Somewhere Beyond the Sea
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4,
5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
When eleven-year old Michael Walker and his father are temporarily shipwrecked on a remote Maine island, Michael meets and falls in love with twelve-year old islander Bess. After sailing home, Michael discovers that nothing on the island was what it seemed, including his beloved Bess.
We rode slowly back to the barn and returned Zeus to his stall. Bess fetched two buckets, one empty and another half-filled with water, and a one-legged stool.
Mrs. Clement had taken Daisy outside to wander about and eat while she worked in the garden. Bess approached Daisy, tethered in her stall, nuzzled her big wet nose, and smoothed her hands over the cow’s flanks. After hunkering down on the stool, she rinsed off the teats, showed me the proper grip, positioned the bucket, and squeezed. A thin stream of milk shot into the empty bucket with a light metallic ring.
“Takes about twenty minutes or so to empty her,” Bess said. “I’ll start. You finish.”
When the bucket had a couple of inches of milk, it was my turn. I balanced on the stool. I held the teat, and pulled on it with no result.
“Squeeze like your were holding onto me,” she said. “Not too tight and not too loose.”
I did and out came the milk. By the time my fingers were getting stiff, Daisy was empty. Bess picked up the bucket, and I followed her to the icehouse, a pitched roof flush with the ground, with wooden steps leading six feet down into the earth. She opened the door, and we stepped into the fresh, chill air.
Big blocks of ice covered with straw and sawdust were stacked five feet high around three walls. The dirt floor was cold and wet, and I could see the white puffs of Bess’s breath. She poured the milk into a five-gallon galvanized milk can.
“There’s the butter we make,” she said, pointing to a crock with cheesecloth covering it, “and there’s the cheese Mama makes. We sell ’em over to Stonington.” She broke off a morsel, put one end between her lips and crooked her finger for me to come closer. I nibbled the cheese until our lips touched. Her eyes closed.
As we kissed, she slipped her arm around my neck. “Damn,” she said. “You feel that?”
She pressed my hand to her heart. We kissed again, and I definitely felt her heart speed up. Then she burst out laughing and gave me a quick, hard hug.
She ran back to the house, and Mrs. Clement came outside with a straw basket. She’d made sandwiches for Virgil, me, and Dad, who’d insisted on having a look at his damaged boat.
Walking through the long grass of the long gentle incline leading toward the beach, I could see Virgil and Dad talking. Drawing closer, I heard my name and dropped down out of sight to listen.
“I was the same way, Harry, once’t I got back from the fighting,” Virgil said. I couldn’t get over the cruelty of what I’d seen. I’d never touched liquor before, but I did then. I found fault with everyone and gave Ida a hard way to go.
“My brother-in-law Gus told me to try living out here to get away from the liquor. The day I set foot on this island, I knew it was the right place for us. Working and living out here, I think it healed whatever it was wrong with me. Going on seven years now.”
He paused, and I heard him climb into the boat. “It was terrible losing Alvie. Doc said he woulda died even if he’d been in the hospital, but that don’t afford much comfort. Bessie still takes it awful hard... terrible hard.”
Dad said he still had trouble dealing with what happened during the war.
“I know it’s hard on Kath” — that was my Mom’s name — “even though she understands. But Mikey, all I ever do is correct him. I don’t want him to make the mistakes I see other boys making.”
“You blame him for what happened out there?”
“I did at first, Virgil, but I was wrong. The minute it started to blow up, I should’ve turned for home. Mikey saved us from capsizing, and if it cost me a knock on my thick head, I got off easy. When he came to see me this morning, I was angry at myself for blaming him, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.”
“It’s none of my business, Harry,” Virgil said, ‘but you got to let him make his own mistakes, and maybe you got to own up to yours. And don’t worry: a kind word goes a long way with a child.”
Hearing Dad say what he’d said lightened some of my guilt. Not all of it, though. When they stopped talking, I stood up and walked toward them.
“Mrs. Clement made us lunch,” I called out.
While we ate, Virgil explained how he’d jury-rigged Sadie. “Lashed the broke parts of the mast together — see there. And the jib’s a trysail now. You put your oar between those two pins stuck in the stern and that’s your rudder. It’ll blow southerly for the next few days, so you’ll have an easy run back to Dark Haven. Get becalmed, you can always row. Leave by six tomorrow morning and you’ll catch the coming tide.”
* * *
We finished dinner before it got dark. Virgil said he’d wake us early so we’d get a good start on the day. Dad was feeling better, but being up and around had tired him out. He went right to bed. Bess and I played a couple of rounds of Concentration on the floor in front of the fire. We kept having to shoo Stubbs away because he wanted to curl up on the cards. From time to time, our eyes would meet and we’d exchange a smile, as though we were acknowledging the secrets of our day together. Around eight, Bess yawned and got ready for bed. I followed a short while later.
She was reading when I came in the room. I kept quiet until she turned the lamp down.
“Do you think there’s any chance Virgil might sail over to Dark Haven? We don’t leave until after Labor Day,” I said into the dark.
There was a long silence. “I don’t know.” She sounded subdued.
“Once we get Sadie fixed, we could come back,” I said. “I’d really like to see you again.”
“I want to see you again too,” she said. I heard her shift in bed and then she said, “Sweet dreams.”
I lay there, wide-awake, already feeling a pang in my heart at the thought of leaving. Being with Bess, I’d been able to shed my shy, unworthy self, and I wanted to stay that way, but I couldn’t unless I was with her.
As tired as I was, I was so awash with emotions, I barely slept. I awoke in pitch darkness to a faint squeak of a hinge and stairs creaking. I said Bess’s name to no reply. I got out of bed, put my hand on Bess’s bed to find it warm and empty. Holding my hands in front of me like a blind person, I shuffled my way to the landing and listened. I heard the front door open and felt a breeze rush into the house and up the stairway.
I crept downstairs and out the front door.
A fingernail moon shone scant light on a silvery mist rising up from the ground. I didn’t see Bess. I walked around the house toward the barn, my bare feet chilled by the wet grass. Maybe she was checking on Zeus and Daisy. I opened the barn door and whispered her name but only got a whicker from Zeus.
Looking toward Mount Olympus, I saw the white of Bess’s nightgown ahead, a ghostly translucent white that looked to be part of the mist. She was motionless, near the birches, her back to me, looking down and speaking in a low voice. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want her to think I was spying on her, but if she turned around, she’d see me. I walked up and stood next to her.
She didn’t notice me. Her voice had dropped to a whisper. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but I saw what she was looking at. It was a grave marker of graying wood, curved along the top edge, about two feet high with a clump of petunias at its base. The name carved into it was “Alva Clement.” The dates below the name were indistinct in the moonlight.
When she fell silent, I said her name. She looked at me and didn’t seem to recognize me, but then wrapped her arms around my neck and buried her face into my chest.
“Were you talking to Alvie?” I said. She nodded, her face hot and damp.
She said something under her breath. I could feel her body tremble through her thin nightgown.
I said, “Let’s go inside,” but she wouldn’t move and held onto me.
“Are you okay, Bess?”
“I was telling Alvie about you. I told him I don’t want to let you go, but I have to.”
I took her hand, and we walked back to the house.
Back in her room with the door closed, her silhouette was edged by the faint moonlight reflecting off the water. We faced each other, almost touching, the air between us charged. Her arms brushed against me as she pulled her nightgown over her head, and she closed the distance between us so that I could feel the warmth coming off her skin.
I shed my clothes and let them drop.
I put my hands on her ribs and slid them down and around the small of her back. She put her arms around me, and we drew our bodies together, kissed, and held each other. Kissing was still new for us, but what had been cautious earlier was now more urgent.
We got into bed and lay facing each other. Another kiss, my hand straying along her body and coming to rest on her hip, her fingertips moving lightly down my arm, along my side, and then moving slowly upwards.
She nestled against me, her arm across my chest, my arm cradling her. I’d held her tight when we were riding, but now I held her as if she were fragile. She cried softly for a little while and I didn’t ask why, because I thought I knew.
“Am I your boyfriend?” I asked.
She raised herself up so that your faces were almost touching. “No, Michael,” she whispered, “we love each other.”
I didn’t know enough about what falling in love felt like to know if that’s what I was feeling. But she seemed so sure and I felt so different from anything I’d ever felt before, it must have been love.
“I love you,” she said, her scratchy voice breaking on the words. “I always will. We’re like the people in my pictures. They loved each other, and their love was so strong it brought the sailor back safe from the sea to the girl he loved, just like you came to me.”
She said my name again, and then I felt her body relax, her breathing slow.
“I love you, Bess.” When I said it, I sensed that I crossed a different boundary than our time on the beach, and with it came a sense of longing that changed everything.
The fatigue of that endless, perfect day gradually rose up through my body like an incoming tide until I was able to close my eyes and fall into a dreamless sleep.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Bill Prindle