Wind whipped through my hair, tangling it about my face even as I twisted it and tucked it back under my hat again. The height of the crow’s nest exaggerated everything. The sharp bite of the wind, the pitch and the sway of the ship. I wrapped one arm around the mast, even as I leaned out over the ocean. The sea is a temperamental creature, but she wears her heart on her sleeve. Some days she is a tame beast, glassy and clear. Other days she is exuberant, blue and white-capped, playing in the sunshine. Some days she is angry, dark and fomenting, slapping the hull of the ship. Today she is a moody gray, all troubled currents, and uneasy waves.
Much like our captain. I could see her standing at the prow of the boat, one hand clutching the railing, black hair escaping the long braid down her back to wave in the wind like tentacles. She hadn’t moved from that post for three days, always staring down the horizon as if she could make land materialize by the sheer force of her gaze. She’s a fierce woman, smart as a whip, and faster with her sword than a diving hawk. She has a formidable will, but she has always been reasonable. Until three days ago. Promising us a legendary treasure, but refusing to tell us what it was or where we were going, refusing meals and sleep, demanding that we increase our speed.
I ran a thumb along a pocket in my vest. Earlier this evening I had snuck into the captain’s cabin to try and find answers to the strangeness of our captain’s behavior. The crew had begun to mutter about a curse or treasure sickness. We needed answers.
I drew the short straw.
I had never been inside the captain’s cabin before. My heart had beat against my ribcage like a bird trying to escape, even though I knew the captain was above deck and had not moved from the spot for days. The cabin was a sight, I will say that. A bed on one side, bolted to the floor, shrouded by velvety red curtains. But the most majestic sight was the rounded wall of windows, through which the sky and sea could be seen, and a broad mahogany desk upon a thick carpet. Maps and star charts sprawled across the surface of the desk, weighed down by a candelabra on one end and a coral encrusted glass bottle on another. The clamor of the sailors above deck had been muffled, and the loudest sound had been the creaking of the ship and the ever-present roar of the ocean bearing us onward. Hot wax had dripped down the side of my candle and onto my hand as I peered over the salt-stained parchments and rifled through the curled pages of the captain’s logbook. I couldn’t make heads or tails of anything. Headings scrawled along map edges had obscured coastlines, and when I compared the star charts with the logbook, all I could see was that we were heading towards a circled spot on the map. But it was just a patch of empty ocean.
In an effort to find more answers I had tugged open one of the desk drawers. It had stuck a little, the wood warped by the moisture of being at sea no doubt. Something had clattered at my feet and I had thrown myself backwards, but it had just been a large coin of unidentifiable currency with a hole in the center. A string had been attached, and a small folded note. I had scanned the note, but it was just an old personal note. No answers there. I had tried to fit it back under the drawer, but it wouldn’t slide back underneath. I had pocketed it instead. The papers in the drawer hadn’t been much help either. An old captain’s log. A leather-bound copy of the Pirate’s Code. More charts and maps, some old letters. I had come across an interesting page, however, with jagged edges, as if it had been ripped out of a book. It was some kind of short entry on myths and legends. On one side was part of an entry describing a compass that pointed you towards what your heart desired most, and a pocket watch that could somehow turn back time, but on the other side was the description of a aqua-colored diamond called the “Heart of the Sea.” Perhaps it was this legendary diamond the captain was obsessed with.
A sudden gust of wind blew me back, and I almost pitched off the edge of the crow’s nest. My arm was almost wrenched out of its socket as I grabbed the mast tighter. I should have been keeping better watch. Dark clouds gathered on the horizon like black gauze, flickering with lightning.
“Storm dead ahead,” I screamed at the sailors below. A group, white shirts billowing in the wind, glanced up at me, and then at the horizon. They ran to the captain. She nodded and waved her hand, dismissing them. Surely we would change direction.
“Riley, ring the bell!” Alfred shouted up to me. “All hands on deck.”
All hands on deck meant that the captain intended for us to ride out the storm. “We should change course!” I shouted back. “It looks bad. Real bad!”
Alfred glanced back at the prow. A couple sailors were arguing with the captain, but she kept shaking her head. As I watched, she turned to glare up at me. “All hands on deck!” she bellowed.
I rang the bell, my eyes on the darkening horizon. This was going to be a long night.
Sailors spilled onto the deck like ants emerging from an anthill. They scattered across the deck, tying and untying ropes. A few began to scale the masts, to tie up the sails. They were all wide-eyed. The atmosphere crackled with tension, like the static in the air before a lightning strike.
The waves grew more agitated. The mood of the sea had changed. The color had deepened, the swells steeper, the white foam turning to frenetic gray froth. The wind too changed. Before it had been strong, but playful. Now it had begun to howl and wail.
The storm grew quickly overhead, turning a moody evening into a premature night. I climbed down from the crow’s nest, clinging to the rope ladder as the ship pitched in the angry waves. The first drops began to fall as I reached the deck. Someone threw me a rope to tie about my waist. That was not reassuring. It meant they expected men overboard.
The rain began to fall in sheets. I gasped at the cold, water streaming in my eyes as I made my way across the slick deck. Thunder rumbled across the ocean like a growling beast. “Riley!” someone shouted, gesturing for me to help with tying up one of the sails. I slid across the deck, stumbling as it heaved underneath me. As I wiped rain away from my eyes and shoved soaked tendrils of hair behind my ears I saw that the captain had finally abandoned her post at the prow and was headed toward the wheel.
“Has she really lost it?” someone shouted at me, to be heard over the rain and the wind.
My reply was lost as a crack of thunder overhead sent us all running. Lightning split open the sky, blinding white. A wave crashed against the side of the boat, drenching us all. Someone shoved a bucket into my hands. The ship pitched violently down, and my stomach dropped. With a thunderous crash, it broke through a wave. A wall of water slammed me against a mast. I stumbled away, trying to get my bearings. The timbers of the ship shivered under my feet.
The night became a blur of shouts and screams, thunder and lightning flashes. Water was everywhere, rain slicing at me from above, spray being whipped into my face by the wind, waves crashing from all sides. I bailed out water, I hauled rope until my hands were chafed, I stumbled across the deck, clinging to whatever surfaces I could find as the ground bucked unpredictably beneath me. Lightning sliced through the dark, revealing white-knuckled hands and strained faces, and the heart-stopping swells that our ship sailed through. Lightning struck one of the masts, and sent flaming pieces crashing down from above. Jo had to scale the mast, slick with rain, to tie up the sail by hand so it wouldn’t be ripped to shreds. Alfred was almost tossed into the ocean, saved only by the rope tied around his waist. And the captain, through it all, at the helm, wrestling with the wheel, trying to steer us straight.
I didn’t know how much time had passed, but some time later I was clinging to the edge of the ship, soaked through to the bone, chilled and exhausted. The wind still screamed above, and the waves still flooded the ship, and the lightning still streaked and danced in the sky. But a cold feeling swept over me, like my heart sinking, my stomach dropping. I was near the front of the ship, but in the dark and the with water streaming from my eyes I could barely see the pointed prow. But then, a flash of lightning illuminated the sea. A giant wave, enough to overturn us, gathered before my eyes, creating a slope so deep it looked like the prow was almost pointed straight down.
“Brace!” I screamed, hoping that all sailors would find something to grab onto in time to not be swept overboard. I had seen lesser waves pluck men from the deck and toss them into the deep like ragdolls. And then I held my breath as the mountain of a wave crashed down over our heads.
A terrible sound filled the air, a wail, a screech. The sound of nails being wrenched from their boards. A shrill creak, a scraping that sent shudders down every spine. I was certain we had been overturned and the sea, in her wrath, was tearing the ship apart beneath my feet.
I lay curled on the deck of the ship, arms wrapped around the rail, eyes squeezed shut. In the quiet that followed the awful shrieking, I realized that the sound of the storm had grown muffled and that rain no longer pummeled me from above. I opened my eyes to darkness.
Slowly I uncurled my fingers and hauled myself to my feet. I could still hear the splash of waves. I was still breathing air and not water. I patted the deck beneath my feet, my fingers skimming across the wet wood. The ship was still there.
What had happened?
Sounds of confusion began to rise up around me, as the rest of the crew realized our situation. We seemed to be sheltered from the storm, but in total darkness now. I touched my hand to my nose, but I couldn’t see it. All the sounds had gone strange and echoey, bouncing off some invisible surface.
And then a light flared. I caught sight of the captain, hair wild around her face, torch in hand, her teeth brilliant in the glare of the light.
“We have arrived!” she shouted.
“Arrived where?” someone shouted back.
“Lower the boats,” the captain ordered, and she stuck out her arm. Another torch caught fire, and slowly the place began to take shape.
We had sailed straight into a cavern. Torches lined the walls, affixed in braces. The ocean turned into a far more placid pool within this cave. We scrambled into the boats that were lowered, and rowed ashore. The pool led to a rocky beach within this cave, where we left the boats. Each of us soon had a torch, orange light dancing over all our faces.
The captain led the way and we followed behind, except for a “skeleton crew” left behind to guard the ship.
Someone had carved steps that led up to another pool inside this vast cavern. A waterfall spilled into it, but I couldn’t see its source. We passed by on a narrow ledge of dry ground, deeper and deeper into the cave.
The captain held a compass in her hand and her first mate had unrolled a map. They led us deeper into the cave, past strange pillars that dripped from the ceiling like melted earth, through winding tunnels of jagged stone, through another small room of smoothed, rounded stone whose walls glistened with salt crystals.
Finally, we reached an even larger room within the cavern. It was so big that every sound was echoed back a dozen times, and the light of our torches could not show the edges of it. A bridge stretched across a chasm of indeterminable height. It was little more than a couple pieces of ropes tying together some rotting planks of wood. We crossed one at a time, holding our breath, gripping the edges as we swayed above empty air, and testing each step before committing our full weight. Alex broke through one plank, but she was saved by grabbing onto the ropes and pulling herself forward.
On the other side, four pillars jutted up from the earth like the pointed fangs of some beast. And nestled between them was a great wooden chest. It was locked, but rusted and the captain smashed it open with the butt of her pistol.
Was this the legendary treasure she had promised? Was it the Heart of the Sea? The crew all gathered around, with bated breath. The captain flung open the lid. A sigh of wonderment escaped us all. Full to the brim with glimmering treasure. Goblets, a crown, silver bowls, a necklace and all sunken in a flood of coins. We cheered, our shouts echoed back by the cavern.
The captain began to shout, flinging the treasure from the chest. At first we thought it was in joy at finding such a treasure, but then we began to hear her words.
“Where is it? Where is the watch?”
We all looked at each other in confusion, watching our captain tear through the treasure, wild and desperate. She turned to her first mate. “It’s not there. It’s. Not. There. The watch.”
Together they dug through the treasure. But to no avail.
I pulled out the folded page that I had stolen from the desk drawer. “Captain? I thought we were looking for the Heart of the Sea?”
The Captain snatched the parchment from my hands. “The Heart of the Sea?” she said. “What on earth are you talking about?” She glanced at the page. “The Watch. That turns back time. That is what I’ve been seeking all this time.”
“But…why? What use is that to us?”
“What use!” The captain threw her hat to the ground and sunk her fingers into her tangled hair. “What use?”
She turned her back on us. I noticed her shoulders begin to shake. Was she … crying?
The crew backed away from her. We glanced at each other, wide-eyed, like frightened horses showing the whites of our eyes. We could handle savage tempests at sea and we could threaten sailors at sword-point, but tears turned us all weak-livered.
I ran my thumb along my vest pocket. The coin pendant, tied to the folded note still nestled inside. Tentatively, I followed her and put a hand on her back. I don’t know what strange courage possessed me to do such a thing. She flinched away from my touch.
She wept silent, airless sobs. “I needed … that watch.”
“To…turn back time? To…what?”
She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. “Four years ago. My…I need to visit someone.”
“Visit someone? We have a ship. We can sail anywhere.”
She laughed, short and dry. “I suppose you could sail to the realm of the dead. But you won’t come back.”
“Oh. I see.”
The Captain heaved a deep breath. “While I was at sea…my mother…It was pneumonia. She drowned on dry land. A friend told me.”
“It’s not your fault. People get sick on land and on sea.”
The Captain shook her head sharply. “The last thing she said…she wanted to see me. Asked for me. When I was going to come home…and I was at sea.” The Captain turned to me. “Don’t you see? She died alone. Thinking no one loved her. Because I could only think of myself!”
I touched my vest pocket and brought out the coin with the folded note. Some strange impulse prompted me to show it to her.
“I found this, it…fell out at my feet just earlier today. I don’t know why, but I feel like I should return it.”
The captain pinched the coin in her fingers. She gasped. “My mother gave this to me. Long ago. I haven’t seen it for years. What…”
She unfolded the note.
I had already seen the words. I know you must choose your own path darling. The sea and freedom is yours. And I know you must chase that love, even as you love me. I fear my health is failing me quickly and I may not see you again. So carry my love with you always.