The lost souls of Eastport, Maine struggle for Providence and tolerance.
Can a stranger deliver salvation?
THE SHIPBUILDER is moody and somewhat grim. It has a deep undercurrent of fate and magic at its core, strongly reminding this reader of the work of Daphne du Maurier and Emily Brontë. With her passion for history and the accurate portrayal of the period, author Salina Baker brings this time and place to harsh, vivid life. In doing so, she’s crafted a resonant and compellingly readable novel. — Susan Rooke, author of The Space Between
In the summer of 1869, beleaguered for-hire killer Zach Dimitru arrives in Eastport, Maine, bearing an amulet and searching for absolution. His salvation is dependent on the Benoit Family, who are also pitiless and tormented. Zach’s deliverance is reliant on Juliette Benoit. The young woman is grieving the loss of her soul mate, whom she believes has reincarnated without her. Miraculously, the amulet imparts messages to Juliette. The fate of both Zach and Juliette, as well as the town, depends upon her ability to learn and convey those lessons before the arrival of a hurricane—one with the force to devastate Eastport.
Shelby Rolle’s hands shook as he threw his fishing net into the blue water. His knuckles, stiff with arthritis, ached as he pulled the cast net toward the shore. The pain didn’t matter—he had to hurry. He could smell it coming, riding on the horizon as it rushed toward Cat Island. Soon cumulus clouds would appear, gray swirling monsters packing killer winds, which commanded palm trees to bend their fronded heads; winds that formed rain into blowing sheets of vertical glass and lifted waves into mountains of destruction until the storm surge finally swallowed the land.
Several small fish were trapped in Shelby’s net. He plucked them out one at a time and threw them toward a dune. The fish flopped around in the loose sand. He cast again and again all the while muttering an Obeah prayer, pleading with God to find his family worthy and to grant them safety. He tried to picture the local Obeah men huddled in their huts, chanting in an effort to tap the source of a higher supernatural power. In that power, they would find the ability to turn the storm away from the island. Shelby silently pleaded for them to achieve the spiritual plane and channel the necessary strength.
The smell of the ocean intensified as the clouds, now churning at the edge of the eastern horizon, stirred up the pungent odor of salt water and seaweed. He looked toward the sand dunes. The roof of a plantation house was visible on the other side. Its once grand stature had crumpled with age like the spine of a stooped old man. Fifty years of tropical environmental elements had eroded the dwelling. It was Shelby’s home.
The house had fallen into Shelby’s hands ten years earlier. It once belonged to an Englishman named John Monroe. At that time, John had been the master of the cotton plantation. Shelby had been a slave, a field hand born to third-generation Africans who had lived in the Kingdom of the Kongo until the Trans-Atlantic slave trade took them to the Caribbean. But there were things much worse than servitude. Shelby’s daughter suffered under the groping hands of John Monroe. She had pleaded with her father to deliver her from her living hell. He turned to those whom he believed had the capacity to help, but the Obeah curses and attempts at poisoning the plantation owner did nothing to stop the abuse.
Her salvation appeared imminent when the British abolished slavery in 1834. Despite the law and rebellious uprisings, John held fast to his Bahamian dream, refusing to free his slaves for two more years. Under pressure from the local authorities, he succumbed to the mandated emancipation. Without slaves to toil in the fields and seed the cotton, the plantation dissolved. John Monroe, with his wife and children, took their belongings and moved to Nassau. Among John’s personal belongings was Shelby’s daughter.
The cast net sailed into the water. The sea undulated as the rising wind heaved rolling white caps toward the shore. Shelby’s son came down to the beach. The young man’s white cotton shirt billowed like a sail in the wind. He gathered the fish from the dunes and tossed them into a basket.
The young man waved his hands at Shelby. “We have enough fish to ride out the storm!” the young man yelled. “Come on now, Father. Let’s go. Mother is waiting.”
Shelby gathered his net in his arms and ran to his waiting son. The entire island was wrapped in swirling gray clouds. The wind pushed at their backs as they made their way to the plantation house. Rain spurted from the sky. Shelby looked back toward the beach. What he saw stopped him in his tracks. The mast of a clipper ship appeared on the horizon. Its sails hung limply on their rigs as it glided on the tumultuous ocean.
“Can’t be,” Shelby said to himself. He cupped his hands above his eyes to block out the rain and wind. He squinted. There was no mistaking it. His daughter’s salvation floated before him as if the day was sunny and the winds were calm.
“One minute,” Shelby said to his son. Rain soaked his hair and clothing as he stared at the clipper ship. In his heart of hearts, he knew that she had finally been emancipated. He sensed something else. A strong aura of kindness enveloped him. It radiated across the hurricane crazed waters and reached out to him from every timber of the ship.
The ghost-like clipper moved further down the horizon. Soon it would be out of his range of sight. He raised his hand to his throat. His fingers searched for the chain that no longer hung around his neck. Ten years had passed since the amulet lay on his chest, the cool silver a reminder of its power. He had given it to his daughter for protection the day she was taken from her family.
“Father, come on!” His son’s words, scattered in the wind, were barely audible.
Shelby turned his back on the clipper ship and climbed the sand dune. He and his son walked the short distance to their home.
Three hours later, at the height of the hurricane, the plantation house roof collapsed, killing Shelby and his family. The Obeah men had failed to harness the power they sought or perhaps, they had unknowingly redirected it.
The storm pummeling Eastport, Maine moaned in sympathy as Helen Vickers struggled to give birth. Juliette waited outside the bedroom door while Helen’s husband, Ted, said goodbye to his wife and hello to his new son.
Infant mortality and maternal death were a common occurrence in 1869. Juliette’s two little sisters had died the night they were born. Tonight, however, was the first time she had seen so much blood. It gushed from Helen’s body with each painful contraction, soaking the sheets between her legs. Juliette wanted to erase the sight from her mind.
Ted stumbled out of the bedroom. The baby cried. The mother was silent.
“Julie, come here! We’ve lost Helen and the baby needs tending!” Her mother’s voice seemed infused with the smell of sweat and the metallic odor of blood as it drifted through the open bedroom door.
Juliette left the house. The glowing light in the cabin window guided her to her destination. She tapped on the door then let herself in. Now the light illuminated Seneca’s lovely brown face.
“You’re wet,” Seneca said. “Take off your dress and put on my robe.”
Juliette stepped out of her dress and hung it near the fire.
“What happened?” Seneca said.
“Did the baby die?”
“He was born alive. Momma called me to come tend to him, but I couldn’t stand to see all that blood. Poor Helen, I hope her immortal companion is waiting for her as she resumes her travels on the road to enlightenment.”
“Amen,” Seneca said. She hung a small boiling pot over the fire.
“I, on the other hand, have been abandoned. My companion continued the journey without me. What did I do to cause him to grow tired of waiting for me?”
“Maybe you left him behind,” Seneca said.
“I don’t think so.” Juliette contemplated the subject. “Maybe my immortal companion is finally free.”
“Free of what?”
Juliette reached for the tea tin on the fireplace mantel. She shook a little tea into a strainer. “Free of the cycle of death and rebirth. Maybe he has reached his goal of recollection, and his soul is no longer condemned to a physical prison.”
“Where did you get that idea?”
“I’ve been reading about Greek philosophers. Plato believed in the immortal soul.”
Seneca shook her head and clucked her tongue. “Adele’s not going to like it if she finds out you’ve been reading that. Where did you get the book?”
“It belongs to Ben. He told me I could read it if I didn’t tell anyone.”
“Well, you’ve told me. You have to stop doing things that make your mother angry.”
Juliette’s friendship with Seneca was one of those things that made her mother angry. It had been tolerated when the girls were young, but as they grew, the friendship had been discouraged. A white girl and a black girl weren’t a good social fit. Nothing in her life was a good fit except Seneca. She was the only living person who was privy to Juliette’s belief that she had lived previous lives, each time reincarnating with her immortal companion. Family and friends would be mortified if they knew of her belief. That type of thinking was for heretics and heathens. Seneca had never ridiculed it.
Precipitous tears wet Juliette’s cheeks. “Where is he? Doesn’t he need me as much as I need him?”
“I’ll read the tea leaves,” Seneca said.
She poured boiling water into a tea cup and set the tea strainer to steep. Then, she poured out the liquid and emptied the tea leaves into the cup. She peered at the leaves. They swirled in an imaginary whirlpool. She dropped the cup. It hit the dirt floor with a dull thud. There was a knock on the cabin door. Seneca swiped the cup from the floor and tucked it in her apron pocket. Juliette wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Julie, I know you’re in there!” Ben said from the other side of the door. “You better get home. Momma is in a mood after what happened to Helen.”
“Tell your brother to be quiet. He’s going to wake the kids,” Seneca hissed.
Juliette opened the door a crack. “I’m not dressed properly, and my clothes are wet. I’ll be home later.”
“Keep your voice down. You’re going to wake up the little ones.”
Ben pushed the door open and stepped inside the cabin. “Seneca, tell my stubborn sister to get her tail home.”
Seneca gave Ben a vague smile. “You know she won’t listen to me.”
A sleepy face poked out from the blankets on the bed in the back of the cabin. Small feet slid off the bed and onto the floor. The little girl rubbed the sleep from her eyes then looked around the room. “Ben? Ben!” She ran to him.
Ben scooped her up in his arms and kissed her cheek. “I’m sorry I woke you, Sissy. Give me some hugs and I’ll tuck you in bed.”
Juliette eyed Seneca’s apron. The outline of the tea cup was obvious. A round tea stain had formed below the lip of the cup. “I have to go,” she whispered to Seneca as she slipped on her dress. “You saw something in the tea leaves, didn’t you?”
“I’m not sure,” Seneca glanced at Ben. He had finished putting Sissy to bed. “We can talk about it later. I’ll see you in the morning.”
The storm had passed by the time Ben and Juliette Benoit stepped onto the back porch of their rambling colonial-era farmhouse. Ben stomped mud off his boots. Juliette brushed her skirt.
Ben grabbed her arm. “Just agree with what Momma says. You don’t have to mean it.”
“Stop telling me what to do!”
“You don’t think before you speak.”
“Are you saying I’m stupid?”
Ben tightened his grip. “Can’t you be agreeable just this one time? I have enough things on my mind.”
“What kind of things do you have on your mind?” Adele Benoit’s question was laced with sarcasm. “Perhaps they concern me.”
Ben released Juliette’s arm. “Momma, I didn’t see you come out on the porch.”
Adele smirked at her children. Young people were sneaky creatures. A mother had to be firm and keep a close eye on them. “Ben, go in the house.”
Once they were alone, Adele said to Juliette, “You will never again leave during a birth. I don’t care how bad things get. Do you understand me?”
“Ted is distraught over Helen’s death. I want Seneca to look after the baby. I’ll tend to him tonight.”
“There’s one more thing. I know you were at Seneca’s cabin. That girl is not your peer. The war’s been over for three years, but I can ship her and her sisters off to Boston. She’s lucky that I’ve let her stay on as a house servant.”
Juliette cringed at her mother’s threat, but she kept her composure. “Yes, Momma.”
Adele wanted to slap her daughter’s face. “You’ve been warned. Now, go in the house.”
After Juliette went inside, Adele sat on the porch swing and cried. She had never been good at disciplining her children. In her attempt to be firm, she had become controlling. Her husband merely had to ask and the children would behave, but Jean Benoit was dead. He had lost his life two years before in a boating accident on Passamaquoddy Bay. His death had ruined her.
She ran a hand across her face to dry her tears, and then looked at the cabin that stood five hundred yards from the house. Her threat to get rid of Seneca and her sisters was empty. Adele had promised Jean she would look after them no matter the circumstances. Furthermore, they had never been the property of the Benoits. More than twenty years ago, a frightened young woman was brought to their door. That woman was Seneca’s mother.
Adele remembered the knock on the door. It was November 15, 1846. Daniel Hutchinson, the cargo supervisor at the docks, was standing at the door when Jean opened it. A beautiful black woman stood behind him. Her head was lowered; her hands clasped in front of her.
“I found this woman wandering the docks. She was on board The Flying Star. She says she belongs to one of the men on board, but she won’t give a name. No one claimed her,” Daniel said.
“Why are you bringing her here?” Jean asked.
“You have an empty slave quarter. Thought you could keep her until we find out who she belongs to. If no one claims her, then you have yourself a woman to do house chores. It’s freezing out here. Can we come in?”
“Yes, of course. Where are my manners?” Jean said as he stepped aside to let them in. “Let’s go to the sitting room.”
Daniel sat down. The woman hovered near the sitting room door.
“Come in here. I want to have a look at you. Stand up straight. I can’t see your face,” Jean said. “Do you know your age?”
“Yes, sir. Twenty-six years.”
“What’s your name?”
The woman hesitated. Then, she raised her head high and looked Jean in the eye. “My name is Saada Rolle.”
“You don’t know the name of the man who brought you here?”
Grief crossed Saada’s face. “No, sir.”
Jean didn’t believe her. She was protecting herself from something or someone. “Daniel, where’s that ship from?”
“It came in from the Bahamas. This is the first time it’s been in Eastport.”
“Is that where you’re from, the Bahamas?” Jean asked Saada.
“That’s enough questions for now. Let me speak with my wife.”
Jean found Adele in the kitchen. He relayed Daniel’s story. “She’s got nowhere to go. It’s our Christian duty to take her in.”
“No Jean. I don’t want a stranger living on our farm. How do you know she won’t do something to hurt little Ben? He’s only six-months-old. What if she’s a thief? The field hands will sneak over to her cabin for, well, you know. She cannot stay.”
Adele lost the battle, and Saada was put up in the empty cabin. She turned out to be a good house servant and nanny for the children. Adele didn’t trust Saada even after she married Cal, one of the field hands, and gave birth to Seneca.
Adele didn’t trust Seneca either. The girl had inherited Saada’s belief in strange rituals and demonstrated the same propensity to hide behind a curtain of secrets. Adele suspected some of those secrets involved Ben.
Seneca took the tea cup from her apron pocket. She stirred the wet tea leaves with her finger. “If the leaves swirl it means a storm’s coming or it could mean you will be caught up in a whirlwind romance,” Saada had said.
“Did you ever see the leaves swirl Mum?”
“Not in a tea cup, my girl.” Mum had laughed and tickled her under the chin.
She was eight years old then. At the time, she didn’t understand what was so funny. Anyone could tell if a storm was coming. All you had to do was look at the sky and sniff the air. She had no idea what a whirlwind romance was, but Saada’s eyes shone when she’d said the words.
Seneca wiped the tea leaves from the cup. Good riddance. She had never seen a thing in those leaves that soothed Juliette’s anxieties. In fact, what she saw in the tea leaves tonight was not impending romance. The storm’s forewarning was ominous, but that was not what she had been looking for.
“If you seek a sign you must be careful that what you are seeing is the truth. There are things that masquerade as good, but use evil for their own gain,” Mum had said. “Be wary, my girl.”
Seneca tried to be wary. In her heart, she knew she often failed to heed her mother’s advice. Saada died seven years ago soon after giving birth to twin baby girls, Sissy and Sammie. Seneca remembered the last thing her mother said as she lay dying. “Take care of the babies. Tell them about me and their heritage. Most of all, do not let anyone tell you that you are not good enough.”
Not long after Saada’s death, Seneca’s father took the Underground Railroad to Canada. She never saw him again.
Seneca threw the tea cup into the fireplace. Reading tea leaves is a waste of time. No conjuration could return Juliette’s lost immortal companion or give Seneca the man she desired.