There weren't a time she couldn't remember living on the streets. She'd grown up hard in the back alleys of Plymouth, a dirty harbor town filled with bitter people beaten down flat by the sea and the sun and the scourge of poverty. When she was very small, she slept on the beach and scavenged the shore for bits of sustenance the sea puked up on the sand. She learned the crude tongue of the lower class from boatswains' calls and fishwives' curses overheard in the harbor and the market ashore. Most people didn't take much notice of her, and as such she saw things she wished she hadn't, horrible things that, try as she might, she couldn't scrub the stains of them from the corners of her mind.
She didn't understand this life, with its rough edges and hard fists and sorrow and hunger and strange desperation. Sometimes her mind felt scrambled and messy, like the innards cast rotting in heaps by the fishmarket. The only thing soothing were the sea. On calm clear nights when the galleon moon sailed her star tides slow and careful, she'd give herself up to the gentle hands of the surf. Stretched out in the sand, she smiled as the waves fussed at her clothes like the mother she never knew and the seafoam plaited her hair like a sister, solicitous.
When she were a tad bit older and a fair bit wiser, she took to calling herself by a boy's name--Jack Tidey--and making her means by pickpocketing, petty thievery, smash and grab. Sometimes she ran with the chimneysweeps, soot monkeys who made most of their money on their offtime, scuttling down coalpipes and ash chutes and flues to rob sleeping homeowners of what little valuables they had. It never occurred to her this might be wrong, because she'd never had anything of her own to grow attached to, nothing anyone could steal at any rate.
Finally, at the age of fourteen, she talked a ship's captain into taking her on as a cabinboy. She'd met him drinking at the Knave of Cups, a seaside tavern with the cheapest ale in town. She and a couple of urchin pals, Rasher and Cholly, had made quite a getaway with a gentleman's purse that evening, and were bound and determined to live like kings, if only for a few hours til the gold went dry.
She was sitting at the bar atop a too-tall stool, passing a tankard back and forth with Cholly (Rasher, being rather stout, had bought one all to himself), when the sailors boiled in the door like floodwater.
"Hey-o lassie!" one called out to the barmaid. "Let's have a round for the whole crew, eh?"
"Righter!" called Bonny Jenny, winking to the trio of kids, who til now had been the lone patrons. "'Old on to yer 'ats, boys, 'ere we go!"
Jack smiled. Jenner were a sweet gal, always kind and free with the table scraps for them as had both empty bellies and pockets. She did love a rowdy crowd full of sailors, too.
"Pssht, Jenners," Jack hissed, sliding a coin across the bar. "I'll buy a whiskey for the Captain, whoever he is."
Jenny smiled. "An't you a sweet lad then? You knows how I love servin' captains." She winked, and Jack blushed. She poured out a generous glass of the amber liquid and held it high.
"This 'ere's for the ship's cap'n," she called out with a flourish, "courtesy of this fine young fellow at the bar, Jack Tidey!"
A tall man stepped forward, rawboned, a scar on his cheek. "That'd be me, lassie," he smiled, taking the glass from Jenny and winking a giggle out of her. He turned. "Jack Tidey, is it?"
Jack hopped off her stool, staggered only a bit from the drink in her head, and gave an exaggerrated salute. "That I am."
The captain chuckled and put out his hand. "Captain Tom Stockton, of the merchant ship the Cygnet." He pumped Jack's hand til her teeth rattled. "You boys come over and sit wi' us, will ye? I'm sure the men have some tall tales ye might like hearin'."
Two hours and six rounds later, Jack waved a grinning farewell to Rasher and Cholly, the newest member of the crew of the Cygnet.
She'd been 3 years asea and had risen to the rank of powder monkey--Captain Stockton were a good man, and rewarded hard work aboard ship, hard work such as Jack prided herself on. Mostly she was just another seaman like the rest of the crew, swabbing decks and standing watch and hauling cargo here and there, but merchant ships had banks of guns to fend off pirates and privateers if need be, and when the very rare occasion arose what required their use, she nimbly carried the powder from the store to the gunners.
She were quite happy in her life as a sailor, far more than she'd been as a pickpocket or a beggar. The sun and the spray of the sea had daubed her brown as a nut; the work aboard ship was hard but satisfying. The food weren't much, but it never had been in earlier days neither, and the times put to port were full of drink and dancing and singing by the sea. Her crewmates hadn't cottoned to her secret, though they teased her for her reticence with the ladies, laid running bets on when young Jack Tidey's voice might change or his beard might grow. She laughed and staggered, drank with the best of them and fought with the worst.
They were three weeks out, bound for Port Royal with a hold full of crockery and indigo and barrels of wine, when the storm struck. The clouds blew up dark, crowding around the ship like bullies, and the seamen barely had time to secure the lines and hatches before the rain began pelting down like grapeshot. The sea was furious. The Cygnet bucked like a mad horse and the captain ordered all hands as could be spared belowdecks to batten down the cargo to minimize damages. Jack clung to the capstan and howled at the sea.
"Lay to! Lay to, love. You'll be killing us all!" A wave crashed over the bulwarks and into her face. She gasped and coughed out the salty brine.
"I didn't deserve that, y'know," she muttered, her voice carried off by the storm. "It ain't us yer fightin with, it's the wind!" Jack fancied the waves lulled a bit, as if considering.
The wind, deaf to her logic, tore at the sails cruelly, as a madwoman rends her own skirts. How the hell could they scurry up to strike them in this maelstrom? It'd be madness. A corner of the mizzenmast topsail ripped free, fluttering in the wind like a crazy flag of surrender. Captain Stockton swore and gripped the wheel harder.
"I've got it," Jack screamed into the gale, gesticulating at the flapping canvas, and flung herself into the rigging.
"No, Jack!" yelled Stockton. "Are ye daft? Aloft in this wind is suicide, mate!"
"Makes no nevermind if we capsize, will it?" she howled back.
She climbed the ropes, nimble as a monkey, holding fast as blasts of spume pounded and drenched her. She knew the sails had to be struck or they'd dancing with fishes in ballrooms of coral.
And with that vivid image still fresh in her mind, a hard fist of wind punched her reeling, flying, weightless, and the sea rose up to catch her in its arms.
Down she sank, gently, cradled, past the pounding storm of the surface, through currents warm and coddling, where she came to rest along the ocean's floor. The sea had taken many a man to her bosom, and Jack's last thoughts as the darkness closed in were of Bonny Jenny's winking eyes, and Captain Stockton's whiskey grin, and the wide blue infinite of freedom.
The sea plucked at this trophy, this sailor the wind had gifted her with, flung at her in the heat of the fray. She sucked at his lips, pushed into his mouth and ears and lungs. She prodded the pathways of his blood, sloshed against the pan of his brain, and saw the secrets of his soul...and realized, he weren't a man at all.
She saw the city streets, the violence, a vivid image of a man cuffing a tooth from a whore's mouth in a spray of blood and spit, felt the hunger and the fear, the strange genesis that formed this woman who'd skittered away along the heaving surface of her seaskin, away from that terrible past, in the guise of a man. She saw a starving child sleeping on a beach...recalled how she'd tossed up fish and seaglass to cheer her, perhaps this child, perhaps one of a thousand others, perhaps this sailor-child indeed, remembered twisting her briny locks of hair into knotty sea snakes as she lay in the breaking tide, dreaming of a better life.
Strange things happen at sea, a sea can change a man, they say. A sea change indeed, and in the salty myopia of her sea-consciousness she wondered, could this girl have another chance at freedom?
She began to weave a kelpie cocoon.
Soon soft layers of seaweed spanned tangled around a body floating in amniosis of oceanwater, held captive within a protective shell of barnacles, sand accretions, staghorn and firecoral. The seaborn egg from which, on a deserted beach in a cove on the island of Tortuga, phoenixlike, a Sparrow would be reborn.
Back to shore