Volume 23, Number 2

What Every Mother Hopes For

from Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian

Imagine a captain's servant, age eleven,
helping hoist cannons, provisions,
anchors, cables, even a forge overboard
while pumps belch out a ton of water a minute
and the sea spits it right back.

In the sleet of December, battle-weary,
the crew works a fothering-sail beneath
the thousand and fifty ton warship,
but the leak isn’t stayed. The starboard
pump-chain breaks. Water fills the hold

to seventeen feet, rises above the gunwale.
The larboard pump fails. Men hide,
nurse crushed fingers. It’s an unlucky ship
they say, haunted by the two-headed fetch
of a murdered sheriff’s man.

Two hundred years before nuclear-powered ships,
before my son joins the Navy, and kills
himself eight years after discharge, a boy
on the swirling deck sobs convulsively
as even the rats jump ship. The captain says

“Any man who wants can leave, and Godspeed.”
Bawling officers, poxed lubbers, toothless
scurvied seaman, most unable to swim,
raid the spirit room, loot the cabins,
claw and kill for the boats. The boy

wipes his nose on his sleeve, stands
beside the captain, who tells the boy
she’ll be lighter now, says she’ll sail.
I like this story. I like this story because
even as something inside the captain dies

as he watches the last of them go astern:
the dark struggling mass
in the icy water as those in the sea
fight to get into the boats and those
in the boats fight to keep them out

and that’s not the worst of it— stranded
on Desolation Island with scurvy,
a broken rudder, no forge to rebuild
the frigate—I like this story because
the boy comes home.

—Linda K. Sienkiewicz