Somewhere Beyond the Sea
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,
When eleven-year old Michael Walker and his father are temporarily shipwrecked on a remote Maine island, Michael meets and falls in love with twelve-year old islander Bess. After sailing home, Michael discovers that nothing on the island was what it seemed, including his beloved Bess.
We entered, and Virgil carried Dad straight up a narrow flight of stairs. I followed with Mrs. Clement and the girl right behind me. Virgil walked along a short landing with a bedroom on either side and down a couple of steps into an ell that had another small bedroom. He gently set Dad onto the bed, let the jib slide to the floor, and removed Dad’s slicker and sneakers.
“Bessie,” Virgil called, “get Michael here a towel and some of my clothes.”
The girl darted into the big bedroom and returned with a towel, a pair of dungarees, and a flannel shirt.
“You can change in my room,” she said, handing me the clothes. “Bring your wet clothes down, and I’ll dry them by the fire.” She had a warm, scratchy voice. I liked the sound of it.
While I was buttoning up the shirt with still white trembling fingers, Mrs. Clement tapped on my door. “Virgil and I will tend to your father, Michael. Go downstairs and Bess’ll give you a tot to warm you up.”
I caught a glimpse of myself in the dresser mirror. Even though I was tall for my age, in Virgil’s clothes, I looked like a pale, wet, skinny, eleven-year old scarecrow. I rolled up my shirtsleeves, cinched in my belt, and folded the dungaree cuffs, but I still looked as if I’d escaped from a cornfield.
Downstairs, Bess had set up a wooden drying rack in front of the fire, and I draped my wet clothes on it. She emerged around the corner at the far end of the room and handed me a steaming mug of something dark. It smelled like medicine and tasted like butter and cinnamon.
“It’s hot buttered rum. Papa said after what you been through, you earned it. Drink it slow.” She gestured for me to sit in the big Windsor chair where she’d been sitting and pulled up a chair next to me.
I held the mug with both hands and inhaled the steam. Bess took up her knitting, and the cat settled against her bare feet. I sipped the drink and coughed a bit.
Bess regarded me with amusement. “Easy does it,” she said.
I asked the cat’s name.
“That’s Stubbs, our coon cat.” She stroked the cat’s lush silvery fur with her foot. “He’s a good mouser when he feel like it. Mostly he sleeps.”
“How old are you, Michael?” she asked.
“Twelve in February. I’ll be a sixth-grader this year.”
“I’m twelve and a half,” she said. I watched fascinated as she swiftly completed one row and began another without looking at her hands.
“What are you knitting?”
“Mittens, a Christmas present for my Uncle Gus.” She held up a hand shape of gray wool. “I’ll be in the seventh grade this year.”
I asked her if there were a school on the island.
“No, it’s just us out here,” she said. “During the school year, I live over to Blue Hill with my aunt and uncle. Their daughter Helen’s my best friend.”
I’d sipped about half the drink, and between the rum and the warmth of the fire, I was starting to feel a little woozy. My excitement and fear were ebbing, replaced by exhaustion and aches from the bumps I’d collected getting Dad onto the shore and securing the boat.
Bess asked what happened to us out in the storm. I told her how it had blown up out of nowhere and how quickly everything had gone wrong. I said it was my fault Dad got hit by the boom when I jibed the boat.
Bess was facing the fire, and while I spoke, I was sneaking looks at her. She was dressed in worn dungarees and a faded red-and-white checked shirt. Like Virgil, she had light blue eyes, but her thick auburn hair was straight, with bangs skimming her eyebrows and falling to her collar.
Her fine features were tanned, and she had a few freckles on her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. A small white scar interrupted the curve of her upper lip, but what really intrigued me was how the corners of her mouth turned up a bit. She looked as though she was considering something amusing or that she knew a secret.
She caught me staring at her and returned my gaze. “I was wondering when you’d get here.”
I was so foggy I wasn’t sure what she meant, and then Virgil came downstairs. I asked if Dad were okay.
“He’ll be fine,” Virgil said. “Got the sense knocked out of him and probably broke his arm. Not bad, though. Ida set it and put a poultice on that lump on his head. He’ll feel better after some soup and a good night’s sleep. Now, Bess taking care of you?”
“Yes, sir, she is.”
“That was a white squall you tangled with,” Virgil said. “Comes out of nowhere and blows like hell. I saw your sails way out there but lost sight of you when the other storm came though.”
I asked him if I could use his phone to call Mom, but he said they didn’t have a phone or electricity; none of the islands did. Back then, a few families in Dark Haven still didn’t have phones, so I wasn’t surprised to hear this.
Mrs. Clement came down stairs carrying a basin and Dad’s wet clothes, which she placed on the drying rack, and went into the kitchen. Bess joined her and a few minutes later, Bess took a bowl of soup and a glass of water upstairs.
While I warmed by the fire, Mrs. Clement and Bess busied themselves in the kitchen. In a short while the four of us had a dinner of fresh corn, thick slices of tomato with pepper and tart apple vinegar, sweet anadama bread with butter that Bess had churned that day, and fried mackerel, which I didn’t much care for but ate to be polite. Mrs. Clement drank water, Virgil had cider, and Bess and I drank big glasses of milk that didn’t taste like any milk I’d ever had.
I asked Bess what I was drinking.
“That’s fresh milk from Daisy,” said Bess. “I milked her this morning.”
“Really? You have a cow?”
Mrs. Clement chuckled. “Yes, we do, and a rooster, hens, and a horse as well.”
“Horse’s name is Zeus,” said Bess. “The rooster’s Apollo because he brings the sun up every morning.”
“Bessie’s our scholar,” Virgil said, clearly pleased with her. He gave her a fond, admiring glance that went right to my heart because I’d never gotten that kind of look from Dad. His thoughts always seemed to be on his brightest students or the boys he coached, and my struggles and successes went mostly unremarked. I got plenty of correction and criticism, but not much praise except when we were on the water.
Virgil didn’t say much compared to Mrs. Clement or Bess, but his silence was different from Dad’s. When Dad grew quiet, Mom and I knew he was brooding over something he didn’t want to talk about — or couldn’t talk about — probably something that happened during the war. His silences cast a pall over whatever we were doing, especially meals.
Sometimes I got the feeling that Dad wanted to be free from whatever it was that came over him and darkened his mood, but he just couldn’t find his way through it. Sometimes I thought I’d disappointed him in some way; other times I thought he just didn’t want me to be around him.
Virgil’s quiet presence felt genial and reassuring, as though he were content just to be in our company.
“Your father said you sailed over from Dark Haven,” said Mrs. Clement. “My best friend Mina Bowden married a Haven boy named Ormond Sawyer. Mina and I were like two peas in a pod when we were in grammar school in Sedgwick. Our fifth grade teacher had to separate us and put me in the front of the room and Mina in the last row.” She sighed. “It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen her. When you get back, Michael, will you be sure to tell her Ida Clement still thinks of her often?”
Small as Dark Haven was, I didn’t know a Mina Sawyer, but I said, “Yes, ma’am, I’ll be sure to do that.”
Bess cleared the table and I asked Virgil where he’d caught the mackerel.
“About a mile southeast of the island,” he said. Mrs. Clements added that Virgil also fished for cod and haddock and ran a line of lobster traps. During the winter he scalloped and sometimes worked as a carpenter building boats and houses on Mt. Desert.
Just then a howling gust shook the house and blew smoke and ash out of the fireplace. Bess swept the ashes back into the fire and returned to the kitchen where she busied herself whipping something up.
“This’ll blow itself out soon,” Virgil said. “Tomorrow’ll dawn fine and fair.”
Mrs. Clement brought out an apple pie that had been warming in the big black iron stove, and Bess followed with a bowl of whipped cream. I’ve had many a slice of apple pie since, but none better than that night.
After Bess and I did the dishes, Virgil and she went out a door off the kitchen, through the ell that connected to the barn, to check on Zeus and Daisy. I stood close to the fire, trying to drive the lingering chill out of my bones.
Mrs. Clement motioned to me. “I expect you’re wondering where our bathroom is, Michael.” She picked up one of the kerosene lanterns, and I followed her into the ell where she opened a door to a room the size of a small closet. Cut up squares of newsprint hung from a nail above a wooden bench with a lid. The smell told me what the room was for.
“Probably not like your bathroom at home, is it?” she said. “Lift the lid to do your business. Wash up at the kitchen sink. You’re in Bessie’s room, the bed on the right.” She touched her warm hand to my cheek and let it linger for a moment. “We’re so glad you’re here. Goodnight, Michael.”
After I scrubbed my face and hands with a big bar of yellow soap, I took the lantern and went upstairs to the landing. I tiptoed down the steps to look in on Dad. He was asleep, propped up in bed and breathing easily, a bandage wrapped around his head and his right arm in a sling. Dad had been awfully pale when Virgil brought him upstairs, but his color had returned. I felt a sickening guilt as I looked at him. If I hadn’t panicked, he’d be fine, was all I could think.
I entered Bess’s bedroom and placed the lantern on her bedside table. The room was cozy, its whitewashed beadboard ceiling low and slanted. It was sparely furnished with a dresser, mirror, two beds, two pictures on the wall, and a braided oval rug. I looked out the dormer window, but there was nothing to see but rain washing across the darkened panes.
Two Currier & Ives prints hung on either side of the mirror: “The Sailor’s Farewell” and “The Sailor’s Return”, which depicted a 19th-century sailor leaving his tearful sweetheart and then joyfully embracing her upon his return.
But something didn’t look right. The returning sailor didn’t quite look like the same guy. Maybe he was the departed sailor’s best friend, who was telling the lady her boyfriend had been lost at sea. Or, judging from the returning sailor’s stiff pose and pallor, it might have been her boyfriend’s ghost coming back to her, not to say hello, but for a last goodbye. The pictures gave me the creeps.
I got into bed with my clothes on, warming the cool sheets as I inched my feet down. The house shook and creaked from the lashing wind, the rain drummed on the roof inches from my head, and the casement window rattled in its frame. I’d read Treasure Island for summer reading and imagined this was what it might have felt like for Jim Hawkins, snug in his bunk on the Hispaniola.
Bess came in and took a white nightgown from under her pillow and dropped her pillow on my face.
I heard her moving about, and then she plucked the pillow away. I kept my eyes closed. “You can open them now.”
She was sitting up in bed, reading by the amber light of the kerosene lamp. Her long arms were tanned and freckled.
I asked her the name of the book.
“Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne,” she said. “My teacher Miss Preble gave me a list of books to read this summer. She thinks I should go to college like she did, but now I want to travel the world like Phileas Fogg.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Everywhere, but I especially want to go to Paris. Miss Preble has a photograph of the Eiffel Tower in her classroom and someday I will climb to the top.”
She asked me if there were anywhere I wanted to go. I’d never given it much thought and fumbled for an answer. “I’d like to visit Baker Street, where Sherlock Holmes lived.”
She nodded, looked at the book for a moment, and then put it on the floor. Rolling onto her side, she propped her head on her hand and looked over at me.
“Do you want to talk?” she said.
I said, “Sure” and asked her why she had two beds in her room. “Do you have friends visit?”
“Alvie and I used to share this room. He was my little brother.” She paused. “He died two years ago.”
I said I was sorry to hear that. I asked how he died, and she said it was a burst appendix.
“When he got sick, Papa and Mama sailed in a storm over to Stonington for the doctor. Alvie died a day later.” Another pause. “I wish I’d been there to say goodbye, but I had to stay here to look after Zeus and Daisy.”
“Were you afraid to be out here by yourself?”
“What’s there to be afraid of?”
I listened to the wind howling and the rain pelting the window, and thought of the spectral images of the two sailors and poor Alvie and decided I wouldn’t have any trouble thinking of something to be afraid of, like ghosts, for instance.
She turned the wick down until the room went pitch black.
“What’s it like living on an island?” I asked.
She told me she was always busy, keeping the house swept and clean, weeding the garden, picking berries and apples when they were in season, helping her father pull his lobster traps, digging for clams, knitting sewing, reading, milking Daisy, riding Zeus, and swimming.
I was impressed. I didn’t do half of what she did.
“My cousin Helen’s coming for a week in August,” she added.
“So you don’t get lonely, I guess,” I said.
It was quiet for a moment, and I wasn’t sure she heard me over the noise of the storm.
“I get lonely some,” she said. “I miss Alvie.” A gust rattled the window, and I felt myself growing sleepy.
“How about you?” she said. “You ever get lonely?”
I was a shy, bookish kid, who lacked the easy way of making friends that my classmates seemed to have. They’d return from their weekends, talking about how they’d gone bowling or to the movies or played army, but most weekends I’d usually go bicycling and exploring on my own. I’d never considered whether I was lonely or not but had accepted it as my natural state.
“Yeah,” I said, “I guess I do get lonely.”
She said, “Tomorrow I’ll take you around the island and show you my favorite places.” Her scratchy voice faded to a breathy whisper as she spoke. “Sweet dreams, Michael.”
I wished her “Goodnight,” closed my eyes, and instantly fell asleep.
How long I’d been asleep I didn’t know, but I awoke in darkness and realized that Bess was in bed with me. She was behind me, her free arm hugging me.
“Bess,” I whispered, “what are you doing?”
“I’m so cold,” she murmured. “Keep me warm.”
She sounded asleep. I pushed myself up on one elbow to get out of my bed and into hers, but she held me tight.
“No,” she said, “don’t leave me.”
I can’t remember exactly what I felt at that moment. I was definitely uneasy that she’d climbed into my bed. But I already liked her and felt drawn to her, and I couldn’t resist the warmth of our bodies together. As I lay next to her, debating whether or not we were doing something wrong, my hand brushed against hers. Her fingers were so cold I winced.
Cradling her hand in mine, I held it against my chest. I settled my head into my pillow, and listened to her breathing, a whisper so close to my ear I could feel the air stir as she exhaled. I breathed along with her and soon fell asleep.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2017 by Bill Prindle