Authors: Michael Parker
“You'll listen to me now. We'll settle this in a day if you listen to me.”
He told her a man owed him a favor and this man owned a cart and had tamed one of the wild island ponies to draw this cart. He told her he'd make one trip when he was sure Daniels was off island and that he would fetch only a cartful and that after their
return, she had to promise him never to go near the compound again.
An easier vow she'd never taken, as what need would she have of ever returning? If all went as planned, she would soon be reunited with her father.
HEN THEY REACHED
the compound it appeared even more deserted than the first time. No smoke rose from chimneys. A day gray and listless. Only an occasional breeze to rise from the surrounding sea oats a rustle like the dry cough of a croupy child. She sat in the cart while Whaley got out and, armed with a length of board and a thick piece of meat he'd procured from God knows where, searched for the dog. He whistled. He sneaked around the edges of the raised houses, stooping to look beneath the crawl spaces. At one point when he was out of sight, she thought she heard him call out a name.
He was gone a good while. When he came back to the cart, he said, “Locked him in a shed.”
They went to work. When the cart was three-quarters full, she told Whaley she needed to excuse herself. Without a word he pointed to an outhouse on the far perimeter of the compound and returned to loading.
In the outhouse she held her nose and waited a few minutes, in case he was watching. Then she opened the door a sliver, saw that he was hard at work, oblivious. She circled around to Daniels's house, stole quickly up the back stairs. The house was
well designed to catch the breeze, though its features were bizarrely incongruent. Much of it had been reassembled from the staterooms of shipwrecks. The dark paneling smelled still of sea grass, fish and brine, and rather deliciously of meat, fried, and something vaguely garlicky. She passed a kitchen, several bedrooms, and finally, at the front of the house, a large parlor. Crude chairs grouped around a massive fireplace. Above the fireplace hung her portrait.
The sight of her faceâyears younger, so fresh and untainted by the travails to come, the humiliation and unfairness that was, at least, her life, if not the general nature of thingsâstartled her so deeply that she forgot entirely her mission. No longer did her father's papers even exist. For all she thought of them they could have been spread out, a carpet, beneath her feet. The portrait had saved her life. Had it not the power to turn a murdering thief fearful of the vengeance of God? Had Daniels not sworn up and down the island that the girl in the portraitâher younger, innocent, hopeful selfâhad spoken to him as she had spoken to her? If he revered it enough to hang in his parlor, surely he'd want it back badly enough to allow her to be reunited with her father.
Her wounded leg ached as she carried the portrait down the dark hallway. She was careful not to look at the woman in the painting for fear that life in Daniels's den had turned her, that she might, with only her eyes, bring Theo to harm. She slung it under her arm and, when she was down the back stairs, lurched across the courtyard toward the cart.
She did not see Whaley until well after she heard the hiss of the dog and then a silence as the dog came hurtling through the unnaturally dense and still air. She managed to toss the portrait out of the way rather than use it to protect herself, for it seemed to her that she'd used up all her chances, that the choice she made was final and fateful. She closed her eyes to the attack and when she opened them Whaley stood over her, though the dog was still on her. A blurry second and she realized: he had figured out her plan. He had discovered her gone and figured out where she was. He had let the dog out of the shed. Now he was watching her die. She understood then: love too had limits. People could love you so much that they compromised their every shred of dignity, the love they lavished would strip them to skeletal, but there were things you could do to make them stop loving you, even if they were eaten up with it, even if they said they would die for you. At some point they had to protect themselves.
Or maybe he did not love her. Or what if he did love her and was letting her die because he was the only one who ever loved her for who she was and what if he knew that she would never settle for such honesty because she was incapable of reciprocating? These were the things she wanted to have filled her mind when, years later, she thought of that afternoon when Whaley let the dog nearly kill her before he killed the dog and dragged her and the portrait across the dunes to a skiff tied to a sound-side dock and rowed them from one island to another.
Yaupon Island, North Carolina
ONE OF THOSE NIGHTS
not long after the last storm swept the island clean, Maggie sat with her sister on the steps of the church. Whaley was reading aloud her Norfolk grocery store prices. To Maggie this noise was as closely known as the roll of surf on the beach. Something settled so deep inside she hardly heard it, though her sister, to read her prices, trumped up a special voice, frilly ball dress compared to her usual wrinkled housecoat drawl.
The way her sister put on aggravated the life out of Maggie. Whaley'd sat in the same pew at the same little school Maggie had and learned from the same old mildew-ravaged books. They'd read aloud for the same succession of not-long-for-this-island schoolteachers the very same sentences that children off island doubtless mumbled without intent or comprehension, because what they smacked of, these teach-you-to-read sentences, was a
world known and taken for granted by children everywhere except for Yaupon and the few left-behind places like it. Daddy's automobiles chugged up the driveway in these sentences, and snowstorms piled up and sleds navigated the piles of snow. Named dogs caroused around in the subject/verb/objects. Maggie and her brothers and sisters had always had a dog poking around up under the house, but not one of them had gone by anything but the color of their coat if they were lucky. Most likely: Hey Dog or Here Puppy. Reading those sentences along in the breezy, careless way the teacher did got away with Maggie. She thought about the damn things, what was going on in them, what they were trying to say. Dogs named Conrad or Judith sneaked up and licked her knees, tickling her while she read aloud in front of the whole class. She'd be reading and at the same time climbing up in Daddy's car and crouching back on the floorboards, afraid of going around in a hot steamy box but willing to try everything like she was known to do by everyone on the island.
Whaley was reading along in her prissy voice when Maggie spotted Woodrow coming across the creek. Maggie was all after-supper logy from half-listening to her sister call out how much a head of cabbage will run you up in Norfolk, but since Woodrow had come back across from burying Sarah he'd kept to himself, mostly down south near the inlet the storm cut, doing God knows what, Maggie had no idea. She left him alone, though Whaley kept after her to go check on him.
“Now you're all about checking up on people?” Maggie said, to shut her up, and it worked, though she could tell it was eating at her, Woodrow's disappearance. They hadn't seen a soul except that O'Malley who had brought the mail and some food over every few days. Maggie could have been sleeping and still seen a body come across that creek, especially Woodrow.
“Here comes Woodrow,” she said, but Whaley did not look up. Maggie heard her voice hitch up a little and go even prissier, more what Dr. Levinson and them called Elizabethan: her vowels flattened and roiling like breakers across her tongue.
Woodrow took his time coming up the hill. He took a seat third row from the bottom. Whaley read her prices right on. When she stopped to fold up one of those papers in the tight way she had like she was taking a sheet off the line, Maggie said, “Crawl wrote and said you're going to be eighty this year, Woodrow.”
Soon as she said it she wanted it back. How would she know what Crawl said unless she opened up Crawl's letter and read it. She knew that Woodrow knew what all they left out of the letters Crawl wrote, how they always stopped just shy of Crawl telling Woodrow he'd be over across to get him tomorrow if Woodrow would just say the word.
Woodrow didn't say anything for so long that Whaley went ahead on with her prices. Then he said, in the middle of Whaley going on about something called a blow-dryer, “Crawl don't know nothing about how old I am.”
“Old enough to know better,” Maggie said without even
breathing. She liked to tease Woodrow and he was known to take her teasing and smack it right back at her. Sometimes, sitting on the church steps, they fell into an easy rhythm of ribbingâeven Whaley had been known to smile at their back and forthâand God knows if ever there were a need for some lightness, it was during that buggy yellow sunset when Woodrow all of a sudden returned to them.
But as soon as her words were out of her mouth here came Whaley with her own. Maggie didn't even think she was listening. When she was reading her prices it could hail and she would chant right on.
“Too old to change,” Whaley said.
Ever after, Maggie remembered the moment as if she were still sitting on those steps. Slight land breeze winging in an odor of sulfurous marsh. Orange sun lowering itself over the trees to settle, like everything and everyone else, across the sound. The way Woodrow slapped distracted at his neck as if a bug had bit him, then pulled his hand away and opened his palm and discovered there wasn't any bug after all, as if the hurt he felt right then from her sister's words and maybe hers too (though she meant no harm by them, was only trying to engage Woodrow in a little trash talk) were deeply inward, as if what they had done to Woodrow, what caused him to say after a minute of tense silence,
Y'all ought not to have done me like y'all done me,
would thereafter and always be antagonized by the slightest thing they said or did or did not say or do, by even a bug bite, or the threat of a bug bite, by the wind.
Looking back was a luxury, a chance to tuck and tidy. The stories her sister told the Tape Recorders, especially the ones about her famous ancestor, weren't all sweetness and light, but they somehow managed to wrap up in a way that left Whaley bathed in light as holy as pink Yaupon dusk. What Maggie remembered thinking and what she thought at the time: the distance between was the Pamlico Sound separating their island from the rest of the world.
She did not think, as she ought to have thought when Whaley told Woodrow he was too old to change, You heartless bitch, what is wrong with you, you need to be sucking up to the man after what we've done to him, and instead you sit up there on your top step insulting him. She did not look to Woodrow, did not appraise his hurt or notice whether there was truly a bug on the hand he pulled away from the skin he slapped. She did not tend to Woodrow because, much as she hated to admit it, her sister's wordsâtoo old to changeâmade her think about herself.
Or rather of Boyd, of her life with Boyd.
She was forty years old when she met him, and he was twenty-four. She had heard of Boyd's arrival on island even though she did not see him up close until that day he showed up was leaking away in shadows. She was down island, taking her nearly nightly swim. She liked to swim unencumbered, but that night for some reason she kept her suit on, or what she called a suit: bra and panties.
She had her back to the shore, eyes out to sea, floating past the breakers in the mild after-supper surf. Pointing her feet to the horizon, sculling as the sun shot through her, touched her
places with sudsy fingers. A little bit of heaven and the best bits of earth merged in her afternoon bask. So deep was her pleasure that she was oblivious when, occasionally, boys all the way up to grown menâkindergarteners to when they dropped out of school, usually not much into their teensâcame to spy in the dunes above her basking spot, knowing as all the world did of her habit of leaving off clothes when the water was warm. It liked to killed her sister, especially because Maggie never once bothered to acknowledge her audience. She liked to think of herself as the model you don't get showed in school or at home. Boys needed to see the thing alive and full frontal so they at least knew what they were lying about when they went around bragging. She'd seen the pictures scrawled on the stall doors of the single bathroom in the schoolhouse. A nasty word for a woman's private parts spelled out in a spindly hand, an arrow lassoing it and pointing to a pitiful triangle. If she could help out with the anatomy, well, everyone on the island took a hand in raising the children.
She had her back to Boyd but she knew he was there. She felt his eyes on her, steady as the sun tinting her skin, but she did not turn to him. She kept her toes pointed out to sea. She did not want to appear any too eager, for she'd seen him down at the dock that morning and he was tall and rangy like she liked them. Who knew how long he'd be around? So many of the ones who showed up announcing they were on the island to stay were gone the first big blow. They lacked fortitude, Whaley claimed. The island was no place for crooks, drunks, liars, gamblers, philanderers, and
other sorts of reprobates because these particular types were in need always of outside resources to sustain them. Whaley made it sound like only the virtuous could survive on their island. Maggie knew better, though it was true that to any more than make do out here, you had to know how to make peace with yourself, and with the weather.
Sometimes Maggie felt at peace; other days she woke up to find that, like the sand sifted away by the current, a part of her had eroded during the night and floated out to sea as she lay curled up against the wall, listening to her big sister's snores in the next room of the house her father built from washed-ashore timber.
Not long after Boyd arrived, word got around that he'd been born on island, that his father had drowned one day checking his pots up on the Albemarle when the wind blew up and the swells ranged all the way up the Alligator River. After the body washed up in Mann's Harbor two or three weeks later, Boyd's mama took him and his brother and sister across the sound to Harker's Island to stay with kin, then disappeared into the continent. Kept on going west, devoured by all that vast and dangerous acreage. Maggie was more than a little scared of it herself, which is why she'd never left. Maggie'd heard about the way people nowadays just kept on moving. It wasn't a war going on, but people sure were acting like it, like they were being chased, like wherever they were from had been taken over by the enemy. Pecking around like hens, sniffing out someplace safer, cleaner, wealthier, more jobs, less wind, more
culture. People? Seemed to Maggie they wanted only everything. Wanted it yesterday morning at the crack. Though Maggie could understand the notion of something better down the road. She imagined she'd be the same if she took herself off island, always peering down the highway or out the window at the looming woods, wondering if there was another man, a better job, more money, less bugs or heat or snow. Because she understood the lure of Always Elsewhere, she was scared to death of leaving her island. She would not even let herself imagine letting any one desire drive her but the need for that crusty cake of sun and salty sea on her naked skin as she basked in the ocean. Maggie needed tiny shells stuck to her skin when she got undressed for bed. She needed these shells to rain down on the floorboards nights when she undressed, little bedtime chimes.