You can imagine what it was like for a little thief to find himself in a world with nothing to steel. Back on our island I had perfected pickpocketing. No sailor was safe from me. Brother took whatever I earned in this regard, but it was never about the gold. You had to watch the person, be ready in a moment. The touch had to be as light as a feather, and quick like lightning. You had to watch out, make sure no one, not just the target of the theft, noticed anything.
Under the white bandages dark spots bled from my still seeping wounds. Looking into the dim reflection of a window my face reminded me of mother’s dress, the one with red roses. She wore it often in the summer, and the ship hands always smiled more when she walked by in it. They would tip more, too. When the sun was out she was always in her dress smiling, summer had mother at her best. She died on a night like this, clear and calm. She died in the night without her son.
One by one the zombies began to corral themselves into the hull. A few of them remained on deck, staring out into the black horizon. Spying a dark figure to my left I made my way over, holding the handrail as I went.
Describing one of these sailors describes them all. Five feet and some inches, young, sandy brown hair, blue eyes, those were their features. All were uniformed in grey shirts, the sleeves came down to the wrist ending in frills, black trousers, and black boots. No one had a tattoo, an interesting scar, or uneven teeth.
They were collected from our raids. If anyone matched this description they were taken alive. I only ever saw it once. The man was bound, didn’t struggle, resting on his knees as Captain paced around him. The hair was grown out, down to the shoulders, and he watched as best he could, keeping his eye on the rotund dwarf circling him. I couldn’t hear, but I suspect he was told to open his mouth. Captain looked down into it, peering this way and that. Nodding to the crewmen, they took the man. He did not struggle with them. I doubt the prisoner knew what would come next.
I saw him again when I was let out. You grew to distinguish even the slightest of differences in this monotonous world, and I recognized the face. His hair had been cut short, he wore the shirt and pants of a crewman, and he never spoke again.
I sometimes wonder if you will ever read this. You’ve been chasing me for five years, and last winter, about six months ago as I write this, after escaping your ambush in the ravine, you nearly had me when you jumped out from that wall of snow materializing like a ghost out of the blizzard—I thought I was done for then—it came into my mind all the secrets I’ve kept, the widows I’ve made, the lies I’ve told.
That’s why I started writing this, maybe hoping you’d read it, but knowing I’d regret dying if I never told my tale. And how inadequate, I find, are pencil and paper, are words, how insufficient is this my ending thread. I don’t have time to tell it all. I must make these remembrances stay to the point, I must make you see why.
The only sounds I heard, for days on end, were sloshing waves, creaking timbers, and footsteps. Captain stayed in his quarters mostly, and the slaves busied themselves tirelessly, climbing the mast, scrubbing the deck, furling and unfurling the sails. All this work was done dumbly, without any commands shouted back and forth, and without any supervising hand steering the labors.
We had had quiet on our island, of course, weeks and months could pass between visiting ships, but then we had the surf, the birds, the sound of wildcats shouting in the night. I had brother’s abuse too. On the ship, all was horribly silent, and there was nothing to do. Captain had called me a cabin boy, but I had no real duties. I was just one of the things he had stored on the ship, albeit something he couldn’t stack up against a corner or fold neatly into a square.
Every day was as the last, until it came time for our master to board. Before he came, Captain docked somewhere, I never learned the name but it was an island not unlike my own, and came back with chains and locks, and a giant ring of keys on his belt. For once in his life he carried a load, this crate of iron and steel, and I watched from a porthole his face contorting, turning purple, with the effort.
He had tried to smoke his pipe while doing this, but, to his consternation, snapped the stem between his teeth while going up the gangplank. Captain looked after the descending object as it fell into the water, and in so doing nearly followed the same course. Swaying a little, he came the rest of the way to the ship, dropping the box on deck.
As we set sail, Captain called one of his zombies over. This crewman took the box and followed Captain down into the hull. It was an hour or so before anyone thought to unlock me, by then it was long past lunch. In the bowels of the ship I found the handles of our larder’s double doors chained together, a padlock the size of my fist forbidding me the bite of mutton I’d been dreaming of.
At the sight a grumbling came up out of my belly, and I clutched at my stomach with a grimace. It was a strange thing—this rusty, clunky, old piece of iron—to be found on our ship. Its chipped and scratched exterior didn’t mesh with anything. On our island, Brother had tried a similar trick with the jewelry, but lost the key.
“Snob,” he had shouted, and I froze, my hand a moment from a bit of gold. “Snob! Snob!” he kept shouting. Zigzagging through the crowd I made my way to the counter where Brother’s beet red face bared down at me. “Snob, where’s the key?” I didn’t have an answer for him, not that he waited for one. “Did you steal it? You stole it!” he declared. Coming around the side of the counter he struck me in the head, knocking me to the floor. “Where’d you put the key?”
I had not stolen the key, we never did find it, but when Brother threatened to kill me unless I opened the lock, and open it right now, I found myself staring at a conundrum something similar to the circumstances I faced on that ship. On our island, don’t ask me by what genius the idea came to me, I started wedging, it might have been the prong of a fork, down into the same hole the hook part went into the lock. Eventually, the thing sprung open.
It took me a while to find something—it was a scrap of wood—that I could fit down this rusty old lock. I pushed and pushed, but the spring wouldn’t give. Next, I tried a nail, but it was too big to fit in between the body of the lock and the little hook.
I was about to start searching for something else when I started staring into the keyhole. It was large enough that I could see the inside of the lock. I took the nail and started poking around. It may have been a half hour or so, but the whole thing suddenly snapped open. I was licking the grease off of my fingers as I went back on deck.