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Second Place: Shipwrecked

"Shipwrecked" by Renee Ebert in Second Place. Deserted Island


by Renee Ebert

Second Place

After we washed ashore, and after the first shock of the aloneness of it, we set to work surviving. It was good that we both thought alike when it came to trying to keep living. It was bad that Henry was suddenly the person we both knew existed inside the insincere exterior, the man who was a bully with one goal in mind, getting his own way, but not the man he shared with the world.

There are a few things I have forced myself to consider good luck. It was fortunate, for instance, that the bow of the first deck of the Angel Maid was salvaged and washed up along with us. Inside the Captain’s quarters there were valuable lifesaving medicines, a logbook with Captain Jackson’s last notes, stating a general location of where we were in the event the log survived or our good luck lasted till someone came looking for us. There were some foodstuffs, but most of all there were my plants, and my first quick trip away from the sand I saw the island had fertile, rich volcanic soil.

I will never understand how half of the ship came to rest on that reef. Why weren’t any of the shipmates or passengers transported there too? Why only a perfect slice of two decks, intact; captain’s logs, the Sextant, all of its beautifully polished brass and moving parts survived the waves that pushed the ship toward the reef, the shelf that it landed on? It survived and so did we.

The first shock of the cold sea prompted action, the water inching into the crevices of the ship, seeing it creep up to our cabin, where we sat. Quick action from Henry as he pulled me up out of my chair and dragged me up to the deck. Others like us, men, some women, and children on their way back to their homes in America, were startled into speech, some crying, sailors hollering, officers shouting orders. The sailors and the officers were prepared for this, as they hoisted sails, a man high up in the sails’ Mast called out “land!” pointing east. We shielded our eyes from the early afternoon sun. All heads turned toward his straightened, raised arm to see a thin line across the horizon. Yes! My thoughts shouted out at me, it could be land …or nothing. It could just be nothing. If a mirage of a water line could rest on the sand in a desert, then it might be that a mirage of a line of land laid on the horizon could taunt as easily on the ship’s deck.

I turned to hear Henry’s voice above the others. “Bring that rope, boy.” The cabin boy of ten or eleven ran to Henry best he could with a rope of six inches thick, its weight limiting his progress. “Give it here. Good. Good. Elizabeth, take hold.” He wrapped it around me, fighting the jostling crowd that moved up and back with the giant waves pushing our ship like a cork in a bathtub.

“What about you, Henry? Please take care of yourself.” I reached out my hand to him, but we both were distracted and turned toward a terrible cracking, like dry wood in a fire. It was the great ship breaking in two. Henry pulled us with the rope to where it was tied to a dinghy. How did he know? Grabbing a length of the rope, he wrapped it about himself and pushed me over into the dinghy. He used the rope to retrace his steps, to help others to the safety of the little boat but they were all windward almost to a tipping point of the ship.

“Hold fast now, girl.” His big hands circled my waist as he joined me in the little boat just as it sprung from the side of the ship and jettisoned into the water and away from the ballast point. The terrible cracking continued, and the ship sank and with her, all the others. We were unable to see the hopeless others with waves running higher than city buildings. But Henry saved us. He saved me.

There was a storm after the ship went down, the sea in turmoil tumbled out dark and murky water and the dinghy rocked and pitched. The sky had already darkened and with the storm the stars and moonlight were obliterated. Henry wrestled with the several ropes still attached to the little boat and secured them around us.

“Good thing we got hold of these tarps.” Henry shouted to me over the sound of the wind. They were lightweight canvas which he now fastened around each of us, while I wondered in the back of my mind whether these would become our shrouds.

“Henry. Can you see anyone out there?” I pointed to the high waves farther away and thanked God again for delivering us because I knew Henry’s answer as he peered further away, that there were no others who were saved, at least that we could see. I prayed for them all, trying to erase from my mind the women and babies I had seen, spoke to, whose little ones I had held for them while they sought food or the comfort of the women’s bathroom. The shudder in me began to grow and Henry saw this, reached to me and rubbed my hands and arms and even pinched my cheeks.

“Elizabeth, you cannot lose consciousness. You must not faint or sleep because we will need all your strength to help us stay afloat.” He shouted to me, repeating this refrain, and I sat up abruptly and at attention, knowing we must both be vigilant to save ourselves.

I woke first, Henry must have dozed through exhaustion and shock. The dinghy caught by southwest winds that pushed along brought us to a peaceful bay inlet where the ocean lapped quietly onto the shoreline which arched around in an almost perfect semi-circle. Far down the beach at the place where the land curved away from us was a rocky shelf and perched on it was the ship’s bow with the upper and second decks. Later we would see it all, the large planks of wood that were shattered like broken bones reminding me of those horrific daguerreotypes I’d seen, of wounded and dead soldiers from our own Civil War.

How I knew things had changed.

I would like to say it started out well from the time we woke up on the sand of this island, but there was anarchy in attendance even then. The very paper on which I scribble is just one proof of what I am about to reveal. This page and all the writing materials could tell my story for me. The ink I use is hidden from Henry as are the scrolls of paper I steal each time we visit the ship, still sitting fixed on the reef. Henry goes aboard first as we agreed, stepping from the dinghy. I should say as we came together to agree upon because it was his decision. A case in point.

“We need a plan, Elizabeth.” Henry is puffing on a pipe he filled with tobacco I found on board the ship’s second deck.

“A total plan, Henry? Or should we take it in pieces?” I remember my voice was quizzical, and to the point. It was met with a fierce slap across my face, from eye to chin, and forced me to my side. Shocked at first, then a riot of anger flooded my mind, the trembling was rage.

“What is wrong with you?” I held back sobs when I saw his clenched fists waiting to assault me again.

He sits up in front of the fire, preparing to deliver a decree. My mind works quickly to resolve what has just happened. Survive, I think to myself, survive. I am not surprised; half a bottle of whiskey consumed, the one item Henry searches for on trips on board the ship.

“The plan.” He veers toward me, face to face, almost touching. I feel his hot breath of bourbon or rum. “The plan.” He says this more loudly. “Is to survive. Fresh water, food, fire. We have all three.” His voice trails off, thinking, haphazard thoughts. I know this from hearing him ramble disjointed sentences of nonsense. He congratulates himself for his superior mind. It is clear that he has lost his way to a particular logic. He takes another large drought of the whiskey and loses his balance, leans on his left elbow. Even in the soft sand, he winces, and I know it is either seriously dislocated, or worse, it is broken at the joint which is the most difficult bone to heal and therefore he has only his right hand and arm.

I touch my cheek where it burns, and even without a mirror, I know it is swollen. The eyelid feels heavy, telling me, it too, is thick from trauma and may close. I walk to the cool water drum we rolled to the shade the first day and open the spigot to wet a rag. Henry puffs at his pipe and looks out to sea as I gently press the rag to my eye. Sight is precious here. I find I am thinking in fast mental gulps, trying to make sense of the violence. Henry is beginning to turn away from his fascination with the waves lapping onto the shore. I have to reason myself into a peaceful state and sort this all out when I am alone.

“Henry, dear, let me help you. You may have chipped the bone. Your elbow must stay fixed to heal properly.” His fear of dying, especially dying slowly is evident and holds tight to him. He alternates from violence to fear that makes him, for most of the time, less vicious toward me and more vulnerable to himself. My personal fear is of him dying and leaving me all alone here. I try to make sense of what is happening to Henry, to find a way, if there is one, that will heal him in his mind as much as his weakened left arm and elbow. My goal is actually two-fold, keep Henry alive and restore his sanity.

He has laid back against large palm fronds set up near a volcanic rock, all this while after striking me, thinking but about what? My first thought is whether he’s forgotten but then he speaks.

“Sorry for that little slip back there. Perhaps a bit too much of the whiskey, though a fine blend.” Henry refers to the incident as ‘back there’, the few steps back in time when he assaulted me. His voice conciliatory, just loud enough to hear over the waves which are growing with the tide coming in. There is an irony in his voice. So, you know what you did!

“Yes, a plan in pieces, as we said. That makes the most sense.” He waits, now, for me to continue sharing my thoughts, so he can claim them for his own. A wise insanity. I straighten my white cotton slip, all corsets removed when we dressed down for this very warm and humid island. Henry wears a pair of linen trousers, I cut to his knees with pinking shears, loose fitting as our diet is not so rich.

“We have clean drinking water, capturing rainwater in canvas tarps and then filled the empty barrels and casks that floated here with us. We use boiled salt water to remove the salt and bathe in and wash our clothes.” I hurriedly point out, “Thanks to your keen eye, we have matches and a flint should the constant fire be ended by the storms.”

I placed the fire inside of a small and deep cave and tend it often. Yes, in my mind I thank him for his quick thinking that saved us both. That much cannot be denied. But now and in the last week, in place of a man who knows control of temper, there is a beast. If he were whole, instead of badly crippled, he might be dangerous, but he is confused, forgetting moment to moment.

I woke up late at night after the assault; the moon was down so the dark surrounded us. As I sat up there was comfort in knowing Henry needed me as much or more on this island.

Need, in any society, the reason people will be good to one another and not stretch the boundaries of good or civil behavior. Avoiding punishment but also abandonment; not being alone. This stark and stranded life was our reality, so therefore the reason why a man easily persuaded toward rough and violent ways forced himself all those years to harness his natural tendencies. Living in Chicago I was never far away from this truth. Though Henry loved me, our four children, he’d reigned in on a Teddy Roosevelt wildness he championed and now awakened in him; truly possessed by that model of false masculinity.

Tears came to my eyes not for the place we inhabit, instead I think of my children. Not wanting or willing to indulge myself nor pine for things I could not have, circumstances I cannot change, I had set a task for myself to sort out all that I knew and all that I could have to keep us safe. The medical books and medicines, the plants and finally, my own sanity.

Much later in the evening after he struck me, Henry smiled his approval at this last reminder, and reached a tender hand to my chin. This seemed more a real apology than his offhanded obligatory remarks. His memory is in flight as he talks on about organizing, sorting materials, even how to plan a garden, all of this has forced me to see that at this moment, Henry is not sane because he has watched me these two weeks, accomplishing these tasks while he remained, lying back avoiding his injured arm.

“The fire needs tending.” Henry uses his right arm and a heavy branch to support himself away from the injured elbow. I continue a quiet internal litany, this time thankful for the ship’s two decks perched on the reef. They hold a vital part of our existence and survival.

“I was just thinking how grateful I am to find these medical books. There are instructions here on every conceivable accident where bones are involved, Henry. I’ve found some drawings for setting your elbow and holding it fixed to heal.”

Instinctively Henry moves away from me, fear visits him again, of the pain or disfigurement if I am not successful in setting the bone. I move slowly toward him and open the book as I sit close enough for our bodies to touch. I feel this would be reassuring to him and it seems to work.

“Look at the way they demonstrate with this drawing. The normal position of the arm and elbow.” I point to the place, and he leans close to see the many drawings.

“I see what you mean, Elizabeth.” He looks deeply into my face, searching for the truth of the matter. “What would happen if we left the bone where it is?”

“It will heal but in the wrong way, and you might lose the use of it.” I say this gently to soothe over the facts because it is horrible enough in itself. “I’ve been thinking that we have the captain’s medicine chest, where we might find some laudanum for you to take before I set the bone.” I know the laudanum is there, but from the first, and before his violent attack on me, I hid it away in my few pieces of clothing. I must think through this fact later along with Henry’s violence to study my actions so that Henry and I can benefit from these thoughts and the plans that come about because of them. My chief desire is for both of us to survive.

Henry closes his eyes and falls into an easy reverie, awake but transported beyond the warm tropical breeze, maybe back to Chicago where on this late February day the sleet would be falling on the city and country roads, where the dray horses would struggle against the ice. He stirs out of resting.

“I am afraid, Elizabeth, but I know you’re right and thank God that we both survived to see this day. I would not want to be here alone, but with you.”

“And in all my heart I feel the same. Thank you for trusting me to help you. It won’t be quite so bad. Let’s have our fish dinner and some of those greens I found pictured in the botany books that say they are safe to eat. Then I’ll search for that medicine and make you comfortable for sleep after the work has been done.” Henry nods in agreement and I build a small fire to quick fry the fish I’d gutted and cleaned.

He pushes at the fire to stir it up in anticipation of the fish I’ve kept wrapped in large palm leaves. “It would certainly break the monotony of the meals if we can find other edibles, don’t you think?”

“Something to add to our list, Henry. We can find a safe way to walk around the island, maybe a little farther inland." I take out a scrap of paper from inside the corset cover I wear as a shirt, and with it a pencil stub. The time is perfect for planning “We might find some vegetables saved inside the ship and bring them here to grow.” The thought of our being here long enough to harvest food depresses me. It must be the same for Henry. “They can grow fast here with the constant sun and light rains. Don’t you think?”

He nods, his face taking on a sad and hopeless look. “I remember tomatoes and some greens, cabbages.”

“Now that would be a prize winner for you, Elizabeth.” He touches my face again, softer even than the last time. “My sweet Eliza.” My plan, forming in pieces now includes a search for something to mollify Henry for when he drinks. A plant that will act as a sleeping powder. I know with surety that Henry will wake in the morning and will become alarmed when he sees the ugly blue and red bruising of my eye. I’ve already decided to say that I fell on the beach and hit one of the jutting rocks. Whatever sanity that exists in him will want to grab at that as truth than to face what really happened.

“We need a better place to sleep, away from the beach, perhaps we can cut back some of the lower plants and use the tops of the trees as a roof, the canvas tarp hung off them may be a good way, don’t you think?”

The night finally grows peaceful, the tide is low and laps against the shore and lulls Henry deeper into sleep born of his drunken stupor. Like walking into another room, my mind immediately transformed me to think as I would when I was at Boston College, an academic discipline I am grateful for. My friend Harriet’s voice speaks to me as though she was sitting here with me. I use this as my guide to sort out Henry’s condition and our survival into our uncertain future.

My brain has never been called upon to be this active. I am thankful each day for little and seemingly insignificant thoughts because I find they lead to much bigger and catastrophic possibilities which I encourage because as the plans are visualized, I can weigh the advantages and see good or possible bad decisions.

Henry’s broken ulna and broken mind are constant reminders of the bigger problems that may lay ahead. I begin now to make my lists. First, I reason that Henry is strong as well as injured. He will survive my fixing his elbow. Against this are his tempers which sway like the breezes. Violent one moment, soft and caring another and there is a part of him that is devious, that plays with my mind as he did after his attack. I automatically reach carefully for my eye.

Out of something deep inside me that directed my actions, I have sequestered some of our provisions to another side of the place where we are camped. I wanted to protect the medical books I found in the captain’s rooms because I sensed I might need them and hid them because Henry had begun to exhibit erratic behavior from the time of his injury. Are the two things connected?

Two nights pass. Turning the pages of the heavy books with bright moonlight as my lamp, I attempt to find a connection. There is one note suggesting that pain from a bone break can change erratic behavior. That is not difficult to believe, as I’ve seen Henry’s pain and his personality altering together. I’ve dispensed with questioning the logic of this and find myself believing only what I observe as there are no guides, nor experts here to form my thought nor contradict my own conclusions. This does not trouble me, in fact I find it refreshing, and once again I am drawn to the voice of my practical and smart friend, Harriet. She would be delighting in these discoveries of mine.

“Elizabeth, you are so accomplished, you read people so easily, find their foibles, the ones they try to hide the most and you pick them out like stars in a clear night sky.” Harriet said this to me in our first year at Boston College.

In the quieter times I can reflect, and I find I have to work at not becoming emotional about our situation. When I am busier, it’s easy to fall into the rhythm of the task at hand. Not so when I have leisure. I find that if I organize everything, there is an ebb and flow, much like the ocean that laps against the shore in this little Bay. I liken it to the stormier ocean that crashes against the rocky areas and in opposition to this more peaceful side of the island.

It is this time that I allow myself thoughts of my four children as memories beckon that could easily have me in a weeping puddle, but then what good would that do for me or for Henry?

Now, with Henry napping after a big lunch of fish and some of the island’s edible plants, I can think of Foster, my youngest son and send messages to him in my mind, things I would say if I were safely and miraculously delivered back home.

I tell you, who may read this log many years from now, that I have two sons and two daughters, all are grown and the youngest, Foster is twenty years old. I think of him as having one foot into manhood, the other struggling to catch up. He is Henry’s least favorite, and therefore the one I seek to protect. The year is 1882 and we got here by chance by joining an expedition to the Galapagos Islands as I was enchanted with this expedition. I remember how Henry finally capitulated, perhaps caught my enthusiasm for exploration to something foreign, exotic and a little dangerous. And now, we just survive.

Winning pieces are published as received.

Potluck Winner badge with three stars

Fiction Potluck

January 2024

Second Place Winner:

Renee Ebert

(bio forthcoming)


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