The Voyages of the Waved Albatross
Author's note: This is only the first two chapters of a longer book, which I am in the process of making, if you... Show full author's note »
FlotsamBrown as a dead leaf that the wind has swept away from its tree, the sailor stood on the brink of a long jetty of toothy cliffs at one end of a small cove that was bounded on the other side by a similar jut of cliffs. Towards the bottom of the crags it became smoother and flatter, finally ending at the gray beach of the cove, where small toadstool houses speckled the otherwise smooth shore. At the yawning mouth of the cove, ships were moored at their berths, mostly brigantines and other large ships of trade. A few others were sailing out of the small bay, maybe on their way to the colonies of the Caribbean, which was finally safe now that the war was over. The stranger surveyed the particulars of the cove with his sparkling sea-blue eyes; only slightly graying hair whipped around the brim of a tri-corner hat. His heavyset jaw was held like a man who is used to shouting and giving orders, and his eyes certainly confirmed this characteristic. He wore an odd assortment of clothing: from a mismatched green scarf, gray fearnought jacket and white linen undershirt, to red breeches and flamboyant sash. Stuck in this baldric was a flintlock pistol, and beside it, a heavy cutlass polished to mirror perfection. A tattered sea-chart was stuffed under one arm, and under another he clutched a brass spyglass, which he now held to his right eye in order to scan the houses down below. It was a languid town: squat gray stone houses with thatched roofs, dense timber doors with rusty iron knockers, plain square glass windows that looked out on austere cobblestone streets. This is a perfect little cove, he said to himself - little known and virtually isolated from any major sea-lanes. With this thought, the sailor tucked both the sea-chart and the spyglass into his sash and started shambling down the path that descended the cliffs. He walked in that peculiar swaying, staggering way that long-time sailors do, being so accustomed to the constant pitching of a ship. As he went, he took a hard leather flask out of a large pouch that was strapped to his belt and took a gulp of rum. From that point down, at intervals, he took a swig or two out of the flask. When he reached the bottom, he placed it regretfully back into his pouch, finding that it was empty. Then, with a quiet look of abhorrence directed at the tarred body of a pirate swinging rigidly from a post in the foamy soup near the cliff, he started off at an idle pace in the direction of the dockyards on the opposite side of the harbor. Seventeen milky gulls sidled along the wrinkles of the waves that were leftover from the iron-hard breakers farther out that finally smashed and flattened like gray glass on the lackluster shore.
The sailor, as he walked, examined the buildings on his left, in the same way that a naturalist observes grasshoppers that he has trapped in a jar, masterfully and keenly, confident that he is the dominant mind of the moment. When he met a pedestrian coming from the docks he would greet them with an almost irritated grunt and a dismissing wave of his hand. If they had the audacity to reply, he would turn his stormy eyes upon them and growl with annoyance. It had been midmorning when he had begun. It was midday when he arrived at the dockyards. The first man to address him he immediately engaged in a convoluted conversation which centered on the traffic of the bay.
“Recently settled is this place,” the man told him. “Only those with no place to go come here, except for the few trading vessels that pull in here sometimes.”
“How long has that fort been there?” The sailor asked, pointing a leathery finger at the stone naval fort that stood at the wall of the cliff, near the docks.
“That’s about the curfew of me knowledge.” The man shook his dusty head that was so full of dandruff that gray particles detached themselves from it and stifled the air.
“Right then.” The sailor turned his back on the man and started to walk away.
“And what’s your name, sir?”
Suddenly he spun around and caught the man by the collar. “Only those free of worry dare ask me that,” he hissed, “And I can assure you, mister, that you are not at all free of the shadow of fear.” He released the man and headed off in the direction of the fort, garnering shocked glances from the sailors working on the docks.
The next place that he stopped was the naval fort. He paced from here to there, keeping his face turned purposefully away from the prison of stone while his eyes darted intently over every detail. The fringes of his hair stood up with a nervous energy, and he kept clasping and unclasping his stringy hands, which were sweating and twitching fervently. He stopped mid-step when he noticed a naval soldier watching him several yards away, who, taking this unwelcome opportunity, approached him, nonetheless, with a dubious smile printed on his face.
“Ahoy there, fellow!” He addressed him.
“Ahoy, yerself,” the sailor managed to dribble out.
“May I be permitted to ask you what you’re doing around here?” The question was scrolled out as amiably as possible, but still held the bitter aftertaste of suspicion.
“For the sake of interest and curiosity came I over here.”
“And your business in the cove?”
“New World, mate. It’s 1721 in case ye be ignorant, and it should be a hard man to shirk the idea of a new life on a new and wealthy land.”
“What is your profession, may I beg to ask?”
“Much the same work as ye be doing, only on, I suppose ye could say, the other end of the spectrum.”
“I am attempting to be friendly, and yet you continue to evade my questions!” There was just a hint of annoyance in the man’s voice that made the sailor wince slightly.
“Excuse me ambiguous nature. Old habits, etc.”
“If a pardon is to be begged, it is to be on my part. I was, I confess, a bit suspicious of you sir.”
“Must be a hard, senior watch that assumes ill intentions from a man at the first.” The sailor couldn’t help but smile mischievously, but the soldier didn’t notice.
“On the contrary, we are all fresh out of society. It is necessary in such a sleepy little place as this, for we have the vigor as not to grow as bored as the older infantrymen.”
“But surely you have more experienced superiors here to guide ye?”
“Not at the present, no, but they are sending over several shiploads of experienced soldiers from London to help guard the fort.”
“Why the severe measures?”
“For protection against pirates, for they have now grown bold, despite the destruction of their base. But that will soon be remedied.”
“Aye, good. Now, if it would not offend you, I will go and seek lodging for meself.”
“Not at all. Goodbye.” The soldier saluted politely as the sailor turned to walk away.
“And congratulations on your promotion tomorrow!”
“Wait! How could you know that I am being promoted tomorrow?”
“Very simple if you pay attention to everything as I do.” He winked at him with twinkling eyes. “You are dressed like an ordinary soldier, and yet you seemed to have the authority and audacity to ask me my business here.” It was a mild threat, and the soldier didn’t notice in the slightest.
“What about the date, sir?”
“Found that out by the slip of paper in your left sleeve that has had the button undone, thereby revealing the words, ‘tomorrow,’ and the time, ‘1:00 PM;’ so there is my explanation on the date I mentioned.”
“Wonderful, sir!” The soldier slapped himself on the knee with amazement. “You must be very vigilant!”
“I try to be.” These were the last parting words of the sailor to the soldier before he turned and went off towards the town with crisp speed in his stride.
The sun of early evening found him lounging amongst a group of barrels and crates in the small middle section of the town that housed the hawkers and peddlers, who being visited so seldom by customers, would immediately jump out like a rapacious cat on a ball of string, yearning to sell even a scrap of their wares at a price that even the most dull and foolish buyer would scoff at.
In both of the sailor’s hands was a brown bottle of spirits, both opened, one already half-empty. Every few minutes, a deep whistle would issue from his mouth, startling those around him into dropping anything they carried, or jumping with surprise. And he would smile roguishly, his teeth like yellowed parchment behind his sun-scarred lips. His black tri-corner hat lay beside him. His equally black, only slightly graying hair he constantly pushed back from his eyes.
Finishing one of his bottles, he went and bought another, still clutching the full one in his left hand. Sitting down again, he opened this new bottle with his teeth and then drank deeply, finishing the draught with an over-contented sigh. A bass whistle followed, which had by then become commonplace in the market. He was already half-drunk, and now, a bottle later, he was certainly past rationality. He stared blearily into the space, not seeing anything around him. The scene was quite drab anyway: a long row of open-air stores lined up on a busy cobblestone street. Behind them, gray buildings served as dwellings for the people of both sexes that owned the shops. A few carts carrying loads of goods were set up as temporary stands for the peddlers that owned them, and a mob of shoppers crowded round them. An almost mechanical drone of voices rose and fell consistently, never stopping, or even hesitating, as if that very sound was the life of the people, and they could not bear to let it break. Obliviously, yet ardently, they clung to the pointless nonsense spewing from their mouths. What is it they prattle on about? He wondered. He lapsed off into thought again: why were these simple people, at once so similar, yet so different than himself? The men and women of this cove had come across the ocean and left their home and their people for the new world, but had they left behind everything? Tens of thousands had left behind their belongings, houses, jobs, and family, but had they left behind their lives? His presence in the town was like a splotch of red in a gray painting, or a hint of the sea far inland. Why, he thought. Why? These people were hardened farmers, blacksmiths, sailors, brave and adventurous; so why were they so much different than him? And as he had these thoughts, somewhere in another part of his mind he reminisced on the cool touch of Spanish doubloons running through his fingers.
Stirring in his thoughts, the sailor laughed for no apparent reason. Two children that had been playing near the barrels on which he sat were ushered nervously away by their mother. As they turned, the sailor pulled from his sash the ebony barrel of a pistol, which he leveled casually at the woman. Predictably, she gasped, and held her hands out in front of her pointlessly, doubling half over as if struck.
“Tell ‘em to stay, woman,” he ordered gently, a groggy smile on his face. “Go on!” The woman looked with round eyes at the pistol, hesitating uncertainly. The sailor’s face hardened and his fist came down on a barrel. “Tell them!” he bellowed stormily. “And don’t worry, woman, I ain’t going to hurt ‘em any!” His voice softened abruptly. “Now let the dear kiddies come over here and continue their game!” The lady whispered quietly to her children, and they turned back and reluctantly resumed stick-sword battle. The sailor sat indifferently, the pistol on his leg, his hand resting easily on it. He looked curtly around and saw that almost all the shoppers that had been in the market previously, were gone, and only a few of the bravest ones remained. He smiled to himself mischievously, and then took another long drink from his bottle. He turned to watch the two children fighting with their useless weapons. He then smirked grimly as the older of the two boys knocked the younger ones stick out of his hand, put his own sword to his throat.
“That wouldn’t be how they’d do it really,” the sailor said. The children looked at him curiously, but before he could continue, the manager of one of the stores approached him with fiery eyes. He stopped a foot away from him.
“I have been tolerant enough,” the man boiled. “You have scared away all my customers with your unruly behavior! You must leave now!”
“And if I don’t?” The concealed knife in the sailor’s words made the man take a step back.
“I will…” Suddenly, the sailor leaped to his feet, and grabbed the man by the lapel, unsheathed his cutlass and pointed it at his gut.
“You will do nothing, you hear?” He glanced at the two boys. “You want to see what someone would do to the loser in a real sword duel?” Just as he drew back his cutlass, a cast-iron pot was slammed over his head, and he crumpled weakly to the ground.