Solomon Sands stood on the dock at Norfolk Navy Yard and wondered how the hunched skeleton in the wheelchair could have ever cut a fearful figure. River water, bay water, ocean water, chopped into crests and troughs, assaulted the USS Cormorant, ready for decommissioning this October day in 1868.
Solomon snapped to attention as Commander Jennings approached. Jennings glanced at the figure in the chair. “Sure you want to do this, Sands? No one promised that bastard anything. It won’t matter to you, me, or this nation if he goes to hell without setting foot … or wheel … aboard this ship, traitor that he is.”
“Yes, sir. I’m here to serve the Union Navy, whatever’s asked, sir.”
“I appreciate that, Sands. But why would you volunteer for this? I can drag one of those reb degenerates out of Wickham’s saloon. This job’s below your station, son.”
Pride ran up Solomon’s dark cheeks and welled in his eyes. “Thank you, sir. I’ll do it.”
Jennings nodded and clapped the young man on the back. “Alright then. Get him on, get him off. Let’s get this over with.”
Solomon approached the wheelchair. Nathaniel Bunting appeared more ready for decommission than the ship he was about to board for the last time.
“Good morning, sir. I’m Solomon Sands here to take you aboard the USS Cormorant. I understand you used to captain this ship before she was deployed in service of this great nation.”
Nathaniel’s eyes scanned the ropes and masts stretching to the sky. “Boy, just because Johnson’s done running her down here packed with weapons don’t mean she ain’t serving the same master.”
Solomon pushed the wheelchair up the gangway onto the ship. On board, he stopped and let the old man look around.
“Help me up, boy. I want to walk her deck one more time.”
Solomon raised Nathaniel up and supported his wasted frame. The old man nodded toward the narrow staircase. “Back in my day we used ladders. The world’s gone soft. Help me down there, boy.”
“To the hold, sir? I don’t think you’ll be able to see much down there.”
Nathaniel turned his head and spit. “I never liked ‘em uppity. If I had my old strength, boy, or someone to order around, I’d have you stripped and whipped.”
Solomon stiffened and relaxed his grip slightly. The old man buckled.
“You need reminding, sir. I am a sailor with the United States Navy. You don’t have to like it, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Keep quiet or have at those stairs yourself.”
Nathaniel sighed and lowered his chin. Solomon lugged him belowdecks. Nathaniel breathed deeply in the dark and shook his head. “It don’t matter what else she was used for. So many bodies for so many years … some essence don’t air out with time.”
Solomon caught it too, the barest hint of human suffering: fear, sickness, death, but worst of all, hopelessness. The hold had been rinsed off, tarred over, and deployed anew, but it could only be purified with fire.
Even in the dark, Solomon could see stains and scratch marks along the floorboards, knots and holes, places where iron had been bolted into wood and clamped around wrists and ankles. Solomon reached down to touch the evidence of the ship’s history. He recoiled at the feel and Nathaniel snorted.
“I haven’t sailed this ship in 48 years, but I remember every inch of her like it was yesterday.”
“Your last run was 1820, sir.”
Nathaniel started. “Yes, 1820. Captured by that damn Yankee boat. You know about that, boy?”
“I know about your last shipload. Almost 1000 people kidnapped, bound for slavery, but rerouted to Liberia. I don’t know what happened to them after, but I know they disembarked this vessel as free people, sir.”
Nathaniel clucked. “I don’t know what happened to them either. It wasn’t much to me whether I was moving slaves, rum, or guns, boy. I was just getting paid.”
Solomon felt his right bicep twitch, the hand below it curled into a fist.
Nathaniel raised an eyebrow. “How come you know so much about this ship and me? How’d you come to be the local historian?”
“I just know what my father told me, what his mama told him. She was on this ship in 1819. Your last sail before capture, sir.”
The old man narrowed his eyes, but Solomon held his gaze.
“You must not have much use for me, boy. How’d you come to be the one helping me onto this boat?”
“Someone had to do it, no reason it shouldn’t be me. I volunteered, sir.”
“You planning to do me harm, boy?”
Solomon considered the man before him, bent and calcified now. “My grandmother was 15 years old when you took her. She survived dysentery, seasickness, starvation, terror. When she walked off this ship, she was with child. In 1820, the same year your final voyage unloaded in Liberia, my grandmother gave birth to a son, my father. She told him her story, and his too. In time, he told me. I’ve thought about doing you harm, sir, you can bet I have. But I won’t.”
“Why not? I’d kill me quick if I were you.”
“Yes, sir, I believe you would. That’s the difference between you and me. A man doesn’t kill his own kin, sir. A man does not kill his own kin.”
Solomon helped Nathaniel up the stairs and back to the dock where the officials had gathered for the decommissioning. Nathaniel sat in silence for the ceremony. Solomon stood at attention.
Sometime past midnight, fire alarms rang. Nathaniel Bunting slept while the USS Cormorant burned. Solomon Sands stood on the dock watching sparks dance. He could have sworn he heard chains rattle amid the moaning wind as the masts fell and the planks set a bonfire against the Virginia sky.
Banner Image: Wikicommons – By Unspecified, 19th-century print () [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.