Cold salt water laps the beach, baptizing the goose tongue and goldenrod with spray. It stings my hands in places that have met with sharp rock and lobster claws: a good clean sting like ointment. The motorboat I moor onshore sputters to life. I am soaked with sea and fog before I have even reached the Pemaquid, tied further out so as not to run its keel aground. The lobster traps clank as I push past them to the engine. I wince at the high-pitched squeal, a testament to its manufacture date. The orange rubber overalls transform me into a beacon in the hour just before dawn.
Then I see the blue light.
The engine stalls. My eyes dart between the arms of the temperature gauge and the RPM, spinning independently of anything the small fishing boat does or, indeed, has ever been capable of doing. I’ve seen the blue light a handful of times, but not this close. Never this close. It pulses softly across the surface of the water, as if bioluminescent plankton are on holiday off the coast of Bristol. A tinge of lighter, greyer blue floats in the fog. The fine hairs creep along my neck and scalp as my fingers fumble with the radio. “Matt,” I hiss into the tube. “Matt, it’s the light. It’s back– the blue light–”
But my voice is greeted only by static. The Pemaquid’s antenna bobs as sudden waves beat against her sides like airplane turbulence. A ship has entered, hidden somewhere in the harbor.
I scour my mind to recall whether there have been any scheduled arrivals, any clearances for a ship big enough to tilt the deck so that I stumble forward, lobster traps crashing around my head. Swearing, I support myself against the bulkhead, more angry now than spooked. What chowderhead from Town Hall decided to keep its fishermen in the dark like this?
A shadow thickens against the fog. I have time only to duck into the shelter before the prow of a wooden ship emerges directly ahead of me, piercing the horizon like a swordfish. The ship groans and blinds me with rays of blue light splayed between wooden sides, originating somewhere within the vessel’s heart. The Pemaquid sloshes in its wake. I screw my eyes against the light, gritting my teeth to see the name painted on the stern. “ANGEL GABRIEL” is splashed in bloody letters on the side of a triple-masted sailboat.
Great. Another tourist attraction. Just what New Harbor needs.
The light dims and the silhouette of a full beard appears far above me. In the first rosy fingers of sunrise, I can just discern two glittering eyes like pinpricks before the man gives a shout and disappears again. “Hey!” I yell back. “Help me out here, will you?” There is silence. I thump my hand on the side of the shelter in frustration.
Suddenly a rowboat splashes around the hull of the Angel Gabriel, approaching the Pemaquid. There are two passengers, but only one rows. The other faces away from me, straight-backed and motionless. They are both wearing costumes. I paste a smile over my grimace and wave.
“What’s up, fellas?” I use a Barney-the-purple-dinosaur voice, instead of the Batman voice I want to use.
The rowboat scratches the Pemaquid’s paint and the two men board, still without speaking. The rower is dressed like an old-fashioned Chinese farmer, complete with rice-picker hat and long queue. His garments are torn and stained, covered in burns. The other is pale and cropped beneath a blunt, peaked cap. He wears a brass-buttoned coat in much better repair than his companion’s with two swords, a broadsword and a saber, sheathed at his sides. I can feel my smile in my temples.
“Now I don’t mean to be rude, but I like to know who my guests are before I invite them onto my boat,” I protest, forcing a chuckle.
“Fai Yu Ming, your worship,” the rower murmurs. Before I can stop him, he kneels and touches his forehead to the platform, still swimming in sea water. “I serve my captain honorably on the Angel Gabriel.”
“Nice to meet you, uh, Yu Ming.” I cannot tell whether the name and accent are part of the act. I notice that the “captain” seems significantly younger than I am. Not quite old enough to pay his own health insurance, I guess, but too old to dress up as a pirate with dignity. Of that much I am positive.
I take off my glove and shake his hand. “Daniel Curtis. And yourself?”
I feel his grip turn to steel. His eyes bore into mine. “Is that so,” he says in a low voice. His face is oddly expressionless. “Daniel Curtis. Well, Daniel Curtis, I suppose you should know that my name is Dixey Bull.”
Courtesy quickly turns to annoyance. “Yeah, I figured,” I mutter, jabbing my thumb toward the name of the ship. “Hey, listen, there must’ve been some sort of mix-up because we don’t know anything about your venue here. You’re gonna want to get a special permit with the county and the local administration before you put up any kind of entertainment or attraction. Especially on this scale. Looks cool and all,” I offer, my last attempt at civility.
I hope the men will leave my boat, maybe even apologize. But instead, the self-styled Dixey Bull curls his lip into a sneer, glancing up and down my rubber overalls. “Daniel Curtis, I believe you are confused.”
“Get off my boat. Get off now or I’ll call the police.”
Dixey Bull laughs, catching me off guard. “And where are we, Daniel Curtis? What police will come for you?”
“What d’you mean, where are we? We’re in New Harbor, town of Bristol,” I say angrily. “You’re the one with the whole Dixey Bull thing going on and that godawful British accent. I swear, my little brother Matt’s a Maine State Trooper. I can call him up right now.”
“Can you really? Show me.”
I remember the static from earlier and flush. Still, I try the radio again. No response. I realize that I am stranded on a boat with a stranger carrying a sword. A plastic sword, I tell myself. It’s starting to feel awfully real.
Dixey Bull laughs a quiet little laugh like dry leaves skittering over pavement. “Daniel Curtis. I have been waiting for you.”
“Alrighty, Dixey Bull,” I say, turning on him and acting braver than I am. “You tell me where we are. If we’re not in New Harbor, then where?”
“Have you not guessed? We are floating only a few hundred fathoms from the shores of Pemaquid.”
“You’re wrong,” I say mechanically. “Bristol hasn’t been called Pemaquid for hundreds of years.”
“You are beginning to understand.” The corners of his cold cruel snarl twitched. “It is nearly morning. The fog is lifting. Look, and you will see I speak the truth.”
“Hold on,” I stall. “You might be the real-deal Dixey Bull but I tell you I’m the wrong Daniel Curtis. I catch lobsters in a 1975 Robert Rich, not cod in whatever the hell little rowboats they had in the seventeenth century. I’ve never held a sword in my life, and more important I have no interest in asking you to a duel.”
“But you must have heard the ballad.” Hell. My whole life, and maybe some time before that, too. You have to wonder what my parents thought, naming me after the one hero of Bristol.
“Well, sure. It’s a common enough song.” The red dawn hangs like a blood orange behind the Angel Gabriel. A chill spreads in my bones and I shiver.
The captain nods at the farmer. “Dixey Bull was a pirate bold, He swept our coast in search of gold,” Fai Yu Ming intones. “He flaunted his flag and shot his lead, Which kept the people out of bed.”
“But Daniel Curtis, a fisherman, Feared not the flag from which they ran,” I add impatiently. “But that’s just a legend. Daniel Curtis didn’t really kill Dixey Bull. The ballad’s not even too well-written.”
“Because Daniel Curtis has not yet killed Dixey Bull, you claim he did not,” the young captain says. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me the entire time. “Daniel Curtis, you are a fool if you cannot understand that while times change, time… time does not. It is the eternal present, Curtis. That is the secret. It is the truth that has set me free.”
The absurdity of his words and of my situation finally offends me. “You’re crazy. I can’t believe I’m giving you the time of day. Take your little advertising stunt somewhere else before you’re arrested by harbor patrol.”
“Look,” he whispers.
I turn, and gasp. There are still wisps of fog straggling from the surface of the water, but in the pale rays of sun I can see the shoreline fairly well. New Harbor is gone. In its place are a few wharves, the moorings of wooden rowboats, and trees– so many more trees. Women in petticoats and linen caps stand with men in breeches and coats. In the distance rises the thin smoke trail of a chimney. I study the Angel Gabriel more closely. The blue light still branches along the wood like lightning. I notice there are black crab-like bugs swarming over the hull. Trilobites, I realize with horror. I sink to my knees in disbelief.
“The last time a trilobite roamed this earth was the Paleozoic Era,” Dixey Bull says, amused. “And Fai Yu Ming? I captured him from the Pearl River during the Second Opium War.”
I lick my lips. “Alright,” I croak. “I believe you. You’re Dixey Bull. I believe you can time travel, or whatever it is. But please, take me home. I’m from Bristol, not Pemaquid, and I’ve got nothing against you. What do you want from me?”
“I want you to fight.” He tosses me the hilt-end of the saber, which I drop.
“I refuse to fight,” I yell. “What are we fighting over?”
“The village’s gold,” he says strangely. “Blood or your gold is what I want.”
“I won’t! I can’t! Take the gold and leave the villagers alone!”
“Can it be you still don’t understand?” Dixey Bull roars, seeming to grow taller than his slight build. “There is no gold. There was never any gold. I am going to kill you, Daniel Curtis, because you have saved Pemaquid and you have saved her gold. I am going to kill you because you are going to kill me.”
Our boats have drifted nearer the rocks and sands of Pemaquid. For the first time, I can hear the people on shore. They are shouting, screaming themselves hoarse, red in the face. “He our gold is going to save,” they chant, apparently oblivious to my motor boat and orange rubbers. Dixey Bull unsheathes his broadsword and levels it at my throat.
“You are their only champion. Fight me, or I swear,” he says, eyes flashing, “I will destroy each board, brick, and human being I see until time forgets there ever was a Pemaquid.”
My hands shake as I lift the saber. The hilt-guard slides easily to my fist. The pink-and-blue streaked sky reflects in the curved blade, smudged by salty sea. He’s right; I don’t understand. But as impossible as it seems, somehow Bristol– Pemaquid– is in real danger. I am Daniel Curtis, the champion. “If he kills me they’re his by right, If I kill him we win the fight,” I whisper. Somehow, I don’t feel ridiculous at all. I stagger to my feet, breathing heavily.
“And so we begin.” Dixey Bull touches the end of my saber with the broadsword.
“Can’t we fight on shore?” My boots slip on the platform and I struggle to avoid the lobster traps.
“We will end on Beaver Isle,” he says. He pushes the blade upward, as if to test my strength, then drops it and cuts my forearm straight across.
I feel heat before I feel any pain. The dark drops spatter and blossom like red algae at our feet. I blink at them for a moment, but don’t have time to process before Dixey Bull lunges again, this time at my face. I step back impulsively and shield myself with the flat of the saber, obstructing his blow. He pushes back. Steel grinds against steel, creating sparks that bounce off my overalls and land with a sizzle on the deck. Dixey Bull gnashes his short yellow teeth.
“Defense, defense, all defense,” he hisses. “You will die like a slave at my feet.” I sneak a look at Yu Ming, huddled in the shelter. His complexion is ashen, eyes dull.
Without warning, Dixey Bull pulls back the blade and slices at my thigh. This time I am too quick for him, leaping backward onto the traps and out of his reach. The position is awkward, but my head is now a foot or two above his. I sweep low and swift, leaving a gash in the back of his neck. He shudders a little but stands his ground.
The chanting continues. “Curtis fought for cause that’s right, Bull, because he liked to fight.”
The current knocks both the rowboat and the Pemaquid against the shrubby rocks of Beaver Isle, projecting slightly from the mainland. I jump over the side and onto the island. I roll to my feet and dance away from Dixey Bull almost in fear, although I’m too afraid even to feel that. Then I see the rivers streaming under his collar, staining the whole of his shirt and coat a dirty brown. He turns on me, eyes yellow with rage.
My new strategy is to run.
Dixey Bull hunts after me. The island is not much bigger than a backyard, just big enough to scamper from conifer to conifer, avoiding direct confrontation.
“Coward,” Dixey Bull rasps. “Even now do I threaten you, even now?”
“I don’t want to kill you,” I call from the shade of a pine. “You’re hurt worse than I am.”
“Coward,” he repeats stupidly. He lurches toward me. “Fight… fight me, Curtis…”
I take pity on his sorry state and emerge. “Is there anyone on board who can dress wounds? A barber?” I try to remember whether barbers were also surgeons in the 1600s, or if surgeons were also barbers. “Come here, I’ll help–”
Dixey Bull sheds the drunken reel and pounces, ripping a hole in my overalls that reaches to my ribs. I wince and fall sideways, floundering on a steep decline leading to the sea.
He stands over me, dripping water and blood onto my head. “Here ends the lobster fisherman,” he says grimly, lifting his broadsword above his head. My mind races. As Dixey’s sword was falling down, Curtis sprang up from the ground– but I can’t. My blood has congealed in my veins. I brace for the final blow.
Instead, I hear a nasty squelching sound coupled with a low moan, a sound that reminds me of a wolf dying in the last nature documentary I watched. I peek upward through the crook in my elbow. Dixey Bull’s face is pasty white, and clammy with sweat. He clutches high up on his left side as his fingers turn scarlet. His mouth moves wordlessly and the yellow sun reflects in his eyes, staring without sight. He fumbles forward, groping with the sword in his left hand as though he sees an apparition in the east. “Daniel Curtis,” he pants. “Can you see it? Can you see the blue light?” He keels over. His bloody chest falls close to mine. “The eternal present,” he chokes, hot breath rankling in my nose. “E– e–” He mouths the word “eternity” before resting his head at its final angle. His eyes go smooth and glassy.
Yu Ming stands above us. He holds a jade dagger in his left hand and does not speak, simply watches as I close Dixey Bull’s eyes and jaw. I can’t tell where the blood on my palms came from. The three of us sit in silence for several minutes. There are cheers from the shore, and more chanting. “That’s how Curtis won the day, And killed his man in Bristol Bay.”
“It’s funny, but I don’t remember a whole lot about the Chinese farmer in the ballad,” I joke. It tastes bad and Yu Ming doesn’t seem to listen. He casts down the dagger and sits beside me, covering his face with his hands.
The harbor is calm like Dixey Bull’s eyes. It looks like it usually does, except with fewer pleasure boats. Only the rowboat, the Pemaquid, and the Angel Gabriel still float like untethered islands in a lonely sea. I look at the Chinese man’s shoulders. How many years has he been away from Hong Kong? If the pirate was right, it doesn’t matter– it might as well have been a thousand years. Does he have a wife, I wonder, one that he loves? A younger brother with a family he treats like his own?
“Pearl River, did he say?”
Yu Ming looks up.
“Come on, Fai Yu Ming.” I rise unsteadily. Sharp pains stab once more at my side. I hope there is a barber onboard. “I’ll take you home.”
Dixey Bull said this was the end of the lobster fisherman. I figure he was right.