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The Red Ribbon Tide


On the harbinger nights we collide together around our bar table like it's driftwood, and it may as well be for how it floats under the surface of wet condensations casing dewy tumblers of drink. We seem to know when these nights are, though sometimes we barely know each other. The Captain sits with us only as long as we are pirates. When one of us begins to peer into a past or ask a question of a secret or a curiosity, he leaves us for the bar and for Sue, who has long blue hair, the color of a cloud's reflection on a broken sea.

The way the questions work is that there can always be too many. The line between pirate and our own past is as blurry to each of us as it is to each other. While the storm hovers over our tiny island, I try to forget that my ship can sink just like the ships of old, and if it does, it will lie weighted under heavy watery waves, never to rock again weightless in the sun. Jules, Krill, Vince, and I sit in the bar of the hotel while our captain takes shots of rum with the bartender who reminds us of a mermaid caught in a space between here and there.

Last month the explorers discovered the remnants of the pirate galley Jackal Blight in the surf just beyond our shores. The ship skeleton is petrified by salt and barnacle skin and the artifacts are not treasures or jewels, but echoes of the men who served aboard her. We know the explorers; we are obsessed with the things they draw out of the water. We are all in love with shipwrecks. Each of us roped to our own favorite, the one that most reflects the paths that led us here.

We all live in a tourist resort in the Caribbean Sea, though we spend our days at work and leisure on the resort pirate galley, the Red Ribbon Tide. Our lives are friendly pirate lives, actor lives, and we love them. The seasons change with the tourism, but every day we walk the same recreated decks and live in the laughter of children. We talk pirate lingo, dress in pirate clothes, have pirate names, serve pirate rum, but it's not a job for us. It's immersion into a life we chose at points of juncture.

In these waters I am Seraphina, and I tell the tourists I've been here forever. Some days I believe it myself: that I'm an island girl, and I've only dreamed of sleeping on the mainland. Then I can pretend the old red sheets never wrapped around me and that I never dreamed with my head on someone's chest. Here, I sleep sometimes in the hammock on my balcony. I eat fish cooked in banana leaves and drink coconut water coffee. I exist only in this world, the International Waters of the Caribbean Sea.

It wasn't so much the loss of love, but the loss of possibility, that sunk me like the Whydah Gally off Cape Cod and crushed the gold of coins beneath the waves and piles of sand. It took over two hundred years for those legends to turn to dust, and those who were in my world then told me, Baby, you don't have that kind of time, so I pulled up anchor and found myself sun-dazed on the surface in a warmer water. I broke ground again in sand dunes and salt waves colored sugar blue. I met some other castaways and made a home. We all lie to ourselves and each other in this makeshift paradise and we try to forget what was left in the wreckage behind us.

My crew isn't so much a family as an anchor. The things we know about each other are limited and vague. I know that Jules once picked blueberries in Maine, but I don't know how she got to the island or where she was before this. Krill's real name is Christopher and he first came to the island on a cruise ship. When he sobered up alone and broke in Mississippi, he took the next plane back. He's cheerful, he's absolutely happy here, but we don't know why he really left. Boris is from a small town in Siberia, but he makes the best rum punch in the hemisphere. Boris is his pirate name, and when we asked him why he chose it he said it was his grandson's name and nothing more. Vincent is newest here, apart from me. All that the rest of us know of him is that in the land he came from he never had to do his laundry and he never learned to cook, but we all know those are bigger things than he will admit.

The Captain of the Red Ribbon Tide is Horace, but he's Horatio to the children, and he growls his orders like the best kind of movie pirate. His devotion is what gives us drive. The children flock to him; they bring him swords to brandish and copy his pirate voice. Horace chases them across the deck. He humors them with cutlass fights and hands out eye patches and peg legs. He's a true sailor, however, and even though the crew spends our days throwing baying, tourist children off the plank into the water and our evenings serving rum punch to their parents, in our down time, he makes certain that every inch of the wooden galley is scrubbed clean, hosed off, and tied down: pristine.

The hurricane approached earlier than we'd expected, whirlwinds of loose leaves blew into the saltwater, through the light that pieced through our lanterns. Earlier, I watched Vincent help Horace tie the main sail down, both of them wiped the rain out of their eyes, while I waited in the water below on the motorboat to carry us back to shore.

Both of them were shirtless, having jumped straight out of bed, and for the first time in months, I could see each of Vincent's tattoos. He has a dark and red meteor falling down his right shoulder, a bleeding heart on his right breast, a sea-maiden with a trident on his back, an anchor and a script over his ribs which I have never been able to read from so far away. It's the meteor that I know I've seen before on concert posters lit by theater lights, but Vincent's meteor is slightly different, coupled with debris starlets, which look like eyes or flowers or bullet wounds.

I never look too closely at it—though it draws my eyes like a changing sky—because of the way he covers it with his white threaded shirts, even on the worst days when the rest of the boys strip to shorts, vests, and necklaces, and Jules and I hike up our skirts so we look like castaway pixies. When the news crews and treasure hunters came out to the island in hoards to exclaim that the explorers had discovered the lost pirate ship of the famous Captain Redd, the Jackal Blight, Vince stopped going out with us to the bars, and ate his lunch with Horace in the ship cabin. He refused to be interviewed when they came with cameras to Turtle Bay Resort to talk to the Ribbon's crew, and now gives a different name to the tourists and the journalists when they sailed on our evening cruises. Though late at night, in his room next to mine, I could hear him flipping through the channels and the low sounds of news proclaiming the behemoth discovery under the waves off our shore. They wouldn't stop talking about how the ship cracked from the bottom to the top and how the Captain's treasure was still buried elsewhere, like myth. The discovery had brought the famous story back to life, and the island tourism tripled in a matter of weeks. It hasn't stopped yet, except for the storm.

In the bar, Krill and Jules are holding hands and sipping beer. Their eyes are glued to the swirls of clouds on the television. We join them after toweling off the mixture of saltwater and rainwater from our skin. Boris is asleep with his wife already, though how they can sleep through the storm is beyond all of us. We all envy him because he's most at home here. He married an island girl, who calls him Boris too, and lives apart in a real house with a kitchen and a separate room for their someday baby. Still, he comes to work with us every day, to man the sound system and mix our rum punch, joking all day long to distract the rest of us from our recent reincarnations.

"Boris said Syl was making storm soup," Krill says, entranced. "Do you know what that is?"

"A ploy to get Boris home from the bar," Vincent says.

"No, it must be some island witchery," Krill says. "Syl's magic hands stirring fresh rain, vegetables, and some rainbow skinned fish." His eyes shine as he says this, and he wonders earnestly.

"Syl can trap that man with anything," Jules says.

"Syl could convince any man of anything, let Boris have this magic storm soup." Vince defends, and so we let Boris' absence be that magic, a thing we'll never question.

When we talk together, low and deep into the night, Sue lets us pour our own beer while she sips coconut rum and leans her elbows over the bar. Horace is our focus most of all tonight. The Red Ribbon Tide is his own home. He sleeps on the ship most nights because his hotel suite reminds him of the bedroom he once had in Virginia where he found his wife dead and a letter she wrote him under the door when he opened it. Tonight he has to sleep in the resort while the galley tosses through the rain, just outside. So Krill and I feed him shots until he promises to marry Krill and Jules under the Jolly Roger at a hurricane sunset. We all cheer and Jules blushes beautifully. She's the kind of pirate that girls want to be on Halloween, but she's the kind of woman who's seen every kind of heartache. I don't look like the kind of woman who would be a pirate. I look like the kind of woman who would work in an office, wear pencil skirts, and carry high heels in her waterproof bag on the subway.

"Jules, I can just imagine you being a shipwrecked pirate bride," I say. She blushes into her near-empty pint glass.

"If we weren't here," she starts almost cautiously, the other world opening. "If I could go back, I would want us to be married on the beach in Ogunquit as the tide goes out. The beach there is miles long when the tide is out and the weddings happen in little coves at low tide, everyone climbs down from the rocky cliffs, barefoot and circles the bride and groom with torches as the sun sets across from the ocean."

"Maybe there is a cove like that here," Krill says.

Tonight the news other than the hurricane is about the treasure hunters.

"There's finally going to be a major excavation of the wreck," Krill says. "The diving teams will arrive in a few weeks. I'll be scavenging the shore to see what the waves find." He winks at Jules, because he'd love to find her pirate treasure, but there wasn't treasure aboard the Jackal Blight.

"Makes me wonder about the Ribbon," Jules adds, "What would they think of us, if they were excavating her?"

Horace takes a long draught to finish his beer and goes to the bar. He pulls up a barstool and flirts easily with Sue, as she pulls her long white hair over one shoulder and takes a sip of blue Malibu.

"Do you leave things on the boat?" Vincent asks.

Jules doesn't, she says, only dresses sometimes or swimming suits.

"I have almost as much on the boat as Horace," Krill says. He lists it all and none of us argue.

"What about you, Vince?" I ask. "What would they say about you?"

He laughs slightly and rolls up the sleeves of his shirt. Red flecks of meteor scatter over his forearm.

"I wouldn't be there. Nothing of me would be there," is all he says.

"Wouldn't you want that?" Krill asks. "I'd want them to remember me, even as a fake pirate."

"No," Vincent says. "Because then they'd want to know where I came from. They'd want to know my name, my life, my love, my treasures, even you guys—my crew—and I want those things to be all mine."

We're all quiet for moment as the storm winds rattle the building.

"I tell you what," Krill says, and he looks for Horace, still with Sue. "I'm raising the stakes." He leans back in his chair and reaches into his pocket.

"We might not have a ship tomorrow, and if we don't, who's to say we'll still be that family, that crew? I'll wager I know you guys—Horace and Boris included, Jules included—as much as the hypothetical future stranger who digs up the wreckage of our beloved galley. I mean, I don't even know your real names."

It could have been the hurricane, but his words gave us chills, bound us to that table and as he held out a small die, we could have been playing anything. We could have been anybody. Krill continues, "We dance around this game sometimes, skirt each other, but this time we play for real. We each roll one at a time. The number you get is the number of questions you are asked. The rule: you must always answer one. The person to your right asks the first question and the person next to them asks the second and so forth."

"Caliber of honesty?" I ask.

"We're pirates, Seraph." He smirks. "But we're not playing for gold. Caliber is that if the rest of us feel like we're being lied to, we can ask another question."

"You sound like Long John Silver over there," Horace calls.

"Come'n and join us, old man Ahab!" Krill replies cheerfully and lifts his pint to toast the captain, his levity a reason he is the first mate.

Krill rolls the die first and its sound on the table is sharper than the thunder outside.

"Two," he says. "Jules, your question is first and then Seraph."

"Which is your favorite planet?" Jules says.

"What's do you love about being a pirate?" I ask. Krill shakes his head, raises his glass. His eyes are shining.

"Too easy. Start over."

"What do you miss about your mother?" Jules asks. Her voice holds some indignance.

"Would you rather meet a mermaid or a Martian?"

Krill laughs at my question, but he defers to Jules.

"Since it's my idea, I will choose the harder question to begin. What I miss most about my mother is her voice. I grew up in the South, but my mother was from France. It's the reason I don't have a phone."

"You want those kind of answers?" Vincent's voice is tense, and I feel my limbs seize.

"We usually stop before we get this far, I know. I never know who is telling truths, half-truths or lies. I'm tired of it. Jules is next," is all Krill says and he puts the numbered cube in front of his fiancé.

She rolls, feigning her security, I know. Her number is three.

"Where are you from?" is my question, and I turn to Vince who raps the table with his fingertips.

"Why this island out of all the ones in the sea?" he asks.

"You could have been anyone," Krill says softly. "Why a pirate?"

The way she smiles at these is the way we know her. She will never give us answers.

"I met Sue my third day here. I asked her for a job, and she sent me to Horace. That's why I'm a pirate."

I roll next and my number is two.

"Did you think you'd ever end up here?" Vince asks.

"What's your shipwreck?" Krill poses.

"The Whydah Gally." I am certain, but they are surprised because they don't know why I came to the island.

"She was undiscovered for nearly three hundred years, buried under twenty feet of sand," Krill says, our master of shipwrecks.

"The Whydah was a lovers' ship," I offer. When I sunk, it was in the cold north, and it froze me deeper than the sun can move.

"If my story were a ship's story, I would be the Whydah Gally and he would be the sea." A pirate felled by a rain god.

They are quiet. I feel a little more solid. This is what it means, the knowing. Some storms are unraveling.

Vince rolls last, a four. He's the most nervous of us. We know him the least.

Krill asks first.

"Where were you born?"

"Do you talk to your family now?" Jules asks. I hesitate. There are too many things I want to know. I almost want him to have his secrets.

"How many tattoos do you have?" I ask shyly, but I get his attention.

"Favorite restaurant stateside?" is Krill's second question.

"Fourteen and a half," Vince says.

The rain hasn't stopped. We are the only people in the bar. Most of the tourists have left the island and those who remained have gone inland. Sue and Horace are still in their own world. She is wiping and storing glasses while he sips something dark.

The historical accounts of pirates say that the pirates were their own nation, though they moved from sea to shore, shore to ship, and ship to sea. They chose their own leaders, split bounty equally and held all men equal. They were noble in their own right, though they held no allegiance to the worlds they conquered.

Legends tell that 'Black Sam' Bellamy was twenty-eight years old when he captured the slave ship Whydah Gally near the Bahamas. He was promised to the New England maiden, Maria Hallet. Maria's uncle told Bellamy that he could only marry his niece if he had the money to give her a wealthy life. She was christened a sea witch, a rain goddess when she swore her love to the sailor become blackguard. They cast her out of her home. Still, she waited for him at a bar near the tip of the Cape Cod wilderness of sand banks and grey cliffs.

Months later, with a ship laden with millions of dollars in treasure and artifacts, seemingly nothing would have stopped Bellamy. He saw the cliffs of Wellfleet, and the bewildered love so close. He'd sailed too fast and still too late. The Whydah met, not the beautiful Maria, but a hurricane that rent the ship from stern to hull and the cold Atlantic waves bit the gleaming galley in half only fifty feet from shore. No records of the captain's body were ever recovered, and the Whydah Gally disappeared. None of her coins would buy Bellamy's bride.

Krill's second turn gives him one question. His eyes are lit with anticipation as he waits for his fiancé to think to ask something she doesn't know.

"What pirate?" she finally asks, and his brightness doesn't sway.

"James Hook, baby," he says. "I'm not here to be a grownup. I'm here for the fun of it, for the challenge."

"You're not going to grow up?" I ask.

"I didn't say I wasn't. Not your turn, mate."

There's an unusual sharpness in his voice, and I realize that none of us are asking Krill the right questions. The thing about Krill is that he never lost something. He is the one of us most open about his past. He is completely, unarguably himself, and that makes him alone. It never occurred to me before that he was running from something else, something different. When Jules rolls for a single question, I ask her.

"Would you let him be a pirate here forever?"

"You have to ask about her," Krill says.

"I am asking about her."

"No," Jules says, "No," softer. "Unless, this was the only thing that really made him happy. I wouldn't let him be like me, or him." She looks at Horace draws a new line between them.

My roll is five and the questions are suddenly harder to choose from.

Then Vincent gets three questions.

"Why this island?" Krill asks.

"Do you have a shipwreck?" Jules asks delicately.

"Were you a musician?" is my question.

"I don't know how to answer you two," he points to Jules and Krill. "I was a musician."

"I knew it." I breathed out. "I knew you were. You were famous." He laughs a little sadly.

"I wasn't that kind of musician. No one misses me now," he says.

Jules is smiling, but Krill doesn't know what to do.

"Famous?" he asks.

"No more questions," says Vince.

I knew Vince the first time I saw the meteor perpetually falling from his arm into ocean once as he sun screened his already-dark body before the first boarding of children.

"Don't stare and don't ask," Jules said. "I think he used to draw them." She swept past me with a cooler of popsicles.

But I knew I'd seen that tattoo before. As months passed, I watched the same careful way Vincent poured the red punch juice into the saltwater-splotched beer steins. He let it crackle slowly over the ice, and twisted the cocktail umbrellas over the rim, each pour familiar and devoted, before handing it smiling to the thirsty waiting hands, and it's occurred to me every day how much he looks like the man whose handmade music posters lined the subway stations, announcing new gigs, new venues, new dates. He was a stranger to me, but I admired his constant presence, his dedication to his art. His pictures weren't close-ups, but his meteor arm was always draped over his banjo, and then one day, he disappeared.

The third round of the game closes the bar. Sue floats over to us, with Horace on her arm.

"I have to check the courtyard," she says. "Hold on to this one?"

She helps him sit next to Jules, and in seconds she's wandered out into the storm. I'm certain her feet entwine into some fishtail and she's riding the wind into the sea.

"You have to play this round, Cap," Krill orders, "and this is the last round, so Horace asks the questions." Horace is too drunk to argue. Krill rolls first again.

"Horace, you have to ask now. Ask Krill something." Vince urges.

"Where did you hide that chest I gave you?" Horace asks, so seriously, the rest of us are laughing, with the exception of Krill.

"That was a secret, Horace!" He slams the table.

"You really buried a chest?" Vince says.

"You don't get to ask a question this round. I got a three," Krill says. "I did that for all of us. I'm the only one who knows where it is. There is, of course, a map. Also hidden. Only Horace knows where that is. Now a question for Jules, Cap."

"How long have you followed these stars?" Horace asks, more voluntarily than any of us expected.

Jules breathes very deeply. "My daughter's name was Rigel. Her father named her. I came here to see the sky."

Somehow, we already knew about her daughter, though no one talks about it. We can tell because we see her interact with the children every day, listening to their laughter, splashes, and pure, careless joy. If Krill is Captain Hook, then she is Wendy Darling, and the way I see it, the Wendy-bird was always better off with pirates than with lost boys.

"You ready for this, Captain?" Krill asks and then nods to me. "It's his turn."

"Why don't you ask out Sue?" is my question.

"Sue? Sue isn't of this world," the Captain says.

Horace asks Vincent if anyone at home knows where he is. Vince shakes his head no Then he asks me if Seraphina is my given name.

"Seraphina is the 'me' who can break out of maelstroms," I answer.

I think of stones smoothed by the salted sea. I think of the skins of water snakes. I think of the days before when I found myself drowning.

Finally, we all walk quietly down the hallways. They're mostly dark to save power and we feel our ways to our doors. Krill and Jules take Horace to his room, which is next to theirs. Vince and I find our corridor, and I run my fingertips along the walls until I find my door.

"That was an interesting night," Vince says.

"I have one more question."

He turns toward me.

"Why the meteor?"

"Not everything that falls apart is ruined. Even if it can't ever be put back together."

For a minute we hear just the storm outside as it battles the sand and the ocean.

"Seraphina," Vincent says. "Come listen to the storm with me."

"At least we're home," I say, and Vince tells me that he's a long way from home,

"This place really feels like home to you?" he asks. He pulls his fingers through my water-streaked hair.

"Yes, it has to be," I say, because of how much home meant to me before.

This time when I think of that home, it doesn't overwhelm me. I ask Vince where his home is. I force myself to listen to him instead of the rain falling. He says he's trying to build it inside himself. Trying to make it a place for only him and only God, which means there's no room for me, but I don't care.

He doesn't kiss like a rock star. He kisses like a lost boy. I kiss like water snakes. The doldrums that make up who we are were never as important at this storm we saw together.

When the storm finally softens and the sea is sick with herself and churns a little quieter, Vincent stirs in the darkness and my eyes trace the lines of ink on his skin.

"Vince," I say, "who were you before this?"

"I don't know," he says. "I lost track."

"But who were you? You were someone." I push, but he's quiet.

"Who were you?" he asks finally. His fingers climb over my arm.

We linger a while in this silence, and I'll never know who he was, or if he was. The wind shivers, and he wraps his meteor arm around my body, but he sings, almost murmurs: "The roads we walk are more like mazes, and they change the way we split the skies. I miss your different smiles the way I miss the summer sun. Everything is sun, rain girl. Everything is sun."

Outside perhaps the Red Ribbon Tide is collapsing. Another destruction. When I wake up before sunrise, I call Horace's room, from Vincent's phone. I already know he's sleepless.

"What's the word, Captain?" I whisper.

"They said she's afloat. That's the last I heard, Seraph."

"That's good news, sir." He's quiet for a minute and then he returns to the conversation Jules began at the bar.

"What do you think they'd say if they excavated the Ribbon?" he asks.

"Two hundred years from now?" I ask. "I guess, they'd think we were pirates, Horace. We have lots of rum bottles, and empty chests. We have good rigging."

"No gold, though."

"What shipwrecks have gold? It all turns to myth down there."

"They say the Jackal Blight was void of treasure, for all its fame and violence. We have some plastic necklaces and cheap cocktail glasses."

I met Horace a long time before I came here, though he doesn't remember me. I was a kid who signed up to get thrown off the plank. When my life changed course, I thought the least logical thing I could do was to come back here, become a pirate, and use the red fire sunsets and the jade waters to forge something new. Let the sun burn me brown and grow my hair out as long as I could. If I was a castaway, here I could be one.

"Do you know how many children will remember you till the day they die?" I speak softly. He says goodbye, the receiver clicks. The storm unravels inside me.

When I came back two years ago, I realized that even then Horace was breaking inside. With the children he is harsh and boisterous. He is the chilling pirate that buries treasure and commands the plank and calls for cannon fire. They love him. They are terrified of him, but he's not that person, really. He is Nemo, in his submarine spaceship.

Ten years before he had hoisted me onto the plank, and I saw the sunlight flicker against the Caribbean. My orange bathing suit was the color of the starfish deep below, and I ran to the edge of the board. Fearless, I stared fiercely into the innocent waves. I jumped. I slipped like a gem into the crystal water with barely a splash. When I saw the surface it was covered in bubbles, salty air and radiant colors. Everything was sun.