In keeping up with my tradition of posting stories and poems that can’t find a home, here is a short story. I have always wanted to write a pirate story. I’m from Puerto Rico and have a fascination with pirates and buried treasure. After doing some research I found a pirate myth from Puerto Rico I really connected with.
His story is like mine, being torn between two worlds, and not being really accepted in either. I also feel like he and I exist in this shadowy gray world where we are both hero and villain.
Below is that story. It’s not fully edited, so there may be a misstep here or there, but there’s nothing more I wish to do with it.
Thank you for reading.
DAVY JONES’ LOCKER BY CYNTHIA PELAYO
I only ever drink rum. I like the way it sits on the tip of my tongue, as if there’s something I’m about to say, or need to say. Or perhaps it’s because there’s something my body, the very fabric of my DNA is aching for me to speak?
Even on my wedding day, as people toasted and champagne flowed around me, I sipped on rum.
There is Jamaican rum, which is rich and can include sticky-fermented notes, bold spices and a hefty touch of molasses. There’s balanced Barbadian rum, that incorporates notes of oak. There are other Caribbean rums, those from the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, Grenada, St. Martin, Bonaire, St. Croix, and more. Yet, for me, what tastes like home is Puerto Rican rum.
Our honeymoon was quick, mostly because we could not afford to take many days off. We had to get back fast, returning to our lives where we would continue to work to live.
Leo surprised me with a trip to Puerto Rico. I had not visited Puerto Rico since I was a young teen. I could not say I had particularly fond memories of the place. Perhaps because as soon as my parents and I would arrive we would leave the airport and drive inland to visit with my Uncle Manny, my mother’s brother, and his family. I remember asking my parents why it was we didn’t visit the beaches and they would just give each other a glance and then one of them would say “There’s no time for that.”
What they meant was that there was no time for me to go to the beach. In the mornings when I would wake and get ready in the bathroom, I would find a light layer of sand on the bottom of the tub. My parents would say they went out early in the morning to try to catch fish, but they never returned with any fish. They did always return covered in grains of sand.
After I would get ready for the day, I’d find my parents seated at the kitchen table with my Uncle Manny and documents spread before them as they sipped coffee. They would grow silent, and exchange looks when I would enter the room, as if I was disturbing some long, buried secret.
It was on one of those unsuccessful fishing trips from which my parents never returned. The small boat they were on was found capsized near the Puente de Piedera, a natural stone bridge just outside of our town in Cabo Rojo, not far from Los Morrillos Lighthouse. My mother was good on the open water, growing up around boats and boating her entire life, but there aren’t many people that are good on a small vessel during a hurricane.
We landed and drove our rental car straight to Old San Juan. We walked the cobblestone streets and window shopped at darling little stores on the first floors of pastel pink, yellow and green buildings. We drank piña coladas made with Bacardi Gold rum, distilled in one of the largest distilleries in the world in Cataño here on the island.
It was then time to stroll down Norzagary Street towards the main destination for the evening.
The fort was an impressive, looming structure. The parts of the stone walls that were exposed were faded by sea salt and sun, and the other surfaces were covered in moss and mold.
El Morro is made up of six staggered levels that include barracks, passageways, storerooms and dungeons. The massive fortification was built by the Spanish in 1539. The structure built was likely the best response at that time, a fierce castle on a rock aimed to deter intruders, which it very often did.
We visited the museum inside and walked through an exhibit with photographs and artifacts. We then started a private guided tour my husband had arranged. Our guide, Felipe, led us along the ramparts, where inactive cannons faced the ocean.
Leo and I each stepped inside a domed garita, or sentry box, one of the iconic symbols of Puerto Rico.
“Hundreds of cruise ships arrive to this port each day, and for many of them, they are greeted by this grand structure,” our tour guide Felipe said.
Leo held up his phone and snapped a picture of me that I was not yet ready to pose for, and then I sensed it. I felt hot breath on my cheek and the whispered words of a woman, “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest.”
I didn’t scream, but as I looked into Leo’s eyes, I could feel my own eyes widen. My nostrils flared. Blood rushed into my ears, or was that water?
Leo slipped his phone into his back pocket and reached for my hand. “Alida, are you alright?”
“Yes,” I stepped out of the dome. “Maybe it’s jetlag,” I lied.
We walked over to one of the inoperable cannons when I asked Felipe “Is this place haunted?”
Felipe clasped his hands together. “There are some ghost stories for El Morro. One of them says that the ghost of a soldier is often seen still standing guard in this location, looking out for any enemy ships. People have reported strange noises being heard here, of soldiers marching up and down. Sometimes they say they hear the blast of cannon fire, and very often people have reported seeing ghost ships approaching.”
I turned back to the narrow garita. It was in that moment I could taste fresh rum on my lips.
“The ghost ships are sometimes thought to be those belonging to our famous Puerto Rican pirate, Roberto Cofresí,” the tour guide said, and it was as if canons erupted all around me.
“Cofresí?” I asked startled.
Leo wrapped an arm around my waist and squeezed. “That explains it all. You’re a pirate, Alida.”
Felipe raised an eyebrow. “Your surname’s Cofresí?” He gave a silent applause. “Well, welcome home.”
“Wait,” I laughed because it sounded ridiculous, like a children’s story. “Pirates of the Caribbean?”
“Of course, where do you think the most fantastic pirates roamed, but here? Robert Louis Stevenson was influenced by many real stories when he wrote Treasure Island. He even mentioned real pirates such as William Kidd and Blackbeard.
Cofresí was the last of the real pirates of the Caribbean, born June 12, 1791 after the Golden Age of Piracy, but he was probably the most legendary.
Cofresí became frustrated with Spain’s rule over Puerto Rico and wanted independence for the colonies. He eventually acquired a larger boat, a six-gun sloop named Anne. He added a crew of fifteen men and he and his crew would intercept Spanish ships leaving the Caribbean with supplies and money.”
“Fifteen men…” I said and another gust of wind blew.
I could feel the blood run down from my face. I knew then I had not imagined those words.
“Yes, like the song from Treasure Island,” Felipe said.
Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—
…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Felipe continued his account of the legendary pirate. “Cofresí was known to take much of this wealth and share it with islanders. But soon the United States became so fed up with him and an international call was put out for help to stop him.
The U.S.S Grampus was placed out at sea one day for bait, and Cofresí took it. He boarded the Grampus, and an assault began that killed five of his men and severely injured Cofresí who fled back to his ship. He was eventually captured off the coast of Puerto Rico with his remining crew. He was brought here to El Morro where he was tried by a Spanish court.”
I found myself leaning against the stone wall now. The words whispered in my ear still ringing.
“Cofresí was then executed here, with his remaining ten men, on March 25, 1825. He was 25 years old,” Felipe said.
The numbers didn’t lie. Five of Cofresí’s men died in the assault on sea and ten were executed on land.
Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, I thought.
Cofresí had gotten his crew of fifteen men killed, as well as himself. Were those the same fifteen men referenced in that legendary pirate song?
Leo asked, “So do people see his ghost here?”
“Not here, but people have reported to have seen his ghost in caves and coves throughout the island. They say he appears first outlined with fire.”
“Why in caves or coves, and not here?” I asked.
Felipe winked “Because he’s protecting his buried treasure. Cofresí is one of few pirates to have hinted at having buried his treasure while he was alive. Maybe that entire idea came from him, who knows?”
Leo smiled “I guess we’re going looking for buried treasure,” he joked.
“Maybe not,” Felipe said. “The U.S.S. Grampus was eventually shipwrecked. People say it was the ghost of Cofresí, that he’s cursed all of those who contributed to his death. It’s also been said that anyone that has gotten too close to his treasure has gone missing, being dragged by the spirits of dead pirates to Davy Jones’ Locker.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
Felipe pointed out toward the sea. “That’s what they say of anyone attempting to take cursed buried treasure. That once a person arrives at the location where the treasure is buried, with the intent of taking it, they are dragged by the ghosts of long-dead pirates to the bottom of the ocean. Pirates call that place Davy Jones’ Locker.”
“I never understood that,” Leo said. “What’s the point of burying goods and gold if no one can access it. They’re dead. Why would their ghosts care?”
Felipe rubbed the back of his head. “Maybe they want the right person to get the treasure.”
Leo pulled out his cell phone, taking more pictures. “Like whom?”
Felipe shrugged. “Who knows? Another pirate? A relative?”
I breathed in the sweet ocean air. “Or maybe someone that doesn’t want or need the treasure?”
I closed my eyes and raised my arms out. I relished in the cool breeze that came rolling off the sea. When I opened my eyes, I saw several lights sparkling out in the distance.
“I see some cruises coming in.”
Felipe strained to look. “I don’t see anything,”
When I looked back into what seemed like infinite darkness the lights were gone.
“Maybe it was a ghost ship,” Leo said.
Later that night, Leo and I sat outside on the beachfront of our hotel. We had more drinks and listened to the sound of waves crashing. I looked over to him to ask him what he thought of the ghost stories, but he had been lulled to sleep by the song of the ocean.
That night, when I fell asleep, I dreamed I was sinking.
Life is a procession of steady events; all revolving around work and the expectations to build and maintain a life. Leo and I returned to work. Leo worked for Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation department, patching up pothole covered streets, and I did what my mother did until she was taken by the ocean one day, I drove a Chicago River Taxi.
I didn’t mind the long hours, because I enjoyed being out on the water on a boat. I also enjoyed the lessons a boat and the water taught me. A boat is always in motion, swaying with the current and wind. Even with a perfectly set compass, you will be pushed off course just a little because of the wind or the current or both. You will always have to compensate and correct to stay on course.
We had children and raised them as best we could with the money we made. They moved onto their loves and lives and Leo and I continued working to save up for a life where we could sleep in and move slowly.
I remained silent about my dreams, plagued by the sight of ghost ships with their billowing masts in the twilight.
With each sleep the floating vessels drew closer until one night I dreamt I was swimming in the great ocean and a great and narrow ship was just above me. I could practically touch the rotting and worn wooden boards that constructed its hull. I could finally hear its frayed flags flapping in the wind, and I could see the crew that gathered on the deck above to peer down on me.
The figures stood still. Their faces gaunt. Their eyes wide and focused on me. Gray skin hung from their bodies. Patches of missing flesh revealed black bones. The tops of their heads held strips of black and greasy hair. Machetes and daggers were strapped on their hips. One man was missing a leg. One woman was missing an arm, and all of them were smiling at me, smiles that were most fierce, gruesome and grim.
I worked my thirty years plus, and the week before I was set to retire Leo told me he was going to take a nap before dinner, from which he never woke.
My present to him for our retirement was going to be a small house and used boat I had purchased in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.
The night before I boarded a plane, in my dream I had finally made it on board the ghost ship.
On either side of me was a line of rotting and wasting men and women, standing at attention. The door to the captain’s cabin was wide open. In the windows I could see candles flickering, and a dark figure stood at the entrance, their back to me.
I felt a cold, slimy hand take mine. I turned and a woman in a white silk gown, all wasted with moss growing out of her eye sockets said, “He’s got fifteen dead men on his chest.”
And I felt the anguish and the guilt that this marauder of the seas once felt; a tyrant, but also a revolutionary. A criminal, yet a robin hood. Some men and women haunt houses. Others haunt the sea, and beckon those of us – members of their lineage to them. Perhaps that’s what this was, I thought.
I moved into the pastel blue one bedroom house easily. I only brought one bag with me. An old woman didn’t need much. I would let my hair grow long and gray and welcome the wrinkles that would deepen in the sun as I navigated my small boat.
I named the boat Leo Rum, and it kept me company, as well as a small dog I found wandering my house one morning. I named her Soledad and she’s been my expedition partner ever since.
When I felt ready, I isolated my explorations close to home in Cabo Rojo. I spent a lot of time around Bahía de Boqueron moving north to Canal Norte. One day, I found myself in Laguna Guaniquilla, struck by the huge, jagged rocks that looked like they could have been plucked from the moon and set here on this island paradise.
I took a deep breath and spoke to Leo. “I do miss you. This was supposed to be our adventure.”
I looked down to Soledad and rubbed her brown and white coat. “There’s one more stop we need to make.”
I anchored and walked along a collection of mangroves. Soledad walked happily beside me. I thought about my children and how beautiful they all were and how proud of them I was. But most of all, I thought about Leo and how lonely I was without him, and how my life had shifted so much over the years.
And that was life, wasn’t it? One day you wake up and your past is all a memory, but that is fine, because there’s always another adventure.
I climbed up the limestone rocks and Soledad followed steadily, her tail wagging. I pushed past branches and found the opening into the cave that I only needed to step down into. It was small inside, and the walls were smooth. The dirt floor was packed tightly, probably from all of the visitors over the years. It looked like a gallery with other small coves for entry, and I knew that this was the place.
I knelt and wrapped by arms around Soledad and gave her a kiss on the top of her head.
I thought about legends and how very often the person that is a legend has a family. So what becomes of them and their legacies? Are those children and grandchildren and great, great, great, great grandchildren connected to the magic and the curse of their legendary ancestor somehow?
I stood up and wondered if this is where my parents came all of those years before and did not return. I wondered, perhaps, if the misstep in finding secrets hidden so long ago was that one needed to come alone, not intending to take anything, but just intending to see and to know.
And that is all I wanted, I just wanted to know.
“I’m here finally,” I said, tasting rum on the tip of my tongue.
I looked to the ground and it glowed, covered in silver reales, Spanish coins.
I wondered if a parade of long, dead pirates would appear and drag me down to Davy Jones’ Locker.
I wondered if my great-great-great-great grandfather would welcome me, and as I saw that golden red, yellow and orange fiery outline of my ancestor appear I wondered…