This page is for people considering endorsing, reviewing, or stocking this book.
Title: Pinocchio’s Guide to the End of the World
330 pages | Genre: Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Falling Moon Productions
Intended release date: March 21, 2023
ebook: ISBN 979-8-9869263-2-2 $9.99
paperback: ISBN 979-8-9869263-1-5 $16.99
Author: Eva Moon – email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Pick, BookLife Reviews: “Moon’s richly inventive debut novel proves as enchanting—and as darkly surprising—as the original fairy tale from which it takes inspiration. … Written with polish and playful power.”
IndieReader: “Eva Moon manages to balance humor, adventure, and drama in Pinocchio’s Guide to the End of the World, and the warm humanity of her characters helps illuminate one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.”
Back cover copy:
Becoming real was only the start.
Pinocchio got his wish, but finds there’s more to being human than having the right kind of body. Inside, he still feels like that same wooden puppet.
In the wake of WWI, his struggle to fit into a human world leads to a deadly fight with a fascist officer and flight from the only home he’s ever known.
From tramp steamers to stifling sweatshops, from love to bitter heartbreak, he can’t outrun his puppet past. Returning home years later, he discovers his beloved papa, Geppetto, was spirited away in the middle of the night into a Germany newly in Hitler’s grip.
On his perilous journey, he finds a motley crew of allies, love, and an unexpected enemy who knows a secret about Pinocchio’s own magical origins that could help her enslave humanity.
Pinocchio’s Guide to the End of the World is a tale of friendship, love, and, ultimately, what it means to be real.
Below are the first two chapters of Pinocchio’s Guide to the End of the World. If you’d like the full manuscript, contact me at email@example.com.
Excerpt: Pinocchio’s Guide to the End of the World
SURE, I CAN TELL YOU what you want to know and more besides. No one will believe it, even though they all know I can’t lie.
It’s been so long, nearly everyone who was involved in that business is gone, God rest their souls, and someone should know what happened.
If it’s true what those scientists say—that if you wait long enough, dry land becomes sea and sea becomes dry land—then someday, the bottom of the sea might rise up into mountains, and on one of those mountains, a tree might grow that’s a little different from the others. Whoever finds that tree might discover what’s hiding inside, and then where will we be?
You and I won’t even be dust’s own memory of dust by then.
• • •
The day she made me a real boy, I was maybe ten, eleven years old. It’s not the kind of thing I can be exact about. When would you count from? The day Papa carved me? The day the tree fell? The day the acorn pushed its first white rootlet out of its shell?
It was the summer of 1910. The first automobile anyone had seen with their own eyes had driven through this dusty little Tuscan town a month before, and people were still talking about it. The weather was so blazing hot, even the crickets couldn’t be bothered to chirp, but I took off running, just for the joy of feeling bone beneath muscle beneath skin for the first time. By the time I got home, she was gone, and it would be many years before I saw her again.
I had promised her I’d always be truthful and obey my Papa. Being truthful was easy. I can’t lie. The last time I lied was when Father Matteo asked me if I knew who painted “Kiss Me” on his forehead when he fell asleep in the vestry. My nose hadn’t grown more than a pimple since I was changed, but if I even thought about lying, it itched like hell, and if a lie managed to get past my lips, I couldn’t stop sneezing until I confessed the truth.
I had no such disability when it came to obedience, but I did my best. I hardly ever skipped school, and I worked in the shop nearly every day before and after. I swept up enough wood shavings to build an army of marionettes and carried enough buckets of water to drown every one of them.
But there were lapses. Mostly thanks to Ludovico, that ham-faced bully. He hated me for the crime of being different. The other boys might have just let it go in time, but with him egging them on, I got into fights almost daily.
It didn’t help that he was right. I had been given a human body, but inside I still felt the same as before. Papa tried to tell me it didn’t matter, but he and every other person in the world had been made the usual way. No magic could erase the fact that I was more closely related to the chair you’re sitting on than to my own Papa.
I never would have survived without my friends, Alidoro and Eugenio. Eugenio’s family made the wine that inspired most of the trouble Alidoro and I got into, including the Father Matteo incident. But mostly, we just hung out under this big oak tree, talking about the great adventures we were going to have when we grew up. The tree is still there. You can see it if you walk past Paola’s café and look up to the top of the hill. It has a nice view of tile roofs and vineyards and offers the hope of a breeze on a hot day.
• • •
I was sixteen when Italy entered the Great War. No one could think or talk about anything else, and we devoured any scrap of news from the front. The grown-ups were mostly against it. They thought Italy should have stayed neutral. We envied the older boys heading off to fight and be heroes. But their mothers changed into black dresses before they even left. I wanted to enlist, but Papa wasn’t having it.
“I need you here. I can’t run the shop by myself.”
“You ran it by yourself before me!”
“And I was so poor, the only way to have a fire in winter was to paint one on the wall. Is that what you want for your old Papa?”
So, there I sat, day after day, rooted to my stool, watching other young men pass our little workshop window on their way to adventure and glory. I might as well have stayed a tree.
I was still sitting there when they started coming back—what was left of them. Even the ones who weren’t missing visible parts looked hollow, blasted away inside. Papa stopped making toys and learned to make wooden legs and arms. It should have put me off wanting to go, but it didn’t. Even maimed, they were the one thing I was afraid I would never be: real men. I’d rather be dead and buried on a battlefield as a man than be buried alive here as a boy.
My wish to go fight wasn’t granted until the summer of 1917 when the war was almost over.
• • •
We were sitting under our oak tree passing around a bottle Eugenio had pinched from his father’s cellar when we saw Alidoro’s little brother running our way flat out.
“Hey, Alidoro,” said Eugenio. “What trouble have you been up to now?”
“And why didn’t you invite me?” I asked.
When Alidoro’s brother reached us, red-faced and sweaty, he threw down a crumpled newspaper. “You’re getting constructed!”
We crowded around to read the paper. Alidoro smacked the side of his brother’s head.
“Conscripted, you idiot.”
The government had conscripted all eighteen-year-old males to join the army. Every single one. It was the law.
I ran all the way home.
“Absolutely not,” said Papa. “Counting from when you became a live boy, you’re barely seven years old!”
It was so ridiculous I burst out laughing.
He crossed his arms and scowled at me. But I could see he just needed a little nudge. I grabbed an apple from the bowl on the table, held it up so it stared at him with two wormhole eyes, and gave it a high, squeaky voice.
“Counting from when I was picked, I’m barely seven days old, but I’m fully ripe!” I took a bite. “Ow!”
Papa rolled his eyes and sighed.
• • •
On the morning I was to report, I was up before dawn, pacing the floor while Papa tried to squeeze one more wedge of cheese into my rucksack.
“Keep it, Papa.”
“You might get hungry on the way.”
“It’s only a few hours!”
“Who knows what they’ll feed you in the army?”
Outside, our neighbors wrestled with a rucksack even more overstuffed than mine.
“Hey, Rodolfo!” I called. “Good morning, Mrs. Passerini.”
She waved me off and blew her nose into a handkerchief. “What good morning? The two of you are still babies!”
Eugenio and Alidoro were already at the crowded square, along with their parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Ludovico was going, too. He jeered when he saw me.
“The army must be desperate. For firewood.”
He and his buddies just about fell down laughing. I bristled. I knew I shouldn’t let him get to me, but this could be my last chance to punch his lights out. Eugenio and Alidoro steered me away.
We could have walked to our muster point in Florence. But Eugenio’s father had some barrels of wine to deliver there and insisted on giving us a ride.
“I might never see you boys again,” he said, his voice bleak.
We climbed up and sat atop the oak barrels. He clucked at the horse, and we jolted forward, waving our hats and blowing kisses to the girls while the grown-ups wept. Then I turned away. My eyes were on the future. I didn’t even look back to see the only home I’d ever known vanish around a bend.
Along the way, strangers shook our hands or shook their heads, sometimes both. We saluted as if we were already seasoned veterans instead of the greenest of sprouts.
The cart creaked and rattled up and down every hill, but it got us there before we detonated with impatience. Country boys like us jammed the transfer point, some loudly ready to slay Austrian bastards and others white-faced with fear and homesickness. Despite the din and confusion, the officers got us all sorted out and onto the train. We chugged north and east all night. I don’t think I slept a minute of it. When the sun rose over the Adriatic, its shimmering sapphire blue felt like a good omen.
The training camp was the first place I dipped my toes in the waters of army life. A beefy drill sergeant assigned us to units and sent us on to collect a uniform, a rifle, and a horsehair blanket. Then we had to find our way back through rows of identical sagging barracks tents to the one that housed our unit. When I found it, I dumped my things on an unclaimed cot and grinned. It felt like a first deep breath after taking off a jacket three sizes too small.
I wish I could tell you how I saved my unit from an ambush or how I single-handedly defeated an enemy regiment, but you don’t want the storm of sneezes that would lead to. The truth is, the epic saga of my career as a hero of the Italian Army wasn’t even a short story.
After six weeks of marching around muddy fields and exasperating our commanding officers with our breathtaking incompetence, we were somehow deemed fit to haul our eighteen-year-old hides to the front.
The Italian Alps look like a picture postcard when you see them in the distance, but up close, they were a stew of rain, snow, ice, and mud, well-peppered with Austrian bullets. Six days after we arrived, I was digging a latrine when the world exploded in a red mist.
Things were foggy for a while after that. At one point, I thought I was a wooden boy again and back inside the giant fish with Papa. Another time, people were speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand them, and for some reason, I thought I must be in America. Eventually, they switched to Italian and told me I was in the hospital. A splinter from a shell had relieved me of my left leg just below the knee. I would have preferred America.
Alidoro was my most frequent visitor, and he kept coming even though I was pitiful company. Not that he was in a position to cheer me up much. He had two kinds of news: bad and worse.
“Lombardi’s gone. Shell took his head clean off.”
I winced. Lombardi was a cheesemaker’s son from Siena who suffered the worst homesickness of any of us. He was his parents’ only child.
“And Romano.” Romano wasn’t exactly my best friend. At boot camp, he got me into trouble more times than any three others combined, but everyone in your unit is your brother. My eyes filled with tears, and it was a few minutes before I could speak again.
“Any word about Eugenio?” I asked.
“Still walking around. Ludo too, I’m afraid.”
“Aw, he’s too mean to die.”
I said a silent prayer for Eugenio. And for Alidoro, too. When I tried to thank Alidoro for visiting me, he laughed.
“Better than digging latrines,” he said and gave me a friendly slap that left me coughing for an hour.
He never once mentioned that he was the one who carried me down the mountain on his back while bullets whizzed past. I heard it from a nurse.
It wasn’t the last time he saved my skin, but that’s getting ahead of myself.
• • •
The war spun me right back to where I started as fast as a yo-yo on a string. By spring, I was home, and the town I’d grown up in felt as foreign as the front.
Papa insisted nothing had changed. “Don’t the houses still look the same?”
They did, but new ghosts haunted nearly every room.
“Don’t spring flowers still bloom?”
They did, but most of them ended up in the cemetery.
“Don’t people still buy vegetables at Sabbatini’s?”
They did, but where was the sound of their cheerful haggling?
When the notice arrived that my neighbor, Rodolfo, had been killed, Mrs. Passerini fainted dead away in her doorway and had to be carried to the doctor.
I stopped reading the papers. If I heard anyone speak of the war, I hobbled out of earshot on my crutches. The news was an abyss of pain, and I had enough of my own. Every week’s mail dressed more mothers and sisters in black. In my school class alone, nearly half the boys died on those wretched heights. And for what? To paint an imaginary line on a slightly different strip of land than it had crossed a few months before.
It wasn’t just that I was a cripple. Plenty of men got around on wooden legs, and Papa offered to make me one. He even took measurements. But I’d gone to war hoping it would make me a man—a real human. Instead, it was turning me back into wood, complete with a stump. Why not lop off my other leg and my arms and my head and replace them with wood too? Then I could be something useful like a bookshelf or a bench.
I planted myself at the kitchen table and drank. If you could find a new leg in a bottle of wine, I’d have been a centipede by summer’s end. Papa stopped trying to talk to me. He shut the door of his workshop and stayed there day and night.
The war ended and Eugenio and Alidoro came home. Eugenio was a decorated hero. When I asked him how, he just shrugged. “I didn’t die.” He married Angelina within a week, and they settled in at his family’s vineyard. I’m embarrassed to tell you how rudely drunk I got at their wedding. But he forgave me as always and would come sit with me at the café when he could get away, though I didn’t deserve it.
Alidoro wasn’t home more than a month before he landed a job with the state railroad. Paola announced that she would host a send-off party for him at the café. I didn’t want to go. He was heading to a real job. He’d travel and see new places, while I would be stuck here forever like a nail in a plank. But it felt petty, even for me, to sulk at home and not see him off after everything he’d done for me. I’d go. But I’d hate it.
A week before the party, Papa emerged from his workshop carrying a sacking-wrapped bundle in his arms and laid it carefully on the kitchen table. He had a glow of happiness about him I hadn’t seen since before the start of the war. What on God’s earth was there to glow about?
“Open it,” he said.
I flipped open the sacking without enthusiasm. Then I sat up straighter. I had seen plenty of wooden legs—clumsy, dead contraptions that looked like torture devices. But I’d never seen one like this before. It gleamed in a pool of dusty sunlight, sleek and softly shining. Taunting me. Daring me.
I brushed a finger lightly along the shin. Smooth as warm water. The foot looked almost real. I ran a fingernail down the sole, half expecting it to flinch with ticklishness. I flicked a toe. To my surprise, it moved. I pushed it again and the whole foot flexed with a faint hum of hidden gears. I looked closer. The joins were barely visible, no wider than a hair.
Where had Papa learned to make something like this? It seemed to hold energy coiled inside. It was magical. My heart raced.
I slid my hands under it and hefted it. Heavy, but probably no heavier than a real leg. I unpinned my trouser leg and rolled it up. My stump was fully healed now and showed no signs of growing back. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, heart pounding. There was a thick sock for my stump. I pulled it on and slid the cup over it. It felt awkward and foreign. Papa showed me how the straps worked and helped me snug them up.
He prodded it critically. “The cup will need some adjustments. Try standing.”
I gripped the edge of the table and pushed myself up on my good leg. I slowly let the new leg take some weight.
When I pressed the foot into the floor, it pressed back. I gave it more weight and released my grip on the table. With my full weight on it, darts of pain shot through my stump, but I was standing. Without crutches. I bounced lightly, and the new foot bounced along with the old one. I grinned at the clack of my new toes against the floorboards. Time for a step.
I lifted the leg and brought it forward. I meant to tread lightly, but I wobbled and brought the foot down harder than I meant to. It sprang up and kicked out wildly. I tumbled back, taking down the chair and half a bottle of Chianti with me. Papa helped me to my feet.
“Take it slow, son.”
Ha! This leg had no idea how to take it slow.
I ricocheted around the room, leaping and crashing, until Papa begged me to stop before I wrecked the house. I didn’t want to stop. I was starting to get a bit of control over it, though you might not have thought so if you were watching. The leg felt like a caged wolf, wild to escape. When I finally ran out of steam and collapsed on the floor, I gaped up at Papa in wonder.
He smiled slyly. “Can you guess?”
I shook my head.
“Do you remember when I first made you?”
How could I forget? If you read the book, you might recall the log Papa carved me from was already alive when he got it. He only had to give me a shape. The minute I had legs, I bounced off the walls of this very room, mad with the joy of moving.
“I saved some of that wood. Just in case.”
I felt a shiver of the same joy. I might never be a real human. I might be half man, half tree forever. But this leg could go places. I wouldn’t be stuck in a dead-end village.
I bounded toward the door, ready to show the world. But my new foot tangled with the old one. The straps gave, and I went one way while the leg went the other.
Papa helped me to a chair. “Don’t rush it, son.”
Don’t rush? I wanted to strap it back on and run as far as I could. But I had to admit my stump was sore and chafed. The leg might be magic, but it needed some very unmagical fitting.
I decided to wait and surprise everyone at Alidoro’s party. I didn’t leave the house the whole week while Papa made adjustments. I practiced and worked at gaining my strength back and dreamed about where to go. I wanted a fresh start—somewhere no one knew me. Florence? Rome?
When the day of the party came, I was still as likely to bounce off a wall as take a normal step, but I didn’t care. I opened the door and bounded out. Next door, Mrs. Passerini, in her black dress, stood in her doorway with a watering can. She dropped it when I whizzed past. I might have heard Papa’s voice shouting, “Wait!” but there was no chance in hell of that.
Everyone was already at Paola’s when I burst in. They all stared, astonished.
“No more crutches for me!” I announced.
I ran a few laps around the tables, only knocking over two chairs. When I stopped, everyone crowded in to have a closer look.
I told Paola to pour drinks all around and raised my glass. “A toast! Happy travels to Alidoro! And to me!”
Everyone cheered. There were more drinks and claps on the back and requests to see it again—until a familiar and unwelcome voice intruded.
“What’s the occasion?” Ludo swaggered in, puffed out in his new militia uniform, and took in the scene. “Looks like an illegal Socialist meeting to me.”
Oh, did I mention Ludovico also came back? Well, he did. And if he was mean before, war had hardened his meanness into a sharp and heavy axe head. He joined the Fascisti and set about a relentless program to “bring the country to order.” As if a sleepy village where it was news if a horse threw a shoe could drag Italy down into chaos. After he found a Socialist pamphlet in Constanzo the cobbler’s pocket and forced an entire bottle of castor oil down the poor man’s throat, people just tried to stay out of his way. I did, too, and I was ashamed of it. I watched him abuse my friends and told myself I was too crippled to take him on. Not anymore.
“Ludo, get lost. This isn’t your party.”
Horrified gasps sucked the air out of the room.
His eyes fixed on me and he sneered. “I thought I smelled the stink of rotting wood.”
Without a thought, I sprang at him. My unexpected agility caught him off guard, and we tumbled to the floor. I swung my fist, but he was quick and strong. He shoved me off easily and hopped to his feet. People scattered out of the way, screaming and shouting. We circled each other, looking for an opening. Ludo pounced. I leaped aside, and he slammed into the counter. He lowered his head and charged again, but I was nimble as a cricket and spoiling for a fight. I leaped onto his back and rode him like a pony, pounding his head and laughing with the sheer brute joy of finally letting the bastard have it. He threw me and I landed on a table, splintering its legs and sending plates and glasses flying. The room spun, but I shook it off and pushed myself up, feet crunching in broken glass. Ludo turned, a pistol in his hand. I grabbed a splintered table leg.
Papa’s voice rose above the din. “Pinocchio! No!”
Ludo aimed at me with murder in his eyes, and before I knew what I was doing, my leg punched against the floor like a piston. My arm swung in a wide arc. The table leg struck his head with a crack. He dropped to the floor like a sack of flour.
The choked silence was as sudden and complete as the uproar had been a moment before. I stared at Ludo’s inert body on the floor. Get up get up get up. Take a bow. Have a laugh. Ha-ha! Good one!The silence lasted until a bottle rolled off the edge of the bar and hit the floor with a loud clatter. Then everyone started shouting and weeping at once. Except for Ludo, lying on the floor, motionless and pale, blood pooling under his head. And me, rooted to the floor like a post. What had I done? Not even on the battlefield had I knowingly killed a man. Hands gripped my arms and hustled me out.
AT HOME, ALIDORO PUSHED ME through the door and bolted it. “Come on. There’s not much time.”
Papa pulled food off the shelves and stuffed it into my old rucksack. He’d sacrificed everything for me my whole life, and even now, he was still at it.
I sagged against the wall. “I’ve ruined everything.”
He shook his head. “It’s my fault. If I hadn’t made that leg—”
I didn’t want to take the rucksack, but he pushed it into my hands.
Alidoro was at the window. “You should go now. You don’t want to be here when Ludo’s pals come looking.”
Papa pulled on his jacket and hat.
“Papa, you can’t come with me.” If I was caught, as I likely would be, I didn’t want him anywhere near me.
Papa stroked my face and looked at me with sad eyes. “I’m not, son.”
I winced. Of course, he wasn’t going with me. But he couldn’t stay here, either. Ludo’s pals would be out for blood.
“Don’t worry,” said Eugenio. “Geppetto has friends.”
The words stung like a slap. Of course, Papa had friends. He’d been a friend to everyone his whole life. Had I truly been a friend to anyone ever? For once in my life, I would do the right thing. Not for me. But for him. For everyone. I slung my rucksack over my shoulder. If I was gone, it would blow over soon enough.
We heard shouts in the street. Fists pounded on the door.
I hugged Papa one last time and ran out the back, never imagining it would be fourteen years before I came back home and longer than that before I saw his face again.
• • •
I cut through vineyards and olive orchards and stayed away from even the smaller lanes until I was well out of town. I’d spent my whole life sneaking out and knew every gap in every fence by heart, even in the dark. When I reached the crossroads, I stopped.
The night was cold, but the short time I’d been at the front had hardened me to the trials of a Tuscan December. I pulled up my collar and looked at the stars in the cloudless sky. A bright star glinted not far above the horizon, and I thought about making a wish on it. But what should I wish for? To start the day over and stay away from Paola’s? To start the year over and avoid the shell that took my leg? To start my life over and run away with the marionette theatre before I could ever be burdened with flesh and bone? No. What was done was done. In the end, there was nothing to wish for but for Papa to be safe and not suffer too much for my stupidity.
I had just killed a man. An officer. How soon would a warrant be out? Where could I go? How could I live? Florence was too close. Rome? Naples? Nowhere in all of Italy would be safe. I would have to leave the country.
In the distance, a wolf howled. I shivered. I was as alone as I’d ever been and feeling so sorry for myself that I might just sit down and wait to be hauled off to prison. I needed to keep moving. But where to?
My glimpse of the Adriatic from the army train came to mind. I’d go to sea. It would solve both the problem of where to go and how to survive. I was young and healthy. Surely I could do something useful on a ship, even with a wooden leg. Lots of sailors had wooden legs, didn’t they? They did in pirate stories. I could almost hear the sharp wind cracking the sails of a great galleon. Did they still have galleons? I saw myself in the crow’s nest, gazing through a spyglass toward a distant horizon. Or hauling in fishing nets with my mates, a song on our lips. That was a man’s life! Which coast was closer, east or west? I should have paid more attention to geography lessons in school. I had a vague idea west was closer. So, I bid goodbye to the sapphire Adriatic and headed west, and then wherever the wind would take me.
A little ember of excitement began to sizzle its way through the lump of self-pity in my stomach. How many hours had I sat in the workshop, wishing I was off having adventures? Well, now I’d have them. Nothing but adventures as far as the eye could see!
I walked faster. A minute later, I ran. I raised my head and howled at the sky. The wolf howled back, and I grinned. I would be a wolf: alone, fearless, and bold. I was sorry about the trouble I’d caused Papa, but I wasn’t sorry I’d killed Ludo. If anyone needed a good bash to the side of the head, it was him. As I passed a farm, I caught sight of a little fox prowling around the chicken coop. I tried my wolf growl on him, and he took off like an arrow. Yes, I would be the wolf.
My wolf run was short. My new leg was a miracle, but my old body was out of shape, and even a miracle leg takes getting used to. I found a broken rake handle to use for a walking stick and hobbled on.
After the sun rose, I ate an apple and a hunk of bread from my rucksack and slept in a wheat field until pelting rain woke me. Why couldn’t my wolf life have started in June? I set out along the road, ducking into the cover of wheat fields whenever anyone came into view. By late afternoon I was cold, wet, and so sore I could hardly walk.
Mostly, I traveled at night and slept in fields or haystacks by day. Even without a murder warrant on my head, a lone drifter like me could find trouble anywhere in those days. My hometown wasn’t the only place overrun by Fascist Blackshirt thugs. They were multiplying like cockroaches and likely to crawl out of any crack.
By the fourth day, I felt stronger and had adjusted to the leg, but with each day that passed, I was more wary of being stopped. I hitched a ride from a farmer heading for Livorno and gratefully tucked myself in the back of his wagon among the bushels of carrots and beets, under a stretch of mildewed canvas that smelled like burnt sausages.
He left me on the outskirts of the city and told me to follow the canal to the port. I couldn’t just stroll along its banks in the open. I kept the canal on my right but dashed from shadow to shadow through the quiet, cobbled streets. Maybe I was not the wolf, but the cockroach.
At the port, I slid into the shadows under a trestle and rested against a piling to wait for sunrise. A few lights silvered the oily water. A large merchant steamer flying a British flag dominated the harbor. Not a galleon, but it did have several tall masts in addition to the smokestacks. Nearby, a scow piled high with coal rode so low in the water it seemed in danger of sinking straight to the bottom. Just as the sky began to pale, a school of small fishing boats swam toward the mouth of the harbor. I thought about asking one of them to take me, but they’d be coming back at the end of the day, and I didn’t care to be part of the catch. I needed to be on that steamer. Above the boats and ships, winches on the docks craned their iron necks like guard dogs sniffing out intruders. I ducked deeper into the shadows.
Going to sea had seemed grand and manly, but now that I was here, I knew I was just a green country boy. How do you go about getting a job on a ship when you’re an outlaw? What would I say if they asked about my seagoing experience? That most of it was inside the belly of a fish? And while I was pretty sure there were peg-legged sailors, I suspected most if not all of them had two legs when they started out.
I leaned against the piling and absently rubbed at the scar on my wrist. I had lots of scars. Everyone did back then. For me, in addition to the usual kinds from the rough and tumble of boyhood in the country and somewhat rougher tumble of soldiering in the Great War, I had this one on the back of my wrist—just a pale spot. It’s not a scar, really, no more than your belly button is. It’s wood that didn’t change when she made me human. No bigger than an olive leaf, but it goes deep, to the bone. Sometimes, in a wet spring, it tries to grow a twig. One time I let it grow, and it sprouted a leaf before I brushed against a door frame and snapped it off. And it itched—a nagging reminder that I wasn’t a natural-born human, and I never would be no matter how many stars I wished on.
Sailors and dock workers started trudging past in ones and twos. Another tramp, like me, stopped in the shadows. He leaned on the next piling over from mine and offered me the end of a cigarette. We smoked in silence as we watched the port shake off the night. He was tall and rangy with a face dark from the sun, ground-in grime, or both. His bright red hair spiked up at angles as if each clump wanted to get as far away from the others as possible. There was nothing threatening or dangerous about his appearance, though I wouldn’t say he was entirely sober.
He squinted at me and tipped his head toward the harbor. “You a seagoing man?”
He spoke decent Italian. I guessed he was English.
“Not yet. You?”
“Aye. Took a bit of a break, you could say, but now I find I have an urgent need to make myself scarce.”
“I know how that is.”
He pointed his chin toward the steamer. “She’s sailing today. I’m just on my way to the pool.”
“The Seamen’s Office. If you want to sign onto a crew, you gotta go to the pool.”
“Think they’d take me?”
“Don’t see why not. You look strong enough.”
“I’ve never set foot on a ship.”
I rapped my knuckles on my wooden leg. “And I’m missing a bit.”
He nodded. “Well, you’ve no doubt seen worse than you’ll find on any ship then. What can you do?”
“Not much. I worked in my papa’s woodshop.”
He brightened. “Well, there you go, mate! Chippy always needs an extra hand.”
I blinked at him.
“Ship’s carpenter’s always called Chippy.”
For the first time in days, I felt a glimmer of hope. I stuck out my hand. “Pinocchio.”
He shook it. “Lampwick.”
He translated his name into Italian, and I laughed out loud. With his flaming red hair and sooty face, it was a good fit.
“You’re a fine one to laugh,” said Lampwick. “With a name like Pinky-o.”
“Pinocchio. It means ‘eye of pine.’”
“Ha! Shoulda been leg o’ pine, but never mind. I’ll just call you Woody.”
He doubled over laughing at what he seemed to think was a great joke. It took some explaining, but I finally got that it was a play on the words for wood and eye in English.
Just then, we were distracted by the arrival of a pair of militiamen patrolling the dock, asking questions of passing workers.
We ducked out of sight. “Looks like last night’s about to catch up with me,” said Lampwick.
Or me. As soon as they passed, Lampwick took off down the dock at a rapid pace he somehow made look like a casual saunter. He called back to me without stopping or even looking back. “You stuck there or what?”
He didn’t need to ask twice. I grabbed my rucksack and ran. We slipped into a cluster of men milling around outside the Seamen’s Office. A weary-faced officer processed us one by one at a small wooden table set up just outside the door. When it was Lampwick’s turn, the officer scowled.
“Lampwick, you drunkard. I thought I’d seen the last of you.”
Lampwick laughed. “Sorry, mate. I’m like the clap. You’ll never be rid of me.”
The officer sighed and shoved a form and a pen across the table. Lampwick scratched an X at the bottom.
Lampwick pushed me forward, but the officer waved us off. “You know you’re not to bring your pet rats on board.”
“You’ll want this rat. He’s a war hero.”
The officer rolled his eyes. “Who isn’t?”
“Well, Chippy may have use for him.”
The officer squinted up at me. “You know carpentry?”
“You might say I was born to it, sir.”
“Any sea experience?”
“None to speak of, sir.”
He tapped his pen for a moment and looked over his roster. “You can start as a deck boy.” He pushed a paper and pen toward me. I didn’t even glance at it. I just signed my name and handed it back.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, saluting.
Both he and Lampwick snort-laughed.
Lampwick slapped my back as hard as Alidoro ever had. He might be skinny as a lamp wick, but he was strong. “Come on, then, Peggy. Move it.”
As soon as I could breathe, I said, “Peggy? I thought I was Woody!”
“Deck boy’s always called Peggy. With that leg, it suits as good as Woody.”
I stared up at the ship that would be my home. It had seemed so regal, floating in the harbor at dawn. Now, in full daylight, I could see that it had been dethroned some time ago. Its pocked sides were streaked with rust, and the stacks were black with soot. I gulped. I was trying to get away from hulking brutes dressed in black, but it looked like I’d be answering to one more.
Lampwick was already loping up the gangplank. I trotted to catch up. “Why are there masts on a steamship?” I asked.
“Wind’s free, lad,” he called over his shoulder.
I only got a glimpse of the busy deck before Lampwick led me down a rattling iron ladder into darkness. We climbed down so far that if there was a porthole, I was sure I’d see the mermaids combing their hair. A few more levels down, when I figured we’d left the mermaids behind for Satan stirring a lake of fire, we arrived in Hell. The crew’s quarters were dark, stifling, cramped, and hot. The walls sweated and creaked, and the throbbing engines shook the teeth in my jaw. The men greeted Lampwick with streams of abuse, though they saved some for the new deck boy. It was no worse than the army and better than I figured the police would be.
We were underway before dawn the next day, and I quickly learned how a Peggy spent his time. My main job was to serve food, but I was expected to scrub out the mess rooms, clean up vomit, clear the latrines when they stopped up, make tea all day long and half the night, and run endless made-up errands for the crew’s amusement. My bed might have been a loop of filthy canvas, but it didn’t matter because I rarely had a chance to use it.
The sailors were from all over the globe and spoke a dozen languages, mainly English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Italian, and they shouted orders at me in all of them. I thought I’d never sort it all out, but not getting clobbered is powerful motivation. Soon, I could jabber well enough in each lingo and get by in a few more besides.
My second day out, we hit a storm. The galley was on the opposite side of the ship from the messroom with no shelter in between. I had to carry six loaded dinner plates at once, three on each arm like a circus acrobat, while the deck heaved beneath my feet. The first time I tried it, I ended up on my back, covered in meat, gravy, and potatoes. I got up and went back for another load. On the third try, I made it to the messroom door before the deck swung down and I flew up. A potato shot out like a cannonball, hit the overhead, and stuck there. I picked another potato out of the gravy on the floor and held it up so it could see its buddy.
“Look at that,” I said to it. “You have friends in high places.”
The potato tilted its head and regarded his mate. I gave it a low, gravelly voice. “Looks a bit like the captain, don’t he?”
“Hmm. I see what you mean. Half baked, hard boiled, looking down on us, and smashed.”
The sailors collapsed with laughter. I raised my arm so the potato in my hand was standing at attention. “Three cheers for Captain Spud!” I bellowed.
Everyone joined in and cheered for Captain Spud. We left him there until the steward made me scrape him off. After that, they treated me better, when they weren’t hounding me. I got so I could make it from the galley to the messroom in a gale, carrying three plates on each arm and one on my head without spilling a drop. In time, I got to be good enough on my new leg that there was no job aboard that I couldn’t manage.
On my third day out, Cook—a terrifying, pox-scarred walrus of a man with black whiskers bristling nearly up to his eyes—handed me a pail filled to the top with potato peels.
“Take this to Hurley.” He gave me such convoluted directions where to take it that I was sure it was on some other ship.
“Can’t we just throw it overboard?”
He laid a meaty hand on my shoulder. “This is precious cargo, boy.”
Hurley turned out to be a short, wiry Irishman, the master of a hidden and illicit still. He let out a firecracker shout of relief when the scrap pail arrived, its bearer green-gilled and dripping sweat. He handed me a bottle.
“Here. This’ll fix you.”
I gulped down a swig of poteen so strong I spent the next ten minutes coughing while he roared with laughter.
“It’s just vegetables, mate,” he said. We became instant friends, and I never again hated peeling potatoes.
I did finally get promoted to Chippy’s mate and someone else got to be Peggy. It wasn’t that I was brilliant at carpentry, but more that Chippy had stiff joints, and it pained him to bend or squat. Even with a wooden leg, my smaller size and nimble footing made me useful for getting at hard-to-reach places.
I spent more years than I should have at sea. I ran copper from Valparaiso, coffee from Rio, coal from Newcastle, rum from Port-au-Prince, guns from Tripoli, and one time a nine-piece brass band from New Orleans. I sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar, around the Horn, and through the Panama Canal. I boiled my brains in the tropics and chipped ice off the decks in the North Sea.
And between times, I caroused in port as hard as I worked onboard. I had my first taste of sailor’s liberty in Marseilles. Lampwick took me under his wing, and I couldn’t have had a better guide. The night ended in a drunken brawl with a crew of enormous Swiss sailors. Just as the gendarmes arrived to cart us all away, every light in the bar miraculously went out. We slipped away and ran, not stopping to catch our breath until we were blocks away.
“That was a lucky break,” I said.
Lampwick winked at me and tossed a handful of fuses into the air. “When all else fails, lad, pull the damn plugs.”
I tried that trick any number of times over the years, but I never managed it as neatly as he could.
My sailing days are long behind me now, but the one thing I still miss is the night sky at sea. If you’ve never seen it, you have no idea how full of stars the sky can be. I only ever saw one thing that surpassed it, but that’s a tale for later.
• • •
In the summer of 1930, we were headed for Hamburg with a load of Egyptian cotton when we had engine trouble. There was nothing for it but to drop anchor and wait for a part to be shipped out. Lucky we weren’t hauling fish. We were too far from any port to take a dinghy for shore leave. The best we could do was camp out on a barren stretch of beach on the North Sea coast. Not paradise, but better than staying aboard, where work would always be found for idle hands. Hurley dug deep into his stores of hooch, and we made driftwood bonfires that sent sparks halfway to the moon. The weather was cool but dry, and the local fish were most obliging. If you so much as dropped a line in the surf, plaice and little dabs fought to get on the hook. Tonio, the only other Italian in the crew besides myself, played guitar and had an endless supply of filthy songs in seven languages. With no girls at hand, we made do dancing with each other.
On a brisk, sunny day with a light southerly wind, I walked down the beach alone. I felt restless and unsettled. When I was a boy, I thought if I went out into the world and had adventures like a man, then I would be a man. But inside, I was still the same, still a wooden boy.
I perched on a rocky spit and cast my line into the surf without even looking to see where it hit. The fish must have sensed my low spirits, as they gave the hook a wide berth. After an hour or so, I was about to give up when I felt a heavy pull on the line. I stood and started to reel it in. It felt like something big, but with little fight. Probably driftwood. A fitting nickname for me, I thought. As I reeled it closer, it broke the surface. Not driftwood, but a tangle of old net.
When I had it close enough, I hopped down to the tip of the spit and pulled the net in by hand. Something large was caught in it. When I had it close enough, I saw it was a dolphin, panting through its blowhole and nearly drowned. He was in bad shape, with a deep gash above one eye like an angry eyebrow. I reached for my gaff. It would be a mercy to put him out of his misery, and he was big enough to feed the whole gang on the beach. But he looked straight at me with his sad old man’s eye. I never thought a fish could have a heart, but this one did, and it was breaking.
I pulled out my knife and sawed through the netting. When he was free, he lay still in the water. Was he too far gone? But then he shook himself, and I swear he winked at me. I could almost hear him promise to return the favor someday.
“I’ll hold you to that, brother,” I said. “Now go on home.”
He bobbed his head and vanished under the water. Maybe it was time for me to go home too. Papa wasn’t getting any younger, and surely the dust of my misdeeds had settled enough by now that I could slip in. I decided to finish this run and then sign on to a ship heading to Italy. I walked back empty-handed to the jeers of my mates, but I didn’t care. My thoughts were a continent away in a dusty little town in Tuscany.If I’d known then that it would be nearly three more years before I got home, I might have thrown myself into the sea then and there. But I never would have met Serafina. So maybe things go the way they’re meant to.
Thank you again for your consideration. If you’d like a full copy – ebook or paperback – please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org