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The Far Waste of the Waters

Chapter Text

 

During the day, the barracks filled with light, the scent of earth and sun, and the noise of the sugarcane stalks being cut, piled, bundled, loaded. On his first night, Flint woke up to the smell of smoke, breathing ragged, his nose filled with the rampant odors of burning flesh and eyes attached to his, Miranda’s or Silver’s he could not tell.

Thomas was in the bed beside his and observed him quietly, watching over the nightmares. He nodded to the window. James got up and looked out. “They are burning the Western field.”

“Why?” James asked.

“It is meant to kill snakes. Two of us fell prey to them last September. Mr. Oglethorpe will not have that,” Thomas explained. “The cane itself survives, stalk and roots at least, even if the leaves go ablaze.”

Staring at the thin breath of flames lining the horizon, James waited until he stopped seeing Charles Town. It took some time.

 


 

The next month was spent learning, and like a sponge drinking water, his mind filled with new sights, tasks and persons. Captain Flint began to sink deeper inside him, dragging all down with him. The maroon camp and Nassau superimposed, Madi’s resolved, hateless fury, Billy extracting the lengthening shadow of Long John Silver from his mind, Gates’ neck broken and limp in the crook of his arm.

He sat on the humid ground, with Thomas crouched at his side, guiding his hand to pry the ratoons off from the stalk. James was a good student, patient, for the work filled in the hollows left in him. When Thomas got to his feet, his grace was the one of life itself.

That night, Flint dreamed of Silver. He was bundling up burnt cane and he came from behind, his limp noiseless in the soft earth. “You’re farming,” he said.

“Seems that way,” Flint said.

Silver waited a moment, tapping his crutch to the ground. “You’ll miss the sea. You’ll miss the crew. You’ll miss the ship.”

When and if that happens, do you really want me to find you, so that we can talk about it?”

Silver leaned on his crutch as if to prepare for a wave. “I must confess I have taken a liking to the sea now,” he said. “It is islands I have grown less fond of. They all seem haunted with you.”

He woke up under Thomas’ gaze. Thomas never tired of watching him. It was to wonder, James thought, if he slept at all. He held out his hand in the space between their beds and Thomas took it. It pulled James out of the water that he didn’t know had begun to pool around him. His memory smelled like salt now.

 


 

They were on their way back from the mill. Night had fallen and the stars shone might above. Waiting for the hay wain that would bring them back to the barracks, James and Thomas sat against a tree. James’ gaze was attached to the sky and his lips murmured names. “What do you see?” Thomas asked.

“The island.”

“Where the gems are buried. The one that entices minds and drowns the hearts.”

James chuckled once. “That one.”

Thomas paused for a moment. “Tell me what it looks like.”

James turned and shook his head. In the dim darkness, Thomas seemed to drift away, then nodded. A ray of moon light caught his silvery hair and he seemed immaterial.

 


 

In the morning, they had breakfast with the others in a large room. There was cornbread, goat cheese and some tea.

“Do you still want to know about the island?” he asked Thomas.

Thomas put down his cup. “If I can remove from your mind some of the weight it bears, and if the words can carry that weight into me so that I can know what claws at you, then yes. Tell me.”

James breathed out. “Inland, most of the terrain is swamp and forest. We saw no wildlife, but noticed traces of it. The ground is soft and swallows the steps as one marches. The trees are so tall they obscure the sky almost entirely. There are two small bays and two creaks, one of each at the North and South. The water is stagnant and becalmed. I cannot remember the inlet’s banks and beaches without blood and bodies on them,” he said.

Thomas had never let go of his eyes and James had held onto them. “How many bodies?”

He had seen Dooley come behind Silver, and his hand had fired already while his mind was attached to the image of the blade that would have come out of Silver’s chest. “Too many for it to make sense. It was never enough.”

 


 

He had noticed that Thomas’ touch on his cheeks and neck felt different, but had not really been able to place it. It took him some time to realize that the hands that he remembered were fine and pale were hardened, the skin thickened and dry in places. They compared them during a break from work. Thomas’ calluses were at the heel, from shoveling, and along the side of the index finger, from ratooning. His were across the palm and at the heel of the thumb from the ropes and the swords.

Thomas smiled, not without sadness. “Do you remember-...”

“Yes. Yes,” James said, hoarsely.

James McGraw was already awake when Thomas Hamilton opened his eyes. The young Lieutenant drew up his socks over his calves and Thomas watched, his cheek still in the pillow. Miranda walked into the room, her silk gown about her like a cloud, and held out a small golden, engraved bowl that held a brightly white pumice stone. “Here. What did you want it for?” she asked James.

The younger man tied the black ribbon into his hair and gave a smile reminiscent of shyness. “For my hands,” he explained. He took the stone from Miranda. She sat on the bed, near Thomas’ feet. They both watched quietly as James rubbed the stone at the calluses in his palm. “Whitehall may value the Admiralty's influence and the hard work of its naval officers, but most of its Lords dislike to shake hands that betray said work.”

Thomas sat up in bed. “When we move to Nassau, you will not have to do this anymore,” he said. “Your hands bear only the mark of your work in the world. You should not have to hide it.”

James chuckled. From his hands, tiny flakes of skin fell to the ground. “Chances are that, during the voyage, you will acquire some of those marks yourself.”

The young Lord cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”

“If we encounter a storm, we might need all able-bodied men to keep us on course.” He put the stone back in its hold and grinned. “I will show you how to tie knots, pull ropes, climb masts. Might make an acceptable sailor out of you.”

Miranda looked at her husband. Her smile became a cascading laugh. “What?” Thomas said, his own smile broad.

“Lord Thomas Hamilton, salon host, philosopher of the Parliament and acceptable sailor of the high seas,” she said.

In the parlor, the maid dusting the tall velvet curtains heard their laughs echo through the bedroom's closed door.

 


 

He drew it at night, by candlelight, with the taste of blood at the back of his throat. It was partly from memory of Avery’s journals, partly from remembrance of his stay. It still seemed like he had lived years there, in the jungle of Silver’s lies and truths. When his dreams took him at their deepest, he woke with his ear still buzzing from the bullet’s graze. He had not heard Silver’s strangled gasp, but he had seen it. The words then had taken a moment to reach him. “Captain Flint is dead,” Silver had said, a tear touching his lip.

When he was done, he showed the map to Thomas. “Strange that what drives fear into our soul could be such a tranquil shape of curves and lines,” Thomas said, running his finger along the edged contours.

“At least, it does not fester in my mind anymore,” James said. “Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw its imprint, like a burn.”

Thomas folded the map, in two, then again, and again, until it was but a square in his palm. Then, he slid it into the pocket of his nightshirt, the one near the heart. James leaned forward and covered it with his hand.

 


 

That night, he slept soundly.

 


 

He woke up at the crack of dawn, and walked outside, fetching some water from the well to wash his neck and face.

Sure enough, Silver waited for him there. “There’s not everything on that map,” he said. “The cache is missing.”

“Of course it is,” Flint said. “Do you know why?”

“Because he would never ask you about it.” Silver shook his head. “And do you know why I know that?”

James looked on, and waited for the answer.

Silver turned his face toward the sun. “Because I would not have asked either.”