Edith Baines stares out the living room window at the schooner on the far side of the Northern Reach. It’s a traditional boat, big, maybe eighty feet, gaff-rigged with raked masts and some kind of carving on the prow, but in the inky light of the late afternoon she can’t make it out. The funny thing is, even though both the mainsail and the mizzen are raised, the boat isn’t moving. She squints but can’t see an anchor line, or even a buoy through the spitting snow. The current, she knows, is too strong for a mooring over there. Why doesn’t the boat drift? Where does it come from? Where is the crew? The questions itch unmercifully in her brain.
Descended from three generations of boatbuilders, Edith has always loved to sail. The summer she was ten—fifty-six years ago it would be now—her father took the family to Mount Desert Island for a weekend parade of tall ships. On a brilliant July morning, they climbed Cadillac Mountain. From a distance, the slopes had looked gentle and smooth like an old marble half-buried in the ground, but up close, on the trail, where the underlying granite pushed through the soil, the stone was brutal, fractured, and dangerous, and Edith imagined that just pulling out one rock might bring the whole mountain down on them. To avoid being buried alive, she walked with her hands in her pockets, kept strictly to the trail, and stepped carefully to avoid dislodging even a pebble.
At the summit, they surveyed her whole world, from the reach she’s looking at now, south to the bay, past the islands, and out to sea where the ocean met the sky in soft white surrender. They were so high up Edith imagined she could step off the mountain and onto the clouds. As they slid across the sky, the Porcupine Islands below them seemed to be swimming in the bay, bristled whales breaking the surface but leaving no wake. This, she thought, must be what it felt like to be God, but such blasphemous notions she’d learned to keep to herself. It took days and days to get the soap taste out of her mouth.
That afternoon they drove past the island’s rambling summer cottages, half-hidden behind stone walls and tangles of rugosa, and into the town of Bar Harbor to see the tall ships, mostly schooners like this one. Even though she’d grown up around the boatyard, Edith had never seen vessels this big before, and she had to crane her neck to watch the fireworks high above the web of masts and rigging. Edith has forgotten all the boat names but one, the Fanny Battle. At the time she thought it was funny to have a boat named after someone’s bottom, but Papa said Fanny was a genuine lady’s name and told her to stop her deviltry. When she giggled again, he wiped that silly grin off her face, just like he said he would.
Edith presses her fingertips to her cheek, expecting it to feel hot with the slap and the shame, but it’s cold, like always. Like everything in winter. Above the reach, low clouds sleepwalk across the February sky. Today they are fibrous, striated, like flesh being slowly torn from bone. It’s four in the afternoon and already night has started chewing away the edges of the day. This is winter’s waking death: half-light, refracted by gray water and dirty snow, begging the voracious dark to end its misery.
Along her jaw, Edith traces calcified bone bumps like rock beneath her skin. She follows the line from chin to earlobe, wonders when her skin got so loose and thin, thinks maybe if she pinches it hard enough, it might tear away from her skull in shreds like those clouds. Tentatively at first, she tugs at a jowly flap on her jawbone. It’s loose all right, and it hurts when she pinches it. The pain cuts through the maddening static in her mind, so she squeezes harder, then rotates her nails into the flesh. If she breaks the skin, will she bleed? Or is she like those hairy moths, the ones with eye markings on their wings that flit around the yellow porch light and explode in clouds of dust when they pass too close? In that last second, she thinks, the light must seem as bright and hot as the sun.
“Mother Baines?” Margery drops her handbag on the floor and skitters over from the doorway. She’s wearing her wool coat; wet snow sparkles on her shoulders, almost glamorous. At the sound of her daughter-in-law’s voice Edith recoils, as she always does, at the dreadful intimacy of being called mother by someone who is not her child.
Edith looks at her hand. The nails of her thumb and forefinger are red rimmed. She feels a blood drop forming on her chin, but before it can fall into her lap, Margery pushes a lipstick-stained wad of tissue against it, tells Edith to hold it there while she looks for the Mercurochrome. She returns with rubbing alcohol. It’ll smart almost as much; the thought makes Edith smile.
“Good Lord, what have you done to yourself this time?” Margery sighs as she replaces the dirty tissue with a stinging cotton ball. Edith doesn’t bother with the question, the answer is obvious. Margery puts more pressure on the wound than she needs to, so Edith pushes back with her jaw. When Margery snatches the cotton ball away, the scrum ends in a draw.
“You gonna sit there staring into space all afternoon, Mother?”
“I don’t know, Margery, probably,” she says. The effort of speaking exhausts her.
Margery leans in to apply a Band-Aid and exhales stale breath past yellow teeth coated in cigarette smoke and saccharine black coffee. Edith turns back to the window.
In a few minutes, Margery emerges from the kitchen wearing an apron over her pantsuit and carrying a packet of egg noodles with a can of cream of celery soup balanced on top. “Tuna casserole or shrimp wiggle?”
When Edith doesn’t answer, Margery says more loudly, “For supper, Mother, tonight. Which one?”
Edith waves off the question as if it were one of those moths fluttering around her head.
* * *
Margery thinks her mother-in-law is running down, that her interest in life is dwindling along with her stock of words. Edith hasn’t said ten things in the past week; before the accident you couldn’t shut her up any more than you could slow her down. Now she goes hours without moving or speaking. The silence weighs on Margery, tries her patience.
“I had a nice visit with Earlene today. She asked to be remembered to you,” Margery calls from the kitchen, hoping to start a pleasant conversation about her daughter. “She’s about to pop with that baby, and still two months to go.”
Edith says, “I never thought I’d have a great-grandchild by the name of Moody.” It’s not meant to be nasty, not entirely anyway. She is genuinely surprised that someone as levelheaded as Earlene would marry into the lowest of Wellbridge’s no-’count families.
Ignoring the dig, Margery focuses on being as Christ-like as she can. Since she was born again in Jesus six months ago at the First Light Pentecostal Assembly of Our Lord and Savior—and stopped attending the Congregational church with Edith—her mother-in-law has been nothing but spiteful.
“Heard from Lillian?” Margery asks from the doorway. One of the few things they agree on is Liliane Bertrand Baines, whom both call Lillian, deliberately over-anglicizing the way they pronounce her name in a shared act of righteous denigration.
Edith snorts her reply. She has more important things to think about than that French whore who stole her son, turned him against his family, then sold them all down the river after he died.
“You’d think she’d call,” Margery says, persistent. “Today being the anniversary and all.”
This day, February 23, marks exactly a year since Edith’s husband and two sons went out pulling lobster traps, but only one of them came back: Eldridge, Margery’s husband and the younger of Edith’s boys. Always the least essential of the three Baines men, he is now the only one.
“I wouldn’t think any such thing,” Edith says. It occurs to her that no one knows what anybody thinks. It’s the lies that hold people together, she believes, the things we never say, the false faces that mask ugly truths.
Here’s another thing Edith knows: After twenty years in the merchant marine, Mason was the best waterman in the family. So after the accident, when Eldridge claimed his brother made the decision to try to beat the storm instead of taking shelter at Dogleg Harbor, Edith knew he was lying. It was her husband, Henry, who’d have insisted on running for home. Eldridge always went along with his father; he’d have said anything to outshine Mason, but his need for approval cost everyone plenty. When the coast guard finally plucked Eldridge off the capsized hull, his pelvis was shattered and he was half-dead from exposure. The doctors said he’d be lucky to walk again.
Two days later, Henry’s body drifted ashore down Stonington way, his face so bloated and purple his casket had to be closed. Mason never resurfaced. They buried her son’s coffin empty, just left his corpse for lobster food at the bottom of the bay. Edith tries not to think about the creatures nibbling away at his eyes and fingers, but the image is never far from her thoughts.
“Well, I would think she’d call, if only out of respect for your loss, and to ask after Eldridge of course,” Margery says. When she gets no response, she continues, “And since you don’t have a preference, we’ll go with shrimp. It’s Eldridge’s favorite.”
Margery leaves the living room to see to dinner. After the first pot clangs, Edith reaches into Margery’s purse for the pack of Kools, lights one up, and turns her attention back to the schooner. It hasn’t so much as drifted.
* * *
Since the accident, Eldridge Baines hasn’t been able to work. He can barely walk anymore, let alone run a boat or pull traps, so he spends his days limping around the dock, picking things up and putting them down, dreading the boat’s return, studying the peeling paint on the office walls, the scabby dock planks, the rusted-out engine parts that litter the yard—anything but that greedy bay. Eldridge doesn’t miss lobstering. His lifelong dislike of the water has turned to hate, his fear to terror.
Eight months after the funerals, Mason’s widow sold the house he built her to some summer people. They bought Mason’s dinky little sailboat, too. Eldridge believes that Liliane deliberately spited his family by selling Mason’s shorefront land, her sixty percent of the lobster pound, and the half-wrecked lobster boat to the worst people she could think of: Reynard Fletcher and his harridan wife, Boots. Eldridge’s new business partners don’t pay much attention to him; they’re too busy with each other. Yesterday Boots picked up a chain saw and heaved it right at Reynard’s head after he told her to shut her goddamned stupid face. Ten minutes later, Eldridge heard them moaning and grunting in the storeroom. One of them always seems to have a black eye or a fat lip; they both stink of sex. Eldridge gives them a wide berth.
Tonight Margery is late picking him up, and the Fletchers have already gone. They turned down the heat before they left, so Eldridge waits in the cold office, staring at the empty driveway and warming his gloved hands on the metal shade of the desk lamp.
A year ago, he’d have sold his soul for something warm, anything. Though it seemed like days, he was only on the hull for a couple of hours. He sobbed himself dry out there, thought for sure he was a dead man, and prayed to God for the first time in his life, really prayed, for deliverance. At the time it didn’t occur to him to put in a word for his brother and father. He worries that it matters.
Because Eldridge didn’t die that day, hanging on to the keel of that miserable skeg-built lobster boat of Mason’s, he owes God. That’s why he goes with Margery to the Holy Ghost Rallies on Wednesday nights and the Miracle Services every Sunday even though he hates being there. The revival tent is in a clearing, but it’s surrounded by choke-black woods, the deep kind that could swallow you up in a second, just as fast as that bottomless, icy bay.
Eldridge has been cold ever since the accident, even sitting out in the sun last summer he felt the ache of the Atlantic deep in his belly and bones. He’s hoping the pastor at First Light can convince Jesus to warm him up, maybe even get his pecker working again, though the doctors up to Bangor have told him that’s not going to happen. The minister says his prayers might work better if, in addition to accepting Jesus Christ as his personal savior, Eldridge were baptized and born again, but Eldridge can’t stand the idea of being shoved under the cold water, of being weighed down by his clothes and shoes. Not again.
One Sunday afternoon, he got so desperate he tried to get healed by that TV preacher, Earnest Angely, the one who says to press the afflicted part of your body against the television screen. He stood there with his aching pelvis pushed up to the Motorola for a good five minutes. Nothing happened. Mother saw him but never mentioned it.
Eldridge can’t believe the accident was only a year ago. Since then, the days have been endless, droning on, rhythmic and dismal as the tide, coming and going without cease, rising and falling in frigid waves that lap the shore. Every day he tries, and fails, to avoid thinking about that afternoon on the bay, about his brother and father in the pilothouse, fighting each other for control of the wheel. He tries to forget the first wave that came out of nowhere and slammed them back into the second wave, blew out the windows and washed them all overboard, then capsized the boat. He’s still not sure how he came to be on top of the hull. Margery says it was the hand of God Himself, a sacred miracle from heaven, but he knows his blessing is his mother’s curse, that every time she looks at him, all she sees are the two caskets and wishes it had been him in the empty one. It occurs to Eldridge that his presence makes it even harder for her to bear Mason’s absence.
Down on the shore, the crows mob in a sour squall. They always seem to be pecking at each other, screeching and fighting, yet they are either unable or unwilling to separate from the flock. A murder, he thinks, that’s what a flock of crows is called. He closes his eyes and shrinks down inside his coat, away from the squawking and the early dark and the tide that never stops. When headlights flash above the hilltop, Eldridge nearly cries with relief.
* * *
Edith is sitting at the kitchen table when Margery and Eldridge get home. From the lingering smell of mentholated smoke, Margery concludes that her mother-in-law has been at her cigarettes again and so absolves herself of any guilt she might feel about paying for a new carton from the petty cash drawer at the pound. If only she could find a brand the old lady disliked.
Eldridge greets his mother and pauses behind her chair, wondering how come she is always staring out the window. He doesn’t ask, thinks of touching her shoulder, keeps his hand in his pocket; instead, he goes to the living room and turns on the nightly news, plops down in a chair, and pushes the heap of burnt matches to the side of the ashtray with one of Margery’s Kents. Why that woman can’t settle on one brand he’ll never know.
In the kitchen, Margery sets the table and pulls the casserole from the oven. She has been mentally composing her blessing all day. With the three of them seated, she clears her throat to stop Eldridge picking up his fork.
“I’ll say grace tonight,” she says, as if they say it every night, which they do not.
Given that this is a solemn occasion marking the anniversary of their loss, Margery expects Eldridge and Edith to bow their heads while she fills the room with the presence of the Lord, but Edith says, “No, thank you,” and picks up her fork.
She has no appetite and can barely stand the smell of the food but forces herself to spear a few peas, put them in her mouth, and chew. She takes a sip from her glass of milk, then smacks it back down on the table. Her son and his wife stare; Margery’s mouth is open, the first syllable of the prayer stalled somewhere around her tonsils.
Edith despises Margery’s newfound devotion, her constant Bible-thumping. It reminds her of her father and mother after they took up with that snake of a preacher who came up from New York, bled his flock white, and disappeared when the money ran out. What difference does it make whether Margery is drunk on whiskey or her own righteousness? Like Edith’s parents, she is consumed with sanctimony and deluded by false salvation. Like them, she is a fool.
Copyright © 2021 by W. S. Winslow