I feel the ocean calling out to me, inviting me to be one with it. I hold my nightgown up as I wade into the waves. The water is cold and stings my toes, sending shivers up and down my spine, but still, I hear its call. I lift my nightgown over my head and toss it into the air above my head. The loose and lacy fabric catches the wind, dancing on the breeze before finding rest on the sand where I lay moments ago. Briefly mesmerized, I stare until I hear the call again and return my gaze to the sea.
Her call is no longer soft and sweet but loud and demanding, and like a sailor lost at sea, I surrender to the siren’s call and let it swallow me whole. Shivers convulse through me, but I surrender to the cold, to the spasms. Never before have I felt so alive. So free.
I float on the water, my arms splayed out around me as my bare skin glows in the moonlight, and I stare up at the stars, wondering where they will carry me.
The cool night air slowly evaporates the water from my skin as I lie atop my nightgown, and I think of the dreams I had when I was a little girl. Dreams of faraway lands and adventures that can barely be imagined. Those same dreams have unburied themselves from deep within me and resurfaced as a single, undeniable need. The need to escape.
A ship appears on the faraway horizon, gliding over the moon’s reflection on the water. It is only a flicker in my vision, a brief instant, but I know I was meant to see it.
A new and exhilarating chill runs down my back, and I shiver as a fluttering beast takes up residence in my stomach. It is not the chill of cold water or a breezy night that makes me shiver this time, though, as my mind wakes up to the possibilities. Soon. I will be free.
My heart thunders within my chest as I walk to the shipyard. Every step feels new to me as though I have not walked these streets a thousand times before, and I cherish every familiar sight, knowing it might be my last.
With shaking hands and shuddering lungs, I look at my reflection in the window of the door.
I wear my brother’s abandoned clothes and one of my father's old caps, my hair tucked inside. I feel like a small child playing make believe, and I almost chuckle at the irony. I have always felt out of place in my feminine body, my curves too small to be attractive, and my body too weak to be masculine. But now, I am certain my meager curves will be my undoing. Holding my breath, I push through the door.
The room has a familiar smell, and I'm reminded of the last time I was here. Seven years have past since my brother also abandoned his family in search of freedom. He had made me his confidant, bringing me with him so that I too might one day be able to follow in his steps. But it had been different for him. He was older, stronger, braver. But mostly, he was a boy, and boys are practically expected to go on adventures. Girls, however, are expected to wait at home for them to return.
I never truly believed I would find the strength to follow him. But in the end, the choice was easy. I will gladly accept an uncertain life, and possibly gruesome death at sea over the certain torture of an arranged marriage.
I shake my head to cleanse my mind and clear my throat softly to gain the attention of the clerk. He turns and looks long at me. I recognize his scraggly red beard and sun-weathered face from the last time I was here. He wears the same cap on his head and grimace on his face, and I bite my cheek in hesitation as he gapes at me.
“What you need then?” His tone is harsh and impatient, and my tongue feels frozen in my mouth.
“I ain’t got all day,” he snaps at me.
“I… I need passage on a ship,” I say in the most masculine voice I can manage.
He raises his eyebrows and lowers his head at me. “You runnin’ way?”
I don’t respond.
“What are you? Twelve? Thirteen?”
“Eighteen.” I lie.
“Hmm.” He doesn’t believe me, but he shrugs.
“Makes ya think I can ‘elp ya, huh?”
He raises his cap off of his forehead and looks at me beneath his furrowed brow.
“You helped my brother once.”
“Did I then?”
I nod too quickly, and my cap almost falls off, freeing a strand of my long hair that I'd been unable to sever, a mistake I now feel the full weight of.
He scowls at me and chews over his words before spitting on the floor.
“Passage ain’t free, ya know?”
I nod and step forward to hand him the envelope with all the money I have saved for this day. I have another couple hundred in my pocket, but I know I will need it later.
“This all you have?”
“Yes, sir.” Another lie.
He takes the envelope from me, flipping through the bills within, before scowling at me. I watch in confusion as he removes a few of the bills before returning the remainder to me.
“There is a ship leaving this morning, but it is not a friendly one.”
I swallow around the lump in my throat and nod.
“You will need to find the ship and ask for the captain. Tell 'im I sent ya and give 'im the rest what’s in here. The ship is called The Orizzonte and its Captain is a man named Narciso. He’s not a gentle man, and neither are the men he employs.
He thrusts the envelope at me, gripping my wrist tightly as I reach for it and speaking in a low, menacing voice.
“This is no place for a girl, understand?”
I feel the blood drain from my face. He's seen through me.
“You should head back home, now, girl.”
“I can’t go back. Not now.”
He lets out a low growl and rubs his face, before giving me directions to the ship.
I listen carefully as he tells me what to say to the captain when I find him, and before I go, he warns me again of the men that I will encounter. I swallow the growing lump in my throat as I go in search of the ship.
As I walk through the shipyard in search of The Orizonte and its Captain, I watch the men hustling around me. Their feet carry them from task to task much as my own, but their feet don’t know the same hesitancy and carefulness as mine.
I try to make my feet move like theirs, forcing my shoulders back and lifting my eyes from the ground. The lifelong instinct to shrink and hide myself away is difficult to overcome. Still, I try to walk as someone who has never known the fear of being a woman.
When I finally find The Orizonte, my feet become frozen and leaden in my brother's boots, and I nearly falling over the edge of the docks as a man suddenly begins yelling at me from the railing above.
He glowers at me from above with an air of authority, and I I feel paralyzed and mute as I examine the man in front of me. His skin is tanned like the clerk’s but without the wrinkles and spots marring it. His eyes are a deep green with flecks of brown that shine in the sun and remind me of seaweed, and I suspect from the way he looks out at me, that they have seen more troubles than my own eyes have known. He wears a cap like my own, but his hair is messy and curls around his neck. He is young and more handsome than I thought a sailor could be, and my tongue remains frozen in my mouth.
“Speak your business, boy.”
His words are clipped, and his impatience jolts me from my paralysis.
“I, um…” I shuffle my feet as I try to think of the words the clerk had given me to say.
“Speak up, boy!”
I withdraw the envelope and tell him my story, forgetting the warning the clerk had given me to only show the money to the Captain.
He steps closer to me and pushes the money back at me.
“Put that away!” He snaps, scanning the area.
“Follow me,” he whispers, motioning me up the ramp. I curse as I slip on the wet surface, and he quickly grips my arm, holding me upright. He is stronger than he appears, and I examine him more closely as he turns away from me. He seemed to be lean and lanky, but I now see the muscles rippling through his arms and back as he walks. I note several scars blending into his tan skin, and I begin to wonder just what life awaits me at sea.
I follow closely behind him with my eyes focused on the backs of his shoes. Though he scarcely speaks, when he does, his words are clipped and harsh, and I feel as though I am a dog walking at his heel.
He taps loudly on an old, worn door and instructs me to stay silent until spoken to, and I nod my head. A gruff voice from inside barks a word I do not understand, and he opens the door, his tone and body language changing when he sees the old man who waits inside. I wait just inside the door and pretend to stare at my feet as I listen to the two men speaking about me. They speak in normal voices as though I am invisible, and in this moment, I wish I could be. I raise my eyes just enough to look at the older man beneath the brim of my cap without raising my head.
I do not know what I expected him to look like, but I know that I did not expect the man who looks back at me. His face is almost clean shaven, with only a day or so’s worth of growth around his jawline. His clothes look clean and almost pressed unlike the other sailors who appear to have a month’s worth of dirt lingering on their clothes and skin. His face has also seen its share of sun, but his complexion is not spotted or leathery like the clerk’s skin. His hair is not messy around his ears like the younger man’s but pulled back into a tight bun, and his eyes are keen and cold looking. I find that I cannot look away as he stares back at me. His eyes hold my gaze. They are the same intense green as the younger man’s, and they seem to have the same weariness behind them.
He narrows his eyes coolly at me, and I quickly look back down to my feet. It is too late. I sense him walking toward me, and my body tenses with anticipation. He stops in front of me, and though I do not look upward, I can feel his eyes upon my face. His toes are almost touching mine as he stands directly in front of me, and I clench my fingers into balls as my palms become moist and my breath catches in my chest.
“Look at me, boy!”
I jump as he shouts only inches from my face and force my eyes to raise and meet his.
We stand toes together for a long moment as he stares back at me. I feel my entire body tense as his eyes travel slowly from my eyes down to my toes. I feel sick in my stomach as he brings his eyes back up to my own. He reaches over to me and grips the thickest part of my arm and squeezes. I fight the urge to cry out as he flexes his fingers into my fleshy skin. His face is hard like stone as he stares at me, and I am sure that he sees through me the way the clerk did.
“What’s your name, boy?” He asks me, and I release the breath I had been holding in, relieved that he does not suspect me.
I give him my brother’s name and do my best imitation of his voice. I remember how he used to stand when he would speak to our father. His quiet defiance would often bring him nothing more than the belt, but he would never have looked down at his toes the way I had. I breathe in again and force my eyes to hold the old man’s gaze.
“That’s a good, strong name for a lad. It doesn’t suit you, does it?”
I gape back at him, but I say nothing in return. He looks back at me, and I think I see a tug at the corner of his mouth.
“Well? State your business, boy.”
The younger man walks over to me and holds out his hand. I take the envelope from my pocket and hand it to the younger man who opens it and examines the contents before surrendering it to the captain. As I examine the older man’s face up close, I see that they share more than just the same eye color. I wonder about this as the old man pockets the money and stares at me, expectantly.
I do my best to speak like my brother as I recite the words the clerk had instructed me to speak. He stands stone still for a long time after I finish speaking.
Finally, he grunts and nods his head almost imperceptibly.
“You’re too small for most everything. I have no expectations of you. But we will give you a trial until we reach the next port.”
He motions to the young man. “Fynn will show you what to do. You don’t work, you don’t eat. Understand?”
I nod my head and follow Fynn out of the room, glad to be free of the captain’s cold and deciphering stare. Fynn leads me down the long corridors of the ship. He is silent except when he points out areas of the ship for me to take not of. I cannot understand why exactly, but I feel less anxiety around him, and I allow myself to relax my shoulders and breathe more deeply, but as I follow him down a steep ladder with my suitcase, I lose my footing on the last rung and stumble against his back, propelling us both into the bulkhead opposite the stairs.
He curses and whirls around at me, and I suck in my breath sharply as my cap falls to my feet. My long, blond hair unfurls around my face just as he turns to face me. I wonder if I my face has paled as intensely as his own face has blushed as I quickly bend down to pick up my cap. My fingers have only just graced the brim of the cap when he grabs my wrist and firmly pulls me into the shadows with him.
He continues holding my wrist as he shoves me into a doorway and forces my back against the bulkhead in the darkness. There is just enough light for me to see his seaweed green eyes staring back at me in the darkness as he stands over me. His breath seems to come as heavily as my own, and I can see the muscles in his neck and jaw twitching as he lowers his face and allows his eyes to slowly travel over my body. I remember the clerk’s warning, and my stomach sours. His eyes move back up to mine as he steps even closer to me, and I brace myself against the hard wall at my back as a strange combination of fear and exhilaration take over my senses.
“You have no idea what you’re doing, do you, girlie?”
He speaks in a low growl, still holding my wrist, and I stay silent as I try to read his face for his meaning. He is close enough that I can feel his breath on my face, and when his chest rises, it touches my own.
“Come, girlie!” He growls and pulls my arm as he turns.
“We’re going to talk to the Captain.”
He turns and looks at me with the same stone face that the old man had only minutes earlier, and I again notice their similarity, but I sense a difference in their dispositions. Fynn looses his grip on my arm slightly, and I beg him once more.
He growls again, but his face softens as he turns his body back toward mine.
“You should leave, now. Run home while you still can.”
“Please. I can’t go back.” I am surprised to hear the desperation in my own voice.
He releases my arm, but my pulse quickens as he leans closer to me and lowers his voice.
“Do you have any idea what the men on this ship will do to you if they find out?”
“I will be more careful,” I say defiantly, but my stomach again sours, and I have to force down a lump in my throat.
He groans in frustration and steps away from me, resting his hand against the door for a long moment. When he turns back to me, he withdraws a knife from his pocket and moves toward me. I flinch and withdraw into the shadows, but the cold steel behind me stops me. He stops as he senses my fear, and he turns the knife in his hand so that the blade is pointing away from me.
“You cannot work on this ship like that.” He motions to my head and lifts his hand for me to take the knife. I slowly reach out and pull the knife from his hand.
I try to cut my hair in the darkness, but his knife is sharp, and I nick my ear. He snatches the knife from me as blood drips down my neck. He mutters at me, and I feel chastised like a child, but he is gentle when he trims my hair for me, and I believe that beneath his harsh manners, he is actually kind.
I hold still while he cuts my hair and watch as my hair falls down around our feet. I almost laugh at the situation I have found myself in. I wonder what my father would do if he knew that I stood in the shadows, wearing my brother’s clothes while a strange man cut my long hair in the belly of a ship.
Fynn stops and examines me carefully before placing the cap back on my head. I look up at him from beneath the brim of the cap in time to see a smile disappear from his face, and I wonder at his thoughts. He nods his head in a clipped manner, and I again notice a similarity to Captain Narciso. I believe I understand why he has the older man’s respect, and I wonder even more now why he would help me.
I look at Fynn and raise my eyebrows. He shrugs his shoulders softly.
“Have to do. Just keep your head down and your mouth closed. Someone talks to you, just nod.”
I nod my head exaggeratedly, and I think I see a grin tug at his lips as he tucks his knife away and bends down to gather the fallen locks of my hair. I join him on the floor in time to see him tuck a lock of my hair inside his pocket. I pretend that I don’t see and help him gather the remainder of my hair and shove it in my pocket.
Fynn shows me to the crew quarters, and I stash my suitcase before I follow him to the decks. The ship is mostly empty of the crew, and I walk to the railing and remove the hair from my pocket, one clump at a time. As I toss the hair over the railing and watch it slowly float to the water below, I feel as though I am letting go of pieces of myself, of pieces of my past and who I was before. I empty my pocket and smile. Finally, I am beginning to feel just a taste of the freedom I had sought for so long. I look up and see Fynn watching me with a strange look on his face. His hand is in his pocket as he turns and watches my hair float away with the tides.
Fynn says that he will show me the ropes for the first few days until the crew has become used to my presence. I stand on his heels and watch him intently as he narrates his movements and points at parts of the ship to identify them. He moves with grace and ease around the clunky ship, and I am in awe of him. I have never been on a ship before, and I have to carefully plot out each step to avoid obstacles and keep from slipping, and I hope that I will soon become accustomed to the movement of the ship and the placement of the obstacles.
Soon, the men begin to fill the ship and set to work. They give me a variety of looks, none of them pleasant, but I keep my head tucked as Fynn instructed and stay close on his heels. I watch with awe as Fynn barks orders at the men and soon learn that he is the ship’s boatswain. I gather from the speed with which the men respond to his orders, that he has their respect as he has the Captain’s, but I also gather from the manner they respond that he also has their trust, and I am relieved that I will be by his side for the first few days.
We are to set sail soon, and Fynn shows me the rigging and sails. He makes me watch him tie the knots and adjust the sails and then he has me practice. I have trouble with the first few knots, but my fingers are slender and quick, and I soon learn the patterns and feel confident. Fynn nods and tells me that I catch on quickly, and I am pleased.
I stay with Fynn until the ship is out of the harbor, and I obey when he barks orders at me. I feel like one of the crew. Though, I know the tasks he gives me are very basic, but I am learning and feel useful. I cannot think of a time in my life before today that I felt as useful as I do now. It is evening before Fynn leaves the deck. I follow him into the depths of the ship once more as we join the other men in the galley to eat.
I sit across from Fynn at a long table with the other men, and other than an occasional glance, Fynn stares at his food throughout the entire meal. I eat quickly and cannot think of a time I had felt so hungry before. The food is nothing like what my mother would prepare, but it is hot and satisfying after the long day’s work.
I keep my head down as I eat, but I watch the crewmen as they curse and shout and shove one another around the room. I have not seen such a display of wildness before, and it makes me uneasy, but it also stirs something within me. I watch them in wonder, and I believe their animal-like behavior is the kind of freedom that only a man can know.
After we clean our plates, Fynn shows me back to the sleeping quarters, and I find my suitcase and climb into a hammock in the darkest corner I can find. Fynn tells me that he has his own sleeping quarters and instructs me to meet him in the galley in a few hours. I am anxious to be alone with the other men, but I am also exhausted and ready for sleep. My muscles and limbs ache, and my skin is red and blistering from the hours in the sun, but I embrace the pain because it makes me feel alive. I have never slept in a hammock before, and I flail around for a few minutes before I feel secure. Once I find my center in the netting, I find that I enjoy its soft embrace, and I quickly fall asleep.
There are two other cabin boys aboard, and the crew treats me better than them. I know that this is mostly because of their respect for Fynn, but I also feel that I have come further in my skills and confidence than the others, and I believe I am slowly winning the crew’s respect. I have also gotten better at hiding my femininity, and I fear discovery less every day. I have been at sea for three weeks now, and I am growing accustomed to the layout of the ship and the sway of the ocean. I have discovered that sleep on the water brings new and unusual dreams, but I enjoy the strangeness of the visions, and I am no longer gripped with fear when I walk alone on the decks.
Fynn has kept me close to him for the last three weeks, and though I know it is largely to keep me from getting into trouble, he says that I am a natural sailor, and he has been giving me more and more difficult tasks each day. I know that he is not a man given to false praise, and I am pleased to have earned a level of approval in his eyes. Captain Narciso and Fynn often speak to each other apart from the rest of the crew, and I have become convinced of their relation. Though Fynn has not commented on it, and I dare not ask. The captain now nods to me when he passes by, and I know from the look on Fynn’s face that I have earned at least a measure of the old man’s respect.
I am grateful that Fynn has kept my secret, and I know that I have learned a lot from him. We are expected to reach port in a week, and I do not know if the captain will allow me to remain on board. I do believe that I have proven myself more than the other two cabin boys, but I live in dread of the day that I will have to watch The Orizonte and Fynn sail away without me. I do not know what I will do if I cannot stay on this ship. I tried to ask Fynn about it the first week, but he barked at me, and I have not asked since.
We are expected to reach port tomorrow, but I am no longer afraid. Captain Narciso has agreed to allow me to remain aboard as the Fynn's apprentice. I know that Fynn has requested this, and I am grateful. I no longer question my abilities as a shipmate. I have acquired my own scars like those I had noted on Fynn that first day, and my arms and legs have begun developing muscles that I did not know women could possess.
There are not many moments when Fynn and I are not surrounded by other crewmembers, but in the rare moments of solitude, he speaks to me, not as an apprentice, or a cabin boy, but as I am – as a woman and a friend. One night when we sat together, high up in the rigging, looking at the stars, he asked what my given name is, and I asked him if he was the Captain’s son. He smiled at me, and that was all the answer I needed. I know that as long as I remain useful to Fynn, I will have a place aboard The Orizonte, and I feel peace at what the future holds for me. In the moments alone with the one person aboard who knows my given name, my real identity, I am reminded that though I bare a boy’s name and wear his clothes, I am a woman, and that is enough.
I have become an excellent climber and am one of the few crew members, together with Fynn, who is not afraid of heights. Fynn often sends me up the masts to check the rigging, and when I am there, I take my time with the lines as I gaze out across the water, searching for the end of the world.
I find that I prefer viewing the horizon from the top of the mast, amidst the sails and salty breeze. I am sure there will come a day that I long for the familiarity of the view of the horizon from my old place on the beach back home, but that day has not come yet.
There may even come a day when I seek escape from the life of a sailor – the hustle of a long day, the stench of sweat-soaked men and salty air, the taste of gruel, and the strangeness of the dreams of the hammock-dwellers – but that day has not come yet either.
Today, I am enjoying my view from the sails. I am enjoying my freedom.
About the Creator
Alaskan Grown Freelance Writer 🤍 Lover of Prose
Former Deckhand & Barista 🤍 Always a Pleaser & Eggshell-Walker
Lifelong Animal Lover & Whisperer 🤍 Ever the Student & Seeker
Traveler 🤍 Dreamer 🤍 Wanderer
Happily Lost 🤍 Luckily in Love
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