Thursday, April 21, 2011

Israel's First Call to Port, Part I

He had the look of a sailor many months asea, with hardly the sniff of dry land or the sharp crying of birds for comfort, and jaundiced of eye, skin the deepest basted brown and leathery, knotty and wiry of build, with a tangled, unkempt, grimy beard, with rope-burned smooth and shiny palms, and barnacle calluses, nails black with grungy toil, lips sun-cracked and salt-spray dry, but with a voice true sang he like a starling, with feet a-shuffling, shifting one to the other, the ship’s memory still strong in them.
            And so he was a seaman, and his ship the Midnight Mary, so named after that ancient Sovereign of the Realm, whom legend tells, wrested power from her husband cruel, the king, and his brothers, and his bastard sons, in the dark, wee hours, with poison and the sword. She, three-masted, a twenty-gunner, fleet, though heavy laden, had just called to port, having doubled Hope and Horn, and our young sailor ashore, and he hailed from land-locked country thick with wheat, barley, and corn, and nary a lake nor a stream wider than three gang planks lain side-by-side even was to be seen swelling its banks and raging under heavy rains in that richly soiled country, and the sea beckoned him, through tales heard and tales read, and Orion called him, and Polaris, and Crux, too. And they called him Israel.
            He had for his companion the ship’s carpenter, his own master, Duncan, oak-stout and just as swarthy, and he knew the city well, that had stood upon its hill commanding the bay below nigh on a thousand years, having called there to port more times than he could count, his days long been spent a sailor.
            “If you can abide,” lilted he in an off-minor falsetto, “let the hurdy-gurdy play…Now, young Israel, our first order of business is to get us clean and trimmed. And second, without much further delay, to get us laid, and that good and proper. And then tattoos to mark the occasion, as you, me son, only have your first call ashore the very once, and after they but all roll into one. So I know, do I, just the place for to accomplish these all.”
            And Israel’s tender face, beneath the crusty beard, blushed, and his ears burned red with the quickening of his heart. But he turned his eyes to the sun, marking its place above the clear horizon. Today at last, thought he, I become a man.
            Duncan led on from the docks through the pulley lines and longshoremen a-heaving, past the rows upon rows of barrels of whale oil, bales of cotton and sundry other cloth stuffs, chests filled with all manner of spices, past the fish monger’s stalls and storehouses all dockside, passing ever farther into the pressing throngs of the city, through main streets and alleys, past tanneries and slaughterhouses, past sweat shops filled with looms and nimble fingers, until the sounds of singing and drunken revelry they found, even so early with the sun not yet nigh the yardarm.
            “Though the sun shine or the moon, the flow of liquor heeds to neither, nor the sweet embracing of whores,” Duncan said. “The sailor’s coin greases all, and by our sweat the world spins freely upon its axis, though the sun never finds comfort from the glint of the Empire’s Eye.”
            They came to an alley cut wide for trams and carriages and turned down it. On one side stood a stable, upon the other a house having a long porch with a window of frosted glass and GERAKIS’ stenciled across the length of it from the nearest post to the double door that served as an entrance.
            From inside, they heard a bawdy chorus sung out so:

                        She fed me shrimp and caviar
                        Upon a silver dish
                        From her head to her waist was just to my taste
                        But the rest of her was fish

And a squeezebox, weathered and athwart of tune, kept the melody as the sailors’ voices rang out into the alley. Duncan and Israel stepped through the doors and up to the bar.
            “Two whiskies and two stouts, lad,” said Duncan to the barkeep. “And two stools at the barber’s when you’ve got them free.”
            The sailors about then finished their tune and struck up another that began:

                        The bottle stands as empty
                        As it was filled before
                        Take my hand now, lassie
                        We’re bound to get us more

And when this tune were finished, one of their number who sat a bit alee to the rest, yet his manner and visage giving the impression of a soul shrouded in dark clouds, stood up all of a sudden, and banging his tankard upon his table, splashed his ale about him everywhere, the suds expiring upon the table and floor like the briny foam dissipating in the wake astern ships, causing his companions to fall silent. It was clear from the way they regarded him they held him in some respect as they awaited some sign from him, and thus they were rewarded with the following slurred, yet steady, oration:

                        At the roundabout in the center of town
                        My love I spied under the starry night sky
                        With her arms twined the neck round
                        Of a feller renowned for stealing
                        The loves of other men’s eyes.
                        And homeward bound sped I and drunk
                        Did I ramble till next day did I
                        With my knife lay low that feller and lass
                        In their slick blood and went a sailing
                        O’er the ocean’s dark foaming tide.

                        But ne’er could I forget my love’s voice shrilling
                        A pleading, Jim, don’t do it! she screaming
                        And my eyes seeing nought but red
                        Heart filled with the murdering demon
                        And when it were done mine poor eyes
                        Unclouded I prayed for her soul
                        And buried my woes
                        With rum and the toil of the sea. 

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