Benet dug through the linens on our bunked beds, and then dove, head first, into the trunk before asking for help. “Where is it?”
I dipped my quill into the inkwell threatening to topple at my elbow. “Where’s what?” I asked, knowing full well the object of his search.
I looked up from the tiny desk where, thanks to the swell of the bucking sea, my usual flowing cursive skittered like a drunken ant across the parchment. “I haven’t seen it today.” The lie spilled from my lips before the thought trekked through my mind. I clasped the edge of the table as the boat tipped back and forth, rivaling a frantic metronome, and making the single, smoking lantern sputter.
“I need it,” Benet growled, one hand on his stomach.
I firmed my mouth, swallowing a snide remark in the face of his ocean-sharpened nerves. Returning to the letter to my mother, I hoped, for the countless time, my scrawl might make her understand our sudden departure.
Meanwhile, Benet’s atypical agitation inflated, stifling the cabin. He tossed aside clothes and the trinkets we had gathered before our dash to the pier and buying passage on this western-bound vessel as those seeking my capture neared.
The boat wobbled upon another surge, and Benet thrust a shaky finger at me. “You have to know where it is.”
I clasped my pen and cocked one eyebrow, meeting his scowl and sickly-green face. “Why is that?”
“You’re…” His tone softened and his stiffen shoulders drooped. “You’re my wife. You’re supposed to keep order of these things.”
“Everything was in order before you went searching for that vile stuff.” I swept my pen’s feather-end at the disarray he’d created out of the tidy home I’d made within the squished quarters carved into the ship’s bulkhead. Meeting his eyes, I raised my other brow in a silent dare for him to continue his demands for the liquor that did nothing but worsen his mood.
Benet threw one of his shirts onto the bunk. Grumbling, he exited.
I blew out a long exhale, and guessed at his destination: the deckhands who carried their own store of mind-numbing brews. Once I’d see the effect of Benet’s concoction, I’d bent an ear or two, convincing them not to share while maintaining the faux persona of my husband’s younger brother. The deckhands and sailors seemed to understand my subtle warnings. My husband, kind as he was when not half-dipped, would drink them dry before we reached warmer waters. He’d prod and work his charms, but as I watched him trundle out and vanish behind the door, I felt certain the others would hold tight to their treasures, if only for their own survival during our two month journey.
While the wooden slats groaned and the flames flickered, I finished my letter, sealed the envelope and headed for the upper decks, bent on a breath of fresh, if rain-smeared, air. A part of me wanted to seek Benet as well, to discover if his tantrum had passed and he had found a cooler head, the one I loved.
A rickety ladder led up from the lower decks. I tugged back the long cuffs of Benet’s jacket, exposing my ink-stained fingers and found the rungs with my boots. Poking out of the hatch, rain splattered my face. A gust coursed overhead and I snagged my broad brimmed hat helping to hide my femininity beneath shadows.
“Watch it.” A scurrying sailor dashed by, nearly trampling my hands.
The ship tilted again, the angle more obtuse than evident in the hold. I hoisted myself through the hatch before being slammed against the frame.
My developing sea legs carried me to the starboard side with lurching steps while the weather dampened my shoulders. The rolling waves and sheets of rain obscured the horizon behind frothy white peaks. Sea met the darken sky of dense clouds, the two blending into one swirling throng. I cast my gaze up the masts where the canvas strained against the raging wind and men dangled from the rigging.
“You best get inside, boy.” The Captain, a reedy man with an engulfing presence appeared at my side. He shared my inspection of the crew above our heads.
“What is it?” I asked, keeping my fake tenor steady.
“Storm. A bad one.” He pointed a ropey hand at the blackest part of the sky. “She’s just starting.”
“Anything I can do?”
He peered down, his tar-dark eyes locking with mine. My breath caught in my throat as I felt his stare working beneath the grunge on my cheeks and the bulky layers obscuring my curves. “Keep yourself and your brother out of our way.”
“Yes, sir.” I glanced about, and through the bustling crew, spotted my husband by the bow. Benet had chosen a post, similar to mine, tucked between the active men rushing across the well-scrubbed deck. His broad back bent beneath the rain and both hands seized the railing. “We’ll head down-.”
A crack of lightning rode upon a booming blast of thunder. The flash and bang blossomed inside my skull. In the receding echo between my temples, I caught cries and the shriek of falling timber. The deck reared beneath me. Reaching out, I found a beam and rope, and clung for life.
Cracks and pops pulled my gaze across the deck. The mast fell in splintered halves, taking rigging and men down in a tangled mass of hemp, iron and flesh. Soggy canvas draped over the ship’s sides, the edges drowning in the waves bombarding the hull. As if stirred by the flavor, the ocean churned with vigor, rising up and over the sides, hungry for another taste.
I sought Benet through the sudden chaos but the fallen debris and hustling crew obscured my view.
“Captain!” someone shouted.
“Come on, girl,” said the Captain.
I snapped my gaze to him, my heart seizing. The Captain stood tall at my side, as if combating the storm with his will alone. Finding his focus locked upon his ship, my heart regained its beat.
Falling ropes whizzed above my head and he snatched my arm. His stride remained steady even as the sea tossed the ship.
“Wait,” I said as he took us toward the stern.
I struggled against his grip, intent on the bow, but the Captain tightened his fingers around my limb. Without pausing, he hauled me up the steep flight of steps to the wheel where his Ruddermaster labored. The Captain tossed me toward the railing and I adhered to the boards like a barnacle while the boat tried pitching me overboard.
“Give her over,” said the Captain, grasping one of the steering-wheel’s spokes.
The Ruddermaster acquiesced without argument. He backed up, flexing his once white-knuckled hands as if encouraging blood flow, and seized a nearby iron rung.
A wave crashed over the railing, wetting us all as the rain heightened into a deluge.
“We’re all going under this time,” muttered the Ruddermaster.
I glanced at him, eyes wide, and saw the fear barely restrained in his scarred face.
“Quiet,” said the Captain, his growl cutting through the thunder, “she’ll hold.”
With my legs trembling, I twined my hands in the ropes. I peered past the Captain, fighting with the wheel, and searched across the ship’s expanse. Upon the deck, men moved like sparrows, leaping for and tugging at lines as if to gain control of the now toppled rigging. Up at the bow, drenched canvas stretched over barrels and lines, as well as still and moving lumps.
My heart crawled into my throat and settled like a stone. I kept my eyes peeled for a hint of Benet’s dark mop of hair or fine features. Nothing but sail and storm looked back.
“Oh no,” said the Ruddermaster.
Following his gaze, I spotted the rising wall of water, overwhelming the port side like an avalanche. I cringed as the blow hit, stealing my feet out from under me. Gushing water filled my ears, but beneath the seas’ roar, high pitched snaps and cracks howled. I grasped my rope as brine stung my eyes, but the weight of the ship, once a secure anchor on the other side, disappeared.
Water swirled around me, frosty depths soaking my clothes and carrying me down toward a black abyss. My lungs burned and I released the useless cords. Clawing and kicking, I struggled my way toward what my instincts screamed would be the surface.
Sea and air mixed together as I emerged, slapping water drowned my ears. I gasped and flung my arms, flailing about for anything solid to keep from going back under. The fathoms hauled at my clothes, coaxing me below the surface with demanding fingers.
A hand found my collar and dragged me up and through the froth. A wooden plank slid into my hands and I dug my nails into the damp wood, chest heaving with desperate inhales.
“Hold on,” said a voice I didn’t bother identifying.
I lay my cheek on the wood, clenched my sea-stung eyes closed, and bobbed like the rest of the flotsam, beneath the storm’s wrath.
Not until the tempest passed and we washed up upon the bleached shore of a dot-sized island, did my thoughts renew their churn. Plopped upon the wet sand, I stared at the unblemished horizon stretching toward the remains of the dark clouds disappearing over the Earth’s curve.
I felt the surviving crew glancing my way. The Captain, hovering at my back, grunted and they scurried, starting construction on shelter, gathering debris or perhaps collecting food. I didn’t pay them or the instructions the Captain had given, enough attention to be sure. Instead, I kept my gaze on the water, hoping for the sea to give up one more.
The froth bubbled and hissed upon the beach, reminding me of our last argument over that damn bottle. Benet’s scowl glared back in each of the aquamarine flecks. The brightening sky surrounded me, as tightly as our lost quarters.
“Come along,” said the Captain.
He squatted beside me, eyes stern and locked in mine. His salt-flecked features softened a hairs breath. “Wishing doesn’t bring anyone back.”
I dropped my head and stared at my damp breeches and blouse, revealing my gender with clinging fabric. “What happens now?” I asked, my voice a whisper.
“We get out of the sun.” Standing, the Captain extended his hand. “Then we take another step.”
I stared at his calloused fingers and after counting the grooves, took his palm. He hefted me off the sand with ease, and turned me from the waters.
Absorbing the palm-tree mound blossoming from the island’s center, I squared my shoulders. Grief had no place on somewhere so small. There would be time, I was certain, for it later.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked, lifting my chin.
The Captain nodded and started toward the men harvesting palm fronds. “This way.”
I followed his heavy tread. My legs wobbled, compensating for a non-existent sway as my feet sunk into the dry sand, one step digging in after the next.