"In the whirl of the tragedy, Adrian had pinned down an obsession. For him, the stranger’s life symbolized freedom and his death, a victory for slavery." (Painting by Sandy Tracey)
The heat and excitement flushed Adrian’s face red as his ship neared the illuminated skeletal one. The Good Hope sailed into the eye of the glass, no longer a voyeur but part of the unnatural scene of fire and water flirting with each other. The sea, so big, so deep, so blue, ruled here. Yet, it entertained this hostile guest.
“Lower a boat,” Adrian shouted.
Several pairs of hands reached to obey his order. Their owners wondered which unfortunates would be told to occupy it. No one else shared Adrian’s urgent need to tail the devouring sea monster. Still, everyone’s eyes grew big when the captain himself climbed down into the boat, neither requesting nor commanding any company.
“Be careful,” Edward warned, mechanically. As quartermaster, he also led the crew, but in matters outside the military realm.
“I shall,” Adrian answered, in a like vein.
The thought of reaching the fiery ship consumed Adrian. It overpowered the searing intensity of the heat, which waxed with each stroke of the oars. “One, two, three, four,” he counted. The smoke stung his eyes, but he forgot his tears in the rowing. The sweat enveloping his body melted the soot stuck to him and soaked his clothes until they could have been wrung out. Nonetheless, he did not take notice.
When Adrian reached the inferno, it was as though no time had passed, so deeply had he concentrated on the rhythm of the oars. Miraculously, a rope ladder hung unscathed over the side. He threw himself on it, climbed to the top and swung himself over onto the deck of the ship. As Adrian set foot in the midst of the tragedy, he drew his sword with his right hand and shielded his eyes with his left arm. He walked hurriedly, dodging cascading parts of the ship, which had surrendered to the tireless fury.
Fighting his way through nearly blinding smoke, Adrian flew straight toward the quarters below deck. He recognized the stairs’ faint outline by the retching stench rising from it. The acrid smell of burning human hair and flesh flared his nostrils; human hopes and dreams going up in smoke singed his heart.
Adrian, finally arrested by the smoke and fire, shrugged his shoulders with a dejected moan as he thought deeply on the plight of those down below. Snatched from their homelands, these people had been thrown together in bondage for the profit of slavers. They had been on their way to a new life, one which Adrian despised and from which he had fled. Now, they had no chance of escape because their strong bodies had left the earth like fragile petals blown off a flower. And so it goes. How cruel it is, thought Adrian. He giveth, and He taketh away.
Overwhelmed by his enormous grief and limited by his human grasp, the captain silently cursed God, himself and the sea. He damned that which also gave him solace. When he finished, he grew even hotter, but with shame. Sword still in hand, he made the sign of the cross and, amid coughs, he sputtered the Lord’s Prayer:
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”
Infused with the peace he found in prayer, especially this one so complete, Adrian quieted. However, his serenity lasted only a moment before he felt someone’s penetrating presence. He spun around and faced terror shining in the piercing eyes of a tall, sleek stranger. Filthy rags exposed much of the man’s polished mahogany skin, which glistened with sweat, Adrian smiled at the thought of saving a soul and turned back to the business at hand.
“I’ve got a boat,” Adrian shouted, above the roar of the fire. “We can get away. Are you the only survivor?”
Like a sudden huge wave, anger cascaded over the man’s chiseled face, which tightened into a maelstrom, his hardened mouth at the center.
“Did you hear me? I said we can take my boat to my ship there.” Adrian pointed to the Good Hope after straining his lungs to outdo the fire, whose breathing lashed like the wind of a hurricane. All for naught.
The man did not take his eyes off Adrian, and his expression did not soften. Hate possessed him to his core. Venom, unmistakably aimed at the buccaneer, spewed from his being. Clearly, the stranger abhorred Adrian more than the prospect of burning alive. The captain glimpsed the silvery glint of the man’s undrawn sword when the thought struck him that he was being mistaken for part of the ship’s dirty business by part of its cargo. The realization came none too soon.
One beat after Adrian gripped the hilt of his sword even tighter, he leapt to the side in self-defense. His cutlass met the captive’s first swipe with a clanking sound that signaled the start of their duel. The stranger maneuvered his long body too quickly and adeptly for Adrian to halt their fighting, which resembled a graceful dance more than a ruthless engagement with death. Amazingly, falling fiery missiles kept missing the two men who also managed to sidestep smoldering debris in their path. Adrian sensed that they were exhausting their luck. He and his opponent were evenly suited, and the match easily could have ended in a draw. Time, however, was not on their side. If they finished out the encounter like gentlemen, only the flames would claim victory. Although the stranger was heads taller than him, Adrian ascertained that he was not as strong. In light of his conclusion, he plotted a strategy of survival for the both.
After a whirling set, the contenders broke a few feet apart. Their swords not entangled in a fast, shiny dance, Adrian prepared to act. When the two rushed toward each other for another round, Adrian played the part until the last moment when he flung his weapon out to the side and, then, whacked its flat surface against the other swordsman’s waist. The stunned man gasped and fell over. Before he could gather himself, Adrian pummeled him in his stomach, rendering him unconscious.
The rescuer returned his cutlass to its scabbard. He sank to his knees and hoisted the stranger onto his back so that the man’s body draped around his neck. By divine providence, their unfinished duel had guided them to the rope ladder, which had awaited their steady descent. With unusual grace, Adrian shouldered the weight. He ran a swift, surefooted race with the monster, which felt as though it was near enough to lick his face. When he reached the bottom of the ladder, he was still too close to the fire to breathe easily. In one sweeping movement, he arranged the injured man in the boat and began to row. They scudded past flotsam bobbing up and down in the disturbed sea. Adrian rowed like a maniac, faster and faster, barely glancing up as he worked to put a safe distance between the conflagration and his small vessel. Then, suddenly, in Adrian’s mid-stroke, the monster won the ultimate victory.
The ship exploded with a blast that deafened Adrian and a brilliant white light that blinded him. He threw himself over the unconscious man before a torrent of cinders rained down on them. Adrian’s short nails clawed at the chest of the man sprawled on his back. The captain’s heart beat with a ferocity that threatened to burst his body while that of the other throbbed so faintly that as Adrian gave thanks to God that they had escaped the inferno, he also implored that the stranger’s life be spared. Adrian lifted the casualty’s head and held his hand over his open mouth. To his relief, the man’s breath insulated his fingers in a cloud of warmth. Adrian adamantly refused to entertain that the heat may have emanated from a fresh corpse. He insisted that the man still lived, and he returned to the rowing still praying for the survivor’s full recovery.
As the boat slipped into the maw of the night, darkness enveloped them and dankness seeped through them. Adrian could not discern the outline of his friend, for friends they already had become in the leader’s mind. And more than that.
In the whirl of the tragedy, Adrian had pinned down an obsession. For him, the stranger’s life symbolized freedom and his death, a victory for slavery. Adrian balked at succumbing to that monster.
Many times, young Adrian had listened to his father pontificate on ideals.
“A person is nothing without something to believe in,” Earl Francis would say. “Something for which he is willing to fight, to sacrifice, to die. I believe in England.
“Pity the man without a country; he is like a child without a father. Lost and forlorn, always on the way from one land to another, always searching. Trying to make a place for himself in a world without any familiar landmarks or signposts. He goes where the wind blows, changing direction as frequently. His fate is to wander with no real destination. He may find a country in which to live; he may find a home. But stumble upon a nation to which he can devote himself?
“That is beyond his doing.”
Adrian loved his father, the only parent he knew, dearly. Earl Francis had bathed him in affection, especially after his wife, Audrey, died. Adrian also obeyed and respected his father. The boy never doubted the truth of the man’s philosophy. He listened to stories about those armored with patriotism, an immeasurable quality, who had won battles that they were not equipped to win. Their passion had compensated for their lack of enough razor-edged swords and wide-mouthed cannons.
After one of these rousing soliloquies, Earl Francis would raise his wooden cup in a toast to King Charles II who, years ago, had returned to the throne after a time of exile and the Cromwells’ harsh rule. Adrian, at age seven, at nine and at fourteen, would mimic his father’s “Long live the King,” and ceremoniously sip his measly ration of watered-down beer.
Although the Graffs breathed the suffocating air of poverty, they were noble. Like a golden baton, the title had been handed down for generations upon generations. Though the sacred wand had tarnished, it still granted pride and identity. It unleashed the power to lift Adrian and his father from their lowly surroundings to a fantastic castle in the air. It swept them from the depths of their troubles to the height of their grandeur. It took them out of themselves, as did patriotism.
“I fought in wars for England,” Earl Francis would say. “You will have your chance.”
“Are you certain, Father? What if there are no wars when I become a man?”
“There are always opportunities to display loyalty. They may not deliver themselves at your doorstep, but they are out there waiting for you.”
Young Adrian lusted for the national call to arms that would rescue him from the choking air blackened with burned coal and the stench of garbage festering in the streets. Armies of plump, healthy rats thrived on London’s unhealthy atmosphere. Dreary fog nourished pale and shriveled vegetables, which were considered a treat when available. Food shortages haunted the city as did the ghosts of several thousand whom the plague had struck down each week. Nonetheless, Adrian lost his chance to fight for the crown in the tragic capital, where life was so uncertain and where many of his playmates and his mother had been wrested by death’s unpredictable but sure hand.
Only one year after surviving the Great Fire, Adrian was kidnapped within sight of his home. Blindfolded and bound, the fourteen-year-old did not get a look at the owners of the four strong arms that whisked him off the street. The two spiriters, who when caught in this crime once before had paid the paltry fine of twelve pence, handed their catch over to a ship’s hold in Portsmouth. While the culprits trotted away, boasting that they had sold five hundred children that year, the prevailing easterly winds pushed the terrified boy to a new life in the New World. As his first encounter with America, Adrian remembered splinters shooting into the bottoms of his bare feet as he stood alone and ashamed on an auction block in the Province of Carolina, trembling with fear.
Do I hear a bid on this piece of human flesh? Do I hear a bid?
Father, flesh, forsaken.
Twenty-one years later, this memory still brought a rush of warm, stinging tears to his eyes. However, this time, it also wreaked defiance – and resolution.
As Adrian dipped his oars into the darkness, the ideals of a young boy fell away. Adrian, the man, gave the family creed of patriotism and nobility a noisy burial at sea. He screamed angrily into the wind:
“I’m no patriot!”
With the paranoid reasoning of the oppressed, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, Adrian deduced that if he had been Anglican instead of Catholic, the authorities would have been moved to find him before the ship left the Portsmouth pier on its transatlantic voyage. Adrian applauded the Declaration of Indulgence granted by the new king, James II. It allowed freedom of worship. No longer a crime to be Catholic, it was still a sin to be human.
Yet, King James was not a deity. He could not claim the world as his handiwork. He had not created the moody ocean, the changeable sky nor the constant horizon beyond. Neither had he conjured the daily wonder of daybreak nor the rhythmic passage of time. He had not made anything new. Only God had done that.
“I won’t worship monarchs or masters,” Adrian shouted into the receptive night. “It’s freedom for which I’m willing to fight, to sacrifice, to die!”
The word, freedom, skipped across the sea like a stone.