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The Sea Dweller

by Ron Van Sweringen

The fishing shack was a shell of weathered cypress clinging to pilings above the churning green water. A tiny gray dwarf stood shaking its fist at the ocean.

Hanny Malone was a sea dweller, like others scattered along the South Carolina coast. Her father Darwin, an Irish fisherman with a fondness for rye whisky, had drowned when his boat capsized in a thunderstorm ten years before. Her mother, a girl from the Carolina lowlands, had preceded him in death by fifteen years, while giving birth to Hanny.

Darwin Malone would chide his daughter, “Lass, if you had any luck at all, it would be bad.” More often than not these outbursts occurred when his bottle of whisky ran empty and the “Wee People” were out and about to torment him.

What he said made little difference to Hanny. She stopped responding to the spoken word when she was beaten and raped at the age of thirteen. Three vagrant farm workers came upon her in a small garden near the shack. When they finished their assault she was left for dead.

Not to disappoint them, Hanny Malone willed a part of herself to die that afternoon. She would never speak again.

Hanny Malone was now twenty-five. She attended school briefly as a child, learning to do simple numbers and write her full name and birth date. Hannah Lulu Malone, September 26, 1946.

Hanny’s appearance was striking. Thick hair that glistened coppery in the sunlight and pale green eyes set against olive skin. A “high yellow,” the result of racial mingling that left her unacceptable to either the black or the white community. Hanny Malone was well suited, through no fault of her own, to the solitary life of a sea dweller.

The humid air was already difficult to breathe, although relief from an afternoon thunderstorm was always a possibility. Violent downpours often appeared out of the east without warning. Darwin Malone had lost his life to one such storm.

Hanny had been collecting shells on the beach since sun-up, as was her usual custom. Tomorrow was Saturday, when she sold her cache of shells at the outdoor market in Thurber, South Carolina. A bustling marketplace of low, corrugated-metal buildings and rows of colorful vendors’ umbrellas spread out along the docks of the Black Water River.

A basket hanging from Hanny’s shoulder held few shells, and she searched the rolling waves foaming over her feet. What was needed was a storm to bring up the treasure trove waiting just beyond the breakers.

It was eleven o’clock when Hanny reached Widow’s Point, a narrow sand bar jutting out into the sea. Scores of gnats pestered her and in self-defense she waded into the water, leaving on the warm sand her basket of shells and the thin shift she wore. Few people frequented this isolated beach. It was protected for miles by a sawtooth-pine and palmetto wilderness that flourished up to the shoreline’s sand dunes.

An occasional beach house rose above the dunes every few miles. They had been built by wealthy northern vacationers. Most of the buildings were not occupied during the hot summer months. One such dwelling stood not far away. To the casual eye the grey wind-swept exterior and large shuttered windows made the house appear deserted, but in fact it was not.

Agatha Smithson and her small white dog occupied a second-story bedroom on the southeast corner. A narrow balcony leading from her bedroom offered enough space for a small table and her wheelchair. The balcony also offered an unobstructed view of the beach for miles.

Agatha Smithson smiled, lowering her field glasses.

“There she is and right on time,” she smiled.

Hanny pulled the cotton shift on and it clung to her wet body. The cool water banished the insects for the moment and she felt refreshed. As she slipped the basket over her shoulder, she detected a bright glare of something shining in the sunlight. Possibly the reflection of polished metal but the reflecton was too far off to tell what it was.

A small creature rushed onto the beach from out of nowhere, twirling itself around Hanny’s legs and begging to be petted. Then the little white dog with glassy black eyes abandoned her just as suddenly, dashing away and barking excitedly.

Hanny watched the animal disappear toward a large beach house with gray-shingled walls and wide, shuttered windows. A porch ran across the second story with several French doors opening onto it. She wondered what the inside of such a house would be like.

The little dog’s barking grew more agitated and as Hanny drew near she heard someone cry for help. A woman was lying face down on the sand, a large-brimmed straw hat covering her head. Her arms were outstretched in front of her and a wheel chair lay on its side in the sand, its chrome surface shining in the sun.

“Can you help me please?” A voice called from beneath the straw hat. “I know someone is there, I can see your shadow.”

Hanny moved quickly, grasped the woman’s outstretched hand.

“Oh, thank you,” the woman said.

Hanny had no difficulty in lifting the woman to a sitting position. Her concern turned to a smile when the woman broke into laughter.

“I asked for help,” she said, looking up, “and God sent me an angel,” her eyes examining Hanny’s face. “The truth is, young lady, I’ve been watching you for a week and I was on my way down here to meet you, when my ship capsized,” She nodded toward the overturned wheelchair.

“I’m Agatha and I’m staying here for a while. Who might you be?”

The question caught Hanny off-guard. She rarely allowed herself to be drawn into a situation requiring conversation. She stared at Agatha and then placed a finger over her mouth, shaking her head back and forth. The elderly woman looked confused for a moment, until Hanny wrote her name in the warm sand.

“Am I to take it, that you don’t speak?” she asked. Hanny nodded yes and Agatha sighed, “You don’t talk and I don’t walk, what a great pair.” With a wink she added, “Help me back into my Rolls-Royce and let’s have some lunch.”

* * *

The woman in Dr. Willard Chapman’s office waited impatiently for his answer. Her tone of voice was cold and unyielding.

“Well, what is it Doctor? What is so important that you couldn’t discuss it over the telephone?” She was attractive with naturally blond hair and angular features.

“Please have a seat, Mrs. Winters,” Doctor Chapman replied. “I’m afraid I have some rather bad news concerning your mother.”

“What is it now? What else could go wrong with her?”

“She’s dying,” was the somber reply.

A blank look crossed the woman’s face. “Of course she’s dying. She’s been dying for years.”

“No, you don’t understand.” Doctor Chapman raised his voice. “Your mother will be dead in a matter of weeks, possibly days.” This time the Doctor’s exact meaning sunk in.

“But she can’t die so soon. I’m not ready yet. There are papers and contracts to be signed. It’s too soon.”

“Your mother asked me not to tell you until we were certain of her test results. She wanted to spare you.”

“Spare me,” she fumed, standing to leave. “We’ll see about that.”

* * *

The next morning Hanny was uncertain whether she had dreamed the whole thing. The little white dog and the old woman seemed unreal. Would Agatha be waiting for her on the beach this morning, as she promised?

When the large gray house appeared on the horizon, Hanny felt a surge of fear and excitement. She found it hard to take her eyes off of the structure, until she caught sight of Agatha’s straw hat and the glint of her wheelchair waiting on the beach.

Agatha was there each afternoon for the next week. Some days she waved to Hanny from the second story balcony and on other days she met her on the path to the beach. They had lunch together each day and long conversations, Hanny writing with a pencil and pad.

In these wonderful days Hanny grew to trust Agatha, the only true friend she had ever known. As for her part, Agatha admired the spirit of the girl and her simple goodness. Something in her eyes reached out to Agatha and touched her heart.

One day during lunch, Agatha leaned forward and took Hanny’s hand. It was a nearly perfect day with scores of gulls circling overhead and a cool breeze smelling of the sea.

“I have two favors to ask of you and I hope you won’t refuse an old woman her whims.”

Hanny smiled, squeezing Agatha’s hand. Somehow she knew that what Agatha was about to say was serious.

“If anything should happen to me,” Agatha continued, “I would like you to take care of Dody,” she said petting the little white dog in her lap. “Will you promise to do that for me?”

Hanny nodded, drawing a heart in the sand.

“Good,” Agatha replied, “my daughter is coming to visit me, she’s flying in tonight from New York City and I want you to meet her.”

Suddenly Hanny felt uncomfortable at this news.

“Will you come to lunch tomorrow? It means a great deal to me.”

The next morning dawned gray as Hanny watched raindrops appear and slowly work their way down the window. Agatha’s driver was to pick her up at eleven and Hanny wished with all of her heart that somehow he would be unable to find her address.

* * *

Agatha watched her daughter pace nervously across the living room floor.

“I’m really not in the mood to meet one of your lady friends today, Mother,” Caroline Winters complained as the front door opened and Hanny rushed in under a dripping umbrella. Agatha was pleasantly surprised to see that Hanny’s appearance was quite altered.

Hanny’s hair was neatly parted to the side and held away from her face. A dark blue dress dotted with small white flowers and a bright red belt hugged her waist. But wonder of wonders, she wore a pair of white low-heeled pumps. Agatha had never seen her in shoes before.

“Caroline, this is my friend Hanny Malone.” The look on Caroline Winter’s face was one of utter confusion. “If this is a joke mother, I don’t appreciate it,” she scowled turning to Agatha. “For God’s sake mother, she might have light skin but it’s obvious that she’s a Negro.”

Hanny knew it was coming. Subconsciously she’d known it from the first moment she saw Agatha lying on the sand. Now, this arrogant woman was making it crystal clear. Hanny had foolishly entered a world where she didn’t belong.

Anger rose inside of her like a white hot flame, boiling over in a scalding torrent.

“Maybe I don’t belong here,” Hanny spoke slowly, the words hard to bring forth in her trembling voice. “I came because I respect your mother. Now I feel sorry for her.” Hanny broke off with a sob, running from the house.

Agatha’s face was ashen as she turned to face her daughter. “What you just did to my friend was cruel beyond words, Caroline. It makes me ashamed that you are my daughter.”

“I’m surprised at your choice of friends in your old age, Mother,” Caroline replied. “What difference does it make anyway? She’s unimportant.”

“That’s where you are mistaken,” Agatha’s irritated voice rose. “I have supported you and your husband for the past ten years. That is soon coming to an end,” She was looking through the rain-streaked windows at the gray beach beyond.

“You are the sole beneficiary of my estate Caroline, with the exception of two bequests. If you challenge either of those bequests, I have rewritten my will so that you will lose your entire inheritance.”

“What are these two mysterious bequests, Mother?” Caroline snapped, sarcasm in her voice.

“You will find that out after I’m gone,” Agatha replied. “I see too late that your father and I made a great mistake in raising you, partly because we could not have other children. We spoiled you with the best of everything, simply for the asking. Now I can only hope that you will forgive us.”

* * *

After several days Hanny decided she would no longer avoid the beach near Agatha’s house. She would travel her usual route as before, gathering shells and perhaps wave to Agatha in passing, each of them comfortable to remain in their own world.

As Hanny waded along the beach, her eyes searched the horizon for Agatha’s floppy straw hat or her wheelchair. Only screeching gulls and fleeing sandpipers met her view until a man appeared on the path leading to Agatha’s beach house. He was standing near the place where Hanny found Agatha on the sand. She looked away from the stranger and continued searching for shells.

“Wait,” the man called, walking rapidly across the beach toward her.

“You wouldn’t happen to be Hannah Malone, would you?” he asked, removing his hat. Hanny looked up, meeting his eyes.

“Yes,” she answered, not knowing what to expect next.

“My name is Robert Marks, I am the late Mrs. Smithson’s attorney.”

His words stunned Hanny, she thought her legs might give way. The late Mrs. Smithson. The words kept pounding in her head until she could hardly hear what he was saying.

“I have been trying to contact you about Mrs. Smithson’s bequests.”

“Bequests?” Hanny mumbled in confusion, everything was distorted.

“Yes, I understand you agreed to take care of Mrs. Smithson’s little dog.”

Tears rushed to Hanny’s eyes as she remembered her promise to Agatha. “Yes, I did promise,” she stammered, “but I have no place to care for Dody.”

“Oh yes, you do,” Mr. Marks answered, gesturing toward Agatha’s beach house. “Mrs. Smithson left her house to you. She also left you a substantial sum of money. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to be exact.”

Hanny stood for a minute staring into Mr. Mark’s smiling face, unable to speak.

“May I shake your hand, Miss Malone? Mrs. Smithson had great affection for you.”

The hot summer slowly turned cool along the South Carolina coast and for months and years after that a tan-skinned young woman under a wide-brimmed, floppy straw hat and her small white dog walked the beach together, gathering shells.

Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen

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