Authors: Michael Parker
She told him he was welcome to stay in the shed until he found other lodgings, but that there wasn't any way she could pay him.
“Whaley never thought of that, did he?”
“Beg your pardon, ma'am?”
“Call me Theodosia,” she said, not kindly. She did not want to be shrill with him, but he was a part of the plan.
“Where did he go?” she said.
“Where did who go?”
“You'll have to fend for yourself. Did he expect you to stay around forever making sure we don't starve? Is this his idea of what freedom is?”
Hezekiah stood stiffly before her, still holding the pail of water.
“I will not have it,” she said. “Think of the position he's left us both in. I am unable to compensate you, which makes my dependence on your help criminal, an affront to God's laws, and though he paid you and purportedly set you free, he expected you to remain here, in service to us.”
“I believe I'd be more comfortable calling you Miss Whaley,” he said, but it was clear that he was trying not to say something else.
“As if that is who I am,” she said. “Ever was.”
He said nothing. They stood there in the high sun, sweating. The part of her that noticed and pitied his obvious discomfort was a sliver compared to her anger, which made her ancient wounds ache as if Whaley, by abandoning her, by tricking this poor man with false promises of freedom, had unleashed Daniels's dog again.
Finally Hezekiah said, “I didn't have nothing to do with him leaving out of here. He never said a word to me about it or any of his private business. I told you the truth. He said, âYou don't owe me nothing.' He said he hoped he lived long enoughâ”
“I have work to do,” she said, and returned to the summer kitchen.
This wasn't an excuse. She had twice as much work to do now that the burden of feeding and sheltering her children fell upon her only, for employing the assistance of Whaley's replacement was unthinkable to her. She'd not ask Hezekiah for a thing, just to spite Whaley's scheme. She chopped wood and set nets and cleaned fish and weeded the garden and scrubbed the floors and as she worked she was plagued by a recurring image of Whaley's return to his real wife. She saw him loping up a long lane in the English countryside, saw him turn hesitantly into the courtyard of a tidy cottage with a roof of abundant thatch. A stainedaproned woman feeding chickens glanced up at him warily and without recognition. He called her name. Sarah? Abigail? Only the name changed in the scene, which repeated itself incessantly, moving from yard to the parlor where the faithful loving wife fed her prodigal husband and then into the bedchamber where Theo could not bring herself to turn away from the details of their intimacy. To block this nightmare, Theo tried to conjure her own return to The Oaks, but she could only make it as far as the infernal and malarial swamps, which steamed with wintry fog.
A week after Whaley disappeared she went out to milk the
cow. Nora, as was her habit, had strayed with several other cows into the soundside marsh, where she grazed for hours, neither budging nor bothering to lift her head in response to Theo's call. Theo lifted her skirts and picked carefully through the oyster and clam shells lining the shore. Soon the bottom was hard packed and ridged by the current, and her feet, exhausted from a hard half day's work, felt as if they were being caressed by the slow pull of the tide, which was just beginning to rise. She stopped, stood still for a minute. The day was warm but the sun's disappearance darkened the waters as thick clouds streamed lazy and low. The thought of what she might look like to anyone happening along ashore nearly made her smile. Her mind cleared and the water washed away all her pain. No scars on her legs and arms and neck, no weather-triggered aches, no worry about how to feed her children, what to do about Hezekiah. She dropped her skirt and moved forward slowly, letting the water work its magic. What a treasure is this blankness, only sun and warm water and the rasp of the grasses in the intermittent wind. But she needed milk. With Whaley gone, the day was so much fuller, which was the way she struggled to make sense of his absence, as an annoyance, for this was easier than giving way to grief. The mounting catalog of all that she must accomplish before noon made her sigh at her laziness and trudge awkwardly ahead, calling out to Nora, the water fighting back, thick and resistant, until she stepped from firm sand into a patch of soft mud. When she stopped sinking the water rose to her waist. A foot in front of her a clump of sea
oats sprouted, but as she leaned forward to pull herself out of the mire she lost her balance and pitched face-first into the water. The effort it took to right herself sucked her under a good half foot. Nora and her companions stood nearby, grazing with the unhurried and implacable dignity of cattle. Simply breathing soaked Theo's forehead with sweat. The chambers of her heart constricted. She'd heard of this happening to island boys, the tide rising, a death so slow and patient. She'd rather the sword of the pirate, the feral attack of a watchdog. Who was going to save her this time? Since she had gone years without regular prayer or thoughts in the general direction of heaven except to sometimes mumble a plea for rain to save her garden, or a request for a storm to divert its path, calling upon God to rescue her with his touch would only damn her.
The tide rose to her rib cage. Thinking of her children orphaned, both parents disappearing within days, brought tears. Her high cries for help had turned thin and hoarse by the time Nora and her companions, repelled by her yelling, lumbered out of the water onto shore and disappeared over a dune. More clouds blew in, no longer delightfully slow and white. Graying, then black-hearted. Increasing wind whipped the water into a steady chop. She grew chilly, then freezing, the water up to her breasts. She tried to turn to face shore, but the simplest movement sucked her under farther. An eighth inch was a precious plenty. Shivering, reciting the names of her children, the things she loved about eachâPhillip's bossiness, Amanda Jane's prissiness, Alexander's
eternal sweetnessâshe watched a barnacled bottle bearing a message from her father float idly by. She let it go. He was dead, or perhaps the emperor of Mexico. It hardly mattered now, the water at her shoulders.
Then a frigate appeared so close she could see the muzzles of cannon from below deck portholes, dispatched two men in a dinghy. She saw them between waves, there and then gone, the truth and a lie, her blank present and her peopled past. The rower had his back to her; in the stern a man whose face, when she finally placed it, wrestled her to the floor in front of the fire, a wintry night in Whaley's old lean-to. Daniels's eyes, steel gray and unblinking. Then she understood, and what washed over her from the neck down was not seawater but shame. How could she ever have believed Daniels would leave them be? She sobbed Whaley's name and those of her children, so dear to her, all she'd accomplished in this world, then closed her eyes to what might happen next.
When she opened them the water was flat and sun-touched. Her shoulders were exposed to the sun, and then her breasts, and finally her elbows. Behind her she heard the sibilant disturbance of water by rhythmically orchestrated oar. When he was in front of her, Hezekiah extended the oar to her, but rather than grab it she said, “I need you to pull me out, I've not the strength to do it myself,” and after some hesitation, he drew the dinghy close enough behind her to hook his arms around her just below her bosom and hoist her into the boat.
She lay there, exhausted, remembering her arrival on this island, similarly incapacitated at the bottom of a leaky boat, and when she could breathe again she cried out for Whaley.
“We have to find him,” she told Hezekiah, “they've come to harm him, we've got to dispose of that portrait, it's all my doing, as ever my thoughtlessness is to blame.”
“Hush now,” Hezekiah said, but she could not stop talking, and when they reached shore she had told him everything: her father, the duel, Joseph, the head of the nag, Daniels sparing her, Whaley taking her in, her return to Daniels's compound, the scars across her body. Hezekiah looked to shore and rowed while she talked. Bent to his task, he appeared burdened by the facts she imparted, though she knew he was listening. She knew that he heard her. He had come for her, after all.
“Whaley sent you to find me,” she said.
“No ma'am. The children came home from school and you never did come back. I seen you leave out this morning and I figured something happened. I borrowed this boat and I'm hoping whoever it belong to don't discover it gone.”
She said, “Will you help me find Whaley?”
He'd helped her out of the boat and dragged it up under a wax myrtle where he'd found it, out of the way of the tide.
“You need to get back and tend to those children.”
“You'll help me find him,” she said, careful to issue only statements.
“Get yourself dry, get you some food and water in you,” he said,
as if he were listing everything she needed to do before he would help her plan her search.
But that night when she had calmed her children with a lie about where she'd been all day (she claimed she'd been checking her crab pots in the sound and fell in a hole), she sat up late by the fire, disturbed not by dream or nightmare but by a waking recurring image of Whaley's hands, crudely hacked off below the wrist, fingers permanently curled as if clawing their way somewhere, left on the doorstep for anyoneâher children, Hezekiah, passersbyâto discover. In the morning her children filed into the parlor to find her ashen and awake in her chair.
“Where did the woman go,” Alexander said, pointing to the blank space above the hearth where the portrait had been.
“Never you mind,” said Theo. Sometime in the night she'd looked up to see the woman's cold eye on her and in a fit she scarcely remembered by daylight she'd taken the portrait off its nail, wrapped it in a sheet, and slid it behind the wardrobe she'd asked Whaley to build for her. She sent the boys out for wood, asked Amanda Jane to fetch her some matches, then, when the fire was stoked, gathered her children in front of it. During the night she'd decided to tell them everything: Richmond Hill, Charleston, her father's disgrace, his exile, the trip to New York, Daniels, her own exile as a woman touched by God. The dog mauling, their arrival on island. She'd even planned to tell them that she'd never married their father, that he had a family across the ocean, that she'd had another son. And that their father was
a thief, however long retired. For even if she went this far, she would still be withholding the truth. She couldn't very well tell them that their father had died because of her vanity, that she had sentenced him to death when she'd stolen that portrait, for who would they be in the world if burdened with this knowledge? How would they ever love themselves, and who would they find to love them if they had no love for themselves?
She said none of this. She said what she'd wanted her father to say to her after her own mother's death. “Your father was very proud of all of you. If you ever doubt this, or doubt his love, you need only to ask me and I'll remind you of how much you meant to him.”
Then she made breakfast and told them to go outside and see if Hezekiah had chores for them. When they were gone and the house was quiet she washed the dishes, which is what any other woman on this island would do if she'd lost her husband. She wasn't alone; she had her family, and the islanders would take care of her, so long as they believed her husband had died at sea. But what if his handless corpse washed up down island, bloated and bobbing in the marsh? She found herself wishing sharks had found the body, crabs had picked it apart by now.
What a thing to wish for. Yet it did not torment her, her need to keep secret at all costs the true story of how she arrived on this island. Whaley, after all, had his own secrets; surely others on the island were equally careful in presenting to the world some expurgated version of their lives. More was at stake than her integrity; the truth would damn her children, for she had come to know
these islanders well, and she suspected that, according to their arcane but rigid ethical code, her husband's crimesâransacking ships, stealing cargo, kidnapping, maybe even murderâwould be far more tolerable than her own. But vanity, ego, prideâif elsewhere these were trifling infractions, here they would doom her and her children after her.
Thereafter she concentrated every waking moment on appearing to the island as the widow Whaley. She monitored every word out of her mouth, suppressing her erstwhile occasional lapses into fustian diction for sentences so simply blunt they sounded to her like shovel thrusts, ax blows. Ceaseless toil without complaint was her salvation. She shocked herself sometimes in how little she allowed herself to express the slightest pleasure. Her children brought her joy in the very fact of their survival rather than in the qualities and values by which her first child Aaron would have been judged: fine manners, intellectual curiosity, sophistication. The boys she raised to work hard and provide for their families; Amanda Jane she schooled in keeping house.
As her children grew up, she kept an eye out for any behavior the slightest bit effete or entitled, but they acted always as if they were in every way
this island. Wind blew away any pretense or affectation, any indulgence she'd failed to squelch. If you were to survive life on this island you had to understand the positive and even recuperative applications of wind. But what if it came back, her former frivolity, in her children's offspring? What if it skipped a generation, or two? She thought of a great-grandchild
cultivating, say, her love of Chopin. This was not an unpleasant thought, so long as Theo was not around to witness it. She would not be; already she'd lived miraculously long, given her two near misses with death. She only wanted to live long enough then to see her children settled. Of course she would not mind outliving her liesâit might be her only chance at impunity if there was indeed a life after this oneâbut she expected to take her secrets with her, for what good would it do her children to know, so long after the fact, who she really was.