Hortense is a real buccaneer, the type of pirate lady you’ll see batting her eyelashes at some bloke while she swipes his sword right from its sheath, the kind of gal you want on your ship to go with the rum, the adrenaline and the smell of ten unbathed men.
I’m glad she joined the Poison Dart around the same time Captain Crosbye picked me up. I was a slimy little wretch wandering the docks of Cornwall, searching for I knew not what. Well, Hortense and I, we took to each other that first night when she taught me how to cook sedative polenta for the men, and we danced on the table and I plucked Scrawler’s accordion from his sleeping hands to play “Amazing Grace.” Hortense laughed and said, “You’re something, Clara. Don’t you ever let them boys tell you no different.”
Later, when I began tossing and turning in my hammock, plagued by icy wind and images of the rabid Cornwall rats scratching my eyes out, it was Hortense who breathed warm air on my hands and sang me old Irish lullabies until I could dream of faerie springs instead.
The most fun part of the battles was always when I played the weakling and distracted the enemies with my pathetic, losing attempts at fighting. Meanwhile, Hortense would creep up behind them, and once she had the treasure she’d knock them senseless just before they could bring a sword down on my head. My heart would race to the edge of a cliff and then fall and fly like a baby bird for the first time. I always trusted Hortense to be my wings, flying me away from all danger.
When the boys would break out the rum to celebrate a victory, Hortense is always the first to gulp down a glass. Or a whole bottle. The first time it happened, I watched from under the table as she danced around the room with all the men, doing strange things with her legs and their legs that I’d never seen done before, taking off her breeches, waving weapons around and making the lanterns swing, shadows flitting across walls and furniture, light and darkness battling for control over her bare feet. Scrawler’s accordion blasted stumbling sonatas in a strange key, everyone was singing and drinking and fighting and belching and I waited for the party to be over so I could have my nightly lullaby, but it went on and on and on.
So finally I gave up.
The next morning, it was Hortense’s and my shift to swab the deck. I nudged, shook, and screamed at her lifeless body until her eyes rolled open, swimming with sick blood and unshed tears.
“Hortense,” I whispered. “You need to -”
She grabbed my wrist, eyes wide. “Last night, child, I was a ransacked temple for three different religions. I orgasmed before God. I am so ashamed of myself.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I just knelt beside her hammock and looked into her eyes as gently as I could.
After a moment, she sighed and turned away from me. It was too late to save me from smelling the stale rum on her breath. “You don’t need to hear my sorrows. Leave me, child. Go be free while you can.”
I clambered into the hammock with her and dug my cold little nose into her cold collarbone. Her beefy arms wrapped me in a frigid embrace. I whispered, “Tell me whatever you need, Hortense.”
“My mother once clouted my ear in front of my beau,” Hortense replied. “I had mentioned cow birthing – I suppose I went into some detail – and she didn’t want me scaring him off, a pretty eighteen-year-old lass speaking of such grotesque things. But that’s the way birth works; he needed to know what he was getting himself into. You see?”
Beneath the groggy aroma was her usual scent of honey and raw lumber. “I think so,” I said. “You didn’t want to hide the messy, bloody part of life from him?”
“Precisely,” she said, poking the tip of my nose. “Never, ever hide the messy parts from your closest friends, child. That’s how I got where I’m at now.”
“I’m glad you’re where you’re at now,” I protested. “You sing me good lullabies. You’ve saved my life eleven times.”
Her chest quaked with pained laughter as she smiled behind a wall of misty tears. “I’m glad for that too,” she said. “Glad to be here. Glad to have a friend who isn’t afraid of me hungover and melancholy.”
I didn’t really know how to answer, so I lay there staring up at the leaky ceiling until it hit me. “The dolphins follow us for the empty bottles,” I postulated. “From the rum. That’s how they keep their noses so long.”
A laugh like tingling bells escaped Hortense’s chapped lips. “Perhaps,” she said. “That would be a much better use for them than what we humans do.”
I sat in the hammock with Hortense until late into the morning, when Captain Crosbye yelled at us to balance the checkbook. Then we went into the accounts office and talked some more. We were just sitting there, but I felt like I was traveling with her across the hills, valleys, landslides and oceans of womanhood, of drunkenness, of love, of loss. I enjoyed the journey. More importantly, I’m sure she needed it.
Most importantly of all, to me, was that when we returned to the present it was time for an early supper and then Hortense tucked me in and the Atlantic waves were rocking us to and fro as monster men began to creep into my mind’s eye – and Hortense sang to me until the shadows melted to sunlight, until I could dip my weary feet in the faerie spring once again. Will they ever be clean? I know not; but Hortense’s voice was more beautiful than all the treasure in the world shining through darkness that night.
I hope Hortense never drinks too much rum to sing me to sleep again. But if she does, I know I will be there to help her avoid deck duty.
Image credits in order of appearance:
“Nature neighbors (Plate 195) (6276962308)” by Abbott, Gerard Alan.; Banta, Nathaniel Moore; Higley, William Kerr; Schneider, Albert – http://www.flickr.com/photos/biodivlibrary/6276962308. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nature_neighbors_(Plate_195)_(6276962308).jpg#/media/File:Nature_neighbors_(Plate_195)_(6276962308).jpg
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