By Christine Stanton
Once he had paid off and dismissed most of the crew and was waiting for the agent who would buy his cargo, Kapitein sent for one of the sailors’ women on the docks, any one would do as long as she was not presently drunk and could follow instructions.
“Veel geluk, Pieter,” called one of them.
“You are going to be sold now,” said the other. “You are going to be sold for who knows what purpose. Maybe you will go to a rich man whose wife has died but left him enough heirs to have no further need for marriage and is too ugly to get any woman but old, loose-bodied tarts. “Yes!” cried the first sailor. “You will belong to some fellow who wants to feel a warm tightness once again to remember his youth.” They both laughed and slapped their thighs. Batu laughed with them, though they were speaking their own language and he did not understand. He wanted to join in, perhaps to go away with them, because he did not know what would happen to him next if he stayed on the ship, and perhaps they would know where to get knives and cloth and be able to show him how to leave the Watermen’s world and go back to his own. Then they turned and walked away without looking back. When the sailors’ woman arrived Kapitein ordered her to stand on the dock. He did not want contagion on his ship, and he did not want her to know there were spices on board; all these women knew gangs of thieves to whom they would sell such knowledge for a few pieces of silver. She put her hands on her hips and rocked on her heels, coy and girlish with him, pursing her lips and saying it was so long since she’d had a proper ship’s captain. Kapitein told her to hush, that he did not want her filthy body, he wanted her to bring some fancy clothes for Batu, a savage got from the Indies.
She wanted money before she would do it.
He said he would give her money when she brought them and if they were suitable. He said he wanted clothes that would persuade a wealthy noble or merchant to buy Batu as a servant – to stand in the corner of a drawing room, to be sent to the door to bring back messages from visitors on a silver tray. A servant who could be fantastical dressed and painted and be still as a statue, standing all night holding dishes of sweetmeats by a dining table. A boy who can be both he and she, as the fashion is in the English court – who can tell which from skin so burnished, eyes so liquid.”You must oil him all over, if you would sell him to a household of ladies,” said the sailors’ woman. “He looks dry as old dogs’ paw pads. Ladies like their pet boys shiny and plump. And you should have a curiosity to clothe him. They say there is a castle in the Rhineland where the lady keeps some dark boys who are charged to wear black wings in her presence. Real feathers, fastened with black satin straps. You want satins for him? You want velvets? You want to sell him in the Netherlands; then put him in long breeches. You want to sell him in England put him in short, slashed breeches, but no ruff, instead give him a little white lace at the throat to show off the curve of his throat and the darkness of its hollows, to make the ladies want to know if he’s that dark all over.” She paused and watched Kapitein take all this in.
“Can I see it too, before the ladies do?”
“See what?” said Kapitein.
“If I get you all you want, I want more than guilders in return. I want to see his thing, to know if it is more man or monkey.” She laughs. “And he must also have a silver chain with a silver skull hung from it, to show he is still a cannibal under his satins. You will want perfumes too. Or maybe…”she said slyly. “You already have got them, From Araby.”
Kapitein made a quick swipe at her, which she dodged.
You’ll have no payments till you bring me garments fit to show him in the marketplace, fit to let him through the twice-locked doors of merchants’ houses.
She flounced to the far side of the deck near the gang-plank.
“Soonest done as said!” she called. “But dip him in the harbour waters before you dress him up ! You and he do stink, of he spice you’ve got. Have a care to guard your cargo well, keep it safe to pay me for your monkey’s satins!”
* * * * *
The rich of Amsterdam did not want to buy Batu, they would rather buy furniture and paintings.
The Austrians and Hungarians and the Prussians did not want to buy him – Did Kapitein not know there are brown-skinned boys from Turkey in the secret brothels of all the largest towns? They are often lovelier than girls and grow plump just as easily without the curse of child-bearing. Did Kapitein not know that in some noble Russian families there are blondes with the slanting eyes and golden skin of Mongols fought half a thousand years before and driven back…. except the parts they left behind? Mongols, it is said, are cheap and plentiful, Tartars too common to have value.
The Prussian knights could crush armies from the East, but even they let heathen playthings creep in through the cellar-doors and bedroom windows of monasteries and castles. Even they brought human baggage home along with captured jewelled scimitars and damascenes and beaten metal bowls from the Holy Land.
It is not by God’s chance that every generation a great family finds a cuckoo in it’s nest: just as high-bred bitches sometimes whelp a pup of unexpected colour in a litter that is otherwise expected.
Here’s a thought, Kapitein … Popes are rumoured to take amusement from dark, polished skin.
Perhaps your ship could visit Italy?
Look there for the families whose palace walls show painted faces of long-dead, sooty boys memorialised as angels and cherubim on princely bedroom ceilings because they once had done such fine devil’s backside service for their masters.. Sell to these families, if you can.
No. No. No, no, no, no…Kapitein was told. The East presses in upon us all. There is a smudge of darkness in noble families from Pyranees to Northern fjords…Why should they buy in more? You will not sell your monkey for any big price, you will not get more than a tavern-nights spending money for something quickly put aside.
No, we do not want your savage … even though he be from the Indies, so you say.
Kapitein might try the English traders in the port though. The English have Blackamoores amongst their servants, but perhaps this small brown creature could be a curiosity for them. Kapitein might ask their agents if they want to trade wool profits for a monkey-boy.
* * * * *
Most times, English ships come and go quickly, though there is an English ship that lingers in the port now. It is waiting for a kemel, brought from the East and travelling slow, on foot, held up by autumn squalls, but here within the day they say. This kemel has come through the countryside where peasants knelt to see it passing by, because its ancestors might once have seen the Christ in their home land. The English think the kemel will prove their devotion to the Holy Land, though they must take it as a job lot with a wheeled cage of two jakhals.
The jakhals are already here,waiting in the street outside the docks. Their keeper feeds them offal, bought with duits from people who pay to see these ugly scavengers. The keeper tells onlookers the offal is from human corpses, though housewives scoff, they know bullock’s stomach when they see it.
The jakhals do not seem satisfied with the offal, they eye their audience hungrily, occasionally, they snarl at one another, but are too dispirited to start the fight their audience would like to see.
Kapitein did not ask the sailors’ woman where she got the bright satin clothes she brought to him that afternoon, though he did want to know why she had not brought shoes.
“Couldn’t find any,” she said.
The clothes smelt of wine and piss and sweat and were dusty from the floor they had been discarded on last night; and still shaped to a body, bent in the elbows, wrinkled behind the knees.
On the far side of the city their owner slept the drunken sleep that allows for easy theft. Batu moaned in protest when he understood that Kapitein wanted him to take his clothes off; but he did it, to the sailors’ woman’s delight .
“Don’t touch!” Kapitein told her.Batu would not part with the small, greasy bag of animal skin that dangled around his neck though, nor the clumsy crucifix taken from the Portuguese ship, though Kapitein made sure both were tucked out of sight under the clothes hanging loose on Batu, fluttering around his arms as he was lead across the dock to be inspected by the kemel buyer on the English ship. At the same time the animal itself arrived on the docks and was led from a different direction to the vessel, meeting Batu at the ship’s side.
Perhaps it was the flash of shiny movement in the fabric that caught the kemel’s eye and provoked it to bite the arm beneath the satin. No matter. The buyer agreed to take Batu to tend the kemel in exchange for enough money to please Kaptien to be rid of the boy. The kemel‘s keeper, whose arms were marked with many old scars, was content to look to the querulous jakhals on the Channel crossing.
Out to sea, the stolen satins filled and billowed in the stiff, cold wind. Batu rubbed his bare feet together, chilled to the bone.
In Amsterdam the sailors’ woman warmed herself with gin bought with money got from the velvet pantofles she sold on a street near the docks; they would not have fitted the savage’s feet anyway.
Christine Stanton is a Doctor of Arts post graduate in the School of Letters, Arts, and Media at Sydney University. Her short fiction has been published in several Australian literary journals. She has also taught high school English and History.