As that damned John Darcey’s notes plunge in a seasick stagger from low to high, I could swear the whole blasted sloop is rocking in his meandering 3/4 time. He doesn’t even know he’s butchering a fine piece of baroque literature, adding in romantic passages and broken-winged flights up the octave that were never there.
The men don’t know it, either. They cluster around him like he’s some kind of musical Messiah when they should be around my war table, discussing our plot to take over the Santa Mariposa port town long enough such that I can tie up some personal business with the governor. But no. They’re all lifting the Fiddler on their shoulders, clapping as he waves that ratty stick over their heads and improvises some drunken melange of several of our most overused shanteys. The way he fraternizes with my first mate Clarkson, how he garners punches on the bony shoulder that almost knock his frail frame to the poop deck… it all makes me feel like gagging.
I take another sip of grog. “All right, wretches. Are we ready to get our salty arses to assembly at last?”
“Sure, sure, Cap’n,” Clarkson touches his cap and makes a genuine effort to repress a snort when his eyes flicker to meet Darcey’s. Some of the other men hobble over to the table slowly; I’ve never seen Ragibond’s missing leg hinder him so terribly except when he’s been made to lay aside his tambourines.
I reach into the unlocked drawer of the stumpy round table and spread the fragile map of the Tobago coast between my paperweights. Next, I tack a pin into the corner of the bay where our sloop now idles. “This is the Jezebel,” I say in case some of the shorter sailors (i.e. our 5 foot 2 earworm mascot) can’t see over their taller shipmates. I begin ruffling for chess pieces, Russian dolls, wine corks, or whatever else is rolling around the desk drawer, laying the symbols of our crew along the paths leading through the village, talking once more over all the key places my best men need to cover so I can get to Governor Remora’s house efficiently. There’s the tavern, where Irwhen and Jabber will lead their team to the peak of intoxication to facilitate a strong getaway; the police headquarters, around which Vancent and Grimble will create a believable “plundering pirates” diversion; Remora’s own front yard, where Clarkson, Helmwood, and Skunk will do whatever needs to be done to the family’s security system up to and including the chopping of burly mercenary necks.
Finally, I brush my hands and look up.
Clarkson raises a finger into the air. “Pardon me, Cap’n – but where is Darcey Fiddler s’pposed to be during all this time?”
I have waited for this moment like a puma waits for a juicy possum to drop from a ripening tree branch. “Darcey Fiddler,” I say with a theatrical pause, “is of no direct use to us on this mission. However, the bathrooms aboard ship need cleaning, so he’ll stay safely on board and serve a more domestic purpose befitting his – urr, minimal physique.”
The others surrounding Darcey grin at him. “Seems you got the most enviable assignment of the lot,” Jabber says.
“Yeah,” Darcey agrees. I can’t glean even a hint of sarcasm from his voice. “Bathrooms have great resonance – maybe it’ll give me a chance to prepare a victory song for you all, if I finish the toilets early.”
“Fat chance,” I mutter, but I don’t think anyone can hear me what with all the excited chatter. Isn’t that Fiddler a humorous rake? Won’t we be surprised what he cooks up for us in that musical brain of his? Don’t even talk about cooking – I would that Darcey was s’pposed to clean up Cookie’s attitude instead of the bathrooms!
As they frolic off like a bunch of children to resume choir-orchestra-drum line practice, I realize my perfect delivery of the shameless insult made no dent in the genuine smiles flashed between the Fiddler and each of my men, locking me out.
But I can’t worry about their opinions at the moment. As long as they don’t mutiny, my priority for tonight lies in a small, lace-lined bedroom tucked inside the sprawling house of Governor Remora.
The pitch of midnight. Everything went as planned. The security guards will wake up in the stables come morning suffocating from the smell of horse dung. The townspeople will send notices to Spain complaining of the King’s lack of control over his own criminals based on some cleverly planted false evidence; no one but me and my strapping boys know how I took that wickedly curvaceous coffee-colored body from its bed, slitted it in non-vital places to make blood flow onto the lace bedcovers, and traipsed back to the Jezebel with a sack full of the manifest devil, conquered by myself. And I am alone in the world in my knowledge of what I have truly accomplished, considering that the legendary value of her so-called virginity was once proven to me and me alone, one wavering night en route to Africa, and I know that I will soon be a rich and happy man with her by my side.
Now, I softly dump the contents of the sack onto the round table, letting the chess pieces and Russian dolls roll where they will. If all goes well, I’ll never need to plan another plunder.
Her unconscious body drapes like a celestial beam under the near-full moon, even as her legs swing heavily with the jolt of being dropped as such. I breathe her in with my eyes.
That night in Morocco comes back to me, a sour smell on the flat wind. She slapped me in the face, the impudent brat, and told me I would never come out on top in any court case. Well. My answer lies before me plain as clockwork laid bare for the endless white light of an old man in his workshop – patience, skill, delicious returns. My lips are thirsty for her blood and for the minerals that mingle within.
Just as I’m wondering if I want to wait until my men return to make a show of taking the legendary Jewel of the Indies into my quarters, a mop-head rises, trembling, from the trap door in the poop deck, wearing a rattling bucket as a hat. Darcey emerges as I swear his oath of a name on the tip of my tongue.
“Hey, Cap’n, looks like you won, huh?”
“That’s right,” I snarl, “And when everyone gets back you’re gonna watch me fix my victory in the constellations so no marine will ever forget it! I have won the only thing any so-called man could ever ask for, and all you can do is hope to one day bluster upon some random fortune one-thousandth as wonderful as the hard work that got me to this point, while you were sitting around twittering your fingertips on that stupid musical instrument of yours.”
He chuckles, as if he only takes my words as sarcastic man-play. From the harness he’s fashioned to strap on his back, he pulls that cursed fiddle as if at of nowhere and draws back the bow, preparing for a dive onto the strings. As he commences some jittering Scottish war tune at breakneck speed, I feel the sloop rocking. Several of the men have returned. Soon there is dancing aboard my vessel. The deck groans under the blasts of Ragibond’s wooden stump clomping in alternation with his one good foot.
“Silence!” I roar. I can hardly hear my own voice.
That’s fine. These men aren’t blind, and there are other ways of asserting my authority. I clasp Melany Remora’s soft upper arms and drag her body to the quarterdeck, where, amidst the gasps and swift glissandos to nothingness on the Fiddler’s part, I carefully slice off her pretty nightdress. With the lights from the moon and the still-blinking town, her skin seems to glow as the first coffee-caramel mud before Adam was ever fashioned.
Her big brown eyes creep open. Once she comprehends my face, hers contorts into an angry grimace. She tries to squirm away.
I am too fast for her. “Struggle all you wish,” I sneer as I quickly knot her fists with an extra stretch of rope. “I’m stronger than you, precious.”
An explosion of pain in a very sensitive area leaves me doubled over against the railing of the quarterdeck, while she snags my dagger from my belt. I heave myself to my feet, breathless, and grab for my pistol – then I remember I spent it on that fat old servant at the Remora house. “Clarkson!” I roar. “Helmwood! Get your gunslinging asses over here!”
In a few lethargic seconds, at least two pistols are pointed straight at Melany’s rosy cheeks.
She shakes her head, disgusted. “Do you take me for an idiot?” she demands in that incongruously harsh voice of hers. “You know you can’t kill me. Not if you want – to get what you want.” She looks down at the floor. Then she starts as if just noticing she is naked, and next thing I know my shirt has been slashed off my body and is wrapped around her shivering torso.
I nod at Clarkson, who nods at Helmwood.
They lower their guns.
“Get out of here,” I grunt, and wait until they have stepped back onto the poop to extend my open hand towards Melany. “Accompany me to my quarters,” I say as gently as possible.
She narrows her eyes. “You can have my body and not one ounce of gold nor sliver of sapphire,” she warns me. “I’ve seen it happen before, with men less repulsive than yourself. You can hit me, scream, whatever – but you will never get what you want.”
“Too much talking,” I growl as the pain comes crawling back into my abdomen. “Take my hand or not, but come this way.”
She stares straight into my eyes, ignoring my hand until I drop it and snatch my dagger back from her limp grip. She follows me down the ladder into my quarters, and follows me in all my commands after that; her movements are as smooth as an artist slowing the breaking waves to the idealism of his paintbrush, yet her warmth is as cold as a tiger’s eye cave never once touched by the sun.
And the task is done.
I leave her in the dark room, devoid of light from diamonds nor dawn. Above decks, I study the map in the sky as we move into open sea. The stars are the only bright jewels I will ever know by name.
The breakfast concert is the first time I see firelight warm Melany’s eyes from the inside. Her smile turns out to be quite appreciable. It would be, I guess, pretty, except for that it is directed at the damned Fiddler.
Darcey mingles about between songs, taking suggestions at the toss of a coin or of a butter biscuit that he catches in his teeth. When he sneaks up and pokes Melany in the nape of the neck, she jumps and then laughs so hard milk spews from her nose. I stare into my black coffee.
“How is the lady this morning?” He grins at her, and I wonder if they have already become acquainted. “Any requests? I don’t charge prisoners.”
She smiles through a mist of held-back sobs. “What about… do you know that ballad about the accordion player and the…”
“And the fair penguin?” Darcey suggests, raising his eyebrows. “Sure as Esau I do. But I’m going to need a little assistance from the choir.”
The men roar in approval.
My hands have grown cold on my coffee cup. I eye the knapsack slung over my lopsided chair and think about grog.
Darcey holds a low note like a bow and arrow pulled to maximum tension… then releases into a quick play of chords, a bright harmony like apple and peach trees in a summer orchard. It might be the most obnoxious ditty I’ve ever heard out of that old fiddle, but the men instantly get to clapping and chanting. “There was an accordioniste, Between the ruelles and the storm drains, where the people would dump rotten pizza, he would serenade the fair penguins! Oh, la-dee-da, la-dee-diddle-da, la-dee-diddle dye dee dee…” Melany is singing right along, her cheeks rosier than ever. I wonder if I should take advantage of this distracted moment – to vomit over the side.
As the verses progress, the story devolves into some ridiculous yarn of man-penguin bestiality, complete with a cameo appearance from the Messiah in a woman’s dress and a pirate who wants the penguin’s hand but ends up drunken with love for a gold frying pan. All the while, the fiddle roots deeper into the melody, exposing flavors that tug at the chords of some frozen thing inside me. I hate music.
Melany gasps when all the men cut off singing, but Darcey nods encouragingly and she finishes up the ballad in a ringing solo: “There was an accordioniste, Who happily married a penguin, they lived off the music of their simple life, and for them Heaven’s gates did open!”
The men break into one last triumphal chorus as Darcey runs up the scale. He’s caught too long on some high note, which he holds breathlessly like an archer pushing the boundaries of tension between arrow and string – he has been immobilized by Melany’s lips on his.
I stand up and bang my fist on the table. “We need to get to work!” I exclaim, wondering how I let this chaos progress so horribly far.
No one seems to hear or see me. In an a capella wave they all swell upstairs, holding one chair in which Melany sits while Darcey lies in her lap and plays.
I stomp up the stairs behind them, fingering the pistol in my belt. “Stop!” I command. “All of your lives could end at the slightest whim of my trigger!”
A few of the men stop singing, but only to take up shifty-eyed banter.
Darcey is holding Melany’s hand, leading her to the railing to point out something in the water. “They like to play in our wake,” he explains. “Like dogs or children.”
“How excellent! I’ve never seen a real dolphin before. Do you think they’re intelligent?”
The shot flicks my wrist back and rings through my bones as well as in my ears. The Fiddler’s left hand releases the neck of the instrument and bursts in a bloody star-shape beside his skinny hip. He’s on the floor, surrounded by the men; the crunch of wood and twanging of snapped strings under their heavy boots is only slightly satisfying.
Melany screamed when the shot sounded, but now she stands calmly at the epicenter of the clamor. “You’re going to be just fine, John,” she tells him as much with her massaging hands as with her voice.
Without having to be told, Clarkson takes Darcey’s legs as she cradles his neck. The two of them carry his limp body down to the surgery, no doubt dripping blood all the way through my sloop.
“My fiddle… she’s broken…” Darcey twists his neck, trying to survey the scene of the murder.
Melany murmurs soft things to him as they disappear below decks. Meanwhile, the circle of remaining men faces me like a pack of angry wolves, or angry members of Parliament. I hold up my palms, a weak instinctive defense. But no bullets are fired, nor does any blade assault my neck. Their stares are enough to drive me into my quarters, where I bolt the door, slump at my desk, and peer into our charts until my eyes roll back into my skull.
I thought I would have to hunker down in my quarters until the presumptive mutineers-to-be would port someplace, at which junction I could escape with my life and little else. But after less than forty-eight hours, there is a knock on my door. The spyhole reveals Clarkson, apparently unarmed. I open the door a crack. He bows his head as he tells me, “We’re approaching Florida, Captain. Shall we tack more to port to avoid the Navy?”
And so it comes that I return to the helm. The silence of the rocking sea, pierced only by my own voice shouting orders and the occasional cry of some wild gull, is refreshing. However, I can’t help but detect whispers beginning to grow like mold around me. Darcey’s name is a recurring theme.
“So,” I drawl to Clarkson one afternoon as he accepts a light from my match, “whatever did become of our two prisoners?”
“Darcey and the Remora brat.”
“Ah, yes.” He inhales deeply from his pipe. “Well, Darcey lost the hand, so I s’ppose he’ll never fiddle again-“
I hope he doesn’t hear my sigh of relief.
“But they’ve been singing, and Melany plays the harmonica a little bit. She’s also a pretty fair surgeon, been trained in the art, and they’re planning to make their living off that while we get a band together. They know how to make love, those two.”
By the time I can gather a few more specific words, Clarkson has rounded the quarterdeck to chat with some other sailor. I follow – and the breath is knocked out of my throat for a second when I see Darcey, like some apple-cheeked ghost, leaning casually against the deck and braiding a rope line with only his right hand. He glances up at me, and I don’t think it’s hatred exactly, but something in his face makes me feel like the strongest man onboard. Like he’d run away at the sound of my boots. Why is that look of fear not all I ever wanted?
Melany, hanging like a parasitic fish at Darcey’s side, glares at me and stands closer to him as if to block his bandaged left stump from further damage. Will I never see her smile and make eye contact with me at the same time?
“You’re free to go, both of you,” I announce suddenly. I am hotly aware of all the men gathered around to witness this exciting news. “And anyone else who wants to join their silly little ‘band,’ or whatever. Don’t announce yourselves now; you have until we reach Florida’s armpit to make a decision. In the meantime, we’ve just about another day of smooth sailing and no drama. Is that fair?”
“It’s far from fair,” Melany says, sharing a wry look with Darcey, “but considering the brute you are it’s the best I could hope for. Anyway that isn’t why we came up to find you.”
“You came up specifically to find me?” I can feel the skin cells of my cheeks knitting tighter in preparation for one of Melany’s notorious slaps.
She swings Darcey’s old fiddle sack from her back and holds it out to me. It is bursting at the seams, between which I can see a million priceless stars glittering out at me from gems and doubloons teeming inside. “Here is all you ever wanted,” she huffs, dumping the bag in my arms before I know what’s happening. “So I guess I was wrong. You got what you were looking for after all.”
I thought I would never see her smile at me. Now I wish I had been right about that.
But of course I wasn’t.
Image credits in order of appearance:
By Jean Leon Gerome Ferris – http://www.neatorama.com/2007/10/22/pirate-lore-7-myths-and-trrrrruths-about-pirates/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8643114
By Rick Doble – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20393953
By Herbert James Draper – Draper, Les poissons volants, leo.jeje, 2011-04-12 04:56, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38412506
By Eduardo Sívori – Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3568818
By “Mike” Michael L. Baird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3797446
By Francesco Hayez – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. Official, high definition zoomable version., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=152576
By John Fairburn (1793–1832) – artfinder.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18267793
Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Almokla at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3330849