12 Days of Christmas #6: The Maiden Voyage

So a couple days of trigger warning stuff later, something completely different:

The Maiden Voyage 

It was the last day of the last summer of our youth. Stumpy Jim and I got together and decided we had to commemorate the occasion somehow, memorialize it, seal it in carbonite to emerge years later gasping and half-blind. I called him Stumpy because Jim got the tip of his thumb cut off in a fishing accident with his dad. He called me Chuckles because he knocked out my front tooth in second grade. Most people called me Fred.

It was the six of us, that sun-dappled day in my backyard, Stumpy Jim, me, Sally Macintyre, Daffodil Chang, Jackie Kelly and his little brother Joey. It would have been three, that beautiful number, holy, the amount of layers in an Oreo, how many Pac-men you could get for a quarter, but Jackie Kelly couldn’t leave his brother alone in the house, so now we were four.

“Well there are five Power Rangers,” Joey Kelly said, so Stumpy Jim fought down his blush and we called Daffodil Chang two blocks down Willoughby Drive.
“I call Red Ranger,” he said as Daffodil stepped down in her too-big high heels and her ridiculous purple parasol. We explained the situation, and what Stumpy Jim called Chuckles’ Daft Plan.

“There are four Beatles,” Daffodil Chang said simply, “and four suits in Mother’s bridge deck.”

“Aw!” the two of us said, but Jackie Kelly breathed a sigh. Since Daffodil Chang was in, we were stuck with five.

“But what about the Green Ranger?” Stumpy Jim said, and we all glared at him but the thing was done. There was no taking it back- Green Ranger made six.

“Aw and there are four Ninja Turtles!” I said.

“Five if you count Splinter,” Joey Kelly said.

“I am not being a rat,” Daffodil said.

So the five of us trooped back down Willoughby Drive, round the corner down Hazel’s Way, to the little house with all the hydrangeas on it that still managed to smell like boiled cabbage. We knocked on the door politely instead of throwing a pebble at Sally Macintyre’s window, because Momma Macintyre once swore to turn us all into toads when we lost our volleyball in her herb garden.

“I’ll be Master Splinter,” Sally Macintyrre said. “I can take all of you leaning on a staff.” Sally was all right, really.

There we were, three boys, two girls and a little brother, standing in our grass-stained jeans. Stumpy Jim was chewing on that bubble gum that comes in the rolls, the kind that you keep shoveling in as it loses flavor, blowing epic bubbles that threatened to suffocate him when they popped. We trooped down the sidewalk back to my yard, which was the biggest, and had all the planks from Dad’s failed tree house beside.

“There is no way this will work,” Sally Macintyre said as soon as she saw the pile.

“Alright, so it’s a little assembly required, what of it?” I admitted. “We have nails and a hammer in the shed.”

“No, I mean,” Sally explained, “this thing needs more parts.”

She was right, of course, as Sally often was. While the boys started in on the hammering and lifting and really manly stuff, the girls took Joey Kelly and went to look for parts. In the end there weren’t enough planks anyway, so the three of us caught up with them in the Kellys’ garage, where Joey Kelly sat in the dust and thrown-apart bric-a-brac grinning his three front teeth at us. They had found an upright fan just the right size for a propeller.

“That’s perfect!” I cried. After that gem, all six of us were inspired, each of us wanting to outdo little Joey Kelly. In my linen closet, I found our blue and white checked picnic sheet, perfect for the sail. Sally Mac dove into the trunk of their beater Beetle, surfacing with lengths of hooked elastic rope. Stumpy Jim and Jackie Kelly raided the empty lot on Elm, dragging a treasure trove of stop signs, hubcaps, and sheet tin. Even Daffodil offered up a cracked china doll for the figurehead, a baby-faced angel missing a wing.

We had all the parts we needed, and the morning was still young. The motes dancing in the sunlight seemed to slow and stop as we collected our prizes underneath the towering ash in the backyard, its bone-white trunk still scarred by my dad’s attempts to lay a foundation. Green light slanted through the canopy and painted our treasures the color of Ninja Turtles, Yoda, the Dragonzord.

Wasting no time, I picked up a piece of twine and lashed Daffodil’s doll to the front of the ship.

“Doesn’t the figurehead go on the bow of the ship?”

“That is the bow, dummy!”

“Bow is the front, and the stern is the back. That’s where the Captain sleeps.”

Of course, we had a mighty fight about who got to be Captain, threatening to abort the whole thing. In the end, Sally Mac whipped the Pete’s Pizza cap off her own carroty head and planted it on my skull, settling the matter.

As Captain Fred, I ordered my crew into action. Any other day, Stumpy Jim would have been fighting me for the hat, but we both knew it was the last day of the last summer of our youth. This was too important to argue about.

We used the ash tree for a mast, lashing the picnic bed-sheet across the branches with Sally’s hooked cables. Our propeller sat proudly in the stern, where we gave the loose blades a spin every time we passed it. Jackie Kelly kept insisting it was a rocket engine, while Stumpy Jim wanted to lash our screwdriver to a stick for a whaling harpoon. We put holes in the stop signs and parking signs and one-way signs with nails, fixing them to the frame in all the places we thought pirates would most likely hit. Like Viking shields, they stood in a row and told people to do all manner of contradictory things. 

Little Joey Kelly was too young for the tools, so we put him in the crow’s nest, a low-hanging branch, and we gave him a View-master to use as binoculars. He sat there happily clicking away at Disneyland slides, the little card wheel turning round and round, while we hammered at the ship.

How I got the idea was, last week, the whole third grade took a field trip to the Natural History Museum in Manhattan. The enormous brontosaurus in the entrance had me craning up to look into its empty sockets, and the T-Rex on the top floor kept our class there for half an hour. Stumpy Jim had been fascinated by the taxidermy animals in the lower halls. Jackie Kelly wouldn’t stop talking after the space exhibit, that round theatre that showed how small we were in the universe. Daffodil Chang stared at the Star of India the whole time we were in the gemstone gallery.  

It was the Hall of Ocean Life that had all six of us together. There were plenty of awesome exhibits, from the terrifying squid in the darkness to the dolphins cavorting underneath the waves. It was the whale that held us, that gentle leviathan hanging serenely from the ceiling, staring at us bathed in cool, blue light. When you stood on the balcony you could look right into his eye.

Of course we named our ship The Flying Whale, after our silent friend. Only Joey Kelly offered another name, since he was still a first grader and not old enough to go on the trip. She had a grass floor and oars made from kitchen spoons, but when you stood in the crow’s nest or put a foot on her low railing, you could see the lawn heaving in waves. The occasional rock was a whitecap, or an ominous shark’s fin. My house became a far-off island, the stubby chimney the mouth of a volcano, the black roof tiles lava. We painted a likeness of the whale with Daffodil Chang’s lipstick, Jackie Kelly drawing it with a steady hand on the side of the hull.

We had to stop for lunch, but as Captain I gave each of my crew a job, to prepare for the journey in the afternoon. Then we went inside, underneath the volcano and the lava, and had grilled cheese sandwiches. My mom was delighted with the girls we had brought along, and so they barely escaped to complete their mission.

“She’s like a regular Circe, your mom,” Stumpy Jim said, since we were both reading the Odyssey, borrowed from the school library. Stumpy Jim had to hide it from his dad, to keep it safe.

“Oink oink oink!” I grunted at him.

He split, to try and sneak into his house without waking anyone.  I retreated to my room, where I pried up the corner of my mattress. Within five minutes I had found what I wanted. I also nicked one of Dad’s uniforms, folding the sleeves over and over, pinning his rank badge to the collar. I kept Sally’s hat.

We gathered at The Flying Whale, and as each crewmember boarded, I called them by name.

“First Mate James Mann!” I called as Stumpy Jim boarded.

“Bosun Jack Kelly!”

“Princess Daffodil Chang, under duress and awaiting ransom!”

“One-eyed Joseph Kelly, master-at-arms!”

“Professor Sally Macintyre, explorer for the Royal Geological Society!”

“Captain Frederick Hansom!” my first mate announced me, “of the good ship Flying Whale! Captain on deck!” All the officers raised a salute, Stumpy Jim clicking his heels together smartly, Jackie Kelly putting a hand to his forehead. Daffodil Chang curtsied, and Sally Mac nodded briskly.

“All hands,” I answered. “Raise sail!”

A swift breeze came, filling our checkered sail. The planks groaned, and the green surf began to flow swiftly under the keel. Her bow tipped, and we all grabbed hold of the white mast. Meteors lanced the sky, heralding our journey, but on the horizon was the dark kraken’s grasp of a tempest.

“Best have our sea-legs under us, Captain,” the Bosun said. “We’ve a storm to weather!”

“Aye, that be a storm-cloud or I be One-Eye’s dear mamma!” my First Mate joined in.

“I believe I shall be faint,” The Princess replied.

“My dear professor,” I said, “Care to assist Her Highness? I believe I have a bucket in my quarters.”

We made good speed, catching a north-wester out of the Tropics. The trade winds caught with cool wings, relieving us from the fierce August sun. We missed it soon enough, for the Bosun’s storm caught us just as twilight would have fallen.

“Keep her nose in the wave, Jim!” I cried, my foot on the rail and leaning into the storm. The wave came like the fury of Poisedon, threatening to capsize us in that ice-dark, night-cold water.

“We won’t last much longer! Permission to light the rockets!” One-Eye cried.

“Aye, permission granted!” I shouted.

With a plume of magenta flame, our rocket engine lit up the sable ocean. Fishes and sharks fled from the heat and light. We sailed over an anguished mermaid, through the lashing rain, narrowly missed a lightning bolt before plunging through the raucous thundercloud, into the just-born evening sea of stars.

“Captian, land ho!”

“Aim for that piece of god-forsaken rock!”

We landed amidst the storm, and weathered it as best as we were able with the keel beached onto the sand. Tired, faces stinging from the salt spray, we clambered our way into the hold, where Princess Daffodil had prepared a tea party.

“I say, I do adore crumpets!”

“This English Breakfast is delightful,” said my first mate, surprising everyone.

In the morning, we took our treasures and buried them. Each of us set out on that unnamed, uncharitable island, with unfamiliar stars overhead, and found a place to bury the objects we had brought with us. I chose a place just under the black lava of the volcano where a flowering baobab infested with monkeys marked the spot.

“Is our mission complete, crew?” I demanded of everyone when we returned.

“Aye Captain!” they cried in unison.

“Then let this be a pact upon us. This day, we resolved to come and hide our most precious possessions, so that we may leave this place and sail the world at ease. Arr, let no landlubber touch our most sacred things, ‘til the day we come to reclaim them.”

“To err is human, to arr is pirate,” the professor said. “I thought we were adventurers, not pirates.”

“Never mind that. What say ye to the pact?”

“Aye Captain!”

“Aye Captain!”

“Then let us seal it in blood!” I said, slitting my hand on my cutlass and holding it out. We each did the same and let the blood drip onto the island’s thirsty sands. “On this day, in twenty year’s time, we shall return!”

The blood was strawberry jello, from the cup I had at lunch, but the gooey, warm summer feeling between our hands felt like it was connecting us, binding us to each other as surely as real, iron-rich blood would have. We all smiled at each other, and none of us knew what life had in store.

After that summer, we met more rarely. Stumpy Jim and I were always close, even though he had to drop out of high school to help his deadbeat dad, but the others found their own way. Daffodil Chang became an actress, finding a niche for herself with the comic book crowd and becoming sort of a nerd legend. Sally Mac dropped off the grid after college, but since we only had four classes together in freshman and sophomore year, it was more of a gradual separation than a sudden cutoff. Jackie Kelly became a professor of quantum physics, and his brother Joey Kelly came out of the closet a couple years after that. He was a fashion designer.

As for myself, I found a place at a magazine as a travel editor. There was none of the hemp tang or the snap of sails, but with each cup of espresso in Rome and each photo of the tori at Kyoto I felt the world become smaller and bigger at the same time, as if each piece of it was being explored and discovered anew. I didn’t have much time to see anyone consistently, even my own family, so when I heard my aging mother had sold the house and moved to Florida, I couldn’t make the effort or the day-long flight from Melbourne to stop her.

Nevertheless, twenty years later, I found myself at that old house. I had taken a break from my ceaseless wandering to come. I walked into that overgrown yard with a nagging sense of promise, of that iron bound quality humans never truly feel after the age of seventeen. It was something I had to do, that I had carried with me most of my life without truly knowing why.

I found the place at the corner of the house, underneath the hydrangea bush, where I had buried my little tin box still stamped with the Dragonzord on it. Opening it, I laughed out loud.

The moisture and dirt had ruined the comic books, but my figure of Donatello and my Optimus Prime were intact, next to a model of a tyrannosaur. There were also some pogs, with the little plastic slammer with the real scorpion sealed in Lucite. Pins, bottle caps, all the accrued wealth of youth were there, trash when taken for what they were but priceless to me, a true treasure.

I looked up to find Sally Macintyre, holding her own tupperware box, dressed in black with black shoes and socks. She had a few candles in there, and some withered stems that might have been roses, or sage, and a dagger carved to look like a dragon. We stood there all day, but nobody else showed up. Then we found a nice restaurant that didn’t mind making us a banana split at the end of the meal.

I heard from Sally Mac that Stumpy Jim had gotten wrapped up with a crystal meth lab and was now serving his community from behind bars. Jackie and Joey Kelly were estranged, Jackie unable to accept his little brother for who he was. Nobody had Daffodil’s number, and she had changed her name beside, to ‘Winter.’ Not that it was so much better. We had a good laugh about that. Then we relit the old flame we had started in college. Those embers really had not been dead, no, not in twenty years.

“I always thought it was bigger,” she said that day, as we stood under the ash tree. Not even an outline remained of the Flying Whale, not a board or stop sign or fan stuck in the long grass. The family that lived there were either recluses or didn’t care enough about their yard, or people snooping around in it.

One of these days, Stumpy Jim will get out of jail and I’ll come to pick him up, or call him, or go to his house, and we’ll all come down to this ship and he’ll point out the spot where he buried his youth. He probably won’t have much, of course, but maybe a bullet nicked from his old man’s drawer, or my limited edition batman figure, or an old playboy that beat the odds and survived. One of these days I’ll go to Jackie Kelly’s lecture and drag him down to Joey Kelly’s apartment in the city, and then we’ll all come down to the island in the middle of the ocean and I’ll make him show me where he buried his telescope, and where Joey buried his Legos. One of these days Daffodil Chang will be leafing through her fanmail and she’ll see a familiar name, my name, a name she hadn’t seen since childhood, and wonder how her too-big heels are doing behind the third fence post. I totally peeked.

“It was bigger,” I had said to Sally Mac, and she clutched my hand.

“It was enormous, as big as a whale, and it held all of us.”

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