Twelve

 

Walking fast, hunched forward, hands deep in his trouser pockets. Snow falling in big flat flakes out of a pewter sky, Feels like dusk. Still early afternoon. A cap of snow, accumulates on his hair. Slips forward. Stevie’s footsteps, resound in his ears, Scrunch-squish, breaking through a crust of frozen sand, Quiet. No wind. Snowflakes make a sound. One slaps his nose. Cold and wet on his warm skin.

Father’s old Pea Jacket. Still too big for me. Snow settles on his shoulders. Freezes to his woolen scarf. Body-heat rising, ears and cheeks bright red, Tender.

“I’m goin’…. Don’t care what she says….” Half articulated declarations, punctuated by his pounding stride. A sharp contrast catches his eye. A bayberry bush etched black against the carved-ivory of frozen sand and pure-white falling snow. A patch of glowing golden-ocher clay, Like a shaft of sunlight. Shriveled rose hips. Dark vermilion. Faded orange. Puckered in the cold.

Don’t care where I’m goin’! Anywhere. S’ long as it’s away from that damn kitchen, “I’m sixteen!”

*

Sally arranges her washing on a drying rack next to a dull-black cast-iron range. She lifts socks and underclothes from a wicker basket. Shakes them with a brisk, Snap. Drapes them over the narrow bars of a scissor-framed, wooden rack. A faded and worn openwork shawl about her neck. A thin calico apron shields her dress. Wisps of graying hair fall from a bun on the back of her head. Her hands provide the only note of color. Taut, red skin. Purple highlights rim prominent knuckles and short-trimmed nails. Her clear gray eyes intent on her work; she brings an alert efficiency to the task, assessing each piece as she gathers it up. Flicks her wrists to shake it smooth. A quick once over. This side. Then the other. Smooths each one before reaching for the next. Sets aside anything torn or worn out. A small pile of articles in need of mending grows at her side. Her movements precise and controlled. The result of countless repetitions over many years.

*

Plain, bleached-linen curtains hold all the light of the late November day to themselves. The bare wood-floor is dull, worn. Enameled bead & cove walls, their robin’s egg blue reduced to a faint gray in the dim light. A satin sheen reflects off an open-shelved cupboard by the window. An indigo blue bottle on the window sill glows in the feeble light. On the narrow counter the rim of a two-gallon crock shines, pearly highlights dancing in the gloom.

*

Little Ben plays under the table. Stacks wooden blocks and scraps of kindling, humming softly to himself. His twin sisters sit at its far end. Liz reads a primer. Its cloth-cover swollen, bursting at the corners. Cardboard stiffeners gone soggy over the years. The rough weave of custard-colored canvas has pulled away from the fuzzy-gray pulp inside. Ruth sits hunched. A thick yellow pencil poking from her balled fist. Her hand moves in fits and starts across a page as she writes. Her face close to the page. Her lips moving as she sounds out each word.

They’re dressed for the season and the raw day. Ben, bundled in a sweater so large it turns him pear-shaped. Wider than he is tall, forcing him to sit straight upright. His legs held out at an impossibly sharp right-angle. He swivels from side to side, building his tower. Mutters commands to himself under his breath. Puffs like a steam shovel. The girls wear long-sleeved undershirts that cover their arms and protrude from under gray-checked calico frocks. Necks wrapped tightly in pale blue scarves. Matching calico bonnets cover their heads.

Stevie paces. Arms bare. Hand-me-down cloth and leather suspenders hang from his thin shoulders. A tracery of fine red-lines where its straps cut into young skin. Welts run across his shoulders from prominent clavicles to sharp, protruding scapula. Coarse, slate-gray woolen-trousers hang from his waist. Below turned-up cuffs his feet are bare. Rough, callused. Too big for him. A puppy’s paws slapping the floor.

His skin translucent in the dim light. His summer-tan faded. The red marks on his shoulders match the strong color on his cheeks and ears. A banked fire, radiating vitality.

Dawn was bleak. A pale yellow glow radiating from a shallow bowl of featureless sky low over their hollow. His mother thinks aloud, reviewing chores to be done before winter settles in, “Snow before nightfall.” Dinner done. Washing at hand. She goes on about wood to be collected, A patch on the cow-shed roof. Dig up the last of the turnips. Bury ’em in sand in the crawl space….

Stevie’s thoughts press on him. Chaffing at another Autumn wasted in school, Did a man’s work last summ’ah. Fish traps took down for the wint’ah. Scow hauled above the Spring tides. Nets folded away in the fish house. Boat put up on roll’ahs. Cov’ahd with ta’hps. Trap work sta’hts ‘n a few weeks. Net-mendin’, overhaulin’ the runnin’ ge’ah…. Plenty to do. Wages to be made. Reset ’em in Ma’ch. Fo’ah the runs of Spring Herrin’.

His mother goes on with her inventory, “Mend the ladd’ah. Point the chimney on the no’th side.” Rising, a pair of Stevie’s drawers in her hands, she slides a shirt aside to fit them on the rack.

Stevie’s thoughts bubble out, “I’m grown-up! Wanna get on a dragg’ah o’h a’h scallop’ah! This is my yea’ah!” Standing with his back to her facing the window.

Searching her basket, “Git some dressin’ ov’ah on the bay side t’ put on the ga’hden…”

Egged on by the tone of his own voice, he strides to the table, “G’it some real wages!”

“Switch the privy ov’ah t’ the oth’ah pit….” Sally casts a glance over her shoulder.

He slams his hand on the table. Eyes bright. Color rising in his face, “’Lo’at bett’ah than hangin’ ’round he’ah!”

Ben’s tower topples. He sits stunned for a moment. Turns to his mother and starts to bawl. Liz and Ruth stare at Stevie with identical open mouths. Eyes round. Cheeks pale.

Sally holds Stevie with a look, “No need to raise you’ah voice to me young man!” Turns to her youngest. His dreams in ruins on the floor, “Shush now Ben!” With a touch of impatience, “Jest sta’ht ov’ah will y’ah?”

“S’ all right….” Not his fault.

The girls lower their eyes to their schoolwork. Steal sideways glances. Keen interest shining bright in their blue eyes, A shared secret.

Stevie blushes, “Ma, I mean it! I’m grown up now! Pa’s gone and I can do mo’ah! T’ain’t no nurse-maid. No fa’hm’ah! What good is it t’a spend anoth’ah wint’ah at that damn school?”

“Watch your mouth now!”

Desperate to break free he turns away. Shoulders tighten. A frustrating conclusion, She’ll never understand!  blocks any other thought.

“Steven we’ve been ov’ah this befo’ah. You’ah gonna finish the school yea’ah. Then y’a c’in go back on the trap boat fo’ah the summ’ah. Don’t make me have t’a say it ag’in!”

Her eyes hold him. She says her piece. Not loud. Her long neck, erect posture, carry her conviction. She leans towards him. Hands at her sides held together by concerted will. Arms straight. Fists closed.

Stevie slides backwards. Feels the room tilt.

I gotta! Or everythin’s ruined.

An echo of her young husband’s face in his look, He’s ne’ah the age we wed.

“Ya don’t cay’ah what I want! I hate this!” His voice rises, “I hate you!”

She doesn’t move. Her eyes on his, In a panic. Her love for him wells up. He’s like the boy I grew fond of as a girl. Father’s eyes had this same expression….

He has to get louder and madder just to get the words out. Steps closer. Inches from her face, “I HATE YOU!”

Spittle strikes her cheek. She blinks, Too much. Father’s long gone. Joshua’s a corpse-less ghost. Too much. This was an argument over practical matters.

Her left hand rises. Sweeps across his face, SLAP! A livid mark pale white on his flushed red cheek. Her wedding band scrapes across young skin, leaving a string of crimson drops rising. Her fingertips sweep the end of his delicate nose. A spray of bloody mucus. Her hand drops to her side. Her force spent. The force of the blow reverberates through thin shoulders. A twist of her waist. Hips anchored on long legs. Feet planted on the floor.

Their eyes meet. They melt together in a held gaze. The room dissolves. Heartbeats pound in their ears. A frightening glimpse of adult emotion. He tastes blood. His nose bleeds in earnest. She feels an immediate, deep regret. Anger at her own lapse hardens her face into a mask, I can’t afford this. Have to be strong. They depend on me more than they know.

He drops his eyes. Turns away. His hand to his nostril. Warm drops turn cold on his fingers. Fall to the floor. His face drains of color. Pallor against blood on his cheek. A too powerful intimacy. He shuts himself off. Goes cold. Anything to keep from breaking down in his mother’s kitchen.

Anger holds a promise. Her slap, a justification. He wraps himself in it, “Bitch!” The word forms on his lips. Exhaled on his breath. Not loud. Not whispered.

This takes him beyond anything he’s ever imagined. His first wounding, earnest curse. He turns. Heads for the door. Reaches for his jacket. Pulls his scarf from a slash pocket. Grabs his shoes off the mat next to the door and walks out into the sere-grass yard.

She stands still for a moment following her son with her eyes. He falls away from her and out the door. Reaching for his nose in a lowering turn, hunched over. Shorter and smaller, younger than ever. The bulk of the coat spilling out from under his bare arm. His frail figure recedes across the yard. Smaller. Swallowed by the first falling flakes that twirl and spin down from a milky sky.

Ben began to cry when they first raised their voices. Her slap brought on a shriek. The first touch of the cold reaches her from the open doorway, “Liz, close the door.”

Her shoulders relax. She steps over to lift Ben off the floor. His arms high, pleading for her neck. She hoists her strapping six year old as though he’s an infant. Hitching her gait, she translates his weight to her hip. Hugs him close. Pats his back in time with his sobs. Coos, Relax…, losing herself in sixteen years of child-rearing routine.

The girls step to the door together. Stand side by side looking out. Their brother already out of sight over the hummock. Bare footprints trace the sandy path rising through the cleft, light against the dark.

She urges them gently, “C’mon now, close the door.” Turns a circle in the middle of the room, taking in the walls, the cupboards, the table and chairs, the stove and the wash rack. Cooing into Ben’s ear she feels herself relax along with him. Drained of emotion and will. Ben begins to weigh on her. The fresh cool of the room, Wash still in its basket, supper to prepare….

*

His momentum carries Stevie over the hummock onto the old King’s Highway. He’s well out into the dunes before he takes notice of where he is. Cold stabs, pinching bare feet. He doesn’t stop. He hops and hobbles onward, skipping a step to pull on a sock, then a shoe, the other sock…. Snow landing on his arms, Feels good! melts and runs down his skin, diluting tears drying on his cheeks. His nose runs more than bleeds. Strands of mucus smear his upper lip. Wiping his face with the back of his hand, Crusty and cool. A hard ring of clotted blood cracks around his right nostril.

*

The warming cocoon of his hurt feelings wears off. Stabbing an arm into a sleeve he puts on his coat. Anger returning, driving him along. He jerks a red scarf out of his pocket. Wraps it tight around his neck, relishing the scrape of coarse wool across bare skin at the nape of his neck.

Snow stops falling. The sky wounded: a pale peach light in the southwest mottled with purple and dark blues and grays. From the crest of this westernmost dune Long Point appears as a dark smudge on the horizon silhouetted against the weak dusk. The bay reflects the sky in broad bands. Pinks alternate with periwinkle gray where  a line of ripples break its surface. To his right the arm of Wood End thickens into the skyline of the town. A few schooners lie in a jumble at their moorings, riding at various angles in the slack of low tide. Reflections shiver across the water.

A fine mauve mist softens gnarled woods across the hillocks of the town, the pale-gray of weathered shingle houses. The low skyline punctuated by the dark silhouettes of steeples and spires. Above all, the monument. A commanding presence. A vertical counter to the sweep of the arms of the east and west ends. Together they form, An embrace. The dark tower calling down a benediction.

Jumping from the crest of the dune the shallows of East Harbor fill his view. The bay contracts to a sliver behind the low sand hills on Beach Point. He skids, sliding with short stuttering steps down the steep slope. Snow clings in patches. Trapped under tufts of beach grass, dark, bleached of all color. A tangle of roots, half his height, in cutaway profile just below the rim. A nearly vertical drop for the first dozen feet. His knees buckle. His thighs absorb the inertia. He slows. The slope rises to meet him, leaning back, throwing his arms out for balance.

Straightening up, his hands return to his pockets. His gait returns to normal. The dune is tall behind him. Rivulets of sand and snow follow him down the slope. This mini-avalanche overtakes him, coming to rest on either side. His shoes and cuffs heavy with sand. His spine rebounds. Like he’s floating above the ground.

As the light fades his path is blocked by a line of reeds, East Ha’bah. He follows the foot of the dune around to the southeast, A long way back. Skirt the marsh to the Head of the Meadow? Walking on, his grievances battle with his constitutional vitality. Immersed in the aching beauty of his surroundings.

“Tain’t no kid an’ay mo’ah!” The pendulum swings back, Home’s to the right. Cross the mah’sh. Up High Head. That way’s the Backside. A surfman’s path runs along the crest of the beach-side dune, Not ready to give up. Face his mother, his sisters. Gazing off towards the shore-path, Not tired. The cold doesn’t enter his calculations.

He reaches the ocean north of the halfway house between the Highland and Peaked Hill Bar Stations, Nobody out he’ah. This time of the ye’ah?

*

Dark. Snow falling in swirls around him. Visibility just a dozen feet. The wind is stronger. From the northeast, In my face. His jacket weighs on him, plastered with wet snow. His shoulders rub against coarse fabric, Cold! Moisture soaks through thick wool. My feet. Snow has drifted along the right edge of the path almost level with the crest, filling the hollow. He slogs through it knee-deep. It cakes inside and outside his trouser legs. Freezes around his socks. His shoes are too tight on his growing feet, Pinch. His toes tingle and rebel. Blisters form on his heels. One pops. The back of his shoe rakes up and down against raw flesh with each step.

These discomforts, duly noted, ride quietly in the back of his mind. Hours of walking, the mesmerizing flicker of falling snow always ahead, lull him into a peaceful self-containment. He forgets why he’s out here. Lost in the rhythm of his pace. The exhilaration of his surroundings.

The beach is off to his right below the slope of the dune. Fall’s storm-tides cut a steep bank into the shoreline, carving a sharply undercut vertical edge narrowing the crowned upper beach mounded high during mild summer weather. Below sand slopes steeply down to the water. A rising tide and strong wind send breakers tumbling across the outer bars. They hit with a rolling, Thump. Backwash sizzling on the sand. The waves, the beach itself, all but invisible in the dark; unrecognizable but for the sounds. Muffled by the snow, echoes of the crashing foam bounce off the bank. This is all familiar to Stevie. It has a comforting, hypnotic effect.

Even in the dark the path is more or less clear, running just inland of the crest of the dune. Just above him to his right the tallest curl of sand rises up to fifty feet above the sea. Sandbanks held together by nothing more than gravity and sparse patches of dune grass. Spiky tufts twirl waist high on either side, lost in the darkness. Snow illuminates a rounded gully. The path worn into the dune by the surfmen, Keep to the bottom of this gully. Can’t get lost.

The crest falls away to his right. Fat snowflakes and wind-driven sand splatter into his half-closed eyes, Can’t see much. Don’t matter. A floating sensation of a wider world fills the darkness. The path descends. Wanders inland to his left. The sound of the breakers and the beating wind recedes. His body heat rises. His cheeks warm. His breathing becomes the loudest sound. His world closes in to this narrow circle.

The trail, neither straight nor level, winds up and down each undulation of the dune. Its path follows wherever the sea’s erosion has created an edge. The shore trends northward then arcs to the Northwest. The wind, no longer in his face, hits his side. He slows to shuffle through the snow. Yielding sand always make it hard to walk. He leans into the stronger gusts. Speeding up on shallow down-hills, he slows to chug flat-footed up the next rise. His view hemmed. Attention focused on his next step, judging his stride to give his footfalls the optimum thrust without breaking through the crust.

He walks on. Up and down, following the shifts of the path by feel. His progress absorbs his full attention. A scrap of a shout behind him. A feeble glimmer of yellow light splashes the sand ahead, “Ho there!” Right behind me.

His first instinct is to bolt. Run off the path into the dunes and on across a wild, low moorland, Like a rabbit! His shoulders swivel. He sets his right foot. Ready to pivot, What’s the use?

Got every right to be here… A squat figure chugs down the opposite slope, an over-sized lantern held high, glinting off shiny-black oilskins. He swings a long wooden staff through a broad arc. Hanging from his shoulder, a shiny leather belt cuts across his belly, supporting an over-size watch-clock that bumps against his hip with each step. Rubber boots up to his knees. A Black Sou’wester tied under his chin. He jogs towards Stevie. Out of breath, “Is the’ah a wreck? Whe’ah d’ya come asho’ah? Any oth’ahs?”

Me? shipwrecked? Figures nobody else ’ld be out he’ah at this ow’ah on a night like this. The surfman marches up to Stevie. Light held high to illuminate the boy’s face. Ragged breath. Shoulders heaving, expecting dread news, girding himself for a long night of toil and danger.

Stevie looks up, blinking in the glare.

“Stevie? Stevie Small?” Ran a dozen yards. All worked up. For this!

“Yes, it’s me, Surfman Sylvia. No wreck I know of.”

“What in God’s name a’h y’a doin’ out he’ah? You’ah ma all right?

“Fine. Jest out for a walk…. I guess.” Stevie drops his eyes. Sees Bill Sylvia’s boots, Snow gettin’ deep’ah!

Out walkin’ on a night like this! I gotta do it in all weath’ah. Know ‘nough t’ get inside when I’m done! Youngst’ahs! “Y’a gave me a sta’ht! Y’a should be home in y’er bed!”

The lecture. “Yes, sir. Guess I lost track o’ the time.”

“Lost track o’ the time? Blowin’ half a blizza’hd! Y’a headin’ in the wrong d’rection!”

“I know, I t’ain’t ti’yit. … I like the snow….” Don’t want no paht of this! Waste of breath.

Bill shakes his head. “Sh’eesh! No tellin’!” Spits chaw to leeward, a deft and practiced motion. Delicate for a beefy ex-fisherman. Snow sticks to his Sou’wester. Piling on as fast as it slips off to run down his broad cheek. “T’ain’t out he’ah to argue with y’a boy. Gott’a git on with my patrol. Y’a bett’ah git on home now a’fore it gits any wo’hse!”

The weight of his watch-clock is a constant reminder of the schedule he’s sworn to keep. Hiking back and forth between the station and the halfway house day and night. Keys by each doorway to verify his rounds.

Much worse out the’ah. Take a wa’hm dry bunk ov’ah a smelly wet foc’sle any day!

Bill pats Stevie on the shoulder. Presses his ham of a hand on his back as he passes, Go home! Git out’ah my sight!

Stevie doesn’t resist. Staggers back along the path. Stops to watch the surfman trudge up the next rise. Lantern low by his ankle. His walking staff polling him on his way, Gotta make up for lost time.

Lantern light pulses with each swing of his arm. Brighter as it rises behind him, contracting to a sharp circle at his feet as he swings ahead. He stops at the top of the next rise. Turns, lifting his lantern high, “Git on home! No night t’be out he’ah!” Doesn’t wait for an answer. Soon out of sight.

Something to it. Nasty night. Git somethin’ to eat. A dry bed…. Stevie starts back the way he’s come, It’s late. Moth’ah’ll be worried. Top o’ everythin’. Waitin’ up. Or worse. All weepy….

His purposeful step falters. Feeling his fatigue, he slows. The wind and snow behind him over his left shoulder, Can see bett’ah. He looks up more often. A double set of fresh tracks runs in and out of the snow drifts, Moon rise? Few days past full. Dah’k ain’t as thick as befo’ah.

Snow falls heavier. It flies horizontally past his head. The moon glow emanates from the snowflakes themselves. Visibility closes-in to a few yards. In a lull the light dims, but his view expands. He can make out the underside of scud churning overhead. The circle of dunes and scrub-land form a giant room beneath this ceiling of ragged vapor. Breakers froth pale to the east. Glowing foam merges with wisps of snow and spray. The wind behind his ears lets sounds reach him. He can hear each wave beat. The seething wash blends into a great noise that fills the space around him.

 

 

Continue…

 

 

 

 

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