Flower of the Sea
Today is the fifteenth day in November, year of our Lord fifteen hundred and eleven. It is the twenty-second day of our return to Portugal aboard the Flor de la Mar, riding low in the water with proof of our victory at Malacca. As ever, I, Luis Sarmento, keep this diary though I am nothing more than a cook. For one day I will be a Captain and when that day comes I will have had such practice as to keep the best logs of any who now sail the India run seeking wealth for our King Manuel I, The Fortunate, of the house of Aviz.
Our Captain is none other than the Caesar of the East, the great Alfonso de Albuquerque. Some call him Tyrant but tonight I have made a favourable impression, by way of a much-requested speciality of mine. A recipe for roasted chicken handed down to me by my mother, and by hers before her.
It being on this day the anniversary of the Captain’s birth, celebratory rations were taken aboard at Sabang and as we rounded the tip of Sumatra’s mainland, Banda in sight off the port side, the officers caroused in his honour. By the hour I was to serve dinner they were deep in their cups. Setting the largest golden-brown bird before Albuquerque, I was much daunted by his severe features and face, unsmiling beneath the forked beard. In my meekness both I and the meal went unnoticed amid cheers of his name. Fearing the food would grow cold, I cleared my throat. To no avail, I remained overlooked. I tried again, raising my voice as I held my carving tools over the roast.
“Breast or thigh,” I called. The cabin fell still and dread seized me. I had offended the Portuguese Mars himself and would be keelhauled until dawn. The silence stretched thin, even wind and waves quieting for the Lion of the Sea, until he brought his hands together in a clapping like mighty thunder and laughed an uproarious laugh like the blowing of Hephaestus’ bellows. The officers slapped me about the shoulders and sat down to devour the meal I had prepared for them, filling the air with an uproar of praise that burned my cheeks and the heart in my chest.
Now I must go and walk the deck for I find in recalling it that I cannot lie still, much less fall asleep.
It is the eighteenth day in November, and this will be my last entry as a sailor. Events have conspired to change the course of my life, even as the fickle wind changes that of a ship. Hereby do I swear to be a creature of the land, nevermore stepping foot upon the sea. Nevermore will I know the caress of the Flor’s sun-blistered wood beneath my fingers, nor the burn of her whisking ropes over my palms. You will likely disbelieve my account. It happened before my eyes and I am not convinced of the truth of it.
I walked the deck, stepping over fellow crew asleep about the ship, listening to the grumbles of those forced to awaken and shift by the business of sailing. The sea was calm. A black mirror, doubling the moon and stars to bring them so close I seemed to walk among them upon the clouds. I took the spyglass from my belt and looked toward the distant island, seeming to bring her too within my arm’s reach. The beauty of the place lay thick on my senses, like the poppy smoke we had taken in Java’s dens. So much so that when it happened I thought it was some similar result of the location, a magic of the senses. The palms began to shudder. Some fell, their fronded heads crashing to the ground in plumes of sand. No sooner had I accepted the sight as true than did it stop. Absolute calm ruled the night once more.
I withdrew my eye from the glass and cast about the crew. None had stirred. All was still. Then, as if sucked by the great indrawn breath of monstrous Adamastor himself, the sea rolled back from the shore. I knew the phenomenon. Even as I turned to behold the cause I had its warning on my lips.
“Rogue water,” I cried with all the power of my lungs, causing the crew to spring alive around me. It was too late. The crest rose higher than the main mast yard and, tumbling us with it, dashed itself to foam on the shore. We came to rest pierced in the port ribs by coral spears and cracked open on the starboard flank from deck to keel down the mast line, leaking our gold into the thankless drink. The Flor de la Mar had sailed her last.
“To the boats. Retrieve what cargo you can,” came the order. I gathered my most treasured belongings, this diary among them, and joined a line passing chests hand to hand up from the ruptured hold into the boats. I fell into the rhythm of the desperate work, wondering in the private realm of my thoughts at the stranger-self who had laboured over the preparing of roasted chickens for his Captain. I remembered my Captain, laughing and feasting, a war God made flesh as in our salted sailor’s legends. Casting a prayer skyward for him, I hoped even the sea herself might quail to try her hand at claiming a lion, and marvelled at how far the fortunes of man may carry us in a single night. When it seemed Fate had a mind to drown us if we tarried longer we followed our salvage into the boats, and believed ourselves saved.
The sea had not savoured her last of us. Even as we raised our voices in thanks we yet lived, she began to roil. A whirlpool opened below the ship, dragging at her carcass where she lay aground, stripping splinters of her as a vulture tears flesh from bone. I looked down the throat of the ocean and saw the sea bed sundered. A crack, which became a rift, became a gulping chasm. The water churned faster, pulling our boats, our spoils and our drifting dead toward the abyss. The Flor groaned in her coral moorings and I watched in horror as her aft end began to come loose. With a scream it broke free to be swallowed by the starving Charybdis. Her foundering spawned a wave that tossed my feeble boat into the air, sending us its meagre crew, into water where all was boiling black and airlessness.
I awoke face down on the beach, choking on lungfulls of salt water and clawing sand from my mouth. I searched the horizon but all sign of the Flor, from topmast to rudder, was gone. The sea lay tranquil, sated, for all to behold her as innocent as if she had never known the taste of sailor blood. I turned my back on her and walked into the jungle, there to find what life and luck I could on land.