At this time in the evening, the skyline of the West Indies was a beautiful streak of purple, blue, orange, yellow and red. I could never get used to seeing the beautiful colours, despite seeing them nearly every night. I just stared up at the sky, with one hand on the wheel of my ship, and the other clutching a bottle of rum.
I wasn’t too drunk to steer a ship. Believe me, I of all people would know. I was only taking small sips every now and then. It was good grog, and I didn’t want it all gone before I made port, so as to buy another couple bottles of it (being that this was my last). It wasn’t until it was completely dark and the deck lanterns were lit that I decided to put up for the night. I ordered the crew to clue up the sheets, all but the moonrakers and the topgallant sails. I then plotted a course for my night helmsman, and set my third mate up for his watch. I told him that if he saw anything, I wanted to be the first to know about it. “Aye, captain,” came his short reply.
I then proceeded to my quarters. I wanted to drop off my bottle of booze and retrieve my pipe and tobacco before heading down to the galley and getting grub, and a less appreciative form of grog. I had let the men try the drink that royals and governors were so intent on indulging in, but they were reluctant to bring it on ship. I suppose it was because they liked it so much, they didn’t want to be drunk while we were battling the crew of a schooner, trying to take their wealth and cargo. But it also might have been because they preferred whatever homemade concoction they make with the excess cane sugar we get from cuban ships sailing out of Havana.
I lit the leaves that were in my pipe, and began to make my way below deck, blowing clouds and rings on my way down. I chuckled as I remembered that some of the crew members thought it a great trick that I could make rings appear from my mouth, much like the rings that sometimes shape themselves from the smoke of a cannon’s blast. Some of these boys were nothing but farm folk, working cane fields, or other sailors like myself. A few of them were also men from the navies of Spain and Britain, either impressed by a “malevolent” captain such as myself, or deserters who’d rather sail with as little rules and protocol as can manage. Those who I took from ships I attacked, I made sure that they had what they couldn’t have in the navy, so they wouldn’t hold it against me. As long as they were comfortable, there weren’t any disputes or such aboard.
When I got to the galley, I could see the men all gathered around the tables and benches, eating, drinking, talking, laughing and gambling. None of us had a care in the world. We were on the ocean, free of quarreling wives, bawling babes, and out of the authorities of kings. Out here, we could be who we wanted, and that was just the way we liked it. We took without discretion, attacking any and all ships and settlements we felt had something to offer up. Of course, we never did any harm to the local folk, or any others like ourselves, out for our own interests, and those of our crew. We lived without taxation, our money our own; no governors to send us off to some labor camp or field, or prison; and any company we could afford, be it that of each other, or that of the lassies that prided themselves in making a man content. Out here, we were kings in our own right.
The lads had cleared a spot on a bench for me to sit, and brought around a plate and a mug. I puffed a few times, and blew a ring into the air. It was probably the largest one I had blown in my entire life. The loud voices around grew silent as they saw the ring float upward, bubbling about until the smoke dissipated. They then shouted in awe and cheer, to which I couldn’t help but smile. Our little ritual had begun. Every night, I come to regale my men in the tales of my travels, and every night I start it off with a single ring in the air, to get their attention. The voices grew silent again. All that could be heard was the cook in the back, working with the wash bucket, and the steady low creaks that were made by the wood in the ship as it rose and fell with the waves.
“Well?” I asked. “Does anyone have any suggestions, or did I come down here and waste breath for absolutely no reason a’tall?” One of the crew members slowly moved forward, crouched low both because of the low ceiling, and because I was a revered figure to the crew. “What was your line of duty before you came out here, and decided to become a man of self interest along with the rest of us?” The curious fellow was young, a pup who had to have been between sixteen or eighteen summers of age. His face was fair, with small wisps of fur beginning to sprout near his lips and cheeks. He also had brown hair that was beginning to lighten with each passing day in the sun. And his eyes were blue. Quite possibly the lightest blue I have ever seen.
I thought about the question. It was very bold, coming from someone so young. I could tell by looking about the room, and seeing the looks on the other mens’ faces. They were just as astonished as I was. But then, I couldn’t very well yell at the boy, and call him a whelp. I had a sort of half benign half malevolent reputation to uphold, so I decided to speak the truth of it. I was not afraid to tell the crew of where I had come from, or who I was.
“I was born in a tough part of England. My family was always hard pressed for money, so when I was old enough to work, my father booked us passage to the New Country, in exchange for a few years work in some tobacco fields,” I said, taking a long draw from my pipe, and letting the smoke go in a billowing cloud, using it as an exclamation. “On the passage there, however, my father became gravely ill. It wasn’t long before he died, and we had to release his body to the sea. The grief of my father was great alone, but with the realization that it would just be my mother and I working the fields intensified it. It meant that her and I would have to work harder in order to serve our years.” I looked about the room, and saw looks of despair, sadness, and of sympathy. A lot of the boys around had similar stories. They knew what it was like.
“When we arrived, we were escorted to the land we would be working on. We were taught what it was we would be doing, and we were taught how to use the tools and implements when farming and harvesting. The next few years passed uneventful, with my mother and I farming the tobacco plants, and counting the days until our freedom. I noticed, however, that every morning the landowner came by on his morning and evening walks, he would always steal long glances at my mother. I didn’t care for it at all. ‘Course, there was nothing I could do about it. Then the night came,” I said, trying to get the last cloud out of my pipe before all of the tobacco completely turned into ash. There wasn’t much left, so I set down the pipe to clean later.
“I should have know that sooner or later, it would happen. By the way he glanced at her, I should have at least guessed. Deep down inside, I guess I knew it was inevitable, but I didn’t want to accept it.” I reached for the mug of grog and took a few gulps, both to steady my head, and to quench my thirst. I also took a bite of the bread on the plate, and a bit of the roast on there as well, letting the suspense build. “One night, the owner came to call,” I said after clearing my mouth of food. “He stepped in so furiously and quickly that it caught the both of us off guard. I tried to get up to counter his intrusion, but he had hit me, hard enough to make me see stars and become weak in the head. He then went after my mother.” The room seemed dead silent. No one dared to breath for fear of being too loud. I continued, “He did such awful things to her. It wasn’t enough that we had to work for him to earn our freedom, but he had to go and defile that which I thought was so pure. Even now, I hate myself for not doing anythi-”
“Heeeeeyyyyy,” the crew yelled in unison. I couldn’t believe what it was I had heard. My crew had interrupted me.
“It wasn’t your fault,” came a shout from the back.
“Don’t kick your own teeth in,” came another voice.
I couldn’t believe that my crew was trying to console me, even though they hadn’t even heard the rest of the story.
“Eh boys, you gonna let me finish this or not?” I asked. An agreeing sound then came from the crowd. “Anyway, I was going to say that I hate myself for not doing anything sooner. I noticed that something was going to happen, and I wanted to move to stop it, but couldn’t find the right moment. That is until after the incident, on a night where the temperature was so hot that they had to leave the windows of the house open. I snuck around through the fields, avoiding as many guards as I could, and removing any of those that I couldn’t, until I finally made it up to the house. Some lanterns were lit, but not enough to light the entire house. The house maids were in bed, and the building was quiet. I had gotten in through one of the open windows and began to navigate around. I had an inkling of where I was going, as my sense of direction had been far more developed than any of my others. I had finally come upon the master bedchamber.” Again, I took a swig of grog. “I had walked through the open door to the bed, and stared the demon in the face as he slept. I drew a knife from my boot and put it against his throat. He snorted, and I saw his eyes flutter open. Before he had the realization of what was happening, I leaned in close and whispered, ‘This is for her,’ and I dragged the blade across his neck.”
A shout of arose among the numbers. I held up my hand to silence them. “I had decided that I couldn’t stay, not after what I had done, so I went to the nearest night worker and told them that the land was now officially free, and those that wanted to work it could stay. Those that didn’t could come to the docks along with me, and we would leave on the next ship that arrived.”
That’s when a roar of applause rose up from all around, and some of the men began slapping me on the back. Now the men knew a little more about their captain. and my trust in these old dogs was reinforced. Eventually, the crew set back into their routine, but things were quieter now, as a few of the men began to get tired. I finished my food and my drink, and bid the crew adieu as I headed up the stairs to the deck, and my quarters. On my way up, I emptied my pipe by tapping the well against one of the gunwales.
As I did this, I looked out toward the horizon, to get one last look at the sky and the stars before I headed back indoors. I still couldn’t believe its beauty, and how deep the blue was that surrounded the small white dots that peppered the sky, like grey in an aging man’s beard. I thought that if I were to die at that exact moment, I wouldn’t mind, so long as I was staring up at the sky. At that moment, I felt a sensation that was foreign. Like extreme joy. At that moment, I felt true freedom.