Anna, Like Thunder—Chapter One

I can scarcely see my beloved Polaris. The wispy clouds are like the sheerest muslin, and they stretch over the whole of the night sky obscuring the stars. But I keep my telescope pointed at her. If I wait, she may emerge: the brilliant beacon around which the heavens revolve. Navigators call her the North Star or the Ship Star. True amateurs like my father would call her Alpha Ursae Minoris: “alpha” because she is the brightest, and “ursae minoris” because she finds her home in the Little Bear constellation.

She will always be beloved, of course, for her role in guiding explorers and traders for centuries over land and sea. But I adore her for what most don’t know. That she is not one star. Not two. She is three stars. Perhaps more. If not for the renowned astronomers Monsieur William Herschel and Mademoiselle Caroline, his accomplished sister, no one would know that. I aspire to make such discoveries of my own one day.

The brig groans and tilts as she climbs a wave. I wrench the brass telescope from my eye and fumble with my free hand. The bulwark is almost out of reach but—here, I have it. I clutch the telescope to my chest. The ship tilts in the opposite direction as it slides down the wave and lands with a thud. I stagger. The frigid seawater splashes my face, and I shiver. With my shawl, I wipe the drops from my telescope, hoping no water has seeped through the seams and damaged it. As for my shawl, it’s warm but not my best—grey wool with a peacock-blue fringe that’s almost too pretty for it. If the salt stains it, I hardly care, and besides, nobody will be able to tell.


My husband strides across the deck. Like the rest of the crew, he is sure on his feet, experienced after so many years working the ships for the Russian-American Company. Roiling seas are no trouble for him, but I’m still learning to live with their caprice.

“What are you doing out here? Come to bed.” Nikolai Isaakovich slips his arm around my waist and, because it’s dark and the two men on watch can’t see us, I release the bulwark and lean back. He’s warm, and his body shelters me from the wind. His beard scratches my cheek.

“I just wanted one more look,” I say.

He knows about my star log, and that it’s modelled on the published tables my father pores over day and night. In Petersburg I helped my father with his log. But now I have my own, and it will be the first catalogue of the stars ever made along the vast coast that connects Novo-Arkhangelsk to the Spanish colonies in California.

Much to my dismay, there have been many cloudy nights, and the stars have often hidden themselves. There have been many cloudy days, too. Days when the grey sea and the grey sky merge, and the brig crawls along like a cart with a damaged wheel. I’ve not been able to log the stars as much as I’d hoped. So when tonight’s sky looked promising, I tied my cap tight and pinned my shawl high on my neck to keep the cold out so I could extend my time on deck.

My husband releases me, and I latch onto the bulwark again. “Khariton Sobachnikov!” he calls.

“Yes, commander?” comes the reply from the wheel. He’s the tallest of the promyshlenniki—the sailors, fur traders and hunters who work for the Russian- American Company—and because of his height, our main rigger. There’s not a mast or a spar he can’t climb, not a bit of rigging he can’t reach, even when the brig is tilted well over the waves. 

He’s also painfully shy. He can barely bring himself to address me but when forced to, his face turns a livid red as soon as he opens his mouth. I believe it’s because of his manner that he prefers the watch at night when the rest of us are asleep and he doesn’t have to speak with anybody. I leave him to his work when I’m out on deck, just as he leaves me to mine.

“Everything good?”

“Yes, commander. The wind’s coming up. But it’s favouring us tonight.”

“And our apprentice? Are you awake?”

“Yes, commander. I’m over here,” calls Filip Kotelnikov from the bow. Heavy, with a body as round as a kettle and limbs like sticks, he’s sharp and ambitious enough that he’s the only one besides Sobachnikov who’ll volunteer for the night watch. But he’s impatient and it irritates my husband, so I doubt his actions will lead where he hopes.

“That’s what I like to hear. Remain alert. Both of you.”

They give assent, and then Nikolai Isaakovich drops his voice. “As for you, my darling, it’s time to come inside.”

“In a moment,” I say, raising the telescope again.

“In a moment. In a moment,” he says and sighs, but there’s humour in his voice. “You think we’re sailing for your amusement? That the chief manager doesn’t have more important work for us?”

The colony’s chief manager, Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, has given my husband a special commission. Nikolai Isaakovich has been put in command of a crew of twenty and tasked with sailing south to further refine our empire’s knowledge. He’s to explore and chart the coast, and to look for a secure harbour where settlement might be established to facilitate the company’s trade for sea otter pelts. He’s to fill the hold with furs along the way. The Sviatoi Nikolai, this brig, is under his sole command for a few weeks of the expedition, after which we’ll meet another Russian ship, the Kad’iak, at a predetermined location, to continue the mission together, as though we’re not merely two ships, but a great imperial fleet.

My husband has hung a wooden plaque, carved with the Imperial Decree, in our quarters. I see it every morning as soon as I wake up, and by now I’ve memorized it. It instructs us “to use and profit by everything which has been or shall be discovered in these localities, on the surface and in the bosom of the earth without any competition by others.” It’s well known in Petersburg that the Tsar Alexander is obsessed with Russian America and that, if it weren’t for Napoleon’s aggressions in Europe, he’d sail the coast himself.

The cloud cover thickens, obscuring my Polaris. She tries valiantly to twinkle through the grey, but it’s no use. I’ll have to wait yet another night. I take her cue and follow my husband to our quarters.

Excerpted from Anna, Like Thunder (Brindle & Glass, 2018)

© Peggy Herring

Purchase Anna, Like Thunder