After the Wreck
'Don't shoot me. I am a British object.'
James Morrill, 1863
Drawknives. Spar gauge. Caulking irons
and hollow plane. If I play my cards right,
after this voyage I'll be shipwright. The Peruvian,
a beauty of a three-masted barque, cleaves the water
swift. The winds are in our favour this February dawn.
Bound for China with a hold full of coal to trade
for silk and tea. The Captain sets our course for north
and west. For days we skirt the coast, then land recedes
as the southerly blows. One afternoon, without warning,
hard rain that turns into hail - ice large as a man's fist
pounds the deck then shatters. Black clouds roil
as the gale rips into canvas. We fight to lower the sails,
shouting all the while. Rope burns my palms
as rigging snakes upwards. Then the world jars - a great shudder,
an awful splintering of wood - the first mate yells we are aground
Twenty-two's the magic number. I notch the days
with my solitary knife every sunset. Today, a shark:
we take turns to drink its blood before I cut each man
a palm-sized chunk of flesh. Even the Captain's wife
chews it without compunction. Land teases and withdraws.
We are helpless and adrift. Oh the ocean. This hollow sea.
Washed up on this shore. Only five of us left.
The rest in the water, God save their souls. Miller
talks about going for it, for civilisation. All we have:
this canoe, abandoned by natives, its strange markings
long faded by the sun. Don't go, Miller. Between us,
carpenter and apprentice, we fashion oars from driftwood.
The Captain blesses the craft. I say nothing
and turn my face away. We push him out
with the tide. Soon he fades into the waves.
Miller is gone. The boy White is sick,
fever of a sort that leaves him shivering
at noon but drenched in sweat at night.
We lay him out in a shelter cobbled together
from branches and leaves. The Captain scans the horizon
while I comb the bay for food. His wife has found fruit
and drops them from her skirts onto the sand.
They are so bright against the white grains
I cannot stand to look - a noise from the trees - men
* James Morrill was the sole shipwreck survivor from the Peruvian to return to white civilisation after seventeen years of living amongst the Bindal people around what was to become the Townsville area.