Somewhere Beyond the Sea
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4,
5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
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.
I awoke to Apollo’s crowing. It took me a moment to know where I was, and with a start, I remembered I’d slept in the same bed with Bess. She was already up and gone. From the window I looked out over a stand of birches to clear skies and the glittering sea beyond. Virgil had been right; the storm left a fine day in its wake.
My clothes were folded neatly on the other bed. I dressed and looked in on Dad. He was still asleep in the same position as the night before. I smelled something cooking, so I eased his door shut and clattered down the stairs. Bess was in the kitchen making pancakes on the big black stove. She was barefoot and wearing the checked shirt and dungarees rolled up to her knees.
“Mama’s outside hanging up the wash and Papa’s gone down to have a look at your boat,” she said. “I checked your papa, and he’s still asleep.”
She scooped up three browned pancakes, slid them onto a plate warming at the back of the stove, and ladled out three more from a big cream-colored bowl with light blue and pink rings around the lip. She handed me a coffee pot and told me to fill it three-quarters full and set it on the stove.
As I filled it with the hand pump in the black sandstone sink, she said, “Are you ready for an adventure today?” She was looking over her shoulder, her hair falling into her eyes. I said I was.
Over a breakfast of buttered pancakes sprinkled with sugar and thin apple slices, Virgil told me how he’d repair Sadie.
“Hull’s banged up, but only part of the one plank’s no good. I’ll make a new one. We’ll jury-rig what’s left of your mast and use an oar for a rudder. Bessie, you and Michael ride Zeus down so’s I can careen the hull.”
He drank his coffee, put his plate in the sink, and went out to the barn. Bess, Mrs. Clement, and I finished our breakfasts. Mrs. Clement took a plate of pancakes and a cup of coffee upstairs to Dad. Bess went out to the barn, and by the time Mrs. Clements returned, I’d finished the dishes.
“He wants to get out of bed, but he’s still dizzy and I ordered him to stay put,” she said. “You can go up and see him.”
I went upstairs and stood in the doorway of his room. He was doing his best to eat with his left hand.
“I’m sorry I jibed the boat,” I said. I was so ashamed I couldn’t look him in the eye.
All he said was, “We’ll talk about it later.” He didn’t look at me when he said it.
I felt hollowed out. His words were bad enough, but his tone of voice sounded as though he were so disappointed in me he didn’t want to talk at all.
I must have looked like a prisoner on the way to the gallows when I met Bess in the kitchen. She took my hand and led me out to the barn. “You and me are going to ride Zeus,” she said. “You ever been on a horse?”
When I said I hadn’t, she looked pleased.
In the barn, Virgil was using a draw knife to shape a rough piece of wood clamped in a vise, thick fragrant curls of spruce peeling away from the knife’s edge and falling onto the dirt floor. Bess introduced me to Daisy, who turned her head and lazily inspected me. A barefacked Zeus was waiting for us outside.
“Watch me,” Bess said.
In one easy motion, she grabbed a hank of his mane, hopped on her left foot, swung her right leg up, and landed lightly on the horse’s shiny brown back. Zeus shook his head and snorted, and I stepped back, intimidated by his size and wondering how I would ever get up on him. Bess held out her hand and told me to take a hop and a jump and she’d do the rest.
I took her hand, and with two quick steps and a leap, I sailed over Zeus’s back and landed hard on the ground, knocking the breath out of me and almost pulling Bess off as well. I looked up at her. She was trying not to laugh. “You all right?” she asked.
I got up slowly, still sore from the bruises I’d incurred in the storm. My second try was successful because Bess hauled me up.
“Hold onto me,” she said. I rested my hands on her waist. “No, wrap your arms around me tight, or you’ll fall off. Squeeze Zeus with your legs, too.”
Zeus clopped past the big rectangular garden where vegetables mostly unknown to me were planted in neat rows. Some of the corn stalks had been flattened to the ground by the storm, and Mrs. Clement was retying bean vines that had been blown off their poles. The hens scattered, and Mrs. Clement waved at us as we rode past a neatly scythed patch of grass drying in the sun and into the field beyond.
The grass was so long it tickled my bare feet and released a fresh sweet smell as Zeus sauntered along. Bess warned me that we were going to trot and that I should relax and move with the horse.
Between squeezing Zeus with my legs and clinging to Bess, I managed to stay on the horse but bit my tongue as I bounced around. We arrived at a small pond, where Bess let Zeus have a drink. From my vantage point on Zeus’s back, I looked out over a sea of grasses, tossing and swaying in the soft breeze, tall stalks of Queen Anne’s Lace and splashes of radiant goldenrod scattered like foam on an ocean.
“We cut ice from the pond in winter and store it in the ice house,” she said. “I’ll take you there later.”
We rode up a long, sloping hill and stopped on its summit. Bess pointed out the big islands in the distance: Isle au Haut — which she pronounced as one word, “eelo-a-ho” — to the east, Deer Isle to the northeast, and Vinalhaven to the west. In the distance was a three-masted schooner, motionless on the dark blue sea.
“This is Mount Olympus,” Bess said.
We rode slowly around the circumference of the island, out of the sun’s warmth and into a shaded forest of spruce, balsam, and hackmatack, Zeus’s hooves muffled by the thick carpet of pine needles, their resiny scent mixing with the salt air. The trees grew so close that only slices of sunlight shone through, and we had to fend off the dead branches that clutched at our clothes.
We emerged at a rocky ledge and crossed a small field of sweet grass, grasshoppers springing up and buzzing away when we disturbed them. As my fear of falling off Zeus diminished, I grew more aware of Bess: the warmth of her body snuggled up against my chest, her auburn hair brushing my face, my forearms pressed against her ribs, my hands on her taut stomach, and how we moved together in response to Zeus’s easy gait. I had this fleeting, dream-like sensation of having slipped out of my life into something better.
We arrived at the beach where Sadie was resting. Virgil had already unstepped what was left of the mast and was laying out some rounded driftwood logs next to the boat. He took the anchor line and ran it around Zeus’s chest and tied if off to one of the thwarts. I slid off to help Virgil.
“Easy now,” Virgil said as Bess nudged Zeus forward. When the hull rose up perpendicular on its side, Virgil called for her to stop. He and I held another line that allowed us to lower Sadie slowly onto the driftwood. Bess moved forward, we paid out the rope, and Sadie settled gently onto the logs, bottom up.
The hull had dents and big scrapes in the paint, but only one plank had sprung loose. Virgil pried it off and test-fit the replacement he’d made. It was a bit wide, so he fastened his vise to the Sadie’s prow and shaped the plank with the drawknife. He tapped it into place again, drilled some pilot holes, and fixed it in place with some screws. Then he dug out stones that had lodged inside the centerboard well.
“All right,” he said, “back over she goes.” We reversed the process, and the boat set upright on the beach.
“Set the logs out with me, Michael.”
We placed the driftwood logs in a line behind the stern, right up to the water’s edge. Virgil and I pushed on the bow, Zeus pulled, and the boat slid down to the last log.
“Your papa wants me to sail over to Deer Isle and put in a call to your mama.” he said. “Time it takes me to do that, I’ll get this boat shipshape and ready to sail home tomorrow.” He smoothed his calloused hand along the deck. “Your mama will worry a bit more, but you’ll be home just as quick.”
“I’ll step what’s left of the mast and rig up a trysail. Incoming tide’ll float her and swell that plank,” he said. “Off you two go now.”
Bess pulled me up onto Zeus, and we wound our way back through the woods to a pebbly stretch of beach. Off to our right, I could see the full sweep of the island’s southeastern coast, to a curving, well protected cove at the far end where Virgil’s sailboat was moored.
Zeus walked into the water until it skimmed our bare feet. Bess asked if I could swim. I said I could.
“That’s good because Zeus loves swimming too,” she said. “He’ll go out a ways and then make for the cove. Don’t let go of me.”
I immediately had doubts and thought I might be better off walking along the beach, but before I could say anything, Bess kicked her heels into Zeus’s flanks, and off we went. In moments only his head and some of his back were above water, Bess no longer sitting astride but floating along holding his mane, and I slipped back some until I was gripping the top of Bess’s dungarees. I struggled to keep my head above water as Zeus’s brown hips pumped under me, bouncing me up and down. Bess was whistling and calling out his name.
She looked over her shoulder and shouted, “Hang on!”
When we were about halfway to the cove, Bess’s pants had slipped down past her hips and were in danger of coming off. She didn’t seem to care, but when they slipped a bit more, I let go.
“Grab his tail!” she called out.
I latched on to the long black tail and bobbed behind like a dinghy. Bess checked to see if I were still attached and let out a whoop when she saw me.
Zeus swam a lazy arc not far from shore, and after ten long minutes, turned toward the shore. Once his feet hit bottom and he rose up out of the water, I let go. Bess swam over to me.
“Wasn’t that fun?” she said, treading water.
I nodded, grateful I hadn’t been left behind.
“Race me to that rock,” she said, pointing to a yellow boulder, half out of the water, about fifteen yards away. “No pushing off the bottom either.”
I was a good swimmer, but slopping around in my shirt and dungarees slowed me down. I kept even with her, but as she pulled away, I grabbed her ankle and hauled her back. She shoved me under and easily beat me to the rock. Zeus watched us and then ambled out of the water and munched on some clumps of grass. I walked up the beach to the high tide line where there were heaps of mussel shells, drying seaweed, and a big driftwood log. I sat down and leaned back against it, closing my eyes and turning my face up to the sun.
I heard Bess swimming, then nothing, then a splash.
Bess was in the water, only her face showing. Her clothes — shirt, white cotton shorts, and dungarees — were spread out on the yellow rock. “Set your clothes out to dry and come in.” She splashed water at me.
She came toward me until her bare shoulders were showing. “Don’t be shy.” She flicked some water that landed on my toes. “Come on. Don’t be a fraidy-cat.”
But I was a fraidy-cat, a self-conscious kid with not much confidence. As I sat there looking at her smiling up at me, her head cocked to one side, water dripping off her hair onto her shining shoulders, and so at ease and inviting me to join her, I wanted to let go of whatever it was holding me back. But I couldn’t just stand up and strip in front of her, so I waded up to my shoulders, wrestled out of my clothes, spread them onto the rock, and slipped under the water. When I surfaced, she was in front of me.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“Kinda,” I said.
Copyright © 2017 by Bill Prindle