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June 27, 2022

When We Were Pirates

By Sand Pilarski

To be sure, you'll hear complaints about the taste of salt pork and ship's bread; there are those who'll carp about the fickle nature of the sea and wind; and you'll see old men embittered and broken whose fortunes were lost when they were caught with their hands in the booty or saw their treasures washed overboard, but for my say, there was never a finer time than when Gavin One-Eye and I were pirates together.

He had a fine great ship, Gavin did, which he said he got from a British plantation owner in India, in return for a diamond the size of your nose that he'd lifted from a little box at the back of a tent in Arabia. (When I asked him what he was doing in the back of a tent in Arabia, he just winked at me with his one good eye and snapped the band of his eye patch smartly. I wouldn't bet a single doubloon on either the speculation that it was in that tent he'd lost the eye, or that he was just being a smartass, he was that cryptical at times.) Gavin's ship was the Calcutta Sly, and we knew every inch of her into our hearts -- on a rainy night we could have climbed her stairs and rigging without the slightest need of a lantern. The Sly's bow sneered at the water that raced past her; she knew that she would never succumb to the wave or wind of typhoons or hurricanes. At her end, it was neither nature nor poor seamanship that scuttled her, only the treachery of villains and the exigencies of what they call "progress."

While Gavin One-Eye was the owner and Captain of the finest ship on the water, and knew every bay and deep inlet from Hong Kong to Jamaica and back the long way 'round, it was I as his First Mate who mastered the crew and trained them for lightning-fast raids that left our victims dumb and paralyzed by our efficiency. I was the one who discovered the trick of using a halyard attached to the yard of the main mast to swing across the gape of the blue-black swells and leap onto the deck of the targeted ship. It was a daring move, and we had to make sure we'd gauged correctly the height of the grab -- too low, and if the ship curtseyed like a lady in the slough of a wave, you ended up with your feet dragging through the water and a musket ball through the liver; too high, and if the Sly bent backwards to laugh at the feeble quarry, you'd go sailing so far above that you either had to swing back like a fool to your own deck, or drop fifteen feet and fall down like a buffoon if you didn't break a leg and end up rotting in irons. I taught the crew their sword-play, and how to sharpen their blades to a razor edge -- when you're a pirate, you must know how to defend yourself against the accursed landsmen.

Behind the locked doors of the farmstead, the woman wipes her hands on her apron and frets to her husband, "Darling, I'm worried about the boys. We got Michael that pen knife last Christmas, and I've found little chips of wood on the back steps every week since Spring."

"He's whittling. That's what knives are for."

"But what if he whittles a sharp stick and cuts his hand on it? He wouldn't poke anyone with it, would he? I don't want him to get carried away and accidentally hurt his friends."

The husband puts down his book, removes his spectacles, and sighs. "Mother, a sharp stick is essential when you play in the woods. Maybe he'll spear a nice fish for you to cook for our dinner."

"Probably be a carp," she says, turning to the stove.

"And if it is, we'll figure out some way to cook a carp so that Michael can feel as though he's helping with the household. A boy is merely a man waiting to happen. As long as he doesn't terrorize the other children, let him explore his world and play."

I remember the roar of the waves when the wind picked up and the Sly danced ahead of it; we needed no pilot -- the Captain knew how to skim the tops of the swells like a pelican knows to ride the breezes above the harbor waters, and his sense of direction was infallible. The sails rustled in the breeze, and I would cling to the mast of the mainsail and grin into the salty wind while Gavin spun the wheel below, and our flag above whipped fiercely in the sky.

Gavin's good left eye had no patience for the way black cloth fades in the sunlight, so I brought him rich red cloth from the bazaar, and he had the wife of the owner of our favorite inn sew a skull and crossbones on it, a proud flag that stood out in any weather. She would do anything for him, especially after his cutlass killed a spitting cobra in her courtyard, where she was sitting breaking snap peas. The flag flew high and unmistakable above the Calcutta Sly.

Yes, it was a fine time to be alive and invincible, salt pork and ship's bread not withstanding. We foraged ashore for fruits to keep us from the scurvy; wild cherries, raspberries, currants, and if the moon was right, apples from the seaward orchards in the fall, or onions from the crofters' gardens in the spring. (We didn't eat many onions, as they would have given our position away in the dark -- no pirate can risk that.) We took what we needed, we spent what we had to, and every day greeted the sunrise with the knowledge that we were free men with the greatest treasure in the world: a swift, sound ship and a world full of mystery and adventure.

There were times of danger, of course. Once we went ashore and Captain Gavin One-Eye was stung by the darts of vicious natives -- his skin burning like fire, he leaped forward and laid those attackers low with his sword all around him. The rest of the crew and I followed suit, and mowed down every single one of them. When there were no more standing, we faced each other puffing and sweating, and saluted each other with our swords. I found some fabled Jewelweed, and applied it to the Captain's wounds. When the poison stopped burning him, he punched me on the shoulder and called me "Doc Mike, Sawbones of the Sly." The grandest compliment I've ever been paid.

Did we ever make anyone walk the plank? Well, of course we did, we were pirates, and that's what happens if one of the crew turns mutinous or a hostage refuses to cooperate. Our plank, on the Calcutta Sly, was a sycamore log that stretched out over the water so low that you could see the reflection on the surface of the sea. Both Gavin One-Eye and I had prodded various turncoats off the end of the log into the cold currents beneath; but we ourselves had no fear of it, and practiced our swordplay on it regularly, stopping only when one (or both of us) had tumbled into the briny below.

In the kitchen, the woman lectures her husband when he comes home from the counting house. "Every day Michael comes home soaking wet and muddy. I saw him and his friend swinging on a monkey-vine over the creek. They could fall and break their necks. And they're climbing in that big sycamore tree -- you wouldn't believe how high up in the branches they've hung a pirate flag!"

"Pirate flag? Oh, that's why he asked me if bologna tasted like salt pork. He hasn't been after the rum, has he?"

"It's not funny! You have to tell him to stop climbing that tree, and leave the monkey-vine alone!"

"No."

"What?"

"No. They're kids. We can tell them to be careful, and we'll just have to pray that they are."

On the worst day I ever had on the open seas, we were off Gibraltar when the wind deserted us, and left us becalmed. A distant dot drew closer; an array of oars were moving sloppily on either side of the dot, looking like a spider's broken legs. Gavin One-Eye sent me up to the lookout, but they flew no colors for us to identify them. They drew closer, looking up at our flag. Captain Gavin hailed the approaching vessel, (now seen to be a filthy, unseaworthy rag) and asked from what port they had come. He was greeted by silence, as the newcomers watched him warily and eyed the Calcutta Sly with greed. They were huge warriors, like dirty, pimply giants, and great in number. I slithered down from the crow's nest to stand beside my captain.

"Hey, we like your tree!" The ragged leader of the scow shouted. "How about you get out of it?"

"Begone, you miscreants!" shouted Captain Gavin. "This be our ship!"

"Ship? You little turds, tell you what, I'll give you a running start. Get out of the tree and run home to momma."

Injudiciously, I felt compelled to represent the voice of the crew. "Why don't you go jam yourself into the bottom end of a porta-potty? You'll fit right in!"

Alas, our crew was demoralized and fled; I was hit three times before I could duck behind the main mast to reach our armory. I handed weapons to the Captain and we might have been able to prevail had not one of our opponents been equipped with a massive slingshot that he used to spang with a small rock Gavin One-Eye on his left leg so cruelly that Gavin clutched his calf and burst into tears. We fled to Gavin's house, scorched by the laughter of the big kids.

Our time on the sea was done for, the Calcutta Sly surrendered to brigands who abused the ship by their filthy language and destructive ways.

"How's the bruise on his leg doing?" said One-Eye's father. "Those punks. How dare they attack my son on my property?"

"You know how it is these days," his woman told him. "Scare tactics and bullying are everything with the kids."

"The children play at being pirates, and then real pirates come and rough them up. What a world, when kids can't even play at being pretend pirates without someone coming to spoil their fun."

Two weeks later, Gavin's dad saw the four-letter words carved into the trunk of the sycamore tree by the creek, and found a bunch of empty beer cans in the nettle weeds beside it; in a fit of anger, he took his chain saw and cut the tree down, sawed it into chunks, and stacked it to use in the fireplace in years to come.

Gavin eventually convinced his optometrist that his lazy eye was working, and they took the patch off his other eye. But he never sailed again. Instead, we took up the Secret Service, and wore dark sunglasses indoors and out, and ties, and our last fall suit jackets, until our landlubber parents made us stop.

Still, I remember the breeze of the free oceans in my face, and rough texture of the halyard in my hands as I swung across the foamy water to the treasure-laden vessels we pursued. The swordfights, forays into the jungles off the beaches where we hid from the Navy, the inns of Cornwall and the markets of Palermo all color my memories . And at night, when the wind blows through the curtains, sounding to me like the whispering call of the sea, I know that there was no better season than that of the pirates, and no better life.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-09-18
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