The Three Snuff Children
a hedgehog and two dogs

WHEN PURSUED, a sasquatch will often jump into a creek or river and hide under the brush and tree branches that dip into the water near the bank. With only its black nose and brown eyes above the waterline, the sasquatch becomes nearly invisible, and is perfectly safe from all but the most expert of sasquatch hunters.

     The most expert of sasquatch hunters in the entire Pacific Northwest was John Murphy Mortimer. It was a great misfortune of the sasquatch to have a pelt that was waterproof, warm as a mother’s hug, and smelled delightfully of myrtle and huckleberries. A skilled hunter like John Murphy Mortimer could make good money—a fortune, really—killing them and shipping their hides to the great cities of the east, where they fetched a high price as carriage robes.

     When there were no more sasquatch left for him to hunt, Mortimer built a fine castle on a hill overlooking the Umpqua River, a few miles west of present-day Elkton. When the castle was finished, he married and moved in with his bride. Then the years passed as they inevitably do.

     One drizzly autumn day, twenty years after Mortimer carried his bride across the threshold of his castle, Mortimer’s valet, Mr. Parks, went to find his master to inform him of the arrival of an important guest. Mr. Parks found Mortimer, as he often did that time of year, standing under the brilliant red-orange leaves of a maple tree growing on the banks of the Umpqua. Mortimer was a handsome man, just turned fifty, well-built and of average stature. He had a high hooked nose, full lips, green eyes, and a low forehead topped with an abundance of black curls that tumbled about his shoulders. He appeared to be deep in thought. The servant imagined that Mortimer was thinking about the (presumed) late Mrs. Mortimer, Jenny. Ah, what tragedies John and Jenny had suffered together. Jenny Mortimer was with child three times, and each time, the babe came into this world and left it in the same hour. And then one day, not long after the birth and death of their third child, Jenny Mortimer was stolen from the castle by pirates. She had not been seen or heard from in the last fourteen years.

     Some said the pirates were the crew of the notorious freighter Caliban, though no one knew for sure, as their ship had glided unseen into Winchester Bay on a moonless night. The pirates dropped anchor in an artful way, making no more splash than a raindrop. They lowered the longboat with equal care, and then, armed with cutlasses and pistols, rowed up the tortuous curves of the Umpqua River to Mortimer’s castle. These pirates were so cunning that their armaments proved not only unnecessary, but a burden. They got away with two sacksful of silver and gold, and a third sack full of Jenny Mortimer, without waking a single soul in the castle. When they got back to the longboat, they found they had more loot than the boat would bear. In order to accommodate silver and gold, they abandoned iron and steel, leaving their cutlasses and pistols in a heap under the very maple tree where John Mortimer now stood.

     In order to prevent misunderstandings now and recriminations later, the reader is advised that much of what has been described in the preceding two paragraphs is as seen through the filmy eyes and interpreted in the loyalty-addled brain of a credulous old servant. Suffice it to say Mr. Parks was wrong about a lot of things. For example, Mortimer was not thinking about Jenny, but about elk. It had recently occurred to him that an elk’s hide, if cut a certain way, and perfumed just so, might pass for the hide of a sasquatch. A man of action, Mortimer had already put certain aspects of a plan related to that idea into motion, and was now eagerly awaiting results.

     “Mr. Mortimer, sir,” Parks said, “sorry to interrupt your reveries, but the fragrantologist you were expecting has arrived. He has with him the scent you asked him to create, and he is eager for you to . . . well, give it a whiff, sir.”

      “Ah! Good! Lead on, Mr. Parks.” Mortimer turned his back on the river, and followed Mr. Parks up the path to the castle.

     Just then, one golden leaf fell from the maple tree. It descended as slowly and silently as a longboat being lowered into dark, still, waters on a moonless night by stealthy pirates. A breeze carried the leaf away from the tree and set it down in the middle of the Umpqua River.

     By the following evening, the current had carried the leaf to the mouth of the river, where it floated past the Otter, a little steamer that delivered the mail to every town and settlement on the Umpqua from Reedsburg to Elkton. The leaf spun around in the Otter’s wake, then continued on its way out to sea, and the steamer, headed in the opposite direction, chugged by a humble cottage on the banks of the river, where Pompano McKeady, a poor fisherman, was having a supper of fish soup with his wife Zingel and their three children.

     Hake was Pompano’s eldest, a well-built young man nearing eighteen, with a high hooked nose, green eyes, and tousled blond hair. Cobia was the middle child, a girl on the verge of womanhood, and well on her way to becoming a great beauty, with full lips, golden locks and piercing blue eyes. Gurnard was the youngest, a rotund boy with big round eyes that always looked surprised, a low forehead, and an abundance of black curls that tumbled about his shoulders.

     Pompano set his wooden spoon down into his wooden bowl. “I’ve got something to say,” he said, and at that, his wife and children set down their own spoons and assumed appropriate attitudes of attention.

     “Many a long year was I married to Zingel,” Pompano said, “and yet we remained childless. We prayed to the Good Lord to send us a baby—and he did, though not in the customary way. One day, near eighteen years ago, I cast my line into the Umpqua River, and hoisted out a newborn baby boy, my hook in his little ear. Hake, it is time you know the truth: I am not your true father, and Zingel is not your true mother.”

     “Mother?” Hake said.

     “It’s true,” Zingel said. “You were not fetched out of me, you were fetched out of the Umpqua River, wet and wriggling like a fish. But we have always loved you as much as if you were our own.”

     “Then I must go now and seek out my true kin.”

     “Hake, my good son,” Pompano said, “I wish I were a wealthy man with gold to give you to help you make your way in the wide world. But I am only a poor fisherman, and all I have for you is this . . .” Pompano reached into one of the many pockets of his fisherman’s trousers and retrieved a socket wrench. “It was my father’s before it was mine, and it would have been his father’s before his, only my father lost the one his father gave him and had to buy another. Well, in any case, it’s yours now.”

     “Thank you father,” Hake said, taking the socket wrench. “I am away.”

     “I’m not surprised,” Cobia said, as Hake walked out the door. “Hake never could fish a wit better than a cow. I’ll bet he’s the bastard child of a herd-boy.”

     “Hush,” Zingel said. “That’s no way to talk about your brother.”

     “He’s no brother of mine,” Cobia replied.

     “True enough,” Zingel said, “but have you never wondered about that scar upon your thumb?”

     Gurnard, who had resumed eating his soup as soon as Hake left the table, laughed so hard at this new revelation that fish soup gushed from his nose. “I knew it all along!” he cried, when he had recovered himself sufficiently to speak. “Cobia can’t fish a wit better than the stub of a candle. She is the bastard child of a candlemaker for certain.”

     “Is it true, good mother?” Cobia said. “Am I not your natural-born daughter?

     “Cobia,” Zingel said solemnly, “we love you as though you were our own, but I am not your true mother, and Pompano is not your true father.”

     Cobia stood up. “Then like my somewhat-brother Hake,” she said, “I must go and seek my true kin.”

     “I have given everything I have of value to Hake,” Pompano said. “I have nothing left for you but this advice: When you go out into the wide world a-seeking, do not give up until you find what you are searching for.”

     “Thank you, father,” Cobia said. “I am away.”

     “Good riddance,” Gurnard said, as Cobia walked out the door.

     “Gurnard!” Zingel said, “You shouldn’t talk that way about your sister.”

     “She’s no kin to me,” Gurnard said.

     “True enough,” Zingel replied, “but have you never wondered about that scar upon your big toe?”

     “Aw, hell,” Gurnard said. “I should have known. I can’t fish one wit better than a wig. No doubt I am the bastard child of a wigmaker.” And with that, he, too, was gone out into the wide world, in search of his true kin.

     Zingel dipped her wooden spoon into her soup, but Pompano did not. “Is there more you have to say?” Zingel said.

     “Aye,” Pompano said, “there is more to tell. A year before I fished Hake out of the river, I was coming home with a good catch when I met three maidens herding cattle through a green meadow. They were so alike one to the other, I knew they must be sisters. One of them said to me, ‘Halloo, fisherman! What a sad face for such a sunny day. Did you not fill your creel?’ I told them I wasn’t sad because I was fishless, I was sad because I was childless. They told me that if I gave each of them a gift, they would help me.”

     “Help you? How?”

     “They said they were great, thundersum prayer-makers, and if they prayed for me, the Good Lord couldn’t help but hear them, and without a doubt, He would send us the fattest, yappingest, child we could ever want.”

      “So you gave them each a fish—”

     “No, Zingel, not a fish. I had my snuffbox with me, and my gift to the maidens was a pinch apiece. One year to the day later, I fished Hake out of the river, two years after that, Cobia, and two years after Cobia, Gurnard.”

     “Three maidens, three pinches, and three babies fished out of the river!” Zingel said. “Pompano, I believe you entertained angels unawares! Why have you never told me this before?”

     “In truth, Zingel, I hadn’t thought of it in many a long year. But this very evening, as I was coming home with a fine catch, I was walking through that same green meadow, and took a pinch out of my snuffbox. I gave a great sneeze, and I remembered the three maidens as clearly as though I had only just said good day to them. But Zingel, I wonder if those maidens were angels—or something else!”

     “What do you mean?”

     “Though each one took a pinch, I believe only one of them sneezed! The other two made exaggerated motions, which I believe were meant to disperse the snuff into the wind without my noticing, after which they loudly proclaimed: snuff! snuff! And then: achoo! achoo!—Imitation sneezes, Zingel.”

     “You think those two maidens were . . .”

     “Aye, Zingel, faeries! It is well known that a faery can’t sneeze, as they don’t have nostrils—only dimples enough to give the appearance.”

     “But what of the maiden who did sneeze?”

     “An honest girl with false faery sisters, is what I think, her true sisters stolen away as babies, and replaced with faeries.

     “And Hake, Cobia, and Gurnard; faery children all?

     “No, Zingel. Do you not recall the knotty phlegm that spewed forth from their wee noses whenever they were afflicted with the hangles? I don’t think a child—even a faery child—could cultivate such great green clots in a mere dimple. No, our babies are honest babies, but there are faeries mixed up in this somehow, I am sure of it.”

     “Oh, how I miss them, Pompano!”

     “So do I, Zingel.”

     As Pompano and Zingel ate their fish soup in lonesome silence, the Otter wound its way upstream, and by the following evening, had delivered a letter from Boston to Mortimer’s castle. Mr. Parks, who had been told by his master to inform him immediately should a letter from Boston arrive, once again went in search of Mortimer, and once again found him in contemplation under the red and gold leaves of the old maple tree. Mortimer read the letter, folded it carefully, put it back into the envelope, and said nothing. Mr. Parks waited patiently for instructions.

     “When is dinner?” Mortimer said presently.

     “About an hour, sir,” Parks replied.

     “Thank you Mr. Parks. You may go. I won’t be late for dinner.”

     “You never are, sir,” Parks said.

     There was good news and bad news in the letter. The good news was that Mortimer’s wholesaler in Boston said he would eagerly purchase as many sasquatch hides as Mortimer cared to send him. The bad news was that the rest of the letter—the preponderance of the letter—was a scorching polemic directed against those scoundrels trying to pass elk hides off as sasquatch.

     There was another hitch in Mortimer’s plans as well—the scent. A dab on the wrist would make a man smell more like a sasquatch than a sasquatch, but when applied to the hide of an elk—Mortimer grimaced—well, some sort of unwanted chemical reaction must be taking place. He would have to hire yet another expert. And as if that weren’t bothersome enough, there was the matter of the wedding. His wife’s sisters had convinced him that a man of his stature must have an heir, and then they had confused him into agreeing to marry one of them. Preparations for the wedding were already proceeding apace, and he couldn’t even remember which one he was supposed to marry.

     He had a thought. His wife was a powerful witch—maybe she could do something regarding the elk hides. Some spell to banish the . . . elkiness of them. He frowned. Jenny would hardly be inclined to do him any favors. Still, it never hurt to ask, and he had not become the important and powerful man he was by being timid. He placed the letter into the pocket of his vest and as he did so, he felt something cold and hard, and he retrieved from that same pocket a Spanish dollar. As a child, he’d been quite the accomplished stone-skipper—and what a skipping stone this coin would make! But to throw a perfectly good silver dollar into the river! Then again, why not? A hundred men could throw silver dollars into the river all day long, and it would not amount to a teaspoon lifted from the ocean of his wealth. He cocked his arm and threw. The coin hit the water and sank immediately. Cursing, Mortimer turned away from the river and hurried down a path—not the one that Parks had taken up to the castle, but the one that led to a hidden iron door embedded into the hillside under the castle.

     Day after day, the silver dollar was pushed relentlessly along the river bottom by the Umpqua’s current, until it washed ashore near the cottage where Pompano and Zingel were having their supper.

     “How long has it been since our children left us?” Zingel said.

     “A year and a day,” Pompano replied.

     “A year and a day? It seems like only moments ago! It feels as though I am only finishing the soup I started when they left us to find their own true kin.”

     “I feel the same way, dear Zingel. Our lives have become so quiet and monotonous that it is difficult to tell one day from the next. Nonetheless, exactly a year and a day has passed since our children left home. I am certain of it.”

     “Will we ever lay eyes on them again?”

     “I don’t think so,” Pompano said sadly, just as Hake burst through the door. Hake was wearing the heavy boots, green overalls, and white shirt of a herd-boy, and his muscular build and ruddy complexion denoted a life both strenuous and healthful.

     “Hake, you’ve come back to us!” Zingel cried. Hugs, terms of endearment and exclamations of wonder were freely exchanged, then Zingel fetched Hake a hot bowl of fish soup, and bade him sit at the table.

     “Where are Cobia and Gurnard?” Hake asked, once seated.

     “Cobia and Gurnard were fished from the Umpqua just as you were,” Pompano said, “and have likewise gone to find their true kin. Did you find yours?”

     “No,” Hake said, “but I found a life that suits me. I am a herd-boy for Mr. Mortimer. I spend all day walking through green meadows, fertile valleys, and cool mountains. I have only come for a hasty visit, that you might know I am hale and happy, then I must return to Mr. Mortimer’s pastures.”

     “Mr. Mortimer?” Zingel said, “The rich man who lives in that castle near Elkton?”

     “The very same,” Hake said proudly.

     “How did you come to be his herd boy?”

     “After I left home,” Hake said, “I wandered many a bone-wearying mile along the banks of the Umpqua, until I came to a cabin wherein dwelt an old man named Kaz. He invited me to break bread with him, and while we ate, he told me his story. He and his three sisters had a little dairy farm, and one day, as they were herding their cows through a green pasture, they happened upon Mr. Mortimer, who was out hunting for sasquatch. He looked rather sad, and one of Kaz’s sisters, Jenny, asked him what was troubling him. Mortimer said he believed he had killed every last sasquatch, and now it was time for him to retire, build a castle, and get married, but he had no idea how to find a bride. Kaz’s sisters wanted a gift from Mortimer in exchange for prayers on his behalf. He gave them each a kiss! Long story short, Mortimer married Jenny, bought all the cows, and hired Kaz to look after them. The herd has increased since then, and Kaz hired me to be his assistant. Kaz told me—” and here Hake sat up a little straighter “—that I strangely resemble Mr. Mortimer, with my high, hooked nose, and green eyes!”

     “I heard that Jenny was stolen from Mortimer’s castle by pirates, and hasn’t been seen since,” Zingel said. “Is it true?”

     “Aye,” Hake said. “Kaz misses her terribly. But if Jenny is anything like her sisters, then it is the pirates I feel sorry for. It is hell for me when those two come to pay their brother a visit. They are as wicked a pair as ever walked the earth. They eat a cow apiece for breakfast, and think it great fun to pull my hair and pinch me until I cry for mercy. When they’ve gone, I’m black and blue all over.”

     Zingel leaned over to Pompano and whispered: “Have you not heard, dear husband, that a faery thinks naught of eating an entire cow, horns, hooves, and all, for breakfast, and is ever keen to pinch and prod a handsome young man like our Hake?”

     “Aye,” Pompano whispered back, “I have often heard that.”

     “I wonder if Cobia and Gurnard have been as fortunate as myself,” Hake said. “Do you think we’ll ever see them again?”

     “I don’t think so,” Pompano said sadly, just as Cobia burst through the door, wearing the wax-encrusted apron of a candlemaker.

     Pompano, Zingel, and Hake welcomed Cobia home with joyous words, affectionate hugs, and a hot bowl of fish soup.

     “Where is Gurnard?” Cobia asked, once she was seated.

     “Gurnard was fished from the same green waters of the Umpqua as you and Hake,” Pompano said, “and has likewise gone to find his true kin. Did you find yours?”

     “No,” Cobia replied, “but I have found a life that suits me. I am a candlemaker! After I left home, I wandered many a bone-wearying mile, until one day I came to a cabin wherein dwelt an old woman named Nera. She invited me to break bread with her, and while we ate, she told me her story. She had been a good candlemaker but a poor woman until one morning when two women came to her and asked her to make three unusual candles for them. Into the first and second, she was to add a drop of belladonna and a drop of the blood of a hound, and into the third, a drop of belladonna and a drop of the blood of a hedgehog. She’d been a candlemaker long enough to know what such candles were for—to ready a glamour—to cast a spell that makes men see one thing for another. Dangerous enough for ordinary folk, but should faeries ever get hold of them, no telling what havoc they would wreak. But the two women were sisters of Mr. Mortimer’s wife, and they said if Nera would make the candles they wanted, they would see to it she would become Mr. Mortimer’s personal candlemaker—and a castle like his burns through a thousand candles a night. She agreed to make them after the sisters assured her they only wanted them for a harmless prank. So now Nera is Mr. Mortimer’s candlemaker, and she has taken me on as her assistant. And oh! Nera said she met Mr. Mortimer’s wife before she was kidnapped by pirates, and Nera says my blue sparkling eyes are strangely like that unfortunate lady’s peepers!”

     They turned their attention to the soup, and because it was particularly delicious that evening, they hardly noticed when Gurnard burst through the door. He fetched himself a bowl of soup and sat at the table. He looked much the same as when he left, except that he did not have a single hair on his head.

     “Well,” Gurnard said, “don’t you want to hear what’s happened to me since I left home?”

     “Eat your soup while it’s hot,” Zingel said, “you can tell us later.”

     “I am assistant to Mr. Mortimer’s wig-maker!” Gurnard said, “and I have been promised I will be made a full partner within the year. I have already been entrusted with the key to the wig oil room!”

     “Mr. Mortimer wears a wig?” Cobia said.

     “Aye, he does. He told me his hair started falling out in clumps the night his wife was stolen away by pirates. He’s worn a wig for many years now. That is one of his two great secrets.”

     “A wig!” Zingel said. “Well. That is all right for some I suppose—if you don’t mind throwing away money, and the weight of your years treads upon the toes of your arrogance . . .”

     “Now Zingel,” Pompano said, “If wearing a wig makes him feel better about himself, what harm is there in it?”

     “The harm of foolishness,” Zingel replied.

     “I agree with Zingel,” Cobia said. “A man who wears a wig hides a lack of hair only to reveal a surfeit of vanity.”

     “It is perfectly natural for a man to want to look his best,” Hake said. “What’s wrong with—”

     “Don’t you want to know what Mr. Mortimer’s other great secret is?” Gurnard said.

     “Of course,” Zingel said, patting Gurnard’s arm. “Tell us his other great secret.”

     “I made a wig for Mr. Mortimer out of my own hair, as it was so very like his own, and when I was done, I delivered it to him. As I placed my hair on his head to check the fit, a feeling of . . . intimacy was engendered between us. I began to comb the hair, and as I did so, he told me a terrible secret, which I swore upon my life I wouldn’t divulge to another soul.”

     “Are you sure you should tell it to us, then?” Zingel said. “If you swore—”

     “Many a long year ago,” Gurnard continued, “I believe it was the same year Pompano fished Hake out of the Umpqua, Mr. Mortimer’s wife Jenny gave birth . . . to a hound!”

     “A hound?” Pompano said.

     “Aye, a hound! And Mr. Mortimer said to Jenny: This is the will of the Lord. We will endure it. He took the doggy and threw it into the river. Two years later, Jenny gave birth to another hound! And Mr. Mortimer said to Jenny the same as before, and threw that doggy into the river as well. And two years after that, Jenny gave birth to a hedgehog! And this time Mr. Mortimer did not say to Jenny: This is the will of the Lord—because Jenny’s sisters had convinced him that the ugsom creatures she bore him were not the Lord’s will, but Jenny’s, as she was a powerful witch. He cast the hedgehog into the river, and Jenny into a gloomsum dungeon hidden somewhere in the hills under the castle—where she has been ever since!”

     Zingel leaned over to Pompano, and whispered: “Haven’t you heard that the waters of the Umpqua will wash away a faery’s most tenacious glamour?”

     “Aye,” Pompano whispered back, “I have often heard that.” He turned to Gurnard. “Did Mr. Mortimer say aught else to you?”

     “He told me he is resolved to marry one of Jenny’s sisters, that he might one day have an heir. He said to me, with brimful eye, that he is compelled by his situation to have Jenny executed for a witch, so that a lawful marriage to one of her sisters might commence!”

     Pompano set his wooden spoon down in his wooden bowl. “Hake,” he said, “You are no herd-boy’s bastard, and Cobia, you are not the love-child of a candle-maker. And Gurnard, you are no kin to any pate-thatcher. You are three babes of John and Jenny Mortimer, gat in lawful marriage and glamoured into ugsum creatures by Jenny’s false faery sisters. If I know anything about faeries, I know that Mortimer has been too long under their spell now to believe any word against them. Hake, Cobia, Gurnard—you must stealthily find Mortimer’s secret dungeon, and help your mother escape her long, cruel, and unjust imprisonment.”

     Hake, Cobia and Gurnard all stood up. “We are away,” they said in unison.

     “You are not away!” Pompano thundered, “Sit! You may be heirs to the likes of them that live in castles, but you’ll sit and eat the supper Zingel cooked for you like well-raised fisherfolk. When you have emptied your bowls, then may you go and save poor Jenny Mortimer, and not a minute before!”

     After they finished their supper, Hake, Cobia, and Gurnard politely asked if they might be excused from the table to rescue their mother, Jenny Mortimer, from certain death. Pompano nodded, and gave them permission to take his boat, Fishing Boat. As the sun set and the barest sliver of a moon rose to take its place, Jenny’s long-lost children rowed steadily upriver, the Umpqua beneath them smooth and silent as a ribbon of black silk.

     At dawn, they tied Fishing Boat to a great maple tree that grew on the banks of the Umpqua in the shadow of Mortimer’s castle. All day long, they searched in vain for the dungeon they knew was hidden somewhere in the hills.

     “We’ll never find it,” Hake said at last. “It’s getting dark, let’s go before we are discovered, and share our poor mother’s fate.”

     “Before I left home to find my true kin,” Cobia said, “Pompano told me that whatever I was seeking in this wide world, I should never give up until I found it. I say we don’t leave until we find our mother.”

     “What do you say, Gurnard?” Hake said, “Leave now, or keep looking?”

     “I say what is this doing here?” Gurnard replied, pulling brush and vines away from a rusty iron door imbedded into the side of the hill.

     The massive iron door was unadorned save for the relief of a human skull in the very center. Hake and Cobia pushed, pulled, and pounded on the door, but it wouldn’t budge.

     “It must be locked,” Hake said, “but I don’t see a keyhole.”

     Gurnard retrieved an enormous skeleton key that hung from a leather cord around his neck. “Maybe this will work,” he said.

     “Where’d you get that?” Hake said.

     “I told you,” Gurnard said, “I’ve been entrusted with the key to the wig oil room. All the wig oil in the shop is kept locked away behind an iron door just like this one. Same guy must have made it.”

     “People steal wig oil?” Cobia said.

     “Not when it’s properly secured,” Gurnard replied, inserting the key into the skull’s nasal cavity. With both hands, he turned the key. The iron door opened with a groan and a squeal, revealing a narrow passageway cut through rust-red stone. The passageway opened into a single cold, damp, and low-ceilinged cell. As their eyes adjusted to the gloom, Hake, Cobia, and Gurnard could make out the cell’s single occupant sitting in a dark corner, slumped forward and head down, as though asleep. The prisoner wore a ragged blue shirt and threadbare gray pantaloons—a footman’s uniform likely discarded as frayed beyond mending.

     Without looking up, the prisoner spoke. “I bear you no ill will, but know this: if you bungle the first blow, and a second is required, I will haunt you to the end of your days.”

     “Jenny Mortimer?” Hake said.

     The prisoner raised her eyes. Despite the passage of years, and the glamour that disguised them when they were born, Jenny Mortimer recognized her children immediately. “My children,” she said softly.

     “Mother!” Jenny’s children shouted in joyous reply—but their joy turned to despair when they saw the chain, each link the size of a bagel, that was bolted to the stone floor of the cell at one end, and bolted to a clasp around Jenny’s waist at the other.

     “It’s okay,” Jenny said. “Don’t weep for me. To see you—the children I believed long dead—so alive and beautiful and brave—is more than I ever hoped for. But now you must go. The executioner will arrive shortly, and if he finds you here . . .”

     “You remember that socket wrench dad—I mean Pompano—always carries around with him everywhere?” Gurnard said. “I sure wish I had one like it with me now. I bet it would fit that bolt on the clasp around Jenny’s waist perfectly.”

     Hake raised his eyebrows in hope, then kept them furrowed in concern until he found the ancestral wrench in one of the many pockets of his herdsman’s trousers. Jenny was soon set free, and the four of them hurried down the path towards Fishing Boat, only to find the path was blocked by a giant of a man coming their way. He wore a black hood with a single eyehole over his head, and in his meaty right hand, he carried a double-bladed executioner’s axe.

     “Hey!” the executioner said, “where do you think you’re going with my executionee?”

     “She’s our mother,” Hake said, stepping forward bravely, “and there will be no execution today. There’s four of us and one of you, so let us pass, or—”

     “Or nothing.” the executioner said. “I am big and you are small. I have an axe and all you have is . . . Gurnard? Gurnard McKeady?”

     “You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” Gurnard said, uneasily.

     The executioner removed his hood. He was missing an eye and a few teeth. His face was crisscrossed with scars, and his nose was so bent, flattened and creased, it looked like that last biscuit that is cobbled together from the trimmings of the others. But the most remarkable thing about the man were the lovely strawberry-blond curls that framed his fearsome countenance.

     “George! George Biggins!” Gurnard exclaimed, “It’s been forever!”

     “I’m so glad I ran into you,” George said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you . . .” He raised his left hand and turned it so that Gurnard could see the wedding ring.

     “You worthless scoundrel!” Gurnard exclaimed. “You finally conned Carmen into marrying you! She loved the wig, didn’t she?”

     “She hated the wig,” George said, “but it’s like you always told me: it’s not about how people see you, it’s about how you see yourself.”

     “Congratulations,” Gurnard said. “Say, George, is there any way you might . . . let us leave here with our mother . . . alive?”

     “If it were up to me, Gurnard, I would, I swear it. But if I come home without my pay, Carmen will bite my head off.”

     Gurnard pulled a Spanish dollar from a pocket in his vest, and handed the coin to the executioner, who took it, bowed down low, and made a sweeping “you may pass” gesture with his axe.

     “Where’d you get that Spanish dollar?” Cobia panted, as they ran down the path.

     “I found it washed up on shore next to Fishing Boat when we left home yesterday evening,” Gurnard gasped, as they piled into the boat.

***

     The first light of dawn found Fishing Boat floating out in the middle of Winchester bay, Jenny’s children sound asleep. It was Jenny’s quiet sobbing that woke them.

     “What’s wrong?” Hake said.

     “You all have been so brave,” Jenny replied, “and I’m terribly proud of you, but my false faery sisters will never let John Mortimer rest until I am found and executed. He will hunt me to the ends of the earth. It would have been better if you’d never—”

     “What’s that?” Cobia said. An enormous black freighter, barely visible in the dim light of dawn, was silently gliding past them.

     “If I had to guess, I’d say it was the Caliban”, Gurnard said.

     Jenny stood up in the boat and began to shout: “Hey, pirates! Pirates! PIRATES! Come about!”

     “What are you doing?” Hake whispered.

     “I’m going to be a pirate,” Jenny said. “John Mortimer may be able to hunt me to the ends of the earth, but just let him try to hunt me across the seven seas, with a fierce band of pirates at my side. HEY PIRATES! COME ABOUT, YOU MANGY BILGE RATS!”

     The Caliban began to turn, slowly, slowly.

     “Well,” Hake said, “if you’re going to be a pirate, so am I.”

     “And so am I,” Cobia said.

     “Aw, hell,” Gurnard said.

EPILOGUE

     Jenny Mortimer demonstrated a real knack for pirating, and quickly rose through the ranks of the Caliban’s crew. Her first venture as Captain Jenny Mortimer was the pillaging of Mortimer’s castle—but that’s another story.



This story was first published in 2020 in the NIWA anthology of short stories: Escape

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