When I was a child of eleven, in the year of 1911—a century baby, as my mother always said—my father and his boss, Mr. Gundt, waged a private war. Greek spongers had sailed to Florida in search of the resources they had depleted from their own native seas. Late one night, I heard the men plotting how they might make the Greeks pay attention to what we Conchs felt were our rightful spots for harvesting. It’s a war, they said, so everything’s fair.

    The Greeks came to Tarpon Springs before the turn of the century, but had only recently extended their territory to include the reefs around Key West. By age eleven, I had been sponging for a year, sculling and hooking, and my skills had so improved that my father was considering paying me that summer. Sponging made for a good living in the Keys in those days—a living worth fighting for.

    We considered the Greek spongers to be cheats. They wore suits and helmets and heavy boots and were the first to use the new technology of underwater breathing. They walked across the sea floor, attached to a hose that delivered air and simply cut sponges loose as if bending down to harvest a cabbage. I told my father I longed to tie a knot in one of their fat black air hoses, but in truth, I longed to walk below the surface, too, breathing underwater like a fish, inhabiting that world for as long as I could.

    Our method involved the use of a rake and bucket—the glass bottom of said bucket making a window to the depths with the help of a small bottle that dripped oil. The underwater plants waved gently and perpetually. The fish swam leisurely. I believed it a dream world to which the Greeks had sole access.

    Each time my father returned from a sponging trip, my mother refused to talk to him. He would present her with a piece of jewelry, after which they would retire to their room and fight and cry until morning, when everyone emerged happy—until my father left again.

    My mother’s father was a businessman with a large cigar factory in Key West, his wife a society lady from Cuba. Mami (as my mother insisted I call her in those years) carried an umbrella in the sun, an attempt to keep her half-Cuban skin fair. She complained at how my father and I toiled and browned in the sun, to which my father unfailingly answered, “It’s a good enough job when it’s buying your fancy dresses, Miranda.”

    Except my father most often called her Mira, the same word Mami used with me to point out a thing of note: “Mira, Rolando.” Look. Mami’s voice was like water rolling against the side of a boat.

    On the particular trip in question, I remember that we had harvested a deckful of sponges. My father credited my increasing age and strength—heady compliments for a boy of not-quite-twelve. From Mr. Gundt’s boat, Maybell’s Dream, we took the dinghy out every day of the week and filled it with sponges—some as big around as my head—then laid them out on deck to dry in the sun. Cook tended the boat while we hooked. Cook was also Cuban, but he lived in a tin shack by the water with a wife and seven kids, all skinny and brown. The child that was my age had a misshapen head and could not talk.

    One sensation that has always stayed with me is the smell of the sponges as they began to rot. Sponges, I have since learned, are animals, and the part of the sponge that is familiar to anyone who has ever cleaned with them is the skeleton. So our job was to remove the “meat” from the bones. Quite a nasty thought, actually. In my advancing years, I am not in favor of killing sea creatures unless one intends to eat them, like a lobster or a fish.

    Back then I tied a cloth over my nose to help with the stench. My father did not. “Roland,” he would say if I complained, “that’s the smell of money. Money, drying in the sun.”

    When the deck filled to capacity with sponges, we moved them to the kraal—a floating soak-basket woven of mangrove limbs—where we softened the dried outer skins. We beat them with wide, flat paddles. My father referred to it as batting practice. We beat them until the sand and slimy skin fell away. We beat the stink out of them.

    A good soak spot must be safe from weather and waves and a place to comfortably spend a few days. Short Key was our favorite location. Mr. Gundt piloted us there while my father tied the kraal together.

    Once the island was in sight, though, Mr. Gundt let loose a string of curses. A boat was already there. A big one, flying a Greek flag. My father began to curse, too, and I felt a wave of trouble rising.

    “Roland,” said Mr. Gundt, not taking his eyes off the strange boat, “this is a man’s business.” He pushed me toward the hatchway.

    My father turned, then, and looked me up and down. He said, “I do believe he’s old enough, Mr. Gundt. A good portion of this load came from his hooking.”

    “Think so?” Mr. Gundt said, and a crawly feeling climbed my spine. “But old enough to hook and old enough to fight, them’s two different things.”

    “The boy’s a solid worker. You’ve seen that. He takes it serious. I believe he’s old enough to figure what this—” he gestured toward the boat anchored off the island in front of us—“is all about.”

    “I know already,” I said, and both men turned to look at me. “I been listening at night.”

    “Well, hell, Pritchard,” said Mr. Gundt. “I guess we got ourselves an answer right there.”

    My father put his hand up. “You heard us talking, son?”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “What have you heard?” His voice was serious. I wanted to show him he was right, that I was grown up.

    “Them dirty Greek divers are trying to steal our sponges.”

    He shook his head. “Not trying—are.”   

    “It costs us money,” I said. “Then we got to go deeper and deeper, and they just cheat—walk on the bottom in their air suits and cut loose the sponges.”
    Mr. Gundt had a hard, heavy belly that hung over his belt. He scratched it with both hands. “Sounds like the boy’s got it.”
    In the same serious tone, my father asked, “What else?”   

    I didn’t know if I should go into the whole thing, especially with Mr. Gundt standing right there. But my father thought I was ready to be a man, so I went on. “Sir,” I said, “I heard you say you aim to send a message. To show them they got no business here.”

    My father looked at me long and hard. I tried not to fidget and to look him in the eye. “I can help,” I said, finally.    

    “Pritchard,” said Mr. Gundt, “there’s no cause to send a boy on a man’s job.”

    “You said I was old enough,” I told my father. “You said it yourself. I been a good worker. I can do this, too.”

    He turned to Mr. Gundt. “I wouldn’t send him on his own, Carl. The boy would come with me.”

    “What’re you figuring on?” Mr. Gundt asked.

    “Start small. Knock a hole in their boat. The Greeks’ll patch it quick. But it’d be a message.”

    “That it would,” agreed Mr. Gundt. “It’d have to be done at night.”

    “That’s right.”

    Mr. Gundt turned to me. “And you’d have to swim a long way, Roland, in the dark. Can you manage that?”

    I stood as tall as I could. “Yes, sir,” I said. My stomach flipped over. The thought of swimming so far to sneak up on another ship—filled with Greeks who might shoot me if they saw me—made my palms sweat.

    Mr. Gundt chuckled and leaned back. “That’s some boy you got there, Pritchard. Some boy.”

    Later, after I thought things over, I wasn’t sure. The closer it got, the less I wanted to go. Cook served beans and turtle eggs for supper. Even though turtle eggs were my favorite food, I could only stomach a few bites. Cook teased me for not eating. When my father gave me a hard look, I forced another mouthful in.

    Cook slapped my back. “Atsa boy,” he said, sounding jolly. I prayed I wouldn’t throw it up later.

    I wasn’t worried for myself, either, or not just myself, anyway. My father would be doing dangerous work so it was for him, too, that my stomach was turning flips. After dinner, we retired to our bunks. My father checked his pocket watch every few minutes. I remember a silly song—“Yankee Doodle”—going through my head. I would often hum patriotic songs, “Anchors Aweigh,” or “You’re a Grand Old Flag, to make me brave. My grandfather’s big-sea voice—deep as Davy Jones’ locker—is what I heard singing them.

    My father’s father settled the Keys as a salvager. He built an immense warehouse for storing and selling goods that had been rescued from foundered or wrecked ships. People bought whatever my grandfather had saved, sometimes even the very captains who had foundered, hoping, themselves, to salvage some of what they had carried across the ocean. One week, my grandfather might sell olive oil, salt, or dried meat in heavy crocks big enough for me to hide in. Other times it was furniture or mirrors or lumber that he salvaged. On occasion it might be an entire ship of pickled olives or ladies’ jewelry.

    I wondered if my father was lying in his bunk thinking about his father, too. It seemed as if he might be: Granddaddy died out on the water at night, taking his boat through a storm on a salvage run. Many a Conch called him a pirate, but my grandfather didn’t make the ships wreck, he just salvaged the goods that would have gone into the sea, anyway.

    I must have drifted off; Mr. Gundt touched my arm and I jerked awake. “It’s time,” he said. I removed my shoes and shirt and went topside. My father was there already, dressed the same as me. We climbed into the dinghy and pushed away from Maybell’s Dream.

    There was no wind. The waves were small. A little piece of moon sunk toward the horizon. My father handed me an oar and we skulled around Short Key until we saw a boat-shaped hole in the blue-black sky. We rowed toward it, but kept next to the island. I looked down into the water thinking a giant sea monster would emerge and swallow us in one enormous gulp.

    Tiny sparkles lit the surface. My father’s oar shoved a jellyfish back toward me, glowing several different colors before it pulsed away into deeper water.

    The slap of our oars, of waves against the dinghy— these were the only noises we made, aside from breathing. My father didn’t speak. I knew he was thinking ahead to what he had to do and how he had to do it. We’d brought the big metal grappling hook with us. A slew of stars hung in the sky and there were no lights on the Greek ship.

    We climbed out and pulled the dinghy onto the sand. A warm wave wet the bottom of my knickers. My father moved whisper-close. “See that rock?” He pointed. “That’s how you’ll find the dinghy, if I’m not here.”

    I nodded. Thinking he hadn’t seen me in the dark, I added, “Yes, sir.”

    “You’re a good boy,” he said and my heart flopped inside my chest.

    “Want me to carry the spike?” I whispered, changing the subject. Mami wouldn’t want a sappy speech to jinx us. She understood omens, evil eyes, and the like.

    My father held one end of the spike toward me and I grabbed it with my left hand. We moved into deeper water together. I tried not to think about sea monsters or jellyfish or the wild water waiting to suck me down.

    And suddenly, I didn’t care if the Greek divers took all the sponges there ever were. I didn’t. I only wanted to be back in my bunk, or back home with Mami and my sister having dinner, listening to Mami complain. I didn’t want to be grown up anymore, didn’t want to think too much about things, but the thoughts kept coming.

    Mainly, I wondered what it was that made us own the sponges? Did we own them just because we picked them? Because they grew near where we lived? We hadn’t planted them any more than we planted fish in the ocean or the moon in the sky. And yet we used moonlight all the time—along with everybody else in the world. Maybe the sponges were like the moon. Walking in water up to my neck may have been a crazy place to have such thoughts, but I did—at least until the sand bank began to fall away beneath my feet.

    “Time to swim,” my father whispered. My throat closed until I could barely breathe. I knew, more than anything, I did not want to die out on the water.

    “Keep your head down.” His voice was so quiet it’s a wonder I could hear him, and yet it was as clear as if he’d shouted. I hunched my shoulders and did some version of a doggy paddle. It was clumsy, but quiet—no splashing—and it kept us moving forward.

    Quietly, we slipped up to the hull of the boat. Rough-edged barnacles cut into my palm. Below the barnacles, the boat was slimy with algae.

    I wondered how we were going to stick that spike into the boat without waking up the whole crew. The water slapped against us and my throat closed until I could barely breathe. Then my father pulled his arm back and whomped the hull with the sharp end of the spike. The noise sounded like a rifle crack. I thought I would be sick. It was like standing in an open field with lightning striking all around me.

    He struggled to remove the spike. I grabbed behind his hands and we yanked together. By that time men were shouting from the other side of the hull. Feet were running, I saw lantern-light coming toward us from behind the hole. Without a word, we turned and swam away through the water. I can’t say if the Greeks knew it was sabotage or not, but halfway to the spit of land I heard a shot fired. We swam faster.

    At the dinghy, my father dropped the spike into the bottom of the boat and dragged us into the water. I believe a few more shots were fired, but nothing hit us.

    Mr. Gundt was waiting. “Everyone okay?”

    “Okay,” said my father, “but I’d like to be long gone before they fix that hole.”

    “Agreed,” said Mr. Gundt.

    I leaned over the side of the boat and heaved. Nothing came up. My father rested a hand on my back and said I’d done a good job.

    I went to my bunk and lay down. We shoved off and then I didn’t feel anything. When I awoke, we were anchored at another small cay, the one we called Dove Key, a barren island of gray rocks topped with white drips—bird droppings—but we were only there to beat the sponges.

    Mr. Gundt dropped the kraal into the water and secured it over the side. We threw the sponges overboard, then poured seawater across the deck. I got the brush and scrubbed away the slime. My father called me Swabbie. It felt good to be out in the sun doing what needed doing.

    Cook made conch salad with key limes and garlic—a prized dish I now know as ceviche, but to the child me, it was a slimy and sour trial. Cook saw me struggle and brought a hard biscuit from the pantry. After lunch we pulled out the paddles, climbed overboard, and began to beat the sponges clean. I enjoyed squeezing them, watching the water run brown, then yellow, then clear.

    The sun was at a 45-degree angle to our boat when Mr. Gundt gave a low whistle. “Looks like trouble,” he said and I saw the Greek boat coming toward us. There must have been ten men on deck, all staring in our direction. With Cook, we were four.

    My father told me to stay low in the water, close to the boat, which I did, still holding the sponge I’d been rinsing.

    The Greeks ran their boat up next to ours and started yelling, shaking their fists. I moved behind Maybell’s Dream and kept out of sight. My father and Cook and Mr. Gundt yelled and shook their fists, too.

    When they sailed out of sight, Mr. Gundt climbed in the dinghy and followed to see where they went. An hour later he rowed back and said the Greeks were anchored off East Key, about a mile from us.

    The men kept watch all night. I tried to stand with my father, but sometime after the moon-sliver set, I tired of staring out at the dark water. When Mr. Gundt took over, my father led me to my bunk. Cook took the last shift.

    In the morning there was nothing left of the kraal but a loop of rope dangling loose. The Greeks must have floated everything away without us even knowing. They hadn’t hurt the boat, but had hurt us another way. My father was furious. A week of hard work and a lot of money had floated away in the night.

    With childish indignation I yelled, “They got no right,” and stomped my foot. It made me feel somewhat braver.

    “Someone’s got to pay,” my father said. The ropes of his neck stood out.

    The men set about hatching another plan—one to get back the sponges and cripple the Greek boat. This time, no one shooed me away.

    “It’ll be tougher,” said Mr. Gundt. “They’ll be expecting it.”

    “Too bad we don’t have one of their diving suits,” I suggested. “We could walk right up on them from under the water.”

    My father glared at me and I shut my mouth.    

    Mr. Gundt stroked his arms. “It’s got to be something bigger. More damaging. Something they can’t recover from right away. And we’ve got to get our sponges back.”

    “You think they’ve got them soaking beside their boat?” I made my voice deeper, to sound less like a kid.

    “I’d wager so, but it’s hard to say. What do you think, Carl?” My father only occasionally called Mr. Gundt by his first name. This struck me as important.

    “Be nice to get the kraal back, too,” said Mr. Gundt. He seemed to be adding numbers in his head. I knew a heavy haul of sponges could fetch a thousand dollars.

    “We can float it right back here like they did,” I said. “It would be easy with the dinghy.”

    “Don’t know if we can take the dinghy. It’s a mighty big target out on the water.”

    “We would swim it? A whole mile?” I wasn’t sure I could do that, but was afraid to say so.

    “We’ve got to teach them a lesson they won’t forget,” said Mr. Gundt. He ran his hand through his hair. “Something that will make all the other Greek boats think twice.”

    “Fire,” said my father, and his jaw set in a hard line that made me nervous for all of us. “Let them know we won’t tolerate thievery.”

    The rest of that day we made bottles filled with lamp oil, a pinch of gunpowder, and an oil-soaked rag stuffed into the top. We used five of Cook’s spice bottles and put them in the bottom of the dingy, surrounded by a coiled rope to keep them upright.

    As the afternoon sun got longer I grew more and more nervous. Firebombs could kill someone. Even then I understood that. Still, I told myself, the Greeks had taken our hard work and didn’t care. We had to make them care.

    When the sun went down, we put lampblack on our faces. I could tell Cook didn’t approve—perhaps being a Cuban made him more sympathetic to Greeks—but he didn’t say anything; the shadow that crossed his face told me. And he was glad to stay back with the boat—said so himself.

    As the darkness deepened, we climbed into the dinghy and set off. My father rowed us away from Dove Key. I couldn’t see the Greek ship, but Mr. Gundt assured us it was anchored on the far side of the nearest cay. We rowed for what felt like an hour.

    A stand of mangroves grew at the edge of East Key and we tied off to that. This time, instead of swimming, we hiked across the middle of the island. Mr. Gundt said they wouldn’t be expecting us to come that way. They’d be focusing on the water, and we’d sneak across land, light our bottles and throw them onto the ship.

    Moving over land should have been easier, but it wasn’t. The sky was pitch black and a thousand mosquitoes—all hungry—thought I was dinner. They swarmed my head and flew into my ears. They flew at my eyes and into my mouth. I thought I would go crazy from the buzzing and biting. There were plants everywhere—most of them either prickly or sharp. I wondered why the mosquitoes didn’t just drink up the blood that was already dripping down my arms and legs from all the plant scratches. My father gave me his bandanna to tie over my ears. The ravenous mosquitoes bit through the cloth.

    Finally the mangroves opened back out into ocean, and there was the outline of the Greek ship against the stars. Her sails were folded but their whiteness still stood out. There looked to be three men on deck. One at each end, bow and stern, and one portside, facing the ocean with his back to us. They hadn’t posted a lookout toward the island.

    Mr. Gundt held two bombs, my father two, and I had one. We lit them all, then threw them as hard as we could. My eleven-year-old arm was strong from fishing and sponging and my bottle made it onto the ship, of that I’m sure. In all the confusion, though, it was impossible to tell whose bottle landed where. One hit the mast and shattered high. Burning oil sprayed all over. One landed squarely on deck and burst into flames, one hit the side of the ship and failed to break, and one went into the sea.

    The fifth bottle landed at the feet of a Greek and caught him on fire. He screamed and ran around the deck while the two other men chased him and tried to beat out the fire. It rose up his legs. He screamed like a wounded dog. Finally he jumped over the side, or maybe fell.

    “Come on,” my father said, and we took off. Buckshot flew through the trees, over my head. Mr. Gundt grunted and fell down. My father helped him up and we kept running. At the shoreline, we grabbed the boat and scrambled in.   

    “What about the sponges?” I said.

    “Leave them,” said Mr. Gundt. He pressed a hand to his shoulder and groaned in pain.

    “Somebody was burning,” I said, unsure why I said it; they had certainly seen it, too.

    “He jumped in the water,” said my father.   

    “His crewmates will rescue him,” added Mr. Gundt. “He’ll be all right.”

    We returned to the ship and my father cleaned Mr. Gundt’s shoulder wound for him. No words were exchanged. I washed off the scratches and mosquito blood and put my shirt back on, my thoughts turning the night’s activities over and over in my mind.

    Cook never asked how successful our raid had been, but he banged pots and pans in the galley long after he would normally have been done for the night. Cook’s banging made me feel a strange deep exhaustion—the sort of soul exhaustion that I have only re-encountered lately, in old age.

    Despite my exhaustion then, I did not want to visit my bunk below. Instead, I lay on deck for a long time, listening to the banging, but I did not fall asleep. That little piece of moon burned on the horizon and fell out of sight. And every time I closed my eyes, I saw a man on fire.

Mary Akers is the author of Women Up On Blocks, a story collection. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, The Fiddlehead, Brevity, and other journals. She co-founded the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology in Roseau, Dominica, and frequently writes fiction that focuses on the intersections between art and science, including such topics as diverse and timely as the environmental movement and the struggle for human and animal rights. She has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and has been a Bread Loaf waiter and returning work-study scholar.


Back to Freight Stories No. 7


Mary Akers

Who Owns the Moon?