Tuesday, October 31, 2017

2. Bob and Reggie

Two men were perched on the wall of the rampart.  One was kicking the heel of a boot against the stone.  The other was hunched forward expectantly, in danger of falling off.  They were wearing identical blue waistcoats trimmed with red and fastened with shiny gilt buttons, straw hats embroidered with gold and encircled with rose-colored ribbons.  They were soldiers.  Unbeknownst to them, they had died a very long time ago.

Their names had been Robert Murchie and Reginald Chambers, and they had been British infantrymen, brought to Bermuda in 1712.  Five years later they lost their lives on Tea Kettle Island during the ceremonial firing of one of the 12-pounders up on the redoubt, close to where Derek was presently asleep.  The fateful cannon blast had been the third of a three-gun salute to celebrate the successful return of one of Bermuda's large fleet of privateers.  Cannon-firing was a much-enjoyed ritual, carried out so often that the young colony was usually precariously low on gunpowder.

In early Bermuda there was little public money to replace aging cannons, and many were seriously salt-eaten or in other states of disrepair.  Thus the guns tended to be far more dangerous to those firing them than to any potential foe.  In fact, only once in Bermuda's long history were shore-mounted guns fired in anger, and no casualties resulted on either side.  This occurred in 1613, when two Spanish ships, allegedly returning to dig up a cache of buried treasure, were repelled by two cannon shots from Castle Island, a short distance to the southwest of Tea Kettle. 

 On the other hand, injurious misfirings of cannon during practices and ceremonies were distressingly frequent, although usually not entailing as spectacular a loss of life as befell the Tea Kettle company.  Had someone sat them down and explained what happened (there were to be opportunities to do so over the next few hundred years), Robert and Reginald might have admitted to part of the blame.  It had not simply been the fault of the salt-eaten gun.  The eve of their demise, both soldiers had consumed a significant quantity of rum in celebration of a recent, completely unexpected acquisition of wealth.  As a result of their hangovers, which felt about as miserable in 1717 as they did 292 years later, their performances as gunners on the morning of their deaths hadn't been representative of their true abilities.  Each made a serious error.  Robert, whose job it was to put the touchstick to the vent to ignite the charge, neglected to check if Reginald, whose job it was to insert the charge and wadding and pack them in place, had fully extricated the ramrod.  He hadn't.  His shaky hands had slipped from the shaft on the third and final stroke, and the ramrod was left protruding from the muzzle of the rickety old gun like the handle of a lollipop.  As Robert stood rigid, hungover and proud, one arm bent in salute to the victorious pirate ship, he heard Reginald say, "Oh dear..."

The gun went off.

The ramrod flew end-over-end, far above the bow of the vessel, trailing a helix of blue-black smoke.  The privateers gaped in amazement, then cheered lustily as shards of corroded metal and bits of Robert and Reginald rained down, decorating the turquoise water with variously-sized red and white splashes.

Robert and Reginald hadn't enjoyed being Bermuda troopers.  The pay was miserable and the job earned few favors from the grossly outnumbered Bermudian women, who considered soldiers stupid and boorish.  Life on Tea Kettle Island was harsh and boring, with only goats, pigs, rabbits, other equally dispirited men, and Bermuda rock lizards for company.  Robert and Reginald made life bearable for each other by speaking privately of a shared dream.  They intended one day to buy a boat, a sleek, seaworthy sloop, and join the lucrative Turks Island salt trade that was making other Bermudians so very wealthy.  Their dream might have come true, save for their dramatic deaths, because two days before being blown to smithereens a miracle happened.  As they were quarrying out a pit near the center of the island to provide limestone blocks for yet another reinforcement of the rampart, the ground gave away, revealing a small cave.  Inside, lo and behold, was buried treasure, consisting mostly of Spanish bullion.  It was late in the day, and to hide their breathtaking secret from the others they back-filled the hole.  After dark, they retrieved the weighty bounty and hid it on the island in a place where none of their mates would ever find it.  Soon, they reckoned, after working out a few details, they would be free from this rock, free from Bermuda, free from lonely, womanless boredom.

Coincidentally, the treasure they had found was the cache the Spaniards had returned to claim in 1613, leading to Bermuda's one and only instance of hostile cannon-fire.

But now, almost three centuries after their obliteration, they were still on the island, without a boat, and unaware the world had changed substantially.  They were puzzled over the disappearance of the other soldiers.  The rest of the company had vanished without a trace some time ago, a few hours or days or weeks.  They couldn't be sure.  Time seemed to have come all unbuttoned.

In addition, the island had become inhabited by spirits.  Several times during the past few hours, days, or weeks — they couldn't be sure — they had seen a solitary figure appearing and dissolving in different places throughout the island.  He was an unclothed man with unkempt hair who sometimes could be seen scraping in the leaves, and sometimes could be heard digging holes.  He had been seen at the cistern too, which made them nervous.  Whenever one of the soldiers called to him, he jerked upright, wiggled his fingers into his ears, and vanished into the thick blue air.  Instead of eyes, the specter had a shiny band of brass across his face.

And now, just a few minutes or hours or days ago, Reginald had seen a beautiful girl, dusky and dark-haired, unlike any girl he'd seen before.  She was dressed like a boy in knee breeches and shirtsleeves.  When Reginald first saw her, she was standing in the middle of the clearing, rocking up and down on one foot.  Then she turned and faced Reg and started pulling off her clothes, right in front of his jiggling eyeballs.  As he gawked in fear and excitement, without saying anything she vanished too.

So Robert and Reginald sat waiting, hoping the girl would reappear.  They were sincerely alarmed at the presence of spirits, but it had been a long time since either of them had seen a girl (it had been 292 years, but seemed like weeks or months), and they were willing to risk a scare for the chance of viewing the beautiful apparition.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.