Pairing/characters: Jack (in his younger life as John Teague), Captain Teague, a whole slew of OMCs and OFCs, the Black Pearl (in her former life as the Wicked Wench)
Rating: R, for some language and adult situations
Prompt: #56: "how Jack picked up all that Latin"
Summary: Young John Teague of Dublin indulges in some gratuitous Latin with a little blasphemy on the side.
Disclaimer: I own none of Disney's characters, though I feel pretty maternal towards my OCs. My version of "Captain Kidd" is based on the recording of the same name by Great Big Sea.
Warnings: Blasphemy, some naughty language, liberties with Latin translation.
Author's Notes: The idea to situate young John Teague in Ireland sprang from a comment Mr. Depp made back in 2003 regarding his use of the Dublin accent as one of the inspirations for Jack's motley accent; ainsoph15, bless her, solidified my belief in this idea after she shared some research she did into the surname "Teague." to thesaltytroll for the "Tipperary heifer" quote, to lady_octavia who patiently answered my questions about sacristies and unconsecrated hosts, to my sweet droa who is my Kit in so many ways, and of course to darling ainsoph15 for providing unflagging encouragement to write again and for getting me hooked on the idea of John Teague.
Tabula in naufragio*
John Teague was near frozen solid sitting in the hard cold choir stalls of the chapel at Coolock. Though he and the other boys pressed together as close as they dared, it was fair impossible to hoard even a little warmth while inside the stone church during these raw winter mornings. Mass seemed endless when one considered the bowls of hot porridge awaiting the boys in the rectory after the last amen had been said. John’s stomach growled pleadingly and he pressed his arms in tight around his middle to stop the ache.
He thought of his mother and older sister Kit and baby Mary, surely still abed in their rooms by the waterfront at Ballybough. Cold too, no doubt, with little money to buy turf. His father had left them a purse of coins three Springs past, before he’d buggered off to sea again with John’s older brother Jamey, The Chosen One, in tow. But the money had dwindled quickly to naught, and the new babe Da had left in Mam as a parting gift arrived hale and healthy and made as if to stay. That meant, John knew, that someone had to go.
He knew too, that he’d be the one.
During the long walk north across the tidal flats of Mud Island, Kit had clutched John’s hand painfully tight and explained her Grand Plan. She’d been saving money, she said, from the mending she did on the side, when there was time away from beating and boiling rich folks’ laundry. She’d saved enough now to send him away to school, a proper school for Catholic boys at the chapel at Coolock, where he might learn everything the English boys learned, though it would be a secret school; operating a Catholic school in Ireland was now a crime, punishable by law.
As they had walked on, the marshland had given way to fallow winter pasture, and in the distance Kit and John could see smoke rising from the cottages at Coolock. John had never once been outside the confines of the stinking, dangerous docklands, and he had paused a moment to draw in a deep, cool breath of clear air. Glorious. Looking up, the sky was endless. All of Heaven, it seemed, was spread out above him and he’d felt suddenly light, suddenly free. A good feeling, and one he’d never had.
At the rectory door, Kit had pressed several coins into John’s cold hand and had knelt before him. She’d smoothed his wild hair back tenderly and swiped a smudge of dirt from his forehead with her quick fingers. He had studied her carefully then, wanting to sear her warm, dark beauty into his memory forever. She’d leaned forward and kissed his cheek, whisking away a recalcitrant tear there that threatened to be his undoing.
“Go on now, Jacky,” she’d said. “You’re the sharpest one of all of us by far. Learn all that you can. Nothing, even gold, serves a man so well as his mind.”
And she’d held him so tight he thought he’d burst, and she’d promised she’d be back. She had turned then and started home towards the oily sky over Ballybough, leaving him small and alone on the rectory steps in the falling dusk.
Kit had been as good as her word, of course, visiting every month to pay the schoolmaster Father Cassidy, and to spend the short afternoon with John. Kit always brought stories from home, of the places John knew, of the people he missed. She always remembered to bring an apple, too, a dear treat for her much loved little brother. At first it had been brutally hard to watch her leave each time; he felt as if his heart was being torn anew from his chest at the end of each visit. But the pain had eased, steadily. Now he found he could look forward to her visits without dreading her inevitable departure. John came to realize, slowly, that he had grown quite content in Coolock. In fact, to his great surprise, he was really bloody happy there.
He liked the chapel school. At the school he was fed on a somewhat regular basis, at the school he was kept fairly warm, usually. True, he was small, and like most small things he had to endure some torment, but he tried to tell himself the other lads really didn’t mean him any great harm. Not like the boys back home at Ballybough who prowled the docklands by the mouth of the Liffey; the ones who’d like as not drown you and pinch your pockets to boot, or sell you off to anyone offering a penny or a crust of bread. No, life at the school in Coolock was extraordinarily good, he decided.
And above all else, besides the lovely familiar hymns they sang and the comforting low drone of Father Riordan’s daily Mass, and the gentle press of his young cohorts on the wooden pews beside him, and the soft, sweet, mothering gaze of Our Lady the Statue in the Corner--above all that--they were all being taught to read. To read! Like honest-to-god sons of gentlemen, his rough little lot was learning to read, just as Kit had said. Amazing!
John’s brother Jamey might have the lion’s share of his father’s affection and a career at sea and someday an inheritance, but could he write his name? John thought not. John, on the other hand, was an expert at the writing. Each day, when at the start of lessons Father Cassidy instructed the boys to practice writing their names on their slates, John, rapt with delight, tenderly scratched out J-O-H-A-N-N-E-S over and over again: his beautiful name. He didn’t possess half of what his brother did, but he had his name and he knew it inside and out: J like a sea-monster rising from the waves, the lovely plump egg of O, H strong and straight like the masts of a ship, the arrowheaded A, the dual Ns like fortresses, E sharp with spines, and finally, his favorite letter, the clever S, swaying ever this way and that, tricksy-like, but always remaining upright in perfect, effortless balance.
He imagined that someday, when he and Jamey arrived at the Gates of Heaven and holy Saint Peter bade them make their marks in the Book of Life, Jamey’s wobbly cross would be entirely outshone by John’s brilliant, sweeping signature. It would be a feast for the eyes, his name, and inscribed with such remarkable artistry that Saint Peter himself would turn his blessed head away from its astonishing beauty and weep crystalline tears of joy.
And the words they learned! Ah God, they were each like tiny, cunning riddles, fairly begging to be solved. To think he was learning the glorious sibilant language he’d heard and mimicked every Sunday of his life at Mass thrilled him to the core. Latin was so different from the Englishman’s speech, and stranger still than his own native gaelige. Latin sounded strong, and proud, and important; John was convinced God spoke it fluently. God had to, of course, as He’d written the Bible and John knew that was in Latin. Perhaps, on that first day in Heaven, after John had dazzled Saint Peter with his calligraphic skills, he could nip into some soft cloudy corner with the Lord himself and have a nice old chat in Latin. ‘Course, at the moment, they’d only be able to talk about sailors, farmers, girls, and pirates, as first declension nouns were really all he had down pat; the second declension was dodgy at best and the third positively made him cry with its manic grammatical contortions. He hoped God would understand his scholarly plight. John felt fairly sure he would; who didn’t like to talk of girls and pirates after all?
Father Cassidy, whom John thought quite savvy as he’d copped on to John’s love of reading straight away, gave him even more Latin to read on the sly. He devoured the extra work greedily: silly love poetry by a cove called Catullus and a wonderful war story that started straight off as any proper story should with soldiers and weapons. And singing, for some reason. “The pagan authors,” Father Cassidy explained, “and don’t ye be after trumpeting yer gob to Father Riordan that I gave them to ye, or there’ll be the Devil to pay.” Father smiled and winked. “So to speak.”
John liked Father Cassidy very much.
Father also brought ha’penny broadsheets back from his trips into Dublin City so that John could practice his English. “It seems an Englishman’s world now, John,” Father Cassidy had said the first time he presented the broadsheets to the boy, “and you’d best learn his language and his ways. Though mind ye keep close in your heart who ye are and from whence ye came, lad. A man who abandons his past wanders a trackless future.” The smuggled broadsheets were a welcome distraction from the increasing difficulty of John’s Latin studies. The broadsheets were no expensive prize, just cheap printings of the lyrics of popular songs, with smudgy engravings in the corners meant to illustrate the words within. Some were a mite bawdy and good for a laugh, and some told the gruesome tales of rogues and cutthroats and highwaymen and all manner of criminals. John liked those best. His favorite by far was a ballad about Captain Kidd, the privateer-turned-pirate who’d recently been done in at London for his treachery. To John’s great delight and amazement, Father Cassidy knew the tune to this one, and he taught it to John, after extracting a solemn promise from the boy that he would never, ever, ever sing it aloud anywhere in the vicinity of Coolock. They had huddled together that evening in a corner of the rectory kitchen after Cook had retired for the night and sang together in a whisper:
“Oh my name is Robert Kidd, as I sailed, as I sailed,
Oh my name is Robert Kidd, as I sailed,
Oh my name is Robert Kidd and God’s Laws I did forbid,
And most wickedly I did as I sailed!”
John decided that if he ever had need to become a priest, he wanted to be just exactly like Father Cassidy.
John emerged from his reverie to discover he was still freezing, still starving, and still at Mass. But the pervasive cold in the stone chapel had eased slightly as the weak winter sun filtered through the narrow, roughly-glazed windows. Father Riordan began his sermon and John tightened his grip on his heathen belly, which protested ever louder as the service carried on. The other lads were restless too, and the pews vibrated with the impatience of fifteen pairs of swinging feet. John tried desperately to concentrate on Father Riordan’s words, if only to wrench his mind from his hunger, and for a few minutes he succeeded. But then another insistent voice caught his attention: a low whisper from somewhere behind his right ear.
John’s heart sank. It was Michael Feeney, an older boy and self-appointed torturer of the young. John had finally stood up to him only last week, no longer willing to endure Feeney’s pinches, trips, and hard shoves. John had plucked up his courage and had thrown a good old docklands punch that had burst the older boy’s nose in a dramatic spray of blood and leveled him to the ground. Furious at the insult, but too proud to admit he’d been bested by the tiny Teague boy, and far too smart to risk beating the piss out of the lad in a public setting, Feeney instead instituted a week-long psychological war against John. On Monday John’s only blanket was discovered in a mucky puddle at the far end of the McCabes’ cow pasture. On Tuesday, five huge crushed spiders found their way into John’s morning porridge. Yesterday, John’s shoes were hauled out of the village well incased in a block of ice. And today it appeared Michael Feeney meant to be a bit braver in his cruelty.
“Jacky Teague, I know ye can hear me.”
John leaned forward in the pew and kept his eyes trained on the priest. He’d be damned if he let this amadan* get the better of him.
“Jacky, ain’t it nearly time for your lovely sister to make a visit to the countryside? I hear all the farmers’ sons talkin’ about her...”
The smooth voice continued.
“...how they can’t wait for her to come...”
Feeling a cold wave of fury engulf him, John struggled to keep himself from reacting in any way to Feeney’s words.
“...how she’s so willin’ and friendly-like...”
His ears were buzzing now with anger, and he clung with whitening knuckles to the bench beneath him.
“...and the easiest trick ever to stroll into town...”
John ground his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut as hard as he could. Behind his eyelids, red and white starbursts bloomed.
“...why, they say she’s on her back and knees to the sky without even so much as a hello, most times...”
The chapel went as silent as a boneyard at midnight.
“Shuddup, you, Michael Feeney!” John stood and whirled around to face his tormenter, who had gone entirely white with shock at the ferocity of the boy’s reaction.
John, trembling now with shame and rage, rattled on.
“Shut yer false mouth! Least my sister’s a fair looker and sweet and kind as the Virgin herself—not at all like yer mess of a sister, Michael Feeney, and oh yes, I’ve seen her, too: all foul of face and beef to the heels like a Tipperary heifer! No man’d ever look twice at her, lest he were tryin’ to suss if she’d graze happily in his field!”
He stopped, panting hard to catch his breath, and heard his own lone voice echoing against the stone vault of the church. He came to his senses then, in the sickening silence. Glancing around at the sea of stricken faces watching him in horror, John slowly, wretchedly lowered himself back down onto the pew to await his fate. He didn’t have to wait long. With a choked cry of outrage, Father Riordan charged the stalls and tore John from his seat, one-handed, and hauled him from the chapel.
It was only when the priest had reached the sacristy, dragging John behind him like a miserable doll, and had thrust the boy deep into the recesses of a closet, did Father Riordan seem to regain his ability to speak once again. He slammed the closet door shut so violently it shook and John heard the latch set.
“And ye’ll stay in there, boy,” Father Riordan growled through the closet door, “begging the Lord’s forgiveness for disrupting his sacred office with yer filthy, slanderous tongue, until such time as I return and grant you leave. Mind, I’m just old enough that I might forget I’ve left you in there at all, in which case I suggest you begin praying your Rosary now; you should make it through a good hundred before ye starve to death.” John listened gloomily as Father Riordan spun on his heel and stormed from the sacristy, nearly ripping the door from its hinges as he wrenched it shut behind him.
After some minutes, when he was absolutely sure the Father wouldn’t be returning for a second round, John allowed himself to shift a bit. He’d landed hard on the corner of something and he poked experimentally at his bruised back. He tried to straighten his legs in the cramped closet, but the best he could manage was to untangle them and sit perched on his sore tailbone, knees to chin. It was going to be a long fecking day, and goddamnit if he wasn’t going to miss class and all. He cursed himself as an eejit who didn’t know when to shut his gob, in a fierce litany to himself over and over in the dark. Then he had a good cry and afterwards practiced his letters with his finger in the dust on the floor of the closet until he fell uncomfortably to sleep.
When John awoke again, both the closet and the sacristy were pitch dark. His neck had a terrific crick in it from sleeping so awkward-like, and his arse was numb. One leg had gone entirely pins-and-needles from foot to thigh. He was so cold he could hardly bring his thin fingers together to make a fist and his toes were like little icy stumps. With nothing to do but replay his own stupidity endlessly in his mind, and finding self-pity oddly exhausting, John had nearly dozed off again when a light suddenly spilled under the door of the closet. John squirmed painfully to the keyhole and peered out into the sacristy. There was Father Cassidy, lighted lantern in hand. For one triumphant moment John thought Father Cassidy had been sent by Father Riordan to set him free from his prison, and his heart leapt. But he quickly realized that was not to be. Father Cassidy, it seemed, had a more pressing task at hand as he didn’t take even a single step towards the closet. John watched curiously as the Father set the lantern on the oaken press against the far wall before slipping back into the hall to retrieve something from the shadows.
In the dim light John could just about make out a trencher in Father’s left hand, piled high with something pale and soft looking—bread?—and in his right hand, a decanter. John’s heart raced again and his belly chimed in. Father Cassidy had brought him something to eat! Of course! Father Cassidy had thought the punishment too harsh for such a hungry little lad and he’d smuggled in a late supper for John. John was wriggling with delight now, hardly able to contain himself. But then, inexplicably, Father Cassidy took down a set of black iron keys from their nail in the doorframe, opened the doors of the press, placed the food and drink inside and locked the press again. He replaced the keys and was gone, taking the lantern and shutting the door as he left, leaving John alone in the dark once more.
Puzzled, John sat back from the keyhole. Why lock food away in the sacristy, of all places? There was a perfectly good kitchen in the rectory just next door, and it had loads of space. Odd. They didn’t keep anything in the sacristy but some bibles, Father Riordan’s and Father Cassidy’s vestments, and the vessels for the...oh. For the body and blood of Christ. Father Cassidy hadn’t locked up his supper; he’d locked up the host for tomorrow’s Mass. That made sense. Though, really, that seemed quite a lot of bread and wine for just fifteen schoolboys and a handful of stragglers from the village who could manage to scrape themselves out of their beds and into church that filthy early. There was rather a lot extra there.
Out of the blackness, John’s famished belly made a sound like a demon being released from the bowels of Hell.
Bugger it. He was unlocking that press.
He rifled through the closet frantically, searching for something, anything to use as a lockpick on the closet door. Eventually he found a long-handled candle-snuffer abandoned in the bottom of a crate and he pried the decorative finial from its end. Sticking the pointed end of the handle far into the recesses of the lock, John tried valiantly for near half an hour with growing frustration and little success to bring the inner mechanism round. Exasperated, he sat back on his heels to consider the situation. Something was wrong. Everything inside the lock seemed to be in the incorrect place. Almost as if...almost as if it wasn’t locked at all. No. Surely it was. Hadn’t he heard Father Riordan lock the door after tossing him inside? John wracked his brain furiously. He couldn’t remember. Tentatively, he pushed on the door.
It moved forward half an inch.
Relief washed over him. The door hadn’t been bolted; only the latch held it closed. With his fingers splayed against the inside of the door, John searched for the twine catch. He found it and gave it a tug. The latch lifted easily from the outside, and the closet door creaked open.
Huh. That bloody easy.
John paused for a moment inside the open door in case anyone had detected his escape. When no one arrived to reincarcerate him, he limped across the flagstones to the sacristy door, giving silent thanks to the risen moon now flooding the room with her gentle blue light. It took four painful tries, and a skinned shinbone to boot, but John finally managed to leap up high enough to retrieve the ring of keys Father Cassidy had hung so neatly and conveniently on the doorframe. Throwing himself down in front of the press, he began unceremoniously shoving the keys, one by one, into the lock.
His hands trembled uncontrollably as he tried each key in turn. By now mildly delirious with hunger, cold, and fright, John imagined he felt the keys silently multiplying in his sweaty hands. God, they just went on forever. He’d never get through them all. He’d still be fumbling with the lock when Father Riordan arrived to prepare for Mass and he’d be killed then and there, he was sure of it. Killed so dead any memory of him would be sucked straight back into the earth. Killed so dead there wouldn’t be even a pinprick of a hole left behind where he’d been. He’d resigned himself entirely to death when The Miracle occurred; the key he’d just thrust into the keyhole turned as gently as an oar in the water and John felt the sweet spring of the bolt as it fell away inside. The door to the press swung slowly open and—oh Jesus Lord Almighty, there in the middle in the half-dark was the trencher brimming with a mound of bready hosts and beside it, the red clay decanter full to the lip with dark wine.
The entirety of John’s inner theological struggle played out in only seconds as the seductive scent of the bread and the wine caressed his nose. His starved stomach roared to life and he nodded in vigorous assent to the perverse voice in his head which asserted stridently that no, it wasn’t the body and blood of Our Lord until the Father proclaimed it so, and what would the harm be in having just a taste, for surely the Lord wouldn’t want to see even such a small and inconsequential boy as himself starve to death. Hadn’t Father Cassidy told them only yesterday that there was the hand of Providence even in the fall of a mere sparrow? Surely the Lord saw him and knew his need and oh, one tiny sip wouldn’t hurt anything at all. They’d never miss it. Never even know it was gone. And so, with a strangled cry, John fell messily upon the contents of the press and set about busily working his way through the greater part of the Seven Deadly Sins.
He came to some time later, to the not-so-gentle nudging of the toe of a boot in his ribs. His brain felt terribly addled, and only when he raised himself up on his quivering arms did the memories of the night before begin to assail him. On the floor beside him lay the trencher, overturned, and not a single host in sight. The decanter, now on its side, had rolled a few feet away, light and empty as it was. Directly beneath him were the keys on their ring. John reached up one severely unsteady hand to examine the flesh of his face, which, he discovered, bore a distinct and clear imprint of three of the keys. The press doors were wide open to the day, just as he had left them in the moonlight.
“John, for the love of our sweet Lord and Savior, what have you done?”
It was Father Cassidy’s voice, and John swung his strangely heavy head around towards the sound of it. The motion unbalanced him and he collapsed down onto one elbow. He managed to look up. There, peering down at him wearing an expression of utter disbelief was indeed Father Cassidy. John tried to smile pleasantly and say good morning, but when he opened his mouth to speak, all that came out was: “Nnnghh.”
“Oh Jesus, Mary, and Joseph...Jacky.”
Like a vision of a dark-haired angel, Kit emerged from behind Father Cassidy, her hands covering her mouth and her black eyes wide. John, ecstatic, laughed aloud rather sloppily. What a wonderful surprise! Kit had arrived to see him today and it hadn’t nearly been so long as a month since her last visit! This was turning out to be a brilliant morning, washing away all the evilness of the day and night before. What’s more, he was beginning to enjoy the funny thick feeling in his head; it made everything pleasant and good, and maybe he’d just lay right down again and have another fine nap. Yes.
But Father Cassidy hauled him to his feet. He wavered there unsteadily and nearly crumpled back down to the flagstones again. Curiously, his legs wouldn’t obey him, and suddenly all he wanted to do in the world was to slump onto the splendidly cool floor and sleep for the rest of his life. When John lifted his head towards Father Cassidy, who seemed to be speaking to him—he couldn’t really tell anymore, for the ringing in his ears, though he thought he should make a show of it in case the Father was—both Father Cassidy and the sacristy walls behind him began spinning most unusually. Confused, John looked over to Kit, who also gyred away from him. John closed his eyes, but felt himself, too, pulled into the dizzying whirlpool, turning faster and faster, and the light from the sacristy windows became painfully bright and suddenly he was terribly, terribly hot and his mouth was fiercely dry. He broke out in a wretched, cold sweat at the nauseating heat of the tortuous room, and then suddenly, horrifyingly, his heavy stomach lurched like a shying horse. He swallowed the sick back hard, but it did no good. He moaned softly, hiccoughed once, and with a tremendous, shuddering heave, wetly deposited an amazing amount of the body and blood of Our Lord directly upon Father Cassidy’s smartly polished boots.
Everything was wrong.
So very, very wrong.
As a murky twilight descended on Ballybough, John sat miserably on a flat damp stone outside his family’s rooms, listening to the raised voices warring within. He ran his grubby hands through his long-unwashed hair and heaved a heavy sigh. It was the end of the world, no doubt about that, and Christ Almighty did his head hurt.
“C’mere, you. Ya look a fright.”
John’s brother Jamey, who had been leaning jauntily against the wattled outside wall of the building, keeping quiet company with his little brother, crouched down on his heels and spun John round so he could attend to the lad’s ratty queue. John let himself be spun, limply. Pulling out the leather cord holding John’s hair in place, Jamey patiently combed his long fingers through the uncivilized locks. John leaned back into his brother’s warm hands, finding some small comfort in his ministrations. When Jamey was satisfied that all the snarls had come loose, he drew John’s hair back and bound it tightly once again in a neat queue. Jamey gave John’s shoulder an affectionate shove as he stood again, straightening his smart weskit and brushing the folds from his breeches.
“There y’are now. Like a proper tar.”
John managed a weak smile.
“Ta, Jamey.” He looked up at his brother. Three years away at sea and he’d become a man, just like that. Jamey smiled sympathetically down at John, and John suddenly noticed that one of Jamey’s front teeth had gone gold. He stared at it, fascinated.
“Yer alright, Jacky,” said Jamey soothingly. “Just calm yerself. Can’t do nothing about it now.”
John wished it could be that easy. There’d be no hope of calm following a day like today. After his expulsion from the chapel school that morning—God, the broken look on Kit’s sweet face as Father Riordan returned her money just about rent him in two—and during the endless, gloomy, sickening march back to Ballybough (punctuated by several stops along the way so that he could retch himself dry beside some unfortunate stand of salt hay), John had learned that his father and Jamey had at last returned home from sea. They’d made port the day before in Dublin Harbor, their ship’s coffers overflowing with Spanish gold. Kit, in her excitement, had run nearly the entire path to Coolock to collect John and bring him home to Ballybough for the week’s end; they would all be together to celebrate the sailors’ triumphant return and rejoice in the good fortune that suddenly seemed to be shining upon the long-suffering Teague family. But all the happiness that would have attended their reunion had vanished when a heavy-hearted Kit bade John wait outside on his stone and led their father gently back into the family’s keeping-room to tell him of the morning’s dire events.
That had been near two hours ago, and from the sound of things, Da was still blazing hot. John hoped Mam had managed to sneak out the back with little Mary and find refuge with a neighbor. For sure, they didn’t need to view John’s almost certain dismemberment at the hands of his father.
Then, without warning from within, the door to the keeping-room was flung open with such force that the latch wedged itself into the wattle of the outside wall. Startled, and then blindly terrified, John vaulted off his seat, but Teague was quick and had him hard by the collar before he could make good his escape. He heaved the boy into the house.
Jamey followed them inside hastily and held up a warning hand.
“Now Da, go easy on him. He’s only a little fella.”
Teague shot him a look that was all violence and poison, one that surely would have wilted a lesser man. But Jamey stood his ground silently, and crossed his arms before him, making it quite clear that he wouldn’t leave the room without a battle.
“Big enough,” snarled Teague, before turning his attention back to an ashen, quaking John. “Big enough indeed to pay handsomely for his wickedness and dishonor in whatever way I see fit.” Without loosening his hold on the boy’s filthy, sweaty shirt, Teague brought his pock-marked face level to John’s. John, horror-struck, peered into his father’s eyes and saw murder glowing there.
“Devil’s imp,” muttered Teague, “how dare you destroy the peace of my first day back on familiar soil in three long years? Larceny—from the Church—drunkenness—within the Church—blasphemy—spilled all about the sacristy floor—and to top it off, expulsion from the chapel school, all in this one fine morning, eh? Busy lad. Tell me, young Jacky, what use are you to me now? You’ve disgraced the family and damned yourself to Hell a hundred times over. What’s to stop me from selling you to the very next molly-house I see?”
His father’s grip on the front of his shirt grew even tighter and John felt himself being lifted several inches off the ground. Kit rose nervously from her seat at the table. Out of the corner of his eye John saw Jamey begin to advance toward them, and for the third time in as many days John was absolutely sure he was going to be killed just as dead as you please.
Then a thought struck him.
“I—I can read,” he squeaked.
“What did you say?” Teague roared, giving his son a fierce little shake.
John took a deep breath and forced his roiling insides to calm.
“I said...I said I can read. I learned how. At the chapel school.”
Teague looked suddenly more thoughtful and less homicidal. The rage began to drain from Teague’s face and John felt his body lower somewhat.
“What can you read, boy?”
“Latin words. English words. Loads of words.”
“And do you know what they mean?”
“Yes. Well, usually. Most of the time. Fairly often, that is.”
Teague smiled greasily. “Is that so. So it seems time in school wasn’t entirely lost on my wastrel of a son, eh? Interesting.”
“Could use him at Shipwreck Cove if he can read and write,” said Jamey coolly, moving in still closer to Teague and John and locking his night-black eyes with his father’s. John saw a sudden flash at Jamey’s side and realized he had his knife out. “Ye know as well as I do that the Brethren Court calls for the Code to be drafted again in but seven years’ time. Who among us unschooled rogues could manage that? Not a one, I’d wager. Not even you, Da, would be up to that tricky task. An’ who from outside of the Brethren could we ever trust with such a job?”
Teague dropped his eldest son’s gaze and stood silently for a moment. John swung slightly in the air, still suspended from his father’s fist. Then, nodding slowly, Teague set John down onto the dusty floor. Like a wounded animal, John scuttled away from him and into Kit’s waiting arms in the hearthside corner of the keeping-room.
“That’s a fine idea, Jamey. The Brethren and the Code both could indeed benefit from our Jacky’s schooling. And until that time he’ll make himself additionally beneficial by learning a trade.”
“A trade?” Jamey put one hand to his forehead in exasperation. “Da, he’ll forget bloody everythin’ he’s learned at school if he’s a tradesman for seven years.”
Teague gave Jamey a disinterested sideways glance.
“Son, your lack of faith in me is at once refreshing and disconcerting. Least ways I feel assured you can’t be taken easily for a fool. And put away your knife.”
Grimacing, Jamey stowed his knife in his belt, but John noted with relief that he hadn’t removed his hand from the weapon’s handle.
Teague paced to the hearth and studied the fire briefly before turning again to his eldest son.
“I have a man in London who owes me a favor: a cartographer. And he was still in need of an apprentice, last I knew.”
“’Cartographer?’” Jamey looked suspicious. “What in the hell is that?”
Teague swiveled round to John, who shrank back instantly.
“What’s a cartographer, Jacky?”
Frantically, John turned the new word over in his mind. The beginning bit of the word was familiar: it seemed to be a first-declension Latin noun, thank God.
“’Carta’...” began John uncertainly, “in Latin ‘carta’ means ‘map’...or ‘chart’...”
Teague kept silent, allowing John a moment to puzzle it out.
John looked up at last. “He’s a fella what makes maps?”
The proud, paternal smirk looked so unnatural on Teague’s hard face that John pressed himself in closer to Kit, just in case.
“I’ll be damned,” Teague chuckled darkly. “You’re good for something after all.”
John allowed himself to stand a bit straighter, but still maintained his safe proximity to Kit. Jamey gave him a wink.
Teague retrieved his greatcoat from the peg on wall beside the fireplace and struggled into it. “We’ll hold up here for a week or two to find a crew, and then we’ll ship out to London with the boy. London’ll give us an opportunity to spend some of this loot besides. There’s nothing an Irishman’s gold can buy in Dublin these days save suspicion.” He crushed his weathered tricorne onto his nest of hair, opened the front door, and stepped out into the darkened street. “I’ll be at the Cask and Flagon with the lads if you have need of me.” The door swung shut behind him, hinges complaining lustily.
Finally sheathing his knife, Jamey crossed the room and sat down heavily on the bench beside his sister and brother. John leaned limply against Kit, his brows knit with confusion and disbelief.
“So...I’m to be apprenticed to a mapmaker in London?” John asked Jamey incredulously.
Jamey tugged softly on his brother’s queue and smiled broadly, gold tooth gleaming in the firelight.
“Well done there, Jacky,” he said.
John lay awake on his straw pallet by the hearth, watching the turf glow, the familiar darkness of the keeping-room pressing in on him gently. The maelstrom of the day’s events had set his mind whirring and he couldn’t yet sleep for the clamor of the thoughts rattling round. He’d gone from hero to outcast and back again, all in the course of one terribly long day; John marveled at how one’s fortunes could change with such dizzying swiftness. With a sigh he hauled himself up to take off his belt. The blasted buckle had slipped to the side and it pinched fiercely whenever he shifted on the straw. As he worked at the cheap buckle he considered his fate. He hadn’t the faintest idea what the Brethren Court was or where Shipwreck Cove lay, but he imagined that if Jamey was there it couldn’t be half bad and actually might be good for a bit of craic*. John tried to imagine himself in seven years’ time and did some figuring on his fingers. He’d be sixteen then, the same age Jamey was now. A man. John liked that idea, having grown increasingly tired with being young and small. And furthermore, when he became a man he’d have a lovely shiny gold tooth, just like Jamey’s. Maybe two.
The belt finally yielded to his strenuous efforts and John cast it aside victoriously. From the corner of his eye, John saw a folded sheet of paper tumble away into the darkness along with the belt. John scrambled over to retrieve it. He’d completely forgotten that he’d tucked it into his belt that morning before he left Coolock. John had been gathering up his meager effects in the cramped dormitory the boys shared when Father Cassidy found him. Father Cassidy had knelt to embrace the ill, tearful boy and presented him with the little packet of paper.
“Keep it close John, and mind that ye don’t open it til you’re home in Ballybough. ‘Twill remind ye of your fine times with us at Coolock School.”
And John had sobbed fitfully into Father Cassidy’s shoulder then, as if his heart would break, until the priest calmed him with soft words, took up his hand and led him gently from the rectory.
There, in the dimness of the midnight fire, feeling so far from Coolock, John opened the paper.
Even before he’d unfolded it he knew what it was. He ran his fingers over the bold black majuscule letters at the top of the page, pressed so hard into the paper by the strength of the printer and his press that the words felt as if they’d been carved there. John read the title aloud to the empty room:
“The Ballad of Robert Kidd, Most Nefarious Cutthroat and Pirate.”
John shivered with delight. It had always sounded so wonderfully wicked.
Then, at the very bottom of the sheet, two lines of careful handwriting caught his eye. John wriggled backwards towards the hearth and the scant light of the smoldering turf to see the nut-brown ink more clearly. The lines were in Latin:
Johanni, Cassidus Pater amicus tuus,
semper salutem et benedictionem.
To John; Father Cassidy, your friend,
sends his greetings and his blessing, always.
A sudden sound from the foot of the loft stairs broke his concentration, and Kit, wrapped in her homespun shawl against the chill, emerged from the shadows there. She shook open the folded bed-rug she carried and arranged it about John’s thin shoulders tenderly.
“Didn’t want ye to perish of the cold. T’would be sore unfortunate on yer first night home,” she grinned.
“Thanks very much, Kit,” John beamed and snuggled happily into the deliciously warm woolen depths of the heavy bed-rug, his eyes sparkling like dark gems in the lowering light.
“What have you got there?” Kit asked, nodding her head towards the yellowed broadsheet John clutched tightly in his hand.
“It’s the words to a song. An English song. ‘Bout a pirate. It’s brilliant.”
Kit drew one careful fingertip down the sheet. “You can read all those words on the page there, Jacky? The whole song?”
“I can, yes.”
Kit gave him a gentle shove to move him over and settled down on the pallet next to him, drawing her arms around her knees. She nudged him encouragingly with her shoulder.
“Teach it to me.”
In the stale air and dingy light of the hold of his father’s ship, the Wicked Wench, John swung above the sea-soaked floor in his thin hammock. With every wave he was drawn towards the damp, oaken hull, and as he reached the wood, he carefully chipped away one splinter with his shiv. Rolling forward into the half-lit shadows, rolling back towards the hull; one chip. Forward, back, one chip. One chip. And another. And another. By the time the dogwatch had ended and the grey dawn seeped partway down through the hatch, he was finished.
He ran his dirty fingers over his work, smoothing the rough edges of the cuts, feeling the comforting shapes of the letters beneath his fingertips.
His beautiful name.
As the watery daylight poured into the hold and crept across the reeking floor, John felt the ship come about beneath him; she was running due east at last now, into the dawn and bound on for London.
* "tabula in naufragio:" Latin: literally, "a plank in a shipwreck;" has the sense of "any port in a storm"
* "amadan:" Irish: idiot
* "craic:" Irish: fun, good times