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Mary Akers

House of Refuge     

             Keeper Bunker maintained a careful record of misfortune. In his logbook, our tragedy read thusly: April 19, 1886, the brigantine JH Lane, Alonzo Shute master, bound from Matanzas, Cuba, to Philadelphia, wrecked fourteen and a half miles north of Jupiter Lighthouse, on a reef three-quarters of a mile from Florida’s shore. One-thirty in the morning, stormy, with a gale blowing ENE, a low tide, and high seas. Six crewmembers were rescued, among them the captain’s wife.
             The words in his logbook represent only the barest of facts.
             For instance, a captain’s wife does not always set sail with gladness. Alonzo knew I feared the perpetually rolling sea—he has known me all my life—and did his best to allay my fears, but the creaking of the hull at night, the slapping of the waves that lulled him sweetly off to sleep, drove me to near insanity.
            I admit to a certain nervousness of constitution. My mother would tell you I have always been this way: “A nervous child, Madeleine.”
             After our rescue, the keeper’s wife took great pains to make me welcome, delighted as she was to have a female refugee. I was grateful for her kindness, but did not wish to be coddled, for coddling meant I had a loss to bear, and that I refused to accept.
             She fed us immediately—a noon meal that she called dinner—and despite the anxious night, most of us, the men especially, proved glad of food. Over bacon, beans, and a heavy, pudding-like gruel, Sarah told us of our rescue, already making a story of the peril we had faced.
              “That storm blew you in late.” She dished a second helping of the steaming pudding onto each plate. “Come up out of nowhere. Samuel thought sure there’d be a wreck come morning. Climbing into bed, he said as much.”
             She poised the serving spoon over my plate; I put out a refusing palm that went unseen or unheeded, and she heaped a fresh mound upon my half-eaten pile. I took a small bite and moved the remainder around with my fork.
             The German, August Fuhrman, held his laden spoon aloft. “Vas ist this?”
             The question appeared to please her. “Spoonbread. My mother’s recipe. You like it?’
             “Is gut.” August opened wide his mouth and shoveled in the soggy porridge. Although uncharitable, I detested him at that moment, seeing in him a gluttonous sponge (who had throughout the journey taken more than his share at every mealtime) while my own husband was still out there, cold, wet, and certainly hungry. I pushed my plate away.
             “It’s best made with fresh milk, but I only get the tins here. Supply boat comes first of the month. Sam rows out in the skiff and brings back provisions, takes out my letters.” She pointed to a desk on which a stack of envelopes sat, bound with twine. “Writing keeps away the loneliness,” she said, smiling while her eyes drooped. “I do love this house. What we do is important…” Her voice trailed off.
             “Ja, ist important,” bellowed the German. He was entirely too hearty for a crewman without a ship.
             Sarah smiled, encouraged. “Samuel went out looking, first light. Nine o’clock, he came back and said he’d spotted your ship—what was left of it—and took off again, rowing down-coast for help.” She looked around the table. “Were there two boats when he got there?”
             “Tree,” said John Ahiskog, the tall, austere Finn. “The boats were tree.” He wiped a hand down his face, trapping a few grains of gruel deep in his beard. I resisted the urge to remove them. Such melancholy tidiness seemed out of place, given that only hours before we had been clinging desperately to the bottom of a capsized lifeboat.

            Just as I could not have told you all the things about the ship that my husband’s log would tell (371 tons, out of Matanzas, Cuba, bearing $13,640 worth of molasses in its hold) so I had little sense of our position on the ocean that night. I only know that the storm carried us too close to shore. Our ship grounded in shallow water and the crew dropped anchor and converged upon the deck. The wind whipped our ghostly blowing nightclothes.
             Johann Jacobsson, first mate, offered an apologetic nod, perhaps ashamed at being seen thus; I offered a grim smile of reassurance. Three fortnights at sea, and we were not so modest as at the start of our journey.
             The ship jerked and strained. The groans of the hull and the dread in the faces of the men made my knees quail. I sought Alonzo on the quarterdeck, while sliding and nearly tumbling overboard in my slippers. A foamy spindrift flew through the air; wet strands of hair blew about my head, whipping my face with all the fury of the wind.
             Even as the tide was low (the very cause of our grounding, insisted Keeper Bunker, hoping to mitigate—for my sake—my dear husband’s culpability, I know), the seas flew high against us. When Alonzo looked up from the helm to see me struggling toward him, I caught, for a moment, a look that contained all the fears of bringing me on board that I knew he felt but had not expressed. Just as quickly, the uncertainty in his eyes vanished, but fear continued to prickle around my hairline.
             As I reached the lifeboat, a great rending groan vibrated through the soles of my slippers and there came a smell so pungent—so distressing and pungent—I knew at once that the sweet molasses—the thirteen thousand dollars of molasses—was mingling with the waves. Had it not been the blackest of nights, I am certain we would have seen the broken barrels rolling out to sea. Alonzo’s answering groan told me that he, too, had smelled defeat.
             With no time to contemplate the loss, Alonzo hoisted me into the lifeboat. The Lane’s crew (a German, a Brit, a Swede, a Finn, and a fellow Mainer) climbed in. Alonzo manned the ropes and lowered us into the sea. He called down a promise to join me soon then left to attend his floundering ship.
             My husband has always been a man of his word.
             The lifeboat descended toward the raging sea. I clung to its sides. As if to answer my fears, a wave caught our craft broadside and flipped it over. In a blur of motion and wetness, I found myself underneath the very boat that had been intended to save us. The arms and legs of the crew thrashed in the water around me. A heavy foot tangled in my nightgown.
             When a pair of strong hands gripped my shoulders I was certain I would be saved. But the hands pushed at me until I sank. I surfaced once and saw or sensed August Fuhrman, mouth twisted up in fear, mustache hanging soggy and bedraggled at the corners of his gasping mouth, sour breath assaulting my face. In trying to save himself, he was drowning me! Down again I went beneath his heavy paws.
             Fighting a rising panic, I held my breath and went under as he made to climb atop me. Avoiding August’s desperate, grasping hands, I surfaced outside the overturned boat and called into the darkness, “Alonzo?”
             Thomas Jones, the Englishman, answered. “Mrs. Shute?” His reedy voice cracked—all of seventeen, he was.
             “Yes.” I sounded shaky, even to myself. A chill crept up from my churning legs. “Alonzo?”
             “He is not here, Mrs. Shute.”
             “He will find us,” rasped the smoky voice of Henry Whitlock, the other gentleman from Maine, a Downeaster. Even in the darkness and the turmoil, their voices were distinct.
             The Finn, John Ahiskog, spoke with authority, and near-perfect English, from a point across the keel. “Hold the gunnel,” he said. I located the Y of an oarlock and grasped it tightly.
             Our pitiful capsized boat lifted and fell. We bobbed with it. Each time a wave rose around my neck, my lungs tightened in fear. I shivered violently and continuously.
             When a large swell slapped against us, I gasped, swallowing a mouthful of seawater. My stomach churned in response. I clenched my teeth but the contents of my stomach climbed my anxious gullet and launched into the waves. I felt my face flush with mortification, glad of the darkness, but certain that the men had heard me retch.
             Some time into our ordeal I thought to tie the sash of my nightgown onto the oarlock, thus giving my frozen fingers some relief. I fought to keep my nightgown close around my shivering legs and held my knees curled up and close together to preserve any small bit of warmth.
             A few hours later (or had it been only minutes?), the Swede, Johann Jacobsson, informed us very calmly that he was letting go. Those of us still lucid tried to talk him into hanging on but some time later, when the storm eased and the seas became flat and calm, I realized Johann was no longer there.
             I dozed for a short time. Inconceivable, but I must have, for I remember Alonzo floating beside me, admonishing me to hold on, that help was coming. I came to with a start, expecting to see my husband, but there was only the sky, lightening all around us.
             The sun tipped above the horizon, revealing my fellow shipmates snugged around the boat. We were a desperate lot. Sometime in the night August had come out from under the boat and was now one of the five who remained.
             I stared at the empty shoreline that spoke no hope of rescue, at the splintered ship that had been my husband’s pride and joy, at the endless ocean that sought with every wave to consume us, but was careful not to look into the surrounding faces of four men clinging desperately to life.
             I fixed my gaze on the spine of the overturned lifeboat. I memorized the knots and seams of her hull. I fought a heaviness in limb and spirit.
             At noon, so Keeper Bunker has said, we were rescued. I could not even climb into the boat; three strong men dragged me ingloriously aboard.

             As the lone shipwrecked female, I was given a room to myself at the House of Refuge. My berth was at the terminus of a narrow stairwell, up a set of steep steps, just under the exposed eaves of the gable. It had rough pine floors—an attic, converted—and I was very grateful.
             From the room’s sole window, I had a view that faced the sea; I could watch for my husband’s return. Mrs. Bunker had shown me the room, remarking, “We don’t get many ladies here,” and handed me a dress of her own that was too large in both bosom and waist but was warm and dry and welcome. My soggy nightclothes she took modestly, through a crack in the mostly-closed door; my slippers had long before been swept from my feet. I hadn’t even noticed when they drifted away.
             Once in my room alone, I took out Alonzo’s log—Mr. Bunker had salvaged it from the Lane, wedged between the heavy sextant and the ship’s sideboard. I stared at the tidy scrawl, the pinched letters, high and cramped. I touched the page then brought it to my lips, closed the book and held it close.
             A deep sleep overtook me and I dreamed of Alonzo knocking at the door. “Come in,” I cried, elated. Sarah softstepped in and was gone again as quickly as I roused. By morning light I saw a nightgown at the foot of my bed; I had slept, fully clothed, atop the spread.
             I arose, rumpled as I have ever been, and looked out the window. The day was dawning blue and lovely. I smoothed my hair and dress, then paused at the closed door, listening for my husband’s familiar timbre. I did not hear it.
             What I did hear was the German’s loud voice declaring that a woman onboard was a wish for trouble. After I had composed myself, I opened the door and stepped out. And my stockinged feet landed in . . .wetness? Feeling cross—for what else does a wet step engender?—I told myself that our proprietress was very busy and so to be forgiven for sloshing her bucket. She had been so quiet I had not even heard her mopping.
             At breakfast very little was said to encourage or discourage me, and yet the mild remarks on the weather and the food felt cruel, dismissive.
             “Mrs. Bunker, might I borrow the spyglass this morning?” I asked, as casually as I was able.
             “Sure you can, honey, but Samuel has it. And please—call me Sarah.”
             “He is out looking?”
             “He is. Don’t you worry, we’ll find your husband.” She petted my hand.
             “Kapitän Shute vill be find,” August said, nodding vigorously. His yellow-white hair shook into his eyes.
             “Yah,” agreed the others, using the universal affirmative of a multilingual crew.
             “Perhaps I will just walk a bit, then. If you will excuse me.” I rose and took my leave. “Thank you for breakfast, Mrs. Bunker.”
             The House of Refuge sat on a small rise. I had not even known such a place existed—a government dwelling built solely to house the shipwrecked and the stranded. It seemed a miraculous thing. Below, the beach alternated between flat sandy stretches and rocky piles. To the north I could see the remains of what had once been my husband’s fine, sturdy ship. She was far away. There was nothing to be done but watch her slowly break apart. The carcass of the Lane held nothing for me now.
             I removed the shoes that Mrs. Bunker had given me (like the dress, a size too large) and walked southward down the beach, scanning as far as my eye could see.
             The ocean to the left and ahead was empty. The woods to my right were short and viney—nothing like the forests of Maine and nothing like the lush rainforests we had seen in Cuba. These trees were scrubby, twisted by perpetually blowing salt winds. The undergrowth was thick and tangled, the plants spiky and threatening.
             An uneven ridge of driftwood, shells, and seaweed paralleled my walk. The ocean had given up her treasures during the heavy seas of the storm and I followed the strandline to a small glass float, unbroken. I picked it up and slipped it into the pocket of the dress.
             Then, tangled in a bit of coarse fishnet, I saw a familiar shape. As I reached for the jumbled mass, a crab scuttled off and a small scream escaped me. It was my husband’s polished wooden comb tangled there; I kneeled onto the sand and delicately pulled away the strands of twine and seaweed. Several tines were broken, but it was Alonzo’s. I brought it to my nose. No trace of him remained. It was salty and waterlogged, but it was his. I pressed it to my cheek and felt the memory of combing his fine, thick hair with my hands on our wedding night when time was slowed and everything was sensation. In that instant I could smell his skin and felt powerfully that he was near.
             “Vast is das?” asked a voice too loudly and too close. A shudder passed over me.
             “A bit of driftwood,” I lied and tucked it quickly into my skirt beside the glass ball.
             “You are finding seeoberteile?” August leaned down and lifted a small shell of spiraling chambers from the sand.
             “Seashells, yes,” I said, and continued walking, hoping he would leave me to my thoughts.
             But August did not leave. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and kept pace beside me, scuffing at the sand with his heavy black shoes. Had those been the shoes he wore on-ship? I could not remember. In any case, they seemed to fit him well enough. I felt exposed in my bare feet and wished I could replace my shoes, but did not want to stop for fear of inviting conversation.
             But conversation came anyway. “Kapitän Shute vill be find,” August offered, and I was suddenly sick to death of this man.
             “Spare me your predictions, Herr Fuhrman,” I said in a quick, icy tone. I had no time to regret my rash outburst because he simply laughed as if I had told a fine joke.
             I quickened my pace, wishing nothing more than to be rid of this ungentlemanly man who would drown a woman to save himself. “My husband is missing,” I reminded him.
             “Missing, ja, but not so long gone.” He touched my elbow.
             I jerked my arm away and turned back toward the House of Refuge. “I do not wish to be touched, Mr. Fuhrman.” Then I walked away so quickly that he would have had to run to catch up with me. Fortunately, he did not.

             At the end of that day, hope was still high. I sat on the porch with Henry and Thomas after dinner, waiting and rocking as the sun dimmed and the distant edge of sea and sky receded.
             The tide was low; the rhythmic slap of Keeper Bunker’s oars grew louder as he approached. When I saw he was alone, the disappointment almost swamped me. He pulled the skiff onto the sand and called, “Thomas, I will need help.” When I stood, too, he said grimly, “Leave the Missus.”
             But I could not stay on the porch and idly wait. I rose to follow Thomas. Henry stayed me gently with his hand. “Not yet,” he said in a voice that made my own throat hurt.
             Through the fading dusk I made out a dark shape in the back of the rescue boat. It was wrapped in a heavy brown cloth and it was in the shape of a body.
             “It isn’t him,” I told Henry. “That is not Alonzo.” I shook my head to reconfirm my statement.
             Thomas made his way to the water. Was it my tortured mind, or was he walking with deliberate slowness? Perhaps he did not care to face what was in the rear of the boat, either.
             I moved Henry’s arm aside and he did not restrain me further.
             Thomas bent over the wrapped form, clenching his jaw so that the tendons stood out on his neck. Keeper Bunker looked up as I approached. “Not a good, idea, Ma’am,” he said. “Thomas and I can handle this.”
             “I want to see.”
             “It ain’t a pretty sight, Ma’am.” He stood between me and the rear of the skiff. “Found the body tangled in the weeds about a mile south of the wreck; a day and a half in the ocean haven’t been kind.”
             “It’s fine,” I said, not knowing if it was or not.
             Thomas peeled back the upper portion of the shroud and I saw at once a shock of dark hair—curly and black. When he pulled it farther down, the skin was white as ivory, the face bloated beyond recognition, seaweed tangled around the ears and twined in the hair. Sand filled the lower lip to overflowing, like a too-large dip of snuff. The eyeballs were horribly gone. Crusted sockets stared back at me, swollen around the brow and cheeks, but the bloated chin was hairless; my Alonzo was bearded. This was not him.
             I cried out, relieved, then just as quickly understood that the clean-shaven face belonged to Johann. Johann who had not been able to hold on a minute more and had announced it so casually. Should we have tried harder to keep him with us? Why had we not? Loss of energy? Lack of will? Was this proof, then, that when we face our final destination we care only for ourselves?
             Keeper Bunker tried to console me, reaching out his arm to encompass my shoulders, but I ducked away and laughed a choking sob. “No,” I said. “This is Johann. Alonzo is still out there.”
             Thomas nodded his agreement and covered the face. He and Johann had been close. I had forgotten that, and when I remembered, leaned toward him and said, inanely, “It will be all right.”
             “He had a wife and two daughters.” Thomas carefully tucked the ends of the shroud beneath his friend’s head. “I suppose I will be writing them a letter.” His face paled, and he touched his abdomen. In the exceedingly reserved tone that is the province of disappointed Englishmen, he said, “I do not relish it.”

             On the second day, a wretched rain descended, along with my spirits. It has always been thus: as the barometer drops, so does the tenor of my blood. The drumming of the rain upon the tin roof did nothing to drown out the noise of my clamoring thoughts. To make matters worse, this morning there was water inside the door of my room. How Mrs. Bunker had managed to slosh water not only outside but also under the door was beyond me. It served merely to further dampen my already soggy mood.
            Breakfast was a thick gruel of oats, sweetened with molasses. When I lifted the spoon to my mouth and smelled the molasses I burst into tears. The spoon fell back into the bowl with a splatter. I ran from the room.  
            As I climbed the stairs, I thought back to when Alonzo and I had been children. We had run with a mob that played our days away. Kick the can, and king of the mountain for any pile of any thing climbable. Alonzo and I had been friends, never passionately attracted, but rather the best of friends, intimately inclined. Even as children our families often joked that we would one day marry. I, for one, believed it every time.
            If anything, Alonzo and I knew one another too well. It was the classic case of finishing the other’s sentences, of knowing when he was out of sorts, sometimes before he knew. Alonzo was my balm, my salve, my comfort. My twin, separated at birth, as we used to jest. The only thing we had not shared was a love of water.
            The next morning, the doorstep was dry, thankfully, but nearer to my bed I found a small wet area. I knew Mrs. Bunker had not entered my room—I slept far too lightly to have missed that. Before bed, I had washed out my one surviving undergarment (Mrs. Bunker had proffered hers, but I could not bring myself to accept that final, utter indignity). Had I sloshed water then? Had I not wrung it out adequately, and in hanging it over the bed rails created a puddle in the night? That could be the only explanation.

            A nagging dyspepsia drove me daily from the confines of the House of Refuge. At home in Maine, I would have the task of cooking, cleaning, keeping all in order, but here, in another woman’s home, I was not afforded that comfort. Perhaps Mrs. Bunker did not understand that the busyness of work would be a balm, but in any case she refused my offers of assistance, saying I had been through enough.
             And so I took my restlessness to the beach, never knowing quite when August would appear. Although I tried to sense his arrival, he often sneaked up on me, appearing like an apparition, and scaring me no less than one.
             The third day, I walked along the coastline, toward the remains of the ship. As I approached her shattered hull—over a distance made deceptive by a stretch of treeless sand—a feeling of sadness overcame me. It had been Alonzo’s pride and preoccupation. Our only child. For as long as I had known him he had wanted to captain a ship, and the JH Lane had been the culmination of his dreams. So even I—who had no love-loss for the Lane—felt bereavement when I looked upon her.
             As I walked, I cupped the backbone of Alonzo’s comb in my pocket; I had slept with it under my pillow. In the other pocket, the round smoothness and surprising weightiness of the glass float comforted my otherwise restless palm.
             And yet still I jumped when August spoke behind me. “Guten Tag, Madeleine.”
             That this man should use my first name as an address alarmed me even more than the suddenness of his appearance.
“You must learn not to startle a woman so,” I admonished him. “And I prefer to be called Mrs. Shute.”
             “Voman alone is not safe.” He smiled, but I felt a measure of menace to his words.
             “I am not alone,” I said, stroking the comb in my pocket. “I have my thoughts,” I added, attempting to lighten the mood.
             In the distance, the bulk of the ship was mostly gone, washed who-knows-where. Three longer hull planks remained like ribs, obscenely thrust into the air, perhaps jammed between rocks and so resistant to the waves that passed endlessly around and through them. It was undeniably sad to see such a grand ship so reduced, so denuded.
             August turned his gaze to match mine. “She vas good ship,” he said.
            The fourth night, I felt fatigue upon lying down, finally. I had washed at the basin and donned Mrs. Bunker’s nightgown and lifted the window for one last look toward the sea. In the darkness, I could find only the whitecaps, but their soft, rolling light comforted me in a way I had not been comforted by the sea before. For the first time I listened for the sound of the waves as I drifted off to sleep, finding peace in the perpetual slapping of the shore.
            I slept through the night, mercifully, and in the morning, lingered as the sun’s first light appeared, then intensified. I swung my feet over the bed and moved to dress, only to find myself standing in yet another puddle. This one, surely the result of my late night ablutions, but no less annoying when it was of my own making than when I had not known its source.
            On that day’s walk, a warm breeze off the ocean made me think of our last night in Cuba. It was a magical place, the harbor filled with the bustling noise of human activity, the nearby forests echoing with the most amazing animal sounds—birds or monkeys, I could not discern. The air was warm and moist and a daily afternoon rainshower cleansed the streets and added sparkle to the wares of the women at market. There were peppers and fruits of every shape and color, and Alonzo let me assist in choosing what provisions we would bring onto the ship to resupply the larder. We purchased many limes at absurdly low cost.
             But even before that, we’d offloaded our ice delivery. Great chunks of lake Quinnabacock had been cut the previous winter and stored in sawdust for the trip. They had only diminished slightly in size, and the Cubans were thrilled by the ice. It was a magical thing—to think that someone in the world had no knowledge of ice or winter or even snow. I had never considered that someone might not know what cold felt like.
             After the ice was removed, our ship, lightened, rose considerably in the water. It would be a day at harbor before the molasses merchants brought their cargo and loaded it into our hold, so that night we spent in the town of Matanzas. There was a holiday or a celebration underway; it was not clear what the people were celebrating, but they were a happy lot, singing and dancing, the women in colorful dresses and turbaned heads, the music vibrant with a syncopated beat that made me tap my toes. A toothless old woman approached and held out an arm draped with woven necklaces. I selected a finely knotted one, tan in color, with a small shell that fell just above my bosom. I did not know when I should ever wear such a thing in Maine, but there on the island it felt both natural and exotic. As did I.
             Alonzo came alive on Cuba’s shore. His exuberance made me open to the island’s charms. At a cantina beside the marketplace, we ate a plate of small black beans mixed with rice and a wonderfully aromatic spice. There was an unknown meat, marinated and roasted on a spit, and bananas that were savory like a potato. I tried the proprietress’s rum and burned a trail of fire down my throat. Alonzo laughed and had another sip himself—my ordinarily temperate husband—then asked the owner if she had something a woman could drink. The bent old woman emerged with a cup of cloudy liquid that tasted of citrus and coconut. It was delicious, but my head became quite dizzy.
             We laughed and strolled the warm city streets, a breeze blew us arm-in-arm to the beach, where I sat with my bare feet against the sand. It was heady and romantic, even for a couple of old friends like us.
             I smiled, toes in the sand again, to remember us so.
              Then—as if he waited nearby until some memory softened my features—August appeared. His face was that of a handsome man’s, but he lacked charm or grace and so did not appear handsome. I have never found looks to be a good indicator of character. A lovely outside has been known to belie an ugly interior.
             Such was the case with August.
             “You must be careful, Madeleine,” he said, bending down to remove a tangled bit of driftwood from my skirts. I shivered at the implied intimacy of him lifting the edge of my dress and jerked it from his grasp. “You vill soon be pulling the whole beach along vith you.”
             “My skirts are not your concern,” I said and turned away from him. I took a step to leave but he moved in front of me and held my arm. I pulled against him, slid through his grasp down to my wrist. He held it fast.
             “Madeleine,” he moaned. His eyes rolled back. He clutched my wrist so tightly that I felt the bones grinding against one another. Tears sprang to my eyes. He drew me to him.
             “You’re hurting me,” I cried, hoping it would pull him out of the strange trance he was in, call him to his senses.
             “I vould not hurt you, Madeleine. You know that I vould not.”
             His grip was as an octopus, sliding and tightening around me. I cursed my foolishness for having wandered so far from the House of Refuge. I could barely breathe. I cried out, but the wind blew my words down the beach; there was no one to hear me.
             He advanced, pressing me backward. Waves lapped against my ankles and water spilled into my too large shoes. The panic rose in me until I couldn’t breathe.
             August’s eyes were smiling as if he had told a clever joke; my struggle seemed to excite him. When he pressed closer, I lifted my heavy shoe and stomped upon his instep. He stumbled and loosened his grip. I shook my wrists free and ran down the beach, heading for the House of Refuge.
             “Your husband is not coming back!” August yelled at my retreating back. “Your husband is dead.”
             I hate you, I thought. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. Hot tears ran down my cheeks, cooling in the wind as I ran. My shoes flopped around until I mustered the nerve to turn my head to see if I was being followed. I was alone. August walked in the opposite direction. I could only see the hard curve of his hateful back; I despised that back with all my powers of loathing. Then I bent down and removed my shoes, poured the saltwater from them.
             The tears would not stop. What ever would I tell the others? I hoped that no one would notice my disheveled appearance. Even more, I hoped that I would pass no one on the way to my room and could grab a few hours of peace to still my raging heart. Even though I hated every inch of August, I knew that what he said could be true. It made me hate him all the more.
             Mrs. Bunker met me at the door. “My goodness, Madeleine. What has happened to you?”
             “Nothing,” I said, patting my hair and smoothing my skirts. “I have been to see the ship.” I don’t know why I didn’t tell the truth. Perhaps I worried I had somehow encouraged August, or that she would think I had. So I said nothing. And at dinner I politely passed the boiled potatoes, flinching only when his hand touched mine.
            Once we were all eating, Keeper Bunker tapped his glass and informed us that we would be leaving the following morning. We would take a borrowed boat to Stuart, a buggy to Fort Lauderdale, then board a sidewheel mail steamer, the Isabel, on her twice-monthly trip to Charleston. From Charleston, we would board another steamer bound for New York City and then a railway train for the final leg of our return to Maine. It would take more than a week.
             Keeper Bunker spoke until I could contain myself no longer. “What of Alonzo? Am I to leave without him?”
             I expected the others to join in my protest, but there was an uncomfortable silence. I looked around the table at these men I had considered my friends. “Have we given up, then? Has the search been called off?”
             “Mrs. Shute—” began our host.
             “What is the matter with all of you? Do you not understand that he is still out there? We cannot leave.”
             Thomas cleared his throat. “Keeper Bunker has scoured the coastline. He has searched for days.”
             “So I am to just leave? With no sign of my husband? I am to go home…and what? Live my life? Waiting for Alonzo to walk through the door? Hoping for a telegram to arrive and tell me he is on his way?”
             “Vat if he ist gone?” asked August, his features barely holding back the glee.
             “You!” I shrieked. I felt the shrillness rising up within me, powerless to stop it. “You, who would force your affections on me, even when my husband is lost?” I looked around the table, unable to contain myself. “Do you know what this man did?”
             Henry took his napkin from his lap and set it upon the table. He moved toward me but I pushed at the air as he approached. “Do not try to placate me. Do not remove me for my own good.” Thomas rose as well, and I felt the walls closing in. “Does no one believe me?” I looked around desperately and called to Mrs. Bunker. She entered drying her hands on a towel.
             “My heavens, what is going on in here? Madeleine?” Doubt raised her words at the end.
             “Sarah,” I said, desperation leading me to her first name, “you saw me today. When I came in from my walk.”
             “You were flustered,” she said, addressing the men around the table. “All torn up by something or other. I figured you were mourning.”
             “I cannot mourn what I do not…” I let the sentence trail off, then recaptured my thought. “You saw me, Sarah. I ran all the way from—nearly as far as the wreck—and the reason I ran was because Mr. Furhman . . . attacked me.”
             Sarah’s sharp intake of breath was followed by the group turning to hear August’s response. Without waiting for him to speak, I continued. “He forced his affections on me. He was not gentle.”
             “Mrs. Shute,” said August, “does not know vat she ist saying.” He nodded kindly in my direction and I could sense the men believing him and pitying me. My fury and indignation deepened.
             “I am clear-headed. I know what happened.”
             “She was very upset,” agreed Sarah. “Are you sure you did not threaten her?”
             “I vould remember, had I threatened a grieving vidow,” said August.
             At the word widow, all sense left me; I lifted a handful of food from my plate and flung it in his direction. Mashed potatoes landed against the side of his face and stuck in his drooping mustache. He wiped them away calmly and said, “She ist hysterich.”
             Sarah came quickly to my side and led me away. “He’s lying,” I screamed. “He’s a liar. He tried to drown me, too. He is not the man he seems.” Sarah took me to the divan and sat beside me while I heaved and cried. I tried to shake her off and rise but her bulk was greater than mine. I slumped back down and sobbed against her breast. I kept crying, “He attacked me.”
             When the shaking had subsided, Mr. Bunker entered with a steaming drink. It smelled strongly of spirits and gently warmed on the way down. I quaffed it in three long drafts and sat there with the residuals of my extended cry shuddering through my body. I was suddenly very tired.

            Mrs. Bunker helped me to my room. I pulled the covers over my head, curled into a ball and sobbed. I must have slept, also, for I dreamt of Alonzo—that he climbed into bed with me. It was a salve to have him there, snuggled tight against me. After a time, he murmured that he could not stay, that he must go. I begged him not to leave, but in the dream he told me I would be all right. I said I was worried, where was he, couldn’t he come back? He said not to be afraid, that he was fine and warm and dry. “I will always be here,” he said. I believed him and I slept.
             The dream had been so real that I awoke with wet cheeks, then turned over and found a large wet spot in the bed. Had I cried that much? Had I lost my faculties in the night? Had there been a storm as I slept and the attic roof leaked?

             At breakfast, amid discussions of the impending trip, the men politely ignored me. The prior evening’s unhappy incident was not mentioned. I wished that someone would bring it up, so that I would know I was not crazy, but the crew bristled with impending departure.
             “The boat will arrive at noon,” began Keeper Bunker. “We will—”
             “My roof leaked during the night,” I said.
             “The rainstorm,” I said. “It caused the roof to leak.”
             “I didn’t hear any storm.” Mrs. Bunker entered the dining area, dishtowel in hand.
             “But—”I looked around the room, “—my bed. It’s wet.”
             “You were very upset.” Thomas’ voice was gentle.
             “The barometer was normal,” Keeper Bunker said softly. “I checked before extinguishing the lamp.”
             “I heard nothing,” added August.
            “There was a storm,” I insisted. “And the roof sprung a leak.” I looked around at them, feeling a sudden chill.
             “Wetness in your room?” Sarah tossed the dishtowel over her shoulder.
             “It’s been happening all week,” I said. “The first time, it was outside the door, from your mopping.”
             “I haven’t,” said Sarah, concern softening her features. “I mopped before you came.”
             “And the day after that, it leaked under my door.” I looked from face to face. On each, I saw a flat pity that angered me. “It must have been your mopping.”
             “I haven’t mopped.”
             “Then you carried water, and it sloshed outside my door.”
             “Madeleine, you are tired. It has been a trying week. It is all right.” She moved closer and touched my arm.
             I shrugged her off. “It is not all right. All week long, the mornings have delivered some form of wetness to my room.”
             “Is your mind,” said August. “Like before.”
             “I did not imagine it.” Tears pushed at the backs of my eyes. I blinked hard against them and stared into the corner of the room. A fine crack ran down the plaster where the two walls met. It forked at the juncture of the floor.
             I thought about the whole week of water, how each morning the puddle had been nearer to my bedside. And I began to understand that the water was not from Mrs. Bunker’s mopping. It was not from my carelessness with the basin. It was not from the rain. It had appeared every morning after a night of worry over my husband. It had moved closer and closer to me. Last night, when I dreamt of Alonzo in the bed, I woke to water on the sheet beside me.
             He had been here after all. He had kept his promise.
            “I cannot leave,” I said, under my breath. Desperation flooded over me. I had wanted a sign, hoped every day for a message from my husband. And I’d had not one sign, but five, each night that I had slept in the House of Refuge. I had slept and dreamed and Alonzo had been there, too.
             I looked around the table. The same people were no longer sitting there. Instead I saw the faces of those who had survived, who would go on, who had not lost what I had lost.
             “Excuse me.” I placed my napkin on the table, stood and left, without explanation. I climbed the small attic stairs slowly and thought of our days in Cuba, of the grand boat my husband had been so proud to captain, of the preciousness of our enduring childhood friendship, of the children we would never have ourselves. I pulled the covers back and crawled beneath them. Until it was time to leave, I would lay there, my arm across the wet spot, and say good-bye.


Author’s note:
In 1875, the US Treasury approved construction of ten Houses of Refuge to “help those in peril upon the seas” and to provide a safe haven for survivors of shipwrecks along Florida’s sparsely populated east coast. Gilbert’s Bar, the last remaining House of Refuge, still stands on its original site in Hutchinson Island, Florida.