This story is one that never would have been published without a draft or two (or three) presented to my writing group. Thanks to Craig, Emrie, Mireille and Steph for the candid feedback and patience to sit through yet another revision. It was first published by Ariel Chart in June 2018.
A Harmless Prank
by DL Shirey
Morning came to the courtyard between iron bars of a skylight, brightening the floor outside his cell door. Finner dropped to his knees and touched his cheek to cold concrete, eyeballing the distance and angle from his door to Peralta’s. Finner had an idea how to cheer up his shipmate, then he wondered, are we still called shipmates on dry land?
Prisoners weren’t allowed to speak, so they wrote messages instead. Finner hadn’t traded words with Peralta for three weeks, not since their jailers confiscated the conveyance used to pass notes. When it was found, Finner took a beating, but it didn’t stop him from assembling another rig.
To make the string, he had unraveled thread from his bedding and braided it as best he could. The line was concealed, wrapped tight around the leg of his cot, and Finner unspooled it carefully so it wouldn’t break. He wasn’t worried about the knots—he was a sailor after all–but the threads were flimsy and weak. Once loose, Finner coiled the string in wide loops so it would cast easily.
The note was written on a tiny square of paper, hidden between two cinderblocks where a seam of cement had crumbled. On his knees, Finner scraped at the crack until the note emerged. He unfolded it, read it again and chuckled, “That’ll do.” Finner poked a tiny hole in the very center with a shard of fingernail, threaded one end of string through the hole and fashioned a knot to keep the paper secure.
Now the ballast. Finner pushed up from the floor, enough to pull his feet beneath him. From this squat position, with a forcible grunt, he pushed the metal washer from its hiding place; a quarter-sized disk squeezed from his rectum.
Dropping to one knee, Finner crooked the other and placed the washer on his gaunt thigh. He doubled the string upon itself, fashioning a bowline knot through the cut-out in the washer. Peralta would appreciate this knot because he had taught the bowline to Finner, one of many things the new recruit learned aboard The Monterey. Though he knew it would only make this prison cell seem emptier, Finner let in a wash of memories.
The Gulf War was half a world away when Finner first went to sea, lugging a duffle up the gangway. His untanned skin was as white as his new uniform and he felt like a boy among men. Finner kept to himself most of the time, days filled with work, nights by tedium. From the top mattress on the outside edge of the cavernous bunkroom, Finner spent his downtime reading while the crew played cards or mended equipment. Every so often, someone unleashed a prank to alleviate the boredom. Some were devious, others crude, but each seemed to fire the crew’s spirits.
One time, as the men filed out for morning work detail, Finner spotted a perpetrator drop cylinders into a half dozen footlockers, a fine mist horsetailing from the frozen objects. Ten hours later, the unsuspecting sailors returned to find their possessions covered with foam. The culprit had hacksawed tops off frozen cans of shaving cream and, once thawed, fluffy soap swamped every inch of space inside those footlockers.
At first Finner thought these practical jokes cruel, then he saw what happened afterward: egged on by the crowd, the victim would dole out punches and bear hugs or engage in a full-fledged wrestling match. The jokester relished each back pat and butt slap from the crew, happily receiving any arm draped across his shoulder. Pranks permitted acceptable physical contact.
Jeering a victim was an invitation for Finner to draw in close, voice a shy catcall, throw an elbow and share in the laughter. He learned not to leave right away, loitering long enough to hear men swap stories of stateside lives. He even attempted to tell a tale or two, but Finner felt he had nothing exciting to say about his little life in his little town. Few seemed interested and no one talked to him much, except to explain the next work detail.
He had been relegated to night watch, pacing the deck with a rifle on his shoulder. As another faceless recruit marched clockwise, Finner countered, all the while wondering about the weapon he carried. What was its purpose, since Finner’s sole adversary was the lonely, black ocean. His only respite was the other sea, that wash of light in the sky above him. Finner thought he knew the heavens well, but it was almost impossible to pick out constellations from the surrounding powder of stars. The night sky was so powerful, it seemed to have its own scent; something Finner could inhale and hold in his lungs and sense above the salt and sea.
The hand that grabbed him from behind couldn’t have been better timed. Finner had been so distracted, the surprise so absolute, he collapsed to his knees, dropping the rifle he had been leaning against. It was a harmless prank from the clockwise recruit, a boy nearly as dark as the night. David Peralta laughed, helped Finner to his feet and said, “A good scare helps the peach fuzz grow.” But what Finner remembered most was the soft hand that caressed his chin.
Each night thereafter, the two watchmen strolled side by side, the same direction as a clock. Finner and Peralta learned to find constellations by watching each other trace outlines with fingers, soon discovering an urgency in their hands to touch one another. Time could be stopped at night, even if the proximity to the Red Sea couldn’t.
Too quickly, the perfume of stars two men shared was peppered by an odious war, looming a few days ahead. Scores of sailors joined the night watch, yet not enough to thwart the attack off Yemen or the capture of The Monterey. But those tragic events didn’t linger in Finner’s memory compared to a constellation’s caress or the bareback musk he and Peralta made together.
Finner placed his thoughts aside, put his downy beard to the floor, and rolled his head until he could see below the door, to the courtyard and cells beyond. Finner listened carefully, but it would be hours before a meal was served, if they got any food at all today. He hinged up the metal flap on the door’s floor slot, where guards slid in plates of food. The clack of metal caused every other flap in the courtyard to open, but only the fingers of other prisoners could be seen through the narrow rectangles. He saw his shipmate’s fingers. Finner placed the filthy washer, note and coil in position and flicked the disk across the courtyard. The metal ring shot across the space and smacked the wall, a foot from Peralta’s doorslot.
No man made a sound, waiting for the noise to bring a guard. When it didn’t, Finner reeled in the washer and tried again. This time it clanked against the steel door, just an inch to the right of the flap. Peralta’s hand fumbled through the opening, first palm up, then palm down, crammed to the knuckles. A gritty nail scraped and nudged the washer, finally retrieving it. Finner held the line until he felt two tugs, then released the string for Peralta to use.
Finner imagined his mate gripping the ring, maybe pressing it between palms like an answered prayer. He fancied the wistful look on Peralta’s face when he recognized the bowline, then one of concentration as the man freed the note, careful not to rip the scrap of precious paper. Peralta would hold the washer in anticipation, perhaps rub it for luck, then unfold the note, placing it down near the flap where the dull light would illuminate three words:
Smell your fingers.
The joke was on Peralta. If only Finner could be there to see it.