The day started like any other, the day my brother sold me. After mom died I was relegated to the old shed. I forget now what that dilapidated little hut was for, a woodhouse or storehouse or something, but it became my room the night we buried her.
In a few weeks I had made it comfortable enough, cleared out the cobwebs, replaced some of the rotted boards, stole enough blankets from the house to make a bed, and it became home. Brother never came there, even when he was spitting mad and ready to do me an evil. It was like my hut was invisible to him. He never crossed the threshold. I had been working on starting a little garden for myself behind the shed, and I was turning over some dirt when the ship came into port.
We lived on a little island. It was a great out of the way trading post, respected by the disreputable and regularly visited by those captains sailing under his majesty’s colors. It was in little ports like ours that gold necklaces, bought in blood, would again make their way up the social ladder to dangle over some lady’s—more likely a mistress’s—gentle bosom. I swear that one pearl studded cross we sold returned to us in a week’s time.
Washing the blood off the returned treasure, I felt that it must have wanted to stay on this island, and picked a night when my drunk brother slept in his own vomit to steel it away to my cabin. If I ever return to the island I suspect it would still be planted over mom’s grave, since no one ever went there but me.
The ship pulled in around noon, and the silent sailors wore harsh scowls as they unloaded their goods. My Brother had converted half of our warehouse into an alehouse, and tried to turn a dime by selling the bitter and unloved bile he brewed. It was the only hard drink to be found on our island, and all sailors who passed this way were wanton enough, should they have a scrap of gold, to swallow a pint. It had one virtue, that of getting a man drunk, and drunk men more easily loose small items from their pockets, at least when I am serving their tables.
But his ship had no revelers to speak of. I had heard many a crusty ship-hand tell a tall tale or two, and the men who unloaded that ship immediately reminded me of the zombies the old men spoke of, men turned by Haitian magic into mindless slaves. They stood in rank and order, did a job then waited for another. They spoke not, they all dressed alike, and every damned one of them, as I found when sailing with them, would die before disobeying a command.
I remember the Captain grew angry with a sick man once, he was too slow in performing some duty that day, and ordered him to disembark. We were in the middle of the ocean at the time. The man marched right off the gangplank without threat of force or expression of fear. Just walked into the deep ocean and we saw him no more.
The Captain was the only person, really, on that ship, the only one who spoke or laughed, grew angry or scared. As his men got to work he went straight for the alehouse where my brother was hurriedly washing the dirtied glasses. It had been three days since the last ship had come and gone. Only now did Brother want to have clean cups.
But it was not ale our guest wanted. After watching the men labor like ants, I decided to run over to see what was going on between Captain and Brother. My fat and sniveling relation was dangling some chain of gold before the Captain. Brother had ruined the item by popping the glimmering emerald from its center and putting some cheap, but colorful, rock in its stead. The thing looked so gaudy not even the drunkest of shoppers would touch it.
The Captain was shaking his head. Whatever he was looking for wasn’t here. That necklace was always the last bit of jewelry my brother would try to sell. Finding from experience it gave away his disreputable practices he only brought it out in desperation.
As I came in Captain jumped up from leaning against the counter, as if he had been startled by a rattlesnake. Looking around he laid his eyes on me. Grinding a pipe between his teeth he let out a little growl.
“Boy,” that would be my name for the next three years. “You ain’t seen nothing of a golden cross have ye? Something with pearl studs and Latin writt’n on it?”
I had to think a bit, which was good. I was still learning to lie back then, and thinking up a lie looked about the same as trying to remember something. “About a month ago,” I said unsurely. That was true, that was the first time it came here. “Remember, Brother, you sold it to the Italian, the one with the hook and bad breath.” I don’t know why I said bad breath. No one who visited our shores had good breath. Like I say, lying is an art, it takes time to master.
Anyway, I don’t know if it was the bad breath remark, or something else, but that dwarfish captain just kept grinding the stem of his pipe glaring at me as if he was envisioning how well I would fit when stuffed down a cannon barrel.
“Get out of here, Snob,” Snob was what my brother called me. Come to think of it, I have had so many names now, the one I truly cared about has fallen from my memory. When my name passed Mother’s lips that was my name. I can’t remember her voice anymore, I can’t remember what she called me, and so my name is forgotten.
I ran. I don’t know what passed next, what really happened between Brother and Captain, but here is how the Captain would tell it. After serving me cruelly, either by holding my head underwater or beating me—more often he’d have the crew beat me—he would sit back panting and tell me how great a bargain I was between puffs of his pipe.
Knowing lying now, I see where he would play up the story, improvising bits here and there, but this much I do believe. When he offered to buy me Brother smiled like the bride of a king. Practically gave me away, as the Captain tells it. That I am sure was false, for my brother never made a deal without squeezing all he could from it.
I was inspecting the goods neatly ordered by the dock, and can say this much, the Captain knew quality. Brother’s gargling voice interrupted me, whispering harshly in my ear. His breath may be the foulest of any man’s, and I have smelled the breath from corpses three days dead.
“Get up on deck, Snob, and grab a bottle of brandy from the good Captain’s store.” I looked over my shoulder and saw his sneering face. “I know a pipsqueak like you will have no trouble doing that without the crew raising any questioning eyebrows.”
That was how this all began, sneaking into the ship’s store. It was far easier getting in than out, especially after the crew locked me in the hull. By the time I was let up, I found myself under a new and far more sinister master.