Word Count 920
HMS Hamadryad, at sea
Tracing one warm line
“Nothing wrong with the number-work, but it will have to be recopied. It is not legible, blots here... and is this blood?”
The older man pointed to a particularly egregious smudge.
“Aye Sir,” the boys head ducked as he said it, but blue-green eyes held steady. Good eyes, the sailing master thought. They were set narrow as if ready to squint into wind or sun, they were steady and intelligent, not unkind. The boy was new, there was still time for him to die by fever or shot, by madness, flux, pox, or common stupidity. Time would tell.
The older man shifted a little, it was warm where he sat on the deck, legs folded like the boy across from him, like the boy he himself had once been. Here in the tropics the deck soaked in the sun. The wood was warm beneath him. It soothed the pain in his hips, pain like cold that had somehow soaked in years ago and never left him now.
“Let me see your hands.' They were placed in his own, trusting and heavy, curled facing up. “Well that explains the blood.”
“I had some callous started, I thought I did-- but it ripped off...”
They were boys hands still, tan on the backs, but essentially unchanged from the schoolroom. The years would broaden and scar them, singe them, stain them and teach them and temper them. Navy hands were all alike. The hands clasped behind an officers blue coat were not soft ones.
“Well, your palms will grow tougher still, with time. In the meantime I have a salve. “
The sailing master reached into his coat pocket and drew forth a small jar with a cork top.
“You may wish to apply some to your backside as well.”
“You heard about that, Sir.” the boy's tone was resigned.
“The whole ship heard, my lad. It is nothing new you know-- I made every mistake there was, when I began. I started on the Hotspur under Captain Hornblower. Back in the old days they were harder than now, and his first was a man named Bush. He was a maniac for gun drill, hours a day, Jesus, I was scared of him-- he said I wasn't fit to pick oakum. Said I'd never make a sailor. And saw to it that I was beaten like a rug. Yes indeed. Now, all these years on-- here I am. Sailing master, me.
“You have a good grasp of the numbers, the rest will come.” The boy nodded, shifted his own legs against the heated wood of the deck. The sun was strong on them both, here was a black and white world, deck sanded white, and the deep black shadows of the standing rigging. The boy sighed, leaning back on his hands. His shoulders lifted, slumped again.
“Look there.” There out beyond his pointing finger, a ray, big as a bedstead, gleaming in the dappled water, pacing the ship.
“Some call him a devil's fish, but he does no harm.” the sailing master said.
“I never thought to see such a thing,” the boy said. “I have been trying in my letters home to tell them about the way it is here, not just warmer, you know, but how the stars are, and the water, and the new fish. It is so different from Banbridge.”
“Keep trying. Write it all down, clearly as you can.”
You will have much to describe when we reach port-- you shall go ashore. Palm trees, mango juice, fresh meat, clean linen, girls... Well, maybe don't put the last two in your letters home. And maybe you are too young for girls?”
“No Sir! That is to say, I-- I have sisters.”
“Aye, well. Sisters are a blessing. How many are you blessed with?”
“I imagine you find the gun-room serene.”
That fetched a smile at least. And it was a good smile too.
“Aye Sir. I used to wish that I could go somewhere silent, like an iceberg-- I had read of them. I thought maybe I would be sent to see one someday. Have you ever--”
“Oh indeed, I have seen an iceberg. They are not always entirely quiet, they make a sort of creaking noise sometimes.”
“Still, more peaceful than a house full of sisters.”
The sun moved into cloud then, cast them both in shadow. Some frisk of wind came with the cloud. The boy tipped his head back to check the sails, later he would not even know he had done it. Good boy. And for some reason the thought was like in icy hand. The sailing master shivered.
“Well. That will do for now. Go below, and copy out your workings.”
And it was night, or almost. The sun was a fingernail sliver on the flat horizon now. Another moment it would be gone-- and then the soft tropical darkness, the long summer night. The sailors would sleep on deck, for preference. The boy would sleep easy as a cat in his hammock below. He would grow in his sleep, and wake up hungry. The sailing master would like in his cot and sweat. He would sleep, some.
“Goodnight Mr Crozier. I imagine you will see your ice-berg someday.”
And of course, Crozier did. He went and he did, and he saw so the bottom of the earth and the top, and the sides too. He became an expert on magnets. There are rivers and ravines and wild places all over the world named for him. His name was given to a crater on the moon.
Both ships have been found now. But we will never find him. There have been some bones found, scattered and degraded by time. But these are not the men that were.
The Title is from the Stan Rodgers song-- Northwest Passage. I can't listen too often. It makes me cry.