My five-year-old son, Zev, is standing on Toronto’s Queen Street, shaking his head sardonically. The storefront sign behind him reads “Pirate Booty! Bought and Sold!”
“There wasn’t much real treasure in there,” he says. “And I don’t think she believed me.”
“The lady behind the counter.”
My girlfriend Angela nods in agreement.
“She wouldn’t know a pirate if he bit her in the bum,” I say, and we laugh our way back across the street like ruffians who don’t care what people think. But I know one day that might change, at least for Zev — which makes the telling of our tales even trickier.
In the three years I’ve been doing this column about learning things I should know by now before Zev is wise enough to realize how little I know, this has been one of the hardest ones to write.
For one: it’s about pirates, and if I’ve learned anything as a dad, it’s that pirates are complicated. Two: it’s a truly epic adventure, almost impossible to fit onto these pages. And three: I’m supposed to imbue this space with some wisdom which, at least for now, lies fathoms beyond my grasp. Nonetheless, here we go:
IT ALL STARTED over a month ago, at a beautiful lakeside cottage that I’d commandeered for the off-season. Zev, Angela, and I were out on the deck, doing things you might expect: tie-dying T-shirts and talking pirates — in particular, how those cool little islands out there on the lake would be perfect for digging up treasure. And that’s when Zevvy pulled out his double-barrelled question. “But do you really know, Daddy, how to dig up treasure? Or even how to bury it?”
“Of course I do!” I shot back. It’s one thing to challenge me on workaday, useful, meaningful skills like fishing, carpentry, or car mechanics, but on being a buccaneer?
“It’s what I do!” I bellowed. “I dig up treasure and bury it again!” Angela laughed, Zev gave that metaphor-defeating shrug of his, and that’s when I knew: this was about to get real.
“SO WHAT NOW?” said Zev, a week later, standing on the dock beside Angela’s trunk of pirate gear, a patch over his eye, a cutlass in his hand, and a newly pressed Jolly Roger on the front of his tie-dye t-shirt.
“Now we wait,” I said.
“For what? Pirates don’t wait!”
“Are you kidding? That’s what they spend most of their time doing; waiting patiently for opportunities.” We stared at the still, silent lake, the sun sinking low.
“But I want to do things now!” said Zev, shaking his cutlass at the sky.
And so we did some things: Zev and Angela fished off the dock while I pre- pared a dinner on the off chance they didn’t catch anything. Then Zev dropped a fishing net into the deep lake, and I was sent down to try and find it. Zev and Angela came up with a plan involving weights and a garden hose to keep me down there as long as possible. And that’s when I saw an opportunity — not only to avoid drowning, but for other things, too: “I say we reconvene this search in the morning,” I said — or rather spluttered, gasping for air as I surfaced once again.
As we made do with my backup dinner, I did the one thing I’m trained to. I told a story: this one about The Pirate Boy, who’d sailed these waters a hundred years ago with his grizzly old dad Captain Joe, for whom this very lake was named….
“Maybe there’s buried treasure!” said Zev.
“Maybe there is,” I said. “But I’d be happy just to find that net.”
AND SO THERE we were the next morning — back on the dock, with Zevvy and Ange directing my dives. Through the deep clear water there was a flash of red near where they thought it had dropped. On my second dive to the bottom I aimed for it, and got it: the Queen of Hearts — a plastic playing card in perfect condition.
Angela looked at me quizzically. Zev said, “How’d that get down there?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “But I think I saw something else down there, too.” The next time I came up, I was holding a bottle.
“There’s something in it!” said Zev.
That is how we found the scroll, browned and singed and tied up tight:
Ahoy to you who’s found this note,
that I, The Pirate Boy did wrote.
To share with you, you lucky soul,
All the things that I have stole.
They’re buried somewhere close at hand, But also on a distant land.
Where I buried my treasure yesterday,
Very nearby, but a long time away.
Here’s a clue, it’s just for you,
And should direct you what to do:
If you’re fast and strong and smart,
And keen of eye and stout of heart.
Then get on all your pirate gear,
And hike to a spot that is quite near.
Where rocks there are the best to climb,
I used to do it all the time.
And near to them is a sort of field
And hidden there a sort of wheel.
And that is all that I did wrote,
So that’s the end of this here note.
I can tell you this: I have never, in all my piratey years, seen a soul as excited as my boy on that dock as I read the last line.
“Dada,” he said. “I know where it is!”
And then it was like a dream as we gathered up our pirate gear, pulling tie-dyed shirts over our heads, tying up our boots. “I can’t believe it,” said Zev, over and over and over. “I can’t believe this is really happening! Is this really happening, Daddy?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Is this really happening, Angela?”
“Aye Aye Captain Zevvy,” she said, “Call me Cutthroat Ange!” He nodded, stunned and gleeful.
We walked and climbed through the woods, until finally Zev called out: “Avast! Ahoy! There they are! The rocks! The field! And there’s the wheel!”
We stood looking down at it — an iron circle, rusted and covered in vines, with a large hole in the middle. Zevvy nodded, and I crouched and began to dig with my hands, into the hole. The earth was loose and I dug down easily, deeper and deeper, until my arm disappeared well past the elbow. Then suddenly I shouted and jumped back up — in my hand a snake, or something like it, writhing in the air.
And I can tell you this: I have never, in all my piratey years seen a soul as scared as Captain Zev as he ran screaming into the woods — except maybe Cutthroat Ange, who ran screaming even louder in the opposite direction. So there I was left, battling a rubber snake on my own, yelling into the forest both this way and that: “It’s not real! It’s not real! It’s a trick! Come back!”
But it took a while for them to hear, and then a while more to come back through the woods, and by then I was slightly worried: for no doubt this was just the start, and if I knew the Pirate Boy (which I was pretty sure I did) his dirty tricks would only get dirtier and trickier. And the stoutness of Zev’s heart — let alone the durability of Angela’s nerves — would be put to much graver tests.
Finally we were all at the wheel again, a little more sheepish now, looking down at the rubber snake. “You know,” I said. “I felt something else down there, too.” And Zev dropped to his knees as I pulled out the dirt-covered scroll.
“Read it!” he said, his hands flattening the paper.
Aha! At last Avast! Ahoy!
It’s me again, the Pirate Boy!
Well now ‘tis time for a longer trek.
So pull up your socks and risk your neck.
To get to where they keep the bones,
And where my crewmen now call home.
So go to where the folks are dead,
With one stone each above their head.
Find seven stones that look the same,
Seven stones without a name,
Go and find what you can see,
Among my friends and family tree.
As Zev stood up, his eyes were steeled and glistening — those of someone who could do this forever. One day, I’m sure, he’ll be better and braver than me at everything — even burying treasure and digging it up again….
Captain Zevvy stepped forward and rattled his sabre. “To the graveyard!”