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The Survivor's Secret (6)

"No man shall talk of breaking up their way of living until each has shared one thousand pounds. If any man should lose a limb or become a cripple in the common service, he shall have eight hundred pounds out of the public stock."



The Good Hope resounded with talk of righteousness after Adrian unfolded his plan before everyone. He was not the only sailor who had been shackled to a mistress or master, or had held the keys as the gaoler. All the buccaneers despised slavery. Their only question was why Adrian’s proposal had not occurred to them before. Even Edward embraced the philosophy of it, although he was not convinced of risking his life for the sake of others.

The men shared the common bond of awareness of the fragility of life. This profound link sparked their lives. They drank, they ate, they fought, they loved with gusto. They felt like brothers. But they shared ideas, not parents; ethics, not blood. They hailed from families and experiences that were as divergent as their native lands were distant from each other. Yet, they embodied the same cardinal principle: Live to the fullest. The quality that renders life precious is its elusiveness. In the end, it always escapes, sucking the body of its breath.

“Liberation,” Adrian shouted from the dais on the upper deck, where he usually played his violin.

“Liberation,” the men hurled back.

The shout’s intensity forced the musician to throw his head back. He laughed with exhilaration.

“Slavers will have another foe with which to contend in these waters as well they should. When we do nothing about this vile trade, we sanction it.”

“We don’t sanction that thing. It’s wicked and the work of the devil,” yelled one man in an Irish brogue. His back wore the raised scars of legalized cruelty.

Adrian continued: “There has to be something more than nation, something more than tribe, that rules the earth.”

“Freedom,” the ship rattled with the roar of the men.

All agreed on the first step of smashing the shackles. But after the survivors chose either a buccaneering life or going home, what then? So overwhelmed were the sailors by their commitment that they did not consider the next steps for those freed. They believed that killing the slavers would end the insanity. But one act, planned or not, engenders many unpredictable ones. Besides, slavery first had to be expunged from the spirit of the world before any physical endeavor could quash it. For now, thoughts focused on liberating slave ships. Adrian announced more news:

“Backing us in our fight will be a new member of the ship. Yusef has agreed to join us.”

The men howled and hooted; they playfully punched each other. They believed it to be a fitting and just development after the experience of the burning ship. Most had stuck their heads in the door of Adrian’s cabin in the three days since Yusef had regained consciousness. Each had begun to relate to their own cloudy conception of the stranger.

With a flourish, Adrian waved the rolled-up contract, which each crew member had signed.

“Follow me,” he said, “And witness another brother adding his name to the circle.”

The buccaneers cleared the way for the captain who leaped off the podium and flew down below with a boundless fervor that shot out of his body into those of his men. The crew of thirty tagged after its leader in one configuration, careful not to trample anyone in the rush and, yet, caught in the web of excitement. Adrian rapped exuberantly on his cabin door. A smiling Yusef, still flat on his back, had been expecting the mass visit. He told them to enter. As many men as could breathe stuck close to Adrian. Two men stood with their backs against the open door. The others shadowed the captain in the narrow passageways outside the cabin and on the stairs to the upper deck.

“We’ve been meeting, Yusef. The plan of liberation has been approved, applauded, embraced. We’re going forward and would be proud to have you fighting on our side.”

Adrian spoke with as much volume as he could muster, but his words still fell out of earshot for some. A ripple of his overture, repeated by many, rolled like a wave outside his cabin and up the stairs so that the men in the back got only, “We’d be proud to have you.”

“I am privileged to be asked to sign on to the Good Hope and undertake this rescue mission,” Yusef said, with a light heart reflected in the lilt of his words.

“Before you commit yourself to the ship,” Adrian cautioned, “Let me read you the Good Hope’s ten commandments which every buccaneer, on this ship and every other, must sign and to which he is beholden.”

The men hushed and pulled on solemn faces as Adrian unrolled the scroll and held it tautly before himself as though it were a king’s decree. His bushy eyebrows nearly met as he strained to read the cramped handwriting of someone from the ship’s past. He met the challenge in a stentorian voice:

“I. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment and equal title to the fresh provisions and liquor, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary for the good of all to vote a retrenchment.

“II. If any man defraud the company to the value of one pound in plate, jewels or money, the punishment is marooning. If robbery takes place between two crewman, the guilty one shall have his nose and ears slit and be set ashore, not on some inhabited place but where he shall suffer hardship.

“III. No person at sea shall game at cards or dice for money.

“IV. The candles shall be put out at eight o’clock at night. If any remain still inclined for drinking, they shall do so on the open deck.

V. All shall keep firelocks, pistols and cutlasses clean and fit for service.

VI. No women are allowed. If any man be found carrying a disguised woman to sea, he is to suffer death.

VII. Desertion of ship or quitting quarters in battle is punished by death or marooning.

VIII: No striking is permitted on board ship. Every man’s quarrel shall be ended on shore at sword and pistol, in this way: The quartermaster, failing reconciliation, shall accompany both ashore with such assistance as he sees fit. The disputants are to be set back-to-back at twenty paces distance. At the command, they turn and fire immediately, or else the pistol is knocked from their hand. If both miss, they come to their cutlasses.

“IX. No man shall talk of breaking up their way of living until each has shared one thousand pounds. If any man should lose a limb or become a cripple in the common service, he shall have eight hundred pounds out of the public stock. For less serious injuries, he shall receive a lesser adjusted amount.

“X. The captain and quartermaster shall receive two shares in a prize. The sailing master, boatswain and gunner shall receive one and one-half shares. Other officers shall receive one and one-quarter, and sailors shall get one.”

Yusef’s smile had vanished as Adrian read the ten articles of agreement. He felt a weight press down on his shoulders as he listened. But the air of expectancy from Adrian and the crew overwhelmed him. He recaptured his lightness and said, “I am prepared to sign on.”

The patient tried to sit up on his own but slipped back. On his second try, Robert, who had eased his way into the cabin to become the second member of the mighty four in close attendance, helped prop him up with an arm. Adrian handed Yusef a quill pen he had dipped in a small pot of ink. The weak man grimaced slightly with the effort to sign his name to the document. His Arabic script stood out in style, but not in placement, amongst the many Xs and names written in Roman lettering. Signatures skirted the periphery of a circle signifying that their owners shared equal responsibility.

“He’s signed it. He’s signed it,” wound its way to the upper deck.

The warm sensation of safety melted into the crevices of the home vessel heavily invested with memories of shared lives. Robert, who felt that he had secured Yusef’s conversion, gently lowered the newcomer and tightly clasped his hands, satisfied that he had channeled a new life into the ship’s womb of fraternity.

“Huzzah. Huzzah,” the chant began after the news reached the entire crew.

Yusef tingled with the excitement of a bridegroom at the end of the ceremony. He was hopeful that this contract would lead him to redemption.

“Welcome to the Good Hope,” Adrian said.

“Thank you,” Yusef said.

“We’ll let you get some sleep now.”

Without another word from Adrian, the men in the cabin moved out, alerting the others that the meeting was at an end. Some men dallied in conversation, but not for long. Within minutes, everyone had returned to their private solitude.

With the crowd swept from the room, Yusef realized that the air had been thick and stuffy. He breathed easily now. He turned his head to the wall and gazed at the map of the Yucatan before his mind wandered across the Atlantic to his home, where he had taken a wife.

This woman carried herself like a queen, her back stiffened into one erect piece and her head held high, while she gave permission to her hips to swivel as she walked forward. A beautiful but cool woman, her presence inspired the respectful awe of silence. Her name was Fatma and she, too, was Fula.

The marriage had been arranged from the time Fatma braved her first steps. Ten years younger than Yusef, she had called him husband for three. Yusef provided well for her, laying at her feet jewelry, perfume and spices from all over the world. He dressed her in unique, richly colored cloth. He never mistreated her by striking her or speaking in anger; she never spoke unless spoken to. Fatma approached him only if he requested her; she was a dutiful wife. The woman asked Yusef for nothing because she desired nothing from him. Yusef remembered the passion that he was not leaving behind.

The merchant had spent little time at home. He traveled all year round. Towns and villages welcomed not only his goods, but also news and stories of far-flung places. For the days and nights he spent at each station, he cultivated celebrity status as an entertaining visitor. Not infrequently, a woman would catch his eye, and she would sneak into his compound to spend a few hours dissolving his exhaustion.

In bemoaning his marriage to Fatma, never before, or even now as he lay in bed, had Yusef thought that his absences and dalliances may have kept them apart. Instead, he grew accustomed to the distance. His wife remained a stranger to him. His home life seemed estranged from him, so much so that it was barely a consideration in his decision to join the Good Hope. His family would care for Fatma. Maybe one of his brothers would marry her, as was customary, and take on the responsibility. When he returned home in the distant future, she would be settled and happier than he could ever make her. Meantime, he had sins for which to atone. As a member of the Brotherhood, Yusef had crossed into another world and wholly divorced Fatma in flesh and spirit. Besides, there was another secret in his past that truly tormented Yusef.

Weeks after abandoning the confines of the cabin, Yusef wrestled with whether to confide his secret. A persistent cough afflicted him; his throat felt tight. He needed to spit out his confusion, and he calculated that his odds of reaping compassion were greatest from the captain.

One evening, the muezzin’s call to prayer played on Adrian’s violin floated to Yusef as he prayed on the upper deck facing east. Just one time, Yusef had sung it, best as he could, for the musician. To the others, the music sounded ethereal and exotic. To Yusef, it sounded warm with familiarity. In a dark corner, the Muslim prostrated himself. He uttered in Arabic the first words of the holy Koran. They translated:

“In the name of Allah, the gracious, the merciful. All praise belongs to Allah alone. Lord of all the worlds, the gracious, the merciful, master of the Day of Judgement. Thee alone do we worship and Thee alone do we implore for help. Guide us on the straight path, the path of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy favors, those who have not incurred Thy displeasure and those who have not gone astray.”

Those who have not gone astray.

Guilt caused those words to echo in Yusef’s ears. The May sky and calm sea enveloped the Good Hope in a peace Yusef hoped, as he finished praying, would not be shattered by him. He rose and approached Adrian, letting the music fill him. Involuntarily, his eyes shut, and he traveled the universe in a second. Back on the ship, he saw the path that he knew he must take. When Adrian lowered his violin and bow to his side, the crew remained spellbound. No applause ruined the moment. The last time this happened had been the night of the burning ship. Yusef was stunned by what he had never seen or felt. He took it as an omen that confirmed his resolution. When the men did clap, they were so generous that Adrian bowed three times in three directions. Then, he walked to the railing and peered at the faint new moon. Most of the buccaneers retired for the night. Yusef joined Adrian. He took a deep breath before beginning:

“Adrian, I’m a lucky man to have met you. You’re good and forgiving.”

“Don’t make me out to be a saint, Yusef. I’m not perfect. I’m not God.”

“I know that. But you are reaching for what the moon already has accomplished by being itself: perfection. Unlike people, it’s always in the right phase. We’re often in the wrong phase or don’t know whether we are or not.”

“Don’t make me out to be high and lofty, Yusef. I’m no more or less of a man than you. I’m as confused about life as the next person. I do the best I can with who I am and what I know. That’s all any of us can do.”

“When I was a captive on that ship, I was only thinking of taking the easy way out. I was thinking only of myself.”

Adrian recalled his liaison with Sarah. What would Yusef and the other men think of him if they knew about it?

“None of us are at our best all the time, Yusef.”

“No. But I haven’t even been trying for the best in my life. I’ve been striving for profit.

Trading the best goods for mine: that’s been my guide. I’m ashamed because it’s made me do awful things.”

Adrian thought that Yusef was descending into another melancholic spiral. The captain tried to talk him out of it.

“You make yourself out to be worse than you are. Why are you so hard on yourself?”

Yusef’s speech began to race:

“Because I deserve it. Because I’ve been scum. I’ve sunk to the lowest depths. Adrian, I dealt more than gum arabic and gold. Adrian, I dealt people. Human life as slaves. Yes! To me, it was a business. I thought nothing about it most of the time. When I did glimpse the horror like the fright distorting the face of a captive, I traded on twisted reasoning to evade my guilt. I told myself that these people were being granted a better life. They had been rescued from families who struggled to eke out an existence. Now, they would be acquired by families who could afford them. It was a practical arrangement beneficial to all involved. I never considered the broken hearts and spirits. I thought it was enough to have a place to sleep and food enough to eat. I called myself a rich man because I had more than I needed. I took my worldly goods to mean grace. I thought I was reaping the blessings of Allah. I was blind but didn’t know it.”

Short of breath, his chest and shoulders heaved at the end of his confession. Adrian, stunned by his revelation, kept his eyes glued to Yusef and twirled his moustache. Before the chosen confessor could say anything, Yusef charged ahead again:

“I’m so sorry, Adrian. I’m sorry for the life I’ve led, for the people I’ve betrayed. I lied even to myself. I’m despicable, no better than a worm.”

Yusef began to bawl. He held his face with his hands and gave the musician his back. Impulsively, Adrian wrapped his arms around the man. His body convulsed with that of his friend and, then, he, too, began to weep, but quietly. His grief crowded out his rational powers. Adrian acknowledged only that which dwelt in his heart: Yusef had suffered on both sides of the vise of slavery. The two men coupled to the end of their tears. When Yusef turned around and beheld Adrian’s sympathetic face, he knew that his friend still loved him. The leader, however, disturbed his brother’s feeling of reassurance with sharp words.

“I’m not the one who can forgive you.”

“What do you mean,” Yusef shrieked, fearful that he had exposed his secret only to be scorned for it.

“I’m not God, Yusef. This is between you and the life force within you. You have to be able to forgive yourself.”

Adrian’s advice sounded like a straight and narrow road, but Yusef knew that following it would be a torturous journey.

“I have to believe that I deserve forgiveness. I have to prove myself first, and that will take some time.”

“You’re a good man, Yusef. Don’t dwell on the darkness. It’s over now. You can right your wrongs.”

Again, tears welled up in the former slave trader. The two men hugged before separating and going down below, both too overwhelmed to notice the quartermaster skulking in the shadows.

Edward had heard everything.

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