Sunday afternoon Makanui raised land from the masthead, the Cape Verde islands. He spent more than his fair share of time aloft, due to the undisputed sharpness of his vision, and his willingness. Not everyone liked the high perch, but he considered it easy duty. And I knew Obadiah would rather have him up there than some of the more myopic (or less attentive) alternatives.
Small, sere, brown humps of land soon came into view of the rest of us, entirely at odds with the Verde (“green”) designation of the islands, and a stark contrast with the lush views of the Azores. At just a dozen degrees north of the equator and only a few days’ sail from the coast of mainland Africa, it was an entirely different climate. And different demographics and linguistics, as I found after we hooked a mooring buoy in the large natural harbor and rowed in to shore.
I’d once again buttoned myself into a dress (appreciating the fact that I wouldn’t be able to in a few months) for my appearance in the relatively cosmopolitan port of Mindelo. We’d brought our Portuguese speakers ashore again, although the Creole language on all sides had a different tone and timbre. Plants were sparse and spiky, all the island’s colors concentrated on the building fronts, painted in various shades of citrus under terra cotta tiles. The market here was a far more permanent affair, many of its faces showing more than traces of African ancestry.
I watched Carver’s astonished expression as we moved through the throng, and realized it was likely the first time in this New Englander’s life that his black skin hadn’t put him in the minority. Still, the island’s economy depended largely on its location being convenient to the slave trade, and I didn’t think we were in danger of losing him to desertion. Especially after seeing people being offered for sale from a second-story balcony. He hurried past that sight with averted eyes and pained expression.
I stopped, frozen in fascinated revulsion. Here were all my history books brought to life in the very real face of a pregnant girl looking determinedly above the faces of the crowd below. I stood memorizing her fierce, fearful features, knowing there was not a thing I could do with my welling moral outrage.
What started as a festive field trip took a sour turn with that sight, and nothing else in the day managed to redeem my mood. It was impossible to get interested in salt, produce, pigs, or even fresh-grown coffee. All I could see was a desperate, hopeless pair of averted eyes. And the absolutely ordinary face of the man who’d bought her. Where I wanted to see a villain, it was even worse that he was just a regular person.
I sat in the empty main cabin that evening (not feeling sociable in my miserable mire of a mood) and drew her from memory, feeling as if I were writing a eulogy with my pen-strokes. I came from a time when genocide and terrorist attacks and human trafficking and beheadings were filmed and reported on internet and television—it might seem as if the world’s atrocities are right in your face, but in reality you’re safely removed from them. Not even the horrifying images in my own country from the Twin Towers attack, or the pathos of New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, had truly touched me to my core. This girl’s face—just yards away from me, and seen in real time without the distancing filter of a camera lens—did. The world had just gotten more real, and more awful. And I was having a baby into it, and so was she.
I don’t cry easily or often, but tears were picking up their pace and punctuating my page, and that’s how Obadiah found me. He’d come looking for me, accustomed to having me sit with him on deck after suppers, and especially expecting me topside today, with a harbor and ships to draw. He straddled the bench beside me, wordlessly turned my book toward himself to look at the portrait, and sighed.
“So that’s where your heart has been all day.”
I nodded, not bothering to wipe my streaked face. I began to feel a little foolish about my sloppy feelings—after all, I wasn’t the one on the auction block, nor had I had any hand in putting her there—but that knowledge hadn’t lifted my dismal dismay all afternoon, and didn’t now either. How is a person supposed to feel about something like that? I could hear Tutu Ma in my head, reminding me again that “feelings don’t come with supposed-tos.”
Locking eyes with me, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and applied it to my face, then held it to my nose like a child to blow. I hiccuped a wry laugh, feeling ridiculous and shaking my head, and he tucked it back into his pocket.
“You feel things differently when you’re with child.” I wasn’t sure if it were a question or an observation, but the statement startled me. The word “hormone” wasn’t in his vocabulary, but I knew what they were, and still hadn’t made any connection. You feel things differently—that was a perfectly-put description of “hormonal.” It didn’t change anything about the situation to which I was reacting, but it made me feel a little less unhinged about my reaction.
“Some things in this world we can’t change. Some things in this world may never change.” (I thought with satisfaction that at least I knew this market’s end-date was on the horizon, that Mindelo’s “African market” would one day be selling batiks instead of bodies.) “Some times the only thing left to us is to pray.”
Of all the mood-remedies I might have considered, that wasn’t even on the list.
Prayer had just never been a thing I did. (Frankly I didn’t see the point. If that God-guy sees everything, he already knows what’s wrong with the world, and he can’t possibly need us to point things out for his attention. Right?) I’d bow my head when Obadiah said grace and evening prayer—but that was out of respect for him, not an invisible entity. I didn’t even really pay attention to what he said most times. It struck me suddenly that my inattention was not showing respect, and that I was gliding over the opportunity to know more about him.
So when he took my hand this time, I listened. We sat there on the cabin bench, holding hands, while he addressed his “Heavenly Father” and asked, in simple language, for simple things. He asked for the woman in the market to be lifted up, that she might find the fortitude and courage she needed to face whatever befell her. He asked for my heart to be lifted up, that I might feel comfort in God’s love, and his own. And he asked for both babies to be safely delivered, and “to know Your love, Amen.”
I’ve never heard that faith is contagious, but something about that prayer did soothe me. As if I’d been staggering under a heavy basket on my head, and had just handed the burden to the neck and shoulders of someone stronger. Maybe to Obadiah. Maybe even to his God-guy.
I was inking tiny colorful buildings onto the island on my chart when Obadiah came back from shore the next day. I’d declined a second trip ashore (and noticed Carver did the same), staying instead with my paints. Feeling considerably lighter than the day before and not wanting to ruin a cheerful mood that might be precarious. Obadiah reached around from behind and brandished a carved wooden rattle in front of me.
“For the babe.” I could hear the smile in his voice, and returned it over my shoulder, taking the rattle from his hand.
“Her first present,” I mused, fingering the intricate carvings.
“Didn’t I tell you?” I grinned, feeling reckless enough to say straight out what I knew (if not how I knew it). “She’s a girl.”
I thought he might argue, but he just tilted his head as if considering the information. “Is she now?”
Ingersoll’s entry saved me from answering, and I tucked the rattle out of sight. I wasn’t sure at what point we’d announce our upcoming arrival, but we hadn’t mentioned it to anyone yet. I’d wait for Obadiah’s cue on that. For now I stood with a toy behind my back, smiling a little foolishly. I wouldn’t feel this baby move for a while yet, but her presence in my mind could still give me a flutter of excitement in my middle.
My middle wasn’t fluttering and neither was any other part of me a few weeks later. A flutter would have required too great an investment of energy. No amount of coffee could keep me out of bed for more than a few hours. Not for lack of trying, with regard to the coffee. Even Ingersoll commented that it was a good thing we’d shipped more beans in Cape Verde. I was grateful not to be nauseous—the cast-iron stomach seemed as impervious to pregnancy as to motion sickness—but oh man was I exhausted!
I’d had mixed feelings about pulling away from Cape Verde. I hadn’t wanted to spend time ashore after witnessing the slave’s sale, but I also keenly felt the fact that this was our last planned landfall. We’d stop other places, yes—but we didn’t yet know where or when, and it wouldn’t be an American or European town. Up until now there was always a “just-in-case” sort of thinking to our daily life. If we thought of something else we needed or wanted, we’d pick it up at our next stop.
From here out, our landfalls might be “cannibal” islands, or uninhabited—we couldn’t just plan to pick up a pot of paint or a packet of needles. No more shopping lists. We were leaving our own civilization behind. Its evils as well as its amenities.
It only takes a matter of hours for an island to disappear from view when you have a good wind, and as quickly as that we were truly launched on our journey of years. I’d thought it so when we left New Bedford, but knew it now.
Days took on a sameness again, once away from land, and more sameness crept into them as I found it harder and harder to get out of bed, or to stay out of it. I’d read about being “tired” in the first trimester, but that seemed a laughably inadequate description. I felt like all my bones had been removed. Harry Potter’s arm after Professor Lockhart had at it. That’s about how useful I was, and grateful I wasn’t expected to show myself on deck for any particular sequence of bells.
Before I came I’d read (and re-read) Your Pregnancy Week by Week, and what stuck in my memory was the string of fruit-and-vegetable comparisons the book used. Your baby is now the size of a lentil… Your baby is the size of a kidney bean… the size of an olive… the size of a lime…
We were somewhere between kumquat and kiwi, I think, before I started to feel like myself again.
I actually couldn’t remember what developed when—apparently the fruits were more memorable than the physiology—but I made a running joke when Obadiah asked how I was doing. “Great, I grew a nose today.” “Fabulous, today we did toes.”
For weeks that joke, in its various iterations, had been just about the only sign of life from me. That, and my appetite. I’d always thought “eating for two” was just an excuse (and I’d thought it happened later)—but when I stopped to think about it, I really was growing an entire nervous system, circulatory system, heart, lungs, skeleton, miniature ears and fingers… That’s an undertaking. No wonder I’d been tired.
The word had gone out when I went into hibernation—Number Thirty was no longer a secret. And that turned out to be the magic “Open-Sesame” password to earning standoffish Samson’s interest. What I couldn’t accomplish by bribes or pleasantries or offers of help, I managed by being incapacitated and ravenous. I wondered (when I had the energy to think at all) if he had a wife and children of his own, or if I just represented a welcome extra challenge for his cookery. Whatever the motivation, he had a plate waiting for me to devour every time I woke from my stupor. Obadiah insisted on goat’s milk to go with everything, and between the two of them I thought I could claim to be the best-fed pregnant person on the planet. No prenatal vitamins, to be sure, but Samson displayed an amazing repertoire given the relatively limited contents of the captain’s pantry.
I’d slept through our crossing of the equator—not that there was anything to see, but I felt like I’d missed out on the moment. I sort of imagined a pretend line across the water, like the first-down line the network stations project onto football fields in their broadcasts.
And now we were “upside-down” on the world. Leaves would be turning color in New England, but we were headed toward spring with days growing longer. I thought it brilliant planning that we’d skipped my least favorite season. Though I reminded myself we’d still have to pass through the polar stretch around the Cape, where “wintery” was the only season.