Ben Gunn manned the winch; lowered him down. The little boat scraped at the stern of the Hispaniola. Banged; tapped. Silver kept his eyes on him until the man disappeared from view. Kept his eyes up, even then. Sighted along the lines, as the boat swung free. Level with the officer's quarters, now. The night air; the sea birds. (His own shrouded, on his shoulder.) A great groaning of the ropes and he was lowered again. Stopped. Lowered. He shifted his weight and the boat rocked. He kept his eyes up, along the creaking lines. Lowering. Lowering and then: the plash of water. He felt the ropes ease. Then he looked down, at last; unfastened the hook and tugged on the ropes, and breathed deep of the salt air. Behind him, the hook swung as it began its ascent: black silhouetted against the dark blue sky. Silver settled himself. In the thick soft blackness he slid a hand into his jacket pocket. The weight there. He lifted it out. Weighed the bag in his hand: the heft of it. He tucked the thing between his thighs, just behind his knees.
He took up his oars.
The thing of it was: with time and telling, tales grew threadbare.
And a man like Silver, with a lifetime of practice at it. He could make anything real, couldn't he? Could make any world seem solid to the people who heard him. There'd been a time, he thought, when in the making, he'd felt his own boots hard on the decks of those ships again himself. There was nothing like that life, he'd told his listeners, lined up down the bar with their rums before them at a ha'penny a glass. No denying the sea, he'd said, and there'd been a time when, as he'd said it, he could taste the salt on his lips. Nothing like hardwood and water, he'd said, and he'd banged on the tavern floor the peg he still sometimes wore. As they'd laughed more than the feeble jest deserved he used to feel again the way, on the Walrus, the wound had used to ache. That seemed incredible, now. It'd been years since any story of his had made him feel like that, in his own flesh.
He caught himself thinking of that time, the time when he could become his own audience, as those days. Remembering them, hazy-eyed, in the way of old men. But there had been days before those, he had to remind himself. Days before the telling; before the believing in it. Surely those, for any sane man, were the times to think on. The Maroon Kingdom, and Hands, on the beach that day, and pulling aside a man on the Walrus, saying confidentially… Standing on a promontory, with a sword, the sun in his eyes: how do you look two places at once? Surely the living of it had felt more real, then, than the telling had felt before he'd worn the telling through. He knew that those days, in the minds of—other people—
But gold, he thought. These pieces, between his knees. If a man held it in his hand, and just kept holding.
Quiet banging; rubbing; kissing of wood on wood in the night. A comfort, those sounds. The black lapping water. Echoing laughter and the shouts of the men on the Spanish ships off the harbor, their lantern-lights reflecting off the water; and Silver, slipping through their ranks. The flexion of his back and his arms. Dip, and push. He bobbed. Glided. Flushed with gold and quietness.
The Urca gold, he thought, rolling the phrase over on his tongue. And then, with a sharpness about the thought, a haste near unwelcome: at Severn Beach. Yes. That hut by the shore, the one they'd agreed on years ago. In August she might even be warm, waiting. For a moment, he could almost feel: the ghost of the ghost of the warmth of her skin. The fragrant folds of her. Rubbing coconut oil into chapped hands in the summer night.
But he could. Could hardly take ship here. To stay out of sight, that was the thing. To slip amongst the reeds… and hence ports south. That was the best course. Roast pig; dry it; feed the Spaniards and pass amongst them. From Spain he'd any number of ways back to England. He'd done as much more times than he could count.
On the top of a slight rise at the mouth of the harbour, jagged stone edges hulked at the stars. He'd seen in the daylight: an old fort it was, the worse for the years. Abandoned a century ago, must be. Maybe more. Cannonaded; unrepaired. Left to be grown over. To disappear. Whole sections of the star-point fortifications blasted away; left gaping to the elements. As the Hispaniola had sailed in, the bay mouth had closed on them; had twisted. And then this hoary old monster had reared up on their starboard, and a low tidal river had flowed away, to their port.
Through the night Silver pulled himself along.
She'd left him twice, Madi had. So when this latest rumour had reached their inn she could hardly ask him not to—and what's more, he'd told her, had he not, what he was about.
That first time, in Havana, when he'd woken in the boarding-house room and found her gone: she hadn't told him then. Not except her eyes: but he'd said, I know it was supposed to be a shorter stay, and she'd said, It doesn't matter. Shaken her head. He'd known she hadn't wanted to come with him; known it had been her mother who had said: Go. He'd known she'd have rather stayed; played queen in her Maroon Kingdom; but there too he'd seen she was restless. Everything'd changed; she was unsettled. He'd seen that she couldn't be still, and yet that she wouldn't leave, and then the half-sanctioned pirates that were Jack Rackham and his motley women had come over from Nassau and said, business opportunity, and said, your particular… talents, and said, third-largest city in the Americas I hear, and Silver's mouth had watered and Madi had shut her eyes and her mother had said: Go. And in Havana—he'd seen her eyes widen at the way the hands moved of the old Spanish grandmothers lace-making on their frames in the shadowed heat. That simple delight; he'd been uneasy, but she'd smiled. He'd had her on his arm when he'd gone to spin Rackham's yarns to Rackham's associates and his own tales to the fellows on the beach and he'd seen her wide smile and felt her grip his hand. He'd felt her, too, a moment later, release it; and when she'd done that he'd known she was thinking about the island. He'd known all this; but he hadn't known she was going until she went.
By the time he returned to Nassau she was back there, too. Not in her kingdom, but out there in the town for anyone to see. Barely three months the two of them had been gone; but it'd been enough. Silver'd seen that look on men dragged from the sea, lone survivors of wrecked crews. Drunk for a month as soon as they gained shore. Madi didn't drink, which made it worse.
We could go back together, John had said. Or, there are other islands, we could re-establish—or, your mother, we could—but her face twisted up with such furious grief that his throat felt scorched for even suggesting such things: for he could never believe them, if she didn't.
Civilisation, she'd said, then. It'd been exactly the intonation he'd used to use.
Back on the island, a week since, Ben Gunn'd had them all half-convinced they were listening to Flint's ghost. But if Flint haunted anything, Silver thought, it wasn't a hole in the ground on Skeleton Island.
Strange, the moments his own voice came back to him.
He kept the bow square to the waves and nudged; nudged toward the blackness, back turned to the the lowering wreck of the old fort. The moon was waxing gibbous and the stars were bright; eyes trained on the seam of water and sky, he could make out the break in the reeds. Another twenty minutes' rhythmic pulling and the current caught him. Tipping his head back: Ursa Major; Ursa Minor. Casseopeia. Southward, he rested the oars in the rowlocks. Let her drift, a minute, before he took them up again.
He liked it, he found: this little craft. Lovely, to bounce and bob and turn it about all on his own: the shirt on his back, crutches wedged against the starboard gunwale and the little bag of gold between his thighs.
Urca gold, he thought again. Almost said it out loud: the ring of that phrase. It'd been magic, all those years ago, in Nassau. It'd been possibility, for him; pure possibility made solid; but for Madi… Then he'd said that phrase, a month since, back of the bar at their inn: said it in that way they'd used to do. Like there the words held power. And her, looking at him like that. Blank, like that. It'd not drawn her. Not without her war to give her a reason for it. That girl, he thought. That warrior she'd been. He nudged the boat off a rock with his starboard oar. It was a wonder they'd rubbed along as long as they had, him with his craving for endless possibility and her with her single, defeated aim. But then, Madi wasn't her, not most times; and John wasn't—
The boy on the Hispaniola, Silver thought. Jim. If anything might raise Flint's spirit from… wherever it presently dwelt—furious as it had always been, disgusted as it had always been, lip curling as it'd always done, sneering civilisation like Silver'd heard a hundred times between the lips of his friend and the lips of his wife—it'd be that schooled, tamed, toadying kid. By Christ. God save the King and all. They'd trained him up proper. A credit to England. England: Silver could hear the jeer of it, and he felt swamped, drowning, with—fondness; horror; rising horror—and then the tide withdrew. Breathing in the night air. Truly, he thought: if anything were to bring back old Flint, Silver's Flint, from Hell or from Savannah or from wherever he might be, it'd be the sickening spectacle of that lad, automaton for England.
Sometimes, on the voyage over, Silver had looked at Jim and thought: could've been—that boy from before could've been—before—
But he couldn't. Irrelevant, he had told Flint, twenty-five years ago, before he'd ever told a story of theirs to another person. He wasn't that boy, either.
With the first glimmer of pink in the east came low, flat banks. Swamp-grasses stretched out to either side of the twisting river, and the whole thing shone rose. It was land as flat as the sea. The closest land could press itself to water; the tightest water could ever hold the land. But there was enough of a current to carry him, he thought. And his eyes were heavy.
He rested the oars in the locks and reached up. He untied the black cloth at his shoulder and the bird ruffled her feathers. 'S'BLOOD,' she said, offended, puffing herself up.
'Oh,' Silver said, mild. 'Is that right.'
'PIECES OF EIGHT!' she said, and clicked her beak in an officious, meddlesome manner as he transferred her to the top of the gunwale and then slid himself off the seat; lowered himself down. He took off his jacket and wadded it up into a makeshift cushion for his head, and he lay back with one hand clutching the little bag of Urca gold against his belly. Captain Flint clicked and clicked.
He pulled her black cloth over his own eyes. It smelt of the musk of her feathers, and the tobacco of his pipe. 'PIECES OF EIGHT!' she screamed down at him, from her perch above his face.
'That's good,' he told her, closing his eyes. 'You keep an eye out, for a while.'
The second time Madi'd left had been, what, five years since? Six? He'd known nothing then, either, spite of all the stories he'd told himself afterward. They'd had the lease on the inn a few, four years by then. One night she'd been filling rum-glasses and he'd been frying onions and at the bar a man with a broadsheet had been reading out about Carolina to all who cared to listen; about forty-some dead and an armed rebellion marching from the Stono River toward St. Augustine. The man had read about militia despatched to the Edisto; about the escape of some thirty chattel and the execution of others. Madi'd been laughing with Mr Jamison; he'd reached across to stroke her hand and she'd swatted his away. John'd not thought she was listening.
The next morning she was gone. Their savings as well, though it wasn't as if—it was the thing done with gold when a person needed to. They'd both always understood as much. The betrayal was in—he couldn't say what it was in. It was in the standing there, next to her, all that evening, and lying next to her all night, and having no notion of what was to come.
Madi'd never got a taste for rum but John had. For two months after she left he did little but fry meat, drink rum and find a way to tell it to himself. A way to remember. It would be madness, he told himself, for Madi to take ship to the American colonies; it would be madness for her to go in search of a rebellion months old and undoubtedly dispersed. It would surely be madness for her to attempt to rekindle Flint's war amongst a motley band of thirty runaways, hiding in the underbrush, herself now fifty years of age. It would be madness, and Madi was not mad; and so surely it was not what she had done.
He had thought of Carolina, and he had thought of Georgia, and he had thought, that if she found herself—if she found the rebellion quashed and herself—Christ, and he had scrubbed at his face and taken the bottle out back with him to drink in the dark because in the lamplight he couldn't think such things and then he'd thought, if she found herself, found herself fleeing, or. God. If she needed to get out of Carolina. If she found herself with no rebellion to aid and no desire, yet, to take ship, and she thought to herself: well. What would he do, without a war. What had he done without a war. John thought, in the dark, with a bottle in his hand: sure Madi would never make that journey. But. If she had. What would she have found?
When he'd woken in the night with her beside him in their bed it had been as if the argument happened in a dream. As if, despite months spent filling his mouth with every question he had to ask, they had been replaced, while he was sleeping, with other words entirely.
You miss your subjects, he had sneered at her, gasping, leaning his weight on the side-table with his night-shirt open around his gut and his throat and his cock, feeling like a snail with its shell ripped off and her, looking like a queen.
I miss my people, she had said, and he had said: Exactly. And her freezing look—
In the sleeting English November down by the shore he'd leaned into the wind. I'm not him, he'd thought, furiously, impotently; and the wind had cut at him and the waves had crashed and split like cannon on the rocks. I'm not him, he had said, aloud, and thought of her standing like that in a parlour in Savannah, shoulders back, expecting, demanding, I'm not him, I'm, I'm not—
He had never asked her, after. With her whole and warm and returned to him he couldn't bear to. They had never spoken of it again.
When he opened his eyes and pulled himself up to look over the side of the rowboat, the river had widened out. Late afternoon: the sun beat down, shone in wide arcs off the water; the shadows were only beginning to lengthen. Sweat ran in rivulets down his back. It soaked the backs of his thighs. Captain Flint clicked at him, disapproving: a bright-blue flutter of feathers at the corner of his gaze.
Off in the distance, where the water met the sky, white dots grew gradually into triangles, layered one against the other. He drifted, and they clustered around masts. Enough ships that it'd be a harbour. A settlement of some size. Three days, he reckoned; a week at most; and he'd sail for Spain with some new crew. England by September. Severn Beach. Silver reached over into the river to splash water on his face, and pulled himself back up to sitting. Pulled himself back up to the seat, and took hold of the oars.