(An excerpt from the upcoming novel Huracan. See Part II here.)
Zachary heard the call of the lookout from a distance—“Land!” He opened his eyes. The deck rocked gently. He wondered how the lookout could see anything—it was still dark. Perhaps it was only dark in the small space he occupied—the one place on Prospero he had found that was mostly private. It was a cramped space under the fo’c’sle he had found by accident, running one day to escape the icy rain from a sudden squall, not days out of Leith. He had not yet gained his sea legs, and as the ship leaned into the wind, he had stumbled on the last step and fallen full length on the heaving deck. Just then the deck canted sharply and he felt himself sliding towards the weather rail. He saw himself simply slipping over the side into the black sea, not even able to utter a yelp of surprise. No one would miss him for days—perhaps not until they first made landfall in Jamaica. A cry would go up—Has anyone seen young Macaulay? There would be a search of the ship, from the bare, shrieking heights of the rigging to the rat-infested, stinking depths of the hold, where the cracking sounds of a wooden ship tearing through the sea banished thought. They would find no trace of him; Zachary Macaulay, sixteen, lost at sea. Aye, and he’ll be sorry, Zachary thought, picturing his father’s twisted face the last time he had seen him.
Then the ship steadied and the boy’s slide was slowed and he grabbed a half-hidden cleat behind a coil of rope. He pulled himself, gasping, into the small, sheltered space, where it was warmer if not dry, and he wedged himself there to wait out his first winter storm. Gradually, his nausea left him and although his muscles ached the next day, and his limbs were bruised, he vowed not to return to his airless cabin for the rest of the voyage to the West Indies.
Two months had passed since that day and while he had not forsaken his cabin entirely, he had taken to sleeping behind the ladder, where he could smell the air, taste it on his tongue and mark its changes from north to south. For the last two weeks, he had worn only his singlet and trousers—the tropical heat made him fight for breath—and he almost never went to his cabin. Out on deck, the wind cooled the sweat on his skin and the warm, wet air slid more easily into his lungs, and he could imagine the sea, rolling ever backwards to Scotland.
He crawled out from behind the ladder and stretched. Yes, dawn was sliding across a calm sea. He stood at the weather rail and squinted, trying to see the island he had been banished to. He could see nothing but the sea, empty in every direction, empty of everything but itself. He heard the sounds of the ship coming to life around him and the lookout shouted “Land ho!” again. The sky lightened and then Zachary saw it—a dark green mass, still hours away, rising from the haze at the horizon. Jamaica.
He stood at the entry port. For the past three weeks, he had been unable to wear most of his clothes because of the heat—the feel of wool on his skin was unbearable. He had worn and re-worn his few linen shirts. He knew the sea chest beside him contained almost nothing suitable for the climate he was entering. Prospero sat, hove to, off a small town. The morning light was gentle. “What place is that, Sir?” Zachary asked the first lieutenant, as he hurried by.
“That there is Montego Bay,” the first lieutenant said.
Zachary was suddenly desperate to get off the ship. He remembered his first sight of it, how small it had seemed, how unlikely to be able to cross an entire ocean, still a place of few maps or charts. He had considered running away—his father would never know if he did not board the ship. He could travel throughout Britain and find work somewhere. He knew next to nothing about the West Indies. He had read in the newspapers that men died and men made fortunes there. He was going to work on a sugar plantation called Bonnie Valley. He did not know what a sugar cane plant looked like. He had spent the many empty hours of his journey wondering whether sugar cane was a tree, a shrub, or a tuber to be dug from the ground. Not a tree, he had decided. He had settled on a root, like a potato that, having been pried from the earth, would be dried and then crushed, its flesh transformed into something granular and sweet and expensive.
Prospero had been one of the last ships leaving Leith before the hurricane season. It was well known that the Indies were wracked with storms between June and November, storms the likes of which no English sailor had ever seen, storms no ship could survive. Zachary’s father, the Reverend Macaulay, had marched him to Leith, implacable. “Perhaps the Indies will make something of you,” he spat at his third-born son. “God knows I cannot.” The Reverend turned on his heel and left Zachary standing in the Scottish drizzle, beside his sea chest. Zachary looked up, close to tears. The ship’s rigging seemed to scrape the sky. Zachary knew sailors had to climb those masts and set the sails. He saw them, skylarking on deck. They were about his age. That gave him courage and he hailed a stevedore, slipping him a coin to put his chest on board. He was welcomed by the captain, a slovenly man who gave him no confidence. A ship’s boy was hailed and he was shown to a tiny cabin below the waterline, not much bigger than the cot it contained. He was immediately claustrophobic.
His journey had finally ended. He saw the jolly boat had been launched and the passengers were gathered on deck. Zachary had not spoken much to any of his shipmates on the voyage; he feared unwelcome questions. They were all men—four of them: a pastor, still clad in his robes and sweating in the heat, two rough looking men who drank themselves into insensibility most nights, and a studious, Englishman wearing spectacles and never seen without a book. Zachary knew their surnames, that was all. He nodded at them when he saw them and they exchanged stilted observations about the weather and the monotony of the voyage.
The jolly boat bumped against the ship. “Look!” the bookish man said and pointed. Zachary followed his gaze and saw the glossy water break into spreading circles. He could not identify the large head that broke the surface of the sea. “Sea cow,” the bookish man said. “Good eating.” He smiled. Zachary looked away.
The four men said farewell to the captain and the officers of Prospero, who were lined up at the entry port as if in a reception line. They clambered into the jolly boat; Zachary was last. The boat lifted on a low swell and Zachary tripped. “Steady on there, young ’un,” the bookish man said and grabbed his arm. Zachary shook him off. The man shrugged. “Suit yourself, then,” he said. Eight sailors were stationed at the oars, and as soon as Zachary found a seat, they began to pull for shore.
Zachary stared ahead, squinting in the bright light. He wondered why he had rejected the older man’s helping hand and felt ashamed of his bad manners. He saw a bay with a strip of white sand at the water’s edge, and in the distance, low hills rising. As they got closer, he saw strange plants behind the beach, with roots growing downward from the branches, and behind them, palm trees of various kinds. Off to the left—port, he corrected himself—waves broke on a line of rocks. The jolly boat edged into the bay, avoiding large rocks that lay just beneath the surface. Zachary stared down into the water to a sandy bottom from which the strangely colored rocks rose. The rocks were crowded with fish, and sea turtles breathed at the surface. He had not known turtles lived in the sea. He looked up and saw a town to one side of the bay. He could see the mouth of a river, flowing green into the sea.
The sailors docked the jolly boat at a wooden jetty. The men moved quickly to unload the passengers’ effects, obviously anxious for them to be gone. As soon as the boat stopped its forward motion, Zachary felt the weight of the sun on his head. His collar was too tight. He thought there was a hat in his chest, but he did not want to search for it. His trousers were loose—he had lost weight on the voyage. Suddenly he was starving. He wanted fresh food, meat and potatoes, and a brimming glass of ale. He stood beside his chest and stared at the town of Montego Bay. He had no idea what to do next. He knew the Bonnie Valley Plantation was about three days’ ride away. He needed help to carry the chest, but he did not want to leave it on the jetty. He stood, irresolute. “Come on, young ’un, I mean you no harm. Macaulay, isn’t it? You look lost. First time in the Indies, I’ll wager. Where’re you bound?” It was the bookish man. He had loosened his collar and was wearing a hat.
“Bonnie Valley Plantation,” said Zachary. His voice sounded strange to him; he had not spoken full sentences in months.
“Aah, Bonnie Valley. Lovely spot. You’ll be needing a horse. I know a man. Hi, darkie! You! Yes, you! Watch this chest ’til we come back.”
“Massa.” Zachary saw a black man, naked to the waist, dressed in rough pantaloons, walking up to them. He stopped beside the chest. He did not meet their eyes. He was thin and muscular, barefoot, and his skin shone. “Thank ye,” Zachary said. The man did not answer.
“Come,” the bookish man said. “Soon midday will be upon us. Better to be indoors at midday. Do you have money, lad? My name, by the way, is Manning. Trevor Manning. I know your name. Are they expecting you at Bonnie Valley? You’ll enjoy Charles Monmouth and his children. I think he has a son about your age. You’d be what, seventeen?”
“Sixteen,” Zachary said.
“Hmm. You’ll do well, I’m sure. Bonnie Valley is famous for its parties.”
“I’m going there tae work.”
“Work? What kind of work?”
“I will be the book-keeper.”
Trevor Manning inclined his head. “Really? Well, now. I wish you every success with that, my young friend. See that building over there? That’s the tavern. We can refresh ourselves there and see about a horse for you. And a guide. You’ll be needing a guide.”
“Why d’ye help me, Sir?” Zachary said. He had heard of men who preyed on boys. They stood on the jetty, the black man still as stone beside Zachary’s sea chest. Zachary noticed Manning did not have a sea chest; two soft bags that could be made into saddlebags sat at his feet. Zachary realized the chest was going to be impossible to transport by horse.
“Why? Why not? Because I too came here as a young man, sent away from my family. Got into trouble, didn’t you? And they’ve sent you here to make your fortune. Well, some do, some don’t. I’ll not harm you, as I said. But suit yourself—I’m off for some grog.” Manning tipped his hat and walked away.
“Wait!” Zachary called. He took his first step after Trevor Manning and the jetty seemed to rise to meet him. He fell to his knees and held on as the solid wooden surface rolled like the sea. He heard Trevor Manning laugh. “Not regained your land legs, young Macaulay. Never you mind. Here, give me your hand. A little food and drink and you’ll be a new man. You!” he shouted again at the black man in an entirely different tone of voice. “Don’t move an inch. It will not go well for you if things are not to my liking when we get back.”
“Massa,” the black man said. He was a full head taller than Trevor Manning.
Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican writer and environmental activist. Her second novel, Huracan, will be published by Peepal Tree Press in mid-2012.