From above, on the steamer deck, the shouts of the men escalated, followed abruptly by the ominous, distinctive sound, low and threatening at first, like a rumble from the earth's core, then rising in pitch: the outraged complaint of a wounded tree tearing itself apart. All eyes turned to the mainmast, which was slowly folding over the steamer, the yards cracking like sticks as they came down on the deck below. The captain's wife turned to her husband, but as she did the sky tilted upwards, the deck rose up beneath her feet, the boat she was poised to enter shifted toward the sea, and a flood of water rushed in upon her, knocking her to her knees. She heard her husband call her name, but she couldn't see him, she couldn't see anything. The cold water lifted her up, up, over the bulwarks and then dashed her down with such force that her cloak was torn from her shoulders and her legs flew up before her as if she had been dropped from a tower.
She struggled, holding her breath and pulling her limbs into her body, but two forces were ranged against her - the ever-downward pressure of gravity and the relentless pull of the deep. As she was carried down she had no conscious thoughts, only her visceral mind fought for life. She opened her eyes, looking for light, but there was only cold and soundless darkness.
The storm advanced upon the shipwreck, first caressing it with a delicate spray, a tentative swell, a distant thunderclap. The sailors in the boat, now suspended at an angle, the bow lower than the stern, clung to the manropes for dear life. The captain had been washed into the sea with his wife, and two sailors on the deck were occupied cutting life rings from the taffrail and throwing them over the lee side. Others readied a second boat, their eyes wildly scanning the water's surface for any sign of their lost commander. "He's there," cried the mate, pointing to the chop beneath the broken mast, which grappled the two ships together like a claw. And it was true; the captain had surfaced. He turned round in place, desperate to find his wife. "Do you see her?" he shouted to the men gathered above. A well-aimed preserver hit the water just beyond him, but he ignored it. "Save yourself, man," the mate called back. But the captain, a skillful swimmer, continued treading water, turning in place, straining to see through the rain and the rising sea. "She's there," he cried, striking out toward the bow. He made out something there, something darker than the sea.
The mate hung over the rail, thinking Don't be a fool, but then he too spotted the dark thing floating and the captain approaching it, cutting through the water with powerful strokes. He had reached it, he grasped it, and a cry escaped him as he gathered it into his arms. It was his wife's blue cloak.
Again he treaded, turning in place. She must be near. Another life ring flopped into the sea close to the steamer's hull. In desperation, the captain dove beneath the surface. She must be there, between the two ships. He could see nothing. It was futile, but how was he to give up? He dove again, swimming with frog-like strokes beneath the surface.
On the Early Dawn, the sailors in the boat had succeeded in cutting through the tackle and one cried out "she's going!" as the small craft plummeted into the waves. The captain, rising up to take a breath, felt a blow across his shoulders that knocked the remaining air out of his lungs and pushed him cruelly back down. When he tried to rise again, something solid blocked his way. There was no air left in his lungs; he could feel his eyes bulging with the effort not to breathe. He sensed a light behind him and turned toward it. Then, with what terror and sadness he understood that he was looking down, that it was his wife, her pale face raised to his, her hair streaming like spilled ink over her shoulders, her arms opened wide, rising toward him from the depths, coming to meet him, to take him with her, having preceded him, only moments before, entirely out of this life.
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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