When I was almost five, my Aunt Evelyn discovered that my birthday falls on International Talk like a Pirate Day.
“ARRRRRRH,” Aunt Ev brandished a hooked hand and waited until I looked up from my cupcake. “This be the tale of young Jackson’s birth, just five years ago today. Dear Florence, your Mama, knew in her bones that it were time. So out went we. I captained me Beetle as we sailed through yon,” she paused dramatically to look toward the open window of our second-story apartment, “freeway. But the winds were not blowing fair that night. And when your Mama let out a thunderous scream, ARRRRRRH, I steered our ship to the starboard side and delivered the baby meself with these two hands!”
“That’s me. I’m the baby!” I grinned.
Her hands floated in the air for a fraction of a second before swooping down to cup my cheeks.
“Yes, Lovie, ye be the baby.” she smiled, lit the candle on my grocery-store cupcake, took out her disposable camera and said, “Say YARRRRR.” She kept that photo of my five-year-old pirate grimace on her desk at the DMV for years.
Aunt Ev’s eyes sparkled as she sang out the story, “ARRRRRRH! This be the tale of young Jackson’s birth. The year was 1998. The date, September 19th, just eleven years ago today.” The essentials were there — the deepest throes of pain, sailing across yon freeway, and the thunderous scream at my birth.
“I steered our ship to the starboard side and delivered the baby meself with these two hands, me Hotties.” She held her hands aloft. My hands wouldn’t be bigger than hers for another year.
“It’s Hearties not Hotties, Aunt Ev,” I said.
“Ye be Hotties if I say ye be Hotties.”
“YARRR!” I cried back, giggling, and she laughed with me. “How come the story always stops with you delivering the baby? Like, what happened that night? Did Mama and me make it to the hospital? I know Mama’s in heaven, but how come you never tell the end of the story? And where was my dad this whole time?”
“Well, Jack, I didn’t want to say,” she looked serious, “but the Kraken got her, and I promised yer Mama that if anything happened, I’d raise ye as me own.”
At that moment, I heard the sweetest sound known to boy: the tinkling of LEGO bricks.
“Avast! But do I spy some pirate booty?” Nimble as a magician, she produced the gift. On the brown paper bag wrapping she had drawn a treasure map, complete with an “X” cut from black construction paper with surgical precision.
It had to be Brickbeard’s Bounty — the giant LEGO pirate ship I had been staring at each time we went to Walmart. I may have dropped a hint or two. But the box was too small to contain all 592 glorious pieces. I forced a smile and tore open the paper. It was the Loot Island set, 142 pieces, and it had an octopus. It really was sweet of her.
My fifteenth year was hard for us. Ev started dating a guy who was, well, there’s no kind way to say this. He was a complete douche, the kind of guy I imagined my father must have been. When the douche left, Ev was devastated, but her festive birthday spirit never wavered.
“I said ‘a boy’ but all dear Florence heard was ‘Ahoy!’”
“Really?” I muttered. “Are you ever going to tell me the real story? You do remember that I’m not five anymore, right?”
“In Pirate, me Love, ‘Ye remember that I be no longer five, forsooth?’” She cupped my cheeks and kissed my forehead before letting out a deep belly laugh that echoed to the popcorn ceiling and deep into the hide-a-bed that made the living room my bedroom.
“Whatever.” I left to celebrate with friends before she could give me the copy of Rogue Legacy for PC I’d asked for.
I heard her crying softly later that night. Maybe it was selfish, but I was glad she hadn’t married the douche.
“ARRRRRRH,” Aunt Evelyn stretched out the word until I trained my eyes directly on her. “This be the tale of young Jackson’s birth. The year, 1998. The date, September 19th, just twenty-one years ago today.”
I took another sniff of the Kraken rum she had insisted on pouring me.
“Look, Aunt Ev, I know the tale,” I took her child-sized hands in mine and looked into her stormy eyes, “but I’m not a kid, and I can handle hearing what really happened. My birthday — it’s the night she died, isn’t it? She died because of me?”
“Oh no, Lovie, but it’s time.” She teared up a bit and passed me an envelope containing a pirate-themed birthday card, a newspaper clipping, yellowed with years, and a photograph.
The card read, “Happy birthday, Jack. It’s time you knew. Maybe if I had insisted she stay in the passenger seat instead of moving to the backseat or if someone had pulled that driver’s license before he got on the road that night. Some things a young boy just isn’t meant to carry.”
The news article was from the Davis Enterprise describing a miracle baby who had been delivered by medical student Evelyn Wilson, 23, en route to the hospital. The last line read, “Sadly, the child’s mother, Florence Wilson, 18, died later that night at Sutter Davis Hospital from severe bleeding due to injuries sustained when their vehicle was struck by a drunk driver.”
The photograph was the picture of me from my fifth birthday, faded from its years of service under the neon glow of the DMV fluorescent lights.
I’d known all along that there was a wild sadness to my birthday, the loneliness of the single ship at sea. The line about Evelyn Wilson, medical student, though — that took me by surprise.
“I wanted you to look forward to your birthday,” Ev said.
Gretchen Bartels-Ray writes in San Diego, California. She is an Associate Professor of English at California Baptist University and has published poems in The Ekphrastic Review and KAIROS Magazine. She volunteers as a mentor with the nonprofit organization Rebirth Homes, providing support to survivors of sex trafficking.