Him Or Me
Every child knows how the story ends. The wicked pirate captain is flung overboard, caught in the jaws of the monster crocodile, which drags him down to a watery grave. Who could guess that below the water, the great beast would spew me out with a belch and a wink of its horned, livid eye? It was not yet my time to die, not then nor any other time. It’s my fate to be trapped here forever in a nightmare of childhood fancy with that infernal, eternal boy.
No one knows what came next, the part you never read about in the stories. I clawed through water bloodied by the corpses of my crew driven overboard to make a meal for the sharks, flailed for the hull of my ship before the sharks caught up to me.
I saw it all by moonrise as I hooked my way up the chains to the deck. One of my men lay asprawl on the hatch coaming, dead eyes staring at the moon, curled fingers frozen over his ruptured belly. Another had dragged himself a few paces toward the rail before he expired, leaving a smear of fresh blood on the deck that could never be stained red enough to disguise it. Half a dozen others lay about in shadowy heaps, limbs twisted, faces ghastly, silent as waxworks. Everything stank of blood and decay. One man was draped face down over the foredeck rail, arrows sprouting from his back. The redskins were teaching the boys archery, as if they needed any more advantage over us in battle. None of the dead were boys.
Those who’d gone over the side screamed no more. The ship’s bell, rung when the battle commenced, tolled no more. Even the monstrous ticking had subsided. My ship was as silent as the tomb she had become. The boys had gone larking off again, but not in my ship; all of the fairies’ black arts could not raise my Jolie Rouge out of her moldering berth in the bay. Solemn drumbeats from the island told me the Indians were collecting their dead from our skirmish in the wood, but none were left to mourn my men but me.
I started for the nearest body, to drag it to the ship’s boat, but as I passed the deckhouse, something groaned within. The deckhouse. That’s where he’d hidden to lure us into his trap.
I shoved open the door, peered into the reeking gloom. Jukes I recognized by the sprawl of his tattoos in the ghostly moonlight. The Italian lay nearby, face frozen in an eternal scream. I crept in across sticky planks toward a soft grumble of pain, a sudden seizure of breath. My fingers touched still-living flesh, and Jukes groaned again. There was a new hieroglyph on his naked chest, thrust in with less art than the rest, and still leaking red. I knelt in the puddle, worked my hook arm round his back and propped him up. Heavy as a corpse already, yet his head lolled back on my arm and his dull eyes opened to look at me.
One. The boy had left me only one.
“Well, Bill.” I could scarcely steady my voice.
“Sorry, Cap’n,” he lisped through the blood in his mouth. “He come at me in the dark.”
“Don’t talk,” I cautioned, yet I was desperate for the comfort of his voice. We’d sailed together since New Providence; his pictographic skin was a living gallery of our exploits from the Indies to the Gold Coast. He was the closest thing I’d ever had to a friend in the pirate trade. “Save your strength.”
But it was already too late. We both knew it. The boy hadn’t even done it proper; life was escaping in an agonizing drip, not a clean burst.
Jukes dragged another tortured breath out of his ruined lungs. “Thought you was done for,” he wheezed.
“Come, now, you know me better than that.” I clenched my teeth in assumed heartiness. “No mere boy is a match for me.”
A furtive smile glimmered briefly amid the blue and black dots and calligraphic swirls on his face. I could see what even so slight a movement cost him in misery. There was only one way to help him now, could I but steel myself to do it.
“The women are warm in Hell, eh, Cap’n?” he prompted me.
“Save me a place at the Devil’s mess,” I answered by rote, summoning every ounce of my resolve.
Red bubbled between his teeth. “Aye, aye—”
His eyes bulged for an instant, whites agleam in the shadows, then the lids drooped in relief. “Thank’ee, Cap’n,” wafted out on his last breath, as I extracted my knife from between his ribs.
Gone, all of them gone now. Slaughtered one by one, like a game. It’s all a game to the boys.
I stretched Jukes out beside the twisted Italian, sat back on my heels, forced my brain to think on practical matters. Two or three trips in the gig it would take to see them all properly consigned to deep water. The eerie, animal keening of the loreleis singing to the moon rose up across the water, cold and tormenting. I was the last human left alive in the Bay of Neverland.
The Neverland, they call it, the infant paradise, the puerile Eden where grown-ups dare not tread. They are wise to fear it. But all children visit in their dreams. He finds them by their longing, stray boys for his tribe and girls to tell him stories.
They are not always English children, although he is partial to London. They have erected a statue to him there. Fancy, a public statue of Pan, the boy tyrant in his motley of leaves, like a king or a hero. While Hook is reviled, the evil pirate, the villain. There is no statue to me.
I’ve heard all the stories. I know the world thinks me not only a simpering fop but a great coward, so affrighted by the crocodile I would empty my bowels at the first sinister tick of its clock. But it’s the ticking itself I can’t bear, the tolling of the minutes, the very seconds, that I am forced to spend in the Neverland for all eternity. Elsewhere, time is passing in the normal way, but not here. Not for me and the boy.
“It’s Hook or me this time,” the boy jeered as the massacre began. But it’s never him. And it’s never me. Since then, he has defeated me innumerable times, but never quite to the death. He wills it so, and his will rules all. How often have I felt my skin pierced, imagined in my wounded delirium that Death has relented and come for me at last? Yet every time, my blood stops leaking, my flesh knits. Sooner or later, my eyes open again to yet another bleak new day, with nothing to show for my pains but another scar on the wreckage of my body.
Is it any wonder I so often tried to kill him? Would not his death break the enchantment of this awful place and release us both? But I can never best him. He flies. He has youth and innocence on his side, and the heartlessness that comes with them. I have only heartlessness, and it is never, ever enough.
Outside the deckhouse, the night had gone dark. I crept out again, still drenched in Bill Jukes’ blood, and saw that the moon itself, so full and white an hour before, had turned red, as if she too were awash in blood. A red eclipse, as mariners say, but never before had I seen the shadow of the old world fall across the Neverland moon. Perhaps it was only a trick of my fevered imagination, or some monstrous reflection from the deck of the Rouge, yet it glared down on me like a bloodshot eye, catching me out in all my crimes.
Once, I thought I could never have enough of blood. It was all that could satisfy me, for so long. But it wearies me now, the tyranny of blood-lust, the serpent that feeds on itself. The game that never changes. The game that never ends.
“How long can you stay angry at the world?” she asked me once. Why didn’t I listen?