The early morning’s pink skies did nothing to settle my racing heart as Ma walked me to the port. She grasped my hand as we neared the market. The salty breeze mingled with the stench of freshly caught fish. My stomach churned.
“You need to eat something,” she said.
A group of sailors talked and smoked by the docks. Their cuss words carried on the wind, assaulting my ears. They were the men I would serve with, if they accepted me.
“I’m not hungry, Ma.”
“You will be.”
She took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eyes. We were about the same height, for I had grown like a weed over the past summer. Her soft gaze comforted me somehow, even though it was possible I would never see it again.
“No matter how far you sail, even if it is to the end of the earth, I am with you.”
I wondered how that could be. Despite the harshness we endured over the last few years, she still believed in fairy tales.
“I’ll be back one day,” I promised.
She smiled bravely, but I worried how she would get on without me. It had only been the two of us for years. Her health was failing from the sparse meals that we ate.
A chilly breeze nearly blew her bonnet off; she steadied it with a trembling hand. The sight made me shiver.
“Concentrate on doing a good job for the captain,” she said sternly. “Do everything he says.”
Her voice cracked on the last two words and then she hugged me. I rested my head on her bony shoulder.
“I will, Ma.”
“That’s my boy.”
We walked up to the sailors and the stench of smoke intensified. Noticing our approach, they turned and gazed at Ma before staring at me. One of them stepped forward with a sly grin.
“Bonny day for a stroll, Ma’am,” he said, removing his hat.
She gave the Irishman a curt nod. She was not fond of anyone who wasn’t full-blooded British. I never understood the prejudice, but it had a humorous tone to it in the current situation. Her interaction with the sailor made the other men laugh.
Mama raised her chin.
“This is my son, Max. He is seeking work on your ship.”
“That was easy,” scoffed one of the men in the group.
“What do you mean?” she asked sharply.
“He ain’t mean anything ill toward ye. Finding boys to train as sailors isn’t always a pleasant affair.”
The sailor shrugged.
“We’re always in need of powder monkeys, so thank ye.”
“What did you call my son?”
“It’s alright, Mama,” I interjected.
“Name’s Phil. I’ll look out for him.”
“Thank you,” she breathed. “See to it that he makes it safely aboard the ship.”
She wrapped her thin arms around me; I wished that there was some way to make time freeze before she let me go. Her arms dropped to her sides and then she rushed away. The sun highlighted the red strands of her hair before she disappeared into the crowds. Time won and tore us apart.
I swallowed hard and looked up at the men.
“Ha! Looks like no kidnapping any squeakers today,” said a rakish sailor close to Phil. “This one was placed right into our laps.”
“She tossed ye into the lions’ den, Pup,” said Phil, shaking his head. “Come along.”
I averted my eyes from the louts, suppressing a cough as the smoke from their pipes reached into my lungs. Instead, I cast a gaze upon the glistening sea as the sun rose high in the blue sky. Despite the fair day, my inner landscape was dark like a November storm.
I followed them to a paddleboat.
“You’ll get used to the smoke in due time,” said Phil with a grin.
“Or maybe you’ll die,” scoffed the other sailor from earlier.
“Leave him be, Izzy.”
Izzy picked me up and tossed me into the middle of the boat. I smacked the side of my head on the wood.
“Ugh!” I cried, rubbing the fresh bruise.
“Get used to it,” snarled Izzy.
“Just sit still, lad,” warned Phil.
They all chuckled as they positioned themselves inside of the boat. My dread mounted as they began to row the vessel against the rolling waves. I cast a gaze upon the shore and watched my old life vanish before my eyes. I imagined Ma standing somewhere on the shoreline, watching me. I gritted my teeth and choked down a sob. If I cried, they’d beat me for sure.
The war ship stood tall and stately like a royal. Her sails waved proudly in the strong winds. She was like a siren, luring me away from all that was familiar and safe.
If you’d like to read more of Max’s epic story, check out The Pup & The Pianist on Amazon in print or e-book! It’s currently for free on Kindle until January 23!