I'm hoping to get back into writing a bit, so I'm using Chuck Wendig's prompts from his "Flash Fiction Challenge" to do so. This week's challenge was Must Contain a Map in 1000 words.
“Fuck,” breathed Honest Jack, as the last of the star on his shoulder was finished, the ink soaking into his flesh. “Fuck.”
Greenhowe, the ship’s cook and surgeon, thumped him on the back: one part dismissal, one part camaraderie. “You’re good,” he said, gruffly. “Don’t get no sun on it for a week. You want it to heal well.”
“Right,” Jack said, and staggered off, not bothering to water his rum ration into grog, listening to the smack of the waves against the hull. The rock of the ocean was his comfort; spray arced up from the bow as it dipped, and somewhere off to starboard there was a growl of thunder. Too far off to worry about yet, even as lightning arced between bruised clouds.
He didn’t hear Pete’s footfalls until the man was behind him. “Is it done?”
“Yeah. It’s the last one.”
His hands read HOLD FAST: he had the anchor and the lighthouse; the pig and cock on each leg; the swallow to take his soul to heaven. A dragon, for scale, and to carry them where sails couldn’t go. Neither of them could read words, but both could read pictures just as readily as they could read the waves, the wind, and the sky. There were breakers on his back. An anchor and a diamond together; gold, islands, ships, a whole mural of pictures, a whole story.
A whole map.
Pete exhaled. “And so we go.”
“And so we go,” said Honest Jack, and the next time they were in Port Royal, they’d sign onto a ship, and away they’d fly; south like the swallows, south to the fire islands, south to where Honest Jack and Diamond Pete had first met the mermaids.
They’d been all of fifteen, or seventeen. Maybe fourteen. But they’d been old enough to work the ropes, old enough to sail, old enough to get their first tattoos, the beginning of a chronicle of their lives written on skin. Captain Curran had sailed them right below the line, where it was warm all the time like summer, and the fish were as big as rowboats, and there were plenty o’pleasures for boys escaping to the ocean.
They’d been digging in fortifications on an atoll when they first saw the girl. She was sitting on a rock, watching them work. She showed no fear, like the birds on islands where humans never went, big and bumbling and so tame they’d let you get near enough to wring their necks without squawking. Maybe she shoulda showed some fear, but when they looked at her good, she had sharp teeth, and her tail was sandpapery like shark hide.
She’d cocked her head at them, and smiled.
“What is this place?” Pete had asked, not Diamond Pete yet, just Petey the swab who sometimes cried for home when the seas were high and the wind howled.
“Fiddler’s Green.” Honest Jack didn’t really believe that, but he’d said it. What else to call it?
“You what, she’s a fucking mermaid.”
Honest Jack had taken a step closer to her. She’d looked past him, to Pete. “This is the meeting place,” she’d said. “The pirates bring us treasure. We give them something else.”
“We swim to different shores,” she said. “You bring me a map, and I’ll take you there.”
“Fiddler’s Green, if you like,” she said. “Somewhere else, if you’d prefer. Here’s where old pirates go, if they’re lucky.”
“And whata we gotta do to get to paradise?” asked Honest Jack.
“Bring me treasure,” she’d said. “And a map.”
Cap’n had threatened to kill every man aboard if they revealed the secret of the isle, the treasure cave, the fish-girls. The boys had got their first tattoos in the aftermath, a little mermaid each, the start of a complex cartography of skin.
They saw the mermaids many times over the years. One didn’t sail without sometimes being pitched into the yawing mouth of the sea, and it was Jack who discovered from the fish-girls that the needed their own map, their own path. There was no straight path to Fiddler’s Green, or the Island of the Lotus Eaters, or the Gardens of Babylon. Every pirate knew that they needed some signs etched into their skin, but only a few seemed to know what they were really for, how they might bring them safe to harbour — not a home port, not really, but something that weren’t too far off. He got the signs. He got the way out of this world, and into the next, etched into the skin of his shoulders, of his back.
He got Pete, too, some point over the spreading tide of time, though they wouldn’t call it nothing that people on land knew about.
Port Royal was a distant fantasy when the storm hit the boat; the mermaid isles were even more dreamlike, too far to sail with a wrecked mast, too far to swim with your boots weighing you down. Wasn’t too far to swim to each other, cling to a board. Honest Jack’s shoulder stung with the salt; don’t get no sun on it, Greenhowe’d said, and he ain’t got no sun on it, he ain’t had a chance.
“Fiddler’s Green,” said Pete, wrapping their hands together.
Jack nodded, salt water burning as it went down his nose, aching down his throat. He didn’t think he could speak.
Something like sandpaper grazed his leg, and he turned a little at Pete’s gasp, their hands still entwined.
“I remember you,” said the mermaid, her shark teeth all sticky with blood. “You’re the boys who brought that oaf’s tribute to my island.”
“We ain’t got no treasure,” said Diamond Pete, and his grip tightened.
She licked her fingers. “Seems like you brought me something anyway. And you’ve got a map.”
He didn’t feel the water envelop him in its cool green arms; he felt the pressure of Pete’s palm against his, the warmth of his body. The sea was quieter, below the waves, and he felt himself slipping, slipping.
“We going to Fiddler’s Green?” he asked, as the tattoos on his shoulders burned. His words bubbled up to the surface, lost into the storm and the sea, water filling his lungs.
“You’re going to paradise,” she said, clear as a bell. Around them, debris from the ship bobbed and swirled and ducked like swallows through the air. “Come on. Let’s see that map.”