The small island looked like a painting held underwater; ripples of heat wavering in front of the few dotted houses, blurring the lines between mirage and memory.
Waves of humid Caribbean air skittered through the scattering of modest dwellings, festering in the shadowy corners whilst the sun beat mercilessly down on the landscape, parching the earth. Speckled along the shoreline, the coconut palms strained regimentally to attention, not even the faintest breeze to rouse them into rustling.
During the hottest part of the day, the few islanders normally slept, keeping themselves away from the worst of the heat, dreaming of cooler horizons. The island was still, small fishing boats littering the shoreline, abandoned until the cooler hours signalled a more suitable time to fish.
One cabin sat slightly further back from the shoreline than the others, partially hidden under a canopy of trees. An old woman sat rocking in an arm chair on the porch, distractedly fanning herself, in an effort to generate even the smallest relief from the relentless heat. Her face was tanned, weathered by the sun and years of exposure to the elements, but her eyes were wild and revealed shadows of her youth. Her hair was a flaming mane of auburn, tossed over her shoulder and peppered slightly with the first streaks of silvery grey. She gazed out to sea, the trace of a smile hidden at the edge of her mouth as she watched the past dance across the waves in front of her. She fanned in time with the gentle creak of the wooden floorboards as she rocked, listless and content.
A gentle tug on her sleeve roused her.
The old woman peered down into an innocent face, so much like her own when she was young, she thought; the freckles following the same pattern, and the flaming hair much the same as hers had been, the green eyes wide and inquisitive.
Tipping herself forward on the rocking chair, she picked the little girl up and settled her onto her lap.
“Now, what are you doing up?”
The small child poked out her bottom lip in defiance.
“Not sleepy,” she said, her voice swallowed by the white haze of the day.
She looked into the rebellious face and stifled a laugh. Her granddaughter held in her the ghost of her own youth and it made her feel old as she remembered the events that had all led to here.
“If you promise to close your eyes and settle down to sleep, I’ll tell you a real story.”
Those shining eyes grew wider still and the little girl nodded, the fiery ringlets bouncing around her cheeks.
She scooped up her granddaughter and settled her onto her hip, awkwardly navigating the narrow passageway through the cabin.
The home was sparsely furnished. A few trinkets hung on the walls gathering dust; an ivory tusk bleached by the sun through the window, an old map, pale and brittle, curling at the edges and tanned with age, a flag, the once bright colours now faded, scarred by battles with the weather.
The two of them entered a small bed chamber, which was as stiflingly hot as the rest of the house. The old woman gently placed the child onto a trestle bed, and settled into a tattered arm chair next to it.
The little girl blinked expectantly at her grandmother, whose eyes had drifted shut for a moment.
“I tried to tell your mother this story so many times,” she said, her voice distant, “and I wish she had let me finish it, but, now she’s gone, and soon there won’t be anyone left to tell it to.”
The old woman opened her eyes to see if her granddaughter was listening and then let them close again, picturing herself far away. She could smell the essence of the ocean as it whipped its energy around her, the waves breaking with the progress of the ship.
She opened her eyes once more and looked down at the face which was already peacefully sleeping, the child’s chest rising and falling as she breathed deeply. The old woman smiled and she gingerly withdrew from the room, pulling the door quietly to a close.
“Perhaps a story for another time.” She whispered to herself, as she glanced at the objects adorning the walls. They belonged to another life, someone else’s life, she felt. She wished she had had the chance to tell someone about it, otherwise it was as if it had never even happened.
She hesitated, before entering her own bed chamber. It was almost identical to the room where her granddaughter slept soundly. In a corner of the room sat a battered chest, the wood deeply scarred and faded. Easing her bedroom door to a close, she knelt in front of the chest and ran her hands delicately over the polished wood.
She felt the memories rise like a warmth from the lid and with something nagging at the back of her mind, she reached up to a small crooked shelf opposite the window, where her fingers located a brass key. She peeled it away from the cobwebs and blew off the dust. It fitted into the lock easily but needed some persuasion to be turned and her old fingers ached with the effort. A resounding click signalled that the key had worked and she gingerly lifted the lid with both hands.
A puff of dust and the tang of salt belched out of the chest, as the contents were exposed and given fresh breath. Whilst holding the lid up with one hand, she rummaged with the other, trying to remember the contents by touch.
Her fingers brushed the cold barrel of a flintlock pistol, and she curved her palm around the smooth handle, enjoying the cool sensation against her skin. She felt the scars of the worn wood as it slipped into her palm. She tried to curve her fingers around the butt, but they throbbed as she attempted to coax them into a position they used to know instinctively. She dropped the pistol with a clatter, feeling old and frustrated. The smell of the peppering of gunpowder made her sneeze. A rustling indicated a few papers, letters; the importance of which she couldn’t remember. She didn’t bother to remove these and brushed them to one side.
As she leaned further into the chest, a soft touch of material that was warm to her fingers surprised her and gently she tugged out the flag that used to fly behind the William. It was torn and smelt of battle, but the grin of the white skull and the crossing of the pair of cutlasses hadn’t lost their menacing warning. She gently wrapped the flag up into a bundle and placed it to one side, returning her hand to the shadows of the chest.
Flinching as though she had burned her fingertips, she drew out the item that she hadn’t known she was looking for; a small cutlass, protected by its decorative sheath. She slowly drew it out of the chest and carefully removing the sheath, held the flat edge of the blade against her skin. The steel was smooth and the heat of her flesh left smoky white smudges trailing along the surface of the metal. The tip of the blade was still razor sharp and she nicked her skin as she inspected it, a drop of crimson just beginning to blossom beneath her fingerprint. With her gnarled fingers, she traced the lettering which had been engraved at the base of the blade near the hilt.
“Mary Read,” she let the name linger on her lips, remembering the sound of someone whom she hadn’t spoken of in years.
She replaced the sheath, covering the name that warmed her heart, but kept the cutlass in her hand. Gently she returned the other objects back to their rest at the bottom of the chest and clicked the lock easily to a close, returning the key to its space in the dust on the shelf. The sword she carried with her.
As she wandered back through the cabin to the front porch, she noticed that the island was beginning to wake up as the sun cast its first shadows across the beach. She listened to the hum of activity as the fishermen began to arrive to tend to their boats. The sun’s rays scattered pools of fire across the surface of the ocean as she watched the island breathe with life.
She returned to her chair and once again became absorbed in the rocking motion, the smell of cooling wood drifting around her. The hiss of the ocean grew impatient as the fishermen pushed out to sea, the water eager to channel their boats to the fishing grounds. She picked up her fan once more when she noticed the first sweetness of the refreshing evening breeze. She smiled with relief and set the fan back down.
The occasional crackle of wood indicated that others were preparing fires to cook the fish when the men returned later in the evening and the island would become awash with the scent of smoke and charred fish.
As she turned the cutlass over in her lap, the lettering on the sword niggled at her, unearthing painful memories. Had Mary ever managed to escape? She felt ashamed that perhaps she didn’t try hard enough to contact her afterwards and wondered what it was that had kept Mary away after everything they had discussed.
As her throbbing mind protested, she thought back to where everything had started. Perhaps nothing would have changed, perhaps everything had been pre ordained so that no matter what had happened, she would always have ended up here.