I have never seen my boy so scared.
Except maybe an hour ago when I pulled that rubber snake out of the ground, him screaming bloody murder as he ran into the woods. So did Angela, actually, in the opposite direction, and she’s an adult woman.
But this is different: the kind of fear that grows, envelops, holds you fixed in one place — there in his car seat as he stares out of the window clutching his cutlass, the black patch still over his right eye. How the winding road must look to him now, through one eye: muddy bogs bubbling, naked trees like skeletons, the yellow rays of sunlight a scurvy dog’s gleaming teeth. And I wonder if I’ve gone too far — if it’s all too much.
“Hey, Captain Zevvy,” I say. “Do you know what it is to be brave?”
He nods. “To not be scared,” he says, in a small gasping voice.
“Actually. That’s being fearless. Fearless is easy. Brave is when you’re scared, but you still move forward; it’s when you face your fears.”
We cross the railroad tracks and turn into the old cemetery.
“Are you ready?” I say.
Zevvy shakes his head. The switched-off car fades into silence.
“Let’s look at the clue again,” says Cuthroat Ange, uncurling the Pirate Boy’s weathered note, to read the last few lines:
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.
“Look,” I say, pointing through the windshield. “That tree at the back. Should we check it out?”
But Captain Zevvy won’t budge. “I’m really, really, really scared,” he says.
“Of what, exactly?” I ask him.
“I don’t know,” he says. And I can see this is the crux of it.
“Well, let’s try to name it then.”
He takes a breath. “Other tricks and traps. And even more scary than the snake — with dead people… like skeletons or zombies….”
It’s a fair point. Since finding that first note this morning, in an ancient bottle at the bottom of the lake, one thing’s been clear: today, anything could happen.
“Well how about this?” I say. “I go first. You guys come after. And when we’re done, we can eat our lunch.”
“Here?” says Captain Zevvy, whose love of lunch, particularly picnics, can override most things.
“If you like,” I say, and step out of the car. Then Ange and Zevvy get out after. He adjusts his patch, straightens his hat, and the three of us walk through the graveyard.
There, around the giant gnarled tree, are seven faded stones, and deep in a hole in the trunk of the tree, hidden by nylon webs and spiders made of plastic, the brave Captain Zevvy finds an apothecary bottle full of dirty white powder.
I read the label: “Bone Dust,” I say.
“Bone dust?” says Cutthroat Ange.
“Bone dust,” says Zevvy, nodding sagely. “And look! A bone!”
We open it up, pull it out, and what looked like a bone, stuck in dust, is in fact a rolled-up scroll.
“A map!” says Captain Zevvy.
The boy is right. And with the map there is a note:
The map, the map, you found the map!
Now you’ll know where the treasure’s at.
It’s at the lake, that much you know,
The one named after Old Man Joe.
Not Joseph as I sometimes hear,
Captain Joe of the Missing Ear.
An island each for his three boys,
Though my brothers just preferred their toys.
Biggest to smallest is how it was done,
And I didn’t complain, just took that one.
And so I write, and so you know,
If you want to find it, you’ll have to row.
This is where the treasure’s hid:
The Island of the Pirate Kid.
Zev is buzzing now, no longer afraid, spouting out questions between mouthfuls of his graveyard picnic: why do treasure maps always have burn marks? Do you really think we’ll find a treasure? How did the Pirate Boy learn to write cursive? Can we bring some snacks on the boat with us?
Back at the lakeside cottage, we load up the canoe: cutlasses, muskets, shovels, the map, notes, cell phones. Snacks, of course. Then we push off; Captain Zevvy barking orders from the bow as we row towards the islands — heading for the smallest of the three: a perfectly picturesque piece of earth. We tie off among the rocks, and leap to shore, then look and look and finally find something: The letters ‘JJ’ carved into a stone.
“Does it move?” says Cutthroat Ange. And before I can stop him, Zevvy heaves the stone aside, then screams — the hollowed-out eyes of a long-dead pirate staring up at us.
“It’s not real!” I say, grabbing the Styrofoam skull.
He should be in the drink by now, but Captain Zevvy has stood his ground. “Another dirty trick!” he says, more mad than fearful. He kicks at the stones, then bends down to look at what else there is: a wooden treasure chest so small it fits in one of my hands. He stands back as I open the lid, then gasp: tiny rubber rats.
“Grrr…” says Captain Zevvy, with growing frustration. “Is there at least a note?” And shiver-me-timbers, there is:
Aha, ahoy, avast me lad!
You thought me treasure you did had!
But it’s not here, because, you see,
Although I’m the smallest boy of three, T
here’s something you are missing, mister,
After us, there came two sisters.
Then I became the one in the middle.
And my scurvy brothers were given the little.
They fought and fell in to the lake,
And so their stuff was mine to take.
Back to my island, just big enough,
To bury all their pirate stuff.
So that’s exactly what I did.
I’m Captain Joe Jr., the Pirate Kid.
And one last thing, before you go,
One last clue before you row:
Turn the page, it’s a map you’ve got.
Take a look: ‘X’ marks the spot.
Captain Zevvy’s eyes are gleaming as we climb into the boat. “It has to be there,” he says, pointing to the next island over. “It has to!”
We push off the rocks, turning towards open water. And that’s when it hits: a big wave from out of nowhere. Cutthroat Angie lets out a yell, and then, our brave boat flips.
Now we’re all in the drink, gasping and grabbing — rats, snakes, spiders, and skulls surfacing around us. I get a hold of Zev’s life jacket and pull him to the island, where he watches me and Angela slipping on the rocks, trying to right the canoe. I bail the water as she lays out our phones to dry in the sun. Zev does the same with the scrolls and maps, and then we lean back, soaking and trying to catch our breath, momentarily marooned on this tricky treasureless island.
“Ho-ly!” says Cutthroat Ange.
“Well that was unexpected.”
But Captain Zevvy, for whom a simple capsizing hardly even registers on this epic day of tricks, traps, and buried treasure, is on his feet again, his steely gaze on the next island over. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s get that treasure.”
The scurvy dog sun is sinking low, slanting through the ferns and trees as we pull up to a sandy beach on the next island over. About the size of a baseball diamond, and utterly uninhabited, it seems the perfect place to bury a treasure — or dig one up again. I grab the shovel, we climb up from the shore, and start into the trees.
“Even if there’s no treasure,” says my boy, “Today is the best day of my life.”
“Mine too…” I try to say, but it catches in my throat, and now I’m just standing there with a shovel on my shoulder watching him move through the tall undergrowth, sharp and brave — like I used to walk, through anything. But now I’m surrounded — on all sides it seems — by dirty tricks and deadly traps, deadlines and doctors, creditors and custody lawyers. I dare not take a step. I stand my ground and just sink instead, like the earth is made of quicksand…
“Over here!” cries Captain Zevvy, and I make my way to where they are — he and my beautiful Cutthroat Ange — adventure and boldness embodied: the wind drying their pirate duds, brims tilted back, eyes shining down at an ancient slab of stone — carved into its surface, a big old “X.”
I heave it aside, and start to dig. Zevvy is holding his breath, but I can feel his heart pounding. Or is it mine? I hit something hollow and hard, then get down and scratch with my hands, pulling up dirt and stones until there it is: an old wooden chest so big my boy could sit inside. We stand there, in twilight sunlit silence, looking down at it. I pull out the last note, the small map on the back, and read the last few lines.
This was the deal I made with Dad,
That I could keep the stuff I had.
But only keep it underground,
Until our treasure would be found,
By a brave young boy who’d play the part,
Of a little pirate with a great big heart.
I give him the scroll then kneel down. My hands are shaking as I open the lid.