By Trevor Cameron
I remember standing on the tips of my toes as I leaned over the gunwale, glaring at the steeple of St. Francis as it receded into nothing, dissolving like a granule of sugar in a mug of mother’s hot tea. My gaze was broken by a gust of wind that swept the hat from my head. The hat, a gift from father when I came of age, floated down into the water below and drifted with the current toward the distant shore.
I spent the off-duty hours of my first week on board drinking and thinking. As the days turned to weeks and months, I did more of the former and less of the latter. I still had a taste for salted pork then, and no need for rum to fill the belly in place of victuals. As I sat at the bench, leaning with all my weight to haul the oar back and up toward my chest, I tried to forget, each stroke whittling away at the husk of my former life. Alas, no amount of drink could drown the memory of the archdeacon’s icy stare, nor the look of ghastly horror upon mother’s face as my dear sister wept, all colour gone from their faces. I write to remember. I drink to forget.
I remember the night of the great storm, when we were wrenched out of our bunks in the wee hours by the Mate and shoved to our places by the oars, most of us still too drunk to hold them steady. He told us we must clear the storm by the morn, and then we could sleep. I remember the feeling of the cool night air against my parched throat, and yet, despite myself, belting an old shanty with the others, our chorus rivalling that of wind and thunder. We cleared the storm by the break of dawn, and celebrated with one last carousal, a morn-cap well deserved, lest the drub of our heads keep us from slumber.
We relished the idea of it all, leaving King and country for the ends of the earth, ne’er to return. We’d gather round the wooden tables in the mess deck canteen and spin tales of past-lives lived and deeds of great men of the sea–Norseman, Spaniard and Briton alike. We drained tankards of rum and ale, splashing as we slammed them down onto the table, every man among us fancying himself a part of such a tale, til the clear head of the morning show him the truth of it. No man sings songs of deckhands and boatswains.
* * * * *
After a time I began to see things differently. The men became idle and bled of the mouth as the victuals ran low. We drank rum more to fill the belly than to dull the mind, the former charm of canteen tales depleted to the drunken ramblings of broken men. I remember the cold morning on my knees scrubbing the half-deck, and the bite of the wind on my face as I spat out my first tooth–and not the last, to be sure. Life at sea seems a romance, if one forgets all the rowing and the smell of rotted pork.
I sometimes think of my old life. I think of the winter before my leave–before my sentence. I think of the warmth of the fire as I sit on the cold hearthstone, sharing a cup of ale with father. I think of mother, her kerchief tightly bound, fussing over the sizzling stew in the pot over the fire while my dear sister does her knitting. I can still taste mother’s stew–never salty, and always chicken or beef–never pork. These were happy times, but they were not meant to last–nor would I want them to.
This is my tale, told the way I mean to tell it: only newly a man grown, sentenced to seven years’ transport and thrust out into the open sea to build a new life in the New World. Of course, the tale could fill seven tomes, or seven times seven, but even I forget the details. What I remember most is the feeling of wind on my face as I peered over the gunwale, watching my hat, the last relic of my past, drop into the water and lilt back to the shore from whence it came. Even now, settled in New Haven, my wife with child for the third time, I find myself gazing out into the ocean waters longingly–still unable to say where home is.
Trevor Cameron is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto English program, aspiring writer, musician and record producer–in other words, unemployed.