PROLOGUE

1849

It’s the last thing I said to her, my jest that my wife’s hands would wear the mahogany to a shine, standing at the rail as she did, gazing out to sea. She sauced me back that my sailors scrubbed enough to accomplish that without her help. I’m not given to jest or joking speech, as my crews would attest, but she brought out my smiles. Usually only when we two were alone, but it was a side of myself I hadn’t known since I’d gone to sea as a boy. A sailor has his own grim humor to cope with mishap and even death aboard a whaleship, but I’d had no room in my life for this lighter humor. Until she blew into my path.

She was a strange woman, my wife. She used strange words in strange ways, and I feel she held strange secrets, though I attributed those to her orphaned upbringing and unusual life. Now I wonder, and I ponder the clues she left when she disappeared from that spot at the rail. “Overboard,” the crew would have it, but the seas were too still and she too much of a seaman to explain matters to my satisfaction. There was her strange gift of prescience, and her absolute reluctance, for the first time, to sail through the latitudes I’d charted. It’s too late now to ask her what she knew, or felt, about our course.

I keep returning to the sextant she gifted me when we wed, and the odd initials she had engraved on it. “GPS”—and not for Gayla Starbuck, either, because she had it etched already before we met, and the monogram remains one of her many unexplained enigmas. “It guided me to you,” was all she would say—“and it will guide us till we part.” I took it for another reference to her vehement insistence that she would go to sea with me. No housetop widow’s walk for her, she proclaimed. If she were to be widowed, she would know it rather than wonder. Though truthfully, she seemed forcefully certain of the outcomes of our voyages, even to the outlandish success of our last run on a Coffin Company ship, the trip that enabled me to have my own ship built. One could almost accuse the woman of witchcraft, so powerful were her predictions.

Her name so suited Gayla—as forceful as the gale was her will. “Seaman” I named her, and I stand by that appellation even though her presence caused me more trials than I cared to tell her in hiring on a crew. Those who did ship with us despite their superstitions came to be glad of her, for a woman’s sensibility onboard a whaler is a rare circumstance indeed. She never undermined me with the men, but I will allow she softened me in some moments with regard to conditions afore the mast.

Seaman she was, and took to tasks that no first mate would ply his hand to less the ship herself were at stake. If she softened me, she hardened the men, who would nowise be outdone by a woman—even one in sailor’s trousers and cropped hair. Never a whiff of mutinous discontent on a ship where the captain’s wife might be aloft with the men.

You might imagine, though, the tempests that took place in our berth early on, away from the crew’s eyes but no doubt overheard by my steward and chief mate. I confess she won the war—I couldn’t keep her on deck, and neither my rank as captain nor headship as husband would dissuade her from doing what she would. Truth be told, I never knew a woman less inclined to allow for a husband’s headship than this one, independent storm of a woman that she was. That was before I learned the trick of giving her an order on deck. She was very protective of my authority with the men, and never once contradicted me publicly—which is how I did keep her on deck in the squalls around the Horn—but by the time I cottoned on to the trick, she had already established the habit of going aloft, and proved herself a good hand at it too.

I feel as if this sextant holds an answer, the fond way she handled it, and the unexplained engraving. If I could just tease out the end of the rope, I might untie the knot of the puzzle. What did those initials, G-P-S, mean to her, that she spoke of them in terms of navigation?

In my years of captaining other men’s ships, I developed the habit of keeping a captain’s log for my own use, separate from the official Ship’s Log kept by the Mate, and my wife took to writing in it as well. Perhaps there are more clues in what she wrote, if I read now with purpose.

All that’s left to me is to re-examine my years with her, and to wonder… What didn’t I know?

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