There was a knock, and then he opened the thick wooden door, peered in at me under his dark brows, took one step into my cramped quarters–that was all it took to reach me–and handed me what looked like a poem, or at least something in verse, certain key words that arrived all at once, perhaps a codicil in matters of love or war, or what the ship may or may not do.
I squinted, trying to focus. The first thing I thought, it was an epitaph, to be read over my own chained canvas coffin. All manner of things ran through my mind. A toasting song for the ship’s crew, which I should correct. In short, I did not know what thing it was, at the time. I only looked up out from the moving circle of my whale oil light on my small desk, reached out, blankly, and took the writing from his big hand into my smaller, smoother, ever so slightly trembling hand.
“Translate it into German, if you please,” he said, as he bored me with his eyes, withholding his Sir! then shut the door and was gone.
Why would the Mate ask such a thing? And in such a manner? I did not know, for weren’t we westering along the Gulf Stream, like an evening star ourselves, bound for Jamaica, Dominica, and Cuba–all places where I knew we were as unlikely to come upon Germans as we were upon Orientals and other Infidels on the Great Saint Lawrence to the north?
The Rebecca, an eight-gun, eighty-ton frigate, ploughed through the dark sea, with the wind steady over her starboard beam, so that we rose and fell in a comfortable dependable rhythm–the kind that lets a man sleep, or think unfettered thoughts under a swinging lamp, and wander in his mind and think of his childhood and home, and remember a woman who smiles at him, hands him a cup of water from the spring and indicates, Linger for a while by me, for the day is hot.
The words formed a poem, in brown ink, and they trembled–for several reasons–as I read them:
Born too soon,
Too soon the grave.
See how life passes by!
I would give everything
for this moment,
that you choose me–
with your smile,
and I could hold you
for all eternity
I rendered it, though it was not my tongue–I did my best:
Früh geboren, husch ins Grab,
Was meint ihr,
wie das Leben fließt vorbei!
Und was ich alles geben würde
für diesen Moment,
wo Du mich wählst,
mich lächelst an,
und ich Dich halte–
Von jetzt hinan.
I had no sooner rolled the blotter, than there was a knock, and the Mate was back, this time with a pistol, fixing me with conspiratorial intensity, the hint of menace. I nodded, rolled the parchment, and tied it with a scarlet ribbon befitting the message and, perhaps too, the recipient’s hand.
I handed him the scroll, my eyes brushed his. There was nothing I could read there. He gave a knuckle to the brow–a kind of Sir, nodded, and then was gone.
Is this what I was hired to do? I thought, write poems for unseen courting? They had not trained me for as much, at the maritime academy, or any other. Not for this.
And so, I took steps of my own, out from around my writing desk, and opened my own door and took the ladders forward and out of sight, climbed up through the anchor chains and ropes, up before bowsprit and its nets– raised a hatch and found moonlight and sea air.
I sat down upon a capstan and let my eyes accustom, when, just then, the ship swung its bow into the wind and began to slow. The great canvases luffed and boomed, and clapped a din that should have waked the dead–except that, already, dark figures, the present watch, leapt to the rigging, mute, to right the sails, control them, and calm them, as trainers would wild animals, at least did, back when I was a boy, and things were clear.
Then a dark form rode beside us, as tall as cliffs, a ship, much larger than us, parallel and slowing–not two cable lengths away. I, as an officer, should have stood up and gone to the captain and informed him of the other ship’s presence, except that my body, as if capstan-bound, seemed turned to wood and iron, and would not rise.
A ship’s gig left the tall ship’s side, and one from us as well. But someone also shouted an order. Someone, from us, with excuses, gave to explain the meeting. On our board, a voice of authority ordered marines and muskets.
In the water between, by moonlight, I saw the captains’ gigs draw close–their crews no longer rowing, on each eight oars suspended straight out, the helmsmen guiding–and two figures rise, one in each bow, one handing something to the other, who was a smaller figure, a woman I think, because of the pale skin of the face, from which a cape’s hood had fallen, and I could see the long dark hair falling down.
The oarsmen steadied the gigs, the bows bumped. The woman read by moonlight. And then she looked up and cried out something muted by the waves. And then they drifted closer still, so that they could hold each other, and then he climbed from his gig up onto the gunwales of hers, stood balanced there, to make the hop–when a volley of shots cut the night and moonlight and tossing sea. And he fell back into the arms of the oarsmen who had brought him to that point.
The boats drew apart. Already drums rolled on our deck, and orders of arrest were being spoke. The men in the other gig rowed for their ship. In their bow stood the small figure, looking back at us, holding, I could see, with both hands, the parchment against her breast–until she first and then her gig disappeared around the stern of the tall great ship that had been beside us, and had come from I did not know where, or how–but only why. That ship, already falling off the wind, turned away from us, its boat retrieved, and soon was gone.
The body, attached by ropes, came over our gunnels, and men laid it face up on the deck, where all could look upon it. I came aft, as was my duty, to test for pulse, as the captain then ordered–which, kneeling, I did–first below the jaw, then just up from the rough hands. The pistol was still in his belt, his brows arched, glints of spray caught there, from lanterns and moonlight.
The captain ordered a bucket up over the side. There was wooden bump, as it came back up. I stood back, and a sailor doused the corpse, to wash away the blood, to see more clearly. I read a softness in his eyes I had not seen before. They wrapped him in canvas, then in chains. The captain spoke, He broke the law, may God have mercy. They tipped him up, I stepped to the side to see, they let him drop. And he was gone. I had labored over his words and knew them still ~
I would give everything
for this moment,
that you choose me
with your smile
and I could hold you
for all eternity.