All things are equal when a ship is a ship and her crew is a crew.
So I say, “This here ship ain’t a ship, ’cause her crew ain’t a crew. Not even a skeleton crew, like Bucktooth says. Though I admit, ye won’t find a skinnier bunch of skeletons than us.”
And the crew laughs.
Then I say, “’cept for Fat Norton.”
And the crew don’t laugh so hard.
They looks at Fat Norton, who’s stroking the handle of his flintlock, and he’s looking right scared ‘n’ red ‘n’ round ‘n’ ripe ‘n’ juicy ‘n’ plump —like a tomato what’s ready to burst— and the crew’s looking right hungry and he’s looking real afraid.
Back when this ship was a ship and her crew was a crew, the captain said to the cook, “Fetch me tomatoes, the way I like ’em” and fetch ’em I did.
I fetched ‘em how he liked ‘em: red ‘n’ round ‘n’ ripe ‘n’ juicy ‘n’ plump ‘n’ fleshy ‘n’ soft. And I would slice ‘em just the way he liked ‘em. Even though I knew it was wasting ‘em, letting the delicious red blood spill its seedy juices for nothin’ and no one.
I wanted to get down and taste it, lick the knife clean, but I didn’t ’cause Fat Norton was always watchin’. I knew he’d say something, even though he can’t fetch the cheese without nibbling on it. But I never said nothin’ about it ’cause he serves his purpose.
The crew hate the cook or the crew hate the cook’s mate, that’s how it is and always ‘as been.
Back when I picked him, he was called Young Norton. Now the crew think he’s fat ’cause he steals extra rations. They don’t remember he was always fat. But that’s why I chose him. It’s right easy to hate a fat cook’s mate.
They don’t hate me though ’cause I gives ’em an extra ration. Not often, and not a lot. I don’t have favourites neither. Everyone gets an extra ration when the time’s right. That way no one’s special. ‘Cept for me, ’cause I’m the special one what gives it to ‘em.
Now that the ship ain’t a ship and the crew ain’t a crew, just a hungry pile o’ bones, the captain says to the cook, “Fetch me tomatoes, the way I like ’em.”
So I fetch the last stinkin’ dried-out husk. Then, I look ’round at the rotten rations ‘n’ the bleedin’ walls ‘n’ the charred planks ‘n’ I fetch my knife ‘n’ I take ‘em to him.
He says to me, “Slice that tomato, you hear me boy?”
But I slice him instead.
Then, I tell the crew what makes a ship and what don’t make a ship. It’s plain and simple that we don’t make no ship ’cause we ain’t no crew. Not even a skeleton crew, like Bucktooth says we was.
Bucktooth’s a good first mate. His words be heavy on this ship. He’s got the crew’s ear. He’s loyal from root to nib and that’s why we love him. And even he knows that I speak true, so what does that tell ye?
While Bucktooth’s got the crew’s ear, he says, “We best keep on being a skeleton crew for a little while longer. I spies a squall on the far tide. If we don’t haul our old bones up on them riggin’s and furl sails, then she’ll keel over before the morrow, sure as sunrise.”
So we reefed the mainsail and stowed the jib.
Fat Norton, who was all flush to show his worth, climbed up onto the topsail.
With all hands on deck, bony hands at that, and each of us lost in our tasks, and lost in our hunger, it weren’t no surprise when no one heard him scream.
He slammed down on the fo’castle with a jolly red splat!
All hands gathered round to watch him spill his bloody-seed juices out for nothin’ and no one. He landed downwind and flop-side. Face towards the deep, he stained the wood devil red. But on the back of his head, we all seen the shape what’s made by clubbin’ with the ol’ flintlock. And no one said nothin’ ’cause Fat Norton ain’t like that scrawny captain, and a skeleton crew’s gotta eat.
One by one, they turned their back on Fat Norton and hid below ‘fore the squall.
When it was just Bucktooth and me, standing over the body, he says to me, he says “I know it was you.”
And I says nothin’ at all, just showed him my teeth, but it weren’t no smile.
Then he went below deck and hid too. Hid from the squall. Hid from my work.
Because when the ship ain’t a ship, and her crew ain’t a crew, the cook, well, the cook is still the cook.