In the deepest, dampest, and coldest part of an otherwise gorgeous ship, Otis and Curly were stacked in separate cages generally reserved for the transport of animals or slaves. The captain had plenty of room in the brig, but Curly was a “most extra special guest,” and by extension, so was Otis.
Otis gazed at the hodgepodge of dirty puddles collecting from the drips, teasing him from above. He would have given almost anything for the satisfaction of just one tiny drop.
“Good morning, my little barnacles,” Captain James called down the stairs before stomping down them. “How is the sea treating you on this fine, fine morning?”
Otis and Curly ignored him, as was their routine.
“That’s too bad.” The captain let loose the tone of a parent teasing a disappointed child. “I suppose this probably isn’t going to help any. I’ve got some rather unpleasant news for you both. It seems that we’ve entered the waters of an area where people understand the value of their gold. And I may have a buyer willing to part with enough of his gold to make me part with this beautiful, beautiful, telescope and retire this life altogether.” Captain James pulled a gaudy golden telescope from his belt and held it on display for a frightened Curly, who was pressed against the back of his cage, shaking like a beaten dog.
“Curly, you and Nobe have been with me for almost a full year now. Could you imagine waking up every morning and not being able to look forward to the delicious breakfasts you get to watch me eat? The buckets of hot and cold water I use to wake you. The scorpions, and snakes, and spiders I put in your cage so you don’t get lonely. All gone. Curly, how much do you think this telescope is worth? In terms of gold…not even a guess? How about you, Nobe?”
Captain James rubbed his thumb over the telescope and let out a regretful sigh. “I suppose you can’t guess its value if you don’t know its history. And it’s my own fault for not teaching you two about this telescope and where it came from.
“On the surface, it doesn’t look like much, I know. There’s scratches all over it and a few dents if you look close enough. But this was a very special gift. And like most special gifts, it’s not so much about the gift itself, or the thought, as much as it is who the gift is from.”
The captain tucked the telescope back on his belt and covered it with his silky jacket. “I never believed in the Sea Witch…I’d always heard that you were more likely to get struck by lightning than to ever see her in real life. I still don’t know if that’s true or not, but the day I met her, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
“It started out quiet. There was this thumping at the bottom of the ship. Thump. Thump. Thump. It got louder and quicker. Thump. Thump. Thump.” He slammed his massive fist into the cages and paused for a moment, lost within the frightening chambers of his memory. “Before any of us knew what was happening, the ship…just…started to crumble like stale bread. I still don’t know why she came over to me.
“She could have killed me from fifty feet out, but for some reason or another, she came real close. Face to face. There were at least a hundred other guys, but she swam to me. She was so beautiful. More beautiful than any woman I’ve ever seen or been with. And trust me, I’ve been with some of the finest ass in the world. Long, thick locks of blond hair. Great big blue eyes.
“But when she smiled…her teeth—they looked like they’d been covered in seaweed. I didn’t know what else to do, so I grabbed a wine bottle that happened to be floating nearby, and I smashed it in her face. The glass cut her to shreds.” Captain James put his head down. It was the first time Otis had ever seen fear or respect on the captain’s face. There even seemed to be a shred of remorse.
“But she didn’t wince or show any signs of pain,” the captain continued. “She just ran her hand down her bloody face, smiled, and sank back into the water. I thought for sure she was gonna pull me down—do whatever she does to people. Never happened. She wrecked us about a mile or so off the Calypso Island coastline. Those of us who made it to shore stayed until we could arrange for a new ship. About three months later, we finally left. Our first day out, she tracked us down.
“I was scared. I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid. All I kept thinking was that I’d have to answer for cutting her face to shreds. But it was like she didn’t even remember that it happened. All she wanted from me was more of the ‘purple stuff,’ as she called it. I wasn’t sure if she was serious or not, but I gave her a barrel. In return, she gave me this telescope and a lifetime of gratitude. She’s constantly tipping us off on gold shipments, tea, tobacco, silk, slaves…haven’t heard much from her lately, but she’s still out there. It really is a miracle she picked me that day. And that there was a bottle of wine within reach.”
“The real miracle is that you tell that bullshit story, expecting anyone to believe it,” Otis said.
“No,” the captain said with a serene calmness. “That story is as true as you are here. And that’s why this telescope is so valuable. The man who wants to buy it has heard my story, and he knows it’s true. Based on the description and unique features, he recognizes this telescope as one from his childhood. You see, he was only a boy when the Sea Witch wrecked the ship he was on. He was also the sole survivor. Everyone and everything else went down—including his father, his grandfather, and a family heirloom that had been passed down for generations.
“Turns out that young man would grow up to accrue quite a fortune. And he wants his family heirloom. Like I said, it’s not the gift itself, but who it came from. Now, Nobe. Curly. Knowing what you now know about this telescope, what do you think it’s worth?”
“I really don’t know,” Otis said. “But I’m guessin’ it’s not a lot if it’s all beat to shit.”
“What?” Captain James reacted with a puzzled glance before reaching for his belt. The telescope was gone and was somehow within Otis’s firm grasp. “Noooo!”
From the back of his cage, Otis choked up on the telescope and swung it repeatedly against the steel bars, smashing it to scrap and sending shards of glass everywhere. Captain James’s jaw couldn’t have fallen any farther. Devastation filled the moldy air as a lifetime of fortune vanished in the blink of an eye.
“I don’t know how you got your hands on that,” he said with a contained rage boiling within. “But you are going to pay—dearly.”
Otis smiled, wedging himself further under the captain’s skin. “It’s probably too late to tell you this, but I don’t have any gold on me to pay for that. Whoops.”
Seething, Captain James lugged himself back up the stairs.
The following morning, Otis woke up and stretched his arms and legs. “Mornin’, Curly. What do you think are the chances of us getting fed today?” Aside from a series of gentle water drops tapping the warped wooden floor, Otis got no answer. “Curly…Curly?” Otis looked down. The cage was still there, but Curly was gone. Otis hung his head low, went to the back of his pen, and closed his eyes.
In the days to come, he got word that Curly had been thrown overboard. His hands and legs had been tied while a cannonball tethered to his restraints weighed him down. Otis didn’t sleep for a week. Delirious, he waited and wondered when it would be his turn to pay for that telescope. The minutes turned to hours. The hours turned to days. And just like that, three years passed.
Captain James fancied himself an experimental man. When it came to torture and pushing the physical and mental wills of his prisoners, the captain had had a lot of experience before his encounter with Otis. The captain knew a lot of awful things, most from firsthand experience. He had a good idea as to how long a human body could survive without food or water, or air, or while encapsulated by freezing-cold temperatures.
He also took note that something happens to a person when he’s cut off from sunshine for an extended period of time. Something inside him shrivels up and, in the process, dulls the will and edges of even the sharpest minds. The captain determined that survival without the sun was entirely possible, but living was not.
During Otis’s time on that ship, he got to see quite a bit from the back of his cage. But not once did he ever get a glimpse of sunshine. Other prisoners would come and go. some individuals, some families. Otis always tried to offer advice when they first arrived. What to say, what not to say, and how to gain the slightest bit of sympathy from the guys the captain would assign to check in on them. “And, whatever you do, never, under any circumstances, ask when you’re going to be fed or given water next.”
None of the new prisoners lasted for more than a few months at a time before being killed or sold off. For Otis, however, there was no discernible timeline for his death or unlikely conditional release. Just malnourishment paired with droopy eyes and a scraggly beard. His most recent meal had been an unfortunate moth that had flown close to his cage, and his last drink of water had been wrung from a dirty mop.
Throughout childhood, Otis had been instilled with the thought that an untimely death was something he should never accept. “Sure.” His mother’s voice was as clear as if she had been standing next to him. “It is going to happen someday, but not until you’re an old, old man and there’s nothing left for you to achieve in this life. But should it try to sneak up and succeed in overwhelming you, give it every shred of fight you have. Never give up. And never accept an untimely death as a conclusion to your life story.”
Otis was reaching a crossroads in his life story, however, and it was making him question whether or not death would be seen as an antagonist or as a welcome supporting character. An increasing lack of stability within his mind caused hope and optimism to hemorrhage from his cage at an alarming rate.
It was a chilly fall morning. Captain James came down the steps with an elastic water canteen and a ceramic bowl overflowing with spoiled olives.
“Prolly thought I forgot about you down here, huh?” Captain James squeezed the canteen between two steel bars and cringed at the sight of Otis desperately gulping down the water. “Here,” the captain said, slowly raising the bowl against the same two bars. “Nobody likes these.”
Otis devoured the rotting olives and chugged down what little water he had left. “These from Ithaca?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Captain James said, impressed. “Passed through about a month ago. How did you know?”
“Lucky guess…I used to live in Ithaca,” Otis said. “Best olives in the world.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it. I’ve never acquired a taste. They won’t be running out anytime soon, though—in Ithaca. I’ve never seen so many olive trees in one place. Didn’t realize how pretty they were. The whole coast was covered.”
“It’s heaven on earth in late spring,” Otis said, staring at the last olive.
“That’s about when we were there.”
Otis handed the canteen back before looking disconsolately at the floor and letting a tear escape his eye. “I’m the king there,” he said under his breath.
“I’m the king there. My real name is Otis Seehus, and if you turn back and take me there, I swear on my son’s life I’ll send you away with more gold than your eyes can see at one time.”
Captain James stepped forward and honed his pensive eyes on Otis for the briefest of moments before bursting into laughter. “You about had me there, Nobe,” he said, brushing his forearms over his eyes to dry the comical tears.
“I’m serious,” Otis said, jolting to the front bars of his cage, closing the distance between the two. “Please. Take me back.”
Captain James could recognize the desperation in his captive’s tired eyes and perhaps a bit of truth. “Even if you were the king of that tiny little island—you’re not anymore. It seems the people have moved on from—what was it you said your real name was?”
“Why have I never heard of you?”
“Captain, I’m sure there are a lot of kings you haven’t heard of.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s not supposed to mean anything,” Otis said defensively. “Am I wrong? Are you familiar with every king in the world?”
“No. I suppose not. But I was just in Ithaca, and I didn’t hear anyone say anything about their beloved King Otis and how they all missed him so much. No word of search teams or questions of his whereabouts. It seems the people have moved on. I suggest you do the same. I don’t care what your name is or how much gold you think you still have back there. The only certainties in your life are that you’re here, and you’re mine.” The captain turned his back to Otis and ascended the stairs, still giggling. “King of Ithaca,” he mocked while rising out of sight. “I can’t wait to tell the guys about this one.”
Otis buried his forehead between the steel bars, using pain to ease his anger while fresh tears ran trails down both of his cheeks.