The battle had been harsh, crude, and longer than expected, but at the inevitable end the ship Gerben Huraq had sailed on for three years, initially at the end of a sword honed to an invisible point in the hand of a maniacal privateer, was sinking fast. Huraq, still on the good side of thirty years of age and possibly primed for long distance of days, had once crawled up a rescue rope to that ship from another sinking ship.
Now, twice saved and twice accepted aboard a rescuing vessel, he was in the water again, and once more in the Black Sea, the sea of seas, death scene of floaters, those abandoned, thrown overboard or fallen from their stations at battle, each one in a downward slide into their own history. He had no idea how long he would last on this wide sea, until one precise moment when he espied through a break in sea clouds the growing dot of a mast at full sail advancing from a distant point, ever moving closer, hope most possibly at least a transient passenger.
A final surge of excitement propelled his nearly inert body towards an expectant welcome.
“Have I not lived most miraculously these long years,” he said aloud, “the salt so new and fresh upon me, so far the sea barren for me except for the prospects of the oncoming ship, also a privateer no doubt, which has spotted me alone here on these waters.”
Sooner than expected from his knowledge of the sea, the pure sound of a whistle, came to him across flat waters like a dog’s master at summons.
Also caught in self-reflections came new admissions: “If I had advantages of a mirror, I would see on what manner my presentation makes to the master of this oncoming ship I now see sporting the Black Flag of our destinies, one more privateer abound at mission, commissioned by one’s majesty, king or queen. We are the living dead as far as they are concerned.”
“Ho, there, seadog,” a voice called out, “if you swear allegiance to this boat and its captain, Slank by name, Jerdah Slank, once of Gorey in the Channel Islands, we will haul you aboard, feed you, and then put you to work for now until the holy Kingdom itself comes.
“We are a motley crew,” continued the captain later, “and I am a master of its indifference. What say you and by what name are you called, either by friend or foe?”
With a dramatic move, illustrated by his uniform flaunting gay red and purple colors tinged with black edges on each piece, and sporting a wide-brimmed hat, Jerdah Slank fit the idea of a king of this small estate of a ship overrun and stolen twice in its career, and now sporting a name burned into its name plank, Black Bird of Prey, Death’s Ship.
“My word is my agreement,” said the swimmer, “for this water is not friendly at all. Please hurry me aboard. I fear only great tentacles from the deeps. I am called Gerben Huraq by those who know me and save me from certain death on this sea of deaths.”
“… and my hand at the throats of those too hungry to abide my rules and destiny,” being all he heard of the response from the deck of the rescue ship, a dazzling, bright, shiny brigantine, impeccable to its very corners and Huraq judging it to be as large as 150 tons, about 80 feet long with a crew of pirates as hungry as the captain. She appeared to carry a dozen cannons and would likely sport cargo space twice as big as the sloop he’d just come off.
This rescuing brigantine had two masts with square sails excellent for handling in a quartering wind and promising safe haven for an added good hand. The awed stories would soon come to him in secrets of the hold or in the rigging, away from other ears. A sense of clarity fed him its promises, though he felt a serious reserve manifest itself in the pit of his stomach; he forced himself to absorb that feeling in his guts.
Gerben Huraq, near exhaustion, too familiar with the destiny of lone swimmers on seas of the world, announced his obedience when he said, loudly, “I do.”
As the ship came closer he realized it was a choice ship for battle rather than quicker and smaller ships, like sloops and schooners. He admired its way in the water, a sylph of a large ship loaded, no doubt, with more terror than The Deep itself. It loomed warm and welcome and he knew it could survive strong seas and storms.
He’d bet five toes it was built in a Dutch harbor.
In his mind he saw it commandeered, boarded, stripped of original crew and adapted as a new vessel under a new captain. To be sure, it was renamed on the spot, the old name erased, the new name scored into a mounted title board, a name to be known forever in annals of the sea. The ship was rugged enough to cross the Atlantic, and fair better than smaller crafts in harsh seas, now to be spoken in awe as Black Bird of Prey, Death’s Ship.
When hauled aboard, he smelled the fumes of that scored naming, a new ship indelibly named, and of a recent encounter, blood evident on many edges, on innumerable surfaces.
He was roughly dried off, thus warmed and blood thickened, then ate and slept in deep leisure. When he came to he was in another battle, the guns firing away in two directions, fore and aft, sails rent, blood spilled, riches achingly at hand. They spent hours aboard the newly captured vessel, securing sworn transfers by the sword, caring for their own wounded, blessing those dropped to the deep, hanging the captain of that recovered vessel, scouring each and every space for stashed valuables, coveted trinkets, astounding gems whose quantity and unbelievable quantity tightened the crew in a hurry , and even a pet monkey promising larks and laughs on the coming voyages onto salty seas and Hells. The search was complete from stem to stern, prisoners freed and sworn to their savior, Captain Jerdah Slank, one-armed swordsman, gun carrier, fierce of beard, visage, voice, and a man who was not once alone aboard his own ship, sworn to be protected by two enormous black sailors, dubbed Shade and Shadow by the captain himself at their capture and life-long enlistment.
Huraq became friends with Shade and Shadow, at first from their lively laughter, twins at contagion and humor, and their looking for new friends, a new smile, a freshness come along with wind and water. Huraq fit the bill for them, a smile ready for one and all, even for the captain and his gentle black giant protectors who carried instant laughter at the back of their throats, timbered, husky, and waiting for employment. He found an internal gentleness in both giants who, at divergence of ways when scouring the ship for reason, stooped at every bulkhead, hands groping ahead of them around dark corners for unseen threats. Once, to their pleasant reactions when he tickled one such hand with an osprey’s feather, their laughter filled the bowels of the boat, highly favoring this new man aboard.
And it was a time that shipmates began to disappear or get deposited at sea; some fell from the rigging, some pushed overboard, some poisoned and treated to a solemn sea burial, again over the side with a casual push.
It was also the time Huraq first heard from one of the twins about “the unfilled glove,” which indeed filled him with curiosity, enough for him to ask directly of the giants. “If you note with care, you will find the answer you seek,” one of them advised him. He pushed no more in that direction but began to observe all manner of actions and particulars on the topside.
One of those notifications he discovered was the stiff attitude of some fingers on the captain’s left hand; the middle finger, the ring finger and the baby finger never moved, never touched any surface, grasped any object, signaled any intention. Huraq’s curiosity was finally satisfied when Jerdah Slank sent him below to collect some charts from his cabin and he observed the collection of radiant gloves hanging on a line, the subject fingers of each left hand obviously stuffed with stiff contents, filling the shape of that digital home.
Once that day when the captain was in close discussion with the first mate, and the giant twins were at ease, Huraq said, “Shade and Shadow, I know about the missing digits on the captain’s left hand. Can you enlighten me as to the cause of that condition? I am more curious than a mouse.” He fully shrugged his shoulders as though he was lost at sea again.
Shadow, the most talkative of the two, and most daring, said in a soft undertone, “The words come from our mother who was at Gorey in the Channel Islands, both midwife and assistant to the lone doctor, one named Emil Parsentico, and his lover when his wife was killed by a runaway horse. For centuries we have had Voudun, or what you may call Voodoo, in our tribe in Ghana in west Africa, believing in one god and pleasing that god the best way possible enables good health and wealth to those fortunate enough to have Voudun expressed in their names, called upon them. We have met others like our mother across the seas in many countries or possessions of such countries. The bite in the snake of the belly or a bull with sharpened horn protects one from foes through all the days of belief in the spirits that surely possess them from the moment of birth.”
Suddenly caught up in his brother’s spirited views, Shade interceded and said, “Mother hurried off one day to assist at a birth when the doctor was treating a sailor who had been hauled from the sea. She knew the lady of means was in a bad way while the doctor was later delayed by delivering a baby with three fingers missing on his left hand. The doctor knew intuitively the fate that would fall upon the boy in his family, the father being a belligerent and bothersome man, so he took the deformed child with him in the night and swapped him in place of the lady of substance at the palace, calling upon our mother to sail the spirits with boy babies for their lives. The ill-formed child enjoyed the comforts of the castle and the other boy had the love of an unknowing sensitive mother and a father enjoying perfection of his child.”
He paused and said, “Life, with one stroke, took divergent turns, and you know half the story, at this end.”
“So,” said Huraq, “the crippled child, with a spoiled life, became a pirate, our pirate, and the other …?”
“The other became a favored son of somewhat gentle parents, the good product of the covering doctor who treated him all his early life, and our mother who was able to watch over him with the good spirits always at hand.”
“Yet, our captain has his fifth boat, as I count from stories, and looks to become a most notorious privateer on the oceans of the world. Could it not have been otherwise?’
“Aha,” proffered Shadow, and you or me or my brother might not be here now, and our mother might be in another’s servitude, a prison’s worth of undue penalties for a gracious lady who looks under green or yellow stones, behind wind-pushed sails, and on the far side of the horizon, all for the best becoming our personal gains.”
The smile that broke upon his face said he believed each word of his delivery, to such an extent that he made a sign of the cross over his heart, bowed his head and grasped a hand from each listener, passing on his current passion, faith and future.
Captain Jerdah Slank, attentive to all activity, had espied the three in tight converse, and commenced a diatribe none of the three had heard before, nor any of the pirates from deck through rigging, so loud did he exclaim; “I’ll have no undue or malevolent partnerships, other than brothers of the blood, here on my ship,” by which he had excluded the giant blacks for his own protection rather than theirs. “That is the law of the bridge, this bridge and this captain, and the law of the sea, and the law of my interdiction. Since that ungrateful slug pulled from the sea, the one named Gerben Huraq, I have personally counted 29 shipmates who have been dispatched from the ranks, all unto the gods of the seas, for one indiscretion or another from blatant treason to petty thievery of shipmates’ goods and spoils, and none directly by my hand but by commission on him called Huraq, who looms next on the list, lest any man speak otherwise in defense of his maligned office, hereafter called “the night master of fate, the dark progenitor of the canvas-wrapped, silence-ensured poor souls cast to the deeps.”
He let the pearls of his words fall to the deck on which he, as complete master of the vessel, let them shine in their abruptness and clarity as law of a captain of the main. And there followed not the silence of abeyance, the trust of the masses, the ghosts of lost comrades and shipmates, not the indecisive silence of the uprooted, the peculiar silence of the compromised and abject, but the voices of opposition.
Shade, first to speak, his hand on the shoulder of Huraq, a distinctively protective mode seen and understood by all the command, interpreted from the first word, said so softly that those in the rigging might have fallen to the deck in their leaning to hear defiance rise slowly but surely in the air, like a keen dagger held upwards in a formidable fist.
“We are done with secret deaths of many of our comrades committed in a patch of darkness, as on starless nights, or often when the moon refuses to accompany us though we are secretly outward bound, but bound for riches. That singular man who cannot grasp a sword in his left hand falls far short of being a complete master of such a vessel and must take his place in the mode of all slavery,” and with such quick utterance, the captain of a boarded ship, Jerdah Slank, was cast into ignominy aboard his ‘own’ craft, the devil himself be damned, too.
It was not too long before Gerben Huraq was master of his own ship, and he let the ship’s name stand in its place.
Tom Sheehan, 93, has published 52 books; “Fables, Fairy Stories, Folk Lore and Fantasies,” and Poems off the Kitchen Table and Ruby’s File,” being two of the latest, from Taj Mahal Press. He has work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Literally Stories, Rope and Wire Western Magazine (over 800 pieces), among others. He served in Korea 1950-52 in the 31st Infantry Division before entering Boston College, class of 1956.