Wade J. McMahan
Gulls shrieked and swooped within the forest of masts marking the place where the world began. Amid eddying sights, sounds and sea smells, dockworkers little noticed the scrawny lad flitting among crates, barrels, and tangles of ropes piled along the rough planking. And why should they? Neither more nor less appealing than feral cats, ragged waifs the likes of this barefoot specimen scavenged the city from end to end.
Though he knew nothing of oceans and ships, the lad’s attention rested on the three-masted merchantman lying alongside the pier.
“Can yuh swim, boy?”
Eyes wide, the lad swallowed a gasp as he spun about.
Sunlight glinting off the brass buttons adorning his blue jacket, a lanky sailor leaned a shoulder against a tall piling. Smoke curled from the pipe clenched between his teeth.
Unsure whether he faced friend or foe, the boy remained silent.
“If you’re thinkin’ to sneak aboard, I’d advise again’ it.” The seaman aimed his pipe stem toward the ship. “That be the Mary Louise. Her cap’n’s name is Arbuckle and he’ll have no truck with stowaways. It’s up by the ears and o’er the side you’ll go when he catches yuh.”
“Who said anything about sneaking aboard?” Sure, that had been his intent from the first, but he was a canny lad who knew when to change course. “I’ll be signing on with the crew if they’ll have me.”
“Ah. Then I’ve made a mistake, haven’t I?” The seaman’s eyes twinkled. “So you’re a sailorman, are yuh?”
“No, but I mean to be.”
“Is ’at so? And where is it yuh want to go?”
“There.” The lad pointed toward the distant mouth of the harbor. “There and beyond. To sail wherever Captain Arbuckle’s good ship takes me.”
“Yuh little know what you’re sayin’, lad. Sailorin’s a hard life, leavin’ a man little to show for his trouble.”
“If it’s so hard, why do you do it?”
“Why? I can’t rightly say, why.” The seaman paused, cocked his head, and puffed his pipe. “If I had to guess, maybe it’s the sea at night, the ship’s prow pointin’ toward a star flaming so bright it seems yuh can reach out and pluck it from the sky. Or maybe it’s the fresh smell of the open ocean with ne’er the taint of land. It could be the wind bitin’ your face as it billows the sails and prompts the riggin’ to sing. Then again, most likely it’s the sound of the water rushin’ beneath the hull while your ship races onward towards who cares where.”
The sailor grinned, his voice lilting the cadence of a sea shanty.
“Give me a stout ship,
with a hearty crew,
and the wind,
and a star,
and the sea.”
“Wonderful.” The lad beamed. “That’s for me.” Then he pointed toward the city. “Life there is hard too, you know.”
“Sure, but what does your lovely mother have to say about it?”
“My mother died of the bloody flux this past winter.”
“Now there’s a sad thing, may the Lord bless her. And your father?”
The lad dropped his head, shrugged, and dragged a bare toe across the planking.
“I see.” The sailor squinted, as he looked the boy up and down. “What’s your name?”
“Jeremiah Simmons. What’s yours?”
“O’Hara. Mister O’Hara to you. How old are yuh, Jeremiah, fourteen?”
“I think not. All the same you’d best come with me.”
“Yuh want to sail with Captain Arbuckle, don’t yuh? As his First Mate, I’m thinkin’ we can find a place for a likely lad such as you.”
Yolanda’s head rested on Jeremiah’s bare chest, the aroma of lilac accenting the bare room as she nestled beside him on the bed. Little it mattered if that was her true name. He knew her for a whore living near the docks, one suitable for his new position as Second Mate.
Upon hearing his muttered comment, her eyes met his. “You’re leaving? Why? Over dinner you said you loved me.”
“Ah, it’s true, darlin’. I do love you. All the same, the morning tide will find me aboard the Jezebel, her holds filled with cargo, outward bound for Zamboanga.”
“Zamboanga? You’re addicted to Siren’s songs of faraway places, Jeremiah, and there’s no help for you.” Her hand caressed his face. “Will you be coming back?”
“Sure, that’s my wish, but it’s not up to me. Shipmasters move cargo as they will. A sailor’s wishes earn no consideration.”
“Augh. Maybe you love me a little, but the sea owns your heart. Tell me. There must be somewhere, some final place you’ll want to be.”
“I was just a boy when I left the land behind. Twenty years ago it was, and I’ve set my course by the stars ever since. The ‘where’ doesn’t matter…only the blue of the sea, sunlight dancing atop the waves and the forever ‘going’.” Jeremiah sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed. “There’ll be no final port o’ call for me, girl.” He shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll end my days en-route to a star known only to the wind.”
Lightning set the clouds ablaze while sheets of rain lashed the foaming seas. Ocean swells grew to monstrous proportions before the howling wind, but undaunted, the four-masted barque plowed westward toward Rio.
“What say you, Sailing Master?”
Jeremiah held tight to the quarterdeck railing as he shook his head and shouted over the wind. “This gale’s a bad ’un, Cap’n. We’d best send the lads aloft and take in canvas or we’ll lose our royals for sure.”
“Come, come, Mr. Simmons. The Abigail’s stood up before worse storms than this.”
“Indeed she has, sir, but the barometer’s still fallin’. I’m fearin’ we haven’t seen the worst of it.”
“We’ve a schedule to meet, so leave the canvas be. We’ll ride it out.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” Jeremiah was too old a salt to question his captain, so he nodded as his knowing eyes gauged the rigging. “As you say.”
After the Captain retired to his cabin, Jeremiah remained nearby his post as the day wore on and the storm grew worse by the hour. Overhead, the condition of the sails and lines set his teeth on edge. Severe breakage could occur at any moment. He must send a message below, for surely now the Captain would agree to--
He saw and heard the mizzenmast snap high in the rigging, but the sprightly lad had grown old and clumsy. So much so he failed to avoid the plummeting gear that crushed him against the deck. The ship and gale faded into nothingness, as though a dense fog engulfed life itself.
The Abigail’s familiar rhythmic motion soothed him as Jeremiah lay on his cot, staring up at the captain. Three days had passed since the accident, the storm long since gone. Now his time grew short. “Has the carpenter finished his task? I must leave tonight.”
“All’s ready, though whoever heard of such a thing? I tell you, Mr. Simmons, I’ve never abandoned a man in my life, and cannot agree with doing so now.”
“Cap’n, we talked all this out before.” Jeremiah smothered a moan, and managed a smile. “You aren’t abandoning me. For the first time in my fifty years at sea, it’s me abandoning ship.”
“Still, it doesn’t seem proper—“
“Proper, hell. I’ll be dead before sunup and we both know it.” He paused and closed his eyes for a moment, gathering his strength. “You can lower me over the side tonight or toss my corpse over the rail tomorrow. Either way I end up in the sea. Why quibble over a few hours, eh?”
“As you wish, Sailing Master, but then what happens?”
“You’ll continue on to Rio, while I sail elsewhere.” Jeremiah gasped, paused again and forced a wink. “You see, I’ve seen my voyage coming for a great many years and I wouldn’t want to miss it.”
Crewmen were sent for who carried his cot along narrow passages and up ladders with gentle care. If their occasional jostling inflicted pain, Jeremiah made no sign of it.
A small wooden raft resting upon the Abigail’s deck sported a short mast and square sail. The ship’s carpenter stood by offering instructions while sailors strapped Jeremiah’s cot aboard.
There at the last, within the lanterns glow, the crew circled about. Of course much was said, goodbyes spoken, best wishes offered and accepted, handshakes all around with officers and men, the Captain even read a few verses from his Bible. Then nothing more remained to do except lower Jeremiah over the side, where moments later his raft floated free.
Above him, familiar orders were given for the ship to get underway. In a matter of minutes the Abigail disappeared into the night, and Jeremiah found himself adrift upon a soft, friendly sea, the raft rocking gently as silence wrapped about him.
The long ago lad chuckled as a wind gust filled the raft’s sail. Off in the distance a brilliant star, his star, glittered above the horizon like a beacon. Given luck and a fair wind he could reach it by morning.
Wade J. McMahan is a forester by profession and writer by disposition. His published works can be found in various forms and venues around the globe.