“Ah, what can ever be more stately and admirable to me than mast-hemm’d Manhattan?”
~ Walt Whitman, 1851, Leaves of Grass
I’d been getting more comfortable over the last few days, thanks in part to some conversations with the people around me. My habit of scrimshandering in the front room had provided a gateway to conversation with some of Mrs. Molly’s patrons, and I felt like I’d begun to bridge a gap in my own thinking, from being an observer of this time to becoming someone actually in it. The streets and docks felt less like a movie-set and more like life—a mental transition aided in part by the sensory perceptions you don’t practice in a movie theater. Until they come up with scratch-and-sniff photography, no film will replicate the salt-and-fish smells of docks or the aromas of Mrs. Molly’s kitchen at mid-day when her cook (whom I had finally managed to befriend) was in the middle of her bread-baking. Even so simple a smell is provocative when you come from a place where bread arrives pre-packaged in plastic bags.
Rather than feeling inconvenienced in this century (except, perhaps, when my sensory perceptions encompassed the privy) I was enjoying some luxuries that were relatively new to me. In this moment, that meant a crusty serving of still-steaming rye bread with unsalted butter melting into its pores. Befriending Mrs. Peterson paid dividends in coffee-cream and other kitchen-offerings.
Billy popped up beside me, eyeing the plate and breathless with the daily news. He’d been bringing me a list every day of the ships new to port, reciting them impressively from memory every time—but today’s list jolted my adrenaline. It included Pandora’s Box.
I had the advantage over the harbor master of knowing what day Pandora’s Box would sail from New York, and therefore knowing that she would arrive sometime in this week. Still, hearing that name in the middle of his rapid recitation nearly goosed me out of my seat.
Choking slightly on my mouthful, I waved Billy to a stop, eyes watering. “That’s it, we’ve got her.”
“Got her?” he parroted uncertainly.
“It’s time to visit the harbor master,” I grinned at him. “I’m sailing on Pandora’s Box.” Might as well—I’d already opened it.
The harbor master apparently didn’t remember me—he had no reason to, and I had no need for him to—so I simply launched my request.
“I’m here to book passage on Pandora’s Box for Montauk.”
He squinted at me. “They just came in, Miss. I haven’t even talked to the captain, and I couldn’t tell you where they’re going next.” I could tell him, but that wouldn’t do. I began to turn away, frustrated by my apparent inability—still!—to cross this off my to-do list, but a deep voice from behind me arrested my intention to depart.
“It be Montauk next, sure enough. Though how this young lady be knowin’ it is a question, right enough.” Add smell-of-sailor to the list of things you don’t experience in a movie theater. The tall black man behind me had an accent I couldn’t place, an improbable blend of Southern and Irish with something else mixed in, and his quizzical gaze fastened on me. Before I could fumble for a likely explanation for myself, Billy’s propensity for delivering news-items diverted the men’s attention.
“This is Miss Harper, and she’s actually going to New Bedford to marry a Ship Captain but she’s going to Montauk first, she says, and she’s taking him a sextant that belonged to a famous explorer, which will be way better than whatever he’s got.”
Maybe I should talk to him about spreading my business all around, but in this moment I was grateful for the diversion. Not wanting to return to the unanswered question, I forged ahead.
“Good, then—you’re the captain?” I heard the snort from the harbor master, its import echoed by the sailor’s answer.
“No, Miss, I ain’t no captain. I be here to speak for him, though, tellin’ we on a heading for New Bedford, by Montauk. So you can sail straight through, you like.”
“Uh, just to Montauk, thank you.” I hadn’t thought to look into the remainder of the two ships’ routes, just the passenger rolls listing my presence on Pandora’s Box as far as Montauk, and Westphalia from there to New Bedford. Now it dawned on me that my ship-hopping would look foolish—but already knowing what I had found (would find), I was determined to stick to the script. The sailor shrugged, little interested in a passenger’s foibles, and though the harbor master looked at me strangely, he made no objection to counting out my passage money and writing my name at the top of a fresh sheet in his book. I almost reached out to touch the page, realizing that the wet ink on this document was the same faded writing I had seen in a historical archive—but I snatched back my hand, having attracted enough unwanted attention already.
I got no printed ticket or receipt, any more than I would need an ID card to board the ship, and I pondered once again the myriad of differences between my time and this one. If a person ever made the reverse journey, landing in the future, it would be a much harder task to find your way or blend in. Not least of those difficulties would be the inability to research ahead, even if you somehow knew you were going to Travel. Even if my mouth sometimes got ahead of the knowledge I “should” have here—as it did in the harbor master’s office—I had the advantage of those guide-posts of advance information. Nor did I need to produce a social security number, a photo ID, or indeed any proof of my existence, aside from the tangible and obvious fact of… well, of my existence.
Billy seemed subdued on our return walk (not even asking any questions, having apparently exhausted the topic of the story of Pandora and her box) and I reflected that my purchase of passage had no doubt reminded him of the looming departure. He’d maybe had a more interesting week than his usual—and come to that, I would miss him too. He’d been an ongoing entertainment during my stay, popping up repeatedly during my days and peppering me with questions (some of them difficult to answer) about my plans and my past, those quizzes interspersed with oddities like whether I could draw on his tooth if it came out before I left. And his queries had actually proven useful in preparing what back story I had for myself. In the process of answering, I’d painted myself what seemed a feasible enough past, hopefully one that might allow for some oddities. Because oddities I still had aplenty, I knew that.
The day hadn’t yet divulged all of its news—Billy arrived breathless again later in the afternoon, clutching a folded and sealed letter for me. I think he’d begun to look at his post-office trips the way I’d been feeling about my annual excursions to New York City—an exercise in nothing-happening—but here it was. “You’ve got mai-il!” he sang, drawing out the word into two syllables, and sounding far more animated than the automated voice which used to make the same announcement from my email inbox. The letter looked strange to me, lacking an envelope, and with its hand-written note of postage-paid and originating-location in place of the stick-on postage stamps and cancellation marks to which I was accustomed.
The contents were terse but polite, acknowledging receipt of my letter and making some socially obligatory noises about welcoming me. They’d probably rather have their teeth pulled by a ship’s carpenter than put up with my interference—but with the money they thought was behind me, they’d smile to my face, however it pained them. Well, I really wasn’t there to plague them, and the only change I intended to make to their ship was to install myself on it. If only he knew it, it was Obadiah Starbuck who should be trembling at a changed world.
So why was it me trembling?
I hadn’t mentioned an upcoming marriage to Mrs. Molly, even in the course of fitting and outfitting me for that prospect. But since the world will quickly know whatever Billy knows, she had been talking to me of little else since she heard the news from her son. She even gave me a sort of brooch “kit” as a wedding gift. She must have worked her contacts to come up with this, because it wouldn’t have been sold in any shop—the filigree frame of a brooch, accompanied by an ivory blank that would fit into that frame. “I thought you’d rather wear your own art,” she said about it.
The gift touched me—the thoughtful nature of it, and the very fact of it (never mind that I’d no doubt financed it myself). That moment was certainly the closest I’d get to a bridal shower.
It crossed my mind that my ship-transfer at Montauk might be a good plan after all. Everyone around me now knew I was journeying “to get married,” and it struck me as likely that the knowledge might follow me aboard. Of course I hadn’t mentioned that the groom himself was as yet unaware of the impending wedding—and I couldn’t very well arrive in New Bedford with a gaggle of people who expected me to meet a fiancee there rather than set off to snare a stranger.
A couple times I regretted having said anything to Billy, but on the whole I was glad to have one less secret. Mrs. Norton assumed an increased air of importance when she learned she was working on a wedding wardrobe. She also sneaked back in some of the things I thought we’d agreed to leave off, though overall her creations sported clean lines and minimal fuss, and my own pleasure when I put them on surprised me. She brought the last of the fitted-and-finished articles the night before my departure, and Mrs. Molly insisted on seeing me model them.
I felt self-conscious as Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Molly, Bitsy and Susan, and Mrs. Peterson crowded into my room to assess the effect of my trousseau. My full skirts draped over several layers of petticoats, drawing in at the waist with a wide belt of dyed blue leather. The entire wardrobe had come in blues, which I saw as simple mix-and-match practicality, but Mrs. Norton insisted was to play up my eyes. (Here, at least, was one person who seemed to think I had a good feature besides my hair.) I felt positively royal as I swished my skirts back and forth a little and turned to show off Mrs. Norton’s work. It brought to mind my standing girlhood preference for a “twirly-skirt”—meaning any dress with fabric full enough to flare out when I spun around.
Well, this definitely qualified, though it was far more confining than my childhood sundresses. I still hadn’t adjusted to collars encasing my whole neck, or to the inevitability of the sweat stains that would quickly blossom beneath the long sleeves tapering down to my wrists. Coming from a culture that considered armpit sweat an embarrassing sight—a culture that went to great lengths to prevent, erase, or cover up all evidence that we do sweat—I found it difficult not to feel self-conscious about the constantly soaked underarms, not to mention the accompanying odor. I just had to remind myself that I was alone in feeling fussy about it. If I ever met anyone in this heat who didn’t have underarm stains, I’d probably suspect them of being a time-traveler who’d packed back antiperspirant instead of underwear. I snorted at the thought, earning a sniff of disapproval from Mrs. Norton.
Mrs. Molly decided we’d had sufficient noises-of-admiration (though I suspected Mrs. Norton was open to hearing more) and packed Susan and Bitsy back to the common room, both of them pouting. She surprised me by shutting my door behind the unmarried girls, and turning to face me with a solemn expression. An expression exactly matched by the (otherwise entirely mismatched) pair of matrons’ faces flanking hers.
It dawned on me with no small amount of mortification that I was about to get a nineteenth-century birds-and-bees speech.
I lay under the quilt that night in my yards of nightgown, thinking that twenty-first-century education left something to be desired. The “talk” I’d thought would be embarrassing—maybe even something to snicker about later—had proved touching instead.
Thanks to my school’s “sex ed” program, I’d known from an early age how a penis works—but there was no accompanying discussion of how the heart works. Yet that was what these three kindly ladies (two widows and a wife) had emphasized. Offering what they considered an absent mother’s office before my wedding, they had “prepared” me by touching on the physical (in restrained terms that might have left me still clueless had I not already had experience of my own), but my deeper take-away message was the tender bond that each of them had developed with a husband. An entirely different form of intimacy.
As much as I appreciated their offered insights, I felt profoundly uncomfortable as a result. I’d been treating this upcoming marriage as yet another item on my to-do list. I’d known, of course, that sex would necessarily involved (after all, my primary “to-do” here was to have a baby) but I hadn’t spent a great deal of time or thought on the actual relationship ahead of me.
I’d packed most of my things into the carpet bag that evening, wondering if Mrs. Molly and Mrs. Norton had colluded on color schemes, given the blend of blues in the forget-me-not needlepoint of the bag. My dress and bonnet and petticoats hung from pegs on the wall, ready to don in the early light, and the plain brown cloak beside them (about which I’d felt so self-satisfied for the last few years) seemed dull beside Mrs. Norton’s artistry.
I had settled my accounts with everyone but Billy, for whom I’d laid out a carefully counted stack of shiny pennies with an even shinier whistle as a bonus. For Mrs. Molly—whose surname I realized I’d never asked—I left a sketch of her son. I’d no doubt see her in the morning, but felt self-conscious about handing out my art as if it were something to be prized. It was the face I knew she’d prize. She’d already lost her Zechariah, and she’d lose Billy too—even if were only losing the child to the inevitability of adulthood. Still, judging by his fascination with the docks and his endless questions about “my” whaling captain, he might well be headed to sea in a handful of years.
Billy’s questions about Obadiah rated alongside his questions about my past as hardest-to-answer. But the fact that felt strangest to me (my utter unfamiliarity with my husband-to-be) didn’t strike the people around me as strange at all. Customs like contracted marriages and brief courtships rendered “unfamiliarity” the norm for a prospective bride. At least that was one topic where I didn’t have to fabricate answers.
And it’s the area where I most longed for answers myself. Well, I was setting out to get them—though I still regretted leaving a place where I’d actually gotten comfortable. I felt like I had a little family-group here… Which just goes to show you how badly I lacked an anchor. I wished I could add Mrs. Molly on FaceBook, or tweet Mrs. Norton a wedding photo of her dress.
I finally fell asleep, glad that the Susan-or-Bitsy wake-up service would roust me in the morning.
I dreamed myself into a drawing, everything black-and-white and composed of ink-strokes. I looked down to see that I was only a stick-figure myself, and I spent the whole dream trying to find a pen so I could draw myself better.