The St. Vincent volcano lit up the night like unholy fireworks of death. Flaming orange comets spewed through the ash and smoke, streaming lava trails behind them. Then a section of the mountain rim folded and a magma waterfall poured forth, setting fire to the jungle as it descended towards the sea.
“I think it’s heading towards the camp,” Juan mused aloud. “I guess, one way or another, leaving isn’t a bad idea.”
The others murmured in agreement.
“We were running out of fruit, too,” Lance acknowledged.
They stood in the surf, hands on the catamaran’s ‘pontoons’, the longboats turned into floats, ready to push it out into the waves. The anchors had already been retrieved, and all the weapons they could muster were packed into the trunks on the deck.
Putin was bound and chained to the deck just before the mast, lying on his back. One of only two Carib warriors left in the tribe manned the tiller. Four Carib women of various ages and Winny stood in the surf alongside the prisoners, giving them very wary looks, but were ready to jump aboard once there was enough water to float the ship and support their weight.
The rest of the tribe had crammed into four canoes, all of them already out on the water. Piles of fishing gear and nets, tools and weapons, were stacked in between men, women, and children. The Caribs gave the volcano fearful looks and worried amongst themselves, perhaps about what wrathful deity had been angered, or perhaps just about the way their home was now lost to them. Terrible events had descended on these poor people, party from random chance and partly due to their proximity to the prison colony.
A cynical mind might say that they were only reaping their due; they were cannibals, after all. And hadn’t they been the ones to abduct people without provocation? But Mei felt more empathetic, even though they had kidnapped her. They hadn’t asked for their world to be invaded by overpowered foreigners who slaughtered them wholesale, enslaved them, and brought plagues the Caribs had no resistance to.
Mei and the others heaved together, pushing the catamaran into deeper water. Then it took some effort to turn the vessel around and point it the other way. The women scrambled aboard first, then the men had to shove the boat further before climbing aboard themselves as the boat started to drift away from land. They settled on the deck, everyone sitting because it was unstable and there were no sides to the ship. And then they all turned their heads to watch the might of the volcano behind them.
A shadowy shape appeared at the edge of the jungle. It loped down the beach towards them.
“Hey! It’s your cat, chica!” Cheeto excitedly pointed out.
Mei hesitated, then turned to look, feeling guilty. She hadn’t forgotten it. She’d tried to forget it. Surely it was better off left behind, wasn’t it? It was a wild animal. And they were about to try and raid a town and steal a ship. They couldn’t bring a jaguar along for the ride, no matter how fond Mei now realized she was of it.
Distance opened between the catamaran and the beach; growing darkness separated them.
The jaguar ran faster until it reached the edge of the surf, waves lapping at its paws. It stared after them.
She felt a twist in her gut. This was the right thing to do. Why was she being emotional about this? That was just silly.
The great cat turned left, then right, indecisive. It paced back and forth, growing anxious. Giving the departing ship a forlorn look, it raised its head and made a low roar that sounded something like a wood saw.
Rather than scare her, the sound hit Mei right in the heart. She bit the inside of her cheek and tried not to let tears come. Was she crying? Why? She was doing the right thing leaving it behind!
“I hope the volcano doesn’t get it,” Cheeto commented. He and everyone else watched the jaguar take a few anxious steps into the water.
“Oh hell.” Mei jumped to her feet. She gestured to the tillerman. “Turn the ship. Closer to shore.” She pointed.
The warrior was confused, then saw the great cat and looked at her like she was nuts.
Lance said it outright. “You’re nuts! You can’t bring a jaguar with us!”
“It’ll kill us and eat us!” Juan protested, alarmed.
“That way!” Mei insisted, ignoring their protests.
The Carib tried to refuse, but she came right up to him, looked him in the face and pointed. He shook his head, not pleased, but relented and reluctantly turned the catamaran so that it curved back towards the beach.
The jaguar’s head rose higher. It had noticed the change. As the ship sailed along the shoreline, gradually getting closer, it ran down the beach after them, keeping pace.
Mei went to the edge of the deck. “Come on!” She waved it over. “Jump! Swim!”
“It can’t understand you,” Lance scoffed, nervously eyeing the animal. “We should just leave it. It’ll be fine here. Probably.”
She took a look down at the longboat pontoon. Very carefully, she climbed down and stood on it, still waving.
The jaguar saw her. It ran at the water and plunged in with a splash. Remarkably proficient, it swam towards her, paddling fiercely.
“Slow down!” she barked above.
Someone lowered the sail, and the catamaran wallowed.
Alarmed female voices protested as the cat made their way toward them. The other prisoners continued to object.
But Mei had become resolute. “It obviously wants to come. And not because it wants to eat any of you. So I’m not leaving it behind. I won’t abandon a friend.”
“It’s a jaguar!” Juan protested, astonished.
The great cat splashed through the sea, only its head showing until it reached the boat. Mei had to back up as the cat tried to climb aboard the pontoon, but it couldn’t get a grip on anything and the top was out of reach.
She wasn’t about to reach down and help it. The cat’s claws would unintentionally shred her arm. She looked at the deck, trying to think of some way to help it climb up.
Armand pointed at her. “Use your jacket.”
“Take it off and lower it in the water.”
Flashing him a grateful smile, she did just that.
The jaguar desperately sought not just to keep up with the drifting vessel but also to get its claws into the long, blue captain’s jacket. It did, and Mei heaved with all her strength, which didn’t do nearly enough because the jaguar probably weighed almost forty kilos. And it was wet and struggling. And she only had the use of one arm because her left was severely injured.
Armand saw her troubles and swiftly lowered himself to her side. Together they pulled the cat up high enough for it to grab at the pontoon and raise itself to safety. After which, Armand just as swiftly backed away and returned to the deck.
The great cat perched on the pontoon, dripping wet and looking unsteady.
She put her jacket back on, ignoring the fact that the bottom half was dripping wet and that there were plenty of holes in it now, then reached out to the cat with one hand.
The jaguar carefully, and with a wobble, stepped closer to her, enough to snuffle at her belly. It allowed her to pet its head.
Cheeto had an excited grin. “That is the scariest and coolest thing ever!” He laughed.
It was a little awkward sharing the confined space as they sailed towards Barbados that night. The Carib women took one side and the male prisoners the other. All shuffled as far to the stern as possible while Mei and her furry new friend sat up front, on the other side of the sail, not far from the chained-up gangster, getting very nervous looks from everyone, including Putin. It was enough to make her laugh.
The jaguar seemed content now to lay by her side, but she still wasn’t sure what would happen going forward. Maybe she could tie it up on Barbados and return for it once they’d stolen the ship? She began having second thoughts and a bit of regret at having brought the animal with her.
While the others watched St. Vincent and the light show grow smaller behind them, Mei contented herself with staring into the darkness ahead. And that felt like a very accurate metaphor for her life.
The adrenalin from the battle with the marines was long gone. Her wounds were agonizing, and both her bicep and chest wraps were stained through with red. Deep tiredness seemed to come from her bones, or the bottom of her soul.
The memory of the marine leaning over her returned, creeping over her like an unwelcome ghost. She shuddered; it was as if she could still feel his breath on her face. Death and recapture had been so close. Maybe at the time, she’d been too caught up to succumb to it, but a glimmer of fear still had hold of her.
She’d come through so much already. Events she’d never imagined ever having to face back in her old life. And she shouldn’t have to face them now. If it wasn’t for all the selfish, corrupt pigs in the world…
Bitterness eclipsed her fear and her anger returned. She still felt so much rage and resentment at her situation. She probably would continue to do so as long as her circumstances were against her. She remained frustrated in the face of so many enemies, people and systems that felt impossibly huge and overwhelming, people and systems that should have been on her side, not against her.
It had been daunting, to say the least, trying to fight a government and the wealthy elite back home, battling institutions that seemed as vast and implacable as mountains. Many days, when their efforts to reshape society came to nought, it had felt like they were as impotent as rain against those mountains. Only by convincing themselves that even rain could eventually wear down the highest peaks had they been able to continue the long, sometimes discouraging fight.
Then her enemies had abused their positions and put her in here: prison. Despite her ability to survive thus far, she was all-too-aware that she was only treading water and that she could drown at any time. She might have caused that ship to explode by lighting the powder magazine, might have escaped St. Vincent by the skin of her teeth. But she was far from free. And only the slimmest chances for a temporary victory lay ahead. No matter how hard she tried to convince the others that they could steal a real ship and escape to a different life, she was quite clear on how long the odds were.
It was all she could do to put on a smile and a brave face and act like she had some sort of confidence in herself and in what they were doing. Honestly, she could barely believe the woman who’d lived through the past week was her. She’d never experienced such a crazy life before. Wielding a sword, shooting people, hanging out with a jaguar; it was all insane. And stressful. Underneath, she wanted to crawl into a warm corner and cry until she got her old life back.
A solitary tear slipped down her cheek. She brushed it away, glad that no one could see her. She couldn’t afford to look weak. Not when there was still a big decision coming: would they choose to fight for their freedom? At the moment, she could tell that they were strongly leaning towards turning themselves in. Well, at least three of them were, and it seemed Armand was too practical to dare a rebellion with only her, which was entirely reasonable, of course.
That night, she fell asleep on the open deck, next to a jaguar, and slept fitfully. Her dreams were unpleasant.
They all woke up the next morning with that same urge we get most mornings.
“Uh…guys?” Cheeto looked awkward where he sat, shifting strangely. “Where do we go to the, um, bathroom?”
Juan answered with an embarrassed look. “Off the edge, sailor.”
Cheeto rose and moved that way.
“The back of the ship!” Lance shouted. “Don’t piss into the wind, or you’ll do it all over everyone else.”
“Go down onto the pontoon,” Armand advised. “But don’t fall off.”
The Caribs didn’t share the same self-consciousness that the others did and went about their business in a practical manner. But Mei and the men were highly uncomfortable with voiding bowels where everyone else could see and, perhaps worse, hear.
Winny moaned and reluctantly moved to a pontoon when it was her turn. “As if this experience couldn’t be any more humiliating.”
Cheeto, shrugging off his initial embarrassment for a coat of bravado, swaggered to the stern and let fly with a yellow stream. He laughed as the wind thankfully carried it away from everyone else. Spotting something, he excitedly pointed to their wake. “Dolphin! There’s a dolphin following us!”
Everyone came to look, of course. A dark, torpedo-shaped shadow zipped after them.
“I…don’t think that’s a dolphin.” Lanced snorted with amusement.
Juan paled and backed away from the edge. “Ships should have safety rails. Walls. A ring of nice, dry land around them.”
Chuckling faux-maliciously, Armand pretended he was about to shove Cheeto into the shark’s path, and the young man almost screamed.
When it came time to eat, they had a trunk full of rations left behind by the marine strike force and a barrel of water. The most common ration was hardtack. This was a very plain and extraordinarily dense cracker made of flour and water and baked multiple times until it was so dry that it could last literally for years and so hard that it could stop a musket ball.
When they pulled it out of the trunk, everyone, especially the Caribs, looked at it in puzzled distaste. How could this be food? Cheeto nearly broke a tooth trying to bite into it. Only by dipping it into cups of beer poured from a smaller keg was it palatable and soft enough to eat, though as unappetizing as eating paper soaked in cheap, warm beer.
Luckily, there was also salt pork and beef jerky, both of which the Caribs found fascinating and tasty. And so did the jaguar, who was hungry.
At the smell of the dried meat, it eagerly pushed its way towards the trunk and rapidly cleared a space for itself so that it could sniff inside. Very delicately, Mei led it away with several large pieces of jerky, hoping it had less salt in it than the pork, which would no doubt be horrible for the feline.
Everyone stared in horror as the jaguar, with the strongest jaws of any great cat, tore the tough jerky apart as easily as butter and munched on it, on a lot of it, with a very satisfied expression. All imagined being the ones chewed on, and it was not a pleasant thought.
Juan saw the Carib women edge away from the cat. “Hmph. Maybe they have some idea what it feels like now.”
Lance barked a laugh.
Winny edged towards the closest pontoon as if thinking it might be safer down there.
It was a good thing that they expected to make landfall that night because the jaguar devoured everything it got. Nothing was left of the jerky by the time the animal seemed somewhat sated.
Eating salt pork on beer-soaked hardtack with more enjoyment than anyone else, Armand had a small smile as he glanced around the deck and its varied occupants. “What a strange world this is.”
“Hey,” Cheeto piped up, looking at Mei. “What’s her name?”
She blinked and turned her head towards the Caribs. “Names? I have no idea.”
“No, no. The cat. What’s her name?”
Lance tilted his head. “It’s a girl?”
Cheeto snorted. “What? You can’t tell boys from girls?”
Lance shot him a sour look as everyone else laughed.
“I hadn’t realized it was female,” Mei admitted, half ashamed that she hadn’t even noticed. “Then again, you don’t generally focus on the gender of an animal when it’s hunting you, do you? I was mostly focused on its teeth.”
“I think we all are,” Juan half-joked.
Armand winked. “How about Kitty?”
“Spot.” Cheeto laughed at his own humour.
Lance shook his head. “Rosette. That’s what the spots are called. Not a bad name either.”
Juan snapped his fingers. “Princess. Because she will get anything she wants, and none of us are about to tell her no.”
Mei was thoughtful. “How about…Jie?”
“Gia?” Lance asked, probably thinking of the English name that sounded relatively close.
Mei gazed at the jaguar. “It means ‘the one who rises above all others’ or ‘heroic’ or ‘outstanding’.”
Cheeto shrugged and nodded both. “Ok. Why that?”
“She kind of reminds me of a friend; her name’s Jie.”
“Ah. Because she has the same hair colour?” Lance asked. “Or she likes that pattern or something?”
Mei bit her lip to stop from smiling. “No. Because she’ll also eat absolutely anything.”
The others laughed.
Mei’s face flushed slightly as she felt bad saying this about her friend, even though she had joked about it with Jie before. “Seriously. And I’m not just talking about chicken feet and pig feet and intestines and stuff, which is all common in Asia. Not that I like any of that myself. I’m boring when it comes to food. Jie has this thing about crunching on bones. We’d go out to some fancy restaurant, and she’d not just strip the meat off the chicken, she’d take to gnawing on the bones after, cracking them open to get to the marrow.”
Juan nodded in understanding and flashed the cat a wary look. “Just like a jaguar.”
“Or an ogre!” Cheeto cackled.
The sky was clear, the breeze light, and all signs of the squall gone. Only the smoke from the volcanic eruption marred the horizon. It was a beautiful day and smooth sailing, even on their rickety craft. Everyone had been forced to overcome their embarrassment about toilet functions earlier, and now all had eaten. If it wasn’t gourmet, at least they weren’t hungry. At least it was a change from the same half-ripe fruit and charred fish they’d lived on for weeks. Thus, the mood was surprisingly good.
Armand, finished eating, stretched out and lay on his back. “This is a lot more fun than the last time I was at sea, trussed up in the bottom of a canoe.”
Mei huffed. “Especially when they keep you drugged with curare the entire time.”
“They did?” Cheeto looked surprised.
She shivered. “The only thing keeping me alive was them using an air bladder to pump my lungs for me.”
“Oh!” A look of understanding came over Juan. “That’s why you knew what to do with Putin.”
A few glanced towards the man, who was still chained up on the deck. No one had offered him food. He’d recovered from the curare in the night and they’d stopped using the air bladder to keep him alive. When he’d finally broken his silence and demanded breakfast, they’d only given him a little water and then gagged him. He hadn’t taken that well, but there wasn’t much he could do but wriggle in place and fume. No one had any sympathy for the man. He could go hungry for a day.
Cheeto braved the roll of the sea and stood near the front of the catamaran. He put his hands on his hips. “I’m king of the world!” he shouted, trying not to fall. It was like riding an oversized surfboard.
“No, no. Hold on.” Juan jumped to his feet. The big Spaniard came up behind the younger man, grabbed him by the waist and lifted him up.
Cheeto, playing along, spread his arms wide. “Draw me like one of your French girls, Juan!” he shouted into the wind.
Armand raised his voice in soft song. “Near… Far…”
Everyone joined in with a grin. “Where ever you are. I believe that the heart does…go on!”
That had them all rolling around the deck and clutching their sides, they laughed so hard.
Lance was the first to sit up, wiping away a tear. “Oh, man. I’m not sure it bodes well that we’re singing songs from a movie about a ship that sank due to stupidity.”
“Well, the odds of us running into an iceberg are pretty low,” Mei joked. “Besides, we’re not the ones in charge of sailing; the Caribs are. And they’re probably a lot more sensible about it.”
There were murmurs of agreement.
The Caribs looked at the prisoners and their antics like a bunch of madmen had appeared. They backed up into the smallest corner of the deck possible to get away, nervous looks in their eyes. Winny was right there with them. Perhaps the cannibals seemed saner than the non-Caribs.
Feeling a bit guilty, Mei went over and sat with them. For the next couple of hours, she and the women used emotion and hand gestures to have a conversation. And while it was often difficult and slow, they covered some surprising topics, from gender equality in the leadership of the tribe, which the women were all very much for, to cannibalism, which got a mixed response.
They had their ingrained superstitions, and Mei thought she was right about them believing that eating people helped with illnesses or gave them powers. However, they were able to empathize with the fear and pain it caused. She thought she made some progress in getting them to think about that part of their culture and consider other meat sources. When she mimed stealing some chickens from Barbados instead of people, two women were very much for it and chattered quite excitedly about the possibility.
While the morning and early afternoon passed in good spirits, things took a turn after midday when they had to either allow Putin his turn on the pontoon they’d designated as the prisoner bathroom or let him soil himself, and that would just be smelly, gross, and cruel.
He did his thing in chains and with guns pointed. There was nothing he could do, and at the barest hint that he might try something, Juan slugged him over the head with a musket butt. Then he was chained up to the mast, allowed a sitting position. They even forwent the gag, which turned out to be a mistake.