Excerpt from The Brooklyn
I USED TO LOVE A SHIP’S LAUNCH--rubbing shoulders with the masses while I edged along the water-buffed docks that creaked and groaned under my feet. Father brought me often in my youth, well aware that Follow My Leader and porcelain dollies enticed little of my impressionable mind. Rather, it was the rhythmic spanking of riggings against mast, the scent of boiling crabs newly plucked from the merchant woman’s pot, and the massive bobbing hulls gleaming with new varnish under the sun’s promised blistering that heightened my senses. Sights and sounds and smells that burrowed under my skin until I itched for open seas and longed for distant shores. But not today. Not ever again. I was twenty and alone, shunned by my family, and I was leaving, forever, the warmth and friendship of Maribeth Grady’s smile.
From on deck, I could see her now, shoulder pressed, hand waving high, nose red and raw in the frigid February afternoon, though, much like me, lacking celebration as the square-stern rigger, Brooklyn, prepared to embark from New York’s Old Slip of the East River.
Maribeth loved me as no other friend could, and she had come alone to the pier, risking virtue among the rabble of dockworkers and pickpockets who earned their living along the waterfront. But support, she had none. Neither father, mother, brother, or sister would uphold her decision to see off nearly two hundred thirty men, women, and children, all outcasts who believed in angels and golden plates, and who had followed the martyred Prophet Joseph Smith and now the Prophet Brigham Young.
“I shan’t forget you, dear friend,” I yelled, my glove-clad hands waving wildly, tears stinging hot in my eyes. The wind collided with my words, whipping them up and over the water, far from Maribeth’s ears.
Still, I imagined her shouting back her response. “I’ll love you forever, Eliza Savage. I’ll find you somehow, some way.”
My parents had christened me Susan Eliza Savage, but Maribeth preferred my middle name—a tribute to her and my current independence. After our families turned us away, we worked together in the mill and had earned sufficient wages to buy tickets on this historic voyage. Her dream soon shattered after taking to her sickbed for a time, when her illness forced her to purchase drafts and tonics to soothe her persistent cough. At the end of six months, she had depleted all of her passage money; she had even lost her position at the mill—too many days missed, they said—and had to take jobs wherever and whenever she could find them.
Her family refused to help her. I could imagine their shouts of elation now that the mobs had forced most of the Saints to escape westward. The majority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mormons, as they called us, had left overland in wagons and with handcarts, pulling what few belongings remained after the presses had looted and set fire to their homes. The Gradys had been among the rioters. When Maribeth had pleaded our cause and had joined the Church too, her family’s consternation had cankered into an unforgiving rage. How strange that civilized people spurned family, harbored hatred over the God-given freedom of choice—a choice, in my case, that ripped away all that was familiar to me, all I held dear.
I clutched the railing as the 445-ton Yankee trader lurched and moved away from its moorings, bow parting the steaming, foam-capped ripples as it headed into the stream. With handkerchief in hand, I waved a last desperate farewell, blowing kisses through the wind-swept water that formed quivering blankets of salty mist between my friend and me. Three cheers peeled out from the diminishing wharf, and in response, everyone around me bellowed three chants in return.
The Steamboat Samson came alongside then, made fast to the Brooklyn to direct her out to sea. Once past the Narrows, the captain gave the order, and passengers hugged their loved ones for the last time, mothers weeping for their daughters, fathers shaking their sons’ hands and falling on their necks. We were to travel 2,400-miles around the Horn to Mexico’s upper California, where the small mining town of Yerba Buena awaited us. Those not joining us on the journey boarded the Samson, and with tears, they pulled away and, too soon, dwindled to a quivering mirage, shimmering in the distance.
As the ship swung around the point, I fought through the company along the length of the icy deck. By the time I reached the aft, we were some distance from land, and I watched its purple hue grow smaller and smaller until it was but a dot in the site of the ship’s wake. When I could see nothing but the faint outline of the distant shore, I finally hung my head and wept. We were leaving the United States, and for how long, I could not say. I trembled to think what lay ahead on the distant Mexican shores.