an excerpt from a novel in progress
My orphancy was a mantel, a style that was unknown in Watson, at least to me. I wrapped it around me, trying to make myself as invisible as I felt, my life story no longer my own. A made-up life based on secrets and half truths had led me down a predictable path whose destination now felt foreign. As I walked it, I met only questions, all without answers, or any that I’d own at least. Did Daddy know? “He must,” I’d think, but immediately dismiss that as no answer at all, only a hope I had of still belonging somewhere, belonging there in that house I shared without kin. “Granddad sure didn’t know; why would he?” I’d ponder and just as quickly let go of that half certainty, unsure of everything. My whole world was built on dunes like these Outer Banks where I’d come to find the comfort of childhood. Even though Watson was back on solid ground, its foundation planted deep in the fields and orchards, it was a false solidity for me. The stones of our house kept the basement dry even in high weather and held firmly to the soil, but inside everything seemed to shift and blow and settle in a different and strange landscape daily. Each new thread I pulled to look at caused the wind to shift and bury all that seemed newly familiar. I woke up each morning in a new home within the same four walls kept dry by the same roof Daddy and I had re-shingled one summer back in high school. Everything looked the same, but nothing was. And it never would be again.
As the island rolled toward the sea and darkness came, I felt the rhythm of the light before its beam punctured my own dark vision. It illuminated nothing, only marked the dangers of the coast to sailors out beyond the cape. Its light didn’t guarantee safe passage; it only alerted those in sight to dangers of the reefs and rocks below the water’s inky swells.
When I was little we used to come, the three of us together, to a cottage out here for the first two weeks of August. The steady air across the dunes had been a great refreshment from the sultry weight of our valley’s summer. Mama took to the beach as a mermaid sunning herself in between swims in the warm sea. We’d walk the beach collecting treasures: opalescent jewels that once were homes themselves. By the end of our coastal fortnight each year, all the window ledges of our cottage were filled with the sea’s treasures, shared with us upon the dunes. It was homey cabin and perfect place for sea horses and horseshoe crabs. We didn’t even mind the horseflies too much.
Its seaward walls were tidy but showed fifty years of gales and storms. The paint lasted three seasons at most, worn away by gritty crystals massaged and beaten against the clapboards by the salty wind. The house painters had an easy job of it as far as I could tell. Inland they’d need scrapers and heavy sanders to ready the boards for a new coat. Out here they let nature do the job. Every summer I can recall the cottage sat softly-white, perched on the dunes. But around the window trim I could see its mood had once been grey and also sea-foam green. No drastic change, but subtle differences were evident in its history. Its seaward wall had two large windows for eyes and a door for a nose between them. The eave over the porch formed their lids and the wind chimes hanging there, the lashes. It kept its expression plain but constant, as dependable as the sunrise it greeted every morning.
On the porch were four sturdy rockers to match the number of bed pillows the cottage furnished. They were white as well, but brighter with a little sheen except where palms and thumbs had rubbed away mainland worries. Rarely were all four set rocking at the same time, only when we had company after supper for pie or watermelon. Sitting and rocking is grown-ups’ sport, and as a boy I never stopped digging, running, or pirating long enough to complete a full swing of their arcs. One morning though, in the summer before I entered school and learned that big boys didn’t sleep with stuffed dogs or sit on daddies’ laps, I heard the porch boards creek in rhythm as the grey dawn warmed to blue. I crept from my bed and out the screen door, holding its frame against the pull of its tight springs, careful to close it slowly so as not to wake Mama. Daddy opened his arms to make room for me on his knee and handed me the field binoculars he was holding.
“Look Jesse, look up the beach just this side of the last cottage,” he directed me. I looked through the left eyepiece and then the right, my boy’s face not wide enough to see through my father’s eyes. Noticing my trouble, he reached down and pulled the lenses closer together to match my innocence.
“Okay, is that better? Do you see the last cottage?” he asked. I nodded. “Now look out just beyond the breakers. What do you see?” This was Daddy’s way. He rarely told me or taught me things directly, but was always asking questions, encouraging me to explore and figure things out for myself.
“The ocean,” I answered, uncertain why he sounded excited.
“Just wait, keep looking.” And then it broke the surface of the water, nearly its whole body reflected the morning light. And then another, just a few yards away, and then another. A whole school of dolphins were celebrating that summer wasn’t yet over. “They’ve been at it for about half an hour now. Started leaping as the light was coming up,” he informed me before settling back into the quiet. The field glasses were heavy and my little hands were cramping from clutching them to my face, but I couldn’t look away. Then I felt Daddy’s hands over mine as they took the weight of them and I settled in, my summer-shorn hair bristling against the underside of his chin. We sat like that together until the school moved on out to sea and we heard the clicking of the stove’s pilot light through the screen door. Except for us it looked like the rest of the beach was still asleep and that we were the only ones to have witnessed a marvelous secret. It was a magical kind of secret that was alright to share, not like when you see your cousin nab apples from the neighbor’s tree or find Granddad’s hidden cigars, and I couldn’t wait to tell Mama in between bites of bacon.