The black waters caught the light of the swinging lanterns. The moon had already set, leaving the night blacker than before. The old guards on the docks splashed their faces with water to keep awake. Grains of salt stuck between their eyelashes as they looked up. The night would never end. And yet, somehow, it always did. At long last the silver line of the horizon became visible as the sky warmed into a dull vermilion. When the glowing sun crept above the ocean horizon, it cast shadows in the creases of the guards’ aged faces.
Silhouettes of fishing boats meandered slowly into the sheltered bays. The only sounds that broke the quiet dawn were the splashing waves, the wet rustle of the gasping fish on deck, and the shouts of the young men who leapt to the pier with soggy ropes in hand to tie up the boats. The boats may have belonged to their great grandfathers, and the fishing business had passed from father to son for generations. “And some day, me boy, you’ll have this here boat and stories of yer own ter tell.”
The lads would hear wild stories of how their grandfathers had been out fishing and seen a pod of whales with backs glistening in the moonlight, and the water from their blowholes would spray across the sky like droplets of silver and pearl. They could hear the whales singing to each other, the calls of an undersea nightinggale. Or the would hear of the time when great uncle Bill saw a pirate ship.
“He was so scared lad, thet he didn’t even breathe. He just set there an’ watched the ship go by.”
“How’d he know it was a pirate ship?”
“’Cause of the flag on top. It was too dark to see the pattern, but it was a pirate flag ter be sure. All the other sails were white an’ glowed with the moon, if you follow me. This flag was all black an’ sorta sucked in all the light around it. That’s how he knowed it ter be a pirate ship. ‘Course yer great uncle Bill never thought that pirates might have no interest in a poor little fishin’ dingy.”
The stories played with the boys’ minds, sparking their imaginations to extravagant fantasies. As they grew older they would watch for that ship out at sea. If anyone asked why he was staring blankly at the sea, a lad might say he was only watching for dolphins, and the inquirer would chuckle inwardly to himself as he walked away. “Thet boy’s too int’rested with the sea. Will lose his mind to it if he’s not careful.” But the boy, straining his clear eyes for a black flag on the horizon, would still stand there as is soul streamed forth from his eyes and sunk just beneath the lapping waves.
As the sun lit the salt encrusted docks, villagers began to walk from the little seaside towns with wares to sell. They pushed little carts and trollies to the marketplaces near the waterside. The general noise of the morning rose like the sun, faint at first, but blaring by midmorning.
“Fish for sale! Nice fresh fish!”
And from another corner, “The nicest fish you’ll see fer miles aroun’. Caught jus’ this morning!” Giggling under their lacy parasols and muttering about the unsavory scent of the fish, two young ladies turned away from the vendors. Two carts further on, a sly-looking man with a squint in his eye beckoned to the ladies to admire the delicate silver brooches he had on display. The man gave the fish vendor a smile with the left half of his mouth, then turned to the ladies, his face a charming mask. The fish seller grunted in disgust at the man, then, as a matronly cook approached to bargain for the best price he grimaced through his smile.
At the wharf markets people came and went, came and went. Some people came in a hurry, and pushed past people impatiently to buy what they needed. Then they left as quickly as possible. They were the servants of some wealthy townsperson and had a deadline to meet. Others came as well: fashionably dressed ladies looking at what they wanted their husbands to purchase for them, or young girls admiring the expensive, impractical jewelry and clothing. Trying to see what mischief they could stir up without being caught by their scolding mothers, little boys darted between the legs of people, carts, trollies and horses alike. Their mothers always made the boys feel the age they were, not the age they thought they should be. Then there were those who were dressed in rags, and all they could do was watch the lives that could never be theirs pass them by. A kind lady might offer them half a loaf of bread, or a well-dressed gentleman might hand them a copper coin, maybe even a silver one, but that was all. They lived a life of judgement; they were judging how to survive and the world in turn judged them for it.
The sun passed along its high arc across the sky, and, as it sank behind the rich green hills, it cast long shadows off the carts being packed up. The fishermen rolled their empty barrels back to their boats and threw their tangled nets aboard. They would hurry home to a wife’s hot supper of soup, bread and cheese. The ale was poured by the fisherman’s blossoming daughter who was changing from a freckled, gangly thing into someone beautiful. The only one who really noticed the change was the dark-haired boy a few doors away. The daughter never knew why he had stopped speaking to her, especially because he always used to tease her about her array of freckles and her long, stringy braids.
After a few hours sleep, the fishermen and their sons would rise and go down to the chilled docks. They saw not a soul but the old guards who had nodded off at their posts. The fishermen would climb aboard, deftly untie the ropes, and set sail. They used the smallest breath of wind to push themselves over the black, silent waters, those black waters which reflected nothing but their one, swinging lantern.