The screaming of the dying sailors woke me again and again. Their harsh voices permeated my dreams, dragging my little lifeboat down to the depths. It was hours before I realized the screaming came from hungry gulls and not the damned. The late summer sun burned hot above me.
We’d been close to Les Iles, but I saw nothing but open sea around me. With the sun directly overhead, I couldn’t be sure which way was shore. I didn’t want to risk paddling further from shore. Hours later, I was hungry and parched, but the setting sun gave me the direction I needed to paddle weakly North toward Marsaille.
Night fell and I was torn between continuing North or trying to sleep as much as I could, and risk drifting in the night. If I kept paddling in the dark, I’d be fighting waves that would turn me about with no way to recall North. If I slept, the same waves could pull me back to where I’d started, or worse. I hadn’t learned to navigate by the stars as the Captain could. By full dark my skin was hot and tight, and my mind clouded. I had no choice but to risk sleep.
I dreamed of Sylvie. I was back at the Hotel Bessette, and Sylvie was sitting on the edge of the bed. She slowly turned toward me. Her mouth fell open, and from it issued thousands of inhuman screams in unholy concert. The gulls were relentless. Still, their presence meant I had not drifted far from shore. Their screeching cries cut through my tortured mind like blades, but they promised land, and I was grateful.
The second morning my skin was blistered and sore, and the sun on my face was excruciating. I tried to ignore the pain, but by midday I couldn’t bear it. After hesitation, I stripped off my shirt and dunked it in the sea, draping the blessedly cool cloth over my head and shoulders like a veil. The salt stung my blisters, but the sunlight had weighed on my tender skin like a millstone. I wished I had not lost all my belongings. If I’d had a skirt in addition to the trousers I wore, I could drape that over me rather than baring my breasts, back, and arms to the sun.
By the third day, it didn’t matter. Even the skin of my thighs, covered always by the sailcloth breeches, were pink and tender. I’d had to pull my shirt back on to cover my burned chest and back.
By the fourth day, I couldn’t row anymore. I could barely move. My mind and body burned. After the fourth sunrise, I remember very little. I think it was that day that it rained. I was lying face-down in the boat and was able to lap up the rainwater that collected in the bottom of the boat. It tasted of the sea, but I drank all that I could get, and that one wet day likely saved my life.
Not knowing for sure the date on which I sank the Lionfish, I will never know for sure how many days I drifted in the Mediterranean. I remember nothing after the rain.
When I woke next, the light from the sun no longer burned. The screaming was gone. The world was curiously still. As I returned slowly to full thought, I realized I was in an unfamiliar bed, with sunlight filtering through curtained windows. My throat was dry, but my skin not nearly as tight nor hot as before. I moved carefully out of bed, finding that my sailor’s clothes had been replaced by a lady’s shift. The fabric was soft, but the lightest pressure on my burned skin made me wince.
I walked gingerly to the bedroom door. The room was larger than any of the bedrooms at the Hotel Bessette, and I’d been lying on a plush feather bed. Where was I?
The door led to a corridor. A woman standing in the hall looked up when I opened the door and hurried toward me.
“Please, madame, where am I?” I croaked.
“Madamoiselle, perhaps you will be more comfortable in bed,” she responded. She all but chased me back into bed, but I managed to ask her for some water before she disappeared, closing the door behind her. What a strange woman to have brought me into her home and then refuse to speak to me.
The water was delivered not by the woman from the hallway, but a man.
“Thank you, monsieur,” I said. “I wanted to thank your wife, but she ran away.”
“Not my wife, mon coeur. The maid,” he corrected. Of course. Why hadn’t I seen it right away? He was dressed far more finely than she had been. I must not be entirely back to normal. “It is good to see you awake. You had us all very worried.”
I drank greedily of the water, though it hurt terribly to swallow.
“Thank you, then,” I said after draining the cup.
“It is nothing, minette. You are kin. We’re just so grateful to have you home and safe.”
What did he mean? Did I know this man? He left shortly thereafter to let me rest, but the servant from the hallway returned a little later with a bowl of broth. She was still resistant to questioning, insisting stubbornly that I should rest. She asked if I would like more broth, and fussed over my blankets, and did not look me in the eye. I wondered how, even in my groggy state, I could have mistaken this browbeaten maid for the lady of the house. I eventually followed the directions of the nagging servant and allowed myself to put off the mystery of my whereabouts until tomorrow.
Tomorrow brought a new surprise. A man of around twenty came into the room and stood over my bed, gazing down at me as I might appraise a hen at market. He smiled, but I was uncomfortable with his scrutiny.
“Monsieur,” I protested groggily, “I am not properly dressed.” No worse than when yesterday’s visitor had come in, but he’d barely looked at me.
“No matter,” he said frankly. “You are my wife after all.” The man took a chair from beside the bed and shifted it so that it faced away a bit. “If it makes you happy, mon amour, I will look out the window instead.”
“Wait… you said I was your… your…”
“My wife… Oh of course, nobody’s told you. When you were recovered from the sea, we were married. You were asleep of course, so it was by proxy on your part,” he explained cheerfully, all the while intently staring out the window.
“Because we were engaged, of course. Did the Earl not tell you why you were being sent to us? When your ship was lost, you missed the wedding. We thought you were dead. When we found you, we were all so relieved. Father insisted that we marry at once.”
My head spun. Who did he think I was? Surely in my bedraggled, burned state I couldn’t have resembled his noble fiancé.
“When you’re well enough, we’ll leave Fos-sur-Mer and travel to our cottage in Bordeaux. Word has been sent to your father regarding your recovery and our nuptials. He’ll be so glad to hear that you’ve been returned to us.”
The mention of “my” father pushed me over the edge.
“Monsieur,” I began. The man laughed.
“You are my wife,” he said. “You must call me Nicolas.”
“I am not your-” He cut me off, joviality disappeared. He was standing over me again, and looking right in my eyes.
“You are. You are Anne Stewart. Well, Anne Savard now. You are my wife. Your ship was lost at sea, but by the grace of God you were spared and returned to us. You have suffered terrible fever and you have forgotten who you are. But you will remember.”
His speech startled me, but I had not forgotten. I was not Anne Stewart. I was not his lady wife. I was a whorechild, a pirate, and a murderer.
Nicolas composed himself and bent over me, kissing me lightly on the forehead.
“Rest now, mon cœur,” He said, and he walked out.
I would learn that Nicolas Savard, Anne’s husband, was the son of Lord Archaimbau Savard. Both Archaimbau and his late wife had grown up in the court of the Sun King. The family, although wealthy, was somewhat fallen. The Savard patriarch had abandoned courtly life to attend to cosmopolitan trade, committing Nicolas and now, I suppose, me, to life at the family’s remote vineyard.
Anne herself had been imported from the English court, an obscure Stuart cousin who would bring prestige–not to mention a substantial dowry–to revitalize the house of Savard. Everyone praised my excellent French, and it was all I could do to play along and thank them. I had not decided yet whether to embrace this strange shadow life. It promised to be the most luxurious of my reincarnations, but I felt odd playing the ghost of another shipwrecked girl.