Who Lives By The Sword
“Don’t fret. ’Appens to everyone from time to time, Mister Beard.” Valerie swung herself from the bed and quickly gathered her skirt and bodice from the floor.
“How many times do I have to tell you, call me John.”
“As you wish, Mister Beard. Can I getcha anything? Water? Rum?”
“No. Nothing more.” John almost winced at how lovely he found the pale orbs of Valerie’s exposed buttocks as she knelt to collect the rest of her effects. She was a handsome girl, maybe the prettiest among the few who had washed up on the shores of Smuggler’s Cove, but what made her most alluring was the way she carried herself with the certain, unrefined grace of a women who’d committed themselves fully to the work of bouncing atop lonely men like John. “On second thought, I’ll take the rum.”
After she had left the room, John lay naked with the sheets crumpled at his feet. He peeked down toward the expanse of his hairy belly and tried not to imagine the shriveled worm dangling wan and dejected below.
“‘Appens to everyone,” he parroted in Valerie’s lilting soprano, “bah.”
During the three score years of his storied career, plundering merchant ships and evading pursuit by Her Majesty's navy, Grey Beard–as John had come to be known–had sailed every last nautical inch of the South Seas. He’d lived a bold life, a life that would surely become mythic as it was retold throughout the ages. Despite all odds, the success of his gambles had made him and his crew wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. They lived as kings, answering to none, and most had all but forgotten the misery of the squalid Old World streets where, as urchins and orphans, they’d clawed for survival. And for what? What had it all been for? So that he could live long enough watch his fattened old body break down piece by piece before the eyes of a girl who he paid regularly for the pleasure.
Valerie returned, bounding across the room with girlish vigor, and set a tray holding a brown bottle and two cups down on the small table beside the bed.
“Would you like if I stay, or would you rather drink alone tonight, Mister Beard?”
“That’s fine.” Grey Beard rose from the bed and stretched his arms toward the ceiling, his back creaking and popping like the hull of his aged ship. Just who had he assigned to ship’s watch tonight, anyway? Peters? No, he’d seen Peters downstairs in the tavern hall a short while ago, belting out yet somehow forgetting all seven words of the chorus to “Roll The Old Chariot Along.” Sydney? Ah yes, that’s who it was, the poor simpleton. That choice had likely been a mistake; Sydney was uncommonly easy to distract and his only driving purpose in life for the last three months had been training his pet Capuchin monkey to cut purse strings.
“Which is it, then?” Valerie picked at her thumb and looked longingly toward the door.
Valerie filled both cups with sepia liquor and handed one to Grey Beard before she retreated to the relative comfort of the bed. He hefted himself toward the window, tipped his cup back emptying it in one swig, and looked out through the warped panes. Reaching a hand behind his shoulder he scratched around a large, faded tattoo of a smiling skull with flames twisting up from its eyes. Valerie studied the image and was momentarily transfixed by the pupils set deep within the violent gnarl of ocher tendrils. The tattoo was likely older than her and though the outline of the skull had blurred and dulled, the eyes, especially the grim pupils had remained remarkably well defined. She shuddered and quickly looked away. The eyes had the unsettling trait of returning one’s gaze with unnerving intensity. Valerie cleared her throat and filled the silence with a request that Grey Beard tell her one of his many stories of his adventures at sea.
“I do love the way you spin tales, Mister Beard.”
Grey Beard chewed at the ample meat of his lower lip and held his breath for a moment, letting humid, stale air stew inside his lungs. How long could he hold it in before his body would force the wind from him? He waited, pinching his nose and sealing his mouth until his face turned red and his muscles began to quiver. He waited, until all his thoughts were drown in the rising rush of hungry blood. And he waited, until his knees threatened to buckle and the world around him receded in a sparkling maroon fog. Only then, despite his great effort, did he exhale, listing forward, barely raising a hand to the wall in time to slow his fall.
He turned then with a smile and in an oddly nimble display of dexterity, leapt to the bedside, snatched the bottle from the table and drank long and deep until it was nearly empty. As he set it down, he misjudged the table’s edge and the bottle fell to the floor, spilling the rest of the rum across his soiled undershirt.
“‘Eavens! I’ll fetch a pail.” Valerie rose but only got to her knees before Grey Beard grabbed her wrist.
“Stay. I have a story for you.”
Grey Beard brought his ruddy face to her neck and pressed his lips against her. He inhaled deeply and forgot himself for a moment. She smelled sweet like fertile earth, of sweat and woodsmoke and the lavender soap he’d given her. He realized then that he was still holding her wrist and he released his grasp.
“I usually charge extra for the rough stuff,” Valerie pouted as she rubbed her wrist.
Reaching down to his undershirt, Grey Beard lifted it uncovering the hilt of a long, formidable sword. Valerie gasped before she could stop herself and Grey Beard raised his eyes to meet hers.
“Have I ever told you how Alice here got her name?” He lifted the cutlass from the floor and motioned for Valerie to take it.
“My, it’s ‘eavy,” Valerie squeaked as she took it from his hands. She raised the sword to get a better look. Sheathed within a coal black scabbard, its grip was inlayed with numerous crimson stones like of the petals of a hollyhock. Pulling the blade out slightly revealed an intricate swirling grain of gleaming steel so highly polished she could see the blue of her eyes staring back at her.
“I first saw Alice on a night much like tonight, many years ago,” Grey Beard proclaimed, waving his hands theatrically to emphasize how similar the two nights were. "We'd docked in Bridgetown for a few days for resupply and to give the boys time away from the ship to lift their spirits. That summer had been a rough one. Lost some good sailors. The hauls had been light. There was talk, so I was told, of removing me as Captain. They'd said Thomas Landers could do a finer job than I. Ha! Imagine that! Cock-eye'd Thomas Landers, that skinny bastard, captaining my ship! Well he's dead now, ain't he? Good riddance!"
In truth Thomas had, with time, become Grey Beard’s most trusted friend and adviser. Notable among his many admirable talents, Thomas had been one of the few men on board who could read. He’d taught John–as he’d simply been known then–as much as he could manage, thought John had never been a diligent pupil. They’d spent long nights locked in his cabin arguing over the meaning of translated Greek texts pilfered from the cargo of Spanish trading galleon. When Thomas would catch John, yet again, in another clever rhetorical snare, his face would brighten and his laughter, fluttering like the wings of a sparrow, would cause the hairs on John’s neck to stand on end. There’d been something thrilling and troubling about being alone with Thomas. Something he'd never been brave enough to examine too deeply. The night the storming seas had washed Thomas overboard into the frothing, onyx foam had been one of the worst of Grey Beard's life. It had taken many years for the callus to grow over the wound the loss had carved into his heart.
"Twas a pit of a town in those days. A real shite-hole, but not without its charms. She was a working girl, but no ordinary one.” Had Grey Beard not been so engrossed in boozy pontification he might have noticed Valerie’s lip crinkle slightly at the word ‘ordinary’.
Valerie looked up from the blade to Grey Beard’s back as he spoke. She traced the paths of the long, thick scars that formed a rather gruesome lattice, the nexus of which inevitably lead her eyes back to that awful skull.
“Sweet Lord Christ, if I didn't fall arse over kettle for her. The way she curled that supple red hair, the sweet music of her laughter. In a lot of ways, you remind me of her.”
Valerie’s hand twitched against a dangling twist of hair. An unremarkable shade of potter’s clay, her braided locks had occasionally been useful as a bridle for her more enthusiast customers, no one had ever called it supple. She pulled the sword free of its scabbard. “She does sound lovely.”
"A few days turned into a few weeks. I found myself making all manner of excuses to the men as to why we couldn't leave port. Each evening I'd return to her room where she'd perform the most beautiful and unholy feats of excess upon my undeserving body. I'd pay a few pieces extra to spend the night.” The nights he huddled beside Alice, John wondered why he could hardly sleep. What he’d know of women before, was that they were occasionally useful, more often obnoxious, and always easily forgotten; a pleasant transactional distraction from life’s more pressing concerns.
Valerie, still half-listening, loosely took the posture of a fencer en garde. The weight of the blade made it droop down toward the floor as she jiggled it in awkward figure eights.
“Inevitably the crew grew wise to my true intentions and a vote was held. It was decided we'd be leaving the next morning. That last night in Bridgetown I asked her to join me. I told her I could care for her every need, that she'd never want for anything again. But she refused. Said she'd not take charity from any man. Ha! Can you believe it? I'd fallen out of favor with world's only prideful whore.”
Valerie halted her play fighting and let the sword fall to her side. The practiced sensual allure of her painted eyes, rouge cheeks and supple pouting smile all hardened as she focused her attention back on Grey Beard and then on the soft, sagging skin of his buttocks. She took careful aim at its fleshy center with the sharp tip of the sword and jabbed forward perhaps into the imagined ghost of him standing nearer than the flesh.
“In the months that followed, we'd make our way back to Bridgetown every so often, and I'd go to her. I'd bring her trinkets and treasures to show her I'd be good to my word, but none of it changed her mind. One night, laying in that worn down bed we'd shared more times than I could count, she turned to me and said, 'John, I know you think your feelings for me are true, but they ain't. All I am to you, really, is another ship to plunder and abandon.’”
Grey Beard paused and cast a woeful survey of the empty cup he still held. Alice’s emerald eyes seemed to shine there in the hallow, fierce and cold.
“She said, 'I go to bed with men like you every day, Johnny-boy. Those in search of adventure, fortune, tryin' to rise above their station. You'd not be surprised to hear you weren't the first to promise to take me away from all this. You'd grow tired of me if I was yours. Once all my secrets had been discovered, once the novelty of my body had worn thin. What then, John? I'd just be another piece of cargo on that ship for you to stow away.'"
Grey Beard shivered with the memory of how the bed had dissolved beneath him, how he’d felt like he was sinking deeper and deeper into frigid, black water as Alice floated above watching as he drown. The warmth of the room now seemed to suck the last bits of strength from his tired muscles.
"I don't have to tell you the variety of cruelties I spat upon her as I gathered my clothes to leave. She'd made me feel like child being scolded for his foolishness.” Grey Beard heard the words tumbling out of his fool mouth and yearned for them to cease. This insipid prattling, this convalescent, insufferable babble sprang from his rum loosened lips and turned his skin ever deepening shades of rust. “That distant look on her face... as if she'd long left the room, her body even. Those bitter, green shards of glass cutting me to tattered rags.” Grey Beard moaned as the familiar acid ache began to creep through his stomach.
Lost somewhere in the foggy recesses of his memory, Grey Beard hardly noticed Valerie’s gentle touch as she laid a hand on his shoulder. She ran the tips of her fingers along the ridges and valleys of poorly mended vermilion scars that knit a complex and ancient topography of suffering over his skin. She traced the difficult trails, with the patient care of a missionary stepping onto virgin soil, until her hand came to rest under the skull tattoo’s burning eyes. There she lingered, staring into the flames and coal black pupils until Grey Beard spoke.
"I only returned to Bridgetown once after that night. When I reached the brothel, the madam told me Alice had left some weeks before. What remained, the only evidence she had ever existed, was handed to me in a modestly wrapped package with a note that read: 'John, I've no use for this. Perhaps it will help you find what you're truly after.’”
The room fell silent again and Valerie sat at the edge of the bed and placed the sword in her lap, running a finger along its cool blade.
“She loved you, you know,” Valerie whispered, eyes wandering along the quicksilver swirls.
“Hardly!” Grey Beard snarled with unintended vitriol as he spun back to face the bed and glared at Valerie’s slender shoulders curled forward as she stroked the sword. “That woman was cold as a crow’s eye. She tossed me aside without a second thought.”
“It’s an awfully nice gift, don’t you think? If it were me and I truly didn't care for someone, I’d have just gone.”
“Bah! She probably stole it off some other poor sod she’d tricked.”
“Why keep it then?” Valerie looked up with her wide, shimmering eyes and he recognized in them, the sorrowful union of pity and understanding he’d been blind to so many years before. Grey Beard hastily threw on his clothes, taking great care to avoid Valerie’s gaze and snatched the sword from her lap, returning it to its scabbard. Shirt untucked, boots and jacket remaining on the floor, he marched out of the room the door slamming it behind him. Huffing and growling, he lumbered along the hallway to the stairs that lead to the dinning hall, all the while his jumbled, soupy thoughts bubbling and boiling over into an ever more definitive plan of attack.
Slouching against the ramshackle facade of the Dancing Lady, half drunk bottle of rum dangling from his fingers, Grey Beard stared out past the gentle waves lapping on the beach. Inside, laughter and broken bits of merry chanteys escaped the thin walls of the tavern and burrowed their way into his head. He took a deep pull from the bottle and tossed it against a large rock protruding from the sand. The thick brown glass clacked against the stone and tumbled off, disappearing into the darkness. From inside, Rob Paulson’s insufferable cackle broke through the general revelry and echoed between Grey Beard’s temples like an approaching war drum. His eyes narrowed as he imagined the Quarter Master’s short, plump body standing atop a rickety table, tankard hoisted high above his head, fool’s grin spilling over cheeks stained red with weakened capillaries. Grey Beard’s frown widened and he was compelled finally to wobble to his feet. If there was anything worse than this sort of misery, it was sharing it with happy fools.
As he rose, his belly strained against his belt. It was likely he’d make a better buoy than a Captain these days, he though. Storming, eyes misty with the sort of self-pitying gloom that he’d only ever found diving alone, deep into a bottle of spirits, he staggered off in the general direction of the bay.
At the edge of the water he stood, swaying gently with the moonlight as it danced along the ripples and foam. He reached a hand to his belt and it came to rest, a tired gull returning to roost, on Alice's hilt. Slowly he pulled her from her scabbard and examined the cutlass, turning her from side to side. Each notch and scratch along her polished steel cast a deformed impression of moon’s pale face and a lifetime of memories shown back at Grey Beard in the reflection. What cruel magic, he thought. These paintings in our minds that capture that which has been so far lost. We imagine ourselves as vibrant young men, strong and ambitious, only to be reminded in the looking glass that we're slowly rotting.
Alice had been right. She'd done them both a kindness by leaving. This was what he’d told himself time and again when he remembered her. He’d repeated it so many times it had become fact, a law to live by, a code that had made him dangerous and brave. He was far beyond the age more sensible miscreants would have settled into less savage ways, but the years had instead turned him into a golem, impervious to damage.
Why was it then that these days he had been unable to stoke the embers that had once fueled the fearsome anger that caused lesser men to crumble before him? Why had he begun to retreat more and more often into the bottle? How could the silly words of a little harlot cause a man like him to flee into the night to hide out in its darkened solitude?
Clumsily he lowered himself to the sand and laid Alice gently at his side. The sand shifted to accommodate his creaking bones and he welcomed the soothing warmth of the tropical sun still radiating from it. In the distance there was the sound of glass shattering amongst muffled cries of excitement and pain. Grey Beard closed his eyes and felt a sinking dizziness as he tallied up the compensation he'd be paying to the tavern keeper in the morning. His hands, skin cracked and leather tough, trembled and tried to burrow themselves into the sand. He sat there motionless for some time, finding it difficult to take a full breath. The night was thick with ghosts and the more tightly he shut his eyes, the more vivid they became, until it was all he could do to keep from crying out their names.
Slowly, with steady effort, Grey Beard’s features stiffened. It didn’t suit him to waste so much time pandering to sentimental nonsense. He had so much. He had a crew to care for, a ship to guide through dangerous waters. By his own estimation, that which he had seized far outweighed that which had been lost. He struggled to his feet and drifted back toward town hoping he'd be able to find something remaining in the bottle he'd tossed away. Behind him Alice remained on the beach, the swirling steel of her blade holding tight the glow of distant stars.