SMALL BOATS ON HARD EARTH
Dark sails cut across Stuart's vision where he lay resting on the dock. A chorus of seagulls perched on the moorings seemed to be calling his name, but it was hard to tell for sure over the constant hefting of the waves. Down on the boats heavy men yelled blunt encouragement, and when Stuart had first lain down he thought they'd call him out for his sloth, but they were too troubled with their own efforts to pay him any mind.
He ran a hand across his face, blocking the sky out momentarily, then found his palm salty when it reached his mouth. Beyond was hard labour, here was hard resting; the muscles of his back twisted against cold stone.
Stuart's vision went dark as an oar swung over his head. He sat up, pulse drumming in his ears, then recursus: the oar retracing its course through the air. Stuart ducked just in time. He rolled on his side and came level with skinny ankles.
The boy, looking down at him, hugged the oar with both arms and leaned back, bracing himself against its weight. 'Molly wanted to know if you were back.'
'What are you doing?'
'What Molly told me to, bringing you home for dinner.'
'With the oar, what are you doing with the oar?'
'Rowing.' The boy's strength gave way, and he dropped the oar with a clatter.
The sailors didn't look up; they continued loading the small rowboats that were barely more than wooden bowls floating in the salty soup, in went barrels and crates.
'Which one are you then?' said Stuart. 'You Ronald or Edmund?'
The boy frowned. 'Can't you tell?'
Stuart pushed himself up into a vertical state, a horrible state. The land reared up, then pitched sideways worse than the sea. And with the world swinging around him, he followed the boy up the hill and into town, the boy greeting people along the way, the people looking at Stuart with strangers' eyes. He was forgotten here.
The house lay in the crook of the road. Rough boards half covered the windows like ripped sails hanging useless in the wind. Stuart knocked on the front door and had only a moment to slick back his hair before Molly opened the door and pulled him inside and into her arms. Alive and strong, she smelt of warms spice, the stuff of long sea voyages and fortunes made or sunk, but these were cooked and slight, not the acrid stuff that sat in the hull for months.
'Come here,' she said, although he was already in her arms; she squeezed him tighter still. 'I wasn't sure you'd be here today or tomorrow, but I cooked your favourite anyway.' She released him to rub her nose on her apron and turned to the boy hanging at Stuart's elbow. 'Edmund, get the cutlery on the table and get it set.'
The table was set, the food was nearly ready, and one of the boys sat before the hearth, lighting the fire, building up small twigs for kindling before laying large chunks of wood on top. He struggled with the weight of them; despite their growth since Stuart had last seen them, they were still just boys.
The other boy brought a small figure to the table, clutched in his soft hand. At first Stuart thought it was crude scrimshaw, but then he saw it was made of the same sort of young wood being used for the fire. The small wooden thing the boy held could have been a man, or it could have been a woman, there was no telling. Stuart chewed for a moment before he thought to speak, 'You could mark clothes on it, carve it a hat.'
'Yes, Sir,' said the boy. He held the figure a moment longer, turning it over in his hand, studying it, then joined the other boy by the fire to watch the dressing of the flames.
Molly brought the cooking pot to the table and the boys sat. Stuart reached for the ladle's handle sticking out of the pot, but stopped short when he saw Molly and the boys' heads lowered and their hands clasped together. He watched the strange woman and the strange boys, and tried to remember what it felt like to be used to them, to remember their habits, their ways, but there was nothing other than the strangeness of old memories brought to life. They sat quiet till Molly, it seemed, figured she should say something, a short mumbled prayer that was answered by the boys' 'Amen.' Then Molly ladled out the broth of vegetables and meat, fresh, unsalted meat and maggot free. Stuart chewed the soft chunks slowly, his gums itching as he pushed the meat down with an ulcerated tongue.
At sea Tylor had taught Stuart how to eat maggots in one gulp, and the boatswain had shown him maggots pickled in gin. He called them cherries even though they weren't round or red.
The boys finished their broth first and took to the fireside to batter each other with brotherly affection, fists balling into each other's head and torso.
'Take it easy,' said Molly, 'you'll loose your food on the floor, and I'm not cleaning it up if you do.'
One brother took the other in a clumsy neck hold, till he squeezed out of it. Still the first brother declared himself the winner, and they went their separate ways, one by the fire, the other coming to clear the table of his and his brother's plates. Stuart drank water to wash the food fragments down.
That night in bed, on a mattress stuffed too full, Molly curled up behind him. Her arms, strong for a woman, pulled him into a hug.
The timbers of the walls were silent that night. So strange, stretched out straight in the quiet, only Molly's breath in his ear, not the dozens of other sweating bodies nearby, and the only thing rocking was the sea that had gotten into his blood. There were hard streets beyond the timbers, and other houses too, that was a strange thought: dozens of little boats sitting on the hard earth, going nowhere.
Stuart rolled over and found himself refastened in a hard grip. And as he slipped to half sleep and then sleep, he was encased and closed in a barrel filled with cotton. Hard to breathe.
He woke up sweating and cursing on the floor, with Molly's moon-like face looking down from the bed.
'What happened?' she said.
'Fell out of bed,' said Stuart, stating the obvious and not the dream.
In the morning there were cold pilchards on buttered toast. The boys sat slick-lipped, smiling devious smiles at each other.
'How's that?' said Molly, wiping her hands on her apron.
'You've a meal for every quarter of the day,' said Stuart.
She took her place opposite him. 'What will you do today?'
'I might take the boys fishing.'
One boy leaned forward, eager and bright, the other stared at the table, his brow shading his eyes.
'Don't you want to go?' said Molly to the boy.
He shook his head.
'Fine then, just you and me,' Stuart said to the other boy, his identity still escaping him.
When they had finished Stuart stood outside and waited for the boy that was to join him, and when the boy came out empty handed, Stuart said, 'Where's your fishing gear?'
'Don't have any.'
'Looks like we can't fish then.'
'What do we do?'
'We go down to the peer. We look at the ships.'
If the boy was disappointed he gave no sign. They retraced their steps from yesterday in cold silence, Stuart and the boy he was sure was the one who had brought him back to the house his first day back. They stood on the peer for a time, watching the same men from yesterday working sails and gear as they sweated and swore in the cold day. The boy squirmed at his side as he grew disinterested, then left to climb the piles of rope curled loose on the dock. Stuart watched the men pulling small barrels onto the boat, the same activities of yesterday.
'That's a heavy load you have,' he said, drawing the one good eye of the sailor nearest, a reproachful gaze, but Stuart didn't mind strange expressions, all expressions were strange.
'A man of true words,' said the withered eyed sailor.
'Can I work with you?'
'There's always room for more hands.'
Stuart looked to where the boy was treading the rope, his arms stretched out for balance. When he looked back the sailor was still watching him. If Stuart nodded he barely noticed it himself, but the sailor returned to his labour as if answered.
Stuart turned and looked about the peer. He knew what he wanted, but not here, it was too barren. He walked back almost as far as the harbour master's hut and searched amongst the trodden and ill sprouting grass. He found a stone, as large as a goose egg, waiting for him and wished it was smaller that he could hide it in his hand, but that was all there was, save discarded fishing lines and marked, damp earth, and a sod he was sure would not do.
When he came back, the boy joined him. 'What are you doing? What's that in your hand?'
'Full of questions, aren't you?'
The sailors looked up for a moment as Stuart crouched down to help them with the last of the gear, his left hand crushed around the large stone. They hefted and heaved and with Stuart's help were done a little sooner.
Stuart sat in the boat amongst the boxes and barrels. 'Which one is our ship?' he said, although he already knew, the largest in the bay, too large to come close for loading. The one eyed sailor pointed.
'What are you doing?' said the boy as he watched the boat push off with Stuart on board.
Stuart held up the rock in his hand, a salute, then dropped it over the side between the boat edge and the dock. It hit the water with a deadened plop. The ripples spread till they were devoured by the shifting surface, and Stuart sat down in the boat. The sailors braced against the oars and pulled out.
'What will I tell Molly?' said Edmund, but the boat was already too far gone. He watched them head towards the ship. They hardly seemed to be making progress, but gradually the boat shrank till it was diminished by distance and by the large ship that dominated the bay.
Alone, he returned home with his cold hands shoved deep in his pockets, his right holding the netting shuttle he'd found amongst the rope. When he got back to the house, his brother was in the corner mouthing out the words from the beige-edged book their neighbour had given them.
Molly looked up when he walked in. 'Catch any fish?'
'Where's your father?'
He shrugged. 'What's it like on a boat?'
'How would I know, ask your father. Did he not come back with you, is he gone drinking?'
'Probably,' said the boy, and went to his brother and snatched the book out of his hand to see what was so interesting about silent words on a page.