Pirate's Life

9 – Sea Turtles & Fish

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Mei woke to faint voices. She opened her eyes and felt stiff and sore from being curled up in the cramped fort all night. 

Wiping sleep from her eyes, she put her face to a crack in the boards and looked out. She tried a different space between the old boards, but could see nothing up or down the beach, nor inland. So she looked out to sea. 

A small vessel with a single, triangular sail coasted along just off the…uh, coast. She could make out several figures on board, some in blue uniforms. Soldiers. They lined the rail of the ship, studying the beach. Something glinted.

Mei ducked without thinking. Worry bit her. Binoculars? A telescope? Damn. Her fort was right in the middle of the sand. Surely they’d be able to tell how manmade it was. She hadn’t really done enough to disguise it, had she? 

Raising herself very slowly, she peered outside again. 

The ship seemed to take forever to sail by. The soldiers moved about like they were excited about something. They must have noticed her fort. 

She looked out at the beach again. And saw her footprints. She’d been walking all over this beach.

A deep, sinking feeling took hold. She groaned. You’d think she would have learned this lesson already. How lazy and stupid had she been? Of course the beach would be the first thing they’d search and of course it would be easy to pick up signs that she’d been here. Viciously angry with herself, she punched herself in the thigh, wanting to be punished for such an avoidable mistake. 

Despair growing, she looked out at the ship again. Would they return to their port and come for her on land? Or would they storm the beach?

The ship sailed on. Maybe they hadn’t noticed her after all? Dare she hope?

Suddenly, everyone on the ship exploded into frenzied action. The sail shifted and the vessel immediately tacked to change course. 

Puzzled, Mei searched the sea. 

A much larger vessel had appeared on the horizon. From the top of the tallest mast flew a red and gold flag: Spain. And it had every single sail out, trying to catch all the wind it could. Clouds of smoke appeared on the bow of the Spanish ship. Moments later, she heard the boom of canons. 

The men on the smaller, English ship ran about like mad. Turning had cost them speed and it looked like the Spanish ship had the advantage. 

She hoped to see the English sunk, but they managed to disappear around the end of the island, cut off from her vision, the Spanish ship following shortly thereafter. 

She sat back in her shelter and considered. Had the English actually seen her, or was she just feeling paranoid? She wrestled with that for a while and felt an element of anxiousness take root. 

Recalling the fact that she wasn’t alone on the island, she scanned the land once more. Deciding it was safe, she climbed out. No jaguar pounced on her, trying to crack her skull open with its big teeth so it could devour her juicy, delcious brains. So, a good start to the day. 

She put her hands on her hips and frowned. What now? She cast a glance at the fruit tree and sighed. Her stomach rebelled at the thought of eating more. Well, perhaps she should go for more water. She was dehydrated and feeling groggy and slow. But — there was that jaguar that eats humans. 

Feeling discouraged, she gave up for the moment and stumbled to the edge of the ocean where she plopped down in the white sand. 

A flash on her jacket caught her attention and she looked down at her apparel. Several decorations had been pinned to the left breast. With perverse pleasure, she removed them, cut them to pieces with her sword, and enjoyed tossing the captain’s medals into the surf. Then she realized that she was polluting and scrambled to her feet in self disgust for her thoughtless actions. 

Stepping into the water, she waded through small waves. The ocean was quite calm at the moment. Then a flash of colour in the water made her stop. Because everyone’s first thought the moment anything moves in the water is — shark. 

Of course, that was silly. The water was only knee deep and sharks weren’t generally bright colours. She advanced even more slowly though, not wanting to scare whatever it was off. To her delight, she discovered that the ribbons she’d tossed now floated, attracting fish. Several of all kinds and colours darted around or lazed about, taking the occasional peck at the surface. 

Her stomach rumbled. Raw fish was a lot more appealing than raw bird. She licked her dry lips and raised her sword. 

Mei was certain her presence would simply scare off the fish. But to her excitement, they only moved off temporarily. If she stood still in the water, they slowly returned. Some were even curious enough to investigate her bare shins and feet. It was fascinating to watch!

She was hungry. Very hungry. Could she spear one with her sword? It was probably way too difficult. She’d likely miss because of the way light refracted in the water. Or she might stab herself in the foot. That would not be fun. Still, she had to try. 

Feeling like a primitive ancestor in the wilds hunting for her survival, she gripped the hilt of the sword with both hands, tip pointed straight down, safely between her feet. Her heart beat faster in anticipation and hope, but she kept the rest of herself calm. When a bright yellow fish appeared at the edge of her vision, she watched it. It approached slowly. It wasn’t overly large, but it seemed unafraid. Closer it came, closer. She stabbed down. There was solid resistance as the sword tip hit the fish and the blade drove into flesh. 

She screamed with glee. Carefully, she tilted the sword so the fish wouldn’t slip off and raised weapon and prey into the air before her. Triumphant, she turned back to the beach.

The jaguar faced her. 

Her smile vanished. 

The great cat’s golden eyes were on her own. Its head was low, shoulders hunched, one paw in front of the other. The tail hovered low to the sand. It had frozen in the act of charging her, wanting to attack her from behind while she’d been blind. Now it watched for her next move. 

She panicked, but remained in place. If she hadn’t turned at that exact moment, she’d already be dead. And if she didn’t do something smart right now, it was still going to pounce. 

The two stared at each other. 

Her heart felt ready to burst out of her chest. Warily, she lowered the sword a little, pointing the tip at the animal. 

The jaguar took a fast step closer to the water’s edge, eyes on the blade for a second, then back to her face. 

Her mouth went dry. Did this cat have something against weapons? She pulled the sword back a little. 

The jaguar didn’t react. 

Something told her that trying to shout at it and scare it off wasn’t going to work. It was not intimidated by her. The fact that it had been hanging around so close by and watching her confirmed that. Could she change tactics and try being nice? She mentally snorted. It was a wild animal, not a house pet. But what did she have to lose, other than her life?

Careful not to move too fast, she raised her free hand to the impaled fish. It still wiggled back and forth, dying by not dead. Easing the fish off the blade and hoping she didn’t drop the slimy thing, she made an underhanded toss and sent the fish towards the cat. 

Her aim wasn’t great. The fish landed a meter away from the jaguar, just inside the white bubbles of surf in the sand. 

The cat dodged sideways, body tense and its head turned to see what she’d thrown.

The fish flopped around.

The jaguar glanced at her. Then it crept closer to the fish. It sniffed it. Raising its head, it gave her another long, considering but suspicious look.

“It’s a gift. Breakfast,” she whispered. “Eat up.”

The jaguar blinked. Then it lowered its jaws and took up the fish. Padding easily over the white sand, the great cat took up residence about ten meters away and then sat down. It took the fish between its paws and began eating. 

She swore. It was not running away this time. If she tried leaving the water, it would attack her in seconds. She saw her pistols on the beach but knew that she’d never make it to them in time if the cat decided it wanted to stop her. 

She gazed down the beach. Should she make her way through the water and put some distance between them? She understood now that, between possibly being spotted by the English ship earlier, and the presence of this jaguar, it wasn’t safe here. She had to leave. She bit her lip. She didn’t relish leaving those guns behind though. 

The jaguar had finished its meal by the time she looked back. It was staring at her again. And those eyes were so damned intelligent. 

She felt something brush her shin and looked down. Apparently, losing one of their members hadn’t warned the other sea creatures off. She met the jaguar’s eyes. Could she catch another? Maybe a few? If she put the cat into a food coma, it might be too lazy to do anything. 

She decided to try it. But spearing fish wasn’t easy and her first attempt had been lucky. Still, the fish obligingly stuck around as she struck multiple times with her rapier. And after a while, she caught a second, then a third and fourth fish. The fourth was the biggest, longer and fatter than her forearm. She threw each and every one towards the jaguar. Obviously, her girlish throws didn’t make the fish go very far. But the cat did come down and retrieve her offerings. And she watched him gorge on them. She could practically see his belly bulging from all the free food it was getting. 

The fourth fish went unfinished. The jaguar, apparently stuffed, left the half-eaten thing in the blood-soaked sand, then moved a few meters away and flopped down. 

Mei grumbled. Great. It had decided to sunbath and sleep off its food coma. Right in front of her. And practically on top of the guns. This was not going her way at all. But perhaps it would eventually leave. At least it didn’t seem as hostile anymore. In fact, it didn’t seem to see her as a threat at all. Perhaps she should be insulted. But it could be doing what she’d seen plenty of house cats do, that lack of interest could be only a pretence. Cats thought they were smart actors; they weren’t. She knew it was constantly aware of her presence, no matter how nonchalant it seemed. 

She could try to run off now. She really wanted those guns though. She’d need weapons, or perhaps something to trade in the future. So while it dozed on the beach, she watched the cat and backed up until the water was at her chest, swimming and refreshing herself. This was likely as close as she was going to get to a bath for a while. 

Hanging out in the bay, waiting for the cat to wake up and depart, she saw more and more creatures in the water around her. Was this what the ocean had been like before humans came along, so alive and full of wonderful things? She spotted fish of all colours, a rainbow under the sea. There were even a pair of sea turtles! Too bad neither was big enough to haul her away to safety. But it was exciting seeing these famous beings for the first time. Feeling brave, and safe enough from the jaguar this far out, she dared to duck her head and take a look under the surface. 

The water was so clear! The fish shimmered like jewels. A tiny ray swam by, flat body impossibly graceful. She stood back up, gasping for air and laughed at how beautiful it all was. She might be in prison, but she was seeing sights like this for the first time in her life. Who would have thought. 

She looked to shore and saw the jaguar laying on its side, watching her. Well, it could watch all it wanted. She was thankful cats hated water. 

As if it could read her mind, the jaguar rolled over and got to its feet. Then it padded down to the water’s edge. Hesitating only a second to sniff the surf bubbles, it casually sauntered into the ocean. 

Mei’s jaw dropped as the jaguar doggy-paddled (kitty paddled?) around in the blue water, like it was perfectly at home there. She freaked out. That was crazy! Cats didn’t— Oh, wait, wasn’t there a species of big cat that liked water? Was that jaguars? Then again, hadn’t she seen pictures of tigers swimming, too? Actually, she’d seen footage of lions splashing around in pools and rivers while hunting. Maybe being scared of the water was only a house cat thing. 

Lucky for her, the jaguar did not seem inclined to swim towards her. It paddled about, just enjoying the swim. Fish seemed to catch its eye and it watched them go by. But when a sea turtle swam close, the jaguar actually got excited and dove after it. 

She actually laughed as she watched the great cat trying to catch the turtle, with no luck. Then she realized that she had an opportunity. With the cat in the water, should she return to the beach and make her escape?

Or, should she try the same thing she’d done with the sailors and try to kill it while it struggled in the surf? 

She watched the jaguar dive again, only to come up empty as the sea turtle smoothly swam off. No, she was too soft hearted for that. It was a wild animal. It was only doing what came naturally to it. And it hadn’t even been hostile to start with. The first time she’d sighted it, the great cat had just watched her from up in its tree. Even the second time, when it had come out of the grass and surprised her, it hadn’t necessarily been hostile. She’d been the one to lose herself and shout at it and shoot at it. No wonder it had treated her like a threat after that. 

Killing it felt wrong. There must be another way for her to survive. Except…the jaguar was swimming closer. It saw her. It watched her. And it was paddling towards her. 

Breathing hard and too nervous to make for shore, she foolishly froze. And saw a dark shape go by underwater.

The cat chased after it. After the damned sea turtle. 

She stood there, bouncing slightly in the salt water. The rapier was hidden below the surface in a nervous, iron grip. 

The jaguar was so close. All she had to do was lunge forward and stab. It wasn’t even looking at her. Its flank was wide open. She could drive the steel into its ribs or its belly. It would fight back; it might even kill her. Or maybe she could swim off and let it die in the water. 

All these thoughts flashed by in an instant. Yet despite the temptation, she stayed her hand. She did not strike. 

Maybe it was because she’d grown up in an era of rising environmental awareness. She’d heard the message ever since she was a kid in school that animals were dying out and needed to be preserved. 

Maybe it because she was a journalist and all-too-aware that, since only 1970, humans had killed off 60% off all animals, birds, fish and reptiles on the entire planet by 2020, a staggering number that few people could grasp. We’d precipitated a human-assisted mass extinction event, where more and more species disappeared every year. We were more harmful than any virus. 

Or maybe it was simply the fact that she was hyper aware of how gorgeous this wondrous animal was. The way this giant cat, nearly as big as she was, swam through crystal clear waters over pristine white sand, the radiant sun making the iconic white-and-yellow, black-spotted coat shine. It was an animal that commanded respect for its power and hunting prowess, and for its intelligence. And it was one that demanded awe for its beauty. 

So she did not stab it with her sword. She watched, a bit of a smile on her face, as it passed by, intent on the turtle. And she felt humbled. 

Of course, after it had gone by, she did not waste any more time. She pushed off the bottom and headed for shore. It was only as she stepped on dry sand that she noticed that the cat had followed. She raised her head and saw it stood less than ten meters away. 

It seemed in no hurry, and it shook, causing a spray of water to fly from its fur, casting a temporary rainbow in the air. Then it just stood there, watching her. 

The guns were ahead of her. If she ran, she could pick at least one up before it caught her. And she still had her sword in hand. She brought the blade up horizontally, closer to her chest, as if it might shield her. 

A little white dot appeared on the sand near the jaguar’s head. It was the sun’s light reflecting off the long, thin blade. 

The great cat’s head snapped in that direction. It was suddenly alert. Muscles tensed. 

Mei swallowed. Her hand shook. 

And the white dot moved. 

The jaguar pounced, big paws plowing up the sand. But the dot had danced away. And it watched. Just like a pet cat would.

She couldn’t help it. A single laugh escaped her. Then she clamped shut. But she fiddled with the sword and the white dot moved. 

The jaguar watched, and pounced again. 

This time she bit her lips to keep herself from laughing. It was too surreal. But she played some more, and twice more the cat charged and tried to catch the light with its paws. And she giggled. 

Then the jaguar stopped and stood straight up. It looked away, in the manner cats do when they’ve either suddenly lost interest or are pretending. Then its head swivelled back. Its eyes flickered to her sword, then regarded her in silence. 

Her nervousness returned. She glanced down at the pistols once more, then gave the jaguar her full attention again. It really did seem wary of weapons. It recognized them and did not like them. Not entirely sure she was doing the right thing, she lowered her sword. She held on to it in a death grip, but she pointed it down and held it at her side. 

Big, yellow eyes studied her. Then they blinked and looked away, the cat totally calm. 

She felt her heart racing. 

The jaguar moved. It stepped towards her, moving deceptively languidly, giving every impression it was entirely confident and relaxed. 

Mei trembled. But she didn’t move. She didn’t react defensively. 

It approached her, just to the side of her. It came close enough that she could have reached out and touched it. The head turned her way and it stopped. Then it sniffed at her leg and hip. 

She lost control of her bowels. Warm liquid drained down the inside of her thighs. Despite the fear coursing through her, she felt humiliated as well, like a child.

The predator sniffed at her crotch, investigating it. Then it stopped and looked around, away from her, staring out to see. As if she were no danger. It stood there for what seemed like forever, but was probably only a minute or three. It was hard to tell because her mind had gone fuzzy. 

Then the head straightened and it moved forward again, softly walking by, close enough that its shoulder nudged her hip. 

She closed her eyes and didn’t move. When she opened them again, the jaguar had gone past. It was all she could do to turn her head and look over her shoulder.

The great cat walked for a dozen meters, then looked back at her. They locked eyes again. Then it moved on, casually climbing the beach and melting into the long grass and bushes beyond. 

Her legs wobbled, then bent and she collapsed to the sand. Panting fast and light, she was dizzy with fear and adrenalin. It took a few minutes to fully calm down. Then she looked down at herself. 

Better get back in the ocean and wash herself. Bright yellow stains down the inside of her nice, white pants would be really embarrassing. 

She spent the rest of the day in a daze, alternating between periods of shock and moments of mad excitement for what she’d just been through. Then she’d follow that with periods of worry and planning. The next thing she knew, it was growing dark. She resolved to spend one last night in her fort and then head out the next morning to try and find a way off the island. 

⚓️

Sometime deep in the night, surrounded by sand and the wooden walls she’d built, she came awake. Her awareness quickly focused. Though it was night, it seemed extra dark. And something hung down in front of her. She squinted and frowned. 

A tail.

Her heart stopped. Then it took off in a mad gallup. She bent her head back and looked up…up…higher. 

The jaguar lay across the roof of her fort, directly above her, head on its paws. 

She twitched. 

Its eyes opened and saw her. They seemed to glow in the dark. It yawned, and huge teeth gleamed in the moonlight.

She forced herself not to scream.

Then the eyes closed again and the tail swung once.

She lay in the dark, terrified. 

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