1/26/2004

In which, as promised...the long-awaited return of the hero is accomplished

So long it had been since I’d heard of the boy. Leaves had dropped, snow had fallen in America; still, in my mind’s eye he was adrift at the windless center of the sun-wet sea. Because, having left off with the pirates’ vicious sea-chantey, I was sure it would be either silence or death for our hero—remaining in his barrel until the pirates had accomplished their grim design, or walking the plank with the rest of the crew. The former proposition would leave our hero stranded aboard the steamer all alone; the latter…well, I couldn’t bear to contemplate that.

But weren’t we always underestimating the boy they called Hot Face?

It was a cold night down on the wharf when I stumbled into the tavern there, seeking refuge in even colder beer. I guess I must have gotten to talking, must have begun to spill the history of my obsessions, because eventually a gray and moustachioed sailor turned to me and asked if I wanted to hear the rest of the story.

“You know the story of Hot Face?”

“Every seaman’s heard it.”

I nodded, dumbstruck.

Slowly, the man began, the boy raised the lid of the barrel so that he could survey the action. He was surprised, given the lustiness with which they’d coursed their lewd tune, that there were only seven pirates aboard. As he’d imagined, however, they’d succeeded in tying up the crew, and one of the pirates was busy lashing a plank to the gunwale. Another, the red-bearded Pirate King, was menacing his captives with a cutlass. It was a typical pirate scene, really, familiar to the boy from the handful of moth-eaten, wormholed, ersatz Louis Stevenson books that had constituted the orphanage’s library. His quick eye registered only one anomaly.

“The polished brass diving suit that bestrode the deck like a colossus, glinting in the rising sun!” I blurted.

“Sure,” my interlocutor said.

“Let me guess.” I spun out a hypothesis. Hot Face had unfolded himself quietly from the barrel and stumbled over to the diving suit as quietly as he could manage, given the bloodlessness and general atrophy his limbs had suffered. Fortunately, the pirates had fallen under the warm spell of false security that often accompanies rum.

The sailor drained a shot, then nodded at me to continue my tale.

The boy had called on every atom, every mote and animalcule of strength left in him to lift the heavy helmet off the diving suit and to place it on his own skinny shoulders. Once inside it, however, in the coppery quiet dyed green from the little eye-window, he cooled down. He felt strangely at home here.

He had no peripheral vision, and his neck was immobilized. To see behind him, he had to wheel his whole body around, awkward as any monster of the silver screen. Suddenly—I grabbed the sailor’s shoulder—a pirate loomed in front of him! Without thinking, he knocked his helmet into the brigand’s face. Blood splashed onto the green glass between them, and the pirate doubled over, clutching a broken nose. Hot Face lumbered over to a nearby hogshead marked “Pepper-Cayenne.” (O, Illiteracy of Pirates!) Before he could reach the treasure within, he had to use its lid to dispatch another pirate. Then he reached his bare hands, unwashed since Algeria, into the Martian powder. He had only to fling the pepper into the faces of the four who were even then descending on them to create a storm of sneezing unmatched since Jack and the Giant. Inside his mask, he himself was safe, of course. One by one, he shoved the doubled-over scoundrels over the side of the boat and into the waiting water.

Until only one remained: the Pirate King. Leering slyly upward at the masked giant who had singlehandedly beaten his men, this bearded brigand had the audacity to request a parley. “All this could be ours, whoever you are,” he said. “50/50.” In the silence that followed, beneath the implacable stare of that impenetrable mask, the Pirate King, who had survived syphilis in Singapore and gunbattles in Guinea, grew unsettled. “30/70.” He said. Wordlessly, the figure in the mask lifted the rest of the diving suit off the deck and shoved it at the pirate, whose reflexes told him to catch it.

After more silence, the Pirate King shrugged and, clutching his copper booty, jumped over the side of the boat, never to be heard from again.

“Is that about right?” I asked my new friend.

It was his turn to shrug. “In most particulars, I guess. Now will you shut up about this Hot Face?”

Chastened but happy to have heard the tale’s end, I returned to my beer.