A Tale of Two Surfaces
“You black bastard!”
Joseph barely heard the curse fire, before he felt the child’s small body slip from his hold. Her head of dark curls slid down towards his chest and her feeble torso, clothed in only an embroidered sleeping gown, fell towards his belly. He caught the girl with an instinctive squeeze of his elbow against his side, which caused her to cry out in pain. The sound was muffled in the folds of his shirt and heavy coat, as he pressed her into him, guarding the shivering child from the fire-eyed stranger who gripped her tight by the ankle.
“Where ya goin’ with that baby?!” the stranger spat at him, his breath white like ash on the frigid air. His accent was Irish.
He was a tall, barrel-chested man with a red mustache. A thick, slightly tattered coat was slung over his shoulders, and the buttons of his collared shirt were undone, leaving tufts of scraggly, red chest hair exposed. A bowler cap had been yanked down upon his furrowed brow, as if he had left in a hurry and did not want it to blow away. Like Joseph, he was a second-class passenger on this ship.
“This is my daughter!” Joseph screamed back at him.
The man’s hand was a hairy pink mitt that did not loosen at his response.
“Liar!” the man seethed, exposing two rows of yellowing teeth. “This is a white child! You put ‘er down now!”
Joseph, a dark-skinned man of Haitian descent, the only Black man on the entire ship, hardened his resolve.
“She is mine!” he shouted, reeling back. “Let her go!”
Louise, though pale in complexion, was indeed her father’s daughter—the youngest belonging to Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche. The two-year-old’s pallid skin mirrored that of her French-born mother—Joseph’s brown-haired, blue-eyed wife, Juliette—who now sat in a lifeboat at the end of the deck, clutching their second daughter, Simonne, to her chest.
The ship deck was swarming with people in fits of panic—workmen and celebrities, stowaways and wealthy tycoons—all clamoring to join Juliette and Simonne on their raft of salvation. The separation between the two groups—the rich and poor—had been so apparent in the days prior. But tonight, those lines had blurred. Where once money and status stood as the most precious commodities, sheer survival was now the only currency of consequence.
The “Unsinkable Ship,” the “Wonder Ship,” the Titanic, had collided with an iceberg, damaging at least five of the sixteen compartments below. Joseph was uniquely attuned to the gravity of that fact, having spent a good portion of a day conversing with the stokers in the bowels of the vessel. He had gained a firsthand understanding of what made the enormous ship stay afloat…and what could…would…eventually sink it. A mechanical engineer by trade, formally educated at Beauvais, and a man of unflinching curiosity, he found his practical, more base conversations with those below deck to be just as enlightening and entertaining as his debates with the elite passengers above.
Such freedom would not have been possible on the La France—the ship he and his family were initially set to board on their journey to Haiti. La France’s policy of keeping children separate from their parents in the dining areas—huddled away in the nursery, under the care of suspicious nannies who may not have looked too fondly upon his daughters’ parents—did not sit well with him or his pregnant wife, even if they would be in first-class. Juliette had made the decision to exchange their tickets for those of the second-class aboard the Titanic—a decision they both now regretted.
“C'est son père!” Juliette screamed, her cries cutting through the crowds. “C'est mon mari! Libérez-la! Libérez-la!”
The eyes of the aggressive man darted her way, softening to the pleas of the desperate woman, but still without comprehension.
“Husband—that man!” came another male voice from behind him, pointing at Joseph. The accent was heavy and dark.
The Irishman’s head swiveled over his shoulder, his eyes still aflame.
The newcomer’s skin was almond, accented by bushy gray eyebrows and a thin mustache. It sagged with age, but his chin remained strong. From the impeccable style and cut of his navy suit jacket, a fashionable hat, and a crisp pocket square to match, it was clear that he was a passenger from the first-class.
“She—his wife,” the elderly man said, pointing at Juliette, who continued to wail. Then he pointed at Louise. “She—his daughter!”
“Señor Artagaveytia!” exclaimed Joseph, thankful for his sudden arrival.
Mr. Ramon Artagaveytia’s breath was quick, white and shallow. His eyes were welling with clouded, fearful tears that ran down the grooves of his wrinkled cheeks. Joseph and Juliette had spent a pleasant morning with him, seated at the foot of the stairs that separated the two classes. The man was far happier then. For nearly thirty minutes they discussed the beauty of legacy—the joy that comes with ensuring future generations have a proper place in this new world. Mr. Artagaveytia spoke in broken English, but as a Uruguayan of noble station, a wealthy farmer, he had been exposed to other languages, French included. The amount he knew of each was enough to get by.
“Why—why ain’t you on a boat, richie?” the Irishman asked the old man disdainfully.
Mr. Artagaveytia placed a hand atop the Irishman’s.
“She belong to him,” he shot sternly.
The Irishman’s grip did not soften at the assertion. It tightened instead. It reddened too, as more blood pumped its way through his hand. The knuckles whitened. His narrowing eyes were still locked on Juliette.
Louise released another painful cry into Joseph’s chest. Juliette echoed her daughter’s cry with one of her own—two piercing, strident wails that shot through Joseph like arrows.
At once, Joseph clasped his hand around the Irishman’s wrist, squeezing it with all his might, bending it upwards in an effort to break his hold. Mr. Artagaveytia shuffled forward to help, planting his shoulder into the assailant’s chest to block him from taking hold of the child’s other leg. With both hands the Uruguayan struggled to pry the other man’s fingers apart.
Suddenly, the ship gave a deafening creak. The lights flickered and the deck sloped further toward the frigid Atlantic waters. The shift in gravity tipped several people off balance, causing them to stumble backward, sending one of them slamming into Mr. Artagaveytia and the Irishman. Mr. Artagaveytia had just managed to pry open three of five fingers, when the jolt sent both men tipping onto their sides. The Irishman’s hand finally slipped away, taking Louise’s shoe along with it.
“Run, Joseph!” Mr. Artagaveytia shouted, as he disappeared beneath the whipping coat tails and trampling feet of the terrified passengers.
Joseph obeyed, turning away from him and hurrying up the ever-steepening wooden deck.
His eyes locked on Juliette’s, the clawing figures around him seemed to fade to blackness. The screams became warped, muted bell tones in his ears. The entire world shrank away with only his wife and daughter at the center. He powered on.
Reaching the boat, he hoisted Louise over his head, passing her over the shoulders of the frantic ship officers, who were trying to maintain order with whistles and raised batons. His hand brushed her ankle, as she was gently pulled from him. The last touch she would feel from the ordeal must be a tender one, he thought to himself, feeding all of his love through his palm and into her tiny limb. I love you so much. Juliette took the wailing child in her arms and held her tight. I love you so so much. Tears were falling from his eyes.
“This one’s full!” came a shout from nearby. “Lower ‘er down!”
Joseph’s arm remained outstretched, his hand clawing the air for the family that was now descending away from him. Both of them sensing this would be the last time they would ever see one another, Juliette reached back for him. Their fingers brushed for only a moment. Then, another jostle of the lifeboat took her and his children further down.
Joseph’s heart broke, shattering into a hundred pieces that sank beneath the surface of the raw emotions welling up in him. His family had come so close to escaping France and its daily persecutions; so close to finding a new life in his native Haiti. That chance would never come again.
“Take care of our daughters!” Joseph called down to Juliette with a weak smile. It was all he could offer them now—one final gift of hope. “I will see you soon, my dears.” He continued to reach for her. “I will see you soon!”
***The above is a fictional account of what may have happened in Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche’s final moments. Joseph, however, was indeed a real person, the only Black person aboard the Titanic who sadly perished with so many others. He was survived by his wife, Juliette, two daughters, Simonne and Louise, and his son, Joseph.
***Ramon Artagaveytia of Uruguay, also a real person, had survived the burning and sinking of a ship in 1871. He died 41 years later when, after finally overcoming his fears and nightmares from the first ship, he sailed again on RMS Titanic.
About the author
Fiction writer, television actor, and former Broadway performer (Book of Mormon). I currently write lore for League of Legends (Riot Games) and Magic: The Gathering, as well as develop Broadway musicals. @marcusterrellsmith
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
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