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Excerpt: Transatlantic

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On his last morning in Cork, Frederick Douglass took a jaunting car, alone. The horse seemed to yield to him. The reins felt soft in his hands. He went southwest of the city and strolled the strand. Quiet here. No emigrant ships. The tide was out and the beach was penciled by a series of soft sand ripples. Perfect echoes, one after the other, stretching out to the shadowfold of the horizon. No sea anymore, just cloud. He felt a pang of homesickness: it reminded him so much of Baltimore.

When he placed his foot down, the water squelched beneath the sole of his boot. A brief imprint. The ground felt mobile beneath him. He lifted his foot and watched the water leak away, the sand rebound. It was a thing to do over and over again, footprint after footprint.

The sand apparently stretched for miles, but Isabel had told him to be careful, the area was renowned for its swift, quiet tide. The water could insinuate itself secretly, rush in, turn, surround him, and he would be trapped. He found it hard to imagine. It looked, to Douglass, so very peaceful.

He bent down and in the rippled layers noticed a number of tiny crabs pedaling their legs in the sand. He lifted one onto the palm of his hand. The creature was almost translucent, its eyes high and unwieldy. A fiddler crab, perhaps. It ran to the edge of his fingers, hesitated, returned. He moved his arm in the air and the crab scuttled to the high part of his wrist. Douglass dropped it down into the sand again, where it burrowed and hid. How quickly it disappeared.

He noticed a number of women farther out on the strand, stopping to collect shells. They wore long head-scarves and carried straw baskets on their backs. Searching for food. He had read in the newspapers that the blight was worsening, that the price of flour had doubled within a few days, that the stocks of corn were lower than ever. It was only hoped that the next year’s crop would not fail.

Douglass walked along the shore. A tall-masted ship clung to the horizon. He watched it go. When he looked back towards the strand again, the women seemed to have disappeared into the earth. Only their dark overcoats could be seen. Every now and then they bent downwards, stooping in rhythm for whatever it was they might find.

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