All entries for Tuesday 18 August 2009

August 18, 2009

Do Storms Ever Bring Good News?

‘Arrgh,’ Captain Ballast snarled, into the chill night. He and his shouldered parrot stood on the beach’s lip, and surveyed the moonlit shipwreck sprawled before them. The large, curved prow of his (relatively) newly christened The Gold Retriever was half-sunk in a dune of sand, formed when banshee winds and demented, frothing waves had crashed her and her crew against the island. By the time Ballast had recovered from the initial shock, the storm had retreated, leaving Ballast with a hull snapped and splintered in several areas, and several hours’ repair work until she would again be seaworthy. Her plain white sail drooped sullenly.

          ‘What’s to be done, then, O captain?’ Jonson said, as he bowed and gave a patronising flourish with his hand. As always, he seemed to have manifested from the crew’s surrounding mutters of discontent. He had a head too thin for his wide, royal blue hat, and so it always slanted foolishly over either eyebrow.

          ‘The plan, cur, is to get The Gold Retriever shipshape soon as possible.’

          ‘In this light, my glorious guide?’ Jonson held out his hand, as if trying to catch a fragment of starlight.

Ballast felt the sting of Jonson’s last two words, which was exacerbated by his parrot’s squawk: ‘What’s to be done, what’s to be done.’

          ‘Hold your tongue,’ Ballast growled. ‘Don’t forget, we were coming to this island anyway. Most places, the only rest we’d get would be dangling on the noose of a rope. No. We have to wait till morning, but it’ll only take a couple of days to fix her up. In any case, we should remain on ship tonight.’

          Jonson bent his head: his eyes searched the island, scrutinising foreign shapes hidden in shadow. His voice was a knowing whisper: ‘Enchantments?’

          Ballast pointed to a cave high above, towering on rugged, weather-beaten rock. ‘If that’s anything to go by,’ he said, referring to its decoration. Spread across the cave’s opening was a black awning, and islanded upon it was the ivory whiteness of a single skull. The hollow eye sockets seemed to house a darkness you could drown in with a stare. Beneath the skull, two bones crossed, like cutlasses.

‘And you can feel it.’ Ballast bent down, scooped up a handful of the night’s grey sand, then stood up: ‘Tingling in the sand.’ He let the grains pour between his fingers, and gazed at their swift descent.

          ‘Relinquish our treasure,’ a hushed voice announced, as if riding on a soft wind that evaded the senses. Ballast spun to the side (a difficult movement when one leg is a wooden stump) as did Jonson and the rest of the crew. ‘Who the bleeding hell’s -’

          A cool response cut his speech: ‘Witches.’

They were all so similar and so still, that at first they appeared to be macabre mannequins, all dressed in the same ritualistic emblems. But then the silver light would strike one of their eyes, and in the emerald glint Ballast would catch the reflection of a deadened soul. Necklaces of what appeared to be sharks’ teeth circled their throats, and milk white animal skulls lay on their breasts. Examining their pale flesh, Ballast wondered if they had been born bloodless. There were at least thirty of them, and their speaker, though furthest from the inland jungle and therefore most exposed, marshalled all authority. Each of them gripped a dagger at their side.

          ‘Bleedin’ hell! Bleedin’ hell!’ the parrot squawked, flapping its wings and blowing a small gust into Ballast’s good eye. Ballast pressed the back of his hand towards the parrot’s chest, blocking its flailing wings, and kept pressing and cursing ‘stupid wretch!’ till the parrot, who would have fallen off his shoulder were it not for his clenched talons, settled down.

          ‘Well?’ the witch repeated. Her face was impassive, but Ballast sensed that a stir of emotion bubbled beneath the surface.

          ‘What?’ Ballast growled.

          The witch’s tone became timorous: ‘“What?” the oaf complains.’ She tilted her head, slipping the act. ‘The jewel. The one you stole in Turkey. You now have the choice of giving it us freely.’

          Ballast paused. To give himself time, he said, ‘The storm was your creation?’

          ‘Yes.’

          Hurriedly Ballast found another question. ‘And how can you be certain that we have this jewel?’

          ‘Because you do. End your questions; relinquish our jewel.’

          Ballast heard the metallic scrapes behind him as several of his crew began to draw their swords. He raised an open palm above his shoulder. The scrapes stopped.

          ‘As you can see, my men are eager to brutalise your women, and I,’ Ballast gestured to his chest with open palms, ‘am but a single leash. The slightest sharp word can make me snap. So drown your “ours”. We do have a jewel from Turkey; and what we steal, we keep. Either you scurry from any thought of “our”, or my men carve their thoughts on the issue into your yielding flesh.’ Across Ballast’s face, pride dug a malicious smile.

          ‘No,’ the witch said. Her impassive façade showed the smallest crack, which some spirit must have entered by, for her pallid form now glowed with a faint terror. ‘The storm was ours. The jewel is ours. This island is ours. You are trespassers, isolated in a foreign land intolerant of disturbance. Should you withhold the jewel, a single incantation will boil your blood, so that your veins twist and writhe, and you cannot take any air for the swell of crimson foam that is trapped in your throat and dribbles down your fitful mouths. Attempt escape, and our lunar mother will drench you in celestial wrath. And, if you raise a blade against us, your legacy will be hacked: all your future infants’ souls will squeal, wither, and cease, before chance ever offered them a body. Do not say another word that does not hasten the jewel to us; I am sick of your tongue, and the slightest misjudged word will loose our blades, whose silver tongues tremor in anticipation.’

          Ballast’s mouth opened, hung for a moment, then drew shut. He heard his crew’s swords slink back into the protection of their sheaths. With a knot in his gut, he turned to his men, and admitted the inevitable sentence: ‘Bring out the jewel.’ Presently, a glass case was placed in his hand, and inside shone the starry jewel. Ballast gazed at it longingly, and felt the rest of his crew do the same. It would have bought his men the finest food for the next month. He held it out to the witch.

          She came over, and, delicately, plucked it from his hand. Ballast knew his cheeks had turned red and, as he watched the witch stride away, cradling the precious jewel, he thought how all unjust sentences seemed to strike down upon him.

          ‘Oh,’ said the witch, looking over her shoulder. ‘By the time we next awaken, I expect you to be gone. You have till tomorrow’s sun begins its decline.’ Then she and her coven disappeared into the forest.

‘Idiots!’ Ballast screamed, trembling. ‘You didn’t need to shipwreck us! We were coming here anyway!’

          Breathing in to diminish his potbelly and expand his chest, Ballast faced his crew. Their hate and disgust needled his self-assurance. Several of them, either unconsciously or not, had their hands on the hilt of their swords.

          ‘Chop-chop!’ Ballast shouted with conjured vigour. ‘We need to get off this island, double time!’ Warily, the men looked at each other. ‘Move to it!’

          Grudgingly, the crew skulked towards The Gold Retriever, talking in mutinous tones. Many spat in Ballast’s direction. Even his usually immovable parrot fled back to the ship.

          ‘Thank goodness we came to this island for our rest,’ Jonson said, bowing obsequiously before he departed.

          ‘Piss-poor twat!’ came the gratingly familiar squawk. ‘Gutless bastard! He bends over for her again, I’ll ram my sword up his -’

          ‘Enough,’ Ballast said, between clenched teeth. ‘I’ve heard it all myself, I don’t need you repeating it.’ The parrot stopped squawking, but its tiny head kept darting round, as if looking for something, anything, to talk to.

          Ballast grumbled, put the pint of beer from his desk to his lips, poured back a mouthful, swilled, then swallowed. ‘Argh,’ he breathed, trying to exorcise the acrid taste from his mouth, and his ill feelings with it. He stared out the window, as the sun peeked over the calm and endless sea, bejewelling it with innumerable silver sparkles. He felt that sea was leaving him behind.

          ‘Y’know wha’ really bites, parrot? Eh?’

          The parrot did its usual whenever it was inclined to speak: it looked the other way.

          ‘The thing that really bites, more than a forever-mutinous crew, my treasure being stolen, and being a captain without a seaworthy ship – is that no-one, not one lousy sod, is generous enough to spare me some sympathy. I do my darned best, but blast it all if I didn’t piss all over Mother Fortune in the nurse’s arms, cause she’s not looked kindly at me since. If this infernal crash had happened a month ago, the crew might have taken it differently. “Oh sure,” they’d say, “we’ve got a raw deal. But look at poor Captain Ballast – his brand new ship’s been wrecked through no fault of his own, and we all know how he loved her.” And do they ever, for a moment, think of my disabilities? Course not! I run this ship, with one eye, and one leg, twice as well as any other man could do. And not one of those treacherous wretches have ever asked me how I lost ‘em. They treat it as if it were some sort of – tradition!’ He took another hefty gulp. ‘I’m blessed if they don’t slit my throat while I sleep -’

          Ballast paused; his lips seemed to twist into a shape they didn’t know.

          ‘Said he had a silver tongue!’ The parrot perked up, immediately latching on to the open silence. ‘Claimed he had -’

          With the speed of an adder, Ballast’s arm shot up and locked around the parrot’s throat. From within his grip, he felt the falling bulge of a muffled: ‘Gulp.’ Ballast brought the parrot before him, nose to beak, and his eyes must have looked immense and threatening to the black dots that were the parrot’s pupils.

          ‘You used to croon, parrot,’ Ballast whispered, letting his warm breath sweep over the parrot’s green feathers. The parrot tried to look away, but due to the naturally wide breadth of its vision, couldn’t escape Ballast’s judgement. ‘You used to awaken me with the sweetest tunes. Now you never croon, all you do is complain! There’s no loyalty! But I’ll show you. Maybe I have lost my silver tongue, but this is a promise: I will get back my treasure. And I won’t do it with your insolent revolting chatter breaking in my ear. Now: piss off!’ And Ballast slung the parrot out the window. Being wrong side up, at first the parrot fell, but she twisted round and, flapping frantically, managed to gain some height. Then she arced her flight, and Ballast thought the parrot was coming back to claw him; instead, she sailed upward and over the ship, heading inland.

Puzzled, Ballast gazed out the window, mesmerised by the sense that some profound answers lay beneath the sea’s tireless movement. Then he noticed that the sun had discernibly risen since he’d last looked, and with haste, made his way to O.

          The door was already ajar, and Ballast had known the room’s resident for nearly twenty years. Therefore, he had no compunction about flinging the door back and bursting inside.

          Sotty, so named by the crew, was slumped against the far wall, his slack features lolling on one shoulder, and his eyelids limply closed. His right arm cuddled a stout keg with yellow liquid still trickling down its side, and his bloated belly expanded and contracted in a strained rhythm; a thin length of dribble clung to his chin. At least there was no vomit.

          The room was nicknamed O as a rough reference to its shape: it was a hexagonal room, with a sturdy wooden support running down its centre. Originally, the room had been useless, its angled shape making it too awkward to even install some beds there. Then Sotty had come up with his magnificent idea: he would brew the ship’s beer. The initial enthusiasm died away, though, when the beer became less and less the ship’s, more and more Sotty’s. This trend continued to such an extent that, if ever you wanted to find Sotty, you did not head to his quarters; you headed to O.

          ‘Sotty!’ Ballast yelled. His voice may have echoed in the hollow of Sotty’s skull for all the response it got. Ballast looked around for something hard and blunt to smack Sotty with. Just as he alighted upon a broom handle, Sotty’s croaky voice halted his hand.

          ‘Wha-! Uh?’ Sotty squinted. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ and he let his eyelids fall shut.

          ‘Yes, it’s me!’ Ballast thundered, panicking that such a lack of respect would become the ship’s habit. He had been undermined enough recently. ‘Get off your backside! You’re gonna help me.’

          Sotty’s eyelids fluttered open, and his eyes stared bleakly at the floor. Because his head was on its side, and the pupils lay in the corners of his irises, it looked as though gravity itself had pushed them downwards. He sighed. ‘What’s the point?’

          ‘What’s the point of what?’ Ballast said irritably.

          ‘Everything. Life. The universe. What’s it all mean? I’ve achieved nothing in my life; I’ve got no child to do something meaningful in my name; and I’ve got nothing to look forward to, except an endless, empty sea. Steal a bit of treasure, then sell it, steal a bit of treasure, then sell it. Neptune knows why, sometimes we bury it. Why? None of us has any wives, so what descendants are we thinking’ll go pick it up?’

          Ballast stumped across the room, and slid down the wall so that he sat next to Sotty. He said loudly and cheerfully: ‘Course we’ve not got any wives; we’re pirates! And you know full well we bury the treasure so we’ve got something to go back to, in case we’re ever looted.’ Ballast turned aside, and exhaled. ‘Like now.’

          ‘And they all laugh at me, at their own insults. Even if we get the jewel back, it’ll be the same story it’s always been. We’ve got no end purpose. Nothing’s changed in twenty years, and we’re damned to this changeless…ness, whether we do or we don’t. I’m sick of it.’

          Ballast looked hard at his friend, who still stared at the floor. ‘This isn’t a mid-life crisis, is it?’

          ‘Look what I made today,’ Sotty said, heaving the keg up and tilting it close to Ballast’s nose. Ballast took the slightest involuntary sniff, and snapped his head away. Even though Ballast hadn’t slept during the night, whatever that stuff was, it wasn’t meant for mornings.

          In some amazement, Ballast asked, ‘Have you bin drinking that stuff?’

          ‘Arrgh. I’ve named it the Eliminator, cause it’s going to eliminate all these bloody thoughts.’ He took a swig.

          Ballast grabbed the keg, and dragged it from Sotty’s lips. ‘No, it’s not. What is going to eliminate your thoughts is helping me out. Us two are going to get back my jewel.’

          ‘Yeah? Damned if we do, is it? You heard that witch. She’ll kill our sons before they’re born if she catches us, and then I’ll have no hope. I ain’t coming.’ He began to lift the keg back to his lips.

          ‘Yer son’s hiding at the bottom of that drink, is he?’ The keg slowed to a stop. ‘Or perhaps he’s in your long spells of unconsciousness, or on the stale breath you reek when you awake?’ The keg lowered. Ballast leaned forward, so that he was eye-to-eye with Sotty. He motioned toward the sea and the island. ‘The only future for you exists out there. We don’t need no wives and no children, because we’re gonna have something greater: a legacy, that’ll outlive our blood. After we’re dead, people will make stories of our swashbuckling exploits, and children will follow our example. Our names will never die.’

          Sotty seemed to sober slightly. ‘Really?’

          ‘Course!’ Ballast slapped Sotty on the back, and Sotty had to swallow something down that was trying to make its way back up. ‘Men great as us, why wouldn’t they? What they’re not gonna follow are bums who sit around drinking so much it feels like a cannon’s gone off in their head. Now, you gonna help me?’

          ‘Well… yeah. Sure, Ballast, anything for you,’ Sotty said, raising himself so that he sat up straight and wiping the spittle from below his lip. ‘But aren’t I a bit… drunk to go now?’

          ‘We’re not going yet,’ Ballast stated, getting to his feet. ‘But be ready about an hour before the sun reaches its height. This is gonna be something to remember.’ With that, he stumped towards the door.

          ‘Where are you going?’ Sotty called.

          Ballast turned with a wry smile. ‘To get help,’ and turned away again.

          ‘James,’ Sotty called tremulously.

          Ballast froze: was this another mark of insubordination? ‘Yeah?’

          ‘I’m not just a big fat drunk, am I?’

          Ballast smiled, and turned to face his friend. ‘No,’ Ballast said, as he looked at the bit of spittle Sotty had missed, at his huge, slouched belly, and his big, appealing eyes. ‘Your not just a big fat drunk.’

          Sotty smiled weakly, and Ballast exited the room. Despite Sotty’s depression and the fierce concoction he’d been downing. Ballast knew he’d be fine. Sotty was one of those guys Life looked out for.

          Ballast found her with a stick of broken wood between her dusky, knobbly fingers, scoring runes in the sand. Her hound panted at her shoulder, engrossed in her work.

          ‘Maggie?’ Ballast called as he approached. He thought he saw her eyes flit his way, but her posture didn’t change. She was old, and continually reminded Ballast that she did not waste her time with the young. Ballast didn’t understand the relevance of this; he was in his mid-40s. After she drew one last curve, Maggie dropped the stick.

          ‘What the problem now?’ she said, her accent tinged with her Mediterranean roots.

          ‘Nothing that ain’t public,’ Ballast said, and lowered himself so that he sat next to her, facing seaward. The sun was now two-thirds above the sea, cleansed and brought to its golden shine after its nightly bathe in the ocean. Ballast looked at Maggie’s pattern in the sand: there were lots of incidental grooves and spots, but the centrepiece was one long, snaking line, whose head was finished with the slightest dash, reminiscent of a tongue. The hound barked at it, sniffed it cautiously, then lay on his stomach, apparently contented that any threat was minimal.

          The silence weighed down the words in Ballast’s throat. Still, he levered them up: ‘Can I borrow your pets?’

          ‘What!’ Maggie exclaimed, snapping her head round as if she’d heard Ballast say, could he snap their necks? ‘No no, not after last time. Poor Seguro. If you hadn’t shaken him off, he’d be here still. Now you want another of my hounds and my cat? Never let us speak of this again.’ She turned back to her drawing, but didn’t pick up her stick.

          ‘That was an accident, as you full know. I told you a thousand times to stop him using my leg as his dinner.’

          ‘He thought he was playing fetch,’ Maggie cried indignantly. ‘And why did you have to shake him off while facing the edge of the cliff?’

          Ballast’s mouth opened a fraction, but nothing came out. For a moment, the conversation fell flat.

‘I named my new ship after him, didn’t I? The Gold Retriever, my pride and beauty who I sweated months for. What more do you want?’

          ‘Seguro,’ she sulked.

          ‘Never mind him,’ and Ballast’s tone noticeably altered. ‘Those witches are gonna come kill us all if we don’t get off this island. And my crew are gonna kill me if I get off this island without my treasure. So if you want yer precious pets, or yer even-more-precious captain who lets you keep ‘em, to survive, you need to lend ‘em to me.’

          ‘Oh ok!’ Maggie conceded, weakly throwing up her hands. ‘But,’ and she leaned in with her accusing eyes and wrinkled brow, and pressed her pointed finger squarely on his chest with every word: ‘Take. Care. Of. ’Em.’

          ‘Long as they take care of me,’ Ballast said, matching Maggie’s intensity and brushing her finger aside. He looked around. ‘Where’s the cat?’

          ‘Hmm?’ Maggie answered, as if the conversation had never interested her at all. She was staring again at her pattern. ‘Near the cliffs. She’s been circling there all morning.’

          ‘Has she? Well, keep an eye on her. Cats and witches are hardly strangers.’

          ‘She wouldn’t do anything. But someone will. Who else is going with you?’

          Ballast hesitated for a second, though he was sure of Maggie’s loyalty. ‘Sotty. Why?’

          She nodded to the snake-like drawing. ‘Because you will be betrayed.’

          ‘Don’t be stupid. It’s only me, Sotty, and a couple of animals going, and I’ve known Sotty over half my life – who’s there to betray me?’

          ‘Someone will,’ Maggie said, with a clouded certainty.

          ‘Aargh. You’re always making up this sort of thing. And if I’m going to be betrayed, why risk your pets by giving ‘em to me?’

          ‘Cause if you don’t go,’ she smiled with a hint of gleeful madness, ‘your crew definitely will kill you, and then where would we be!’ She tittered, savouring her little reversal. ‘So what’s the cunning plan? What subtle trick’s going to rob the witches of their prize, keep my pets with all the limbs their accustomed to, and get us off this island?’

          The corner of Ballast’s mouth broadened, revealing his crooked teeth. ‘We’re gonna catch them while they sleep; and, if one of them so much as twitches, we’ll slit their bleedin’ throats!’

          Ballast’s boot skidded down the steep slope, and some gravel flew off the rocky path in a puff of dust, freefalling hundreds of feet. He only just managed to anchor himself with his wooden leg, and had instinctively put a futile hand to the parrot’s beak to prevent any squawk revealing their position. But surprisingly, the parrot held her tongue. Having returned shortly after Ballast had left Maggie, she had then inexplicably gone on another flight before returning once more. This new unreliability was making her more hassle than she was worth.

          ‘Is this it, then?’ Sotty whispered, nodding to the huge skull that loomed from its black awning, with its encompassing, inscrutable leer. Ballast nodded, the way he always did when Sotty guessed the obvious. Although the sunlight was pure and unobstructed, and the night looked to have retreated behind the awning, no sunlight dared encroach upon it.

          ‘Ready?’

          Sotty glanced at the eager hound whom he steadied at the collar with white knuckles, then at the cat on his other side. Both of their expressions were fierce, as if scenting the threat within. ‘Argh.’

          Ballast nodded, and carefully parted the awning. Inside was a thick darkness, and only a slit of external light entered past Ballast’s frame. They hadn’t brought any torches, for fear of waking the witches.

          Once the awning had fallen back into its natural disposition of occluding all external light, their noses became aware of the stale trapped air, and their eyes began adjusting to the darkness. All along the craggy corners of the cave were silent silhouettes, which appeared not to even breathe. All magical terror seemed to have deserted the witches; now they were sleeping and oblivious to the world, as vulnerable as when they were in their cots.

          ‘Sir!’ Sotty whispered excitedly, indicating something with his eyes. Ballast followed his gaze, and revealed his rotting teeth in pleasure. At the far end of the cave, next to one of the slumbering silhouettes, rested the jewel. Its light had become incredibly dim, as it always did during the day. Ballast grew so intent upon it, that the entire world shrunk to what could be seen in its radiance. With the quietest steps he could manage, he stumped straight to it.

          If Ballast had not been so spellbound by the jewel, he may have noticed the cave around him was changing. As if by the will of one long, indolent creature, from the top of the cave to its deepest recesses, emerald slits burst into existence. All were focussed upon the trespassers.

          ‘Uh, captain,’ Sotty whispered urgently, his voice trembling. The effects of his concoction had not completely worn off, and he couldn’t be sure if what he saw was real.

          ‘Not now,’ Ballast dismissed. His outstretched fingers inched forward, engrossed in making the quietest contact with the jewel’s glass case, so as not to disturb the witches. The moment was so delicate, so painfully in the balance. When he placed his fingers around the glass, it was without the slightest noise. Its solid form felt like the firmness of assured success.

          Something warm and precise touched Ballast’s throat. He looked down, into two emerald eyes, and immediately assumed the object touching his throat to be a dagger. Without needing to be told, his hands fled from the glass container.

          The witch traced the blade over Ballast’s throat, up to the underside of his chin, and applied a subtle pressure. He and the witch rose to their full height. When she turned Ballast around, he discerned from the guiding lights of emerald and gleaming silver spread before him that every witch was on her feet, and that one of their numerous blades was pressed against Sotty’s neck.

          ‘This is real, isn’t it?’ Sotty said timidly.

          ‘Well captain,’ the cool and familiar voice said. ‘If we had known you were going to make a last visit, we would have prepared.’ The voice’s source tipped her head, and Ballast got the impression that her sharp humour was grinning, but there wasn’t enough light to check.

          ‘You knew?’ he asked, unable to read her expression.

          ‘We weren’t meant to? One of your own came and told us.’ An underlying malice crept into her voice. ‘And you’ve even brought her back.’

          Ballast’s vision swung to Sotty’s side; he’d had suspicions. ‘The cat!’ he snarled, and took a step towards her, before the resistance of a blade reminded him of his predicament. The cat hissed in the dark.

          ‘Typical man,’ the witch said, as if it were all too predictable. A weight Ballast had quite forgotten about alighted; it flapped across the room, and settled on the witch’s shoulder.

‘You!’ Ballast exclaimed from the gutter of his throat. The parrot gave a brief, but triumphant, squawk.

‘She came and told us your plan, word for word,’ the witch said, caressing the parrot. ‘If you always look out for yourself, captain, those around you learn to do the same.’ Ballast clenched his fist, to give himself some sense of power. Someone had to bleed.

The cat’s hissing broke into a cry, and Ballast saw its outline leap toward the parrot, pictured its curved claws and four large fangs. The parrot gave a shrill squawk. Then something swift moved in the dark, and the cat’s vengeful cry was cut by an anguished mewl, which was deadened with a weighty thump. In the confusion, Ballast spun around and away from the blade at his throat (a risky move for someone with a wooden leg) drew his own sword, stopped behind the witch that had held him, brought his arm over her head, and drew his blade to her throat. He pressed his forearm against the back of her neck, and whispered forcefully: ‘Drop yer weapon.’ The witch hesitated.

‘Do it,’ the lead witch ordered. Her subject complied.

Ballast still felt disorientated in the gloom, and wasn’t sure of the outcome of the fray. ‘Draw back the awning,’ he said. Again, the witches waited for their leader’s confirmation, then pulled back the awning. The light made Ballast squint, and he was conscious to keep his hostage firmly in his grip. The hound was barking ferociously. Gradually, the scene came into focus.

The hound was still under Sotty’s control, but he was scrambling for something nearby. Ballast spotted it: a small silhouette, she staggered, side to side, back and forth. Dark, wet blood stained the fur around her shoulders. There was a light patter as her paws went in and out of a red liquid pooling beneath them. Then, as if she were too dazed to maintain any hold on the material world, her footing went, and the cat toppled onto her flank.

‘We’re moving outside,’ Ballast said sternly, and marched his captive into the searing light. Sotty and the hound appeared a moment later, the hound cradling the cat in its mouth. The witches followed, and their white skin and ivory skulls seemed less substantial in the overwhelming brightness.

As Ballast’s eyes adjusted, he looked over his shoulder, towards the sea. ‘Blast it!’ he spat. The Gold Retriever had obviously been repaired, because its crew were slowly sailing her away from the island. Ballast confirmed the sun’s position – still midday; just. ‘Bastards!’ Ballast muttered. ‘They won’t escape me on a technicality.’ The parrot gave a mirthful squawk.

Ballast faced the lead witch. ‘Give me the jewel.’

‘It is not yours.’

‘This girl’s neck is.’ Ballast shook his captive, and her throat flailed dangerously close to his sword’s edge.

The witch maintained her self-control. ‘I can just as easily murder your friend and your two pets.’

‘Murder!’ the parrot squawked enthusiastically. ‘Murder!’

‘You won’t,’ Ballast said evenly. ‘In your eyes, this girl’s blood is worth far more than theirs.’ Ballast held his ground, and blockaded all anxiety from his features. The amount of people crowded onto the small outcrop had forced him precariously close to the cliff’s edge. 

The witch exhaled through her nose, but kept her thin lips pressed together. ‘Bring him the jewel.’

‘And the awning,’ Ballast added.

The witch looked at him, perplexed. ‘To what purpose? You cannot even escape with the jewel. Your heels are over the edges of your graves, and you have no followers left to pull you back from the brink. This island is your end.’

‘Then we will die with dignity,’ Ballast retorted. He glanced over his shoulder: he was lucky; the wind was very mild, and his ship was still close to the shore. ‘As a captain, I deserve to die with my treasure. And this beautiful cat,’ he said solemnly, looking at the lifeless cat with saccharine sympathy, ‘deserves a worthy shroud. She and I were very close.’

Imitating the captain’s voice, the parrot squawked, ‘Stupid cat!’

‘Arrrgh! Underneath, underneath we was close. Unlike you, yer traitorous rot.’

The parrot didn’t shrink, but did seem somewhat cowed.

‘Now. Give ‘em to us.’

As her subjects retrieved the items, the head-witch said: ‘That jewel is our heritage; it was passed from mother to daughter as a symbol of initiation and acceptance, for centuries. Then it was stolen by a sailor. You outsiders are all the same - marauders.’

‘That’s rich, seeing as we’re the ones who’ve been robbed.’

Several witches handed the jewel and the skull-emblazoned awning to Sotty.

Ballast said, ‘Let him come over here.’

Uneasily, Sotty lumbered over to Ballast’s side.

‘I am going to hand my sword over to Sotty, and bury my cat,’ Ballast declared. He took one last glance at the ship; they might just make it. As he passed his sword and his captive witch over to Sotty in exchange for the awning, Ballast whispered: ‘Get ready to grab the animals and jump.’

‘Jezzebellah!’ the captive witch got out, but it was too late: Ballast swung the awning over his head and jumped off the cliff’s edge, while Sotty simultaneously relinquished the prisoner and scooped the animals up in his free hand, and dived after; then they were lost from view. The witches dashed to the cliff’s edge, and their fierce expressions were undone with wonder.

With both hands above his head, Ballast was clutching the four corners of the awning, whose wide, arched shape hung on the island’s thermals, and was parachuting away. The huge upturned skull and its bones shone in the sunlight, and Ballast would have looked glorious and free, if Sotty had not been clinging to his wooden leg with one hand, and holding the jar and the hound in the other; the hound, in turn, held the cat.

‘Get off, ya bleedin’ landlubber!’ Ballast shouted. They were falling too quickly, and the uneven distribution of their weight meant that they were curving away from their target.

‘How?’ Sotty pleaded, frantically glancing from the hand wrapped round the hound, to the hand clinging to Ballast’s wooden leg, back again, then up to Ballast. ‘I ‘aven’t got any more hands!’ A combination of the rushing wind, vertigo, and the alcohol drenching his system, was making him very sick.

‘I dunno! But get off my leg – it’s coming loose!’ Ballast stared at the departing ship, then looked down and shook his wooden leg frantically. ‘Aargh! Let go!’

‘I can’t, I- AAaaaaaaaah!’

The massive loss of weight rocked Ballast’s flight, and he watched his jewel, Sotty, and the animals crash through the jungle canopy. But he didn’t stop to mourn (Metaphorically; he couldn’t have stopped if he’d wanted to). Gritting his teeth, he steered his parachute back on course, and headed toward his ship.

So close was Ballast to losing everything, that his foot clipped the ship’s side as he sailed onto the deck, throwing him off balance. He toppled onto his backside.

‘Captain,’ Jonson said curtly, customarily manifesting out of the crew’s mutterings. ‘I feared we’d never see you.’

‘Arrgh, I bet,’ Ballast retorted, as the awning drifted to the floor. He turned his attention back to the cave. The witches were hurrying down its rocky slope, and would quickly reach the shore. Ballast dragged himself to the ship’s side, and peered over. The ship was still close enough to be boarded.

‘We should make haste then,’ Jonson announced, almost as an order.

‘No,’ Ballast rapped. ‘Not yet. Sotty’s still in there, with my jewel.’

‘Captain,’ Johnson said, tugging at his collar and looking rather flushed, ‘you can’t be serious, those witches will -’

‘We’ll wait.’

An awful tension pervaded the ship, and Ballast knew that there wasn’t long before he must concede to retreat. But without the jewel…

Suddenly, the thick spread of foliage broke, and the rotund frame of Sotty came bounding down the bank. He still clutched the jewel, and the hound carried the cat.

‘Come on!’ Ballast roared, raising his fist. ‘You can make it!’

Sotty was gasping for air, and he had a stitch that felt like his bloated gut twisted inside out. Years of drink were taking their toll. But the drink, he would tell Ballast later, was what had saved him: for, when he fell, his intoxicated body had been so relaxed that he hadn’t even tensed, and so not a single bone had been broken. Nonetheless, the cuts grimacing all over his body and face stung, and as the pain mounted higher, and the stitch twisted deeper, Sotty began to slow.

‘Come on! Keep going!’ Ballast encouraged.

But Sotty couldn’t do it, he didn’t have the energy, he was so-

A stampede of witches charged through the foliage, bearing straight for Sotty.

‘Sotty! Quick!’

Sotty looked behind him, and suddenly, though scientists would later claim it impossible, created energy from nothing. Onward, he bumbled, closer and closer to the ship, but always the witches were gaining. He splashed through the water; with great exertion, Sotty jumped, and a shipmate’s hand grabbed his. The hound hurdled the ship’s side in one graceful leap, and Sotty was hauled overboard by several groaning men.

But the escape had been too narrow. Numerous white hands clamped onto the ship’s side, and the pirates rushed forward, unsheathing their swords, and hacked at the clinging limbs. Ballast was unable to assist, due to his one-legged state (as he explained later). One after another, the witches fell, unable to defend themselves. The frenzy tired; the ship was free of the islands’ reach.

A huddle of witches gazed out wistfully from the shore, their pale skin becoming more feeble and insubstantial in the light of the distance; only the parrot remained distinct. Many severed hands still gripped the ship’s side, their fresh stumps dripping down into The Gold Retriever’s wake a bloody trail.

‘Ha ha!’ one of Ballast’s men shouted. ‘We did it! Three cheers for the captain!’ And three mighty cheers went up. But the effects of the captain’s exploit were not to last merely one day: so proud was he of his daring, that the bland, white sail of The Gold Retriever was discarded in favour of the huge awning he had so artfully stolen. A skull and crossbones became The Gold Retriever’s flag, a design that fast caught on (Ballast had neglected to patent it, which rankled him for years to come).

‘Haha!’ Ballast shouted, revelling in his own (unaccustomed) success. Sotty was slumped on the deck, but the cuts gathered upon his cheeks were contorted by a serene smile. The hound, meanwhile, had shaken the water off itself, and was solicitously peering over the unconscious cat.

‘Oy, Sotty!’ Ballast called upon realisation. ‘Where’s my bloody leg?’

Without a chink in his self-satisfaction, Sotty nodded back to the forest. ‘It was weighing me down.’

Ballast almost cursed Sotty, then checked himself. This was about him, and he would enjoy it. Quickly becoming the main source of gusto in his own celebrations, Ballast cried for what felt like the hundredth time: ‘Ha-’

‘What have you done to my cat!’ a Mediterranean voice shrilled. Ballast spun round. Stood glaring at him with an implacable anger, was Maggie. Hesitantly, Ballast began to draw his sword. He never could trust his crew.


August 2009

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