I’ve been feeling the urge to write again but can’t decide where to focus the energy, so I revisited some old stories and polished and honed. That’s fancy talk for I just pushed words around until I felt like I’d accomplished something, even though nothing’s really changed. Kinda like daylight savings time, ha!
This will not be new to some of you. “The Red Flag” was my first assignment for a short story class in college way back when, and I had a great deal of fun writing it.
The Red Flag
I’m not sure what’s happening here, but my gut says it’s important to remember. I will try to write as objectively as possible. The man before me is tall, he is strong and nimble, and his middle-aged features are plain to look upon. Compared to the mass of shouting, hardened sailors encircling him, he is smarter than most of them put together. He knows, for instance, the anatomy of the human body like a topographer knows the lines on his map. He also knows that pressure applied to the right places can reduce bleeding and boiling objects in water kills microscopic organisms. None of this matters however, because at the moment he is flat on his back staring up a blade of steel three feet long.
The man behind the sword deserves some attention. His non-descript brown hair is tied back unceremoniously, much like the canvas sails on the two masts that loom above him. A confused beard several days old pokes precariously from his square jaw, as if questioning its existence on a face that seems too young for such symbols of wisdom. The confidence behind his green-blue gaze gives him the appearance of being larger than he actually is, but the truth of the thing is there’s a mystery in him no one understands excepting perhaps the sea herself.
I’d like to tell you that’s me holding the sword. I’d like to tell you that I’m the Captain of Michal’s Pride with her fourteen iron guns, voluptuous slender curves, and a cross of ivory bones snapping at her stern. I might even trade places with the man pinned to the main deck but for fear of what might happen next. Watching him swivel his head back and forth I get the impression that he’s not sure how to proceed, and I can’t say I blame him. It isn’t every day the captain accuses you of mutiny—
“Mr. Graff! Your assistance!”
My quill hesitated over the half-alive sentence, and I glanced up from my perch on the poop deck steps. Captain Noah Valentine stared at me expectantly, and in a fluid movement I tucked the small journal into my trousers, the quill into the blue handkerchief wrapped around my blond curls, and my prose under a mental rock. There was little place for it on a ship like this. I walked purposefully down the stairs and through the wall of sailors collecting on the main deck, the aroma of salty sweat clogging my sensitive nose.
I got my first close view of the man on the ground—the doctor, my teacher—and the sight of a small crimson stain blossoming across his side sent me into a flurry of action.
“You stabbed him!” I exclaimed in outrage, kneeling beside the doctor. I roughly ripped the light white fabric of his shirt, revealing his bare chest to the high sun and the wound to my small hands.
“Stanley,” the doctor gasped, clutching at my arm, “I need you to—”
“I know what I need to do Dr. Leland, you just lie there.” I pointed to a burly man with meaty hands and golden eyes. “Scratch, I want that wooden box I sometimes carry. You know where I keep it.”
Scratch looked rebellious for a moment, as if he didn’t want to miss any of the pain unfolding before him, but finally I saw him resign himself to the task. He disappeared below deck, scratching his black shaggy head with vigor. I pressed several clean folds of the doctor’s shirt over the bleeding injury and shouted at Captain Valentine as respectfully as I could.
“What were you thinking, Captain? You handle a sword better than this. It’s one thing to make a point in a duel, but this is taking the point too far. Captain, you may have just robbed yourself of your greatest asset and advantage on this ship! You see this?” I nodded sharply at my painted hands. “If you’re lucky you missed his abdomen, but he’ll be in bed for weeks. If anything goes wrong with a raid he won’t be able to help, and I’m not someone you want on the other end of a threaded needle.”
The stained point of the captain’s sword twitched for a moment against the wooden deck, and I thought of a coiled Vipera berus waiting to strike. He looked at me steadily, and I found his calm expression infuriating.
“Mr. Graff,” he said smoothly, taking a generous step to the side as Scratch returned with my medicine box, “it is always wise to remember that there are two sides to a flag, and they have no say in what direction the wind points them.”
Suddenly the sword cut through the air, the tip stopping with precision against my pale cheek. I dropped the half-unrolled bandages in my hand, and the men around me grew eerily silent. The Captain’s eyes became almost grey in the dangerous cloud that rested on his shoulders.
“Never do that again, Mr. Graff,” he warned in a low tone. “Next time a threaded needle won’t be enough to put you back together.”
I couldn’t breathe with the steel against my unbroken skin, and even after he removed his blade I could still feel where it had touched me.
“Stanley, get me inside.”
Dr. Leland struggled to rise and pulled on my shoulder for support. I glanced down at his face, where lines and creases seemed to have taken on ten years in the last ten minutes. He contorted in extreme pain, and I hesitated no further. Most of the sailors returned to their duties with the exit of Captain Valentine, but a few still lingered. I called on two of them to help me transport the doctor below deck, a very heavy feeling settling into the pit of my stomach.
The afternoon watch rang the ship’s bell, and I heard the gentle shwish of the half-hour glass turning over. I stared at the blood soaking into the woodwork of the Michal’s, wondering for the first time which way the wind was really blowing.