Even with the harsh white glow projected by the lights strung about the deck, we can still only just barely see ahead in the cave. The glistening ribbed stone forms a twisting, circular tunnel like the enormous maw of some terrible beast. Boulders resembling jagged teeth jut out of the water with more and more frequency, and without a helm, we have no other option but to pray that the current brings us out of their path so that we can avoid a fatal collision. The water is growing rougher and our speed greater the farther we travel, and with each second the rumbling waterfalls sounds less distant.
My crew has produced lengths of cord and is rushing about the ship, busily securing every loose object. The items too small to be tied down are thrown into crates, which are then drawn together and shoved into cramped closets for maximum buffer. Everyone is calm, at least in physical demeanor, and carries out my instructions with eager efficiency as if death is not in fact looming over us with eager enthusiasm.
While they take care of the ship, I go about procuring several bundles of sturdy rope. With Anamaria’s assistance, I tie each of them to the most secure posts I can find on the deck. Gradually, as the others finish their work, I help them to tie the rope around their waists, linking them to the ship and to each other. My hands are slick with the spray coming off the canal as the ship plunges through the swells, and the bone-clenching chill, even worse here in the sunless void deep within the heart of the cliffs, makes my fingers clumsy and rigid. They fumble over the rope, making the frustration and anxiety mount inside of me. It’s all I can do not to hurl myself to the deck and scream.
The mates, headed by Robin, gather in their usual cluster. As I’m securing the rope around Manuela’s waist, I look into her face with what I hope is a sincere expression. Although I can’t read her face, she nods without speaking and doesn’t pull away when I lay an assuring hand on her shoulder. In that, I no longer see the meek teenager who just two days ago practically wet her pants over a couple of punks with a box of firecrackers; I see the young woman who has experienced depths of pain and loss most of her peers can barely imagine.
When every one of my crew has been tied together, I take my place at the end of one of the lines, right beside Anamaria. She helps me fasten the rope about my waist and gives me a wavering smile. I look around one final time, reassuring myself that everyone is secure. Angelique waves to me across the deck, her newly adopted companion looking sleep and confused at her side. Jimena is with the rest of the mates, under Robin’s mother duck-like care. The cook, the gunners, the swabbies—everybody is here.
I take a deep breath and turn toward the stern, which is still heading the upset vessel. The water is deafening now. At any moment we will be whisked around a corner or over the top of a slight incline, and on the other side it will be waiting for us. And after that—who really knows?
Anamaria’s hand clasps mine and gives it a comforting squeeze. The movement makes my entire body feel suddenly twitchy. It’s in this moment that the full terror of what is about to happen to us really takes hold of me. My stomach begins doing a series of elaborate flips to rival an Olympic gold metal gymnast, and my heart begins a thrumming beat as if to break free from my chest and outrun the doom awaiting us at the most unexpected moment.
The canal takes a slight dip, and when our vessel is on the incline it finds another boulder directly in its path. A vile tearing sound emits from the hull, making my hands jump to cover my ears out of instinct. As wood strikes rock, the boulder’s force is so great that the ship begins to turn again, until the bow is once again heading the ship’s path. Nerves immediately begin to dance in my stomach now that the full force of the action is out of my line of sight.
Perhaps it’s the physical orientation of my rope tether is really all that restraining, or I’m simply too petrified to turn and see what’s happening behind me. Or, maybe, it’s the unusual movement I spot at the stern of the ship that freezes me to the spot, unable to turn to see what’s happening behind me. For what’s happening directly in front of me, not twenty yards away, is horrifying as it is. Lucia, free from any kind of security, is just emerging from the fo’c’sle, blissfully oblivious to the horrific doom poised and ready to strike.
What they say about terrible things happening in slow motion is so not true. The next instant plays before me so quickly I’m half convinced it was a dream. A look of horror comes over Lucia as she realizes her predicament. She wheels back and forth, torn between retreating back inside and trying to find security in a nearby crew member.
The ship is struck with another violent jolt. We actually go up in the air for a moment before crashing back down hard, causing everyone to stumble and topple over. Then, like a heavy patch of snow sliding off a building’s eave under its own magnificent weight, we roll off the edge of the canal, and there is only the hellishly cold air whistling past.
Holy shit, I’m dead.
That’s the first thought that wiggles its way through the pain-addled expanse clustering my brain. The next moment, I realize that there’s no way I’m dead if every part of my body hurts so badly. Plus, in the afterlife, it probably doesn’t smell like somebody just soiled themselves.
My body feels like it was caught in the path of a vicious steamroller. I pry open my eyes to pure blackness. Fear spikes my heart; did I somehow lose my sight after my fall? Then, somewhere out of my field of vision, somebody turns on a lantern, and the sliver of dim yellow light makes me jerk my lid shut again. My arms instinctually try to move to cover my face, but a searing jolt of pain in my right shoulder makes me scream and drop back to the floor.
Immediately, a flurry of voices surrounds me. Unbelievably ice cold hands prod my shoulder, making me grind my teeth to keep from screaming again. The hands begin rubbing something sticky over my skin, and gradually the pain melts away and I can be helped up into a sitting position without losing consciousness.
Tsura is the first one I see when I open my eyes. Her cheekbone is swollen and discolored and dried blood stains her shirt, but she gives me a reassuring smile as she continues to administer the medicine. All the feeling has now disappeared from my upper arm; I can’t lift it or lean on it, but at least the pain is gone.
“The numbness is to be expected,” she says. “You’ll want it when I do this.”
When I look down, I realize that an unnatural lump has disfigured my arm. I taste bile at the back of my throat, but I swallow it down. Tsura grabs my arm, moves it so that the elbow is bent against my side, then eases it back into the socket.
“You dislocated your humerus and I believe that you have a very small tear in your rotator cuff,” she says as she works. “It should heal very easily, but you will need to keep your arm in a sling for some time.”
“Nice,” Robin snickers. She’s sitting on my other side, holding Tsura’s medicine bag and looking on with perverse glee.
“Shut up,” I say, sticking out my tongue. To Tsura, I ask, “How long?”
“Probably six to eight weeks. It will be shorter if you limit your physical activity,” she says with a knowing smile.
I groan. “I’m a sailor. All I do is physical activity.”
I flip Robin off with my good arm and continue, “Seriously, is there any way you can make it go faster? I like this shoulder. This is a nice shoulder. I need it.”
“You cannot make healing ‘go faster,’” she replies. “If you do not rest and allow your shoulder to heal, you will simply make it worse, and you will have to wear the sling for longer. Hai shala?”
“Booooo.” I blow a raspberry at her and hang my head sadly.
The few onlookers have dispersed by the time my arm is properly wrapped up and effectively glued to my side in its plastic sling. Tsura makes sure I’m okay, then goes to attend to the rest of the injured crew members, trailed by Robin. I thought it odd in the beginning that she would have Robin, who is arguably just about the furthest thing from “healing comfort” that one can imagine, but after fully taking in the crew, I realize that she was chosen because she’s the healthiest of any of us. Most of the crew are lying on the deck in various states of injury. A good deal of them seem to have escaped with no more than a few bruises or a nasty gash, but just as many, if not more, are incapacitated with broken or dislocated limbs. I’m not the only one sporting a sling; a few are struggling along with crutches or neck braces.
The ship itself appears more or less alright. It’s in good enough condition to float, which is essentially the minimum requirement for our purposes, so that’s a plus. The sails are still furled, so I can’t tell for sure, but I see no reason why they’d sustain any kind of injury. But I’ve no doubt the minimal provisions we got from Port de la Prospérité have been damaged to some degree, and the powder is definitely ruined (you’d think we’d use something a bit more sustainable than gunpowder, but it lends itself to the aesthetic, or whatever. Plus it’s cheap).
As people start to gather themselves enough to resume regular activities, it occurs to me that we are no longer floating through an impenetrable void of blackness. The electrical lights seem to be out permanently, and the lanterns cast a minimal glow, but the cavern is nearly light enough to move about with ease and growing brighter every second. I look up and realize that the light is coming from some kind of remarkable blue bioluminescence covering the walls. Beneath the surface of the canal, too, a quickly increasing source of light makes the water glow bright blue. I climb to my feet and go to the edge of the deck, and when I glance over I can actually see to the bottom of the canal. The closer we get to the brighter portion of the water, the more plant life I can make out growing out of the stone. I think I even glimpse a few fish darting along the hull.
The whole scene would be much more remarkable if not for my crew strewn incapacitated and in pain across the deck. I cast about for any of my friends, a dark nausea twisting my gut. The pain twists and snaps inside me when I spot Anamaria near the base of the gun deck, lying spread-eagle and surrounded by less injured crew members.
My mind races through ten thousand awful thoughts as I hurry toward her. That journey across the deck feels like it lasts years. By the time I reach her side, my legs are trembling so hard I have to sit down or I fear I’ll actually pass out.
Her eyes are shut and her face is lax. Dread wells in my stomach and floods my veins. I grab her hand and squeeze—is it too cold? I can’t tell, I’m so panicked. I nudge her shoulder perhaps a bit too aggressively.
“Anamaria? Say something. Say something, Auntie.”
The sound of my own voice is so wan and pathetic I’m torn between slapping myself and crying. When I see her chest rise as she takes a breath, the relief is like a divine blessing, so swift and heavy I feel physically exhausted in its wake.
She opens her eyes halfway and looks at me without moving her head. “You haven’t called me Auntie since you were a little girl,” she says hoarsely.
“Shh, Quartermaster. Don’t strain your voice. You suffered a pretty bad injury,” one of the attending crew members tells her. They then turn to me and wave dismissively. “She definitely does not need somebody hanging around her, bothering her with silly questions. And we certainly don’t need the distraction.”
“Oh, the fuck you know? You’re not a doctor,” I snort.
“Yeah, well, Tsura told us to help her out. So shoo.”
“Tsura didn’t give you the authority to be a dictatorial jackass. I’m still the captain of this vessel, sailor,” I say stormily, “and I’m willing to forget that you just talked to me that way if you’ll tell me what the hell is going on with her.”
They shrink back a bit and swallow nervously. “She suffered—um, blunt tra-che-o-bronc—”
“Holy shit, I don’t need a full diagnosis. Just tell me if she’s going to die or not.”
“She’ll be fine after some rest,” they assure me. “She got the wind knocked out of her after the fall, like the rest of us did, but she also had some blunt injury to the throat and chest.”
“How blunt are we talking here?”
They wordlessly point to several pieces of jagged plastic and metal piled nearby. I instantly recognize it as Lucia’s wheelchair. Then the memory rushes back—helping everyone secure themselves with the rope, glancing up one final time, seeing Lucia leaving the storage room in the gun deck, not sure which path would offer definite safety—
“Where’s Lucia?” I ask.
The crew member takes a steadying breath. “Anamaria saw that she wasn’t tied down with everyone else, untied herself and ran to help her. Then we went over the edge, and, um…”
Cold fear snakes through my body. “Where is she?” I repeat.
They nod toward the doors leading to the storage room. How bitterly fitting. I force myself not to dwell on the hundreds of terrible scenarios fighting their way to the forefront of my find, fight back against the awful dread trying to consume me—
Once I enter the room, I can see immediately why they’re keeping her out of sight of the rest of the crew. She’s propped up on a pile of broken boxes and burst canvas sacks, head slack, lips floundering with unspoken syllables. Her left arm has been completely torn off. I can see the white bowl of the socket where her humerus is supposed to neatly slide in. The ragged flesh and muscle around it is soaked with crimson, as is her entire left side and the floor beneath her. Tsura’s sister Aishe and daughter Dooriya are working steadily to clean her up. I marvel that the latter eleven-year-old can be so professional and calm in the presence of a torn limb; I can feel that bile trying to make a vicious comeback.
“We appreciate your sentiments for our patient, Captain, but as you can see, she’s in a critical state, and we really can’t have any interruptions,” Aishe says, not looking up from her task.
“Ah, right,” I say, somewhat relieved. “Call me if you need something.”
“We’ll let you know as soon as we have word on her condition,” she promises.
I shut the door firmly behind me. As soon as I do, Eden, the (self-appointed) unofficial bookkeeper on the ship, appears at my side with a notebook covered in scrawl.
“I’ve taken an inventory of everything onboard, Captain,” she says, shoving her oversized spectacles up her nose pointedly. “Do you want to have a look over?”
“Gimme the Cliff’s Notes version, wouldja?” I say as I start to make my way across the deck.
“Right. Food is okay—we’ll probably have enough to last us until we get out of these caverns, assuming we have a proper heading and know where we’re going, which I’m going to guess we don’t since these rocks technically shouldn’t even exist, so we should probably be careful about rationing. Most of the miscellaneous supplies—shot, tools, gunpowder, rope—made it through okay, although a couple crates fell overboard.”
“Everyone’s here so far as I’ve taken into account, Captain.”
I stop short, making her bump into me abruptly. “So far as you’ve taken into account?” I echo.
“Yes, Captain,” she says, adjusting her glasses again. “I still have a few names to check out. It’s been so hectic, I haven’t—”
“What kind of inventory doesn’t take every single item into account?” I lean over her, probably looking like a snorting bull on the verge of attack. “What you have brought me is completely flipping useless. On what planet in what universe would I have anything to do with a half-baked, unfinished inventory report?”
She looks a bit like she’s about to cry, but I couldn’t be further from caring. “I’m sorry, Captain. I’ll—I’ll just go finish that then.”
“Fucking useless,” I mumble to myself as she sprints away.
I continue my circle around the main deck, checking on my other crew members in their various states of disarray. Tsura and her helpers have done a remarkably quick job of fixing everyone up. Even with the sheer number of injuries, I consider us incredibly lucky to have suffered as little damage as we did. There are easily a couple thousand ways this could have gone so incredibly badly.
Once I’ve made a full revolution and ensured that the worst of the wounds are being taken care of, I grab a lantern and head belowdecks to assess the situation down there. Most of the crew is back on deck; I only pass by one person lugging a box of bandages as I hurry down the hallways.
Angelique is sitting at her desk, her back to me, when I get to her room. A pair of small, wiry legs sticking out of oversized trousers lies slack off of her lap. At the sight, my blood turns to icy slush.
She turns around at the sound of my entrance. Her tears have made stark clean tracks through the scarlet blood smeared across her skin. She smiles through the gore, although some of the blood has stained her teeth. When she turns to me, I can see a violent gash on her temple. The skin around it is puckered and her hair is crusted with dried blood.
“Holy shit,” I say.
She holds a finger to her lips, then nods at the bundle in her lap. When I move closer, I can see that the boy’s head is resting on her shoulder, his chest rising and falling softly as he sleeps. There are a few cuts on his face, but he appears mostly uninjured. I sigh with relief and cast about for a seat. Everything in the room is either shoved into crates or smashed on the floor. I settle for turning a crate on its side to empty its cargo, then pulling it up to use as a seat.
That makes Angelique smile again. She gazes back down at the child asleep against her body with a look of warmth.
“I had a son, you know,” she says at last.
The words are so unexpected that for a brief moment I believe I misheard. Then she looks up at me expectantly, and I blurt out what I’m thinking.
“Had being the key word, I’m supposing?” I immediately feel like smacking myself. The words fall into the air between us, shrivel and release acrid smoke. I want to take them back.
“Yeah. I think that’s a fair way of putting it,” she replies, returning her gaze to the boy. She absently wraps one of his springy coils of hair around her finger. “His father was a police officer. Ill begotten, but I thought I loved him at the time.”
The stark words plunge straight into my heart. Forced relations, an unintended pregnancy, brave and devoted mother. The story is one I’ve heard far too many times before.
“What was his name?” I ask softly.
“Jacques.” She brushes her thumb tenderly along her charge’s jaw. “I named him after his father. That’s what enraged my parents, especially my mother. They weren’t upset that I was having sex,” she laughs bitterly, “they were upset that I named him after my—”
Her voice falters and she goes silent. I know what she means even so.
She shrugs. “I panicked. I loved my son, but being on that island with that man was an awful thing. I tried to sue him. He didn’t want to confess to what he did to me or take ownership of his child, but instead of being a decent person and telling me so, he sent a raid to my home. They killed my son and my parents.”
The silence in the room is crushing, broken only by the gentle breathing of the boy cradled tightly in her arms. My gaze is frozen on the floor, studiously examining the whorls and lines in the woodwork, doing everything possible to avoid looking up. Emotional confessions make me feel queasy enough without coming from someone I’m actually starting to give a hoot about.
At last, I say, “So you were lying before, when you said he reminded you of your brothers?”
“No,” she says, “he is a lot like my brothers. Stubborn, loud, always thinking he knows how to take care of himself, kinda smelly.”
“How many brothers do you have?”
“Three. And three sisters. I was—I am—the oldest. I haven’t seen them since I left the island.”
“When was that?”
“About… I don’t know. Four years ago now?”
I give a low whistle. “So it’s been a while, huh?”
She shrugs again. “I miss them, sure. But what I think I also miss is having someone to take care of. I think that’s why Henri was brought here. So I could take care of him.”
“Did you really know his mom?”
“Sure I did. Everyone in Portmore knew her. She was a teacher down at the elementary school until her wife was arrested for supposed unlawful activity—you remember those guys we fought off when we rescued the Greeks?” I nod. “Mrs. Prince was working with them and the government found out, so she got booted. Juliana kept up her work until they figured her out too, I guess.”
I glance up and look, really look, at Angelique, cradling this stranger’s son against her own body, so innately nurturing and protective. The wavering light of the lantern casts a golden hue over her rich umber skin. Even with the gore smeared on her face, she looks so—so incredibly—warm, is really the only way I can describe it. Without really thinking, I lift my hand and gently brush my fingers across her jaw, making her glance up at me. Her tawny eyes are open wide, both surprised and expectant, and I gulp nervously.
“You…” Come on, Ingrid, come on, just say it! “I wish you were my mom.”
Her expression changes slowly from confusion to amusement. I drop my hand, feeling heat creep up my neck and color my cheeks. “I mean, uh,” I splutter, “I think you’d be a really, really great mom. I don’t actually want you to be my mom. That would be, uh. Weird.”
“Agreed,” she says, giving me a teasing smile.
After a torturous few moments of quiet, I finally ask, “Say, have you been up on deck since the whole, uh, thing?”
She shakes her head. “Soon as I woke up, I grabbed Henri and came down here. Too much commotion, you know?”
Partly to keep from actually punching myself in the face, I grab the lantern and jump to my feet. “Hey, let’s say you tuck the kid in and let’s go upstairs. I want to show you what you’re missing.”
“Oh, that can’t be good,” she jokes. Even so, she rises from her stool, careful not to jostle her charge, and lays him gently on one of the lower bunks. There are no sheets on any of the beds, so she shrugs off her own hoodie and lays it over him for warmth.
As I lead the way back through the halls, lantern held aloft before us to light the way, one of her hands slips into my own. My insides shut down and I almost freeze right there in the middle of the passage. I slow down a bit so that she can walk alongside me. We don’t look at each other, but I can sense the smile on her lips.
When we get to the base of the steps, I stop, set the lantern on the ground, remove my hand from Angelique’s, and place it over her eyes. “No peeking, entiendes?”
“Sure, sure,” she replies. Her tone is irritated, but her grin gives her away.
I place my other hand against the small of her back and guide her up the steps. When we get up to the main deck, I remove my hand and watch her take in the sight of the glowing cave.
She looks around at the luminescent blue substance painting the walls like ten thousand little candles lit just for us. She tilts her head back to look up at the ceiling, not terribly far above, dotted with its own little galaxy. Tears of wonderment well in her eyes, which reflect the cavern with a hundred times more brilliance. I follow as she goes to the edge of the deck and peers at the little plants glowing in the canal, the waters of which are so lovely and free of debris that we can see straight to the bottom as if looking through a sheet of glass.
She turns to me, eyes wide and glistening, one hand clasped to her chest in awe. “Ingrid,” she says, voice choked with emotion. “After everything we’ve just seen, after…”
“I know.” I wrap a hand around her shoulders and let her rest her head against my own. I may be an emotionally distant son of a bitch, but I understand what she’s feeling—a sense of loss so deep and incomprehensible that it’s easier to simply shove it away and pretend that the gouges it left in your heart don’t exist.
After going through truly terrible, awful things, it’s really nice to remember that there are beautiful things in the world.