The lad’s hammock swung below Old Fran’s in sync with the slow roll of the ship. Old Fran had expected the sound of the boy’s sobs. His own chest tightened in sympathy. The bunk was otherwise empty, the men still celebrating their victory up on deck.
“It gets better lad, I promise you that.” He said it in a whisper. The boy didn’t hear him over the noise of the men and the creaks and groans of the old ship. The ‘old’ ship was younger than Old Fran, he was forty-three or close to it, but both groaned when they moved.
Old Fran didn’t raise his voice above a whisper, not wanting to put much effort into the lies he was telling.
“Ay lad, soon you’ll forget all about home and hearth and your dear old ma, and the mates will be your whole life and family.”
It was what a man had once said to him, his first night on board, some twenty-odd years ago. The man, Saint Jean – he’d been a french priest before turning pirate – he’d been kind to a young lad, far from home.
He’d died not six months later. A nasty death, a mis-fired cannon sent a hundred pieces of flaming metal into the man’s gut. He’d lived for a week, wallowing in pain, searing the lesson of an ignominious death in Fran’s mind.
Saint Jean had lied to Fran; it never got any better. Oh there had been moments of bliss, of days when he’d have been up there with the boys, drinking and feasting on the spoils of the day’s capture. The alcohol worked to numb the visions of blood and death and the fear, the soul-killing fear that today would be the day the bullet or the sword found you.
A sound of movement and a shadow blocking the light from above woke him from a doze.
“How ya fairing there, Old Fran?” The captain stood at the entrance to the bunk, his features invisible but his outline aglow.
“Middling fair, captain, to be honest. I do believe it’s high time for me to be finding a warm port and some fat old madam to feed me into my grave.”
The captain chuckled, a sound false in Old Fran’s ears. He wasn’t cruel, this young captain, and he was the most successful captain Old Fran had ever sailed with, but he was cold and practical. A frightening combination.
“And you, boy? Yes, I hear your sniveling.”
The lad bounced out of his hammock, “Fine, Captain, sir.” His enthusiasm ruined by a hiccup.
“You’ll stop that whimpering before the men come down, or you wont last the night, boy.”
“Yes sir, captain.”
“Good. It ain’t an easy life, but it’s a fair one. You worked hard today and you didn’t falter. You earned your share of the catch. You be proud boy, and put away those tears. This is your only warning.”
Your only warning, Old Fran repeated to himself. He’d gotten a similar warning from a very different captain, ages ago, in the form of a back-handed blow to the jaw. Not as kind, perhaps, but more honest. The lad stiffened his spine and barely restrained a salute.
“Aye aye, Captain.” He said.
A glint of light caught the captain’s eyes as he shifted his stare to Old Fran. It chilled him to the bone.
The captain turned away and climbed the ladder out of the bunk. Old Fran relaxed, a shiver running up his spine. Yes it was time to retire. They’d make port in Hispaniola in a week or so, to sell off the spoils of this latest victory. With his share, Old Fran could surely find some old madam who’d let him a room and some comfort for his old bones.
“Old Fran?” a whisper came from below.
He wanted to feign sleep, but the decision to end this pirate life made him generous.
“It’s the blood, sir, on the woman – she looked like me sister back home, sir. The captain, he said to keep lighting and lobbing the hand grenades and the woman – she caught it, I saw her, she caught it right in her hands like it was a ball and we was playing catch. It exploded, right there, in her hands. I just can’t stop seeing the blood all over her dress. Her hands, I seen them blown clean off, I can’t get it out of my eyes. Every time I close my eyes, it’s there, right in front of me.”
Old Fran sighed. It was the lad’s life now, there was no turning back. It wasn’t an easy life, as the captain said, and the pay was as fair as a working man could hope for in this world. The captain hadn’t lied about that.
“It gets better lad. Memories fade. Soon you’ll forget all about home and hearth and your dear sister, and the mate’s and the ship will be your whole life and family.”
“Yeah?” the lad asked, his voice sounding hopeful to Old Fran’s ears.