There are few men in this world who can say they have seen their father die twice. God's truth, I might be the only one.
Mine is not a pretty tale, but it begs telling nonetheless. It begins when I was three years old, after my mother died.
When the men started coming to our home . . .
They slipped in and out like ghosts, shadows dancing from wall to wall. They talked in low whispers with my father. If the weather was warm, I would lie in my bed and listen to the whispers. For me, it was a comforting sound, like the water in Boston Harbor as it caresses the shore. But if the weather was cold, wintry, I would cry when left alone, my tears turning to ice, the heat from the warming pan long gone. One of the men would scoop me up, blankets and all, and carry me to sit before the roaring fire.
My favorite was Josiah Black. Ofttimes he sat me on his lap as I alternately turned my gaze from Josiah to the fire and back to Josiah again, pulling my blanket close. Josiah was tall. His skin was pale, his nose strong and sharp, his hair black and shining as a crow's feathers. His eyes were like wells of ink, and he smelled of tobacco and rum. It fast became my favorite smell.
On these nights, my father would finally say, "Do you not think Daniel should go to bed? 'Tis past the midnight hour."
Puffing contentedly on his long pipe, Josiah would reply, "There will be time for sleep later. Let the boy stay."
When I was seven years old, too big to be sitting on anyone's lap, Josiah Black took me to a hanging. I'd never seen a pirate hanged before.
There were three of them. I knew they were evil men--wicked to the core, doomed, for I'd heard it at the meetinghouse the Sunday last. I clenched Josiah's hand and watched the pirates kick the empty air, wondering if they could already see the gaping jaws of hell and the everlasting lake of fire.
When finally they hung still, and after I was done staring, I tugged on Josiah's hand. "I'm hungry."
But he seemed not to remember I was there, instead staring at the bodies that spun slowly on their ropes. His grip on my hand was like iron, his face hard.
We stood there a long time before Josiah said, "Come, Daniel, my boy," and we went home to a meal of codfish chowder, bread, cheese, quince tarts, and ale. Josiah watched me as I ate, saying to my father, "Hanging brings out the hunger in Daniel."
There were other men besides Josiah, of course, men who stirred the shadows, whispering among themselves, sometimes peering anxiously out the window at a gathering storm. But by morning, like as not, none remained except myself, my father, and our few servants. The walls were silent. The men were gone. We were alone again.
The air outside my coverlet was often freezing. After my father would awaken me, he'd press me to his bosom, tickle my nose, and tell me to rise and shine like a good lad. Then I would race to the kitchen hearth to sit in the chair at the chimney side, my feet scorched by the snapping fire, my front sizzling, my back shivering. And I would open my hand to inspect a trinket one of the men had given me the night before. A carved piece of ivory. A fancy coin. A tooth of gold. A pearl. A child's ring.
I had many such treasures.
Somehow I believed life would carry on so. That although the years would pass, nothing would change--the nights always filled with whispers, with ghosts, the mornings filled with treasure.
But all things change.
It began at the meetinghouse one Sunday in the form of a woman named Faith. The year was 1694, and I was twelve years of age. Faith was just a few years older than me. Sixteen, I think. On this day, I sat with the other boys on the gallery stairs. It was November, and I could see my breath. My hands and feet had frozen into lumps. But I dared not stamp my feet nor rub my hands together. If I did, I could be sure of a sharp rap on the head from the watchful deacon, whose duty it was to rap boys on the head. So I just breathed hard and watched the clouds of breath from all of us boys, like fog in the harbor.
My father sat by himself in a pew. The pews were of the hardest wood, straight-backed, meant for keeping one awake. They were divided into squares, and my father had the best pew square in the meetinghouse, directly before the pulpit. The Seating Committee had assigned it to him because he was a goodly man, the wealthiest, and had once been married to the governor's daughter. My father's name was Robert Markham, and he was a merchant. On that Sunday he wore a powdered periwig, its voluminous curls lending my balding father both warmth and dignity.
(Just that morning, while we were getting ready for Sunday meeting, my father had called for me; he had misplaced his spectacles and needed help finding them. After a bit of searching, I found them tucked in the curls of his periwig! We shared a hearty laugh, and I warmed despite the frosty air. "Ah, Daniel," my father had finally gasped, his eyes sparkling with tears of laughter as he drew me into a fatherly embrace, "whatever would I do without you?")
Now, at the meetinghouse, at the start of the sermon's second hour, the commotion began. If it could be called a commotion. A cough, weak and delicate, coming from the women's section. It was Faith Grey. (No one can leave during meeting, not unless one is dying. And so Faith coughed.) Heads turned. The minister frowned. The sermon paused, started, paused. I was relieved by such an interruption. I rubbed my hands and stamped my feet and the deacon didn't notice, so upset was he by all the head turning.
Then Faith stopped coughing. But even though she stopped, one head kept turning--my father's. Every few seconds he turned to look at her, not seeming to care that the minister frowned and the sermon faltered once again. I could tell by the sinking of my heart that things were about to change. And they did.
A year later, Faith Grey and Robert Markham were married, and Faith moved into our house. Immediately the men stopped coming. There were no more whispers, no more treasures, no more Josiah Black.
I hated Faith.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Voyage of Plunder by Michele Torrey. Copyright © 2005 by Michele Torrey. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.