A short story dedicated to the Bilgemunky Knifefighters
“Show me again, Mr. Hands.”
The deceptively slight quartermaster complied, stepping up and reaching over as Edward squinted to see. His eyes had yet to adjust to the dim light belowdecks. Not that he’d be able to make much sense of the manifest, even were they topside in the noonday sun. Gradually the gloom took shape, and Edward skimmed to where the quartermaster pointed midway down the page. He located the entry as a drop of blood landed beside, prompting Edward to let go of the log book with one hand and reach up to feel his brow. He winced as his fingers ran across the fresh gash.
He’d been lucky, no doubt. This had been his first battle on the account. But what’s more, his first since chancing into captaincy. Captain, he thought; of one of those ships. Edward looked up and considered the dark ceiling of the hold (overhead, he reminded himself, they call it an overhead), where a single fading lantern swung to the beat of loud clomps and muffled shouts echoing from above as the men mopped and sorted survivors.
No, not the men. His men.
Edward returned his gaze to the line indicated by Mr. Hands’ claw-like finger, and studied the Spanish words scratched between mundane entries of biscuit and musket shot. A disappointing haul, especially for a crew mired in a prolonged dry spell. And while biscuit and shot could be useful, they’d hardly sell. A poor prize, Edward knew. Except for one entry spelled out in pompous, spidery script : el ataúd azteca.
“The Aztec tomb?” he translated aloud. “How the blazes did the dons stow a tomb?”
“Nay, not tomb, Cap’n,” Hands corrected. “Coffin.”
Having been on the account much longer than himself, Edward trusted his quartermaster’s Spanish better than his own. But then, Hands was a man of many qualities. Vile, conniving, murderous. Yet, strangely he was also the sole reason Edward was still alive.
A tearing sound caught both men’s attention, and Edward lowered the manifest to watch his men working through the first folds of burlap. “Have you ever seen an Aztec coffin, Mr. Hands?” he asked as a small gap in fabric revealed a first telling glint.
“Can’t say I ‘ave, Cap’n.” Hands answered, emphasizing the truncated ‘captain’ in his continued effort to convince the crew. “Glimpsed a native headpiece, once. ’N heard tell of a throne. Solid gold throughout, carved ornate ’n fancy like.”
A golden throne would be a rare catch, indeed, thought Edward. Could a golden Aztec coffin be worth any less? He weighed the idea in his head and held his breath as the men pulled a large scrap to fully unveil their prize. It was a sight indeed – but nothing like he’d expected.
Not gold, for one, but silver. Unusual, but still worth a fortune, Edward concluded. Silver, smooth, and with nary a carved face, snake or bird that he’d heard so common with Aztec art. But the shape was odder still. Rounder instead of rectangular, and some six feet across. More saucer than sarcophagus, he mused, like some spoke-less ship’s wheel. Or maybe a giant snuff box. Then he observed aloud, to no one in particular, “Not like any coffin I’ve seen.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” Hands agreed as he walked up to examine more closely. He ran his fingers across the object’s exterior as the men stood back to await his verdict. Edward might be captain, but Mr. Hands held the true command. Which was only natural; Hands was an experienced sailor, soldier and killer, while Edward barely qualified a figurehead.
A figurehead, and, until recently, ornithologist.
How the devil it was that bird watching had landed Edward down the path to piracy was sure to confound him the rest of his days. But then, he’d often found life to be circuitous.
A remarkable specimen of physical prowess from an early age, Edward had at first seemed born to blacksmith, wrestle or soldier. But a sharp mind and love for natural studies led him toward more scholarly pursuits. It proved a fine match for his intellect, but a lack of established patronage – combined with an unkempt, hulking manner – saw him the butt of many a joke among the scientists at the Royal Academy. Without benefit of classical study, and a bearing uncharitably likened to giant or man-ape, Edward knew he’d little chance to broach the echelons of London’s intelligencia. So when he crossed path with an opportunity to study fauna abroad, he thanked his luck and departed for the West Indies.
This too proved a fine match, and after three happy years roughing the wilds to live like a native and sketch every parrot, thrush and warbler he could find, Edward was at last set to return to England and show those tarts all he’d discovered. It might not be enough for them to see past his humble roots and oversized stature, but perhaps he’d manage a first step toward polite society.
Not a day into the voyage home, the pirates struck. The crew and passengers had surrendered outright, but then the invaders started confiscating anything resembling a ship’s log – Edward’s sketches included – and he’d fought like the devil.
He’d failed. But not before stamping his mark into the heads and minds of the pirate crew, who’d not soon forget the towering berserker howling about birds through a disheveled mop of black hair and dark, ratted beard – and that was before he started tossing hardened men about like so many clumsy urchins.
Tired of getting bruised and battered, one pirate eventually drew a flintlock to finish Edward for all, but Hands intervened. The crew’d been afoul with bad luck, and in this fearsome bird-watcher he’d seen potential – a chance to rebrand the crew into something fearsome. Legendary, even.
For the Hands, Edward’s commutation and quick election to captain had been cold strategy. For Edward, it was a stay of execution.
Edward returned his thoughts to the Aztec coffin, which gleamed before him despite the dim light of the hold, and watched as Hands neared the end of his examination. The quartermaster frowned, tapping his knife across what seemed every inch of the saucer’s flawless surface, and then deflated the men with a somber, “T’ain’t sterling, Cap’n. Not worth its weight, ’cept maybe for langridge an’ ballast.” As he spoke, he continued tapping his blade, which then surprised him as it found purchase next to a previously unnoticed hinge. Squinting, he gave a sharp twist and cracked loose a hatch, out of which tumbled a soft cloud of shimmery mist followed by a limp, childlike figure.
The nearest pirates jumped back as the body thudded against the deck, where it splayed out all naked and motionless. Smelling more ozone than rot, its grey skin was well enough for a proper corpse, but its hairlessness and oversized head were far less usual. As was its ability to moan, sit upright, and open a pair of inhumanly large, cerulean eyes.
A quick flash, a sharp bang, and, without thought or hesitation, one of the younger crewmen planted a musket ball square between those eyes.
”Damn you and belay that shot!” Edward thundered in the voice that had helped win his place as figurehead captain. Sounding a cross between cannon and bear, it was typically more than enough to curdle even the thickest blood. But in this case it managed nothing more than to elicit some small snickering amongst the men. Hands included.
“Beg pardon, Cap’n,” he whispered, quickly recovering his usual scowl, “but ya can’t belay a shot what’s already been shot.” Then he turned to the crew and offered his own rebuke – one of his signature, quiet sort of threats delivered with unsettling, almost paternal ease. “Stow yer irons, ya blighters, lest some’n gets hurt.”
As one, they belted their pistols and stowed their blades. And for a long spell, none spoke, opting instead to trade nervous glances between each other while considering the broken grey figure, now lying dead in a pool of its own turquoise blood.
Eventually Edward grew impatient and decided that if there was ever a time for his scientific studies to play into pirate captaincy, this was it. He crouched low and examined the slumped being, top to toes. Like the vessel it had emerged from, it too was strangely lacking in features; plain of face and entirely unclothed save for a few finger rings crafted of strange cut and even stranger metal that almost seemed to shine with its own light. And speaking of fingers, Edward noticed, this creature’s spindly hands were short a digit per.
Grey skin, large head, utterly devoid of ears, nose or (he scanned down the torso’s curious biology) other features, Edward wondered just what sort of creature they’d found. Surely not Aztec. Hardly even human. Then he felt a sudden rush and realized the true extent of their find.
“Ever seen a pygmy, Mr. Hands?” he asked, hopping to his feet and near bumping his head for the haste.
“Myths,” spat Hands. “Up with merfolk ’n grizzlies. But yer the naturalist. Whadya figure?”
Screw birds, that’s what he figured. And screw Aztec coffins. Edward could imagine no greater scientific achievement than returning to London with a genuine pygmy to rub in everyone’s snotty faces. The thought hadn’t even fully taken shape, and his mind was already racing with half-formed plans. Preserving the specimen would be step one. Escaping the pirates and shuffling his trophy to England? That he’d sort later. “Fetch a large cask,” he instructed, his words nearly tripping over his excitement. “We’ll stow the body in rum for transport.”
The collective gasp, laced with an edge bordering on feral, chilled Edward to the quick. Hands approached, his tone even more sinister than usual. “Pardon again, Captain,” he said, pronouncing the word in full, loaded measure, “but I don’t think tha lads’ll be spoilin’ good rum over this flotsam.”
Edward wanted desperately to argue the point, but the warning in his quartermaster’s eye left no room for debate. Or error, he realized as he chanced a look across the men’s faces. Each of them held their hands spring-loaded and weapon-ready – one word and it would be over. And it wasn’t Edward’s word they waited on.
“Of course, Mr. Hands,” he conceded in the most gracious tone he could muster. His heart was breaking, crushed beneath the dying hope to buy academic respectability with a fully preserved pygmy. He swallowed hard, considered his options, and retreated his thoughts toward merely surviving the day. “Belay the rum,” he yielded, to everyone’s great relief. But Hands wasn’t yet satisfied, and then elaborated on Edward’s command while gesturing at the grey corpse. “And, p’haps, the sea with the wretch,” he commanded in guise of helpful suggestion.
Minutes later, Edward and Hands were topside, manning the quarterdeck and watching the crew haul what Edward figured the greatest discovery of the age out of the hold. They tossed the corpse and coffin overboard with no more ceremony than a chamber pot, and Edward’s thoughts darkened. An honest to God pygmy, he seethed, and all these blaggards can think to do is scuttle it!
Misinterpreting Edward’s reddened face and trembling fists, Hands gave his captain a hearty smack on the shoulder. “Ne’er mind the dwarf, Cap’n! The lads’ll make do with biscuit ’n musket shot fer now. And maybe our next haul will turn up somethin’ actually worthwhile!”