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The Rathbones

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The Rathbones

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright © 2013 by Janice Clark

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.


  DOUBLEDAY and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  Jacket artwork and chapter header illustrations by Janice Clark

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Clark, Janice, 1954–

  The Rathbones / Janice Clark. — First edition.

  pages cm

  1. Young women—Fiction. 2. Family life—Fiction. 3. Whaling—New

  England—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3603.L36427R38 2013



  eISBN: 978-0-385-53694-3


  For my father, who sailed, and my mother, who waited

  And for Eric LeMay



  Title Page




  ONE: Widow’s Walk, Naiwayonk, Connecticut, 1859

  TWO: Route of the Spermaceti

  THREE: Mouse Island

  FOUR: Moses Rathbone, 1761

  FIVE: The Worn Wives, 1778

  SIX: Mordecai’s Lesson

  SEVEN: The Stark Archipelago

  EIGHT: The Sperm and the Stilt

  NINE: The Golden Girls, 1800

  TEN: The Golden Wives, 1801

  ELEVEN: Little Absalom, 1803

  TWELVE: The Weakened Ones, 1814

  THIRTEEN: Halcyon Days

  FOURTEEN: The Sinking Island

  FIFTEEN: Circe

  SIXTEEN: The White Children, 1819

  SEVENTEEN: Erastus and Verity, 1837

  EIGHTEEN: The Seven Suitors, 1841

  NINETEEN: Wedding Walk, 1841

  TWENTY: The Little Sailor

  TWENTY-ONE: A Bed in a Barrel

  TWENTY-TWO: Seven Suitors Redux

  TWENTY-THREE: Mama’s Song

  TWENTY-FOUR: Building My Brother

  TWENTY-FIVE: The Bones Tell Their Story, 1849–1852

  TWENTY-SIX: Mordecai’s Last Lesson

  TWENTY-SEVEN: Mama Sets Sail

  TWENTY-EIGHT: Golden Child

  My Talos


  A Note About the Author


  MOSES KNOWS WHAT will happen. Not just how the trials will go today, or what the fathers will do when their golden sons fail and how the boys’ mothers will bear it. The green of his eyes has long since been burned away by the sun on the sea, and there is no window in the little room. But he sees it all anyway, from his high blue bed. He sees the whole sweep of it.

  The great herds of sperm whales that once streamed along the coast have already thinned and will soon disappear. Fleets of ships are being built with holds deep enough to provision the long voyages required to find fresh pods, to the Pacific, to the Azores and the Indian Ocean. Boys no longer climb the watchtowers that line the shore to look for whales; instead they climb to crow’s nests at the tops of masts. The towers on shore will soon be torn down, their timbers used to frame the houses of captains and merchants, which will rise in the hills above the harbors as the whale gold continues to flow. Captains’ wives will conduct their own searches of the sea from the widow’s walks at the tops of the houses. Other towers will rise. Moses closes his eyes and sees them, the derricks, first of wood, then of steel, sprouting up across the sea of prairie. He feels the rumble as dark fountains surge up and spray across the sky; he sees black oil replace the white spermaceti. In a few years the captains will stop sailing. Some will move away and take up other occupations; some will linger, taking their wives’ places on the widow’s walks, staring out to sea. The houses will fall into disrepair. They will pass to city people who will use the walks for sun parlors or to store old clothes.

  Moses does not choose to see such things. He longs to look back instead, to the first morning that the Misistuck sailed. He wishes it were that day. He strains to lift his silver head and there it all is again: the watchtower at the end of the point that curls into the sea; his son high on the tower, pointing, crying out, his voice carrying clear and strong across the bay to his brothers, already swarming up the masts and over the rigging. Moses sees the white sails billow as the ship moves toward the bright water where the whales are sounding.



  {in which we meet the last of the Rathbones}


  IF I HAD not heard the singing voice that night, none of the rest might have happened.

  Mama might yet be carving her bones; Mordecai lingering in his attic, leading me through the same old lessons on the sperm; both of my crows would still accompany me everywhere. I could have drifted through my life, forgetful of the time passing, and stayed always undersized. Maybe Papa would have finally come home.

  But it’s not for me to say. Though I have the keen eyes that were once the gift of all the Rathbones—standing now on shore, looking out to the horizon, I see what I know you would not if you were standing beside me: a flock of terns, a league away, diving as one upon a school of bream that darkens the clear blue sea to cobalt—I cannot see into the future, as my forebears sometimes could.

  I do know that if we hadn’t fled the house that night I would never have met the worn wives, or visited my grim in-laws on the Stark Archipelago, or seen the sinking island where Papa was born. The fate of my lost brother would have remained a mystery, as would what truly happened between Mama and Papa.

  But I did hear the voice that night, and what I found when I followed it compelled me to flee the house with cousin Mordecai and to shed the fog in which we had both so long lived.

  Though we were seeking Papa, we found our own history as we went, and that of all the Rathbones. It was a sometimes patchy tale, woven from such thread as I found: oral histories passed down and with each step altered, unfinished ship logs, journals washed and bloated by the sea until little could be read. Cousin Mordecai gathered much of it, while he could. Later I took it up from him. What wasn’t provided, I had to surmise. You may think it would be difficult to assemble a story in such a way. I was used to such piecework, growing up as I did in a house populated only by remnants. It was as easy for me to see the golden wives arrive at Rathbone House four generations ago as it was for Moses to see a school of sperm streaming through the deep.

  The night I heard the singing voice began like any other that summer. I had gone to my mother’s room, as usual, to help her undress. Mama’s room, at the front of the house, had the best view of the sea. Its line of tall windows were kept always open, the white curtains swaying in every weather.

  Each day Mama wore a dress of deep-dyed indigo with a wide collar of white linen, boiled and bleached, starched and pressed, that lifted off her shoulders and unmoored her face when the wind rose. Her underclothes were sewn from soft muslin and smelled of the cedar chest in which she kept them. Her corset was of whalebone, fine strands borrowed from a fin that had once turned in the lightless deep.

  When she lifted her gown and leaned to let me unlace her, I saw again how she was double-ribbed, bone on bone. When I lifted the corset off, her body kept the corset’s form, as though she always held her breath, but when I pressed my face against her for a mome
nt, I felt the shallow rise and fall of her ribs. She placed the corset on the chair by the window. It stood sentinel there, a spare torso. For each year that Papa was at sea, she’d slid a slender bone from its channel and made me lace it tighter. The end of the ninth year was approaching. Soon Mama would be reduced. The next morning she would go down to the shore to find new sand for the hourglass she kept by her window. Her eyes turned to it whenever she walked by.

  Suitors had begun showing up at the house in recent months—a retired captain, two lieutenants on leave—drawn by Mama’s beauty and by the stories of Rathbone wealth. After ten years, cousin Mordecai had told me, Papa would be considered by the law to be dead. But Mama never appeared for visitors. Each suitor was ushered into a golden parlor on the second floor by Uncle Larboard and Uncle Starboard, served a plate of dry ship’s biscuit and a pot of tea brewed from nettles and saw grass, and then ushered out again, hat in hand.

  Mama uncoiled her braids and let them down and waited for me to unwind them. In truth, she had only to shake her head and the braids unfurled, but she knew I loved to feel the tight plaits go soft and free in my hands. When she wasn’t too tired, she let me sit next to her on her bed and practice my seaman’s knots on her hair: sheet bend and monkey fist, timber hitch and lineman’s loop. Her hair hung in a long pale wave that she sometimes allowed me to brush. I counted the strokes slowly to make them last, her hair popping and crackling as the dark bristles moved through it. When I finished, she let me step inside the curtain of hair, into her warm breath that smelled of cloves, close to the shine of her green eyes. They focused for a moment on me, and she smiled a little, then returned to her watch for Papa, her eyes trained on the sea. Long after sunset they held the horizon in each iris, split dark and pale.

  I knew the tide was in when Mama smiled. I waited, hoping this would be a night for Arcady. She leaned back against her pillow, gazing out the window until the last light faded, then turned her face to me. I lay back with my head on her breast and closed my eyes as she began. It was the only story she ever told, and one I had heard since I was very young. I was, it’s true, too old by then for bedtime stories, but I took what was offered. She spoke slowly, her eyes still on the sea, her fingers fondling the fine silver chain she always wore around her neck, tucked under the collar of her gown. The story always started the same way.

  “A race of giants once lived on a faraway island. It was a tall island, a high atoll of pink granite, thickly sown with pine and oak and blessed with soft winds.”

  Here she always paused and waited to be prompted. Her hand, which had been stroking my arm, stopped. Her body went still.

  “Tell me about the giants, Mama.”

  She breathed out and began again to stroke me, her arm so soft, the palm of her hand rough from her work.

  “They lived in caves high in the pink cliffs, side by side with the swallows in their nests. They wore garments woven of rockweed and slept on beds of gull down. For breakfast they milked the manatee. At dinnertime they leaned back on the sun-warmed rock, eyes closed, while perch and mackerel leapt from the sea into their mouths.”

  Mama paused. I held my breath, hoping she would follow one of the pleasant paths down which her tale sometimes led: the giants diving down a waterfall that plunged from the high rocks into the sea, sporting on the sandy beach, or singing each evening to the deer who came close at twilight. I lifted my head and turned to look out the window, down to the dock, and marked by starlight where the water stood: an inch or two lower on the pilings of the pier. Mama’s hair went a shade paler, her eyes a duller green. The tide was on the wane. Mama’s tale took a turn.

  “The giants had enough to eat and more but still they were hungry. They scoured the sand with the nails of their hands for turtle eggs until the rock was bare. They lay in the surf and sieved the sea with their teeth for spawn until the fish swam no more. They sang to the stag at evening and when he reared up to dance they speared him. They grew so fat that they lay gasping on their backs on the rocks, arms waving, while the gulls pecked out their livers. The next day their livers grew back, and the gulls pecked them out again.”

  The sea moved back and forth in Mama’s blood. Her moods could not be depended upon.

  I had felt such ebbing and flowing before. One evening, a season earlier, she had let me stay longer than usual in her room. Warm spring had arrived, and she was shifting her summer gowns into her wardrobe, first taking them from her chest to air. They hung from hooks above the open window, swaying in a salt breeze. The slanting rays of the setting sun lit the gowns to a brilliant blue, though in daylight they were a deep indigo, all the same near-black hue. Like Mama’s, my frocks were all alike, except that mine were a dun color and still had the childish shape of a jumper, while Mama’s conformed to her figure. I had, at fifteen, the first outlines of a figure of my own, of which I felt vaguely ashamed but also curious. I would have preferred less shapeless frocks, but Mama made me wear them, as though I were still a little girl.

  Mama seemed in good humor; at least she had not yet sent me away. I took off my loose frock and pulled one of her sea-freshened gowns over my head. I fastened its long row of mother-of-pearl buttons up the front and stood before the tall mirror that leaned against one wall. The gown, though far too long in skirt and sleeves, fit well in the bodice, and I turned from side to side, pleased with what I saw in the mirror. My crows, who had been napping atop the wardrobe, dropped down to my shoulders and began to preen. They had come with the last crate from Papa a year ago and had followed me about ever since.

  Mama turned from the trunk where she was rearranging clothes and stared at me. I hoped she would offer me a gown or two; it would have been easy enough to shorten them to fit. Her eye brightened, and she seemed about to pay me some small compliment. Then her eye dulled, and she gave my figure a hard gaze.

  “It will do you no good,” she said. “It will bring you no joy.”

  She took up an awl from among her tools and in three strides crossed the room to me. She grasped a handful of my skirt to hold me firm and sliced up the front of the gown. The buttons popped and my crows scattered, squawking. The gown gaped on my breast; I felt a stinging and looked down. The sharp point of the awl had cut through the gown and grazed a fine pink line from my belly to my throat. Mama looked stricken and seemed about to embrace me. Then she drew back, composed herself, and returned to folding her clothing.

  We are all descended from the fishes, Mordecai had once told me, and are still subject to the ocean’s tides. So I was not surprised, these three months later, when Mama’s mood changed, and her story ended not with the giants romping on the beach but gasping on the rocks, their livers coming and going.

  Her story finished, she rose from her bed and returned to her work. She sat at the long black table that stood at the center of her room. The table had once been as pale and salt-scoured as the floor and the walls, but Mama had it painted black, fresh every year, so that each detail in the white bones would shine clear against the dark surface as she worked.

  Each day she carved the whalebone that Papa shipped home. The crates began to arrive a year after he disappeared. Once or twice a year, a freshly docked seaman, legs still unsteady on dry land, would show up at our door, shouldering a crate trussed with chains and stamped with runes. Sometimes the crates were filled with whalebone, a single great jawbone snapped in half and packed in seaweed, or a dozen smooth sperm teeth, each as long as my forearm, nestled in a bed of kelp. Sometimes the crates held other gifts, souvenirs of Papa’s travels: China Trade bowls from the Orient, cobalt blue and creamy white, big enough for me to bathe in; silk pajamas woven thick with dragons; nesting dishes for a doll, the innermost so small a cricket could drink from it; a tiny Peking dog, wrapped in a length of paisley cloth, that died of the cold soon after it arrived, having known only the warm South Seas.

  Mama would question the sailors when they knocked on our door. Where did you sail from? Have you seen my husband? Do you know Ben
adam Gale? But the sailor never knew. His ship would have only stopped by Naiwayonk, on the way home to Nantucket or New Bedford, to deliver the crate. It had been passed from some other ship, a brig in the South Atlantic, which had it from a clipper in the Java Sea, or was it the Indian Ocean? But the crates began to come less often, and it had been more than a year since the last arrived, with my crows.

  Mama kept a bouquet of bones in a willow basket on the hearth, the long curved sections of a mammoth rib, their ends sawed clean. She was working on her boat that evening. She had for some years been shaping a boat of bone, as long as her, which grew slowly in the center of the table, resting on a frame of wood. The ribs and strakes were complete, lashed together with line made from baleen, so that the form of the boat was clearly limned against the black table, though it still lacked planking. Tonight she was grinding along the edge of the keel with a rasp, smoothing its shape. She looked up at me for a moment, then back at her work.

  I sat down next to her and put my hand on hers. She stopped, her hands quiet on her tool. Her fingers were raw, bleeding on the tips and crisscrossed with scars. I took the white rasp from her and felt its rough surface with a finger.

  “Mama, wouldn’t it be easier to use tools made from metal?”

  She took the knife back from me and ran the rasp across her palm.

  “Like finds like,” she said. “Bone finds the true shape.”

  She carved no common items such as sailors made, no jagging wheels or ditty boxes, though most everything in her room but her bed and wardrobe was fashioned of bone. Her chair was bone with a caned seat, its seat posts capped with teeth. The mirror over her dressing table was framed in sperm ribs trained into an oval. Tucked into the frame was a page torn from a book with a picture of the floor of the ocean with all the sea sucked out; at the bottom stood a barren range of mountains. Scattered on the table around the boat were other objects on which she was working, among them a lantern, square-sided, its walls honed to a fine thinness.

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