As dawn began to break Pukunati worked continually, tightening and loosening ropes and watching with satisfaction as, in response, the sails billowed overhead in the stiff wind. Alvez groggily appeared from the small cabin that sat at the aft of the boat, ‘anything?’ he mumbled squinting out at the horizon.
‘Not that I can see,’ replied Pukunati, glancing around at the now gently swelling waters.
Alvez nodded, pulled out his spyglass from beneath his tunic and, after a perfunctory wipe of the lens, slowly scanned the vast ocean. Satisfied with their nights work he put away the glass, ‘nothing,’ he confirmed with an inward sigh of relief. ‘You never told me what happened on the island’ he continued, directing conversation away from any further discussion of their unwelcome and unsettling company.
‘It all went to plan,’ said the boy offhandedly with a shrug.
‘Tell me,’ insisted Alvez, ‘there may be something there of use.’
With a heavy sigh and, feigning indifference, Pukunati began, although he was, in fact, desperate to retell his adventure but felt aggrieved that Alvez had not asked before now. He remembered, reluctantly at first, but with growing enthusiasm as he forgot himself, how he had watched, hidden in the tree line, as he waited for Alvez to light the fire that was to provide the distraction for his mission. After some time, the tell-tale black smoke began to rise, slowly at first, from the empty hut they had selected at the edge of the village, then billowing plentifully. He recalled how nervous he had felt watching, as he prepared to make his move, but decided not to mention this bit to Alvez. Soon a panicked cry went up as the natives discovered the fire, the mortal enemy of all such villages, as quickly, under the direction of a tribal elder, the people organised themselves into a human chain passing along buckets of water from the nearby stream as they strove to stop the devastation from spreading. Pukunati told how his heart had raced as he noted Ashann, the fearsome looking Chief who Alvez had told him he must keep a keen eye out for, emerge from a hut.
Distraction in place, Pukunati moved swiftly around the edge of the village, keeping well hidden in the treeline until he was adjacent to Ashann’s hut. Then, looking carefully around to ensure everyone’s attention was still on the now distant blazing hut, Pukunati recounted how he stepped out into the open and quickly entered the Chief’s living quarters. As his eyes became accustomed to the half-light the boy had seen decorative cloth woven with striking geometric patterns hung from the walls and, stood to one side, a large hunting bow and spears of assorted lengths, each decorated at the tip with colourful feathers. Opposite was a pallet for sleeping and, alongside, a low wooden table and then, as he turned, Pukunati had found himself nose to nose with the most hideous face he had ever had the misfortune to see.
‘Was it a reflection?’ asked Alvez solemnly.
‘No, it was not,’ replied Pukunati indignantly. He continued to recount how, in the dim light, he had looked in fascinated horror at the hideously shrunken head mounted atop a staff positioned just by the doorway to the hut. A grotesquely distorted face; its skin pulled taut, the eyes crudely sewn shut and the mouth secured tight with three long pins through the lips. He told how he had given a shudder and leaned in closer to examine the head and an elaborately feathered headdress of normal proportions that balanced precariously on the straggly grey hair adorning the monstrous vision. And, as he did so, how his nose had brushed the leathery skin and he had to fight down a wave of revulsion.
‘That was probably the previous chief,’ observed Alvez cheerily, ‘I have heard tell that often cannibals retain such keepsakes of their victims in the belief that they imbue the keeper with some kind of power. Or perhaps it was just a tasty reminder of a particularly ferocious battle,’ he mused, ‘or even a light snack for later,’ he added chuckling to himself.
Pukunati stopped, ‘what do you mean, cannibals?’
‘Well,’ replied Alvez, seemingly in a state of some confusion, ‘those who inhabit Karno are rumoured to eat the flesh of their enemies. I believe they gave it up for some time but, with the arrival of their new Chief, they rediscovered their cannibalistic proclivities. So, therefore, a cannibal is a person….’
‘I know what a cannibal is,’ interrupted Pukunati through gritted teeth, ‘but you never told me they were cannibals.’
‘Really,’ exclaimed Alvez, ‘Are you sure? I must have told you, surely?’
‘I think I would have remembered an important little detail like that,’ growled Pukunati, his teeth still firmly clenched, ‘what would have happened if they had caught me?’ he demanded, as the awful realization of what could have taken place dawned on him.
‘Well, I suppose they would probably have eaten you,’ offered Alvez, ‘although, I suspect that they would probably find your meat a little immature and lacking in flavour? On the whole I would have thought my, more mature flesh, aged on the bone, would be a much more flavourful proposition, and there would certainly be more of it to go around, wouldn’t there? Anyway, the good news is that neither of us got eaten. So, now, tell me, what happened next?’
Pukunati let out a long sigh of exasperation. ‘Well, after I’d bumped in to the scary little head on a stick, I had a closer look around and found lots of the small heads. They all looked….’
‘Ah, a man with a healthy appetite,’ interjected Alvez seemingly in approval, ‘never trust a man with a poor appetite,’ had added sagely.
‘Healthy appetite,’ stammered Pukunati incredulously, ‘they were cannibals, eating real people!’
‘Yes, yes,’ mumbled Alvez; ‘you said you found lots of small heads and they all looked….’
‘They all looked pretty much the same,’ said Pukunati flatly, ‘eyes sewn shut and mouths pinned, except that was for one,’ he continued his enthusiasm once again rising.
‘Yes,’ encouraged Alvez.
‘’Well, this one was different,’ continued the boy, ‘it wasn’t a shrunken head, it was a skull and it just sort of spoke to me, drew me too it,’ he added awkwardly.
‘I suppose if the other heads had tried to speak to you, they would have just mumbled, what with the pins through the mouths and all,’ said Alvez earnestly.
Pukunati ignored the comment and continued, ‘when I looked at it closely, I could see it was stuffed with straw and I thought to myself, why would you stuff a skull with straw? So, I shook it about a bit….,’
Alvez winced at the thought of the small, glass bottle inside the skull.
‘I shook it and I could feel that there was something hidden inside the skull…. and I just knew that was it. That the map was in there.’
Alvez nodded, ‘good work,’ he muttered.
Pukunati flushed with pride: Alvez did not give out compliments lightly. ‘So, I wrapped the skull in cloth and put it in my bag…. but then I heard a noise,’ the boy continued, his excitement rising still further, ‘a noise that made my heart miss a beat, I realised….,’ But there the boy stopped his tale with a sigh, as he realised Alvez was no longer listening but rather had walked to the other end of the boat to urinate over the side.
On his return, Alvez reverentially lifted the skull from its cubby hole and resumed extracting the straw padding that lined the bony interior. As the straw was removed the small glass bottle was slowly revealed. Ingenious. Alvez pushed his fingers in through the eye sockets, gently took the bottle between his fingertips and pressed his eye tightly to the nasal cavity. His breathing quickened, behind the tarnished glass he could just make out what appeared to be a roll of yellowing paper…. the map. Carefully he tried to negotiate the bottle through an eye socket but it was no good, it was too large to pass through the aperture. Being mindful to support the bottle he carefully turned the skull over and once again studied the cork which sealed the base. Drawing his dagger he began his labour, methodically working the blade around the edge of the cork to try and lever it free.
Pukunati watched the painstaking process impatiently, ‘can I have a go now?’ he asked for the umpteenth time.
‘Yes,’ Alvez finally relented with a weary sigh, ‘you can have a go now. But you must be careful. The paper inside the bottle is old and likely to be very delicate.’
‘I understand,’ Pukunati replied solemnly as he received the skull and held it before him on the palm of his hand. All of a sudden, before Alvez could intervene, the boy brought his machete scything down, cleaving the bony structure neatly in two, much as he had done many times in the past when opening coconuts.
‘What on earth do you think you are doing?’ exploded Alvez, ‘after all we went through to get that map. That bit of paper is the stuff of legend. It is said to hold the key to one of the greatest mysteries in the pirate world and you, you, you….,’ Suddenly he stopped mid-tirade and snatched the small bottle which he now realised lay undamaged on the boy’s palm amongst the shattered fragments of bone.
‘You’re welcome,’ Pukunati grunted petulantly.
‘It was a stupid thing to do,’ retorted Alvez angrily.
‘It worked didn’t it,’ the boy muttered under his breath.
‘Nothing,’ Pukunati replied cheerily.
As he fought to regain his composure Alvez slowly turned the bottle over between his fingers. Closer examination confirmed it did indeed hold a tightly rolled piece of yellowing paper and he now worked unsuccessfully and with mounting frustration to uncork the bottle ‘it is no good,’ he muttered eventually, ‘I cannot budge it.’
‘Here, let me try,’ said Pukunati brightly, still flush from his earlier triumph.
‘No,’ replied Alvez sharply through gritted teeth. Eventually, after much effort and not a little cursing, he managed to prise the cork free with his dagger and carefully manoeuvre the paper from the bottle. For long moments the pair observed the small fragile roll…. the key to untold riches is literally in the palm of my hand.
‘We’ve got it,’ whispered Pukunati in awe, ‘Booth’s treasure, the greatest haul in the pirate world, is within our grasp. We have the map.’
‘Careful, careful,’ Alvez murmured softly to himself, ‘the paper is old and very fragile, we must be careful.’ Gently he took one corner between finger and thumb and, holding his breath he ever so slowly began to unroll the brittle scroll….
Man and boy sat slumped on the deck of The Pig, heads in hands, staring disbelievingly at the small pile of crumbled yellow paper in front of them. ‘A worthless pile of dust,’ groaned Alvez in despair. As if in a further mocking twist, a sudden squally gust swept a chill wind across the deck of the boat whipping the fragments of paper up into the air and carrying them away. ‘It’s over,’ said Alvez shaking his head disconsolately. Gone forever.
Pukunati stood and watched the yellow specks funnel up into the air and dance wildly in the breeze. ‘What now?’ he said quietly.
Alvez considered the deck for some time before replying. In truth he had no idea what now. As he looked up at the boy, he could not help but think back five years to when he rescued the then child and how together they had embarked on this great adventure. The tales they could tell; danger, excitement, joy and now, and now finally despair.
‘Look,’ exclaimed the boy jumping to his feet.
Alvez’s heart sank and he sighed heavily. He was certain they had escaped the unwanted attentions of the mystery boat during the night. Slowly he struggled to his feet and went to pull the spyglass from his tunic.
‘No, look,’ the boy urged.
Alvez looked at the boy in confusion.
‘Here, look,’ repeated Pukunati, triumphantly holding up the cork from the smashed skull.
Alvez looked at the boy in puzzlement.
‘The cork, it has writing on it.’
It has what? ‘Let me see,’ exclaimed Alvez grabbing the stopper. The boy was correct; around the neck of the cork were small neat letters. Holding it up to the light and rotating it Alvez strained to read the inscription.
‘What does it say?’ whispered Pukunati, struggling to contain his excitement.
After a long pause Alvez looked to the boy, ‘it says ‘Follow the Path of the Dead’,’ he replied quietly.