The Physician and the Siren

The Physician and the Siren

The spray leaves patterns on the planked deck. He stands–alert and fearful, yes, but also intrigued–before the captain, whose back is to him. While he watches the seawater dry in salty whorls, the pirate watches out over the bow, the horizon tilting as the ship comes about.

His captain, he thinks, for that is now the case. The Siren isn’t known for mercy on these seas. Only hours ago he watched sixty souls drowned or slaughtered by her crew. Why he was spared and brought aboard is a mystery to him, but he feels oddly grateful.

For the moment, his life belongs to the whims of a pirate.

“Sink it,” comes the growled order, carried back on the wind. The bullion and provisions from the packet are aboard.

He does not turn when the guns fire. The sound of the ocean swallowing the vessel is both quieter than he expects and thunderous in his ears.

“Permission to speak, sir,” he asks respectfully. He is unarmed, alone, a dead man walking. But he is a scientist, a scholar, and curiosity has the best of him.

The captain turns. He is disappointed by the ill-fitting belt and coat. Gone are his illusions of a dashing figure. He searches the face deeply shaded from the fearsome sun; the captain’s features are only just visible under the broad brim of a hat. A nod. Permission.

“Why am I spared?”

With motions made more deliberate by the pitch and roll of the deck beneath, the captain unbuckles the belt, unbuttons the coat. As the air catches the opened cloth, the pirate lifts the hat away.

A riot of vermillion curls, eyes like the sea at Dover. An advanced pregnancy.

She speaks then, a voice rough with worry and command.

“I have need of a physician.”

Dismissed

An inferno of reflected lamp light blazes in the looking glass behind the Captain.

“You sent for me?” he asks.

She is seated at her writing desk, a small strongbox at her elbow. She doesn’t look up. He has not been inside her cabin since the night he delivered the baby.

He shivers at the memory.

The Siren had overtaken a slaver bound for Hispaniola with a late summer storm blowing in from the southwest. With the ship stripped of anything the Captain deemed valuable, she’d ordered the crew’s execution. The Africans she’d unshackled and left aboard, the hull damaged but still afloat. He’d been the only one to notice an unsteadiness in her gait, a pearl sheen of sweat on her fierce, white brow.

Seven hours later, he knelt between her knees on the floor of this cabin, her screams muted by his belt between her teeth. The cook and the cabin boy carting hot water and linen to and from the room were the only other witnesses to the Captain’s travails, but the heavy, haunted chanting from the slaver, adrift nearby, sung the baby into the world between greenish flashes of Caribbean lightning.

As the child crowned, the Captain had pushed herself up on her elbows. Her blue-gray eyes, glazed with pain, met his as she bore down.

A keening cry cut through the cacophony of rain and wind, and the rhythm of the chanting quickened across the water as the child, a girl, took her first breath.

As if summoned by his thoughts, the baby mewls from its makeshift cradle, hung from the ceiling of the cabin near her berth. The Captain nudges the cradle with a distracted hand before smoothing out a folded sheet of paper; a letter, he surmises by the close-pressed penmanship on the page. She says nothing.

“Captain?”

“I have a brother in Port-au-Prince,” she says, fingers caressing the worn creases of the letter. “For obvious reasons, I cannot go to him myself. You must take her—“

She nudges the gently swaying crib again as the baby grizzles from her swaddling.

“—To him. We shall send you ashore in the captain’s gig under cover of darkness. You will take a letter of introduction to him. He will take the child and see that you are given passage to England.”

He says nothing. There is nothing to say. She is law and god on this vessel.

The dancing amber light makes the room feel close, and he is more aware of the gentle roll of calm sea beneath him than he has been in weeks.

“I presume you were going to England,” she adds as an afterthought.

She doesn’t turn her face to him, but he hears in her tone that he is dismissed.

 The Earl’s Curiosity

He catches sight of Sirena’s hair in the mirror, scarlet in the corona of candle light around her, as she opens the door to his study.

“Papa?” she says, stepping into the room. Her cotton nightgown is short on her bony shins. She persists in growing up, despite his hopes to the contrary.

“It’s late, Sprite. What is it?” he says, smiling at her in the looking glass while he arranges his cravat.

“Will you tell me at breakfast what the Countess wore?”

“If you confess the whereabouts of Miss Miller’s best hat, of course,” he replies casually, rewarded by an indignant flush on his daughter’s face.

“It’s an awful hat! She should thank me for—“

Sirena realizes her mistake, but not quickly enough. She sets her candle down on his desk.

“The hat is under Hodge’s armoire, Papa,” she offers contritely.

He cannot help but laugh, though it slices at his heart. Her serious expression smells of salt air and sun-baked canvas.

“I will ask Hodge to return it to Miss Miller in the morning, along with a sincere letter of apology from the thief.”

“Yes, Papa,” she says quietly.

He checks himself in the glass to be sure he won’t embarrass his sister at the Countess’s party.

“Now, tell me I look well enough to dine with your Aunt Felicity, and kiss me goodnight before you take yourself back to bed.”

As he leans down, Sirena stretches up to fold his cravat into place. She kisses his cheek and retrieves her candle.

“Sirena?” he calls as she goes, “Be sure to put the candle out.”

He collects his sister from her favorite sitting room. The carriage ride seems extraneous to him, given that the distance is easily walkable, but Felicity rules the household with a fashionably iron-clad fist, and arriving on foot would not be proper.

The Countess, Felicity’s oldest friend and Society’s most notorious hostess, is upon them immediately. She whisks Felicity off to a card table looking for a fourth, but not before greeting him with mischief in her eyes.

“The Earl has a curiosity in his library. After your years in the Indies, Isaac, I’ve no doubt you’ll find it very interesting.”

He dodges the crush. The heat of candles and bodies is overwhelming. In the corridor he can hear the Earl’s baritone like cannon fire from the library.

“Jennings, you’re a scoundrel!”

Standing on the Turkey carpet before the Earl’s merry fire is a filthy young man in sailor’s clothes, shackled and shorn like a traitor at the block. Though the sailor stares at the floor, there is steel in his posture.

“Issac!” the Earl booms at him. “Come in and have a look at what Jennings caught on his last run.”

He crosses the room, his soul crackling, as Jennings forces the young man to raise his face.

The pulse in his ears drowns out every sound but his own unsteady breathing. The close-cropped red hair, the pale skin. The fathoms-deep eyes, dull now and withdrawn, but still the same color as the English Channel. Not a young man at all.

Recognition kindles in those stormy eyes; her face, pink from the fire’s proximity, blanches. A fine sweat breaks out on her brow and her knees buckle.

He lunges forward to catch her. She is slight in his arms, captivity has stripped her of her toned muscles and rude health. She is all bones and sinew and fatigue now.

“What the devil, Jennings?” the Earl demands.

Jennings looks on, baffled into silence. It is he who speaks instead, laying her down on the sofa.

“She is in need of a physician.”

The Physician’s Escape

“We have to leave immediately,” he says urgently.

Morgan, little more than a boy and newly hired as his valet, rubs sleep from his eyes even as he pulls on his outer clothes.

“Saddle Calyx and pack the saddlebag for a three-day journey,” Isaac says, his mind racing towards escape.

“Sir, am I to accompany?” Morgan yawns, dressed and trailing Isaac.

“No, Morgan, and you are to tell no one of my departure. You will wake up tomorrow as surprised as anyone of my absence.”

“Of course, Sir,” the young man replies, disappearing into his master’s rooms as Isaac nudges open the door to Sirena’s.

Her bed is empty, and he races down to the ground floor, finding the door to Felicity’s morning room open.

The sight of her, kneeling next to the Captain, her sleep-tousled curls tinted violet in the bluish light, stops his heart. Will she see her own pale skin and Titian hair reflected back in the skeletal and grimy features of the woman who sleeps on her aunt’s settee?

“Sirena,” he whispers, voice breaking softly.

“Papa,” she replies without turning, “she’s very dirty, and her hair. Did she have lice?”

He cannot help a small laugh. She is so young yet. Of course she doesn’t see.

“Where did you hear about lice?” he asks, crouching next to her.

“Miss Miller said if I wouldn’t wash and comb my hair like a civilized child, I should get lice and be forced to shave it all off with your straight razor,” Sirena says earnestly.

“Miss Miller is right in all things,” he assures her. “Now, back to bed.”

Sirena kisses him. The jig is up. Morgan may lie for him, but he cannot ask his daughter to do the same. Felicity will know before breakfast that he had a dirty red-headed woman in the morning room in the wee hours of the night. There Is no more time to lose.

“Who is she, Papa?” Sirena asks from the doorway. Her small face looks tenderly back at the Captain. She doesn’t know, he reminds himself.

“No one, Sprite,” he says. “Good night.”

As her door closes above, Morgan appears.

“Calyx is saddled, Sir.”

“Back to your bed, Morgan. You’re a good lad.”

“Sir,” the boy nods, practically asleep on his feet.

“Captain,” he says in her ear, having no other name for her. She doesn’t stir.

“Captain!” he insists. She makes a soft sound in her throat but doesn’t stir.

Since the moment the Earl and Lieutenant Jennings left them in the Earl’s former governess’s room, he has been reacting on instinct. They were left alone, but not for long. The guests had gone down to dinner, keeping the household occupied, but had been sure that Felicity would note his absence. His decisions to trade the gray and reeking linen shirt and filthy trousers on her body for a woolen dress stolen from the Earl’s housekeeper, to carry her down and out through the servant’s entry to the Earl’s home, and now to flee London weigh heavily as he thinks of Sirena.

It is a difficult ride to the Thames. Far easier, he finds, to book passage to France on the turning tide.

As the ship groans and heaves away, the Captain’s eyes finally flutter open. There is a flicker of hope and recognition in their depths and he realizes that he has, as much as he can, already brought her home.

The Seven Sisters

Isaac stands at the stern, hands braced on the rail against the pitch and roll of the Channel’s current; England fades to a rolling line, then slips away under the gray sea like Atlantis. He wonders if it is lost to him now, and his daughter with it. The crew is watchful, but not active, as dawn breaks. He and his Captain are the only passengers on this ship.

“Dr. Lowe? Isaac?” her low voice and her touch on his arm are simultaneous.

He answers without turning.

“I didn’t know you knew my name. We never discussed it… before.”

“I saw it sewn into your satchel when you were brought aboard the Siren,” she explains, joining him. “I thought it best we maintained some distance at the time.”

Her careworn hands alongside his on the rail kindle a fire under his skin that the sea air does nothing to cool.

“If I am to be Isaac,” he asks, “who are you to be?”

Motion in the lines and rigging tugs at the ship. The crew calls. Isaac watches her body shift with the vessel’s heaving even as his overcompensates.

“Rose O’Leary Marquez de Navarra.”  Her eyes meet his, gray and steady. “You may call me Rose.”

“Rose, then.” He falls silent, watching her watch the water. Across the back of her neck a cluster of small stars are tattooed onto her skin just below her now close cropped hair.

“It’s true, then,” he muses, “all pirates are tattooed like the Painted Prince.”

Her hand flies up to cover the constellation.

“It is the Pleiades. The—“

“The Seven Sisters,” he finishes. “I know the story.”

“One for each of us, and I the only one not gone to Heaven, nor likely to go. And our brother now years gone, as well.”

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