Updated 11/21/12 

Here and Away: Discovering Home on an Island in Maine

From “Ebb and Flow:”

            “Oh, look. There it is.” A woman late to our group points toward land, to the wrack line and a long dark hump almost obscured by large boulders close to the wooded shore.

            “Don’t go near it. It stinks,” she warns, continuing on to the marsh as four of us peel off and approach the dead whale’s body.

Despite her warning, I’ve yet to be overpowered by putrefying stench. Nor is the congress of flies as thick and riotous as I expect. Surprisingly, there’s little significant evidence that the busiest and most opportunistic shoreline scavengers, the gulls and crows, have been at work peppering the dead creature with open shotgun-like wounds. The eye sockets have yet to be fully emptied, ravaged clean. Clearly though, the elements have had a hand in whatever natural process of disintegration began when the whale’s dark skin and fatty layer meant to retain heat in cold water baked the whale once it stranded in the sun. Up close I can see that the skin, once smooth and rubbery, has split, and, like fruit, is peeling away in thick ragged sheets. The body is swollen, blown up, but with an odd density more than gaseous bloat. It looks sodden and lumpish, heavy, as though by sheer weight alone it’s becoming part of the earth.

 

From “Protecting the Dreamer:”

            Before autumn trees are tattered and leaves splatter this gravel drive and choke the gutters, it’ll be time again to empty the refrigerator, store linens, cover the furniture, pack the car, and drive off. Nights in long succession will descend upon my house. As will wind, storms, a winter gale. As will the sun that more than the wind or occasional rain knows its way around. Many are the times I’ve watched it confidently move over the dining room table or light the mantel and hearth, embrace a dresser’s square-edged bulk, finger with feather-light touch ceramic pots on the sill. Surely in the months to come, it will nose around corners and illuminate empty wastebaskets, flowerless vases, unopened books snug on their shelves. During moments I know nothing about, the sun will lavish light on a particular object as though it has been specially chosen and, with burnishing gleam, is cherished.

            And perhaps for a time, my house enjoys its emptiness. In privacy, it freely creaks or moans, expanding its joints after a long cold night. Blanket to chin, it snoozes after a summer of houseguests and banging screen doors, of dents, abrasions, scuffs and scrapes. For a few months, it’s freed from wasps busily probing the eaves. It doesn’t have to endure the crows’ noisy early morning assembly on the roof as they await their daily ration of peanuts. It’s not called on to witness a woman crying over her dead brother’s black zip-neck shirt. It’s not required to make room for one more child’s haphazard collection of shattered mussel shells or the surprise of forty people showing up for a rained-out picnic on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon.

 

From “In Concert:”

Concussive shuddering shattered my sleep that unseasonably cold September night, a blast and roar that rattled the windows, shook the bed. Fumbling for my glasses, no logic yet in sight and the last shreds of sleep yet to be ripped away, I wondered: How was it possible that a fast train was bearing down on our house? Or that a plane was about to drop from the sky onto the roof?

            Suddenly, a bright light strafed the bedroom walls and windows, blindingly scoured the deck, garden and yard. And with it the snapped-into-place recognition: the engine and cranking rotary blades of a helicopter.

            Inexplicably, one of the big elongated types used by the Coast Guard had swooped low over our house. Hovering above the bluff, its red lights pulsed. I pulled on my sweatshirt, hurried to the window and watched as the copter soon swung north, its downward-thrusting light beams blasting a swath of shoreline, setting ablaze everything it touched with so unnatural a brightness, the trees themselves looked stunned.

            In the palpable silence of the noise that had ambushed the night and seemed solely responsible for triggering whatever was happening and would happen next, I wanted to believe the helicopter was part of a drug bust, some federal agency’s new crackdown on what newspapers had recently reported were large caches of marijuana plants being grown in camouflaged local woods clearings. But as the now distant, low-flying helicopter moved out over open water then looped other island shores, and the flickering lights of a small flotilla of boats crisscrossing the water joined in the choreography, a knot formed in my chest. I was witnessing a rescue.

 

From “Touchstone:”

            As a young girl, my old neighborhood seemed like an island. Of just a few blocks. Of a bakery, a tavern, a church compound, a huddle of brick buildings with their backsides stitched together by sagging wooden stairways and porches. And where, from the front stoop of our two-flat that likely no current area resident knew had existed, and from which I was never to venture alone, I watched a stream of neighbors file in and out of the church and school. So, too, from the convent, like a covey of waddling birds, came the black-from-head-to-toe nuns, their hands thrust so deep into their sleeves that for a long time I believed they were only hiding the obvious – they had no hands.

 

From “With Open Eyes:”

            I will never know what my 45-year old brother last saw. Or heard. On that workday afternoon in an air-conditioned house sealed against Arizona heat. But it seems somehow fitting – even just? – to imagine that whenever or however fast Joe’s spirit departed, and especially because he was alone, some sort of sound should have accompanied those moments, a final pronouncement – “I was here,” “I mattered” – if only by way of a hum or vibration or the thrumming in one final exhalation. Hard to accept it was as silent as a distant meteor’s final transit on a warm August night. Or that with Joe’s collapse, the earth, if only for a nanosecond, didn’t pause in its orbit.