In elegant robes, my mother floats
Through the gardens thick and fragrant;
Strong lines of care carve my father’s face
As he scratches for our fortune.
Once, during a rest, as we ate some bland slop and tossed a skin of water back and forth, I noticed our Drummer eying me. I was feeling briefly light-hearted as I watched the swift movement of the water skin above the heads of the crew. It was our game: the unwary would catch the goat skin in the side of the head. The old man stared at me across his meal of soft bread and small fish. He had apparently noticed my feet tap a song that had been running through my head, a song of childhood. He smiled.
My head jerked stinging to one side, even as my hands caught the rebounding water skin. I flung it behind me over my head, but my eyes never left my Drummer. He was the first person to really notice me, since my father cut me adrift.
We had heard about the Red Galley, the flagship of the merchant’s fleet, and its oarsmen, the Red Serpents. Each Red sailor was handpicked, proud and strong, ready to prove his dominance over a village idiot, if that were the only target.
The first time we saw them, we were Half-Stroking out of the harbor toward the second point to the north. Marsyas suddenly shouted: “Oars high! Backwater! Double Stroke!” in such a rush that Flavus’ entire bench tumbled to the deck. Many of us lost our grips and flailing oar handles knocked some of us silly. A blood red hull slid past our starboard bow to a double-time beat and Marsyas screamed a curse at the passing Red Rowing Whip. His stare silenced Marsyas, who shrank like a shopkeeper. He didn’t berate us at all while we completed our round to the second point.
A week after our almost-clash with the Red Galley, we were idle in our morning seats in the Cormorant, waiting unusually long, when word spread: “Marsyas was taken.” No one knew how, though someone had seen a strange boat on the beach before dawn. He was nowhere on the island.
As next in authority, the Drummer directed us out of the harbor at Three-Quarter Stroke, south toward the Cyclades. Behind the third point along Euboea, he started a torturous arm exercise that had us raise our oars off the water, gently slap the oar behind us, then the one in front of us and then knife back into the water for a pull stroke. Though we thought ourselves toughened by the relentless days of open water rowing, a couple of hours of this made our arms burn
The Drummer announced: “Oars high! That style is called ‘Scudo’s Wings’,“ he said. “Usually reserved for royal galleys!” That got a laugh. “Some morning, you’ll see that your lives are still yours; still waiting to be lived. You have a chance to learn to row like men. For mastery. To reclaim your lives.” He paused. “Oars ready. Now let’s go home” And he began the familiar, monotone beat of Standard Stroke. We thrashed a bit, but different: we were learning to row for this Drummer and ourselves.
Marsyas was discovered the next morning, naked and witless, on the rocks by the harbor mouth; a reminder to all sailors in the fleet from the crew of the Red Galley.
We were often Whip-less, while Marsyas recovered. We’d shiver silently in the breeze until the Drummer took us out.
We took pride in perfecting Scudo’s Wings, the oar-clapping royal Stroke. Sometimes we cajoled him into beating it for us with calls of “Scudo, Scudo, Scudo” until he gave in. Other codes we developed were Danae: a sudden stop, and Lanaea: back by Half. We craved new maneuvers. Our arms and backs were soon strong and tireless as the legs of infantrymen, quick and snappish as rabbit snares.
Our mentor directed us to channels and bays that it seemed no man had ever seen and so distant from harbor that he steered us home by the stars.
After one twilight return, as I was leaving the boat with our shuffling, grunting group, I passed our Drummer, adjusting his sandal. I dropped back, hoping he would talk to me. Without even a hello, he said “Count to one hundred steadily and without speaking, keep the rhythm, start with me: ‘one, two, three’,” and nodding for me to continue, he went silent.
What’s this game? seven, eight, He’s slipped his anchor! Does he think I’m sixteen, seventeen, four? nineteen, twenty, a has-been Drummer playing children’s counting games? twenty-seven, twenty-eight, you should tell me salty stories full of sailors saving nobles, ladies cheering thirty-eight soldiers forty merchants sharing booty, owners choosing peasant partners, everything is fifty nifty fifty-two, fifty-three but all that ever changes is whose foot is on my neck and I seem to always miss a trick or sixty-five two sixty-seven come-on, Drummer man, don’t let me down! What are we doing? seventy-seven, seventy-eight I know you planned this little meeting. What on earth for?eighty-six What do you say? ninety I’ve played your game! ninety-five now you come across!
“One hundred,” I said, decisively.
“One hundred one,” said the older man. He watched me like a statue of himself. I thought I’d lost some game that might have bridged a gap to god-knows-what human contact. There was nothing I could say.
“Not bad,” he said with a half smile. He tossed me something, a dark, ripe fig. “Now catch up with the others.” As I turned to go, he smiled and touched my elbow. “I’m Lucius,” he said.
My stomach flipped like a fish on a hook. He left into shadows and I stared after him, feeling the sticky fig in my fingers and the warm evening breeze on my face. Had I made a friend?
That night after the torches were extinguished, I told Cassil about counting with Lucius. “Don’t let him get you alone to count.” He said. “Next thing, he’ll want to see if you can count bending over.” My smile somehow slid to my throat.
Be blade. Beat
back doubt. Don’t
Die. Push down
pain. Face fear.
Too soon, Lucius announced that in just three more days we were to be apportioned to other galleys. Divided. The prospect was hideous to us and I think Lucius kept us particularly busy for that reason.
Too soon, as well, Marsyas came back as Whip. Damaged. He was skinny now; more angular. His blue tattooed skin hung loose like bad drapery. The jerky puppet movements of his limbs initially aroused our sympathy. Then he opened his mouth.
“In two more days, you will be rowing alongside free men whose livelihoods and very lives will depend on how you perform. You will follow orders or die. Cadence!”
The drum sounded our cruising beat and we soon left the harbor mouth. Marsyas had narrow habits and planned a Double Stroke to the third point and back, probably grueling for most trainees.
Tito, our natural spokesman, shouted: “Hydra!” We switched flawlessly to stroking on the upbeat, every man. Lucius smiled, inconspicuously. The Whip spun to look at Tito.
Without a word, and while we were still at cruising speed, the Whip went to Tito’s bench and unlocked his ankle shackle.
One by one, Tito’s oar mates and others of us raggedly stopped rowing, though the beat kept on.
Dom, Dom, Dom. Only a few benches were rowing now.
Dom, Dom, continued the drum.
Twisting Tito’s ear, Marsyas forced him to the bow rail near the Supplicant, who stared forward blankly.
“Climb up,” the Whip told Tito, sticking the point of a short sword into Tito’s ribs.
Tito didn’t seem to comprehend.
“Onto the rail,” said the Whip. As Tito started to comply, the drum said DaDOM and stopped.
Every man looked at Lucius.
“If these boys are going to challenge the Red Galley tomorrow, they will need every oarsman,” said Lucius.
“What challenge?” asked the Whip.
“Tomorrow, the Red Galley leaves for Tunis. We will leave the island as they approach us and beat them to the third point.”
“Impossible,” spat the Whip.
“I am Lucius, son of Scudo,” said the Drummer. “I’ll wager my freedom these boys can beat the Red Serpent from harbor to the third point. It will happen,” said Lucius.
I was slack-jawed. Was this to shift focus from Tito? That had worked. As oarsmen, we were steadily improving, but they were the Red Serpents!
“Show me,” said Marsyas.
“Cadence!” called Tito, taking his seat without his ankle chains. Though we flew back to our island, fast even for us, Marsyas neither commented nor grunted, which fed our fears.
The next morning, a falcon flew over, going somewhere in a hurry, as we were being chained to our benches.
Our challenge was part foolishness, I decided, but not entirely. The Red Galley was loaded with trade goods and tribute for the noble houses of Tunis. Our training galley was lighter and we had an additional four oars in the water. The fact that their crew was twice our weight might tip the scales in their favor, of course, but it also made their boat heavier, didn’t it?
We watched another pigeon wasted at the bow, anxious for the Supplicant to be done.
Marsyas had buttressed our self-respect by trying to diminish it. We were men while on the Cormorant and this was our goodbye. We welcomed this now.
Lucius’ muffled drum sounded our beat and we were off, Quarter Stroke. A bit of haze on the water. Marsyas stood at the bow.
“There!” He pointed slightly off the stern to port and we saw the Red Galley’s Serpent head streaking through the water.
Still in the harbor, they were at Full Stroke! They should still have been at Half, at best! Lucius switched sticks. Tito yelled: “Marsyas, call it!”
Immediately, Marsyas called “Half Stroke moving to Three Quarter.” And after eight beats, he called: “Full Stroke moving to Double Time by Fours!” We had practiced this quick acceleration.
Lucius’ drum called us each by name and we sped across the water like a polished stone. “My God!” said Marsyas, in admiration.
The Red Drum was also audible now and had increased to Double. The Serpent was four lengths ahead to port and an arrow-shot away.
Our Drum went to Two-and-a-Half, unbidden. Lucius took us there gently but insistently, leaving us no choice. Then, emerging from the insane cadence of Two-and-a-Half, we heard grace notes, triple beats, staccato rim shots that clacked but counted, beats that said: “you are born to row, you were made for this race, for this moment, with these mates, pull for your lives, not to avoid dying, but to live!”
I glanced to the side. We were two lengths behind and gaining slowly. The Red Drum was still at Double. The Red Whip was striding down the walk, slashing one man after another with his knotted whip.
As we pulled within a half-length of the Serpents and so close our oars were almost clashing, at a shout from Red Whip, the Red crew suddenly shifted every starboard oar upright. The sudden lack of starboard drive threw the huge red hull into our port side oars, smashing them to kindling. Our oarsmen would have been flung across the boat but their ankles were chained to their benches.
The side of the Red boat screeched and shuddered down the length of our smaller hull. As the Red Galley swept away, oaths and screams and disbelief filled our world. Many lay groaning, twisted. Skulls lay open where bits of wood had flayed them. Legs had shattered like our oars. Cassil lay crooked and motionless; Vallus spurted blood from his thigh.
Marsyas, our flint-edged Whip, surveyed the disaster that was our crew. “The Red Galley has never been beaten,” he said with hatred and pity.
Erik Svehaug works a day job at a picturesque Santa Cruz lumberyard with steam train tunnel and white cathedral on a hill and writes when he can seize the time. He loves his wife and two inspiring daughters and regularly walks the dog. His shorts and flash fiction have appeared on-line and in print, most recently in an anthology of short stories (Villainy) from Hall Brothers and soon will be found in Qarrtsiluni, Vagabondage Press and the 2011 UMM Binnacle UltraShorts collection. You can find most of his published work at: eriksvehaug.wordpress.com Contact him on at firstname.lastname@example.org , referencing ‘fiction comment’ in the subject line, so as not to become spam.