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August 8, 1846. I turned ten four days ago. It was finally time to go to sea with Shafe. I’d been waiting my whole life for this.
The smaller the community, the more specific the local traditions. In Chester Harbor, kids started fishing on Saturdays. Probably because it gave them a day to work, followed by a Sunday to digest all the new information.
Also, when a kid started fishing, the boat would disembark from the main docks. We had our own dock right next to the house. But Shafe had moored at Chester Harbor the previous night. Harbormaster Stowe didn’t even charge him slip fees. This was tradition.
On the long walk from our house to town, I was so exited I wanted to bounce right out of the chair. Lotti had packed lunches for the both of us and stayed home. The mother wasn’t there to see you off. Tradition again.
It was a bit unusual for a girl to go out fishing. Usually it was boys joining their fathers. But I had special privileges, on account of being an orphaned crippled girl unlikely to get a husband. It was reasonable for me to learn a trade. The nineteenth century wasn’t as rigidly sexist as modern history books lead you to believe.
“Ahoy Bonnie!” Andrew yelled from his step-father’s boat. Hilda had finally relented and married David Meadows the previous Spring. By all accounts, their marriage was a happy one. Andrew and Jackson had a father again.
Jackson, for his part, watched jealously from the docks. He would turn ten in two months. Until then, when he could join David and Andrew at sea, he would just have to wait.
Though he wasn’t alone. Kate and Edgar stood by him, waving and cheering me on. While Andrew and I were out working, Jackson and Edgar would continue to enjoy the privileges of childhood. Kate, of course, had been working in her father’s store for years.
Shafe rolled me up the gangplank and on to his familiar ship. To think, five years ago, he’d caught me with this very boat and I’d slammed him through the wheelhouse. Things had certainly changed since then.
Positioning me in front of the pilot’s wheel, he latched my wheelchair in place with a series of clamps he’d installed the previous week. No amount of rocking would dislodge the chair from its station. After all, you don’t want the crippled girl to fall in to the ocean, right?
It was all for show, of course. But Shafe’s attention to detail was part of what made him such a good liar.
“So where you headed today, Mackenzie?” David asked.
Shafe coiled one of the mooring ropes as he spoke. “Out to Cray’s Patch, I think,” he said. “We’ll try fer some crab.”
“That so? Feeling lucky today, eh?”
Crab was the most hit-or-miss time investment in our profession. You’d put out your traps for half the day, then circle back see what you got. You could get nothing, or you could get traps full of crab, earning more in one day than you would in two weeks of net fishing.
“Aye, feelin’ lucky,” Shafe said. “Bonnie’s ma’ good luck charm. Way I figure it, she’s had all her life’s bad luck already. Nothin’ left but the good.”
“Well you may be right, Mackenzie. Good fishing!” David said.
“Ta you as well,” Shafe said.
I smiled from ear to ear as I waved to my friends on the dock. Then I saw Joseph Wainwright, Edgar’s father, hop off his own boat and head toward them.
The mood at the dock became noticeably guarded as he came over.
“All right, Edgar,” he said, “You saw her off. Now go and play somewhere else.”
“Yes, father,” Edgar said, turning to walk away. Jackson and Kate joined him in solidarity.
“Let’s go to the woods and look around,” Kate suggested as they receded from view.
Joseph watched the kids until they were well away, then began to return to his boat.
David finally said what he was trying to hold back. “You got some kinda’ problem with our kids, Wainwright?”
Joseph stopped. “I never tell your kids what to do. I keep to myself and my family. Maybe you should do the same.”
Shafe stopped his work and watched, passively. I wondered what he would do if the two men started fighting. Would he try to intercede?
“The Hess boys are mine now, Wainwright. If you have a problem with them, you’ve got a problem with me.”
Joseph shook his head. “I got no problem with your boys in particular, Meadows. I just don’t like Edgar playing with any of the kids around here.”
“Why the hell not?” David challenged.
Joseph clenched his fists, then froze and took a deep breath. “You’re a fisherman, Meadows. You know the life.
“I get up every day before it’s light. I sail out and work the sea for twelve, sometimes sixteen hours. I come back to port and sell my haul for whatever I can get. I go home, eat a meal my wife cobbled together from what we can afford, then I fall asleep. Half the time, I don’t even take my boots off first, I’m that tired.
“I barely make enough money to feed my wife and son. We live in a shack and I’ll owe money on the boat till I die.”
He turned to David and looked him in the eye. “Edgar is not going to be a fisherman. I’ll die before I let him end up in a life like this.
“He’s smart. Smarter than me and he’s only ten years old. He’s going to college. Or trade school. I don’t know how, but we’ll figure out a way. He’s going to get a job where he sits behind a desk and scribbles on paper all day long. Then he’ll go home at night to his wife and kids with plenty of money. And without a broken back.”
Everyone stood silently for a few moments.
Joseph broke the trance. He looked up at me in my wheelhouse. “Good luck on your first outing, Bonnie,” he said, sheepishly. “Good fishing.” Then he quickly returned to his boat.
I really did pilot the boat. That wasn’t just for show. Shafe had spent the last few days teaching me what I needed to know. And as far as the town was concerned, that’s all I would do.
Of course, we executed an entirely different plan once we reached Cray’s Patch.
“How come ya said I was good luck?” I asked Shafe, as he wheeled me over to the edge of the boat.
“Well,” Shafe said, checking the horizon to make sure no other boats were around, “with yer nat’ral abilities, we’re gonna’ get a fine haul today. Fishermen are superstitious folk. If ya give em’ an explanation tha’ makes sense, and relates ta luck, they’ll believe it.”
He pulled the blanket off me, and lifted me out of the chair. I put my arms around his neck and stole a hug. He was used to this by now.
“When ya find ‘em, pop up an’ give a shout. I’ll be on tha’ lookout for ya.”
“All right. Ya ready?”
I nodded eagerly with a smile.
“Off ya go, then!” he said, tossing me into the sea.
Wheee! Back in my element! Literally!
I took a moment to swim aimlessly, just for the fun of it. Shafe could wait. I’d never been to Cray’s Patch before, and I wanted a look around.
Swimming to the seafloor took minute or so; I was in no hurry. I used to be afraid of monsters that lurked in the depths. But after the Old Milky incident, Shafe taught me how to use a knife.
Unfortunately, even steel had a tough time surviving long periods submerged in saltwater. A typical knife only lasted about as long as its leather belt and holster. I was already on my third set. The sea will eventually dissolve anything.
To humans, I guess the sea is pretty boring. But I can tell you, there’s more variety at the seafloor than you can imagine. Cray’s Patch was another world.
The seafloor near my house was bland, mostly muddy sand with the occasional shoot of seaweed reaching toward the sunlight. The total depth where I slept was only 50 feet. But Cray’s patch was much deeper. And that meant much more interesting life!
Weird things crawled along the ground; strange plants with odd shapes swayed in the current, some of them turning out to be fish in disguise. Kids love exploring and I could have wandered around aimlessly for hours. But I remembered why I was there and got to work.
Crab travel in herds. Not as densely packed as cattle, but they do gather in groups and move roughly the same direction. That’s why crab fishing tends to be feast or famine. Either a herd wanders in to your cage or it doesn’t.
I swam 50 feet or so above the seafloor, sweeping back and forth across a wide area. Though it would be another 57 years before the Wright brothers did their thing, I was doing an aerial search pattern.
As I’ve mentioned, I can see in the deepest of waters, where humans would see only darkness. I later learned why: I see different frequencies of light than humans. The higher frequencies penetrate deeper in to the water, so it’s no surprise mermaids evolved to see them. It comes at a price, though. We had no use for lower frequencies. Red, orange and yellow all look black to me.
It’s different than being colorblind. Colorblind people can tell there’s light, just not what color it is. I can’t even see the light. Don’t get me started on LEDs. You know those digital clocks with red digits that have been popular since the 1980’s? Yeah. Those readouts are invisible to me. All I see is a flat black panel where you see the time.
I spent about 30 minutes searching before I finally found a herd. A good haul, judging by the size of it. Hundreds of crabs scuttled slowly across the seafloor, the smaller bottom dwellers scampering out of their way.
Getting directly over them, I got my bearings. Facing up, I scanned around for Shafe’s boat. It was easy to find; it stood out like a modern-day plane in the sky. Scanning around a bit more, I confirmed there were no other boats in the area.
I shot straight up to the surface. Someday, I’ll explain why I don’t get decompression sickness. But not today. I’ve talked about my physiology enough for now.
Breaching dramatically, I flew a good 15 feet out of the water before gravity remembered me and brought me back down. It would have been a spectacular belly-flop if I’d done it wrong, but I’ve got a lot of experience playing around in water. I waved and called out to the boat. Shortly, I saw it tack in my direction and make best speed.
As he got closer, I could see Shafe doing final preparations on the crab cages.
“Ahoy!” I called as he got within earshot. I wanted to be professional on my first day, but I was grinning like an idiot.
A few years back, Shafe got really lucky on a crab run, completely filling three of his 5 cages. When he got home that night, he actually grabbed Lotti and danced with her right in the kitchen.
I knew what 5 full cages of crab would mean to Shafe. And I was so happy to be the one responsible I could barely contain myself.
“Ahoy,” he said, bringing the boat alongside. “What ya got?”
“Full herd!” I said. “more n’ we can carry home!”
“Atta gel,” he set, dropping anchor. Then, he tossed the cages over one by one, each tethered to the boat but with enough line to make it to the seafloor. Then he threw me a metal wire basket.
“Scoop up crab with that basket n’ dump ‘em in the cages. Go back and forth till ya run out o’ crab or cages. An’ be careful! They got sharp claws, they can take off a finger. If one’s givin’ ya trouble, just let him go.”
“Aye, Captain!” I said with a salute.
“And just coz’ you got a knife don’ mean it’s an answer ta everythin’. If ya see a dolphin, drop what yer doin and breach straight on to the boat’s deck.”
“I know, I know.”
“Don’t give me sass, gel. Now get ta work.”
I submerged and got to work. As I filled each cage, Shafe brought them to the surface for sorting. You don’t just sell every last crab you catch. The small ones aren’t worth very much, and there’s a minimum size allowable by law. So while I did my work down below, it was raining small crabs as Shafe tossed the rejects overboard.
It took two hours for me to fill all 5 cages.
Once Shafe had finished the last sort, he seated himself a the deck bench and lit his pipe. “A fine haul, Bonnie. We’ll be set fer weeks.”
“We could get more!” I chirped from the water. “After tha’ rejects, there’s room fer almost another half-cage!”
Shafe shook his head. “Don’t get greedy, gel. This’ll be a haul they’ll remember at the harbor for years. We don’t want ‘em wondering how we manag’d ta fill 5 full cages with no rejects.”
“We could tell ‘em we sorted the rejects out then kept crabbin’.”
“With what cages?” He challenged. “Trust me, gel. When ya’ve got a good thing, don’t let greed get tha better o’ ya.”
I swam a few laps around the boat out of boredom while Shafe enjoyed his break.
“What now?” I finally asked, my patience exhausted.
“Hmm,” Shafe said. “Ta be honest, I hadn’t thought o’ tha’. I didn’t realize we’d catch a full haul before lunchtime.”
“We could take it in, sell, and come back fer more!” I said.
Shafe rolled his eyes. “My but aren’t ya a greedy li’l fish? What did I just say?”
I’d like to say the lesson landed home and I was never greedy again. But I’d be lying. It’s hard for me to pass up an opportunity when I see it; I guess it’s a character flaw. It’s gotten me very rich; I now own a number of corporations. But that came at a price. If it weren’t for greed, I wouldn’t have captured by the Navy. But I’ll tell you about that later.
“I s’pose,” Shafe said, “tha’ we have tha rest o’ the day to do what we like.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well,” he pondered. “We can’t go near the town or our own dock, coz people might see and wonder why we’re back so early. But anywhere else in tha’ sea is fine.”
“…then we sent to Sutter’s Shallows which aren’t shallow and there was lots of plants at the floor n’ stuff and then we ate lunch n’ then we went way way out ta sea n’ I swam deeper than I ever swam before except maybe when I was a baby I don’t remember n’ I saw some sharks but they ran away n’ then Shafe said it was time to come home so we came home!”
“Mmm,” Lotti said, scooping some mashed potatoes on to my plate. “Sounds like ya had a good day, then.”
“Good ain’t the half of it,” Shafe said gleefully between bites of pork chop. “5 full cages! Shoulda’ seen ‘em at the fishery.”
“Well I’m just glad Bonnie didn’t get hurt out there,” Lotti said. “I do worry, ya know.”
“Bah,” Shafe dismissed, “Breathes water. Safer n’ any fisherman alive.”
“Don’t you start with me Shafe Mackenzie. We almost lost her to that dolphin. The sea’s a danger to all who go in it.”
“Aye, sorry,” Shafe relented.
“Mm. So what now, Shafe?” Lotti said. “I’m sure ya can’t get away with a haul like that too often.”
Shafe shook his head. “Nay. Just testin’ the waters so ta speak. Now we know what Bonnie can do. We’ll have a run o’ good luck here n’ there when money’s tight. Other n’ that, we’ll just get a normal haul ever’ day. Mebbe a little bit more n’ normal, but nothing so’s ta stand out.”
Shafe pointed his fork at me. “Ya done a good job today, Bonnie Mackenzie.”
Finishing the last bite of food on his plate, Shafe wiped his mouth with his sleeve and stood from the table. “I haf’ ta go in to town tonight. After a haul like that, they’ll be expectin’ me at the bar to buy rounds fer everyone.”
Lotti collected his dishes. “I’m sure it’ll be a terrible sacrifice fer ya.”
The next day was Sunday. Frankly, that annoyed me. I didn’t mind church and prayer; they were just part of life. But I hated having to wait another day before going to sea with Shafe again.
Still, childhood had its benefits. After church, the usual gang and I roamed the woods outside of town. Kate, Edgar, and Andrew walked ahead while Jackson pushed my wheelchair along the path.
“I’ll be bored, soon,” Kate commented. “Two months and Jackson’ll be fishing, too. Then, just me and Edgar’ll be able to play.”
“Not even that,” Edgar shrugged. “You’re in your father’s store most of the day.”
“Yeah, but not all day like Andrew and Jackson will be when they fish.” She replied.
“I can’t wait!” Jackson said excitedly from behind me. “I’ll be the best fisherman ever!”
“No way,” said Andrew, preening at his experience on the topic. “You’ll get scared and cry.”
“Will not!” Jackson said, storming up to Andrew.
“Will to!” Andrew countered.
That debate went on for some time. As the brothers argued, Kate sidled over to my chair.
“Hey, Bonnie,” she said privately. “Do you think Jackson likes me?”
“Uh…” I stammered, not expecting the question. “Do ya like him?”
She shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe.”
Something about this bothered me.
“Nah,” I said. “Jackson don’t like nobody.”
She frowned. “You’re probably wrong.”
“Then why’d ya ask me!?”
“I thought you were my friend!”
“I am yer friend,” I protested.
“Then why are you such a liar!” She accused.
“I’ll blacken yer eye, ya call me that again!” I warned.
“Hmph!” she snorted, stomping away.
Well. That was complicated.
Kate was a year older than me, and starting to edge in to a troubling domain, age-wise. I’d be there soon enough. In many ways, I was already there. I wouldn’t have minded if she’d taken an interest in Andrew or Edgar. But her interest in Jackson … annoyed me.
That night, as usual, I curled up on the ocean floor to sleep. Though I didn’t have much room to spread out. After the Old Milky incident, Shafe bought a huge steel crab cage. I was required to sleep in that to ensure dolphins couldn’t get me at night. They’re smart, but they’re not smart enough to operate a latch.
Also, I was a growing girl. Soon, the cage would be too small. But I wasn’t worried. I could sleep outside the cage if I needed to. Who would know? In the mean time, it wasn’t too bad. The bottom portion sunk in to the silt, so I didn’t have to sleep on the bars directly. I was comfortable enough.
I put a lot of thought in to the conversation I’d had with Kate. I didn’t understand it and couldn’t figure out what had happened. All I knew was it pissed me off. But even then I knew something was amiss. I had a tough time getting Jackson out of my mind, and an even tougher time getting Kate’s interest in Jackson out of my mind.
We all grow up eventually. And inevitably, we take a romantic interest in someone. That first love can be a doozey. And that was my problem. My first love was Jackson Hess.
But I don’t need to tell you that. You know all about first loves. You know what it’s like to think about a boy way the hell more often than you want to. You know what it’s like to be jealous for no reason. And you know what it’s like to over-analyze every conversation you have with him. You’re probably dealing with this sort of stuff right now.
After all, you’re a 15 year old girl.