This is a short story I wrote a few weeks ago. It will eventually be part of a larger project, the book The Sinister Hand. This will effectively be my autobiography, interspersed with short fictional pieces which tie into the story of my life in some way. Lone Kidd proposes an alternate origin for a well-known villain from a particular classic children’s book. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out which one; hell, if you know your classic children’s lit the title alone should give it away. Be forewarned: this story is pretty dark, as it deals with child abuse.
Lone Kidd, or The Boy Who Grew up Too Soon
“Now, we’ve been over this. You know I can’t take you with me, Lone,” said Captain Kidd for perhaps the tenth time that day as he tousled his son’s golden hair.
“But Papa! I’m a big boy now! I’m six . . . and a half. Why can’t I go?”
Captain Kidd knelt before Lone, who straddled the small damaged cask that served as his seat on the quarterdeck, his bare feet dangling to either side. The boy was close to tears now. His father grasped him by the shoulders and looked him square in his watery blue eyes. The impression he gave the child—part guilt, part sympathy, part parental resolve—was enough to burst the levee that held back the titanic course of his emotions. He bowed his head, ashamed of losing control of himself like that. Papa had nerves like mooring rope, braided and strong, whereas Lone was a shivering jellyfish even on the best of days. Why couldn’t he be tough like Papa? Even his little sister Lively rarely cried. Everything was upside down!
His father reached over and tipped Lone’s face up. “Now, now, there’s no reason for all that. You’re only going to stay with Auntie Liz for a few weeks, and I’ll be back before you know it. Auntie is a wonderful lady. You’ll take right to her, you’ll see. Boy, does she have some stories.”
“But I’m meant to go! I’m half pirate already!” he insisted, holding up his hook-handed right arm as testament.
“That you are, son. But it’s whole pirates I’ll be needing for this voyage. Ultima Thule is no place for a child. A cold hard land, where men freeze to death in their sleep and shaggy white behemoths roam the wastes, looking for wayward sailors to make their next meal of.”
Lone’s eyes fell wide at this piece of news, but Papa merely laughed. “No, now don’t worry about me, son. You know your old Papa could best a kraken, and I have fire in my veins to keep me warm, as well as memories of Mama, Lively and you. Ah, I know! I’ll bring something for you when I return. The Thuleans are master carvers and scrimshanders. What say I bring you a nice whale bone with a portrait of Papa carved on, eh?”
Well, that did sound intriguing, Lone had to admit. “You promise?” he sniffled.
“My boy, a pirate never breaks his promise. Code of the Sea. And especially if that promise is to a wee boy.”
“Land ho!” shouted Skully from the crow’s nest.
Captain Kidd pushed up the curled red bangs of his wig, shielded his eyes from the sun and took in the direction of the lookout’s spyglass. “Hard a-starboard!” he bellowed after, and Quartermaster Phillips obeyed, reorienting the ship. “Son, we have arrived!” He suddenly leaped and did a little jig, his sword and scabbard bouncing at his waist.
His father’s excitement was infectious, and soon Lone was kneeling at the railing, anticipating the appearance of land. It took ages before it came into view, but when it did, it looked a dream, a true tropical paradise. “Where is this, Papa?”
“It’s called Paluanta. It’s a great island, a magical place that rests atop the back of a giant coat-of-mail shell. Auntie Liz runs the show round here. When she commands, people jump. Ah, don’t look so frightened, my boy. She’s not as hard as all that. It’s just that everyone here respects her, like as all these folks on the Fair Maiden respect their captain. Aye, Auntie is the captain of these shores. She’s very kind, though it’s best not to cross her.”
“But where will I stay?” Lone inquired.
“Auntie will put you up. I stayed with her a bit myself back in younger days. Lone, promise me you will try to make friends here. Someone your age. Last I was here, there were plenty of children around.”
“I will, Papa.”
“Alright, then,” said Captain Kidd, and they went to assist with the docking of the ship.
* * *
Fair Maiden’s landing party was greeted on the beach by Auntie Liz, her manservant Kipling, a vigorous, perfectly bald brute of a man called Leake who served as her bodyguard, and several members of the local Tatuan Indian tribe. Lone wondered at the Indians’ near nakedness, which he wasn’t quite used to, and at Auntie’s ample girth and strident personality, which he was, in the form of his grandmother Guinevere. Auntie was so much like Grandma Guin it was uncanny; this put him at ease with her forthwith.
“So this is the boy, eh? And aren’t you a little doll. Come and give Auntie a big hug. Well, come on, I won’t hurt you.”
Lone fell into her embrace as one falls into a bed after an exhausting day of hard labor or hard play and was thoroughly encased in the woman’s plentitude. From the masses of colorful silk and linen gowns she wore to the tidal wave of dark, gray-streaked locks that swished across her back to the glittering vitality that rested like a beacon in her eyes, she was the very galleon of robustness and strength. And she smelled of the frangipani and orange blossoms that had been woven into the wreath she wore on her head like a crown.
But there was someone else amongst the greeters whom Lone had only just become aware of, a girl near his own age. She had been hiding demurely behind Auntie’s skirts and only just peeked around the woman’s thigh to catch a glimpse of the boy who would be staying on the island with them. When Auntie released Lone from her clasp, she turned and gently pushed the girl forward.
“Now don’t be shy, Kate. Make your acquaintances like a proper young lady.”
The little girl curtsied and said in a strange and unfamiliar lilt, “I’m Kate, pleased to meet you,” then returned to being bashful. The first thing Lone noticed about her was that her chestnut hair was nearly as long as Auntie’s, though where Auntie’s hair came down in thick serpentine coils, the girl’s flowed straight and even over her shoulders and gleamed in the sunlight. The second thing he noticed was the girl’s beauty, which is something he had never realized about girls before. Most of them were simply nuisances to him, as commonplace and irritating as burdock, like his sister Lively and her friends Anne and Maybelle. Something about this lass was different though. Perhaps it was the exotic setting, or the lovely emerald dress she wore, or the sun-painted cinnamon tint of her skin, or even some faint realization that he may not encounter another child on the island, but there was a certain allure to her. And that hair! He had never seen its like on a person his own age.
“I’m Lone Kidd. My papa is William Kidd, the most fearsome pirate in all the Seven Seas!”
Captain Kidd laughed, went down on one knee before the girl, taking one of her small smooth hands in his large callused ones and giving it a kiss. “Not so fearsome. Pleased to meet you, milady. Your beauty overwhelms me.” The little one giggled and covered her mouth at this, though she could not hide her delight. “And where do you hail from, Miss?”
“This is my goddaughter, Katherine Strawberry,” Auntie answered for her. “She’s the daughter of—”
“John Strawberry, ship’s doctor aboard Queen Anne’s Revenge. I know him well. A fine chap. So that rascal Blackbeard has been here, then?”
“Aye, he comes round about every two months. Kate’s mother was from New Orleans, you see, and the child was born there. Jeanne le Fleur was the woman’s name, before marriage. Plague took her, poor thing. That city is ridden with disease, so John thought she would be better off here. Brought her in March and she’s been with me ever since. And now we have another! It’ll be nice for Kate to have a playmate besides the Tatuan children. I fear she’s right close to going native as it is.”
“Says the woman who might as well be their queen.” Captain Kidd kissed both of Auntie’s cheeks and gave her great round body a squeeze. “Good to see you again, Auntie. You’re looking well. Pretty as ever.”
“Ha, you’re a flatterer, Will Kidd. Always have been. Meanwhile, you could use some meat on your bones. Stay for supper, won’t you? We have plenty for the whole crew.”
“Auntie, if I could, you know I would love to spend an evening with you, but we’re already behind schedule. We best be getting on our way.”
Auntie huffed in exasperation. “Fine, fine, but you’ll be missing out. We’ve a roasted pig the size of that dinghy over there. Well, at least we brought several bushels of pineapples, oranges and lemons for you to take back with you. See that you and your men eat a piece every day to keep the scurvy off. And when you come to retrieve Lone, you are staying for at least a week, no argument.”
“You have my word,” Captain Kidd said. “Lone, you be a good boy. Auntie has my permission to punish you as she sees fit if you misbehave. I won’t have her spoiling you.”
“Pish! You’re frightening the poor child, Will. Kids will be kids. Unless they’re being destructive or malicious, I say leave them alone. And this one doesn’t look to have a malicious bone in his body. In fact, I can hardly believe he’s yours,” Auntie laughed. “Well, be gone with you, then. I can’t linger here all day. I have things to do.”
Captain Kidd and his pirates rowed their dinghies back to the ship then; Lone kept his eyes pinned to his father as they went. And when the crew and dinghies were hauled up again, he saw Papa standing at the foxhole, flailing his purple sash through the air. Lone continued to wave to him until he was out of sight, then sat in the sand and wailed like an infant, face buried in his palms. Auntie squatted to his lee side and plopped down beside him; she proved to be more agile than he would’ve guessed. Kate took a spot at Auntie’s opposite flank.
“There, there, surely you cannot miss him already. Why, he’s not been gone a full hour yet. He’s not abandoning you, that I promise. I know your papa well. Hmm, want me to tell you a story about him?”
The boy gazed up at her briefly, nodded, then dove back into his hands.
“Alright, then. Many years ago, before you were born and before your papa was captain of his own ship, he sailed with another pirate, Captain Amos Birch. Oh, he was a right scoundrel, was Captain Birch, a hard and vicious man, and he kept a crew of the same. Most of them, that is. All except William Kidd, who was the cabin boy on Birch’s ship, the Predator. The ship was a nightmare on waves, a thing so infested with the sins of its crew that some say it became haunted by them. Will was just a boy himself back then: thirteen, fourteen years old. Oh, the crew tormented that child something awful, but he bore their cruelty day in and day out.
One day they put in at Killybegs, and the crew set about terrorizing the women on the docks. One of those women weren’t no woman at all, just a girl of twelve. One of Birch’s devils had caught her as she was bringing her father his lunch on the docks. That scum was just about to do something terrible to the girl when Will Kidd showed up with a cutlass and sliced the villain’s hand clean off. The man nearly bled to death, but he lived. Would that Will had stuck that cutlass through the bastard’s heart! But he was too good a boy to slaughter an unarmed man, no pun intended. Still, he preserved the girl’s honor that day, and she and he became good friends thereafter. You know what that girl’s name was?”
Lone, listening intently, shook his head.
“Her name was Theresa.”
“Like Mama!” Lone gasped.
Auntie simply laughed and got to her feet. “Well, shall we go back to the villa and get you settled in, then?”
* * *
It was nearly a mile hike back to Villa Toucan, but it felt like only a few feet to Lone, who was exhilarated by all the new sights, smells and sounds of the island. Exotic birds made their strange calls, and monkeys screeched in the treetops. Brightly colored flowers with heady scents showed themselves all along the path. Due to the thick, variable jungle foliage on the island the light and shadow patterns were complex and ever-changing. Lone suddenly stopped cold when he saw a humongous insect resting on a tree right at his eye level. The thing was nearly as long as his forearm and had a pale body decorated with geometric patterns and a black head bearing a long snout.
“That’s a zanni beetle,” Auntie pointed out. “See the markings on it? If you see one, don’t touch it. They may be named for a fool, but their bite surely isn’t funny. It won’t kill you, though it’ll make you swell up like a bladder and wish you were dead.”
They moved on.
The Tatuan men and boys who followed them were equally fascinating to Lone, dressed in their umber breechcloths but otherwise unclothed, and all wearing their glossy black hair in identical rounded haircuts. They spoke very little, but when they did, it was in a tongue utterly foreign to the boy, who was familiar with Gaelic, French and a handful of other languages in addition to his native English; the Tatuans laughed often and heartily, however, which he found initially frustrating, for he hadn’t the slightest idea what they were laughing at. For all he knew, Lone himself could have been the butt of their jokes. But he quickly adapted to this. It wasn’t like he had never been in the company of indigenous peoples before, and anyway, there was too much to experience here to get hung up on the language barrier.
When they arrived at Villa Toucan—a two story building that combined Old World style and materials with native bamboo construction—a group of female Tatuans ranging from toddlerhood to old age, all nearly as bare as their male counterparts (they wore only their traditional grass skirts), greeted Auntie and her entourage. A little girl perhaps a year younger than himself approached Kate and kissed her on the cheek, and Kate reciprocated. The native girl then ambled over to Lone and examined him curiously, unsure about whether he was friendly or not. He stood perfectly still as she watched him. At last the girl smiled and put her hands on his cheeks, an act which he could not decipher the intent of.
“That’s T’hai,” said Kate. “She’s telling you she likes you. Now you’re supposed to do it back to her.”
“Alright.” He went to put his hands up to her face but she squealed and ran away, hiding behind the skirt of a young woman, presumably her mother. It took him a second to realize why: his hook, which he sometimes forgot about, had frightened her. He felt embarrassed by how stupid he had been, staring at his feet in shame.
Auntie came over to him then and set a meaty hand on top of his head. “Don’t worry, Lone. She’ll get used to you. It’s just that she has never seen a hook hand before. Come, come, let us go have our supper.”
They dined in the Great Hall, an open-air room that occupied the entire first floor of Villa Toucan and contained a twelve-place mahogany dining table and chairs at the room’s center and carved bamboo benches lining its walls. It appeared that nearly the entire island had shown up for the feast, including most of the Tatuan tribe and several men and women of other nationalities—mostly English and Irish, but also a Spaniard, a couple of Frenchmen, and an African—who all lived and worked on the island. Though Auntie occupied the head of the table, there was no arrangement here according to class or country or age or sex so far as Lone could discern. Some Tatuans, men and women both, sat at the table as well as Europeans and the African; likewise, a number of the Europeans sat amongst the Tatuans on the floor and benches. Only the European women, of which there were three in all excluding Auntie, did not sit on the floor. The Spaniard, Juan Pablo Huerta, sat near a door, surrounded by several Tatuan children, whom he entertained with silly faces and gestures. The African, a tall man named Fakim, was quiet and brooding but very polite. One of the Frenchman, a squat fellow with drooping mustaches, had recently taken a Tatuan girl as his bride, and they fed each other pieces of fruit.
Supper consisted of a savory roasted pig flavored with herbs and the nectar of pineapple, and assorted fresh and cooked fruits, nuts and vegetables: pineapples, of course, but also lemons, oranges, bananas, plantains, star fruits, coconuts, dates, cashews, guavas, mangos, plums, melons, tamarinds, potatoes, breadfruit, okra, squash, peppers, onions and several others Lone did not recognize. After living on old cheese, dried salty meat and pickled vegetables for so long aboard the Fair Maiden, this meal was almost heavenly to him. He ate so much that he felt bloated and his belly throbbed a little, but he was satisfied.
Following the meal, coffee was served to those who wanted it; rum and wine were also available to the adults, though Auntie allowed Kate to have a small bit of claret mixed with fruit juice.
Lone had tried wine before and found it completely repulsive much to Papa’s amusement, so he was shocked to see that this girl not only did not spurn the abominable stuff, she actually looked to be enjoying it! Sure, she supped it gingerly, in the manner that implied she was merely wetting her lips with it, but no, he saw that the concoction was slowly depleting from the glass.
“Do you not like wine?” Kate asked in her velvety New Orleans dialect.
“I tried it once. It was not very good.”
“My papa says it’s an . . . an empire taste. That means only the best people like it, you know.”
He bristled at the notion that he was not among the best people. “Auntie!” he called, and asked her for a bit of wine, which she prepared with juice as she had for Kate. He drank it all down at once as he had seen many a man, Papa included, consume alcohol. Afterward came a golden warmth inside, followed by a peculiar airy feeling and a lightheadedness he had not expected. He had the urge to stand and did, but he immediately fell back into his seat when the room tilted.
“Silly boy,” Auntie laughed, “you’re supposed to sip it. Well, that’s enough for you then. Hmm, perhaps it’s time for you to get some sleep. You’ve had a long day. Kate will show you to your bedchamber. I’ll be in later to check on you.”
At this the little girl bounced to her feet and grabbed Lone’s arm. “Come on! We sleep upstairs!”
I do feel sleepy at that, Lone admitted to himself. When he stood he was not overtaken by dizziness as before, yet he felt as if the sharp edges of the world had been sanded away, so that everything was soft and pliable as an ocean sponge. Kate directed him up an open-sided staircase that led to the second floor, which consisted of four rooms divided more or less equilaterally. His was in the corner farthest from the stairs, and it had already been made up for him. Aside from his own trunk now resting inexplicably at the foot of the bed (who had brought it up here, and when?), there were but three pieces of furniture in the room: a long-neglected bureau with peeling veneer, a nearly matching chair with a cracked leather back, and a bamboo bed that sat low to the floor. Not the best of accomodations but suitable enough for him. None of the rooms had proper doors, however, only open doorways, making privacy impossible. Having been on a ship packed with men for the last month or so, the lack of privacy was nothing he wasn’t used to, save that there were females present here. No matter though.
“Do you like it?” asked Kate from the doorway.
“Very much. I slept in the captain’s cabin with Papa, and it’s very small. I should like to have a hot bath before I go to bed.”
“Oh, shall I ask Kipling to heat up the water for you?”
“Please do,” he answered, and she scampered off to find the servant.
While she was gone, Lone opened up the trunk and removed all of his belongings from it. The first thing was a toy ship that Carpenter’s Mate Biddle had made for him. Besides Papa, Biddle was Lone’s favorite crewmember aboard the Maiden. Most of the pirates were gruff and ornery men with no time or patience for a small boy, but not Biddle. Plump, jovial and perceptive, Biddle seemed to enjoy spending time with him, often bringing him seashells, old bottles or other trinkets, and he had spent several of his off hours fashioning this little ship out of pieces of driftwood and sundry items he’d been collecting. Upon completing it, the carpenter had given it to Lone; it was now one of his most cherished possessions. He held it up and pretended it was Papa’s ship, sailing through rough waters but never in any real danger. This he set atop the bureau for all to see.
Next he extracted his clothing from the trunk, putting it all in the drawers—all save his nightshirt, which he left on the bed to take with him to the bath. All that was left in the trunk now were a handful of items that reminded him of his family: some ribbons of Mama’s, a few seashells, a piece of cork, a toy cannon, even Lively’s old baby rattle. He placed these in the small top drawer of the bureau.
Kate returned several minutes later, urged him to follow. He snatched up his nightshirt and left his bedchamber with her. The girl led him back downstairs and out into a small square hut that contained only a large round copper tub that presently stood empty.
“It will be awhile before the water is heated. We could talk while we wait.”
“Hmm,” he replied, “what will we talk about?”
“Well, do you have any friends back home?”
“Aye. John Fairlie. He lives next door to me. And there’s Gideon Harker, who lives over on Whitham Street. And Ed Carrington sometimes.”
“But, do you have any friends who are girls?” Kate asked, taking a seat in one corner of the hut while Lone sat against the wall near her.
“Girls? No, I don’t like them. Except for you, I mean.”
Kate smiled at that, and blushed bright pink. A minute later she grew serious again. “How did you lose your hand?”
“I didn’t lose it. I was born without my right hand, you see. No one is for certain why. Well, Gideon says it’s a curse from God for something my father done.”
“Hmm, but that hardly seems fair,” Kate said. “Why would God punish you for what your father did? Shouldn’t he punish your father instead?”
“Papa should not be punished! He’s never done anything to anger God so! He’s a pious man!” Lone shouted.
“But he is a pirate, and pirates kill people. Oh, that must be it! Remember what Auntie said in her story, about how he cut off the hand of that other pirate. It’s like an eye for an eye, only it’s a hand for a hand.”
For reasons he could not identify Lone was taken aback by this suggestion. Could she be right? Was his missing hand Papa’s punishment for severing that brute’s hand? But why? He had saved the girl Theresa from Captain Birch’s villainous crewman, hadn’t he? Should he not have been rewarded instead of punished for that? It made no sense to Lone.
Luckily, Kate sensed his distress and mercifully changed the subject. “Have you been to the Tatuan village yet?” she asked him.
“How could I? I only just arrived, and I have been with you the whole time I’ve been here.”
For the next few minutes they sat together in silence, taking each other in. It seemed like an hour before Kipling and his underlings arrived with several large pails of steaming hot water, which they proceeded to pour into the copper tub until it was half full.
“Enjoy your bath, Master Lone, Mistress Kate,” said Kipling, offering them a customary bow before departing again with his men. The children bounded to their feet and ran over to the tub, with Kate poking a finger tentatively into the water and snapping her hand back quickly. They lingered a minute or two more, until the water cooled somewhat. Then, without signal or forewarning, Kate pulled her dress over her head and tossed it aside, then stripped out of her underclothes until she stood naked before Lone, who watched the entire act with a mixture of curiosity and astonishment. She seemed not to have an ounce of shame in her—the local tribes were one thing, but civilized white girls simply did not undress in front of strange boys.
“Now it’s your turn,” the girl beamed.
“I—I can’t. You’re a girl. It isn’t allowed.”
“It is so allowed. I bathe with the Tatuan boys all the time. I even bathed with Salpoto once and he’s fourteen,” she admitted with obvious pride. “He’s very handsome, you know. Everyone says so. He even has hair down here, and under his arms. But he calls me Little Sister and laughs at me. Hmph.”
“Well, if you’re sure it’s alright . . .” He unbuttoned his shirt and let it drop, revealing his pale scrawny torso. This was nothing—he often went bare-chested around his sister and her friends back in England, particularly on hot days. Next he removed the hook, which was attached by a harness, setting it on the ground by his shirt. Then, he unfastened his breeches and allowed them to tumble down his legs, kicking them off one leg at a time. His last piece of clothing, a pair of underpants, he hesitated to remove. Only at Kate’s urging did he pull them down and off, and now he stood as naked as the girl. He was much paler than she was in the places his clothing usually covered; the girl had a more even tone, owing to the fact that she sometimes went nude under the sun with the native children. She had told him about this.
They climbed into the tub simultaneously, lowering themselves carefully into the scorching water until they reached bottom. The water was pleasantly scented and unusually murky, so that he could not see past its surface. Truth be told, Lone was happy to be hidden from sight of the girl, who had glanced nonchalantly at his main-mast (as Papa sometimes called it), just as he had looked on her maidenhood in the same manner. He had seen his sister’s before, a smooth little hillock with a cleft in it, during her changing when she was a baby, and Kate was the same. So, it must be that all girls were so arranged. How odd.
“Can I touch it?” she enquired.
“Huh? I-I don’t think we should touch each other there—”
She tittered. “That’s not what I meant, silly. Your arm.”
“Oh.” He raised his right arm out of the water and offered it to her. Carefully she investigated the deformed limb, being particularly fascinated with the tiny vestigial hand at its tip, which she rolled gently between her thumb and forefinger. Once she had sated her curiosity, Kate let go of Lone’s arm and launched herself at him, taking his shoulders in her hands and pressing her nose into his. This way they remained for some time, exchanging giggle for giggle, both of them in high humor and frankly amused at the absurdities of the human face at close range. Kate rose and stepped out of the water; Lone did likewise. Quickly they put on their clothes again—Kate in her emerald-colored dress and Lone in his faded but clean nightgown—and returned to their respective rooms.
Once he had blown out his candle and slipped under his bedcover, Lone found himself restless and unable to sleep. This was all so new, and anyway he was used to sleeping beside Papa, with the unceasing waves rocking him to sleep. Just as he had begun to settle into the prospect of getting no sleep that night, a pleasing whisper came to him out of the darkness beyond the threshold.
“Lone. Lone. Are you awake?”
“Come in,” he offered. Relief flooded through his body as Kate clambered over his legs and lay down behind him, nestled into him, her right arm enclosing his torso. No further words were spoken between them that evening. Kate took hold of his right arm, feeling her way down to the end, where the useless little lump was. Her fingertips nipped and nudged so lightly it was almost like an ant traversing his skin. She developed a gentle, pliant rhythm that curiously did not irritate him; in fact, it soothed him, and her too. Soon she was asleep, her warm, metered puffs of breath flowering against the flesh at the base of his neck. Unlike his father, Kate didn’t snore—a blessing. Her sweet presence slowly unmoored him from reality, until he was floating along in some dark ocean of the North, following behind Papa’s ship in a miniature, cradle-like skiff that always seemed to approach but could never quite gain on the Fair Maiden . . .
* * *
“Come on, Lone!”
He was already running as fast as he could manage without tripping over all the roots, vines and bushes that Kate apparently had memorized the location of, for she leapt over them agilely and near instinctively. Was there nothing this girl was not better than him at? He had been here for two weeks and already she had proven herself to be a skillful swimmer and diver, a brilliant reader, an excellent fisherwoman, a masterful tree climber and even a gentle and intuitive caregiver to animals and babies alike. Now this!
In her short crimson dress Kate was like a torch lighting the way before him, through the dark twisting channels beneath the tropic canopies. As long as he kept his eyes fully on the flash of bright red ahead of him, he could follow her, but that meant not being able to look at his own feet! Ordinarily this would’ve caused him trepidation, but there was no time to fret now. He could do naught but follow the living flame!
By the time they arrived at a clearing he was panting hard, his lungs smarting and his heart drumming like an African rain dance inside his chest. Meanwhile, Kate was barely nonplussed by her run. She sat near a flowering bush and pulled petals one by one from their anchors.
“I come here sometimes by myself,” she told him.
Once he’d caught his breath again, Lone said, “It’s very nice,” joining her at her flower-plucking game.
“Say there!” shouted an unfamiliar child’s voice from somewhere beyond the trees that lined the clearing.
Lone jumped to his feet. “Who are you?” he demanded to know.
“I’m nobody, just a boy,” the voice teased. “But right now I’m a lost boy.”
“Come towards me,” said Kate. “Here, I’ll keep speaking so you have a sound to follow. I’m Kate, my friend is Lone. His father is Captain Kidd, a fierce pirate. My father is a ship’s doctor who sails with Blackbeard, the fiercest pirate of all. What does your father do?”
“I have no father,” answered the ever-nearing voice. “No mother as well.”
“I haven’t a mother either. The plague took her. But I don’t need one. I have Auntie, and she’s as good as any mother. And all the Tatuan women are like mothers and grandmothers to me. I love them all. Have you anyone to love?”
“Love,” muttered the voice. “What good is that to anyone? I have freedom, which is much better than love, you know.” At this the body belonging to the voice appeared in the clearing. “I can go wherever I like, any time I like. Such as here. Where is here anyway?”
The boy was near the same age as they. Pale of skin and red of hair he was; dressed in brownish green tatters and wearing a self-fashioned crown of leaves, he projected some ancient and earthy quality though he was but a child like them. The boy’s movements were quick and sudden, almost spontaneous. His narrow but lively eyes darted to and fro; vitality coursed through his musculature. He looked every bit a youthful nature deity standing there, legs angled outward, fists planted on his hips, surveying the clearing as if he had just put a claim on it.
“This is Mallapukat Forest, at the western end of Paluanta. Did your ship just land nearby?”
“Nothing like that. I simply wished myself here, you see, and now I am here. I should like to live here forever and ever, I think.”
“But where did you come from?” asked Kate.
“From Britain, of course, like you.”
“But I’m not from Britain. I’m from New Orleans. That’s in North America. Don’t you know anything?” She teased.
The boy retrieved a broken stick from the ground and pretended it was a sword, advancing and parrying toward an invisible foe. “I know just what I need to know, such as how to fight! And how to kill! And how to never grow up, of course.”
Lone asked, “How do you do that?”
“It’s quite easy, only I’m not going to tell a poxy little bugger like you.” The boy laughed then.
“Huh! You’re a scoundrel!” cried Kate. “We should go see Auntie at once.”
The strange boy fell aghast. “Auntie? I had one of those. She was horrible. I will not go see your auntie! I will not! You can’t make me!” He brandished the stick menacingly at Kate and Lone, fully prepared to strike if they tried to capture him.
Kate sighed. “Put your stick down. I’m not taking you to Auntie. You mistake me. Would you care to play with us?”
“Play?” For a moment the redhaired boy hovered at the edge of some epiphany; Lone and Kate tensed, awaiting another outburst from this volatile child. When they saw a smile begin to spill across his face, they relaxed. “I was born to play! What shall we play first? Knights and Damsels? Huzzlecap? Oh, I have dice in my pocket! Shall we play Hazard?”
Kate said, “I don’t know any of those games. I have a better idea. Let’s go to the Tatuan village. T’hai knows lots of games. Or Salpoto can show us how to shoot a bow.”
“What? You want me to play with pickaninnies? I certainly will not!”
Anger colored Kate red. “They are not pickaninnies! They’re natives! You’re impossible . . . whatever your name is!” She took Lone’s good hand and prepared to drag him back with her. Being nearly assaulted was one thing, but this humiliation and hostility against her friends . . . “Come on, Lone. I can’t abide this cretin for another second.”
The redhaired boy jumped in front of them and jabbed the end of his stick into Kate’s belly. “What’s cretin mean?”
“It means idiot. Stop that, you’re hurting me!”
“I’m not the idiot! You’re the idiot! You and your hook-handed friend. You take that back or I’ll knock your teeth out!” With every other word he discharged, the boy pricked Kate in the gut again with his switch.
“Stop it! Stop!” Kate was on the verge of tears now as her attacker kept at her with short but vicious stabs.
Alas, a fantastic feeling overtook Lone at that moment, something he had never experienced before, a feeling that diffused his terror, replacing it with a bright violet fury. He dashed in and swiped the stick away from the other boy, turning it back on him with a battery of scourges against the boy’s head and arms that dropped him to his knees, hands raised as a defense, if a poor one, against the stinging blows.
“Please!” the boy bellowed, his face twisted in pain and coated in tears. “Please, master! I’ll be good! I’ll be good! I promise! Don’t hit me!”
It was as if Lone were in a daze; he could not hear the boy’s pleas and continued to strike him.
“Lone! Lone! Lone!” It was Kate who broke through to him, stopping him from thrashing the interloper further, who was now a bloodied and disheveled mess. “That’s enough. Let’s go back now.”
After regaining his breath and his composure, Lone broke the stick in twain across his knee, tossed the pieces at the feet of his defeated foe, and grasped the hand that Kate proffered. Hand in hand, they walked solemnly back into the forest, toward home.
* * *
By the time they reached Villa Toucan, they were straining for air and sopping wet with perspiration. Luckily Auntie was away, and the only people at the house were Fretwell the cook and his assistant Baribeau. The children could hear them in the kitchen, arguing over how much spice to use in the crab stew; they were apparently oblivious to the children’s presence. Currently the rest of the downstairs area, usually bustling with activity, lay dead quiet. Knowing there was rarely anyone on the second floor at this time of day, Kate and Lone scampered up the steps and took refuge in Kate’s room until they were breathing normally again and their hearts had returned to a more tranquil state. For several minutes neither of them spoke; they gripped each other’s hot damp palms and pressed themselves together on the floor in an otherwise empty corner of the room.
“What are we going to do?” Lone asked. “Auntie will thrash us bloody when she finds out!”
“She would never do such a thing! Apart from that, I don’t think she even knows that boy is out there.”
“I pray you’re right,” he replied. “I thought you and I were the only white children on the island. Who is he? Why is he here?”
Kate offered only a baffled expression and a shrug in way of response.
For the better part of the next hour they remained in the bedroom, Kate showing Lone the collection of objects she had obtained during her months on Paluanta: assorted seashells, including two conchs, some carved wood and stone artifacts from the Tatuans, an agate cameo depicting Cupid and Psyche as infants that Auntie had given her the day she arrived here, a golden butterfly hair brooch that had once belonged to her Mama, some pretty rocks, sea glass gathered on the beach, an expensive French doll her father had given her on her fifth birthday. Lone fetched his own favorite belongings from his room, and together they played with these items until they heard Auntie hollering up the stairs.
“Children? Are you up there?”
“In my room, Auntie!” Kate called back.
“Come down here, please.”
Lone and Kate glanced at each other wordlessly, then slunk down the stairs with cautious torpor.
At the foot of the stairs stood Auntie, the redhaired boy Lone had bested, and a strange man neither of the children had seen before. The man was in his forties perhaps and was exceedingly thin, though tough and sinewy, with brown sun-leathered skin, and was a good half foot shorter than Auntie, who wasn’t particularly tall herself. He was a hideous, scowling man with a cauliflowered nose that looked to have been broken at some point in the past, likely more than once, and ragged, gristly dark hair. Upon seeing the children, his face contorted into a cockeyed, nearly toothless grin which did nothing to improve his countenance.
At the man’s side, the injured boy stood rigid and quiet, head slumped in misery and eyes cast shamefully to the floor. He bore the wounds Lone had inflicted on him, screaming red stripes all about his arms and face, some of them flaked with dried blood. Additionally, he had a horribly blackened left eye from a blow Lone could not recall administering, as well as some nasty bruises on his left arm.
Auntie cleared her throat. “Kate, Lone, this is Mr. Paddon and his son. I hired Mr. Paddon recently to serve as ranger and lookout for Mallapukat Forest and the western end of the island. He says you attacked his son with a club and left the boy bruised and bloody. Kate, please explain to me what has happened.”
“Lone and I were just playing in the woods, minding our own business, when the boy appeared. He would not tell us who he was or from where he’d come. Even so, we offered to let him play with us, but he called Lone a bad name and taunted us with his stick. He stabbed me in the belly with it several times, and then . . .”
“Well, go on,” Auntie enjoined her.
“Lone seized the stick from the boy and struck him with it. But he was protecting me, Auntie! I swear it!”
“Hmph. Lone, is this truly what happened?”
“It is,” he acknowledged bashfully.
“I see. Well, Mr. Paddon, it seems you failed to give me the entire account. What do you say to this?”
“Madam McCarthy, begging your pardon, but my boy was only engaged in a little teasing and horseplay, which is his wont, I confess. But it was nothing to deserve the kind of beating as what these children did to him. Look at these two, not a scratch on ’em. Yet mine looks as if he’s been sparring with your Leake, he does! Surely they ought to be punished for this.”
Auntie gave it some thought, then with a great sigh, answered, “I suppose you’re right. And what would you have me do with them?”
Paddon broke into that unbalanced smile again. “If it were me, Madam, I would give them both a good bare behind caning. I’d be happy to do it meself, if ye prefer. Nothing to hurt ’em, mind. Just something they won’t soon forget.”
“I’ll not lay a hand on these children, Mr. Paddon, nor will you. Ah! I have it. Children, after you have your breakfast tomorrow, you’ll promptly go down to the western cabin, where Mr. Paddon and his boy are staying. You’ll spend the day working for Paddon, doing whatever he needs done around the place, until suppertime tomorrow evening. Am I understood?”
“But Auntie—” Kate started to protest.
“Don’t ‘But Auntie’ me, Miss Strawberry. Unless you’d rather I gave you over to him for that caning. No? I thought as much. Mr. Paddon, you have the children for a day, to work off their punishment. However, I would suggest you keep their workload reasonable. And you are not under any circumstances to strike either of these children. Indeed, if I discover you have harmed them in any way, you will meet with my justice, and it will be harsh. You’re dismissed.”
“I thank ye, Madam,” said Paddon, backing toward the door. “Ye’ll not regret this!” With that he skulked off, his redhaired son in tow.
Now Auntie pulled Lone and Kate into her and stroked their hair. “Listen to me, little ones. I believe your story, and Lone, you did right to stand up for Kate. I’m not sending you over there because you deserve the punishment. You don’t. But I saw the true face of Paddon just now. Would that I had seen it before I’d hired him on! Anyway, I know his kind. If I did nothing or gave you but a token punishment, he would hold a grudge, and that would eventually amount to him doing something awful. This way the slate is clean, and he’ll have nothing to hold against you or I. But mark my words: I don’t trust him. Be wary of him when he’s around. There’s a vicious streak in him a mile wide, and possibly a temper. That’s a bad mix, to be sure. Don’t do anything to upset him if you can help it, and if he becomes violent, come home straight away and find me. I’ll be close to Villa Toucan. Now, go get your supper and your bath, and then off to bed with the both of you. It’ll be a long day tomorrow.”
They complied with Auntie’s orders, though they both slept fitfully, dreading the day ahead, which arrived all too soon. Like siblings readying themselves for the funeral of a beloved pet, they went about their morning chores with solemn hearts, and when the time came to leave Villa Toucan, they dawdled on the path to Paddon’s cabin. Once the property came in sight, they found the ugly little man resting on a bench at the side of the cabin. Mr. Paddon had a tin cup full of some kind of stout spirits, which he had clearly been sampling for some time. His strange son sat curled near his feet, staring off into the distance. The boy barely acknowledged them when they approached.
“Well, well, well, here are my little ones at last. How ye do, children? Don’t be rude, boy. Say hello to our guests.”
When the redhaired boy failed to answer, Paddon gave a solid kick to the back of the boy’s thighs, and he jumped to his feet. “What did I do? I’m sorry, master! I’m sorry!”
Paddon shook his head in frustration. “Completely useless y’are, aren’t ye? No matter. I have me a fine pair o’ servants today, now don’t I?”
Lone noticed the man’s speech had taken on that wet, slippery quality that resulted from drinking too much wine or liquor. That wasn’t good. He had seen drunkards on Papa’s ship; they often became reckless and lewd. Or worse, violent. More than once Papa had had to toss overboard men who had become too drunk to attend to their duties or who had caused some mischief while intoxicated. He hated to do it he told Lone, but nothing else would do. A pirate captain had to be hard with his men, or he risked mutiny. So it went.
“Alright, you grubby sprogs,” Paddon grumbled, “over here in front o’ me, so as I can size you up. You too, shit-face!”
The children formed a line before their master for the day. Paddon eyeballed them each in turn, starting with Kate, who had taken the far left end of the line.
“Hmph, what’s your name again, girl?” Paddon asked her.
“Katherine, sir. Kate.”
“Kate. Ye’ll be working with my boy down on the beach, gathering up stones and shells and whatever else might be useful. There’s a couple of bushel baskets behind the shed. Fill them both up and leave them on the beach. I’ll be down later to go through them. When you’re done with that, go out in yonder woods and gather several bundles of kindling.” Paddon’s eyes moved to Lone, who felt the man’s cold, carnivorous glare twist into his mind. “Now, you,” said Paddon, “I already know your name. Lone Kidd, son of Captain Will Kidd. A feisty one, aren’t ye? Well, I’ll soon be knocking you down a few pegs, won’t I, then? Ye’ll be working here in the house today where I can keep a close watch on that sword hand of yours.”
Paddon chortled at some private joke that Lone did not understand nor wanted to. The drunken old man glanced quickly at his own son, then back to Lone again. “That’s it. You two, be gone with ya! So as Lone and I can get better acquainted with each other.”
Kate and Paddon’s son started toward the shed, only Kate stopped momentarily to watch Lone, sending him silent signals with her expression. Truth be told, though she was being sent off alone with her tormenter, she looked more frightened for Lone than she did for herself. For a second the boy felt a twinge of jealousy and anger. What right had a mere girl to feel protective of him? Wasn’t it the man’s job to defend his lady? The foolish girl had it backwards! But these feelings soon passed, replaced by a genuine dread of being isolated for the first (and hopefully last) time with this detestable individual, Paddon. But a few seconds later, he was precisely that.
Except, with the other children gone Paddon’s entire demeanor seemed to change instantly, and for the better. He smiled his horrid smile as he led Lone into his home. Once they were inside, Paddon pulled a chair—indeed, the only chair in the place—back from the small dining table that hunched in the center of the one-room shanty that he and the redhaired boy inhabited. For several moments he did nothing but stare at Lone in his narrow-eyed way, though his gaze seemed unfocused this time, as if he were caught up in some sort of reverie. Hereafter he came to himself again and pointed at a large bowl on the table full of brownish-orange tubers that the indigenous people called makaynap; these were sweet and delicious when boiled and tasted not terribly unlike a yam. A small bone-handled kitchen knife lay beside the bowl. “Take that knife there and peel them mackie-naps. Ye know how to peel a potato, don’t ya?”
“It’s just like peeling potatoes, it is. The skin is a mite tougher, but not by much. If ye can manage a potato, then ye can manage a mackie-nap. I reckon ye can stick ’em through with that hook of yours to hold ’em still. And boy . . . if ye be getting any ideas about coming at me with that knife, or the hook for that matter, I will put a bullet in ye faster than ye can spit. I have a right to defend myself, y’see. Your caretaker cannot find fault with that.” Paddon suddenly removed from behind his person a flintlock dueling pistol, aiming it at Lone’s chest. “Ye know what this is, don’t ye? Aye, a pirate’s son has surely seen one of these a time or two. I’ll wager you’ve seen what it can do as well.”
He certainly had. His father carried a pair of them, much better cared for than this one, and he had shot many a man with one or the other, including his own First Mate once, who had been plotting to do him in. Dover he had been called, and Papa’s lead ball had pierced straight through Dover’s right eye and exploded out the back of his skull in a red pulpy mess. Lone had had night terrors for a week over that event.
The makaynaps weren’t as difficult to peel as he had feared. In no time he had developed a rhythm and had four of the largest ones finished. The shack was stuffy and moist though, and he had begun to sweat. Not as much as Paddon but enough to make him uncomfortable.
“Why don’t ye take some of those clothes off, boy. You’d be relieved. Ye can strip naked if ye like. Just us men here after all. Take your shirt off at least. I insist.”
Lone was not delighted at the prospect of stripping in front of Paddon. Something about the way the man leered at him made his skin crawl. But he dared not defy him either. Alcohol made men unstable and therefore dangerous. He pulled his shirt over his head. A sleeve caught on his hook, which often happened when he went too fast with it, but eventually he had it off and placed it on the table.
“Right, that’s better, isn’t it? Think I might shed some clothes myself. Maybe all of ’em. Ye ever seen a full-grown man naked before? Sure ye have, living on a ship full o’ men. Now, my boy out there, Peter. I’ll tell you a secret about him. He’s not really my son, just some orphaned little ragamuffin I found in the slums of Belfast. I’ll tell ye something else about him too. He’s a real sword-licker, that one. Ye know what that means? Well, you’ll be finding out soon enough.
“Hmph. Ye know what my occupation was before I came here, boy? I was an executioner, like ol’ Jack Ketch. Put many a man and even a boy or two like you in the ground in my time. Was good at it, too. Ye want to know something? Not all of them were criminals. Some of them . . . well, they just didn’t know when to keep their mouths shut. Are ye one of those kinds of boys, Lone Kidd? The kind that likes to gossip about a man and try to ruin him?”
Terrified, Lone hurriedly shook his head. He had no idea what Paddon was going on about; he only knew that at this point there was no one here to save him from whatever horrors the fiend was soon to heap upon him, nor any way he could escape. He could never outrun a bullet. On the verge of panic and tears, he bit down hard on these instincts which only made them smart all the more, but he knew he could not let his fear get the better of him or Paddon would have him absolutely.
“Come on ’round the table, child. I won’t hurt ye if ye do everything as I tell ye to do.”
Lone dropped the knife and started toward Paddon when a high pitched scream sounded from somewhere in the direction of the beach. Paddon had heard it too, cocking his head to listen for further signs of distress. Lone noticed his distraction and chose that opportunity to fly out the door.
“Where are ye going? Get back here, ye little shit!” Paddon shouted behind him.
It no longer mattered if Paddon shot him in the back. He had to get down to Kate. The scream had been hers, he knew, and that meant something was terribly wrong. That little monster . . . Peter, his name was . . . had done something to her. When he’d made it to the beach, he found Kate lying amidst a stretch of dark, angular volcanic rock. Blood—a lot of blood, far too much of it—was everywhere about her head. Peter stood over her, his mouth slack and his eyes wide. Clinging to the end of a medium-sized stick that lay at Peter’s feet was one of those beetles he wasn’t supposed to touch. A zanni beetle!
Paddon was huffing down the beach now toward him. He didn’t care. Let Paddon do his worst! The tears came streaming out of his eyes in torrents now, distorting his vision. Exactly what had happened came to him then: Peter had found the beetle—perhaps already attached to the limb or perhaps carefully coaxed onto the limb by Peter himself—and had intended to sting Kate with it, or maybe only frighten her. Whichever the case, Kate had been surprised by it, had screamed, maneuvered to avoid it and had fallen back, striking her head on the sharp edge of one of the larger rocks.
“Kate! Kate, get up!” he wailed. “Get up! Kaaaate!”
Paddon loomed at his side, soon apprehending for himself what had happened. “What did you do, boy?” Hate was welling up in the man, his face eclipsed by the ever-darkening crimson shadow of rage. He took up the stick with the zanni beetle and pressed the insect against Peter’s terror-stricken face. The boy screamed in pain, flung himself onto the sand and grabbed at the beetle, tossing it away, but the damage had already been done. There was now a cyclopean red blister at the left side of his face that had only just begun to swell. Paddon then commenced to thrashing Peter with the switch, again and again and again.
After awhile, Lone saw the situation true. Peter, the boy who had seemed so monstrous to him yesterday, was today a pitiful creature who deserved his sympathy. And worse, Paddon meant to kill him; it was in the man’s eyes. There was no saving Kate, but perhaps…
Paddon was preoccupied and never saw Lone coming at him, but he certainly felt the sharp agony at his mid-section. Lone’s hook had caught him in the handiest target on an adult for a six-year-old child: his groin. The bloodstain at the crotch of Paddon’s breeches was spreading quickly. The man swatted at Lone, but the boy had already started to sprint back up the beach as fast as his tiny legs would conduct him. He could not evade the man forever, but if he could reach the edge of the woods he would gain the advantage, as he could move much faster than an adult between the tight trees and saplings. His pursuer was nearly on him when the deafening blast of a gunshot rang out from the trees, and Paddon stumbled backward a few feet, one hand over his heart, and collapsed onto the ground, dead.
Auntie Liz trotted awkwardly out from her hiding place, carrying the flintlock rifle she had used to fell the monster.
“Auntie!” Lone ran to the woman and crumpled into her soft, soothing arms. She lifted him.
“Hush, hush, you’re alright. No one will hurt you now,” Auntie cooed.
“Auntie, Kate is dead!”
Auntie said nothing as they approached the little girl’s body. She gasped and set Lone upon his feet, knelt and took Kate’s little wrist in her hand, but she knew it was pointless. The child had lost too much blood. As she suspected, there was no pulse. Dropping the child’s wrist, her head fell to her chest and the very essence of sorrow overtook her face.
“Oh, dear,” was all Auntie could say. “Oh, dear.”
Her mourning was interrupted by a great wailing as Peter, understanding that he would survive this day after all, let go of all of the pain within and without him all at once. Auntie straggled over to him and shook her head at the bruised and bloodied mess. She knelt again, attempting to comfort the boy, but he batted her away. She shook her head in exasperation and sadness. “Poor, poor child. Lone, go back to Villa Toucan and fetch Kipling and Leake and the other servants. We’re going to need their help.”
* * *
Kate’s body was buried in the cemetery behind a small chapel adjacent to Villa Toucan, a large ornate cross of marble that Auntie had intended for her own plot someday marking Kate’s grave. It read:
KATHERINE ANNE STRAWBERRY
NOVEMBER 9, 1711 – JUNE 22, 1718
“REST LIGHTLY ON HER, EARTH,
FOR SHE TROD NOT HEAVILY ON THEE”
At the funeral little T’hai approached Lone, smiled at him shyly, and held his hook for the entire service. The boy learned something that day: T’hai was the name the locals gave to a particular species of spotted red-and-yellow lily.
Meanwhile, Paddon was buried in a gloomy corner of Paluanta rarely visited by the islanders. His grave was unmarked, and the Tatuans who had helped bury him had urinated on the burial mound to mark him out for Teeka’ahua, the god of the dead, so that the deity would know this one was to be taken to the shadow world. The villagers had loved Kate as their own daughter and blamed Paddon for her death.
Auntie had given over Kate’s bedroom to Peter, which hardly seemed right to Lone, but there was little he could do about it. She had slowly nursed him back to health, only touching him when it was necessary. At first the boy rejected her every touch, no matter how gentle, but eventually he grew tired of fighting her and simply remained still while she tended to his wounds or cleaned him up after he had fouled himself. The boy rarely spoke, and when he did, it was often in a series of disconnected, meaningless phrases.
“He said I was his,” he told Lone one day, “and I always would be. Paddon’s boy. Peter Paddon. I’m going to fly one day, and when I do, I will never land. Never, never land . . .”
Slowly Peter returned to his full physical soundness, yet in one capacity he never rebounded. Something had broken in his head, something vital. One day, Auntie had come to Peter’s room and found him missing and the protective bamboo shade removed from that second floor window. Neither Lone nor anyone else had seen him go. The grounds had been searched top to bottom, but not a sign of Peter had been found thereafter.
Lone’s father never returned to Paluanta. When he was twelve years of age, a ship came in from the west bearing news of Captain Kidd’s demise. The Fair Maiden had been sunk in a battle with an English man o’ war somewhere in the North Atlantic, all hands lost. That same year Lone had spotted a white shining face in the darkness of the jungle, watching him. He could not be certain, but he thought he’d seen red hair floating just above that face. The strangest thing was, the face looked precisely as he had last seen it, as if it hadn’t aged a day. But that was impossible, of course.