Daughter Of The Sea

Chapter One (extract)





Maria sits at the top of the thirty-four steps. Behind her are the stone walls of the sultan’s palace, before her the early dawn – the fading stars, the slow sunrise, the sea taking light. The cool air makes her shiver.

Below lies the coastal plain of Ternate, its green broken here and there by the thatch of a roof, a yellow tree that signals a garden. Beyond the Portuguese fort are the beach and the coral reef that now, at low tide, is exposed to the air. There’s a gap in the reef through which boats can approach. This island is a magnet that draws boats from far countries, a honeyed flower that sucks them in like bees. They bring fabrics and gold, jewels and coins; they leave heaped high with cloves.

Ever since she was sold here as a slave five years ago, Maria has been certain that her lover will come to the island to find her. How often, to begin with, she put her arm around their daughter Mary and told her, ‘He’ll sail here in a nutshell of a boat, with a figurehead of a deer leaping over the waves. You’ll recognise him at once. It won’t matter that you’ve never seen him. He’s shorter than me, pale-skinned, reddish hair, a neat beard. He swore he would come for us, and he will. He’s not a man to break his word.’

But he needs to come now. This instant. No more delay. An hour ago the sultan commanded her to go and live in the palace with him and she dare not disobey: disobedience means poison, a painful, lingering death. Francis is her only hope of escape. She stands up and yells his name. FRANCIS!

Parakeets rise screaming from the trees. Clutching in her hand the tiny jade lion the sultan gave her as testimony of his regard, Maria leaps down the steps and races along the lane, past the fort and the seine nets drying on frames – across the beach and she’s picking her way barefoot over the exposed reef, out to where the green waves shove and pull at her thighs and the incoming tide pulses with the cold of the ocean. She grabs her sarong so it’s not swept away, stretches out her arms for balance. ‘Francis, you’ve got to come now, this very minute, this is your last chance, do you hear?’

The sea remains empty. A gull dives. White foam froths around an outcrop of coral. She shouts louder: ‘You promised you’d come back, Francis!’

But that’s what every sailor says, isn’t it, hers is the old, old story, she’s a dupe like every other woman, just as Mary insists. Only, she thinks, what you promised, Francis, was so particular, the timber-framed house steepling by a London river peopled with more boats than ply between these islands, a house with tall rooms, you said, where the reflection of sunlight will dance on white ceilings, where I would live with our child while your wife stayed in Devon; you said you’d show us fighting bears, and robe me in gold velvet ruffed with lace. You wanted our baby so much. Give me my child, you said, bowing your head: my baby, that’s all I ask. You, the great sailor. You cupped my belly in your two hands as if it were a king’s orb, and preciously jewelled, laid your head against it. I have to sail back to England, you said, I have my orders from my queen. Stay here and wait for me to return. If you were to come with me you’d be likely to grow sick with scurvy and miscarry. Or if we ran out of water, you’d not have milk to feed my child. You’ll be safe here on Crab Island, you insisted; there’s plenty of food, and you can catch rainwater. I’ve always wanted a child and my wife can’t bear me children, you said. Keep my child safe for me. If he’s a boy, call him Francis after me; if she’s a girl, call her Mary – my childless wife’s name. I swear I’ll come back for the two of you as soon as I can. As soon as my sworn commitment to the queen is fulfilled.

Francis, I called your daughter Mary as you asked. I’ve kept her safe for you though we’ve been captured by pirates and twice been sold into slavery.

A freak wave breaks against Maria’s chest; she staggers. ‘Francis!’ she yells. She rubs the salt spray from her eyes. ‘Francis, fetch your daughter now. Look!’ She holds her jade lion up to the sky. ‘The sultan gave me this. He’s ordered me to go and live in his palace. I can’t disobey him, do you understand that? I can’t look after Mary any more, do you hear? I can’t take her to the palace with me. You’ll have to come and get her.’ You don’t know, she thinks, turning toward the beach, you in command of your boat with its gilt tableware and its orchestra playing, you in your doublet of scarlet satin, you don’t know what it’s like to be a slave, and powerless. You’ve never laboured all day in the rice fields, with a finger-knife cutting a head of rice at a time to appease a rice-spirit, the drudgery of it, the pain, the way the bending racks your body. I’ve worked to buy my freedom from all that, I’ve earned a position of respect and I’m not giving it up. She turns back to the horizon: ‘So Francis, if you want her, come and get your daughter!’


© Maggie Freeman



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