Beginnings
by N.T. Brown

from the journal of Captain Drudge:

The day of Brown’s capture draws nigh. Thrice during the last fortnight he has eluded my grasp by mere hours, perhaps even minutes. But he cannot avoid me forever. His escape last Saturday off the Jamaican coast has weighed heavily upon me. Brown and I discussed that very island as children in England, plotting our future utopias: homes, wives. How capricious life can be. Now he flees north up the seaboard. Predicting the behaviour of a man such as Brown is like predicting the weather. He may continue north, disappear among the archipelagoes of Newfoundland, or even brave the Arctic sea; or he might double back south, vanish in Brazilian waters, out of the jurisdiction of British patrols. One thing he will never do is abandon his ship. Brown, like me, is one of those poor watery souls confined to the two-thirds of the Earth upon which he can never truly walk. Whatever his strategy, though, I am certain our next encounter will be our last. This cat-and-mouse exchange cannot last forever. One of us must die.

 

Okonkwo

On the boat from Africa, Okonkwo lay shackled for weeks in the ship’s bowels, in smears of his own and others’ waste, beside a pregnant woman who gave birth to her baby down there with the spiders and rats. Somehow the baby was born healthy, but despite the woman’s screams the white sailors took it away, and Okonkwo never saw it again. When the hatch finally creaked open and blinding sunlight flooded down and the white men hauled the Africans on deck, the woman was already dead.

Life in America was, quite simply, hell. Okonkwo was sent to work on a plantation. Deep scars now crisscrossed his back. On a rare trip to New Orleans, he met some sailors who offered to buy his freedom in exchange for helping hunt down pirates. He never completed his master’s errand, but walked right up the gangplank.

Now, as the pirate Brown’s ship approaches, Okonkwo grips his machete loosely, nonchalantly. No sea battle could be worse than what he’s already endured.

The pirates do not wait to be boarded but swing over with ropes, cutlasses between their teeth, shells and bones weaved into their beards, howling like wild animals. Okonkwo disembowels a man with one swipe and then sits on the deck, amidst the blood and the long, stinking coils, while the battle carries on around him, and looks the dying man right in the eye. He sees others stabbed, shot, decapitated. When the smoke clears his side has won. The pirates’ blasted ship sinks slowly into the water. Okonkwo joins the crew in clearing the deck of limbs and bodies. Despite the victory, the patrolmen suffered heavy losses, and the mood aboard the ship is somber.

While clearing the deck he encounters a head: bearded, leathery, eyes and mouth open in an expression of disbelief, black blood crusted around the severed neck. He starts to fling it into the ocean with the other pieces, but something stops him. He holds the head by the hair and carries it to Captain Drudge.

“Sir, a head.”

The Captain stands below deck wiping blood from his coat. “The very head of Brown himself! Well done, Okonkwo.”

“I helped kill the pirates, Captain. I’ve earned my freedom.”

“So you have, Okonkwo,” Drudge says. “So you have.”

 

The King

John Drudge strode into court last night with a human head in a pickle jar. The damned fool could not even wait for daylight, for a proper time to conduct such a transaction. He wanted his reward, of course—and why shouldn’t he? But for God’s sake, man, present the artifact during hours when kings typically receive such prizes: early afternoon, in a shadowy room, when the king has had ample recovery time from last night’s port as well as a midmorning harem visit. But Drudge is an impatient, excitable fellow—such qualities are likely what enabled him to nab Brown in the first place. He had a frightening look in his eye last night, as though capable of anything, and I paid him promptly so that he would leave the court. Most of the guests lost their appetites at the sight of the head. The Queen beside me actually retched onto her plate. The musicians ran away frightened and the jesters slouched away defeated by this garish new entertainment. The head was indeed a disconcerting sight, but what disturbed me more was Drudge’s behaviour: he snatched his sacks of gold and bolted into the night like a wild beast. Now I stare at Brown’s head on the desk before me. I can’t figure out the expression: either surprise or apathy. I’ll have the servant remove it today. What use is a pickled head? With this eyesore gone, I will be able to concentrate on Elsa, sweet Elsa, the only one I truly love….

 

An opportunity

Elsa’s only customer that night was an old sailor with red-rimmed eyes who paid her an entire bag of gold. She didn’t believe it at first. The man must have been out of his mind, or incredibly drunk, or both. He dropped the sack beside the bed and said he wanted a whole night; then sat on the mattress and pulled his boots off. He seemed in no hurry. Elsa scooped up handfuls of coins and let them fall through her fingers. She couldn’t help laughing—this was enough money for a hundred nights. But when she put her face in the bag to smell the gold, she heard a distinct sob and looked up to find the man crying.

She paused with her nose above the bag. The man clutched both elbows and rocked forward on the bed with shaking shoulders. He buried his face in his hands. Elsa didn’t know what to do: nothing like this had ever happened. She approached the man gingerly. He wrapped his arms around her and wept into her shoulder.

All through the night she stroked his thin, lank hair as he lay beside her muttering, “What have I done?” and “God forgive me,” and, “He was my brother, he was my brother.” He left before dawn without even taking his pleasure with her. Elsa never learned the man’s name.

When the sun peeked red through the trees outside her window, Elsa went downstairs and loaded a mule with her scant belongings. A gold coin clattered to the floor as she packed, but she hurried on without it. Madam Hogan would awaken soon, and Elsa wanted to be far away by then—at least to the river, where the water would end her tracks for anyone who might follow.

 

Okonkwo

In London, Okonkwo roamed the streets with nowhere to go. This new land was cold and rainy, and the buildings loomed close around him like monsters. Still, anything was better than the plantation. He reached into his pocket and fingered the papers which guaranteed his freedom. No one could accuse him of being a runaway: he had proof. He used his last coins to buy beer in a tavern. Outside a savage wind had whipped up, and Okonkwo dreaded facing the night alone. He hunched in a dark corner and hoped the barmistress would close up without noticing him—that way he could sleep somewhere warm.

Sometime after midnight Captain Drudge burst in, dropped a heavy sack on the bar, and began drinking. Okonkwo hadn’t expected to see the captain again, and certainly not in this state. Drudge drank enough for ten men, and snarled at anyone who came near him. Whispers circulated around the tavern: That’s the man who killed Brown, the pirate. Everyone gave him a wide berth, but eventually Okonkwo walked over and touched the captain’s shoulder.

“Back away!” the captain shouted. “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire created for the devil and his angels!”

“Captain, it’s me—Okonkwo.”

“Well done, good and faithful servant,” Drudge bawled. “Enter now into the joy of thy lord! I should have died. I deserve to die.”

“What do you mean?” Okonkwo asked.

“Fratricide is the worst of crimes. I should be made to walk the plank into shark-infested waters. I should be crucified upside-down.”

“Captain, you’re talking crazy,” Okonkwo said.

Drudge hurled his beer against the tavern wall. The place grew quiet. Okonkwo felt everyone staring at them. The captain shouted, “Why did I do it? To rid the colonies of a deadly scourge, that’s why! To provide safe travel along the coast! To help establish the utopian ideal in the new world! For these things, I had to give up my own soul!”

The barmistress leaned in. “You blokes had better leave.”

 

The King

Elsa has gone. I arrived at her room early this morning to find it empty. I had with me rubies, diamonds, gifts of unimaginable value, and the hope that she would at last concede and move into the castle. But all that remained was a single gold coin on the wooden floor. Madam Hogan was as surprised as I was. I considered sending the hounds, alerting the countryside—but why bother? Shall I drag Elsa screaming back to my harem, cloister her alongside those other ignorant wenches? I could have done that long ago. Without Elsa’s consent, the entire undertaking would be corrupt.

I requested that I might sit a while in her room, and Madam Hogan obliged. To her I must appear a tired old man. It pains me to admit that’s precisely what I am. Sometimes I even forget that I am king! For what good is kingship without the soul’s companion? What good are wealth and pageantry if you are alone?

Now I gaze out the window through which Elsa gazed for so many years. I turn the gold coin over and over in my fingers. Yes, it’s one of mine, and freshly minted—which means Captain Drudge was here. They ran away together, likely. I cannot persecute Drudge for such elopement. It’s something I should have done myself.

For years I begged Elsa to take her place at my side, but never did I consider leaving the throne to join her. Now it is too late. I want to die. Of course, a king cannot commit suicide unless he is on the verge of being captured by his enemies—then it becomes a noble death. That settles it. A war must be instigated. “The damn French!” I say, as Madam Hogan appears in the doorway. I whirl toward her. “The Russians! The Spanish! The Portuguese! The Germans! We must attack. I will lead the charge.”

Elsa has gone. Lives will be disrupted.

 

from the journal of Captain Drudge:

Brain buzzing with lack of sleep. Okonkwo beside me in the gutter. Our only possessions on our backs. My ship—I must get back to my ship. Okonkwo will come with me. He longs to return to Africa. Does he have a woman there? Will he have one for me? Will those black children poke at me with their fingers to see if I am real? Will I paint myself with ochre, cover my genitals with palm fronds, twist my hair into one long matted tangle, grow my beard to my collarbone, gyrate around a fire while the tribe watches, endure ritual scarring, force rings through my ears and nose, stalk a hyena through the nighttime brush to prove my worth as a man?

Okonkwo and I sail tonight by the light of the moon. We set our course for Africa—the birthplace of man—the new birthplace of John Drudge as well.

As children Brown and I sliced our forearms and pressed them together. Forgive me, my brother. I will set things right.

 

Two servants

“Whose head you reckon this is?”

“Some villain’s.”

“Our own heads may end up this way someday.”

“Speak for yourself—I live a quiet life.”

“Ah, but war may break out at any time—and then you will be called into the king’s royal service.”

“Cannon fodder?”

“Precisely.”

“The expression on this head vexes me.”

“Is it disgust or acceptance?”

“It is no emotion known to man. Only to God.”

“What shall we do with it? It seems wrong to just toss it out with the garbage, villain or no.”

“Let’s drop it down the well. A watery grave for this black-hearted brigand.”

“Shall we say a few words first?”

“Fie! Enough words have been said already.”

 

Brown

The jar plunks into the water, is carried along an underground river, flushed into the ocean—even sharks won’t eat it once they see the expression on the face—and gets lodged in the sand. There it stays for many years, until circumstances set it adrift again: earthquakes, tidal shifts, eruptions of mountains or continental plates breaking apart. It floats along the ocean floor—radiant gelatinous life-forms glide by now and then to illuminate the open-mouthed look—it drifts forever in search of its body, even though that body has long since been devoured, bones and all, by hundreds of frenzied mouths (and then, later, by the more laconic scavengers who digest what scraps of keratin remain)—the body is gone, but that preserved brain doesn’t know it, will never know it, and is in fact only waiting for a response to the synapse that was fired downward asking just exactly what the bloody hell was going on.

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