Magic powder smugglers put the Coast Guard off the scent.
Snowing in Capricorn, Act I: It Might As Well Be Magic (Suit of Cups)
Ryan D Mills
Flintlocks & Folly Award: Act 1
The gasoline they use at sea can give you headaches, bad dreams maybe, but it’s just a physical thing.
The Tarot is fuelled by desire.
I’ve drawn a card on my best friend’s wake.
We’d laughed at the Tarot deck, the mermaids, the devils on the cover art: too fantastical, too racy. A joke, a dumb memento from a night at port in a low-rent tattoo parlour.
Now, under my night-light, the card is suddenly a stranger, murky, and not quite real.
I may never know what possesses me. I flip it onto its face side.
It is the Emperor.
I’m saluted by the captain with her rendition of the latest from ol’ Blue Eyes. Her crew is overjoyed, far out of reach as we are from the tallest radio towers.
“What good would common sense for it do… it’s witchcraft!”
She beams at me like they have a brass section and bodyguards hidden somewhere on board.
“When you arouse the need in me, ” she sings, “my heart says yes indeed in me…”
My father wished me married years ago. He’d compel me, if all this came to light.
Their third mate has just shared his beliefs about that institution, which was created, in his opinion, solely so that men would go to sea. Their talk is of trysts in far-flung ports. When they notice me, they change their theme accordingly.
“If a woman can see a day into the future, then surely she can see I have a wife across the Atlantic.”
And full knowledge, I assume, would mean avoiding you altogether. Or that’s how I was taught. I take a seat.
“Eight bells, seer,” someone says. It’s a sign that not all have forgotten the old ways.
The Jadeflower is not large, a two-masted brigantine, with few crew. They discuss the prices, the winds, and the Port Authority.
“Rats. They’re rats. What I wouldn’t give for the olden days when rats came aboard through the hawseholes, chewed the lines to bits and stranded you for a month. It’s like they don’t respect us anymore.”
But there’s something else in their conversation.
Suryatta shows me to a row of lockers, and within one, I find things of my father’s, and she bids me collect them in a bag.
Even her words move to unusual subjects tonight.
“You don’t believe in marriage, do you? It never lasts,” she asks. I’m not sure what I believe.
A locker at the end hangs open, unused for years.
Wine flows, we talk. She muses: “What if there was only one person for you? Would you stay faithful?”
From the quarter deck we spot a flock of birds, attracted by the ship’s lights. I can’t look away.
The crew seems drawn by it, too, resolving to cross the Suit of Cups, the line patrolled by the Port Authority, tomorrow, consequences be damned.
Suryatta loads a musket while her third mate rouses the next watch, and with a crack I’m not prepared for, she takes one of those migratory companions of the Jadeflower down from the sky.
“And so, to the devils that plague us.”
The Tarot is not for soothsaying. My father taught me this: that my heart has four chambers, and they fire when I read the cards. Book a reading, I advise, and run like hell.
Perhaps a ship’s length away, its three masts barely visible, his San Augustine shadows us. I contemplate spending another night amongst the algae-covered possessions of the old sea-watcher. The rotting cordwood, alembics and elixirs, coralwort and manbane, might be preferable to the feeling I’m getting on the Jadeflower.
And now, in the silence, I recall a forgotten face: the former young captain of her crew. Lost to the waves forever. Immersed, and never to rise. I wonder: could the Jadeflower‘s newest captain have found that man again? If so, would she resist?
I find a crewmember preparing a dinghy by the bow.
But not until we near the San Augustine does the night’s navigator reveal herself.
She hugs me.
“He’s back,” she shouts over the engine, her hair curling like smoke with the saltwater, and I can’t help but see her card: the Emperor. Depicted with a perfect reflection, as if standing waist deep.
“I didn’t know how to convince you. I couldn’t talk about it on board. We need to unbind the Jadeflower.”
She gestures to the powder she’s brought in port-to-road bags.
We lace the waters silently so that the Jadeflower, on its approach, will trace through and take up the spell. While around us, the waves lap quietly, black in the headlamp’s beam.
We tack around the wind to come alongside the San Augustine, drop me aboard the hulk. And in my berth, waiting for tomorrow, I’m thinking about manbane, Suryatta, and obsessions.
Because I think I saw him down there, watching her.
I’m sitting on the floor of the wheelhouse of the San Augustine.
“Bennie Taylor, unmarried. Is it your name on the registration papers of this ship?”
Technically, it’s in a trust of my father’s. I wonder how to explain that while roundshot burns on my spray-jacket.
I’ve been trying to tell him that the powder we dumped into the ocean had nothing to do with the Port Authority.
“And she lead you to believe that?”
I don’t know what to say.
Last night, I opened the bag I’d filled with my father’s things from the locker. Inside, was nothing but powder.
Suryatta had led us in a circle. And when I’d stood at dawn to say the words of the spell she’d taught me, words she told me could cripple steel hulls, I’d discovered more of it, all around, ringing the waterline.
We’d emptied those bags not windward of the Jadeflower, but in the path of my own father’s ship.
And the Coast Guard, somehow aware, had strained samples of it out with long nets.
“How many crew are normally aboard the San Augustine?”
“None,” I say.
He doesn’t believe me.
“You are liable, along with any others…”
I’m not listening.
I draw a card on the wake of their trimaran. A pip: the Five of Cups. Their vessel will stay above the waves today.
Either way, this won’t take long.
“… seized items have tested positive…”
And suddenly I’m twelve again, back on Lewis Avenue, covering for my mother as Protective Services officers searched for vials, pipes, bags, in a house that had no use for them.
In a tainted home, where the only invisible power was a choice my father made when I was small, where magic was a euphemism for other poisons, bought and sold in our living room, where spells never worked.
I think of Suryatta. She’s got me here, badly.
They have me waiting in the sun, in a space they’ve cleared by the wheelhouse, watched by another patrolman. He’s impatient and sullen.
There’s a partly-revealed tattoo tracing itself around his wrist, out of place beneath the crisp shirt and Authority-issued portmaster’s stripes.
He knows more, I think, than the rest.
I look up into his ocean-gray eyes. And suddenly everything falls into place.
I’ve seen him before.
The Tarot tells you about physical attraction. The image on the cover side, with a nod to the traditional tales, the roles the heroes are supposed to play, just desserts for the wicked, and reunions of lovers; this side always appears. It’s reassuring, predictable.
But more important are the Swords, Batons, the Coins. The Sun. The face side. For some men, it’s gone completely. Scrubbed away by sand on the sea floor.
The man in the uniform never acknowledged me as we made for the trimaran. We cleared the cordon as if we were ghosts. And as the deck of the San Augustine pitched like a mountain, its hull breaking apart soundlessly under the water, as the Coast Guard escort turned over, nothing spared the wreck, groaning and opening downward, he’d barely had to utter a syllable.
Their power comes from whoever it is that imagines their love. They survive by claiming a partner who can paint a picture for them, provide a warm berth, while their own side, all along, remains empty. And what guys like that want, how they imagine they’ll get it…
He’s back out there again, looking for something in the wreckage, piloting the trimaran, protected from the sinking spell until midnight by the Five of Cups I’d drawn.
Suryatta is preparing the Jadeflower for the open ocean.
“So,” I venture, “Are the two of you… back together?”
The helmsman keeps the sun to the West, our destination the clear horizon. Suryatta slips me the bag of my father’s things: books, papers, inscribed seashells, unknown charms. She’s forced to conceal her smile as she replies.
“Did I fish that tern out of the water?”
By twelve bells, we’ll have crossed the Cups.
And my best friend’s lover will be at the bottom, again, scouring for whalebones.
Farewell to him, and the San Augustine. Neither of us, we’ve decided, need men like that in our lives.
Except on our own terms.
Art Credit: Etson Caminha, Masters of Skin Art, Dili, East Timor