Bourbon Penn 32

Give Them No Quarter, Tell Them All Lies

by Rebecca Bennett

Along the rocky coast of Newfoundland, Lindsay’s imagination runs as loose as her tongue, loose as the pebbles that dig into her balding leather shoes. As loose as the morals she claims to have sacrificed to the sea. “Tell them,” she whispers into the dusk. “Tell them I poisoned the crew. I slipped it into the rum, let them all drink. I laughed while their lungs bubbled into the air.”

She squeezes the partridgeberries, small round and ripe, gathered just this morning into her fist. Feels each berry burst and stain before tossing the gritty red jam into the ocean foam.

“What color were the lungs?” Shark asks. Their voice swims in the air, nothing permanent in the tone to mark it one way or another. It could be curiosity or boredom. It’s placid, calm like Eric’s voice rarely is.

Lindsay thinks to the chickens she’s gutted, to the carcass displayed at the butchers. Red is obvious. But she’s already used red in the story, describing how she would have stabbed the first mate and used a red scarf to muffle the screams as she reached into his wounds. “Pink.” She settles on. The poison would have foamed white and the lung’s blood would have shifted to a murky pink at the contaminant.

“I found some bodies up the water,” Shark says.

Everything is up the water to Shark. “Near the bay or further around?”

Ships didn’t often wreck in the Gulf of Lawrence, but those that did—those that veered too close to the rocky ledge of Hibb’s Cove—Lindsay claimed as her own. From the warm waters of the Caribbean to the docks in Port aux Basques, the name Maria Lindsay was becoming feared. A ruthless pirate who stalked these barren French waters. The Royal Navy, the Spanish Main, even privateers, were all said to have met the end of her merciless blade.

Shark found the wrecks and made sure the sailors knew the name. The one Lindsay held dear since she was young, playing by herself, dreaming up another person—Maria—who would take charge in a way Lindsay never could. Maria didn’t fear the vast water, she never married the first boy who asked.

“Thereish.” Shark waves a webbed hand to the beach nearby. Lindsay twists as though a sailor has appeared, half-drowned and ready to hang her for her lies. There’s laws against piracy, but Lindsay’s not sure there are laws against pretending to be one.

“Should I be concerned?” Lindsay asks, this part of their friendship is new. She’s unsure the lengths Shark will go beyond spreading the tale of Maria Lindsay, the mad pirate who gave no quarter in these remote waters. Whispering tales to drunken or drowning sailors is one thing, protection from half-dead men is another.

“No survivors from the wreck, if that’s what you mean. I guess the poison didn’t take to three of the men.”

“Hmm.” Lindsay shifts to a boulder closer to the water, not caring seawater is inching up her skirt, soaking her woolen socks. “What did I do then?”

Shark titters, whiskers twisting before answering. “Maybe you ate them?”

“Probably not. Can’t eat bones, remember?” Sometimes Shark gets confused between bones and cartilage. Doesn’t understand if Lindsay has sharp teeth why she can’t just gnaw through. “Three you say? Hmm, maybe I dragged those three back to the beach. To make an example of them.”

The remnants of The Prudent have been drifting onto the shoreline for the past few days. Splintered hull fragments touching land while its crew no longer could. The pieces were claimed quickly, townspeople looking for strong oak for their own houses. Shark is anchored to a floating section from the keel, the wood scrap is thick with black slime and armoured with barnacles. It knocks against the rocks that Lindsay keeps balanced on.

Shark’s black eyes are focused only on Lindsay as they bob along the water in time with Lindsay’s words. They’d been teaching the types of ships that Shark liked to feed from. Bodies drop so often over the sides of ships, Shark just travels along until their stomachs are filled for the winter. Lindsay looks at the size of the hull, guesses at the amount of crew and guns aboard, the riches being shuffled between three warring nations, and thinks that the ship might have been a schooner. Merchant probably, not military.

Shark has no lips, just rows of dark bristles that cover ladders of teeth. The wiry hairs flutter into what Lindsay thinks is a grin. “I’ll leave you a gift tomorrow then. At dawn.”

It’s as much of a cue to leave as Shark is willing to give. The water has been lapping at Shark’s thick waist, high tide creeping further up the folds of blubber that keep Shark warm as winter nears. They spend so much of their time in silence, Shark rarely speaking unless Lindsay has a story to weave into something grand.

When she leaves, Shark is just a pair of black eyes glinting in the night.

• • •

The next morning, Lindsay shuffles down to the beach. Wrapped in Eric’s sweater and cap, her dark hair bundled underneath. The gift is laid out on the shore, three human heads. The skin mottled, bloated and sagging away from the bone. Seagulls pocket the sand, one or two swooping overhead before coming down to peck at the decaying meat. Lindsay doesn’t wave them away, just watches the water recede further with low tide.

There’s spawn on the water, floating even when the waves break. It’s different from the frog spawn that accumulates in the spring. This belongs to Shark. It glows like pearls and Lindsay feels an echo of its frothiness deep within. Yearning—is the word that comes to mind. She met a sailor in Plymouth, before she and Eric moved to this new land, who swallowed whiskey like it was milk. His right arm had been damaged in a wreck, the limb whole but unable to make a fist or hold a spoon. Had it just been cut off, he said, he could still be out on the water. There’s places for men like me out there, men that society would rather ignore. He settled instead next to a port to watch the boats, so he could hear the call of the sea even though he couldn’t meet it.

Yearning he called it. For the water, for the freedom.

She never yearned for Eric, maybe he never did either, and that’s why it was so easy for them to hurt each other.

Lindsay yearns now. As the sunrise glows upon the spawn, she thinks of Shark laying those eggs, how some will grow into more creatures who will hunt and take stories from dying men. She wants to lay down among the eggs, feel the texture on her skin. It would change her, she thinks, just as Shark did.

• • •

They met in March when ice floats were still puddling on the water.

Shark had been a shadow under the current as Lindsay walked further and further into the waves. The cold waters of Hibb’s Cove stole her breath before the water even reached her knees. There were icebergs among the waves, she should have expected the cold. She stood for hours, stillness turning to shaking, as she hoped for a riptide—something strong that would take the option from her. Just as her family did. Just as her husband did.

Standing still only ever gave rise to Lindsay being led, instead of leading. Without moving herself or being pushed forward, she ended up back on land, feet bleeding from the rocky beach and cracked mollusks.

Shark appeared just as Lindsay was bandaging her legs. The shaking had turned into fine tremors that didn’t feel so cold anymore, and she thought it might be nice to lay down and nap before returning home. She was just about to do so when she caught the black glinting eyes.

“I see you,” Lindsay chattered out, teeth clacking even though she swore she wasn’t cold.

Shark leveled their head above the water, rising just enough that Lindsay could see the bristles along their dark mouth. “I see you, too.”

• • •

Hail keeps the beach abandoned for two days. Lindsay imagines each head encased in ice, crystalized and shining. She wonders if she tapped them, if each head would shatter perfectly. The thaw comes and with it the discovery, finally noticed by a child looking for mussels. The village comes to life once the heads are recovered. Each new trip to town brings new gossip that Lindsay lets warm her.

“Harvey heard that it’s that woman again.” The miller’s wife, flour on her cheeks, bright and breathless. “Godless heathenness, what if my Ernie had been on that ship.”

“Tooth marks on the necks, like the others.” Moody rumbles, one eye on his pitcher of ale the other watching the sea. “I seen her ship, only ever appears in the fog.”

“My brother met her once,” the bartender says as he pours Eric another drink. “He was on the HMS Feversham, barely survived. He spent days on the water before being rescued. Told everyone about the woman who single-handedly sunk that warship. Brass shipped him right back to England.”

Lindsay is pushed close to her husband’s side. The stink of a day’s work clings to his skin, wood shavings and body odor. Eric barks out a laugh. “A woman? Please, one trip to port and she’ll be laid up on her back.”

“It’ll be winter soon, access will close up right quick. Won’t need to worry about pirates until spring.”

Hibb’s Cove is a port town, every family has a sailor. Every family has stepped onto a boat and learned to move with the water rather than fight against it. There are people who read the weather better than the Bible, able to notice how a shift in the wind could mean sudden frost or storm. Lindsay has only felt that kind of attunement since meeting Shark. She knows, at the base of her spine, when Shark is nearby. Knows when Shark is amused or annoyed before they even break the surface.

She doesn’t know Eric like that. Every move startles and chafes. He wears at her like sodden wool, heavy and clinging. They return to their tiny shack, Eric stumbling and loud enough that Lindsay can barely hear the crash of the waves. She lights a fire and begins cleaning the mussels she collected earlier. While Eric laughs about a female pirate ransacking their waters, she runs her hands along the shells, sliding her fingers into the crevices, touching the small sprigs of moss at the edges.

Shark’s skin is similar to the eels that Lindsay sometimes catches. Their skin is mottled gray, blending into the rocks below the water. Instead of feet, there are two dorsal fins. Along the fins are tears and scars that have turned the slick skin craggy. Lindsay had been allowed to drag her hand across the surface once, feeling the hard matte skin beneath the algae coating Shark’s body.

• • •

“Do you remember the Feversham?” Lindsay’s crouched on the shore, idly picking up shells and flinging them into the water. Shark is beached next her to, looking up at the gray sky while water laps at their fins.

“Your boats have too many names,” Shark answers. “Tell me again.”

They’ve shared so much, but each lie is still so easy to pick out. Lindsay never stops telling stories, keeping them running in her head all day. “That was the British warship from the summer. It was headed to New France. We decided I found them while a storm raged. I landed on board and they didn’t even hear me, not with all the rain.”

Shark cocks their head. “You hanged the captain from the mast. Disemboweled the first mate. Took him all day to die.”

Lindsay nods. It was one of the first stories she told. “Later, you found a sailor on the water, told him the truth of what happened.”

“That took all day.” Shark says. “He didn’t want to believe it. Kept talking about the storm. He saw the truth in the end.”

“Thank you.” Lindsay wants to reach out, stroke her hand along Shark’s flank. She doesn’t, they don’t like being touched out of the water and she has only ever wanted Shark to be happy.

There’s a chill in the breeze that they aren’t talking about. That they haven’t talked about for days. The snow is falling steadily at night, now lasting for most of the day instead of melting by noon. The Gulf of Lawrence will freeze up and Shark will leave. They spoke about it before, when they first met and Lindsay wanted to know everything. If she asks, she makes it real. If she doesn’t ask, Shark might just leave without telling her. Shark doesn’t understand Lindsay’s need to know and plan, they don’t live according to England’s time.

“When will you leave?” It hurts just to ask. She only thinks about the empty beach, inaccessible and dangerous with winter’s ice. Lindsay will spend the season frozen in time within her shack. Cleaning and cooking and doing everything she can to keep warm. The room will stink of mildew and damp human bodies. There won’t be wrecks or spawn or dark eyes. Just cold lonely evenings with Eric.

“Perhaps tomorrow, or the day after. It’s a hard swim,” Shark says. “My children will lay dormant under the ice, some will live. Some won’t.”

Lindsay’s body has never successfully held a baby. She knows how easy it is to take and then lose. Shark faces it so easily, birthing hundreds only to see one or two live. It’s rare for Shark’s species to survive even to adulthood. Shark is not the only one of their pod to seek out humans, but they are the only one to return so often.

“When the ice melts and the water warms again, I’ll return,” Shark says before they leave. “I’ll carry your name with me, let them know your deeds.”

• • •

Maria Lindsay sets fire to a ship, listens to the men as they jump into the water. Choosing to drown rather than burn.

Maria Lindsay cuts the hands off three sailors and makes them row to shore.

Maria Lindsay steals thousands of Spanish real from a galleon. She buries her wealth on Groais Island, noting the location with a secret code.

Maria Lindsay kills her husband.

Over the winter, Lindsay keeps up her stories and butchers her way through their chickens and rabbits, becoming accustomed to the grind of bone under her blade. She holds their necks and slices straight through.

Eric keeps to bed. One day he starts coughing, his face red with fever. He tells her to go into town for the doctor. She lets herself stand still enough that she can hear the cracking of the ice flows. Doesn’t bundle up in coats and blankets to walk into town. Doesn’t go to Eric’s side. She stands and waits.

Each week she chooses one chicken. Carves her path out to the coop, the lantern providing enough heat and light that Lindsay could wait outside for hours while Eric stays in bed. The flakes twist in the air, the wind gusting snow piles from the fences to the shack.

If she keeps standing, it’s like the world is moving around her.

• • •

She wakes to the thunder of splintering ice. The ocean is groaning and shrieking as the ice dams melt and crack. The world is shifting; it’s violent even without Maria Lindsay there to take her blood price. Eric is cold in bed next to her and she tells him a new story. She tells him about a ship, French this time, and how she rammed into the heart of it. Water rushing in like a spring thaw. Wood breaking apart like icebergs. She tells him how she smiled when she watched it sink.

Lindsay has thought about the first time she met Shark. If she had chosen to slip under the water, would they still be friends? Would Shark tell stories to a frozen Lindsay or would Shark have gnawed on her bones, feeding until Lindsay Cobden became a part of them?

Another week and she hears the waves again. Crashing onto the shore, calling her out to greet them. The path down is still slick with melting ice and snow, but she makes it. Steadfastly walking to where she hopes Shark will be waiting.

A patch of fresh spawn floats near the beach, the pearlescent foam popping as it tilts against the hard surface of rock and ice. It glows above the dark water and Lindsay thinks she can smell it in the breeze. She can feel Shark calling to her, it warms her core and she knows she cannot go another moment without answering their greeting. It’s more than a want or desire, it’s a needful thing that cannot be denied.

She walks into the frigid water, letting it chill her bones, and lays down among the spawn.

Rebecca writes speculative fiction with small town flair. Her short stories and poetry have been published in Strange Horizons, Bourbon Penn, Translunar Travellers Lounge, and other literary locations. She wields minor power as a Senior Editor at Apparition Lit and Managing Editor at Heartlines Spec. You can follow her occasional tweets at @_rebeccab