The air, when we dropped anchor, was the kind that froze your bones in place if you stood still too long. I never loved these climates in my younger years; the tropics were the place for me, warm breezes in my hair, sun glinting off my sword’s blade when it found another bloody mark. But recently I’d come to like the cold quiet of the north. It made me feel something akin to peace, at moments. A rare thing for me.
“You’re sure this is the place, captain?” said Lucy.
I surveyed the view in front of me. A meager hunk of rock, no larger than our ship above the surface, black beneath the gray sky. Then I examined the map I’d been holding close to my chest for years. The currents were correct, every angle exactly as it said.
The Island of Everything didn’t look like much, but legend said its treasure lay beneath the surface.
I kept my voice low. “Yes. We’re here.”
Once, those words from my mouth would have been met with a storm of cheers. Back in the days I’d had a hundred-man crew and we’d raided every ship and island we came across. Now, no one was here to hear but Lucy - my first mate, the only one who’d stuck with me all this time. The rest of the deck was empty. Salted and stained with the blood of ghosts.
How the mighty had fallen. Yet, if I found the Island of Everything’s treasure, it wouldn’t matter.
I picked up a coil of rope from the deck, looping one end around my waist. My fingers were clumsier on the knot than they’d been in younger years, too.
“Here,” I said, handing the rope to Lucy. “Keep a hold on this when I go under. Tug on the rope and I’ll tug back. If I don’t, pull me up before I drown.”
She nodded. “How long will you be?”
“As long as it takes.”
The air whispered over my skin as I climbed onto the railing, prepared to dive. It was so cold it felt as though it moved through me rather than around me. But I didn’t hesitate, didn’t entertain second thoughts. This treasure had been my only aim since I’d left my younger years behind.
I dove. Lucy gave the rope. When the dark, desolate ocean closed over me, it felt almost comforting - like an embrace.
My eyes opened to a different view of the island. Just as legend said, beneath the surface the whole thing was riddled with holes - caves that formed a labyrinth, all weaving in and out of each other, all filled with water. The stones within seemed, from here, to glimmer. I swam a little forward and the glimmer strengthened.
I could hold my breath for a long time, but not forever. I struck out for the closest entrance. The rope stayed tight, but Lucy continued to give it by degrees.
The water pressed down on me. Heavy as a lover’s body, it pressed every time I moved. I let a little air out through my nose, and tiny bubbles drifted up slowly as if they felt the pressure too. They disappeared in darkness before reaching the surface.
The silence was absolute here. So different from the screams that accompanied my other long-ago quests for treasure. But silence was like peace. And peace was what I sought desperately now.
When I passed into the cave, the stones were twinkling like a thousand tiny diamonds. It was lighter in here, somehow, than it had been on the surface.
I laid my hand on one wall. Ready to push myself forward. Then, from nowhere, came the voice.
Is it you?
I nearly gasped out all my breath. The voice was a whisper like the wind through dry autumn trees, but it was singsong too, a broken melody formed into words. I looked wildly around, but no one was visible in the cave’s diamond-brightness.
Is it you? came the voice again, and perhaps it came from everywhere at once.
I didn’t know what else to do. I responded, my words forming bubbles again. “I - I seek the treasure of this island.”
Another voice, of the same quality but a different cadence, replied. The jewel?
“Yes.” I had limited air for words. Already I felt light-headed. “It’s said this island’s jewel can resolve all fears and regrets.”
Silence rang through the cave again. I let out another sliver of air. How much longer did I have before I’d need to surface?
And was I imagining the walls growing brighter and brighter the longer I stayed here? When I looked around now, they weren’t simply white, but glowing a hundred beautiful colors - sapphires and rubies and emeralds interspersed among the diamonds. More beautiful than the palace of a king. How far had I come from the cave’s mouth?
The voice returned, even quieter. It is you.
And then, from somewhere indistinct in front of me, she appeared.
It was a plain-looking woman, a woman with worn features and graying hair, a wide apron obscuring the clothes she wore. Her edges were blurry, and her color perhaps more faded than she’d been in life - or perhaps everything just looked faded in contrast to the brilliant crimson stain on the middle of the apron, where the ghost of my sword was stuck hilt-deep.
The last of my breath escaped me. This was the first person I’d ever killed.
It is you, she repeated, and there was no anger in her tone; in fact, she looked a little pleased to see me. You’ve come seeking peace.
Forgive me, I wanted to say, I was young and power-hungry and foolish, but I was out of oxygen. Out of words.
Another phantom appeared beside the woman. A man, tall and lean, with marks of a noose around his throat. He grinned a too-wide grin when his gaze landed on me. It is you.
What were they doing here? Were their ghosts here to stop me from reaching the jewel? Or to test me, to see if I was worthy of peace after what I’d done to them? Or - I stepped back as a third phantom appeared, and then a fourth - were they a delusion? Had I already spent too long underwater?
But I couldn’t be dying if I was still able to move. I lifted my arms; I felt the rope around my waist. No, I still had time.
Come with us, the hanged man said. We’ll take you to the jewel.
I stepped forward hesitantly.
Don’t fear. The plain woman came toward me, beckoning. We’ve found it already. That’s why we’re all here.
Over a dozen of my victims crowded the cave now. It should have made the space feel claustrophobic, but instead the world seemed to expand to include them - the more appeared, the more room there was for them. And the more I looked at them, the less they seemed like pale and ghostly figures, and the more, like the walls, they seemed to shimmer and glow.
I followed them.
The jewel does give peace, said the plain woman, walking beside me. The melody in her voice was stronger now, less dry-seeming, more beautiful. You’ll feel it too. It’s like the ocean, you see - it washes everything away, and it heals all wounds with time.
I gazed at her, silent.
She seemed to comprehend something in my face. What do you wish to ask?
I gestured at my throat, indicating my inability to speak.
Oh. She laughed. You can speak here. You don’t need breath for it.
And to my surprise, when I opened my mouth, I was able to speak without any bubbles. What do I need to do with the jewel, once I take it?
Yet I wasn’t as surprised as I should have been. I knew, somewhere far in the corner of my mind, that I ought to be close to fainting; I ought to have run out of breath several yards back, and the fact that I hadn’t could only be due to the magic of these caves. And if these phantoms, formless and breathless, could speak to me, surely it was no wonder I could speak back.
The woman laughed again. You don’t need to take it. You only need to touch it, and you’ll be free.
The farther I followed the crowd through the cave, the less it resembled a cave at all, and the more it looked like some spacious, high-ceilinged hall. The jeweled walls were no longer uneven and chaotic, but now arranged themselves into gold-inlaid murals, depicting images I didn’t quite understand, but thought might resolve into things I knew if I stopped to look hard enough. Perhaps kings, or palaces, or mountains. Perhaps great night skies or glowing coral reefs.
The silence was gone, too. Aside from the whispered voices of my accompanying throng, urging me forward into the brightness, music like that of a thousand tiny bells permeated the place. It sounded like an ode to springtime.
Just a little farther, came a hundred voices. A little farther.
Then they parted, giving me a view of the end of the hall. And there, upon a radiant golden pedestal, surrounded by pure-white marble, it stood exposed to the water.
The jewel was a pearl. Only pearl felt like too common a name for it, too pedestrian. Surely no other pearl had a surface like a soap bubble, every color of the rainbow and several I’d never seen before shifting back and forth over it like rays of sunlight? Surely no other pearl looked so perfectly round, so perfectly balanced, that it would ring like a tuning fork when struck? Surely no other pearl was larger than both of my hands clasped together, so I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to carry it out with me?
I stood and stared, my mouth hanging open, heedless of the water around me. My heart pounded like a victorious drum in my chest. Yes, this was it. This was the treasure. Better by far than anything I’d ever killed for. If anything possessed the power to erase all I’d done, to set me on a new path, this pearl must be it.
Go on, they all said. Go on, touch it, go on.
But when I made to step forward, I was pulled back again.
I stopped. The rope around my waist wasn’t giving anymore. Lucy had let me out this far, but she must have run out of rope - I hadn’t measured the rope before tying it, hadn’t considered I’d make it this deep in the cave. I stared down at it hesitantly.
Don’t worry, said the hanged man. You’ve made it this far, haven’t you?
I looked up at him. But I can’t go any farther.
You can. He grinned, that strange and unsettling grin, and then in his hand there was a piece of jagged rock.
I looked from the rock to the rope. I imagined, briefly, what Lucy would think if she felt the line go slack, if she pulled the rope up to find I was no longer attached to the other end of it. Then again, if I’d made it this far, surely I could get back to the surface on my own? It would only be a few minutes more.
You’ve made it this far, said the woman. You’re so close.
The crowd echoed her. So close. So close. So close.
I nodded slowly. I took the rock. I held it, examined it, hefted it.
I brought it down on the rope.
I’d expected it to take an effort to saw through the rope, but the rock cut through it as easily as butter. In an instant I was untethered. I could move forward again - and now the jewel, the pearl was only yards away, and nothing stood between me and it.
My head felt perfectly clear. There was no more desire for air. The world around me sang with beauty so great I thought it might swallow me. The pearl’s brilliance, especially, I thought might swallow me the closer I came to it. I thought it might suck me into its own world, a world without breath or form or darkness, a world where my own self was subsumed into something greater.
But I’d welcome that. Here I stood surrounded by those I’d killed, weighed down by the crimes I’d committed in search of lesser treasure. I’d welcome shedding this self like a skin and finding a new one.
So close. So close. I was at the pedestal. At the pearl. All I had to do was reach out and touch it.
I lifted my hand. Nothing pressed it down; I was lighter than air.
I was inches away.
And my head broke the surface of the water.
My eyes were blasted open as a new world suddenly invaded my senses. Gray beneath me. Cold around me. Cold, cold, except my throat was burning - burning with salt and water as I choked and coughed it up. Something tight and restricting around my waist. Pulling me up from the gray beneath me.
Then there were arms. Around me, pulling me over the railing, guiding me down onto flat boards where I could continue to cough up seawater. Arms that held me around my shoulders as my body convulsed.
“Captain?” came Lucy’s voice. “Captain, speak to me, are you all right?”
Something tight around my waist. I managed to lift my arms, to feel it - the rope was still there. I hadn’t cut it at all.
I squeezed my eyes shut as I drew in my first clean breath of air.
“You didn’t respond,” Lucy was saying above me. “I pulled and you didn’t pull back. So I hauled you back in.”
My exhale was long, shuddering and weak. My eyes stayed closed.
“Did you see the jewel?”
I said nothing.
The silence of this chilled northern ocean returned to me slowly. The music, of course, had vanished the moment my eyes opened, but in my initial panic the world had still felt full of noise. Now I realized again that we were in utter stillness. The sky and the sea were unchanged, the dark and the frozen air just as they’d been before my journey.
My breathing steadied. The burning quieted. That brief imitation of peace stole over me again.
The brief imitation, but no more.
I forced my head to lift, to look Lucy in the eyes. She was full of concern. My first mate, the only one who’d stuck with me through all this. Looking at her made me feel a little better.
“I saw it,” I said. “I didn’t reach it.”
Her mouth twisted. “I’m sorry, captain.”
“Don’t be.” I turned my eyes from her to the iron sky. My arms folded over the now-slack rope, which I hadn’t cut, because all that I’d seen in the cave had been an illusion. “Don’t be.”
“Will you be trying again?”
I shook my head. In my younger years, of course, I’d have jumped straight back overboard. I’d have gone without a rope this time, and instructed Lucy not to come looking for me - I’d have been desperate to get back to that shining hall and those diamond murals and that beautiful soap-bubble pearl. But I wasn’t young anymore. I understood things I hadn’t understood then.
“I’m a little longer for this world,” I said quietly. “I’ll stay on the surface.”
“And where will we go?”
“Let’s keep north.” I shut my eyes again. The cold was nice; I didn’t want to leave it, not, until the end. “I’m sure we’ll find somewhere else up here to stop.”
Lucy nodded. She didn’t ask me anything more.
We’d stay up here. I’d let this isolated sea be my anchor, for the years I had left in me. I wouldn’t seek any more treasure to give me peace. But when at last my bones did freeze - when my fingers didn’t work anymore, when my lungs couldn’t hold any more breath, when my heart beat its last - well, I’d see the pearl again.
Then would be peace. Then, at last, I could join the phantoms and sing.