I awoke to a face sneering above me. At first, I thought it was a bad dream, but then his familiar, bad breath came to the forefront of my mind. I started up with a cry, tumbling out of my hammock. Hitting the floor, I crawled away. He grabbed me by the legs and pulled me toward him.
“Hahaha!” he laughed.
I rolled over to dodge a blow with my arms. He got down on all fours and inched closer to me.
“Leave me alone!” I cried.
He grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled me toward him.
“Ye have not yet been properly initiated yet,” he snarled.
“Get away from him!” shouted Phil.
Phil, being a bigger man, gave Izzy a swift high kick in the ribs.
“One of these days I’m gonna get ye!” shouted Izzy.
He got up and stumbled to his feet, rushing above deck before Phil could throw a punch at him. Shaking his head, he helped me up.
“Avoid meeting eyes with that one,” he warned.
I shuddered. “I didn’t have much choice. He was standing over me as I awoke.”
“Is there a problem, gentleman?” asked the Third Lieutenant, Mr. Pearson, with a glare.
“No, Sir,” Phil and I said in unison before scrambling up the ladder to go above deck.
The officer grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me backward.
“Stay down here, lad. We’re to do the station drill today.”
“We do the station drills every day?”
He nodded. “Twice per day. Morning and evening. Start practicing moving quickly from the magazine to the gun deck.”
I made my way to the magazine and then over to the gun deck. After the station drill, I got back to scrubbing the decks. I despised the sun for being so bright and cheerful that day after being subject to such a sour morning. I wondered why Phil hadn’t been forthcoming with the lieutenant.
“Grumpy one today, are ye?” asked Phil with a chuckle.
“I didn’t sleep much last night.”
I shrugged. There was no point dwelling on it.
The following weeks blended together as I scrubbed the decks, ate the same steamy slop at meal time, and slept fitfully in my rocking hammock. I longed for battle to come and break the monotony. Many of the sailors must have felt the same way. My daily work lacked meaning, and I could tell by the looks from Izzy that I was due for a nasty beating. Phil wouldn’t always be there to fight him off. Though we made small talk every so often, it did not erase the fact that I was an outsider.
One evening after supper, I hovered around the base of the ladder longing to go up and stare at the night sky.
“Hallo, Max,” called someone from above.
I gazed up at Smyth, who was staring down at me. “Hello, Sir.”
“Is something amiss?” he asked.
“I wish I could be outside.”
“Well, come along. I’m on first watch.”
I climbed up so fast that I stumbled over my feet once I reached the deck. I brushed myself off and met Smyth’s gaze.
“Thank you, Sir.”
He nodded, maintaining a serious expression.
“Do you miss home?” he asked.
Surprised at the question, I nodded. “A little bit, Sir. I miss my mother and my books.”
“You like to read?”
“Well, I can lend you one of my books if you like,” he said with a small smile.
My eyes stung and I was grateful for the darkness then. “That would be good, Sir.”
We stared up at the starry skies.
“What are your books about, Sir?” I asked.
He walked toward the railing and I followed him.
“Mostly about Lord Nelson. I think every midshipman wants to be the next Nelson,” he said with a chuckle.
“I’m keen to read any subject.”
Smyth pointed out at the twinkling horizon. “Look at that. I’ve been through two battles since boarding this ship, and it still amazes me how quickly situations can change out here. It can be magic one moment, hell the next.”
It comforted me to think that no matter where one was in the world, the sun, moon, and stars remained in the sky to guide him.
“Are you longing for battle, Sir?” I asked.
“I know nothing of the captain’s plans.”
“Nor should you, Pup,” said Smyth sharply. “I invited you up here to be kind, but never forget your place here.”
He sighed. “We have been in hot pursuit of a phantom French ship for the last several months. She appears and disappears like a magical being. The captain has some ideas of its whereabouts. I think we’ll catch our wily enemy soon.”
“I wonder how far we will sail to find it.”
“We will sail to the very end of the world if we have to. The captain won’t rest until we take that ship aprize. He won’t sink it.”
“What if there is no choice but to sink it?”
I stared at Smyth. It amazed me how grown men valued possessions more than human lives. It was both sinister and captivating.
“I wonder what the end of the world looks like,” I mused.
“Oh, the waters must be dark and the sea creatures hungry for sailor meat.”
He laughed; I was unsure why. I wondered if war itself was a sort of monster hungry for the blood of men. It never seemed to be satiated.