Alesha Hayes was on deck before dawn, pressed against the rail, anxious for the sun to rise, the fog to lift. All she could see onshore was a smoldering fire at water’s edge and beyond, a line of blurry lantern lights. Through the fog she heard the clatter of hooves on cobblestone, the clang of hammer on metal, occasional shouts and laughter. The air was heavy with the odor of wood smoke, horses, dried fish, seaweed.
In twos and threes, other women joined her. They spoke in low tones, gazed into the fog.
“Virginia,” said Alesha in a low voice, then louder, “we’re here!”
Several women turned and stared.
Alesha dug her fingernails into the rail. I shouldn’t be so loud and impertinent, she thought. That’s what her mother always said. Criticisms spewed out of her mother like smoke from a chimney. Mother disliked Alesha’s clothes, her friends, her ideas, her raucous laugh. But she liked Mr. McAlester, the candle shop owner. ‘You’re lucky to be working for such a fine man,’ she often said. Although he was, ‘A tad rough around the edges.’ Alesha rubbed her jaw, pressed fingers against her lips. Two front teeth missing. Yes, Mr. McAlester was ‘rough around the edges.’
Next time, she might lose more than teeth. But he was back in Bristol and she was in America.
The First Mate spat into the water. “You’ll all get to shore.” He glared at Alesha. “Once this fog lifts.”
Oh Lord, she thought, help me—help us—get through this day.
A light wind stirred, whispered across her cheek, fluttered the ship’s sails. Alesha shivered, drew her maroon cape close, turned to the east. The sun was barely visible, a hazy yellow dot shrouded in grey.
The woman next to her leaned over the rail, retched, sent a torrent of black tea, partially chewed biscuits and raspberry jam down the hull. For a while she hung silent, trembling, then straightened, wiped her mouth on a brown sleeve.
“I’m so, so sorry,” she said, eyes closed. White faced, sweat on her forehead, spittle on her lips.
Alesha dropped an arm to the woman’s shoulder, squeezed. “There,” she said, “it’s all right.”
“I’m nervous, that’s all.”
Fishes circled, snapped up the crimson-tinged biscuit shreds. Alesha shuddered, searched for the horizon. Concentrate, she told herself. Concentrate. She prayed not to get sick, that others wouldn’t get sick.
The fog was lifting. Above, there were patches of blue sky and onshore, snatches of sand, the outline of low buildings, scraggly pines tinged with yellow. From the stern came the steady creak-creak-creak of the winch, oaths and shouts from the sailors. The jolly boat swung out, dropped, hit the black water with a smack. The First Mate glared at the woman who had just been sick.
“Fer God’s sake stand clear. Can’t have the lads getting showered with puke.”
Alesha gripped her duffel, pressed against the rail. The jolly boat. Oval shaped, overlapping planks, the bow pointed, the stern square—it looked like a child’s plaything. Two sailors scrambled down the ladder, dropped into the boat and grabbed oars. The women began to murmur, shuffle their feet.
The letter. William’s letter. Alesha pulled it out of her pocket, began to read.
I am happy you are coming to Virginia.
I have two Children: Joseph and Rachel.
Life is hard because we don’t have much Food. There is much Sickness. We worry about Indians.
The First Mate’s voice again, coarse as sandstone, “We’re ready for ya.”
Only one boat. It would make several trips. Alesha grabbed her duffel. The women edged toward the ladder. Only a few wisps of fog remained. She could see people onshore, silent as stones. Some stood next to scraggly pines, others sat on the wharf, feet dangling. Every eye on the ship. Even the gulls were watching, perched on roof peaks, circling overhead.
“Drop your duffels,” shouted the First Mate. “We’ll load ‘em.”
Alesha tossed hers next to the rail. She pressed the letter to her chest. It had been unfolded and folded many times. The ink was smudged; the words barely readable. She slipped it back into her pocket. I want to see him, she thought. And Rachel, his daughter. A nice name. A biblical name. And his son, Joseph. He’s older.
Alesha was first on the ladder. The wooden rungs were wet, greasy under her fingers. Below, the sailors had their eyes on her billowing skirt. Can’t be helped, she thought. She climbed down, clambered over a seat and sat in the bow. With a rhythmic thump-thump-thump, their duffels cascaded into the boat.
Alesha ran her tongue over her lips. Two teeth missing. What would William think?
The letter, deep in her pocket. She wouldn’t pull it out. She knew every word.
My Farm is small: I have but one Horse.
The starboard rower rammed his oar against the hull with a bang and the boat spun toward shore. Both sailors began to row: slap-whoosh, slap-whoosh, slap-whoosh. A woman in the stern leaned over the side and vomited. The others remained silent. The little boat pitched and juddered.
The Children are from my other previous Wife, Abigail. She died of the Fever. She was a good Woman.
The woman beside her asked, “You sponsored by a church?”
“Yes—yes I am.”
“They’ll take you right over to get married.”
This is a good Country; Pa brought me when I was five. He died sudden, and my Aunt Ester and Uncle Nelson raised me. If you Work hard; you can make it. I need help with Rachel. Things she must know about being a Woman I cannot teach her.
The jolly boat was close to shore. Dark figures edged toward the water.
Slap-whoosh, slap-whoosh, slap-whoosh. Alesha closed her eyes and bowed her head. I’d like to have a child. She pressed her palms together. No—the Lord will think me greedy to want my own. Just take care of his, that’s all I want. Just take care of his.
Widow Barclay teaches in her Kitchen. With you here to help, we can send Joseph. And Rachel. She teaches Girls, too.
Slap-whoosh, slap-whoosh, slap-whoosh. Cold water sloshed around their feet. Cracks in the hull. The boards had shrunk while on deck. Alesha spotted a wooden bucket in the bow. We can bale, she thought, we can bale.
There are Apple Trees out back. Sour for Eating; good for Cooking.
Apples. She and Rachel would pick them, carry apronfuls to the house. They would cut out the dark spots, peel and slice them. Mince onions, cook in a skillet until soft, add sliced apples. Sprinkle on sugar, cinnamon, boiled currents. Pour over sippits and eat hot. Have more next morning. Cold, what with sitting out all night. The juices, thick and brown. On their fingers, on their cheeks. William would smile, lay his hand on hers.
I’ll teach Rachel to bake bread. William will be proud.
As they drew close to shore, the sailors dug deep, pulled hard. Somber figures stared at the little boat, hands in their pockets. Which one is William? With the black hat? The short one?
One final pull with the oars and the bow reared up, crunched down on the sand. Alesha gripped her duffel. It held everything she owned. Recipes from Aunt Clara, her bible, diary, hairbrush, extra clothes, scissors, needles and thread.
Hands on the gunwale, she leapt out, stumbled, sank to one knee. She struggled to her feet; duffel clutched tight. There. The man in a long black coat. On either side of him, two children, lips tight, arms stiff.
“William—William, it’s me, Alesha.”
They moved toward her.
The duffel slipped from her fingers. Alesha stretched out her arms.
“I’m here,” she called, “I’m here—I’m here!”