The view from the top of the crater on that day had been spectacular. On one side of the island, smoke from the plantation sugar mill had risen in a lumpy rope that stretched up into the sky. The smoke had marked the location of the plantation’s Big House. Dangerous to all black people, especially the escaped slaves, the Maroons, and probably to themselves as well, now that they had lived with the Maroons. It was a place where slaves and indentured workers were forced to toil endless hours in the fields and in the sugar mill.
William had noted that escape from the island would not be possible from that side, even though the bay offered a natural harbor for ships. There was too much activity there. Too much observation.
On the other side of the island, the green canopy of jungle had stretched slowly away to the ocean, yielding to a hazy patchwork of boggy ground that merged with the water’s edge. The swamp. It had not looked accessible by ship from up there.
And now that he’d actually been there to see it in person, he’d decided that it was probably not accessible by any craft. It had been a depressing conclusion.
A baby’s wail pierced the air and brought William out of his daydream. He watched Smith stride over to his own hut. William continued to stare as Smith squatted beside Cassie who lay on a woven mat just outside the shelter’s open doorway. Sea-hardened sailor that he was, Samuel Smith was absolutely smitten with his wife and their newborn child. Not his child, William corrected himself. Hers. And Carlos, the pirate captain’s. Not that it mattered at all to Smith.
Smith, whose torso and arms were laced with the scars from numerous brutal floggings aboard the British Navy warship, the HMS Argus and who had, on another occasion, fearlessly stood in for one of William’s own whippings–this same man now doted shamelessly on Cassie and the baby. William could hardly believe the change.
Like he’s gone soft in the head. Tender-like.
Once again William was stabbed in his chest by the shard of recollection of his own family members. He had loved them all, quietly in his own way, but never more so than when they had become lost to him. Even at the age of nearly eighteen, however, he knew that this was the way things were. The way life was. No one lasted forever. A man should enjoy what pleasures he has for as long as he has them.
A forceful nudge at his elbow redirected his attention. Gerta, his father’s black goat, nuzzled the pocket edge of his ragged dungarees in search of a piece of ripe fruit. Now that the small goat was maturing, she was ravenous. Offering her only a small, precious piece of raw sugar cane, William then waved his hand in a horizontal swipe. Seeing the gesture, Gerta gave up on her begging and settled down by his side, munching contentedly on her sweet treat.
William’s gaze settled on his left hand and he stared momentarily at the loose webbing of skin which bound his fourth and fifth fingers together up to the first knuckle. Nearly transparent flesh, the web of skin was a family trait–his father had borne the same peculiarity–and both of them had been the objects of fear and violence generated by the superstitious sailors aboard the ill-fated Mary Jane.
Gerta’s mine now. Good thing, too, otherwise, she’d have been butchered as soon as she arrived here. The doeling was devoted to him now. Mischievous but clever, she’d learned to respond to a set of hand signals which William had taught to her. Even so, her good behavior was still erratic. He glanced down at her, surprised that she continued to lie still. Maybe the discipline is improving….
William slapped and waved at a cloud of determined mosquitoes, then squinted again at Smith and Cassie.
On the other side of the clearing, Cassie lay curled on a woven ground mat. She stirred from her fever-laced sleep, and smiled up at Smith before shutting her eyes and falling back into a light doze. Both Cassie’s child and the orphaned baby slept peacefully at Cassie’s side, calmed and cooled by Smith’s present waving of a palm frond overhead. William contemplated their sleeping forms and felt his tension return.
From the jungle’s edge behind William, Tess speculated on her own husband’s interest, as William watched Cassie. Unaware of Tess’s presence, or maybe uncaring, he openly stared, his blue eyes mesmerized by the sight, his longing palpable. Tess stared too, and tried to reign in her resentment.
Cassie. Her adopted sister. Beautiful, shapely Cassie. So unlike herself. Cassie’s chocolate brown skin shimmered, was radiant even, with the sweat brought on by the fever. Both girls, in childhood, had been taken in by the same family, but Tess’s copper colored locks and ivory skin had made it easier for her to be raised as one of their own. Even so, the girls had grown up as close as blood sisters, sharing everything, until the desperate sea voyage had dealt them each a set of far different circumstances to cope with.
There’s always somethin’ what comes from somethin’. Her grandmother’s familiar adage about life swirled through Tess’s mind. Her mouth stretched into a small, unconscious smile. Her grandmother was her lifeline.
“Ah, Tess me darling’!” Emma’s voice boomed out as though summoned by Tess’s thoughts. “C’mere an’ let me pile yer locks up fer ya’.” Without waiting for an answer, the jolly woman smothered Tess in an enthusiastic hug.
“Have I told ya yet today how much I love ya?” Emma beamed at her before grabbing a handful of Tess’s copper ringlets, expertly twisting the strands into a reasonably tidy braid.
Ever the optimist, the boisterous Emma Hanley Lancaster was a walking collection of folklore, numerology, superstitions, and she dispensed a generous dollop of good old common sense at every opportunity. It was she who had always believed that the brown acorn birthmark trailing down Tess’s neck was a sign of preordained greatness and it was she who had convinced Tess that here on the island, there was no longer any need to hide it behind a thick plait of hair. For the first time in her life, Tess now wore her hair either loose in soft coppery ripples that trailed down her back, or gathered it up in a luscious pile on the top of her head
Relaxing with the pleasant sensation of her hair being coiled, Tess turned her attention once more to William. She studied him without appearing to do so, only lifting her head ever so slightly, gazing at him through her fringe of eyelashes.
William’s sun-bleached locks were pulled back into a loose braid with a few escaped wisps outlining his high cheekbones and determined jaw line. His skin had become deeply bronzed by their months here in the tropical sun, and his body, already hardened by the physical demands of the lengthy, if ill-fated sea journey, had become further chiseled with the lifestyle of the maroon camp and its scant food supplies. William continued to stare across the clearing, lost in his own thoughts.
A wash of prickly jealousy swept over Tess. She had agreed to be his wife. She loved this man. And still his raw desire was unfulfilled. Tess swallowed hard and hoped it was a passing phase. They had so much in common but this one thing threatened to drive her from his bed. The one thing he so desperately desired brought Tess only fear. And even though the two of them had not talked about it, had not ever spoken about the issue out loud, Tess knew.
More than anything, William longed for a child of his own. A family.