Ubi Sunt

C. H.

The dark sky is not forgiving and Henry Wyles is happy to be out from underneath it. Henry Wyles is complaining to himself about the cold because it is only mid-August and it should be much warmer. He sits where he always does when he wants to shirk his duties on the ship, under the ladder going from the main deck to the quarter deck, the door to the captain’s cabin partially hiding him from view. After being five months away from home, well over four months of that time being spent on the ocean, and considering the dark events of the past few days, he thinks he has earned some resting privileges on the boat. He does not think of the others on the ship.

While Henry Wyles does not think of them, the door to the captain’s cabin bursts open and Captain Bedford emerges. Henry Wyles does not know that Captain Bedford is fully aware of his hiding place, and he does not know that on any other day he would rebuke and discipline him for shirking his duties. But today is not any other day, and Captain Bedford remains silent.

John Giles Bedford is the new captain of the Moonlight and he is weary because yesterday he watched Captain Spicer and three other members of his friend’s crew drown. John Bedford had lowered their longboat into the bay himself, and thinks that he was the last one to say goodbye to them. This troubles him. The four sailors had been following Governor White’s longboat ashore when a particularly large swell capsized their tiny vessel, toppling the four men into the cold grey ocean. None of them could swim. They all died. A harmful wave had also struck Governor White’s longboat, but they had stayed afloat and made it to shore after an exhausting battle of bailing and rowing. John Bedford imagines his own body in the longboat, wet and cold and trembling. He imagines the fatigue his limbs feel as he furiously bails water out and rows and bails and rows, water everywhere and cold. He shivers. He does not think of what it would have been like in Captain Spicer’s boat. He tries to stop thinking of the events of the last few days entirely and makes an effort to concentrate on preparing his vessel to depart for England. He yearns to feel content about returning home as his sailors hustle and bustle about him, Nathanael Irish preparing the rigging and Jack Trice tying down the sails and Edmund Swan finding the wind. Nice day for a sail ‘round the cove, ain’t it Cap’n, John Bedford hears Jack shout from above. He is not used to being called Captain. Aye Jack, it’s about time we steered this vessel home. John Bedford knows that Jack has a garrulous nature. He continues along the length of the ship—he remembers that it ishis ship now—and sees William Smith hanging on the bowsprit in front of the boat, fastening the jib sail. How goes it this dreary day, William, John Bedford shouts over the wind and ocean. I’ve seen better days and I’ve seen worse days, Cap’n, William replies. John Bedford nods and continues on his way. He thinks William is a good man.

William Smith ties the sail down with cold hands. He concentrates very hard on tying the knots. Cold spray from the ocean stings his fingers and makes them numb and thick. He is working slower than usual. He thinks of the spray and the water and the ocean that is the same ocean that surrounds his wife and son and daughter in England. He thinks of the spray and thinks of the tears his wife will shed when he finally comes home, and how he will wipe them from her face with his hands and how that is different because that won’t make his hands slow and listless. That is different. He finishes tying the knot and looks at the water. He isn’t comfortable with the events of the last few days. He does not feel any particular remorse or guilt or burden, but he can’t escape a sense of dreary sadness that pulls at him. Losing Captain Spicer and James and Flint and Robert was bad enough, but then came the tragedy on the island. They were too late. He had heard some of the men say it was the ghosts of the colonists that had drowned the sailors yesterday. Smith doesn’t know if he believes that. From his perch aboard theMoonlight he looks across the water and sees the dark shape of the Hopewell. Smith is not sad that his ship is heading back to London even though theHopewell is not. The West Indies have their attractions, but Smith has been away from home for too long. He wants to go home. He pities those who are not on the Hopewell. Smith sees on the deck of the other ship a lone figure, facing back towards the island. His eyes cannot discern who it is, but he knows. Only Governor White would be looking back at the island.

John White’s rough cheeks and white beard are wet from the ocean and from his tears. He feels very old. Much older than when he left England five months ago. He wonders, vaguely, how old his granddaughter was and how often he has wondered that in the past two days. He doesn’t know what to think anymore, except that he should have run out of tears long ago. His chest still constricts at the thought of his conversation with Captain Cocke. Can we not spare one or two days, he had pleaded. Just to look at the other island, just to know for a surety. Captain Cocke had adamantly refused. He said that the Bay had already demonstrated its dangers, and that the coming weather would make the precarious Sound much worse. There was no possible way that Captain Cocke was going to make the journey to the other island. John White’s soul split in anguish to think of that statement. He would have preferred the captain to stab him with his own sword rather than run him through with that information. John White had wanted to throw himself into the Bay after that exchange. Afterwards, confidentially and away from the crew, Cocke had come to converse with him. John White thinks that the captain had not been so harsh then, thank the Lord. He informed John White that their ship was to return to the West Indies where they would hold over for winter. Then, come spring, if he still desired they could return to look at the other island to find his colony. The captain had promised him. John White thinks on that promise and dwells on it and clings to it to stay afloat. That statement had given John enough hope to carry on, and as he thinks about it now it still gives him hope, the smallest ray of light in his clouded soul. John White thinks that his soul is blacker than the dark clouds above. At first he felt burning anger and hot shame. Anger that they had made him wait for three years before returning to his colony, and shame because he had allowed it. The Spanish Armada be damned, the English Navy be damned, the Queen herself be damned to hell. But now he damns only himself, and he is cold. Through bleary eyes he looks at the island where his daughter was, his son-in-law, his many friends, and his precious granddaughter. He wonders how they have disappeared from his life so completely. John White hears a voice behind him. You should go down below, John. The voice is Captain Cocke. The weather will do you no good up here, the voice says. John White slowly turns to look at his captain. I will remain here, he tells the man.

Abram Cocke looks at Governor White and the Governor’s face is sad. He reminds himself that White is not a governor anymore. Abram Cocke turns away and goes belowdecks. He can’t stop thinking about their trip to the island, and he does not want to think of it anymore. He does not want to think of the oppressing silence they heard as they walked across the shore to the settlement, when the colonists should have been coming out to meet them. He does not want to think of the thud of cannon fire that they had ordered to interrupt that silence to attract the colonists that should have been nearby. He does not want to think of the excitement and strain in White’s voice as he said that they should be nearing the village, or the emptiness they had found when they had arrived. He does not want to think of the gloomy dearth they had found and how it hardly seemed a village had ever existed there and of all the people they had not found. He does not want to think of White’s deep groans of despair and frustration and sadness and loss that had vibrated Abram Cocke’s very bones and caused him to shiver. He does not want to think of attempting to calm White, and seeing the meaninglessness in his eyes. He does not want to think of finding CROATOAN carved in a post, or of finding another unfinished carving, and the fact that there were no Maltese crosses and what that might mean. He does not want to think of the colonists and what might have happened to them or where they may be. He does not want to think of his empty promise to White, and how his ship will never return to Roanoke Island. Abram Cocke wants to forget it all.

But he cannot. Nor can his sailors. Nor can John White. The waves do not let them. The winds do not allow it. The voices that know all, that see all, that tell all, will privately echo in their minds what has been lost. You left us here, they accuse. It is your fault we are lost, they whisper. You left us here.