It was during the summer of my fourteenth year when I first rubbed elbows with legend. There he was in all of his pirate glory, stopping before my cottage porch. The man clutched the guardrail to remove his sandblasted leather boot and emptied whatever sand or pebble that was irritating his good leg. He slipped the boot back on and tucked his pant leg inside its lavish cuff. The boot’s ample leather slouched down his calf in a jaunty, well, piratey way. As he stood up and pulled out a red handkerchief to wipe the early morning humidity from his brow, our eyes met for a moment. The stranger at my front stoop stared at me through the screen.
‘Billybones,’ I thought. I didn’t dare utter the nickname that came to me as I stood there transfixed by every childhood fear I ever had of pirates. I just mouthed the name as he loomed before me.
BillyBones was a sight to see. His lanky form stood a crooked six foot four. He was thin but in no way frail. His bare forearms revealed a taut musculature, rippled like suspension bridge wire wrapped with tan skin, a coat of faded red hair in full effect. He looked English, or what I assumed an Englishman would look like from my grandfather’s tales of WWII, the big one. He always commented how threadbare their uniforms were and how gaunt and battle-worn they looked, but to “beat’m, you’d have to kill’m”. That was tough, BillyBones tough.
The rest of his appearance also fit the pirate profile. His pants faded brown canvas that hung heavy on his form. His shirt billowed in the salty air where the white gauze hadn’t clung to his perspiration. A large buckled belt tied the two together, a walking stick slung beneath like a sword. His face possibly forged in the heat of a hundred summers was sculpted in sun burnt highlights and dull brown hollows that looked more like smudges of dirt than tan. In contrast, his eyes shone sea blue, eyes that knew history, eyes with tales to tell.
“Mornin’, kid.” the stranger muttered in an exhale as he adjusted the bag slung on his back. It was a statement not a greeting. His eyes lingered for a moment, sizing me up like a wild animal that had stumbled into a clearing only to find the threat of campers. Sensing a safe haven, his look softened ever so slightly and he turned from me, the doe-eyed boy behind the porch screen, and turned his gaze to the path that went from the shoreline towards the center of town.
“I’m a see’n ya, I’m a walkin.” He paused a moment in thought. “Morning . . . good mornin,” he muttered to himself. He swung his favored leg out in front of himself to walk away and then turned back to me. Making a double check of his safety level he gave me a slight nod of his unshaven chin. With a squint of his one good eye he shielded from the early sunlight he turned up the path. Perhaps it was a wink. The connection was unspoken but very much real. He knew me, and I might have just met a pirate.
Before I tell you what happened next and the adventure that unfurled that summer, I need to fill you in on the world where my small circle of friends and I were transplanted every summer. To us, summer was the Cove, Lobster Cove on the map, but it was “Lobstah Cove” to us.
There were snowbirds, locals and daytrippers. Snowbirds would fly into town in June as soon as hometown schools closed and stayed in the Cove right through Labor Day. My friends and I were said birds. We did enough time on the Cove so we were welcomed like migrant geese crossing an early spring sky. Locals found themselves trapped in the Cove year ‘round, through the vicious Nor’Easter snowstorms and coastal flooding that would ensue off-season. They were mostly blue collar workers in the fishing industry who worked hard and long through the best months of the year only to find downtime between plowing gigs in the misery that can be winter on the Atlantic coast.
So what is a daytripper you ask? They were the time shares and weekend warriors that congested our fair fishing village just long enough to wear out their welcome. They came from Albuquerque to Zaire from Memorial Day to Labor Day. They pronounced Lobster Cove devoid of any discerning accent leaving a week later with the best New England accent that they could muster. ‘Lopstahhh!’
The term “Lopstah” became a slur of sorts like “Arrr!” must be to a pirate. When daytrippers would try to get all chummy and butcher our local-speak with phrases like, “So, how are the Lobstahhh biting?!”, we would just roll our eyes and bite our lips. ‘Go home, ‘tripper! Lopstahs don’t bite; you do!’ we wanted to say.
We knew better. They spoke with cash. The adults, no matter how much the daytrippers looked down their nose at them, refrained as well. They realized that these people were their bread and butter during the short summer months.
Half-awake locals would head to the docks about the same time each morning as my first pirate sighting. They would carry lunch buckets or brown-bag leftovers. Many had beer bellies covered by soiled t-shirts for Red Sox Championships or last year’s NASCAR winners, their glory and color as faded like these shore men’s memories of youth.
They worked hard and they played hard: up before first light and catching last call in the neon-lit confines of locals-only watering holes. At another time and place Billybones would impart to me, “Good men, lobstah men, workin’ with what God gave’m. Can never have a bad drink with a lobstah man,” sounding nothing like a daytripper.
“Ye worst day drinkin’ with a lobsterman is league’s better than drinkin’ top shelf with a landlubber.”
I had to take Billybones word on that. The one time I had tasted alcohol it tasted like paint thinner. I assumed the difference between shelves was similar to Mountain Dew and the generic drink at the Cove Market, a beverage so poor in taste; they didn’t even bother to give it a catchy name, just Lemon-Lime Drink.
First looking upon him I knew that he wasn’t a daytripper or a snowbird. You sensed he was older than the bleached docks at the harbor though he looked barely fifty. He was of old blood, as local as the coastline itself. He could say “Lopstahhh” any time he chose and no one would ever challenge that he didn’t belong.
Billybones had shuffled his way up the street, lame but strong in stride when two of the aforementioned lobstermen crossed his path. The men instinctually knew not to look the man directly in the eyes. They passed, heads bowed slightly, almost reverently. They were a good three paces past before they even dared look back. They huddled together like school boys passing notes in class, fearing of being caught by teacher. One man whispered to the other. BillyBones stopped. The men cowered and stopped in turn. The assumed pirate adjusted his duffel bag and continued towards town. The two men waited a few strides before walking further. Billybones was alpha dog, and no curs in the Cove would contest it.
My first vision of the pirate faded into the morning haze. I sat transfixed on the porch. Was it real or remnants of a dream? I needed to know. I sprang to my feet and bounded out of the breezeway to find someone awake who could confirm my pirate sighting.
The golden hue of first light cast a warm sepia tone on the kitchen walls. The toaster popped up similarly tinged slices of bread. ‘The toaster!’’ That would mean Mom must be about. And as luck would have it, she came around the corner from the pantry with a jar of flour and a wire mesh basket of eggs. ‘Alas, a witness!’ Failing to find words, I grabbed my mother by the arm and dragged her into the porch, almost breaking an egg in the process.
“Tyler Lewis Byrne! What in the heavens has gotten into you?”
She whispered in hopes of keeping my brother asleep. I escorted her briskly to the porch and pointed repetitively like a mute. She followed my finger and looked up the road to the crest of the hill leading to town. The outline of BillyBones could still be seen in the distance through the glare of the sun. I swallowed, more of a gulp, and found my voice.
“Look Ma…” I whispered in a tone even quieter than my mother’s. What if the stranger heard my accusation all the way up the road? I pictured him turning on his heel and looking back with plundering intent.
“…a pirate… see’m?” I asked as if merely asking would question my very own sanity.
There must be a place where they put delusional kids who see things. Perhaps only adults know of the existence of such institutions. They only talked of the place when they were not within earshot of a child. “Haven’t seen the youngest around these parts in a while, dear?’ ‘Well, one thing led to another and he had to… go away. Saw pirates, the poor thing.”
Admitting the vision to my mother might usher in a fate as fearsome as the potential pirate at my door. If she didn’t see him, then it would surely be a one-way ticket to the booby hatch.
My mother squinted at the figure at the top of the hill, tilted her head a bit to focus and then let out an exasperated sigh. Then she did something that made my heart stop. She opened the front door screen and waved. With a lilting tone she called to him.
It all happened before I could pull her back inside to protect her from whatever wrath was yet to come. ‘Ahoy?! You might as well go Arrr, Ma!’ my inner voice shrieked. The man turned, gave us a curious glance then managed a halfhearted wave as he turned back to the road. My mouth fell open. We had dodged a bullet.
Mother closed the screen and went back to preparing breakfast.
“Him? He’s the curator at the new nautical museum opening in the square. A mister. . . Smythe I believe.” Her air of familiarity was unsettling. She looked at me with a mother’s eyes, all too aware what a short time of this childlike innocence was left.
Stopping her morning chores, she giggled, “A pirate? Of course, a pirate.” Her amused voice was louder than before and was enough to rustle my older brother Ryan from cutting Zs on the living room couch.
“Maaa? Wh’d ya say,” he muttered half-awake under a rubble of sheets. I looked desperately at my mother silently pleading, ‘Noooo!’
“I said pirate dear, imagine that! Tyler thought he saw a pirate.” My inner voice lamented, ‘O man, here it comes…‘ Ryan’s head popped up from under the sheets like a maniacal teenage jack-in-the-box. He was all cow-licked hair, pimples and smiles.
My 16 year old poor-excuse-for-a-brother paused a second so that his slow mind could load up with verbal ammunition. The sound and smell of sizzling bacon filled the cottage as both the strips of pork and I were grilled.
“A pirate ya’ say? Sure it wasn’t the Easter Bunny, twerp? I hear that Santa Claus vacations here this time of year. He’s got that whole beard and boots thing going on too. Sure it wasn’t the jolly old elf? Snap!”
He rolled back into the sheets in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
The morning all but faded from memory. I spent the rest of the day awash in daydream questioning whether or not I had even seen the supposed pirate at all. The man I had named BillyBones became a half-real, half-imagined figment of my imagination.
It wasn’t until after dark that the moment played back in my mind, sharper and more vivid than it had in the hazy morning light. I was alone in my bed, tucked snugly into the eaves on the second floor of our cottage. The repetition of the tide lulled me to dreamland. I saw his figure fade into the distance as my mother turned away from the door. Then, just as I started to turn to follow her to the kitchen, I looked back. BillyBones face appeared not three feet before me on the other side of the screen, smelling of Old Spice and chum.
‘So, yer thought ya’ mighta’ seen a Pirate, did ya Lubby??’, he spewed, one eye blazing blue in my direction, one hazed over, not quite looking my way. His jagged teeth, a sickly yellow grimace. “Well, did ya or didn’t ya!,” he hollered, his spittle spraying against the screen door like sea foam. “Well, well, boy… stranger things have happened… and will!”
Suddenly there was the tip of a sword, a flash of steel, a spray of crimson. The blade tore through the screen, just shy of my right ear. I heard the rapier blade sing, its warmth cutting air.
I awoke, rushed to the upstairs window and look down on the road below. It was basked in pockets of streetlight. From the shadows I heard a footfall, then drag, footfall, drag. I looked further up the road to see the profile of BillyBones in the distance disappearing past the road’s far horizon.
Writing it all off as a bad dream, the result of one too many slices of pepperoni pizza, I turned back to the comfort of my bed. Resting on my pillow lay a sheered lock of my hair, a halo of crimson pin dots encircling it.
I then went to the linen closet to change my sheets.