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The dust of 100 dogs, p.16
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       The Dust of 100 Dogs, p.16

           A. S. King
 
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  “I do crave a man, David. I crave one man. A man I probably won’t see again,” she said. “But I love him still.”

  David was silent.

  “You think I’m daft, don’t you?” Emer asked. “You think I’m stupid.”

  “No. I think it’s sweet. It’s sad, I reckon. You’re a beautiful woman, you know, and it’s sad that you wait for a man you’ll never have.”

  “I might,” Emer defended herself. “I might go back and find him. That’s what I’ll do one day. He’ll most likely be married by now, but—”

  David interrupted. “Then why do you taunt yourself?”

  “I can’t help it. I just do.” Emer folded her hands in her lap and looked at them. “Now, you tell me your story—then we’ll decide which of us is worse off!”

  David said, “I’ve never met a woman I’ve loved. I’ve never had a specific woman in mind. Just a quiet life, tending my land with a warm woman in my bed, is all.”

  “That’s all? You never had one woman you dreamed of?”

  “Not until I met you, no.” David looked at her softly.

  “Oh David, I can’t be the warm woman in your bed! What would the men think?”

  “The men wouldn’t have to know.”

  “The men would know, and besides, I just told you that story. It wouldn’t be fair. I would always be thinking of Seanie, and you would be fooling yourself.”

  “Who’s fooling herself? You’d rather have an imaginary man than a real one? You should just face the facts, woman, and move on! This fellow. He’s not here, is he?”

  They worked to stand up and steady themselves.

  “This is your only chance, sir, to have me,” David slurred. “I’ll never mention it again.”

  “See? You call me sir! What type of love affair would we have?” Emer giggled.

  “No more impossible than your Irish boy coming to find you. You should forget him anyway, whether or not you choose to accept my offer. For your own good.”

  He made his way down the plank to the dock and walked in the direction of loud drunken sailors, leaving his last words echoing in Emer’s ears.

  Two months later, the Emerald docked in Campeche. She sent David to the shipwright to arrange repairs to the hull and a full careening, and gave strict orders to her crew to stay quiet and act like modest sailors—an order they had no trouble obeying once the whole lot of them became ill from a feast of bad shellfish. Most of the week was spent vomiting rather than drinking.

  Emer found a small room in a tavern where she could watch Campeche’s dock. The three recruits had been right. The town was busy each day with ships loading and unloading precious cargo collected from tribes of the new world beyond the Main. As she sat in a plush chair by her window, embroidering, she observed Campeche’s people. African slaves were abundant, their white eyes and bare pink feet a contrast to the wealthy men in buckled shoes. These rich men lived in numbers here, larger numbers than Emer had ever seen.

  Twice she watched as the governor of the town, a man of many rings and medals, came to the dock to inspect crates of pearls, gems, and gold. Something changed when she fixed her eyes on her first large sapphire. It was the size of a small apple and sparkled like nothing she’d ever seen before, making her squint through the lens of her scope. As she watched the governor cup it in his soft Spanish hands and imagined stealing it from him, she asked herself, “Why waste any more time coveting a long-lost Seanie Carroll when I could actually have things like this? If I have no option to be happy and good, then why not be as bad as I can be?”

  When the ship was repaired, supplies were loaded and the crew was summoned from the small village. The Emerald set sail for Havana. They anchored about a hundred miles southwest and waited to rob ships traveling from the Spanish Main—which is exactly what she did for the next year.

  A ship came every week, sometimes twice a week, toward Havana, the last stop before the long journey back to Europe. The ships were usually loaded with luxury items intended for King Philip, which Emer and her crew would pillage after a bloody battle. Deciding that reputation was paramount if she was eventually to become a feared and famous pirate, Emer began a quest to find her trademark. Some pirates etched their initials into the backs of victims, some liberated ears and tongues. Some disemboweled or hung or keelhauled, and she’d heard of a man who would feed his victims parts of their own sinew and flesh. Emer tried a few of these things, and eventually found that she enjoyed ripping an eye from the men she killed. Especially the men who’d glared at her body. It was a way to remind them to never underestimate a woman, she figured. One less eye to ogle with.

  Over that year, they plundered nearly sixty ships and returned to port only when they needed supplies or crew. In the Caymans, she traded the Emerald for a 150-ton frigate christened the Vera Cruz. Twice they visited Port Royal and sampled its famous rum and wickedness. They were safest in Tortuga, though, where they cashed their booty in what had become a bustling, well-stocked pirate haven. Emer hated being there. It reminded her of Paris, her useless coins, and her worthless virginity. But after a year of ripping eyeballs out of Spanish officers, it was best to stay secure.

  The captain’s quarters on the Vera Cruz were spacious. Emer had room to twirl around in her capes, to practice her jousting, and to find new sexual positions with David—who, after their last year at sea, had convinced Emer that this was the most obvious solution to their problems. Emer figured it was either that or embroidery, and stitching could be tedious at times.

  “You understand, David, that I cannot love you?” she asked.

  “It’s not love either of us is after, I reckon,” he answered.

  “I just want you warned, is all.”

  “Consider me warned,” he said, though he’d been lying. How could he not love her? She was the most amazing woman he’d ever met, even if she was ten years his junior, as young as his youngest sister back home in Wales.

  In that year at sea, plundering ships southwest of Havana, Emer made seven capes. Her first two were dedicated to her mother. They had Celtic crosses, two feet high, in green and red thread. Each cross was a maze of tiny, decorative knots, hundreds of thousands of them. But they were mere practice pieces, reminders of the days when a thin-haired five-year-old demanded things she couldn’t have.

  As Emer stitched these pieces, she practiced the art of sea battle. Never too much double shot, or you’d sink the whole lot to the bottom. She taught her marines new strategies and shared her memories of Oliver’s Roundheads to show how fast, loud action can stop the bravest of men in their tracks. As she sewed, she prepared for future misfortune by slipping gems into the lower hems. In her first cape, with the green cross, she included several tiny pearls from her very first take. In the second, she sewed her first cut stones, a dozen pink rubies.

  Her next cape was Spanish colored—red, orange, peach, and lemon—with an image of a crimson dragon breathing fire. It didn’t disturb her anymore, the sight of a dragon. They surrounded her on this hunting ground—Spanish dragons in each direction and her own, tied in knots, in the belly of her memory. She added opals and emeralds in the hems, sewing each jewel in place with a pair of minute red stitches.

  Her fourth cape was an experiment: bright blue wildflowers intertwined with lightning bolts and skeletons, each bone a hundred stitches at least. She made this one as a penance. Sure, these were Spanish bastards who’d just killed, raped, and enslaved natives to pilfer their gold, but they were flesh and blood, too. No amount of praying would cleanse the shipful of sins she carried. To further clear her conscience, she didn’t sew any booty into this cape, because it seemed insincere.

  Her fifth and sixth capes were quite like the third: Spanish colors and fire-breathing beasts. But instead of confining the embroidered image to the back of the cape, Emer tried something new. She stitched right round
the garment with licks of fire, covering three quarters of the wool with tiny specks of flashy thread and finishing the edges with blood-red knot work. She added extra knots after battles, one for each man she killed. These capes were longer than the others, extending past the knee with a mix of tassel work and fancy pleated edging. Emer had a difficult time choosing what to hide in them. Her treasure chests in the captain’s quarters were stuffed. She finally decided on diamonds. And since she was growing more paranoid, she decided also to sew the precious gems into each seam along the main body of the garment as well as into the hems. This made these capes not only the most beautiful, but also the most valuable.

  Emer took a break from stitching during the late summer of 1662, and began work on her seventh cape as autumn approached with its hard storms and lethal winds. This was another long cape, falling just below the knee. The evil design had come to her after a bloody sunset battle with a Spanish privateer. The top of the cape would resemble a sky at sunset, the rays jutting from a large red fireball. The bottom would picture a thousand dead men, legs and boots in the air. Tiny legs and boots specked with red stitches, protruding swords, and detached heads and eyeballs. Thousands of eyeballs. Another dragon breathing fire, white-hot specks of breath overpowering the sunrays, red drips of blood down its jaws.

  She had scored a small sack full of blackberry-sized sapphires from her last plunder. She sewed these, along with the rest of her stash of diamonds, into every cranny of the cape’s soft black lining.

  Emer wore her frightful cape everywhere she went. By this time, she and her crew had become infamous. Just the sight of the Vera Cruz forced large vessels to surrender or tack quickly in the opposite direction, which ensured a chase. And yet no one seemed to be searching for them, the way other famous pirates were hounded and hunted by patrol boats and privateers. Emer became cocky, viewing the enemy as one big stupid man—unable to see her at all because she was a woman.

  Twice, when a large Spanish fleet had passed them on its way to Havana, they disguised the Vera Cruz as an English patrol frigate. Emer called her officers to the deck and put on her best pirate voice.

  “What does a pinnace offer us now, me lads? What fun be sacking surrendered ships? Is this not our sea? Our turf? Let us soon capture that fleet, says I! Let us finally get what we come for!”

  The prosperity of the past year, and the ease of each battle the Vera Cruz fought, had made her lazy. She forgot about once being poor and hungry, and forgot about her lifetime of running—as if each jewel she robbed erased a same-sized portion of her memory. She stopped joining David in daily officers’ chores and instead spent most of her time sleeping. Which was exactly how the Frenchman would find her, two weeks later.

  After Winston revved up the old pickup truck and sped off to the airport, Fred Livingstone was alone again. He preferred it that way. Once accustomed to gala balls and posh parties, Fred could now barely make a trip to the bank in Black River without panicking.

  He rose late the next morning—after eleven—still thinking about his perfect bikini girl. His head played tricks on him. In the shower, under the slow trickle the local water supply allowed, he closed his eyes and tried to see her, but saw other things instead. He saw Winston in a coral-colored thong, then naked on a coral-colored bedspread. He opened his eyes and shook the image out of his head and tried again. This time it was Mother in a coral bikini, sitting on his bed crying. So Fred just opened his eyes and hummed until he was dried, dressed, and ready for the bank. He fetched the folders he needed from the safe and went to his office window.

  He heard Rusty wincing somewhere downstairs, but ignored him. He spun his chair to face away from the million-dollar view and closed his eyes again.

  “Join me for lunch today,” he started.

  She smiled at him, then morphed into his mother. He opened his eyes, shook his head, then closed them again.

  “How about one o’clock? The Island Hotel?”

  But you have to go to Black River, Fred. You have to get to the bank.

  Fred waved off the idea with his hand. “I can go to the bank tomorrow.”

  You’ve put it off long enough, don’t you think? his mother said.

  “Mum?”

  Yes? What?

  Wow, Fred, you must have really lost it now.

  “Shut up.”

  Can’t see any women in your head but a dead one, eh?

  Fredrick, what are you doing? Are you telling me to shut up?

  “Shut up! All of you!”

  Fred opened his eyes, but his mother still spoke. She’s not our type. You won’t find a Livingstone sort of woman in this bloody place, I told you.

  “I said shut up!” Fred screamed, and Rusty stopped whining at the front door. “Well, if I have to go to the bank, I’d better have a drink first for my nerves.”

  That’s good, Fred. Don’t think about that stupid girl anymore!

  He fixed a drink and sat down again, facing the beach.

  You have to do something about this, Fred. Something must be done.

  “I know.”

  You have to do it today. You can’t go banging that Jamaican anymore and thinking it’s normal. It’s not. There are cures for these things.

  Oh yes! his mother echoed, sitting naked in a coral Rolls Royce parked on the beach. There are ways to get rid of such unspeakable thoughts.

  You should go see a shrink.

  Oh no! his mother said. No professionals necessary! Fredrick, just come to the club with me on Saturday and you’ll have your pick of lovely, well-bred daughters. I promise you. They’ll be dying to meet you!

  “Shut up! All of you! Shut up!”

  After two more drinks, Fred felt numb enough to begin the journey to Black River. He gathered his things and went downstairs. When he opened the door, Rusty raced past him to pee on the nearest flowerpot. Fred tried to order the dog back inside, but Rusty was already in the vegetation so Fred closed the door and left. “Starve, for all I care,” he said.

  He drove the single-lane road out of Billy’s Bay slowly, daydreaming about finding the bikini girl. As he drove past a row of cheap hostels, he scanned the porch railings for a glimpse of coral. He saw nothing but drying beach towels, so he drove on, muttering about finding the girl and teaching her manners. As he approached the large market town a half hour later, he felt pensive.

  He found a parking space near the bank and gathered his things from the passenger’s seat. Walking slowly, trying not to seem as paranoid as he was, Fred made his way to the bank while looking at the concrete beneath his feet. “She can’t hide from me,” he muttered. “I own this place.”

  He reached the double glass doors and slid through them into the air-conditioned foyer, quickly passing an armed guard on his way to the manager. “I’ll teach her a lesson someone should have taught her years ago.”

  The next thing he knew he was falling backward, grasping all of his papers to his chest, trying to see what had just hit him. When he looked up from the polished granite floor, he saw a beautiful young tourist rubbing her forehead and scowling at him. The jolt had shifted her white T-shirt only slightly, but enough to reveal a small portion of the coral pink bikini strap hugging her shoulder.

  Hector, the owner of the hostel, let me eat from his kitchen and put it on a tab because he knew I was nearly out of cash. There were two others staying at the house, a guy from Australia (who I never saw due to all his energetic sightseeing), and a couple from Berlin (who only spoke German and had an annoying habit of laughing too loudly).

  That first night in Billy’s Bay, I stayed in my room feeling sorry for myself while I unpacked. I put my shampoo in the shower, my toothpaste on the sink. I sorted through the now-wrinkled mix of clean and dirty clothing from my army bag and put the clean ones in the dresser in the room. I pulled out my little purse and counted my traveler
s checks. I made a small note, of how many I had left, on the envelope that held my return tickets. I unfolded and refolded my father’s shovel a few times. I tried to feel excited, but I couldn’t even leave the room. As I was attempting to fall asleep, the Germans laughed and laughed in the next room.

  “Where are you?” I asked Emer, again.

  She didn’t answer, so I skinned them sloppily just to spite her.

  The next morning, I took a walk up and down the beach. It was wider now than it used to be, fifty extra yards at low tide. The beach I remembered was rockier, and covered in thick vegetation. Now it stood in a mixed state of erosion. They’d removed many trees, and then piled tons of extra sand to cure what they’d caused. The few homes that scattered the coast were set back into the remaining trees. Some had walls around long, well-groomed gardens that led onto the beach, and some had no barriers at all but groves of sea grape trees.

  I walked until I found the village Hector had told me about. It wasn’t really a village—it was two tourist shops and a few beach-side food huts. In the short time I sat eating a plate of jerk chicken, three different women approached me aggressively, with their hands covered in aloe, commenting on my fair skin and my sunburn. Each time, I flinched and asked them to stop. It took me five minutes to explain to the last one that I didn’t owe her twenty dollars. I tried to stuff hot chicken wings up her nose and shove a boiled eel down her throat, but it was just no fun without Emer.

  I returned to Billy’s Bay and spent the rest of day pacing the beach. It seemed simple. An even hundred paces from the rocky head on the western point led me to a grove of trees. Another hundred paces brought me past the trees to a glass mansion, half covered in blooming bougainvillea. My fortune lay between those two points—within those hundred yards—at the base of an incline.

  As I walked, I tried to remember things that were long dead and gone with Emer Morrisey. I saw Seanie in my mind, lying dead on the beach, and my stomach tightened. I paced the length, one hundred fifty paces exactly, and searched the tree line before me. I would have to get closer to find what I was looking for.

 
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