Serpent Blog

So it would be. The boy would never dwell upon the land again. Before him lay the sea with all her glorious shades and shimmers, shadows and sallows, and it was blinding in its brilliance so that he had to shade his eyes with his hand and squint to recognize it as something real and of this earth. His first sight of it. And surely this was Heaven. It heaved like a great beast and roared against the rocks below where the docks could be seen in miniature at this distance, and the ships at mooring, the Men of War, with their jolly boats plying to and fro like pond skimmers. He stood in the dog-cart and held onto to his uncle’s arm for balance. The man, who was his father’s brother, spoke not a word. But the boy could see in his eye a look that required no translation. The mere mention of the sea had often sent him into a reverie, where he’d stare long and hard at the sky as if expecting a divine visitation. His eyes would take on that same quality he’d seen in his own father when he sat before the fire, lost in tales of ships. They would glisten and burn and smile, his eyes did, like an old man with the best hand of cards.

His uncle sat the horse on the rise above Bristol and gestured with one hand to the expanse before them. He swept his hand across the horizon and turned to the boy who stood rapt before this new marvel in his only suit of clothes.

"This is your life now, Johnny", he said. "Here lies your fate. The destiny of all true sons of England."

He clucked with his tongue at the horse and the cart moved down the muddy road with a wobble and creak. The boy stood the whole way, making a conscious effort to feel the ground below the wheels. To feel the earth. They spoke not a word as they wound their way to the wharf where the sound of men drowned out the sound of surf. The boy saw the ships and their sailors, every man jack of them alive as he had never seen men living, their bodies strong, their eyes happy in their work, their skin glowing and as tan as a saddle. He saw the yawning gun-ports of the ships and the peeking iron muzzles with their black gaping holes of death, cold now and oiled to a high sheen, and he saw the carpenters at work, the boson and their mates, with hammer and adze amidst the flying chips of wood, scores of men at earnest fitting. He saw the reefers high above hum unfurl the great spreads of canvas that flapped and thundered like a corps of drums and he was at once excited and afraid. His life now.

The cart pulled up before a berth where a three-decker lie at lading, a monster of a ship as tall as a mountain, whose rigging and decks were filled with the shouts and activities of seamen. They stood before a be speckled old man in a black frock coat with shiny brass buttons and a snow-white wig who sat before a ledger propped on a folding table. His uncle pushed him forward and cleared his throat. The man glanced up at the boy with a sour look on his face and a smudge of black ink on his upper lip. He extended his hand and the boy moved to shake it but the man was not interested in such greetings and reached out to his uncle who produced a folded letter secured with a red wax seal.

"Name", the man said.

The boy could not speak. He felt the beating of his heart in his chest.

"Name", the man repeated.

"Silver", his uncle said for him. "John W. Silver. Signing on as mid-shipman, 3rd class".

The man cracked the seal on the letter written by the boy’s father before he died. He scanned the note and nodded at the boy and entered his name in his ledger and spoke again no more.

"Now, you behave yourself Johnny, his uncle said. Make your father proud. You’ll be back in three years, God willing, and you’ll be back a man, which is more than I can do for you."

He dropped a few coins into the boy’s hand, and gave him his father’s old greatcoat and his saber, which he raised from its scabbard so that the boy could see the first few inches of white steel .

"Remember this well Johnny", he said. "Take good care of your sword and your sword will take good care of you".

And he shook the boy’s hand and he turned and the boy watched him climb into the cart with the horse and he watched him until he vanished in the throng of men, until the hoof beats were no more. He never laid eyes on his uncle again.

There was a moment when he thought of running, but the sound of the ship and the smell of it overwhelmed that urge and the moment passed. The ship had claimed him as her own, and the sea hers, and for the rest of his days those two great creations, one of man and one of God, would vie for his life and fight for his soul, until he was broken and cursed, disfigured and damned, and a boy like himself would come to redeem him.


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