If there’s one thing Thea Fowler has learned from her mother, it’s that the only way for a woman to survive in a man’s world is to make herself strong, invulnerable even. Strength, after all, is how Clementine Fowler survived after her world was washed away by ash and lava and became one of the most notorious pirates the world has ever known.
Unfortunately, Thea has inherited none of her mother’s ruthlessness and grit.
After a lifetime of being told she is a disappointment, Thea longs to escape life under her mother’s thumb. And when she falls for a handsome sailor named Bauer, she thinks she’s found her chance at a new life. But it’s not long before first love leads to first betrayal, and Thea learns that there’s more than one way to be strong.
- Pages: 272 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Dial Books
- ISBN: 9780525554066
An Excerpt From
The Sea Knows My Name
THEN AND NOW AND THEN
When my mother was born, her parents named her Clementine, invoking the sweet and unobjectionable, because they forgot that children never live up to their names.
My grandfather was among the first scholars to study genetics, so he was confident in the biological stuff he passed along to his daughter. His wife—harder to be sure of, but she had no obvious deficits. So: a girl. Clementine. Had she been a boy, I’m told they would’ve named her Rupert, after my grandfather.
Rupert Morgan, a good man: a hobby taxidermist, an outspoken contributor to all the prestigious Astorian academies, and a stalwart proponent of rationality. His wife, a good woman: quiet.
As Clementine grew, it became clear to her parents that she was a mean child, especially to her mother. Clementine didn’t have friends, but she did have admirers. My parents met when they were nineteen. My father was studying biology at the university, and he’d heard stories about Professor Rupert Morgan’s clever daughter.
As the tale goes, my father went to Rupert’s house to plead his case: He wanted to meet Clementine. Not to take on a date, mind you. But to help him with his research.
Rupert laughed genially and sent him away, but Clementine had overheard. She climbed out her window without a single belonging, shook my father’s hand, and said, “But you’ll be my assistant, yes?”
It hardly matters, at this point, if that’s what she actually said. It’s part of her myth by now.
Clementine thought my father’s studies were interesting, and thought he was interesting too. But the most important thing he gave Clementine was an excuse to leave her parents forever. They hadn’t let her enroll in the university; for that, she’d never forgive them.
In time, Clementine would be legend. Not for her science, as she’d once hoped. People would know her name, and people would fear it. No one would remember the sweet and unobjectionable. They would think pirate and queen and goddess, harpy and bitch and snake. They’d be right, all of them, in time.
I’ve always thought she started to plan her legacy when my father showed her the Classical myths.
When Clementine was pregnant, bored, and angry, my father brought her facsimiles of the myths from the university library. She read them, I think, and decided she wouldn’t settle for being mortal. Wouldn’t settle for a story that could be forgotten.
Her obsession was with Libera and Thea, the twin goddesses. Libera, for whom the sea was named, was the goddess of motherhood. So fruitful were her loins that every other god in the myths had a baby with her. Sometimes, Libera even agreed to it.
Her sister, Thea, was the goddess of reason. Being the reasonable sort, she stayed a virgin all her life so no one could cloud her judgment. Upon seeing the atrocities of man, Thea descended onto the world with a spear and thrice stabbed—once in each eye, once in the heart—anyone who did not show her respect.
I was born three weeks premature and silent.
My mother named me Thea.
Seventeen years old
I climb to the main deck of the Pelican at dawn, expecting it to smell better than the sour, sweaty sleeping quarters packed full of snoring men. It doesn’t. It smells like dead whale.
The whale’s leviathan, half-stripped body towers in my periphery. Oh, Thea, it seems to say, judging. You stupid, stupid girl. What have you done?
Too much. Not enough. I’m sorry.
The deck is mostly empty, save the whale’s sad body and mine. Besides us, just a few tired sailors shuffle around the sails, trying to coax movement out of the windless dawn. I wrap my hands around the railing and breathe.
I always thought morning horizons were the best part of sailing—a refreshing, a newness—but today doesn’t feel fresh or new. Clementine would’ve told me that admiring the sunrise was sentimental nonsense, and now I see she’s right. Yesterday, I ran away from Clementine with a boy I never should’ve trusted, and I hoped that in dawn, I’d realize it was all a bad dream. But in dawn, all I see is the endless spill of consequence: The morning horizon can’t save me.
The sun shakes away the darkness, bayoneting the waves in short-lived colors. Black oil to quicksilver, silver to a urine gold, then the pink-red of diluted wine. In the distance, where an untrained eye would see smudgy nothing, I catch the faintest glimmer of land. I try to be stirred by awe and am not.
“That’s the greenhand’s girl?” one of the sailors asks behind me.
“Last captain I sailed with didn’t let any family on his ship,” the other responds loudly. “Said women were bad luck.”
“She look sort of familiar to you?”
I turn. The sailors both jolt, just a little, like they’re surprised I didn’t pretend I couldn’t hear them, as any polite woman would know to do.
“I’m not anybody’s girl,” I say.
The first sailor says to the second, “She looks kind of like that pirate—you know the one. The woman.”
“A woman pirate?”
“Oh, come off it. How many lady pirates are there? The Fowler one.”
“No. The crazy one? Does Captain know that?”
I think of that word, crazy, how it would scrape the inside of my dry mouth, how it would lodge there. Crazy. Clementine is volatile, decisive, stoic, exacting, irascible, audacious. Contradictory, impossible to please, and so fiercely disappointed in me that when I ran away from her yesterday, I hoped I’d never need to look back.
Is she crazy?
No; she’s just what she has to be in a world full of men like these.
“I’m her daughter,” I say.
The sailors blink.
“What are you doing on our ship?” one of them asks. “She going to come after us now?”
“Probably not,” I say. Not unless she thinks I’ve been kidnapped; not unless her honor is at stake.
The sailors seem wary of me now that they know I’m the daughter of the cool, the commanding, the crazy Clementine Fowler. But I don’t deserve their wariness. I feel weak and small and afraid, lost from my mother, on a ship full of men and one very dead whale.
My heart is beating too fast. I can feel it working away in my chest, ping ping ping ping ping, like the heart of the mouse I found in our kitchen when I was ten, so panicked that I thought its eyes might pop out of its head like lids on boiling kettles. I brought the mouse outside and set it in the grass, and it ran so fast I couldn’t see where it went. Maybe it shot into a fox’s burrow or under a bird’s nest. Any danger, it seemed to think, was better than the one it had just experienced in my hands.
If someone set me in a field of tall grass right now, I would run so fast no one could see where I went.
“What’s wrong with her?” one of the sailors is saying, waving a hand too close to my face.
I flinch. Then bare my teeth. That’s always been the thing separating Clementine and me; for her, the natural reaction is the teeth baring. For me, it’s learned, poorly.
“I said, how’d you meet the greenhand?”
My future is so, so narrow. I will no longer be Thea. I won’t even be Clementine’s daughter. I will just be the greenhand’s girl, the unnamed possession of an unnamed whaler.
Back on the horizon, the ocean glows faint and flickering under that new sun.
“Where is that?” I ask, ignoring the question, pointing at the smudge of land.
“Providence,” one sailor says, because of course it’s Providence. “We’re not going there. We’re docking two settlements south, in Fairshore.”
Providence. There should be mountains rising there, but they’re obscured by fog.
“How far away?” I ask.
“Fairshore? We should get there tonight.”
“No,” I say. “Providence.”
“Three miles? Why?”
I consider. I consider the smell: rendering blubber; ash; decay. I consider the whale blood in the water, the sharks that come close when they can taste it. I consider the fact that if I stay here, my eyes might pop out of my head like the lids on boiling kettles.
I wrap my fingers around the railing.
No, I can’t. That’s crazy.
What would Clementine do? the dead whale asks me. What would Clementine be?
Volatile, decisive, stoic, exacting, irascible, audacious.
“What are you doing?” one of the sailors asks as I unlace my boots. They’re sturdy boots, the kind with good tread that Clementine made all her crew wear. Goodbye, boots. You will be missed. I tug the lace from the left one and use it to tie my hair out of my face.
My jacket, I shrug off. The only thing I take is the knife from the pocket—Clementine’s knife, pretty but not delicate, carved with her initials, CMF. The gun holster on my hip has been empty since I left Clementine, but I put the knife there now. It’s not a perfect fit, but I button it shut and hope it will do.
“What,” the sailor says again, louder this time, “are you doing?”
I just want to move. I just want to run. I just want to be.
The railing digs into my knees. I clamber to the top of it. It’s slick with water but sticky with salt under my socks, and I sway as I suck in a breath of air.
There you go, the whale says. One of us should leave this place.
“Get down from there!” the sailor says, trying to grab my arm, but he’s too late, I’m too fast, I’m too free.
The water shocks the air from my lungs. Maybe I dove too far. Maybe my body is too heavy, too full of guilt, shame, worry, weakness.
I need air.
Salt in my eyes.
The crown of my head breaks the surface. Then my mouth is free, my neck and the wet hair plastered to it. Air.
When I manage to blink away the salt, I see the hull of the Pelican rising from the waves. While I was under, I must’ve kicked or drifted away—I’m twenty feet from it. But even from this distance, when I’m down here, it’s colossal.
The sailors are shouting something blurry and indistinct. Their faces: stunned. Voices: panicked. I did that to them. I am crazy. What a beautiful thing.
“Are you insane?” one of the sailors calls down, cupping his hands around his mouth. “You’re going to drown!”
“No,” I shout back. “I’m not.”
What I don’t say—what he doesn’t understand—is that drowning is not high on my list of worries right now. It’s slid down a few dozen spaces and now ranks below a number of more suffocating fears, like my teakettle skull, or Bauer waking up and smiling at me.
In front of me, the ocean is open, empty, and depthless.
If the sailors call after me for a while, they give up soon enough. If they go tell Bauer I’ve gone, I’m not worth pursuit.
I am seventeen years old. I am a runaway many times over. I am going to swim.
The water is cold but not too cold. This is the part I try to focus on: the kindness of temperate water. If I focus on this hard enough, I can almost forget that white sharks, which are among the least friendly of the cartilaginous fish, like temperate water too. I can’t see anything. The water feels bottomless, and maybe it is—below me, there’s a film of dusty green, occasionally interrupted by a tangle of kelp or a drifting cloud of jellyfish. Below that, I imagine barrel-headed sperm whales in water like twilight; stilt-legged spiders in water like midnight; an abyss too black to consider beneath it all.
When I think of fear, I think of the barnacles that cling to ships. That’s how I imagine my own fear: glued to my skin, visible to all who see me, blemishes to be scraped and carved away. In the ocean, no one can see whether or not I’m afraid. I’ve never been afraid of water, but this water plays tricks with my head. The endlessness of it. Anything too big to hold in your hands is scary—the depth of the sea, the years of a life, the vastness of human emotion. Usually, my fear comes in breathtaking bursts of panic. Here, it’s slow, thudding. I can’t panic for three miles. I can’t let anything take my breath away. Left arm, right arm. Breathe under the crook of my elbow. And then I do it again. Over, over, over again.
Sailors call the ocean She. She’s rough today. She’ll spit you out in a boat like that. A long time ago, someone named this sea the Liberan, after the goddess of mothers and daughters. Maybe the sea-namers meant it as a comfort. Maybe they meant to imply that these waters would cradle and protect, as mothers are meant to.
Shivers of silver fish dart in my periphery. Sickle-shaped fins cut the water so near me, I’m glad I can’t see better. When my skin starts to burn, I know I’ve been brushed by another jellyfish. All the while, the waves wash against me, so I breathe on their crests, kick in their troughs, and hope I’m going the right way. There’s nothing to do but keep swimming. If I miss Providence, I’ll die. If I give up before I reach it, I’ll die. If I don’t swim, I’ll die.
The ocean reminds me, not of most mothers, but of my own.
I swim until the world beneath me starts to pale with dust and leaves. Until I can smell something other than ocean on the breeze—smoke. Trees. Until my hands are touching kelp, my knees are scraping sand, my cheek is pressed against chipped shells and pebbles of solid earth. Between two fingers, I take a piece of kelp that’s washed up on shore, just like me. It’s still slimy. I hold one of its air bladders, and pop! I’ve seen otters cling to buoyant kelp rafts before, tangling themselves within the forest to keep from floating away into an edgeless sea. Something to keep them safe. Something to keep them still.
See, Clementine? See, Bauer? I don’t need either of you. Just watch.
I start to laugh, and then I start to cry.
Six years old
Valonia, Astorian Islands
Eight years before my father died, he taught me to swim.
The water was a heavy sort of cold, the kind that makes your skin go so numb, you feel like just bones, a skeleton among the fish. Cliffs, stained white from all the seabirds and dotted with nests, towered above us. We lived in a house on top of those cliffs, but it was easy to forget about that down here, where the fog deadened all city sounds and made the whoosh of waves echo.
There was something magic about the ocean—or maybe something magic about me when I was in the ocean—that I hadn’t yet tried to put words to. An expansiveness. A mystery. Later, I’d call it possibility, and I’d realize I’d always been greedy for it.
“Can you hold your breath, Thea-fish?” my father asked.
For a year, I’d been asking my parents to teach me to swim. In the bathtub, I’d practiced holding my breath, counting the seconds as my eyes began to burn. When Clementine swam the length of the shore, stretching her arms long and knifing through the water, I sat among the tide pools, knees hugged to my chest, and watched. Her arms looked like pale shark fins. She wore only knickers and a camisole, and once, when she came out of the water, blond hair streaming and cheeks bright, I heard the neighbor man suck in a breath. He was a commodore in the navy, a single father with a quiet, awkward son about my age, and the two of them had clambered down to shore to skip stones. When I saw the commodore shielding his son, as though Clementine had done something wrong, I felt incandescent indignity. Clementine strode out of the water like a goddess born from seafoam. The commodore ushered his son back up the rickety stairs, but Clementine just gave me a conspiratorial smile and, affecting a posh accent, said, “What rebels those Fowler women are.”
To be part of a matched set with Clementine? There was no higher honor.
She swam every day. Even when it rained. Even when lightning ignited the sky and my father told me I wasn’t allowed to sit outside. On those days, I watched from the windows. My father never tried to tell Clementine she couldn’t swim; it didn’t occur to me that other husbands might.
Finally, finally, I convinced them I was ready to don my bathers and learn. My father held me afloat in waist-deep water. Clementine was farther out, slicing silently through the waves. I watched her over my father’s shoulder.
I took a deep breath. Stuck my face in the ache-cold water and blew bubbles through my nose. I opened my eyes and got my first glimpse of the underside of the world: moon-scaled fish and craggy coral and the churn of shells and sand.
When I came up, my father beamed.
I’d always been greedy for possibility, but my want was more exact than that. I wanted to be someone for whom anything was possible. I wanted to be someone who didn’t accept the word no and invented herself as ever she pleased.
“There you go,” my father said. “Just like your mother.”
Ten years old
Valonia, Astorian Islands
In my tenth autumn, Keswick-Fleming School for Boys accepted their first female pupil.
Everyone knew the university never turned down a Keswick-Fleming man.
I had hoped, when Clementine told me it was time for my studies to get serious, that she would teach me. She told me—sympathetically, I think—that she needed time for her own research, never mind that no one ever published it.
Keswick-Fleming: red brick; bright grass. A statue of Saleus, the god of the seas from Classical myth, towered above the entrance. Me in a starchy white dress, surrounded by a sea of rolled-up black sweater sleeves and loose ties and mussed hair. The classrooms stank of chalk and formaldehyde and the teachers made me stand outside when they lectured on human anatomy.
I had stacks of notebooks and neat little dissection knives and studying to call my own. I had ink stains on my hands and the gift of Clementine’s sly smile when I came home in the afternoons. I even had a friend, Wes Price, whom I finally forgave for his commodore father’s rudeness on our shared bit of shoreline. On my first day, Wes let me use his textbook when the mathematics instructor tried to make me do problems from a book for seven-year-olds.
In the time I studied at Keswick-Fleming, there were days that were truly, spectacularly happy. Like my twelfth birthday, when my father made me a cake with the honey he collected from our backyard hive, and Clementine surprised me with a painting she’d done of a sea otter, and Wes climbed over the fence to eat dinner with us. Clementine quizzed Wes and me about what we were learning, and my father smeared frosting on her nose, and Wes’s dog, missing him, leaped through an open window and knocked Wes out of his chair. It was chaos, and merry, and in those moments, I began to feel like anything was possible. Like my future was an adventure I would find.
But there had been a timer filling with sand. I didn’t know it, but it was there all along. Counting down the good days. Now, looking back, I see everything under the shadow of that timer. Eight years before. Four years before. One year before.