My mother gave me the middle name of Jonah—hoping, she told me, that the strength of sailors’ superstitions might prevent me going to sea. She begrudged my father’s lengthy absences, and wished her son to stay to shore. Needless to say, my father was mightily displeased when his merchantman returned to port, to be greeted by a Jonah in his own home. He would growl at her that if she were going to take the Good Book in order, she could at least have started elsewhere than Obadiah—though by the time I was hearing the complaint it had become a rote resentment and lost some of what I imagine was its original vehemence. My mother (whether out of humor or perversity I still don’t know) took him at his word. He shipped out next on a whaler, and came home to my brother Nahum Habakkuk, and then to Zephaniah Haggai and Zechariah Malachi. Father said (rather blasphemously, for him) that she ceased childbearing because she ran out Old Testament.
Name notwithstanding, he had me aboard a whaler as cabin boy before my twelfth birthday. Unlike my father, who sailed always before the mast, I worked my way aft and upward. Yet I never quite shook my mother’s resentment or disappointment, which was compounded when my brothers followed me to sea, and hardened when Zeph and Zach didn’t return. Her remembered resentment may go some way toward explaining why I gave in to Gayla’s extraordinary insistence on accompanying me to sea.
I hardly know now how that courtship began. It certainly wasn’t a romance in the classic sense; it hardly even qualified as a courtship, except that in that it led to our marriage. Having winkled out of me the admission that I’d finished my business that first morning, she insisted at once on being taken aboard to see Obedience for herself. Following that morning, she seemed never to be away from the ship, or the taverns near the wharf, where she displayed an odd tendency of quizzing sailors. Having seen her buying ales and talking animatedly with a polyglot assembly of seamen one afternoon, I collared one of them to inquire what she was about. The man was a Sandwich Islander, swarthy and tattooed, but with a passable command of English.
What did the woman want with you? I demanded.
“Dat waheenee? She wen’ ask many t’ings ‘bout sailing. She wen’ ask who go an’ sail if waheenee stay onboard. Me Kanaka, no boddah ‘bout dat, but some dese fellas no like dat, no like waheenee on ship.”
He had the right of that—many sailors won’t have a woman onboard. Perhaps I had been somewhat inured against the common superstitions by my own successes in spite of my “Jonah” christening… But I wondered to what purpose her question tended, and why she would be interviewing sailors at all, let alone with that specific question. A suspicion began to tickle my mind, that perhaps she had in mind to supervise more than just the preparations of the voyage.
I began keeping an eye on her comings and goings, spending more time onboard than I might have otherwise. And I found myself intrigued by her, unable to puzzle her out. Here she was in a man’s office of agent, yet not entirely unwomanly. She seemed to have no regard for social expectations, an unmarried woman who seemed as much at ease among the broadcloth suits of the Coffins’ offices as she did in a dockside tavern among sailors’ duck trousers. I saw how warmly men responded to her, regardless of their station or hers… And I began to talk with her myself.
I suppose if there were a courtship hidden in those weeks, it took the form of conversation. She seemed so at ease herself, I found myself more open with her than with others. I found in her a rapt audience for my yarns, and found myself searching my memory between our visits for the next best tale to tell. I found myself with an interest in companionship that had been lacking in a lone captain’s life. I’ve been saying “I found myself, I found myself”… In short, I’ll say now, I found myself. I wouldn’t have said such a thing at the time, but looking back over eight years, I’ll say it now.