Author's Note: This short story has been abridged to conform to word limits for a Challenge entry. If you would like to read the full version, you can click the link here.
The View from the Sails by Lena Folkert.
I feel the ocean calling out to me, inviting me to be one with it, and I accept its invitation as I walk into the water. I remove my nightgown and throw it into the air above my head.
The wind catches the loose fabric, and it dances in the air, landing safely on the sand where I lay only moments ago as I dreamed of freedom.
I shiver as the cold water surrounds me, but I surrender to the chills because they make me feel alive. I float on the water, allowing the current to carry me as my pale skin glows in the moonlight.
The water evaporates from my skin as I lie on my nightgown, and I think of the dreams I had when I was a little girl. The same dreams that have unburied themselves from deep within me and resurfaced as a single, undeniable need. The need to escape.
My eyes follow my heart to the horizon, and I see a ship in the faraway distance. I watch it hungrily as it glides over the moon’s reflection on the water. It is only a flicker in my vision, a brief instant, but when I see it, I know that it is a message for me. It is waiting for me. Freedom.
A chill runs down my back, and I shiver as a fluttering beast takes up residence in my stomach. It is not the cold water or wind that makes me shiver this time, though.
It is the excitement that washes over me as my mind wakes up to the possibilities. I will be free soon.
I feel my heart thundering 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 allow my eyes to scan every shadow and corner, knowing that it will be the last time.
My hand pauses on the doorknob in hesitation, and I take a deep breath and hold it inside my lungs, hoping that it will bring me courage. I look at my reflection in the window.
My hair is tucked beneath a cap, and I wear my brother’s old clothes. They hang over me, and I hope they hide my curves as I open the door.
I have only been in this building once before. Seven years ago, when my brother also abandoned his family in search of freedom. He brought me with him so that I would know the way if I ever wanted to follow in his footsteps.
It is the same clerk from seven years ago, and his face is covered in the same scraggly red beard. His skin is still tanned like leather and covered in dark spots.
“What you need then?” His tone is harsh and impatient, and I hesitate.
“I ain’t got all day,” he snaps at me, and I realize that I don’t have all day either.
“I need passage on a ship,” I say, trying to keep my voice masculine.
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. “You got money?”
I 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 examines my face for a moment, and then he takes the envelope from me and opens it. He flips through the bills and scowls.
His brow furrows as he removes several of the bills and puts them in his pocket.
“There is a ship leaving tomorrow morning, but it is not a friendly one.”
I swallow around the lump in my throat and nod.
He pauses and leans toward me as he points at my chest. He speaks in a low, warning voice. “These are not good or kind men on this ship. It is not safe for a girl. You understand?”
I groan as he sees through me.
He returns the envelope to me with the remaining bills and gives me instructions to find the ship and its Captain. I did not expect kindness from this gruff and grubby looking man, and I begin to realize I do not know as much of the world as I thought.
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 and take his warnings to heart as I go in search of the ship and its Captain.
As I search for the ship, I watch the men around me. Their feet carry them from task to task much as mine do, but they seem to do it without the carefulness and hesitancy that impairs my own feet. I try to make my feet move as theirs do and walk like a person who does not know the fear of being a woman.
I find the boat and am stopped by a young man whose face has seen more sun than mine. His eyes are a deep green that reminds me of seaweed, and I suspect they have seen more troubles than my eyes have known. His head is covered with hair and sweat like the other sailors I have seen, but his face is softer and handsomer than any I have seen before.
He motions me aboard, and I slip on the wet deck. His hand grips my arm firmly, and I fight a gasp that wells in my chest. His hand is strong as he pulls me to my feet, and my eyes move over his arms as he turns away from me. They are long and lean but strong and sculpted with a curious but beautiful blend of muscles and scars, and I wonder what life on the water may hold for me with my thin and frail limbs.
He nods for me to follow him, and I walk 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 as though I am a dog walking at his heel.
He tells me to keep my mouth shut as he taps loudly on an old, worn door, and his tone and body language change as he opens the door. He greets the man inside and they speak about me as though I am invisible. I can tell from the way that the Captain speaks to him, that he has the older man's respect, and I wonder if I will ever know that kind of respect.
When the Captain looks at me, I try to speak the way my brother would as I recite the words the clerk instructed me to speak. The younger man with green eyes and strong arms takes the envelope from me and hands it to the old man who pockets the money and stares at me. My body tenses as he examines my face and torso carefully. 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.
“James.” I use my brother’s name.
He motions to the young man. “Quinn will show you what to do. You don’t work, you don’t eat. Understand?”
I nod my head and follow Quinn down the long corridors of the ship. He leads me down a steep ladder, and I try to hold my suitcase as I climb down, but I lose my footing on the last rung. I stumble into him, and as my cap falls off, my long hair falls around my shoulders.
I suck in my breath sharply and bend down to pick up my hat, but he grabs my wrist and pulls me into the shadows.
He continues holding my wrist as he stands over me for a moment. His breath seems to come as heavily as my own, and I can see the muscles in his neck and jaw twitching as his eyes travel over my body. I remember the clerk’s warning, and my stomach tightens.
“You have no idea what you’re doing, do you, girlie?”
He is still holding my wrist, and I stay silent as I try to read his motives.
“You should leave, now. Run home while you still can.”
“I can’t go back.” I 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.
He groans in frustration and steps away from me for a long moment. When he turns back to me, he holds his knife out to me, and I flinch.
“You cannot work on this ship like that.” He motions to my head, and I take the knife hesitantly.
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, muttering, 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.
He stops and examines me before placing the cap back on my head. “Have to do. Just keep your head down and your mouth closed. Someone talks to you, just nod.”
I am still scared, but I nod exaggeratedly, and I think I see a grin tug at his lips as he tucks his knife away. We gather the hair from the floor, and I pretend that I don’t see him tuck a lock of my hair inside his pocket.
Quinn shows me to the crew quarters, and I stash my suitcase before I follow him to the decks. I feel lighter as I toss my severed hair into the water, and, for the first time, I begin to feel the freedom that I had sought for so long.
He tells me that he is the ship's bosun and instructs me to observe him for the first day. I stand on his heels and watch him intently as he narrates his movements, and I am in awe of him.
I have never been on a ship before, but I can still recognize his skill and efficiency. He moves with grace and ease around the clunky ship.
He barks orders to the crewmen, and they respond quickly and with respect, and I know that he is both liked and trusted by the men. They mutter in my direction, but I keep my head down as he instructed, and they mostly leave me alone.
We set sail today, and Quinn shows me the rigging and sails. He makes me practice tying the knots and adjusting the sails with him and tells me that I catch on quickly.
I have never felt more useful than I do now. My muscles and limbs ache, and my skin is red and blistering, but I embrace the pain because it makes me feel alive. I have never slept in a hammock before, but I enjoy its soft embrace and sleep quickly.
We sit with the other men in the galley as we eat. Quinn eats in silence, but the crewmen shout and shove one another as they eat. I have not seen such a display of wildness before. It makes me uneasy, but it also stirs something within me. I believe it is the kind of freedom that only a man can know.
I am beginning to win the respect of the crew, and I have gotten better at hiding my femininity. They treat me better than the other cabin boys, and I fear discovery less every day. I suspect it is out of respect for Quinn that they have embraced me, though.
He has trained me well and says that I am a natural sailor. I know that he is not a man given to false praise, and I believe that I have earned his respect.
I am grateful that he has kept my secret, and I dread the day that I will have to watch this ship and Quinn sail away without me.
We are expected to reach port tomorrow, but I am no longer afraid. The Captain has agreed to let me remain aboard as the Quinn's apprentice, and I am relieved to not have to leave the ship, the sea, and Quinn behind.
On the rare occasions that I find myself alone with him, Quinn calls me by my given name and speaks to me, not as a sailor or a subordinate, but as I really am, a woman. In those brief moments, he makes me feel like maybe it is enough to just be Khloe.
I have developed my own scars and muscles in my arms and legs that I did not know women could possess, and I have become an excellent climber. I am one of the few crew members who is not afraid of heights, and when Quinn sends me up the masts, I take my time as I check the rigging and lines.
I find that I prefer viewing the horizon from the top of the mast, amidst the sails, and even though I am sure there will come a day that I long for the familiarity of the view from my old beach, that day has not yet come.
There may even come a day where I seek escape from the life of a sailor, but that day has not come yet either. Today, 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
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!