I had lost two apprentices in the last clash — seen it all before — the mangled mess of torn flesh and splintered wood; bloody stumps of blown off arms and legs cut through with shot. Cannon will do that on board ship — ours or theirs, makes no difference. As carpenter it was for me to repair the damage to timbers and spars.
I seen young boys; powder monkeys — nearly cut in two by our own shot, feet crushed from the recoil of cannon. Lefty lost an eye from a spelk no bigger than a needle. Cool as anything, Ol’ Lefty picks the eye up and looks at it with the good’un. Takes it above and throws it overboard, he does — says a prayer and carries on fighting. Aye, they were a hardy crew.
My billet was right next to the white doors of the surgeon’s bay. I lay awake oftentimes unable to ignore the cries, moans, death rattles of them poor souls lying on makeshift beds or in the square canvas hammocks. Their truncated limbs were thrown over without ceremony — not like Lefty’s eye. Our surgeon, Swift, had no time for niceties. Crew held ‘em down and he sawed ’em short in eight minutes flat — no matter the weather. Sometimes there was nothing to do but cauterize, give ’em drink and wait for ’em to die — an hour — a day — sometimes several if they were unlucky.
There was a brief exchange of fire early on that day, as I recall — just a skirmish. I’d been repairing timbers aft and was rubbing my saw with oiled cloth when I heard the Cap’n being shouted on from his state room above. There was much commotion below decks, powder being got and guns armed, most of the crew being caught unawares by the hour.
It was Lefty came to find me.
“You ’ave to come quick, Master Carpenter. Cap’n says so.”
“Whatever can Cap’n want with me?”
“Quick, ’e says.”
I went to pick up my tools.
“No need to bring aught,” says Lefty, “’s urgent!”
“Well, if I ‘ave no belt…”
I followed on behind Lefty and the boat pitching an’ tossing — we must ’ave looked like a couple o’ drunken fools lurching side to side.
Lefty led up and for’ard through the confusion and into the medical bay. The Cap’n was in attendance — no more than ’alf dressed, he was. The ship’s surgeon lay on the wooden table screwing at a tourniquet on his right arm. The lower part was all but off. Clean through to the bone.
“Carpenter — I’m told you know what’s what,” said the Cap’n.
I looked from one to the other of the faces gathered round that bench — the truth gradually dawning on me of what it was I had been called down to do.
The surgeon winced and gritted his teeth. He looked me straight in the eye. “Harry,” he said, as never used my name, “I need a man with a good saw-arm.”
I felt myself blench in response.
Cap’n Morton nodded to the medical chest — a low long box of instruments. “Hold him,” he ordered the four in attendance. “Give him a belt to bite on.”
They forced an unwilling Swift back onto the table.
“C’mon. Just make it quick, man,” said Swift.
Many’s the time I’d watched. Well — it was my turn now. I gave the surgeon a stiff drink and then, swallowing one myself, I took the round knife and wet the blade with brandy. “One for the blade,” I joked to alleviate my fears but I sent up a silent prayer just the same and with one single movement, sliced through the remaining muscle to the bone. The Cap’n himself exposed the bone. I bound that with a leather strap as I’d seen done and sawed with all my might as at a hardwood plank and trying all the time not to be aware of human flesh beneath my blade. Swift made not a whimper, good man, the whole time, though I felt his body shudder under shock. I tossed the limb into a bucket, bound the stump together with linen cloth and then, and I think you can forgive me for it, I passed out.
Later Swift congratulated me. “Six minutes!” he said admiringly.
“Fear is oft times hasty,” said I.
“Well, I am thankful for it,” he replied.
Strange it seems, to have sawn off an arm that sawed so many others. Swift made a full recovery and for the rest of that voyage, I was both carpenter and surgeon under his command for he could not do much in that way with only one arm. I never lost an amputee at sea and I always gave the blade a libation for good luck. Which goes to prove — we should always look after the tools God gives us.
Oonah V Joslin is Managing Editor at Every Day Poets. She has 3 Micro Horror prizes, an honorable mention in The Binnacle’s Shorts Poetry competition 2009 and 2011. Inclusion in several anthologies, A Man of Few Words, The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and 2009 and Toe Tags. Read her at Static Movement, The Shine Journal, A View From Here, The Ranfurly Review 10FLASH Quarterly and most recently in New Rising Sun — a Red Cross book for Tsunami victims, Twisted Tales and Ether Books and Writewords’ own Anthology Pangea. You can find links to these at Parallel Oonahverse. Oonah reads some of her poetry here. Other work including her Novella, A Genie in a Jam, can be found at Bewildering Stories. The list is updated in The Vaults at Parallel Oonahverse and on her Facebook. Oonah’s ambition is to have a book published.