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The Squid Is A Metaphor

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Very few domestic arts accommodate hook hands so adequately as crochet, a fact that delighted and plagued Six-Fingered Archie. He had been sensitive about matters of self-expression even longer than he’d been a pirate. That didn’t mean he was a dummy, though, which was why, every time he had the chance, he stole down to the storage hold and warned the rest of the crew to steer clear. The tall tales and lewd comments were more than balanced out by the simple pleasure of watching his cutlass cozy emerge from the end of his hook.

He didn’t even see Wednesday coming. As he opened the door, as furtive as furtive could be, the cat slipped through his ankles, skittered purposefully back and forth, and disappeared somewhere behind the Captain’s special store of bumboo liquor.

Six-Fingered Archie grumbled to himself, but set his lantern on its hook and began feeling around behind the stacks of oilcloth. His mind was on those final rows, and Wednesday’s claws scrambled over the wood floor, just behind the barrels of salt pork. Six-Fingered Archie reached further back. Surely his ball of Auckland mohair was right where he left it.

Donk.

Wednesday caught the thing smack on the head. It rolled moodily away and lay there on the floor while the cat stared up at Six-Fingered Archie, slightly bug-eyed and oddly cheerful. Six-Fingered Archie hesitated. Wednesday sat on her haunches and began grooming her stomach. He made his decision. The Auckland mohair would wait for him.

It was scrimshaw, a sperm whale’s tooth the size of a fist. The whole affair was elaborately carved: it seethed with figures and ships and torrid prose. Six-Fingered Archie squinted by the light of his lantern. “You are so dead… to me,” he read, turning the tooth in his good hand. Wednesday blinked at him, her tongue a cheery pink between her teeth. Six-Fingered Archie studied the figures more closely. “Oh dear,” he said, and pocketed the thing.

*

“This is it?” Spriggy Jim hefted the scrimshaw carving and frowned. “This is what hit Wednesday?”

“Neptune’s salty tits!” Salty Walter’s eyes went wide. “But that’s really him, isn’t it.” He snatched the carving from Spriggy Jim, who continued to glare at it.

Dog Johnny huddled closer to peer at the details. “It has to be. Look at his face.”

“I’d stake my good hand on it,” Six-Fingered Archie announced.

Off in the distance, another voice interjected. “Whee!”

Salty Walter shook his head. “Briny breasts of Venus! I never knew.”

“Are you serious? It’s plain as the hair on your—”

“Has someone seen my nemesis?”

The pirates all turned around at once. The Captain towered in front of them, in all his outlaw glory. Dog Johnny dropped the carving into one of Six-Fingered Archie’s pockets. The Captain missed it as he glowered toward the sea.

Everyone straightened up. “Uh, no, sir,” said Spriggy Jim. “It’s just the squid.” Six-Fingered Archie pointed with his hook hand.

“Hello!” the squid called out, waving at least four of its monstrous tentacles.

The Captain narrowed his eyes. He pulled his portrait of his nemesis from his inner pocket and held it up against the horizon. Vengeance visibly filled his heart. The squid’s tentacles fanned out from behind the frame. “You are so dead to me,” the Captain muttered to himself.

The pirates all eyed each other frantically. “Ohmygod,” whispered Dog Johnny.

“Amphitrite’s saline spit!” Salty Walter agreed under his breath.

“Party!” the squid cooed, bobbing up and down.

*

“Somebody explain this to me. What is the squid doing here again?”

“It’s a metaphor,” said Old Leg, sucking on the end of his unlit pipe.

Spriggy Jim tugged harder on the knots in the rigging. “I thought ships got omens at sea.”

“It’s a post-modern world, Jim. Omens aren’t cool.”

“Fine.” Spriggy Jim sounded unconvinced. “What’s it a metaphor for?”

Old Leg made an expansive gesture toward the deck. “Ain’t it obvious? As does the Captain, so does all of we.”

“That makes no sense at all.”

“Deconstruct, lad, deconstruct!” Old Leg watched Six-Fingered Archie emerge from belowdecks, looking anxious. “The Captain’s our head. We’re his many legs. It’s all connected. We follow his lead.”

Spriggy Jim flipped open his knife and began sawing at the rope. “Or you’re constructing your own subjective meaning, and really all we want is to play catch and giggle.”

Old Leg shook his head. “I think it’s good the Captain’s baring his soul at us. It brings us all a little closer.”

He snorted. “That sounds like a metaphor for ship’s gossip.” One Leg pursed his lips, but did not dignify that with a response.

*

“It’s a travesty,” said Stan.

Tom crossed his arms, his anchor tattoo bulging. “Your mom is a travesty.”

“Your face is a travesty!”

“Lads!” The bosun stamped his foot. “More important matters at hand. Who is defiling our ship?” He pointed again to the words carved into the foremast. If you like Blackbeard but not Anne Bonny, I judge you. The beginnings of a decorative curlicue design framed the proclamation.

“We don’t know,” said Tom. “We just found it.”

Stan pointed. “Cliché Aweigh found it.”

“Don’t call me that!”

The bosun grabbed the backs of their vests and knocked their heads together. “Focus, ye swabs!” He dropped them, and straightened to his full height in front of the secret. The muscles in his jaw bulged as he clenched and unclenched his fist. “If there’s someone aboard who hates on Anne Bonny,” he said, his voice shaking, “he’ll have me to answer to.”

Stan and Tom eyed each other. “She’s the greatest,” Stan piped up.

“This,” said Tom.

*

Of course everyone was watching when Wednesday skittered across the fo’c’sle and right off the bow of the ship. The squid rose up out of the water and caught her with a delighted squeal. “Friend!”

“Get your filthy hands off her!” cried Spriggy Jim, and vaulted off the jibboom into the water. The crew rushed to the side of the ship and cheered him on as he threw himself at the squid, fists swinging.

“Whee!” the squid said, and lifted Spriggy Jim up in the air. Wednesday hung limply in another tentacle, staring back at the crew. “Hugs!” exclaimed the squid, at which point Spriggy Jim got a well-aimed kick at the squid’s monstrous eye. “Wah,” said the squid, dropping them both, and sank, bewildered, back beneath the waves.

Wednesday bobbed once beneath the water, but Spriggy Jim scooped her up in one arm and propelled himself back to the ship. Of course they all got roaring drunk to celebrate. Spriggy Jim may have been an old-fashioned literalist, but he was one of them, and everybody liked the cat to some extent. Even the Captain got a little less steely-eyed. “My nemesis would find you a worthy adversary,” he said to Jim while the others played Tortuga Twister. The Captain narrowed his eyes. “Though he will always be my nemesis. Not yours.”

“Of course,” said Spriggy Jim, pleasantly sloshed on bumboo.

*

“Triton’s savory sweetmeats! You look like a man who needs something.”

Six-Fingered Archie tried to pull away from Salty Walter’s headlock. “Just getting some fresh air.”

Salty Walter squinted at the door. “Belowdecks?”

He patted him on the cheek. “Give yourself a whiff.”

“Brackish balls of Nereus!” he heard Salty Walter exclaim as he retreated into the storage hold.

The rest of the crew could continue to party: Six-Fingered Archie had more urgent affairs on his mind. Both his cutlass cozy and his Auckland mohair were no place to be found. Someone knew his secret, and at the very least, Six-Fingered Archie would have to kill a crewmember soon. That was still, he hoped, an act of last resort. He had every intention of tearing the storage hold apart: the whipping he’d get for disturbing their supplies was nothing to the thought of losing all that work.

The storage hold, unfortunately, was already occupied. Six-Fingered froze in the door: Glühwein stared back at him, clutching a small barrel to his chest. They blinked at each other, each in a somewhat vulnerable moment. “What are you doing here?” Glühwein asked.

“Uh.” Six-Fingered Archie coughed. “Lookin’ for… something.”

Glühwein clutched the barrel closer. The stamp on the side identified the contents as pickled hog’s feet. “It wasn’t this, was it?”

“Not in the slightest.”

Glühwein sniffled. “Your loss. It’s beautiful.”

Six-Fingered Archie furrowed his brow. “Is it?”

“Yes.” Glühwein turned the barrel around and shoved it into the light. Someone had glued an elaborate collage to the front, made up of King’s proclamations, wanted posters, fine wine labels and, if Six-Fingered Archie guessed right, a set of coasters from a tavern in Halifax.

I was only pretending to be asleep when you whispered “I’ll kill him for you.”

“Wow,” said Six-Fingered Archie, moved despite himself.

“Right?” Glühwein hugged the hog’s feet. “I mean, who hasn’t been there?”

*

Old Leg and Dog Johnny were thrown in the brig for fighting over whether the secrets were now a trend or a meme. Dog Johnny could be heard shouting about semiotics well into the afternoon. Despite the uproar, there was no stopping the spread of secrets now. They appeared everywhere: beaten into the rims of tin cups, nailed on the gangplank, bedazzled onto the oilskin tarps, strung across the cabin doors.

I know about you and Shifty Charlaine! I think you should go ahead.

Behind every great pirate a great mom came first!

Three trips around the world and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

Spriggy Jim woke up after the party with a lovingly detailed portrait of Wednesday tattooed above his heart. When you saved her, you saved me too. Thanks. That was when the Captain knew he had to call order.

The crew assembled before him, each pirate blinking uncertainly and shuffling his feet. Spriggy Jim squirmed and started rubbing his chest. “Leave it be!” hissed Stan. “You’ll smudge it.”

“Pirates!” the Captain said. He put his hands on his hips. “We are losing focus. We must remember what it is we came to the high seas to do.” The crew waited with bated breath. The Captain narrowed his eyes. “It is to scourge the waters of the world for my nemesis. Also, to see if my portraits of him are still accurate, for filling myself with vengeance.”

No one spoke, on or near the ship. Then: “Sweet succulent Circe, the Cap’n’s right!”

“Is that a metaphor for something?”

“Your mom is a metaphor.”

The Captain dismissed them, satisfied his crew was on task again, and retreated to his room for further contemplation of his tragically out-of-date portraits.

*

Six-Fingered Archie could find no peace that night. He roved the ship like a lost soul, compulsively cleaning under his nails with his hook. His Auckland mohair, his cutlass cozy and the last three months of his life were gone, just like that. His only hope was that Davy Jones himself was getting fine use of all his hard work. “And artistry,” he muttered to himself. Six-Fingered Archie was an artist, and that was the truth.

Wednesday skittered underfoot, nearly tripping him. “Damn cat!” he shouted, as Wednesday bonked into the mizzenmast, recovered and began clawing her way toward the sail. Six-Fingered Archie sighed, and started toward her. The last time she’d gotten up in the rigging, it had taken four men to untangle her and get her down. He tried to guess where she’d climb. What met his eye stopped him dead in his tracks.

There it was, sewn into the sail for all to see: his cutlass cozy. It practically glowed in the moonlight, the rich goldenrod wool jumping off the rough tarp like a hundred lanterns. The thread was still in one piece, too: in fact, a message had been stitched alongside it.

I’m not sorry!

A small macramé owl dangled from the end of the yarn. Six-Fingered Archie stared. Something fell out of his pocket, but he was too floored to notice. Sitting beneath the owl, Old Leg swung his peg leg and looked at Six-Fingered Archie with hope in his face.

“My Auckland mohair,” he stammered.

“Aye,” Old Leg conceded. “But, on at least a theoretical level, wouldn’t ye say it was worth it?”

*

The Captain was alone, as he was always alone, at heart. He prowled the deck of his ship, telescope in hand. The sea was vast and inscrutable around him, but the Captain knew better. He knew what lurked out there, somewhere over the horizon. He knew it intimately.

Something bumped against his boot. He looked down, already preparing a reprimand for whoever let something foul up the deck of his ship. His hand went slack, and his telescope fell and rolled away.

He picked up the scrimshaw and cradled it against his chest. “You are so dead to me,” he whispered, and looked out at the horizon.

The weight of the years closed around him: the fights, the laughter, the terrible engine of their rage. The Captain pressed the cold bone close, because he knew what it was to be there. The cold bone, ravaged with memories, was him.

His hand acted before he knew he’d made the decision. The scrimshaw carving, and all it implied, dropped over the rail and into the turbulent wake of his ship. The Captain gasped, and peered over the edge. He reached for the portrait tucked in his jacket.

“Ow,” said the squid, which bobbed to the surface, its tentacles flailing.