Sextant by Debra Mihalic Staples
In 1905, Mina Benson Hubbard led a successful expedition across the Labrador wilderness, then published A Woman’s Way Through Unknown Labrador in 1908. Her husband Leonidas had died while attempting the journey in 1903.
Aboard the small ship from Nova Scotia to Labrador, she moves through the crowd of lumbermen, trails a frisson of vulnerability, a white woman cloaked in young widowhood, no longer maiden nor wife. Some treat her as if she is their daughter. Her own parents on their faraway Ontario farm are startled by what she’s become: leader of an expedition to map the wilds of Labrador. To complete her late husband’s work, she says.
The newspapers say it’s a competition. Wallace, who survived the journey that killed Leonidas and whose chronicle casts her beloved in a less-than-glorious light, is making a second attempt.
She’s thirty-five, once a schoolteacher in Ontario, then a nurse in New York. Typhoid brought Leonidas to her; they fell in love while she tended him.
She first learned to camp during their wedding trip. While Leonidas gathered stories he would later publish, they traveled through the Appalachian Mountains, where land stretched toward the horizon in blue waves. They camped along rivers like the one called Ocoee by the Cherokee, then wandered south through the bayous of the Mississippi. Their five-month journey was the extent of her expedition training.
This time, to her equipment she’s added a sextant, an instrument to take observations, the measure of her place in the landscape. She’s hired others with knowledge of the land and how to make their way through it, one of whom survived the journey that Leonidas did not.
As her party journeys by river and land through the wilderness, she cannot forget Leonidas perished here, yet Labrador’s summer beauty overwhelms her. Somehow, she must capture its essence, tether it with words in her diary. She means to publish her own book.
On a day of rest, the men’s voices volley outside her tent. Inside, she bends over a pail, washes her month’s blood from rags, wrings them, drapes them over a line. These she keeps hidden, evidence she is not a man. Of course the men are aware she’s a woman. But why fly these flags in the open air to emphasize the fact?
She listens to the men move about camp. They discuss weather, animals to hunt, trials expected in the days ahead. Allows herself a brief daydream of a female traveling companion, sturdy of constitution like herself, but instantly intuits how soon she’d tire of the company of such a woman—strong of will, desirous of conquest, and, yes, driven by rivalry.
Far easier to deal with men, against whom she can wield the rules of civility between the sexes, bending some when it suits. An uneasy dance. She cannot show weakness, only strength, or at least bravado when courage fails.
She carries the pail of reddened water out of sight of the camp before she empties it.
Debra Mihalic Staples lives in Georgia. Her writing has appeared in Still: The Journal, High Country News, Catfish Stew Volume III: Tender Morsels of Fine Southern Literature, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel: Contemporary Appalachian Writing, South Carolina Wildlife, and elsewhere. She is a two-time winner in the South Carolina Arts Commission Fiction Project.