The House on Salt Hay Road

A Novel

Carin Clevidence

Picador

Spring 1937

The sound was the loudest Clayton Poole had ever heard, the

noise he imagined a bomb would make if the Huns attacked

Long Island. Twelve years old, a sturdy boy with freckles and a

blunt boxer’s jaw, he’d been sketching a line of sandpipers on

the bottom margin of his Elson Reader. Pretty Miss Collier, in

a brown-checked dress, stood with her back to the fifth- and

sixth-grade children, writing a list of spelling words on the blackboard.

The sound crashed around them like a breaking wave and

the windows rattled in their casements. The chalk in Miss Collier’s

hand skipped across the slate like a stone on pond water.

Clayton was the first one to reach the window. To the west

of Fire Neck, white smoke billowed against the sky. Maybe it

had been a bomb. Where was his sister? What if she’d been

hurt? At the front of the classroom, a girl in pigtails started to

blubber. Clayton thought of the birds at Washington Lodge,

where he worked every morning before school. The cockatoos

were inside, he reminded himself, because of the man from

Boston. “Sit down, children! Sit down!” cried Miss Collier. She

slapped the desk with her ruler. But they stayed clustered at the

window with their faces up against the glass like the turtles in

the class terrarium.

Seeing his chance, Clayton edged toward the door.

Clayton’s sister, Nancy, nineteen years old, was riding bareback

down Old Purchase Road when the thunderous noise spooked

her horse. She felt the animal contort beneath her, then surge

forward like water through a broken dam. She hung on to the

mane as they careered across the road, narrowly swerving around

a child on a tricycle. Nancy saw a red cap and the round O of a

mouth. Gripping with her knees, she hauled on the reins. The

horse galloped into the woods that bordered the marsh. A flock

of black ducks rose from Scheibel’s Creek. Leaves and vines

whipped against her, and Nancy crouched lower and tried to

shield her face with her elbow. Then a branch loomed and she

was scraped off the horse’s back like mud from the heel of a

boot. She landed on the damp ground among the skunk cabbage,

rattled and indignant. It had been years since she’d fallen

off a horse. In the distance she heard the sound of Buckshot

crashing through the blueberry and the shadbushes.

In Fire Neck, just east of Southease, Clayton’s grandfather

woke with a start. In his dream a ship had run aground with all

sails set and was breaking up on the sandbar. August Scudder

had worked for most of his life in the United States Life Saving

Service across the Great South Bay on Fire Island; his dreams

were full of maritime disasters. Scudder jerked upright, surprised

to find himself not in a lifeboat but in a chair on the

front porch of his house. Out in the yard he saw his son, Roy,

standing open-mouthed.

“What the hell?” Scudder demanded. Roy was staring over

the trees at a ragged cloud smudging the blue sky. He wondered

aloud if this might be war, if the town of Southease had been

bombed by the Germans.

Scudder’s thoughts leaped to his granddaughter, out riding

her horse. The girl was his favorite, like her late mother before

her, and he wanted her home. He distrusted horses at the best

of times, skittish beasts, prone to shying. “Where was Nancy

headed?”

Roy shrugged. Behind the house his hunting dogs barked

and whined.

“And Mavis,” said Scudder, thinking of his youngest child,

“up at the lodge.”

Washington Lodge, where Roy’s sister Mavis worked, lay

on a small rise between Southease and Fire Neck, much closer

to the confusion. The two men exchanged a look. “Pigs,” Roy

said. “I’d better go and bring her home.”

In the kitchen of Washington Lodge, Clayton’s Aunt Mavis

prepared to meet her maker. She’d scalded a goose and had just

started to pluck it. There were two loaves of bread in the oven,

and she’d opened the window above the sink to let out some of

the heat. Then the room shuddered around her and a stack of

dishes lurched to the floor. The goose slipped from her fingers.

From the pantry came the tinkling sound of wineglasses breaking.

Mavis, stout and ungainly, fell heavily to her knees and

pressed her feather-covered hands together. Out the window

an ugly gray cloud was rising above the trees. “Our Father who

art in Heaven . . .” The cloud seemed to take on a shape. She

could see it moving toward her. The fist of God, she thought,

breathing in the smell of brimstone. She squeezed her eyes shut

and prayed as fire whistles went off and dogs all over town began

to howl. She prayed as flakes of ash as big as hands drifted

in through the open window and brushed her face.

Rushing home, Clayton saw ashes dancing in the wind along

the string of lanes that ran south toward the bay off Beaver

Dam Road. They settled on the grass and on a half-empty laundry

basket at the corner of Hawkins Lane, where a clothesline

had been abandoned. The last shirt on the line fluttered a damp

arm. Clayton rounded the corner onto Salt Hay Road, his

shoes kicking up dust.

The Scudder house stood at the end of the lane, facing the

uninterrupted marsh. Across the field, the Barto River flowed

toward the Great South Bay. As Clayton turned into the yard,

he could see the masts of the sailboats at Starke’s Boatyard poking

up over the far hedge. His grandfather stood at the door to

the house, a sinewy man with a crest of white hair. His sharp

nose protruded like a beak. “What happened?” Scudder asked.

Clayton struggled to catch his breath. “Where’s Nancy?”

Flakes of ash and charred paper drifted down around them.

The stain in the sky had faded and spread toward them on an

easterly wind that blew the sharp smell of gunpowder with it.

Ash settled on the grass and on the yellow daffodils by the gate.

“Riding,” Scudder told him. “Roy’s gone to fetch your

aunt. Why aren’t you at school?”

“Riding where?” Clayton insisted. He had slipped out of

school in the confusion, something he didn’t care to explain,

because his sister wouldn’t like it. Now she wasn’t home. What

had started as a small uneasiness unfurled inside him, billowing

like a sail in a gust of wind.

Scudder shrugged his bony shoulders. “Who knows where

she goes on that animal. Run over to the Captain’s house. See

if he’s all right.”

Captain Kelley lived alone in a cottage across the field. He

was an old man, almost as old as Scudder, and they had known

each other since their days in the Life Saving Service. Clayton

knocked on the door for form’s sake before opening it. The

small, dim house was overrun with cats. Two of them rubbed

against his legs as he stepped inside. It took Clayton’s eyes a moment

to adjust to the darkness. In the front parlor, portraits of

the Captain’s mother and father hung on the wall, draped in

dusty black lace. The shades were always drawn; Captain Kelley

had once explained to Clayton that he hated looking out of

dirty windows. From the sofa came the sound of snoring. Clayton

tiptoed across the rug. The Captain was stretched out, with

his head on a pillow and his mouth open. His white mustache

rose and fell. The room smelled of fish and cats and standing

water. Clayton closed the door softly behind him and stepped

back into the sunlight.

Instead of going home, he skirted the field and headed into

Southease. He knew his sister sometimes rode down to the

Southease dock to watch the sailboats on the bay. Until he saw

her, the jittery feeling in his gut would only get worse. At

Hawkins Nursery, glass lay smashed at the base of the greenhouse

like drifts of ice. A little girl stood barefoot on the porch

next door and cried halfheartedly, rubbing her eyes with her

fists. Across the street a man in a gray suit was stamping out a

fire on an otherwise immaculate lawn. “What happened, mister?”

Clayton called.

“The fireworks factory,” the man said glumly. “Look at all

this garbage!” Scraps of singed paper hung in the green privet.

Clayton asked if anyone had been hurt.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said the man in gray. “The blast

nearly took my roof off !”

A policeman had blocked off Main Street with a sawhorse,

forcing the traffic to turn back. On a lawn nearby, bits of orange

and silver shone in the sunlight where a window had shattered

and blown outward, along with an aquarium. Half a dozen

goldfish lay strewn like bright fruit on the grass.

Clayton planted himself in front of the policeman. “Mister,

have you seen a girl on a black horse?”

Intent and self-important, the policeman shook his head.

He had a whistle between his teeth and blew it sharply, gesturing

at a Buick convertible that had come to a stop and was now

blocking traffic.

Clayton hurried on, past the fish market and the stationery

store. A woman in curlers ran by, nearly knocking into him, a

scarf clutched to her head. Clayton joined a cluster of people

on the sidewalk. They stood watching as, across the street, firemen

from the Southease Hook and Ladder hosed the smoldering

debris that had once been the fireworks factory. Blackened

and twisted shapes protruded randomly from the rubble. “I

knew it the minute I heard it,” a man in a houndstooth hat was

saying. He had the stub of a cigarette in his mouth, unlit, and

talked around it. “They were always testing something.”

“Not like that,” said another man, with a snort of derision

or disbelief. “Not that loud. I thought it was gunshots.”

A woman in the front of the group shook her head. “I

knew it was fireworks. All that popping before the bang, and

the colors. Red and yellow and green. Like a Christmas tree.”

“Excuse me,” Clayton said, pushing himself forward. “I’m

looking for my sister.On a black horse?” An older woman with

a shopping bag turned to look at him and tutted, sympathetic.

No, no one had seen a horse.

The man with the cigarette stub spat it onto the ground.

“Would have bolted,” he muttered. “Miles from here by now.”

Clayton felt their interest in his small problem ebb. The

crowd turned back to the smoking wreckage across the street.

The fireworks at the Lights of Long Island were made by hand,

packed one by one with a brief and particular glory, from penny

snaps to aerial shells to set pieces that took weeks to construct.

What had set them off was a rogue spark, a scrap of electricity.

One squib shot up, then a few more. Then came the rolling

explosion as the rest fired off together—the beehives and the

Niagara Falls, the willow tree rockets and flying pigeons, the

pinwheels, the crimson stars, the white-and-gold flitter, the revolving

suns and the Saxon crosses—each carefully planned artifice

of light reduced to smoke and noise.

Out on the Great South Bay, fishermen on their boats heard

the loud report and saw smoke like a sudden thunderhead rise

above the trees. In Southease windows shattered in houses and

storefronts from Main Street to Oyster Lane. Burning debris

hurtled through the air. A man on Ketchum Road later swore

that the face of the Shah of Persia had appeared in lights above

his vegetable garden. The stained-glass window in the Presbyterian

church, the one showing Christ as a fisher of souls, fell

in pieces. Greenhouses echoed with the sound of breaking

glass. When the ground shook, people feared their homes were

collapsing around them; a terrified mother tossed her baby out

an open window. Wrapped in a blanket, he landed unharmed

in the yellow branches of a forsythia.

While people panicked and dogs howled, the cloud of burned

powder rose over the fireworks compound and the maple trees

on the sidewalk. It broke up slowly, catching in the spokes of

the windmills and the leafy tips of trees, curling south in wisps

down Main Street. It drifted out over the tops of sailboats moored

at the Southease dock, east over a stretch of oak and scrub pine,

down Fire Neck Road, along the grasses and cattails of Scheibel’s

Creek. It spooled over the salt marsh, sifting powder and ash

onto the spartina and high-tide bush. Beyond the marsh lay the

Great South Bay, and beyond the bay stretched Fire Island, a

long and narrow strip of sand clumped into dunes, where, days

later, Clayton and his friend Perry would collect piles of blackened

cotton and singed balsa wood that washed up along the

beach.

Nancy stood and brushed herself off. The terrifying boom had

come from Southease, nowhere near the elementary school

where her brother was. The house on Salt Hay Road lay nearly

a mile away; she had no doubt the horse Buckshot would be

halfway there already. Much closer, just up the low hill toward

Southease, stood Washington Lodge, where her aunt Mavis

worked. Better to go there first, Nancy thought. Someone

might know what was happening. Sirens sounded in the distance

as she picked her way back through the woods to Old

Purchase Road. The air had an acrid smell Nancy could taste in

her mouth. With an uneasy feeling, she began to run, taking

the shortcut that led to the back of the lodge.

Rounding the last of the trees, she saw the reassuring outline

of Washington Lodge on the hill above her. A figure stood

at the kitchen door, and Nancy put on a burst of speed. She

was halfway up the hill when she realized the person in the

doorway was a stranger. She slowed to a walk, surprised. He

was a young man with a pale, freckled face and reddish-brown

hair. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up. The way he

stood facing her with his hand on the door it seemed, in the

confusion of the moment, as if he were expecting her.

“I’m looking for my aunt,” Nancy faltered, catching her

breath. “She works here.” There was a stitch in her side and her

hip still smarted from her humiliating fall. The man opened the

door wide, and she peered into the kitchen. The air smelled of

burning bread, and also, faintly, of wet feathers. A stack of

white china plates had fallen off the counter and lay broken in

a gleaming line across the floor. Her aunt was kneeling under

the open window with her back to them, head bowed over her

clasped hands. Ashes sifted through the window. “Mavis,”

Nancy called gently. “Mavis, are you hurt?”

Her aunt did not turn. Nancy guessed the mumbling she

heard was prayer.

She made a wry face at the stranger. “What happened?”

“I don’t know.” His voice was low and dry, and although he

wasn’t whispering, Nancy felt keenly that he was speaking to

her alone. “It sounded like the Last Judgment.”

Nancy’s heart still pounded. She watched the stranger’s face

as he spoke. The noise had come out of nowhere, he said.

“Like Armageddon. Without the trumpets.” His name was

Robert Landgraf, he told her, and he was visiting from Boston.

Nancy thought his fair, freckled skin looked as if it would burn

easily. She noticed ink stains on his fingers and the cuff of his

white shirt. He’d heard glass shattering downstairs, he went on,

and had searched the house in vain for other people. “I was

starting to think the place had been evacuated without me. I

found someone finally. Your aunt, I guess.” He gestured toward

the kitchen. “Then I opened the door and saw you.” He smiled

at her, and Nancy found herself smiling back.

The sound of a car on the pebble drive made them turn.

Roy was behind the wheel. “She’s in the kitchen,” Nancy

called as her uncle came toward them, looking concerned. She

felt guilty for not venturing in before him. But Roy would do

a better job of calming his sister, she told herself.

Roy paused at the door. “What the devil happened?”

“We think it’s the Last Judgment,” Nancy said with a nervous

laugh, unable to restrain herself. Her uncle frowned. He

glanced quickly from her to the man from Boston and back

again before turning and stepping into the kitchen. Nancy

knew she shouldn’t make light of her aunt’s religious fervor.

She glanced down at her feet, abashed.

Nancy and Robert Landgraf stood in the doorway; like

reprimanded children, she thought. Inside, Roy could be heard

reasoning with Mavis. Glancing in, Nancy saw him helping her

to her feet. He bent down to retrieve the half-plucked carcass of

a goose and stood holding it for a moment, like a bachelor with

a baby, before angling it into the gleaming white refrigerator.

“Let’s all go home,” Roy said firmly. He held his sister

under the elbow and steered her toward the door. Mavis, pale

with shock, blinked her wide eyes in the sunlight.

Nancy glanced at the stranger. It seemed unkind to abandon

him. “Maybe Mr. Landgraf should come with us.”

“Yes!” cried Mavis unexpectedly. “I’m supposed to cook his

dinner. Mr. Washington won’t be back till late.” Roy nodded,

shepherding them forward.

Robert Landgraf seemed grateful not to be left behind. Together

they walked toward the car. A fresh wind brought another

flurry of grit and the smell of burning. Mavis stopped to

pull a handkerchief from her pocket and hold it over her nose.

Roy handed her into the passenger seat of the Ford and opened

the back door for the others.

Nancy hesitated. She couldn’t bear the thought of riding

back to Salt Hay Road with her aunt, who would pester Robert

Landgraf with questions about his spiritual beliefs, embarrassing

her. “I think we’ll walk,” she told her uncle. “Buckshot’ll be

back by now. But I lost my crop somewhere along the road.”

Roy didn’t protest. “Be careful!” Mavis called, waving her

handkerchief from the window. The car sputtered down the

white pebble driveway, leaving Nancy alone with the man from

Boston.

She set off briskly. It seemed clear that while something had

happened in Southease, maybe at the gas station, the ground

would stay solid under their feet. Her brother was safely in

school. Nancy’s fear converted to nervous excitement, a sense

of possibility. She felt acutely conscious of the man keeping

pace beside her.

“Lively spot, Long Island,” he said after they’d walked a few

yards. “Ear-splitting booms, clouds of smoke. You locals must

have nerves of steel.”

Nancy laughed. “I grew up in Connecticut.” She didn’t

want him to think she’d lived in the little town of Fire Neck all

her life. “We’re going to move back there in a few years. My

brother and I. Once he finishes school.”

“Still, I take it you’re familiar with the local customs,”

Robert said. “You can translate the lingo, make sure I don’t end

up with my head on a stake.” Nancy smiled again, trying to

imagine what dinner on Salt Hay Road would be like with this

stranger at their table. She could picture Clayton’s pinched expression,

sizing Robert Landgraf up, holding his white shirt

and city shoes against him.

It had rained steadily for the past week and now the sun

shone brilliantly. In the silence and the sunlight it was hard to

credit the violence of the noise they’d heard before. The leaves

on the trees were a bright acid green. Nancy left the road for a

narrow trail that ran along Scheibel’s Creek.

“You’re in business with Mr.Washington?” she asked.

Robert explained that he was an assistant curator from the

Museum of Comparative Zoology in Boston. “We heard a rumor

there might be a rare bird here, a Carolina parakeet. Parrots

are my specialty, so I’m the one they sent.”

Nancy felt surprised that something as familiar as the birds

at Washington Lodge should have caught the attention of a

museum in Boston. “Did you find it?”

He shook his head, rueful. “No. They’re similar, but it’s not

a Conuropsis at all. Something South American, in the genus

Aratinga.”

Nancy said, “You must be disappointed.”

“Oh no. My hopes weren’t high. And the collection is amazing.”

Robert whistled. “He’s got African finches Peters would

kill for. And a little psittacine I can’t even identify. Maybe one

of the New Guinea species . . .” His voice had become almost

dreamy.

It still seemed incredible that the birds her brother fed and

watered every morning were that remarkable. She asked, “But

where does he get them?”

“He knows every ship’s captain in New York Harbor, and

he pays well. They bring him specimens from all over the

world.” Walking in front, unable to see him, Nancy listened to

his disembodied voice listing the exotic names of the birds, honeycreepers,

jacamars, bee-eaters; it was a strangely intimate arrangement,

like talking in the dark. They were nearing the creek, and

the air smelled damp and earthy. The brown spikes of cinnamon
 
fern poked up from the undergrowth. She lifted a thorny

strand of catbrier aside and held it. Robert took it from her,

ducking his head.

“Where are you leading me, Miss Poole? Not into more

danger, I hope.”

Nancy had an image of him materializing out of the explosion,

as if from an alchemical reaction. He had stood at the

door of the lodge, she thought, waiting for her. A shiver rippled

down her back. She said, “Call me Nancy.”