“Boy,” barked the Captain, “do you smell it?”
“Tell me then. From which way does the wind blow?”
“’Tis as an easterly wind, sir.”
“Indeed it is. An easterly wind. Yet we’re dancing with serpents in the heart of the Atlantic, with thousands of miles of sea to bow and stern. What might I smell, if not the salty delicacies of Atlantis?”
The young lad of seventeen said nothing.
“Boy!” said the Captain, “I’ll take a blade to your cheeks and carve out a smile if you don’t soon part with the somber mood. Tell me. What do I smell?”
The boy, standing alongside the Captain on the quarterdeck, gazed upon the ocean but said nothing.
“Look at me, boy. What do you see? I am no leftenant in the Royal Navy. I captured this vessel in the warm waters south of Dominica from the weak wrists of the King’s best. I guided her to Scotland. Collected a pretty sum with which to do whatever I please. Now I’m a terror to the lubbers who sail my seas. Feared by the brave, envied by cowards, god to the womenfolk, and I’m shiny with the color of George’s gold. I won’t be ignored by a piece of shark bait such as yourself. So tell me of this bedeviled aroma or make up a story.”
The boy inhaled deeply, as though caught in a memory of a day long before the ocean became his world, but he said nothing.
“I have a guess then,” the Captain said, puffing out his chest. “’Without much to go on, and based on her obvious lust for one of my stature, I believe the smell belongs to the sweet cunt of Sophia, Duchess of King George’s prick, as it calls me once again to her bed.” All the sailors behind him laughed their merry laughs.
“Such talk is treasonous, sir.”
“My whole life is treason, boy. Don’t you see? It’s how I make a living. What do you take me for? Some filthy privateer?”
“I wasn’t judging you, sir, and I offer no fealty to Britain. Perhaps I should use the word blasphemy.”
The Captain’s face wrinkled. “Are you a god then, boy? You don’t have the appearance of a god. At least none worth worshiping.”
“No, sir. I am not a god.”
“Then explain. I’m fascinated.”
The boy inhaled the sea air and straightened his back to address the Captain. “’The aroma you so casually impugn,” he said with his own sense of majesty, “is the enchantment of my love, blown down from the Highlands, haunting me every league we traverse, guiding me where I need to go. When you joke, when you tease, you tarnish her memory, to which I take offense.”
“Ah!” the Captain barked, glancing across the vessel to share his amusement with his crew. “Did you hear that, mates? The boy takes offense. So, boy, if I muse that your Scottish lass once descended from the highlands to kiss and stroke my cock, what would we have then? Mutiny? A duel? Shall I begin with a metaphor and unsheathe my sword?”
The boy said nothing, obviously disappointed. He gazed seaward with a melancholy stare, determined to accomplish something, but unwilling to hint at what the something might be.
“And that sound I hear,” said the Captain. “The sound that has followed us from port half way across the world… Is that her, too?”
The boy nodded. “Her voice singing on the wind, sir.”
“Very well,” said the Captain. He watched the boy with a sideways glance, half expecting the lad to become a sea serpent and drown them all. Or to perhaps peel back his face to reveal King George himself along with an army of soldiers leaping out of his skull. “I won’t apologize to a bloody devil,” the Captain continued, “but I’m bored, and I want a story. So tell me of your lass or I’ll hang you by your tongue from the mizzen.”
The boy’s chin lifted. His eyes peered to the east, to the invisible shorelines of a distant island. “She is dead,” he whispered.
“She smells bloody splendid for a corpse.”
“Death,” said the boy, “cannot stymie perfection. Her name was Emma Elizabeth…”
“I’m an old impatient bastard,” the Captain droned. “Make it quick.”
“She was the daughter of a merchant who sided with the Spaniards in the Battle of Glen Shiel. Do you remember it?”
“The Spaniards lost to the British, and Emma’s father fled to the Highlands. He quickly learned to navigate the commercial waters of this so-called United Kingdom. Are you following?”
“I caution you not to insult me, boy.”
The boy smiled. “His fortune grew quickly, and in the Gàidhealtachd, on the Isle of Skye, amid the rolling greens and the bluest seas, he commissioned the building of a castle. It was to be a grand castle, filled with spires and arches and lofty parapets, perched on a hilltop where it could be seen for miles.
“Sadly for him, aristocracies frown on overindulgent displays of new wealth, and soon, after word had spread that construction had begun on the castle, his business dried up. The governors of every port voided his contracts. His ships were too long at sea, forbidden to enter friendly harbors. His supply chain faltered, his cargo withered, and his buyers vanished. He became bitter and rebellious. He spent less and less time cultivating opportunities and more time tucked away, hiding from the world in his castle, which remained unfinished as his wealth disappeared.
“Emma was thirteen years old then. Her mother had died three years earlier giving birth to the couple’s fourth stillborn child. Emma was left by herself to chart a path through a confusing world, alone in the shadows of the souring temperament of a despondent man.”
The Captain grunted. “You speak too worldly for your age, boy.”
“I read a lot. But I know only what she told me, and I use the words she used. Of course, I only speak them, because my song is not as wonderful as hers. She was a goddess of language, of arts, of nature, a goddess of the land and the seas and all the gulls that soar above the shore.”
“Impressive feats for someone her age,” the Captain laughed. “Or perhaps, and much more likely, the hyperbole of youthful lust. But how did you come to know this lady of melodrama hiding in a roofless castle?”
“My father is a printer in Glasgow, commissioned by the crown to gather local sentiment and draft it into dispatches. He publishes pamphlets and dailies and delivers them to various outposts throughout the kingdom, where they’re read by magistrates and governors before soldiers carry the news to London. I’ve been reading those dispatches for years, fresh off the press, occasionally getting a hand slapped across my rear for discovering a misspelled word. When my father tired of my editorial services, he let me travel with the couriers. What joy it was to walk the world, to meet fellow journeyman, to spend a night in a quiet tavern reading a book by the common room fire. Eventually, I became a courier myself.” A nostalgic smile crept across the boy’s face, but it quickly disappeared. “Last summer I had many months of dispatches to deliver near Fort William, in the Western Highlands. It’s beautiful there. Have you seen it?”
“Is it on the water?”
“Then I haven’t seen it, you fishbrained fool.”
“The hills there are green and lush. On most mornings, a hazy fog dips into the valleys, and, as you walk, you disappear into white worlds of emptiness, until the grade turns uphill and you emerge again on the opposite shore of an ocean of mist. There you can feel the sunlight, taste the dew in the air, and hear birds singing the glories of flight.
“Or, if you’re lucky, you can hear a woman singing, and you fall in love with her voice as it tickles your ears. You wonder if perhaps you’ve died, if perhaps you’re near the mighty archways of Heaven, and all the angels of eternity have silenced themselves, intimidated by the song of the afterworld’s greatest Siren. This Siren calls to you, sings to you, asks for you, begs you to find her, succumb to her, and satisfy her. Yet she is no Siren at all but a Muse, a Muse of the highest order, a Muse of unfathomable power and unyielding strength, a Muse who will devote herself to your cause and never cease to inspire. That voice, that Siren, that Muse, that beauty is what I heard on my way to Fort William.”
“You have the tongue of a poet, boy.”
“I hate poets. They waste my time and make me think too much. Get on with the bloody story and cut out the filth.”
“Visitors, as Emma called them, though she meant thieves and brigands, often rifled through her father’s castle. They would use it as shelter. They would search for hidden coins in the basements and tunnels. Too often, they would stay for days or weeks, loitering in the ruins of her life. She had no desire to be discovered. Instead, she walked the forests and the hills until they departed, and by doing so she learned much of the land and of the animals. Sometimes she walked for many weeks. As I said, the castle stood on the Isle of Skye, some seventy miles from Fort William, across mountains and lochs. She knew the lands near her home better than any courier I’ve met.
“But she was out on such an adventure, singing to the butterflies and dandelions, when I appeared out of the fog near Fort William. I never saw her. To be honest, I thought her voice was a trick of the mind. Sometimes, out of pure boredom, I invent beautiful girls with whom to mingle.”
“Well, we’re all guilty of that,” the Captain laughed. “Look there, I’m doing it now. And what a lovely wench she is.”
“On my return from Fort William” the boy continued, “we met for the first time. She was seventeen years old. She had lived alone for three years, speaking only to shadows and ghosts. When I reached a bend on the path I followed, she emerged from behind a stand of bushes. She would later tell me in song that I looked considerably younger than I was, especially from a distance, and if she had known I was closer to twenty than ten, she would never have shown herself.
“When I saw her, I said Hello, but she did not answer. Uncertain how to proceed, I waited, standing still like a signpost, staring at this beautiful girl in the middle of nowhere. Again I said Hello. This time she smiled, but she did not speak.”
The Captain’s bushy eyebrows lifted. “Didn’t speak? I thought she was a whore of language or some such nonsense.”
“Not a whore!” the boy said. “A Goddess. A Goddess of language. But she had spent too many years alone, too much time forgotten by her father and secluded after his death. The art of conversation had slipped away from her experience and it no longer inhabited her world. But she could sing. And the awkwardness of our silence ended when she did so. At first, she whispered her song, and it was a song of greeting, a song of courage. I could barely hear the words, but the melody conveyed calm and confidence. She approached and held her hand to me. I took it. Together we ventured off the path, and her song lifted us to the Heavens.
“I told her who I was, and she sang to me her name. I told her why I was there, and she sang to me memories of her family. I marveled at her voice and told her so, and she smiled and sang louder. As we walked, she sang of the trees and the flowers. She sang of the deer and the groundhogs, of the antelope and bullfrogs. She spun the world into vibrancy and introduced me to flora and fauna I’d never noticed in my travels. We raced across fields and under trees. We stared at clouds, and she sang of brilliant castles in the heavens, where sunlight beamed from within and shadows found no shelter. On unfamiliar shorelines, we gazed across the icy water. She sang of colorful worlds beneath the waves, of faeries and seafolk and bubbly realms of curiosity where evil was forbidden. We slept under the constellations, each of which had its own song, and she sang to me invented stories of the stars and the worlds they inhabited, worlds that were always bright, always beautiful, and always hopeful. My journey to Fort William complete, I let the day of my return home slip further into the future. I would walk wherever Emma led me, and I did so for weeks, and they were the best weeks of my life.”
“You’re young yet,” the Captain laughed.
“No,” said the boy. “I was young then. Considerably younger than now. Eight months can sometimes prove an eternity.”
“I imagine it’s been eight months since you began this story. Get on with it.”
“We never really talked, but we communicated. I with words, she with song. At some point, I asked where she lived. Surely she did not wander aimlessly all the time. Immediately her expression changed. She never dropped her eyes or let hopefulness slip from her face, but she grew stern and solemn, and she took my hand to lead me. At that moment, she began to sing the long history of her family, reciting tragedy after heartbreak after tragedy often without emotion. The song would last days.
“Near Glenelg, on the banks of the Sound of Sleat, we came upon a small boat she frequently used to cross the channel, and we paddled the short distance to Kyle Rhea. From there we headed north, climbing higher, where we found a footpath in the trees that led us to a hilltop. In the distance, high upon a peak, stood her father’s glorious castle, resplendent and majestic despite collapsed walls and unfinished towers. We gazed at it for hours, during which I could barely hear her breathe. I didn’t understand, but she was watching for people. Soldiers. The King’s men, or brigands, though both behaved in a similar fashion. She was not afraid, but she was not stupid.
“We traveled quickly and quietly the rest of the way. I never saw signs of people. She kept us in the shadows for protection, navigating footpaths and animal tracks through the trees. I saw nothing more of the castle until suddenly it was before us. The walls stood tall and mighty and fully built. From up close, it looked enormous and as fully realized as any other castle, even after I had seen the missing parapets and crumbled towers from a distance. We ignored the main gate and entered through a heavy oak door at the base of the southeast wall. Trees and brush hid it from view. Once inside, she latched the door closed. I doubt the latch would hold back armies, but it would certainly slow a drunken soldier searching for a place to shelter or a warm body.
“We snaked through endless tunnels in the dark. I was lost. She never missed a step. Whenever she heard creaks from a darkened hall or the skittering of invisible creatures below, she paused until the sound failed to repeat itself. Often we heard bats or birds. Rodents. Once, she told me, a Wild Cat had leapt over the wall from a tree and been stuck in the castle for months (she had no sense of time, but I guessed she meant months). Eventually, she opened the main gate and the cat fled back into the trees.
“I have seen many castles during my travels, but being inside one felt strange and creepy. Or maybe the creepiness was native to this particular castle. Entire sections of roof were missing. The stone floor beneath the canopy had worn and weathered as rain dripped between the cracks. I imagine many years from now there will be pools of water beneath those gaps, as if the architect had designed grand arboretums with baths no deeper than your ankles. Nevertheless, I enjoyed every moment of exploration, and I ignored the creepiness because Emma was there with me and this was her home.
“She showed me her father’s private rooms. He had a grand library, but any books that might have lined its shelves had been stolen, or used for kindling on cold nights. He had a study, with a writing desk covered in dried, spilled ink. Surprisingly, his rooms lacked personality and atmosphere. Maybe because he never finished building the castle, or maybe because by the time his health abandoned him, his character was long dead.
“I imagine much of the rest of the castle was the same as any other. Sculleries and stairwells, a portcullis – rusted shut and covered in vines! I don’t remember the finer details, because I was too often focused on my Siren. Yet there is one room I remember more than all others, one room at the pinnacle of the unfinished tower that haunts me with its splendor, though that splendor was shortlived. Because the tower had not been finished, the room’s only ceiling was the starlit sky of night, or the overcast canopy of morning. On sunny days, the room’s infinite peak birthed a painted landscape of brilliant blues and glorious whites. And the aromas… Beyond description. The room swam in nature’s most harmonious scents, a cornucopia of smell, unblemished by the murky damp odors infesting the castle’s interior. This is where she spent most of her time, sheltered in a castle but free to breath the open air. This is the essence of Emma Elizabeth, that marvelous aroma wafting in the wind, the smell you so casually impugn.”
“Yes, well,” stammered the Captain, “It has no business wafting or stinking or doing much of anything on my ocean.”
“But this is how I will find her…” said the boy. “I will follow her song and her scent until it disappears.”
“That’s absurd, boy. The entire premise… But continue.”
“We spent endless weeks in and around that castle. I learned everything there was to learn about her family. She learned the same of mine. We shared dreams. We shared food. We shared baths. Over the course of months, our existences became intertwined, and neither of us went long beyond the sight of the other. At some point we kissed, and from there we bonded more intimately.”
“You bonded intimately? What bloody talk is that, stupid boy? You plucked her! Say it. You cocked her just as I will do to the King’s wife should I have the chance. Learn how to tell a bloody story before I kill you and take a nap.”
The boy ignored him. “It was an experience like no other. Up in that tower, bathed in the natural aroma of beauty, naked together beneath the Heavens. The songs she sang for me that night…”
“We know them well, don’t we boys?” the Captain shouted. The crew cheered.
“In any case, it was now half a year since I should have returned home. I hadn’t intended to let so much time pass, but there were no jobs or duties in that castle beyond finding food, nothing to regulate your time or mark a calendar. I worried my father might think me dead, so I decided to send him a letter. I certainly wasn’t about to leave. I would have asked Emma to return home with me, but she was clearly not ready to leave the world she knew. I gathered paper and a pen from her father’s old writing desk. The next morning I would venture out in search of a courier. Like me, other messengers frequently passed by the castle. The trick would be finding a courier instead of a band of soldiers.
“I remember Emma’s face that next morning. Sunlight streamed into the bedroom from a gap in the wall where stone had fallen away. She was asleep, and in that warm light she glowed like an angel. Like a goddess. So beautiful, so peaceful. I like to think she was dreaming of me, but I doubt it. More likely, she dreamt of a faraway land where her family lived together, safe from the rain and the cold and the ruffians of the world, free from loneliness and death, free from pain. Waking her from that dream was out of the question, so I whispered goodbye and kissed her cheek, expecting to see her again later that night. I’ll never forget her face that morning, because I haven’t seen it since.”
The Captain turned. “Haven’t seen her since? What happened?”
The boy smiled. It was a dark, bittersweet smile. “Are you entertained now, Captain?”
The crew silenced themselves, except for a gasp or two. Beneath thick brows, the Captain’s eyes narrowed. “Is this a game then, boy?”
“You asked me to tell the story or make one up. Can you guess which path I chose?”
Many years of battling at sea had taught the Captain to recognize emotion in the faces of his enemies: the lackadaisical stares of practiced brigands tired of routine, the wide-eyed terror of virgin raiders, the begrudging frown of the mercenary who expected an unfairly large share of the bounty — not that an enemy had ever successfully looted the Captain’s ships. Armed with his experience, the Captain could guess at the boy’s sudden turn. The squinting, the smirking… It was madness. Madness fueled by hatred.
“You are either a madman,” said the Captain, “or a brilliant fool to taunt me on my own ship. But finish your story before I guess. Rarely does fact live up to the craft of the storyteller. But do not embellish for my sake. Tell me the truth, or tell me a tale, but make me believe. Then perhaps I will let you live.”
The boy’s demeanor calmed somewhat. He turned his gaze back to the sea. “I loved her.”
“Bloody hell, we get that!”
“I spent the day scouting the roads, searching for a courier without luck. At sunset, as I conceded and began my return to the castle, I saw a figure to the west. The setting sun balanced on the horizon like a fiery ball on a bronze shield, and the figure stood silhouetted against it. I could see neither face nor features nor clothing nor insignia. I knew it was a man by his posture and the shape of his shadow, and, because he was alone, I approached him.
“I called out, ‘Hello!’, but he failed to answer. With growing proximity, the shadows became more transparent, more revealing, and when they vacated completely I saw his uniform, the red and blue of the royal army. Panic set it, but I felt no need to flee. Without question I could outrun the man, or lose him in the trees and bushes before he fired his musket.
“‘Hello,’ I shouted again. He offered a welcoming smile and waved his hand to draw me near. His musket hung on a strap across his back, and his decision to leave it there should have been a warning. He waved me over again, and I saw movement behind him in the brush, followed by more movement to his left and right. At least four men hid just off the road, and I knew they had their aim because I saw the glint of metal beneath their faces.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have hesitated. Maybe I should have been willing to face their questioning and prevent everything that followed. Instead, I spun to flee, and I felt a blunt thud before I tumbled down. It wasn’t musket fire. Two other soldiers had come up behind me and cracked my skull with the butt of their weapons. I stared at their boots until the world went black.”
The boy turned from the sea, his eyes narrowing. “Tell me, Captain. Have you ever dreamt of Hell, knowing without doubt you were awake?”
“My eyes were closed, but I didn’t sleep. Paved stone pushed against my back. Darkness lived beyond my eyelids. My legs were bound together, and I felt iron rings clamped around each wrist. When I yanked on them, I heard the clank of iron, and the rings dug into my skin when the chain pulled taught. I almost opened my eyes to fight, but then I heard the screams. I stopped breathing. Where was I? Who was screaming? And why did I know her voice? Why did I feel her fear? Why, at that moment, did I stop fearing men or demons or gods alike? What Hell had I fallen to? What Hell would I need to escape? And from what Hell must I save her?
“Every moment on that hard floor, every pull against my chains, every agonizing scream from the darkness, forced me to realize a simple truth: I could do nothing. I was as helpless to save Emma or free myself as I had been to resist her song. So I opened my eyes.
“Castle walls surrounded me. I knew the dark stone, the water stained streaks, the hollow sound of the empty spaces. I began to feel the old murky dampness that somehow eluded me with my eyes shut. They had returned me to the castle. In a way, they had returned me to Emma. But always I heard the screams. Not far away yet impossibly distant. Her voice grew ragged. At times, she would moan painfully in a horrid rhythmic manner, and I would hear the slap of flesh on flesh, the growling grunt of whatever beast had thrust himself upon her. I would have called to her, but they had gagged me with a foul piece of cloth.
“I’ll never know how long I was there, listening to her suffer. She would grow quiet after long bouts of screaming. I heard doors opening and closing, footsteps going in and out of various rooms. They slapped her frequently. Punched her, too, I assume, when her screams grew loud, and she would be immediately silenced. I didn’t know how many men came and went, but I had seen at least six on the road. I didn’t want to think what that might mean for Emma.
“What seemed years later, the door to my prison opened. The man who entered wiped his hands with a rag, cleaning himself off, smiling a dastardly smile beneath a forehead wet with perspiration. He laughed at me, told me she was as beautiful and spirited as I had written.”
The boy looked up at the Captain. “It had all been my fault, you see?”
The Captain nodded. “Your letter.”
“To my father. They found it in my pocket, read it, and went off to find my singing goddess in the castle. But she would not sing for them. And so they made her scream.”
The boy lowered his head to stare at his feet, and the Captain had no sharp words of rebuke. In the rolling waves of a quiet ocean, the crew on the Captain’s brigantine listened silently, perhaps imagining their wives back home, or the daughters they hadn’t seen for years. The boy stood above a shelf lined with sacks of musket shot, and he ran his fingers carefully over one of those bags as though caressing the beaten face of the woman he loved. The Captain hoped the lass’s skin had been less coarse than the bag.
“Anyway,” the boy said, looking back to the sea, listening to the faint song on the wind, “the soldier kicked me in the gut and vanished. That’s when she began to sing. Softly. Sweetly. She sang to me of the sky above her tower, the roofless ceiling of her dreams, of how it lifted her up to the clouds and let her mind drift above the oceans to avoid acknowledging her earthly torture.
“The song drove me mad. Still alone in that damp chamber, hands and feet bound in chains, I starved, I thirsted. The hours passed with hazy ordeals of delusion, as I dreamt of rescues and heroics and touching Emma’s cheek, or hair, or breast. She sang through her agony, telling me they had taken her away, breaking my soul into a thousand shards of shattered pain, as bright as the sun above her tower on a cloudless day, burning and blinding like a hot iron through the heart. I saw her above me, naked and bleeding near the ceiling’s stone. Every time she drifted close, every time I reached for her until the chains fountained blood from the veins in my wrist, I felt the pain lessen, but always she would vanish, and I would hear her screams, and her song would tell of travels south slung over a saddle, and I would wale and cry and curse at the ghosts in my prison tomb. My passions ignited. My hate flared. My anger burned hot enough to warm the room and drive out the dampness. The only way to alleviate the waking nightmares was to slam my head against the stone beneath me until sleep’s hopeful proximity to death replaced the bleak nature of fury.
“When the door opened, I was too deluded to understand my fortune. I was too enraged to behave rationally. In my mind, the world consisted of three types of people: the stolen, the imprisoned, and the demons howling between them. The man who freed me from the chains, according to my new worldview, fell into the last category, and as I sat up I eyed him like the demon he must have been. I rubbed my wrists and ankles where the chains had cut me. I smiled up at him. He handed me bread, and I fed myself. He gave me his canteen, and I drank. With a wet rag, he wiped the dirt from my face. I heard none of the words he spoke, or if I did, they were the garbled taunts of a devil, and so I paid them no heed.
“When my rescuer sat beside me and took a sip from his canteen, the same canteen from which he had wet my parched throat, I attacked. My weak arm held enough strength to drive my fist into his ear. The canteen fell sloshing to the stone. He had been too surprised to react. I was quickly atop him, screaming in my own demonic dialect. My fingers twisted through his hair. It was dirty, greasy, and, once I smashed his head into the stone a few dozen times, bloody. I fell into his blood, and it pooled around the two of us. I rolled over in it, found his canteen, and drank more. Then I slept, for the devil knows how long, bathing in the fluid of the man who had saved my life.
“When I woke with enough energy to stand, I did so. To this day, I cannot tell you who my rescuer was, and at the time I did not care. He wore traveling clothes, with a simple bag and walking stick. Perhaps he was a courier, like myself, or maybe a wanderer seeking shelter in the castle. The only indicator of consequence I noticed was the blue cloth poking out of his bag with Saint Andrew’s Cross stitched upon it. A fellow Scot. If I were to express remorse now, it would be genuine, but I cared so little then that I did not linger.
“I followed Emma’s song on the wind. It was always faint, difficult to decipher, but it never ceased. When the wind gusted, I heard her pain. When the breeze crested a hilltop, warm with the heat of the sun, I knew she slept, though the song came as the whispered breaths of a woman dreaming. Through glens and valleys, over rivers and under trees, I listened to her song and tasted her scent in the air.
“The band of soldiers moved quickly, but I pursued them with wild determination. Day and night, with only enough rest to maintain energy and heighten my rage, I crossed the lands of my country not with the new sight of a man in love, but with the blind passion of a scorned soul primed for vengeance. I slept in the grasses, bypassed the towns. Once or twice I begged for food, or stole it. Most often I went hungry.
“I’m certain the men stayed in Fort William for a time, but when I reached its borders, I knew from Emma’s song they had moved south. From there I passed Helensburgh, skirted countless Lochs, climbed a thousand hills, and in my fantasies killed half a dozen English troops half a dozen times. I followed them west of Glasgow, but I entertained no thoughts of visiting home. My father likely thinks me dead, and it would have been a service to him to pay a visit, but the thought never penetrated the armor of my rage.
“By the second week, I was closing in on Kilmarnock, and from there I turned to the sea. Her song grew loudest near the sea, and I traced it through the ports at Troon and Prestwick, all the way to Ayr. You know Ayr, Captain.”
“Some of the finest shoemakers in the world,” the Captain laughed.
“The heavy drink and whores of a port town. The dilapidated wood buildings, damp and mildewed. The rotting stench of slaughtered fish.”
“Bloody hell. Why must you paint with such vile colors the very things I most cherish?”
“In Ayr, I found everything I imagined. Everything but Emma. Her song echoed through the narrow streets and rang out with the church bells. From one tavern to the next, I inquired about a band of King’s men who might have passed through, but no one had seen them. I asked merchants in the square. Most admitted they knew nothing and appeared in every way sincere. Others grew quiet and nervous and peered at the shadows before belching a curt, deep-throated, ‘No.’
“After many days of searching, I grew disenchanted. I began to wonder if, in my delusion, I had invented her song, if it was illusory, imagined, and if the natural smell of her beauty, powerful enough at times to overpower the reek of the fishmongers, was nothing but the ordinary scent of Scotland that I had, in a moment of passion, bequeathed to the very object of my most lustful desires. Or worse, I imagined she sang to someone other than me.
“I had no money. The little I carried with me on my travels had been stolen by the soldiers. Now, I slept in the alleys. I cried under the docks when the fishermen went to sea. No one had heard nor seen the men I sought. Nor had they glimpsed the woman I described. I wondered if perhaps my descriptions were flawed. Had I drawn too nasty a sketch of the soldiers? Had I painted Emma in colors brighter than those to be witnessed on the face of a ravaged soul?
“Soon my rage weakened. My fury dissipated, as it must with the passing of time. I felt demoralized. Saddened. What god would let us suffer to such an extent? What devil could birth men so rotten as those soldiers and so hopeless as me? After one particularly terrible night during which I slept in the muddy, bloody, smelly drainage of the previous day’s slaughtered catch, I decided to give up. To go home.
“Then I heard her song anew. Already on the sea, it would seem, growing distant, she sang of ships and waves and currents dragging her toward the serpents of the deep. She sang frantically, in a higher pitch, inventing melodies of fear and torment.
“I raced to find a ship that would carry me westward, but I had no coin, and I had never seen gold, let alone held it, and could therefore not offer it in return for passage. I tried for days. I begged sailors to sneak me aboard. I pulled at the breeches of captains, forced them to drag me, pleading for help until they kicked at my head enough times to shake me loose. Every tavern on the wharf, filled with sailors and merchants gambling and drinking and laughing, delivered me back to the streets bereft a ship and with no greater hope of reaching Emma. When I found myself seeking out whores from whom to borrow money, I knew I had sunk to the very bottom. When they laughed at me and kicked me in the groin, I discovered that bottoms are relative things.”
The boy let his chin fall. His fingers once again traced the rack lined with sacks of musket shot. The Captain asked, “How many days passed before you found me?”
“And where did you get the gold? A wealthy whore?”
“I stole it.”
“How romantic! He robs a whore to save a woman. Irony is the gift of a good storyteller, boy. You show promise.”
“I did not steal it from a whore. And I cannot save Emma. I told you: she is dead.”
“How do you know?”
“Can’t you hear it in her song? She sings from the depths. Leagues must separate her lips from the air. Her words are muffled by an ocean of death. I heard them rape her. I heard them abuse her. I heard her die. Now I hear the melodic epitaph, the faint acknowledgement of loss, and I smell her on the sea. But I will not give up. I will not leave her to die alone. When the song ends, when the aroma flees the air and leaves my lips, I will have found her.”
The Captain shook his head as if shaking sand from his beard. “Bloody nonsense, boy. The rolling ship has you drunken mad. But I applaud your story. It has kept me entertained.”
“Don’t you want to know where I got the gold?”
“Didn’t I say as much?”
The boy looked up at the Captain. “I stole it off a drunk pirate in Ayr with his cheek plastered to a table, and then I used it to bargain my way aboard his ship.” He pulled a sack of coins from his pocket and flung it to the Captain, who immediately recognized it as his own. “Bloody liar. So you have nothing?”
The boy smiled his sad smile and turned back to the sea.
Before the Captain could run him through with his cutlass, a call came from the lookouts. Knowing the safety of his ship came before personal vengeance, the Captain somewhat hesitantly raced to the bow. “What’s the problem?”
“There, Captain,” shouted one sailor, whose finger followed a spiraling fountain of steam as it slid from bow to starboard, no more than two fathoms from the ship.
“What is it, Captain?” another sailor asked.
“I haven’t a clue,” he answered. And then he heard the silence. A shattering quiet as the seas flattened. All around the twirling spiral of steamy saltwater, the ocean stilled, the air failed to blow and the sails to billow. Also of note, the smell of grasses had disappeared, leaving behind the familiar odors of salt and gull droppings. The Captain knew what it all meant, but he was too slow to act.
A splash astern spun his head around.
“Man overboard!,” a sailor shouted. Three men and the Captain all leaned over the starboard railing, but they saw only the trailing bubbles of a sinking soul. Several sacks of musket shot had gone over the rail with the boy. The Captain doubted they went over accidentally.
Men scrambled to spot life on the sea, but nothing moved near the spiral of steamy warmth. Before long, the steam subsided, the wind blew, the sails bellowed, the men gave up their search, and the ship regained its course.
The Captain would, over time, convince his men the boy was an illusion, a sea monster of sorts, the result of too much drink and too many days at sea. The boy’s legend would grow, and his tale would spread with every new telling on every visited shore.
The Captain’s own mind, however, would never shed the actual memory, and often he would catch himself listening to the wind, hoping to hear the fleeting lamentations of a Scottish lass, if only to convince himself the song he once heard was something other than what a dead boy had claimed.
Had he lived a thousand years, the winds of Scotland would never again sing to him.
Originally posted on my old blog 10/2014.