and clash of iron on iron nevertheless told a tale of cannon-loading that Collyer was loath to test.
“Gentlemen,” he called, “I am Captain Wilmot Collyer, and I speak for His Majesty when I demand right of parley under promise of pardon for past bad acts, that we may discuss some peaceful resolution to your current prob…eh, difficulties.”
“How do you expect to deliver on such an offer, sir?” Parry threw back, both palms flicking alight at one double finger-snap. “Being yourself palpably unmagical, and having not even a witch-finder aboard — but wait. Is that the fair Miss Rusk I see, lurking behind you?”
At this, Rusk perked up, more excited by such an idea than by the prospect of slaughter itself. While Tante Ankolee straightened, simultaneous, and corrected: “Nah fair nor miss, Jerusalem Parry, as ya well-enough know. Yet them did think ta bring me ‘long nonetheless, by England-King’s command, for that them know me far more acquainted wit’ the two o’ you an’ your works than any other livin’ thing…saving Mister Dolomance, that is, perhaps, whom I palaver wit’ just last night gone.”
“Oh? To what object?”
“Well,” Collyer put in, far too pleased with his own wit, “there were one or two points of interest brought up, in the discussion…”
Rusk and Parry exchanged glances, equally unamused. “Be this man a full idiot, big sis, or only partway?” Rusk inquired of Tante Ankolee, who shrugged.
“No more nor less than any man o’ him complexion, little half-me-blood. Yet in the matter of pure foolishness I reckon ya still ahead, if you was wonderin’.”
A true barb: Parry muffled a species of smile while Rusk huffed, and Collyer crossed his arms. “Miss Rusk is our source for magical advisements, ’tis true enough,” he confirmed, “leaving us not entirely unprepared to face whatever sort of attack you might care to levy, be it by arms alone or elsewise. Yet as I said, I come first and foremost bringing not a sword, but the ideal of peace. You have suffered much, I think — both of you — and the King would have that hurt balmed, as far as it may be…”
“Oh, aye,” Rusk broke in, face split once more by his customary ferocious grin. “Very good of His Majesty, to think on Master Parry and me’s comfort! The damage we’ve done to his shipping of late, though — that’s got nothin’ at all t’do with anything, I’m sure.”
Collyer flushed. “It has…some bearing, yes. But if you would only — ”
Now it was Parry’s turn to intervene, head-shaking, an imperious gesture of dismissal splashing blue-green light like thrown water to mark a clear line between factions. “Enough. You have some hand to play, madam, I don’t doubt — so do so, or prepare to be boarded. Neither Captain Rusk nor myself has any great pressing need the King of England can meet, nor any problem he can solve, considering how many different times and ways we’ve so ably proven unable to do so ourselves.”
Tante Ankolee nodded. “True ‘nough. Cap’n Collyer an’ him charge aside, however, ’tis nah the wish of any earthly sovereign counts most, in this. Fah both of you been long self-deceived, in this matter; your quarrel wit’ each other is secondary entire, whether birthed in lust, hate, or some sad mixture o’ the two, t’ the true, deep, an’ terrible love a third creature still bear ya both. Thus ’tis to she we should address our arguments, wit’ the help of yet two ladies more…”
And before any of the three men (let alone poor Mister Mipps, cowering in Captain Rusk’s blind spot while simultaneously trying to make obeisance towards Captain Parry, though Tante Ankolee was fairly sure they neither were looking anywhere near him) could think to object, she had already turned the hex-bag she’d so long labored over inside-out, letting its contents fall free: The eye, the hair, both caught up on what appeared to be a boiling haze of mist, quick-ablaze as phosphor. As the others watched, she spun her hands like she was carding wool, separating one from the other — the eye floated right and up, folding itself inside a tight-wound ghost-peak that resolved, by slow degrees, into the image of a tall, grave woman boarded as severely in front as she was laced tight in back, her panniers broad and her gray-streaked hair combed high in the fashion of twenty years past. Rusk made a noise deep in his throat at the sight.
“Ma — m’lady mother,” he almost mumbled, to himself.
To Tante Ankolee’s left, meanwhile, the hair arranged itself to drape the small, sleek head of an only slightly see-through woman built like a bird, her fine bones due less to an aristocrat’s elegance than simple lifelong privation, with a pair of red-fringed eyes that same fatal shade of silver as Captain Parry’s own.
Morwennol, sea-sparrow, she had murmured when Tante Ankolee first conjured her, the night before, after Collyer was safely abed. That was my true name. But most called me Arranz, for the color of my eyes.
“Aye, and beautiful them eyes be too, madam. I have seen them before, in your son’s face.”
So he lives yet, my Jerusalem? Ah, but no — I see th’answer ye fear to give me. Do not keep silence, lady; we are never long for this world, those of my blood, no matter how we scheme otherwise.
“Well, sorry I am t’ wake you from ya slumber. But I have certain business with that boy o’ yours, an’ him nah all too like t’listen to wit’out you stand beside me, when I tell it ‘im.”
I will do what I can, sister.
“Much thanks, then. As for yourself, Aphra-Maîtresse…”
I am glad to see you once more, Ankolee, but you know as well as any — I am no witch, never was. ‘Tis not through me Solomon gained his power, much though I might’ve wished it, if only to deny him that burden.
“‘Course not, Madame. Yet y’are the only one he’d ever stand still for, when he’d taken a mind t’ nah be turned.”
I…will do what I can, Ankolee. You have my word.
“An’ you mine, that I will release ya both soon’s I have what I need, to go whither ya will — accompanied, or un-.”
In the here and now, Tante Ankolee waved these ghost-ladies on, ushering them to eddy towards their respective sons. With Rusk, his mother’s disapproving stare caused him to bow that black lion’s head, if only a little bit. But Captain Parry stood transfixed, fingers guttering dark, as his own dam’s shade put up a ghostly hand to feeling soft along his fearsome clean-cut jawline, a stroke he palpably longed to fold into, like some great child. Crooning, as she did: How tall you’ve grown, Jerusalem, mabyn mine. And how you do shine…
Staring at her with a rigid face, instead, his pale eyes all further a-gleam, wet, and accusatory. Saying, to Tante Ankolee, over this phantom’s shoulder —
“I had not expected such tricks from you, madam; that you should make sport of my weakness, even in your brother’s defense…oh, it is vile, and crass. And disappointing, also.”
“Little choice ya left me, fah how else might I gain your attention — who always know best, or so ya think — ‘cept to conjure the one creature you will listen to?”
Parry simply shook his head, apparently baffled to silence beneath that gentling touch. And Tante Ankolee took advantage of the opportunity, addressing him and Rusk both, while she yet could —
“Seein’ such a great time elapsed already in ya confusion, me two fine fools, I come t’ the point directly: Though both o’ you long to see each other’s back, it seem all things conspire t’keep ya bound together, doomed ta forever sail this ship ya both lay claim to. Yet in all ya wrestlin’ ‘tween yourselves, have ya never thought t’ wonder why?”
“You sound as though you have an answer,” Parry said.
“Aye, thus I believe. In alchemy, the qualities o’ one substance may be rearrange ta create another — and just so, by a different process, two t’ings whah seem exact opposites may be shown t’have innate commonality by th’ admixture o’ a third t’ing, altogether.” Here she caught sight of Collyer frankly goggling at her, and observed, acerbic: “Ah, put ya tongue back inside ya head! I learn me letters at the same knee as this great oaf, here — learn ’em better by far, too, truth be told. An’ fah all me craft spring mostly from the natural world, a book do sometime pass m’way, if only now an’ then.”
Rusk nodded. “I’ll not deny it. So…tell it through, big sis: What third thing have we forgot, in all our temper and muddle?”
“Why, whah indeed been the primest bone o’ ya contention, savin’ the obvious? This ship ya both lay claim to, ‘long wit’ the bond she help ya forge, since she love ya both so exceedin’ well.”
Parry glanced down, as though suddenly made aware of the very deck his boots seemed to rest on, whose swell-borne rise and fall was like some huge, submerged creature’s breath. But: “No,” he said, to himself. “It cannot be.”
“Why, since you didn’t grasp the trick of it first?” Rusk scoffed. “Nay, it does make a sort of sense. The Bitch watched me curse you, as you killed me…”
“…and while I cursed you, when I found myself so.”
“Aye, and thus we made our troth together, I’ll vow — for better your curse than any other’s kiss, since ’twas more freely gave by far than anything else I’ve ever had of ye.”
“Good, ‘cousin’ mine!” Tante Ankolee clapped her hands, admiringly, and added: “Let no one claim you incapable of learnin’, ‘specially when it’s t’ your own advantage. This, then, was the Salt Wedding ye fashioned together, wi’ the Bitch herself as officiant…and ’tis this we must dissolve, wi’ her own gracious help.”
Chimed in Parry and Collyer both, almost as one: “And just how, exactly, d’you propose to — ”
“Shush, nah, the pair o’ you. Ladies, tell me — can she hear us, this great vessel? Will she be pled to outright, or do she require some further suppliance?”
“She hears you well, Ankolee,” Mistress Rusk assured her. “Nor asks any price at all to treat with you, knowing you by sight as her sister, and her friend.”
“Aye,” Arranz Parry agreed, nodding her dim red head. “For this last passage has been a hard one, and she owns herself tired — as much so, almost, as these men she carries. She longs nothing more than to let herself go, resolve away, let all the varying parts of her return once more to the sea, from whence she helped my lad and Missus Rusk’s boy pluck ’em.”
“Hmm, I see. Yet why do she nah, then, if ’tis her dearest wish, as well as theirs?”
“Because she must have a captain to guide her, even on that last voyage, with nowhere to go but down. Even then.”
The men all looked at each other. “Then I’ll stay, and you go,” Rusk announced, prompting a scorn-full snort from Parry, who replied —
“Yes, to be sure. For you must always have the last word, especially at my expense.”
“Says the man who had the flesh scraped from my bones wi’ bloody barnacles, for the grand sin of sticking my prick in his arse unsolicited!”
Parry went red, then white. “How dare you, sir!” he spat. “Insulting me with every word, every motion, these ten long years and more…and now, how dare you think to tweak at me yet further, by trying to put me in your debt once more — ”
“Sweet Christ’s own mercy! Then what else do ye want, in all this wide world, you contrary goddamned creature? We have both suffered enough to satisfy even your endless pride, yet if there can be freedom for only one of us so long’s the Bitch needs her Captain’s chair filled, then ’tis my charge, just as she was my ship, long ‘fore y’ever stepped foot onboard! Which is why I will make that sacrifice, and ye won’t think t’stop me!”
“Will I not? Watch me.”
Rusk shook his head, voice softening. “Oh, Jerusha — has this struggle for victory made ye so sore a loser, ye cannot even stand to win? For see, ’tis you mastered me, from the very outset — brought me down, took all I had and bound me to you forever more, no matter whether ye willed that last part, or no. Who else would I love, who never before cared for any but myself?”
“Your ‘love’ may kiss my hindparts, you pox-rid rogue!”
“My love has, and soundly, as I know ye well recall, ye sour-faced nun’s fart.”
Collyer threw Tante Ankolee a glance, putting in, weakly: “I believe we may be drifting somewhat off the subject, gentlemen…”
But to all concerned’s startlement, ’twas Mistress Parry who raised her little palm instead, cupping her angry son’s chin once more, as though to force his gaze back to hers. “Enough o’ this,” she ordered. “Jerusalem, decide: To go, or stay? Think on your troubles and trust this ship o’ yours would not wish to keep ye, not if ye truly wish your freedom.”
“When have I ever wished anything else? Oh Mumma, I have tried so long with all my might to pry myself from this puzzle-trap without result, and God alone knows…I am so very weary.”
Haughtiness doused and head drooping beneath this admission’s weight, his silver eyes half-lidded — Rusk looked as though he longed to reach out a comforting hand, though a glance from his own mother sufficed to keep him still, as Arranz Parry nodded. “Yes, child, I know. But tell me this: Were you a terror to this world? Did you do wonders? Did you make the bastards pay, and suffer in the doin’ so?”
“I…did, yes, to my best knowledge. Those who collared me learned their error, in the end, surely as this man did his. As those who swung you would have, had I only been able to dock on Cornish soil once more.”
“Well, then — ye have more than done your duty, as our Master’s old charge states. For sometimes, when it cannot be ‘revenge yourselves or die,’ it can be ‘revenge yourself, and die.’ There is no shame in it. And do not begrudge Cap’n Rusk the chance t’ do but one good deed, in all his long, bad life; let go, let be. Rest, my dear one. Be free.”
Parry just shook his head, helpless, stiff-froze still in his confusion’s midst; Rusk crossed his arms and huffed, looking anywhere else, as Tante Ankolee threw up her hands and the Bitch itself gave out one great groan from stem to stern, similarly frustrated by her second captain-husband’s stubbornness.
But: “Perhaps…there is another way,” Collyer eventually began, tentative, feeling his way. “One in which neither of you must stay, and neither of you owe the other.”
As though choreographed, Parry and Rusk turned on him both at once, fists clenched, primed to fight him, too. Cooler heads prevailed, however, along with their mothers’ ghosts’ restraining glares — and at length, under his cousin-sister’s smiling eyes, it was Rusk himself (never known for reasonableness hitherto, though perhaps he’d been taking lessons) who replied:
“Tell on, sir.”
That one time in Porte Macoute, Tante Ankolee — there, on the high seas, at the Pearl-Bright Ocean’s very gate, where channel from one world ope into the next. Where the very sea Herself let gape her great mouth an’ swallow down them lost, wanderin’, contentious souls who finally find ’emselves willin’ t’accept them own fate an’ sink down forever, into sweet darkness. That one time, she.
Impossible ta tell if ’twas always her plan how Wilmot Collyer, so good an’ true a man as ta feel sympathy fah monsters of all kind, should volunteer ta take him place at theBitch of Hell‘s prow an’ let that same ship’s other two captain go where they list. Though we all know ’twas she who stood beside him as a distraction while them two gentlemen made their final farewell, echoing it with kisses of her own, far sweeter an’ less wounding…just as ’twas she who raise a wind ta blow them both home wit’ the Malaga Victory followin’ behind in their wake wit’ the Bitch‘s old crew cram in an’ doin’ double-duty, once all four ghost had guttered away like snuffed candleflame. An’ never was they heard from again, these hundred year an’ more — neither in them part, all the Islands from Port Royal to Tortuga-that-was an’ all the many routes whah serve ’em, nor elsewhere.
Indeed, once her fee been paid in full, ’tis impossible to deny how the favor Tante Ankolee done thah old, cold England-King last longer still than the Empire he rule, in th’end. Fah which we o’ her blood are grateful yet, seein’ its collapse freed even those of us yet slave in them same days, an’ take much merriment, ever after.
As fah the Bitch an’ her last commander, meanwhile…unlike Jerusalem Parry or Solomon Rusk, Cap’n Collyer was nah constrain t’ spend out his life roamin’ those warm salt waters, or doom t’ prey on the same Navy he so-well serve fah prizes t’ swell the Bitch‘s hold an’ hull. Indeed, as they drew close to Porte Macoute’s great dock, that same sad lady begun to sink outright, driftin’ low an’ lower ’til at last she come so waterline-close Collyer an’ his witch-love have jus’ time enough step onto one of the Victory‘s long-boats, ‘fore splittin’ apart altogether. An’ ’tis said the varyin’ wrecks thah make her up still lie there t’this day, wit’ Rusk and Parry’s hoard o’ stolen gold an’ jewels strewn out under sand an’ stone fah any who care t’ dive after ’em — always rememberin’ how bad them waters are fah sharks, even so terrible near ta shore.
Fah him part in the Bitch‘s layin’, Cap’n Collyer gain him a higher rank an’ a better ship still, along wit’ some land on Porte Macoute itself where him build a house large enough ta entertain guests in — one, at least, from time ta time. While nine month later, Tante Ankolee bring a son into this world ta carry on both her witch-blood an’ the Rusk name — same as her slaver-father, aye, but same too as Alizoun Rusk, that gay, burnt girl who once danced on air an’ laid waste to half o’ Scotland, ‘fore her own foolishness bring her down.
That boy name Collyer Rusk, child, who live ta one hundred year exactly: Me great-grandaddy, buried still out back o’ our house on Porte Macoute. A witch’s son like Jerusalem Parry, but born t’a sorceress-mother so puissant-powerful thah iron never wrap ’round him throat — not fah witch-finding, not fah slavery. Which is nah ta say him have no grief, in all him long, long life…but then, grief come at last t’everyone, cunning-folk or no. It cannot be avoided.
Yet we may still make merry, live on ’til we die, an’ then die well. Thah, we may do.
An’ nah, the story done — Tante Ankolee long dead as me great-grandaddy, an’ meself grown old, likewise. Go make a tale o’ ya own to tell, while ya still can.
|Former film critic and teacher Gemma Files has published three novels (the Hexslinger Series), a story cycle (We Will All Go Down Together: Stories of the FiveFamily Coven), two collections of short fiction and two chapbooks of poetry to date. She won the International Horror Guild’s 1999 Best Short Fiction award for “The Emperor’s Old Bones,” due to be reprinted this year in The Humanity of Monsters (Michael Matheson ed.). “The Salt Wedding” is her fourth story about Captains Rusk and Parry, following “Trap-Weed” (Clockwork Phoenix 4, Mike Allen ed.), “Two Captains” and “Drawn Up From Deep Places” (both featured in Beneath Ceaseless Skies).|