by Paul Weidknecht
He had considered them his lads, but now that their brigantine was a blot against the sunset, he sat alone on the sand bar wishing them due course into some distant hurricane or navy frigate. He imagined himself one day standing hidden among the Port Royal citizenry, watching them drop at Gallows Point, each corpse later tarred for the gibbet and gulls. The thought satisfied him, and though he knew the reverie was hopelessly conjured, he closed his eyes and grinned into the sun’s waning warmth.
A skin of water hung from a lanyard over his shoulder and the pistol lay in the sand near a pouch of gunpowder. He opened his hand and looked down, the lead ball like a tiny egg in the nest of his palm.
He’d received no bottle. During sentencing, someone proposed that because he had stolen rum he should be denied that very comfort. The assembly agreed, so it was. Had the theft come against a crew member he might’ve had his nostrils slit or an ear cut off and nailed to the mainmast–every ship afloat sailed in the hands of scarred men–but this rum had been part of a prize taken under fire. His offense was against the ship.
Hours previous, two had been assigned to row the ship’s launch to the bar as a third held the musket on him. Before they could order him out, he stepped from the bow into the shallows and walked up the gentle slope of crushed white coral. Treeless and flat, the land hadn’t the size to accommodate a large barn. He let the sack of powder fall and turned back. As the oarsmen righted the boat and began to pull, the guard reached below the gunwales and retrieved the pistol. He flung it high onto the beach, before quickly bringing up the musket once again.
When the ship weighed anchor he expected mock salutes and bows from the crew, congratulations on being made governor of the island. But he heard nothing more than the routine shouts of the vessel underway, the creaking of its masts, the ticking of its taut ropes.
The island would be underwater soon–any seaman could divine that much. High tide would bring the water to his waist, perhaps chest. The sky would go purple, then black, then something beyond black. From the darkness, a tail would rake the surface with a muscular thrash and cut away, to circle back.
He glanced from the sun when the breeze brought in a scent, one stirring a memory not recalled since its origin twenty years before. In it he saw that one spring afternoon, buffed boots and a barber’s shave, his lively step from his apprenticeship on the wharf. Their stroll up that grassy hill, reclining under the shade tree with his hands clasped behind his head, looking over and smiling. And moments later, how her eyes frowned before answering his question.
Note: This story originally appeared in Fractured West.
While conducting research for a screenplay I wrote about the first African-American war hero, I happened upon Howard Pyle’s Marooned, a painting showing a pirate sulking alone in despair on a barren stretch of beach. I thought there could be a story present by addressing what a castaway might think as he sat on that sand bar waiting for the sun to set and the tide to rise. The ending–unplanned and revealed only as I began writing it–explores one possible reason why a person might abandon a traditional life for one of lawlessness and destruction. I learned a lot about pirates while working on this piece; for example, that some had a written code of conduct they were required to follow while aboard ship, and that despite their savagery and boldness, they would almost always avoid confronting organized naval forces, the latter being better armed and trained. For fellow writers: the story took 20 rejections before being published.
Paul Weidknecht’s stories can be found in Once Around the Sun: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales for All Seasons, the newest anthology by the Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC. Publications include work in Appalachia, Best New Writing 2015, Clackamas Literary Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine anthology, The Los Angeles Review, The MacGuffin, Potomac Review, Rosebud, Shenandoah, and Structo, among others. He lives in Phillipsburg, New Jersey where he has completed a collection of short fiction.
FF.Net Editor Commentary (Randall Brown)
In writing flash fiction, I almost always make the “when” of a flash fiction piece during my own lifetime. But what I love about this piece, among many things, is the “when” of it. It makes me want to expand the “when” of my flashes in both directions–to some distant past & present.