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About the Author

Beth Powning

Beth Powning grew up in a small New England town, where her family has lived since the 1790s. In 1972, she and her husband Peter Powning moved to Canada and bought an 1870s farm in New Brunswick, where they established a pottery business.

In 1995, Beth Powning published a book of photography, Roses For Canadian Gardens (written by childhood friend Bob Osborne). She later found her voice in Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life. Over the next fifteen yaers, five books followed: another book of photographs, Northern Trees and Shrubs; two works of non-fiction, Shadow Child and Edge Seasons; and two bestselling novels, The Hatbox Letters and The Sea Captain's Wife.

Books by this Author
A Measure of Light

A Measure of Light

A Novel
also available: Paperback
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Edge Seasons

Edge Seasons

A Mid-life Year
tagged : literary
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After we married at the age of nineteen, Peter and I lived in a tiny house known as “The Nutshell.” It was the summer of 1969, and we were university students. We had met on a blind date at my campus, just north of New York City. Peter wore wire-rimmed aviator glasses, bell-bottom jeans, and T-shirts with red and blue stripes. He was tall, with shoulder-length brown hair and a gap between his two front teeth. He had blue eyes and a funny last name. I’d just returned from a summer spent at a work camp in the mountains of Mexico. I wore huaraches and sweaters with threadbare elbows. I wanted to be either an actor or a writer. He studied art.

Our parents thought it was unseemly, in those years, to live together unwed, so we were married and moved to the town where I’d grown up – near to the University of Connecticut, for Peter, and a commute to Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, for me. It was a small town, its village centre built along the ridge of a hill, with nineteenth-century houses shaded by giant maples and the surrounding countryside still a patchwork of small dairy farms.

The Nutshell had once been a cobbler’s shop but had eventually become an annex to the Chelsea Inn. The inn was half-hidden by overgrown American bamboo; its windows were obscured by ancient, sun-browned paper shades. It was my Aunt Mildred’s summer place. After her husband died and her children left home, she let it fall into disrepair. Once a month she drove out from her city house in her Thunderbird, carrying trays of mushrooms in its trunk. “A perfect place for them,” she told us in her whispery, enthusiastic voice, “dark and warm.” Hair skinned into a bun, lopsided lipstick giving her a loopy smile, she collected the rent and stuffed it into her pocket. I watched her go to the inn’s side door, where she stooped, fumbling with the key.

Across the village street were two large houses: one had once been my grandparents’ summer place, and the other, my uncle’s. I had spent my childhood exploring these houses: their attics were filled with oddments from previous generations – spinning wheels, calf-hide trunks, dresses, hats. Their barns were occupied by dusty wooden tools, sleighs, carriages; and there were flower gardens, orchards, beehives. Next to The Nutshell was a house that had once belonged to my aunt’s parents. All these houses were now sold, but the family gatherings of my childhood – Fourth of July, or Labor Day, or apple-harvesting weekends – meant that on either side of the street I could push through screen doors and be offered cold lemonade or cookies. From our porch I could see the Congregational Church, where my parents and my great-grandparents had been married. I could see the library where I had learned to love the smell of books. The post office was five minutes’ walk away, as was the town’s only general store, with its sagging wooden porch and a bulletin board covered with faded, limp announcements.

Peter and I had two marmalade cats and a dog. In the dank undergrowth behind the little house we cleared space for a chicken pen and kept twelve Rhode Island Red hens. In the summer our two pigs lived at my parents’ place at the north end of town, in a pen by their pond. We thumbtacked a map of North America to the plaster wall of our living room and studied it. Place was abstract, a yearning based on notion and desire.

Everything happened for the first time: it was our first kitchen, our first living room, our first bathroom. Peter, revealing himself to be both resourceful and energetic, built a bed on posts, accessible by a ladder. There was a claw-footed tub, its porcelain abraded so that the bather’s bottom was scoured. The kitchen was like a boat’s galley – sink, gas stove, and refrigerator barely left room to move.

Maples burned in the tawny sun: red-orange, freckly gold. The sweet, wormy smell of soil rose on morning mist. The air was restless, filled with migrating birds and the idle dance of spent leaves. The Vietnam War was present in our lives like an inevitable disease. Young men spent their creativity avoiding or sabotaging the draft – feigning injury or illness, mailing pumpkins to draft boards. The future had no shape. I imagined it the way I saw the valley that spread below us – folds of hills holding no known towns or people or stories. Peter and I wanted to migrate, like the birds. We imagined independence, pictured ourselves living in a place surrounded by space and light, its only sounds those of weather.

The Nutshell filled with dried herbs – tansy, thyme, marjoram – hung in string-tied bunches from nails over the kitchen window. We grew a vegetable garden in my parents’ west field. We picked wild Concord grapes from the stone walls. I learned to make jam and bread. We acquired an electric mill and ground our own flour. We went down to a farm in the valley and brought home raw milk in metal cans. Butternut squash lined our porch on frosty October mornings. We bought bushels of apples from roadside stands. I lifted racks of canning jars from their boiling bath, the metallic steam flushing my cheeks, and for the first time I felt the satisfaction of having shelves lined with glass jars: pink applesauce with saucer-shaped air bubbles, purple-black grape jam, dried mint. We sold eggs to our neighbours, made Christmas wreaths and peddled them door to door. Peter helped my father split wood. My mother showed me how to make a purl stitch. Cold air on our faces and frozen earth beneath our boots, the smell of baking bread, frost on windowpanes: these things, like first snow, turned, drifted, and coalesced.

Mint Tea

That first autumn of our marriage we visited with another young couple, Bob and Kathy. They, too, lived in my hometown in a rented house.

“What are you going to do after you graduate?” Peter asked.

“Something like this,” Bob said, pointing out the window to the remains of a vegetable garden. “But not here. The slime,” he added, nodding towards the village, where the church steeple pierced the treetops, “is just over the hill.” He meant the factories, malls, highways, and housing developments that were creeping ever closer, displacing cow pastures and orchards.

We drank mint tea and talked about the Peace River Valley in Alberta, shoring one delicious dream up against another. We imagined going in canoes to a place electricity would never find. We discussed building log cabins, setting traplines, hunting, planting gardens in riverside clearings. I imagined what we would take in our canoes.

“What about my piano?” I said.

Over the winter, we honed our vision, until a plan was made to explore New Brunswick, just beyond Maine. We found a book in the library about the Maritime provinces and pored over its photographs. Bob shared his childhood memories of visiting New Brunswick’s forests and river valleys. My maternal grandfather’s family had lived in a house called Old Oaks in the border town of St. Stephen. At the turn of the twentieth century they’d come south, to Rhode Island. Now we decided to immigrate at the same border crossing. Once we entered Canada we would leave behind a country in turmoil. Neither Bob nor Peter had been drafted: Bob because of a high lottery number; Peter by dint of creating so many headaches for his draft board that he was given a classification that meant “administratively shelved.” Still, it would be a relief to step forward into a nation at peace.

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Chronicle of a North Country Life
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Shadow Child

Shadow Child

A Woman's Journey Through Childbirth Loss
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As I surface from sleep, sounds clarify and become simple. Peter lies on his side with his back to me; I can hear his slow, deep sleep-breathing. The window is cracked open just far enough to bring the April night into our bedroom. The brook is swollen with snow-melt; it breaks loose from the forested hills, coils through the greening pasture, splits around our house and barns, and is gathered by the Hammond River. The rush of waters, darker than wind and steadier, is the sound of northern spring, when what has been stilled runs free.

Something else, though, has awakened me. I lift my head from the pillow. The sound is regular and insistent, like a child calling. A mother instinct sharpens me.

It’s an owl. I wait, listening for its deep, wild voice, but I hear only the brook waters. The owl calls again, and then there’s an answer. It comes from the copse in the hill pasture, on the west side of the brook. The answering call is higher. I think of it as a female voice, tough, smaller, more remote. The deep one calls again, and then the voices overlap, and they call together, continuously.

I listen, propped on one elbow. I think how the owls are like me and Peter. We lie in bed, back to back, and talk to one another in the darkness without seeing each other’s faces. We need to know only that the other one is there; that the other one wants to listen, wants to respond. After thirty years of marriage, we need only the brush of a finger on skin to feel less alone, reassured of our primacy in someone else’s heart. We’ve each disentangled ourselves, bit by bit, from the thicket of couplehood, and have emerged scarred after plucking out thorns of need, resentment, jealousy, and feel equal, and distinct, and secure in ourselves. Still, increasingly, we realize that it’s our love for one another that feeds our separate strengths.

The maple bed we’re lying in belonged to my grandparents, who in turn inherited it from my great-grandparents. Its four posts are shaped like pawns in a chess set, pear shapes set on thick, round discs, ending in fluted legs and topped by knobs worn smooth by sleepy hands; its glossy footboard curls at the lip, like a wave. I imagine the bed as a ship carrying us through the night, keeping us safe, when the winds of February blizzards are so strong that we can feel the house shuddering as if alive, its mute timbers expanding like a ribcage.

I love thinking of Granny and Poppy sleeping in this bed, since we’re alone here. When we came to this place, in 1972, we never thought about whether we would miss the people we were leaving behind; we were like hawks, buoyant, circling on the updrafts of our imaginations. We didn’t think about how we would change, or be changed. Rather, we filled notebooks with plans; we made lists; we determined what we would do, and how. We imagined ourselves doing everything we wanted to do, saw ourselves as the people we thought we would make ourselves become.

I slide down onto my side and lie facing the window with my palms pressed together and propped beneath my cheek so my best ear will be able to hear the owls. The notes of their conversation are like amber beads: round, full, complete. Around me, the house, even in its shadowed stillness, feels alive and vital, like the heart of a lily.

We’ve always slept in this little north-facing room; it doesn’t get the morning sun, but from its window we can keep an eye on the barn, with its changing cast of animals (horse, pony, sometimes chickens, once ducks, cow, goats), and on Peter’s studio. I can see my gardens with their perennial flowers, raspberry canes and raised beds for vegetables. The things in this room that I brought from Connecticut have no intrinsic power, do not keep me moored to the past as I thought they would when I brought them here. I saw them, the morning after we immigrated, strewn randomly on the driveway — chairs tipped with their legs in snow patches, mirrors leaning against the house’s peeling paint — and I felt as I did when, as a child, I saw my parents in some strange place; I’d be shocked by their rumpled familiarity, and would want to put them back where they belonged. I sensed, that morning, that these things, like me and Peter, could never be put back; that they, like us, were patches on a quilt, and that time would fade them, soften their edges, make them part of the fabric until only close scrutiny could identify their careful stitches. Now these things surround me and Peter in the intimate familiarity of our bedroom. The furniture is exactly the same as it was the morning we arrived; the mirrors hang in the same places on the walls, the bed hasn’t moved for years. The rungs on the chair are still worn in the same places, from children’s feet. These things are no longer part of my past, but have become part of my present. They have their place within this fragile and fleeting composition that I call my life. But they are less changed than I am.

It’s me who has changed. I see these things differently. I don’t see my granny when I look at the bedpost dimly outlined against the wall, but I hear the sound of weeping as Peter and I cried in this room. I picture our son, Jacob, when he was two, industriously climbing over the headboard; I remember how I couldn’t fit between the bed and the wall when I was pregnant, but had to go sideways.

Time folds me into its bewildering layers.

Soon I’ll be fifty. I’m a mother, a daughter, a wife, a writer. I can state all of these things now without ambivalence. I can see myself almost clearly. I feel my own resignation, my own humility. Oddly, what I’ve learned is that the making of self is more a matter of yielding than forcing; it is like a gradual clarifying, and the slow, surprising emergence of an unexpected shape.

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The Hatbox Letters

1. Kate

Kate leans in the doorway of the living room, arms crossed, the sleeves of a cotton sweater shoved to her elbows. Her forearms are sinewy–brown, dry-skinned, thorn-scratched. She wears two silver bracelets and a thick gold wedding band. Some women, she realizes, remove their rings.

In the corner is a stack of nine antique hatboxes. She has not touched them since they were set down a week ago, delivered by her sister, who drove them up from Hartford. They are oval or round, some tied with string, some decorated with maroon-and-silver stripes, others printed with gothic landscapes – willows, mountains, ruined castles. Their smell has begun to permeate the room even though the windows are open. It is the smell of her grandparents’ attic, a smell she has not forgotten but thought had vanished, like the past itself. That it has not and is still here, this aroma of horsehair and leather, of apples and musty quilts, of old dresses and satin ribbons – that this smell still exists here in this Canadian river valley, six hundred miles north of her grandparents’ house, is disquieting. It awakens a feeling in Kate that she remembers from childhood, composed of odd emotional strands: love, sorrow, pain, contentment.

The arrival of the hatboxes is untimely, since dispossession, like grief, is an act of which Kate has had her fill since Tom’s death a year and three months ago, from a heart attack at age fifty-two. She’s hauled garbage bags of clothes, like lumpy corpses, down to the washing machine, unable to give away anything that might bear his painty, sawdusty smell. Sorting through the clothes, she was relieved whenever she came across T-shirts like Swiss cheese or underpants held by threads to waistbands no longer elastic. Choices made easy: Okay, throw this away. No one in her family has wanted to face making such decisions about the papers in these hatboxes. They have been lugged from place to place, from barn to basement to closet, ever since the big house in whose attic they’d accumulated for five generations was sold.

She goes into the living room and squats by the boxes. Their papered cardboard is dry as old plaster. How strange, she thinks, that they are here, now. And she finds herself wishing they could have remained forever under the attic’s cobwebbed window, their contents spilled, letters stuffed by children’s hands back into envelopes embroidered by the teeth of mice. Like leaves in a mulch pile. Forgotten, skeletal, slowly reverting to dirt. So it might have been if the house had not been sold, if time had not stalked on relentless legs, like a heron, and bent its long neck.

She slides her fingers over a lid, remembering the excitement she and her cousins had felt about these boxes and the disappointment of finding only papers whose half-read sentences were like windborne music or distant surf, faint hints of a larger sound. The box is so desiccated that its lid is loose and lifts easily, releasing the concentrated mustiness within, so familiar that tears spring to Kate’s eyes. It takes her to the closets, bedrooms, pantries and cupboards of her grandparents’ enormous, white-clapboarded house on the tree-lined street of the village where Kate grew up. She and her sister could leave their own home, walk past the tiny general store, with its wooden porch and post office, past the library and the church, and be on Shepton’s lawn in ten minutes. Shepton House had been named by her great-grandmother for the English town where some branch of the family originated. Shepton, they called the place after awhile, dropping the pretentious “House.” The word, spoken and accompanied by memory, is what a spell might be to a shaman: an evocation, a tumult of associations. She stirs the papers. Like the snow-flattened leaves of early spring, they are brown and soft, overlapping, their corners fanned. Some are in bundles, tied with faded cotton string. Most lie in a dismaying confusion. Kate pauses, looks out the window. River light quivers in trees at the bottom of her lawn. She is still squatting, irresolute. Why did I agree to take on this responsibility? Now – of all times.

She slips into a sitting position, crosses her legs. The house is so quiet. No one will be coming to visit until Thanksgiving. Her daughter, Christy, is in Halifax, her son, Liam, in Ireland. She listens to the sound of an empty house, thinking, Am I still a wife? She sees her future not the way it is now but the way it was supposed to be; this, unlike the bald fact of Tom’s death, is a loss she can’t share, a grief she can’t reveal. She is allowed to mourn the past, Tom as he was, the sound of his voice, the body that once cradled hers; but the future that was theirs – its loss has become like a new death, the death of someone no one else knows. A hidden corpse. It ebbs away, her memory of how it felt to slide her hand into the back pocket of Tom’s shorts, to relate a rambling dream and not care whether he listened, to casually wipe mustard from his chin. This loss of intimacy is the hardest, for with it goes her sense of self. She cannot bear to be with long-married couples: she’s watched a husband lift a strand of windblown hair from his wife’s mouth, has seen a wife peel a hard-boiled egg and hand it to her husband. It is dangerous, as well, to be in places – dinner parties, picnics – where conversational lures may attract memories, or feelings. She feels stripped of some sleek texture, as if she has lost her favourite silk scarf, orange-pink and luminous as sun-filled tulips, that carried in its folds the wife she once was, the wife she would still be.

She leans forward and rummages in the hatbox, knowing that she is being hooked by its sweet smell. She tips reading glasses from her head, settles them on her nose, unfolds a paper and presses it to her face. She breathes deeply. What is it? Lately she finds herself in a peculiar state, slowed, as if floating without impulsion, in which she examines her own feelings. There’s a familiar, disturbing stab in her heart that she remembers from when, as a child, she laid her head on Shepton’s prickly pillows, or lifted the lids of stoneware crocks or opened the games cupboard under the stairs. It’s a small ache, a presage of grief, evoked by the distilled smell of age. It’s a reminder, she thinks, of joy’s sorrow-edge. Of how every moment tilts on the brink of its own decline. There’s something else, though. Responsibility to the past. And flight from its demands. The feelings she’s come to recognize, holding in her hand, say, a small pin that Tom was once given at a ceremony in Ottawa “for service to the arts.” How, she chastises herself, during her process of dispossession, could she think of parting with this piece of silver? Doesn’t she have the responsibility of memorializing Tom?

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The Sea Captain's Wife

1. Noah’s Ark
It was the fifth year of her marriage, when her child, Carrie, was four years old. The bleeding began in the privy. Azuba wiped herself with a square of newspaper and found a red gout. She ripped newsprint from the nail. More blood came, thick, flecked with black strands. She mopped, mopped. She stood, bent with pain, settled her hoops, petticoat and skirt.
Wind snatched the door from her hand. She left it unhooked, gathered her cloak across her breast. The house loomed against a grey sky, the path a pale string in the headland grass.
Blood surged, trickled down her legs.
She began to run, one arm clasping her belly.
“Hush, now, could’ve been worse,” the midwife said. “You were only four months.”
She set a tin basin on the floor by Azuba’s bed, stooped and gathered the rags. “Baby’s gone, but there’ll be more bleeding. Stay still.”
Azuba lay flat on her back listening to the midwife’s steps going down the stairs. Mother was in the kitchen, feeding Carrie her supper. Soon the whole town would know.
Azuba Bradstock lost a child, people would murmur. Years before she’ll have another chance. The next time she went into the village, women would lower their voices, clasp her wrist, touch her shoulder. Such a pity.
She rolled her head sideways to gaze at the candle flame.
Nathaniel. Oh, Nathaniel, my beloved.
She pictured her husband reading the letter she had recently sent. Perhaps he’d been in Cape Town, where he’d planned to stop for provisions. There he sits, she thought, at the rolltop desk in Traveller’s saloon, holding the letter over a mess of business papers. She pictured his fingers smoothing his moustache, wide mouth bent downward, studying her words. His eyes lighten, he smiles. He reads the letter again. Then he folds it, tucks it into its envelope. Presses it to his heart.
February 6, 1861
Whelan’s Cove, New Brunswick
Dear Nathaniel,
I am with child. Carrie is excited to think she will have a brother or a sister. Oh my darling, if only you could be home for this child’s birth.
Nathaniel had left six months after their wedding, and had been at sea when Carrie was born. Once he received news that he had become a father, he’d written to say that he’d be home as soon as possible. One thing, though, had led to another: a cargo of coal to Bombay; a long delay in port; a consignment across the Pacific. His letters became increasingly frustrated. Carrie had been a sturdy little girl of almost three when he’d finally arrived home.
Azuba thought of the tiny nightgown in her workbox. It was a smocked nainsook, embroidered with a red rose, its stem unfinished. Her needle, piercing the fabric. Carrie’s finger, tracing it.
“May I name the baby, Mama?”
The candle flame licked the air, blue at its base.
Azuba watched it through tears. She felt the heartbreak of motherhood— sorrow, now, not only for herself and Nathaniel, but for Carrie.
Ah, the day he left. He had been home for a one-year furlough and had left again just after Christmas. He’d carved Carrie a Noah’s ark with all the animals and, before leaving, had clasped her to his chest, gruff voice in her hair and a rare tear glistening in his eye.
“I’ll be home soon,” he’d said to her. “Don’t worry.”
There Carrie had stood, waving to her father going out to his ship in a rowboat. Returning home in the carriage, she’d knelt to look back down the bay, too stunned to cry. And then, when they returned to the house, she had climbed onto his chair and made herself into a ball, pressing her face to the brocade, refusing to speak, eat or be comforted. For days afterward she had stood at the bow window, staring out over the headland pasture, asking for Papa. Expecting to see his sails, coming home.
And that night of his leave-taking. How I took his coat from the closet. She’d sat on the bed with her face buried in its black wool, breathing its smell of tobacco and cold air. And realized that her love for him had no expression now other than in words— scrawled or read.
Now she cried herself to exhaustion and lay staring at the ceiling. She longed to tell Nathaniel. Her shock, stumbling over the field. Her hired man, Slason, hurrying to the barn. How she’d waited, moaning, while the carriage went for her mother and the midwife. She longed to be held in his arms, to feel his hand on her forehead, smoothing, consoling. To feel the bitter comfort of shared loss.
Despair, she thought, was the inability to imagine. She pictured the nightgown she had been embroidering. The names she had thought to bestow on the new child.
I have no reason to despair.
The bedroom had two bow windows overlooking the Bay of Fundy with its spruce-cragged cliffs. At the age of nineteen, she had married Nathaniel Bradstock, who at twenty-eight was a seasoned captain. Her father had given them the house as a wedding gift, hiding it beneath a scaffolding strung with sails as it was being built. A big house meant to be filled with dogs, toys, music, guests, family. He had set the house high on a headland, fit for a sea captain’s wife, where Azuba could look down at Whelan’s Cove with its shipyards, hulls looming higher than the rooftops, gulls circling in clouds of sawdust; its harbour, crowded with fishing boats, coastal schooners, sloops— and farther out, in the deeper water, square-rigged merchant ships with their forest of masts and rigging. One of which might, on occasion, be Nathaniel’s Traveller.
She could look down at the farmstead of her childhood, set within fields of oats and buckwheat, and the ribbon of shore road. She could see the salt marsh where, as a child, she had run with her older brothers, Benjamin and William, and the dunes where compass grass scratched half-moons in the sand. She could see the beach where they’d chased stiltlegged sandpipers, jumped the ropes of froth, watched ships beating up the bay with billowed, patched sails.
She pictured herself as a child— dark-haired, impetuous, with black eyes, different from her fair-skinned cousins— and felt pity for her hope. Her innocence.
I thought I would sail away on one of those ships. Married to a sea captain. I’d be Mrs. Shaw, with her red-headed parrot.
Her days, now: as they would unfold tomorrow, and next week, and next month. She saw herself working with her hired girl, Hannah— planting, weeding, scrubbing— her own hair pinned back, sleeves rolled, scissors and knives jingling in the deep pockets of her wash dress. How she made her choice to work from the wearisomeness of its alternative: tea parties, visits, carriage rides. She pictured Slason, with his crooked leg and loose-lipped mouth. He tended the pigs, the horse, the cow. His voice, submissive. What do you need, Mrs. Bradstock? And the violent headland winds, different from the winds of her childhood. Clothes on the line, twisted into knots. Doors, pulled from her hand. Often, she paused on the porch and looked out at the blue line of Nova Scotia and the silver gleam in the southwest where the bay widened to the Gulf of Maine: the sea spread before her, thundered in her ears; and sometimes she loathed it, since Nathaniel was at its mercy. At other times, she closed her eyes, tossed back her bonnet and breathed deep of the world’s size.
Azuba drew up her knees, rocking from the ache in her womb, thinking of Carrie.
No brother. No sister.
The May wind blew onshore and there was a spring tide. Carrie was at her granny’s for the day.
Azuba sat in an armless chair, a Paisley shawl concealing the opening at the back of her dress; she had left her corset loosely knotted. She wore a brown dress with purple piping. Her black hair was unwashed, parted in the middle, caught up in a net at her neck. Beneath her eyes were blue shadows. After four days, she still felt a low cramp in her womb.
The new Anglican minister, Reverend Walton, had come to visit. He had heard she was unwell, but would not speak of the reason. He sat upright, his ankles crossed and his arms laid precisely along the chair’s carved arms. He was a slight, mild man, easily moulded by the parish women.
She and Nathaniel had paid a call at the parsonage when he had first arrived. He’d shown them his studio, a large room at the back of the house with an easel, drawing books and a table beneath a window littered with treasures he’d collected along the shore— feathers, shells, skulls.
Even when he’s old, she thought, he’ll still look eager, innocent.
Sunlight streamed through the windows, lit the carpet-draped table with its oil lamp and leather books; a japanned china cabinet; a pump organ.
“It’s a beautiful house, Mrs. Bradstock,” he said.
His composure was disarming and she felt an impulse to tell him her real feelings about the house. How, when her father had told her he would build it, she’d exclaimed, “No, no, we won’t need . . .” And then had paused. Mother had looked up from her sewing, shocked, her face revealing all she hoped for in a married daughter: help, companionship, grandchildren. Father’s smile paled. “What did you say, Azuba?” His voice was awry, like Mother’s face, its tone incredulous. He’d laid down his pen slowly, his eyes had narrowed, and she had been caught by his prescient gaze. She saw that her intention to go to sea with her captain husband was so far from her parents’ expectations that her words were like a foreign language. And she had not dared refuse the house, or announce her plan. A house, she’d thought. Only a house. “I meant that you needn’t do so much for me,” she’d amended. “Thank you, Father. We would be grateful for such a gift.”
Or how, on the day of their wedding, in the midst of an October gale, she and Nathaniel and most of the villagers had gone up the headland road in horse-drawn carriages. Father had lifted his arm, men had slashed the ropes, and the sails had fallen from the scaffolding, revealing a large white house that would forever be known as “the sail house.” It had gingerbread shingles, a porch and steep gables. In their enthusiasm, the men had cut the ropes tethering the sails and the canvas had risen like monstrous, demented gulls, flapping towards the horses. Drivers had stood, shouting, hauling on reins. Nathaniel had jumped from the carriage, seized their horse by the bridle, growling “Whoa! Whoa!” even as he stared up at the newly minted house with a complex expression—surprise, affront and then a dawning comprehension.
At that moment, she realized later, Nathaniel had glimpsed the implications of taking her to sea: the danger to her, the anguish of those left behind. Perhaps when the sails fell from the house, Nathaniel’s mind had shifted like ballast throwing a ship off true. A place he could safely leave me. She wondered if her father might have hoped for such an outcome.
“My father built it as a wedding gift, as you know.”
Reverend Walton leaned forward, picked a dead leaf from his pants. “It must be a comfort to you to have such a house.”
He was studying the leaf, and she saw that he was unsure of his boundaries, as a minister and as a man.
She pressed her folded hands to the ache in her belly. She felt an upwelling of longing to be sharing the loss of the baby with Nathaniel, and it was borne upon her that she must learn to fold waiting into living, like a kind of stillness within motion.
It is the nearness, she thought, of his last visit. Only four months since he’d left. And then this loss. It made his absence more unbearable. And she wondered if the pain of parting, over the years, would increase rather than diminish.
She must begin again her work of maintaining love. Keeping Nathaniel alive in her memory, and now in Carrie’s. Reminding the child how he carved the tiny animals, one eye squinted, critical; or knelt on the rug with his muscled thighs, being a horse for Carrie. His lovely baritone voice singing Irish ballads. And her own, private memories: silky flesh, his hands cradling her face, the way he lifted her shawl from the floor and tucked it around her. And to compose in her mind an imagined life that dexterously shrunk the years he was away and expanded the time he was home.
She began speaking nervously, as if confessing. “You know, Reverend Walton, I married for love. I wanted to be with my husband. I thought that I would go to sea with him. I’ve always wanted to sail; I still do. I’ve always wanted to travel, to see the world.” She gestured at the window.
It came in a rush.
“I thought we would be a seafaring family, like so many others. Did you know that Captain Shaw delivered all three of their children at sea? They had a pet billy goat on board. Captain Shaw made a little cart for it. The children had a full-rigged model ship that they towed in the wake of their ship. Mrs. Shaw hung her wash in the rigging. She saw Buckingham Palace. The children rode on elephants.”
Reverend Walton tightened his arms to his sides as she spoke. His eyes slid to the clawed feet of the organ stool. He brushed hair from his forehead, as one would a fly.
“Well,” he said, after a silence. “Could you not? Go with him?”
“He changed his mind.”
When Nathaniel had first bent his eyes on her, she had felt a heat in her chest, fear mixed with elation. She had felt light as the wind, and as formless. Oh, and I asked him, Will I come with you, on Traveller? Yes, he said. He took me by the elbows and studied my resolve. Yes, he said, I could not bear to leave you.
Reverend Walton appeared agitated by her tone. His eyes flew to the window and remained there. “It would be a life filled with peril,” he ventured. “For you and the children.”
“I’m sorry,” Azuba said. “I shouldn’t . . . I’m not myself.”
The minister rose. “Mrs. Bradstock, please.” He stepped forward, took her hand, held it for an instant before shaking it. “I’ve tired you. Please come visit the parsonage. Bring your daughter. I’ll show her my collection.”
After he had seen himself out, Azuba rose and sought her sewing box. She sat on the horsehair sofa, lifted out a bundle of Nathaniel’s letters tied with blue satin ribbon.
My dearest Azuba,
I am at lat. 35 11,’ long. W. 126, in the vicinity of Pitcairn Island. We are in the S.E. trades and the weather has been beautiful.
She skimmed through the letters, seeking words.
Love. Sweet. My dear wife. Home, soon. Our wedding. Wish that I. Forever.
Azuba dropped the letter into the sewing box and replaced the lid. It was her secret, what she had told Reverend Walton. Everyone assumed her contentment. There was not a girl in the village who would not have married Nathaniel Bradstock. Sea captains’ wives were envied, whether they sailed with their husbands or not. Nathaniel was the youngest of three boys, all sea captains. When he was twelve years old, he had served as cabin boy on his oldest brother’s ship; at fourteen, he was sent away to the academy in Sackville. And was a second mate at nineteen. The Bradstock brothers, Nathaniel included, were renowned for their hard-driven voyages, extravagant items brought or shipped home, adventures spiced with rumours of ruthlessness. Their parents gave balls and dinners to celebrate their infrequent visits.
Azuba thought of her plaid silk wedding dress, hanging in her bedroom closet. Green and purple, with a shimmer of gold thread.
The following week, Azuba and Carrie drove to visit Azuba’s grandmother, Grammy Cooper. Slason offered to drive, but Azuba refused. She loved to collect the mare’s energy, tightening the reins, snapping the whip. And it was only five miles, through the village, up along the needle-softened road.
Far below, Whelan’s Cove was like a toy village, and off to the west, Grand Manan spliced the silver sea.
“I loved to come here when I was little,” Azuba said. Carrie sat straight-backed with excitement. She held her doll, Jojo, face-forward to see the view.
They turned down the lane. Budding hardwoods held the light tenderly. Half-wild cats slithered away beneath the barn. Grammy was stumping lopsided towards the house. She clutched a bunch of parsnips by their tops.
“Come along in,” she called. She waved her cane.
Azuba unhitched the mare, led her to the barn. Carrie squatted by the sill making chirping noises for the cats.
They crossed the hen-scratched earth. The poplar leaves funnelled the wind with a soft roar. They went up the wooden steps, holding their skirts.
The house was placid, vital: knitting needles spiked a sweater; carded wool was piled by the spinning wheel. Geraniums lined the windowsills. By the stove was a pail, a bucket of potatoes and a narrow, high-sided cradle.
Carrie took her doll to the cradle. It had been Grammy’s as an infant and had kept her warm during that first terrible winter in Saint John. Carrie had heard her greatgrandmother’s story, the words incantatory as prayer. Log house caulked with seaweed. The autumn fleet. Loyalists. Grammy, child of refugees.
Grammy made tea while Azuba poured cold water from a pitcher into a bowl, washed the parsnips. They sat at the table to chop them. Grammy’s fingers were twisted, the knuckles swollen. She held her knife by tucking it in her palm. It flashed in the sunlight, cut as fast as Azuba’s.
“Lost a baby. Probably something wrong with it, Azuba. Nature knows. Think it’s something you did?”
Azuba looked into the beloved face with its splotchy brown marks. Skin fanned beneath Grammy’s chin in parchment folds; her eyes were tucked deep beneath loops of flesh.
“Every woman thinks the same, Azuba. I began bleeding once after I’d lugged a bushel of potatoes.”
“Why—” began Carrie.
Grammy raised a finger at her. “Take these to the hens.” She swept the peelings into a bowl.
Carrie went out to the sunshine and the cats. They saw her wandering towards the barn, strewing parsnip skin. The wind lifted her dress, revealed her tiny boots.
“No. I don’t think it’s something I did,” Azuba said. “I think it’s the way I was feeling.”
Grammy darted a look, but said nothing, only pursed her lips with their white waxy patches.
“Maybe wanting the baby so that Nathaniel would hurry back home.” She laid the white, rubbery parsnips in a row and aligned the ends. “When he was home, it was as if it was my house, or Father’s house. Not his. I could feel it. He was only a visitor. And I will never tell Father, but I have not yet reconciled myself to my life. I don’t live to fill my rooms with silver tea sets and satin cushions, delivered to me by my husband from Paris or Bombay.” She lowered her voice, spoke as if to herself. “I want to go to those places. With him.”
Grammy put down her knife. “He’s a good man, Nathaniel.” She spoke firmly, as if she had once doubted. “Some say he’s too hard, or too blunt, or too used to command. But I’ve watched him look at you, Azuba. No one else except Carrie gets that look from Captain Bradstock. Do you think you made a bad choice?”
“No. Never.”
“Still. You’re not like those peacocks in their pretty pens.”
They both watched Carrie. She was skirting the rooster, whose yellow and black tail feathers fluttered.
“I could see you on that ship of his. Do him good.”
Azuba remembered her small, bright-faced grandfather and how Grammy had broken into a keening at his burial, her cries unfurling into the sky. She’d been urged to come down off the mountain when he died, but had refused. She said she would live her life the way she wanted.
After they had eaten dinner and washed the dishes, Carrie and Azuba said their goodbyes. There were deep, oval holes in the soil where hens had scratched out dust baths. Carrie held up Jojo. Nathaniel had carved the doll’s face, arms and legs. He had painted its cheeks red, given it a wispy smile. Azuba had stuffed the body with dried peas.
Grammy took the doll in her hand. “Father made that for you?”
“Papa makes my toys,” Carrie said. She spoke solemnly and as if her Papa were not far away, nor would be long in returning.
Grammy kissed the doll’s head. Carrie hugged her great-grandmother and Grammy put one arm around the child. She set her cane, looked deep-eyed at Azuba.
“Never let men frighten you, Azuba. They’re boys at heart. Just boys.”
May 16, 1861
The Sail House
Whelan’s Cove, New Brunswick
Dear Nathaniel,
I have sad news for you, my dear. I am no longer with child. There was no fall or apparent cause. The baby slipped away, and I am left well but sorrowing. Carrie is heartbroken, for she had been hoping for a little brother, and had begun choosing names.
I am well. I am back at work with Hannah and Slason. I know you will think I should not be, but it is my wish to be outside and vigorous, and so we have begun breaking up the soil with the mare for a new garden.
Nathaniel, I missed you so during this misfortune. My heart ached for you. If I could have made a miracle, I would have lifted you from the seas and set you here in your chair. I hope you can find a way to make a shorter voyage, although I know it is not always in your control. This past year that you were home, although we had not agreed upon our future, was so blessed, not least the joy of seeing you and Carrie together. She misses you terribly and plays with her ark every night as she promised you she would.
I know that after you changed your mind about my coming with you, we had many discussions. I know that you tire of hearing my views on this, and hesitate to write them down, but I must say that I continue to believe Carrie and I would not be such a burden as you think. If you cannot find time to come home, please know that I am still ready to pack up and join you so that we may be a family. I am not afraid, as you know. No storm seems as bad as having to live day after day with no husband, and no knowledge of when he might return.
I am sorry; perhaps I should not write this letter, but these are my feelings at the moment, and were you here I would be telling them to you.
I love you, always. I miss you. I pray for your safety.
“Oh, Mr. Marr has ridden an elephant, too.” Crumbs blew from Mrs. Marr’s lips. She was tiny. She patted her mouth with a linen napkin. “He assured me he was not a bit frightened.”
Azuba and Carrie had been invited to tea at the home of Mrs. Black. Mrs. Holder and Mrs. Marr were present. All were sea captains’ wives.
Their skirts rustled, releasing the scent of lavender. They sat forward on their chairs to accommodate their bustles. Carrie’s feet did not touch the floor. She sat with a biscuit forgotten in her hand, staring at the cut glass chandelier, the fringed lamps, the stuffed pheasant, the clocks, mirrors and waxed fruit.
This house, Azuba thought, holding a teacup and saucer, was as large as hers, similarly ornamented with gables and turrets, set back from the main street on a slope overlooking the harbour. But it was so stuffed with possessions that its rooms seemed smaller, darker. Nor could she think of herself as similar to the other women. They were as overly decorated as the room. They wore rings on every finger, gold chains around their necks, dangling jet earrings, lace collars, ribbons, beads. They swept their hands in negligent arcs and talked loudly, without reflection.
Mrs. Black resumed her husband’s latest letter, lifting her chin to read from the very top of the paper. Fine silver chains looped from her pince-nez.
The cook baked tarts and gingerbread. I have a very attentive steward who brought me these with my tea. I passed the morning pleasantly, scarcely a ruffle on the ocean or a cloud to be seen. Today some handsome birds have been flying under our lee. I spied a brigantine standing to the westward but could not make her out . . .
Mrs. Black swept the pages with an ostentatious rustle.
Later in the day came a heavy gale from the northwest, attended with squalls of rain. I called the watch, but before we could get all sail in, the fore and maintop split . . .
Azuba leaned forward. She pictured the black clouds, the rain-stippled waves.
“Oh, bother that part. Let me find something interesting.”
“Oh!” Azuba said.
Mrs. Black lowered the paper. “What, Mrs. Bradstock?”
“No, I’m sorry. I just wondered what happened.”
“Well . . .” She raised the pages, scanned them. “He doesn’t say much more. They limped along, I suppose.”
Mrs. Marr set down her cup and saucer. She frowned when she spoke, causing a wedge-shaped furrow on her brow. “I skip those parts too. They will go on about the storms.”
“I like to read about the storms,” said Azuba. She glanced at Carrie. “Although I always wonder what he’s feeling, and he never says.”
“Feeling!” Mrs. Marr’s narrowed eyes slid sideways to Mrs. Holder, a stern-faced woman from Saint John. Mrs. Holder’s expression held a permanent state of affront, her mouth pinched down at the corners. The two women exchanged a glance. “Don’t expect to hear about feelings, my dear.”
“Not a shred of fear in their bodies,” said Mrs. Black, setting down the letter. “Annie?”
An Irish girl dressed in a starched cap and apron circled the room with the teapot and a plate of biscuits.
“It’s not only his feelings,” Azuba said, taking a biscuit from the maid. She wanted, suddenly, to needle these women. “It’s the storms. He dismisses them in a word or two. ‘Storm last night.’ But I find them exciting. I always want to know what happened. Whether the sails shredded, or if they had to heave to.”
There was a silence. The room was overheated, the windows closed against the spring air.
“What really happens, we don’t care to know,” said Mrs. Marr. She glanced at Carrie. “It’s best not.”
Azuba turned to stare at the bright little woman. “I wouldn’t be afraid to know.”
“Wouldn’t you? I suppose you would like to sail with your husband?”
Azuba saw that Mrs. Black’s mouth was opening, a change of subject in her eyes.
“Yes,” she answered, quickly. “I wouldn’t mind. I’d love to see London, Paris. Antwerp.”
The women laughed. They made clucking sounds, glanced at Carrie, who had not yet finished the biscuit she held in her hand and whose dress, Azuba noticed, was covered in crumbs.
“Have you met any of those women who sail with their husbands?” Mrs. Marr hissed. “Have you seen their skin? Observed their manners? And think, Mrs. Bradstock, of what we read in the papers.” The wedge on her brow raised, hardened.
The voyages that went dreadfully wrong, Azuba thought. Fire at sea, women put off in lifeboats, captains shot dead by mutineers, dramatic rescues in icy waters. These landbound wives could not conceive of the excitement of such drama, or imagine the lives of the families who sailed without mishap. They saw no challenge, no thrill; only the evils of weathered skin, the pity of coarse manners.
“Will you grow your heliotrope this year, Mrs. Marr?” Mrs. Black turned the conversation to Flower Sunday, in July, when the church would be decorated with blooms from their gardens.
“ . . . lovely new rose. Mr. Marr brought some rootstock from England . . .”
“ . . . Love-Lies-Bleeding. So foggy in Saint John, can’t grow . . .”
Azuba looked at Carrie and raised her eyebrows. The biscuit. Eat it.
She pictured Nathaniel sitting in a hotel parlour in San Francisco. Perhaps he was speaking to a woman with sunbrowned cheeks who was sailing with her captain husband, telling her about his own beautiful wife, Azuba, back home in New Brunswick, and of their fine house on the headland overlooking the Bay of Fundy, and of Carrie, his little daughter. Perhaps the sun-browned woman bowed her head demurely and then slid him an admiring glance. And Nathaniel was free to think of Azuba as privileged, safe, fortified by wealth, glorified by her absent husband.
Carrie nibbled nervously at her crumbly butter biscuit. Azuba felt sudden rage at the sight of her little girl, already burdened by the weight of expectation. Expectations. These tiresome women who clucked so disapprovingly expected her to come to their sewing circle. They expected her to grow formal flowers suitable for ornate vases or placement in the church. Like her parents, they expected her to spend Nathaniel’s money on carriages and dresses, and to stand proud at village events—ship launches, cotillions. Like Nathaniel, they expected her to produce children on whom a father might lavish attention when he returned on his infrequent visits.
Sun broke through a bank of clouds, quivered in the rainbowed daffodils. In the room, the light illuminated the stuffed partridge and the powder on Mrs. Black’s cheek.
Azuba leaned forward and set her cup and saucer on a table whose heavy cloth silenced the motion. She sat staring at the wrinkled pages of Captain Black’s letter, lying beneath Mrs. Black’s pince-nez.
Never again. Never again will Nathaniel set sail without me.
She glanced at Carrie.
Without us.

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