by MARYELLEN BEVERIDGE
The lobster boat idled against the floating dock, smelling of diesel fuel. Its engine sputtered above the quiescent brown-green water of the bay as a crewman, pulling a length of rope, leapt onto the dock and fastened it to a metal cleat. The boat swung outward in a slow arc, then came to rest again against the dock. The captain cut the engine, and the final turn of the propeller sent the remnant of a wake to break weakly along the shore. Above the dock, the town wharf receded on a massive face of granite. Boulders of immense size sat at its base, and lesser rocks clustered around them, covered with long, slippery tendrils of knotted kelp and dead man’s fingers that moved in mild agitation in the ebb tide. There were four passengers on the boat: Naomi by herself, and a man and woman together with their child, a girl of four or five. The crewman had taken Naomi’s ten-dollar bill for the trip around the bay. It was mid-April, and north; the air still held a chill. The big boats, the schooners and yachts for charter, weren’t ready yet for the tourist season. The lobster boat seemed an afterthought, something on which to bring a tourist found in the wrong season onto the water, a poor promise for the storied boats of summer with sails and running lights and hand-fitted trim and bells that rang above the dip and froth of the sea.
After paying her fare, Naomi had stepped onto the deck and sat on a bench across from the young family. “Hello,” she had said. The woman and the girl looked up briefly from under their sunhats, as if trying to locate a sound. The man nodded to her. The captain rotated the boat’s wheel and described a half-circle in the bay. The woman had been talking to the child about a lighthouse built on the rocks ahead, and she turned again to her, her sunhat canting in front of her face. She held a brochure in her hand, with a Chamber of Commerce stamp on the back. Naomi repeated to the girl, from something she had read, “Before the lighthouses, the settlers built bonfires on the shore to guide the ships in.” A fire against the black line of the sea, and rising behind it, the great oak forests of New England, vast and haunted. Naomi looked toward a shore of rock and boulder, and beyond it a steeple or two and the foreshortened rooflines of houses, made of slate and of cedar. The girl stirred, took her mother’s hand. She wore a pink dress, like a school dress, and a pair of pink sneakers. The man wore khaki pants and a sports shirt and jacket, the woman a yellow dress and a light-yellow sweater draped over her shoulders. Naomi smiled at the child, but the child wasn’t interested in her. The child’s mother pulled a sweatshirt from her bag and helped the child find the arms and neck.
The boat was old and dirty, its paint peeling, a working lobster boat: wet ropes coiled under the benches, the sharp and caustic smell of diesel fuel, and a slick of water on the floorboards. In the center of the boat was a tank filled with rank-smelling seawater. Naomi rose from the bench and leaned her slight body over the tank. The woman observed her with mild distaste. The tank was empty. Naomi sat down again. She felt strangely discouraged. I thought there might be lobsters, she wanted to say; there might be eels. There might be something from the sea… The woman pushed her long arms though the sleeves of her sweater and buttoned it. She looked without interest toward the wharf. The girl perched on her father’s lap. The crewman sat at the far end of the boat and fitted a chew of tobacco in his cheek. The boat moved fitfully over the water. Naomi held tightly to the underside of the bench.
The crewman tied a knot in the length of rope that held the boat to the dock. Naomi followed the family off the boat. The captain stood next to a small portable set of steps the crewman had placed on the dock and offered his seamed brown hand. Naomi was the only one to take it. A wooden ramp with weathered railings led from the dock to the wharf. Squares of tarpaper were nailed to it at even intervals. The ebb tide had forced the pitch of the ramp almost straight up. It seemed a long way to the wharf, an impossible distance. At the foot of the ramp the father looked around, as if for direction. He lifted his daughter onto the ramp and climbed close behind her, whispering to her about a game he called, “Who can get to the top?” The ramp bowed under their weight. The woman followed, her skirts swirling around her slender calves. The father lifted his daughter off the top of the ramp and onto the wharf. The crewman untied the rope and took away the portable steps. Naomi heard the engine catch and the slow churn of the boat’s propeller in the torpid water.
The family was collected at the edge of the wharf. The mother pulled a clear plastic comb from her bag and ran it through the child’s hair. The father, holding their sunhats, checked his watch. Naomi put one foot on the ramp and wrapped her hands around the railings. She needed a clear field before her. She had spent the winter in her house of twenty-five years, puzzling over its odors and angles, its cracks and injuries, as it had become, the container and shape and color of her life, newly strange to her, a perplexity. She was glad to have before her now something more than the unsolvable. She climbed upward. With each step she took, the ramp seemed to give with a small, contained bounce, and then to sway. She achieved a place beyond the midpoint. She felt a kind of victory. She reached the top, and the railings delivered her to the wharf—here asphalt, spaces for cars to park, a restaurant, white and yellow crocuses and lavender pansies flowering modestly in window boxes on the stores for tourists. The family had gone on, into the day, as if Naomi had only imagined them.
The boat ride hadn’t been a success. The water of the bay was still, held in a moment of irresolution before the tide began its return in swift, peremptory charges of water onto the rough stone beach. There were no seagulls. The water under the boat had seemed dense and empty at the same time. The captain had steered toward the breakwater. Beyond it the ocean was boundless and incomprehensible. The smell of the tank of seawater that had once contained captured, struggling creatures was close and briny. There was no wind. The lighthouse was a white column in the distance on a support of rocks. Naomi had shifted her body on the hard wooden bench, holding on as best she could as the boat responded to a half turn of the wheel and moved over the water in parallel to the breakwater, leaving a small wake. Colonies of barnacles and black mussels clung to the exposed rocks. Naomi’s hair was heavy with salt spray.
It was mid-afternoon, the very end of the lunch hour. Naomi walked past the restaurant at the far end of the wharf without entering it. She had sat at a table there the evening before, eating a whitefish that had been suffocated in breadcrumbs and accompanied on her dinner plate by a pleated paper cup of tartar sauce and a mound of french fries. Her waitress had called her “Honey,” and she said, holding out her order pad, “The breaded flounder is especially good.” She apologized for the weather. “Even the daffodils are late,” she said. A few other diners occupied the room. The mostly empty tables were set with paper place mats with pictures of lighthouses and swordfish leaping out of the sea. It was a restaurant for families; a family restaurant. After dinner Naomi ordered coffee and a slice of Boston cream pie. She sat quite alone at her table, her faded hair carefully pinned away from her face, wearing a dress of light wool.
The train had brought her north. It was too soon in the season for a trip to the shore, but she needed change, something she thought the seaside could provide. She had tried that winter to reassemble herself, to find within her the necessary components. She had not prevailed. It seemed to require the counterpoise of others, but she had found herself incapable of company. Her husband, Brian, had died the previous summer. His car had been found, the motor running, in a field of evening primrose, the tire marks indicating that the car had taken a detour from the road and driven through a break in an old stone wall, to stop almost gently, among the wildflowers, without bump or scratch, against a lichen-covered boulder. Next to Brian, on the passenger seat, was a bag of plums, its contents spilled onto the floor. Brian’s hands were on the steering wheel, but in a disordered way. His eyes were open behind his sunglasses.
At the hospital, where he had been taken, the doctors tried to determine the cause of his death. There were elevated levels of antigens in his system. From this the doctors had speculated that he had died from the sting of a bee or a wasp that had come through the open car window, his body having gone into anaphylactic shock. Or something had distracted him, perhaps the same insect, and he had turned the steering wheel in surprise, and then been stung. This scenario couldn’t be determined with certainty because the stinger had not been found in his skin. There was nothing in his stomach to indicate an allergic reaction to nuts or shellfish leading to shock. There were other possibilities. A reaction to poison oak. Or to pollens in the air. Or trying to avoid another car on the road veering unpredictably across the lane. He had been wearing his seatbelt. The tire marks were inconclusive. He was found on a late summer afternoon on the outskirts of a small town twenty-two miles to the west. That was the real mystery to Naomi, what had brought him there, a place from which he would have returned, and then told her or not told her about it. But then to die instead in a field of golden flowers.
Naomi came to the end of the wharf where it met the main street. It was an intersection of sorts, where the street climbed on one side and followed the shore on the other; another street led straight ahead, past a small park. There were trees not yet in leaf and stores still shuttered, a movie theater that was open only on the weekend, featuring a second-run movie, and the library and police station farther on. She had walked to the motel from the train station, holding a weekend bag at her side by its short, stiff handles. The road there went downward in a mild decline; then at a different intersection from the one where she now stood it traveled upward. She had shifted her bag in her hand and walked on, and she could feel the geography, the changing elevation of the road under her feet.
That winter she kept the house the way it had been and all of the things in it she had no understanding of, that had been part of what gave function and meaning to the house for her husband. There was the snow blower and the charcoal grill and the various tools he used for maintaining the lawn and the pipes and the gutters. She sat in the deep chair in the living room holding a cup of tea. The house creaked and sighed. She brought flowers to him, driving across town and through a high ornate iron gate, shocked each time at seeing his name on the stone marker.
At the motel she had taken her credit card from her wallet and was given her room key by the proprietress. The motel was one of the few places open; it was set back on an expanse of lawn with boulders too big to move but made decorative by the small gardens planted around them. Naomi said, “Thank you.” She had felt the need to speak. She said, “I’m looking forward to my stay.” The proprietress said, “I hope you enjoy yourself. The restaurant serves breakfast only, starting at seven.” Naomi said, “Can you tell me where the pool is?” There was a pool, an indoor pool. On the train Naomi had imagined its turquoise water. The proprietress said, “Through the doors, then at the end of the corridor ahead of you.” She put some paperwork away and closed a drawer.
Naomi took her key and walked down a hallway to her room. She opened her weekend bag and hung up her clothes. She decided to inspect the pool before she got into her bathing suit. Perhaps she’d have dinner, a drink somewhere overlooking the bay, and take a late swim. She heard the charge of high-pitched voices as she approached the pool. She could see the pool through the glass. It was full of children. The parents occupied chaise lounges arranged along a cement apron. The furniture and the floor were wet. There was so much noise. It must be a holiday, Naomi thought. A school holiday. Some kind of break before the school year ended. The younger children wore floats around their waists. A boy tested the end of the diving board and cannonballed into the water. The parents held conversations among themselves. Naomi opened a door at the end of the glass wall and was met by the smell of chlorine and a wave of cloying, humid air. The water, disturbed, having lost its equilibrium, threw fragments of light onto the walls. All of the children seemed to be screaming.
Naomi returned to the pool at the end of the evening, after her coffee and Boston cream pie. Through the glass the pool was calm and empty, the water lit by overhead lights turned low. She wanted to see it, to walk along the apron beside it, and then to think about it while she changed into her bathing suit in her room. She tried the door to the pool, but it was locked. She rattled the handle. The depth markers were visible beneath the water. Nine feet and six feet. The handle shook under her fingers. She retreated to an Adirondack chair on the lawn, her sweater buttoned up her chest. The circle of clouds around the gibbous moon made the moon seem brighter, a radiant light behind all that we see. She had kept her husband’s clothes. She wore his dress socks around the house. She had begun to think of dying. It had begun to occupy her. She would say to Brian, “Is there something we should have done?”
He would be grilling something or fixing something. He sang the song he liked, in a broken way, as if from a memory. He loved to sing it:
The crow that is so black, my dear,
Shall change his color white;
And if I ever prove false to thee,
The day shall turn to night, my dear,
The day shall turn to night.
He had heard it on the radio. A young woman had sung it a cappella. That was two years ago. Why did she think of death? He finished the song. He sang it with some earnestness in his good tenor voice. Then he kissed her in the gentlest way, as if to say, This is what we have done; this is what we have.
Over the winter she had odd symptoms. Her throat felt constricted; she found it hard to breathe. Her tongue felt swollen. She drank lemon juice and honey spooned into a cup of hot tea. She sat in the deep chair in the living room, listening for her husband’s return. Anaphylaxis, the doctors had told her, involves the whole body. A shocking dose of the toxin has occurred. The body’s reaction is sudden and severe. Respiratory arrest and failure ensue. Brian had probably died of what the doctors called heart arrhythmia, followed by sudden cardiovascular collapse. He was driving on a country road. Probably no one saw him detour into the field of flowers. Even so, what passerby carries adrenaline in his car for this of so many of life’s emergencies?
The house was solid and familiar. Outside of it was a formless place, suddenly foreign. Naomi had driven the twenty-two miles to the hospital, a small rural hospital. They led her into a separate room from the emergency room. They took the sheet from his face. He looked beautiful and young, younger than when she first knew him, but gone away from her. His face looked concerned, as if he had been trying to solve a dilemma. She sat down next to him, her heart expectant and tumultuous, and leaned over the gurney where he lay.
The stars were pulses of light across the heavens. The moon made them hard to identify, but she thought from her Adirondack chair on the motel lawn that she could see the bowl of the Big Dipper, and nearby, Boötes, the Herdsman. In the summer Brian would take her after midnight to the park near their house, and they would wait for the meteor showers to begin, in the season of the Perseids, long yellow flames trailing across the sky. The summer before he died, he took her to the Green Mountains, and they stood in a field lit with fireflies and watched the aurora borealis descend upon the night, pale green ribbons of immeasurable heights undulating in the sky, as if arrived, an opalescent shade of itself, from somewhere unimagined.
There were words she would never say again. She had forgotten how to do things. Waking up, shopping for a pint of raspberries or an acorn squash, coming to the end of the day, held another kind of meaning. The ground under her feet in the new spring grass was cold, the sky with its ancient explosions and nebulae and incandescent gasses too large to comprehend.
He must have been bitten before. His immune system had become sensitized. Then on a summer day, on a country road, he had received what the doctors called the “shocking dose.” She had known him her whole life, it seemed. When had he been stung by a bee, or brushed against the leaf of a poison oak? She got up from the Adirondack chair and left small tracks away from it in the new grass.
In sleep she saw the gleam of the stars, some intimation of the unanswerable.
She knew the coastline of the town from a map in a brochure she had taken from the motel lobby. She stood at the street that intersected the wharf after a breakfast of toast and coffee in the motel restaurant. There seemed to be a path some blocks away that led to a walk overlooking the ocean. The ocean would be good to see, from a great height, the beaches of rock and brown seaweed, hard and unwelcoming, and a featureless plane of water, a blank blue surface that intimated nothing but itself. She put the brochure away. She began to walk the other way, toward the town center. A few stores were open. A car drove by. Empty planters hung from beneath the streetlights. At another corner she waited. She wasn’t sure what she waited for. The end of absence. A red bus stopped. The driver opened the doors. A man got up from a seat in the front of the bus and spoke to her from the top of the stairs. He wore a red baseball cap and a dark blue sweatshirt. He was very thin. “The tour starts in five minutes,” he said.
“I wasn’t waiting for the tour,” Naomi said.
“This is one of our stops. Fifteen dollars gets you a ninety-minute tour,” he said.
The bus looked old. It was a double-decker, with a coat of paint that made the red look liver-red. The paint was flat, not like the paint used on buses and cars that reflected the images of the street. The tires were good though, fat and deeply treaded. The bus nevertheless looked somewhat illegitimate, as the lobster boat had looked illegitimate; vehicles that appeared before the season, ushering it in, in their own improbable way. On the side of the bus, in a loose white script, was written “Omnibus Tours.”
“Where does the tour go?” Naomi said. She had taken a step off the curb. No one else seemed to be on the bus. She heard some whispering, then giggling from the upper deck. A sigh was followed by the rattle of plastic bracelets on an arm flung out a window.
“Up to the point and down along the ocean and along there and back again,” the man said. “We make a loop all around.” He was making a big vague circle with his arm.
Naomi took out her wallet and handed him a ten and a five. He pulled off his baseball cap and bowed to her, then gave her his hand and helped her onto the bus. He deposited the bills in a metal cash box on the dashboard. The driver closed the doors and waited for her to find a seat. Naomi gazed into the empty interior. It had old leather seats and seat backs with metal grips. The seat backs were separated by a number of inches from the seats themselves and supported by metal poles at either end. A long, ribbed rubber mat ran down the center aisle. Almost all of the windows were open. A little girl appeared behind the driver, having sat up in her seat. She looked dreamily at Naomi, as if she had just woken up.
“This is Bunny,” the man said. She wore a sweat suit of pearly gray, with red piping. Her dark hair fell in tangles to her shoulders. She looked to be about nine years old. Bunny lay down again on her seat. “She’s Bill’s daughter, here, our tour driver.” Bill nodded briefly in the direction of the windshield. “And I’m Ray.” Ray picked up a microphone attached to an amplifier. Naomi realized he wasn’t going to ask her name, that she wasn’t part of the introductions. He turned on the microphone. Naomi took a seat behind the girl, thinking that Ray might as well not have to yell into the bus. The driver put the bus in gear, and it lurched into motion.
“When the white man arrived,” Ray said into the microphone, “this here was just a block of granite hanging out into the Atlantic Ocean, home to the Naumkeag and the Agawam.” He was trying to adjust his voice to the almost empty bus; he was trying to speak as if to a crowd, but a small crowd, so as, it appeared to Naomi, not to make her uncomfortable. “The white man was already sailing around here from Europe in the very early sixteen hundreds,” Ray continued. “Hey, even earlier than that. Fishermen came all the way across the ocean, following the coasts of Greenland and Nova Scotia. Then the Pilgrims got here, Plymouth Rock and all, but they wanted somewhere favorable to fish, so they looked to the harbors to the north. I guess the Indians finally made them see that fishing kept the wolf from the door, so to speak. There was so much cod and lobster you couldn’t set foot in any harbor around here but you’d fall all over them. Those were the days.”
The wind was delicious. The bus was climbing upward, away from the center of town. The girls were still giggling on the upper deck. Ray had been trying to modulate his voice so the girls could hear him too. But they seemed to be involved in something else.
“Most of the Indians around here were dead and gone beforethe Pilgrims arrived; can you imagine that?” Ray said. “Nary a shot fired. Just took by the white man’s disease.”
Ray looked to Naomi for a reaction. She had been thinking of her husband. How the moon had been so bright from her Adirondack chair; that there were spaces around her, silence, the turning of planets and suns, everything so impersonal, beyond her understanding. She looked at Ray unsmiling, not really seeing him. The little girl, Bunny, sighed and shifted on her seat, sleeping. Her snarled hair had fallen over the back of her seat, almost touching Naomi’s knees.
Ray seemed satisfied with Naomi’s response. He said, “There was a lot of shipbuilding around here. Schooners and whatnot. Fishing boats.” There was something now about Naomi’s expression that was making Ray lose his mental place in the narrative he had rehearsed. They had had a good season the year before. People loved Bill’s little girl, especially the older women. She had spent almost her entire summer on the bus, and all the days she wasn’t in school. He looked at her sleeping face. The wind coming through the windows caught the little hairs at her scalp line. She looked to Ray like one of those girls who turns ribbons around a maypole, part girl, part nymph. But she was spending her childhood on a bus.
“The granite was quarried,” Ray continued. “Go to any city on the Eastern Seaboard, all the way to Philadelphia, and you’ll see whole buildings made of it.”
The bus climbed onward. Naomi saw a brief sweep of the bay through the open windows. There were trees, seeming to move in procession as if on a carousel, on the other side of the road. She closed her eyes.
Ray shut off the microphone and sat down in a seat on the other side of the bus. Bill adjusted the rearview mirror and caught Ray’s eye. He stood up and held the microphone. The girls upstairs were quiet.
“There was a lot of timber at one time,” Ray said. He had turned on the microphone again. He had begun to whisper. “Pine and oak. Good for ships, good for building. There was a dock, a famous dock. The boats came in and out. The fishing was beyond imagining. Everyone caught the big one.”
Naomi was looking into the trees at the sides of the road. The bus had taken an imperceptible turn inland. The trees were getting ready to leaf. From a distance they were shades of pastel—yellow and green and pink. Something seemed to be rising in the trees and urging the buds forth, bringing a blush of color to the woodland.
“But there were terrible shipwrecks,” Ray said. “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about one. There were wars. The British destroyed the fishing fleets. They took prisoners.” Ray sat down, as if exhausted by the play of history. “Later, there was a great fire,” he said. “Much was lost.”
Naomi wondered how her husband, so solid, so present, could be killed by a bee. That he carried such fragility within him. That he would see through his sunglasses for the last time a field blooming with golden weeds. That he was, she liked to think, carrying a bag of plums home to her. Or had he found them at a market somewhere in the country; was he going to stop and eat one, sitting on a stone wall? What would he think of, then? Would he think of her?
The bus drove on. Ray shut off the microphone again. “Ma’am,” he said. Naomi looked at him, her face serious, the face of a tourist, a visitor to a new land. “I don’t have to keep at it if you’d rather I be quiet.” The little girl stirred and sat up. She turned in her seat and looked questioningly at Naomi.
“I’ve enjoyed your talk,” Naomi said. “I’ve learned quite a lot.” She had been a poor audience for Ray’s tour, she knew. “I’ve enjoyed the open windows,” she said. “The ocean air.” Everything is an enigma, she wanted to say.
Ray stood up and said something to Bill. Bill shifted a gear and took a left.
“We’ll go inland,” Ray said. “We won’t have to speak. We’ll go where the great forests used to be. Or so I’ve been told.” He often felt as if he were repeating a history that was only evident in the historians’ minds. “There used to be people living there,” he said. “The widows of lost sailors and fishermen and the soldiers in the wars against the British. They feared the British. They feared pirates and hostile natives as well. You can see the cellar holes sometimes. You can see stone walls. Some say the land is haunted, that there used to be witches living there.”
Naomi took her brochure from her pocket. On the map the center of the town was a large blank, with a complicated crosshatch of streets along the shore. Within the blank was the outline of a pond. But otherwise the place gave no information about itself.
The bus traveled swiftly on the narrow road, bordered by bare trees. Ray took off his baseball cap and sat down. The wind cut through his hair. Bill drove expertly, and the great arching branches of the trees seemed to part before the bus. The girls on the upper deck were silent. Bunny turned in her sleep, her beautiful dark hair like a cascade falling and falling over the back of the seat where she lay.
The wind was sweet. It blew Naomi’s hair and ruffled her sweater. She felt it on her tongue. It helped her breathe. In the distance, which perhaps the historians had helped her to imagine, Naomi saw a cellar hole. She saw the stone walls, and beyond them, the fields given over to weeds that would come out of the poor and rocky soil with the turning of the season, in a land dense and wild and unknowable, golden in the summer sun.
The girl slept. Naomi imagined her as in a dream, a little girl among the trees of the lost oak forests, where the women and their children living along the unforgiving coast found refuge from the British and the uncertainties of the new land, where they cleared fields and grew corn and root vegetables and hid among the trees and boulders. Their husbands used to sing when they brought in their hauls from the sea. From the open windows of the bus, the sun came through the trees like archers’ arrows. The widows had taken their past with them, what was left of it, and started anew. Did they bring their husbands’ chanties from the sea? There were myths about them. But nothing was found. The entire center of the town was a blank place on the map. Bill took the bus another turn. The tips of the trees were the color of sea glass. Naomi hummed the song her husband used to sing, as best she could remember it: “O fare you well, I must be gone, And leave you for a while: But wherever I go…” Bunny’s hair blew in wild plaits around her narrow shoulders. “But wherever I go,” she sang in a soft voice, “I will return, If I go ten thousand mile.” A bird flew upward from the underbrush. Or was it the turn of the hem of a woman’s skirt, the braid of a girl’s hair? Naomi leaned forward and held the metal grip on the seat back. She tried to see further into the trees.
Editor’s Note: The song lyrics reprinted in this story come from “The True Lover’s Farewell,” an eighteenth-century English folk ballad that appeared as early as 1710 in Roxburghe Ballads. Portions of the lyrics are reprinted here as they are part of the public domain.
MaryEllen Beveridge is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of a finalist award in fiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her collection, which includes “The Tour Bus,” was a semi-finalist for the 2018 Iowa Short Fiction Award. A previous collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Recent publications are in Pembroke Magazine, Cottonwood, Notre Dame Review, and War, Literature & the Arts. A story is forthcoming this spring in Louisiana Literature.