Poseidon

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
September/October 2005

By Lauren Tompkins, Illustrated by Rachel Cohen

“Your mother? Gone?” Lydia’s father asked.

Lydia twisted her fingers around the edge of her battered suitcase and nodded. She didn’t open her mouth for fear she would say something she would regret.

“Fever, Mr. Wainscot. She had it for months,” Sister Engels murmured, standing behind the eleven-year-old.

“Months? Why wasn’t I informed?”

Sister Engels put a wrinkled hand on Lydia’s shoulder. “Forgive me, sir, you were away for, how long, dear?”

“Seven years,” Lydia whispered, looking down. Her shoes, polished the night before to be ready for this dull occasion, were now tarnished from her long walk to the church’s gate. The borrowed shirt and skirt she wore felt itchy and uncomfortable in the day’s heat.

“Understandably, we would love to keep her here, but we are a church, not a convent,” Sister Engels continued.

Lydia’s father put a hand to his forehead, tanned from days in the sun, and addressed the nun with a hint of politeness. “Could you yourself take her in?”

Lydia could tell what her father was trying to avoid doing, and she smoldered inside.

“No, sir.” Sister Engels’s grip on Lydia’s shoulder tightened slightly. “She could go with you on your ship, wherever it is you go. I’m afraid there are no other options.”

Lydia’s tall father picked up Lydia’s suitcase and put it over his shoulder. He tried hard to disguise the look of distaste upon his face.

Poseidon girl given back to her father

Lydia could tell what her father was trying to avoid doing, and she smoldered inside

“Lydia, follow me.” He was so tall that Lydia had to take several extra steps to match his long strides. When he paused to open the gate, he seemed to sway from side to side, as if blown each direction by the breeze. Lydia hunched her shoulders and kept it to herself. No words were uttered as they walked down the steep hill that the church was perched upon, to where a ship was docked. There, her father indicated the ship with a wave of his hand and spoke in a clipped voice that Lydia supposed was his usual tone.

“This is the Poseidon. Walk anywhere you wish, but keep out of the way of Mr. Briggs and myself.”

“Mr. Briggs?” Lydia ventured.

“My first mate. I am the captain of the Poseidon. Thankfully, we only need two men,” he put emphasis on the last word before continuing, “to steer the ship.”

“It’s . . . ” Lydia took in the entire ship in mere seconds. It had two masts, but was barely twenty feet across. It was painted a bright turquoise with white trim. Lydia finished her sentence. “It’s . . . it’s rather small, isn’t it?”

“No,” Lydia’s father said curtly “You may bunk in the extra cot on the floor of the cabin below. Get aboard quickly I don’t want to miss the tide.”

Miss the tide? You could miss the tide in so few minutes? Lydia thought to herself, but she walked up the thin board that served as a gangplank for the ship without arguing.

*          *          *

In the cabin, Lydia found a cot underneath a table made of smooth wood. On the table there were rolls of paper, and boxes of charcoal, stubs of pencils, and a set of moldy-looking watercolors alongside a frayed horsehair brush. In the corner of the room there was a stove with a bag of coal beside it. There were two hammocks strung on opposite sides of the room. Studying them, it was easy to tell which one of the hammocks belonged to Lydia’s father. Her father’s smelled like salt and seaweed—something Lydia would come to recognize as the smell of the sea itself. Her father’s hammock had a lumpy and stained pillow at the top, and underneath that, a heavy wool blanket that Lydia’s mother had given him before he left seven years ago.

Lydia turned to the other hammock, the one she knew belonged to the barely-mentioned Mr. Briggs. Although she had not yet met the man, she could tell what kind of habits he carried. His pillow had been fluffed, his blanket had been carefully and meticulously folded. A pair of pants and a shirt were folded beside that, and underneath Lydia saw a book’s spine peeking out.

However, there was nothing on Lydia’s new bunk that showed any signs of caring. Why should it? No one had expected her, after all. Lydia set her suitcase down, and sat dejectedly on the cot, the events of the past months threatening to overwhelm her. No sooner had she sat down than the whole world seemed to tip to one side, sending all loose objects in the room sliding. Lydia herself gave a shriek as she was tossed out of her cot and into the adjacent wall. The ship tilted back, sending a few objects rolling.

At last, Lydia stood and stooped to pick up the supplies that had fallen. The first thing her fingers met was the book she had seen on the first mate’s hammock. The book flipped open unexpectedly, and a key slipped out onto the floor. Lydia put the key back in the book and walked across the room, placing it where it had been on the hammock.

The door swung open and Lydia stumbled back. There in the doorway stood Lydia’s father and Mr. Briggs, who was exactly as Lydia had imagined him: short, clean-shaven, tan, and very neat.

“Did you do all this?” her father boomed, taking in the chaos before him in the messy cabin.

“No! No, I was sitting down and there was a shuddering . . . ” Lydia paused, watching Mr. Briggs. He had strode to his hammock and felt inside the book for the key. Strange, she thought. Very strange.

“You were saying?”

“And . . . and everything fell,” she finished lamely.

“Then you wouldn’t mind helping Mr. Briggs pick everything up while I make dinner.”

Her father turned to one of the cabinets on the wall. The cabinet was held closed by a heavy metal lock. “Briggs,” he said suddenly, “you don’t happen to know where the key is, do you?”

“No, Mr. Wainscot.”

Lydia’s father scratched his head. “I suppose it will turn up. But where could it have gone? It was just here . . . ” he felt along the top of the cabinet ” . . . and we’ll need those maps that are in there later on. Lydia, what are you standing there for?”

Lydia was standing stock-still, feeling as if there was a draft in the cabin, making her shiver with the cold. Eyes wide, she looked at Mr. Briggs. His eyes were as hard as stone.

“I . . . no reason . . . “

Shaking his head, her father opened the other cabinet and selected cans of food. The ship tilted again.

“That’s the second time! There’s a gale on its way . . . I should have known the warm weather would lead to this!” Lydia’s father slammed down the cans of food and hastened to the door. “Briggs, come with me, we must try to outrun this storm.”

“But we have no maps, sir.” Briggs protested.

“The stars. The stars always show the way.”

Lydia’s father opened a drawer, and fumbled for something. “Briggs, the sextant! Where is it?”

*          *          *

The word sextant Lydia remembered from a long time ago. She knew that it was a way of lining up the stars, or something of the sort. Something to do with sailing, her mother had said.

“Sextant, sir? You dropped it overboard.”

Lydia’s father looked confused. “I certainly did not! I had it here yesterday! I put it in the cabinet . . . “

“And lost the key,” Briggs remarked.

“You have the key!” Lydia burst out suddenly.

They both turned to look at her, as if they had forgotten she was there. “Briggs, Briggs has the key! It’s in his book. I saw it!”

*          *          *

There was a moment of confusion. Both men turned to look at each other, Briggs’s face revealing the truth, and her father’s darkened and disbelieving. At the same moment, both men lunged for the book that lay on the first mate’s hammock. Lydia’s father touched the book first, his fingers barely brushing the spine, but Briggs snatched the book away. In a heartbeat Briggs had slipped his fingers inside, drawn out the key, and snapped it in half. Had the key been made of iron, this would have been hard to do, but the key was rusted, and snapped easily, crumbling in Briggs’s fist. In that moment, everything seemed to halt. Lydia was once again rooted to the spot, and her father stood in very much the same way Briggs, however, was triumphant.

“You wanted the money for yourself, from those maps,” Lydia’s father accused, wide-eyed.

“Yes, I did! It’s just as well that neither of us have them.”

There was a kind of cruel sense in what Briggs had said.

“Get off,” Lydia’s father said, “my ship. Take the emergency raft, and go. I don’t want to see you here ever.” Briggs had already backed out of the cabin, and was hoisting a raft overboard. Briggs jumped overboard onto the raft, and began paddling desperately.

Mr. Wainscot turned to Lydia. “Stay here.” He started across the cabin to the door. Lydia’s brain was a whirlwind of events. Things had happened so fast it was hard for her to believe them, but of one thing was Lydia certain.

“Wait!” Lydia called. “I’m coming. I’ll help with the ship.”

Lydia’s father turned to regard his defiant daughter, as she stood, arms crossed, and Lydia watched a slow smile spread across his face, his teeth very white next to his sun-tanned skin.

*          *          *

Rain lashed at the deck, the waves roared inside Lydia’s ears. Within seconds Lydia and her father were soaked. “We can’t possibly get through this!” Lydia shouted.

Poseidon will!” said her father, and laughed. “We may not.”

Lydia didn’t have time to ponder what that meant. “Get to the wheel!” he called, pointing to the wheel at the front of the ship. Lydia ran to it and grasped its spindle- like handles.

“I can’t steer a ship!” Lydia shouted, terrified as the ship bucked like a wild horse on the waves.

Poseidon book and key

“A child of ten could do it! Watch out for rocks.” What he had said might have been laughable if the situation wasn’t so frightening to Lydia. Putting a knife in between his teeth, pirate fashion, Lydia’s father scaled the mast by ropes. The wheel spun in Lydia’s hands, and it took all of her strength to push it back to where it had been before. Pushing rain-wet hair back from her forehead, Lydia looked at the sea ahead.

Waves crashed and swelled, their white caps menacing, like the teeth of a fierce creature. The waves broke and began again, and didn’t look so innocent as they had a few minutes ago. It was as if they were whispering to Lydia of all the lives they had taken. Lydia closed her eyes to clear her head. When she opened them, she saw it, a huge rock sticking out of the waves. And the Poseidon was heading straight for it. Lydia grasped the spindles of the wheel and heaved to the side, spinning the wheel halfway. Perhaps too hard. The ship seemed to keel over on its side, and Lydia moved to straighten it.

Terror gripped her heart as she saw more rocks ahead. For the second time that day, Lydia was rooted to the spot where she stood, unable to move.

Smoothly, warm, large hands covered her own on the wheel, muscled arms shadowed her smaller arms.

“You’re doing fine,” a clipped voice said, and Lydia’s father helped her turn the wheel, and guide the ship out of the storm.

*          *          *

Lydia couldn’t have been more glad when the ship was beyond the stormy clouds and the waves began to slow until the water was smooth as glass. Both Lydia and her father stood back from the wheel and regarded the waters, the sky, the now calm world around them. Lydia’s father once again put his hand over his daughter’s, this time giving it a firm shake. His eyes had a twinkle in them, and his lips were turned up at the corners as he told her, “Welcome to the crew.”

Poseidon Lauren Tompkins

Lauren Tompkins, 13
Kneeland, California

Poseidon Rachel Cohen

Rachel Cohen, 11
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

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