James and Peter, Fishing
by Anaea Lay
James’s boots clanked against the dock planks as he strode out over the water. It was a quiet morning, the sun just breaking over the horizon, the water lapping gently against the dock supports. The loudest noises were the creaks of his ship shifting slightly in the gentle breeze. James took a deep breath, smelling salt and fish, and reminded himself that this was another morning in hell.
He settled down on the end of the dock, his tackle box to one side, his pail to the other. His prosthetic glinted in the morning light as he readied his fishing rod and selected his favorite lure. As he cast off, he spotted Peter at the horizon, late as usual.
Ten minutes later the sprightly boy alighted on the dock next to James, his own fishing rod and tackle box in hand. His face was bleary; traces of sleep clung to the edges of his eyes. James said nothing. This world might be unchanging, but he did not have to endlessly comment on it.
Peter caught a fish right away though James had seen no sign of any prey. It was always so. The mermaids followed Peter and brought fish to his line. They would sit there all morning while Peter caught fish after fish and James reeled in seaweed. The crocodile would arrive around noon, when they broke for lunch.
“Last week was fun,” Peter said mid-morning.
“I’m sure,” James said.
“You’ve mended the sails already?”
Earlier that week, James had kidnapped the mermaid princess and trapped her in a tank suspended from the rigging of his ship. He’d felt oppressed by the weight of another day fishing with Peter, another piece of this alleged paradise conspiring against him. It was a futile gesture. Of course Peter would fly through the rigging, buzzing the crew like a rabid bat before shredding his sails and sending the lovingly crafted tank shattering against the deck. James could have killed the mermaid princess right then as she writhed amidst the mess of broken glass and metal, suffocating in the humid afternoon air, but what was the point? She was meant to be immortal. She belonged here. She was a victim of Peter’s thrall every bit as much as James.
That was the thought that raged through him as he flung the mermaid from his deck, leaving her to crash back into the ocean and flee with bruised fins and torn scales. They were all Peter’s victims. Co-prisoners. Compatriots. Hurting them was just persecuting a fellow victim. James stood at his deck railing, watching the ripples in the surface that marked the mermaid’s flight, and wept. Peter didn’t notice; he was distracted with shredding the sails.
“They’re nearly mended,” James said.
“I think I’ll take the boys for a pow wow with the Indians next week,” Peter said.
It was an instruction. James would have to kidnap Tiger Lily. He’d demand some ransom of her father. Come to think of it, he could use a resupply of his tobacco stores. Or he could break the pattern, leave the Indian chief’s daughter alone and attack Peter directly. If they descended on the camp at dusk, could they catch Peter while he was distracted with his games and finally free the island of him? Certainly not, but it would be something different. A respite, as it were, from this ceaseless script of antagonism and failure.
The sun just crested over the horizon as James settled at the end of the dock. The water teemed with fish today and James eagerly baited his line. If he was quick, he might catch something before Peter arrived, assuming the mermaids didn’t arrive ahead of their boy captor. If he caught something, if this once he could dine on a fish he caught on his own, that would soothe the tragedy from the Indian encounter.
His men had set an ambush around the Indian camp as instructed. They’d lain in wait until the right moment, springing out of the shadows as Peter took a long drag from the peace pipe. The Indians rushed to his defense, of course, but what defense was needed when Peter leapt into the air and flitted away at the first sign of danger, pausing just long enough to whack James’s hat off his head with the pipe? Bullets from pistols and muskets flew through the air, riddling tepees and the surrounding countryside, but they only came close enough to Peter to prove that this was a moment of grand adventure. Mister Smee, the boatswain, acted on instinct, grabbed the vulnerable Tiger Lily as she stoically called for Peter, and followed the general retreat all the way back to the ship, the girl thrown over his shoulders.
“Something to show for our troubles, Captain,” Smee had said.
James rewarded him, tied the girl to the mast, then watched as Peter shredded the sails and rescued the girl. Again.
Peter was late to arrive today, but it didn’t matter. The mermaids came to the fishing appointments before James, and he’d caught nothing. Mediocrity and repetition. The life of an immortal.
“We all know you’re a fraud,” James said.
“You’re supposed to be the embodied spirit of childhood innocence, free of worldly taint, the boy who never grew up.”
“I don’t ever want to grow up. I’ll be a boy forever,” Peter confirmed.
“That’s a lie. Adults wish they’d never grown up. Children long for the freedom of adulthood. You’re a nostalgic old man playing at childhood.”
“That’s not true.”
“You can’t realize that being an adult is oppressive unless you’ve been in the adult world.”
“Grownups are always in a hurry. They never play games. They frown,” Peter said.
“And you’ve walked with them enough to notice that. You didn’t freeze, you took a step back. You’re tainted, Peter.”
James expected him to fly away, but he sat there, fishing rod in hand, and sniffled. That went on until lunch. Part of James wanted to put a reassuring hand on Peter’s shoulder. Another part wanted to gut the first part, and the boy too. They sat like that in silence until the crocodile arrived with its steady tick, tick, tick.
Neither of them caught any fish that day.
It rained the next four days. There was no sign of Peter. This was a novelty and James was thrilled. He’d finally, finally managed to hurt the boy. Not even the tick, tick, ticking of the crocodile as it endlessly circled the ship could dint James’s good humor.
James spent the first two days of rain locked in his cabin, reading. He hesitated over a stack of books given to him by Master Teach as a farewell gift, thick volumes by some scandalous French writers, then went instead for his bound copy of Shakespeare’s plays. First the comedies, Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing but not A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He dallied briefly with the histories, Richard the III, but by the end of the second day he’d fallen heavily into the tragedies. Othello. King Lear. When he realized with horror that he’d just read Titus Andronicus not once, but twice in a row, he pushed the volume away and went up to take a turn on the deck.
Rain was normally a sporadic thing here, coming forth in a brief shower of petulant, adolescent misery and resolving ten minutes later. James hypothesized an underground river near the surface of the entire island—it was the only way to explain the lush vegetation covering it given that years might pass between proper rain showers.
James stood at the bow of his ship and examined what he could see of the shore through the gray, drizzly mist. If there were an underground river, this rain should reveal evidence of it. James let his inner naturalist break forth for the first time in years. If he went hiking on the island, what drainage patterns should emerge? Would there be differences in the growth density of the vegetation? Before he realized it, James was scribbling in his notebook, planning the expedition he would take onto the island. He was still trapped in hell, but the devil was out on holiday.
It took the next two days to gather the supplies and finish the plans for his expedition. The sun rose behind a thick bank of clouds on the fifth day of rain. James and his men readied their gear and marched through the harbor-side village toward the jungle. It felt good to exercise his intelligence again, to spend his energies in pursuit of scholarly knowledge. James hoisted a sack of supplies along with the rest of his men and trudged through the mud, head held high and a smile on his face. This reminded him of his first naturalist’s expedition.
He’d just graduated from Eton, a young man not quite nineteen, devoted to the study of language and literature. He could recite long passages of poetry in Latin, Greek, French and English. Still, he had no small amount of talent in mathematics and the natural sciences and it was here his father wished him to focus. Though he longed to go to London to mix with literary society, he accepted his teacher’s offer to accompany him on an expedition to the tropics.
James, it turned out, had excellent sea legs and suffered not one moment of seasickness, even during the worst storms. His teacher was not so fortunate and he grew wan and sickly on the voyage. By the time they docked at Tortuga, the man was near death, and a week on the island finished him off. Thus James was left with no patron and sole occupancy of a tiny cabin crammed with a naturalist’s supplies and tools.
One black evening two weeks out from Tortuga, the ship was beset by pirates flying a black flag with a skeletal demon spearing blood red hearts. James remembered finding the hearts discordantly reminiscent of a valentine even as the first cannon roared.
Only three cannon shots were fired. It took that long for the ship’s first mate to throw the Captain overboard and raise the white flag to the pirates. No member of the crew spoke against this behavior because all recognized the dire threat of that particular pirate flag and none wished to die a grisly death over the captain’s misguided notion of honor. James found the whole affair exhilarating, and he could barely contain his need to wax poetic in response.
Edward Teach loved Shakespeare, too.
Months passed where James worked as Blackbeard’s boatswain. Young James studied the craft of piracy from its very master, while Master Teach enjoyed the company of a young man who could trade soliloquies and share scenes during the long nights at sea. James counted himself lucky to have found a way to indulge his particular passions while fulfilling his father’s deepest wish, that his second son would go out into the world and make his fortune.
And he continued to count himself lucky until the blockade of Charleston.
The captain of the second largest ship in Blackbeard’s fleet fell sick and died as the small armada gathered off the South Carolina coast. It was meant as a compliment, as a reward, but James was devastated when Commodore Teach promoted his young boatswain to replace the fallen captain. The crew were good, disciplined men who knew their trade and plied it eagerly, but they were the uneducated second and third sons of ignorant peasants. James missed his mentor, and respected him too much to voice a single protest.
Then, accident of fate, hell reached out to acquire the most storied pirate of all time, enveloping his ship in a bank of fog and whisking it away to the otherworld, and it had sloppy aim. The novice, bored with command and lonely for mature company, had his fate co-opted to fulfill the adventure fantasies of a prepubescent brat.
The small expedition had penetrated only a mile into the jungle when the overblown firefly descended, stealing James’s hat and carrying it to a branch just out of reach. Mister Smee was quick to draw his pistol and take aim at the fairy. James sighed, knowing before the gun fired that there would be a new hole in his hat, and the fairy would escape unscathed. And just so, the slain hat fell to the ground while she sped away in a puff of glittering dust.
A moment later she reappeared and perched on the end of James’s nose. “Apologize to Peter,” she demanded, her tiny voice a shambles of singsong bell ringing.
“I will not,” James said, grinning despite himself.
“You’re a nasty old man!”
“I am,” James agreed. Hell had aged him. Then he swatted at her with his prosthetic. He’d managed to poison her once, and it was still one of his few happy memories of this place. Then she hadn’t died, delivering a moment of such heart-wrenching frustration that he regretted his cleverness. He’d suspected at the time that she was the real power behind this hell, that it was her influence that kept this world trapped as a plaything for Peter. He’d indulged in fantasies of rescuing the boy from the fairy’s machinations and taking him back to the world, educating him, giving him the gifts James had so valued.
Oh, the lies you’ll tell yourself to give hell some variety.
The rain broke an hour later. James knew this was a bad sign, but he was too invested in the expedition, and the good mood it engendered, to give up over a change in the weather. He was too desperate to maintain his sense of victory over the child-devil to acknowledge the strange rumbling in the ground or the disconcerting sounds of splintering trees further in the jungle. By the time the wave of mud came into sight, James was in fully fledged denial. The mountain was on the other side of the island—a mudslide should not reach them here. Yet the expedition was shoved back to the village at the harbor by a heavy wash of mud and rock all the same.
A rainbow crowned the ship when James returned, mud-stained and dragging the ruined sacks of supplies and equipment he’d lovingly prepared for the trip. He’d been wrong to hope. He was permitted on the island only if he were plotting some scheme that would fulfill Peter’s thrill-seeking needs. Nothing so boring as a scientific expedition could be allowed. Worse yet, James’s attempt to violate this rule seemed to have rescued Peter from his depression, undoing the single small victory James had obtained in all his time trapped here.
James sat at his desk, ignoring the stacks of books and manuscripts scattered around it from his haste in packing. He hunched in his great leather chair and picked away at the heavy wooden desk, scratching away at the wood with his prosthetic. He was trapped, stuck here for eternity just as surely as the crocodile would always circle the ship with its incessant tick, tick, tick.
The mermaids were floating at the surface when James arrived at the dock. James had never seen them so at ease, stretched languorously amid beds of seaweed, their long hair trailing about them in the water even as the dawn light glinted off their scales and oily skin. He stood at the edge of the dock, tackle box in one hand, fishing rod balanced in his prosthetic, and watched them. What was the correct term for a group of mermaids? Were they a pod, like whales, or a school, like fish? James watched them as the sun crept above the horizon, torn between relishing the sight and taking advantage of their slumber to finally catch a fish.
He stepped onto the dock and they came instantly awake. With melodic shrieks they dove into the water, leaving the faintest of ripples in their wake. Only clutches of seaweed floating on the surface marked they’d ever been there. James sighed, and continued down the dock. Peter would be late, and James had bait to waste before he got there.
James was just opening his tackle box when Peter arrived, unusually punctual. The boy put down his pail and box and settled lightly on the edge of the dock. His wild red hair floated in the breeze.
“You’re jealous of me,” Peter said. “You’re old and you’re a pirate. You don’t have any thoughts and you’re jealous of me.”
James thought about Shakespeare and Milton and Edward Teach. He thought about ocean winds, salty air and discussing poetry by candlelight and cognac. He thought about murdering Peter. “You mistake me. I hate you.”
“Because you’re jealous,” Peter said.
“Because I am a man of learning. I was a man of the world just beginning the heights of my career. I was free of all but the obligations I most wanted to fulfill in a world that was flawed and miserable but, ultimately, fair. I hate you because you took that from me to suit your capricious whims.”
“I’m innocent and you aren’t.”
“Innocent? I’ve never cut off any body’s hand.” Tick, tick, tick. The crocodile was early too.
James hadn’t noticed the crocodile that first morning after the fog lifted. The clouds broke an hour before dawn and James had time to study the sky and determine that the stars were all wrong. Even if he’d crossed the equator without realizing it, the stars weren’t in any sensible configuration. And the island’s geography when James explored it through his telescope as the sun rose seemed improbable. Jungle should not grow so thickly so far up the side of an active volcano.
The ship was well stocked, but none of James’s charts could make sense of his observations either, and there was a village built up around what looked to be a splendid harbor. James gave the orders to load the guns and dock. If the locals were hostile or tried to extract a tax from him he would raise Blackbeard’s flag and take the information he needed by force. Otherwise, James was a gentleman and didn’t plan to allow astrogational distress undermine that.
Even without flying the flag or rolling out the guns, the town fled with shrieks of “Pirate” as they anchored at the docks. James disembarked to find the village a ghost town, the villagers fled into the jungle. Try as he might, he couldn’t coax a single one to speak with him. He bribed, cajoled, threatened, begged.
Then a young boy dressed in a collection of green and brown rags called to him from a rooftop. “Oy, look at you, you old codfish!”
“Pardon?” James asked.
“I said you’re a codfish,” the boy said. Then he stepped off the roof and floated lightly to the ground.
James was too astonished by the sight to register the insult. “How did you do that?”
Rather than answer, the boy drew a short sword. “What’s your purpose?”
“I need bearings and a chart of the local waters,” James said.
“You’re a kidnapper,” the boy said, brandishing the sword at James.
“I’ve done nothing. These people fled before I could even speak to them. It wasn’t my doing,” James protested.
But the boy was upon him, attacking with the sword. In an instant James had his own rapier drawn. Swordsmanship had been part of his education at Eton and a particular area of tutelage continued by Master Teach, but James was uncomfortable with the idea of dueling a young boy, even if his feet had a remarkable tendency to leave the ground.
James retreated up the dock in short order, allowing the boy to force him backwards to his ship. With more of his men to hand James might find a way to subdue the child and examine his remarkable abilities. James thought this a clever plan, but he was playing into the boy’s hands. There, before all of James’s crew, Peter leapt over James’s guard and swung his blade, cruelly slicing through the joint of James’s wrist. James maintained his feet only through shock as the boy reached down to pick up the bleeding, severed appendage, grinning maniacally, then tossed it off the side of the dock to the previously unnoticed crocodile.
Mister Smee was the one who finally leapt into motion, tying a tourniquet around his captain’s wrist even as the child-devil flew away, crowing with his grotesque victory. It was Mister Smee who stitched up James’s remaining flesh and nursed him back to health. And it was Mister Smee who went into the village to acquire James’s first prosthetic. Mister Smee, the boatswain, and a member of the crew who appeared for the first time when the fog broke.
James came out of his reverie as Peter reeled in a fish. The sun was high in the sky. The mermaids were openly eavesdropping on the dock, waiting to hear Peter’s response. He didn’t have one, or so James surmised from his focused dedication to gutting his catch. James dropped his fishing rod into the water. There was nothing to be gained by trying, so he would stop pretending. He stood up, kicked his tackle box over the side, and walked up the dock.
“Where are you going?” Peter demanded.
“I quit…this,” James said, waving his hands in the air to indicate the world around them, this hell, this constant and unchanging never land.
“But it’s not time yet,” Peter called.
James ignored him. He would go back to his ship, and he would study. Books and sheafs of notes waited for him, and if James couldn’t find a way to physically leave this world, then he’d send his intellect to freedom, dedicating himself to his academic pursuits. No more plotting to escape, or to destroy Peter. Henceforth, James would be a scholar, nothing more.
James had a chance to kill Peter just once. He had tried many, many times but never managed to pin the child-devil to the ground, blade against his throat, the end of his prosthetic resting under his eye. He’d been lucky, catching the boy while he was in a sullen mood and snaring him before the chase could liven his spirits. Years had passed already, James’s youth lost to the timelessness engulfing him, and finally he had power over his captor.
Never in all his life had James been so frightened. What if he were wrong and Peter wasn’t the key to this prison? The island answered his every whim, yes, but he might be trapped in his role, like James. Even in his time with Master Teach, James had never slain a child. But letting Peter escape would be unconscionable. The mere thought was tantamount to giving up and accepting eternity here. James, who felt so stifled at times he could barely breathe, would not let this chance slip away. He snarled, dragging his blade down the boy’s chest, pressing the tip over his heart.
“How old are you?” Peter asked.
That hesitation was fatal. The damned pixie had arrived, and suddenly James was choking on a cloud of her dust, his eyes watering with it. Seconds later Peter was gone, crowing and howling about death being an adventure for another day.
James tried suicide, but it never worked.
Now he was trying rebellion. James paced his cabin, too restless to read or study. He thought of launching another expedition, but that was surely doomed. Then he came to a decision and, not wanting to give the island time to thwart him, rushed to the deck to implement it.
“Raise anchor. We’re leaving,” James said.
“How? We have no bearing, no guide,” Smee said.
“I’d rather be drowned on the open sea than sit here another hour. Hoist the sails.”
They left with the tide, the crocodile swimming along in their wake, tick, tick ticking. James stood in the bow, exhilarated to be taking action, and nervous as a tall bank of dark grey clouds rolled in from the ocean. They’d done this before, oh dozens of times, but he’d always taken time first to provision, to call his crew back in from the village. Their stores were empty, half a dozen of their men stood at the shore, watching them go, and still the clouds came. Surely it must take time to build up the front, for it to arrive. If they pressed hard enough, they could outrun it, escape its reach.
Smee shook his head mournfully as the first raindrops hit the deck. He slumped away when the winds picked up and the ship began to roll on the water, muttering darkly that, “this is what comes of letting the island put a child in charge.” James watched him go, but did not order them back to the harbor. He’d rather drown than return.
The lightning strikes were so piercingly bright that, though they were constant, James was blind. Winds tore the sails from their rigging, and they were rendered into tatters. The ship had long since ceased creaking, opting instead to splinter as the gale assaulted it. James retreated to his cabin, determined to thwart tides or currents that would seek to sweep him from the deck and drive him back to the shore.
The windows in his cabin were shattered, the room rapidly filling with rain as the ship rode ever lower in the water. Papers flew around the cabin, caught up in the storm and thrown about even as seawater soaked through the bindings of his books. James sat down at his desk, his hands resting on the stack of books given to him by Master Teach, the scandalous French screeds. He’d never read them. The realization struck him as lightning hit the main mast. All this time, they’d rested on his desk, but James had never cracked their covers. This was his last chance. He reached for the volume at the top of the stack.
The ship rolled, its planks screaming as it did, and it went under a great wave, the ocean depths sucking it down to its sandy bed. James was thrown from his chair, scrambling suddenly to escape the wrecked hull of his ship, find the surface, to breathe. It was dark and everywhere James turned he met a wooden barricade, the deck, the ceiling, the wall. James was drowning, books floating in the water around him. Their ink ran, a substitute for the panicked, joyful tears James could not shed. He was drowning and, at last, he would be free.
He woke the next morning atop the sheets of his bed, his ruined clothes and the salt caking his hair and beard the only proofs he’d made an effort.
Another fishing appointment. James brought his box and rod—they’d returned to their normal place after the storm—but he did not cast a line or even open the box. He came because the day would not progress until he did, and he waited for Peter because the boy had no concept of time.
When Peter arrived he too sat down his implements and made no motion to use them. After a moment he turned to James, his shaggy red hair catching in the morning breeze. “I don’t know why I’m here,” Peter said.
“Because you’re a coward,” James said. “You’re too afraid to leave.”
“I can’t leave,” Peter said. “I mean, not permanently. I try, but I always wind up here again. I went to an orphanage once, to see if maybe I could stay if they found parents for me. I went to bed in the orphanage and woke up in my secret lair in the forest.”
James thought about that a moment. He’d drowned and woke up in his own bed. Could the boy really be another prisoner?
“How old are you?” Peter asked.
James was as taken aback as he’d been the last time Peter asked. It was a difficult question to answer. He’d been nineteen when he was brought here, but how many years had passed since then? To look in a mirror he was middle aged, but surely he’d been in this hell several scores of years.
“I think you’re just a boy,” Peter said. “You’re still desperate to grow up.”
“No,” James said.
“You’ve aged. Nobody here ages.”
The crocodile swam under the dock. Tick, tick, tick.
Young James had studied the craft of piracy from its very master, while Master Teach enjoyed the company of a young man who could trade soliloquies and share scenes during the long nights at sea. But Master Teach did not share everything with his young boatswain, thinking some items in his library inappropriate for a young, untested man. Scandalous French texts. He forbade James to peruse them. This admonishment irked James who, late one night while the Captain prowled the deck, stole into the cabin and tore into the books.
He was so absorbed he did not hear Master Teach until he was discovered. Then he learned what it was to face Blackbeard’s wrath. James fled the cabin, screaming, then wept when he was sent in disgrace to serve another Captain, banished from his sole companion for being too rash and immature to follow instructions. The fog found him that night and he awoke the next morning a pirate captain, middle aged and lost in a strange land.
James had forgotten.
No, not fresh from Eton, but longing to follow his elder brother there. Not a boatswain, a cabin boy. He’d been twelve, not nineteen.
Oh, the lies you’ll tell yourself.
“We’ve trapped ourselves here,” James said. He with his longing for adulthood, Peter with his fear of death.
“I quite like it. Don’t you?”
“This world bends to you. Mudslides attack me while the mermaids load your lines with fish.”
“No, you’ve just never learned how to fish properly. Here, I’ll show you.”
Peter took James’s fishing rod and reeled it in. Then, as James sat down next to him, started to lecture about the virtues of different kinds of bait. The sun rose high above the horizon as Peter demonstrated the best technique for loading James’s hook.
About the Author
Anaea Lay lives in Chicago, Illinois where she is engaged in a torrid love affair with the city.
She’s the fiction podcast editor for Strange Horizons, where you can hear her read a new short story nearly every week. She’s the president of the Dream Foundry, an organization dedicated to bolstering and nurturing the careers of nascent professionals working with the speculative arts.
Her fiction work has appeared in a variety of venues including Lightspeed, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Pod Castle. Her interactive novel, Gilded Rails, was released by Choice of Games in 2018. She lives online at anaealay.com where you can find a complete biography and her blog. Follow her on Twitter @anaealay.