He has long suspected that the sea is coming in for him.
Day by week by month by year, he could swear the shoreline creeps back, that the river floods more deeply, that the swampy scree tumbling down to the waves shortens and shrinks. He can smell it more, the reek of low tide and the heady salt of the breakers, even with the windows shut, the curtains drawn, the door locked against it.
The six steps that lead up to the tenement house sink deeper into the mud every rainy season. The storms blow harder, he could swear: darker and more vengeful. And the sea is coming in, reaching its venomous fingers up past the marshland, past the river islands, to the place on the rambling edge of Savannah settlement, to the house where Thomas Hamilton died.
It could be the drink that tells him this. But he knows it, too, in his bones, the way every Navy man knows the sea. The way every pirate.
He doesn’t like to leave the house much anymore—what neighbors he has in this slum assume that he is dying inside, and he would just as well keep up that notion in them. When he does die, he can slip away unnoticed, unhurried, without obligations. The house can serve for his coffin as well as any other.
At least no one will worry him anymore, then, about maps, about islands, about names.
He never goes to the sea, if he can help it. Even in the hazes that come more frequently now, he manages to stay away, keep himself from stumbling out onto the dirt trails that lead to the rivers and down to the shore, away from footpath bridges that threaten to entice him out onto the sand. Something is calling him, from out there, from the water. He cannot tell what voice it is. If he knew, perhaps he would not be so afraid.
He keeps a fire stoked in the hearth despite the summer heat, to fill the house with the smell of smoke. It’s the only stench strong enough to overpower the ocean. The ceiling these days is black with soot.
He has only kept a few things for this long. Enough to fit in a chest no longer than his arm, a sea-locker so warped and distended with age and misuse that it can hardly be fit to contain anything of value. And he tries not to value what he keeps there—a mold-eaten leather belt; three burnished charms on a string; an empty squarish space.
When Billy came for the map, he gave it to him. Didn’t bother to argue or resist. Pulled this chest from beneath the bed in the single room upstairs, opened it, unfolded the page and gave it to him. They hardly spoke a word to one another.
He was relieved to be rid of it, in truth. Thank God you’ve come, he would have said, had he the will or the forgiveness to say anything to Billy Bones. Take it. Take all of it away from me. Unmoor me.
Billy, wild in the eyes. A face he’d never thought he’d see again. A face hardened and aged and carved out of itself like wave-turned driftwood. He was glad to be rid of that, too.
It was quiet when the map was gone from the house, when Billy was gone. He sat in the tilted wooden chair by the window and closed his eyes, listened to the ancient trill and hum of cicadas in the marshy trees, felt the low-slung sun fall slowly out of the orange sky.
It hadn’t felt like anything ending. Nothing material changed.
The sea kept calling. Its susurrus hissing his name. It calls him tonight. It will call him tomorrow, and on, until he goes to it, or until it comes to him.
He dreams it first, the sea coming: just on the barest edge of sleep, not quite gone, but he sees it, smells it, feels it. One finger of water searching inland, over the beaches and the brush, through the rocks, the trees, the swamps, forming and unforming over curling ferns and creekbeds until it hits true shore—melting, then, in with the dark, standing up, taking shape, the shape of—
He opens his eyes.
The moon is big in the window, heavy-looming; the floorboards swept bare, the curtains half-drawn, too thin to block the light, the walls pale with it. It is deep summer, deep night, and someone is in the room with him.
He sits up. On the bed-side table is a snuffed-out candle; he takes a moment to light it, struggling with the striker in the dark. His fingers are clumsy, damaged. Sparks whirl and die like fireflies until the wick takes.
The visitor waits patiently in the chair beside the window.
The window is open. From the window comes a breeze, and he smells it—the sea—hears the whisper of it breaking, lapping at the stairs of the tenement house, prying, seeking, underneath him, under the floor. In the room with him, the sea.
The light seizes and rolls across Silver’s blue eyes. Paler, now, with age.
His lashes are still long and dark, his brows still heavy and neutral over them. His cheeks are thin, his face the easy nut-brown of a man who lives in the sun, his dark curling hair and beard almost exactly the way he remembers them, still, when he cares to remember—pulled back, falling over his shoulders and down his throat.
Below the ring of the reach of the light, he knows, and doesn’t have to look—below the ring, the lazy right leg outstretched, and the perfect void of the left.
There is a hollow at the bottom of his throat where words might have been, once. He says nothing. He only looks.
Silver says, “Aren’t you going to say hello?”
That voice beats against his chest like a riptide.
Still he says nothing. He cannot. And Silver keeps his eyes on him, unblinking, unsmiling—or perhaps he is; it is hard to tell in this changing light.
“I’ll start,” says Silver, and there is his grin, his white and impossible teeth; with humor he says it, but gently, so gently that it unnerves him. “Hello.”
He closes his eyes for a moment. Holds it there. And when he opens them again, Silver is still there—in his chair, in his house, sitting easy in his long blue coat with tarnished buttons, hands crowded with scars resting calm in his lap, the shadow of a crutch propped up against the window. He waits, looking back at him.
“The door is locked,” he says, finally, stupidly. He is thirsty, suddenly, more thirsty than he has been in years. He tastes salt on his swollen tongue.
Silver smiles at him.
“I planned for years what I would say to you, if I ever saw your face again.”
The lamps are lit. He can’t bring himself to look at Silver for too long, not directly—focuses instead on the place where Silver’s breath rises and falls beneath his filthy white shirt, the even up-and-down. He imagines hidden colors there, on the bare inches of flesh—green. Blue.
“God help me but I can’t recall a word of it now.”
“They say that you’re dead,” says Silver, “in Bristol.”
He sees now that something has changed, after all. Where once Silver’s left leg had ended below the knee, now it is gone entirely—gone from the hip—he sits at an angle in the chair, a comfortable one, but the void eats shadow, draws his eye, relentless.
“That you died—raving and alone—of drink, in Savannah.”
“What happened—” He pauses. Gathers himself. “Your leg.”
“And I said to myself—says I.” Silver reaches out for his crutch, shifts his weight. With his arm outstretched he looks like some pretender king leaning on his scepter. “Surely I would have felt the universe shift.”
He tilts his head.
“I was right,” he says, almost to himself. “Not dead.”
“Not yet.” He cannot keep himself from saying it.
Silver raises an eyebrow.
“There’s no word in Bristol.” He finds his face, finally, scours it, the downturned gaze, the pensive mouth, everything he is glad not to have forgotten. “You smelled it.”
Silver’s eyes flicker up to his.
“As if I’d ever be allowed to leave this Earth without seeing you,” he says, “one more time.” He feels, suddenly, exhausted, and lets his head sink into his hands where he sits on the edge of his bed, fingers skidding back over his bare scalp. “You’re like a curse on my life.”
“I’ve been called worse,” says Silver.
“Come to gloat?”
“Come to talk,” says Silver, and he sounds a bit hurt. “To—"
For a moment they look at one another, across the barren floorboards. Behind his feet, he feels the weight of the half-filled chest, the belt, the string, the empty space where a map once was.
“Not dead,” Silver says. His voice is soft, unsettled, the churn of water under heavy rain. “Only dying.”
“Come to help me along?”
Silver does not answer that.
He pours them both a drink—it feels natural. He was impressed, if only wearily, by the ease with which Silver descended the stairs from the upper room to the table down below, the simple motion of the crutch. As fast as any man walking. Assured of his own body and his movement in space in a way he has not himself been in years.
For a moment they sit in silence, and Silver drags a finger along the rim of the cup, a lazy skirting, as if trying to remember where to begin. For someone with so many words in him, he seems to have little to say.
“Your leg,” he says, breaking the quiet. “It’s gone.”
Silver smiles ruefully. Looks up at him. The fire in the hearth is too hot, but it lights him completely, steals the shadows from his face. He looks almost as young as the day they parted, save for the small signs—strands of grey in his black, black hair; a heavy pull below his eyes.
“Scurvy,” Silver says simply.
“We left from Port Royal. Fifteen, sixteen years ago, it must have been now—it’s a long way to Bristol,” he says, with the air of one recounting a tale he’s recounted a thousand times before. “Longer, becalmed.” He shrugs. “Scars reopen. Infection. When we landed there was nothing else to be done.”
A shadow passes over Silver’s face that has nothing to do with the night.
“Madi,” he says, finally.
He feels a breath leave him, a blossoming heat in his throat. Her name. He tries to think of her face, tries desperately.
“Madi,” he repeats, like a dumb creature, calling back only what is said to him. “Still with you. Alive?”
“Alive,” Silver says.
“I bought her an inn,” says Silver slowly, eyes fixed on the space between his resting hand and the untouched cup, “and I gave her my name—”
Silver’s eyes flicker up again. Dangerous now, somehow.
“Content.” He is finding his bearings again, despite the smell of the sea in the room, despite the rhythm of Silver’s breathing like the rush and pull of the tide. “She’s content, in Bristol?”
“No,” Silver says. He blinks; danger falls away; his smile is small, and cold, and sad. “Anything but.”
He swallows. It has always been hard, he remembers, to speak directly to the sea.
“Has she forgiven you?”
The fire gutters, moans, and in its passing dying shade he sees Silver’s eyes change, like the shifting open of a beetle’s wing, black like pearls.
“She will always hate me,” Silver says, softly, looking at him, black, unblinking, “in her own small way.”
When the light creeps back across his face, his eyes are blue again.
“But yes.” Silver finally lifts his cup. He watches him drink, the motion of his throat. There are places, he remembers, along that throat, where the skin splits in perfect symmetry, to breathe water in lungfuls. He watches for them. “She’s forgiven me.”
“Does she know?” he says. It is the logical next question, the question of his missing limb, the question of his eyes. “Have you told her what you are?”
“It doesn’t matter what I am.”
Silver’s jaw is tight, his eyes downcast. He senses the tectonic shift, steps back, looks down into his cup. What is there now does not appeal to him.
Silver turns his head toward the window, and he watches him do it from beneath his eyelids, watches the firelight stretch across his cheek, dance golden in the strands of his hair. There is a pinking, he thinks, like old scars, across the long length of Silver’s throat, sliced out—as if, he thinks, with gentle prodding, they could open. They could breathe.
“I wish I could have met him.”
He looks up from the needle in his hand, the length of dark thread leading up like spider-silk from Thomas’ shirt laid across his lap.
Thomas is watching the sunset dance off the river from the tenement window, his face lit full by the evening-time. He seems lost in himself, one finger tracing absent circles on his elbow where his arms are crossed.
“My Silver,” he says, with a wry twist in his voice. He looks back down at the hem he is mending. “He doesn’t belong to anyone. Or anything.”
Thomas hums in his throat. “Still.”
“I can’t imagine what you would even say to him.” He concentrates on the needle, warping in and out, warm between his fingers. “You are very different people.”
“Are we?” Thomas says, turning from the window. His hand drifts across his shoulder, briefly, before he goes to his own seat at the table and lowers himself gently into it. He does not miss the caution—Thomas complains of the pain in his bones more than ever now; every movement is a trial. “From what you’ve told me, we seem very much alike.”
“How is that?”
He doesn’t want to talk about Silver. (He wants nothing more than to talk about Silver.) In and out, stitch after stitch. He remembers Miranda, stitching.
Thomas laces his fingers together in his lap, looks off, as if considering.
“It seems to me that we both love you a great deal,” he says, finally.
The needle pierces the callus of his index finger. He hisses, pulls it out, sticks the digit in his mouth out of habit.
Blood, as always, tastes like salt.
He shakes his head—disturbed, somehow, by the implication, that Thomas and Silver could be anything alike—that their sameness might be in him: stretched between Flint and McGraw, spanning the names, the water, London rain and Caribbean sun—
“I told you once,” he says. His teeth hurt. “Don’t compare yourself. He’s nothing like you.”
“He isn’t human. That is what you’ve told me. But is that nothing?” Thomas tilts his head. “You and I have been called monsters for so long, I thought that perhaps we could begin to relate.”
“There are monsters,” he says, “and then there is him.”
Thomas watches him in silence for a moment. He finishes the hem, and holds the shirt in his hands, the needle dangling off, bouncing through the fading sunlight, unattended.
“I do wish I could have met him,” says Thomas Hamilton.
His eyes are fixed on the needle, its slow pendulum.
“I would have liked to thank him.”
“Malaria,” he says. The words drop out like balls of shot, land, roll across the table and off onto the floor. Heavy and without feeling. “He didn’t suffer long.”
Silver’s gaze is sympathetic.
“I’m sorry.” It sounds true.
His cup is empty. He moves to fill it again, decides against it halfway—pushes the bottle across the table, toward Silver, away from him.
Silver glances at it, but does not move.
“We were happy,” he says, “while it lasted.”
He looks up at him, and then back down. The more he drinks, the harder it is to concentrate on his visitor—the harder it is to speak without giving everything of himself away. There is no time left anymore to be honest with John Silver, to be open and raw; those days have passed; even if he wanted to, he would be too afraid to try, too ashamed.
They have been talking, in fits and starts, between long acres of silence, about nothing and about everything, for hours now; the moon is drawing down in the sky; the fire is guttering in the hearth.
“He wanted to meet you,” he says, with a thick tongue.
Silver smiles, genially. “I’d always wanted to meet him, too.”
“To see what kind of man it was,” Silver says, “who could make you consign Captain Flint to the sea again.”
They hold eyes for a moment, and he pictures it, in his mind—like a snake-skin, shed, and sinking below the waves, calling up its own name—Flint, Flint.
“You did that,” he says, “not me.”
“No,” says Silver, and a shadow crosses his face again. His smile fades, by degrees of dark, and he sees his knuckles curl a little where they lie on the table. The room feels cold. He can hear the sea. “Not yet.”
He stands, leaning on his crutch to lever himself upright, and when he holds out his hand, he can see the fingers criss-crossed with scars, the tell-tale burns of rope, and between each finger, a skein of flesh, thin enough to see through, nearly invisible—if one weren’t looking for it.
He knows what the gesture is. Knows, now, what voice has been calling him, from beyond the creekbeds and the swamps, past the footbridges and the rocks.
Gently, he takes John Silver’s hand.
He has never gone to the sea—not in Savannah; not down from the house where Thomas Hamilton died, feverish, in the bed they shared. Thomas never dared to suggest it. And after he was gone, when the sea began to come in, looking for him through the mud streets and slum houses, he hid from it, only hearing it—never going to it. Never giving in.
Silver is leading him to the sea. He supposes this was always going to happen.
He follows through the marsh dark, follows Silver’s shape in the night ahead of him: walking sure and easy on his crutch, silent, in no hurry. Down sand paths, through deepening trees, all around them the song of insects in the brush, the smell of plant life withering in the oppressive heat, the endless halo of gnats around the moon. A river moves somewhere, Spanish moss hanging like ladies’ veils overhead, over the pathways, now dirt, now mud, now through the creeks or bands of swampland, still Silver walks without trouble, without frustration. He almost glides, unhindered by tree roots or hanging branches, sure of his footing, sure of his way.
He follows. His eyes are growing heavy, and not because of drink, and not for the lateness of the hour.
Louder it gets. The sea. He realizes now that he has never known which name it was calling, all this time. He realizes now that it does not matter.
He loses track of the time, how long they have walked—knows only that the lights of Savannah are far away behind them when he chances a look back, that the trees here are too thick, too wild to carve out life in.
And then the sea.
There are rocks here—a heady drop. The island ends abruptly in a tumble down toward the waves, and the ocean wind greets him with its cold, swims across his face, his bare scalp, and Silver has stopped a little ways ahead, at the edge of the little cliff, looking out.
He can see Silver’s hand curled around the brace of his crutch. The skin is mottled blue now—blue and grey, as if by some trick of the moon.
Silver turns back, but does not look at him—looks instead for a place to lean against, and finds one, and sets his crutch against the rocks. He hauls himself up until he is sitting, his one booted foot dangling over the water, and he shrugs his shoulders, pulling off his coat.
He watches, as if from very away, Silver undress: his coat, and then his stained white shirt with its pointed collar; his belt, and then, with the ease of practice, his trousers. He sees the warped and puckered flesh below Silver’s hip, the scars that stretch out across his groin, the shock of dark hair above his cock, the muscle in his right thigh.
He takes a step, and then another, and lowers himself carefully down onto the promontory, and turns to face him, sitting like a nymph in a storybook on his cliff, and Silver looks up into his face, and then reaches out.
“She likes us best,” he says, “when we are naked.”
“She,” he says. He barely feels Silver’s fingers undoing the buttons on his shirt, slipping it gently off his shoulders. Barely feels the sleeves fall away. He moves closer, unconsciously.
Silver tilts his head toward the sea, the crashing waves below.
“Flint,” Silver says. He smiles, a smile entirely to himself. His hands don’t linger, don’t pry—only work. The webbing between his fingers is more visible now, more obvious. It is cold on his flesh. “You owe me that name back.”
There is no humor in his voice. None of the ease he remembers. Only a sadness.
The tide must be rising. He can feel the spray against his bare legs, the rock slick with water.
Silver puts one hand on his hip—draws him closer—reaches up with the other, and takes the golden earring in his ear between thumb and forefinger, rolls the lobe gently, makes it flash in the moonlight.
“You told me you couldn’t go back,” he says, very quietly. Silver’s flesh is blooming with color, color that rises and falls with his breathing, the colors of scales shifting in the sun: blue and green, faint pinks and rich purples, and in the shadows of Silver’s ribs he sees skin separating, opening.
“I can’t,” says Silver. “But I think she’ll make an exception, just once. For us.”
His throat is open, now, too, the weird sluices of gills, blossoming at the touch of the water. His eyes are black, pure black, but he doesn’t feel afraid of them, this time—is glad, finally, he realizes, to look into them, to look into this face he has not seen in nineteen years—so unchanged, in spite of all its alien features—here is the mouth he loves, the dimples of the smile he misses so. He knows that, if Silver were to tilt his head, spin that smirk, quirk a dark brow, flash his white teeth—he could forget all of it, every year of it—imagine himself alive again in his pain, on the deck of the Walrus, and a strange boy introducing himself as the cook, looking as if he were hearing a joke only he understood.
There is a small pain in his ear, and when he looks down, Silver is holding the earring in his fingers, and he reaches up to push the pin into his own earlobe, straight through the flesh, until it glimmers there, a brightness on the passing blue of his beautiful face.
“Tell me something,” Silver says.
A cloud skids across the moon. A wave lifts, descends, streams back around the three legs planted on the promontory.
“Do you forgive me?”
James looks at him. Into him. Past the dark eyes, the siren skin, down as far as he can, to sun, to stolen pages, to the Walrus and the island, to everything—dark summer, the heat of the sand, a gun aimed out, an ending.
“No,” he says.
The sea is colder than he remembers.
And it is quiet.
Overhead, waves churn and rush, but they are muffled, small beneath the heartbeat in his ear.
Silver is pulling him down.
Their bodies are flush to one another—Silver’s arms wrapped around his neck like a lover, his dark hair streaming up above him, and already the breath is leaving him—coming out in gasps, past Silver’s breathing throat, bubbles weaving up through his hair and vanishing up into the light.
Below them, only dark.
Flint, hiss the waves overhead. Or maybe McGraw.
His chest contracts. He doesn’t want to close his eyes. Not yet.
Silver’s hand on the back of his skull, cradling it.
He has been told that drowning is a terrible thing.
Perhaps it is, he thinks, when it is not done so gently.