The first face appeared in a dream. It was the normal sort of dream for him these days, on a ship, bigger, of course, than any he’d actually crewed. Captain gave the orders and the cannons sounded. Quieter, of course, than cannon fire actually was. There was the same lull between the orders, the same rush of blood in the veins and every hair in his body standing on end as the planks slapped into place for the crossing.
The mass of limbs and wrath descended on the smaller vessel. One of the crew let out a battle cry next to him, as thirsty for blood as for the bounty hidden in the ship’s hold. But the sounds of clashing cutlasses dulled as the boy ran towards him.
Fifteen, probably, maybe younger even. Tall, limbs akimbo, like he’d never rushed a man before. Was the work of a second to put the blade in his chest, watch his bright eyes roll back in his head, his jaw — still round with youth — go slack.
Hops blinked awake as the dawn light filtered through the slats in his little shack. The boy’s face faded behind his eyelids. He always woke with the dawn, now. It was falling asleep that was hard, not the waking up. His joints flared with pain as he sat up; a storm had passed last night and likely there was another on the way.
A fly droned by his ear, the blown in by the indolent morning breeze. He swatted at it half-heartedly. There was no reason to get up, no urgency to it, but he heaved himself out of the hammock anyway. The shack was nothing but a single room, barely bigger than he, if he lay stretched on the floor like a corpse. It had been slat after slat of driftwood to hammer it all together. Days dripping sweat in the heat until he just gave up. If the last carpenter he’d worked under had seen it, he’d’ve been laughed off the ship.
The hammock had been the first thing. Hammock, rucksack, share tucked inside his trousers, he’d gotten off on the dock looking like every other grubby sailor that’d been worn down by sun and salt. The island was small enough that it was mostly beach and sugar cane, and since he was only interested in the former, no one was interested in him. He’d found his spot, outside of town, but close enough to walk, sunk two poles into the sand, and strung up his hammock. Then, he built a shack around it.
The quiet of his mornings still settled uneasily on him. It’s not that Hops had ever been much for idle chatter, but there had been enough of it around him. Men in every direction, and the only escape on the deck, but up there the work was worse than below. Scouring and scrubbing, or ropes and sails, or boarding.
The crumpling form of the youth flashed in front of his eyes again and he took a swig of rum, washing down the leftover plantain mash he’d made last night. He’d been young, then, too. Not that he’d thought so at the time, full of blood lust and ambition. He knew better now.
His shack sat far up the beach, close to the treeline to avoid the high tides. His joints had warned him it was coming, so he’d pulled his little dinghy up further than usual, flipping it so it wouldn’t collect water. He’d bought that off a local fisherman. Paid too much, he was sure, but what did it matter? With a boat he could fish. If he could fish he could eat. He’d buried the rest of his coin at the foot of his hammock.
The storm had blown through, nothing but wind and fury, and was well gone by sunrise, leaving his little beach littered with debris. He tossed a fallen palm frond off his upturned boat. His back twinged as he bent to right it; some new arthritis or, worse, just another sign of his age.
Most men didn’t make it this long, not in his line of work anyway. They came for a year, took their share, and went back to the wives they left. And those without a port to call home, well, if it wasn’t the sea that took them, it’d be the navy, or the drink, or disease. The praying men said everything was all God’s will. He didn’t know if he could believe that. The boy fell backward again as he squeezed his eyes shut and hefted the dinghy.
The boat thumped on the sand. Then, it mewled.
At his feet, bedraggled and still, a calico cat curled around her two kittens. Only one moved, though, kneading at her belly like it’d make the milk come out. No bigger than his hand, it was a dirty orange thing with a round little pot belly and a pathetic squeak of a meow.
Hops squatted, pressing a finger to the calico’s nose. No movement, no air. Joints popping, he rummaged around his little shack for the leftover burlap from his last bag of rice. The kitten had barely moved, pawing at its mother. Its neck felt twig-fragile in his hand as he picked it up by the scruff and shoved it blinking and protesting into the bag.
“Better drowning than starving.”
His heart thumped in his chest as he headed for the tide, nerves jangling like he was about to board some merchant ship. The kitten’s pinprick claws tore at the rough fabric. Mewls turned to desperate wails.
Hops heard the clack of the boy’s teeth as his jaw bounced off the deck, life bleeding from his veins.
With a sigh he picked at the knot in the sack. “You’re an orphan, now, creature. That isn’t any sort of life. Take it from old Hops.”
The kitten tumbled from the bag as he shook it on to the beach. It puffed and hissed in every direction, swiping at the burlap, like that was the enemy. The little claws stuck into Hops’ leathery finger as he grabbed it by the scruff again. “Well, let’s get some food in you.”
The second ghost, because that’s what they were, even if they didn’t have the spectral forms the prayin’ men warned of, came to him as he dug in the sand behind his shack. He’d wrapped the mother and her other offspring in the burlap. Somehow, it didn’t feel right to just toss them to the tide. This ghost was middle-aged, not an officer, but navy all the same. His face was a strange sort of gaunt flabby, with sunken cheeks and long jowls, like he’d never met a meal he didn’t like, at least until he’d set foot on one of her majesty’s fleet. His eyes lolled white in his head as Hops rolled him over and over like a barrel until he could be pushed off the deck.
They’d barely escaped that skirmish, lucky enough they could out-gun the ship they couldn’t out-run. The unlucky sod had been caught on the wrong ship when the HMS Zenith saw her stern disintegrate under a barrage of cannon fire.
Sweat rolled down Hops’ back. Usually, he was out on the water in this part of the day. Or, if he had plenty from the day before, he’d tie his hammock up in the shade and whittle. He was working on a nativity. The choice hadn’t been deliberate, really. He wasn’t much for the Bible. But one day he’d done a sheep. And then a donkey. And then a horse. And then there was a king to ride the horse. And then another, and a third, wise king. It seemed a good enough story to whittle.
The burlap sack fit neatly into the hole, and as the first shovel of sand sprayed across it, the whites of the soldier’s eyes stared back up at him.
The kitten curled up on his hammock. He’d pulled a blanket from his chest for the little thing, and prompted it to eat some flakes of salted fish, but it hadn’t seemed interested.
“You’re just a babe, aren’t you.” It mewed weakly as he ran a finger across its head. “Babes need milk.”
Sometimes, his ships would put in at ports on the mainland. Places they wouldn’t be recognized, or more likely, places they’d already passed some coin. Even in the smaller ports, there would be a bustle to life, people hawking wares, arguing over the price of rope, pubs, loud with laughter.
It wasn’t like that here. The port, as it could be called, was not much more than a rickety dock, the harbor not deep enough for anything but shallow schooners. There was a market of sorts, but no one called out their wares. Everyone on the island knew that if Miss Asa didn’t have what you needed, it didn’t exist.
“More rice, Mr. Elias?”
Miss Asa’s voice had a melody to it that grew up elsewhere, though she didn’t report to any master. Hops blinked as he stepped into the shade of her palm-frond stall, twisting his hat in his hands like a boy in church. Miss Asa’s wide brown eyes unnerved him in the same way the sea often did. They saw every ounce of you, while you could never understand their depth.
“Uh, no. No, not today. I could use, um, I could use a milk goat.”
“A milk goat!”
Hops shifted uncomfortably, unable to meet her eye, but nodded.
“Did a baby wash up next to that hut of yours? Carried in by the ocean spirits? What do you need a milk goat for, Mr. Elias? My rum no good?” She straightened from where she was bent over her work, practiced hands mashing plantain in her mortar, and cast looked at him straight on with those all-seeing eyes.
“No, Miss Asa,” Hops mumbled.
Hops’ coat had seen better days — sweat stained and threadbare — but he always wore it to visit town. It was what was done, even when the sun beat down like it did here, even if you barely had a shred of respectability, even when it was barely a town. It was worn at the cuffs and the collar, but the pockets were deep and sturdy. The kitten squeaked in sleepy protest as Hops drew him from the pocket where it’d been napping. He held it out with cupped hands to Miss Asa.
She tutted. “A milk goat? Really? Spend your coin on a milk goat?”
He shrugged, running a finger along its spine. The kitten squirmed, but began to purr, a stutter-stop rumble, like it didn’t quite know how.
“Three cobs and Samuel will deliver it tonight.”
“Of course, Miss Asa.” Hops fumbled the coins from his purse, one hand full of kitten. “Thank you.”
“It have a name?”
She snorted and went back to her plantain. Hops knew when he’d been dismissed.
“If you’re keeping the creature, it should have a name.” Miss Asa called to him.
Samuel, as promised, delivered the goat on a lead. Hops had a few extra feet of rope, so he tied the thing to a tree and let it wander through the palms behind his shack. On the boat, they’d sometimes have chickens or cows, or goats, but that had been the cook’s responsibility. Still, he’d had a childhood once, and after a shaky start, was able to stream the hot, sweet goats milk into a tin cup.
It was saltfish and plantain mash for him for supper. The kitten drank as deep as it could by his side, little round belly swelling with milk. After, it brushed its face while Hops hummed under his breath and carved the curve of Joseph’s smile.
Hops woke to the aching of his knees. The morning sky was red as he stretched and scratched at his belly. If he wanted to refresh his catch he’d have to get out soon. The goat on its lead bleated, bouncing away from a crab.
“Come on, you bloody thing.”
The catch would have to wait.
Fed and sleepy, the kitten didn’t put up a fight when he tucked it in the pocket of his jacket again. The red sky cleared to the usual blue, though in the distance Hops could see the black pock mark of trouble. The dinghy couldn’t go out that far, so he dismissed his misgivings as he pushed the little rowboat out to the tide.
“We’ll be staying close to shore, don’t you worry, fellow.”
There was plenty that stayed in the surf. Snapper, sometimes young jack. Flounder, if he was lucky.
The tide washed, choppy, up on to his feet, splashing onto his thighs as he pushed the the boat into the water, climbing inside with the smooth movement coming from decades of practice. With a few powerful strokes, he was casting his line to the rocking of the boat. He shrugged out of the jacket, gently pooling it at his feet.
The ghost came with the memory of a red sunrise.
“Like God is bleeding,” Bailey said, cracking a smile. He, like most the crew, was missing a few teeth. It wasn’t a handsome smile, not like Ulysses, the bosun, but there was something about it that made Hops smile back anyway.
“Don’t tell Moses that. He’ll be reciting scripture at us all day.”
“Nah. He’ll be too busy trying to shove the sky back into heaven.”
The line on his belt gave a tug, yanking him from the memory. It wasn’t much, some fish he didn’t recognize that was more bones than meat, but he unhooked it and let it flop in the bottom of the boat anyway.
The fish’s dying gasps roused the kitten from its milk coma. It poked a pink nose out of the jacket, heading straight to the intruder. The little boat rocked as a wave slapped the side. The little thing stumbled on already unsteady feet, chirping its displeasure.
Hops chuckled as he set it back on all fours. The kitten rumbled, undeterred in its investigation.
“You’ll have your sea legs soon.”
He strung new bait on the line, conch pulled straight from the shell, and threw it back in the water. The kitten pawed at the fish until it stopped flopping, then, easily bored, began exploring the small boat.
“Bailey would have liked you.” The kitten chirped again as a spray of water slopped over the side of the boat. “Nothing he hated more than rats.”
Most days, on the water, his mind would wander, skipping from ship to ship, captain to captain. Often, he’d get stuck in on The Halcyon, the schooner where he’d spent years learning carpentry under the watchful single eye of a man called Vittle. He hadn’t been exactly young, then, and his hands shook for months, but Vittle was as patient as he was demanding.
Today, though, he couldn’t shake Bailey’s smile on the deck of The Siren’s Song, staring at the bleeding sky.
It was the violent shudder of the dinghy that rudely shook him from his memories. Around them, the sky had turned the green-grey of oncoming rain. Waves slapped at the row boat, tearing at the line dragging in the water.
“Shite, shite, shite,” he muttered, grabbing at the oars. The kitten wailed as another wave crashed over the side, soaking them both. The little thing scrambled up the side, panicked claws hooking into the wood. “Get away from there!”
But his words were eaten by the ocean as another wave slammed down on them. With a yowl, the kitten was swept overboard, an orange spot in the churning, dark tide.
Bailey’s face was nothing but panic, now, the touch of his rain-slick hand slipping from his fingers, and falling, falling into the water below. Hops’ hoarse shouts had been whipped away by the wind. Bailey flailed towards the ship, wave after wave sapping him of his strength. Hops could see the moment he gave up.
Another, weaker cry came from his left and then, just as his eyes landed on it, the orange dot disappeared.
“God damn it all.” Hops threw down the oar, and dove after it.
There was a certain peace to being underwater. It sucked and pulled, but was quiet in a way the air never was. His eyes stung with salt searching for his companion. The grey storm-light sapped the sea of its usual vibrancy, turning teals into blacks and aquamarines into ash. His lungs constricted, trying to force a breath.
But he saw him, Bailey, floating just ahead, that smile turned on him, wicked and serene. With straining hands he reached out and grabbed the kitten. They burst to the surface, little dinghy several feet away. Hops swam for it, desperate, his one arm doing his best to keep the kitten out of the water, rain pounding the water around them.
The kitten’s limp body hit the bottom of the wet boat.
“Come on, lad, come on,” he muttered, picking the little thing up by his hind legs, pressing gently as his big fingers could on its stomach. The dinghy wobbled as the waves regathered their strength. “Come on!”
Rain streamed down his face. It was all he could do to cling to his boat and his cat. On his lips, though, it was nothing but the taste of salt. Blinking, the boy seized behind his eyelids, his young face registering the pain of the sword in his gut. The bloated, blank face of the officer as he rolled over and over on the deck. The quirk of Bailey’s mouth as he talked, the way it curved up like every word was a joke.
The kitten, wet and cold, hung from his fist.
“I’m so sorry, lad,” Hops tucked its little body into his damp shirt, and scrabbled for the oars.
With the first pull, he angled them back towards shore, and with the second, cut across a wave before it could hit. On the third stroke, pin prick claws dug into his stomach. There was a retching sound, barely audible and he felt the trickle of sea water on his skin, as the kitten vomited over and over again.
Wind in his ears and rain on his face, Hops threw his head back and laughed.
Miss Asa counted the pegs carefully before depositing them in his palm. Some had nicks and scratches like they’d been pulled from wreckage, but that was to be expected. Better to reuse some than spend years carving his own.
“A shelter for your goat?” Miss Asa looked at him sidelong, like the very concept was absurd.
Hops shrugged. “In case it rains.”
The kitten poked its nose out of the coat pocket, chirping with curiosity.
“And you still have that thing? Mr. Elias, you are peculiar.”
He gently pushed it back into the pocket, despite its protests. “He’ll be a good mouser.”
Miss Asa pursed her lips. “If you’re keeping it, it should have a name, you know.”
“Aye.” Hops ran a thumb along its delicate ears. “Barley suits, I think.”