Warning: AWE spoilers. Character death, though "death" is a
shifting concept in this story.
Disclaimer: All characters are owned by the Walt Disney Company, not me.
Notes: This is a sequel to "Sole Unquiet Thing", though both may stand alone.
THREE BELLS AND COCKLESHELLS
by Rex Luscus
Beaufort has lost many of its young men to the sea, so we're ready to believe stories about devils that pull men below the waves, witches that sing sailors onto the rocks, monsters with a hundred legs that crush ships to matchwood. But we have extra reason to believe the story of the Flying Dutchman and her heartless captain, because part of it happened right here.
All sailors know about the captain of the Flying Dutchman. He comes for you when you're about to be drowned and gives you an awful choice--go to your death, or serve a hundred years before the mast as more than a ghost but less than a man. He himself is cursed this way, with no heart in his chest, no blood in his veins, and no soul behind his eyes.
Now, you might remember young Anne Farragut, who never had time for young men and doted on her parents long after she should have married. Her father sailed on a merchantman in the Cape Horn trade, and he was all Anne had left once her mother died, so when Anne got the news late one night that his ship had run aground on Gaskin Bank, she lost her mind. Crying like a wounded bird, she roused old Tom Pembroke from a dead sleep and begged him for a ride to the point. Who knows what she was expecting? That her dad would simply wash ashore, or she'd spot his ship bobbing on its beam-ends in the bay? When she didn't find what she'd hoped to find, she left poor Tom in his open-topped cart and ran down the bluff to the creek, where she walked up and down the beach all night long, searching the sand and water for who knows what.
The tide went out all night, and in the gray morning, the sea had drawn all the way back to the sky, leaving mud and pools and mist so heavy that land and water melted into one. The estuary was lost in fog; time seemed stuck between day and night. And amid the drowned sedge and banks of chilly vapor sat a ship.
At a tide this low, the sea gave back all kinds of sunken treasures. Had her drowned father been returned as well? The ship seemed to be waiting, like everything else in that strange dawn, for the tide to take it out. Anne's heart leapt with joy. She didn't notice that it wasn't the Down Easter schooner her father would have been on, or realize that the last Dutch galleon of its kind had sailed to Bombay two hundred years ago. But her father was dead, and her sense wasn't right. She sank up to her ankles in the sand as she raced and slid down the dune, then charged like a bird dog out into the water.
She hadn't expected it to be freezing and deep, and down she went like her dress was made of lead. It hadn't looked like more than a puddle from shore, but she was drowning, the cold forcing out her breath until her kicking and thrashing went still. But before she could wind up like her father, a line fell to the water beside her head. Hand over burning, freezing hand she pulled, and then a sailor with lank hair and a gentle face patted her back as she choked and coughed. "There, there," he said with a hesitant smile, "you'll live." He said it in a funny way, like he meant something more than what people usually do.
"Is my father here?" she asked, and the sailor just looked toward the high poop deck where the stern lantern glowed like Mars in the dawn sky; where the captain stood.
A pirate, she thought. These were Blackbeard's waters, after all. But then he turned, and all hope left her.
His face was the color of bone. A black boat cloak billowed from his shoulders like smoke from a pyre, and his body seemed to waver and ripple, like the air over a volcanic vent. There was no mistaking the demon captain who haunted every coast from the North Sea to the Cape of Storms, whose cold touch was the last thing known by drowning men, whose terrible ship bore men on their final voyage. The sun had gone out; the rings on her fingers had tarnished. This was the ship of the dead.
If she had been smart, she would have leapt overboard and never looked back, but instead she ran up the ornate stairs to the deck where the demon captain stood. "Give him back!" she cried. "I know who you are. You shan't have him!"
His face showed startlement. "Your father has made his choice," he replied, like a corpse sighing. "I have taken him to the shores of the dead."
"You devil!" Anne shouted. "You killed him, you fiend!"
This accusation moved the ghoulish captain. Like a wave swelling over a tiny craft, he seemed to grow, and flames leapt in the empty holes of his eyes. Smoke wisped around him, and there was a faint rumbling in the air. "Your father chose death!" he cried in a voice like two stones grinding together. "The sea killed him, not I. Now go. The living are not allowed aboard this ship."
"Then I'll die, thank you," Anne said, clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering.
"It was not I who took your father from you," he said again. Anne just looked at him. At last, he heaved a sigh like wind through a cavern. "Very well. You will come with me to the port where the dead disembark. If your father wishes to see you, he will come to the quay when the third bell in the first watch rings. For five nights you may wait for him. After that, you must return to the world or be left on those shores forever."
Anne agreed, of course. Anyone who knew her would have expected it. The captain gave her a fine cabin, where she found a fine dress to replace the one she had ruined in the sea, and a great deal of fine food was brought to her by the shy sailor, who told her what it was: eel on this dish, cuttlefish on that one, in this tureen stewed leviathan. She left most of it, because eating the food of the dead was dangerous, but even a small bite satisfied her. The captain himself vanished below and didn't reappear until the lookout had sighted land.
It was a quiet harbor, just like any other she had seen. There were sheds and storehouses and other ships, and soft sounds of merriment drifted up from a little tavern by the wharves. Lights could be seen in the wood-shingled buildings, and the harbormaster's lantern bobbed between the masts and pilings as he strolled up and down. The Dutchman drew right up to the quay as though pushed by an invisible hand, and her grim crew made her fast in silence. Finally the gangplank was lowered, and dozens of souls Anne hadn't seen until now flooded ashore, each putting a copper into the boatswain's palm as they went. The captain was nowhere to be seen.
The bell rang twice an hour through the night. As the first watch drew to an end, Anne went up to the high forecastle where she could see the shore. The first bell rang, and then the second. When the third bell rang, she found she wasn't alone. The demon captain stood at the rail just a few feet away, as still and pale as a shaft of moonlight. Too scared to speak, she stole a glance at his white face, so strangely young and beautiful for such a ghastly creature--but it chilled her to stare too long. Hours passed, and though she looked and looked, her father did not appear. When the moon showed over the horizon, the captain went below, and so did she.
The sun rose over the shores of the dead, and the harbor stirred with quiet activity, though no ships ever came or went. In the captain's library, Anne touched the gilt titles in awe--six more volumes of Spenser's virtues, Aeschylus's lost plays, Aquinas's glorious work finished and whole. If she'd been a scholar, she might have been tempted to stay there forever. But she cared more for life than for books. She waited for the light to die, and when the mid watch began, she resumed her vigil at the rail.
As the third bell struck, the captain was there. She didn't see or hear him approach; one moment he wasn't there, the next moment he was. He paid no attention to her; like a ghost, he seemed caught in a private memory. She studied his polished buttons, his smartly pressed coat; his neatness seemed the work of the Navy--or the undertaker. From the cocked brim of his three-cornered hat to the buckles of his old-fashioned shoes, he was equally fit for a casket or a quarterdeck. Or perhaps a museum. But he was lovely in his terrible way. Lovely, and sad.
At last she found the voice to ask, "Who are you waiting for?"
"A woman," he replied.
But he gave no sign he'd heard her.
The night passed, and again her father did not appear. The next night, the captain joined her at the rail, and together they watched the empty quay in silence, almost companions. When moonrise was only a short while off, he spoke.
"A hundred years ago," he said, "two men died at sea. One was bound to this ship as her captain till Judgment Day, to ferry the dead to the world beyond for eternity, never to see his young wife but for one day out of every ten years, never to know his child. The other man was given a choice. He could return to shore and have the young man's wife, whom he loved, or he could take the ghost ship's helm in the young man's stead. He chose the second, and the young man and his wife had many children before passing into death at a ripe old age. The other man continued on, eternally young but never alive, sailing the seas and collecting his ghastly ferryman's dues, until everything human in him was forgotten. The law says that a woman's faithful love might break his curse, but the woman he loved is long dead, and he could not bring himself to love another."
Anne thought of her father, and the young men she had turned away, fearing to stray from her parents' love. She looked again, and still, the quay was empty.
"Do you think she'll come?" she asked.
The captain turned his empty eyes upon her. "Do you think your father will?"
Another hour passed. "Why don't they want us?" Anne wondered softly.
"Because we are fools," the captain sighed, "who give away our hearts like wooden coins."
They looked at each other, both of them abandoned by lovers for death, and the whole world went still. The captain's dead eyes went wide and his white lips trembled, as though Anne were the ghost. Frightened, Anne looked away, down at the spot where her father was meant to appear--but her mind and heart were no longer on him.
As the moon rose and the captain stirred to leave, Anne asked, "What's your name?"
"I have forgotten," he replied, and left her standing there.
But on the fifth and final night, he came to the rail before the third bell struck. "James," he said, and laid his icy hand over hers. "My name was James."
"It still is," she said, and lifted it to her lips.
Not once that night did either of them look toward the shore.
The captain's embrace was stiff and cold, but he held her like the sea might pull him under. With one cold hand he stroked her hair and pulled her close with the other, and into her ear he whispered her name, soft and urgent, like a prayer to ward off evil. His lips were as cold as marble when she kissed them, and his eyes burned like living coals, but she was no longer afraid. Not of him, not her sweet captain, whose dead touch was reverent with love. She knew he had been a living man once. If the curse were broken, he could be again.
But the captain shook his head. "There is more to the tale. Before he left to sail the seas for eternity, the man cut his heart from his chest and gave it to the young man's wife. She hid it where it would be safe, but took the secret to her grave. So even if the man were freed from his curse, he could not live again."
Anne laid her head against his chest, and heard the rush of waves on a faraway shore. "Why do I hear the ocean?" she asked.
"In place of my heart, she put a cockleshell." He smiled his hangman's smile. "It hardly matters; one's as valuable as the other."
They clung to each other, dreading the arrival of the moon in the sky. Anne clutched his hands to her breast. "I shall find your heart," she declared.
"Forget me," said the captain. "I am dead. It is not the place of the dead to love."
"Don't you want to live?" she cried, touching his face.
"No," he said.
Tears burned her eyes. "Then what do you want?"
"Why, to die, of course," he said, "but barring that, never to have existed. If there is a black pit in which souls may be annihilated, I would find it, and cast myself in."
Anne hadn't ever heard a man speak such sad or terrible words. Surely it was blasphemy.
"Blasphemy!" The captain laughed. "By far the least of my sins! If you had any idea the things I have done, your eyes would start from your head. No sunlight would warm you, no hymn would cheer you till the end of your days. You have been lied to, Miss Farragut; there is no devil. There is only me."
"Try all you like," she said. "You won't scare me away. I shall find your heart, and you will live again."
"I forbid it," cried the captain. "As you love me, you must put it from your mind. It will be your death, and you are one passenger whose fare I will not accept. I am about to put you on a shore and sail away; I could not bear to do it twice."
So he went below, and as soon as the sun appeared, the Flying Dutchman put to sea. They sailed back to the waters of the living world, and when the lookout spotted Hilton Head, the captain made Anne promise again that she would leave him to his fate. She couldn't refuse the awful pleading in his eyes, but as she watched the grim ship vanish back into the fog, something black and hollow opened up in her.
Yet there was nothing she could do. She walked back into town and into life. The folks who remember say she wasn't the same; her skin was too cool to the touch, and her eyes were bright and empty like a bird's. If you spoke to her, she didn't hear. Dogs growled and horses shied when she passed, and anybody could see that life had lost its hold on her.
Years went by, and then Anne could bear it no longer. She packed a few petticoats in a carpet bag and sold her home for a pittance, and set out to find a man's lost and buried heart. At times, she feared she'd dreamt it all--the quiet harbor on the shores of the dead, the demon captain's gentle words. Maybe there was no heart, no ship, no man. And even if there were, would he have her after all these years, would he even remember her? She had no choice. Down the coast she went, searching out peculiar goings-on at sea, listening to sailors' tales for one that sounded true.
Finally, at land's end, she heard about a man who couldn't die. He was a hundred and fifty years old if he was a day, and he lived on an island in the Caribbean Sea that wasn't on any chart. You had to find a place where your compass needle spun, and if you waited there three days and three nights, a falling star at dawn would show you the way to go.
So Anne went and found a place where her compass needle spun, and waited three days and three nights, and marked where the star fell. Then she took a little boat, and sailed for three more days and nights, and when she was beginning to fear she would die of thirst on the open sea, the island appeared, a long white shingle on the blue. Sure enough, on the island lived a man who was both young and old. He'd discovered the Fountain of Youth, he explained, and he'd live till the Final Judgment if all went well.
Anne drew her boat up on the beach and sat down in the sand. "I need your help," she said to the man, whose name was Jack.
"Got somethin' to trade?" Jack's gold teeth glittered. "Didn't think so. Sorry, love, I've lived for a century an' a half--pretty girls stopped workin' on me long ago."
But Anne was smarter than most pretty girls. "If I did have something to trade that you wanted, what would it be?"
The man called Jack thought for a moment. "How about this? Surprise me. No one's done that in at least sixty years."
"All right." Anne thought hard. "Have you heard that the American colonies won their independence?"
"Inevitable," Jack shrugged.
"All right. A little man crowned himself Emperor of France and tried to conquer the world."
He yawned. "I could've predicted it."
"Let's see, then. Did you know they built a ship that runs on steam?"
"Figured they'd get to it eventually."
"Fine." Anne folded her arms. "It might surprise you to learn that the captain of the Flying Dutchman loves me and I love him, and I plan to break the curse that binds him to his duty so that we may live in happiness together."
Jack leaned forward. "The Flying Dutchman?" Anne nodded. "The captain of the Flying Dutchman?" Anne nodded again. "The captain of the Flying--?" Anne nodded vigorously, and the man shook his head just as hard. "Lass, that can't be. I've known that stuffy old ghoul for ages, and he'll be in love with Elizabeth Turner till Doomsday."
"So that was her name," said Anne.
"Aye. He gave her his heart, see, and she put it in a little iron box--" Jack stopped. "Ah, now I've said too much."
"You must show me where it is," said Anne. "You were surprised; I saw it plainly."
"Are you sure it's love?" He nudged her. "With all these immortal blokes on the market, you could do much better."
"Stop trying to distract me," she said.
Jack sighed. "Now--" he reached into his pocket, "--you are about to learn my greatest secret." He handed her an antique compass. "Open that, and tell me what you see."
Anne opened it and stared at the dial. "It doesn't point north," she replied, puzzled.
"That compass," said Jack, "points toward what you want most. And I assume what you want most is that dandy prat James Norrington's heart?" Without waiting for her reply, he leapt to his feet. "Let's go, then! Set a course south-south-east!"
So they set out in Anne's little boat. When it could take them no further, they booked passage for the Indian Ocean. Wherever they went, the compass's bearing stayed constant: the Cape of Storms, known to us as the Cape of Good Hope.
"It figures she'd have dropped it there, below the deadliest waters men can sail," said Jack. "She never did take much care with poor Norrington's heart."
"I thought you hated him," said Anne.
"Aye, well, some sorrows I don't wish on any man."
They drew nearer. "If it's at the bottom of the sea," wondered Anne, "how will I reach it?"
"Ah," Jack smiled, "now here's where I can help. Let me tell you a secret: all you have to do to keep from drowning is forget how to breathe."
"Aye. Just--misplace the knowledge. Let it slip your mind."
It sounded mad. But the man had lived for a hundred and fifty years; if anybody could give advice on staying alive, it was him.
"Of course," said Jack, scratching his beard, "the danger is that if you're down there and suddenly a breath-related thought pops into your head, you're done for." He peered at her. "Still think this is a good idea?"
"I do," said Anne.
Jack narrowed his eyes. "You really love that crusty old fiend?"
Anne nodded. "Yep."
"He don't deserve it," said Jack.
"Who does?" she shrugged.
The sea grew violent as they entered Cape waters. One night, as they were lying to in the grips of a roaring gale, Anne saw that the compass needle was spinning this way and that, struggling to point to something beneath their feet. "This would be the opportune moment!" Jack cried over the wind. "Now don't forget--I mean, do forget!"
"Forget what?" Anne cried back.
"Good girl! Now, then--" And they leapt into the sea.
They swam all night, following the compass's spinning dial, deeper and deeper until the moon and starlight were gone and only phosphorescence lit the compass as they swam. Anne forgot how to breathe, and so she didn't drown, but the deeper she went, the more she forgot. Soon she could no longer recall the touch of the sun on her skin, or the smell of her mother's kitchen, or the shape of her lost captain's eyes. She hardly remembered him at all, except for the ache in her breast that never quite went away. But Jack's compass kept her mind on her task, and she followed it down until they spotted the little iron box on the rocky ocean floor, emitting a slow and steady thump, thump.
Anne took it greedily in her hands. But it wouldn't open and there was no place for a key. It was too heavy to carry to the surface, and she wasn't going back without it, so she kicked and pulled and battered it. She hit it with a rock, and then with a bit of coral; she threw it down a crevice; but still it didn't open. Despairing, she sat on the ocean floor beside the man who couldn't die, who was out of ideas too.
As they stared morosely at the little box, the story of Aladdin came into her mind, who had opened a cave by speaking a word. "Elizabeth," she said to the box, and it opened.
Inside lay the heart, red and beating and alive. But as she gazed in wonder, she remembered that she had drawn a breath to speak. All at once, the weight of the ocean crushed into her lungs, and she drowned with the heart still clutched in her hands.
When the Flying Dutchman's captain drew her from the water, he said simply, "Anne. Oh, Anne. Why did you not do as I say?"
"I hardly regret it," she replied. "You took my heart and put nothing in its place. How could I live like that? But look--I have brought you a gift."
The demon captain ripped away his shirt and waistcoat and opened up his chest, just like that, as if he'd been dividing sand. Out of his chest he took the cockleshell, and in its place he laid the heart. The seas around the Flying Dutchman surged, flinging it up on a huge swell, and waves swept the deck with the force of collapsing walls. Everyone clung to lines and masts, but the captain stood quite calmly, drenched and bloody and still. When the sea had settled, the color had bled back into his face and his eyes were warm with life and wit. In place of the white-faced demon was now a young, living man. He smiled at Anne, his lips full and red, then drew his sword and ran himself through.
Anne cried out and ran forward, and he sagged into her arms, his life spilling out on the deck. "You fool," she cried, kissing his bloody mouth. "You've thrown away my gift…"
"Quite the contrary," he smiled. "I have wished for death for so long…"
"But who--" Anne looked around, "--who will sail your ship?"
"I think your friend will gladly take my place," he said, indicating Jack. Then he struggled to sit up, wiped his bloody hand on his coat and offered it to her. "Now--let us take our last journey together."
As the ship sailed beyond the edges of the world, Jack read his mad liturgy while Anne and her captain swore their vows. They spent the night as husband and wife, and when the ship moored, they paid their coppers to the boatswain and walked down the gangplank hand in hand. Without looking back, they went up the quay, through the little port town on the shores of the dead, and over the hill to that hidden hamlet where all journeys end.
The Flying Dutchman has a new captain now, and she can still be seen off the point on particularly bad nights when the seas are high and sailors pray with extra feeling. The ones from Beaufort hope the name of Anne Farragut will buy them mercy when the Dutchman fishes them out of the brine, but mostly they just hope never to see that fell ship. For her new captain is unlike the last; he hasn't even the memory of love to soften his duty. When the sailors opened his chest, they found no heart at all, just the biggest, richest pearl they'd ever seen--and they agreed he was all the happier for it.