The captain's wife saw none of this. With the first breach of the bulwarks she was knocked off her feet and hurled face down onto the deck, where, like a pin before a ball in a ten-pin alley, she was summarily rolled into the scuppers. She landed on her back with her left leg twisted beneath her. Above all the noise, the shouts of the officers, the shriek of steel rending wood, the roar of the steamer's engine, she heard the pop of her ankle as the tendons gave and the small bone cracked. She lifted herself on one elbow but fell back, covering her eyes with her hands, for she saw that the main mast was tilted and sailors were sliding off the yards into the sea like turkeys in a morning mist. Why did she think of turkeys? She had seen them once, just at dawn, raining from the maple trees on the lawn outside her bedroom window, awkward and calamitous, complaining in their harsh, croaking voices.
The captain, believing his wife to be still in the cabin, made his way to the stern shouting orders as he went. He clambered across the wreckage of crates, casks, shards of broken glass, lumber, rope. Above him he could hear the panicked sailors on the steamer deck, but he couldn't see them. He pushed his way past what he recognized as a section of the deckhouse and his heart misgave him, but then he spotted something blue flapping in the scuppers. It was his wife's woolen cloak. He called her name and she cried out for his aid. In a moment he was kneeling beside her, pulling her into his arms, pressing her cheek to his breast. "My ankle is broken," she said. "I don't think I can stand on it." The captain rose, drawing her with him. "Lean on me," he said. "We've got to get you in one of the boats."
From the forecastle, men swarmed onto the deck, rushing this way and that in response to orders from the officers. Not many minutes had passed since the call of "Sail-ho," but time stretched now with an arbitrary elasticity - there seemed to be a great deal of it - and it was with a sense of agonized relief that every ear greeted the cessation of the steamer engine's monotonous drone. Again an eerie silence came upon the sea. The steamer had gouged the Early Dawn's hull down to the waterline and she was taking on water above and below. As the sea rose and fell, both ships were pushed and pulled, deeper and deeper in a fatal embrace from which there was no escape.
Just that moment of silence, harshly punctuated by the mate shouting the order to abandon the ship, and then the men were scurrying, hauling water kegs and sacks of pilot bread to the ship's boats, making harried trips back to the forecastle to grab a pipe, a loved one's picture, a good luck charm. The first boat released from the cradle swung outboard on its davits, as the ship shuddered and the deck shifted. The captain's wife, leaning on her husband's arm and hobbling toward the stern, took heart at the practiced industry around her. The panic of the collision was over and now the business of the sailor tribe, whose god was the sea, was to accept the verdict of their deity and prepare their ship for sacrifice. "There are enough boats for us all," her husband reassured her. "You'll be on the first one."
"I want to stay with you," she protested.
"That's not possible, darling."
Determined to plead her case, she looked up at him and their eyes met. His confidence - in himself, in his command, in his crew, in her - banished her fear and buoyed her up so resolutely that she gave up her suit. "I know," she said.
Two sailors steadying the boat and handing down oars to two others standing in the bow and stern hailed their approach. "This way for your Missus, Sir. All comforts provided," one said boldly, but in a manner so cheerful amidst the wreckage of all their hopes, that the captain's wife laughed and her husband smiled. As she made ready to be handed into the boat, she comforted herself with the thought that her darling son was safe at home.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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