Below decks, after a hard day of braving both chilling winds and a violently swaying ship, I huddled in my blanket close to Phil and his friends. They drank, smoked, and told lively stories of their youth. I listened intently and wondered how such scared boys could grow up into the brave men that they were. I hoped that I would become like them one day.
An older seaman, Don, leaned forward with a hard look on his face. I thought that I could see fire burning within the flecks of his hazel eyes.
“I fought pirates once. One in particular comes to mind.”
“Psh,” muttered Sandy, a middle-aged sailor sitting next to Phil.
Everyone took a sip of grog, ignoring Don.
“Listen here, this is one I ne’er told ya before!”
“Go on,” grumbled Phil. “What’s so special about the bloody pirate?”
“He wasn’t what you’d think of when imagining a pirate. He was small, like a little rat, not much older than Pup here,” he said, eyeing me.
They all laughed as Phil playfully lifted me up by the collar of my shirt. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me, but I struggled in my uncomfortable position.
“We’ll make this wee one into a dog yet, aye?” he shouted.
“Aye!” they roared.
He put me down and I straightened out my shirt, mildly annoyed as I tried to listen to the old man finish his pirate tale.
“What war was this?” asked Phil. “Or can ye recall?”
Don glared at him. “It was during the American Revolution.”
A few of them groaned.
“Hold on, bastards. Let me finish!” shouted Don, rising from his seat. “I was aboard a merchant ship in British waters, I was, but the Americans were so angry at Britain for blockading their merchant ships that some of ’em became privateers. One of ’em gunned down our ship and they killed our captain in the process. He was a fair young man, and my friend. I took it hard. Still do. I went down with the ship, but it was the drive to seek vengeance on our attackers that kept me alive in those chilling waters. My rage kept me warm and afloat.”
“Damn American pirates,” spat Sandy.
“Bleak,” muttered Phil.
“I was rescued by another British merchant ship and was brought aboard half-dead. When I came to, I came face to face with the same Americans who murdered my own ship. They had plans to escort the vessel to France for prize money. Discovering my nationality, they put me below deck with the others.”
Everyone leaned forward, including me.
“We prisoners schemed amongst ourselves to overpower the Americans, and before landing in France, we attacked them.”
“Attacked them with what?” I asked.
His eyes widened as he stared at me. “We took them down with our bare hands when they weren’t lookin’.”
“Lies,” muttered Sandy.
Don stomped his foot.
“He knows how to tell a good story,” laughed the cook as he walked by carrying the empty pot of stew back to the kitchen.
“Please, tell us more,” I urged. “I think I believe you.”
“How did you overpower them with your bare hands?” asked Phil with a smirk.
“How do you think? We all pretended to be ill from the shit that they fed us. We jumped them when they least expected it and stole their weapons. We took back the ship.”
“I’ll bet those so-called pirates were mostly farmers with little to no sailing experience,” said Sandy.
“Aye. Those poor ol’ boys bit off more than they could chew,” agreed Phil.
“What happened after you overtook them, Don?” I asked.
“We tied up the ones who were still alive and followed that American ship until we got real close. Those above deck changed into the privateers’ clothing to disguise themselves. We brought our HMS Gale alongside it, and as soon as the captain stepped aboard to assess his prisoners, he was sprung.”
Everyone nodded as though paying their respects. A couple of boys younger than I, the other powder monkeys, ran past us, playing pirates, ironically. I hadn’t had much chance to talk to them; they didn’t seem to pay me much mind. I was younger than almost everyone there, but too old to be real friends with them.
“Well, don’t stop now, old man,” grated Sandy.
“Once we had the captain in our hands,” Don continued, “we leaped onto the other ship and started a small war. That was when I laid eyes on the wee pirate I mentioned afore.”
Don looked at me again, nearly smiling, before staring back at his hands. “They were losing badly. He knew it. I could see that in his eyes, but I also saw something else. He charged me with a look on his face I had never seen before. It wasn’t just hate, or grief, it was something else. It haunts me to this day.”
“Why?” I asked, feeling a chill rush down my arms.
“He fought me with the strength of a full-grown man and with the foolishness of a boy. He darted about like a rabbit about the ship’s deck, disappearing and reappearing. I was just a young man myself then, but by the time I caught him, I was well worn out.”
“Did ye kill the wee devil?” asked Phil.
“Shut up an’ let him talk,” growled Sandy.
Don’s eerie expression drew us all in. “I had him in my grasp. I held the knife to his throat and he started to laugh like a small child, he did.”
“People do peculiar things in the face of death,” said Izzy.
It was only then that I realized how close the uncouth sailor was to us. He stood just behind me, leaning against a beam. I shuddered and decided to pretend he wasn’t there.
“Aye,” said Don. “His laughing grew louder. The fighting around me stopped. All his mates were dead or wounded, and he kept laughing. We sailors are a suspicious lot, but I’ve always been strongly so. I thought he was possessed.”
“Good God,” said Phil.
“Did you make the laughing stop?” asked Izzy.
Don frowned, shaking his head. “I couldn’t slit his throat. I wanted to throw the demon overboard, so I did.”
The room fell silent. The entire crew was listening. Even the midshipmen who sat in the far corner stopped what they were doing to hear the tale. The scene of a young Don fighting the odd pirate boy played out in my mind like a stage show.
“Well, that was odd,” said Sandy, standing up to stretch.
“Aye,” said Don, taking a final swig of his ale.
I felt Phil looking at me, so I met his gaze.
“You’ll see a great deal of strange things at sea, lad.”
I nodded, suppressing a shudder.
“Do you think we’ll come across any pirates?” I asked.
“Let’s hope not for your first few voyages.”
Sometimes the thought of wars and battles seemed like wishful thinking and that the rest of my life would be the same cleaning routine from the day before. I’d scrub wood and metal until the day that I died. Finding my hammock, I curled up and the ship’s creaking lulled me to sleep. I dreamed about laughing pirate boys and dark sea creatures waiting to feed on them.