The Atlantic Ocean
My strength is my own even if it be faint. On Wednesday, October 11, 1848, we—Mr. Serle and I—set sail from Liverpool on the ship Victoria bound for New York City. We have been on the ocean for almost a week now, and today, at last, I found time to begin my journal. Crouched between the foremast and the cookhouse, out of the wind, I balance my book on my knees and hold the bottle of ink between my bare feet so it will not slide away across the scrubbed planks of the ship into the great Atlantic Ocean—
I almost lost the ink bottle overboard as the ship suddenly tilted in a gust of wind. It would have gone if not for Phoebe, who caught it just in time.
“There you are, Daniel,” she said, handing me the square glass bottle.
Even as I thanked her, Phoebe hurried away with her chin tucked down. She is a young African girl, twelve perhaps, ser- vant of Mr. and Mrs. Horatio Greene. Every morning she fetches their early tea, sparing me the trouble of carrying it to their cabin.
Perhaps I should write all that happened within the span of the last year, but the sadness of it daunts me. The green meadows of Ireland, the smell of rotting praties, the starving village, the fever deaths of my sister, Eliza, and of my parents, the burning of the house where I was born still come back to me in dreams, still wake me in the empty silence of the night. That and my escape from the burning ship, the Abigail, and from the Liverpool people who would have enslaved me, my finding my friend Mr. Serle in the bounty of the kitchen in the great house in England and his taking me as an apprentice cook—memory overwhelms me. In a future time of peace and reflection, I will record the aching pain and the birth of hope. Someday.
Today my pen scratches its way across this paper, and today is what I wish to capture. Today and tomorrow—the adventure and the fear of going to America.
And now the ship—I write quickly for there is much to do and moments such as this with calm seas and light sail hoisted are few. The passengers, the fifteen who sleep in the cabins, perambulate about the quarterdeck taking the air and stare down at the steerage passengers. Those one hundred and fifty or so poor souls who live crammed below in the steerage are outdoors on the part of the main deck they are allowed to use. Mr. Serle and the crew’s cook, Seymour, handed out their rations for the day, and they wait turns at the two big galley stoves lashed by the main cargo hatches. Sailors watch them so no fire will escape.
Mr. Serle and I cook for the cabin passengers: special dishes such as boiled mutton with capers, apple and preserved cherry pies, puddings, and the punch and cakes that the gentlemen like after their evening card games. The fat, dark-skinned man called Seymour boils the crew’s salt pork and cabbage, which he calls their grub. Seymour is half African and half Mohawk Indian and half Irish, he told me, and he laughed until his belly shook when I said that is impossible, he can’t be one and a half altogether. He is mankind’s child, he claims, and when he finds an oriental lady to marry, he will be complete.
We—Mr. Serle, Seymour, and I as cook’s assistant—work around each other in the cramped cookhouse that is almost filled by the bulk of the great iron range. The owners of the ship told the captain—who told Mr. Serle—that it is important for a sailing packet to have a reputation for fine food so that cabin passengers will recommend it. The steamships take many of the wealthy travelers now, and the captain does not want to be left with the cargoes of emigrants and their diseases, even though there is great profit in the emigrant transport.
When the weather is good, everyone is hungry on a ship. We are up early to fry chops, bake hot bread, brew tea and coffee for the breakfast at eight. The cabin boy and I take morning tea to the passengers who have requested it while they are still in their beds. At twelve, we put out a lunch of cold meats, pickles, and sweet biscuits. At three o’clock, dinner is served at the table set in the saloon with the captain presiding and the chief mate paying special attention to the ladies. After dinner the gentry talk or stroll on the deck or play their games. Tea is brought in at seven-thirty in the evening. With all that to prepare, we cook and serve and clean and cook again from early to late.
Of course, when the weather is bad, only brandy and water and hard biscuit are called for. And—Mr. Serle calls me to carry out the luncheon platters for the buffet in the saloon. I must stop.
Tuesday, October 24, 1848
Last night I fell asleep quickly and slept sound for a time. Then in a dream I am wide-awake. A noise disturbed me—the slap of waves against a wood hull. I am on a ship, sailing on a sea of restless rollers, tossing froth up to a milky sky. The horizon is a blank. Where am I? I ask myself in the dream. Where am I? As I ask, yearning toward the direction the ship moves, land appears, a gray mass against gray sky, but rapidly the colors sharpen, the land greener and greener, the sky bluer, as the ship approaches.
The ship docks. Where am I? I ask again. No one answers. I can see a path, winding up a green velvet slope toward a cleft between lush hills. I trudge my way into the country, my feet bare in the sun-warm dust as they used to be. On a stone bridge I cross a stream and see that, as the road bends, the white crofts of my village line the road. Gladness rises in me.
I hurry forward, calling, “Mother! Father! Eliza! Daniel! I am come home!”
Figures appear at the cottage door. I see my mother, my father, my sister, and my brother. They are thin sticks, clad in blowing gray rags.
“Go away, Mina! Go away!” my mother warns me.
Smoke rises through the charred rafters of the cottage roof. They are starving in this ruined place. As I hasten toward them, my mother, my father, my sister become as the smoke that rises. First their limbs disappear, then their bodies, but I can see their faces still. Then those too begin to fade. I will lose them forever.
“Come back!” I cry. I reach to them and discover I hold a bundle in my arms. “See the child.” I try to raise the cloth-wrapped infant. No answer. Only my brother stands at the door.
“Follow me, Mina,” my brother calls as he runs out into the dusty road. “Follow me!” he calls as his figure dwindles smaller and smaller ahead of me into the distance.
The child in my arms begins to cry, a thin, mewling wail. I stumble along the road, trying to keep my brother’s fleeing figure in view. A hand touches my arm. Someone is bending over me, his face close to mine.
“Mr. Serle!” I cry. “Mr. Serle! Help me!”
Mr. Serle’s calm voice speaks quietly at my ear, “There is nothing I can give you, nothing I want from you, Mina.”
I awake then, startled, and, forgetting where I am in this narrow, low bunk, sit up and crack my head on the shelf above me. Mr. Serle, behind his canvas curtain on the other side of the storeroom, must have heard my cry of surprise and hurt, for he mutters something in his sleep. But the creaking of the ship, the rush of water under us, blurs all sound, and he does not awaken.
I have thought about my dream all day. I feel the sorrow of it still. And also that my name was spoken in it.
Here is the truth: I am pretending to be Mr. Serle’s nephew, pretending that my name is a boy’s name. I claim to be Daniel Serle, the last name loaned to me by my friend, and the first name Daniel my brother’s name and also that of Mr. Serle’s son who died in Rome three years ago. Really I am Mina Pigot.
Even though he spoke coldly in my dream, in waking life Mr. Serle helps me—first last spring by giving me work as a cook’s apprentice in the great country house where he was master chef, and now as his assistant on this ship so we can earn our passage to America. Mr. Serle saved me from assault in Liverpool. Except for my brother in America, he is the only one I trust. And that will seem strange to some, for he is a Jew.
When we made our plan to travel to the city of New York, where I hope to find my brother, Daniel Pigot, and where Mr. Serle looks to find work and freedom, I asked if we could marry. I thought it would bring safety in a dangerous world. Mr. Serle said no. At fifteen, I am too young yet to marry, he told me. He grieves for his dead wife still, he said, and even when he is ready to love again, he will never marry out of his religion. And he said another thing, which I have puzzled over: that marriage is not safety, although we may be taught to think it so.
I asked him about it this morning. While we talk, I sit on a stool in the corner of the cramped galley, seeding raisins—always a tedious task—and Mr. Serle shows me how to cut vegetables in fancy shapes to garnish a boiled beef.
“You see,” he says, slicing a turnip into neat batons. “I trim this into a three-sided stick, and then I cut across to make even triangles, which I will sauté in butter.”
“I see,” I tell him, and then, because I have been thinking of his words, “Why is marriage not safety?”
Mr. Serle looks up at me, startled perhaps at the change in subject. He scoops the vegetable trimmings into the stockpot before he speaks. “Love opens us to pain,” he says in his quiet way. “I loved my wife and could not cure her sick body or her despairing mind when our son drowned and she fell ill, blaming herself for our loss. The greater the love, the greater the pain of knowing that we are helpless to save another soul. Nothing is more terrible.”
“Would that be a reason not to marry?” I ask him, feeling the sorrow of his words like an ache in my throat.
Mr. Serle considers the question, his knife poised in the air over the cutting board, his dark eyes intent on some picture in his mind. “No,” he says at last. “No. But love requires courage.” He sighs. “What shape shall I make next?” he asks, and I hear he cannot bear to discuss love anymore.
“Can you make a carrot into squares?” I ask, and he shows me how easy it is.
“And this,” he says, his knife moving swiftly to shape potato hearts.
On land, where there was time and privacy for talk in the quiet evening kitchen of the great house, it all seemed right. On this tossing ocean, where we are a cargo of souls pent up together, I wonder. As I rely on the sailors to keep the ship safe, I came in those months in England to rely on Mr. Serle for some balance in my heart. He encouraged me to talk of the past and to see the good that countered the evil. He told me of his dream of a new life, free of the hate that made the Pope’s laws for the Jewish quarter in Rome. He confessed to me his yearning to have his own restaurant some day, a place of peace and plenty by a beautiful lake. I learned—and I felt hope in sharing thoughts with him. Now, as we journey, the wild waves and the fearful, endless waste of water all about us confuse my feelings. What seemed safe and secure blows away like the thin, high mare’s-tail clouds that stream across the sky before a gathering storm.
Well, I cannot seem to explain clearly. I am trying to make my book a record of truth, but I do not know yet what my truth is.
I had no opportunity to write again until today. In the early evening the wind has died, the ocean is calm. We are moving, gliding almost, the motion of the ship seems so smooth now, to the south. We can see America! To our right a low shore lies with a great sunset, flaming up deep apricot, crimson, and pale gold above it. It will be clear and cold tomorrow, the sailors say. But we will not care about the weather anymore, because at dawn the pilot will come out to board the ship and guide us safe past the reefs and islands into the harbor of New York City.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Bread and Dreams by Jonatha Ceely. Copyright © 2005 by Jonatha Ceely. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.