I lay half-dozing in my little room, dreaming again, a disturbing recollection of the sea.
I remembered the first time I crossed the Atlantic on a contract bound for the Virginia colony as an indentured maidservant, where so many had died in that stinking hold. I also dreamt of the much more recent, second long sea voyage of my life: from Bermuda all the way around the tip of South America. As I dreamed, the smell of brine again filled my nostrils, and the stink of rot and vomit. The heaving, horrible seasickness, the nauseating vomiting had all but consumed me at first. It took me almost two weeks to get the heaving under control, and I was barely aware of my surroundings. One night as I clung to the port rail in agony, a stupid young sailor grabbed me from behind intent on rape, and I callously broke his neck against the rail and threw him overboard. Fortunately it was dark, and no one thought to ask me about it later. I spent the rest of my time in the little cabin I shared with six others, clinging to the post or huddled in the bunk. I managed to eat or take a little water from time to time. I doubt I slept more than an hour at a stretch, for even after I finally overcame the motion sickness, it seemed always that the cold, deep and merciless expanse of heaving water surrounded me, like some malevolent beast hungry to destroy me.
Although the trip to Mexico was ill considered I had needed to get away from the people and the families, from pretense and from everything I’d known in America. I had thought Bermuda would suffice, but the gentility of British society jarred against my baser nature and I lasted barely ten years there. I hated everything and everyone and once again being a whore seemed as good a way as any to be alone. The little portside bar was always looking for whores, and pretending to be Irish Catholic made it acceptable for me to be in that part of Mexico.
I had been there silently nursing my resentments for six months when the knock came at the door.
That somebody would be at the door was not unusual- my lamp was lit so any passing man might be inclined to stop by. But this night, at this time, I glared at the closed door feeling my heart hammer in my chest as I fought down the rage seething there. This was certainly not an opportune time for some horny drunk to be pestering me. I considered remaining silent- “Let this one pass,” I thought, but even as I considered it I rose from my seat at the table, strode to the door and flung it open.
A number of impressions struck me at once: he was a stranger and he was neither drunk, nor overtly aroused and seemed almost nervous to be standing before me like this. He was not a tall man, perhaps half a head taller than I, certainly no more, but he had a certain air of strength and confidence despite his current unease. He was clearly surprised at my appearance, having expected some Hispanic wench to open the door.
“¿Qué quieres?” I spat.
“Ah, good evening, miss…”
“And what would you be wanting, knocking on a poor girl’s door at this time of night?” I demanded in my best impression of an Irish brogue.
He surprised me by laughing and then said, “You’re certainly not Irish, and I’m looking for a place to hide until morning.”
So he was an American, perhaps from Pennsylvania or Delaware. There was no good reason to take him in even though I could tell he was not in any way desperate, but I found myself stepping aside and allowing him to enter, closing the door and turning the lamp so the shield would dim it from the outside. When I turned he was standing by my table with his hat now clutched in his hand. Inside I was at war with myself, fighting between the urge to throw him out now or to bed him and then slit his throat, make of him the first of many.
Hours later I lay upon my bed unable to sleep and watched him as he snored quietly, curled on a blanket on the floor. It was almost comic in its incongruity, that this man, who was obviously accustomed to hard living, might eschew the comforts of a feather mattress and the attentions of a comely whore out of some sense of… what? Chivalry was certainly not the appropriate term. Propriety?
“There’s no need to sleep on the floor,” I had offered with a knowing smile, and I had sensed his immediate desire, but saw it overcome by something so uncommon- a sense that he had imposed upon me enough this one night; gratitude that I had taken him in, and yes, gratitude that I would offer to share my bed even though that was the nature of one such as I. The bitter retort that sprang to my lips when he politely declined died there when I saw the truth written in his face: he would not cheapen my charity by taking further advantage.
Men had been kind to me before. They had been deferential, polite and even gallant… but this? In this place, in these circumstances it was certainly not what I expected. When I opened my door and saw him standing there in the failing light he had been so clear in my understanding- a traveler, a bit of an adventurer, a bit down on his luck, thinking of home and of staying out of the clutches of the commandante. Behind all that there was hardness, a solid core of realism built on grim experience. That he had seen horrors on his journeys was clear. It occurred to me that I might have to hold my churning rage in check until this one had moved on. Little did I understand the corner I had turned at that moment.
Epiphany, thy tread is light and thy manner subtle.
Sudden commotion shattered my quiet reverie and I sat up in bed as the thumping and banging in the next room became a mixture of male curses and female screams. Anna obviously had one of her nastier regulars in tonight and things were getting ugly. Jeremy sprang to his feet as I got out of bed, but I raised a cautionary hand as I took up my club and threw open my door, stomping along the widow’s walk to Anna’s room. I pounded on the door with my fist, but the screaming and yelling just kept on apace as I saw others sticking their heads out, some grinning in anticipation of something amusing.
The door suddenly flew open and an angry mountain of tequila-soaked sailor confronted me with a screaming Anna clinging to his back, beating him about the head with her free fist. She connected next to his eye and the man roared as he reached behind him and seized her by her hair, twisting as he peeled her from his back. He turned and threw Anna against the wall adjoining my room, then turned back to face me… and my fist connected squarely with his nose. It was not a hard hit because he was so tall, but blood exploded from his nose and he staggered back in shock.
Left-handed I hauled the club down hard on his right shin. He howled in pain and collapsed on to his knees as I rounded again and struck him hard in the gut with the end of the club, folding him in half. He made a retching sound as I thrust the club under his chin, pulling it tight with manic strength as I flipped him onto his back and dragged him down the widow’s walk to the steps where I tried to throw him down the stairs. He managed to grab the rail, but left himself vulnerable and I kicked him hard in the crotch, then again in the rump, sending him tumbling down the stairs in a spray of vomit and urine.
“I’m trying to get some sleep, dammit!” I shouted after him, then wheeled about and strode back to my door.
“¡Irlandesa estúpida!” Anna screeched at me, but I simply glared at her and lifted the club. She had had enough of bruises and bloody lips for the night and fell silent as she ducked behind her door. I looked up and saw Jeremy standing in my open doorway, his face a study in shock and amusement.
“Everything is fine,” I smiled at him, “you should go back to sleep.”