Marked Hands

David Rhee

 I stare out at the horizon, nauseous from the ship’s swaying. I suddenly yearn for still, solid earth below my feet. Hanging my head, I remember how I used to chafe at the four shadowy corners of my home. Now I would give everything to be enclosed within the warmth of its golden walls. Instead, this endless cold blue, vast in all directions, triggers a swelling tide of yearning in me for my home’s hazy hearth. Closing my eyes, I imagine my mother’s gentle fussing over the hardening calluses on my hand, stained and blistered from copying theology. I could almost trick myself into hearing my father’s deep baritone intonations as he read the word of God for Sunday’s sermon. I miss running through the meadows under a clear blue sky with my dogs bounding enthusiastically at my heels as we raced to the nearby river. And my books, my towering stacks of books, I miss their companionship most of all. Now I am lonely. Stranded, surrounded by strangers, and sleeping in an unfamiliar den of cramped conscript cots. The only thing I have from home, a gift from my mother, is my crucifix. It is all I bring with me to fight this latest Saxon incursion. 

“King’s Crossing, one knot ahead!” 

The navigator cries out. His hoarse shout piercing from the crow’s nest high on top of the mast breaks me out of my musing.

All the men on deck rush to hoist the sail and put up rigging. The Captain steadies the wheel, keeping a keen eye out for rocks. Our old galley ship, Second Wind, a decommissioned pirate hunter, is nothing like her limber former self, the weight of time making her slow as she is returned to active duty. She makes slow turns, the hull bombarded with 15-foot high waves that rock the ship from side to side. The Captain has to compensate for this, making sharp turns with the wheel that don’t translate onto the ship, narrowly avoiding dashing up against the rocks. The rocks themselves were menacing and magnificent, spurting out of the ground like great oaks. 

Everything, everyone, is needed to hold off the invaders. So every man, every boy, every still floating ship made a weapon to kill.

I watch the upper deck crew maneuver the sails, the sinking sun casting its shadows red and flaming. Then, with my unlit hand lantern, I walk to my night watch post to report a shift change as the men change the sails. They talk between the noise of the ropes, the wind, and the crashing of water against the hull. 

Matthew, the gunner’s mate, tying the knots, wonders, “Lads, why do you think Ol’ Captain is ordering us to do this in these rocky waters?”

Another, John, the quartermaster’s assistant, hunched, pulling some rope, grunts, “Aye, maybe this is King’s Crossing. Our route has us stop in some place called King’s Crossing. Utter nonsense, I tell you, dun’t know why we ain’t just sailing to the main force.”

“I heard from me mate who left a month earlier when we docked at St. Francine’s. He’s buddies with this bigshot son of a commander of the Blue Armada. He heard from his pa that something big’s ’bout to happen. His pa said something about a counter-push into Saxon-held land to reclaim the land we lost during the Christmas Counter-strike. So I think we’re gonna be doing some behind-enemy-line action. Wouldn’t that be something, ey?”

Will, the powder monkey and lookout, from on top of the crow’s nest, his voice a high note breaking through the conversation, shouts down, “Oy, are we gonna be seeing battle then?”

Matthew, tying the sails together, grins, puffs up his chest, and calls out, “Aye, we will. Finally, time for some action, ey? I’ve had enough of standing around an’ twiddling me thumbs, ain’t that right, lads?”

“That’s right! I wanna send home some shiny medals for me, mum.” Jack, the carpenter’s mate, coming up from below deck, chimes in, carrying up some replacement rope for the ones that decayed from the saltwater. Jack, always talking about his mother, had enlisted me to write letters to leave at port for her. 

“All the ladies back home will love me when I bring back tales of glory!” pipes in John. I sighed, rolling my eyes. I can’t believe anyone would be so eager to go kill. 

Will, who reminds me of my rough hometown playmates, blusters, “See, I can’t wait till we see those dogs. The first thing I’ll do is jump over their line and kill their captain!”

Their chatter continues until Will asks, quavering, “Are we gonna be alright? I’ve got two older sisters. I promised I would see their sixteenth birthday.”

An older man, his beard scruffy and face scarred, stands to speak. The room quiets as he begins murmuring, “I’ve been with the Captain for roughly two years. You’re all in good hands, lads.”

The deck falls silent. Dull clunking sounds ring out and everyone scrambles to salute. 

The Captain stops by the maps, flattens one out, and picks up a ruler and the wheel, confirming our course. 

“Command wants us to meet up and then disband onto separate ships. Second Wind here is supposed to join a patrol group escorting supply ships. So get some rest, you all. We will arrive in a week.”


A Week Later.

Will sits in a corner near me, praying with a rosary tightly wrapped around his fist. Other boys sit and stare at the walls around them. 

I think to myself, “I wonder where their enthusiasm went. Well, no matter, this is it. No coming back from this.”


I can feel in my bones this is the point of no return the closer we get to the meeting point. And then I see the wreckage. The ships dwarf our own, casting shadows over the deck. These ships are war machines, with double our cannons. The water is still smoldering in some places; oil is still ablaze. The smoke makes breathing hard, and everyone on deck chokes as we pass a row of burning, partially sunken ships. The saltwater air, pungent and sulfuric, rose off the floating dead. 

The Captain furrows his long, black bushy brows, squinting at the graveyard ahead. He massages his forehead, “Ambushed. Damn it.”

We finally see a ship, its rear end mournfully sinking. I wonder what those poor soldiers thought in their last moments trapped underneath the deck. I rub the worn gold engravings on my silver cross and pray for these souls, both my countrymen and my enemies. I wanted to give each the bare minimum of last rites and prayers, but there are simply too many. A blessing would have to suffice. We drift towards where the flagship had sunk, mountains of splintered wood, wet linen sails, and riddled clothes all floating in the water. 

It is not hard to envision the chaos and the noise of battle. The roar of cannons and the bark of musket fire piercing the sky drowns out the screams of men crying for their mother and praying desperately. I could almost taste the dread and blind rage that each sailor had as they fought desperately. 

Would that be me? Would I, too, never return home, lost in some watery grave? I bring my cross to my lips, shutting my eyes to the horrors. 

The Captain barks out a laugh, “Greenhorns, eh? If you vomit, do it over the side. Anyone who gets sick on my deck is gonna clean it up with their tongue.” 

I can tell where the next ship is by smell. It is noxious, burning pitch and flesh creating toxic fumes. I peek out and see nothing but carnage. The vessel itself is jammed between two rocks that peaked from the cliffside. It is hell on earth, something only Satan himself could have conjured. The bottom half is on fire, roaring flames consuming the hull. I see seabirds, birds I grew up watching, diving headfirst into some poor man’s chest, their white heads dyed red.

The Captain sits up, his shoulders squared, his back straight, listening. Then, he turns, grabbing the wheel, eyes narrowed and focused. He steers our ship closer to the wreck, ordering us to drop anchor. 

The Captain turns to us and gestures towards the wreck, “Search for survivors inside.”

We all stand there, not grasping what is going on. 

Captain asks, “Are you all deaf? Get on with it!”

Spurred into action, I carefully tread onto the slowly sinking ship, crossing the plank connecting the two. The red water laps at our feet as we descend below deck. Everywhere I look, there is nothing but death. 

I hear a weak groan, a young boy crying, “Help me, please.”

It takes considerable effort to unearth him from under the wooden beams and the other bodies. Two men hoist up one beam while the others drag the boy. The older men hand the boy to me, ordering me to carry him onto our deck. He is heavily injured. One eye is swollen shut, and the other is gone. I lift him across the gangplank, the wooden board creaking precariously. I set him down on a blanket on our deck, leaning onto the side and breathing heavily from the exertion. 

It takes hours of laborious work under the constant threat of the ship sinking before the Captain deemed it too unsafe to continue. We recovered eighteen men in various states of injury. Most of them are barely even men, boys who are staring blankly into the great beyond. Some of them are malnourished, their bodies accustomed to growing up in poverty. 

One of the conscious men from the ship told us there had been 138 men aboard.

I am still on deck, watching the ship slowly descend underwater when the Captain approaches behind me. He shouts orders at the men, one leg dragging after the other, “Set course for St. Paul’s Bay. General Howard expects in a month, and I don’t want to keep him waiting. So get us out to open water. The soldiers that did this are gonna need time for repairs. I don’t want to stick around for them.”

I reach out, grabbing his arm, “Captain, what is going to happen to these men?”

He turns, “They will join you in fighting the war. The army needs men.”

“That’s inhumane! They need to recover!” I plead.

The Captain shrugs, “I don’t have a choice in what happens. What does it matter to you anyway? If I were you, I’d be worried about surviving.”

My jaw drops at his callousness, “I care because the Lord said to love thy neighbor!”

He snorts, “War takes everything from you. If you care about every human you come across, you’ll go insane by the war’s end, even if you survive. On the other hand, you seem like a good lad, so just take my advice. You can’t save everyone.”

I stand there, shell-shocked by his words. 

Our ship’s surgeon moves in a blur, administering bandages, whiskey, and the occasional amputation. I walk over to the departed, piled in the corner of a deck. I stand over the men with white sheets covering their bodies, mumbling prayers and last rites, at least what I can remember from my father. Dimly, I hear the captain talking to his first mate. 

The Captain scoffs, “Poor bastards shouldn’t have gotten this close to the rocks. Idiot of a captain probably wanted all the glory to himself.”

“Don’t blaspheme the dead! Their punishment for their mistakes has already been laid down!” My voice buckles under my shouting.

The Captain barks a loud, somewhat abrasive laugh and walks down from the wheel towards me. His fingers are the first thing I noticed. He has jagged stumps on his right hand and dirty gold rings on all his fingers. His hands are rough, stained black from powder, and heavily calloused from abrasive ropes. They are hands familiar with war. In comparison, my hands are indented due to long hours of writing with quills. I look up at his face and scars, which cut his beard into quarters. He is dressed in a dark trench coat riddled with bullet holes and a tricorn hat placed on his head.

He grins at me, walking closer to me. Then, he stops, sizing me up.

“What’s your name, boy?” He drawls.

“Robert. It’s Robert.” I curtly respond.

The Captain chuckles, “A moralist, are ye? But, hold on, lemme guess, your father was some high scholar who preached about right and wrong, black and white.”

I snort, a fire in my belly roaring, “No. He was a priest, and I am a theologian.”

The Captain shakes his head and says, “Those beliefs ain’t gonna do you any good against steel and gunpowder. They are gonna eat you alive, that’s for sure. The Saxons don’t have morals. But don’t worry, boy, I’ll get you back home safe and sound to your books and your wench that you’re sweet on. But you need to change the way you think if you ever want to touch land again.”

I scowl, “I won’t ever become like you, you blackhearted scoundrel. Have you no heart? They are men, the same as us! To kill them is a great sin, like the killing of Abel! Killing is never justified.”

The Captain spits over the edge, growling, “Tell me this righteous speech when you’re staring down the barrel of an enemy musket.”

He turns towards the crew, bellowing, “Right then, greenhorns! My name is Captain Strait. And you all, you sorry lot, are here to fight. My job is to get you to the slaughterhouse safely and whip you into shape in the meantime! Are we clear?!”

“Yes, Captain!” the crew yells back as one. 

It’s an oddly calm two weeks. The days are filled with preparation and nursing the wounded. Then, one day, the ship appears out of nowhere. It’s a beauty, painted black across sleek edges, giving off the feeling of a panther on the prowl. It hoists a red, white, and blue flag, which is coming apart at the seams. It’s battle-worn, with little blemishes across its hull, with light reflecting off the metal of its cannons. Its nose is heading straight toward us. 

I can faintly hear the captain shouting, but the pounding of my heart begins to drown him out. 

‘My god, this is where I die,’ I think as slow panic sets in. 

The Captain shoves me, turning his face towards mine, slapping me across the face, “Wake up, you bloody bastard! Get them guns and help them! Look for my first mate!”

I stumble, dashing toward the cannons on the ship’s port side. 

A middle-aged man by the barrel gestures towards a pile of grapeshot and then back toward the cannon. I grab the grapeshot, fumbling as I carry it to the gun, stuffing it down the opening. I step back in a daze, staring at the other ship as it starts launching boarding hooks to get closer to us. 

The man brings me in closer, shouting in my ear, “I’m Mason! I need you to alternate rounds of normal shots and grapeshot!!”

Then there is thunder. A roar following a shrill ringing penetrates my ears. I touch them, confused, noticing blood on my fingertips. I look across to the other ship to see what happened, and I see the carnage. A man is screaming at the top of his lungs on the other craft, holding a shredded bloody stump that was his leg. Another youth my age stares into the sky, his stomach split wide open. I freeze. This is hell. What sin did I commit that I must be subjected to this? I couldn’t kill them. They are me, forced to be in this miserable place.

The Captain yells, bringing me back to earth, “Snap out of it, Greenie! It’s you or them! Say goodbye to everything waiting for you back home or move!”

Mason starts screaming for me, “Hey, Robert! Where are you?! Where the hell are my shells?!”

It sounds like the trumpets prophesied in the book of Revelations, the wrath of god descending. One of the men we had saved in front of me is thrown askew after being hit with grapeshot. 

I stare. I would’ve been dead if he wasn’t there as a shield.

‘Should I check if he’s alive?’ Doing so would expose me to enemy fire. I turn away, ignoring the weak whimpers coming from the man’s mouth. I dash to the gunpowder locker, grabbing a regular cannonball, my knees buckling under the weight, carrying it back to Mason’s waiting hands. 

Grab, run, reload. I go through the same motions over and over again.  

Eventually, we bloody the enemy’s nose hard enough for them to retreat. 

I collapse onto the side of the deck, lungs heaving in and out, desperately trying to breathe. My hands are bleeding from chafing against the rough leather and steel of the cannonballs. 

The Captain comes to check up on me. He sinks onto the wooden floor with a groan. His hands are covered in powder and blood. 

The Captain turns to me, grumbling, “You alright there, Greenie?”

I nod, eyes glazed over.

“Damn shame we need kids to fight our wars. If it were up to me, it would just be us old men fighting instead of you lot. At the very least, you all have a future.”

He chuckles, “I told you that your thinking would change. Killing a man and almost being killed does that to ordinary folk. I guess you are like me now, in a way. My first battle was like this too.”

I want to argue, to shout and scream that we had nothing in common. But deep down, I know it’s true. I stare at my hands. I cannot see those kind hands, with those ink stains and callouses from holding quills, the hands my mother used to fuss over. All I can see is the red sticky blood coating my fingers, the gunpowder staining my fingers, and grime wedging itself under my nails.