The letter was unreadable, save for the last few words.
“Whatcha got there?” The baritone voice sounded god-like from on-high, coming from above the lip of the trench where Jessie Valdez was crouching, insulated from the construction noise.
“Beats me,” he hollered over his shoulder and held his find up high, like an offering. “The last scoop from the back hoe had this thing in it.” Jessie held what looked like a broken wine bottle in one hand and several sheets of grayish-looking paper rolled into a tight cylinder in the other. “The bottle busted open and I picked this thing up. Here, take a look.”
The shadow moved two paces to the right getting a better look at Jessie’s find and revealed itself to be the site foreman and family representative of Davis Construction. Brian Davis was one of five nephews to Russell Davis, founder of the company. Being just a nephew, and not immediate family, Brian felt he had to work hard to impress the boss. He wasn’t about to let construction stop on a multi-million dollar project simply to inquire into every interesting piece of garbage uncovered by his foundation crew. This however, was not garbage. This was unusual and worth a second look.
Russell loved antiques, so Brian was always looking for anything unusual in local antique shops or on the job site. Long ago, pride took a back seat to staying in good standing with Russell. He wasn’t above bribing the old man every so often with a knick-knack as a way of getting plum assignments. Here on the southern Atlantic coast of Florida, you never knew what you’d find in the sand. Russell had boasted over one Thanksgiving aperitif that during his first housing project a few miles south of Key Largo, his construction crew dug up a ship’s bell from a schooner named “The Three Sisters.” It had sold for a small fortune when it went up for auction. Three sheets of paper and a busted wine bottle might not fetch more than pennies, but they would surely impress old Russell.
Best be careful, Brian thought. Until their true value was determined, he was going to treat these things as if they were made of gold. Brian pulled off his sweaty gloves and wiped his hands on the cleanest spot of his denim shirt. Taking the tight spirals of paper from Jessie, he carefully unrolled the paper. The document looked old, no doubt about it. There were water stains covering the paper and over time the words written upon them had leeched away. Only the last few words were legible—though not in a language Brian recognized. “Således slutar min sista vilja och testamente. Undertecknat, Joanna Hård.” Joanna, a woman’s name; the penmanship was in a tight hard script, obviously written in a tiny hand.
“Jessie, collect as much of that bottle as you can find and bring it up to the foreman’s shack.” Brian could just as easily have been talking to thin air. He was so preoccupied with the papers that he almost fell back into the foundation trench. As intrigued as he was, Brian was just as glad it was a broken bottle and not a bone. Ten years earlier, an apartment development just outside the Brighton Indian Reservation was stalled for six weeks while the Sheriff’s department and the Seminole nation gathered evidence and argued over a human thigh bone; trying to discover who it once was, and how it got on the job site. DNA evidence revealed that it belonged to an accident victim who, twenty-five years earlier, had wandered away from his car, presumably in shock from a crash, and died of his injuries fifty yards from the road in a thicket of bushes. As long as all his back hoe was going to uncover was artifacts like this, Brian didn’t have to worry about getting the job done on time. He recalled when the surveyors were on-site staking out the lots, they mentioned that over time the beaches in this area had silted over, creating the very land he stood upon. During the Revolutionary war, this spot was two feet into the surf and was beach-front property during the Civil War; today, it was the future site of a 2.3 million-dollar home.
The bottle that Jessie had brought to the shack had broken into 3 main pieces: the neck, where remnants of a heavy wax seal were still visible in thick grayish blobs. The second piece was a heavy ring of jagged glass which made the bottle’s base, and finally, what looked to be the label side, covered with raised writing. All the other pieces were shards and flecks of blue green glass.
Grabbing his camera, he returned to the lot 26 where the back hoe had unearthed the broken bottle. He took a series of photographs to document the site and the surrounding area. You never know, he thought; best to document everything. If this letter, if that’s what it was, turned out to be something, he was determined to thoroughly document the find. That evening he rang up an old friend who had an antique shop in San Francisco and spoke for a long time once the photographs of the find arrived via email. The bottle was made of a bluish clear glass, apparently hand-blown into a mold of some kind, creating the raised lettering that might have read ‘Newcastle England.’ This was an easy mystery to solve his friend said, “English Beer.” English brewery records, and the Internet, identified the bottle as coming from the G. Eland Company of Newcastle sometime in the 19th century. The papers though, his friend continued, were impossible to identify from the pictures. He advised Brian to take them to the University of West Florida and have someone from the archeology department examine them.
The following Monday he was bobbing in a small watercraft in the middle of Pensacola Bay. His contact at the University was overseeing the documentation of a Spanish shipwreck that could possibly date back as far as 1599, predating the Jamestown settlement by nearly a decade. With his find in a briefcase, Brian transferred over to a small barge in the middle of the bay that was acting as the nerve center of the shipwreck dive. The sun was directly overhead, creating blinding reflections as the light danced off of the water and every reflective surface between Brian and the horizon. Neatly laid out on the deck were various pieces of diving gear, coolers, and half a dozen students engaged in various activities ranging from taking cat naps to creating 3D models of the shipwreck on software developed by NASA. They looked like junior high kids, Brian thought, not old enough to be working on their Master’s degree in aquatic archeology. For a moment, Brian felt his age. At the far end of the barge was a big white tent with the near flap rolled up and a couple of fans running at high speed in an effort to cool the occupants.
The seated man inside the tent, directing everything, had to be his contact, Dr. Glenn Peavey. Peavey glanced up at Brian, dismissed him in an instant as someone unimportant and went right back to his charts. Brian called out to him and introduced himself as the “guy with the message in a bottle,” this time getting his attention.
“Ah, Davis. Sorry, I thought you were with the University. They’re always sending someone from the Chancellor’s office out here to keep an eye on how I’m spending their grant money. Underwater archeology is very expensive, you know.” Spying the briefcase, Peavey changed the subject. “Let’s see what you have there.” Brian handed over the briefcase and Peavey pushed aside his charts and laid the briefcase on the table. Inside, wrapped as he had been told, were the papers and the shards of the bottle. Peavey put on a pair of cotton gloves, unrolled the delicate sheets and held each one up to the sunlight. From where Brian was standing, even he could make out the faint splotches of handwriting on each page.
“This is good, quite good in fact,” the professor said to no one in particular.” Between infrared, chemical stains, and handwriting algorithms, we should be able to get most of this letter.” Peavey was holding a sheet of the fragile paper directly overhead with his nose almost pressed against it. “It’s obviously not Spanish or Portuguese, which adds to the mystery. We’ll photograph the line that is still legible and circulate it amongst the language arts faculty and see if they can identify it. The name “Joanna” helps place the author in northern Europe I would say, but I’ll defer to the multi-lingual.” Peavey gave Brian a smirk that said his last statement was an inside joke that Brian should have gotten.” The bottle will help a great deal. Just from the photos and surveyors’ notes you sent regarding the site, I’d say we’re looking at artifacts that date somewhere between 1800 and 1875.”
“Is that good?” Brian had no idea. His favorite subject in school had been chasing girls, not history. He began to work in the family construction business right out of high school and never had the time, or the inclination, for college. Usually, he held college-educated people in mild contempt unless they worked for him and then it was typically outright disdain. As far as he was concerned, Peavey was a means-to-an-end yet he would hold his contempt in check until he had no more need of him.
Peavey shrugged. “It’s all good as far as I’m concerned. I’m a hands-on historian. It doesn’t matter to me whether this turns out to be a grocery list or the first draft of the Magna Carta, it’s living history, and we get to touch and …,” holding the paper close to his face once more, inhaled deeply, “smell history! What could be better than that?” His enthusiasm was contagious and Brian could feel how easy it would be to get swept up in this mystery. Peavey gently placed the papers back into the briefcase and suggested they return to his office and get the lab working on their analysis as quickly as possible. “We’re lucky. Its summer semester and we’re a few weeks away from fall registration. We should be able to hog the big computer without the engineering students flipping out.” Peavey again gave Brian that smirky look. This time, however, it was more playful, as if life were an enormous joke to enjoy. The two men sat silently shrouded in their individual thoughts as a student piloted a skiff back to the main campus. Both Brian and Peavey were leaning over the side, enjoying the misty cool breeze that provided momentary respite from the hot Florida sun.
Once in Peavey’s lab, the two men began their examination with the sheet of paper that they were able to read. Brian carefully peeled it away from the others, and the two gently unrolled it on a light table. The table was about 24 inches square and about 4 inches deep. “What we’ll do is photograph each sheet with polarized, infrared, and ultraviolet light. We’ll digitize each image and run it through a recognition algorithm on the big computer.” Peavey was in his element, skimming the room on a stool, flipping levers and tweaking knobs, reminding Brian of the great and powerful Oz. Brian might have been on the moon for as much attention as Peavey paid him. In just over an hour all the pages had been subjected to the same examination. All that was now left to do, Peavey said, was to wait overnight and see what the big computer came up with.
Much to Brian’s surprise, he invited Peavey to dinner and the two shared personal histories and good wine well into the night. They parted company as if they were old friends, reunited for the first time in decades. Without Brian realizing it, Peavey had transitioned from a snooty college-boy to a genuinely curious fellow who enjoyed learning anything new and, as Brian discovered, was simply fun to be around. When Brian entered Peaveys office the following morning, he was a little worse for the wine, but Peavey looked more energized than ever.
“Brian, everything came back from the lab. The infrared images produced a great copy of the document. The overnight crew fed the data through the computer a few times and between the electronic translator and some colleagues in Stockholm we got what we think is a great translation.”
“Stockholm?” Brian was unsure the he heard correctly.
“Yea. Turns out your document is in Swedish, as well as being fairly interesting to boot.” Brian gave the archeologist a quizzical look and in reply he was handed a printed translation as well as Peavey’s patented “You ain’t seen nothing yet” look.
The farm was dying. It was following Sven to the grave. Sven, my husband, died when the wagon’s axle broke and it rolled over on him. The weight of the wagon suffocated him in the gully where no one could hear his cries for help. Anders found Sven in the early evening as he was coming in late from the fields. The horse was still hitched and his bleating was horrible, having broken a hind leg. He was mad with pain and had to be destroyed. It was then that Anders found Sven beyond any assistance from this world. Losing Sven and the horse dealt a mortal blow to the farm. Winter was upon us and we weren’t going to be able to bring in enough hay to keep the cows alive through spring. It was a most desperate time. After the farmhands had laid Sven in the ground and the words read over him, I spent my days weeping alone in the Master’s room. October had turned cold and the rains became the season’s first snow. It was four days with Sven gone when I heard a knock at my door.
“Ma’am, we need to talk.” It was Anders, the farm foreman. I dried my eyes and came out into the kitchen. The three farmhands had stoked the hearth, and through the flickering orange light I could see Anders, his brother Christian and Sven’s nephew Carl, the youngest at 17. With Sven gone, we four were all who remained on the farm.
“Evening ma’am,” Christian, the oldest, spoke for the group. “There’s no hope for the farm, ma’am. You best think of moving on. That is what we desire to do, having felt black winter invade our soul. We took a vote this morning and on Monday next we will book passage on the ferry and head for the mainland. Perhaps finding work in Göteborg, or perhaps ride over land and arrive in Stockholm before the roads ice over.”
Anders continued, “That is our intention. Begging your pardon, Ma’am, but you should consider joining us. We think you should sell the livestock, come across the sea, and move in with what family you have. This farm is at an end and if we stay, it will claim us all.”
Though he never said it plainly, Sven had known it was well. I could feel it within him as we lay together in the darkest of nights .
I looked into the eyes of Anders and Christian and saw the truth in what was spoken. Though the fire was stoked and provided light and warmth, Carl stood shivering in the flickering light. I retired into my room and produced Sven’s coat, giving it to the lad. There was no fight left in me. The farm was Sven’s life and Sven was mine. With him gone the farm meant nothing to me, so I agreed to leave, letting the island claim the land, and with these three cross over to the mainland on Monday next. Jorgensen, our neighbor to north, took pity on me and bought the three cows and goat. I got 36 riksdaler for the livestock and paid what was due to Anders, Christian and Carl. With the remaining 22 riksdaler, I could travel by carriage to Stockholm if need be or pass the winter in Göteborg. The next Monday, we booked passage on the vessel, Frau Mette, southward bound along the coast. We would be at sea for three days and two nights. I had a small cabin and the men stayed in the common room. Our second evening at sea was when desperation took a turn and we four descended into hell.
We were all below deck, in the common room. The air was heavy with tobacco and sweat from years upon the sea. I was seated near the steps that lead to the upper deck so I might catch a breath of fresh air whenever the hatch was opened. Anders, Christian, and Carl were sitting around a table with one of the five sailors of the Frau Mette when their conversation focused my attention.
“Do not deceive me, young one. I know you pocketed the silver! All three of you are in league against me!” The boat hand’s back was toward me so I could not see the murder in his eyes. I could see Christian, and he was astonished by this accusation and struck dumb by the implication. Anders reached across the table to reassure the boat hand when the hard-hearted blaggard drew a knife from his breast pocket and lunged across the table at Carl. The action threw all four men to the deck as Carl fended off his attacker as well as he was able. Anders, being the first to recover and the strongest of the three, struck a blow against the deck hand’s head with an iron poker used to tend the cook’s fire. He fell lifeless to the ground on top of Carl, who had to struggle to get out from underneath the still man.
“For the love of God, I did not mean to do that!” Anders cried out.
“Never mind that now. The rest of them sailors will flay us like snared deer if we are found out. Best to save ourselves.” It was Christian who hatched the foul plan, “We need to take the boat. We need to rid this vessel of this man’s kin,” said he. Anders still had fire in his eyes, which gave tacit approval of the plan. Carl, the youngest, always willing to do the others bidding, did not object. I sat mute and watched these three decide my fate. I dared not speak up against them as it was obvious demons possessed them all. I could not look upon any of them as they plotted their crime. When they drew past me on their way up to the deck, I reached out and held onto Christian’s coat to deter him. It was here when the devil loosed my grip and Christian slipped above sealing the fate of us all. I cowered in the corner of my cabin within the Frau Mette, praying to God that I was seen as no threat to these murderous three and that I would live to see the morning’s light. After the deed was done, the three turned the boat around and followed a northerly, then easterly route around the Danish coast, bound for Scotland or Ireland if our provisions held. No words passed between us for the rest of our voyage, as no words could be enough salve upon this wound.
On the evening of the third day, we approached the Brittany coast and headed north in search of port. Shortly after spying the coast, the Frau Mette was overtaken by a naval frigate and the vessel boarded. Much consternation ensued as none of us spoke English and they did not speak Swedish. A pilot and five armed marines were left aboard as we were escorted into Kingston-upon-Hull for questioning. It was only later that I learned that winds on the North Sea pushed us further south than anyone realized.
I do not know where the men stayed during our questioning. I suspect it was behind bars in some secure location within the naval base. I had a room inside the Admiralty office, which was plain by English standards, yet was very luxurious compared to the farm. It was obvious that I was under guard, as whenever I left my room two armed sailors carefully watched my every movement. On the third day we were reunited for the first time and introduced to Lars Norgaard. He had come from London, where he represented the Crown within the English court. It would be his duty to interpret for us in the coming days. A fortnight later, a representative of the Frau Mette’s owners arrived and the real questioning began.
On our twentieth day in the hands of the British, we were escorted into a windowless room for trial. Three officers acting as judges sat at a long table at one end of the room. Twenty men from the village sat behind us. Anders, Christian, and Carl sat at a smaller table facing the three judges. I was told to sit at a table next to Norgaard along one side of the room. On the opposite wall sat the man representing the company who owned the Frau Mette, with several officers of less important rank. One at a time each officer stood, spoke to the judges, then provoked Carl, Anders, and Christian to each tell the story of that dark night. Norgaard translated their words into English. Carl, being the youngest, spoke first.
“It was either our lives or theirs,” he said. “All our fates were sealed the moment I entered into the dice game with the hot-tempered sailor. After he fell in the struggle we went silently on deck upon that moonless night, Christian ahead of Anders, and I behind. “Mrs Hård, being a good woman of faith, stayed below and prayed for our souls and all those aboard the Frau Mette. There were five of them on deck, the sixth – lying still in the common room. There was no actual plan other than to take each by surprise and dispatch them, one by one into the sea. It was horrible, and the devil’s work, to be sure. All during that night, I was certain I would be following them into the water as it was I, and the dice, that compelled such actions.” After he spoke, Norgaard repeated the statement in English, and as he finished there was an audible gasp from the gallery as details of the murderous plan was revealed to all.
The young man was fully aware that his fate was already sealed and he had nothing more to lose by shrouding the truth. He continued, “The captain and first mate were manning the wheel and the closest to the cabin hatch. Christian had the boat-hand’s blade and Anders kept the iron poker. They struck simultaneously and both men fell still upon the deck. I lashed their legs and hands together as I was instructed while these two continued afore-deck. I did not witness the fate of the two foredeck hands, but I bound their extremities as I had with the others. The final witness who could speak against us was up mast in the lookout seat. Christian climbed aloft and set upon this poor soul on his own. Anders bade me to cast the sailors over, and I did as he commanded, fearing that I too would be struck with his iron poker. Only Christian can speak of the lookout, as neither Anders nor I were privy to the event. Christian and I collected the body of the sailor from below deck and sent him to join his mates. Within an hour’s time only the four of us remained aboard the Frau Mette and Anders turned the ship northward, than east.”
This was the first time I myself had heard what transpired that awful night, and it was even more horrific than I imagined. Anders was compelled to speak next. “What the boy tells you is true. His part came at the end of a knife point. Spare this lad, for what he says is God’s truth. As for me, I know my fate and I have nothing more to say.” Anders refused to say more dispite entreaties to do otherwise. Christian said much the same, and though it seemed that the trio had conspired to tell this story, no fault or deception could be found by the British. Lars Norgaard later told me that Anders and Christian had decided that they would sacrifice themselves to save Carl. Each of them would testify before God that it was they, and they alone, who were responsible. When Christian spoke, he told much the same story as Anders, and only added that he caught the lookout unawares and threw him off in a single mighty heave before the lad knew what was happening. Within that hour Anders, Christian, and Carl learned their fate. Twenty years in a Stockholm prison for Carl. For Anders and Christian, according to Swedish law, they would return to Sweden only to lose their heads in executions within sight of the royal palace.
I was free to go… but where? All my possessions were confiscated when the Frau Mette was boarded. I was in a country where I knew no one and spoke no word of English. Without having to say this, Lars Norgaard invited me to share his carriage back to London, for we both knew that I could not return to Sweden. My association with convicted pirates would assure my ostracism and eventual starvation. Norgaard advised me that once in London he would see to it that I had a job of some kind. Norgaard was as good as his word, for within a fortnight of arriving in London I was placed as a scullery maid for the Eland company tavern in Newcastle.
For six years I cleaned and mended linen, scrubbed floors, and cleaned up after drunken patrons in the tavern whilst saving every shilling I could until I had enough to book passage to the colony in the Bahamas. It was there I hoped to start a new life, perhaps even begin a farm. Every night for those six years I wept for my dear Sven, knowing how he would grieve my situation. I also wept for the Carl, chained to some prison wall and for the souls of Anders and Christian. May their souls find peace. There will never be peace for me, for I relive that fateful night, every night. I know I might have clung tighter to Christian’s coat, or found my voice and pleaded to save all aboard that doomed ship.
Tonight for the second time in my life, I find myself in harm’s way upon the sea. I am below deck on the trade vessel, Cahill’s Promise. The ship brings goods to the Bahamas in exchange for the cedar wood that grows upon its shores. As I write this, a terrible gale has unleashed its anger upon Cahill’s Promise. I have heard the horrible sound of timbers rending themselves to splinters. Sailors are shouting to one another that our main mast has been smashed and we are now at the mercy of the storm. The fear is we are nigh upon the shoals surrounding the island with no way to avoid them.
If tonight be my last, let my final thoughts be with Sven, as they have been every night since I first looked upon his kind eyes and saw his loving heart. Let me also pray for the souls of the Frau Mette and of the crew of Cahill’s Promise.
Thus ends my last will and testament.
Signed Joanna Hård.
Brian let out a long, low whistle as he leaned back in his chair. It’s not often you get a glimpse into the life of someone who died nearly 200 years before, probably in an Atlantic hurricane while at sea. He looked at Peavey and asked him to put it into perspective.
“First thing it means is we have a lot of information that we didn’t have before. We now know what happened aboard the Frau Mette in 1823. This document helps fill in the historical record. Joanna Hård is known as the one, and only, female pirate from Sweden; an undeserved title it would seems. It was assumed she took part in the mutiny aboard the Frau Mette but was never tried due to a lack of evidence. Now we know she was simply an innocent bystander. What she says about the three others is accurate, though. She probably never learned that Carl Börjesson died in prison. After the trial, Joanna Hård was lost to history. Now with this letter we know how long she stayed in England, and where. We also know that she went to the Bahamas in 1829.” Brain could hear a bit of excitement in Peavey’s voice as he now had something no one else in the world had – new information.
“… and what happened to Cahill’s Promise? Did she and Joanna make it to the Bahamas all right?”
Peavey shrugged. “Well, let’s see,” He reached behind him for the second of three bound volumes of The History of Mid-Atlantic Maritime Commerce and flipped through it, eventually reading a passage. Brian could see the blood drain from Peaveys face and his expression fade. In a few seconds he spun the book around for Brian to read.
“Lost on Bimini’s west coast, 16 November, 1829, Cahill’s Promise. All hands and cargo lost. Suspected to have floundered in an intense storm.”
Brian slumped back into his chair and the two men gazed in silence at each other. After a few moments, Peavey reached into his desk and produced a bottle of brandy and two glasses. “A toast,” he said as he passed Brian his glass, “to Joanna Hård.”
Brian thoughtfully raised his glass and whispered “To all souls claimed by the sea.” As the warm brandy warmed his throat he knew it was a perversion to cash in on this misfortune. Uncle Russell would not be adding this artifact to his collection and the thought of selling the document at auction sickened him. Peavey looked at his new friend and noted the change that came over him. The kind of change only found at sea.