Seven Days to Haiti
Leaving is the same as arriving.
Those of us on the rail knocked arms and elbows, but no one minded. We laughed, cried, whistled, screamed over the blast of the vessel’s horn as tugs nudged the Leopardo away from New York Harbor.
The setting sun ran a sword through my eyes, raw from lack of sleep. I could no longer see Mama where she stood on the dock waving a yellow handkerchief. In case she could still see me, I continued to wave my own matching monogrammed linen, strongly, back and forth, as if it would prevent me fainting and making a damn fool of myself.
You’re off, Ondine, to pierce the perfect horizon, away from steel gray sea of New York girders.
I would have to remember that, write it down, draw it. In my stateroom were packed my pencils, pad, and lap desk.
A man’s handkerchief sailed past me in the wind; it planted itself against my chest. Laughing, I peeled it off, looking for its owner.
And saw him, instantly. Coming toward me was a tall man in a dark suit, white shirt, formal tie. Not waving, like the others, and his thin blackness sliced through the crowd focused on the receding land. But his attention was focused on me, and he stared at me through beryl-green eyes. His black hair, parted in the middle, brushed his collar. He wore a thin mustache.
“Pardon me, miss, but I believe you captured my handkerchief.”
My chest captured it. But while I might think that, I didn’t dare to say it aloud. “How do I know it’s yours?”
As soon as I said that, I wished I hadn’t. My mouth would always get me into trouble. One of his eyebrows twitched ever so slightly, but he didn’t get that look I’d seen on the faces of so many boys and men: leering, proprietary, as if all the world, including all the women in it, were theirs to own and use.
He said, bowing his head, “If you examine it, you shall see P. P. P. embroidered along the hem in very tiny lettering.”
I found these letters, aware he was looking down at me, standing close. Someone jostled me from behind, and my breast brushed his arm. I gave the linen back to him and looked away. The brown-brick walls of Lower Manhattan receded; between me and my former life lay a film of soiled harbor water. Sharp tinges of offal and smoke, grilled sausage and cologne began to clear away in fresh ocean breeze.
“And yours,” the man standing beside me said. “Yours is monogrammed with the letters P. N. L. And you waved it at your mother, who has a matching one.”
A familiar thrill prickled my spine. But as I turned to stare boldly at him, a look I knew could make men blush, the man smiled in a friendly way, stepped back and bowed with a flourish, and as his hand came up he held a gold-embossed card.
“Philip Picou, Distinguished Illusionist, at your service, mademoiselle.”
Was there a hint of France in his voice, or was it just one of his ‘illusions’? I had, of course, seen magicians perform their tricks at the Burlesque; I was even, once, pulled onto the stage to assist in sawing a woman in half.
And only two years ago, I had seen Houdini himself perform his Chinese Water Torture Cell act on the stage of Carnegie Hall.
Thinking of that night drew a dark shadow over me, and I turned away to look at the water only for a moment. It was not for my new companion to see.
“And let me see.” His voice brushed my ears, like velvet. “The initials on the handkerchief. P. N. L. If I concentrate—”
Turning back I saw him, finger on forehead, eyes closed. Oh, this will be good. What names will he come up with? Has he checked the ship’s register of passengers?
“The ‘N’ is for No—Nola. The ‘L’ is Lynch!” He opened his eyes and grinned, happy like a child. Then his smile faded, eyebrows low and dark. “But the ‘P’ is hidden. Few know that name. You never use it. You don’t like it.”
Skepticism flowed out of me; doubt took its place, nudged in beside its sad companion already there. How was he to know this?
“Petula.” I kept my gaze on his, but it was difficult. “I go by Nola.”
“Petula. Seeker. And what are you seeking, Miss Nola Lynch?”
Now I had to look away. Sunlight burnished the water, garlanded the ship’s wake in gold. The city horizon shrank away—my old life, Mama and Papa, Garwood my brother. All behind me in the late summer of 1914 as I went seeking.
I couldn’t tell Philip Picou what I was seeking, as I didn’t quite know myself.