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Chapt. 6: Across the Dead Sea

By Michael Jesse

MacWilde and Procktor were deep in their own conversation and not paying much attention as Jack hurriedly whispered to Laura. When the two men began to climb the stairway Laura ran after them.

"Captain," she called. "We'd like to go with you."

MacWilde grinned. "Would you now? I'm afraid I don't have room for passengers. Crew only."

"I can crew," Laura insisted. "I earned a sailing badge in Girl Scouts."

"Girl what?"

"Scouts," Laura repeated. "It's a club for . . . young adventurers."

"And I could help with Ronnie," Jack said.


"Um, the animal. His name is Ronnie."

"Oh is it now? Well that's good to know, isn't it Mr. Procktor?"

"Captain, you're not actually going to employ these children, are you?"

"I believe I might." MacWilde squatted down in front of Jack and took him by the shoulders. "But have you really no parents, Jack? No relatives? No guardian at all?"

"I'm his guardian now," Laura said importantly.

"You are not! We're each in charge of ourselves, Captain."

"Hmm, well I suppose I could use some help taking care of . . . what did you say his name is?"

"Ronnie, Sir."

"Right, right. Ronnie. Good name, that."

"Sir," Procktor said carefully, "as you know, part of my purpose in accompanying you is to assist with cost savings, and in that capacity I must point out that–"

"Oh don't fret so much, Procksy. We won't be paying them full wages, and I warrant they'll earn their keep in the end."

Procktor sighed and unbuttoned one of his many vest pockets, removing some official-looking papers. "That is, of course, your prerogative, Captain, but they'll need to at least be under contract like everyone else."

"In one of those pockets, Elias, do you have a contract covering Scout Girls and boys who talk to animals?"

"Sadly no, but I believe the standard crew contract will suffice, provided we attach an addendum in which each child vouchsafes that he or she has no adult guardian and is acting as his or her own agent."

MacWilde winked at Jack. "I suppose that'll have to do, then. Well, come along everyone. Let's get ready to shove off!"

Jack glanced back at Ronnie as he and Laura followed MacWilde up the stairway to the main deck, where all of the crewmen had assembled. The captain ascended a higher platform a few feet above the deck and now he towered over the men and spoke. "Many of you have been with me on other adventures, and for some this is your first time. To all of you, I say: This shall be a time you will remember all of your lives. You will speak of it to your children and grandchildren and they will tell the story to their own grandchildren long after you are gone."

A cheer went up among the men, but Laura heard one of the sailors mutter to the man next to him, "'eere we go again, mate. This'll take an hour."

It was true that MacWilde seemed to be only warming up. "Just look at these busy and well-dressed men of Margaid rushing about," MacWilde laughed as he gestured up at the balconies where men in tall hats hurried along, looking at their watches. "Day after day they walk the same well-trod paths and tend to the same trivial matters, and for what?"

"A paycheck for one thing," whispered one of the sailors, prompting the man next to him to cover his mouth with his hand and fake a cough to hide his laughter.

"We few reject that easy life," MacWilde went on. "We few whose love of adventure drives us to explore!"

Here most of the younger men applauded and cheered, and had MacWilde ended there it would have been a very good speech. But instead he launched into a series of seemingly unrelated tales about his past adventures, parts of which the older sailors apparently knew by heart because they mumbled the words to each other. And then, at some unspoken signal somehow communicated among the captain's most experienced men, there arose a crescendo of sustained and relentlessly enthusiastic applause, whistles and foot-stomping that finally succeeded in coaxing MacWilde from the stage.

At last the ship finally launched and the Liberty made its way down the river, past the farmlands of Luvia and out into the open sea. It was the first time Jack and Laura had seen the coastline and they were struck at how barren most of it was. Rocky cliffs rose like a wall along the shore with no sign of life, and the boulders that had tumbled down over time were coated with a white crust from the sea.

The sailors hustled to their work and Jack and Laura started back downstairs to see Ronnie, but MacWilde intercepted them and steered them by the shoulders to meet a short, pear-shaped woman wearing an apron. Her hair had once been carrot-top red, but was now streaked with gray, and she was missing a front tooth.

"An' oo might these be, Cap'n?" she shrieked in a jovial greeting.

"Children," MacWilde said. "I present you to Mrs. Portifoy — our cook, laundress and den mother to young sailors far from their homes. Opal, my dear, these are Jack and Laura. Jack has an assigned duty, tending to the creature down below. Laura is a member of my crew, but until I am in need of her seafaring expertise you may assign her to other tasks."

"Well ain't they bofe adorable?!" Opal Portifoy shrieked again as she put her rough hands on each of their cheeks in turn. "I shall take good care of ‘em, Cap'n, and worry not, but that I'll put young Laura to good use time and again as the opportunity presents itself. And I ‘ave just the right cozy nook for two young ones to bunk — right next to me own room too it is, so's I can keep watch over ‘em."

"Splendid!" MacWilde pronounced and strode away to tend to other matters. Mrs. Portifoy led them to a room the size of Jack's bedroom closet. It was equipped with two hammock-style bunks and lighted only by a single round window slightly larger than a person's head.

"May we go see Ron– I mean, may we go see the animal?" Jack asked. "My job is to look after him, so I should probably go see how he's doing."

"Off you go," Mrs. Portifoy replied. "But Miss Laura, I shall need your assistance preparing midday meal if you please."

Jack looked at Laura, uncertain what to do. "It's okay," she said. "I'll find you after the meal."

And so while Laura spent the next two hours peeling potatoes and stirring a giant vat of soup, Jack visited Ronnie and focused on learning as many words as he could.

Midday, Mrs. Portifoy and Laura set up a serving table on the deck and the men lined up for their meal. When it was finally over, Laura was given a break to have her own meal. After looking at the food all day she was not particularly interested in eating any of it, but carried a bowl over to a bench along the port rail where Jack sat waiting for her. They could no longer see any land and the sun above was small but intense.

"How's Ronnie?" she asked, sitting next to him. "And are you okay? You look funny."

"He's great," Jack said, looking preoccupied, "but my head is exploding, Laura. It's like I'm learning a whole language. They're called ‘ruah' by the way."

"Roo-ah?" Laura repeated. "Well that's how I sort of translate it." He held up his flute and played two notes, one low and breathy and long and one short and higher that trailed off a little. Laura smiled, seeing now how he would translate the sounds the way he did, though it never would have occurred to her.

"D'ye see any sea monsters out there?" It was Liam coming up beside them.

"Sea monsters?" Jack repeated with surprise.

"Like the ones ye fought off and out-swam when ye'r ship sank," Liam reminded him.

"Oh, that," Jack said.

"He made that up, Liam," Laura said.

Liam snorted. "Do ye say so?"

"Well it wasn't all THAT crazy," Jack said defensively. "It could have happened. There are all kinds of things in the ocea–"

"In stories," Liam spat. "I stopped believing in stories a long time ago and now I've got responsibilities, don't I? Do ye think because I'm from Luvia and lived on a farm all me life that I'd believe anything? Sea monsters that can tear a man's leg off and creatures that sing and laugh and follow ships and save men from drowning?"

Laura tried to catch Jack's eye, but it was too late and before she could do anything he'd already said "once in Florida I saw a shark that–"

"I've got me work to attend to," Liam grumbled and walked away.

"What's bothering him?" Jack wondered aloud.

Laura shoved him. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe they DON'T have sharks here? Maybe they don't even have fish for all we know. Have you SEEN any fish since we set off?"

"Well, no, but–"

"Did you notice that the rocks close to shore were covered with white crust?"

"Yeah, what do you think that wa–"

"Salt, Jack, it was salt."

"Okay . . . uh, so?"

Laura wished her brother would read more. "It's like the Dead Sea. Nothing can live in it because . . . ?"

"Um, because it's dead?"

Laura sighed. "It's dead because it's too salty, and it's too salty because most of the water that used to be there has evaporated. I think their entire oceans must be that way. When we were in Margaid we could see that the water level used to be much higher than it is now. Jack, we're not in the past. We're in the future and a lot of Earth's water is gone."

The midday meal break was over and Laura heard Mrs. Portifoy calling for her. She sighed and went back to work, peeling potatoes and carrots to prepare for the evening meal. By the time it was her turn to eat it was dark and she had no interest in food. She sat for a bit with Jack out under the so-familiar stars and then gratefully climbed into the lower hammock bunk in the tiny room next to Mrs. Portifoy's chamber.

Exhausted, she fell immediately asleep, but she did not rest. She saw the walls of the playroom, sunlight streaming through the window and Mother coming up the stairs carrying the comics from the morning newspaper with toast and 7-Up on the blue tray. But Laura could still feel the sway of the ship on the waves and hear the creaking of wet, wooden planks shifting against each other in the wind as if the playroom itself were being carried across the sea. Her dreams of home were mixed up with other images of days upon days working in the ship's kitchen, serving endless bowls of soup to the crew, listening to Jack play his flute to Ronnie, and waking up to Jack's shape in the hammock above her. She did not know if the images were dreams or memories. They fluttered by like the pages of a book.

Laura woke reluctantly, grasping the threads of a dream already forgotten. She started to reach up with her feet to nudge Jack's rear through the bottom of his hammock — somehow this was a familiar move, as if from habit — but he was not there.

Rolling out of her own hammock, Laura stood barefoot on the damp, plank floor. Outside the little round window the day was bright and the sea still rose and fell, but she could no longer feel any movement and a fog seemed to shroud her as she left the little room. Every step she took was accompanied by an eerie sense of deja vu as Laura made her way through the ship and down the now familiar stairway where she could hear — and understand — Jack and Ronnie communicating.

"How do you know it's going to work?" Ronnie was saying with the music of his horns, and Laura slowed to a stop on the last step, realizing she understood his words exactly. "What if they find out?"

"Don't worry, they won't find out," Jack replied using his flute, and Laura understood this as well.

As she stepped forward the fog around her vanished as if she'd just opened the door from a steamy bathroom on a cold winter day. A voice came from far above. "Land!" one of the men was shouting. "Mates, I see land ahead!"

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