Jenny clattered downstairs from her lookout perch in the attic. She’d seen them wallowing into the harbour, fat-bellied with hidden riches. Foreign gold, precious gems and other fabulous treasures . . . ‘Father! The ships have returned!’
Her milky-eyed father glanced up from his parchment, scowling. ‘Not so loud, Jen!’ He fumbled on his spectacles. ‘Where’s my quill? And bring peaches, soft cheese – any wine to spare?’
Shaky footsteps over the cobbles outside. As each brine-soaked sailor stumbled inside, Jenny stood at her father’s side, whispering: ‘There’s Black Dan . . . and Pegleg Jim . . . the tall gentleman’s Alan Avery.’
Her father patted her hand. ‘Thank you, Jen. Now, perhaps some drinks for our guests?’
‘Oh yes!’ she scurried about with a platter of cheese and sliced peaches, refilling tankards as they emptied.
Some of the sailors lolled about, singing lustily. But others – brawny weatherbeaten men who refused refreshment – leaned forward, their cunning eyes bright under thick, salt-jewelled brows. They spewed their stories as her father nodded and scribbled, his quill scratching as Jenny sat by, entranced. Tales of boiling sun for weeks, smoking mountains and monstrous singing fish, groaning ice and slate-black waves taller than cathedrals – even lumbering armoured giants slower than worms!
Her father glanced aside; Jenny nodded and fetched a fresh quill, then navigated the room with the wine bottle. The drunken seamen watched her. Their greedy eyes roamed each billowing dip of her dress, each enticing swell, their pawing hands seeking to claim dominion . . .
But Jenny was too quick for them; she danced nimbly away from their clutches, her tinkling laugh like sirensong. After one leering sailor reached out for a desperate grope, his captain seized him by the ear, dragged him to the door and booted him out onto the cobbles. Jenny swallowed as the others cackled, toasting her with their tankards. Her father squeezed her hand.
At long last they departed – the masters for wives or mistresses, their crew for tavern wenches – with their raucous laughter echoing through the streets. Jenny closed the shutters, locked the door and breathed out, her shoulders unclenching. Her father cleared the table, unrolled his vellum. ‘We’ll need fresh candles; my eyes aren’t what they were.’ The blank grid lay ready, the compass rose awaiting.
With her father’s wizened hand over hers, Jenny traced the tales they had heard. The feather swooped and circled, charting the safe harbour here, skirting a reef there. She sketched ravenous horned dragons above, then puffing winds below. But when she leaned over to add more at the map’s edge, her father stayed her hand.
‘Nothing beyond this line, daughter. We’ll never see the new worlds we paint, but still – leave the unknown shores for tomorrow.’
He winked, tapped his nose. ‘For in the lands beyond . . . Here Be Monsters.’
Jenny peered through the shutters, eyeing every shadow. She shuddered; the clumsy pawings, the hungry gazes and beery breath . . . ‘Maybe some came home too soon.’
‘Aye, Jenny.’ Her father raised his wine glass in a sad salute. ‘Perhaps they did.’
© 2020 | Tom Burton