O is for Orphan
It seems that the sea is home after all.
I labored on the churning brine since boyhood, hauling in the bulging nets, scraping my hands on the antiquated equipment, lulled to sleep by the creaking hull being tossed about by the water. I was never once made sick by the waves and I swam well before I took my first steps on the deck. When I was a child, I asked the men who my father was. I didn’t quite understand the word orphan they would use when they discussed me over the spray.
“That’s me,” the captain answered.
“Aye, me too!”
“Aye!” They all chorused and I laughed and whooped with them.
The worn fishermen who only cared about the daily haul and their cut of the earnings somehow found a place in their hearts for me.
When we made port and the men headed to the tavern to become pink with ale and warm in the comfort of a woman’s arms, I would slip through the sleepy town as dark as a shadow to the library.
I pried open the back door nearly grown over with ivy and perused the shelves for that night’s hoard. With a stack of books under my arm I’d sneak up the ancient stairs, avoiding the splinters and cracks and the sign that said: Danger- Keep Off Stairs.
I would emerge into the small forgotten clock tower. The odds and ends I’d nicked over the years line the walls of the little room that I’d made absolutely and irrevocably mine. I would turn on the lights I’d strung up around the rafters with old rusted hooks and settled down on the nest of pillows. I would tear through the volumes of poetry and devour Shakespeare, Dickens and Austin.
Evan taught me to read by lantern light below deck when I was small. Mostly equipment manuals or encyclopedias of fish in our little slice of the sea, but still, reading became precious to me. It made me feel like magic. I could travel anywhere with books. I wasn’t stuck in the hammock on the reeking boat. I was a world away smelling the spices of India, sitting in that big park in New York City watching snow fall. I could be wherever the words carried me.
Bobby taught me to gut and clean the fish. He always seemed to understand them better than people. He knew which would taste the best on our dinner plates just by weighing them in one meaty hand or scrutinizing the color of its scales. He also taught me how to hold the knife if it were a man that needed gutting rather than a fish. Liam, with his handsome, chiseled face explained to me all the ways to pleasure a woman before I understood such things. Isaiah, our captain taught me the best way to win a fight was with wit and a wry smile.
I valued the wisdom they passed onto me, but as time wound on, I grew taller and wiser. I came to understand that no matter how the men cared for me, none of them were my father. I developed a skill of my own.
While the men ordered supplies or sold our wares, I slid through the dense market crowds in the towns where we made port. My hands found their way into open pockets. They skimmed along shelves and brushed over wallets.
At first, I didn’t take. I simply let my hands roam at my sides as I walked, dipping into barrels and purses, but remaining empty, just to see if anyone would notice and reprimand me. But no one did and once I nicked the first few quid, I was unstoppable. I took apples and bread when I was hungry, I took money from folks who looked like they had plenty to spare. I took books from the library and only returned the ones I didn’t love.
I stole because pay wasn’t good for an orphan on a fishing boat. I stole because I was a bored little boy with no parents to scold him. I stole because I liked it and I was never caught. No one thought to look twice at the young olive skinned lad, a sea child who carried a knife in his belt and could run faster than anyone foolish enough to give chase.
I brought my little treasures to the clock tower in the library along with the books I chose from the shelves and made the place mine. I enjoyed the solitude, the time to read, to lose myself in another world without the bulbous snores or the creaking of the ship. I went there to dissolve into the pages and become the leader of a rebellion plotting to overthrow a vicious dictator, or a lover wandering through an enchanted night woods, searching for his beloved, or the unwitting foot soldier marching towards his glory.
That tower and those stories were my sanctuary, a place I had a hand in creating, that didn’t rock about and require refueling, that didn’t smell of salt and sweat but instead of old paper and candle wax and the fresh loaf I’d steal from the bakery.
I tried not to wonder about my true parents, what had happened to them and why they felt it was their best option to leave me on the docks. I was only an infant, wrapped in a blanket with a simple O stitched into the hem as if whomever knitted it hadn’t time for the rest. That was the name I’d been called my whole life by the men, as unfinished as my understanding of my past. O. I learned to work my fingers bloody to earn my place on the ship the men had graciously made for me before I could even say the word fish. But I wanted more. I was destined for more.
One night, when I was about thirteen, I absconded to my clock tower after turning down Liam’s offer to buy me a pint. I had just settled down on the pillows when I heard slow and steady footfalls creaking up the old stairs beneath me. I slipped the knife from my belt, held it the way Bobby taught me and crouched behind a stack of books.
I watched a girl with hair as black as a raven’s wing emerge in the tower. She spun in a slow circle, her eyes falling on everything that was mine. I sprung forth, trapping her against a beam, my small blade to her throat.
Her eyes went wide, but then were lit up by the smile on her lips.
“What are you doing here?” I growled. I was clearly not as intimidating as I thought.
“You’re not going to hurt me,”
“And why the hell not?”
“You and I are going to become very good friends, O.”
I didn’t know it then, but the sea would always be my home. Whether it was the churning water or by the side of the girl I met when I was a boy. The girl with black hair and ocean eyes who I welcomed into my haven, who became my best friend and then my lover. The girl named Bryn, who could see the future.
photograph by Chen YiChun