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Beads by dee
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"This string before I leave my homeland and come to the salt. This one up to I prisoner in Trinidad. This to I join the Pearl. This until now."

Jonah's molasses-black hands moved over his scalp, callused fingers finding the braided leather thongs in the woven hair. He ran fingertips over the lengths, over the rows of beads, and Jack watched.

"This one." Third thong threaded with beads, second bead from the bottom, dull ivory. "The man I kill in that blasted hulk. I keep his tooth. And this." Directly below it, a gaudy elongated bauble of amber. "For the scurvy slavemaster I kill to be free."

Canvas snapped above their heads as the wind gusted across the deck, setting Jonah's beads to rattling against each other and blowing the ragged ends of Jack's hair into his eyes. He shook it out impatiently. "I still don't understand why you do it, though."

Jonah fixed him with a stern black eye. "Only animals kill and know not, Sparrow."

First thong, first bead: a thin, worn wooden disk.

The wind blew ash from the burning wreck of the cargo fluyt across the Pearl's deck. It choked thick in Jack's throat with the stench of other men's blood. His clothes were stiff with it.

The body of the man he'd killed still lay where it had fallen, not far from the mizenmast, staring blankly at the silted sky. He was just a sailor, plain-faced and wearing homespun. His shirt had buttons, but they were big and clumsy, hand-made and carved from wood. Maybe by his wife. Had he had a wife?

Jack yanked on the topmost button until it came off. The sailor was dead; he didn't care.

They called him Jonah because they'd found him in the belly of the whale, uneaten. He'd been part of the cargo on a fat, wallowing Portugese cog heading towards St Augustine with the scent of Africa in her sails. A slaver, stinking hold full of cowering wretches fit only to be sold on the block, because that's all they knew to expect.

Except Jonah, who'd been standing over the body of the slavemaster with blood on his hands. Captain Delgado had offered him a berth on the spot.

First thong, sixth bead: once-jagged terracotta, worn smooth.

In the deserted, fortless town of Antigua, laid bare to pirates' plunder, Jack's only warning was the faintest click behind him and a reflected flash in the window. He ducked and twisted away; the knife hissed over his head. The harridan screamed at him, blade raised again. He swung, hard, and the heavy-based earthenware vase he'd been investigating the contents of shattered dull and deadly against her skull.

She hit the floor next to a sack of potatoes amidst terracotta shards. Jack breathed fast and wild in the quiet, homely kitchen.

Jonah asked him: "So, how many men have you killed, Sparrow?"

Jack slopped a tankard down in front of his shipmates - the tavern's ferociously green beer, because they'd rejoin the Pearl tomorrow and no one could afford rum at the end of two weeks' shoreleave. Bill and Twigg nodded their thanks. A buxom bit of skirt - pretty enough if you didn't look too close or too sober, neither of which Jack intended - giggled obligingly and slid along the bench as he nudged her hip with his boot.

Jonah tilted his head and set his beads to clacking. "Well, boy?"

Jack bared his teeth across the table. "I'm your second mate, old man, have some respect." The others laughed, and Jack jerked his chin. "Anyway, how many have you?"

With a snort, Jonah gulped at his beer. "Enough."

Second thong, fourth bead: mishapen and made of dull, smokey glass.

Hammer in his head to the shrill keen of a woman's screaming sob. The world is hell and Jack woke in the dark corner of a dim alley gagging on the stench of piss and vomit. Transfixed in his stagger out by the sun (stabs like a knife) and the body in the street, the woman over him. She's still screaming (killed him, stabbed him, my boy) and Jack's looking down to a face he couldn't quite not remember past the hard skew of rum in his mouth, his head, his step, the world.

The rum bottle was still in his hand. He waited until he was back on the Pearl to take his knife from his boot. The bottle was empty, and the blade was bloodied.

Some of the younger, more impressionable sailors - boys, no more, had Jack ever been that young? - took to wearing their hair like the capt'n, holding their beaded heads high. Twigg gave them hell, which only strengthened their resolve. Barbossa spat on the deck and said nothing.

Jonah would watch them across the deck with black eyes and disdain for their mock-confident strut. He'd meet Jack's eye and they'd both smile.

Either the boys didn't last, or their hair didn't. If they lived, they grew out of the inconvenience. The beads were a nuisance; Jack was the first to admit it. They grew out or came loose and had to be refastened, and when the wind whipped up they lashed against his cheek and forehead. In the days after he added a new bead, the added weight seemed to drag at his head, making it ache.

But even the dead were allowed their revenge. It was the least they deserved upon him.

If it stopped them haunting him in other ways, he would endure it gladly.

Third thong, first bead: pumicestone.

Had they expected him to give in quietly, go without a fuss? She was his bloody ship. She twitched restless under his feet, making him jumpy, and did they really think he wouldn't have felt them coming? Long enough at least to get to his cabin. Long enough to have his sword out and his pistol ready and to have hesitated over burning the casket of maps. He couldn't, in the end, but he'd pocketed the compass because she kept her secrets and even if he didn't understand them, he'd damn well keep them too.

Should have kept his own.

They kicked open his door like a bitter flood. Disarmed and dispossessed him. He only had time for one attack, but he'd made it count. Thrust so hard he'd barely felt the resistance of human flesh against his blade, buried it to the guard.

They'd thrown them overboard at the same time, Jonah and Jack. The one to feed the fish, the other to starve. Both to rot.

When he couldn't sleep he'd lie under the stars (they weren't the same the world over, but a man could pretend) and he'd ask himself the question. How many men have you killed, Jack?

Only an animal kills and knows not.

He could count them. He could tell their tales.

First thong, first bead...

Third thong, last bead: a perfect pearl.

He'd thought about it for a long time, ransacking the cave (crouched over that longed-for corpse). He'd wondered, could he make a bead from an apple pip? But that had been too cheap, too small.

And after all, he'd captained her. For more years than Jack. Almost longer than he'd sailed her altogether.

A death bigger than his own life - a death loved so dearly - deserved a worthy tribute. So he'd had the pearl-bead carefully made, braided the thong in, ended that line of death.

Jack knew he'd start another soon. Soon enough.