A tale of pirates, mutiny, and friendship on the high seas, perfect for fans of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
It’s 1663 and there is an extra passenger on board a Dutch merchant ship setting sail for the East Indies. Twelve-year-old Petra has stowed away to escape her abusive father. But she quickly realizes that surviving for months at sea will be impossible without help. So when Bram, the half-Dutch / Half-Javanese son of the ship’s carpenter, finds her hiding spot, Petra convinces him to help her stay hidden . . .and help disguise her as a boy.
If Petra is discovered and exposed as a girl, she could be tossed overboard, or worse . . . returned to her father. And if Bram is exposed for helping her, he could lose the only home—and family—he has. As tensions rise on the ship, with pirates attacking, deadly illness, and even mutiny, Petra and Bram face impossible decisions that test their friendship and threaten their dreams of freedom.
Told in alternating voices and filled with secrets and intrigue, this richly researched novel is historical fiction at its best.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
April 1663 in the City of Amsterdam
“Can you fix me up, Miss Petra?”
I paused, knife in the air. Cor, the baker’s boy, stood at the kitchen door, gnawing his bottom lip and shuffling from foot to foot. Poor dull Cor. Pocked cheeks, fish eyes, no fat. Needing help today of all days, and still so much to do before Father returned.
“Show me,” I said.
Cor held up his hand, biting his lip. The baker’s oven had sucked the flesh from his palm and boiled it.
“Can you fix me?” he asked again.
I could. Human skin is remarkably strong. Albertina says you can pull a needle through it as hard as you like, hard enough to drag a barge off spring mud, and skin won’t tear. Nay, it’s what’s underneath the skin that’s most delicate, especially the parts not visible to the human eye. Like the liver. Or the soul.
I looked down at my half-chopped onion, pictured the empty pantry. Albertina was late with the shopping, and we’d never finish dinner on time. Father would be especially hard tonight. He hadn’t come home yesterday and his choler was always highest after a night out.
I should tell Cor to go. Let the baker pay for the surgeon.
And see the hand rot and Cor dead of infection before the week was out.
“Come inside,” I said, waving him in. “You should try wearing a mitt once in a while.”
“I do!” Cor said. “Only I forget sometimes.”
Cor and I stood nose to nose though he was two years older than my twelve. He glanced at my cheek. The swelling was gone, but I knew the bruise was still there. It would fade in a day or two, and Father would replace it with another soon enough.
“Sit down,” I said, steering Cor to a chair.
“Petje!” Albertina shouldered through the door, her arms weighted with heavy baskets. “Oh Lord! Town was packed. How now, Cor? Burned your hand again?”
She plunked the baskets on the table and a dead chicken spilled out. I set up our medicines next to its head.
“Any bleeding?” Albertina asked.
I held up Cor’s hand by the wrist and she squinted at it. “Just blisters,” I said.
“What will you use?”
She was testing me out of habit. All of Amsterdam knew our housekeeper had a way with herbs and a needle, and merchants and stable boys alike came to her—and lately me—instead of the surgeon. Our services were free and our healing better.
“Honey and soap to take the fire out, then an oil of rose plaster for the mending,” I said, smearing on the first. Cor was trying to be brave, but if he chewed that lip any harder, I’d be stitching it up next.
Albertina dunked the hen into a pot of boiling water in the hearth while I spread the plaster and wrapped Cor’s hand in linen.
He left with his usual idiot’s grin back in place. But I faced the empty pots and felt the bile drain from my spleen.
“Tina, the time!”
“Don’t worry, mopje, we’ll make it.” She put her hands on my shoulders and bent to look into my face. “I promise.”
Albertina had been our housekeeper since my parents’ marriage, and a mother to me since my own had died five years past. She kissed the top of my head, and I swallowed my fear, choked it down from mouth to throat to chest until an uncracked nut lodged in my belly.
I unpacked hunks of meat, ropes of blood sausage, a pile of spiny artichokes. Yellow butter sweated in a pewter dish next to a spray of crimson coxcomb flowers. Beneath the table, a leaf of onion paper dirtied the black-and-white checkerboard floor. I snatched it up.
I glanced at the clock on the shelf. Just past four. Father would be home in two hours, but we’d need at least three to make his meal. He’d not stand for lateness. The nut in my belly swelled to a peach stone.
Albertina pulled the chicken from the pot.
“Let me pluck it,” I said. “Save your fingers.”
She didn’t argue. Albertina’s knobby old hands were stiff, and she knew I’d finish the job in half the time. I took the bird from her, and she reached for my face, tilted it toward the light.
“Swelling’s down,” she said, examining my cheek. “The leeches did their work. Mopje, I could—”
I jerked my chin away. “We’ll never finish in time.”
“It won’t make a difference if we do or not.”
She was right, of course. Nothing helped Father’s wretched mood—I had the bruises to prove it.
Albertina set a chair in the doorway, half inside, half out in the afternoon sun.
“Sit,” she commanded.
I obeyed, then tucked the bird head-down between my knees and began yanking out its feathers. The cat, Henry Hudson, watched me greedily with one yellow eye and a hollow socket.
I stuffed fistfuls of feathers into a sack, my mind racing over the tasks that would keep Father’s anger at bay. He hated mess, and I’d give him no reason to complain. No spot or smear on any window or wall. Everything in its proper place.
And so today I’d changed the bed linens, even though it wasn’t Wednesday, polished the silver, scrubbed the floors, scented the drawers with dried lavender. For dinner I’d serve all his favorite foods.
I was such a fool.
While I plucked and worried, Albertina used my knife to chop carrots. She looked up at me without stopping her cutting and grinned around the clay pipe that dangled from her mouth. “The Dutch East India Company fleet’s in,” she said. “Lord, Petje, you should see them tall ships, all readying themselves to cross the seas. I had to squint my eye to see the tops of the masts. And the sailors! I swear I saw one skip right up just as easy as you and me would stroll through a garden. There must have been thousands, swarming everywhere like ants—all shouting and hollering and hammering and loading. I’ll take you to see for yourself tomorrow.”
How could she talk of tomorrow when every minute that ticked by brought us closer to failure and fury? But that was Tina. Always urging me to seek out the good bright bits, while I begged her to guard against the dark.
“Perhaps,” I said, spitting a chicken feather from my lips.
Tina finished the stew while I laid the dining table in the parlor. A city of porcelain, silver, and linen covered the polished wood—and God’s blood if it didn’t take half an hour to set it all. I filled Father’s glass with wine and mine with small beer and carried in plates of food from the kitchen.
Outside, the church bells rang six o’clock; he’d return any moment now. I dashed through the house, checking for details left undone. I scanned the front room, the many gifts Father had received from grateful traders, trinkets he’d imported from India and Arabia, the French-made spinet I’d never learned to play. Each one dusted and properly placed.
Back to the kitchen, where Albertina swept sawdust from the floor. The stew simmered over a low fire, scenting the air with nutmeg and lemon. I grabbed a rag and scrubbed the table.
“He’ll be late,” Albertina said, exhaling a bit of smoke around her pipe.
“You can’t know that.”
Still no sign of him. I ran upstairs to the bedroom Albertina and I shared, where I kicked off my leather slippers and shrugged out of my house robe. Cold air puckered my skin. My black dress, white petticoats, collar, and cuffs I laid on the bed. My linen shift and dirty apron would go into tomorrow’s wash.
I took an extra minute to use the chamber pot before putting on fresh linen and the rest of my clothes and house robe. Crisp folds, spotless bodice. Nothing for him to find fault with here.
In the small mirror on the wall I glimpsed a mess of hay stuffed under a skewed white lawn cap. I untied the cap and whipped a brush through the tangled strands, then pulled my hair tight enough to stretch the corners of my eyes before tying it up again.
With a candlestick in one hand and the chamber pot on my hip, I made my way downstairs, mindful of my sloshy burden. A spider had sewn its web in the corner of the ceiling; a handprint on the landing window glowed in the yellow light. How had I missed them?
Albertina sat in the kitchen, puffing on her pipe. She too had freshened up and wore a clean apron over her good brown dress. I spied a smudge on one of the blue-and-white baseboard tiles.
“Tina, can you get that?” I asked, pointing at the spot with my chin.
Outside, I peered down the street, searching for his dark form, but no one was out. Just rows of tall houses along the canal, each one different, but all with sweeping gables under tiled roofs with columns of tall windows in their brick faces. In front of the painted doors, white stone steps gleamed like tallow wax in the hazy dusk. At first light tomorrow I’d be out here again scrubbing ours like a good Dutch housewife.
I dropped to my knees, emptied the pot into the canal. I was leaning over the muck, holding my breath and trying not to fall in, when I heard the snap of a walking stick on the stone behind me.
“You look like a scullery maid.”
“Good evening, Father.”
To get the color of blood right, you got to use madder root. It’s got the stain of earth but not the heat of cinnabar. You can’t use real blood for blood ’cause it goes brown when it dries. I know ’cause I tried.
Making red madder paint takes too much time, so you got to buy it. First there’s growing, drying, stripping, and pounding. Then the color-maker cooks the pulp in a barrel for a couple of years. After that he mixes it with some alum and potash powder. Add some oil, and you got paint.
Once, on Java where I’m from, I saw a tiger slink into a rice field and kill a slave boy. Next day, I painted a picture of it. For the blood, I colored the boy’s throat with red madder. Let it drip off my brush onto his chest and sarong. I can see that painting like it’s right in front of me, even though it’s lost six thousand sea miles away on Java. For the tiger’s body, I mixed vermilion with lead white to get orange and cut the coat with black charcoal. But ’twas red madder that covered the animal’s teeth.
If I was painting the sky tonight, I’d use bone black. When I ask the cook right, he makes it up for me. Holds back a few splinters from a cow’s shin or a pig’s spine and chars ’em in a tight oven. Voilà, as the Frenchies say. Night.
I’d dirty the sky with umber, though, for clouds and mist, and spray it with lead-tin yellow for the lights of Amsterdam pissing into the heavens.
“I’ll only be gone a couple of hours, Bram.”
Pa and me stood at the bow rail of the Golden Lion, far and away the biggest ship in the Amsterdam harbor, looking out at the wharf.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
“Take you with me if I could,” Pa said.
He would, too. But it’s against the law for mestizos—mixed-race bastards of Dutch fathers and East Indies mothers—to step foot on Dutch soil. And Dutch soil was what we was looking at. Two years back, when Ma died and I’d no family to take me in, the captain said I could come aboard only if Pa swore I’d never leave the ship anywhere north of Africa. Pa don’t break promises.
He pulled off my knit cap and rubbed my hair. We wore the same sailor’s slops—short baggy trousers, open-collar shirt, short jacket, and neckerchief—and we had the same freckles on our noses, but that was all. His colors was ginger and white, and mine was black and tan.
“Paulus! We’re getting old down here,” yelled a sailor from a skiff waiting below us.
“Right,” Pa said, handing me back my cap. He wasn’t one for chitchat.
He climbed over the rail and down the side of the ship for a night out with his mates. I watched ’em steer around other boats moored in the harbor ’til they got to the dock. The ship’s figurehead, a gold lion, kept lookout with me.
“What are you looking so happy about?” I said to it. “No legs with a stick up your rump. You’re stuck here good as me.”
“Come again, Broen?”
First mate Willem Van Plaes slinked up behind me like a skeleton with skin, all bones, with black eyes sunk in deep round holes. His cuffs and collar was fine lace, like he tried to hide his ugliness with fancy bits. Second to the captain and he’d caught me talking to wood animals.
“Beg your pardon, sir, I was—”
“What of my chair, Broen?”
This morning he’d asked me to make him a seat for his cabin. I hadn’t started.
“I was just going below to work on it now, sir.”
“Good. I expect it finished this evening.”
Which meant I’d be up all night. But there’d be no arguing with him. When the cat o’ nine tails came out of the bag for whippings, ’twas almost always on Van Plaes’s orders.
“As you wish, sir.”
He climbed over the rail without sparing me another word, his frilly trimmings flapping in the breeze.
Jeronimo Lobo and little Louis Cheval was next to go. Lobo was Portuguese and a gunner, and Louis was French and looked after the animals. Both was new to the ship.
“We are going out, Monsieur Bram! To ze alehouses of Amsterdam for to drink and see ladies. You must come with us!” Excitement—or maybe goat spit—made Louis’s straw hair stick up.
“Easy, little Walloon.” Lobo hung an arm around the kidkin, gold earbobs flashing. I’d lay five florins the ladies of Amsterdam would be glad to see him tonight. That cove had the whitest teeth I’d ever seen. And none missing.
“I told you already, wolf, I am Français, not Walloon.” Louis spit over the rail to make his point.
“My deepest apologies, Seigneur Cheval,” Lobo said. “Perhaps you will allow me to pay for my insult with a beer.”
“Mais ouis!” Louis said, cheerly again. “Come with us, Monsieur Bram!”
He called me sir, ’though I was only twelve years to his nine. To Louis I must seem full grown. But which one of us was free to go drinking tonight?
“Leave Broen alone, Louis,” Lobo said. “From what I hear, he never leaves the ship.”
“Why is that, monsieur?”
“Yes, why, Bram? Don’t you like our company?” Lobo said.
“Too much to do,” I said.
“We all ’ave much to do,” Louis said to me, then whispered to Lobo, “I think ’ee does not like us.”
Louis was wrong, but I couldn’t set him straight. I’d have to let him and Lobo think I was some grum ruffian, like the rest of the crew did. I stood there trying not to look as peery as I felt, when Midshipman Johann Majoor came up to us. He was a muscly cove, pink faced and puffed up under his own sway. At fifteen, Majoor was an officer, a job he earned by being born into the right family. Majoor knew the rules about me, even if Louis and Lobo didn’t.
“You’re not thinking of leaving the ship, are you, Broen?” Majoor said.
“Good. And I’m afraid I’ve bad news for you, Lobo,” Majoor said. “You need to help load the last of the cargo before you’re free tonight. Captain’s orders.”
Lobo did a decent job of acting like he didn’t care, but little Louis’s eyes filled with water.
“Come, my man,” said Majoor, holding out his hand to Louis, “how’d you like to get drunk with the officers tonight?”
Even if I’d gone with them, I’d still have been alone. To Pa, I was a boy; to Louis, a man. To Midshipman Majoor, I was a drudge. Among the Lions was men from every Christian country, and some heathen lands too, each with his own ugly story.
But out of all the criminals, ex-slave traders, and family run-outs, ’twas me alone who had no place to go.
Albertina waited for us by the open front door.
“Seigneur De Winter,” she said, using the French title reserved for the wealthy. Albertina knew how to butter his roll. She wouldn’t have lasted all these years in our house if she didn’t. She took the chamber pot from me and stood at attention, back straight, bosom out, as if she were holding a royal banner and not a bowl meant for catching human soil.
“Albertina,” he said, eyeing her from his impressive height.
He hung up his cape, hat, and stick but didn’t bother changing his tall boots for buckle shoes. Father had been handsome once, a stern, broad-shouldered man with a full head of black hair that grew past his shoulders. I knew because his marriage portrait hung on the wall where we dined every day. But the red meanness that had always been inside him now showed in the hard set of his thin lips and the glower of his bloodshot eyes.
I inhaled. He smelled like a tavern, of ale and tobacco. His linen collar was stained, his black doublet wrinkled. Despite the cool air, he was sweating.
“Is supper ready?” he asked.
“Yes, Father. Would you like to eat now?”
His reply was to stride past me into the parlor. Tina caught my elbow and gave it a squeeze. My heart squeezed back.
Father sat at the center of the table and glared at his glass while I topped it off with more wine. He downed half of it, then wiped his pointed beard with two fingers.
I sat across from Father while Albertina served us, looking over his shoulder at the wall where his wedding portrait hung, and beside it, the empty space where my mother’s had been. He took hers down the week after she died. I’d searched the house from loft to cellar and not been able to find it. He must have sold it. Or thrown it into the canal. I could remember her voice and the softness of her neck, but I’d lost her face.
“Olipodrigo, seigneur,” Albertina said as she spooned stew onto his plate.
“I can see that.”
“Petra wanted to make you a special meal. All your favorite foods.”
“Hm,” he grunted. He drank the rest of his wine and Albertina refilled his glass. Then she sat down at the table herself.
I breathed in the meaty richness of olipodrigo and the sweet tang of cabbage salad. Hunger pained me, but my stomach wouldn’t untwist until Father approved the meal.
As if he could sense my distress, he took his time unfolding his napkin and draping it across his lap. Finally he lifted a piece of meat from the pile on his plate. Hen. He held it in front of his face, examining the flesh and bone. A blob of sauce dripped down his hand and onto the salad, staining the white mound. He sniffed the meat, frowned, and put it into his mouth. His frown deepened into a scowl of disgust.
He spit the mashed-up hen back onto his plate.
“You call this food?”
My face burned. Had the stew not cooked long enough?
“Forgive me, Father.”
I sneaked the tip of my little finger into the sauce at the edge of my plate. Pretending to wipe away tears, I tasted it. Not raw. Delicious.
“Perhaps if you tried a second bite?” I said, daring to look at him. He scowled even harder at me. “Or another helping. I’ll give you mine—”
“You contradict me?”
My fingernails cut my palms. “No, Father.”
“Come.” He pushed back from the table.
I exchanged a look with Albertina. What choice did I have? I followed Father to the front room, where he paced in front of the fire. On a small table, a Chinese porcelain figurine faced the wrong way. I’d forgotten to turn it. Three laughing pigtailed boys all in a perfect row and one out of line. I yearned to straighten it.
“You’ve no talent in the kitchen. Let us see if that simple head of yours can remember some basic mathematics. Tell me, girl, when a man invests forty thousand florins in Leiden textiles bound for Java, and the ship founders in the forties, how much money has he lost?”
What madness was this? “Father?”
“How much money has he— Look at me when I speak to you!” He grabbed my chin and yanked my face up.
“Forty thousand florins,” I squeaked through locked teeth.
“So there is something in that head of yours! Now tell me, if a man invests sixty-five thousand florins in a second ship, this one carrying nutmeg from Banda, if this second ship goes down in a storm, how much money has he lost?”
My jaw throbbed in his grip. Any harder and he’d rip it off my face. “One hundred five thousand florins total, Father.”
“Well done!” he thundered. “And now I want you to truly impress me. If a man invests the remainder of his fortune, eighty thousand florins, in a third ship, and this ship is captured by Barbary pirates, how much has he lost?”
It was a trick. The answer he wanted wasn’t a number, though I’d no better idea. I glanced down. Henry Hudson’s yellow eye glinted at me from under a chair. “One hundred—”
“No!” He shoved me and I staggered back toward the open fire. “He has not lost one hundred eighty-five thousand florins. He has lost everything! Everything.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me so close to his face that I could smell his sour breath. “Do you understand me?” He shook me. “Do you?” His spittle sprayed my cheek.
“I believe I—”
“You believe nothing! You know nothing! This”—he let me go and picked up one of the figurines—“is gone.” He threw it against the wall, where it shattered. “And this,” he said, grabbing an ivory tobacco box and smashing it too. “And this!” He spun toward the cabinet and used both hands to push it over. Silver, ivory, porcelain, and glass tumbled from the shelves, and the cabinet crashed on top of the rubble.
“I’m sorry!” I stumbled back, the fire nearly scorching my skirts.
“You are not sorry enough!”
He backhanded my face.
Hot tears blinded me. Oh, he was strong! I ran my tongue over my lip and tasted blood. Father lunged at me with a raised fist. I threw my arms over my head so my shoulder caught the blow.
“Gone!” he screamed. “All gone!” He whipped around, hands tearing at his hair, his red face a wet mess. I’d seen him in a fury before, but never one like this. “Gone!”
This would be no ordinary beating.
He grabbed the poker from the fire and pointed it at me, nostrils flared, chest heaving. I stared at the orange tip, rooted to the ground. His mouth moved but I heard only the rasp of my own breath.
“I’ve nothing left, you sullen, stupid, useless—!”
He drew the poker back, ready to drive it through me. Knuckles white around the handle, arm atremble.
I opened my mouth. The orange tip blurred.
I choked. The orange tip plunged.
“Petra!” Albertina screamed.
Her voice unbound me. I ducked, and glowing iron seared the air where I’d stood a moment before. Father staggered, caught his balance, and aimed to swing again. My heart flung itself against my ribs.
“Petje!” Albertina held open the front door.
I jumped over the rubble.
“Go! Go!” she urged.
I raced down the red brick walk along the canal, ignoring the few people on our street who gaped at the wild girl in her leather house slippers. Father wasn’t far behind—the rap of his footsteps spurred me on faster. I sprinted across a footbridge over the next canal, away from the lights that spilled from the Indigo Barrel, a favorite alehouse of my father’s. I stayed in the shadows, slinking by the House of Sorrows almshouse until I crossed another bridge over the next canal into the apple market, empty now but for a few pieces of rotten fruit. Glancing over my shoulder, I skidded on a chestnut. Father roared, much closer than I thought he could be:
“Petra De Winter!”
I pressed my back against a stall to catch my breath. The market was too open. The narrow streets of the old part of the city would give me better cover. I knew my way there—until this year when I turned twelve I’d gone to junior school in an ancient house not far from the Old Church.
I sprang from the shadows and headed east, past shuttered shops with families visible in the windows of the upper floors. Some of the winding streets were little more than arm’s-length wide. I checked each one to be sure no one was coming down the other end. For I’d more to fear than my father. The Night Guard would be on patrol now that the sun was down. If one of them spotted a girl running through the streets, they’d catch her and bring her home.
My feet were silent in their slippers, but I could hear heavy boots somewhere nearby. The streets were too empty—I could find no place to hide here in the heart of the city. But beyond was the waterfront, swarming with sailors but also full of dark corners where I could stay until Amsterdam’s ten o’clock curfew and then make my escape into the black night. I turned north.
Just ahead was the Dam, a big square with the New Church on one side and the half-built Town Hall on another. From there I could see boats in the Amsterdam harbor.
“Petra!” Father shouted.
He sounded near. I darted right, into a dark lane lit only by red lamps above the doors of the houses.
“Hey, girlie, you looking for a job?”
A woman with a powdered face and a black patch shaped like a heart pasted next to her eye leered at me from a doorway.
An arm slipped around my shoulders. “What’s a little miss like you doing so far from home?” said the sailor whose arm it was.
I’d stumbled upon a part of the city Albertina had never let me visit, and now I understood why. I threw off the arm and ducked away, doubling back the way I’d come, and ran full speed all the way to the waterfront.
Everywhere I looked, casks and crates were stacked high, each marked with the name of its ship. Boats filled the harbor, their silver masts spiking the night sky like quills on a porcupine’s back. A long row of gangplanks lined the pier. Sailors sprang easily down the wobbly boards, laughing. Others milled around the cargo, chatting while they kept guard. The air smelled of wood smoke, tar, salt water, and bilge. I made for the nearest tower of boxes.
A strong hand grasped a hunk of my hair.
The Lion was hushed as she ever gets, what with ’most all hands being ashore. Later tonight, two hundred drunk sailors would come back singing. If I was lucky, Pa’d remember to bring me a beer.
I headed down the hatch to the carpenter’s cabin, which was where Pa and me bunked, him as ship’s carpenter, me as mate. Sometimes we worked in the room under the quarterdeck with the sailmaker, the smith, the cooper, and the other tradesmen who needed room to do their jobs. But there was enough space in our own cabin for small stuff. Our lockers was filled with tools, nails, and the like. We was well stored.
The first time I saw Pa’s digs, I thought maybe he was a criminal and this was his cell. Growing up on an island like Java, sky, air, and water was as natural to me as breathing. Only prisoners lived in the dark with the stink of tallow wax and men who never took a bath. Now I knew Pa and me was lucky. Being head carpenter’s an important job on a ship. ’Twas just us in the cabin.
The ceiling below decks was so low, tall men had to stoop. Me, I could stand straight, but maybe not one day. ’Twas dark in the cabin with just the porthole open and night coming on. I lit a lantern. Sniffed. Tallow wax.
I shook myself like a dog. Bleed and wound me if I was going to moon around just ’cause all the other coves was out and about. I took a pencil from my pocket and spread a scrap of brown paper on a sea chest. Made a quick sketch: three legs, a sturdy seat, and a short back.
Pa never drew things before he made ’em. Instead, he screwed up his face like he tasted sour beer and stood rubbing his chin until he worked the thing out in his head. But I drew everything first. That’s when it turned real. On the paper.
’Twas a simple chair, just a stool with a back, but I rounded the legs and used the side of my pencil to shade it ’til it looked like life. After I built it, the chair would spend the rest of its days under Van Plaes’s rear end. So while I could, I perched an albatross on its back. Wings spread.
I saw one once, up close. An albatross. The thing to know about those animals is they can fly two hundred leagues in a day without flapping a wing. Just riding the currents from winds and waves. Spread full out, their wings span the length of two tall men head to head, maybe twelve feet in all. When they get hungry, the birds pull those wings in tight and dive straight down like a harpoon to spear prey.
Albatrosses go to land to breed, but they don’t stay there long ’cause they need ocean breezes to fly. And you never see ’em past the equator ’cause the currents aren’t right up there. They always travel alone, and they like to follow ships. It’s good luck to see one—they say albatrosses hold the souls of dead sailors.
On our way here from Batavia, this one bird, he followed us all the way from Cape Hope to Cape Verde. Flake-white body, wings like they was dipped in ink. The whole time we was in the Roaring Forties—twenty-foot waves knocking the Lion like she was no more than a skiff—this albatross floated behind us with nary a bump. But when we got up near Verde, we hit the doldrums. Not a breath of wind. And the albatross was as good as beached. He sat on the water like a duck on a pond, and so did the Lion.
After a week of going nowhere, things was getting a little close on board. Men was bored. Men was sick of eating fish. Everybody knew ’twas bad luck to kill an albatross, but Dirck Wiggernick shot him anyway.
He shot him with an arrow through the neck. The albatross just tipped over, right in the water. Didn’t sink, didn’t bleed. Just tipped onto his side. Captain ordered Wiggernick put in chains and the bird fished out for funeral.
The mighty bird didn’t look so mighty lying on the deck with his long wings half spread and crooked. His little black eyes staring at nothing. I stared at the arrow in his gullet and my own throat closed up so I could hardly breathe. He looked like nothing more than a big fat goose.
The albatross can go anyplace in the world, so long as he sticks to the ocean. But if he stays too long on land or he flies too far north, he’s a dead duck.
As for Wiggernick, he died a few weeks later when the wounds from his whipping festered. But then, so do most people.
“Hush!” Father said when I cried out.
His hands slid to my shoulders, weighing me down while he leaned on me, catching his breath. I opened and closed my mouth like a fish, my eyes stretched lidless.
“Stop. Please. Forgive me.” Guilt had hold of him now. Thickening his throat. Pumping up tears. It often went this way. Sooner or later, remorse would follow rage. My battered shoulder throbbed under his weight. I blinked back my own tears. “I’m ruined, Petje,” he wept. “Do you see that?”
Oh, I did. He meant penniless. But I felt the sting of my split lip, the ache of the old bruise on my cheek and the fresh one from tonight. I thought of the nights he’d stayed out, pictured the red meanness in his eyes, the hardness of his mouth.
I dropped to my knees.
Father lost his balance, and before he had a chance to reach for me, I was up and running around clusters of cargo. I circled barrels of herring and leaped behind a tower of crates marked english cloth. I could hear him stumbling after me—it had taken him no time to get back on his feet—and then—
“Pardon me, sir. Have you seen a young girl?”
Before long he’d have every sailor on the quay searching for me! I squeezed between two tall stacks.
“About this tall. Yellow hair. Her mother will be so worried.”
I had to move; my nook was open to view. I considered dropping over the side of the dock and hanging from one of the gangplanks, but my strength wouldn’t last, and I didn’t know how to swim.
Every box and barrel would be full. I’d nowhere to go.
“Pardon me, sir, have you seen . . .”
He was close now. Soon he would round the corner of my hiding place.
“Hoay, mates!” boomed a voice loud enough to carry over gale winds. “Anyone seen a little girl?”
“A little girl? Not unless you want to count Georgius here!” A chorus of laughter.
Ahead was a large bulky shape covered in sailcloth. I launched myself from my shelter, out into open space.
“Hey there, mate. What’s that?”
I froze. Torches bobbed along the wharf, carried by sailors searching for me.
“Not the girl. Just a pile o’ rope.”
I took off again.
I crouched with my back against the sailcloth, panting. Grasped the bottom of the cloth and ducked under it.
Inside, it was pitch-black and warm, and it smelled of . . . bird? I cautiously reached out my hands and found metal bars. The cloth must cover cages with—
Something had bitten my finger. I stuck it in my mouth and sucked on it. The beak had been big. A goose, most likely. So like a goose to bite whatever comes its way. A chicken would have gone for my toes.
I used my foot to explore the space around the cages. They seemed to be stacked on a pallet a few inches off the ground. I stepped onto the pallet to keep my feet from view.
“Look sharp, then, Lobo,” said a gravel-voiced sailor close by. “We just got this lot to get on board and we’re done for the night. I still got a few coins in my pocket and I mean to spend ’em.”