IX. After three months in Cartagena, a Testament, pt. 1

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.

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