I laid in my bed one night with thoughts of Jack swimming in my head. I smiled, relief swallowing me. My love was a monster like me. Such luck was mine that Jack should be as eternal as the sea herself, and twice as fair.
Twice as deadly, too.
I wondered what his ilk might be, but dismissed the thought as unimportant.
How had I known him without knowing him to be the one? Guilt shot through me as I remembered my attempts to hang him. For as much power as it dangled above me, duty had kept me on a tight leash.
I recalled his dainty wrists from our first meeting on Port Royal’s docks, the deadly way the fine bones undulated under golden skin when I held them. I thought of those same deadly wrists guiding wicked fingers under my breeches.
I imagined my hands as his, teasing the hardness gathered at my groin. His depraved, dark eyes twinkling stars in the moonlight, a slick tongue rough with brine and thunder. He would smell pure like the ocean he so loved, until the point when he loved me more than she and so smelled like me instead.
I would swallow his manhood and cause him to cry out in a voice like honey. I would taste, suck and consume until he was mine, and marked me in return.
I liked to think he would part his thighs on my sheets, bonelessly flexible from climax, and let me slip between them. My hand moved faster, making soft sounds I could believe as being wrought from Jack’s supple flesh.
My beautiful monster, I thought, coming with his name on my lips.
As we sailed by Spain and through the Mediterranean, I grew aware of my obligation to pay tribute to the power in the waters. The mermaid coven that resided off Sardinia was small but influential. Should we pass through the Greek islands, I expected to meet with the main coven.
I stole away late in the night when the ship had slowed and the winds were calm. I sped northeast through darkened waters with a small oilskin secured around my neck, leaving my ship and crew behind.
Merfolk are not hard to find, even in the darkest of nights. Pure notes of song do travel through the depths, ocean life rendered impotent by its magic. Once I reached my waypoint I began to hear their music, softly at first, and then all at once; all but consuming me. By some waving weeds, a large docile shark stared at me with blank eyes, a small school of fish calmly flanking it. I could not stifle my natural instinct to avoid the creature, as without the mers’ song it would surely pursue me.
A sudden hand caressed my back and I darted away for a moment, spooked. My heart racing, I swam back, frustration that would normally stain my cheeks red instead flashing in my green eyes. A mermaid flicked her tail at me, her sharp copper teeth splitting her face into a smile. Dark, warm hued skin contrasted with her inky, silvered kin in the Caribbean, and served to remind me that this territory was not my own.
“This way, green eyes,” drawled the mermaid.
I allowed her outstretched hand to guide me to her coven, trusting.
The coven resided among a colourful reef and mossy rocks, and a dozen fish laid suspended by song, like silver leaves on a coral tree. The matriarch seemed enchanted by me, spiralling around me, her characteristic stout form smaller than even my seal one. We spoke the language of the deep; while it had various dialects, unlike land it had no borders.
“I call myself a selkie.”
“Very good,” said she. “You come alone?”
“The only one of my kind that I bring is me,” I assured, wishing not to invoke a territorial spat.
“Hmm... You’re a virgin, aren’t you?” she assumed. “Much better than those sluttish boys we have here. No respect. Wanton. You are a good boy, are you not? Tall...” She said the last as if it were a minor drawback.
“I do my best, Madame,” I said, wary of the submissive, svelte males that flexed their claws. “I bring a gift.” I gestured to my oilskin with a flick of my neck. “A lock of hair from a child yet to find love.”
A wicked smile clawed up her proud face. “You find what you love, and you let it kill you.” I forced a smile at her joke. Her coven giggled, unbidden. “Do you bring news from any of my sisters?”
“Yes. The Jamaican coven.”
“How do they fare?”
I chose my words in a manner to exclude any culpability from their meaning. I had no designs on sparking a war. “They ask likewise of you,” I said with a diplomatic dip of my head. I continued to outline their lives, skimming over any ideological freight as swiftly as a flat stone in a pond.
The matriarch took my words with good grace, but it was clear her interest lay in other things.
“I should like to see you again, selkie.”
“James, please. And as humbled as I am by your request, I am afraid I must deny it, as my course east demands a rigorous pace. I must return to my ship.”
She swam closer than comfort, her swaying breast glittering with mother of pearl. I swallowed past my true aversion to the situation. She spoke lowly, “I can’t imagine how, what with that nasty hurricane due to barrel through. It’s up there now, and will rise with the day.”
“Are you certain?” I asked, shocked. Mermaids were powerfully wise of all events, but I wondered if her personal attraction to me caused her to twist the truth.
To my dismay, she darted away, her expression dark. “You dare question me, whore! I,” she spat, “am the Queen of the Tyrrhenian. Lies are forbidden to pass my lips, and my sources are forbidden to lie.”
“I humbly apologise, fair Queen. I am unused to Mother Nature catching me so unaware. I am indebted to your information, as it is most valuable. Forgive me, please.”
Mollified, she continued our formalities, but with more distance.
I excused myself at the earliest possible moment; while it was vital not to offend them, I felt every moment passed heavy and ill omened. Catching up the Dauntless also took far too long – at one stage I felt elation to see a hull loom out of the moonless depths, only for it to reveal itself an old caravel.
Hours later saw me crawl into my room, gasping for breath, with my pelt half-shed. Bones cracked and rearranged as I dragged myself to my stationary; once there, I desperately scrawled a note.
I cast about for our little sparrow, and felt relief to alight on its fluffed-up form by the fireplace. It had burrowed into its nest of rags, illuminated by the soft embers in the hearth.
“Oh little one,” I apologised, gathering it up with shaking hands. “But this is of some import. Please, I implore of you haste.”
The tiny bird opened its eyes blearily and reproachfully. Deciding to decline wakefulness, it burrowed under my thumb and succumbed to Morpheus’ arms once more. I scratched behind its neck in the manner I knew it loved until its beady eyes opened again, feathers ruffling and smoothing.
I cast it out the window, its small wings beating a tattoo in the night.
“Pray thee be well,” I breathed into the moonless night. “Please.”
Despite my exhaustion I could not, should not sleep, and at various times cajoled three more birds – gulls, which were slower but sturdier – to speed into that dark night.
Dawn clawed weakly up onto our tired faces as I argued low with my officers, needing their advice but still refusing to heed it.
“You’ve never been wrong, sir. So listen as we have done – if there is a storm such as you say, surely we should avoid it.”
I rose to gaze out the cabin window, the Black Pearl’s sails racing afar through winds that now battered our sides. They struck our sails hard, pulling us fast towards Jack.
“We can dock at Sfax,” offered Snook, our pilot. He did not like me much, for reasons I could never grasp. This time, he spoke to Groves, seeming to ignore me entirely. “Chances are that storm’ll be heading for Tripoli.”
“As will Mister Sparrow, I don’t doubt,” I muttered.
I turned to see Groves and Mirren exchange a look. “Sparrow loves this game,” said Groves. “I bet a month’s wages that if he makes it through he’ll wait for us before dashing off again.”
And that was the problem. Icy doubt gripped my heart. My hands trembled as I gripped the back of my chair. He was a strong sailor; perhaps the best on that side of the law, but if the matriarch was true, then none could survive this.
“That wind’s pushing us on rather swiftly, is it not?”
Mirren nodded, professional as always. “Unnaturally so, sir.”
“We’ll go on,” I decided. “We have until midday. See if we can’t head him off around Sfax before he ruins us all.”
Midday came and ruined us. A black sky laughed, howling wicked to the churning waves as the Dauntless screamed aloud in a way I could not.
Three longboats carried off my men as I bundled in a fourth, my eyes stinging and my face impassive, when at the last moment I remembered my pelt. I halted our descent, and clambered back on board, using the railing to hoist myself onto deck.
“Sir!” cried Groves.
“Go now! That’s an order,” I shouted into the wind. A moment’s pause, and then the boat dropped once more.
I heard a shout, and saw Groves scramble over the rail. “Foolish mortals!” I cursed, and raced below to retrieve my fur. There was still time to save us both. I tore off my wig and coat as I went, but most of the clothes would have to remain in order for me to walk ashore with dignity.
My pelt retrieved, I found Groves clutching the stairway, his wig blown off and body shaking.
I stumbled forward. “Theodore!”
He turned to me as the mainmast yawned. An almighty crack echoed and the structure bowed, splintering at the sides. The deck uprooted, snapping from below. I grabbed Groves’ hand as the deck widened – an open mouth to swallow the sea and all the stragglers besides. Groves stumbled after me, and we ran together uphill to the hull. I pushed off his heavy coat so he might better float. In the distance, one of the longboats capsized as it hit a wave, and all I could make out was scrambling hands fading into jetsam.
“Trust me!” I shouted, but the words died on the wind. Groves shook his head, uncomprehending. I tried again, my lips next to his ear. This time, he nodded. I took him by the waist and threw us into the waves, using my body to break his fall. It hurt, the breath punched cruelly from my lungs, but what would have killed a human did not me.
Groves gasped, his eyes wide and limbs flailing in panic. I implored him to relax, so he might float, but he either heard me not, or could not obey. Quickly I dove below, wrapping my pelt around me. I used my limbs for as long as possible to hold my friend aloft while I shifted, then surfaced as soon as I was transformed. I inclined my head, attempting to place it under his hand, hoping he would get the drift. Instead he floundered away. Troubled, I tried again, positioning my body so he could cling onto my aquatic form. He stared at me and pushed away, kicking furiously.
It’s me! I said, or tried to, as what came out was closer to a bark. Debris flew beside us, and I ducked.
“Monster!” spluttered Groves, and my heart sank. I widened my eyes and hummed through the gale, weaving the preternatural notes into magic I had avoided all my life. As expected, Groves’ body relaxed and settled into something more pliant. Euphoric. Only fully functional in seal form, the spell enthralled humans, but it came at a dark price. Withdrawal struck weak souls, leaving them feverish but able to recover, while strong ones hunted after the song ruthlessly. When found, it was the song that drove these humans to covet their pelts, to lock them in human form, to rape and abuse.
For his sake, I hoped Groves was weak.
I continued humming as I swam towards him once more, hating the magic, the power imbalance it foretold. He did float like a starfish, his eyes becoming cow-like amidst the turbulent sea, and they were the last thing I saw before an airborne shard of wood drove through his neck. He sunk, a popped balloon, and never surfaced again.
I washed onto the shore with my lungs heaving and body trembling from the punishing pace with which I propelled myself from the wreckage. On the horizon, my Dauntless’ carcass splintered and sank gradually, as if taking each gasp of precious air before being consumed by the sea. I dried and rose as she fell into her watery grave. Tears pricked my eyes and I scrubbed at them furiously. I clutched at my pelt, digging my nails in and relishing the corresponding sting on my skin. I faced the maelstrom and let loose a scream.
In answer, a bird squawked, the wind whistled, and the waves licked the storm-muddied sand.
I fell onto my knees and stared at the horizon.
Time barely passed when a silhouette did wade in from a suddenly calm ocean. I rose. Jack beckoned to me, ocean to his knees, his hand outstretched and his beautiful face etched in worry. I swallowed and turned from him, striding further ashore.
As I wandered through the sands, I occasionally looked back to the sea. He would be there, watching me, following me from the shallows, not coming ashore. Not dragging his feet on the dirt nor daring to do anything of use. At times, I longed to go to him, hoping he would beg my forgiveness, but each time I turned away. I looked desperately about for the other longboats but to no avail. I told myself it is likely that they berthed in Malta or even Sfax. Though I was sure this was Libya, I know not my proximity to Tripoli.
Rain would sometimes batter me, or a coarse wind would buffet me, chilling me to the bone.
It was with this wind did I walk now. It pushed my chest and whipped sand against my face, and held my hand onwards. Blisters did burst on my feet, my discomfort a ready balm to my soul. Then for a moment, a shadow cast and a tiny ball of fluff tumbled before me onto the sands. My sparrow looked at me with dark eyes shining. It bore no message, and shied away from my touch. Drops of salty water fell onto it as I scooped it up; my voice wobbled as I whispered a spell to sever its tie to me.
I set it free, and it flew away.
My salt-licked hair fell limp from my face, wetting it, so I ripped a strip from my tattered shirt, and tugged the wayward strands back in a stout ponytail.
On the second morning, I stepped onto the tar-like sea and wrapped myself in my pelt. I stood there, waiting for Jack to appear, but he did not. I rolled my shoulders and dove. I sluiced through the brackish water at a steady pace; after a few minutes I spied him.
Sparrow raced to keep up, but his human-like form proved no match for a selkie. Though I remained unsure about what he was, he held his breath better than a dolphin, and I spared a thought to the impotency of the hangman’s noose on such a creature. His voice called to me, carrying supernaturally clear through the depths.
“Please, please, my love,” he pleaded, with the right amount of melancholy in his smooth timbre. I sped up, losing him with ease, though my lungs burned from exertion.
I surfaced in Tripoli to stare at a ship with black sails.
I found myself the dirtiest, bawdiest pub in the city, so rotten that not even its door survived. I stalked through past the maw of decaying teeth and painted smiles, its heavy smells and sticky floors, and looked upon my monster and despaired.
He blinked owlishly at me, the bottle in his hand frozen at half-mast. “Where’s your posse?”
Jack smelled not how I imagined, not plainly like the ocean deep, or even like a pure thunderstorm. No, he smelled like rum, salt, stale bread and tart apples. I found I preferred that more.
I looked down at his pretty face, and I punched it.
No sooner had I done so did a handful of swords draw to point at me, their metal sleek in the firelight. They stood loyal between their captain and the monster. I thought about driving myself into them.
Jack righted himself, rubbing his jaw. “What happened to you, then?” His eyes widened. “The hurricane?”
“Christ, but ye did not try sailin’ through it!” cried Gibbs, his sword lowering.
My eyes stung, my head swam, and I blinked furiously to clear it. Air, I needed air. Ignoring the swords still poised at me, I stumbled outside, tripping over a drunkard in the doorway. I cursed at him and started down the street and to the water. Stupid, so stupid.
I made it to the edge of the sea and stopped. Jack stood before me, his arms outstretched, his boots firm against the gentle lapping water.
A sudden curse made me turn. Jack stood behind me – his surprise was genuine, jumping back and nearly stumbling.
I looked between the two, alike as if a looking glass were placed between them. The Jack behind me took a few unsteady steps forward, his eyes so wide only a thin line of kohl could be seen. The other one before me stood steady.
A misty idea of the other Sparrow was forming. I thought of my sunken ship and crew; one thing I could be sure of was that he was a monster.
I lunged at the beast, my smallsword aiming for his neck. The other Jack somehow caught me by my midsection, unbalancing us both. The creature before me looked amused, licking his lips.
“What’re you doing?” hissed the real Jack into my ear. “That’s Elizabeth!”
Jack’s voice affected me like canon fire. I suddenly realised the truth of my pursuer, and of my pursued. The roaring in my ears sharpened into a high-pitched whine, my lungs dropped to my gut.
“No, it’s not,” I whispered, my legs barely supporting my frame.
“So you finally understand,” said the false Sparrow before us, his voice the sweetest song. “Seen one of me before, perhaps? And yet you aren’t frightened, which is nice. Of course.”
I drew myself up, falling back on my pride, my heart, my soul – should I have any left. I trembled like a kitten instead, but my words still swung like a cutlass. “And you thought to play with your food like an alley cat. How uncivilised.”
The doppelganger mock-curtsied.
“Siren?” asked Jack, arms loosening their hold. He felt solid, warm. Fragile.
“Never saw one of your ilk before. Wondered how you’d taste.” The siren smiled mirthlessly, baring sharp teeth. He looked to Jack, and whispered low, “I find pain sweeter than joy.”
I straightened, my expression blank. “So sorry to disappoint,” I said, both arms raising my sword to his terrible face. “But playtime’s over.”
“I bet you don’t even know how to kill –”
His voice cut off as his head parted from his shoulders. It swung through the air in a graceful arc, before landing with a soft splash in the distance.
“Apparently I do,” I intoned to the rapidly shrivelling body.
A hand on my shoulder made me start. I looked down at a worried Jack; his dark eyes a flickering candle. I shook myself, blinking quickly. The human Jack.
My heart ached.
“That young William can certainly craft a fine sword,” said Jack, his mouth less curious than his eyes.
I nodded curtly. With shaking hands I drove the blade into the beach. So it stood, and so I intended to leave it. Tainted. Like me.
Keep your heart to yourself and your head below water.
I found myself being led by the waist, Jack’s strong arm wrapped around me. He steered me away from the water, and passed me a flask.
“Never thought I’d see our dear Lizzie losing ‘er head like that. Shame about the teeth. Beastie haunted you for long?”
Stories of the great Captain Sparrow had eddied about for nearly two decades, and I wondered at his youthful face, just as I had done in Port Royal on our first meeting. At the time, I’d considered it a genetic lottery, a mix of foreign and heathen bloods besting the harsh elements of a life at sea.
I tried to keep the hope from bubbling forth into my speech as I asked, “I suppose it might be prudent to ask whether you are indeed... human?”
“At ease, Commodore.” Jack’s golden teeth glinted in the moonlight, a small shard of light that bit into his words. “I am indeedadoubly human. A suave, enigmatic individual, I grant you. One familiar to these types of wicked things, an’ all manners of witchcraft an’ enchantment, aye. But I be normal, love.”
His words stung, unintentionally callous. I schooled my expression, but not soon enough as he raised a dark eyebrow.
“Simply pondering on how normal might be too great a claim for the likes of you, Jack.”
The wind picked up my voice and threw it across the waves. Jack heard, nonetheless. Indeed, he heard more than he thought.
“She took you for a spin, aye? That thing. T’was naught but a monster.”
“I don’t offer this to many, but if you be needing.” Jack continued. “Rum. Food. A mate. A spot on me ship. I’m here, Jim lad.”
I looked down at my hands, where the nails had stained black from sooty earth. Jack’s clothes shifted beside me, and though he moved closer, we did not touch.
“I don’t suppose there be any sense askin’ if you were...” I looked up, into his dark, bewitching eyes. He moved his hands vaguely, wiggling them like tentacles. He paused. “Not human?”
I clenched my jaw. I thought of all the ruin and pain brought forth by humanity. I saw grandmother’s cold, dead eyes, her expression comatose as she floated in enchanted waters; she was not a monster, but a victim. I understood her now, and became aware as never before how glad I was to be apart from mankind. I stared at my beautiful destructor, his quirked hips a harbinger of lost hope, his kohl-lined eyes a Pandora’s Box, and I shook my head.
“I don’t know how you can ask me that,” I told my monster, and I walked away.