by David Wesley Hill
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excerpted from the upcoming novel, Desperate Bankrupts,
sequel to At Drake's Command
April 20, 1578
Off Cape Joy, Brazil
Just before dusk, after proceeding some miles into the vast bay of fresh water known as the Rio de la Plata, or Silver River, the Pelican anchored in the lee of a rocky island, which provided good protection against the southerly wind. After serving dinner, I joined the usual gang below on the gun deck among the cannon. The general mood continued to be as grim as it had been for the past week. Our course southward down the coast of Brazil proved to everyone that our destination could be only one of two places, and neither was a friendly harbor. Either we were headed around Africa to the Indies or else Drake was taking us through the Straits of Magellan into the Southern Ocean.
“God damn me, gentlemen,” whispered Pascoe Goddy, a hand going to the stump of his ear, “we are between a gale and a lee shore. The Indian Ocean is a gauntlet no English ship can endure. The Portugals guard the route more jealously than a pimp guards his strumpet.”
“Aye, without a pilot, we would be doomed rounding the Cape of Storms,” said Luke Adden. “It is a snarl of current and bad weather.”
“Magellan’s Straits are worse,” ventured Lancelot Garget. “You must enter at slack tide since the current runs in only one direction and will capsize any vessel caught in its grip.”
“Even Drake is not mad enough to take us through the Straits,” Adden countered. “Did not Magellan himself perish in the passage?”
“No,” answered Francisco Albo. “Captain Fernan went down in the islands of the Philippines while bravely defending his men.”
“Lot of good that did the poor bastards. Only twenty returned.”
“Eighteen,” Albo corrected the other. “Only eighteen.”
The conversation died away after this melancholy revelation, which allowed us to hear clearly the noise coming from the nearby island, which was home to dozens of sea wolves, as the Spaniards called them, a kind of seal. The males had the manes of lions and each was guarding a harem of smaller females and pups. The animals were continually barking, growling, huffing, and grunting at one another, and occasionally the bulls would let loose unsettling barrages of angry squeals.
“None of us will sleep with such din in our ears,” Garget complained. “The damned vermin are sure to keep us awake through all the watches of the night.”
Pascoe Goddy had taken up his marlinspike and was using the tip to work a strand of cord through the round knot he was weaving, which was known as a monkey's fist, or slungshot. The design was as practical as it was ornamental. Tied to the end of a line, and then cast off at speed at an enemy, its weight and velocity caused the knot to become a weapon, allowing you to stun your opponent from a distance.
“Come, Lance,” Goddy said, “do not pass judgment so quickly. Do you not know the beasts are truly mermaids and mermen in disguise?”
Garget would have none of this. “Get away, Pascoe, and cozen someone less gullible. Such creatures are Papist superstition. I have been before the mast two dozen years and never in that time have I encountered either a sea-wife or her husband. Have you?”
Goddy shook his head. “Not personally, no. But I have met a man who has, and I heard what happened from his own lips. Understand that this was in '73, just after the failure of our raid on the Spanish in Panama. You all know what went on there. The tale is famous.”
Even I had heard of the adventure, which had made Drake's fortune although more than half his men died in its doing.
“Well, mates,” Goddy continued, “we were lying in wait to ambush the caravan carrying the Treasurer of Lima and his family across the isthmus from the Pacific to Nombre de Dios. Supposedly eight mules of this train were laden with gold and one with jewels and we were all looking forward to becoming wealthy men. Our orders were to stay as silent as the grave until Drake gave the word to rise. Unfortunately, one idiot had imbibed too much aqua vitae without water and showed himself to the Spanish, forewarning them of our presence, and we came away with nothing. As you may imagine, gentlemen, the drunken fool who ruined our prospects had few friends among the company thereafter. One night, while we were licking our wounds in our lair on the coast, a couple of the men determined to do this man, Richard Pike, a mischief.”
Goddy paused to complete a complicated weave in the monkey's fist and we had to wait for him to continue the story. Finally he said, “Aye, well, where was I?”
“Pike,” prompted Luke Adden. “Richard Pike.”
“Yes, that was his name. As I said, a couple of the men pretended to be his companions and plied him with Madeira and sack, of which we had a good quantity, and with aqua vitae, too, until Pike was insensible. Then they rowed him in a long boat out to an island some cable lengths from the main, where they stripped him naked and lay him down unconscious at the high tide mark. The plan was to maroon Pike on the island and then to rescue him in a day or two after he had reflected upon the sad consequences of intemperance. Aye, it was a cruel jest, all in all, but no one expected any harm to come of it.
“When the time arrived to retrieve Pike, however, he was nowhere to be found. The island was less than a quarter mile from end to end and we searched every yard but there was no sign of the man. Nor would it have been easy to overlook him, as Pike was not only a huge brute but also a redhead, with a shock of bright hair that resembled nothing so much as the sparking tip of a slow match. It was not until we reached the seaward extremity of the place, a rocky beach, that we discovered him.”
Again Goddy paused to work on the slungshot. This was a favorite technique of his, to interrupt himself in order to ensure our attention, and although we were all accustomed to the trick, it never failed to work its purpose on us. “For God's sake, Pascoe,” urged Luke Adden “will you get on with the damned story.”
“Aye, well, where was I?”
“At the rocky beach,” everyone answered in unison.
“Exactly! And there was Richard Pike. We had expected to find him naked, sober, and chastened but instead he was even more drunk than when he had been marooned. This perplexed everyone until we discovered that the island was home to a grove of coco palms. Their nuts are sturdy things but if they fall upon stony soil, they sometimes crack open, exposing the milk and causing the liquid to ferment into wine. Having sampled the stuff myself, I can swear it is a foul beverage but when we found him, Pike was using a coco shell as a tankard and swilling down the awful liquor as if it were expensive Canary.
“He was alone on the beach but the sand around him bore the imprint of many bodies, as if a crowd had recently been lying there. To one side lay the corpse of a bull seal and in the shallows nearby several she-seals swam among the breakers. The place had apparently been employed as a rookery for many seasons.
“To our surprise, Pike was not made happy by our arrival to rescue him. 'Damn you all, you have scared them off,' he chastised us. 'My lovelies are shy things and cannot abide commotion.'
“It took awhile before we understood that he meant the seals. In his drunkenness he believed them to be beautiful sea-girls. 'Now they may wear the flesh of animals,' Pike explained, 'but come the small watches, they change into other shapes. I saw this myself this very night past. In the moonlight they became women in every way except that they had the tails of fish instead of legs. They called to me and I went to them and they made me welcome, feeding me clams and cockles, combing my hair with their fingers, which have delicate webs between them, and decorating me with garlands woven from seaweed.'
“John Harris, who died not long afterward from Spanish lead, God rest him, could not hide his amusement at Pike's delusion.
“'Say, Rich,' he said, 'why exactly were you so well received by these maidens? Do not ask me to believe they fell for your good looks since really you are an ugly fellow.'
“Pike was not offended by the observation since it was true. 'I asked the same question,' he replied sincerely. 'The lasses explained that sea-folk are born without souls and that they feel this lack keenly. The only way one of their kind may gain a soul for herself is by winning the heart of a mortal man. Thus my lovelies strove with each other to earn my affection, granting me every feminine comfort until I was exhausted and could no longer rise to the occasion, no matter the inducement.'
“Pretending to believe these ravings, Harris said, 'In all honesty, Rich, I would not have thought such intimacy possible. Did you not say the lasses had the tails of fish instead of legs?'
“'Aye,' Pike agreed. 'However, let me assure you that bifurcation is quite an unnecessary quality in a woman.'
“'There was not a dry eye among us as we thought of Pike gaining the experience required to speak so convincingly about so unnatural a subject. 'And what was the bull's crime?' asked Kit Minivy, referring to the corpse lying not far distant. 'Did he perhaps take offense at your romancing his brides?'
“'No,' Pike answered. 'The old fellow welcomed me with the same ardor as his wives and for the same reason—in order to win an eternal soul for himself. That was the rub. He was determined to demonstrate his love upon my person and I could not dissuade him from this desire except by hitting him on the head with a rock.'
“Minivy's face was turning as red as Pike's hair as he struggled not to laugh. 'Imagine that, mates,' he finally got out. 'A sea-buggerer. Who would have thought such a diabolical fiend existed.'
“John Harris, too, was beside himself. 'Tell us,' he asked, 'which of this bevy of beauties most caught your fancy?' He indicated a she-seal on a ledge of rock somewhat offshore. 'Her, perhaps?'
“'Of course not!' Pike exclaimed indignantly. 'Are you blind, John, to choose the plainest of the lot? No, I have given my heart to another. Where are you, my lovely?' he called, peering seaward. 'Where have you hidden yourself, you exquisite creature?'
“By now it was clear that Pike was mad as well as drunk. We knew it was our fault, too. We had left him naked and alone in the wilderness of the Darian coast, where the shock of being marooned had unhinged him. We also suspected Drake would not be pleased to lose a man to lunacy, seeing as how our company had been decimated by the Spanish.
“'Come, Richard,' said Minivy, 'bid your sea-wives farewell. It is time to rejoin the fellowship of men.'
“'Aye, mate,' agreed Harris with equal gentleness, 'I have heard that mermaids are fickle vixens and will turn you over for a bit of fresh fish. It is best to end the affair now before there are bitter memories.'
“After some trouble, since he did not wish to leave, we managed to get Pike into the longboat. He continued looking wistfully back at the island until we landed on the main, when weariness and drink overcame him and he fell into a slumber so deep that he did not wake for an entire day. To our relief, however, upon rising, he recalled nothing of the incident but for a few vague dreams of carnal excess. Minivy and Harris, happy that their prank had no worse consequences, never mentioned the matter again. As for myself, mates,” Goddy finished, “I, too, thought no more of the episode. As a matter of fact, I forgot it entirely.”
Goddy returned his attention to the monkey's fist in his lap and said nothing further. After some minutes passed, it dawned on us that the story was over. Lancelot Garget was first to speak:
“You have made my very point, Pascoe,” he exclaimed. “It is as I said—mermaids and mermen are the figments of drunks, madmen, and Papists.”
“I would have thought so, too, Lance,” Goddy replied. “Except—“
Whatever he intended to say was drowned out by an increase in noise from the nearby island, where two bull sea wolves had begun squabbling. It took some time for the commotion to die down. When the volume finally diminished enough for him to be heard, Goddy said, 'Aye, well, where was I?'
“Except—“ we quoted back to him in unison.
“Precisely, mates. I would have thought the same as Lance except for something that happened just last year. I was sailing with Fenton aboard the Eagle, and our adventure carried us to the very part of the Darian coast where I had been previously with Drake. At twilight the Eagle passed the island on which Richard Pike had been marooned. We were not a cable's length offshore when we came abreast of the beach where we had found him. The place was still being used as a rookery by a family of seals, a half dozen females and their lord, a strong young bull. And here is what changed my opinion as to sea-folk and why I no longer believe them to be myth. Aye, mates, what I saw was sufficient to convince me that Pike had told us nothing less than God's honest truth. Ah—finished!”
With a last twist and tug, Goddy completed the monkey's fist and held the pretty thing up for study.
“Bugger the damned knot!” swore Luke Adden, echoing the thought in all our minds. “What in the name of Jesus did you see, Pascoe? “
“Why, Luke, I saw the young bull. As you know, seals typically have brown or black pelts but the fur of this animal was as pale as the skin of an Englishman. And his mane, instead of being dark, was a remarkable red, fully as bright as Richard Pike's hair. Draw your own conclusions, mates, but in my opinion the evidence is compelling. Even if there were no sea-folk in the world before—there are now.”
Guest post created by David Wesley Hill, author of At Drake's Command
© 2013. All rights reserved.
by David Wesley Hill
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READ more about this world...
The adventures of Peregrine James
during the second circumnavigation of the world
by David Wesley Hill
It was as fine a day to be whipped as any he’d ever seen but the good weather didn’t make Peregrine James any happier with the situation he was in. Unfairly convicted of a crime he had not committed, the young cook was strung from the whipping post on the Plymouth quay side when he caught the eye of Francis Drake and managed to convince the charismatic sea captain to accept him among his crew.
Soon England was receding in their wake and Perry was serving an unsavory collection of sea dogs as the small fleet of fragile wood ships sailed across the brine. Their destination was secret, known to Drake alone. Few sailors believed the public avowal that the expedition was headed for Alexandria to trade in currants. Some men suspected Drake planned a raid across Panama to attack the Spanish in the Pacific. Others were sure the real plan was to round the Cape of Storms to break the Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade. The only thing Perry knew for certain was that they were bound for danger and that he must live by his wits if he were to survive serving at Drake’s command.
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