Wreckage has been washing up on shore for days now. The timber is useful for cooking and for fires, but it is the bodies that get in my way, stinking of fish left out too long in the sun and hailed by a rising cyclone of seabirds which peck at the drowned soldiers' remains.
The sight and smell of them roll over me in a putrid wave, assaulting both my nose and what feeble defenses I have erected to protect myself from the carnage. I close my eyes and tie a kerchief around my nose as I do what's necessary. Today there are three bodies piled in my skiff as I paddle around to the leeward side of the island, where the tides will take the ones I dump back out into the ocean and away from the shelter of the bay, where they will otherwise rot and decay.
Pity fills me as I survey each water-swollen corpse. If I were a God-given wench I would pray for them, but God's got no place in the life of a fisherwoman, and so I settle for gently closing the eyes of those who are not yet too rigid before hauling them over the side of the skiff.
The last body- that of a man between thirty and forty- is different. The act of raising him into a sitting position as I prepare to haul him overboard gives me the opportunity to examine him closer. For one thing, though his clothes are badly torn and charred, I can tell that they are much finer than those of the other poor sods I've seen; for another, he hasn't been shot, stabbed, or otherwise fatally wounded like most of the other young British men I've spent the past week getting rid of.
That's not to say that he's without injury, however. His whole face is covered in horrible burns, and seems hardly like a face at all- rather, like some half-eaten scrap brought back from the jungle by the dogs- and a foot-long piece of wood protrudes from his leg. Now that I'm looking closely, I also see that his body isn't all bloated and stiff like the other sailors' are.
A feeling of great unease steals across me, and I look around myself: the island is some two hundred feet behind me, and there's only the ocean on either side. Nevertheless, I remain on edge, faint suspicion rising within me.
What if he's not dead?
Curiosity piqued, I lean forward, studying him for any signs of life, and see his eyelids flutter.
I jump back, my hand going automatically to the paring-knife by my side, but I check myself.
It's alright, I think. He's in no state to hurt you.
The dead-but-not-dead man coughs, splutters, and retches up a stomach's worth of seawater.
"There, there, easy now," I say, reaching out a hand to steady his shaking shoulders.
He speaks through white, salt-dried lips in a voice like Shakespeare's ghostly Banquo. "Am I… dead?"
"Do I look like an angel?"
"I… I don't know…" The man sounds incredibly confused.
I can't blame the poor chap. I'm assuming he's been adrift at sea for days; which I'm sure does nothing for one's brain.
"What's happened?" he begins to babble. "The Endeavour… Jones… Sparrow… Sparrow!-" Groaning, he tries to move, but his body is so weak he can barely stir, and he falls back against the skiff, chest heaving. I look around one last time and decide I'd rather deal with a half-drowned man on dry land rather than on open water, so I grab the oars of the skiff and start rowing, keeping one eye on the man and one on the shore.
Hell if I know who Jones is. Or this Sparrow fellow. What does he have against birds? "It's going to be alright," I say patiently. He keeps on muttering under his breath. Then, as silence descends and the absurdity of rowing a half-drowned man in a skiff hits me, I ask, "Say… what's your name?" to break the quiet.
He looks at me- or at least I think he tries to; I can't be sure as I can't see his eyes in the mass of charred flesh that makes up his face- like I'm an imbecile. Dunno what I've done to deserve that. After all, a minute ago I was about to throw him overboard, and now I've just effectively saved his life.
"I am the Director of the East India Trading Company," he asserts.
I scoff. "I said your name."
"Lord Cutler Beckett," he says.
"Ah." I nod. "That's better, seeing as I probably couldn't recognize you by your face even if I'd known you my whole life. I'm sorry to have to tell you you're a right mess."
As I mention his face, his hands creep up to feel it, and when he does, it's like the pain has suddenly dropped from the sky and right onto his shoulders. He falls back on the bench of the skiff and moans,
"My leg… my leg…"
I remember suddenly the piece of wood impaled in his calf. I figure shock and fatigue have taken the edge off his pain, not to mention dehydration and starvation, for I've no idea how long he's been adrift at sea nor how much blood he's lost. I row faster, for it's clear if I'm to keep him from returning to the land of the dead I'll need to exercise what little first aid skills I have as quickly as possible.
For the moment, I tear some fabric from the hem of my ratty dress and tie it above the wound to try and stop the gentle flow of blood that has begun to dribble from his leg. It's making a mess all over the nice clean boards of the hull. Lord Cutler Beckett makes no sound, and I realize he's passed out.
Despite the fact that I'm taller than my pitiful burden, it's no mean feat to beach the skiff and carry him ashore without jarring his leg, and I'm not sure I am very gentle, for he moans once or twice before I get him to the hut. It's a sorry thing, but I built it with my father almost a decade ago, and it's home. Two walls divide a kitchen in the middle, my bedroom to the left, and what used to be father's room on the right.
I haven't used father's room in ages, but I suppose the musty sheets and long unslept-in bed will have to do for the lord. I set him down harder than I mean to and he wakes up. I can see pain in the scrunched mess of his face, and in the way he hisses in sharp, heavy breaths. I feel the kind of pity I feel when one of the dogs has a sliver up its foot. I resolve to treat this here lord like I do the dogs: just pull it out fast and no one will remember the next morning.
But this ain't a sliver, and he ain't a dog, a voice in my head whispers. I tell it to shush and leave the room to make preparations. Clean cloths, boiling water, a stick for him to bite, some rum for disinfecting, some cool water and honey for the burns on his face and hands. I pile it all on the edge of the bed and hesitate momentarily before using my knife to cut off what remains of his fancy trousers. The way I figure it, what's modesty when a man's life is at stake?
Lord Cutler Beckett turns his head this way and that, something akin to fear joining the pain I already see in him.
"What are you doing?" he asks, his words crisp and precise even through all of the pain.
"I've gotta get this piece of wood out of your leg," I say, fussing with my supplies. I'm worried about splinters breaking off and staying imbedded in his leg. The only surgical instrument I have is my hands, after all. "This is gonna hurt," I warn, pressing the stick into his hands, "but no more than it did goin' in, I'd imagine."
He seems confused at the stick. Honestly, do these proper English gentlemen known nothing about field medicine?
"You bite it," I instruct. "It's for the pain." Now I know there's fear in his face, but he just does as he's told and nods for me to continue. I grasp the wood at the top and ease it around, just to see how well it's stuck in there. His muscles contract with the pain and I tell him to relax. With a firm grip and a silent one… two… three, I give a yank.
He flinches badly, then lies still. Once the foot-long plank is out, I breathe a sigh of relief. The hard part is over.
Now time for the cloths, water, and rum. With the plank no longer plugging up the wound it begins to bleed freely. My hands and dress are slick with blood, and I think ruefully that it'll be the flames for the garment when I'm through.
I clean the hole as best as I can and bind it up tight to try and stop the bleeding. I'm sure it's going to fester, though, as he's been at sea for who knows how long, and I am certain even a skilled nurse would be hard pressed to stave off infection, the salt notwithstanding.
Sighing, I turn my attention to his face. Whatever happened on the ship that carried all those men has made a ravage of it. His skin is black, blistered, and burned; his eyebrows, lashes, and most of his hair are completely charred off. Strangely, the lower part of his face is intact, and I study his lips while I clean the rest with water and apply honey to the burns. His lips are soft- well-formed, but with a cruel tilt to them. I confirm his eyes are indeed sightless, destroyed by whatever burned him. It is a strange sort of mercy that the fates have not spared his eyes. When- if- his burns heal, he will not be a pretty sight.
I know he is dehydrated, so as soon as I have finished wrapping his face and hands in clean linen swaths I wipe the sweat from my forehead with the back of my hand and fetch some water from the spring out back. He gulps it eagerly, and I have to restrain him, for I know that too much water at once in a dehydrated body will make a man sick. I hold the cup and press it gently to his lips while I slip a hand behind his neck to support him. Bandaged hands wrap around mine, holding the cup steady.
He thanks me as I retreat to the kitchen for more water. I glance through the doorway at him, furtively, before realizing he can't see me looking in any case. I wonder who he is. Three words are all I know: Lord Cutler Beckett. They are a name and a title. What good does that do me? Asking him is out of the question, for the poor man is out like a light when I get back. I cover him with the blankets and leave the hut. I pace in the sand outside of the door, and then I go back inside again.
I'm at a loss with what to do with myself. There is an injured man in your father's bed, I think, and laugh a little bit. What in seven hells do I do now?
With the sun setting, I fall back on routine and call for Tuck and Bull. The dogs come charging out of the jungle at my whistle, each carrying something tasty in its mouth for supper. After life so long on this island, certain things are rote to me, regardless of any unforeseen surprises. I set the remainder of the water in the kettle over the firepit out front to boil so I can cook the rabbit and possum they've brought. Having something to do with my hands is already forcing me to focus my mind, allowing me to concentrate on what to do about this interloper to my little world.
An idea hits me. I have been scrounging still-usable clothing off of the bodies I dump, as I have only three dresses of my own. Dresses are expensive, and I only make the trip to the mainland to resupply once every quarter year. My bounty of blue jackets, trousers, and boots are tucked in a small lean-to with the wood against the back of the hut. Leaving the kettle, I scamper to the lean-to, pick the nicest of the clothes, and carry them inside with me, laying them at the foot of the bed. Lord Cutler Beckett is still dead to the world. When he is better he will now at least have clean clothes to replace the rags he currently wears.
I wander back to my kettle, now boiling, and quickly skin the animals so they can be added. The stew's role is doubly important now that it must stretch to feed two. I swallow hard. Some days I barely have enough food for myself- how am I to feed a full-grown man as well? Thinking of the coming hardship, I momentarily regret not chucking Lord Cutler Beckett off the edge of the skiff with the others.
With a shake of my head, I put a wooden spoon into the kettle and give it a hard stir. But to be a killer in the name of convenience? I admonish myself. You have done the right thing. And who knows… this man may turn out to be less of a burden than you anticipate. Longing thoughts of having someone to help chop wood enter my mind. It would be the least he could do to repay me for my trouble. Last winter had been particularly brutal, when the heavy rains drove a hole through the roof and I nearly killed myself climbing the slippery thatch in an attempt to repair it. Yes, an extra hand would be quite useful.
Eyeing the stew critically, I take a tentative sniff. It looks more or less cooked, and I decide dinner is ready. Raising the ladle, I am about to eat it straight from the pot, but I stop myself, remembering my unexpected guest, and instead dish some onto a wooden plate and carry it into my father's old room. The man is awakened by the smell of the food. I imagine it is the only thing which could have roused him, at this point, from slumber. He stirs weakly, and tries to sit up, though he falls back against the bed almost immediately. I come to his side and feed him myself. It is like taking care of a baby, or perhaps a pup, for I have never seen a baby but at the breast of a whore on the mainland, yet I raised two pups with the help of my father.
After a couple of slow, messy spoonfuls, he attempts to take the ladle from me.
"I believe I can manage," he mutters, full of offended pride. When he cannot even find the bowl to dip the ladle into, and when his frustration has grown painful to watch, I take the spoon back from him. I can sense his resentment, but damned be his pride if he wishes to survive.
When the food is almost gone he returns again to his questions.
"I do not believe we have been properly acquainted," he says between bites.
"Winnifred Dayne, at your service." I offer him another spoonful. "How d'you feel?"
He prefaces his statement with a great sigh. "My leg hurts like the devil. My face feels as if on fire. And I have not eaten in I know not how long, so whatever you are feeding me at the moment tastes like heaven. What is it?"
"Rabbit-possum stew," I inform him, and wait for his reaction. I'm ninety-nine percent certain it's not regular fare on British ships.
"I haven't been served rabbit since I left Port Royal."
"Glad you like it," I say, smiling faintly and thinking Where's Port Royal?
The soup is now gone. There's no reason for me to linger by his bed, so I get up awkwardly to leave.
Lord Cutler Beckett hastily reaches out, grabbing at any part of me he can get a hold of in an effort to make me stay. Conceding, I sink to my knees again by the side of his bed. He groans slightly. Idiot probably jostled his leg when he reached for me.
"Wait. A moment, please. I wish to know how I came to be here."
"You really should rest, there'll be plenty o' time for questions later-"
"How did I come to be here?"
My eyes narrow. "Don'tcha remember? It was naught but a few hours ago."
"My memory is dark in places."
Fine. I'll humor him. "You washed up on shore this afternoon. I put you in my skiff to take you out of the bay. I thought you were dead, like the rest, but you weren't."
"Aye. Bodies 'ave been washin' up on shore all week, along with loads of debris."
I cut him off. "Winnifred, if you please. I'll not stand on ceremony when it's only us two to consider."
"Winnifred, then. You are alone on this island?"
"I did say 'the two of us,' didn't I?"
His mouth twists. A confusing expression to read without the rest of his face for a clue. I soften my next words, thinking him annoyed, and attempt to take the impatience out of them. "Well, Lord Cutler Beckett…"
He smiles. It is a nice smile. I don't find his mouth cruel anymore.
"It will be simpler if you just call me Beckett." I smile, too, even though I know he can't see.
"If you must know, I row to the mainland every quarter year. That's the only time I have contact with other people, if you don't count the fish. And the bodies."
"I don't." He continues on before I can decide if he means it sarcastically or seriously. "Although, I must say I find it highly improbably that anyone could subsist in this God-forsaken ocean alone. Take no offence, Miss Da… ah… Winnifred, but especially if that person is a woman."
"Wasn't always alone," I say. "Used to be me and my father, 'makin' a livin' away from the cruelty of the world.' At least that's what he always said." I pause. I agreed with my father most times when he was alive, but at least for today, I'm not so sure what I think of the world. "He's dead now," I finish bluntly.
"I'm sorry," Beckett says after a moment. He seems genuine. "It sounds like your father was a wise man."
"How d'you figure?"
"His philosophy is sound. The world is indeed a cruel place. Even when it seems like everything is falling into position, fate throws in a twist. Or a storm. What-have-you." He sighs. "I'm blind, aren't I?" he asks suddenly.
I wonder what cruel turn, besides the obvious injuries, fate has dealt him in order to impart on him such a bleak outlook. It would be rude to inquire so I just answer,
"I'm afraid so." There is a silence pregnant with pity. As I pick up the bowl and spoon, I am painfully aware that this man will not be able to eat by himself for a long time. I wonder once more what kind of a burden I have shouldered before I leave the room, call the dogs in, clean up the dinner, and go to bed.
I have no appetite for my share of the stew.
A/N: Some of you may recognize this story. It is, in fact, a rewrite of my old story Flotsam and Jetsam. Now, before you click the "back" button, let me put up a little disclaimer: I wrote F&J two years ago, and since then the quality of my writing has vastly improved. Actually, F&J was probably more of a self-insert than anything else when I originally wrote it.
The Second Rise of Cutler Beckett, however, is going to be something entirely different. In fact, the only things I am retaining from F&J are Beckett, my OC, and the vague plot of the first few chapters. After that, the story diverges completely into something much more serious and in-depth than a story merely told to carry out personal imaginings. I do hope you'll give it a chance. :)
Oh, and a super-special thank-you to my beta reader PhantomPenguin!