A gutter was never the most comfortable of places to sleep, but Rumpelstiltskin did not mind this particular gutter. The stench of the seaside town’s refuse was not so bad in this little alley, and the sun was plenty warm for an imp who wanted to sleep away the day. Once he sat up and stretched his tiny arms, popping the air out of his shoulder sockets and scaring himself, Rumpelstiltskin realized he had succeeded in his aim.
The moon was just above the roof of the building ahead of him, so thin it barely carved its way into the night sky. Most of the inhabitants of the town had made their way home, but Rumpelstiltskin was delighted to hear the sounds coming from the building across the alley. Light poured out of the space between the slats covering the windows, and the imp would not allow his curiosity to go unsatisfied.
Bouncing to his feet, Rumpelstiltskin left his literal gutter for a metaphorical one, for once he pushed open the door to the shack, he found assorted ne’er-do-wells sitting around grimy tables and a portly man standing behind a bar and polishing a tin cup. It made no difference to Rumpelstiltskin when the man spat into it and continued wiping with a stained rag, and the imp offered a genuine smile to the bartender when he focused his gaze on a possible customer. Immediately, the man’s face somehow became even more annoyed, but he returned his attention to the cup and left Rumpelstiltskin to his own devices, which was never the wisest option.
Already, Rumpelstiltskin’s sense of wonder took a hit, but he walked further into the building to try to find something of merit. He gained a few wary stares from solitary sailors—they clearly spent more time on water than land—but they returned to their drinks without introducing themselves. The imp thought it was rude, but he had encountered plenty of people who had done just the same, so he tried not to judge them for it. All in all, it was a disappointing turn of events, because the source of the noise Rumpelstiltskin had heard in his gutter ended up being one sailor sitting by himself against the wall, an endless monologue flowing out of his half-rotten mouth.
“—and you just know. You just know that a man can’t… can’t be free when a woman’s dragging ‘im down,” the man emphasized before burping, spit the color of bile dripping out of the corner of his mouth as he made unfocused eye contact with a load-bearing post across the room. He wore a striped shirt, the blue bars of which so faded that Rumpelstiltskin thought it a trick of his eyes, and an eyepatch was flipped up above his right eye, still functional even if it was looking in a different direction than his left. He wore one sandal, and his other, bare, foot was propped up on the table in front of him.
“That’s not true freedom, boys,” he burped again, but after a moment’s struggle he was able to return the contents of his mouth back to his stomach. “When someone can hold ya back… when they’s can make you stop doing what you want to do, that’s when you cut your ties. Snip snap, like.”
“Who’d want to keep you?” another voice asked, causing the verbose sailor to loll his head along his shoulders. Rumpelstiltskin would have looked to find the source of the dissent, but the inebriated sailor was too animated of a distraction.
“Plenty, old man. Plenty of womens finds jus’ what they’re looking for when they’s cross paths with me,” the sailor claimed, leaning forward before his stomach reminded him it was a bad idea. Settling back against the wall, the sailor listed off a number of anecdotal stories he forgot to actually tell. “But I tell them—I tell them no. I got to be able to leave and find a new port and no one holds me here. Can’t hold me anywhere. I need to be on that ocean, gentle sirs… sirrrrsss,” the man almost seemed to fall asleep, but then he hiccupped himself awake. “Always a new port. Can’t… shouldn’t go to one port mor’ an once, right?”
“Some ports are worth returning to,” the other voice came again, and it tickled Rumpelstiltskin’s eardrums with its familiarity. However, the drunk sailor slammed his fists against his table and set his leg back on the ground.
“That’s just what you say! That’s what all you old sailors say beca—cause you lost everything. You never should have been on the waves is all. You just couldn’t—couldn’t hack it.”
“I made my life on the waves and I lost it,” the older man replied, and this time Rumpelstiltskin forced himself to look at the man and resolve the mystery. Although the older sailor did not look his way, Rumpelstiltskin knew immediately why he recognized the voice.
He was thinner now and age had ruined his formidable constitution, but this was clearly Captain Stone, the man who had kept Rumpelstiltskin as his cabin boy for a year. The surly sailor did not bother to blink the sleep out of his eyes—he barely even lifted his head above the surface of his own table while he propped himself up on his elbows—but as Captain Stone sneered at the drunk sailor across the way, the gravel of his voice filled the room.
“I lost it, but you never had it.” he stressed, rapping the table with his knuckles lazily but earning everyone’s attention in spite of it. “Barely off your mother’s teat and yer already lazing about and moanin’ about nothing. You even on a crew, rook?”
“I… I can—”
“That’s what I thought.” Captain Stone huffed at the sailor’s unheard excuse. “You haven’t earned yer salt, yet, so don’t come in here and wax on about how the sea’s the only mistress for you. You ain’t earned her, and she’s like to drown you at the first chance. You’d never have made it a week on the Drifter, and I wouldn’t have given you longer.”
“The Drifter?” the sailor asked, laughing as he leaned back in his chair and drooled on himself without noticing. “That ship stolen out from under you? Sorry, Stone, but I ain’t takin less—lessons from you. You mighta been something early on, but ten years in this shack hasn’t made your opinion worth a damn.”
“It’s worth a drink, and that’s more than anything coming out of yer goddamned scurvy-ridden mouth,” Stone replied, and Rumpelstiltskin could not stop watching as the young sailor threw himself forward and stumbled all the way across the shack and up to the former captain’s table.
With plenty of time to react, Stone stood up and flipped the table just in time to slam it against the other sailor’s knees, but that was his only advantage. Once he was swaying on his feet, Rumpelstiltskin could see that he had replaced one of his legs with a mottled branch below the knee, and Stone had obviously been drinking just as much as his opponent.
As the sailor backed away and nursed his knees, Stone fell back and tried to support himself on the nearby beam, and their fight was over before it began.
“Outside,” the bartender interrupted, still holding his rag in one hand but pointing at the door beyond Rumpelstiltskin with a knobby finger. “Neither of you’s worth the furniture.”
“Fine by me,” the young sailor commented as he stomped to the door and promptly shoved Rumpelstiltskin out of his path. The imp thought it quite rude, and it was enough of a distraction that he did not call out to Stone as he stumbled after the other man, already out in the night air before Rumpelstiltskin even remembered that he had yet to begin his reunion.
“Captain Stone!” he called out once he was past the threshold of the doorway, but Rumpelstiltskin was not in time to stop the fight he assumed was about to happen.
Barely more than a few seconds had passed since the sailors had left the shack, but already there was a still body in the street and Stone was crawling toward the gutter where Rumpelstiltskin had slept the day away. The imp was quite confused, but something dark creeped away from the young sailor’s body, and he watched as it became a dark crimson in the slits of light coming from the boarded-up windows of the tavern.
That much obvious, Rumpelstiltskin turned from the stranger in time to see Stone collapse against the gutter across the alley, wincing as he cradled his right side and lifted his anguished face to the sky.
“Ruddy goddamned—” Stone mumbled, and Rumpelstiltskin watched as the man took away his hand and saw it slick in the moonlight. “So this is how it ends.”
“Captain Stone?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, and as he took steps toward his captain, Stone looked back at him and sighed.
“And now I’m seein’ things. Will marvels ever cease?” Stone asked to the empty air, and Rumpelstiltskin struggled to comprehend his reaction. Once he was close enough, the imp hunkered down and sat on crossed legs.
“What happened?” Stone scoffed at the question. “In—ingrate decided to stick a knife in me instead of having an honest fight. Killed him for it, but now I get to die in a gutter and explain myself to a ghost.”
“Ghost?” Rumpelstiltskin peered around them and tried to find something out of the corner of his eye, since ghosts tended to hide right there on the periphery. “Are you haunted, Captain Stone?”
“Never heard anything more true, boy,” Stone murmured as he returned his hand to his side and propped himself up using his other arm. “But you always had a knack for making a question into a statement.”
“Some people like that about me. At least, that’s what I think they like. Sometimes I don’t have a clue.”
“Sounds just like something you would say,” Stone added, and Rumpelstiltskin watched as something flashed across the man’s grey eyes. They were pale now from oncoming cataracts and were moving every which way from inebriation, but something clicked in the sailor’s mind and his gaze became more focused. It was as if he had sobered entirely in just that one moment.
“What? Is there something in my teeth? On my face?” Rumpelstiltskin panicked, hoping he was not offending his captain over something he had yet to think about. With a gasp, Rumpelstiltskin covered his mouth and looked wide-eyed at Stone. “Do I look different than you remember me?”
“No, boy,” Stone replied softly, leaning off of his hand and sitting up even as pain wracked his midsection. “Ya’ look exactly how I remember you. It’s a damn good hallucination for my last breaths, but I don’t remember drin—drinking enough fer it.”
“What’s a hallucination?”
“When ya’ imagine something that’s not there.”
“Oh,” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, sitting back and gnawing the knuckle of his index finger just to make sure. When he was confident he was real, Rumpelstiltskin looked back at the dying sailor. “I don’t think I’m one of those. I did just wake up where you’re sitting, but I’m pretty sure I’m me.”
“Saw you die, boy.”
“I just fell beneath the waves because of the bracelet, Cap’n,” Rumpelstiltskin explained, shrugging away the impossibility like it was normal. “Then I was in that whale’s heart for a bit until he was ready, and then I made a friend with a dragon and a tortoise and then I won a company in a game and I danced with the Twilight Lady and gave some life to the forest.”
“Dragon and twilight ladies…” Stone muttered, but then he chuckled and sighed as he leaned back on his free hand to support himself. “Should have known you’d be just fine.”
“I usually end up that way,” Rumpelstiltskin commented, nodding along until he saw the red bloom beneath Stone’s right hand. “I didn’t mean to leave you when I did. It all just… happened.”
“That’s… life, sometimes. I’m glad you still have some in you.”
“I’m… I’m sorry, Captain,” Rumpelstiltskin leaked out, sniffing back tears he did not want to let out in front of his dying friend. “I’m sorry that it happened this way, how I didn’t get to see you again until now.”
“What—what do you mean, boy?” Stone asked, grunting as more of his life dripped away. “How could you have changed it?”
“I could have looked for you,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he wiped his face with a rough sleeve, as tears had started to flow in spite of his wishes. “I got so wrapped up in what I was seeing that I forgot to tell you I was alright. I left you before telling you that I would always be alright and how…”
“How…” Stone led on, and Rumpelstiltskin looked at him with shame in his black eyes.
“How I would be here for you at the end,” he surrendered, breaking eye contact and looking at his leathery, dirty feet underneath him. “It’s part of my magic, that I always get to see my friends as they’re… as they’re… leaving. I get to tuck them in before they go to sleep for the last time, as Sir Death and I say.”
“You get to see your friends as they die? Is that what yer saying, boy?” Stone asked, but Rumpelstiltskin did not have the strength to look at him. He just nodded, freeing a few tears to fall upon the dirt underneath and leave dark splotches, hidden in the night. “Sounds more like a curse than magic.”
“I’ve always thought they were the same thing.”
“Probably so,” Stone replied, chuckling and giving Rumpelstiltskin a break from his sadness. Fearfully, the imp looked up and saw a smile on Stone’s thin face. “But I’m glad for it, Rumpelstiltskin. It’s been a treat to see you after it all.”
“R—really?” He almost smiled when Stone nodded back at him.
“Of course. Losing you over the side… put a lot of things in the wrong perspective. Made me… made me too scared to connect again. Made me stupid in a lot of ways,” Stone explained, looking away and down the street as a tear fought against his bottom eyelid. “I lost more than just the Drifter. Lost more than I can talk about in the time I got left.”
“But,” Stone stressed as he returned his gaze to the imp. “You were a lighthouse for me, boy. As much of a pain you could be, you had a way of making me live that I never allowed without you. And now, as the seconds tick away, seeing you again is like… returning to a port that I never should have left. It makes me—makes even me… optimistic.”
“If I see you now, maybe I’ll see her and the others after I go to the other shore,” Stone said, leaving a mystery Rumpelstiltskin thought it inappropriate to challenge. The imp was about to talk about what comes after—the living dream Sir Death had offered when Rumpelstiltskin had tucked in Mr. Prince for that first good night—but the old sailor cut that line of thought short.
“Hell, right now, I just wish I had been there to see all these dragons and tortoises. Sounds like you had quite a life without me,” he said, but Rumpelstiltskin didn’t have a chance to launch into the tales of his adventure.
“I could arrange something for you, Captain Stone,” another familiar voice interrupted, and both of them looked to the side to find Sir Death leaning on his scythe. However, he was not the intimidating, hooded figure most assumed would be there to greet them at the end.
He came as Rumpelstiltskin always saw him, the hood drawn back and revealing a gaunt, pale face, but compassion evident in his gaze. Though Stone saw the specter, he was unafraid. He was more curious that Rumpelstiltskin’s face brightened up immediately upon seeing his reaper.
“Sir Death!” Rumpelstiltskin cried, thinking for an instant that he had a way to save his captain, but then he remembered the reaper’s role in this world. The smile fell away, but Rumpelstiltskin knew Sir Death would not offer assistance without intention. “What… what could you arrange?”
“Before he dies, I could—well, I could let him see your memories,” Sir Death explained, grunting as he crouched down so he could be on the same level as the imp and his dying captain. “Witnessing your adventures seems like a fitting reward for a man who denied himself the sea for a decade.”
“A reward? Reaper, you should know that I did not come by my exile by chance. I earned my misfortune and should not be rewarded for it,” Stone replied, but Sir Death shook his head and smiled at the old sailor.
“You misunderstand. Your reward comes from your treatment of my friend.” He clarified the cryptic statement by motioning to the imp at his side. “Rumpelstiltskin is a good soul, but he has been cursed to look like an imp. For all intents and purposes, he is my ward, but I do not have the time to guard him like I would wish.
“And you, Captain Stone,” he continued by pointing at the sailor with his scythe. “Took on my responsibilities for more than a year. You saw this cursed child and took him under your wing and gave him something I could not. The very least I could do is let you see the wonders of a world through this child’s eyes.”
“You… you would do that for me?” Stone asked, so close to death that his voice was almost too weak to complete the question. He looked from the imp to the reaper, and both of them smiled at a man who felt undeserving.
“It is Rumpelstiltskin’s decision, truly, but I know he would leap at the chance,” Sir Death assumed, and when he looked back at the imp, Rumpelstiltskin had literally jumped forward to place his hand on Stone’s head.
“Done!” he said, so pleased with himself that he was caught off-guard by the laughter of his guardians. He almost shirked away from the sailor while they laughed, but Sir Death’s hand was on top of his before Rumpelstiltskin could pull it away, radiating warmth.
“This is just fine, child. While I complete the spell, just… try to remember everything you would like the captain to see,” he said, and from his stifled sigh, Rumpelstiltskin realized it would be difficult. Memories were hard to wrangle inside the imp’s brain—a side-effect of his curse—but for the dying captain, Rumpelstiltskin would not allow himself to fail.
“I’ll try. I’ll try, Captain Stone,” the imp promised as he closed his eyes. Although he would have liked to see the captain’s reaction, Rumpelstiltskin needed to focus, and he tried to think of all the amazing things a salty dog might want to watch.
While Sir Death murmured, Rumpelstiltskin returned to his time on the waves. He remembered what it was like to live within the heart of a blue whale as it sang, how it felt when Mr. Swirly stopped ignoring his directions and became the best pet sea dragon. Rumpelstiltskin attempted to herd the memories together so Stone could make sense of them, keep them in order, but chronology was a difficult concept for a twisted imp. He kept it together through the game that awarded Rumpelstiltskin a trading company and through his tryst with a thousand fireflies, but then the thoughts came at random and surely confused the good captain.
As soon as one memory became concrete, it evaporated and shifted into another, but Rumpelstiltskin did his best to make sure they were pleasant ones. No matter what, the imp did not want to give his captain pain at the end, and he furrowed his brow and tried to ignore whatever pain tried to surface. Even then, sometimes he failed—Rumpelstiltskin fell back to that last moment with Mr. Prince for a time—but the Captain did not suffer for them.
Once Sir Death’s palm left the back of Rumpelstiltskin’s hand, the imp opened his eyes and found the sailor’s eyes reduced to serene slits, his face already pale.
“My thanks, imp,” he whispered, unable to fight for much longer. Lifting a hand with only three fingers, Stone placed his palm against Rumpelstiltskin’s face and gave him a farewell smile. “That more than makes up for the years where I lost you.”
“I wish you could have been there,” Rumpelstiltskin whispered back, but the old man shook his head with what little strength he could muster.
“I don’t. I only would have held you back, and I got to see those years anyway,” he said, and then that little strength abandoned him. Gracelessly, Captain Stone fell back to the gutter, but before Rumpelstiltskin could even gasp, Sir Death caught the sailor’s back and lowered him to the ground.
“Tell me, reaper,” Stone chuckled, as reverent as a sailor could be. “What can I hope from the afterlife?”
“A man like you?” Sir Death asked, chuckling at the thought. “If you cross over, you’ll have an eternity to explore realms beyond any earthly adventure you’ve ever had.”
“Sounds like a dream.”
“You deserve one, Captain.” Tears streamed down Rumpelstiltskin’s face as he knelt down next to his friend and placed his hand on the sailor’s forehead. At the touch, Stone gave another smile and chuckled one last time at his favorite imp.
“Good thing you’re here to tuck me in, then, boy. May your life continue just as I’ve seen it,” he said, unable to keep his eyes open any longer.
After those last words, the last vestiges of air left his lungs, and Rumpelstiltskin was left kneeling next to his eternal friend. He would have sobbed, but when Sir Death’s hand touched his shoulder, Rumpelstiltskin lifted his face and saw a smile there.
“I know you’re in pain, child, but that man has a chance for adventure that neither you nor I will ever experience,” he said, shocked when Rumpelstiltskin sniffed back what was left in his nose and nodded.
“I know,” the imp said as he climbed to his feet, but he looked back at Stone’s body once he was standing. “That sounds like the best kind of dream for a sailor like him. He didn’t get to really have many adventures when he was a captain, so to be free of that and be an explorer again… I think he’ll get to make a lot of stories.”
“I hope he does,” Sir Death added, and Rumpelstiltskin watched as the reaper moved his scythe forward and cut open a hole in the fabric of space. Before, Rumpelstiltskin had seen a marvelous spectacle beyond those tears in existence, but this time there was an ocean beyond the portal, sunlight refracting on the crests of each pleasant wave. When Sir Death drew a sigil of crackling energy into the air and Captain Stone’s body levitated up to the height of Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder, the imp knew exactly what he intended, and approved.
“He’ll make it, Sir Death,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he placed his hand on the captain’s forehead one last time. “He’ll cross over and there will be a crew waiting there for him, and he won’t ever need a lighthouse, because he’ll always be home on his dream ship.”
“That’s a pleasant thought, child.”
“It’s what he deserves,” Rumpelstiltskin said without tears before retrieving his hand and stepping back.
“Goodnight, Captain Stone, and Godspeed.”
“Farewell, Captain,” Sir Death added as he motioned forward with his hand, sending the sailor through the portal and into the waves for his funeral at sea.
Once he broke the surface and drifted through the water and out of sight, the reaper closed the portal. When Sir Death turned back to the imp, he expected his ward would need some sort of condolence, but Rumpelstiltskin surprised him as always.
“Do you think he enjoyed seeing my adventures, Sir Death?” he asked, and the reaper placed his hand on the imp’s shoulder without any doubt.
“I know he did, child. I saw them, as well, and I could think of no better way to send off a captain than to show him what his cabin boy has accomplished after his tutelage.”
Rumpelstiltskin laughed at the idea before grinding his heel in the dirt.
“I didn’t learn all that much while I was a cabin boy, Sir Death. I never could remember all the knots and all the lessons Captain Stone wanted to teach me,” he said, but Sir Death gripped tighter and shook his head at the thought.
“You learned exactly what he wanted to teach you, and he left this world knowing you listened,” Sir Death said before letting go of the imp’s shoulder and crouching down so he could look Rumpelstiltskin in the eye.
“For an adventurous man like Captain Stone, there could be no greater reward than to see what you have already done with the world, and to know you’re nowhere close to being finished with it.”