Astonishingly, tomorrow is the third Saturday of July, which means my writing group will be meeting. I say astonishingly, because this month has flown it seems. So, this month’s prompt is “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”. (It was my turn and I wasn’t feeling particularly creative, I guess…) Here’s my contribution:
How I Spent my Summer Vacation
It was hot that summer, hot and dry with a blazing blue sky day after day. That was nothing new to us; but my master was happy. The heat kept the wood dry and safe. Nothing rots like damp, he’d say.
The city smelled of orange blossoms and fish, or so strangers would tell us. I lived here all my life and oranges meant nothing to me. It was just home.
I was the lowest of the drudges, not even ranked as a ‘prentice, no work was too mean or dirty for me. Actually, even being assigned work would have been better than the kicks and cuffs he dealt me for not being able to read his mind. How was I to know if he wanted lamp oil or fish oil or tallow when he muttered “grease”?
Still, I had a place to sleep when I could, and sometimes scraps from the kitchen when everyone else was finished. It was a good summer, the year I turned nine.
I remember well the day the Captain came in to the shop. I caught sight of him as he approached the door, it was my place to watch but not speak. He came in, and I thought my master would fall over himself trying to gain the custom. Yes, he purred, yes, of course sir, we can supply everything you need. Yes, the best rope and tar and sail and fine provisions. Oh yes… I’d never seem him like this.
This man was not our usual custom, this one had a purse rather than a small coin from a master for a bit of this or that. He spoke a bit strangely, as well. He had an accent, but many did, here by the port. And, it was rare to see a man dressed as he was in this part of town. Not like a church-man, not like a sailor, not like anyone I’d seen around here before. Clean, clean for this part of town, and well tailored. Good cloth, not fancy, and carried himself in a way that would make the take-purses think twice. He wore good stockings and a medium neck ruff.
He had a list, three ships he was outfitting he said. My master was practically drooling at the thought, although his face didn’t show it. Sailing on the 3rd of August, the Captain said which left just two weeks to gather everything he wanted. Not to worry, my master told him, everything would be ready for the Captain’s men to gather up in 10 days.
We scampered then, I can tell you! Well, I should say I scampered, trying to stay out of the way and yet be helpful. My master spent his time yelling at the ‘prentices to sort out this or that, and dickering with other merchants to get everything on the list just so.
Rope was easy, sail cloth, and tar, then barrels of provisions from dry peas, beans and lentils to salt cod, olive oil, wine, and ship biscuits. Braids of onions and garlic. Dried fruit and barrels of water, casks of vinegar and pounds of nuts, salt, oranges, olives and salted capers, and dry sausages and preserved meat of course, anything for these fools who were about to sail off the edge of the earth, as long as they paid him first. My master was in his element.
My master was a cooper; barrels were our trade. Filling them was usually not, but this was different. The Captain expected everything ready for stowing and my master was determined to make it so. This one commission would feather his nest for the winter to come when no ships would sail, and I could tell that anyone who got in his way would be dispatched and possibly bunged in a barrel. I tried to lay low.
The day the Captain came back with his men my master was ready. Everything, and I mean everything on the list was stacked up, the inventory filled our shop to the gills. My master was pleased, though he’d never let the ‘prentices or me get a whiff of it.
The Captain looked around and had his clerk make notes on how many barrels of what kinds of provisions. Then he checked it against his list and nodded.I was watching from the back of the shop, hoping no one would notice me. The Captain had his men move the barrels and crates and other goods out into the street, he had a small flotilla of men but then he had three ships worth of provisions to move.
Once the goods were outside the shop seemed to sigh and settle. The Captain and my master settled accounts, and thats when it happened. I must have bumped into something in my attempt to get out into the alley behind the shop. The Captain turned and saw me, and asked my master if he could take me as well, as part of the deal.
Of course, my master said smiling, anything you like, sir. He’s not mine, he’s just a wharf rat, and you’re welcome to him. Easy as that I went from being a cooper’s drudge in the port of Seville to a cook’s drudge on the Santa Maria. I learned to gut fish and soak beans, and to help with the big pot of stew we made pretty much daily.
I learned how to batten down a kitchen when a ship is being tossed about like a cat in a blanket, to watch for flying knives and hot coals from the cooker. It got so that the cook would actually leave me alone in the galley from time to time, and I learned to love it. I had no rank, but the cook did, and he looked out for me. I think he cared almost as much for me as he did for his big knives.
Days and days we sailed, and I tell you I waited to fall off the edge of the earth. You can’t imagine, sitting here on dry land, that once you are out of port there is no smell but men afraid and the sea, no sound but the creaking boards of the ship and wind in the sails. And, if not for the fishing I think we would have starved. We survived though, got all the way to the New World and home again.
I’ve seen thing you would not believe. Animals and birds, men the color of fine Cordova leather wearing feathers and women dressed in flowers. Trees with feathers for leaves, and dragons and mermaids, it was a fine summer.
It was certainly not the summer I had expected, but it was a grand adventure and it opened my eyes. I left here a boy and came home a man. That was twenty years ago now. So you see, my son, this cabin boy position I’ve set up for you could lead to wonderful things for you as well. You just never know.
Spanish Bean Soup (Potaje de Garbanzos)
1/2 lb. uncooked garbanzo beans, dried (also called chickpeas)
1 beef bone
2 quarts water
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 lb. salt pork, cut in thin strips
1 onion, finely chopped
1 link smoked chorizo, sliced in thin rounds
pinch of saffron*
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Wash garbanzo beans. Soak overnight in enough sea-water to cover beans.
Drain the salted water from the beans. Place beans in a deep soup kettle; add 2 quarts of fresh water and the beef bone. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 45 minutes over low heat, skimming foam from the top.
Fry salt pork slowly in a skillet. Add chopped onion and sauté lightly. Add the paprika. Add this to the beans and bone. Add the saffron and salt to taste. Simmer partially covered until the garbanzos are tender, then remove from heat and add chorizo. Serve hot in deep soup bowls over ship’s biscuits or with crusty bread. *Saffron is optional depending on your last voyage’s riches.
Enjoy with fair seas and good winds.
And, as a PS to my last post, fresh figs are dandy simply served with chevre: