The conclusion to the short story I wrote as a made-to-order…
Over the next few days, Phoebe found herself telling the captain a little about her life. He sought her out when she was on deck, insisted on her and the older children taking their meal with him and his officers, invited her to walk with him in the evening.
At her request, he called her Mrs Morien, and assured her that her brother and sister would be waiting to welcome her home. Beneda—she called herself Benita now—was a widow with a child, “though not likely to remain single for long, Joseph says. A number of men have expressed an interest.”
Joseph was enjoying the life of a highly eligible bachelor too much to settle down, much to the despair of the local ladies and the exasperation of his sister.
To Phoebe, the stories seemed like the ones Mist’ Finn had told her long ago—she couldn’t comprehend the life her sister and brother led. Cautiously at first, and then greedily when he laughed and complied, she asked for more and more details, more and more tales about this strange new life that Captain Val was taking her to.
Venus and Jake were soon over their illness. Phoebe had little to do apart from keeping the younger three entertained and out from under the feet of the crew, helped by the two older children. The trip was a holiday such as they had never known. All but the youngest were used to working until they dropped. For an overseer, Paddy O’Keefe had been indulgent to the children of his reluctant mistress, even giving his daughter his name. But they had to work as hard as any of the others, and he would not have lifted a finger to save even his own get from the traders.
Not like Finn. Finn had taken a beating for her, and had then stolen her brother and sister away to save them when Ol’ Massa Blake had decided to sell them. Joe was the young master’s get, and Patsy and Baby were O’Keefe’s. Jake and his sister, dear lost Mina, were bred on her by another slave at Ol’ Massa Blake’s command. Quaco, or Jacob as the white owners called him, had been a kind and gentle man, and she’d been fond of him. But Finn was the one she dreamt of; the one she thought of when she woke in the night.
She hoped that Venus was Finn’s daughter, made in that one week they had before Chan found them together. She’d taken a beating for that, and so had Finn. But Chan couldn’t take the memories from her.
Finn, his head full of knights and chivalry, hadn’t wanted to bed her. But Chan had already announced his intention to have her when he got back from a trip to Charleston, and she wanted her first time to be with someone who would be kind. That’s what she’d told him; someone who would be kind. She didn’t tell him that she loved him. She knew better than that.
And he was kind, too, though the first time had been awkward and clumsy. Two virgins together, they had to work out how things fitted. She’d giggled, she remembered, and he laughed too, but the laughter froze on his face as he entered her and the discomfort he caused was nothing compared to the dawning wonder on his face.
She was thinking about Finn one evening about a week out into their journey, taking out her memories one by one to examine them and gloat over them and tuck them safely away again. The older children had wandered off to the kitchen where the cook always welcomed them, avowing his intention of fattening them up before the ship arrived in Halifax. The little children were settled in the cabin—the captain’s cabin, she realised now. Captain Val was sharing with the first mate, a man of colour he called Perry and treated as an equal and a friend.
She was thinking of Finn, not the captain: not of how he helped her up a ladder earlier in the day and his hand had lingered for a moment on her hip; not of the way his eyes followed her whenever she was on deck. If she was going to be honest with herself, she knew he watched her because her eyes sought his every time she came on deck. Why did the memories of Finn’s boyish face smiling at her turn unaccountably into Captain Val’s masked face, with the firm square angles of his cheek and chin and the amused quirk that seemed to always linger in one corner of his mouth?
The first mate’s roar startled her, and she whipped around, cringing and protecting her head with her arm. But his anger was for a sailor who had abandoned a rope without properly coiling it, and he passed Phoebe without a glance to explain to the sailor, in precise incisive terms, what could happen if the rope tangled when it was needed, and how long the sailor would spend mending sails in penance, so he would never forget again.
Phoebe, who had expected a careless blow if not an outright beating, felt something uncurl inside her, a soft tentative tendril of… what? Hope? Comfort? A sense of safety?
Too early for the last; the captain had warned her that American privateers or the American navy might stop the ship at any time until they made port in Canada. But here, yes, here on this ship she felt safe.
The sailor was making excuses and apologies as he recoiled the rope correctly.
“I was that tired, Mister Peregrine, and it were near the end of my deck time, and then Mickey saw fins off the bow and I went to see. I meant to come back, Mister Peregrine, honest. It won’t happen again, sir, that it won’t.”
Peregrine? That was the name of one of the black knights in Finn’s Arthurian Tales—Sir Morien, Sir Peregrine. Others, too. What a fitting name for a man of colour.
She said that to the mate he passed on the way back to his watching post.
“Peregrine was the name of one of the knights from Africa in the stories of King Arthur.”
“Yes,” the mate replied, “that’s what Val said when he gave it me. He fair loves those stories, Mrs Morien.”
A polite nod was the only response she could manage. Her mind was racing. Val. Short for Percival? Percival was the perfect knight, the Parfait Knight of the tales, the role that Finn had sought with all the poetry in his soul.
As she crossed back to the rail, adding up all the little clues she’d noticed this past week without being aware of them, he came up from below and made a straight line for her.
“Good evening, Mrs Morien.” The slight husk in his voice had been turning her knees to water all week. Quickly, before her fears choked the words in her throat, she said, “Finn, when are you going to take off the mask?”
The captain went completely still. Then, slowly, he raised his hands to the back of his head, fumbled with the strings of the mask, and let it fall into one hand.
A man changes a great deal between 17 and 29. She knew him though. She should have known him a week ago, by his eyes alone. She clamped firmly down on the hurt that he’d felt the need to hide from her. He owed her nothing. She owed him everything. He had saved her brother and sister. He was in the process of saving her and her children. He clearly wanted not to acknowledge her, and he had every right.
“You do not need to wear the mask,” she told him. “I understand. I have no claim on you and I will not be a nuisance.” She made to pass him, but he put out a hand to stop her.
“No, Mrs Moriel… Phoebe. No, that isn’t it at all. I was… The Blakes have done so much wrong to you, to your family. You must hate us all, especially me. I don’t blame you. I left you in that place. I knew what Chan was like, and I walked away. I wore the mask to make you more comfortable. No. That isn’t true. I just didn’t want to see your eyes when you rejected me. You stay here. Enjoy the fine evening for a while longer. I’ll go.”
She was so stunned that he was halfway to the hatch before she found her voice. “I don’t hate you, Finn. I don’t blame you.”
“I blame myself.”
“For what? For trying to protect me and being half killed for it? For saving my brother and my sister no matter the risk to your own escape? For coming back for me?”
“I came before. The first time, I couldn’t get onto the plantation. They had men out with dogs. The second time, we sent you a message, and I waited on the beach, but you didn’t come.”
“I had the message.”
“You couldn’t get away, I imagine.”
Phoebe shook her head. That was the week Mrs Blake had miscarried a child, and had, in her anger, had her husband’s mistress beaten so badly that Phoebe had lost the baby she was carrying. It was after that Phoebe had been sent to Quaco.
Finn—no, Val—Val saw the shadows in her eyes. “It is over now. You are a free woman and a wealthy one. You never again need to do what you do not wish.” He turned to lean on the rail, looking down at the water that folded back from the racing hull.
Phoebe leaned beside him, content to be silent.
After a while, Val spoke. “Phoebe, I know it’s too soon. I don’t want to press you. I won’t press you; you need time to get your family settled, to learn what it is to be free, and respected, and loved. I want to give you that time. But may I write to you? May I visit from time to time?”
Was he asking what she thought he was asking?
“Yes,” she answered briefly, and he turned to her with a smile that lit his whole face.
“I have never forgotten you, Phoebe.”
She smiled back, ready to tell him that she had never forgotten him, but Mr Perry called him to come and see something on the horizon, outlined by the setting sun, and he left her standing at the rail, watching the water.
Val was right. It was too soon. She needed to get to know her brother and sister again. She needed to get her children started in this life as free people.
But in her heart, the tendril of hope threw off a couple of leaves, and set down a strong root into her memories of the boy who had once been her champion.
Not quite the end, but as far as the short story takes us.