Title: Comfort Me With Turtles
Rating G (No marmots or turtles harmed)
Word Count 2180
Comfort Me With Turtles
It had been 15 days now.
The sea stretched flat, as far as far could be seen. It was empty of wind, of rain, of sail. Every day was the same. The heat climbed. And every evening, the sunset was the same. A sun with no pity, lunged for the infected red horizon.
Everyone looked at the slack sails. Everyone tried not to look as if they were looking. And Will had seen the captain whistling, staring innocently into the middle distance. That had been the day before they cut the water ration.
So here William was, Lt Bush, his watch. He tugged his hat down again. It did not stop the reflected glare from the water. Will's head hurt. His skin was gritty, or sticky, depending on where. God, his head hurt. He had the conviction, somehow, that he would feel better if he could just wash. Stupid. No time to be thinking about bathing. And there was no reason for the headache either. There was plenty of water to drink, plenty.
“...Pennant hanging down limp as my grandad's pri--”
Bush rounded on him.
“Stow that, Jenkins.”
Jenkins knuckled his forehead reflexively, and made himself scarce. It could not be permitted, of course not. Still, the man had a point. The paying-off pennant was supposed to be a source of pride, a happy thing. And it was rather dismal looking. Sad, floppy.
Four hours struggled by. Midshipman Marmot came to assume the watch. He was a rather colorless boy, usually. His hair could once have been called blond by the charitable. It had been sort of a wan gold when they left Portsmouth. Now it was more or less white. Marmot was too pale for a life at sea, Will thought. That skin would draw the wrong of attention, and besides it would never tan.
The captain had said, three days ago, that the boys could strip to their drawers for skylarking. It was so hot, after all. And besides, who was to see? So the little ones had played in the rigging, all that dog-watch. They had some stupid joke going, and they had got themselves laughing until they could not stop. They clung up there half naked, screeching like monkeys. Will supposed that it made the foolishness of boyhood more bearable. It made some of the older men smile. Will Bush, was 20 now, and fourth lieutenant. It did not make him smile. Anyway, little Marmot had become terribly sunburned. He had been ill all that night, puking and weeping. Now he looked freakish. His face was swollen and red, his eyebrows shockingly white in the peeling skin. He moved as if he had been flogged.
Still, he took the watch gamely enough. He even smiled at Lt. Bush. .The smile was entirely gruesome.
“Good-night, Sir.” Marmot's voice had not broken yet. He sounded like a girl.
“Good night, Mr. Marmot.” Bush said. He rested his hand a moment on Marmot's white head. Foolish, he had no idea why he had done that.
Will made his way down to his own space. It was empty, but for him. He stripped himself to his own drawers, and considered his hammock. It did not appeal. In the end he laid himself on the deck. He stared up at his hammock from underneath.
Now was the time to send his mind far from the ship, to let it roam where his body could not follow. It could not be done, at any other time. Inattention could kill-- but now it was all right. He loosed his cables, and let himself drift.
A memory came, worn with use. Once, when he had been a small boy, Will had had a wondrous day. It had snowed, really snowed. It had snowed until the whole world was lumps of white. You could not even see the black grass poking through. And he and his sisters had been at home, and his mother too, and she had wrapped them up in warm things, and mittens, and herself too.
She had put her work aside, for a while, and gone out with them into the strange world of snow. They had all tipped their heads back, and put their tongues out, spun in circles, dizzy, laughing. The snow had clung to his lips, his face. And his mother, was suddenly new in his eyes, lithe, pink faced. His mother, was actually a girl. She cast herself down on her back, as he was now, arms and legs stretched out, and she had showed them how to make an angel in the snow.
He thought of the long ago snow. He tried to hold it, in his thoughts, remember. It had been so cool, so wet. He thought about it has hard as he could. He took it with him, to dreams.
He woke in the dark, feeling the change before he knew it. He was ready to jump, to fight. Something -- Half asleep, Will shook off dreams of snow. Rocking, the Mallard was rocking. And he could hear the blessed sound of water moving beneath her, against her, as it had not for immobile days. He pulled on his trousers in the passageway, stumbling only a little, as he ran.
Most of the ships company was on deck. All had awakened the same way. Men in the tops, men on the deck. The air smelled deliciously new.
Will pushed his way forward. Wind, kind wind, pushed his shirt back against his skin. He opened his mouth, just a little, to let the cool air in.
“It's the Benguela.” Marmot marveled. He stood beside Will, glowing unnaturally in the dark. “Captain says we've come into the Benguela current. We'll move now.”
The sails filled gently. They moved. William Bush went to his hammock and slept. He smiled, as he slept, and did not know it.
They saw the sail just before noon. It resolved out of the clouds, golden and silent and far. They were moving now, toward her. Their sails were rounded, not straining, but perfect and full as a woman's belly. And this was the longed for, blessed wind. It was a puppy of a wind, tweaking William's coat-tails, and ruffling his hair.
“We've got the weather gauge on 'em.” The captain put his glass down. “We'll see how they like that.”
But the ship came closer, and, looking again, the Captain let out a long breath. “One of ours,” He said.
It was trim ship, Bush saw. She was not large, but tidy and a little old fashioned, somehow. She swam sweetly, and William Bush smiled again to see it.
“I think I can make out her name, Sir.” Marmot said. “She's the... S—starts with 'S....' The, umm, 'Surprise.' Yes. I'm sure, Sir, Surprise.”
“Is she, by God?” A broad grin unfurled over the old man's face.
“Get me my shouting trumpet! Hurry boy!” He made a sort of shooing gesture at Marmot, as one does with a recalcitrant goose.
The old man waited with little patience, as the ships closed on each other. He lifted his trumpet as soon as he was able. He made a prodigious great noise with it too.
“Ahoy, Surprise! Mallard here.”
And now the other ship was clear enough for William to see a blue gold man on the other Quarterdeck, waving great sweeps with his arm.
And looking down, startled, Will could see that something strange had come over little Mr Marmot. The Captains were deep in bellowed exchange, Marmot ought to be attending, he ought to be learning something. He certainly ought not to have both hands wedged in his own mouth and both feet jigging as if he had to piss. Will stepped forward and gave the boy a menacing frown.
“Oh, Sir,” Marmot squeaked, “My uncle, I think my uncle---”
But the old men were ahead by sea miles. Before much longer, the were close alongside, and the uncle had come across. He was a young man, perhaps Bush's own age. But impossibly far above 4th Lt Bush. This man was the number two of Surprise.
But he stepped up to shake Will's hand. His face was distorted by a scar, pink and recent, but he had a very good smile.
“Mr Marmot here, why don't you show Mr Pullings our ship? Do bring him back for dinner though.”
William watched as Maromot scampered away, with Pullings after him.
The Captain looked up at the sky. Will looked too, and shivered. The light had changed.
“I think it is going to---” And the rain came.
It did not start with hesitation. It did not come demure. It was simply suddenly cold, and very very wet.
The water poured over the deck It streamed over their feet, It soaked their hair, and splashed and lumped on the deck. It flowed away into the sea where it was able. In instants, it had soaked every part of Will. He might have as well have jumped in the sea. It was rinsing the salt from his face and hair, he could taste it now, on his lip.
William Bush cursed himself. Should have seen it coming. He should have had barrels with canvas rigged, ready to collect the water. He should have been all poised to take in sail. The wind was backing, now, suddenly more wolf than pup. He stepped forward, bawling loud as a trumpet himself. The people moved, shimmering spirits in the gleaming shifting rain, briskly, away aloft.
They watched as the Surprise stood off. Mr Pullings was stranded, for now.
As he looked aft, he could see Mr Pullings and Midshipman Marmot. The boy was saying something, moving his mouth, and waving his hands. Pullings was nodding, then laughing.
They came forward, soaked, squelching, still laughing. Pulling stopped before the captain.
“Sir, Captain Aubrey has asked me to inquire, are you entirely complete with turtles, with breadfruit? We are just come from Otaheite.”
“Very kind, Mr Pullings, very kind,” The captain replied. “I will consider it. Mr Bush, you and Mr Pullings are of a size, perhaps you can find him something dry. Then come you both to my cabin to dine. Oh-- and bring Mr Marmot too.”
“Will felt a drop in his gut. His clothing was-- it was surely not suitable. Mr Pullings looked very fine, even soaked as he was. But the captain could not be ought but obeyed. He led Mr Pullings below.
Pullings wiped his feet before entering the little room. He smiled his scarred smile and pulled his shirt off over his head. He wrung it over the wash-basin and stepped aside to let Will do the same. He took the rough towel dried his upper-works briefly.
Bush busied himself removing his own clothing. New drawers, trousers, shirt, and his other waistcoat, He would give Pullings a shirt and trousers. It would have to do.
Pullings dropped his trousers and drawers with a decisive soggy splat. His body was fair and strong . It was unscarred, at least from the front. But as he turned to take the dry things, Will goggled in amazement. Pullings had-- he must have--
Before Will could think to say, or not say, a knock came at the door.
“Come.” He barked it in the severe tone of one who had absolutely not been goggling at another man's arse.
Mr Marmot began speaking as soon as the door opened. Bush pulled him in, and shut the door. Now there was hardly room to stand.
“Captain says, thankee, and we will take a turtle or two if you can spare-- Oh! Uncle Thomas, what have you done to your bum?”
Pullings still naked, burst into happy laughter. He craned his head over his shoulder, to have a look at himself. And now William could look openly too. Pullings was pale, this was a part of him that rarely saw sun, of course. But the skin on his backside was covered with-- well. Bush supposed it was art. He had not seen much art, so he was not very sure. It began at the bottom near the crease of Tom Pullings legs. It began with severe lines, enclosing triangles, squares. The marks were repeated, over and over, shapes inside lines, It would have been dull and severe, but the artist had done more. As the markings approached the lower back, they became looser, less rigid, became free. Some of the shapes seemed to break for his short ribs, struggle toward the upper body, and fall back again. There was a story, in the markings, of struggle and trial. It was the strangest thing.. It was like watching geometry try to fly.
“Got it done in Otahiti.” Pullings said. “Don't tell your mother.”