She remembered that the cabin had smelled distinct - like wood - cedar, maybe - and musk, perhaps a man's cologne. This was a scent she would not soon forget. The glow of a lamp had flickered across the tawny brown walls, casting the room in a warm ambience, despite the inky darkness of the night. Rain slapped against the porthole with the howling of the wind. That wind, she recalled, had whipped around the ship ferociously for the entire duration of that night so far, and the waves had rocked it violently. They had, of course, seen the storm coming, but perhaps inaccurately estimated its intensity. Of course this would happen, she thought, on a journey that was meant to be quick and easy.
She paced the floor, gently rocking her baby, pulling the lapis blue blanket tighter around him. She looked towards her husband with a knowing, nervous glance, not wanting to articulate the thoughts racing through her head. He returned the glance, pursing his lips a bit. His brown eyes, generally strong and resolute, looked worryingly weary and afraid now. She continued her pacing, smoothing the delicate wisps of hair on her baby's head.
It had been a long time on board between ports. It undeniably felt longer with a baby. This voyage was meant to be easy. They had made it many times before. It wasn't complicated, not by any stretch of the imagination. This time had been different, though - more grueling and tiresome. Perchance this would be their last trip of this caliber. There would be no harm in settling down, they thought.
It was as if her mind were a book and someone had ripped a chunk of pages out. She couldn't remember a single detail of what lead her to what she remembered next. The next thing she remembered was splashing into the churning, dark ocean in a lifeboat - one she didn't think could stand up to the waves. She only took comfort in the fact that her husband was there, and her baby. The ship they had been in what seemed like moments ago, was now ablaze - their tiny section of this vast ocean glowing marmalade orange with the fire. She did not remember them speaking - perhaps they did, but she could not remember. Throughout the entire night, the rain spit down angrily. She bowed her head over her baby in an attempt to shield him from the inclement weather, her husband doing the same for her.
Eventually, morning did come, and the sand of a shoreline scraped against the bottom of their lifeboat. As the sun poked above the horizon, sending out a soft glow, the rain slowed to a drizzle, and eventually ceased altogether. The dim glow of dawn illuminated this foreign shore - an expansive stretch of soft sand, a color that reminded her of butter, and a dense, mossy tree line.
They were alone - utterly alone on this beach - the three of them. She dipped her hand into the water for a moment, the gently swirling current bringing her back to the present. Her ginger hair stuck to her forehead with the humidity. In fact, she felt as if she was just sticking to herself. She would have given anything to bathe - a warm, relaxing bath - with some nice soap, and a warm cup of tea afterwards. The grains of sand and strands of seaweed passing between her fingers reminded her that there would be no such luxuries for some time.
With few other options, the pair ventured into the tree line, the woman carrying the baby close to her chest, still swaddled in the navy blanket. It appeared that this jungle was completely untouched - no human foot had ever tread upon this jungle floor. The woman's husband desperately wished he had a machete to chop his way through the foliage - but, he admitted, he mostly wished he had not been here in the first place. He could have been on the ship still, if only that lightning had not struck the mast. He would have given anything to be inside, still steadily moving towards the next trading post.
Waterlogged, somewhat charred bits of wood washed up on the beach from a sinking ship were not the best building materials, and vines did not lash these bits of wood together as nicely as they had hoped. Despite this, they had constructed a small shelter in the strong, lower branches of a tree near the area where the jungle met the beach. It wasn't very stable, nor was it particularly pretty, but this was by no means a long term dwelling. This would merely be a shield from the elements until they could signal for rescue from a passing ship.
A passing ship would be splendid right about now, she concluded. It had been several weeks, and her tolerance for this way of life was dwindling rather than building. Baths had been in short supply, as the ocean did little to clean way the dirt and grime of weeks spent in the jungle.
It was just beginning to get light outside. The sky was still a dusty blue color. She always felt more secure during the daylight hours. She wanted to get up, but her body was tired, so she allowed her eyes to flutter shut again. Her mind swirled in a state of half sleep. What she would not have given to sleep in a bed - fresh sheets, a warm blanket, a firm pillow to rest her head on. Even a cot would have been better than sleeping on the floor of their makeshift house.
The baby had not yet stirred, so she allowed herself to stay on the floor. When he woke, so would she. And what good is getting up early when the only thing you need to do is peer into the horizon, hoping to see something? It had been weeks and absolutely no sign of...anything.
In her groggy state, she heard a pair of feet slowly walked towards her. She assumed it was her husband. Who else would it have been? No one. There was no one around anywhere. Not a soul.
She felt calm, to the extent that one could feel tranquility in her circumstances. They had not yet encountered any animals - neither predators nor harmless creatures other than birds and lizards - and the supply of fruit and edible plants held no sign of running out. She had no real reason to feel endangered. But, on this morning, a voice in the back of her mind bagged at her, urging her to open her eyes and rise.
The events of the past weeks had drained her, and the idea of getting up seemed tedious the more she thought of it. Suddenly, her eyes shot open. She knew something was dreadfully wrong, somewhere deep down, but by that time, it was too late.
She could all but feel them as they hugged her goodbye that summer morning, placing a gentle kiss on her forehead, with the promise that they would return soon, and that they loved her. She could all but smell the soap her mother used, and feel the gruff scratchiness of her father's beard as it brushed against her face. Her neighbor had taken her hand gently, leading her away from them, over to her house, where she had been told a lovely room awaited her. Only for a little while, they promised her - certainly not forever. She toddled away, hand in hand with the neighbor, tripping over her shoes some as she went, which were likely a bit too big for her.
Her parents would be home soon, she just knew it. They went away, but never for long. Soon enough, she would be back home, playing in the front garden. The possibility of this never coming to fruition never crossed her mind - or anyone else's, for the matter.
It had been nearly two decades since that day, but it was still just as vivid. She no longer resembled the round-faced, bright eyed little girl from that day - instead having over time swapped those features for more womanly, mature ones. Her red hair fell messily over her shoulders in loose waves, which often proved to be unruly. Despite being twenty years of age, she still had never managed to gain her wild locks like the other girls she knew had. She still lived in that same house, in that same room - the one she had been promised would not be forever. The childish part of her still wanted to believe that this was true, but the hardened, cynical part of her knew that it likely wasn't.
There was much to be done in a day, and little time for contemplation. Despite her rush, she did pause at her lock box to pull out a necklace - a medium sized locket that hung on a thin metal chain. She flipped it open, gazing at the photo inside for a moment - a smiling portrait of a family - before placing it down again. There was much to be done - no time for sentimental wistfulness. Meals didn't cook themselves and the house didn't magically clean itself either. At that moment, there was a sharp knocking at her door. "Have you risen, or are you waiting for a prompt?" a shrill and familiar voice called.
Drawing in a deep breath, she replied, "I'll be right there, just one moment, please." She crossed to her door, pulling it open. Outside her door stood her neighbor - Mrs. Prudence Hopper - the same woman who had led her here all those years ago. Back then she had been a warm woman - not a wealthy woman, but one who had the kindness in her heart to take in a small girl in addition to her own children, if only for a little while. Now - she was far less warm; older, with less patience and less heart for giving. Although, she understood Mrs. Hopper's plight - things were hard and money scarce at times. That would harden anyone, she supposed.
"I need you to run an errand for me," the woman said, brushing flyaway wisps of thinning grey hair out of her face, "I need you to deliver a message to Robert."
She nodded, taking the envelope that the woman held out to her. It was still brisk, so she grabbed for a shawl before shutting her bedroom door. She knew this was what the woman would be asking her to do. The woman's oldest son, Robert, seemed to be the apple of his mother's eye - the golden child, the only one to study at a prestigious university. She had gone to school, but as with most young women, had stopped after a point, trading academia for domestic life. What she would not have given to go to university - any debt and any scrutiny could not have deterred her if she had been given the chance.
Although, this task was not all bad. She would pass by her friend's house, and perhaps she could stop there before returning back to the house. She could never bring herself to call it home. Nothing felt like home to her. The house that she had lived in before her parents left had been sold after several months, as no one thought they would ever come home. She could not remember that house, except for the exterior.
As she walked the distance to the university, she gazed up at the sky. She did this often, sometimes allowing her mind to wander. She wondered, with a certain sense of longing, if maybe somewhere, her parents were staring up into the same cobalt atmosphere, thinking of her too.
The house she had lived in for nearly eighteen years now still felt as foreign as it had the first day she arrived. The brick steps, the flaking grey paint, the unkempt garden - all of these things seemed familiar, but none quite like home. Everyone had been warm to her - warm enough, at least. But, there was always a distance, a certain coldness and barrier that had never been broken. At this point, she speculated, it was too late to do much about that. The Hopper family had been good - charitable, even - putting a roof over her head and food in her mouth when it would have been just as easy to leave her in the care of an orphanage after a while. But, they never seemed like her family. Her family was somewhere else - or maybe they were nowhere at all.
She climbed the front stone steps of the university, opening the great oak doors with some sense of awe. The ceilings arched high, and it felt almost regal - a place she didn't feel worthy of being, in one way or another. She found Robert quickly, exchanging a few short words and the envelope before turning to leave.
On her way out, she noted how her shoes made a faint clacking noise on the hard stone floor. She liked this, somehow - it made her feel important, like someone with a presence, not just a young woman on an errand. The walls were lined with framed paintings and maps - all of which seemed old, but no less intriguing.
As she reached the oak doors again, she passed by a man and a young woman - both of which looked oddly familiar. She could've sworn she knew them from somewhere. Before she could remember from where she knew them, they had vanished around a corner, and she decided it best not to try to follow them.
As she had looked forward to, on the way back to the Hopper's house, she passed by her friend's house - a lovely girl she had known from her later years of schooling. They hadn't spoken in depth in some time, but the pleasantries they exchanged in passing were always welcome. She ascended the few small steps quickly, knocking on the door softly a few times. A young, stalky girl in a blue dress came to the door, opening it a bit. "Oh! Maria, of all people, I didn't know you'd be stopping by."
"Neither did I, actually," she said, smiling sheepishly "I was just on my way back from an errand and I figured I could stop by and say hello."
"Well, you're in luck," the girl said, clasping her hands together excitedly, "We have some exciting news."
"We? And, by news, do you mean gossip?"
"Oh, don't be silly," her friend laughed, ushering Maria inside. "Come in, come in - Vera is in the other room, too. We'll both tell you."
How odd, she thought, she hadn't seen this girl or Vera in ages, much less sat down and talked with them, and off all times, now was the time they all serendipitously converged in one place. Maria followed her friend to the sitting room, where her friend Vera, a tall young woman with short cropped brown hair and mousy features sat on a couch. "Maria! Joy didn't tell me that you were coming by, too!" she exclaimed.
"I just showed up, it wasn't planned," she chuckled, sitting down on one of the chairs that was positioned around a small table. "But, I hear talk of some news. Let's hear it, then."
Joy seemed in her element - quite an enthusiastic storyteller, even if the stories did border on gossip sometimes. "Do you remember Jane, from school? Jane Porter?"
The two other young women nodded. "Are you sure this isn't gossip?" Maria only half joked. She had been friends with Jane some years ago - all of them had - but with her going off to university, and the three of them parting ways to some extent, they hadn't seen each other in quite some years.
"Oh, hush. I saw her the other day, and you'll never imagine what she told me. You know her father, the professor, the one who studies monkeys-"
"Gorillas, actually," Maria interjected. She knew Jane's father well, having been friends with Jane, but also having had a great interest in studying exotic plants in school.
"Oh, isn't it all the same?" Joy giggled, shooting a glance towards Vera, who laughed as well. "Anyways, she told me - and you'll never believe this - that her father is actually going to study them…in Africa. And she's joining him."
"Joining him?" Vera gasped, somewhat incredulously. Joy nodded. "That's no place for a lady, you know."
"Quite. I don't know what they expect to find, anyways."
"Daddy?" Jane said, readjusting the stack of books in her arms as they entered her father's office, "That girl back there, she looked ever so familiar, don't you think?"
"Mm, yes, she did," the old professor replied, setting his briefcase down on his desk, "But, wherever would we know her from...oh, goodness, my mind escapes me."
"I've got it!" Jane exclaimed, "I went to school with her. Maria, that's her name. Goodness, Daddy, how could I have forgotten her? We were friends. But, granted, we haven't seen each other in ages, but still. My word."
Leaving the topic behind, Archimedes unfurled a large map on an old, rickety easel, securing it with pins. "So, I've consulted with the captain of the ship and the crew - lovely fellows, really - and our journey from the port in Southampton, to about...say, here," he said, tracing his index finger to a point on the western African coast, "Should take, oh, a month, maybe two. And, I negotiated a bit, and we can leave in a week."
Jane's eyes lit up with excitement. "Oh, this is wonderful! I didn't think the funding would ever come. I'm so excited." She clasped her hands together excitedly, studying the map more closely.
"Indeed, indeed," her father said, "The department doesn't normally give funding so generously. I think it's a sign, Janey, this is going to be an important expedition."
"I do hope so."