The Edge of the World
The sea, opaque as ignorance, swallows the fires we cast upon it. The last packet of paper is pulled from my hands to meet a torch and then the quenching water. A black shape approaches, looming over our craft, blocking out the stars that have guided us. A faint light appears and a voice is heard, "Ahoy the boat. Of what ship are you?"
"The Farragut," is the reply from one of our number.
We hear "A woman. There's a woman on the boat." Another voice shouts, "Row to our starboard." We do. A ladder is dropped, and we climb, leaving my life behind.
We're on the deck of the ship, a three-master, a merchantman, and all around us are men wearing the rough clothing and hard looks of sailors. One man, wider and taller than the others, and with a full dark beard, steps forward. "Are you well, ladies?" He looks at the three smaller forms standing on his deck. "And your children? Where did you all come from? The Farragut, you say? I know that ship; didn't know it was in these waters."
The tallest of us answers. "We are fine, all healthy, but tired and hungry. We have rowed all day since our lookout sighted your sails."
The man, the Captain, I decide, makes an awkward bow. "My apologies, ma'am. We have only plain provisions, but they are yours. Please follow me below." Before leading us through the knot of staring sailors, he orders, "Cut loose the boat." So is severed our connection with the past three years.
We have eaten and are crowded into the small space of the captain's quarters. The Captain and his two officers are standing to allow us the use of the chairs, stool, and bed. Two of the children sit on a blanket on the floor; the third, a girl of only four years, sleeps in her mother's lap, lulled by the gentle rocking of the sea. We have introduced ourselves, four women, three of us mothers, and it is time to tell our story.
I know this is my task, and I begin:
WE SET SAIL from San Francisco. Our ship was the U.S. Farragut, plying the Oriental route for the Stanfield Brothers. The Farragut was carrying manufactured goods to trade for raw silk. It also carried twelve passengers, these women, their husbands and children, and myself. Each family had a different reason for the trip, depending on the husband's occupation.
>From the start, the journey was a rough one, with the Captain of the Farragut complaining of high seas. Most of the passengers were sick and unable to find relief for this malady, whether on deck or below. Two weeks out from San Francisco, we encountered a storm. Illness and fear combining, all but one of us took to the beds in our cabins. The groaning of the ship and the roaring of the wind and sea deafened us to each other's cries and retching.
Long after any of us cared to live, one sound overcame the others. The ship lurched and dipped farther to port than it had ever done. It seemed impossible that it would right itself, but it did, only to roll just as far to the starboard. As this deadly seesawing continued, one person moved from cabin to cabin and roused each of us from our terror. "To the deck," a voice shouted in my ear, as to the others, and we staggered up the wooden steps, each clutching one thing dear to us, only to enter a world black with rain and confusion. A man shouted above the wind that the mainmast had fallen. That was the wreckage of wood and rope we were climbing through and over. The Captain appeared and yelled to the husbands, "We're lowering the longboat. There's room for the women and children. One man can go to row. Better if it's a sailor." Hands pushed us to the rail of the ship. When the ship dipped to that side, I was falling, to land, not in the ocean, but on something harder and less yielding.
Each of us safely made that ungentle descent and, joined by a sailor who leaped into our midst, we were lost to the waves and wind, the ship Farragut but a memory, as were the Captain, the sailors, and the women's husbands. Expecting to die, we lived, our small craft taking us safely to an island, placed propitiously in our path. Since then, we have lived on that island, each of us contributing to our survival whatever skills we have. This morning, the boy, seeing your sails, alerted us to the possibility of rescue, and, taking nothing with us, we rowed toward your vessel, trusting to Providence that you would see us.
As you did.
Having docked in Hawaii, we bid the kind Captain goodbye and are welcomed by the Governor. What the Governor has to tell us is this. The Farragut, the ship from which we were cast in a desperate attempt to save our lives, did not sink. The Governor had newly arrived in the Islands when the Farragut limped into port with a tale of loss, how the women and children had been placed in a longboat during the storm, how they could not be found when the winds and rain had ceased and dawn had come at last, how the ship, still taking on water even after repairs, had given up the search even over the objections of the husbands, the fathers, of those lost. He says that our survival is a miracle and asks if any of us has kept a journal or written letters; how interesting such records would be.
One of us says, "No, we have no papers, nothing to tell of our island, of how we lived."
The Governor gives us three small houses near a beach of sand like white crystal. He tells us word of our rescue will be sent to the States on a swift packet. Outside the houses, we find fruits and vegetables, which we believe to be a gift from the Polynesian people, and a delegation of the Governor's wife and other wives of government officials. These women present us with new clothing, as our decent clothes are tattered, although we had saved them while living on the island. The Governor's lady is as concerned for our souls as for our attire. She tells us there are many missionaries on the island and that she will send one to see to our spiritual well-being. One of our number asks that we be allowed to choose our own minister. When the government wives have left, this woman sends her son, at ten the oldest of the children, to fetch a missionary for us. "Choose the most foolish one you find."
Leaving our new clothing in the houses for safe-keeping, we set up camp on the beach. We find a piece of old sail canvas, and we put that up on poles we cut. It forms a sunshade almost as good as those we built with palm fronds on our island. One of us starts a fire, and we bring a big pot out of one of the houses. The woman who has sent her son for the preacher makes a fishing pole and starts fishing in the surf. The rest of us fill the pot with fresh water and begin doing various chores, those long-assigned due to talent or inclination.
I begin chopping vegetables and throwing them into the pot. When the fisherwoman returns, she carries three large fish. She takes from my hand our knife, its blade scratched and nicked, but kept sharp through her diligent attention. With this knife, she guts and cleans the fish and throws the pieces into the pot to make a stew.
As she finishes this task, her son halloos. He is waving from the path that leads from the town to this beach. With him is a tall fat man in a dark suit too small for his girth. The man is sweating from under the brim of a dusty black hat. The boy leads the preacher to his mother and stands nearby, grinning.
The preacher removes his hat and wipes a hand across his forehead. He introduces himself and immediately follows the introduction with questions. He wants to know why we are working and cooking on the beach like "natives." Why are we not in the houses? The woman wipes the fish scales off her hand with a small cloth I hand her. She says that we have grown unused to houses.
The preacher says that the women will soon be back in the care of their husbands. Are we not happy about this? The woman replies that all are happy to learn that the ship did not sink and that their husbands live.
He then asks how four women and three children managed to stay alive on an uncivilized island for three years. Did we not have the help of a sailor? And where is that sailor now? The woman looks at the ocean and says that the sailor died within days of our landing on the island, and we survived by doing what had to be done.
The preacher asks, "How did the sailor die?"
"He made a mistake." She hands me our knife so I can finish chopping the vegetables, and I remember whose knife this was.
The preacher talks about God and how much we owe Him for our rescue and offers to lead us in prayer. The woman says that, if there was a rescue, it was because her son has sharp eyes and because we rowed hard. She says that the children are hungry and it is time that they are fed. Does he wish to join us? The preacher seems to remember that his own dinner is waiting and that it will be more appealing than fish stew.
We continue to fish and gather, living on the beach, explaining little, as the government wives and even the preacher visit less and less often and finally stop coming. The Polynesians remain shy of us, but they nightly leave food near our shelter and smile at us from their end of the beach.
The boy runs into our camp to tell us. A ship is entering the harbor, and the Polynesians have paddled out to meet it. One who speaks English has told the boy that "the husbands" are onboard. When a crowd arrives from the port, we women are dressed, for the first time, in our new clothing. The husbands, looking much as they did three years before, are at the front of the crowd. There are hugs and some crying. The husband of the fisherwoman is the last to recognize his wife. He approaches slowly, and they embrace. She indicates their son, and man and boy shake hands.
I watch. I've no husband or other relative to greet. I remember a baby born in the sixth month on our island, the child of a dead father.
Each family sleeps the night in one of the houses. With the dawn, they go to the port to row back to the ship, which will return them to San Francisco. Each woman, save one, has asked me to return, "a member of the family, not a servant," but I have decided to stay in Hawaii. I do not go to the port, since I can't bear another farewell or one more hug from children I've helped raise.
The sun rises above the glass ocean; the sails of a tall ship move toward the horizon. I feel a hand on my shoulder, the hand of my friend, the fisherwoman. I take that hand without turning.
"Your son?" I ask.
"With his father."
The sails disappear, falling off the edge of our world.
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The sails disappear, falling off the edge of our world.
Return to The Bard's Corner