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,
“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
Roy shrugged. Behind the house his hunting dogs barked
“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?”
“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
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
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
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
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
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.”