Gone to Sea

Drawing: A woman and two girls in long dresses with bonnets, look out to sea at a sailing ship heading towards the horizon. Caption reads: "Father has gone to sea."

Gone to Sea short story by Iris Carden

Father has gone to see again. 

I asked why we couldn’t go with him.

He put me on his lap and said, “Flora, you are a little girl. The sea is no place for girls or women.  It is far too hard and dangerous.  You must stay here, on land, where it’s safe, and life is easy, with Mother and with Grace.”

Grace and Mother and I went down to the dock to see his ship sail.  We kept watching out until it was out of sight.

I asked Grace that night as we went to sleep, was the land really easier and safer than the sea?

She said as far as Father knew it was.

Father was gone for a year last time he went to sea.  He was only home for a fortnight before he left again. He said that was how long it took to offload cargo and re-provision the ship. He said that was long enough for all the younger men to spend all of their pay for the trip.  

While he is gone I am learning my numbers and letters.  Mother taught Grace and now Grace teaches me.  Our island does not have many children, so it does not have a school. It is mostly a place where ships are provisioned on their way to somewhere else. Not many families live here.

Apart from my lessons, I have my work to do.  I must fetch the water.  It is a long walk, because I have to go to the part of the creek where there are no crocodiles, and the bucket is too heavy for me to carry it full, so I have to do a lot of trips.  Mother says to make lots of noise on the walk, so the snakes know to stay away. I have to feed the chickens and collect the eggs.  I have to feed the goats.  Mother says when I am bigger I will have to help with the milking.

Grace milks the goats, and digs the garden to plant the vegetables.  She weeds the garden and picks the fruit and vegetables. She also sews and mends our clothes, Mother is teaching her.

Mother sews clothes for other people, sells our fruit and vegetables at the market if we have grown more than we need, makes cheese and butter from our milk, and cuts wood for the stove. She says she is saving to buy a horse, or even a donkey, so she won’t have to carry everything to the market.

Mother and Grace take turns to cook our food, and they are teaching me.  I already know how to cook vegetables and eggs. Soon Mother is going to teach me to bake bread.  

When Father is home we have meat, but only Mother cooks that, because neither Grace nor I know how.  

Grace says she will be old enough to marry in a couple of years, and then I will have to do her work, because she will have her own home to look after.

I told Grace that Father must get very tired if life at sea is so much harder than life here, because I am very tired here.

Grace said Father never stayed here long enough to know how hard our life is. Grace does not think very highly of Father.

I asked Grace how many crocodiles or snakes were on Father’s ship, because he said it was so dangerous.  

Grace said the real dangers on the ship were weather and drunken men.

I know about bad weather. 

We had a big storm here once.  It blew the roof off the house.  We had to cut bark from trees, carefully, so as not to kill the trees, so Mother could use that to make a new roof. That storm killed half our chickens and one of the goats.  In another storm, lightning hit a tree and caused most of our island to catch fire.  Everyone who lives here was out fighting the fire and two families lost their houses.  We all helped them build again, and shared whatever we could with them. 

I know about problems with drunken men as well.

One day when I come back with the water, I found Grace screaming. A big man from the other side of the island was holding her down.  He smelled like rum.  I know the smell because Father drinks it.  

Grace was fighting and screaming, and this man was on top of her, and I didn’t know what to do, so I hit him with my bucket.  There was water everywhere and the man had stopped moving, but his head was bleeding.  Grace pulled herself out from under him,  “You saved me,” she said.  Then she said, “Is he dead?”

I poked him.  He didn’t move.  “He might be. I’m going to get into so much trouble.  I killed a man.  I will go to jail or get hanged.”

That was when Mother got back from the market.  She stood there and looked at us, and at the man on the floor. 

“He was trying to force himself on me,” Grace said.  “Flora hit him with the bucket.  She wasn’t trying to kill him, just to stop him from hurting me. Please don’t let Flora go to jail.  I’ll go in her place.”

Mother said, “No-one’s going to jail. Get the shovel.”

We all took turns digging.  We dug the biggest hole. Then we dragged that awful man and threw him in it.  We filled in the hole.  It took us all night.

Then Flora turned the dug up patch into another garden, and planted seeds in it.  We don’t eat the vegetables from that garden, and we never talk about why.

Sometimes I look out to sea, hoping to see Father’s ship, and I think about the dangerous and difficult life he leads.  I wish he could live on land with us where life is so much easier and safer.

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.


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