“I know an island.” The words that saved the lips that spoke them.
The Captain had no time for my opinions, he’d said. His men, no love for my songs. Harpy, sea-witch, a hex for such a girl as I to be on board. So they’d muttered, louder with each bloody sunset.
Anyone could see they already bore far worse curses.
But a muted girl who could serve and lie quietly might be better tolerated. My voice was declared forfeit: payment for my passage. Even as the needle was sharpened and threaded, the quartermaster – silver by name and by tongue – caught my eye, and winked.
“Greed ain’t just a wanting, girl” he’d offered quietly, the evening before. “It’s a keeping, too. That’s the trick of it. That’s the treasure.” The last, with reverence. His own mantra for living. Odd to have given it so freely. But they spoke of him having a wife, a plan. A pride in his own distinction from the rabble. They looked to him with respect; their terror they kept for the Captain. That fear, and this creaking deck, all that I had in common with these men.
So I spoke, quickly.
“I know an island.”
They stepped back at the Captain’s nod. Down he loped from the quarterdeck, suspicion in each step.
“That so?” he murmured, too close. Rum and salt, fish and sweat. A strange species to fly on the sea, these sour, wiry men.
I nodded, nothing but a distorted fleck in his eye.
He made a sound. Hmph. Then feigned indifference. A grunt to dismiss all hands. As if this was just so much fuss. Another fly stuck in the boiling tar.
But later, in his cabin, he spoke again. Took me to his coveted maps. Beautiful things. Craft that would have eluded many, and I wept for the hand, the eye, that had left itself here: for these had surely not come at a price fair or merciful. He called it freedom.
I shared what I knew: just enough of it. You’re like him I suppose – surprised I would know such navigations. Stars and depths and trigonometry of travesties? Never you mind from where such knowledge came: what mutterings on softer pillows, what boasts between women at our work (and more). The before has no place in the lee of these breezes. Our histories are not for your books.
Next morning brought the taught snap of sail, the tilt of the deck. He had set the course. I worked my worry to a steely confidence. Once those secret shores were confirmed I would be worse than useless: a threat. As too, would any man who set foot on that place and could speak of it again, though few aboard had considered this. Escape then: my only plan.
The quartermaster knew, of course. No provisions could be stored away, no scraps salvaged under the eyes of he who was an impossibility: a sentinel of property amid piracy. Yet he never betrayed me. Perhaps not even to this day. Once or twice I even suspected allyship; helpful items – a flask, a knife – disregarded in his wake with an uncharacteristic insouciance.
Three weeks sail. No preparation for such a feeling: to see your future prison and hear men cheer.
Yet I smiled. The first smile on this ship. I joined the cries for the green, the freshwater. I could not let him, the Captain of sparking stone, sense my knowledge of what he intended for us all.
I watched from the rail. The launch, the beach, sand dancing with their drunken revelry til the next dawn. It would be tomorrow, with heavy heads and short tempers that the Captain would assert his authority: his rule beyond the waves.
Those foolish chosen men with their heavy burdens: lock-boxes filled with precious shining violence. They began their march, spades and picks on their backs, the rest of the crew with eyes ordered down to the sand or the deck. No one to follow their path.
With the daily routines disrupted, in the end it was no great thing for me to slip away. To crawl and shimmy down a barnacled sliming hull. To swim with skirts, food and tools packed up on my back. The sand gave way the higher I climbed the shore, a last reminder of the tripping waves.
Then, only footprints washed away in starlight.
On the island – my island – I became all ears. I heard the marches go by. The digging, days and nights. Then, inevitably, the shouts. His shots. The solitary laughter lined with rum. Then, suddenly, the breath of the one who got away, the terror of his heart, whimpers the other side of a sunken log. I sat still and silent. His untethered shadow through the long night.
That survivor’s shouts and tears and (oddly literate) prayers would carry on the breeze over the next few years. I offered no comfort to him, even when the sails were gone from the horizon; nor when his supplies ran low, his ignorance of herbs and land weakening his bones, his gait, his mind. He was what he was: and – alone – could well be the worst of them all, distilled. We women know the threat of undiverted attention.
So my lips stayed silent after all. I made a border of myself. A refusal to participate in anything these men presumed to call civilisation.
Yet still, I wonder, on mornings looking out to the blue edge of the world. If you were to come – some person of unthreatening desires, or perhaps, even of some goodness: would I call out? Would I risk a return to a ship-shaped world, that place of bleached bone wood and splintered souls?
Til then, this is how I make my stand. Unwritten. Unrecorded.
My spot in the ocean. Unmarked on any man’s map.
Jess Moody is a Wulfrunian in London, UK. She likes her words and worlds a little weird. Nominated for the Pushcart ‘19, Best of the Net ‘20, & listed in the BIFFY 50 (Best British & Irish Flash Fiction Awards). www.jmoodywriter.com.