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.
I didn’t tell anyone about our adventure, but Bess was constantly in my thoughts. At times I felt elated just thinking about our moments together and, at other times, I was dejected at not being with her.
As the summer wore on, I dropped hints with increasing frequency to Mom and Dad that we shouldn’t wait too long before paying them a visit. Time was getting short. One afternoon, I wrote Bess a long, chatty letter about my tennis lessons and summer reading and inquiring about Zeus, Daisy, Apollo, and Stubbs. At the end of it, I asked if it would be okay for us to sail out there again and visit. I said I missed her a lot and underlined “a lot” three times. I signed it, “Your pal, Michael.”
I addressed the letter to “Bess Clement, Hatch Island, Knox County, Maine.” I asked Mom for a stamp, and she said she’d mail the letter for me. Years later, after I’d sold my parents’ Maine house and sorted through their belongings, I found that letter, but I already knew why Mom had never mailed it.
By the last week in August, I was desperate to see Bess. After Alonzo had rendered Sadie shipshape, I began pleading at every meal. Couldn’t we sail out to Hatch? Or maybe we could borrow the Bon Ton or some other powerboat that would get us out there quicker?
Hatch Island was too far, they said, but I wouldn’t let up; and finally Dad said, “Michael, we’re not going to Hatch Island. I’m sorry, but that’s final.” He didn’t seem happy saying it but offered no more explanation than that. So I came up with my own plan.
After Davy Moore and his family left for the summer, I went down to Grey’s to see if Davy’s runabout had been hauled yet, and it hadn’t. I filled its five-gallon gas tank and told Alonzo I had permission to take Sea Witch out.
“That so?” said Alonzo. “No one told me you could.”
The next morning I got up before dawn, left a note on the kitchen counter, snuck out of the house, ran down to the dock, started up Davy’s outboard and, by first light, I’d already passed the bell buoy. The forecast was for overcast skies, light rain, and some patchy coastal fog, but I was prepared. I’d brought along my slicker, life jacket, and pocket compass and packed a peanut butter sandwich, a Clark Bar, and two 7-Ups.
To conserve gas, I ran the engine at half speed and checked the gas can when I reached Pumpkin Island, about two-thirds of the way to Hatch. I’d used less than a gallon, so I knew I had plenty to get there and back. Down the bay was a fog bank, which worried me some, but I had my compass, and figured I’d beat the fog to Hatch. And getting home was due northwest.
I started the engine and pushed the throttle all the way forward.
The runabout got up on plane and skimmed over the swells. Despite the gray sky and mist, my heart was full and my spirits high. I couldn’t wait to see Bess.
With less than a mile to go, I watched the first tendrils of fog encircle Hatch. I checked my compass setting, and by the time I coasted onto the beach where Sadie had rested a little over a month ago, a dense, swirling fog had shrouded the island, cutting visibility to maybe five yards. I made Sea Witch fast, climbed the embankment, and followed the incline of the hill that would lead to the Clement house.
By the time I arrived at what I thought was the middle of the field, I could see neither the shore nor the house. My sneakers and pants were soaked from the tall grass and the heavy fog. I was in a blank white limbo, but I knew I couldn’t get lost on an island.
“Mr. Clement!” I called. “Bess! It’s me, Michael.” The fog deadened my voice, as though I were shouting inside a small room. I heard no response.
“Hello!” I shouted.
I plodded on. From time to time, I froze, held my breath, and listened for any sound that might direct me to the house — a voice, a door closing, Zeus whinnying, Daisy mooing, or Apollo ordering the sun to come out, but I heard nothing. The island was utterly still, not even a bird song or gull’s cry, no whisper of wind through the hidden trees.
After a few more minutes of walking, I heard waves breaking. I’d arrived somewhere along the island’s southern shore, not far from where Bess and I had swum. Somehow I’d missed the house entirely, so I tried angling back across the width of the island.
After fifteen minutes, I saw a dark shape emerge from the fog. It looked like the side of a house. When I moved closer, I saw the clapboards were mostly bare of paint, with only a few curling white flakes still clinging to the weathered, gray wood. Two windowpanes were broken. I walked around the back of the house and stopped.
I stared at a collapsed barn, its sway-backed roof propped up at odd angles, most of it on the ground, spruce trees growing up through the rotted wood shingles.
I must have gone astray in the fog and landed on the wrong island.
But I clearly remembered the chart. From Pumpkin, it was due southeast to Hatch. The big islands were well to the east and west. Hatch stood alone, isolated. Beyond was the Atlantic Ocean.
I circled around the barn and stood in front of the house. The roof was sagging, the cedar shingles curled and blackened with age. Fieldstones had fallen away from the chimney, leaving a jagged silhouette. The front door was boarded up, but clearly visible above the door was a horseshoe.
Of the two shutters, only one was still hanging; the other was rotting on the ground. The casement window was partially boarded up but still showed a few broken panes. Some of the clapboards had sprung loose.
It was their house, but it couldn’t be.
A chill had crept up from my soaked feet and legs. I walked around the other side of the house, running my hand along the splintery clapboards as if to make sure the house were real.
The ell that had connected the house and barn was falling apart, canted so far to one side it looked as though a good push would send it to the ground. I crouched and fought my way through the fallen boards, scraping my hands on rusted nails, and picking up splinters as I shifted the fallen wood to clear my way. The back door wasn’t boarded up but stuck in the warped doorframe.
My heart was racing from rising panic and fear. I think I called Virgil’s name when I threw myself against the door. It gave way, and I crashed onto the kitchen floor in a cloud of dust and dirt. The big woodstove was pitted with rust. In the dim light, I saw the curved shape of the pump handle in the sink. I turned the corner into the main room.
The furniture was gone. Horsehair plaster had fallen away from the walls and lay in decaying piles on the floor, revealing the skeletal laths beneath. The room smelled musty and dead, as though no one had ever lived there. One end of the mantel had collapsed to the floor, and the fireplace was filled with dried leaves and debris from old bird nests. On the floor to my right were two shards of pottery. I picked one up and examined it.
The cream-colored glaze had a web of fine cracks, but the light pink and blue lines that had once encircled the bowl were clearly visible. I put it on the windowsill and climbed the slanting stairs.
In the big bedroom, only the bed remained, still covered with a tattered quilt. I was so filled with dread at this point, I moaned as if I’d broken a limb.
I moved on to Bess’s room. The two beds were there, one collapsed onto the floor, Bess’s with a blanket and sheets still on it. The dresser was intact, but the silver of the mirror was blackened and flaking. Two rectangles, lighter than the surrounding paint, marked where the framed prints had been.
I fell onto Bess’s bed, a cloud of dust billowing into the air. I was crying and rocking from side to side, perhaps in shock, certainly dazed, my panic and fear now mixed with a confused grief. I lay there for a long while, trying to make sense of what I’d seen.
When I finally sat up, I felt sick and weak. My eyes were swollen, and my hands stung from the cuts and splinters of breaking in. I knew where I had to go next.
Before leaving the room, I looked in a half-opened dresser drawer. It was empty as were the others except for the bottom drawer. Pushed to the back was a cigar box. Inside was a pair of gray woolen mittens, still intact, the ones Bess had knitted for her uncle. Under them was a smooth white stone with a dark ring around it.
It was the lucky stone I’d left on her pillow.
I took the cigar box with me and went outside.
The light rain had resumed. I stumbled through the fog in the direction of the birch trees, passing a square, overgrown hole in the ground that had been the icehouse.
It was a short walk to the birches. Here the grass was thinner and interspersed with islands of thick moss. I followed the line of birches until I found them.
The four wooden grave markers were weathered and covered with lichen and cracked along their curved top edges, but still upright. I knelt and brushed my hand across the faces until I could read the names and dates carved into them.
Alva Clement 1910 — 1916
Bess Clement 1906 — 1918
Virgil Clement 1877 — 1918
Ida Clement 1882 — 1918
I couldn’t make sense of what I saw. I sat on the cold, wet ground and stared at the markers and traced the letters and numbers of Bess’s marker with my finger. In my broken heart, I couldn’t accept I’d never see Bess again. The fog curled through the bone white birches, rain pattered on the drooping leaves, and I gripped the rough edge of Bess’s marker and cried as though it would tear the life out of me.
When I heard the distant chug of an engine, I knew who it was. I stayed by Bess’s grave and didn’t say anything.
Mom and Dad called out to me before they landed. I wanted to let them know where I was, but saying or doing anything would end my last moment with Bess and cast me back into a life without her. I didn’t want to go back. I didn’t want to go anywhere.
I heard them talking, two voices coming out of the fog and drawing closer. I heard Dad say, “Oh my God — the house.” When Mom called my name, she sounded so upset and worried that I answered her. They followed my voice to the graves.
I thought they’d be angry. The note I’d left for them described what I intended to do and why — “I want to see Bess” — and apologized for leaving without their permission. But they weren’t angry at all. They knelt next to me. Dad put his arm around my shoulders, and Mom smoothed her hand through my wet hair and rubbed my back.
“We were hoping to spare you, Mikey, at least for a little while,” she said. “It’s all so sad.” She sounded as unhappy as I was.
I don’t know how long we sat there. I was shivering when Dad said we should think about going home, but not until I was ready to leave. Through chattering teeth I managed to say, “Yes, sir, we can go now.”
I took the stone out of the cigar box and laid it on Bess’s grave.
We stood there for a last moment, and Dad said a short prayer for the Clements, asking God to bless them. “Stubbs, Daisy, Zeus, and Apollo too,” I whispered. A light breeze rustled the birch leaves, some of them already turned yellow.
We followed the shoreline back to the boats. Dad had tied off Davy’s boat to the Bon Ton’s stern cleat. Before I got aboard, I filled the pockets of my slicker with pebbles from the beach.
Mom rubbed me down with the towels she brought, pulled a dry sweater over my head, and poured me a cup of cocoa from the thermos. Dad motored away from the island at a bare idle. He seemed reluctant to leave too. For myself, I wasn’t thinking about anything, not even Bess. I was so cold and miserable that it drove out most of what I felt, but not all of it. What was left was a leaden, bitter grief.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Bill Prindle