The Physician and the Siren
The spray leaves patterns on the planked deck. He stands–alert and fearful, yes, but also intrigued–before the captain, whose back is to him. While he watches the seawater dry in salty whorls, the pirate watches out over the bow, the horizon tilting as the ship comes about.
His captain, he thinks, for that is now the case. The Siren isn’t known for mercy on these seas. Only hours ago he watched sixty souls drowned or slaughtered by her crew. Why he was spared and brought aboard is a mystery to him, but he feels oddly grateful.
For the moment, his life belongs to the whims of a pirate.
“Sink it,” comes the growled order, carried back on the wind. The bullion and provisions from the packet are aboard.
He does not turn when the guns fire. The sound of the ocean swallowing the vessel is both quieter than he expects and thunderous in his ears.
“Permission to speak, sir,” he asks respectfully. He is unarmed, alone, a dead man walking. But he is a scientist, a scholar, and curiosity has the best of him.
The captain turns. He is disappointed by the ill-fitting belt and coat. Gone are his illusions of a dashing figure. He searches the face deeply shaded from the fearsome sun; the captain’s features are only just visible under the broad brim of a hat. A nod. Permission.
“Why am I spared?”
With motions made more deliberate by the pitch and roll of the deck beneath, the captain unbuckles the belt, unbuttons the coat. As the air catches the opened cloth, the pirate lifts the hat away.
A riot of vermillion curls, eyes like the sea at Dover. An advanced pregnancy.
She speaks then, a voice rough with worry and command.
“I have need of a physician.”
An inferno of reflected lamp light blazes in the looking glass behind the Captain.
“You sent for me?” he asks.
She is seated at her writing desk, a small strongbox at her elbow. She doesn’t look up. He has not been inside her cabin since the night he delivered the baby.
He shivers at the memory.
The Siren had overtaken a slaver bound for Hispaniola with a late summer storm blowing in from the southwest. With the ship stripped of anything the Captain deemed valuable, she’d ordered the crew’s execution. The Africans she’d unshackled and left aboard, the hull damaged but still afloat. He’d been the only one to notice an unsteadiness in her gait, a pearl sheen of sweat on her fierce, white brow.
Seven hours later, he knelt between her knees on the floor of this cabin, her screams muted by his belt between her teeth. The cook and the cabin boy carting hot water and linen to and from the room were the only other witnesses to the Captain’s travails, but the heavy, haunted chanting from the slaver, adrift nearby, sung the baby into the world between greenish flashes of Caribbean lightning.
As the child crowned, the Captain had pushed herself up on her elbows. Her blue-gray eyes, glazed with pain, met his as she bore down.
A keening cry cut through the cacophony of rain and wind, and the rhythm of the chanting quickened across the water as the child, a girl, took her first breath.
As if summoned by his thoughts, the baby mewls from its makeshift cradle, hung from the ceiling of the cabin near her berth. The Captain nudges the cradle with a distracted hand before smoothing out a folded sheet of paper; a letter, he surmises by the close-pressed penmanship on the page. She says nothing.
“I have a brother in Port-au-Prince,” she says, fingers caressing the worn creases of the letter. “For obvious reasons, I cannot go to him myself. You must take her—“
She nudges the gently swaying crib again as the baby grizzles from her swaddling.
“—To him. We shall send you ashore in the captain’s gig under cover of darkness. You will take a letter of introduction to him. He will take the child and see that you are given passage to England.”
He says nothing. There is nothing to say. She is law and god on this vessel.
The dancing amber light makes the room feel close, and he is more aware of the gentle roll of calm sea beneath him than he has been in weeks.
“I presume you were going to England,” she adds as an afterthought.
She doesn’t turn her face to him, but he hears in her tone that he is dismissed.
The Earl’s Curiosity
He catches sight of Sirena’s hair in the mirror, scarlet in the corona of candle light around her, as she opens the door to his study.
“Papa?” she says, stepping into the room. Her cotton nightgown is short on her bony shins. She persists in growing up, despite his hopes to the contrary.
“It’s late, Sprite. What is it?” he says, smiling at her in the looking glass while he arranges his cravat.
“Will you tell me at breakfast what the Countess wore?”
“If you confess the whereabouts of Miss Miller’s best hat, of course,” he replies casually, rewarded by an indignant flush on his daughter’s face.
“It’s an awful hat! She should thank me for—“
Sirena realizes her mistake, but not quickly enough. She sets her candle down on his desk.
“The hat is under Hodge’s armoire, Papa,” she offers contritely.
He cannot help but laugh, though it slices at his heart. Her serious expression smells of salt air and sun-baked canvas.
“I will ask Hodge to return it to Miss Miller in the morning, along with a sincere letter of apology from the thief.”
“Yes, Papa,” she says quietly.
He checks himself in the glass to be sure he won’t embarrass his sister at the Countess’s party.
“Now, tell me I look well enough to dine with your Aunt Felicity, and kiss me goodnight before you take yourself back to bed.”
As he leans down, Sirena stretches up to fold his cravat into place. She kisses his cheek and retrieves her candle.
“Sirena?” he calls as she goes, “Be sure to put the candle out.”
He collects his sister from her favorite sitting room. The carriage ride seems extraneous to him, given that the distance is easily walkable, but Felicity rules the household with a fashionably iron-clad fist, and arriving on foot would not be proper.
The Countess, Felicity’s oldest friend and Society’s most notorious hostess, is upon them immediately. She whisks Felicity off to a card table looking for a fourth, but not before greeting him with mischief in her eyes.
“The Earl has a curiosity in his library. After your years in the Indies, Isaac, I’ve no doubt you’ll find it very interesting.”
He dodges the crush. The heat of candles and bodies is overwhelming. In the corridor he can hear the Earl’s baritone like cannon fire from the library.
“Jennings, you’re a scoundrel!”
Standing on the Turkey carpet before the Earl’s merry fire is a filthy young man in sailor’s clothes, shackled and shorn like a traitor at the block. Though the sailor stares at the floor, there is steel in his posture.
“Issac!” the Earl booms at him. “Come in and have a look at what Jennings caught on his last run.”
He crosses the room, his soul crackling, as Jennings forces the young man to raise his face.
The pulse in his ears drowns out every sound but his own unsteady breathing. The close-cropped red hair, the pale skin. The fathoms-deep eyes, dull now and withdrawn, but still the same color as the English Channel. Not a young man at all.
Recognition kindles in those stormy eyes; her face, pink from the fire’s proximity, blanches. A fine sweat breaks out on her brow and her knees buckle.
He lunges forward to catch her. She is slight in his arms, captivity has stripped her of her toned muscles and rude health. She is all bones and sinew and fatigue now.
“What the devil, Jennings?” the Earl demands.
Jennings looks on, baffled into silence. It is he who speaks instead, laying her down on the sofa.
“She is in need of a physician.”
The Physician’s Escape
“We have to leave immediately,” he says urgently.
Morgan, little more than a boy and newly hired as his valet, rubs sleep from his eyes even as he pulls on his outer clothes.
“Saddle Calyx and pack the saddlebag for a three-day journey,” Isaac says, his mind racing towards escape.
“Sir, am I to accompany?” Morgan yawns, dressed and trailing Isaac.
“No, Morgan, and you are to tell no one of my departure. You will wake up tomorrow as surprised as anyone of my absence.”
“Of course, Sir,” the young man replies, disappearing into his master’s rooms as Isaac nudges open the door to Sirena’s.
Her bed is empty, and he races down to the ground floor, finding the door to Felicity’s morning room open.
The sight of her, kneeling next to the Captain, her sleep-tousled curls tinted violet in the bluish light, stops his heart. Will she see her own pale skin and Titian hair reflected back in the skeletal and grimy features of the woman who sleeps on her aunt’s settee?
“Sirena,” he whispers, voice breaking softly.
“Papa,” she replies without turning, “she’s very dirty, and her hair. Did she have lice?”
He cannot help a small laugh. She is so young yet. Of course she doesn’t see.
“Where did you hear about lice?” he asks, crouching next to her.
“Miss Miller said if I wouldn’t wash and comb my hair like a civilized child, I should get lice and be forced to shave it all off with your straight razor,” Sirena says earnestly.
“Miss Miller is right in all things,” he assures her. “Now, back to bed.”
Sirena kisses him. The jig is up. Morgan may lie for him, but he cannot ask his daughter to do the same. Felicity will know before breakfast that he had a dirty red-headed woman in the morning room in the wee hours of the night. There Is no more time to lose.
“Who is she, Papa?” Sirena asks from the doorway. Her small face looks tenderly back at the Captain. She doesn’t know, he reminds himself.
“No one, Sprite,” he says. “Good night.”
As her door closes above, Morgan appears.
“Calyx is saddled, Sir.”
“Back to your bed, Morgan. You’re a good lad.”
“Sir,” the boy nods, practically asleep on his feet.
“Captain,” he says in her ear, having no other name for her. She doesn’t stir.
“Captain!” he insists. She makes a soft sound in her throat but doesn’t stir.
Since the moment the Earl and Lieutenant Jennings left them in the Earl’s former governess’s room, he has been reacting on instinct. They were left alone, but not for long. The guests had gone down to dinner, keeping the household occupied, but had been sure that Felicity would note his absence. His decisions to trade the gray and reeking linen shirt and filthy trousers on her body for a woolen dress stolen from the Earl’s housekeeper, to carry her down and out through the servant’s entry to the Earl’s home, and now to flee London weigh heavily as he thinks of Sirena.
It is a difficult ride to the Thames. Far easier, he finds, to book passage to France on the turning tide.
As the ship groans and heaves away, the Captain’s eyes finally flutter open. There is a flicker of hope and recognition in their depths and he realizes that he has, as much as he can, already brought her home.
The Seven Sisters
Isaac stands at the stern, hands braced on the rail against the pitch and roll of the Channel’s current; England fades to a rolling line, then slips away under the gray sea like Atlantis. He wonders if it is lost to him now, and his daughter with it. The crew is watchful, but not active, as dawn breaks. He and his Captain are the only passengers on this ship.
“Dr. Lowe? Isaac?” her low voice and her touch on his arm are simultaneous.
He answers without turning.
“I didn’t know you knew my name. We never discussed it… before.”
“I saw it sewn into your satchel when you were brought aboard the Siren,” she explains, joining him. “I thought it best we maintained some distance at the time.”
Her careworn hands alongside his on the rail kindle a fire under his skin that the sea air does nothing to cool.
“If I am to be Isaac,” he asks, “who are you to be?”
Motion in the lines and rigging tugs at the ship. The crew calls. Isaac watches her body shift with the vessel’s heaving even as his overcompensates.
“Rose O’Leary Marquez de Navarra.” Her eyes meet his, gray and steady. “You may call me Rose.”
“Rose, then.” He falls silent, watching her watch the water. Across the back of her neck a cluster of small stars are tattooed onto her skin just below her now close cropped hair.
“It’s true, then,” he muses, “all pirates are tattooed like the Painted Prince.”
Her hand flies up to cover the constellation.
“It is the Pleiades. The—“
“The Seven Sisters,” he finishes. “I know the story.”
“One for each of us, and I the only one not gone to Heaven, nor likely to go. And our brother now years gone, as well.”
France on the Horizon
With France on the horizon, Rose stitches sailcloth on the deck. If the crew knew the truth, she’d have been sequestered belowdecks—this is no band of outlaws.
A fine shimmer of sweat on her brow is the only sign of her recent illness. There is no question in Isaac’s mind; she belongs on the water. She looks up from her perch, needle in hand. He is shocked by the difference in her since she woke. Her eyes sparkle, her hollow cheeks have bloomed. The vitality he saw in her all those years ago draws the sailors to her, though they know her as nothing more than a servant, a boy in the employ of a gentleman fleeing London.
Catching his eye, she sets aside the mending. Her light gait absorbs the motion of the ship as she joins him at the rail.
“Rose,” he says quietly.
“Isaac,” she replies, equally low-voiced. “We’ll be in Calais by sundown.”
The land on the horizon seems to grow larger as she speaks.
“What will we do?”
He hasn’t got an answer for her.
“I dreamt of her.”
“My child, Isaac. Tell me you gave her safe into my brother’s care. Tell me we can trace her once I have his will, once I know what happened to her when he died.”
“To what end, Rose?” he asks harshly. “So she can join your pirate crew? So she can live at sea, a fugitive from British justice, on the run from the French, at the mercy of the first show of force you can’t hold back with your glorious bravado?”
She turns to him with tears in her eyes.
“I dreamt of her the night we escaped. She touched my face in my fever dream. She has my eyes.”
The scent of roasting meat turns his stomach after two days of clean, salty air. Across from him, Rose eats like a starving man. The dockside tavern is smokey and crowded; they are anonymous.
He remembers another crowded tavern, another anonymous meal fresh from the sea. He lays his hand over hers.
“Your brother was dead six months when I stepped ashore in Port-au-Prince.”
In Search of Ronan O’Leary
Raucous music rolls unnoticed over Isaac; he is attuned to the rustling grumbles from the baby swaddled in the handled crate at his feet. The tavern is full, despite the high sun outside, with sailors spending their coin until the tide changes.
He listens a moment–a familiar reel on a drunken fiddle, the heavy rhythms of the natives, a penny whistle, castanets. His sudden longing for a proper country dance in the hall at Farling Park nearly brings up the sour ale in his belly.
The Siren’s gig put him ashore just before sunrise. Port-au-Prince even then was not asleep; it was easy enough to send a a message to Ronan O’Leary at the address in the Captain’s letter.
The reel winds down, the players move off to find another drink. A stout woman in a black mantilla pushes her way inside. Isaac watches as she searches him out and shoves her way towards his table.
“Senor Lowe,” she says, towering over him despite her rotundly diminutive stature.
“Madam,” he answers.
She speaks slowly, touching his shoulder. He flinches at the too-familiar contact. “You were a friend of Senor O’Leary?”
“What do you mean, ‘were?’” he stammers. Somewhere near the open windows, the fiddler is playing a mournful dirge of a song; sweat is beading along his hairline, gathering on his neck.
She touches the crucifix at her breast. “A fever. Half a year a ago.”
“And you are?”
“His landlady. The boy you sent found me. What business had you with Senor O’Leary?”
The strains of the solo violin ache on the air, the mood in the whole tavern has gone somber. Isaac feels exposed. He touches the basket where the tiny little girl has grizzled herself to sleep.
“Dios mio,” the woman breathes, crossing herself and looking over her shoulder towards the harbor.
“Hasn’t he any family in Port-au-Prince?” Isaac begs. “I’m meant to leave the child with him; he’s to arrange my passage to London.”
“No, Senor,” she shakes her head, black lace swishing. “No family, no money. A moment.”
She waddles towards the barkeep as the mournful song fades away. Immediately the penny whistler and a boy with a jaw harp take up a merrier song. Isaac watches the barkeep’s face blanches at her words.
She returns with an expression of capable triumph.
“You and the child will sail on the evening tide, Senor.”
“I could see all the way to the moon that night, Rose,” he says. “As if it were a thing I could touch. And that ship was more like home than land had been, than Britain waiting for me on the other side of the Atlantic.” His face crinkles into a smile. “I blame you for that.”
Her expression is inscrutable.
“You’ll know the feeling, I think, of sea sparkling under that white light.”
He reaches into his coat, pulling out and opening a gold locket. He cleans the glass with his sleeve before sliding it across the table to her.
“I wasn’t thinking farther ahead than her next meal. For months, I kept the child alive on gruel, but I swear she drank the salt air. When I arrived in London, it was to a family in turmoil. My sister’s husband dead, she and my parents still in mourning for my presumed death.”
Rose’s finger hovers over the two miniatures. One of a baby, fat-cheeked and auburn-fuzzed. One of a milk-skinned child, fine of face, with wide gray eyes and a head of brilliant red ringlets.
“Are they very like her?” she whispers.
“They were made well, though she is rarely so still.” He laughs. “I call her Sirena. After your ship. Romantic perhaps, but—”
Rose touches the glass over the painted child’s cheek, her eyes stricken. “She was no fever dream.”
Isaac reaches for her hand over the portraits. “Felicity, my sister, and I took her to Brighton to visit the sea just last year. She spoke of nothing but ships and sailing for a whole month afterwards.”
Rose pulls back her hand and with them the locket. “She touched my cheek.” She pushes back from the table, disrupting a less than savory foursome playing dice.
A bear of a man in a black beard and oiled leather growls. “Hé!”
Ignoring the men and their game, Rose pushes through the tavern crowd.
“Where the hell are you going?” In his haste to follow her, Isaac knocks into the gamblers’ table, sending dice and coins rattling to the floor. The bear rises, grabbing Isaac by his coat.
He can’t see Rose around the huge sailor. The larger man shoves him back and he scrabbles for purchase against the table, hitting the floor hard and rapping his head against the chair Rose had been sitting in.
The black-bearded man pulls his fist back, but the color drains from his face as the steel point of a blade dips into his fleshy neck. The assailant’s pale, fierce face and spiky russet hair are Isaac’s salvation.
Rose presses the blade harder, her low voice cold as the knife in her hand. “Le relâcher. Maintenant.”
As he stands and straightens his coat, Rose drops the knife on the table and spits on the floor. “We should go.”
Outside the tavern, the moon is rising full and low over the harbor, as if it were a thing he could touch.
Two men appear out of nowhere, a few yards away in the narrow, moonlit lane. He can’t be sure, but Ronan O’Leary can only assume they’ve caught a slave or a whore, the hellcat spits and struggles between them.
A large Spaniard—Paulo Jáquez, Pedro Marquez de Navarra’s lieutenant—is blocking his view of them. The man reeks of rum and smoked pork; beyond him Ronan can smell the turning tide. If there is a god, he prays, let me be on that tide before the year is out. Tears burn the bridge of his nose at the thought of Ireland.
Jáquez is half in shadow, the gold loop in his earlobe glinting. “No more games, O’Leary, de Navarra wants his gold.”
The palm wood wall of the gambling hall absorbs his hopeless weight; Ronan can feel the splinters through his sweat-soaked linen shirt. His pockets are empty, his credit overdrawn. His luck lies at the bottom of the Caribbean with his uncle’s sugar and Jamaican rum prospects. “I haven’t got it.”
Jáquez will gut him here in the alley between the tavern and the stone wall of the brothel. The whores will take his teeth for the three silver fillings.
“You’re a lucky bastard.” The Spaniard’s laugh sends a skitter of unease down Ronan’s spine. “De Navarra doesn’t care for the French girl his father bought him. You have something he prefers.”
In a mockery of presentation, Jáquez moves aside with a little bow, and Ronan’s heart rises in his throat. Between the silent thugs, Rose’s eyes are wild, her red curls darkened to indigo in the moonlight.
“This ends one of two ways.” Rose squeals against the gag, twisting fiercely at Jáquez’s words. “Your sister goes to de Navarra’s bed this night as his wife and your debts are forfeit. Or I cut both your throats.”
Ronan covers his eyes. He can’t bear to watch Rose’s feet scrabble for purchase as they drag her away, but her stifled screams bring him to his knees.
Jáquez grabs a fistful of Ronan’s hair forcing him to meet the Spaniard’s eyes. “You live quietly, O’Leary. And you never so much as look at Señora Marquez de Navarra again. Your sister Rose is gone.”
The Bone Needle
The tatooist’s skin is black as coal. He offers her a leather strap.
She declines. The bone needle, the shell bowl of ink, his stained fingers tracing the constellation torn from a navigational chart. It will hurt. Rose nods. A red curl bounces against her cheek.
The pain is exquisite. She speaks to put it from her mind.
“My sisters are buried an ocean away. My brother sold my hand to an ancient Spaniard. My six-months husband was murdered by pirates. I am seventeen years old.”
Ink-smeared fingers sting star-shaped wounds.
“There is a ship. She’ll be mine.”
The Fallen Woman
The reek of his own false bravado fills the air. The pirate’s eyes flash deep and dark with fear and humiliation. A half-dozen men in a skiff overtook the watch in the darkness, the ship and crew laid low with drink and French plunder.
The deck rolls beneath him, the sea itself resists the upstart boy holding his life in slim, smooth hands. Death has grey eyes and the freckles of an Irish child.
When he swallows, the razor steel of the boy’s cutlass pricks his skin. Two burly men hold his arms. Those of his crew who remain alive have been restrained below decks. He knows this coup must be swift and final; the weak will follow the captain who lives.
“What do you call her?” Death speaks with the lilt of emerald glades, a fresh wind across salt-cured Caribbean planks.
He holds his chin high; his nostrils flare in defiance. Death presses its blade.
“La Mujer Caída.” Death blushes at his ship’s name; the sails moan overhead like the whore she’s named for.
Death nods to the pirate’s captors. One of the men rips the strong-box keys from his neck. The leather thong snaps. He thinks of his cabin, full of gold and Bordeaux wine—wasted on this reed of a boy.
A grunt and a nod from the two thugs and Death steels to strike. The blade flashes upwards. Death lifts its empty hand to the scarf around its smooth brow. As the violently red curls tumble, whipping across Death’s pale cheeks, the corner of the pirate’s mouth turns up. He whispers as pain slices through the flesh of his throat.
His last words are a fading epithet mingling with his blood on the deck of his lost ship.
“The sea and I have never been at odds,” Rose mutters as she enters. She carries a bundle of burnt sticks.
Isaac knows she has been charring them over the galley fire. She often brings him Spanish oranges from Cook’s personal store. He suspects Cook knows her secret, hopes Cook’s interest is avuncular.
She kneels and scratches a hash mark into the planked wall of their cabin. Her accounting done, she tucks her remaining sticks away in her pack.
Her hair has begun to grow again. She is a russet-capped nereid, her limbs lean and strong, browned and freckled under her boy’s clothing. He rolls onto his side, puts aside the copy of Blake he borrowed from the captain of the Galatea.
“The sea is not your opponent, Rose.”
“So long as it lies between my daughter and I,” she says, her face level with his. Her eyes are the same endless gray as the rolling waves. “The score is 42 to naught in the sea’s favor.”
The First Sweet Waft of Dying
As the equinox approaches, the first sweet waft of the dying summer teases Isaac’s nose. For weeks, they’ve walked though damp heat in the day and the chill kiss of dew on the foliage at the dawn. Farm land rolling on for miles, and plain but solid homes dotting the roads.
He is not surprised that his traveling companion seems untouched by the conditions. Rose will always be as near to wild as a civilized woman can be.
She has bound back her curls in a cap and traded the buckskin she adopted in the southern wilderness for a dress. She calls herself Mrs. Rosie Lowe, speaking with lowered eyes, with the few strangers they pass.
Few and becoming fewer as the roads lead north. Issac fingers the coins in his pocket, hoping they will be enough for horses and warm clothes for the journey to Montreal. They have sheltered and eaten by virtue of their skills so far, Rose helping the goodwives of Massachusetts to bring in and preserve the harvests from their kitchen gardens whilst he patched them up and treated their children. Fine for survival in the temperate months, he thinks, but not enough to buy their lives from the wicked winter each farmer predicts, either by the taste of the wind or the crunch of acorns beneath their feet.
Rose is singing under her breath, a rolling shanty whose lyrics would make a Boston docksman blush, and Isaac is swamped with longing. She might claim marriage under the gaze of curious strangers, but their friendship is tenuous, even after so long together, and she has never encouraged his affections.
“They’d burn you for a witch if they knew you could speak like that.”
She gives him the haughty half-smile of a sea-captain, eyes playful under escaping fiery tendrils. “I should like to see the fire that would dare burn me.”
A shiver runs down Isaac’s back that has nothing to do with the scent of turning leaves in the air and he reaches over to tuck her shawl around her shoulder in silence.