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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Black Sails from Barbary by Ben Greenman

OBJECT: Shipwrecks

BODY OF WATER: The Rockaways 

 

CHAPTER ONE: WATER, LILY

World of the usual kind. Sunset on the widest of oceans. The Captain was eating supper with the crew down below. The mate notched a piece of wood and his action was rather brilliant. Edwards watched the water. He was not accustomed to these pleasure cruises for the rich, to the beautiful strong-jawed ladies and the men concerned less with those ladies than with their own pocket squares. It was above all a comfortable business, and Edwards had said to himself “With these people the sea’s more a bed than a grave.” It was not a remark that interested him. He was equally uninterested in the remarks of other men, and history, and parliamentary politics, and Lily who he had married the year before, and the goods of the earth. Nothing stuck to him so long as the whole business remained so comfortable. This was an atrocity, really, to make of the sea something safe. Didn’t they know what was down there, the serpents that could wrap around a woman’s leg and drag her to the ocean floor, the massive bivalves that could swallow a man whole? When Edwards had first come to the sea he had lived for those moments of fear, when the enormity of it all would expand to fill him. But he grew older, learned to affect a certain calm, met Lily, bought a bed, hung up his boots.

For a while he had lived that way. He worked a series of jobs and then settled into a management position at a small grocery. He smiled in the morning and let himself go to Lily’s smile in the evening. The two of them talked about starting a family, conversations that lasted late into the night, and the talk frightened him enough that he was secretly relieved when it did not happen. Then a woman he had known in his youth saw him in the street and told him that he had become “sealed.” It was a strange word and he parried with what he thought was wit: “Envelope or coffin?” But she did not answer him. She turned her back and walked away. He called at her door that night but she would not let him in, no matter how many times he said her name. The next week he answered an ad in the newspaper to crew on an ocean liner. Over dinner, he told Lily he was shipping out. He thought she might cry but her broad pale face broke into a sad smile. “I know where your heart has always been,” she said, and tapped her own chest, which confused him. 

Edwards was not senior crew. He had been away from the ocean too long for that. He was assigned to work as a weather scout. It was what he knew more than he knew anything else, to read the sky for signs. He stood at the stern of the boat and watched the sun disappear into the water and counted the wisps and whorls of clouds and smelled the air for moisture and tried to figure whether the storm was moving toward him or moving away. He stood there for a long time, marveling at the vastness of the water.  The sense of isolation was majestic. It was then that he saw the black sail in the distance and a single word escaped his lips: Pirates.

As they drew nearer Edwards saw that the ship was not what he suspected. It was not fearsome, not even intimidating. It was not much of anything. Though its sail was black, it was no more than twenty feet from bow to stern, and the only people aboard were one man and one woman. The woman had one gold tooth that gleamed in the evening light. The man carried a big flat sword and seemed to be attempting a beard. The woman was slight, dark, and quick. The boat drifted within earshot.

“I’m going to tell them to prepare to be boarded,” the man said. He was threading a rope through one of the stern cleats.

“Avast,” the woman added.

“Not avast,” the man said. “That’s what you say when you want them to stop doing something, or when you’ve given an order and you want to rescind it and give a new order. 

“Oh.” The woman turned her head and Edwards caught sight of a fine profile. She had a small nose and an equally delicate chin; her mouth wore an expression of amusement. “So I should say, ‘Trim the sails,’ and then say ‘Avast’?”

“You should say nothing,” the man said. Edwards could see now that he was younger than the woman. “You should let me do the talking. We don’t want to be comedy marauders, do we?” 

“I’m not familiar with that term,” the woman said. “Your mastery of the technical language of this job is intimidating to me.”

“Shut up, Nancy,” the man said.

“Don’t you mean, ‘Avast’?” she said. “And please don’t call me Nancy. You know we had an agreement, Howard.”

It was then that the woman looked up and saw Edwards, who realized that he had not sounded any alarm or even alerted the mate who was on watch. The whole thing had the feel of an amateur theatrical. The woman smiled at Edwards, and because she was a pretty young woman the smile seemed sweet at first, but it quickly sharpened into something vicious. 

“Prepare to be boarded,” the man said.

“Yes,” Edwards said.

They were on the deck in a moment and into the society of the boat.  The man went straight for the mate and made him kneel and stabbed him right there and then, once in the shoulder, hard enough that the blade disappeared entirely into flesh. This got Edwards’ attention. He ran for the Captain, who came up with food still on his face. “We are pirates,”  Howard said, and the Captain fainted dead away. Howard went on, speaking loudly to the fainted Captain. “This ship is ours now. You’ve been sailing pretty until now. You’ve had some nice and merry living. But now you have to get acquainted with the dead. Do you know this man?” He pointed at the mate with the toe of his boot.

“Of course. That’s Loomis. He was the mate." 

“I am going to dump Loomis overboard,” Howard said.

“What?” Loomis said.

“I thought you said acquainted with the dead,” the woman said.

“Please,” the young pirate said. He sounded desperate. 

“I have a better idea,” Nancy said. “Why don’t you put Loomis in our terrible little boat and then blow a hole in the hull? It’ll sink and he’ll sink with it. He can be Captain for once.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Howard said.

She turned to Edwards. “Who else is on board?”

“Lots. It’s a liner.”

“I mean what other guards.”

“One always mans the safe. Most of the others patrol corridors.”

“Corridors?”

“Hallways,” he said.

“I know what corridors are,” she said, kicking out at him unexpectedly. “What I meant was that it’s good that they’re off patrolling, and that you should take me to the one who mans the safe.” Edwards did not know how he could possibly have been expected to understand what she had meant.

“How was I to know that?” he said.

This time, her kick landed on his shins. “Shut up,” she said.

Edwards could not. “I can’t,” he said.

“Can’t shut up?”

“Can’t take you to the safe. I don’t know where it is. Loomis knows.” But Loomis was unconscious again. “It was stupid to stab him.”

The woman’s eyes widened. Edwards wasn’t provoking her. He hoped she understood. It was just that he always said what he was thinking, and he never lied. Lily always told him that his life would be much better if he could just say something that wasn’t true every once in a while. He thought about what Lily would say if he told her that he had been captured by pirates. “Good,” she’d say. “You’re learning.”

Nancy produced a gun, a small stub-nosed thing, and stuck it in the Captain’s back. “I’ll take him downstairs and get the engine room squared away,” she told Howard.  

Howard moved quickly with Nancy gone. He hauled Loomis over the side, onto the pirate boat, jumped back onto the liner, and then cut the rope that held the two boats together. The pirate boat slowly drifted out to sea. “In ten minutes, that thing’s going to blow, and then it’s hello, bottom of the ocean.” Edwards could think of nothing to say to this.  

Nancy reappeared, gun still in her hand. “I found the Captain’s guards and then I gave them all a shot.”

“You killed them?” Howard said. His voice rose hysterically. 

“No, I didn’t kill them. What do you think I was doing this morning when I packed the syringes and the sedative? Did you think it was for me, in case I got so excited listening to your stories about robbing banks and needed to calm myself down so that I didn’t jump you right then and there?”

“Now my stories about banks bore you?”

“Let’s not fight,” the woman said. “I did my job. I sedated them and tied them up. The captain got a half-dose so that he can steer the ship. Now do what you’re supposed to do. Introduce us to the nice man.”

“Okay,” Howard said. “I’m Carter and this is Dowling. Those are our last names but you don’t need to know our first. We’re pirates. What’s your name?”

“Edwards.”

“Last or first?”

“Last,” Dowling said. “There’s no one whose first name is Edwards.”

“I knew a guy once,” Carter said.

“What was he in prison for?” Dowling said.

Edwards thought Carter would laugh it off, but he struck Dowling on the arm with the flat of his sword. “Ow,” she said. “That really hurt.”

“Next time I’ll cut it off.”

The woman smiled appreciatively.

“Now take Mr. Edwards downstairs and give him a shot of that sedative." 

Edwards followed Dowling downstairs. He briefly considered trying to overpower her but then he remembered that she had a gun. She led him past a berth, where he saw the captain and the crewmen tied up. Then she pulled him into a small berth and slid the door shut. “Look,” she said. “I’m only going to give you a half-dose too. I didn’t bring enough. Also, I don’t think I’m going to put tape on your face because you have a beard and it won’t really work. That good for you?” Edwards nodded. “Before I load up the syringe, just tell me one thing. Tell me that Howard didn’t kill the only person who knew exactly where the safe is.”

“I don’t know. I was a late addition to the crew. There’s one guy, Symons, who probably knows. He’s easy to spot. Tall and bald.”

Dowling took out the syringe and turned it in her hand. It reminded Edwards of Lily, and the way that she held a pen. “Elegant,” he had told her when they had first met, but the truth was that it was belabored, as if she was aware that she was being watched. He wasn’t certain if that made it less elegant, but it made it less compelling. Compelling was the way the lady pirate was holding the syringe, not looking at it or even near it, aware of it by touch alone, sensual with ease. Her fingers danced as if she were playing an instrument. She caught him looking and gave him the shot, not as nicely as she might have. “We’re going to make our getaway soon enough, and I want to make sure that we can do this quickly and quietly.” She jabbed Edwards again. “Soon, you’ll feel kind of heavy around the eyes and mouth. You might nod off. When you wake up, there’s a decent chance we’ll still be here, on account of the half-dose. But don’t worry. We’re not going to hurt anyone else. The one, Loomis, we’ll have to write off to Howard’s personality. He isn’t much under pressure.” She smiled, and this was the reverse of the smile she had given before: it started out sharp but softened. “Howard’s only mean because he cares too much. You know how people are: a flower in a garden where metal spikes are the rule.”

When the woman began to hum a lullaby, Edwards figured that he was hearing from inside the sedative. He let his eyes close and went to sleep. In there, he dreamed water, dark and lovely.