Yesterday, when it had become a certainty their ship would sink, Laura and John Foster held hands, as they had on their wedding day three weeks ago, and made a vow: when that moment finally came they would leap into the sea together and slip beneath the waves. One quick inhale of water. It wouldn’t be suicide. God had already determined it to be their last day on earth.
But that’s not what happened.
Laura was still here, alive and alone. By now, John had most certainly perished along with the rest.
Her tears temporarily spent, Laura lifted her head and looked at the other women. Faces barely recognizable. Cold, wet, quietly weeping or else staring at nothing, eyes locked in grief. All the men in their lives: husbands, brothers, fathers were also gone. The dim lantern light, shifting with the motion of the sea, moved them in and out of the shadows like phantoms.
The ship creaked and moaned with each rise and fall of the waves, as if sharing their pain. From the darkest side of the room Laura heard a new sound. Heavy feet scuffing across the wooden deck. As it grew louder, she waited for someone to emerge.
“Pardon me, ladies. I surely don’t mean to disturb you.” The voice, aged and deep. “I can’t see y’all at the moment, and I hope I don’t step on anyone. I’ll just make my way toward that lantern up ahead.” She followed the sounds from right to left. “I brung something fer ya. Those blankets we gave out gotta be damp by now. These ain’t much, but I remembered we had some old sails in stow. Captain said it’d be alright if I cut ‘em up and pass ‘em out.”
His voice was caring and kind. As he came into the light, Laura recognized the old Negro slave. He’d helped them when they first boarded a few hours ago. She knew he was a slave by the way the crew treated him. He set down a stack of folded cloth. “I can’t see you ladies too good, but you hold up your hand, I’ll give you one. If you got chill’un, I give ‘em one too. You in the shadows, just say Micah as I come by, and I’ll get you one directly.”
Several hands raised toward him. One by one, Micah handed out the cut sails. Laura’s blanket was damp but not badly. She waited, to make sure there were enough for the elderly women and mothers with small children.
By his count, Micah ran short by twenty. “Don’t you worry, got plenty more. I’ll go cut me some and be right back.” Laura didn’t know how many had been rescued. She thought she’d heard just over a hundred. Maybe she should get up and help him. She wasn’t injured. “Micah?” she called out.
She stood up. “Can I help you?” She could barely see a path between them.
“That’s kind, Ma’am, but I’ll be alright.”
“I don’t mind,” she said.
“I know, but truth is, I’m not sure what the Captain say. With the ship bobbin’ up and down, and it bein’ dark, I’d be afraid you bang your head or worse. Tell you what. When I get back you can help me pass ‘em out.”
“Anything I can do. You’ve been so kind.”
“Well, y’all been through so much, wish there was more I could do.”
Just then the ship jolted upward. Laura almost fell.
“You alright, Ma’am?”
“See,” Micah said. “Just ain’t safe walkin’ around here in the dark. I’ll be right back.”
Laura reached out and found a wall near the doorway, then slid down in place. She could just barely trace the outline of a woman holding two children near, tucked back a few feet in the shadows.
“Mama,” said one child, “how much longer till Father joins us?”
She heard the mother inhale deeply. “I’m not sure, son. Just try and sleep. We’ll see what comes in the morning.”
What comes in the morning.
Laura allowed the phrase to turn over once in her mind, but no more. She couldn’t bear to think beyond the next hour.
At some point during the night, Laura fell asleep.
At some point after that, the sea calmed.
The ship now rolled gently through the waves, making the slightest creaking sound. The moaning was gone. But within moments of waking, the moaning inside Laura had grown worse. Her heart felt like a roof ready to cave in, her mind like a door frozen shut.She had an urge to flee, if only to assuage these dark feelings momentarily.
Daylight poured through the hatch, allowing her to better see the hold where they’d spent the night. It was much larger than she’d imagined. Some ladies still slept, but the deck was covered with cut sails and wet blankets mingled together in piles. The ceiling wasn’t tall enough to stand upright, but almost. A woman wearing a blanket like a shawl climbed the stairway toward the sunlight. Laura joined her.
A warm wind blew from the southeast. The main deck was crowded with women and children. Most leaned on the railings and stared south toward the stern, looking back to where the two ships had parted last night. A handful of crew members busied themselves with the sails and rigging.
Laura was startled by the overall size of the ship; so small, a third the length of the SS Vandervere.
For almost a month the name had brought her instant joy, like a fairytale. Sailing away on a steamship, a first-class cabin, pockets laden with gold, beautiful sunrises, breathtaking sunsets, traveling with the man she loved. Even more surprising, a man who loved her back. Before John, Laura had decided she was past the marrying age and must content herself with living alone.
Better that than a loveless marriage of duty and servitude.
Even toward that end, there had only ever been two prospects. None in her teens or early twenties. But when she’d reached twenty-five a widower had come around, looking for a woman to care for his children and clean house. Love and romance, out of the question. The second prospect had been an enormous, wealthy businessman. He’d built a brand new mansion in San Francisco. He’d taken her to a nice restaurant, then quickly by the house. As if to say, “Yes, but there is a house.” She thought, “Yes, but you can’t even make it up the stairs.”
Nearly two years later, in a span of time when she’d banished any thoughts of love, John had bumped into her as she walked along South Park near Brannan Street, a book in hand. That should have been the end of it, a polite excuse me. The book had fallen. They both bent to pick it up, and John caught her glance as they stood. Something in his eyes, something she’d never seen. He handed her the book, then smiled. She thanked him and smiled back.
She walked to the nearest bench and sat down. She tried reading her book, but had the strange sense that he had not moved, that his eyes were still upon her. She looked up, and it was so. And the smile had remained.
“I’m sorry,” he’d said. “I don’t…I want…oh bother,” he said. “May I introduce myself?”
He did, and then he asked the most peculiar thing. “May I sit beside you?”
Before long, he’d asked if they could walk together. And then, would she join him for dinner. That night he walked her home, and politely shook her hand by the porch, clasping just her fingers. “I am so glad to have bumped into you this afternoon,” he said.
Laura didn’t know what to say; she just smiled. He walked a few steps down the walk, turned and looked at her. But it was the way he looked at her. She had never seen such a look in a man’s eyes, something she had only cherished in books.
“May I call on you again?”
“Yes,” she said, barely containing her joy.
“And when I do, may I call you…Laura?”
“I am working at the store all day tomorrow. May I call on you after dinner?”
Laura was confused.
“May I hear you call me by name?”
“Yes…John,” she had said.
From that day on, they were Laura and John. And Laura had known a love more splendid than her best books dared promise, a happiness beyond even girlhood dreams.
“Mother, do you think any other ships came to the Vandervere’s aid last night, or maybe this morning?”
Laura turned toward the child’s voice. A littler girl, maybe seven or eight, a few steps away. Laura looked up at the mother and saw the tears in her eyes as she gazed out to sea. “Perhaps, my dear. That is my fervent prayer.”
Laura thought back to the moment John held out the tickets for their voyage. “Look Laura, I got them, for the day after we wed. No turning back now. We sail down the west coast on the SS Sonora, hop a train across Panama, then take the SS Vandervere straight up to New York. I can’t wait to get back East and show you off to my parents.” His eyes had been wider than when a miner struck gold. He’d picked her up and swung her around.
But for Laura, heading back East was all and only about John.
His family lived there; it’s where he was from. Her family, what was left of it, was back in San Francisco. She’d never met John’s parents, didn’t even know what they looked like. She realized, they’d be expecting to see him when the ship came in, the two of them, arm in arm, coming down the companionway. That’s how they would know who Laura was, the one standing beside John.
But she wouldn’t be standing beside him. She’d be standing there alone, just one of a hundred grieving women, strangers all. The sudden realization stole her strength away, and she slumped to the deck where she stood.
“Miss, Miss, you okay?”
Her dark red hair fell about her face like a veil. She recognized the voice. It was Micah.
“Did you fall, Miss? Can I help you up?”
“I’ll be alright, Micah. Thank you. Just a little dizzy.” She shifted her weight and wiped her tears on her sleeve. Out of nowhere a dog came from behind her and gently nudged her with its nose. She lifted her face to see it. Instantly, it sat down and wagged its tail.
“Crabby, you leave her be,” Micah scolded softly.
The dog was clearly a mutt, but it had the sweetest face. Muddy brown with a white stripe between its eyes that faded symmetrically on its forehead. Still sitting on deck, Laura reached up to pet its head. The dog shivered with joy at her touch. “He’s all right,” Laura said. “I love dogs.”
“He be a she,” Micah said, bending down to pet her.
“Did you say, Crabby?”
“That’s the name I give ‘er. Most the crew just calls her dumb dog. And they kick her about. Weren’t for the Captain, I expect she’d be over the side. They all hate her, ‘cept the Cap’n and me.”
“Why Crabby?” Laura asked. “She seems so sweet.”
“She be more than sweet,” said Micah. “Best friend I got on this earth. Sometimes…” He looked away. “…Crabby the only thing on this ship remind me…God do love me.”
Laura didn’t know what to say. “She’s beautiful, Micah.”
“Yes’m,” he said, looking back at her.
“But why Crabby?”
“She love to eat crabs,” he said. “Funniest sight to see, her run off with one of dem things in her mouth, legs danglin’ out da side.”
Laura smiled and tried to get up. Micah reached beneath her elbow and lifted her to her feet. “Thank you.”
“Deck’s mighty slippery at this hour, but the sun come up a little more, and it’ll dry out just fine.”
He helped her until she regained her footing. “Thank you so much.”
“You need Micah, just ask. Or tell Crabby, she always know where to find me.”
She grabbed hold of the rail and looked out to the horizon. It really was such a beautiful day, the air so fresh. No land in sight. She had no idea where they were.
She heard yelling from the front, the ship’s bow, turned. A large man stood on the forecastle deck and shouted down to several women shaking their fists. “Why?” they screamed. “You don’t know that!”
“Ladies, I won’t argue the point with you. This isn’t a democracy. You are guests aboard The Cutlass, and we’ll treat you as such. But don’t begin to imagine you can dictate to me or order me about.”
The women fell silent.
“But I do see the need to set things straight. Ladies,” he shouted. “Gather about, please. All of you. Men, gather the ladies by the stern. Micah, move those ropes to the side.”
“Alright, ladies,” he yelled like a preacher. “My name is Captain Meade. For starters, I’m truly sorry for your losses, all of you. But you’re learning what those who traverse the sea have always known. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
Instantly mothers drew their children close and covered their ears.
“…There’s no getting’ around that,” Captain Meade continued. “But it does seem Providence has paid some attention to your fates, because here you are, and here we are. The sea is vast, and the storm blew us all miles off course. Your ship, as mighty as she was, had no power and was adrift. But God saw fit to have our paths cross, and so your lives were spared. This is where you must find comfort. We had no control of our first meeting, and have no way to find each other again. One of my men had a word with your Captain before the lifeboats parted. Your Captain stated he didn’t see how the Vandervere would last till midnight.”
Gasps and cries spread throughout the deck. Laura felt nothing, emptiness.
“I’m sorry to say this, but it’s the way things are, and you must accept them. There is no going back. The Cutlass has only a crew of eleven. We were on our way back home to Wilmington, low on provisions. But you ladies and your children are welcome to share them, such as they are. If the winds allow, we could be in New York harbor in three days.”
A wave rolled the ship high. A few children fell, those by the rails took a firmer hold. Captain Meade remained steady.
“From now until then, I’ll hear no more talk of turning back. By now the Vandervere is surely lost. You must accept this. The sooner you do, the better you’ll be.”
He took a few steps forward, grabbed the rail separating the two decks, and bent forward. His face softened. “We are sorry for your losses, ladies. I do mean that.”