The Devil on Her Tongue

By: Linda Holeman

ESTRA WALKED THE DESERTED STRIP OF CALHETA BEACH EVERY morning as the sun rose, searching for limpets and treasures. The curve of fine yellow sand was protected by the rocky islet of Baixo, creating a small natural bay that collected what the sea spewed up during the night. The stretch of Atlantic between the Madeira archipelago and North Africa regularly washed up the salvage from ships. During the worst of the storms, caravels and galleons, brigantines, doggers and corvettes went down as they attempted to sail west to the colony of Brazil or east, around the Horn of Africa, and the remnants ended up here, on the beach of the small island of Porto Santo.

Under a sky washed with pink streaks, Estra poked her stout pole into the hard, wet sand between the algae-covered stones that emerged as the tide went out. She had already been beyond the wind-buffeted rocks above the dunes to collect vegetation for her potions, and now she adjusted the sling, brimming with kelp and sea rocket, knotweed, purge and milk thistle, across her chest.

She didn’t see Arie until she was almost upon him. He was lying on his stomach in the surf, foamy water swirling around him. His face rested on one bent arm, and his hair, caked with sand, was almost white, but not the white of an old man. It was white-gold. A knotted piece of leather was around his neck. Estra pushed back her crown—the circle of tough seagrass wound with bits of glass and shot she had fashioned for herself—and poked his back with her pole. He didn’t move.

She leaned over, thinking him a dead pirate. It wouldn’t be the first time she had found a dead man, usually a bloated mound with trailing strips of cloth and fingers stiffened into claws. She always left them where they lay, and eventually the fishermen of the beach tied stones around them and disposed of them far out to sea.

A tiny sea crab scurried through that odd-coloured hair, dropping onto the sand below. The man was attached to a swollen wooden cask stamped with the letters VOC by a chain looped around his narrow hips. Ragged rope encircled both wrists. The barefoot body, in loose black trousers and a torn shirt of coarse bleached cotton, held no secrets. There was no salvage near him, nothing but long knotted seaweed and stinking kelp, so he wasn’t from a caravel that had gone down. No, he must have fallen overboard. She knew it happened: young men, new to the rise and fall of the ship’s rhythm, sometimes fell from the crow’s nest or the high riggings. She touched the barrel with her foot; it rolled, watertight and empty. But why was he attached to an empty barrel?

She knelt beside him and bent to get a glimpse of the side of his face. There was a small oblong piece of silver attached to the leather thong around his neck. She picked it up and tugged, hoping to tear it free. With unexpected, shocking swiftness, the man’s hand grabbed her wrist. She cried out as she yanked free and leapt back, holding her pole in front of her.

The man slowly rolled over. His straw-coloured eyelashes fluttered as he looked up at her, blinking sand. His face was burned and flaking, crusted with salt, his lips puffy and cracked. He croaked out a sentence—it sounded like a question—but she couldn’t understand. As he painfully sat up, Estra backed farther away.

She had never seen hair like this, nor eyes such a clear, pale blue. She drew a deep breath.

It was him. He was here.

Arie ten Brink thought Estra was an apparition, perhaps the Black Madonna he had heard about, whose plaster image could be viewed at the monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona. Or maybe a dusky angel with her nimbus askew, the sun glinting off it and casting prisms onto her face.

The last face he had looked into had belonged to Broos, his executioner. Broos had led Arie to the prow of the Indiaman Slot ter Hooge, his hands tied in front of him with thick, tar-smeared rope. Broos was instructed to run Arie through with a sword—no point in wasting ammunition—and throw him overboard. But Broos was from Arie’s home of Middelburg in Zeeland; they had been childhood friends and had joined the Dutch East India Company at the same time. They had crewed together before, and on this voyage, aboard the ship bound for the strongholds of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia, Broos had the bunk below Arie’s. They often passed the dark hour before sleep sharing memories of their lives in Middelburg. On their steady sea diet of maggoty salt pork and weevil-ridden hard tack, fusty water and warm, sour beer, they fantasized about their mothers’ spring vegetable soup with meatballs, or the pots of cooked red cabbage and apples always on the stove, or Sunday breakfasts of stroopwafels, syrup waffles so sweet they gave toothache. They compared the girls they remembered, and talked of the autumn air, cool and fresh, blowing in off the Zuider Zee.

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