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THE HARLIE

by J. F. Prussing

The Miracle-Maker

(a novel)

Book Four of ‘The Harlie’ Series


THE MIRACLE-MAKER

(a novel)

Book Four of ‘The Harlie’ Series

by J. F. Prussing


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1 - Old Port Fierce
Chapter 2 - Roger Morgan’s Eyes (and the Bell Tower)
Chapter 3 - The Maria Aurora
Chapter 4 - The Fishermen’s Hall
Chapter 5 - Fat Moon Friday (Or, the tale of three towns)
Chapter 6 - Street Urchins
Chapter 7 - Sons of Sailors (God is a fish)
Chapter 8 - A Conspiracy of One
Chapter 9 - Charlie Bow’s Dragon-Fish (and drinking and eating emporium)
Chapter 10 - The Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’
Chapter 11 - The Miracle-Maker
Chapter 12 - Fire!
Chapter 13 - Food for Thought
Epilogue - The Journey Begins


Chapter One

Old Port Fierce

IT WAS FRIDAY MORNING. The harbor was unusually b busy the day Mister Sherman Dixon drove his wagon into town along the shell rock roads of Old Port Fierce. He was looking for the man with a tall black hat and a short gray beard whom he was supposed to meet that day to close the deal. Elmo was riding the buckboard alongside his good friend and neighbor by then, taking sights and sounds he’d never experienced before. He was looking for another man – the one they called the Miracle-Maker.

Being one of the oldest and largest cities in that part of the world, the cobblestone streets of Old Port Fierce were narrow and well-traveled, with ever increasing traffic, ever diminishing right-of-ways, and constantly in need of repair. The houses were tall, separated by narrow alleys, with high pitched roofs made chiefly out of tile and tin, appearing like so many chimney-stemmed pipes arranged neatly on a rack and squeezed so tightly together it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began.

Above the many storefronts lining the boulevard, which appeared to form the first floors of these multi-purpose structures, were the homes of those that lived and worked there. By accident or design, the storekeepers were conveniently never more than a staircase away from either bed or business. These were hard streets, built by hard hands, and during hard times. They’d outlived not only the masons and carpenters who made them but all who would touch them and, like the wood of an old and petrified tree trunk, they only seemed to grow harder with each passing year.

Most of the older establishments in Old Port Fierce were made of wood, stone block construction being reserved for public buildings and the homes of those who could afford such security. The port could be a dangerous place at times, especially at night. But day or night, there was always something for sale.

There were a variety of street vendors and panhandlers that occupied the downtown area, which only added to the color and commerce of the city, as well as its questionable reputation. They were small, transient enterprises offering no real challenge to the more profitable local establishments and were, at least whenever they knew they were being watched by the local police, fairly honest. As in any port city, there existed in Old Port Fierce a number of businesses that catered exclusively to a certain clientele, which will be spoken of at length later on when it is necessary to do so. For the present time, there were enough sites to see in the city by the bay, and Elmo wanted to see them all.

“Ain’t never seen anythin’ like this in Harley!” declared the turtle-necked driver, amphibiously rotating his head in each and every direction.

“Ain’t never seen anythin’ like this nowhere,” Elmo agreed, eager with anticipation and feeling somewhat exhilarated by his new surroundings, despite the fact that he hadn’t a decent night’s sleep in quite some time. “Is this what Shadytown looks like?”

“No,” said the turtle, “Shadytown is where the colored folks mostly live. Folks like us. We’s goin’ there later on,” said the farmer, having resolved their earlier debate concerning their accommodations for that night. “That’s where Alma Johnson lives, tho’, like I said before, she don’t likes to folks to know it.”

As it were, both travelers had already decided to stay at Mrs. Johnson’s house after all, which was just off Avenue 'D' and right in the center of the place called Shadytown, their final destination.

“Is it far?” asked Elmo.

“No, but it take a while to get there,” said Sherman. “Abraham, he kind’a slow, you know.”

Shadytown, as it was unofficially called, was just northeast of Old Port Fierce, about five miles, in a small part of the city generally reserved for colored folks, or Negroes, as they were also called at the time. It began with a handful ‘colored’ families that had settled there shortly after the war, but has since grown to a sizable city of its own, making up about one fifth of the city’s entire population by then.

“How soon we get there?” asked Elmo.

“Some time tonight, I reckon. But first we has to go to where the big boats come in. Down by the water, you now,” said the farmer, looking out towards the sea for the tall masts to appear at any moment. “But say, Mister Cotton, if you already been here once before, like you say, then how come then you be axin’ me so many questions?”

The raccoon smiled. He did know more about Shadytown than he cared to admit; and he was anxious to get there, perhaps a little more than he should have been. He just didn’t want Sherman to know that. “That was a long time ago, Sherman,” he correctly responded, “And besides, I was just a little boy at the time.”

“You sure is mighty peculiar, Mister Cotton. Peculiar, peculiar, peculiar! But you’ve always been like that, I ‘spose. Now let me ask you a question,” said the farmer, his thick heavy head turning slowly around, indeed like that of a fat brown turtle, “where is you goin’ after that?”

“I don't know. But I ain't goin’ back to Harley. That’s for sure. Uh-huh! Not me,” said Elmo shaking his head quite frankly. He still hadn’t told his friend and neighbor what the secret was. And that’s because there really was no secret, other than his most recent desire to put out to sea as soon as, as soon as… But first he would have to find him, the one Uncle Joe called the ‘Miracle Maker’. “Leastways, not any time soon,” he added so as not to worry his neighbor unnecessarily, or his wife for that matter, who Elmo knew would certainly find out sooner or later that the two had indeed crossed paths. There are some secrets that are just impossible to keep.

Somehow, the fat brown turtle could tell something was going on. He didn’t know exactly what, but thought it might have something to do with Regina. He could see it in Elmo’s eyes, just as he saw it when they were both little boys growing up in Harley together. It was a look the Harlie had never quite outgrown. It had guilt scribbled all over his face (even when he wasn’t guilty of anything in particular and had nothing to be ashamed of) just like them ol’ horns his uncle was so quick to observe sprouting from the top of his head. It was the look he had on his face when he first put his hand down the back of Regina Johnson’s dress. It was the same look his wife would occasionally tell him to: ‘Wipe off yo’ face…! Before I wipes it off for you’, the one she had grown accustomed to over the years.

It was easy to see that the Harlie’s plans and ambitions went further than Old Port Fierce, much further; and he would need more than a wagon to get there. Sherman knew that by now. Elmo needed a boat, and a big one. And considering the fact that the largest boat he had ever set foot on was only a raft, and a very small one at that, the prospects of going to sea seemed more unlikely than ever. But that was something he would have to work out once he’d taken care of the business he came for. Nothing would stop him from that, not even Regina Johnson. And, of course, nothing would stop the turtle from ‘axin’ more questions.

“If you don’t minds me sayin’ so, Mister Cotton,” the turtle continued as they rolled along past some old warehouses that looked somewhat deserted, “this is all mighty peculiar to me. Just what be goin’ on with you anyway? You never use to be like this... all secret-like, talkin’ ‘bout some Miracle-Man you’s ‘spose to find. Sumpin’ wrong with you, Elmo?”

Sherman would only address his life-long friend and neighbor by his first name when he knew something was bothering him. Elmo knew this, of course, and picked up on it right away. And so, after mulling it over in his mind for a moment or two, the Harlie thought it might be time to spill a few beans, so to speak, at least a little; and so he did just that. “Someone's been following me, Sherman,” he stated with no immediate concern, “…ever since I left Harley.”

The turtle looked not a little surprised. “Who dat?” he asked.

“Oh, I don't know,” fained the raccoon, “ Maybe someone who knows me... Maybe not. Don’t know of anyone lookin’ for me ‘ceptin’ maybe the sheriff, and maybe my wife. But this ain’t no lawman, Sherman, and it sho’ ain’t Nadine. He look more like an animal. Have long dark hair – and a beard! Saw him three times already. Twice back in Harley. Once down by the river when I was...”

“When you was what?” the turtle eagerly responded.

Elmo shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand, Sherman.” And he was right. How could anyone as innocent and naïve as Sherman Dixon ever comprehend all he’d been through? There was so much Elmo didn’t understand himself, especially the part about becoming a demi-god, which he still had trouble dealing with from time to time. The Motherstone, or whatever it was he’d kept in his pocket now for over a year that would come alive almost at will, it seemed, would be even more complicated, and just as impossible to explain. “It’s just that sometimes… well, sometimes, I feels like someone wants me dead. Don’t know who. Might not even be a person, Sherman.” And here Elmo could find no words to express what was troubling him at the time.

Anticipating the worst, which was another habit of the turtle Elmo found irritating, Sherman finished his neighbor’s thoughts for him. “A Hellhound,” he suddenly spoke out loud, recalling just then the words he’d heard earlier being sung from the back of his wagon. It was actually more of a question than it was a comment, and one that begged for an answer.

The raccoon didn’t comprehend the turtle’s response at first, not yet feeling quite that desperate; but he knew what his neighbor was talking about. And he was wrong, of course. Elmo could tell the difference between a Hellhound and a man, even from a good distance. For one thing, Hellhounds don’t go walking on two legs, and they can’t swim either, not as far as the Harlie knew anyway. And for another thing, they certainly don’t wear eyeglasses, or ‘spectables as the Harlie referred to them as ever since Homer began wearing them himself. Just then, the ‘Great Raccoon’ remembered. This wasn’t a man at all. It was a demi-god, not unlike himself. And that made a big difference. Demi-gods, as you may well know, could look like anything or anybody – even a Harlie! Besides, if it really were a Hellhound, as Sherman so keenly but erroneously suggested, Elmo reckoned it surely would’ve caught him by now. “Ain’t no Hellhound, Sherman,” he said, condescendingly. “Could be something worse tho’...”

Try as he may, the bean farmer with the turtle-head couldn’t think of anything worse than a Hellhound. Who could?

The Hellhound, as alluded to above, was a legendary animal, more fiction than fact, actually, that was said to possess supernatural powers. Most Harlies had learned about this mythical beast before they could actually pronounce the word. Born and bred in the fiery furnaces of the earth and heeled in that satanic kennel, the Hellhound struck fear into every Harley heart, big and small, young and old, and especially those already inclined to superstitious belief, like most women and children of that time.

Described as half dog and half demon, this ‘hound from hell’, so-to-speak, was said to roam the lands just beyond the Iron Gates of Harley, to the south and west, in search of its mortal prey. It was often suggested, although it could never be proven and therefore largely ignored, that this demonic hound was actually nothing more than a contrivance, a white ghost, conveniently dreamed up by the Creek-folk (that is those who occupied the entire western side of the Iron gates of Harley) and conjured up just to keep the Harlies at bay and confined within their own well-defined boarders. And for the most part, it worked; as propaganda often does, either real or imagined.

From a factual and more practical point of view, however, blood-hounds had been bred in and around Creekwood Green for many years. They were not only good hunting dogs, but made for excellent house-pets and yard-dogs. They were loyal, obedient, gentle with children; and women just seem to love the soulful and sorrowful expressions naturally exhibited their loose-skinned dog-faces, which only made it that much more difficult to kill them for their meat during the hard times brought about by the war and other more natural calamities. Before, and especially during, the war, these same admirable hounds were also employed by plantation owners in the necessary business of tracking down run-a-way slaves along the ‘Underground Railroad’, a term ubiquitously applied to the secret trails and passageways slaves would make frequent use of, usually with the assistance of sympathetic abolitionists, which the blood-hounds were equally proficient at.

The Hellhound lived, real or imaginary, in the fearful minds of all slaves, past and present, subjecting them to the all the terrors they would confront along the arduous road to Freedom. Was it worth the risk? To some it was. Others (especially the older Negros who’d not only grown accustomed to their bondage but quit satisfied with all it had to offer them by way keeping their families fed and providing a roof over their heads when so many at one time had so little) thought it foolish at the time to even contemplate escaping from their slave masters, even after the war had been won in their favor, choosing instead to stay on the farm and maintain their subservient positions as if nothing at all had changed. Still, there were others who tried to run away; and many died. And even if they’d failed in their justifiable attempt, perhaps it was still worth it. Freedom ain’t free. It’s not cheap, either. It sometimes costs lives, the lives of those who love it and need it the most.

And even if they didn’t realize it at the time, the vicissitudes these underground railroad passengers endured along the way, which included leaving their families behind in many cases, had made stronger men and women of them in the process, despite the best efforts of those who would deny such liberties, and even more fit for citizenship in a country where hardship and sacrifice are the staple for success, and freedom, like everything else, has to earned. In fact, it may’ve been the Hellhound itself, fact or fiction, forever barking and nipping at their bruised, bloodied and barefooted heals, that finally won the slaves the freedom they longed for and so richly and rightfully deserved. Devils and demons will sometimes inspire us, although not in the diabolical way they would expect, to do what our better angels are unable to. Such bravery could hardly go un-noticed, even by the slave masters themselves in some rare instances. But it seldom went unpunished, and was rarely rewarded. Little did the slave owners know, however, they’d soon have their own Hellhounds to deal with, along with legends of other demons just as dark and dangerous. They’d come from out of the north – armed, of course, and dressed in blue. And these ghosts had guns! Leading this notorious army of blue-clad hounds from hell would be the re-bearded devil himself, William Tecumseh Sherman, ‘Uncle Billy’.

Sherman wisely decided to change the subject. But it was only to more bad news from back home, something he’d already touched upon earlier. “Sheriff John’s been lookin’ for you, Mister Cotton. I ‘spect you knows that by now. And I ‘spect you know why. That’s why you ran away – Ain’t it? Can’t say I blames you for that. No, sir! Everyone know about you and Mister Skinner going off to them ol’ hills with them Creekmen.”

“Folks back home seem to know a lot about my business,” noted the Harlie, looking a little annoyed by then.

The turtle responded in his own inquisitive way. “That dead man, Horn, the one they found up the hills… well, they say sumpin’ peculiar happen to him, altho’ nobody know what that is ‘ceptin’ maybe the sheriff; and he ain’t sayin’. Mighty peculiar, Mister Cotton. Mighty peculiar…”

“Rusty,” replied the bewildered raccoon, “His name was Rusty Horn. Some folks called him Red-Beard. He was a Colonel – in the army, I think. But he’s dead now, Sherman. And they say I killed him. Shoot him dead. Just like that!”

The fat man scratched the back side of his head. “That true, Mister Cotton? You do that?” he questioned out loud. “You kill that man?”

It was the first time anyone, including the Sheriff John Townsend, had ever put the question to him that directly, so bluntly, and with so much sincerity that Elmo wished he could’ve answered it in the same manner. But he couldn’t; he just didn’t know how. After all, he still didn’t know what happened, no matter how much he tried to remember. And he was there when it happened. But it all happened so fast – in blink of an eye it now seemed. Bang! The gun just went off. And that was the truth. That’s all there was to it. He’d tried to explain it to Joe Cotton once and, even now, still wondered if the old man believed him. All he knew was that it was a shotgun that’d killed Red-Beard, and not a revolver. The sheriff said so. It blew open his chest. Sure, Elmo had a gun – Rusty’s gun. But it was the wrong gun, at least according to what John Townsend had told him. There were no witnesses; there was no other evidence. All they had was a Harlie’s word on it, which was ambivalent at best. And what good was that? Elmo despaired. Who would ever believe a… a raccoon on the run anyway? He knew it really didn’t matter anymore.

Not sure if his neighbor had heard him the first time, or if his silent passenger simply didn’t want to respond, the turtle felt obliged to ask the question again. “I said – did you kill that man, Elmo?” And again, as if to zero in on the seriousness of the subject, Sherman addressed his evasive companion on a first name basis, which only made Elmo that much more uncomfortable.

Assuming that he was still an innocent man – or at least until someone could prove otherwise – Elmo didn’t think he had anything else to say on the matter. For a long time now he hadn’t even thought about it. And now, having Sherman bring it all up again like that might somehow change what happened or didn’t happen, only made him feel guilty all over again. It was written all over his raccoon face. And in a strange, complicated, and almost funny, sort of way, it also made things more difficult. After all, if he was guilty, and he really did kill Rusty Horn, then maybe he wouldn’t have felt so guilty about leaving home in the first place. But if he was not guilty, as he’d always maintained, then why the hell was he be running at all? It didn’t make sense. It just didn’t ‘boil the beans’. He was cursed as well as doomed; and he could nothing about it, except what he’d been doing all along – running.

He really had no explanation for what’d happened, or didn’t happen, that day up on the mountain. The gun just went off. But what gun? Whose gun? Who pulled the trigger? And where was he now? These were questions the raccoon simply couldn’t answer, and had tried so desperately to forget while on the run. And he did… for a while at least, until this damn turtle started ‘axin’ all his dam questions. And even if he could answer them, Elmo knew for certain that the horns on his head would only grow longer and larger, just as they always did. It was no use. “He’s dead, Sherman,” was all the raccoon had left to say, “And that’s all there is to it.”

“Hummm? And this here man you say…” Sherman continued, either through deliberate interrogation or sheer ignorance, as he turned the wagon off the shell rock road and down along the long wooden planks forming the roadway of Fisherman’s Wharf, refusing to give into his neighbor’s obvious frustrations, “the one who be followin’ you. You think he have somethin’ to do with that there Red-Beard fellow, the one they say you killed?”

“No. I didn’t say that, Sherman,” the raccoon quickly rejoined. “At least, I don't think that’s what I said.”

“Well, you did get a good look at him then. Didn’t you, Mister Cotton?”

“Not that good,” replied Elmo. “Not good enough.”

“Maybe it was one of those Redmen. You know – Injuns! They do look likes Greens sometimes, when they’s dressed proper-like.”

“I don’t think so, Sherman,” said Elmo, not bothering to explain to his curious friend how he’d once lived among Indians and surely would’ve known if the man he spoke of was one of them. “But I can tell you one thing…” replied the Great Raccoon, coolly, and with all the certainty befitting his demi-god status, “He ain’t no Harlie. That’s fo’ sure!”

Then again, the same could always be said of Elmo (He ain’t no Harlie!) Cotton. And just then, the raccoon quietly and, perhaps, deliberately rested his own light brown arm up against that of the fat man sitting beside him, noticing, not for the first time, how the leathery epidermis presently exposed on the back of the turtle’s surly brown hand seemed as black as coal in comparison to his own light brown skin; so much so that Elmo would often be mistaken for a Creekman himself, sometimes even to his own unsolicited advantage; but mostly out of sheer curiosity. It was times like those he wished he was never born.

Rotating his head and pulling it quickly back into his shoulders, not unlike the frightened turtle he so much resembled at times, the farmer further suggested, “You don’t ‘spose he be one of them Klansmen I hear tell of. You know, Mister Cotton, the ones that be troublin’ folks that looks like, like…”

“Like me?”

“No,” laughed the farmer, having been around long enough to know that it was always the darker colored Harlies the Klansmen always seemed to signal out whenever they were about their bigoted business and peddling old Jim Crow like it was Mississippi moonshine –“likes me!”

Elmo understood what his neighbor was trying to say, albeit in his own affable way; but he just couldn’t find the humor in it anymore. “I reckon,” he softly sighed.

“They’s still fightin’ the war. Ain’t they Mister, Cotton?”

“Some things never change, Sherman,” It was something Elmo had heard Homer say when he was still alive, and more than once. Maybe the old man was right, the Harlie sadly imagined. He was glad Mister Skinner was no longer a part of it.

“They don’t like us just because we’s Harlie,” growled the turtle, “cause of how we look. Say we is feral… and other such nasty things.”

“Let them say what they want,” declared the demi-god, no longer interested in the opinions of mere mortals.” We ain’t no ferals, Sherman. That’s for sure. Mister O’Brien said so, and that’s good enough fo’ me. Besides, ain’t been no Ferals around these parts since...” Here Elmo was going to mention the name Cornelius G. Wainwright III, but decided against it. He simply didn’t feel like explaining it to Sherman, even though he suspected the turtle already know more about ‘the man with the bottle-brush mustache’ than most, along with his fatal disappearance. And besides that he just didn’t want to think about it anymore.

The turtle resumed his slow but steady pace. “Heard those Klansmen done killed a Redman down by the river not too long ago. Strung ‘im up! From an old oak tree! Say he had his way with one of their women-folk. The calls it rape. Some say it was Creekman who actually done it. Other folks say it was a Harlie. Klan don’t care. No sir! We’s all the same to them. Anyway, they got their pound of flesh, all right. And that’s what they really wanted. Wouldn’t surprise me if this here man, the one you say is followin’ you, be a Redman come lookin’ for revenge. That’s why he wants you dead, Mister Cotton. Ever think about that? Maybe he thinks you’re a ...”

“A Creekman, Sherman?”

“I didn’t say that,” the turtle tried to apologize.

“I know, Sherman.”

As for the turtle’s latest assumption, the raccoon suddenly remembered something he’d almost forgotten, something else he once heard, not only from Homer but from the old chief himself, Long Arrow, shortly before he died in his whale-bone teepee. “Redmen don’t kill Harlies,” he reminded his misguided but sometimes insightful companion. And he was right about that. To suggest that a Redman would be hunting a down a Harlie was simply ludicrous, even if it did involve the raping of one of their woman.

Generally speaking, the Indians of the Redman River held no special grudges against the Harlies and, if anything, were always sympathetic towards their plight, having suffered similar indignities and atrocities under the white yoke of oppression. In fact, many of the Indians considered Harlies ‘Big Medicine’, as Elmo himself could attest to, and different from Greens altogether, affording them the status of demi-gods from time to time, as they did the ‘Great Raccoon’ himself. That is not to say the Redman held any real animosity or grievances towards the good folks of Creekwood Green, or even Caucasians in general; they merely distrusted them, as they would any dangerous animal they came across in the wilds of their native habitat, and subsequently avoided them whenever possible.

The Indians of the Redman River were typically peaceful, and naturally suspicious of anyone claiming ownership of, or dominion over, any piece of land, particularly when it just so happened to be was land they were standing on. After all, it was theirs to begin with; they were there first, or so the legends had taught them. In fact, it was all their land at one time! That is, until it was confiscated one day by what became known as ‘Eminent Domain’ (a legal term they still could not understand; and, even if they did, they would never acquiesce to such tyranny, at least not without a fight, which is probably why they’d fled across the river to avoid the inevitable bloodshed that surely would’ve taken place if they had chosen to do otherwise) and were driven out of their ancestral homeland. And even since then the ‘White Locusts’ (the name obviously given to Greens who came out of the west one day with a Bible in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other) were as un-welcomed as they were feared. It was just that simple. They didn’t even need guns. But having long since buried the hatchet, along with their bows and arrows, and lastly their grievances, the Redman warriors simply agreed to stay on the west side of the ‘Great White Snake’, so long as everyone else, including Harlies and Creeks, stayed on the other side. It was a treaty both sides found they could live with shortly after the war, and was signed in their own red blood. And for the most part it worked. It had to work; otherwise, there would probably be no more Indians or Redmen left to speak of at all; or demi-gods, for that matter.

As they approached Fisherman’s Wharf, a long pier near the docks where the big ships came in, the turtle driving the wagon nervously turned his telescopic head and asked in a whisper, “Think he still be lookin’ you, Mister Cotton?”

“I reckon so,” admitted the raccoon for the first time, feeling more frightened than ever before for finally having acknowledged it out loud to someone else.

“Think he be wantin’ to kill you?”

“I think he could’ve done that by now, Sherman. If that’s what he really wanted.”

“Mighty peculiar, Mister Cotton. Peculiar. Peculiar. Peculiar!”

Looking out past the wooden bollards supporting the seawall on the south side of the wharf, Elmo could already see the tall tapering masts of the ships he’d only dreamed of so far, lazily bobbing up and down in the watery distance. Some were docked along the pier while others were slowly making their way in and out of the grand harbor under modest sail and a dying sun.

One ship in particular, with a small square sail setting high up on top of the main mast, appeared so large that it was a wonder, to Elmo anyway, that it could stay afloat at all. There was man in the crow’s nest. Elmo waved to him. But he knew the ship was too far away for the lofty sailor to take any notice of two Harlies in a wagon. He just thought it was the right thing to do at the time. The turtle thought it was a little foolish, and even dangerous t the time, but didn’t say anything more about it.

Some of the boats, the older looking ones, were made of wood. Others appeared to be constructed entirely of metal, with long dark smokestacks stemming up from their hollow decks like redwood tree trunks throwing thick clouds of smoke into the powder blue sky. One of the stacks was tall and red, and in many ways reminded the Harlie fugitive of Ol’ Red and the Hangman’s Knee that was presumably still waiting for him back in Creekwood Green – perhaps, with a rope attached to it by now. The image, even though it was only a vague memory of a cruel distant past, still frightened him; so much so that he suddenly wanted to talk to Sherman some more about Harley, Sheriff John Townsend, and most of all what people there were actually saying about him back home. But all that came out of the raccoon’s wide-open mouth was: “You say the sheriff found Colonel Horn up in them hills, Sherman?”

Mister Dixon nodded his turtle-head and said, “The dead man, Mister Cotton – the one they say you done killed.”

With that, the Harlie knew he was a goner. He was closer now to the harbor than he ever thought he would be, and still the ships looked so far away. Leaning back against his suitcase, he could feel the sailin’ shoes poking him from within. Or was it the Motherstone? Whatever it was, it was something he suddenly found annoying. His mind drifted, just as it always did in situations like these; and somehow, it always drifted back to the face in the stone, the face of a woman, the one he saw down by the river.

* * *

IT WAS JUST ANOTHER DAY IN OLD PORT FIERCE; and everywhere the Harlies looked there were people rushing about like so many ants on the ground just before a major storm. They were carrying boxes and buckets, pushing carts and pulling wagons, tying down ropes, barking and biting at one another, belting out orders, making last minute adjustments, and doing all the things busy people usually do when they are… well, busy.

“The hum of the hive!” announced Elmo Cotton, much to the surprise and delight of his unsuspecting driver. It one of those colorful terms his dead uncle would throw at him from time to time, almost instinctively it seemed, when describing scenes that demanded such eloquent description, which, if painted in any other wordy fashion, no matter how analytically applied, would not do it justice and lose all intrinsic value in the process. The old fly-catcher was right, of course; and it was a good analogy; for by then, many of the fishermen had already returned and were selling their catch right there on the dock as they had for generations. Others were busy cleaning fish in front of potential customers, hawking their goods and haggling over the price. It was not uncommon, and not very different from what his dead uncle had told him. Only bloodier, Elmo imagined.

The smell of the sea was everywhere, or so it seemed; and it permeated just about everything. There were merchants by the score, each wrapped up his own capitalistic world, and sailors too numerous to count. There were barrels rolling noisily down uneven planks, crates being lifted by strong-armed men or hoisted aloft by some other mechanical means, as evidenced by the perpetual motion of so many ropes and pulleys that seemed to be operated by invisible hands. It was just like the old man said: ‘The hum of the hive!’ And it was alive and well, right there in Old Port Fierce.

By then, most of the fishermen had returned in their smaller outriggers and were competing for precious space along the wharf. There were perhaps a dozen of the larger transports moored in the harbor that day, which only made it more difficult for everyone else it seemed. It was times such as these when liquid real estate was just as valuable as the dry variety and, depending on location, demanded an even higher premium. Gangplanks spilled out from these larger vessels all along the seawall, angling up to the bulwarks at varying degrees. They were long, weather-worn, gray and narrow, bending under the strain of men loading and unloading cargo to and from all corners of the navigable world.

The merchant ships were by far the largest and the most active of these titanic ocean-going vessels, and by far the busiest. Their nimble crews consisted of stalwart men that appeared both strong and light-footed as they jumped fore and aft, port to starboard, barking profanities at one another like… like sailors! They scurried about the rigging like so many shirtless spiders in an endless web of ropes and cables, each performing his own specialized task with the precision and grace it demanded. Driven purely by profit, and maybe even greed, it was no wonder these ships were so full of activity. Apparently, it was the merchant mariners who had the most to lose if their rigorous schedules, held as they were so tightly to the dictates of the sea, were indeed not met or impeded to any substantial degree. Naturally, they had to be ready to set sail on a moment’s notice, which they all knew could come from the captain at any time, and under any conditions. Just as farmers are always mindful of the weather, so too are these sons of Noah forever aware of time and tide, knowing full-well neither would wait for no one. They could read the stars and ride the wind; and surely, like the old patriarch himself, they would outlast any flood. These were the sons of sailors.

These were the men his uncle once talked about on his back porch in Harley not too long ago. They were the ‘Sons of Sailors’, a term applied without prejudice to these noble men of the sea who, together with their shipmates and captains, plowed the seven seas, over the shallowest reefs and in the deepest oceans of the world. They needed little and asked for less, except for maybe an honest captain, a healthy crew, a seaworthy ship, some tea and biscuits perhaps, and a good strong wind. Oh! And don’t forget a good measure of rum, or at least a little grog to drive off the spleen and make the midnight watch a little less lonely. There’s no better way to get to where they were going; and if there were, the sons of sailors surely would have figured it out by now. These were the sons of fishermen, the harvesters of the sea. Most had earned their sea-legs under the autocratic eye of the Navy. Some went on to become officers, like Captain Roger Morgan, for instance, making careers out of what they would’ve done anyway, only for allot less money. Others, like Elijah Hatch, went on to become merchants marines, circling the globe many times over in ships designed for such profitable excursions, ships like the one anchored in the bay that day and making ready to sail, the one they called ‘The Maria Aurora’.

The military ships were different, of course, as were the men that served on board them. These were naval vessels of the time, marked accordingly with strong wooden hulls, protracted sail, and heavily armed. Some were clad in iron. They were built for speed and combat rather than transport and commerce; and the men that worked them were just as hungry and lean. They were young men, for the most part, who had freely enlisted in the navy (although there were still a good many conscripts on board that had been drafted during the war or, as in the famous and well known case of that handsome sailor, Billy Budd, were absconded at sea by upper echelons of the Fleet who were in need of their special services) and for any number of reasons, steady employment being the prime motivator, especially after the war when there was little else they could do. Some of these men might have been sons of sailors; but only the older and more experienced ones who’d earned that prestigious and unspoken title, along with the respect that naturally followed, would know for sure. And even then, it was something they just didn’t talk about. Why should they? They knew who they were, and that was enough. They were the sons of sailors.

Generally speaking, the men who served in the navy were young, clean-shaven, inexperienced and, for the most part, lucky just to have a job that didn’t include a plow, a pick, or a spade. Some were educated, and perhaps just looking for adventure, or what they perceived that to be. They would quickly learn, however, that degrees and diplomas were about as useful onboard a man-of-war as a sea-sick sailor prone to shell-shock. Of course, there was always a criminal or two to be found on these ‘floating prisons’, as one literary sailor once described them, in which case they felt most at home. It would be the officers’ job to make sailors out of them – all of them, if it was at all possible. In some cases it simply was not, no matter how much time and patience was applied and no matter how desperately they were needed. It’s a profession not suited for everyone and, more often than not, one that found the man, rather than the other way around. These military mariners were all dressed in the same common white cotton uniforms that day, sporting the wide-legged trousers called duck pants and long-sleeved shirts that were regulation issue at the time. Many wore caps and kerchiefs; others did not. For some, it would be their first voyage; for others, it would be their last.

Other than the discipline and decorum that goes along with navy protocol and, perhaps, the absence of their beards, there was really little distinction separating these naval seamen from their merchant counterparts. For generations, they’d sailed the same seas, drank from the same cup and ate the same meals; they weathered the same storms, anchored in the same ports, fought the same battles; they sang the same songs, danced the same gigs, loved the same women and, from time to time, they felt the same kick of a boot or sting of the whip. They actually enjoyed each other’s company, despite what you may’ve already heard, more, perhaps, than any one of them would care to admit. They shared things only the sons of sailors could properly understand and appreciate. They talked about things they knew, a never-ending debate which included, but was certainly not limited to, such topics as: Who’d logged the most days at sea? Whose captain was the bravest, the boldest, or the handsomest? Which officers were fair and which ones weren’t. Who were the cowards? And who were the heroes? All the latest scuttlebutt. Who had the prettiest woman? In what port? And for how long? Naturally, they talked about whose ship was the biggest, the fastest, and who had the most guns. Not to mention which vessel had the best cook and severed the best grub on board; and so forth and so on.

At times these salty dogs of the sea would even argue over such eclectic issues as: Who had the most tattoos, or the longest beard? counting each line of indelible ink and measuring each magnificent growth of beard right down to a fraction of an inch with the skill and precision of a Chinese tailor. Obviously these two categories naturally put the naval sailors at a distinct disadvantage. For they were forever at the mercy of the many codes and regulations prescribed by their superior echelons, and were seldom if ever allowed to indulge themselves in the manly arts beard growing and skin tattooing, much to their own chagrin and despite their numerous protests, one of which nearly ended in mutiny, if not a downright massacre, on a certain man-of-war at one time.

With no particular flag or affiliation to pledge their loyalty to, the true sons of sailors served all and were party to none, private or public, merchant or military. They were older than your ordinary seamen of the day; and they looked it. Their faces were rough and ready, whiskered, and sun-tanned; their skin had the feel and texture of old worn leather with many fine lines, much like the scrimshaw they so lovingly carved at times on whalebone or sharks teeth in their own gnarly and talented hands. Earrings were common at the time, although only to be worn in the masculine style with a great golden hoop piercing a single lob, like the wedding band it was so often a substitute for in this buoyant monastery of confirmed bachelors. These were the sons of sailors. They came in all sizes and colors, and all manner of dress: those in the private sector preferring the loose fitting and colorful clothes fashionable at the time to the tightly fitted and straight-laced uniforms issued to their military brethren. Still, others wore very little at all, whenever they could get away with it, that is, adorning their naked sun-baked bodies instead with tattoos too numerous to mention and too detailed to describe with any degree of accuracy. Tattooing was an ancient art, and one the sons of sailors were naturally drawn to, like sharks to a dead whale. There’s permanence in tattoos they found favor with and could definitely relate to. Having originated somewhere in the tropical islands of the South Seas, it is supposed that these ‘skin illustrations’ quickly caught the eye of the sons of sailors and the attention of just about everyone, from missionary and pirate, who happened to touch upon the enchanted islands where they had originated.

The word itself, ‘tattoo’, was actually derived from the distinct and unique tat-tat-tat sound made by the primitive instruments that first produced them. Although having existed long before any Caucasian foot fell on aboriginal soil, these native illustrations first appeared in the civilized lexicon shortly after the missionaries returned from their Holy missions. In exchange for Bibles, beads, and the promise of eternal life, a handful of these pious pioneers returned home with these strange and un-abatable markings covering various parts of their sanctified, and conspicuously naked, bodies, which many of their contemporary Evangelicals considered nothing less than the ‘mark of the devil’, and just as heathenish.

But it was a small price to pay, or so these priestly pirates protested, for not only winning the heathen heart and converting the pagan, but persuading the cannibal that it is much better, and healthier, to eat the flesh of God rather than that of one another. And it worked! – that is, until the Queen, Babinka, the old matriarch of the Island died one day from a strange and terminal disease that the ship’s doctor possessed no knowledge of, and thus had no cure for. But in the end, the missionaries had bitten off more than even they could chew. Or maybe they simply wondered into the wrong hut one night, with a little too much rum in their belly and not enough of the Holy Ghost to persuade them to do otherwise. Perhaps they blessed the wrong virgin, insulted the wrong king, or cursed the wrong god. No one knows for sure. Eventually, they were either eaten alive or driven off the Islands for good, to be replaced shortly after by pirates and other enterprising entrepreneurs who brought with them death and disease; along with rum, guns, and other instruments of fear, as fatal to the savage heart as any pointed spear or Gideon’s Bible. And they had the tattoos to prove it.

They presently appeared as some ancient code, hieroglyphically transcribed on a living organ. And not unlike those famous scrolls of the Essences that would one day be resurrected by a Palestinian shepherd boy in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, so too would these modern day renderings be meticulously scrutinized by priests and scholars alike as if they were the mortal markings imparted on the Holy Shroud of Turin itself with all their immortal implications, perhaps with the same inconclusive results. And if by chance or design these same bodily canvasses were ever to be exhumed and brought back from the land of the dead like some rare mummified Egyptian, for whatever scientific or anthropological reason, then perhaps they will relate to us a similar story of a doomed culture, the painters and poets of which will have turned to dust long before their sacred scribblings can be deciphered. We may never know. And still, the ancient art of tattooing survives antiquity, having been heroically exported over sea though time and antiquity to more civilized worlds, along with the artisans who’d created them; a dying breed whose masterpieces can presently be found not hanging on the morbid walls of museums, but rather decorating the skins of those who still wear them with as much pride and dignity as kings and warriors.

These were ‘old school’ tattoos, indelibly inscribed in solid black ink, as opposed to the recent blue and green pigmentations utilized in more contemporary body illustrations. It was an old and ancient recipe, the ingredients of which no microscopic eye has yet to penetrate, and thus analyze; and one no toxicologist could duplicate. The design was pure and simple, made up of so many intricate lines and circles, or parts thereof, skillfully woven in living fabric in fantastic and phantasmagorical shapes, indistinguishable to all but the native eye that alone has the power to understand, decipher, and thus appreciate such graceful intricacies. Some were designed for purely aesthetic purposes and worn exclusively by the woman of the Islands, despite their inferior quality and potencies.

The tribal men were different, however; they were the warriors. And the tattoos they wore were of the masculine variety, thick and rich, the ink of which was said to contain no small measure of human semen, never mind exactly how it was extracted, amply supplied by the bravest warriors in order to insure their power, potency, and, of course, their longevity. They were meant to both frighten and confuse their enemy, in whatever diabolical form they appeared. It was a special magic, one the Redmen might call ‘Big Medicine’ that only the warrior could wear, and only the holiest of hands could master. In some parts of that tropical and aboriginal world, these ancient artisans were considered gods in their own divine right, enjoying all adulation afforded such deity and the privileges they’d so rightfully and richly earned.

Naturally, these ‘Island’ tattoos were highly sought after, and paid for handsomely, in advance. Most sailors worn them; all sons of sailors did. They were sown into their Saxon souls in the same manner as they’d always been: skillfully, indelibly and, of course, painfully. You might even call it a ‘rights-of-passage’, a tradition passed down by sons of sailors throughout the ages who’d wore the savage insignias as signs of their own pagan past, and in support and approval of such tribal ritual. Life is short. Death is certain. But, like gold, tattoos are forever. The men who wore them would take them to the grave. It’s a personal story, recorded in ink, and as much a part of them as the lines on their faces or the veins in their neck. Remove one indelible mark and the sailor dies. They are something neither the fires of Hell nor the hand of God can erase. It is in their hearts and in their heads. It’s in their skin. They wear them proudly but never in vain. They are the sons of sailors. That’s who they are. That’s what they do. The tattoo says so.

The waters of Old Port Fierce were calm that day; and with the tall ships anchored so closely to the dock, Elmo imagined that it must be very deep there, even at the seawall itself, which shot straight down into the black abyss like the Pillars of Hercules. The air was crisp and there was a clear blue sky. There were birds in the air, mostly seagulls. The smell of fish seemed to everywhere. It was early afternoon by the time the two Harlies rolled down Fisherman’s Wharf. Many of the smaller boats were already coming in with their catch of the day, out-rigged with long fishing poles trolling for one last bite. Their nets were all drawn; their hulls were packed.

With hair and aprons flying in the breeze, the women of Old Port Fierce welcomed their haggard husbands back home from the sea. Sometimes they could be seen perched high atop their homes in what was appropriately, and for obvious reasons, sometimes called the ‘widows watch’, or, more specifically, that railed-off section of the roof reserved for such portentous sightings, and thus providing them with the best vantage-point for viewing all incoming ships, and one in particular. The children of these woeful women could often be found below, along that protracted wooden carpet, waving to their long lost fathers with eager smiles, ignoring the wooden splinters that would occasionally penetrate their bare and callused feet. Set up along these salty planks were portable fish stands stocked with every creature of the sea imaginable, from angel to zebra fish, looking as if they could be easily disassembled and relocated at a moment's notice. The owners of these makeshift storefronts kept themselves busy by doing what they did every day of the week (except for Sundays, of course, when they closed down their shops in observance with the Holy Sabbath) for generations. They were weighing scales, sharpening knives, cutting and cleaning fish, and throwing buckets of salt water over the blood stained tables. Haggling with customers over prices was a never-ending battle, and one they didn’t always win.

Elmo enjoyed all the strange new activity. It made him feel alive and different, like he did when he was a child so many years ago before his real troubles began, and long before he became a raccoon on the run. He didn’t particularly care for the smell of fish, or the taste, but reckoned he would soon get use to both; either that, or go hungry. But he did like the hustle and bustle of the city, the ‘hum of the hive!’ as his uncle once called it. And he didn’t at all seem to mind the cacophony that went along with it, which was quite unlike being back home in the quite solitude of the bean fields. It reminded the Harlie of life. It reminded him of Freedom, although he still wasn’t sure what that really meant.

Old Port Fierce was actually a good place to get lost, whether you wanted to or not. And with so many different kinds of people milling about that day, Elmo was hoping to remain as inconspicuous as possible. The diversity of the scene was overwhelming, and so were the many thoughts racing trough the raccoon’s suspicious but open mind. He was seeing things he’d never seen before, and hearing voices that were as new and different as the faces they were articulated from. But it was the smell that that stood out the most of all that day. It was the smell of the sea, fish! – the salt and sustenance of Mother Nature, that unmistakable odor that reminds all warm blooded mammals exactly where they came from and where they truly belong, whether they care to admit it or not.

Smell it? Aye! It’s scent of a woman. It’s in the womb, that same salty substance we all swim through, like salmon struggling up stream for the survival of the species, or die in the process. And the smell pleased the Harlie very much and made him glad that he was alive. And yet, the raccoon knew all along that he could not stay there forever, or even for very long, at least not as long he would’ve liked, and certainly not as long as he wanted to. He still had a date with the Miracle-Maker.

Raccoon had been asleep all day in the snug hollow of a tree and dusk was coming on when he awoke. Raccoon stretched himself once or twice and then jumped down from the top of the tall dead stump in which he made his home and then set out to look for his supper. In the midst of the woods there was a lake, and all along the lake shore there rang out the alarm cries of the Water People as Raccoon came nearer and nearer. First Swan gave a scream of warning, then Pelican repeated the cry, and from the very middle of the lake, Loon who was swimming low took it up and echoed it back over the still water. Raccoon sped merrily on and finding no unwary bird that he could seize, he picked up a few mussel shells from the beach, cracked them neatly and ate the sweet meat. A little further on as he was leaping hither and thither through the long, tangled meadow grass, Raccoon landed with all four feet on a family of Skunks, Father, Mother and twelve little ones who were curled up sound asleep in a soft bed of broken dry grass. "Huh" ! exclaimed Father Skunk. "What do you mean by this, eh"? And Father Skunk stood looking at Raccoon defiantly. "Oh, excuse me, excuse me", begged Raccoon. "I am very sorry. I did not mean to do it! I was just running along and I did not see you at all". "Better be careful where you step next time" grumbled Father Skunk and Raccoon was glad to hurry on. Running up a tall tree, Raccoon came upon two red Squirrels in one nest but before he could get his paws upon one of them, they were scolding him angrily from the topmost branch. "Come down, friends”! called Raccoon. "What are you doing up there? Why, I wouldn't harm you for anything”! "Ugh, you can't fool us", chattered Squirrel and Raccoon went on. Deep in the woods at last, Raccoon found a great hollow tree which attracted him by a peculiar sweet smell. He sniffed and sniffed and went round and round till he saw something trickling down a narrow crevice. He tasted it and it was deliciously sweet.Raccoon ran up the tree and down again and at last found an opening into which he could thrust his paw. He brought it out covered with honey!Now Raccoon was happy. He ate and scooped, and scooped and ate the golden trickling honey with both forepaws till his pretty pointed face was daubed all over. Suddenly Raccoon tried to get a paw into his ear. Something hurt him terribly and the next minute his sensitive nose was frightfully stung. Raccoon rubbed his face with both sticky paws. The sharp stings came thicker and faster and he wildly clawed the air. Raccoon forgot to hold on to the branch and with a screech he tumbled to the ground. There he rolled and rolled on the dead leaves till he was covered with leaves from head to foot, for the leaves stuck to his fine sticky fur and most of all, they covered his eyes and his striped face. Mad with fright and pain, Raccoon dashed through the forest calling to one of his own kind to come to his aid. The Moon was now bright and many of the Wood's People were abroad. A second Raccoon heard the calls and went to meet it but when he saw a frightful object, plastered with dry leaves, racing madly toward him he turned and ran for his life for he did not know what this thing might be. The Raccoon who had been stealing the honey ran after him as fast as he could, hoping to overtake and beg the other to help him get rid of his leaves. So they ran and they ran out of the woods on to the shining white beach around the lake. Here Fox met them, but after one look at the queer object which was chasing the frightened Raccoon, he too turned and ran at his best speed. Presently a young Bear came loping out of the wood and sat up on his haunches to see them go by. But when he got a good look at the Raccoon who was plastered with dead leaves, Bear too scrambled up a tree to be out of the way. By this time the poor Raccoon was so frantic that he scarcely knew what he was doing. He ran up the tree after Bear and got hold of his tail. "Woo, woo”! snarled Bear, and Raccoon let go. He was tired out and dreadfully ashamed. He did now what he ought to have done at the very first....he jumped into the lake and washed off most of the leaves. Then Raccoon went back to his hollow tree and curled himself up and licked and licked his soft fur till he had licked himself clean and then Raccoon went soundly back to sleep.


Chapter Two

Roger Morgan’S Eyes

(and the Bell Tower)

“MISTER HATCH! MISTER HATCH!” shouted the farmer to a tall bearded man standing alone on the pier that day.

Conspicuously dressed in a long dark coat and sporting a black stove-pipe hat with a single white oleander flower strapped in its band, stood the man that Mister Dixon Sherman had been looking for.

Either the merchant didn’t hear him, or he simply had more important things on his mind at the time to take any notice. He looked a just a little confused, like a man who suddenly remembered there was something he was supposed to do, but just couldn’t remember exactly what it was.

“You be Mister Hatch?” enquired the fat brown turtle, pulling his wagon to within ear shot of the tall thin man. Sherman knew who he was talking to, of course; unless there was another man with a grim face, a gray beard, and black hat and coat wondering around in Old Port Fierce. But he didn’t want to sound presumptuous, or take any unnecessary liberties. It was just the way his momma brought him up.

“Who wants to know,” voiced the beard beneath the hat. He was going through the pockets of his coat when he said it, and wasn’t paying particular attention to the two traveling Harlies, one of which he’d met only three weeks earlier. He was also naturally suspicious of anyone, particularly those he didn’t immediately recognized, calling out his name so free and easily. “Whadaya want?” he demanded to know.

Whadaya want? Who wants to know? They were questions Sherman wasn’t particularly prepared to answer, simply because he didn’t think it was necessary. But he answered them anyway; and in the only he knew how – honestly. “It’s just me, Mister Hatch” he said, as if he was a little disappointed, “Sherman…Sherman Dixon?”

The man in the hat looked the fat man up and down as he would a sack of beans or a side of beef, and then just stood there for a while. “I'm Hatch. My name is Elijah Hatch,” he finally said through a face full of short gray whiskers. “You’re the farmer – Ain’t you?”

The driver jumped off his wagon while Elmo remained high on the buckboard. He pulled a long piece of paper from deep inside his coat pocket and, putting his best foot forward, said with a smile: “Yes, sir! Sherman Dickman… I mean Dixon! – At your service!” he beamed with noticeable pride. “It's all right 'chere, Mister Hatch. In black and white,’ he quickly added in his best businessman-like voice as he meekly handed the document over to the man whose signature appeared at the bottom of the contract along with his own.

Elijah Hatch looked over the paper he'd signed earlier that month and handed it back to the excited turtle. “Hummm,” he sounded, while cutting open a sack of beans with a long sharp knife as though he was slitting the throat of a well-fed pig. The knife came out of nowhere, or so it appeared. Maybe it was hidden beneath the merchant’s long black coat, the raccoon imagined, much like the Bowie knife he’d kept stealthfully strapped to his leg all this time, only a much sharper, it would seem. Or perhaps the old man kept under his hat. It was certainly tall enough to conceal such a weapon, along with a rabbit or two, Elmo observed from a distance, and not such a bad idea. “From Harley, I s’pose,” questioned the mad-hatter with the knife.

“Yes sir, Mister Hatch. That’s where we’s from,” answered the farmer as he gingerly folded up the paper contract in his fat brown fingers, carefully placing it back inside his coat as if it were, in fact, the map to King Solomon’s lost mines or Captain Cook’s buried treasure,. He then turned his attention to the promised produce by slapping one of the large burlap sacks as he would the beefy broad backside of his own beloved wife while proudly proclaiming: “Now them’s beans!”

The black hat seemed to agree, but the look on his weather- worn face told the turtle that he’d seen better. Meanwhile, Elmo, who remained seated in the wagon, stared down at the man in the black hat wondering how, or even if, he should approach him at that time with his ambitious and still uncertain plan. Suddenly, the raccoon was beginning to think that going off to sea might not be such a good idea after all, especially if those who would be accompanying him looked anything like the tall black ghost standing in front of him that could produce knives out of thin air, or even his hat, at any given moment.

“And who’s this?” the merchant suddenly demanded to know, deliberately pointing his long gray eyebrow in the raccoon’s direction while still running his fingers through the Harley beans on the back of Sherman’s wagon.

But before Sherman could answer, the Harlie raccoon stood up and spoke for himself. “Name's Cotton,” he said, nervously brushing the beans from his tangled hair and climbing cautiously down from the wagon. “Elmo –” he added, realizing, too late of course, that he might’ve already revealed too much of his true identity and wondering if he would’ve been better served by using a different name altogether, something that didn’t sound so... so, Harlie. After all, this man called Hatch had already been to Harley, at least once by Elmo’s reckoning, to close the deal with Sherman; and he could’ve been there many more times before that. He could even be a Creekman, for the sharecropper knew, and might even know Sheriff John Townsend. Elmo knew he’d have to be much more careful in the future; that is, if he were to have a future. But it was too late; he’d already spilled the beans, at least a good many more than he actually would have liked. He would just have to make the best of it. “Elmo Cotton,” he repeated, unashamedly, giving full and unambiguous disclosure to his real name and true identify, even though he knew by now that Cotton wasn’t his real name at all. It was just as well, he thought. “Howdy,” he then smiled, honestly, with an open palm and an open mind.

The merchant didn’t smile back. “Cotton’s white where I come from,” he matter-of- factly stated, offering no greeting in return and taking no hand on first acquaintance.

Realizing he’d probably gone too far already and, perhaps, a little too hastily, the Harlie summarily withdrew his hand. He picked a few stray beans out of his hair as the black hat bore down on him, curiously, his cold gray eyes squinting slightly beneath the broad black brim. It reminded the raccoon of the way Sheriff Townsend once looked down on him in a similar fashion from on top of a tall gray mare. The similarity was alarming. They were the same suspicious eyes, like those of a China-man, only in the merchant’s case, bushier on top, and perhaps a little older and grayer.

And then the hat spoke: “Once knew a man named Cotton. He was a big man; a cook! if I’m not mistaken. They sailors called him ‘Spider’. Dark as the devil. From Harley, too; a sharecropper, I ‘spose,” suggested the merchant with a reminiscent smile while driving his long chiseled nose into an open bag of beans for professional reasons. “Not as good a last year,” he judged out loud. “Must be the drought… takes the kick right out of ‘em; the smell, too. That’s what Spider told me… the cook, that is. Don’t suppose you’re related tho’.” And here the gray eyebrows glided in for a closer look. “Too light!” he observed at once. “You look more like one of those Islanders, boy… Ever been to the Rock?”

Elmo shook his head no.

The merchant persisted: “The Rock, man! The Island of the two volcanoes. The land of bleeding Rock? Sure, you must have heard of it. The Parrot Islands?”

Elmo just then remembered one of the sailors he’d meet earlier that day, the one with the wooden leg, he thought, mentioning something about a parrot, which meant nothing to him at the time. He now, chiefly from the merchant’s last remark, guessed it to be an island, or something, and very far away no doubt. ‘The Parrot’ as it is sometimes collectively known as, consists of a group of small islands, often referred to as an archipelago, lying far across the Pacific ocean, southeast, in that tropical part of the world where such scattered land masses are frequently found. The Parrot Islands were just of these vast archipelagoes, formed eons ago by the volcanic activity which, even today, adds to the richness of landscape as well as their ever-expanding perimeter, often at the great peril of the native inhabitants. The island alluded to by the black merchant that day was, in fact, located in that same archipelago, known as the Parrot Islands, primarily because of the many species of colorful birds that inhabited the rain forest that flourished in the tropical environment. There were other names as well, as hunted upon in the previous narrative: ‘The Island of the two Volcanoes’ was one of them, aptly applied in view of the two active volcanoes that made up approximately fifty percent of the island’s jungled land mass; the ‘Land of the Bleeding Rock’ was another – henceforth, ‘The Rock’ as observed by both the merchant and the one-eyed sailor. But to the aborigines who lived there, it was called in their own native tongue, as it had been for two thousand years – ‘Ishtari-Toa’. It also happened to be the very same volcanic island Zeke Harley, aka ‘Spider’ Cotton, visited some years ago when he sailed onboard the Firefly, along with Mister Elijah hatch and Captain Maximilian Orlando; and where he first came into contact with the Motherstone. He was ship’s cook at the time, and, by all historical accounts, a damn good one. Elmo had heard the name before, ‘Spider’ Cotton, not only from his dead uncle who had spoke of this mysterious black ‘spider’ on more than one occasion, as if he actually might have known him at one time, but just then from the black-hatted merchant himself who gave reference to such a ‘spidery’ individual. The fact that they shared the same name, Cotton, actually didn’t mean very much to the raccoon, or perhaps not as much as it should have. It was not an uncommon name, especially among Harlies, and Negroes in general who naturally were given such colorful appellations view of their agricultural occupations and lack of family genealogy. He also vaguely recalled Joe Cotton mentioning something about an island once… with a funny sounding name. He wanted to talk some more to the tall man with the menacing eyebrows about this place he called ‘The Rock’, wherever it was, but decided it would not be in his best interest to do so. He was still very suspicious of this man called Hatch; and he had a right to be, and thought he should find out a little more about him first, if that was even possible. So instead, he simply and shyly asked: “That were you come from?”

The tall man answered the Harlie with yet another discerning glance. “Why? Do I look like I’m from the Islands?”

Elmo felt as though he was being tested in some manner, although he didn’t understand why. “Well, no. It’s just that...”

The fat farmer interrupted. “It’s just that my friend here ain’t never seen nobody from the Islands before,” he smiled, having already taken his client for a man not in the habit of answering questions, particularly ones of a personal nature, and especially those coming from a Harlie sharecropper who didn’t even look like a Harlie. Besides, it just wasn’t done that way. “He don’t mean nothin’ by it, Mister Hatch,” apologized the turtle, rather nervously… “He just ig’nat. That’s all.”

Elmo looked a little angry. The merchant appeared disinterested. He walked slowly over to the wagon and began examining the rest of his purchase as if still trying to decide whether or not the beans were worth his hard-earned money after all. “Bad crop – Eh?” he finally suggested before any money was actually exchanged.

“S’been like that all over, Mister Hatch,” the farmer further apologized. “Just ask Elmo – I means, Mister Cotton here. And not just in Harley.”

“So I’ve heard,” agreed the merchant, taking no further interest in the raccoon and focusing all his attention on the business at hand. “Not enough rain, I reckon. Well, can’t do much about that now. Can we? These will do,” he said after a moment of quiet deliberation. “Gonna be a long voyage, you know. Harley beans are good for that. They don’t spoil. High in protein, too! Drives off the scurvy, or so I’m told. And besides, the sailors seem to like ‘em.”

“You can eats ‘em right out of the sack! See?” said the turtle, reaching down, grabbing a healthy handful of the potent pellets and gulping them down right there on the spot just to prove his point. Not that he really had to, of course. But hey! This is Sherman Dixon we’re talking about. Right? The same fat farmer who once ate a week old dead catfish right off the pavement and a carrot vomited up by a mule. Don’t ever tell Mister Dixon there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. You just might get the same response Cornelius G. Wainwright III got. The only difference, of course… Sherman wouldn’t even leave the bones.

“Man don’t live by breadfruit alone,” admonished Mister Elijah Hatch, as solemnly and prophetically as the biblical named assigned to him at birth. He suddenly seemed to be speaking to himself as he pointed a long hard finger towards a pier at the end of a long dock.

“That’s where you go, boys,” instructed the merchant, pointing a long gray finger at the tallest mast in the harbor that day. “ The captain’s name is Morgan – Roger Morgan. You’ll find him there. The ships called the Maria Aurora,” continued the hat, drawing the Harlies attention to the tall square-rigged vessel docked not very far from them.

Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” said the turtle, apologetically, “But what does that has to do with me?”

“The beans, man,” the merchant scowled, “…the beans!”

It was at that point Sherman suddenly realized that his precious produce was to be delivered and taken onboard the same vessel he and the raccoon had so admired earlier that day from afar; the very same ship Mister Elijah Hatch was presently referring to that day, and docked at the extreme end of the long wooden pier.

“Tell him Hatch sent you. He’ll know what to do. And see that the cargo is placed in his care… And his care only! D’ya hear me, boy? I'll pay you later,” the merchant added, tipping the black rim of his hat as sign of further good will and confidence. “If you're asked to give a hand, best lend it. I’ll pay you for that as well, and make it worth your while.”

The farmer had no immediate objections to the merchant’s last minute instructions, which actually came across more as an order than anything else; and indeed, he intended to do exactly as he was told. He trusted this man called Hatch, almost implicitly by now, knowing all along that somehow, somewhere, he’d be paid in full, and at the proper time. After all, he did have a contract. Didn’t he?

The Harlie raccoon wasn’t so sure, however; but once again, he decided to keep his thoughts, as well as his suspicions, to himself and not meddle in the business affairs of his friend and neighbor, even though a portion of the profits, never mind how small, resulting from the exchange were legally and rightfully his, as Sherman himself had so magnanimously pointed out. And even if, judging from the quality of the crop, that portion turned out to be little more than a fraction of what the Harlie might otherwise have received under his own bargaining powers, which had always left much to be desired, that would still not be enough; at least not even enough to buy Nadine a proper bathtub, as he’d once promised her. But it just might be enough to buy him a ticket out of Old Port Fierce.

Not to be taken advantage of so easily, at least not as much as his reputation would allow, the fat farmer wisely begged the next obvious question, “How do I know what he look like?”

The merchant hesitated, and then appeared to smile; although, with his hat and beard, not to mention a very sober and serious disposition, it was actually hard to tell. “He’s the one with the patriot eyes,” he finally stated, like Uncle Sam, in a black hat.

“Parrot eyes?” questioned the fat farmer, plunging out his ear with his little pinky finger (which actually wasn’t so little, or pink, at all) as if he was having trouble hearing at the time.

Sensing the farmer’s handicap, linguistically speaking, that is, the merchant elucidated. “Red, white, and blue,” he duly noted, “the colors of liberty.”

“Huh?”

“You heard me, boy… Ol’ Glory! The stars and stripes. The twilight’s last gleaming…” he solemnly sang.

The turtle still didn’t seem to understand, and neither did the raccoon; it showed in two silent blank stares.

“Fire and blood!” burst forth the merchant, with not a little of both in his own piercing gray eyes that did not go unnoticed by the two muted Harlies. Fire! It’s in the eyes… Aye, Morgan’s eyes. Red! Hot as Satan’s hooves. White! as the Judgment Throne of God. And blue… blue as the first born ocean. Peel your eyes for him, lads! You can’t miss him.”

The Harlies looked at one another in awkward astonishment. “B-but, w-what?” stuttered the turtle, not exactly sure at first what to make of such a devilish description, and still a little wary of the unscheduled arrangements, “….does I say?”

“As little as possible,” admonished the merchant. “He’s not a man to be taken lightly. And he certainly doesn’t have time to waste answering a lot foolish questions,” he warned. “Besides, he knows you’re coming… that should be enough. Now get going! And don't be mixing with those sailors, either,” cautioned the man in the cylindrical black hat. “They ain’t your kind. Any one of them will slit your throat as soon as shake your hand... maybe just to see if you bleed black blood,” he added with a curious but well-intentioned smile aimed directly at the raccoon this time. This ain't Harley, boys! You just remember that now… and you’ll be alright.”

“Y-Yes sir, Mister Hatch. Aye-aye! Er... Yes! s-sir… sir,” stammered Sherman, struggling with his own words as much as he was with the merchant’s steely-eyed stare. “I be glads to help. Mister Cotton here, too!”

“Well, see that you do,” Elijah flatly stated with a half-frozen face and arctic eyebrows. “Come and see me when you’re all done. I’ll be with the captain by then.”

Knowing it was late in the afternoon and would soon be getting dark, Elmo didn’t want to take any chances; and he certainly didn’t want to lose Mister Elijah Hatch or Captain Roger Morgan in the cacophony of the port city that he guessed would soon be as black as the back of Sherman Dixon’s hands. The captain and the merchant represented his only two chances, thus far, of getting on board. It was the raccoon’s turn to speak up and ask the same question the turtle was just about to ask: “Where?”

The merchant appeared both amused and annoyed at the same time, which was only possible for a man of his dynamic personality, at the raccoon’s summary request. It almost made him smile. “You see that, lad?” he said pointing, just as he done before with the same compass-like index finger, to a tall white steeple at the end of the shell-rock road, which sat high atop an equally white-washed church where Fisherman’s Warf actually began. “See it!” he continued, pointing in the direction of the holy steeple, “You can’t miss it.”

Following an imaginary line delineated by Mister Elijah Hatch’s elongated finger, the Harlies could just barely make out what he was so adamantly directing their attention towards. It was a church, painted entirely in white, with a belfry mounted conspicuously at the summit of the steeple and crowned with solid black crucifix. What made this particular house of worship so distinctively different from all others of its day was something else that’d been incorporated into steeple’s design and placed there for one specific purpose. It was, in fact, an actual crow’s nest; one that had been salvaged from a scuttled whaler and installed directly above the belfry at one time, serving as both lookout and lighthouse for any and all incoming ships of no particular banner. It was a familiar sight, recognizable to any sailor’s sore eyes, especially those recently blinded by wind and rain, and a welcome relief to those that gaze longingly, lovingly, upon such earthly and heavenly things. It was an appropriate, practical, and fully functional accommodation; and it worked! allowing priest or laity the best vantage-point of viewing any and all ships entering or exiting the harbor at any given time.

Naturally, it was usually the homeward-bound ships that drew the most attention from the crow’s nest cathedral. And upon such sightings, the piously perched lookout would immediately leave his cozy quarters and descend into the belfry below, whereupon he would then sound the approach of the incoming vessel by industriously ringing the great bell and clapper, calling families and friends together to greet their seafaring loved ones at the dock. It was a simple, and sometimes morbid, reminder of the lives they choose to live, with all the vicissitudes and uncertainty associated with the fishery. The bell was also an effective, but somewhat gruesome, way of letting all those concerned, especially the good women of Old Port Fierce who, with babies still sucking at their at their sainted breast and whose husbands were generally employed in the business of the fishery, typically were he the first to arrive, be aware of which of the men had arrived home safely, and which had not. The bell also tolled once for each if those who returned; twice, for those who didn’t; and, because it’s shape and size, it could be heard for many miles away.

The merchant asked again, “Do you see it now, lads?”

The lookout steeple towered high above every other structure in town, including the new courthouse on Front Street, which had only recently been constructed and boasted four stories in all. The large copper bell sounded religiously each and every Sunday morning as well, at precisely nine o’clock, calling the faithful to service, and saints and sinners to their knees. It was a holy and sanctified place, a home to widows and orphans alike, and to the sons of sailors, orphans themselves in many undocumented cases, who knew first-hand the dangers of working on the tall ships and the hardships associated with that time-honored and noble profession that had sustained the friends and families for so long.

Despite the meager rewards and the many risks involved in the fishery and the many shipping industries it generated, it was job the sons of sailors loved none-the-less, and one they performed with pride, and a certain reverence only they could understand. It was a tradition served. And they served it well; from cradle to grave in most cases, passing down their nets and outriggers from one generation to the next, as ceremoniously as they would the rusty muskets and war-worn sabers their venerable grandfathers once fought with under General George Washington, or their great-grandma’s wedding ring that would one day grace the fated finger of yet another fisherman’s wife. They learned it. They lived it. And they loved it. It was as pure and simple as that. One day, they might even die for it, as evidenced every time the bell rang out in the old white steeple, signaling that yet another sailor had perished at sea. It sounded a little different then, not like it did on Sunday mornings when the tone was less ominous and more welcoming, as it should be. Whether or not the bell ringer actually had any control over this audible variance was never disclosed, not publicly anyway; but rumor had it that these musical monks who preformed this vital task were well-trained in acoustics, as well as other arts and sciences they were required to learn in their scholarly pursuits, and possessing many musical talents. It was all part of the curriculum, the training which, by the way, was equal to that of any PhD whose ivy-league letters might include Harvard and Yale. It was their job. It came with the robe, so to speak, like Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. And if that robe happened to be a black, rather than the traditional brown that is typically observed adorning the impoverished bodies of their poor Franciscan brothers…well, so much the better! For this special breed of Brotherhood, or the ‘Black Friars’ as they were appropriately and commonly called, were indeed not only the true Fishers-of-men, as commissioned by the Holy One Himself and commanded by their own infallible conscience, but sons of sailors as well, of the oldest and highest order, following in the fishy footsteps of Ol’ Saint Peter, the patron saint of all fisherman who, not unlike his unsinkable Lord and Master, once walked on the water. They were missionaries, of course, Christians, for the most part, and sons of sailors all, who were so seldom seen on dry land that they were often thought not even to exist. They lived instead in monetary, onboard one of the oldest and largest ships still afloat in all the oceans of the world and presently moored in its own private dock at the very end of Fisherman’s Wharf, a place specifically designed to accommodate such a deep hulled vessel. She was called the ‘EVANGELINE’, a converted man-o-war with her original guns still intact and very much operational. ‘Just in case…’ so warned the current master-at-arms, a portly old mariner and occasional drunkard who’d once served as chief gunner’s mate in His Majesties Royal Navy, and who now went by the reverend and respected name of Brother Charles Owen. He was only one of a hundred and fifty-two monks to have joined the cloistered ranks thus becoming an official and life-long member of that eclectic, revered, and much admired group of evangelical mariners collectively known as ‘the brothers of the black sail.’

The ship, the ‘EVANGELINE’, was marked by single black jib that flew forever from her crucifixed bowsprit, and captained by a old gray-beard monk who would occasionally drop anchor in Old Port Fierce to fill his holy hull with guns and Bibles, beer and bread: the staple of these marauding sea-preachers who made it their sacred mission in life to convert every pagan to the one true Faith, whether they liked it or not, and bring them to the foot of the one true cross, or at least to the place of the skull, Golgotha. And they would, as their holy oath demanded, sail to the ends of the earth to accomplish their apostolic mission, not unlike the holy pilot Paul himself who, in similar fashion, both as prisoner and mate, set his own Roman sail on Mediterranean waters of Asia Minor, only to be shipwrecked off the rocky coast of Malta which, in God’s great glory, he was able to incorporate in one of his many canonized letters, along with being whipped, beaten with rods, stoned, et al, and live to boast about it. And like the great evangelist, they asked for little and took even less, except perhaps a little grog for those long and lonely nights sons of sailors are forced to endure in a Paradise of Bachelors, and a proper Christian burial; at sea, of course.

And when it came their time to go home (not their earthly home which, as the sons of sailors are keenly aware of, is ephemeral at best; but that Heavenly home that can only be reached in death; the one that awaits us all and is our ultimate destination, and true home) there was only one place these ‘Brothers of the black sail’ wanted to be – the sea, of course! Where else? And when the time finally arrived for these maritime monks to climb onboard the great white ship of Salvation, bound for the sacred shores of Jerusalem, perhaps, they would not hesitate for one solitary second; and just like their brothers before them, who’d long since made that fated and fantastic voyage of which there is no return, they always seemed to know approximately, if not exactly, when that time was drawing near. You could hear it in the sound of the bell. Call it instinct, if you will, like salmon swimming upstream to mate or elephants burying the bones of their behemoths. Perhaps it was something they shared with their fishermen fathers, the previously touched upon ‘merfolk’ of legend, a commonality that could not be easily understood by those who made their home in dry terra firma, nor erased by the hands of time, the deeds of man, the process of evolution, or even grim death itself…

Don’t these bury bones in dry dusty earth…There be worms down there! The air’s too stuffy and, besides, it’s too damn dirty. Give me clean sheets! D’ya hear, mate? Canvass! White shrouds to cover a black heart. Aye…that’s the ticket! But why all the secrecy? Wasn’t it the Lord himself who’d once consoled the grieving fisherman by telling him, in some un-canonized version of the Holy Gospel, the Apocrypha, I believe it is called, that all would be saved, despite the mortal sins that had earned them eternal wrath and damnation? Wasn’t it the one unspeakable truth he’d warned the blessed saint of in the Heavenly halls, perhaps even as the resurrected Host handed him keys to Paradise and bade him not to mention it to anyone? Is God so merciful as to forgive the unforgivable? Maybe… maybe not. It’s not for us to decide, or judge. Even He was forsaken, at one time. But just in case, send me off in clean white sheets. A disguise so pure and simple that Saint Peter himself might just look the other way, and hold his holy nose, ‘ere I enter Jehovah’s kingdom by the sea. Yeah! Plant me at sea and let me be. It’s the only cemetery for the likes of me. No Eulogy necessary. No wishes, no wakes. No tears! Save your flowers for weddings. Seaweed and sardines for the undertaker. Coral for a coffin, plankton for my pillow. Graves are for farmers; they live in the soil, let them die in dirt as well? Bankers and lawyers have their mausoleums waiting for them: a rich man’s grave, they say; but even with all that power and wealth, they cannot roll a single stone. But wait! What’s this? Didn’t our Lord once say, in so many holy words, that it would be more difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it would be for him to pass through the eye of a needle? Aye, a difficult thing to accomplish! But he never said it was impossible, observes the wealthy old Jew. He may be right, you know; stranger and more fantastic things have happened. Potter’s Field for the poor! insists the Pharisees and Sadducees while sweeping the floor of the Temple and discovering forty pieces of silver in the process; cremation for all the rest! What’s the difference anyway? The bodies of murderers and thieves will burn no less and just as brightly, or so I am told, as those of dead Vikings warriors and kings; and their bones will turn as easily to ash. Give me a bed that’s cold and wet, and clammy, one I rest comfortably on, for a while at least. Eternity’s not such a long time, I reckon. Bury me deep, boys… Fathoms! I say. So that not even the sea-witch can find me… the ol’ whore! Curse her cursed and crusty head. She’s the Devil, I tell you! S’been lookin’ for me for some time, you know. God knows where I’ll be when she finally catches up with me. In Davy Jones’, I hope. God forgive me… but spare me your prayers, Mister Preacher-man; and save your sermons for Sundays, as well as your homilies and benedictions. Weep for the widows, and be done with it! Poverty has many orphans, or so I’m told; so feed them while you can: Fishes and loaves! Fishes and loves! Bread and beer, too, if you can find them. Tis’ better than peaches and peacock. So eat, my boys! And drink to the devil, the bitch in the bay. We live, we die… That’s what coffins are for – Ain’t they? Well, if I must have one, then hell, make it a sieve. Hey! You there, Brother Carpenter! Drill a hole or two in that pine box of mine. I want it to leak! And throw in a stone or two, for ballast, don’t you know; and perhaps me pipe and a bottle of rum. Let me go quick. Soon I’ll be food for fish. A fine and happy house my empty skull will make for some ol’ hermit crab. But wait! I almost forgot. What is a grave, even a wide and watery one like mine, without a proper headstone? Fetch me the blacksmith. Quick, boy! Off with you, lad. Find me an anchor. And make sure it’s good and heavy, so it takes me down real quick. No chains necessary. You won’t need a windless. No time to waste! Who wants to float forever? Here now, lad, take my hand one last time before I go. Feel how cold it is? Like a fish! Ain’t it? Hell’s bells! I’m dead already. Now, tie me up tight, my boys! That’s it… nice and snug. There you go. Tuck me in and give us a kiss. And don’t forget to nail down the lid… I mean, hatch. Poor Queeg-Queeg doesn’t know what he’s missing. Now! Over the side with me, lads! That’s right. Do it nice and easy, won’t you? Gently… Gently… There you go, man. Now lower away! Just let me go. The anchor… I mean my headstone… will do the rest. Goodbye! Goodbye! No tears, mind you. Remember now, we’re all sons of sailors. So, down, down, down, down I go. Out of the blue and into the black. Fathoms save me… I go where the hammer-head go. I sound. I swim with the fishes. Starfish! Seahorses! Is that a jellyfish I see? Neptune, are you there? Show me your pointed tirade, your bearded face and fishy tail. Hasn’t seen the white whale? Or ol’ Ahab for that matter? I’ll be with them soon enough. Quick! One last breath and my lungs are filled. I can breathe at last. And then, then, and they burst. But wait! Not just yet. Is that a tail-fin I see over yonder? Flukes! How lovely…Great God of the ocean! My wife – Is that you? Maria! Oh, my blushing bride! How sweet and beautiful you look. So, my dear, you have waited for me after all, after all these years…just like you said you would. But am I too late? Too old? Too gray? Too… dead? Is this the promised Paradise? Hold on, my dearest, my darlin’, my Love! I’m coming! I’m coming! Just one more…But wait, I’m sleepy now, and I hear the bells a‘ringin’…’

And just as the merchant dropped his finger, the bell in the church steeple rang out once more, calling the boats back into the bay along with the sons of sailors who served them so faithfully, so well, and for so long. There they would wait, as the sun spun on its axis and the moon turned the tides gently, gently away. There they would also sleep, and perhaps live to hear it ring yet another day, hopefully; and not for the last time.

On such days as these, when the sun was beginning its predictable journey (although, of course, it’s merely the rotation of our own earthly satellite spinning on her axis which gives the sun-god, Ra, the illusion of mobility) over the jagged peaks of the western skyline, did the old monastery appear. The monk remained in his crow’s nest until all the ships were safely moored, except perhaps for a few stray fishing boats that would be arriving late and, because of a clear crimson sky, were in no immediate danger and in no need of intervention, spiritual or otherwise. The look-out had done his job well, which was all that was expected of the old Quasimodo, his black hood fixed firmly over his hump as he tread the marble floors of Notre Dame in search of Esmeralda.

The bell had stopped ringing; the clapper at rest, for the time being at least. The boats were all in by now, except perhaps for a few of the smaller vessels that would remain in the shallows for a while longer, dragging their nets behind in hopes of snagging a few stray mullets that they might use for bait the very next morning, or, better yet, bring home to their wife to fry up for breakfast. And so the old hunch back donned his long black robe and headed for mess hall where he would sit down and break bread with his brother bell-ringers at supper. It was the end of another day. Soon, the crouching lion of Avenue ‘D’ would be awaken once more, stalking the salty streets of Old Port Fierce as he’d done for over a hundred years, in the dark night of the flesh such as these, in a place called Shadytown. The brothers would not be there to greet him, of course; they’d all be fast asleep by then, in the small monastery which was actually part of the little white church with the crow’s nest steeple and the bold black crucifix on top.

And right behind the church that day, a magnificent red fireball was slipping slowly into the mountains of the west, offering up the last rays of an exhausted star as fuel to illuminate, if for but one fast and fleeting moment, the stain-glass windows of the chapel. And at that very moment, just as it had happened for the last two hundred years, the light from the dying sun shot straight through the glass, penetrating the pane as light through a prism, in a silent explosion of light. And the colors of the Lord suddenly appeared in one final fanfare; a grand finale of so many fantastic colors illuminating, at the speed of light, all immediate surroundings and saturating the little chapel from within, like the rainbow that shone on the first glorious day of God’s New Covenant.

“D’ya see it, lads?” begged the prophet, Elijah.

“I sees it! I sees it!” exclaimed bugged-eyed turtle, jubilantly out-stretching a fully erected neck towards the light show of so many fantastic colors, “Well, that is to say… I thinks I see it.”

Even though the rainbow of light had lasted only a minute or two, Elmo spirits were suddenly uplifted by the distant display of spectacular colors which he counted as a sure sign of good luck, something the ‘Lucky Number’ hadn’t experienced in quite some time, to come. “Me, too…” he softly spoke as the last ray of hope dissipated into the vapory mist and was gone before he could fully appreciate the miraculous event that had just taken place. And with that, he suddenly remembered why he came. He reached for the Bowie knife in the pants leg of his overalls. It was still there.

“Excellent!” voiced the merchant with eyes wide open, and smiling for a change. “Now, when you’re done here, you go straight to that church. You can’t miss it. It’s a white church, I say. There are no other like it in the vicinity... except for a small tavern over yonder where the sailors go.”

Mister Elijah Hatch paused for a moment as the two Harlies climbed back onto the wagon with a sense of awe and wonder neither one had ever experienced before. It was a rejuvenating experience, full of hope, and one that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. “Oh, and by the way,” the merchant added as a small but significant matter-of-fact not to be overlooked, “don’t look for me in the church… It’ll do you no good.”

Sherman and Elmo sat silently on the buckboard, looking at one another somewhat flummoxed. Understandably, they were at a lost to comprehend exactly what the merchant was asking them to do at the time, or, more importantly, where it was they should go to meet him once the job was completed as previously prescribed. The turtle scratched his hard head in wonder, hoping the answer to the riddle would present itself in its own good time, which, by the way, was the manner in which the slow fat farmer from Harley usually found them anyway, if he found them at all. “Huh?’ was the only syllable that escaped his thick red lips that day.

The raccoon shrugged.

Elijah Hatch couldn’t wait any longer. He was tired and thirsty, and had other business to attend to that day; and he certainly didn’t have any more time to waste waiting for two Harlies bean farmers to comprehend his meaning. So instead, he simply winked at them and said with curiously raised eyebrow, “It’s called the Blue Dolphin Inn. Look for me there, my boys. I’ll be in the Fishermen’s Hall.”

Eventually, they both understood; although it took the turtle just a little longer than the raccoon to figure out exactly what the merchant was trying to tell them, albeit in his own ambiguous and somewhat peculiar way, which, in fact and for whatever unfathomable reason, seemed to be the way he explained most things. It simply meant that Mister Hatch would be inside a saloon, somewhere in Old Port Fierce, called the Blue Dolphin Inn. Elmo wanted to laugh (something he actually hadn’t done in quite a while) but didn’t know if even remembered how; and besides, he didn’t want to sound too presumptuous, or hurt the turtle’s feelings.

Then, just before he left that day, Elijah Hatch smiled. It was an honest smile, one that left the Harlies feeling slightly more at ease than they did only a moment ago, especially the suspicious raccoon who was just then beginning to think that this man called Hatch might just be taking advantage of them, for whatever nefarious reason.

Mister Dixon was also a little apprehensive. He had met with the black-hatted merchant on only one other occasion, back in Harley; it was the first time they’d actually met. Even then he appeared dark and aloof, gloomy even; but in a lonesome and melancholy kind of way most Harlies could relate to. For the most part, he looked like a man with simply too much on his mind, but somehow always managed to get things done. Sherman had heard about this man called ‘Hatch’ from other farmers in and around Harley, and was warned never to get too close. The ‘black merchant’, as he was often referred to (and not just in Harlie and Old Port Fierce), was also known for his quick temper, especially when cheated, bamboozled, hood-winked, or just plain lied to. But he was also considered a kind man, a fair man; a man even a turtle could trust; after he’d earned it, of course. He was a man with good instincts who could give as good as he got; and he was charitable in the truest sense of the word. It was apparent from the start that Mister Hatch was the kind of man that insisted on knowing as much about everything and everyone as possible, while revealing very little of himself. ‘Comes with the territory,’ he often say in that regard; or, ‘What’s it to you?” in his own personal defense when questioned unreasonably on any given subject. Naturally, this would sometimes cause consternation among his peers and mere exacerbated his own ‘questionable’ reputation at times. It also made others just a little nervous whenever the tall black hat appeared, from out of nowhere it often seemed, just like the knife the Harlie had witnessed earlier that day when he sliced open the bean-bag.

As previously mentioned, Elmo Cotton was not so trusting of this man called Hatch. He was naturally skeptical of everyone, more so now than ever, which forced him just then to tighten his grip on the handle of his suitcase, holding it closer to his side than ever before. But there was something about the merchant he genuinely liked; although he couldn’t say exactly what it was; and he actually hoped that that he might get to know him better before the day was through. It was the same feeling he’d once felt towards Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, when the rode together side by side up the mountain trail. He could still see, in his mind at least, the great hump of the bull swaying to and fro, like a milky white wave, with Red-Beard’s head floating on the serpentine surface. He thought they could actually be friends some day, as he once thought of the man who’d saved his life when he shot dead the rattle snake out on the trail; the same Colonel Horn who murdered Homer Skinner, and perhaps all the others up on the mountain that day in cold blood, and would’ve killed him as well, with those same cold, un-blinking eyes of his. The Harlie only hoped the merchant would not turn out the same. He knew he would get to see him again at the Blue Dolphin Inn. Some place…what’s that he called it? Oh yeah! – the Fisherman’s Hall. And perhaps then, he would ask about going along, wherever that might be, and in whatever capacity he might serve. There was something else about the moody merchant the raccoon found a little troubling at first; something about the old man’s appearance, which didn’t necessarily have anything to do with his gloomy attire. It was a deep and inexplicable sorrow that couldn’t be explained, much less comprehend, at least not in so many words; and certainly not by a couple of Harley bean farmers who weren’t accustomed to such deep, dark psychologies; although there were quite familiar with hardship and trouble. It was in the merchant’s eyes, mostly, cold and gray; but it also seemed to cover his entire countenance; the way someone looks when they go to a funeral, especially when it involves a close friend or relative; and in a strange and morbid sort of way , Elmo could almost imagine this Hatch fellow being laid out in one of Lester Cox’s famous coffins, dressed in black – stove-pipe hat and all! He wouldn’t even need any make-up. Not that Lester wouldn’t offer any, of course. It came with the service… just like the money back guarantee, the Harlie suddenly remembered, hoping even now that he would never have to take advantage of the undertaker’s generous but morbid services, or the money back guarantee. Maybe it was something the merchant was born with: a birth defect, perhaps; like a cleft palette or a crooked nose, something you just learn to live with. Elmo suddenly recalled seeing the same sad and melancholy look in his uncle’s crow’s-feet eyes. It was day before he died.

To ease his own gnawing suspicions and perhaps mitigate any further apprehension his friend the raccoon might still be having at the time, Mister Dixon pointed something out that day, something he considered very important. It was plain and simple, and as real as a sack full of Harley beans, only smaller. “Look!” ejaculated the bugged-eyed turtle as Elijah Hatch drifted slowly out of sight, his black hat floating over the crowded street like a crow in the cornfields, “You see that, Mister Cotton? The hat! It’s all black – Just like me! But look’ye here now. See that white flower? See it, Elmo!”

Standing on his toes, the shoeless raccoon quickly realized just what was making his friend and neighbor so optimistically excited at the time. It was a flower – something he hadn’t noticed before, probably on account of his own vantage point of sitting on the right side of the merchant’s chimney and out of sight of it. Fastened securely in a velvet band, which was as black as the hat itself, only shinier, was the oleander flower. It appeared as a small white star with five broad leaf pedals patched against a solid black background. And there it was, drifting off into the distance and dancing over all those hilly heads like the star of Bethlehem twinkling in the desert on a cool Judean night.

“See it, Mister Cotton! You Sees it? That’s what you calls an Oleander flower, explained the exasperated turtle; although when he said the word Oleander, it actually sounded more like ‘O’lando’. “It’s special! S’pose to be lucky.”

“You mean... like a lucky number?” recalled Elmo, thinking not about black hats and little white flowers, but rather about a dear old friend he’d left up in the mountain one day in September, and who never came back.

“‘Sumpin’ like that,” said the turtle, “But they’s poisonous… or so I’s been told.”

Elmo was still a little confused as to the merchant’s previous remark and where he was to be found later that day. “Say, Sherman,” he just had to ask, “What you ‘spose that man mean when he say he be at… the ‘Fishermen’s Hall’?”

The driver of the wagon had been speculating about that as well and freely admitted: “I don’t rightly know, Mister Cotton. But I do knows where that other place be, the one calls the BLUE DOLPHIN INN. It’s up yonder next to the white church, just like the man say. And that’s where be goin’. But not right now,” he reminded the raccoon as the little wagon rolled on, “we gots to wait.”

“What we gonna do in the meantime, Sherman?”

“Well,” shrugged the turtle, as if they had no other choice. “We do ‘zackly what the man say. We goes to work.”

Elmo sighed, “I’s afraid you was a’goin’ to say that.”


Chapter Three

The Maria Aurora

“WHOA, ABRAHAM!” mouthed the turtle, pulling in the reins and braking the wagon directly opposite the main trunk of the great ship that day. The Maria Aurora! with her three prominent masts: a main, a mizzen, and a smaller aft, all shooting straight up into the Heavens, like three massive wooden candlesticks waiting to be ignited by the finger of God.

Her hull was brightly painted green and yellow, supporting a high poop deck in the aft and a grand forecastle at its elevated bow. It was moored at the very end of a long pier jutting precariously out into the bay and tied down to so many bollards that went straight down the still deep water supporting the wooden deck above and forming much of the bulwark of the seawall itself. The ropes holding the ship in place were as thick and brown as Sherman’s wrists, Elmo imagined; unraveling them strand-by-strand would surely keep a man occupied for a lifetime. The ship itself was presently being scrubbed down by no fewer than a dozen bare-chested sailors kneeling side by side along the wooden platform like so many Muslims at prayer. All that was missing was the rug, and perhaps a Mullah or two. It was clearly one of the largest vessels in the port that day, and the perhaps the busiest. Inscribed upon the ship's tapering bow section was the name ‘MARIA AURORA’ in long white letters, along with a black palm tree silhouetted on either side of her sizable hull.

Her bowsprit was long and straight, with a single cross beam forming a full scale crucifix that stretched out over the water like Golgotha by the sea. Angling up from the cross at numerous degrees, were so many rope-lines and cables, stretching up to the maintop and beyond, as tight and taunt as the strings of a well-tuned harp. Just beneath the holy phalanx, and so skillfully crafted that each and every scale could be counted, was fastened the likeness of a life size mermaid cast in solid bronze. It was a true work of art, clearly engineered to outlast its creator, and so beautifully designed so as to never be duplicated.

It was mermaid, of course; half fish and half woman, in all her metamorphic glory. She was cast in a bronze, that perfect blend of copper and tin which, exposure to elements over so many years, takes on the familiar bluish-green tint we often associate with the iridescent scales of a fish. And there she remained, suspended directly beneath the bowsprit of the great ship, in the customary fashion of the day, and for all to gaze upon and wonder. She was nakedly dressed in skin and scales which, at some point just below the manufactured waistline, seemed to merge together somehow, like the independent colors of a rainbow that bleed and blend into one another so gradually and naturally that is difficult to tell exactly where one begins and the other ends. And it was there, just below at the seductive abdomen, in those most private and pubic areas, where the fishy hips and tender thighs of the mythical maid tapered down, sensuously and gracefully, into two perfectly formed flukes located at the rear extremities of this exquisite creature; while just above that same delineation began the familiar hour-glass curves that made up the human-half of this Marina Madonna in all her fine fleshy form, including a perfectly formed bellybutton incorporated into her bronze navel suggesting, as artists sometimes do, some deep hidden meaning as to the true nature of his masterpiece, or perhaps the identity of the model, which, despite all amphibious exhibitions retains the unmistakable and god-like image of man (or woman) all his (or her) glorious and beguiling beauty. Surely, Venus DeMilo, owing perhaps to the proud disposition of her Roman roots, would feel threatened in the presence of such a perfectly polished specimen whose natural youth and beauty were so perpetually preserved in time and space, as well as heavy metal, and raise her one remaining arm in Republican protest. Aphrodite, on the other hand, being the more democratic of the two, might kneel before the metal maiden and worship at her coral altar in the sea, as the Greeks once did the great Poseidon. Homer’s sirens would be silenced as she glided gently over the Mediterranean, immune to such sorceries, unlike brave Ulysses with his cotton ears and crew. Needless-to-say, indignant Cupid would fly off in a ribald rage, his amorous arrows unable to penetrate this impregnable beauty whose very presence would wilt the hanging gardens of Babylon if ever exposed to such Persian wonders. Neptune, no doubt, would take her for his bride. And who could stop him! – dragging her down to his coral castle in the deep, along with captain and crew, and every last splintering plank of the Maria Aurora.

But exactly who, or what, was this Maria Aurora? Was she ship and sail and timber and nails? Or was she really blood and bone, and flesh, as the sons of sailors suggest; and given her baptismal name, who could doubt them. It’s all organic anyway, one might just as well say, regarding the elemental make up of such a buoyant beauty; wood and bone being so closely related, particularly in regard to their modulus of elasticity and grain, canvass and skin sharing similar elastic properties and both epidural in nature. Could it be? Or perhaps, she was merely an expression, an idea, a representation, a rendering, an emblematic piece of art, enigmatically fashioned in the fantastic form of a metallic mermaid and placed upon the prestigious bow of some old forgotten warship to protect it from pirates and other perils of the sea? Was it placed there for luck? Something sailors can never seem get enough of, by the way, as some kind of ornamental talisman? Or maybe she was a combination of all three! christened, perhaps, after the Roman goddess of the dawn, whose very name invokes Viking images of those famous lights seen glowing in those Northern latitudes – the Aurora Borealis. Ah! those mysterious luminosities that appear in the Scandinavian skies, visible mostly during the winter solstice; those same northern lights that coolly grace the Alaskan skyline and fill the hearts of Europeans with awe and wonder, the same awe and wonder once reserved for the blonde-bearded barbarians gliding over the North Sea in their square-rigged, shield-clad, serpent-headed longboats, and fear.

Maria Aurora! Could such an excellent and exquisite creature have ever existed, in any form? Was she real? Did she bleed, as all women naturally do, subjected to the same lunar frequencies that govern the monthly menstrual cycle and regulates the tides? Was she capable of giving birth? Was she married? And to whom! What church did she belong to? Where was she baptized? And with such a colorful name, too! – The Maria Aurora. It speaks of Spanish blood, a fine old Latin vintage; Sangria, perhaps; it’s Catholic to the core. Was she Confirmed? Catechized? Did she receive the Holy Eucharist – and where! What church did she belong to? Were did she hail from? What country? Holy Rome, perhaps! Did Ireland have a sober hand in such an ambitious enterprise? Portugal! France? Was she born and bred in the mountains of old Madrid, as some have contested, swearing on the grave of the Holy Evangelist himself, tamed and tested in the shipwrecked waters of the Mediterranean; ferried off to Old Manila, a gift from King Phillip of Spain to the Filipinos, the good and gentle peoples of that Grand Archipelago where, after so many boatloads of silks and spices, she finally came to rest on the revolutionary shores of E pluribus Unum where she currently resides, if not in person, then at least in effigy; a mmetalized mermaid fastened to the bow of her namesake, like a crucified Madonna, or Tutankhamen entombed in gold? Or maybe her true origins lay elsewhere; somewhere east of Gibraltar; the Pillars of Hercules, perhaps! The Norwegians have built some mighty fine war-ships from time to time; and so have the Dutch, and the Germans when they not too busy starting wars with everyone else. Peter the Great was not only a great Czar, but a damn good boat-wright, who was not afraid to pick up a hammer and saw, along with a bottle of Vodka, and labor right alongside his mongrel shipmates. Britannia rules the waves! So they say; but not the Maria Aurora. Well then… just where did she come form? The truth of the matter is, we just don’t know. Like Shubert’s unfinished symphony, or George Washington’s unfinished portrait by Gilbert Stuart; she remains undone; incomplete; a work in progress, you might say; but then again – ain’t we all?

The Maria Aurora! Who art thou? No one knows for sure; not even the older sons of sailors who boast of such knowledge, as well as the skills and talents that went into her original design; after all, it was they who sawed her ribs, hammered her planks, plumbed her keel and put sheets to the wind, thus enabling Brother Poseidon to breathe life into her empty hull. But there are some secrets hidden from the noblest of mariners; for the sad and simple truth is, they just didn’t know. And even if they did know the true origins of this fine and uniquely sculptured specimen, they would certainly never tell. Lovers never do, you know. It really didn’t matter whether her blood was warm or cold, splinter or flesh; she was closet thing many would ever have for wife, or a lover. They play with her. They tease her. They made love and war with her. They impregnate her with their salty seeds even as she as she hangs on her cross, leaving a long white wake behind, and with the whole watery world before them.

Maria Aurora! She was the only female company they had at times; all they knew, and all they would ever need. She was mother, lover and wife, in shiny metallic armor, with cold and colorless eyes, forever fixed, like those of an Athenian statue, gazing out over the liquid blue horizon; her frozen hair ablaze in all its animated splendor, suspended in time; her naked breasts exposed like the twin cannon (actually called ‘guns’ once they’d touched the deck of any ship) of a man-o-war, each topped off with a tender nipple so life-like and real that on more than one occasion, and sworn to under penalty of eternal damnation, milk was said to have flown from those same golden glands. It was further suggested that those same milky white mammaries once nursed back to health a certain scurvy-ridden captain and his ill-fated crew during a long calm at sea that nearly drove them all mad. And if true, the milk of human kindness was never so nourishing; and never tasted so sweet.

But why place such a masterpiece on the barbaric bow of a ship at all? where wind and rain can corrupt, like it corrupts all treasures in this fallen and corruptible world of ours. Surely, such a metal marvel would be been just as at home, and certainly more appreciated, in a British Museum, the Louvre, perhaps; or gracing the marbled mansion of some wealthy philanthropist; the palace of a Persian king, or worshiped in the Halls of the Pantheon rather than be mounted on the barnacled bow of a hell-bound warship of bachelors and fools? But there she was! And there she stayed, face to the wind, guiding her lonesome lovers on many a long voyage across ocean and meridian, around the Horn, the cape of Perdition, through maelstrom and malaise, mayhem and madness, to the ends of the earth and beyond; but always, always, returning them safely home, to heart and hearth… until the next time, of course, when the ol’ whore comes a’callin’.

It was rumored that the ship’s much recognized bow piece was proudly placed there by descendants of the original sons of sailors, the ‘mermen’ themselves, whose blood once coursed coldly through their own amphibious veins. Or perhaps, she was put there to simply to remind these forsaken mariners who (or what) they really are, and perhaps to guide them on their never-ending journey through wind and wave, as she did their fishermen fathers who once plowed the same seas in search of their mermaid wives, the ones who had refused to leave their watery world as their fated husbands once did so many long and lonely years ago when they foolishly, and regrettably as they would now be forced to admit, crawled out of the muddy waters of Paradise only to be doomed on dry land. But then again, maybe they put her there just for luck.

All that day, the men of the Maria Aurora labored in their assigned tasks and duties, consisting chiefly of securing the vessel and preparing her for the next voyage at sea. They brought on board, mostly by way of rubber-like gangplanks angling steeply up to the splintered deck, an endless stream of cargo consisting mostly of so many boxes, bails, buckets, kegs, ropes, canvasses, and containers of all shapes and sizes, along with a substantial number of animals including: sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, and other assorted livestock, along with several cats and dogs that would serve as food for the crew and banter for those abroad who might be interested in an equitable trade. Combined, the value of the ship’s cargo was probably worth more than all the assets of the all the farmers in Harley put together, Elmo rightly imagined, and a bounty to make even Ike Armstrong green with envy.

Maria Aurora! Elmo liked the name: It was a woman’s name, which was not uncommon for ships of that day (or any other day come to think of it) and one that seemed to fit quite well. Up until now, Elmo wasn't even aware that ships had names; he only suspected as much on account of stories he’d heard from Homer Skinner and his dead uncle concerning the bigger boats, and the men who took them out to sea. There was still a lot for a raccoon on the run to learn, and little time to do so. Other than having paddled a small raft across a river at one time, he actually knew very little of ships, boats or, for that matter, anything else that floated, or sank. But he did know one thing, however: he knew that sooner or later he’d know a great deal more about them than he ever did before, especially if things worked out the way he planned, and preferably sooner rather than later. His hopes soared, liked the seagulls that would fly in and out of the tall masts bobbing up and down along the wharf that day. He looked down at his suitcase; he still had the sailin’ shoes, and could think of no other place that he would rather be jut then than sitting in wagonload of Harley beans with his best friend and neighbor on a cool spring morning in front of a fine and magnificent ship docked at the bay in good Old Port Fierce. He was exactly where he wanted to be, where had to be, and where he was meant to be all along. All he had to do now was fine a way onboard; but first, he had to find the Miracle-Maker.

The Maria Aurora was not a regulation naval vessel, as clearly evinced by the mere absence of any military weaponry onboard; visually speaking, of course. Never-the-less, she was commissioned as such, and for reasons disclosed only to Captain Roger Morgan and Mister Elijah Hatch. They alone possessed any immediate knowledge of the clandestine voyage she was about to embark upon, as well as her final destination. As previously touched upon, the voyage was secret one, highly classified, and it would remain as such long after the mission was over; whether it was accomplished or not. The crew, who weren’t all military either, didn’t even know. They were a strange and eclectic breed, a band of brothers, an aggregate of both private and professional sailors, appropriately described by one of their own at one time as ‘…a cast of characters with no character’ who knew little or nothing of the pending expedition. They were the kind of men Roger Morgan preferred. They obeyed orders and asked little or no questions, regarding their itinerary as privileged information and, for all intents and purposes, none of their concern. They were punctilious as well as professional, or they were thrown in the brig; and they respected protocol…well, for the most part; after all, they were sailors. Flogging was not uncommon for that era. It was imperative that disciple be maintained at all times, especially in matters concerning treason and mutiny. In wartime, of course, they would simply be shot for even suggesting such criminal activity; or, if time and tide permitted, and at the captain’s discretion, they might just be hung from the nearest yard-arm, which, by the way, is still the preferred method of execution by most sons of sailors who commit such atrocities, just before being dropped like an anchor into murky waters of eternity. They had to obey; they had no choice. They were sons of sailors all, personally handpicked by Roger Morgan and Mister Elijah Hatch, specifically for the voyage they were about to embark on, and for the sake and success of the mission.

Some of the sailors were dressed in the uniform of the day, comprised chiefly of white and blue cotton, while others appeared more like the mariners the two farmers had observed earlier that day in Old Port Fierce. Some of the men were naked from the waist up and, primarily due the darkness of their flesh, appeared to have spent most of their waking hours at sea, baking in a topical sun, perhaps, until fried to a golden crisp. Even to unaccustomed and land-focused eyes, like those of the Harley bean farmers, the sailors onboard appeared as different and diversified as the Harbor itself. Seemingly indifferent to one another’s station or rank, and working as closely together as their tasks at hand demanded, the men of the Maria Aurora went about their business as sons of sailors do: with pride, proficiency, a little humor, the occasional profanity, of course; and maybe even with a song or two, the words and melodies of which were known by all in that time-honored profession.

Taking a closer look at these ‘busy bees’ onboard the Maria Aurora that day, Elmo Cotton was quick to observe, even from a respectable distance, that more than a few of these industrious mariners were, in fact, darker than the Harlies themselves; darker even than Sherman Dixon, which was a rare sight indeed in any part of the colorful world. One of them, an older black gentleman with a large, well-rounded and dangerously exposed belly, was sitting all by himself in the front section of the ship known, for obvious reasons, as the forecastle. He was softly singing, with needle and thread held firmly in his big, black, sea-hardened hands, while sewing yards of canvass that would soon hold the winds of the world. He stitched silently and slowly, like a man intent on performing his appointed task to the best of his ability; he didn’t say a word as the two young men from Harley cautiously approached the ship.

Sherman waved to him from the top of the wagon, as though he’d seen this old man before. The raccoon quickly smiled, thinking how much the old black tailor reminded him of his dead uncle, and withdrew it just as quickly. It wasn’t Elmo’s world. Not yet anyway; and it certainly wasn’t a place for two green-horned Harlies, or colored folks in general, to start getting comfortable in. It wasn’t Harlie; or even Creekwood Green for that matter. But it was a better place than where he came from, Elmo imagined. And just like the old black sail-maker who seemed so quietly content in his painstaking and thankless profession, the raccoon on the run felt strangely secure, even happy! Perhaps for the first time in a long, long time. Maybe there would be a place for him after all.

In the middle of the orchestrated activity, stood a lone mariner atop the great mainmast with a megaphone pressed to his lips. He appeared, for all intents and purposes, the orchestra leaded himself; although you wouldn’t know that by the way he looked, which was no really different than any of the others sailors onboard that day, but simply by the way he spoke; and perhaps the fiery look in his eyes that occasionally shot down from the mast head like lightening from the sky, or bolts of pure blue energy. His name was Roger Morgan, and he was the captain. He was in charge – of everything! or so it seemed to the raccoon who couldn’t seem to take his bandit eyes off the man at the bottom of the tall vertical shaft that went straight down to the keel of the great ship. Chiefly on account of his clothing, which was rather plain and simple by comparison to the other officers on deck, he appeared no different than anyone else that day, and just as indistinguishable. With no visible insignia of rank sown into his sweat-stained shirt, which was actually the simple white blouses worn by all the other seamen onboard that day, he appeared as nothing more than just another common sailor before the mast; and perhaps something even less, other might’ve observed. But there was something about the man at the mast that betrayed his rudimentary disguise, whether he was conscientious of it or not. For beneath that thin veneer of white cotton beat the bold heart of a sea captain, with all the purpose and responsibility Captain Noah would have instantly recognized.

Roger Morgan was a man with thick, curly black hair and deep blue eyes which did, just as the merchant predicted, appear as twin red-hot coals plucked from a barbecue pit, or the fires of hell, perhaps, especially when struck by the sun at just the right angle and viewed by those accustomed to such optical observations. He was a little less than average height, lean, and possessed many of the healthier aspects of a man half his age. Morgan was a man who knew how to fight, both mentally and physically – although he always preferred the latter – and, despite rank and privilege, which naturally precluded him from such hostile activity both on and off duty, he could always be found in the thick of things, side by side with his men, sword in one hand and pistol in the other. You could see it in his eyes. You could hear it in his voice; that same voice the turtle and the raccoon were soon to hear on the dock of the bay that day in Old Port Fierce. It was the sound of a man who knew exactly what he wanted, at any given moment; and he knew just how to get it. It wasn’t necessarily a loud or intimidating voice, but one that somehow seemed to overwhelm all in his immediate vicinity, even when it softly spoken , like a silence before the storm, the stillness in the eye of a hurricane, or death song or a breached sperm whale. But today he couldn’t afford such solemnity, or patience. There was too much to do; and he was already a day behind schedule. He’d been attending to urgent and, perhaps, more personal business earlier that day. Settling matters with the black merchant was one of them; taking care of some addition cargo yet to be accounted for was another. He was not in a mellow mood that day. And so, the captain of the Maria Aurora could be heard that day, more loudly and vociferously than usual, bellowing out orders from his megaphone high in the maintop. He could be heard clear across the harbor that day; even to the ends of the earth, it seemed.

Sherman spotted him first. “Yep!” said the turtle, leaning backwards and then sideways, forcing his eyes to focus on the dark-haired man waving a megaphone from the top of the main mast of the great ship, “I thinks that’s him.”

The merchant was right, thought the raccoon: It was all his eyes, Roger Morgan’s eyes; eyes which, even from a distance spoke with fire and flame; red, white and blue, just like the Mister Hatch said, and blood. And above those eyes, way up high in the sky, just above the captain’s megaphoned head, a banner had been attached to one of the ropes angling straight up the highest point on the mast. It was a flag! Ol’ Glory, to be more specific. And there it flew, all red, white and blue, defiantly streaming in the breeze, just as it once did at the ramparts over Fort Sumter in the dawn’s early light.

It was the end of the day, but there was still a little light and life left to it. They were greeted at the ship by a hard-faced man standing alone on the gangplank who appeared to be in charge of all the cargo. He was wearing the buttoned-down uniform usually reserved for officers, which, in fact, he was. His name was Cecil Jones; he was first-mate of the Maria Aurora. He was an industrious fellow, a serious man, who was apparently in no mood for small talk or un-necessary trivia. He looked a little nervous. “Get them beans down below!” he ordered the two Harlies, having been made aware of the arrangements some time earlier. “And be quick about it!”

There was another man standing close by the first-mate; he was stripped to the waist and covered with a plethora of tattoos. He didn't look at all like any of the other sailors onboard that day who were, for the most part, busy with the more menial tasks of scrubbing down decks, heaving ropes, or stowing away various supplies that would be essential to the upcoming voyage. It was Peter Finch, the master-at-arms who, despite a well-deserved reputation for being cruel and ruthless at times, had served in that unenviable position with a proficiency that did not go entirely un-noticed by upper echelons. And that’s all anybody really had to know about Mister Peter Finch, for the time being.

Just then another man appeared. He was shimmying down a rope like a monkey at the end of a chain that appeared to have suddenly dropped right out of the sky like a vine in the jungle. The rope, which had been knotted precisely every two feet to help facilitate the climber’s vertical mobility, ascended all the way up to the main-top, like one half of Jacob’s Biblical ladder. The monkey-man at the end of the vine was Nelson (although no one knew for sure if that was his first or last name, since it was the only one he ever answered to) who’d fashionably distinguished himself by means of a long, blonde ponytail that trailed all the way down to the small of his back like the modest train of an altar-bound bride, and just as proudly displayed. Exactly how long it had taken this fair-haired Kublai-Khan to produce such a magnificent mane was anyone’s guess, although he had obviously been growing it for quite some time, with plans to make it even longer. Nelson was captain-of-the-maintop, third in command and, true to his coveted position as chief look-out on board the Maria Aurora, a very curious fellow indeed. Apparently he’d descended from his perch in the crow’s nest just to see what all the commotion was about. He’d spied the two Harlie’s earlier that day from his lofty position, which was more than enough to make any look-out stand up and take notice.

Casually, yet in a hurry to get the job done, Elmo Cotton lifted the nearest sack of beans from the wagon to fulfill a promise he’d made earlier with his good friend and neighbor, Sherman Dixon, at the adamant request of Mister Elijah Hatch. The turtle, however, made his business, and presence, known in a more vocal manner, wanting to make sure there were no misunderstandings. “Mister Hatch sent us,” he declared out loud to no one in particular. ‘Spose to ask for Captain Morgan,” he further stated, following the merchant’s instructions to the letter and hoping not to offend anyone, particularly the serious looking man who, as previously described, was the first-mate in command of the Maria Aurora.

The tattooed man, who was standing closest to the wagon at that time, was the first to speak his mind. “You hear that, Mister Jones?” he said to his senior officer. “He wants to see the Captain.”

“Captain's busy, Finch. You handle it,” insisted Mister Jones, who was busy scribbling down numbers in a big red book and didn’t seem particularly interested in anything the fat man, or anyone else not under his immediate command, had to say. He didn’t even look up.

The master-at-arms could see that the first-mate had more important things to do at the time than banter with a couple of bean peddlers, who, chiefly due to their rural appearance, as well as their manner of speech, he immediately took for two Harley sharecroppers, and so did as he’d been told earlier. “Get them beans on board!” he barked, having overheard the something about a shipment of beans being delivered that day, which were suppose to already be stowed onboard.

“And make it snappy!” shouted the captain-of-the-maintop, still clinging to his hempen umbilical cord as if his very life depended on it, just for spite.

The Harlie quickly obeyed and began to make his way up the rubbery gangplank with a sack full of beans tossed casually over his shoulder, whereupon he immediately, and quite accidentally, perhaps, tripped over a knot in the pliable wood and fell flat on his face. The Harley beans were scattered all over the gangway, much of the produce finding its way through the small cracks in the planks and down into the water below where they floated on the briny surface like so many leaves on a pond. The first-mate, a man of genuine but limited sympathies, despite his insensitive demeanor, shook his head in total bewilderment, whispering under his breath something about famers and their big feet. Some of the other sailors who were standing nearby simply laughed out loud, the way sailors often do in these situations. Others kept right on working as if nothing at all had happened to distract them from their industrious duties. It was not a good start, the Harlie imagined, not good at all. And he was right.

“Greenhorn!” howled the tattooed man as he approached the wagon to have a word or two with the driver who obviously was the owner of the produce. “Hatch sent you – Eh?”

Sherman stuttered, “Y-Yes, s-sir.” He then jumped down from the wagon to assist his fallen comrade.

More embarrassed than bruised, the clumsy raccoon quickly regained his composure and began gathering up the scattered beans, at least the ones that hadn’t fallen through the cracks, by the handful. He tried not to look too concerned, or conspicuous, as he began stuffing them back in the brown burlap bag.

“Did he tell you about the tariff?” the master-in-arms demanded to know, directing his attention back to the turtle.

“‘Scuse me, sir?”

“The tariff!” shouted yet another sailor whose clean-shaven head suddenly popped out of a small porthole circumscribed in the starboard side of the ship, like a worm from an apple. It belonged to the boatswains-mate, Nathan Scrubb, who was in charge of the cargo, and all other activities associated with the lower decks of the ship, where he lived and breathed in those dark dungeons below that were generally off limits to more fair minded mariners. Apparently, he’s been there for so long that, for lack of sunlight one could only imagine, his skin had since turned a pasty white ash. “You know – Taxes!” he repeated with a sour frown that made the rest of bald head wrinkle up like an albino prune. “Now don’t tell me you boys ain’t never heard of taxes!” He’d obviously been listening to the dialogue all along, wondering what was going on. Now he knew; or at least, he thought he knew, which was only one of his many misconceptions.

The turtle shook his head.

“Export taxes,” clarified the hairless worm, “It’s the price of doin’ business here in Ol’ Port Fierce. Thought you knowed.”

Sherman looked up, then down, and then back to the first-mate who still appeared to be pre-occupied with more urgent business at hand. He didn’t exactly know what to make of the sudden inquisition, or what to do next. And so, he simply answered as politely and honestly as he could, under the circumstances, of course: “No, s-sir,” he addressed the worm.

Meanwhile the tattooed master-at-arms just stood there like a Roman sentry, arms folded and feet set firmly apart in the same gladiatorial style, his eyes darting silent daggers at the fat brown turtle who, for personal reasons perhaps, he’d decided right then and there he just didn’t like.

“Why, everyone has to pay taxes,” decried the pony-tailed monkey who’d just then let go of his life-line for the first time since lowering himself to the crowed deck; a little nervously, thought he raccoon. “– No exceptions!” he barked.

Elmo Cotton was the first to notice that this agile young sailor, who appeared so comfortably at home in the ropes and rigging as any of the lesser primates, walked with a noticeable limp, not unlike a wounded chimpanzee. An accident, perhaps? But it was apparently one that did not interfere with his lofty ambitions, or duties, one iota. In fact, one could easily imagine this gimpy blonde hanging from a yardarm by way of a prehensile tail he kept hidden away in his trousers for just such an acrobatic function; or, as it sometimes occurs when a physical handicap in one part of the body is compensated for by all others, as though the injured leg had indeed, chiefly because of its utter uselessness, strengthened not only the arms but the entire upper portion of the monkey-man torso in ways that could otherwise never have been achieved. Maybe that’s why he spent so much time up in the air, one might imagine; it was a job he was most comfortable with, and suited for; nature providing, in her own magnanimous way, the means of one’s employment. Or maybe he just preferred it that way: up among clouds, alone and aloft, lazily lounging in the billowing white sheets, an endless jungle of ropes, lines and cables, swaying in the breeze and hovering somewhere between heaven and hell, protected by sea and sky, safe from the predatory world below, forever gazing out at the endless blue horizon, away from the ‘hum of the hive’ and all other manner of human concerns below, as monkeys often do.

“Don’t know anything about no taxes, sir,” responded the turtle, slowly and nervously, eyeing all three sailors with equal suspicion, “Or t-tariffs,” he suddenly began to stutter again. “You gots to talk to Mister Hatch about that, I’s r-reckon.”

“Ain’t got time! Can’t you see we’re busy?” said Peter Finch who was by then standing directly in front the frightened turtle, tattoos and all.

“I’s sorry about that,” was all the farmer had to say on the matter. But before he and the raccoon could continue with their laborious task, Finch’s tattooed arm reached out for the turtle’s head. Grabbing a fistful of curly black hair with one hand, the master-at-arms slapped the farmer squarely across the face with the other. And it was only then, for the very first time, Mister Sherman Dixon could clearly see, up close and personal, not only the barbaric markings covering most of the exposed skin on the sailor’s otherwise hairy and colorless arms, but similar lines stitched into his naked chest as well.

Unlike other tattoos the farmer had observed from time to time on men such as these, the ones he’d just witnessed appeared altogether different, and strange. They seemed to swerve and curve in manner all directions, delineating no particular images or words familiar to an educated eye, or un-educated for that matter. And they were many, too! interweaving in a circular fashion, criss-crossing in multiple patterns that might accurately be described by those who study such bodily abominations as ‘controlled chaos’. They were dark, incoherent, void of any discernable form or function; and they all seemed to have one thing in common: they were all drawn, or sown if you will, in the same black-green ink that reminded Sherman of a dead catfish he once ate, and a lot less appetizing. It was the same putrid color, dark-green, which suddenly, and for whatever bizarre and inexplicable reason, seemed to make the bruised beak of the turtle open just a little bit more than usual, like a dog that wanted to vomit. It was the first time he had ever been struck like that; forcefully, and with so much intent. There was maliciousness about it; something he couldn’t understand, and something he didn’t think he deserved.

Following the unprovoked slap, the sting of which could still be felt by the turtle long after it’d been delivered, the sailor called Finch promptly proceeded to relieve the fat man of his purse which was tied to his belt at the time. But the purse was empty, chiefly on account of the fact that Sherman hadn’t gotten paid yet and, for more practical reasons that will soon become quite evident, he seldom carried money in his purse anyway, especially large amounts that could be easily stolen or lost. And for that reason alone, the wise turtle made it a point to stash his cash, and whatever other valuables would fit, in his shoe which, as previously demonstrated, he’d always thought would be the last place anyone would look. Frustrated, but still determined to extract whatever he could from the fat man’s person, Peter Finch then began going through the sharecropper’s pockets, only to come up with a few scrapes of paper upon which Sherman had scribbled down a few directions he thought he might need. In other words, the turtle’s pockets were empty. All he had on his person at the time were the few loose coins he’d taken along with him, just in case of an emergency, which indeed were hidden deep inside his shoe, just where he meant them to be, and where they belonged.

After going through Shaman’s deep but empty pockets, Peter Finch, as if reading the turtle’s mind, looked down at his soiled shoes. But before the master-at-arms could go any further, a shot was fired over his head that was heard by one and all on Fisherman’s Wharf that day. It came from the barrel of a gun, a pistol to be precise, held by the hand of a man standing at the trunk of the main mast. The hand belonged to Roger Morgan, as so did the pistol. He was the captain of the Maria Aurora, whose attention had been suddenly drawn to the cowardly display he’d just witnessed on board his own ship. And he didn’t like what he saw. The pistol said so.

Disposing of all present duties and responsibilities, the captain dropped his megaphone, and whatever else he was doing at the time and walked directly down the gangplank to the scene of the disturbance. Roger Morgan was in no mood for the sailor’s shenanigans, or whatever other mischief the master-at-arms, who was known for intimidating just about anyone and everyone he deemed worthy of his ire, might be up to. There was still much that needed to be done, and little time left to do it. It was getting late. The tide would soon be coming in. And even though he tried very hard not to show it, it was clear to everyone in the general vicinity of the ship that the captain was not a happy sailor. “What’s going on here, Mister Jones!” he roared at the first-mate who had not only witnessed the unlawful event but allowed it to get so out of hand in the first place.

“Nothin’, cap’n,” answered the first-mate, slightly embarrassed and a little annoyed that the captain had to step in as condescendingly as he did. “Just a slight misunderstanding – That’s all. Won’t happen again, sir,” he insisted, as Peter Finch stood idly and stiffly at attention.

Under normal circumstances that would’ve been the end of it; and, for all intents and purposes, it should have. But these weren’t ordinary circumstances; and so, it wasn’t the end. Not by a long sight. Realizing the gravity of the situation while taking into account the seriousness of the offense, not to mention and the nature of the mission they would all soon be taking part of, the captain of the Maria Aurora decided to set an example by taking matters into his own hard and experienced hands, as he usually did. And who better to make an example of than the master-at-arms himself, Peter Finch? Why not punish the punisher? thought the prudent captain. The irony alone should be enough to make the message stick. It was a perfect solution, and a logical one at that, to a problem all captains have to deal with from time to time – discipline! It would set a serious tone for the entire voyage, he further realized, while giving Finch a taste of his own medicine. The punishment would have to be harsh but fair, according to protocol; and it had to fit the crime. It didn’t necessarily have to be a physical admonishment, either; although that was the usual prescription for disorderly conduct both on and off board all naval vessels at the time, and especially under the articles of war which, not-with-standing the treaty signed at Appomattox, were still in effect. And even though the Maria Aurora was never officially re-commissioned as a war-time vessel, for reasons of her classified and clandestine mission, she was still under orders; and she was still under the command of Captain Roger F. Morgan. And it was his job to make sure that everyone on board damn well remembered it; and that included the civilian portion of his recently formed crew, perhaps even more so than the regular sailors who knew who their real lord and master was.

But there was more than one way to skin a cat, or scale a fish to use a more appropriate metaphor and Roger Morgan knew just how to do both. He was also aware from personal experience that there were more powerful tools at his disposal than mere whips and chains when it came to excoriating a sailor. Darbies could only do so much; and a ship’s brig can often be nothing more than a solitary forecastle, without the snoring and swearing, and with better accommodations! many a drunken sailor would boast. Peter Finch had been whipped more than once before in accordance with that section of the Naval Penal Code dictating the remedial actions requisite to these kinds of offences; but at the time of its application, the punishment, executed as it were by means of an instrument commonly referred to as a ‘cat-o-nine-tails’, only seemed to have elevated the master-at-arm’s already ignoble reputation as a rascal and ship’s scoundrel, his present rank not-with-standing. In fact, at the time of its justified deliverance, Finch appeared (or perhaps he merely pretended) to have actually enjoy it, even as the nine lead balls lifted the top layer of skin from his illustrated back leaving only streams of oozy red bloody covering the epidural canvass. Why add yet nether stripe to a tiger’s hide? the captain finally concluded. It would only serve to make him that much bolder, and perhaps a little more dangerous to both captain and crew – and himself, of course. Besides, Finch’s body was already covered with scars, whether he deserved them or not, the more obvious ones being self-inflicted, of course; one more would make little or no difference. It would merely compliment his already vile appearance, adding to his own sadistic reputation; it might even hold him in higher esteem by those bent on disobedience in general. It just wasn’t worth the risk, or the effort. Roger Morgan had something else in mind, something more permanent.

Striking a civilian, although not a major offense and seldom brought to a court-martial, was still taken very seriously in the navy and had to be dealt with expeditiously, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it, or the personnel involved. It was not only good for moral and the overall health of the crew, but was necessary for well-being in general; and, like any strong and effective medicine, it had to be administered swiftly, properly, and without prejudice; it also had to be swallowed as quickly as possible. A reprimand was in order, and it was up to the captain to decide what that should be. And so, walking calmly and collectively down the gangplank, pistol in hand and megaphone at his side, and right up to the face of mischievous master-at-arms, who was standing erectly at attention by then, Roger Morgan stood toe to toe with Mister Peter James Finch.

The captain spoke not a word. He didn’t have to; his eyes did all the talking for him. They were all he needed to communicate the message. Not in so many words or sentences, of course; not even with a single sound, but with just one long look. The eyes said it all. They were the eyes of a commander, the Lord and master of a world whose destiny was controlled by one person. They were Roger Morgan’s eyes, in all their patriotic authority; and they loudly, and they spoke volumes. They were eyes as blue as the Heavens and as tireless as the sun; as deep as the sea and more potent and powerful than all the elements of the Periodic table combined. The eyes had a voice, and the voice had a name – Roger Morgan. They spoke with a calm and deliberate silence, the kind of silence that demands immediate attention, respect, and gets it. It was simply a matter of mind over matter – Morgan’s mind over Finch’s matter. The two had met before; there was really never any contest. Both knew who they were and where they stood, and that’s all that really mattered.

But look’ye here shipmates! all you arm-chair philosophers who ponder the mysteries of the soul and plumb the depths of the human psyche from a safe and comfortable distance; you braggarts and bullies who claim dominion over another’s man’s destiny; you lovers of Humanity and haters of mankind; you judges and jesters. Look closely, I say, into those same steely blue port-holes to the soul and you will notice a compassion there that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Captain Roger Morgan knew very well, perhaps better than anyone, what Peter Finch had become over the years. It happens to sons of sailors from time to time, as it does to all noble, and perhaps not so noble, professions – They simply go bad. They run amuck; they go afoul. Sometimes, they just go mad, which is even more pitiful. Finch was just one of these unfortunate souls, albeit nobody was ever able to discern which route the demonic sailor had taken – sin or insanity; perhaps both, at least by those whose sympathies allow them to make such metaphysical observations; cause and effect playing a pivotal role in the psycho-symbiotic relationship as demonstrated more than once in the Holy Text. It was only out of stubborn loyalty, and pity perhaps, that Roger Morgan allowed the sadistic master-at-arms to stay onboard for as long as he did and serve in such a capacity, and perhaps for more personal reasons; for once the he’d saved the captain’s life by taking an arrow meant for Morgan’s lungs. At one time, Roger Morgan imagined he would’ve done the same for Peter Finch; but not anymore. Still, he felt sorry for the master-at-arms, in a way one thief sometimes feels for another when they are caught in the commission of a crime.

Order must be maintained at all cost, all the time, under all circumstances, especially in the military, and particularly in the navy where life and limb, not to mention survival of the crew, depended on it. There’s simply no other way. Misconduct was like a disease, a cancer that could metastasize throughout the whole ship and spread, like wild fire, if not promptly extinguished with the proper medicine. Discipline, it seemed, was the only solution. It was a tried and true medicine: strong at times; universally prescribed; clinically approved, and administered as needed. And it worked, every time…well, almost every time. Of course, there are always exceptions; Peter Finch just happened to be one of them. Still, Justice must be served, in this world as well as the next; sometimes, it is severe. There’s simply no way around it, especially in institutions such as the military where men – I mean real men – are placed in close proximity of one another. Boys will be boys, I suppose; but that’s what makes them boys, and not girls. It’s what binds them together and makes them a band of brothers. Introduce the female ingredient to this volatile mix of testosterone driven inmates, and you merely compound, rather than mitigate, a problem that has existed long before the battle of the sexes; homosexuality, despite modern misconception, would merely weaken the long grey line. A pragmatist by nature, and innovator by necessity, as well as an avid historian, Captain Roger Morgan once entertained the idea of forming an ‘All Amazon’ branch of the military, in the tradition of that famous battalion of lesbian warriors who, after cutting off their own right breasts in order to accommodate their longbows, fought so heroically (or is it heroincally?) on the battle-scared hills of Old Athens, as documented by none other than Alexander the Great. It would not only provide these fearless feminists with the equity they so adamantly desired and most likely deserved in some questionable cases but would also, as prudent commodore so keenly observed, put their adversaries at a certain disadvantage, especially during those special times of the month women dread and men are all too familiar with which, as gynecological studies have recently revealed, can not only be predicted, but synchronized! so as to have any particular group of women, over a certain period of time, cycling at the exact same moment. Picture, if you will, an army of these pre-menstrual hermaphrodites charging over the hill, blood in their eyes, with lances and arrows drawn. Napoleon’s forces would flee in terror at the mere sight; the Russian army would collapse under such an assault; the Green Mountain boys would throw down their muskets and take to the hills; the British Navy could make wake in a heartbeat, as Nelson falls on his sword. It was a bold and noble experiment, and perhaps a little ahead of its times; one may only speculate.

Obedience was imperative, on land as well as sea; perhaps more so the later, in which case there is no appeal and the verdict is always final. In all cases, at least once the ship has been put out to sea, the captain is the final arbiter, the judge and the jury, and sometimes even the executioner, depending of course on his personal disposition and his stomach for such things. Captain Morgan did have the stomach for such things; and he would be Finch’s executioner… some day. But not today, he thought, looking straight into the eye of the devil without beating an eyelash and knowing that, sooner or later, one of them, presumably the master-at-arms, would die at the hands of the other. It was only a matter of time.

Like a dog being kenneled by its master, the master-at-arms blinked but did not bark. He immediately backed down, knowing full well the consequences if he’d decided otherwise. Morgan was still the captain, and Finch was still… well, Finch; only there was a little less of him left standing after Roger Morgan stared him down on the deck of the Maria Aurora. It was not so much what he did that day, or what he didn’t do for that matter, but the way in which he did it that made all the difference. It was all in the eyes; the eyes of Roger Morgan. It was the humiliation, of course; it cracks louder than a whip and stings more than a swarm of bees. A flogging would have been preferred; thirty-nine minus one by the Hebrew measure; but none were offered that day. The stare alone was the punishment; enough to make any other man break down; but not Peter Finch. He was simply too proud. And so, he just stood there and took it, like the dog that he was. And that, the captain knew by now, was the master-at-arms real weakness; a weakness, which, like any Achilles heel would eventual destroy him as surely as it once did the ancient archer, and all the evil kings of Israel who’d prided themselves above the Law of Moses, and whose blood was licked up by the dogs outside the Temple of David. The battle was over, for now at least. Order had been restored on board the Maria Aurora. With the punishment delivered and Justice being served, the captain thus spoke: “That’s enough, Mister Finch. Now get back to work. And that goes for the rest of you,” he ordered, coolly and calmly, like Alexander before his chastised but still adoring troops.

The sailor responded accordingly. “Aye, Captain,” he said with a short salute, before obediently going back to work as if nothing had happened, at least nothing he hadn’t expected to happen all along. If Peter Finch had been humiliated in the least, you would never have known it just by looking at him. He was much too cleaver to allow his feelings to show, and too proud. The captain noticed this and wasn’t surprised; and so did many others onboard; but they all knew the captain had won the battle, as usual. Finch was put in his place, at least for the time being; but, like a dog that just can’t resist, he will always find a way back to his own vomit.

And all the while, Sherman Dixon stood there in awe of what he and the raccoon had just witnessed. The sting of the sailor’s slap had long since vanished, as most stings eventually do, even those we sometimes don’t deserve, only to be replaced with yet a sharper and, perhaps, more personal kind of pain; the kind that never really subsides. It was the pain of humiliation, something the master-at-arms had just gotten a healthy dose of himself; although, as previously mentioned, it would be difficult to tell just by looking at him. Sherman’s pain, his humiliation, was of a different kind; it was far was more personal; it cut much deeper; and it wasn’t even deserved, not like the mater-at-arm’s punishment. He felt as though he’d been spanked; which if fact, he was; a slap in the face being the adult equivalent of such a scolding. He was ashamed; it showed. And there was no shell big enough, thick enough, or hard enough to kill the pain, deaden that awful sensation, or mitigate its long-lasting effects. It was a pain, a sickness in the stomach, he found almost unbearable – almost as much as a toothache, which has already been talked about at great length. He would remember that moment, that pain, and the shame, for a long time to come; perhaps the rest of his life. He just knew it. And that only made it worse.

Elmo thought he knew how his good friend and neighbor must have felt at that moment. But he didn’t know. How could he? No one knew. Only the turtle knew; and he wasn’t telling. He was too embarrassed, too ashamed, to tell anyone, even himself. So he just stood there, long after the captain and crew went back to work as ordered, looking like the fool and coward he imagined himself to be. The raccoon sadly thought that the fat man from Harley might stand there forever, just like Lot’s wife on the outskirts of Sodom and Gomorrah, frozen in a pillar of salt; although in Sherman’s case, it was more like a mountain. But turtle never did look back. He was too afraid. And maybe that’s why he didn’t turn into a pillar, or a mountain, of salt that day, which, he actually might have preferred at the time.

When the work of unloading the wagon and storing the beans was finally completed, the two Harlies rested for a while on the dock of the bay, watching as the pelicans dove for their dinner. It was an interesting, elegant, and perhaps a somewhat unusual, sight to behold, considering how clumsy and unassuming these gentle birds of prey actually appeared perched on bollards or begging at the pier. Like an arrow darting the sky, they would pull in their feathered wings, just in the nick of time, and breach the surface of the water without a crease or a ripple, as graceful as any Peruvian cliff diver, before emerging with a fish firmly enveloped in that proud and powerful pouch. The birds would then dispose of their meal in one long and satisfying gulp, which not only impressed Mister Dixon but actually made him just a little bit jealous.


Chapter Four

The Fishermen’s Hall

NIGHT WAS FALLING FAST on Old Port Fierce, like a curtain coming down at the end of the day, the players taking one last bow before scurrying off the stage into the awaiting arms of fans and critics. The sky was a melting mixture, a twilight rainbow of orange, pink, yellow and blue, with each integrated color blending and bleeding perfectly into one another as light through a prism. It’s the same effect often captured on old oil canvasses, paintings of sunsets, perhaps, in which the artist’s landscape takes on a whole new and different dimension, appearing as mere shadows silhouetted darkly against the otherwise colorful tapestry of a slowly dying sky. The contrast is almost apocalyptic.

The masts of the ships bobbed lightly up from the quiet water below, like tall black timbers swaying in the breeze against the mild evening sky. Elmo thought he would never again see anything so peaceful, or beautiful. The storekeepers were busy locking doors and pulling in shutters while the fish peddlers threw endless buckets of seawater over the blood stained tables as the street venders torn down their potable tents. And in between these dreary but necessary tasks, they all counted their money.

Women, young and old, shuffled back to their humble homes, talking to one another the way women always do, exchanging gossip and recipes shuttling off their suppers, caught that very same day, in fact, in turned-up aprons, just as the women of old Capernaum must have done two thousand years ago with the fishy leftovers from the Sermon on the Mount; the loaves would simple have to wait until they got home. The fishermen who’d arrived earlier that day, who were done doing the things fisherman do with their wives and children after a long hard day at sea, were well on their way to the saloons located at the far end of the wharf to discuss the events of the day and those things fisherman just like to talk about: the weather, naturally; their boats, without a doubt; the volume and size of their catch, along with the current market value; and, of course ‘– the one that got away!’ One of these sea-faring sanctuaries just happened to be the same saloon the merchant, Elijah Hatch, had spoken of earlier in such great detail ‘The Blue Dolphin Inn’. The fishermen all knew where it was; in fact, most of them were already there. The ones that weren’t were already on their way. And along with them that evening went the turtle, the raccoon, and a horse named Abraham.

“Well, I guess this is it, Mister Cotton,” said Sherman Dixon, bringing his empty wagon to a halt in front of the aforementioned tavern. “But I don’t think you’s gonna find no Miracle-Maker ‘round here. If you’s still lookin’ for one, that is.”

“I reckon not,” the raccoon agreed.

They found the building exactly where the black hat told them it would be: right there, adjacent to the old white stucco church with the lookout steeple and bell tower. He also couldn’t help notice the stark black cross, fixed ominously against the fading rainbow like the Arc before the flood. Sherman tied his horse and wagon to a rail outside the Inn as Elmo walked over to the window with suitcase in hand. He looked inside. All he could see was smoke. They decided to go inside.

Upon entering the Blue Dolphin Inn, the two Harlies quickly found themselves in a thick cloud of hovering white smoke. The air was steamy and stale, and smelled of fish; not unlike the dead catfish Sherman found by the side of the road one hot summer day back home, thought the raccoon on the run whose nose had not only grown longer since his vital transformation, as naturally it should have, but more sensitive was well.

It Friday night at ‘The Fish’, as the name of the famous Inn had been shortened to over the years by those who’d frequented the oldest drinking establishment in Old Port Fierce almost on a daily basis. The parlor was crowded by then with fishermen, sailors, merchants, and other patrons of no particular affiliation who were there to talk, relax, eat, drink, smoke, or just get drunk, which, to the sons of sailors at least, was why they were there in the first place. And even if it wasn’t… well, it damn well should be! There was a counter inside the parlor with an iron foot-rail running along the base. Behind the counter stood a man with a large brown bottle. He was filling the glasses as quickly as they were being emptied in front of him while collecting the coins left on the table and putting them into his apron.

“I don’t see ‘im anywhere, Mister Cotton – Let’s go,” Sherman said, straining his turtle eyes in the smoky little parlor for any sign of the merchant or his trade-mark black hat with the single white oleander flower in the band.

“But I thought you said he would be here?” questioned the raccoon as a big-bosomed woman suddenly emerged from behind one of two large doorway at far end of the parlor with an armful of empty containers.

Sherman shrugged, “Well, I reckons I be wrong. Let’s go!”

“Wait a minute, Sherman.”

“I thinks I’ll just waits outside.”

“But don’t you wants to get paid?” said Elmo.

“Sho’ I do,” Sherman replied, as the man behind the counter ran a rag over the bar and laughed.

“Well?”

“I just don’t think if we belongs here, Elmo,” was all the turtle had to say. And he said it like he meant it this time.

In the company of so many strangers, with even stranger faces, Elmo didn’t know what to think, and was almost afraid to even speak at all. He knew they were strangers, intruders, and obviously not welcome. So he simply nodded, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, and tried not to look too Harleyish, if that was at all possible given the raccoon’s appearance. He realized of course, that despite the casual and congenial atmosphere, all eyes were upon him and the bug-eyed turtle, whether they liked it or not. Some of those eyes looked friendly enough, but most appeared suspicious, sinister, and maybe a little angry, as if they were looking for an excuse, any excuse, to have both Harlies thrown out of the building and back into the streets where they undoubtedly belonged, along with all the other human debris, including land-lubbers, bums, drunkards, gutter-snipes, street-urchins, riff-raff, and various other dregs of society that were no more welcomed at ‘The Fish’ there than they were. And they knew it; they could see it in their eyes.

But alcohol can sometimes have that affect on people, as the raccoon himself had found out some time ago: it can turn good men into monsters, if you let it. But maybe they were already monsters to begin with, he couldn’t help but wonder, without the help of ol’ John Barleycorn; perhaps they were unaware of their own schizophrenic condition, the alcohol merely acting as agent, a sort of truth serum, to unleash the devil within, the same demonic spirits that that dwells in us all, to one degree or another, drunk or sober, to be exorcized from time to time, if not totally annihilated in the prescribed manner. But then again, better an inebriated devil that a sober one; especially if he’s buying the drinks. Can anyone think of anything more hilarious, more dangerous, or more honest, than drunken spirit or a gassed ghost? As the old Italian saying goes, ‘In Vino Veritas’, so goes all beguilement. And if the eyes are truly the ‘window to the soul’, as many have suggested…well then, it might be wise to drape them from time to time, depending on what you want, or don’t want, others to see. Other eyes that night appeared not so intoxicated, however; and they seemed to be simply saying: ‘You’re not welcome here, mate. Go away!’ And these were by far the scariest.

And that’s exactly what the Harlies did; but not as some at the bar would have liked, and certainly not as Sherman would have preferred. Rather, they proceeded directly to the rear end of the smoky little room where stood two swinging doors, one of which the big-bosomed woman appeared from only moment earlier, beyond which music and laughter could be heard in great volume. There was writing on the wall just above the two great doors. It read, in large blue cursive letters: SAINT PETER’S HALL. There was also an image; it was simple and faint, and appeared directly underneath the saintly letters. It was the plain and distinct figure of a fish, carved, it would seem right into the wood of the door jam and outlived in red ink. It had obviously been placed there out of respect for the Holy Father himself, Saint Peter. And in place of an eye, which one would naturally expect to see positioned in the fishy profile, were painted two small lines: the smaller horizontal line intersected the longer vertical member about two thirds the way up the shaft, forming a miniature crucifix fixed in its pointed head. A Baptist by birth, if not by faith, Elmo Cotton was familiar enough with the Catholic catechism, mostly from what Mrs. Skinner had taught him of that particular brand of Christianity, to know exactly what it meant. He’d seen the sign of the fish before; although Sherman wasn’t quite sure what it meant, or if it meant anything at all.

It was called an Ichthus, the Greek word for fish, the letters of which were an acronym for: I= Jesus; X=Christ; O=God’s; Y= Son; E= Savior. It was used by the early Christians as a way of secretly professing their faith, even in the face of certain persecution, and often found scribbled in sand or chiseled into stone, particularly in the ancient catacombs under the cobbled streets of Rome where martyrs sleep and widows weep, and saints repose in sacred slumber. It was the sign of Peter, of course, the ‘Rock’, duly ordained by our Lord himself to be the first and foremost ‘Fisher of men’, which included, among others, Harlies. Elmo noticed that one of the doors was slightly opened. “So that’s what Mister Hatch meant when he said: ‘Meet me at the Fishermen’s Hall,” he wondered out loud

“You reckon?” whispered the turtle, as though someone might be listening; which, of course, they were.

“Must be, Sherman. It say so… right over the door. Look!”

“You knows I can’t read,” returned the turtle, apologetically.

“Well, neither can I,” replied the raccoon, “but I doesn’t has to know how to read to know what that there mean,” he noted, while pointing his whiskered chin to the fish floating above the door.

“Look like a fish,” said the farmer.

“Not just any fish, Sherman,” Elmo responded with one hand on his neighbor’s rounded shell and the other firmly gripping the metal handle of his suitcase, “That what you calls a Jesus fish.”

“‘Scuse me, Mister Cotton… but did you say a ‘Jesus’ fish?”

“That’s what they calls it...”

The fat farmer thought about it for a moment. ‘Well, if that be the case… he finally spoke, with a sudden enthusiasm that was absent in his previous aspect, “maybe this be the place after all.

“Must be, Sherman.”

“And say, Mister Cotton!” the turtle ejaculated, stretching out his telescopic neck in further anticipation, “Maybe that there Miracle-Man, or whoever it is you’s lookin’ fo’, is somewhere inside.”

“Miracle-Maker,” the raccoon quietly agreed, although not as optimistically as his well-meaning friend who was still unaware of Elmo’s true intentions, which were anything but friendly. He knew he was getting close; he could feel the edge of the bowie knife scraping against the flesh of his thigh. He never forgot what his uncle had said the day before he died: You’ll find him in a choich… in a place they calls Shadytown.’ And although the Fisherman’s Hall was not actually a church, at least not in the conventional sense of the word, there was something about it, a certain holiness that did not escape the raccoon’s sensitive nose. It reminded him of burning candles, incense, prayer books, and old women. It smelled like church; and they were, after all, in Old Port Fierce, somewhere in the general proximity (even though he still wasn’t sure exactly where) of a place called Shadytown. And so, in response to the turtle’s keen and astute observations, the Harlie smiled and said, “You never know, Sherman. Stranger things have happened. Let’s go inside and see.”

Exiting the rear of the smoke filled parlor through the massive swinging doors, the turtle and the raccoon suddenly found themselves standing at the entrance to the great hall. It was both long and wide inside; in other words, it was huge! with so many tables and chairs placed indiscriminately within; some were pulled tightly together in order, it would seem, to accommodate large gatherings of these fishermen friends. There was a high ceiling with criss-crossing rafters that not only helped ventilate the smoke filled chamber but added to the overall ambience and atmosphere of the famous establishment. At the head of the hall, which, from the Harlies’ perspective, was actually the back, there appeared to be a stage: some kind of elevated platform with several empty high-chairs evenly spaced on either side of what appeared to be a preacher’s pulpit, which stood in the center and was so large and heavy, and so grandly designed, that it may very well have served as an altar in more ecumenical surroundings. It merely confirmed the raccoon’s earlier suspicions that it was, in fact, a church; or at least that it had been in a previous function. He could smell it; and it smelled like… like – fish! He knew they were in the right place; and not only that, they’d found what they were looking for.

With his tall black hat and contrasting oleander, the merchant was an easy target to spot, even when he was sitting down, and even at a distance. The man seated beside him at a small round table in the center of the hall was Roger Morgan, the captain of the Maria Aurora. He was slightly shorter than the merchant and clean-shaven, with curtly black hair speckled with gray, and a head that at first glance appeared almost a little too large to accommodate, or compliment, the rest of his broad body. He had deep blue eyes with dark circles around them, which gave him the appearance of a man somewhat older than he actually was, and perhaps one with too much on his mind, not unlike the merchant himself who often exhibited a similar countenance. Again, just as he did earlier that day at the main mast, he appeared to be wearing no uniform or insignia of rank; only a clean white shirt and a pair of plain blue bell-bottomed trousers, or, as they are more commonly referred to by the sailors who wear them, ‘duck pants.’

The two men were speaking softly to one other, almost in a whisper it seemed (although it may have only appeared that way on account of all the noise and everything else going on around them) between long pipes and tall glasses of beer. The hall was packed full that night and, as evidenced by the shuffling of so many leather clad feet, tables and chairs, and the constant buzz of activity; or the ‘hum of the hive’ as Uncle Joe would’ve observed, had he been there at the time. Many of the patrons were still in their fishing clothes consisting chiefly of duck-pants, tight pull-over shirts and long woolen overcoats in various stages of decomposition, which they would usually wear until they fell off their bodies; at least until they went home, or whenever their wives or children would come and drag them from the bar in whatever state of inebriation they happened to be in at the time. But it was early in the evening, and much of the dialogue was still centered around the many occupational activities involved in the fishery, and the with the seriousness it so richly deserved; more casual conversation would ensue later on, when the whiskey flowed and the conversation turned to more personal and private matters; which, by the way, were taken with the same seriousness as their professional discourse, and perhaps even more so, especially as the evening worn on and matters became even more private, and personal. It was usually during those small hours in the morning when lifetime alliances were forged, old scores settled, and blood and oath were all that really mattered. But for now, the talk was easy and free, and loud, rising and falling with the raising of glasses and so many toasts to a job well done.

It was an acoustical wonder the merchant and the captain could hear one another at all amidst the robust laughter and loud talk produced by the other patrons seated along the protracted bar that ran the full length of the grand hall, much like the foot-railed countertop inside the parlor, only much longer and made of sturdier stuff. To add to the cacophony of the evening, an endless stream of notes could be heard emanating from an old standup piano discriminately set next to the make-shift stage, not far from where the merchant and the captain were situated. Seated at the grand old instrument was a rather portly and slightly balding young man with red hair and a long orange beard. He was a jolly sort of elf, fat, with an inexhaustible repertoire and a talent for performing in front of large and boisterous audiences he was obviously accustomed to. Apparently, his knowledge of musical scores was only exceeded by an insatiable appetite for whatever food and beverages were appreciably place before him on the flat top of his upright wooden companion.

It is said, with that rare and righteous mixture of pride and humility so often associated with the fishery, that whalers earn their lay (or wages, that is) in whatever percentage of the profits they sign-on for, in accordance with the ships documents and whatever position they are assigned to, form cabin boy to captain, and rewarded accordingly at the end of the voyage. But this young prodigy preferred to be paid in a more substantive manner – beer and bread; and as much of it as he could consume, not only at the expense of his hungry and thirsty audience, but his generous employer as well who would, more often than not, run out of beer long before the last finger fell and the final song was sung, in which case he would suddenly have to make a special trip to the brewery just to keep up with his other paying customers. But it was well worth the trip, the time and the effort, as well as the money. The red-headed genius was just that good; and he kept the place packed, too! He seemed to know just about every tune ever composed, from classical to country, and ever verse and chorus in between; in multiple languages, no less, which he quite fluent and proficient at. And so what if the portly piano-man didn’t happen to know the particular song or rhyme called for by his demanding but much appreciative audience at any given moment? No big deal! He would simply make one up, right on the spot! and throw in a few bawdy choruses of ‘Titsee Magee and Molly ‘Ho! Two women I don’t, but ought, to know!’ just for good measure. He never let his audience down; and he never went hungry, thirsty, in the process.

Seated at the other tables that night, along with the regular fishermen, were a variety of sailors, dockhands, merchant marines, roustabouts, near-do-wells, scalawags, and other human resources typically found in an old port city, along with the usual assortment of saints and sinners you would naturally expect to find in church on any given Sunday with bowed and, perhaps, slightly aching heads. It seemed that much of their attention, exhibited mostly by discerning glances and whispering thoughts, was being drawn to the two dark strangers standing silently by the great door and sticking out like a couple of raisons in bowl of grits. Needless-to-say, it was not the most comfortable moment for either the turtle or the raccoon; but they’d found who they were looking for, which is why they were there at all in the first place, and proceeded with caution towards the center of Saint Peter’s Hall.

Conspicuously absent from the fishy congregation that night was the presence of any female company. Other than several big-bosomed serving maids burdened down with overflowing pitchers of beer, who were constantly being whistled and winked at, there appeared to be no other women at all present at the Blue Dolphin Inn on that particular night, especially inside the old Patriarchal hall. It would seem as though women in general were neither welcomed nor allowed on the immediate premises. Perhaps it was a matter of protocol, observed on ships throughout the maritime world, and for a number of good reasons; or maybe, it was that those of the fairer sex simply refused to enter any establishment, public or private, so bent on keeping them out, and so ostensibly designed to accommodate men only. For indeed, there was only one restroom within the entire Inn, consisting of two buckets, a sink, and a water spigot protruding straight out of the wall in a most uninviting, but manly, manner. And considering the volume of beverages consumed on any given evening at the Blue Dolphin Inn’, and particularly inside Saint’ Peter’s Hall, it wasn’t surprising that the facilities was permanently occupied which, of course, was just another reason for women not to patronize the famous establishment. And it was hard on the men as well. Those who couldn’t wait… didn’t, choosing instead to relieve their bloated bowels and bladders outside the building, which was yet another reason for women of good up-bringing and modest inclinations to avoid ‘The Fish’ as they would, say, the plague or a mouse, or maybe even an exhausted wad of chewing tobacco, the kind often found lying in gutters and on sidewalks along with so many cigar and cigarettes butts, which, when chewed to just the right consistency, as Charles Smiley was once so famous for, and spat on the ground, are sometimes mistaken for actual turds, and avoided with equal consternation. And if that ain’t enough reasons to explain why, to this very day, no female foot fall is to be heard within the sacred and segregated walls of the famous Inn…well then, I don’t know what else to say; except maybe this: Leave it alone, mate! And don’t try to do anything to change thing. It’ll do you no good; and it might even get you kilt! Sometimes, like the raccoon and the turtle were quickly learning that night, you just know when you’re not wanted… and where you’re not supposed to be. Besides, it would take more than Hannibal’s elephants to drive the fair ladies inside the humble hall of the Holy Fisherman. Naturally, modesty may’ve also had something to do with it, along with the vanity so often associated with those of the feminine persuasion.

The notion of injecting the female component or introducing, even in its most masculine moldings, the slightest hint of feminine influence into their mild and manly presence would be sheer lunacy; and it would surely disturb, if not alter forever, the delicate balance of the Universe so harmoniously requisite in keeping their sacred fellowship as pure and private as it was and always should be, in the true patriarchal sense, nourished as it were in strict Hebrew orthodoxy, despite what we may’ve heard regarding of the dominance of Jewish mothers, the controversial and Apocryphatic gospel of Mary, or even the virgin birth itself! It is something women simply cannot understand; not without first surrendering that which makes them who and what they really are, and not just victims of their cruel male counterparts while collectively beating their bare breasts and barren wombs, along with Amazons and feminized men, at the blood-stained altar of abortion while Lilith licks her succubus lips. Besides that, it was something that just wasn’t done; not as long as the sons of sailors had anything to say, or do, about it. Certainly, Saint Peter would concur. For not unlike those Templar Knights of old in their never-ending quest for the Holy Grail over scorched and scarred Palestine, so too did these latter-day crusaders prefer their company pure, immune from and uncontaminated by sex, of any kind, limiting their acquaintances and extending their loyal friendship to those who shared their similarly chauvinistic views of this fallen and fallible world of ours.

‘Like a fish bowl!’ it had once been analogically compared to, ‘...where all the world’s an aquarium and fate’s the hand that stirs the muddy water within the dark glassy globe, occasionally, and as need be, for both the good and the evil, with one purpose in mind, but always, always, under the ever-present and discriminating eye of God who observes us all, gloatingly and glaringly, invisibly it would seem, but always and forever, with mercy and long suffering, unlimited patience and kindness, Grace abounding! and all through the unimpeachable and impenetrable glass that separates creature and Creator, without which all Humanity would surely perish in its present form if it were not so; Aye, matey! like a fish out of water. And such was the kind of talk one would come to expect from these gentlemen of the sea on the heady subjects of metaphysics and other soul-searching topics.

Regarding matters of more intimate detail, particularly those involving the fairer and opposite sex as previously touched upon, these were generally ignored and rarely discussed. There was simply no room for such dialogue within the hallowed halls of Saint Peter. And if it existed at all, it was only in the minds and hearts of those who knew enough to keep them there. The sons of sailors made sure of that; for theirs was a celibacy of the mind, so pure and profound, no woman could penetrate; and one that would only confound them if they even did. It was said that the mere sound of a female foot falling was enough to rouse many a manly suspicion and call these knuckle-dragging Neanderthals quick to conference, if not to arms. But there was more to it than that; all is not always what it seems within this brave band of brothers. In a strange and almost bewildering sort of way, these sons of antiquity were sentimentalists at heart, and could be, despite the lack female companionship, quite Romantic. Sometimes, it even showed.

Call it tradition, a custom if you will; and a good one, too! going as far back as anyone could remember. All the way to Noah, perhaps. It was simply a matter of choice, as much as protocol, like Charity and Chastity; a certain chivalry that allowed for such undistracted discourse so essential to their long and short term interests and happiness, as well as the well-being and general welfare of the group; something without which they would be totally lost, and probably not even survive. And it did not (as some have tried to explain, rather unsuccessfully and quite erroneously, I might add) have anything to do with the male ego, or any other psychological phenomenon so often attributed to the behavioral patterns of these modern-day Neanderthals. No! It was simply the way they preferred to be – Celibate! Well, for the time being at least; and, for the most part, it worked! Not to mention the fact that many who frequented the grand old hall, as well as other drinking establishments in the immediate vicinity, were too young, too old, too naive, too stupid, too ugly, or just plain too… married! to enjoy the alluring temptations of the femme fatal. Is it no wonder that upon the sirens’ sweet call, brave Ulysses stuffed his ears and tied himself to the mast? On waters such as these, deep and dangerous, that have rolled the earth since time imaginable, under which presently lie the broken hulls and hearts of many a brave mariner, even Saint Peter himself would surely fear to tread.

Perhaps the real reason for the gender imbalance wasn’t really all that complicated and more evident than once might imagine: after all, the sign did read: ‘Fishermens hall’, didn’t it? Clearly, a male contrivance! The invitation could not be more obvious, more direct, or more properly placed. It was not so much a question of hospitality, or the lack thereof, that created and maintained such a male dominant atmosphere that, or any other, night inside the sacred Hall, but rather a simple understanding that could be summed up in the celebrated words of another great mariner: that pipe-smoking, spinach-eating, pop-eyed sailor with the tattooed forearms who, in the mist of his own trials and tribulations with the fair Olive Oyl, once eloquently stated in his own philosophical mutterings and meanderings he would later become famous for, that one, undeniable, undisputed, and unmitigated truth in life: ‘It’s proven through history that womens’ a mystery’. No truer words have ever been uttered, I suppose. Even Sinbad and the brave Ulysses would surely have to agree, as well as a beaten bruised Blutto. It’s a simple sociological fact; one that has haunted sons of sailors all over the world from time to time, even to this day: ‘It’s proven through history that womens’ a mystery…’ Ain’t it the truth?

With a growing anxiety that, perhaps, they weren’t as welcomed as they should’ve been by now (even by the merchant himself whom may very well have forgotten the episode that’d brought them all together in the first place) the farmer and the raccoon quietly made their way toward what appeared to be the captain’s private table. They tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, an endeavor they both failed miserably in accomplishing, especially the barefooted raccoon with his frayed suitcase and soiled overalls. The merchant nodded to the captain who, in turn, motioned for the two young men to step forward and approach the table. It was an unexpected gesture, and one that suddenly made them both feel more important than they ever did before – or at least, a little less Harley-ish.

Morgan thought he recognized the sharecroppers from an earlier encounter when he’d been forced to discharge his firearm over the heads of his startled crew to the dismay of the tattooed master-at arms who was the cause of the disruption in the first place. At first, he seemed a little angry; and then he looked amused. There was, I suppose, some humor to be found in the sight a couple of Harley bean farmers approaching the captain’s private table that didn’t escape the merchant discerning eye, either. As a well-established matter of protocol, it was something that just wasn’t done in Saint Peter’s Hall, or anywhere else for that matter, at least not without a written statement or some other form of formal introduction. But Morgan admired the boldness of the farmers, and felt that he might actually have owed one of them an apology, if nothing else, for what happened at the dock that day. He’d also consumed enough alcohol by then not to take issue with the merchant for initiating the meeting to begin with. In many ways, the intrusion came as a welcome and timely relief to what had otherwise was turning into a contest of wills between the two old titans, and one the captain was in no particular mood to pursue at the time.`

Roger Morgan was a relatively young man (for a captain of the Fleet, that is) with short black hair, thick red lips, a ruddy complexion, and large round eyes which have already been detailed with great specificity. As he’d previously appeared onboard his beloved ship, the captain of the Maria Aurora wore no discernable uniform that would have signified his rank or command, and could easily have passed for a common seaman at the time. While acknowledging the presence of his guest, Roger leaned back in his chair, gazing deeply into the merchant's cold gray eyes as if waiting for him to unravel some private riddle they’d both been wrestling with for quite some time. Together, they appeared as old friends who just happened to be suspicious of one another, as old acquaintances often are, but careful never to allow those suspicious to interfere with their friendship. But it went deeper than that, much deer. Theirs was a special kind of relationship, like that of brothers, I suppose; the kind sons of sailors are familiar with, forged in the heat of battle, bonded in blood, and consummated on many lonely nights spent together in the company of other like-minded mariners. But like all relationships, this one too had its limitations; and, in the case of the merchant and the captain, those limitations would soon be put to the test.

“Which one's the farmer?” the captain casually enquired, wiping the foam from his face with the back of his sleeve.

After a short and predictable pause, Mister Dixon hesitantly stepped forward, forcing a smile which, under any other circumstance and in more familiar surroundings, would’ve came easily and naturally enough on its own, and said with a slight stutter, “We’s b-both famers, sir.” He then turned back to Elmo who, holding the suitcase tightly at his side, nodded in agreement, although he wished he hadn’t had to do so.

“Now I remember!” beamed the captain, slightly inebriated by then and looking at the farmer through sympathetic crows-feet eyes. “Sorry about Finch,” he quickly apologized with a sincerity that sounded as though he actually meant it. “He’s a bad apple, that’s for sure. But we’re short of apples these days,” he further explained, “and I need all I can get my hands on – good or bad. Besides, he’s really not as rotten as he looks. It’s those damn tattoos, you know. I’ve seen worse. Don’t worry, boy. He’ll get what he deserves. They all do… depend on it.”

The turtle liked what he heard; and coming from the thick brave lips of Captain Roger Morgan made it sound even better. Elmo liked it, too, although not as noticeably; and he was more optimistic than ever. He knew this might be his only chance he would have to get on the good side of the captain and, therefore, the only chance of getting onboard the ship, which he was now more determined to do than ever; once, that is, he’d found the Miracle-Maker. And so, with his suitcase and sailin’ shoes firmly in hand, the Harlie waited for just the right moment. He wouldn’t have to wait very long.

Not knowing exactly how much of the disruptive exchange Roger Morgan had actually witnessed on the dock that day, Mister Dixon was about to present his case before the captain of the Maria Aurora as a matter of truth and consequence. He’d been hoping all along to get even with the tattooed sailor who slapped in the face; or at least see him reprimanded for doing what he did, and for no apparent reason. Justice demanded it. It was against the law. But what law? Whose law? His, or theirs? Sure, he was a civilian; and striking a civilian was against the law; even Sherman knew that. But he was also a Harlie; and he knew deep down, as all Harlies do, that somehow, despite whatever happened after the war, that would always make a difference. And actually, it did. Not just because they were Harlies, but simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t fair, and it certainly wasn’t just; but try explaining that to the likes of Peter Finch. You may as well try explaining Newton’s first Law of Gravity to a hovering humble bumble-bee that, despite all aerodynamic calculations and weight to wing ratios, should not be able to fly at all. Or better yet, try explaining to an Arctic Eskimo who’d been hunting seals, killing polar bears, and eating blubber all his fat and frozen life, the medicinal benefits of a strictly vegetarian diet; not that he ever had a choice in such gastronomical decisions, or even wanted one. You may not like what you hear; and you just might get yourself stung, or harpooned! Being mean was something that came natural to the sadistic master-at-arms. But damn it to hell! Sherman thought to himself: Harlies gots rights, too! Even if they’s just po’ ol’ dirt farmers who ain’t gots a pot to pee in… or enough sense to know any better. And a Harlie’s rights is just as good as anyone else’s’, he further extrapolated, even though it may’ve been too late by then. And his had been violated! The Law said so. Didn’t it? It was a question that’s been on the turtle’s mind ever since the incident occurred. It was something he just couldn’t put it out of his mind, no matter how hard he tried. And it all came out just then in one short and succinct sentence that seemed to sum up all his doubtful thoughts at the time. “That man done me wrong,” said Sherman, peeping out of his shell like the frightened turtle he actually was. He was sure, however, that the brave captain would agree, sooner or later. So would the wise merchant, he further imagined; and so would Peter Finch.

They both knew, of course, what was really bothering the frightened turtle at the time. Sherman Dixon didn’t want Justice; he wanted vengeance. It was written all over his fat, flabby, and frustrated face; it was as clear and evident as the yellow stripe on the back of his soft humiliated shell. He also wanted respect; and he wanted it now. He was just too scared to ask for it; and he didn’t know how. And until he did, he would get neither. He didn’t even know what it was yet. Neither did Elmo for that matter. They both had a lot to learn.

But Morgan knew, and so did Elijah Hatch. They also knew that it was something the fat man would have to learn on his own, and earn, the way sons of sailors do. That’s the only way it means anything. That’s how it works. The turtle would get his vengeance, and more, eventually; and with it he would also get Justice, and maybe even a little respect. But first he would have to learn the difference. Until then, he would get nothing.

Still wanted it; and just as he was about to open his mouth and demand it, Sherman Dixon felt that something was very definitely wrong; and he knew immediately what it was. It was only himself. You see, in the end, the frightened turtle simply couldn’t bring himself to admit what had actually happened to him that day on the dock in Old Port Fierce. He was too ashamed. It was the captain himself who convinced him of this. Not in so many encouraging words or sympathetic gestures, but merely in the way he looked at the farmer that evening in Saint Peter’s Hall at the Blue Dolphin Inn.

It was all in the eyes… Roger Morgan’s eyes: eyes as blue as cold steel and white as flash lightening; piercing eyes, peering and penetrating, probing instruments that did not blink, not unlike those of a certain colonel we need not mention. These were the eyes of Roger Morgan, the eyes of a captain. They’ve seen war and watched men die. These were lenses that looked in as well as out. They spoke for themselves, a right optical megaphone if ever there was one. The captain didn’t have to say a word. All he had to do was look. And he did look! He looked deep, deep, and deeper still into the farmer’s frustrated soul until he could look no deeper. Sherman did not look back, however; he was too embarrassed. He felt violated, somehow, as if he were being ripped out of his shell, his naked body twisting and turning in the air like that of a pig hanging in the marketplace about to be butchered. He could all but here the flies buzzing in his ears. And at that moment, Sherman Dixon knew what he had to do. It was only be a matter of time.

Elmo Cotton was about to say something in regard to what had taken place earlier that day in defense of his slow unfortunate and, in many ways, defenseless friend. But before he could pen his mouth, he was cut short by Morgan himself who, being a man accustomed to having his orders obeyed, even if those orders were given vicariously through others, including his own cabin-boy who was at times and for reasons undisclosed invested with such regal authority, enquired of the two before him, “Mister Hatch said you were told to find me onboard – and me alone. What happened?”

Suddenly realizing that they were the now ones under the captain’s gun, and not the guilty sailor who’d actually committed the crime, Mister Dixon found within him the courage to answer for both he and his neighbor: “They say you was busy, sir. And that’s the truth,” he added out of pure frustration,

The captain eyed the turtle with a certain amount of uncertainty. “All lies have a grain of truth in them, boy; especially the good ones. Who told you that?” he asked.

“The sailor-mens,” snapped the turtle.

“Which one?”

“The man with all them…” And here the turtle struggled, attempting to describe the dark green markings that covered so much of the ‘sailor-men’s’ body, by tracing an imaginary line on his own fat forearm.

“Tattoos?” questioned the captain, as a small purple vein formed on his forehead.

“God’s guns, man! They all have tattoos,” reminded the merchant.

“The mens on the boat.”

“Boat?!” decried the captain, suddenly appearing not nearly as sympathetic he did only a moment ago, and perhaps a little perplexed. “What boat?”

“The one they calls Maria A-Aurora,” stuttered the turtle.

Morgan scowled, as if he’d just been personally offended; and, for the moment at least, he didn’t say word.

Sherman could not imagine what it was he’d said, or didn’t say, to warrant such a stern and silent reproach; but he knew it must have been something very serious. He waited while as few other patrons seated at nearby tables turned their heads and chairs to collectively witness the interrogation. They recognized Morgan and Hatch all right (who wouldn’t?) but didn’t know what to make of the two ‘Strange Jimmies’, a pejorative generously applied to anyone, particularly those of questionable character or alien origin outside their immediate circle of acquaintances, standing at the captain’s table.

“I must be hearing things, Hatch” the captain finally surrendered, turning his half-attention to the stoic merchant seated beside him while vigorously plunging out one ear with the probing tip of his left pinky finger, much like the turtle was in the habit of, attempting, it would seem, to remove some excess ear-wax, or perhaps some other foreign obstruction impeding ability to comprehend what he was hearing at the moment. “I’m all plugs! There… There… There it is. Ahhhhhhhhhh! he sounded in climatic relief, tilting his massive head to the floor while gently taping out an unctuous wad of some yellowish wax-like substance that fell from his skull like honey from the hive. Apparently, the wax was what precipitated his temporary loss of hearing in the first place. “That’s better…” the captain softly sighed.

Not a few at the adjoining tables snickered; some laughed out loud. The merchant was also smiling by then, knowing that Morgan was only doing what Morgan did best: He was making a point and, with the help of a little alcohol and a small but appreciative audience, he was making it stick. He was also having a little fun in the process, which was also to be expected.

“Now,” continued the captain, turning his undivided attention back to the turtle at hand who hadn’t moved an inch, “Would you care to re-phase that, boy?”

Sherman did exactly that, and, in doing so merely exacerbated his present situation, which was beginning to look bleak. “The boat they calls the M-Maria Aurora,” he repeated with the same debilitating stutter as before, only this time on the first name of the celebrated ship.

“That’s not a boat!” excoriated the captain, the purple vein on his forehead having grown noticeably larger, and more clearly defined, by then... “That’s a ship. That’s my ship!”

“Y-Yes, sir…‘Scuse me, s-sir,” the turtle stammered, quickly correcting himself after finally realizing it was his own choice of words, poorly chosen it would seem, that had earned him the captain’s ire. “That’s ‘zactly w-what I means to say. S-Ship! Sir! Not b-b-b-boat,” he muttered and sputtered.

“Then say what you mean, Mister; and mean what you say. And nothing else!” ordered the captain, sternly admonishing the stuttering turtle he actually becoming quite fond of. “I’ll see about Finch later. And next time do what you’re told,” he added.

The farmer shook his head and then nodded, clearly embarrassed and very much aware of the captain’s admonishment. He felt much like the child who, after having been soundly beaten up by the local school-bully through no fault of his own, suddenly finds himself standing in the vice-principal’s office getting lectured on the meritorious rewards of practicing good behavior. He wanted nothing more than to leave the hall, immediately, and come back later, perhaps, to pick up his hard-earned pay. And he was just about to make such a early exit when, suddenly, another gullible thought flowed forth from the turtle’s primordial brain, just as it did when he committed the first unpardonable sin of referring to the Maria Aurora as a…a boat! “About the tariff, sir...” the turtle humbly digressed, wanting only to assure the captain that he intended to pay it (the tax , that is) in full measure, once he’d settled things with Mister Elijah Hatch, of course.

“Tariff! What tariff?” begged the captain, while working his pinky finger now into the other ear and plunging away with the same vigorous back and forth motion as before, only deeper.

“The t-tariff, sir. You know?”

“What the hell you talking about, man!” the captain howled.

But the turtle kept on stuttering, “T-taxes. The taxes, s-sir.”

Morgan thought for a moment. “You ain’t talkin’ about tribute by any chance… Are you, son?” he earnestly enquired, thinking they might have been approached by pirates.

“Huh?”

“Money!” the captain clarified.

The turtle nodded in the affirmative. “The man say we gots to pay before we puts the beans on the bo... I mean the s-ship,” Sherman quickly corrected himself.

The captain arched an eagle eyebrow, smiled, and then laughed. “You hear that, Hatch – a tariff!” he roared.

It was an old sailor’s joke, of course; one that’s been around forever it seemed, at least ever since someone first discovered that he could take another man’s money, possessions, or anything else he owned for that matter, including his wife, if not legally, then at least with as little amount of guilt and shame as possible, and with force if necessary. It’s called stealing, robbery and extortion, among other things. Some still referred to it as tribute. Politicians call them taxes; and they call for them as often as possible. There are no exceptions. They affect just about everyone, especially those who do business on the sea where boundaries are often determined by those with the biggest ships and the biggest guns, including Pharaoh, whose own floating palaces were sometimes taxed by pirates waiting in ambush along the narrows of the Nile like so many hungry crocodiles, or else ferried off for ransom. It was just business as usual. ‘Tariff’ was the modern term most often used in the maritime business of import/export, which, when fairly applied and justified, was generally tolerated, albeit with the usual grunts, groans, and calls for impeachment by those whose wallets were affected the most, and for the most part accepted as… well, ‘business as usual’. What happened to the turtle that day was something entirely different; and they both knew it. It was something the merchant was quite familiar with by now; only, he never thought anyone would actually be stupid enough to fall for such a prank, at least not in Old Port Fierce where folk were just not gullible. But then again, he’d never meet anyone like Sherman Dixon; and probably never would again. Nobody could be that ignorant – or stupid! Could they? he secretly surmised, wondering if perhaps he better have another look at the beans he’d recently purchased from the same fat man from Harley who fell for the joke. It might’ve even been funny at one time, when it was all in jest; but there’d been reports lately of sailors, and merchants as well, extorting money in a variety of ways that were unethical, if not downright illegal. It made the merchant more than suspicious. It also made him angry. Times had changed, and not for the better, Elijah Hatch sadly acknowledged. “That’s a lie,” he admonished the honest but rather gullible turtle. “This is a free port, son. There ain’t no tariffs in Old Port Fierce... none that I’m aware of anyway. You’ve been duped.”

The turtle was flummoxed and befuddled. “B-But,” he tried to explain, before finally realizing that he was not only the butt, but the arms, legs, head and heel, in fact the whole imbecilic being of a very old and very practical joke played at his own expense. Suddenly, he was more ashamed than ever, if that was even possible; and quite embarrassed, to boot. He felt as though he’d only made matters worse. Now, he really wanted to leave, even if he never got paid.

“Finch was just pulling your jib, boy” scolded the captain, having about as much sympathy for the bean farmer, whom he thought should’ve known better, as he did for Mister Finch who’d made such a fool of him. “Pay him no mind next time,” warned Morgan. “He’s a liar and thief; but he’s good at what he does. Like Mister Hatch here says, there ain’t no tariff. And don’t you forget it.”

Sherman knew that he should’ve ended the conversation right then and there; but he didn’t. “Ain’t that kinda like stealin’?” he questioned the captain and the merchant at once.

Hatch spoke for them both when he said, “You’re right, son. It is stealing – maybe even worse. At least a thief will let you know when he lifting your purse, if he’s an honest one, that is. What Finch did was different. It’s shameful – the act of a coward. But I suppose it can’t be helped.”

“It could... but it won’t,” noted the captain, correctly. “Finch is a trouble-maker, a bad apple; you know that, Elijah. Sure, I could have him flogged… wouldn’t be his first time; and it wouldn’t do much good. Might even make him worse. He’s kissed the gunner’s daughter more than once. Don’t suppose even keel-hulling the bastard would straighten out a devil like Finch. He’s twisted, man – All knots!” the captain attempted to explain while twisting and turning his calloused hands into a ball of twisted fingers. “Some men just don’t change. Besides, he’s too old.”

“I guess you’re right, Roger,” the merchant nodded in sad and subtle agreement, although he’d always hoped the captain was wrong in his final assessment of the master-at-arms in question. He’d personally trained Peter Finch, just like he did Roger Morgan, and, at one time, considered him officer material. Elijah Hatch was actually once captain of both men. They’d sailed together on many brave voyages, with Hatch at the Helm. Morgan and Finch were still young men at the time: boys with beards, you might say; and so was Elijah Hatch for that matter, relatively speaking, of course. They’d seen battle together; and Peter Finch was the best gunner in the Fleet at one time; next to Ensign Roger Morgan. He was also one of the bravest and the boldest, and had the scars and medals to prove it. His promotions came swiftly, not unlike Morgan’s, and were, for the most part, well deserved. But something happened to the master-at-arms along the way; something just went wrong. He became bitter and bent, ‘twisted’ in the captain’s manual description, and resentful; not only towards his immediate superiors, which sometimes happens to young Turks and up-coming officers who are constantly attempting to impress their upper echelons, but also towards his peers and underlings, many of whom not only admired and looked up to the young Mister Finch, but sought to emulate him. Many was the time he would admonish the crew, and even punish them for no reason. He became aloof, estranged – ambiguous at first, and then just plain cruel; just like the tattoos covering most of his near-naked body, which, as Captain Elijah Hatch once observed, may have had something to do with the master-at-arm’s ‘twisted’ transformation.

‘It comes with the ink…’ the sons of sailors were quick to point out, having undergone similar ‘skin-stitchings’ of their own, although not as deep and dark as the ones Finch so proudly displayed. The ones he wore were different. He’s received them, for the most part, on the Islands; as did many sailors of that age old profession; and, some, including Elijah Hatch, say he was never the same since. The tattoos back than were mostly black (colored ink coming into fashion only recently among the Island artisans who still performed the painful ritual of tattooing) with tantalizing hints of green and blue blended into the epidural canvass. It was a poisonous mixture, a substance derived from a variety of native plants which, although not particularly lethal, would leave the recipient of the mark sick for weeks to come and bed-ridden, much to the chagrin of his commanding officers. They were applied the old fashion way: topically, with the customary ‘tat-tat-tat-tat-tat’ of the witchdoctor’s barbaric needle which was typically engineered from the tooth of a tiger shark. It was done slowly, patiently and, of course, painfully. There was no other way; and there were no anesthetics, except perhaps bottle of rum and a metal blade to bite on. The scars lasted for days and the lines never faded. They were indelibly etched into the skin and could never be removed; and the patient’s heart would be forever altered as well, in time turning as black as the lines on his own transfigured body. And such was the case of Mister Peter Finch. Whatever had happened to turn that once noble heart into a cold-blooded killer was just as ambiguous as the markings themselves. Still, Captain Hatch never gave up on the illustrated mate. For beneath all his transfigurations and all the ambiguities invested in their diabolical design, the master-at-arms was still the son of a sailor, if nothing else, and perhaps worth saving.

But the captain had always disagreed. “Minds can sometimes be changed, Elijah,” he spoke on the subject with his glass half-empty, “but the heart... now that’s a different matter all together. He’s hopeless. But that’s what makes him so good at what he does, I suppose.”

“Hope springs eternal…” reminded the merchant.

“Not for Finch,” gulped the captain. “He’s an animal… No! He’s worse than that. Animals act out of blind instinct. This one hates for hates sake. But still he obeys...”

“We all have our orders,” reminded the merchant. And those were the last words Elijah Hatch would speak on the subject he knew so well and yet so little of. He then quickly emptied his glass and turned his attention back to pressing, and perhaps more peculiar, matter at hand: like the raccoon, for instance, who he’d been suspicious of ever since the crossed paths on Fisherman’s Wharf that day. He also couldn’t help but notice that this raccoon had blue eyes and was presently holding onto an old beat-up suitcase with a broken handle as if it contained the keys to the Vatican vault. “What’s that you got in the bag, son?” he asked out of sheer curiosity.

Elmo’s naked feet moved two steps back, almost on their own volition it seemed. He positioned the suitcase behind his back and was holding on to the handle by now as if he were glued to it. “Just some nasty ol’ shoes…” he murmured, almost incoherently, wishing by now that he’d left the suitcase outside in the wagon, or some other place where it wouldn’t be so conspicuous. “My uncle done give them to me,” he added, just to make it sound more plausible.

From the moment they arrived that evening, the merchant had also noted that only one of the two sharecroppers was wearing any shoes. He wondered why, and just had to ask the shoeless raccoon, “Why ain’t you wearing them, boy?”

“Well…” began Elmo, alarmed by sudden inquisition, perhaps more than he actually should have been, and wondering if he should say nothing, or just turn around and head for the door. He did neither. “They’s called ‘travelin’ shoes, sir…” spoke the raccoon, griping the handle of the suitcase more firmly than ever. He was going to say ‘sailin’ shoes, but didn’t want to sound too presumptuous; not just yet anyway. “Ain’t got much use for them tho’. They’s kinda raggedy… and they smells bad, too. And besides,” he added, feeling just a little bit disingenuous, “they don’t fits me no-how.” By then Elmo cotton thought he’d said enough, if not too much, already.

Morgan had no reason to believe the barefooted pedestrian; but he had no reason not to. “Well,’ he said with a hint of an apology and a re-assuring smile, “That’s your business, son – not mine. You did a good job, I hear. And that’s all that really matter, I ‘spose.”

The merchant nodded in agreement.

Naturally, Elmo wanted to make a good first impression (Who doesn’t?), knowing it might also be his last. He was even beginning to believe he accomplished just that. He was still trying to think of a way to get onboard the captain’s ship, if that was at all still possible, and knew he’d have to be more careful in the future, especially when answering questions of a personal nature. He was still raccoon on the run, fugitive and vagabond, and it seemed like he would be no matter where he went or how far he ran, even to the ends of the earth. “We did everything you told us to, Mister Hatch,” he said with a shy but confident smile.

“Good!” said Hatch.

But the captain was still a little curious and not yet completely satisfied. “Where you from, boy?” he asked, looking directly into Harlie’s eyes, which were almost, but not quite as dark and blue as those of the celebrated captain. He also noticed, just like merchant earlier, that this raccoon was holding a suitcase; so tightly by now that his knuckles were beginning to turn white, which, even for a light-skinned Harlie, was quite remarkable.

Even though he had no way of knowing it at the time, Elmo Cotton was one step closer to climbing onboard the Maria Aurora. The sailin’ shoes weighed heavily in the suitcase; he could feel them, along with the Motherstone, tugging at is arm. He still hadn’t put them on yet since he’d left the old Indian camp, but could almost feel them on his feet right now– and they fit! He stepped forward slowly, cautiously, but with pride and confidence; not so much in himself, for he’d long since abandoned such human entitlements, ever since he became a demi-god, in fact, but in those who taught him what they really meant; he was actually thinking of his Uncle Joe as he boldly approached the captain’s table, and perhaps Homer, too. “Harley…’ he replied, in a deep brown voice that was just beginning to sound eerily like that of his own dead uncle; like a bull frog in a fog-horn. “I’s from Harley sir,” he croaked.

“Harley!” exclaimed the captain with a sobering burst of energy that made him knock over his own glass, spilling the foamy contents all over the table. “You mean – up north of Creekwood Green?”

“Yes, sir,” answered the turtle for the raccoon, laying a chubby brown hand on Elmo's naked shoulder, “That’s where we’s come from.”

Morgan smiled. “Heard they have some mighty fine beer up in Creekwood Green,” he said, “Speaking of which…” And here the captain paused to pour himself another glass of beer from the pitcher to replace the one he’d just spilt. “Cornbrew! he suddenly cried, so vociferously in fact that many heads turned at once in their direction. “That’s what they call it – Cornbrew! A place called The Nickel Pig Saloon… up on the hill, if I’m not mistaken. That’s it! Now I remember.”

“Kessler cornbrew,” reminded the well-traveled merchant who was certainly no stranger to the bitter but pleasant taste of that special brand of beer brewed by Mister Kessler and his celebrated sons, whom the malt liquor was appropriately named after. He’d had his fill of the potent potable known as cornbrew not more than a month ago when he’d passed through the old Iron Gates for the sole purpose of procuring a wagonload of the precious produce for the up-coming excursion. Naturally, Harley beans would play a vital role in the voyage, as they have for over a hundred years, providing captain and crew with the nourishment they would need for what was turning out to be a very long and expensive enterprise that was already over budget. The beans would prove to be indispensable; and they were cheap, too! as the bean-counting merchant was also well aware of. They grew in abundance in the muddy soil in the lowlands of Creekwood County, better known as Harley; the town that, in its own modest and colorful way, was made famous by the plentiful commodity. It was often rumored, although never actually proven (which is precisely why they’re called rumors) that little Harley bean was actually the secret ingredient Kessler and his sons used, in charitable measure, when preparing their special brew, which was always in high demand and short supply, as the economy dictated. Not only did the insightful merchant have the foresight of stocking his own shelves with a generous supply of the famous larger, along with the usual rations of rum and other strong spirits; but he was wise enough to have several barrels of the specially prepared cornbrew stowed away in the heavy hull of the Maria Aurora as well, and not just for his own private consumption, but that of the crew who would toast Mister Elijah Hatch many times over before the mission was terminated; hopefully, to a successful, profitable, and healthy conclusion…whatever it was.

As captain of his own vessel at one time in his long and illustrious life, Elijah Hatch had always treated his crew well, and with all due consideration. A large part of that treatment always included a generous supply of beer, a staple of sailors everywhere and a favorite among many Americans who, thru their own acquired tastes, and perhaps for more personal and patriot reasons, actually preferred the foamy yellow beverage over the finest French cognac. And it didn’t start in America! For those who may be interested, beer was actually first introduced into a sober and thirsty world by the ancient Egyptians, as documented in their own hieroglyphic cook books. It is said that the wealthier citizens of that once thriving Metropolis actually used it as a form of currency; perhaps to pay the wages of the lower class workers that built the great pyramids (in much the same way the Incas paid off their own inexhaustible workforce half a world away in coca leaves – Talk about employee incentive!) when not ingesting it themselves, that is, at least three times a day, or so it is written, while cruising the Nile in any one of Cleopatra’s many luxurious yachts. Beer! It’s the elixir of life; a gift from the god. And it’s been found all over the world. It was even found in the tombs of the dead Pharaohs, perhaps to quench their parched throats as they journeyed through the underworld of the dead, or as payment to the ferryman to usher them into the land of the dead, not unlike the Roman god, Charon, who provided similar passage through the shadows of Sheol, but only to those who could pay the fare.

Archaeologists have actually discovered five kinds of beer and four kinds of wine while poking through dumps, examining skeletons, probing texts and studying remains of beer jars and wine vats at Giza. Beer was depicted on the walls of the tombs, as were scenes of the ancient Egyptian brewery. It was probably very similar to the way beer is still produced in Sudan today. Traditionally, beer was regarded as a female activity as it was an off-shoot of bread making – the basis of the beer were loaves of specially made bread. Most likely, it was not very intoxicating, nutritious, sweet, without bubbles, and thick (the beer had to be strained with wooden siphons, used as a straw, because it was filled with impurities). Though the later Greek accounts suggest that the beer, instead, was as intoxicating as the strongest wine, and it is clear that the worshipers of Bast, Sekhmet and Hathor got drunk on beer as part of their worship of these goddesses, because of their aspect of the Eye of Ra. Tenenit was another ancient Egyptian goddess of beer. It also happened to be, and still is for that matter, a staple beverage onboard all sailing vessels, and for one practical reason – the alcohol! Vikings would store large quantities of the precious yellow liquid onboard their graceful long-boats while cruising off the coast of Iceland and in the warmer latitudes around neighboring Newfoundland, which they would drink in large quantities instead of water. As it were, and due chiefly to its pure and natural properties, the water itself would often become undrinkable on these long and protracted voyages, primarily due to the bacteria and other disease carrying germs and viruses that thrived in non-alcoholic environments. And besides, beer just tasted better.

Aside from the beer, the wise and benevolent Hatch also made sure that there was an ample supply of food stuffs onboard prior to embarking upon any protracted voyage at sea, including bread, beans, rice, cheese, an assortment of salted meats. And just as any good army marches on its stomach, so too does the Navy float, and with even greater buoyancy: on bellies full of beer! And he knew just where to find it – Creekwood Green. The Nickel Pig Saloon! In fact, Elijah Hatch had dried a keg or two himself not too long ago at the very same tavern the captain spoke of so hospitably, the one up on top of Lazy Hill Road in town called Creekwood Green. “Double Footprint… Charlie’s best!” he delightfully boasted.

Morgan agreed. “That’s it! That’s it! Pete Liddle’s place! I was there. They play a game there… What’s that they call it?”

“Ten-Keg,” reminded the merchant who, having participated in the precarious sport just then alluded to with so much enthusiasm, knew exactly what Roger was thinking of. “They call it Ten-Keg, Roger. It’s played with barrels… just like ten-pin.”

“Right again, Hatch!” the captain exploded. “I remember it now. There was a man up there; long, black beard; he wore glasses, and dressed in a bearskin, if I’m not mistaken. Queer sort of fellow, liked to play with dynamite, so they say. Threw a mighty mean keg, too. And man! could that man roll a barrel…”

The unambiguous description immediately made Elmo think of the man he’d seen in the bean field, back at the Iron Gate, and the same one on the other side of the river, the demi-god he just couldn’t seem to drive out of his mind. Could it be... he thought to himself, as both the captain and the merchant suddenly appeared caught up in the nostalgia of the moment.

“Tom Henley…That’s it!” Morgan gleefully exclaimed after a brief moment of sober recollection. “He was an older gentleman. Lived up in the hills. Miner, I suppose. Looked like the devil. But smart as a whip! Like to read books. Educated man, they say. He was on the blue team; I was on the red. It was a close game. We lost, of course. Henley did most of the damage. Wouldn’t want a rematch. That old man damn near killed me! But that’s the name of the game – Ten-Keg. Ain’t no other like it – Eh, Hatch?”

Actually, what the captain was referring to, although his knowledge of the sport was rudimentary at best, was a game they would play in Creekwood Green from time to time known simply and appropriately as ‘Ten-keg’. It was played, quite naturally, with ten corn-kegs, that is to say: beer containers. The objective of the game was simple: to stack all ten kegs in a pyramid fashion one on top of the other, on the opposite side of the Ten-Keg court (a magnificent work of art in and of itself, painted right there on the floorboards of the oldest saloon in Creekwood County) before the opposing team had a chance to do the same. The trick, of course, was to simply get all ten kegs across the court (preferably in one piece) by means punctiliously outlined by the rules thereof. It took skill, courage, a whole lot of nerve; a little luck, perhaps; and, of course, voluminous quantities of beer (as I already mentioned, the kegs had to be empty) which certainly didn’t hurt.

Ten-keg is a very dangerous game; one the merchant and the captain were obviously quite familiar with. What impressed them most about ‘the game’ was the magnificent court on which was played on, which seemed to have been constructed for the sole purpose of accommodating such a novel form of entertainment. It was all hand carved, right into the floor of the old tavern itself, and painted entirely in blue and red, the colors of combat, as any war-child could tell you. The design itself, being chiefly composed of two brightly painted starbursts placed on opposite ends of the hall with a vast array of celestial bodies scattered throughout the wooden tapestry, was a magnificent work of art. ‘Out of this world!’ more modern minds may wonder; a work of extraterrestrial origins, perhaps; put there, it would seem, by some interplanetary space traveler, whose alien space ship just happened to touch upon the humble tavern on the hill one exploratory night (or maybe, they just got lost, as can happen to even the most seasoned space travelers in the galaxy, never mind how advanced) whose mission it was to leave behind some astrological chart of the Universe; perhaps for the benefit of fellow space travelers who might chance to pass that ‘milky’ way in some near or distant future. Or maybe it was simply a gift, in exchange, perhaps, for a few barrels of beer to aid them on their journey home through the stars of some far-away galaxy; a small token of appreciation they’d left behind for these hospitable Earth creatures who, as scientific observation would clearly suggest, would more than likely be extinct by the time these alien mariners of time and space ever returned to see what eventually became of the intoxicated inhabitants of the third stone from the sun who, as evidenced by their behavior alone, were so intent on their mutual annihilation. Needless-to-say, Ten-Keg, along with the voluminous amounts of alcoholic beverages consumed on any given night at Peter Liddle’s Nickel Pig Saloon, would probably have something to do with the alien’s gloomy prognostication. But, as usual, I digress.

Getting back to the Ten-Keg court, there were, moons, stars, planets, along with all manner of solar satellites; a whole constellations, in fact! incorporated into its general astrological makeup, which, even over a good many years, never lost its luster, did not seem to fade, and not once ever in need of paint or repair, despite the harsh punishment it took from those who participated in the barbaric and sometimes deadly sport of Ten-Keg. The images were indelibly circumscribed in the floorboards of the old saloon, fixed, as they were, in the deep dark Heavens, anchored by the gravitational hand of God, secure and permanent as the Milky Way, the rings of Saturn, or the many moons of Jupiter; curiously observed in their revolutionary wonderings by the naked eye of man or, perhaps, through more modern contrivances that allow him to peer, mechanically, that is, even further and deeper into the finite matter of the Universe through telescopic lenses and their own myopic eyes. And what they see is perhaps not unlike the ambiguous renderings transcribed on the floor of the famous tavern, or stitched on the body of Peter Finch, the illustrated sailor himself. But, unlike those inscrutable tattoos sinfully sown in the soul of the wicked master-at-arms, or those sometimes observed in the musty and moldy halls of dead Pharaohs, these hieroglyphs served a more practical purpose and were, at least to those with a basic knowledge of astronomy, decipherable. You see, they not only formed and thus delineated the actual boundaries of the aforementioned ‘Ten-keg’ court on which the game was played, but they were also aligned in such a way and manner so as to coincide with the natural celestial settings they so clearly represented; creating, if you will, a map of the entire Universe, or at least that much of it which could be seen by the naked human eye, comprehended, and microcosmically catalogued in wood. And not only that, these same astronomical lines also delineated the positions of the various players during the course of any particular evening when the game was fully underway. And so were the goals! as properly depicted by the four spectacular starbursts painted ostensibly in each quadrant of the rectangular playing field. To further describe such an astrological masterpiece in one chapter, and in the full detail it so richly and righteously deserves, would be practically impossible. I won’t even make the attempt. Nor will I try to explain at any greater length the exact rules and regulation associated with the time-honored game called Ten-Keg. All that will just have to wait, for another chapter; or maybe even another book. Suffice it to say that, in any case, Ten-Keg had to played, or at least seen, in order to be fully appreciated its true historical value.

In his own condescending but inoffensive way, Morgan questioned the two Harlies once more on the subject he just couldn’t seem to get his off of his mind that evening. “Don't suppose either of you boys would be knowing anything about Ten-keg, now – Would you?” he politely asked, but with a seriousness that across like blue daggers protruding from the sockets of his eyes.

Together the two farmers shook their heads – “No.”

The captain looked not a little disappointed. “Either of you drink?” he summarily asked, pushing the pitcher of beer forward across the table.

Despite a powerful thirst brought on by too much work and not enough food or sleep, Sherman Dixon declined the captain’s generous offer knowing, from personal experience at least, the adverse effects the alcohol would have on his large but sensitive empty stomach; and that they would soon have to be leaving anyway. “No thank you, sir,” he smiled in return, “Must be on our way now. We still gots to finds us a Miracle-Maker. Ain’t that right Mister Cotton?” he suggested.

Elmo pretended not to hear. He wasn’t even sure if such a person even existed. And he certainly didn’t want the captain, or the black-hatted merchant for that matter, to know what his plans or intentions were; at least not until he was able to find this so-called ‘Miracle-Maker, or whoever it was, and do what he had to do.

The captain and the merchant looked at one another in silent wonder.

It was already dark outside, and Sherman knew that he still had to find Bernice Johnson’s house, which would be difficult enough in the daylight, he imagined; the beer would only make it worse.

The thirsty raccoon was thinking that his friend the turtle perhaps might’ve spoken a little too hastily, and that perhaps he should’ve spoken for himself. Actually, he could think of nothing more he wanted at the moment than a tall glass of cold beer; and maybe something to eat; a plateful of Mister Freddie Fripps famous fried frog’s feet, perhaps; to not only rekindle his dwindling spirits but fill the empty void in his stomach. And nothing goes down better with Freddie Fripp’s famous fried frog’s feet than beer; Charlie Kessler’s cornbrew, If you got any; Double print label! If you can find it. The Harlie hadn’t tasted beer in over a year; and he hadn’t eaten a home cooked meal ever since he’d left the old Indian camp; not even one barbecued dog! or broiled raccoon. And hey! Demi-gods have to eat too, you know. It would also give him a chance to prove something to the captain and the merchant he’d been wanting to ever since they met. Exactly what that was, he really didn’t know yet. But he had to say, or do, something – and quick!

“Go on, lads,” Morgan insisted, pushing the container of beer closer to the edge of the table where the thirsty raccoon stood reaching for the glass, almost instinctively, like a man reaching for his gun when he wakes in the middle of the night to the sound of someone breaking in through in the back door.

But the fat man was just a little quicker that night, and pushed the pitcher away from the raccoon’s padded paws just in the nick of time, or so it seemed. “Harlies don’t get drunk,” he sheepishly stated; which even he knew was a lie.

Morgan laughed. “Not on this, you won’t!” he argued while emptying the pitcher of beer in one grimacing gulp. “Say, Hatch,” he beseeched his humble black host. “How about some rum? Give us some rum! Won’t you?”

Naturally, Elijah Hatch knew that rum was the drink of choice for all sailors, and had already paid for a bottle of the finest spirits, imported from the Virgin Islands, to be brought the captain’s table at once. It arrived not a moment too soon, and replaced the empty pitcher of beer with many thanks from the captain who then proceeded to fill his empty glass to the brim with the sweetly spiced, ninety-two proof elixir while singing a line from a song he’d once learned as a cabin-boy when, as it so often happens in the young life an adventurous sailor, he was offered his first taste of the potent adult beverage: a special blend which would one day bear the captain’s own prestigious name.

“Wine is fine at supper time
‘Beer for Breakfast’! Say some
But all night long, I’ll sing this song
Give us whiskey and rum!”

Captain Morgan then turned his immediate attention back to his partner, Elijah Hatch, with a serious expression on an otherwise boyish looking face. “Pay the man!” he ordered, slurring his words by then and raising a half-empty glass of rum to the turtle before finishing it off in one quick satisfying gulp. Apparently, he was anxious to get on with the more pressing business at hand. “He earned it,” belched the captain. “Didn’t he?”

Mister Hatch paid the fat man with a handful of silver coins he tossed across the table. It was more than the original agreement had called for, and more than enough to compensate Mister Dixon and his Harlie helper for their labors that day.

Sherman didn’t even count the money. He simply picked up the coins and placed them in a small moneybag he’d tied to his belt earlier in preparation for the event. He’d thought about putting the money in his shoe, along with the other coins, which certainly would have been the wisest thing to do. Bt the fat farmer wasn’t feeling particularly wise that evening; he was actually feeling quite wealthy, a maybe even a little proud of himself; and pride, as we all have found out at one time or another, likes an audience. He thanked Mister Hatch several times over, nodding his head and stepping back from the table as Captain Morgan’s blood-shot eyes bore through him like a carpenter’s drill. He promised a better crop next season, hoping that he and the black-hatted merchant would be able do business again. He then headed straight for the doors on the far side of Saint Peter’s Hall.

Elmo smiled, with suitcase firmly in hand, as he turned his back on the table to follow in the turtle’s nimble footsteps. He didn’t think it would be wise to state his true intentions at that time, the captain and the merchant having already resumed their previous discussion with even greater urgency then when they had arrived. Apparently, they wished to be left alone.

But lady luck would intercede once more by popping up her pretty altruistic head when, as it sometimes happens when we least expect it, all else fails and Providence does what it does best – it provides. And it couldn’t have happened at a more opportune time, or in a more appropriate way. It involved a problem Elijah Hatch had been thinking about for quite some time, with no solution on the immediate horizon – Until now, that is. The idea came upon him in a flash of inebriated inspiration, as most good ideas generally do at times like these when Necessity suddenly, and sometimes painfully, gives birth to Invention. Call it a miracle; but it was something the merchant simply could not take credit for; he was merely the conduit, a midwife, if you will, in the grand scheme of things. You see, earlier that evening, before they'd gotten down to the real conspiratorial business at hand, he and Captain Morgan had been trying to decide exactly what to do about securing the cook’s position onboard the Maria Aurora. As it were, the cook who was originally commissioned for the duration of the voyage had been put in prison, despite his self-proclaimed innocence (they’re all innocent, you know) and in view of overwhelming evidence against him, for accosting a police officer with a butcher's knife. Before the Harlies reached the other side of the hall, Elijah Hatch had already put forth his proposal.

It happened only three days earlier: the unfortunate and untimely result of a domestic dispute, a lover’s quarrel to be more precise, that ended in tragedy, as many often do. It began as a disagreement, an argument between a man and his wife over a would-be gigolo seeking her unsolicited affections. It would seem, however, that her affections may not have been as unsolicited as she claimed or her jealous husband would have liked. In other word: someone was lying. It was a difficult and delicate situation, as most domestic disturbances usually are, and one that called for official intervention. The police were eventually called in; the officer-in-charge hearing out a sordid tale of wanting lust and betrayal that ended in one final confrontation involving the three suspicious participants. It climaxed, quite naturally, with the arbitrating peace officer coming in between the wife, the gigolo, and an angry husband yielding a meat cleaver. Accusations flew; and so did the meat cleaver, landing at some point during the heated exchange at the right hand of the policeman, leaving him with three less fingers than he had prior to the initial investigation. The cook was taken into custody, of course, and charged with dismemberment. The fingers, along with the bloody butcher knife that severed them were collected as Exhibits ‘A’ and ‘B’. The gigolo was reluctantly sent home, the cook’s unfaithful and insatiable wife trailing not too far behind. It appeared the cook was right after all; and the two would spend their rest of their adulterous lives together in sin and deceit, just as they always had. They deserved each other; and that’s exactly what they got. In the end, it was the gigolo who received the far worst punishment; and the cook could be heard laughing from his cell that day ten mile out to sea. The only ones who weren’t laughing at the time were Roger Morgan and Elijah Hatch. The Judge, despite all legal maneuvering and coercions, including a hundred dollar bond posted by the captain himself, could not mitigate the cook’s harsh sentence (prescribe by law to be no less than one year and a day at hard labor, presumably cooking meals for his fellow inmates, without the aid of his meat cleaver, of course, which was marked Exhibit ‘A’ at his trail and has since mysteriously disappeared, along with the three bloody fingers) a single solitary day. And even with his political influence, which carried a great deal of clout within the jurisdiction of Old Port Fierce, the captain could not spring the cook from his current incarceration. The merchant fared no better.

With only two days left before the evening tide, the Maria Aurora was in desperate need of a ship’s cook - and fast! Both captain and merchant were well-aware that without a cook onboard there would be no voyage; which also meant there would be no Mission; and in that case, Captain Maximilian Orlando would never be found, saved, or rescued. It was as simple as that. Captains come and go, as well as officers and mates; commanders retire; sailors jump ship, when nobody’s looking, that is; but a cook… Ahhhhhh! a good cook lasts forever! And is always in demand; or at least that’s the way it should be. Just ask Spider Cotton, if you ever get to meet the man. As touched upon earlier: the Navy floats on its stomach. No cook, no sail. The sailors themselves would make sure of it, even the ones who had no say in such matters concerning the ship’s itinerary and could easily get themselves court-martialed, or hung, for merely suggesting such a mutinous act of treason. No cook, no sail! Even on short excursions, like say… a trip around Old Manhattan that could hardly last an hour or two, there were some positions that were simply deemed indispensable. Ship’s cook was just one of them. Hell! Every sailor knows that. Captains and commodores we can live without, and often do with great success, but not our bread and butter. But time was running out for the captain of the Maria Aurora, and the tide was coining in.

And so, with no other options available at the time, the die was cast that night at the captain’s table inside the Fisherman’s Hall at The Blue Dolphin Inn in Old Port Fierce; perhaps in the imperceptible presence of the venerable the old saint himself. In one final and desperate act, Captain Roger Morgan would finally put an end to a problem he’d been wrestling with for most of the night: a problem which, if not immediately resolved, would surely have followed the captain of the Maria Aurora to a mutinous end, and perhaps an early grave. He stood up just as the two Harlies reached the two great doors at the head of the Saint Peter’s Hall and, in a thunderous voice that sounded if it came straight from the sanctified lips of the sainted fisherman himself, cried out for all to see and hear that night: “Either of you boys know how to cook!”

The room became disturbingly and understandably quiet. The Harlies looked at one another, and then back at the captain’s table. Elmo smiled. It was his first real job.

Elijah Hatch knew he’d made the right decision after all.

And so did Roger Morgan.


Chapter Five

Fat Moon Friday

(Or, the tale of three towns)

LIKE A BROOM drearily sweeping the dust from the streets of the city, night fell over Old Port Fierce. One by one the stars came out, filling the Heavens with a thousand dancing lights. The man in the moon smiled down from his milky white throne, shining his own special madness down upon the glassy black waters of the bay, as the tide came in and the boats slowly began to rise.

Most of the markets along the Fisherman’s Warf were closed by now after a long hard day of trade. A few late arriving fishing boats could be seen returning from the sea that evening, bows aglow with ghostly yellow lanterns, their outriggers still angled up in position as they trolled lazily through the placid purple water in the hopes of getting one last hit. Long wooden tables placed along the piers, which only an hour ago were delectably stacked high with such fresh edibles as dolphin, wahoo, yellow-tail, mackerel, halibut, snook, snapper, king-fish, sword-fish, blue-fish, blow-fish, dog-fish, cat-fish, elephant-fish, angel-fish, devil-fish, the rare and elusive dragon-fish (thought to be extinct), sting-ray, moray-ell, lobster, crab, and squid were now laid barren and bare and presently being scrubbed clean by adolescent youths working and waiting in glorious hope of one day following in their father’s fishy footsteps as sons of sailors often do. It was night-time in the city of Old Port Fierce, but already they could feel the sun on their face and the wind in their whiskers; even though they were too young to actually grow any whiskers of their own; but it was always fun to pretend; and besides, only walruses have whiskers. Sons of sailor’s have beards.

Before leaving the Blue Dolphin Inn that evening, Elmo agreed to return to the ship first thing in the morning. He was to be the new cook onboard the Maria Aurora; and he couldn’t have been more pleased with himself. He was still the ‘Lucky Number’, or so he imagined, but knew by now that it was more than just luck that had brought him this far. There was something else in play here, something beyond his control and comprehension. He could feel it; he just didn’t know what it was yet, or what to call it. He didn’t even know where he was going. All he knew was that he was on his way; and for the time being, that was enough. But he still had one more score to settle; and to do that, he would first have to find the man they called the Miracle-Maker.

Naturally, the wondering raccoon would be saddened to have to say goodbye to his good friend and neighbor so soon, and wished he could have stayed around just a little while longer. So did Sherman. But the turtle seemed to understand and wished his neighbor well more times than was actually necessary. They would, however, have to spend one last night together at the home of Alma Johnson before that happened. And for that, at least, they were both.

“You sure is lucky, Mister Cotton,” said the turtle with his trademark smile firmly intact. “But you is peculiar, too. Mighty peculiar.”

It was something Elmo had heard many times before, and not only from other Harlies. “Now what make you go and say somethin’ like that, Sherman?” he asked while climbing back up on the empty wagon with his suitcase in tow.

“Let me ‘splain,” said the farmer, matter-of-factly. “The way I sees it, is this: First you goes up in them ol’ hills with all those Creekmens. Then you runs away all secret-like. And then you’s gone for almost a year? Don’t tell nobody where you go. And then I finds you walkin’ along the river, lookin’ likes the devil his-self. ‘Would you please gives me a ride, Sherman?’ says you. Sure, I will! says I But first you says you gots to find this here Miracle-man….”

“Maker!” Elmo corrected. “They calls him the Miracle-Maker.”

“That’s what I say…Miracle-man. And you still ain’t finds him yet.

“Never mind,” sighed the raccoon.

“Anyway,” continued the turtle, “Seems like only yesterday you was just a po’ ol’ dirt farmer from Harley… just like me! And now, here you is; you and that ol’ nasty suitcase, in Ol’ Port Fierce, getting’ ready to take off in a bo…. I means, ship, with Mister Hatch and all them sailor-mens. Now if you don’t minds me sayin’ so, Mister Cotton, that there am mighty peculiar.”

Elmo didn’t mind. In fact, he agreed with almost everything his neighbor had to say up until that point, except for one thing: “I ain’t like you, Sherman,” he said, almost as if he was ashamed of his cowardly friend and neighbor; and then, after thinking it over a little, he added: “But if I was...” he paused, “just like you, then maybe I’s wouldn’t be in so much trouble.” It sounded almost like an apology. It was.

The turtle smiled, “Gid-up!, Abraham,” he whistled.

Elmo wouldn’t let it go at that. “You know…” he continued, “I ain’t even a good bean farmer. And I ain’t much of a cook, either. I just told that to Mister Hatch so’s I could goes along. Do you understand what I’s sayin’, Sherman? I ain’t never cooks for that for that many mens befo’. Most I ever cooks fo’ is me, Homer, and some Creekmens… that makes nine, if I’s countin’ right. And look’ye here, I done counted twenty-four sailor-mens on the bo....”

“Ship!” corrected the turtle.

“…. today,” continued the raccoon, “and I knows there gots to be mo’ than that. Bo… I means ship, that size, gots to hold at least fifty mens. Don’t you think, Sherman?”

The turtle didn’t look surprised, or insulted. He knew that his neighbor was right, about a good many things; and the truth of the matter, although he was too ashamed to admit it just then, was that he often wished he could be more like the raccoon himself. He knew it took a lot of courage to do what he’d done; and deep down, he knew that Elmo was innocent, just like he said he was. There was never any doubt in his mind about it; although he wished his good friend and neighbor had never ran away, and still couldn’t understand exactly why he did it in the first place, thinking, perhaps, that an honest judge and jury would most likely exonerate him sooner or later; if they didn’t hang him first. But it was too late for all that, and there was nothing he could do about it. Well,” said the turtle , trying to offer the troubled raccoon the encouragement he was so desperately looking for just then, “The way I sees it, all you gots to do is cook just for yo’self… but put in fifty mo’ of everythin’ else into the pot.”

Elmo mulled it over in his mind. “I don’t think it works like that, Sherman.”

“It do for me!”

“Maybe,” replied the raccoon,” But when it comes to eatin’… everythin’ works for you, Sherman. Even road-kill catfish, and throwed-up carrots. Why, I reckon you’d eat them nasty ol’ shoes right off yo’ feet if someone put enough mustard on ‘em,” Elmo declared a little too late and, perhaps, a little too harshly. “I’m Sorry, Sherman, I didn’t mean...”

“Oh, that’s alright, Mister Cotton. Everyone know how much I likes to eat. Humph! And you’re right about that, too… the mustard, I mean. Can’t never have enough mustard, I reckon.”

Elmo laughed. “I really wish you could comes along with me, Sherman. Don’t think the captain would mind very much. I know Mister Hatch wouldn’t. ‘Course, I don’t know ‘bout those other mens, ‘specially the one that slapped up up-side the head. Don’t ‘spose he…”

“You be careful with that man,” the turtle interrupted. “Sumpin’ ain’t right with him. Cap’n even say so. He’s gots the devil in him, he do.”

“Don’t worry, Sherman. I knows ‘nough ‘bout devils.”

The turtle shook his head and said, “To tell you the truth… I wish I could go with you, Elmo. I truly do.” The fact that he addressed the raccoon by his first name was enough to let Elmo know how sincere he actually was and how much he really meant it. “But you knows me, Mister Cotton, I’s just a po’ ol’ dirt farmer from Harley. What would I be doin’ on a bo… I mean ship, anyway? Besides, my wife be ‘spectin’ me home fo’ too long. And you know, Bernice… Now that be one woman what don’t like to wait up for no man. And look’ye here, Mister Cotton!” exclaimed the portly turtle, “I’s too fat to goes on any ol’ ship, or a boat! And even if I do… that be one boat that gonna sink fo’ sho’ the. And I ain’t lyin’.”

“Well, I don’t know too much ‘bout boats,” said Elmo, a little suspiciously. “But I do knows a thing or two ‘bout rafts – and sinkin’, too! Almost….”

“But, look’ye here!” Sherman rejoined, a bit more optimistically. “Uncle Joe would sho’ be proud of you, Mister Cotton – damn proud! if you ‘scuse my language. And I’s proud, too,” added the proud turtle with a noticeable tear in his eye that didn’t go entirely un-noticed by the appreciative raccoon, “maybe even mo’ proud than Uncle Joe.”

‘I wish he be here right now,” said Elmo as the empty wagon creaked slowly over the cobblestones of Old Port Fierce.

Just then a big blue horsefly appeared, out of nowhere it seemed, flying in the face of the fat man. “Well, you know, Mister Cotton…” said the turtle, thrusting out his big brown hand and catching the insect in mid-flight, just like Uncle Joe would do on his front porch back in Harley, “maybe he is...” He then slowly opened his hand and let the horsefly go.

Leaving the wooden decks and the bulwark and bollards behind them, the two Harlies headed northwest along Front Street in the direction of Shadytown. It was getting late, and they still had to find Alma Johnson’s house, in the dark. Elmo was still thinking about the Miracle-Maker, and few other things, as he reached down the left leg of his overalls just to make sure the knife was still there. It was.

Meanwhile, Elijah Hatch was on his way back to the ship after another long and exhausting talk with Captain Roger Morgan. There still remained some unfinished business between them, but nothing that couldn’t wait until they were under way, reckoned the merchant, and nothing that would seriously alter their plans, or the mission.

Having left the captain with another bottle of rum back at Saint Peter’s Hall, and having drank a little more than perhaps he should have that night, especially before such a long and un-certain voyage, Mister Hatch suddenly found himself in a mellow, even melancholy, mood as he approached the Maria Aurora under the light of a full moon. He’d made it a point of always inspecting the ship the night before any major excursion, especially ones that were headed for the Islands where supplies were hard to come by, if they could be found at all; and even when they were found, they often came at a very inflated price. Best have one last peek, he said to himself, stalking up the gangplank like a black-hatted burglar. It was a ritual he’d performed ever since his days in the Navy, a way of making sure that everything was ready, even just hours before they were piloted out of the bay. It was just the right thing to do. In everything but title, Elijah Hatch was still a captain and only doing what all good captains do before a long voyage; besides, he always liked to be the first one onboard, and he didn’t mind being alone. There was something about strolling the empty deck in the small hours of the morning when there was nobody else around; it made him feel… well, it made him feel good; like waking up in a full house when everyone is still upstairs in bed fast asleep. Everything seems so strange, different; even the old kitchen table takes on a whole new appearance, and meaning. Meanwhile, Roger Morgan was doing the things he did best, which involved a woman with a painted face, oversized breasts (at least for someone of her petite stature) and a broad backside that would sway from side to side like the broad beam of an outrigged fishing boat as she trolled the streets of Shadytown for just one more hot. They’d actually meet earlier that night at outside of the Blue Dolphin Inn; and it wasn’t the first time.

As it turned out, she just happened to be renting a room, cheaply and conveniently, it would seem, right above the sainted saloon. The merchant was there when she and Morgan first exchanged glances just before entering the hall that evening. It was the captain’s prerogative, and perhaps his privilege, as the merchant was well aware of, to have one last fling the night before any major excursion; something the sons-of sailors referred to as ‘droppin’ the anchor’, among other nautical analogies. It was really no secret; in fact, you might even call it tradition; unless, of course you happen to be the captain’s wife (if he had one, that is) in which case you would probably have another name for it, which would not so nautical, or nice. It was a practice Elijah Hatch never indulged in himself; not only from a moral standpoint, but for more personal reasons; hygiene being very high on Hatch’s list of priorities, especially whenever sailors and their various acquaintances were concerned. Venereal disease was still a major issue at the time; and the cure was sometimes more fatal than the disease, and just as painful. Besides, Captain Hatch had always led by example, and he didn’t see any need to change now; even thought he was a civilian. But, as they say: boys will always be boys, and captains are no exceptions. But there was something else on the merchant’s mind that night; and the closer he got to the ship, the more apparent it became. There was obviously something going on; something Elijah Hatch just didn’t like.

Several strong-armed sailors, three altogether counted the merchant, were vigorously working the gangplanks of the Maria Aurora. He’d seen them before, but couldn’t quite remember where, or when. He touched the brim of his hat and they saluted in return, as though they didn’t know who he was but wanted to make sure he understood they were there on official business, whatever that happened to be so late in the evening, and under orders to do so. They were carrying small barrels, it seemed, and large wooden crates down into the hull of the ship, which Mister Hatch assumed to be already filled to the plimsole by then. Although it wasn’t out of the ordinary to be stowing a few last minute supplies on board just before a long voyage at sea, it was peculiar, thought the on merchant; and it was late. Morgan never mentioned anything to him about it; and neither did Mister Scrubb, the boatswain, who would not only be aware of such activities, but would more than likely be in charge of the stowage. Perhaps Nathan had other things on his mind at the time, Hatch concluded, not unlike the well-endowed woman he’d seen earlier that day outside the Blue Dolphin Inn who had caught the captain’s wondering eye like a worm at the end of a hook. He would have a talk with Morgan the morning.

Still, all the late night activities struck the merchant as very odd, peculiar. The men had been given enough man-hours to get the job of loading the vessel done by nightfall; and the merchant hadn’t heard of any additional or last minute supplies being ordered for the voyage, which he thought was something the captain would’ve brought up at their last meeting had that been the case. Something was wrong, or at least not exactly right, he suspiciously thought to himself; or, as an old acquaintance once said to him just before setting out on a similar voyage: ‘It just don’t boil the beans, Mister Hatch. It just don’t boil the beans’. The sailor’s name was Cotton, Reginald Cotton, although his shipmates called him ‘Spider’. He was a cook on board the Firefly. And he just so happened to be a Harlie, which made the merchant wonder.

Standing in the moon shadow of a weather-worn bollard, the merchant kept his distance as he watched the three men labor throughout the night in their clandestine and questionable activities. He thought he recognized at least one of them, but he couldn’t be sure. When the last barrel was rolled up the gangplank, onboard, the sailors left. The last the merchant saw of them, they were headed in the direction of the Blue Dolphin Inn. Feeling more uncertain about Roger Morgan than he did just an hour ago, and ‘the mission’ in general, Mister Elijah Hatch decided he might have another word with the captain before they went to bed. But first he would have to find him, which he knew wouldn’t be easy, especially with all the beds in Old Port Fierce. He decided it could probably wait until the morning; meanwhile, he thought he’d make one final inspection of the Maria Aurora before turning in. And that’s exactly what he did.

* * *

IT WAS LATE IN THE EVENING by the time the farmer and the raccoon rolled into the downtown section of Old Port Fierce. It was already past suppertime but the streets were still streaming with colorfully dressed pedestrians, promenading up and down the avenue like so many peacocks on their way to a fox's funeral. And there was a good reason for all this: It was called the ‘Fat Moon Friday’; and things were just getting started.

The celebration would continue long into the night, and probably into the next one as well. ‘Fat Moon Friday’ was a traditional event in Old Port Fierce as old as the city itself. It occurred almost religiously, once a month! as a matter of historical fact, just as the first beams of the full moon rose up out of the sea like a ghost from a watery grave, and just as pale. It was a time for fun, frivolity, eating, drinking (especially drinking), toasting and roasting, singing and dancing, playing in the in the streets, along with a little mischief making, and general doing what all folks always do on such fine and festive occasions: having a ‘hell of a good time!’ on a fat-moon Friday night, in Ol’ Port Fierce.

‘Fat Moon Friday’, as it has been called since its enigmatical conception, began, one could only assume, as a way of marking the end of one full lunar cycle and the beginning of a new one, which, in and of itself is really not much of an accomplishment, considering the fact that the tracking of celestial satellites, the moon in particular, has been going on for centuries, if not eons, as predictable as the tide, or woman’s menstrual period. But it was more than that – much more! What better way to welcome that great goddess of the moon in all of her lunar glory and milky white wonder than with a celebration in her honor? Celebrated by poets and prophets and gazed upon at night by lovers and troubadours who serenade one another by the sanctifying light of the silvery moon. And what better way to celebrate her undeniable presence? as she waxes white in the midnight sky, smiling down her own special blessings upon the face of the water, and the earth; the good, good, earth, while brother sun snores in the Heavens, somewhere on the far side of forever. Who wouldn’t celebrate?

And celebrate you should! especially if you happened to be one of those sky-worshiping astronomers who are so easily mesmerized by such celestial observations; or better yet, a hopeless alcoholic who is sometimes attracted, usually as he staggers home late at night to an angry wife and an empty bed howling at the moon, to the movements of planets, stars, and other celestial observations he may soon be seeing in his own forgetful mind as the rolling-pin, or maybe even a frying pan, comes down upon his howling head, reminding him, if nothing else, that the hand that rocks the cradle also holds the iron. So drink up! all my fellow star-gazers and winos. Drink, I say! To the devil and the deep blue sea. And toast him, while you’re at it… the man on the moon himself! And if you can get him to buy you one more round… well, that’s what friends are for. And for those of us not so inclined to academic pursuits or howling at the moon, Fat Moon Friday was merely a convenient excuse for yet another night of shameful exhibitionism and perhaps a little self-gratification. Many found it a cathartic; a form of entertainment; a safety valve, if you will; a necessary release of energy and emotion that might otherwise explode if left to its own natural and volatile devices. There were, however, those who took a more sobering view of the monthly ritual, declaring it nothing more than an alcoholic state of self-induced lunacy, inspired, perhaps, by the ol’ drunkard himself, Satan! who, no doubt, not only conjured up the idea of ‘Fat Moon Friday’ in the first place as he stalked the lonely halls of Perdition wondering what else he could do to expand his infernal kingdom and fill his wretched ranks with more imps and sinful souls to serve under his satanic red banner, but orchestrated it on a monthly basis from that same fiery throne below, and for his own unholy amusement and diabolical purpose. At least, that’s the way they saw it. And from a certain outside perspective, these pious purveyors of truth and decency weren’t far off the mark in their hellish assessment; although their numbers always ranked in the minority and were forever dwindling, or so it seems.

For the most part, and especially for those residing in Shadytown where it was said to have originated, Fat Moon Friday simply meant another month of survival in the city, which, depending on your station in life and, perhaps, your own personal point of view, might very well be something worth celebrating; and in heroic proportion! But rich or poor, young or old, lunatic, heretic, pirate, poet, priest or prophet, it really didn’t matter; Fat Moon Friday was for everyone! And that’s what made it so special, so human, and certainly worth celebrating. That’s what made it real. And that’s what it was really all about: not the moon, or any other stars or satellites fixed upon the Heavenly tapestry we sometimes falsely worship, but the worshippers themselves! just as in worshipping any idol, though we curse the altars they stand on, we merely worship ourselves.

No one was exactly sure how Fat Moon Friday came about, or where or when it actually began; although most folks agreed that it probably started somewhere in Shadytown, perhaps on Avenue ‘D’ where, as the Psalmists sings: ‘Satan waits like a crouching lion…’

But it really didn’t matter; and Fat Moon Friday didn’t necessarily coincide with the end of each lunar cycle as so many came to believe; that being the grand appearance of the first full-faced moon. But it always happened on Friday. And if the two periodic events just happened to fall on the exact same day, which as we all well know occasionally happened... well then, so much the better, and all the more reason to celebrate! Full moon or new moon, or any phase in-between, it really didn’t matter. But it always occurred on a Friday. That much was certain. Always did, always will. It may as well have been written on two tablets: the eleventh commandment! chiseled in stone, inscribed by the holy finger of God Himself who surely must have overlooked it somehow while preparing the Holy Text. Or maybe, as some have solicitously suggested, and not in jest least they suffer the eternal flames of hell and Lucifer’s legendary legions, it was not overlooked after all! and that somehow, for whatever religious reasons we may never know, the lost commandment was not lost at all, but intentionally destroyed, when Moses, out of sheer madness and perhaps utter frustration, cast the original tablets containing the missing mandate at the idolatrous calf, breaking the golden spell of the Egyptians forever and commissioning the loyal Levites to cut down all his faithless followers. We may never know? But what we do know is this: Jehovah reigns! Then as always, showering down his blessings on the good and the evil, the rich and the poor, the priest and the pagan, Jew and Gentile even on Fat Moon Friday night, just as He rained down manna from Heaven on those same insufferable Jews four thousand years ago in the Sinai desert.

For all intents and purposes and as previously catalogued, Fat Moon Friday was celebrated at least once a month, usually at the end of each and every one of the twelve lunar cycles making up the full calendar year, whether the moon was full or not. It was suggested by some that at one time the auspicious festival, which actually did have its surly roots in Shadytown, was held only at such a time when, in fact, the full moon did happen to fall on any particular Friday, as the title literally suggests. But due to the rarity of the occasion, as well as the impact it had on the local economy that always seemed to be struggling at best, all that had quickly changed. And so, in order to accommodate a growing interest in that one special event, along with the commerce it generated, Fat Moon Friday was extended to include the last Friday of each and every month of the year, regardless of the shape or size of that magnificent satellite that somehow possessed the strange and compelling power of changing minds as well as the tides.

It was in that part of Old Port Fierce, more commonly known as Shadytown, where Fat Moon Friday was said to have originated. It was a tradition, a way of life, as much a part of the old port city as the bay itself and the thousands of ships that had been coming in and out of the grand harbor for over a hundred years. And it really didn’t matter how the moon, or any other celestial body for that matter, waxed and waned in God’s heavenly vault, or how many, or how few, people actually attended the gala nocturnal event. And it didn’t matter where they came from, either. Fat Moon Friday was for everyone. It was just that simple; it was here to stay. And there was nothing anyone could do to stop it, even if they had wanted to. It was a calendar event remembered more often than most birthdays and anniversaries. It eclipsed all other holidays and outnumbered any congregation, public or private, including all the Sunday morning services combined. In fact, Fat Moon Friday was even more popular than Fisherman’s Day, which was celebrated once a year in May in honor of the holy disciple himself, Saint Peter, which, in some social circles was considered nothing less than sacrilege, and maybe even Blasphemy, if not downright heresy! But we all fall short on such occasions, I suppose; and didn’t the venerable ol’ saint himself have his own faults, which, as we all know were overlooked on more than one occasion? We all can’t walk on water; but we all lighten up and live once in a while, even if that means rocking the boat from time to time. And if there was ever a time to rock the boat, Fat Moon Friday was as good a time as any. Thank God it only happened once a month.

Fat Moon Friday worked. It had to work. And it worked especially well for those who knew it best and celebrated it the most: the good, the bad, the poor and the proud, the ugly and the beautiful, which pretty much summed up the entire demographic population of Shadytown at the time. These were the colored folks, Negroes for the most part, who lived desperately but in relative comfort on the lower rungs of societal evolution, doing what they do best, what they’ve done for over a hundred year: They survived. They had little and owned even less; but somehow, they always managed to get by. Like the poet once said: “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose…’ They lived day to day, hand to mouth, on the ‘Shady’ side of town known, quite appropriately, as Shadytown.

Perhaps it was just their stubborn pride that afforded the good citizens of Shadytown, often at their own expense, such a colorful and carefree existence; a life envied, at times, by those living in more prosperous parts of the country who sometimes wished their culture and lifestyle was as free and uncomplicated as those in Shadytown and Old Port Fierce, and perhaps a little more integrated. But ‘old dogs die hard’ some would say, and so do old habits; and there was still enough discrimination to go around. But if the truth be told here, and it should, the people of Old Port Fierce and Shadytown actually had more in common than either one would care to admit. Geographically speaking, they were all part of the same city anyway, Old Port Fierce, having grown apart over the years like two roots stemming remotely from the same ancient tree, as more discriminating influences were introduced into the famous city, further separating the populace.

Being one of the oldest and most prosperous cities on the entire southern continental seaboard, Port Fierce, as it had originally been called (the adjective ‘Old’ having only recently been added as a means of differentiating it from another Port Fierce located in the great state of Florida that claimed, without merit of course, to be even older than the old port city itself) was by far one of the largest ports on the entire eastern seaboard, and the busiest. Shadytown, which actually began as a small housing community to accommodate the early slave population located in the northwest section of the city, was only one of the newer and poorer annexations to the old metropolis and, for reasons that will soon become self-evident, never considered a legitimate part of the city.

The citizens of Old Port Fierce were, relatively speaking, well-off. This was due chiefly due to the shipping industry that was, and still is for that matter, one of the most lucrative in that part of the new world, as were the fisheries that thrived and profited there in and around the bay, and even the deeper waters of the vast Atlantic. The two adjoining cities just happened to be located, either strategically or conveniently, probably both, on opposite sides of a pair of railroad tracks that didn’t even exist but still somehow managed to delineate the two towns and divide them not only economically, but along social and cultural lines as well. Any and all other differences separating the two neighboring townships were purely genetic, and probably not worth mentioning. Suffice it to say they were locally accepted, generally understood, and tolerated as long as there was always ‘the other side of the tracks’ to go back to, especially after Fat Moon Friday.

Despite what some may think of it, the name Shadytown had nothing to do with the complexion of the skin of those who resided in that infamous part of the city by the bay. It’d been called ‘Shadytown’ for as long as most folks could remember. One reason may be on account of the numerous sea-oaks found in that proximity that not only grew to menacing proportions but seemed to encroach nearly each and every street, particularly along Avenue ‘D’ where their thick pervasive roots could be seen sprouting right up through the concrete, like prairie dogs on the plain, turning solid rock into rumble and cobblestone into pebbles. Above, their overlapping branches could actually be seen forming a ‘shady’ green canopy for practically the entire length of the grand corridor, which subsequently blocked out all but the most penetrating rays of sunlight, keeping heads and tempers cool on those long hot summer days, and adding celebratory atmosphere in general. Like a great green circus-top it sometimes appeared, or a long and leafy tunnel through which elves and elephants pass, especially in the springtime when the leaves were thick and green, and the song-birds nested in the golden boughs. It was the perfect place to hold a celebration. And celebrate they did! But they never celebrated alone; for it was not uncommon for the folks in the downtown area of Old Port Fierce, mostly of the Caucasian persuasion, to meander across the tracks (figuratively speaking of course, simply because, as touched upon previously, there weren’t any, rail or otherwise, separating the two sections of the old port city lying equally north and south of one another as they had for the last one hundred years) at their own risk and leisure.

It was during Fat Moon Friday, which, for reasons previously touched upon lasted for one night, when the bolder and more adventurous citizens of Old Port Fierce would venture forth across the aforementioned invisible tracks in search of entertainment that could only be found on the north side of that same imaginary border; in Shadytown, that is. It was usually these same inquisitive pilgrims, the ones with large purses and fair complexion who, for a variety of reasons, seemed the most venerable and, for obvious reasons, the least inconspicuous.

It was during this special time of the month when folks on the right (or should I say the ‘white’) side of the invisible tracks, would partake of, and participate in, such activities that they might otherwise find amoral, or at least objectionable, in their own home towns. It was a time when temperance took a holiday, or at least a back-seat, and virtue was checked at the door like an old comfortable hat you never really liked to begin with but somehow always found indispensable, and something you just couldn’t live without, especially when you were getting ready to leave and you suddenly noticed it was raining. It was a time when all that separated the legal from the illegal, the good from the bad, was a long, thin gray line, fuzzy at times and in certain places, and perhaps one’s own conscience.

To put it more succinctly and in its proper context, Fat Moon Friday was paganism in its purest, simplest and, perhaps, most naked form. It was Hedonistic, a night to hoot and howl, and without waking up the neighbors simply because… well, if your neighbors weren’t there already, they were most likely still on their way there to Shadytown on Fat Moon Friday night, hooting and howling in their own orthodox way, which the more colorful and unorthodox folks of Shadytown often found amusing, and sometimes downright embarrassing. As they say: ‘when in Rome…’ But this wasn’t Rome; and there those are times when cultures, like empires, simply can’t help but clash. And what a noxious noise! But you have to give them credit for tying, as they hooted and howled at the moon, like they do on the ‘Shady’ side of town, along with the beggars and thieves, princes and paupers, the good and the bad we find in any spirited congregation. Either way, you always were in good company and never had to worry, as long as your remembered where you were and which side of the invisible ‘tracks’ you belonged; and it was always a good idea to know how to get back. Accommodation in Shadytown were… well, shady, and not always available. Many would wind up sleeping in their own wagons, if they had a wagon to sleep in; others simply stayed awake for the festive entire weekend which, considering where they were and who they might be sleeping with, was not necessarily a bad idea. And if there was anyone still sleeping in Shadytown on Fat Moon Friday night – Quick! Check for a pulse! Call a doctor! Or perhaps even (gulp…) the coroner! Hurry! Fetch Lester Cox! He’s probably somewhere around; or any other undertaker you can find whose services will surely be put to good use; for if, indeed, that were the case, and the poor soul was more than likely dead already and fit for one of Lester’s famous caskets… with a money back guarantee, of course.

Allowing for, and therefore supporting, such decadent behavior was a lively and diverse conglomeration of patrons that seemed to gravitate to Shadytown from all parts of the eastern seaboard. They came by horse and wagon, buggies and boats (which included anything they could attach wheels to, or would float) or else they simply walked, which, depending on where they were coming from and how far they had to travel, was never a certainty. The railroads had not been constructed that far south yet, which was a source of major disappointment to those who could afford such luxuries and would certainly have welcomed the new transit system, along with the expediency it offered. The ‘Iron Horse’, as the new locomotives were appropriately, at least in a metaphorical sense, became widely known as, was the future; at least in the eyes those who were able see the potential, and the profit, in the mechanized and developing world of the industrial revolution; but to others of more traditional values, who would just as well keep things as they were, the railroad represented just another nail in a coffin that was beginning to look a little less foreboding, or at least not as grim as it once did when horses were made of flesh and blood and iron was for something your wife did when your clothes needed pressing. Sometimes they arrived on Riverboats that came down the great ‘White Snake’ of the Redman River, which were considered by many as mere floating replicas of the infamous city itself, equipped onboard with every vice known to man, including gambling and prostitution, and then some.

Having long established their own special way of life alien to other parts of the region, the peoples of Old Port Fierce protected their culture in a practical, if not so innovative way; and that was by simply never fully integrating with that of any other culture. Needless-to-say, the folks of Shadytown were no so different, although their segregation was more mandatory and less conciliatory than that of their Caucasian neighbors to the south. Despite all they had in common, culturally, geographically, historically, and even spiritually, the two factions rarely mixed – except, of course, on Fat Moon Friday when, through mutual allowances, intermingling of the races was not only tolerated and condoned but, in many cases even welcomed. Under normal circumstances, however, the two races remained as segregated as their Creekwood and Harlie cousins to the North.

Was it pride or prejudice that finally drove the good folks of Shadytown and Old Port Fierce to the opposite sides of the invisible tracks? Maybe it was a little of both. More than likely, and quite ironically, it was the war itself that may have led to the great divorce, or at least contributed to its ultimate and predictable end, exacerbated, perhaps, by certain tensions and misgivings between the races that didn’t exist, at least not in such hateful overtures, prior to the gunshots at Fort Sumter, and would take a century, or more, to repair, if that was at all possible. Fear was the real cause and culprit, principal and agent, that malignant necessity that not only conquers but divides, instilling in both victor and victim such hatred and hostilities alien to their better natures while reinforcing their own stubborn and prejudicial views on one another. It was just one of those things, I suppose, that could be neither diagnosed nor disguised, no matter how clever or beguiling the mask; not even on Fat Moon Friday night when, chiefly for the sake of the anonymity, but more so for the sheer enjoyment of it, papier-mâché masks of many shapes and colorful sizes could often be found covering the faces of those who took not only the time and the energy to construct such creative contrivances out of an already busy work schedule but, in some cases, especially when the masks were large, extravagant and expensively designed, would invest their last penny just to make sure that theirs would be the talk of the town long after the festivities ended and the clowns have all gone to bed. Naturally, the masks did more than simply add to the festive flavor of the occasion and the gay atmosphere in general, they were, in their own discretionary and self-serving way, just another way of escaping, if only for a day or two, the harsh realities of a life they’d grown not only immune to, but come to accept in a most magnanimous way. It was something the peaceful colored folk of Shadytown had been doing for as long as they could remember, and something the less colorful but more affluent folks of Old Port Fierce could only gaze upon and wonder with applause and appreciation, and perhaps even a little envy.

As for the good folks of Creekwood Green who lived just as far from the old Port City (and glad of it, for the most part) and to a lesser extent their Harlie neighbors to the east, they too were sometimes drawn into the previously described lunar sphere of madness and mayhem. But Creekfolk were slightly different and, to be honest, proud of it. They were not like those in Shadytown, or Old Port Fierce, however closely related they might actually be, both culturally and genetically to the latter. They were the sons and daughters of the original ‘Crackers’, those who drove their herds of cattle across the grasslands and plains, grazing all the way to the markets where they were sold by the pound to the highest bidder; some were then transported by rail to the meat processing factories to the north, where they were mercilessly butchered: food to feed a young and hungry nation. Others, like the heads of yellow-hammers that were driven across the everglades of Florida, were packed on ships in Punta Rosa, like so many sardines in a can, to be sold in Cuba and other foreign markets in the southern hemisphere. To this day you can still hear the ‘crack’ of the whip in everything the Creekfolk said and did. It was something they just couldn’t hide: like the ‘twang’ in their throats that gave their voices such that distinctive and recognizable sound. It was in their bones, and in their brains. It was in their blood. They could change it if they wanted to. And they never would.

Naturally, the crack of the whip meant something else all together to the good folks Harley, and the bad ones for that matter. And even though they were never more than a few miles away from the Creekwood Green, separated only by those old Iron Gates, which have already been described in sufficient detail, it wasn’t far enough. Many could still hear the ‘crack’ of that whip, and count, not unlike our raccoon friend who suffered equal injustice, the strips left on many a proud and stubborn back. But we’ve covered that ground already, and know just about all there is to know about Harley, and hardships endured by its humble citizenry; and so, for the present, we shall dispense from any further extrapolations in that localized area and focus more firmly on the three remaining townships as the title of this chapter clearly suggests.

Not unlike their darker complexioned neighbors to the northeast, the ‘Greens’, as they were sometimes called by the Harlies, justifiably so, but without prejudice and never in the pejorative sense, maintained their own cultural roots and cultivated them with the same care, attention, and pride as did the Harlies to the east, but from a more European perspective, perhaps. But even so, some of those roots, however manifested in clear blue eyes and alabaster skin were, in fact, connected to the same proverbial Tree, both literally and figuratively, and maybe more closely than some Greens and Harlies would actually have liked, or cared, to admit. And if you look real close, you just might see evidence of this phenomenon, both sociologically as well a physiologically. It’s biological, I suppose; just like…like, sex! As it just so happens when two chromosomes come together in close enough proximity of one another, either by accident or design, something miraculous often occurs. The same may be said of cultural exchanges, although it usually takes a little longer, and is not as much fun. Not only do the two become inextricably linked like the spiraling double helix of a single strand of DNA, and they sometimes produce what is commonly referred to as a ‘hybrid’, as in the case of one Mister Elmo Cotton, our raccoon on the run, whether they accept their unique new status or not. And it doesn’t happen in a vacuum; nothing in Nature ever does. We all have roots; some go a little deeper than others. Many roots, many branches; but only one Tree. Naturally, most of them are buried by now, either deliberately or through lack of proper nourishment. But they all stem from the same Tree, regardless of kin and culture; kill one, and the whole Tree suffers; prune the branches, and it thrives!

Likewise, the more modest folks of Shadytown, taking no exception to this time-honored tradition, protected their own culture just as fiercely, albeit in a less discriminating manner. It was clear that they would never (not in their own lifetime anyway) achieve the social status of their neighbors to the South in Old Port Fierce, not even after the Great Emancipation; but somehow, that didn’t seem to matter. Some things are slow to change, if they change at all; and even when the opportunities did occur, either through progress, philanthropy, political incentives, good fortune, or just plain dumb luck, they were seldom sized upon in Shadytown, where life in general always remained the same, for better or worse (usually for the worse), except, of course, on Fat Moon Fridays when, for apocalyptic reasons, they would become , if for only one night out of the month, the toast of the town! celebrities in their own regal right, and with all due respect; not unlike Quasimodo, the famous French bell-ringer of Notre dame who, much to his surprise and delight, suddenly, and quite unexpectantly, found himself in a similar circumstance as he was ceremoniously crowned ‘King of the fools!’ one fine and festive evening in the squalor streets of gay Paris!. Hey, every crown has its privileges…as well as its thorns.

‘It’s in the jeans…’ some would suggest. Not so much in the biological sense, but rather, in the material: Denim – blue jeans, of course! to use its more modern and colorful description. Jeans were first created in Genoa, Italy when the city was an independent republic and a great naval power. The first were made for the Genoese Navy because it required all-purpose trousers for its sailors that could be worn wet or dry, and whose legs could easily be rolled up to wear while swabbing the deck. These jeans would be laundered by dragging them in large mesh nets behind the ship where the sea water would bleach them white. The first denim came from Nîmes, France, hence de Nimes, the name of the fabric. The French bleu de Gênes, from the Italian blu di Genova, literally the ‘blue of Genoa’ dye of their fabric, is the root of the names for these trousers, ‘jeans’ and ‘blue jeans’, today. The first jeans came in two styles, indigo blue and brown cotton ‘duck.’ Unlike denim, the duck material never became soft and comfortable so it was eventually dropped from the line. Although denim pants had been around as work wear for many years, historically dating back to England in the 1600s with a fabric there called denim, it was the first use of rivets that created what we now call jeans. ‘Waist overalls’ was the traditional name for work pants, which is what these first jeans were called. In 1789 George Washington toured a Massachusetts factory producing machine-woven cotton denim. Dungarees, or overalls, such as the ones worn by our own raccoon on the run, Elmo Cotton, have been around since 1792, and were predominantly used as a protective garment for slaves, farmers, railroad workers, mechanics and other blue collar laborers alike.In being cheap, ill-fitting and made of rough, but durable cotton cloth, they carried a stigma to mark the low status of their wearer. In 1853, when the California gold rush was in full swing, and everyday items were in short supply, Levi Strauss, a twenty-four year old German immigrant, left New York for San Francisco with a small supply of dry goods with the intention of opening a branch of his brother's New York dry goods business. Shortly after his arrival, a prospector wanted to know what Mister Strauss was selling. When Strauss told him he had rough canvas to use for tents and wagon covers, the prospector said, ‘You should have brought pants!’ saying he couldn’t find a pair of pants strong enough to last.Some called them dungarees; others called them overalls. It was strong stuff; and it was cheap too! Cotton, of course, was king. It was grown primarily on the Southern plantations, along with tobacco and other organic commodities, and shipped to textile mills not only in the Northern industrial states, all over the world where it became the stuff of tents, sails, and other canvass goods. But the Harlies didn’t need tents and sails… they needed pants! just like the vociferous prospector, along with other articles of clothing made from the same raw material they most likely picked with their own ‘cotton-picking’ hands. But things were different after the war: money was tight; much of it was actually worthless. Many went without; they made do, or simply did the best they could by improvising, adapting and overcoming, as they’d done for over a hundred years. This was particularly true in the devastated South where reconstruction would be a slow and painful process, if it proceeded at all. And they weren’t alone in that regard. War does not discriminate; and even the winners can sometimes be losers. Indeed, many a New York Yankee could be found at that time wondering the streets of lower Manhattan with nothing but rags and bags to cover their own urban feet, widows and orphans among them.

The people of Shadytown were typically poor, and have been for as long as anyone could remember. Not unlike their cousins to the north who lived ‘up in Harley’, they were also segregated; not by crumbling walls and rusty iron gates that could be seen and touched, and looked upon as the ancient Britons once gazed upon Hadrian’s Wall with so much fear and trepidation, but something far more inventive, divisive, and modern: it was those ‘invisible tracks’, touched upon earlier in their own prejudicial definition. And they were, in that sense, just as solid and real as the iron gates of Harley, and perhaps even stronger since walls and gates can be breached and broken, whereas prejudices are made of sturdier stuff that can only be overcome by ideas, and maybe even a little charity, especially in a places like Shadytown and other townships in that part of the county where folks of the Negro race lived in segregated societies as they have since they were first brought to the continent in chains.. In some cases, it simply can’t be done. But there are always exceptions; Erasmus Harley just happened to be one of them.

For geographic reasons, among others, the town of Harley had always been considered a natural extension of Shadytown, whether it began that way or not, and spoken of as such by those who lived there. There had always been curious link that existed between Shadytown, Old Port Fierce and Harley, which is perhaps just as old as the towns themselves and rooted in traditions that go back even further. The ancestry shared between the people residing in the three towns, although often left undocumented, became the stuff of bedtime stories, myth, legend, and even scandal as sometimes occurs when fact and fiction intertwine to such gossipy degrees that they become practically indistinguishable from one another.

Of course, there’s always room for debate and interpretation; but one fact remains indisputable: and that is that all Harlies, regardless of their remoteness and isolation to other more urban societies, could, in fact, for the most part anyway, trace their family trees all the way back, with a few twists and turns along the way perhaps, to Shadytown itself, where the story really begins, and maybe even further; to the garden of Eden, perhaps! or at least as far back as Old Port Fierce. It was more than just geographical location, of course, it ran a little deeper than that. You might even say it was ‘skin deep’; as deep and dark as the muddy roots of Harley. Not so much the town, although that too would come into play, but in the man himself: Erasmus Harley. It was that same vital fluid that flowed through the venerable veins of an old Negro slave; the sap, if you will. He was the trunk, gnarly and knotted as he became in his later years, and they were the branches. It was as simple, and as natural, as that: Two towns spliced together by one old Negro, whether they liked it or not. And that Negro, that man, that trunk, and that tree, had a name. His name was Mister Erasmus Harley.

Now, to understand exactly what happened, and why Mister Erasmus Harley decided to flee the congested confines of Shadytown as well as the prejudicial attitudes of the Old Port Fierce citizenry at one time for the swampy fields of Harley, one could only speculate, although the need for a little more space and a little less discrimination was always a good guess, and probably the most realistic of all, as all migrations begin that way. It happened shortly after the war as the bodies were being buried in Gettysburg, the blue and the gray, the blood was still fresh in the killing fields. It was a time for healing; and it was also a good time to leave. As in all families, no matter how solid the foundation, there are always disagreements leading to such drastic and fateful decisions; the newly emancipated slaves were no exception. They simply split, divided, and went their separate ways. Some stayed on in Shadytown and went to work on the farms or in the fisheries, employed for the most part by their former task-masters who, much to their own amazement and benefit, became even wealthier under the new arrangements. Others went north, however, with little more than the shirts on their backs and eventually settled in a place called Harley.

It’s said that Erasmus Harley initiated the great migration himself shortly after the war when he shook the sandy soil of Old Port Fierce from his shoeless feet and headed North, eventually settling down in muddy lowlands just east of Creekwood Green. It would certainly explain how the town of Harley got its name, but there were no official documents to prove the supposition. Written records were seldom kept back then, for a variety of reasons, and the ones that did survive were ambiguous at best and downright erroneous at worst. There weren’t many gravestones, either; the ones still standing were usually to be found in old churchyards and overgrown cemeteries, along a few simple wooden crosses constructed at the burial site over which prayers were said and eulogies read as the bodies were lowered into the sacred soil. Some were found in the back yards of the dearly-departed relatives, just like they were in Creekwood Green, and certain parts of Old Port Fierce, where they were equally observed and revered. But even if these the old gravestones could talk, metaphysically manifesting the spirits of the dead that lie beneath those slumbering stones, they would have little of value to tell us concerning their ghostly past; for in death, as in life, facts can be manipulated and sometimes manufactured to suit a particular fancy; and fancies often fly, like so many myths, legends and tales, or ghosts from the grave; some more true, or false, than others: like the tale of three towns, for instance, or the ghost of Erasmus Harley. There were other tall tales connected to the great divorce that were just as popular and even more contemporary; one being that Erasmus Harley’s oldest son, Ezekiel, who, as rumored, had fallen out of the old patriarch’s good graces when it was discovered that he was secretly having an affair with a young white woman from Creekwood Green while engaged to marry a local girl from Shadytown, Miss Daisy Cotton, the daughter of a poor but proud black preacher from the segregated part of Old Port Fierce. It was also suggested that, Ezekiel Harley, otherwise known as ‘Zeke’ was spotted from time to time in Creekwood Green shortly after his wife became pregnant with their first and only child. Some say he was looking for a woman.

Creekwood Green was an old and predominantly white settlement lying just northwest of Old Port Fierce. They say it wasn’t the smartest thing young Ezekiel ever did, especially at a time when these kinds of relationships were not only considered immoral, but were illegal as well; and it certainly wasn’t the easiest to conceal, as ‘Zeke’ Harley himself would soon find out, despite all prudent precautions. It was a choice he would live with for the rest of his life, and one he would live to regret. There was talk of a lynching, or at least a trial. Needless-to-say, the Harlies reacted no differently, only from an entirely different point-of-view. They were just as much against such interracial arrangements as the Creekfolk, which they likewise considered, and for equally ignorant reason…. well, unnatural, and generally un-healthy. Creeks and Harlies just don’t mix. Hell! Everyone know that; especially Creeks and Harlies! It almost goes without saying. It’s like…like the Hatfields and McCoys without the shotguns, or Romeo and Juliette without the poison, but just as lethal. And then, to make matters even worse for poor Zeke Harley, the young woman he was alleged to be having an affair with was none other than Annie Odie, the daughter of a well-respected mayor and descendant of Otis Odie himself, the founding father of the oldest settlement in that that part of the territory. It was said she was engaged to marry a soldier at the time she’d disappeared, a confederate colonel by the name of Horace Horn, whom they called Rusty. Some say she was murdered; others said Zeke Harley killed her. No one knew for sure. Not even Red-Beard.

Naturally, Daisy as devastated by the news, but, for reasons that remained undisclosed even to her closest of kin, including her older brother Joe Cotton, she stood by her pre-nuptial vows and married Ezekiel Harley anyway; silently and grudgingly perhaps, but for better or for worse, against her family’s wishes and maybe her own better judgment. She would wait for Ezekiel to return, which he eventually did; but, as Daisy could clearly see, he would never be the same.

Zeke went back to Daisy, for a while at least; and they lived together in Harley, along with their newborn child. Naturally, everyone assumed Zeke the father. He and Daisy knew better, of course; along with the real father, whose identity was never established, at least not to the satisfaction of anyone that mattered, and quickly became the subject of much debate and speculation when it became rather obvious that the child was not one hundred percent Harlie, and perhaps of mixed race.

In the end, the truth finally caught up with Ezekiel Harley, and the Law was not far behind. He escaped, just barley, by running away. Some say he had no other choice; and that he ‘took to the hills’ (a common expression used at the time, especially among outlaws and thieves who sought refuge in the wooded highlands to the north) out of sheer desperation. Other claimed he went to the sea, the merchants perhaps, and was never seen again. He actually travelled south across land and changed his name; but even that didn’t seem to help, or deter those with long memories who were still looking to exact their pound of flesh for the murder of Annie Odie, which he was eventually accused, whether he actually did it or not. Daisy Cotton would raise the child alone. What else could she do? Joe Cotton helped, of course; but he knew he could never take the place of Elmo’s real father whose identity and whereabouts he promised to keep secret, even from his own sister, Daisy Cotton. Joe was there the day Zeke left town. He knew where the Harlie was going; he could see it in his eyes. They were red at the time, filled with blood and revenge. He gave Zeke five dollars and promised him he would look after his wife and unborn child for as long as he could. He also gave the runaway a new name, Reginald Cotton. It was the least he could do for his good friend and neighbor, and his sister’s husband. Reggie Cotton never looked back; but what he’d left behind that day would eventually find its way to Old Port Fierce. And it was not very far away; not far away at all.

And that’s the way they remember it in Harlie. The folks of Creekwood Green and Old Port Fierce remember it a little differently, of course, if they remember it all. But all three would agree that something did happen back then, and that the Harleys, particularly Erasmus Harley, had something to do with it. But most of the original Harleys were dead by now; only a handful of graves remained standing; and these were so old and neglected by now that no self-respecting ghost, ghoul or goblin would be caught dead loitering in their immediate vicinity. Aside from local birth records and deed transactions, which for reasons of census and taxation were considered indispensable at the time, there was actually very little written down during those difficult and uncertain years in Shadytown, Harley, or anywhere else for that matter. Unfortunately, many of the older grave sites in Harley that had survived the war have long since been plowed under by greedy land-grabbers, grant-seekers, landlords and other opportunistic low-lifes, like Ike Armstrong, as favors owned them by corrupt politicians.

No one knew for sure anymore exactly where the bodies were buried (Not even Lester Cox!) except maybe those who’d buried them in the first place who were buried by now as well. No one seemed to care. Not even the descendants of old Erasmus himself, who lived out their tainted lives relative obscurity, anonymity, and certain poverty, having long since squandered their grandfather’s hard earned wealth in ways that would have the old man rolling in his grave… if anyone could remember where he was buried, that is. Everyone else remained strangely silent on the subject, maintaining that speculation would only further deepen the wounds, on both side of the Harley Gates. And besides, digging up the bones of dead relatives was something decent folks simply didn’t do, Harlies or Greens.

To this day there existed an on-going feud between the two neighboring communities that would probably only end when the last Creek shot the last Harlie with the last bullet fired from the last gun’; or visa versa. Blood may be thicker than water, but it’s not nearly as thick as mud – the kind of mud still found in the muddy bean fields of Harley, as old as the hills of Jerusalem and just as war-torn and bloody. And it is from that same mud, clouded and polluted by a thousand generations, we are born; in a cesspool of human debris, in which we all must learn to swim, or die. Whether we are Harlies, Greens, Cottons, Skinners, Armstrongs, Smiths, Dixons, Coxs, Jeffersons, Jacksons, Jones or Johnsons, or even Lincolns and Washingtons for that matter, we all sprang from the same seed inside the same apple that fell from the same tree planted in the same garden so many lifetimes ago. And it really doesn’t matter who planted the tree, or even why. There are some things we don’t have to know; not on this side of the grave anyway, and for good reason, I suppose. But there’s one thing we do know, or at least should know if we haven’t figured it out by now; and that is this: We are all stardust. And when you get right down to it – it’s true! We’re all made of the same stuff, whether it comes from the Serengeti Plain of Africa, the Mongrel steppes of Asia, the Black Forests of Europe, the frozen tundra of Alaska, or the muddy waters of the Mississippi Delta. We are equally doomed, even in the mist of Paradise. We’ve squandered immortality. We live. We die. And in the end, as the philandering philosopher, Ol’ Ben Franklin once put it, quite eloquently I might add, and on his own headstone, no less: ‘I am food for worms’. We are all that, when you get right down to it, and more. And that ain’t so bad. It could be a lot worse; and it often is, for those who have tasted immortality only to want more. And so I guess in some ways that makes us all Harlies… whatever else we are.

On its surface, Fat Moon Friday, or the Feast of the Full Moon as it was also know as in more esoteric circles, was really not very different than any other feast celebrated in Old Port Fierce at the time, except for the fact that it was celebrated once a month, every month, come what may. Not being an official holiday in the same sense as, say, ‘Fisherman’s Day’, ‘Founder’s Day or ‘New Year’s Day’, all of which came around only once a year, Fat Moon Friday was celebrated in a more casual and, some would even say, more carnal atmosphere. There were the usual trappings: dancing, singing, friendly conversation, joking and, of course – barbecues! Naturally, there was always a plentiful supply of food and beverages on hand, the latter consisting chiefly of beer and wine along with an assortment of other potent potables that were typically brewed in bathtubs or copper stills and sold in mason jars on street corners. Prohibition was still a long ways off, so terms like ‘Moonshine’ and ‘Bathtub gin’ held no special significance at that time, unless, of course, you were talking about real moonshine, which, on Fat Moon Friday night at least, was self-explanatory, or playing cards in the bathtub, which, although highly improbable (at any times) was not completely out of the question, especially if you happened to be one of those insufferable people who have a fetish for taking baths and just can’t seem to ever get enough of them, and particularly if you had too much gin to drink. Rum was often the beverage of choice, and a favorite among sailors who participated in the lunar event whenever they dropped anchor in that Old Port Fierce, which, as far as they were concerned, was never often enough. A product of the Caribbean where it was first distilled from sugar cane and other fermentable ingredients, they would consume the spicy elixir by the barrel, and sometimes, when there was not enough to go around, they would simply water it down into their own special concoction known as ‘grog’, a staple of seamen all of the watery globe, as much a part of their daily sustenance as bread and biscuits. It was there, in Old Port Fierce, where, when time and tide permitted, they would drop anchor in the black waters of the bay and crawl forth from their moldy forecastles and down from their lofty lairs high up in rigging like so many cockroaches and spiders before storming the beaches not unlike an army of sea-sick land crabs on liberty. They stayed just long enough to wear out their welcome, which usually never took more than a day or two, or whenever the jails were so full that the local police would have no other choice other than to simply cart then back to Fisherman’s Wharf and deliver them into the anticipating hands of their superiors officers, or whoever else they could find willing to take them off their beleaguered hands, where they would be summarily thrown in the brig until such a time they were sober enough to properly flogged. Naturally, flogging them at the time of incarceration would do little good, as the anesthetic qualities of the alcohol would surely have deprived both the flogger and floggee of all desired effects; and it probably wouldn’t have done much good anyway. Hey, we’re talking about sailors here. Ain’t we?

No one knew exactly how or when it happened, but it seemed that over the years Fat Moon Friday had taken on certain carnal qualities that were often brought into question by the local clergy, as well as those who refrain, for whatever Puritanical reasons, from such ‘questionable’ activities. Over time, what began simply as an innocent acknowledgment of the monthly lunar phenomenon had somehow evolved into something more sexual in nature and content; or at least that’s the way it appeared on the surface. It was at that special time of the month when the moon turned the tides gently, gently away, that such noble virtues as modesty and chastity were substituted for their more sinister alter egos: pride and lust. Naturally, it could perhaps best be understood and more accurately described by a woman undergoing her own menstrual period, which some physiologists suggest is regulated by the same lunar effects, who may go through similar changes and mood swings during that time as well. They appeared in the form of vices we are all too familiar with, at least those of us who have fallen and are not too proud to admit to such transgressions, which were tolerable at best and forgiven at worst. They came in many faces, many disguises, some more superficial than others. But no need to guess here; we all what they are, and who we are. And we know it, no matter what mask we choose to wear, simply because we’ve all been there at one time or another.

It was a time of altered perceptions when one simply became more open to suggestion than usual and, therefore, slightly more susceptible to certain proclivities he or she might otherwise avoid, especially in matters relating to their own insatiable appetites, sexual or otherwise, and the gratification they offered. In that respect it was a time of iniquity, incorporating all of the seven deadly sins enumerated in the Holy Cannon, condensed in twenty-four hours of pure pantheistic pleasure, hedonistically satisfying those desires of the flesh in whatever form they happen to manifest themselves, and in measures unimaginable. Naturally, during these tempestuous times, there seemed to be more gambling, fornication, drunkenness, along with other suspicious activities, equally shameless and maybe even more addictive, going on than usual. However, occurring only once a month and lasting no longer than a few days at most, Fat Moon Friday’s were relatively harmless and, for the most part, a welcomed release. It was a time for purging pain with pleasure, often in excess, sometimes with dire consequences. Some would say, with all due austerity, that it’s a necessary function; cathartic, in a clinical sense, like administering heroine to a dying cancer patient; and they may very well be correct in their non-professional assessment. But like all narcotics, the ‘fix’ provided by Fat Moon Friday was only temporary; and, like all medication, it eventually wore off, requiring an even greater dose to achieve a similar effect the next time around, leaving the patient in a worse predicament than when he was prior to the treatment. But medicine does work, when properly prescribed, but only for as long as it’s supposed to. Like everything else, it has its place and purpose; sometimes it is best left on the pharmacist’s shelf. It might even be described as a compulsory indulgence, like sipping a glass of brandy after a troubling day at the office, or smoking a cigar. ‘Moderation in everything…’ preach the libertarians; and, under certain circumstances, I suppose they may be right. ‘But does that also include sin?’ argues the Evangelist, viewing all iniquity equally offensive in the holy sight of God, in whose righteous presence we are but mere menstrual rags fit for the sewer, if not the fire. Is it possible to burn ‘moderately in Hell? Or is that what Purgatory is all about; perhaps one day we will find out. But isn’t that how all vice begins, in moderation? ‘A little wine…for the digestion,’ the Apostle Paul prescribes to his dyspeptic disciples. And didn’t our Lord and Savior drink wine in such a moderate manner, and not only at the wedding feast of Canaan? And when finished, would we not be too surprised to find Him dancing (although we have no way of knowing it) with the pretty bridesmaids in the customary fashion of the day? Or leisurely lounging in the company of eligible Canaanite bachelorettes who, unlike the foolish virgins who were out trying to fill their lamps, sat at the foot of the Salvation as He entertained them with a psalm or two; perhaps one of Solomon’s autobiographical love songs. And why shouldn’t he? After all, He created them all: the wine, the women, and the song, along with everything else in this fallen and fallible world we put such a high premium on. And He did not come that we would merely have life…but have it more abundantly!

And by no means were these deviations in the human condition, however short-lived and celebrated, limited to the population of the twin coastal cities. Sins of the flesh, such as fornication and adultery, like all vices of man’s carnal creation, are not modern inventions; nor are they isolated to any specific group of people, as history anthropologically indicates. And just as the size of one’s skull does not phrenologically measure his capacity for truth, wisdom and knowledge, the appetite for such depravities does not necessarily depend on the size of his ego or what tribe he happened to be born into. Sin is universal, if nothing else; and it does not discriminate. It’s been around for eons, long before those other infamous twin sister cities of Sodom and Gomorrah fell into hell-fire and ash-heap. And it will probably be with us right up to the end, until the breaking of the seventh seal, in fact, and the unleashing of the four horsemen, whenever and wherever that blessed event occurs. And when it does, don’t be too surprised to find yourself in right there in Shadytown, on Avenue ‘D’ perhaps. For we have all been there at one time or another, and will more than likely return, like a dog to its own vomit, especially during those dark nights of the flesh when the moon is full and bright, and on a Fat Moon Friday night.

Before we go any further, it should be stated here and now that not all of the behavior taking place on the special night of the month was immoral. Like the Ying and the yang of the Chinese philosophers, good and evil often go hand in hand, at a respectable distance one could only hope, and are actually quite complimentary to one another. On the contrary, much of the activity witnessed on Fat Moon Friday night, however self-absorbed and solitarily pursued as indulgences often are, culminated in many a long and lasting friendship that might otherwise have gone un-noticed or unachieved, innocently based on common interests mutually shared and appreciated; such as a taste for a particular brand of beer, the enjoyment found in a simple but passionate hobby like shell-collecting, or perhaps just playing checkers on the front stoop. It’s what the ancient Greeks, and perhaps a handful of Biblical scholars refer to as ‘Phileo’ Love, that special relationship we share with our fellow man, less satisfying, perhaps, than ‘Agape’, which only God can sustain and inspire, but certainly not nearly as difficult to bear as ‘Eros’ which selfishly leaves so many of us bewildered and betrayed at times. Maybe that’s the way true alliances are formed: not with blood and oath or passionate embraces, but with a simple toast between a couple of friends, a sea-shell found on the beach, or the familiar ‘King me!’ heard when we finally reach our desired goals on other side of the red and black battlefield, and without killing each other in the process.

But too much of anything, including L-O-V-E, can often have a deleterious effect on the body and soul, not to mention the psyche, of man; and that’s especially true of that awkward kind of love we sometimes describe self-sacrifice; the kind of love that will do anything for the other… except nothing; which may be exactly what is needed most. Sometimes it’s better to just leave and get on with life, rather than systematically drown the ones we love in the empathetic milk of human kindness, which, as every mother’s son knows can be as lethal arsenic when administered at the wrong time, in the wrong dosage, and with the wrong intentions. There is no more agonizing a death, that I can think of, than slowly suffocating in the warm and well-intentioned embrace of a selfless lover who, when you get right down to it, is not so selfless after all. As the poet sings: Love ain’t love until you give it away. Sometimes you just have to know when to let go. In a way, you might even say that Fat Moon Friday was merely another way of letting go, or, to be more generous: letting off a little steam; a safety valve, if you will, that regulates the temperature and drives off the spleen. But as with all remedial fixes, Fat Moon Friday could also be a placebo, a sheep disguised in wolf’s clothing, a skillfully woven disguise, a masquerade, an exercise in ambiguity, a fake and fraud, as well as a celebration. For beneath the mask and veneer of social pleasantries, lurked a malignancy, a cancerous tumor that was slowly eating away the very heart of the city, bite by infectious bite until all that’s left is an empty shell, a hardened heart, or a rotten apple. And it threatened those on one both side of the invisible tracks; one more than the other, perhaps – the ones who had to live there, in a place called Shadytown.

The symptoms of this beguiling disease were evinced on that same monthly basis, usually on Fat Moon Friday night, on the cobblestone streets and in the very heart and soul of Shadytown, and especially on Avenue ‘D’. Often described by preachers and priests alike as a ‘Couching Lion’, the feline hunter stalked the streets of the shantytown in much the same manner as the metaphorical demon who lay waiting in the gutters and alleyways, behind closed doors, on rooftops and in cellars, crouched like a lion and ready to spring on its unsuspecting prey, innocent and not so innocent, at a given moment. This sickness, this disease, this scourge on society, this animal, this beast, has a name. It’s called Poverty, and it manifests itself in a variety of unhealthy and unholy ways. It came in the disguise of social amenities such as gaming houses, brothels, pool halls, and other enterprises born to satisfy the ‘Crouching Lion’s insatiable appetite, which only had only increased over the years, like a fire being fanned, and fed with oxygen.

But along with all the lasciviousness that occurred in Shadytown during Fat Moon Friday and beyond, there were always those elusive and redemptive rays of sunshine that somehow managed to permeate the dark and lonely night of the flesh. And they came in three benevolent waves: Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith in God; Hope in His infinite mercy and justice; and the Charity, which is merely another word for Love and thus by far the greatest, that naturally springs from God’s eternal fountain. Like the blessed Trinity of Saint Patrick’s illustrative shamrock, the three may be considered as one, separate but the same, unique and independent, but all made up of the same Divine substance and constantly working towards the same heavenly goal. Salvation!

The town, Shadytown that is, actually began as a handful of slave families that took up residence in the northwest section of Old Port Fierce shortly after the Great Emancipation. The official title given to that particular parcel of land at that time was ‘Liberty’, which can still be found on legal documents dating back to a time before the port actually came into commercial use. Prior to that period, most of the supplies had been brought in by covered wagon or the military, and always in short supply. The tall ships and the merchants would soon change all that, forever.

It was a time when cotton was king. It was the cash crop, grown on plantations along with a wide variety of beans, greens, and other leafy produce that sprung from the fertile soils of the delta that formed and fed famous port for over a hundred years. It was a place where cattle were bred by the thousands and the starting point for their long trek across the wide expanses of the west to their final destinations ports foreign and domestic. And with the arrival of the tall ships with their wide wooden hulls, Old Port Fierce quickly became the largest and most profitable port on the entire eastern seaboard, having secured that enviable position chiefly by virtue of its location (the harbor being fifty feet deep in most places and a natural port to begin with) and with the support of a few enterprising, albeit slightly inebriated, riverboat gamblers who’d first envisioned the profitable port as yet another New Orleans or New York harbor, and right in their own back yard! There simply were no other ports around at the time that could accommodate the tall ships that brought the much-needed supplies to support the growing number of settlers still pouring into that part of the world. Many became wealthy, for a while at least. But the gamblers got more than they bargained for; for, as it sometimes happens in the risky business of capitalism, you simply bet on the wrong horse. As newer, deeper, and more accessible seaports opened along the coast, and times and attitudes changed, Old Port Fierce became less important in the overall mercantile business, but still a good place to drop an anchor and do a little horse trading.

Nothing lasts forever, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing by the way; and one thing drives out another. And just like the wagon trains that came before them, the tall ships would soon disappear as well, giving way to more modern forms of transportation, like the railroad for instance, and follow in the fated footsteps of their predecessors. Presently, the ‘Iron Horse’ of the North had yet to make it that far South, which was perhaps the only reason Old Port Fierce had remained, for the most part, the busy, vibrant and prosperous place it had always been. But the smoke could be seen on the not too distant horizon, and the tracks were already being laid. It would not be long. But until then, Old Port Fierce would remain pretty much the same; and so would Shadytown, along with its bars, saloons, boarding houses, gambling houses, smoke-houses, cat houses, out houses, houses of worship, houses of ill-repute, and all the houses that made up that special part of the grand old city, which, from a purely economical standpoint, actually played vital role in sustaining the community, and contributing, in their own entrepreneurial way just as much, one could easily ague, as any tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, banker, broker, merchant, bailer, butcher, baker, or even the candle-stick maker, and all the other saints and sinners that contributed to the general welfare and longevity of the city. And they celebrated that fact each and every month, right alongside their good friends and neighbors to the South, on a Fat Moon Friday night.

* * *

IT WAS ON JUST SUCH A NIGHT when the farmer and raccoon arrived in Shadytown. The streets were aglow with lanterns hung from posts at every street corner, perfuming the neighborhood with the distinctive and scent of spermaceti oil and ambergris. There was something Hindu about it. An orange light permeated the warm moist air, creating an appropriate atmosphere for the nocturnal circus that was about to begin.

The people of Shadytown occupied their time by parading the streets in various processions that’d actually begun at sunrise. They were dressed in their traditional attire, one more colorful than the next; some revealing perhaps a little more they should’ve, especially those worn by the scantily-clad women of the streets who were young and beautiful enough to compliment such garments. There were beads and bangles, and assortments of accessories adorning the flesh that night. There was singing and dancing, hooting and hollering, and many happy faces hidden discretely behind those paper-machete masks that seems so ubiquitous throughout the evening, some of which were so large and cumbersome that not only did they encompassed the entire face of those that worn them, but were actually quite a chore just to hold up. There were musicians on almost every street corner, banging drums and blowing horns and whistles as the people passed them by, tossing coins into their little copper cups, or stealing them when they weren’t looking; even from the blind ones, of which there were many. Occasionally, they were thrown beads and necklaces from balconies or other worthless trinkets for their musical efforts, and blown kisses as well. It was all part of the show, the event, a local Mardi-Gras, so-to-speak, held each and every month under the light of the moon and in the fine old Latin tradition of Rio del Rosa, something of which mere words simply do not do justice, and one that would have to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Much of the festivities had died down by the time the Harlies arrived in Shadytown that night, chiefly on account of the fact that many folks had settled down by then and were gravitating towards the many open grills and barbecue pits, which could be found just about everywhere, to partake of their evening meals. But that did not mean that the party was over – quite the contrary! That was just the end of ‘round one’. Those arriving lately, many from out of town, peered curiously into steamy storefronts windows and local saloon halls that lined the streets and avenues of Shadytown. These were the places the sailors and sea-merchants frequented after many days at sea. There were also a number of brothels to be had, along with the women of the night who lived and worked there, displaying their own specialized goods through dimly light windows and half-opened doorways. Their shops were mainly located along Avenue ‘D’ in a section of town most accommodating to those kinds of activities and the avarice behavior they bred; and they never closed. What they had was for rent, never for sale; and the price was always negotiable.

Not all the sons of sailors pursued these illicit and often illegal indulgences. Many were respectable family men who prayed and attended church on a regular basis. Never- the-less all were fair game to the ‘Crouching Lion’ of Avenue ‘D’, especially on Fat Moon Fridays when the mind is willing and the flesh is weak. And the men were usually the first victims, regardless of how much their jealous wives guarded against them falling prey to the temptations of such entrapments, which they valiantly fought an on-going but largely unsuccessful battle to eviscerate. For the most part, the children of Shadytown were shielded, and thus spared, from the more sinister sides of Fat Moon Friday, but not as successfully as some mothers would’ve like. Many of the local establishments that catered to these kinds of vices were located predominantly along Avenue ‘D’ and were avoided by many of the more morally conscious participants. They were patronized by suspicious looking men and older boys who drank beer, smoked thinly rolled cigars and pitched pennies up against concrete walls in front of the endless rows of storefront structures, further contributing to the makings of their own miss-spent and wasteful youth. It was all part of the scenery.

Even from a distant, Elmo could smell the aroma of freshly caught fish and other produce from the sea being grilled over open flames. The smoke from these fires rose through the orange curtain and out into the street, spewing from old copper drums had been sawed lengthwise in half and placed on makeshift stilts to serve their newly constructed purpose as open-air barbecue pits. The children of Shadytown gathered around the smoky drums, dirty-faced and bare-footed, swatting the flies from their supper, which for the time being at least, was secured. They feasted mainly on fish while tearing off claws from freshly boiled lobsters and crabs – blue-crabs! the same ones they perhaps caught that very same day as the tasty crustaceans made their way over sandy beaches of Old Port Fierce and into the nearby streets of Shadytown where they were quickly snatched up and thrown into the pot, along with whatever else happened to crawl up on the beach or along the boulevard that day, including the giant sea-turtles which, especially when the moon was full and bright, could often be found struggling their way up the beach through the sugar sands to lay their eggs. They were easy game, if the seagulls didn’t get to them first, and quite delicious. Feral cats and stray dogs were also an easy and legitimate target, and were considered, at least to those whose tastes included the domestic meat, a delicacy on some menus. Needless-to-say, the local dogcatcher was not a very busy man, at least on fat Moon Friday night, and stray animals were actually quite rare.

In Shadytown, nothing was ever wasted. Not even the rats! of which there was always a plentiful supply of, were spared. Rodents, including everything from church mice to sewer rats, were considered a rare and reliable source of much-needed protein at the time, along with snakes, spiders, scorpions, cockroaches and other verminous insects and bugs one typically finds under moldy rocks or in the old wooden rafters. They were easy to catch, children being uniquely equipped in that regard; that is, once they got over the initial shock of handling the vermin which they would typically impale on the ends of long pointed sticks and barbecue over an open flame. In fact, ever since Fat Moon Friday was first institutionalized as a legal holiday, despite mild objections raised by not a few local politicians and church officials who thought it would only add to the criminal element of the city, Shadytown never had the problems with feral cats, stray dogs, or any of the other vermin that seemed to plague other cities of its size and population. And that’s simply because… well, there weren’t any to be found. Not in Shadytown, anyway; at least not on Fat Moon Friday night.

Sherman Dixon turned his wagon left at the north end of Front Street and directly onto Avenue 'D'. He then proceeded inland towards the old neighborhood. That was where his sister-in-law, Regina Johnson, lived with her mother, along with her little boy, Oley. That was their destination; but first they had to find it.

Elmo Cotton sat quietly next to the turtle on the buckboard with many emotions racing through his mind, not least of all the fear of word getting back to Harley of his current whereabouts and intentions. He remained, for the time being at least, a fugitive from justice and a raccoon on the run. He would not soon forget it.

Sharing a common ancestry with their colored cousins to the South, the bean farmers from Harley were not very different from any of the other colored folks in Shadytown; well, at least not physically. Naturally, it was easy for Sherman and Elmo to blend in on that particular evening (one a little more easily than the other perhaps) chiefly due to the color of their skin and the cloths they wore, earning them more than one questionable and discerning glance from several pedestrians. It was actually a refreshing change of scenery from all the blue eyes and white faces the two travelers had met earlier that day in Old Port Fierce, and certainly a more familiar one; and after all that the turtle and the raccoon had experienced, particularly down at the Fisherman’s wharf that day, it felt good to see some faces that looked more like their own. It even smelled a little like Harley, the raccoon imagined just then, sniffing the air for even more familiar scents. But not all of the faces in Shadytown were as dark as Sherman’s, or even Elmo’s for that matter. There were a substantial number of white faces to be seen in Shadytown that night, some more friendly, and less white, than others, and many downright mean and ugly. Some of these, the sailors most notably, were dressed in the traditional military uniform: tight white shirts, bell-bottomed trousers and the traditional black kerchiefs that hung loosely around their sunburned necks. They walked the streets alone and together, with that distinctive swagger often associated with sailors on shore leave. They sometimes congregated in small bands of threes and fours, counting the coins they'd recently acquired from their last voyage at sea and figuring out just how to spend it. With time and money to waste, they were naturally easy prey for the ‘Crouching Lion’ of Avenue ‘D’ and his many mistresses. It is often said: ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’. Well, whoever said it, certainly was no fool; he definitely wasn’t a sailor.

And then there were other mariners in the crowd that night wearing different kinds of clothes altogether. These were the merchant marines Elmo guessed, chiefly from what his uncle had once told him. Some of them were speaking in foreign tongues, or so it seemed, with bits of English thrown in here and there whenever necessary, and depending on who they were talking to. There was something different about them, exhibited in a variety of ways, not least of all their language which possessed that Mediterranean flavor that speaks of garlic and old spice. It rolled off their salty tongues so easily, and naturally, like fine wine from a golden decanter. They appeared to be of mixed breed and blood, exhibiting features not unlike that of the Harlie himself, both light and dark, and all shades in between. He thought it peculiar that they all seemed to look the same, too; not merely in dress but in other, more subtle, ways as well, which were perhaps not so noticeable at first but just as present and ubiquitous, such as the way they walked and talked, and the expressions they wore on their weather-worn faces. And they all, especially the younger merchant marines, had that same look about them. It was a youthful expression, that dumb and defiant look that is often associated with youth. In fact, it was the same look the Harlie wore himself at times, the one that so often landed him in trouble back home, especially with his wife: that same ‘look’ she was constantly admonishing him to wipe off his face… ‘befo’ I wipes it off fo’ you!’ she warned. Elmo never knew exactly what Nadine was talking about, and would sometimes drag the back of his hand across his face just to amuse Lil’ Ralph, and maybe even annoy his wife, which he usually succeeded in. It was a look that held no patents and had no prejudices. It was the same look Elmo remembered seeing the on Dickey Dilworth’s fallen face when he caught the culprit peeing in his bathtub. It spoke volumes… without even saying a word.

Other men appeared on the Avenue as well that evening as well; some dressed in finely tailored clothing, sporting dark fedoras and spit-shined shoes. They stood like princes of the city, nodding to each passing mariner as if welcoming them home after some long heroic voyage. Elmo Cotton couldn’t help but overhear one of these suspicious looking characters as he graciously introduced himself to a threesome of marauding seamen he seemed to recognize as ‘The Wizard of Avenue 'D’. The same man then turned to the raccoon as the wagon rolled by and smiled a perfect row of gold teeth. It was like nothing the Harlie had ever seen before.

Not to be outdone by the men, the women of Shadytown were gaily dressed in every color imaginable, mostly pink, yellow, and red cotton, with ruffled white sleeves and braided hems. Having worked all week at home or on the docks, doing the things woman of that period was expected to do, besides having babies, nursing children, and satisfying their husbands and lovers, they were happy enough to adorn themselves in whatever fine clothing and jewelry they could afford. For many of them it was their only escape from the harsh realities of Shadytown, and a time when they could prove to themselves and the rest of male dominated world, if only for one day a month, they were still ladies, regardless of their circumstances; and they expected to be treated as such.

Rolling down Avenue ‘D’ that night beneath the moon and stars, the farmer and the raccoon marveled at sights they’d never seen on muddy and distant roads of Harley. It was night-time in old Shadytown, and it was a Fat Moon Friday night! People came from out of nowhere, or so it seemed, pouring into the street that quickly took on the carnival-like atmosphere of a three ring circus, without the elephants and acrobats. The endless night sky served as the Big Top stretching from north to south and east to west, with a full-faced moon for a ringmaster and a galaxy of stars for a sideshow.


Chapter Six

Street Urchins

ONE BY ONE, the stars came out in all their curious constellations, along with that omnipresent lunar orb that was both cause and reason for the nocturnal celebration that was about to begin. It was a true celestial circus (all that was missing were the tents, the clowns, the usual assortment of freaks and sideshows, some cotton candy and, perhaps the man on the flying trapeze) that began with a Big Bang and would end the way all carnivals do – quickly and quietly, making you wonder if they were ever there to begin with, or if it was all just some wild and crazy dream you just awoke from, and might just as soon forget; for a while anyway, until the next time, when the poles are pitched, the canvass stretched, and the clowns come out to play, as the old Carney barks and beckons us back just as he does every thirty or so days, under the stars in good Old Shadytown, on a fat Moon Friday night.

Among the many pedestrians strolling down the infamous avenue that night were the ones Joe Cotton had spoken from time to time, albeit discreetly and never in the presence of young children. The raccoon starred at them with eyes wide open; the turtle couldn’t help but notice them as well. They were the working women of Shadytown, the infamous prostitutes of Avenue ‘D’. These were the fallen angels, the ones with flashing eyes and painted faces. These were Satan’s sirens, solicitors of the flesh, and they were dressed to kill. They went by other names as well that need not be mentioned here, most of them pejorative and all of them demeaning. With tightly woven skirts pulled up firmly about their waists and sheer white blouses, they shamelessly peddled their bodily goods on the steamy streets of Shadytown, some more openly than others.

Whether standing alone on a street corner, beckoning with open breasts from a red glowing window, or spliced to the tattooed arm of a semi-intoxicated sailor, these ladies of the evening were difficult, if not impossible, to avoid. They were the fat-bottomed girls, the kind that thief from Eulogy, Alvin Webb, once spoke of just before he died. They served anyone and everyone willing to pay the paltry price which varied depending on circumstances but was usually in the neighborhood of half a dollar; and these ladies did not discriminate. They spoke the language of the street that was as smooth and hard, and as the well tread upon, as the cobblestones beneath their high-heeled feet. They spoke through painted lips and perspiring white blouses that seemed to fly open at the slightest breeze, taking immediate notice of the little wagon as Sherman slowed down to get a closer and, perhaps, better look at something that wasn’t entirely new to him. Elmo had been taking in the sights as well, maybe a little more eagerly than should have, knowing all along who and what these woman were, and reckoning he couldn’t afford what they were selling anyway. They owned the streets as much as anyone, securing their own special place on the nocturnal stage in the very heart and soul of Shadytown, right there on Avenue ‘D’. Naturally, they stood out, eyed with varying degrees of emotion – depending, of course, on whose eyes happened to befall them – ranging from sheer indifference to genuine contempt, and perhaps even a little jealousy and envy from those women who… well, you know what I mean. These were the bad girls you mother always warned you about; which, in some ways, only made you want them even more. It’s something your father might understand. Not that he would ever agree with it, of course; and not if he knew what was good for him. Some would say they were only making a living, just like everyone else, I suppose. There are those who claim, and quite correctly I might add: ‘Why, it’s the oldest profession in the world!’ Other were not so generous, however; citing the famous Magdalene who, but for the grace of God and a few incriminating words, escaped not only eternal damnation but the stones of her accusers as well. Of course, in some cultures, prostitution is still considered a young man’s rights-of-passage; a tradition, if you will. Or, as one famous Libertarian so economically observed: ‘Hey! at least these girls are working!’ But just because something is old, economical, or traditional, doesn’t necessarily make it right, or good… like slavery, I suppose; or stoning someone to death. Elmo Cotton had heard of these kinds of woman, of course, mostly from men who had been to Shadytown before, like his Uncle Joe and Alvin Webb; but he never actually seen one, at least not so up close and personal. They kind of frightened him a little, especially the way they looked at him with hungry eyes and suspicious smiles. The temptation was there; and the flesh was as willing and weak as ever. But fortunately for the raccoon and some others perhaps, his pockets were empty, just like they’d always been. Or were they?

As Abraham slowly and methodically made his way down the cobblestone pavement of Avenue ‘D’, Sherman turned his amphibious head from side to side, instinctively it would seem, as though it was the most natural thing in the world to do. Elmo, who was seated next to him on the buckboard, did likewise, wondering, perhaps, how much money was inside the turtle’s moneybag at the time, having been paid in full earlier that evening at the Fisherman’s Hall. And it occurred to him just then that some of that money may very well belong to him, not only for his assistance in stowing the precious produce on board the vessel, as ordered by Mister Elijah Hatch, but also because of something else his good friend and neighbor had imparted to him earlier that day concerning a certain portion of the produce (the Harley beans, that is) having originated from Elmo’s farm, which, according to the fat man himself, he would rightfully be compensated for.

Suddenly, the raccoon didn’t feel as helpless, or poor, as he presently appeared to be. And so, turning his undivided attention to the bug-eyed turtle whom he’d recently, and a bit sarcastically I might add, began referring to as ‘Mister Moneybags’, chiefly on account of his recently acquired wealth, at least by Harley standards, begged the obvious question: “Say, Mister Moneybags… ‘zackly much money you gots in yo’ moneybag? And he said it coolly and coyly, the way raccoons sometimes do when they smell something they want badly enough but are just too afraid to reach out and take. He was referring, of course, to Mister Dixon’s newly inflated purse, or money-bag as they were called at the time, hanging loosely, and perhaps just a little too visibly, about Sherman’s ever-expanding waistline, practically begging to be lightened, if not snatched altogether from his trousers.

Sherman was just about to answer when, from out of nowhere it seemed, a band of feral youths suddenly appeared in front of them, as if having cropped right out of cobblestones themselves, like so many weeds through the cracks in the pavement. Observing these… these street-urchins, who were by then eyeing the fat farmer like a golden goose fit for the fire, Elmo sensed an immediate and present danger, something he hadn’t felt since he was back in the wooded cabin when the bears would come around late at night looking for food. He was also beginning to realize that if he didn’t soon relieve the fat turtle of his recently replenished moneybag, the street-urchins, or whoever these trouble-seeking hooligans were, would surely do it first. He wasn’t exactly sure how, or why, be thought that way; he just did. And with everything at stake that night, and all his plans ahead of him, Elmo Cotton knew he would have to do something soon; and furthermore, he knew he would only be doing his friend and neighbor a favor.

Sherman, slow as he actually was in comprehending such things, especially when they involved friends and relatives, was quick to pick up on the raccoon’s monetary inference, as well as Elmo’s sudden interest in the ladies of the evening, “That’s fo’ me to know… and fo’ you to finds out,” he snapped right back, the way turtles sometimes do when approached by hungry raccoons who should know better than messing with a fat turtles with hard shells who can be more than a match for any ‘coon foolish enough to try. “But first, Mister Cotton” he further argued with every intention of carrying through on his original commitment, “we gots to find Miss Bernice’s house.”

The raccoon agreed, of course, and suddenly wished they were there already. By then, the street urchins had multiplied, exponentially it would seemed, and gathering in alarming numbers; and not just around the slow moving wagon, but on opposite sides of the avenue as well, like an organized pack of hungry hyenas stalking a young unsuspecting water buffalo on the African Serengeti that strayed too far from the herd. “I reckon you’s right,” resigned the raccoon, “And could you please make Abraham moves a little faster? I don’t like…”

And just as he said this, one of the prostitutes of avenue ‘D’, whose face appeared be inconspicuously masked in bright red paint, flashed a broad white smile from across the avenue aimed specifically at the raccoon. Like a fox caught in the farmer’s lamplight as he was snooping around the chicken coop in the middle of the night, Elmo froze. He sat up and stared, momentarily mesmerized, as the sweat soaked through the white cotton fibers of her blouse, voluptuously detailing each perfectly formed breast under the wetness thereof, right down to each rock hard nipple sitting high atop the goose-pimpled areola like two rough-cut rubies. For some reason it reminded the hungry Harlie of two eggs frying sunnyside-up in the pan; moreover, it reminded him of his wife, Nadine, which only made him hungrier. The woman then waved as the green and yellow wagon rolled slowly on by, looking directly at the raccoon.

“Say what you lookin’ at, Mister Cotton?” Sherman suddenly asked, as if he didn’t already know.

Feeling only a little ashamed and not so tired any longer, the raccoon slyly changed the subject. “You sure this is the way to Bernice’s house, Mister Moneybags?” he asked, turning his attention back to the road before them which appeared to be widening by the minute. But before long, Elmo’s raccoon eyes returned to the painted women. He found that he simply could not keep from looking at her, even when tried. Perhaps he’d been away from his wife longer than he thought. But it was not his wife he was thinking about any longer.

“I thinks so… leastways, this is the way I came last time I was here,” answered the fat man as he drove the empty wagon noisily over the cobblestone streets of Old Port Fierce, occasionally reaching down to his side to make sure his moneybag was still safe and secure. “Course we could always go back the way we came, I ‘spose, and then go east; but that would take too long. And besides, I thought you might want to see some of the sights first. Ain’t never seen anything like this in Harley. Huh, Mister Cotton?” he winked.

The raccoon nodded in agreement, his eyes permanently fixed on the woman with the painted face who was standing all alone by then in the orange glow of a street lantern. She was the same black cat beauty that waved to him from across the crowded street, the one with the fried-egg breasts and the white cotton blouse that presently being undone, one button at a time, with long red nails. Her hair was straight and black. It reminded Elmo of the way Boy’s hair would cascade down over his savage shoulders with that same iridescent blue; only woman’s hair was much longer than the Indian’s mane, flowing like a black garden snake all the way to the slit conspicuously cut into the hem of her tight red dress. Among her other womanly attribute, this dark haired Aphrodite also had these extremely long finger-nails, the kind that twist and turn in so many contorted spiralings until reaching their full and final extension at the very tip of the keratin blade; they were at least four inches long, even at the pinky, and painted a scarlet red, to match the slit-skirt one would only surmise, and the letter indelibly sown on her soul. She also appeared to posses the largest backside the Harlie had ever seen on a woman so otherwise delicately built; like the high-riding rump of an Ethiopian war princess, he might have imagined if, in fact, he’d ever seen an Ethiopian war princess with a high-riding rump, and just as proudly displayed. By comparison she was much prettier and any other woman on Avenue ‘D’ that particular night, even with her painted mask; indeed, there were many of them to be seen, and had, by then. But alas, she was a marked woman; Cain’s twin sister, perhaps, the harlot of Babylon who may as well have had the incriminating scarlet letter ‘A’ conspicuously stamped on her fallen forehead or embroidered right over her adulterous heart for all mankind to pity and all womankind to scorn, much like the promiscuous Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s timeless novel. In Harley she would’ve been a called a whore, or worse; but in Shadytown labels didn’t seem to matter much – only the price. Scorned by some, adored by others, loved by none, and available to all, women such as these were pitiful and plentiful on Avenue ‘D’, just as they are everywhere else in this wanting world of ours. But there was something different about this one particular woman, imagined the curious raccoon. She didn’t look like the others. She actually looked quite … well, innocent, he imagined; owing perhaps not a little to the virgin white blouse and that angelic smile which may have once graced the lips of the Madonna herself as she suckled her newborn son. She was just too beautiful for her profession, one would have to wonder. Or maybe that was a mask, too; a disguise, if you will, just like all the others.

She had a pretty face, thick red lips, and long black hair that was perhaps straighter than it should’ve been in view of her African ancestry. Her blouse was conspicuously undone by now, the flesh beneath the fabric clearly visible, which she erogenously massaged with claw-like fingers, leaving very little to the imagination. She was obviously trolling for a bite; or, as the fisherman would also say in their own peculiar vernacular: ‘cuttin’ bait and fishin’ deep…’

It wasn’t the most respectable why to make a living, nor the most profitable; but for some, like the painted lady of the Avenue ‘D’, it was perhaps the only way. She lived with her mother on the outskirts of town along with her illegitimate son, but had recently rented a room just above the Blue Dolphin Inn where she’d just came from having put the captain to bed. Unlike the fishing boats that had long since been moored for the night, she was out trolling for one last bite. And just then, she thought she felt a nibble.

Rotating his armor-plated head to the far side of the street like a turret on a gun-deck, the turtle took notice, if not exactly aim. “See that, Mister Cotton?” he enquired of his wide-eyed passenger. “Now that’s what I calls a Miracle-Maker! Don’t ‘spose that who you be lookin’ for – Huh?”

“No,” replied Elmo, reaching for the pocket in his overalls, “But that sure am one miracle.”

“Make a blind man see!” agreed the driver.

“And a dead man come…” rejoined the Harlie. He was thinking, perhaps, of the time not too long ago, it suddenly seemed, on the Island of Long when, as ‘Great Raccoon’ and demi-god deluxe, he was ceremoniously asked bring the old chief, Long Arrow, back to life; only to realize, of course, that even demi-gods have their limitations, much to the chagrin of the high priest, and most likely to his own spiritual demise.

“You know, Mister Cotton,” the turtle continued, “Last time I come this way she be wearin’ that ‘zact same dress, if I’s not mistaken. And don’t you know, she be standin’ in that ‘zact same place… right by that there street light. And she be doin’… well I thinks you knows what she be doin’,” observed the driver of the wagon, craning in his neck a notch or two for modesty’s sake. Apparently, Mister Dixon had traveled down this road before, more than once perhaps, and was well aware by now of all the trappings and enticements offered in that socialized section of town. But that was before he’d married Mrs. Dixon, and back in his bachelor days when both he and his moneybag were not so fat. “You know what she be wantin’ now – Don’t you Mister Cotton?” admonished the turtle, in the only way he knew how.

With both eyes shamelessly pinned to painted lady like flies to molasses,” the penniless Harlie merely replied: “About fifty cents, I reckon.” And just as he said it, the woman in question reached into her blouse with long red fingernails and pulled out a firm but fleshy brown breast, which she solicitously waved in the general direction of empty wagon, and specifically at the wild-eyed raccoon.

It did the trick, of course; although it wasn’t really necessary.

The turtle was astonished, and clearly embarrassed, at the bold and brazen exhibition. He’d witnessed such flagrant behavior before; but never performed so shamelessly, so up close and personal, so deliberately, or so early in the evening for that matter. What alarmed him even more was how Elmo just happened to know the exact price she was asking at the time, which, according to Sherman’s private and very reliable sources, was still only half a dollar, or fifty cents… or so he was informed. He remembered now because it also happened to be the exact same price he paid for a shoe-shine and a haircut the last time he was there. It was at a local tonsilarium, right there on Avenue ‘D’ as a matter of fact. Four bit! two for the shine and two for the cut; only the proprietor of this particular establishment turned out to be one of the ‘queer’ individuals who took a shine not only to the Harlie’s patent leather shoes, but the Harlie himself, if you take my meaning. But the haircut was the best the farmer ever had; and so, he wasn’t totally disappointed. “Now how come you be knowin’ sumpin’ like that, Mister Cotton?” frowned the turtle, the lines on his forehead coming together in the form a fleshy brown question mark. “Who told you ‘fify cents?

Elmo shrugged, “Just lucky, I guess.” Then he paused. “And how do you know, Mister Moneybags?” he likewise enquired. “Hummmmm?”

The turtle, lost for words, withdrew into the sanctuary of his shell, where he knew he would be safe and secure from any further accusations. Despite their many flaws and failures, Harlies were generally not known to surrender so easily to the temptations of the flesh, especially the more shameful and sinful ones such as fornication and adultery, Isaiah Armstrong not-with-standing. For one thing, their Harlie wives simply wouldn’t stand for it; and the Harlie husbands knew it. Besides, with women like Nadine Cotton and Bernice Dixon around, it just wasn’t worth the risk. These cowgirls had broken bucks before; and they certainly knew to steer a bull, or a stallion for that matter. So beware all you cowboys and buckaroos, you Jim Dandies and city-slickers, all you gigolos and street hustlers, you misogynists, you pugilists and playboys, you sultans of the saddle who make every house a harem, and every bedroom a bordello. Beware, I say! Don’t mess with these mares, even if you are, as the cowgirls like to say: ‘hung like a horse’. These gals know how to fight, not just in the bedroom; and they mean business. And if the raccoon wasn’t so busy staring at the painted lady across the boulevard and going through the pockets like a boozer in search of his bottle, he certainly would have remembered all this and heeded the warning. He was searching, it would seem, for some loose change; two quarters to be exact, which he somehow thought he might find if he dug down deep enough. By then, the turtle could see what was really on the raccoon’s mind and, in an almost ‘I wish I hadn’t brung you here’ sort of way, seemed to understand. Life on the run can do that to a man, he sadly supposed, especially when you don’t have your wife running alongside of you. It just can’t be helped.

As previously elucidated upon, sins of the flesh were actually quite rare in Harley, most marriages in the agricultural community typically lasting a lifetime…and beyond that! for those who believe in the hereafter. Of course, it may also be argued, and quite forcefully I might add (depending, of course, on who you happened to be married to when the hooded reaper grimly arrives on your doorstep with his famous sickle and watch) that Heaven, by any definition, would certainly preclude any and all matrimonial ties; and they would certainly have the right to do so. After all, it the Lord Himself who once proclaimed to a curious audience on the very same sore subject: ‘For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are they given in marriage’. Surely, this was meant to be a blessing, if not a reprieve. Still, there are others who will argue that marriage, on whatever side of the grave they exist, can be a blessing, as well as a curse. Perhaps Brother Job, whose own un-supporting wife once pleaded with him to ‘Curse God and die!’ would be among these ambivalent souls. Subsequently, the men who lived and worked in Harley had long since figured out the secret to a long and happy marriage. It was actually quite simple. There wasn’t any! And so, they never bothered looking for it in the first place. Instead, they made the most of what they had, including one another; and sometimes, they actually were happy. You see, happiness is active, not static. It’s something that is ‘pursued’, just like the Framers suggest in their celebrated Declaration of Independence. Happiness is not an entitlement. Of course, there are those who will insist: ‘You don’t miss what you ain’t never had’; and that might be a good way of looking at it. And if it ain’t already right there, cooking in the kitchen, washing in the tub, or waiting for you in the bedroom… well, it probably never existed anyway. And even if it did, as the men of Harley would sometimes admit to themselves, especially whenever their eyes wondered in the ways of the flesh, they were probably better off without it. They would be right about that, too. And as for the institution of marriage... well, there really was really only way out, in Harley anyway; and that, of course, was ‘feet first!’ Just ask any Harlie. Or better yet, ask his wife.

Unfortunately, along with the other six deadly sins, Shadytown was not immune from occasional adultery, which was said to have destroyed many a good man, along with his family, leaving the usual casualties in its wicked wake, especially on Fat Moon Friday night and particularly on Avenue ‘D’. It’s a temptation that’s been around for as long as the institution of marriage itself, ironically enough; one having little or no meaning without the other come to think of it. It was Joe Cotton who once told the inquisitive raccoon, not half in jest, that it was a woman who invented it, marriage that is. Elmo never quite understood exactly what his uncle was trying to say at the time, if anything; but he knew now! He knew ever since he got married. ‘And don’t ever forget it,’ the fly-catcher would say; never mind the fact that he’d never actually had taken the sacred vows himself; and glad of it, for the most part. But even with those admonishing words of wisdom echoing in his raccoon ears, the Harlie still couldn’t help looking back at the woman waving to him from across the street. There was just something about her, he kept thinking to himself; something… familiar. He liked what he saw. And so did the woman in red.

“Now don’t you be gettin’ no ideas, Elmo,” Sherman nervously smiled, once again addressing the Harlie by his first name just get his attention. Then, slowing the wagon down to almost a standstill to drive home the seriousness of that warning, he further admonished his wide-eyed passenger, “You is a spoken fo’, Mister Cotton. And so’s I. ‘Member?”

“’Member what?” Elmo replied, his attention still focused on the painted woman on the other side of the cobblestone street.

“Lordy! Lordy!” Sherman quickly responded. “Best not let Bernice or Miss Nadine hears you talkin’ like that! Or we both be in sleepin’ in the barn. You know how the womens is, Mister Cotton. And comes to think of it… I ain’t even gots a barn!”

No matter how much he tried, the raccoon still couldn’t keep his mind, or his eyes, off the painted woman on the other side of the street who was still standing there as if waiting for him to do….What?

Sherman wasn’t quite finished. “Now don’t think I don’t know what’s goin’ on here, Mister Cotton,” he harshly criticized his good friend and neighbor, “‘Cause I do! And I knows you do, too! And you knows I knows you do. And I knows that you knows that I knows… and…Oh, fo’git it, Mister Cotton. Just fo’git it!” he suddenly cried, throwing up his hands in frustration. Tangled up, or so it seemed, in his own exasperated thoughts, the turtle resigned, “You gots that ol’ jelly-roll on yo’ mind… Ain’t you, Mister Cotton?”

Jelly-roll was a term still used by some of the older Harlies, the men in particular, to describe as accurately as they could, and in their own metaphorical vernacular, that part of the female anatomy which, chiefly due to those characteristics that make it physiologically receptive to the male anatomy, could not possible be described in any other way, at least not in its proper sexual context, which even these Negro Neanderthals were too modest talk to about in any other way. And even when they did talk about it, it was usually done in song, the blues in particular, and composed by such notable black troubadours as ‘Jelly-roll’ Morton, whose very name is analogously immortalized in the sexual charged phrase itself. And for those of you who have never bitten into a freshly baked ‘jelly-roll’ and savored the tantalizingly rich red juices hidden within those soft moist layers…well, you don’t know what you’re missing. But then again, maybe you do.

“Now don’t you be getting’ no ideas,” warned the cautious driver. “Ain’t gots no time fo’ no jelly-roll.”

Like the BANG! BANG! BANG! BANGing! of a copper kettle being struck with a long wooden spoon under a kitchen table a hundred miles away, the warning was there. The words ran rang true, loud and clear, not unlike the sound of Lil Ralph’s drum, and just as difficult to ignore. But it was faint and far away, a million miles it suddenly seemed, even as the raccoon frantically fumbled through the pockets of his overalls for fifty cents that just wasn’t there. And hear it he did, like the sound distant thunder: lightning in a clear blue sky; followed by a hurricane, no doubt; or perhaps the dreaded tsunami that comes crashing down from half a world away, destroying everything in rising wake and dragging it back out to sea, and with all the force and fury of a woman. No wonder they are more often than not, christened with the names of women. Coming up with nothing more than a heavy heart and an empty hand, Elmo Cotton slowly turned to his neighbor and said, “I know, Sherman – I know.”

The turtle was not so sure about that. “Now just what is you lookin’ fo’ anyway?” he said, a little suspiciously and very much very concerned over his neighbor’s sudden interest in what the painted woman had to offer that particular evening on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown on a Fat Moon Friday night.

“Huh?” Elmo answered, coming up a few coins that’d somehow worked their way into the corner of his breast pocket, which he knew wasn’t nearly enough for what he had in mind. He turned to the turtle, whose baby brown eyes were still full of doubt and suspicion; it made the raccoon smile.

The turtle squinted. He’d seen the coins and knew very well what was on the Harlie’s mind by then. But he just had to ask, “What’s that you gots in yo’ hand, Mister Cotton?”

Counting the coins he had all but forgotten about by then, which consisted of one quarter, a dime, a nickel, and five shiny red pennies, the raccoon sheepishly replied “...bout forty-five cents… but I lacks a nickel,” he added.

“Humph!” the turtle acknowledged.

But the Harlie was not so willing to give up. Not just yet anyway. He’d been secretly eyeing the moneybag hanging heavily from the turtle’s belt. “Hey, Mister Moneybags,” he said in a rather suggestive tone, “how ‘bout...?”

It a question answered before it was even asked.

“No, sir!” stated the farmer, flatly and firmly. “Uh-Uh! No, sir! Ain’t no way! Ain’t no how!” He then went on to explain: “I know some of this here money rightfully belongs to you, Mister Cotton. You done earned it; and like I said befo’, some of them there beans was yours anyway. But I think it best ifin’ I gives it to Nadine, just likes you told me to. ‘Member?” Although not entirely shocked or surprised by the sudden request, Sherman wondered if Elmo was seriously considering the sinful proposition, or if he was merely teasing him, which raccoons are known to do now and then when in the company of their own kind. It’s a well know fact that Harlies, in general, can be quite humorous at times, even when all hope lost, which they were actually quite accustomed to. It was something that just came natural to them, like eating, breathing, and breeding, I suppose; and besides, it never hurt. It didn’t necessarily make life easier; but it did make it a little more bearable. And it worked! Well, at least most of the time. Under ordinary circumstances, the turtle would have guessed Elmo was just trying to make him laugh, which Sherman always liked and appreciated. But these were not ordinary circumstances, and they were both far away from home, and their wives; and that, somehow, made all the difference.

Elmo decided not to pursue the matter any further. That’s not to say he’d entirely given up on the notion. Let’s face it: jelly-roll ain’t that easy to forget, once you ‘gots it on yo’ mind’ as the old bluesman would say. But as usual, dollars, along with the distant sound of a kettle drum still banging in his ears, had damned him. Money, or the lack thereof, always seemed to be at the root of all the Harlie’s problems, especially when he didn’t have any. But in any case, or a least in this particular one, the lack of money may’ve very well saved the sharecropper from his own destructive desires, along with something else he was not quite ready to deal with. “I ‘member, Sherman,” he finally admitted in a mocking but grateful gesture, the way brothers sometimes do in situations such as these. Then he laughed. And as the grin on the raccoon’s face widened, the turtle laughed too.

Now, the only thing Sherman Dixon liked better than laughing was making other people laugh. It just came natural to him; and he happened to be very good at it. Fat people are like that, I suppose – they have to be! You might even say it’s expected of them. Not only was Sherman fat, but there were those who considered him stupid as well; although Elmo was not one of them, and was quick to admonish anyone who even suggested it.

Like most sharecroppers, Sherman Dixon never went to school. He had a hard time explaining things and, at times, spoke with a noticeable stutter which only confirmed what some had suspected all along: that Mister Dixon was indeed as slow in the head as he was on his feet. Elmo knew better, of course; and, in his own humble and doubtful way, so did Sherman; although it still hurt. Most of the time he merely laughed off the insults, as saints often do in the company of those who just don’t know any better; other times he would even go along with it and, in some instances, gain the respect of his persecutors. Sooner or later they would all go away; and even if they didn’t, chances were they would soon be laughing right along with him. And that was his secret weapon. You see, the fat man’s laugh was contagious, as all laughter should be, especially when it’s of the self deprecating variety. Maybe that’s why Mister Dixon laughed as much as he did. It was a wise comic who once stated in all candid seriousness: ‘It’s more difficult to make a man laugh than it is to make him think’. And when you get right down to it: Who would you rather be around – a man who thinks…or a man who laughs? Think about it. And laugh! Sherman always did. But what really made the turtle laugh that day was the truthfulness in the raccoon’s laugh. For ‘Truth’ is the yeast that makes all jokes rise or fall to the occasion. The good ones have it in spades – ‘truth’, that is. That’s what makes them so funny. It works every time! Maybe that’s why there is so little truth in the world, and so many bad jokes.

By the time they both finished laughing, the painted woman was racing across the street to greet three sailors who were swaggering down the boulevard on their much anticipated shore-leave like... well, like three sailors swaggering down the boulevard on their much anticipated shore-leave. Naturally, they responded accordingly to the woman’s soliciting advance, as sons of sailors are known to do in these situations.

They were all dressed in white and black, like three striped skunks, the tallest with his shirt sleeves rolled up high on his shoulders, proudly exposing a variety of very dark tattoos covering every square inch of hairy flesh from shoulder to knuckle. He appeared slightly inebriated at the time as evidenced by his uncertain and somewhat staggering footsteps. He was, in fact, Peter Finch, the same master-at-arms who’d slapped the fat farmer from Harley in the face earlier and tried to steal his money. The other two had also been on the dock that day, and the turtle recognized them as well: one by a long blonde pony-tail trailing down his uniformed back; and the other by his wrinkly bald head that looked not unlike an albino prune in need of a suntan, or at least a few rays of sunshine.

Unlike our Harlie hero, whose monetary status has already been established, these three skunks did, in fact, have more than fifty cents in their combined pockets at the time, and were obviously looking for something, or someone, to spend it on; and, for three recently paid and slightly inebriated sailors on shore-leave, that wouldn’t take very long – Not in Shadytown anyway. Not on Avenue ‘D’! And certainly not on a Fat Moon Friday night. They would be gone with the morning tide, as sons of sailors usually are; unless, of course, they were still in jail by then waiting to be carted back to the brig, an angry captain, and a certain flogging. Collectively, these three sailors made up a portion, albeit a very small one of the Maria Aurora’s current registry. It would be their last night in Old Port Fierce, or any other port for that matter, for a long, long time. And they intended to make the most of it, as sons of sailors always do.

Like all species, wild or domesticated, raccoons possess a natural, almost instinctual, aversion to skunks and are known to attack these odorous and obnoxious creatures bravely, and with all the ferocity they deserved; along with the prerequisite precautions, of course, that go with this particular adversary. Elmo immediately recognized one of these sailors as none other than Mister Peter Finch, the tattooed master-at-arms of the Maria Aurora who’d not only slapped his friend and neighbor, but laughed as well when he fell down and spilled the beans. He didn’t think it was funny then, and thought it even less funny now that he had time to think about it; he was also beginning to think that it might be sailor’s turn to go down, which is exactly what happened just then; and nobody even laid a hand on him. In an awkward and somewhat foolish display of unbridled bravado, Peter Finch shamelessly approached the painted prostitute, a little too prematurely, perhaps, and tripped the process, striking his hard stubborn head on and even harder and more stubborn piece of concrete lining either side of the famous boulevard. The alcohol he’d consumed earlier may well have contributed to the seaman’s untimely fall; but that was something only Finch would know, and something he would never admit to; certainly not in front of his subordinates, and maybe not even at the end of a rope, where the truth can be stretched only as far as a man’s (or woman’s) neck. As good King Solomon warns us in his proverbial style: ‘Pride goeth before the fall’. It happens all the time, even to the great and wise among us who, as Satan himself found out, are most susceptible to that fatal fall from grace. Like a common drunk, Peter Finch simply tripped over the curb and into the gutter, much to the amusement of a handful of heckling street-urchins who were actually used to such exhibitions whenever the sailors were out and about on liberty, and especially on a Fat Moon Friday night. They couldn’t be happier.

When at last his eyes were opened, Peter Finch found himself lying in the gutter and staring straight up a woman’s dress. He’d landed in that rather enviable position, either by accident or design, but most likely by accident. For the moment, at least, all he could see were two inner thighs wrapped in a dark red vortex culminating in the blackness above and beyond. It was the painted lady, of course, the same woman of the night Elmo had made eye contact with earlier from across the avenue who, despite the turtle’s vocal remonstrations and the ever-present beat of Lil’ Ralph’s the kettle drum, he still couldn’t keep his eyes off of. She just happened to standing there when the incident occurred. And there she stood, hovering over the fallen mariner in quiet confidence, arms folded and lips slightly parted, sneering down on the semi-conscious master-at-arms, a conquering Amazon, the hem of her pleated skirt flying in the breeze like the Scottish kilt of a noble highlander looking down on a dead Englishman.

For quite some time the sailor lay there, motionless, dazed and confused, gazing up into that forbidden and most private area of the female anatomy, geometrically referred to as the ‘devil’s triangle’ by those mariners with a flair for descriptive metaphor; not to be confused with that other deadly triangle they may also be familiar with, especially those who, through no fault of their own, had suddenly found themselves lost at sea in that mysterious part of the Caribbean that shares the same hellish description: ‘the Bermuda triangle’. And there he was, in full view of the old familiar triangle, in the same devilish dilemma. It was the mark of a woman, permanently imprinted in his brain and stamped on his forehead, not unlike the apocalyptic ‘666’, by Satan himself, and one that would eventually be the master-at-arms passport to hell. But for now, at least, all Peter Finch could do was stare. And that was enough. It suddenly occurred to him, however, that perhaps Lilith was right after all! There are times when the woman belongs on top; and men, if only they were not such egotistical idiots, should indeed fall more often into such a compromising and subordinate position. It was not where he really wanted to be at the time; but he did appear content, for the moment at least, and it showed.

Naturally, Sherman Dixon wanted nothing more at the moment than to walk right over to the prostrate master-at-arms and kick him while he was down and he still had the chance: once for slapping him in the face earlier that day, and another more for invading the woman’s privacy, no matter how unintentionally it may have occurred and despite her professional occupation. It just ain’t right. Hell! every Southern gentleman knows that – even a Harlie, thought Sherman; apparently, this skunk knew nothing of the South, and he certainly was no gentleman. But then again, the painted woman wasn’t exactly a lady, either; at least not in the traditional and cultural sense. Apparently, she wasn’t even embarrassed, perhaps being accustomed to such lewd and lascivious behavior living on the streets as her profession often demanded. A good swift kick was just what the sailor needed, thought the turtle as he tried to find it in his own soft shell to administer such a badly needed and much deserved reprimand. One good swift kick would surely make up for the slap he’d received earlier that day; and if that kick just happened to come from a broad-footed boot of a Harlie been farmer like Sherman Dixon (Now that’s a kick for you!) so much the better. And if one kick was good…well, wouldn’t two be even better? Three or four is probably what he really deserved; five, if you include one for good measure. Hell! Why not just make it six, for all the faces Peter Finch had undoubtedly slapped in the past? Or perhaps an even dozen, to include all the other poor and pitiful faces the sadistic master-at-arms would surely slap in the future, for no good reason, and be done with it. Forty minus one, if you want to be Biblical about it. Not that they counted, of course; at least not when you consider the number of scourges imprinted in the Shroud of Turin, which suggests, if nothing else, that the man once wrapped in the holy relic surely received more than his fair share (over a hundred lashes according to some scientific evidence) of stripes, which would also suggest that someone, or something, didn’t want this man to make it to Calvary. It was almost as if, at the very last moment, the devil knew who he was up against, and that he’d bitten off more than he could chew: moreover, that his fate was sealed, and victory already won… but it wasn’t his.

Being visibly out-numbered that evening, Mister Dixon wisely decided against such drastic and potentially dangerous action, and summarily backed off. For although being kicked by a Harley bean farmer was indeed far less than Finch deserved for committing his egregious and unpardonable crimes, it was more than Mister Dixon could find in himself to deliver that night on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown. He pitied the sailor as much as he ever pitied anyone, including himself; and besides, he just didn’t have it in him. So instead, the fat man from Harley simply did what he always did in these situations; what did best – He laughed! He then looked down in the gutter, shaking his oversized head in the same condescending manner reserved for school bullies who’d just been badly beaten or spoiled children about to be spanked, as if to stick out his tongue and say ‘Baaaghhhhhh! Serves you right.’ But the laugh said it all. It wounded the master-at-arms even more than the soiled foot of a sharecropper; perhaps more than the rod God Himself ever could. It was pity that stayed the farmer’s foot that night. But, as the saying goes: ‘...no good deed goes unpunished’. It was something Mister Dixon would soon come to learn, the hard way.

And he didn’t laugh alone; for by then the street-urchins had all gathered around the fallen sailor, like so many rats around the carcass of a dead alley cat, and burst out in cheers, applause, and so much laughter. It seemed that Peter Finch had only gotten what he deserved, and perhaps what the street-urchins had been waiting for all along. By then, even the painted lady was laughing, as well as the raccoon, towering over the love-sick sailor like the wondrous Colossus of Rhodes… with lipstick and a skirt. Seeing the wicked master-at-arms lying helplessly in the gutter somehow seemed to make up for all the slaps, kicks, knocks, punches, bites and barks, scratches, put-downs, insults, injuries, and all the other injustices suffered in this insufferable world of ours. The laughter only made it that much better. It was a contagious; and it all happened right there on Avenue ‘D’ on Fat Moon Friday night, in a place called Shadytown. Where else?

And they didn’t laugh alone; for by then a small crowd of innocent, and not so innocent, by-standers who’d just witnessed the comical event had gathered around and were laughing right along with the street-urchins, the painted lady, the two Harlies, and a horse named Abraham. As their numbers increased, so did the volume of their laughter. Not surprisingly, the other two sailors who accompanied the master-at-arms that night were laughing as well; although not nearly as loudly and, perhaps out of respect for a one of their own, a little more discreetly. They knew master-at-arms well enough to know that he didn’t like being mocked, particularly by civilians, and especially by other sailors. Moreover, Peter Finch was still an officer of the Navy, sober or drunk, and deserved at least that much respect, if nothing else, according to protocol. Besides, it just didn’t look good. And so they tried to help him up as best they could. But Finch would not budge from his compromising position, which he seemed to be enjoying perhaps a little more than he should have; and neither would the black Aphrodite.

“You see! You see!” shouted one of the more vocal street-urchins, a rather queer looking fellow with a high-pitched voice and a girlish figure, “What goes ‘round comes ‘round. I told you so.”

“Can’t hold his liquor!” observed a well-tailored pedestrian, scraping the mud from his shoes, “…poor bastard.”

“Give im’ another drink!” howled another one of the urchins, perched high on the head of a curly-topped giant, to get a better view perhaps.

“Yeah! Let’s see ‘im do it again!” insisted the curly head below.

Others cried out in unison, “Kick ‘im! Stick ‘im!” while waving sticks and spitting on the curb.

“Mug-wump,” sighed an old man in the crowd who Elmo immediately recognized as one of the four old grey-bards he’d overheard earlier that day talking about whatever it is old sailors usually talk about, the one with the odorous approach. Apparently he’d had known the master-at-arms in a previous life, and perhaps wish he hadn’t.

The turtle agreed with them, of course; although not so vociferously, and perhaps with a certain amount of pity that didn’t go entirely un-noticed. Others were merely wondering if the master-at-arms and his whore would eventually get what they deserved: her, his fifty cents; and him, a social disease to be cured, if possible, by some Shadytown physician who specialized in venereal viruses. And the more painful the better, one could only imagine, envisioning, perhaps, the long sharp needle utilized in such delicate operations. The Harlie had actually seen such an instrument when it fell, quite accidentally of course, from the black medical bag of a well-known doctor from Creekwood Green who was summoned at one time to perform the grizzle procedure on a local resident who fell prey to the insidious disease, better known as gonorrhea; at least, that’s what Joe Cotton told his inquisitive young nephew at the time. It was something he tried to put out of his mind; but the long nasty needle stayed with him ever since, and so did the black bag. But then again, what better place to keep such a barbaric instrument of torture, he might’ve imagined had he been aware of such things as the Spanish Inquisition and other Machiavellian cures. But Elmo had other things on his mind at the time; he was still thinking about the painted woman, and wondering why she looked so, so familiar. Was she really worth it – the fifty cents, that is? Unless he could find another nickel in his pocket, the raccoon would never know.

With a little help and a few choice words from his ship-mates, the master-at-arms was finally back on his feet, wishing perhaps he could’ve stayed in that awkward and enviable position just a little while longer. But it was getting late, as the other two skunks were quick, and correct, to remind him of that. Even the painted Aphrodite was anxious to be on her solicitous way by then, knowing, after all, there were other fish in the sea just waiting to take her bait, and one in particular she still had her eyes on.

As the crowd slowly dispersed and went their separate ways, except for perhaps the street-urchins who somehow knew that the show wasn’t not quite over yet, the drunk skunk’s attention was suddenly drawn to the painted wagon and its two familiar passengers who’d crawled back on top to be on their way as well. Ironically, it was the sound of laughter that finally brought Peter Finch to his senses, as well as his feet, which only infuriated him even more, realizing by now that he was not only the source of the joke, but the butt as well. It only made him that much more determined to finish what he’d started earlier that day at the dock. Only this time, there would be no captain’s pistol to tell him otherwise, and no one else to answer to. “Wait here,” he soberly ordered his shipmates in a voice that clearly meant business, while winking at the black Aphrodite who’d since put a comfortable distance between her and the master-at-arms, “This won’t take long.” Now Peter Finch really had something to prove, and not only to the painted whore. And so, in a quiet and controlled rage, he walked stiffly towards the motionless wagon like a man bent on an unholy mission. He was still slightly drunk, and perhaps even a little dazed, but not so much that he didn’t understand what’d just happened to him and all the humiliation that followed. He appeared more than a little upset as he rolled up his sleeves, exposing, for the first time, perhaps, the full extent of those inscrutable tattoos.

Meanwhile, Sherman wanted nothing more than to leave the scene, immediately; but his progress was impeded by the small band of street-urchins who refused to give up their hard-earned ground. They were actually just a bunch of local kids, feral youths, rag-a-muffins, with nothing better to do and too much time to do it; hooligans, really. And they were soon circling the little wagon like a school of hungry sharks around a dying whale; the blood was already in the water. Apparently, this was nothing new to them; in fact, it was almost as if they expected it to happen all along.

Elmo quickly noticed that some of the street-urchins were carrying sticks and clubs; a few of them even had knives. He whispered something into Sherman’s ear.

The turtle nodded. He shook the reins, and slowly the wagon began to roll over the uneven cobblestones of Avenue ‘D’ just as it did before.

Having wrestled a rather large hickory club from the soiled hands of a nearby street-urchin, Peter Finch proceeded towards the wagon, whereupon he thrust the sturdy timber directly and deliberately in-between the slowly rotating spokes of the wagon wheel. “That’s far enough, Mister,” he ordered, as the wagon and a horse named Abraham came to an abrupt, and most unexpected, halt.

Without the captain, the ship, the pistol, or any other semblance of controlling legal authority to prevent him from doing what he was going to do anyway, what was indeed inevitable by then, Peter Finch was on his own and answerable to no one, except maybe his own impenetrable conscience. Sherman Dixon realized this as well, and knew by now what a fine kettle of crabs he’d actually gotten himself into. The raccoon was thinking very much the along those same lines; although his mind was still hell-bent on the painted woman of the night who, not surprisingly, was still there, eyeing the two Harlie with curiosity and delight, along with other emotions she had long since abandoned to the cobblestone streets of Shadytown, and had since forgotten.

The fat man’s ambitions were not as amorous, nor as bold, as those of the daring young raccoon; but he was feeling a little different than he did only few hours ago; and it showed. Sherman Dixon had changed somehow, although he wasn’t exactly sure how, or how much; but it all had something to do with what happened that day on the dock – something to do with Roger Morgan. The way he… That’s it! Sherman suddenly realized, wondering why it had taken him so long to figure it out. Of course! It’s the eyes. It’s all in the eyes. Roger Morgan’s eyes, of course: deep, dark, and cold; penetrating, like the icy rains of Nova Scotia November; red and white, like the defiant stripes that flew over Fort McHenry one star spangled night in the twilight’s last gleaming; and as blue as any sea and sky. But it was more than just the eyes; it had to be. It was the way the captain stood toe to toe with the master-at-arms that day, looking him in straight in the eye and staring him down like the dog that he was. It was just any look, either; it was ‘the look!’ Beyond that, it was something the turtle just couldn’t explain. It was something he just didn’t understand at the time. But like all great mysteries that unravel at their own pace and in their own good time, perhaps someday he would. It was that same ‘look’ in the captain’s unblinking and un-daunting eyes that was enough to stop Peter Finch, dead in his bullying tracks, heel him like the whimpering dog he really was, and reduced him to something his own wicked mother wouldn’t recognize. Sherman wondered if he would ever have ‘the look’, that same cool, clear and decisive look, in his own eyes some day; and if he did, would it work for him the same as it did for Roger Morgan, the captain of the Maria Aurora? He seriously doubted it, but thought that he may one day find out, sooner rather than later.

Finch was standing right alongside of the wagon by then, practically eye to eye with the driver of the vehicle. “Hand it over,” he ordered in a clam but serious voice.

Sherman knew right away what the master-at-arms wanted; and so did Elmo. He wanted their money, of course; but he also wanted revenge. You could see it in his eyes, and the way he said ‘hand it over’. Only this time there would be no compromise, or debate; most of all, there would be no captain’s pistol to stop Finch from getting what he wanted, or doing what he was about to do. This time it wouldn’t end with a simple slap in the face. Sherman knew that by now. And so, pulling in the reins of his wagon with one hand while further securing his moneybag attached to the belt around his waist with the other, the fat man from Harley stubbornly held his ground, as well as his money. Then he did something totally unexpected, and quite out of character. He shook his head, spat on the ground, and simply said – “No.”

It took the lady and the raccoon totally by surprise, and maybe even a few of the street-urchins who, by then, had taken the turtle for nothing more than a big, fat, clumsy coward (soon to be a poor, big, fat, clumsy, coward) whose entire life consisted, as far as they could tell, of one continuous lip-quiver and belly laugh; whenever he wasn’t gobbling down dead catfish and throwed-up carrots, or making love to his big, fat, clumsy wife, perhaps. But they would be wrong; and Sherman was about to prove it to them. He knew it wouldn’t be easy; things like that seldom are. But it had to be done. What Mister Dixon did just then took more than just courage. It took guts – Real guts! something the fat man always seemed to have a plentiful supply of, but, unfortunately, only in the physical sense. Up until now, that is. You see, in some reverse, and perhaps long-overdue, process of anthropomorphism, the turtle became a man… a real man! Well, maybe not entirely; not just yet, as we shall soon see. But the metamorphosis had already begun! The shell was beginning to break; the chrysalis was cracking; the caterpillar would soon become a butterfly. And there was just no stopping it.

At first Elmo was dumfounded; but presently, he looked both pleased and proud, hoping perhaps that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t.

“I said, hand it over,” the sailor growled, more seriously than before.

Again, Sherman responded in the negative. “No,” he said, simple and plainly; and, almost as an afterthought, he politely added: “I would prefer not to.” There was no stutter.

Upon hearing this, several of the street-urchins burst out in applause and laughter. “That’s tellin ‘im, fat-boy!” shouted a voice from the crowd.

It made others in the crowd cheer: “Fat-boy! Fat-boy! Fat-boy!”

The urchin with the high-pitched voice cried out: “That’s no boy – That’s a man!”

The crowd capitulated. “Fat-man! Fat-man!! Fat-man!!!”

The street-urchins laughed and cheered even louder, waving their stick and clubs steamy night air, and shaking their fists in anger and delight. It was just another typical evening on Avenue ‘D’ in Shadytown, on a fat Moon Friday night.

All Peter Finch could do was stand there and take it. What else could he do? It was one of the most humiliating moments in his long and loathsome life. Aphrodite was even beginning to feel a little sorry for skunk by then; but she would never let it show. Pity was not part of the program. Never was; never would be. She wanted to turn and walk away, but there was still one more fish she was hoping land that night; so, she decided to stay a little while longer. “Fat-man! Fat-man!” she joined in, breasts bouncing in air like two pigs in a blanket as she looked on with both pity and pride. “Fat-man!” she cheered the turtle.

Suddenly, they were all on their feet, applauding shouting “FAT-MAN! FAT-MAN! It made Elmo smile, despite the fact that he never liked the name, ‘Fat-man’, especially when applied to his good friend and neighbor. But the fat man himself didn’t seem to mind. It actually made him blush; although, it was rather difficult to tell on account of the turtle’s extremely dark complexion. But for a brief and shining moment – perhaps, for the first time in his amphibious and shell-sheltered life – Sherman Dixon actually felt like a real man. So much so that suddenly, a little hesitantly at first, he joined in on his own accolades: “Fat-ma! Fat-man!” he shouted from the top of the wagon, slamming his size twelve shoe on the footboard. “FAT-MAN!!!”

Naturally, it made the master-at-arms even more furious.

The raccoon sensed something was about to happen; he just didn’t know what, or when.

When after a minute of two the cheers and the shouting died down to a reasonable level of conversation, along with the typical sneers and jeers, the skunk took up from where he’d left off before he was so rudely, and loudly, interrupted. “Let’s have it… fat-man,” he repeated in the same sobering voice as before; only this time with one hand clutching the turtle’s immobilized leg. “Com’on, fat-man.”

Fat-man! Fat-man? Somehow, coming from the foul lips of mater-at-arms, Mister Peter Finch, it just didn’t sound the same. Nobody clapped this time; no one cheered. There was no applause. All was silent; even the street-urchins who, for the moment at least, remained quiet and still, like boats on the calm waters of the bay just before a hurricane. The turtle looked down. He’d heard the name before, almost all his life, so it suddenly seemed: ‘Fat-man!’ even when he was just a little (or perhaps not so little) boy, weighing in at a hundred and seventy-five pounds by the age of eight or nine; nearly as much as a full grown Harley by then; and he was always hungry. Fat-man. The name suddenly took on that old familiar sound he would hear over and over again; sometimes from those who should’ve known better, and those he loved the most. Sherman hated that name, now more than ever; but he was always too ashamed to admit it, or let anyone know.

Fat-man. It was a name, some might say, he should’ve gotten used by now; the way we all get used to all the bad things thrown in our face from time to time, whether we deserve them or not. Time, they say, has a way or mitigating such painful memories; once it has had a chance to work its anesthetically magic on an old wound that perhaps shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But there are some scars that don’t go away so easily; some wounds that never heal; and some words that just sting. Fat-man! It still hurt, even after all these years. Hell! It always hurts, even when it’s not supposed to hurt, like when applied in a jesty or jokey sort of way, which, as we’ve all experienced at one time or another in our own jesty and jokey lives, sometimes hurts the most, simply because… well, because the ones doing the jesting and the joking, do it at our own expense; and most of the time, they don’t even know it. Like salt being rubbed into and open and oozing wound, they seldom see the effects of their own offensive remarks, taking it for medicine, I suppose; which, in some cases, and at the proper dosage, may actual work! But remember this, all you pill-pushing polemicists, you doctors of debate with your hyperbolic needles and satirical stethoscopes, you quacks and quislings who dole out cynicism, satire, and sarcasm on a daily basis like so many poisonous prescriptions. Beware, I say: ‘Physician, heal thyself.”

But just as in the unalterable Laws of Physics, for every pain there’s an equal and opposite pleasure (if only we can find them) and a lesson to be learned in every sting. It was a lesson the fat ma… I mean, Sherman Dixon, had learned a long time ago in his own humble, forgiving way. It’s the way of the way a turtle, you might say, armored as he is in his own portable and protective housing that can never be fully penetrated. But even the thickest shells and hardest houses have their weaknesses; and they can always be flipped. And left in such a helpless and compromising position for any length of time, at the mercy of all the animals and elements, the soft underbelly thus exposed to every fang and claw, including man who may or may not have the good sense and moral judgment to put him right again, the turtle dies in its own natural defenses. Elmo Cotton knew this, of course; but he was glad Sherman was still a turtle, and both pleased and proud to be to be perched up beside his good friend and neighbor that day in a little wagon pulled by a horse named Abraham. And even though things had suddenly had taken a turn for the worse, for the moment so it seemed, the raccoon knew that somehow everything would turn out all right. He didn’t know how he knew this (call it instinct or intuition) but he could see something in the turtle’s eyes that convinced him of this. Sherman Dixon had changed somehow. And that much he was sure of.

But there are some people who never change – they know who they are – and Peter Finch just happened to be one of them. In his own myopic and malevolent vision, all the master-at-arms could see in the turtle’s eyes that day was fear. And then, if for no other reason than salvaging his own vile reputation, Finch wasted no time in doing what, in his own hideous and hateful heart, he knew he had to do; or perhaps he did it just to impress the skirted Amazon he’d already gotten a taste of, and wanted even more. There was still a little matter of money, ‘the tariff’ as it was once referred to by the sailors with so much guile and jocular deceit, to be taken care of; not to mention a score that still had to be settled. And Peter Finch knew just how he was going to do both.

And so, reaching up to the wagon and pulling the turtle down from his lonely perch on the buckboard, Peter Finch continued his earlier assault by driving poor Mister Dixon to the cold wet cobblestones. The fat man scrambled to his feet as quickly as he could, which as actually quite fast considering his size and weight, as the street-urchins looked on with glowing and growing anticipation, as if they’d been expecting something like this to happen all along. It was nothing short of a good old fashioned ass-whooping, a mugging – a Shadytown shakedown! And it was all happening right there on Avenue ‘D’. It was really nothing new. The black Aphrodite was stills standing quietly at on the curb, waiting and watching, along with a few other spectators gawking from a safe distance.

With fully clenched and white-knuckled fists, the mad mariner then proceeded to pound the poor defenseless turtle into the ground without the slightest hint of hesitation, or mercy. Unlike the previous attack, this one was quite different. The blows were delivered not only with a vengeance, but with a purpose in mind. They were accurate and deliberate, and very well placed, most of the punches landing directly on the turtle’s unprotected head. They were also much harder; delivered with a force not felt during the master-at-arm’s pervious pummeling of the Harlie bean farmer; and they all found their mark. Sherman’s face was still swollen from the slap he suffered earlier suffered earlier that day from the same wicked white hand; the sensation of which he could still feel at times, especially when he tried to laugh. But these strikes were different. This was more than just a slap in the face. This was a pre-meditated act of violence carefully thought out long before it was actually executed. There was nothing extemporaneous about it. There was malevolence behind it; like the stabbing at a dead dog just because… well, just because it is a dead dog and can’t bite back. There was a sickness about it, as if the master-at-arms derived some perverse pleasure from inflicting pain on others, particularly those who tried to get close to him, and maybe even be his friend. The pain was more than physical; it was mental, and emotional. It hurt because Finch wanted it to hurt. Any other anguish inflicted by the merciless blows was merely ancillary; spiteful – fat for the fire, you might say, and just as painful. Finch knew that, too; and he knew exactly what he was doing. Fueled by alcohol, vengeance, and a pure satanic will, these blows could indeed be fatal, as the street-urchins were well aware of by now. This was not a beating; this was a one-man massacre; the first one Mister Dixon had ever experienced in is short and ignorant life. And so the turtle was scourged.

He tried to defend himself by warding off the brutal blows; but it soon became apparent that, despite his formidable size and un-channeled strength, the fat man was no match for a sea-hardened sailor like the master-at-arms of the Maria Aurora. Not to mention the fact that Mister Dixon, whose kind and calloused hands had driven a plow many a hard mile, was totally unaccustomed to such physical displays of aggression and virtually unskilled in the manly art of pugilism. It was a pitiful sight to watch; even the street-urchins, who were actually quite use to witnessing such bloody exhibitions on the cruel and unforgiving streets of Shadytown, were forced to look away from at times. Apparently, Peter Finch was merely completing the task he had begun earlier that day, and with no one there to stop him.

Elmo Cotton remained suspiciously silent throughout the whole bloody ordeal, sitting motionlessly in the wagon, as the other two sailors, who were not laughing so loudly by then, merely looked on in as if they too had seen it all before. They turned out to be the bald-headed boatswain, Nathan Scrubb, and the pony-tailed mast-header who seemed so at home in the web-like rigging of the Maria Aurora, the one they called Nelson. They were keeping an eye on the Harlie, the street-urchins, and anyone else in the crowd who might have notions of interfering with the master-at-arm’s… private affair. They were also keeping a close eye on the painted lady of Avenue ‘D’ who, knowing Mister Finch they way they did, was still on the menu for that night.

With the two skunks watching him so closely and being outnumbered from the start, there was very little, if anything, Elmo could do to help his friend and neighbor. Obviously, the bloated turtle was no match for a master-at-arms, sober or drunk; and it soon became apparent to everyone in the immediate proximity, including the Amazon and scavenging street-urchins, that anyone attempting to interfere with the business at hand would certainly receive a similar, if not worse, beating from the masochistic master-at-arms if they did. It could make matters even worse for poor Mister Dixon, the raccoon summarily surmised as the punishment continued unabated, along with the humiliation.

It was too painful for Elmo to watch; and so he didn’t, thinking instead that if he and Sherman hadn’t met earlier on the road down by the river, his friend and neighbor might not be in such a precarious predicament and taking a beating he never deserved and certainly didn’t ask for, in which case he wouldn’t be feeling so hopeless, guilty, and sick to his stomach as he did just then. But then he wouldn’t have met Mister Hatch and Captain Morgan that night either; and he wouldn’t have been offered the job as cook on board the Maria Aurora; in which case he would never… Providence works in strange and mysterious ways, he began to wonder as the scourging of Sherman Dixon continued, blow by bloody blow.

Meanwhile, the gawkers gawked and the street-urchins cheered and jeered in customary fashion, which only made the fur on the back of the raccoon’s neck stand that much higher. Some were still cheering for the defiant but slightly disadvantaged turtle at that point, even though they knew by now that it was a lost cause. Among them was the painted lady of the night who was, through no fault of her own and holding no particular prejudices as those in her profession seldom do in these situations, the real cause and all the calamity that night, either directly or indirectly. She, like everyone else in Shadytown that night, was used to such merciless muggings on the streets of the city, which could happen at any time, even in the broad daylight when the Crouching Lion of Avenue ‘D’ was thought to be fast asleep. All they could do was watch and wait. And that’s exactly what they did, as the fists flew and the blood flowed.

In the end Mister Sherman Dixon was left sobbing and bleeding on the cobblestone streets of the infamous city, a broken and beaten shell of a man, wishing perhaps he’d never been born. If anyone ever needed a miracle that night, it was poor and pitiful turtle; but there was no Miracle-Maker in sight. Having spent all his energies, or perhaps he was just too tired and drunk to continue the beatings, the Peter Finch ceased his unprovoked assault thus sparing turtle any further pain and humiliation. As in all conflict, great or small, victory gets the prize and defeat pays the price; and in this particular case, that price happened to be the entire contents of Sherman’s moneybag, which Peter Finch just then relieved him of by tearing the leather pouch from the fat man’s belt and ripping off the his trousers in the process. The bag was full, of course, with so many silver coins; twenty five dollars, in fact; half of which he would have to surrender to Ike Armstrong, as stipulated in the contract he signed over six years ago, leaving him with the princely sum of twelve dollars and fifty cents. The pilfered bag contained his neighbor’s pay as well, which Elmo had instructed Sherman to give to Nadine Cotton upon his return to Harley after all. Now that too was gone; and it hurt the turtle even more than the beating itself, just knowing that he’d let down his good friend and neighbor, along with his wife and child.

“You sure that’s all of it!” barked Finch, his pugilistic knuckles glistening red and white in the moonlight with Sherman’s blood. He then pocketed the Harlies’ entire salary for the season and threw the empty moneybag into the gutter whereupon it was quickly snatched up by several street-urchins who began tearing it apart like vultures gutting a dead opossum.

Battered, bruised, beaten and broken, the penniless (and mow pant-less) turtle replied with a stuttering sigh, “Y-Yes, s-sir,” as he slowly and painfully pulled himself up off the blood-stained cobblestones of Avenue ‘D’ that night. And as he did so, the master-at-arms, with a renewed sense and pride and passion, the kind often associated with sudden monetary gain (never mind how much or by what illicit means it is achieved) landed the final blow. With the skill and tactics of a well-seasoned boxer, and with all the force he could put behind it, Peter Finch planted his last and most forceful punch in the soft center of the turtle’s protruding stomach. Sherman didn’t know what hit him. He didn’t even see it coming; he was too busy covering his naked shame. It was a sucker-punch! upon which he immediately coughed up a mouthful of blood and doubled over in excruciating pain. And then, for the amusement of his rag-a-muffin audience, which had grown exponentially by then, or merely to regain the respect of the two shipmates he otherwise might’ve lost, Peter Finch circled around the grief-stricken farmer and, just for good measure and perhaps just for spite, kicked him in square in the seat of his under-britches. More than likely he did it to impress the painted prostitute who, feeling somewhat responsible for the whole bloody mess by then, was actually contemplating a quick and quite get-away while it was still possible to do so. For the second time that day, the turtle fell; and there he remained, for a while at least, on hands and knees, his head hung low, naked (except for a torn and tattered shirt, some soiled underwear, and a scoffed pair of shoes) and embarrassed, beaten to a bloody pulp, an oozing mass of swollen brown flesh, sobbing and sweating in the street one Fat Moon Friday night on Avenue ‘D’, in a place called Shadytown, which he suddenly wished he never even heard of. He cried until he could cry no more.

The gawkers gawked, the leerers leered, and the jeerers jeered. Many laughed out loud, while others simply shook their heads, like they had seen it all before. Some just looked away. A few looked down with pity and pathos at the fat black man lying in the gutter, as the last tear fell silently to the ground. Meanwhile, the street hustlers went back to hustling whatever it was they were hustling before the whole bloody incident occurred as the street-urchins disappeared, one by one, into the dark shadows of the night until they too were gone. Exactly who these homeless rag-a-muffins were, or where they actually came from, was a mystery unsolved; for they came in all shapes, sizes, and colors too! They were mostly boys, of course, in the flower of their youth, whose wild and wondering ways lead them to mis-spent life of crime and debauchery. There were a few females urchins sprinkled in the muddled mix, like so many roses among the weeds; although it wasn’t that easy to tell them apart (at least not without a more intimate examination), and even more difficult to pluck, as some flowers come with and bristles and thorns, and only bloom by moonlight. Then again, there are some flowers that never bloom; and these you would be wise to just leave alone and be on your way.

Climbing slowly and painfully back on his wagon, wearing only his shoes, a torn shirt and his underwear, Mister Sherman Dixon turned to the raccoon but didn’t say a word. He didn’t say anything. He wanted to cry, but the tears just weren’t there. The turtle was clearly was traumatized. His eyes were as two narrow slits surrounded by puffy mounds of meaty brown flesh. Snot and blood poured from his open nose and mouth; his ears like two bloated sea-shells. His whole nappy head was swollen with cuts and contusions; disfigured, it would seem, by the deep penetrating blows. Pieces of his scalp appeared to be missing, as if they’d plucked out by hand, leaving blotches of raw, red meat here and there surrounded by so many tiny black springs caked in coagulated blood. His arms hung listlessly at his side; it reminded Elmo of the way his uncle looked when they found him dead on his front porch; all that was missing were the horseflies. He didn’t look like a man anymore; he looked like a piece of rancid red meat, the kind dogs won’t touch.

“Sherman?” spoke Elmo, not knowing what else to say, or do, at the moment.

The turtle turned slowly to the raccoon. He stared at him, forever it seemed, through vacant blood-shot eyes. He didn’t even know his own name.

“Sherm…”

But before he could finish, the fat-man smiled; at least that what it looked like, although Elmo could never be sure, all things considered. And then he tried to speak. “H-how does you l-like me now, Mister C-Cotton?” he spoke in a voice that was clearly broken, but not defeated.

Elmo leaned over and kissed the turtle on his cheek. And then they both began to cry.

* * *

BEFORE LEAVING THAT NIGHT, one of the street-urchins, a dirty little flower with curly red hair, came running over to the wagon holding up the farmer’s torn trousers and his empty moneybag. She passed them up to the Harlie, perhaps expecting something in return. All she received from the raccoon, however, was a snarl and a reprehensible look that frightened the street-urchin away and into a long dark alley. Elmo really didn’t mean to do it, and felt sorry for the girl, or whatever she was; maybe she was only trying to help.

By the time the episode involving the turtle and the skunk came to its painful and predictable conclusion, all were all gone, including the painted Aphrodite who, although not intentionally, may have been the real cause of the whole calamitous affair. Before leaving the scene of the crime, however, Mister Dixon, who was still clearly traumatized, noticed all three sailors entering a building on the opposite side of the street, not too far from where the confrontation began and ended. He thought little of it at the time, and said even less, as he gathered up his wits, and whatever was left of his pride, which wasn’t very much.

It was a modest wooden structure with a high pitched roof located right in the seedy heart of Shadytown. There was a covered walk-way leading up to a rather large wooden door that appeared to be the one and only entrance to the establishment. On either side of the trellised walkway, two lanterns had been lit, providing just enough light for pedestrians to gain access to the building, and enough smoke keep the mosquitoes away. The building itself was of that oriental construction sometimes known as a pagoda, with multiple layers of thick red tiles that curved up curiously about the edges. A small window had been craftily cut into the wood on the right side of the door. It was perfectly round, and filled with so much steam and smoke that it appeared almost white from the outside, like the cataract port-hole of a passenger ship. As he put his pants back on, fastening the empty money bag to his belt, Sherman sensed a curious odor in the air that reminded him of fish being cooked over an open flame. It was not an unpleasant odor, and a smell the turtle had become quite familiar with, even since he’d found the dead catfish rotting in an open field. Under different and more hospitable circumstances, he might have even stopped the little wagon to have a closer look. But he already knew who was inside by now; and he simply wasn’t in the mood for food, which tells you exactly how shaken up he still was over the incident. With Elmo at his side, the turtle picked up the reins and said, in a voice that could hardly be heard, “Gid-up! Abraham.”

Even as the wheels slowly creaked along the cobblestone boulevard, Sherman noticed something very peculiar (intriguing, would be a better word) as they passed by the pagoda. It was the door; and not just any door. This particular portal was all hand-carved, intricately and throughout, with symbols and images engraved into the wood, some so small and finely detailed it would take a jewelers eye-glass to fully appreciate. But it was not so much the door itself that warranted the turtle’s immediate attention just then; it was what was painted on the wooden canvass across the street that he found most intriguing. For on that door was painted, in so many fantastic colors, an image Sherman would not soon forget; an image that was almost irresistible.

What Mister Dixon found himself staring at that night in the yellow glow of the lantern was a painting, it seemed, depicting a rather odd-looking sea creature, or something similar to that. In his delusional state of mind, however, it was difficult at first for him to make out precisely what it was; but it was not impossible. It was red, white and blue; the colors of the stars spangled banner, interestingly enough, and as war-torn and faded as the Ol’ Glory herself as she flew o’er the ramparts in the Chesapeake Bay. They also happened to be the colors of Captain Morgan’s eyes, he suddenly recalled; what the grim black merchant once described as ‘patriotic’ referring, of course, to those same optical organs. Red, white and blue! They were all there that night, and presented in an alien image that was both familiar and foreign to the shell-shocked turtle. It had the wings of a bird and fins like a fish, along with multiple crab-like legs that were painted blue. It was the strangest looking fish (if in fact, that’s what the painter had in mind at the time of its composition) Sherman Dixon had ever clapped an eye on; and, indeed, the fat-man from Harley had clapped an eye on some incredible looking fish in is day, including a ‘walking’ cat-fish that somehow made it all the way up to Harley at one time; the same fated fish he’d found dead on the road one day and disposed of in one long and delicious gulp. There were some words painted over the image in thick red letters that tapered at the ends, calligraphically, in the oriental style often associated with that particular race which are sometimes found on old maps and Chinese menus. But in the dim lamplight and fog of the evening, it was difficult to discern exactly what they spelled out, if anything at all.

The turtle’s head was still aching and had swelled up even more; a delayed reaction, perhaps, which sometimes occurs as the result of a multiple concussions. His temples were throbbing, his battered brain swimming around in his skull like a frog in a mud-puddle. He was still feeling the effects of brutal beating he’d endured earlier that evening at the hands of the masochistic mater-at-arms; and, least he forget, he had the cuts and bruises to remind him. Before leaving, however, the fat-man quickly and deliberately drew a mental picture of what he’d just seen, which, under the circumstances, took all the grey matter he could muster. He then committing the ambiguous image of the sea creature to memory, and perhaps for future reference. It was something he would not soon forget it. How could he? How could anyone! “Giddy-up, Abraham!” he commanded the pony in a more familiar manner. And then they were on their way again.

Before long the little wagon had made its way into the residential section of Shadytown where Fat Moon Friday was still in progress, albeit on a more subdued and sober level, as many were at home eating supper by now, or maybe taking a quick nap, which was actually quite common those fast and festive times when sleep, like food and sex, was something you took whenever you could get it. The driver had spoken hardly a word since they’d left the scene of the crime that night. It was not like Sherman to be so quiet, and actually quite disturbing, thought Elmo, wondering what would happen when Bernice Dixon found out what happened on Avenue ‘D’ one night in a place called Shadytown. And what would Nadine say if, and when, she found out the he was with the turtle when it all happened? What would she do? It was bound to happen. Things like that can’t be kept a secret; not for long anyway; not in Harley! and especially not with someone like Sherman Dixon involved. It just didn’t work that way. Hoping to get his neighbor’s mind off his most recent troubles, and perhaps just to pass the time, the sagacious raccoon put forth what he thought to be a relatively innocuous question. “Why do they call it Shadytown?” he asked, while attempting to mend the farmer’s torn trousers with a needle and thread he kept in his suitcase for just such emergencies, but had never made use of up until now.

Much to the Harlie’s surprise and relief, the taciturn turtle was ready to speak once more. Only now, when the fat-man spoke it was with a certain seriousness the raccoon found noticeably unfamiliar; an austerity completely alien to Sherman’s usual manner of speech, which Elmo found both disturbing and disquieting. He sounded arrogant, angry, and maybe even a little bit proud. “Don’t be so ig’nat, Mister Cotton… Ouch!” he snapped at the raccoon, as the sowing needle sharply pierced the cotton fabric of the trousers, pricking the fat-man in his fat behind in the process. “And why you be axin’ such a foolish question?” Of course, what the wounded turtle really meant to say was ‘asking’.

Elmo had no immediate response to the turtle’s recently discovered hubris; he simply didn’t know what to say.

“It’s because you think I’s stupid!” barked the turtle, turning a swollen red eye to his suspicious passenger. “That’s it… Ain’t it, Elmo? You thinks I’s ig’nat.” Again, addressing the raccoon by his first name just for accentuation.

That squeaky, high-pitched voice and warm familiar glow that Elmo had grown so fond of over the years was gone; replaced, it would seem, by a cold blank stare and those short staccato sentences that so often accompany the mind and thoughts of a tormented soul. It was all so alien, to both of them, and quite out of character with the turtle’s otherwise warm and gregarious nature. There was no laughter in his voice, only words; it was a sound Elmo neither liked nor recognized; something he found disquieting. Sherman sounded like a different man; and perhaps he was, the sharecropper thought to himself, just then recalling for one brief and bloody moment the mind-altering changes he himself went through not too long ago, it suddenly seemed, after his own chastisement when he was first introduction to the business end of a whip and thrown in jail for equally unjust reasons. “I didn’t say that, Sherman” the raccoon apologized, “I never said you was stupid… or ig’nat. I just wants to know why they calls it Shadytown. That’s all.”

Sherman looked at his neighbor sideways, with his head tilted slightly to one side, the way dogs sometimes do when they’re confused or just looking for attention. “Oh,” he said, “Then why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

“I thought I just did.”

“So you don’t think I’s ig’nant then?”

“No…” reassured the raccoon. “But you sure is ugly,” he had to confess, as the light of the moon suddenly broke through a dark dense cloud, bringing into full and unmitigated view the extent to which the turtle’s wounds had left him disfigured. The Harlie didn’t mean it, of course; it’s just one of those things friends say at times to remind themselves who they are and where they come from. ‘But you sure is ugly…’ It may not necessarily be true; but even if it were, it was just another way of saying: ‘it don’t matter anyway. Or maybe it’s just their way of saying how much they really love one another in the only way they could: without actually saying it, that is; not unlike brothers and sisters who often express their affections in a similar manner.

Likewise, the turtle responded accordingly: “And you is still peculiar, Mister Cotton – Mighty peculiar. But if you still really wants to know why they calls it Shadytown… well, I ‘spose it’s mostly because folks livin’ ‘round ‘chere parts looks likes me”, he plainly stated, noticing not for the first time the raccoon’s unusually light complexion, as least in comparison to that of his own dark skin, and most other Harlies in general. And then, to further illustrate his point, the fat-man ran a fat brown fingers first over his own fleshy forearm, and then over his neighbor’s seated next to him, “– and not likes you,” he coldly explained. The difference was obvious; and so was the answer.

Elmo Cotton was also aware that many, including those who perhaps should’ve known better, considered him too light to be a Harlie. That was nothing new. Some didn’t even consider him a Negro at all (or colored, as say in the Southern vernacular), and more than once he was mistaken for a ‘Green’; that is to say, a Caucasian farmer from the neighboring ‘white’ community of Creekwood Green, located on the west side of the Iron Gates, where Elmo would occasionally have to pass by on his way to Mister Skinner’s. But he was too dark to be anything else but a Harlie, at least by popular definition; and even that bothered him at times. Not because it was true, but simply because was reminded of it so many times. On both sides of the Iron Gates! Once he was approached by a traveling salesman who happened to show up in Harley one uneventful day selling (of all things) hats! to the local sharecroppers or anyone else who might be interested in that particular item. And not just any old hats, like the ones Harlies are accustomed to while working in the fields which were typically made out of straw, but hats made of very expensive materials, such as silk and fine linens, and in a variety of fashionable designs. He called himself a haberdasher. And when asked whether he would prefer to be called a Negro or a colored person, along with a few other colorful expressions the Harlie hadn’t heard of at the time, any more than he’d ever heard of a haberdasher, Elmo simply shrugged his shoulders and answered: ‘Just calls me Elmo... That’s my name.’ The question was asked sincerely, with the highest degree of respect, and certainly without malice or any hint of prejudice; still, it made Elmo feel a little uncomfortable at the time, and he wasn’t even sure why. He actually liked the young white man who was about the same age as he was at the time. And even though he couldn’t afford to buy a new hat from him that day, or any other day for that matter, he wished the salesman well and sent him on his way with a generous supply of Harley beans. ‘So’s you don’t gets hungry…’ he said with a suspicious smile. The young man was most appreciative. ‘Thank you… Elmo!’ he paused with a polite tip of the hat, making it a point in the future never to address his customers by anything other than their proper names. Elmo often wished more people could be like the traveling haberdasher, or at least make up their minds one way or another as to who, or what, he was: black or white, Creek of Green; or better yet, ‘…just calls me Elmo.’ Was it really so much to ask? he often wondered.

Well, sometimes it is. The truth of the matter was that he was actually a little bit of both, black and white, among other things, but never enough of either to satisfy those who made such ignorant and discriminating observations. And he was always treated just a little bit differently, on both sides of the Iron Gate, depending, of course, on the circumstances and the people involved. It just plain hurt. And whenever it happened, which was more than he liked, it always left the raccoon feeling a little more lonely and a little less human; like being an outcast in his own world and an outlaw in any other. It was as if he were constantly being torn in two and forever trying to put the pieces back together again, like a broken garden shears, the twin blades of which are useless without one another. But the pieces never fit; and even when he did manage to force them back together again, it never seemed to work right; and it always fell apart. All he could do was curse himself, along with whatever inscrutable and malignant force created such a muddled up mess in the first place. He was confounded; neither black nor white – only grey, a counterfeit, not unlike Red-Beard’s confederate shirt. He felt more out of place than ever, even in a place called Shadytown.

“So now you knows why the calls it Shadytown – Huh, Mister Cotton?” rejoined the turtle, admiring the raccoon’s handiwork and thinking perhaps they could both use some rest, and maybe even a good home-cooked meal. Abraham was beginning to look a little tired too by then. Even horses need their rest, he acknowledged as the beast turned its heavy head and seemed to sigh in agreement. He hoped Alma Johnson was still awake. Farm-girls go to bed early, he reckoned, even when they have no farm to go to.

“I do now,” said Elmo after a long and deliberate pause, wondering if perhaps that’s also why he was spared a similar beating that day on Avenue ‘D’ in Shadytown: simply because of the color of his skin, or the lack thereof.

Sensing the sadness and frustration in Elmo’s response, and perhaps feeling a bit ashamed of himself by then, Mister Sherman Dixon apologized to his raccoon friend in the only way he knew how: with a big, fat, cat-fish eating, carrot chomping, mornin’-to-you, neighbor! Harlie-like grin that was instantly and unmistakably recognized by the estranged passenger in back of the wagon. “It’s not what you thinks, Mister Cotton,” he said in his familiar high-pitched voice that sounded almost like music to the raccoon’s ears. “I know who you is, and you knows who I is. And that’s all what matters. Don’t mean a thing what other folks has to say. Don’t mean a dang thing! And it just don’t matter no how. No, sir! You be Harley, Mister Cotton, just like me! And that’s all we has to know. And by the way, Elmo, you know you always be my friend,” he added with an old familiar smile that washed away the last doubt.

“And you always be my friend too, Mister Dixon,” the raccoon smiled right back. There were tears in his eyes when he said it, which Elmo naturally tried to hide. And as he looked over at the fat man riding besides him, Elmo knew that his neighbor was right after all. He realized by now that the color of his skin never really did matter, not to Sherman Dixon anyway. “I just hopes Harlies is more welcome in Shadytown than they is in Harley,” he heavily sighed.

“Don’t worry ‘bout that, Mister Cotton,” returned the turtle. “Folks in these here parts is used to seeing mens like us,” he finally concurred with yet another cat-fish eating grin that cemented their friendship once and for all.

The turtle’s choice of words were well aimed, and did not go entirely un-noticed by the raccoon who, as friends often do, was quick to appreciate, or at least understand, the meaning of. ‘Mens like us…’ It was more than a casual observation, more than just words, much more. It was a statement! A proclamation! An exclamation mark that should have been stamped in patriotic blood at the end of that sacred sentence secured in the Declaration of Independence which declared, unambiguously, indisputably, once and for all, despite the uncertainty of its framers and the short-sightedness of its Southern dissenters, that we, the people, the migrant masses that make up of this grand and noble experiment are, in fact, created equal and endowed with certain ‘inalienable’ rights that come not from kings and queens, however benevolent their reign, but God Himself, the Creator, in whatever form we choose to worship Him. It’s right there in the preamble! It’s called freedom of religion; not freedom from religion. And that includes all religions. In fact, the only ‘religion’ the document clearly precludes, logically enough, is atheism; simply because to do otherwise would undermine the whole premise on which the document is based. If there is no God, or gods, to procure these ‘inalienable’ rights – no Creator, that is – then they are, by definition alone, neither inalienable nor right; the words become meaningless, or something perhaps far worse… like the French Revolution. It’s a statement of fact, clearly spoken and spelled out in no uncertain terms, in plain English, and written in big and bold letters, like those in John Hancock’s famous signature at the bottom of the page, so that even King George would have no trouble reading it. And with it they pledged their lives, their fortunes (and many were indeed quite wealthy by then) and their scared honor, which was perhaps their greatest contribution. As the old kite-flyer so eloquently put in the heated halls of the First Continental Congress: ‘Gentlemen… we must hang together; for we don’t, we will surely hang alone’. And he meant every word of it. It came with a big bang, heard clear around the world, so they say, along with a handful of gun-toting, Bible-thumping, whiskey-drinking, farmers, carpenters, and free masons who just wanted to be left alone. It was more than just words. It was an idea, a commitment, the kind that exists when two people see and find in one another, perhaps for the very first time, a kindred spirit; something nobody else can, or ever will perhaps; it is that which inextricably binds them together, spiritually and eternally, through good and bad (especially the bad), the thick and thin, and even the black and white. And the Harlies were part of it, whether they knew it or not. It would take another hundred years or so for them to finally realize it, of course; but they would know. And they would fight for it in the same spirit of their white forefathers, bravely and boldly, and the blood they bled would mix with that of patriots and tyrants and forever feed the sacred tree of Liberty.

“Are we almost there yet?” said the raccoon, to no one in particular.

“We still has a ways to go,” acknowledged the turtle. “Alma lives on the north side of town, ‘way from all this here commotion and rambunctiousness. Folks up that way is more sensible, you know.”

“Minds if I walks for a while,” Elmo suddenly enquired, looking back now and then, as if someone might be following them.

“I thinks it best if we just stays in the wagon from now on,” said Sherman, more out of concern for the safety of his passenger than anything else, including himself, “and don’t go mixin’ with nobodies no-how. Don’t need no trouble, you know. Ain’t got no mo’ money no-how, Mister Cotton,” he reminded the recalcitrant raccoon, reaching for his moneybag that was no longer there.

Cutting the last loose thread with his teeth as he finished sewing together the farmer’s torn trousers, the raccoon replied, “That should make it easy then.”

“It also means you can’t calls me Mister Moneybags no mo’. Ain’t that right, Mister Cotton?”

“It sho’ am, Mister Mo…I mean Mister Dixon,” corrected the raccoon, never really meaning anything by it anyway. “Oh! and by the way,” he added, tossing the newly stitched trousers back to their original owner, “I gives you another inch...”

“I’s takes it!” acknowledged the fat man with a big Harley grin.

Just then, the horse named Abraham looked back and shook its long weary head as if to say: ‘No... I’ll take it,’ referring, of course, to the burdensome weight of its master, which only seemed to increase with each passing meal and mile, making the thankless task of transporting the heavy load that much more difficult. But with a name like Abraham, I suppose you can’t be too choosey. As one animal to another, the fat brown turtle merely returned the pony’s bewildering stare with one of his own. That’s not to say Sherman Dixon was as ignorant and dumb as a… a horse, as some individuals, who apparently knew little about horse and even less about the fat farmer, claimed. And by the way, there’s a reason they call it ‘horse-sense’, which is something else these cruel-hearted Pharisees will never understand. True, Sherman was simple-minded; but in an honest and friendly sort of way that many found… well, honest and friendly. It was also something called humility, which is something we can all use a little more of now and then. And despite what other might say, or think, about the slow fat turtle, he was actually a rather shrewd and clever business man, and surprisingly good at negotiating, especially when it involved Harley beans, day-old dead cat-fish and regurgitated carrots never stood stand a chance against the indiscriminate farmer. And if ignorance is bliss, as the poet truthfully states, then perhaps Mister Dixon was the happiest man on the face of the earth. In fact, it was the turtle’s own ignorance that provided him that day, just as it always had, with all he ever needed.

In all his tumult and troubles, Sherman had totally forgotten about the money he’d secretly hidden away in his shoe just before leaving Harley earlier that week. He never had the chance to put it into the moneybag, along with his stolen stipends, like he should have and meant to all along. Maybe he was just too stu… well, never mind. It wasn’t much, but it was still there. All of it! All two dollars and fifty-cent of it! The skunk didn’t get it. Peter Finch simply never knew it was hidden there to begin with. Had he known, things might’ve turned out quite differently, of course; but who knows? Realizing how little it actually was however, amounting perhaps to a night or two in a cheap hotel and maybe a few indecent meals, Sherman decided to keep it a secret, for the time being at least, and not squander it foolishly as some folks are known to do from time to time and for a variety of reason. Besides, he knew he would never hear the end of it from Alma Johnson, or is wife for that matter, if he spent the rest of his money in a Shadytown hotel when there were perfectly good accommodations waiting for him just up the road a ways. He would, however, give half of that money to Elmo Cotton before they parted, just as he’d promised, even though it wasn’t very much. That’s just what friends do, he wisely decided. That’s what Harlies do.

The farmer drove his wagon north along Avenue ‘D’ for about six more blocks, leaving the street-urchins, the painted woman, and Fat Moon Friday far behind.

Although still officially in a place called Shadytown, the Harlies approached a quiet section of town where the streets no longer bustled with activity and all the lights were not so bright. Except for a big fat moon, a billion or so stars, and an occasional candle or two burning in a shaded window, everything was relatively peaceful and quiet as the cobblestones turned into sand and Ol’ Abraham bowed under the yoke of his master’s heavy burden.

“How far to Bernice’s house?” asked the raccoon in no particular hurry any longer.

“Just a little ways up yonder,” said the turtle, pointing with his nose while driving his wagon slowly towards a dark deserted street just off the main avenue, “If’in’ I’s not mistaken.”

He was, of course.

It soon became apparent, to Elmo at least, that Sherman had no idea where he was going, or how to get there. And so the turtle and the raccoon spent the rest of the night in Shadytown. They fell asleep in back of empty wagon, arm in arm, like two lost lovers.


Chapter Seven

The Sons of Sailors

(God is a fish)

“WHERE WE AT?” yawned the raccoon, as he opened his eyes on a bright and blue Saturday morning.

The turtle, despite the fact that he was still very sore from what happened to him the night before and couldn’t used more rest, was already awake and sitting up on the buckboard. “I don’t right know,” he answered, gyroscopically rotating his head in all directions attempting to get his bearings. “Still in Shadytown, I reckon. It was too dark to see last night. Guess we just got lost.”

“That’s alright, Sherman,” replied the raccoon, “We all gets lost sometimes.”

The turtle was right about one thing: They were still in Shadytown, and still on Avenue ‘D’, in fact; only it appeared to be quite a different place than it was the night before on Fat Moon Friday. The streets were quiet, almost deserted it seems, and some of the shops stores appeared closed, as if the owners were observing some kind of Sabbath, in the tradition of the Seventh days Adventists. Either that, or they were just too hung-over and tired to go to work, thought the Harlie who was certainly no stranger to the inebriating effects of alcohol and the consequences that typically follow such intoxicating events.

And so, the turtle and the raccoon spent the better part of the day riding through the streets of Shadytown, looking for… well they weren’t sure what they were looking for. They were just looking.

They eventually wound up back in Old Port Fierce, where they revisited the Fisherman’s Wharf along with some of the other places they’d been to the day before. And there they came a small group of older looking gentlemen seated on a bench at the end of the dock. They were dressed in loose fitting clothes and leisurely smoking their pipes which, not unlike the one Elmo inherited from his dead uncle, were short and white. The raccoon listened with curiosity and delight. And this is what he heard:

“She's a fine lookin' vessel,” stated one of four sailors, blindly pointing the tapered stem of his pipe at the ship moored before them while trying a stir up a little much-needed conversation in the company of his fellow mariners. “Headed for the Islands, the boatswain tells me.”

Upon the mere mention of yet another voyage to the Southern Islands, the others quickly came alive, generously re-charging their pipes with sticky wads of black tobacco, as they’d done ever since they were boys. Appearing to have just awoken from a long and restful sleep, they eagerly jumped on board.

“What’s ‘er name, mate?” the sailor demanded to know.

“The Maweea Auwowa,” gummed the toothless old Jonah.

“What’s that you say,””rejoined the deaf man, holding an old tin horn to his ear to compensate for his hearing loss.

“Maweea Auwowa” shouted the second mate into the funneled end of the horn.”

“Marrrria Aurrrrora!’ corrected a third mariner, rolling his r’s in the flavorful tradition of the Latinos, pronouncing the words as they might’ve sounded in Court of Queen Isabella, coming from the seasoned lips of Francisco Pizarro himself, perhaps

The first mate enquired: “Who’s the skipper?”

“Morgan, they say,” stated he third mate, his old cataract eyes gazing blindly out to sea. He appeared to be the oldest among them, old enough, perhaps, to have served under Captain Noah himself on the famous Ark.

“Never heard of ‘im,” replied the first mate, dismissively.

The blind man suddenly turned his old gray head in multiple directions, as if searching to find out exactly where the sound was coming from and who among their little crew would say such a thing. “That’s ‘cause you ain’t heard nothin’ in over thirty years!” he shouted back to the first mate. “Your ears is like two seashells… all empty and dry, and full o’ sand. Your head’s a coconut, mate! But look’ye here – the meat’s all gone. No pulp left… just seaweed. And now all you hear is echoes. Helloooooooooo!” he rudely howled into the old man’s empty ear attempting to recreate the sonic phenomenon. Then he paused, as if expecting the reverberations to occur at any moment. “S’been like that ever since the war,” he softly sighed. “Remember, mate? When that cannon ball exploded on your starboard. Grape shot, methinks it was. Thought you was a gonner… headed straight down to Davy Jones’. And you ain’t heard a thing ever since. Ain ‘t that right? Seashells, I say! Listen,” he further instructed with one hand cupped to his own hairy earlobe, “sounds just like the sea – Don’t it? And that’s all you ever hear now. But don’t be so gloomy, mate. You don’t know how lucky you are! There’s too much talkin’ in the world; and not enough listenin’.

“Gotta agwee with you there, mate,” sounded toothless mariner. “Too much flappin’ of the gums! They’s worse than womens. See?”

“No I don’t,” spoke the blind man. “That’s the problem, mate! But I sees what I hears… and I hears plenty.”

“I hears what I sees…” echoed the tin horn, having adjusted his other senses accordingly over the years to compensate for his loss of hearing, and becoming quite proficient at reading lips in the process. “And I sees more than most,” he further enunciated on the subject of his own unique handicap.

A fourth sailor, who appeared to have just woken up from his afternoon nap, picked up his heavy head and yawned. He was still a little groggy, or so it seemed, and wasn’t necessarily in the mood for an argument, especially not so late in the afternoon. He hadn’t been feeling well as of lately, and it showed. His wooden leg, which was actually an old prosthesis he’d carved himself out of a piece of petrified driftwood, was getting the better of him again; and it showed. At one time he thought of getting it replaced, perhaps with a new one made of ivory; or maybe even whale bone, like the splintered spike that bore the broad beam of another famous captain – Ahab. He was obviously aware of what the others had been discussing and suddenly demanded to know: “The mates! Who be the mates, man?” as if he’d been listening all along.

“F-F-Finch and Jones,” stuttered the second sailor who was having a little difficulty expressing himself on account of having had all his teeth extracted at a very young age; a painful procedure that not only disabled him from properly rolling his r’s, as previously mentioned, but one that had also left him with a noticeable stutter. Naturally, his diet was likewise affected by the operation, limited ever since to those foods requiring the least amount of molars to properly digest.

As it were, the poor old salt had his teeth removed, all at once! by the ship’s surgeon only three weeks into his very first voyage at sea, some fifty years ago it seems. ‘Gum disease!’ a near-sighted ship’s surgeon once tried to explain to him (although it didn’t really matter; one explanation being as good as another at the time and seldom given anyway) with little time to waste on a cure, and a leaky hull that still needed mending. You see, not only was he the ship’s surgeon, but he was employed in a variety of other activities suitable to his many talents, including ship’s carpenter and butcher, the latter, of course, being his true profession and the one he prided himself in the most. ‘Probably picked it up in Shadytown’, the cross-eyed physician further suggested as he approached his frightened patient one day with a rusty pliers rattling. It took the determined dentist nearly five hours to extract all the affected teeth (none were spared) and four strong-armed sailors to hold down the reluctant patient whose only anesthesia that day was a few drops of watered-down grog. It was the most pain the poor fellow had ever experienced, including the time he was treated by the same meat-cutting physician for a severe case of syphilis he’d unfortunately contracted somewhere in Old Port Fierce. ‘Damn Whores!’ admonished the silver-haired Hippocrates, meaning no harm as he painfully inserted the long needle into the patient’s penis, administering what was at the time the only known cure to that once fatal disease he’d become all too familiar with. Syphilis was a dreaded disease, highly contagious, and as old as the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. It followed in the foamy wake of mariners all over the contaminated globe, from one ocean to another, like the infested rats that brought onboard the infectious seeds of the black plague. Whether or not the tooth decay was in any way related to his venereal disease was never established; not that it really matter, of course. The ill-fated sailor was only twenty years old at the time of the operation; and he hadn’t touched a solid piece of food since… or a woman! Who wants to kiss a face full of formless flesh? As for the missing teeth… well, let’s just say he didn’t have to worry about toothaches anymore, like some other folks we know.

“He’s stutterin’ again, cap’n,” observed the lip-reader

“Blood and thunder!” roared old Ahab, with all the authority invested in braided cap he still wore to this day as an aging symbol of authority. He was a pilot; a captain, in fact! The oldest in all Old Port Fierce; and a damn good one. “I told that dentist not to remove all his teeth. Wasn’t necessary… not like that other thing they done to poor Gifford here. Reamed him out like a gun barrel, they did! Syphilis, they say. And he’s never been the same since. Poor ol’ Gif… he sighed. ’S’been gummin’ grits ever since. Never loved a woman.”

And here the rifled mariner looked up at his pilot with soul-searching eyes, as if indeed the old man possessed some supernatural power of restoring his rootless gums back to their former cutting edge; or perhaps, he knew of a doctor who might be able to fit him with a fine set of false teeth, not unlike the famous dentures that graced the noble jaw of General George Washington, which, by the way, were actually made of animal bones, and not, as it is so commonly misconstrued, out of wood. Either way, the he would be eternally grateful; but it was just not to be.

“Aye! Aye! T’was a terrible dark day. I was there. Ain’t that right Gif?”

“W-wooned my whole wife, cap’n” muttered the mariner, ironically enough. What he really said was ‘Ruined my whole life’; but, of course, that’s not the way it came out.

Naturally, the skipper was more than sympathetic. “Easy now, Gifford,” he consoled the grief-stricken sailor. “Try chewin’ them words a bit more before spittin’ ‘em out.”

“F-Finch and Jones,” stuttered the sailor, trying as hard as he could to pronounce his ‘F’s’ with no teeth to speak of; which, by the way, is actually alot more difficult than it sounds. Try it yourself! That is, if even you find happen to find yourself in the unfortunate predicament as ‘Poor ol’ Gifford’. And whatever you do… make sure you get a second opinion. “Maweea Auwowa,” he regurgitated, foaming a little around the mouth by now, still trying to answer the second-mates probing question regarding the officers of the famous ship. “Finch and Jones….”

Skin and Bones!?” questioned the deaf man, attempting to read those salty old lips and rootless gums while raising his tin horn to his likewise tinny ear. “Now them’s some mighty queer names.”

“No. Not Skin and bones, mate. Finch and Jones!” howled the peg-legged pilot. “And take that damn horn out of your ear, Mister. It don’t do you no good no how. It’s about as much use as this ol’ stump of mine. Ahhhhhhh!” he cried, attempting to adjust the ill-fitting prosthesis one more time. “Mister Finch and Mister Jones,” he painfully repeated, even though he knew it was useless by then, just like his leg. “They’s the first and second mates of the Maria Aurora… just like ol’ Gif tried to tell you sons of bachelors.”

“Never heard of ‘em, cap,” shrugged the blind man.

“‘C-course not!” spouted the celibate seaman. “They’s only babies when we put out to sea. The skipper, too, I heard.”

“Who?”

“Morgan!”

“Roger Morgan?”

“Aye. That’s his name,”

“Never heard of him…” repeated the blind man just as before.

“A gunner,” reminded old Ahab. “And a good one, too! Went on to become cap’n, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You ain’t,” nodded the tin-horn. “And would you mind moving your lips a bit more, sir… so’s I can hears you more proper-like.”

The officer obliged. “His name’s Morgan. Knowed him well. He was only a child when we first met; a mere lad. Green as a bumkin, but….” And here the old pilot had to stop of a moment to reminisce. “– Had these blue eyes… I’ll never forget. Something about those eyes.… Well, anyway,” he continued, as if awakening from yet another dream, “We shipped together for a while… South Pacific. Onboard the Firefly. There was a captain; handsome young devil. What’s his name? Oh, Yes! Max. That’s it! Maximilian.

“Owando?” gummed Gifford. “Why, I d-don’t beweeve it….”

“Orlando!” blinked the blind man, instantly recognizing the grand old name of the famous skipper he’d sailed with all those years ago. “Maximilian Orlando. Aye! A real son of a gun… Navy! Captain of the Fleet, you know – and a damn good one. I was there. Had him a mighty fine ship… and a good crew, too! The first officer was a man named Hatch, Elijah Hatch. Quiet fellow. Didn’t do too much talkin’. The good ones never do, you know. Morgan was there, too. It was before the war…”

“Which one?” interrupted the first sailor, who was perhaps old enough to have served in the Continental Navy under Captain John Paul Jones.

“That last one,” reminded the blind man, “the one what freed up the slaves. They calls it E-mancipation. Navy started takin’ ‘em on at that time. Strange Jimmies… There were quite a few colored fellers onboard at the time. One was a cook. A big man…Spider, we calls him. Never got his real name. Don’t know if he had one.”

“You wouldn’t be skylarkin’ us now, would you mate?” questioned the old confederate, finding it difficult to believe that anything like, like integration would ever occur onboard, even after the war. “Niggers… in the navy? Now I’m done.” He rested his old white bones.

“It was alright with the cap’n; so I reckon it’s all right with me,” challenged the peg-legged skipper. But that’s just the way Max was – a downright Republican when it came to that sort of thing; and a real gentleman. S’been missin’ for some time now. Lost, they say, somewhere in the Parrot Islands. Some say he’s dead. But I don’t believe it, mate. Not Max! Men like that don’t die so easy.

First sailor: “Neither do I.”

Second sailor: “I thought you didn’t hear so good, mate.”

Third sailor: “He hears what he wants to hear.”

Fourth sailor: “I heard that.”

First sailor: “The Parrot, you say?”

Second sailor: “That’s where she be headed.”

First sailor: “Who?”

Third, toothless, sailor: “Morgan! The cap’n of the Maweea Auwowa. Gonna wook for Owando, I weckon.”

Fourth sailor: (appearing to fall asleep again) “Aye…Good ol’ Max.”

Second sailor, blindly: “Don’t worry, Morgan will find him.”

“Let’s hope so,” said the third mate, loosely gumming his pipe.

“Skin and Bones, too!” laughed the blind man.

“Poor Skin and Bones…” lamented the deaf man, resting his ear-horn on his lap. “Knew ‘em well.”

The peg-legged pilot picked up his sleepy head once more. “Finch and Jones,” he growled, correcting the boatswain for the second time that day, “Finch and Jones! And look’ye here mate, didn’t I hear you say not more than five minutes ago you never heard of ‘em?”

“I hears what I sees,” reiterated the first.

“Damn it!” spat the emasculated sailor, realizing by then that the blind man had been reading his lips again, just as he’d done a thousand times before. “He’s always doing that me. Son of a – !”

“Headed for the Parrot, I hear,” rejoined old Ahab, resting his dead stump on a great bollard supporting the pier. “Istari-Toa, you know, the ol’ bitch in the bay. Speakin’ of which, I wonder if the ol’ Queen's still alive. What’s her name?

“Babinka,” spoke the mate, pronouncing the name of the old matriarch with trouble what-so-ever.

“The Queen of Ishtari-Toa…” voiced the commodore.

“The land of the Bleedin’ Rock…” noted the sleepy-eyed first officer, referring, of course, to the name give to the particular atoll by the sons of sailors themselves. “Or was it the two Volcanoes? I could never remember which.”

Had some mighty fine times at the Rock,” reminisced the visually challenged sailor, confirming the captain’s colorful description, a tear forming him his cloudy dead eye. “I could see real good back then, you know. Babinka! Aye, she was a real beauty! A little plump around the middle… But hell! All them island girls is like that. Besides, she was the queen! Queen’s got a right to be a little juicy. If only I was twenty – No! Make that ten years younger – Why, I’d drop this ol’ anchor on the queen myself. Depend on it, lads! And so would the rest of you… Well, except maybe for ol’ Gifford here,” he balked. “And even he….”

Upon hearing (or rather, seeing) all this, the deaf sailor jumped in: “Babinka’a dead. I thought you all knowed that. Why, you’d only be screwin’ a corpse, mate.”

“As if that would stop any of them,” insinuated the captain who knew his crew better than anyone.

“Must’ve been a mighty big coffin,” noted the third mate. The queen was a powerful big woman... and I ain’t gummin’ my grits.”

“Aye,” agreed the skipper, fully awake and aware by then. “Bobo's dead, too. Mabutoo be king now. He’s the queen’s eldest son. A big fellow, they say. Aye! Black as sin. Just as big and mean as his daddy. They say he killed them both. Wouldn’t surprise me! Not after what happened at old Fort Stanley, it don’t.”

“The massacre…” reminded one of the sailors who was there right after the battle to witness the carnage alluded to by his superior, “It was… It was…”

“Aye, you’re right. It was…” recalled the captain, sadly, at a loss for words to describe what happened the fatal day of the attack on Fort Stanly. “They butchered the poor bastards. The whole bloody lot of them. Not much left of ‘em. Only one survived. Needle’s his name. Corporal – bugler, if I’m not mistaken. Runs the place now… or what’s left of it. A saloon! Calls it Bonestown, he does. Right there in the middle of jungle, where the old fort used to be. They say he’s crazy… lost his mind. Can you blame him? He was there. Saw it all…all that blood and guts. Them savages done just kill a man…they eviscerates him. Skins ‘em alive. Just like the Redman… only they don’t stop there. They eats them. Needle knows. He was there. Saw it all. Some say you can still hear him blowin’ taps, every night mind you, for the dead soldiers. That’s not crazy. That’s a trooper…”

Just then another old man appeared on the dock and sat down on a bench not far from the four conversing sailors. He had a large bulbous nose, mostly red with spider-like veins running through it, and a black patch covering one eye. The patch hung from a string that disappeared into the cloth of a black and white cap covering most his balding head. He carried about him a rather foul and rancorous odor that did not go undetected by the raccoon and the turtle, even from a breezy distance. He turned his head, looked over at the Harlie who was pretending not to notice, winked his one good eye, and said with a curious smile, “Shippin’ out, sonny?”

Elmo didn’t answer. He didn’t even move.

Sherman, who was still on the lookout for the tall merchant he was supposed to meet there that day, simply turned his hard shell to the stranger and coldly looked away.

He appeared to be part of the small group of convalescing sailors that day, but for some awkward and unexplainable reason, chose to remain by himself, as if deliberately avoiding his fellow mariners for undisclosed reasons. Perhaps it was because of the way he smelled, thought the Harlie (his own senses having greatly increased since becoming a raccoon on the run, and not always to liking) much like the putrefied scent of a decaying catfish Sherman once found on the roadside in Harley, and devoured in single gulp. It may have also had something to do with the hat he wore: a furry black pelt, resembling, to no small degree, the familiar raccoon cap made famous by Ben Franklin and Daniel Boone, still fashionable at the time despite the animal’s sour reputation, and in all its frontier glory; including eyes, ears, whiskers and, of course, the tell-tale tail; the difference, however, lying in two distinctive white parallel stripes traversing the carcass of the dead animal from back to front. It was a skunk, of course; a polecat, to use its more colorful appellation, the un-eviscerated organs of which were know to put forth the unmistakable odor unique to that particular species. And it seems that even its present state of taxidermy, the skunk-hat, for reasons which may never be fully understood, somehow retained that same offensive odor. However, to be fair to the skunk, which squirts his assailants primarily in self-defense, the sailor in question may have exacerbated the odorous effect, as he appeared to not have taken a bath in quite some time, with little or no regard for those in his immediate vicinity. In fact, the stench emanating from the one-eyed sailor was so overwhelming that Elmo actually had to cover his mouth and nose, even from a distance. The others must have noticed it too, he imagined; but they made little effort to distance themselves from the foul smelling sailor who, perhaps being one of their own, allowances were made. Or maybe they were just so used to the stench by now, they were simply able to ignore it. Either way, he appeared to be the most lonely and loathsome fellow Elmo even clapped an eye on.

“I say, mate… Er’ya shippin’ with the Maria Aurora?” repeated the skunk, only louder this time and with a bit more urgency in his voice.

Upon hearing the unruly request, Mister Dixon turned his attention back to what was going while keeping one eye peeled for the man in the tall black hat that he was expecting to find on the pier that day. He was hoping that the foul smelling individual would simply leave them alone; or better yet, just go away. But instead, the polecat was already on his feet and headed in their general direction. Making his un-welcomed approach, the skunk greeted them both with weak salute and a chilling smile.

The Harlie acknowledged the sailor’s presence while maintaining a safe distance. Yes, sir... Huh... Aye, Aye sir!” he saluted, not exactly sure what else he could do under the circumstances. “How'd you know?” he boldly lied, thinking, for one brief and imaginative moment, that if he could convince a smelly one-eyed polecat, who most likely had been to sea for so long that he obviously had forgotten how to take a bath, that he was, in fact, one of the crew... well then, maybe he could convince anyone – including the captain!

“Didn’t know Morgan was takin’ on any Ferals,” squinted the sailor through his one good eye who, through no fault of his own, had lost the precious organ on a whale boat somewhere off the coast of Madagascar when a misguided missile, darted by the ambitious arm of an over-zealous and slightly near-sighted harpooner, found its mark in the socketed cavity of the sailor’s skull instead of the humpback of his intended target. “No offense, mate,” said the skunk to the raccoon that day; which, by the way, was the exact same apology offered up by the industrious harpooner upon extracting the fated dart.

“None taken –,” replied the Harlie, who had learned of such prejudices among some folks from his Uncle Joe and came to accept it – and he meant it, too. “I’m from Har...” he then began to explain before quickly checking himself. Elmo knew all along, of course, that he was still a raccoon on the run, a fugitive, and that he would be better served by keeping his identity hidden, particularly from strangers and especially so far away from home; or least until he was far away where he just didn’t give a damn. But news traveled fast in that part of the world, and a harbor was no place to keep a secret. Even Elmo knew that. And so, he simply stepped back a few steps from the stranger, holding his nose and tongue, and holding no special grudge against the one-eyed bigot whom he could only pity at the time, much as he once pitied Alvin Webb. But the old polecat did apologize, which was more than the Harlie expected and more than he ever received from the dead outlaw. He even thought he might’ve grown to like the old man if time and happenstance permitted, once he’d been properly scrubbed down, of course, along with all the other sons of sailors he’d seen and heard that day on the docks in Old Port Fierce.

Meanwhile, the four old sailors continued their gentlemanly discourse in the only way they knew how, with smoky breathe and fading memories. They talked of the sea through long white pipes of clay in endearing terms, feminine at times, as if it really were a woman. But to the sons of sailors, she was more than that. She was friend, lover, mistress, and wife, all rolled into one and beset in ways too ancient to question and too mysterious to fathom. They couldn’t have loved her more. And yet, this was one female they feared, more than they did the rod the God, at times, especially when she rose up in all her raging glory. It was a timeless relationship that began, and would therefore end, in the sea, in those icy black vaults beneath the waves that rolled on as they did five thousand years ago. It was a bond that simply could not be broken, not unlike the inextricable bonds of holy matrimony. In one sense, it was more than a marriage; immune as they were from such earthly vows; born not of blood and oaths, but of something more, more elemental – like water! The stuff baptisms are made of; the true essence of life, in its most basic composition. It’s a symbiotic relationship, equally cursed and blessed, something Red-Beard might’ve recognized in his own schizophrenic psychology, like the two halves of conjoined Siamese twins joined at the hip, sharing one heart and one lung, having and wanting it no other way. ‘Ain’t she just like a woman!’ was a common expression among these romantic mariners in describing the indescribably relationship they has with the sea. It’s a lover’s embrace, and the sailor’s lament.

And that’s all you would hear ever hear about it. They actually spoke very little of the sea, or themselves for that matter, as if protecting her honor at every expense and guarding her like any jealous lover would, and should. And just like a couple of elderly spouses who live out a lifetime of intimacies, sharing secrets that would make their grandchildren blush, and ones they would take to the grave where, even in those cold dark dungeons, they would still make love, tenderly; not in the passionate embrace of Love’s ephemeral fire, but rather plainly, quietly, calmly and, of course, naturally, just like they always did. It comes with a simple touch of a wrinkled hand or the reassuring nod of a graying temple. Words at this point are useless, meaningless; they would only get in the way. Sometimes, love is enough. It’s more than enough. In fact, anything more, or less, would only destroy it.

And best of all they didn’t even have to say it. It’s written in their faces, tattooed on their silver-haired chests, and proudly displayed over the marbled mantles of their souls like so many marlin heads, the spikes of which have long since lost their luster, but not their edge. It’s in their blood and in their bones; their hearts and heads, their bodies and souls. It’s in their beards. Hell! They reeked of it. It’s the wind and the waves, the sea and the sky, the salt and the sand. It’s where all life began, and will eventually end. It is death and resurrection combined. It’s hard, sometimes; but they endure. And they wouldn't trade it for all the catfish in the China. They lived it. They breathe it. And like fish out of water, they’d be equally doomed to live in a world without it. They sucked it in through long white pipes of clay, expelling it back into the very wind that fills their billowing sails. You can see it in the way they walk and the way in they talk. It’s also in the way they laugh – at the Devil himself in fact, whom, if that old sea-elf only knew who was doing the laughing, just might laugh right along with these merry mariners, just before smashing them to bits against a coral reef or swallowing them up in a tempest. But shed no tears for these brave sons of bachelors, and pity them not; for they know who they are and you would only embarrass yourself if you did. Regrets they have few; they play the hand they’re dealt; poker, perhaps, and they always play to win. Life for these nautical nomads is one endless journey; but one that is always, always taking them home, although they know not where they go. Death is breaks all bargains. Life goes on, only the memories remain. And they’d do it all again, laughingly, lovingly, like jolly ol’ Stubb, I suppose, with a pipe and a dance, and perhaps a measure of rum. That’s just the way there are. That’s what they do. They’re the sons of sailors. And just like their fishermen fathers before them, they love every minute of it, more dearly than their own ephemeral selves.

These were the sons of sailors. They were a breed apart, or so they claimed, a band of boisterous brothers so ubiquitous and diversified they could be found on all ships and in all the oceans of the world, from the frozen plains of the Arctic to the sacred waters of the Indian Ocean, where Vishnu once swam in the reincarnated form a great sperm whale, perhaps. They were a secret society; the Knights Templars of the seas, so to speak, comfortable in their own thick-skinned armor and in the company of their own kind. Unlike some other fraternities, whose skull and bone practices are often viewed negatively at best by those of suspicious nature, these buoyant brothers were always open to new ideas as well as members; so long as they weren’t prone to sea sickness and didn’t mind a little hazing now and then. They were an open society that enjoyed their anonymity, which they guarded fiercely, with a vengeance only they could understand, and execute; vigilant to excess, decorated in their own colors, like the Swiss Guard of the Vatican; and always, always on the lookout for those who take it away from them. In fact, you would seldom hear them mentioned by name, preferring to be addressed by station or rank, or simply ‘mate’. They took orders, and anything else that came their promiscuous way; and they took no prisoners. They’re the sons of sailors; that’s who they are. They’ve been around forever it seems, at least since the days of the Flood some would eagerly suggest; and they would probably be right, because they sure as hell smelled like it sometimes.

They were the sons of Noah, too; and proud of it! But they may go back even further than that, as there are those who claim these antediluvian submariners have, in fact, been around since the dawn of creation. It is suggested, and with little hesitation, that they first appeared shortly after the angels arrived on earth but long before the introduction of man, in the twilight of the Universe, so-to-speak, while the gods were still making love, instead of war, and preparing the world for more miniature replicas of themselves. Formed by the finger of God (or, perhaps it was the devil – the jury may still be out on that one) and at such a time when there was no land to speak of when the world was but one vast global ocean, they came into being. It’s a fishy tale, no doubt; a yarn still in the making, and one the sons of sailors knew so well and spoke of at length, at times altering the plot and players to suit a particular circumstance or audience. Legend? Myth? Fact? Perhaps. But aren’t all good stories a little of all three? Especially the good ones that contain the proper, the right, blend of fact and fiction, and just enough truth to make them worth listening to, or at least funny? And isn’t that what all the things we hold true and dear to be based on – a myth? And how much more wonderful when myth becomes a reality, as it once did two thousand years ago, born of a virgin in a little cave in Bethlehem?

It all began in the ocean, and well it should have, where once there lived a race of sea creatures that were aptly and physiologically described as mermen and mermaids. They were both fish and mammal, as the name clearly suggests and as evidenced by their upper and lower extremities, which clearly defines and delineates two distinct species that had somehow, and for whatever unknown reason, been inextricably spliced together so as to produce a new and unique creature, the like of which had never been seen before and, therefore, could never be duplicated absent the power, natural or super-natural, that spawned it out of the mud in the first place: a hybrid, in fact, amphibious in nature and anatomically correct in all other natural aspects.

Whether this was the miraculous result of Divine Intervention, the handiwork of a mindless and indiscriminate being, the mere by-product of some mischievous god with not enough to do and a little too much him on husbands, or merely the evolutionary process gone slightly berserk, is difficult to say. And as for the latter, anyone who has ever observed or even seen a picture of a platter-puss would certainly agree that it was at least possible; and that it can, and does, happen from time to time, much to chagrin of those who might otherwise claim that Nature, like God, is incapable of such errors; and if, in fact, such curiosities are mistakes to begin with and not just the blue print for some future race of beings that would, in retrospect, not only consider us odd freaks of nature, but inferior as well. It remains a mystery, a riddle, a real Gordian knot that even Alexander the Great, with all the apotheosis invested in him by the Oracle of Delphi, couldn’t unravel with the blow of a sword. And perhaps, as in all cases of such beautiful and bewildering anomalies, which usually occur only once in the Universal scheme of things and, not unlike the fated dinosaurs and fabled unicorns, are doomed to certain extinction from the start, it should! As to the exact historical period in which this marine metamorphosis took place, one could only speculate.

They were called merfolk: a term which, although physiognomically correct, is nowhere to be found in any lexicon, and one they certainly wouldn’t have chosen for themselves; their actual name, if translatable at all into the vulgar vernacular of man would merely come across as an indiscernible, and perhaps unpronounceable, series of wheezes and whistles, not unlike those observed by modern marine biologist when studying the various folios of whales, dolphins, and other more subterranean mammals of the sea. They were doomed from the start; fated, it would seem, by their own choosing, to an earthly existence they never should have happened in the first place. It was a process that was as inexplicable as it was irreversible, and tantamount to extinction. As for the actually physical appearance these submarine creatures, one would only have to imagine what one might already know from what they’ve seen, heard, or otherwise read about in storybooks of old where these kinds of things are discussed in any great detail. They are often described, particularly by the sons of sailors who still claim to observe these fishy folks from time to time, despite the aforementioned and un-provable fact that they no longer exist, as mysterious and wondrous creatures with human torsos and fish-like tails that tapered gracefully down into horizontal flukes that were not only functional, under such fluid conditions, but served them quite nicely in lieu of legs and feet. Sailors claimed they would sometimes be greeted by these aquatic acrobats, which manatees were often mistaken for, in all the oceans of the world, fanning flukes and waving hands just above the watery plane; but always from a respectable distance, as they are naturally shy and gentle creatures that rarely, if ever, deliberately come in contact with humans, especially those sporting fishing poles, casting nets, or more recently – harpoons and guns.

It was further stated that these fishy citizens of Atlantis were appropriately equipped with both aqualung and fins to support their underwater existence, along with other physiological attributes lending to their unique aquarium lifestyle, including those great and powerful flukes, which, not unlike the tails of the mammal whales moved up and down rather than side to side like those observed on their cold-blooded cousins, propelled them so gracefully and successfully through the warm undulating currents of the Gulf Stream, as well as the icky black waters beneath the Polar ice caps, as they have for centuries untold. And they seemed to be ubiquitous; sighting of these fantastic sea-fauns being reported from as far away as Mongolia where they observed cruising the inland waterways of the Orient and Great Delta, at home, it would seem, in those black brackish waters as any ocean or fresh water stream. And they came in all shapes and sizes, too; many so small they could fit on the back of a sea-horse, if the they so desired; and others as large as killer whales, such as the great Celtic merman made famous in song that lived off the Coast of Ireland, by the Isle of Man, and was said to have guided Noah and his Arch to its final destination on top of Mount Ararat in exchange for immortality. And for that reason, among others perhaps, they were said to be an eternal breed that would live forever, a fate perhaps not as desirable as one might imagine, as we shall soon see.

Regarding their mammal halves, these legendary sea-elves, for lack of a better description, were inexplicably graced (or cursed one might say, depending on your point of view) with human arms, heads, beards and breasts, which, considering the liquid median in which they lived and breathed, was actually more of a handicap, rather than the convenience some might falsely conclude; although that too could, and would, all change in time. It was also insinuated, without any real physical evidence to substantiate such a claim, that these delightful denizens of the deep were actually cold-blooded, which would clearly suggest an amphibious nature, and that were really no different than any other fish found floundering in the sea, their homosapien characteristics not-with-standing. And whoever would make such a statement might even be correct; although it would take nothing short of vivisection, that is to say dissecting one of these curious creatures, preferably post-mortem, in order to make such a cold-hearted determination and be proven correct. Would it be worth it? Or is killing, even the dumbest and most expendable beast on the God’s cruel and carnivorous planet, justified under any circumstances, even for the sake of survival? The Evangelist seems to think so; and he has Scripture to back him up. ‘Man does not live by bread alone’, so sayeth the Author of life, even in his most holy and resurrected state as He clearly demonstrated, not only with loaves and fishes but within own flesh and blood. But to be fair, He also states that under no uncertain terms we are to be good and faithful stewards of the land, which, in the prime example set by of Brother Noah, would certainly include all birds and animals, and not its ultimate destroyers; furthermore, that we certainly weren’t put here to simply satisfy our own selfish goals and greedy desires; which, come to think of it, in precisely why God, in His infinite mercy and wisdom, gave us… whiskey! To keep the Irish from taking over the world.

But if we are, as evolutionists seem to agree, nothing more than the latest (and as some suggest, the deadliest) link in the never-ending chain of natural selection, who is to say if our motives are good or evil, even in the most extreme cases? After all, we are, according to them at least, no more than bi-pedal animals acting out of pure natural instinct. And if that’s true, which we should certainly hope and pray it isn’t, then we as a species can no more be blamed for slaughtering the last unicorn on earth to feed our starving families, than a killer whale is for tearing the flesh from an innocent sea-lion that happened to cross its murderous wake. Perhaps then, we should place the ultimate blame where it really, and quite logically, belongs – on God! Or whatever power it is that not only initiated but sustains such a cruel and cannibalistic world in which we are mutually annihilating one another for the sake of survival. But then again, as the old mariner once said: ‘Who’s to doom when the Judge Himself is brought to the bar?’ Does the ameba stand on equal ground with the Leviathan? Is man the ultimate arbiter of his own fate? And if not, who is? And where do we draw the line? Perhaps these and other paradoxical questions of life and death are best left to scholars and theologians. But even they have to eat sometime; and what better meal could they ask for than a finely roasted sirloin, a juicy leg of lamb…or a fish?

As for the merfolk, well, they may’ve found out the answers for themselves by now. For you see, something happened along the way to alter not only their anatomical blueprint, as original and uniquely engineered it was designed, but their minds as well; and perhaps even their souls, if, as their human half clearly suggested, they possessed souls. What happened next would change the course of mankind, and fish-kind (if such a word even exists), forever. Naturally or un-naturally, I suppose, the vital transformation occurred. Exactly how it happened is still academic; anthropology providing no real clues at this time; and Nature, no fossils. There is simply no evidence, empirical or otherwise, to prove they ever existed at all. But still the rumors persisted, and so did the speculation. In fact, at one time there are so many theories concerning the actually origins of these mysterious sea creatures it would be impossible to mention them all in one volume; and even if it could be done, it would certainly not them justice. But there was one story in particular that’d not only outlived and survived its most mortal critics, but the test of time was well; and, like the indomitable whale breaching the surface of a fathomless ocean, this one seemed find its way into the oxygenated light of day more often than most. It was the tale of the glow-fish. And for those who may not have already heard it, the story goes something like this:

There once was a glow-fish that lived deep in ocean. Now in the course of time, it is said, a notion was instilled in this particular fish’s pre-historic brain. It was the simple and innocent notion: to venture out into the deep dark waters in search of something… well, something better. Exactly what that was, remained a deep dark mystery, even unto the glow-fish itself. All it knew for certain was that it was a place, far away, and that he would not be going alone. It was risky venture to be sure, and, considering all the unknown mysteries of the sea and the challenges it presented, not a very appealing one, as the glow-fish was quite content to live out its life in the quiet and comfort, not to mention the safety of its own coral surroundings.

Whatever possessed this little fish to come to the realization that such a place actually existed was beyond human reckoning. But nevertheless, it happened. The glow-fish quickly and effectively went about communicating its newly found knowledge to other fish in the sea, which it was somehow compelled to do, hoping they might join in his unfathomable quest for a wonderful new life and, subsequently, a better world in which to live. Naturally, some fish listened in their own fishy suspicions, and some didn’t. And when the time came for the glow-fish to begin its fantastic journey into the watery unknown, the ones that listened followed; and the ones that didn’t simply swam away shaking their scaly heads and fishy tails. Exactly what became of them will remain a mystery unresolved until such a time when all secrets are revealed in the fullness of time. And so the journey began.

For many days and an equal number of nights (it was virtually impossible to tell which was which at the great depths the fish were presently traversing) the glow-fish and its fishy followers ventured further and deeper into the great ocean than any fish, at least the kind they were accustomed to, had ever swam before. Many of the fish had turned back by then, frightened of all the news surroundings and questioning the glow-fish’s intentions; after all, it was just an ordinary fish, small in comparison to most others, and of no particular importance. Some actually considered the little glow-fish ugly; which, if the truth be told, it probably was; at least in the myopic eyes of more beautiful fish they’d met along the way, like the graceful angel-fish and the proud pea-cock fish for instance, that take notice of such ephemeral things. Naturally, the glow-fish paid no attention to these proud and finicky fish and encouraged its followers to do the same. Down, down, and deeper down still, it brought them, into deep dark places of that watery world where the sun could not penetrate, glowing all the time and lighting the way into those hidden vaults of the deep where sailors sleep and Leviathan comes to die.

At last the fish, along with a few faithful followers, came upon a great net that had been placed directly in their path by some unseen Fisherman who, apparently, was waiting for them above in his boat. It was an old familiar trap, one easily recognized at once by many of the older fish that’d come across such manmade contrivances in the past, and easily avoided, provided the correct measures were taken in advance. But it seemed that the glow-fish already knew who’d cast this one particular net, and was taking no precautions to avoid it. In fact, it seemed that the glow-fish was very much intent on swimming directly into the fatal net; and, moreover, it was beckoning all the other fish to follow it into the deadly snare. It was a bold and bewildering gesture, and, in many ways, quite foolish; it was also unexpected. And just like before, some of the fish followed and some didn’t, and with equal joy and abandonment.

The ones that remained followed the glow-fish, reluctantly at first but willingly in the end, into the net and were eventually trapped. The Fisherman quickly pulled in his net and all were caught. Not one escaped. The fishes that would not follow the glow-fish, all swam back to the safe shallows of their own shadowy worlds beneath the waves and remained there until their dying days, which, like all creatures, were numbered. But what became of all the other fish, the ones that were caught in the Fisherman’s net, is even more of a mystery; for indeed, just like the glow-fish, they were pulled from their natural environment, the life-sustaining waters they’d grown so dependent on, but, at the very last minute were let go, by the fisherman himself as he sliced the net in two with one powerful blow of his knife.

They all escaped, except for the glow-fish. It was brought up into the boat where it was then stripped and scaled, like any other fated fish, and thrown into a bucket. It was a slow and agonizing death, and one the glow fish couldn’t fully comprehend at the time of its execution, starring up at the Fisherman through clouded bloodstained eyes, its gills opening and closing as if searching for the liquid oxygen that just wasn’t there anymore, and drying in the scorching light of an alien sun. All the faithful fish could do was look on from the water below in wonder and sorrow as the low-fish slowly expired.

But the story does not end there. For you see, the glow-fish knew exactly what it was doing the day it swam into the Fisherman’s net, fully understanding the consequences of its actions, and what would happen to all the other fish if it didn’t. The glow-fish also knew, but don’t ask me how or why, that the Fisherman was not the enemy at all. Quite the contrary! He was their deliverance. For it was he, the Fatherly Fisherman, who’d put it in the head of the glow-fish to leave its home and take the others with him in the first place. It was his idea all along. He commanded not only the winds and rains, but all life above and below. The stars he navigated by were of his own making. The sun obeyed him, the moon bowed down before him. It was he who’d cast the net which he made with his own gnarly fingers. And it seemed that the glow-fish knew that, too, which is perhaps why it was so willing to let itself be caught up in the first place and doomed to a certain and agonizing death. It was a fatal decision; but one he freely accepted, realizing all along that death was not the end, only the beginning; and that life was the only real option after all; one they would eventually find, not in this world, of course, but in another. It was actually something the fish and the Fisherman had planned long before the perilous journey began. You might even say that it was predestined. The glow-fish would die; and so would all that followed it its watery wake, eventually. But death would not be the final judgment, for the glow-fish or its faithful followers.

The Fisherman took pity on the fish that day, as he always did, especially the little glow-fish he loved above and beyond all others. And in his omnipotent power and unlimited wisdom and mercy, the old Fisherman reached into the bucket and, lo and behold! the little glow-fish was whole and complete, with a brand new body. The other fish leaped in joy, circling the boat in excited anticipation of being reunited with their new little master. But that never happened. You see, the Fisherman decided to keep the glow-fish all for himself. He simply wouldn’t let him go; and the glow-fish would have no other way. The Fisherman smiled, whereupon he instantly transformed all the fishy followers into new and wondrous creatures, not unlike the glow-fish itself, in all his incarnated glory, granting them all eternal life. And they all glowed in the same glory that great and glorious day, just like the glow-fish, half man and half fish, skin and scales, spliced at the waist, with waving arms and splashing tails, in the familiar form they one day be famous for.

The Fisherman rejoiced; and so did the glow-fish. He called them mermen and mermaids and bid them all farewell, admonishing them to remain that way in ocean until such a time when he would call them all back, in which case he would send the glow-fish himself to come and fetch them home. Whenever that time would finally arrive was never disclosed, not even unto the glow-fish itself who, if we believe such things, was last seen sailing off with the Fisherman into the misty grey morning.

Well, it was a good story, even if it wasn’t entirely true; and it did offer a reasonable, if not totally scientific, explanation for the origins of those delightful creatures of the sea and progenitors of Mankind that we all know and love so well and are more commonly referred to nowadays as mermaids.

But the story didn’t end there (the good ones never do, you know) and there are times when even immortality isn’t quite enough, as in the case of the mermaids and mermen. Not satisfied with their newly improved and divinely inspired status, recalling all they had heard of the dry land beyond the sandy surf, and ignoring the Fisherman’s warning not to leave their watery domain, some of the followers of the glow-fish turned their attention to loftier goals and more earthly ambitions. They’d tasted life beyond the sea and discovered that they actually liked it. It was an experience (as most experiences are when we first encounter them) they simply couldn’t ignore, like the first bite of an apple, you might say; or the first time you fall in love. It was as if they were drawn by some earthly power, well-beyond their comprehension and control, to breach the invisible barrier that separated them from the world of man, which, considering their half-human anatomy, was theirs anyway. It was a totally human response to an age old dilemma, and quite predictable: to walk upon the earth, not unlike the Fisherman himself. It was a desire they couldn’t escape from and a longing they simply couldn’t resist, which, ironically enough, may’ve been a direct result of what the Fishman had done to them in the first place, immortality not-with-standing. It was a simple but paradoxical fact that may never be explained, and one some of the fish would eventually come to regret; but not all. Still, there are many things even the glow-fish couldn’t explain. Perhaps this was just one of them.

In time, the earthly desire became so overwhelming that the fish finally acquiesced, even against their better judgment and more natural instincts. It is rumored that, in the end, they simply rebelled, ignoring the Fisherman’s final admonition never to return to the surface again until such a time when he himself sent the glow-fish back to fetch them. It was a critical choice with disastrous consequences. But it was their choice nevertheless; made of their own free will. And with that choice, they sealed their own fate; and mortality was assured.

By braving the atmospheric conditions they were certainly not unaccustomed to (and therefore unprepared to handle) these mermen of the sea, despite the misgivings of their mermaid wives who’d begged them not to go, ventured forth onto dry land and, in time, walked on legs and breathed in the fresh unsalted air. Then, gazing up at sun and sky, they knew what they’d done and cursed the ground they walked on, along with the glow-fish and the Great Fisherman who they blamed for their dire predicament. Turning their attention back to the sea, and realizing the terrible mistake they had made, many attempted to reverse the process by swimming out into the ocean, where it all began, diving down into the deep never to be seen again; others were later found washed-up on the beach, their hybrid bodies unable to assimilate into a world they were simply never meant to occupy. But not all were lost; for in time, some of the merman did adjust; and not only that – they changed. The scales were the first to go, falling off one by one, like the tears of a child. Then, their tapering torsos split in two, eventually transitioning into the self-supporting legs they so longed for. Gone were their flukes and fins, and finally, their gills, the last amphibious link to a cold-blooded past they would no longer be part of, or even survive in; at least, not for any length of time with their newly acquired lungs and legs. It was simply too late.

As time and tide passed, the disobedient mermen adapted, giving in to all manner of human lust and passion, and all the consequences that naturally follow such earthly desires. And without the mer-wives (who wisely but sadly had chosen not to follow in the fated footsteps of their foolish husbands) to satisfy their insatiable lust, the mermen took to mating with, and eventually marrying, the daughters of man who in turn, taken up by these handsome creatures with such lean and muscular physiques, were more than willing to bear their salty seed.

Whatever it was that’d caused such a sudden and drastic change in the physiological makeup of these poorly misplaced and equally misguided creatures, is the stuff of myth and legend, yarns spun mostly by the sons of sailors themselves who are considered to be actual descendants, if not the direct by-product, of these illicit and un-natural affairs; bastards, if you will, of the unbridled passions of sin. And to further substantiate this fantastic if not hypothetical claim, there are certain reptilian characteristics the sons of sailors share, even until this day, with their fishy fathers of the past; not least of these being a most remarkable and uncanny ability to breathe under water for protracted periods of time, and swim – like salmon upstream! whenever instinct or desire moves them to do so, which usually, and perhaps naturally, coincides with the spring spawning season; something, I’m sure, their lusty fathers would be quite proud of. Calling these salty sons-of-bachelors fish out of water would be an understatement, and one they would appreciate. In fact, if you were to examine more closely the hands and feet of this new and select breed of humanity, you just might find such hard, if not irrefutable, evidence needed to support this phantasmagorical phenomenon in the visual form of several small triangular shaped webs located at the conjoining base of their own fleshy fingers and toes; which, come to think of it, not only proves the hypothesis to be true, but further explains their highly advanced and superior swimming skills, which, of course, only further facilitates their natural impulse in matters of procreation. It just makes sense.

And it could only have happened in one place: the ocean; the sea of course! that same salty incubator, that old crucible and cauldron from which all life springs, from the smallest of plankton to the great Leviathan, including the sons of sailors themselves. But for what purpose? And to what end? These are questions for future fisherman to ponder, and for more evolved minds to answer, if they are answerable at all. And of course the most perplexing question of all we can ask is – Why? Well…Why the not? God’s a captain. He doesn’t give reasons; he gives orders! But he also gives life. He creates it from nothing and then takes it back again. We own nothing. We are nothing. To ask anything more is not only foolish, it is blasphemy. But if you must, go ask Job! Of course, you may not like the answer; for it will probably be the same answer given to the famous man from Uz himself when he so vehemently, and against the advice of his own wicked consul, demanded pretty much the same thing of God – Nothing! And if you are humble and wise enough, and you don’t mind eating a little crow now and then, you just might repent as Brother Job once did, in sackcloth and ash; or better yet, just shut up and listen for a change. There are some questions that just too paradoxical to be answered. What color the rain? What does blue sound like? To name only a few. .

And where does that leave us? Perhaps nowhere! There are some things man may never know, at least on this side of the grave. And still we ask: Who is God? And if not a person, at least as far as our imaginations dare to go and for those of us who do not believe in the Incarnation, well then – What is he? If you were to ask the sons of sailors this, they will merely shake their salty beards in unison and proclaim what they’ve always believed but are sometimes a little reluctant to admit: Why – God is a fish, of course! And they wouldn’t be far off the mark in their cold-blooded, either. But exactly what kind of fish is He? you may ask. A great white shark? Or perhaps a giant squid. We may never know; although, from a personal perspective, a great spermaceti whale often comes to mind when pondering such monumental thoughts.

God is a fish, or so they say, that swam the oceans of the Universe long before the stars and planets existed in their present molecular form, before time had any meaning. And in that expansive emptiness, He created the heavens and the earth, along with countless stars, constellations, galaxies, and all heavenly matter too numerous to mention and too complex for the human mind to comprehend in its present finite state. The angels were his first born, of course; sprung from His own impenetrable mind and, quite understandably, His highest achievement; but even these were flawed, as some eventually rebelled, before being driven down into the fiery furnaces of the newly forming planets. Seeing that His work was not yet complete, and compelled by his own infinite imagination, God created man, giving him dominion over all the earth, which he’d also created in that same divine and creative process. And from there…who knows? Creativity has no bonds and knows no limitations. Still, that same old nagging question remains; the one that has confounded and confused Mankind ever since – Why? But to find that out, we must first find out who; or what. But we already know that, don’t we? God is a fish! – in all His ubiquitous and omnipresent glory. God is a fish! Catch Him if you can. Touch him, you die. But chase him, you must; to the ends of the earth; in all the oceans of the world, if that’s what it takes. Seek Him out and you will find Him; or perhaps, He will find you! which, as the sons of sailors all know, is more likely the case. And be careful, lads! He is also a dangerous fish. He gives life and takes it back. without pride or prejudice, without fear of favor; and sometimes, without warning. But he is a merciful fish, too. He heals the earth after he destroys it, and makes rainbows out of storm clouds. And to those who claim that God is a merciless fish that knows no justice, well... they know nothing of justice or mercy then… or fish for that matter. Real faith takes real work, and courage; or at least, it should. And we should not be too afraid to fight, even though we perish in the battle, as the sons of sailors often do.

But speak not of courage to these brave and gentle souls; for they know that the sea is full of heroes, as well as villains and fools. It is a place where madmen go, sometimes; and it is not for the faint of heart, the weak of mind, or the poor of spirit. Neither is it for the pious and proud commodores of this world who, in their never-ending quest for fame, fortune, and immortality (notice how the three often becoming indistinguishable to these poor devils) often find themselves floundering on the rocks, shipwrecked on the shoals, or sunk in the junkyards of the deep where Titans and Krakens pick their mythical teeth with the bones of tyrants, thieves, and murders.

But God is also a benevolent fish. He loves what He creates, even when it does not love Him back. And He’s willing to die for it. But beware! This is a jealous fish. He said so Himself. So take care, and always be on guard, least the terrors and beauties of the deep take you down, drowning you in a sea of wanting desire that makes you forget who it is who’s doing the creating, the drowning, and the killing all along. It is all part of master plan of Creation. And don’t be fooled by Evolution; there is a difference between the two: Evolution, from a purely logical point of view, may yet prove to be no more than the physical manifestation of Creation that can otherwise never be explained to the satisfaction of more limited and finite minds in all its intricacies and complexities, but the same cannot be said of Creation. It just doesn’t work that way. Try explaining the advanced theories of quantum-physics to your average Neanderthal, and you will probably get your head handed to you… on a spit! But simply and calmly tell him or anyone else for that matter, and in no uncertain terms, that God created the Heavens and the Earth and leave it at that, and then you may at least get a polite nod from the brute before he grunts and walks away, knuckles dragging in utter confusion. Indeed, Creation may tell us something about Evolution; but Evolution tells us nothing, or at least very little, about Creation. How could it? It wasn’t even around when it happened.

And finally, if you are one of those sorry souls who think God is a fish with no sense of humor, just think of a rich man attempting to navigate his overloaded camel through the Biblical eye of a needle; or Abraham being told that his wife would give birth to a son at ninety years old: and that he would be the father! Imagine Saint Peter being left in charge – of anything! Think of the Jews, God’s own chosen people wondering around in the desert for forty years – and laugh! Or better yet, glance into a quiet pool of water on some calm and pleasant morning and tell me what you see. Perhaps then you will know who you are. More importantly, you will know who He is. God is a fish! The sons of sailors know it. And if you listen real close, you just might hear them sing….

FIRST MATE:

“A young man heard a voice one day,
‘Come sail away with me!
A sailor's life is clean and strong,
The way life ought to be.

SECOND MATE:

“The sailor came back home one day,
A ’riding on the tide.
Just to hear a young girl tell him,
‘I will be your bride.”

THIRD MATE:

“He settled down in Harbor Town
To see his dreams come true.
He had a son who, like his dad
Had eyes of navy blue.”

PILOT: (Snoring)

“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ”

FIRST MATE:

“His son grew up and went his way
As sons of sailors do.
And had a son, who like his dad
Had eyes of navy blue.”

SECOND MATE:

“One day the sailor saw a light
Which split his heart in two.
The water rushed into his veins.
From that day on it grew.”

THIRD MATE:

“One day the tide came in they say
Just like the days before.
A voice cried out from far away:
‘Come sail with me once more!’”

PILOT: (Snoring)

“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ”

ONE-EYED SAILOR:

“A sailor's life is like the Sea
Which rolls in with the tide.
It comes and goes, then fads away,
But never really dies...”

He remembered it now. It was the same song he heard the woman was singing, down by the river where the little boy was skipping stones. And with that done, the four old shipmates, along with the smelly old skunk, charged their pipes and fell quietly back into each other’s arms, as son sailors often do at times like these.

Their faces would remain with the Harlie forever, just like the face in the stone. It was their eyes that told the real story; clear and penetrating; blue, like the sea itself; eyes that gaze inward as well as out, like the windows to the soul some claim them to be; eyes that pierce like lightning bolts in the eye of the storm, away and aloft, and burn like coals in the bottom of the pit; eyes that have looked upon sea and sky; eyes that have seen war, and death; eyes that have gazed upon the inscrutable face of God, which is what sets them apart from all other creatures, and lived to speak of it, or so they claim. And if you ask them what they saw... well, I don’t think they would tell you; at least not in so many words. It’s not what sons of sailors do. But if you just have to know what God looks like, you just might get the answer the Harlie got that day when he looked into those same starry eyes of the mariner: ‘What is God?‘Why, God is a fish, of course, a glow-fish! What else?’

And it should come as no surprise; for not unlike the very first sons of sailors who, at one time or another, shared the same metaphysical form and swam the infinite sea of immortality, God has always been a fish. But they’re mortal now, through no fault of their own it could well be argued, with human needs and desires, as well as organs. They live, breathe, and bleed. They die. They feel pain. They are caught. But without their mermaid wives, the ones they’d forsaken so long ago in their liquid past for the fatal and fleeting trappings of Humanity, they were doomed to certain extinction along with all other living things.

They lived now only for the sea, and yearn for the land that’d placed them in their earthly predicament to begin with, shackled by lungs and limbs they could never escape. These are the sons of Sailors. They plow the oceans and pray for land; a handful of dirt, perhaps; a blade of grass. They exist now in floating prisons of their own making; a wooden hearse, a leaky coffin, with nothing to hear but the lonely cry of a gull and nothing to see but the endless blue horizon. But somehow that’s enough. Occasionally, they may sight a solitaire humpback, a lonely albatross, the fin of a dolphin, either off in the distance or flanking their starboard, guiding them gently onward or riding their foamy white wake. Perhaps it’s the subtle flukes of a mermaid; or maybe a manatee lost at sea, as it sometimes happens to these gentle coast-dwelling mammals that are often confused with mermaids (especially during protracted voyages such as whaling expeditions that could last well up to three years or more) by the lonely seamen onboard who make little or no allowance for the obvious differences separating the species. Indeed, these gentle but ugly sea cows were often mistaken for the long lost mermaids of old; the same ones who, unlike their foolish husbands, had refused to surrender their gills and flukes for lungs and feet. Whatever they were, they were only there to remind them of who and what they once were, where they came from, and what they really were meant to be – A fish!

Aye! God is a fish. And if you don’t believe that, just ask the glow-fish… or the Fisherman himself! for that matter.

The raccoon seems to have a special relationship to fish. A whole group of tales recounts how two hunters following a raccoon trail him right up to a tree stump. When one of the hunters looks in, he sees in the water that has collected inside, not a raccoon at all, but a fish. One of the men eats this raccoon-turned-fish, and as a result, finds himself overcome with thirst and must seek out the lake to quench it. Soon he becomes a Fish Spirit himself. In this role he grants his friend blessings. In one variant, it is Waterspirits that set this train of events into motion, so that the raccoon-fish is their servant.

There was a large settlement on the shores of a lake and among it's people were two very old blind men. It was decided to move these men to the opposite side of the lake where they might live in safety as their settlement was exposed to attacks of enemies and they could easily be captured and killed. So the relatives of the old men got a canoe, some food, a kettle, and a bowl and started across the lake where they built for them a wigwam in a grove some distance from the water. A line was stretched from the door of the wigwam to a post in the water so that the old men would have no difficulty in helping themselves. The food and vessels were put into the wigwam and after the relatives of the old men promised them that they would come back often and keep them provided with everything they needed, the relatives returned to their settlement. The two old blind men began taking care of themselves. On one day, one of them would do the cooking while the other went for water and on the next day, they would change about in their work so their labor was evenly divided. As they knew just how much food they required for each meal, the quantity prepared was equally divided but was eaten out of the one bowl which they had. Here they lived in contentment for several years but one day Raccoon, who had been following the water’s edge looking for crawfish, came to the line which had been stretched from the lake to the wigwam. Raccoon thought it rather curious to find a cord where he had before observed none and wondered to himself,"What is this? I think I shall follow this cord to see where it leads". So Raccoon followed the path along which the cord was stretched until he came to the wigwam. Approaching very cautiously, Raccoon went up to the entrance where he saw the two old men asleep on the ground, their heads at the door and their feet directed towards a heap of hot coals within. Raccoon sniffed about and soon found there was something good to be eaten within the wigwam but decided not to enter for fear of waking the old men so he retired a short distance to hide himself to see what they would do. Soon the old men awoke and one said to the other, “My friend, I am getting hungry, let us prepare some food". "Very well", replied his companion, "you go down to the lake and fetch some water while I get the fire started". Raccoon heard this conversation and wishing to deceive the old man, immediately ran to the water and untied the cord from the post and carried it to a clump of bushes and tied it there. When the old blind man came along with his kettle to get water, he stumbled around in the brush until he found the end of the cord and began to dip his kettle upon the ground for water. Not finding any, he slowly returned to the wigwam and said to his companion, "we shall surely die because the lake has dried up and the brush has grown where we used to get water. What shall we do"? "That cannot be", responded his companion, "for we have not been asleep long enough for the brush to grow upon the lake bed. Let me go and see if I can get some water". Taking the kettle from his friend he started off. Now as soon as the first old man had returned to the wigwam, Raccoon took the cord and tied it back where he had found it to wait to see the results. The second old man came along, entered the lake and getting his kettle full of water, returned to the wigwam saying as he entered, “My friend, you told me what was not true. There is water enough, for here you see, I have our kettle full". The other could not understand this at all and wondered what had caused this deception. Raccoon approached the wigwam to await the cooking of the food and when it was ready, the pieces of meat, for there were eight of them, were put into the bowl and the old men sat down on the ground facing each other with the bowl between them. Each took a piece of the meat and they began to talk of various things and enjoy themselves. Raccoon quietly removed four pieces of the meat from the bowl and began to eat them enjoying the feast even more than the old blind men. Soon one of old men reached into the bowl to get another piece of meat and finding that only two pieces remained said, "My friend, you must be very hungry to eat so quickly, I have had only one piece and there are but two pieces left". The other replied, "I have not taken them but suspect you have eaten them yourself". The other replied more angrily than before and thus they argued and Raccoon, desiring to have even more fun, tapped each of them on the face. The old men, each believing the other had struck him, began to fight. Rolling over the floor of the wigwam, upsetting the bowl and the kettle and causing the fire to be scattered. Raccoon then took the two remaining pieces of meat and made his exit from the wigwam laughing "Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha". The old men instantly ceased their arguing for they now knew they had been deceived. Raccoon then remarked to them, "I have played a nice trick on you. You should not find fault with each other so easily". Raccoon then went on to continue crawfish hunting along the lake shore.


Chapter Eight

A Conspiracy of One

MEANWHILE, ON BOARD THE MARIA AURORA, Roger Morgan was looking over some old sea charts when Mister Elijah Hatch entered the captain’s cabin. He did not look up as the merchant ducked his tall black hat under the low hanging door.

“Just about ready, captain,” the merchant reported.

“Good!” answered the captain, digging the point of his divider in his hardwood surface of his desk. “Have a seat, Mister Hatch. I want to talk to you.”

“About what, Roger?”

“Ohhhh, about Max... and other things.”

“Anything wrong?” asked the gray beard from under his hat that was all but scraping the beam of the captain’s aft quarters even as he sat down.

“It’s the navy,” stated Morgan, as simply and plainly as he could under the circumstances. “They’ve been asking questions.”

“Oh?”

“This ain’t the merchants, Hatch.”

The merchant grinned, “Oh, really?” He was wondering if the captain was referring to anyone in particular.

“It’s not like...”

“The good ol’ days – Eh, Roger?”

“Something like that, I ‘spose,” replied Morgan. And here the captain looked up from his charts and studied the man in front of him, as if for the very first time. “We just do things a little differently now,” he said with all the authority vested in his position, “That’s all.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“You know what I mean, Elijah,”

“Something about the mission, I suppose?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” insisted the captain of the Maria Aurora, “And personal.”

Me?” said the merchant, acting overly surprised.

“They don’t trust you, Hatch.”

The hat laughed. “But you do?”

“It’s not funny.”

“It is to me.”

“Well, don’t worry,” said the captain, forcing a weak smile from behind the oversized desk. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Not without a uniform.”

“Never did me much good before,” stated the merchant with little deference to his former commission. “Besides, I don’t see any braids on your shoulder.”

Roger Morgan didn’t like wearing uniforms, despite the fact that he looked very handsome in them; especially when he wore his dress whites, which women found most attractive. He never wanted to stand out from his crew, even when protocol demanded such distinction; it was just not his style of command. Besides, in the heat of battle, wearing your rank is really not such a good idea. It makes for too easy a target, as any good officer will attest to, if he’s ever been there. For the most part, and when he could get away with it, Captain Morgan wore what his men wore, ate what they ate, drank what they drank, and swore when they swore. He even stood watch in the mast-head, as all hands onboard are called on to do from time to time as sailors before the mast. The captain of the Maria Aurora had always assumed, and rightfully so, that if his men wouldn’t obey him for who he was, then no uniform would make any difference, nor should it. “Sit down, Mister Hatch,” he finally said.

“I prefer to stand, captain,” replied the merchant, with all due respect.

Morgan looked up again, but only for a second. “You never did like taking orders. Did you, Hatch?”

“Was that an order, Captain?”

“No,” said Morgan, with an uneasy but sincere smile.

Mister Hatch nodded politely. “Good,” he said. And then he quietly removed his hat and sat down.

“So, it’s still all about orders,” thought the captain out loud, going through some papers on his desk, “You should’ve thought about that before you joined the navy

It was a sore subject. Elijah Hatch knew it would come up sooner or later, although for the sake of their friendship, he’d always hoped it would be at a time when they were both too old to care and under less stressful circumstances, like banging their heads and glasses together on a topical island somewhere in the Southern Seas; under a palm tree, perhaps, smoking their pipes and praying for a breeze as they watched the native women stroll along the beach in their customary grass skirts. And it could still happen that way, Elijah was just then thinking to himself. But things would never be quite the same between the two. It had been an honorable divorce, and not just from the Navy. It was one Elijah never regretted, however; and he never looked back since. But he knew that’s not why he was there. “I should’ve thought about a lot of things,” he reminded the officer.

“Is that why you left the Fleet?

“I didn’t leave the Fleet, Roger,” replied the merchant, with a hint of sadness in his broken voice, “The Fleet left me. Or, if you want get technical, it left without me.”

“Well, I suppose you’re right, Elijah. But that’s just way it is… or was. Besides, you knew what you were getting yourself into before you took command. They told you…”

“I know what they told me,” interrupted the merchant, running his fingers along the black brim of his tabled hat, noticing how old and wrinkled the cloth had become over the years. “It’s what they didn’t tell me, that makes it so damn frustrating.”

“Oh, that...” replied the captain, recalling the slave ship and the incident that cost Captain Hatch his commission at the time. “Forget it.”

“Some things you don’t forget so easily,” replied the hatless gray-head.

“Well, if it’ll make you feel any better, they haven’t forgotten about you either, Elijah.”

“Nice of them to remember.”

“And neither have I,” reminded Roger Morgan.

“They haven’t forgotten your rank, either,” added the commander of the Maria Aurora who, as the merchant was just beginning to suspect, might be having second thoughts about the mission they were both about to embark on. Either that, he imagined, or there was a slight change in plans, which was equally disconcerting. “You know too much, Elijah, “stated the captain, quite frankly and his official capacity. “And that’s the problem. It scares ‘em. And it spooks me a little, too.”

“Good,” replied the merchant.” I get nervous when those in power are not scared, or spooked as you say. That’s when they’re most dangerous, you know.”

Captain Morgan was not surprised at the merchant’s hostile attitude towards his former superiors. He had a right to be angry. Not because they were wrong and he was right; but simply because they knew it, but were just afraid to admit it. The slave trade continued, even after the war; and the Navy was still a big part of it. And that meant Captain Elijah Hatch was part of it too, just like Max and Morgan, whether he liked it or not. Hatch didn’t; and he suspected ‘Max’ didn’t like it either, but was merely following orders, just like everyone else in those days. Morgan however, he was never quite sure of.

“I told them you were retiring,” re-assured the captain, “That you just wanted to be left alone... to be let off on some God-forsaken Island with a bottle of rum in one hand and some young native girl in the other, just like all the rest.”

“Actually, that’s not such a bad idea,”

“Retiring?”

“No,” insisted the merchant, “the part about the young native girl and the rum.”

“Some things never change – Eh, Hatch?”

“And what about the mission?”

Morgan smiled. “Nothing has changed… Well, almost nothing.”

“So, they actually they believed you?”

The captain knew he was sailing in uncharted water at that moment, and he really didn’t like it; he never did. “‘Course not, Hatch,” he finally had to confess, “But who would?”

“I did,” returned the merchant, reluctantly, “…at one time.”

It wasn’t exactly a shot across the bow, but it was the closest thing to it, and the only way Elijah Hatch could make Roger Morgan know that there was still some unfinished business left between them. They lived in different worlds now, and both had gone their separate ways; one went on to become a merchant, the other, a captain. Only one had survived in both, Elijah Hatch; and that’s what was bothering him at the time.

“You look a little troubled, Mister Hatch,” noticed the captain, “What’s ailin’ you, man?”

“Nothing I won’t get over.”

Morgan sat up and stared.

“It’s been long time, Roger,” reminded the merchant, looking out of the tiny stern window located directly above the captain’s head at some red storm clouds brewing on the watery horizon. It was still light outside, which made them appear even more menacing. He paused. Never a man for dwelling too much on the past, Elijah Hatch preferred living in the present; or even the future for that matter, which he at least had some influence over. Pulling scabs off old wounds just wasn’t his style, even after they had time enough to heal and would’ve fallen off naturally anyway. And doing in so in the presence of old friends and shipmates who might well have sympathized with his later run-ins with the navy, both personal and professional, would only make it more painful. He then sighed and summarized, “But it all worked out for the best, I suppose. And I’m still here. They can’t get rid of me that easily.”

“Lord knows they tried,” the captain agreed.

“And I still doing what I’ve always done,” noted the merchant, a bit more optimistically perhaps.

“Making Admiral’s nervous?”

Elijah pretended not to hear. “Actually, when you get right down to it, Roger, the only difference is pay and protocol.

“Money’s not everything,” reminded the captain with a hint of disdain for the civilian branch the noble and time-honored profession that he was still very much a part of.

“No, but you have to admit the merchants do pay better. And you don’t have to...”

“Take orders?”

“That, too! But I think you know what I mean.”

“It comes with the job, Hatch,” reminded the captain.

Of course, no one knew that better than Mister Elijah Hawthorne Hatch who’d always performed his job well, no matter how menial, or thankless, the task. Even as a boy, cutting bait for the fishing boats out of Old Port Fierce, young Elijah took pride in his profession; and he always took it seriously. It was no wonder he rose through the ranks as quickly as he did. Captain Maximilian Orlando obviously saw something in the youth that impressed him a great deal, which was precisely why the captain of the Firefly took young Hatch under his sure and steady wings as soon as he was old enough to join the Navy. The sons of sailors noticed it as well: the stuff officers were made of. Roger Morgan had it, too. Some said he had too much of it – Elijah Hatch was one of them.

The merchant shook his head. “That still doesn’t make it right.”

The merchant’s last remark, aimed squarely at the captain’s broadside, found its mark. It was a statement that might have insulted any other officer, but not so Roger Morgan; he knew Mister Hatch and, in his own conscientious way, he knew the merchant was right. It was just Elijah’s way of reminding the captain of the Maria Aurora who the senior officer onboard really was, and perhaps still is.

“Just doing my job,” the captain replied, going back to his charts.

“It was my job, too. That’s why I quit, Roger – Remember?”

The captain didn’t immediately reply. How could he? He didn’t quit; he’d stayed on, even when his own motives were brought into question. Roger Morgan had navigated these murky waters with the conscientious merchant before. He was talking about the war, the slave trade, and something that happened ten years onboard the Firefly twenty years ago.

“Look’ye here, Hatch,” the captain argued, looking up from his cluttered desk, “We won! Didn’t we? We beat the gray bastards and salvaged the Union, or what was left of it. And it wasn’t that easy. So what if we sold a few bloody savages in the process. They were cannibals, man… Or, what is that other word you used?”

Ferals,” replied Hatch, “They were called Ferals, sir. Still are in some parts.”

“Ah, yes… Ferals. A wild name for a wild animal. Dogs!”

“They were men, captain,” corrected the merchant.

“They were slaves,” countered the captain, “just like the Negroes from Africa. And we made a nice profit – didn’t we?

“They were men none-the-less, Roger. No matter what price you put on them.”

Morgan fired back. “I’ll remind you we lost more than a few good men of own in the process. Or have you forgotten the Monitor?

“And that’s another thing...”

But before the merchant could finish his thought, the captain stood up and demanded to know: “Just what the hell do you want from me anyway, Hatch!”

In his own sober and solicitous way, the merchant took back his command, if only for the moment. “I want...” he began, pausing for a moment of reverence, “I want the blood of those brave men to mean something, captain. And not just the ones that won. We all bled during those years, blue and gray – including the so-called Ferals; and their blood was no different than yours, or mine. They were men, Roger.”

“And if I remember correctly,” reminded the captain, seating himself back down behind his handsomely carved desk, “they fought on both sides, as strange as that may seem to some.”

“They did what they were told to do, Roger.”

“Just like everyone else, I suppose.”

“And they died.”

“Some things are worth dying for,” stated the merchant, stoically Deep down he knew Morgan agreed He was a good man, a fair man, not unlike the great Maximilian Orlando himself who’d taught them both so well, not only what it means to be a sons of a sailors but what it meant to be men of authority and consequence.

“For God and country,” reminded the captain.”

“Men don’t die for their country,” he further elucidated upon the explosive subject of war, “They die for themselves, their families, and their future. “As for God… well that’s between them and their maker.”

The captain of the Maria Aurora knew very well what his friend the merchant was talking about, and it was not just about the past. It was no secret that the navy was more than complicit when it came to the illegal transportation of human contraband, feral or otherwise, even after the war; and he was wise enough to know laws seldom changed things, at least in the worlds he revolved in. He also knew the merchant was right, about war at least: the right side did win; although there would always be those who disagreed. He’d found that out when the first bullet was fired at him, and missed. But it was not his job question the outcome, only to obey orders. It wasn’t always that simple, as Mister Hatch was soon to find out. And it wasn’t about politics or patriotism, either, or right and wrong. It’s more personal than that, more important. It’s was life and death.

The outlawed slave trade was still alive and well at the time, albeit under new management consisting chiefly of ex-privateers who had learned their trade at the Navy’s expense, along with a number of renegade pirates who, because of the Navy’s growing influence over the high seas, soon found themselves out of a job and with little else to do. It was a marriage made in Hell, you might say, but one that worked quite heavenly. The wages of sin were set long before the war ever started, and so was the price; not in stone, where it could easily be seen by discerning eyes and counted accordingly, but rather behind closed doors, in smoky back rooms, even in the captains’ quarters where autocracy was the rule of the day and questions were seldom, if ever, answered. To put it succinctly, and in more commercial terms: the privateers provided the ships; the pirates, the muscle; and, for a small but substantial percentage of the corruptible profits, the Navy simply looked the other way. And so did Roger Morgan who just then fired off another round at his formidable but friendly foe. “We all have our orders, Hatch, even you,” he said with a hint of jealousy that didn’t go entirely undetected by his former superior, “Our job is to simply carry them out.”

There were those who would disagree with the captain’s assertion; Elijah Hatch was one of them, although there was a good bit of truth in what Morgan said. He’d been down this watery road before with the captain of the Maria Aurora and once it almost drowned him; and although he knew it would useless to debate the issue any further, he thought he might try, but some other time; there were still more important things to consider, and discuss. And so, he did what he usually did in these kinds of situations – he simply changed the subject, even though he really didn’t want to. “I see you still don’t like to wear your uniform,” declared the former captain, suspiciously eyeing the common white blouse Morgan was wearing that day, the same kind the sailors often wore.

“As I recall,” reminisced the captain, casting a weary but critical eye on black attire morbidly adorning the tall frame of his friend across of the table, “you never much cared for uniforms yourself.”

“Dark clothes for a dark man, Roger” returned the merchant, grimly. “Lately, I prefer black.”

“You’re beginning to sound like one of those damn black sailors,” rejoined the captain. “And you look like one, too.”

What the captain of the Maria Aurora was referring to at the time, perhaps more irreverently than he should have, was a particular band of Christian sailors known as the Black Friars. They were brothers, actually, in the ecumenical sense; men of the cloth; Franciscans, missionaries who’ve until this very day traversed the watery part of the globe in a magnificent Galleon of Spanish marked by a single black jib that bellowed from its bowsprit in a sea of white sheets. Black! It also happened to be the color of their long dark robes, which seemed to fit them so well, all the way down to the ankles, in fact, and secured about the waist with a simple knotted rope. Three knots to signify the three Holy Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience which they observed religiously, on land as well as sea. Their ship was called the Evangeline. She was armed with fourteen cannon, port and starboard, a wide variety of smaller firearms and swords, and fifty-two capable Christians who knew how to use them. Black were her colors, as evidenced by that one billowing banner mariners respected and pirates feared. And on that lonely black patch of canvass their mission was clearly defined in the form of a bloody red crucifix sown visibly into the sheet as inextricably as it was sown into their own mortal souls. How long they’d sailed under that unmistakable and sometimes inscrutable insignia was unknown; but it is documented that their voyages pre-dated many of the earlier expeditions to the Islands, including those undertaken by Captain Walter Stanley who was said to have been the very first white man, and a fine Christian captain in his own right, to ‘walk among the cannibals’. But that’s another story all together, and one worth mentioning; but for some other time perhaps.

Morgan looked not a little surprised. “Don’t tell me you’re taking up the cloth now, Elijah. Never took you for a religious man."

The merchant managed a weak but genuine smile. “Like I said before: black has just become more appealing to me lately. It wears better, too! White stains too easily. Know who taught me that, Roger?” motioned the merchant

Roger really didn’t have to ask. “Those black bastards?”

“They’re friars, captain. They’re called the ‘Black Friars’.”

“Among other things,” reminded the captain. He was thinking just then that perhaps the old renegade finally found his true calling, which may or may not have explained his most recent conversion, not to mention his righteous attitude. “What else did they teach you, Hatch?”

The dark merchant slumped down in his chair, slowly and silently, the way old men sometimes do, as though the weight of the world was just lowered on top of his shoulders. “Things that wouldn’t interest you, Roger,” he said.

“You’d be surprised what interests me lately.”

“Would I?”

“Say what you want, captain,” reminded Roger, looking across the desk at his senior officer with affectionate blue eyes, “but some things do change.”

The merchant was skeptical. “It’s been a long time since you called me that,” he smiled across the table.

“What – captain?”

“And I appreciate that, Roger. I really do. But I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. You’re in command now; and that’s the way it has to be. Me? I’m just a grocery store clerk.”

Morgan didn’t necessarily agree. “You’re a man on a mission, sir,” he quietly reminded his superior officer.

The mission the captain spoke of had been in the planning stages for over six months. It was actually quite plain and simple, as the most dangerous missions are; and so was the objective: To find Captain Maximilian Orlando and bring him home safety. That was the order. It was the means of carrying out that order that was perhaps not so plain and simple. Morgan knew there would problems; but nothing that couldn’t be solved, or at least negotiated. That’s why he included the merchant to begin with. No one knew the islands, or the people who lived there, better than Mister Elijah Hatch. Convincing the Admiralty of that was just one of his latest challenges. He knew it wouldn’t be easy. And it wasn’t. There were still those in power who would’ve had the renegade merchant, who they’d always considered a ‘loose cannon’ anyway, flogged and hanged for insubordination, which, by the way, was not only justified during time of war, but encouraged. But they finally acquiesced. At one time Morgan had thought of giving up on the idea of finding Orlando altogether, thinking his former commander to be dead by now anyway; but he needed an excuse to further his political and economic ambitions. He needed a mission. He also needed Elijah Hatch, who knew more about the Islands than anyone.

“I feel old, Roger… as old and scared as the hills of Jerusalem,” stated the gray-haired merchant marine, grimly, “like an anchor that’s been lowered too many times… covered in barnacles, and rusted.” It was Elijah’s way of letting the captain of the Maria Aurora know his true feelings and, in his own metaphorical way, what he was really on his mind.

Sensing a sudden reluctance on the part of the ‘grocery store clerk’ to follow through with the mission, Morgan beseeched his former shipmate, “Just one more time, Hatch. That’s all. I promise.”

“So your mind’s made up then?

“Has been for quite some time now. It’s your mind I’m worried about, Hatch.”

“How’s that, captain?”

Morgan looked down at the tall black hat resting on the table, the top of which was level with his own shoulders. “Mabutoo,” he said, rolling up his eyes without moving his massive head.

“The king?” questioned the merchant with a single raised eyebrow.

Knowing full well what was going on inside Hatch’s fertile but sometimes impenetrable brain, Roger Morgan only confirmed what the merchant had already suspected for some time now: The king of Istari-Toa had to be eliminated.

“Mabutoo has to die,” the captain plainly stated for the first time since the mission was proposed. “There’s just no other way. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Mister Hatch… along with some other personal matters no one else has to know about.

“Navy know about this, Roger?”

“Well maybe they do and maybe they don’t,” said the captain. “You know the rules, Hatch – No assassinations. It’s in the code.

“Well at least you’ve read it.”

Morgan grinned. “Yes,” he acknowledged, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t engage the enemy. And there isn’t anything in the code about getting lucky. All it takes is one shot, you know.”

“So, that’s what this is really all about – personal matters. It’s between you and Mabutoo. Ain’t it?”

“You said it, Mister Hatch. Not me.”

“Well, let me say something else, Mister Morgan. I’m against it! You just can’t… you don’t kill a king.”

“You’re wrong,” the captain calmly contended. “That’s exactly what you do with a tyrant, especially one like Mabutoo. What else can you do – take him prisoner? Com’on, man! That’s what this is all about.

“I thought it was all about Max,” said the merchant, referring back to the original orders of locating the missing commander of New Fort Stanley, Maximilian Orlando.

As previously stated, finding Captain Maximilian Orlando was the true objective of the mission. He’d been kidnapped, or so it seemed, by a small army of King Mabutoo’s warriors. To what end was still unclear, although many suspected it was for a ransom yet undisclosed. There were others, however, who’d assumed it had something to do with the illegal slave trade that still flourished in that remote part of the world. Elijah Hatch was among them. And when first approached by the captain of the Maria Aurora to search for the missing commandant, the ex-naval officer jumped at the chance; not only for sentimental reasons, which were obvious enough to Captain Morgan, but also for more personal, and selfish, ones; he just wanted to see the islands again.

“Oh, I’ll find Max alright,” insisted the captain, “with your help, of course. I already have some ideas about what might’ve happened to him. But we have bigger fish to fry right now.”

“Mabutoo’s a mighty big fish,” suggested the merchant, cautiously eyeing the man on the other side of the table.

“We’ll just have to use big bait then. Won’t we Mister Hatch?”

“We, captain? I don’t remember sayin ‘Aye’.

“Where’s your spine, Elijah? I know you want it as much as me. Besides, it’ll be just like old times.”

“Assassination’s still against the Law, captain… even on the islands.”

“Only if they can prove it, Mister Hatch,” reminded the captain, “And only if we get caught.”

“And what does the Admiral have to say about all this?”

“He doesn’t know. This is strictly confidential,” warned the commander of the Maria Aurora in a tone the merchant wasn’t used to hearing from his onetime first mate “This is between you and me, Hatch. No one else.”

“And Mabutoo?”

Morgan smiled and repeated, “It’s the only way,”

Elijah Hatch looked more bewildered than he did surprised. “I see, Roger,” he resigned.

The captain said, “I don’t think you do. Not only is Mabutoo holding Max prisoner, as I for one believe; but he’s also interfering with business.”

“And what business might that be, captain?”

“You know damn well what I’m talking about, Hatch.”

“I’m afraid I do.”

“Mabutoo must die.”

“Sounds serious,” said the merchant, grimly.

The captain nodded.

The truth of the matter was that King Mabutoo had been selling off his own people, as slaves, not only to the pirate ships who frequented that part of the world in search of the illicit contraband, but anyone else who was willing to pay the premium, which, after the war and due to the new sanctions imposed on any foreign nationals engaging in the criminal importation of slaves that had since been abolished from the continent, was at an all time high.

But it seems that the king had become too greedy, as happens to all monarchs who rise to power too quickly and too ambitiously; and his asking price had lately become unreasonable. And besides that, he was in need of replenishing his dwindling armies, for whatever diabolical purposes he might have in mind. There was even talk of insurrection, and putting an end to his lucrative slave trade, much to the chagrin of Mabutoos’s equally greedy counselors who’d profited greatly over the years at the expense of their own relatives who were currently enslaved on the sugar and tobacco plantations scattered about the Caribbean. And as for those who dared to oppose they young monarch, their heads were promptly placed on sticks long before they could voice any real opposition to his majesty’s agenda (or any of his other regal decisions for that matter) and were at a loss to do anything about it, since Mabutoo, for all intents and purposes, was a god (as were all descendents of the royal blood-line) and just as infallible when it came to these and other sovereign matters; for as even the lowliest cannibal knows, you just don’t argue with a god. It was the young ones, naturally, who supported the king’s position, and were hungry for war. Still, there were those on the island who saw it as a way of weeding out the inferior, especially some of the older warriors who had grown accustomed to selling off their people, despite their dwindling numbers. To them it was simply business as usual; and on the Island of Istari-Toa, at least, business was never better. Mabutoo would change all that, however; and nobody knew that better than Roger Morgan who was still very much engaged in the unlawful act. He often wondered why Elijah Hatch, a man of good old American enterprise and ingenuity, didn’t see it his way, which is exactly why he was making such a bold proposition that day, despite the obvious risks it entailed. “Mabutoo has to die,” he firmly stated, looking more in command than ever. “It’s as simple as that.”

“Simple?” questioned the merchant.

The captain shrugged. “Mabutoo has many enemies…We all do.”

“What if someone finds out?” Hatch demanded to know. “You just don’t kill a king. I know these people, Roger. I’ve lived with them. I’ve walked among cannibals. They may be savages, man! and they’ll skin you alive if you give them half a chance and less of a reason, but they ain’t idiots. They have their sovereignty, and their king…not to mention an army of blood-thirsty warriors. Mabutoo knows how to control them, the way all dictators do – with fear. It works, everytime. And there ain’t one savage, not that I can think of anyway, who would betray him. It’s just doesn’t happen that way. It’s taboo! Bad Medicine. Don’t forget they’re still heathens. Others will hear of it as well,” reminded the merchant. “These islanders have a way of coming together when threatened by outside forces. And they don’t surrender so easily. Remember what happened at Fort Stanley. And they’ll burn down the new fort as well, along with all the soldiers stationed there. Max could be among the casualties. Think of it! Isn’t that what this mission is all about – saving Max? And what would the Military have to say about that! These things have a way of coming home to roost, you know. And the last thing we want is to fight another civil war on some god forsaken island.”

“I thought we were in agreement, Elijah,” said the captain.

“I agreed that Mabutoo should be overthrown. Yes!”

“Me too!” exclaimed Morgan. “And that’s just what I intend to do.”

“But all this talk about killing…” said the merchant while placing the stove-pipe hat back on his heated head, as if to also say: I’ve heard enough, I’m done. But he wasn’t through yet. “You’re turning this into a political matter, as well as a personal one,” Elijah Hatch further admonished the would-be assassin. “The way I see it, captain, this is all beginning to sound like a conspiracy of one. And you know how the Navy feels about conspirators.”

Although the Navy was, as previously mentioned, willing to ‘look the other way’ when it came to the smuggling of contraband, human or otherwise, they could in no way condone, support, or comply with such illegal activity. It was sticky against the naval protocol and punishable by death, usually hanging. Both men at the captain’s table were well aware of that; only one would chose to ignore it. The captain had other accomplices, of course; but they were dispensable, men without names or faces, ghost in uniforms, but as real and dangerous. They simply obeyed orders without question. As far as Roger Morgan was concerned this was still a conspiracy of one. He was hoping to make it two.

“And don’t forget, there’s still a fort on the Island,” Hatch reminded his ambitious host. “It’s not like the one in Bonestown. They have a new commander now that Max is gone. What’s his name…? Oh yes! Flemming.

“Lieutenant Randall Flemming,” Morgan nodded, as though he’d been anticipated the merchant’s latest move. “He’ll be no trouble. In fact, he may even help us. He knows how to keep quiet. But it’s not him I’m not worried about, Elijah. It’s you.”

The merchant replied. “You should be.”

“These things have to done in a certain way, you know, discreetly, and delicately; an accident, perhaps? I’m sure Mabutoo’s made more than a few enemies over the years. Haven’t we all? And everyone has their price, even a savage cannibal who we all know would sell his own daughter for a bucket of blood. Hell! I’ll get a god-damned war going before this is all over and make it look like he started it! I’ll kill the son of a bitch myself. There’ll be no questions. Aye...we just got lucky, that’s all. Mabutoo’s as good as dead. And then all we have to do is find Max. You can take the credit if you want, I’ll take the slaves… and the money. There’s still a market for good cheap labor, and not only the Antilles. There’s talk of gold, too! Think of it, man! You get the glory and I get everything else. It’s the perfect plan. The only one standing in our way is Mabutoo.

“And don’t forget the Pacific Ocean,” said Hatch, even though it was un-necessary, “… or the Horn.”

“That settles it then,” said the captain, looking up from his screwed down desk. “Forget what I said about Mabutoo… and the slaves. Nothing gets back to the mainland. This is strictly business, Hatch. You’re a businessman. Look, you don’t have to be involved; just help me out with the minor details. Like I said, there are those who don’t even want you here.”

The merchant lowered his head so that the line of his hat angled forty-five degrees off vertical. “It still ain’t right,” he replied, “And I’m already involved.”

The captain of the Maria Aurora looked back down. He fixed his eyes on the old map spread out on the table, wising to avoid an argument he knew he couldn’t win. He knew the merchant was right, about Mabutoo at least; but he also knew that it was too late to change course; the ship had already left the harbor on that issue; and now his friend, the merchant, had suddenly become more of an anchor than a wind to him. But to admit anything else beyond that point, even the truth, would be treasonous, considered the captain, and maybe even grounds for a court martial. He was still naval officer of the Fleet, honor bound by rank and duty; and he had his orders: Find Captain Maximilian Orlando. Everything else was purely ancillary. There would be no paper trail. No questions. It was an undocumented order; and, as far as the Navy was concerned, one that never existed. Elijah Hatch realized that by now, and it only made it that much more difficult for him to refuse. Who’s to say what’s wrong and what’s right, Elijah,” Morgan contended from a more philosophical point of view, “It’s all for the best, anyway.”

“How so?” tilted the hat.

Morgan was pleased to explain. “Look at it this way, Hatch: If you lived on some god forsaken island in the South Pacific, or anywhere else for that matter, who would you rather have for a king – Me? Or Mabutoo?”

“What’s your point, Roger?”

“Well, the way I see it,” the captain further elucidated, “It’s all just a matter time. Slavery won’t last forever, especially now that it’s against the law. History’s against it! Even the military knows that. That’s what the war was all about…well, that and other things. But it’s all part of the past now. Things change. People change. A hundred years from now… Who knows? we’ll all be better off, I suppose; including the Negro! Might even make an officer and gentlemen out of him; a captain perhaps! But that’s for others to decide. I have my own career to think about… and my own agenda.”

Morgan knew he was risking his commission by speaking so freely to a civilian about these and other matters; but he owed it to Hatch, along with a reasonable explanation. “A few more slaves wouldn’t make any difference, he reckoned. “We’ll make one more run, Hatch… just like the old days. And this time we’ll keep the profits for ourselves. No one will know. No one will care. Like I said, nothing gets back to the mainland. The arrangements have already been made. I already have people in Jamaica ready to bargain.

“It’s against the law, captain,” repeated the merchant, flatly; as much as he knew it was a waste of time and his breath.

The captain turned his back to the merchant and gazed patiently out the stern window. But unlike the ever vigilant Hatch who’d previously noticed the storm clouds gathering in the horizon, all the Morgan could see was clear blue sky, even that late in the afternoon when the night was well upon them. “Out there…” he said with little or no uncertainty, “We are the law.”

“This is still a democracy, Roger… at least it was the last time I looked. Politicians make the decisions now.”

“Bastards…Whores!” howled Morgan. “They can’t obey their owe laws. Why should they expect us to? And they write the bloody things…”

“Then we are all doomed,” spoke the man who’d once been Roger’s best friend and shipmate, “captain or slave.”

And for the first time that day Morgan had to agree with the merchant on at least one point. “There really is no difference then,” he acknowledged.

“Who ain’t a slave?” observed the wise merchant, “even you, Roger. Think about it. We’re all Babylonians. And we serve someone, whether we know it or not. Sometimes it’s just better not to know.”

“You only make my case,” Morgan was quick to reply. “We are all indentured, man. It’s just that some are freer than others; and we have to remind ourselves of that now and then. And what’s so wrong with that? The Bible condones it. History supports it. Men have been selling their families since, since, they’ve had families to sell. Didn’t our own Founding Fathers, freedom fighters all, own slaves at one time or another, and treated them fairly? Look at Ol’ Tom Jefferson! He fathered a bastard child from that Negro bitch, what’s her name… Sally Hemmings. Not to mention the fact that Hancock and Washington were both moon-shiners as well as a tax-evader. Now that’s Emancipation for you. That’s liberty! And wasn’t the Prophet Mohammed himself a slave trader, and a damn good one at that? How else was he going to defeat the Crusaders? Not with seventy-two virgins, I suppose?”

It was a good argument, and one Elijah Hatch had to agree with in more ways than he cared to admit. The captain was right about one thing: many, if not all, of the slaves, feral or otherwise, were indeed sold into bondage by their own people. And in some cases, lucky for them! Think of it this way: If not for the trials and tribulations of our revolutionary forefathers, however unjustly suffered and heroically endured, and the wheels they put into motion, where would any of us be today? Still running from Hell hounds and slave-masters I should wonder (not unlike a certain Harlie fellow we all have come to know by now). Or perhaps, if not for the selfless sacrifices of our great grand-parents, we wouldn’t even exist at all. And who would’ve thunk it? Salvation does not always come in guises we hope for, or even expect. Would the Jew have survived long enough to realize his promised freedom if not for Pharaoh? Could Frodo have ever reached the Crack of Doom without Gollum to guide him there? Providence provides, and God works in mysterious ways; ways we may not at first approve of, understand, or even appreciate; but he provides never-the-less. And who’s to say how far even a slave can go under that such Divine Providence, and what he might achieve, if left to his own wits and God-fearing devices? Heroes aren’t born; they are made! They rise to the occasion, reluctantly, perhaps, and despite their own shortcomings, weaknesses, and cowardly inclinations; and at times in spite of themselves. Sometimes they fail, but are none the worse off for their effort; and, perhaps, in the long run, it makes them stronger – if it doesn’t kill them first, as the German philosopher once observed. But sometimes they overcome, they endure, they survive, they go on; and even when they don’t, their efforts are seldom in vain; for in risking it all, they gain everything. They do not seek glory; only fools and cowards do that. But rather, glory finds them; and hopefully, when she does, she finds them not wanting.

Elijah Hatch was never one to be found wanting; in fact, he was a hard man to find at all, as Sherman Dixon was just beginning to find out for himself. Everyone has to start somewhere, the good merchant had always imagined; perhaps, even if it begins on an auction block. And who is to say which is worse: looking at the rear end of a mule all day for bag of beans, or serving a tyrannical king on some god-forsaken Island? Of course, Mister Hatch knew which of the two he would have preferred; and it wasn’t the rear end of a mule. But that was not the issue at hand. Slavery was just plain wrong, despite whatever economic benefits it may’ve generated and no matter who may have profited from it, including their own flesh and blood. “It’s not up to us to decide such things, Roger,” the merchant quietly contended. “Who are we to decide? It’s a dirty business, anyway. And killing a king...well, that’s just plain suicide.”

“Only if you get caught,” reminded the captain. Obviously, Roger Morgan had already made up his mind on the matter and, as captain of the Maria Aurora, was about to let the merchant know it in no uncertain terms. He could have had him arrested and thrown in the brig at that point on trumped up charges, for the sake of the mission, of course – for Maximilain Orlando; and that would’ve been enough. But he didn’t do that. Rather, he simple reminded his old commander-in-chief of a time when they were both on agreeable terms and saw things more eye to eye. “It’s not personal, Hatch,” reminded the captain, quoting that famous Sicilian, “… it’s business.”

The shot, however directly aimed and deliberately delivered, went right over the merchant’s stove black hat. It was meant as a warning, not to kill; and Mister Hatch took it as such. But the imaginary bullet had found its mark not in the merchant’s hat, but deep within his own black heart; and it felt like the sting a man-o’-war. Elijah Hatch had said just about all he wanted to say that evening, perhaps more than he should have. The original agreement he and the captain had signed on to was to find the missing Commander of New Fort Stanley – Captain Maximilian Orland who, at one time, just happened to be the commanding officer of both Elijah Hatch and Roger Morgan. It was the one thing they could both still agree on, which made the success of the mission so important, and so personal. It was the business part he presently objected to, the business of slaves.

As it were, Captain ‘Max’, as he was still affectionately called by those who knew him well enough to do so, was a naval officer by training and an army commander by appointment. He was put in charge of the newly constructed fort on the Island of Istari-Toa as Commander-in-Chief of all military operations. It was a joint venture involving both military branches, and a decision sanctioned by Congress and by the president of the United States of America. And it was done for a noble purpose

No one was exactly sure how or when it actually happened, but it seemed that Captain ‘Max’ (in his early days as an ambitious young seamen, he was also referred to as ‘Handsome Max’ in light of a youthful appearance that had stayed with him long into his senior years) had remained missing from his prestigious post for over six months by now. Rumor had it that he might’ve been captured by King Mabutoo, the current monarch who ruled the Island in the Southern Seas known as Istari-Toa with a bloody iron fist, and was being held ransom, although no demands had been presented as of yet for his release. Others, including the temporarily installed commander of the Island Fort, a Lieutenant Randall Fleming, insisted in a written affidavit that the aging Admiral indeed went off on his own volition, for reasons that naturally put into question Maximilian’s mental state at the time of his mysterious disappearance. But still, no one knew for sure what had really happened to Captain Max, where he was, or if he was even still alive. And that was the real business Elijah Hatch had signed on for. Not to kill a king, and certainly not reinstate the slave trade.

For the first time since they’d agreed on the primary directive, to locate Captain Orlando and bring him home alive, if that were at all still possible, Mister Elijah Hatch wavered. He was not only openly questioning the Captain Morgan’s overall plan regarding the current monarch of their Island destination, but the ancillary affects it may have on the politics of the region. The mission was in serious jeopardy at that point, and so was their friendship.

While still gazing out the tiny stern window of the Maria Aurora, the merchant could presently see a new moon waxing darkly over the troubled waters of the bay. It was a bad omen; and sailors, as we all know, are generally prone to such superstitions. He removed his hat and placed it on the table for a second time that evening. Perhaps he did it as a sign of complacency, which was not an uncommon practice at the time among officers and gentlemen, and one Morgan was well aware of. Maybe he was just hot that day. The truth, however, was that Mister Elijah Hatch still considered Morgan’s plan a conspiracy of one; and that’s all there was to it. But he would go along with him anyway. Not for himself. Not for the Navy. And certainly, not for Roger Morgan. He would do it for one reason and one reason only: to save his captain, a son of a sailor. And as he stood up and lowered his head to make his exit, Elijah hatch turned to Roger Morgan and said, “Don’t forget Max.”

Morgan took it not as a suggestion, but a warning. He picked Elijah’s black hat up off the desk and brushed it off on the sleeve. “Don’t forget your hat,” he said while tossing it into the hands of the merchant who placed it gently back on his head.

“You’re right, Hatch. You do look better in black,” noted the captain of the Maria Aurora.


Chapter Nine

Charlie Bow’s Dragon-Fish

(and drinking and eating emporium)

IT WAS LATE IN THE AFTERNOON when the two Harlies suddenly found themselves back in Shadytown, on Avenue ‘D’, right where they were the day before. They were hungry and tired, and still they weren’t sure which way to go.

“I thinks it’s this a’way,” said the turtle, sounding a bit more confident than he did the night before when they got lost and fell asleep in the wagon.

“I hopes you right this time,” replied the raccoon, wondering if he’d made the right decision by going along with Sherman in the first place. He was still thinking about the painted lady he’d seen the night before on Avenue ‘D’ and the boarding houses. He had never met Alma Johnson, and wasn’t sure if he would even be welcomed at her house, wherever it was… and if they ever did get there. And besides that, he had a boat… I mean ship, to catch the following day; and maybe he would’ve been better off just staying in Old Port Fierce. But Sherman Dixon simply wouldn’t hear of it. He was determined to find the little house with the white picket fence at the end of a dirt road somewhere in the north end of Shadytown. “Just a little ways up the road…” he kept reminding his suspicious passenger as they rolled over the cobbled stones on a moonlit Saturday night , “I knows it’s up yonder… somewhere.”

Bringing his wagon to a sudden and abrupt halt in front of one of the many commercial establishments lining the avenue that evening, the farmer motioned for the raccoon to, “Wait here… whilst I goes inside for a look-see,” he further explained, suspiciously but deliberately climbing down from his lofty perch on the buckboard. He walked across the street, cautiously, and perhaps even a little painfully, as Elmo silently observed from the back of the wagon; and there he found an old wooden building with a high-pitched roof with its eves turned sharply up at the corners, in a distinctly oriental fashion. And there was the huge wooden door, just beyond the overhanging pagoda with the lanterns glowing like little yellow suns either side of the trellised walkway; and there was the same inscrutable image he spied earlier that evening from across the street as he sat silently in the wagon, all broken and bruised, while the raccoon sewed his trousers back together. As he cautiously approached the front entrance to the building, it soon became clear to him that he was at the right location. He was exactly where he wanted to be. He could tell by the distinctive lettering over the door.

The letters were painted in the long black stokes that tapered at the ends like the pointed blade of a knife; the same kind formed by the by the soft subtle stokes of a calligrapher’s pen, and with ease and equal artistry. The words read: ‘CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH’. And just below, but in smaller letters done in the same oriental motif, almost as an afterthought by the artist one might wonder: ‘and drinking and eating emporium’. They were same enigmatic letters the turtle had observed once before through blackened blood-shot eyes, only from a greater and more comfortable distance.

He’d found it! Sherman was almost sure of it. It had to be the place; he was depending on it. And it was. For there on the great wooden door, just below the calligraphic letters, was a painting, or rather an image, he recognized immediately. It was the same red, white and blue image he had committed to memory earlier that evening for his own private use. And there it was, swimming, as it were, in a quiet pond of shimmering rosewood that had been sanded down so finely it appeared almost as glass, the soft yellow glow of the lanterns creating concentric ripples around a prehistoric sea-creature that had somehow escaped the extinction that had certainly doomed its antediluvian ancestors, finding its fishy way, by whatever evolutionary means that allow such metamorphic migrations, to the front door of Mister Charlie Bow’s Dragon-fish and drinking and eating emporium.

With the aid of a full faced moon glaring down on the avenue like madness magnified, Sherman could make out the smallest and most intricate details skillfully, and perhaps painstakingly, incorporated into the obscure painting. He recognized it immediately. But still, the farmer wasn’t quite sure as to what the painting represented, or what it might actually stand for, if it stood for anything at all. But upon closer examination and with a clearer and not-so-throbbing head, the captivated turtle could presently see that which he was so desperately hoping to find. And what exactly was it that made the fat-man so certain, so absolutely convinced, that he was in the right place at the time. Well, I’ll tell you what it was. It was staring him right in his fat swollen face, right there on Avenue ‘D’ in the in the middle of Shadytown in all mystical and mythical intricacies. Why, it was a dragon-fish, of course! in all its anatomical preservations. There was none other like it, anywhere on earth. Mister Dixon knew where he was; he was exactly where he wanted to be; where he had to be. It was his destiny. The turtle was back… with a vengeance. And he knew who was inside.

As for the image itself, the dragon-fish, that is, further elucidation may be warranted. Let’s see – how do I describe it in a few short paragraphs and still do it justice? Allow me to begin by saying that it was indeed a work of Oriental art, the product of a highly skilled and professional hand, inspired perhaps by the same antiquitous sea-creature for which it was modeled after. And if not for the actual design of the piece, the ambiguity of which some may’ve found reproachable at first glance, the painting might well have indeed passed for a genuine masterpiece, or at least appreciated to one degree or another by some collector of such oil based abstractions. It was not so much what was lacking within the framework of the painting that made it so distinctive, so unique; but rather, what had been added, either by accident or design, to its general make-up, by God or by man. No one may ever know.

In order to better explain this strange and wonderful rendering, one would first have to imagine someone, for whatever biological reasons, taking the severed body parts of a fish, a bird, a crab, and a lobster, mixing them up randomly and then somehow splicing the severed pieces back together again in such a Frankenstein fashion as to fabricate a totally new species. Naturally, or un-naturally, as the case may be, the finished product would possess certain characteristics of each of the four individual species while maintaining a uniqueness all its own and, as in the case of the dragon-fish at least, captured on a canvass of fossilized wood for all the world to see.

But it was a skillful operation (as all operations should be if they are to be successful) combining the talents of both the artist and the surgeon, a work of the brush as well as the scalpel. Was it genius or madness that dictated such a wondrous work of biological art? We may never know; the two minds overlapping at times, becoming practically indistinguishable, like the fine thin line that separates certain species. You might even say that genius and madness, like the antiquitous Ying and the Yang of Chinese philosophy, actually complement one another on a certain cerebral level and, in some darkly symbiotic gesture, combine their talents which, ambiguously applied and ambitiously pursued may very well be the inspiration, if not the invention, of such diabolical creations as Krakens and Medusas, or, on a more human scale, a master-race of superhuman hybrids; a red-beaded reprobate, perhaps, with delusions of grandeur and dreams of immortality. For it is often the case whereupon genius and madness sometimes stumble across one another’s irresistible wake, either by accident or design, or perhaps under the satanic influence of powers and principalities, these rivaling giants discover, despite their egotistical nature and natural contempt for one another, that two heads are indeed better than one. They may even call for a truce, if only for a little while, splicing hands and heads together (and maybe even their hearts, if they have any) just long enough to fabricate such fantastic works of wonder, like the fire-breathing amphibian depicted that Saturday night on the storefront of CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium right there on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown. That’s right – a dragon-fish! in all its complex and ambiguous glory. In other words: That’s one freaky fish, man!

In its presently preserved state, as observed by Mister Sherman Dixon that particular night on the illuminated storefront, the dragon-fish possessed, in no preferential order, the fins and scales of a fish, the feathered wings of a bird, the crab-like claws of a crustacean, topped off with the reptilian head of a dragon, the kind often portrayed in children’s story-books devoted to that specific genus long thought to be extinct, and all rolled up into one fantastic creature which may forever and anon be classified as the ‘dragon-fish’. No other words or introduction are necessary; and so, no further attempts will be made here and now to describe what species, if any, is depicted such a transmogrified illustration. For now all we can do is speculate as to whether or not such an exquisite creature ever existed at all; and, if it still does exists, could it be that, not unlike our own unfinished selves, it is but a work in progress, occupying a certain space and time, however long or short, on the evolutionary scale until such a time we are all called, either through Divine intervention or biological necessity, to a higher plane and purpose? Or perhaps, like all other incredible and inscrutable things, it is merely an illusion, an abstraction, a fleeting fading glimpse of things that were and still to come, scribbled on the wall of a cave, along with wooly mammoths, saber-tooth jack rabbits, and men with wings and space helmets who can fly in the air and breath under water, encapsulated in a futuristic monolith found on an unnamed moon in some far away galaxy; or maybe it could be found right there on the front door of a Chinese restaurant on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown, and for all the world to wonder. You just never know.

The farmer knew instantly that he was at the right place, and for the right reason. He just didn’t know if he was there at the right time yet. Whatever or whoever he was looking for that night would have to remain a secret to Elmo Cotton, for the time being at least. Besides, they didn’t have to know, Sherman was thinking to himself as he approached the dragon-fish that starry moonlit night; and hopefully, they never would. With the light of the Chinese lanterns bathing his shell in a warm orange glow, the turtle put one hand on the iron claw of the dragon-fish which served, rather inconspicuously and somewhat to his surprise, as a door handle. He cracked open the door just enough to hear a few voices from within. They were faint but familiar. But he was too afraid to go any further.

As he sat in the wagon night on Avenue ‘D’ outside the pagan palace, the raccoon didn’t like what he saw. He knew Sherman was up to something; he could tell by the way the turtle walked up to the door (a little too boldly perhaps, for Sherman anyway) and looked inside. He could also tell by the look on his neighbor’s face: a look that said, for all intents and purposes and despite his swollen head – ‘Ahah!’ although not so loudly, and not in so many words. And still the turtle didn’t move.

Sherman then walked slowly and deliberately all around the oddly shaped building that night, looking for another door, perhaps, or a window at least from which he might get a better and closer look inside. He found one! It was a small window that opened up into a large kitchen attached to the rear of the building, so it seemed. He could tell it must be the kitchen by the amount of smoke pouring out of the open orifice which apparently doubled as some kind of chimney. And along with the smoke and the fumes there came an odor, a smell which he found both familiar and peculiar. It reminded him of… of what? Sniff… sniff. That’s it – Fish! No… catfish! Sniff… sniff. Well, not exactly. But it was some kind of fish, he reckoned, sniffing the air like a hunger alley cat in search of a meal which, under the circumstances, was actually quite an accurate description at the time.

Meanwhile, Elmo Cotton sat and waited in the wagon wondering perhaps what was really going on inside the turtle’s slow but fertile brain. He had a bad feeling that he would soon find out.

Wiping his eyes and propping himself up on an empty wire-mesh cage that might have once been used as a lobster trap, he gazed into the steamy kitchen through a curtain or unctuous white smoke. On the far side of the kitchen, which was well equipped with so many copper pots and pans hanging down from every square inch of the ceiling and a battery of wood burning stoves all at full flame, Sherman noticed a large double-doorway that apparently served as both ingress and egress to the that particular part of the building. And in the wooden doors, which appeared to be entirely covered in gold tinted paint, there were two glass portholes, one in each door, circumscribed roundly into the golden leafs thereof. And just at that moment, the doors simultaneously burst open, and in stepped an oriental gentleman of generous proportions dressed in a long black robe carrying a number of empty plates which he quickly deposited into a nearby tub of milky white water. He then quickly turned and exited in the same accelerated fashion, a long black pony tail trailing down his expansive back like a serpent hanging from the bough of an apple tree. And as he made his way back into the noisy dining room, causing the golden leaves to swing back and forth for a moment or two like the hinged doors of a saloon, the observant turtle was able to catch a quick discerning glimpse of exactly who, and what, lay beyond the golden gates. For in that split second in time, which was all that was needed, Sherman Dixon could clearly make out the faces of three sailors lounging around a table at the far end of the dining room; among them was the sleeveless master-at-arms who’d had blackened the turtle’s eyes and boxed his ears earlier that day. He could tell by the tattoos. The others were obviously the prune-faced boatswain and the pony-tailed mast-header, the two other skunks he’d also met that day who accompanied Finch, almost everywhere it seemed, in their customary white and black attire. There was a woman, too; as dark and dangerous as the night itself, seated dangerously close to the foul smelling mariners, looking Delilah with long, red fingernail shears. And it wasn’t their hair she was after. The turtle had seen it all before.

Cautiously and quietly making his way back to the front of the pagoda, he once again approached the dragon-fish by the light of the silvery moon and half dozen little yellow lanterns. With valor and determination uncommon for any man (or turtle for that matter) of such humble and unassuming origins, Mister Sherman Dixon grabbed the dragon by its claw, opened the door and stepped boldly into CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium and into his own destiny. Some might even say that the fat man from Harley walked into history that night; but that might be a stretch, and something for scholars and academics to decide, if they ain’t too busy discussing their own historical achievements, or debating one another in the safety and security of their own self-imposed ivory tower prisons. Once inside the eating and drinking emporium, the turtle lowered his head and looked away. He was hoping to remain anonymous, for the time being anyway. He had his reasons. He quickly and quietly sat down on a stool at the front end of the counter and picked up a single sheet of paper with numerous depictions of many strange animals, some more familiar than others, imprinted on the papyrus, along with the same calligraphic lettering observed on the sign outside. Among them were a chicken, a goat, and a dog, along with some odd looking creatures that looked not unlike the queerish image of the dragon-fish he’d gleaned from the door earlier, including that of a rat and a horse; although he had no idea that it actually was a dragon-fish, having never seen, nor heard, of one before. He pretended to read what appeared to be some kind of Mongolian menu astrologically set in the signs of some zoological zodiac.

Meanwhile, the three sailors continued eating and drinking, in the crude manner sailor often do, at a table near the far end of the long wooden counter top, which, apparently also served as the bar. They were not alone. It was just as the turtle had expected. There were other men inside the building that night, most of them standing at the bar, footing the long iron rail which ran the entire length of the bar about six inches off the ceramic tiled floor. They were sucking on pipes and smoking big fat cigars, talking between cumulous clouds of exhaled smoke and mouthfuls of foreign food. Most were drinking from tall pitchers of beer indiscriminately placed at each one of the tables, along with steamy red heaps of brightly boiled crab-legs, and mountains of fluffy white rice served in large bamboo bowls, and all in a constant state of replenishment. They were eating and drinking, of course, which, as the sign outside clearly indicated, was the reason they were there in the first place. After all, this was CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium. Wasn’t it? They were in Shadytown, on Avenue ‘D’, no less. And hey! where else would you expect three thirsty skunks and a hungry barracuda to be to be on a Saturday night – Church?

Not much to the farmer’s surprise, the woman with the devilish red fingernails sat down at the table right there with the three sailors of the Maria Aurora. It was the same whore his friend the raccoon would have propositioned earlier that night, he realized by now, if he ever did find the nickel that nickel he was so desperately lacking. She was a prostitute, of course, plucked from the streets of Babylon, transported through time and space, or so it would seem, to the infamous city by the bay where she was free to roam at will and leisure as she would in Old Gomorrah – a black Aphrodite in the land of Lincoln a million miles from home. Or maybe she was one of those other ladies of the night mentioned in the Bible who had been redeemed through some Divine intersession, like the famous Magdalene whose legalistic accusers were forced to walk away with in silence and shame as the stones fell from their hypocritical fingers, reminding us of our own iniquities. Not all who fall from grace fall out of favor. One of the most amazing stories of Joshua is not the famous battle in which the sun stood still in the heavens until the battle was won, but that of Rachav, the prostitute who risked her own life by hiding the Jewish spies from the king's soldiers, and who, as the Talmud also relates, eventually married the great Jewish leader. And wasn’t it the prophet Hosea who wed a prostitute, under orders of the Most High, named Gomer? Gomer! Who says God has no sense of humor? And they all seemed to be having a good ol’ time of it, the sailors in particular, appearing even more inebriated than they were just a few short hours ago; which is exactly what the farmer, and the prostitute, were hoping for that night.

Dressed in their distinctive black and white navy uniforms, the sailors appeared just as they did before, like three drunk skunks who were obviously attempting to win the favors of the fair feline they might’ve mistaken, as un-natural as that may sound or appear, for one of their own. They were all quite intoxicated by then, except perhaps for the Babylonian sister who would remain just sober enough to drain the last penny from the pockets of the three unsuspecting skunks, along with anything else she might find in the bell-bottomed trousers. And before the night was over she certainly would drain them, as all Delilah’s do, not only their money but their manhood was well, and fit for the Philistines. This cat knew exactly what she was doing. You see, hers was a sober profession, a dry business, not unlike that of the dry and thirsty fishermen she sometimes catered to, and just as dangerous as the deep dark waters they both sounded in. It required quick, clear and clean thinking. It relied on stealth rather than force, for the most part, and just enough speed for a quick and profitable get-a-way. She’d done this before. She knew all the tricks, and most of the Johns. She would be gone before they knew what happened, long before they staggered out of bed looking for their trousers which she also took, leaving them with nothing but an empty gun and an aching head. And in the end, just like her fisherman clientele, she’d pull in her sails and put out her rigging one more time, swaying down the watery avenue late at night and trolling for one last ‘hit’ before retiring to her Babylonian bed.

The three skunks at the table had seen this fisher-woman before. And they knew what she was up to; but, in their inebriated condition, they either couldn’t remember or simply didn’t care who she was, or consequences of her company. In fact, there was only one thing left on their collective numb-skulled minds at the time: and that was to take the bait and have their way with the famous prostitute of ‘Avenue ‘D’ that particular evening in Shadytown. It was all they could think about. They really had no other choice.

And it didn’t really matter how long it took, either; or how much money they had to spend; which was just fine with Delilah simply because she knew from experience that the longer it took, the more they drank and the higher her price went up. It not only made sense, but it also her job that much easier, and profitable; for as everyone knows: a fool and his money are soon parted; the alcohol merely accelerates the process. It’s the nature of the business, the politics of prostitution, you might say; and it worked – every time! It was a sure thing, a done deal; as good as money in the bank and a fish in the frying pan. This Delilah knew what she was doing; and she never came home empty-handed. She’d been in these waters before, and at this point was merely trolling for another ‘hit’. See how she does it? Look at her, lads! She’s cutting bait and fishing deep. Look at her chum! That’s blood in the water. See it? And would you look at those outriggers. Watch ‘em bend, my boy! Like a Lucifer’s rod. Hold on tight. Don’t let ‘em get away. Easy… Easy… Give ‘em some line. Easy… A little more slack now. Easy… There you go. Easy…There! You see it? Why! Why! It’s a sucker-fish! No. Make that three; all on one line! She could spot them a mile away. Now all she has to do is reel ‘em in. Among them was the biggest fish of all: Peter Finch, the master-at-arms of the Maria Aurora, his sleeveless shirt fully undone by now, exposing in all their satanic imagery, and more detailed than ever, the hideous renderings so darkly tattooed on his hairy, heaving chest.

Sherman couldn’t help but sit and stare, but did so from a comfortable distance and not so long nor so intensely as to draw any un-necessary attention to himself at the time. He looked down at the paper leaf in front of him, which was actually a menu and a horoscope rolled into one, and could see, chiefly by way of the large beads of sweat falling on the paper, that he was indeed sweating profusely. He was afraid. His shell was clammy and soft by then, so soft in fact that he didn’t even think he would need it anymore. He’d changed somehow – exactly how, the fat farmer wasn’t quite sure yet. Maybe it was the slap in the face that finally did it. In retrospect, Mister Dixon now realized that it was worse than the beating he took afterwards on Avenue ‘D’, worse than a whip across the back, he imagined, thinking of his friend the raccoon who surely knew how it felt. And that’s what made it so meaningful. Wounds heal, eventually, even the deep ones. And as the German philosopher turned narcissist so keenly observed: ‘That which doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger’. Maybe he’s right. But Nietzsche never had his ass kicked by a drunken sailor. Perhaps he should have. It may’ve done him a world of good, or at least have knocked a little sense into his superior Aryan brain. There are some things that just have to be experienced before they can be fully appreciated, I suppose, like the taste of humble pie. Pride’s a different story, however; it can be hurt, and often is. Hold a knife six inches from it, and it bleeds. Even a scratch can be fatal at times, depending upon who holds the weapon. And when it is damaged, Pride always takes just a little longer to heal. Sometimes it never does. And when that happens, no philosophy in the world can save Superman. He is doomed, just like all the rest of us.

Sherman didn’t seem to mind so much that he was robbed anymore, either. Money, however scarce it was in Harley, or anywhere else for that matter, could always be replaced. Even pride he could live without, which he never really had in spades to begin with, and was always suspicious of anyway. What the master-at-arms took from the turtle that day was something far more valuable, and more personal. He took the farmer’s soul. And that was something you just didn’t do to a Harley bean farmer, or anyone else for that matter. It just wasn’t that easy; at least not as easy as Peter Finch made it seem the night before on Fat Moon Friday. Remove a man’s soul and you take away the only thing a man can truly call his own, the only thing he really owns; in essence, what makes him a man: his free will; that invisible metaphysical organ that separates him from the lesser animals and mirrors the face of God. It was something that even a fat dumb turtle could understand.

Whether or not this is what’d actually happened to Mister Dixon that night is hard to tell; but, as previously stated, he’d changed somehow. And he wasn’t entirely sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. But he knew it was necessary. He was where he was supposed to be; where he wanted to be. And that was all that mattered, at least for the moment.

While waiting patiently at the bar inside CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium that night, the farmer discretely removed one of his shoes. Then, digging a fat finger into the soft leather soul, he came up with five single coins totaling the princely sum of one five dollar. It was the money he kept just emergencies, half of which he was still determined to give to his friend the raccoon for all his troubles. It was all he had left. He reckoned that this was as good of an emergency as any. It would be money well spent.

Exactly what happened to Mister Dixon next was hard to describe. Something stirred from deep within his Harley heart that night; something new and different, something no one, not even his own wife, had ever seen before. It was something he’d never experienced, at least not in such generous portions anyway. It felt surprisingly good, like the time he shot a fox for stealing one of his best egg-lying hens. It was simple and sweet. It was raw and natural. It was personal. It was right. And it had a name. It was called vengeance. And however alien it was his natural disposition, it was something the fat farmer suddenly found pleasing to him inside CHARIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium that night.

Actually, Avenue ‘D’ was the last place Sherman Dixon expected to find himself, and in such a precarious and unusual situation. But he’d already made up his mind by then and was determined to, as they say in Harley ‘Split the pig right down the middle’. In other words, he was ready to even the score and maybe, just maybe, get some of his money back. He wasn’t exactly sure how he would accomplish this, or when. He wasn’t even sure if it was the right thing to do. After all, he was only a Harlie sharecropper who’d already proved he was no match for three sea-hardened, let alone the master-at-arms. But he wasn’t feeling like a Harlie sharecropper just then. He felt different; like the way felt when Captain Morgan looked him the eye and said to the merchant: ‘pay the man.’ He liked the way it felt, and he liked the way it sounded.

And so, with one hand on the countertop and one foot set firmly on the iron rail below, Mister Dixon did what any other man, or turtle, would’ve done under the circumstances – He waited… for something else to happen, that is. And he didn’t have to wait long; for within mere moments the proprietor of the establishment burst forth from behind the two gold-leaf doors that swung both in to and out of the kitchen, hopefully no at the same time. His name was Charlie Bow, and he proceeded from the kitchen in a cloud of smoke, not unlike a Genie from a bottle to use the proper metaphor, carrying his honorable arms a steamy bowl of freshly boiled crab-legs.

They were crabs, of course; blue-crabs to be more specific; the kind that were famously found crawling up from the beach that time of year to freely roam the streets and avenues of Old Port Fierce at will as they’ve done for… well, for as long as anyone could remember. Like an army of blue-clad mariners storming the beach with bayonet claws and telescope eyes, the invading marauders would ascend upon the city by the thousands. From there they would proceed, either collectively or individually, with heroic effort and at great risk, all the way up to the cobblestone streets of Shadytown to which they were somehow irresistibly drawn, like moths to a flame, compelled some would suggest by the luminosity of the many street lights lining the stony pavement; propelled, perhaps, by those same gravitational forces produced by the lunar satellite. And under such astrological conditions the great migration would thus commence on such auspicious night as these, culminating in a grand parade of crabby crustaceans marching onward and upward, and overcoming every obstacle along the way, man-made or otherwise, just to get there.

Little did the blue-armored crustaceans know, or even realize, of course, that their ‘blue’ parade was nothing but a death march: one that was about to end with a good many of them being ceremoniously cooked, or boiled alive in their own saline juices, especially if Charlie Bow had anything to say about it, and done to a crispy red turn. And even if, in their own cold-blooded and miniscule brains, they suspected as much, it wouldn’t have done them any good; for their fate, you see, was sealed long before they breached the foamy shoreline; destined, as it were, to abandon the safety and comfort of the sea for whatever instinctual reasons, in exchange for one of Mister Charlie Bow’s famous cooking pots, which he kept neatly strung up over the stove behind the swinging doors of his well-equipped kitchen like little copper coffins waiting to be filled. And once inside the mortuary, the unsuspecting creatures would be slowly and properly boiled alive until their cold blue shells burned a bright fiery red and the meat within was done just right, white and moist, and suitable for serving at CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium (crab legs a specialty on Wednesdays and Sundays) along with a generous serving of Charlie’s own special fried rice, of course.

Charlie Bow was a large man, not unlike an Oriental version of Elmo’s dead uncle; only with longer and droopier whiskers, more narrowly defined eyes, and a long black ponytail making a line down the arch of his massive back. He also wore a thickly lensed pair of eyeglasses that appeared to be made of tortoise shell and mason jars, indicating, if nothing else, that Mister Charlie Bow was indeed and in fact nearsighted. He was also wearing a long silken pants-suit by then, so loosely fitted around his tremendous bulk that it made him look like a big yellow walrus dressed in ladies’ pajamas, or underwear, the turtle boldly blushed.

Joseph Cotton and Charlie Bow had actually known one another for many years. They were very good friends at one time who had more in common than most would know or even suspect; cooking being only one of the many interests they shared and the topic of many pleasant debates. To this very day, not a few of Spider Cotton’s skillets still grace the wall of the Mister Bow’s kitchen, including one with a noticeable dent hat was said to have famously cracked the skull of a would be assassin. At one time Joe Cotton was one of Mister’s Bow’s best customers – when he was still alive, that is; and the two would sit for hours in the kitchen exchanging recipes and philosophies, or just passing the time of day while feasting on crab legs and oysters, washed down with gallons of Charlie’s homemade beer which he made from rice. It was no wonder that when he finally died on his front porch in Harley one day, the old fly-catcher weighed in at over four hundred pounds, about the same as your typical Sumo-wrestler, which may have actually contributed to Joe’s unfortunate demise. We may never know. When news of the fly-catcher’s untimely death finally reached Shadytown, by means of a few relatives who’d returned empty-handed a few days later, Charlie cried for a week and a day; the usual grieving period as prescribed by Chinese culture. He would have attended the funeral, of course, had he’d known earlier, and no doubt would gladly have carried the black man to his grave on his own heavy shoulders. Naturally, Joe would have done the same for his oriental friend, and would have cried even more.

“You want something?” squinted the walrus through the huge black frames making up the bulk of his reading glasses as he bowed almost reverently. He rested the steamy metallic container down behind the counter and, reaching into the bowl with a dainty but claw-like hand, retrieved a boiled crab that at first appeared not completely cooked yet, as evidenced by one of its appendages that still exhibited some sign of life left within it despite the boiling bath it had just taken in Charlie Bow’s kitchen and, after carful removing the outer shell of the crustacean, devoured right there on the spot.

It was at that point when Sherman first noticed something else peculiar about his oriental host. For just as the walrus finished off the tasty morsel, another crab suddenly stuck its head out from Mister’s Bow’s yellow pajamas and stared curiously for a moment at the turtle through its long telescopic eyes. Obviously, the lucky crustacean had been spared, for whatever providential reason, the same fiery fate and gastronomical adventure of its former blue twin, but still it did not like what it saw. And so, instinctively fearing the sudden and deadly snap of turtle’s head, the lively little crustacean quickly disappeared back into its silken sanctuary beneath the many folds of the Mister Bow’s magnificent nightgown, never to be seen again.

The turtle whispered under his shell, “Peculiar... Mighty peculiar,” just loud enough to be overhead by the bi-focal walrus.

“Good ruck clab,” explained Mister Bow to no one in particular, referring of course to the pocketed hermit crab he was obviously keeping as a pet inside his pajamas, “No eat yet!” He then picked another freshly boiled crab from out of the bowl and began the ritual all over again.

Sherman was amazed at just how easily and quickly the walrus cracked open a big red claw, and how gingerly he picked out the tender white meat with his long and delicate fingernails that rivaled even those of the painted prostitute. The fact that Charlie was so big only added to the absurdity and made the turtle smile. He then popped the fleshy substance into his large gaping mouth, which, for all intents and purposes, may’ve looked more appropriate with a fishhook dangling from it, and casually chewed it while waiting patiently for the turtle to order.

“Name’s Dixon,” the farmer proudly pronounced, but softly enough so as not to be heard by anyone else at, or near, the counter at the time.

“I Charlie Bow! I own place,” said the yellow, bowing slightly at the waist before pulling yet another crab from the large copper pot. He spoke in a rather peculiar accent that was noticeably short on prepositions, long on vowels, and full of exclamation points, which seemed go along very well with his peculiar Asian appearance. “You want something?”

The turtle was looking around as the walrus finished a seafood supper, bite by bite. Understandably, he was a little nervous. His stomach ached and he still wasn’t seeing straight. He felt dizzy. But he tried to remain as cool, calm and collective as a turtle possible could under such uncertain circumstances.

The walrus could obviously see that his customer was a little uneasy. He also couldn’t help but noticed just how battered and bruised the turtle appeared, and took pity on him in his own unassuming way. “What happen you?” he spoke with a crab-leg dangling from his whiskered mouth.

Feeling slightly embarrassed and in no mood for small talk or even polite conversation, Sherman merely shrugged and said, “It’s a long story.”

The walrus seemed to understand. “You order?” Charlie acquiesced.

“What you got, boss?” Sherman asked, with his back turned to the three mariners who were still sitting at the table in the back of the room. They’d just polished off a large bowl of crab legs and three plates of oysters, or so it seemed, and were just then passing around a bottle of rum, which Peter Finch had stealthfully produced from the leg of his duck-pants. Obviously, Mister Bow’s homemade brew was not to the sailors’ taste, or liking; but they drank it just the same and then hollered for more while taking generous sips from the little brown jug.

“Seafoods!” Mister Charlie Bow sharply replied, his magnified eyes appearing as two narrow slits peering through the glass resting on a bridgeless nose. With a low sloping forehead, he then leaned over the counter and replied: “All kind fish! – Clab-reg! Robster! Oyster! You name it! All very good!”

“‘Er… ‘Scuse me?” said the turtle.

“Seafoods – all kind! Clab-reg! Robster! Oyster!” regurgitated the yellow walrus in the same rapid and exclamatory speech that seemed to come to him so fluently, and naturally.

“They’s fresh?” wondered the farmer out loud, thinking that maybe he should be stalling for more time, and feeling just a little hungry by then.

“Caught by fisherman. Today!”

“What else you got, boss?”

“Lice!” squinted the big man behind the glass, deliciously.

Of course, what Charlie Bow really meant to say was ‘rice’; but the word somehow came out as ‘lice’, just as it always did every time he tried to pronounce it.

“What!” ejaculated the turtle, wringing out his right ear with his pinky finger just to make sure that he was hearing correctly, which, considering his earlier encounter with the master-at-arms was never a sure thing.

The walrus was beginning to look a little annoyed. “Lice!” he reiterated, a little more forcefully.

“Lice?” he wondered out loud.

“Fresh lice!” Charlie responded, scratching his head.

It was too much, even for a man who’d once eaten a five day old dead cat-fish he’d found by the side of the road and a carrot that had been vomited up by a mule. Sherman suddenly felt sick.

“Plain or flied?!” the cook continues in what some might consider an argumentative tone, which somehow, and in a strange and almost paradoxical way, sounded quite polite. “You order now!” And then he bowed again, slowly and gracefully at the waist. It was an ancient custom Charlie had brought along with him from the east. And it was a good one too! like that of a noble Samurai warrior who respectfully bows to his opponent just before chopping off the most honorable head of his victim.

With his turtle-head still swirling in a daze of confusion, Sherman respectfully returned the gesture and, without meaning to mock his oriental host, squinted right back at Mister Charlie Bow while clearing his throat. “You mean fried rice…” he gulped. “Don’t you, boss?”

“That’s what Charlie say – Flied lice! Something long with you, Mista?”

The turtle was both baffled and bewildered. He looked exasperated, and maybe even a little nauseated. He really didn’t know what to say, or think, anymore. Apparently, there was a serious problem here. And then it suddenly dawned on him what might be the cause of all his confusion. Leaning over the counter and looking the walrus directly in the eye, he asked, “Got any robster, Charlie?” He deliberately accentuated the letter ‘r’ in the word ‘robster’, which he took for lobster, as he enunciated his request just to make sure he was hearing his host correctly; or incorrectly, as the case may be.

“That light, Mista! Robster! You want some? Order now!”

“Er... No...Thank you,” the farmer politely responded, understanding by now the source of the verbal dilemma. It was a simple failure to communicate; a common occurrence in all port cities where languages and customs sometimes collide with one another like so many fish caught in the same wide and inescapable net. It was a cultural problem, actually, with no immediate solution; the kind that is sometimes brought about by too much diversity and not enough unity. Sometimes it is merely embarrassing, for both parties involved; other times, it only added to the confusion, making an awkward moment even worse. But if handled correctly, and taken for what it’s worth, cultural differences can often be a good, or at least interesting, thing; as witnessed by many of our early ancestors who, through charity or necessity, managed to bridge the gaps and break the racial barriers we’ve all encountered from time to time, slavery not-with-standing. It was the American way; a noble idea, a right democratic experiment with long Biblical roots, unique, charitable, and, for the most part, inclusive, despite our independent leanings and capitalistic tendencies. We are a nation of immigrants! No doubt about it; all thrown and mixed together in the same simmering pot, just like the blue-crabs at Charlie Bow’s Dragon-fish and drinking at eating emporium, I suppose. But the melting pot doesn’t always melt. Sometimes it just boils, no matter how carefully it is watched. And then there are those you just like to stir the pot, which only makes matters worse.

The problem confronting the walrus and the turtle that night was really no different, and maybe just as difficult to correct. It was not merely a difference in dialects, phonetically speaking of course, that had put them both at a similar disadvantage that evening (perhaps one just a little more than the other) but also one of culture. Simply stated, it was Mister Charlie Bow’s repetitious and somewhat annoying habit of pronouncing, either consciously or unconsciously, all his R’s as L’s, (and visa-versa, of course) that was the real root of the problem. It was what made conversing with the walrus so confusing, and difficult. And it happened all the time! It was often greeted with incredulity and bewilderment. Most of the time, however, the man behind the counter was greeted with only silence, especially from those who weren’t accustomed to such verbal challenges. But as in all social intercourse, familiarity sometimes breeds friendship as well as contempt; and friendship, if it true and charitable, typically leads to understanding, both culturally and linguistically. And in the case of the gregarious walrus chef , it usually led to tasty treat of ‘boiled crab-regs and special fried lice’, no matter how you say it. I suppose, it’s just one of those things you learn to live with… like bad novels and German metaphysics.

“What you got to drink, boss?” the farmer then asked in a friendly enough manner, obviously buying more time while trying to decide how he was going to deal with the real real business at hand, the business he came for in the first place, the business of Vengeance.

“Beer and wine. Home made! You order now?!?” barked the walrus.

“What! No Rum?” questioned the, having already observed a bottle of the spicy island elixir being passed around sailor’s table, and wondering if he might try some for himself.

“Lum?”

Sherman acquiesced. “Yes! Lum.”

“Ohhhh, lummmm!” acknowledged Charlie, with a small and subtle smile appearing of his fat round face. “Sailor man bring lum inside with him. Charlie no serve lum. Make sailor man toooooo crazy. Only beer and wine serve here! Home made! No rike sailor man. Tooooo... how you say? Rove-sick!”

The farmer paused for a moment. “Ohhhhhhhh,” he smiled. “Love… You mean love sick,” he politely corrected his host, darting his eyes quickly at the painted woman seated at the table with the three skunks without moving his head, “…not rove sick.”

“Light! Rove sick! That what Charlie say. See woman over there?” continued the walrus, pointing to the end of the bar with a fingernail so wickedly long and curly that it may well have sprouted from Satan’s own evil claw, “She bad woman! Sailor-man in rove with her.”

Having sown his share of wild oats, mostly in younger days and before he was married of course, the turtle knew exactly what the walrus was alluding to, or at least attempting to in his own presumptuous and inarticulate way. Sherman knew love, and he knew lust; but he also knew the difference between the two, and simply could not agree with the wise man from the East on one fine and delicate point. “That’s not love, boss” he cautiously spoke. “That’s lust…”

“Rust?”

“No,” Sherman insisted. “Not Rust…. Oh, never mind.”

“Whore!” Charlie Bow suddenly exploded in a voice that quickly drew the attention of everyone in the room, including the woman to whom the comment was obviously directed. “She take away all sailor-man’s money,” the proprietor added; which, of course, was probably the truest and most accurate statement he’d made so far.

The painted lady reacted to the sudden outburst with a quick and scornful sneer. It was obvious she’d heard the word before; and so had the three skunks sitting next to her. It didn’t seem to bother any of them, however.

“You mean my money,” corrected the farmer, in a voice heard by no one but the yellow walrus.

“Huh?”

“For’git it,” the exasperated turtle resigned. “It don’t matter anyway.”

Charlie seemed to understand, and said so in yet another graceful bow. “You order now. Okay, Mista?” he then spoke in a sympathetic, and perhaps more civilized, tone.

“What you recommend, Charlie?”

“Special today – Clab-reg!”

“Crab legs?”

“That what Charlie say. Clab-reg! What long with you, mista? You no hear light?”

“Light?” You mean… Oh never mind,” Sherman apologized once more. “How much?”

“One bowl – ten cents. Ahhhhhh!” the walrus exclaimed, reaching down into the copper bowl once more, “Very dericious! Charlie eat too! You see?” Whereupon he cracked open another red claw and began picking out the meat with his long manicured nails.

As it were, the farmer was not quite as hungry as he thought he was, and was actually feeling quite sick. Obviously, he was still stalling for time. Observing a sign hanging over the bar, Sherman thought for a moment and then said, “You cook me one of those?” He was pointing directly to the red, white and blue dragon-fish hanging directly over Mister Bow’s pony-tailed head. It was an identical rendering, an exact duplicate, in fact, of the same weird and wondrous creature painted on the door just outside the restaurant, only smaller, and engraved in solid bronze painted over in so many fantastic colors.

Bow laughed and bowed. “Ahhhhhhhhh,” he said with a small but reverend smile. “No eat dragon-fish! Tooooo…Honorable! Just seafoods: Fish! Robster! Oyster! Clab-reg! Flied lice! I make special just for you. Beer and wine! Home made. You see!”

The farmer then placed two buffalo-head nickels on the counter and said, “Okay then, flied lice it is, boss… or whatever you call it. And give me a bowl of them there crab-legs... I mean clab-regs, while you’re at it,” he presently joked.

“Flied lice! Special! One bowl clab-reg! Coming light up! You want something drink?”

“Er… no thanks,” said the turtle, respectfully declining the offer, even though he was quite thirsty by then and certainly could’ve used a good stiff drink to settle his nerves and soothe his aching head. He knew all along that he would need all his wits about him that night, if things were to come out the way he was hoping and planning they would. “I just come in fo’...” And here the farmer hesitated for a moment, throwing a quick and calculating glance back at the painted lady who, for obvious reasons, seemed to be having second thoughts about three drunken sailors at the time, “Well, you see...”

Even as he tried to explain, the hospitable walrus floated back to the golden gates and disappeared into the kitchen in a cloud of vaporous white smoke like a genie going back to his bottle. And at that same moment the raccoon suddenly appeared. He’d been getting anxious and annoyed waiting in the wagon, and perhaps a little worried; and so, he decided to go inside to see what, if anything, was taking his neighbor so long. However, just before leaving the wagon and realizing, of course, that Avenue ‘D’ was no certainly no place to leave anything of value carelessly lying around, he wisely decided to bring his suitcase with him. He wasn’t in Harley anymore; and, even if he had been, probably would’ve taken similar precautions, especially when it came to the Motherstone and its safekeeping. As an additional precautionary measure, and for reasons he may one day wonder about, he took the precious black stone out of its leather housing and placed it the breast pocket of his overalls where he always preferred it to keep it anyway. And so, with suitcase and the sailin’ shoes in hand, the Harlie walked through the doors of CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown.

Naturally, this did not sit very well with the turtle who, despite all natural instincts to do otherwise, was still in the process of plotting his revenge on the skunk that stole his money. And, for personal reasons, perhaps, he didn’t want Elmo, or anyone else for that matter, involved in what he considered his own private business and personal affairs.

And as soon as Elmo saw his neighbor standing there at the bar, he knew what was going on. He could see the three sailors sitting at the table in the back of the room, along with someone else he immediately recognized. As he approached his friend and neighbor that night, their eyes locked and Elmo knew instantly why the turtle had returned.

Sherman spoke first. “This is between me and him, Mister Cotton.”

The raccoon understood immediately. It didn’t take a demi-god to figure out what was about to happen. There was nothing left to say. And so, along with a re-assuring wink and a simple nod, he replied, “I know, Sherman… I know.”

That was good enough for the turtle. This was his problem. It was his money, well most of it anyway; and it was his fight to win, or lose. He could handle all by himself, or so had convinced himself by then standing at the bar in the heat of the night as the temperature rose and the sweat soaked through his soiled shirt. It was a question of right and wrong. But it went a little deeper than that. This was personal matter, as all matters are, great and small, when you get right down to it, business not-with-standing. And not unlike war itself, the outcome of which is sometimes uncertain right up until the very end and often decided upon not by the numbers of casualties but by sheer guts and determination, it all comes down to that one pen-ultimate and unavoidable conflict – the battle of wills; the ultimate battle to be waged in the biblically prescribed valley of Megiddo on some dry and dusty battlefield, whereupon generals and principalities are already mustering their armies in preparation of the final battle which will, once and for all, now and forever, decide our collective fate in knee-deep blood. And like all warrior-generals, including those who’d fought so valiantly and bravely on both sides of the Mason-Dixon from Vicksburg to Gettysburg, so too would Mister Sherman Dixon make his final stand in the same warrior spirit of men like General Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Calvary who, despite overwhelming numbers, marched into glory that day at the Little Big Horn to the tune of the Gary Owen, where, as History rightfully records, they died with their boots on, but live today in legendary ink.

This was Sherman’s Dixon’s war. It was a battle he would win or lose depending, of course, on how much he really wanted it and, as in the case of the long-haired horse soldier with the braded sleeves, regardless of the outcome. It’s the price we pay, I suppose; the cost of glory. And it don’t come cheap. But in the prophetic words of the warrior-poet, the great General George S. Patton who, in one of his many magnificent reincarnations and through a glass darkly, would suggest some decades later as he triumphantly marched his troops and rolled his tanks through the war-torn streets of a defeated Nazi Germany, echoing words once whispered by a charioted slave into the ears of the conquering Roman: ‘… all glory is fleeting’. But the fat-man wasn’t necessarily looking for glory that night. He was looking for vengeance, a pound of flesh, and perhaps his stolen money. And he would have all three by the end of the night. He just didn’t know how to go about getting it. Not yet anyway.

Exactly what was it that made the fat man from Harley so confident that night at CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium in a place called Shadytown, you may be asking? Why, it was Roger Morgan, of course; the captain of the Maria Aurora. And it wasn’t so much the man himself. No. It was his eyes! It was all in the eyes; those… those ’ patriotic eyes’ Elijah Hatch so proudly spoke of not too long ago, as cold as American steel, and hot as Satan’s hooves. The spoke to Sherman even now, as though thru time and space; and they told him exactly what to do. Not in so many words, perhaps; in fact, not in words at all! It was all in the eyes; blue eyes, as deep and daunting as the sea, and cold as Arctic ice. They were the eyes of the Maria Aurora; eyes that shot forth their liquid flame like Greek fire from a cannon, and pierce like Roman nails. They were eyes that did not blink; eyes, as Sherman just now recalled; eyes that meant ‘zackly’ what they said. And how did the slow fat turtle suddenly come upon such an apocalyptic revelation? Simple! It was the way Roger Morgan looked into the eyes of Peter Finch and brought him to his knees that very same day with no more than a stare. That’s all it took. Just one look! It was almost like watching a dog being kenneled or a mule being yoked, thought the fat-man from Harley. And he did it all with his eyes.

But there was another set of eyes present that night the turtle was also well aware of by now. And they also spoke with authority, but in a softer, subtler, and more feminine way that was perhaps even more penetrating. They were painted red, just like her fingernails, and had been following Elmo Cotton from across the room ever since he’d entered CHARILE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium. Occasionally, but only for a second or two, the black Aphrodite would throw a quick and suggestive glance over at the raccoon, which did not un-noticed.

Although he would be the last one to admit it, Sherman had that same look in his own eyes that night. Elmo could see it. It was right there. It was the Captain’s stare. He noticed it as soon as he walked through the door that night. He’d also noticed the woman seated at the table in the back of the room, along with the three sailors of the Maria Aurora. The raccoon looked over at her, and she looked at him. Their eyes met. They locked. It was a lover’s embrace. They spoke to one another; not in so many words, perhaps, but they spoke just the same, soft and low, just like they in the back of old man Simpson’s barn that day on a bed of freshly cut hay. It all came back to him; and he knew. Regina Johnson! He felt strange, and warm; there was a tingling sensation creeping up his leg which he seemed to have no control of. It was not an unpleasant feeling. He’d felt that way before – with his own wife, in fact! But he was never so, so guilty about it. And then, just as he was about to…

Suddenly the walrus re-appeared from behind the double doors in another cloud of vaporous white smoke. It seemed, to Sherman at least, that this particular genie not only had an uncanny way of un-corking himself from his bottle, but would do so in a most graceful and gentlemanly manner that would make any master pleased and proud. And this time he was holding Sherman’s supper, consisting of a broad bamboo bowl brimming with steamy white rice, alongside a hot metal plate piled high with freshly boiled crab-legs, which he placed before his new master with yet another ceremonious bow. With that done, the gentle genie leaned his bulky mass over the countertop and stared directly at the raccoon through his thick steamy lens. “You want something?” he enquired in the same subservient manner afforded the turtle only moment earlier.

“Huh – ?” replied the raccoon, as though he’d just been rudely awakened from some erotic dream he was did not particularly want to leave just yet.

“You want something,” repeated the walrus.

Elmo responded, “ – Who, me?”

“You!” ejaculated the walrus, with a suspicious smile.

“Well…”

“You just rike sailor-man,” the walrus observed.”You rove-sick!”

Not knowing what to say, or do, at that moment, Elmo looked at man behind the counter (whom he’d first mistaken for a near-sighted fat woman with whiskers chiefly on account of Charlie otherwise soft and subtle complexion; not to mention the long sculptured fingernails and silky yellow pajamas he’d likewise mistaken for a ladies night-gown) then back at his neighbor, as if an explanation might be in order. Then he looked over at the three sailor-skunks sitting at the table, along with the painted lady who he just couldn’t take his eyes off, and then back at the turtle again…“Sick?” responded the raccoon, pawing at the countertop with his bandit eyes feverously fixed on the familiar woman seated in the back of the room. “Who me?”

The walrus smiled. And then he laughed in a distinctively high voice; the kind of laugh you might hear coming from the virgin lips of a school girl who’d just experienced her first kiss and wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it. “Yes, you!” repeated the yellow walrus, quickly regaining his former countenance. “You rove-sick!”

Elmo looked at Sherman and shrugged.

“Never mind, Mister Cotton,” the turtle rejoined, tilting his head ever so discretely in the walrus’s direction if to suggest he was not ‘all there’ or perhaps had little too much of his own rice beer that evening, “I’ll ‘splain later.”

The proprietor asked him again, “You want something eat?”

The raccoon was hungry that night, and not just for food. It showed. “Well… I reckon that depends,” he casually replied, resting one foot firmly on the iron as the turtle nervously looked on.

The walrus bowed. “You wait here! Charlie be light back,” he insisted before summarily disappearing behind the swinging kitchen door in a yet another puff of steamy white smoke. Occasionally, he would stop whatever he was doing in the kitchen to peer suspiciously out of either one of the two portholes, his flat round face taking up the entire circumference of the glassy globe not unlike the moon itself.

The turtle then heard a noise that suddenly made him cringe. Elmo heard it too; in fact, everyone in the entire room had heard it, including the three sailors in the back who, even in their self-sedated condition, appeared equally disturbed by sounds they were all too familiar with. They were natural noises, mostly of cats and dogs, and perhaps some other domesticated pets, emanating from somewhere behind the two golden doors leading directly into Mister Charlie Bow’s kitchen. It was a most disturbing sound; difficult listen to, as evidenced by the sour expressions that suddenly appeared on the fallen faces of all those inside the eating and drinking emporium that night. To put it more accurately, and without getting too graphic or over descriptive, the sound they found so disturbing, so disquieting, that particular evening was not unlike that you might expect to find inside a kennel: like the cacophonous sounds of so many cats and dogs collectively barking and biting, whimpering and whining, scratching and clawing, or just crying out loud as they were mercilessly and systematically slaughtered, without the aid of anesthetics no doubt, for their meat. The sound was gruesome, even in its most charitable imagination, and all too apocalyptic. Apparently, the unfortunate animals were being butchered alive, in preparation for their ultimate destiny: to be baked, boiled, stir-fried, barbecued, or perhaps a concocted combination of all four, inside the sadistic walrus’ hellish kitchen that evening. There was simply no other explanation.

It certainly did little or nothing to whet the Harlies’ appetite, or any of the other patrons of Charlie Bow’s drinking and eating Emporium, that particular evening. If anything, it only made a few of the customers queasy and, perhaps, even little nauseous, as they stared down at their half-empty plates in metaphysical certitude that they had just partaken, thru no fault or knowledge of their own, in some heathenish and barbaric ritual they might otherwise have avoided had they chosen to dine elsewhere. They weren’t alone in their morbid speculations; for just then, as the familiar sound of a healthy barking dog was suddenly cut short, in one quick and decisive blow, followed by a whimpering noise that suddenly gave way to an eerie silence, the reticent raccoon looked down at the turtle’s half-eaten plate and swallowed. Meanwhile, oblivious to all sights, sounds, and suggestions, the hungry turtle chewed his supper in blissful ignorance to all his immediate surroundings. Apparently, the fat-man hadn’t notice, or maybe he did and just didn’t care which, for someone used to such delicacies as road-kill cat-fish and regurgitated carrots, was not that unusual. As a matter of fact, and much to his own surprise, the turtle’s appetite had since returned, in all its undiscriminating voraciousness. To put it bluntly, and in keeping with Mister Dixon’s unprecedented reputation, the celebrated fat-man from Harley would surely have eaten his own overalls at the time, never mind a cat or a dog, if, as the song clearly suggests in all its Celtic connotations, they were properly boiled and stewed in Mrs. Murphy’s famous chowder and served up, of course, with a generous side-order of potato pancakes and a tall glass of beer. But there more on the turtle’s mind that night than food. Still, there are some things that just have to wait.

Many in the establishment were just as flummoxed and surprised and Elmo Cotton that night and equally disturbed, backing away from their tables and chairs, as well as their plates, just a little bit and looking at one another in suspiciously raised eyebrows. By then Elmo was just curious enough to have stepped a little closer to portentous portholes in order get a better look of what might, or might not, be going on inside the kitchen kennel. He’d heard sounds like these before, coming from inside mother’s own kitchen as a matter of fact, and suspected no less. It was no secret that during hard times, the good folks of Harley, and other such places vulnerable to the debilitating effects of droughts, floods and other natural and man-made disasters, including a war and the down-turn economies that accompany such catastrophies, would sometimes resort to eating their own family pets, including but not limited to: cats, dogs, rabbits, rodents, hamsters, gerbils, and basically anything else they could prey from the hands of a screaming four year old who didn’t quite see it that way and could fit on top of the stove, provided there was no other source of food available, that is, and it was indispensable to do so. It didn’t happen all too often in Old Port Fierce, however, whose natural resources precluded such calamitous events, but it did happen: once when an angry hurricane once blew in from the southeast destroying the local crop and killing off most of the livestock. Disease was soon to follow, leaving many impoverished citizens, including some fishermen who were used to such tempests, bedridden or worse. Shadytown, bearing the full impact of the northern eye-wall of the gale, was hit the hardest. Food became scarce; many died; some were never seen again. After the calamity had subsided, things slowly returned back to normal in and around Old Port Fierce. The only noticeable difference, however, was the complete and total absence of cats, dogs, or any other animals normally seen roaming the cobblestone streets in the immediate vicinity. Curiously, it was not too long after the hurricane hit when Mister Charlie Bow hung his Dragon-fish outside the newly-decorated emporium, officially opening the doors of his famous drinking and eating establishment to all the general public. And ever since then, the folks of Shadytown never had another problem with stray cats and dogs. Coincidence? You tell me… just don’t tell the customers. Please!

When the cruel sounds of animated death finally subsided, the walrus reappeared once more behind the counter in the same manner as he’d left, in a vaporous cloud of smoke.

No one said a word.

“Something long?” enquired the walrus, suspiciously. “What matter? Cat got tongue?” He almost appeared to laugh when he said it, which only gave way to further concern on the grizzly matter.

After a long and pregnant pause, the Harlie finally spoke up. “Uh... what’s for supper?” he gulped, with a noticeable amount of hesitation.

The walrus appeared to smile again and exclaimed: “Foods! All kind! Seafoods! Fish! Robster! Clab-reg! Special tonight – flied lice! You rike?

Elmo quickly removed foot from the iron rail. He backed slowly away from the counter. “What the – !” he gasped.

“Don’t worry, Mister Cotton,” said the fat-man without attempting to explain, “It ain’t what you think.” He then reassured the suspicious raccoon by cracking open a red crab-leg and gulping it down with a handful of special fried rice. “I’ll order for ya’ll.”

After ordering supper that night the two Harlies turned their backs to the three sailors while the pony-tailed genie quickly disappeared once more behind the double swinging doors in the usual puff of smoke. It was amazing just how quickly and silently the big man could move when he wanted to, and how gracefully! It reminded Elmo of how his Uncle Joe used to catch horseflies in mid-air with a wave of his big beefy hand. It was almost like magic; and he could do it as easily as… as pulling a rabbit from a hat

While they waited for their dinner that night, the painted lady would occasionally smile back at the raccoon with the inviting eyes of an adulteress whose heart no make-up could mask. The sailors were all too busy drinking at the time, or maybe they simply hadn’t noticed, or just didn’t care. Meanwhile, the turtle stood firm, holding his ground, still waiting for the right moment to make his next move. It won’t be long now, he thought.

It was getting was late in the evening; and by the time he returned from the kitchen with two additional plates of food, Charlie Bow looked slightly distressed, which the observant turtle took as a bad omen. Apparently, something had been bothering the busy walrus; Sherman only hoped he wasn’t getting suspicious of what was really going, as the Oriental mind sometimes does in these situations, especially in matters of hospitality. Handing over another two dozen of his famous boiled crab-legs served in steaming metal bowls, along with a side-order of his special fried rice, he began nervously toweling off the bar while mumbling incoherently in his own native tongue. From previous experience, the pony-tailed proprietor knew that the sailors would be trouble; he’d seen their like before. It was a simple matter of probability and statistics. Charlie possessed an uncanny and reliable knack of predicting such disturbances; and, from a purely mathematical perspective, he knew the odds were already stacked against him. The fact that there were three of them and only one of him (not to mention only one woman) only made matters worse. It was only a matter of time, he mathematically concluded. Fortunately, Mister Bow had a way of increasing the odds more in his favor; and it actually had more do with physics than mathematics; if, in fact, the two can ever be totally divorced and separated. It was an old Chinese invention called – gun powder.

Mister Bow had seen this play before and was taking his own precautionary measures just in case, even if no one else had noticed them at the time. Although the two Harlies standing at the counter didn’t appear particularly dangerous, the owner and manager of CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON FISH and drinking and eating emporium thought they did look suspiciously out of place, which seemed to worry him just a little bit; but not nearly as the tree drunken sailors who he’d seen before. Fat brown turtles and bearded raccoons in overalls were indeed a rare sight to behold on Avenue ‘D’ or anywhere else in Old Port Fierce or Shadytown, and not to be taken lightly. As it were, Mister Bow was just than beginning to think that they might be, in his own superstitious mind at least, ‘bad ruck!’ The fact that one of them had already been badly beaten up, only gave him further pause for concern. After all, this was Shadytown, and they were on Avenue ‘D’; and it was Saturday night. Even a near-sighted walrus with glasses knows what that means. He also couldn’t help but notice how his other customers were suddenly looking at one another in a most troublesome manner, as if they knew something was about to happen. “Charlie no rike…” the walrus quietly spoke to the hermit crab that kept popping its curious head out from under the satin folds of the yellow pajamas, “Something not light here… Bad ruck!’ he was overheard more than once by several at the bar that night.

After devouring an entire bowl of boiled ‘clab-regs’, along with several servings of special ‘flied lice’, the fat turtle immediately begged for seconds; for all three of them! as a matter of fact. He hadn’t eaten in quite some time and found that his appetite had suddenly and miraculously returned – bigger, and as indiscriminate as ever. But it would take more than crab-legs and fried rice to satisfy such an enormous appetite, that, or any other, night; and never knowing exactly when or where his next meal would be coming from, especially when he was out on the road, the fat man from Harley was determined to ‘get his fill’ and suggested Elmo do the same. He only hoped that he would have enough money in his shoe to pay for it all.

As you might already suspect, food was the last thing on Elmo’s Cotton’s mind that night; and as previously disclosed, the raccoon’s hunger ran deeper than that, much deeper. He was still thinking about a woman behind the liquid mask, and a nickel that just wasn’t there. Never-the-less, he could use a bite to eat.

“Go ahead, Mister Cotton,” insisted the turtle, cracking open a bright red crab-claw and popping it into his mouth, “It won’t bite.”

Elmo held the long red pincher up to nose and sniffed. “Well, at least it don’t smell like no damn dog,” he replied.

“Tastes… kinda like cat-fish,” said the turtle.

“Everything tastes like cat-fish to you, Sherman.”

“No ‘zactly, Mister Cotton. Harley beans don’t taste likes no cat-fish….and neither do throwed-up carrots,” gulped the turtle. “More lice?”

Elmo didn’t have to count the number of crab-legs and bowls of rice Sherman consumed that night to know it was more than enough, even for him. It seems that, along with his courage, Mister Dixon had also found his appetite, and it was as voracious as ever. “Best take it easy, Sherman. You know what they say ‘bout them ol’ crabs – don’t you?” admonished the Harlie.

“What’s that?’ burped the turtle.

“They comes back… and bite you!”

The fat-man didn’t heed the words, or the warning; he was too busy devouring his meal. He’d eaten crabs before, on many occasions; and he’d never once gotten sick from them. Not even once. But that was in Harley, and they were actually fresh-water crawdads, which, as everyone knows, are actually quite different from sea crabs, especially the blue ones that crawl up out of the ocean from time to time and have to be properly prepared. But none of that seemed to matter at the moment, and the hungry turtle kept right on shoveling the tasty crustaceans into his mouth and washing them all down with large quantities of rice beer served to him a tall glass that was constantly being re-filled by his mindful host.

Elmo Cotton was treated no differently, of course; and he sipped his beer slowly in between mouthfuls of crabmeat and plain white rice – the idea of ‘flied lice’, special or otherwise, making him a little queasy at the time.

Peter Finch was as drunk as any self-respecting sailor should be on Saturday night in a place called Shadytown, and just sober enough to know it. And it was in that semi-conscience state of inebriation, which he appeared to be all night, he could be most unpredictable and dangerous. Like a shark in shallow water, whose primordial brain can detect a single corpuscle of blood miles away, this fish was ready to fight. He’d actually spotted the turtle the moment the fat-man walked through the door that night and was merely waiting for him to make the first move. Suddenly, their eyes met. And at that moment, Sherman Dixon knew there was no turning back. But things would be different this time; this time, Sherman was ready. And he was thinking not only of vengeance, but also his money. He looked the sailor directly in the eyes, just like Roger Morgan did on the dock that same day. The sailor’s eyelids appeared to be drooping, half-mast as the sailors say, almost as if he were being held in some mild hypnotic spell, the kind that makes a man appear weaker, and perhaps less dangerous, than he actually is. It was beguiling.

“So, you want some more – Eh?” Finch sneered at the turtle, hoisting himself out of his chair like a ship coming in from a storm: his timbers all a’shiver and his sails all a’foul. Glancing down at his two mates, who by then were very much aware of what was going on, he winked at the woman and slowly began making his way across the room towards the bar.

The farmer gulped his breath, still not sure what he would actually do, if anything, now that the time he’d been waiting for had finally arrived. Biting down on his lower lip, a nervous habit he’d acquired while trying to explain to his wife what happened to the last pork chop, the turtle noticed that his stomach was growling.

The raccoon heard it as well; as did a few other attentive patrons who’d suddenly began to take interests.

And then he began to sweat. That’s when Sherman knew he was really scared. And in the heat of the moment, the perspiration soaked through the farmer’s bright red shirt, making it cling to the rolls of fat cascading over his belt. He looked down. He was embarrassed. He wanted to run away. He wanted to hide. But it was too late for all that. Where would he go? Home? What would they say? What would they think? But more important, what would Captain Morgan say if he ever found out? The turtle opened his mouth to speak. “I w-wants my m-money b-back,” he nervously stuttered, loud enough for all in the room to hear, but soft enough to let everyone know, particularly Peter Finch, that he meant business. And as he did so, the farmer’s stomach suddenly heaved and his knees buckled beneath him.

By then the master-at-arms was standing directly in front of the fat-man, and laughing. Sherman couldn’t move a muscle. He was too scared. And he was sick, too.

Some of the others began to laugh as well, as Charlie quickly and quietly disappeared behind the golden doors in the usual puff of smoke.

Peter Finch took one step closer, which put him face to face with the frozen turtle. The room had turned eerily quiet b then. Sherman could hear his heart pounding in his breast. Someone in the room gasped. Curling his upper lip raising a hairy eyebrow, the sailor’s face contorted as he spoke in a clearly mocking gesture: “I w-wants my m-money b-b-back,” he mimicked the turtle’s stutter with laughing eyes and a drunkard’s smile.

There was some snickering, a laugh or two, the sound of chairs being shuffled about, glasses being emptied; and then, all was silent once more. It seemed they were all, especially Peter Finch, waiting for a response.

And they got one. It came, however, not in the way most would’ve expected, or even imagined at the time; but it came just the same. And it came quickly; without warning and without hesitation, like an erupting volcano spewing forth with so much fire, smoke and gas. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. You see, the raccoon was right after all: Crabs do come back and bite! particularly when they’re a certain variety of salt-water blue crab, and especially those that hadn’t been properly prepared and boiled long enough to kill-off a strain of bacteria known to inhabit the blue host of that particular species which was accused, more often than not, of being both cause and culprit of a very serious stomach virus, among other infectious diseases. And that’s exactly what was going deep inside the turtle’s intestines just then, although in an accelerated process that simple could not be explained even in modern medical terms, as the stomach slowly churned and turned in its own gastric juices and gyrations. The crabs were merely doing what they were supposed to do, what they were expected to do, what they were made to do in their own Darwinian defense. They were only doing what came natural. They were coming back to bite. And they were doing with a vengeance.

Staphylococcus is a common type of food poisoning caused by bacteria that thrive in spoiled meats and other foods that have gone bad. Spoiled crabs legs often become the host for these particular bacteria, the symptoms of which can be experienced either immediately or within a few hours after ingestion. The usual symptoms of this type of food poisoning include coughing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, abdominal pain and shortness of breath. Symptoms usually go away within a few hours but can be quite severe while they last.

It began as a slight and somewhat burning sensation, deep down in the turtle’s entrails. Something was happening. In a cesspool of bile, acid, and other digestive juices, the blue crabs had somehow, or so it seemed, been brought back to life! not unlike their protozoan prototypes that may very well have been ‘sparked into existence’ by a similar chemical exchange (Indeed, before life evolved on Earth, most scientists agree that amino acids—molecules that are the basic building blocks of life—were first formed via interactions on Earth or brought to it via collisions with comets and meteorites) ignited perhaps by some pre-organic lightening from the sky, or boiled in the bowels of a fiery volcano so many millions of years ago in their own primordial soup.

Then came the churning; accompanied, naturally, by nausea and a sudden shortness of breath that made the turtle sweat even more. Engulfed in voluminous clouds of noxious gas, the human stew quickly began to boil. The pressure increased until there was nowhere else to go, but up. And so was elevated the thick volatile mixture of rice and beer and clawing crustaceans, all rising steadily upward, along with everything else that happened to be inside the turtle’s stomach at the time. Exacerbated by fear and anxiety, the symptoms worsened as the vile liquid breached the esophagus, causing what is described in medical textbooks as acid reflux. It was a classic case of indigestion.

And that’s when the coughing began. A sure as sign if any that the crabs were back, and biting. They were live! Well, figuratively speaking, anyway. And they were back with a vengeance; the same vengeance the turtle was hoping to find that night, only on a more personal level, and without so much… er, discomfort. The farmer could feel it. He could taste it. They were attacking from within: snapping at his intestines, pinching his bladder, tearing away the lining of his stomach bit by tender bit, and clawing at anything that got in their undeniable way. They were obstructing his wind-pipe by then as well. It was difficult for Sherman to breath. They were in his mouth! There was blood and bile forming and foaming on his tongue.

It was an agonizing experience, and one that left the fat man helplessly choking on his own vomit that night in CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON FISH and drinking and eating emporium. And to make matters worse, everyone in the room was laughing by then, most of all the two other sailors who were still seated at the table along with the painted prostitute. Needless-to-say, Peter Finch was laughing loudest by then as the turtle’s coughing spasms grew worse, and even more intense, until it actually became quite alarming. The walrus, who’d suddenly re-appeared from his magic bottle, appeared not a little a little nervous by then as noticeable beads of sweat began forming on his forehead and trickling down into his wilting mustache like water off a leaf. Charlie Bow had seen this sort of thing before, and he didn’t particularly like what he saw; it certainly wasn’t good for business. And it didn’t look too good from the turtle’s perspective, either. They both knew they would soon have to take matters into his own hands, one way or another.

Supposing that his poor and unfortunate neighbor might be choking to death by then, at least by the sound of his heavy breathing, Elmo Cotton attempted to stop the convulsions by simply putting his arms around Sherman’s waist to settle him down a bit, which, as you may’ve already guessed, was not exactly the easiest thing to do; in fact, the farmer’s fat belly was so big around that the raccoon’s hands never actually met. Meanwhile, one of the other patrons, a thin man with a pale complexion, offered the sick turtle what was left in his half empty beer glass, thinking perhaps that it could only help his dyspepsia, which Sherman was all too happy to oblige. It did help, apparently, but only momentarily; for not long after the temporary reprieve, the convulsions began all over again, more forcefully than ever. And so did the laughter. The turtle looked as though he was on the verge of eruption; and in fact, he was.

Suddenly, the turtle stopped coughing. He then began moving his arms, frantically, as if he wanted to speak but… but just couldn’t. The words simply wouldn’t come out, no matter how hard he tried. What Sherman really wanted to do just then was fight; but he couldn’t do that, either. All he could do was stand there, looking like a big fat damn fool, and suddenly wishing he’d never came back. Still, he wanted to fight back, or at least say something. But he was just too sick. And everything around him was making him even sicker. And he was sicker he got, the more sick he became. There was just no stopping it. He was getting sicker by the second, and he knew it. But what was really making the turtle sick, although he may not have known it at the time, was what was still swimming around somewhere inside his stomach just then: a vile and volatile mixture of the rice, crabs, beer, along with whatever else might be floating about the great bubble of liquid gas, seasoned with fear and stirred with the proper amount of anxiety. All Elmo managed to do by putting his arms around the bloated blubber was compress the gas even that much more, like clamping down the lid on a pressure cooker or applying more heat to a whistling tea kettle. The humiliation Sherman was experiencing at the time only made matters worse. Everyone was staring at him; and Peter Finch was still standing right in front of him, right there in his face, laughing like a village idiot and enjoying every miserable moment of it.

Sherman was more ashamed than ever, and even more nauseous. He was sick and tired. And he was sick and tired of being sick and tired. He was sick of just thinking about it. And they were all laughing at his sickness by now, people he didn’t even know who were acting as though everything happening was being staged for the benefit of their own private and perverted amusement. And what better place for that to occur than inside CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown.

And all the while the raccoon just stood there, just as he did before when the turtle was beaten to a big brown pulp on Avenue ‘D’. He knew what was going on, of course, and what the turtle had told him earlier that evening, which is just one of the reasons he hadn’t done, or said, anything just yet. He would not to interfere. That’s the way the turtle wanted it. This was between Sherman Dixon and Peter Finch, and no one else. Elmo knew that as soon he walked through the door. He could see it Sherman’s blackened eyes. He’d seen that look before; and he knew what it meant. It was the captain’s look. Morgan’s eyes! And it was still there, even as the turtle stood there shaking in the shell. ‘This one’s mine’ the eyes seemed to say. There was no mistake about it.

The Harlie held himself back. He’d promised his neighbor he wouldn’t interfere, and it was one promise he intended to keep. Under different circumstances, Elmo might’ve broken that sacred vow, and would’ve been just as wrong to do so. But things were different now. Sherman had changed, and Elmo knew it; he could see it, even if no one else could at the time. Sure, Sherman was still a turtle, that much as obvious; but he was no longer hiding in his shell; this was a turtle that meant business. This time it was personal, man-to-man, one on one. This was real. This was it. This was what wars were all about, imagined the Harlie; the stuff men die for; something Red-Beard might have appreciated, if he was still alive to witness the Homeric event. This was Sherman’s last stand. It was his fight to win or lose, alone and by himself. This is the way he wanted it; the way it had to be. And he would have it no other way. Elmo knew that by now; and he knew he would only be getting get in the way.

The other two sailors sitting at table suddenly appeared not so as drunk as they did only moments ago. They saw what the raccoon saw and had stopped laughing by then. They’d no intention of interfering either; they knew wouldn’t be necessary; unless, of course, someone tried to step in and do something foolish, in which case they would have no choice. This was strictly between Peter Finch and Sherman Dixon. It really didn’t matter who started it; it never does in these situations – only who finishes it.

There are times when a man has to do what a man has to do, even if he is just a turtle. And that was exactly what the Harlie relayed this friend and neighbor through a long hard stare of his own that night. It was the kind of look Roger Morgan would appreciate; cool, confident and bold. And if the captain of the Maria Aurora were there that night at CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON FISH and drinking and eating emporium on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown, he would certainly have approved.

Although he was indeed quite sick by then, Sherman acknowledged his neighbor’s stare with a tightening of his lip and a flare of the nostrils. He knew by now he would get no help from the raccoon. That’s the way he wanted it. He never even asked. And just as master-at-arms was about to make his final move, Sherman did ‘zackly’ what he had to do; and he did it this time without stuttering a word. Hell! He didn’t even flinch. “I want my money back,” demanded the turtle, as clear and loud as the first shot heard around the world at Lexington. And the shot fond its mark, as it silenced the entire room once and for all. Suddenly, every glass and fork fell at once. Not a sound was heard after that.

The sailor blinked, as the smile fell from his face. He was caught off guard, temporarily at least, and slightly confounded. There was hardness in the turtle’s voice the master-at-arms hadn’t noticed before. At first, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It sounded almost like... a threat? he began to wonder; which Peter Finch actually might have found amusing at one time, but not now; not at that point.“That’s more like it, matey,” he calmly answered in return. What he actually meant by ‘That’s more like it, matey,’ was different to tell. More like it? More like what? And what was with the ‘matey’? Maybe it was just the rum talking. Maybe not.

Like two ships-of-the-line squared off and ready to discharge their cannons, the farmer and the sailor stood before each other toe to toe, bulwark to bulwark, so to speak. By then Sherman could make out every tattooed line on Finch’s infamous arms, and every scar on his square-rigged face. He could even smell the alcohol on the sailor’s heavy breath. It only made matters worse. But even as his stomach heaved and rolled within, the turtle was more determined than ever to do what he had to do. “Give me my money back,” he insisted again, more adamantly than before.

A slight wicked smile returned to the master-at-arm’s distorted face. “Well, then...” he replied, pausing for effect, “come and get it.” And he said it in such a way that made everyone, including Elmo, think that it actually might happen.

There really was no further need for talk; but Sherman decided to give him one more chance anyway. What did he have to lose? He opened his mouth and spoke once more, only slowly, and more deliberately than ever, accentuating each and every syllable: “Give! Me! My! Mon! Nee! Baaaaaaaaghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

As the last word was ejaculated from the turtle’s quivering lips, so were the entire contents of his sour sick and sour stomach which he vomited up all over the master-at-arm’s ugly face, which, depending on one’s point of view, may’ve actually have been quite an improvement. And it all came up in one volcanic eruption of the crabs, rice, bile, blood and the beer, along with anything else that happened to be swimming around in the turtle’s gut at that time.

Wiping the regurgitated remains from his twisted and contorted face that night, along with other partially digested food particles, the master-at-arms cursed the turtle with every vile and degrading word he could think of – and being a sailor that naturally took a great deal of time, and came very little effort. He was ugly, drunk, mad, and mean; like a wet cat crawling out a sewer hole. And he stank, too!

Sherman stepped back, almost apologetically it would seem at first, not only to put some distance between him and the mad mariner, but also to escape the stench of his own vomit, which, not surprisingly, was suddenly making him sick all over again. And just as the last explicative left the sailor’s puke-caked lips, he assaulted his victim like a mad bull springing from its stall. And just as he did before, the master-at-arms went straight for the turtle’s head. It was easiest, if not the most obvious, target.

Sherman saw it coming this time and braced himself for a full frontal assault. And just before the initial impact occurred, the turtle simply swung his massive body to one side, thus gracefully avoiding the eminent collision. He wasn’t even thinking of it at the time; it just came natural to him.

Like a mindless projectile with no target and no purpose, Peter Finch simply passed the turtle by. The farmer had escaped the blow, just barely, but not without coughing up the last remains of his supper in the process. The sailor’s forward momentum carried him forcefully across the floor, propelling him directly in line with a more stable and stationary target, Elmo Cotton, the raccoon on the run. Only he wasn’t running this time.

True to his word, Mister Cotton hadn’t moved. He’d been standing there all along. And at the time he just happened to be holding a scalding metal bowl of Charlie Bow’s famous crab-legs, straight from Hell’s kitchen, and still sizzling.

Unlike the nimble-footed turtle, Elmo Cotton knew exactly what to do. And he didn’t even have to think about it. As the raging bull rushed forward with a full head of steam, the Harlie held the hot metal container high over his head and, with the skill and precision of a Spanish matador, brought it down directly on Finch’s head. It stopped the rushing bull dead in his tracks. And it happened so quickly that some at the bar didn’t even notice. The master-at-arms then dropped to the floor like an anchor, and stayed there. Apparently, he’d been knocked unconscious, for the time being anyway.

Looking down on his fallen foe, Elmo suddenly noticed something bright and shiny lying on the floor not far from the sailor’s immobilized head. It was his Bowie knife, the same one he had carried with him all the way from the cabin. He could only guess that, somehow, in the course of all the commotion, it had slipped out from under his overalls where he’d tied it to his leg. He was going to retrieve it at one but, glancing over at the two remaining skunks who looked like they might take it as a sure sign of further hostility and perhaps aimed at themselves, decided against it. He would come back for it later.

The bald-headed boatswain and the pony-tailed mast-mate were just as surprised as everyone else in the room when it happened. Obviously, they weren’t nearly as drunk as their senior officer and, after talking it over a bit, pronounced the incident unavoidable and concluded that it probably all worked out for the best anyway. It wasn’t the first time Peter Finch was put in his place; and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, although they wished by now that the incident had never taken place. However, having the master-at-arms in such a compromised and incapacitated position did have certain advantages. For one thing, they didn’t have to worry about getting thrown out of CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium that night… well, at least not for the time being. And for another thing, it only increased their chances (the odds suddenly appearing much for in their favor with the master-at-arms fin-out and on the floor) of walking away with the painted prostitute of Avenue ‘D’ that night, which is all they really wanted anyway; although they suspected all along that they would most likely be spending a good portion of the night, and most of tomorrow, inside the brig of the Maria Aurora – with or without Peter Finch. But for now, all they could think about was the painted harlot, and their more immediate plans.

The harlot had different plans however, and was giving the raccoon even better odds that night. She’d been hoping for something like this to happen all along, and was actually prepared for it. She knew many of sailors of the Maria Aurora who were in Shadytown that evening (not necessarily in the Biblical sense) including the captain himself, Roger Morgan, as well as the tattooed master-at-arms. He was a rough customer she suspiciously recalled – something about darbies and bull-whips – and certainly no gentleman. He was probably not much of an officer either, she was thinking at the time. But she needed the money, then as now, and still had a mother and child to support. And so, ever so discretely, but with just enough bait on her lure, she cast out her rods while trolling her way over to where the two brave Harlies were presently standing over the fallen Philistine.

She first approached to the turtle and gently put her hand on his broad shoulder as a sign of gratitude, if nothing else, and maybe even a little affection. But when she reached for the raccoon, the black Aphrodite kissed Elmo squarely on the on the mouth, while at the same time taking his hand and placing it gently but firmly on the back side of her bulging skirt. The Harlie had made no effort to encourage such a bold reaction; neither did he do anything to prevent it. He knew who she was by then, and that, somehow, made it all the more confusing.

Naturally, the sailors were quite angry by then; but not without having gained a new and healthy new respect for a couple Harley dirt famers who, despite their previous engagement, suddenly appeared to them in a whole new light; and not without a certain amount of envy attached. For it was quite clear by now that the woman’s affections were currently being drawn in a direction not to their satisfaction, forcing the mates to realize that the odds in favor of either one of them sharing the adulterous bed that night had just decreased dramatically, even with the master-at-arms out for the count. They were jealous of course, as most sons of sailors often are in these desperate situations. Still, they were willing to let bygones be bygones. It wasn’t the first time someone got the better of Peter Finch; but it was certainly the most entertaining. Sometimes, you get what you pay for.

Mister Nathan Scrubb filled a couple of empty beer glasses with whatever was left of their bottle of rum. The other sailor, the younger man with the distinctive limp and the blonde pony-tail stood up and brought the freshly charged glasses over to where Elmo and Sherman were still standing. The Harlie accepted the drinks, hesitantly at first, but with a final nod of gratitude, and a look of ‘no-hard-feelings’.

“S’been asking for it all along, if you ask me, mate,” spoke the man with the gimpy leg, showing little or no remorse over what’d just happened.

The boatswain agreed. “Don’t borry – Hic! – Woys,” he said, slurring and mixing his words as he spoke in a semi-drunken stupor. “Cap’n’ll never know. It’s ‘tween you and us,” he then belched, pointing in the opposite directions he intended to.

“Finch’ll get over it,” Nelson insisted. “He’s not such a bad ol’ salt, you know. All wind and no sail, you might say. Ay, that’s Pete alright! We’ll take him back to the ship and put him straight to bed, nice and proper... just like a baby.”

“Aye,” grinned the bald man, “likes a bittle litty baby.”

“Little bitty baby,” Nelson corrected.

“That’s wha’I said Nels… likse a bittle – Hic! – itty…bitty… baaaaaaaaaaaa – Hic!

Sherman swallowed his glass in one brave gulp, feeling the shell on his back grow a full inch thicker as the potent potable put out the fire in his belly. He was still a little sick from the crabs, but reckoned the worse was over. Elmo did the same; however, as he went to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, he noticed something disturbing. The man on the floor was just then beginning to move.

Meanwhile the walrus had disappeared, again, into the sanctuary of his heathenish kitchen behind the golden gate. All seemed calm, for the moment anyway. Everyone else in the room simply went back to their crabs and beer, or doing whatever it was they were doing, just as if nothing had happened; at least nothing they weren’t expecting to happen and hadn’t seen before.

But Sherman knew better, and was already bracing himself for round two, which he knew would begin as soon as the master-at-arms regained consciousness. It was only a matter of time, he imagined.

Elmo was thinking very much along the same line. And so together, the turtle and the raccoon waited for something to happen. Again, they wouldn’t have to wait very long.

The senior officer, who was just then was regaining consciousness, didn’t even know what hit him. Protruding from the master-at-arms’ hair, like so many crusty red spikes, were the regurgitated remnants of so many broken crab legs dripping with slime and mucous. His shirt was likewise covered in vomit, the aggregate of which consisted chiefly of a soupy mixture of rice and crabmeat, along with other unidentifiable chunks of yellow flesh.

As if awakened by the stench of his own vomit, Peter Finch blinked and slowly opened his eyes. He stared straight up at the ceiling in a bloodshot daze not knowing who, or where, he was for a moment. He then turned his head to either side, innocently enough perhaps, like a baby waking up from a mid-morning nap and feeling for its mother’s breasts. But it didn’t take long for the puke-stained master-at-arms to remember who, and where, he was. Struggling to a knee, with one hand holding his hideous head and the other his soiled trousers, the drunken sailor looked over at the proprietor, Mister Charlie Bow, who had by then returned from his steamy kitchen with a single barrel shotgun in his manicured hands he’d kept there for just such emergencies.

The weapon held in those small and delicate hands looked more like an old fashioned blunderbuss, or musketoon, the kind Elmo once owned with a short wooden stock and a funnel shaped barrel specifically designed to increase the spread of the shot, the same kind that was said to have killed Red-Beard. It wasn’t the most powerful gun Mister Bow had ever owned or fired, nor was it the safest (on the contrary, the blunderbuss was a weapon known to sometimes be almost as fatal to those pulling the trigger as it was to those it was aimed at), but it certainly was the loudest, and sometimes that’s all that was needed. And the fact that one of these antiquated firearms had somehow wound up in the fatal hands of a near-sighted walrus wearing quarter-inch thick eyeglasses made it only that much more dangerous; at least for anyone standing within a quarter mile radius of the gun-toting Mongolian. Charlie claimed that he never missed. He was right, of course. But then again, how could he miss? How could anyone miss with such a weapon? Why, even at close range, the spread of the buckshot, or whatever it was the walrus stuffed down the throat of the fire-belching mechanism, was wide enough to measure with a twelve inch ruler. In truth, the gun looked more dangerous than it actually was; but that was usually enough to get the point across. And even when it was lethal, it still hurt like hell!

Back on his own two feet by now, the master-at-arms turned his attention once again to the fat farmer who appeared as though he would become ill all over again by then. Finch’s legs were still a little wobbly, like those of a sailor who, after many months at sea, finds himself back on solid earth only to find it moving no differently, and with the same waving undulations, as the deck he’d recently left behind. He then glanced over at the painted lady of the night. There were signs of resentment on his face, along with the turtle’s regurgitated supper. And then, looking directly at the matador himself, Mister Elmo Cotton, who was still holding the bloody but now empty and dented bowl in his own formidable hands, the sailor snarled and smiled. It was an oxymoronic expression, the kind that occasionally crosses the face of the mentally insane or some other demonic, such as that of a gargoyle you might find still functioning as an ornamental roof drain on some old cathedral. It was not a contrite smile, nor was it a healthy one. It was more like the grin of a madman, full of ambiguities, mischief, contradictions, and silent rage. And whatever evil thoughts lie hidden beneath the master-at-arm’s cracked and crazed cranium that night would quickly become manifest, as the madman instinctively went for the Harlie’s Bowie knife that was still lying on the tiled floor well within his reach. He picked it up and held it to his face for a moment, the serrated edge of the blade glistening in the lamplight like twin rows of steely white teeth, and sharp as razors. But the sailor wasn’t interested in raccoon any longer, as perhaps he should’ve been, his glassy-eyed attention presently being drawn back to the fat man who was the initial object of his animosity, the source of his hatred and, of course, the target of his knife. He raised the blade. He knew he couldn’t miss.

But in a moment of weakness and lust, and perhaps a temporary lapse in judgment that would ultimately prove to be his undoing, the master-at-arms of the Maria Aurora did something very stupid; perhaps the stupidest thing he ever did in his whole stupid and perverted life – He hesitated. And thus the sailor’s fate was sealed by throwing one last longing glance back at the painted Aphrodite who, for reasons known only to herself had suddenly and quite deliberately lifted the hem of her pleated skirt, exposing, for but one brief, tantalizing and titillating moment that perfectly formed triangle famously enfolded in those fleshy brown thighs in all its marvels and mysteries. The devil’s triangle! The same furry image gynecologically imprinted on the sailor’s tormented brain only hours ago as he lay in the gutter staring straight up into the abyss. It was an old trick of the trade. And it worked! It not only spared the life of a sick fat turtle, but that of a bold blue-eyed raccoon as well who once put his hand down a young woman’s dress one hot summer evening in the back of Fred Simpson’s barn. It was the least she could do.

As for the shameful act itself, however lewd and lascivious it may have appeared to anyone who might take offense to such pornographic exhibitions, including an elderly minister who’d stopped by that evening for his usual take-out order of fried rice and crabs, and several pious looking patrons who turned their heads in stunned silence. Also present that night was a ten year old boy who, although not entirely ignorant of such shameless spectacles, having seen his wayward sister in far more compromising positions, particularly when she was taking a bath, appeared coolly quite, oblivious, it would seem, to the naked truth of the moment. For others, however, it was nothing more than a brief and bawdy peep show, and nothing they haven’t seen before. Best of all – it was free! And it worked just as it was supposed to work, just the way she wanted it to – Perfectly! For it allowed the fat man just enough time to jump for cover before the sailor even knew what’d happened. And jump he did! Right over the bar, in fact; and then under it, positioning himself well out of the sailor’s deadly and accurate range.

It was not so much what Sherman did that night (which in and of itself was a sight to behold and the stuff legends are made of) that commanded such undivided attention; but rather it was the way in which he did it that was so impressive and indeed worthy of further description: like a Chinese acrobat hurdling himself through a flaming ring of fire, or a Olympic gymnast vaulting the high beam in Old Athens, the turtle jumped. And he did it just like that! quickly and quietly, with grace and agility unknown to more common turtles and nimbleness that earned him a sudden round of applause seldom heard under the roof of the famous pagoda. Why, even the walrus was impressed, approving of the performance with a long and graceful bow the turtle never even saw. And that was how Sherman Dixon, the bean farmer from Harley, escaped the sailor’s wrath, as well as the knife, that one particular night in CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown, and became a legend in his own time.

Although his first target had escaped, the master-at-arms quickly found his next mark. And with one quick flick of the wrist, Peter Finch put that same fated knife into flight, aiming the deadly dart straight for Elmo’s beating black heart. The raccoon would not be so quick and nimble as his friend the turtle that night, but he would be lucky; if, in fact luck and Providence are indeed one in the same as some suggest they are, and had anything to do with it. Striking the Motherstone instead, which was hidden all along in the breast pocket of Elmo’s overalls, the knife bounced off the cloth with a faint but distinctive ‘ding’ and fell harmlessly to the ground.

And at the same moment the sailor’s misguided weapon hit the floor, the yellow walrus popped up from behind the bar with his shotgun. The sailor turned to walk away. But before the second foot fell, Mister Charlie Bow pumped a single barrel of his specially formulated gunshot directly into the master-at-arms’ broad backside. Peter Finch fell flat on the floor face down. After that, he didn’t move for quite some time. He just lay there, bleeding from the rear and whimpering incoherently. It was the only sound suggesting that he was still alive at all.

Charlie Bow didn’t want to kill the sailor; he only wanted to teach him a lesson, in his own Oriental way, of course, which included, among other things – gunpowder. The payload he delivered that evening was a special formula; an old family recipe consisting chiefly of crushed coquina, dried rice, and tiny fragments of crab and lobster shells (along with anything else found lying around the kitchen that suited the occasion) all mixed together and ram-rodded down the tapered barrel of his famous blunderbuss. It was a dangerous dose of ammunition, but not necessarily a lethal one; the spread of the shot being so wide, in fact, that it seldom, if ever, did any lasing or fatal damage. The explosive bark of the barrel was far worse than the actual bite, and was usually more than enough to scare the pants off anyone before the real trouble began, and sometimes their shirts as well. It was a powerful message, a sever warning, and one that never failed to leave a substantial wound, even at long distances. Naturally, the master-at-arms’ backside made an easy target for the near-sighted walrus. And just like he said, Mister Charlie Bow never missed.

A more pitiful and pathetic sight one could not imagine. It was almost beyond description. Many who’d witnessed the debilitating act that night were actually amazed that Peter Finch was still breathing at all, as some of the gunshot had apparently also caught part of the sailor’s face, leaving a gaping wound from chin to cheek which might have affected his respiratory system. His rear end was all black and bloody from the ensuing blast; there was tiny holes smattered all over his sleeveless arms, many oozing with blood. Many present had witnessed the devastating effects of gunshot wounds before, particularly in that part of Shadytown that was known for such disturbances, and wondered if the damage could ever be repaired, short of surgery. The take-out preacher shook his old grey head, and perhaps said a prayer. From previous experience he knew that it would be a long and painful recovery, which only made his job that much more difficult. The skunk only got what he deserved, was all the raccoon could think of. But he also knew they would meet again, on the Maria Aurora, perhaps. But first he had some other business to attend to. He was thinking about a woman; and it wasn’t his wife.

By then Sherman had crawled out from behind the bar, slightly disheveled and out of breath but otherwise fully intact and standing over the tattooed sailor like a conquering conquistador over Montezuma’s Inca remains. There was only one thing left on the turtle to do. And he did it. Before leaving CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium that evening, which by the way everyone else in the room was suddenly in a hurry to do, Sherman Dixon kicked Peter Finch right where he thought it would do the most damage, or at least hurt him the most. He kicked him in the ass. And he did it for the same reason it was done to him: simply because he wanted to. And he wanted it to hurt. It was supposed to hurt, physically as well as psychologically, just like it hurt him.

But the turtle missed his mark, which, for a sure-footed Harlie farmer with a size thirteen double wide shoe was actually quite remarkable, and landed instead in a much more sensitive area: right between the sailor’s legs. Finch’s whole body quivered, like he’d just been hit by a bolt of black lightening. He cried out in an excruciating burst of pain, and after that began crying like a child as he rolled himself into whimpering white ball of blood and vomit. And then, he became eerily silent. Reaching down to the floor, Sherman quickly found his money stuffed deep inside the sailor’s pocket and retrieved it. It was all there. Then he kicked the master-at-arms one more time, “…just to balance the scales,” he said to no one in particular. And this time he was right on target.

After that there was no more sound and very little movement coming from the master-at-arms broken body which made everyone, including and most of all Mister Charlie Bow, just a little bit apprehensive. It was difficult to tell if he was still breathing at that point. As far as anyone else was concerned, Peter Finch was as good as dead – and rightfully so, some at the bar were already thinking. But Finch didn’t deserve to die – not for beating up a slow fat turtle and stealing his money – even the raccoon on the run knew that; although that didn’t stop him from wishing it was true.

As it turned out, Peter Finch was not dead, only traumatized, much to the amazement and relief of his shipmates who figured they already had enough explaining to do once they got back to the ship. And upon closer examination of the master-at-arms bloodied backside, which still appeared to be hemorrhaging profusely, Mister Nelson officially pronounced his senior officer: “Alive, just barely; and well...I think.”

“Oh, he’ll be alright. Hic! See, it’s only a flesh wound,” stated Nathan Scrubb, reaching down to pick the drunken sailor off the floor as he’d done a thousand times before, “...in the fleshy part of his arse.” He then threw the master-at-arms judiciously over his shoulder like he was a tattooed rag-doll in need of another patch. “Com’on Finch,” he ordered with an unusual amount of affection. “We’ll get you back to the ship and take care of that nasty ol’ cut. Let’s go, Nels.”

The mast-mate finished his drink, got up, and limped lethargically across the floor to where the Harlie’s Bowie knife lay lifelessly on the ground. Bending down with obvious difficulty, he picked it up, smiled, and looked Elmo directly in his raccoon eyes from across the emptying room.

Elmo stood there for a moment, wondering what, if anything, might happen next. Much to his relief and surprise, the pony-tailed mate simply limped over and handed the knife back to its rightful owner as if nothing at all had happened, which, as evidenced by a noticeable twinkle in his bloodshot monkey eyes and the way gave up the weapon so freely and easily, was probably what he wanted to happen all along. “I believe this belongs to you… matey,” was all he had to say as he limped silently towards the door.

“Much obliged,” murmured the raccoon, slipping the knife back into the leg of his overalls where it belonged.

The only thanks the loyal boatswain received for his efforts that night was a gurgling “Son of a….” from his unrepentant commander. He then proceeded toward the door as if carrying a two hundred pound sack of leaking manure; which, given the choice, he certainly would have preferred under the circumstances.

The walrus barked, “No more food for you!” at his exiting customers, while placing his single barreled rice-gun back behind the bar. He then reached for the broom and said as he swept, “Bad sailor-man! Rove-sick! Don’t come back…Ten week!” It was a severe admonishment, and one not to be taken lightly, as many at the bar would surely agree, already clamoring for more food and drink by then. Turning to the two Harlies, Mister Bow gracefully bowed at the waist, as was the custom of his culture, for perhaps the last time; and for a yellow walrus, whose waistline was only exceeded by the size of his own magnanimous heart, it wasn’t an easy gesture to perform, at any age. In fact, he bowed so low that the tapered end of his braded ponytail fell to the floor like a long black snake serpenting the tiles.

The entire night cost Mister Dixon the princely sum of two dollars and fifty-cent, which was exact the amount he’d hidden in his shoe for emergencies. As for his purse, it was still there, surprisingly enough. The only thing missing was his moneybag, which the sailor had disposed of earlier and was presently resting on the proud head of one of the street-urchins as if it were the Royal Crown itself. He gladly paid the man in full, and returned the walrus’ bow with one of his own, which, despite all his many aches and pains, he was able to pull off quite well, much to the amusement of the hungry fishermen.

And so the turtle and raccoon headed for the door with a bag of rice, a bowl of crab legs and two bottles of homemade beer, all compliments of Mister Charlie Bow.

Sherman waved thank you and good night to the friendly walrus with the mason-jar eyeglasses as he climbed back on the buckboard of his little painted wagon

Meanwhile, the raccoon stood in the street, starring at the woman with the painted mask who was by then standing all-alone under a street lamp outside CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium. As the two other sailors disappeared into the night with their wounded mate, the raccoon finally made his move. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said to the driver of the wagon, being drawn to the street lamp like a moth to a flame.

Then he was gone. And so was the woman.

Meanwhile, Sherman opened a bottle of beer and waited for the raccoon to return. He would be waiting a little longer than he thought.

By the time the Harlie returned that evening from… well, wherever he was returning from, he appeared satisfied and relaxed. He jumped up on the buckboard alongside of the fat man who was looked at him a bit suspiciously from the corner of his eye. “Where you been?” Sherman demanded to know, feeling a bit betrayed by now, as a stupid grin formed on the face of the raccoon.

“I just had to say goodbye to somebody,” he answered, settling into the back of the empty wagon for a good night’s sleep, “That’s all.”

“Who?”

“Oh, just a woman,” the raccoon replied, cracking open up a bottle of beer he found lying in the bed.

“You don’t mean...?”

Elmo didn’t say a word; he didn’t have to. He just pointed the bottle in the direction he’d just came from. And together the two Harlies sat and watched as the painted woman made her way back down Avenue ‘D’, her broad red backside bobbing up and down and swaying rhythmically from side to side. It was a beautiful thing to watch, they both could only imagine, like a ship weaving its way gently back out to sea on a moonlit night. It almost looked like she trolling for one more bite.

“So, Mister Elmo, ‘zactly what did happen?” Sherman had to ask, his curiosity finally getting the better of him.

“Nothin’,” shrugged Elmo. “I lacks nickel. ‘Member… Mister Moneybags?”

“That’s not all you lacks,” reminded the turtle, recalling to mind the scene at the bar. “Ain’t that right, Abraham?”

The horse nodded from the head of the wagon.

Elmo finished his beer and then fell fast asleep. The turtle was soon to follow.


Chapter Ten

The Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’

“SEE!” beamed the turtle as he pulled upon alongside the white picket fence. “ Told you I know hows to get ‘chere.

Alma Johnson’s house was located at the dead end of a dirt road surrounded by a white picket fence in much need of paint and repair. It was early in the morning and still dark outside when the two Harlies arrived. There was a soft yellow light coming from an opened bedroom window.

The raccoon, who was still half asleep, simply looked the driver with an expression on his face that could only be described as bewildering pity.

It was Sunday morning. Sherman lumbered off the buckboard, telling Elmo to wait in the wagon, “just for a little while,” he re-assured the sleepy-eyed raccoon, ‘so’s I can make sho’ everythin’s all right.”

There was a wooden gate attached to the fence in front of the Johnson home that was half swung open. Sherman walked right in. He approached the front door and knocked several times. After a moment or so, a small young boy slowly opened the door, his head peering curiously through a four inch opening. Sherman smiled, hoping that the boy might recognize him. He didn’t.

The boy had blanket draped over his shoulders, as though he might have been sleeping and was just woken up. He thought he recognized the man on the other side of the door as his own Uncle Sherman, but he wasn’t quite sure. It looked like him, but with all those cuts and bruises, not to mention a swollen head and puffed eyes, it wasn’t all that easy to tell, especially at so early in the morning when people, and things, always look just a little bit different than then do in the full light of day. He wasn’t exactly scared; but still, he was still reluctant to open the door the rest of the way, chiefly on account of what his mother had told him on more than one occasion about letting strangers, even familiar looking ones like the overweight turtle, into the house when she and Regina were not there, which, for a variety of reasons, was a lot more often than the boy would otherwise have liked. ‘Now don’t be lettin’ nobody inside the house when we’s gone – You hear me, Oley!’ she’d warned the boy on many a night like these. And she meant it, too! He wasn’t exactly sure if that rule applied to his Uncle Sherman who he hadn’t seen in over a year, or any other relatives for that matter, and thought about asking him himself; but he was just too afraid. For one thing , he still wasn’t entirely convinced that it was, in fact, his Uncle Sherman; and for another thing, even if it was, and his mother found out that he did let someone in (which, of course, she eventually would) he would still be in a peck of trouble. And viewing yet another man sitting in back of the wagon, who he didn’t recognize at all, only made him that much more apprehensive.

“Howdy, Oley!” Sherman grinned, greeting the boy in typical Harley fashion as he did just about everyone. Only now, in the errie glow of the moonlight that cold dark morning, the grin appeared more like a grimace, and perhaps a little sinister.

But the boy just stood and stared. What else could he do?

The puffy-eyed turtle smiled. “Sumpin’ wrong, Oley? You looks like you just seen a ghost,” he said.

The boy pulled the blanket a little tighter around his shoulders.

“Well then,” the Sherman tried again, tilting his head slightly to one side while pulling it back. “Is you gonna say sumpin’? Or is you just gonna just stand there?”

The boy in the blanket shook his head: No. And then – Yes.

Sherman didn’t know what to make of it. And so he simply asked: “Is you gonna at least lets me in then?”

The boy hesitated for a moment and then, a little nervously perhaps, answered, “I don’t know… my Momma, she ain't home.”

Sherman knew all along that Alma Johnson was not really the boy’s mother, but was never quite sure if Oley had figured that out yet. And he was never exactly sure why his nephew was never told that Regina Johnson, who he thought to be his sister, was actually his real mother; but he’d always assumed it had something to do with the fact that Oley was bastard child, and nobody, except Regina Johnson, knew who the father was; and perhaps she didn’t even know. It was not uncommon for children to know little about their parents in the ‘shady’ section of Old Port Fierce; it was even less uncommon for bastards to be born there in the first place. But it was uncommon in Harley; and that’s where the Johnson’s were originally from. Obviously, the boy in a blanket still didn’t realize (or perhaps he was never told, which, all things considered, was more likely the case) that Alma Johnson was indeed his actual grandmother, and that Regina Johnson, whom he’d grown up to believe was his sister, was really his biological mother. He didn’t know because… well, because he didn’t have to know. It was as simple as that; and he was simply never told. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, despite the strange circumstances surrounding the birth of the bastard child and his father’s unknown identity, which is probably why we have so many bastards to begin with; but it wasn’t a good thing, either. Maybe there are some things little boys shouldn’t know, at least not until they’re old enough to understand and wise enough not to care. Perhaps they just don’t want to know.

“You mean Miss Regina – Don’t you, Oley?”

Oley Johnson shook his head again; only this time he looked even more confused. “She my sister,” he said, “But she be gone, too.”

“Oh! ‘Scuse me, Oley. That’s want I meant to say…” said the turtle, falsely correcting himself for the sake of the child, “ – Yo’ sister.”

Oley Johnson accepted his uncle’s apology with a nod and an unsure smile; the way he would accept any apology coming from an adult, and without knowing what it was really all about. But he did know the fat man standing in the doorway that cold dark morning, despite his unseemly appearance; and he also knew that he always welcome at the Johnson house, at least whenever his momma, or his sister, was at home. He’d also been given strict instructions not to let anyone inside the house, particularly when it was still dark outside, and especially whenever his grandma and momma… I mean his mother and sister, were not at home. ‘And that’s goes double when there’s a full moon outsides!’ the old woman admonished the little boy, throwing a blanket over his bare naked shoulders as she ran out the door and off to church that cold dark morning. Oley’s mother, Regina Johnson, wasn’t with her at the time, but she was expected to meet up with her mother later on inside the little church on Avenue ‘D’ where they both sang in the choir; after she had taken care of business, that is.

Oley was only doing what all good little boys in blankets should do at times like these. He did exactly what he was told: nothing more and nothing less. Besides, he could still clearly see the moon shining brightly outside, hovering over the turtle’s right shoulder like a big grey and white ball. It was a full moon, of course; and he exactly knew what it meant: It was that special time of the month when everyone seemed to act just differently – especially grown-ups People were not the same. They acted a little odd, in a suspicious sort of way, like they were crazy or something, he sometimes imagined; it was almost as if, in the painfully accurate words of a little bastard boy who’d grown up in a world that made little sense and sometimes seemed up-side-down, ‘… almost like they done lost their minds…’

Not that Sherman was a stranger, of course… well, not really. Oley Johnson had met his uncle several times before; but he was even younger back then and remembered Mister Dixon as being much bigger at the time (or maybe it was just that he was much smaller himself and hadn’t figured it out yet) and perhaps not as ugly, or at least not so beaten-up. Either way, the boy was glad to see him. But he still didn’t know who the other man was sitting in his uncle’s wagon that cold grey morning; and he didn’t particularly want to know, judging from what he could already see peering out from under the blanket and from behind his own front door. And even if he did know who this peculiar-looking stranger sitting in the back of the empty wagon, Oley Johnson also knew, by appearances alone, that he definitely would not like him. He looked evil, and dirty, he was thinking to himself just then, hiking the blanket further over his head so that he looked like some helmeted extraterrestrial who’d recently landed on the third planet of the sun, and, having finally laid eyes on one of these inscrutable earth creatures he’s heard so much about, simply could not decide whether to approach the specimen with the usual precautions, or just set his photon gun to maximum and kill it on the spot. He decided to do neither, at least for the time being.

Whoever or whatever he was, he definitely wasn’t from around Shadytown… or Old Port Fierce for that matter, thought the boy beneath the safety and security of his wooly white armor. Not in those clothes, anyway, he warily imagined, eyeing the frayed and faded overalls adorning the raccoon’s otherwise naked body. And even if he was from Harley, Oley Johnson also began to wonder, noting with not a little concern the paleness of the raccoon’s skin, which, even in the moonlight looked a shade lighter than perhaps it should have, was simply the wrong color. In fact, at second glance the man inside the wagon looked more like one of the sailors he would see from time to time roaming the streets of Shadytown, or the white men that would occasionally show up in on his doorstep, usually late at night, looking for his sister, Regina. And he was dirty, too! How could he let anyone like that into the house?

There’d been strange goings-on in Old Port Fierce as of lately, which, one way or another, always seemed to find their way into Shadytown. There was talk of pirate ships, soldiers, and strange men from faraway places with even stranger sounding names who were making their presence know more and more, particularly around Shadytown and especially on Avenue ‘D’. The full moon only seemed to attract more of them than usual; like flies to molasses, one could imagine, or some other natural organic substance that need not be mentioned. But it was all to be expected, Oley Johnson finally concluded. It was something he was all too familiar with. It’s just one of those things, I suppose.

“Where they at, boy?” Sherman impatiently enquired, wondering himself by then and thinking that it might be a good idea to come back later on, when Alma was home.

“They goes to church,” blinked the boy.

“Church?”

“Uh-huh.”

“This early in the mornin’?” questioned the turtle, thinking odd that Alma Johnson would leave her child all alone, even for a short period of time; and so early in the morning, before breakfast, before he even woke up and had a chance to put on some proper clothes. “And you mean to say she left you here, boy? Sherman further enquired, not a little concerned under the circumstaned, “all by yo’self. All alone?”

Again, the boy in the blanket nodded, “Uh-huh.”

Sherman was more than a little suspicious, and it showed. “Hmmmmm...” he mused out loudly, wondering why Alma, or Regina Johnson for that matter, would do such a foolish thing. “Well, I guess they knows what they’s doin’,” he finally spoke, meaning to have a talk with both of them later on, if in fact, he ever saw them again.

“Uh-huh,” agreed the boy in his typical two-syllable response. Oley had been told never to argue with grown-ups, and he was not about to start right now, especially with one so big, fat and ugly… and who had a head like a snapper turtle.

“Where the church at?” Sherman was obliged to ask.

The blanket shrugged.

There were actually many houses of worship, or churches, in and around Old Port Fierce at the time; many of them located right in Shadytown, and on avenue ‘D’, where the rent for such establishments was reasonable, or at least more affordable by those who sought them out. But there were few, if any, that actually offered services that early in the morning, especially during that particular time of the month when the moon was full and bright.

“I don’t know, Uncle Sherman,” said Oley, hugging the blanket tightly around his naked shoulders while continuing to look straight across the yard at raccoon sitting silently in the wagon.

“I’s glad to know you still remembers my name,” Sherman smiled. He’d met the boy several times before, and not under the most hospitable circumstances. “For a minute there…”

“They’s left just a whiles ago, Oley interrupted. “Momma told me to wait here… and not let anyone inside the house ‘til she come back,” he said with a noticeable amount of trepidation in a weak but steady voice.

Sherman scratched his wounded head. “Well, I thinks I knows where they go,” he said after some careful recollecting. “It’s that there miracle church… the one they calls the Miracle Temple… where they severs thems…. thems… ribs!” he grinned with a big juicy smile that reminded the boy of raw red meat clinging to bare bone. “I knows ‘zactly where it’s at.”

Meanwhile, Elmo noticed the boy staring at him from across the front yard. How could he not? He was feeling tired and dirty, looking like some vagabond the friendly farmer might’ve picked up on the road along the way and thrown into the back of his wagon either out of pity or sheer stupidity; and knowing his Uncle Sherman the way he did, Oley Johnson suspected it was probably a little bit of both. But Elmo didn’t care; there were alot of things he didn’t care about anymore; least of all some little brown bastard in a blanket looking at him like he’d just stolen his last piece of candy. All he cared about just then was getting as far away from Shadytown and Old Port Fierce as possible…before something else happened.

Sherman thought for a long hard moment before suddenly remembering something he thought might help. “Ohhhhh,” he beamed with a big broad smile, after spitting out a broken tooth he just then discovered hinged to his gaping gums. “I think I knows where they went. They’s at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue pit. Ain’t they, boy!”

Oley Johnson knew of the place his uncle was talking about. It was a church. He’d been there before; many times, in fact; but never when the moon was so frightfully big and bright; and he was always with his mother and sister, not a fat turtle and a bearded raccoon who looked like the devil himself. But it was Sunday, and there was a service going on inside the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’, just as it always had been for as long as most folks remembered, or at least ever since the Reverend Willie B. Wright first arrived in town one fateful Friday night when and where he began his famous ministry right there on Avenue ‘D’ under that same pale pagan moon. Of course, there was no church at the time; the Temple would come later. But that didn’t stop Willie from setting up a small make-shift altar he’d constructed out of an old steel oil drum that was cut in half and just happened to be laying on the infamous cobblestones at the time, and a couple of two by fours . And so, after offering up a short but soulful doxology, Willie delivered his first of many famous homilies on the subject of (what else?) Divine Providence. It was followed, of course, by a generous supply of barbecued pork ribs which he cooked over an open flame, right there on the make-shift altar and barbecue pit, shortly after the moonlit liturgy, and served to his grateful parishioners between two thick slices of day-old bread provided by a local baker who just happened to be passing by at the time with some leftover loaves that might otherwise have gone to waste. He called them ‘Miracle ribs!’ And to this day, the Reverend Wright still couldn’t explain exactly how it all happened; moreover, how he was managed to feed so many people (by the end of the night there were at least a hundred hungry souls gathered around the metal altar and barbecue pit) with a only handful of ribs, a few loaves of stale bread, and a pray. But it did happen! And it happened right then and there on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown, and on a Fat Moon Friday night.

For reasons that were never fully explained, at least not to his own childish satisfaction, Oley Johnson was never allowed to attend the Friday night service at Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit. And for good reason!, as we will soon find out. For not only was the grand old temple located in the very center, the heart, of the infamous city where the imaginary Lion of Avenue ‘D’ was known to take up his infernal residency, but also because the homilies alone were known to last well into the night, sometimes until the break of day, which, of course, was way past Oley Johnson’s bedtime.

All the while, the turtle couldn’t help but notice that his blanketed nephew kept gazing out at the wagon and its one lonely passenger. He knew what the boy thinking, of course; and he would probably be thinking similar thoughts himself, had he been under the blanket (although he would have preferred a much larger one) and standing in the doorway of a church on a cold and dark morning on Avenue ‘D’ in place called Shadytown. “Oh, that's all right, Oley,” responded the turtle in the friendliest voice he could find, “That’s just yo’ Uncle Elmo – Elmo Cotton! You ‘member him now – Don’t you, boy? He and yo’ momma use to... well, never mind ‘bout that,” he quickly retreated after considering what may, or may not, have happened in the back of Mister Johnson’s barn so many long hot summers ago.

Naturally, Oley Johnson was far too young to understand exactly what his uncle had (unintentionally, of course) let slip out of his mouth just then. He wasn’t even around at the time it, whatever it was, happened. In fact, he hadn’t even been born when it did, or didn’t, happen. But that didn’t prevent him from staring even longer and harder at the strange looking man in the wagon, and more suspiciously than ever.

What happened between Elmo Cotton and Regina Johnson one long hot summer night in the back of old man Simpson’s barn in Harley would remain between one man and one woman… if anything did happen at all, the turtle still wondered with one eye on the raccoon and the other on the boy in the blanket. “Okay if we comes inside, Oley?” he finally asked, thinking by then that he might just have to wait there, out on the porch, until Alma and her daughter return home from church.

Suspecting he was being asked just then to make an important decision in his mother’s absence (one he might later come to regret, and would certainly rather not have to make at the moment) the boy simply shrugged beneath his blanket as if to say ‘Okay, Uncle Sherman’. And by doing so he was, of course, leaving the decision entirely up to his Uncle whom, he innocently imagined, would gladly take the blame, as well as the consequences, if and when that decision turned out not to be the correct one. Naturally, Oley Johnson was only trying to ‘do the right thing’, as little boys often do in uncertain situations such as these. What else could he do? But then again, what would any little boy do with big, ugly, tooth-spitting, puffy-eyed, swollen-headed, brown giant turtle that could easily snap off his head and swallow it in one great greedy gulp, and have the rest of him for breakfast the next morning. Run! If he knew what was good for him.

Although he knew Alma Johnson wouldn’t mind if he and Elmo were to wait for her inside, Sherman decided it was in the boy’s best interest, and perhaps his own, to honor the mother’s wishes by setting a good example, as any respectable turtle would do under similar circumstances, and just wait outside for her to return. “Oh, that’s alright, son,” the turtle softly sighed, turning his telescopic head sideways so that Oley could clearly see by now how badly blackened his eyes actually were, along with other visible bruises and contusions Sherman had suffered at the bare-knuckled hands of the tattooed sailor. He suddenly wished he’d never woken the boy up in the first place, if, in fact, that’s what he’d just done. “I understands,” said Sherman as slowly turned to walk away. “I just goes and waits in the wagon… with yo’ Uncle Elmo… and ol’ Abraham… leastways til’ your momma and Miss Regina come home... with aaaaaaaaaaaaaaall that there religion!” stretched the turtle.

Oley Johnson really wanted to let his uncle come inside by then; but he knew his mother and sister would eventually find out, as mothers and sisters always do; and that, of course, would mean a whopping, even if it was ‘the right thing to do’, and even if it was Uncle Sherman. That’s just the way mothers are, imagined the little boy in the blanket; and sisters can sometimes be worse. They don’t take kindly to strangers; and they just don’t like having mens around the house that don’t belong there; especially when they’s not at home, and even when it’s somebody they knows, Oley was thinking to himself just then. But these were not really strange mens…and they weren’t real mens at all. Not yet anyway. Leastways not ‘til they’s can can grows some proper whiskers – and even then, he wondered in silence. But he’d see this turtle before. It was Uncle Sherman! And even the raccoon in the wagon was beginning to look a little more familiar b y then. ‘That’s the one bad thing about relatives’, Oley Johnson remembered his mother telling Regina one day when they thought he wasn’t listening, of course, ‘You gots to take them in… whether you wants to or not’. And all these thoughts raced through the little boy’s head as the fat turtle slumped sadly in his shell and slowly slouched back to the wagon.

But before he reached the white picket fence, Mister Dixon had a brilliant idea; which actually happened much more frequently than some folks might imagine, considering, of course, what has already been said about the friendly fat farmer from Harley. “You know, Oley,” he said, stopping just short of the small swinging gate, “I thinks maybe I might could use a little of that there religion my’self. Wouldn’t hurt! And ol’ Abe might could use some, too,” he winked at the pious old horse. “All God’s creatures gots to be saved, you know. Say so right in the Bible. That’s why brudder Noah makes himself such a big boat, I ‘spose… Calls it an Ark! And it be a big one. Gots to be…. to fit all them damn critters in. Ain’t that right, Abraham?”

As if somewhat familiar with the old Biblical verse, the horse nodded its long tired head; almost as if one of its antediluvian ancestors had indeed been onboard that fateful rainy day when God Himself, in the form of a great white stallion no doubt, sealed the door of Noah’s Ark and rained down his righteous wrath on a doomed and deserving earth, and lived to talk about in its own equestrian tongue. Naturally, Sherman was only trying to make the boy in the blanket feel a little bit better about himself for not letting them inside; which, under the circumstances, was certainly the right thing for him or any other little boy to do whenever a fat ugly turtle comes knocking on the door with a strange and rather shady looking raccoon sitting in the back of his empty wagon. He had no idea what the raccoon would think of his brilliant idea – or Abraham for that matter, who could have used a good long rest by then, or at least a pail of oats. And so, he approached his passenger with the same redemptive proposal. “How ‘bouts it, Mister Cotton!” he hollered over the white picket fence, “Wants to go to church?”

Elmo Cotton was too busy contemplating his own uncertain predicament to be paying much attention to what was going in front of Alma Johnson’s house on that particular morning; and he still wasn’t sure if he should even be there in the first place. He was also still thinking about the certain woman they’d left behind on Avenue ‘D’, and a boat… I mean ship, he still had to catch that evening. And what’s that he heard the turtle say just then? Something about a church.… For reasons he couldn’t quite understand, it made the raccoon uneasy; suspicious, perhaps; and maybe even a little scared. But he was too tired to argue, and knew it probably wouldn’t do much good anyway. Once Sherman had made up his mind on something, there was nothing (except maybe a meal) that could change it. Besides, he didn’t like the way the little boy kept staring at him, and would just as well go back into town and stay there until the Maria Aurora was ready to leave on the evening tide. With a simple but nervous wave of his hand, the Harlie raccoon acquiesced. “I reckon,” he finally said, just loud enough to be heard over the silence of the night, not knowing exactly what the driver of the wagon was talking about at the time, but fully aware of the fact that he was still, after all, just a passenger.

The turtle smiled. He knew he’d made the right decision all along

All Elmo really knew by now was that he was going away, somewhere; and there was nothing anyone could say, or do, to stop it. What he didn’t know, however, and probably never would, was that he was exactly where he was supposed to be; and that he actually had little, if anything, to do with it at all. Perhaps that was just the first miracle. Elmo hadn’t been to church in such a long time that he often wondered if God would ever allow him back in, or even recognize him for that matter. But knowing that it would be his last day in Shadytown, he thought he should at least have the courtesy to go along with the farmer’s reverent request, which, under the circumstances, was the least he could do after all they’d been through together. Realizing just then how much Divine Providence, along with a little help from a friendly fat turtle, may have played in getting him this far, the Harlie raccoon reckoned it was probably the right thing to do, despite the fact that he was once a demigod himself who, by virtue of his apotheosis and the protocol governing such metaphysical affairs, was not obliged to suffer such homilies. But he owed it to his good friend and neighbor, especially after the beating he had taken on the Harlie’s behalf, which he probably received for picking up a raccoon on the run in the first place. But as the saying goes: ‘…No good deed goes unpunished’. How True! And since he hadn’t been to church in quite some time, he also thought it might just do him a world of good; although not nearly as good, he warmly imagined, as a home-cooked meal, a few strong drinks, and a fat-bottomed girl with a red-painted face. And once again, perhaps not for the last time, Elmo Cotton found himself going through the pocket of his overalls in search of a nickel that still wasn’t there.

There was one small problem with Mister Dixon’s brilliant idea: Little Oley Johnson. The boy in the blanket simply would not budge from the front door of his house that cold grey morning; and he wouldn’t exactly go back inside either, as Sherman had hoped he would. He just stood there – caught, it would seem, between two opposing worlds: one in which he had to do exactly what his mother told him; and the other where he could indeed do whatever he wished or wanted, including allowing his favorite uncle (never mind the fact that he’d only met his fat uncle only twice before; once when his mother had to drag him down the stairs kicking and screaming in the night to say greet the grinning bean farmer; and another time when she brought him to her daughter’s house in Harley under similar protestations; and even then he was a afraid of the giant brown turtle) to come inside the house, along with the ratty-looking raccoon he thought might actually prefer sleeping outdoors with the snakes and lizards, and other wild creatures of the night, or at least stay inside the wagon where he otherwise belonged.

The boy looked frightened, upset perhaps, and a little confused. The turtle could feel his frustration; he could see it in the little boy’s eyes; and, having found himself in similar situations at times, especially when important decisions of consequence had to be made, Sherman seemed to understand. But as he turned to leave for a second time that cold grey morning, the fat farmer was suddenly stuck with yet another bright idea, even more brilliant that the first! he proudly praised himself; and one that would solve their entire problem in one bold stroke of genius. Why, he didn’t even think he had it in him. “Say, Oley!” snapped the turtle, quite optimistically. “Why don't you go puts on some britches and come along with me and Mister… I means, Uncle Elmo? I'm sure your momma won't minds. You likes to go to church – Don’t you, boy?”

Oley Johnson looked up from under his blanket and smiled. “Alright then,” he said, unemotionally, as if he’d been waiting to hear it all along, and was just too afraid to ask. He actually did want to go to church earlier; but his mother told to stay home. ‘Shadytown is no place fo’ little chil’runs to be this time in the morning’, she admonished the boy in the usual tone and temperament mothers reserve for such occasions. ‘And besides,’ she added that same celestial evening, as mother often do in these delicate situations when they suddenly come to realize that their little boys are not so little anymore and should, if they are ever to become men that is, be left on their own now and then,‘…you’s a big boy now! ’ Still, Oley Johnson refused to take off the blanket, and kept it draped over his shoulder all the while as if it were the Shroud of Turin and he, the proud and protective custodian of the most of holy of relics.

And so, they all rode off together into the cold grey morning: the turtle, the raccoon, a horse named Abraham, and a boy wrapped in a blanket. They were on their way back to Avenue ‘D’, and Shadytown.

On the way to church, Sherman Dixon was forced to drive the wagon back down the infamous avenue from where they had just came. Elmo sat in the back in the back while Oley rode shotgun on the buckboard with the giant brown turtle who was hoping to avoid the area altogether, not only after what’d happened to him earlier that evening but also because he didn’t want to expose Oley Johnson to what might still be going on there. But he had no choice; there was just no other way to get to the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit, at least not that he was aware of, other than by Avenue ‘D’, simply because… well, because that’s where it was. Right there! smack dab in the middle of Shadytown, along with many other houses of worship standing, ironically enough, right alongside so many saloons halls, gambling parlors, boarding houses, cat-houses, out-houses, and other houses of ill-repute located in the red-light district of town that need not be mentioned in any further detail. And that was precisely why Alma Johnson had wisely ordered her grandson to stay at home that particular evening rather than bringing him along where he would inevitably be exposed to such corruptible sights and sounds; not to mention the most incorrigible one of all: that dreaded old serpent, that feline demon of the night that had already claimed so many innocent souls, including that of her own flesh and blood daughters who, as Alma was well aware of by now, walked those same salty streets just outside the holy Temple, especially on dark mornings such as these when the moon waxed full and thick with blood, every thirty or so days it would seem, not unlike a woman’s monthly menstrual flow. She simply did not want to let any one of her children, or grandchildren, anywhere near such a formidable foe like the Crouching Lion of Avenue ‘D’ that prowled the streets of Shadytown, looking for fresh young meat. Naturally, Regina Johnson would agree, as any good mother would and should in these circumstances; but there are times when agreeing just ain’t enough. And sometimes the lion, like the dreaded dragon, wins… no matter how many brave young knights we send off to defeat the old serpent. That’s just the way it is.

Ironically, churches as well as other denominational places of worship were the Lion’s favorite place to lie in wait for its next vulnerable victim. And the Holier the better! as far as this demoniac was concerned. For reasons that are difficult to explain, but easy enough for some to understand, it’s usually the most recently saved souls that prove the easiest prey for such dangerous demons. Like most professional prosecutors, this particular solicitor is most clever; and he’s patient, too; and his accusations are true. He knows our weaknesses as well as our strengths and takes advantage of them all. Like old Emancipator himself once said. ‘Know your opponent’s case better than your own’ and you’ll win every time. But there are many things he doesn’t know, and that…. that is what makes all the difference. But this old accuser is not so prejudice; nor does he discriminate; although he prefers his victims young and tender, the older ones leaving a dry and foul taste in those jowly jaws that are accustomed to more nourishing nutrients, like the juicy blood of saints and the marrow bones of martyrs.

They would sometimes bring the tasty little morsels right into town with them, just like the turtle was doing on that particular morning by bringing little Oley Johnson along with him and the unsuspecting raccoon. Although to be fair, neither he nor Elmo had any specific knowledge of this mythical and legendary feline that was said to pounce upon its prey so mercilessly and without warning, and probably wouldn’t have believed anyone who told them it was true. But then again, there was a time when Harlies didn’t believe in hell-hounds either. So, there you have it…

* * *

“LISTEN… YOU HEAR IT?” said the turtle, cupping an ear in palm of his big brown hand.

Elmo was a still a little sore from sleeping in the back of wagon for the last two days. And it showed; but not so much that he didn’t suddenly jump to his feet when he heard something going on just up ahead, even though he really couldn’t make out exactly what it was. “Sounds like…like,” he thought out loud.

“A wang-dang-doodle!” shouted Oley from under his blanket, realizing, of course, that they were almost there.

“Now what make you go and say sumpin’ like that, Oley?” questioned the turtle, thinking that perhaps the boy should have been asleep by now, and still wondering what he was going to tell his mother.

“I dunno,” shrugged the boy under his blanket. “It just do.”

“Don’t sound like no damn wang-dang-doodle to me,” the raccoon opined. “Besides, ain’t no wang-dang-doodles goin’ on this early in the morning anyhow. Sounds more like…”

“Church?” Sherman wondered out loud.

Sherman Dixon had been to a ‘wang-dang-doodle’ before, and so had Elmo Cotton for that matter (although you might not be able to get either one of them to admit it, at least not in front of their wives) and he’d also been to church. And a wang-dang-doodle was perhaps the furthest thing from a church service they, or anybody else who’d been to both and new the difference, could possibly imagine; although to be fair, both could be equally loud at times and last well into the night. The words Sherman’s young nephew had chosen (rather poorly, the turtle was thinking by then) to describe the jubilant noises they were all hearing by now, and which seemed to be growing louder and stronger each horse-step along the way, was what most folks would simply refer to as a party; and a lively one at that! And not just any party; but one typically reserved for adults only: the kind where alcohol and tobacco were served, along with all the things adults would come to expect at...well, at a wang-dang-doodle.

But the raccoon was right: this was no wang-dang-doddle. This was the sound of salvation. This was church. And it could be heard loud and clear even though they were still many blocks away. And it was all emanating from a small wooden structure just up ahead, and came marching down the avenue like rolling thunder.

It was a good sound; holy and natural; a happy noise. And it was a loud too! It was a righteous sound; a sound that sounded something like… well, if I may be so bold, the right-wing of Judgment Day! All in all, it was a joyous sound – a real celebration! There were hands clapping, feet stomping, drums drumming, horns blowing, and so many colorful voices rising and falling in precise cadence with the whirling crescendos of the old pump organ which seemed to override all other sounds. And it was all happening right there at Willie B. Wright’s Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown, right there in Old Port Fierce.

The sound may have been a little unfamiliar, as loud and overwhelming as it was, but they knew words immediately. It was an old song, one they’d had heard many times before, in both the churches and bean fields of Harley. It was a song sung mostly by the older women of Harley as they toiled in the sun in their long white aprons, bent backs, and black faces. They knew it by heart, not unlike the scared Psalms of the Scripture which they would add their own special melody to as well. The name of the song they sang was ‘In the color of the Lord’. It sounded just the same. And it sounded something like this:

In the house of the Lord, I’m a’prayin’!
In the light of the Lord, I see!
In the fields of the Lord, I’m a’singin!
In the color of the Lord, I’ll be!”

The only difference is that the woman of Harley sang it just a little differently. When they sang ‘In the color of the Lord’, their voices sounded softer, sweeter, more reverend perhaps, and maybe even a little bit sadder than what was heard on Avenue ‘D’ just then by the three passing pilgrims. But the song remained the same, and so did the words; and the passion overflowed, like a breaking levee cascading down the streets and all along the boulevard; spilling into side streets alleyways, smashing in windows and breaking down doors, and waking up the store-keepers (at least those who weren’t already awake by then) in the color of the Lord. It was sung in the key of life, with all its blues, reds, yellows, greens, purples, pinks and oranges, and all the other notes in between – a cacophony of colors; a virtual rainbow of sounds blended together so harmoniously, so perfectly, that it was difficult, if not impossible, to tell where one note end and the next one began. And such was the sound the raccoon heard that morning outside the little church on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown,

There was Holiness in the air. It was intense, ubiquitous and omnipresent; and it was all coming from just beyond an old mahogany door forming the grand entrance to the temple. The entire congregation was there, of course; and they were all singing together in one long and glorious alleluia chorus: “In the color of the Lord!”

And it didn’t stop there. The church was alive and well on Avenue ‘D’, right in the middle of Shadytown, just as it had always been. And it would be there for a long, long time to come; if Reverend Willie Wright had anything to say about it; which, of course, he always did.

The doors of the church were rattling off their hinges as the turtle, the raccoon, a boy with a blanket, and a horse named Abraham stood together on the consecrated steps of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ smack-dab in the middle of Shadytown. The street itself was relatively deserted by then, except for a few wayward pedestrians who would occasionally stop for a moment or two in front of temple as if trying to decide whether or not to go inside, which, come to think of it, is probably exactly how they might appear on Judgment Day when these same vacillating souls stand before the famous Pearly Gates still trying, and in some cases simply unable, to make up their muddled minds as to exactly where they would spend eternity; as if they really had a choice to begin with. And Saint Peter thought he had it rough on earth… Some eventually went inside; some didn’t. Others simply walked on by, perhaps thinking to themselves: ‘Lord, make me chaste, but not yet...’ Maybe they just weren’t ready, or simply considered themselves unworthy. But as the old bishop of Hippo himself was quick to point out in one of his many celebrated confessions: ‘There are no saints without a past… and no sinners without a future’. It all depends on how much really you want it, I suppose.

Elmo and Oley waited outside as Sherman went to park his green and yellow wagon in the back of the Miracle Temple as he’d done on previous occasions. He wasn’t in Harley any longer, and wanted to make sure that Abraham would be safe. He would be gone longer than they expected, or so he thought.

In the house of the Lord, I’m a’prayin’!
In the light of the Lord, I see!
In the fields of the Lord, I’m a’singin!
In the color of the Lord, I’ll be!”

Meanwhile, Elmo reached into his suitcase, which he’d decided by then never to let out of his sight again, and removed his uncle’s sailin’ shoes. Since he would be entering a holy house of worship, possible for the last time, he thought that he might just put them on as a sign of respect. Going to church bare-footed just wasn’t proper, or polite; even in Harley where shoes were said to be ‘scarce as hens’ teeth’. They actually fit better than he thought they would, better than they did before, even though they were still a little loose around his toes. It was just ‘the right thing to do’, Elmo imagined. It was something his grandmother would’ve wanted him to do… whoever she was.

He kept the Motherstone inside his overalls, however, where he knew it would be safe. It had saved his life once so far, just like his uncle said it would; perhaps it would save it again. And if not, he always had the Bowie knife, which he still had plans for, later on perhaps. He kept it tucked safely and securely inside his trouser leg; and for good reason. In a place called Shadytown I suppose you can never be too careful. Elmo was beginning to think that it, the stone, might actually be some kind of lucky charm after all: like a rabbit’s foot, perhaps; or a four leaf clover. And if that were the case… well then, who better to have a lucky charm in his personal possession than the ‘Lucky Number’ himself! And while he waited for the turtle to return, the raccoon stood in front of the church thinking of an old man who’d first called him that on his own front porch back in Harley one day. It seemed like a hundred years ago, he imagined. He was also thinking of a dead soldier, the one they called Red-Beard. And he was thinking about a gun. He reached into his pocket and touched the stone. He couldn’t help but think that somehow they were all connected. But exactly how, he thought he’d never know. ‘Take care of this here stone, boy’, his uncle once told him, ‘It just might save your life someday’. Joe Cotton was right; he usually was in matters of great consequence. He seemed to always know what was important and, more importantly, what wasn’t. Elmo was only just now beginning to understand that.

The back yard of the church was dark empty; but Sherman could clearly make out, perhaps because of the ensuing darkness, the distinctive glow of so many hot coals burning brightly in the near distance.

The barbecue pit was actually an old converted oil drum sawed in half that sat on three legs in the customary design of the day. It should be noted, however, that the term ‘pit’, at least in this particular case, may be somewhat misleading, although not intentionally so; for in fact a real barbecue ‘pit’, for those who may not know any better, is actually and exactly what the term implies: a long deep hole in the ground specifically designed and constructed for the sole purpose of cooking meat. But more about that latter.

Having vomited up most of his previous meal the night before at CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium, and having purged his stomach in the process, the turtle was now ready for his next gastronomical adventure. And he could think of nothing better just then than a sizzling slab of barbecued pork ribs served up with some freshly baked bread, and maybe a side order of Harley beans, if that wouldn’t be ‘axin’’ too much. He’d been to the Miracle Temple once before and had heard of the celebrated pastor, along with his famous pork ribs, on many times over, usually from Lester Cox who boasted of having the privilege of knowing the Reverend Willie B. Wright on both a personal and professional level; need-less-to-say, the undertaker and the preacher often go hand in hand – prostitutes and Johns, I suppose. In fact, he’d already designed a special coffin just for Willie that included a detailed rendering of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea hand carved on the lid. He never did tell Willie, of course; it was going to be a surprise; whenever the fateful event happened, that is; not only for many years of faithful friendship, and so many suppers of mouth-watering barbecue ribs, but for all satisfied customers Willie had provided the Creekwood undertaker with over the years. Death is not only a self-sustaining business… it can also be quite profitable. Naturally, Sherman would agree – about the ribs, that is. And he expected nothing less that particular day. The meals there were always satisfying and delicious, and he could almost taste the ribs already, along with Willie’s special barbecue sauce, the ingredients of which was an old family recipe given to him by none other than Mister Charlie Bow who, despite his Confucius philosophies, was known to frequent the famous Miracle Temple from time to time, where he sometimes helped Willie prepare the sacred ribs and barbecue the turtle was presently finding so irresistible. But Sherman knew he’d have to wait. And it would be well worth it.

So he parked the wagon under an apple tree in the back yard next to a small shed that might’ve been used for a barn at one time. “Now you wait here, Abraham,” the turtle quietly spoke to the horse as he yanked several golden apples off the nearest branch which was conveniently hanging directly over his head at the time. He fed one of the golden globes to the horse, as was his habit, and then ate the other three right there on the spot in the manner he was accustomed to: in one great, gaping and gulping bite; along with seeds, skins, stems and cores, including a big juicy worm that’d somehow managed to find temporary lodgings within the soft brown pulp of the forbidden fruit. Before leaving his horse and wagon for the evening, the turtle picked a few more apples, not only for himself but for Elmo and Oley, stuffing at least a dozen more into his pockets, which were bulging by now with the pilfered produce, one in his mouth, and carrying two more in each one of his free hands. “Now let that be a lesson to you, Abraham,” he admonished the horse, temporarily removing the fruit from his pearly white canines, “– Don’t never turn down a free meal!” He stuffed the apple back in his mouth and then quickly and quietly walked away, like a pig fit for the barbecue pit. And just he was about to make his escape from the scene of the crime, as perhaps poor Adam and his disobedient wife tried to do under similar circumstances in their own idyllic Paradise, a voice was heard in the darkness. And it didn’t come from Abraham.

“Thou shall not steal,” spoke the voice, rather calmly at first.

The sound seemed to come out of nowhere – and everywhere! – so ubiquitously omnipresent in that crucial acoustical sense. And it stopped the frightened apple burglar dead in his tracks. “Who dat?” he whispered in the dark as the apple fell from his mouth, hitting the ground with a soft thud.

He waited for a moment before resuming his stealthful get-a-way. He hadn’t gotten two more steps, however, before…. “Seek and ye shall find,” sounded the faceless apparition in the same admonishing tone.

Sherman was beginning to think that he might actually be dreaming, and just didn’t know it yet; and would perhaps wake up any moment now next to fat snoring wife. Or maybe it was some kind of hallucination, a sickness, something that happens after throwing up your guts in a Chinese drinking and eating emporium, or whatever the shotgun-toting walrus called it, and being beaten half to death by an irate sailor with no sense of humor. Either way, he couldn’t help but think that he would soon find out, and wished by then that he’d simply parked the wagon out front along with the patriarchal beast. And to make matters even more metaphysical, if that’s the right word, the voice in the dark was also quoting Scripture! The fat farmer froze in his own fat footsteps as another apple fell from his hand. He waited. What else could he do?

Before long… there it was again. Only this time with a greater sense of urgency in the voice, along with the slight but still very distinctive sound of someone knocking on a piece of lumber. At first, Sherman thought the wooden sound might be coming from his own knees which were indeed knocking together by then. It was not, of course. “Knock… and the door will be open,” spoke the nocturnal spirit in those same ubiquitous vibrations that had the turtle standing in a pooling puddle of his own perspiration by then. “W-who dat”? he whispered once more, hoping beyond hope there would be no answer, and that would be the end of it; and he could just go about his business But that was just not to happen as the invisible ghost suddenly cried out, like a voice in the wilderness, in a loud and thunderous tone. “Ask! and ye shall receive.” It was not a request. It sounded more like… like an order. Something Captain Roger Morgan might say.

And it was just than Sherman thought of something that perhaps would change his life forever; if he was still actually alive that is, which he still was not so sure of anymore. For it suddenly dawned on him that the voice he’d just heard, that same deep and omnipresent voice, that sweet and terrible sound, might very well, indeed and in fact, belong to none other than God Almighty Himself, the maker of Heaven and Earth , and of all things, visible and invisible. He let go of the last apple he was carrying in his sweaty palm; and then, not knowing what else he could do to mitigate the punishment he would certainly receive for committing such a bold and villainous act as stealing apples from God’s own apple orchid, he quickly emptied his pockets of the incriminating evidence. He was scared. Really scared! More scared than he was at Charlie Bow’s Dragon-fish and drinking and eating emporium; and it showed. He then quickly covered his face with trembling hands, in perhaps the same sinful manner Adam once covered his own shame, as well as that of his naked wife, with fig leaves, so that he wouldn’t have to look into the face of his Creator. He simply wasn’t ready for the Great White Throne; not just yet anyway. Indeed, had there been a sizable hole in front of him at the moment, Sherman surely would’ve jumped in it by now, piled the dirt on top of his head, and somehow managed to have buried himself in his own iniquity. What else could he do? He’d been caught red-handed. Stealing apples! In the back of a church. And by God Himself, no less! In a slow and shaky voice the turtle responded in the only way he knew how. “Dat you, Lord?” he just had to ask.

God answered in return, but not in the way the frightened turtle quite expected. “What’s it to you?” spoke the voice with all the authority invested in its Holy aspect. And this time, it sounded like it was coming directly from the barbecue pit; and it sounded a little angry, too. The coals were getting hot. The fire was burning.

“Uh... nothing, L-Lord,” stuttered the turtle, apologetically, still much too afraid to pull his hands from his frightened face. “I was just gettin’ some apples for… for ol’ Abe here!” he said, attempting to extricate himself from the criminal act, which even to him sounded a bit ridiculous considering exactly who it was he was talking to at the time, and the fact that he was taking the fruit for himself as well.

“Abe?” questioned God, angrily.

“He my h-horse, sir. We just c-calls ‘im that. His real name is Abraham.”

“Now that’s a mighty peculiar name for a horse,” God mused out loud. “I wonder what Sarah would have to say about that?”

“Ol’ Abe here…I means Abraham…Well, you see, Lord, he ain’t married,” replied the frightened turtle, misconstruing the divine comment and missing the joke entirely.

God laughed. “But hung like a horse, I see!”

He had to think about it for a moment, but finally got it. Naturally, Sherman was too embarrassed to respond.

“And who are you?” the voice suddenly demanded to know.

It was a question the turtle felt compelled to answer, even though he really didn’t want to. “M-Me?” he stuttered once more. I’s Dixon, sir… S-S-Sherman Dixon. But I thought you already knowed that, Lord,” he continued in true Jobian fashion. “You is who I thinks you is – Ain’t you?”

God did not answer. But then again, why should he? He’s God.

At that point the apple thief thought that he could hear God approaching; or at least he thought he heard His holy footsteps. They sounded like…. Like death! He wanted to run. He wanted to hide! He was feeling sick all over again, just like he did before. Only this was no drunken sailors. There were no raccoons, no street-urchins or painted ladies, no gun-toting walrus’; and there was certainly nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. This was God Almighty! The Creator of the Universe, and everything else for that matter, reckoned the frightened and lonely turtle as the divine footsteps came ever closer. He could feel it: the power, the passion, the omniscience and oomnipresence of God Almighty Himself in all His omnipotent power and undeniable glory; the infinite, the majesty; all seeing and all knowing. The ultimate Judge! Sherman was suddenly overwhelmed by it; enveloped in it. He was taken a’back. He was humbled. And it was standing right there in front of Him. He could feel the heat. It burned. He was scared. He just couldn’t look. But he had to look. He had no choice. He just had to see it for himself; even if it meant instantaneously bursting into great big ball of burning blubber, his own untimely but inevitable death. So be it. And so, one by one, Sherman Dixon began lifting each the fat fingers from his horrified face, slowly, deliberately, nervously, delicately peeling back each individual digit as though he were unraveling the mummified rags of a dead Egyptian king. And what did he see?

You guessed it! He saw God. And not only His Holy face, which was all Sherman ever imaged to see this side of Paradise, but God in all His incarnate glory, complete and whole, and stepping right out a cloud of smoke it suddenly seemed. He looked just like the Son of Man as He once walked through Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, as well as on earth and on waters of the Galilee. He was real. He was man. He was God. And he was black! But what’s this God is holding in his omnipotent and venerable hands?” the turtle couldn’t help but wonder just then. What exactly is it? What! Why… it’s… it’s… a spatula?

The turtle recognized him at once, and smiled.

And so did the man holding the spatula.

It wasn’t God after all, he quietly sighed. Sherman knew that by now. But it was perhaps the next best thing, if there is such a thing, or person. It was none other than Willie B. Wright, pastor and grand master chef of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’. Some folks called him ‘The Miracle Maker’, and for good reason. Sherman had seen this man before. And it suddenly dawned on him that this might, if fact, be the same man Elmo Cotton had been searching for all along.

He was dressed in an old gray suit with long white apron strung in the back, which he would customarily removed before each and every the service before placing on the back of his holy high chair. It was visibly stained with Willie’s famous barbecue sauce, as evidenced by so many dark red splotches stigmatized in the linen fabric as deeply and thoroughly as those imprinted on the Holy Shroud itself. He was also wearing a small white cap, the kind seen adorning the hallowed heads of older sailors who still worn them in such fashion, buttoned down in front and adjustable for all kinds of weather. Some folks called it a ‘pea cap’; perhaps because it matched the navy blue pea-coats often worn by sailors at sea to protect them from the harsh elements. Whatever the purpose, it suited Willie just fine; along with covering up a small but noticeable bald spot that was forever protracting on the back of his venerable old head.

The famous pastor had come out just before the service began to check on the coals in his even more famous Barbecue pit. Hopefully they would be good and hpt by the time he finished. Using a spatula he’d found in the kitchen to stir the fire, he noticed that the coals were already white around the edges, just the way he liked it. It wouldn’t be long before they were as hot as Satan’s hooves, and ready for the meat.

Sherman was ashamed of himself. He felt embarrassed and guilty; but he was still very hunger, especially having thrown up his supper earlier that evening along with half his intestines. He wanted to apologize, and was going to when, just then, the old preacher reached down and began picking up the apples Sherman had dropped on the ground out of fear and shame. “Mens don’t live by bread alone…” he quoted once more from the Holy Text, handing the stolen goods back to the hungry thief.

“Or apples...” agreed the turtle, stuffing the forbidden fruit back in his pocket.

A warm smile creased the face of God and man. “And don’t forgets these here ribs,” reminded Willie, turning his attention back to the barbecue pit which was why he was there in first place. “But first you gots to go to church,” admonished the spatula.

“I won’t, Lord,” replied the turtle. “I mean… I will!” And he meant it, too.

It takes a great man to cook a great rib. Nobody knew that better than Willie B. Wright. And just as in great comedy – timing is everything. The flames had to be just right. It was something Willie insisted on; and the meat, typically made up of beef or pork (although not exactly Kosher in the later case) had to be prepared to Willie’s exacting specifications which included, among other circumcisions, trimming away the excess fat, while leaving just enough marble in the meat to bring out all its savory flavor. Tenderizing and seasoning was also an indispensible part of the ritual, the details of which are a close kept secret even until this day. It was at this crucial juncture when Willie would usually say prayer or two over the butchered animal, just as he would have done before slitting the sacrificial throat. It was a matter of protocol, not unlike the Levitical practice of burnt offerings; a tradition Father Abraham would be most familiar with and one Melchizedek surly would have preformed in the Holy of Holies on those same blood-stained altars. This was serious business, and not for armatures.

Barbecuing was nothing new to Willie; he’d been doing it all his life, or so it seemed. And he knew exactly what he was doing, having come, so he would boast in a most humble manner, from long line of barbecue chefs who’d prepared their food, especially their meat, in that famous fashion both before and during the war. Only back then it was done not in converted oil drums, such as the one presently employed by the Mister Willie Wright to cook up a batch of his famous pork ribs, nor on any other conventional stove or over; but rather it was done in long barbecue ‘pit’ dug directly into the ground and ceremoniously covered with a grill, typically constructed of chicken wire, or perhaps a few pieces of scrap metal left lying about the docks. A common material used for fueling ‘the pit’ was wood. Hickory was a favorite and by far the most popular at the time, chiefly on account of its high density and sweet smelling aroma. It’s what gave the barbecue a uniquely ‘American’ quality, that distinctive flavor for which it is so well-known and rightfully deserves. Other combustibles were often substituted for the organic fuel of the barbecue pit, such as charcoal which, although not as easy to get at or accessible as wood, was relatively inexpensive and, as the old coal miner once exclaimed to a suspicious audience on-lookers in front of his own blazing barbecue pit, ‘….it’s a helluva lot easier than chopping wood!’ And he would know, I suppose. But don’t tell that to the woodchopper! At least not until he puts the axe away. And if hickory wasn’t available, most any other wood would do; although volume, as well as the burning quality of the genus, was also an important factor, as illustrated quite eloquently, and convincingly, one fine day in Old Port Fierce.

And it happened one day, of all places, at a wake! whereupon a great barbecue had been planned directly after the funeral for a friend. The deceased was a local fisherman, a hired-hand who had apparently drowned after being washed overboard in a gale, and whose limp and lifeless body was later fished out of the sea by a passing shrimp boat. The captain of the vessel, a modest fisherman man of Irish ancestry with limited resources and a large gregarious heart arranged for the funeral which included, among other appurtenances, several fiddle players to provide just for the occasion: one with a violin; and the other, a viola, which, as we all know, is very similar to the violin but a slightly larger instrument. The only thing that wasn’t planned for, however, was that the barbecue pit would soon run out of fuel – wood, that is – much earlier than anyone expected, which indeed it did! Need-less-to-say, this created quite a stir among the hungry mourners who had their hearts and minds set on barbecued pork-loins which presently remained lying uncooked on the open air grill. And let’s face it: once you have your mind and heart set on barbecued pork-loins, well…. Meanwhile, the frustrated host instructed the two fiddlers to play a few lively tunes until he could figure out what to do. Luckily, he had an ample supply of beer and whiskey on hand, which should be expected at any wake, especially those of the Irish variety, so things weren’t quite as bad as they seemed. But as it turned out, neither one of the two fiddle players were actually any good at their chosen profession; in fact, they were terrible! And to make matters worse (if that was even possible by now) they began arguing with one another over such things as who was the better fiddle player and which was the superior instrument – the violin or the viola? This went on for quite some time, long after the dead fisherman had been planted in the sacred soil, which was probably the safest place to be under the sour circumstances; and to prove their points (if indeed, there was a point to be proven at all) these two tin-eared virtuosos played every tune they could think of, and then some! one more horrible and loathsome than the other. Fortunately, the alcohol helped to mitigate the cacophonous noise, but only up to a point. And it was at that point the host, an old fisherman himself and a lover of good music, took matters into his own gnarly hands (both literally and figuratively) and rushed over to were the two fiddle players were still going at it, much to the annoyance of his impatient guests who had also heard enough. And then, grabbing both instruments from the beleaguered hands of the prodigies, he summarily tossed them both into the smoldering barbecue pit whereupon they instantly burst into a bright orange flame, providing just enough energy within the fiery furnace to properly cook the prized pork-loins. The wood from the two vintage instruments (a tightly grained spruce as a matter of fact) also gave off a most pleasant odor, along with a customary snap, crackle and pop associated with burning timber. And so everyone was happy (except for the pig, of course, who provided the pork-loins; and perhaps the two fiddle-less fiddlers who never-the-less continued to argue, more adamantly than ever it seemed, over exactly what the difference is between a violin and a viola) and a good time was had by all… well, as good a time as one might expect to find at a fisherman’s wake. Upon hearing all this, the old fisherman rose from his table and settled the matter once and for all. ‘The difference, you see…’ he began in that slow, didactic and deliberating voice you would expect to hear from the sun-cracked lips of a salty old Celt, ‘between a violin and a viola is this…’ And here the old Jonah looked directly into the eyes of the two arguing idiots and smiled, ‘The viola... burns longer.’ And nothing could be more obvious as the wood from larger of the two incendiary instruments burned brightly into the night long after the lesser violin had turned into a small pile of powdery white ash.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Barbecue (also barbeque, abbreviated BBQ or Bar-B-Que or dimuated chiefly in Australia to barbie) is a method and apparatus for cooking food, often meat, with the heat and hot gases of a fire, smoking wood, or hot coals of charcoal and may include application of a vinegar or tomato-based sauce to the meat. The term as a noun can refer to foods cooked by this method, to the cooker itself, or to a party that includes such food. The term is also used as a verb for the act of cooking food in this manner. Barbecue is usually cooked in an outdoor environment heated by the smoke of wood or charcoal, or with propane and similar gases. Restaurant barbecue may be cooked in large brick or metal ovens specially designed for that purpose.

Barbecue has numerous regional variations in many parts of the world. Notably, in the South and Midwest of the U.S., practitioners consider barbecue to include only relatively indirect methods of cooking, with the more direct high-heat methods to be called grilling. In other countries, notably Australia and many parts of Europe, barbecue is either fried or grilled, and most barbecue appliances do not have a lid.

The etymology of the term is vague, but the most plausible theory states that the word ‘barbecue’ is a derivative of the West Indian term ‘barbacoa,’ which denotes a method of slow-cooking meat over hot coals. One popular publication on the culinary subject blithely informs its readers that the word comes from an extinct tribe in Guyana who enjoyed ‘cheerfully spitroasting captured enemies.’ The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to Haiti, and others claim (somewhat implausibly) that ‘barbecue’ actually comes from the French phrase ‘barbe a queue’, meaning ‘from head to tail.’ Proponents of this theory point to the whole-hog cooking method espoused by some barbecue chefs. Some say that the word ‘barbecue’ comes from a nineteenth century advertisement for a combination whiskey bar, beer hall, pool establishment and purveyor of roast pig, known as the BAR-BEER-CUE-PIG. The most convincing explanation is that the method of roasting meat over powdery coals was picked up from indigenous peoples in the colonial period, and that ‘barbacoa’ became ‘barbecue’ in the lexicon of early settlers.

When the first Spanish explorers arrived in the new world they found the indigenous peoples preserving meats in the sun. This is an age old and almost completely universal method. The chief problem with doing this is that the meats spoil and become infested with bugs. To drive the bugs away the natives would built small smoky fires and place the meat on racks over the fires. The smoke would keep the insects at bay and help in the preserving of the meat. The process began to evolve with the migration of Europeans and Africans to the region of the Southern United States. European pigs and cattle were transplanted to the new world and became the primary meat source for the colonies, pork being the meat of choice in the South due to the ability of pigs to thrive with little care. The racks used to dry the meat were replaced with pits and smoke houses.

Now pit cooking is by no means new at this point in history or specific to any particular region of the world. If we define Barbecue as a process of cooking meat (or specifically pork) in pits then the inventors of this process are probably the Polynesians who have been masters of slow, pit cooked pork for thousands of years. So we will have to leave the definition for another time. The process of slow cooking meat in early colonial times was often reserved for poor cuts of meat left for slaves and low income peoples. Higher quality meats had no need for a process of cooking that would reduce the toughness of the meat. Throughout the south Barbecue has long been an inexpensive food source, though labor intensive. One thing to remember that without a process of refrigeration, meat had to be either cooked and eaten quickly after slaughter or preserved by either a spicing or smoking process. Traditionally spicing requires that large amounts of salt be used to dry the meat and lower the ability of contaminants to spoil the meat. Smoking in this period of time had much the same effect. The indigenous practitioners of Barbecue, cold smoked meat.

The Taino say the word barbecue comes from the Taino language. ‘Ba’ from Baba (Father), ‘Ra’ from Yara (Place) ‘Bi’ from Bibi (Beginning) ‘Cu’ from Guacu (The Sacred Fire). Or, ‘The beginning place of the sacred fire father.’ they further explained that, ‘Taino Barabicoa’ means ‘The stick stand with four legs and many sticks of wood on top to place the cooking meat.’ And that, ‘Taino Barabicu’ means ‘the sacred fire pit’.

The history of barbecue before the Civil War, aside from its murky etymological origins, is clearer. For several reasons, the pig became an omnipresent food staple in the South. Pigs were a low-maintenance and convenient food source for Southerners. In the pre-Civil War period, Southerners ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef. Pigs could be put out to root in the forest and caught when food supply became low. These semi-wild pigs were tougher and stringier than modern hogs, but were a convenient and popular food source. Every part of the pig was utilized-- the meat was either eaten immediately or cured for later consumption, and the ears, organs and other parts were transformed into edible delicacies. Pig slaughtering became a time for celebration, and the neighborhood would be invited to share in the largesse. The traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these gatherings.

At the end of the colonial period, the practice of holding neighborhood barbecues was well-established, but it was in the fifty years before the Civil War that the traditions associated with large barbecues became entrenched. Plantation owners regularly held large and festive barbecues, including ‘pig pickin's’ for slaves. In this pre-Civil War period, a groundswell of regional patriotism made pork production more and more important. Relatively little of the pork produced was exported out of the South, and hog production became a way for Southerners to create a self-sufficient food supply. Southern pork for Southern patriots! Hogs became fatter and better cared-for, and farmers began to feed them corn to plump them up before slaughter. The stringy and tough wild pigs of the colonial period became well-fed hogs. Barbecue was still only one facet of pork production, but more hogs meant more barbecues.

William Byrd, in his eighteenth century book writings The Secret History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina has some pretty snippy things to say about some Southerners' predilection for pork. He writes that hog meat was: the staple commodity of North Carolina... and along with pitch and tar makes up the whole of their traffic... these people live so much upon swine's flesh that it don't only incline them to the yaws, and consequently to the...[loss] of their noses, but makes them likewise extremely hoggish in their temper, and many of them seem to grunt rather than speak in their ordinary conversation.

Journalist Jonathan Daniel's, writing in the mid-twentieth century, maintained that ‘Barbecue is the dish which binds together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn. Political and church barbecues were among the first examples of this phenomenon. Church barbecues, where roasted pig supplemented the covered dishes prepared by the ladies of the congregation, were a manifestation of the traditional church picnic in many Southern communities. Church and political barbecues are still a vital tradition in many parts of the South. In later centuries, as settlement pressed westward, the barbecue went along with it, reaching an especially grand size in Texas, where a pit for fuel might be dug ten feet deep. Present-day barbecue grills are likely to be small and portable, fueled by charcoal or propane or electricity, and capable of cooking only parts of an animal at a time, but they still operate out of doors and provide a reason for inviting the neighbors over.

Barbecue entered the United States through Virginia and South Carolina in the late seventeenth century by way of slaves imported from the West Indies. The barbecue as a social event became very popular during the 1890s, when the United States began building its national park system, and Americans began socializing outdoors. However, the barbecue as a site for political campaigning dates back to George Washington. Candidates often held barbecues on the grounds of the county courthouse, offering free food in return for an opportunity to share their political platform with the dining public. Although initially associated with poorer citizens, barbecue, as both a method of cooking and recreation, spread to the middle and upper classes by the middle of the twentieth century and continues to dominate the southern United States's cultural landscape today.

According to estimates, prior to the American Civil War Southerners ate around five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef they consumed. Because of the poverty of the southern United States at this time, every part of the pig was eaten immediately or saved for later (including the ears, feet and other organs). Because of the effort to capture and cook these wild hogs, ‘pig slaughtering became a time for celebration, and the neighborhood would be invited to share in the largesse. These feasts are sometimes called ‘pig-pickin's.’ The traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these gatherings. In the rural south, slaves were given the less desirable parts of the pig, (such as the ribs and shoulders) which they would cook by either smoking or pit barbecue.

In a history of Barbecue as told by ‘Big Jim’ we learn the following: ‘…This is a history of the cooking of meats, called Barbecue, as told to me many years ago by my Great-Grandfather Charles Roy May (Uncle Charlie) of Penile, Florida which is near Palatka, just north of the Ocala National Forest near what is called The Scrub. Here in Uncle Charlie's own words, as best as I can remember after 50 years, is the account of this historic event: ‘Barbecue has been around, in one form or another, for a long time. In fact some of my ancestors, living near, what is now Micanopy, Florida, about 12,000 or so years ago discovered ‘Q’ one day when lighting struck a Blackjack Oak tree under which they were eating some raw meat, when the lighting struck the tree it scared them so bad that they ran away, leaving the raw meat lying under the tree. As the tree burned some of the limbs fell onto and around the meat. After a while when their wits returned, they snuck back to the tree and discovered the meat had been transformed into black chunks. Since they were still hungry, and would eat anything that wouldn't eat them first, they started to eat the meat. Man O Man was it good. Afterward every time they found a fire and had some meat they put it in the fire. After a while they found that if they stuck a sharp stick in the ground and stuck a chunk of meat on the end of it, it didn't waste so much of the meat by burning it and there was more to eat.

By the time that Columbus reached the Americas he found that the natives as far away as the West Indes were cooking meat on racks over coals. They called it ‘BARBACOA’. Columbus or one of them guys from Spain brought hogs with him to Florida and since they breed like rabbits they soon spread as far as North Carolina. Where years later, Dave Linebacks kinfolks, learned how to cook pig shoulders in closed pits over hot coals using a mixture of oak and hickory Some Italian neighbors of theirs had some wine go bad (turned to vinegar) so they gave it to Linebacks kin and they mixed it with some red pepper flakes they had and found that it was good on the pig shoulders after they were ‘Q'ed’. These people were real poor and hungry and didn't want to wait for the meat to be sliced so they just grabbed pieces and pulled it off the bone and ate it. This is how the term ‘pulled pork’ originated. You might hear one of them say ‘Woman pull me some more of thet thar pork ofen thet thar bone.’

Meanwhile, more of Columbus’s countrymen came to Florida in bigger boats. They brought cattle with them. Some of them got loose and wandered off to Texas. When they got out near Glen Rose, there was a hungry bunch of folks name of Maynard that found one and put it on a spit. They had one of the little kids turn the spit. Well the little kid got bored and started to play with the meat. A couple large pieces fell off the carcass into the fire. Little Belly didn't want a whipping so he just covered the meat up with dirt and ashes and coals and the rest is BBQ history. He had discovered Beef Brisket. They did not have BlackJack for the cooking so they used Mesquite.’ One weird thing they started doing to briskets was to pour Dr. Pepper on it. So you can see there is a lot more to the history of our Great Nation's Barbecue than is given credit for in the history books. As we can see all BBQ started in what is now North Central Florida and spread to other areas where they have tried to take credit for this most wonderful of discoveries. To the best my knowledge this is a true and accurate account of the development of the cooking process called Barbecue. I was only 6 years old then and that is the way I remember it.’

Meanwhile, outside the golden gates of Paradise (or in this case, an old mahogany door) Elmo and Oley impatiently waited for Sherman to return. They wondered what was taking him so long, the raccoon becoming a just little worried by then. In the moon-glow of the early morning hours, he noticed something peculiar about the old wooden church. And that this: it really didn’t look like a church at all! at least not from the outside; it certainly didn’t not like any church Elmo had ever been to lately, which was actually only two if you include The Catholic Church Mrs. Skinner once dragged him off to one day while Homer was away on official business. And if not for a small steeple and old rugged cross fixed conspicuously to the gabled end of the roof, along with the continuous sounds of salvation emanating from within, Elmo Cotton might’ve thought that he was back at CHARLIE BOW’S DRAGON-FISH and drinking and eating emporium; for the structure itself appeared not unlike many of the other buildings lining the crooked cobblestones of Avenue ‘D’ that morning: weathered and worn, many in need of repair or re-placement. He then looked up at a sign nailed to the side of the great wooden door that let him, or anyone else for that matter, know exactly where they were. It was plain and simple, and read in big black letters of varying shapes and sizes:

THE MIRACLE TEMPLE AND BARBECUE PIT OF AVENUE ‘D’
THE MOST HOLY REVEREND WILLIAM B. WRIGHT
PASTOR, MASTER OF CEREMONIES & SUPREME CHEF

DAYTIME SERVICES: SUNDAY AND WENSDAY
FROM SIX AM TIL NOON
NIGHT TIME SERVICES: TUESDAY AND FRIDAY
FROM SEVEN PM TIL THE LAST ONE GO HOME
AND ALL HOLY DAYS OF OBLIGATION.
BARBECUE AFTERWARDS!
(Weather permitting, that is)

AVAILABLE FOR WEDDINGS, WAKES & BAPTISMS

All donations accepted! Special consideration to widows, orphans, policemens, and sailors...

The sign said it all. And even though Elmo had trouble reading some of the words, he knew he was in the right place, which was exactly where he wanted to be. For it was just then when he suddenly recalled the words his uncle uttered just before he died: “Go south, boy! There’s little choich… down ‘round Avenue ‘D’… in a place they calls Shadytown. There’s a man there… a preacher-man. His name is Willie… Willie B. Wright. They calls him the ‘Miracle-Maker’. He’s a good man, Elmo. Find him and you just might find what you’s lookin’ fo’... and everythin’ else, too, I ‘spose.” And that was the last thing Joe Cotton would ever said to his young nephew.

Suddenly, it all made sense. The Miracle-Maker! Avenue ‘D’… And a place called Shadytown! Elmo was still studying the sign when his raccoon eyes suddenly focused on that part of it that referenced something about ‘policemens’. He recognized the word, of course, and knew all along that ‘policemens’ was just another word for sheriff. It merely served to remind him of who and what he really was: a raccoon on the run, a fugitive. And he made it a point never to forget it. He reached down to his pants leg for his knife. It was still there; he was almost hoping it wasn’t.

By then Sherman had returned with a dozen or so apples stuffed inside his pants and his cheeks full. He looked like big brown pin-cushion, thought little Oley Johnson who once sat on one, by accident of course, which he still hadn’t forgotten “Well,” said the turtle with a big gulping grin – something the Harlie hadn’t seen since they left Old Port Fierce – “looks like we’s gonna gets us some mo’ supper tonight!”

“Apples?” the raccoon wondered out loud.

“Better than that…” Sherman replied, biting into another golden apple he’d fished out of his pocket – “Ribs!”

Over a deafening chorus of ALLELUIAS! resonating from within the vibrating walls of the temple, Elmo inquired, “You mean barbecued ribs?”

Before the turtle could answer, a second chorus suddenly erupted from beyond the mahogany door. “ALLELUIA!!” it rang out in unmistakable righteousness

Elmo pointed to the sign next to the door, the one he’d just finished reading. “You mean it’s true then?” he wondered out loud.

“Huh-uh,” nodded the turtle. “They calls ‘em Miracle ribs!” he shouted over the noise. “I eats ‘em before… last time I comes this way. Best dang ribs in the whole dang world! And that ain’t no lie…” he gulped, “ Mister Cotton.”

Elmo was suddenly intrigued. “Well, as long as it ain’t no damn crab-legs,” he insisted, having seen firsthand what the questionable crustaceans could do.

“And don’t – Burrrrrrrrrrrrrp! – forget the fried rice” the turtle likewise regurgitated.

“You means flied-lice – don’t you?”

“And clab-regs!”

And then they both laughed.

Strange, thought the raccoon: with all he’d eaten the night before at Charlie Bow’s drinking and eating emporium, he was still inexplicably hungry. Maybe it was all the excitement, he reckoned, along with the fact that it was the first real meal he’d eaten in quite some time. And what was that the turtle said? Something about…. Ribs! The mere thought of it set his mouth to watering. Ribs were a rare treat in Harley; even the cheaper cut of ‘pork’ ribs which were sometimes served with Harley beans on special occasions such as holidays and anniversaries. Harlies, in general, were actually more accustomed to the other parts of the fatty pig, such as hog-jowls, pork-rinds, and the ever popular pigs-knuckles that were often pickled and stored in mason jars where they would keep for many years.

Oley Johnson appeared just as excited upon hearing about the ribs. Apparently, he’d eaten them before. And they weren’t just any ribs. These were Miracle Ribs! And even Oley Johnson knew what that meant. For you see, not only did the Reverend Wright serve the sacred ribs to his own congregation after each and every service; but he also wise enough to always prepare more than he actually needed, which he would sell to selected shop-keepers and store-owners who would pay a handsome price for the miracle ribs with the special sauce which, over time, also became known as Willie’s ‘spare’ ribs, for obvious reasons, of course. Spare or miracle, no matter what you called them, little Oley Johnson could already taste the succulent red meat between his tender young teeth, which, unlike the crabs he’d eaten earlier, did not have the unique and distasteful habit of ‘comin’ back to bite you’, as the raccoon so keenly observed and the turtle so painfully experienced not too long ago; and besides that, they just tasted better.

“But first we gots to go to church,” reminded the repentant turtle, remembering, of course, the promise he’d made earlier. He knew Reverend Willie B. Wright would certainly be looking for him, especially after what’d happened out by the barbecue pit. And so would God.

The raccoon obliged. “Well, what are we waitin’ for?”

“Just one more…” said the turtle, stuffing one last apple into his fat face, which he swallowed, pits and all, in yet another great gulp as he headed for the old mahogany door.

Elmo grabbed one of the two brass knobs. “After you… Mister Moneybags,” he insisted.

Sherman was the first one inside the church. It took all the strength he had just to swing open the old mahogany door. He was badly bruised and beaten from what’d occurred earlier at the emporium, and still slightly sick; although the apples did seem to calm down his stomach a bit. But all that was forgotten once he entered the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit.

The Harlie pushed his way in next, even though he was a little apprehensive at first about entering a strange new church. He was actually wondering by then if, perhaps, he might better spend his time pursuing more corporal enterprises, like the one that had kissed him on the lips not too long ago outside the Dragon-fish, even though he still lacked the fifty-cents required to further his amorous ambition. It had been so long since he attended church that he wasn’t even sure if he remembered what to do, other than just sit there and listen; or if would be welcomed at all…and not just by God! In fact, now that he thought about it, the last time he’d been to church was when he first got married. And even then he wasn’t exactly sure what say, or do, at the time; except, of course – ‘I do’, which was difficult enough.

Oley was not far behind, dragging his blanket behind him by now like a plaything he’d suddenly lost interest in, but sill something he just couldn’t quite let go of. He could feel the floorboards shaking beneath his bare naked feet, moving up and down, it seemed, to the rhythm of the music vibrating within the walls of the temple. It made him a little scared at first; but he was happy to be there all the same. In fact, he could think of no other place he’d rather be just then, except maybe a real Wang-Dang-Doodle! which his sister had brought him to one hot summer night without telling their mother; but we won’t go there right now. As previously mentioned, Oley Johnson had been to the Miracle Temple before; but not at night, and certainly never on Fat Moon Friday when children his age were generally in bed by then, safe and secure from the ‘Crouching Lion’ of Avenue ‘D’ their parents so often warned them about; the one that filled them with so much fear, haunting their dreams ever since they were old enough to comprehend such an abominable creature, real or imagined, and shun with all expedition. All in all, Oley Johnson was glad that his uncle Sherman decided to take him along. Even under a blanket, or a bed for that matter, being left all alone in an empty old house so early in the morning when it’s still dark outside has a way of conjuring up demons in a young boy’s imagination far more terrifying than anything he might expect to come across outside where at least he wasn’t alone. It made him feel safe, secure; and he wasn’t even afraid of the strange looking raccoon anymore, the one with the suitcase and the funny looking clothes. Besides, he was still thinking about the big yellow walrus, the three drunken sailors, and, of course, the woman with a painted face and big round butt who he knew by now to be none other than his own big sister, Regina Johnson. Whether or not Elmo Cotton had figured that out yet remains to be seen.

In comparison to other religious institutions in and around Old Port Fierce, of which there were many, the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ was substantially smaller. It was constructed entirely of wood, despite the fact that it was located in that central part of the infamous city prone to arson known as the ‘fire zone’. It had a high vaulted ceiling with exposed rafters supporting the beams that were sometimes used as balcony seats for the younger and more agile of the congregation to view the packed-house services that at times overflowed into the streets of the city. Standing room only was more often than not observed, the twenty-four pews being filled long before the first bell sounded calling the faithful to benediction. Almost everything was white, except, of course, for the pews which were constructed of the same thick red mahogany as the two entry doors and a few crudely constructed stain-glass windows that Willie had manufactured himself. There was no basement to speak of, chiefly on account of the water table of the general area being so high, and so close to the ocean. Instead, the Temple mount consisted of so many bricks and cinder blocks, along with some old tree stumps, supporting the weight of the entire structure throughout. It was also much older than most of the other structures, which only added to its credibility, and perhaps its holiness.

Exactly how the little church on Avenue ‘D’ actually earned the prestigious title so proudly displayed on the plaque outside the mahogany door just beyond the rat-infested streets of the city, should be rather obvious by now. But even if it ain’t, there was no mistaking what it meant; and moreover what was to be expected if and when you finally passed through the mahogany door and into the Temple itself. And that wasn’t enough… well, all you would have to do was stroll around back to where the Barbecue Pit stood in all its flaming glory, and see for yourself. And there it was! like some newly designed Ark of the Covenant: an old rusty oil drum sawed in half and propped up on three wooden legs. It’s an American invention, no doubt, and a fitting altar for any high-priest. Melchizedek would feel right at home. But wait! Don’t get to close… this is Holy ground, consecrated soil, and for some too hot to handle. The fuel that burns within the rusty tabernacle is white hot! not unlike the coal that touched the lips of the prophet purging him of sin and removing the last doubt. Perhaps what’s needed here are a Cherubim or two, like the ones standing guard this very day at the east end of Eden with flaming swords and angelic smiles.

As far as miracles go...well, suffice it to say that fitting such a large congregation into one small and modest building, and for such long periods of time, was indeed a miracle of the first order, and perhaps the greatest one of all. For at any given service, the Miracle Temple could accommodate as many as three hundred people, and that’s not counting the ones squeezed in the vestibule and bathrooms or standing outside on the lawn, which was a common occurrence, particularly on Friday night when Willie was known to be in rare form, and his homilies, like the barbecued ribs, were particularly hot – and spicy. By comparison, the church was actually not much larger than your typical classroom, and at times just as noisy. The pews were always packed, many members attending services on a regular basis. Willie knew them all by name, along with their families, and would mention them by name in any one of his many famous sermons. Of course, there were always new faces to be found among the faithful at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit, just as there were on that particular cold grey morning. They came all over, from far and wide; and they came by the thousands; although not all at once, Willie was relieved to know. And they came not only for the ribs (although Reverend Wright’s famous barbecue pit was often cited by many as the best to be found anywhere and main reasons for such a high attendances; and they were probably right in that regard) but for every word that flowed from sanctified lips of the holy pastor himself..They were never disappointed.

They called them ‘Miracle Ribs’. And they were said to be the best in town – any town! Probably the best in the whole world! Moreover, it was rumored that there was a certain healing quality about these, these ‘Miracle Ribs’ that even Willie was at al loss to explain: a power beyond their natural nutritional value, which many claimed to be a miracle in and of itself. But more on that later. Let’s go inside. Shall we?

Within the Miracle Temple were two rows of simple wooden pews equally divided on either side of the auditorium within. The congregation stood or sat, depending on their age and constitutional make-up; and perhaps their gender as well, as the men of Old Port Fierce, would, more often than not, offer up their own seats to all standing women, particularly when they knew they were being watched, and especially if that woman happened to be someone they knew, like their wives for instance. And there always seemed to be a seat or two left vacant for the elderly, the infirm, or anyone else who was obviously, or not so obviously, handicapped. Most of the time, however, it was standing room only at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ’D’.

Typically, Willie’s services lasted for about two to three hours, depending on, among other things, the length of a particular sermon and, of course, the mood of the audience, which Willie was always aware of and quick to gauge. The services, especially that portion consisting of the homily, had evolved over the years like some never-ending symphony that takes on new different and dimensions each time it is performed, dynamically adjusting itself with the times, and tastes, of the day. They went on indefinitely; sometimes well into the night; even until the break of day when the participants would gather outside on the lawn to watch the sun rise over the waters of the bay like some pagan god; Neptune perhaps! calling the fisherman out back to sea to earn their daily bread. Naturally (or supernaturally, I suppose) the length of any given church service had much to do with the movement of the Spirit, as oppose to that of the flesh, and less to do with that of the will – the Spirit usually proving the stronger of the three, but not always, as Willie knew all too well.

His was a diverse congregation of young and old, rich and poor, male and female, and everything in between, with an affinity for one another one would come to expect. Almost all were black – colored, that is, of African ancestry; but not always, as we shall soon see. But it was the poor of the community that made up the majority of the reverend’s faithful flocks. They were the first to come and the last to leave; they needed neither crook nor staff. Naturally, they were the hungriest of the Willie’s sheep, and not just for food. It seemed they were attracted to the Miracle Temple like moths to a flame, or fish to a lure to use a more appropriate analogy; and they hung onto each and every syllable that flowed forth from those sanctified lips as if their very lives depended on it, which in many cases it often did.

Willie Wright was a good shepherd; make no mistake about it. But it was the fisherman they chiefly came to see – everything else being, in the vernacular of the fishery ‘bait for the catch’. And Willie cast a wide net; his pole was forever bent, even when all the other fishers of men had abandoned their boats or simply gone home for the evening to take care of their own domestic affairs. Rarely did Willie rest, and not once did he have to say‘…and you should’a seen the one that got away!’ But even when they did, it only made him cast his net a little wider and bend his pole that much more, more determined than ever to ‘reel ‘im in’. This was one serious fisherman.

And the fish were always biting. They swam the fluid streets of Shadytown like so many sharks and salmon looking for a mate or a meal, or just some place to rest. They hid in alley-ways and basements, bottom-feeding off the dregs of society, but always on the look-out for other predators that were just as hungry and would devour them just easily, and without remorse. The women wore wide-brimmed hats, colorful dresses, and long white gloves painted all the up to their elbows. The men were standing, all of them, including one crippled old gentleman who could have been Methuselah’s grandfather and just as proud. And they would remain standing, for the entire service! So long as there was one unseated lady left in the Temple. Those fortunate enough to own them wore neatly creased pants, starched white shirts, spit-shined shoes, and ties of various stripes and colors. Those who weren’t so lucky, or just too poor, wore their Sunday best, which usually consisted of white cotton shirts and pressed denim. The children were equally adorned in the finest hand-me-downs money could buy and charity could afford, making them into miniature replicas of their proud mommas and pappas. From the modest fig-leaf to the regal robes of kings, pride and vanity often go hand in glove, quite fashionable at times; and are seldom out of style.

By now the sun was up; bringing with it the necessary energy needed to fuel the holy fire within the Miracle Temple. As the heat began to rise, the women cooled their perspirations with simple hand-held devices commonly called fans, but more often referred to as ‘angel-wings’, a term coined by a young girl in the choir who was first to observe the angelic connection. Crafted chiefly out of paper and cloth, and embroidered with fine golden thread, these marvelous contrivances were as beautiful as they were functional, each wing uniquely conceived and painstakingly manufactured by hand. They were colorfully designed, emblazoned on the front and back with passages from the Holy Text or perhaps a rendering of the Holy Spirit descending to earth in the recognizable form of a simple dove. Others bore the sacred images of the various saints, in particular that of St. Martin DePorres, the venerable Negro himself and a favorite of colored congregations throughout the South, depicting the humble servant of God in the domestic pose he is most remembered and revered for: with a crucifix in one and a broom in the other; something the good women of Shadytown could certainly relate to as they swept away the sin of the city. One was these ‘angle wings’ was said to actually contain a small fragment of the old saint’s tonic, along with a several whisks of his celebrated broom. But that was just a rumor, the kind of gossip that is sometimes smuggled into the conversation whenever two or more women join together, and for reasons only they might be able to explain. Still another one of these fantastic inventions was said to contain, albeit in some encrypted code yet to be deciphered, the secret recipe for Willie’s famous barbecue sauce. Naturally, the fact that it had never actually been replicated, at least not to anyone’s satisfaction, ruled out any such possibility; but still, that didn’t stop some folks from trying.

Angel-wings were truly works of art, the product of inventive minds mothered by necessity and perfected in time, that rare combination of practicality, function and beauty which true genius is so often associated with. Passed down from one generation to the next, the ‘fans of Shadytown’, which they were also known as in more distant circles, became something of family heirlooms, jealously guarded and held in the same reversal esteem as, say, George Washington’s false teeth or Paul Revere’s spittoon, treated with all the delicate respect afforded to such iconoclastic objects, and just as coveted. Whether housed in the dresser drawers of someone’s great grandmother or tucked away in a cluttered old attic, along with a few faded photographs, these cherished relics of the past would come alive at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit every Wednesday and Friday night, especially in the hot summer months when they were most popular, and equally envied. Coveted at times, these precious planes were highly prized and, not unlike their Heavenly equivalent mounted so proudly the shoulders of saints, and guarded with unrivaled jealousy. And their value only seemed to increase over time, corrupted as they often were by man and moth. Some of the ‘wings’ were even known to fetch a high premium on the open markets of Old Port Fierce, being sold during hard times by the same industrious hands that stitched them together in the first place, and often at very generous prices. They were also sought after by rich and poor, especially the high society ladies of the Port who would go well out their way to purchase the famous fans that were actually becoming quite rare. And they would come around Shadytown looking for them with compassionate hearts and greedy eyes, along with a few unsavory merchants who recognized their true value and sought them out with equal enthusiasm, especially on Fat Moon Friday when more than just fans were for sale in the bazaar-like atmosphere of the infamous city. But it wasn’t always that easy; for not unlike the Holy Grail that once housed the sacred blood of the Savior, the blood-stained vale of Saint Theresa that wiped the face of the God just before he was crucified for our sins, the Roman Spear of Destiny that pierced that same sacred flesh and of which it is written ‘Who so ever yields such a weapon shall control his own destiny, or even the Holy Shroud itself which neither moth nor flame could corrupt, these relics were jealously guarded, and by forces more formidable than the Knights Templar assigned to the holy crusade. At one time ‘Miracle Wings’, yet another term liberally applied to these locally manufactured devices, were plentiful and easy to find, mostly before the war when cotton, cloth, and paper was more readily available. But once word had spread of their home-spun charm and undeniable beauty they became, in the words of an old farm-girl who had a way of expressing herself in such rich and rural eloquence, ‘…. as rare as hens’ teeth!’

Angel-wings, in whatever form or fashion they may have taken, or whatever name you wish to bestow upon them, were not an entirely novel invention. Similar contrivances have been observed in other parts of the sun-scorched world, particularly the far-east where the unblinking star bears down so mercilessly upon that industrious race of nomads, and held in the equally high esteem. Open any ancient vault and you just might find one: in Pharaoh’s tomb, perhaps, gracing the mummified fingers of a dead Egyptian queen, along with all her pagan princesses. Go further east, to the Forbidden walled city, and you will notice that the Emperor’s face is more often than not half-hidden by that same imperial mask as he sits on the dragon throne. In more modern times, these same fans can easily be seen adorning fair-skinned hands of Queens; Victoria comes to mind, in all her British bulk, as portrayed in museums and emulated throughout the empire. Did Cleopatra fan her famous profile as she cruised the Nile in one of her floating palaces? Or how about Nefertiti and Hatshepsut? Did Isabella greet the future ‘admiral of seas’ in such a hand-held fashion? We may never know. Perhaps the Queen of Sheba utilized similar aerodynamic means to vale her alien colors from wise King Solomon until just the right moment. Marie Antoinette surely must have waved a wing or two in court of good King Louie, even as the rabble-rousing mob cried out for her head in the bloody streets Paris. What blue-blooded debutante would be caught dead without a fan in hand? And what would a poor Filipina do without one on a sweltering evening in Old Manila? And they weren’t limited to the just fairer sex. It is recorded that these same simple fans were more common-place than scepters among kings and emperors, particularly in the yellow Orient where such delicacies are considered not only appropriate, but masculine in their own royal rite. It is said, although not without a certain amount of incredulity, that Saint Francis of Assisi once held one of these same fanciful fans in his own venerable hands as he tread those bloody steppes of Asia attempting to convert the mighty Kahn himself from his pagan practices. And why shouldn’t he? Aren’t megalomaniacs in just as much need of Salvation as the rest of us? What better place to spread those evangelical air-foils than over that unholy empire? And what better breast to plant the cross of Salvation than in the heart of the evil Hun himself? Who knows? Mohammad and his murdering Muslim may be next. These wings know no boundaries; they cross consciousness and continents. Simply put, there is just nothing better to have and to hold on a hot summer’s morning in Old Port Fierce, or anywhere else for that matter, than a good old-fashioned angel-wing. But enough of this! God and man can wait. Right now, we have a service to attend.

Most in the temple were standing by then, except perhaps for a few some elderly men and women who would remain seated throughout the entire service, mainly for health reasons; but even they would ‘rise’ to the occasion whenever the Spirit moved them. The services hadn’t even begun and already everyone was singing out loud:

In the house of the Lord, I’m a’prayin’!
In the light of the Lord, I see!
In the fields of the Lord, I’m a’singin!
In the color of the Lord, I’ll be!”

Everyone sang! There were no exceptions. It was as if every lip had been transcendently touched by the finger of God and anointed with Holy Spirit; all that was missing were the Pentecostal tongues of fire that appeared over the hallowed heads of the early disciples two thousand years ago. Perhaps that would come later. Even those who, under any other musical circumstances, could hardly hold a note if their mortal lives depended on it, became instant prodigies with golden throats and perfectly-pitched ears. It was only the first of many miracles to occur, providing each participant in turn with talents, particularly in the area of vocal abilities, far beyond their normal range and natural capability of vocalizing such celestial sounds, thus producing music so heavenly sweet that would otherwise, had not the divine transformation occurred, have driven every cow in Shadytown into the hills by now along with other beasts of the field and birds of the sky sensitive to such unbearable caterwauling.

Leading the congregation in song that particularly evening were twelve black angels standing on the right side of the Temple interior. They were in a place and a world all their own, equally divided, six men and six women, and standing shoulder to shoulder in two separately elevated tiers. Together they made up what was known as the ‘Celestial Choir’ of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’. Their voices rose and fell together as one, high above all the others would seem, as if amplified by God’s invisible megaphone; and, unlike the spring-loaded songbird placed before the joyful king of Mongolia in all its mechanical wonder (a toy, perhaps, contrived by his Majesty’s royal engineers whose time may’ve been better spent inventing more ingenious and effective ways of defeating the dreaded Hun rather than placating the king with paltry play-things; or maybe it was a gift from some foreign diplomatic dignitary) these lively and colorful song birds made of flesh and blood never seemed to tire; and their springs never needed winding, or mending.

And there they stood, faces aglow, dressed from head to toe in long matching robes, purple and white, flowing loosely and gracefully about their serpentine bodies and moving in perfect synchronization to the lively rhythm of life. Could the brave Ulysses, with his ears stuffed with cotton and so many loyal sailors to restrain him at the mast, resist such tempting sirens? Perhaps not; but of course, we will never know. The sound produced by the Celestial Choir inside the Miracle Temple of Avenue ‘D’ was nothing less than symphonic. And it’s been that way ever since they were first formed, banded together like so many strings and woodwinds in Willie’s orchestra. They provided the audible perfume, as pure and sweet as the oil used by the Magdalene to anoint the holy feet of the God. Gabrielle’s trumpet would be hard pressed to produce such a magnificent sound; and not even the famed horn of Joshua, the one that brought down the towering walls of Jericho with one heroic blast, could duplicate a single note. No heavenly harp could come close to such a magical melody, not even if struck by the hand of Saint Patrick himself.

These were familiar sounds, colorful notes, long-winded and scored, that somehow managed to combine both major and minor scales in such new and varying ways so as to create a whole new musical dynamic. It’s what musicologists would later come to describe as ‘blue notes’, which in turn would later be shortened simply to ‘the blues’, sung not so much in the contemporary style of latter-day ‘bluesmen’ such as the venerable ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton or ‘Blind Lemon’ Jefferson, but in its more original and lively composition. It’s that paradoxical mixture of melancholy and joy manifested in its purest form which would become a National treasure. It was homegrown, cultivated in our own backyard, and sold on the streets like moonshine whiskey and home made apple pie. It’s the American folksong, later to evolve into something we now call ‘jazz’; a contradiction, perhaps, but a good one; a hybrid, the bastard child of New York Irish immigrants and old Negro slaves, born in Brooklyn and baptized in the muddy waters of the Mississippi Delta – Pure Americana! a noble and righteous experiment, not unlike the Republic itself that birthed it in the first place, our own self-edifying and fledgling democracy, which would last, as one founding father so eloquently admonished, ‘…as long as we could keep it’. It can be heard in the crime-ridden streets of Chicago all the way down to Bourbon Street in Ol’ New Orleans, and everywhere in-between. We all know the words; we’ve all been there at one time or another. The melody never changes and the song remains the same. It’s the hymn of hope, the song of salvation, the story of the simple and hard lives lived by simple and hard people and put to music. It was a sound that would linger in the hall of the Temple long after everyone was gone and the last note faded away. It was the sound of glory, in all its reds, whites… and blues.

At the head of the Temple stood a plain wooden rostrum covered with a white linen tablecloth. Behind the rostrum were placed four wooden thrones, conspicuously inscribed with the names of each of the four canonized authors of the Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These were, of course, reserved for the Deacons and Elders of the Church who were presently standing on their feet and singing, rather stoically it would seem, along with the Celestial Choir of angels as they waited patiently for the mater of ceremonies to arrive. Between the sainted seats and the holy rostrum was a small wooden table which served as a simple but functional altar. It was covered with a white linen cloth. And on the altar stood a small golden tabernacle arched by the wings of two angels placed there in the traditional manner prescribed by Hebrew Law. Altars as such, although considered an oddity in more Fundamentalist settings, were commonplace in the Old Testament, particularly among the old Jewish patriarchs, including Father Abraham who built many of them, including the one reserved for his own sacrificial son, himself. They were generally consigned to the Roman Catholic Faith, along with their animated crucifixes, confessionals, stations of the cross, and statues; particularly those of the various saints and the Blessed Virgin which many found equally inappropriate, if not offensive.

It was Willie’s idea, of course – the altar, that is – and one he insisted upon, quite adamantly in fact, and despite numerous objections to the sacrificial furniture which many considered too….well, too papal. Solo Scriptura! was the voice of the new Reformation (never mind the fact that Scriptures themselves were a product of famous first century Catholics like Polycarp and Clement 1) and the cry of the Baptist! There would be no room for statues of saints and martyrs, let alone one of the Holy Mother, in the bare and barren halls of the Calvinists. It seemed that their sympathies, as well as their sensibilities, tended to agree more with their Protestant brethren who viewed such idolatrous ‘trappings’ with an eye of suspicion, if not contempt, which would explain not only their lack of reverence towards such sacred images but their ignorance of Jewish history as well, and the culture it so richly inspired. Nor would they know, or even consider, all the great art, literature, and music produced and carried on in the same Levitical tradition by the Holy Catholic Church which provided them with not only a past, flawed perhaps as all histories and institutions are, but their Bibles as well, canonized by Constantine, printed in the King James Version they clung to so dearly, and carried across the globe by priests and missionaries when Luther was still studying his catechism. Surely, King David would be more familiar, and perhaps even more at home, in the grand cathedral of Saint Peter’s Basilica, under the dome surrounded by so much incense, gold and priceless works of art, than he would be in the bare and barren austerity of Martin Luther’s cloistered monastery. At least there would be an altar… like the one inside the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’. And perhaps, Jesus would too. “Besides,” Willie would argue, quite forcefully and logically in fact, and with that special blend of brilliance and bewilderment recognized by those in the rural community simply as ‘good ol’ fashioned horse sense’: ‘How can you have an ‘altar call’… without an altar?!” It just wouldn’t work.

It actually came straight out of Willie’s kitchen and was once used as a chopping block for cutting the famous pork ribs, the bloodstains of which could still be seen upon close examination. On either side of the butcher-block altar stood two great candles, each about half a foot in diameter and tapering up approximately six feet off the floor. They were caked in layer upon layer of hardened wax that dripped over the sides like frozen rivulets of lava cascading down from the hallowed summit that housed the inner mounting flame. The candles were white, of course; pale and milky-white, like the surface substance of the moon as viewed on a cloudless night, and as pure as the Heavenly Host itself. Supported at the base by twin porcelain-lined brass candle-holders large enough to have served as camber pots, which they actually did in a previous utility, the vertical stems were chiefly composed of that sappy white substance know in the whaling industry as spermaceti. It was the main ingredient in many candles manufactured at that time, as well as the most expensive, which, when ignited, gave off a sweet and pleasant aroma. Sperm oil was the fuel that kept a million lamps burning long in the night when all other lamps went out in an otherwise dark and dangerous world. It also gave off a distinctive orange glow that was both long-lasting and penetrating, much, one could easily imagine, as the light of Galadriel shining forth from the Frodo’s phial in the deep dark dungeons of Shelob’s silky liar. In a Promethean sort of way, it was nothing less than fire from the god’s; not stolen like a thief, but hunted, harpooned, boiled down and barreled, and sold by the ton to the highest bidder. Time and charity permitted, the Deacons of the Temple would empty out the glandular vessels, giving the excess wax to the poor who in turn would recycle the waxy oil into hand-held candlesticks: modest miniatures, you might say, of those former white towers, and more suitable to their own domestic needs.

Behind the altar, hung a large wooden cross. Not just any cross, but a full-scale Roman crucifix in all its barbaric beauty and simplicity. It was gift, actually, donated to the church by an old German family, the Gettlers, who’d recently migrated to Old Port Fierce and who were, among other talents, gifted in the classic art of wood sculpturing, something they’d apparently learned and perfected in that part of the old world where religion, Christianity in particular, and great works of art are synonymous. And on the elevated cross was the life-sized representation of the crucified Lord, lifted up like a Moses’ bronze serpent in the desert, just as he might have appeared almost two thousand years ago on a hilltop outside Jerusalem as hung on a cross between two thieves and perished. The detail was exquisitely authentic, right down to the square-headed nails driven through the wrist and ankles (as opposed to the hands and feet, as erroneously depicted on inferior renderings of the Holy execution, which simply would not support the weight of the condemned) along with the traditional crown of thorns, the rivulets of blood, and so many wounded stripes, well over a hundred, carved intricately into the wood at various angles evincing a scourging which far exceeded the typical thirty-nine lashes, the maximum allowed by Jewish law at the time, marking the body of the crucified Lord. And if a picture can tell a thousand words, then the image hanging at the head of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit spoke volumes. And what was it said was this: somebody, or something, didn’t want it to go this far. It was almost as if the scourging alone was supposed to have killed the Nazarene before he was able to accomplish that which he was sent to earth to do. It simply wasn’t meant to happen this way. But it did! And to the horror of the devil and all the angels in hell, the words ’It is finished’ were finally uttered, once and for all, through those cracked and blood-stained lips of the Crucified Redeemer, fulfilling the Scriptures, conquering death on the cross, and tearing the Temple vale in two in the process. And thank God he did! It was the only way; it was the perfect way. Even from a good distance, located as he was in the back of the church, Elmo could make out each and every gruesome detail carved into the wooden icon. Naturally, it made the Harlie think, more than once, of a similar cross Homer had brought up into the mountains over a year ago, only on a smaller scale; the same gothic crucifix he’d planted in the consecrated soil of Mount Wainwright not far from the cratered cave where it all began, and ended. The similarities were overwhelming, and eerily so. He simply couldn’t take his eyes off it. Nor would he.

As previously mentioned, there were two bronze statues strategically placed on either side of the golden tabernacle centered on the wooden platform thereof. Protecting the tabernacle and the sacred contents within, the wings of the cherubim arched symmetrically over the arc of the covenant, as they did three thousand years ago in the Holy of Holies, not unlike the flaming swords posted at the threshold of Paradise. Simply put, they were saying: You may come hither, but no further. For within the blessed sanctuary were not twin tablet of stone, but rather the heavenly Host Himself, in all his transubstantiated glory, contained therein the bread of life he instructed his disciples, the night before he died, to partake of in memory of His Holy presence. And to further commemorate the prophetic events about to take place, at which all His disciples, save one, would flee in fear, stood another familiar statue not far from crucified Christ. It was that of a woman, draped in gown of flowing marble, the folds of the fabric frozen in time and place like those seen adorning the Greco-Roman art of antiquity. The outer layer of stone was hand-painted, or so it seemed, blue and white; the colors of truth and virginity; the true colors of Israel. All that was missing was the six-pointed Star of David. It was the image of the Madonna, of course, the Mother of God, her head hung low, sadly, lips slightly parted, praying perhaps; her eyes forever fixed on the her dying son who once nursed at those same virgin breast. ‘Mother, behold they son.’

Directly over the life-like crucifix, hung a long white banner nailed to the interior beam spanning the width of the structure. And on that singular white sheet was a message: an admonition, really; like a page torn from the Bible itself and suspended from the ceiling for all to see and take warning, only magnified. The letters were big, black and bold; not unlike those solicitously painted on billboards and political placards scattered throughout the legalistic landscape, the slogans of which fade like flowers in the field, but with a far more potent and powerful message, and with a much wider audience. The message was crisp and clear, free from misinterpretation; there was no ambiguity about it: JUDGE NOT LEAST YE BE JUDGED. It the first plank in Willie’s solidly constructed platform. He put it there himself; nailed it to the wall, so to speak, and hammered it home four days a week at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit with the same thunderous strokes heard throughout Christendom as when Martin Luther famously tacked his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, only not as defiantly and with a little more sympathy and respect than that the old reformer who may’ve had a few demons of his own to exorcize.

It was a simple message; easy to read and, for those who simply couldn’t read and had to have it read for them, just as easy to understand. It was also easy to digest, just like the miracle ribs themselves, and pleasing to the palate. JUDGE NOT LEAST YE BE JUDGED. It was a sermon for the ages; one that never went out of favor or fashion. And it was Willie’s favorite; the same one he would deliver that day at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’. He knew it well – by heart! He’d been rehearsing it for years; but, given the complexities and prejudices of the human condition, it wasn’t always an easy message to deliver, especially in a place like Shadytown where judgments were always at a premium and not only reserved for hypocrites and fools, of which there was also a plentiful supply of. But hypocrisy knows no boundaries and discrimination can be found anywhere, on both sides of the invisible tracks, as well as the Iron Gates of Harley, and all lands in-between. Prejudice comes in many colors, as well as black and white. It is young and old, and has no gender. It welcomes sinners and saints alike. Prejudice does not discriminate. Sometimes it may even be justified; but never to be confused with discernment. We deal with it as best we can, on our own terms, in our own time, and usually on our own turf. Humility is often our best defense; although at times, like the bully that it actually is, Prejudice deserves a bloody nose, and gets it. But not all bullies are bad; some just need a little more persuading than others. And that’s where Willie B. Wright came in. That’s what he was there for. Not to judge (although he’d be perfectly in his right to do so) but simply to expose it, even if that meant exposing himself. That’s his job. That’s what he does.

On the rostrum in front of the pews was placed a small bottle of olive oil along with a Bible so old and thickly worn that it may well have been penned by the Evangelist himself, Saint Matthew; touched, perhaps, by the hand of Constantine at the Council of Nicene, approved by King James, and blessed by the Pope. Dog-eared and thumb-marked by pious preachers of the past, long since dead and buried, the Holy Text presently lie face open where it would be read from four days a week as Willie B. Wright pounded the sacred parchment, turning sinners into saints and flesh into spirit just as he’d been doing for over ten years now with the same zealous conviction. And he wasn’t alone. Shadytown was full of such Evangelists, some more effective than other; all with their own congregations and their own special recipe for saving souls; although none could compare the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’… especially when it came to the ribs.

They came from all over, these colorful men of the cloth, and from every walk of life. They could be found on almost every street corner, along with the pimps and prostitutes, the hustlers and has-beens, preaching to the choir, so-to-speak; the street-urchins and passers-by, or whoever else they could persuade with their tin-cups and silver-tongue oratory. Typically, however, they could be found heading up the many churches that sprung up in the northern part of town ever since the days of Erasmus Harley, the old slave himself, a self-ordained minister in the ubiquitous, efficacious and non-denominational Universal Church of God, and a foot-soldier in Jehovah’s ever-expanding army.

They were Negroes, of course; but there was always a white face to be found among the black shepherds of Avenue ‘D’, along with the occasional stray white sheep that would eventually finds its way into predominately colored parishes of Old Port Fierce .These were the high-priests, the rabbis, the imams, the bishops, the holy men of Shady town, although, as it is all social experiments, Democrat or Republican, some were more holy than others; and they were legion. They spelled out each and every word of God on a daily basis, usually on Sundays and holy days of obligation; and each in his own unique style. But the message was always the same. It was the song of Salvation! And it was preached with all the passion and enthusiasm as it once was by a handful of frightened fisherman from Galilee once their eyes, and their hearts, were opened by the Holy Spirit. It was a personal invitation signed, stamped and sealed by Saint Peter himself; delivered by the apostle Paul, perhaps, on his way to Damascus, like a one-way ticket to Paradise, paid in advance and with no expiration date. And it worked. It still worked! – right there on Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown, even on a Fat Moon Friday when divers dared to dive so deep, and all the world an oyster. In reality, however, it was a sinful and shameful time in Old Port Fierce; and, of course, that included Shadytown. Times change, and not always for the better many would woefully agree; unless, that is, you happened to be the owner of one of the many bars, brothels or gambling halls presently lining the infamous street better known as Avenue ‘D’. And if that were the case… well, then business was never better.

As it were, the old port city was currently overflowing with corruption; a city in decay, slowly backsliding into a place the original founders would hardly recognize if somehow stirred from their sleepy slumbering stones. Old Port Fierce had always been a busy port; that much had not changed. But along with their hopes, aspirations, and whatever baggage they dragged along with them, including the kind that eat and breathe, many of the local transients brought along their sins of the past: transgressions that were unwelcome at first, tolerated at least; and finally, accepted at last. The most dangerous of these transgressions, and the one most deleterious to the social fabric that made up the colorful tapestry known as Old Port Fierce, was the latest to arrive on the docks of Old Port Fierce. It had no particular face; but it did have a name. It was called Complacency. Simply stated: No one cared; at least not as much as they used to, and certainly not as much as they should have. For under the decadent orange lights of Shadytown, the criminal elements and their sinister sisters prospered in all their ignominious glory; and they too had a name. They were the pimps and prostitutes, the muggers and murderers, the merchants and mercenaries, the con-artist, the panhandlers and, of course, the street-urchins. They lived, for the most part, in squalor, in saloons and gaming houses, bars and brothels, or wherever else they could hang their stolen hats and survive in the self-imposed prisons they’d not only created for themselves but felt most comfortable in. They had many voices, many faces. Their vices were legend; their numbers, legion. They called the streets their own. Who would deny them? Where else would these poor hungry souls go to rest their homeless heads? And who would protect them from the ‘Crouching Lion’ that lay in the guttered streets like the Biblical roaring beast of antiquity waiting to devour each and every one of them?

Crouched in the filth and squalor of human degradation and ready to spring, this mythical beast of Shadytown waited patiently for its victims. And just like the Hellhound of Harley that posed an equal, if not identical, threat to the citizenry of that particular township, the Crouching Lion of Avenue ‘D’ could, and would, be just as lethal and difficult to avoid. No one was safe, and few were spared, even at the consecrated doorsteps of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit. This was one hungry cat, folks. And it would stop at nothing; sniffing, scratching and clawing for every last morsel that might slip through the tiniest cracks of the old mahogany door. It was there, even in the very sanctuary of hope, the lion would make its deadly move, and spring! – devouring men, women, and children alike, crushing their bones, drinking their blood, and spitting out the remains back into the sewers that lined the cobblestoned street known as Avenue ‘D’. But through it all, the Temple remained (perhaps in need of a little repair now and then as all institutions are – secular and religious) and stood tall, which was indeed the greatest miracle of all. It worked. It had to work. And it worked because Willie made sure that it did work, each and every day and night, at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit in a place called Shadytown.

Standing conspicuously on either side of the four seated apostles, at the very head of the Temple were two closed doors: one specifically designated for men; the other, for women only; and each marked accordingly. These were the personal facilities, the toilets of the Temple, if you will, that provided relief and comfort to the congregation whenever they were needed. They were frequented as often as necessary and as physical needs demanded. Naturally, the door marked ‘WOMENS’ was perpetually opening and closing during any given service and locked from within when in use. The ‘MENS’ facilities, however, were not so frequented and seldom indispensible; in fact, they were hardly ever in use; many of the male parishioners preferring to relive themselves, if but for one brief and satisfying moment and providing no one was looking, outdoors, especially on hot summer days such as these when a cool breeze was a welcomed relief from the fire and brimstone Willie was sometimes known to shower down on his faithless flock as a grim reminder of things to come on that great and terrible day of the Lord! It also happened to be the fastest and easiest way to escape the simmering odor of so many perspiring bodies concentrated together in such close quarters which could, especially in the heat of the night, be almost as unbearable as the fire and brimstone itself. Possessing no particular preference in that early stages of physiological development, the children of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit simply used whichever door happened to be the open at the time and closest at hand, with little deference given to modesty and hardly an ounce of embarrassment. But sometimes even they would have to wait in line, as children often do in these situations, regardless of the urgency.’ Suffer the little children...’ so sayeth the Lord. But just don’t make them wait too long. It could get rather messy.

Naturally, these lively services, which would sometimes last right up until the early hours of the dawn, required large volumes of water to quench the thirst of the faithful and keep dehydration to a minimum. These precious fluids were kept in a large vase-like cistern, embossed with the seal of David and, not unlike the Arch of the Covenant itself, plated in gold-leaf. The container stood stoically in between each of the two restroom doors, like an oasis springing out of an Egyptian desert, and was frequented throughout the service in order to put out the tongues of fire whenever the flame became a little too high, and perhaps a little too hot to handle. The Samaritan woman at the well surely would have been overjoyed at such a thirst-quenching experience, and drank of it just as freely as she would from Jacob’s well over two thousand years ago in the presence of the Lord. The ceramic cistern was periodically refreshed by any one of the four apostles and blessed by the hand of Reverend Willie B. Wright himself. For this was holy water! as pure and fresh as the life sustaining liquid that was forced from the rock by Moses’ disobedient hand in the scorching sands of the Sinai. Like the purifying water of the Jordan that once baptized the head of God, it was meant to quench the both body and soul. No wonder it was so popular! Naturally, the sanctified jug was highly appreciated and frequented often, especially during one of Willie Wright’s more heated and emotional sermons which were famous for their longevity as well as the draining affect they had on his captured audience. It was usually during such fiery oratory, when physical and spiritual planes collide, often violently, as a force bursting forth with great efficiency and the subsequent energy release thereof, ejaculating, as fire from the mouth of a cannon, in one orgasmic-like explosion, when, in the throes of such an eruptive event, the sacrosanct cistern was put to its most utilitarian use. As in all highly combustible situations, water is often the substance of choice to put out the fire. Needless-to-say, no one ever went thirsty at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ – or hungry for that matter, as we shall soon see.

From the back of the church, and looking over so many hallowed heads bobbing up and down, this way and that, Elmo Cotton observed this magnificent vessel and the many mouths that drank from it so freely. He also noticed a half dozen or so feminine bodies forming a line on the left side of the rostrum in front of the bathroom door marked ‘WOMENS’, which was presently being exited by an enormously large woman with cannonball breasts. She appeared pleasantly satisfied and refreshed, ready to resume her previous position in the front pew of the Miracle Temple as she forcefully made her way back through the crowd like a mother hen carelessly stampeding her own chicks in the process. With man-like hands, the fat woman picked up her angel-wings, reclaimed her wooden throne next to her exasperated husband, and continued where she’d left off, fanning her own famously fat neck and singing in the most high-pitched voice the Harlie had ever heard come from such an enormous mass of Humanity, male or female. Meanwhile, the lines at the head of the Temple grew longer as the saturated souls waiting patiently, albeit nervously, for their own chance to relieve themselves in the comfort of the Lord. When the door on the right finally flew open, the one marked MENS, in rushed a tall young man all dressed in black. He ran inside so quickly, in fact, and so gratefully that anyone with a Biblical imagination may’ve wondered if Saint Peter had not, out of sheer pity perhaps, flung open the door and ushered the poor fellow in himself.

The pump organ stood not far from the Celestial Choir. A tall lanky fellow with a slightly balding head was seated at then bench, riding his long ebony fingers up and down the keyboard as though his very life depended on it. Beside him sat a young woman with blossoming breasts. She was beating to death an old snare (one she claimed to have pried from the cold dead hands of a Yankee soldier) with long wooden drumsticks, presumably confiscated from the same fallen foe. The sound of the paradiddles echoed throughout the building, just as they once did on the bloody fields of Antietam. For reasons we can all understand, at least those of us who have survived the challenges of parenthood, the sound of the snare only made the Harlie homesick. Naturally, it made him think of his son, Little Ralph, and how boldly the boy would bang the copper kettle under the kitchen table home back in Harley, in similar fashion and usually at the most inappropriate time. He smiled at the virgin drummer whose eyes, like those of a steadfast trooper beating a path straight through enemy lines, remained forever fixed on the banner flying overhead and the message it conveyed. Meanwhile Sherman placed his nephew on top of his arching shoulders so that he might get a better view from the back of the Temple. With his blanket still wrapped about the boy’s shoulder and draping a good portion of the turtle’s protruding head, together they looked very much like one very tall man wearing a long overcoat with a body disproportionately too large for his child-like head. If not so conspicuously odd and out of place, it might even be considered comical.

Adding to the rhythm section of the Temple orchestra was a lanky white man with a long, and somewhat somber-looking, face. He was strumming an old beat-up guitar, which, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how in tune it was any given moment, was barely audible and, at times, out of tune. This was perhaps due to the excessive volume of the other instruments, both man-made and vocal, which seemed to overpower the poor fellow at every stroke of the strings, but also because he simply did not want to stand out, either visibly or audibly, and thus restrained himself accordingly. He was one of those quiet and shy individuals, a stranger in a strange land; an albino, if you will, in a sea of so many black faces. And like the wing-weary albatross aloft at sea that happens to light upon some wayward island in the middle of the Pacific only to discover that it’s inhabited by a grim gathering of cannibalistic condors, he balks at first, and then reconsiders, driven by hunger and fatigue perhaps, and eventually finds a home among the savage birds of prey; all the while, of course, keeping his anonymity, with its purity and whiteness firmly intact, as well as his distance. Needless-to-say, the reticent troubadour looked strangely out of place, and perhaps a little nervous, as any Caucasian would under the circumstances. But he was obviously a man of many talents and grace who, despite an admitted lack of faith and low self-esteem, appeared happy enough just to be there at the time, along with his trusty Gibson. And who knows? He might even have gotten saved in the process.

The horn section of the celestial orchestra consisted of one saxophone and two trumpets manned (or wo-manned, as the case may be) by their corresponding musicians. There was also an old man puffing on an old trombone who looked as though he was having a difficult time just keeping up with the younger and more long-winded members of the band as he slid the long hallow tube in and out of its housing. But he somehow managed under the improvised conditions, and actually seemed to be enjoying himself, as most old men often do, regardless of the occasion or the input they provide.

Standing in the Kingdom Hall that evening, Elmo Cotton imagined he could’ve plowed forty acres in the time it took for the celestial choir to get through the opening doxology, In the Color of the Lord. And just when it looked like they might finally be finished, the subsequent ‘AMEN!’ or ‘ALLELUIA!’ would suddenly sound out, from out of nowhere it would seem, fueling the fire and forcing the choir to begin all over again. It just didn’t seem to end. And neither did the stomping, the shouting, the clapping, the blowing, the beating, the strumming, or whatever others sounds could be vocalized or produced just then at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’. And even when the volume was decreased to a decibel level low enough to accommodate normal conversation, there always seemed to be someone in the crowd who would suddenly and invariably, as if on cue, stand up and shout out yet another ‘AMEN!’ or ‘ALLELUIA!’ thus starting the whole process all over again, only louder this time. There just seemed to be no end in sight, or sound.

And there, right there in one of the mahogany pews, not too far from where the Harlie himself was presently located, stood Regina Sophia Johnson. Only now, absent the painted on face of lipstick and rouge that only an hour ago concealed her true identify, Elmo finally recognized her. Oley had seen right through the disguise all along, of course; but never mentioned it. He was either too frightened or too ashamed, both perhaps. The turtle noticed her as well, as he too penetrated the mysterious red mask. Now, more so than ever, he was glad that his good friend and neighbor never found the nickel he was looking for. And so was Elmo.

As usual for such a reverential occasion, and despite her previous attire, Regina Johnson was presently dressed in her finest church-going outfit, which consisted chiefly of a long blue dress, a pink hat, and a wide yellow ribbon draped sensually about her slender waist, all trimmed out all in white lace and gold. The hat she wore barely exposed her long black hair, which, for reasons of anonymity, she kept tied up in a bun in the customary fashion of the occasion. The long-sleeved gloves she wore were as white as virgin wool, and went all the way up to her elbows. Her eyes and hands were raised to Heaven, her voice mixing and mingling with those of the Celestial Choir. Evidently, she was taken up, or so it seemed, in the many sounds and colors of the Lord, along with everyone else in the Temple that day. It was a sight Elmo would remember for the rest of his life. And suddenly, caught up in the moment as well, the Harlie found himself and singing right along, familiar enough with the words by now which his wife would sometimes sings while pumping a churn or feeding the chickens.

In the house of the Lord, I’m a’prayin’!
In the light of the Lord, I see!
In the fields of the Lord, I’m a’singin!
In the color of the Lord, I’ll be!”

Perhaps he thinking more about Regina Johnson and less about his own wife than he should have at the moment, not to mention the Good Lord Himself who’d brought him this far. Holding an ambivalent attitude towards religion in general, up until recently at least, Elmo Cotton had been to the local Baptist church in Harley only a handful of times: getting married was one of them; getting buried would probably be the last; if he was allowed back, that is. He was beginning to wonder if he would ever go back at all. It would take more than a miracle, he sometimes imagined, and perhaps a coffin, supplied by Lester Cox no doubt, along with the standard money back guarantee, which his poor wife would probably end up paying for anyway. Not that he still didn’t believe in them, mind you – miracles, that is – along with coffins and money back guarantees. He did! He just didn’t understand how or why they happened; or why they happened to some folks some of the time, and not to all the folks all of the time. And they always happened to some folks more than others. It just weren’t fair, and neither were miracles. It wasn’t right, he sometimes argued with the mule. And most troublesome of all, he once shouted at the animal for no reason in particular: ‘Now how comes it’s always thems that needs a miracle the most, who got them the least? While thems that don’t needs them at all, or even asked for thems in the first place, sometimes gets them the most? It was all very confusing; as confusing back then as it was right now for the disheartened Harlie; and perhaps the mule as well. Maybe the spirits of the night were right after all, Homer would surely agree; if he was there at the moment, that is, to explain to Elmo the simple secret he’d learned himself not too long ago up on top of a mountain at the end of a long dark tunnel: ‘Themes that wants, don’t get…’ The spirits of the night knew. They always knew. That’s why they were spirits.

For whatever reason miracles always seemed to happen to someone else, never to Elmo Cotton; especially when he needed one the most, like the time he beaten like an animal and thrown into prison, or up on top of the mountain at the end of his own long dark tunnel. He still prayed, however, but not as often as he should have. And even when he did, his prayers sounded more like compromises, a little give and take, as if God had nothing better to do (as if He didn’t have enough with a fallen race and the entire Universe to worry about) than banter about with a wayward raccoon that had no intention of living up to his end of the bargain anyway. Lately, however infrequent and few, it seemed that all his prayers were in vain; either that, or they were simply left unanswered. There was nothing worse than being ignored by God; unless, of course, what Elmo took for ignorance was actually indifference, which was even worse, he couldn’t help but wonder. It not only weakened his faith, but made him more cynical over the years. But he also knew that there was still much for him to learn; not necessarily about religion, but about God Himself, if that was possible. What the Harlie raccoon might have realized at the time, had he been more open to interpretation of such spiritual matters and knew what was good for him, was that prayer, like all other petitions offered up to Heaven, often for good and righteous reasons and not always in vain, is sometimes answered in the negative. There are times when ‘No’ is not only the right answer… it is the only answer. And thank God for that! Why should He have to prove anything? To anyone! Wasn’t one Miracle enough? And isn’t that what we are really asking for in all our meaningless mutterings – proof of His eternal existence? Hey, be careful of what you ask for. You just might get it; even though you don’t know what it is at the time and probably don’t even deserve it. Look at Brother Job; or poor Lazarus for that matter who, deservingly or not, was perhaps still shaking the grave-dust from his bandaged feet as he was dragged, against his own will some will suggest, back down to mortal earth to die all over again; and by the same God who allowed him to perish in the first place. But why? you may ask. Just to prove that it could be done? Isn’t that what miracles are all about, some will argue – proof! Unfortunately, they still are; and most still ask. But not Willie! In fact, despite a phenomenal reputation in that specialized field of metaphysics that is so often co-opted by frauds and charlatans who peddle their pricey miracles from the pulpit like so many snake-oil salesmen, Willie held a different view on the celestial subject all together. He actually looked forward to the day when miracles, like our own measly bodies doomed to dust, are no longer necessary. ‘Oh! ye’ of little faith’. As if one Jonah wasn’t enough.

But it wasn’t so much Elmo’s lack of faith (although that too can ebb and flow even among the saints) that’d caused him to be so hard and cynical at times, but rather his lack of spirit. But as the real Miracle-Maker once professed in his own beneficial and benevolent way at the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’ And surely, Elmo would have liked to believe, He must’ve had a poor and frightened raccoon in mind when he said it, ‘For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Then, suddenly, from a small door fixed in the very back of the Temple all but invisible to the congregational eye that was by then dilating with eager anticipation, out stepped the Most Reverend Willie B. Wright, supreme chef the grand master of ceremonies, and Miracle-Maker deluxe.

But he was more than that. For you see, aside from pastor, preacher, priest, bishop and pope, at least within the confines of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D, Willie B. Wright was also butcher, baker, chief custodian, guardian, gardener, carpenter, mason, janitor, and general handyman all rolled into one humble and portly package, tied up in an apron string, and capped with a navy blue pea-hat. Taking to the rostrum, as he did so many times before, Reverend Wright waited patiently to begin. It took a while, but finally, after so many joyful choruses of ‘In the Color of the Lord’ and so many jump-start shouts of AMEN!’ or ‘ALLELUIA! with Willie acknowledging each and every open of them with a simple but solemn nod of the head or wink of an eye, the service was about to begin. It didn’t take very long;, only long enough for all the singing, shouting, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, drum-beating, horn-blowing, guitar-strumming, organ-grinding noise to simmer down to a reasonable level, which by then sounded almost like a prayer, a whispering hymn, with organ humming softly, gently, in the background, interrupted only by the occasional and obligatory ‘AMEN!’ That was not only welcomed but necessary, and to be expected.

Removing the gravy-stained apron and folding it in the customary fashion, the Miracle-Maker placed it gently on the arm of his chair, an arm-stool placed behind the pulpit which he’d borrowed for the kitchen, and one rarely occupied. And then, for a brief and solemn moment, he turned his back to the congregation and knelt before the wooden altar for a private moment of silent prayer. It was the customary signal, known to one and all, that Willie was officially assuming his responsibilities and ready to commence with the benediction. As the faithful flock sat anxiously in the pews, all eyes were cast upon the altar; and, of course, the Most Reverend Willie B. Wright.

Hearts skipped a beat; everyone exhaled. Suddenly, all was quiet inside the Miracle Temple and nothing could be heard, except for the sound of the pump organ humming softly in the background, the shuffling of a few stray feet, the turning of a page and, of course, the solemn sound made by the angel-wings as they silently stirred the holy oxygen within the heated sanctuary. And right on cue, as if they’d rehearsed it for a hundred years, the four apostles appeared, taking their appropriate places in their thrones at the head of the church. They seated themselves directly behind the pastor, each in his own personal and designated chair, in much the same distinguished way the four authors of the Holy Text will undoubtedly position themselves behind the awesome White Throne on that great and terrible Day of Judgment.

Reverend Willie B. Wright was not a large man; but he was big, with small brown hands and a moon-shaped face. His complexion was fair, for a colored man that is; and he had rather large nose, and his eyes were often red with blood, which sometimes make him appear as if he’d been drinking a little too much of the sacramental wine. Despite what others may’ve thought, or preached, at the time Willie still regarded the consecrated wine, along with the Eucharistic bread, as the actual body and blood of the Crucified Christ. And why shouldn’t he? After all, it was Jesus himself who instituted the holy sacraments the night before he was crucified. It was not a recommendation, nor was it a suggested. It was never meant to be. It was a commandment: ‘Take this and eat of it, all of you. This is my body….’ And likewise He took the cup… There is no ambiguity about it; no mistake. ‘My body… My blood’. Not a semblance of; not a substitute for; nor any other metaphysical facsimile thereof! It was, and it is, the real thing! Just like He said it was, and is Of course, there will always be those who simply don’t believe, But to all you doubting Thomases out there (and you know who you are) consider this: If the Creator of the Universe, the Maker of all things visible and invisible, is able to plant Himself in the virgin womb of a teenage Jewess and grow from a zygote, to a fetus, and finally into a fully developed human being not unlike the rest of us, is it so improbable then, or impossible, for that same omnipotent and Almighty Being to perform the simple and undaunting task of changing a measly piece of bread and a small cup of wine into his the same un-evicerated substance as His own holy body and blood? It is exactly what He said it is. Otherwise, He wouldn’t have said it, nor done it for that matter, in the first place.

Willie wore a simple and plain gray suit that had stitched and patched over the years in many different places. The jacket itself appeared to have been tailored for a much younger, and perhaps thinner, man at one time; but it seemed to fit him well and do him justice, in a comfortable, if not fashionable, sort of way. Visibly seen beneath the Miracle-Maker’s coat were a plain white shirt and a bright red tie. Both were stained with the same barbecue sauce and gravy previously ascribed to the arm-chaired apron. Willie’s pants were pulled well up over his ever-expanding waist, the way older men prefer, and tied with a simple knotted rope, in the spirit and fashion of the poor Franciscan himself, Francis of Assisi; one of Willie’s favorite saints. The preacher’s shoes were old, but had been shined so many times that he could still make out his reflection on the patent-leather surface every time he lowered his hallowed head, which he often did during the service, chiefly out of reverence for his holy surroundings.

His demeanor was that of a simple and humble man; and, if you didn’t know any better, you just might take him for a janitor or general handyman, which, as previously mentioned, he actually was. There was a quiet dignity about the man, this friendly friar of Avenue ‘D’, which further separated him from his fellow ministers in and around Old Port Fierce. In many ways, he was just your typical unassuming colored man; but there was an air about him (and I’m not just talking about the smell of barbecue sauce and burning charcoal) along with a noticeable ‘heaviness’, a certain gravitas, if you will, that defined the old man in all his present character. Call it experience. Maybe it was just the wisdom that naturally came with years of caring and sharing, selflessly, with no expectations and without ambition, that set Willie Wright apart from his contemporaries who sometimes demanded more of their congregations than they did of themselves, which made them not only hypocrites, but liars and well. And Willie would often tell them so – right to their sanctimonious faces! But he was also quick to forgive, and actually felt sorry for these fools, many of whom he considered traitors to the church who would break their vows, along with the orders, in a holy heartbeat and were undeserving of the robes they wrapped themselves in with the impunity, anonymity, and the self-righteousness they so desperately desired. But Willie was different. He was the real deal; the good shepherd; unpretentious and unafraid. He knew who he was, and so did his sheep. They recognized him. There was something about him… something a child might hear in the sound of her mother’s voice, or feel in the gentle touch of her grandfather’s otherwise knotted and gnarly hand. And he was always there.

The pastor of Avenue ‘D’ was a quiet man by nature, reserved, who sometimes spoke in whispering thoughts. But Willie could also be loud, especially towards the ends of his more urgently inspired sermons, when his voice could be heard for miles around, booming at times like the sound of recoiling cannon fire or thunder rolling over the rooftop. In many respects, he seemed to possess a dual personality (not unlike a certain Red-Bearded colonel we have all come to know, but in an entirely different sense and by no means as diabolically possessed). His was a self-controlled schizophrenia which Willie used to his advantage: one aspect of his personality adopted for ordinary occasions, such as socializing or performing the various administrative duties that came with the cloth of his ministry; the other side, less observed but by far the more dominant and dynamic, which was strictly reserved for, and put into practice, whenever Willie took the stage inside the temple. It was the voice of the shepherd, loud and clear; and the sheep heeded it well. It was then when Willie was at the top of his game: doing what he did best… what he was born to do. And what was that, you may be asking? Simple! It was to preach the gospel of Truth in the face of all falsehood, though it lead him at times in the bloody footsteps of saints and martyred that went before him: into the heathenish heart of hell, if indeed that’s where they led him, and beyond. He would do it gladly, willingly, and usually with a smile on his face. It wasn’t necessarily a holy transformation, as some would suspect; although that too was always possible. It was a natural one! not unlike the metamorphosis his congregation would undergo four days a week at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown. It was something the Miracle-Maker once eloquently described, metaphorically at least, as the ‘vital transformation.’ Whatever it was, Willie had it in spades. Some called it a gift, a miracle; and perhaps that’s what it was. And maybe that’s why they called him the Miracle-Maker.

When not conducting church services, or cooking up ribs in his famous Barbecue Pit, Willie was really little different than anyone else in his ever-expanding congregation, modestly dressed and unassuming in all other physical aspects. The only piece of clothing he wore that day that seemed to stand out was the white apron tied about his waist which seemed as much a part of his normal attire by now as his shirt and trousers. It was stained, of course, despite the fact that it had been washed many times over, as most aprons are. He also wore a simple navy blue pea-cap that seemed to be inextricably glued to the top his hallowed head. It was the kind of hat sailors often wore, usually the older ones who never let them go out of fashion, buttoned down at the visor and riding high and flat over the forehead. Circumferencing the lower rim of the pea-hat was a thin line of tiny silver springs which was all that remained of a once healthy head of nappy black curls. A woman who thought she knew better once suggested that Willie worn it – the hat, that is – merely to cover a bald spot on the back of his graying head. She may’ve been right about that; but it was something you would only noticed if and when Willie ever took off the hat, which happened so infrequently, usually at night and behind closed doors, that the chances of ever proving such a scandalous proposition were improbable at best. So don’t even think about it. Willie never did. Not anymore anyway.

His face, clean-shaven most of the time, was slightly wrinkled, particularly about the eyes, which gave evidence to a mountain of worries and troubles Willie had shouldered over the years, usually alone, always with a smile, and often at his own expense. These were burdens that surely would’ve broken the back of any other man, or woman; but, through the grace of God, sheer determination, and perhaps just a little dumb luck, the Reverend bore them well and, for the most part, successfully. He’d single-handily held the congregation together for over twenty years. It was actually the only real miracle he’d ever preformed. It was the one he was most proud of; and one he took no credit for himself. It may even be his last. But don’t tell them that. Don’t tell that to anyone! Not at the Miracle Temple and barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’. Not yet! There were many there who were expecting a miracle; they demanded no less. And they would have one. Why shouldn’t they? Willie was the Miracle-Maker. Wasn’t he? And they would get one… even if they had to beat it out of him, which actually happened one night; but that’s another story.

Others have claimed, and with ample evidence to back up their assertions, that Willie was a sailor in a previous life; and that the cap he wore was merely a physical manifestation of that maritime fact; a reminded, if you will, of a proud and noble profession he’d since retired from. They were right, of course; but don’t tell anyone! Willie never did; and he had his reasons. He was a sailor alright, at one time; a cook as a matter of fact. It was a long time ago, and something he rarely spoke of anymore. But there are some things you simply cannot run, or hide, from; like the past for instance, which, as we all know, has a way of catching up with us now and then, no matter where we go or how far we travel. Willie neither ran nor hid, however; he simply walked away, and never looked back. He seldom talked about it anymore. But beneath the shallow surface, the sea was still in his veins; that same salty substance that runs through us all. It’s what we are made of. It’s in his blood. He couldn’t wash it away if we wanted to. It was in his eyes and in his ears. He could smell it. He could taste it. It beckoned! And it sounded something like this:

A sailor’s life is like the sea
That rolls in with the tide
It comes and goes, then fades away
But never really dies...

As in all great love songs, there was just enough truth in the old sailors’ rhyme to make Willie a little uncomfortable at times. But he would still sing it now and then, whenever he was alone (especially when he was alone), lonely, or just plain melancholy. The words came naturally, like the sea; and it always happened whenever he sat watching the tall ships go in and out of the harbor. It was the song for a sailor. And he knew it well.

Unlike other church ministers in Old Port Fierce at the time, particularly in and around Shadytown, the Reverend Wright required no tithing and passed no plates. Admittance was free of charge, and open to all. Instead of the typical means of support, the Miracle-Maker of Avenue ‘D’ relied on more innovative ways of paying his bills, of which there always seemed to be a stack of sitting on top of the butcher-block table, along with several uncut slabs of ribs and a few loose bottles of barbecue sauce. And somehow they always worked; and there was usually enough money at the end of the month to pay the rent and cover his operating expenses, and maybe even a little left over to but a few cigars, which was Willie’s last and only vice, besides partaking of the sacramental wine, of course, which he would do on a daily basis. There were those, however, who considered some of Willie’s methods… well, unconventional; if not downright ‘unorthodox’. But they worked; and even proved to be profitable, as previously hinted upon. And they were legal, too! which is more than can be said for other more ‘orthodox’ methods employed by and less ethical ministers at the time who made a living, quite comfortably by any standard, in the same city by the bay. But who are we to judge? Willie never did.

And how did he do it? Simple. He did it like this: To keep the place up and pay off his many creditors, the Reverend Willie B. Wright gratefully accepted any and all donations afforded to him by his good and grateful congregation at the end of each and every one of his service. It was at that time, typically at the end of the service, when every heart was filled with the Holy Spirit, and every belly filled with the famous miracle ribs, when Willie would gather his flock together for one final prayer of thanksgiving and praise that would usually, but not always, culminate with so many nickels, dimes and sliver dollars, along with the usual amount of copper pennies finding their way into a small bucket Willie left hanging from the side of the barbecue drum. Occasionally, Willie would find some paper money, silver certificates as they were called at the time, conspicuously mixed in with the precious metal; not to mention a button or two, or a marble perhaps, placed there by a well-intentioned child to whom they represented nothing less than a king’s ransom, and which Willie could always make good use of. Talk about sacrifices! No donation, no matter how small or insignificant, was rejected. It was the thought that counted, as the woman with her mite clearly demonstrated. And all were equally appreciated.

As previously described, ‘the pit’ was actually an old copper oil drum that Willie had sawed in half one day and hinged together along one edge to form the cavity of what would become the holy oven in which he would bake his famous barbecued ribs. It rested, questionably, on three wooden legs he’d fastened to the base of the drum, appearing much like a moon-shiners still without the external plumbing. Technically, of course, it wasn’t a real barbecue pit, at least not in the traditional sense, since it was elevated off the ground, and not dug into the earth as conceived and constructed by its original designers. But it was really no different than any other barbecue pit strewn along the steamy streets of Shadytown at the time; and besides, the basic principle was the same: to cook the meat. It wasn’t necessarily what went into Willie’s oven that distinguished it from other barbecue pits, but rather, what came out of it.

No one knew exactly why Willie’s miracle ribs were by far superior to those cooked in similar pits, or other cooking contraptions contrived for that specific purpose, which in and of itself was a cause for much debate. ‘It must be the sauce…’ some would suggest, and probably be closet to the truth. That’s it! That’s what made them taste so good. It was Willie’s own special recipe: one he acquired, or so he once let slip in a rare moment of reminiscence, from a carnivorous cannibal, more commonly referred to as feral, he once made the acquaintance with in a previous existence. He was a regular at the temple at one time, Willie confessed with no small measure of gratitude and sympathy in his far-away voice, who would sit down with the preacher over a slab or two of the barbecued bones discussing….well, things you might expect a cannibal and a cook to be discussing at the dinner table; things that may not be suitable for civilized ears; and I’m not talking about the sauce. It was as thick and red as plum-pudding and sweet as molasses, the secret ingredients of which remain a mystery even until this day. ‘Sauce for the Saints!’ was a common expression used on many a moonlit night after a particularly soul and stirring service. ‘Sweet as Adam’s ribs!’ many a female would boast while sucking the precious marrow from each and every bone as though sucking out the very soul of man himself, as if their very lives depended on it.

There was no question about it. It was no contest. Miracle Temple ribs were undeniable the best tasting ribs in all of Shadytown; the best in Old Port Fierce; probably the best on the entire flesh-eating planet. It’s no wonder people came from as far away as Harley and Creekwood Green just to partake in the carnivorous feast, and ten times a miracle that the renown Reverend could feed so many hungry souls with such meager provisions, meat being in short supply so soon after the war, many of the herds having been decimated by roving bands of scavenging soldiers, both Union and Confederate. But that’s what the Miracle-Makers do, I suppose; they make miracles. And when they can’t do that, they simply make do. That’s their job. That’s what they do. And that’s the business Willie was in, whether he’d chosen it not; or maybe, it had chosen him. Either way, it really didn’t matter; so long as they were done – the ribs, that is: medium rare, in most cases; cooked ‘til a good vet could save it! as the cannibal might suggest, if he’s ever heard of a veterinarian, that is; and still wonder why anyone would want to eat the flesh of pig or a cow when there was a entire tribe of natives on the other side of the island that were just begging for a fight, and a barbecue. Needless-to-say, Willie would never resort to such pagan practices; then or now, much to the chagrin of the pig and the cow. He preferred an animal sacrifice, not unlike the Israelites of old who slaughtered them in the tens of thousands – Kosher, of course – and in keeping with the strict tenants of their ancient tradition; minus the pig, of course, which would, as Willie was keen to pontificate upon in one of his many self-edifying sermons, remain unclean until Jesus Christ himself, no vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination, declared all animals fit for the fire, as well as human consumption, including the vile pig which He personally baptized by sending a whole heard of the demonized swine over the cliff and into the sanctifying water below as a sure sigh of his omnipotent power and authority. Naturally, Willie would concur, holding the fated hog to such a high standard, and blessing them many times over, even as slit their fatty throats like a motel performing the requisite circumcision. And no one did it better than Willie B. Wright, Miracle-Maker deluxe, and of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’, a name, by the way, not of his own invention. ‘Themes miracle ribs!’ just happened to be the first words out of one hungry parishioner’s mouth the day he first tasted the precious flesh drawn from the fire of Willie’s well-renowned barbecue pit. The name struck. So did the ribs. And pork was on the menu ever since.

It was once suggested by some misguided youth that Chef Willie supplement his menu to include loaves and fishes, just as his Master himself had done two thousand years before when he fed the five thousand. At first Willie merely scoffed at such a pretentious proposition, perhaps in the same way Saint Peter himself summarily dismissed the idea of being crucified in the same manner as his Lord and Savior, and thus received his dying wish by being nailed to the cross up-side-down. And this from the man who sank into the Sea of Galilee and denied his faith not once but three times. Willie quickly removed the temptation by chasing the impetuous fiend away that day at the end of a pitchfork he pulled from the smoldering coals of his holy pit, cautioning him never to return, with a miracle rib still dangerously dangling from the smoldering spike. “Get thee behind me Satan! Willie cried out for all to witness as he tossed the young devil out of the Temple on his ear and into awaiting jaws of the ‘Crouching Lion of Avenue ‘D’ whereupon, it is said, the young man was spat out just as quickly back into the gutter where he undoubtedly belonged. Apparently, Lucifer has more taste than we knowingly give him credit for. “And don’t never come back!” roared the Miracle-Maker on the front steps of the Temple that day with a fork in one hand and waving his spatula in the other. Needless-to-say, the young man never did, even though Willie often wished he would.

Apparently, what had infuriated the suspicious chef at the time (although he later come to regret being so hard on the poor young man who was, after all, only trying to help, albeit in his own misguided way) was the sin of presumption; a sin Willie was quite familiar with himself. Although it wasn’t one of the seven deadly sins as recognized and defined by the by the Holy Evangelist (in fact, there are those who question whether presumptuousness can be considered sin at all, in as much as there are no real victims other than the one doing the presuming) but it was one of the easiest to surcome to, as are most sins of self-indulgence, and a sin never-the-less, along with being dangerously close to the major sin of pride, which many consider, and rightfully so, the most deadly of all. ‘And besides’, Willie would often say in regard to these so-called lesser sins which Protestants find inexcusable and Catholics, who are a little more lenient in such grave matters (an aspect of the papacy Willie could certainly appreciate) label as mere venial, They do add up!’ No doubt the good Reverend, who could be presumptuous himself at times, was including himself in his own personal assessment. He felt the same way about Purgatory: a place, if it actually did exist, he hoped and prayed he would first be introduced to before entering into a Glory he knew in his heart of heats he was certainly not prepared for. The whole notion of a ‘half-way’ house, somewhere between Heaven and Hell where he had time to reflect upon all his transgressions, past and present, sat well with the old sinner. Surely, a good and merciful God would allow for such accommodations, despite what anyone else might say; in fact, He may actually insist upon it. Otherwise, how else would any one of us be worthy? And who could survive it! Willie knew, better than anyone, how fitly his rags actually were by now, and badly was in need of a proper scrubbing. And what better place to clean such a filthy cloth (which actually translates in the Holy Text as ‘menstrual’ rags) than the fiery furnace of Purgatory? It was something he was more than willing to endure, even if it meant enduring such a baptism by fire for many more years than it took to soil those rags in the first place, and even then there would be a few stubborn stains that simply could not be expunged. At times, he imagined it would take a tow thousand years and a day, which, compared to the eternal flames of perdition, was actually quite a bargain. But who was he to Judge? And who are we?

JUDGE NOT LEAST YE BE JUDGED

It was not a request. It was a command; one Willie took seriously and would often incorporate, in one way or another, into many of his famous sermons over the years. It all came down to sin – Sin! in all its pride and prejudice; and the fact that all sin, no matter big or small, is equally offensive to God, even as the name itself implies: ‘Sin’ – from the Greek ‘to miss the mark’. And who among us have ever hit the target? And he would explain this in his own nautical terms by relating a story he’d once heard about a certain harpooner, a handsome young fellow from the from the Island of Crete who, upon darting his iron at the great Leviathan was in the strange and bewildering habit of crying out the word ‘Sin!’ whenever he failed to strike the elusive fish. Naturally, this did sit very well with his fellow shipmates who, not knowing any better and being a superstitious lot by nature, as well fine up-standing members of Deacon Farewell’s First Baptist Church of God, took the sailor’s exclamatory remark as nothing short of blasphemy, a curse, and possibly a bad omen, making him, in their own ‘judgmental’ eyes at least, no better off than poor Brother Jonah himself whose fate the poor young Spartan was soon to share. And there was already a storm a’brewing on the distant horizon. It was only upon learning through Willie himself, a cook serving at the time on that very same vessel, and with a great deal of translation, that what the brave Mediterranean really meant by ‘Sin’, in his own vulgar expression, was exactly that: He’d simply had ‘missed the mark’; no more and no less, which is what we all do from time to time, Willie went on to explain to the rest of the crew, whenever we fall short of God’s good graces. In other words, ‘sin’ is not so much a matter of intent, although it can be under certain circumstances, but of aim! We simply miss the mark.

It was just something Willie felt obliged to remind his audience of now and then, as well as himself, especially whenever he actually started to believe in his own super-natural powers, which he knew deep down, were, at best, only on loan from the He whom all power originates. Not that he didn’t believe in them – miracles, that is. He did! He simply knew by now who the real Miracle-Maker was, and who ain’t; and moreover, what the difference was between the two. ‘And just as there is only room for one cook in the kitchen…’ he would add at the end of such eloquence, putting it into terms his domesticated sheep might more easily understand, ‘there’s only room enough for one God in Heaven’. It was one of his favorite speeches; in fact, he planned on using it, to one degree or another, in the sermon he’d prepared the night before. It was old subject, perhaps the oldest, and one he was all too familiar with: it was the sin of Temptation. It’s the only sin, when you get right down it, that counts; all others sins being mere minions, poor but potent imitations, ancillary agents, evil off-springs, if you will, of some higher and more hideous power; that malignant thing that leaves us, in the words of the peg-legged captain, with half a heart and half a lung; the same old snake that tempted the first man and woman in the Garden (quite successfully, I might add) with the bite of an apple and a taste for immortality; he who later prosecuted Job, to his infernal failure; and he who tested God Incarnate Himself, with all the kingdoms of the word, as if they were his to command. And it all came down to the sin of pride, the first fatal step on the road to Perdition, familiar to kings and tyrants alike, and a young ambitious fool who would upstage the Son of Man, only to find out, perhaps too late, that God is a tough act to follow.

Willie eventually forgave the bold young man and welcomed him back into the Temple. The two even became fast friends, and found out they actually had much in common, as so often happens in these kinds of situations. As it turned out the young man was a Roman Catholic from Creekwood Green who at one time contemplated becoming a priest. He also knew a great deal about the Bible, and was able to talk at great length about that particular religion which Willie actually knew very little of at the time. What especially intrigued the pastor was that part of the papal liturgy described to him as the Eucharist: what Catholics consider to be nothing less than the body and blood of Jesus. Naturally, this had always been a source of great debate among the believers of all denominations, if not downright contention, and one that continues even to this day. And Willie struggled with it for many days. But the one thing that finally convinced him that it was true was so simple that he was surprised so many missed it. And it was this: It is the body and blood of Christ because Jesus himself said it was, and in no uncertain terms. Needless-to-say, it didn’t take long for Willie to incorporate the Blessed Sacrament into his own church services, with not a few raised eyebrows and even more defections. But, as the young papist was quick to point out at the time, ‘Didn’t Jesus get the same reaction by many of his followers when he first instructed them to partake of the holy flesh? ‘It’s in the Book!’ he quoted: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Who are we to argue with the Son of Man?’ He was right, of course. And so in the end, and despite the Calvinists’ claim, the young man was exonerated… and the body and blood of our Lord became a staple diet at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit, along with the loaves and fishes – and the ribs, of course.

Along with the generous donations generated by the miracle ribs, Willie had other ways of supporting his ministry, some more unorthodox than others. It is still talked about, even until this day, of one such occasion when the pious pastor of Avenue ‘D’ judiciously, and perhaps reluctantly at first, employed the services of three local prostitutes to serve his more immediate and urgent needs… that is to say, the needs of his church. Not in the usual manner prescribed to that particular profession, nor what the ladies were accustomed to; but to be preformed just as prudently and professionally; with equal pay and at the going rate, of course. You see, it was Willie’s idea from the start to employ the talents of these three young socialites in a more practical – or should I say, more law-biding – way?

As it were, Willie had hired these three working girls one slow and uneventful Tuesday when there were no services being held. The job was to paint the interior walls of the Temple which were badly in need of a fresh coat. In exchange for their efforts, Willie offered the ladies of the night their usual rate of fifty cents – a figured that hadn’t changed much over the years as evidenced by a certain raccoon on the run whose name need not be mentioned here. Exactly how Willie came upon such confidential information is another matter and perhaps best left undisclosed. He even threw in a slab of his famous barbecued ribs, just to ‘…sweeten and the deal’. It was honest wage for a an honest day’s work, something new and unique for the three late-night harlots who were usually, given the nature of their business and the hours kept by their clientele, still in bed at the time. If nothing else, Willie hoped it would at least get them off the streets, for a while anyway, and away from the crouching lion of Avenue ‘D’. Who knows? thought the resourceful preacher, it might even be the beginning of a whole new career! and not just for the three new painters. It was worth a try. And the old walls really did need a new coat of white anyway. It was a new and innovative solution to an age old problem; and pragmatic one, at that. And besides, thought Willie, it just seemed like ‘the right thing to do’ at the time.

All in all, the women preformed their jobs diligently, admirably, and with the utmost respect for their immediate surroundings which they were all too unfamiliar with, at least from the inside. The church never looked so good; and neither did the ladies, covered as they were by the end of the job, with so much white paint that they may very well have been mistaken for the handsome angelic beings who’d found refuge in Lott’s hospitable home one night in Old Gomorrah. Only these angels would be of the female gender; which, although we don’t know for sure, may’ve prevented the lustful Sodomites from committing the sinful act in the first place, thus sparing not only the doomed cities, but Lott’s wife as well, who, as the story goes, was turned into a pillar of salt for merely looking back at the sinful cities since turned to ashes. In the end, Willie held up his end of the bargain by sending all three away not only with four dollars and fifty cents, the agreed upon amount to be split equally among them, but also with a slab of barbecued pork ribs, a jar of his famous sauce, along with his thanks and gratitude, and a sweaty handshake that came back as pure and white as the walls inside the freshly painted cathedral. He then waved all goodbye, wishing them and welcoming them back the following Sunday when the sermon would be, ironically enough, on how we are all washed clean and white as snow by the blood of the Lamb; or any other time they were hungry for the Word, and the ribs, of course; or whenever the church needed a new coat of paint. Unfortunately, the youngest of the three siblings, a self-indulgent recidivist by nature, spent all her allowance on so much lipstick and rouge, which she liberally applied before regressing back into sinful habit of solicitation, that the her two older sisters could hardly recognize her by now. Indeed, she could still be found on evenings such as these, when the moon waxed big and bright, strolling up and down the avenue in her own provocative and professional way, swaying from side to side, and trolling for that one last bite. Needless-to-say, Willie was very disappointed; and he prayed for her immortal soul many times over; as did the two repentant sisters; one who ultimately joined a convent of Catholic nuns; the other, the wife of a bean farmer up in Harley and a mother of many. Were their prayers ever answered? Well, as the fisherman sighs at the end of a broken line or an un-baited hook: ‘the one that got away….’ But take heed and take heart! all ye brave young mariners with broken poles and bent rods. For this is one serious Fisherman who doesn’t give up so easily; and neither does Willie. On numerous occasions he’d tried to bring her back into the fold (it was the least he could do for one of the many stray sheep in his wayward flock) but nothing seemed to work – not even the miracle ribs. But, as he would remind the two sisters whenever they happen cross the reverend’s righteous wake, ‘Hope springs eternal!’

Just before the Reverend Willie B. Wright commenced his sermon for the evening a thin little girl in tightly braided hair came forward and rested her head on the pastor’s holy and expansive stomach. The Miracle-Maker smiled and gently anointed the virgin temples with olive oil that he poured from the small bottle sitting on the rostrum next to the King James Bible. “Suffer the little children...” he prayed out loud as the young girl's mother quickly came forward, snatching her child back from the Gates of Heaven just before the Michael and his angelic troops came down to sweep her away in their Chariots of Fire. It was just a little too soon, or so feared the frightful woman inside the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’. Heaven would just have to wait a little longer; at last until her breasts blossomed, imagined the suspicious young matron.

As mentioned before, the theme of the sermon was ‘JUDGE NOT LEAST YE BE JUDGED.” It was all Willie needed. On most occasions, one passage alone from the Holy Text was usually enough to keep the preacher on a roll for hours; the length and longevity of his oratories not be being restricted to any prescribed time limit. Willie kept no notes; he didn’t have to. Everything he had to say was rehearsed a thousand times before, albeit in front of different audiences and at various churches and temples throughout Old Port Fierce and beyond. He may have said it a little differently at times; but the message was always the same. In younger days and more agile days, during the early years of his ministry, Willie would travel from town to town, peddling his own brand of Salvation, along with his famous ribs and special barbecue sauce, from the back of a wagon like some carnival snake-oil salesman. But this was no snake oil! And it certainly wasn’t not for sale; although, donations were gladly accepted and put to the same practical use as always. And the Miracle-Maker of Avenue ‘D’ was welcomed almost everywhere he went. And if when he wasn’t, which was actually quite rare, as well as to be expected in this sinful and fallen world of ours, the gregarious preacher would simply pack up his wagon, tighten his belt and move on, while shaking the dust from his boots as prescribed by the master salesman Himself. But that was all in the past. Willie was getting old and, well, you know... times change, not always for the better; and so do people for that matter, even the reverend Willie B Wright. But the message, just like the ribs and special barbecue, never changed.

JUDGE NOT LEAST YE BE JUDGED

It was a simple message. There were no disclaimers, no qualifiers, no ambiguities, and certainly no apologies about it. There were no exceptions, either; the message was all inclusive, universally applied, not unlike the sacred words inscribed in stone on the twin by the finger of God Himself. And that’s the truth. And it must always be remembered that, as the author of all truth, God never writes for one particular age or generation; nor does he address any one particular race or religion, despite what the Sadducees might say regarding the royal priesthood. No! When God takes up his mighty pen, the instrument he yields like some ancient sword in the hands of a conquering king, the quill of which would span a thousand suns, and oceans for an inkwell, He writes for all: past, present, and those yet to come. His message is eternal. It lasts forever, and beyond time and space. It is boundless, not unlike his own infinite being, and knows no death. When God speaks, He speaks to everyone, from Adam to the last man yet unborn but still very much alive in the mind of God who knits him in the womb though he die in childbirth, along with his fated mother. Who can comprehend such unspeakable truths or penetrate the limitless mind of God? And how else can God communicate such immortal truths to mere mortal man in any of his many evolutionary transmutations? Could it be that Creation, as defined and described in the book Genesis, is God’s way of explaining to the finite mind such complexities and incomprehensible truths as origin of man, and in such simple and comprehensible terms that even modern man can understand and appreciate? Perhaps evolution is merely God’s way of creating; and the two may not be as mutually exclusive as some would have it. In fact, one may actually validate the other; but only up to a point, I suppose. Sooner or later the ape realized that he is no longer an ape, stands up, and strikes out at any other ape or man that might think otherwise. Or to put it in another perspective: how do you justify the taking of another man’s life to someone who doesn’t, or simply cannot, comprehend the difference between killing and murder, any more than he understands the difference between war and peace, or love and hate? Simple! By telling it to him the unvarnished truth in a language he can, and does, understand, even if it means condescending to his own superstitious beliefs and primitive cultures; in much the same way the Son of Man once did by taking on human form and flesh, however degrading, humiliating and discomforting it may’ve been, and becoming one of us. Perhaps there was just no way. Whether through Evolution or Creation, God creates, in his own way, and in his own good time. You be the Judge. But beware….

JUDGE NOT LEAST YE BE JUDGED

It’s a drama that’s been around as long as man. It’s all inclusive! And in the end, if they know what’s good for them, every knee will bend and every head will bow in His Holy presence. His scroll stretches from the east of Eden to the moons of Jupiter and beyond, to galaxies so far away they will never be named. The ocean is His inkwell; His charts span the Universe; His message is eternal; it supersedes time and space. It is self-perpetuating. It cannot be measured. It defies computation. It is the Truth. It is God. And look! The author places Himself right in the middle of His own passion play. He’s the star! The hero! The main attraction! with all Mankind for an audience. But man is constantly changing, which is precisely why God’s Word cannot. It must not! As in all great truths, whether they are chiseled in stone, carved in wood, written on paper or nailed to the cross, discernment should be cautiously applied here. Interpretation can be a dangerous thing, and not to be taken lightly; it is usually best left in the hands of the professionals. As any cleric will tell you, if he knows anything at all about Scripture: ‘discretion and discrimination are useful tools when disseminating the word of God’. And that applies to the Bible, the Koran, or any one of His many bestsellers, some of which have yet to be written, and no matter how many copies are sold.

JUDGE NOT LEAST YE BE JUDGED

But wait! The command is not merely to ‘Judge not! It is to ‘Judge not, least we ourselves be judged. And in that sense, it’s really not a command at all. It’s a challenge! And it’s nothing new, either. Didn’t the prophets of old hear the same challenge, and answer it as well? Unlike the latter day saints, whatever we make of them and wherever those brave souls now dwell, the prophets didn’t ask for judgment – they demanded it! And they received it, not unlike the martyred saints who were murdered for it. And just like Brother Job who, despite his wicked and ignorant counselors, was wise and humble enough to finally accept it by repenting in sackcloth and ashes, so too would they receive theirs. Judgment! It’s something worth dying for. Homer did… and so did Red-Beard. The only difference is this: one asked for it; the other didn’t. It’s not the righteous who should fear Judgment. On the contrary, they welcome it! It is the wicked man who runs and hides at every accusation, true or false, and shutters in the face of Truth and Justice. He dies a thousand deaths at the drop of a gavel. He doesn’t want Judgment. No! He wants acquittal. And sometimes he gets it; or at least he thinks he does. But that’s just the way it has to be when dealing with things of faith. If God were as evident as we would all like Him to be, all the time, we would not love him; we would merely worship Him; out of fear, I suppose. Either that or we would crucify Him.

JUDGE NOT LEAST YE BE JUDGED

But man must judge. Man will judge. And man will be judged. It’s the ultimate paradox, perhaps; what separates us from the animals and the elements. But wait! Man is mortal. He is finite, fallible, and therefore his judgment is limited to corporeal things, and subsequently flawed. He cannot grasp infinity, any more than he can grasp his own identity. It is beyond his limited understanding to comprehend such truths. But God’s judgment is immortal, eternal and infinite, which means that His judgment is final, ultimate, and therefore supersedes all others. A man would be an idiot not to judge his friends wisely, and ten times a fool and a jackass not to judge his enemies even more so. Judge not least ye be judged? Well, consider the source. And if the lips that first uttered those awesome words were not indeed of Divine origin and substance, then they were surely the lips of a madman, the devil incarnate, or perhaps something even worse. You can’t have it both ways. So judge that…! if you can.


Chapter Eleven

The Miracle-Maker

HE BEGAN SLOWLY, casually and comfortably, deliberately pausing for each and every “ALLELUHIA!” and the obligatory “AMEN” that seemed to follow each and every sentence that flowed from the anointed lips of the Reverend Willie B. Wright. The sudden shouts of affirmation seemed to come from out of nowhere, or so it seemed, and always at the precise moment when they were most needed and appreciated, as if to keep Willie’s wheels in perpetual motion by continuously greasing the axel with unctuousness and oil.

It was a matter of spiritual protocol, an audible show of hands, the congregational way of collectively priming the pump, so-to-speak, for what was sure to follow. Fat for the fire! It was just the way things were done at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’, the way they’ve always been done. The pastor knew, of course, that the accolades were never meant for him; not that he didn’t deserve them now and then, and not that he didn’t appreciate it; they simply weren’t his. The acclamations were actually for a much higher authority: the power that drives all engines; the source of all energies; and the God of all gods. Willie was merely a mouthpiece, one of thousands in the celestial symphony of life who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and for the right reason. He knew that by now.

In his leaner and more athletic years, Willie would sometimes amaze his audience with feats of acrobatic strength and pyrotechnical skills never before attempted in the arenas of more traditional churches in and around Shadytown and Old Port Fierce. These feats included, but were certainly not limited to, such theatrical exhibitions as exiting the stage in a vaporous cloud of smoke that was actually accomplished by use of a secret trap-door concealed within the wooden floorboards of the church; doing cartwheels and summersaults across the floor, which at one time Willie was able to execute with a full three hundred and sixty degree back-flip from a standing position, usually as a grand finale to one of his more gesticulated oratories; or, the handling live rattlesnakes that he somehow managed to transform into innocent white doves before a captive, spell-bound, and sometimes frightened audience. Some called it magic – an act; while others claimed it to be nothing short of a miracle. But to Willie it was all part of the service: food for the faithful! Call it what you will; but whatever it was – it worked! Well, most of the time anyway. But that was all in the past. Willie had grown since than, spiritually, physically, and perhaps even intellectually. Like any showman, Willie only gave them what they wanted; what came for; their money’s worth, so-to-speak, which was more than can be said for some other preachers at the time, along with ministering the Gospel. And he didn’t charge admission! Besides, he’d once thought it was expected of him; after all, he was the Miracle-Maker. And miracles come in many ways, many disguises; some more recognizable than others, and sometimes from the most unlikely sources. So what else would you expect him to do? What else could he do? They asked for a miracle…and that’s what he gave them. No one ever complained; and they always came back for more. But even miracle-makers need a rest now and then. They grow old, and tired, just like Willie. Not that he didn’t perform them anymore – miracles, that is. He did! Only lately, they were on a smaller scale, few and far in-between, and without the accompanying theatrics as previously described.

There came a time in Willie’s ministry when he wished there were no need for miracles, and that he wouldn’t have to perform them at all. It was a burdensome business, a young man’s game; and somehow… well, he always thought they were over-rated, and really weren’t necessary. Not for those who have real faith, he liked to think, – the kind of faith that can move mountains and walk on water. And Jesus would be the first to agree. Just look at how reluctant he was at the wedding feast of Canaan, where he performed his very first miracle of turning water into wine, which he did chiefly to please his mother and officially kick-off his ministry. And how many of those cured, including a man full of leprosy and a girl thought to be dead, did he give specific instructions to: ‘Tell no one… but go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, just as Moses commanded, for a testimony to them’? Obviously, he had more important, and greater, things on his mind at the time – like the forgiveness of sins. He said so himself! And when the paraplegic was brought before Jesus, he was asked: “Which is easier: to say, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” Wow! What kind of joke was that? Naturally, the man was there for a miracle… not a debate! Never-the-less, he was healed. Not only for his own sake, but the sake of God Himself. ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…’ Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’ And again when the woman of Canaan came out and cried unto him, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil’, did not Jesus at first refuse her petition by answering, ‘ It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs’? To which the woman audaciously responded: ‘Truth, Lord. Yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, ‘O woman, great is thy faith. Be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour by her very persistence on the matter. Likewise, didn’t Jesus also refused, at first, to come to Martha and Mary’s house while their sick brother was still alive, instead waiting two whole days before finally acquiescing and raising poor Lazarus from the grave? Can God actually be coaxed? Or cajoled? Seems that way. It reminds us of when Abraham bantered with God over exactly how many righteous people were needed in order to spare Sodom from his Holy Wrath – Fifty? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? – Five? Five! righteous people? Hey! There’s no harm in asking. Is there? Well, apparently not. And to drive home the point, as far as miracles were concerned, he also said “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.’ Needless-to-say, he was also talking about the power to forgive sins, which he likewise bestowed upon the disciples that blessed day, as well as all the other fisherman to follow in the Saint Peter’s faltering footsteps. Perhaps the only miracles we really need are the ones we never ask for, or at least the ones we never see. And maybe… just maybe, the only miracle we should be concerned about is the one mentioned in the two most important prayers documented in the Bible: One at the Mount of Olives where Jesus Himself prays ‘… Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven’; and the other in the Garden in Gethsemane when, with blood sweating from his brow, he fervently petitions God ‘…if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; but never-the-less, not my will, but Thine be done.’ Could it be more obvious? Could God have made it any clearer just what we should pray for, and what miracles we should expect from Him? It comes down to four simple words: ‘Thy will be done’. It’s the only miracle that matters, and, when you get right down to it, the greatest miracle of all. No wonder, the Miracle-Maker often imagined, Jesus was so sad and bewildered whenever they asked him for one. As if God’s grace and his Divine presence wasn’t enough – more than enough! – to satisfy every need and desire. Maybe they were only looking for proof, just like the rest of us. Oh well, there will always be doubting Thomas’, I suppose; and Perters, Pauls and Marys. And we will always have our critics; Willie was no exception.

There was once an inquisitive Protestant minister who, owing to the suspicions of that particular faith and having witnessed not a few of Willie’s ‘miracles’ on occasion, labeled such performances, and in no uncertain terms, as ‘… a distraction at best, and blasphemy at worst’. In other words, he was calling Willie a fraud, a fake, and a liar all in the same baited breath. He was wrong, of course; and on all three counts. He even went so far as to call it evil, magic, and maybe even the work of the devil! Actually, it was none of these things. But was it real? ‘Well…’ as Willie himself would say in the words of the Evangelist: “You be the judge’. It’s all part of the show, he may as well have added at one time in his young entertaining life. But that’s another story all together, for a different time and a different place. Perhaps Willie will tell you all about it someday. But right now he had a church to run; and the service was about to begin.

At first his tone was soft, alluring, moderately paced, like that of a grandfather saying grace at the head of the table just before the Thanksgiving supper. He was the shepherd and they were his sheep. That’s how he spoke to them; collectively, for the time being at least, and in a calm, clear, and confident voice, as any good shepherd would. He always began on an optimistic note. It was his way of reassuring his flock that… well, yes, in fact, the grass is greener on the other side of the hill; and that perhaps one day they would all arrive there together and ‘graze’, as he would say, ‘on the good green grass of the Lord’. It was a place, Willie insisted, where there would be no more sorrow, no more fear, and certainly no more hell-hounds and crouching lions; a place where they would live forever, in peace, and ‘in the Color of the Lord.’ And he meant every word of it, although the thought of ever giving up his beloved Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit, even for the eternal bliss of Paradise, made him feel sad, and perhaps a little apprehensive. Naturally, Willie knew there would be some – although he was never sure exactly how many – who would be left behind at the time of the apocalyptic event, when he and his faithful flock would, in the blink of an eye so that the Evangelist, be raptured up into to those heavenly green pastures But he also knew that there was little, if nothing, he could do about it; except, of course, pray; which he did on almost a daily basis, hoping that it would be enough. And hope, as the Evangelist also tells us (if he’s an honest one) springs eternal! Even in a place like Shadytown.

Gradually, and with each rhythmical beat of the drum, the shepherd’s voice grew louder, clearer and stronger until it resonated like a finely tuned instrument: some vintage violin that had miraculously sprang back to life in the loving and capable hands of the Maestro. And what a fine old fiddle it be! As big as a house and with such a dynamic range. It had an old tin roof for a diaphragm, with the structure itself serving as the sound board, each grain of wood vibrating in perfect tune and in perfect time, along with so many rusty nails that had held the moldy walls together for over fifty years. It was a work of art, in all humble aspects; an acoustical wonder with pulpit and pews; a labor of love and, as demon sated above, a work in progress, as all labors of love are in their eternal evolutions; it certainly wasn’t the easiest instrument to play, as any musician can, and will, tell you. The strings were tight, and finely tuned; and Willie was the bow that struck them. The Bible, of course, was the bridge, without which there would be no sound at all, and thus no music. And the sound heard at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ was music to the ears, permeating the pews and filling the hall with a joyous symphony of sounds that is sometimes described as ‘Jubilation music’ by those who know it best. “Can you hears it, chil’runs?” asked the maestro, holding a finger to his ear like a bow to violin. “Can you hears it?”

“Amen!” the faithful responded accordingly.

“Amen, then” the Miracle-Maker acknowledged in return, even though it was never really necessary to do so.

As observed one day by a passing Anglican from across the sea, the words of Willie B. Wright ‘...pierced like swords and burned like cold iron’. Apparently, this apologetic fellow, being unaccustomed to such verbal outbursts of Faith in his own Protestant church, felt moved enough to comment on the affair in one of his many outstanding books. ‘Strong medicine...’ a traveling physician once opined upon undergoing a similar experience. “But does the patient always survive?” the good doctor enquired, half-jokingly, before making his leave the following day unable to diagnose the strange phenomenon which not only seemed to have infected the entire congregation by then, but himself included. There was a healing quality in the words of the pastor. Indeed, they were, in the words of the Anglican ‘infectious!’ And there was no cure.

It is a good and wise pharmacist who adds a little sugar to his penicillin now and then, and not just for the placebo effect. And nowhere was this more applicable than in Willie B. Wright’s Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit. With sympathy and understanding of the many deep and un-healed wounds inflicted on his flock over the years by the crouching lion of the night, the Shepherd spoke kindly to his sheep, gently. He was never condescending, nor did he patronize them with words too heavy to handle, or too forceful to endure, unless, of course, it was indispensable to do so. And when chastisement was necessary, which wasn’t nearly as often as one might expect under the circumstances, Willie did it with a velvet staff and a tongue as soft as lamb’s skin. The shepherd knew his sheep and they knew him. But beware! For this shepherd has shears; and they’re as sharp enough to make even the whitest fleece fly for cover. No one was safe, not even his own deacons; and no one was ever quite sure who would be next, not even Willie himself. But sooner or later, all would have to face barber and blade.

Judge not least ye be judged.The words on the banner stung like a wasp. They cut deep, and went straight for the jugular. They were as whiskey poured over an open wound, with that same disinfecting quality. Sometimes they acted as an anesthetic, like ether or morphine; other time, they just plain hurt, because… well, because they were suppose to hurt, like any good medicine. That’s how it works. It was the cure that kills. “And it boins… don’t it?” admonished the shepherd to the groans and grimaces of many in the church just then. “And fo’ some…” he pointed out from the pulpit just then in a voice tainted with a slight southern drawl, “the woist is yet to come!” He was talking about the terrible Day of Judgment, of course, when the Temple high-priest would examine each and every fleece in the flock for the slightest blemish, including his own, prior to being put to the eternal flame.

Willie was not a priest; nor did he pretend to be. He didn’t necessarily consider himself a Pastor, either; or even a ‘holy man’ for that matter, despite what the sign said outside the mahogany door. Only lately had he learned to pray properly. It takes time and practice, he would instruct his flock; for some, it takes a lifetime. Willie had his vices (Who among us don’t?) as well as a past. They came with a price, the amount of which was no doubt in the process of being tallied up at that very moment, he sometimes imagined, by some heavenly accountant with a long memory and a very sharp pencil. The shepherd needed salvation as much as any of his sheep; perhaps even more so, he often wondered, recalling to mind his own transgressions that haunted him still from time to time, like ghosts from the grave who simply refused to die, despite his many blessings. From those who are given, much will be asked, so says the Judge; and even more will be expected,’ reminds the jury.

“Judgment ain’t just for the sheeps and the goats…” the Miracle-maker proclaimed out loud for the sake of those who might think otherwise, “but fo’ the shepherds too!” And Willie had a few specific shepherds in mind when he said it.

God is the judge of the righteous as well as the wicked. It’s a simple and sometimes paradoxical fact that: It is precisely those who need Salvation the most who seek it the least; and those that seek it the most who need it the least. Salvation! We all need, and in equal measure; some just more than others. And like the Miracle-Maker said: “Sometimes it boins!” And on that painful and unavoidable note, Salvation might be compared to marriage and circumcision in that: It may not be for everyone, and you may not necessarily like it at first; but, as we all know, at least those us who’d surcome to the wife and the knife, and would certainly agree: – the sooner you get it over with, the better.

“But you gots to be real careful, chil’runs” Willie went on to explain, casting a long wary glance over the sea of black faces before him, “Ya’ll hoid ‘bout how the ol’ wolf who come dressed up in sheep’s clothing – Ain’t ya?

“Amen,” many in the temple sheepishly agreed to that.

“Well, it’s true, brudders and sisters!” insisted Willie, meaning brothers and sisters, of course. “So be careful now…‘cause sometimes just you don’t know who that ol’ wolf might be. Might even be yo’ own neighbor. Could even be someone you least suspect. Maybe yo’ own husband…or wife. Amen?”

At that point many in the pews simply looked at one another with long black faces, trying to figure out precisely which one (or perhaps there were more than one) the miracle-maker was alluding to at the moment.

“I said, Amen!” Willie reiterated following the ensuing silence.

It was almost as if they were searching…. for something: a tooth, a claw, or maybe even arrowhead tail wrapped up in someone’s trousers – anything! that might justify their deepest fears and darkest suspicions that there just might possible be a devil among them… right there in the Miracle Temple, no less. In fact, one woman who appeared to be getting on in years actually went so far as to examine the mouth of an elderly gentleman, presumably her husband, sitting next to her at the time, searching, it would seem, for the fatal fang she’d once seen in a Guttenberg Bible depicting the devilish dentures in all their satanic saliva. She never found one, of course, simply because… well, simply because the old Negro had lost all of his teeth over forty years ago, and they simply weren’t there anymore. “Ain’t no debil in der, ol’ woman…” he mumbled out loud as the old banshee checked her husband’s trousers as well for Lucifer’s bright red tail, which she thought she’d caught a glimpse of one sultry evening when the old man was taking his bath.

Seeing all this made Willie laugh; although he tried his best not suppress it, even though many others in the Temple did not. Apparently, this was a familiar scene, rehearsed many times before between husband and wife; and one that always need with the same apologetic outcome: ‘Ain’t no debil in der, ol’ woman…’ Still, she was never satisfied, and wondered even until this day.

She, like so many others in the Miracle Temple, were the ones Willie was actually taking about, as if they didn’t know; the ones he was always wary of and could pick out in any crowd. Naturally, they were to be found occupying the front row of the pews, not unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees of old who Jesus warned his disciples about. They were the self-righteous hypocrites of the flock, the back-biters and gossip mongers, the ones that were always on the look-out for… well, whatever it is back-biters and gossip mongers are always on the look-out for, and never seem to find; unless, of course, it is so up-close and personal that they never see it in the first place; like the parabled ‘splinter’ in their own eyes’, which they are never aware of, as oppose to the two by four timbers they never fail to find, somehow, in everyone else’s eyes, along with demon teeth and devil tails, and other such manifestations. Willie knew them well, these pious purveyors of hate, these pedantic peddlers of pride, these sanctimonious sinners; in fact, he counted himself among them at one time, which is precisely why he had so much pity and prayer for them, considering himself the biggest sinner of them all, and speaking of it openly and honestly, in the same manner, perhaps, that Luther, another honest hypocrite, once boasted on his own sinful behalf: ‘Be a sinner and sin boldly! Let your sins be strong! Sin bravely! Or as the apostle Paul, when, in regard to his own personal trials including, among other persecutions and privations, being shipwrecked at sea, beaten (multiple times) with whips and rods, stoned, drowned, going without food, water or clothing, boasted in his own defense; not to mention that mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’ he spoke so enigmatically and eloquently about. And what exactly was that thorn? some may still ask. Well, don’t! Forget it. Paul did, and so should you. God’s grace is sufficient. But remember this, all you prayerful petitioners who painfully ponder such mysteries and how they work to God’s holy purpose, particularly you spouses who are anchored in the holy sacrament of matrimony, and mark it well, I say: Paul had a wife…or so we are told. And so did Willie, at one time in a more domesticated setting. But that was long ago, and before he was saved. It happened at a time in his young and tempestuous life when his the tooth ached and he was still digging for gold like another young deputy we all we all know and love so well. “Amen?” confessed the prodigal priest who’s teeth, just like old man Skinner’s, still ached a little now and then; even the ones that weren’t there any more – especially those!

“But then again, brudders and sisters...” reminded the sainted old sinner, as he so often did whenever he felt the need, or desire, to do so: “we’s all sinners… just dirty ol’ rags; and we all falls short of the glory and goodness of God. Amen ?” he repeated one last time for the sake of those who knew him better, and knew exactly what Willie was talking about. It sounded almost like... like an act of contrition.

“ALLELUHIA!” absolved the flock in one collective chorus.

“Now look’ye here,” Willie continued, taking another tack on an old familiar subject, “Ol’ brudder Job knew he was an innocent man. Amen? And that's why he calls on God for judgment. He thinks God be testin’ him; and in a way, he might be right about that. But what Job don’t know was that it was really be the devil who be doin’ the testin’. God only allowed him to do it, you know. But listen up, chil’runs!” Willie remonstrated, “The devil was not only testin’ brudder Job. No sir! Not by a long shot. He be testing the Lord, too.” He then paused, allowing the sheep to graze a little on his words. “And that ain’t right. Amen?”

“Watch out for that ol’ devil!” cried a man from ‘Mens’ room who, despite his personal inconveniences, was listening intently and just had to speak his mind. “Watch out now!”

“Amen brudder!” Willie shouted right back at the indisposed individual. “But that ain’t all. You see, chil’runs,” he continued in earnest, “Brudder Job ain’t no better than the devil himself at that point. He’s playin’ with fire. Wants to know what went wrong…why the thing that scares him the most finally comes upon him. Wants to know why God be punishin’ him so. It just ain’t right, Job thinks to himself. And so, he turns to his three friends fo’ help; as we all do sometimes. Amen? Thinks they might have the answer. Wants them to ‘splain things to him, like maybe they know sumpin’ he don’t. And so they do. But they’s no better than that ol’ devil. They only tells Job want they thinks he wants to hear, and not what he ‘spose to hear. They call him a sinner, a blasphemer! Say God be punishin’ him for something he done wrong. And they may be right about that, too; ‘cause we all do wrong sometimes. Amen?”

Only a few of the sheep responded this time, shamefully lowering their heads and realizing, perhaps, that the shepherd may very well be speaking directly to them, and knows something they might not like to hear; or worse yet, something they would not want any of the other sheep to hear. “Amen…” they collectively bleated

“But remember, Chil’runs,” warned Willie, with a twinkle in his eye that only served to reinforce the admonishment, “there’s a little bit of truth in all lies. You see, it was really that ol’ devil that be doin’ the talkin’. Job’s friends... well, they was just being ‘ig’nat, I ‘spose; tho’ I don’t ‘spect they knows it at the time. Say theys only tryin’ to help, the way some folks likes to do. Wants to put all the blame on po’ Job. Say he only gots what he deserves, and some such foolishness. And ol’ Job… well, he almost believes them! But not quite. Not yet! You see, he don’t quite see it that way; and besides, he still needs proof. Has to hear it from God Himself. Yes, sir! And so he picks himself up from the dirt, a beaten and broken man by now, covered in all them nasty boils… and so many scabs he gots to scrap them off with the broken edge of an ol’ cider jug. Scared from head to toe! All bone and no meat! Likes a walkin’ skel’ton! Can’t nobody recognize him no mo’! Not even his po’ ol’ blaspha’mous wife. And what does brudder Job do then? Well, he does what he has to do. What any righteous man will do in those same circumstances. He cries out to Almighty God! Calls on Jehovah-Gyra…. to do some ‘splainin’, you see. Now, ol’ Job’s so sick and pitiful by now he can hardly stands up no mo’. But he still gots some fight left in him – Amen?”

“Just like Ol’ Red here!” shouted a young man with a rooster he was seldom seen without cradled in his well-tailored arms. It was colorful cock: high-spirited, with a thick red plumage and matching tail-feathers; an ornery old bird, bred for the ring, that never lost a match.

“Now that cock can fight!” Willie acknowledged, although he would later wish he hadn’t said it, knowing that gambling was one of those vices in Shadytown that certainly didn’t need any encouragement. “Just just ol’ Job” he quickly added, and letting it go at that. “But brudder Job ain’t finished yet. No sir! Wants him some answers. He has to know! Gots to hear it from God His-self. Amen? And what’s that he wants?”

“Justice!” shouted a masculine voice from somewhere within the wooden sanctuary.

“He want mo’ than that!” Willie insisted from the head of the church.

“Mercy!” cried several women at once, appealing perhaps to a more benevolent power.

“Revenge? thought many more out loud, not knowing where the shepherd was leading them at the moment, nor from whom Job was seeking revenge, if anyone

Willie simply smiled. “Surly justice and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives,” he quoted from the Psalms. “And revenge…. well, that belongs to the Lord. Amen?

“Amen!” they all agreed in unison, both male and female.

“You see, brudders and sisters,” continued the Miracle-maker in a more instructive and authoritative tone, “what Job really be wantin’ is Judgment. He cries out for it. Judgment! He needs it! Why? ‘Cause he can’t lives without it! That’s what it’s all about, chil’runs. Judgment! Amen? You see, brudder Job don’t runs away from it. Don’t hides from it, either. He wants justice! And he demands no less… just like them ol’ prophets do. It’s in the Book! ‘Judge me, oh God, and plead my cause!’ he cries out from the pit. And so do brudder Job. Now, lookye here, chil’runs. Everything he has is gone, including his own belov’d chil’runs. Done lost everything! Well, almost everything… You see, he still has one thing left. It’s the one thing he just won’t let go of. And I think ya’ll know what that is - Amen?”

“I do…” whispered the white minstrel in the Temple from behind his six-string Gibson, just loud enough to be heard.

The Miracle-Maker acknowledged the young man’s confession by confronting it head on. “Pride!” he loudly responded, pounding his fist into the pulpit, as if addressing some formidable foe he’d grappled with over the years, the cunning and cleverness of which he was only now beginning to appreciate. “And it don’t matter where it come from. Amen?

“Pride goeth before the fall…” quoted the lone white dove just audible enough to be heard over a sudden silence that had just then enveloped the temple like a death shroud.

“Just like that ol’ debil!” reminded the toothless saint in the front row, as his suspicious wife looked at him sideways.

“Like lightnin’ from the sky!” thundered Willie. He was referring, of course, to the famous passage in the Holy Text where Jesus described Satan’s eternal fall from grace in all its electrifying wonder. “Now listen up chil’runs,” he continued without missing a beat. “By this time ol’ Job ain’t no different than the devil his-self. And he finally gets his wish. Amen?”

“Preach it, Reverend! Preach it!”
“And now what do you think that is?”
“Tell us, Preacher! Tell us!”
“Well, I’ll tell you then.”
“Go on now. Preach it!”

Willie looked out over the congregation, past the pews, through the mahogany door, out into the streets of Shadytown and beyond Old Port Fierce, as if peering into all-seeing and inescapable eye of, of… “He sees the face of God!” extolled the Miracle-Maker, his famous face shinning like the moon itself in all its joy and rapture.

Then, as if on cue, the choir of angels erupted in a thunderous chorus of spontaneous jubilation, rising like a great purple tidal-wave from out of sea, accompanied, of course by the celestial orchestra:

In the house of the Lord, I’m a’prayin’!
In the light of the Lord, I see!
In the fields of the Lord, I’m a’singin!
In the color of the Lord, I’ll be!”

When the purple tsunami finally abated, dying down into a gentle rolling of the waves, the Miracle-Maker continued on his previous discourse. “And now, chil’runs, it’s really time for some splainin’,” he spoke to the continuous drone of the organ. “Time fo’ some serious to talk. But it ain’t Job who be doin’ the talkin’. No, brudders and sisters! You see, God be doin’ the talkin’ now! The lord Jehovah his-self! The great ‘I am! Amen!

“AMEN! AMEN! AMEN! ALLELUIA”

“And when God be doin’ the talkin’…” reminded the preacher, as if ever he had to, “everyone be listenin’’! Amen?”

“AMEN!!! We’s listenin’, reverend! We’s all listenin’ now!”

“Gird your loins then…” admonished Willie, howling out the holy words as if he owned them, “and brace yo’self like a fighter!”

And with that, every seat was left vacant as the entire congregation collectively rose to its feet, stomping and shouting, some waving their fists in the air like a prize fighter on his way to the ring, and certain victory.

“I gots to say you do look brave, chil’runs,” Willie observed in a proud moment of hope and admiration for his little flock of sheep. “You do look brave.”

“We’s a’girdin’, preacher! We’s a’girdin’!

And then, with all the authority invested in him, Willie B. Wright put forth those very same powerful, probing, and (as many have observed over the many centuries since the book of Job was penned) paradoxical questions to his congregation that once befell the poor old Patriarch himself. “Where were you when…” and here Willie went through the entire litany of Old Testament verses in which God, from out of the whirlwind, demonstrates not only his omnipotence, but his omnipresence and omniscience as well; and with so much truth and beauty that Willie is almost lost for words. And the truth, as God himself so eloquently puts it in his own rhetorical style, which is somewhat humorous at times in a paradoxical sort of way, is actually quite compelling: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. What color is the rain?

Of course, there were no answer; other than the answer of Job, of course.

“Now I thinks ya’ll know the rest of the story. But just in case you don’t,” added Willie, beginning to perspire a little in the heat of the moment as evidenced by two noticeable dark stains forming under the armpits of his gray suit that looked like two wet saddle-bags by then, “let me just say this: Brudder Job done got what he ax’ed for. Amen?”

“He sho’ ‘nough did!” cried the pregnant woman sitting in the third row, her belly ready to burst open at any moment.

Every sheep in the Temple knew exactly what Willie was talking about, and agreed with a solemn and resounding: AMEN!!! They knew, not only because they’d heard it all before, but also because they were asking for the exact same thing at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit – Judgment! And maybe a miracle or two thrown in, if it wasn’t asking too much.

Yep! That’s what they came for. That’s why they were there… well, most of them anyway – Judgment! They wanted to be judged. They needed to be judged. They begged for it. They bleated and bled for it, just like the prophets of old. “And so shall ye be judged,” proclaimed the Miracle-Maker. But, as the sign over his heard clearly stated, he would not be the one to judge. That was God’s job; and His alone. Willie knew that by now, and so did his sheep. Unfortunately, there were still a few lost souls in the Temple who simply didn’t know that yet, and weren’t quite ready for Judgment; not to mention a blue-eyed raccoon standing in the back of the church with a bowie knife stuffed in his overalls who still had some unfinished business to attend to. Willie had picked Elmo out of the crowd the moment he walked through the mahogany door of Temple. It was an easy thing to do. As easy as… as ‘falling off a log,” he imagined at the time.

Their eyes met for only a second or two. But that was enough; and they both knew why he came. It was just another lost sheep sighed the shepherd, as if he’d been expecting it all along, no different than any of the others. Perhaps they just needed a little more time, thought Willie as he wiped the sweat from his leaking forehead. He knew, of course, that Salvation doesn’t always come with the grace of God; often it comes with the crack of a whip; or at the end of a rope; sometimes it doesn’t come at all. It may even require a miracle now and then. And it’s not always that easy. As they say: it’s the vicissitudes of life that build strength and character, and a little suffering along the way never hurt. And that’s why a good shepherd always carries with him a stiff staff, or, as those Celtic highlanders would prefer: a shaleighlee, to knock a little sense into their bleating heads now and then. Sheep aren’t the most intelligent animals, you know. Just ask any wolf.

“Ol’ brudder Job only got what he deserved,” rejoined the Miracle-Maker who was known to knock a few heads of his own from time to time, “He done got his-self judged.” And here Willie paused; not for effect, but rather to wipe his forehead with a small white handkerchief he magically produced from the breast pocket of his coat. He continued, “You see, brudders and sisters, only God can do that. Amen?”

“Got that right, preacher!” cried a woman from the front row who was working her angel-wings in the holy heat of the Lord, as though her very life depended on it.

“Think of it, chil’runs,” Willie insisted, dragging a sweat-soaked handkerchief across his leaky brow. “Think and pray! Only God be the Judge. Only he have the right to do that! Ain’t nobody’s business but the Lord’s. Ain’t no way. Ain’t no how! There can only be but one Judge. And don’t ever let no one tell you any different, brudders and sisters. And that be the God’s honest truth! Can I gets a witness? ” he further implored, echoing the words on the black and white banner hanging over the altar at the head of the church as he’d done a thousand times before: “Judge not least ye be judged!” The words could be heard all the way to the back of the Temple, and stayed there long after the service was over

Many of the sheep sprang to their feet. “AMEN!!!” they cried out in unison and agreement. “ALLELUIAH!!!”

“And that ain’t right!”

“Preach it!”

“Now listen up, chil’runs… “

“Here it come! Here it come!”

“When we judge others…” cautioned the shepherd, stepping aside from the podium so that is whole broad body could be seen in all its perspiring glory, “...we only be judgin’ ourselves. Amen?”

“I heard that!”

Another swipe of the forehead.

“Well?”

“Preach it!” begged the lost sheep in one sincere and unifying bleat.

“Tell the truth!”

And that’s exactly what Willie was about to do. “You see, brudders and sisters,” he continued, “It’s like this. When you judge others… well, then you’s only judgin’ yo’self. Amen?”

“Amen!!” answered the sheep, blindly it seemed.

“Tell the truth, preacher!”

“And that goes for your neighbor, too. Amen?” added the Miracle-Maker