A Loblolly Boy’s Lot by Christine Collinson

I’m emptying a piss-pot again. As I lift it over the rail, a sudden shift unsettles my feet and I nearly spill it back on myself. The sea is angry. Churning and tumbling like it wants to turn us over. This, I’m prepared for. So many days on deck have steadied my legs and hardened my stomach. It took some getting used to, though, I’ll say.

Returning to Mr. Roe, I find him preparing to chop some poor fella’s blackened foot. The sailor’s face is as pale as the sheet he lies upon. I’ve seen it the same many times. Other boys are here, but I hover, waiting for orders. Mr. Roe glances up. “Master Edward, go and get the men fed. At once!”

A reprieve, of sorts. The limb cuttings are the worst of it. The first few times I helped, I ran out at the end and was sick as could be. Missed the bucket most times, too. Mr. Roe must have known, but said little. I expect he knew I’d grow out of it, just like others before. But it took a while to block men’s pained cries from my dreams and still, sometimes, they return.

It was Pa’s idea to put me aboard the ships. Being down the docks every day he’d seen an opportunity, like the gleam of a penny underfoot. “You must start earning your supper, son, just like all men.” There was no choice in the matter, I knew. Mam had a new babe again and there were seven of us. The eldest had always to move on. “The sea is calling you!” Pa shouted as he waved me off only days after.

The sick-berth reeks of unwashed skin and old wounds. After a time, though, I don’t notice it anymore. Maybe my nose shuts down, if that’s even possible. I pass bowls of loblolly to each of the men. Some mutter their thanks, most do not. There are always one or two who can’t feed themselves. I have to hold the spoon as they suck the thick, lumpy liquid until it’s all gone. Mr. Roe insists on empty bowls. “Patients need food to fight back. Remember that, Master Edward.”

Now and then, I wonder should I try and escape. The next landfall, I could sneak ashore in darkness and hide somewhere. Mr. Roe keeps odd hours, but he has to sleep sometime. I could go then, like a rat scurrying through the hold. You rarely hear them, but afterwards, discover what damage they’ve done. What could Mr. Roe do if I’d scarpered? But fear edges in. I don’t know the places we dock, don’t know if I speak the same as the people there. And so, I’ve never risked it.

I find Mr. Roe in his cabin. It’s one of the smartest, with everything neatly stowed. His case sits closed on the desk; surgeries seemingly done for now. “All men are fed, Mr. Roe, Sir!” I report. He nods. “I already saw that they are.”

And I know that I’m stuck, like a cork in a bottle, until someone comes along to pull me out. All of my days on board stretch before me, further than the seabed lies below.

Biography: Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. Her first Novella-in-Flash was longlisted in the 2022 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award. Over the past four years, her work has been widely published in online journals and print anthologies. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.

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