A Hand for Each

5224645741_5c851ea6cd_bThe monsoon season had blown in a week earlier than forecast, and we sailed out of Madras into the wind. Our sloop-of-war, the HMS Fortitude, sped along at the head of a convoy, chartered to protect India Company ships bound for England. Since the war in the Americas ended, the navy had found few other assignments for us–and little chance for glory.

After five long years of herding freighters about the Indian peninsula, we had finally been given orders to return home. How I longed to see England again. My family wrote to me but their letters often went astray, likely arriving in a port we had just left. I knew that I missed many of them.

Our patrol route sent us running far ahead of the other ships. In the monsoon season, we usually endured interminable rains and winds fit to drive us onto our side, but in the waters just beyond Ceylon, heading out toward Madagascar, we hit a calm. A thick fog settled about the ship. Her sails hung slack, damp running in rivulets down the sheets. We remained there for hours as the sun set, trapped within our shroud of mist.

The calm worried Captain Melstone. He stayed pacing the quarterdeck, waiting for the convoy to come within sight. His spaniel began barking, a hysterical sound over the quiet of the ship. My skin prickled, my nerves rattled by the persistent gloom.

Edgy from the stillness, the men whispered that they saw movement in the fog. They flooded to the rail to gaze down into the water. The captain called for calm, and the men returned to their posts. One of the midshipmen carried the dog below decks, its panicked bark barely muffled.

That was when I saw the first spear. Arching over the starboard guns, it came from directly below the cannons and caught Lieutenant Hughes in the thigh.

Chaos ensued on the deck as men poured over our rails. Natives in longboats had crept close under the cover of fog. I had no time for fear; they came on us so fast. Captain Melstone called the marines onto the spar deck, and the men began releasing the cannons from their confinement in preparation to fire, but to no effect. The natives had already sailed in under our guns.

They were islanders, I thought with a dull sense of surprise, far outside their usual trade lanes. I had only a moment to wonder at it, though, for then they were upon the quarterdeck. I recall shooting and reloading again and again.

“Lieutenant Davies!” the captain cried out in warning.

I jerked about and saw an islander running toward me, the butt end of a spear spinning toward my face. I frantically tried to reload, but could not–not in time.

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I dreamed of screaming. I came to, pinned on the deck in darkness and sheeting rain, the ship rolling under heavy seas. I could only see heavenward, rain splattering to occlude my vision, so I could not tell what had befallen my shipmates. I heard not a single voice calling for action on the deck.

I could scarcely breathe for the weight on my chest. Cooky’s body had been my saving grace, for though in death he pinned me to that spot, his blubber had shielded me from the eyes of the islanders. The smell of his emptied bowels sickened me and I strove to push his body off me. I waited until a swell pitched the ship to larboard and used that momentum to aid my efforts.

The body rolled, reminding me of a walrus I had seen once off the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I struggled out from under the man and drew myself to my feet, completely unprepared for the sight that greeted me.

I had heard nothing from the others because they were all dead. Men lay on the heaving deck, across the guns, caught in the railing. One had been trapped in the rigging, faint pinkish streaks of blood marking the sail. I stood there on the deck in the hard rain–trembling, my mind unable to grasp the carnage before me.

The anchor line had been cut. The wheel seemed fixed, as if either tiller or rudder had failed. At full sail, the Fortitude plunged on into the storm and, with the skies veiled, I had no idea of our heading.

The storm threw the ship about and I feared being washed overboard. I dared not try lowering the sails. The damage caused by a falling sail might snap the mast, or the sail falling into the sea might drag us over. Having few other options, I tied myself to the quarterdeck railing in the likely futile hope that the Fortitude would carry on in the face of the storm. As it was, I felt fortunate she’d not lain down in the sea, taking me to the bottom with her, and somehow, I slept.

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When dawn arrived, the skies had cleared, a brilliant day with the sun sparkling off the waters. I untied myself. The ship carried me southeasterly before the gentle winds. The storm had turned her all about. Our course had been southwesterly, headed around the Cape of Good Hope and on toward home. Not in sight of any land, I had no way to determine our location.

My face hurt, I realized for the first time. That blow to my head might have fractured my skull for all I knew. The ropes had rubbed my belly raw, an aching expanse of bruised and reddened skin beneath my torn blue jacket and waistcoat. My pantaloons no longer showed the pristine white of His Majesty’s Navy, but a tired red–stained with a mix of blood and offal.

For a moment I considered going below decks and changing into a fresh uniform, thinking that Captain Melstone would be in a fury should he see any of the officers in such a state. Suddenly, the ridiculous nature of the thought struck me, and I laughed. Hysteria, I knew, would only lead to death, but it gripped me all the same, and I sank to the deck, racked with terrified sobs. I do not know how long I laid there, prostrate with fear and horror.

But I was never one to quit when faced with adversity, and I finally managed to pull myself together. I buttoned my torn waistcoat and jacket best as I could, and attempted to assess the situation. I had no way to judge the ship’s location, so after a moment’s furious thought I set myself to the task I considered most urgent. I searched the ship, thinking there might be others still alive.

The Fortitude had carried sixty-nine men and seven officers. I began with the main deck, finding six men dead there. I believed I had seen more bodies before the storm but guessed they had been washed overboard. Most of the dead had been killed by spear or blade, although I noted that one seaman had taken a musket ball to the forehead. I wondered if a long-lived feud with one his mess-mates had taken a nasty turn during the battle, murder being done under the guise of warfare.

I searched the captain’s cabin, but found no sign of that gentleman. I expected that Captain Melstone would have stayed on the quarterdeck to the very last. I did find his spaniel, though, the first of the bodies to truly chill my soul. The poor beast had been speared to the cabin wall, its blood running down to stain the sheets of the captain’s bunk.

Sickened, I moved below to the gun deck. Water had flooded in through the gunport sills. Not enough to founder the ship, but enough to cause concern.

I walked along the bloodied deck, finding two of the other lieutenants there. One had been crushed by a gun come loose from its moorings, the other killed by a spear thrust. Lieutenant Martin and I had been midshipmen together aboard the Dart. I said a prayer over his body, feeling guilty that I had not been down on the gun deck with my fellows.

I found twelve of the seamen there. Three of the powder monkeys were dead as well, boys of only eight and nine. Swords or some other bladed weapon had done for most of them. I picked my way through, shocked by the carnage. None cried for aid or for the surgeon, that time already long past while I lay unconscious. Perhaps my dreams had not been dreams at all, I thought.

I worked my way through quarters, the officers’ first, where Midshipman Lewis lay dead in his bunk. The marines’ quarters were empty, but I found three of the seamen in their aft quarters. The quartermaster I located in the magazine, killed at his duty station.

Strangely, I found none of the natives dead. They must have taken their injured away with them, along with whatever they’d stolen. I checked the stores in the hold, but the islanders had not looted them. Two kegs of water remained sealed, and several barrels of rum. I prayed they were not spoiled. We had taken on supplies in Madras, so there was food to be had, provided it was not all ruined by the bilge.

Shaken and worn, I returned to the deck. The Fortitude moved along at a goodly clip, the sails billowing in the breeze. I saw nothing of land or of our convoy. I would not be able to get any bearing at all until night fell. I believed we still sailed easterly and south.

By the intervention of Fate, I had become the Fortitude‘s captain. I must, I determined, do my best to bring her back to a friendly port.

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Our boats were gone, one of the few things I noted that the islanders had taken away with them. Not until I saw an albatross perched on the cathead did I think of my gun, wondering how I might obtain fresh meat. I realized then that it was missing. They were all gone, every last musket and pistol. I hadn’t seen a single one while searching the ship. Nor any knives or swords, I recalled with disgust. The Fortitude had her cannons still, but they were little use to me.

One of the larboard guns had spilled over the side in the storm, taking a section of the spar deck railing with it. I rolled Cooky’s body over the edge there, letting the sea take him. Cooky was the last, the largest and hardest to move. Fearing pestilence, I gave them all to the sea, those not taken by the storm, twenty-eight of Fortitude‘s contingent of seventy-six souls, even the spaniel. Sharks followed the vessel, seeking an easy feast.

I secured the cannons as best I could. One man alone cannot control those beasts, nor could I hold off any invasion, so I did what I could to keep them from inflicting further damage to the ship. The rains had washed the top deck and the quarterdeck clean, so I set out to clean the reeking bilge from the gun deck and quarters below. I found some bully beef in the galley and ate, feeling hungry for the first time.

When evening approached I went to my quarters and undressed to assess my injuries. The raw skin of my stomach and blistered hands I couldn’t help. My shaving mirror showed me a bruised face, one eye reddened where the blood had welled up about the iris. I shaved and dressed in a clean uniform, feeling oddly as if all was right with the world for doing so. I knew that to be untrue, but I felt it all the same.

I returned to the quarterdeck and watched the Fortitude‘s sails. I dared not attempt to lower them alone, and the disproportionate weight of the guns on the spar deck unbalanced us already, causing the ship to list a bit to starboard. I found a chart of the Sea of Bengal in the captain’s office; I reasoned that I must have been blown back there. After taking my bearings by the stars, my calculations told me I had gone even farther east, but I confess, navigational skills were never my strong suit, and before long, clouds scudded, hiding the stars and the full moon.

Days and days passed in this manner, and my calculations hinted that we sailed past Java and would soon be heading through the islands of the East Indies. I reckoned that should I spot land I would have a difficult decision to make–whether to stay with the ship or to strike out for an unknown shore. Without boats, I must swim. Sharks still followed us, a fact I duly considered in my decision.

After studying the charts, I knew that I must be nearing the northern coast of Australia. I couldn’t move the ship’s wheel, so I cut the wheel-cables, thinking to shift the tiller manually and make south for Sydney. It made no difference, however, for I could not move that either. The rudder remained fixed. It seemed as if the Fortitude had chosen her course. I cursed the ship then, and I wept, the fear that had ridden me for days seemingly unleashed.

I might call myself her captain, but I knew that unless I was willing to brave swimming for some distant shore, I was also her captive.

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 The sails bellowed out under fair skies, the breeze a relief from the oppressive summer heat. It was only one of many days like that. I watched from the quarterdeck or the rigging, searching the horizon for signs of life in the distance. I would try to shift the tiller, or move the wheel, futile since I’d sawn through the cables. They remained frozen, day after day.

I did my best to fit out the ship. I made a makeshift repair to the smashed railing on the spar deck. I checked the ropes religiously. The main topsail had a rent in it and I climbed up to sew it closed. I eventually moved into the captain’s berth, replacing the stained mattress with one from the officers’ quarters. Captain Melstone would have approved.

I heard his voice at times, calling me to this or that duty or reminding me of chores left undone. Part of me knew I should not hear him, but his words always assured me of the order in life. I clung to that reassurance.

I created in my mind a strange fantasy about sailing into Sydney, where I would be hailed as a hero and given the Fortitude‘s captaincy outright. Foolishness, but I had little else to occupy my hours. At times, I believed that the spaniel puttered about the quarterdeck with me. I talked to it when I grew lonely.

Once, I saw land in the far distance to the north. Afraid that it might be a hallucination, I couldn’t make myself leave the Fortitude. There were sharks in the water again, but I didn’t know if they were real or not. The dog would poke its golden head through the railings and bark down at them, the same panicky bark I remember hearing on that last day.

I spoke with Captain Melstone at times, who had little sound advice for such a bizarre situation. He shook his grayed head and clucked his tongue, amazed at the foolishness young lieutenants got up to. “Mr. Davies,” he told me, “you have torn it properly, haven’t you. You can’t even get our girl into port, now can you?”

He spoke no more than the truth. A ship the Fortitude‘s size could not be run by one man alone. I needed a crew to man her should I ever think of getting her docked. I considered that, thinking perhaps I could come alongside some other ship and take on men. That would allow me to better control her.

I suspected the truth, though, somewhere in my mind. I had no control over whatever bore the Fortitude so steadily eastward. Something in the islands drew us along against all nature, and I began to fear that unknown power.

We had sailed the Indies together for the last five years, the Fortitude and I, and had seen many inexplicable things in these uncivilized seas. She alone stood between me and the water, so I had to preserve her. She became my obsession, day after day, trapped in that relentless heat. I walked the decks, checking the sails, the guns, the stores. I lay on my bunk at night, wondering where my Fortitude meant to take us.

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I don’t know how many days passed with us running ahead of the steady wind, but it was many. We should have encountered weather, but did not. We should have seen islands, for I knew there were hundreds in the East Indies, but we saw none. We should have seen other vessels in the water–fishing boats, islanders’ canoes–but I saw only whales, porpoises, and sharks.

Birds watched me at my rounds. At times gulls would circle the ship, screeching and scrabbling in the sails. I knew there must be land nearby, but I feared the ocean.

I left some chores to the crew. I detested scrubbing the sails, but the seaman failed to keep them clean, no matter how I railed at them. I no longer scrubbed the decks or the hammocks, either, my time being otherwise occupied.

We passed through the Coral Sea, I was sure of it. My calculations could not be that far off. The Fortitude passed New Hebrides and the Fiji Islands in the night.

I woke one morning to discover that our course had altered to a northeasterly one. Frantic, I checked the wheel with its cut cables and the tiller, but neither had shifted from their frozen positions. I studied the charts in the captain’s office.

We had sailed north of the Hervey Islands, one of James Cook’s discoveries in this part of the world. Not much lay between me and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. A few islands were known in that direction, most tiny and unexplored. My last, certain hope of land appeared to be the Sandwich Isles. Had Cook not met his death there? I worried. Captain Melstone told me that was so.

I hoped that the Fortitude would make land soon, but prepared for the worst. I had food, more than enough to carry me across the Pacific should it not spoil or be stolen. To be certain, I went down to the hold and checked the stores again. I left Midshipman Lewis stationed there to warn me should any of the seamen attempt to get into the rum. None did.

Like fish caught in a net being drawn in, we all waited as something drew us inexorably through the waters. We no longer had any choice.

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I do not know the date when I saw the man standing on the quarterdeck, more substantial than any of my seamen. I guessed him to be a native of the Sandwich Isles, judging by his dark skin and scant dress. He wore a tall headdress made of green leaves and driftwood and his round eyes seemed to almost glow. His hair hung down his back, nearly touching the wood of the deck, and the sun set behind him created a red blaze of light about his form.

He gazed at me for a moment and then spoke to me in one of the islander tongues, a fluid flow of nonsense. As I stared up at him from the spar deck, he repeated his words more loudly, anger in his tone. His voice carried like the wind, murmuring and reverberating in my ears, almost painful.

The spaniel came up next to me and cowered at my feet, as unnerved as I was. “I don’t understand you, sir,” I called up.

He pointed to his bare feet. He wanted me to come to him, that much I understood. I weighed my chances. He bore no weapons that I could see, and should I retreat, I would be surrendering the quarterdeck. Deciding that I must show the spirit of an Englishman, I mounted the steps. I stood an arm’s length from him, lifting my jaw in an attempt to stare him down.

He smelled of the sea. Rivulets of water ran down his skin, as if he’d climbed aboard my ship from the waves. Although from the deck below I had thought him round and ungainly as islanders sometimes were, this close I saw that his bulk was solid muscle. I might have a slight advantage in height, but he could likely best me in barehanded combat. He lifted his nose and glared at me, then let off a string of gibberish, his words confounding me just as they had before.

I considered calling up the marines to remove him from the deck but quailed, not certain that they could do so. I recognized an air of power about him, of command. “I cannot understand your speech,” I said slowly.

His dark eyes narrowed. Then he extended one hand, shoved it into my chest, and wrapped it around my heart.

I looked down and saw his arm ending in the white linen of my shirt. A dark stain spread about it. My heart’s blood, I realized. The man’s hand squeezed my heart, and I felt the tearing and wrenching of my innards. But somehow, as if my body were numbed by the icy waters of the deep ocean, I felt no pain.

My blood trickled down his arm, rivulets of red against his dark skin. I trembled, my feet no longer supporting me. The grip of his fingers within my body–that alone kept me upright.

He did not speak, but I heard him just the same: This boat is my tribute. Where are the dead my warriors sent to me?

Blood fell from my lips, spattering the deck. The spaniel growled at him, then flinched back at a single harsh word from the islander. I fought to make my mouth work, my voice coming out as no more than a rasping whisper. “W-what do you want of me?”

This boat belongs to me. This boat’s dead belong to me. I sent my warriors to claim it, to bring it here. The boat is here, but where are my dead?

Somehow, I still breathed, though I knew I should be dead. My heart beat like the fluttering of a frightened bird, clenched within that invading fist. I tried to grasp his arm, but my hands passed through it like water. My fingers came away stained with blood, as if I had plunged them into my own chest, and I gazed at them, aghast. My trembling increased, and my pulse pounded, blood rushing in my ears. Strange, I thought, that I should have any blood left at all.

With difficulty, I turned my eyes to the spar deck, where several of the marines stood staring up at us. “Help me!” I demanded.

They simply gazed up at me, faces unmoved by my plea. I saw Sergeant Morris there, with whom I’d played cards while on watch once, blood dyeing the white trim on his uniform the same red as his jacket. Lieutenant McQuillen stood at the back, the mark of a blade splitting his face. They didn’t come to my aid, seemingly frozen in place on the deck, their insubstantial faces washed red in the sunset.

Suddenly, I understood what the islander wanted. He wanted the bodies of the seamen and marines that I had long since fed to the sea. For what grim purpose, I had no earthly idea but I knew I had trespassed against him in disposing of the dead. “The sharks,” I whispered, terror robbing my voice. “The sharks took them.”

You will return them to me.

“I cannot,” I said.

Abruptly, he withdrew his hand from my chest, and I fell to the deck. The islander stood over me, my trapped heart beating within his hand. Red blood trickled down his forearm and dripped from his elbow. I watched the droplets hit the deck, slowed in their fall, and knew that everything had changed.

How I could live on without my heart, I did not know, but I still breathed. I touched a shaking hand to my chest. I found no gaping hole there as I’d expected, but neither did I sense a heartbeat. I was still free of pain, but now I found myself without fear as well.

The spaniel licked my face, its tongue warm and wet. I gripped the railing of the quarterdeck and forced myself up, rising to face my tormentor.

When you return my dead to me, you will have this back.

I glanced at it there in his hand, no more than a lump of quivering flesh. But it was mine, and I was incomplete without it. “Who are you?” I asked.

He spoke a single word in his islander tongue: “Kanaloa.” But in my mind, I heard: I am the sea.

I did not understand, but I no longer cared about the identity of he who enslaved me. I wished only to learn the terms of my service and be on my way. “How many?” I asked.

Thirty-three were lost. A hand for each.

There had not been that many on the ship when I threw the bodies overboard. “There were only twenty-eight.”

Thirty-three were lost. A hand for each.

“Some washed overboard in the storm,” I argued, “not my doing.”

He squeezed my heart in his hand. Searing pain shot through me, as if all that I’d not felt before redoubled back upon me now. I sank to my knees despite my determination not to react. The spaniel barked. “Thirty-three!” I gasped, “And a hand for each!”

He let go. After a moment, I regained my strength and stood. I refused to deal with this creature, heathen god or not, from my knees. “A hand for each one,” I agreed. “But I must have a crew.”

He stood at the railing, his arms raised as if beseeching the sea itself. Then his face turned to consider mine. Then you will have one.

One of the marines tossed the rope ladder over the side, and men began climbing up onto the ship. There were wiry Filipino sailors and long-haired Chinamen, men of the islands, barely clad, and aborigines from Australia and New Zealand, wearing even less than the islanders. Dead men, all, I could see that. Drowned, most of them were, not hacked and torn like my less-substantial marines. I didn’t know from whence they had come, nor did I care.

In our travels about the Indies, I had seen their likes before, and knew some were indeed competent sailors. Others I doubted. “I would prefer an English crew,” I said.

Bring me Englishmen, and you will have one.

He did not like my countrymen, I suddenly divined, and would willingly line the bottom of the ocean with their corpses. I should care about my countrymen, I reckoned, but I found I did not. No worries clouded my reason. “And you will give me back what is mine?”

You will have what is yours when I have what is mine.

Turning away from him, I wiped the blood from my chin and stared down at my ragtag crew in the falling darkness. “I am Captain Davies,” I told them. “When you speak to me you are to address me as Sir, or Captain.”

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 The wheel spun smoothly, its cables replaced that very night, and its anchor no longer dragged the ocean floor. The Fortitude came about and headed for the East Indies where we would be sure to encounter English ships.

The next morning, I rose to inspect the decks as usual, but on my desk I found a slip of paper sealed inside the wine bottle I’d emptied before sleeping. I drew it out and saw that it was written in my own hand. I couldn’t fathom why I had penned such a thing; I can only assume it stemmed from some lingering sense of duty.

Take heed, my countrymen, for I have come for English sailors. Should you catch a foul scent on the wind, flee, for I will have no mercy. And should I leave you alive, know that it would be better to throw yourself to the sharks than to share my doom.
–Captain Jonas Davies, HMS Fortitude.

I held the page in my hand a moment, considering it, then opened my lantern and set the letter alight. I shoved it inside and watched it curl into blackness, my absent heart indifferent to the fate of all men.

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