Darwin Strikes a Match
Susan B. A. Somers-Willett
Sweet tobacco wafts through the quarterdeck,
around the sweating rungs and under the hatch,
while a perfumed woman studies the Captain
to her wicked tattoos. She is rare
as a whale’s tooth and as brown as she puffs
a length of pipe and breathes it through
the pink interior of the Captain’s room.
Darwin sits quiet beside the Captain,
finishing the last of the swiveling port, the etched glass
opening a crimson throat. The Captain’s table
shines darkly, polished with wine revelers have slopped
in salutation to the dawn and now this ash
that mists over the Captain’s skylight so that
there is no light but only fleck and spray.
For days the sailors wade through this smoke—
the volcano on shore yielding slow fire
beyond the tree line—and the black water laps the ship
with small tremors like the sick cat
lapping up the last of the wine. Having this woman
onboard is unlucky, they know. Birds
have flown from the jungle. The lanterns and the table
lean forward. The woman leans forward.
She is leaning to unbutton her shoes: no—
she is picking up a fallen spoon. Her face
bends in the silver like a face of a coin distorts
under a jeweler’s loupe: a scratched and ill-lit glow.
She loosens her hair from a knot and lays her
hands on the pocked wood of the table, on the smooth
candlelight that is the view of the table, her hair unraveling.
Did the woman learn this from other travels,
or is this the sharp courtesy of a guest?
Her hands fold, one small animal nesting into
another. It is almost evening now: the lanterns up
on the bow and stern and all over this cramped town
that they live in, that they work with rotted braids of rope
and the iron hooks through which the sailors string
the rot and sing. Her hands are quiet specimens
on the table as Darwin bends down and lifts
the hoop, her petticoat and its crisp waves receding
in his grasp. The leg is beyond repair, Darwin says
to the Captain, and so it is. They lift her to half-standing,
they give her the feast of old bread and hard
cheese and the wine in which there swirls dirt, and the swain
is calling, the swain is calling, the fire made rain
falls over them like a muslin cloth—little room to breathe
in the hothouse—and they toss and toss
as Darwin returns to his torrid chamber
and is sick in the corner: it is his name for the storm
and it is his name for the woman now fanning
her face with a small dirty plate.
Come morning, the sailors will throw anchor and row
their cargo to the village, the woman
cursing against the plume of her skirt trailing
in the brackish water: its black uneven weight.
They will stretch her good leg gently, as if
stretched to collect rain, all the while the woman
looking to the ash-ridden sky saying
Dígame, Dígame, Dígame.