Read by Gloria Sanders
We are separated into lines and herded onto the ship two by two, like Noah’s animals. Only not to be saved: we are beyond redemption, they say. As we file below decks into the dark and stench of the hold, I am followed by the darting eyes and whispering voices of those who think they know my story. Who have read it in the penny bloods or heard it sung at Tyburn fair. I keep my head down and my shoulders hunched forward. I will myself to become invisible, as I once was.
In the dank semi-darkness below decks, I am set apart from the other women. Because of the severity of my crime, the Captain says. No doubt it was severe. Her head was severed clean from her body and taken by omnibus to Stepney Green. It was then fished out of Ben Johnson lock like a bloated pike and pickled in a jar for all to see.
I did not cut her flesh. I did not break her bones. But it was I who told him she had betrayed him. Part of me wanted her dead and now she is. Oh God, deliver me from bloodguiltiness.
The decaying prison hulk circles the southern coast collecting its convict cargo: pickpockets from Portsmouth; lock-pickers from Plymouth. Card sharpers, coiners, housebreakers and horse stealers, all on a one way trip over the edge of the earth.
When the ship anchors at Cawsand Bay, its last stop before the open ocean, we are ordered out of the hold and emerge, squinting into the light and gulping in the air. We are told to line up on the quarterdeck for the surgeon - a bowed, nervous man - to check us for disease. One miserable bundle of rags is ordered to be returned to the keeper of Newgate.
‘Syphilitic whores do not make good breeding stock,’ announces our Captain to his captive audience, as the surgeon gently ushers the woman away.
As soon as the surgeon has retreated to his quarters, the Ship’s Company begin their own inspection. They make the youngest and prettiest remove their outer garments and stand shivering in the sea winds as the officers and then the crew take their pick. Me, they leave alone. Perhaps I am too old. (At 35, my looks have faded and my hair has dulled to a tarnished copper.) Perhaps they think I will cut their heads from their bodies as they sleep.
The Captain strides up and down the deck, overseeing the proceedings and shouting out instructions and encouragements to his men. He enjoys it when the women put up a bit of a fight.
‘What are you saving yourself for?’ he asks them. ‘What do you think awaits you in Sydney Cove?’ His laugh is the sound of tearing canvas.
The noise as we set sail is deafening: ropes crack, sails flap, men shout and run from one side of the boat to the other, their feet clattering on the boards. Behind that, rises the wail of 140 women being wrenched apart from everything they know. And so I leave this land and the little I have accumulated here: a child, a few belongings, and the hatred of the English people.
The next day begins with the jolt of the hatches opening, the slosh of tubs of salt water being placed next to them, and the murmur of women waking. Many are sick from the lurching of the ship and the place is filled with the reek of vomit and of the bilge – a festering broth of dead rats and cats and excrement.
Once we are on deck, the Captain commences a lecture from the Bible, fragments of his harsh voice carrying over the wind:
‘For behold ... that they might not suffer ... tremble because of pain ... bleed at every pore ... body and spirit ...’
Those not too weak to move pass the time picking oakum and bickering. Some tend the livestock, some the men. Some swab and disinfect below deck, some holystone above. I sit alone - cut off, although whether this is because of my silence or theirs, I cannot say.
When the sun has gone, I lie in my bunk and think of George. I try to print his four year old face on my memory, but it is her split face that comes to me, her wound the crescent shape of the moon. As the night deepens, I let myself think of George’s father, James Greenacre, the cabinet-maker. Fifteen years we had spent together, when he announced his decision to marry Hannah Brown. For the money, he said, but I knew it was not. I knew it was for her smooth skin, her long white neck, her silvery laugh, like dappled sunlight falling on leaves. He killed her in a passion that he never showed me, but he cut her up with his usual carpenter’s precision and dispensed the pieces with his customary calm: the legs to Camberwell, the torso to Kilburn.
I heard him recite the Hangman’s Psalm at the foot of the scaffold, but I could not watch as the rope dropped.
Fill me with joy and gladness;
Let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins.
Two weeks out from Cabo Verde, the air turns thick and lifeless. The sea is as calm as milk. The crew say we are to cross the equatorial line tonight and that there will be a ceremony. Their preparations are in full swing, despite the humidity. They will not say what the ritual involves. Whether it involves us.
At dusk, the Captain sends us below deck and locks the hatches. From here, in the growing darkness and stifling heat, I attempt to interpret the broken shouts and slivers of laughter that filter down into the hold. A young girl, Mary, lies on the bunk closest to me. In the half light, I can see the outline of her swollen form. She breathes rapidly, clutching her stomach, her skin slick with sweat. I would like to offer her some assurance, but I fear that my voice, my touch, would frighten her.
Tar begins to drip from between the boards overhead, sticky and warm like beads of blood.
At nine o' clock, the hatches slide open. Cautiously, the women edge out and wait, uneasy, in the stillness. There is only the occasional cat’s paw of wind and the slosh of gentle waves slapping the boat. Even the stars have hidden and the night is as black and wet as ink.
Out of the darkness a gong booms and then the crew are here, vaulting over the bow and onto the foredeck, their lanterns illuminating strange, fishy monsters. The Captain is King Neptune, clothed in the skin of a porpoise, its snout towering high above his head. He runs forward, roaring, the shadows bouncing off the prongs of his trident as it swoops and strikes. His nereids race behind him trailing slimy wigs of wet seaweed, their faces and chests smeared oily red and black. As they advance, women scream and flail, running into and over each other, thrashing and scrambling to escape the thrusts of Neptune’s pitchfork and the lurches of his drunken followers.
From this mayhem, a scream goes up. Mary has been knocked over, or kicked, or worse and lies writhing on the deck, spewing water. This I know. This I can do. There is no time for me to wonder whether this is the right thing: I grab two of the girls and together we lift Mary into the hold. Back below deck, I order some women to boil water and others to fetch clean linen. Some of the crew follow us into the hold but quickly back away when they realise what is happening. The hold is transformed into a hive, and Mary is the queen, dripping in honey.
By dawn, I know that the baby will not come on its own. Mary is exhausted and, in her distended belly, the child has stopped moving. I run to fetch the surgeon. He has been waiting for us and is dressed and ready. We hurry together down the steps and into the hold, where the group of women part to allow him through. We have given Mary our portions of rum to prepare her for the cut that will kill or save.
I grip Mary’s hand and try to calm her.
‘I’m here,’ I tell her. ‘I’m here.’
In the dark and the wet and the heat, a child is born. Conceived in sin and born in iniquity.
Day by day, the boy and his mother grow stronger. Piece by piece, I begin to put myself back together. In the sickberth, the surgeon teaches me to apply poultices to suck out heat; to apply leeches to suck out bad blood. I rub butter onto burns and ointments onto whip marks. I help mix and apply the herbs which will heal Mary’s wound. I swab and sew and bandage and cleanse. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
When I have finished helping the surgeon, I go and sit with a group of women on deck: they are fishing. They cast lines over the sides and wait, filling the time with their stories. A former kitchen girl from Cornwall relates how she came to be here, adrift in this floating cage. I do not tell them my tale. They will have heard many versions, but not mine. One day soon I will tell them, but not yet.
Finally, a line twitches and the women closest to it rush to reel it in, drawing from the water a glorious, thrashing albacore which, in its death throes, glimmers gold, then emerald, then black. But before they can drag it fully into the boat, the fish tears itself from the hook and shoots back into the sea, droplets of water springing like diamonds from the arc of its back.
We stand up and watch as the fish dives under the grey-green water. Its shadow is briefly visible beneath the surface as it darts into the depths, and then it is gone.
© Anna Mazzola, 2012
Anna Mazzola is a human rights solicitor who decided she wanted to do something more creative. She's started writing short stories and recently came in the top six in the New Writer competition. She's also just started a novel. She lives in Camberwell with her husband and baby son.