Palo Alto Weekly 20th Annual Short Story
by Wendy Wu
My most common predicaments usually involve me stealing an apple, or a loaf of bread on the busy streets of San Francisco. The storekeepers don't see me, but every one in a while, I get myself caught. They usually hit me with a loaf of bread and scold me. But it's worth the punishment, and I tell myself; at least you got the food. I'd rather steal food than to starve to death on the alleys of the big city.
I guess I should tell you a little about myself. As you can guess, I live in the streets of San Francisco. It's quite busy by trade and everyday about ten schooners or boats come from a territory nearby, maybe Alaska, or Oregon, hauling lumber, coal, or salmon. I was always fascinated by ships, always dreamed of becoming a cabin boy, or learning how to navigate, but there was always one thing that stood in the way: my fear of water.
And because of water, I'll never sail any of the seven seas. Water ain't my only reason. Who'd want to take in an alley runt as an apprentice? I'm only nine years old, or so I look like it, and the orphans call me a scrawny runt. Everyday I live my life with the boys, stealing food, getting into trouble, running around the streets. "Mischief gets you nowhere, young'un," the shopkeepers would often shout to us.
But this is different. Much different. Out of all my situations I have never dared go near the water. But here I am, sitting below decks on the three-masted schooner, The Sailqueen , on the way to Alaska. I guess this is goodbye to the alley boys, the orphan runts, even the shopkeepers, because my dumb mistake is acquiring me a lifetime in Alaska.
"Alrighty, Hazel. Go in for a last check on cargo before we leave. We have to be sure there ain't anything wrong with the fish during our three month voyage."
One pair of footsteps drew nearer to my position. My heart raced faster and faster as the person approached, hoping I wouldn't be found out. I held my breath.
"Well, looky here," a soft voice whispered, as she heaved heavy barrels out of they way. My face was visible.
"Heh, a stowaway." Her face showed a sneer, like the type a poker player would have on after revealing a straight flush. "Best you make yourself useful 'cus the deckhands have already heaved the hawsers." The soft voice belonged to a girl who seemed about three or four years older than me. Despite the sneer, she had sparkling hazel eyes and mahogany hair in a thick braid. In her hair was a dirty red bandana. "Here. Let me help you out." She pulled me out of my hiding spot, and brought me to a room.
"This is the captain's quarters, and this is the captain. You are to address him as Sir."
A buff looking man came out of a door in the corner. He had brown colored hair with a cap, honey colored eyes, and a beard. He looked slightly similar to the girl.
"Father, I bring you a stowaway."
"Hazel, on the ship you call me Sir."
"Aye," replied Hazel as she stepped out of the room. The man's attention turned to me.
"Since you stowed yourself away on my ship," he stated, "that makes you a member of my crew. I expect you to work like anyone else. And since Hazel found you, you will work for her in the galley," he declared, as he handed me a dirty red bandana like the one Hazel was wearing. "Keep this in your pocket. It symbolizes that you are my crew member."
"Yes, Sir" I said, trying to sound as confident as Hazel.
"That's an aye."
As I left the room, Hazel lead me to the galley. "I'm Hazel Bleak, by the way, daughter of the captain and assistant to the doctor." she said.
"I'm Luke Mostren," I responded. Thinking for a title, I quickly stammered, "I'm an alley orphan from the streets of San Francisco."
Hazel smiled. "I'm not native to this land, for I was born in Canada, but I visit San Francisco every year during the Alaskan Salmon Trade. Turns out the The Sailqueen is one of the top schooners in the business."
Hazel stopped, and said, "This is the Galley. Today you will work for Sandy, one of my assistants, and help prepare supper," she decided, and took me into the pantry as she hopped off below decks to where I was hiding before.
Sandy was a scrawny man with a fiery temper. He commanded me to put a log in the oven every fifteen minutes. I was also ordered to cut vegetables, but my flimsy fingers cut giant chunks for the stew that nobody could fit in their mouth. Under the constant swearing of Sandy, I learned that not everybody on the crew was as nice as Hazel, but I was soon to find out about her bittersweet personality and her evil punishments.
"WHAT IN TARNATIONS IS GOING ON, STOW BOY?" blasted Hazel, surprising me with her sudden presence and abrupt change of personality. "For your inexperience, you will be scrubbing oatmeal pots by yourself, and will not enjoy the pleasures of dog watch for a month!" She seemed to be out of breath from her explosion. "Do I hear an aye, boy?"
"Aye, Hazel." I spoke meekly.
"That's an Aye, Mate!"
Supper that night was horrible. I felt guilty for my stupid chunks, three times as big as the others. I also missed San Francisco. My mischievous spirit had leaded me to a laborious life on the sea, eating stew and bread everyday. I silently retreated to my bunk in the fo'c'sle, and went to sleep in the shivering cold, only to wake up the next day, still as clumsy as ever.
A month had passed. Under Hazel, I had learned almost all the names of the members in the Galley (that I needed to know), and almost all the basic nautical terms. I also learned bell time, and a few chanteys, too. As for the crew, there was Sandy, whom I had worked for on my first night; the doctor, who was always in his cabin; Pale Peters, who was another assistant of Hazel's; Norbert, who was missing an eye; and Daffty, who couldn't speak. "Later, as I was sitting in my bunk, Hazel told me, if you want to learn more, you should go the Captain and join the Riggers. It'd be useful." She seemed to want to get rid of me because of the disaster and chaos I was still causing, but I thought it was a good idea. When I agreed, she sent me over to her father, and then I began to learn the ropes of sailing.
With the riggers, I discovered that one little mistake could blow the entire ship off course. Captain Bleak let me work with the bosun's chair for starters. You had to have strong muscles to heave the heavy thick "lines". Yelling the orders was Captain Bleak. Captain Bleak had the same warmth in his voice as Hazel, but he also shared the extreme temper. But unlike Hazel, he was great at navigation and I would always peek at his sextant, compass, and other tools in his cabin, always suffering the consequences. It took a week before the captain trusted me to go on watch, and I still wondered why he let me. I couldn't master the clove hitch or the belay to cleat. I tied my finger into the catspaw and the only knot I knew was the square knot. But he said, "Everyone has to do their share, Luke, and now you must do night watch." So later that night, I was on watch for the first time. The captain planted me on the foredeck, and told me to report anything suspicious to my mate, Mr. Tymerry.
We had been on watch for a few hours already. Some of the crew members were asleep; including Mr. Tymerry. The night air on the Pacific Ocean was both refreshing and freezing cold, and the ink-black sky gleamed with the millions of star specks floating above my head. A single seagull cawed and swooped over my head. I was almost in a trance, bewildered by the beauty of the ocean. "Enjoy it while you can," whispered a voice behind me. Startled, I nearly jumped while turning my head to see who the person was.
"Captain!" I gasped, straightening up immediately.
"Lad, no need to be frightened," murmured Captain Bleak. "Just wanted to speak to you for a while."
"But I'm on watch. Won't the mate get angry with me, Sir?
"The mate can't monitor you if he's not asleep, eh lad?"
"Haha..." replied my faint, uneasy chuckle, "Er, I mean Aye, Sir."
"The quicker you get things done, the more your mates will appreciate you. But you still must give effort and quality to your job. I have always had faith in you, don't let me down. Aye, lad?" he asked.
"Aye, Sir!" I whispered, with a newfound energy inside of me. But when I turned around, he vanished.
I spotted a cloud in the distance, but I didn't think of it much. But the next week, the cloud conjured up more clouds, and then they changed from their mellow white into deep purple thunderclouds. Before we knew it, we were being blown off course by the winds of the storm.
CRASH! BOOM! Went the sound of thunder as it hit the waves of the dark, churning sea. The ship tossed and turned, like a toy sail boat in the waters of a bathtub. The black winds were whirling around like a tornado, and it reminded me of a nightmare I had long ago. It felt like a hurricane, if you didn't hold onto something, you would be swept away to who-knows-where. The riggers were off their feet, and so was I. We were taking down sails, trying to prevent masts from breaking. As the chaos ran through the boat, thoughts of the captain's speech went though my head and I couldn't concentrate on my tasks. I always have had faith in you, don't let me down.
"Help!" someone cried in the waves. I glanced towards the water, and saw Hazel and the old doctor in the bottomless sea. As though an instinct told me to, I instantly bellowed, "Quick, someone throw me a rope! People are in the water!" As the boat got in control, everyone was tugging on the thick line that I summoned. We all obeyed as Mr. Tymerry's hollers shook the ship. "HEAVE! HO! HEAVE! HO!" As Hazel and the doctor were being pulled through crashing waves, I noticed that the bowline knot around them was slipping. Disobeying the commands of Mr.Tymerry, I swiftly dived down into the deep sea, wrapped one hand on the rope, another grasping the hands of the doctor and Hazel, and signaled to be pulled up.
As we were pulled through the violent waves, I noticed how cold the water was. I could feel my arms numb, and I choked as mouthfuls of salt water swashed down my throat. I felt moments when my lungs couldn't take anymore, but then the currents would pull me up to the surface and I'd catch my breath before the wind hurled me into the water again.
The maneuver reminded me of a dolphin leaping, but I knew this sensation was far from the exhilaration a dolphin could experience leaping about. Then I discovered the sea was beneath me, and I was being pulled aboard.
My head was hurting like crazy, and water was still trapped in my lungs, but happiness was in my heart, because I had faced my fear of water.
I remember drinking some ginger water that the doctor gave me because I had swallowed too much salt water. Someone was also calling me, but my head hurt too much for me to answer. When the storm subsided, I heard two elder sailors talking about my brave deed. I felt as gallant as a stallion. I had saved two people's lives and I lived to tell the tale. I remember Hazel joking, "Don't get too bigheaded, boy."
Even with my spectacular save, we were still in trouble. We ran out of provisions and lived on hard tack, which was bread so rotten and so hard there were maggots in it, and salt pork stew, which was just water with old flavorless meat. We drank a little of lime gin everyday to prevent scurvy. I lived with it, and called it torture, but the captain called it food rations.
That night forward, Captain Bleak invited me to sit next to him at dog watch. He pronounced me a hero in front of all my crew mates, and we all sang chanteys for entertainment. I just sat there, listened to yarns, sang some chanteys, and washed a few dishes until it was time for night watch.
I once again took my place on the foredeck, but the ocean was not the same as it was on the first night. The water had become bluer, the air more cold, and occasionally a small chunk of ice came around. That dawn, we all celebrated as a crew member looking out from the crow's nest hollered, "Land Ahoy!"
We had made it to Alaska!
I stood on the foredeck, eyes wild with fascination. This was much different than San Francisco. All the people were bundled up in thick clothing, and only then did I notice that my limbs were getting cold.
As The Sailqueen pulled up on the docks of Anchorage, I wondered for a bit. What would happen to me ? Would I be left at Alaska, to spend my life there forever? Would I stow away on another trading ship? As I helped the bosun crew unload the thousands of crates of salmon, I couldn't help thinking about my future. I shivered as someone tapped my shoulder.
"Luke?" asked Hazel.
"Aye? I mean, Yes?"
"My father asked me to ask you if you would be willing to work for him with the Riggers. We can send you back to San Francisco if you'd like. If you're interested, we're leaving at fourteen-hundred hours."
"Really, Hazel? That would be wonderful."
As I embarked the Sailqueen , I noticed a new feeling. Not a feeling of despair like what I felt as a stowaway earning my fare, but a feeling of hope, of triumph, of happiness, because this time I board the ship, I'm not a stowaway anymore; I'm a member of the crew, now, just like Tymerry, Hazel, and the Captain.
Short story writers wanted!
The 31st Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult (15-17) and Teen (12-14) categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 13, 2017. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.