Salt Water

by Martin James Hunter

From the crow’s nest I witness everything. The horizon in all directions. Clouds within arm’s reach. The ship a fatal drop below. Tonight the sea is a realm of ink, its surface a layer some never pass twice.

During death perhaps they will linger in between, a bouyant shape awaiting acceptance by the depths. To transition from this world unto the next. A cadaver picked clean as it descends, absolved and bare and ready.

Today has finally come. Excitedly I finger the gold and silver in my pocket, admiring the tinkling as faces and edges meet. A warm glow protrudes from the cabin beneath, spilling out across the ocean and meeting the trembling white disc amid the sea. Behind this door she sleeps.

There is a cry and a splash from my port side. Screams for help cut short by blows of water. I turn from my post and scan for the fallen man but in the darkness there is nothing. Eventually I can no longer hear him and I know the vile things beneath the surface will soon dine well. As we continue on, the amber of Edinburgh makes itself apparent and stagnant memories are stirred into motion.

I began life as an urchin among hundreds of other filthy and lawless children whose possessions never stayed in the same pockets for long. Before my sixteenth birthday I was forced to leave after word got out I had stolen from the wrong man. Four others accompanied me north but only two of us reached port that winter. My old reputation followed just months after and I quickly encountered the same hate. During the spring of 1711 the waters parted and in docked what would soon become my home.

From then on I ate better than I ever had and the desire to steal gradually subsided, aside from on the toughest winters of course but we are all guilty of theft here. Those without nimble fingers go hungry when supplies dwindle, nature taking its course as it always does.

Speaking of which. The captain offers her body to the crew at a rate of eight gold an hour. It is a service limited to once a month, and a service no one neglects. I have no idea when this practice was set in motion but I can say for certain it works.

The frequency of our reward depends on how hard we work and how much we eat. A good balance between the two is important as each encounter with her is also a physical inspection. Those deemed too fat or thin or lethargic to do their job are given a month. If their situation has not improved by then they are fed to the brine.

My first time was with the captain. When we finished she had to force me from her bed with a flintlock. I was spared only on account of my youth, but faced an agonising nine month ban. During this period everything changed. When my interdiction expired I went to her like an animal. Afterwards, I gave thanks and left.

We have a high standard of discipline on our ship. Displays of affection are met with harsh punishment. I have seen men thrown from the deck for what the captain calls unprofessional language. Words such as beautiful, sublimemarriage or love.

I am taken from my thoughts when the cabin door opens and a figure crosses the deck towards the hold. Since the first mate’s work is domestic as well as nautical, his wages are higher than average. It is for this reason a high degree of objectivity is expected of him. Last year his predecessor was caught stealing the captain’s underwear so we left him hanging in England and hired the queer.

Sometimes we come across another ship when low on supplies and are forced to board and engage. None of us are afraid to give our lives for the captain. A hundred passionate men fighting for the same reason. The perfect machine.

Early Summer, somewhere in the Atlantic, our last skirmish. A lightly armed Prussian frigate teeming with exhausted and wounded and those sick with the sun. The energy the crew shared as our vessel edged closer to its prey, the smell of hot wood and sweat. Such ecstasy as oak collided splintering and spilled us forward. The cacophony of ferment and horror and agony serving only to drive us on like the slavering wild eyed creatures we are. Edges brought down in unrelenting waves and gunpowder detonating and welts of skin and gore in the air like ropes and mist. A lookout feathered with arrows tumbling towards the deck in stone silence. Ignited curtains dropping from their masts, great amber wings flapping heavily for the last time and smothering those standing in the wrong place. Men abandoning their posts for the ocean.

With the last of their sick and dying slain we alighted their craft and set about it with fire and cannonballs until the great wounded thing began to tip and stand like some graceful beast with its head held proud sinking into the surface of the earth towards eternal damnation. In all my years under the captain such sights have never grown old.

We go through the young with great speed but the experienced rarely fall from our crew. Fledglings either find themselves strengthened through experience or are replaced at the next port town. It is when blind with lust men conduct their mistakes. Wild with emotion, bounding to their death.

A crewmate motions to me from the bow, the signal I have been waiting for. Collapsing the eyeglass with my palm, I earnestly descend the mast. As I make my way across the ship the sea seems to have muted. My footsteps are sharp on the deck, quickening in sync with my heart. Near my destination a fledgling stands grinning like a fool, whose ear hangs shrunken and blackened as though every word having passed through it were of malice. He channels a knowing nod I choose not to acknowledge.

I push her cabin door open and there is that tinkle. The scent of the foliage adorning her left wall. Petalled heads forever alive with colour regardless of malnourishment or dehydration or discontent amongst the crew. Their viridity masking the foul odour of salt water for that one moment.

Seized from vessels and settlements over the years, prizes of all shapes and sizes. Great portraits and jewellery and ornaments and a chandelier forever making music as it sways in tandem with the ocean.

Despite my arrival she continues with her book. I deposit my gold into the jar and take time to examine her design from the doorway. How celestial she seems in this world, a perfect sculpture misplaced amongst our wretched company. Beside her beauty the shame comes and I am instantly aware of my wounds, my imperfections, the dirt. But it is never enough to send me back through the door unserviced. Finally her book snaps closed and I go to her.

It is still possible to make her cry out my name, just not as often. Each month the target is harder to achieve, every week the salt harder to bear. Yet despite coming onto this ship at seedling age and sprouting and flowering and now beginning to wilt, the captain never seems to wane.

I ask the Gods only for a few more years. That, and for us to be reunited in the next life when she finally has me thrown to the ocean.

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