Lyrics For a Life at Sea (3rd Place)

Bayveen O’Connell

Credit: Free Images


Dad is the captain of my imagination. I’m from coastal people who say the sea is a gateway to other worlds. The Atlantic, the colour of shifting dragon scales, gives me something to dream of: a life beyond our little Ballyscannell crossroads.

High tide, all hands on deck, set sail. 

Heave away! Haul away! We’re bound for South Australia. Dad’s been teaching me old sea shanties and I sing along while he plays guitar. Three times around spun our gallant ship, and she sank to the bottom of the sea. From my garden I can see the ocean and imagine all of it happening out there.

Port, starboard, stern. 

I haven’t decided if I’d be a stowaway on a merchant, navy or pirate ship, down with the rats and the grain and the rum. And what would I call myself? Nothing with beard anyway, little girls don’t have beards. 

Compass, North Star, doldrums.

What’s it like out on the open sea, with nothing but blue for miles? Icebergs drifting far off.   Whale pods passing, migrating south. Watching Orion disappear as the vessel crosses the equator. Then again, every shape on the horizon could mean danger. What a life I’d have up in the Crow’s Nest, scouting for enemy flags. 

Barbarossa, Calico Jack, Black Beard.

Noah had a dove. The Vikings had ravens. Any  pirate worth his salt had a parrot.  I’d have a one-eyed terrier that could sniff out and corner the fattest, meanest rodent and have it squealing for mercy. And when the other mariners were rolling around drunk in the mess, I’d feed the dog the best scraps and rub his belly.

Gangrene, wooden legs, lice.

I tell Dad that I can’t tidy my room. Due to an outbreak of scurvy, I’m feeling very lethargic. Show me your teeth, he says, roll up your sleeves. He narrows his eyes as I do, then he shakes his head. Nothing rotten or blue Dad diagnoses, but prescribes an orange anyway. 

Red skies, egg shells, whistling. 

Why is there always a nudey woman on the front of the ships? And why do mermaids want to drown everyone? Sitting, curled up on rocks with their combs and mirrors all day: how boring. Sailors, Dad says, were a strange lot who feared women travelling the seas with them, but a pair of wooden breasts on the bow could weather a mighty storm. 

Treasure chest, desert islands, dead men tell no tales.

Where would I hide my jewels? Pearls and rubies, sovereigns and medallions? I draw a map and put X at Pollet Sea Arch and Dad takes out his lighter and burns the edges so it looks real. Then I roll it up, seal it with a blob of Mum’s red lipstick and bury the map in a biscuit tin out the back.

Storm ahead, spring a leak, bale water. 

I consider learning to swim before becoming a pirate. I don’t want to be scrambling for my inflatable armbands as the ship goes down. Though Dad says most seamen couldn’t swim, better a swift death than a cold one, paddling and clinging to jetsam.

Mutiny, walk the plank, forty lashes.

I wish I hadn’t asked about keel-hauling. I shudder at the mention of the wooden spoon, and can’t really fathom a punishment harder than a smack. A chill of horror sweeps through me, thinking my dead body would just be thrown over-board, or my live one eaten by sharks. Worms in the ground digesting me suddenly seems gentler. 

Sinking, scuppered, smithereens. 

Dad takes me a little way up the road to Streedagh strand where some survivors of the Spanish Armada wrecks were washed ashore. I can picture them crawling up the beach, taking shelter in the dunes. Our sharks didn’t bite, Dad says, but the English did and they slaughtered any man without rank. By the skin of his teeth, hiding and dragging himself under moonlight, Captain de Cuellar managed to find passage back home.

Captain’s log, quill and ink, signing off. 

Under the shadow of Benbulben, Dad shows me how to pick periwinkles at low tide as the Barnacle geese take off back to Greenland for the summer. So, Dad asks, are you serious about setting sail? I’m still thinking about it, I say, but in the mean time I’m going to write my own shanty about a mermaid with scurvy who rescues sailors from the English. Yes, he nods, now it’s your turn to tell me stories. Though I can’t see past the furthest sweep of the lighthouse at St John’s point, and I’m not yet ready to test my sea legs, the watery world is my oyster. With all its possibilities and perils, it will wait for me.

Bayveen O’Connell’s writing can be found in Bending Genres, Daily Drunk Magazine, Janus Literary, Splonk, The Forge Lit, The 2020 National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, From Whispers to Roars, Ellipsis Zine, The Cabinet of Heed, and others. She’s a winner of the Fractured Lit 100 Word Story Contest 2021 and one of her flash pieces received a Best Microfiction nomination in 2019. She lives in Dublin by the sea.