Authors: Michael Parker
He tensed. “I'll not be beholding to that man for things I can pick up off the beach.”
Before she could think, she pointed out how beholding they both were to that man.
“You don't know what you're talking about,” said Whaley. “You ought not to say anything when nothing is what you know.”
“If I know nothing, it's because you tell me nothing.”
“Everything that goes on in the world is not your affair. Your husband is not the governor here.”
“Fine,” she said. “If you can point me the way to his compound, I'll go alone. I know it's up past the big dunes, on the sound side. Certainly his lodgings will befit his station. I'm sure I'll be able to recognize it.”
“You go up there alone, you might as well slit your wrists right here and now.” He withdrew the knife he kept sheathed at his waist, extended it to her.
Theo ignored the knife he offered, looked him in the eye. “You're not telling me something.”
“What I already told you, you've not listened to.”
She feigned anger, but she knew he was right. She hadn't paid much attention to his threats because she was too obsessed with recovering her father's papers. All she had to do was smuggle them off the island, get them in the right hands, and her father's reputation would be restored, for how tender and noble he was in those missives, how courageous and devoted a statesman and citizen did his journals reveal him to be. All the accusations against him would be exposed as slander; his plan for Mexico and the western provinces would be understood as advantageous to the common American good, much less threatening than French and Spanish dominion. And even if she were never rescued from this island, even if she spent the rest of her days the ward of a deranged pirate, pummeled by relentless, sand-laced wind, she would join her father as empress of his sovereign land.
That day the progging was fruitless; she brought home only items passed over by others: rotten timbers, strips of sail, rusted iron rings from busted-up barrels. Whaley looked at the things she dragged over the dunes and went back to plucking feathers from a tern, too busy to even pass judgment.
That night, while he snored softly a few feet away, she realized she would likely be dead now were it not for Whaley. Therefore it seemed only logical to put her trust fully in the notion that Whaley had been sent to protect her. Not by God, whose mercy was too celestial to concern itself with the assignment of earthly sentinels, but by her father, whose Aristotlean idea of loveâa single
soul inhabiting two bodiesâhad gotten Theo through many a night before she had even arrived on this island.
The next morning, as they sat drinking tea by the fire, breakfasting silently as was their habit, she said, “There's nothing left to find on the beach. I'm going to his compound today.”
“You'd be better off walking into the ocean during a storm.”
“I can swim.”
“We'll see about that,” he said.
She grabbed her ratty shawl and made a show of wrapping herself tightly against the elements, as if his resistance was also the cause of the wet gusts outside, the low clouds hugging the dunes. Spitting rain and high lonely call of gulls. Something in their song she decided had only to do with survival, for what would they sing about on such a gray day, in such a forbidding seascape, but sustenance? Their cry for food became, as she trudged through the thick wet sand, her own lament:
Why did I leave?
She had feigned fearlessness but now, alone, on her way to Daniels's compound, she remembered poor Eleanor's last hour, how long it had taken for them to bring her topside, how many of Daniels's men, in the interim, had disappeared below deck. Eleanor had appeared relieved when Daniels had finally ordered her flung overboard, as if every breath after what she had endured at their hands was eternal.
Just let me go to my reward, I'd rather open my mouth to the salty water and swallow, dear God let me go.
She was naked and bloody and hugged her ruined clothes to her chest and in her shame she did not look at Theo, not that Theo was at that
moment capable of seeing her. How, then, could she remember so clearly Eleanor's last minute? In memory she had taken leave of her senses, but perhaps she had feigned that as well? Enough to fool Daniels once, and she had fooled him again when he'd appeared in Whaley's hut, but what would happen if it were just the two of them, if, in private, he studied her closely enough to know that no God had touched her, that if she were touched by anything it was devotion to her father and his cause?
The wind increased as she neared his compound, which was a good hour's walk from Whaley's hut. It stood on a rise, fortified by a stockade; smoke rose from the chimneys of the half-dozen houses built on high stilts above the sand. She took shelter in a nearby wood for another hour, her shivering induced as much from fear as cold. The gate to the compound was open but in the time she spent hesitating she saw not a living soul. Occasionally a dog barked and overhead the gulls kept up their song, but here it sounded less desperate, as if they'd been sated, as if they had fed off the obvious spoils gathered by Daniels and his men. And why shouldn't she too take what he had offered? If anyone approached her, all she had to do was string along a narrative of opulent nights at Richmond Hill.
Leave the poor touched soul alone.
Even if she were caught searching for her father's papers, she would be pardoned, for she wasn't in her right mind, and had she not already achieved impunity?
Breathing deeply, Theo picked her way out of the woods and into the stockade. One house, obviously Daniels's, stood a story
higher than the others and was twice as wide, regally shingled in shaggy dark shake. At the far edge of the compound, past a well and a shelter beneath which the ribs of several half-finished skiffs sat on scaffolding, she saw a vast pile of lumber. Splintered remains of shipwreckage. Someone else's heartbreak, soon to be her salvation. But only as cover: the real bounty lay in the grandest of these modest, weather-beaten shacks.
The words that came in a steady rush as she moved past the lumber toward Daniels's lodgings were not the words in her head, though both streams honored her father, the articulated one nonsensically, the unspoken one meant to convince her that the risk was for good reason.
When I have those papers in hand, he will come for me.
This is what she timed her steps to when midway across the yard she saw only a low brown streak and then she was in the sand, kicking at the animal with the leg not lodged between its teeth and then Whaley was beating the dog off with a piece of lumber and the dog was limping off bloody and snarling.
A throbbing in her left leg beneath the knee. With each breath it hurt more. Blood soaked the shawl he'd ripped from her shoulders to staunch the wound.
“I didn't see it,” she said.
“You weren't looking.”
“You followed me?”
“Just happened to be over here on my own business.”
She thanked him and he grunted, as if to say, don't thank me, don't even acknowledge me.
It wasn't until he trudged through the sand to the pile of salvaged wood, grabbed a couple long poles, found a section of dry-rotted sail, fashioned a makeshift sling to take her home that she settled enough to ponder his arrival. She understood then: he loved her. Why else would he have followed? As he dragged her down island, she thought of how ignorant she had been of the signs. Her back to him, nauseous and sweating from her wounds, she collected and cataloged those signs in a manner so consciously calculated others would have thought her manipulative. But even before she arrived on this island, Theo had entertained a broader view on this subject, about which she had devoted many hours of contemplation while courting Joseph. Taking some small advantage of a man in love with you was, to her mind, allowable if not exactly noble. What was love, in its incipient flush, but delirium, temporary leave-taking, derangement of sense and emotion? What had it to do with another human being, their unique traits, attributes, qualities? It seemed to Theo that those afflicted might as well be under the influence of spirits. Certainly they weren't experiencing any reality she participated in.
Therefore, using the situation to its advantage was not exactly manipulating Whaley, only his heightened and patently distrustful state of mind. The state was ephemeral; when he dropped back down to lowly earth, when he
again, was able to feel things dictated by cause and effect rather than some chimerical disengagement with reality, she would adopt a different set of rules.
Back at the shack, he helped her inside, stoked the fire, fetched
her water, washed and dressed her wounds. For the next week she lay recuperating from her bite, which Whaley kept plastered with a poultice of mud, hornet's nest, and unidentifiable herbs procured from an island widow known for her remedies. The pain grew worse and the poultice smelled foul and itched worse than any of the thousand bug bites she'd encountered on this island; her fever continued for a day and a half, but discomfort only exacerbated her scheming. She found herself energized by purpose, now that she no longer had to worry about survival, which was ensured by two things: Whaley's feelings for her and whatever he was hiding from her about Daniels. She thought again of Daniels's visit. So assiduously did she reconstruct it as she lay recuperating, almost always alone, Whaley out foraging for food or firewood, that nearly every detail felt different. To begin with, she was not scared. What was there to fear from a man who burst in on them in the middle of the night and then offered building materials? She'd sneaked looks at Daniels, noted the way he looked at Whaley, the way he looked at her. Flames reflected in his fierce blue eyes. In memory there was light enough to study him, to see what she needed to see, though a part of her surely realized that the fire was down to coals when he arrived, and that, had she bothered to look up at him instead of cowering on the floor, she would have seen only a profile in shadow.
Whaley doted on her as much as a man of his demeanor could be said to dote. He made sure she was comfortable, altered his routine to tend to her needs. When he was gone she missed him
and this meant she felt something for him too, beyond gratitude, beyond the need for company. What she felt she would not let herself examine. As if feeling in the first place were something one could dissect. She liked it when he was with her, she disliked being apart from him. There were other things more worthy of her analysis. How she might retrieve her father's papers. How she might enlist Whaley's aid.
The latter she spent a good deal of time considering, even after her leg had healed enough for her to hobble about the cabin with the help of a crutch Whaley had fashioned for her from a live-oak limb. Ought she tell him now about her father's papers? Certainly he had shown no interest in helping her retrieve the portrait. She worried that the papers would not interest him either, for he was no longer of the world that valued what those papers represented: her father's greatness.
So began her pattern: she would winnow away at him with talk of her return to Daniels's house. Usually she brought it up at night, when he was both exhausted from his day's labor and more convivial, though rarely did he grace her talk of returning with much more than a grunt. She waited, and her leg grew stronger; she limped a bit, a nasty scar remained, but she needed to be able to run. She had a plan to distract the dog with food this time, but she knew that no matter how much food she took along, no matter how strong her leg, she would need Whaley. It would take two to keep the dog from attacking, and she needed a lookout while she searched Daniels's quarters.
But Whaley remained unyielding. After weeks of trying to cajole him, she announced she would leave first thing in the morning for the compound. After all, she said, Daniels offered, and she had no reason to think that the offer did not still stand.
He took it calmly, did not look at her when at last he said, “The dog who nearly crippled you's the only thing up there still stands.”
“I've thought of that,” she said. “I plan on taking along food this time.”
“Whose food would that be?”
“With your permission.”
“My permission means nothing to you. It doesn't matter what Daniels offered that night. He's not one to remember such and is certainly not one to honor a promise. You seem to have forgot all about how you met the man.”
“I've not forgotten,” she said, feigning insult. “But while we're on the subject of forgetting, you wish me to heed your warning about him and yet you're omitting what seem to be crucial details about your dealings with the man.”
“For the last time, woman, I don't owe you anything. Especially not a lengthy accounting of my past.”
She let her voice drop to a pleasant whisper. “I did not mean to suggest I'm owed anything. But how can I take seriously your warnings when you leave out what I suspect is some truly horrible, and likely pertinent, fact?”
For a full minute he seemed to look through her. Then he said, “I will tell you everything when I'm ready to.”
“Fine,” she said. “In the meantime I am going to build my house. With or without your help.”
As if its weight were tremendous, he managed to lift his gaze to hers. There he left it. There was no light in his eyes, but nor did he look away. He seemed to have given up fighting something against which defeat was only halfhearted fantasy. His acquiescence made her think of Joseph, of how she had never felt for him that pure and unquestionable attachment she'd felt for her father. Love should shrink the earth, should do away finally with the soil on which feet are planted. Spirit only should rise and merge with that of the beloved. Whaley was so solidly structure, so skeletal, like the ribs of the shack he'd built, seen from within, shorn of the patchwork thatch that protected them from the elements. She'd never encountered anyone less concerned with the vanities with which it seemed her precious former life, and everyone in it, had been preoccupied. And yet smoke still rose from him, an essence of great mystery. Enough to intrigue her; enough to convince her for the time being that she was not solely manipulating him to regain those papers and set about restoring her father's rightful place in this world.