x

Excerpt

The Night Ship

Jess Kidd

September 26, 2022 
The following is from Jess Kidd's The Night Ship, an epic historical novel about the lives of two characters: a girl shipwrecked on an island off Western Australia and, three hundred years later, a boy finding a home with his grandfather on the very same island. Kidd is the award-winning author of Himself, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, and Things in Jars.

1628

The Batavia is the whole world and the whole world is always moving. Mayken has learned to walk again by watching the skipper’s soft-kneed swagger with the pitch and roll. A sailor doesn’t fight to stand upright because there is no upright. They let the ship come to their foot. And, like a good skipper, Mayken keeps a ship’s log.

Ate a ship’s biscuit and it made my teeth loose. Imke says I must hold on to my full-grown teeth now that I’m nine as no more will grow in their place. I had to do sewing with the ladies on deck, Mrs. Predikant and her grown daughter Judick. I taught the little boy Roelant a clapping game. Judick smiled over us like a warm sun. Mrs. Predikant gloomed like a rain cloud. Then the skipper came on deck without a tunic on, so we had to go back inside. Today the waves are big and the ship jumps into them, the lion on the bowsprit dips his great paw right in! I practice spitting and swearing when Imke’s asleep. I can spit quite far. I would make a great sailor. We have been eleven days at sea.

*

Mayken thinks about adding Jan Pelgrom’s news to her ship’s log. That the ship is clear of the English Channel and heading across the Bay of Biscay. That the skipper is angry at having to stay in the convoy because he could drive this boat like a bitch and arrive in Batavia two months sooner.

Pelgrom collects news as he pours wine and picks up fish bones in the Great Cabin. There’s a big round table. Skipper Jacobsz and upper-merchant Pelsaert dine in the Great Cabin on alternate nights because they will not eat at the same table, however big and round it is. The two men have history. They have a boiling hatred for one another. Pelgrom likes the skipper’s nights better because everyone gets drunk and there are high japes. He’s run ragged with the jug but he can eat and drink his fill without anyone noticing. He falls asleep standing on the upper-merchant’s evenings because everyone talks softly and makes the wine last.

Mayken reads back her log entry and decides there’s quite enough news for the day. She puts her writing things away. Now she will do a patrol. Her permitted area, strictly aft-the-mast, includes her own cabin, the poop deck, and the quarterdeck.

If she chooses to roam outside these areas, she’ll bring a horrific accident upon herself. There are ropes that lash, pulleys that twist, sails that swing, and a sea to be swept into and the ship turns back for no one.

Imke accompanies Mayken on deck on calmer days. The old nursemaid settles in a sheltered corner while Mayken winks back at the sailors. Then Imke gives readings of maritime portents (clouds, wave formations, seabirds passing at funny angles). Well-to-do passengers and cadets seek out her wisdom in person. Messages are sent up from below decks. And so Imke’s reputation grows.

This is nothing new. Imke was renowned in Haarlem for her ability to accurately forecast love matches and business affairs using no more than turkey giblets and a bag of dried peas.

When Imke tires of her audience she beckons to Mayken. On the way back to their cabin, Imke is sure to stroke the beard of a wooden sailor’s head for good luck.

Pelgrom says they are going to need it.

He tells Mayken what’s in store. Extremes of hot and cold will send the Batavia’s timbers shrinking and swelling. The caulkers and carpenters will work all hours to stem the leaks. Barnacles will attach to the ship’s underbelly. A skirt of seaweed will grow, slowing her in the water. Ropes will weaken. Sails will stiffen. The painted works will fade and the decks dull. Salt, wind, sea spray, feet in their hundreds are wearing out this wooden sea castle. The ship will spoil as the food will spoil. The fresh water is already tainted. By the time they reach the equator the barrels in the hold will contain more worm than water. The people will spoil too. They’ll grow sick.

Mayken learns from Pelgrom about the six-month scurvy. The terrible weakening of the muscles and the swelling of gums and the blotching of legs and the gushing of blood from every orifice. Then it’s into a canvas sack and a stitch through your nose and heave-ho over the side. Mayken checks Imke nightly for signs of scurvy. She pulls out the old woman’s bottom lip and pokes the gums with her finger. Then she rolls up Imke’s shift and scrutinizes her big, blue-veined legs.

Mayken wonders if she’ll die of boredom before she dies of scurvy. She wishes for a storm. Not the epic kind, like the storm that ran them aground a day out of harbor, just some interesting weather.

A storm comes.

They smash and tumble through biblical waves with the crying of the passengers and the shouting of the crew and the deck sea-whipped and the sails furled tight against the screaming wind. The waves reach the hens in their poop deck aerie. If the ship sinks, it will be her fault.

Mayken makes a deal with God: in return for the ship not sinking she will think only good thoughts, refrain from swearing, and mind Imke.

The weather is fine.

Imke refuses to teach her how to read the portents. It’s not fitting for a lady.

Mayken pipes up during Imke’s next session and rattles off a reading to a rapt sailor. Why, his past, present, and future are laid out in the sky! Right there in the flap of the canvas! In the color of the sea! The sailor is astonished—the child sees clearly. Mayken grins at Imke. Imke looks back, tight-lipped.

Imke’s second sight has likely rubbed off on Mayken. The old woman vows to be more circumspect with her visions.

Their cabin is getting smaller. Mayken has measured it. Five strides from one end to the other. On the first day it was nine. She has not grown any bigger and Imke has shrunk with the seasickness, so, if anything, they ought to have more room. The contents of the cabin are unchanged: two chests, two sleeping mats, blankets, a bucket, a table, and a stool.

The stool that Mayken is at this moment balancing on. “What’s happening?” whispers Imke.

Mayken applies her ear to the hole in a corner of the ceiling. This hole is for eavesdropping on conversation from the neighboring cabin. Mayken listens hard. Nothing is happening.

“Well?” Imke, propped up on one elbow, looks hopeful. “The lady is telling the maid off,” reports Mayken. “Use their proper names!”

Mayken rolls her eyes. “Lucretia Jansdochter is giving out to Zwaantie Hendricx on account of the maidservant giving encouragement to sailors old and young.”

Imke nods sagely. “Has Zwaantie answered back this time?”

Mayken shakes her head. “No, but I can hear furious anger in her silence.”

“You would do.”

“Zwaantie is to rein in her bosoms.” “Wise advice.”

Mayken makes to climb down. “Keep listening, child!” “They’ve gone.”

“Where?”

“To drink wine in the Great Cabin with the upper-merchant.” “He has a notion for Lady Lucretia.” Imke frowns. “Zwaantie is

going too? A maidservant is allowed in the Great Cabin?”

Mayken thinks quickly. “No, she has to wait outside in case her mistress needs anything, like a comb, or some pearls. She can sit with the guard as long as she keeps her bosoms to herself.”

Imke lies back satisfied. “Come down now.”

Mayken is relieved. She has better things to do than make up overheard conversations all day. Besides, it’s hard to stay balanced on a three-legged stool on a rocking ship. She cannot understand this fascination for Lucretia Jansdochter, or Creesje, as she is known to her friends. Even Imke, who usually sets no store with wealth, breeding, or beauty, is caught up in the mysteries surrounding their neighbor. The biggest mystery being: why would a woman of wealth, breeding, and beauty risk a long and perilous sea journey? To join her husband, a senior Company man, is the story.

Mayken hasn’t forgotten the expression of terror Creesje was wearing when she first saw her—the fine lady being hoisted up the side of the ship like a bag of flour! Now terror has been replaced by a customary expression of dismay. As Imke puts it, she’s probably not had to wash in her own piss before.

There is an elaborate knock on the door and it’s Jan Pelgrom. “How are your neighbors?”

Imke sniffs. “The lady is going to drink wine in the Great Cabin with the upper-merchant. The maid is to rein in her wayward bosom.”

Pelgrom is to thank for the distraction of the listening hole. Him and his borrowed carpenter’s tool. Pelgrom the shipworm.

Mayken takes advantage of Imke’s improved spirits. “May I go out? There’s sewing.”

Imke hesitates. She’s been a mare since Mayken’s adventure in fortune-telling.

“Mrs. Predikant is teaching embroidery to the young ladies on the deck,” supplies Pelgrom. Imke nods. He produces a nugget of ginger from his pocket. “To settle your stomach, Lady Imke.”

“Obliged.”

“And this, to stir your mind.” He kneels down to whisper in her ear. Mayken watches the glee spark and spread across her nursemaid’s face as Pelgrom speaks hushed and fast. He makes a quick unfathomable gesture with his thin hands. Then he squats back on

his haunches and waits.

Imke erupts with a rich fat giggle that runs to a generous laugh that Pelgrom heartily joins in with. Finally, Imke’s laughter subsides into the dabbing of tears and a look of gratitude.

Pelgrom, it seems, has a particular gift: the gift of knowing exactly what you need and then giving it to you.

For Imke, it is ginger tea and crying in a good way. For Mayken, it’s the key to the Below World.

Pelgrom rummages in the corner of the dim cabin. The cabin is shared by five clerks and it’s half the size of Mayken’s. The clerks are presently busy in the Great Cabin, writing lists for the undermerchant.

“Your key to the Below World,” says Pelgrom grandly. He brings forward a sour-smelling bundle. “A disguise. You can’t trot around down there in your fine gown and lace collar. They’ll see at once that you don’t belong.”

“Does the disguise have to stink?” “It’s from a Below World boy.” “He reeks.”

“So do you.”

“I reek less than he does.”

“Quickly, I’ll help you.” Pelgrom’s hands are not gentle. He tugs at her bonnet bow.

“I can do that.”

She steps into canvas breeches, stiff-legged with filth. Pelgrom adds an itchy tunic and a thick leather belt. Mayken suddenly feels scared. Small and lost in someone else’s clothes.

“I want to go back to my cabin.”

“And miss the chance of an adventure?” Mayken hesitates.

“Go on, go back to your cabin! Sit with that old girl hauling up her guts.”

“Imke can’t help being sick.” Mayken takes a deep breath, feeling her fear and curiosity battle it out. “I’ll go.”

“’Course you will.” Pelgrom pulls a cap onto her head and surveys her with satisfaction. “My, you are exactly a cabin boy! You must have a name.”

Mayken thinks. “Obbe. Like our cat in Haarlem.” “Pleased to meet you, Obbe.”

Mayken takes a few short strides. Scratches her arse. Tries spitting.

Pelgrom laughs. “When Imke dies, you can stay that way. We’ll shave your head and get you a beer ration.”

Mayken feels a sudden flare of anger. “Don’t say that about Imke.

She’s not dying.”

Pelgrom shrugs. Mayken tries to scratch under her cap, only her sleeves are too long. Pelgrom rolls them up. His smile is charming.

“What do you want?” asks Mayken.

“Can I sell your old clothes, Obbe? Your fine wool dress with the hidden gems?”

“No. I’ll still need to be Mayken. And there are no hidden gems.” Pelgrom feels along the hem of her dress, then stops, raises an eyebrow, and bites at the stitching. Mayken grabs at the dress but

Pelgrom holds it up and away from her.

“I’ll push this behind the pigpen. You can crawl through the loose board and change back into yourself there.”

“I’ll be seen!”

“You won’t, and if you are, what’s better: to be caught as Mayken on the main deck or hung from the yardarm as Obbe for entering a lady’s cabin?”

“I’ll stink.” “You will.”

Mayken scowls but nods.

“Watch yourself,” warns Pelgrom. “Aft-the-mast you’re protected. The rest of the ship has different rules. Don’t expect people to treat you nicely. You’re not fine anymore.”

Mayken spits, one hawked from the deep.

Pelgrom is grave. “Avoid the corporals, especially the man known as Stonecutter.”

“The giant who crushes skulls?”

“The same. He makes it his business to know every last soul on board. Stonecutter counts the bloody rats. He’d know straightaway that you are an impostor. And if you get caught—”

“It has nothing to do with you.” “Remember that.”

Mayken moves as fast as she can through the bustle of the main deck. She keeps her eye on Pelgrom, who slows near the waist of the ship. He glances back at her, then ducks behind the pigpen. Mayken follows. He gestures to a loose board and pushes the bundle of her fine clothes behind it.

Pelgrom straightens up, on the alert. Mayken watches. She must wait for his signal to make the final dangerous dash to gain the

steps down to the gun deck. He is turning his face everywhere. Who might see them slip through? Who is paying attention? Who is likely to care?

From high above a sudden volley of notes from the fat trumpeter on the poop deck. The bosun’s orders translated. The bosun is a big scarred brawler with a flat nose, and right now his eyes are lifted to the sails and the sky. Sailors scramble, ropes tauten, and canvas swells. The Batavia ducks and noses and the ship’s bell rings another half hour.

Pelgrom raises his hand. Get ready . . .

Mayken waits. Her old life behind, her new life before, watching only for the signal. One breath, two breaths—

He drops his hand. Go!

__________________________________

From The Night Ship. Used with permission of the publisher, Atria Books. Copyright 2022 by Jess Kidd.




More Story
Lit Hub Weekly: September 19-23, 2022 Manil Suri reflects on his pursuit to answer life’s Big Questions—using only math. | Lit Hub “When...