A sailor can spot a lander in an instant. Their gait. Their belt. Their pants. All of them giveaways. A too-clean shirt. And there, in the eye, a flash of insecurity, of nervousness, a worry of being found out.
These two sailors were smaller than the others. One just a boy really. The other, well, the other it was hard to tell. Neither of them needed to shave. Just bright red cheeks like apples. Their only words, “Yes sir” and “Right away, sir.” They kept their heads down. They climbed ropes. They swabbed tar on the foredeck. They hung from ropes along the side of the boat, chiseling off barnacles with small metal knives.
They grabbed their tack and ate hunched over their plates. The smaller one always gulping the ale while the other shook his head, ultimately looking away.
Brothers, they said, when they joined. And there certainly was a similarity to their look. Same long noses, same gray eyes. Except for those apple cheeks that only grew in the cold wind, they were a colorless pair. Gray boys from a gray land, it seemed. Americans, they claimed, but there was a lilt in their accents. Either fine-breeding Englishmen or a pair trying to come up in the world by suppressing, then creating, then hiding their true accents.
They worked hard, picking the balls from the ropes, removing rust from the chains. Anything the first mate told them to do, they were quick to it. And after supper, they’d go below deck until their watches, huddled together by a candle, bodies pressed into together as they read one single book. The younger one’s mouth moved as he read, the other one waited patiently to turn the page. “The Voyage of the Beagle,” with its corners bent protectively toward the pages, the pages water-stained and torn. The leather scratched and along the back, a long gouge. A book, in other words, that had survived a great journey.
They read ten pages only, then put the book away, wrapped it in oilcloth, tied a faint pink ribbon around it. A ribbon like one from a girl’s hair. Had one of them a sweetheart back home? It seemed inconceivable as they were both so young, like puppies pulled too early from the litter. A sister, perhaps then. Her ribbon.
What brought the brothers to the sea no one knew. Sailors tend toward taciturn out on the seas. A tall tale, that’s what could be told. But asking questions about someone else’s past might turn the questions back on the inquisitor. There was no need for any of that. So they told each other tales of suspicious Finns who had control over the winds, superstitious tales of long-nosed fish that turned into women, supernatural stories that centered around weather, islands, storms and whales. The boys never had to tell anyone anything, only that they were bound for Italy, and that’s all they said.
The ship started from San Francisco, taking on cargo bound for Boston, and the two boys with it. Along the coast of California toward Cape Horn, where every day seemed like the day before. Startling blue seas, calm and sweet, a million white diamonds laying on top of it, sparkling anyone who dared to look long at it into blindness. Only Sundays broke the monotony of work. Men read their books, washed their trousers and shirts, put on the clean pair from the previous week’s wash, ate a kind of pudding with molasses that the cook made special for the day.
Was this life at sea then? Calm and easy seas, monotonous and hard work? It seemed so.