After Edward finds the letters from my learned cousin, the Man Stealer appears in church. Decked out in her salvage finery—indienne and fine cambric and lampas lisérè, a little sea-stained but lovely nonetheless. She hides her eyes behind her hat brim, but the jewel at her throat shoots red fire.
We whisper behind our prayer books. We watch the men. The men herd together like a gaggle of nervous turkey. Looking sideways at her, shuffling together. Trying to hide behind one another.
Simon Winslow reads the sermon this week (we haven't had a preacher on the island since Reverend Reddy fell off the bluffs) and he chooses the one about the painted woman. Says a few words about vanity, trickery, Jezebels. Simon is a man who will never be stolen. Not by a woman, anyway.
We women tell each other a different bible story later. Not on Sunday when we're not allowed to talk. But during the week, at hog killings and barn raisings and the like. We tell the story of the seven sleepers. We put the tea-bob into the teakettle and let it sleep there, spreading its tea-warmth.
The story we tell is this: The seven sleepers hid in a cave to escape the cruel pagan king. They prayed in the dark of the cave for deliverance and went to sleep like dormice. The Lord put them to sleep for a hundred years. When they awoke their faith had spread across the land, the way the tea leaves' essence spreads through the kettle.
When it has steeped, we empty the tea leaves from the tea-bob into the slop basin. The tea is full of its sleep.
Last autumn I salvaged seven silver teacups from a wreck off Sandy Point. There were no survivors in that wreck. They never have the sense to take off their clothes so they can float. None of them knows how to swim. Most of them are starved or half dead of flux anyway, the journey across the ocean a misery which weakens the soul as well as the body. Even if they survive the wreck they usually freeze to death before we can get to them.
Truth be told, it's easier if they don't survive. Maritime law allows us, as salvagers, a percentage of the cargo, but try telling that to a half-starved lady whose whole family is dead of flux and drowning. She always wants to keep her jewels.
Anyway, for this wreck, I was alone by Sandy Point. I had gone there to hear myself think. It was foggy and I could hear the waves but I could not see them. I drew in the sand for the hundredth time:
My learned cousin had written to me that the solution is:
He is confident, with reason, although the solution, as yet, has no justification. I believe that there is a justification involving its zeroes. I am working on it.
As I scratched out
the sea fog lifted for a moment and I saw the point was strewn with flotsam and a few bodies.
I flapped down toward the waves, gun-metal grey and shooting straight up ten feet over the sand from either side. I hallooed but could hear no answer. If there was a ship out there in the mist, there was no one left on board to halloo.
A chest lay broken on the sand, its contents strewn about. Silver pieces, and broken china, blue and white, so delicate you could read through it. No one was alive to claim the silver teacups and so I kept them. I didn't show them to Edward, who would have accused me of getting them through whoring. Anything a woman owns is got through her whoring, according to Edward. In a way I agree with him. Except here on the island we have the salvage, too.
We can't figure out where the Man Stealer lives. There aren't that many places on the island she could hide. I thought she might be someone's relative come to visit, but no one claims her. Mary Winslow thinks she's one of us in disguise. I believed this for a while until I saw the Man Stealer's feet. They weren't webbed at all, nor stuck in men's boots to hide them. The Man Stealer wears tiny high heeled slippers embroidered with silken flowers. If she were one of us she could never get her flippers into those delicate little shoes.
I watch Edward to see what he thinks of the Man Stealer. He is like the other men, always braying at the top of his voice. It never occurs to him that anyone would ever want to hear anything other than what he is saying. Neither he nor the other men ever run out of things to say. If I want to hear a bird song or the sound of the wind, the first thing I have to do is get away from the men.
No, that isn't fair. It's the women too. When Adam and Eve were dispossessed of the Garden hard by Heaven, I believe it was because they simply could not get out of the habit of speaking once they'd learned to do it. That was the fall of man. He forgot how to participate in quiet. The angels couldn't calculate with him around.
Edward is nervous around the Man Stealer. She wears her tucker just a bit loose so that the curve between her bosoms is exposed. She wears a beauty mark in the shape of a crescent moon just on the cheekbone at the right edge of her eye. The lace on her sleeve falls back when she raises her arm to touch her hat, revealing graceful, smooth arms and hands unroughened by work.
When the Man Stealer appears, Edward brays even louder and longer than usual.
The Man Stealer says her name is Claudia Louise. Miss Manissus to the slaves and indentured servants. Today she is wearing a gown of pale blue silk, overlaid with a mantua of dark blue damask. Clusters of sapphire glitter from her earlobes. When she sips from the silver teacup she closes her eyes. She says, "If you let the partial product for sin(x) be defined
I say, "Exactly."
She says, "He burned the letters?"
I say, "He burned them."
When Edward found the letters from my learned cousin, hidden in the compartment beneath the drawer of the writing desk, he built a bonfire by the southwest corner of the stone fence. He piled on peat and brush and driftwood as though we did not need to cook all winter. I saw the slaves hauling branches away behind their sheds, trying to save a little for their fires.
He said, "Witchery!"
He said, "The Devil's script!"
I said, "Greek script, husband."
He said, "Satanic scribbling!"
He said, "No more!"
I said, "My own kin, husband."
He said, "Kin or devilspawn, I will not brook this infernal correspondence!"
I walked down to the shore to bathe my bruises in the brine.
The Man Stealer does not appear at Anne Dodge's sewing bee. I am sewing black on black. I say it is for poor Tabitha Winslow's mother. As we sew, we soak our flippers in bowls of warm brine. Anne Dodge is an excellent hostess.
We speculate. It could be Hugh Glover, who has got seven children on poor Elizabeth in as many years and has another one on the way no matter how she protests.
It might be John Barker, who goes carousing on the mainland for weeks and leaves Mary and the six children without a farthing.
It could be Peter Clark, who doesn't let Molly out of the house unless he's with her.
Their eyes roll toward me and snap away.
I say, "I think she's living in the old windmill right now."
Everyone's feet splash.
"If she is," says Catherine Acres, "that could explain why Mark told me he was going to the boats yesterday but I saw him turn the wrong way up High Street."
"You know," says Anne Dodge, "Bill went out and got the eggs for me on Thursday. He never gathers the eggs. And he was gone ever so long."
"When James came home last night he was hiccupping and bellowing like a sailor," says Jane White, "but Dan Williams says he wasn't at the tavern."
And so on. Each of us trying to conjure the Man Stealer with our husbands in the broken-down mill. I wonder if she uses the millstone as a tea table for the seven silver teacups. I wonder where she keeps the ermine cape, edged in sable, that Anne Dodge gave to her. I wonder if she looks into the little homemade mirror that Mary Barker decorated with sea glass, poor Mary, so poor that she sells all of her salvage, never keeping back even a pewter porringer. I wonder if the wooden arms squeak in the wind, and if so, whether they keep the Man Stealer awake. I wonder if she sleeps at all right now. I wonder if, when she has finished her work, she will go to sleep there, or if there is another place. A hollow tree, or an old shipwreck. A cave somewhere, like the seven Christian dormice, sleeping a year for each saint. I have looked all over the island for her on numerous occasions but never found her. She always appears on her own, does her work, then disappears.
On the night when she finally steals Edward, there is a monstrous storm. Thomas Ray comes pounding at our door.
"The windmill!" he says. A light jumps up against the blackness behind him, red and orange. "Afire!" he says.
Edward pulls on his sealskin. I have just put the tea-bob into the kettle.
Edward says, "Don't wait up, wife."
There is a gentleness in his voice. My skin prickles.
I say, "Godspeed, husband."
When he leaves I pull out a blank page and write for the thousandth time,
I wake the tea-bob from its slumber in the kettle. I dump the leaves into the slop bucket. The tea is as dark as the night outside. There is no sound but the snapping of sleet on the roof.
Outside the window, the mill a mile away is like a beacon in the tempest. Its wooden blades all alight, turning and burning. Shouts rolling toward me between the wind. Excited shouts, horrified shouts. Possibly some other types of cries as well.
When Hugh Glover and Peter White bring me the news I am already in my widow's weeds. I cover my face. They believe I am grieved.
In the morning I go to the ruins, still smouldering. I pour out a cup of good black tea onto the ashes. I say, "Gratias tibi ago, Claudia Louise."
I say, "Sleep well."