Friday, December 20, 2013

The Boy

The Boy

            The boy was not as young as he appeared. His smooth skin and round cheeks made him look no more than sixteen, but in fact he was twenty. The crew appraised him as he came aboard the ship in Boston. They looked at his thin wrists, ankles, and neck and doubted he could do his share. “Better a cabin boy, than a sailor,” they thought. For some the notion of buggering him came forthrightly to mind.  In addition to his sea bag, the boy carried a fine leather box with brass fittings. It contained his beloved squeezebox. “Well,” thought the crew. “If he can’t haul the anchor at least we’ll get a jig out of him.”
            That night with the coast still in sight and the moon rising full on the horizon, the crew had a party. The one-eyed fiddler, The Moor on guitar, and the boy and his squeezebox provided music. Several of the men sang. There was some vigorous dancing, but all preferred the ballads of lost love. The finest voice belonged to a sailor named Young Matty. He sang the last song before all turned in for the night.

I leave  my heart wi thee my love
Tho forc’d from thee to stray
Wi tear stained grief I onward move
And lonely make my way.
How tedious will the hours appear
Each day a year to me
For ah! my love, my only dear,
I leave my heart wi thee.

Every man thought about what he was leaving behind and what lay ahead. It might be as much as a year before they saw home again.
            The Boy realized he’d never played with a musician as fine as The Moor. The notes from the guitar flowed like water under, over, and in between the traditional melodies he and the fiddler knew. Later, below decks in his hammock, he fell asleep and dreamed about black fingers dancing above ivory inlays, touching down on brass frets.

The Moor

            For as much as a fortnight The Boy did well enough. He was as agile as a monkey and showed no fear. He had surprising stamina. He could keep pace with the hardest working of his mates from dawn to dusk. However, it was clear to all that what he lacked was strength in his arms and shoulders and back. The crew accommodated him without resentment because he was modest and quiet. He said little beyond a mumbled, “No, sir. Yes, sir,” but he smiled readily. His nightly music enchanted his shipmates and inclined them to lend a hand when he needed it.
            Then it all came to an end. There came a blow, not even a storm just a good strong blow. The boy and four others were high up the mast, taking in the sails. He lost his grip and fell. That should have been the end of him, but his foot tangled in a rope and he swung into the sail. In desperation, he grabbed whatever he could get a hold on. The canvas gave way at a mended spot and began to tear. The boy road the rip to within ten feet of the deck, snapped loose, and landed on his back. He lay there with the wind knocked out of him, but no bone broken and hardly a bruise. All around him there was chaos as the able bodied men scrambled to save the flapping, tattered sail and control the ship as it rocked in the wind. The captain fought the wheel and shouted orders. The boy struggled to his feet still having trouble breathing and then vomited over the rail. The Moor grabbed him around the waist out of fear that he’d go over board and yelled in his face, “Just get out of the way, boy. We’ll deal with you later.”
            When order was restored, attention turned to the boy. No one had any taste for it, but a flogging was clearly in order. His shipmates dreaded what was to come, especially those who had felt the lash, but his error was too grave to ignore. The captain signaled the Moor to proceed. The black man laid his beautiful hands on the boys shoulders and said, “Take off your shirt, boy.” The boy knew the jig was up, but he shook his head, “No.” The Moor said, “As you wish.”
He was tied to the mast and the Moor grasped the back of his shirt and ripped it open. In the tight quarters of the ship there was little privacy and modesty was non-existent. However, in that moment, many of the crew realized they had never seen the boy without his shirt. For the first time they glimpsed where his thin neck met his narrow shoulders and they saw his delicate shoulder blades. They also saw that his chest, just above the rib cage, was wrapped tightly in a gauzy, white band of fabric.
The Moor understood the situation before the others. He stood behind the boy, blocking him from view and said over his shoulder, “Captain, if you would, please step forward.”  The Moor could not deny that he was amused and aroused.
The Captain also quickly understood the situation, “Sweet Jesus!” he muttered.
The boy looked over her shoulder into the Captain’s eyes. There was a shift in her voice and manner. All pretenses were dropped.
 “Captain,” the boy said. “As you can see, I’m no seaman, but if you spare me the lash, I assure you this will be a voyage you won’t soon forget.” The boy stated this with a confidence she had never shown as a deck hand.

The Captain
The Captain looked like a captain. He was handsome and vigorous. He came from a wealthy family and had grown even wealthier during his decade at sea. He was an exceptional businessman. His trips were profitable to a degree that others viewed with suspicion, especially since he never dealt in slaves. He had the loyalty of his men because he fed them well, paid them generously, and treated them fairly. And yet, he knew, and they knew, he was not a natural leader of men. He often didn’t know what his crew wanted or expected from him.   There was no ease between them. He sensed that the boy had created a crisis in which he had much at stake, but he hadn’t a clue how to resolve it. As he often did at such times, he relied on the Moor. He looked up at the black man questioningly. With a wide grin, the Moor yelled, “Take her to the Captain’s quarters. We’ll get to the bottom of this in private.” Had the Moor stressed the words “bottom” and “private? Would his facial expression best be characterized as a grin or a leer? Whatever the case, the crew was left on deck feeling relieved and giddy. It seemed their young mate would be spared the lash, that he was not a mate at all, that he was a she, and that the routine of their working lives had been broken by a most entertaining series of events; events that they’d be telling stories about for years to come.

Balance and routine were quickly restored. The Captain had no taste for drama and he had the advise of The Moor to rely on. The Boy became the cook. Since the cook couldn’t cook and was a better seaman than The Boy, this arrangement pleased everyone. Rather nice quarters were constructed for The Boy in a storage locker off the kitchen. Included were a rope strung bed frame big enough to accommodate The Boy and The Captain when he visited. His visits to the room off the kitchen were occasional and in his own quarters, on many a night, he continued to teach Young Matty to read. The Moor made it known that The Captain had proprietary rights to The Boy. She was working off the debt she had incurred as a stowaway, but the debt was only owed to The Captain. None questioned the correctness of these arrangements. The food improved. The Boy, The Moor, The One Eyed Fiddler, and Young Matty entertained the crew more evenings than not. Young Matty could read many passages of The New Testament with few prompts. He studied hard. Often he didn’t emerge from The Captain’s Cabin until dawn. The Boy enjoyed her times with The Captain. His visits occurred once or twice a week and were vigorous and enthusiastic, if brief and a bit impersonal. The Boy was no stranger to whoring and this was easy work. She slept well those nights, dreaming of beautiful black hands. In her dreams, The Moor’s hands no longer attended to his guitar. Rather they touched her white body, gliding over smooth skin, grasping handfuls of soft flesh, slipping out of sight.

One night The Captain fell asleep in The Boys bed. Two hours later he awoke hot and sweaty with fever. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed, intending to dress and go back to his quarters, but he was too sick to rise.
“Lay back down and get under the covers,” The Boy said. The Captain fell back against the pillow. The Boy pressed against his back to warm him and pulled the wool blankets over the two of them. The Captain sweated and shivered in her bed for three nights. She gave him water and tea and soup when he was able to eat. At times he seemed hardly conscious even if his eyes were open. During one of these spells he became aroused and moved to cover the boy. She accepted him. He radiated heat from his fever and his movements were slow and unfocused as though they were making love in a dream. It had been a long time since the boy had found the body of a man so pleasurable.
When the fever broke and The Captain slowly regained his strength and vigor, they began to talk to each other. This is part of what they said:

The Captain: I’ve never dealt in Africans, but my family has. I’ll take no part in making a man a slave. I think slavery is a temptation from God; a test that will show us what price we put on our souls.

The Boy: I came aboard your ship because there was a man who meant to do me harm. He reckoned he owned me. He said if I didn’t do as I was told he’d kill me, but the things he told me to do were killing me.

The Captain: I’m the third son. My oldest brother has the business. The next went into the clergy. They sent me to sea in this ship when I was fifteen. When my father died, it became mine. Now I’ve sailed it as captain for ten years.

The Boy: I would have played my squeezebox and served beer in the saloons, but the man told me I had to pay my way. By which he meant I had to pay both of our ways. There was nothing I could say no to if the price was right.

The Captain: My brother can’t abide me because my voyages are more profitable than his. You will think it is gold or rum or molasses or any of the other things I trade in that makes the money, but it is tea. Tea, of all things, has made me rich. I’m done with sailing. I’ll be a businessman in Boston.

The Boy: The Moor says I’m a fine musician. I’ve never heard anyone who played better than him. When we play together I feel I’m good too.

The Captain: Maggie, you need not receive me here in your room. I’ll not force you or hold your passage over your head.

The Boy: I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do, Will.

The Captain: Can I have a song then?

The Boy:
Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)
If I get there before you do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
I'll cut a hole and pull you through.
(Coming for to carry me home)
If you get there before I do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
Tell all my friends I'm coming too.
(Coming for to carry me home)


As Young Matty mastered bible verses he would read them aloud to his shipmates as they sat and smoked a pipe when the day’s work was done. They marveled at both his literacy and the stories. One evening off the coast of Spain, he read one of his favorites:

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side... Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
 “Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Young Matty

That night Young Matty dreamed he had become the masthead of the ship. As is possible in dreams, he was carved from wood and, at the same time, he was his own familiar flesh. His feet skimmed across the tops of the waves and against his back the bow of the boat pushed him forward with all the power of the wind in its sails. He knew The Captain steered the ship and he felt deep faith in The Captain. Young Matty, as the masthead, held a bible open in his hand and even in the rush of wind and waves he kept his eyes on its pages and sounded out new words.

-->             In the ship’s hold were many bolts of fine fabric. The Captain had told The Boy to take as much yardage as she wanted. She had sewn herself dresses, skirts, and blouses of simple designs that contrasted with the richly patterned and brightly colored cloth. Many of the men thought she looked like a gypsy, especially when she played her squeezebox. She made herself as pretty as she could and walked along the deck, past Young Matty reading the bible to a circle of sailors, and made her way to The Captain’s quarters. It was quite rare that she would seek him out. She knocked on his door and said, “Will, I don’t want to disturb you, but could we have a word.”
            “Please come in, Maggie,” he replied.
            She stepped in and looked around the room. She saw a whole shelf of books, a chess set in mid game, a fine telescope and other brass instruments, a writing desk with logs, account books, and journals. The Captain’s bed was covered with a quilt of a design she had seen her Mom sew; tumbling blocks it was called and the contrast of light and dark fabric made it look three dimensional.
            “What is it, Maggie?”
            “I’m not sure where… how to begin.” He waited. “Will, I’m going to have a child… a baby I mean.” She began to weep. He said nothing and she cried harder. He approached her.
            “This comes as a surprise,” he said.
            She said, “I know what I am and what I am to you. I don’t want anything… anything more from you, but I thought you should know and I want to go home. I want to go to my Mom to have my child. She is a midwife. If I’m not with her, I will be too afraid. When we’ve crossed back will you take me to Providence.”
            “But you’ve told me it isn’t safe for you in Providence.”
            “The Moor says he will take care of it.”
            “Did you tell him you were pregnant?”
            “No, but I told him I wanted to see my Mom and I told him what the man had threatened me with and he said he would fix it so I had nothing to fear.”
            “Well, if he says he will, he will.”
            There was a long silence and then The Boy turned and left. Quite late that night, long after she had fallen asleep, the boy felt her bed shift as The Captain lay down next to her. She held up the cover and felt the heat of his skin against her body. Usually, when The Captain came to her in the night no words were spoken, but this night, he delivered a speech that had perhaps been taking shape in his mind the whole evening or perhaps he’d been thinking it over even longer.
            “Maggie, I’m a peculiar man and there is a kind of affection I don’t have in me. I intend this to be my last voyage. I’ll be a businessman in Boston and The Moor will captain my ship. In my new life, I’ll need a wife to keep my house and raise a family and see to certain social demands of the community. Since the family is now begun, I want you for my wife. I will provide for you and respect you. This child and any others that come along will grow up in prosperity. The attention and pleasure you have provided me on this voyage have been more important to me than perhaps you realize. As we have been to each other these last months, I would hope we could continue to be for a long time to come.” 
            The Boy had long ago stopped believing that her life would be guided by love or romance or passion and she could recognize a good deal when one was laid before her. “Yes” she said, “I shall be your wife, but I must go to my Mom and have my child in her care. I’ll join you in Boston as soon as I can travel.”
            Three months later, they were married in Newport and then the ship sailed up the bay to Providence. As The Boy was going ashore, with a large sum of money in her purse, The Captain said to her, “Maggie, you will be coming to me won’t you?”
            “Yes, I’ll be coming to you, Will,” she replied. Then she handed him the fine leather box with the brass fittings that contained her squeezebox. “Keep this safe for me.”
-->             “Well! Look what the cat dragged in!” Mom shouted. “And looking mighty fine, too. And my goodness with a bun in the oven!” Mom was a whore and a midwife to whores. It was often said she had once been the best-looking woman in Providence. However, she was quite fond of food and booze and opium, so her legendary career was much diminished. Still she was better off than many an old whore. She had a little house along the river, not far from the docks. A policeman, a former governor, and a minister still visited her. They had many a fond memory of her from the old days and saw to her safety and comfort. As she looked at her daughter, the elation she had felt when The Boy first appeared evaporated.
            “Oh, but darlin’, what’ll happen when he hears you’re about?”
            “Its been taken care of.”
            “There’s nothing to fear, Mom.”

Nothing To Fear
            Late into the evening they sat together warming their feet before the fireplace. They sipped tea. Mom had laced hers with rum.
            “Maggie, my love,” Mom said. “Why are you here, dear?”
            “Isn’t it obvious? To have my baby.”
            Mom sipped from her cup. ‘No, child. Not at all obvious. Why aren’t you with your husband, in his fine house, in the care of a good doctor?”
            The boy stared into the fire for a few long minutes. When she spoke to her mother again it was in a calm, confident voice.
            “Well, you see, Mom, I cannot be sure whether my baby will be white or black and I didn’t want to receive the answer to that question in the presence of my husband.”
            “Ah, my girl. You’ve gotten yourself into a fix, haven’t you.”
            “I’ve been in worse, Mom.”
            The older woman loved her daughter, but, like many a mother and daughter, over the years, they had been a great disappointment to each other. Perhaps, Mom thought, now we’ll all get a new start.
            “And if the baby is black, my dear, what will you do?”
            “There’s no shortage on this waterfront of girls who would be happy to have their white baby raised by a wealthy family in Boston.”
            “Ah, Maggie. And so we get to the real reason you’re here. You know full well any such girl would have found her way to me.”
            The Boy looked at her mother over the rim of her teacup. The rim was gold and just below it the cup was encircled by a garland of tiny, blue, painted flowers.
            “Do you know any such girls, Mom?” The boy asked.
            “A few, my dear. A few.”

            The Boy’s breasts got huge and her milk flooded in. She thought, I never could have passed myself off as a boy with these tits. She mastered feeding both The Twins at the same time, their tiny swaddled bodies crisscrossed in her arms, a greedy mouth sucking with surprising force on each of her nipples.
            The twins were less than a month old when The Boy and Mom disembarked from the little steamer that had brought them to Boston from Providence. Each carried a wicker basket holding a baby. The Captain was there to pick them up in a carriage.
            “Maggie,” he said. “What have we here.”
            “Our sons, Will. The Twins.”
            He looked into the baskets at the two faces deep in sleep. Each of the infants was wrapped in a quilt of a design he knew well. When he had first gone to sea, his mother had sent him off with a warm quilt of this same pattern. “I see one of our sons is of dark complexion, Maggie.”
            “Indeed he is, but he is no less ours for his blackness. His mother came to Mom for care. She was a freed woman, not a slave, but totally alone in the world. The birth was terrible.” The Boy got tears in her eyes and her voice quavered. “The black girl made me promise to take care of the baby… then she was… gone. I put the baby to my breast when he was less than an hour old. Since then, he has been as much mine… ours… as his brother.”
            The Captain extended his index finger to his black son who grasped it without hesitation.
            It was only a ride of fifteen minutes from the dock to the house The Captain had bought as a home for his new family. The carriage passed through a gate and up a circular drive. It stopped in front of a large white wooden house. At the very top of the house’s roof was a small porch surrounded by an iron railing. From there, The Boy thought you could see the harbor and await the arrival of a ship, but he’ll be here already. There’ll be no one I’m waiting for. Then she saw that Young Matty stood in the door way of the house smiling broadly as they all arrived.
            In response to The Boy’s quizzical look, The Captain said, “This is Young Matty’s home, too. I have made him my ward. I’ll see to his education and a ship is being built that he’ll captain when he is ready. He has quarters above the carriage house. There are also rooms there for The Moor. He will be part of our household, as well, when he is not at sea.”
            That night The Boy was reunited with her squeezebox and she sang a song for them:
Well go down yonder Gabriel
Put your foot on the land and sea
But don’t you blow that trumpet until you hear from me
Well look way over yonder
See people dressed in white
I know it was God's people I seen 'em doin right
Oh look way over Jordan
What do you think I see
I see a band of angels and they’re comin’ after me
Well meet me Jesus meet me
Meet me in the middle of the air
And if these wings should fail lend me another pair
  As they had been to each other those months on the ship, they continue to be for a long time.

The Twins

         In the summer of 2013, I met a woman named Joke Bijl-Costerus. She was a sailor and played the accordion. She sang a Dutch song about a girl who goes to sea disguised as a boy. That was the beginning of The Boy.

John Kotula

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