Chapter 11: Obadiah

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The girls are still stunned. No less so the crew, I think, though they at least are accustomed to losing men overboard. Still, Gayla had become something like a mix of mascot and mother onboard. I’ve had no doubt it’s because of her that we keep so many of our crew from one trip to the next. There’s a suddenness to losing someone overboard. From day to day each person is a part of your daily and hourly experience, and suddenly there’s a gaping silence where a character used to be. Gayla’s first experience of that was when we lost able seaman Johanssen off the Cape. I wasn’t sure how she’d take it, though I’d also noted she kept more distance from Johanssen than most of the other men, as if something about him pained her. I’d been looking at her face the first time she heard his name, and wondered at the time if she knew something ill of him or his connections, so dismayed she seemed.

I’m grateful now for the fondness of the cook for the girls, since there’s no nursemaid here to take their mother’s place. Though I’ll say that Lally monkeys in the rigging like a trueborn sailor, and even Kate is sure-footed and knows shipboard routines and discipline enough to stay out from underfoot without much minding. Bethia was the most difficult, just toddling and too young to understand precautions or admonitions. It was a difficult age with each of them—Gayla used to keep them gated so she didn’t have to watch every second. What a sight aboard a whaleship—a coop of babies where another ship might have chickens or goats. I little knew how far off course my shipboard order would stray as a result of letting her on that first cruise.

Without Bethia, it’s not a terrible task to keep the girls in line, and there’s no doubt they’re more subdued than their usual selves these last few days. Kate seems less distraught than Lally, and babbles about Mama’s fairy dust—no more than you might expect with an unexplained disappearance and a shelf full of bound fairy tales where most captain’s cabins would hold navigation manuals or log books.

What am I to make of any of this? The baby’s berth had high sides that she hadn’t yet climbed out of, though her sisters regularly climbed in with her, and each of them in their turns had freed themselves from its confines. Could she that night have managed it for the first time, or did Gayla take her from bed? I’m cursing the Elmo’s fire that drew the attention of my watch—no one saw her disappear, and no one knows anything about Bethia.

I bellowed at the mate when he consulted me about the Log. He has kept to business and tradition, never mentioning the children in any of our voyages—but then, they have never fallen in the purview of his reports. “Man overboard” suddenly puts Bethia in that category, and he wanted to know whether to include her. I don’t know what he did, though Gayla herself, as an adult (however nontraditional a sailor) is always listed on the ship’s roll, and he no doubt felt obligated to record her loss. I haven’t written in my own book since then, haven’t had the heart for my usual observations or notes, haven’t even opened the book. Maybe it’s time to look at what the woman wrote.

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