Diane Hine (25 July 1956)
The Cabin Boy's Tale
I write this only for my future self.
Maybe I'll trust my words if not my mind.
Our man-of-war was anchored in the deep
unruffled waters of a pristine bay.
The moonlight bathed a swathe of pearl-white sand
which split the glinting blacks of sea and palms.
Daylight revealed white threads of distant falls
and tiers of polished greens which fell away
from monolithic rust-red banded tors.
That night I'd mended Captain Pith's blue coat
and pocketed the cloth-paged needle book.
A cabin boy is not allowed a blade
yet needles which will puncture canvas sails
or leather could I think extract an eye
and Gripe the loathsome cook had leering eyes.
The men washed down their biscuit meal with rum
and listened to the fiddler's cheerful tunes
which echoed from the island's matte black crags.
I meant to join the fun but as I passed
the quarterdeck a pair of greasy arms
reached out and hauled me round a twelve-pound gun.
I twisted free and leapt onto the rail.
The water gleamed. The white sand gleamed. I dived.
The warm sea soothed me, dousing rage and fear.
I swam to shore, relaxed on cloud-soft sand
and waited for mosquitoes to descend
but strangely there were none. The tide's sweet sighs
enhanced the fiddler's bright melodic air
but from the ghostly palms I heard a cry.
My reckless act and new-found freedom forged
some courage in my bones; I wasn't afraid.
The plaintive wretched crying waxed and waned.
No birds or crickets, frogs or creatures called.
I traced the sound through silent palms and found
a crumpled scrawny woman by a cave.
'Excuse me ma'am, ' I stammered and she screeched.
'Beg pardon ma'am, I don't mean any harm'.
I saw her leg lay skewed beneath her rags.
She squinted, grinned and truth be told I felt
my stomach shrink beneath her probing gaze.
'Hello my love, ' she cooed 'and what might you
be running from, I'm curious to know'?
'Nothing' said I, resolving to be bold.
She shrieked and cackled, 'I'll rephrase that sweetie,
who…WHOM might you be running from, poor lamb'?
'The cook, ' I blurted inexplicably,
'and if you don't need help, I'll say goodnight.'
She pouted. 'Don't get huffy, I'm in pain.
I need a needle and you'll not have that.'
'What kind'? I asked her nonchalantly and splayed
the linen pages of my needle book.
She clapped her hands and picked one, long and curved;
then plucked and twisted several long grey hairs.
She simpered, 'Thread this dear, my eyes are dim.'
I did and then she gathered back her skirt.
A wave of nausea rose. I swallowed hard.
Her leg was all but severed at the thigh.
The bone stuck out and dried blood caked dried skin.
'You should have bled to death, ' I gasped. She smiled
and ordered, 'Help me set the bones in line.'
I watched her mend her leg. She did not flinch
but while she sewed she hummed discordantly
in counterpoint to distant shipboard tunes.
'Don't any other souls live here'? I asked.
She answered cryptically, 'Well that depends,
on how you'd define those two words ‘soul' and ‘live'.'
She wiped the needle across her grimy skirt
and held it out. I said, 'You keep it ma'am.'
'Let's help each other out, ' she said and looked
intently at my hands. 'You lend me some
of those young fingernails and I'll make sure
that nasty cook won't trouble you again.'
She grabbed my hands and chattered tarnished teeth.
I snatched them back and quickly trimmed my nails
depositing the crescents in her palm.
I watched her fit the fragments in the grooves
between her fingertips and ragged nails.
Triumphantly, she flourished gnarly hands.
Perhaps she's mad, I thought, but held my tongue.
She asked the cook's last name. I told her, 'Gripe.'
'Come closer, ' she cajoled. I backed away.
She primly waved a lace-edged handkerchief.
Then all at once, before I could escape
she grasped my shoulder, spat twice on her cloth
and firmly rubbed the vile thing round my face.
'You filthy witch'! I hollered in disgust.
'Oh hush lad, has your Mum never washed your face'?
I stumbled back and tripped up on a vine.
She chuckled, ' I won't hurt you darlin' boy.
She pointed to the cave's pitched mouth and cursed.
'There waits my worthy, glass-thumbed, sword-armed foe,
who wants to spoil my simple harmless fun.'
She thrust her wrinkled, twisted hands up high
and boasted, 'I've the power to tame him now'!
That's it, I thought, she's definitely mad.
I swear this part is true - Her fingernails
began to grow by inches, then by feet,
until they were a yard long and complete.
They flashed like steel beneath the moon's grey light.
She used them like ten walking sticks and stood.
With knobbled back and lowered head she lurched
towards the cave, but paused, glanced back and winked.
I ran through palms, across the sand to sea
and washed her stinking spittle from my face.
I swam towards our vessel and I saw
that from the fo'c'sle hung a knotted rope.
A lantern high above illumed a face.
T'was Fig, the powder monkey; I was safe.
I scampered up. He said, 'I saw you dive
and you've been gone a fairsome span of time.'
I caught my breath and started to explain.
Before I could, a shadowed figure loomed.
Its left hand flexed and right hand clenched a knife.
We stood transfixed by Gripe's infernal eyes.
He flashed a gap-toothed sneer at poor young Fig
and turned to look me fully in the face.
I've never seen a man look so afraid.
The blood drained from his face and trembling lips.
He dropped the knife and whimpered like a babe.
A stain spread as his sphincter loosed its grip.
He fled. I grasped Fig's arms in some distress
and cried, 'You must speak truth - what do you see'!
Young Fig looked puzzled, shook his head and shrugged,
'You look just fine as you always have to me.'
I felt my face but nothing seemed amiss
and when I told Fig all that had occurred,
he promised me he wouldn't breathe a word.
We leant against the fo'c'sle carronade
and though the starry heavens held our gaze,
our thoughts were delving deep in island caves.
Poet's Notes about The Poem
I'd also like to thank him for lending me Captain Pith, a witch and a reference to his own good self to include in this poem.
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