Message in a Bottle
A man goes to work for a Pirate called Francois L'Ollonais.
L’Ollonais was born a whisper that thundered up to a roar. At first a name, a rumour, a blemish in the gutters of Port Royal. Tales told by those returning from isles as near as Tortuga and further afield. Men who recalled witnessing crews of Spaniards jumping from their sloops to certain death to escape his merciless clasp. “The Flail of the Spaniards” was the whisper as that privateer gained a legacy.
While legends are told only of those who’d left nothing but their bones to show, thus naught but posthumous slurs, L’Ollonais earned a title in life. I knew not of any other to accomplish such a feat. I wished to play some piece in that legacy and make my name a legend for tomorrow’s men to sing.
And so, in 1664, Francois L’Ollonais docked into port once more. The man appeared more haggard than his June docking, but still a fascinating figure by the measure of any man. I awoke the following morning with intentions to make my move. Turning away from what I had was a simple choice, a snug bed and warmth of dwelling is no match for adventure. If, one day, I were to have a child, what sort of a man would I be if I lacked but a single tale to tell?
I strolled toward the docks to find the Frenchman. I saw him stood at the end of the pier by his vessel. My presence was not welcomed; I am not one who can go unnoticed for I stand taller and stronger than almost any at Port Royal. Thus, he looked to me in readiness.
“You rest eyes on me, thus I rest mine upon you,” the French voice I expected came at me with haste.
“I come to offer my services–"
“You shall feel steel lest you give me reason to see you pass,” he interrupted, the cadence of his speech so swift and threatening.
“I wish to ride with you.” Now, I was being sized up by the daggered man.
“Can you shoot?” Came back as quick as a tempest, but he no longer looked to me, he stared upon the cutlass spread across his hand.
“I can hunt. So, given a gun, yes, I could surely shoot”
“We depart at dusk, tomorrow,” he chuckled, and a shrug indicated that he recognised me as cocksure and eager, therefore not a man merely after his spoils.
Behind L’Ollonais, sat upon a wooded stool, was a young man, 17 at best and of Mediterranean origin by his looks. I figured him for a Spaniard as only a Portuguese would appear the same, and the latter are less abundant in Port Royal. He would not make eye contact with me; at all times he stared so timidly at the colourfully clad, brutish Frenchman with whom I was engaging. While the rest of his men were merry, singing from port to whorehouse, that young lad was shaken. Perhaps he wasn’t of L’Ollonais crew. Perhaps he waited to be taught a lesson for some mishap his master deemed punishable. Either way, it was proven true, at least in the lad’s eyes, that L’Ollonais’ fearsome reputation as a terror was justified. The boy’s fear was palpable.
As directed, I arrived by dusk ready to depart Port Royal for adventure and fortune. His rabble was in full swing. A stain about the blue sea, no more than a ship’s length from shore took my interest. Blood red and teaming with fish life. It was the lad. Hock-cut thence left for the birds, sharks and the fishes. He had been right to look upon L’Ollonais in fear. It is for a master to decide his crew’s journey and therefore their fate. And that lad had been deemed wicked enough as to find his end right there, adrift. I bid the boy a farewell. Death is no stranger to my eyes.
Another occurrence after would have shaken a lesser man. Amidst the rabble of rambunctious stinking men flooding aboard the sloop were two young women, both fair of looks. Not a journey of their choosing, in fact they screamed all the way up to the deck. Their pitiful screams unnoticed, falling deafly upon closed ears. Surely whores, as their dress was of the night, but this was no whorehouse, it was the pillage of two souls. Yet nothing clandestine was apparent here; it was declared barefaced for all to see.
No sooner had they disappeared, bullied deep into the sloop’s quarters, did a shackled black man then emerge under equal threat. Harried, as he was, to the vessel’s edge, the unfortunate fellow was dispatched: shot, point blank, through the back of his head. He fell to the water, again for the sharks, the birds and the fishes. Seen as I had, two fellows left dead to the sea, I made my way to the vessel to join them. I would join their life and share their spoils, but I would ne’re become such a savage as those.
L’Ollonais was on my heels as I boarded. Again, it seemed the man was sizing me up. The rabble about us were men of pure savagery, vicious and quick but meagre in build. I felt that I had become a figure that stood out from the rabble, and L’Ollonais clearly appreciated the fact, addressing me directly giving not even a glance toward another man.
“Let him now belong to the fishes for he has seen too much of men,” he said of the black body drifting in the sea. Voices were around me at every step, some in language I recognised, some not. Bellowing loudly from lungs made hoarse by dirt came a cry, “Wenches to lie with. No man’s to lie with man, hence we’ve women as our play.”
“And play we shall,” shouted another to joyous laughter from all corners of the vessel, high and low. Moses van Vin, for that was his name, was foul in both nature and appearance. A scar across his forehead so deep it cast shadows, and a stench upon his skin so foul it gave taste to the air. What insufferable fate awaited the poor young girl in the hands of her raggedy captors? Her screams came to words as she recognised my eyes upon her.
“Sir, dearest, please, you cannot leave me here with this to bear.” Screaming through tears flushing down her cheeks. I looked to her and her plight, but I could not put myself at risk by throwing him aside so early in my time aboard. And the rabble was about her too quick. All I did was look on as she was hog-tied to a mast of our vessel. No longer able to catch her face as she was swarmed upon, I moved onwards. I saw scarce remnants of her companion in misery, but she was there somewhere, oh yes. I felt safe in that.
Men moved about me and along the high beams. A young lad climbed higher still to the crow’s nest. L’Ollonais crossed the deck to the starboard side and stared out to sea. I followed, taking care not to become entangled as men moved ropes around and about me. Many men disappeared below deck.
“It is an impressive vessel you command. And you have a very accomplished crew.” I spoke to L’Ollonais as I stopped with him to watch across the water.
“I have captained o’er many lives, not so many vessels. I say to you now so you will know it, not one of any was mine.” Were his words, make of them what you will. Slowly he moved along the rails as he surveyed the crew at their labours.
“My table, tonight. You will give us your story,” L’Ollonais said to me offering no other choice.
“This is fair,” I replied. My eyes grew weary as the dirty men of the crew scurried like rats up the masts. Apprehension took me once more as L’Ollonais had not taken the helm in casting off. However, like the crew, I was concerned only of the brutish Frenchman and nothing but him. And what will frighten such men, will frighten any man, be assured of that. L’Ollonais gave signal to cast off and so his men set about the task. I was taken by the captain himself into his quarters.
Once inside I took the moment to ponder over the man’s intentions, his inspirations, what did he crave? I saw nothing of exploration nor discovery. The vast room was shrouded in riches, things that glittered and shined. Ne’re for one moment, and this vision affirmed this to be true, did this man seek for anything more than the materials of wealth. Wealth yes, and to destroy the Spanish wherever they appear for the walls were adorned with painted scenes of Spanish turmoil and death.
His table was busy so my distractions were interrupted–
Hence, again I was being sized up. Not solely by L’Ollonais but by every foremost member of his crew.
“Your story. From wherein do you come to us?” I felt uneasy as all I could tell was of hardship,
“Fellows, so dire are my ventures I would not wish to sour the evening.” I declared.
“Tell, tell. Our wish is to know it. You stand so strong. Suffering endured by you is now ours too,” said L’Ollonais, as he took the seat farthest from me, to behold my attempts to bond with those critters, offering me like a beast to the slaughter. Yet I stood, robust.
“My mother, dragged from her birthplace of France. My father was an Englishman.” Laughter and sneers rumbled through the room. I felt it unjust, what had I said to earn such merriment?
“English, yes, we know this, English.” Said L’Ollonais, calming the rabble. I was ready to continue; then, alas, that scarred brute Moses flung open the door and entered, a most sickening creature, heinous in every bone. L’Ollonais gave the introduction, “Moses, this is English. English,” he said to me, “Moses Van Vin. A leader but for me, as I am a leader greater still.”
“English, you take my name but not offer yours?” Said that filth.
“Perhaps you wish to call me English and be done with it, Moses.” I said. Ne’re am I willing to suffer a man so sickening.
“Tell, tell,” said L’Ollonais from his mighty perch at the table’s helm.
“’Tis not a tale for such high spirits.”
“Tell, English,” shouted L’Ollonais, so I obeyed, taking a seat almost opposite from the Captain.
“Port Royal forced upon me its own, wickedest path. Those shores took my parents with an accursed pox, leaving me as a child, alone. Indentured servitude offered less fruit still.” A mere mention of the path of servitude sent the room wild with a common sense of dismay. Cusses, the riotous stamp of heels echoed round the cabin’s floorboards. It seemed I was not alone in the misfortune of Port Royal and its vices. I made a gracious nod and continued. “I come here, to you, with nothing but my strength.”
“Look, English,” said L’Ollonais, waving wildly around the room addressing every man amongst us. “Strength more than most, courageous as any. You come to us as treasure for that strength is now ours.”
Jars were tipped to me, my plight shared or indeed equalled by every bronzed man, hence; I felt as one with my ragged compatriots and yet, the evening was not without incident. A cry from below deck came upon us, I was at once withdrawn from the party. L’Ollonais, sober more so than any other man in his quarters, led me beneath.
That second whore was there, entwined about a post. They had tied her too tight, too much haste ne’er one moment for judgement. Ropes had wrung the life from her, wrapped as they were knotted, tightened around her neck. She slumped limp, her blouse undone and disappeared. The ebbing and flowing gently rocking her lifeless body about its holding stake.
“Cut her loose,” I said aloud, eyeing each putrid crook, holding each man responsible. Her knots were slit and her limp and lifeless form crumpled on the planks. I looked for life in her, alas, there was none. Men laughed, boys cried, but none appeared shocked by the manner in which she died. A boy, no more than 17 years, was thrown before L’Ollonais. The lad shook so much it was a wonder that the boards beneath him didn’t rattle. It was he, and only he, ‘twas offered as the culprit, for he had strung that godforsaken whore up too tight. L’Ollonais said nothing but stared into the boy’s face. Thence, he ushered me above.
I stopped him upon the steps. “I must see to the girl on deck. Nothing lies within me to let her suffer a fate such as that of her friend,” said I. L’Ollonais appeared astounded.
“As you wish, English,” he said, before disappearing to his quarters. I went to her. It was the blackest of nights. The waters gently rocked every inch of our vessel. She was there, and as I suspected, hog-tied to the mast. My presence went unnoticed at first, disguised by the whistling wind and the brushing waves. The air around was hot as hell. While movement by day brings the rushing air, at night we rode at anchor, and therefore suffered that heat without wind. Ne’re a good place to be.
“Miss,” I spoke, to no return. She was not tied so tight, there was life, and thus I slapped her, rumbled with her cheeks. As I knew, her eyes opened to mine.
“You, you let them take me,” were her words. She looked at me with a look of displeasure, which hurt my mind for I had wished to help, I truly had.
“No, no, miss, I did not. I am here, so I did not.” Her beauty was unfathomable to me; even the moon appeared the lesser by looks.
“This is no place for a woman.”
“Where is a woman’s place?” Is all she said, and then laughed as if the madness took her, first tears then screams up at the night.
While cutting her loose, my mind again went twisting with me. I was in this position in search of treasure, of power, and of a legacy. Perhaps my treasure was within this woman. She was no heartless strumpet, not another crafty whore. But a beauty, and one surely born as me, in a place as wretched as Port Royal, knowing only survival as trade therefore hardened by life and so ready for change. Those were my suspicions of her. I had come to be in that place in search of treasure, I thought, perhaps, I had found that in her.
“Will you stay with me tonight?” I asked,
“No choice. Yes, you’re different, God’s work.”
“You believe God sent me?”
“Heaven surely sent you, ‘twas hell without you here,” no fear in her voice, no anger still, ‘twas just that wretched hopelessness the world had thrust upon her.
“The only God I trust is the sea.” Was my reply, laying bare my opinions of that which they call God. If he is there, why has he done this?
I carried her in my arms to the cabin, provided to me in good spirit by L’Ollonais himself. A portside lodging, of which there were only three overall. Myself being the recipient of one as a gift from L’Ollonais. As soon as her head touched bedding she slept. I, too, drifted away.
I awoke to the bell, ringing loud round our vessel. The caw of birds drew me further from sleep. Through the cabin window I saw only blue sky and the deeper blue of the sea, brushed in motion with white as waves washed by.
“English, come ready,” commanded L’Ollonais.
In haste I obeyed the order. I went to the deck to find a Spanish man o’ war fast upon our port side. A small number of its crew stood shouting, proclaiming ownership of our vessel, proclaiming the fiendish notoriety L’Ollonais had accrued was no more than fabrications and falsehood.
‘Twas my thinking that they meant to commence battle. In haste, two invaders flung themselves upon deck with swords at the ready. L’Ollonais alerted me to the weaponry, I took one sword and two knives thereof and went to fight alongside. Thus, two had quick sharp become eight and battle was upon us.
A Spaniard engaged me yet his strike was weak. I blocked his sword with mine and thrust my knife deep through his ear. L’Ollonais had jumped to the man o’ war, hence.
I surveyed across the water counting their numbers, ‘twas too few, I thought.
Without whisper a most dastardly act was inflicted upon me, I was shot through thumb and forefinger by an unsighted villain. Rage flushed through me. L’Ollonais’ mark was the captain, my target, though, was not the captain, ‘twas he who ravished my finger. My injury, surely by luck, nothing more than blood.
I jumped to the man o’ war. We were men of 20, their number no more than ten. Thus it had become clear, L’Ollonais wished to annihilate. Confronted again I dispatched another. He came at me by my right, yet ‘twas his mistake for I was to merely halt in my stride, leaving his sword thrusting to naught but thin air, thence I buried my knife deep inside of him.
Once more I was taken by apprehension for there were no more Spaniards to dispatch. What had become of them?
Swiftly I became aware men had jumped overboard, for there were many swimming away. And they swam, with ne’re one moment’s thought of the ship they left behind. Men who’d rather swim amongst the sharks than face my Captain. I stayed about the mainmast of the man o’ war; waiting to fend away another weak attack. Yet nothing came. Instead, I was to bear witness to a horror, one that had earned L’Ollonais his fierce reputation.
A young Spaniard was brought forth from the lower gun deck. Hurling words of abuse at those that had him tied. L’Ollonais did ne’er look upon him yet the Spaniard spat towards my captain.
Hence, a surge erupted, L’Ollonais forced the men away leaving the Spaniard, hands tied standing alone on the planks. Without neither hesitation nor moment of thought L’Ollonais drew out a sword, ‘twas a shimmering beast to behold. Eye to eye L’ollonais approached and with one mighty swipe of the blade he whipped off his head as clean a cut as I’ve seen, thus that Spaniard was truly lost. His head rolled forth across the planks with a thud, upon which it seemed to bounce, leaving behind a trail so gruesome. Pleasantly it rolled forth, dropping away into the lee-scuppers, finally out of sight, ne’er, I feared, out of memory.
L’Ollonais had not finished, acting as a man succumbing to an innermost demon. He drew out his cutlass, looked deep into the terror stricken blue eyes of the next wretch. I sensed he would not suffer so easily, for he was more scheming. My senses became justified, as this fellow was fast away on his heels.
“Take him, English,” commanded L’Ollonais. All I could muster was to halt, too unsettled in my mind to meet his command. That Spaniard ran out across the deck leaping, as had his fellow crew into the gentle waves beneath. L’Ollonais wasted no time taking me to task.
“You show him quarter, English? He is away.”
I could not speak, I could only mutter.
“Give me your hand,” he shouted, with that same hasty rasp of French he first greeted me with. The unforgiving French, not tailored to make clear. An order made in madness.
“My hand, Francois?” Confused, I replied, never had I heard my voice tremble so. It did not suffice. My captain, in his rage, gripped my arm; hence he drew his cutlass across it slicing open a shallow gash of a finger in length. Then it was my blood flushing away into the bilges.
“I bid you stay, English, this time,” said he, madly waving that villainous cutlass about my face. It was then I saw the man so feared in our world. The legendary nightmare whose horrors were sufficient to send full-grown men into the sea, so willingly abandoning their ship, where, if faced with another foe, they would fight and die for their captain.
Enraged still, L’Ollonais turned to the crew shouting, “Our fight is righteous. Be of a good courage, do as I do, I who am your Captain.” Whether righteous or not, no man would argue with a brute so maddened. In his stance, in his marauding stomp about the deck, to argue would surely mean death, to any.
In the moment, I wished there to be no remaining Spaniards aboard that ship. Alas, it was not so.
Another was brought forth by the gleeful hand of Moses. This poor man found himself where his nightmares delivered him: those wicked hands of Francois L’Ollonais. Hence, men tied him to a chair, one that ricketed, jiggered and scratched upon the wooded deck with the cursed, undignified dances of a man knowing well of his fate. Tied firm to a mast, strapping’s knotted behind the post thence tightened about his sweated forehead. His cries for death unanswered.
“Locations of your goods. Be forthcoming. Nothing less.” Said L’Ollonais standing at arm’s length to his victim, staring with merciless ferocity deep into his eyes. L’Ollonais went closer still, clasping the Spaniards chin lifting his head so their eyes did meet.
“There is nothing,” said he, in agony.
“Pull,” was L’Ollonais’ order, and pull they did; sharp upon the knottings they began the crush.
The wooded beams creaked, the salt hardened plaits of the ropes grinded as the poor wretch screamed, succumbing to the pressure inflicted upon him. My mind will hold that deathly chorus forever, I know that much.
“Your goods?” L’Ollonais shouted fiercely.
“Nothing, sir, nothing. I beg you,” his voice now choked as his own blood proceeded to suffocate and overwhelm him, his face awash with the thickest red.
“Pull.” It came once more, that sound of death.
One final scream sounded from he, a noise of disbelief and desperation as his eyes erupted from their sockets, one so far as to dangle on its own rope of flesh. And thus, I saw all life go from him and I was thankful, the Spaniard was too, I’m sure of that.
He was gone, no dignity in his demise and no remorse from his tormenter. Indeed, L’Ollonais showed interest more in the workings of this most gruesome creation; I saw his intrigue as he inspected that displaced eye. A man at ease with his work, wishing to progress his skills, perhaps to learn from his victims more of the workings of our flesh and bone.
Hence, another was brought forth.
A young Spaniard, full of life, dreams of fortune, wealth and love. It struck me that he was in great health, great stature, yet with Moses and his scoundrels hurrying him forth he could not resist. L’Ollonais confronted him, that broad stance of his, that unforgiving stance, that stance of a madman. The wretch was held forth towards the Frenchman, an offering the like of an animal to its slaughter, thus, L’Ollonais abided with much pleasure. There was a moment of stillness, then, it begun.
Thrusting forth his cutlass he drilled it through the chest of the wretch. With pleasure he made his incisions, retrieving with some skill the still beating heart that wretch still longed to keep. For I saw the Spaniard’s arm extend as if wanting back what was his. Some men shielded their eyes, others looked on in anticipation, perhaps longing for what would happen next. As those bulged eyes flickered still with life, L’Ollonais proceeded to gnaw upon his prize. While Francois gorged, all life washed from those bulbous eyes, vanished as the Frenchman’s incision gushed forth with gizzards and blood. Nothing was left of him bar an empty husk, as if a hunter had skinned an animal, innards still flooding forth thence slopping upon the deck.
In my years I have endured many a night without sleep. That night was most different. I wished only to rest my bones and set my mind to the challenge of plotting an escape. It was the canoe strung aside our vessel that played on my mind. If we were to steal it, make to the water, and thus paddle away. Would we be found out?
The horrors that haunted my mind if we were to be found out were too much to bear. Every scoundrel amongst them would give us up in an instant and we would be killed most horribly. I knew I could ne’er allow it, we must be away.
Morning came and I was woken. Not by wickedness but the most beautiful thing. By my lady, no less, for she had taken the canoe. She had done what I had wished; she had cut the ropes and was ready to paddle away. The waves beneath were calm.
‘Twas too easy, L’Ollonais and his crew had made merry the night through, thus all were snoring deeply laid out on deck. ‘Twas a painting that should ne’re be created. Just a heinous clutter of men, belching, cursing and laughing up at the bluest sky while drunkenly fighting over those severed fingers, heads, and blood of their victims.
I stayed silent enough to not wake them. Hence, ‘twas but five crooked stairs, then a jump overboard to the water, and swim to my lady, ‘twas that easy. Too easy I say!
Below deck, surely more all drunk to a stupor, cursing, rattling over the floorboards. Each clutching their own looted piece of silver and gold. Moses declaring ownership of that Spaniard’s eye and so gripping it in his hand so no other could take the trophy.
Not a sight I wished to witness ever again. They thought it one of victory; I thought it one of disgrace.
My lady and I paddled hard at first to maintain a distance enough to be forgotten by them. One sight offered a final horror, a final abomination. That young lad, given without proof as the culprit for the death of my lady’s companion. We saw him dead as dead can be hanging from a beam, his feet dangling in the waves. Rope rounded his lifeless neck. Blood had begun to drip solemnly from his mouth. I knew ‘twould be but a matter of minutes before the sharks would appear, then he would be ravished by the dreaded teeth and ripped to pieces. Another poor soul lost to the beast of life.
“How is he deserving of this fate? How so?” Said my lady looking on at the lad.
“Do not think on it, you will not find reason.” I replied. You cannot reason with madness.
“A pox on them, filth.” She cried, staring at the lad.
“I would not wish a pox upon any creature, but tell me, now we have witnessed this, do you trust there is God watching?” I replied, knowing the true horrors of the pox.
“Yes. And we must. We are together, we’re alive and look, the wind is up.” Her paddling had slowed as she looked on at the vision of the lad. “Let’s get away from this. Forever.”
She looked stern into my eyes with those words, demanding affirmation.
“We have no life at sea,” she smiled at me, thus we paddled further still, and the horrors soon became a mere blemish in the distance.
At last, we were away and safe. Two nights were spent at sea. We paddled by day and were able to make merry by night.
We reached shore this morning. ‘Tis Belize where we have landed. I am well, my lady is well, we have, for now, been taken in by port folk.
As soon as I was able, I took to writing this down, intending only to return it afloat, to sea. Whomsoever may find these words; I hope they find you well. Whispers fly, I trust those same whispers of L’Ollonais that drew me to him will also bring me news of his fate, whatever it may be. In translation of his words I have stayed truest to him. L’Ollonais demands a respect, as does any beast baring flames. I saw human in him, an ounce or so. I took from him a woman and I took from him this tale. Therefore it should be unjust and ne’er my wish to send an army at him, nor be forthcoming off his whereabouts. God will decide his destiny, perhaps.
I am not God, so, on behalf of myself and L’Ollonais I offer this back to the blue, my memoir of a venture that should, by all accounts, be allowed to stay at sea, so, here, my message in a bottle, a portrait of a tyrant, a truth for a legend I shall ne’re forget.