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Intimate Strangers Affair

by

Monica Danetiu-Pana


 

Table of Contents

 

Chapter 1: Adrift 6

Chapter 2: Trapped 13

Chapter 3: Fire and Ice 31

Chapter 4: Amour 55

Chapter 5: Possessed 91

Chapter 6: Images of the Past 105

Chapter 7: For the Dark 119

Chapter 8: Confessions 132

Chapter 9: Sea of Fire 151

Chapter 10: Secrets Revealed 162

Epilogue 183

 


Chapter 1: Adrift

 

I could hear the waves slap hard against the creaking ship, then harder still. Large waves, getting larger by the sound of them. I felt their low roar deep in my belly. That familiar warning vibrated through me, sending ripples of excitement and fear in my body. All around me, huddled people groaned. They were damp, miserable, and listless even though this clipper had more room than the usual. Poor things. Mal de mer. I had no such affliction. I was a sailor’s daughter, and the sea’s roar had been my lullaby, every port my home.

I’d just spent four years dry-docked in Paris, the city of lights and l’amour. But not for me. To me, Paris was where I pursued my dream to be a real physician, providing comfort, doing no harm. What was so strange about that? After all, it was 1862. Practically the twentieth century already! But it seemed I was ahead of my time. The world hadn’t caught up with my colleagues or me. Doctors like Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, Marie Zakrzewska, my friend Margaret Bres, these were my heroines, and I had joined their ranks at last. I had done it, finally done it. Lived on dates and old bread. Studied by oil lamps until the smoky fumes, fatigue and dimness made my eyes ache. I’d swum through mischievous opinions about unnatural females, and malicious remarks about my split-skirts. And now, it was done. My brand new diploma from L’Ecole de Medicin and my Laënnec stethoscope were wrapped tight in oilskin and stowed away in my battered gear. I had bid au revoir to Paris and I was headed west, reluctant or not.

I looked at myself in the small, dirty mirror and tried to put some kind of order in the mess that was my hair. Useless. I was tired, the black shadows under my eyes almost reaching my cheeks. People kept telling me that I was too pretty to be a doctor, that a blond haired, blue eyed, white china skin woman was meant to be a lady. Catherine, my aunt, categorized me as a challenging combination of my English mother’s good looks, with my French father’s adventurous spirit and stubbornness. She shrugged defeated and told everyone that in the end I’ll do whatever the hell I wanted to do, even if it killed me. And she was right.   

I walked to the hatch, the grimy hem of my skirts swishing between my legs and catching on the rough floor planks. I glanced over at Mrs. Lefevre, who sounded piteous and ill. Seven months along. God willing, we’d land before she delivered. Meanwhile, she needed more water. Maybe if I dribbled it into her mouth with a damp rag…but no, this long at sea, there were no clean cloths to be found. Germs, then the purulent fever. Dehydration, infection. All risks on the long voyage around the Horn… No, I won’t do this! I stopped and took a deep breath. Everything will be allright.

I clambered up the ladder and reached overhead to push up the hatch. Cold air immediately blasted my face. I could almost taste it. Rain was coming. A storm. I tilted my chin and felt my hair whip against my cheek like a flag. Yes, a strong one. The outside world seemed flat and piercingly white, overly bright. Too bright compared to the hold below. Squinting, I climbed up the last rung and looked around me. Dark gray clouds had swallowed the rising sun, but here and there, dawn had outlined their ominous shapes in gold. And the sky…crimson red, the color of fresh blood. I hadn’t seen one like that in years. My blood started to pound with excitement.

I was about to climb on to the deck, when I heard the soft scrape of boots behind me. I glanced around, then slowly upwards. Shiny Wellington boots, flaps down. Long muscled legs clad in neat buckskins, a black wool frock coat whose shoulders required no padding. No effete Nancy-boy here. This was an athlete’s body, strictly from a medical view point, in a gentleman’s clothes. And above those plain well-tailored clothes was a chiseled jaw, an unsmiling mouth, and eyes like green ice. Sin and sadness, a bleakness frozen twice over, and something underneath that I felt but couldn’t quite name. The sense of it touched me, made my breath catch. And I shivered inside as if I’d fallen headfirst into the Aleutian Sea. Suddenly, the cold wind seemed hot compared to those icy eyes that looked me over slowly, almost insolently, then stabbed right through me. We stared at each other for a long, long time.

“Women below,” he said finally in a quiet commanding voice that somehow carried even over the wind.

I couldn’t place his accent. French? Spanish? Continental for sure. I searched his face for a clue: faint weathered lines around his eyes, tanned skin, and his brown hair sun-streaked to auburn. A man used to the outdoors, then. But who was he? He seemed familiar, his face tugging at my memory. But I didn’t have any more time to speculate, because he repeated his command.

“Why women but not men?” I stepped on to the deck and put my hands on my hips, instinctively broadening my stance to keep my balance.

His eyes widened a fraction as he saw my split skirt.

What’s the matter? Too much ankle for you to handle? I felt strangely disappointed. Men. They were all the same.

“Go,” was all he said, this time in a lower tone. Final. Definite like the first surgical cut. He turned his back on me and was already walking away. Clearly, I had been dismissed. Not again. It was irritating, reminding me of all the lectures I’d been barred from, and the times I’d dressed up in breeches and coat just to sneak into places where I could learn. Even libraries, for God’s sake. I was a woman, not a leper.

Be a good girl, I could almost hear him say that out loud, and it made me mad enough to spit.

I cupped my hands around my mouth. “What about you? You’re up here. If you can, I can be on deck too. We’re nearing Cape Horn. I want to see it. It’s been a long time.”

He stopped, turned, and saw me still on the deck. His thick brown eyebrows tilted upwards as if he was puzzled. Why was I still there disobeying his command? He pointed to the hatch. “Now,” he said.

I wrapped my cloak tighter around me and paraded right past him. I walked steadily despite the growing pitch and roll of the ship, thankful that my old sea legs didn’t shame me in front of him. I stopped at the prow, one hand resting against the rail. Beyond the bottom lip of the clouds was a dark line of land, curving towards us.

“Patagonia,” he said behind me.

I knew that already, I didn’t need to be told. Annoyance ruffled through me, my heart pounding a little faster. Must be the excitement. The voyage, seeing Patagonia again. My brother Claude and I were ten when we’d last been here: arid plains as far as you could see, then cliffs dropping into the sea, and Dolores, the first woman to make my father smile again after my mother had died. Was Dolores still there? I waved to the memory of her living on that tip of land. A wild rough town. What was it called? I bit my lip, thinking harder. Memories flashed like stereoscope pictures before my eyes. There was Doctor Calhoun with his kind smile, my mentor and friend. Ti - something…I’ll get it. And…oh, Major Moore with his gray snake-eyes, his smile like knife-thrust. He scared Claude and me double all the time. I never knew why he and Papa were friends. They spent so much time together: drinking, talking quiet like grown-ups do when they don’t want kids to hear. Dolores hadn’t liked him either. You could tell by the way she always thumped the bottle on the table before she left them alone for another one of their conversations. He’d been here. Ti - something…Then  it came to me.

“Tierra del Fuego,” I said aloud and laughed, pleased that I still remembered.

“Good accent. Habla Español, señorita?”

“Si. Un poco. Just a little.” Lost in my memories, I’d almost forgotten about the man standing next to me. Why was he still here? I wished him away. His nearness disturbed me. Kind of like a morbid rash. Maybe if I ignored him he’d go away. If only I had a salve or something that easy. I reached into my skirt pocket for the next best thing: my talisman, the water-stained letter from Claude. I’d read it a hundred times already. An invitation, my brother said. An invitation back home, where the golden opportunities were like ripe apples just falling from the tree into your hands if you were smart and quick enough. Well, he was quick all right. But smart? Too smart for his own good. And way too smart for mine. He’d sent me the ticket for The Silhouette clipper to San Francisco, but it felt different, a different destination all together. It felt like a ticket to disaster. I could feel it, sure as I felt the storm brewing around me and the dominant presence of the man standing next to me.

“There is rough crossing ahead. Señorita, allow me.” It was a command, not a request. His large hand closed over my elbow and pulled me away from the prow. He was spoiling everything. I’d miss it! I tugged experimentally, but he was stronger than what I’d expected. A real surprise, given his gentleman clothes. Well, he wasn’t the only one. I knew a few surprises, too. I pulled backwards, throwing my whole weight into it. I dug in my heels and managed to slow down his inexorable progress back to the hold. Pitiful results, but it was the best I could do without injuring the man. After all, I’d taken a vow to do no harm. But for the first time, I was tempted, really tempted, to break my promise.

“No! We’re almost there! See?” Gesturing wildly, I pointed to the land’s end, not caring if I accidentally knocked his chin. I stumbled into him and heard him grunt. “Over there, where the sea’s ruffling all white. There’s the Cape. Cape Horn. Magellan discovered it.”

“No. Cabrillo was the first,” the man murmured as if talking to himself.

As the ship rounded the corner of the continent, we stood together, our tug-of-war momentarily forgotten while we watched the Atlantic meet the Pacific. Underneath us, the turbulent oceans pushed and pulled, mixing into mighty waves that marched like roaring rows of great gray elephants. Spray hissed, heavy as rain. My cloak flapped backwards, against him, then partially around him. He didn’t move away, his hand still on me. Firm, steady, almost strangely protective.

“I’m not afraid,” I stated.

“No, I do not think you are, señorita. But perhaps you should be. No fear is not the same as courage.” He looked at me. “You are very young.”

“Old enough,” I shot back, suddenly feeling insulted.

He didn’t reply at first. Only looked down at me, the corner of his mouth tugging upwards. The wind shrieked between us, around us, the sails snapping overhead with each wild gust. “Perhaps.”

“Not perhaps. Definitely. I’m twenty-two.”

His firm lips twitched as if he was holding something back. Did he think I was funny? Pitiful? I couldn’t tell, and that bothered me more than I wanted to admit.

“Ancient,” he agreed solemnly. He opened his mouth to continue, but I never heard what he was going to say.

There was a terrible noise, then the flap-flapping of a loose sail. The deck lurched. He had already crossed the deck and was climbing up the rigging. Easy, sure-footed, as if the wind wasn’t batting him back and forth. He caught the loose rope, hoisted it, and looked down. The closest sailor was running towards us, but still yards away.

I held up my hands, shouting, “To me! Come on! No time to waste!”

The whole ship was tilting portside. It groaned with each terrible second upward as wood and rope stretched, each joint tested, about to spring. Waves splashed over the rails and ran like a river down the deck. Soon, we’d be taking on water. Too soon. Slipping, I staggered. I bent my knees deep, flung my arms wide, and caught my balance again. “Come on!”

He hesitated for a second longer, then threw the rope to me. I grabbed it and pulled with all my strength even as the rope burned across my palms, slick with my blood. I grit my teeth and pulled harder. It was like reining in wild stallions, angrily fighting the bit with all their strength. I could feel the storm, alive and under my hands. My arms ached. Was I losing ground? Then I felt his weight added to mine, then the sailor’s. Together, we slowly and painfully pulled the foresail back into position. I lashed the rope to the spar. When I straightened up again, I could feel my hands cramping and the rain pelting down on my face for the first time. The storm had finally hit. I watched him check my knots, which thoroughly annoyed me. Reasonable, I suppose, but still, it bugged me. Nothing wrong with my knots, nautical or surgical.

He exchanged a glance with the little pear-shaped sailor, who let loose a torrent of Spanish. It sounded apologetic, a little fearful. “Capitán…”

Captain? Well, that explained the orders, the expected obedience, his erect shoulders-back posture.

The man held up one hand. “Esta bien.”

And with those quiet words, the sailor ended his effusive apologies. He bowed, then ran off to check the other rigging.

Finally, the Captain turned to me. He took my hands without asking, turning them palms up to survey the damage. My one glove had ripped at the seams. He slowly peeled it away. The soft kid leather slid against my abused skin, stinging my palms and fingers, the dells between them. How many nerves in one hand? I felt them all as his finger traced the swollen bruises on my palm. Then he looked at my other hand. It was scraped raw and still oozing.

“You lost your glove.”

“No, I didn’t…I mean, not here. I lost it in Paris a while ago. On the docks, before we left. I always lose things. Have one of everything. Maybe someday I’ll make a pair again with all the mismatches. Maybe…” Now I was babbling like an idiot with no brain. I snapped my mouth shut before I said anything else stupid.

He didn’t seem to mind. The Captain was examining my hand. He made a soft sound of regret, then reached inside his pocket and produced a snowy white square of linen. I had never seen such fine cloth.

I pulled back. “No. Are you crazy? I’ll ruin your handkerchief.”

He pulled me closer, and gently wrapped it around my injured hand. “See the ship’s surgeon.” Another order.

I jerked my hands away. “That barber! Are you kidding? No, thanks. He doesn’t know a canker from a crowbar. I’ll take care of it myself.”

His brows lifted.

I tucked my hands behind my back and shrugged. “It’s taken care of. Finished.”

“No,” he said softly. “Just beginning.”

***

The storm lasted for a week. We were tossed like knucklebones here and there by the whim of weather, perhaps by the anger of the Almighty. Whatever the cause, the men were kept busy above deck, and I below stairs with my fellow suffering passengers. Rum no longer helped them, so I used my precious stores of poppy extract to soothe the worst cases. Mrs. Lefevre delivered early; a frail baby girl. Her head was the size of a pippin apple, fitting neatly into my waiting hands. And there were three cases of broken arms, easily reset, and one broken mast until we limped into a Chilean harbor for repairs.

Two weeks went by before we sailed again, then a third passed at sea. And in all that time, I still hadn’t seen the Captain again. Maybe he’d put ashore and stayed there, or maybe he was too busy trying to make up for lost time. I’d noticed we’d been trimming tighter than before, the sea rushing like liquid glass beneath us. The men seemed grimmer, and a little more tired from the longer shifts. No more hornpipes on the ocarina, just the sounds of terse commands and terser replies.

I admit it. I listened for his voice, but didn’t hear it. I even walked the decks at all hours, hoping for a glimpse of the Captain. I needed to know, needed to prove to myself that if I saw him again, I would be all right. Act normal. Be fine. Maybe that one moment had been a fluke, an attack of apoplexy. Yes, that could account for my uncharacteristic reaction. I still felt unsettled, full of restless energy all of a sudden. Even my work didn’t satisfy me anymore. Every night I lay swinging in my hammock, wide-eyed and strangely unfulfilled. I had never felt this way before, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it. Maybe it was the café con chocolate I’d taken a liking to during this trip. The cinnamon richness, the cacao….yes, the drink could be stimulating ill-humors. But somehow, I knew it wasn’t as simple as all that. It never was. The etiology was far more complicated, the implications more disturbing. Thoughts churned through my brain like a steamboat, the paddlewheels turning and turning. They chuffed through my peace of mind whipping it into rough white froth, finally driving me from my bed and on to the deck again.

The sky was purple-black like a new bruise, and the stars hung low over the horizon. The cold night seemed almost unnaturally still now that we had finally passed the storm front. The night, the sea, everything felt heavy and calm. Everything, that is, except me. I paced back and forth along the stern as if trying to out-race my thoughts, but they seemed to follow me everywhere like a dog’s tail, persistently wagging behind me. What was wrong with me? For a while, I listened to the slap and pause of the waves, but even the sea couldn’t lull me to sleep tonight. I tried to find something, anything to distract me. Finally, I leaned my elbows on the rail, peered over, and watched the wake veer out; two gleaming silver lines that gradually faded into the darkness. Where were the dolphins? I searched for their arching shapes, but didn’t see any. Maybe it was too early even for them to play.

Suddenly, I felt something light and airy brush against my cheek. It was like a breeze, faintly ticklish, but it wasn’t that. Couldn’t be. The air was calm, hardly more than a whisper. Baby winds, mild as milk. Still, whatever it was, it made me turn and look up. And then, I saw a tall shadow up on the bridge. It was him. Had to be. That stark profile, the broad shoulders, and slim hips could belong to no one else. The captain seemed very remote, so high in his solitary perch above the rest of the crew, the entire ocean. He looked as if he belonged there, and the thought made me a little sad as I watched him. Holding a spyglass to one eye, he moved gracefully to survey the sea before him. One slow arc, then a second equally thorough one. He paused just before he completed the final sweep, lowered his spyglass, and turned deliberately around to the stern. He looked straight at me.

Caught. What was I expecting? I fought my impulse to hide behind some barrels. All of a sudden, I felt foolish like a schoolgirl, grateful that the night hid my blushing cheeks. Unmoving, he watched me for a long time, so long that winter melted into spring, spring to summer, summer to fall, and then the seasons seemed to turn around again as we looked at each other. I felt his gaze as if he touched me, heating places that I knew but had never really known before. Strange places. Dark places. It was…unbearable, and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I just stood there, still and stupid, as if my feet had been tarred to the spot. I had to move, had to do something, but I didn’t know what. For all my education, I was ignorant in this. At last, I raised my hand and waved a little. I don’t know why, but I did. He waited for a few minutes before he barely lifted his chin in acknowledgement. A slight movement. Perhaps I’d imagined it.


END OF SAMPLE



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