The Button Maker Murders - Chapter 1 - Who's the Fool Now? (continued 3)
I said, Pipe up! If you want me to hear you, that is. Make like yer on deck and me I'm in the topmast with a gale screechin' like a thousand banshees between us. Oh. Yer a land lubber. What I mean is, I don't hear so well.
That's better. If I've got to hear voices, and you've got to be one, I want to be clear what you're sayin'. It's misunderstandin', you see, what got me crosswise with the wood imp that rung my bell and left me almost deaf like this. And took this eye, this leg, this hand and left me bald. If not for my Jen I don't know what I'd do. She loves me anyway. No matter how I am or what I been or done. And once upon a time, yes, I were cruel and murderous. An out and out pirate. And yes I got her pregnant and left her and she delivered the baby alone in a swamp and they both died. Yes. Once upon a time.
But things is different now in this new time. I'm a good husband and a fairly decent citizen, if only recently documented, and Jen is learnin' the new ways. I might learn 'em too. For now I help out doin' what I know. Which is fishin'. In this dory. Usin' this here handline. Gettin' around usin' oars. One day I might venture on a motor. Jen says I shouldn't be too partial to the old ways and I know she's right. The ocean cuts up rough sometimes. Mayhap a mechanical hand will lose its grip. It's an awkward contraption at best. Sometimes I miss the old boathook that Jen clapped on me when I was near kilt. But Octave, that's my brother, he's worked turrible hard to fit us into this twenty-first century and get us credentials. It was him got me this hand. A better leg too than a peg. So I had better not be bad-mouthin'.
You know, for a voice, you don't say much. You just ask questions till you get me goin'. I thought voices were different. I thought they tell the person stuff like how to behave and what to do. You know, like, “Yes, you're still a pirate, mate. At heart you know you are. And a pirate needs his rum. And a pirate needs to shed a little blood now and then. It's in his nature and you're a natural man.” But no, it wouldn't do no good to talk to me like that. I am reformed beyond a doubt. You spend what would work out to several lifetimes as a ghost a'contemplatin' on the harm you done, it changes you to where you can't go back. And Jen would never let me anyway. She's got a powerful pure heart. Why, sometimes I can hardly stand to bait this here hook and throw it in the water, knowin' the pain the fish'll feel when it bites, knowin' I got to kill it once I catch it. But it's all I know for now, and till I learn a trade it has to do. So you just keep on askin' questions and I'll keep on answerin', for there's no danger in that. And mebbe I'll just tell you what I want to, how's that? Mebbe enough about me and I'll just do as Jen has got me doin', givin' thanks. She sez you don't have to direct it anywhere, just give it. Just be thankful. And that suits me fine 'cause there ain't no religion would stick on an old soul like me. So listen. I am thankful for this day and every single ray of light old Sol casts down upon this north Atlantic. The way the waves shine as they roll. The way it warms this skin I never shoulda gotten back. The way it lifts my heart. More light, I say, more light! Cain't get enough. That's why I'm out here early and I go home late, not 'cause I don't love Jen but 'cause every last hour of light, I'm greedy for it, unnerstand? A ghost can't know no light. Can't see it, can't feel it. Is always in the shadows and is always cold. Don't know as I'll ever forget what that felt like. Thank goodness for light! Thank goodness for sunlight!
There, how's that for you, mate? I'm done answerin' questions. I'll tell you just what I like, just what I want you to hear. I'll be a voice in your head. How about that?
Truth was, Angle Daggon remembered his roving days with a secret passion, when their six-gun topsail schooner the Queen Mab lay hidden in the sheltered basin now known as Rogue's Roost till the lookout atop Shannon Island gave the signal that merchant shipping was in sight. Oh the thrill when the guns were run out!
He told himself it shouldn't constitute a problem, such remembrance, for it was only the high spirits he missed and not the plundering nor the slaughter. Only being strong and whole and capable of anything. His Jen would frown, sure, but but she did not need to know, now did she? She was busy with her own new identity, taking classes and studying books and making friends.
He reeled in his handline and headed for Privateer’s Gut, a shallow gap between Hearn’s and Burnt Island that would lead him to the Roost. The tide was low so he rowed cautiously as the dory neared the Gut, keeping a careful lookout for the floating seaweed that would mark a rock lurking under the surface. Since his left eye was patched, his right eye had to take in everything. He craned his head this way and that as he rowed. His attention was so focused ahead of the boat that he failed to notice the distortion in the air that like a window of melting glass appeared immediately behind him.
“Well then, mate,” said the man suddenly there in the stern seat, “Here’s to famous victories, then.”
“Bumpers!” cried Angle, suspending his stroke in mid-air.
“None other,” said the man. “Bumpers it is, and if you really don't drink anymore, just say so and I’ll toss this here mug o' rum overboard.”
Angle slid the oars in, laid the handles across the gunwales and stared suspiciously at the pewter mug being offered him and at the man doing the offering, who was barefoot but in a fine coat and frilled shirt and brown derby. He especially regarded the red beard done up in braids and the ugly scar along the man’s jawline where the hair would not grow and that therefore the beard could not hide.
It seemed indeed to be his old shipmate and boon companion Bumpers, so-called for his excessive fondness for toasting. He was just as he had been long ago when they had sacked the brig Fanny Fern bound for Halifax from Maine. Those were the clothes of the upper-class passenger Bumpers had stripped and forced to dance naked. He had whipped the man across the buttocks with the flat of his cutlass, and he had roared more with laughter the more the man screamed and jigged.
Angle had roared too.
But that was then.
“And what be you doin’ here, mate?” said Angle. “The navvies slung you from the same yardarm as me dad. I saw your last dance. It warn’t pretty.”
“The same as yourself,” Bumpers said, drinking himself from the mug he had extended. “Breathin’ easy. Fillin’ me lungs with fresh salt air again after all them long years in the shadows.”
“Is that right, then?” said Angle. “And what brought you back? And how did you know I was here?”
“Here. Have a drink, dammit. Don't be so partiklar. And what brought you back? A white horse? A royal carriage? Naw, see? You don’t know neither. Now listen up. This here’s the same fine rum as we got from the old Fanny Fern. Drink up and it will ease your mind and we can start makin’ plans.”
The tempting sweet smell of the rum was reaching him, Angle noticed, against the wind. He sucked in a breath and gritted his teeth. “What plans?” he said.
Grinning and twirling a braid of his beard between two powder-blackened fingers, Bumpers winked at him. “Just one drink and I’ll tell ‘ee all. Here, it will be like old times. It don’t matter what plans. Any plans! The plans of a free rovin’ man, free as the breeze, up to anythin’, skeert o’ nothin’ at all!”
“Could it be you’re just after the company?” Angle asked. “A good gab? Christ, you must ha’ been lonely. Me, as a haint, I had Octave to talk to. I would ha’ gone mad otherwise. Well all right, then. A nip. Just the one. To help situate you, like. For it’s hard comin’ back, don’t I know.”
“You’ve found me out,” said Bumpers, turning solemn. “That’s just it. Turrible hard. One minute there I was, swathed in the ether, mere vapour meself, and the next here I am in a dory reekin' of dead mackerel with Angle Daggon. Who's been known to be frightful company hisself.”
“Well, let's have a yarn, then,” Angle said, reaching out for the mug and quaffing long and deep before passing it back. He wiped his mouth with the back of his good hand and let out a great satisfied sigh. “Here’s to us. For old times. Go ahead. Spin your yarn. Coarse or fine, I’m all ears. ”
“A man hears what he wants to hear,” said the other man, in an educated precisely enunciated voice that suddenly bore no resemblance at all to that of Bumpers the pirate. And then the air there seemed to melt again and it was no longer Bumpers at all in the stern seat but a clean-shaven Burton Latimer in cocked hat and open-collared white shirt, leather vest, knee breeches, white stockings with a pattern of buttons around the ankles and buckled shoes. In his hand was no mug either but instead a guttering lantern, the weak flame of which actually seemed to be casting some illumination into a day and onto a sea gone strangely dark. “Isn’t that so, Mr. Daggon? And thus transforms himself. Excuse me, now, while I formalize things.”
He raised the lamp above his head. From all points the darkness gathered and bent to the pale light like iron shavings to a magnet. “Hear me now!” he called as if to someone in the sky above. “He has given consent! The words have been said and the words have been heard!”
Returning his attention to Angle, and with a kind smile now on his lined face, he said, “Not to worry. You broke no vow to your Jenny at all. What you drank was not rum but a tincture of the River Lethe. You will not forget all, and you will not forget long. Ah, but you will embark upon yet another life, such a one as you might have gone on to have in your last life, such a one as is still in your mind, hidden away before now like buried treasure but now unearthed and unlocked and … undeniable.”
The air melted once more leaving Angle alone in the dory. And then out of the sea, that was once again bright with the glittering light of the morning, a wave arose much taller than the rest and carried the boat forward toward an even greater distortion in the air ahead, one that spanned the entire width of the narrow passage between islands toward which he was headed.
Angle slid the oars out and backed water furiously. Then the prosthetic hand slipped, that oar jerked free and the dory swung sideways.
The wave set the boat into the blur with the casual air of a postman delivering a letter.
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