Pirate Games

first published in At Second Glance: Gay City 4


I did light out for that Territory and I had me a time. Jim left to find work and buy up his wife and kids, and I lived with Widow Douglas for what seemed like the whole winter through to spring before I’d had enough of schooling and stiff clothes and bibles and such. Soon as it was warm enough, I got Judge Thatcher to give me enough of my treasure money to get across the river on a ferry. I had to slip away in the early morning, and so’s not to worry the Widow and Miss Watson I left them a real long fancy note as follows:

Dear Ladies, I thank you kindly for all the sivilizing you’ve done me, feeding and schooling and whatnot. You are mighty good women and I’m sure you’ll go to that Good Place yet, but not too soon, since I don’t wish either you to die before you are ready. I must light out for the Territory beyond the Missasippi to seek my fortune amongst the unspoilt country of our great land, god bless America, and so on and so forth. Do not cry for my lost youth etsetra. I will come back and visit I promise. Your humble boy Huck Finn.

On the boat I met an old man and he talked to me about the river like old folks do. I think if people would listen to old folks more often, they would prolly have less to say.

He tells me, “This virgin river divides a child America from an adult America.”

I asked him what virgin was, and he says it’s a girl who ain’t married. I wondered what that had to do with a river, but old folks get notions that nobody but their like can explain.

“Just girls?” I ask him, and he says yes, that there’s something that changes in a girl when she’s married that doesn’t change for a boy. I don’t know what he meant, but I reckon it has to do with babies. I heard Miss Watson and Widow Douglas talking one time about a girl in town, talking real low and quiet-like about this girl who was going to have a baby, and hoping Jesus would take it to the Good Place, and not two days later that girl got married. I done a lot of growing up on this river, and I guess if the river is a girl then maybe she’s my Ma, tho my mama had me and some other babies that died so maybe the river isn’t a virgin after all.

I don’t remember Ma too well, but I remember her singing songs to me that made me feel like everything was alright and nothing could hurt me, and that’s how the river always makes me feel. I nearly died more times’n I can count on this river, but I always make it out alive. Maybe Ma’s ghost lives in there, keeping me safe and watching me grow up. Maybe she drowned in right here in the Missasippi like I nearly done time and again. Pap never let me talk much about my Ma to other people, since she was half injun and all, why I’m so much browner than Tom and Joe and near everybody.

So, nothin’ to lose, I rode that boat across, and I didn’t feel no different on the other side ‘cept for thinking to myself, this is it Huck, you’re on your own. When I was hungry, I fished or ate berries and such. I was used to sleeping in hog sheds and the like, so finding a comfortable place to sleep warn’t too difficult. I met all kinds of people, fur trappers and injuns, but I didn’t stay long in one place. I never been much good with time, but I reckon I was by myself near six months, since it got hot and started to get cool again. Then I started to worry. I didn’t know how far north or south or west I was, hadn’t really cared enough to ask nobody, and I didn’t know if it would get real bitter cold or not.

Just my luck, I found a village, and I was afeared at first that they’d kill me, but then I thought maybe if I told them my mother was half injun they’d take me in. I walked into that village with my hands up, waving my white shirt in surrender, tho it warn’t too white no more, and they captured me real quick. Come to find out some of them spoke English from trading with trappers, tho more of them spoke French. I told them that my Ma was like them, and they couldn’t kill just half or a quarter of me, and then I gave them my pipe and some tobacco and they took me in.

I seen some mighty things in that village, all kinds of magic and whatnot. I seen a ghost get pulled right out a man’s belly by another man who dressed like a woman. He wore woman’s clothes every day, and not cause he was playing a trick. They called him Two Spirits and didn’t think a thing about it. I lived with them five winters, got to speak their language, even had me a blood brother like Tom was, but that’s a story for another day. This is a story about what happens on the river.

Nice as they was to me, and much as I loved my blood brother, I got powerful homesick and had to light out for home again. Next time they made their way to the river to trade, they took me with them. I worked extra hard to get enough fur and whatnot to trade for enough money to get back to the other side of the river.

Sure as you’re born, it didn’t take but a day to get back to town. I strutted into town with my injun clothes on, and folks just about dropped dead. Widow Douglas was so happy to see me she near cried, tho Miss Watson didn’t trust me on account I’d been injunized, as she called it. The widow told me I’d grown into such a man, and she fetched some of them stiff clothes for me to wear, but I told her since I was a man now that if I was going to wear white man’s clothing again then it better not be too itchy and stiff. She found an old shirt and some britches that her husband used to wear, and tho they weren’t as comfortable as my tribe clothes they’d do.

Tell you what, soon as I got into them fancy old clothes, there was a knock at the door and who do you reckon it was but Tom Sawyer, my first and dearest blood brother, all grown up like a carrot. He was so happy to see me he clapped me on the back like I was an eraser at the school. I hadn’t even thought about an eraser in years, and I wondered if they’d make me sit and read books again. That got me to thinking how I needed to make this visit a quick one.

I got to telling Tom all about the tribe, and my blood brother, and the fur trapping. So long had gone by. Tom was all of seventeen, and I—well, I never been sure how old I am. Taller’n Tom, that’s sure. He asked me a hundred and one questions, until it was so late that the Widow told Tom he’d have to go home. The next day being Saturday, and Tom not having anything to do, we agreed to go down to Jackson’s Island to go fishing.

Soon as we got down there, all by ourselves, I took off them clothes, but I folded them up real nice since they must’a been special to the Widow, having belonged to her dead husband and all. I learned a lot of respect in my time with that tribe. Tom stripped off too, and we ran right into the water and splashed around a long time.

“You sure are an injun now Huck,” he says, “you smell just awful like one!” He grabbed me and tried to rub water on my underarms, but I wiggled away. I ducked him under, but I knew he was just picking at me. Jealous, prolly, that I get to be a real injun and he can only play pretend. I bet if he could he’d smell like this too.

I spent that whole summer camping on Jackson’s Island. Seemed like I spent more time there than at the Widow’s house, which I guess suited her and her sister just as well. Tom came down less often, him having to do work to keep up his aunt’s place. He become real close with Joe Harper, and brought Joe with him sometimes, though other times he said Joe couldn’t make it. He was lying at least once I knew because when they got down to the island Joe was real quiet and I could tell he was sore about something. He mentioned later that Tom should’a told him last time he was coming down, that he had spent all day inside from the rain. It kinda made me feel good, knowing that Tom would rather see me and just me sometimes. I guess I know how Joe felt too cause sometimes Tom would go off with Joe and not invite me along. I got to wonderin’ why I wasn’t invited, but I figgered it was one’a Tom’s little games, makin’ me and Joe Harper jealous of the other like that.

One day, Tom was down on the island with me, and we were being real lazy and lying around in the shade. Out of nowheres, Tom says, “Do you miss Jim?” and I reckon I did and missed him something mighty sore. I told him as much, and I got to thinking about old Jim and me on Jackson’s Island, on the raft. Jim would always call me Honey and I reckon that’s what black folk say when they care about somebody. Not many people ever cared about me more’n a hill of beans.

I remember lying on that raft in the sunshine, not a care in the world, us both just naked as the day we were born. All these stiff clothes that Tom’s ‘spected to wear, well I don’t reckon I know how he can stand it sometimes. Ain’t natural, iff’n you ask me, and I told him as much.

Tom says to me, “What was that like, being naked with a full grown man?” I told him it warn’t nothing to it. Hot out, you’re on a raft, you don’t wear no clothes. ‘Sides, I told Tom we been runnin’ around the island naked since we was little, and now we’re grown and we’re still naked, what’s the difference? He kinda turned away from me then, bashful I reckon, not wanting me to see his boy parts. But Tom’s funny like that, ‘specially since I come back years later and we both got hair under our arms and on our boy parts and whatnot, sometimes he’s okay me seeing him and sometimes not. I was sitting there wondering to myself, don’t Tom know me better’n that? Then Tom says to me the oddest thing I ever heard him say, and believe me he says some odd things.

He says, “Anything pick-yoo-lee-er happen when you two was naked on the raft?” Says it just like that, pick-yoo-lee-er.

“Like what, Tom?” I says, starting to get fed up, “Confound you, you’re talkin’ all around something in that head a’ yours. What kinda notion you got?” He was worrying the ground with some stick he had. Then out’a nowheres, he says, “Didn’t you never, you know… try touching Jim?”

That was about all I could take’a his questions. All his book learning, and he’s asking me about things I barely even thought about, ‘specting me to have done this and that and played some kinda naked touching game with my friend. I picked up a half a handful of sand and threw it at him.

Well, Tom and I got into a big fuss, he punched me in the shoulder and I knocked him one, but Tom’s always been a dirty fighter and knocks my legs out from under me. I’m not down that easy, and I grabbed him and we tumped over the tree roots. This point, Tom was on top’a me, and started laughing and looking at me funny. My back hurt on the ground and Tom’s weight was pushing me into the roots, but I didn’t move.

“Say you’re sorry, Tom,” I says to him.

“For what?” he says, holding me down by the shoulders. He had his knees on my legs in a way that kept me from getting a good foot to lift up.

“For asking me if I was touching Jim! What does that even mean? It can’t be nothing good, knowing you and your mind!” I says. I was thinking about spitting in his eye, but maybe that wouldn’t a’ been fair. Even if Tom fights dirty, I learned well and good to fight fair.

Sometimes I get afraid that Tom’ll go too far, and then I’ll go too far, and Tom’ll get sore about it and stop being my friend. Pain in the britches that Tom is, I’d go to Hell or even church for him. ‘Sides, I guess I deserved being down there with my back against them rough roots for throwing the sand at him.

“You say it, Huck,” Tom says. I tried to raise up but Tom had me. “Say sorry.”

“I’m sorry Tom, now get off’a me!” He did, that rat, and as he flipped over I saw his boy parts had gotten big. He kinda shut his legs together and turned his body so I couldn’t see, but I seen it already. That got me to thinking about what he’d said.

A lot of moments went by and we didn’t say nothin’. He was breathin’ hard, lookin’ all around but not at me. Then I asked him what he meant by touching. He says I know just what he means. Like you touch yourself sometimes. I says to Tom, “I ain’t never touched Jim like that.”

“Funny,” Tom says, and starts laughing his little fake laugh when I can tell he’s got something cooking in his brain like a fever. Not like how he was laughing when he had me on the ground. The kinda laugh that the Widow Douglas would call, “downright sinister.”

“What’s so funny,” I ask him, but he keeps right on with his little snickering. He was still sitting with his body turned away from me. After a moment he says to me, “So you wouldn’t touch Jim like that, huh?” and he took a long time to say Jim’s name, like when he said pick-yoooo-lier.

“Damn right I wouldn’t. I’d feel mighty rotten touchin’ Jim like that. That’s for a man to do by hisself.” Then Tom says something that changes things, and I mean changes them forever. Made me feel like I’d just spent a year on that river, learned so much in a moment.

“It ain’t for a man to do alone, neither.”

I could feel my heart beating hard, and not because I’d just wrestled Tom. I’d been touching myself time to time, most days seemed like, but never with anyone around. Just didn’t seem proper to do somethin’ with my privates in front’a someone else. I knowed Tom did it too, we talked about it once, but I ain’t never heard tell of men or boys doing that together.

Not hearing back from me, Tom kept right on talking. “I done it with another boy before.” Then I couldn’t help wondering out loud. “Who, Tom?”

“Nobody,” he says. He moved, sitting with his back to one tree, across from me, my back to the other tree. I remember hearing the morning dove calling then. To me it always sounded like, “Who cooks for who?”

Tom looked at me with one eye, and tho his face was turned to the side I could tell he was smiling with only half his mouth.

“I bet it was Ben Rogers,” I says, “fool that he is. He’d let you sell him a wooden nickel.”
“Wasn’t neither,” he says.

“Then it has to be Joe Harper. Did you touch Joe’s parts, Tom?” I was curious, and kinda worried, and a little of something else all at once.

“Never you mind, Huck. Ain’t your concern.”

“Why’d you bring it up, then? Secrets are for girls, Tom!”

Tom looked full at me then. I didn’t know what to do. I could feel my blood all hot in my face, and then I started to feel it hot all over.

“You wanna watch me, Huck? We could both do it. Ain’t no shame to it.” I didn’t say nothing, just looked down at my body and my own parts.

“This is our place, Huck. Nobody’s gonna see. Ain’t no steamboat floating loaves of bread full of quicksilver and people after it.” He made me laugh then. He came over and sat next to me. There I was on Jackson’s Island, in the place that I could get away from everyone, even Tom most times, and I was sitting with my back on a tree, the big bumpy old roots under my legs kinda hurting me, but in a good way, you know, like when you get whupped for something and you know you deserve it, and there was Tom, looking at me. I was still wondering who else he’d done this with. Sure as you’re born, I bet it was Joe Harper.

Tom brushed the sand off his hands real well, and I did it too, so’s not to get them little bits on my tenderest parts. Tom started in on himself, I started in on myself, and it felt good, good as it ever did, but new, too. Tough to put it in words, it was just like doing it regular, but like doing it in a dream, where it’s familiar but also not, all at once. I guess mostly I was just surprised at myself doing this with Tom, but I didn’t want him to get mad at me or feel all embarrassed about bringing it up. It didn’t really feel too strange once we’d started, tho I was still feeling nervous.

Then Tom says, “You’re doing it wrong.”

I says to him, “I always do it like this.”

Tom says, “No, watch me,” and he kinda rubs himself with his whole hand instead of the way I do it using the skin at the end. Then he turns his hand upside down and does the same thing backward. I tried to do it like that, but it was just strange and I wanted to do it my way, so I did.

He says, “Stop, Huck, do it the right way.”

I says, “I like my way,” and I almost threw more sand on him but thought that he would wrestle me again, and that might be just what he wanted.

“You don’t know anything, Huck. You’ll break it like that, the way you’re doin it. It’ll make your hands hairy if you do that.”

“I ain’t broke it yet, and I got as much hair on the back of my hands as you do.”

“Look, there’s a right way and a wrong way.”

“Oh yeah? Who showed you the right way? Joe? Or did you read it in one a’ them fancy books? The Big Book Of How To Touch Your Boy Parts? I knowed you ain’t read about this in no bible.”

I stopped then. Tom stopped too, and he says, “Why you keep bringin’ up Joe for? You jealous or somethin’?”

I got real huffy then and stood up. Tom was still sitting against the tree but I could see that look in his eye like he was up to something. “Nothin’ to be jealous about, Tom! You think jest cause you been doin’ this with another boy and not me that I’m jealous? I was doin’ this fine on my own till you decided to show me your damn fool ‘right way’!”

Tom stood up then, and caught me by the arm and tried to get me to sit down again, but I warn’t ready to do that. I was mad at him, and he was gonna hear about it. I told him to quit, but he wouldn’t let go, so I went for his legs like he did with mine before, and I knocked him down but he took me with him, that rat, and we tumbled in the grass until he was on top of me again. For some reason, all I could think was how we used to do this all the time when we were kids, and it was just different now, wouldn’t be like that ever again, not ever.

He was looking right into me, like my face was a few inches back from its rightful place, like he was looking into eyes that were inside my head ‘stead of out. Then I starts thinking the strangest thing yet, pick-yoo-lee-er alright. I starts to feel like I belonged there, under him I mean. It felt good. I know it sounds crazy, but it felt good having Tom pin me down like that, his knees on my legs and his hands holding my wrists against the sand and grass. Who feels good being held down like that? Maybe Joe Harper.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way, Huck. Now you gotta tell me to stop but not stop me.” Confound that Tom Sawyer.

“What am I supposed to say?”

“You’re supposed to beg me not to do nothing to you, but then you don’t stop me, neither. That’s the way of it.”

I looked up at him and his body was so pink, not like mine. “If I don’t want you to stop, why I got to tell you to?”

“It’s just the way it’s done, Huck. Pirates do this to each other all the time. I read about it in one of Judge Thatcher’s law books. That’s when there ain’t no women around. Then, when they sack a village and they kidnap the women, they do this to them. The pirates do it to each other while they’re out at sea, but some of them act like the women so the others can practice.”

“But women ain’t got no boy parts, Tom.”

Tom’s eyes got really wide then, and he starts laughing fit to raise the dead and drops on top a’ me. I let him be there. It felt good, his body pressing mine into the grass like that, his skin against mine. I raised my hands above my head and I told him okay, he could pin me again.

He did, and he brushed his free hand off real slow on my side, and it kinda tickled but not in a bad way. I told him to cut it out, that it warn’t right what he was doing to me, that I’d tell the authorities, and other stuff I’d heard that sounded like what you say when someone’s got you pinned down touchin’ you nasty and won’t let you up. Damn foolish, if you ask me, but that’s what Tom wanted and I guess I didn’t really want him to let up on me just yet.

“See Huck, when you touch yourself, you gotta do it like this,” and then he starts in on me. I reckon it did feel better than what I do, but I think it was probably just that he was doing it and not me, like how you can’t really tickle your own self. There was so much going on, his left hand pushing my wrists into the grass, his right hand working on me, his knees kinda hurting the thickest parts of my legs, his toes wiggling against my knees. It’s like I got lost in my own body.

He did that until the special thing happened that always happens if you do it long enough. We went into the water and got cleaned up then, and when we got back to the trees he wanted me to do the same thing to him, but not pin him down. He said he was the captain and I was the mate, and the mate doesn’t push the captain down. Sometimes he sounds like he’s making sense but then I think on what he tells me, and it don’t really. It don’t bother me much I reckon, long as we get where we mean to go. So he sat down against the tree and I sat in front of him and tried to do what he’d done on me, and he got to the end part a lot quicker than I had. It got on me, and I ran into the water quick like a rabbit.

Seems like each time we went back there to Jackson’s Island that summer, he had something new he wanted to show me. Most of it was nice, but some things took all day to convince me to do. Usually he’d get me to agree to let him do something to me, and then when I knew it warn’t nothing to be scared of, I’d do it to him too. Some days he just wanted me to do everything and him not do anything back. When I’d flat out refuse, cause that ain’t fair, he’d wrestle me down and pin me again and I’d pretend I was saying no. That got him real excited, and I never did understand what that was all about. Take it or leave it, I don’t see why nobody needs to play pretend games just to touch each other.

One day, soon as we got to the island, I started taking off my britches, and Tom says, “No, I don’t want to do that no more.”

“Why not?” I says, real confused. I thought playing pirates was Tom’s favorite.

“Because I turned eighteen already, and that’s how old you are when you stop doing that with other boys.”

“What about me? I don’t even know how old I am, so that means I can do it however much I want.” I’d started liking it more and more, and wondering about doing it with other boys ‘sides Tom. Girls, too. It must be real different with a girl, and I mean to try it.

“Well,” says Tom, “I heard that what we been doing is supposed to be something a man does with a woman only.”

“Read that in a book, did you?” I asked him, meaner than I should’a been. He looked at me and he wasn’t even angry, just looking mighty sad. It hurt me to see that, so I told him I was sorry. “I thought that’s what pirates did, Tom. When women weren’t around.”

“I’m gettin’ too old to play pirate games, Huck.”

That made me sad too. Tom’s always been my captain. This whole touching thing we’d been up to, it really was like being pirates, adventuring on them high seas. Like we were discovering treasure and new islands. His hands were the gold on Cuba, his mouth was rubies on Jamayka, and I always thought that special part at the end was the pearls, for obvious reasons, etsetra.

That day we didn’t talk much. I got him to play pirates one more time after the sun set, and did whatever he wanted me to do, even that one thing he really likes but I don’t like because it kinda hurts, but that was the last time he went to Jackson’s Island with me. I still see Tom around, but it ain’t the same. He’s gonna marry Becky Thatcher, and then she’ll have babies and she won’t be a virgin no more. I reckon I’ll go back across that river to the tribe, where I can show them everything I learned this summer. Lately, I gone back to touching alone, and it ain’t the same. It’s not even the touching I miss so much. I miss Tom. It was his idea to start it all, and it’s just foolish that he can’t look me in the eye no more. It’s just not natural to give up your blood brother like that.