Sun Ra - Column for 9/24

No matter how pleasant the dream, a bucket of cold salt water in the face will pluck one out of it right quick. Thomas Blue had certainly believed this in sort of an academic fashion, but with the characteristic exclamation ("Aaaaa!") of a person getting hit in said face with said water, now had the chance to make this observation far more personally than he had ever really wished to.

There was a figure standing in front of him, grinning. Or rather, performing the counterpart for grinning when one has only three teeth.

"Yarr," it said.

Thomas shook his head, sprinkling water around the small room he was in. He had a very distinct sinking feeling as he made a mental inventory.

"Floor?" He patted the surface he was lying on. "Wooden. Moving slightly. Companion?" He looked at the tooth-displaying figure in front of him. "Charitably described as 'refuse'. Decoration?" He risked a look at the walls. "Rope, some barrels, and some soiled French woodcuts." The conclusion was obvious.

"Yarr," it said. So did the pirate in front of him. "Is yer awake?" He closed his mouth, squinted an eye, and peered at Thomas out of the other.

A moment passed. Thomas dismissed his immediate response of "No. Sitting up and rubbing my eyes, but not awake, certainly," as not being very apropos, either for the audience or the situation. The pirate continued to ogle him until he sighed and replied "Yes, I suppose I am."

"Good. Then yer ta wait here whil's I fetch the mate." The pirate turned, bucket in hand, and shambled off through a low door.

Thomas rubbed his head. How on earth had he wound up here? The last thing he could remember was the vague sense of relief he had as he was thrown into a small cell in the Port Royal prison. He had been there so often for "drunken and unorderly" that the place smelled more familiar than the straw pallet he had for a bed at Ms. Nasely's boarding house. But now he was here. He must have been, what was it, Peking'ed. No, Shanghaied! That was it.

But out of a prison?

Looking up, he found several pairs of eyes peering at him from around the frame of the door. Thomas stood up, and made the painful discovery that, although the door was low, the fact that it ran from floor to ceiling should have warned him that the ceiling was low, too. No wonder the snaggletoothed pirate had such a stoop.

"Yarr," one of the figures beyond the threshold said. "Who'r you?"

"I'm Thomas Blue," Thomas replied, rubbing the bump on his head.

"Whyin'ell are ye Thomas Blue? Ye got red 'air!" the voice replied.

"Er," said Thomas, "that's my name. It was my father's name, right?"

"Did yer father 'ave bloo 'air?" asked another of the group outside the door.

Thomas sighed, and was debating the wisdom of a discussion of patronymics when a pair of hands grabbed two of the heads beyond the door and pushed them aside.

"Out of my way, scallywags!" said the thin, blond man who forced his way through the crowd and into the small room. "You're Thomas Red, then?" he asked, adjusting a small pair of spectacles.

"Thomas Blue," Thomas replied, exasperated.

"But you have red hair," the other man observed. Before Thomas could reply, he held up a finger. "No matter. Come up on deck with me." The man turned and strode away, pushing his way through the pirates at the door.

After quick deliberation, Thomas followed. The pirates at the door leaned back to let him through, and he hurried down the narrow, rolling passageway after the man with the glasses. Behind him, the debate continued.

"Thomas Blue, 'e sez"

"But 'e's got red 'air!"

"Thomas Blue-Red, then."

"Whassat then? Thomas Mauve?"

"Fuschia, methinks."

"Naw. 'S Burgundy, ye tits! Yarrr."

"Yarrr," agreed the chorus.


The sea air cut managed to cut through the smell of unwashed bodies which permeated the underdeck. Thomas emerged, squinting, from the hold via a ladder, onto a deck cluttered with rope, crates, straw, and chickens. Beyond the railings was only ocean as far as he could see.

"Ah, the open sea," said the thin blond man. "Nothing quite like it, eh?"

Thomas rubbed his bruised head. "No, I suppose not. Er, if you don't mind me asking," he began, eyes on the cutlass idly shoved into the blonde's belt, "why am I here?"

"Oh, that. Well, the Captain said to bring you aboard, when we broke several of the lads out of that jail. Said we could use a man who could read and write."

"Ah. And how did you know I could do that?"

"You were writing on the walls of your cell. Looked like some of those French books, all 'bodice' and 'bosoms'. The Captain asked me to read some of it, and that's when he decided we could use you."

"I see. Very flattering, um, Mr..."

"Oh, how terribly brusque of me. My name's Shank. I'm the second mate of this vessel, the good ship Leopar."

"Ah. Well, um, pleased to meet you, I suppose. The 'Leopard', eh?"

"Not quite. See, we call her that because she keeps losing bits."

Thomas leaned on the railing, pausing with his mouth open. The sea rushed by below.

"No 'D', eh?"

"No 'D'."

"Right. So, ah, Mr. Shank-"

"Just 'Shank'."

"Right. So, Shank," Thomas glanced at the other man, who was wiping off his glasses, "not to be rude or anything, but why would I agree to, um, join you lads?"

"Well, Mr. Blue-but-should-be-Red, I'm going to offer you a simple choice. Join us, or die."

Thomas looked back at the water.

"I see. Yes, that is a simple choice, really. Death, or Piracy. Death, or Piracy. Death.... or Piracy. Well, upon careful reflection, I think I'll take Death."

Shank's eyebrows went up. He gestured at a few pirates, who grinned (well, showed some, er, a few teeth), and drew cutlasses. The "Yarr"s turned menacing.

"Er, Piracy! Piracy! I meant I'll take Piracy!"

The pirates looked at Mr. Shank, who waved at them. They appeared annoyed, but went back to aggressively lounging.

"I see you lot don't get much sarcasm, Shank," observed Thomas.

"Is that what that was? You'd best be more careful with that."

"Right. Um, say, does anyone ever actually choose Death?"

"Hmmm. Not so far. But the boys can always hope."

There was a pause.

"Well. So, ah, Shank, what is it that you want me to do? I mean, I don't know the first thing about sailing."

"As I understand it, you are going to be keeping the ship's logbook, accounts, and that sort of thing. Er, and maybe writing some French-type stories."

"Right. Okay, I can probably do that. Er, I recall you saying that you could read. Why doesn't the Captain have you do them?"

"I have been, but he doesn't like my style." Shank shrugged. "He's the Captain."

"I see. Er, when am I going to get to meet him? And the rest of the crew?"

"Well, I suppose that the Captain will summon you to his cabin soon enough. That's the first mate over there." Shank gestured towards the mizzenmast. "His name's Willy."

Thomas looked over, and couldn't see anyone. Then he realized that one of the larger crates was moving. It looked to be about four feet on a side, and was slowly circling the mast.

Then he realized that someone was carrying it.

A large, bald man, about the size of a small horse, only more muscular, was carrying the crate around the mast in a slow circle. His black eyes caught Thomas', and he smiled. His teeth glinted.

"They're steel," said Shank. "He had his real teeth knocked out when a ship ran into him." Shank began sharpening a belaying pin with a knife. "Oh, and he's mute. He can hear just fine, though, so don't be making the mistake of calling him 'Little Willy'. He sat the last chap who did that down on top of the mast. And then pulled him all the way to the deck."

"Sweet Charity," whispered Thomas. "What's the Captain like?"

"Oh," observed Shank, "he's hard, he is. Only reason Willy is still first mate is 'cause he's afraid of the Captain."

"And no one's chosen Death, you say?"

"Well, not at first. Buck up, Mr. Purple, it's not so bad. The lads just like to have fun, that's all."

"Fun, yes. I can see that. Say, why are you here, Shank? You seem better educated than the average pirate."

"I'm a murderer, me. Wanted in eleven colonies."

"Did you do it?"

"Hell yes. They mocked my life's work."

Before he realized what he was doing, Thomas heard himself ask "And what's that?"

"I'm writing the first Unabridged Thesaurus."

"Ah."

"See, I believe that the kind of Thesaurus you can get nowadays is way too small. The King's English is almost totally flexible - any noun can be a verb, any verb can be a noun, and any noun or verb can be almost any other noun or verb. But do common Thesaurii reflect that? They do not. So I'm dedicating my life to writing an Unabridged Thesaurus."

"And people thought you were crazy?"

Shank turned to him excitedly. "Exactly! The small minded fools! Of course, they aren't laughing now."

"I suppose not."

Shank clapped Thomas on the back. "Well, I'm going to go ask the Captain if he's ready to see you. Here, have a look at the ledger books." Shank handed him a large book bound in cracked leather. "I'd try and get up to speed quickly, if I were you."

As Shank walked across to the Captain's cabin, Thomas opened the book, and flipped to the last entry.

"Roger juniper over the harsh guy-rope. Five hundred barrels of humorous pickle, two hundred of drive cutlass, and year forward the thunder boinging."

Thomas sighed, closed the book, and turned back to watch the waves. Around him the pirates went about their daily tasks, most of which involved loitering and emitting the soft "Yarrr"s of their trade. Willy continued to circle the mast. Thomas rubbed his head.

"Mister Blue," said a voice behind him, reminiscent of a sword slowly pulling from its sheath, "I'm wishing to speak with ye."

Thomas turned around.

Columns by Sun Ra