A child born on a plantation farm doesn’t exist. A child born from a white owner and his black slave does worse than not exist--she is invisible.
Max remembers this from her childhood--fear, hunger, pain. Her mother’s warm dark eyes and her calloused palms on her cheek.
When Max was five years old--before she was ever Max--she watched her mother come home one morning limping. She saw her rest her hands on the wall for a moment, her face creased with pain, then take a slow, steady breath.
“Did you know your parents?” Jack asks her, watching her do the paperwork for the brothel expenses.
Max looks at him, tapping her quill on a stray piece of paper. “I knew my mother,” she says after a moment.
Jack props his chin on his hand. His mind is already far away, scheming to make himself something better than a simple brothel owner. She pushes down the hot taste of bitterness inside of her--this is the best thing she’s ever become. A madam instead of a whore, instead of a slave. She will always be hungry for what men like Jack can just take for themselves.
"Maman," Max said softly, and she watched her mother startle and hide a flinch when she moved too fast.
"Ma cherie,” she said with a small smile, reaching up to hold her on her hip. "Pourquoi tu n'es pas dans ton lit?"
Max buried her face in her mother’s shoulder. The truth was she could never sleep without her mother there, without hearing her mother breathing beside her in the small cot. Her mother pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
"Allez, viens te coucher," she said, and Max curled against her, closing her eyes.
“I never knew my mother,” Jack says after a moment and Max startles. She’d thought they were done with this.
“I never knew my father,” she says evenly. It’s both a lie and a truth.
She has calloused hands, Max does. Too rough for a whore, no matter how much cream and oil she put on them afterwards to try to wash them into something smoother. Rough from picking sugarcane, rough from harsh stalks around her fingers, pricking her hands until they bled. Hispaniola was warm always, the kind of heat that beats down on the skin harsh like the overseer. The kind of heat that made her hair stick to her neck.
Her mother had been a house slave. She had been a house slave until she wasn’t, until the two of them were moved to the fields when Max was seven. Her mother hadn’t looked surprised by it, and when Max held onto her hand, she felt the rough calluses on her fingers. When she took her meager possessions to a lean-to near the fields, the people there welcomed her like an old friend.
It was here Max learned what she was. A thing to be used. A human-shaped tool to till the fields and harvest sugarcane until the smell of it lingered in her pores long after she’d finally gone.
"Nous ne sommes rien pour eux," her mother told her one day, wrapping Max’s blistering raw fingers. The aloe she rubbed on them was cool and gentle and the bandage old and soft. "Tu passeras ta vie à te demander comment obtenir le pouvoir qu'ils détiennent, mais la vérité c'est que les gens comme nous ne seront jamais capables de faire ce qu'ils font." Max had been thirteen and wide-eyed and her body just beginning to develop and her mother had looked scared. She’d taken Max’s wrapped hands and kissed the palm--Max remembers this kiss, cherishes it in her mind when the exact shade of her mother’s hair began to fade.
Max’s story was one of shifting sands, a life buried under a life buried under a life.
"How old were you when you knew?” Eleanor asks one night, their skin cool and damp. Max opens her eyes to look at her, taking in the clear blue of her gaze and the small dainty nose on her face.
“When I knew what?” she asks, though she knows what Eleanor is talking about.
The first time Max had lain with a girl, she’d been fifteen and still at the plantation. Sundays, the slaves were allowed a day of rest, and Max used to make her way to the river in the forest behind where she lived with her mother and the family that had taken them in, her bare feet a muddy brown from the dirt and dust.
She would peel her filthy dress off and cast it to the floor, reveling in the soft breeze against her naked skin, the cool water lapping at her toes as she stepped inside. Usually she’d be alone--she liked to come just as the sun was rising while everyone else took advantage of sleeping in.
Water trickled along smooth stones and birds chipped, breeze rustling her hair. She stepped inside, skin breaking out in goosepimples, her toes curling in the sand and dirt underneath.
There was a girl there this time, her long hair dark and wet as she sat in the water and washed it, staring at her toes. She looked up and Max had been struck by her eyes, a deep soulful brown that she wanted to get lost in, the curve of her breasts hidden by her knees. Her thighs had been strong and her bare skin shone with sweat, the dimples on her lower back making her mouth go dry. Max had stepped closer, unashamed of her unclothed self, and the girl had taken her hand, pulled her to the other side of the river, and they’d lain on the dewy grass, and this is where Max had learned the pleasure to be had from another girl. Farah was her name.
“I don’t remember,” Max lies after a moment, as if she doesn’t see that girl’s face every time she closes her eyes, in every woman she has kissed since then.
“I was thirteen,” Eleanor says softly, eyes faraway, and Max kisses her then, presses their bodies close, and she can feel Eleanor respond as she always does, her hands tangling in Max’s curly hair, her lips soft and wet and eager against hers.
Eleanor is beautiful in her pleasure, but Max will always think of that dark-skinned girl from before, with her wide dark eyes and the way her full mouth had parted on a gasp.
Did she know then? Did she know how she would change Max’s life forever?
Once upon a time, there was a girl with curls like a crown. She liked to tell stories, to sing her mother to sleep. She liked to pretend she was someone else, with a different life. With the kind of life that allowed freedom.
Once, she was waiting for her mother just outside the big house, the house she remembered in only faint memories, when she was young and her mother was...favored. The sun was setting, brilliant purple, pink hues that she imagined sewing onto a dress one day, that she’d twirl around in like the pale-skinned girls she’d see inside the house. From the window, she could see a blonde head of ringlets, a powdered pink dress. She could see a little boy with a figurine in his hand, a demure woman with bright eyes watching them. She could see a man. A man with her eyes and a strong jaw. A man who was her father.
“I have been on the outside looking in,” Max tells Silver, who looks at her with glassy eyes. He’s barely awake, and his fingers keep clenching into fists where the rest of his leg should be. The warship is not Captain Flint’s anymore, but Silver can’t be moved and Max had needed to see him, to see for herself what had happened to him.
“These men, these hard men, they make it seem like you should want to be them. Like it’s a privilege to have their loyalty.” She reaches out to touch Silver’s cheek and Silver’s eyes focus on her, more clear.
“Little boy who cried wolf,” she murmurs, pityingly, and Silver’s eyes slide shut, in despair, in grief, in anger. “You should have run when you had the chance.”
And Max felt a deep sense of loneliness. Her mother arrived and she took one last glance back at the family, at the home she’d never have.
And she felt anger. And she felt fear.
On the day of the fire, she’d been seeing Farah, braiding that long hair of hers, touching the vulnerable nape of her neck. She had laughed at something Max had said, called her ma douce which had made Max’s cheeks flush with heat, and they both paused when they smelled smoke, sickly sweet like sugar.
Farah jumped up, eyes wild. "Mon frère," she said, and Max had grabbed her wrist, pulled her in for a deep, bruising kiss, and she’d gone.
“One time I was just a girl,” Max says, running her fingers through Anne’s damp hair. Getting her to bathe was equivalent, she assumed to getting a cat in the water. Difficult and liable to give her scratches. “And I knew a boy who saved my life.”
The smoke stung Max’s eyes and her vision blurred with tears. "Maman,” she called, wiping at her eyes. The sugarcane burned around them and she felt a hand on her arm, urging her forwards.
“What was his name?” Anne asks, her green eyes on Max’s, half-shut and sleepy. Max likes her best like this, a predator in repose, content to be half tame in Max’s hands.
“I don’t know,” she says truthfully.
The boy had calloused hands, blisters oozing as he touched hers. He smelled of smoke and burning flesh and she heard her mother’s voice, relieved, felt her mother’s cool hands on her face.
She was half-blind for days afterwards and didn’t see the boy’s face. The plantation was gone, a crater in the ash-filled earth, and the sugarcane burnt to a crisp.
Max never saw Farah again.
“Sometimes people save you and expect nothing in return,” she says softly, watching Anne fall asleep. “Sometimes, they save you, but they should have saved someone else.”
The white men on the ship spoke differently than the ones on the island. The language was sharper and harder, and they labeled them as numbers, crammed together like livestock. She supposed that’s what they were.
Her mother was sick. She could feel it in the heat of her body when they curled up together in the pen, sleeping. In her sallow eyes and lack of appetite. The ragged coughs that shook her body.
"Ma chérie," she rasped, clutching her hand weakly. "Tu es devenue si forte, si belle."
"Maman," she whispered, kissing the top of her head. "S'il te plaît, repose-toi."
Max wonders bleakly if the men who--the men. If she is pregnant. If that’s why she cannot keep anything down, if that’s why she wakes with her body shaking and tears crawling out of her throat to hide a scream.
“Idelle,” she says, fumbling her hand out and reaching for her. Idelle squeezes it, blinking sleepily. She feels weak, needing someone in the bed with her, one of the girls, someone who won’t touch her unless she asks.
“You’re fine,” she says and Max wants to scream. She isn’t.
It smelled like piss and body heat, like sweat and smoke. She began to understand the strange language, the language they called English. An efficient language, she learned, with none of the beauty and softness of her own. She felt it like she used to feel the whistle of a whip that never touched her, out in the fields of the sugarcane.
They were allowed on deck once a day. Max had never before been close enough to the ocean, but she pressed as close as she could to the rail and inhaled the sea-salt scent. She imagined shedding the chains around her wrists and ankles, climbing over and sinking in. She imagined swimming to freedom.
She imagined being someone she was not.
“Yes,” Max manages to say after a moment, her voice hoarse. “If I--if I--” She swallows and Idelle meets her gaze squarely.
“We’ll get rid of it,” she says. “You know I know someone for that.”
They were below deck, eating their one meal of dried cod and bread filled with weevils, when it happened. The ship began to list. Her mother gripped her hand. All of them were thin and hollow-eyed, but her mother looked like a skeleton still breathing. A shade still haunting her.
The scent of the sea drifted in, mingling with their fear-sweat. Max yanked at the chains, and rusted as they were, they snapped open, water beginning to creep up to their ankles.
“Maribel,” her mother whispered, swatting her hand away. “Je suis trop faible. Va-t'en!”
"Non, ” she said, eyes wide. The water sloshed at her dress, now up to her calves. “Non, je ne peux pas te laisser là!”
“Tu dois,” she said and used the rest of her strength to push her away, until she stumbled and fell, a large hand grasping her forearm and yanking her up, pulling her up to the deck as she yelled and cried.
“Saute,” a voice yelled. “Saute ou tu finiras comme elle.”
What if I want to be, she thought, as she stared down at the water, at the white men drowning, at the people like her swimming. What if I want--she shook her head and jumped, hitting the water, grabbing a piece of plywood and kicking hard. The water churned against her and she thought it meant freedom but it was a prison, a different kind where the only thing she saw when she closed her eyes was her mother’s gaunt face and peaceful eyes.
She swam, away from chains, to freedom. Away from her mother’s body.
Something inside of her eases. The wind from the ocean blows into her open window, and the scent of it makes her throat and stomach ache. She is not free, she thinks, no matter how much she thought so when she first stepped onto this island, soaking wet and shivering.
She is not free.
Once upon a time there was a girl. She had a crown of curls and cunning, knowing eyes. She stepped onto Nassau and the island seemed to take a breath, like it knew power when it felt it.
She was a thin thing, with knobby wrists and a wet dress that stuck to her frame. She was one of eight survivors of a sunken slave ship.
“What is your name, girl?” Mrs. Mapleton asked and she opened her mouth to say something and then closed it, eyes darting from side to side. Mrs. Mapleton tsked. “We can’t hire you if you ain’t got nothing we can call you.”
“Mar--” She paused, swallowing. “Max,” she said after a moment.
And thus, Max was born.
There was once a whore, on the island called New Providence, called Nassau. She was good at her job, in that way many of them are, but she had no love for men. No love for their bodies.
“Ah, fuck, Max,” Idelle panted, her thighs shaking when Max sat up, lips slick and eyes bright, mischievous. Idelle reached out to trace the curve of her lower lip with her thumb, and tugged her in for a kiss, her other hand sliding down between her legs, mouth swallowing her breathy little gasp.
Max took her pleasure where she could, greedy for something she had never been able to have.
“I loved you once,” she says to Eleanor as they sit in her office, the office that used to be Eleanor’s. “I loved you so much I ached with it. I would have done anything for you.”
Eleanor watches her quietly, a hand on her stomach. “And now?”
Max smiles faintly. “Now I am you,” she says. “Why would I want to give that up?”
Once there was a whore who thought she was free, freer than she’d ever been, freer than she was ever going to be.
Oh, how the sands shift on Nassau Island.
The thing about Max was this: her entire life, she made it a habit to listen. She listened to her mother having conversations with the house cook when she was young. She listened when her mother talked to the other women in the little cabin they lived in after they were kicked out of the Big House. She listened on the slave ship, and she listened when Mrs. Mapleton and Mr. Noonan discussed how to bring a barely literate and unable-to-speak-English girl into their house.
The thing was that she always listened. She always kept her eyes and ears to the ground and to the walls. And this was especially true when she met John Silver.
"You were his friend once," Jack says to her, watching as she outlines a plan to break Captain Flint and Long John Silver apart.
"We were never friends," she replies. "Merely allies."
It is both a lie and a truth.
He was painfully bright, she thought when she met him. Tanned skin and white, white teeth and curly hair. Something foreign in his features that she never knew how to place. The most important thing about him was a page. A way to leave this island and be truly free.
"I have a buyer," she told him, and he smiled that trickster grin, cunning and sly. She had smiled back.
The truth is--the truth is that John Silver and she were kindred spirits. That she recognized a boy like him because she is a girl like that. And the man she met later, down a leg, down a smile--the one she tried to have captured? That wasn't the soul she knew. And she wonders, if he is so changed, how changed is she. Would her mother be able to recognize her as she is now? Bringing down two pirate kings and ending a war?
There was once a girl who thought she was smarter than everyone else. A girl who connived, who sought to steal something right from under men's noses. But the girl forgot one thing--betrayal comes from all sides, from even those she loved. From those she thought loved her.
And Eleanor Guthrie has never loved anyone as much as she has loved power. The girl should have remembered that.
Anne lets her press kisses to her scarred hands later that night, both of them shivering from the cold. A fire crackles in the hearth, and Anne's hair looks like blood shimmering down her shoulders.
"Tell me a story," Anne says, watching her with half-lidded eyes, her hands uncurled enough, relaxed in Max's grip.
She smiles softly, her heart aching and full in her chest. "Would you like to hear ours?"
There was once a girl, who was once a slave, who was once a whore, who became a madam. Then, clawing her way into a world that hated her, she became a queen. She will never be in the history books and we will never know her full story, but she existed. She was there.
And she won.