The evening birds bowed and slid through the breezes and
called to one another. The largest of the gulls laughed as he swung inland
past an old house built of ships timbers and moored amidst some blown and
bent trees on the cliff. The safe valley where it lay made a safe harbor
in any storm. The stern windows from a galleon were it's eyes and a Man-O-War's
lantern swung from a davit in the front yard. Light from a cooking fire
slipped out of the windows and puddled onto the ground outside.
An updraft caught the wind-sailor, and he heeled on the starboard tack. The squat, gray town seeped into his coal eyes and the search for food dragged the bird inland.
As flotsam dribbled on the beach after a storm, so the
town lay in no particular order or pattern. It smelled of fish heads and
sweat. Even the night air refused to refresh this place. The bird flew
low and watched as dirty narrow streets with cobbled thoroughfares stumbled
betwixt the aged buildings with overhanging upper stories looking like
so many faces in pain.
The town was preparing itself for sleep. Large featured, round women were spooning greasy children into their beds. All was quiet, save for the band of happy dogs running 'round the stone-colored drunks who cuddled the curbs and huddled in darkened doorways, wincing at the night.
The gull watched as the rear door of "The Olde Rat's Tail" opened and dumped it's smoky noise into the night. A volley of refuse exploded from a bucket onto the sand in back and the door groaned quickly closed as if it were afraid to draw any good air into it's diseased lungs.
Alighting amidst the garbage, and selecting a particularly gruesome delicacy of a fish's eye, the bird listened through the clink and cluttered din, to another rat's tale.
"He's either completely daft, or he's a witch, and that's what I'm a-thinkin'!" said an old scow of a man who's beak echoed the parrot's on his white-stained shoulder.
"Aye, 'tis true. He's a strong and handsome lad. I'll lay he's not a season past his twenty-sixth summer. But a strange one he is at that!" wheezed another.
The leader of this group, Reeka the Hairless, tipped back his chair and along with it his pewter tankard, downing the whole pint. This wasn't his first drink and it was at least a fathom to his last. His yellowed head held no hair and his face looked like the bow of an old fishing schooner. His one good eye was like the slime of the bilges and the gold ring in his ear was his only redeeming feature. He looked around the motley crew at his table and said, "All of the lasses in town have been chummin' for him for years ... and with diverse kinds of bait too!"
A laugh grumbled through the attended scavengers.
A large-breasted woman scuttered by with a face that had
seen too many things in a short time. Her ale-stained dress was tucked
up at the hip and a slick leather apron hung from her waist. Reeka reached
out to grab her bottom and sneered,
"Even Mattie here has had her hooks out for him, haven't ye, love!"
With a move that reeked of too much practice, Mattie caught his hand before it could touch her and deftly bent his thumb back to his wrist! His howl of pain brought a chortle from the ragged mouths.
"'Tis true and I shant be denyin' it." she said, setting her tray on the table and shaking back her long, red hair. "And why not? He's a fine figure of a man. His gull-gray hair is soft and I've never looked into eyes greener than his." She looked around the broken faces. "Those eyes hold more than you flotsam will ever guess. And I tell ye that it was a master shipwright what laid the keel and planked the ribs of that body. It be as sound and strong as any I've laid eyes on ... and I've seen a lot of bodies in my time." A snicker ricocheted off the walls as she continued, "He's a masterpiece of the good Lord's creation. Ah, but Reeka's right, though. I've wanted him. I've waited for him there on the beach 'alow his house (Ye all know that he runs every morn and eve.) There I waited to see how I could fare in these strange waters. I stopped him and we began to chat... but all he spoke of was smooth stones in the surf and sunsets over the waves; of the secrets whispered in an ocean storm and the knowledge of the wind. Now, all of this I could swallow, aye, but then he began to speak of a thing that convinced me that he was daft and that he'd been in the sun too long! It makes blush even now to think of it ... Oh...I can't tell ye."
A hew and cry arose from the men that made all of the other pub people stop and look to see what had befallen that table.
"What is it girl?"
"Did he insult ye? ... I'll kill him!"
"Tell us lass!"
"I can't," she said, "Ye'll think me a loon like him if I tell ye."
Another staccato chorus.
"No such thoughts, love!"
"Oh Mattie, how could ye?"
And three voices together, "TELL US!"
Again she smiled at them, wriggling like bait on her hook. "I can't."
"Here's six gold coins if you tell us, Mattie dear." came the withered, weathered, smoky words of Reeka as he dropped the coins in a counting slip amidst the cards and ashes.
Seeing the hooks, and knowing that if she played her hand correctly, the proper bait would come along she said, "Well ..."
"It's good money, Mattie! Take it ... Tell us!"
"Well ...” she said drawing them closer around the candle
in the bottle with a crooking of her finger. "Although he admits that he's
never seen one ...” They all leaned in and in that light it revealed that
they were all just vultures waiting for the calf to die.
"I heard him say that ..."
"... That he ..."
"Don't tease us, girl ..."
Knowing she had them hook, line and sinker, she reeled them in.
"This one is for your little story. The others are mine
for making us squirm like that!" and he blew his pipe smoke into her face.
She swung at his face with her free hand, but he ducked back and spun her around with her own momentum. Reeka stood up and, with a soiled hand to her bottom, he sent her careening toward the scullery.
The room by now had dissolved in laughter at this odd ballet and there were gasping bodies strewn like seaweed at low tide about the tables and chairs.
Mattie caught herself before she collided with the bulkhead. She spun around and, gesturing in Reeka's direction, she bit her thumb at him! Her gesture of defiance faded quickly as her eyes widened and she ducked through the door just before an ale tankard violently nestled itself into the wall where her head had been, scattering it's glass bottom like minnows!
The laughter in the pub soon ebbed and the tide of noise fell back to an unhealthy grumble. Reeka ordered more ale to his table and began to re-pack his long, clay pipe from a small pouch he had taken from his waistcoat. He selected a long, rolled, paper match from the mug on the table and ignited it in the candle flame. The tar of the match spit and fizzled as he brought it to his pipe. The shadow in the bowl reddened and soon a serpent of smoke drifted up out of it and into the cloud that hung shoulder-high, hazing the ceiling of the room.
Reeka always smoked the best tobacco in port and no one dared ask where he "bought" it.
And the story continues .....