"All they knew was that, in Port Royal, Jamaica, the ground did not roll under their feet, and there would be new faces. They forsook evening violin concerts for social pursuits. Combustible fumes choked the air on the streets lined with two-story wooden tippling houses. Inside these dens, easy women with big, sensuous mouths laughed loudly and drank freely to soothe the pain of living. Upstairs, rooms laid in wait for couples who fumbled for comfort in each other."
The world of the captain’s inner circle was about to accelerate on its axis, but the friends could not foresee that. All they knew was that, in Port Royal, Jamaica, the ground did not roll under their feet, and there would be new faces. They forsook evening violin concerts for social pursuits. Combustible fumes choked the air on the streets lined with two-story wooden tippling houses. Inside these dens, easy women with big, sensuous mouths laughed loudly and drank freely to soothe the pain of living. Upstairs, rooms laid in wait for couples who fumbled for comfort in each other.
Outside of the taverns, women of many hues of brown strutted by with breasts and heads held high. Thirty years after the English ran out the Spanish and long after the beginning of a trans-Atlantic slave trade, many of the settlers on “the island of springs” were at odds with their ethnic and national identities. It was common to break down one’s ethnic makeup into fractional parts, representing oneself as one-sixteenth this and one-eighth that, stressing the European blood as dominant and acting more English than the English. Mulatto, sambo, quadroon, mustee, musteefino represent only some of the racial slots. These people displayed their unease with themselves by tight mouths.
Then, there were others who embraced their identities as uniquely Caribbean. Afroeuropean. Proud to be Jamaican, they were content to define themselves, first and foremost, as human.
Orelia Lawless was one such person. Her Portuguese-African mother and Irish father had given her a legacy of pride. Her smile was expansive, warm and confident. That is how Yusef found her. Around Orelia, no one stayed sad for long. She made others see the constant beauty of the waxing moon in her large brown eyes. Orelia Lawless made Yusef’s heart thump. For the first time in his life, he fell in love; he surrendered.
“I love the way you look after we’ve enjoyed each other,” Yusef said softly, as he stroked the long, lush chestnut hair of the young woman lying next to him.
Orelia smiled shyly.
Yusef said, “You haven’t yet fallen from the heights of happiness, crashed and suffered the pain.”
Her sorrel face revealed lines of wisdom and experience. She said, “Oh yes, I have. I have felt pain, abandonment and lost hopes and dreams. I have.”
Yusef liked her response. Whether it was true or not, she was willing to take a chance with him.
“You are a rare woman, so kind, so pretty,” he told her. He thought, “So hardworking,” which was a virtue in his mind but not very romantic.
Orelia baked for a living, mostly cassava bread in the early morning bought by sailors and other ramblers and by more and more townspeople who found less and less time for baking. She was not well-off, she owned no slaves, but she made good enough money not to have to sell herself at tippling houses. Working as a bar gal had been a consideration, not high on the list but a consideration, nonetheless. Orelia knew the women selling companionship for their meals and general upkeep. Many were runaways from plantations, either born or sold into slavery or servitude. At the time, slaves were selling for between twelve and twenty pounds. The common price was sixteen pounds sterling or two thousand and four hundred pounds of sugar, while white bond-servants sold for a bit less – two thousand and two hundred pounds of sugar – for five years of service, a euphemism for the rest of one’s life. These women had escaped that promise of forever. They had slipped into a seamy unreality out of desperation and soon felt trapped as its powerless victim.
"Floating like hummingbirds on the gentle breeze of satisfaction, their flight had muffled the sounds outside of Orelia’s wooden house measuring one hundred feet long and thirty broad.
'Fish. Fish. Fried fish for breakfast,' called a boy’s voice. 'Tamarind. Tamarind,' called a girl.
Their singsong began to penetrate the walls of ecstasy. The sea air slipped through the gap under the door and awakened Yusef’s appetite."
Orelia was born free, lived free and thought free. She swept Yusef into the throbbing vitality of each day. She threw her long arms and legs round him. She made him forget the bitterness of life and taste the sweet. Their voices twined into a throaty birdcall as they pierced each other’s souls. Her long, elegant fingers and intuitive touch were carrying him to the precipice of pleasure. Soon, he would be breaking through the barriers to eternity and passing it by. Soon, soon, soon …
Floating like hummingbirds on the gentle breeze of satisfaction, their flight had muffled the sounds outside of Orelia’s wooden house measuring one hundred feet long and thirty broad.
“Fish. Fish. Fried fish for breakfast,” called a boy’s voice.
“Tamarind. Tamarind,” called a girl.
Their singsong began to penetrate the walls of ecstasy. The sea air slipped through the gap under the door and awakened Yusef’s appetite. His arms looped around one of Orelia’s thighs, he looked over at her and smiled. She saw that he was back on the ground.
“Hungry,” she asked.
“Uu hu,” he answered, smiling even wider because she had sensed his desire. Yusef felt as though they had entered yet another phase of lovemaking.
Orelia untangled his arms and her legs and slinked away from the sleeping mat. Yusef closed his eyes and tumbled into an overwhelming sleep that would defray the sweet exhaustion of sex.
A dream later, the aroma of fish fried in coconut oil and the smell of freshly baked bread opened his eyes. Orelia had brought the metal plate to him. He eased up on his left elbow to receive his gift. She went to get the large mug of hot, black tea she had left by the fire. She had added extra sugar – four spoonfuls rather than three – and enough cream to lighten it to the color of beach sand. Orelia brought Yusef his tea and a cup for herself. They ate out of the same plate. For her, they shared the same food in the way they had shared each other’s bodies. For him, they shared it in the same way his people ate their meals from a common plate in the center. For both, an intimacy was being weaved. As they ate, they began to knit a true bond. In silence. Without touching.
Yusef had laid his shoes at Orelia’s mat and found that he wanted to keep them there. Somehow, this alien feeling did not frighten him. He would do what he had to do to stay with her. Orelia was happy about that; his actions affirmed her feelings.
The sun shined brighter that day and the moon deeper.
Yusef did not return to the ship for several days. No one knew, although they could guess, his whereabouts. Spinning in their own New World, neither Orelia nor Yusef was thinking clearly. They were savoring the full feeling they could practically stroke after eating meals and making love, the heady cycle in which they had lost themselves.
Back on the deck of the Good Hope, Robert asked one evening, “I wonder how Yusef is doing?”
“Well enough that he’s probably not asking about us right now,” Edward said.
Adrian, Trevor and Robert grunted in reluctant agreement as they did not want to appear to be envious.
“Tell me this,” Edward continued. “Were you surprised when Yusef chose to sign on?”
The shrewd man did not single out anyone verbally, but his eyes pierced those of Adrian.
The captain took up the gauntlet, “Yusef signed on knowing our plan, our mission. If he had a desire to go back home, he would have said as much then.
“Wouldn’t you think that the contact with other Africans who were missing home and choosing to return would have whetted his appetite for homebound travel? Wouldn’t you think he’d get pangs of homesickness and loyalty and consider joining them for the return?” Edward insisted.
“Yusef took an oath of loyalty to us, to the Good Hope,” an irritated Adrian answered.
“Besides, Yusef is a traveler. He was one before he joined the ship. He has always lived his life on the way to somewhere else. A buccaneer’s life suits him.”
“He’s always traveled on land from towns to villages,” Edward shot back. “He’s always conversed and socialized with his customers, most of them women. He’s always been catered to, if you know what I mean.”
“What do you mean, Edward,” Adrian asked impatiently and angrily because he could not shut out the logic of Edward’s arguments.
“I’m saying that Yusef enjoys the attention of women,” Edward said, emphatically.
The other chuckled at the indictment.
“What! Why, I’m aghast,” the captain teased. “Edward, I don’t think that liking women is a crime and what’s more, most men would be guilty. Wouldn’t you?”
“I’m a man of passion. Women excite me,” Edward said, hushing his brothers with his bit of self-revelation. They were jolted that he knew himself so well. “But I would not jeopardize my life as a buccaneer to drunken myself on them. I’m too much of a man for that.”
“Oh, Edward,” Robert said in the sultry voice of a seductress. “How can you say such things?”
The actor edged up to Edward and began to fawn over him, straightening his collar and kissing his face.
“Get off me, Robert,” Edward barked.
“That’s not what you were saying last night,” Robert cajoled.
The others laughed.
“Joke all you want. We’ll see how long Yusef lasts,” Edward said. “Good night, all,” He looked deeply into Robert’s eyes and said, “Good night, Maggie,” and slapped him on the behind before taking his leave. He was satisfied because he left suspicion hanging in the air.
“What an odd man,” Robert said.
“Odd’s not the word that comes to mind,” Trevor said, exasperated.
Adrian said nothing. They all stopped talking. It was not their habit to gossip about the highest-ranking officer. True enough, once they abandoned Edward as a topic of conversation, they wondered silently about Yusef.
The evening had come to a close. Robert and Trevor went to sleep with the others. Adrian left for his cabin, where he laid on his back looking at the ceiling. He felt partly responsible for Yusef’s disappearance because he had introduced the subject of women to his friends. Perhaps, his agitation had spread like a contagion and everyone would become sick with lust and, maybe, love. Had Yusef bitten into the forbidden fruit?
Even with his eyes closed and his body transported, Adrian could not leave Yusef behind. He felt the warmth of his friend’s breath against his cheek, the pressure of his friend’s hand on his own, the brace of his friend’s knee at his back. Then, suddenly, it was cold and dark. Yusef’s place filled with an emptiness that grew vaster and vaster by the second. Adrian shrank by comparison. His heart broke into pieces. He bolted upright and held his head in his hands, sobbing.
“So, this is it,” he said. “You’ve left me.”
The terror of losing Yusef clawed at Adrian. He slept in fits and starts. The bedfellow called fear rendered him red-eyed the next morning. The captain fought his way out of bed and followed the aroma of coffee to the upper deck. Trevor sat there sipping the eye-opener. Adrian joined him. They said, “Good morning,” and nothing else for several minutes. By staying close to a friend, Adrian drew a safety net around himself. He assuaged his unsettled feelings, which he could not explain, even by the light of day.
The September air sent out an unseasonable chill that ran down Adrian’s spine. He warmed his hands over his mug as the smoke curled upwards into his face. Edward’s talk the previous night had provoked serious thoughts for Trevor, who had not masked them with forgotten dreams. He lit a thinly rolled smoke, inhaling rapidly several times. Then, he began:
“My past is a fleeting one. What can I hold onto and claim as mine. Where are the friends and lovers whose names have been entwined with my own? Where is my family? I’ve no woman, no children, no one who cares – “
“That’s not true,” Adrian broke in, defensively. “I care. You know that. I love you. We are family. We are wedded. You and I, Trevor, all of us buccaneers, have taken the least traveled road. It’s difficult for me, too, sometimes to live outside a way of life embraced by most and make my own way. But then, I think of what my life would be if I had walked a straighter path, and I can’t imagine it. I won’t be kept like a horse. I’d throw off the harness. And so would you.
“You have yourself, Trevor. I’m not making light of what you’re saying, but you do have yourself, whole and untarnished. You’ve been leading an uncompromised life true to yourself. I know that you don’t have a family of your own, but can you tell me, truly, Trevor, that you regret it?”
Trevor met Adrian’s earnest stare. Then, he raised his head and looked up at the gathering clouds and saw his life. Dreamy wisps created hardened images of a younger man pushing and pulling against the Fates to protect his independence.
“Sometimes,” he answered. “Can you honestly tell me, Adrian, that you don’t?”
“Yes,” the captain said, sharply. The answer validated his life. “There’s time yet.”
So fraught with the dictates of mistress-servant relations was Adrian’s coupling with Sarah that they had never reached the point at which they dealt with each other as man and woman. They had been spared the fear of plunging into the abyss of constancy, never arriving at the gate to commitment at which Yusef and Orelia found themselves.
When Yusef sauntered back to the Good Hope one afternoon, his friends hoped that he would not have something drastic to announce to them. Their hopes were dashed.
“How could I have been so lonely without Orelia and not known it,” he began on the upper deck. “I can’t leave her.”
His audience of four exhaled audibly. Shocked by his opening, they forgot to hide their hurt. Yusef, enraptured by his happiness, did not notice.
“I have no choice. She’s sweet and good, and she loves me, too.”
“How do you know, Yusef,” growled Edward to the relief of the others who thought it but did not want to say it. Edward wanted to put down Yusef in front of his friends. “You just met the woman. She may uncover her true self, and it may not be sweet, good and loving at all.”
“She won’t change,” Yusef said, in an even, decisive voice.
“You’d give up the sea for her,” Trevor asked.
“Yes, Trevor,” Yusef answered. “And more.”
Robert had been crouching in the shadows of silence like a frightened child about to be abandoned. In desperation, he begged Yusef, “Please don’t go,” offering no reason but the pain shining in his eyes.
“If you had ever felt this way about someone, you would never ask me that, my friend,” Yusef said.
“What about the ninth article of the buccaneer’s agreement,” Adrian said, taking a more practical approach. “It says that no man shall talk of breaking up his way of living until he has shared one thousand pounds.”
Yusef seemed to be prepared with a pragmatic solution.
“I was hoping that we could reinterpret that provision, seeing that we took it upon ourselves to seek out ships loaded down with slaves rather than with gold. We’ve been targeting known slavers and taking a chance on others unfamiliar to us. Money hasn’t been our object.”
“You have a point,” Adrian said, begrudgingly.
A wave of melancholy fell over the four, even Edward resented how Yusef had stolen his way into the hearts of his compatriots. The jealous man missed Yusef only a moment before he stepped out of the emotional snare.
Edward thought to himself, “I know how to erase their sadness over Yusef’s parting, reduce his stature and spark distrust of Adrian.”
He said, “Is it a woman you’re going to, Yusef? Or are you returning to the profitable slave trade?”
“What are you talking about,” Robert and Trevor asked at once.
“Did you tell him,” a stunned Yusef asked Adrian.
“No, I told no one,” Adrian said.
“Told no one what,” Robert demanded. “What’s going on?”
Yusef drew in a deep breath and found himself back in the same lonely, frightening place he had been before he confessed to Adrian. In a meek voice bearing no resemblance to the one in which he had talked about his new-found love, Yusef said, “I was once sucked into the cycle of slavery. I sold men and women.” His eyes were downcast. “It was despicable, but I didn’t realize it at the time. It was only after I was sold that I recognized the degradation of it. I told Adrian about my dirty past a long time ago because I was eaten up by guilt. I didn’t tell the rest of you or anyone else because my shame overwhelmed me.
“Why, Edward? How did you know?”
“I overheard you spilling your guts to Adrian. I thought the others should know. I think you’re an opportunist. You didn’t join us on principle; you signed on to save your own hide, to ease your conscience. You haven’t answered my question, Yusef. Is it a woman you’re going back to or back into the business of selling souls?”
“No, Edward,” the merchant said, weakly. “I’m not dealing slaves. It is a woman into whose arms I’ll be flying.”
He began to walk away with his head hanging low. Adrian, Robert and Trevor scurried after Yusef and threw their arms around his lifeless body.
“I’m sorry, Yusef,” Adrian said.
Robert was being deserted again, once as a baby and now as a man. His orphaned beginnings intensified the pain of parting. Because of Edward’s interloping, he had gained the strength to condone his brother’s wish to leave the ship’s womb.
“I’m happy for you,” he said. “I’m sorry you got trapped in slave dealing, and I’m sorry you were exposed in this crude manner.”
The remaining friend spoke.
“I can understand why you and Adrian would be secretive about it. There’s no good reason to tell it to the world after it’s done and over with,” Trevor said, throwing Edward a nasty look. “You were an ignorant victim of circumstance. It makes no difference what you were, only what you are now. I am proud to know you, and I wish you well.”
Edward fired back at Trevor a cannon of fury, outraged that the sailing master could be so gullible. Edward thought that he had done the men – all of them – a favor in telling the truth about Yusef. He reasoned that thanks were due him, not rebukes. His plan had reaped brambles.
“Congratulations, my friend, my brother,” Adrian told Yusef, as though Edward had said nothing.
Later, they all met Orelia and thought her to be true.
Yusef’s departure did not change the relationships among the friends, no tilting of the balance, no crowning for the quartermaster.