Here is what the sea smells like.
It is more texture than scent, because the sea is primarily made of two substances that have no smell of their own: water and salt. Salt has no smell, but makes the air sting, and so all of the other smells of the sea are layered upon the pang of salt. Water has no smell but instead a comfort. We feel moisture as life and so the smells of the ocean are layered upon the content- ment of the water. Salt is treble and water is bass. I don’t know how I know this is true, but I know it is true.
The sea smells like old wood and wet leaves. Like cold mud and warm stone. Like every creature who has ever lived in it, a churning graveyard and nursery. Like winds from the inland carrying the hot circulation of life and winds from the ocean carrying the distant froth of waves against ships and islands. Like gray, only more so. Like blue, only less so.
A deep note of rot mixes with the sterile cleanliness of saline, and the result, a mottle of clear and foam, smells so much like itself that an old woman who hasn’t smelled it in years, living in a desert town with no water at all, an uncrossable distance from the sea, smelling it faint on the breeze will stop and be cast back to her life on an estate by the sea, and for her, it will smell like her childhood.
That is what the sea smells like.
My father was a smuggler. He and Edmond, his business partner, had been running a smuggling business since before I was born and my mother had died.
“It wasn’t always this way,” he said. “Your mother’s family had money. But they did not work, and the fortunes dwindled with age. By the time they died, we had far more property than wealth. There weren’t the funds to keep up the grounds or pay the staff. Before you were born, child, the orange groves were filled with weeds. The gardens were tangles of overgrowth. Your mother and I didn’t know what to do. I had no money of my own, no prospects. And there was no good way, then or now, for a woman to make a fortune in this narrow-minded country.”
He guided me to the window and gestured toward the sea. “Then one day, looking out this very window, I realized our salvation. The sea would save us. Our little bit of the sea,” he said.
“Our cove.” I looked out past his pointing finger.
“Yes, our cove. Difficult to find without a guide but deep enough for a small ship. Sheltered against storms. In the old days your mother’s family used it to house their yacht. Amid a literal sea of fishers and merchants, your mother’s family lived a life of privilege and comfort. They owned no business, generated no new wealth. They simply enjoyed that which they had. “The money outlived your grandparents, but not your mother and I. We sold the yacht before you were born, along with jewels and art, no longer befitting our common status. I was good at selling and delivering goods, and I realized that our beautiful, hidden cove could be perfect for smuggling. But I didn’t know the first thing about smuggling. I needed help.”
“Uncle Edmond,” I said. “He was a smuggler?”
My father laughed. “No, my daughter. Edmond is an accountant.” He shook his head affectionately. “But a crooked one. He helped us through tough times utilizing . . . creative mathematics. I came to him with an idea. I would provide the perfect landing spot for smugglers, and an expertise in the lo- cal conditions and currents. He would find people interested in having their goods brought in without passing through the heavy taxes and duties of the ports. Such people, it turns out, were not difficult to find. And so gradually our business grew. Edmond finds clients, helps with the movement of the goods beyond our estate, and finds ways to hide our income from government inspectors. And I safely bring the ships in and out of our cove. Often when I am away on business, I am actually away. We must ensure that the goods reach their owners safely and secretly, and the overland travel is sometimes quite far. But there are times, yes, that I pretend to be away so I can work secretly at the cove on the arrival of a large shipment of mer- chandise. I apologize for lying to you. It breaks my heart every time, but it is only for your protection. I couldn’t tell you why I would need to be awake and out all night, and asleep during the day, and I didn’t want you near any of the sailors.”
“Are they dangerous?” I asked, worried for the only parent I had left, but also a little excited at the prospect.“…Acts of crime tend to make even harmless people nervous. And nervous people can be unpredictable.”
“No,” he said, “but acts of crime tend to make even harmless people nervous. And nervous people can be unpredictable.” He shook his head. “Enough for now. The truth has been told. This is all too much for a young child. Let’s get back to our lunch.” But I wasn’t hungry anymore. I was excited and scared. I couldn’t decide which.
Years passed, as they do. I was nine, then ten, and then eleven. These were the last few years of true happiness I had left, although I had no way of knowing that at the time.
My father continued to go on business trips, although he no longer pretended to leave when receiving a shipment. He would only forbid me to go outside after sunset, and ask me to be in charge of my own meals the next day. I would sit in my window all night, anxiously waiting for his return, and so was always as sleepy as he was the next morning.
I looked at Edmond in a new light. Before, he had always been a purely friendly, goofy presence, full of jokes and games. He still was, but now I had the context of his job, and my re- spect for him deepened. Here was a man who could go out into the kingdoms of Europe, offering smuggling services to all sorts of low characters, and return to play backgammon with me at our kitchen table, attempting to cheat in intentionally obvious ways so that I could catch him and berate him, which amused us both.
Over one of these games, when I was nine, I stopped, un- sure of how to say what I wanted to say.
“It’s your turn, little one,” he said. “Or do you want me to take another?”
“Is my father safe?” I asked abruptly, having failed to find a way to ease into the subject. “Will my father be okay when he goes out to, you know, do his work?”
Edmond grew serious and he pushed the game board aside. “I will never let any harm fall upon your father,” he said in a solemn voice, “and I will never let any harm fall upon you.” He smiled. “Anyway, your father does the easy stuff. He’ll be fine. I’m the one always sticking my neck out. Now, are you going to take your move or what?”
Albert and I continued to meet and play regularly. He asked sometimes about my father, and about the rumors, but I never answered one way or the other, preferring to change the subject by poking him or daring him to do some foolish act of bravery off one of the old, crumbling buildings of the estate. Eventually he understood that I would not say more than I had, and he stopped asking, and our friendship again became one of child- hood joy and games and silence about any subject that could distract us from that.
Of course I regularly tried to talk to my father for more information about what he did. I wanted so badly to be of use, but he grew uncharacteristically stern at the subject, and would only shake his head. I never gave up, for I loved and admired my father, and knew that any work he did was work that I one day wanted to do too.
A change in our routine came suddenly, late in my eleventh year. It was a night that my father was set to receive a shipment. He had let me stay up with him as he waited, but when it arrived, he had put me in my bedroom and forbidden me to leave. I, as ever, sat awake at my window, waiting for him to come back inside so that we both could rest. I could hear the mindless babble of the waves, and, perhaps, although it might have been my imagination, the creak of wood from the bandit’s ship that I knew was anchored in our cove. Generally this was all I ever heard or saw on these nights, the transaction done so quietly and quickly that no trace of it was noticeable even from our own estate.
That night, however, was different. I heard alarmed shouting, loud enough to risk alerting the inhabitants of neighboring estates. I rushed out of my room and out of the house without thought or hesitation. I would figure out how to help when I got to the cove. My father was all I had, and I would give up everything, down to my own life, to preserve him.
I raced barefoot through the fields toward the water, but some instinct made me duck behind a small rise before I got close to the source of the shouting, and from this hidden place I observed my father surrounded by the crew of bandits from the ship. They were the same group I had seen before with my father. But the circumstances were different this time. The man with the scarred cheek was holding a knife to my father’s throat. My father stood tall, unshaking, maintaining eye contact with his assailant. “I have no money here,” he said. The bandits jeered at him, and the man with the scarred cheek pressed the knife into my father’s neck.
“An estate this rich,” the man said. His voice gave me a lurch in the gut, because it was not the voice of a man who was acting on a whim, but a man serious and set on a goal, and in- tent on achieving it. “And you a smuggler for all of these years. Don’t lie to me or I will cut out your tongue before I gut you. If there is no money in this home then there will also be no life.” Before my father could reply in a way that might cause him harm, I took a large rock from the ground and hurled it with great accuracy born of years of dares and games with Albert. The rock thumped dully against the man’s head, and he collapsed, dropping the knife. The other bandits were con- fused, having clearly been rallied by their leader and unsure of what to do without his motivation. My father immediately set himself upon them, increasing the confusion. I sprang forward, dashing for the knife. The man with the scarred face was dazed but awake. Blood ran down his face. He pawed about in the grass, his fingers batting the hilt, trying to get a grip. I made it to the blade first and without thinking fumbled it into my hands and in the same motion drove it toward the man with the scarred face. I struck something and heard a scream. The other men fled, and my father, bruises and blood visible now upon his face, scooped me up in a tight embrace. I looked down at the man with the scarred face, who I had stabbed in the thigh. He was bleeding from two different places, and looking up at me with a fierce hatred.
Edmond had rushed to the estate as soon as a messenger from my father had delivered the news. Seeing my father’s swollen, reddened face, Edmond said in a lighthearted voice full of mock exasperation, “I suppose we have to find a new crew.” My father sighed, and Edmond gave him a large hug and a laugh. “I’m so glad you’re both okay.”
Even in his joking, Edmond was right. They had used this crew for years and had trusted them. My father and he would have to start over finding a new group of confederates, and also now had learned to temper their trust in those who come from the world of banditry.
My father was quiet. He watched me with deep consideration. He had made sure I was physically unharmed, and then he had warmed some chocolate over the fire for me, which I now drank with the simple joy of a child who is awake past her bedtime and drinking chocolate. I was remarkably unbothered by what had occurred and about my own attack on that man. It had felt natural to me. This may have been the first sign of my vocation, although I did not recognize it as such. My father perhaps did, as he looked me over with deep thought and care.
“I suppose,” he said, “that it is time for you to learn more about the business.”
“Really?” I said with happiness. “Really?” Edmond said with surprise.
“You didn’t see how she handled herself out there,” my fa- ther said to Edmond. “She showed foresight, she was quick. This won’t be the last situation like this. We can no longer ignore the dangers of our business. And if my daughter is to be around this kind of danger, then I would rather she be prepared.”
“It would be less dangerous,” Edmond said, with the tone of someone bringing up an argument that’s course had run for years, “if we partnered with The Duke’s Own. Let them take the risk.”
“We are not pairing up with those assassins and thieves,” my father said, in the same tone. “We may be criminals, but we are honest criminals. I won’t let my family name mix with an organization involved in murder, banditry, slavery, and who knows what else.”
On the many nights my father had left me alone, I had taken to reading books in his small library. I knew all about The Duke’s Own. They were a notorious syndicate of pirates, racketeers, and swindlers. Their reach was vast, covering Europe, Russia, and northern Africa. The Duke of The Duke’s Own was a myth, a sleight of hand played by whichever pirate was handy when they needed a figurehead or a phantom for authorities to fruitlessly pursue. In actuality, the membership made decisions through general election, and in this way the organization was far more democratically run than any government on the continent. Still, The Duke’s Own was also a brutal organization that pillaged small farms, abusing and often killing innocent people who dared to defend all that they owned.
The Duke’s Own had politicians, military leaders, bankers, and merchants as members. The deeper their roots, the more secure their operations. I could understand Edmond’s strategy for joining such a powerful group. They could protect us not only from smaller criminals like the ones who attacked my fa- ther, but also even larger, more frightening groups like the mysterious Order of the Labyrinth. If we made the right political connections, The Duke’s Own could even protect us from the possibility of prison.
But my father was adamant, and Edmond backed off. “Perhaps one of these days you will change your mind,” sighed Edmond.
“I will not have my daughter connected to a corporation of murderers and plunderers. Enough!” My father turned to me. “We must learn to protect ourselves from such people, not become them. Tomorrow we begin your education.”
I learned first the complete structure of my father and Edmond’s smuggling operation. Their clients were the owners of the merchant ships and pleasure yachts, bringing in fruit and spices and gold and cloth from ports in the east, or from Morocco or from Egypt. A close eye was kept on these shipments, because the various squabbling kingdoms of Europe all wanted their share of any goods passing through their ports. On the other hand, the Mediterranean was thick with bandit ships, and no eyebrows were raised at the occasional shipment of goods lost to pirates. A cost of doing business. But of course the bandits were my father and Edmond’s bandits, and they did not take by force. They tied on peacefully to ships who had prepared for their arrival, and whose crew helped the bandits with the transfer of cargo. Then the bandits took the cargo to our cove, where it was unloaded, and transported by land back to its owners, minus a cut for the smugglers. The bandits enjoyed the situation too, since there was much less risk of violence and injury boarding a ship that wanted you aboard, and much less risk of jail since the ships always waited a considerate amount of time before reporting the “attacks.” Edmond and my father had underestimated the bandits’ greed, but the old crew was soon replaced with a new one, more carefully vetted and with less of a violent reputation, who for the time being at least seemed content with their roles. My father hired mercenaries to guard the estate for a year or so, in case any of the old crew returned seeking revenge, but nothing happened and eventually he decided he couldn’t justify the expense and we returned to our old way of living.
Along with the details of the business, I learned much of the trade from my father, and from Edmond, and from the crews, whom, as I became involved in the business, I was allowed to interact with more. They treated me as a novelty, and from them I learned, unbeknownst to my father, how to pickpocket, how to open locks, and several other such tricks. I would make Albert act as my test subject, keeping a cork in his pocket all day while I would try to steal it as we went about our games. Albert never again brought up the rumors about my father, and I would have denied them if he had, but I could see in his eyes he knew they weren’t merely rumors. For the first year or so Albert caught me every time, but eventually I was able to regularly slip the cork out without his noticing. He tried to learn as well, through my secondhand lessons, but he never could find the aptitude. I discovered great satisfaction in these new skills. I would sit for hours in front of the old back door, practicing breaking into the lock, until my fingers ached and the keyhole was fogged with perspiration from my nostrils.
Edmond, who networked with the wealthy and criminal alike, taught me much about the art of persuasion and manip- ulation. “Nothing must ever be your idea,” he explained. “If I want you to go to bed, and I tell you to, you’ll rebel. But if I simply set up a situation in which you will have the idea to go to bed yourself, then you will go with satisfaction, thinking you have won even as you do exactly what I wanted you to. Remem- ber that, because it will get you far in life. Short-lived pride at winning a disagreement is a fool’s game. It is far better to let the other side think they have won as they coincidentally decide to do what you wanted all along.” He winked at me, and then tried to switch two pieces on the backgammon board and laughed when I slapped his hands.
For my father’s part, he wanted me to be able to protect my- self, and so taught me how to use a knife. I soon became adept at all sorts of defensive and offensive uses of a small blade, and I would, with my father’s consent, practice fighting with the crew using short lengths of wood, until I was soon besting even the most skilled of them. I think my father allowed this practice because he wanted them to think of me always as potentially very dangerous. But even my father did not understand the full potential of how dangerous I could become.