The Widow Chapman
“Mother,” the girl says, “come inside. There’s a storm about to blow, can’t you smell it?”
Priscilla can smell it. She could smell it two hours ago when the sky was clear save for a bit of haze on the horizon. Her daughter is standing in the doorway, looking at her aging mother sitting in her rocker on the porch.
“Yes, darling, I smell it. I’ll be in presently.”
Her daughter, a dark-haired teenager with pretty lips who is approaching marriageable age, frowns, and walks back inside. “I’ll get you some tea, then, Mum,” she says as she walks away.
Priscilla appreciates her daughter’s fussing, but it’s needless. She can do for herself just fine. Time was, long before her daughter’s birth, when she mastered the winds, fell asleep to the creaking of boards, took a ship with full sails slashing through waves as high as the hills of Essex.
In her hands, she holds a small knife and a bit of wood. Shavings fall to the floor of the porch as she carves away, needling at it like a work of scrimshaw. A bit of thunder grumbles, still a ways off. The smell of her salted stew drifts out from the kitchen where it simmers over a low flame.
There are things she misses, things her daughter would not understand.
When her daughter comes back with the tea, she takes a cup with a smile and gazes out at the low-slung clouds approaching with ominous steadiness. She can see the electricity inside them.
“You always get that faraway look when a storm rolls in, Mum.”
“What are you working on?”
Priscilla holds up the little bit of wood she’s been worrying at with her knife. It’s a ship, or it will be. Her intent is clear enough. She’s starting to get a bit arthritic and it’s harder for her to work the knife for long periods. Once, she could carve intricately detailed pictures on whalebone in no time. These days, it takes days just to get the shape of a ship just right.
But this ship, she could never forget it. It dogged her at sea so many times. For all the plunders she made, this ship came and robbed her of half of them. She chased this boat around the horn of Africa. This ship stole her winnings from the sacking of the French fleet. Most of them, anyway. Except for the bits she was clever enough to hide.
It was hard not to admire the captain of that ship, the rude, rough, clever, cocky woman who made her life at sea a trial at times. Hard not to admire her cunning, her excellent leather boots, her two large flintlocks of superlative make.
The way she kissed after half a bottle of rum.
“That’ll be lovely when it’s done,” her daughter says. “Why is it always boats, Mum?”
Her daughter doesn’t know what her life was before. It’s better for everyone that way. Priscilla’s life is so very plain now; she sips her tea, she carves her little wooden ships. She tries to find advantageous marriages for her children. She entertains the occasional suitor, but the Widow Chapman has no intention of remarrying, not really. What would be the point?
The rumbling of the thunderhead is closer now, and she sees the clouds flicker. Rain begins to beat on the eaves, not too heavily now, but she knows it will pick up soon enough.
It makes her daydream, as it always does, of the captain of that other ship. Her competitor, her once-compatriot, and a thorn in her side either way. Her strong body, her dazzling white smile against ebony skin, her sailor’s mouth. The faint mist that drifts in feels almost like the sea. Priscilla is so much older now, it surprises her that the memory of that captain still remains so easily roused.
But of course it is. Here she sits, a mother of three, long past her life of piracy and the name Quartermaster Clayton, carving little wooden replicas of the ship that dogged her travels. Not her own ship. Her competitor’s.
How it is she can miss someone who bothered her so much, she can’t say. She still grieves the day she left Annie bleeding on the deck of her own ship, and sailed away, clutching her cutlass and weeping into the winds. It was the day she gave up the life, the day she decided to leave and be dull. If there was no Annie to make it difficult, there was no joy to be had in any of it.
Her knuckles are stiff now and her carving has given way to holding the hot cup of tea for the comfort of its heat, not the drink. Lightning strikes the ground not far from where she sits, and she begins to rock back and forth in her chair, heart stirring and full of memories. A storm rouses her blood, and she doesn’t expect it will ever change.
Her daughter entreats her again to come inside. “Mum,” she pleads, “you’ll be struck by lightning, come inside.”
She sets to making supper and listens to the rain beating at the thick glass, the crack of the thunder. She bought herself a respectable name and home with plunder, the fruits of the sword and the sea. She misses those things.
But most of all, she misses Annie. She will return to the little frigate, she decides, and finish it after dinner. She’s already thinking about the paints she will use. She pays no mind to a dark figure coming up the walk until the doorbell has already been rung.
Her daughter answers it. Priscilla listens curiously, wondering who might be making an unannounced appearance in such weather. Very few people would brave it.
“Mum,” her daughter calls, “would you come here, please?”
Priscilla sets down her wooden spoon and makes her way out into the foyer.
Standing under the dripping eaves, is a figure who looks urgently, disquietingly familiar. She may be dressed as a gardener, but Priscilla cannot mistake her strong frame and that spark in her eye. “Annie?”
“Quartermaster Clayton,” she says.
Priscilla’s daughter is confused.
“Darling, please excuse us for a moment, would you?”
She looks concerned but exits quietly to another room.
“You here to kill me, then?”
Annie scoffs. She looks at Priscilla fondly. “What fun would that be? You don’t look like you kept your skills up.”
Absurdly, Priscilla picks up one of her wooden ships that sits on a side table. “Not most of them. A few.”
Annie shakes her head. “The Widow Chapman, hm?”
“How’d Mr. Chapman die?”
“Mysterious circumstances.” Her answer pleases Annie.
Annie looks into the kitchen, where the smells of Priscilla’s cooking are growing stronger and drifting into the foyer. “What’s for dinner?”
“Stew.” Priscilla’s head spins. “I thought you were dead.”
“No. An inch to the left and I might have been.”
“I see.” Priscilla is numb.
“You left the life.”
“Yes, after I thought I killed you. Didn’t seem much point.”
Annie looks around. “It took me a long time to find you, Quartermaster. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
Priscilla’s heart is in her ears. She can’t begin to think. “Stay for dinner?”
“Don’t mind if I do. I’m not the sort of rude guest who’d kill you before dinner.”
“Alright, then.” She doesn’t know what else to do, so Priscilla takes Annie’s coat. “You know, I haven’t been made love to properly in thirty years.” It’s hard to believe, after almost forgetting what it felt like, that her body’s stirring again at the sight of her old rival, the one she loved and hated best.
Annie’s eyes twinkle at this. “Is that right?”
“Perhaps murder can wait a bit?”
Jennifer Giacalone is the author of last year’s Loud Pipes Save Lives, a motorcycle-themed mystery/political thriller with Carnation Books that reached #1 on Amazon’s LGBT Mystery charts and has been praised for its queer representation and diverse cast of characters. She is also co-author of the forthcoming Gin Fizz at the Outer Rim, a romantic comedy centered around superheroes in rural Georgia. A queer woman and unapologetic social justice warrior, she has received recognition for works that strive to show the world in all its diversity.