"Orphan Pirates of the Spanish Main" by Dennis Danvers is a science-fiction novelette that follows Stan and his brother Ollie, children of alien (or crazy) parents who receive a mysterious postcard from their father, who with their mother, disappeared decades earlier into the “Abyss” in New Mexico.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
Dennis Danvers has published several novels, including Circuit of Heaven (New York Times Notable, 1998), The Watch (New York Times Notable, 2002; Booklist 10 Best SF novels, 2002), and The Bright Spot (under pseudonym Robert Sydney). First novel Wilderness has been re-issued with a sexy new cover. His short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizon's, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Lightspeed, and in anthologies Tails of Wonder and Imagination and Richmond Noir. He teaches fiction writing and science fiction and fantasy literature at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.
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Orphan Pirates of the Spanish Main
By Dennis Danvers, Chris Buzelli
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Dennis Danvers
All rights reserved.
When asked about his own childhood by his children, Dad would say something like "I was a galley slave on a pirate ship, and we sailed the Spanish Main!" I doubt my dad knew anything about any kind of ship or even where the Spanish Main was exactly. He just liked the way it sounded stringing the words together. I don't think they even had galley slaves on pirate ships, certainly not in the early twentieth century when Dad was a kid, but none of that mattered in the least when Dad made a story of something.
He was once attacked by a herd of wildebeests while mowing the grass, when they mistook the new riding lawn mower for a Land Rover on safari and made a perfectly understandable preemptive strike. He emerged unscathed, but Mom's newly planted shrubbery, part of a brief but passionate fling with horticulture, was mowed down in the melee, and the mower's blade was busted, so Dad never had to ride the damn thing again. He preferred his reel. It took him a dreamy afternoon to mow the grass, the blades sighing and clattering.
The puppy he brought home from his travels had been rescued from a space capsule in New Mexico and might be a Russian cosmonaut, an alien, or — my favorite — Top Secret, which explained why she was more intelligent and loving than all other dogs. We named her Natasha — we were all big Rocky and Bullwinkle fans. At the end of her miraculous life, Dad buried her in the backyard, knelt and cried over her late into the night. I fell asleep at my windowsill watching him, crying too. I grew up thinking crying was okay if you felt like it.
He was raised in a boarding school for gifted salesmen — the campus looked like a string of motels — where he was taught how to drive all over hell and half of Georgia, pad his expense account, and tell every joke ever told that couldn't be told in front of me and my brother. Well, he'd say. Maybe just one. Just sort of dirty. Mom, giggling, told him not to, which alerted us we were about to hear something good. When you're hearing about some woman stuck in a toilet on her wedding night, a plumber on the way to rescue her, you don't press for details about the storyteller's childhood.
Which version of his childhood? There were several to choose from. These are just salesmen's samples, not for resale. He never told us the truth. Or if he did, it was buried under so much bullshit, you couldn't find it with a whole army of pirates and farmers' daughters. He didn't want to tell us, plain and simple.
He wasn't always like that. If I really needed to talk to him about something serious — which comes up more often when you're single digits than you might think — he dropped the bullshit and listened like no one else.
I finally asked Mom. I had too many ideas running around in my head of these different kids Dad had been to keep them straight, like his life was three or four crazy movies all mashed up together. I imagined my favorites. Abbott & Costello meet Fred Astaire and Frankenstein East of Eden. I knew some of them weren't true, couldn't be true, that he was just pretending, but I didn't always know, and I didn't know which ones might be true, which little boy I could imagine myself being, because more than anything in the world, I wanted to be like him.
Turns out none of them were him. Young Master Smoke and Mister Mirrors. Who might you imagine he was? Who would you like him to be? Pick one of those. Who he really was, like Natasha's mysterious origins, was classified. I've come to believe he was an alien who had taken on human form — Mom too — and that made me and my brother essentially aliens too, but that's not what she told me.
"Your father was an orphan," Mom said. "He grew up in a Catholic orphanage. He doesn't like to talk about it."
I often wish she hadn't said that last part because I'm one of those kids, even now, at sixty-seven, who takes things to heart, and I never asked the follow-up questions while he was around to ask. I was too busy being charmed like everybody else. Lots of aliens were planted in orphanages, old enough to know their mission, but too old to stand a chance of adoption.
I sort of knew he was an orphan before I asked. Not having paternal grandparents was a clue, but I wasn't the only kid without. Some kids didn't have fathers. What's a couple of grandparents? What I hadn't known was that Dad never had a real home when he was little. He lived in one. He never had anybody. I wish I could've talked to him about it. Who knows? Maybe he did too. There's a whole lot of things I don't like to talk about with anyone, I would talk about with my dad if he were still alive.
Like my brother, for instance. It's like we had a different identical father. Like I said — Mister Mirrors. All my wives have said there's no mistaking Ollie and I are brothers — the voice, the timing, gestures, sense of humor. It's only in the trivial matters like deeply cherished beliefs where we differ. Also, I'm tall and skinny, and he's neither, even though we have the same big blue eyes.
We both have a passion for cooking. Dad taught us. Alien men love to cook.
Dad told me he first learned to cook when he was playing Mr. Potato Head, in a hot steamy kitchen, and Potato said, "'Hey, don't you think I'd be more comfortable and appealing without this dirty brown coat on?' One thing led to another, and before you know it, he taught me how to make perfect mashed potatoes."
I was making perfect mashed potatoes when he told me this. Dad had taught me how. I was standing on a stepstool, mashing. His hand was wrapped around mine to make sure I kept a good grip on the pot handle. The potholder, which had a cat on it because I loved them, was battle-scarred, with singed edges and greasy stains, but it was mine. We bought it at the grocery store because I liked it. Dad couldn't say no. I suspect that's because he never had anybody to ask for anything.
"What about gravy?" I asked. "Did Potato teach you that?" That was the lesson for the day. He was going to show me gravy. We were in a kitchen redolent with the smell of roasting beef garnished with garlic and rosemary. I had watched him truss it, snipped the twine with the massive kitchen shears when instructed, helped him insert whole cloves of garlic into the flesh.
"Gravy came later," Dad said, "on a wagon train out west — somewhere between Death Valley and Tombstone. The settlers were looking for a new cook after they'd just staked the last one out on an anthill for the awful gooey lumpy gravy he made them, and buzzards were eating his eyeballs, which the settlers joked seemed to be as gummy as his gravy. Don't believe what you see on TV. Settlers weren't always nice. Some were so ornery, folks back home were probably begging them to leave town. Don't believe that pioneering spirit stuff either. Most of them were just leaving some kind of mess they'd made of their lives, so that middle of nowhere was the only option left. There wasn't a lot of singing around the campfire. Everybody was scared to take the cook's job, so they gave it to me because I was just a kid, and they thought they could push me around."
"What did you do?" I asked, mashing furiously as Dad poured in a little more hot milk. Of course I asked. I was a skilled straight man by the time I was in first grade. Turns out — my favorite part — he went out in the moonlight in the desert, away from all the cranky settlers, where a lizard not unlike the chameleon I got at the State Fair of Texas only weeks before turned into an Indian shaman who taught him how to make the best gravy in the world on a campfire under a billion stars, the secrets of which he intended to share with me once we got the roast out of the oven and scraped the pan.
I figure he worked in the kitchen where he lived, cooking for all the kids in the orphanage, the priests and nuns and whatever. He always cooked too much, stored it away in a massive freezer. That's often what we ate when he traveled, which he did a lot. Mom didn't always feel like cooking.
She liked his stories too, and I was often aware of her as an amused and loving audience to the wild tales he told me and my brother. Before we came along I imagine his stories were a little different. She loved him. You could see it. She wasn't always happy about it — with good reason — but she loved him. We all did. He needed that. He never had anybody before the three of us.
He was a terrible disciplinarian. A kid would have to be brain-dead not to get around Dad, and me and Ollie were far from brain-dead. Mom would say no but Dad never did, and they never overruled the other. "Ask Dad" was like open sesame. Ollie used to use his time on the phone when Dad called home from the road to get around Mom, and it drove her crazy.
I only took serious advantage once, when I malingered through six weeks of eighth grade because I loathed it — with good reason. Today, I would have the sadistic shop teacher arrested, the rabidly racist history teacher fired, but these were the good old days, and they were duly appointed by the state to build my character deep in the heart of Texas. My only option was deceit. I did a pretty good cough, gave myself a sporadic fever by touching the thermometer to my reading lamp, timing my performances for when Dad was home. I enjoyed my reclusive freedom with Clarke and Asimov and Bradbury and Heinlein, somewhere out there among the stars where shamans make gravy for galley slaves, gathering enough inner strength to eventually return to school and prosper. I built my own character. Several.
I think Dad knew I was faking but understood I needed to hide out for a while and feel safe. I could navigate the bullies. I had mastered the art of invisibility, but brainwashers and torturers ran the place, and they had their eyes on me.
Ollie, older by four years, led a wilder youth, which resulted in his joining the military at the suggestion of a judge who said he might overlook the reckless mistakes of a patriot willing to serve his country. Ancient history. Now he's settled down and out in suburbia with his dogs and his kitchen and his last wife.
I'm no different, except I prefer the city and one dog at a time. My current situation's somewhat complicated. Technically, I'm married to Katyana, a woman half my age, but that's mostly a means to get her on my health insurance and give them some financial stability, her and her son Dylan, legally my son as well, though biologically not. They don't make you prove it at the hospital, turns out. All you have to do is step up and take credit. Nothing's cross-referenced, or they might've noticed I had a vasectomy a few decades back and a sex-ending prostatectomy five years ago. Katyana comes with a dog as well, Avatar, a stunning blue-gray standard poodle my intense little border collie Myrna adores with embarrassing intensity. They were both already too damn smart for dogs individually. Now they collude.
My brother doesn't approve of my recent marriage. Par for the course. My brother and I don't talk much these days, so I know it's important when he calls me. He's seventy-one.
Not a lot of good news peaks then, unless you want to talk religion, which I probably shouldn't, but I will. You can't expect an old man to stay on the subject — or, rather, the subject is larger than it might first appear. Aliens have a hard time with religion. Earthbound religions seem puny in the face of the cosmos. Dad again. The orphanage was Catholic. We most definitely weren't. Dad once told me he had wanted to be a priest when he was a kid until he figured out a few things — no details, though I could imagine. He wasn't anything in particular, but there was a resolute certainty that he was no longer Catholic. Mom picked the church. Mom liked the idea of church. She wasn't picky about doctrinal issues. Dad only went if Mom insisted, for whatever reason.
The only time he was enthusiastic about church besides weddings was when there was a stand-in minister one summer when we still lived in Texas who was eighty if he was a day, a wrinkled, liver-spotted old man with wild white hair and a voice that didn't sound like a preacher's but quiet and reedy and endlessly fascinated with the stories he told and the people he told them about. He had just retired from a life of missionary service in Africa. There was plenty of Bible in the sermons, as I recall, but he always came back to Africa, where people lived whole other lives like nothing we could imagine in Irving, Texas. He was terrific. I remember once he told the story of a refugee, though at the time I didn't know what that was, but I remember he only had one leg, and he was trying to find his mother, and he came to the minister and asked if Jesus could help him. When I looked over at Dad, there were tears on his face. Mom was wet-faced too, and smiling, happy because Dad was going to church. More than she wanted to go herself, I think, she wanted Dad to find a way to make it up with God. But the summer ended.
Dad went only once to hear the new, permanent minister — tedious and doctrinaire. Dad cursed him on the drive home, though he took us to breakfast, and we all gorged. I can't remember the minister's name, but I can still see his face. He was not a happy man. He was my first serious dose of Calvinist Sin, which only plunged me deeper into boyhood pantheism, for which I suppose I should thank him. To this day it remains my one true religion.
Ollie and I both have had our spasms of religious fervor of one sort or another, but we've ended up in the same place. Sunday mornings, we'd both rather be home in our kitchens, cooking. I'm making vegan, no-fat zucchini muffins. Later, Katyana and I plan to take Dylan and the dogs down to the James River, our sanctuary. I confess to being a very happy man.
That's when Ollie calls. "Stan," he finally confesses after beating around every right-wing bush he can flail in an accent that still sounds like Irving, Texas more than a half-century later in a vain attempt to sucker me into a fight so one of us can hang up like we usually do: "I can't cook anymore. I lost my sense of smell."
I suppose I should explain that's how we both cook. It's the alien way, the way we were taught. If you don't like spicy food, don't even drive by our houses. We never use recipes, but we can sniff them out from a tasty restaurant dish, recreate them at home — without the salt, fat, and sugar in my case. I'm on a project to unclog my abused arteries. Ollie still has his addictions.
"You can't smell anything? Have you been to the doctor?"
"I can still smell. The dogs still stink, the fucking compost next door. I just have no sense for it anymore, no confidence. I stood over a soup the other night with whole allspice berries, no idea how many to put in or none at all. It felt awful. One minute I had the idea of exactly how I wanted it to taste, you know? Next minute, gone. The soup was bland and disappointing. Camille pretended to like it, but I could tell. She said maybe I should write things down, use a recipe. The evening went downhill from there."
Camille's new. I'm sure he wants to impress her. I can imagine how he feels. I don't get to say that often about my brother, so I nurse the feeling, try to get caught up in his crisis, help him struggle to overcome it. Rescuing my big brother was a major fantasy when I was ten, when I wasn't drowning him in a vat of snake venom. My heart goes out to him.
"Why couldn't we have normal parents like everyone else?" he says bitterly and torpedoes my sympathy.
Why does he have to blame everything on Mom and Dad? "Go to McDonald's, Ollie. There's probably a McDad on the menu, with cheese. A fried McMom."
"I've asked you not to call me that."
"Right. Oliver. Dad has nothing to do with your fucking nose, Ol-i-ver, so why don't you put a lid on it for a change? Have you tried a neti pot?"
I imagine explaining sinus irrigation as an ancient and effective Indian treatment to my brother, followed by his near-certain sneering dismissal, and spare myself the aggravation. "Why don't you come for a visit and we can work it out," I hear myself saying in stunned disbelief. "You've never been." It's true. I've been down to Florida three times since he's moved there, and he's never come to see me in Richmond.
Is that what I really want? I ask myself, and I try to remind Ollie of what he's getting himself into. "You can meet Katyana and Dylan."
I'm trying to scare him off, but it's too little, too late. Bad life choices his little brother's made to disapprove of? What's not to like about that? He's touched by my offer.
What have I done?
"Bring Camille," I think to say, but he gives one of his mysterious guttural chuckles I'm supposed to understand because I'm his little brother.
"Just me," he says. "Is this a good time?"
I've come to believe all times are good times, each moment wondrous. Everything happens when it should. Even me and my big mouth. "It's perfect."
* * *
I recount it all to Katyana, and she thinks it will be delightful. She's the only one. What possessed me to want to help my brother? I'm certainly not his keeper. Not that we both don't need one. Our parents were strange, out of step with their culture, and maybe they didn't prepare us for life in the real world, but I've made my peace with them. I've tried to explain to Ollie that Mom and Dad were aliens whose parenting styles were somewhat unconventional for humans of the time, but he's having none of it. Too bad. It would be a comfort, but he doesn't need any grief from me. If he's coming to see me, he must be at the end of the last fiber of his rope. Shit. He must be in fucking free fall.
* * *
We all meet him at the airport — Katyana wants Dylan to experience the airport. We're a joyful little family unit, Dylan at his giggly-gurgly best, when I spot Ollie coming down the glass hallway, and my fears are confirmed. Something's seriously wrong. He's nice, sweet even. Katyana's gorgeous, and Dylan adorable, but this is my brother we're talking about. He doesn't even give me that look I've come to expect from any male who meets her and discovers we're married. He cradles Dylan in his arms and smiles at me with poignant envy. Is this really my brother?
Excerpted from Orphan Pirates of the Spanish Main by Dennis Danvers, Chris Buzelli. Copyright © 2016 Dennis Danvers. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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