Warning: AWE spoilers, character death.
Disclaimer: All characters are owned by the Walt Disney Company, not me.
Note: This takes place between my stories "Sole Unquiet Thing" and "Three Bells and Cockleshells," in which James takes Will's place as captain of the Flying Dutchman. You'll want to read those for this one to make sense.
FIVE HUNDRED FATHOMS
by Rex Luscus
If the men moving cargo on the wharf had looked closely at the water just aft of their ship's chains, they'd have seen a peculiar thing: a man in a rowboat, quietly pulling toward the docks. There was, at that moment, no ship in the roadstead he could have come from. A convoy had left a week ago and for a short eerie time, the harbor was almost empty. Prices were high, the French had killed their king, and war haunted all maritime comings and goings; all except one.
Unseen, the man tied up with a quick toss and pull of a line, boated his oars, and sprang onto the dock. His step as he strode up the planks was light and brisk, not that of a man who had just rowed dozens of miles from his ship, which at that moment was a hundred fathoms down on the ocean floor. Her sailors were watching bright sea creatures weaving through the rigging, vanishing behind lines and blocks, darting through scuttles and hawse holes. It was hard to laugh and talk when their faces were nothing but wavy green shapes and their voices distant turbulence, so they waited sullenly for their captain, who was taking a deep breath of the soggy air and turning his steps toward the north side of town.
He brushed his coat absently as he walked, ridding himself of imaginary dust. Despite his recent submersion, he was perfectly dry. He wore his waistcoat open enough to show a bit of ruffle, and his pewter buttons were polished. But there seemed less of a reason to look smart than before. Port Royal in ten years had grown shabbier, emptier. High Street showed abandoned storefronts like missing teeth, and soldiers were the only people he saw. They didn't see him, and if they had, they'd have seen a spectre from an earlier time, quaint and dissonant.
He had long since lost any illusion that he belonged to the world. When he'd first accepted the Flying Dutchman's ghastly charter, he'd understood death and the hearts of men. War was cruel, but it had rules. Now the men whose souls he ferried died more and more senselessly, slaughtered for a dwindling cause by tyrants grown more and more monstrous. War had lost its honor as it grew in efficiency. He had been a gentleman soldier in his day, and this new world filled him with loathing. His years were filled with death. One thing only kept him from despairing--one day in ten years when he could step ashore and see life again, if only from a distance. Elizabeth.
Eventually, even she would be gone. He tried not to think of it; he looked away from anything that reminded him of the passing years. A decade to him was nothing, but on land, princes rose and fell, armies clashed, lives were born and lost, faces aged and grew strange. She would always be beautiful to him, but when he'd seen her last, her wrinkled skin and rheumy eyes had turned his stomach hollow and cold--not for themselves, but for what they meant. Still, she had promised him not to leave without notice; she intended to die at sea, so that he could see her one last time.
At last he reached the address he never needed to write down or look up. He opened the garden gate, prying it from the vines that had grown extravagant over the years, and knocked briskly on the door. A minute passed, and he knocked again.
A woman opened the door. "Good day to you, sir," she said with polite puzzlement.
"I--" He suppressed a surge of dread. "Pardon me, but do the Turners live here still?"
"Oh, no," said the woman sorrowfully. "I'm afraid they passed on a year ago."
"That's--" He did not say not possible, for it was indeed possible. He'd known this day would come--he'd simply thought he would have time to prepare for it. A vain hope, that he could ever be prepared. So Elizabeth had broken her promise; it changed nothing. "I see." He steadied himself on the door. "I apologize for disturbing you."
"Sir?" She leaned forward, eyes full of pity. "Would you like to come in?"
There was nothing he'd have liked less, and he nearly said so when he remembered something. "I'm obliged to you," he said with a shaky smile, and followed her inside.
She led him into the sitting room, which resembled how it had looked when the Turners had been there as much as a lifeless body resembled a living man. The woman sat him down in a chair. "I'll fetch you some coffee," she said.
"I--" He took out his handkerchief and coughed into it to hide the agonized sound he'd been about to make. "That's quite all right. I must know if the Turners left any possessions behind."
She narrowed her eyes; she suspected him of being a creditor. "There's nothing here," she replied. "Might I inquire…?"
"Nothing of value," he said. "A sentimental item--a little iron box."
This seemed to satisfy her. "I'll take another look upstairs. And you might try their children. Mr. Turner's the armorer at the fort and Mrs. Taverner lives across the harbor in Kingston. I could find her address if you'd like."
He nodded woodenly. "Thank you."
"I'll bring that coffee too."
"Er, no, madam--" He touched her arm. "I'm afraid I don't drink. Coffee." Elizabeth had once made it for him simply so he could smell it, but the time for doing that sort of thing was over.
Once she was out of the room, he bent over double and pressed his fist to his mouth. What a fool he'd been. The past fifty years had been nothing but a holiday. He'd spent them putting this moment endlessly from his mind, believing he could forestall it, refusing to look into the mouth of eternity. Now he felt it: the agony of forever without rest. As he stared at his shoes, his cowardice settled on his shoulders, and he knew that he didn't have it in him to continue.
"I couldn't find any boxes," said the woman as she returned, her eyes full of distant concern when he sat up abruptly and rubbed his eyes. "But here's Mrs. Taverner's address."
He tucked the card in his coat and excused himself. Having a purpose staved off the pain a bit; suffering was easier to bear if you could see the end of it. He fairly ran out of town and up the hill to the fort.
Bill Turner was an ordinary man of fifty-odd years. James held onto his thick, solid form, which he'd once been able to gather in his arms and lift onto his shoulders, and trembled at the sadness of mortal flesh. Now that Elizabeth was gone, it seemed as though everyone else was threatening to disappear as well.
"I must learn what they did with my heart," said James.
Bill shrugged. "I suppose they took it with them."
"What do you mean?"
"They were in India when they died--Mother wanted to travel one more time. There was an outbreak, and old people are always the first to go. There's a stone next to my grandfather's plot, though, bearing their names. Do you want to see it?"
A body was a meaningless enough artifact. What good was an empty pointer to one? An hour later, he knelt before it. There was already moss, but the names were crisp and clear. William George Turner, the second. Elizabeth Mary Swann Turner, beloved wife.
Beloved. He stared at the word, made it his own, and for a moment, it was just the two of them. Then he was staring at a bit of stone that marked the place a body might have been had it not been devoured by a funeral pyre on the other side of the world.
He rowed to Kingtson and looked up the address on the card. Emily Taverner greeted him with a warm embrace too, but it was almost unbearable, she was so much like her mother.
"She told us you'd ask after it," said Emily. "We thought we ought to keep it, but she said it would be safer with her."
"So my heart is somewhere between here and India," James said numbly.
"I reckon so." She shook her head. "I'm so sorry, Uncle James."
"Did she say anything--anything--"
"No." She hesitated. "If you can pardon my asking, what would you do with it once you had it back? You never wanted to see it before."
"Oh, nothing," he said in a tight voice. "It's just a comfort to know where the silly thing is."
"I'm sure it's safe," said Emily.
Of all the things his poor heart was, safe was the last of them. He hoped she'd left it in the middle of a street, where a careless foot might end him. But knowing Elizabeth--and he choked, merely thinking those words--she'd had a careful plan. She'd anticipated him.
The sun was sinking toward the west when he left Mrs. Taverner's house and fled down to the waterfront. There had to be something more he could do--but Elizabeth had denied him again, her final cruel trick. Once she had borne him up so that his burden had seemed light, but now she'd hung that burden round his neck, its weight returning with all the force the intervening years had denied it.
On the beach, the surf collapsed and withdrew and collapsed again, dull, free of meaning. He ran at it with a wild nonsensical wish to drown, but his clothes grew heavy without the water's chill touching him. A cry tore out of his chest until the waves choked it off.
He got to his feet, bracing himself against the rushing surf. "Calypso!" he cried. "Calypso, God damn you, where is it?"
"What make you t'ink I know?"
He spun to find her a few feet away, water up to her thighs, her ragged dress afloat. Her face was filled with a savage smile. He hated her and her blank, uncaring nothingness.
"You must know," he spat. "You always know. Now please, what must I do? Give me any task as you like, but please, I must know--"
"You mus' not'ing," she snarled. "Remember who you are. My servant; my slave."
Only then did he lose hope. Eternity without Elizabeth, without anybody, with nothing to do but pray there really was a Judgment Day. His body sagged. "Is there an end to it? Any end at all?"
"Shall you ever rest, you mean?" Her smile was snake-like. "All t'ings end; I t'ink you too. Mebbe you find you heart, mebbe not."
"If you knew where it was, would you tell me?"
She smiled. "No."
"I want to die," he moaned. "Please, Calypso, please--"
"Hush!" She shook her finger. "You have work to do. T'ink on dat. She gone; forget her. Now--da sun set. Go."
Miles out, he felt the mighty bulk of the Flying Dutchman on the ocean floor like a tug on his body. Something in him crumbled, hardened. He shed his jacket, and walked into the waves.
"It not all bad," Calypso called after him. "You end, it not written yet. Not all be lost."
But it was; it was all lost. Elizabeth had kept him in a pretty dream. Without her, he felt how dead his body was, how empty. She had filled him. Now it was all gone.
He felt the cold now, but it was not the water, it was his own dead flesh. His drowned ship drew him on. As he trudged through the surf, the water around his knees churned and bubbled, then hissed away. He took another step; the water fled from him again. Slowly he made his way toward open sea, his footprints hissing on the sandy bottom as his damned body blasted a corridor through the waves, sending up walls of steam and spray.
As the sun touched its lip to the horizon, his ship appeared ahead, her great hull careened, her crew peering over the rail with curious horror at the spectacle of his damnation. Against the sun, she towered as grim as a prison-hulk. She was his home, a stately sarcophagus to hold his living death. If only her embrace could bring sleep as well. A ladder slithered down her pitch- and salt-encrusted side, and as he swung himself over the gunwale, his sailors stood at quarters, dumb, watching.
"Mr. Turner," he said, "your son is dead."
Turner nodded. "I thought he might be. And his wife…?"
James swallowed around the grief that would always feel brand-new.
In his cabin, he saw the looking-glass and froze. His skin was the color of a fish's belly; at last, he looked like the drowned corpse he was. He searched his eyes for signs of himself, but only saw an inky gleam vanishing into deep water. Here was a depth of the sea where no light penetrated. Here was a kind of death that would serve until the real one came; numb darkness, cocooned in the deep.
Back on deck, he found the stars that pointed toward the waters where the living never went, where there was a shore he longed to touch as much as he'd ever wished for the other. But just as that old shore had accepted him without granting life, this new one beckoned without promising death. Sail as he might, he would never arrive.
"West, Mr. Turner," he said, as a last gold sliver trembled on the horizon. "Make sail."
Note: Virtually no light penetrates the water at five hundred fathoms, the approximate limit of what oceanographers call the bathypelagic zone. That's what the title refers to.