Gabriel and I named the three birds Desmond, Luc and Victor. We clutched the bird cage together as we followed Abshir to the ship. Only the birds chattered as we walked. Their little voices reminded me of the birds that gathered in the bottle trees near my village. In my head I believed I was still on the savannah, not on the concrete pier approaching the ship. My body was going on this voyage, not my soul I told myself. This made me brave enough to step onto the ship.
The ship was green, almost the color of the water it sat upon. The men greeted Abshir with wide smiles and great respect when we boarded. Abshir told them to be quiet and then he introduced Gabriel and me, “These boys belong to me - they are Gabriel and Alexander. They will sleep in my cabin and they will eat every meal with me. They are small and strong and you will teach them how to shoot and how to sail.” I looked at the men and held tightly on to the bird cage. One of the men had only one eye, but his stare pierced through me. There was an albino with a birthmark of black on his cheek and to my surprise there was a woman, but she dressed like all the men, in army green with desert boots. She didn’t carry an AK, she had a pistol at her side and a silver ring in her nose.
Abshir motioned for us to follow him below deck. He called back to the men that we would sail when the sun was gone.
It was very hot in Abshir’s cabin and crowded with piles of books and wooden crates. I was surprised to find so many books -- but then I remembered Abshir speaking to the Muslim bird man in a language I had never heard and I realized that he must be educated. I looked at the titles of the books, some I could read, some I could not. The one that I recognized was a book the Englishman had read to us: Our Man in Havana. I touched the book and quickly Abshir struck at my hand, “Leave my books!”
Night fell and the ship began to make great groaning noises. We were setting off to the sea. My stomach roiled, unsettled by the lurching of the hull. Abshir left Gabriel and me in his cabin and went up on deck. We heard much hollering and commotion. There was one light in the cabin and it flickered on and off, in no particular rhythm. The ship's engine seemed to fade and then roar and fade and then roar. Before we knew it, Gabriel and I were asleep with nothing in our stomachs and the dreams of birds in our heads.
It was my stomach that woke me. Sunlight was pouring in through the one small window of Abshir’s cabin. Gabriel was curled up on the floor next to me and the birds. Abshir was snoring loudly in his bed with Our Man in Havana splayed across his bare chest. The book rose and fell and Abshir snored, just as the ship rose and fell with the sea. There was a plate with some bread on the bed also. I was terribly hungry and could not resist taking the bread. I broke it in half and woke Gabriel. He smiled and took the bread fast, like a hyena.
My stomach settled and I wondered when Abshir would wake. Would I learn to shoot a shark today? Who would teach me to be a sailor? I wanted to shout these questions to Gabriel, but I was afraid to make any noise. Abshir rolled over in his bed and the book and the bread plate fell to the floor with a great crash. Abshir startled and sat up, he looked down at me and Gabriel and the broken plate and the book whose pages were all askew, “Did you eat my bread?”
“Yes, yes Abshir, we ate the bread and gave the crumbs to the birds.” What else could I do but tell him the truth? Would he kill me now?
“Good, good. Get up, go on deck and find Yolo -- he’s the albino. Yolo will give you guns and teach you how to shoot them. Hurry hurry, because you will need to use the guns tomorrow. We are taking the Russian Navy prisoner tomorrow! Yes! We followed them all night and tomorrow we will capture them. Do you know Russian?”
“No, no Abshir.”
“I will teach you Russian. The Muslim taught me Russian when I was a boy, and it was just so I could capture them one day! It is fated.”
Gabriel and I got up. We were relieved to go up where the air was filled with mist and light. The ship bounced under our feet and we walked like drunkards. This made us laugh, but we quickly went quiet when the one-eyed man came around the corner, he smiled and revealed that he had practically no teeth and I wondered what malady befell him and took so much of his face with it. He spit at our feet and then took a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket and offered it to Gabriel and me. We declined. We remembered Abshir’s warning. “We are looking for Yolo. Abshir told us to find Yolo.”
“Come with me. Yolo is in the engine room.” We followed the one-eyed man and did our best to walk like monks and not drunkards. The man opened a great steel door and out of the darkness came an awful metallic lion’s roar -- the ship’s engine was a terrible monster that I did not want to be near. We stood just inside the doorway, several men were working in the dark, they seemed to be slaves to the engine -- doing its bid. Yolo was easy to find in the darkness. His pink skin glowed with sweat and his hair seemed as though it was on fire like the flames that burned in the belly of the ship.
The one-eyed man called to Yolo and Yolo looked irritated, he stepped over another man who was lying on his back with his arms inside something not unlike an oil barrel, but the barrel was full of wires and sparks. The sparks flew out across the man's face and came to rest on his black chest where they twinkled like hot stars momentarily and then were doused by his sweat. Yolo came to us and looked into my face, something came across his forehead, a wrinkle of recollection -- “Ah yes, Alexander and Gabriel! Today you get your guns!” The one-eyed man left us and Yolo came and patted me and Gabriel hard on our shoulders. He smiled a yellow smile and the black patch on his skin coiled like a storm cloud. He slammed the engine room door shut and we followed him down a corridor that cut the ship in half. Yolo then ducked into a room and told us to wait for him. He quickly reappeared with two AKs and a small metal box of ammo.
There were two men in my village who carried AKs and my father warned me to always stay away from them. As we wound through the small passage to the other side of the ship, I left my body again and sat for just a moment with my father in his shop while he hammered brass into small pots for the safari visitors. I wondered why he sold me to Abshir? Was he tired of me? He used to say that my eyes were too much like my mother’s and that looking into them made him ache for her. If only my eyes had been somehow different, perhaps I would not have gone to sea. Perhaps . . .
The AK was heavy in my hands. Yolo told me I could rest it inside the crook of my arm and against my ribs. He told me to point it out to sea or up in the air or down to the deck. He showed Gabriel and me how to load the ammo. He loaded and unloaded the gun and then had us repeat the process over and over. We seemed to be on the quiet side of the ship. The engine roar was very distant and occasionally one of the men would pass by. They were not interested in us at all. But the woman stopped to say hello. She joked with Yolo and asked for a cigarette. She then said she was offended that the small boys were allowed to have AKs and she was forbidden. Yolo laughed at her, “Your temper is too unpredictable!”
When the gun went off in my hands, I fell over backwards onto the deck. It was as though an antelope had kicked me in the chest! Yolo laughed and Gabriel looked stricken, he leaned down and offered me a hand. Yolo told Gabriel it was his turn to shoot at the sea and Gabriel shook his head, “No!” Yolo stood behind Gabiel and held his shoulders, “Go ahead, shoot at the fishes! I will keep you from falling.” I watched Gabriel pull the trigger and the muzzle crackled as it discharged and then I saw a flying fish leap from the sea as the ammo peppered the waves. “Hurrah Gabriel! You got him!”
We spent the afternoon shooting overboard until we no longer fell over backwards. Soon Yolo left us alone -- he told us to use up the whole box of ammo. And when we were done he said we were ready for the Russians. This frightened me. I didn’t know what a Russian was and when I asked Gabriel he was unable to come up with an answer. “We will have to ask Abshir to tell us what the Russians look like. Where is their village and their river?”
Gabriel and I returned to Abshir’s cabin. He had been sleeping all day. We woke him and showed him our AKs. He was proud, like my father. He went to one of his wooden crates and pulled out two silken ties, one yellow embroidered with small indigo birds and the other deep red with emerald lizards. “I stole these from a Frenchman on his sailboat. See?” He turned the ties over and there was a small delicate tag that read Hermès. Paris. The Eiffel Tower! He put the ties around our necks and showed us how to tie them properly. “Don’t you know this is called a Windsor Knot? After the Duke of Windsor.”
“He was an Englishman!” I replied as Abshir tightened the tie round my neck. The Englishman had told me all about the Royal Family.
“Yes, Alexander, he was. And he was supposed to be King of England, but a woman ruined all that for him!”
We laughed and laughed and danced for Abshir in our new ties and holding our heavy AKs aloft like good warriors. But then Gabriel stopped dancing and became sullen. Abshir asked him why he wasn’t happy anymore.
“Abshir, please tell us about the Russians. Will they be easy to fight? I have never fought before. And all I seem to be able to do with this gun is scare the fish up out of the water!”
“Aha, Gabriel. The Russians will be no match for us. They are pale like the snowy village they come from.”
“Yes, snow! Some day you will go to Europe with me and I will show you snow. It is marvelous! Cold like no cold you have ever seen! It is like the shaved ice your fathers like to have in their Coca-Colas.”
“Ah snow... I see. So the Russians are cold and weak?” Gabriel inspected his silk tie as he asked this of Abshir.
“Yes, the sun burns their skin and makes them faint! We’ll overtake their Navy ship and tie them to each other on deck where they will wilt and wilt and fade and then die in the sun. And the Russian Navy will bring us millions of dollars to buy back their ship. And then? My sons, Gabriel and Alexander, we will be quite powerful and rule the sea.” Abshir lit a cigarette and then he handed a cigarette to each one of us. I puffed confidently and I liked the smoke curling around my face like the fog that was rising from the sea just outside the little cabin window. I imagined being the son of Abshir, King of the Sea. We would return to my village and find my father. I would give him enough money that he would no longer have to hammer brass pots for the tourists.
The ship came to a stop, the engine went dead and we heard the channeling of the anchor chains as they spooled out of the hull and into the sea. We would sit like a leopard in a tree limb all night, waiting for the wildebeest to stroll beneath her. Abshir gathered all the men, and the one woman, and Gabriel and I on deck. We ate fish and bread and there was much whiskey and Gabriel and I were given a bottle of French champagne, also stolen from the Frenchman’s sailboat. The champagne was like golden Coca-Cola and it made me very dizzy. There was hashish and mint tea and even sweets. I felt as though we were already wealthy beyond anything I had ever known, but Abshir explained that the Russian Navy had to be captured the very next night. He knew their sea route. The old Muslim bird man told him exactly where the Russians were going to be. How did the bird man know this? How? But there we sat on the black water with the stars like a million hyena eyes staring down at us from the ceiling of heaven. The band of us fell asleep on deck, our bellies full and our hearts pounding with Abshir’s plan.