It was a warm October night in Nassau. The streets and homes were silent with the stillness of night. A light autumn breeze blew through the air, wafting the smell of the sea salt spray from the crashing waves along the shore. Shutters were secured on the homes and shops lining the cobblestone streets. Children were all tucked into their beds, dreaming of wonderful, peaceful things. Except for Mary Rackham. She lied awake on her mattress, staring up at the wooden beamed ceiling as the nightmare played through her mind. A nightmare that she was all too familiar with since she was a little girl.
At least once a week, the same nightmare crept into Mary’s unconsciousness, and it always played out the same. As usual, it would startle her awake as well. It was almost impossible to return to sleep afterwards.
The boat rocked from side to side. A woman, no more than 18 years old, nestled close to her newborn baby girl on the bed within the captain’s chamber. The baby slept so peacefully, but the new mother awoke every few minutes with the slightest creak of the ship’s hull and the thundering of boots hitting the deck outside the doors. They were finally nearing their port where they would hide away for the rest of their life, never to be chased by privateers and naval ships again. All she had wanted since she discovered her pregnancy was to have a fresh start with her husband, James.
The above deck footsteps turned into quick thundering stomps. Shouts to the below decks rang with a sense of urgency. The woman began to sit up in the bed, careful not to stir her sleeping infant. The shadows beyond the doors moved in rushed blurs. Suddenly, a familiar figure barged through the doors, startling the once peaceful baby.
“Anne,” the man began, worry spread across his face and his usual ivory colored face flushed from running along the deck. “It’s the Spaniards. They’re gaining on us and a leak has sprung below deck.” The man began opening drawers and shoving clothes inside a sack.
Gathering the crying baby in her arms, Anne quickly slid out of the bed. “James, what are you doing? Why are you packing our garments?”
James had finished grabbing clothes and started stowing his most precious gems and small treasures amongst the clothing. “Jack is going to row you and Mary safely to shore in the rowboat. Once you have some distance from the ship, we will turn around and head towards the Spaniards. Buy you some time to reach land.”
Anne shook her head. Her mind felt as if it was spinning. “Why can’t you fix the leak and make it to shore?”
“Anne, we won’t make it. We are anchored right now to patch the hole. If we were to keep sailing, we would lose all speed and be sunk before we could reach shore. Or worse, the Spaniards could gain on us and sink us themselves.”
Anne’s heart felt as if it would break in two. “I will not leave you,” she said, reaching her shaking hand out to grab her husband’s which was now shoving food into a second sack.
James paused his packing and caressed her cheek. “I will meet you in Nassau in a few days time. You’re only a day from shore.” He wiped the tears that were now spilling from her eyes and tucked a loose loch of her red curly hair behind her ear. He leaned down and kissed his child’s head. “Take care of our Mary for me. I love you both,” and tossing the sacks over his shoulder, he hurried out his cabin to the rowboat that was being rigged to be lowered to the water line.
Anne gathered her courage, a few of the wool blankets from the bed, took possibly her last look at the cabin that had become her home over the past few years, and headed out into the frigid sea spray air. She kept her little baby, now wide eyed and trying to observe the raucous around her, bundled up inside the blankets. The deck was organized chaos. Men were running above and below decks, attempting to patch the hole below deck, and preparing for imminent battle. A few were helping James’ first mate, Jack, who was already inside the boat, lower it to the water. The only light was what little the stars and moon provided. Anne headed to the port side railing and looked back to see the outline of the Spaniards’ brig, illuminated by the string of their below deck lights and scattered above deck lanterns, at the horizon. Such fools, she thought, if they were trying to sail with the element of surprise. With the Spaniard’s lit decks, James’ crew still had an advantage—they would be invisible to the Spaniards until they either gained speed or James’ ship, The Grand Mary, remained idle in its present position too long from the hole patching attempt.
“Anne,” Jack Rackham called from the edge of the ship, “It’s time.” Jack was a young sailor, perhaps nineteen, who had been sailing with Anne and James for two years now. He had been a cabin boy for the privateer, Captain Anderson, but had begged for mercy when The Grand Mary had attacked and sunk Anderson’s ship. James, always having a soft spot for young souls, gladly welcomed him aboard. Now, two years later, Jack had become James’ first mate, to many discomforted feelings from the older crewmembers. Nonetheless, the crew followed his orders, lest they be marooned by James. Jack was a different soul compared to the others. He let his youth show with his boisterous jokes at all times of day, his long black hair that he refused to tie back, and his brightly colored and mismatched clothing. Anne could not recall a time when he did not wear an orange or purple vest. He practically swung from the hanging lines or jumped from deck to deck during the day. The only time he ever seemed serious was in his sleep, when he was finally silent, and now. As he arranged the various filled sacks in the rowboat, his bushy black brows were furrowed together, his mouth a firm line. Every couple moments, his eyes would flicker aft of the ship to make sure the Spaniards hadn’t appeared from the mist behind them.
Anne took a deep breath and crossed the deck. She ran her hand along the wooden railing. What would become of her and James’ ship? She choked back the tears so to maintain her strong and tough persona to the crew that now had stopped to watch her leave. A few had lowered their hats and bowed their heads in respect, as if she was their captain. She supposed that after sailing with them as James’ real first mate she had somewhat become a second captain for them. And majority of them that had remained on the ship those three years had become her family. She stole a glance at all of them as her baby cooed in her arms. A short, round man with only a few grey hairs remaining on his balding head made an almost choking noise from crying. Abraham, known to the crew as “Cookie” for being their cook, was like a grandfather to Anne. He always snuck her sweet treats he made just for her while she was pregnant. Her heart broke not knowing when or if she would see him again. She knew the crew looked to her for hope in hardships. As was ritual before their battles, she cleared her throat and gave what she dreaded would be their last motivational speech. “Men, do not shed a tear. This is not good bye. We have brought havoc to the English and Spaniards alike for three years. We have witnessed numerous losses, but it is you who stand before me that have proven the ultimate strength. Though I may not be with you, you will fight like the hell fury I know you are,” she paused to swallow back the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes. “And we will meet again on the Nassau shore in days time.” Though as she voiced it, she became even more sure that her words were untrue. If lying was what made the men fight with their whole effort though, then so be it.
James, whom had been standing by her side, cradled his hand along the back of her head and pulled her into a kiss. The kiss felt like it would never be long enough. His lips met Anne’s with gentle yet great power as though this may in fact be their last, as if they could burn the memory into their minds. Anne took a deep breath in her nose as to memorize his scent. She focused on the rough calluses she could feel on his hand that held her face and entwined in her hair. All too quickly, he had pulled away and was helping her to the ladder that descended over the railing. “Promise me this isn’t goodbye,” she whispered, looking into his face and trying to memorize the color of his deep blue eyes and every age line and scar that graced his face. Perhaps if he promised, then they really would make it to shore safely. She would have no reason to fret, she tried to reason with herself.
“My dear, I never make promises. However,” he paused untying a leather chord from around his neck and slipping off his thumb the gold ring inset with a large ruby he had worn since Anne had known him. He slipped it through the chord and tied it around his wife’s neck. The ring lie just above her cleavage that peeked out from her chemise. “Whether I am near or far, whenever you wear this, I am with you.”
Anne’s breath caught and the salty tears she had fought back so hard broke her again. He leaned down and kissed his daughter’s head one last time, his own tears staining her soft dark brown hair. Then, he took Anne’s hand and guided her over the railing onto the ladder. She held one hand tightly underneath her baby’s bottom, the other guiding herself down to the row boat that Jack had been using his strength to hold next to the boat with minimal rocking.
As Anne stepped into the rowboat safely, James called over the ship, “Give Mary my love!”
And then she woke up. Some nights she would wake up to the startling canon fire in her dream, almost as if it were right outside her house. The dream felt so real, as if a distant memory. It was impossible for the dream to be real, though. Her mother had said so when she recounted the dream to her.
“Now Mary,” her mom would start, “Why on Earth would you believe such a sad tale to be true? Your father is Jack, and he surely is not a pirate. That is an unspeakable crime. Now, mention this fable to no one else lest you want the governor’s soldiers out for mine and your fathers’ heads.
But as Mary had gotten older, she began to notice her parents speaking in more hushed tones. When Mary would walk by, her mother would quickly shut the door. When her dad was home from sea, random burly and untidy men would visit the house and speak to her parents. The men always wore sea faring clothes, but Mary could always see the shape of a pistol hidden beneath their blouses. Anne would make Mary go outside to tend to the animals, or head into town to fetch random items so the “adults could converse in private.” Perhaps the men were just part of her father’s crew. Their visits did cease once her father went out to sea. Or maybe she was just making it all up in her head, making suspicions from nothing. Mary felt she would never discover the real answer though.
Mary rolled back on her side, squeezing her eyes shut in hope that sleep would find her. But her mind was past the point of sleep. She couldn’t stop thinking about the dream and what it meant. How had she been able to think of such a scene? Why did it feel so realistic? Who was James? And why did he seem so familiar? Why did she imagine a perfect younger description of her parents in the first place?
After what felt like an hour of tossing and turning, Mary decided there was only one thing she could do that would ease her mind, though he mother would greatly disapprove. Rolling out of bed, she quietly pulled out a pair of navy blue breeches she had stolen from her father’s wardrobe. Though he was much taller than Mary, she was much curvier and filled out the waist of the pants without problem. Mary had haphazardly hemmed their length to properly fit her when her mother had gone into town and left her to complete her household chores. She removed her night dress and replaced it with a white buttoned blouse and a navy blue waistcoat that her friend Samuel, the blacksmith’s apprentice, had snuck to her. Samuel and Serina, the governor’s daughter, were both the same age as Mary, sixteen. Whenever Samuel and Mary were not busy with chores and work, they would meet up with Serina. The three of them would all spend time together near the village square, usually imagining they were the most dangerous pirates of the cobblestone seas or sailing through the dangerous waters of the Ayers’ garden.
Mary pulled her dark brown wavy lochs back from her face and secured them with a leather strip as most boys in town did. Glancing in the looking glass that was illuminated by the moonlight shining through the open window, she was proud that her appearance could possibly pass as a cabin boy from one of the ships moored at the pier. Rummaging through the bottom of her wardrobe drawer, she found her white knee highs. Lastly, she reached under her bed for Samuel’s hand down square buckle shoes. Samuel had gone through a growth spurt recently and all his clothes no longer fitted him. Samuel managed to sneak some to Mary as he knew she liked to sneak out at night to go to the pier. Both realized it was much safer to do so disguised as a boy than risk being preyed upon by some of the drunk sailors at the pubs.
Now that Mary had successfully disguised herself, she snuck out the window, landing on the ground with a quiet thud, and took off in the night. The walk to the shore was not a long. The street lined homes’ shutters were all safely secured, the goats, sheep, and chickens sleeping soundly in their makeshift huts and coops. It was almost impossible to imagine that this part of the town was the liveliest, next to the town center which of course was the center of life for all who traded their crops, meat, and goods. The closer she got to the shore, the sandier the street became until the cobblestones were covered with an inch layer of packed sand. The pubs were always loud with cheers and music. The brothels’ windows were illuminated by candlelight should the wench of the room be available.
Mary’s mother always gossiped of the pubs with the other village women. It was always funny to overhear the elder women speak of who’s husband was seen downing too many drinks or who was seen bedding a whore. They spoke as if it was the most dire news to hear, though Mary would rather hear news from the sea or from England. Mary snuck a glance inside the windows of the pub she was approaching, The Hog’s Head. There were men waving their beer tankards, wenches practically draping themselves over the improper townsmen and fishermen. Three men playing the accordion, fife, and fiddle, were perched in the back on small stools. Though she was raised to call their actions improper, the patrons all looked happy. Mary didn’t allow her feet to hesitate on the path though, to avoid the slouched over town drunks that littered the entrance and dark corners of the building. Though disguised as a boy, she did not want to risk someone noticing her attempted trick.
The sound of Mary’s footsteps changed from quiet whispers of the sand to small thunks as she stepped onto the wooden pier. She followed it until she got to an edge that was vacant of a boat’s mooring and sat down, allowing her feet to dangle and just miss the edge of the water. She found peace in being able to look out at the horizon, seeing the moonlight catch the reflection of the clear blue ocean. How wonderful it would be to sail along that horizon, she thought to herself. The smell of sea salt was much thicker in the air than back at her house. She closed her eyes and imagined the wind blowing her worries away. Listening to the music being carried out the pub, she imagined what it would be like to be a carefree sailor. They would have no one to worry about but themselves. They could sail to the edge of the sea, discover lands unknown, and legendary treasures. For the moment, she sat on the pier imagining a different life, not bothering about keeping track of the time she spent.
“You’re not going to jump, are you?” A gruff voice asked from behind her, startling Mary from her thoughts.
Mary jumped up from fright, but lost her balance on pier’s ledge and fell back into the water. She let out a small scream as she fell below, splash and sudden chill of the water encompassing her. She waved her arms frantically, looking around into the dark water unable to see anything. She felt a strong hand grasp her arm and another fall beneath her arm pit to hoist her out of the water. The air felt much colder than before she had entered the water.
“I got you,” he huffed, as he stumbled backwards and fell on his back with Mary secured safely against his warm, hard chest. Without realizing what she was doing, Mary started coughing up the salt water, directly onto the man’s chest. Her hair that was once secured now cascading in wet ringlets around her shoulders, and her throat and nose burned from swallowing too much sea salt. She looked up at her rescuer’s face and her breath caught in her throat. He had the most beautiful deep blue eyes she had ever seen that sparkled from the moonlight. His brown hair that fell to his shoulders contained a few random small braids. His breath smelled of sweet tobacco, reminding her of her father when he smoked his pipe at night reading the Nassau Times journal while mother sat in the family room reading a book in the candlelight.
Suddenly, Mary’s brain caught up to her and she realized that was laying on top of a man, while disguised as a boy no less. Scattering out of his arms, she got to her feet.
The man let out a deep chuckle and got to his feet as well. He towered over her by at least a foot! “I apologize,” he began looking her over to ensure she was unharmed, “I did not mean to startle you.” Mary was unsure how to answer. She had never seen this man in town. “What’s a lady such as yourself doing at the pier in the middle of the night?” he inquired, edging closer to her and brushing the back of his hand gently against her cheek.
For a moment, Mary almost forgot how to talk. Shit, she thought, My cover has been blown, and I didn’t even have the decency to bring a weapon.