9/17/2003

In Which... Pirates!

Through the long quiet hours of the night the boat rocked, slapped on both sides by Mediterranean waves mild as a mother's hands patting a baby to sleep. In his barrel, Hot Face was actually stifling, protected from the breeze as he was. Each hour the all's clear from the crow's nest roused him from whatever semblance of slumber he'd almost fallen into. Until just after five a.m., when, reflexively, he shook himself wide awake. Something was not quite right. Then it dawned on him: there had been no word from the lookout. And here the wood staves that held and cramped him and made it difficult to breathe were a blessing: he could not see through them to the indignity that had been visited on the young man up atop the mainsail. Nor could he see the rest of the crew seated around the base of the mast, stripped to their dirty underwear and gagged with their own smelly clothing. He would have noticed right off that these pirates were clearly professionals: they passed straight over the big barrels of cloth that weren't worth the trouble to carry them off, and made for the little half-barrels that were worth their weight in gold, containing as they did that rarest of commodities in those days of heavy rationing: cayenne pepper. Only when he heard the lewd voices of these marauding brigands strike up a traditional pirate chanty did the import of the silence that had come before dawn on the boy in the barrel. His face grew warm, as by now you will have noticed it always did when he was faced with a life-defining choice.