As sisters, only one was beautiful even though they both looked the same. Same eyes, same color of hair, same cheekbones and coloring, same shaped mouth but rearranged just enough to make a difference. It was the youngest with slightly plumper feature – bigger eyes and a bow-shaped mouth – that stood out. It was enough to make her stunning and stirring. Eye-catching. On the other, it made her fade easily into the background.
As boys, being able to hide in front of people served Jane well – the ability to hide amongst the other boys who wanted the first-mate to notice their hard work, their diligence, their worthiness for promotion. Not Jane. Any attention was potentially dangerous. She stood with hunched shoulders that caved into her chest, a bow in her back, a flock of hair covering her left eye and foppishly covered the scar along her ear. Too tall for a girl – how she stood out in camps and towns amongst the girls her own age who were easily a foot shorter – she was perfectly sized as a boy. Eye-to-eye with most of them and taller than some. Gangly and stretched out as a boy, the cook was first to say Jane needed some meat on her bones and wouldn’t this little bit extra of fair pudding be just the thing. As a girl, other girls commented on her lack of breasts, of hips. “Why, you’re very much like my brother,” Lotte Ramqvist told her in Stockton. “In time,” was all Jane’s mother said mysteriously.
What Jane lacked as a girl, Bea made up for it doubly. Shapely and full up top, she’d developed breasts at age 11 that she was embarrassed of. Leering men, gaping boys – even the pastor in Lincoln stared down at them. Finding a strip of rag from a forgotten skirt in Denver, she called Jane into her tent, lifted her dress and told her sister to do what she could to hide the embarrassments away. “Tighter,” Bea commanded. “You can still see them.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Tighter!” Bea ordered again, the word coming out as a hiss.
“Surely you can’t breathe,” Jane said, turning Bea to face her.
“I’m fine,” Bea said in measured breaths, and pulled her dress down, satisfied by how the bodice ran loosely down now, her breasts no longer pressing against the seams and above the hem.
“Bea,” Jane said, “Are you sure?”
“Stop worrying about me,” she said and left the tent like a shot.
So as a boy aboard ship, she’d already had years of hiding away what made her so obviously a girl. Continuing to do it surrounded by men and boys was merely a trick done easily and with experience in her bunk with no one the wiser, including Jane.
But as a boy with bow-shaped lips and large doe eyes, men stared at her as she passed – something not quite right but rather unsettling about the boy. They’d crane their necks and blink, muttering. Her hands were too soft, her complexion too fair. Her cheeks bloomed into dark pink roses in the cold, in the wind. And she wasn’t strong like Jane, who seemed to Bea to move easily and confidently amongst the men and boys aboard the ship. Bea tried to square her shoulders, lift up her chin, look the others in the eye as she passed or was given an order but that just resulted in a fight with one of the other boys who punched her in the jaw and laughed as she fell like a sack to the deck.
Had it been the first time she’d been punched, she probably would have stayed down and cried there, looking for Jane in the crowd to pull her up and come to her aid. But they’d talked about this in San Francisco, like they did all sorts of eventualities and what to do. Instead of searching for Jane, she got up, head down, and walked away, knowing well enough to not run. Prey runs, their mother used to say.
While Jane as John fit right in, Bea as Ben remained an outsider – neither fish nor fowl. The other boys didn’t invite him to the table and often shied away from helping the oddity during their shared watch. Jane had offers of assistance in pulling the small balls off the ropes or mopping the deck. It usually came by way of other boys quietly sharing the space with her and taking up whatever work she was performing, none of them talking or acknowledging the generosity of the effort.
But as a boy, Bea came back from her watch exhausted from the back breaking work. Her clothes sweat-stained, her hands blistered, red and raw, and bruises on her forearms and shins.
The cook gave Jane extra hardtack. “Aye, young John, you’ll get muscles yet, another year a’ sea, you’ll see. I wasn’t much more of age than you when I first came aboard and look at me,” he said, patting his round tummy. But to Bea he was stony-faced and silent. With a wary look in his eye, he handed over a bowl of porridge and motioned her away.
“Somethin’ queer ’bout him,” he said to the cabin boy, shaking his head.
Superstitious by nature, the sailors were wary of anything or anyone that might cast a bad spell on their voyage. Omens of misfortune included Finns who brought bad weather with them, dolphins who could still the wind so the ship wouldn’t move for a week – stuck down in place like a butterfly pinned to a collector’s board. Purple in the sky was surely a sign of a storm that could sink them. A strange-looking and –acting boy? It was a sign of something, they whispered, but of just what, they didn’t know.
As Bea had been the family favorite, the camp darling, the chosen companion of new girls wherever they went, Jane took a small, secret pride in switching places. For once she was the bonny companion sought after to play dice or checkers before falling asleep. A small smile on her lips whenever one of the ship’s boys came to her aid. But the toll this switch had on Bea was had to see.
“Are you okay?” Jane would whisper to her sister when their watches ended and they could meet again in their dark, swinging berths.
“Fine,” Bea would say, sometimes too sharply.
After particularly sharp replies, Jane would call up, “There’s a little time before four bells. Just enough time for the next passage.”
Bea would sigh and decline. “It’s not enough time,” she’d say, shifting her weight in the hammock.
“It’s enough if you come down now.” And she’d wait until first Bea’s feet appeared, then her legs they her torso as her arms followed last into Jane’s berth. Bea’s whole body moving smoothly and surely like the large gray silver fish they’d seen.
Waiting for Bea on Jane’s lap would be the dog-eared and much-read copy of Voyage of the Beagle.
“Has he arrived at Tierra del Fuego yet?” Jane would ask to coax her moody, frustrated and exhausted sister.
“No,” Bea would snap and grab the book from Jane and open it to where Jane had placed the mark from last time. Then she’d begin. Jane would move her lips, reciting the sentences as her sister read aloud, trying to keep her voice level and low, like a boy’s. Soon, their heads would naturally gravitate toward one another and the two would remain entwined as one book-reading creature. Oblivious of the ship’s boys passing by or the other sailors who pretended not to be bound up by the pair’s reading, or the observations set out by the author, tuned in to particular passages when they themselves had been to that named place and rousing to complain that the coast didn’t look like that, the people didn’t act like that, the weather wasn’t like that when they were there.
When the bells announced the next watch, Jane would take the book gently from Bea’s grip, replace the mark for next time, and stow the book under her pillow. Then she’d silently steel away to mop, to pull balls off ropes, to whatever work there was, turning back to see her sister scramble quickly up to her berth until just the flash of the soles of her feet remained. Then nothing.
[Wait a minute? What’s this about? This might explain it.]
[Photo credit: Paul David Gibson]