Chapter Thirteen


Well, almost every day brought us closer to the other side. Some days when we got a chance to sight off the sun and calculate position, we’d find we’d gone backwards in the dark and stormy interim. Overall, though, we were making headway, and my dated dots on the map charted slow progress around the edge of South America.

It wasn’t all storm and surge, though the cold continued. I stood on the deck at night and looked straight up at the Southern Cross constellation. I worked on covering a whale tooth with playful penguins for Obadiah. I worked on growing fingers and toes and whatever else was developing on an orange-sized baby.

We celebrated Christmas with extra rations of rum all around, and the men of the Port Watch switched from sea shanties to Christmas songs. It was definitely the oddest caroling party I’d ever attended. Hunkering onto a bunk in the fo’c’sle, I watched as Obadiah poured out measures of hot rum, and listened to the solemn harmonies of seven sailors, suddenly pious and serious and celebrating a savior whose graces had nothing to do with the sea.

Or maybe they did. I surreptitiously watched Swede Johanssen, as I often did, knowing what I knew about the end in store for him. I hadn’t been sure in which direction we would lose him, only that he would go overboard off the Horn. Swede sang so sweetly, substituting a Scandinavian version of the lyrics to Silent Night, adding a descant in falsetto soprano so pure it might have come from the Vienna Boys’ Choir. A sound entirely at odds with his ferocity in a whaleboat, his ribald sense of humor, the corded muscles of his arms, or even his mustached laugh.

It was an entirely different scene when we repeated the Christmas pour for the Starboard watch when they went below. The rollicking and ridiculous “Mele Kalikimaka” song hadn’t yet been written (thank goodness), and our Pacific Island cadre weren’t really Christmas celebrators, though they didn’t turn down the grog. Their celebratory talk turned to the approaching Pacific, warmer temperatures, and even the possibility of stopping at home. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that their homecoming would happen in the opposite direction from that of the black and white men of the crew.

As for me, I felt far more celebratory about our northward turn than about the calendar date. We’d weathered the southern tip and were heading up the coast of Patagonia. Not out of range of storms, but I felt we’d weathered the worst—and kept Swede into the bargain.

I pondered again whether my “extra” knowledge of some historical facts were really useful or detrimental. Not that a decision in either direction would change anything—I knew what I knew. I knew that Obadiah and I would survive to other voyages. I knew that some of the men in this crew would appear in the ship’s log of a later trip. I knew when we’d return home with a full hold, and without Swede. I knew this pregnancy was the first of several girls.

There was also plenty I didn’t know, and it would be easy to get complacent in the few facts I did have. I didn’t know who else, besides Swede, might be lost or injured. I’d happened across a mention of his loss from this ship, but that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be others killed or hurt or taken sick or even just deserting, whose names I hadn’t come across. I knew we and the ship would make it home, but had no idea what trials or difficulties we might encounter between now and then. Come to that, I also didn’t know what joys we’d feel, though I could guess at one of them. I’d felt my baby move for the first time, a light flutter that could almost have been mistaken for a digestive gurgle. There wasn’t anything to feel from the outside, but Obadiah put his hands on my belly anyway, and talked at it.

“Are you tickling your mama, Trinta? Here, give your father a poke.” He waited, as if something might happen at his suggestion. Here’s where life-in-the-cabin differed from life-on-deck: his women-folk might or might not take his commands as law. In this case, of course, he didn’t get a response, though I could feel another light flutter internally. Maybe she was responding to him after all.

I dreamed about my coffee maker. Specifically, I dreamed about the digital clock that would illuminate the kitchen of my trailer with a little shine of blue when I switched off all the other lights. I hadn’t worn a wristwatch since the invention of the cell phone, but I’d been accustomed to being surrounded by digital clocks—on my dashboard, at my bedside, on the microwave, on the phone… on the coffee pot. The utter darkness of our cabin at night—no clocks shining out—was one of the things that still felt strange to me. At this point I hadn’t laid eyes on even a traditional mechanical clock for several months, aside from Obadiah’s chronometer—but the ship’s bells marked time constantly, around the (figurative) clock.

I didn’t even have to perform the mental translation anymore between any given number of bells and the time of day. Or maybe I’d transitioned entirely into “ship-time” and wasn’t even thinking in terms of “ten o’clock” anymore. “Four bells into the forenoon watch” is simply a more meaningful designation.

I don’t know why that clock bubbled up from my subconscious, except to guess that time is a subject never too far from my mind. Gestational time, seasonal time, ship’s time… even my private experience of traveling-time. Maybe because this was my birthday morning, as well as the eve of a new year. I woke up thirty-one years old, yet my birth-year itself wouldn’t arrive for another fourteen decades. (With weirdnesses like that, how could I not be thinking all the time of time?)

It was strange to think, too, of time moving forward (without me) in the year I had left. There’d be a new iPhone out by now, and a second season of the “Hawaii Five-O” series remake. My motorcycle insurance would have lapsed by now, and my website domain expired. Those sorts of details seemed unreal, compared with the very solid details around me. The grain of the wood above me in the cabin ceiling, the fibers of the knitted wool blanket tucked under my chin, the aroma of the coffee-cup coming through the door in my husband’s hand. Motorcycles and internet only existed in my head now, but the whiskery birthday-kiss was immediate and real.

I scooted myself to sit up against the cushions and accepted the coffee, grateful that the annoying “Happy Birthday” song hadn’t yet been written.

Holokai asked me later that morning what I was thinking of, and I countered his question with another question.  “Is it odd for you to live by bells? You didn’t grow up tracking time during the day.” That last wasn’t a question—I’m all too familiar with “Island Time,” the cultural disregard for clocks that puts Hawaiians so at odds with western sensibilities.

He bared his teeth at me in a smile that had a laugh bubbling just behind it. “Ah, you know, Pua. Kanaka, we track da moon, not da sun. Every day, she stay da same lengt’, and even da tide not change much.” He held up his hands to show how little the tide-heights change in the isles. Practically smack in the center of the Pacific, Hawai’i sits close to the fulcrum of the ocean’s water movement, and sees far less rise and fall in water heights than the continents at the ocean’s edges. The seasons barely bring any change, and the introduction of timepieces wouldn’t make a dent in the cultural consciousness even in centuries to come. “But still, if ali’i say ‘jump,’ Kanaka jump. Here, Kapena stay ali’i, and bells also ali’i.” The captain is the chief, but so are the bells.

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but the observation was accurate. And if his way of life had altered—well, he had signed up for change when he shipped to sea.

As had I.