"I want to get out of this cabin," she said. "I'm dying for fresh air."
The captain went up first, while his wife put on her cloak and laced her boots. She passed through the wardroom to the hatch, humming to herself, curious to see how the ship would look now, how the sea would look, as they skimmed across it. The bounding main, she thought. As she stepped onto the deck, a blast of frigid air blocked her so forcefully she stumbled back, clinging to the ladder rail. Her husband strode towards the mainmast, in conversation with the mate, who gesticulated at something going on in the bow. A wet, white mist, mingling in the sails, obscured her view. She pulled her hood in close, took a few steps from the hatch and there it was, the sight she had long imagined - at once she lamented the paucity of her imagination - the sea. Slate blue peaks studded with white foamy caps, line after line, each wave preceded by another and every one followed by another, as wide as the world was wide, and above it the sky, which was white, flat and cold, the sun a brighter patch hovering in the distance. There was no visible horizon. She turned to face the bow and there she saw a different sky, the one that worried her husband, a rolling gray above and black below with a band of sickish yellow in between. She couldn't tell how far off it was, but sky and sea appeared all one, moving rapidly, like a wall of lead, towards the ship.
She breathed in the chilly, salt-laden air, gazing up at the sailors who were occupied in shortening sail. When she looked back at the deck, her eyes were drawn to a man crouched behind the main hatch, his hands resting on his thighs, his face turned up to her, his eyes narrowed, as if trying to draw a bead on a target. His beard and hair were all black and wild, as were his eyes. In a sudden grimace, he bared a line of fierce white teeth. The captain's wife stepped back, unnerved, conscious of an acceleration in her heart rate and a cautionary weakness in her knees. She looked aft, where the helmsman gripped the wheel, his attention fixed on the binnacle. The mist obscured his face. The sea was scarcely visible but made its disposition known; as the hull shifted, the starboard side dropped down and a mass of water rose up clubbing the side. A tremor of anxiety rifled her neck and she felt her upper teeth pressing into her lower lip. There was a new sound, a chugging, pulsing sound, rhythmical and increasing in volume, but she couldn't tell what direction it came from. Was it below deck, or in the dark water below that?
She returned to the aft ladder, pausing to look toward the bow in hopes of seeing her husband. Another sea shipped over the deck, washing so forcefully across the planks that no sooner had she turned to see it then she was standing ankle deep in sea-water. The helmsman, knocked off his feet, scrambled back to his post without comment.
What was that sound? Surely it was coming from the sea. Or was it the sky?
A man high in the rigging shouted. A sailor on deck was sprinting, as best he could, toward the mate, who was bent over near the mainmast. Another shout went up in the rigging. "Sail-o," she heard. "Look to your stern."
The mate leaped away from the man who was screaming, and as he too attempted to run along the tilting deck, he called out "Hard down your wheel." Again she turned to see the helmsman who whirled the wheel with all his strength. Following his astounded eyes she saw what he saw, and as she gasped at the sight, she heard the helmsman's strangled cry, "She's on top of us."
First it was the bowsprit, parting the mist, carried high on the running sea and aimed directly at the port quarter, and then, far above, the enormous reefed yards that seemed to reach out like arms to gather in everything in their path. Screams from the men rent the air, and the thrumming rose to a fever pitch. The great bow, now visible, dived into the waves between, the yards came about, angling toward the birg's stern. The captain's wife, frozen on the deck, had a moment in which hope and fear collided and her overtaxed brain, solving at last the mystery of the rhythmical droning, tossed out the useless information that the oncoming vessel was a ship-rigged steamer. Up came the bowsprit again, well above the main deck, the bow rising nearly vertical behind it, so it appeared the steamer intended to leap over this unexpected obstacle, another ship. Then it paused, and for an excruciating moment in which no one spoke and all were suspended in a soundless void, it was as if the universe itself drew in and held a startled breath. In the next, as the sea gathering beneath the steamer's hull reached its peak and commenced its inevitable decline, the bow came surging forward and down, folding the bulwarks like pasteboard, shattering the wardroom skylight, and with a deafening roar, still driving mercilessly forward, rammed the bow sprit up to the stem against the mainmast of the helpless brig.
Excerpted from The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin. Copyright © 2014 by Valerie Martin. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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