IAN C. SMITH’s work has been published in Across the Margin, BBC Radio 4 Sounds,The Dalhousie Review, Gargoyle, Griffith Review, Southword, Stand, & The Stony Thursday Book. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.


‘And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet, Wm. Shakespeare.

At the Spithead a young midshipman rows through November’s dark ripple to meet his brother, Charles Christian, a ship’s surgeon. He rows, rhythmic, action immanent, peat smoke’s earthy scent of ancient moss airborne from the inn where he shall greet Charles in his familiar mocking tone buttressed by self-belief when they embrace. Charles’s journey recently completed, Fletcher’s is held up. They burn the candle quaffing ale, swapping news.

Charles, edgy, exudes relief recounting a tale of mutiny at sea on his East India Company vessel. He grips Fletcher’s arm, that pulsing strength, confessing his implication in the crisis, describes vile abuse, blows, loaded pistols, a terrible captain. Fletcher allays his concern with sentimental gossip about Cockermouth, mimics his own ill-mannered martinet he sailed with previously, raging in a fool’s accent about departure delays. In their cups, their bond infrangible, they laugh until it hurts.

Reassured, Charles leaves at first light, ships indistinct in mist. He turns, sees his brother’s face for what he can’t know is one last time, wishes him safe voyage, vowing to remember him in prayer, their fond farewells lost forever like all words uttered then. Fletcher, always exhibiting confidence, tells him not to worry. Bounty anchored in the roadstead’s silence, a sleeping soul cries out, dream as premonition.

Limp sails sigh in the Doldrums, belt of calms before sudden squalls; ahead, zero latitude, imaginary line between polar extremes beyond which their known world shall turn arse-around, where jacks might be kings, captains knaves. Harsh baptisms await the wary, but of a different kind.

South Seas palm trees in his mind’s eye, skylarking on deck to Michael Byrne’s sizzling fiddle, taking the piss out of Nipcheese Bligh’s parsimony, reeling to his specific orders, sweat flying, swarthy Fletcher anticipates the line ceremony: the tarring, the shaving, the acting, ducking-stool slowly swinging from the yardarm.

But this is not to be. Too brutal, Bligh, swearing no oath to Neptune’s courtiers, informs his log that is to become one of the most perused books from its time. He plans to quell the lads’ grumbling, their innate yahoo urges, by paying the initiates’ fines, topped with a generous issue of grog, so pleasing to the recorder of data.

Luau Love

Bligh responds to a roar, pounding on deck.  Fletcher jumps from one barrel into another, a standing spring, no hands.  The company, not Bligh observing bleakly, applauds this athletic gentleman, a lock of his black hair damp with sweat fallen loose.  Flicking it back, he grins, bows.  Now he claps with force, taps his foot in time with the dancing, the beat of his urgent heart.  Upper lip glistening, he radiates irony.

The only black in Bligh’s hair is the ribbon keeping it intact against his nape, though his rages be black blisters.  In the great cabin shared with 750 potted plants he suffers a megrim.  Chaperoned by chlorophyll’s calming influence, he polishes his sextant with a coat sleeve, reaches for a quill, his log always shipshape.  Hearing the sirens calling them he knows his vulgar jack tars will be ashore again tonight.  There are no suppurating gums, swollen faces, due to the fresh food and water.  Their grumbling in hiatus, he commandeers most of the provisions brought aboard, more tidy profit.

His cock seeing no action these days, he considers the pox, its consequences.  Ah, consequences.  Staring through a valance of leaves, not breadfruit for once, concealed from yet another ruckus of feast preparation, he is as hard as the nails these heathens covet so much.  He, also, could commit a sin watching the handsome six-foot woman the buggers call Mainmast kneeling, a devotee before her idol, hands, mouth, loving her Titreano, his skin, dark like hers, muscular shoulders, slim tattooed buttocks, clenching.  In this brief interlude of history, after Bligh’s encouragement of Fletcher on a previous voyage, he witnesses his bete noire, who mocks him receive tenderness from kleptomaniac savages who practise human sacrifice.

Dolorous memory flashes visit Bligh; hard bright light beating back from an endless ocean, England’s foggy harbours, cartography, sacrilege, as smoke sails across the verdant mountainscape, tang of bacon wafting.  He breathes faster, tries to divert thoughts towards a decent life again but a drumbeat crescendos, banjaxing his better intentions.  For privileged Fletcher, sated now, private torment awaits, a brooding time when the devils of melancholia shall steal upon his hours.

Pitcairn Scuttle

Carved images face distant Easter Island, eroded remnants of much earlier events on this micro-society’s incorrectly charted island perfect for pirates’ buried treasure rather than buried pasts, or worse; bodies. Women who shall survive watch from high above a cutter being loaded before hurriedly leaving an anchored ship, itself high – on a wanted list. The unravelling swell shirring leeside water peels back, baring this coast’s rocky hips. At first, nobody misses Matthew Quintal, nimble arsonist below, defying Fletcher Christian to secure his safety.

Those in the boat hear snapping and hissing as a shaft of fire engulfs the stern like a pyre. Charcoal flecks swirl, disappear into the air like angry words. Glow worms of minor eruptions backlight the much-flogged, mind-flawed Cornishman clambering back down to sea level, expression rapt now their identifier is doomed. They pull on the oars, away from radiant heat, feathering clear of the turbulent entrance’s white wash that guards their isolation boiling below the women watching from The Hill of Difficulty. These unified women expected another load of Bounty’s salvageable material, not this.

Flames, burning ash, shoot ever skywards, seabirds arcing the heat current while the women keen. Christian, whose initial exhilaration when he discovered Pitcairn uninhabited, its fertility, its water, though both scarce, most of its two square miles rocky slopes, some steep, understands the limits of human endurance. Distilling spirits from ti shall bring out the bestiality in the worst of them. His assumed authority eroded yet again, grief tugs at his heart, personal strain that remains mostly unexplained.

After suffering inhuman treatment from these Europeans the Pacific Islander men stage their own mutiny, first murdering John Williams, the armourer from Guernsey, Fletcher’s blacksmith, builder of their forge. Trapped gardening, startled, he cries out, swearing in French. When they confront Fletcher, also tilling his patch, perhaps saving him the ritual of a more ignominious end, through pain, his terrible ache for home, his last words are, Oh dear! Soft rain cleanses his wounds, his sins. He leaves Mauatua, who curates his skull for sacred reasons, their three offspring, the patois of English language she has learned, and an engrossing tale of memory and myth to pass on. He is gone. Oh dear, indeed.

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