But am I still captain? I am not on my ship. Where is my ship? Am I even myself?
I have slept long and dreamt – strangely. How long? How strange!
I dreamt that I was home, in my mother’s house. I awoke in her bower, the carved oak bench she was wont to recline on, the which I would steal for slumber whenever opportunity arose. And the dawn sun shone through the flowers that grew there, up trellises and down walls so that within the bower, all seemed a fairyland, without hint of human corruption in the sweet breath of nature. The perfume of the flowers drifted to me, and the birds gently chirruped, weet, weet, weet.
My mother came to me, moving slow as the tides, the sun shining on her face, her golden hair. She wore a gown of blue, and with gold shining at her wrists and her pale throat, she seemed the very sky itself, the heavens come down to bless me and ease away my cares.
“Are you home?” she asked with a warm smile.
“Aye, mother, I have returned to thee,” I said. I tried to arise, but – could not.
“Are you home?” she said again, and her smile faded. The bright dawn did as well, and a shadow crept into the bower. Again I tried to rise, but could not. Something held me to the bench, flat on my back. Helpless.
Then my mother raised her hands from her sides, and I saw she held an athame, the druid’s dagger, the weapon used for rituals. For sacrifices. “Are you home?” she hissed, and now her lovely face twisted with anger. Of a sudden her slow, tranquil movements flowed as quick as thought. And my mother stabbed me, and stabbed again. Behind her, in the leaves and vines and blooms, the birds chirruped on.
I dreamt I walked a road in the night, the moon bright above and a thousand thousand stars that danced musingly across the sky. From a thicket nearby came the slow sound of an owl hoo-hoo-hoo in the darkness. And as I walked, I felt a hand slip into mine, a hand soft and cool. I turned to look, and beheld – Genevra. My Genevra, alive again, in the perfect blossom of youth and health, as she had been once, but was not, that last time I looked on her. She smiled at me and said, “Hello, my darling devil. Give us a kiss, and then dash us away to your fiery pit.” ‘Twas such she ever said to me. I caught her up in my arms, laughing with her, her voice ringing like bells, like bird’s song, and I kissed her, aye, I did.
And as I drew back, her face looked as it had when last I looked on her: pallid and drawn, her eyes shrunk into her skull, her sweet lips drawn back from her teeth by the pain, her soft white throat swelled up like a frog’s by the buboes, her flesh blackened by that bloody English plague. They brought it to us after their city burned (When God wreaked his vengeance on them, aye, did he.) and they took my Genevra from me, and drove me thus to a life at sea.
That dying, agonized face looked back at me from my embrace, and now her grimace seemed a smile, and she licked her lips with blackened tongue and said, “Welcome to Hell, my devil, my Damnation.
“Give us a kiss.”
And she laughed like bells.
I dreamt I stood on the deck of my ship, my Grace, and the wind filled the sails and carried us over the waves. From somewhere far off, gulls cried, their harsh voices softened by distance into a gentle, regular note, repeating every second or two, Ha! Ha! Ha! As always, I looked to the sails, the lines, the coursing of the sea: all was as it should be, and I smiled as my heart swelled with joy, to be where I was. Where I belonged.
“Steady as she goes, Captain?” called a voice, and I turned to see my friend and shipmate Balthazar Lynch at the wheel. Gladly I climbed to the poop deck to stand beside him, clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Aye, we sail fine and true, and naught is ill in all this wide world.” The boy smiled at that, and I noticed the gleam of his white teeth, hale and straight and true, and the blush of health in his smooth cheeks – still too young to shave? – and the sparkle of his green eyes. He’ll reap through the lasses like a very scythe, I thought, as I have many times before, they’ll fall before him and aye, beneath him, too.
Then I noted a tear, bright and full, trickling down from the corner of his wide eye. “Why weepest thou, my lad?” I asked him.
He smiled bravely, though his eyes were full of suffering. “Because it hurts, Captain.” He looked down, and I followed his gaze to where a blade was sunk deep into his chest, and on the hilt were curled my own fingers. Blood burst forth from the wound then, hot and wet on my hand. I tried to release the dagger, but could not. I looked into Lynch’s eyes once more, and I tried to speak, but my tongue cleaved to my teeth, and my lips would not open.
“Please stop killing me, Nate. Please stop killing me.” And his face became Genevra’s face, and then my mother’s, and still the blade in my hand, in her heart, ran red with blood, and I could not let go.
I dreamt that I sat in a tavern, in a dark corner by the fire. I looked around the room – ’twas a fine place, a proper Irish pub, with smoking torches in sconces and warm smells thickening the air, though a cool breeze from the open door cut through the room and freshened a man’s breath. In the corner, on a raised platform, three musicians stood, tuning their instruments, fiddle and flute and drum, and the fiddle and the flute played a single note back and forth, back and forth, while the drummer tapped gently at the skin, a slow beat like a heart’s.
I looked to the bar, and behind it stood a man I knew, though he was dressed as an innkeeper, in an apron and shirtsleeves stained with food and ale: ’twas Sean O’Flaherty, my Quartermaster that was. At the bar sat Edmund Burke, who raised his mug to me, and I saw a long chain dangling from his wrist, and blood dripping down its length. Beside him was Donal Carter, sawing at a hunk of meat with a great, curved blade, and Elliott Shluxer, who had a barmaid pinned against the bar, hemmed in by his arms, though she laughed and tickled his cheeks. She glanced back over her shoulder, and I saw ’twas the Enchantress. She winked at me most saucily.
And on top of the bar, laid out like a roast goose at Christmas, was my cousin, Hugh Moran. And all of them sliced and tore at Hugh’s flesh, thrusting dripping chunks into their gaping, bloody mouths, and laughing as they swallowed. Hugh struggled, and tried to scream, but he had an apple in his mouth, and O’Flaherty held him down. Hugh looked at me, his eyes pleading.
I turned away.
“Would you care for a plate, Master Kane?”
The voice, mellifluous of tone and refined of accent, came from my table companion: Captain Nicholas Hobbes of the Sea-Cat, known as the Devil’s Lash. He sat in deep shadow, though I could make out the outline of his thin features, and the shine of his white teeth, the gleam of his eyes. He smoked a pipe, the white plumes curling idly between us.
I shook my head. “‘Tis not to my taste, sir.”
“Then perhaps a draught, to quench thy thirst?” From the shadows that enwrapped his side of the table, he pushed a goblet brimming with a red fluid. Wine? Blood?
I demurred once more. “I do not thirst,” I spake, but I lied – my throat was a fire, my voice cracking like a pine log on the hearth. I strained my eyes, peering through the smoke and darkness, and I saw that there was not only one smile, or one man’s eyes agleam in the dimness, but two: behind Hobbes lurked another, lost in the shadows but for the white of his smile and his gaze, the which gleamed hungrily.
“Then mayhap this is what you seek,” Hobbes said and across the table he thrust a pistola. As he leaned forward, he came into the light, and I saw that his face bore the waxy yellow pallor of the dead, and around his throat I saw two hands wrapped tight and squeezing, the fingers dark and scarred.
“Aye, I thank thee kindly, sir,” I heard myself saying. And I took up the pistol from the tabletop, pressed the barrel against my head, and pulled the trigger.
I am thankful that I have never been press-ganged. I’ve known men who have, and I have spoken with them about the experience. Some were pressed into a better life than that they left, for all that it was the British navy they now must needs serve; still, a British seaman gets food and clothing, a berth and companions, and if he serve loyally, mayhap even the gratitude of the Crown. And some, of course, were stolen away from happiness, from hearth and home, companions and kin, to be flogged like brutes and treated like beasts. These latter had escaped, while the former were generally released from service after some years before the mast.
But for all, that first waking was a memory that haunted. That first moment of awareness, when the last thing you recalled was a walk through dark streets, or perhaps a drink of ale or wine in a tavern by the docks, and now you find yourself with aching head in a hammock, or sprawled across the rough planks of a deck, on a ship at sea, moving with the waves when last you stood on solid land; in your nose the smells of salt air and a ship and men, and in your ears the sounds of wind and waves, sails and shrouds, and chanteys and shouted orders to rise and work – perhaps punctuated with a kick, or a blow from a belaying pin or marlinspike: every man to whom I spoke of it said that the confusion, the bewilderment of such a change, from landsman’s life to the world of a ship at sea, all of the world altered in the single closing and opening of an eye, had filled them with a terror and a despair that none had otherwise known. Their lives had gone, and they had no memory of the going. The sensation did not last long, but those moments were sheer and absolute Hell.
And now I know what they meant.
I am in a room with white walls, without window, with one door. I am in a bed, clothed but in a thin wrap like a robe made of parchment or threadbare linen. My arms are tied by leather thongs lined with some soft material, bound to the rails that run on both sides of this bed, and thin tubes are – attached to me, somehow. The tubes lead to a contraption of metal and white-lacquered stuff, with clear sacs like wineskins made of glass, filled with variously colored fluids. The thing chirps like a bird, though more regular-like. My left forearm is well-bandaged, as is my right shoulder, and both pain me severely. My head seems awash in porridge: somewhat thick and warm and impossible to grip are my thoughts. I have slept and woke and slept again, sometimes dreaming, sometimes aware, even as I have written this. I write these words on a bound sheaf of paper which rests on my hip, with a pen I found alongside the sheaf when I woke.
I do not know where I am. I do not know the fate of my ship, or my men, or even myself. I do not know how much time has passed, or what has befallen us since – I do recall the battle, though I know not how it has ended.
Aye, this confusion is terrible, in truth. I am adrift, and alone. It would, like those press-ganged men I have known, be the worst sensation I have ever felt in this life; except for that I have felt it before. When my ship sailed through time, stranding my crew and I three centuries lost from home.
Has it happened again? I do not know.
Sleep pulls me down. I fear my dreams.
Gods and saints preserve me.