From Yiddish for Pirates, a novel
Moishe as a child. He told me stories.
Some were true.
At fourteen, he left the shtetl near Vilnius for the sea. How? First one leg out the window then the other. Like anyone else. Before first light. Before the wailing of his mother.
A boychick with big ideas, his kopp—his head—bigger than his body. He would travel beyond the scrawny map of himself. And beyond the shtetl. He’d travel the ocean. There were Jews—he’d heard stories—that were something. Not rag and bones shmatta-men like his father, Chaim, always following the dreck of their nag around the same small world. Doctors. Court astronomers. Spanish lords. Tax farmers. Learned men of the world. The mapmakers of Majorca. They were Jews. Rich and powerful, they were respected by everyone. They could read the sky. They knew what was on the horizon. They knew what was over the horizon. Jews had trickled through the cracks of the world and had rained upon the lands.
He’d travel the globe. He’d travel to the edges of the maps, to where the lost tribes had built their golden cities, and where they knew the secrets of the waters and of the sky.
So this Moishe, put the cartographer before the horse, and left.
Luftmensch they say. Someone whose head is in the clouds. Clouds in a sky whose only use is to make the sea blue. The world is wide because the ocean is wide. So nu, he’d had his Bar Mitzvah, why shouldn’t the boychick sail west on a merchant ship, some kind of cabin boy, learning not to be sick with the waves? A one-way Odyssey away from home, his mother weaving only tears.
And where had he heard the stories? On the shmatta cart, making the rounds with his father. The sun rising, they travelled from home. They didn’t fall off the edge of their world, they circled around it, until by nightfall, they were home again. Moishe’s old father, the bent and childless man who had taken the foundling—the drownedling—in, spoke to him of the great world that they shared. Moishe’s father, grey beard, wide black hat, stooped back. The world, he said, was a book. A great scroll. Like the Torah, when it ended, it began again.
Everything began again. Each week with its shabbos of silver candlesticks and braided challah. Each year with its seasons, festivals, Torah readings. Child, father, child. It was a Möbius Strip. At the end of the story, the story begins again.
Before he climbed out the window, Moishe packed only his few clothes, some food, a knife, a book he had often examined when alone, and two silver coins that he took from where his mother had hidden them behind a stone of the hearth. He sewed these into the waist of his pants.
He came across the book by accident, this book that had a beginning and an end. Playing at a game of catch-and-wrestle with his friend Pinchas, Moishe had slid under his parents’ bed and pushed himself against the wall where he hoped he would be invisible behind the curtain of the embroidered bedspread. Breathing hard, attempting to remain quiet and undetected, Moishe felt its shape beneath his hip. He didn’t know what it was. When he was eventually discovered – after he’d deliberately released a prodigious and satisfying grepse, a gaseous shofar-call alerting his friend to his location—he left whatever-it-was beneath the bed to be disinterred and examined later. He knew it was somehow important and secret, better to wait until he was alone, Pinchas gone home, and his mother out at the mikveh.
When he unwrapped the old tallis – a prayershawl – that surrounded it, Moishe was surprised to discover a book. An ancient book. Grainy brown leather with faded gold lettering and pages the colour of an old man’s hands. The script looked like Hebrew or Yiddish but it was the language of some parallel world, gibberish or the writing of a sorcerer.
Most intriguing were the strange drawings. Charts which seemed to diagram the architecture of heavenly palaces or the dance steps of ten-footed angels. Mysterious arrays of letters, the unspeakable and obsidian incantations of demons. And, most captivating of all, were what appeared to be maps of the parallel world itself, filled with ring upon ring of concentric circles, rippling out from the beginning of creation and the centre of everything, as if one fine morning, God had cannonballed down from everywhere and nowhere and into the exact middle of the primordial sea.
But perhaps, Moishe wondered, these maps represented the actual earth, the alefbet of cryptic markings, boats floating upon the waves of a vast ocean, searching for the edges of hidden knowledge.
It was as if Adam and his wife, Eve, had found a map instead of an apple, there in the centre of the garden. Instead of good and evil, they had discovered a map of Eden, the geography, the secrets, the true limits of Paradise and the Paradise that lies beyond.
Maybe that is why his father kept this book hidden where no-one—not the Rabbis or the Shammas or the other men—could find it.
So Moishe took the book and left.
Whatever port it was where he arrived, Memel or Gdansk—he didn’t know—great ships filled the harbour, men crawling over them like flies on a shipment of modern-day pants or—zay gesunt— sailors on a shiksa. Decks were swabbed, rigging secured, barrels and chests heaved along docks and over gangplanks. Men with fruit-leather faces and pigtails close-talked with great weaselly machers in greasy coats, furtively scanning the docks for other great weaselly machers in greasy coats as they exchanged shadows for shine. Broken-toothed taverns lined the wharves, and farmisht shikkers stumbled in and out, not knowing which direction was up, yet maintaining an unsteady relationship with down. Vendors held stickfuls of pretzels and bagels, stood beside barrels of brine, or behind braziers roasting meat. There were other boys shlepping sacks containing all of their world that was worth carrying, seeking a shipboard life as a cabin boy or powder monkey. Several boys, stooped low with their sacks, entered one particular frowsy tavern tumbled between others and Moishe followed.
They formed a shlumpy pack before a table where a huge sailor held court, leaning back, pork-hock hands on his enormous thighs.
“Boys. Why should ye be cabin boys on my ship?” His bristly steak of a face shook as he spoke. “Tells me and maybe ye shall be one.”
Ten boys, tall and short, smooth-faced or pocked, had gathered ‘round.
“I’m a strong boy and honest you can be sure,” said a tiny pisher with all the resolution his unbroken voice could muster. “I’ll serve true and learn well,” he said, standing tall.
“You’re a hearty lad, I’s can tell,” the sailor said. “Spoke right up. Ye be welcome. Look to The Sea’s Pride early tomorrow and ye’ll sail with us.”
“You, “ the sailor said to another. “D’ye have some teeth?” The boy grimaced, showing such teeth as he had. “My father went to sea, and this I aim also.”
“Family,” said the sailor with a grin wide as a plank. “We’re all barnacles stuck to the rump of family. Tomorrow. The Sea’s Pride.” He waved the boy away. “And you?” he pointed at Moishe. “Ye be a big lad.”
Moishe wasn’t a Jew.
Until he spoke.
“Vell,” he said. “L’ch’oira. It seems.”
As soon as he said it, Moishe realized how foreign his words sounded. Like having a mouthful of something you just realized was treiyf, not kosher.
The big man paused.
Moishe was about to run.
“We never had a Chosen People on board. Ye do something nasty? Need to make a quick exodus from Egypt?”
“You Jews are clever and I don’t knows I trust ye. But there be no baby’s blood on board and if you’re not honest, we’ll beat you ‘til ye bleed like the baby Jesus hisself.”
That night, Moishe slept under a pile of sticks and broken bottles in the lee of a dung heap behind the tavern. At first light, he made his way to The Sea’s Pride to leave the solid earth behind.
To be new to the sea is to have your kishkas—your guts—become the waves themselves. For days, it was high tide inside of Moishe, and a team of pugilists bailed out his insides with their convulsions. He’d be a new man, kaynaynahorah, for nu, what could be left of the old one after such puking?
The Sea’s Pride was sailing for Portugal, laden with cargo and a crew of the feckless, the brave, the poor, the drunk and the honourable both, as well as seasoned sailors preserved by salt, fermisht first timers, and the Purser, Quartermaster, Bo’sun, the Captain and his Parrot, an African Grey, he who has lived to tell the tale.
Moishe’s commission was to serve the Master, the big macher sailor who had hired him. In his cabin, the Master had created his own private Versailles. Instead of a crews’ shambles of piss buckets, hammocks, and a salmagundi of sailors’ chazerei, he had stored an abundance of liquors, sweetmeats, sugar, spices, pickles, and other things, for his accommodation in the voyage. He had also shlepped a considerable quantity of fine lace and linen, baize and woollen cloth. Not for him the usual shmatta slops of the everyman mariner. And besides, these things could buy him passage on the fleshy sloops of night women or be traded without tax or duty for gold or drink in port.
The Master was good to him and taught him much, though his was a pedagogy based on exhaustion and the definite possibility of a mighty zetz to the ear. In addition to his work below deck, on deck, and climbing the rigging, working on booms, gaffs, and spars, he was a manservant to the Master, serving his every wind-changeable whim.
But he asked and, if his work was done, was allowed, to gaze at the maps and charts. His quick mind pleased the Master.
“Ye shall be a sea artist good and true, right ye will. Your paint shall be the shiny stars in the sky above and your canvas the waves of the salt sea.”
You think Moishe had any idea what such words meant? Gornisht! Nothing. Nada. Bupkes. Not that boychick. Until he met me, he didn’t know a sloop from his shvantz. Or in English, his dick from a deck.
Was I good at language? Let’s just say, Polly’s been a nautical boy for most of his long life. Since I was pressganged out of Africa covered in pin feathers, I’ve been parrot to a whole shipload of mariners – Arab, Portuguese, English, Spanish, German, Polish. And I taught young bubbeleh Moishe something other than the mamaloschen.
Hogshead. Rumfustian. Hardtack. Turtles.
Baldric. Blunderbuss. Muskatoon.
Cutthroat. Tankard. Stinkpot.
How d’ye do?
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.
Yes sir, very good, sir.
Captain. Ocean. Syphilis.
He was a good mimic, that shaygets, though no parrot.
Fershtay? Do you understand? I’d say.
I oondershtand, he’d reply.
I took an immediate liking to him. His narrow shoulder, his earnest face, his kindness.
This pleasant demeanour and obvious intelligence also attracted the attention of the Captain who took a shine to him, would take him under his wing, would make sure that things were well. He soon had him managing that part of the ship’s stores that were for his private use. Guns, gold, dainties, drink, and good meat. If the Master’s stores were Versailles, the Captain’s were the Vatican. Moshe kept them neat as a marlinspike, free from vermin, insects, and the salt scum that encrusted everything aboard ship.
Yes sir, very good, sir, he’d say.
I’m a bird who knows on which side the holy toast is buttered. Fershtay?
Moshe was kept busy running between the Captain, the Master, and his other responsibilities. The crew began, if not to trust him, then at least to increasingly regard him as one of the crew. And, thanks to a certain mensch of parrot, he was able to keep his Yiddishkeit to himself.
Was Moishe happy to have finally left the firm land?
Is milk happy coming out of a mother’s tsitskeh?
The sea, Moishe exulted. I am finally at sea. Take a small, dark shtetl. Paint it with the swirling blue and foamy white of the moving waves, the endless blue and curly white of clouds and sky. Hold the edges like a sheet and toss it up and down like a child’s game, the breezes flapping above you, the gust blowing the tang of salt across your face. Your house, the rag-and-bones path of flesh and blood, ever hopeful as it floats toward the beckoning horizon, free from the gravity of ground. To be at sea is to know vastness, is to understand the flight of clouds, the reach of the stars and of invention. He was riding the expanding ripples of God’s great cannonball. Moishe felt as if he were travelling in every direction at once, each direction away from home and toward story.
It didn’t take long for the milk to sour.
It was an afternoon of little wind and the crew, having had their food and drink, were becalmed. Moishe shloffed in his hammock below deck, catching a few extra zayins while he could. I had flown up to a spar, my own kind of crow’s nest. In the still air, his Master’s voice rose, gramophonic, clear to me, though he was speaking low to an old sea dog on the fo’c’s’le. I flew down into his cabin and bit Moishe’s ear.
“Gay avek,” he moaned. “Get out of here.”
“Listen,” I said. “Listen.” He needed to hear what the Master was saying.
“The wits and limbs of my little Hebrew are keen, aye they are,” the Master was saying. “I’s reckon I be able to trade him for a few bright pennies on the wharf. That and his wages will add a little fat to my sack and me golden balls’ll swab the deck as I walk.”
The taller the prophet, the greater the smashing of the falling tablets.
“Gonif.” Moishe cursed. He was ready to swab the deck with the Master’s beitsim all right, but he knew there was nothing he could do. He’d be swinging from a gibbet, or hacked into lobscouse if he tried anything.
So nu, what do you do when you’re fershtupt?
It didn’t take long for Moishe to turn what was smashed into a dirty shiv and to spit on the niceties of moral details.
A little gold, a drink or two of the Captain’s fine wine, a bit of meat serves to ease the pain and evens out what the world owes you. The Captain was almost the same thing as the Master, and, kaynaynahorah, the Captain would never notice the filching. There was so much and he was casual with his riches, unlike the Master who kept a close eye.
Moishe took to helping himself to comestible advances on his pay and to availing himself of the Captain’s collection of maps.
The maps were of distant places, waters that were more like legends than actual destinations.
But, a few days later, the Captain noticed.
“Curse the hot piss of the Devil Himself!” he shouted as he stormed from his quarters. “I’ll have the skin of the man who did this for a sail.”
Clearly, he had a different conception of the equitable redistribution of resources, both savoury and liquid, for the wages of cabin boys.
He ordered the crew on deck. “No Christian sailor would steal from his own captain,” he hissed. “For he fears the devil hereafter and the lash before. There shall be neither sup nor grog until the man who did this speaks of it to me, or his mate tells the tale
It was then that Moishe learned a new word, but not from me.
The crew had little notion who was the gonif who’d been grazing on the captain’s wares, but when the afternoon’s rations were withheld, they went sleuthing. Mostly the interrogation was accomplished by the fist, though there was some cross-examination affected by the knee. The men searched each other’s measly lockers and bestowed smart zetzes and slaps upon each other’s chins. Moishe did his best to appear engaged in time-sensitive tasks of critical importance. In the main, as they sailed, the crew left Moishe to his own devices, dedicated to appearing occupied while diligently avoiding their own chores. Occasionally, they’d call for him to help haul on a halyard or throw him a broom when they were swabbing the deck.
“Aye, lad, it’s the only thing we sailors wash,” they’d laugh.
He’d gathered round for rum, stood as an equal in surly and superstitious congregation for Sunday prayer, and shared the inscrutable mystery of galley stew, though he’d leave what he was able to identify as pork. He’d station himself nearby to listen to the long ramble of their narratives or mewl and warble soprano with their morbid tavernhacking choir on the choruses of their songs, whether he understood them or not.
I wish I was back in my native land
Heave away! Haul away!
Full of pox, and fleas, and thieves, and sand
Heave away! Haul away, home
Sometimes, midway between dusk and dawn, their gig adrift with drink, a sailor might confide his tsorriss, his woes, to Moishe when he’d come up on deck, unable to sleep. But they were grown men, their brains and skins turned to leather by years out on the open sea, and Moishe was only a boy, his beard barely more than the nub of pin feathers on his girly skin, and though he knew little but his native tongue, he knew the universal language of the nod, of the hmm.
The other cabin boys kept close among themselves, not trusting Moishe and the fercockt way he spoke. Association with him, they had surmised, was a liability. They were, after all, ambitious young lads, and engaged in professional networking with those both before and behind the mast, hoping to seek advancement in their chosen vocation.
Perhaps it was they who began questioning Moishe’s hobbled and palsied mutterings and as he recited long knots of the new words he had acquired on this floating Berlitz. Unchristian hoodoo incantations and organs-on-the-outside spells, they said. The Bible turned backwards. Harelipped prayers which led, clubfooted, only to sacrilege, damnation, and punishment both eternal and maritime. And, naturally, all sailors were keen to avoid a messy tryst between their freckled backs and the Captain’s Daughter.
What dalliance might result in the thereafter between the hot claws of devil fire and their preroasted sunbaked backs, they could not anticipate, and so it was not their concern.
As a result, but a little time had passed before they attributed the theft to Moishe. Their attribution was of course, perfectly sound, though they had not a snail’s leg of evidence on which to base their accusation. What was evidence to them? Bubkes. So nu, they should wait two hundred years for all good sailors to be apprised of the Enlightenment, the scientific method?
“Heretic,” they called him, and the Captain, betrayed by this strange boy whom he’d planned to help, invoked the Inquisition.
The Inquisition. That Swiss-Army-knife trump card of a final solution
You’re only the same until you are different.
Moishe’s spice-rich accent. His eleven-fingered mumblings. His unchristian curses. His porklessness. Not that it had been his intention to assume a role as anything but Jew.
Differently Christianed. Jesusly challenged.
“You, my greedy fingered lad, will burn at the stake the day we arrive in port. And then we’ll offer your ashes the opportunity to repent.” The Captain’s eyes like two fires, condemning him to hell.
When the going gets tough, the goyim get tough, too.
There was no escape. In the cold sea it would be water instead of fire that would steal the breath of life from his mortal body. He pled with the Captain to spare him, wailing and protesting his youth.
“Common thievery, and from the captain, no less. The crew has spoken of your ungodly murmuring, your pagan psalms. You have recited our gospel with a forked and goat-footed tongue. You gather with us to pray yet you’ll not eat pork. This is a Christian ship and there shall be no heresy. If Jew you ever were, your Hebrew
soul was flayed to dust by demons, and now no spirit but the devil takes residence in your bones,” the Captain said.
Religion a trump card in a game where the captain is king.
“What shall I do?” Moishe wailed.
“The Master,” I said. “Remember the sagging sack he would fill with gold? You are an investment. Men protect their investments as if they were the twin baby moles of their own tender between-the-leg sack.”
With both broken voice and tongue, Moishe begged the Master to intervene.
The Master weighed the matter on the scales of his own greed, then agreed to speak to the Captain.
The Captain was in his cabin at table before a silver plate of meat. “O Captain,” the Master purred. “My Captain, I’s thinking, this boy’s fearful trip should not yet be done. Let us steady his keel, weather his daring by our own hand on our own grim vessel. I’d wager that the prize you seek can be won with but a few drops of red, and then,”—the Master paused at this point to grin conspiratorially—“at the nearest port, we can sell him, as he were…off the rack. What says, you, sir?”
The Captain, reaching deep into his sea chest of compassion and jurisprudence, replied, “Torture, my good man. It’s as effective as truth serum. What’s flayed onto the back speaks more plain and true than lines found in the hand.”
He would have Moishe stripped, the better to see the naked shmeckel of his immortal soul. Then he’d let the cat out of the red bag which hung from the impressive manhood of the mainmast. He would flog the boy—who was naturally, free, at any time to present a cogent refutation of the accusations against him—until he bled like an innocent saint or a pestilent piss-veined devil.
They waited until dawn appeared blood red on the new sky of the next day. The morality play of punishment made more acute by a vivid setting. The crew gathered, the other cabin boys making box seats of barrels for a close view. Moishe’s clothes were rent to rags on the deck, then he was bound to the mast.
“Sir,” he began to wail, “Very good, sir.” He had command of few words that they’d understand, and most of those learned from his haymishe parrot.
The Bo’sun, a desiccated and diminutive momzer with rings in his twisted labial ears, lifted the cat and brought it down hard on Moishe’s back. A crack as of lightning splitting a great tree. A moment only and then rivers of blood seeped from the raised banks of the boy’s flesh.
“Hogshead,” Moishe cried, bursting open his meagre word horde in desperation. “Rumfustian.”
The bo’sun struck again.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti,” Moishe wailed.
At this the Bo’sun paused. Who could flog man or boy who was saying prayers? And in Latin.
At least what man who feared offending the captain? The Bo’sun would have flogged Jesus himself since it gave opportunity to sear flesh with the lash and draw a rich red city-map of fresh blood on the mortal canvas of his Lord’s bare back.
“He knows his Mass, Cap’n,” he said. “What should I do?”
“We’ve drawn the Christian out,” the Captain said. “It’s like tenderizing meat. Perhaps we have saved the boy.”
No-one, except for the Master knew what they’d saved the boy for. He’d be sold soon as they anchored.
They untied Moishe, who could hardly stand, though he’d received thirty-seven less lashes than was proscribed by Moses’ law, the usual prescription. Salt water was poured from a waiting bucket to stave off infection. He could walk no more than an eel and so, frogmarched below deck, he was deposited wet and sloppy into his hammock.
Sleep. Silence save for a few moans.
Moishe woke and covered himself with an abundant and foamy tide of his own puke.
By the next morning, the dawn sun was but a pallid cueball beside the raging red rising on Moishe’s back.
“Get your dog’s body out of bed, boy,” the Master shouted. Unless you seek another lashing?”
Moishe staggered to his feet.
Soon he was struggling to lug an enormous piss bucket up a ladder, stale urine sloshing over his cross-hatched flesh.
“Over the larboard side, you thieving piss monkey,” the Master said. “Into the wind.”
There were no chains binding him. The ship was restriction enough. If he jumped overboard, the waves would snatch him in their wet paws, Moishe their plaything while it pleased them. Then—mazel tov!— he would be pulled down into the lair of blind fish and luminescent cucumbers, where the contents of his lungs would find their way to the surface while he died.
And like most sailors, he couldn’t swim.
Did the captain provide him vittles for a sultan’s nosh? Feh. He was fed only enough to keep the bones around his marrow. Who needs such decoration as that provided by the ostentatious hoo-hah of flesh and blood?
One doesn’t get an oil change for a car that is to be sold.
The bucket emptied, he collapsed on the deck. He was roused, made to return down the ladder, then haul up another bucket of fershtinkeneh bladder-rum squeezed from the syphilitic shmeckels of his bunkmates.
“Lad, the spume of the sea be cruel, but spurn the sailor’s code and we be crueller.”
All morning, Moishe was compelled to toil until by afternoon, he collapsed on the deck and fried like a side of Yiddish bacon under the griddling sun.
The dog watch bells rang.
As if conjured from the silken sleeve of the duplicitous ocean, three ships appeared close behind, moving quickly. They flew the red St. George’s cross.
A shout from the crow’s nest. “Caravels. At seven o’ the clock.” The Master and the Captain appeared on deck.
“English, I’s reckon,” the Mate drawled.
“They fly the ensign of Genoa,” the Captain said. “Three sheep in the skins of wolves, and they pay money to the Doge for the privilege. Ay, pirates will run like rats if they expect the sharp claws of the Doge and his fleet.
“But, in truth, if they do truly hail from Genoa…”
“Curse then their devilled privates. They be privateers.” All able-bodied seamen—and Moishe, the Cain-bodied—were called to prepare. The ship’s few four pounders were rolled by the gunners into position. The powder was readied in the orlop. The crew made busy adjusting sails and preparing smaller arms.
Before long, the caravels were arrayed broadside and close. Their guns fired into rigging and across decks.
Gevalt. They were Genoese. It wasn’t to be a bucolic romp with falsely dressed sheep. We were fershtupt.
I flew to up to the foremast spar, hoping to get above the mishegoss, like a jetliner above a thunderstorm.
But the thunder and flash soon rose to surround me. I looked down on a sea-borne village on fire, seeing nothing but the flicker of flame amidst billows of black smoke, the booming blasts of the guns.
Shouting. Movement. Fire. The boys running with powder. Men loading muskets. Cannons filled with shot and powder. A call of ‘clear,’ like the application of heart paddles. Then the lit fuse and the frame-shaking blast. The crack as the cannon balls splintered both ship and man.
Screaming. Chaos. Explosion.
I could not find Moishe in the tumult.
A Genoese ship rammed against us.
Gey gezunterheyt. Let us both die in good health. See if I care.
A massive crack and the foremast below me was rampiked as if by lightning. A forest fire on the ocean. The sails were aflame. My goose—whatever part of a parrot that is—was soon to be cooked.
I’d not soon be poultry or part of any recipe.
Gai kakhen afenyam—go shit in the ocean—I called—the traditional curse of the irate at sea—and then took to the air.
Here’s hoping we were near shore.