Author: P Hana

Page 138


“See—Caicos Passage,” she said, sketching a pair of lines. At the top, between the lines, she sketched the small triangle of a sail. “Go through,” she said, indicating the Caicos Passage, “but mast is gone. Now—” She quickly drew several irregular circles, to the right of the passage. “North Caicos, South Caicos, Caicos, Grand Turk,” she said, stabbing a finger at each circle in turn. Go round now—reefs. Mouchoir.” And she drew another pair of lines, indicating a passage to the southeast of Grand Turk Island.

“Mouchoir Passage?” I had heard the sailors mention it, but had no idea how it applied to my potential escape from the Porpoise.

Annekje nodded, beaming, then drew a long, wavy line, some way below her previous illustrations. She pointed at it proudly. “Hispaniola. St. Domingue. Big island, is there towns, lots ships.”

I raised my eyebrows, still baffled. She sighed, seeing that I didn’t understand. She thought a moment, then stood up, dusting her heavy thighs. We had been gathering whelks from the rocks in a shallow pan. She seized this, dumped out the whelks, and filled it with seawater. Then, laying it on the sand, she motioned to me to watch.

She stirred the water carefully, in a circular motion, then lifted her finger out, stained dark with the purple blood of the whelks. The water continued to move, swirling past the tin sides.

Annekje pulled a thread from the raveling hem of her skirt, bit off a short piece, and spat it into the water. It floated, following the swirl of the water in lazy circles round the pan.

“You,” she said, pointing at it. “Vater move you.” She pointed back to her drawing in the sand. A new triangle, in the Mouchoir Passage. A line, curving from the tiny sail down to the left, indicating the ship’s course. And now, the blue thread representing me, rescued from its immersion. She placed it by the tiny sail representing the Porpoise, then dragged it off, down the Passage toward the coast of Hispaniola.

“Jump,” she said simply.

“You’re crazy!” I said in horror.

She chuckled in deep satisfaction at my understanding. “Ja,” she said. “But it vork. Vater move you.” She pointed to the end of the Mouchoir Passage, to the coast of Hispaniola, and stirred the water in the pan once more. We stood side by side, watching the ripples of her manufactured current die away.

Annekje glanced thoughtfully sideways at me. “You try not drown, ja?”

I took a deep breath and brushed the hair out of my eyes.

“Ja,” I said. “I’ll try.”



The sea was remarkably warm, as seas go, and like a warm bath as compared to the icy surf off Scotland. On the other hand, it was extremely wet. After two or three hours of immersion, my feet were numb and my fingers chilled where they gripped the ropes of my makeshift life preserver, made of two empty casks.

The gunner’s wife was as good as her word, though. The long, dim shape I had glimpsed from the Porpoise grew steadily nearer, its low hills dark as black velvet against a silver sky. Hispaniola—Haiti.

I had no way of telling time, and yet two months on shipboard, with its constant bells and watch-changes, had given me a rough feeling for the passage of the night hours. I thought it must have been near midnight when I left the Porpoise; now it was likely near 4:00 A.M., and still over a mile to the shore. Ocean currents are strong, but they take their time.

Worn out from work and worry, I twisted the rope awkwardly about one wrist to prevent my slipping out of the harness, laid my forehead on one cask, and drifted off to sleep with the scent of rum strong in my nostrils.

The brush of something solid beneath my feet woke me to an opal dawn, the sea and sky both glowing with the colors found inside a shell. With my feet planted in cold sand, I could feel the strength of the current flowing past me, tugging on the casks. I disentangled myself from the rope harness and with considerable relief, let the unwieldy things go bobbing toward the shore.

There were deep red indentations on my shoulders. The wrist I had twisted through the wet rope was rubbed raw; I was chilled, exhausted, and very thirsty, and my legs were rubbery as boiled squid.

On the other hand, the sea behind me was empty, the Porpoise nowhere in sight. I had escaped.

Now, all that remained to be done was to get ashore, find water, find some means of quick transport to Jamaica, and find Jamie and the Artemis, preferably before the Royal Navy did. I thought I could just about manage the first item on the agenda.

Such little as I knew of the Caribbean from postcards and tourist brochures had led me to think in terms of white-sand beaches and crystal lagoons. In fact, prevailing conditions ran more toward a lot of dense and ugly vegetation, embedded in extremely sticky dark-brown mud.

The thick bushlike plants must be mangroves. They stretched as far as I could see in either direction; there was no alternative but to clamber through them. Their roots rose out of the mud in big loops like croquet wickets, which I tripped over regularly, and the pale, smooth gray twigs grew in bunches like finger bones, snatching at my hair as I passed.

Squads of tiny purple crabs ran off in profound agitation at my approach. My feet sank into the mud to the ankles, and I thought better of putting on my shoes, wet as they were. I rolled them up in my wet skirt, kirtling it up above my knees and took out the fish knife Annekje had given me, just in case. I saw nothing threatening, but felt better with a weapon in my hand.

The rising sun on my shoulders at first was welcome, as it thawed my chilled flesh and dried my clothes. Within an hour, though, I wished that it would go behind a cloud. I was sweating heavily as the sun rose higher, caked to the knees with drying mud, and growing thirstier by the moment.

I tried to see how far the mangroves extended, but they rose above my head, and tossing waves of narrow, gray-green leaves were all I could see.

“The whole bloody island can’t be mangroves,” I muttered, slogging on. “There has to be solid land someplace.” And water, I hoped.

A noise like a small cannon going off nearby startled me so that I dropped the fish knife. I groped frantically in the mud for it, then dived forward onto my face as something large whizzed past my head, missing me by inches.

There was a loud rattling of leaves, and then a sort of conversational-sounding “Kwark?”

“What?” I croaked. I sat up cautiously, knife in one hand, and wiped the wet, muddy curls out of my face with the other. Six feet away, a large black bird was sitting on a mangrove, regarding me with a critical eye.

He bent his head, delicately preening his sleek black feathers, as though to contrast his immaculate appearance with my own dishevelment.

“Well, la-di-dah,” I said sarcastically. “You’ve got wings, mate.”

The bird stopped preening and eyed me censoriously. Then he lifted his beak into the air, puffed his chest, and as though to further establish his sartorial superiority, suddenly inflated a large pouch of brilliant red skin that ran from the base of his neck halfway down his body.

“Bwoom!” he said, repeating the cannon-like noise that had startled me before. It startled me again, but not so much.

“Don’t do that,” I said irritably. Paying no attention, the bird slowly flapped its wings, settled back on its branch, and boomed again.

There was a sudden harsh cry from above, and with a loud flapping of wings, two more large black birds plopped down, landing in a mangrove a few feet away. Encouraged by the audience, the first bird went on booming at regular intervals, the skin of his pouch flaming with excitement. Within moments, three more black shapes had appeared overhead.

I was reasonably sure they weren’t vultures, but I still wasn’t inclined to stay. I had miles to go before I slept—or found Jamie. The chances of finding him in time were something I preferred not to dwell on.

A half-hour later, I had made so little progress that I could still hear the intermittent booming of my fastidious acquaintance, now joined by a number of similarly vocal friends. Panting with exertion, I picked a thickish root and sat down to rest.

My lips were cracked and dry, and the thought of water was occupying my mind to the exclusion of virtually everything else, even Jamie. I had been struggling through the mangroves for what seemed like forever, yet I could still hear the sound of the ocean. In fact, the tide must have been following me, for as I sat, a thin sheet of foaming, dirty seawater came purling through the mangrove roots to touch my toes briefly before receding.

“Water, water everywhere,” I said ruefully, watching it, “nor any drop to drink.”

A small movement on the damp mud caught my eye. Bending down, I saw several small fishes, of a sort I had never seen before. So far from flopping about, gasping for breath, these fish were sitting upright, propped on their pectoral fins, looking as though the fact that they were out of water was of no concern at all.

Fascinated, I bent closer to inspect them. One or two shifted on their fins, but they seemed not to mind being looked at. They goggled solemnly back at me, eyes bulging. It was only as I looked closer that I realized that the goggling appearance was caused by the fact that each fish appeared to have four eyes, not two.

I stared at one for a long minute, feeling the sweat trickle down between my br**sts.

“Either I’m hallucinating,” I told it conversationally, “or you are.”

The fish didn’t answer, but hopped suddenly, landing on a branch several inches above the ground. Perhaps it sensed something, for a moment later, another wave washed through, this one splashing up to my ankles.

A sudden welcome coolness fell on me. The sun had obligingly gone behind a cloud, and with its vanishing, the whole feel of the mangrove forest changed.

The gray leaves rattled as a sudden wind came up, and all the tiny crabs and fish and sand fleas disappeared as though by magic. They obviously knew something I didn’t, and I found their going rather sinister.

I glanced up at the cloud where the sun had vanished, and gasped. A huge purple mass of boiling cloud was coming up behind the hills, so fast that I could actually see the leading edge of the mass, blazing white with shielded sunlight, moving forward toward me.

The next wave came through, two inches higher than the last, and taking longer to recede. I was neither a fish nor a crab, but by this time I had tumbled to the fact that a storm was on its way, and moving with amazing speed.

I glanced around, but saw nothing more than the seemingly infinite stretch of mangroves before me. Nothing that could be used for shelter. Still, being caught out in a rainstorm was hardly the worst that could happen, under the circumstances. My tongue felt dry and sticky, and I licked my lips at the thought of cool, sweet rain falling on my face.

The swish of another wave halfway up my shins brought me to a sudden awareness that I was in danger of more than getting wet. A quick glance into the upper branches of the mangroves showed me dried tufts of seaweed tangled in the twigs and crotches—high-tide level—and well above my head.

I felt a moment’s panic, and tried to calm myself. If I lost my bearings in this place, I was done for. “Hold on, Beauchamp,” I muttered to myself. I remembered a bit of advice I’d learned as an intern—“The first thing to do in a cardiac arrest is take your own pulse.” I smiled at the memory, feeling panic ebb at once. As a gesture, I did take my pulse; a little fast, but strong and steady.