Friday, January 28, 2005


A Pirate Tale 17 – The Sea Witch

Ol’ Chumbucket eyed the approaching ship with wariness. It was very different than any he’d seen. Yes, it was a sailboat, with twin masts and a bowsprit and a high castle in the poop. It wasn’t the shape that was wrong. In fact, Chumbucket realized, it wasn’t that the ship was particularly large, not even as large as the Festering Boil, now that he thought about it. But there was certainly something “different” about it which had created that impression, starting with it’s dark, drab colors, the tattered sails, and the fact that in the gloom there was not any light coming from it. In fact, even the dying rays of the sun fighting through the fog failed to reflect off the ship. It was almost a perfect black body, a ship-like hole carved out of the fog. All seemed quiet aboard – no sound of crew or life at all.

Still, despite the chill that ran down his spine as he looked at the ship, Ol’ Chumbucket figured this was the rare case of “better the devil you don’t know than the devil you do.” As his comrade had pointed out, the water was gone, the food was gone, and they were down to the drinking-your-own urine stage. Oh, sure, they could add a bit of novelty to it and spice things up by drinking each other’s urine, but either way, they’d both be dead soon enough. With that in mind, Ol’ Chumbucket raised an oar over his head and waved, calling out, “Ahoy” in an effort to attract attention.

There was no response from the boat, which continued its silent course, crossing their path at an angle, about 100 or so feet across the bow of their long boat.

Juan Garbonzo, his stalwart Spanish companion, also raised his oar wearily and waved, calling out, “¡Hola mis amigos! ¡Ayuda!”

They cried out together several more times, but there was no indication that anyone had heard their calls. No sign of any life aboard whatsoever.

There was only a moment to decide, and the decision was so obvious neither of them even spoke. If they waited just a few more seconds the ship would pass and be lost in the fog. Catching it may not make their position any better, but it certainly couldn’t make it any worse. They leaped to their oars and dug in to catch the ship. At first they seemed to be losing ground, and Chumbucket let out a sound of despair. But his companion said through gritted teeth, “Do not give up my friend. We will catch them yet.”

The ship stopped gaining on them. Soon they were beginning to pull closer to it inch by agonizing inch, but the light was fading as fast as their strength was flagging. Rowing for all they were worth – rowing for their lives – the two men pulled abreast of the ship. They rowed alongside for several minutes, looking for some way to board. A line descending from the bow seemed the best choice, but getting it would be tricky. They’d have to angle for the bow and one would reach up to grab it while the other tried to keep pace with and avoid getting dragged under the moving ship.

“Juan,” Chumbucket gasped. I’ll keep rowing. You grab the line.”

Garbonzo nodded as they veered toward the ship, continuing to pull on the oars until the last second. Then, with a convulsive lurch, he leaped for the line that dangled from the bow of the mysterious vessel. His fingers hit the rope, slipped, then closed around it. As the bow lifted in the rolling sea it almost raised Juan out of the longboat, but Chumbucket leaped for his legs and held him in. The two of them clung for a moment, then heaved down and the rope gave enough that they were able to secure it to the cleat of their boat, which now dangled from the nose of the ship, clunking precariously along the side.

“That was the hard part,” Chumbucket said. “Now we just have to climb up a single, slippery line with nothing but our hands and feet and no safety line to belay us. Piece of cake. ”

Their palms were blistered from days of endless rowing, so they took what was once Chumbucket’s gaudy purple coat and tore it into strips that they wrapped around their hands. Then Chumbucket worked his way hand over hand up the rope, bouncing painfully against the side of the ship the whole way. He pulled himself up to the bowsprit, throwing one leg over. Then bracing himself, he helped Juan clamber up. The two then dropped down to the deck, where they lay for several minutes, exhausted. Finally they struggled to their feet.

There wasn’t a soul in sight.

“Should we look below deck?” Juan asked.

“Yes, starting with the galley. Those last few minutes took everything I had left. There must be someone aboard, and even if there’s not, maybe they left some food.”

“Si, that piece of cake you mentioned, and agua.”

They found a passage below decks and descended into the gloom. They were clearly in the cook’s area, but it was hard to see. They felt around, and were rewarded with the discovery of a several barrels. The first contained flour – helpful in the long term, they recognized, but not immediately useful. The second contained apples. The third – score! – water. They drank deeply, then began eating an apple each as they scouted around the galley more.

“I know the cook has got to keep some rum around here someplace,” Chumbucket said.

“He does, right above the plate storage,” a voice said.

“¡Sardinas del St. Tomas!” Garbonzo shrieked, as a figure entered, carrying a lantern.

Ol’ Chumbucket was getting tired of being surprised by female voices – first Fanny, then Mad Sally and now this. It was the third time in this story, for Pete’s sake!

In the light of the lantern he could make out very little. It was a woman, he could tell from the general shape and from the voice. Her hair seemed to be a wild tangle of curls, and the garment she wore seemed as untamed and tattered as the sails. But there was no menace in her voice as she laughed and said, “Go ahead and eat, gentlemen, and have a drink of water. You look like you could use it.”

She came further into the room and the lamplight spread so they could see her better. Her hair was a bright and unlikely shade of red, her clothes layer after layer of brightly colored cloths wrapped about her. She smiled around the pipe that was clenched in her teeth and peered forward rather nearsightedly.

“Typically good manners would demand that you introduce yourself first, but you look as if you’d be better occupied with eating – although I’d take it a little easy on the water gentlemen. Small sips, or you’ll get cramps. Besides, I’ve already seen who you are, so I’ll introduce myself. My name is Jezebel.”

“Jezebel?” Juan gasped, his swarthy complexion turning pale. “¡La Bruja del Mar!”

“Well, if that’s what you want to call me, but I’m not really a witch, at sea or anywhere else. That’s simply the name of my ship, which you have boarded and are now on. But you know how people will talk. So allow me to welcome you aboard the Sea Witch.”

“Are you all alone here?” Chumbucket asked. “There’s no sign of a lookout or any other crew.”

“Oh, no. I may be multitalented, but I couldn’t possibly run this whole ship by myself,” she said with a quiet laugh. “No, I have a crew, small but surprisingly efficient. I’m sure you’ll be meeting some of them before too long. They take care of things, although I dare say the ship has looked better. We ran into some weather several days ago and it took its toll. They’re all below in their bunks now.”

“Without posting even one lookout?” Chumbucket asked.

“Well, we won’t run into any trouble tonight. Don’t ask how I know. I just know,” she laughed, a cackle that raised the hair on the necks of both men. “Sorry, I get carried away sometimes. Love the effect,” she said after catching her breath. “I’d have been up to greet you and help you aboard, but the first mate was telling a delightful ghost story and I hated to miss the end. Really quite clever.”

“Wait,” Juan cut in. “You said you know us. How could that be? I’ve never seen you before in my life. I’m sure I would remember you, senora.”

“Senorita, if you don’t mind, Senor Garbonzo.” His eyes widened with surprise as she turned to his friend. “And you, shall I call you Ol’ Chumbucket, or one of the many other names you’ve used? Would you perhaps like me to use your birth name?”

“Chumbucket will do for now,” he said, masking his own surprise and growing sense of unease. “I’m not sure I even remember my birth name.”

“Well, suit yourself. If you ever need to know, I’ll tell you. But for now, I’ll find you bunks below. I know you’re exhausted. There will be plenty to do in the next three days. We’ve got some hard sailing to do to catch up to your friends in time. We have to be 120 miles west of Morocco in just three days time. That won’t be easy, even for this ship.”

They wanted to ask more questions, but she made it clear she was done talking for the night. The two pirates took their apples, jugs of water, and several hardtack biscuits she pressed on them and headed below, following the bobbing lamplight and her tuneless humming. They passed through the crew area where several hammocks emitted snores, and passed on into what – on a normal ship – might be called “officer’s country,” although Chumbucket was fairly certain there was nothing normal about this ship. Finally, she pointed them to a cabin where two bunks awaited. She left the lamp for them, saying she knew her way about the ship well enough without its help, and left them with the word that the ship would stir at the end of the morning watch. “I don’t like rising before 8, it’s uncivilized,” she said as she left.

The two exhausted pirates turned out the lamp and threw themselves onto the bunks. There was a long moment of silence, finally broken by a question.

“Chumbucket, where are we?”

“We’re alive, my friend. We’re alive.

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