Viviana lowered her spyglass and checked the sextant once again. Consulting the map, she shouted out to the first mate: “We’re close. To reef sails."
The smaller, tighter reef sails did not have the drive of the full sails; erected around reefs and shoals for greater control. Viviana wasn’t sure where it lay – they had navigated here from information gleaned from a thousand words from a thousand sailors.
This had to be the Way.
He was here, somewhere. His ship, the very ship that she now captained in his stead, had been found adrift, abandoned. No sign of what had transpired, what remained was a picture of normality, mundane but disturbing with the absence of the crew. To see the ship’s wood scarred and scorched from an attack on the high seas would somehow be comforting – at least there would have been an explanation, she could have mourned his death, said goodbye and be resigned to the fact that the sea had claimed him in death as it had in life.
It pained them both when his shore leave was cut short to depart on a mission for the Queen. They both were loyal to the Crown, they both knew the importance of his work against the enemies of the Armada.
He’d encouraged her to join him. Some sailors were superstitious about women on board, but his men were not some unruly seadogs but trained Navy. They wouldn’t have objected – in any case, their loyalty to their captain was absolute.
More than loyalty, there was love. That was what drove Viviana to deny the possibility that he was gone.
His men had gone with him. If she would have been onboard, she would have shared her husband’s fate – but would that have been so bad? Even dying together would not be as bad as this death-in-life of gnawing loss.
She had talked to the stolen sailors’ wives but they had cried, mourned and gone on with their lives. She couldn’t understand how those other wives could have seen that frozen tableau of shipboard life and done so – half-eaten meals of salt beef and ship’s tack, hands of cards arranged carefully face down on the table, the captain’s dropped quill pen making an untidy mark in the ship’s log. He’d gone in the middle of making an entry – nothing particularly unusual to remark that day.
Except that day wasn’t just like every other, another day of sailing that blue oblivion of the open sea. At that point, all life had fled from the vessel, scoured completely until a fisherboat stumbled unto the drifting caravel. It’s said that even rats desert a sinking ship, but the caravel was sound – all the rats were still gone.
Enough people had given up on their loved ones, accepted their loss and ignored the void growing in their souls. Viviana would not. Inside, she knew that the mysterious circumstances could not wash away the knowledge that her husband was still alive. She had her charts and the information to open the Way.
“Full stop, all anchors." Viviana called out to the first mate and released the winch slowly to lower one of the small ship’s boats. She climbed down and started rowing to the exact location made from her patchwork chart. The crew watched her row out in silent concern. They’d gotten to know her during their years-long quest, grown to respect her not only as their captain but as a friend.
Juan would be so proud of her. She was truly used to shipboard life now. She couldn’t imagine going back to a landed existence. Fancifully, she wondered if God had somehow arranged this to help her appreciate her husband’s love of the sea, but she discarded that notion. God would have never inflicted such a torment upon her – He knew how even his absence at sea had pained her, let alone this disappearance.
Perhaps it was God’s hand that would bring Juan back to her. That she had unearthed the arcane knowledge of this place and the Way was truly miraculous.
Keeping one hand on the tiller, she fumbled inside her clothes for a small pipe. Placing her fingers over the appropriate holes, she blew a single note, almost lost over the fury of the waves, but loud enough for her to set her pitch. Viviana sang the alien, atonal melody to the empty sea around her.
The melody she had learned from an English sailor huddled up in some pirate’s den in the Caribbean.
First he had refused to even speak with her, even though she had offered more gold that he had probably seen in his entire life. “Ya don’t want Jack Severns. ‘E’s bad luck. Ask around. Hire sumone else, no crew’ll ‘ave me. Bad luck, dey say. Bad luck."
Viviana told him that she didn’t want to hire him, but she just sought information and was prepared to pay.
“Ya wanta story? Ya wants to hear how Jack Severns is rottin’ here’n dis rat’s nest? Ya wanta hear about DIS?"
With that pronouncement he had torn the filthy bandages obscuring his right arm to reveal the seven-clawfingered hand of light green metal clockwork.
“Dat" he announced, “wuz da price of loyalty to me mate. Tried ta drag ‘im back, but wuz too late for ‘im. Too late."
Over many mugs of the cheap, watered warm beer the tavern served, he recounted his tale to Viviana.
He’d been a disreputable sailor. Jack and his friend Jeff had decided to grab the choice but easily transportable cargo from the ship’s hold and escape in the dead of night in a rowboat.
This ill thought-out plan “gang-agley" as Jack put it. The little rowboat was snatched by the current and was swept out into the deep sea. They hadn’t thought to pack provisions and were soon hungry, thirsty and desperate.
“Den I hears a song. I sez to Jeff, ‘I kin hear music playin’.’ Jeff hears it too and da damn fool starts singin’ along like ‘e’s in bleedin’ church or sumtin’. Den dere wuz a rumblin’." Jack shook the table for emphasis, letting little waves of beer slosh across the top, “and dis hole in da air; held up t’us like a lady’s mirror. In da hole is somewhere else – da sun shines down on us but dere’s two moons in da other sky over silver sands. Da water shifts some and Jeff’s end of da boat slides in. Da boat slides back and Jeff’s gone and I wunner if ‘e fell overboard so I row back and look fer ‘im. Now, inside da hole, dere’s sumtin’ on da beach."
The whole time, Jack had told his tale in a singsong, tired tone, a tale so often repeated that it came without thought, a resigned deadness in his eyes. When he attempted to describe the thing, Jack’s eyes burned and the bleary, bloodshot orbs looked around like those of a rat looking for a bolthole.
The scattered remnants of his experience Viviana slowly sewed together to relive Jack’s horror.
Five jet-jewel eyes sprouted from an angular pentagon of a face, slicked back antennae tasting the night breeze. Supported by a thickset frame of muscular chitin, the creature shifted uneasily on its four claw-footed legs.
“Da worst ting … da worst ting wuz, I knows it wuz Jeff. I knows it! ‘E’s da monster. Me mate, saved m’life more’n I c’n count. So I tried t’get ‘im back, din’t I? Reached through da hole and …"
Jack’s clockwork hand sprung into motion, the seven claws slicing together with a sound like a frenzied knife-fight.
“I felt nuttin’ change – wuz fine den m’arm wuz like dis. Wuz so stunned I lets go of da oars and got swept away. Da music stopped and da hole shut – and me mate Jeff wuz gone fer’ever."
Jack started blubbering into his beer, his alien hand alternately slamming and scraping into the tabletop. Viviana left him to his grief and started to walk away. Before she escaped the seedy tavern his voice intercepted her.
“Remember, lady – dere’s always a price t’ be paid. Remember da price poor Jack Severn’s paid."
She did not look back, she knew he was holding up his taloned limb in some strange grim triumph to match his tone.
Jack broke into song then, the same melody she sang now over the crashing waves to the hidden portal that led to a twin-moonlit sky over silver sands.
Viviana let her soul and spirit to be carried beyond time and space to Juan, to her lost love. Some of her tears mingled in the salt spray sent airborne by the thrashing waters, others were stolen by the gale-winds, destination unknown.
The music had to work. He had to come. All her hope and hard work was pinned to this moment – if this failed, she did not know what she would do. Could she continue living as a half-woman, crippled within her spirit and soul? Could she exist with half of her being gone?
Juan. As Viviana continued to sing the melody over and over, she repeated his name within her mind. Each time, she thought of some tiny fragment of him. A smile shared over breakfast. A kiss for no occasion. A spontaneous caress as they passed in the hall. A simple flower picked from their garden, presented with such inappropriate pomp and ceremony that she had to laugh. He made her heart smile.
The longing, the yearning he felt to come home and be with her, and her alone. The ache he’d share with her when he was far away, the joy they’d share when he wrote her he was coming home. Viviana could feel him holding her, those moments while she read, feel him pull her into a close embrace.
She died a little death each time he went away.
Viviana stopped singing – somehow there came an answering song, the strange melody refined to otherworldly, unspeakable perfection. Under the waves, there was vibration through the caulked timber of the boat; she knew it was no sea-quake. It was an arrhythmic grinding as if some great machine had begun to wake and work.
From this sorcerous science, a tear in her world came into being. Beyond, just as Jack had described, was a twin-moonlit nightscape over silver sands. The portal had opened onto an island and she could see the layers of sand suspended against the dark blue waters that cradled her. As rough as they were, they were still far more familiar than the alien world over there.
“Juan." Through the waves and the barrier of different worlds, Viviana was desperate to know if he heard her call.
She could sense him close, could almost feel him holding her. She shut her eyes and she saw him there in her mind. When she opened them again Viviana was confronted with a monstrosity. She had hoped – for some magical reason – that Juan would be pristine, untouched by its corruptive influence.
The creature’s pale blue skin smashed her hopes, its tusks curling from its wide mouth. Rangy and lithe, it towered above as it loped towards her. Esoteric indigo sigils slowly slithered under its skin while it came to rest in front of the portal, hunching down to rest itself on long arms. The small black pits of darkness that were its eyes stared unblinkingly at her.
Within those unfathomable depths hid Juan, Viviana knew. As alien as his visage was, his essence, his soul touched hers across the distance of dimensions. She could feel their spirits meld and mesh as they always had – they hadn’t needed to speak to communicate when they were together, and it was just the same as it ever was, irrespective of form or flesh.
In that shared essence, they both knew love. She felt his fear that he would never see her again, that she would have considered him dead to her, leave him lost on silver sands under a twin-moon sky. He felt her loss, her desperation to find him, knew of her years of searching for the Way to find him.
Such a river of gratitude welled from him, unable to be reflected in his bestial features. It was mingled with the joy of her presence, only separated by the thickness of a shadow.
The price needed to be paid.
They both knew what was required – Juan retreated from the portal, shaking his huge azure head in negation. Even if it left him a tormented, twisted caricature of a man, he did not want her to pay the price. He would pay his own price of isolation, the frustrated helplessness of being so close yet so far away.
Viviana smiled and beckoned to the thing that was her husband. “My love, I pay no price. It is a gift, from my heart to yours. Take it, for without you I have nothing, with you, I have everything." She lay her hand upon the surface of the portal, its substance rippling viscously at her touch.
As if they were separated by only a mirror, Juan’s splayed fingers slid along the surface, reflecting her action to overlap her hand.
A rumbling ripped through the seascape within both worlds. A high pitched whine erupting over the rumbling as if some machinery in pain. Viviana and Juan both knew that they were forcing the portal to do something it was not meant to do – it existed as the Way from their world to the other, not as a Way back. Grimly determined now, they both maintained contact through the violent cacophony.
Slowly Juan’s hand pushed through the barrier, his fanged face distorted with agony. Viviana weaved her fingers through his swarthy, calloused ones, his wrist distending at the edge of the portal. She pulled, leaning back away to add her weight to her effort. Gradually more and more of Juan traversed the barrier of worlds.
Eventually he was there, holding her as he always used to. Viviana thought, cradled within her husband’s strong embrace I have done it. My Juan has returned to me. Looking deep into his eyes, she could see the love they shared, mirrored in her own.
She smiled and died.
The crew, watching the events play out, saw the man appear and the portal wink shut with a flash of light. In awe they watched Juan row the boat back to the ship.
All were witness to see the captain hold his wife’s body close; he stroked her dead face tenderly, kissed her lifeless lips.
He lay her in her bed, drawing the sheets to her neck as if she was just unwell rather than dead. A final kiss on the too-pale forehead as he left.
He returned to the deck and broke the silence. “Helmsman, set a course for Spain. Full sails. We’re going home."
Within the darkness of the captain’s quarters, Viviana’s body twitched and turned fitfully as she dreamt of her life anew with Juan, within the brief sleep of Death.