Less than a year into their marriage, James—who had been always, in his brief visits ashore, tilted and clumsy, startling every four hours to interior bells, twitching to get back to the harbor and slide out on the falling tide with not one look, not even one thought for his loved ones left at home (You will be sorry, Agnes, her mother had told her, if you marry a man with clean fingernails)—passed over the visible edge of the world a final time and was lost (not, as it turned out, completely lost), his ship gone down far out to sea, witnessed only by spider crabs and hagfish and other untalkative actuaries of the deep.
Agnes would not marry again. John, not yet six months old, would be her first and last child. She would live another sixty-eight years a widow, sixty-eight years of relentless, erosive work (much of it, over that century and the next, to be fenced off by patents to outperform even the poor), the cuckoo hunger gaping in her ribs. Had she known this when they came to her door with their heads bare and their eyes sideways, she might have knelt on the fire and waited for death, as widows were said to do in more fragrant corners of the Empire.
They had been living in a narrow cottage on the north side of the harbor. A good spot to watch the boats come and go, James always said. To watch the storms sweeping in, Agnes said. To see the waves blooming above the breakwater, the tattered sails of spray hanging in the air. The small boats staggering like crane flies, the ships listing and turning, helpless as leaves in a weir. The gravid processions winding up the hill.
James would laugh, tease, finally lose patience. He remarked only those who made it through. The seven pulled from the water when the packet ran aground. (Sixty lost, Agnes said.) The master of the Simeena, saved within sight of the harbor. (And the rest of her crew drowned.) James held the sun’s unquestioning belief in his return. As if wind and sea wove a downy pallet that he could nestle into, safe as the kingfisher’s brood. When he was away, Agnes would try on his faith, pull it over her head like his Sunday shirt. She tried to imagine him fixed and solid among the flying ropes and scurrying men. The wind broke on his broad face, cleaved north and south of him, combing his hair smooth. His mouth was white with salt, his eyebrows frosted. He narrowed his eyes to the east, looking for Goteborg or Riga, Helsingor, Konigsberg, Drammen.
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