did I do with all
the rage he gave me?
How much did I eat,
did I swallow?
What hell did I crawl out
What did I do with all his
(“Fire” Caitlyn Siehl)
Sometimes they dismantle old ships that are too splintered and too old, too expensive to put back into the sea, and build houses out of them. Why waste the wood? Why not sell it to a farmer who might build a barn to house his crop, to a family that wishes to nestle in a cottage by the woods?
When storms rage on the ocean, the wood creaks in longing, salt burning through the fibers. Even when the air is still, the cottage quiet – even then, the ship’s skeleton shivers and calls for the sea. Bent and shaped into something unrecognizable, stuffed with hay and miles from the water, it keens and keens like an animal gutted.
That is how to feels to become Long John Silver, reshaped by Nassau’s histories, and ache for James Flint.
They are three days away from Savannah. Here is Flint in front of him, pieces of himself rattling like a soothsayer’s knucklebones, and history sewing itself shut. Captain Flint is dead to the world, James McGraw not yet arrived at Savannah – here they are, on this ship.
“Do you think this is what Charon must feel like?” Silver asks, voice rusty from disuse. They have barely spoken, choosing to steal glances at one another as if groping around for ghosts.
Flint catches on immediately, though he does not reply for a long while. “Does that make me Orpheus?”
Silver’s laugh is short and dull. “Orpheus snuck into the Underworld through trickery, not dragged there kicking and screaming against his will and disbelief.” What he does not say is, Thomas is no Eurydice. What he does not say is, Orpheus died alone. What he does not say is, this is no hell in front of you -- only me, only me. “And anyway, I bet your singing voice is shit.”
Another silence, longer than the last, until at last Flint is looking at him, and Silver – fuck, Silver would rather face Cerberus than imagine the wry twist to Flint’s mouth that would have been his reply once upon a time. Now – “What would you have your payment be?” Flint asks him, ragged.
Silver says, “Five million Spanish dollars,” but what he means is, you.
It took Odysseus ten years to find something akin to peace, but not before bearing witness to ten years of tragedy. The list of them must wrap around his throat: here is Helen, who sailed a thousand ships but never held an oar; here is Troy, morphing into ash; here is a child wailing. Here is Cassandra, blood on her thighs and hands held up to the sun as if to strangle it. Here is Hector, pulling tragedy out of Patroclus’ mouth and cutting himself into ribbons on Achilles’ cries, his sword, his rage.
The Odyssey sits well-worn and well-read on Flint’s shelf, but it is The Iliad that Silver turns over in his hands.
“Do you remember what you said to me that day in the cage? About rage?” He glances up from the book’s binding and finds Flint frowning over their inventories.
Flint abandons the paperwork in favor of turning his frown on Silver. He studies him from across the cabin, quizzical. “I do.”
“Many wars have been fought in its name,” Silver says, careful. He holds up the novel, smiling self-patronizingly, as though this is nothing more than a book club discussion. “It does not leave anyone unscathed other than the gods.”
“Not even the gods.” Silver would give his soul to put a name to the thing on Flint’s face. He would close his eyes against a thousand Trojan horses, if only to reach out and touch him. And yet he stands here, suspended, wondering how it is that he can be Achilles and Patroclus both.
How is it that he told Flint that he would be the one to ruin him, and yet. And yet.
“No,” Silver agrees. “Not even the gods. And even if they were spared, we are not gods.”
Sometimes Flint’s gaze feels like he is pouring fuel along Silver’s skin, tenderly coating him in tar and setting him on fire. Like John is Charlestown, and Nassau, and Flint’s own ribcage – every city that James has ever burned.
“We don’t have to be,” Flint says.
The last time Long John Silver drinks with Calico Jack, they sit in Eleanor’s-then-Max’s-then-Roger’s-then-nobody’s tavern. Jack manages to drink his rum and polish his nails at the same time, looking at once bored and deeply understanding. Silver just drinks.
“They have been coming here for stories more than the ale and the song,” Jack is saying. “Yours most of all, of course. Pirate King with a mysteriously missing partner. Your friend Billy was quite something when it came to telling tales, wasn’t he?”
Silver forces his face to remain stoic; Jack knows what he is doing, of course. Jacks knows too much, details glimpsed from Max’s spies and the men’s drinking songs. More than that, Jack was there on the ship that saw the last of Captain Flint. Jack could doom him, if only he were more concerned with the truth.
“You flatter Billy too much,” Silver says, cold as stone.
Jack wrinkles his nose, unimpressed. “Do I?” It falls flat, though it is phrased as a question, and Jack does not deign to wait for an answer. “His story is done, in either case. His flock – scattered.” He waves a hand to illustrate his point. “Long John Silver’s story is out of all our hands.”
“Not yours?” Silver lifts his eyebrows. “I’ve seen you hold court here, Jack.”
Jack graces him with a sardonic smile, then seems to change his mind and softens it. “They don’t need you anymore,” he says, as though he knows the relief that must come with it. “Long John Silver is as dead as Captain Flint.”
Not quite, Silver thinks. What he says is, “I’m still here.”
“And yet you have no part to play.” Jack looks at him, pitying. “I will not tell them, of course, how it came to be that Captain Flint was betrayed by his partner. They will come up with their own explanations, and that will become truth in its own right. What you and Flint had…” Here he trails off, aware of his own unwelcome. Silver watches him silently. “What you and Flint had, it is not Long John Silver’s, either. It is only yours, if you will bear it.”
“And if I will not?” Silver means to grit it out through his teeth, wants to warn Jack to watch his fucking step. Instead he sounds resigned.
Jack shrugs, and throws back the rest of his drink in preparation of departure. “Something tells me you do not have much of a choice there.”
James’ boots touch the dust of Savannah, and John swallows. “And so Odysseus makes it home,” he says, so softly that James could not hear him even if he knew to listen.
He looks at the back of James’ head and sees nothing else. Nothing but the blood-copper of it, the pale skin of his neck, the sea-worn linen of his shirt – a painting of homecoming that even Homer could not describe in full. John wants to lick every drop of blood off of him, kiss every bruise and beg forgiveness into the hollow of his throat. He has wanted James whole, but as he watches the last of Flint fall away and shatter, John’s chest blooms with panic.
Stay, he thinks, and says, “I’m sorry.” When James does not respond, he calls out, “Please,” and, “I wish—”
“What?” James asks, exhausted. “What do you wish?”
John only looks at him, memorizes details that will inevitably fade with time. Here is the arch of James’ brows; here is the constellation on his collarbone; here is his grief, his hope, his rage. Here is the imprint of John Silver, curled in the echoes of his heart chamber.
“Don’t look back,” John says at last.
James shakes his head at him. It is a wrong myth, after all. They know each other too well to repeat Orpheus’ folly. Their tenderness is the mutual destruction that is born of Achilles’ rage.
“Why does it matter?” James asks him. “I know that you will not be behind me either way.”
John watches him walk away, hands bound, eyes forward. At least, he thinks, if they were a story in the Bible, James would not have turned to salt.
John Silver is leagues from the sea, even further from Savannah, and yet his bones thrum. Can a ship be marooned? If so, that is what he is. A ship-turned-house, homeless for eternity.
He will not know when Flint is dead, he will not know when Flint is hungry or tired or alone. He has lost the privilege of knowledge of anything other than their names and their stories.
And yet, his bones groan. And yet, the treasure is still buried. And yet, they still tell myths of Long John Silver. And yet, and yet.
But myth, we are told, is only poetry.
What have we said when we say that? Do we mean that it rose out of an arbitrary act of the imagination? Nobody seriously believes that. Genuine poetry is never arbitrary.
("Dionysus: Myth and Cult" Walter F. Otto)