The Whisky Blot
Journal of Literature, Poetry, and Haiku
Massachusetts Bay had God. The Chesapeake had tobacco. That was what John Boyse, the old gentlecove at the Dublin docks, had told him, and so the boy Garret had waited for a ship bound for the more southern colony. Then, when the younger lads had made for the Dove, the ship they said would take the poor and starving Irish boys to the eastern shore of Virginia, Boyse had bought Garret a lunch of greasy cod and warned him against rash action. The shore was the briny backwater of the Virginia Colony, Boyse had said, a strip of land that separated the great Chesapeake Bay from the vast yawn of the Atlantic, with acres and acres of tobacco fields cut up by mosquito-infested swamps. It was choked with English ambition and dangerous savages and was certainly no place for a boy like Garret, who seemed a good lad.
“All the same, I think I’ll go to Virginia,” Garret had said, as he licked the grease from his fingers. He hadn’t much use for God, anyway.
The old man had smiled into his handkerchief. “You’ll want an indenture, then,” he had said to Garret. Young boys, being smaller, were worth less to a Virginia planter, and so they would work the fields until the age of twenty four, when they might finally be of value. But Garret was seventeen, wasn’t he, and large for his age? A four-year indenture was what he could get, with Boyse’s help, and by the time he reached his majority, he’d be a landowner.
Garret’s own Da had no land of his own. Were Garret to have stayed in Ireland, he would have spent his lifetime tilling an Englishman’s soil. What was only four years more of the same? At the end of his indenture, Boyse had said, Garret would receive a sturdy suit of clothes, a 25 pound bag of corn, a milking cow, and fifty acres of land. Boyse had found a quill, and with an unsteady hand, Garret had traded four years’ labor to put Ireland behind him.
“Keep this safe,” Boyse had said, handing Garret one paper, and pocketing one for himself. “Without this, the captain might sell you as a seven-year indenture.” Captains were not to be trusted any more than any Virginian, who was as like to cheat a man as to look at him. Garret had been pleased to have found a friend.
So it was a month later that Garret Sipple, once of County Wicklow, and the only Irish boy with an indenture aboard the Dove, found himself to be not only hungry, but thirsty as well. When he had first boarded the ship, the provisions were plentiful—to him, at least—and he had eaten with relish, only to find he ejected his food over the ship’s rail after nearly every meal. By the time his stomach had settled and he adjusted to the ceaseless rocking of the ship, the provisions had dwindled, and the bosun had begun to more carefully ration the rancid salt beef and stale biscuits. By the sixth week at sea—having spent nearly ten days in windless waters—the stores of drinking water had run dangerously low. Hunger was loathsome but familiar to Garret, and if he had only been hungry, he might have borne it. But the thirst in his throat, he told his young shipmates, was like to drive him mad.
Garret soon began to see that the fresh water was ladled out according to rank. It was far scarcer for the boys and the men with indentures, while those with money—those big men who had bought their passage with true coin, and who had fine clothes on their fleshy bodies and in their endless stacks of wooden trunks—well, those men had water and even small beer to drink. Their faces were rosy and full, and their eyes as bright as their coins. Garret, and those like him, those poor villagers from Kildare and Meath, they grew thin and wan, their skin dried and their eyes sunk in their faces and their piss turned dark.
The boy was closer to death than to land. He knew he must find more fresh water, and soon. The rain barrels were empty. He might have stolen a cask, but the bosun, wise to the sullen looks of the new servants, had locked the casks in the hold and slept with the key ’round his neck.
One hot, lifeless day, Garret liberated an empty wineskin from a drunkard, and placed it in the small hands of Paddy, the youngest of the lads, pushing him toward the ladder.
“Play the almsman, Paddy,” he said. ‘Beg us a bowl of beer.” He tried to spit-shine the boy’s face but found his mouth too dry. He hoisted the small boy up.
Paddy scrambled onto the deck and peered back down into the dark. Then he was gone.
But it was only a matter of minutes before he was back, hang-dogged and empty-handed. Garret pushed past him and climbed aloft. There he spied the captain, Pitts, playing at dice with three other men. An open cask of beer sat between them, into which they dipped their cups with astonishing frequency. Garret’s lip curled. He nearly tripped over some rigging as he made his way across the deck.
“Captain, sir,” he said through cracked lips. The Captain paid him no mind.
He tried again. “If you please, sir.” His face was nearly as red as his matted hair.
Captain Pitts snatched the pair of dice off the crate with one hand. He did not look at Garret, but instead looked to the man at the ship’s wheel. “Mr. White,” he called, and the man at the wheel answered, but did not leave his post.
“White, there is no wind. Permission to leave your post.” The sailor deftly crossed the deck and stood between Garret and the Captain.
“Aye, Captain,” he said.
“White, to your knowledge, does Bosun Tille continue to dole out the proper rations to the passengers and the company of this vessel?”
The sailor scratched at his beard and looked at the Captain queerly.
“Aye,” White said slowly, “though those what works more and those what pays more are them what drinks more.”
The Captain waved him aside, and looked at Garret, who stood barefoot upon the deck in his torn breeches.
“There you have it, my young rogue,” he said. “The bosun allots you and your kind your proper portions.”
“But those who—”
“Those who work and those who pay have their fill,” he said, and shook the dice in his fist. “You are not a sailor. You are not a gentleman. Had you coin, or anything of value to any man on this ship, you could procure yourself an extra pot.” He cast the dice upon the crate. The other men leaned in to observe the outcome. Pitts looked one last time at Garret. “Have you anything of value?”
Garret, angry, shoved his fists into his pockets. The right pocket had been torn through for several weeks, as he had no one on ship willing to mend it for him. His right hand felt empty air between his leg and the crusted cloth. His left hand, though, touched the smooth, folded paper that had been his constant companion since the day before he boarded the ship. His indenture, written in Boyse’s smooth hand, and signed with Garret’s crude mark in the shape of a coin. Free passage and board in exchange for four years’ labor in the fields of Virginia.
This piece of paper pledged his labor to the bearer. He knew as much, even though he could not read the words. He also knew it promised him 50 acres upon the completion of his four years in the fields. Corn. A suit of clothes. Perhaps even a cow. It was the promise of riches due to him. And what was a coin—or better, a promissory banknote—but a promise of riches due to the bearer? Was this not just as good? He had never owned or held a bank note in his life, but he knew enough to know how it worked. Would he trade his future riches in the New World for a pot of beer? For the chance to share a cask with the boys below? He closed his eyes to think on it, and nearly toppled over. If he didn’t sate his thirst now, he wouldn’t make it to Virginia. He grasped the folded paper and yanked it from his pocket, thrusting it at the Captain.
“This here’s worth 50 acres,” he said, his dull eyes beginning to look feverish. “And corn and clothes. And a cow.” Was the cow guaranteed? He was no longer sure. He continued to hold the crumpled paper before the captain, who remained sitting.
One of the other men snorted. Captain Pitts peered at the paper. “Is that your indenture?” he asked. His brow rose. Another man slapped his knee and threw back his head in laughter.
Garret looked confused, and his cheeks burned. “Aye,” he said, quickly stuffing the paper back in his one good pocket. “My money’s as good as yours.”
“Aye,” the laughing man said, “but it’s not money, is it? It’s a note that says you owe the Captain for your passage. You’re a borrower, lad, not a lender.”
Another of the men looked at him curiously.
“Are you daft, son? You know you cannot buy goods with a note that says you owe another man.” He shielded his eyes from the sun.
The heat in Garret’s cheeks was too much to bear. He was hot, and thirsty, and desperate. He began to mumble.
“Decked out, burnt-arsed sons of whores…” When the captain turned, Garret lashed out with his right hand, aiming to land a blow upon the man’s gob, but he lost his balance and stumbled forward. The first mate was a bolt of lightning. He grabbed Garret’s arm and flung him to the deck upon his back, and in an instant had his boot upon the boy’s throat. He leaned down.
“You have nothing of value,” he growled, “and whether or not you give away that paper, you owe four years’ labor in Virginia. You made your mark.”
Captain Pitts waved his hand at White, who lifted his foot as Garret’s hands flew to his neck, and he gasped. The other men laughed and resumed their game. Ambrose White offered Garret his hand and pulled the lad to his feet. Garret stumbled to the rail. The men ignored him. His throat was both dry and bruised, and his mouth had a bitter taste. He had thought himself lucky to have had a four-year indenture. What a fool he was! To think the paper he carried safe in his pocket the entire passage had been worth not even a sip of small beer. He pulled it from his pocket and angrily tore it to little pieces, flinging them over the rail, and watched as they fluttered straight down to the still water and stuck to the unmoving surface.
Molly Moran has a bachelor’s in English Literature from the Catholic University of America, an MA in Communication, Culture, and Technology from Georgetown University, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio, where she teaches digital design. In 2003, she published her first short story in Crux Literary Magazine. She is returning to writing after a 20-year career designing award-winning technologies for the U.S. Foreign Service and four Secretaries of State.
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