“Once upon a time the Americans were the British, lost. On the narrow lip of a distant continent, clutching their faith, songs, customs and memories, they were 17th-century space travelers, cut off from Planet Europe with its corruptions and tyrannies.”
* * *
Hannah Powers’ father taught her about the masters of painting and engraving, how Albrecht Duerer and Leonardo da Vinci had transformed vision into a new geometry. He taught her about scale and proportion. The point where a ship was lost over the horizon was known as the vanishing point.
Joan, their servant, was a woman of fifty-three years with ropy blue veins bulging out of her red hands. She taught Hannah and her sister May about another kind of vanishing, about the vanishing people who had once populated the West Country–indeed the entire island of Britain. Their stone arrows, green mounds, and dolmens still marked the land that had swallowed them. The first people.
Once, according to Joan, the faery folk had possessed physical bodies as plain and ordinary as anyone else’s. But over the centuries, they had become fey. Their bodies grew vaporous and insubstantial, visible only at twilight and in dreams. Fleeing church bells and the glint of iron, they shrank into their hollow hills. Similarly the first people of that other country across the Atlantic, with their stone arrows and serpentine earthworks, would disappear westward, fleeing the muskets and smallpox of foreign settlers. Until the new people could pretend that the first people were just a myth, that they had never occupied the land at all.
“A mere optical illusion,” Hannah’s father told her, referring to the vanishing point on the horizon. “In truth, the ship does not disappear. The vessel is still there, even if we on the shore cannot see it.”
So it transpired that both people and ships could become ghosts without even dying or sinking beneath the waves.
The Dream of Comets
The morning the letter arrived, May Powers awoke with a premonition. Before she even opened her eyes, her heart was pounding and her throat was so tight, she thought she might choke. The taste of iron filled her mouth. But then, throwing the bedclothes aside, she told herself not to be silly. She laced her bodice over her shift and stepped into her skirt. After pinning her hair into a coil, she descended the narrow staircase to the kitchen to help Joan make breakfast. Father and Hannah were in the front room murmuring over his pile of books. She listened to them recite the Latin names of apothecary herbs.
The morning passed as uneventfully as any other, with wool to spin and seams to stitch. Just past midmorning, Hannah left for the market with Joan. In the garden, Father picked herbs–betony and woodruff. It was the end of May, the lovely month after which her departed mother had named her. The weather being fine, she took her spinning wheel to the front of the house that she might look out on the village green, the sheep that grazed there, and the hills beyond. That morning her eyes were too restless to settle on the village; they kept wandering off toward the horizon.
When the rider trotted up to the garden gate on his mud-spattered cob, she struggled to her feet as though waking from a dream. “Is this the house of Daniel Powers?”
When May nodded, the milky-faced youth leaned from his saddle and thrust a letter at her–a piece of folded paper, sealed with wax, and marked by all the hands it had passed through until it had reached hers.
“The letter did come all the way from America,” said the rider, too imperious to even flirt.
A curious tingling gripped her. She remembered the dream she’d had just before waking–a dream of her father showing her comets through his telescope. As she had peered through that lens, the sky filled with shooting flames.
The letter was addressed to her father, Daniel Powers, Physician. She read the name of the one who had sent it–Nathan Washbrook, her father’s distant cousin who had crossed the waters to Maryland.
“Father!” she cried, racing to the back of the house where he was now gathering strawberry leaves. “Father, look!” A fever gripped her, the blood running in her veins like hot wine as she broke the seal herself, not waiting for her father’s permission.
Under the hawthorn tree, beneath that canopy of foamy white flowers, she read the letter aloud. The shock of those words made her shiver, made her voice leap and then stutter. When she had finished, her hands went numb. She stood holding the letter, her head bowed, face burning. When she handed the letter to her father, he nodded, as if he already knew its message. Father and daughter were silent, but the words May had read remained in the air, buzzing around them like flies.
Something steady and deep shone in her father’s eyes. “What think you of the letter, May?”
She blinked, then plucked a handful of hawthorn flowers, crushing them in her left hand while still holding the letter in her right.
Father wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “My dear, can you forgive me? A year ago, I took the liberty of writing to our Cousin Nathan and telling him you were still unwed. In faith, it was I who planted the idea in his head.”
May reeled. Had Joan and Hannah been present, there would have been hysterics. The garden would have rung with shouting, curses, and tears. But between May and her father, there was neither discussion nor debate. Her fingers went limp, the hawthorn flowers and letter falling to the grass. Father took her hand.
“Could you consent?”
“You might have told me this was coming,” she said. Then, looking into his eyes, she read his will. He expected her to do this. He had been praying for this offer, this miracle to take the burden of her future off his hands.
Females are scarce in the Colonies, Cousin Nathan had written. My Son needs a Wife. He is a healthy young Man of eighteen Years. I would rejoice to have your eldest Daughter May for his Bride. In Truth, I care not that your Daughter is without Dowry. I have Wealth enough and shall send eight Hogheads of Tobacco to pay for her Passage and Wedding Clothes. Please be good as your Word and see that she sails out of Bristol on the Cornucopia in August.
He expected her to leave already in August, only two months away? And offering her a boy of eighteen as a bridegroom! She was twenty-two. May nearly laughed aloud. Aware of her father’s somber gaze, she sobered and considered. On the one hand, what choice did she have if she wanted to save herself and her sister from penury? Though he was a doctor of physick, making money had never been one of her father’s talents. In recent years, his health had gone into decline. There was no son to carry on his business. When he died, she and her sister would have to sell his globe and telescope, his skeleton and surgical instruments, his books and diagrams of human organs. Even this house would be taken from them, for they merely rented it. She and Hannah would be dowerless spinsters, wards of the parish. After what she had done to disgrace herself, ruining her chances of honorable marriage, how dare she refuse? She was twenty-two, her sister only fifteen. The burden of securing their future fell upon her.
On the other hand, what an adventure! She half-believed the letter had come to answer her own prayers of deliverance. When she was a young girl, long before she had discovered the lusts that plagued her body and spoiled her reputation, she had dreamt of crossing the water, setting sail for unknown worlds. Once she had declared to her sister, “If I were a boy, I would run away to sea.” Only a roving young man could be as free as she longed to be. When she closed her eyes, she saw not a young bridegroom but herself at the bow of a ship, her face stung and glowing in the salt wind.
Leaving her father alone in the garden, his query unanswered, she ran to his study, took the globe from its place on the shelf, and spun it until her eyes blurred. When her father came and found her there, twirling his prized globe, she was laughing uncontrollably, her whole body shaking, as if in spasm. Laughter was her weakness. May laughed the way other girls cried. Once she got started, there was no stopping her. Turning to her father, she laughed in his face. Without a shred of submission or obedience, she told him, “Yes, Father. Yes, I consent.”
* * *
“Fancy his name being Washbrook,” May said, trying to make light of it all in the face of Joan’s glowering. “Is he descended from a line of launders?”
“I have half a mind to throttle that father of yours,” Joan snapped. “You know nothing of that boy.”
May, Joan, and Hannah knelt in a circle around a walnut chest carved with roses and thorns. Once it had belonged to the girls’ mother. As the eldest, May would now inherit both the chest and its contents. Joan dug out the clothes and linens, laying them out on the freshly swept floor. Every article would be washed and ironed before it crossed the ocean with May. The sisters fell silent as they saw the tiny infant clothes and christening gowns. At the bottom of the chest lay a woman’s shift and nightcap, but the shift was a curious one, being slit in front up to the waist. When Joan held it up to the light and shook out the dust, the sight was so lewd that May had to laugh, her fist covering her mouth.
“Our mother wore such a shift?”
“It was her lying-in gown,” Joan said brusquely. “The gown she birthed you in.” The linen was so yellowed with age, it looked as if it had been handed down from their great grandmother. May watched her sister’s face grow pale. Their mother had died of childbed fever a few days after Hannah’s birth.
Joan laid a heavy hand on May’s shoulder. “And on your wedding night, what will happen when he discovers you are no maid?”
At this, Hannah blushed terribly and crept out of the room. May gazed calmly into Joan’s eyes. “You know as well as I,” she said, “that even the most hardened rake cannot tell a maiden from a whore if she holds herself tight enough.” She swallowed and tried to smile. “If he goes looking for blood, I shall prick my finger with a needle.” Then she shook her head. “Oh, Joan, I don’t think Father kept my history secret from them. I think they know already what kind of girl I am.” Before Joan could berate her any more, May embraced the older woman who wept noisily in her arms.
“Your own father is shunting you off for a pile of tobacco!”
“Hush,” May whispered. “I go freely. I have chosen this.”
# # #
Excerpt from The Vanishing Point by Mary Sharratt.