Authors: Dawn Tripp
Table of Contents
for my mother and father
Noel remembers it this way:
It was the season of open water, of breeding, spawning, rooting, of thawâa season brief, sudden, extravagant.
They had rounded the Cape, climbed halfway up the Pacific, then heaved to at Lahaina. They restocked the slops: casks of salt pork, fresh fruit, water, flour. They breamed the bottom of the hull, added another layer of oak sheathing to the bow, and continued north, in search of whales.
They spotted two early on, took them both, then had no luck for over a month. They scoured the North Pacific Grounds and shied into the fringes of the Arctic: through Seventy-two Pass, the Bering Strait, and up along that uncertain coast toward Icy Point.
It was 1868. Noel was seventeen. He had the strength of lions in his hands. With the other ship's carpenter, he stripped the resin pitch off the whale-boats and repainted the hulls white so they would seam into the ice. As he worked, he kept one eye skinned to the horizon, and still the ship pressed on, adrift for weeks through the endless daylight, the moon like an unfinished thumbprint lasting through the sky.
The season of whaling in the Arctic was brief: the ice melting, the water opening. The earth began to ripen: flowers busting up out of the tundra earth, blue spiked lupine, wild crocus, yellow poppy. The pack ice split to floes, and the trout ran thick through the hard fast streams; caribou, ptarmigan, lemmings, jaegers, terns. The sunlight blinding off the glaciers made their eyes ache, and still they cruised, as the leads widened, the snow softened out, and the water rushed over the ice.
They sailed west in the morning, east in the afternoon, tacking back and forth through the floes, waiting for some sign of the whale they had come to hunt, waiting for a slick or a spout, a fin or a blow. They listened for her call, that low and telling soundâa slow bellow. They waited for the black warp of her back to break out of a drift.
Once, as they came upon a flat meadow of ice, the whiteness exploded up and took itself to wingânot ice at all, but a raft of snow geese. The birds pulled together into shoals. Their wings hammered through the sky above the ship. Every man of the crew stopped his work and watched them, their barking cries shattering the stillness.
When he thinks back on it now, Noel remembers that he had loved the tedium, the haunting vacancy of days, the queer, indifferent light, the slow drift among the rotting bergs. But that same tedium made the other men restless. It needled themâthey knew they had little time to do what they had come to do. The Arctic was a ruthless place, a treacherous and godforsaken place. Its lull was fragile: the wind could seize up, a gale blow in; on an instant, the ice could freeze and lock behind them. The waiting made the men edgy, feverish and cruel. They picked at one another, broke out in fights. They did not shave. They did not stop work on Sundays. Then they spied the walrus pod, the mothers breaching with their young. They set upon them.
They killed four hundred in two daysâan unthinkable number. They slaughtered them. The cows screamed, clutching their pups under their flippers as they died and were hoisted on deck. They yielded little, but the men strained the meat for what oil could be rendered. They worked them through until the entire pod was taken and the water turned black and red, their carcasses drifting like a city of the dead through all the seas around them.
Now, more than half a lifetime since, and still every night, Noel dreams of the sea. But not of this. He does not dream of this.
Bridge first meets Henry Vonniker at the gathering after her cousin Asa's funeral. She does not see him right away. She does not notice when he comes into the room. She sits on a chair against the wall, a plate of food resting on her knees. She wears a white blouse, a wool skirt, and hard black shoes. The yellow glow of the kerosene light plays across the top edge of her plate, and she slides her knife through a boiled potato, splitting it in half. Steam rises from the flesh.
It is early evening, after candlelight. The room is crowded. The dead man's mother and his sister cry quietly in one corner. Two men, dairy farmers from Blossom Road, stand in front of Bridge, their backs turned toward her. They talk about Asaâhow he had made quite a name for himself in the rum-running trade, then double-crossed the wrong man.
“Went all the way to Texas to get out of trouble,” one remarks. “And trouble followed him all the way out there.” The man speaking is a big man, a gray wool jacket tight across his shoulders.
“Did Asa find work out in Texas?”
“Yeah. Hauling water to the roughnecks at the oil wells. Talk was, someone wanted the job and killed him for it. Hard to believeâthe guy slips out of the booze here, slips out by the skin of his teeth, then gets knocked off selling water.”
The other man, black-haired and smaller, in a pinstripe suit, doesn't answer. He digs one hand into his pocket and glances over his shoulder. He notices Bridge sitting behind them. His eye trails down her leg. Then he catches her eye on him. His face flushes and he looks away, ashamed. He draws his handkerchief from his trouser pocket. A folded ten-dollar bill falls to the floor. He does not notice it.
Bridge stays with her knife and fork poised, staring at the dropped bill that lies less than six inches from her shoe. The two farmers go on talking about the dead man, one saying how he remembers when Asa was a boy, his uncle took him to the first World Series in 1903, the year the Boston Pilgrims beat the Pittsburgh Pirates. When slugger Buck Freeman popped one high into the crowd, Asaânine years oldâreached up and caught that ball with his bare hands.
“He caught a ball alrightâsmall shiny bullet kind between the eyes. Black luck runs through that whole brood.”
Bridge bites her lip as the smaller, dark-haired man clears his throat and jerks a slight nod over his shoulder at her. The big man turns and takes her in. He smiles. She smiles back and goes on cutting up her food.
“Just saying the way I see it, Leo,” the man says, turning back around. He pauses, then remarks, “Pete Lowry came in earlier. Did you see that? He's short on brains to show up here.”
Bridge slices off a piece of turkey and spears it with her fork. Without looking down, she slides her right foot across the floor and covers the ten-dollar bill with her shoe.
“Who's the natty dresser over there?”
“In the corner. Standing with Millie.”
“Oh that's Vonniker. Forget the first name. He's Millie's boss at the mill.”
“Never seen him before.”
“Lives down on West Beach. The big house near the causeway. Was a doctor once. War ate him up.”
“War'll do that.”
They fall silent for a moment, looking toward the corner of the room. Without taking her shoe off the bill on the floor, Bridge leans slightly forward in her chair and follows their gaze.
Across the room next to Asa's mother stands a man in a dark suit. Bridge has never seen him before. He wears glasses. The bones of his face are strong, and he is tall, a few inches taller than Bridge's brother, Luce. As Bridge watches, the man sits down in the empty chair next to Millie Sisson. He says something to her and takes her hand, and Bridge can sense a sadness flow between them. Millie begins to weep again, her old eyes swollen, and the man does not bend closer; he does not try to say or do anything to mute her grief; he just sits there with her, quietly, holding her hand.
Bridge sits back in her chair. She does not think of them again. She is thinking of the ten-dollar bill under her shoe. She cuts up another potato and eats it, killing time as the two farmers talk. After a while, they move outside for a smoke, and when they do, she lays her plate on the small table next to her, bends down, and with her napkin, pretends to rub at a smudge on the side of her shoe. She lifts her foot, slips the bill into her hand, then into the pocket of her skirt.
She straightens up again and looks around the room. The crowd has begun to thin. Millie Sisson is still in her corner, more composed now, her hands folded in her lap. The chair beside her is empty. Against the wall by the doorway that leads into the kitchen stands Bridge's grandfather, Noel, yarning with his old shipmate Rui. Her eyes soften as she watches them. They will be grumbling about the scallop season, she guesses, how the catch has been skinny so farâthe fault of a too wet summer. Rui might mention the busted gunwale on his skiff. He will try to talk Noel into fixing it. Her grandfather holds a mug of coffee, his broad weathered fingers wrapped around it. Beyond them, in the kitchen, Bridge's mother, Cora, is washing dishes in the soapstone sink. White crockery heaps, rinsed and glowing, on the wooden counter next to her.
Bridge stands up and walks outside onto the back porch.
The night air is damp and cool on her legs. A knot of men stand around a fire in the yard, her brother, Luce, among them. They feed the burn from a pile of scrapâboards and shingles, chunks of punk wood. They laugh and talk and pass around two canning jars of homemade gin. The heat wrinkles the air. Bridge watches Luce's face, flushed and wavering in the flames and smoke. He has loosened the collar of his shirt. She walks over to him. He smells of the drink and the fire.
“Tell Ma I'm going home,” she says.
“You gonna walk?”
“Smells like rain.”
“I'll be fine.”
“Wait a bit. I'll get Billy to drive us.”
“Half hour or so.”
“Alright then. I'm going to take a walk down to the pond.”
He grins and bends toward her, his breath near her ear. “Watch out for Asa.”
She walks away from him across the sloped yard.
“Little sister's looking fine, Luce,” she hears someone say behind her.
“Put a bung in it, Mills,” Luce snaps.
Bridge climbs up onto the dirt path that borders the millpond and walks toward the woods. The grass is tall and wet. The smell of the fire fades out behind her, replaced by the sharp clean scent of trees. There are rings around the moon, glowing yellow and blue in the fog. The moon is heavy on the surface of the millpond. The water seems to bend under the weight of the light.
She hears voices ahead of her on the pathâmen's voices, angry. She sees a flash of white behind the old pump house. She slips into the trees and strains her eyesâshadows movingâa white shirtâ two men, no, three. She continues walking toward them, slowly, quietly. She keeps behind the trees.
She recognizes two of Asa's older brothers, Mike and Jude Sisson, and a third man, blond and thin, who she knows by sight as Peter Lowry from the north part of town. Jude is holding Lowry by the arms, and Mike, a good six inches shorter than Lowry but wide as a bait barrel, is right up close to him, his finger in the other man's face.
“Telling you, Mikey, Asa was my friend,” Lowry says, his voice slurred.
“Hell of a friend,” says Mike. “You show up just to be sure we put him in the ground. Show up in the bag to boot.”
“Telling you, Mikey, it wasn't me who snitchedâ”
Mike hits him hard in the gut. Lowry crumples, but Jude holds him up, and Mike hits him again. Lowry gags.
“Shit, he puked on my shoes.” Mike takes a step back and drags his feet through the grass. He runs his other hand over his knuckles. “He's a bony one, Jude.” He steps back in again toward Lowry. “No room for blue jays in this town.”
“It wasn't meâ”
And Mike begins to work him over, the punches thrown slowly, evenly paced, intentional, his fist sinking into the other man's body. Bridge watches them from behind a tree. She does not take her eyes off them. What they are doing does not feel wrong to her. It does not make her feel anything. It is an act of reliable violence, clear-cut and justified. The order of things. Mike deals Lowry one swift, stunning punch to the head, and Lowry's face snaps sideways, his chin falls forward toward his chest, a small sound whining out of him, then silence. Mike steps back. He nods. Jude lets go. Lowry drops to the ground.
Mike wipes off his hands on his trousers. He takes out a cigarette. “You got a match, Jude?”
“I got a box somewhere.” Mike fishes through his pockets.
“He'll sleep it off, you think?” Jude asks.
“Well, he's not close to dead.”
“Won't be as pretty for a while.”
Mike has found his matches. He strikes one against the box. The flame illuminates his face as he draws in on the cigarette. He throws the spent match at Lowry. “He will get dead by somebody one of these days. He's marked for it. But that somebody won't be me.”
Jude gives Lowry a small kick in the thigh. He doesn't move. The two men start back toward the house. They pass close by Bridge without seeing her, and continue on the path around the millpond. Their smells drift back to her, sweat and fresh smoke. She breathes softly in the shadow of the tree. She watches them until they have passed down the knoll and she can see them crossing up the yard toward the fire. They fold in among the other men. Behind them, the house glowsâsmooth yellow light through the windows, the curtains curved inside them. Her heart beats strongly in her chest. Her hands are damp. She looks toward the man lying on the ground. His hair is thick and fair, and there is mud in it. He stirs, groans. He tries to push himself up, and she goes to move toward him, to help him. She catches herself, stops. He folds his arm under his head and slumps back down again. She looks away, toward the millpond. The beauty of it startles her. The water, the light wind scattering across it, the woods deep, untouched, and stillâall of it so serene, it takes her breath, and for a moment she feels that the hardness of her world has softened. A sadness sweeps through her, for Millie, for Jude and Mike, for Asa. He was young to dieâjust a few years older than her brother, Luceâtoo young and it had happened. He had fled the earth or got kicked off the edge of it. Either way, it didn't matter. It was done.
She walks slowly back toward the house to look for Luce. But he is not outside by the fire. She sees Mike and Jude Sisson, and they stare, seeing her walk out of the woods, knowing, perhaps fearing, what she saw. She stares back at them. Mike gives her a weak smile. She nods at him. He looks away.
She walks into the house and scans the room, but there is no sign of Luce, no sign of her grandfather Noel, or her mother. She sees Millie, still sitting in her corner, her hands still folded on her lap, eyes closed, as if she has resigned herself to that chair. But apart from Millie, the room seems full of strangers, people she might have known an hour ago, they all seem distant to her now. Again she feels a slight wrench in her heart, and she turns to leave the room, the house, to get back outside into the cool and open air. She notices him thenâthe man Vonnikerâstanding alone. On the wall behind him is a crude sketch of a ship drying sail. Without intending to she stops, her eyes on his face. He is close to her, looking away, across the room, but close enough that she can see the smooth planes of light across his cheekbones, the fractured lines at the corners of his eyes. Her hand goes to the pocket of her skirt, the folded edges of the stolen ten-dollar bill, crisp and dry against her skin. He glances at her suddenly, and for a momentâit only takes a momentâhis eyes touch hers.
He smiles. She feels her face flush. She turns on her heel, walks out the door and runs straight into Luce.
“I was looking for you, Bridge.”
“Then let's go.”
“You look queer.”
“See a ghost down there by the pond?”
“I saw nothing. Come on, let's go.”