the execution of william fly

Excerpted from Hang My Body on the Pier, to appear in Volume Six of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.

Boston, 1726. From Great-Gramma Magdalena’s Memoirs.

When I was thirteen years old, my father said, “Remember what I told you, son.”

I did remember. Keep absolutely quiet. Simple instructions, but well-advised.

I will call him my father from here on in this memoir, for we lived as father and son for nearly a decade to the outside world. I knew my gender was a deception, and that our survival depended on this deception, and it troubled me not at all. The seas will be unkind to anyone suffering from an unfortunate compulsion to always tell the truth.

After all, honest men decorated the piers of the so-called New World. Their bodies hung in cages to attract the carrion-birds and remind all who saw them, as their skin rotted in the sun and scavengers consumed their organs, that to be a pyrate was to sign your own execution order. But before serving as the government’s instruments of terror against hard-working people, many of the hanged men insisted on telling the truth.

On that day in my early adolescence, I heard much truth, and little of it came from the officiators of the murder, on account of pyracy and mutiny, of one William Fly. Against the wishes of the judges and Jesuits who had instructed him in the procedure of being executed by the state, he spoke truth that day.

I knew it was truth because my father and I had served with Fly. Was he quick to murder? Most assuredly. Did the captains he tossed into the sea deserve to die for what they had to done to my former shipmates? Undoubtedly. I would as soon again murder in the company of that man as I would draw my next breath, for I would know with certainty the actions were just and served the interests of the crew.

Fly was to speak that day of the moral necessity of avoiding the sins of a pyrate’s life; of escaping the trap which so justifiably claimed his life now; and the need to eschew taking wealth not rightfully yours to squander on stiff drink and loose women.

Instead, he told the crowd the reasons his former captain deserved to die. Father’s grip on my shoulder reminded me we knew these reasons all too well. The beatings. The starvation. The mutilations. Men speak of hell as if it waits for us after death. But I knew by that age that hell was a merchant ship, and its satanic scourge was a man called the captain.

As the hangman draped the rope around his neck, William Fly sang. The renegade sang before his spine snapped and his abandoned flesh hung in an iron cage for ravens to pluck its tearless eyes and voiceless lips. I shall not soon forget that song.

According to my father’s wishes, I kept silent until we entered what passed for a pub in the colonies of those days and claimed a table in a darkened corner. He fetched us two pints of ale from the bar. Other witnesses to the afternoon’s spectacle wandered in, and their noise formed a cocoon of privacy for our conversation.

“Maggie,” he said, abandoning the pretense I was his son, “that’s the fate awaits us now. If not on this shore, then the shore of someone who sees we’ve wronged them.”

I accepted the ale and drank it heartily, for it vexed me to see one of the few people I admired turned into a scrap of jerky for the gulls. Life with my adopted father had taught me many things, including that its otherwise appalling aspects became tolerable with generous rations of ale and spirits. “That’s if we’re not lucky enough to die at sea, first.”

Father swallowed his ale. I judged him. I did. He was prone to drunkenness, but I was usually too drunk to mind. Except when he struck me.

He had secured profitable employment for us on a year’s voyage, and we had lived in semi-retirement for a year on the spoils. Then the money ran out, and we signed aboard a privateer. Our departure was two days hence, and today’s hanging amounted to Father’s idea of schooling.

I judged him against other men I had known in our travels. He was rough-spoken, though I had helped him with his literacy. We had met a few scholars at sea, and I knew Father was not a man of their intellectual caliber. But he could work rigging and sails with a skill I had seen educated men die attempting to equal.

I sometimes think that with more education, Father would have been one of the pioneers who created the compass, or the steam engine, or calculus. But he did have a taste for drink, and I recall he finished his first ale before the foam had entirely vanished from mine.

“Yer a cold one, Maggie. It’s kept ya alive. We’ll be privateers now. But a letter of marque makes us no less thieves. We take what is not ours, and make it ours.”

I offered my glass in salute, and all the old man clinked against it was froth. Instead of drinking, he softly sang in his gruff, grey-whiskered voice the words William Fly had sung that very day on the gallows.

Hang my body on the pier
From a chain and shed no tear
Pyrate life is short but free
Now my heart returns to sea

Hang my body on the pier
Hang my body on the pier

The sentiment rang true, and not a drop of my ale remained. “But I have different plans,” I told the besotted sailor who raised me. “And I’ll see a thousand frocks die before I see another one of my mates hang like a rooster in a cage.”

“Ha! What do ya plan, little Maggie? Start yer own colony, perhaps?”

“That,” I said, handing over my glass, “is exactly what I plan to do.”

By the time he returned with a second round, he had forgotten my assertion. It took six more years to make good on my promise. By that time, Father was a feeble man.

The sea is cruel to sailors, and it turns many into cruel men. I will not deny he was, at times, cruel with me. But a child at sea learns to expect a certain amount of cruelty as part of any normal day; and she herself becomes cruel.

When I had years to reflect on it, I would judge him again. I would find him, on the whole, the best thing that could have happened to me after my parents’ deaths.

I later felt remorse for treating him as roughly as I did.