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2009 NOVEL OF PROMISE AWARD WINNER
Cassandra Krivy Hirsch's
these perils attending the fisheries! These it is which cause the heart
of the young maiden or wife to quake with fear every time her lover
or husband leaves port.
- George Procter,
The Fishermen's Memorial and Record Book, 1873
June 20, 1855
There is something about going to the milliner that offers
renewal. True, it is merely a hat to keep the sun off my brow,
nose, and cheeks, though I do have freckles that would belie my ever
wearing a hat at all. Yet, each early summer I go to Mrs.
Laughlin's Millinery to commission a new hat for the season, I am a
girl all over again, tickled by the choices of ribbons and flowers that
will adorn my hat. There are also birds and feathers, things Mrs.
Laughlin imports from exotic places. I have chosen this
particular milliner since being wed to James, for she is an older woman
who always has a little yarn spinning in her head as she takes the
things from me that I have chosen. She weaves the yarn around the
picture of the hat I will wear when she has completed it and when I
return for the hat, she will have written it on a little piece of
parchment she rolls and ties with the same ribbon she uses for the
hat. It is most delightful.
I will return to her shop three days hence. My hat is to be straw
colored, with a wide brim, wrapped with a petal green ribbon and a
little posy of forget-me-nots at the side. James will be as
pleased as I, of this I am certain.
June 21, 1855
I have told Agatha not to wait so long before she hangs out the linens,
for they grow sour-smelling. The poor girl tucked her head down
and whispered an apology, then hurried away. I do not know if she
will last, for she is very sensitive to the slightest censure.
June 23, 1855
Oh, the new hat is lovely! And the tale Mrs. Laughlin wrote and
tucked into the inside band is of a girl in a meadow who runs and runs,
her hair flying behind her, until she reaches the end of it and then
sits at its edge to weave a garland of all the flowers in the meadow
until she has used up all but one of each blossom, leaving the meadow
bare, a meadow she once loved and wished were her very own. It is
a sad seeming tale and I wonder how it occurred to her, how any of
these tales occurs to a woman who fashions hats for ladies, and why she
might think them suited to me and my rather more cheerful tastes.
I have heard Susannah Terry whisper that Mrs. Laughlin comes from a
long line of witches, all of them burned or drowned when such was done.
Of course, anything Susannah says is hardly more than
gossip and I do like Mrs. Laughlin's stories. Once, for an autumn
hat of mine, she dreamed up a yarn that left me quite melancholy.
It was about a boy who loved to fish off the jetty until one day a
mermaid beckoned him into the water. He followed, leaving his fishing
line and trawl behind. One day, a year later, he was caught in
his very own net and could not escape until the mermaid came for
him. This happened every year to the boy, who now more resembled
a fish, who now longed for the warm, dry rocks on which he had sat,
whose family had long since despaired of finding him.
Dear me, when I think of how forlorn these tales are, I wonder if Mrs.
Laughlin herself tends toward melancholy when she is alone. She
seems jovial, yet she is a widow, and has been for nearly twenty
years. Perhaps she was a woman who wished for more than she
possessed and this is the place from which such sad tales come. I
say this not with certainty, but with some knowledge of myself, for I
have on occasion found myself wanting more than what I have.
Could it be that this kindly milliner understands my longings?
I do hope I am not as knowable as that.
June 27, 1855
As I looked from the cupola earlier today, James' flag, a proud and
lovely blue, sagged at half-mast as they drifted into harbor. I
hurried down and out of the house, clasping young James tightly to me,
and I felt the dread pool in my chest as Mr. Talbot hitched up the
ponies to the trap so that we might get to the harbor in better time.
And indeed, when my beloved docked, I was there waiting with our boy to
learn that he had lost two fishermen. One thing I have tried to tell
James is that even as he tried and could not rescue his men, he must
not blame himself. He would not hear this, of course, for he is
the captain and feels he ought to have prevented the men rowing out in
the dory in poor conditions. James was patching a hole in his
mainsail, he said, and did not know the two men went out. He
would not have allowed it. His first mate was, along with the rest of
the crew, below deck, though it would later be revealed that they only
He noticed after they made harbor and docked that one of
the three demijohns of rum he had stowed in the hold of the vessel was
missing. He inquired of all his men, even taking a smell of their
breath. It was then one of them spoke up. That man, James
told me, will be scorned and perhaps tormented by his shipmates.
An able sailor and fisherman, he would like to keep this first mate,
knowing the man may suffer worse than ridicule for betraying even a
Foolish though men can be in tolerable and expected ways, I do not know
how any man can watch as his mate endangers himself and another.
If it were me, I would have told my captain and put an end to the
tomfoolery before it began. I said as much to James who offered
me a sorrowful smile and confided that while it is an admirable quality
in a woman to want to avoid trouble, it is in the nature of men to
invite it and that the enjoyment of it is often in the conquering,
depending upon the circumstance. Of course, I argued that to
invite such trouble is one thing, to be conquered by it is quite
another and held fast to my notion, to which he replied, putting an end
to the conversation, that while my notions are noble, they would not
win me a place on his vessel.
The men have not been recovered, yet their souls must be put to
rest. It has been decided by those they leave behind that a
burial service take place two days hence. Mr. John Caldwell was
38 years of age and leaves an elderly mother. Mr. Ike Matthias, a
younger man of 29, leaves a wife and three small children, all under
the age of ten. I will take them foodstuffs and make it known to
all who would care that these families will need assistance. I have
already approached the First Congregational Church and hope to see good
works performed as early as tomorrow. I plan to make a visit then
July 11, 1855
For the past fortnight James has been spending far too much time in his
study and young James and I feel it acutely. When I asked him
last night after supper as I took a cordial and he a brandy in the
parlor if he would join us for a stroll into town this morning, he was
very distracted, reading the Gloucester shipping news. At first he
said, ‘of course, my darling.' Yet, this morning when I cheerfully told
him that we were delighted he would be coming along, he looked at me as
if I had heard quite the opposite from his lips only the night before,
then he begged to be excused! I had little choice and turned toward
Young James sitting at the breakfast table with an eager smile that
fell into his porridge the moment he caught my frown.
When his father is not working so diligently, his temperament is very
pleasing. James makes routine preparations for a voyage, attends
to his paperwork in the necessary minding of his father's estate, which
keeps our family robust and is added to with a yearly allowance from
Mother and Father; these tasks make up much of my good husband's week
and I have adjusted to this aspect, this part of him that can turn
easily away from a more leisurely life with his wife and son. I do
admire his hard-working ethic. Yet, now that James seems to be even
more deeply preoccupied, he has grown noticeably distant, delivering
thoughts he can scarcely recall after uttering them. At times
like this morning when he forgot the easy promise he had made to us the
evening before, it is as if he does not know me.
July 13, 1855
Agatha has burned a hole in my best linen tablecloth. She was
near weeping when she told me, afraid I would release her from her
position. It is true, I loved that Irish linen, sent as a wedding
gift from the Reynolds's, dear friends of Mother's and Father's. Oh,
bother. It is only a piece of cloth. Agatha need not have wept
over it, though I suppose I have been short-tempered more recently, no
doubt due to James' preoccupation.
July 16, 1855
I am, I must admit here, a scowling, jealous girl. How can one be
envious of the ocean? After years of marveling at its powers, I
have come to understand that it can soothe and excite a man, vex and
beguile him. And yet, a sailor possesses a heart, so must he not also
desire a woman to give him what the sea cannot possibly? For,
though it sings and whispers, its embrace is never as warm as that of a
wife. One might say it is deadly. This brings me back to my
fits of unease, though it seems foolish now to see it written here.
Mother would recoil at the sight of me. Did I not marry this man
as much for his love of the open waters as for his long understood love
for me, mine for him, and for that heart of his that holds mine?
August 23, 1855
I am worried for my linens! Agatha has injured yet another, this
one only muslin dyed a lovely pale blue, but one I chose for my own
household. My supply dwindles as she destroys each one with her
efforts. I will have to do the ironing myself for now or tutor her
further. She is becoming a good and able maid in all other facets
of housekeeping, but this is the one task she needs to study.
Honestly, I do not feel the need for her to do as much as she does.
Other girls have come and gone over the preceding five years and have
found I have given them too few tasks, at last leaving my employ for
busier households. Mother would have me bring in a laundress as
she has, but Agatha and I seem to be able to manage. Of course,
as Mother continues to push I continue to push back.
August 24, 1855
When James is attentive to me in the dark of our room, with our son
soundly sleeping and Agatha gone home for the day, I forget all my
grievances. I am melted like candle wax when he turns to me in
our bed and puts his warm mouth over mine, the lingering flavor of
cherry tobacco still present so that I, too, can taste it.
Sometimes I feel like a little girl in his large hands, and when he
embraces me in the quiet of our bedroom, his hunger is
overwhelming. It worries me that I cannot always match it,
although I have tried to approach him at times, to begin things, and he
refuses me. It is always at his urging that we come together and if I
am not of a mind to return his ardor, it is my will to please him that
urges me forward. His lovingness afterward is the most wondrous thing
as he holds my head against his chest, the fingers of one hand moving
through my hair, his other hand tracing small patterns on my back and
shoulders. Before long, I will want to have him all over again and he
will want the same. We have hoped for another child to join Young
James and have thus far not been rewarded. Perhaps our boy is to
be our only blessing after all.
Perhaps, too, I ought to learn from Mrs. Laughlin's little tales and
not want so very much.
August 29, 1855
In the mercantile today, I stopped to speak with Susannah Terry.
I know I have said it here, but she is a haughty thing. I do not
understand why she must think herself somehow better than other women
of her station. It prompts the question, has her husband, the
good Captain Joshua Terry, ever tried to bring her down a peg? I have
the urge to ask him, but of course, will check that before it betrays
me. Of course, there is no pretense about him, which makes me
wonder if he admires it in his wife over whom pretense rains like an
overstuffed cloud. James respects Captain Terry for his hard work, though
when they are both going out for their catch, and I spy them through
the telescope from the cupola, it appears they are racing.
Perhaps they are, but it must be a good-natured rivalry.
I feel a certain envy of men who can express such things in this very
simple way. For women, it is supposition and suspicion, doubt and
jealousies that lead only to pettiness on either part before an
understanding is reached. Often enough, it may not be reached at all.
So, when I spoke with Susannah, her words amounted to little more than
the crowing she must do about her husband's most recent catch, his
successes of late, and no well-wishing for me. Of course, this
presents a further truth I cannot ignore, which is that her husband
discusses in detail his days at sea with her, while James is most
reticent on the subject. She had, of course, heard of James
losing two of his crew and was quick to point out that, while it is a
tragedy, her husband has thankfully not suffered such a loss.
August 31, 1855
James is out today setting and bringing in mackerel trawls. It is
only for a day and a night, which has been his habit in the summer
season, but for his longer trips to the Banks and the Isle of
Shoals. Of late, when he is home, he spends more time in his
study than with us. I have long felt his absence when he is at
sea, not enjoying the sounds of our home when he is not about.
Yet, it is an entirely foreign thing when he professes a need to be
alone in his study rather than spend time with his family. For, I
hear his footfalls above my head and they seem as removed from me as if
he were not home at all.
It is my habit to watch James from the cupola as he sets sail.
Young James was still abed early this morning as I made my way up the
cupola steps to catch a glimpse of his father's stately vessel, named
for me. Perhaps my attention was on the final step that would offer
that magnificent view of our village, for it was as I took the first
few steps with the speed and spring of the girl I am no longer, that I
caught my dress on a loose peg jutting from one of the steps. My knee
is badly bruised and has swollen to a frightful mound. Mr. Talbot
has already nailed the offending peg in place and I have applied a
poultice to soothe it.
In the faintest evening breeze, I sit here now on the porch with a cup
of tea, the pain in my knee quite persistent. I will be moving with
great care from now on. Overhead, the leaves on the Linden shake on
their branches as if to reprimand me for my foolish haste this morning.
September 18, 1855
James is readying for another voyage, this time to Georges Banks.
It is his annual late summer trip to those fertile southern
waters. He expressed his relief that his is a stellar crew, his
two lost fishermen now replaced. One would think I had grown quite accomplished at being
the well-wishing wife, waving from the cupola as I stand stalwart,
denying any grim imaginings. For, much as I know he has a muscled
crew and he is a top-notch captain, the fisheries are not the place for
any man who has a wife and child waiting at home, her heart perched
between dread and hope.
September 20, 1855
Young James cried out in his sleep and I have tried all I can to soothe
him, yet he clings so. The only thing to do is relent. Now my son
and Jack, too, who fidgets, like the pup he is, sleep in my bed.
It is a comfort to me to feel my boy's warmth, though I cannot rest now
with so much rustling of boy and dog. Jack's tiny up-thrust ears point
forward when he thinks he hears a stirring at the windows. It is
only the wind, strong this night.
And now with my son sleeping deeply beside me, the pup nosing around at
my feet as he looks for his own place to settle, and the window pane
quivering, I fear it may be light before my eyes close. The lark will
have gotten more rest than I.
September 22, 1855
When I woke this morning, there was a chill and I knew that this might
be one of the few remaining days left when a shawl for me and a light
coat for my boy are not needed, I knew it would be best not to remain
Accordingly, I asked Mr. Talbot to hitch up the horses so that I might
take the boy with me to the Bedfords' mercantile on High Street and to
tea at Mrs. Spencer's shop.
There was much bustle in town today, with everyone
doing their usual shopping, though it did seem as if there were more
milling about than usual. Once inside the mercantile, I was greeted
warmly by Mrs. Bedford who was busy setting out containers of spice on
a shelf. She is a dear lady and, with Mr. Bedford, has raised a family
in Rockport, coming over from England many years before when Rockport
was called Sandy Bay.
I returned the greeting and she fussed a bit over young James as I
looked about the store for nothing in particular, for I had only been
looking to get out of the house as a diversion. On occasion, when I
stop in, in hopes something will catch my fancy, I have made an
impulsive purchase. And indeed, today my eye was drawn to a
corner near the counter. There was a tiny shelf with small jars of
paintbrushes with shiny red handles, their blond bristles fine and
smooth, and stacks of canvas beside them.
I took up my son, who had begun to pull at my arms now that Mrs.
Bedford's attention had wandered back to her task, and brought him to
the display. I knew I would like to have it, even for a time when
young James was older, and thought no harm would be done in encouraging
him to take up the diversion. I, too, would attempt it. I
also purchased some flour for biscuits, a book for Father, and another
notebook for me so that I am prepared when the one that James gave me,
and in which I now write, has no room for my thoughts. Reasoning
that the ink I have at home is dwindling, I purchased a bottle of
walnut ink and a new quill.
On our way out of the shop I heard the voice of Susannah Terry and
looked around to find her about to leave the store at the same time,
having just tallied and paid for her things. Curious that I had not
spied her before, though it seemed she was chatting with Mr. Bedford
further back behind a shelf of grains. She asked that I wait for
her and I agreed, reasoning that a moment in conversation would do no
harm. We walked out onto the street together, my parcel in one
hand, my son's small fist clasped in my other and I steeled myself.
“Is your husband out?" She asked and I told her indeed he was, that he
would be home in two days.
“Well," she said, as if she were a young girl giving me a
delicious secret and I her bosom friend."I have heard from some of the
women in town that a storm is to pass through these parts."
"Susannah," I said, keeping to my more even nature, though I wanted to
shake her for her thoughtless remark. "There is no harbinger of ill
weather." Indeed, earlier this morning I had stood before my
garden appreciating its startling vibrancy, for my hydrangeas are in
joyful, lingering bloom all around the sides of the house and in front,
and my rose bushes are still as robust as they were all summer long.
Susannah pursed her lips, considering, and tilted up her yellow
bonneted head, not enjoying the reproach of a clear sky. I, too,
looked up at the brilliant sun, but by then she had bent to tickle my
boy's chin and he tucked his face shyly to his chest.
“Perhaps not, Marianne, but you and I know that the seas can change at
will and we have no say in the matter."
That was quite enough for me."Susannah, do try to think of something
more constructive to do than to deliver harsh reports."
Clutching my son's hand perhaps a little too firmly so that he
whimpered and I bent instead to lift him, I told her good day and made
toward Mr. Talbot, who must have noted my disposition. He wasted no
time in conveying us home. In my fury, I had forgotten my intention to
stop at Mrs. Spencer's shop for tea.
It continues to astonish me that Susannah Terry has nothing better to
do than burden others with her gloomy predictions. I spent a good
portion of the rest of the day telling myself that I ought not to be
troubled any further.
September 26, 1855
We are forced indoors and the waves now crash over the jetty. I can see
them from the cupola and, if I squeeze my eyes almost closed, the faint
outlines of incoming vessels are just visible. James will arrive
tomorrow and as it is almost suppertime and Agatha is stirring up some
peculiar stew, I ought to go and supervise before she scalds the pot.
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