Loblolly

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The ship rocked to the rhythm of the gentle swell that lapped against its thick timber hull. Deep within the depths of HMS Arcade, far from any natural light and where the salty air was replaced with the scent of iron and alcohol, a frightened teenager waited. With black, shoulder length hair and smooth, youthful features, David stood in silence. From the several decks above, he’d heard an army of footsteps rush to their positions, but now it was replaced with a tense silence.

Two burly men stood to his side. Both dressed in grey, baggy shirts and thick cotton trousers, the men's harsh and severe faces were made all the more sinister by the flickering of the lanterns that hung throughout the cabin. Several weeks had passed since David was snatched from the streets by the roaming press gangs and dragged to the port, and even now he still didn’t know their names. Instead, he mentally referred to them as Limp and Hunch, based on their physical imperfections.

There was one more person who resided within the damp and cramped confines of the infirmary. Beside the thick oak table, that was stained and scuffed from the multiple patients laid upon it, was Mr Slines, the ship's surgeon. With thick mutton chops and dark cropped hair, the formal and intense man quietly cleaned his spectacles in the brown leather apron that was tied around his neck, unbothered by the events unfolding on the decks above.

Behind him, next to the steep stairs that led away from this dingy and damp cabin, were rows of shelves packed full of medical equipment and glass jars; some contained clear fluids, others were packed full of juicy leeches, and one crammed to bursting with thousands of wriggling maggots. To the man’s left side were pails of water scattered across the timber floor. To his right was a table upon which an arsenal of vicious tools lay. A mere glance over the selection of knives, saws, hammers and pliers was enough to make David wince.

A shout came from somewhere high above. It sounded like an Admiral; his voice stiff and authoritative. The order caught the surgeon’s attention. He placed the cleaned glasses back onto his face, resting them atop a thin and pointed nose, and moved his hands to grip the operating table.

David began to take deeper breaths. He could feel his heart pound against his chest, and his legs shake against the loose trousers that he wore.

Hunch made the sign of the cross in front of his chest.

Limp gripped one of the supports with a large hand.

There was a moment of stillness.

The hull let out a long creak, sounding as if it was resisting the pressure of a Kraken’s tentacles trying to squeeze the life from the flagship.

The thunder of thirty cannons exploding along the broadside made every bone in David’s thin body shake. The force travelled through the ship like a shock wave, pulling the smoky odour of used gunpowder into the medical cabin with it. Frantic yells and orders immediately followed, barked from a commanding officer somewhere high above. Behind the nasal, formal voice, somewhere off in the distance, a faint booming noise could be heard. David didn’t have time to place it before it was snuffed out by the shattering of wood and the screaming of men. The enemy had returned a volley of fire; the iron balls ripping through the ship’s interior, leaving a trail of splinters, smoke and mutilation in their wake.

“Look sharp, Loblolly,” Limp ordered.

David’s new future was that of a Loblolly Boy, so named after the thick porridge served to sick and injured crew members. The new duties of his enforced career now included cleaning surgical instruments, disposing of body parts and obeying any other whim that Mr Slines or his assistants asked of him.

During the teenager’s short time aboard the ship, he’d witnessed all manner of surgical procedures, if they could be called that. From the blood-letting that filled the leaky pails with pints of warm blood, to teeth removal via a set of tarnished iron pliers plunged deep into the gaping mouth of an unfortunate individual. With one leg pressed up against the patient’s chair, and two hands wrapped tightly around the handle, Mr Slines would pull until his arms shook and his veins pulsed. The muffled screams of the poor man would be briefly silenced with a faint popping noise, followed by a tidal wave of blood that flowed from the man’s whimpering mouth. The surgeon would hold the offending molar up to the dancing flame of the lantern and with a proud nod, turn and drop it into a glass jar with the others he'd collected.

The cannons detonated again, catching the teenager off guard and causing him to lose his balance. He stumbled into one of the assistants. The man didn’t flinch; it was like David had knocked into a huge oak tree.

“God damn it, Loblolly,” Hunch spat.

Before he had a chance to defend himself, the first casualty appeared at the entrance hatch. Sat with his feet dangling into the cabin, his injury was immediately evident. A 24-pound sphere of hardened metal had torn through the ship, taking the lower half of the man’s right leg with it. The crewman was crazed, clawing at his shipmates and begging not to be lowered into the dark confines. Limp and Hunch grabbed the man by the waist and pulled him down the steep steps, laying him across the operating table. The man thrashed within the grip of the two henchmen like a fish caught in a net.

David looked on at the crewman’s mangled stump, suppressing a rising sickness within him.

“Is it just your leg?” the surgeon asked, unfazed by the injury or distress before him.

With wide, panicked eyes, the injured man rapidly nodded his head.

Mr Slines collected several of the surgical instruments and dropped them into one of the nearby pails of water.

In his old life, David was a printing press operator and as a result was more educated than he liked to let on. He was literate from a young age, and of the many things he had read, one of them was William Beatty’s accounts as a surgeon at the Battle of Trafalgar. Although the details of those memoirs did little to calm his nerves now, the Loblolly Boy was faintly aware of what surgery involved. He remembered that Admiral Nelson requested the surgical instruments to be warmed before a procedure as a small gesture towards the patient, which presumably explained Mr Slines' actions.

“David, bring over the tourniquets.” The surgeon’s voice was calm and measured.

The ship violently jerked to the side, accompanied by another outburst of agony from one of the other decks. A queue of disfigured and maimed patients would soon form.

David returned with the screwed contraptions. With Limp and Hunch holding the panting sailor down, David wrapped a sheet over the man’s thigh. Sliding the tourniquets up his leg, he tightened the screws, so compressing the arteries and stemming the blood flow.

Nodding at David’s handiwork, Mr Slines reached down and retrieved a long, curved knife from a pail next to him. Its stained blade reflected a dim glow from one of the nearby lanterns.

Just as the knife was about to be plunged into the man’s leg David called out, struck by another memory of those historical accounts.

“Wait! Shouldn’t we give him something to bite on?”

The two henchmen peered down at the boy and scoffed.

"We don't have anything," Mr Slines announced impassively. “There’s no time.” And with that he drove the blade forward, sinking it deep into the patient’s calf. With one hand pulling on the skin below the incision, the surgeon made a slick move with the weapon, slicing through the muscle and tissue, causing it to come away like old, peeling paint.

With a desperate cry, the man kicked out, his body rising several inches from the table until it was overpowered and forced down by the strength of Limp and Hunch. The surgeon lent back and with the tip of his tongue poking out through his thin lips, admired the fresh, butchered flesh. His gaze dropped to the bloody knife he still wielded, then finally to the tortured face of the sailor.

David watched from a distance, aware that speed was imperative during an amputation; a requirement that didn’t seem to concern Mr Slines. The unhurried surgeon glanced over.

“Is there a problem, Loblolly?” he asked over the wailing of the patient.

David shook his head, unable to take his eyes off the scene that was unfolding before him.

The surgeon gave the briefest of nods and tossed the blade onto the side table, and reached back into the bucket of water, retrieving a glistening tenon saw.

David had seen Mr Slines handle the saw once before when he’d walked in on him unannounced. The surgeon was banging the serrated edge against a set of chains. The high-pitched screech of metal on metal caused the teenager to flinch as he’d tried to get the man’s attention. Upon seeing the Loblolly Boy standing there, Mr Slines had immediately stopped and thrown the saw to one side.

The ship rocked again from another volley of cannon fire. The shattering of cladding and splinters echoed around the ship. The surgeon didn’t react, however, his concentration focused on the crimson hands that wrapped around the wooden handle of the straight edged saw.

Briefly licking his lips, the surgeon went to work. David was certain he saw the tiniest glint of a smile creep across the face of Mr Slines the moment the grinding of dull metal on bone filled the cabin. His action was slow and steady, with long, drawn out cuts, as if ensuring a fine and plush finish. The screaming of the crewman was now unbearable, drowning out the cannon fire and battle that raged above.

David screwed up his eyes and pressed his hands against his ears, wanting to escape the horror. It had been several minutes now; the amputation should have finished long ago. The wailing and cries grew louder and louder, with David pressing harder and harder over his ears, failing to block out the screams, until, suddenly, there was silence.

Tentatively, David opened his eyes, afraid of the sight that awaited him. The crewman lay sprawled on the table, his chest rising and falling to the unconscious cadence of a man who’d just passed out.

The surgeon sighed and then with an increased, rapid motion, sawed through the remainder of the bone. The severed limb fell to the floor like a rotten branch.

“Well don’t just stare at it, Loblolly,” Hunch ordered.

David scurried forward and knelt at the feet of Mr Slines. The surgeon's eyes were wide. He sucked in deep lungfuls of stale air through a gasping mouth - a mouth whose corners were ever so slightly upturned.

With the warm, discarded limb in hand, he went to stand when another volley of cannon fire was released from above. He stumbled again, falling into the shelves and snatching at anything to keep his balance. A draw was pulled open, spilling its contents onto the bloodstained floor. Looking down, David gasped at the sight of several unused bite pieces, every one of them devoid of indentations or teeth marks.

"Will you be careful?" Mr Slines cursed, now out of his joyful stupor.

David shyly nodded and knelt down to collect the items. His mind was racing. Checking that the others weren't watching, he dipped his hand into the bucket containing the surgical instruments.

It was frigid.

He frowned and retracted his hand. He needed to check a final thing before telling the Admiral, just to make sure.

Hesitating for a second, he licked his wet fingers.

It was seawater.

With colour draining from his face at the realisation of what the surgeon was doing, he glanced up to see Mr Slines staring down at him with narrow, cold eyes.

“Do we have a problem, Loblolly?”

“No, not at all,” David stuttered. “I just, just need to see the Admiral about something.”

Before Mr Slines could reply, a rush of hot air and shrapnel engulfed the surgery.

A bright, white light blinded David. A high-pitched ringing filled his eardrums. He was aware of a burning sensation in his arm. For several moments he stumbled around disorientated until finally, his senses recovered.

He saw the surgeon and his henchmen straighten themselves from their cowered position, apparently only suffering a few minor wounds from the enemy’s artillery.

The Admiral. I need to see the Admiral, David thought, his twisted reality now rushing back. The pain in his arm returned too. Holding it up into the air, he looked on in stunned silence at the bloody stump that now replaced his hand.

Flanked by his assistants, Mr Slines stepped forward with an evil grin across his face.

“Looks like we have our next patient.”