The Sea Witch
A story from The Witch Cord
James Grave clutched the thick rope and held his breath. They had lost the jolly boat early in the storm and now he felt the familiar tide of nausea swell deep in his stomach. As the ship rose and pitched in the shifting valleys of the sea, he ran through the list of knots he’d learned. Bowline, round turn, reef, sheet – his nose burned as a sudden twist of the deck sent the contents of his belly northwards. He swallowed and began again. Bowline, round turn, reef–
“Stand aside, Grave.” A voice as full of foam as the edge of a wave broke the cabin boy’s concentration. It was the captain. He pushed James to one side and addressed another man, dangling over the side. “Mr Revel, your report please.”
James Grave stared at the first officer. “Twenty-five,” he muttered.
Further along the rope, a stocky man bellowed back. The ocean spray mixed with the rain and ran along the delta of wrinkles which gave him the appearance of a man born into misery. “It be twenty-five knots, Cap’n. An I checked it thrice.”
“Twenty-five?” Captain Sandes of the Hannibal called back, pushing past James to come face-to-face with his grimy first officer. “Impossible.”
“S’what it is, Cap’n.”
The captain shook his head and shouted into the smaller man’s face. “Impossible, man,” he said. “Why aren’t we under water? Why is the ship in one piece?”
“It won’t for much longer if this storm doesn’t let up,” Revel replied. “The mizzenmast is ready to split.”
James looked up. “Lightning,” he said, a breath before a finger of light stabbed the mast scattering splinters across the heads of the crew. Bowline, round turn… He felt…
“Captain,” he yelled through the rage of the night. “There’s something wrong. Something unnatural.”
“You’re in the way and wasting time, boy.” Captain Sandes grabbed James by the shoulders and spun him away from the rope. “Get down below and deal with the cargo.”
“But Captain, there’s–“
“GO.” The captain shoved the boy hard, sending him sprawling along the tilting deck towards the hold. James flailed, reaching for any kind of handhold to stop him sliding off the ship and into the black sea. He grunted and felt his shoulder twist under the strain of a sudden stop as he hooked an arm around a capstan. Crawling the rest of the way, the cabin boy flicked open the hatch and threw himself below deck.
It was almost dark but James Grave closed his eyes anyway and drew deep breaths from the dank air as he stepped down the narrow corridor. He’d not been allowed down here before but he knew the way. Dread spoke to him through the creak of the floors and the sound of a lantern swinging. He opened his eyes after the count of four. Bowline, round turn, reef, hitch.
Ahead of him, guarded by a full regiment of shadows, was a door.
He lifted an iron ring, heavy with keys, from his belt. With all hands on deck the keys had been passed to him. This was his duty now. His terrible duty. They rattled, as much as from the shake of his hand as from the motion of the ship. Bowline, round turn… With a hollow click the lock gave and the door swung open.
Bowline, round turn, reef, hitch–
The cargo hold stank. Nausea flooded through the boy and he reached out to grip the door jamb, feeling the knots of wood dig into his fingertips. James had his orders. God Himself would provide the strength.
Letting his eyes adjust to the gloom, James saw the skin of light on oil-black hills. It was a gentle scene, almost pastoral if not for the horror of it. For these were not hills before him, but heads. Hundreds of them bowed beneath the weight of their captivity and resting upon bodies moaning with the effort of breathing.
The cargo of slaves which filled the space below decks began to ripple and shift as the room swayed. Their moans grew louder and James shook the loop of keys. “Settle yourselves,” he cried. “Settle. Or God will damn you where you sit.”
The moans subsided and a laugh rolled over to where the cabin boy stood.
“Come in, James Grave. Don’t ye be afeared. It’s only us ladies sat proper in our parlour.” The voice belonged to a woman. She made a dry sound, like wool run through carders.
“Don’t talk to me,” James replied. “The captain said I was to have neither ears nor eyes for you witches.”
“Witches?” The woman spoke again. “Witches are we? Well, a witch is just a woman wronged,” she said. “And we been wronged, wouldn’t you say, James Grave?”
“My name. How did you…?”
“We should all have names, James Grave. We should all be known before the end.”
“Stop it. Stop saying my name.” The cabin boy stepped back out of the hold. He tried to turn but the iron loop snagged on the door and he would not, or could not, let go. Bowline, round turn, reef, hitch, constrictor–
“Then say my name, James Grave.”
“You have no name. You will be named… You were to be…” He stopped, aware of what he’d been about to say. There would be no Christian names given to these people.
“I have a name, James Grave. We all have names. Look at us.”
The cabin boy trembled as he gazed across the sea of people. Back and forth they began to rock, lifting and dropping their heads in and out of the light.
“I am Kamaria. A moon upon this ocean.”
“You are no-one,” James told her. “Stop talking. You will all walk with me. The captain…”
“The captain is not here, James Grave. She by your feet is called Kirabo. And by her is Ntombi. After that is–” On she went. Naming names in their tens and before James rattled his keys.
But the sound was swallowed by Kamaria’s role call of names so he shouted. “Stop talking. You are to follow me. You are to look down.”
“Are we people to you yet, James Grave?” Kamaria asked. “Do you see us yet? We own our shadows as you own yours. We are mothers and daughters.”
James drew the short knife he kept on the length of cord he had looped around his chest. “My captain said I was to bring you to him.”
Kamaria interrupted her list of names. “There is no captain, James Grave,” she said. “Be your own captain.”
“You are to come with me. If we are not on deck soon, the first mate will be here.”
“There is no soon, James Grave. There is no first mate.”
The boy bent over, his trembling fingers finding the lock to which the first slave was tethered. Turning the key he pulled at the chain, yanking the woman called Kirabo to her feet. He looked at her. He saw her. He recognised her. He turned away and pulled harder. As she stumbled, the next woman was pulled along, and then the next in a factory of humanity. Bowline, round turn, reef, hitch, constrictor–
“Are we take our midnight air, James Grave?” Kamaria wanted to know as she too was pulled into line. “Is this to be a promenade along the English coast?”
The ship rolled and dipped and the only thing stopping the wave of people from spilling onto the floor was the sheer number of them crammed into the space. James pulled at the chain and lead them out of the hold and through the corridor.
“Are we to take a swim, James Grave?”
James lowered his head and closed his eyes. Bowline, round turn, reef, hitch, constrictor, cleat–
He breathed deeply and opened the hatch above his head, the one which would take him back above deck into the storm threatening to sink the ship with all its crew. And all these slaves. These people. Bowline, round turn–
He pushed at the hatch, releasing the pent up energy of the storm into the corridor. Without looking, without even thinking, he reached out and caught a lengthy slice of wood which had sheared off the mizzenmast. Uncaught it would have pierced the first of the slaves, the woman called Kirabo. He remembered her name. He remembered all their names, though Kamaria had not finished her list.
They were familiar to him. Like the knots.
“Look at me, James Grave.”
“Are you remembering the knots, James Grave?”
James looked down along the line, his eyes wide.
“You know our names, you know the knots,” Kamaria shouted above the wind and the rain. “Do you know us as people yet?”
“I… the first mate will…”
“There is no first mate, James Grave,” Kamaria said.
James poked his head above deck. He saw sailors straining against ropes as though rescuing friends from quicksand. He saw Captain Sandes wrestling with the ship’s wheel. He saw the first mate, Mr Revel, pushing men to tie down rigging or prevent a cannon from cutting loose.
“I see them,” he shouted. “I see them.”
“They died, James Grave. You know they died.”
The cabin boy looked harder and saw something else. He saw a broad-shouldered, pale-faced boy stood clinging to a rope at the edge of the ship. He saw himself as he’d been not twenty minutes earlier. Bowline, round turn–
He ducked back down below deck and pushed his way to Kamaria. There he saw her, fully as though for the first time and the hundreth time. She was his age with eyes as clear and white as pearls. “You’re wrong,” he said. “I saw them. They were there. I was there. How is that possible?”
Kamaria raised her hands. In them was a cord, like the one James wore around his chest. “Do you know what this is, James Grave?” she asked.
James looked down. His own cord was gone. “Get away from me,” he said.
Above deck the storm fell silent and the ship ceased its turmoil. “Old magic, James Grave,” Kamaria said. “Knot magic.”
James slumped back against the wooden walls. “You’re going to tell me about the storm,” he said.
“I am, James Grave.”
“How did I know that?”
“Because the seven seas are a cord wrapped around the world.” Kamaria’s voice flowed through the silence. The others were quiet now, their moaning stilled. “And a cord witch knows how to tie life to death. You have been here many years. This is where we begin again. You will go up and feel sick. We will sit and wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“To be seen, James Grave. To be recognised as people, not property. You threw us overboard to quell a younger storm and so we tied the knot, binding this ship to the endless storm.”
“Then why… do I remember?”
“Because you saw us, James Grave. Over time, you saw.” Kamaria lent forward and, in the tight space between them, pressed her mouth to the boy’s ear. “As you see us now.”
James Grave, cabin boy on the Hannibal, let his eyes follow the line of people chained together. “So it never ends?” he asked. “We remain ghosts on the ocean? Can nothing ever change?”
“I do not know, James Grave,” Kamaria whispered. “You have come loose.”
James held out the keys and his hands no longer shook. “Free yourselves,” he said. “Before the storm begins again.”
Kamaria smiled. “We are free, James Grave.”
Dropping the key loop, James stepped away from Kamaria and walked the line to the cargo hatch steps. Up on the deck, the crew walked about their duties as though the future had not been written. He picked his way through coiled ropes and past a version of himself to where the jolly boat hung.
Moonlight watched over him as he climbed aboard and lowered himself into the silent waters. As he rowed, he heard the crack of thunder and the cry of the first mate raising an alarm. On he rowed, to a different time.
Bowline, round turn, reef, hitch, constrictor, cleat, anchor.
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