Writing Exercise: Storytime

The little that I know about my father’s history as a sailor boils down to this: there are things I will never know, and for that I should be grateful. His words, not mine. He seems to think I’m not capable of fully comprehending the things he’s done. Well, perhaps that’s true, but I would still like to know.

I’ve been able to get little tidbits here and there from his crew; nothing more than a few pieces of stories and sharp eyes filled with admiration. That is until I ask too many questions and then they close up shop and I’m left to fill in the gaps with my own imagination. So far, Tom Pots, cook-slash-craftsman, is the easiest to get talking. All I have to do is pour him a few tankards and wait until he’s well sloshed, then I softly run my fingers through my hair and presto: a gut-spiller.

The hardest part is getting him alone, without distraction, for long enough to hear a full story. The last few times I’ve tried this he’s either been interrupted, called to do some other job, or passed out cold from the drink before he could finish the tale. I refuse to leave without hearing the end this time.

I’ve had this plan in motion for weeks. And yes, I do realize now how truly sad that sounds, but in my defense, we’re all dead so there’s not a lot to do around the ship; it makes keeping people distracted difficult. At suppertime I’ll convince Tom – already drunk from his time spent above decks with the rest of the crew – to begin preparing a meal (the food is long-rotten and it’s not like we can taste it anyway, but it’s still nice to go through the motions of a regular living human day) and that’s when I’ll catch him off guard. It’s a pretty simple plan, but then again, these are pretty simple men, so hopefully I will finally be able to get the answers I truly desire.

There’s only one way to find out.

All the men, including William and the twins, are sloppily lying around the decks deep in their cups, some of them laughing at nothing in particular, others hanging limply over the rails, and still others planted face-first on the planks of the quarterdeck. No one pays any attention as I grab Tom Pots and motion for him to head below deck to start supper. He rolls his eyes, bloodshot and unfocused, and waves me off with a rather crude gesture, falling back against another sailor I can’t recognize because his face is pressed to the floor.

I try again, this time pinching his arm until he stirs completely, eyes narrowing at me, frown etched into his features. I don’t want him angry or he won’t talk, but I’m going to quickly lose my opportunity to speak with him in private if someone notices our no-exactly-normal interaction. Typically I give the men a very wide berth, for their sake as much as my own – I can’t promise their eyes will remain in their skulls if they anger me – so this is definitely unusual. Still, I want answers, and if this is the way I’ll get them, I will drag Tom all the way to the galley by his meaty neck. He finally relents when I push my lower lip out in a pout and look at him through my lashes. It’s cliche and utterly ridiculous, but it works. I don’t know who I despise more for it: the beefy bastard or myself.

The galley is spotless, much like the rest of the ship. With more than two years at sea with nothing to do, we’ve cleaned this ship from bow to stern tens of times over; the areas below decks included. Not a pan is out of place, everything is scrubbed clean – even the food and grog barrels are labeled with the dates they were brought on board: June 22, 1698.

Tom leans heavily against the fire hearth, reaching for a tankard from one of the overhead shelves and missing it spectacularly. “Wha’s it you wan‘ miss?” he slurs, spittle trickling into his beard.

I suppress the urge to gag and smile instead. “As everyone has told me, you are the best person to come to for stories.”

He nods, though it doesn’t much seem like he’s paying attention to me. Instead, his eyes have come to focus on the fire inside the hearth, watching the flames dance back and forth inside their iron cage. “I go’ loads ‘a stories, Miss,” he says. He stays silent after that and I clench my hands at my sides. Dear god, this is going to take forever.

I try to keep my voice as calm and appealing as possible; light, lifted, and flirtatious. “I’d like to hear one if you don’t mind.”

“’A course,” he says, smirking. “Women always love ta here ‘em stories about us pirates. Go’ a love ‘a handsome devils ‘n all that.”

I have to tell myself not to cringe over and over again. If I want to get the stories out of him, I need to give him a little of what he wants – show the tiniest bit of interest; even if the thought makes spiders crawl down my back. Still, a girl has only got so much patience.

“Tell me a story about Captain Dellrey,” I say slowly. “I hear he’s a real naval hero.”

Tom slides down until his rear hits the floor, his head still resting against the fire hearth. The men aboard seem to stay perpetually drunk these days, so I’m not shocked to see him in such a state, but it doesn’t stop frustration from rising in my throat when he doesn’t respond as quickly as I would desire.

He gives a grand sigh and I startle ever-so-slightly at the unexpected way his shoulders slump and he seems to be tilting inward. I’m highly tempted to splash him in the face with water (or grog, whatever’s closest) to bring him to his senses, but I have a feeling it will only exacerbate his own unruly anger. “Tha’s a bad idea, Miss,” he says. “Ain’t nothin’ good ever come from talkin’ ’bout the life ’a the Cap’n.”

Now it’s my turn to sigh, because of course not. “Humor me?” I ask, doing that eyelash flutter thing that the men on this ship seem to like so much.

“The Cap’n’s a busy man. Life’s full ’a mysteries and–” He hiccups. “–he don’ like no one pryin’ into his private affairs none.”

“Is it really prying? After all, he is my father.”

Tom nods as if this is answer enough for him, and he tucks his hands together, leaning back. “Okay then, what ‘s it ya’ want to know?”

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