By Rachel Hughes//

She rubs the thin scar atop her shoulder and remembers home. Palm fronds, groves of tall grass, being rocked to sleep against Gran’s warm breasts. She holds onto those moments and cups her shoulder against the others. Blades like teeth, bands culling women from each inlet closer and closer down the coast, Gran whistling a switch through the air, pretending to drive her off, chasing her only blood away, landing one sharp hit as she shouted, “Stop! Stop! That boy steal me coin!”

Gran had burned all the little sack dresses, every ribbon, the rush doll, and hurled the collection of pink shells back into the sea. She had cried and clawed the sand but Gran told her that it was the only way. Their few neighbors might not tell but no one else must know. So Gran cut her curls to a close crop, stitched a tunic and pants, and began carving her granddaughter a phallus. Gran steeped it in tea, rubbed it with cooking oil, staining the wood to match her skin and showed her how use it. When she looked through it as if it were a sailor’s scope Gran slapped her hand and had her drink cupfuls of water so she could practice placing the phallus under her small lips. Gran showed her that it would catch her urine and stream it outwards like a man instead of downward like a woman’s gushing waterfall.

When the men came sweeping through the village, Gran came running outside windmilling her switch. They had already held each other and sang and cried and tried each night to say goodbye just in case the men came in the morning. She wanted to curl into Gran’s arms but instead she turned and ran away from her, cutting a path through the band of men. She plunged into the groves heading toward the shipping docks far away, all the while with the sound of Gran’s voice yelling, “Stop! Stop!” still in her ears.

Gran had told her to cat her way onto the biggest boat she could find. “Look for boxes stacked tall. Wherever they moved to that’s the boat for you.” She hid close to watch and wait. “You must be luck to them,” Gran had told her. “Sailors are suspicious. Men are always afraid. You show them how lucky you are and they carry you onto their boat gladly.”

She kept her eye on a laden ship and when the last box was being boarded she leapt out from a coil of rope and told the men with a laugh that they had one last thing to carry onboard. They spat and shooed at her until she pulled the wooden phallus through her pants opening and drew a box in a shaking line of urine on the dock. When she asked the men if they knew how to play Two Jump the captain laughed, his palm clapping like thunder against her back. He told the coxswain, “Put this runt in charge of clearing the bilge and trapping rats. If he can’t work we’ll drop him overboard or on whichever hump of land we pass next. Working for scraps, mind you, no pay.” And with that she became a sailor.

Those first days the sea heaved and she with it, purging the few meals the men took to sneaking her. She thought of green waves over white sand and Gran perched in the shade. She shed each tear quietly at night and each day her thin legs grew more steady until she could run even as the ship pitched and rolled.

Now she is much stronger. Slightly under fed, yes, as they all are at times, those long stretches at sea. Her muscles don’t so much grow as they lengthen like braided rope, but she has muscle nonetheless. She is trim after sprinting down sandy beaches, after swimming in green-blue inlets, after Gran had told her to run from the men when it was no use fighting. So she runs now the length of the deck and climbs the lines like she climbed the palms, hand over foot, lightning quick. The men take to calling her Whipcrack.

The small buds that had worried her when they sprouted on her chest settle flat into nothing at all, which is a luck. There would have been no hiding Gran’s round chest. One day she feels a thin veil of hair draped above her lip. There’s just enough color to it that it catches in sunlight. When the men finally notice it they slap her shoulder and grin. She would have removed the hair with a poultice, like Gran did once every many days, if she were home. The men, some shirtless in their labor, tease her about being still so scrawny after these long years at sea. One loudly announces that at next port they are going to buy Whipcrack a woman so his little nuts will finally drop.

She nestles the wooden cock Gran carved by hand in a practiced move and pisses over the railings alongside the men, her shipmates. She shakes her piece of wood once or twice to loose the last drips, resists the urge to tap it against the railing, and furrows it back in her trousers. It’s tied to a thin bit of tarry string that’s wound about her waist. She lets her wood dangle against her thigh but unlike the men her cock stays hard all the time. Maybe she should buy time with a woman at the next port. Leave her little cock tucked away and just ask to be held against soft breasts, rocked to sleep, think of home: drawn on kohl eyes, yards of colorful wraps, pink shells lined up outside the door.

“You have to be luck to them,” Gran had told her. “You have to let them believe you bring them all types of small luck so they have no reason to pitch you into the water.”

She can catch fish, aim a hook toss, hit a target, little things Gran had taught her that sailors are suspicious of, but she’s still small so the captain sets her to cleaning the deck or squatting in the crow’s nest or chasing after rats when the ship’s cats are full and lazy. Bracketed against every day, every chore, every meal she earns, there is a longing for warm water, not this cold chop of a big open sea.

She had jumped in once from one of the skiffs, dove in after the captain’s dagger when it tumbled from his meaty hand, slippery with bait guts and blood. The fish he held in his other fist flapped its body, trying to fold itself in half. She came up out of the water much the same way, convulsing, mouth blinking, so cold no sound came out of her compressed lungs. The captain laughed and had the crew haul her back into the boat. They laughed at her too and slapped her back until she stopped coughing and then slapped her head for being foolish enough to dive in the first place. “You never would’ve caught it,” the captain spat in the water. “Things sink away faster than you think. Even if you could’ve reached it the cold would swallow you up before you could make it to free air.” Back onboard the ship the men carried her about the deck on their shoulders. They shook her and slapped her back some more and shouted, “Ahoy! Whipcrack!” or “Whipcrack’s our lad!” and “Let’s toss him in again! Can you swim, Whipcrack?”

She figures another year, another few runs, another many ports before she’ll hit dry land one day and stay there. She’ll tell the men that she’s off to find a woman. They will laugh and wish her luck. Another year, another few runs, another many ports before her blood will come. Gran had shown her how to roll a cloth stunt but she’d have no way to hide the bloodied rags, no way to clean them, no place to hang them dry. She imagines the mastline streaming with ribbons of red and brown. The nest, trimmed in frayed fabric, round and swaying like Gran’s broad hips. She sees their reed beds tucked close, hot coals under a burnished kettle, and a little rush doll being swept out to sea.