This is what happens when you have pirates in the family: you end up inheriting all kinds of junk when they die.
And when that subject comes up, how do you even begin to explain? I gave up trying to come up with excuses. I usually say the blokes served in the Navy and that’s it, less hassle. Because there’s the rub: you talk “pirates” these days, everyone thinks of Jack Sparrow. Och, I do hate Jack Sparrow, you know? If you stop and think, the other pirate that everyone knows is Captain Hook … You might want to admit things have changed a little for the better. But, just so you know, my grandfather would have turned Jack Sparrow into a stew, all right? He would’ve sent the guy to scrub the deck with a child’s toothbrush the first time Master Sparrow tried to get fresh with him.
Anyway. Where was I?
Oh yes! The junk! And, och, what chaos that was. I had arrived from St Ives three weeks before and was still unpacking when it happened. My grandfather was a hoarder; there’s no other word for it. Why the hell did the old man need twenty—twenty! Two times ten!—narwhal horn jugs? Powdered beluga liver? Nobody buys this crap nowadays; it’s all synthetic stuff now, much cheaper. And that was just the beginning.
Clothes? Two chests, filled to the brim. Some of the old pieces fit me, but there was also some weird stuff in there. Exhibit number one: in the middle of the coats and waistcoats, there were three selkie skins. What did he do with the girls? I mean, one selkie skin, this I can understand. Who’s never fallen in love with a selkie? (You, probably. But in my line of business, you see, let’s just say it’s a bit of an occupational hazard. If it’s not a selkie or a mermaid, then it’s something worse. For example, I wouldn’t recommend falling in love with a werewolf unless you really have a bit of a death wish—but your mileage might vary.) But three selkie skins? What the hell? How did he deceive three of these creatures? Whatever happened to them?
I know my late grandfather was not … how do I put this? He wasn’t an example of monogamy. Anyone with a proper heart rate and old enough to join the Navy was game for him; he loved them all just the same. His skirt chasing was nothing if not democratic. In fact, Claude—the only paramour Grandpa ever introduced to me—wouldn’t be caught dead in a skirt. Then again, what sort of skirt would fit a Breton sailor who is two meters tall and a meter and ten wide, with more tattoos on his skin than sense in his head?
Well, where do I want to get to with this yarn? I want to get to Mylène.
Because this is what happens when you have pirates in the family: you end up responsible for someone like Mylène.
She arrived along with all the junk. Dig if you will the picture, as the old song goes: there I was, between velvet coats and about twenty-five coral necklaces (it’s a top-quality amulet against the evil eye), and suddenly a wee lass materialises among the boxes. Very much alive, thanks for asking, though not breathing that well. She looked human, or close to it. Russet hair. Dark eyes. Aquiline nose. Neither ugly nor beautiful, just full of dust up to her ears, coughing her lungs out. (Now, I don’t know whether she has lungs, but let’s leave the figure of speech there, ‘cause I don’t know how else could I describe the scene.)
We got along with lots of miming. She didn’t know a word of Portuguese; we fared better with English, but she wasn’t all that fluent. She spoke French, and I didn’t. I wasn’t desperate enough to call Zé Carlos and ask him to translate for me, ‘cause then I’d have to explain the problem.
And the problem is: I come from a family of pirates.
Just so we’re in the same page: we’re not talking about modern thugs, okay? I’m talking about the proper buccaneer OGs here. The real McCoys. The ancient traders and dealers of magic material, got it? Narwhal horn powder is like cocaine to people from other worlds. You want to make friends with a merman, let’s put it like that, that’s what you offer him. (Although chocolate also works and is much cheaper. Seriously, hand them any bog-standard milk chocolate bar, and they’ll follow you to the end of the world, just in case you want to know.)
Sure, it sounds mad. People find it funny when I tell my mother is a Pernambuco gal about five feet tall, and my father is a true-blue Scotsman, six foot five—like the “Outlander” guy, only dark-haired and not ginger. And with no time travel involved. (Well, at least I don’t think so.) All very cute, but if I tried to explain Mama comes from a long line of sorceresses in the region of the Fernando de Noronha islands, and Papa is from a family of pirates and merchants of magical paraphernalia … you bet your life I’d end up in some loony bin faster than the blink of an eye.
Anyway. What a pretty pickle I was in. What was I going to do with twenty jars of narwhal horns, three selkie skins, a myriad of crap that I can’t sell here in São Paulo—and a creature called Mylène?
Two things I learned about her: she spoke French, and she could cook. I got home from work (because I had to go back to work; I mean, they would end up missing me in the library at some point) and lo and behold, there was hot food on the table! Bouillabaisse. The most powerful fish broth on the face of the Earth. Claude had a great recipe; it’s a pity I never asked him about it.
Where did Mylène find all the fish to make the stew? Best not to ask, I thought, ‘cause the answers would probably upset me. I just ate it up heartily. It’s not like I’d miss the opportunity. After all, I lived on my own back then. The ultimate refinement in dining at the residence was normally when I ordered Chinese food over the phone.
I borrowed a French-Portuguese dictionary with Zé Carlos (trying to get rid of his questions and another of his suggestions about going out on a date—the guy could be more insistent than a telemarketer), and spent the entire night trying to come to an understanding with my involuntary guest. How did she end up here, in the middle of all that crap? And how come I hadn’t realized she was there?
So there you have it: I found out that my late grandfather once fooled around with some sort of deep-sea creature (didn’t I tell you that the bloke hooked up with anything that stumbled onto a galleon?) and, well, look what happened.
Couldn’t anyone have given me a heads-up? Time to ring my parents in Edinburgh so I could clear things up. My mother answered the call. You think I’m difficult, wait ‘til you meet Mrs Maria Madalena da Silva MacAndrews. In all seriousness, God placed Brazil and Scotland so far apart out of pity for the rest of the world, because when you put the two peoples together it’s worse than a locust plague.
My mother’s screaming when she heard the news must have woken people up in Denmark. I’ll tell you it made poor Mylène hide behind the couch like a cat when someone steps on its tail.
“She’s the old man’s daughter?” my mother asked.
“Granddaughter! Her mother was turned into sushi a long time ago, for all I could gather. Caught in the wrong end of a trawler, I think.”
“Magali! Do show some respect!”
“Och, mummy, give me a break, will you? I’m hundreds of miles from the nearest sea view. The closest beach to São Paulo is what, the dock of Santos? Should I drop this girl there? She might end up having a stroke with all that pollution.”
“Take her to Fernando de Noronha; I’m sure your grandmother can take care of her.”
“Aye, right!” I will not say my maternal grandmother is a bad person. She isn’t. But she also has no patience. I tried to imagine poor Mylène, ginger-haired and phosphorus-skinned like some Polish tourist, scraggy as a skewer, with her French words and all her fish stews, trying to talk to Mrs Esmeraldina da Silva… And it would be hilarious were it not happening to me. “Och, enough of that already. Get Papa on the line, please. It’s a pirate problem; therefore it’s his problem, and he’ll help me solve it.”
“Magali, your father doesn’t like to talk about these things. He left that life long ago, you know that …”
“Now see here, I don’t like it, either. Do you think I’m having fun with this bloody bazaar up here? Do me a favour and wake the old geezer up, ‘cause I ain’t gonna solve his mess. The deal was I was going to take care of old Johnny’s booty. Living people were not included in the package!”
Five minutes later, there was dear old Oliver on the phone, with his Gerard-Butler-after-a-pulmonary-emphysema accent:
“I have no idea what to do, hen.”
“Good, that makes two of us, then! Can’t you talk to Mylène or something? You’re all from the same family, perhaps that’ll work. She speaks French pretty well, if that helps.”
“My French is not that grand, but I reckon it might work. As your mother often says, my arm’s not gonna fall off if I try, innit?”
I asked Mylène to listen to the conversation—there was no way that I could explain which side she had to hold the handset, so I just turned on the speakerphone. It ended up in such a shouting contest that I wondered if the neighbours were going to call the police. Mylène’s face went redder than her hair, her neck glowed and her hair … look, if I told you what happened to her hair, you’d never believe me, so I’ll spare us both the effort. I mean, sure, how fun to think you were an only child your whole life and then discover a sister at the wake. How amusing to discover your deceased father has achieved the feat of reproducing with some sort of mermaid. Only in my family…
Now you’ll be asking me, “and what did you do?” Well, Papa decided to make some phone calls, get in touch with some old timers from the piracy life—and that was going to take a while, because you have never seen a magical pirate with a mobile phone, now have you? Well, I haven’t either, and we are in the 21st century. And there you were, thinking that magic is the easy way out. Aye, right. If saying “abracadabra” solved all the troubles in the world, I wouldn’t be a civil servant, now, would I?
Mylène asked why I didn’t have a bathtub. Because Brazilians, in general, don’t have the habit, I told her. Well, I wanted to have a bath, but there’s barely room for a shower over there. That was the shower under which, incidentally, the aforementioned redheaded lady creature would stay half the day if left to her own devices. I worried about how much I was going to pay in the next water bill, and worried about Mylène too. You see, not only was it one of those “frying an egg on the boot of the car” summer months, the poor lass had to be near water in order to survive. After an age and a half locked in the middle of old Johnny’s crockery, she’d become quite dehydrated.
Therefore, wherever she went, there was a basin full of water. You try to imagine the ridiculous scene that was Mylène cooking on the edge of the stove with her feet in a bucket! She’ll end up constipated, my grandmother Esmeraldina would say. At least she looked better. She was already breathing easier; her skin was ruddier. I was getting a little sick of eating fish, but then again, dare I complain? She was a top rate chef, she was. It made me sad to think she’d have to leave one day. But such was life: I couldn’t let her sleep inside a fishbowl and be done with it. She wasn’t a pet, after all.
At least I had a reason to go home. The one night I was late from work, I found Mylène on the couch more wilted than a lettuce, with her feet inside the washing basin, knitting something with two hashi sticks and a thread she must have found in the middle of my grandfather’s trinkets. She likes to knit—not that she’s had much time for that, she explained, because lately there has been a lot going on in the Mediterranean waters where she comes from. If you are not fleeing from the bloody tourists, then it is an immigrant boat fleeing from war on your path. She seemed very annoyed to talk about the boats, how they made such an effort to push them towards the mainland but could not save everyone. It was tiring—c’est tannant, she said.
Afterwards, I found out that nobody in France speaks c’est tannant to say that a chore is exhausting—that’s more of a Canadian saying. File it under another of Mylène’s oddities: God knows what sort of sailor she met when she was lost in the port, before she ended up at my grandfather’s funeral.
After a fortnight of fish for lunch and dinner and all sorts of basins and buckets around the house, a fortnight with the shower turned on in the middle of the night, a lot of knitting and Zé Carlos getting on my nerves because he kept reminding me he needed his dictionary back (Adding twenty variations of “why do not you go out with us after work?” meaning “why do not you go out with me?”), my father found someone who knew someone who knew Mylène’s tribe.
The good part: They were dead worried about her, thinking that some fishing company had trawled her or worse. So it was pretty much a national holiday when they were told that she was alive; she had only really run away when she learned her grandfather had died and ended up stuck in his baggage heading for another continent.
The not so good part: How do you return someone like Mylène to the middle of the Mediterranean? She came here inside a container and almost died in the attempt. You cannot buy a plane ticket for a person without a passport—or someone who’s not even human, just to add another level of trouble.
Throw the lass into the drink and tell her to go swimming? Not possible either. It’s like dropping someone on the freeway and then telling them to walk home. Time to call to Edinburgh again for more screaming matches until we finally laid out a plan. A pirate ship was to take Mylène away, with half of old Johnny’s booty to make up for the trip. We had to go to Fernando de Noronha to do this, because the ship was just passing through and would not head all the way to Santos.
So I put Mylène in the car with all kinds of buckets and all the fishes that fit in the icebox, and we hit the road to Pernambuco. I told Zé Carlos some flimsy excuse, ordered him to take care of the library while I was out and off I went.
And you know what? That was one of the funniest trips of my life, and I’ve been around a bit in my life. Mylène was a good travelling buddy; she really could sing, and that helped us pass the time. It was smooth sailing until the end. We slept in the car, ‘cause we didn’t have money to stay in a hotel, and she kept watching for trouble. It was like a pirate ship, all hands on deck and when it came down to the sea shanties, it was a mess at first but then we all get in tune because that’s just the way things go.
We were able to arrive in Fernando de Noronha archipelago thanks to the boat of my esteemed cousin Ganimedes—who, like all the men in the family, doesn’t know the first thing about magic but doesn’t mind much and is always down to help. He did not find it weird Mylène looked like a child after two packs of gumdrops and a free pass to the playground when we finally got to the open sea. The guy has seen much in life, even real redheads; he wasn’t going to give me the pleasure of seeing him surprised.
The ship arrived two days later. You wouldn’t give a penny for that motorized bathtub, but the bloke knew his onions, you could say: you just needed to look to know you were dealing with a professional. No Jack Sparrow bandanas, no comical outfits. He had quite a lot of tattoos, of course; and the hair full of knots because of the wind and salt of the sea, too. But he wore practical clothes that freed his movements, as one should. He was Catalan by birth—my father would not approve all the liberties the boy had taken with me, but I did, thanks for asking—and very interested in the booty I brought with me.
“So where am I to leave the girl?” he asked, looking at Mylène.
“Tyrrhenian Sea, for all the information she was able to give me. I reckon she’ll know where to go once she’s there.”
“Perfect, it happens to be on my way. I have a delivery in Sardinia, so I can do both things in one trip. You’re sure you don’t want those narwhal horns?”
“Sell them and donate the money to someone who cares for refugees. That will me make me happy. I have no use for this sort of stuff here.”
Of course the bloke looked as if I was mad, but never you mind. How did I even start explaining that I happened to be a mere civil servant? Narwhal horn doesn’t work for humans, and if it did, it could land me in jail for trafficking (if the police understood about these sort of stuff). Anyway, it was time to put Mylène on the boat and say my goodbyes, since I had to hit the road back to São Paulo.
And then the lass started to cry. And I mean crying as in huge sobbing, falling hair like cooked spaghetti over the face, such a scandal that even Ganimedes, who is deaf in both ears, ended up noticing. Well, what a pretty pickle, I thought to myself; what do I do now? Leave the lass in the hands of a guy I’ve never seen in my life (even though he’s got star reviews and all) aboard a lousy ship? Really? Going back to São Paulo wasn’t on her plans. To stay in Fernando de Noronha wasn’t on mine.
And that’s how I came to end up here at the port of Syracuse, talking to you. Because that’s what happens when you have pirates in the family: you always return to the prow of a ship. I wasn’t going to leave the poor lassie crying, now, was I? Och, I do have a heart. And because I do have a heart—dig if you will this picture—the Catalan captain even asked for my hand in marriage after we left Mylène in her home waters.
Before she disappeared like bath foam into the blue sea, contented and singing like an opera soprano, d’you know she had the gall to say I should accept the marriage proposal? And it wasn’t because of the Catalan’s beauty or because of the magic boat—it was because the bloke knew how to make romescada, which is like a bouillabaisse but with some ingredients that Claude would never approve of. I have come to the conclusion that Mylène thinks with her stomach and not with her brain …!
Anyway, that’s it. If you ever find Zé Carlos back in São Paulo, tell him that I lost his dictionary, but that I’ll send him another one as soon as I can. No need to explain the rest of the tale.
Anna Fagundes Martino was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1981. One of the founders of Dame Blanche, a small press focused in Brazilian speculative fiction, she has had works performed on Radio BBC World and published in a number of Brazilian venues. You can find her work at annamartino.com.