Bennie Taylor’s learning about past loves who won’t stay submerged. But she finds it can heat up here, in the Suit of Batons.
Snowing in Capricorn, Act 2: Say For Me Those Old-Fashioned Words (Suit of Batons)
Ryan D Mills
In the Tarot, the Devil is the card of first impressions.
The captain of the Triunfo greets us with a salute. A hand signal, a leftover from the war, fought while we were chasing apron-strings, before we’d ever dreamt of sailing by the Southern hemisphere’s stars.
He takes our measure.
“Capricorn and Aquarius. You with the goat’s-head and fish-tail, and her with the pitcher.”
I’m about to object when I realize he’s right. Suryatta’s brought something aboard.
What’s inside the bundle, that she unwinds from its layers? A jar, wrapped in bedding.
Love can be hidden, even under my quilt from grade school. This wouldn’t be the first time. I grab the sheets from her.
Inside the jar is First Love Potion, a sample from the Jadeflower‘s hold.
He’s satisfied by how the bright embers hover, lighter than air. With an incantation, it gives its users the first butterflies of youth. The effect is nothing more than this: an astonished heart, a captivated mind, for a price, for a while. Under the cabin light the cloud of sparks glows, rising.
The Triunfo‘s captain admires the plume of burning puppy-love. Don Gato, we’ve nicknamed him, for the feline from the old Spanish song, who dies lovestruck and revives.
He’s true to character, reminscing in the potion smoke.
“I have died. And I have lived. Love is grand. Call me a bad actor if you must.”
Suryatta flicks the cigarette-lighter shut, sweeps the remaining burnt potion off the pan of her pistol, as Don Gato invites us into the galley.
“I look forward, ladies, to hearing of your business, aboard your Jadeflower. It will be pleasant, for me to hear of income, and not of debts.”
The seas here in the Suit of Batons are warmed by volcanic vents, fissures in the ocean floor. We’re received just as warmly on the Triunfo, until we find ourselves alone by the gramophone.
“…Hearts made of stone,” the salt-pitted brass horn rattles. “Everbody knows, I thought you knew…”
We discover Navy plaques on the wall.
I whisper: “You know he’s made a deal with them.”
Suryatta sings along.
“It’s intriguing, don’t you think?”
I don’t enjoy keeping secrets from Suryatta. But here’s one for the list.
A dark one: that Don Gato is a friend of my father’s.
But on this island, away from the shipping lanes, I’ve lit a candle.
The little flame represents a pact between myself and the Lady of Shadows. The Skeleton Bride, protector of ocean traffickers.
She’s the one, they told us, who watched us as children through the church windows. Who stalled the devil for us, if we slept through the sermons and the island choir.
I’ve petitioned her on Don Gato’s behalf. Because if we’d quaked, as children, to hear about my father’s powerful friends, those times are over now.
We’ve hauled up a locker from the bay, as large as the Jadeflower‘s ballast tanks, creaking on its chains after years submerged. This, I realize, is what my father wished to keep safe.
We crack its contents onto the deck.
Tiny charms, I recognize, made for Navy hospitals during the war. They’ve been packaged to be resold at a premium to the shipyards.
A bale of capricorn pelts, heartbreakingly small, tied with dried netting.
A comb of bone, cut from rare, wild whales, inscribed with the loveless words of a vencedora’s spell.
All illicit, magical things.
We’d doubled back on the trail left by the Triunfo, and found this smuggler’s cove in a caldera, ringed with charcoal cliffs by a smoking volcano, looking for answers.
What had I hoped to find? My father had nothing else in his life.
Suryatta tucks the vencedora’s comb into my braid, in with my dollar-store ribbons and red-ginger flowerbuds.
And before I can question her, we’re startled by a cannon-shot.
The Triunfo has followed us here.
Capricorn and Aquarius, Don Gato calls us. The star signs, side-by-side.
But there was another meaning he’d pondered, before we left that night.
“You are the ocean, for sure. But only half,” he’d said, meaning more than just my dislike of swimming.
He’d passed on to me a Seeking spell he was given, but never had cast. It shows a way to the goals I most desire. He hoped I could use it to help me reconcile things, both with the legacy of my father, and with the authorities.
“The pirate life isn’t for me anymore. It divides people, hurts people,” he told me, honestly, humbly.
I’d been looking everywhere for deceit, where none was meant. But If there’s no devil here, then what do the cards mean?
The Triunfo fires a distress flare this time, and I realize I’m about to find out.
Because, emerging from the mangroves, are four camouflaged inflatables, with grappling hooks gleaming. They’re ready and bristling to board us.
And here is the reason why Don Gato didn’t linger here. This is the trouble he’d warned me against.
The first to act in anger, he’d said, is always the first to regret it.
But as the Navy boarders swarm the Triunfo, I remember how my father told me more, when I was younger, about who was the last to enter an argument. The vencedora, employed to remove all the evidence. Her act, he’d said, is the one that brings the curtain down.
I reach for the comb as the Navy galleon comes about.
It’s hazy but I already see Suryatta aloft, firelight on her gun-barrel, her only priority the Jadeflower.
The galleon prepares a broadside.
I turn as the chain breaks, split by her musket round, pitching the locker into their gunports. A piece of their deck shears off as its weight goes down.
Just off the bow, the Navy men have set the Triunfo alight. Their deal has expired: just like that. Like bridges over fault-lines do.
I draw the whalebone comb from my braid.
I’m standing on the Jadeflower‘s quarter-deck, in a circle of cards that foretell trouble, strewn all around with contraband, powders from the locker, pieces-of-eight, and bits of Navy timber. The vencedora’s spell lies warm on my tongue, waiting to be invoked.
Suryatta’s reloaded her musket, preparing for a shot at the Navy helmsman.
And its precisely this moment when Don Gato steps onto our deck.
And when I see him, all of my schoolyard years resurface. The memories gather, stirred by his outline. And the old ways of dealing come back in a flood.
He shields his face from the heat, but I know what he’s thinking.
He’s hurt, he’s disappointed. Dismayed by the fact that I’ve decided for myself, rather than listen. That I had to go dredging up the past, and ignored his sermon.
I raise my palm, waiting for his sign. Performing a penance.
But slowly, from my high perch on the quarter deck, the wind whipping my hair, flowing in the black ribbons, I realize: it’s the other way around.
He’s not disappointed at all.
He’s afraid of me.
I’ve become the image of my father.
Suryatta twists, stares.
“Say the spell!”
I steady myself as the two ships lurch, entangled.
But the lines separate, all at once. The yard-arm is pulled away as if lifted by a giant hand. The rigging showers down sparks, and I lose sight of her.
Then, finally, a cold breath in my ear.
In my last moment above water, the words release from my lips.
Our smuggling run relies on a lead ship, foolhardy enough to break cover. Her identity and heading remain obscure, her magical payload hidden.
But it’s no secret this time. The lead ship is the Triunfo, lifted into the air by a ton of burning potion, guided on its way by Don Gato’s Seeking spell I’d cast.
We’ve let everyone onto our tail: the Spanish Navy, the Coast Guard, and whoever else is watching.
I think of Don Gato, roving the waves, trying to put right the mistakes he and my father made.
And it turns out my heart’s desire is right here. In the Tropic of Capricorn, going exactly in the direction we’re headed. Under the flare from the First Love Potion, burning overhead, illuminating the last few miles of the Suit of Batons.
And aboard, still drying and salt-stiff like I am, is the vencedora’s comb, fuming potently. We’ve put it in a sea-chest, where it will stay, unused.
If this is a career, we’ve committed ourselves to it. If this is a stage, then we can outshine the old roles.
Love is grand, I think. And we should never have to hide it.
Not us, not this time.
Art Credit: 2Lyts, Masters of Skin Art, Dili, East Timor