I Must Live In A Windmill, Some Day

I was raised on a gigantic wooden cargo barge that shipped live penguins from the very ends of the earth and back again. It was a strange and unfulfilling job, and no one ever paid us for it, and I never saw a buyer, or a seller for that matter. But every six months we’d collect a new load of penguins from the icy regions at the farthermost corners of the world and sail from one pole to the other, where we’d drop off our cargo and collect fresh penguins to be released at the end of the return journey. Despite the fact that we never turned a profit, fresh supplies of money and the food came from somewhere – where, I cannot say, except that the first word I ever spoke was ‘UNICEF’ and the barge’s crew would often return injured and limping from food-gathering trips complaining about the tenacity of hungry children.

Big Stefe was the only friend I had growing up on the barge. He was like a father to me, a father who acted not like a father, but a friend. He was as wide as he was tall, with tattoos of Archie comics covering his whole body, and he had a wooden peg-head. His original head had been lost during a tussle with some penguins that didn’t want to be transported. Big Stefe had thought that all of the fractious penguins had been contained, but a few of them had broken away from the main fight and hidden in his hammock, waiting to get the drop on him. Big Stefe had barely laid his head down to get some sleep that night before it was rolling along the wooden floor of his cabin, and the vengeful penguins were squawking and clapping their wings together with delight.

The crew, sure that Big Stefe was dead, had laid him reverently in front of the Captain’s door, which never opened, as an offering to our secretive master. The next day, Big Stefe was back among us with an new and intricately carved wooden head, walking and talking and making jokes about his ‘wooden demeanour’ that started out funny but rapidly ceased to be amusing. Ever since that day the rest of the crew had been somewhat nervous around him. Partly because he had a wooden head, but mostly because he’d met the Captain and returned alive (on a side note, Big Stefe’s new head could eat as well as his old one, and he told me that the penguins who had taken his original head had been delicious, if a little prone to tapdancing).
Fairly strong shipboard rumour had it that the Captain was in fact none other than Elvis Presley. I plucked up all my courage one day and asked Big Stefe if it was true.
’I’m sure as molasses not saying he is,’ Big Stefe told me, ‘and I’m as certain as taffy not saying he ain’t. But I will say this. Don’t you never bring a hamburger on board this vessel, or you’ll end up as busted as peanut brittle.’

Having said his piece, Big Stefe shut his mouth and went back to splicing the mainbrace. Big Stefe was forever splicing. Sometimes it was a sail. Sometimes it was video footage. At other times, it was apple trees.

None of the crew had ever seen the Captain – only Big Stefe had had that cursed privilege. The Captain demanded that the crew be in their hammocks and have the doors to their cabins locked by 9:00 pm sharp every night, so that he could climb out of his porthole, up the side of the ship, and onto the deck, where he would patrol his vessel. The porthole idea really added to the mystique of the door that never opened, but more than once the ship collided with something during the night because there was no one in the crow’s nest to keep watch. Or to use the radar that was in the forecastle.

Big Stefe told me that he’d always dreamed of living in a windmill. On the long nights at sea, when the wind howled around the mast like a man who has discovered that both Skeet Ulrich and Matthew Lillard are having an affair with his wife, and the ocean crashed against the portholes of the long galley in which we slept, and our sleep was broken by the constant mad squawking of the penguins in the hold, Big Stefe would keep himself from going insane by holding tight onto his vision of living in a windmill. He’d regale me with stories of all the fabulous parties he’d have, where Bruce Campbell would be the guest of honour and anyone who mentioned penguins would be tied to the sails of the mill and left to swing in the wind for at least six hours.

Unfortunately for Big Stefe and his dreams of home ownership, the Captain was fond of holding a monthly trial by combat to see which one of his crew was the strongest. Once a month, we would wake in the morning to find that two pieces of paper had been nailed to the mast. One would generally be a complaint to the chef about the quality of his double-buttered steakburgers. But the other… the other would be the name of the two men who were to duel to the death with marlinspikes and wet rope in the Orlop deck.

Being just a boy, I was exempt, but I watched in horror as the crew was whittled down, one by one, until finally only Big Stefe and I remained. On the day of that last fateful competition, Big Stefe didn’t wait for his name to come up. Instead, he challenged the Captain himself. He walked into the Captain’s cabin, his wooden head never betraying a hint of the fear he must have felt. The last words I heard him say were ‘I’ve always despised the way that you insisted we write and pronounce the word captain with a capital C,’ and then the door slammed shut.

From the sounds of it, the battle raged for a week, or at least an hour. For a week afterwards the only sound on the ship was the sound of silence, until I finally plucked up the courage to open the door to the Captain’s cabin, and all I found in that terrible room was blood, and sawdust, and a shredded white rhinestone jumpsuit.

I delivered the last cargo of penguins all by myself, and then sailed the barge back to greener lands and happier days. But I won’t let the dream of my friend Big Stefe die in vain. Someday I’ll live in a windmill, and Bruce Campbell will come to my parties, and I’ll toast a glass of rum to the night sky and say, ‘This one’s for you, Big Stefe. Wherever you are.’

I Must Live In A Windmill, Some Day


Joined December 2007

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