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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Mermaid | Seashell | Lantern

By Susanna KiernanPublished 12 months ago Updated 10 months ago 21 min read
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

Gnarled trees with their shimmering leaves formed a tunnel over the emerald river. A hastily forged raft drifted through the water with the ease of a knife passing through butter; warm from having been left in the sun. Green above, green below, and the darkness of night beyond.

Charles Cutler looked around slowly as he rowed. The heat had forced him to discard most of his clothes on the beach where he’d been stranded. He wore only his trousers – rolled up to just below his knees – and his loose sleeved white shirt with the fastenings untied, revealing his broad chest and the thick and ornately carved cross that hung over his sternum.

The air was thick enough to bite and the humidity clung to his skin, making the creases in his inner elbow feel sticky and his black curls lay flat on his forehead. He missed the thin, salty air of the open sea, but this raft was not yet built to withstand the unforgiving goddess that was the ocean. He’d spent two days foraging driftwood for planks and fibre from palm trees for rope and even still it was a simple vessel. Charles was also determined to explore the island first. The beach had continued beyond the horizon and he could only guess at how deep this jungle went. In the recent past, when he had been a part of the abandoning crew, they’d leave men on strips of sand that marked the sea the same way the black spot marked the ace of spades Calico Jack had slipped into Charles’ Navy pillaged jacket.

His brown eyes swirled desperately looking for signs of humanity he knew he wouldn’t find. On an island this large there must be life, Charles told himself. It was all he had left.

Even in his hope, he couldn’t comprehend the sight of a lantern glistening golden on the riverbank. Had it been a silver glow he might have mistaken it for moonlight piercing through the trees, but no, this was flickering gold in a paper box.

He paddled faster and came to see that lanterns lined both sides of the river.

“Hello!” He tried to shout, though his voice croaked for lack of use, lack of water.

“Please!” He choaked. “Is anyone there?”

The river widened and cut into two. Rocky land emerged between the two strands. An island within an island. Charles saw what looked like a figure perched atop the highest rock.

“Hello!” He shouted again, his voice now coming back to him, beckoned forth by hope of rescue.

The figure didn’t move. Was it just a rock? It couldn’t be, it’s silhouette against the moon was too human.

The raft pushed into the mud and Charles swung his legs into the water, splashing as he scrambled the rocks.

“Excuse me,” Charles said, watery dirt wedging itself between his fingers, “I need help.”

The land levelled out and at last he could see who was waiting for him. The way his blood ran cool told Charles he might have been better off braving the ocean.

It’s limbs and torso were human, but thinner and elongated. Spindly as a spider. It squatted, heels crushed into the floor, knees bent out to the side like spikes, its palms resting on the ground in front of itself, back straight, face staring right into Charles’ soul. It’s leathery skin… But no, it wasn’t just like leather, it was leather. Its leather was a deep brownish red with a rippled indentations. Its eyes were black all the way through and a pair of small pointed horns burst from its head, as violent as broken bones plunging through injured skin.

“You were saying, boy?” It slowly snarled when Charles had lost his words.

“What…” Charles started, but then thought it may not appreciate being called a what, “Who are you?”

“I believe,” It said, a forked tongue flicking through its lipless mouth, “Your kind calls me Davy Jones.”

“I, I see…” Charles said, his bare feet scuffled backwards towards the raft. It didn’t feel safe to turn his back on this… Creature. This… Davy Jones. He tripped over a rock and found himself falling backwards, back down the rubble. His head struck a rock and his vision blurred. Davy Jones’ face tripled as he peered down at Charles.

“Going somewhere, are you?” He rasped, “But, oh dear, look what you’ve done. You’ve injured yourself. Let me help.”

Davy Jones pounced down on all fours and came behind Charles to lift him up. His bonelike arms encircled Charles’ chest as he pulled him up and half carried him back to the top of the miniature island. Charles stumbled to his feet and Davy Jones scampered in front of him, reaching a clawed finger up to trace the thin blood that formed into thin rivulets down the side of his cheek. It took everything within him not to flinch away.

“It’ll heal,” Davy Jones said, “With time.”

Davy Jones pulled away and darted over to something. The way he moved was somewhere between a dog and a monkey, but with the jagged rush of a rat. He gathered something up into his arms and his torso twisted – not unlike an owl twists its head – to look at Charles with an impish smile.

“I have something for you.”

Davy Jones lifted the waterskin and the water sprinkled to the ground, glittering like dust in the moonlight. All self-control left Charles as he flung himself at Davy Jones’ feet and let the fresh water spill into his mouth. It had been days since he had drunk anything, weeks since he’d had anything other than alcohol. The silver touch of water brought life back to his soul. He was a baby suckling a mother’s breasts. Davy Jones dropped it and it hit Charles nose. Not that he could bring himself to care. He grabbed it and continued to drink until all the water was gone.

“Someone was thirsty,” Davy Jones said with a smile revealing his widely set spiked teeth. “Now… Would you tell me about how you came to be here.”

Charles held the waterskin against his chest so tightly the cross pressed an indentation into his skin. He looked back towards his raft that swayed slightly in the dark waters and the tunnel of branches that lead back to the beach. He wished he’d never set out in search for life.

“Calico Jack,” Charles spat and immediately regretted it. Wasted water. “He accused me of mutiny. It was horseshit.”

He expected Davy Jones to say something, but he just remained crouched behind him, unblinking and eerily still.

“It was a misunderstanding.” He thought of the girl they would call the Devil’s Daughter. Her hair – red as burning coals – was scorched into his mind. “She turned him against me.”

“Who?” Davy Jones asked, but Charles sensed he already knew the answer.

“Anne Bonney.” Charles said through gritted teeth. “She never should have been allowed on board. Bad luck to have women at sea. Nothing good comes of it.”

His hand went to the still healing wound on his side and thought of Bonney digging her dagger into him and twisting. The smile of pleasure on her face as she had kicked him to the side. Mary Reed had been sent to him to clean it later. She had her fake moustache on, still committed to the pretence of being a man when they all knew she was of the lesser sex.

Foolish. She had said as she tugged the bandage around him tight as a corset. You think anyone can get away with doing anything to Anne?

Was I so wrong for trying my luck? Charles had said with a wince, Jack takes that whore every night. There’s talk that you get your way with her too.

Charles could still feel the sting of the Mary’s slap.

He was flung back into reality when Davy Jones said, “I could help you leave.”

“Yes,” Charles said immediately leaping up, “Can we go now? I have two hearts to fill with bullets.”

“Not yet,” Davy Jones said wagging a knobbly finger at him, “No. My help doesn’t come free.”

“I don’t have gold,” Charles said in a rush, “But if you just get me off this island I can commandeer you a ship, the finest ship in the British Navy, any ship you want. Or I can claim one for myself and pillage riches for you. All I have for you now is what is on that beach. Do you want my old clothes? Palm leaves? Seashells?”

Davy Jones almost jumped in excitement. “Seashells! There’s an idea.” He beckoned Charles closer and he followed as commanded, but Davy Jones grabbed his ear and pulled him down so that their noses were within an inch of each other’s. Davy Jones’ breath smelled like rancid fish.

“This is how it will work,” Davy Jones said, “You have three nights to prove to me you deserve to leave this place. I will give you tasks each night. If you complete them, you live to see another day.”

“If I don’t?”

“If you don’t…” His lips twitched, “We are taking a trip to Davy Jones’ Locker.”

Charles heart riled against doing this creature said, but his determination to leave, his will to survive, insisted that he get off this island by any means necessary. The sooner the better.

“Fine.” Charles said. “What do you need?”

“Seashells,” Davy Jones black eyes somehow sparkled. “A hundred of them by tomorrow night. The most beautiful you can find. If they are not beautiful…” He gripped Charles lobe harder, “You know where you will go.”

“Define beauty.”

“Oh, my boy,” Davy Jones said, letting go of Charles’ ear to grab him by the back of his neck, “You know beauty. You’ve seen it.” His strong arms lifted Charles into the air. “Find me shells as beautiful as the girl with the burning hair.”

He flung Charles back into the river and the water crushed down over him. The burnished cross glowed in the shadowed green.


Charles had spent the rest of the night and the following day in a malady hunting for shells. His hands were rough from sifting through the sand. His wound burned as he dived into the ocean. He found countless shells yet none of them seemed good enough. Most were jagged fragments at best. There was no beauty in them. But soon he learned how the movement of the high and low tides brought in fresh offerings and found tidal pools that presented seashell foraging opportunities.

The sun was setting with violent streaks of purple, pink and orange across the sky, like a mad painter set out to destroy his work, when Charles completed his collection and lined them up before him in the sand.

The dappled scallop shell. The ocean singing conch. The pearl-less oyster. The teal speckled abalone. The arrow dwarf triton twisted like a wet rag.

He counted them over and over. In one single day Charles had become an obsessive frantically making sure he did exactly what Davy Jones had asked, just as he had asked.

One, two, three, four…

He had to make sure he had gotten the number exactly right and was fearful he had unknowingly lost track. Over and over he went, continuing until the sky blackened and he knew it was time to return to Davy Jones on his strange outcropping of rocks. For a moment he considered adding a couple of the discarded options to make up for any perceived lack – whether it be a miscount or the shells he had chosen were not up to Davy Jones’ standard. But he thought better of it. Davy Jones had requested exactly one hundred shells. And so Charles piled the shells into his raft counting them again as he went…

Five, six, seven, eight…

They had to be placed carefully. It wouldn’t do to damage them now in this final hour.

Yet again Charles set sail down the emerald river in his improvised raft. Rowing caused more aches in his body than it had the night before. That day he’d spent so long in the sun his skin started to sore and turn coral pink. Perhaps Davy Jones was human but had just been subject countless years entrenched in the sun? It sent a chill down his spine to think that he may one day become like that creature if he stayed too long.

Again, the lanterns speckled the approach to the rocks. They seemed too inviting for a place that filled Charles with such dread. Davy Jones’ crouched silhouette waited for him. The shells clunked against each other as his boat slowed to a stop in the mud. Charles stepped out of the boat more tentatively than he had the night before. Davy Jones obviously knew he was there but Charles still felt he should refrain from bringing too much attention to himself.

Who had he turned into in the mere few days he had spent on the island? He’d once worn metal toed boots so they may clip against the deck as he swaggered around hoisting tankards of rum when he should have been hoisting flags. He’d once been a master at cheating in card games, ready to throw fists at anyone who caught him. He’d once be the first to grab a tavern girl by the waist and through her into the arms of crew mates, telling them to drag her back to the alley no matter how much she kicked and screamed. It was a game they played with the girls after all. At least that is what Charles Cutler would tell the younger recruits when he saw a flicker of doubt in their wide eyes and soft hands. Not that it would stop them.

How was once only a week ago?

Here now stood the most arrogant of Calico Jack’s men quivering in front of a forest imp counting shells. He watched as Davy Jones picked up each shell with pinched fingertips, his blackened nails making a spine tingling sound as they scraped across. Charles traced a finger along his cross. Up and down. Side to side.

Nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

Charles flinched each time Davy Jones tossed a carefully curated shell to the side. Shells are delicate things. He came to the last one and spent longer inspecting it than any of the others. It was as large as a skull. Rounded and white as one too.

He lifted it, as if to better gaze at it under the moonlight. Then he smashed it on the ground. It lay in serrated pieces. Speckles of white amongst the dark rock. Had it not been to Davy Jones liking? Should Charles had opted for the smaller but shinier shell he had left discarded on the beach? A swell rose within his chest as he prepared to defend his choice, but Davy Jones pounced on the pile of shells and all Charles could do as watch as his flat red feet stamped repeatedly into the hoard destroying a night and days deadly work.

“What are you doing?” The words erupted from him. His precious shells. They were becoming dust.

Charles fell to his knees and tried to gather up the splinters, but Davy Jones kicked him in the jaw. It flung him back and he toppled to his side, his face an inch away from the stampede. Davy Jones didn’t stop even as the broken pieces stuck into the soles of his feet. He didn’t stop until not a single shell was recognisable.

The way Charles had fretted – And it was all for this?

He didn’t notice the tears that had fallen onto his cheek until Davy Jones came and crouched beside him and licked them away with his thin snake tongue.

“I thought you didn’t waste water, boy.” Was all he said on the matter. “Are you ready for today’s task?”

“What’s the point,” Charles said, gesturing to the rubble of his shells as he sat up, “If this is what it comes to.”

“Oh, but there is always a point to everything.”

Davy Jones sat cross legged opposite him. “Now,” He continued, “You are to tell me about your life. That is your night’s task.”

“I’m sorry, but,” Charles said, “Why do you care? How is this going to get me off the island?”

“I never said the tasks I give you had anything to do with leaving, only you could leave if you complete them. But, we can go down to my locker now if that’s what you would prefer, boy?”

More than anything Charles wanted to be back at sea, but not like that.

“So,” Davy Jones said, taking Charles’ silence as an answer, “Have you ever met a mermaid on your travels?”

“Mermaids don’t exist.”

“Don’t they?” Davy Jones again smiled in a way that showed his shark teeth. Charles wished he would stop. “Did you think I existed until you met me?”

“I’d heard stories from crewmates and sailors at the docks,” He said instead, “Women with webbed hands and fine voices. They kiss sailors and will either drag the men down to the sea or allow themselves to be kept as prizes. But no man who ever claimed to have captured one ever had anything to show for it.”

Davy Jones chuckled to himself. “Yes, that is how it often goes with men. What wild thing has ever allowed herself to be taken? But tell me, what other beautiful things have you seen?”

And Charles told him of their voyages across the Caribbean. Of the turquoise of the sea as they came close to port. Of the roaring waves crashing onto the deck while ultraviolet streaks filled the sky in the midst of a storm. Of the joy of ravaging a rival ship spilling with gold.

He told Davy Jones all the stories of his ten years at sea. All the men he had killed. All the islands he had discovered. All the times he had escaped death. All the women he had bedded. All the wives he had abandoned, bellies full of babies.

Charles could tell that none of this was really what he wanted to hear about. An eagerness came forth when Charles mentioned any of the women he’d used. If he were sitting with any other man, Charles would assume he wanted gaudy details, but this red figure was clearly not a man of the flesh. Perhaps it was the empty space between his legs that gave it away.

“You want to hear about Anne Bonney.” Charles said when he had run every other topic as dry as his throat.

“If you wish to speak of her.” Davy Jones said.

“No one wants to talk of the Devil’s Daughter,” Charles corrected.

“No? What do people want of her?”

Porcelain flesh flashing through the night. Red locks unfurling. Her presence a transient passing. The way she enjoyed a kill the way a hunter does. Her manly behaviour, dressed in trousers, legs spread taking up space as she sat drinking at the tavern; tempting him, luring him, playing him. The way Calico Jack guarded her more than any of the gold they stole, locking her away from the other men. Selfish. Possessive. Greedy. Charles knew he would know no rest until he had her broken body laid before him.

And so, he told Davy Jones of the night that led to his being stranded on the island. He told Davy Jones of how she had run off into the night and he had followed with a belly full of rum. She was alone now. Now he had his chance.

He’d followed her at a distance as she danced through the streets, feet moving to a minstrel’s song only she could hear. She’d spun round and Charles had dived behind a stockpile of empty barrels. She must have decided to re-join the others for she went back the way they had come. But he had waited long for this opportunity and he wouldn’t let her get away.

It was all a rum riddled blur. Body heat. Too much fabric between them. Her frantic movement to overpower him. She’d been the only one who had the physical force to hold him at bay. But then a knife was in his side. He didn’t know where it had come from. Her teeth flashed in her murderous grin. And suddenly he was alone curled on the cobblestones as she walked away. Fully clothed. Untouched. The sight of it sent a burning to his stomach, an anger unlike any he had felt before. Who was she to walk away from him?

“I went back to the tavern,” Charles said. Davy Jones had scarcely moved or blinked the entire story. Those black eyes just stared continually on. Impenetrable. Just like her. “And she was whispering something into Calico Jack’s ear, looking my way.”

“What happened then?”

Charles shrugged. “Nothing. We went back to the ship. Mary Reed came to tend my wound. We set sail the next day. A week later I find Calico Jack had turned the crew on me and they left me here.”

“Would you do it again?”

Charles nodded. “And I would be successful next time.”

“Is that what you plan to do when you get off this island?”

The image of Calico Jack disappearing into the horizon with a smug look on his spiteful face came to Charles’ mind.

“I hunt them down.” Charles said, looking beyond Davy Jones towards the moon. He spoke these words as if they were a prayer. “It wouldn’t be too hard. He likes to show off and she leaves a trailblaze of talk. I find them. Kill him immediately. Her I take and use until I bore of her and I kill her too. I’ll defile her while her body rots. Whores like her don’t deserve to rest in peace.”

A long silence fell between them and Charles eventually looked back to Davy Jones and saw in his expression that something had changed. He’d seen that look on a man’s face once before. A crew mate had gotten sick with some tropical disease that none of them, with all their individual worldly knowledge combined, knew how to deal with. They tried poultice after poultice, opium, witchcraft. After the nineteenth dose of holy water and incantations the pale stricken man’s face had fallen. The muscles of his face came slack, but in his eyes was a keen awareness full of thought. He knew the end was here. Davy Jones had that same expression.

“Go back to the beach,” Davy Jones said at last, “I have your confession. I’ll see you tomorrow. It will be our last night together, boy.”


Charles felt as if he had been reborn in the morning sun. Davy Jones’ games seemed so infantile and meaningless. What was the point of wasting time gathering shells when he could be building a better raft? He was ashamed of how much it had bothered him in the moment to watch them be destroyed and didn’t know what had overcome him. The seeds of fear nighttime sows get washed away by sunlight in the day. And Charles was decidedly done with playing along with this depraved creature. Vengeance was on his mind and Davy Jones was clearly just some bored creature who’d been stuck on his pile of rocks alone too long. Charles decided that they could divide the island. Davy Jones could exist on his island in the jungle, while Charles would focus on his escape plan on the beach. They could co-exist without interaction.

After another long day of gathering materials, Charles set up a comfortable patch in the sand between palm trees, nestled away with a view of the ocean that would look beautiful come sunrise. He lay down, one hand against the cross around his neck, and he was asleep before the sky was even streaked with purple.

When he awoke he wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It could have been an hour, it could have been a full day. But the sky was dark and full of stars and lights flickered on the ocean. Charles leant on his elbow and squinted his eyes to make sense of what was going on. It was Davy Jones’ lanterns thrashing in the waves.

Charles leapt to his feet. There were dozens of lanterns drifting in the sea and as they came closer to shore they would be lifted by the waves and then be thrown into the break, their lights flickering out.

Warm breath tickled the back of Charles neck. “You didn’t come.”

He jumped and turned to Davy Jones.

“You were supposed to come.” Charles started to mumble but Davy Jones flicked up a hand to silence him. “It’s no matter, boy. I can bring tonight’s game to you.”

He stepped around Charles and gazed off to the ocean. “Tonight we have the whole island to play with.” He turned so that Charles could only see his profile. “What? You thought I only sat by the rocks, boy? I know this place. I daresay better than you. You should have explored more.”

“I was busy.” Charles said quietly, avoiding looking into those black eyes.

“Yes, I see!” Davy Jones walked circles around the pile of resources Charles had accumulated. “But these won’t help you tonight. Have you heard of the game hide and seek?”


“Good!” Davy Jones clapped once. “Then you know how this will work. I count to thirty, you go and hide, and if I find you…” His smile was more like a snarl. “You better run. If you survive till sunrise you go free.”

He started barking numbers into the ocean winds and Charles tripped over the sand as the hurtled towards the jungle.

Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen…

Charles crashed through the ferns and bushes. Twigs slashed his skin as he passed. He didn’t know where he was going. All he knew was he needed to be as far away from Davy Jones as possible.

He paused not knowing which way to turn in this woodland where every scene was filled with the same dense green. Over his pounding heartbeat and frantic breath, he could just make out the crunching of leaves underfoot. He flung himself into some thick roots that curved around each other and formed a sort of cave. He pressed himself as far back as he could go and started to scrape dirt against his skin and clothes and pile leaves onto his body. At the last moment he tore of his cross. The gold would give him away if light caught it. He kept it in his clenched fist.

Red flashed through the green. Davy Jones hoisted himself up to a tree and Charles watched as he careened between them, seeking the best vantage point.

“I’m coming for you, boy!” He howled into the night.

And then he was gone.

Charles didn’t know whether he should remain in this tangle of roots or venture forth. He hadn’t been discovered but what if Davy Jones came back? The formation of the roots meant there was only one way out and if Davy Jones returned Charles would be trapped. Survival meant leaving, so he creeped out of his nest, keeping a keen eye tracking for bursts of red. The vibrancy of Davy Jones’ complexion could serve Charles well.

Charles creeped through the shrubbery, making so little noise the crickets sounded deafening. Something was blocking the moonlight and he soon realised there was a small mountain. If he could get there he may be able to defend himself better.

The peak acted as a compass point as he journeyed towards it and soon the land started to incline. The incline gave way to rocks and Charles started to scramble over them. If he got higher he would have a good viewpoint, and perhaps he could find a cluster of rocks that could shelter him without trapping him, and he could gather rocks to…

A hand tugged at his ankle and Charles was pulled down. He twisted and swung a fist at Davy Jones. They grappled with each other and became so intertwined that Charles didn’t know where he ended and Davy Jones began. Davy Jones soon had Charles pinned down and the creature used his body weight to smash Charles head against a rock.

The world went hazy for a moment, but soon Charles realized he was being dragged through the rocks face down, no care for how the rocks cut at his skin. Soon he was dragged through the soggy earth of the jungle. And then he was dragged through the beach as sand found its way into his mouth and nose. Charles realised somewhere along the way he had dropped his cross.

“You think you can play with the devils daughter?” Davy Jones screamed over the crashing of the waves. “You think you can just take what you want?”

He reached down and clenched his fist around Charles’ throat. “Tell me something, Charles Cutler,” Spittle flew into his eyes. “They always say the devil is the villain.” Davy Jones lifted him till his feet were kicking the air. “But if he punishes those who have sinned,” Black tails flicked in the sea, like eager children waiting for their toy, “Isn’t he the hero?”

He flung Charles into the waves. Saltwater streamed down Charles’ throat and into his lungs. He wasn’t alone in the water. Surrounding him were three women whose torsos lead to black tails. Skin white as cotton but streaked with blue veins and eyes the same as Davy Jones. One reached her webbed hand out and it suctioned to Charles’ mouth stealing the last of his breath as she dragged him down to the darkest depths of Davy Jones’ Locker.


About the Creator

Susanna Kiernan

20-something English nomad trying to write some things.

Often whimsical. Sometimes dark. Always fantastical.

| Curtis Brown Creative alumni | Arts Council England funded |

You can find more of me across the internet here.

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

Top insights

  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  2. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. On-point and relevant

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Comments (2)

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  • The Invisible Writer11 months ago

    Loved that you wrapped this wonderful tale around Davey Jones and his locker

  • Sarah Danaher11 months ago

    It was an excellent story that kept my attention all through the story. He was never going to win against Davy Jones. I wrote a story concerning Anne Bonny for the unexpected uncovering challenge called The Swashbuckler's Secret. She is truly an interesting character. My word search took longer took longer so I understand the frustration. Here is my word search Keep the good work up.

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