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.
When I returned to school, I felt separated from everyone — classmates, teachers, and friends. I was churning with anger and grief at losing Bess and longed to return to the world I’d visited for five days. Even when I wasn’t thinking about the island or her, I felt a yearning as much a part of me as my pulse.
I decided nothing could hurt me any worse than I already felt. On the football field, I became so reckless and aggressive, I quickly got the reputation as a fearsome opponent. If a kid wanted to fight me, I hit first and either beat him so badly he never crossed me again or, if he beat me, I kept getting up until someone had to stop the fight.
In class, I was sometimes mouthy and defiant toward the teachers. I also developed the habit of swearing occasionally.
When I couldn’t answer a question about our reading assignment, the teacher asked if I had read the story.
I said, “No, sir, I didn’t, because I thought it was a damned stupid story.”
Back in those days, teachers hit, and I came in for a generous share of whacks with a ruler.
My classmates saw how changed I was, and my closest friend Bart Day asked if I were okay. I wasn’t going to share what happened to me with anyone because I felt no one had the right to know what happened to me, and they wouldn’t believe me anyway. I told him I was fine. The rest of my classmates admired my recklessness or courage or craziness. They wanted to be my friend, or at least, ally. Definitely not my enemy.
Dad knew what I was going through, and when the other teachers in the school described my misbehavior, he said something oblique about my losing someone that summer and that I’d taken it hard and that he’d have a talk with me.
* * *
Our relationship became similar to how we were out on the water. I was interested in the same historical subjects he was: the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt, World War II naval battles and, of course, the Marines. He realized that my interest was a way of telling him how much I loved and admired him. He could still be demanding and impatient, but whatever it was that had been haunting him had receded and no longer tormented him as it had.
That spring, Dad told me he’d commissioned four gravestones of Deer Isle granite to replace the wooden markers on Hatch Island. Instead of just the years of their births and deaths, he’d done his research and added birth and death dates, although he had to estimate for Virgil and Ida. Bess’s birthday was February 29, which I duly celebrate every four years.
Next summer, when we sailed down to Pond Island, Mom looked toward Hatch and wondered why the Clements had come back or why we had somehow gone back to visit them. Dad said maybe they knew we needed help. That’s what I’d decided as well.
“I think there’s another reason,” Mom said. “I think that whatever happened, however it happened, was to allow Bess to have someone special in her life. So she could have her first love. She came back for you, Mikey.”
I think this makes as much sense as any other explanation. There was an intensity and longing to Bess’s affection that could have transcended time. God knows her love has stayed with me and marked me for life.
Over the years, Mom, Dad, and I sailed all over Penobscot Bay, but we never returned to Hatch Island.
* * *
Mom was right. The pain of losing Bess diminished but never left me, nor did I want it to. You could say she’s haunted me, but I’ve invited her to.
I never really wanted to tell anyone about what happened. Even if I’d been able to perfectly describe my time on the island and the unfathomable mysteries surrounding it, my listener would never have been able to comprehend how completely I loved Bess. I agree with the writer who said that every time you tell a story, you subtract something vital from it by giving it away to another, so I’ve told only the woman I didn’t marry and, as I said, I doubt she believed me.
With friends, when the subject of ghosts has come up in conversation and I’m asked if I believe such things exist, I’ve always said, “No.” I didn’t want to explain why I do believe in ghosts; then again, I’m still not certain if the Clements were ghosts at all. Perhaps Dad and I were haunting them.
I’ve lived a restless life, but it’s suited me. My work has allowed me to wander the world, not in a balloon like Phileas Fogg, but with almost as many adventures. One of the odd things that customs officials find in my luggage is a cigar box, even now with a few remaining pebbles. Over the years, I’ve distributed them on a beach in Thailand, in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, at the summit of Mount Olympus and the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, in the Trevi Fountain in Rome, in the Knight’s Hall of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, on the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, and safely hidden in a recess of two intersecting girders of the Eiffel Tower.
In a print shop in London, I came across the same Currier & Ives prints that decorated Bess’s bedroom. I’ve had them hanging on either side of my fireplace for many years. To me, the sailor and his true love still have something ghostly about them, like Bess and myself, united by an enduring love.
In my travels, I have every so often seen some young woman with auburn hair, a confident stride, and squared shoulders, walking down a street in New York or Dublin and, once, in Kyoto. For those evanescent moments, I’ve stopped in my tracks, closed my eyes, and felt as though Bess were close by, perhaps watching me with her mysterious half-smile. But I know if we are ever to be reunited, it won’t be in this life.
I can summon images of my time on Hatch Island with an unsettling vividness: the crack of the mast snapping, the cold panic I felt when Dad said the boat was sinking; Virgil’s strong, calm presence; the sweet molasses taste of Ida’s bread; Apollo crowing his head off; Zeus’s warm barn smell; and the aroma of the sweet grass as Bess and I rode through the fields — all these and many more.
And Bess: her scratchy voice, the fresh scent of soap from her tawny hair; the salty tang of our kisses; the smooth curve of her back, her cold hands; her wet, shining body emerging from the water; the warmth of her skin against mine, the courage she gave me to let go; how fragile she felt that night by Alvie’s grave; and the plaintiveness in her voice when she said, “I don’t want to let you go.”
Did she know her visit back among the living would be short-lived? Was she hinting at it when I asked if she could come to Dark Haven?
I learned to accept the enigma of not knowing how Dad and I had disappeared those five days, how a long-dead family returned from wherever they were to aid us, or whether Dad and I had somehow become unstuck in time and had been called back to the summer of 1918. Unlikely as it seems, I’ve long believed even an eleven-year-old can experience the greatest love of his life with an intensity and purity he’ll never find again.
As I write this, I am remembering bouncing on Zeus’s back as he trotted toward Mount Olympus and recall Bess laughing and telling me to hold on to her tight.
I still do.
Copyright © 2017 by Bill Prindle