I believe I will begin at the end. Distemper and despondency are easier to bring into recollection than joy and all the emotions that the bright angels bring. And thus it is that the many melancholy moments of my life are still with me. The happy occurrences, however, flash and fade away, like the sun peeking its shining face between gray clouds. I recognized this bit of chicanery among memory's tricks while in my youth; it was at that time that I made a vow to myself to always hold tight to my flashes of joy. You, my darling, my loved one, will be the judge of whether my enterprise has met with success or with failure.
Ah, but the saddest days still come to me first. For I am not this bag of skin you know—this grandmother, this widow, this baker of plantain tarts and darner of breeches, this bespectacled flipper of paged things. I am closer to the tomb than the womb and there is something sepulchral in my soul now. I wake when dusty light slides through the jalousies, by way of expedition I take my lunch on the verandah, in the late evenings I lean heavily against the balustrade and dream of evenings long before. But there was a time, by my faith, when I was young, as young as you are now, my love, and all the Spanish Main, from the wild pig Welds of Hispaniola to the silver mines of Peru, rang with tales of my exploits. Yes, there were deeds of infamy, to this I'll admit. But there were feats of courage, too, and acts of some ingenuity, and perhaps in these I can take some measure of pride, even now, even years after the doing. But infamy echoes longer and louder than fame, and it is on account of the actions for which I might be presumed to have some remorse that I was caught and imprison'd in Bridewell Prison in Port Royal, Jamaica, in the year of our Lord 1720. Many scores of years have passed since, but, by my faith, it seems as if only a single night's slumber separates me from those events. What delicious agony that time's ride passes so much more quickly for the old, who are so much closer to the journey's end.
It is said, by some, that members of my sex should speak softly and read lightly; I know this because when I spied it in a passage in one of the many volumes of my library, it made me laugh and curse until passersby came to check on my sanity. If I have read widely, blame it on the fact that I long ago conceded that I cannot travel as far as my fingers. If I sometimes exaggerate the exploits of my juvenescence, it is because I have, over the years, acquired the word-hoard necessary to gild the story of my adventures.
How could even the tide of time wash the stain of those days and nights from my memory? I recall it all: the dirt floor, the stone walls, the tiny barr'd window. Every soul I had loved, every one of my compatriots from my travels and adventures, had been taken to Gallows Point or were awaiting their escorted journey to that grim place. On the tips of my toes, standing before the grilled orifice to the outside, I could see the dark outline of the gallows, the cruel flamingo neck, the sad dangling rope, the heavy body of its latest victim swinging in the warm, fetid wind. The steps and the string were awaiting me as well. An admiralty court had been convened in St. Jago de la Vega to consider my case and I was perhaps but a brace of shakes away from being called before the judge to speak my peace, hear my verdict, and take my Wnal paces down the white sands of the Palisadoes. The court was presided over by Sir Nicholas Lawes, his majesty's captain-general and governor in chief of the island of Jamaica and a close conWdant of His Excellency Woodes Rogers, governor in chief of the Bahamas, the site of the bulk of my alleged crimes. And I knew, all too well, that every court proceeding with Lawes in a presiding role had resulted in a sentence of death.
My cell seemed to strangle me even before the noose. The crypt's door was made of iron, the bulwarks were of stone, and the soggy hole dug in the center of the dirt floor for my bodily relief stank as if giving vent to the odors of Old Scratch's kingdom below. Around me, perfidious shadows scampered ever closer, black spiders loosed from some witch's cauldron. I sat on the dirt floor, back against the wall, and closed my eyes, seeking to be lifted, as if by wings, out of my surroundings. I flew up over the thatched-roof huts of Port Royal, once a glorious privateer town, now broken by earthquake and malfeasance. I rode the light high above the newly constructed city of Kingston, with its bustling harbor, and fleets of three-masted sloops pulling into port. Now I felt light as an eyelash 'gainst the cheek—my soul moved over the face of the deep, gliding over the warm waters of the Caribbean, only blue before me, the serrated distance where the sky meets the sea. I was flying home.
Past where the roads end, under the shadow of the hawthorn trees, there was a wolf in the woods. I was born near this place, a small village in Ireland, a smattering of huts and houses too small, or perhaps too insignificant, to have a name. Travelers, when they referred to this region at all, would describe it not by any particular appellation, but through its connection to somewhere else—it would be called a spot fifteen miles from Kinsale, or five days' journey by horseback from Dublin, or a short walk from a particular bend in the River Lee, and so on. But we saw very few visitors of any sort in my village, at least not the kind that stopped. The local roads were too rocky for carriages, and all but the hardiest horses had trouble with the hills, which were steep, innumerable, and inevitable.
And then there was the wolf. He had come in November, as we pulled and clamped the last of the mangolds and turnips; by February, as we began to plow the spring crops, he became bolder, feasting on goats and even the occasional stray cat; by April, he was a full-fledged terror, and most of the inhabitants of the area, if they weren't already, took to bringing their livestock into their cabins at night—the cows, the sheep, the clucking hens—to safeguard them against the new threat. Even the dogs, when they heard the beast's howl, would scratch their claws against the door and whine to be brought indoors to safety.
There were no streetlights in our village—there was word that they had begun to install such things in Dublin—so the only illumination at night came from the moon, if he was out, and the stars, if there were no clouds. Since the wolf's arrival, the livestock in the town had taken to falling silent at dusk, and even men would grow mute over their tankards, and so the only sound echoing across the dark hills and the shadowy woods was the beast's own howls. By my faith—what a sound it was! It was a deep, sonorous roar, like a horn in its clarity, and it would climb to some fell note and hold it, letting the sound travel across the heavens. There was an utter abandon about it that made you want to both flee for safety and run into the wilderness to join with nature's creatures. The villagers, of course, chose the former. Huddled in our homes we would listen to the bays, each one, and judge the wolf's distance by the sound, much like one would hear a peal of thunder and then figure whether a storm has passed, is approaching, or is just overhead.
Ahh, I remember those days and nights well. We had the finest abode in the village then; while others slept in huts, their floors covered with rushes to soften their slumber, we had a real house, and four-post beds; while others had tiny gardens that could barely provide sustenance for their families, we had acres of land and sold off our excess food at a fair profit; while others lit smoky branch fires in the center of their cabins to ward off cold, we had a fireplace, and a chimney besides; and while others dressed in rags made from older rags sewn together, my ma, da, and I had clothes from London and Paris, and some of my ma's things were even silk.
We were rich, I suppose, or supposed to be rich, which is very nearly the same thing. In this clod of earth where little was worthy of kings or queens, we were seen as a kind of royalty. In that place, in those times, there was no means by which to acquire wealth, only to lose it; thus those that had it were viewed with a kind of unquenchable envy—the gentry were like the gods, to be imitated but never matched. We had no grand tower, no vast army, and no lofty titles, but we had a name that was known, a family history that was respected, and wealth that was assumed, and those things encircled us and held us up before our neighbors as surely as a castle on a hill ringed with high walls.
In that time of the wolf, when I was green as new leaves, we lived our lives in daylight. Men peeked out of the doors at first light and hurried home as the sun set. The wolf, which few had seen, was reckoned by its howl to be too big for arrows, and since there was no native man in our village that possessed a gun, it was deemed unhuntable. Zed, however, the old Moor who lived in a cabin not far from our house, owned a pistol, saved from, it was rumored but never proved, his days as a corsair. There were those, in days past, who had wanted Zed slain, or driven off, but, over the years he had proven too elusive to capture, and later, the curative soups and potions he would mix for sick villagers proved too helpful to do without. Zed was also a storyteller of great skill (few things are more valued), and, by Wrelight, he would recount epics of the elder days that he had compiled during his journeys, of characters such as King Gormund the wise and Balor of the Evil Eye. One night, Zed went hunting for the wolf but his aim was not what it was when he was young and he only wounded the creature in the eye. Afterward, other men of the village, perhaps shamed by the courage of the old foreigner, placed a prohibition against any further attacks, announcing that such eVorts were bound to failure and, in any case, would only inflame the wolf's rage.
The men of the town soon found a new focus. Every year, for as far back as memory, a Game of Bowls was held in the village, a match in which competitors pitched iron balls along a three-mile course in an effort to see who could do so in the fewest throws. Men from points as distant as Counties Kilkenny, Tipperarry, Leix, and Armagh would come by to test their skill and endurance in the competition. Da was a great follower of sporting endeavors and would travel many miles to find an involving event of whatever sort, and, much to Ma's distress, he was given to placing large wagers. Sports then were not so popular as they are now but Da seem'd to have a nose for Wnding games—he would offer bets on tennis, which was then being played in Dublin; and though hawking was then considered antique, and in any case was too expensive an affair for most people, Da was known for placing money on that as well. Most of our neighbors, hardworking farmers all, considered bull-baiting a waste of time, not to mention a good bull, and likewise cockfighting was seen as the frittering away of a good fowl, but Da nonetheless squandered fortunes on both, tho' he often claimed—with little substantiation—that he had won nearly as much as he had lost and, besides, his luck was due to change and he'd be damn'd if he got out just when his ship was coming in.
When I reached the age of ten years and two, I asked Da to enter my name as a competitor in that year's Game of Bowls. In past seasons, he had told me that I was too small—but since then I had grown until I was taller than almost any girl or boy my age and I was growing still. When I asked again, he rebuffed me once more and replied that I was too young—but this year I was older than half the competitors, and so I again deem'd myself ready and I accordingly renewed my inquiry. Da had been making wagers throughout the region on this year's race, and much of his wealth, and therefore that of our family, was tied up in the event. I had thought that he would be pleased to have me participate in an enterprise that he had been so hotly anticipating. Instead, when I asked him about the Game of Bowls, Da's face turned pale as a knuckle, and he answered thus: "You have chores to finish."
Anger flashed before my eyes, as when one looks direct at the sun and turns away, yet a blot still obscures one's vision. Gathering myself, I did not act nor say anything untoward, but instead went about my appointed tasks. And so I tended to the plot of cabbage next to our house, and, in an adjoining field, I ripped up the weeds that had been growing between the rows where we had planted potatoes and corn. Then, after washing my hands and face in a stream, I stood side by side with Ma, taking Da's clothes down from the line, sewing them where there were small tears, patching them where stitches were not enough. After that, as Ma went to fold the clothes, I stood watch as the cows grazed and I picked brambles from off the sheep.