to the sea

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

1722. The American Colonies.

The girl knelt in the dirt outside the wreckage of a cabin. She slumped forward, and her tears fell to the ground. They did not quench the smoldering embers around her. Nor did they bring to life the silent corpses of the man and woman sprawled before her.

Her sobs would have broken the heart of a man more accustomed to genteel life, and they could move even a sailor as prone to butchery and mayhem as McTavish.

He came this way to scout what goods the nearby village might hold for his crew of brigands, mercenaries, and soldiers without wars to feed them. He suspected whoever killed the man and woman and sacked their isolated cabin was on a similar mission. What grim satisfaction they took in their murder, or what moved them to such cruelty, was not apparent to McTavish, though he had sailed with many who enjoyed savagery as a form of sport.

He peeled off his woolen overcoat. A dirty, blood-smeared nightgown gave the girl scant protection from the morning cold. Approaching cautiously, he draped the coat over her shoulders. She continued shaking, as if McTavish and his coat did not exist in her world of grief.

The cabin’s door, torn from its hinges, lay to one side, and axe blades had scored its obverse face. Inside, the sailor found broken cookware, torn clothing, trampled books, and the contents of a writing desk, all scattered across the floor between overturned tables and chairs. A chest of drawers stood empty. Its insides were strewn about the dwelling. “Sink and burn me.”

McTavish rifled through the mess of papers still on the desk. The script meant nothing to him. Certain seals and insignias he recognized, but he had hardly mastered script in his native tongue, much less these foreign scribblings.

He took a step back, then reconsidered. “Maybe the captain can make sense of ’em.” He rolled the papers like a tube and slipped them into a pocket inside his vest.

The crying stopped.

She stood in the open doorway, clutching his coat around her.

McTavish met her piercing gaze. He judged her to be nine or ten years old, and her red hair reminded him of the woman who raised him. “How are ya called, lass?”

She answered with the wordless stare of a trapped animal, part fear and part hate.

“Devil take ya, then.” He started for the doorway to make his exit, but she did not step aside. “Brave one, eh? Mark my words: I weren’t with the lot who did this to yer mum an’ dad.”

She slid the coat off and tossed it on the cottage floor before him. “Magdalena.”

He squatted to pick it up. “Ho there, Maggie. I regret we didn’t meet under brighter skies.” When he held the fabric, he shivered as if the devil had brushed him with an icy finger. With his eyes fixed on the girl, he drew himself to his full height.

She asked, “Are you a pyrate?”

“We make do as we can on the account.”

She turned away to join the corpses. They had grown stiff and cold to her touch. She stared at them mutely, and what counsel the solemn child kept remained hers alone.

“This country’s no place for ya on yer own. I’ll fetch ya to the village.”

“No,” she said. “To the sea.”

McTavish laughed with the quiet of a graveyard at night. “It’s no fair lot to sail with on me ship, lass. I’ll take ya to the village and ya can fend for yourself well enough there.”

“I can tie knots.” She walked past him back into the cabin and returned with a length of rope.

In her hands, it became a loop. She passed the rope’s end through the loop, around, and back through. Sailors called the result a bowline, and its uses aboard a ship were endless. The other end of the rope, she tied into a hitch that could serve as a block and tackle.

“Split me skull. Where’d ya learn the trade?”

She tossed the rope at his feet, like the coat. “To the sea.”

McTavish made a decision that would change his life. “To the sea, then. But you’ll never be taken aboard as a lass. You’ll have to do as a lad.”

“A boy?”

“Aye. Let’s find ya clothes for a lad. Yer father’s, perhaps. If ya can stomach strippin’ yer old man.”

She could, and she did, though it moved her to a fresh wave of tears, now silent.

McTavish cut her hair with a pair of scissors she salvaged from the cabin. He was not the last person to see tears stream down her pale cheeks, but he was the last to hear her weep aloud.