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#77

King Crewman



    Life at sea was not as King Horace had always imagined it would be. Or rather, he was not as he had always imagined he would be if he ever got the chance to experience life at sea in an honest and authentic way. And he had to admit that his experience thus far had certainly been honest and authentic. He was as hungry, weary, sickly and sore as any of the other crewmen, but he had expected these afflictions, even looked forward to them. What he had not anticipated was that despite his perfect disguise, despite his perfect integration into the ship’s crew, he could not fully inhabit the role. He did not feel like a sailor. He felt like the King. Even at night, lying bare-chested and sweating in his cot below decks, listening to the rats bite mouthfuls of each others’ fur, listening to the horrible, arrhythmic breathing of his crewmates as they dreamt of their favorite ports and their homely families, King Horace felt like the King.  And as the King, he worried about his Kingdom.

     When King Horace had finally determined that Prince Irwin, at age twenty, was experienced enough to run the Kingdom in his absence, the decision had felt right. He had felt no qualms. Prince Irwin had been hesitant, but King Horace had taken this as a good sign. Had Prince Irwin seemed too eager, King Horace would have been worried, but he felt that Prince Irwin’s reluctance indicated the proper level of respect for the enormity of the job. But now, hundreds of miles from land, his daily life boiled down to rum, biscuits, and rope, King Horace could think of almost nothing except for example after example of Prince Irwin’s immaturity and irresponsibility. The time Prince Irwin had entered the jousting tournament with a rubber lance as a joke. The time he’d let his pet snake starve to death because he didn’t like it. The time he’d challenged King Sigmund’s court jester to an arm-wrestling match at an enormous joint-kingdom harvest feast and lost badly in front of everyone.

     Now, with Prince Irwin possibly running the kingdom straight into the ground in his absence, the only person who knew King Horace’s true whereabouts was Crantley, his chief steward, who King Horace had turned to for help in disguising himself as a sailor and getting a spot on The Tossup, a merchant vessel bound for a cluster of distant islands to trade a load of cheaply made crossbows for a load of soap, a fad that currently had King Horace’s kingdom by the throat. Other than Crantley, everyone else, including Queen Mineela and Prince Irwin, thought King Horace was on a long retreat at a monastery in the mountains. Or perhaps they’d discovered his ruse by now. There was no way for King Horace to know for sure, but it was far too late for anyone back home to do anything except struggle to keep the kingdom together until he returned from his adventure. Certainly no one on board The Tossup had any idea of King Horace’s true identity. To Captain Burkiss and the first and second mates, King Horace was just another anonymous sailor, and to the few men on board who had bothered to ask his name, he was Rushman, an inexperienced, brooding, secretive, but trustworthy and capable member of the crew and nothing more. And King Horace couldn’t help but think that that by the time he returned to a kingdom conquered or in ruins, that’s all he would be.

 

 

A full month after The Tossup had first set sail, Captain Burkiss guided the ship to a tiny, sparsely-inhabited island where he knew they could drop anchor, perform some needed maintenance on the ship, and replenish their supply of fresh water. Other than a few unlucky men who had to stay and watch the ship, the sailors were allowed to go ashore for a night of relaxation and moderate trouble-making.

     The island’s only tavern was a sagging structure with three walls comprised of driftwood and palm fronds. Where the fourth wall should have been the tavern opened onto a dirt patio and, beyond that, the beach and the ocean.  King Horace sat on the patio and drank watery rum at a low table with two sleepy crewmen who trusted him not to steal from them if they passed out. From King Horace’s place at the table he had a clear view into the tavern, but the sight of his fellow sailors making merry only served to draw his own inability to enjoy himself into sharper relief. This whole plan was supposed to be about finally shedding the burden of the responsibilities he’d carried around his entire life. It was supposed to be about living in a way that few kings ever had the chance to experience. It was supposed to be about living in the moment and losing oneself in labor and danger and adventure. It was not supposed to be about spending every minute fretting about the condition of an entire kingdom full of people with no way to do anything about it.

     The rum tasted terrible and King Horace decided not to finish it. Then he took another drink anyway. As he set his cup back down on the table, he saw Captain Burkiss and the first mate - an emotional, elderly man named Jip - come into the tavern and install themselves on rickety stools at the bar. Both of King Horace’s drinking companions were asleep, their snores stuttering in and out through ravaged respiratory systems.

     Even in the jolly atmosphere of the tavern, King Horace noticed that the crewmen steered clear of Captain Burkiss and Jip, a phenomenon he had observed on the few occasions when he’d tried to take part in levity back in his kingdom. King Horace stood up from the table, dumped the rest of his rum in the dirt, and walked to the bar with his empty cup in hand. Jip saw him coming and frowned, but when King Horace cleared his throat and asked Captain Burkiss if he could join them for a few minutes, the Captain was thrilled, clapping King Horace on the back with his hand and shouting “Of course, of course!” his ruddy face beaming with relief that perhaps he wasn’t so unapproachable after all.

     “Let me get you a drink,” said Captain Burkiss as King Horace sat down on a stool on his right hand side.

     “No, thank you,” said King Horace. “I’ve had more than I wanted. I actually just need to talk to you.”

     “That sounds serious,” said Captain Burkiss, grinning and plucking something small and alive out of his wild, gray sideburns. “What’s your name, Sailor?”

“The crew knows me as Rushman,” said King Horace. “But that’s what I need to talk to you about. That’s not my true identity.”

     Captain Burkiss snorted and threw back the remainder of his rum. “Ninety percent of the men on every boat on the ocean right now are using false names, Rushman. It’s expected. No reason to feel guilty.”

     “But I need to tell you who I really am, Captain. I’m actually a king. I’m King Horace. I disguised myself because I wanted to experience the life of a common sailor, the life of a low and despised class, but it isn’t working and now we need to turn the ship around and go back to my kingdom before serious harm befalls it, if it hasn’t already.”

     Captain Burkiss, still smiling, looked King Horace up and down for a moment and then, out of the corner of his mouth, he spoke to Jip in a low voice. “Get this guy away from me, Jip.”

     Before King Horace could react, Jip had him in a headlock, wrestling him towards the tavern door. King Horace had expected Jip to be strong in spite of his age, but Jip was not strong and King Horace could have easily broken free and knocked him down. But that didn’t seem like the most prudent course of action. It was clear that Captain Burkiss was not going to give him a chance to prove his true identity. King Horace allowed himself to be shoved out into the tropical night where he gave the tavern one last look and then strode down the jungle path that led back to the small boats the crew had used to come ashore. On his way, King Horace passed crewman after crewman crawling their way to the beach on hands and knees, too drunk to walk upright. Some of these he kicked in the thigh or ribs, knowing they’d never remember.

 

     The next morning, after the last of the crew had straggled back to The Tossup with the barrels of fresh water, Captain Burkiss, sweating as if the day was thirty degrees hotter than it really was, ordered one last thorough look at the hull for any serious trouble spots even though they’d already done so the previous morning. Then he retired to his cabin, leaving Jip in charge. Shortly after the Captain had disappeared, Jip retired to his cabin and left the second mate, a youthful, timid man named Pottle in charge. Pottle, in a quavering voice, ordered everyone down in the hold to look for signs of leakage. While the grumbling, hung-over crew descended the ladders into the hold, Pottle stood by the hatch with his hands on his slim hips and stuck out his lower lip in a way that he must have thought made him appear incapable of sympathy.

     Once the men were all below deck, moving the crates of crossbows around and peering at the planks beneath their feet in the dim light admitted through the open portholes just above the surface of the water, King Horace began to feel desperate. He couldn’t bear the thought of traveling further from his kingdom for even one more day. What if he were to convince Captain Burkiss to turn the ship around tomorrow, and then when they finally got back to his kingdom, they were to discover that they were one day too late to avert disaster? No, they needed to set sail for home today. By any means necessary. And with the crew in a foul mood over this unnecessary extra work that seemed to be little more than an excuse for the Captain and the First Mate to take naps, King Horace knew that now was the time to act.

     “Hey,” he said to a man with a withered hand who was helping him stack crates against the starboard side of the hold. “I know something that I don’t think I’m supposed to know.”

     “Good for you,” grunted the other man, hoisting a crate to the top of the stack.

     “Last night at the tavern,” said King Horace. “I wasn’t drinking. Not very much, anyway, and I left early. But I didn’t want to spend all night on the beach, so I found a nice spot in a clearing near the path and I laid down there. But some time in the night, I woke up to the sound of voices. It was the Captain and the first mate!”

     “Lazy bilge rats,” said the man. “Won’t pull their own weight.”

     “Exactly,” said King Horace. “And wait until I tell you what I heard them saying.”

     “Was it about me?” asked the man. “Did they mention me?”

     “It was about all of us,” said King Horace.

     “What’s this?” said another man who was looking for leaks nearby. The good quality of his teeth was startling. “What are you talking about?”

     “The Captain and the first mate,” said King Horace. “Plotting against us. Plotting to cheat us.”

     “Cheat us?” asked the man with the good teeth. “Cheat us how?”

     “Well, I’m not sure, exactly,” said King Horace. “Something about drugging us once we reach port and hiring a new crew of cheap, foreign sailors and then just leaving us there without paying us.”

     “I’ve heard all I need to hear,” said the man with the withered hand. “Let’s mutiny.”

     “Just like that?” asked King Horace. He was surprised at how little it had taken to get to this point.

     “Isn’t that what you’re suggesting?” asked the man with the good teeth. “Isn’t that why you’re telling us?”

     “Well, yes,” said King Horace. “But are you sure we can pull it off?”

     “Oh, sure,” said the man with the withered hand. “Mutiny is easy. I’ve been involved in lots of mutinies.”

A man with one bloodshot eye and filthy hands popped his head around the corner of the stack of crates. “You guys talking about mutiny? How soon?”

     “See?” said the man with the good teeth, showing all of them with a wide smile. “Everyone likes to mutiny.”

     Even as he spoke, word of the mutiny was spreading through the hold, the crewmen buzzing with excitement and stopping whatever they were doing to crowd around King Horace.

     “What’s going on down there?” shouted Pottle from up on the deck. “Does anyone see any leaks?”

     The men snickered, struggling to contain their amusement. “None so far, sir!” shouted a fat man in a vest made out of fur dyed red.

     “Do I need to come down there and look myself?” called Pottle.

     “Maybe so, sir,” shouted the fat man.

     There was a long pause as the men bit their tongues and waited for Pottle’s response. Finally he spoke. “If you say there aren’t any leaks, then I’m sure you’re right!”

     The men roared with laughter and the mutiny was on.

 

     With a great deal of shouting and no resistance, the crewmen scrambled up the ladders to the deck and seized Pottle, binding him hand and foot. Then they stormed Captain Burkiss’s cabin, dragged him from his bunk, and bound him hand and foot and did the same with Jip. Before King Horace could fully comprehend what had happened, all three of The Tossup’s authority figures were kneeling on the deck, struggling against their bonds and calling down curses on the jubilant crewmen, who capered around with a giddy energy of which King Horace had never imagined them capable. Pottle, to King Horace’s surprise, was stoic, making eye contact with no one, while Jip wept dramatically. When King Horace remarked of his amazement at how smoothly the mutiny had gone, the crewman with the withered hand said, “Mutinies are only tough when there’s a group of guys who doesn’t want to mutiny and they’re willing to fight about it. But this is a good crew. Pretty much all of us are happy to mutiny.”

     “Why are you doing this?” screamed Captain Burkiss. “This mutiny is utterly without provocation!”

     “You were gonna cheat us,” said a crewman with a rooster in profile tattooed on his forehead. “You were gonna drug us and replace us!”

     “I was going to do nothing of the sort! Where did you hear that?”

     The man with the rooster tattoo shrugged.

     “It was this one!” shouted the man with the good teeth, pointing at King Horace. “He heard you conspiring in the jungle!”

Captain Burkiss narrowed his eyes at King Horace. “I remember you.” He raised his voice. “Men, this is the man you’re listening to now? Do you know that he believes himself to be a king? He wanted me to turn the ship around to sail back to his kingdom, and when I wouldn’t listen to his madness, he hatched a plan to incite mutiny and commandeer the vessel for his own purposes! And now you’re all his unwitting accomplices!”

The crewmen fell silent and looked at King Horace.

“And how,” asked Captain Burkiss, “will you be paid for your service if we never reach port and no business transaction occurs? How will you receive your share of a profit that doesn’t exist?”

The crewmen were waiting for an answer and King Horace knew that his life and the continued existence of his kingdom depended on his answer.

“I am no king,” said King Horace. “That’s ridiculous. But I do know that if we bring an admitted smuggler to King Horace so that justice can be served, then there will be a handsome reward in it for us all.”

“I’ve admitted nothing!” roared Captain Burkiss.

“Then you shall walk the plank,” shouted a stubby, horribly sunburned man.

In the ensuing uproar, King Horace tried to point out that it would be impossible to claim their rewards without proof that the smuggler hadn’t simply escaped, but most of the crewmen were far too excited to make Captain Burkiss, Jip, and Pottle walk the plank to listen to reason. Those who did hear King Horace’s protests mentioned something about a little piracy being a more lucrative option than a stingy king’s meager reward anyway and then rushed to join in the plank-walking spectacle with the rest of the crew. King Horace felt ill. He had never intended for the mutiny to get so out of hand. The reasons for mutiny, the consequences, what the next step would be: none of these things seemed to matter to the crew in the slightest. Even if King Horace had wanted to stop the mutiny, there was no way he could have. And whether he liked it or not, it still seemed like the quickest way home, provided the other crewmen continued to view him as the an authority figure for masterminding the mutiny.

Pottle was the first to go, shuffling down the plank with minimal prodding, giving one last look up at the wind-whipped clouds, and then stepping off and disappearing with a splash into the calm, blue water. Jip was next, reciting an original poem that was impossible to hear over all the jeering. He stood at the end of the plank and just kept reciting and reciting until someone gave the plank a good thump and he toppled off the end. Captain Burkiss was last, and as he stepped out onto the plank, he turned around and gazed hard and unblinking at King Horace, almost seeming to recognize him for who he truly was. “If you really are a King, this is the kind of thing you should never, ever participate in. This is savage and base. Violent impulse and nothing more. If you have truly sought to experience the life of a low and despised class, your experience is complete. You are now, without a doubt, both low and despicable. If, in the afterlife, word comes to me that you have made it home unscathed, I will be shocked.” And with that, Captain Burkiss turned and strode off the end of the plank.

 

That night, lying in the Captain’s bunk as the ship sailed for home, King Horace hoped with all his might that something bad enough to justify his actions was happening to his kingdom. Something dire, something dreadful, something that appeared hopeless to all but him. Something that only his bodily presence could rectify.

Outside the cabin door, he heard a creak that could have been nothing or could have been the sneaky approach of someone intent on harming him. King Horace sat up in his bunk and held his breath, listening. The creaking sound was gone, it seemed, but King Horace was certain that it would come back.

 




Discussion Questions

  • Do you romanticize the lives of a lower and/or despised class? What about the way they live do you find appealing?



  • Beyond simply losing or gaining a bunch of money, how long do you think it would take for you to actually become a member of a different class of people? Do you think it can happen purposefully or intentionally? What would be your strategy?



  • Do you think King Horace’s motive for mutiny is more justifiable than the motives of the rest of the crew? Or, considering his background, is it less justifiable? Or is at exactly the same level of justifiable?



  • How much better would this story have been if I had included a lot of details concerning the layout of the ship, how the crew steers the ship, how navigation works, and more specific information about each crew member’s role on the ship? What about a storm scene?



  • In movies, which are worse: storm scenes on ships or birth scenes?



  • Why is it so easy to confuse actions that will put our own minds at ease with actions for the greater good? Do you think that all of King Horace’s years ruling a kingdom should have better prepared him for this kind of ethical dilemma?



  • I forgot to mention that Queen Mineela is actually younger than Prince Irwin. King Horace married her after his first wife died in order to secure an alliance with King Alken’s kingdom. Oh yeah, I also forgot to mention that Queen Mineela is King Alken’s daughter.



  • So anyway, she’s not going to be much help if there’s a problem while King Horace is off experiencing life as a sailor, is she? Unless maybe she can get King Alken to help. But he’s pretty feeble these days. And cautious. So probably not a lot of reason to hope there, right?