Wooden Nickels

“That boat’s awfully far out.”

We were on the beach, playing one of our games (getting your fir cones into the opposing team’s basket). One of the other boys had stopped and stretched out a scrawny arm to indicate a spot somewhere near the horizon. Shielding our eyes with our hands, we could barely make out a black speck just below where the blue of the sky met the slightly darker blue of the water. Even in fair weather, our fishermen would seldom venture so far out.

A few of the men who had been mending their nets by the upturned boats up the beach joined us now. “That’s not one of our boats,” said an old man who had come down from the town, and indeed it was clear by now that whatever it was was very large.

Men and women were massing now to glimpse the spectacle. They came out from the town, but they huddled about the gates, caught between curiosity and trepidation. But some of us, younger men and older boys, ran to the shoreline and heaved in our boats. I leapt in an outrigger with two of my friends, and we commenced paddling out to meet the ship. There was some giddy chatter when we started, but as we got closer we were awed into silence. Its size was inconceivable. How could something so large float on the water? It loomed over us like a mountain. It had neither sails nor oars, but it drove steadily forward toward the shore as if pulled by an invisible rope. Its sides rose like cliffs from the waterline; odd tubes, like smooth, grey, hollow logs, protruded in rows from either side; a single line of black smoked streamed from a conical chimney atop its deck, and from deep within it emanated a low, dirgelike purr and clunking thrum. But strangest of all was its skin. We had never seen any material like this. It was stretched taught, but it did not pucker like leather or billow like cloth, and it had no texture like wood or bark. It was clearly unyielding and dense; the waters fled in fright from the prow. This weird hide was grey as granite, but when it caught the sunlight it glinted like mica; it stretched on as smooth and unbroken as the sky in pieces the breadth of a longhouse, and where they met you could see that they were stitched together with dowels of the same fantastic material. One boat dared to paddle right up to its flank. The man in the bow leaned forward and placed his palm against the side of the ship. He quickly drew it back is if burned. “Cold,” he said in a whisper.

Then, the thrum abruptly stopped, and the ship coasted to an uncannily short stop. Suddenly, a mammoth horn sounded from within it, a low, jarring blast, and we ducked and covered our ears. When we looked back up, we saw a gap opening in the side of the ship, two pieces of the skin, where there had not appeared to be a seam, suddenly separating, and in a panic we leaned on our paddles and pushed for the beach.

We dragged our boats onto the sand and ran to the city gate, and only then turned back to see that the mother ship had disgorged an offspring, a pup of the same grey substance. It was crewed by creatures, human in form, robed in white. Four were seated with their backs to us, pulling on oars. Two stood. They wore crowns of stiff white cloth. The one nearest the bow glimmered, pricks of light shimmering from his chest and head. The other, just behind him, seemed to send beams from his eyes.

Their craft scraped the beach with a sound we had never heard before, so harsh and loud and rasping that we shivered and took a step backward. The four rowers got out first, then helped the standing two to jump to dry sand. Their white garments extended to their knees, revealing what appeared to be skin but almost as white as the cloth, before picking up again at mid-calf. But what was most striking, as they strode boldly up the beach towards the town, was the sources of the shimmering light we had seen before. They had sticking out of their bodies, sometimes through the garments and crowns and sometimes straight from their ghostly pale skin, bits of this uncanny material. In places it was the grey of the ship, changing from dark to bright with the light like an autumn cloud, but elsewhere it was of different species. The one who had seemed to send beams from his eyes actually had, no less strangely, black wires sticking from his ears, stretching forward to wrap around his face over his nose, where they suspended over his eyes a pair of transparent disks which, with each turn of his head, caught and scattered sun rays. The other, clearly the leader, had bits of glowing yellow and bright white protruding from his chest in rows and stretching in lines over his shoulders. It was so remarkable, so entrancing, that I forgot to be afraid. Without realizing, I strayed from the mass of people clustered around the gate and came gaping forward to meet the visitors. The leader stopped and looked down at me. It seemed a person’s face, but it was so pale and smooth and round and so very high that I did not think he could be fully human. He dropped then from his great height, leaning on one pale knee before me, and studied my own face. He saw me surveying the magical encrustations on his body. One glittery sinew came out from his waist and stretched up to his chest, where it disappeared into a flap of his white garment. Following my stare, the chief creature reached to the top of this yellow strand and pulled it slowly upward. More of it appeared from the flap until he finally produced a large, smooth, red-yellow circle of the same material, covered in mystical etchings. He wrapped his long-fingered hands around it and held it to my ear, and I heard its swift, clicking beat. I understood. That he had pulled his own heart out from his body. That he had this stuff inside him, too. That whatever these creatures were they were no ordinary mortals. And so awed was I that I could never, still have never, overcome the impression that they were partially divine. In this I differed from my kinsmen only in degree, for even after we came to comprehend that these were people from far over the waves, that their bodies were essentially like ours, that they made their ships and instruments and adornments from substances called iron and silver and gold, still we always called them, and thought of them, as the Metal Men.

Metal was news to us. We had no mines and no forges. We had some gems that we found in the washes of the mountains, where we could also, I suppose, have collected bits of ore, if it had ever occurred to anyone. We had shells from the sea. We had some tools fashioned from stone. But what we mostly had was wood. The alien beings who landed on our beach that morning encountered a city of wood. Battlements of solid logs, hewn from the firs that towered in our forests, circling the entire town and capped with dozens of towers and platforms, all connected by ladders and catwalks. Gates of tightly interwoven boards on heavy wooden hinges. Inside, dozens of storehouses and cookhouses and outhouses swirling around the central longhouse, where the Big Man kept court. And overspreading it all, countless carvings. Yes, those carvings. They’re all anyone asks about when they find out where I’m from. Yes, I always say, they were all quite like the ones you see in museums. Yes, I say, they depicted both people and animals, and yes, the male figures often did have bird beaks in place of their genitals. That’s OK, I say, I found it funny, too. We used to get quite a lot of giggles from them. But then, we were just kids. Yes, I say, I understand they are quite collectible. No, I say, I don’t find it offensive that you’ve purchased one. (I generally don’t say that I find this impenetrably stupid.) Yes, I say, we were proud people.

The truth is, I don’t know if we were a proud people. When I think back, what I recall is a profound humility. We were humbled by the sea and the forest—silent, soul-swallowing vacancy on one side, crepuscular, conifer-canopied immensity on the other; by the unapproachably distant, immeasurably massive mountains beyond the trees we were positively humiliated. Our world was a sandy littoral strip. We barely ventured a toe into the realms beyond.

Now the crowd fell back until the Big Man himself was standing front and center. He looked into the eyes of the newcomers’ chief—up into his eyes, since he was head and shoulders shorter than the man in white—and held his stare with a stoic and faintly fierce expression, then abruptly turned and strode through the gates. The new men followed, surrounded by the throng of Trojans, and were led into the warren of buildings within the town, passing under the wooden gazes of grinning otters and grimacing she-wolves and occasional sea-hawks protruding from male groins. Finally, the Big Man and his counsel entered the Long House and sat on one side of the fire. Benches were provided on the other side for the visitors, and the rest of us crowded around the building to observe through the slats.

The pipe was filled, lighted with an ember of charcoal, and presented to the Big Man, who took a deep drag and passed it to the men in his counsel and then to the visiting chief. He took it, raising it gingerly with both hands and above his head and nodding to the Big Man in a way that he probably did not realize seemed to us rather pompous. He then took his smoke, and immediately convulsed into coughs and sputters. The men of the counsel could not help but laugh; these then were men, and of a somewhat comical sort, if their leader gags at the pipe like a boy in his initiation.

Time for trading, first of words. The new chief pointed to an object and offered his word, and we in turn presented ours. Bench. Fire. Antler. Hand.

Eventually, he turned to the thin man, who produced from a flap in his garment a small box. The chief opened the box and poured something into his hand. When he held it out palm-up toward the fire, it seemed to hold several large black seeds. He took one of these and tossed it into the fire. We watched, wondering what would happen to the flames. For several moments, nothing—then suddenly, a deafening explosion, like lightning hitting the top of a tree, and the fire jumped, the long house shivered. Slowly, abashed, we pulled our hands from our ears, and the chief, with a look of satisfaction, passed the seeds to the Big Man. They were of the same material as the ship and the protuberances on their persons, but night black—cold, smooth, seamless. The Big Man, having examined them, looked to the chief to see what he would take for his magic seeds. He indicated fresh water, venison, dried fish. The Big Man nodded. Then the visitor pointed into the center of the fire. Charcoal. He stretched his arms wide, palms inward. He wanted a great amount of charcoal. And he passed the entire box of seeds to the Big Man, who nodded again.

Matters seemed to be concluded. But the visitors did not move. Their chief, it seemed, wanted to affect one more trade. He pointed to the center of the long house. What did he want—the house itself? Shaking his head, he rose and moved to the center beam and with a vertical wave of his hands indicated one of the poles that stood alongside it. It was one of the tallest poles in the entire town, carved top to bottom with faces and figures. The Trojan men simply stared at him, struck not so much by the effrontery of the request as by its sheer strangeness. Why would this visitor want part of our long house? The chief, then, as he had done when I approached him at the gates of the town, reached to the chain at his waist and withdrew threw the flap on his chest his mystical spheroid ticker. With a click, he detached it from the glittery sinew that had held it to his body and passed it to the Big Man, who cradled it gingerly in his open hands like an egg, inspecting it, feeling its tiny pulse. The other chief mimed a pushing action with his thumb, and the Big Man, comprehending, depressed a knob on the top of the object. It abruptly cracked open, and we all started, expecting some magical bird to emerge.

Our men took turns observing the minute, seemingly animate ticking and whirring of innumerable, interlocking wheels and gears, the rest of the Trojan populace crowding the long house to get a look at the little marvel. But not me. I followed the Metal Men. I watched them load baskets of fish, meat, water, and charcoal, and finally the enormous carved pole into their steel boat. I stood on the beach as they rowed out to their silent, looming vessel, the leader clinging to the pole and barking orders to the others. And in the gathering darkness, I longed to join them. Something had changed in me. With a kind of metallic click, I found myself snipped off from my people. At the moment that the strange chief unhooked the contraption from its chain, I understood that it was not his heart, and that he was just a man with wondrous objects. The other Trojans saw this, too, but for them, it was the magic of the objects that mattered. The visitor’s watch was a talisman for them. For me, it became a compass. It pointed to a universe of technology and industry, of science and time. These things were out there somewhere, over the waters, and I wanted to go there.

Less than two months later, I knew it as a ship, and I was aboard it. I was giving the bespectacled one his evening rub-down in his quarters. The Metal Men remained anchored at our beach, coming ashore every few days for another parley, giving us more of the exploding seeds or small disks imprinted with images in low relief, taking some food and water and as much charcoal as we could provide, and each time their chief would exchange one marvel—a collection of impossibly sharp knives that interconnected and folded into an object that fit in your palm, or a square slab of gold that opened to reveal two surfaces as smooth and reflective as a static pond—for one of our carvings. And with each visit, the visitors became less wondrous and more ordinary.

For some days after their first arrival, my friends and I would greet them when they came ashore in their boat and walked up the beach to town. But eventually, everyone lost interest in the routine, except me. I would always be there, dancing and chattering as they beached their boat. Their chief would give an indulgent smile and stride by, but I would skip alongside the other men, peppering them with questions they could not understand, and they would ignore me, or roll their eyes, or give answers that I could not understand and that might well have been impatient curses. But sometimes I would simply point, and they would give me words. Shoes. Hat. Elbow. Nose. Spectacles. It was the bespectacled one that was most forthcoming. I pointed to myself and said my name. He repeated it, but, to my recollection, never used it again, preferring obscure nicknames of his own invention. I pointed to him, and he said, “Bosun.” I pointed to his chief marching in front, and he said, softly, “Captain,” and held an index finger up to his pursed lips. He never asked for my words, but thanks to the elasticity of the adolescent noggin, I was soon conversant in the Attic tongue.

Once I brought an offering, a bit of dried herring and water in a bucket with a ladle, and Bosun, glancing ahead to make sure Captain was not looking, took a swig and pocketed a herring and, with a wink, slipped something cool and smooth and round into my palm. As the troop marched on to the town, I inspected the little metal token: on one side, a man’s profile; on the other, a man bestride the back of a strange, long-necked quadruped; around both images, obscure scratches, like a hen makes in the sand. I had a trading partner.

So I would bring him whatever small things I could scavenge—huckleberries, eagle feathers, sand dollars—and for each he would give me another token and a wink. I found that there were five species of tokens, some small and thick, some wider but thinner, some yellow-brown like the aspen in autumn (“gold”), some shining-gray like the belly of a trout (“silver”), some glowing red like an ember near death (“copper”). Each type had its own design, front and back. After studying them, I would pierce a hole in them with a flint and string them with my redwood burl beads on the necklace I wore.

So as the Metal Men had become to my fellow Trojans ever more mundane, to me they were ever more thrilling. I hovered around Bosun, even sitting behind him at parley, and so insinuated myself into the group of visitors that no one thought to object when I eventually accompanied them back to their ship, and after having done so once, there was no reason to comment on it thereafter. These absences were noted by my father back in town, but he, like the rest of the Trojan men, was preoccupied by the need to produce more charcoal for the trade. But it was assumed that the Metal Men would be on their way when they got enough of what they wanted; in the meantime, the wastrel pastimes of uninitiated boys were of little concern to mature men. So I would go out daily, board the floating metal island, descend its metal warrens, feel the pounding of its metal heart and the humming of its metal soul. I would find Bosun in his cabin and try to make myself useful, fetching his tea from the galley and his uniform from the laundry. And I learned, with his stern encouragement, to give him his rubs, as I was doing now, massaging his legs with oiled hands, and, since his face was buried in a towel (these were the only occasions he took of his specs), trying to judge from small grunts of pain or pleasure whether to go higher, go lower, press softer, press harder.

There was a brief rap at the door, and a young officer stuck his head in. He gave me a short, disapproving glance and said, “Captain wants his tea,” and was gone.

Bosun, unmoving, murmured, “Get me my shirt, fartling. I have to fetch the Captain his tea.”

“I can get it for him, Bosun,” I said.

“Can you now, turdlet?” Bosun said.

“I fix your tea, Bosun,” I said. “I know the galley; I know Captain’s quarters.” I was pathetically eager to please him. Bosun was like a big brother to me, which is to say that he was to me jocose and abusive, and I worshiped him with an abjectness tinctured by fear and loathing, and ached for his approval. I was also eager to see the ship, and, if I could, to impress Captain as well.

Bosun, who still had not lifted his face from the towel, said, “Well then, dingleberry. Be quick about it. And don’t talk to the Captain unless he talks to you.”

I was already so familiar a presence on board as Bosun’s servile mascot that I drew no comments or even glances from the crew, nor any endearments, either; I had come to see that the ship functioned with a combination of punctiliousness and bored numbness. In the galley I gathered saucer, cup and tea—which, as bone and leaf, were essentially familiar elements of my world—and then strainer, pot, and tray—gleaming silver all, and all therefore still exotic and thrilling to me. Last, the tiny, intricately engraved spoon, from a drawer of identical spoons, some of which I knew would be brought as barter with each visit to my town. And in the corridor, straining under the laden tray, I passed the magazine and saw through the locked grate the beautiful, black tubes, shining with menace where they hung in rows, and on a shelf above hundreds of boxes of the exploding pods.

At Captain’s door, I carefully balanced the tray with right hand and shoulder and knocked with my left.

“Enter,” came the distracted response.

Captain was at work at his desk, his back to me. I was grateful to have a moment to get my bearings. For a moment, I seemed no longer to be on the ship. The cabin was crammed with carvings. I saw the central post from the longhouse, wedged diagonally between bulkheads. I recognized a suckling she-bear that had been over the entrance to the house of one of my friend’s clans, and a grimacing man with an osprey-head at his groin that had adorned the forest gate, and a wolf-spirit mask in the style of my father’s brother’s wife’s family. A path remained clear through the middle of the room to the chair where Captain sat, and this and the desktop were the only parts of the room uncovered by wood. Captain still had not turned from the book he was scribbling in, so I strode cautiously forward and began to place the service on the desk. The lower-right drawer was half open; briefly glancing down, I saw that it was full of gold pocketwatches, like the one he had pulled from his breast and traded on the first day, all of them clicking softly as if to comfort themselves.

Reaching for his cup, Captain finally took note of me. “Oh,” he said, and then swiveled and contemplated with a kind and indulgent expression. “I understand you have learned Attic,” he said.

“Yes, Captain.”

“Very impressive,” he said. “You are a clever lad.” He glanced around his crowded cabin. “I live among your people’s handiwork now, you see. I admire it very much.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“I want you to know,” he said, “that I will always treat every piece with great respect. You may relay that assurance to your people if you think it is right.”

“Yes, Captain.” I could not imagine anyone discussing such a thing.

He surveyed the collection again before turning back to me. “The other peoples along your coast—your people trade with them as well, yes?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Do you ever exchange art with them?”

“‘Art,’ Captain?”

“Your—,” he broke off and smiled wryly, apparently to himself. “I know that the other peoples in this region also make carvings in wood.”

“Yes, Captain.” Of course they do. What else would they make carvings in?

“And do you ever trade your carvings for theirs?”

“No, Captain.” I thought I understood their language, but he seemed to be speaking nonsense, which is a strange feeling for a boy to have for an important adult. Yet he seemed to be fishing for some sort of explanation. At last, I offered, “We make our own carvings.”

Again, that wry smile, which seemed to me rather satirical. “Naturally, you do,” he said. “What do you trade for, then?”

I considered for a moment. “Shells and beads. And salmon, depending on where they are running, or moose, when they are caught.”

“But you seek only what you need, yes?”

Again with the riddles. What was he asking me? I decided I might look less foolish simply by asking than by trying to intuit his purpose. “Why would we trade for what we don’t need, Captain?”

His eyes became somber even as his grin grew. “You wouldn’t, of course. And when you parley with the other peoples, what else is there you do?”

“There is a feast, usually. There is music and dancing. There are games, sometimes. Running races. Arrow shooting. Log fighting.”

“What is log fighting?”

“Two warriors stand on a log,” I explained. “They try to knock each other off.”

“With their hands?”

“No, Captain, with…” I searched for their word. “With swords.”

“Wooden swords?”

“Yes, Captain.”

He nodded. “War games,” he said. “Is there sometimes also war with the other peoples?”

“Yes, sometimes, Captain. Parley is always better, my father says.”

“He is a wise man,” said the Captain. “When was the last time there was a war.”

I cocked my head and thought. “I can’t remember,” I said.

He smiled even wider now, but not, it seemed to me, in mockery, but in deep satisfaction. “You are a good lad,” he said again. “You are welcome aboard ship. Just don’t spend too much time away from your home. We don’t want you to become estranged from your people.”

“What is ‘estranged,’ Captain?”

He patted me on the head. “Just don’t forget who you are,” he said.

He turned back to his desk, and I took myself to be dismissed. I returned the silver tray to the galley and went back to Bosun’s cabin. Bosun, still prone on his bunk, had not even lifted his head from the towel. I returned to his rub, and his rhythmic grunts picked up as if they had never stopped.

“Bosun,” I said, while massaging his ribs, “why does Captain exchange gifts so often with the Big Man?”

“He is a smart man,” Bosun muttered. “He trades things he does not need for things he does. A ship always needs food and water.”

“If he needs food, why doesn’t he fish?”

“So long as you people keep giving him fish, he doesn’t have to. Does he, my little crab nit?”

I considered this. Bosun made it sound obvious, but I had trouble understanding it. “Does he also need the charcoal?” This had been bothering me. It was still summer, and it was always warm inside the boat.

“Especially the charcoal.” He finally turned his face towards me. “We’re low on coal, crud buddy.”

“Coal, Bosun?”

“We burn coal, deep in the ship. In the engines. It makes the ship go. Captain will stay here and trade with you people until he gets enough charcoal for the engines.”

I was laying this information alongside the conversation I had just had with Captain. “Will he also burn the ancestor poles?”

“Oh, no. Those are not for the Navy. Those are for himself.”

“So what will he do with them?”

“Nothing. Just keep them. At least, he thinks he’ll keep them. We’ll see what happens when he finds out how much someone will pay for them.”

“But why does he think he wants them, Bosun?”

Bosun sat up now, put on his glasses, and ran a hand through over his short, damp hair. “Well, my maggot, he likes them for the same reason that your people like the compasses and pocket mirrors he pawns off on them. He thinks they’re magic.”

This was only getting more puzzling for me. “What does he think they do, Bosun?”

“Oh, not that kind of magic, pisspot. He thinks they’re something special. Not just wood, not just beavers and owls and little men with gulls for dicks. He probably plans to put them in a room and look at them, and he probably figures other folks will want to come look at them, too. And he’s probably right.”

“But what does he see when he looks at them, Bosun?”

Bosun stared at his pale, thin knees. “He sees you, shitling. He sees Troy.” He looked up at me now and, a rarity, smiled. “He just loves you people.” Bosun could see my puzzlement and didn’t make me ask him further. “He loves that your town is made of wood. He loves that your weapons are made of wood. Imagine. Wooden swords.”

“But your metal weapons, Bosun. They must be much more dangerous.”

“Of course they are, dungball. That’s the point. You can’t mean much harm if you give your warriors wooden weapons.”

I thought of the war parties I had seen, and the hunting parties—returning, bloody and exhilarated, with a moose on a pole. I wondered if even Bosun knew how much harm one could inflict with wood, properly fashioned and properly wielded. “And that’s why he loves us, Bosun? Because we have wooden weapons?”

“It’s not what you have, fartlet. It’s what you don’t have. You don’t have navies and you don’t have naval academies and you don’t have admirals. You don’t have locomotives or cinemas. You don’t have lawyers. And you don’t have money. He’s got to think about money all the time. He’s got to keep track of it, and he gets orders about it all the time. And he’s got a ship full of fellows thinking about their money. That they aren’t making enough wages, that somebody else is making more wages, that they haven’t received their wages—when there’s nothing Captain can do about it, and there’s not piss all you can buy before getting back to port anyway. And then here’s you people, in your log houses and your leather britches, eating berries and bear meat, letting him have all he wants for silverware and magic beans. He loves that you can’t even conceive of money or what it would be for.”

I found this astonishing and tried hard to take it in. “Money, Bosun,” I said. “It is what you use to trade with people, right? It’s what you use to say how much of one thing for how much of another thing? It’s what you give to people instead of giving them things.”

“That’s right,” said Bosun. “You’re learning, shit pea.”

“But Bosun,” I said, “we do have money.” I took off my necklace and held it out to him.

“No, you silly fuck,” he said. “Not our money. Just cause you take our shiny coins and tie them
around your neck, that doesn’t mean you really understand money.”

“No, not that, Bosun,” I said. I untied the ends of the necklace and took off one of the burl beads. “This,” I said, and handed it to him. “They are given at feasts, and traded at parleys with the other peoples.”

Bosun stared at the palm-sized bead. “This?” he said. “This is your money?” He grinned, and then he threw back his head and laughed. “That’s rich!” he exclaimed. “That’s fucking brilliant! You should tell the Captain this, dingleberry. Next time you bring him tea. He’ll eat it up. He’ll love you people even more.” He reached to the bureau next to his bunk and took a copper coin from the top of a stack. “Here,” he said. “Take this and go home. Next time you come out, I’ll have some real work for you.”

I turned and stepped to his door, clutching my necklace. “Hey, stink bug!” Bosun called suddenly, and I turned back just in time to catch my burl bead. “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” he said, and he laid back on his bunk and laughed. I had no idea what he meant. I still don’t.

The sun was low when I got home, but the longhouse was oddly vacant. I realized that no men were around. I found one of my younger brothers and asked him where our father was. “At the ovens,” he said, in a tone indicating that he had asked the same question and received this response. It took me a moment to take in what this meant. Normally, we would have already stored enough charcoal for the autumn and winter. If the ovens were re-fired this late in summer, it meant that our supply was already running low. The Metal Men were depleting our stores with their incessant barter, and men were now returning to the forest to forage for timber, while others manned the kilns, which burned day and night and had to be tended at all times. This was a bizarre disruption of a fixed social cycle, and the town was tense and weary. I was thrilled. It meant that my presence or absence would be even more inconsequential than usual. I could steal off whenever I wished.

So early the next day, I was back in Bosun’s cabin, straightening his sock drawer, polishing the buttons on his dress shirts, while he sat on his bunk, methodically spinning a yo-yo, letting it skitter along the steel floor on each drop before yanking it back up with a flick of his wiry wrist (he had promised to teach me how), but watching me with an blank stare, inexpressive but intense. “Time for a rub, crapling,” he said at last. He took off his clothes and lay down on the bunk. His face was turned from me as usual. “Plenty of oil, Bedbug,” he said, and added in a lower tone, almost as if not addressing me, “I’ll show you what to do with those little hands.”

Shortly afterward there was a rap at the door. I turned as it opened, expecting to see the petty officer again, calling for Captain’s tea. But it was the face of Captain himself that looked at me, registering a moment of pleasant surprise before a look of dark disapproval fell over it. “My quarters, Bosun,” he said, and the door shut.

Bosun lay still, and I wondered if he had even heard Captain, if perhaps he had fallen asleep. But then he pushed himself up stiffly from the bunk, wiped the oil off his back and legs with a towel, got dressed, and left. He neither looked at me nor spoke to me.

He returned after only a few minutes. He leaned back against his door with his arms crossed and stared at the floor. “You have to go,” he said.

“Yes, Bosun,” I said. “Same time tomorrow?”

“No. You have to go now and you can’t come back.”

I looked imploringly at his face, but his eyes were on the floor. “Why, Bosun? What did I do?”

“You didn’t do anything. It’s Captain’s orders. He says it’s inappropriate, your being here. He says you’re innocent.” And finally he looked at me, but with a small, cold smile, almost a sneer. “Are you innocent, do you think?”

“What is ‘innocent,’ Bosun?”

“There’s your answer,” he said morosely, and taking the two strides across the cabin laid himself out on his bunk.

“Please, Bosun,” I begged, “tell me what it means.” I recognized the word, but only in the context of crimes. “What does Captain think I didn’t do?”

He was sprawled on his bunk now in the position he took for his rubs, prone, his face buried in the crook of his arm. “It means you don’t know how to be bad.”

This was so contrary to my view of myself that I thought we must be talking at cross purposes. “Me? Or the Trojans?”

“You are Trojan, asslick.”

I was feeling unjustly slighted now, and angry. “Whatever innocent is, Bosun, I don’t want to be it.”
Bosun sighed. “It doesn’t matter, little crapper. We’ll be leaving soon anyway. The Captain just about has what he wants from you people.”

“But Bosun,” I pleaded, “I want to come with you.”

Bosun managed a laugh into his elbow. “Captain would never let you come with us. Not in a million years.”

“But I thought Captain loved us.”

“He loves you here.” He roused himself from the bunk and reached another coin from his bureau. “Take this, dung beetle,” he said, pressing me towards the door, “and beat it.”

But I turned and caught hold of his sleeve. “Don’t leave me, Bosun!” I felt a catch in my throat as I said it, and I knew Bosun could hear it in my voice, and I knew it was a mistake.

He yanked his arm from my grasp and in the same motion brought the back of his hand sharply across my face. “I said get out, goddamn it. Captain’s right. You are innocent. No one want to be confronted by innocence every day. It starts out nice but you get to hate it eventually.”

I was looking away from him now, holding my cheek. He had moved back to his bunk, but I sensed that he was feeling regretful. “You think you want to be one of us, Kiddo. But you don’t really get us. And you could never be like us. It’s better this way. Just go. In a few days we’ll be gone, and you can forget us.”

I managed to shuffle to the door. I paused with the knob in my hand. “You know, Bosun,” I said, “when you first came to our beach, we thought you were made out of silver and gold.”

I didn’t turn around, but I could see Bosun’s glasses reflected in the brass knob. After a moment, Bosun said wearily, “Don’t feel too bad, Bedbug. Some of our fellows thought you people were made out of wood.”

I was awakened by voices. “Will they come tomorrow?” one said.

It was one of my uncles who had spoken. He and my father were steps from me, but unaware of or indifferent to me, curled up on my bedroll. They had just returned from the ovens; they smelled of soot, and in the half-light of the stars blinking through the slats in the roof I could see the outlines of their forms slumped in exhaustion.

“We should expect that they will,” my father said with grim impassivity.

My uncle, who was younger than my father, leapt up with a spurt of angry energy and grabbed a javelin from a hook on the wall. “They violate every rule of the behavior of guests!” he said. “I say enough is enough. We’ll send them back to their boat.”

The slouching shadow of my father did not move. “The Big Man would never allow it.”

My uncle twitched his head nervously, and then dropped back down next to my father. He managed to keep still for a moment, but then I saw his silhouette turn fiercely toward my father. “I give them one more day of parley,” he said. “Then, Metal Men or no”—I saw the fierce blackness of the javelin pierce the dark-grey of the roof as he brandished it—“I’ll show them what a good piece of wood can do.”

My father said nothing. I was awake now, and jittery with urgency. I slipped unseen from the house, pilfering on my way out one of the flint-headed spades we used to dig fire-pits.

I was the only one to meet the crew as they beached their rowboat. The sea rocked quietly in a late-morning reverie. Mists still clung to the edge of the forest, merging with the haze of smoke from the ovens hovering over the town. The gates were open, but no one seemed to be about. I strode straight up to Captain. Bosun was, as always, two steps behind him, but this time he did not acknowledge me or even look at me. Captain looked at me, but I knew he would not notice that I had my bow slung over one shoulder, my quiver over the other.

Captain stopped and kneeled before me, just as he had on that first morning. I saw again the gold chain leading from his second button to the left pocket of his shirt. “This is our last visit, lad,” he said. “After today, we will be…”

At that moment, I reached out and snatched the chain. I felt the weight of the watch come lifting out of the pocket, I felt the last link rip the button from his shirt, and I glimpsed, just as I had hoped, his gaping, round-eyed stupefaction before I turned and sprinted up the sand to the forest. And I was pleased to hear Captain, having overcome his initial shock, chasing after me, his shoes scraping on the sand as he shouted at me a string of names I did not understand, none of them “lad.” I had anticipated all this— I had calculated the odds, dividing his assumptions of privilege by his presumptions of knowledge of other people’s behavior. Now I heard Bosun calling after Captain, then ordering the other crewmen to stay with the boat, and I knew that there were three of us running up the sand.

I plunged from the brightness of the beach into the shadows of the forest. I could still hear Captain shouting his imprecations between panting breaths, and the scraping of his and Bosun’s footfalls on the sand before they were muffled by the soft floor of pine straw and moldering leaves. I slowed slightly; I knew I could outrun them, and lose them easily in maze of trees, but I wanted them to stay close enough to follow me, but just far enough back that they would not see me cut briefly to my right to avoid a patch of branches and straw in the middle of the trail.

And then, abruptly, the shouting stopped too, and there was silence behind me. I doubled back, and peered over the edge of my pit. Bosun was apologizing as he scrambled off of Captain and tried to help him to his feet. The two of them, querulous and confused, their uniforms stained with fresh-dug mud, looked round the rim of their trap, slowly realizing that they were too deep down to reach the rim and that the walls were too steep to scale. And then they saw me, standing at the rim, an arrow, fletched, aimed straight at Captain’s eyes.

“What have you done?” barked Captain. “Let us out of here at once!”

What I had wondered all night was whether I would be able to hold both my aim and my voice steady when the time came, and now I found, observing myself with a kind of extrasensory detachment, that I could: “You don’t tell me what to do now, Captain. I tell you.”

They were more amazed now, their mouths forming a pair of Os in the shadows of the pit. “What is it you want?” said Captain.

“I want you to take me with you.”

“With us? Out of the question. You don’t know what you’re asking, you foolish child. It is a naval vessel—it is not a place for interlopers, let alone foreign children. It’s simply impossible.”

I was surprised to find myself deeply thrilled, somehow pleased to hear him reacting with all the haughty petulance that I had expected. I barely managed to keep my composure as I steadily leaned forward and drew back my bowstring. “Then you’ll never get out of this pit,” I said. “I may be a foreign child, but I know how to hunt. You’re much easier prey than deer. I can put arrows in both your throats before you can draw breath to scream. Your men will never find your bodies.”

Captain was speechless now. He seemed shrunken, too, swallowed by the depth and darkness of my pit, while I suddenly had the stature of a redwood. I had an inkling then of the feeling of authority, looming over others until you come to sense that it is natural and right. I could vaguely make out his upturned features; I saw bewilderment, and even fear, and I was pleased, and I wondered then, as I do now, what this said about me.

Bosun was different. The shadows of the forest canopy took away the glint from his glasses, so that, despite the weakness of the light, I thought I could see at last to his eyes. They were darker than I expected, and smaller and more deeply set, and when they met mine I saw not only surprise but something more, something much more unexpected: respect.

“What will it be, Captain?” I said.

“Yes,” he said softly.

“You’ll take me with you? You’ll give me your promise on your honor?”

“Yes,” he said more strongly. “Of course, yes, if you’ll let us out of this pit.”

I lowered my bow and unfletched the arrow, and tossed down a thick vine, having already tied its other end to a nearby tree trunk. Pushing off from Bosun’s cupped hands, Captain managed to pull himself, grunting, to the lip of the pit and drag himself out. Bosun came up behind him, hand over hand. They stood up and brushed the dirt and leaves from their whites. I stood patiently before them and waited for their panting to subside.

Finally, Captain straightened and looked at me with a strained but subdued expression. “Well,” he said, “you are a surprising and resourceful young fellow.”

“Thank you, Captain. I’ll be a good sailor.”

“Quite,” he said. “And that’s quite a weapon you have there. May I take a look at it?”

“Yes, sir, Captain,” I said. Captain’s expression did not change as I passed him the bow. But behind him I saw Bosun abruptly slouch and turn slightly away, shaking his head. It was back—that posture of superiority and condescension and satirical regret of the pathetic naiveté of others. I’d done something wrong, something to lose his respect, and I didn’t even know what it was.

Captain hefted the heavy bow for a moment, taking stock of its weight and balance. Then he raised one knee and with both hands bent the bow against it. I wasn’t sure what he was doing—testing its flexibility?—but I could see now how angry he was, his neck straining and his forehead pulsing with the effort not just to bend the bow but to restrain his own blood. The bow was laminated pine, and even a man as large and as worked up as Captain couldn’t bend it far. After a few moments, he dropped his knee, and looked me in the face again, and then brought his free hand across my cheek with such speed and fury that it sent be staggering backward.

“You!” I heard him say now to Bosun, as I rubbed my face and tried to blink away the tears. “He’s been your little confidant for all these weeks. Did you put him up to this?”

“No, Sir!” said Bosun, shocked and affronted. “I sent him home as soon as you told me to, Captain. I didn’t know anything about this.” He looked straight at me now. “Little imp must have come up with it all on his own.”

Captain considered this for a moment, then wheeled back on me. He reared as if he were going to throw the bow at me then apparently thought better of it, and still clutching it marched back toward the shore. Bosun followed without a glance.

When I reached the beach, the Metal Men were gone. They had left without parley, and their rowboat was already arriving at the ship. I heard a scraping of metal, which I knew was the anchor weighing. The mighty horn sounded again, as it had on the first day. The engines resumed their low, sad song, and the ship began to pull back from the shore. I sat down in the sand to watch. I could not help but admire the poetic mass of the mighty vessel as it glided backward and to the right, ponderously slowed as the engines shifted to forward, and then progressed southward. The late-morning sun glinted off the magnificent metal hide of the starboard hull.

As the ship pulled alongside the town, the metal tubes along its sides, whose purposes I had never divined, erupted and belched flame. The forest behind me shook with the noise. For a moment, I took it as some kind of valedictory salute.

Then, the shells hit. They struck the gate and the ramparts; they struck the long houses and the outhouses and the towers and the parapets and the poles and the carvings, and Troy, our wooden metropolis, went up like a match.

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