Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

There were two figures in the stinking, airless cell but Davy Jones had only come for one of them. In her turn, the first paid him no more mind than she did the rat in the corner. The second, the one whose soul he’d come for, was otherwise occupied, lying swollen-bellied and gasping on the dirty floor. Davy Jones had had little reason to be present at many births before and watched the process with a kind of dispassionate horror. Every so often the woman would gasp and cry out and as she did so something inside her would tear and she would inch a little closer to death.

Jones pulled his fisherman’s knife, a wicked-looking blade of age-dulled iron, from his belt. The birth looked like it would be a long, drawn-out process and there was no need for him to waste time here.

‘I wouldn’t be doing that,’ a woman’s voice said from the darkness, and, for a moment, Jones actually believed the darkness had spoken. It was that kind of voice: deep and rich with an island lilt running through it like fruitcake shot through with rum.

Davy Jones was as unused to being contradicted as he was to being recognised by the living, although he very much doubted that ‘living’ was the right word for the woman addressing him.

‘Maman Brigitte,’ he said, turning to survey her. She was one of the new voodoo loa that had arrived as the slave trade got established. He couldn’t see much of her in the cell, apart from an impression of age, and her voice was as cool and unreadable as water.

‘Davy Jones,’ the spirit replied. There was something about that voice that made him nervous: an odd glimmer of amusement tucked away under the coolness. ‘You keep on moving, you old sea devil. This one’s one of mine.’

‘She’s Mary Read, a pirate and a murderess. Besides, she’s sentenced to hang for it,’ Davy Jones countered primly. ‘That makes her mine.’

‘She won’t live long enough to hang,’ Maman Brigitte countered. She had once been a goddess, he remembered unbidden: a protector of women or something of that sort. He had seen her on shipwrecks sometimes, leading the souls of female passengers and the odd Polly Oliver to safety. Since such persons seldom seemed to be sunk into lives of vice he had let them go. But this woman was another story. ‘She won’t survive the birth. And that makes her mine. Now get gone and give the poor girl some privacy; we’ll settle it when she’s done.’

‘You’ll slip her soul away the second I turn my back.’

‘Ain’t nothing more I can do to ease her suffering.’ Maman Brigitte shook her head. ‘Fever killed her baby dead inside her and the death got into her blood. She won’t die until it’s finished. The baby still has to be born, see.’

‘Fair’s fair then,’ Jones said. ‘You take the baby; I’ll take the mother.’

‘Didn’t you ever hear of King Solomon?’ Maman Brigitte scolded. ‘I’ll leave with both or not at all.’

‘A contest, then,’ Jones suggested. ‘That’s the traditional way of settling these things. Do you play the violin at all?’

‘Challenged party sets the rules.’ For all her lilting accent, Maman Brigitte’s voice was as sharp as a tack. ‘We’ll set each other impossible tasks. First one to fail loses.’

‘Very well,’ Davy Jones replied. ‘Would you care to start?’

Mary Read bit off a moan and Maman Brigitte crossed to squat down beside her and push her hair away from her sticky forehead.

‘Bring me every anchor chain in the Caribbean,’ she commanded. ‘And make it quick.’

Out on the dark counterpane of the sea, ships drifted free of their nighttime moorings and embarked on their own moonlit wanderings. In the harbours the smaller crafts jostled each other impatiently, smashing their lifeboats into firewood. It was scarcely five minutes before the hundreds of leagues of rope and chain were coiled neatly in the corner of the cell, taking up little more room than Jones himself.

Jones smiled humourlessly. ‘Tell me how many trees there are on the island.’

Maman Brigitte didn’t so much as look up. ‘Fifteen thousand, one hundred and three.’

Jones scowled. ‘I meant for you to count.’

‘Should have told me to count then,’ Maman Brigitte sniffed, adjusting Mary’s skirts, so that she could see what was going on, but he could not. ‘She’s at a difficult stage. If you want to know for sure you’ll have to count them yourself. But don’t go thinking you’ll get such an easy task off me when the time comes.’

Jones growled and set off, the air swirling behind him like a small tornado.

‘Well, that’s him out of the way,’ Maman Brigitte muttered, turning her attention back to the pirate.

After two hours of encouragement, bullying, coaxing and threats the baby was born in a slippery rush. It was scarcely a baby at all: just a half-formed fleshy thing with an indistinct shade tangled up in it. Maman Brigitte had just separated the two of them when Davy Jones slumped back into the cell, looking defeated.

‘I don’t understand how,’ he admitted grudgingly. ‘But you were right. What would you have me do next?’

‘Bring me an armful of amaranth blossoms,’ Maman Brigitte told him. ‘The proper ones, mind. None of those carvings you get nowadays.’

‘But they’ve been extinct in this world for over three thousand years,’ Jones protested.

‘Then go look in another one,’ Maman Brigitte told him. In less time than it took to blink there was nothing in the cell but herself, the dead baby and its half-dead mother.

‘That should have bought us some time,’ she frowned, turning her attention to Mary Read. She was hanging onto life by a thread, her breathing slow and faint. Maman Brigitte pushed down on her stomach, helping guide the afterbirth out. It came away after a final push and Mary’s life came out after it, her spectral skin giving off a faint glow in the dark cell. The shade put a hand to her stomach, which was now unaccountably as flat as it had ever been in life.

‘What did you do?’ she asked Maman Brigitte in wonder. ‘I thought I was dead for sure.’ She quailed as Maman Brigitte gave her a long, hard look. ‘Oh. Oh.’

‘You slip back into your body and lie still when he gets back,’ Maman Brigitte told her. ‘It won’t do for him to know you’re already dead.’

Mary looked at the bloated carcass with distaste. ‘Supposing I get trapped…’

‘Ain’t nothing that can tie you to that thing now,’ Maman Brigitte told her. ‘You hold the baby until he gets back: you might not get another chance.’

‘Seems like a lot of effort for something that’s not even really alive,’ Mary said. ‘It would have been a lot less fuss to just hang with the rest of the crew.’

Maman Brigitte, who had seen more than enough women die of both, didn’t deny it. Instead she watched as Mary took the baby anyway and let it grasp her finger in its spectral hands.

‘He’s coming,’ she said after a while. ‘Give the baby to me and lie still.’

Davy Jones arrived a few seconds later with purple amaranth blossoms spilling out of his sinewy sailor’s arms and scattering the floor with petals. They smelled something between honey and frankincense with just a touch of sunlight.

‘Your turn,’ he told her, with a humourless smile. ‘Bring me the reflection of the moon.’

Usually this was the point in the contest where Davy Jones knew he had won. The reflection of the moon was a good task, which was why he used it so often. Counting trees was technically possible and there was usually some kind of spirit who would agree to help the damned soul for a price. But when Jones asked souls to bring him the reflection of the moon, more often than not they simply conceded defeat and followed him straight to hell. Maman Brigitte simply sniffed.

‘Is that all?’ She asked, producing a small, tarnished mirror from somewhere inside her clothing and holding it up to the narrow barred window so moonlight played over the walls of the cell.

‘I said bring it to me,’ Davy Jones said, stepping out of the range of the beams. ‘I let you cheat once, old woman, but I’ll be damned if I let you do it again.’

‘You are damned,’ Mama Brigitte told him. The cell was stifling hot, but her voice made him shiver and for a moment the very air seemed to crackle as though there was a thunderstorm on the horizon. ‘And just you remember who you’re talking to. You might think what Yahweh’s done to you is bad, but just you wait ’til you cross me.’ She handed him the mirror, with the silvery light of the moon still inexplicably caught in its surface. ‘Now go and fetch me a cudgel the exact right weight for me to swing.’

It was scarcely a minute before Davy Jones was back in the cell, bearing a cudgel of dark wood. Maman Brigitte weighed it experimentally in her hands and swung it twice like an old woman.

‘Why, this handle will never do,’ she said, raising it for him to examine. ‘Just look at it.’

‘Madame, I assure you,’ Jones began, but never finished, because at that moment Maman Brigitte swung the cudgel in a long, strong arc and brought it down on his head with bone-crushing force. Quick as a flash she grabbed the anchor chains, shouting to the shade of Mary Read to help her, and between the two of them they had him trussed up like a Sunday chicken.

‘That should keep him,’ Maman Brigitte said, when she was sure they were done. ‘He won’t bother you again, not where you’re going.’

‘Where am I going?’ Mary asked. ‘I really did everything he said, you know. I’d hate to escape him only to end up having to explain myself to St Peter.’

‘There’s more afterlives than that,’ Maman Brigitte told her. ‘You might get into Elysium if you tried, or if you’d prefer there’s always Fiddler’s Green: lots of dashing corsairs and naval captains and scarcely a woman in sight. You might even find that husband of yours there.’

‘And Anne?’ Mary asked. ‘What about Anne? Suppose Davy Jones…’

‘I’ll take care of Anne,’ Maman Brigitte told her. ‘I know just the place to hide her away. And I’ll tell her where you’ve gone. That way she can follow you when she’s ready.’‘Will you tell her… tell her…’ Mary trailed off, looking desperate and wretched.

‘I’ll tell her,’ Mama Brigitte said, taking her arm. ‘Now come on. We should get going before that old devil wakes up.’

Suddenly there were two realities: a forest path, which had always been there and always would be, and the stone cell, which would stand for a few centuries at most. The two women walked into the forest, growing smaller and smaller, until there was no trace left of them in the stone cell apart from the faint smell of the woods and far-off cooking fires.