Mother didn’t want me to venture onto the deck alone. Twice a day she hurried me along to the quarterdeck for me to watch the captain steer the ship, but it was never too captivating. The man smelled of dirty soap and stale clothes and was never too fond of Mother. He was always glad to see me, but I would’ve much rather explored the ship on my own.
Being cooped up in the apartment all day and night became dreadful week after week, especially considering I had to share a room with Mother, Rachelle, and Amelia. Occasionally Mother, always followed by Amelia, ventured to the captain’s cabin to speak with him, but she never lingered for long. Only sometimes could I find enough time to escape to the fresh air momentarily. Rachelle was supposed to follow me wherever I went, but I threatened to tell Mother that she stole a biscuit when Mother wasn’t looking if anyone found out I had disobeyed her orders. It wasn’t entirely a lie; I did catch her shoving a biscuit into her pockets one evening when no one else was around, but that was months ago.
There’s something about the ocean air that enlivens a soul — the wind against your face, the soft spray of seawater cooling your skin. Mother told me I’d adore New Orleans far more than the comptoir, but I’d heard from the other girls that New Orleans was a dirty city blown down by a storm; however, Mother was making me wait until we arrived before I made any judgments. She said it’d be good practice.
“Hi girlie,” a boy said with a tap on my shoulder.
I yelped and leaped forward, causing the unnamed boy to yank my arm back towards him. “Ouch!” I yelled, falling to the ground. “Why did you do that?”
“Sorry, girlie. You jumped so high I thought you might fall. I didn’t mean to scare you like that,” he said, reaching for my hand.
“My name isn’t ‘Girlie.’”
“Then what is it?”
“I thought you might be her.”
“And what led you to believe that?”
“The men told me there was a beautiful girlie wandering around, said she was traveling with the creole woman and her two slaves. I’m surprised I got to meet the ghost.”
“I can assure you I’m no ghost,” I said, brushing the dirt from my skirt.
“My name is Jacob,” he said with a foolishly puffed up chest.
“Normally, it would have been a pleasure to meet you; however, I must be leaving.”
“No, don’t go!”
“And why is that?”
“Because,” he said, “I want to know you. Not many other people our age aboard.” I cocked my head in exasperation; if I wasn’t careful, Mother might catch me. “How old are you?”
“Look at that! I’m 14. I’m the youngest of the crew. I’m going to become a sailor.”
“Wonderful,” I responded.
“You speak funny.”
“Your accent. What is it?”
“No, it’s not. I’m French; you sound wrong.”
Before I could chide him for his rudeness, someone yanked me backward.
“Juliette!” Mother grasped my arm and pulled me away from Jacob. “What are you doing on the deck by yourself! I told you not to leave without me. Who is this boy? You should know better!”
“Mother, I needed air. The apartment is unbearable,” I whined.
“That is no way to speak to your mother. Didn’t I take you to see Captain Préville two hours ago?” He appeared from behind her and tipped his hat to me. “Was his visit not enough for you?”
“Yes, but — ”
“‘Yes, but’ nothing, young lady. Now apologize to him.”
I assumed her request for an apology was to end the quarrel as soon as possible. At the moment, obliging was the best option. “I apologize, Captain Préville.”
“No need to apologize. It’s only natural for a young lady to need fresh air,” the large man said, bending down to face me. “I heard that your birthday is approaching. December 1st?”
“Just short of when we are expected to make landfall in New Orleans.”
“Maybe we can celebrate on the ship?” Jacob interjects.
“Who is this boy?” Mother demands.
“No one,” Captain Préville said. “Lelievre, leave us.”
“But,” he protested.
Captain Préville raised to a monstrous height, a threat enough for the boy to scurry away but not before he snuck one last glimpse at me. His eyes pleaded for something unspoken.
The captain with a renewed sense of geniality pulled something out of his coat pocket. “I was saving this until we arrived, but I couldn’t keep such a beautiful gift from a beautiful lady for much longer.” It was a rose. “‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’”
“Thank you,” I knew I should say. The petals were wilted and a few had brown splotches. If I didn’t pinch the stem hard with two fingers near the bud, the wretched thing would have toppled to the side.
“Oh, your father would love that,” Mother exclaimed, her loose curls bouncing with glee.
Captain Préville turned to tower over Mother with a sudden shift in disposition. Besides walking on the ship alone, there was one other rule: Don’t speak of Father. People weren’t happy with his choices, why he was sent to New Orleans. Many were unhappy with his marriage too. Father’s missteps brought unwanted attention to us — the kind Mother worked to shield me from.
“Assuredly,” he spat. A bell rang from the mast. “It seems like you two should head back to your cabin where no one can bother you,” he hissed to Mother. She looked small beside him. Without another word, she snatched my arm and pulled me down to our stuffy apartment.
Before she spanked me she slapped Rachelle for letting me escape. The small tear that came from her eye dissuaded me from fibbing to Mother about the biscuit. It didn’t feel good to see someone hurt on your account.
She sent me to bed early that night. I stared for what felt like hours at the rotting rose on my nightstand with the sting of her hand against my cheek and the sting of guilt in my heart. She said father didn’t kill that man they claimed he did, but that if he did, he did it to protect us. Only now, it was only us.
I awoke to what I thought was a shriek. With a jolt, I looked around in the dark, but no one else seemed to have been disturbed. Ensuring as to not wake Mother, I quietly pulled on my boots and left for the deck, careful to move without a sound.
The deck was lit into hues of grays and black from the glow of moonbeams. The lack of clouds and the loud wind rippling the sails sent shivers down my back. I stopped, mesmerized by the stillness on the rocking ship. Even when I was the only person on the deck during the daylight, I’d never felt this alone.
Another sharp shriek came from farther down the deck that was immediately muffled; the quiet suffering froze my blood. I ran to where I thought the sound originated and fell to the ground to search through the uneven planks for its owner, but through the dark I found nothing. The muffled screams suddenly halted. All that was left was the empty sound of lungs lying of their emptiness.
Before I could discern what’d happened, the sound of two pairs of feet from below startled me upright. At the opposite end of the deck, two pale ghosts emerged from nowhereland. It was a man whom I’d never seen with a hand on that boy Jacob’s shoulder. The man looked proud like a monster, but Jacob, his eyes were emptied.
“It would be wise of you to get back to bed. You wouldn’t want to catch a cold,” the man sneered as he walked past. Jacob didn’t look at me; he didn’t blink. They descended to the crew’s quarters, and the ship turned to purgatory once more.
I knew what Mother tried to hide from me. I heard her whisper to Rachelle the horrors I mustn’t see when she thought I was asleep, that she needed to protect me from the fears that could consume me. Only now did I realize horrors don’t have to be seen to be known.
A soft wail came from beneath my feet, one that knew it was to be forsaken for eternity. Souls drifted away with the mist. I stood amid the deathscape I could not put to words. The sea was dark in its emptiness yet reflective of everything. Only, there was no world to see. I looked over the edge and peered into my shadow self beneath the water. Its darkness rippled in the waves, but something peculiar stood out to me: its eyes were gray like the moon. Mine are brown.
Voyage ID: 32905
— Maxwell A. Gillmer ‘21’s column “Death Business” is an anthology of short stories, recounting fictionalized narratives inspired by true entries from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Each installment follows the story of a new individual — some named, some unnamed — on a different voyage from Africa to the Americas. This installment is based on the vessel “Galathée,” and the book “Wicked Flesh” by Jessica Marie Johnson, Voyage ID: 32905