The Bible tells it all wrong, Lucy thinks dreamily. Living in hell is not hot, it’s dark and wet. No flames, no screams, no shrieking… There’s just darkness. Merciful, pitiful darkness.
She recognizes the voice. It’s her brother-in-law’s. What’s he doing in hell? He shouldn’t be here. This was supposed to be something between her and the sea. Or, more precisely, something between her and God. God, who betrayed her. God, who so cruelly bereaved her of the ones she loved.
‘Lucy? Can you hear me?’
No, I can’t hear you, she wants to scream. Because hearing you means I’m still alive. But instead she whispers: ‘It’s okay… I… I hear you.’ The smell of dead fish, rotting on the street, is making her sick. She coughs, spitting out the salt water that burns in her throat.
‘Oh Lucy, thank God! I thought you were…’
‘What were you thinking, you… you stupid woman!’
‘I wasn’t thinking.’ Unwillingly she opens her eyes. His worried face is right above her, looking at her as if she just climbed out of her grave. And maybe she did. ‘I don’t want to think, Barney. If I think, I’m going mad.’
‘You’ve gone mad already. Look what you were about to do!’
His voice is dark with rage, but she can see tears in his eyes.’You do understand, don’t you, Barney?’
‘No, Lucy, I don’t. You’re lucky I came after you when I saw you running out of the house as if the devil himself was at your heels. One second later and the wave would’ve…’ Shaking his head, he clears his throat and spits on the pavement. Then he grabs her by the shoulder. ‘Come on, woman, I’ll take you home. You’ll catch pneumonia if you walk around like this much longer. And what will happen to the young ones if you die? Have you thought about that? The workhouse… that’s where they will end up. You know very well that Jo and I can’t afford to feed another three mouths.’
O God, the girls! Lizzy, Bertha, Mary… For the first time since Captain Buchanan came to their house this afternoon, Lucy feels something stirring inside her. Barney is right. Her daughters’ future now depends solely on her. ‘But I… I can’t go home like this,’ she whispers, suddenly scared. A stabbing pain flashes through her chest, and she winces. God wouldn’t send Barney to save her and then let her die of a heart attack, would he? She bites her lip. No, not even He would be so cruel. The pain must be the grief she doesn’t want to feel. The grief that will rip her apart if she lets it. Her fingers claw in Barney’s arm as she reaches out to him, begging him. ‘I can’t go back to the house, Barney. The girls… If they see me like this, all wet and muddy… It will scare the hell out of them.’
‘Imagine how they would have felt if we’d had to bring you home wrapped in white linen,’ Barney grumbles, but when he sees her pleading eyes, he surrenders. ‘Okay then, we’ll go to our house first. I guess your sister will have a dry skirt for you in her closet.’
‘Thank you,’ she mumbles, and clutches his arm when he helps her to her feet.
Bowed low against the strong winds they stumble through the narrow alleys of the town to her sister’s house, each step taking her away from the cold and hostile sea where Captain Buchanan said her loved ones have found their grave.
She hadn’t even blinked when he told her how their ten-year-old son, her little Pete, had been swept from the deck by a huge wave. Her face hadn’t cringed when he went on, his voice hoarse, saying that her husband had drowned as well in an attempt to rescue him. The crew had searched for them the whole night, but neither of them could be found.
‘The sea giveth and the sea taketh away…’ Those were the only words she had said, before thanking him politely for telling her in person. She was a fisherman’s wife, and before that a fisherman’s daughter. She knew the dangers of the sea.
But later that night, when she was cleaning the dishes after the meal, she’d heard the screaming in her head. ‘Mummy! Mummy! Mummy!’
Her Petey, her youngest son, so proud to go on his first trip to sea.
‘When I come back, I’ll buy you a new apron, mummy,’ he had whispered in her ear, just before he’d boarded the ship.
Standing at the sink she’d heard his screams when he hit the cold water, had seen her husband’s desperate hands trying to grab their son’s head, and failing… failing…
Without thinking she’d ripped off her apron and run out of the house, into the storm. At the end of the quay she’d come to a halt, her fist lifted to the dark skies, her angry cries mingling with the screams of the seagulls. ‘Why, God? Why? Don’t You do this to me! You have to bring them back. I beg of You… Please, please bring them back or… Or You better take me as well!’
The breaking waves had pulled at her long skirts, dragging her closer and closer towards the water. She’d seen the big wave coming, had felt its salt water splashing over her. But before God could fulfil her prayer, Barney had pulled her away from the slippery quayside and prevented her from falling over the edge.
‘God must have sent Barney to save you,’ says her sister as she hands Lucy the dry clothes. ‘I know your grief seems unbearable now, dear, but you must think of the girls. What would’ve become of them if you… And don’t forget you still have Aron. He’s such a strong boy. He will take care of you and the girls!’
Yes, Aron, her oldest and now only son. But he’s only fifteen, far too young to earn enough money to feed a family of five.
Lucy sighs. She knows it will be hard. She’ll have to go down on her knees and beg the foreman for work at the fish factory. Maybe the wife of the shipowner will let her do some extra sewing in the evenings if she asks politely. And there’s Lizzy, who will turn eight next month, old enough to work as a kitchen maid in one of the shipowner’s houses. They’ll manage. They have to.
‘Don’t forget to count your blessings, Lucy,’ her sister says. And counting her blessings is what Lucy does. All the way home, and every day of the lonely years to come.
She counts them… one by one.
Dedicated to my great-great-grandmother Huibertje van der Hoeven