Authors: Michael Parker
Then and there he saw what all had happened. Maggie, wellâhe could read her easy, just like Sarah could read him. Neither of them were ones could hide what they were feeling.
“Where's she at?”
Maggie said, “In the church.” She reached her hand out for the line to tie the skiff to the dock but Woodrow didn't want her help. What good was her help now or ever after if she could not help when he asked her to help? He jumped right out in the water which was chilly that day despite the big-sky brilliance. But he did not even feel the cold. He could feel her fall in behind him and once he heard her talking.
“She would not let me go after her,” Maggie said, talking about Whaley. “She would not let me I tried to she said it won't safe, said I'd die going down there to check on her.”
Woodrow said, “Hush up now,” and she did. She struggled to
keep up with him as he pushed up the hill toward the church passing on the way his house and seeing the roof of the kitchen gone off somewhere and only one wall of that tacked-on kitchen still standing and understanding it was his faulty work maybe what killed her as he'd built that kitchen to help her out. He'd added it on to make it easier on Sarah so she would not have to haul and tote everything from the summer kitchen. He'd built it out of washed-up timber and some he'd traded the O'Malleys for which won't much better grade than what the tide brung up.
He stopped to look. Maggie behind him gave out a wheezy cry.
“Y'all found her back there?”
“In the kitchen.”
“Roof fell in on her?”
“Cut her up bad.”
“She bled to death?”
Maggie didn't answer this. She couldn't of bled to death in any hour. They must of left her there all night. They left her there all night long on the floor and then the waters rose and had they gone down there and at least moved her up the hill she'd be sitting up head-bandaged but good to go.
Woodrow went on up to the church. Maggie followed as far as Whaley's front yard. He felt her about to say something and then he felt her think better of it. It was that quiet after the storm, on the island and in Woodrow's head. The shock of imagining Sarah's last hours cleared everything out of his head. Nothing
much either in his heart. He did not feel anything walking alone now up the hill to the church. He did not notice the debris in the way and he walked over planks and shingles and gill nets and broken glass and chicken wire. He did not see the watermark on the side of the old post office where the surge crested. One of Whaley's sheep lay drowned in the front yard of the Salter place and he did not see or smell it. He could not feel his shoes sucking into the mud. Somehow breath came in and out of him.
She was laid out on the altar three steps above the crust of mud and swollen hymnbooks and trash left behind when the sea said enough and took its leave. Appeared to Woodrow the sea itself and not one of his white women sisters had laid her out, then went right back to wherever it came from or wherever it was off to next. He'd rather this than anyone touching her, especially those who let her die.
Same clothes on as when he left her, though her hair had been hiding behind a kerchief and the kerchief was gone.
“Where is your kerchief?” he said, standing above her, looking down on her. One of her arms, tucked up tight alongside her, had fallen off onto a lower step. “Where?” he said. “What did they do with it?”
The silence following the slight echo of his stupid question in the high-ceilinged sanctuary brought Woodrow to his knees. Prayer was what he tried to make come out of his mouth next. Prayer had never really took with Woodrow. He'd wandered off from thanking or apologizing into a list of things he needed to do
to get across the water for his boat. He felt so bad that he couldn't even manage to give thirty seconds to God Almighty that he left off the entire endeavor. Here he was trying it again and aloud but what he heard in that high sanctuary was not anything even God could understand, unless it was true he understood everything and if that was so why even talk? So Woodrow just went to bawling, kneeling, rocking, spit streaming out of his mouth, so lost he was letting it drip all over, Dear Sarah Dear God I am sorry I ought never to have left you. Ought never to have trusted them. But it's not their fault. Mine for not letting you leave.
Late that night moonlight came striping the middle pews through the stained glass and that the only light they had now: moon, sun, lantern, candle. The power and the light were gone for good then. What use was there in turning it back on for only three people? No one figured on anyone staying on that island with no power and no light. Woodrow himself didn't think whether he'd stay or not at first. He sat up in the dark with Sarah. Sometime in the night Maggie brought him food and blankets. She said Whaley had taken sick after the storm.
“Sick,” said Woodrow in a way that made Maggie kneel and moan.
She sat with him for a good hour not speaking. He could hear her sniffling. Sometimes she said something but words did not work or count in this space or else their meaning was lost to Woodrow. He knew she would stay until he told her to go so he told her he wanted to be alone with Sarah. Before she left she told
him how Sarah was holding a pair of scissors in her hand whenever she found her.
“Found her?” said Woodrow, but he lacked even the energy to punish Maggie, even as he pictured Sarah lying up under the debris in what once was his kitchen, the piece of tin that had sliced her neck still atop of her, her head wedged whichways upside the cook stove.
Woodrow looked up at her. “Say what?”
She said, “A pair of scissors.”
Woodrow nodded, went back to not looking at her, hoping she'd go away and when she did he got up and covered Sarah in a clean blanket Maggie'd brought for him and went down to his house. He found his lanterns and lit them and by their light he scoured the wreckage of the kitchen until he discovered beneath the crimped tin a pair of bloody scissors.
What in the world? What was she fixing to cut in the middle of a storm? The thought of those scissors from the moment Maggie mentioned them until he flung them into the inlet liked to drove Woodrow crazy. He wanted to know everything about his wife in her last hour and he had his story down tight. In his story there never were any scissors.
The next day Whaley showed up in the church just as he and Maggie were getting Sarah ready to take across the water to bury. He just had to load her up in the boat. She'd asked him long ago not to bury her on this island. They'd fought about it. He kept
after her on this in a way he never would have about anything else because he had already staked out a plot for the both of them up behind the church. He wasn't about to let her leave him in death. Might as well leave him now, he told her. But she wouldn't budge. And Woodrow had never once figured on her dying before him. She was fifteen years younger, for one, and two, women just lived longer. He could count on three fingers the husbands had outlived wives on this island which was hard on everybody but hardest on the men who worked the sea.
Whaley said to him, “I'm so sorry, Woodrow.” She stood back from him a good ways, though it might well have been the smell that stopped her rather than respect for the dead or his grieving.
“Sorry's about the word I'd use,” Woodrow said. He had not spoken since he'd told Maggie to leave him alone. His words came out a slurry whisper.
If she heard him she didn't allow it. She said, “It wasn't anything I could do. We'd of lost another one, going down there to get her.”
“I know, Miss Whaley,” Woodrow said. “Wind wants you, can't do nothing to stop it.”
He looked up at her. She was staring at the floorboards. He saw her bottom lip tighten.
“Least y'all could of done is get her out of the way of the water,” he said.
“We all will meet our time,” said Whaley.
Woodrow said, “Ain't no sense helping the time come.”
“It was not like that, Woodrow Thornton.”
Woodrow started to tell her he knew his name, she didn't need to be using it in full, but instead he said he needed to be burying his wife, not standing around chitchatting, she and Maggie'd have to make do for a few days.
“Of course,” said Whaley. “You take as long as you want over there, we've got plenty to do around here.” Then she launched into a list of chores and kept right on listing until Woodrow turned around left them there alone in that church once so white and clean with its steeple pointing everyone who came to the island toward Lord God in heaven who Woodrow could not talk to either.
He took Sarah to Morehead, buried her there. The preacher preached himself sweaty and the choir lifted the curtains in soaring take-me-home-Jesus song and someone had to douse the trash burner from the kettle steaming atop it, so hot did it get up in that church. Woodrow stayed for as short a time as he could get away with, told Crawl he had to get back across the water.
Crawl started in with his You-don't-got-to-look-after-them-no-more-Daddy, especially-not-now. Woodrow just loaded up his boat, hugged his grandbabies, the ones who'd let him get his arms around them, allowed Crawl's wife to wrap him up some leftovers, took off across the sound.
Nag's Head, North Carolina
IT WASN'T THE SUN
that awakened her from her shivering slumber but the cries of proggers. Moments after a storm receded the beach would fill with natives. Progging, they called it, and ingenious were they at discovering functions for objects the intended purpose of which, on this strip of sea oat and hummock and dune, was rendered useless soon as it washed ashore. An island of second chances. She'd come not to judge those who made their way pillaging the losses of others but to admire them, for of the eight trunks she'd watched her husband's slaves load into the hold of the ship when she'd left Charleston, seven and three-quarters held frill.
Progging she was allowed to participate in. At least no one stopped her. To Theo this ritual seemed the most important social occasion here, more important than church or school, though
what she knew of this island was akin, she realized, to what a field hand knew of South Carolina society.
Somehow she managed to rouse herself and join the throngs on the beach. A whale had washed up and a line of boys were put to work sawing off blubber with double-handled band saws. Nearby a fire raged, a cauldron set up on a tripod to boil the blubber down to oil. The sun washed the surf and exposed miles of coastline littered with debris. Groups of bankers attacked this debris. Ants swarming food. She knew she was too late to find anything of importance, but she picked through the leftovers, searching for and finding a few pieces of lumber to take back to her stand of live oaks.
She would build a lean-to of her own. Touched as she was, she did not want to be beholding, even to Old Whaley, who came up behind her as she was hauling a waterlogged door over the dune.
“Made it through, did you?”
When she did not answer he grabbed the part of the door she'd been dragging. She was surprised by his strength: the door floated upward, its considerable weight evaporating.
“Good for you, then. And now you've set about building your mansion?”
“Thank you,” she said.
“You don't need to thank me,” he said. “I left you out here to die. You got no cause to thank me or anyone else on this island.”
“Daniels,” she said. “I suppose I should thank him for sparing my life.”
Old Whaley laughed. “You put the fear in him. A God-fearing murderer. Now that's something to marvel at. I know for a fact that it was the portrait. He told it all up and down the island, how he saw the girl in the painting move her eyes. Said he heard her speak back to you. He'd just soon run a knife in anybody's belly as listen to them. Come to find out he's scared of a little bit of paint. Well, it makes more sense than him fearing a snake, I guess. But I know for a fact he kept the painting.”
She'd brought it along to give to her father, along with five boxes of his papers, both personal and professional, to which he had entrusted her during his exile. Those papers contained his essence. They would restore his unfairly tarnished reputation. If Daniels kept the portrait, surely he recognized the value of what those tin boxes held.
“He kept it?”
“They say it hangs over his fireplace.”
“Can you take me to his house?”
Whaley had been holding his end of the door effortlessly as they talked. Her request made him drop it in the sand.
“You'll be wanting me to believe it's true, what they say. For if you want to see him again, you are certainly touched.”
“I didn't say I want to see him again.”
“You're not talking sense. How long since you ate?'
It had been days. Two at least. The stomach cramps were so steady she knew the quarter hour by them. Whaley hoisted the
door above his head and took off through the dunes. She understood to follow.
Inside his lean-to he pointed to a spot by the fireplace, tossed her a blanket, and set about heating up something in a black pot. While he worked she looked around the place, took note of the civilized touchesâa shelf of leather-bound books, a music box, an oil painting of a mountain glen that reminded her of the wedding trip she took to Niagara Falls with Joseph.
“I suppose you subsist by robbing ships as well?” she asked him.
Whaley's laugh, low and deep in his chest, was without glee.
“Not a smart line of questioning fired at a man about to provide you with a meal.”
“I'm growing accustomed to the men of this island contradicting themselves. Robbing and murdering, then taking me in, feeding me, offering me a corner of their homes.”