The pirate story I wasn’t going to write

So, yes, pirates have made it into The Bitterwood Bible collection. I was, initially, unwilling to even try this as Pirates of the Caribbean has really ruined it for us all, but then Maude kept clearing her throat and pointing to the page and muttering, “Tell my story, I am totally not Jack Sparrow”.

So, here is the opening of the first draft of “Now, All Pirates Are Gone” – which, by the way, is the seventh story in the collection and marks the halfway point for me. Next will be “St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls”.

 Now, All Pirates are Gone

The sea is strangely silent tonight and this makes Maude – and her crew – nervous.

Beneath their collective worn canvas shoes, bare feet, and thick soled boots, the brig’s deck is steady as the Astra’s Light moves through the waters with nary a noise, and only the slightest shhhh’ing as the bow splits the flat mirror of liquid salt. Ahead of them, the island lies low, relaxed, a dark hunched thing against the blue-black sky, seemingly boneless as those chickens Maude’s aunt sometimes bred, the ones that weren’t quite right. But from the centre of Isla Caleuche rises a tower, straight and tall as a pointed finger, saying Come here.

The breeze that pushes them towards their goal is strong, but it’s also warm – indeed, hot – and the night air is humid. Maude wipes at her face with an embroidered kerchief. The thing was not meant for such rough use and it is frayed, discoloured after five years at her disposal. Soon it will be little more than a rag, but she won’t throw it out for it was a gift from the mute woman they’d plucked from the sea, back when the oceans were kind and full of bounty. When the business of piracy was at its peak and all but the worst captains could afford to, and did, display some compassion and a reasonable degree of generosity. The folk of the Astra’s Light didn’t know how long the woman had floated, and they couldn’t figure how she hadn’t drowned, but her skin had turned as furrowed as a crone’s frown and it took days of pouring fresh water into her mouth and applying rich unguents (from Maude’s own stock, thank you very much) to make her even begin to look human once more.

Grateful, the woman had made herself useful – darning ragged pants, shirts and skirts, socks and stockings. Making serviceable bunk-blankets for the whole crew out of the worsted wool, calico and felt from an Argosy they’d “lightened” but days before; and a fine coverlet of green and gold brocatelle for Maude and Sancha’s bed. Men and women all began to regard her as something of a mascot, a pet to replace the cat that had disappeared in a storm a week earlier. The woman couldn’t read or speak, so Sancha had begun teaching her letters. By the time they’d set her ashore at the town of Cwen’s Reach, she’d made the fine cambric kerchief for the captain, Maude’s initials embroidered in one corner and cleverly stitched now-mermaids-now-maidens gambolling around the edges, tail to feet and back again. Maude, who had the full complement of sailors’ superstitions to give her ballast, came to regard the piece of fabric as something of a lucky charm. In her career, she’d had her share of injuries – a dislocated shoulder from hanging out a window, stab wounds from any number of ill-wishers and naval men, powder burns from unexpected and inconvenient explosions – but from the day the kerchief came into her possession she’d been unusually incident- and injury-free.

When they’d made the harbour at Cwen’s , Sancha had accompanied the woman ashore, and left her with the woman at the Citadel of Books – which was the closest thing to a charitable institution the port town had. It seemed like the best place, Sancha later said, as she showed Maude the new ship’s cat, a black and gold kitten five months or so old, standoffish and wise as it sat on the bed beside them, observing their state of undress with a kind of disdain. Or perhaps her distaste was for her name: Hieronymus.

It was only some time after she’d gone, the woman, and the seas seemed to change their tenor, that they wondered if she was the beginning of their ruin.

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