I woke up to the pricking of sawdust snow
against my face. Short Jim glassed lavender
waves from the barrel we had lashed
to the tallest mast to serve as a lookout. If
you could press my shirt against the dip in my spine
that holds the most heat, you’d surely fancy to
fetch me a mug of water cleaner than the glass
that snaps against the hull.
But I can’t think about that just yet.
The climbing cargo net that keeps
the blacked magdalena sky latticed in front of me
begins to outpace the narcoleptic wind in its movements.
Jim hits the groaning cedar in front of me and
spraddles before he finds a hold on his pants,
yanks them down, and smiles,
ready to give the carpenter’s mate “a real mug of piss to think about.”
I scorn to do anyone a mischief,
but when a mate pisses in the ballast,
getting the crew to give him his fair share
is to my advantage. So we pass the mug around,
giving nips of rum to those too shy
to offer. Damn the ballast, the mate’s a
sneaking puppy. I must sink him. But
he has been of use to me below decks.
There, we bar the ovenbirds and woodcreepers
to keep their winding shadows cast on hardwood walls;
what doesn’t show from the waves outside
where crop-full jackdaws cut the sky crimson
as any wound. Below, the birds keep the mate
the only other carpentry-minded lad on the ship.
Not a man among us, save the carpenter, knows
how to latch the oakum between the planks. So,
back above all the coos and caws, I let him have his filling gulp
before he gives me a face windy as a city lawyer’s
and heaves the mug over the bow
before he stamps off for lights out,
chorusing with renewed ovenbird laugh and wing flap.
If it was with anything other than good spirits,
I’d have burnt his tool to orange, the color of a fire
that’s just about to take hold.
Sawdust and urine whiff. I woke to morning
gagged with a smell worse than death.
Your mind plays tricks on you. You live
too long, ghost stories disappear into memory. The stink
tied up the air and judged us all, and, I swear this,
I saw that coyote flash in and out in its blueblack flicker.
The damndest foolishness can haunt a man rough.
The carpenter’s mate had died in his sleep.
The carpenter himself was nowhere to be found,
but the mate must have died early; enough for someone
to peck at the rum that was left, clomp about
in a jig on the poop-deck, and
go silent after a scream and a splash.
The dawn had yet to arrive.
Was it the full moon that still filled my head?
I can’t think about that just yet.
The anchor had been down since last night,
but we now lit yardlights and torches
in shaky light a shade bright enough
to see a supply ship sternside
wheeling out a bare cannon carriage.
How many men pass by me with the potential
to patch up a roof with half a plank and as few nails?
I kicked my boot toe between plank seams.
Damnation seize our souls
if we give them quarters, or
take any from them.