Title: Six Hours
Word Count 883
Day broke. William had intended to be useful.
As the last and least lieutenant, he had no right to food or sleep at such a time. But the skipper had arranged the watches himself. Lieutenants three four and five had been sent below.
“I do not wish to see your faces again for six hours.”
The ship could do no useful evolutions in such weather anyway. She could do nothing but run before the wind, beneath a scrap of sail. For the last two days there had been no routine. There was no gun practice. The deck was dirty with rain. There were no cook-fires. Even the coffee was cold. Men went aloft as little as possible. They did go, of course, Bush had watched them, barefoot, scrambling to take in sail. His own benumbed muscles had twitched in sympathy.
“Careful lads, go careful.”
This, from the captain, a bare whisper as he had squinted up into the rain. It made rain-water spout off of his hat, rather as it does from a cathedral gargoyle. But the old man had paid it no notice at all, he had just cupped his hands to his brow. Looked up. Wiliam looked up too. They both saw the top-man's dirty foot slip from the ratlines. The man had flailed, struggled, recovered. That had been yesterday. William had felt the rush of relief, like weakness, as the man had regained his balance. And an elbow away, he felt the skipper sag, and sigh. Death averted, task done, the man came down with a grin. Bush had said nothing. One did not speak of such things.
So now, The lamp swung as she veered. The wick smoked. ,He had his fork pinning his food down. She was before the wind, taking the troughs with a smack. All was well as it could be, it had been thirty hours now, since it had come on to blow
Just being out of the wind felt like heat melting him. He was aware now, of his wet feet, his lumpy stockings, and the cold snake of his hair down his back. Most of him seemed to be aching, chafed, shriveled with cold. He was thirsty, empty.
The angle went vertiginous, he felt the bow take air. He lifted his coffee cup. He let it move loose, he, the ship, the the sea and the coffee in the cup, moved together. The keel slapped water again. She groaned, she held. The coffee rose, as the world lowered. And William caught the coffee in his mouth.
The two across the table were scraping their plates now. They were as wet and tired as he was, and they had eaten with shark-like focus. But they were not ready for sleep. He knew them. Another moment and they would have the cigars out, and the cards. They would include him, if he stayed. William liked cigars, but he could not afford to return even such a small and foolish kindness. And he could not afford to gamble and-- inevitably-- loose. They thought him poor fun. Well, so what. They were right.
He unwound his feet from the table legs. He put his fork down. Walking easy, he left for his hammock. He had the little chamber to himself. Tiny and dark, but all his. William undressed quickly. Even the chill air was an improvement on his soaked clothing. He had two clean shirts left. He set the wet one to dry, and put on the (used but now dry,) shirt from the day before. He pulled a pair of dry drawers up his shivering legs. The bruise on his knee had moved from plum to pear. He prodded at it, winced.
In the hammock he lay on his back. He allowed his muscles to loosen and warm. His legs, arms, back. It hurt. Each one had a protest to make, it seemed. He panted until the hurting stopped.
He rolled to his side. His legs and arms were lean and strong. He was plated with muscle, calloused, tough.
But here alone soft and sleepy had primacy, His eyelids, thin as feathers, wanting to close, his lips, needing to yawn, his ticklish belly and the soft parts below, shielded behind his up-drawn knees.
The soft parts clamored. They insisted. He felt it seldom in his waking hours. It troubled him when he came to rest. It was one with the song of protest in his muscles-- a pain he expected now.
His mouth, his skin, ached with unspeakable need.
One might jest, over cigars, about shore-girls, (if one had money for cigars, let alone girls.) One might talk about easing an ache that way. But one did not admit to wanting those other things. Nobody paid for a caress. It would be laughable. Nobody talked of wanting a mouth smiling, wanting eyes knowing, wanting hands that knew the soft parts and warmed them.
These thoughts came to him in the moments on the edge of sleep. But how could you want what there were not words for? Just an ache-- somewhere you could not reach. William must be the only one so foolishly afflicted.
His hammock rocked. He had five good hours left. He slept.