Chapter One

                                            Dreams Of The Sea

Awakened by a horrible heat and a bitter taste of bile, I groped in complete darkness within a coffin-like box. Trapped. The walls held fast even when I pushed against them with all my might. I hollered out but the sound was strangely muted. What had happened? I yelled out again and this time it roused a vague recollection of sorts, a scuffle with my older brother Isa.  He and Malik were always after me about something. Overcome by a wave of nausea, I held my gut. Ugh! What was going on? Surely this was just another of their mean pranks. One gone too far.

I figured the two of them stood nearby with contented smirks on their faces as they waited to hear me cry out in panic. This was what they wanted, I knew, to torment me. When they’d gotten their fill they’d let me out and go on as if nothing had happened. Reluctant to give such satisfaction, I told myself I’d be alright for a time, that I could hold on and stick it out, that it was just another one of their stupid tricks.

Later, a fear the likes of which I had never known crept into me, for my head ached, my belly churned and I began to think the worst. How had I come to end up like this? What if they had really buried me alive? The walls pressed closer with each breath and in a wave of panic I gave in and cried out, “For the love of God, have mercy on me. Let me out of this thing! C’mon, let me out, it’s been long enough, I give. Please!”

Being the younger brother is no reason to deserve such treatment. What had I done to them? My panic soon turned to rage and I lashed and flailed at the walls that surrounded me.  “Miserable curs, let me out!” I screamed, but all was quiet. Quiet as a tomb, one with my name, Ja’far Firman, carved on it.

It took a while to get a hold of myself and when I did finally calm down another bit of memory slowly arose. It was Malik this time. He towered over me. We argued about something. It had been my turn to ride the raft but he would hear nothing of it, something about some girl, the daughter of the village baker teasing him, about his coming back through town with the oxen. Oh yes, he was embarrassed, and insisted I drive the team back to the wharf and, of course, he being the older and larger, I did his bidding.  I struggled to recall other things that might help me understand how I had gotten into such a fix and, more importantly, how I might get out, and then it slowly came to me.

Tired of being bossed I had taken matters into my own hands, and when I returned to the wharf with the oxen later in the day I tied them up, and when no one was looking, hopped into Malik’s little boat and shoved off. I sailed toward the mouth of the harbor eager to be as far away from them and the land as possible.

I had never been in the boat alone, in charge, and the freedom was intoxicating.  I felt much like a bird must feel when it takes flight.  And when the pile of rocks beyond the harbor we called the “Sentinel” came into view, I made for it. I just couldn’t help myself. The little island lay several leagues offshore and it beckoned like some fair prize to be taken. The late afternoon sky was the color of lapis and the clouds were piled high, all pink and gold, and the gentle offshore breeze that filled the boat’s little lateen sail conspired with all my dreams of adventure.

From delicious escape to this squalid box, what had happened? How had I come to be here? And what had become of my brother’s little dhow? This must be all their doing. Confused and desperate, I was alone with the sound of my breath and the loud thump of my heart. But listen, was there something more? . . . what was it? Lying as still as possibIe I held my breath. There – there it was – a tiny sound, was it water? The trickle of water? And did I feel a movement too? There – deep in my gut, it made me queasy. There – there it was again, a slight surge, was it the sound of water? I strained harder to listen.

 The subtle sound was rhythmic, somehow familiar. My mind raced. Could I be on a boat?  Lying there in the dark I imagined myself in the belly of some great ship, a large merchant perhaps, like one of the naos I had passed sailing out of Sanlucar. Granted, it had always been one of my fantasies to go to sea on a great sailing ship, but not like this, like some vermin trapped in a box below decks.

It was a ship. It had to be, I became convinced of it. I thought I could hear the creak of great timbers, the result of pressure as the boat moved through the sea. How was it possible though? Had my brothers finally decided to banish me as they had often threatened? I cursed them loudly within the tomblike blackness and drifted off into a fitful sleep.

Later, I awakened with a terrible thirst. How long had I been trapped? It felt like days and it had become hard to breathe. Desperate, I pleaded for anyone who might be close by to set me free. Did anyone even know I was here?  I yelled out again and again, determined to make myself heard. “Somebody please. Come. Help!” I hailed with all my might, and with no response the walls seemed to close in around me tighter than ever. I yelled until I could yell no more, and I kicked with what strength I could muster and then after a long time, exhausted and desperate, I cried. Then through tears I prayed. And pray I did, let me tell you, I prayed to all the gods of whom I had any knowledge.  The Prophet of my dear mother who had died at my birth, or to the Jehovah of our Jewish neighbors in the village, and to the Catholic God of most who lived in my town. I even prayed to those gods from afar that I’d often heard tell of on the docks.

It was of no use. No one came. As I drifted in and out of consciousness I imagined how it might have been.

Determined to go around that little island, and feeling as much a man as my two older brothers, I would have returned to the docks in the setting sun like some heroic explorer, heralding news of some great discovery.