Aboard the Lady May Ch. 04bystoryteller51©
Heads up, everyone--not a lot of action here. (Pretty much none, really.) But it is a novel, so you've got to have some plot somewhere. My apologies for any disappointment...
Luke leaned back slightly for balance as he walked forward down the slanted ladder. His arms were laden with a bucket of water, a stack of clothes, a bowl of porridge, a cup of milk. Neither fresh water nor milk were standard commodities aboard the Lady May, but the rain barrels were full, and they'd taken on a half dozen cows at port in Bridgetown two mornings before. The small herd was en route to a rich Spaniard's plantation on Hispaniola, but until they arrived the animals would need to be tended. Having spent his first twelve years on a farm in the Province of New York, Luke knew how to care for the animals, and he'd offered his services in return for as much of the milk as he wanted. With six cows on board there was plenty of the rich liquid, which few of the other men had a taste for anyway, seeing as they were all more fond of their grog.
Luke didn't care for milk himself, but he did enjoy the silent company of the gentle beasts—the heat of a flank against his cheek, the soft feel of a full udder, the familiar thick scents of straw and shit which seemed somehow sweeter than he recalled. In any case, the milk wasn't for him, but rather for Felix's newest foundling.
Despite having spent just a few hours with the girl, Luke found he liked her very much, that he was drawn to her in some inexplicable way. There was something in her eyes—dark blue and sad as he often felt—that was wrenching and impossible to ignore, impossible to resent. Luke couldn't even begrudge her Peter's flushed face and obvious erection when he'd found Luke a short while earlier and thrust the clothes into his hands, asking him to please bring them down to Jamie. Whatever Peter had seen in the hold had both aroused and upset him deeply, and while the girl was the obvious cause of the former, Luke doubted she had anything to do with the latter. Only Felix's disapproval could distress Peter like that, and Luke knew from experience that his friend had no respect for closed doors.
As he deftly navigated the maze of passageways, the sailors Luke encountered nudged him good naturedly, trying their best to upset his burdens. It wasn't malicious, but a game they played, as Luke was renowned among the crew for his steady hands and imperturbable balance. On a dare from Peter to prove his skill he'd once walked the bowsprit from end to end with an imported porcelain tea service balanced atop his head. Despite the success of the caper, Captain Fitzhugh had been less than amused, and Luke spent the rest of the day cleaning the heads until they gleamed. Still, though, if there were a delicate job to be done in a storm or a flock of sea birds to be shot on rough seas, more often than not such tasks fell to Luke who, far from minding the accompanying jibes, was pleased to have a skill, to have respect, to be valued on board for more than just his youth and smooth skin.
Rounding a corner, Luke came to the door and briefly rapped with two knuckles. Felix knew his knock, so when there was no response, he figured the girl must be alone.
"Jamie," he called, hoping to dispel her fear, "it's Luke."
A moment later the door eased open. He slipped in quickly, nudged the door shut with one foot, then bent to set down his cargo.
"Breakfast," he said, "and clothes. Warm water to wash. Fresh milk too." He arranged items, pulled clean cloths from his pocket, searched for the knit cap he swore he'd tucked in his vest. Absently, he continued, never once looking up, "Mind you don't get used to such luxury. It's only as we're fresh from port and set to dock again before week's end." He found the cap beneath his belt and shook his head in disgust. He was getting forgetful as Peter. "Best eat your gruel quick." He produced a spoon from inside the cap. "Hot, it's not half bad. Turns thick as tar when it's cold, though." He patted his pockets, found the small pot of honey he'd snatched from the galley. "There," he smiled, held it out with a flourish. "A bit of a treat—" He looked up then for the first time and froze. "Jesus," he swore.
He was on his feet in an instant, abandoning his wares. The girl stood stiff, unnaturally still. She was wrapped in the wool blanket, which Luke could now smell was soiled with sweat and with sex. He cautiously set one hand on her shoulder, stroked the hair from her face, and she didn't flinch, didn't even look at him. She looked frail and drawn, paler even than the milk he'd brought, and her eyes were swollen, bruised, rimmed in angry red. It was obvious she'd been weeping.
"Jamie," he said and stroked her hair again. "What's wrong? Where's Felix?"
She said nothing for a moment, and then her eyes finally focused, settling on Luke. "I made him leave," she whispered.
"Did something happen?" Luke asked, "Did he hurt you?" He didn't sound angry, but rather confused, as if he couldn't conceive of Felix having done such a thing.
Jamie shook her head, and her eyes fell to Luke's throat. "He—" She hesitated, licked her dry lips, began again. "He made me think he was going to." Her voice was flat. She continued to stare straight ahead. "He held me down. He...he scared me. But then, he didn't do it."
Luke sighed and drew Jamie into his arms. Settling his chin atop her head, he began to gently chafe her back and sides, and was struck anew by the girl's terrible thinness. He felt her wet face against his throat and wondered again precisely what Peter had seen.
For several moments he struggled for words. "It's not...what you think," he began haltingly. Then, "Felix—he didn't do it to hurt you, Jamie. Or to scare you. Well, yes, he did. In a way, but—" Luke paused, drew in a deep breath. He was making a terrible muck of this, he knew, and he felt a brief surge of annoyance that Felix had left, that he'd frightened the girl and then hadn't stayed to explain.
Drawing back slightly, Luke tucked a knuckle beneath Jamie's chin and forced her face up toward his. Her eyes were glazed, still unfocused, but she was at least looking at him.
"At first it feels good," he said, deciding to be direct. Judging by the smell of that blanket she wore, Felix had obviously been. Very direct. Jamie was small, but she wasn't a child, and Luke wouldn't patronize her by treating her as one.
He continued, "It feels better than good. Wonderful. Like nothing you ever knew before. And he touches you so slowly, for such a long time, that you think he never means to bring you release. But it builds, and then, finally, when you're almost there, when all you need is a moment more—he stops. He stops, and you think you're going to die, and you beg him. You beg him, and then he comes back, and in that instant you're so grateful, you almost love him."
Jamie was staring at him, seemingly transfixed, and Luke had to pause and swallow thickly, to collect himself. This was something he'd thought he moved past a long time ago, and he was somewhat surprised by the vivid strength of his memories.
"And then he scares you," Luke said, his voice growing harsh. "Maybe hurts you a little. But it's the fear that's so awful because you know it's deliberate. You know he's chosen something private, something you shared with him in confidence, and he takes it and turns it to use it against you."
For Luke it had been teeth—the feel of teeth on his shaft. He was bitten often by his former crewmates. Badly. They'd used it against him, a constant threat when he showed signs of defiance, to make him carry out their commands. In punishment he was flogged four times, nearly keelhauled once, locked up by the ship's mates and left to starve for days at a time. And none of it mattered. He'd continued to commit his crewmates' crimes because they knew what he feared most, and they were able to control him utterly.
Jamie shifted, reaching up to touch his face, and Luke realized he'd stood quiet for a long while. Her fingers curved, shaped to cradle his cheek, and he leaned into her touch, finding more comfort there than he'd thought possible. He opened his mouth to be done with the story, to finish it for good, but Jamie's hand moved to stop him from talking. Nodding once, she took over the retelling:
"He promises not to hurt you, and you believe him. But the threat's still there. The fear's still real. And it doesn't go away. It matters less and less, though. Until it doesn't matter at all. Until it wouldn't matter even if he really did hurt you. Until you're ready to beg him to hurt you, if that's what it takes."
She moved her fingers from Luke's mouth back to his cheek, felt the fine, barely-there whiskers, then dropped her hand to his chest. His heartbeat felt thick and heavy against her palm, rapid but not erratic. His upset was easing.
"That's the worst part," she continued, whispering, staring at her hand where it rested on Luke's chest, "that he makes you ask for it. He makes it your choice, makes it so what you fear most and what you need most are the same thing. And he makes you feel angry...angry and weak."
She looked up then, smiling slightly, and finished it: "At the same time, though, it makes you feel strong, or at least stronger—to know there's something inside you that's stronger than fear, some alternative, something else to hang onto when you're too scared breathe. So the terror isn't automatic. So there's another option. So later, when it's real, you'll be able to think and not just panic."
Stunned into silence, Luke could only look at her wonderingly. It had taken him days to work out what she'd come to see within an hour, and longer still before he could be near Felix and not feel overcome with rage. After a week had passed Felix had finally suggested Luke hit him, if that's what it would take to make him feel better. Luke complied. He didn't think Felix had expected him to be so strong.
"You'd already worked all this out," Luke said, voicing his admiration.
Jamie shrugged, staring again at her hand on his chest, her brow slightly furrowed. "Partly," she said. "Even right after, when I asked him to leave—I wasn't so angry as I knew I should be. Part of me...I didn't want him to go, didn't want to be alone." Her fingers curled into the flax fabric of Luke's shirt, gripping tight so the open throat stretched wide. "Hearing you," she continued, "what you said helped. And then I knew. Then I could finish it." She glanced up but quickly dropped her eyes from Luke's. "I'm surprised, though," she said. "I didn't think that he'd...with you—"
Luke smiled, amused by the flush that stained her cheeks, and reached to rescue his shirt before she mangled it beyond repair. "He didn't—" he said, "I mean, he doesn't touch us. Not in the way you're thinking, anyway." Wrapping her hand up in his, he brought them both to rest against his wrinkled shirtfront. He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. "Felix—with Peter and I, he's only ever done what is needed. For us, I mean. Nothing for himself. Not ever."
He used their joined hands to bump up her chin, saw by her frown and pinched brow that she didn't understand.
Still forcing her face to stay raised to his, he said, "The sailors, the men—most of them, they prefer women. But they can use us. They can pretend. Felix—" Luke paused, shrugged, then said simply, "He can't. His body, it won't work."
Her eyes widened briefly in comprehension, then a slow smile spread across her face.
Luke chuckled, said, "Like that, do you?"
She cocked her head, considering, then nodded. "I don't know why," she said, "but I do."
"You know why," Luke returned. He felt his smile fade, felt a surge of jealousy that had nothing to do with Felix and everything to do with loneliness. "You like it," he said, "because it means he's yours."
Jamie felt something sweet and bright swell inside her chest, filling her so full for a moment she thought she might float, or explode, or maybe just breathe freely and easily for the first time in years. Then she shook her head, remembering, and stumbled several steps back from Luke. Surprised, he reached after her but succeeded only in grabbing a handful of damp wool. Jamie kept retreating, leaving the blanket behind, until her back was pressed to the wall beneath the porthole, and she slid down, naked and shivering, as her body curled into a walnut-hard ball.
Luke followed, flung the blanket back around her, and knelt. Worried, reminded of her near-frozen state when he'd first entered the hold, he grabbed her shoulders, shook her more roughly than he intended. "Jamie," he said, "what is it? Tell me what's wrong."
When she raised her head her eyes were glazed again, unseeing, and fresh tears streaked her cheeks. "I'm sorry," she whispered, gazing over Luke's shoulder. "I keep forgetting—for an hour or a few minutes, it can be like it wasn't me. And then I remember." Her breath caught in her throat, a panting sob that caused her whole body to contract under Luke's hands. "I remember," she said again, "and I can't stand it."
Assuming she was referring to her rape, to the most recent man who'd hurt her, Luke gentled his grip on her shoulders. He stroked her hair, trying to comfort her as he had before, but this time she tensed her muscles against him, pressed herself back closer to the wall.
Remembering times when he'd not wanted to be touched himself, Luke retreated. He settled an arm's length away, cross-legged on the floor. Asked, "Do you want me to find Felix?"
Jamie shook her head miserably. "No," she wept. "Please don't. I can't keep him. He's not mine."
"Why?" Luke asked, confused. "Why can't you keep him? I know he wants you."
She flinched from Luke's words, began shaking her head again. "Don't say that," she said. "He can't. He shouldn't. They're going to catch me. They're going to hang me."
"What?" Luke bust out. Too concerned to respect her desire for distance, he leaned forward, gripped her arms hard. Demanded, "What do you mean, Jamie? Tell me now."
She said nothing, but Luke insisted, shaking her slightly and repeating his plea. She didn't relent, and he gripped her chin, forced her face close to his.
"Please," he said. "Talk to me. Tell me why you're frightened."
It was the exact thing Felix had said to her that morning when he was on top of her, pinning her beneath him, forcing her to face her fears. Distracted by the memory—which seemed somehow sweet now in comparison to the other bloody ones swelling inside her mind—Jamie spoke almost without noticing. "I told you," she said, her voice low and oddly monotone. She repeated, "I told you yesterday that the morning I came on board—"
"Yes, Jamie," Luke interrupted. He saw no reason to make her say it. "I know. You told me. It's alright. It wasn't your fault."
She shook her head again, wrenching her chin from Luke's grasp.
"No!" she cried. "You don't know!" and there was something violent in her tone that kept Luke from contradicting her, that made him think perhaps she'd endured something even worse than he'd imagined.
Part of her rebelled against telling Luke the truth, as if saying the words aloud might somehow make them more real. She'd already started, though, and she couldn't just stop—he'd tapped her leak, and now she couldn't help but speak. "That morning," she whispered, "that last man—he touched me more than most. He found out what I am." She hesitated, licked her lips, forced herself to look Luke fully in the face. "I stabbed him," she said. Luke didn't react, didn't shove her away, didn't even seem particularly surprised. To make sure he understood, she clarified, "I killed him."
Luke nodded. He'd understood, but he was thinking, sorting out the implications.
A moment later he asked, "Nobody heard anything? Nobody saw you?"
She shook her head. "The crew, they were all on shore. The others were locked up. And the officers, they were holed up with the sugar barons, bargaining, in the captain's cabin."
Still nodding, he said, "And when you ran, when you jumped ship, did anyone see you then? See which ship you boarded?"
"I—I don't think so," she whispered, "no one I knew, anyway. But there's always people on the docks. I'm small," she reached up to tug a strand of her hair, "but I'm redheaded. I stand out. People, they tend to remember me."
"You were dirtier then," he said, "your hair was darker." It was a feeble hope to cling to, though, and he knew it. Felix's first boy, Danny, whom Luke had known only briefly before he died of fever, had red hair, and he'd drawn attention wherever they went. Luke brought his hands back to grip her shoulders, stared hard at her, said, "Think now, Jamie. This is important. Had you fought before? With the man you killed? Would the crew have cause to suspect you?"
She cringed, nodding. "He—Benton, he was always roughest with me. The men knew. They knew I didn't like him, that I'd hide from him at times. But he organized the cargo, kept some space aside for the crew. He'd find buyers for their goods, help them get the best price. He was well liked."
"Jamie—" Luke breathed, his worry having suddenly intensified.
Jamie nodded, knowing what he was thinking. "He was the boatswain," she whispered.
Luke swore, released Jamie to shove rough hands through his hair. A regular seaman wouldn't have been so bad, wouldn't have cause much of a stir. But the murder of a master mariner—someone with special skills, someone who would need to be replaced, someone who was popular—would garner more attention, would merit an investigation, and would warrant a search for his killer.
Then certain things Jamie had said began to fall into place. Benton, she'd said. Luke knew that name, knew it was important. She'd also mentioned the sugar barons, had said, 'the others were locked up.' Luke went suddenly still, remembering which ships had been docked at Bridgetown.
"The Ariadne," he whispered, and Jamie flinched, confirming his suspicion. He gripped her shoulders again, squeezed tight through thick wool, said, "The Ariadne, Jamie? You were on board a slaver? You killed the boatswain on board a slaver?"
Jamie lowered her eyes, saying nothing because there was nothing to say. It was hard enough to find regular men to serve aboard slavers. Faced with filth and foreign disease, the constant threat of rebellion, death tolls equally as high as those plaguing their human cargo, only desperate men—or criminals—would sign on for service. A skilled man, one who could find employment elsewhere, and one who was renowned for his ability to keep a shipment of slaves alive and contained on a months-long voyage—a man like that was all but irreplaceable.
The Lady May docked often. Luke visited the typical sailors' taverns. He'd heard the rumors, and he now knew exactly who it was Jamie had killed. Benton, she'd called him, but he was mostly known as 'the Breaker.' Slaves who shipped under his watch were considered half-broken already by the time they'd crossed the Atlantic, and as such fetched premium prices at auction. Jamie had not only killed the friend of brutal men, she had severely compromised their future profits. It was a crime that would be neither forgiven nor easily forgotten.
"Anything else, Jamie?" Luke's voice was faint. He didn't see how the situation could possibly be any worse, but he still had to ask. "Is there anything else we should know?"
Jamie nodded without looking up, then winced when Luke's fingers bit even more deeply into her arms. "The knife," she whispered. "My knife—the one I used, it's...distinctive. It was stolen a few times, but I always got it back. Everyone knew who it belonged to."
"And?" Luke said, not yet seeing the significance.
"I left it." Jamie said it simply, baldly.