Book One Chapter 1 Lena grabbed the rail of the clipper ship as it pitched and tossed in the waves. A short distance across the turbulent bay lay Panama, and the solid ground there looked as welcome to her as home. Three weeks sailing on the Marie Clair had dimmed some of the excitement she felt at the start of her trip; she longed to sleep in a soft bed again, to eat cooked food; she hoped her nausea was about to come to an end. A native man bounded up onto the deck and spoke in Spanish to the captain. The captain's instructions that followed were lost to the passengers in the din of crashing waves. Lena did not understand what she was supposed to do to disembark until the Panamanian man lifted her into his arms, carried her over the side, and down the rope ladder. "Wait!" she cried out, searching for her husband among the faces on deck. She was still hoping for a sign of reassurance from him when the stranger set her on a bench in a thrashing dinghy as gently as if she were fresh eggs. Another native man, standing chest-deep in the water, held his strong hands on the sides of the small boat to prevent it from tipping over while his partner returned to fetch more passengers. Lena watched her husband, Joseph, shake off the man's offer of help and descend on his own. He found the first two rungs of the swaying ladder easily, but then a series of swells rolled the ship, swinging the rope ladder like a clock pendulum. Blindly Joseph struck his leg out behind him, then off to a right angle in search of the next rung. The back of his neck turned an angry crimson. He arched his head out, away from the sheltering hull, to locate the elusive ladder at the very moment that a huge wave rocked the ship. His flat-brimmed straw hat flew off. It sailed like a bird on a warm breeze, gliding out of reach into the distance, and landed upside down on the crest of a wave. "Forget the hat," she pleaded under her breath. "Come on already," another passenger hollered. Lena grabbed on to the side of the small boat just as a swell lifted it toward the clipper. The larger ship pitched forward, ready to send Joseph after his hat; it then reeled back, smacking him against the side. The movement, so quick, so unexpected, slapped his knuckles against the wood. He cried out, let go, and fell with a thud into the small craft. If the two men had not been supporting it in the roiling water, it would have capsized with the impact. "Are you all right?" Lena asked. Joseph's face was as red as his hair. "I'm fine," he grumbled, shooting her a look that warned her not to make a scene. He untangled his skinny legs from the coil of rope into which he'd fallen. It seemed rather silly to be trying to act as if nothing had happened after such an exhibition, but Lena held her tongue. In these first three weeks of their journey she had learned more about her new husband than she'd learned during their two-month engagement. She had thought that this trip to the California gold rush would knit them together. The adventure of travel in exotic places with kinds of people they could never meet at home would teach them how to rely on one another. She had not expected to feel so much irritation toward him. Perhaps it was the constant seasickness. Perhaps she would feel more tolerant once they were on land again. Seven intrepid travelers climbed out of the dinghy and waded through ankle-deep warm water. They spaced themselves along the beach like beads on a necklace. Joseph sat down and patted the firmly packed sand; Lena stomped her feet on the solid ground. A thrill tickled through her at the symphony of bird songs that seemed to be welcoming them. She looked at her companions. On their faces she read her same feelings of excitement and apprehension. Tom and Maggie Britt were both grinning. He was tall and narrow, she large and round. Lena had not always listened closely to the stories they told while on board because the stormy seas had preoccupied her, but she knew they came from one of the Southern states, and she liked the sound of their slow-paced words. It did not trouble her in the least that they were not Jewish people. Joseph had ascertained this their first Saturday on board by mentioning the word “synagogue” in casual conversation. Neither Britt had reacted. The Lazlos brothers were pointing in all directions and jabbering to each other in their native language. They were from Hungary and had at one time mentioned a revolution they'd either been a part of or were running from. Their pastiche of Hungarian, English, and what sounded like French was nearly impenetrable. They kept to themselves, and had joined the others only on the calm evenings at sea when Lena sang. The latest addition to their group was young Ralph Long, who despite his name was very short. He had been a deck hand on the clipper, but jumped ship to join the forty-niners. He said the look of Panama suited him just fine, and the idea of traveling the width of the tiny country to the Pacific Ocean made all that gold too close not to try for. The family of strangers walked along the beach. It was a ruin of discarded fishing boats and torn nets. One boat had worn away into planks and pieces. "What a waste of property," Tom Britt uttered. "Pure ignorance and indolence, if you ask me," Joseph added. Lena thought it a shame. It was unimaginable that the humidity and sun alone caused complete decay. She had been raised to believe that willpower and good effort could overcome everything, including the work of nature. It was unthinkable to accept less. They climbed up a stairway of broken steps beside a deserted Spanish fort. It had once guarded the entrance to the harbor, and now stood sentry like a bent old man in crumpled uniform with a rusty weapon, and as useful. Lizards, gulls, all kinds of nameless crawling things had taken residence. The town did not improve Lena's opinion. A few bamboo huts set higgledy-piggledy along a dusty street were hugged all around by jungle. The grandly named Astor Arms was a rickety two-story structure where Lena and Joseph's accommodations consisted of a roofless room, a rattan chair, a small table with pitcher and bowl, and a mattress of palm leaves covered in dirty muslin. The window had neither glass nor curtains. Lena rummaged through one of their bags looking for clean clothes to change into. "Joseph," she said without looking up, "I noticed a calendar in the lobby. Today is Friday." "So?" He lay back on the bed with his arms behind his head and stared up at the cloudless sky. "Isn't this the craziest place? What if it rains?" "It won't," she said with more certainty than her knowledge of the place could support. "Joseph, it's Friday. Tonight's the Sabbath, and we're on dry land. Shouldn't we do something?"
About Leslie Nyman