Sally Small’s farm sits in a hollow up on the Highlands between Pilgrim Spring and High Head. Low, wood-shake roofs stand level with the surrounding moorland. Her grandfather Samuel settled by the old stage route where it dropped onto the dunes to get around East Harbor. Traffic goes by the Beach Point Road now.
Unless you happen upon their sandy track; pale ruts cut through bearberry scrub; you might pass it without noticing anything more than a clothesline. Sheets and shirts flapping in the breeze glimpsed through a notch in the hillock’s crest.
Sally’s always about: boiling the wash, hoeing her vegetable plot, feeding the chickens, bucking miniature Beech-wood logs for firewood, or mending a roof after a storm. She runs the farm on her own. Her younger children: the twin girls, Eliza and Ruth do what they can and help keep an eye on little Ben.
Her bridegroom was a crewman on a mackerel schooner at nineteen. Rose to first mate on a whaler. She never had much warning of his return after a long voyage. Just a twinge of premonition, The time’s right. A feeling he’s due after months or years at sea. Often it would be soon after she had weaned a child conceived the last time he had been home.
Joshua would walk up the path. She would turn from a chore, recognizing the sound of his step. They would meet in a warm embrace. The kids fussing, jumping, circling around, begging for him to haul them into his arms.
A festive family supper. Portions stretched to accommodate his unexpected presence. He would tell a well-honed tale of his adventures. Children spellbound in rapt attention. She felt light at these times, soaking up the warmth. The house gone quiet. He would confess how much he missed her. Present her with some little gift. A curio from a far-off land.
They would take the last candle nub up her crooked stairs, pausing over a baby asleep in its crib. Blowing out the candle, they would quietly undress in the dark, standing to either side of a suddenly too-narrow bed before meeting again as lovers under the quilts.
One time she did have the luxury of news of his imminent arrival. Her uncle Amasa Dyer, keeper of Highland Light, sent word after catching sight of Joshua’s vessel from the high, clay bluff.
This was his first homecoming after their marriage. She collected flowers. Daisies and canes of rambler-rose in full-bloom that beautiful June morning. Picked tiny, wild strawberries on the southerly slope of their hummock. Whipped cream. Set the two bowls side by side in her cool, damp spring-house. Dressed Stevie, then just two, in his best clothes. Arranged his curls, cooing, “You’ll soon meet your Pa.”
The next day she began to worry. To work off her frustration she painted her front door a brilliant periwinkle blue. On the third day, in a mounting confusion, she re-pointed the windows on the North side of the house. Their rattling in a sudden storm the night before kept her awake, tossing and turning.
Flowers wilted. Strawberries molded. Cream separated, runny and sour. Her freshly painted blue door was a single bright note against the bare, weathered gray and black shingles. It only made her house look, Shabby. Window-putty under her nails fueled her resentment, All I have to deal with while he’s away.
The wind finally shifted to the Southwest. His ship rounded Long Point. Eager to be with his woman after their long separation Joshua hitched a ride on a neighbor’s wide-tired farm wagon. Running up and over the hummock’s rim, cuffs weighed down with sand.
Little Stevie broke into tears at the sight of this strange man rushing towards him. His mother’s tense reaction brought him no comfort. His fancy clothes bedraggled after three days waiting. Curls tangled. Red cheeks streaming tears. Heaving his little shoulders up and down, taking in great gulps of air, bawling with the righteous indignation of a frightened two year old.
This Joshua was not the boy-groom who had left almost three years before. They never overcame this false start. After a week they stopped trying. Each secretly eager for his departure.
Her niece brought news this last time. Sally vowed, This will be different. Might take a week….
Stevie was a strapping boy, lengthening out, outgrowing his clothes no matter how often she let out the old or bought new off the peddler’s wagon. Her twin girls, The light of my life. Hand-in-hand, chattering over their games and chores. Her youngest, playing the part of a serious young-man of three.
She didn’t allow herself to worry. Not that first night nor the second. A knock at her door the next morning, Joshua? Why knock? Who could that be?
She stopped humming. Laid aside her pairing knife. Covered a bowl of rose-hips with a dish towel off the rack on the front of her range. A still-wet hand cupped squinting eyes. She hitched a step. Sped up and slowed down. At the doorway strong sunlight in her eyes, Who’s this?
A stout man on her stoop in silhouette. Peering at him, All in black. Bowler hat in his hand.
“Joshua?” Why just stand there?
The man shuffled and cleared his throat, “Mrs. Sally.”
Two more steps brought her to the door. Washed in bright light after the dark, narrow corridor. His face resolved into view.
She exhaled, “He’s gone.”
Joshua’s Captain, freshly shaved and tightly bound in his best collar, dropped his chin.
Her reaction surprised her more than his news, Calm. Cleaned out.
Crossing from her kitchen to her door, she had passed from wife to widow.
Sylvanus had prepared his announcement carefully. Going over what he would say many times over the last six months. Registered no more than her presence he began reciting from memory, “We lost sight of his boat. Spent days looking for him. Hands at every masthead. I sent boats out beyond the horizon. A gale…. Once it cleared our hopes went with it.” He focused on getting his words out just as he had prepared them. He stumbled. Returned to the beginning and started again, “I’m so sorry Mrs. Sally…. We did all we could….”
So hard for him.
Sylvanus was surprised by the depth of his own feelings. Confronting Sally had rekindled his own grief, “He was a trusted lieutenant, my protégé….” Been half a year. Still, It’s news to her!
He couldn’t help think of his own wife and daughters, Someone giving them news of my passing….
Her eyes welled up. Tears for him.
Sylvanus droned on about search patterns and the tricks a fog can play.
Stevie rounded the corner of the house, thinking his father was home, Something’s wrong.
Freezing in his tracks, he kept a mass of rambler-rose between him and the doorway. Blushing at his small act of concealment. He caught the gist, Father’s dead.
Don’t feel right.
He’s imagined what he would do at this moment. Going over it all in his mind many times. He would be filled with pride, standing by his widowed mother in a black, grown-up suit. Her arm in his, I’ll take care of her! Help raise the little ones.
Instead all he could think was, I’m alone.
Then an up-welling of frantic joy, “I’m free!”
I’ll get away. As soon as I can.
Nothing gonna stop me!