In the middle of a morning thick with gulls, the old woman passed. Her bed had been moved onto the sun porch where a lethargic wasp buzzed idly in a corner. Beyond the large panes of glass a low fog rose slowly from the bay, seamless, then pixilated into thousands of swooping birds. At the time of her last breath, slow as it was, deliberate, she was alone, and it was upon this solitude that she closed her eyes.
Presently, her niece returned to the house. She was accustomed to finding her old great-aunt asleep, cheek squished into the pillows, bulging to the sides like a pear fallen upon flagstone. Marie hung her key on a nail by the door and went straight through to the kitchen. At the cranberry-painted table she set aside a seed catalogue and a magazine put out by the Sierra Club. She opened a padded, official- looking envelope addressed to her aunt. It bore no stamp and no postmark. Inside was a stack of bills, crisp and new. She counted, ten thousand, five hundred dollars. As always, she considered simply tucking the money into her bag and driving forever, but leaning so that she could see in the living room the mound of her aunt in the fading light, comfortable and safe, convinced her otherwise. Habitually, Marie set aside the thousand that would buy their groceries and other expenses, and with the rest, went out into the garden.
A warm southern wind blew her graying hair about her face and the chimes hanging from the corner of the house clanged wildly. The sunflowers along the fence swayed piously like a row of old monks. They were beginning to mold and a raven lurched jerkily around in the dirt, picking at the seeds. Marie slid aside the wooden latch that barred the door of the garden shed and stepped inside. The light was dim, old, and ivy crept in from the one, high window. At the back of the shed, Marie crouched down and felt around for the tin. Her fingernails scraped against the cold aluminum and she drew it toward her. A flaking Christmas wreath was painted onto the lid. She added the larger portion of bills to the growing pile within. Then she replaced the lid, and slid the box back under the potting bench. Outside, she re-bolted the shed door and stared out at the bay. She would send a portion to the orphanage in Bolivia, sufficient to merit the thank yous cherished by her righteous aunt, a bushel of crude paper cards, drawn on by the orphans. Every surface in the house was already cluttered with decades of them, the images changing over the years, flowers, rainbows, racecars.
* * * *
Pat cut the outboard motor and idled as the waves lapped at the sides of the boat. He had a soft moon-face, the skin below his tanned cheekbones pocked. He wore a green wool stocking cap and his coarse blond hair stuck out from beneath it in tufts. He was about one hundred yards off shore and he shielded his eyes against the glare of the low afternoon sun. The houses fringing the bay were small and made of strong, lasting woods, Douglas fir and virgin redwood. They were painted the washed-out colors of the sea in winter; slate, blue-gray, sage, driftwood. Long ladders dropped from most of the decks down, into the water. Beneath one of the houses, tucked in among the pilings, rigged from the beams was a child’s swing. The tide was high and as the seat rose and fell, floating on the waves, the ropes pulled and slackened. It looked to Pat like a water snake dancing with its reflection. A flock of white pelicans passed, their wing tips and large orange feet skimming the crests of the waves. Pat turned back to the shore and putted his way to the smallest gray house on the end. A light was on in the kitchen.
“Marie!” He called, cupping his hands around his mouth like a megaphone. There was no movement from above so he dropped the anchor and slid off the side of the boat, feeling around for the rocky bottom with his feet. He pulled a black mesh oyster bag out of the boat after him. In his tall waders he sloshed to the ladder and by swinging his hips and the brawn of his upper body, hoisted himself halfway up before finding a foothold on one of the slats.
Once on the deck he walked straight to the large window and peered in. Even in the dull afternoon light the reflection was precise and he had to press his nose to the glass to break through the shiny wall of water, hills and sky. Inside he saw the limp curtains, golden and curled along the bottom where they brushed the top of a space heater. The walls were bare wood and there on the bed the old woman slept. Pat decided not to wake her and instead of knocking on the glass, walked around to the side door and opened it.
“Marie?” He asked into the dimness “You home?” The only reply was the ticking of the clock over the door to the kitchen. It, too, was yellowed with age. Pat walked over to the bed, the oysters he was carrying dripped salt water onto the wooden floor. He decided to leave them in the kitchen; Marie could always pay him later. He marveled at the peacefulness of the old woman in sleep, face slack, hands folded over the comforter pulled up to her collar. Without thinking, he reached forward and stroked one of her small, papery hands. It was so delicate, so dry and smooth, so cold. Pat snatched his hand away. He touched her cheek and that too was cold, waxy. Slowly Pat retreated toward the door, wiping his hand distractedly on his sweater, leaving the oysters on the floor where he had dropped them. Turning, he ran right into Marie. She had come in and was standing in the doorway, watching him. Their faces were so close that Pat could feel her warmth and could smell the shampoo in her hair. He couldn’t move, stood immobile as she pushed past him, walked quickly to the bed.
“I… I don’t know what happened” Pat stammered. “They oysters… I thought you were home, I came in… she was there… “ He trailed off, Marie’s back was rigid, but her movements were calm and methodical. She placed her hand upon her great-aunt’s brow, then moved to just below her jawbone, checking for a pulse. Marie held two fingers against the inside of her wrist. Then she let it fall to the bed, limp.
“Go get a sheet” she said slowly and coolly, her voice completely devoid of the hysteria Pat associated with women and death. He found one in a cupboard and quickly returned. Marie shook it open and together they let it fall over the old woman’s body.
“Come and have a drink.” Marie said. She led the way into the kitchen. Pat couldn’t help noticing, even as he scolded himself inwardly, how perfectly her linen trousers hugged her hips and that her yellow blouse seemed to absorb all of the light in the room, leaving the dark wood lost. “Now look, Pat.” Marie said, once they were seated at the table and she had poured them each a glass of bourbon. “As you saw, my aunt is dead.” Pat waited for her to go on, but instead she took a long look at her drink and the corners of her mouth tensed.
“I didn’t do anything” Pat said quickly “she was old… her heart, I don’t know.”
“Of course you didn’t!” Marie’s voice lowered with scorn. “Nobody did anything, the thing is; you have to swear to me that it will remain that way. That you will not call anyone, will not tell anyone. No one can know that she has died.” Pat’s heart began to throb; he held his glass in both hands. He felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck and he quickly pulled off his cap and with it wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
“I don’t think I quite understand” he said, in a quiet voice.
“The year I turned six, I remember that because I had been given a fishing rod and was on a trip with my father.” She finished her glass and poured another. “My great aunt’s sister died. Was killed.”
“You lived here then?” Pat asked, “In this house?”
Marie pulled a chopstick from where it had been securing her hair, and let the gray mass fall in a wave about her shoulders. “No, we didn’t always live here.” Pat pushed his glass toward her, and she filled it. “The girl, Aunt Ruth’s sister, was raped by her doctor. She died of medical complications that went untreated after the doctor left. Those were different times. Aunt Ruth was a single mother and she settled out of court, in secret. Blackmail, I guess. Her benefactor, a wealthy cousin in the oil business with social pull, convinced her to do it, to keep the whole thing a secret. The settlement was the promise of a regular cash stipend amounting to the sum of ten thousand, five hundred dollars per month to come out of the doctor’s estate as long as my Aunt Ruth remained living. The doctor, and after he died his estate, were true to his word and this relieved the cousin of the burden of a single woman with three children. Now do you understand why no one can know she’s dead?”
Pat stared at her, unsure whether he should nod out of confusion or concede that he still had no idea. Marie took his silence for assent and said “Well good. Now you’ll swear that…”
“No” Pat stopped her. He had to admit that he wasn’t following, and after all, someone had died, which seemed pretty serious to him. He needed to know what he was getting himself into. “She got the money, but what does that have to do with you?”
“Aunt Ruth was torn” Marie continued. “On the one hand she was grateful that she no longer had to depend on her benefactor to support her family. On the other, she was convinced that what they had done was wrong, that by keeping her rape a secret, others ran the same risk. Since her children grew up and moved away, she has been sending the majority of the money to an orphanage in Bolivia.”
“We should contact her children!” Pat exclaimed.
“Not worth it. The only one who still checks up on her died last year.”
“I’m sorry.” Pat murmured.
“Had my great aunt not been sleeping in a cot near her sister’s bed, the rape would never have been revealed. My great-aunt lay there in terror, the way she tells it, her eyes glued to the crack of light between the blinds. It’s just awful. Marie inhaled sharply and closed her eyes.
“So, the doctor is dead and your aunt Ruth is dead, but as long as, on paper she lives, his estate will continue to send the money?”
“That’s the story.”
Pat pulled a ratty sack of rolling tobacco out of his pant’s pocket, and pushed it across the table. “Want a smoke?” Marie nodded, and taking the tobacco, rolled herself a sloppy cigarette. She walked to the stove and lit in on the pilot light. The tobacco hanging off the end ignited with a little burst of flame.
* * * * * *
At home that night, Pat lay awake for a long time. The moon rose slowly, its long, cool fingers creeping across faded gingham and onto the floor. Finally, as the moon set, pulling the morning fog in across the water, Pat at last fell into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
Upon waking, Pat ate his breakfast hurriedly, standing at the stove, spooning porridge directly from the pot into his mouth. But the same steel-cut oats he had been eating for twenty-two years seemed unfamiliar. He used his fingers to pinch brown sugar from the bowl at the back of the stove and sprinkled it onto his oatmeal.
It was Saturday and Pat would have liked to take his book and his coffee out onto the deck, but he had no time to linger. All morning she had been there, in his mind, watching him fumble with the dial on the clock radio, brush his teeth and change out of the striped shorts he slept in, into his canvas trousers. He had convinced himself that the events of the previous afternoon had taken place in some shocked fever. By now, he thought, as he pulled on his jacket and latched the windows, Marie will have contacted the police, written to family. Somehow Pat felt responsible for Marie. For her dead aunt and for the money being sent to the orphans. He had never dealt with funeral provisions, but he was sure that there would be an A, B, C arrangement, a process to which he would dutifully devote his time. He saw himself sitting beside Marie at the funeral, holding her soft hand in his calloused one. He imagined her heaving bosom as she leaned against his chest for support and the row of Bolivian orphans that they would fly in, seated next to them.
On the water, Pat was content. The day was calm, so he abandoned the motor and fitted the oars into the oarlocks. His back to the raw sun, he rowed east. Soon he was sweating. Balancing the oars between his knees, he unbuttoned his shirt, shivering happily in the light breeze. It was a thirty-minute trip across the bay, depending on the tide. Today the tide and the wind were with him and the journey went swiftly. As he neared the opposite shore, Pat lifted the oars from the water and glided, rocking with the small waves. Peering over the side of the boat, he saw a moon-jelly just below the surface of the water; it’s translucent membrane undulating. He thrust his hand into the chill water and scooped the jelly up, fingering the harmless purple cloud emerging from its center. Pat considered the blithe simplicity with which the jellies and the mild currents coalesced, untroubled. Gently, he lowered his hand back into the water, leaving the jelly suspended for a moment as though by a string. It drifted and sank away into the darkness.
Once on the other side, Pat dragged the skiff clear of the rocks and cement pilings, up onto the sandy beach. He had decided to call Marie rather than appear again in her sitting room. Whatever misery she’s in, Pat thought, I’d better announce myself. He imagined Marie in her bathroom. Pat scrambled, shoes in one hand, up the retaining wall of boulders at the head of the beach. Alongside the road, he crammed his damp feet into his shoes and bent down to tie the laces.
“Pat!” The call came from the below, just out of his field of vision. Up from the rocks bounded a man, young, sunned and curly. He clapped Pat on the shoulder and smiled eagerly.
“Hey, Walt.” Pat longed to leave his friend, to call Marie on the pay phone behind the store. Instead, he buttoned a few of the buttons on his shirt.
“I’ll grab some beers” Walter said, “Then we’ll head down to the boat yard, give our old lady some attention.” The previous summer, the boatyard had been host to a historic tall ship, the Hayseed III. She was a seventy-one foot LOA, gaff rigged, square-tops1’ ketch refit and she was a beauty. Throughout the summer months a crew had been diligently working on her, stripping, sanding, painting, repairing stress cracks and deck hardware. She had been due to sail on the first day of September. But then a call came in, the owner, a San Franciscan restaurateur, had gone bankrupt and work came to a halt. Since then, the Hayseed III had lain on her scaffolding, belly up, her masts, protected by foam, in a pile beside her. Most weekends, Pat and Walter would hang around the yard, drinking beers and shooting the breeze with any old seamen or young Mexicans who happened to be dangling fishing lines from the docks, or sitting in a pile of nets, needle in hand. Pat and Walt would sand here, polish there, but mostly admire and enjoy her company. Slowly they came to feel that she was, in a sense, a part of them; one of the team.
“Can’t today, Walt. I’m sorry.” Pat turned distractedly and headed off toward the store.
“Wait!” Surprised, Walt took a few hurried steps to catch up. “Where are you going?”
“Phone call.” Pat turned the blue corner, and entered the telephone box nestled into a nook on the left side of the building, sliding the glass door shut behind him. He picked up the receiver, dialed the number and when a woman’s voice bid him deposit twenty-five cents, dug a quarter from his pants pocket and slid it through the slot. A moment later he was counting. One, two, three rings. He shuffled his feet, scratched the back of his ear. Seven, eight, maybe she was out. Eleven, and he was about to hang up when she answered.
“Marie, hi. Its me.”
There was silence on the other end, then “Who? Who’s me?”
“Pat, its me, Pat” Pat repeated. Maybe the connection was bad, his voice altered by the mile of wire between his box and her kitchen. “The oyster boy.”
“Oh, Pat. Hi… how are you?” Her voice was pleasant with none of the stifled sobs he had imagined. But how silly. He chided himself for having let his imagination get the better of him. He reminded himself that she was not one of those women easily agitated; she was serious, practical. This, he realized, was part of her charm, that singularity that so mystified and attracted him.
“I’m fine, fine, the usual. Down at the store. And yourself? Whatever you need, Marie, I’m on my way over. I’ll bring something. Beer. Should I bring beer? And sandwiches?”
“Over here? Pat, thanks, but don’t bother. Really.” When he didn’t respond, she added, “I’m fine.”
“But I … I thought that maybe I’d be a help, you know, funeral arrangements and stuff…” Pat’s voice trailed off. “If you need a ride anywhere…” This was leagues from the places his imagination had wandered.
“I’ll be down to the store for some milk later, I’ll see you then. Oh, and Pat? Remember what I said. Yesterday you dropped off the oysters and left. You know nothing about my aunt.” Pat replaced the receiver and slid open the door. He could see Walt at the end of the dock. With him was a couple, presumably tourists. The man was wearing khaki slacks and a green sports coat. The woman had on a thin lavender blouse tucked into tight black jeans. She was clutching a light sweater about her shoulders; the arms dangling like an abandoned puppet. Her hair was cut short and as he studied her, Pat wondered if, with her narrow, curveless build, she was ever mistaken for a boy. Walt was pointing something out across the bay, and the couple nodded politely. Pat wandered into the store.
The store consisted of one small room that opened out onto a glassed in deck. To the right was the counter. The rest of the space was taken up by a couple of tiled tables. An ice chest of bait stood by the door. Anna was behind the counter, weighing and wrapping cheese. She was in her forties and pretty. Her blond hair piled into a heap on top of her head, a few curls falling loose, bouncing on her large breasts. She smiled when Pat greeted her.
“I’m ok, thanks, Anna.” He sat down at one of the tables, noticed an abandoned newspaper and pulled it toward him. Three Killed in Valley Fire read one headline. Sudden Oak Death Spreads read another, County Fair to Relocate. He searched the lower right hand corner of the front page for the obituaries and flipped to E14, scanning the names; Andrews, Archer, Forbes, Knox, Padilla, Velázquez… no Hodgkin. No Ruth. Perhaps it took a couple days for an obituary to run, he thought. It had to be written; there was the editing, printing. And if Marie wanted to include a photo…
“Hey Anna- have you seen Marie lately?” Pat kept his voice casual, his eyes on the paper.
“Yeah sure, she was in yesterday, seemed fine.” Anna had finished with the cheese and was slicing tomatoes, her back to Pat. Just then the bell on the door jingled and the couple Pat had seen with Walt walked in. From this angle, Pat saw that the woman had a small mustache. He stared at her but looked down quickly, embarrassed. She was not a woman at all, but a man, petite and delicate as a woman, but without breasts. Through the tight pants, Pat could see an unmistakable bulge. Black leather boots clicked on the linoleum floor as they entered and a gold watch glinted in the light. They looked around, then walked out onto to the deck. At the sound of the bell, Anna had turned, and now she grinned at Pat. She ducked into a refrigerated case below the counter and emerged with a bottle of white wine and two glasses.
“Big tippers.” She mouthed as she followed them onto the deck.
* * * * * *
For the next few days, Pat heard nothing from Marie. Each morning, on his way to the mouth of the bay, where the deep sea began and the salmon were thick, and in the evenings on his way home, he cut the motor and steered his boat toward Marie’s house, but the curtains remained tightly drawn. She must be ill, he worried, or out of town, or in trouble. Pat spent each evening alone in fitful agitation. Some of the fish he didn’t sell on the dock he cooked for his own supper and he gave some away, but he couldn’t eat, and the neighbor’s cat gorged herself nightly.
“Hey, buck up!” Anna told him one afternoon as he slumped in a deck chair, a Mexican beer warming in his hand. “What’s your problem, fish aint biting?”
“No, they’re biting.” Pat squinted against the sun reflecting off of the water and inhaled the tangy smell of warm tar, soft on the pilings below. “Anna—you haven’t seen Marie around have you?”
“Oh, darlin’, you’re not still on about all that?” Anna eased herself onto an upturned crate, the wooden slats sighing beneath her in defeat. “Now you listen here, some women are worth your time, others aint. Marie, she jumped ship.” Elbows on knees, Anna leaned toward him.
“What are you talking about, Anna? Nobody told me anything.” Pat’s voice was indignant, but he had heard things, snippets of conversation, a word here a nod there, gone and left her poor aunt… selfish… never trusted her myself… which he had dismissed as idle gossip, unwilling to admit to having been left behind. But with Marie gone, he wondered, how long would it be before someone found out?
On Marie’s stoop, panting from the jog, Pat rattled the front door. He knocked on the small, stained-glass window beside it and then tried the side door. He expected little, but was compelled by his frustration. He stamped onto the deck and leaned against the railing, looking out at the bay. A pelican glided by, just above the water, then dived. It emerged with its pouch sagging.
“Pat.” Her voice was low, foreign. It seemed overly distinct, as though she spoke on a stage. He turned slowly to face her. He was as unsurprised by Marie’s presence as he had been by her absence, yet there was something uncanny about her address. Practically unrecognizable, she was seated in her great-aunt’s wicker wheelchair, wrapped in shawls, colorful, like a nesting babushka doll. The small wiry glasses Pat had seen on the dead woman pinched Marie’s nose and she had dyed her hair further; the color of steel wool.
“You barely recognize me. I can tell.”
“I don’t know if I recognize you. Maybe I never knew you to begin with.”
“Well good, that’s how I know I’ve done it.” She smiled, and Pat noticed for the first time how very much Marie looked like her great-aunt. He saw in his mind the image of the old woman asleep on the day bed and he wanted to vomit.
“Marie… Marie, what can I do…?” He suddenly looked around, at the neighboring decks, terrified that someone might be watching, but most of the houses were deserted this time of year. Only the pelican, perched on a rock, stared back. “Inside, go inside.” He grabbed her by the arm and started to pull her out of the wheel chair.
“Let go of my arm.” Marie’s voice was unflustered and she did not attempt to free herself of his grasp. His hand fell, flaccid, to his side. She turned the chair, a little clumsily, and he followed her into the house.
“The doors are locked?”
“They are.” Marie then stood, her shawls spreading like large stains of brightly colored flowers across the floor. She wore a long, wool skirt fastened down the front by a row of wooden buttons, and a blouse stitched with fine white thread, visible only when it caught the light as she moved. Pat sat on the edge of the window seat. He had learned not to rush her, and besides, what was there to say? It was slowly dawning on him that Anna had been right. That Marie, his Marie, the phantom of sleepless nights, had indeed vanished.
“Ruth. I’m Ruth.” Pat nodded. “Once I’ve saved enough money from the settlement,” Marie continued, “Ruth will pass on, and Marie will return, collect her inheritance, have the body cremated in private and hold a small ceremony to toss the ashes out to sea. I’ve already had her cremated, so that should be easy.”
“Marie, people talk. They are already talking. If anyone grows suspicious, the police will get involved.
“You don’t trust me.” It was a statement.
“It seems pretty, well I don’t know, Marie. Pretty dishonest.”
“Ruth.” Marie corrected. “And no one other than myself, and now you, has come face to face with my aunt for years. Not even a doctor. You yourself hardly recognize me.”
“But the neighbors. What if they try to visit?”
“Hey, they might bring me casseroles. That’d be great, seeing as I’m bound to this chair.” Marie laughed, but Pat’s mouth was twisted into a tight little knot. Try as he might, he couldn’t force it into a smile. “But Pat…” Marie’s voice grew serious. “You too have a role to play here.” Pat shook his head in short, staccato motions. “You do. You have ever since you invited yourself in and found her.”
“I don’t want to do this. I don’t think I can.”
“You should have knocked.”
* * * * * *
Over the next few days, at the store, the post office, on the docks, Pat made a show of having spoken with Marie. He told Anna that Marie said she was sorry to have left an IOU for that cup of coffee, but that she had to be on her own for a while. I’ll send you a card. He bought supplies with money she had given him, and invited Walt to go with him to visit Ruth. The town praised his efforts. One day he received a check from the McMillan family with a note blessing him for his companionship. We’re sure you’ve changed her life. For a woman no one had seen in years, people really seemed to care. Pat wondered if it was as much a stab at Marie as it was genuine goodwill. He cashed the check and passed the money onto Ruth. As the old woman, Marie was a fountain of charm and compliments. She praised Walter’s grandfather, whom she had known, and listened with smiles as Walter detailed the improvements he and Pat had made to the Hayseed III. Within an hour of his first visit, Walter offered to repair the broken window on the shed, and after that he began spending most afternoons at her house, painting, patching, gardening. Marie would wheel her chair alongside him, naming plants and pointing out boats she knew on the water. Soon, other neighbors were stopping by regularly, more visitors than Pat could recall ever having seen at the front gate, in the garden, on the deck. Marie entertained them all, baked lemon bread and always had a pot of coffee on the stove. Pat never joined in. He would watch from his boat, and it was not until her curtains closed that he’d climb the ladder, and push open the door.
At first they’d rehash the day, Marie stretching her legs, and telling him what a good job she’d done convincing old Henry Gibbons that they had once dated in high school.
“You should have seen his face when I pulled out her senior yearbook and showed him what he’d written! Ruthie-- your hair, like flame ignites the fire within me. Your bosom is round and supple as…. And that was all!” She laughed like a schoolgirl who has just heard her first dirty joke. “I guess he couldn’t come up with anything as clever as “hair like flame”. I suggested, “Supple as a cow’s utter” and can you believe it, he tickled me on his way out!” Pat smiled but he didn’t find it funny. He couldn’t believe the advantage she was taking of these people; the care with which they met her needs and the personal joke she made of them. “Oh come on.” She said, giving him a little shove. “Ruthie just made old Henry’s year!”
* * * * * *
The early autumn days withered into small creatures of rain and wind, and darkness crept in from both dawn and dusk. Herring season began and most nights, Pat found himself in the middle of the bay with the other fishermen, trolling and smoking and watching the flickering lights of the nets. On clear nights the only thing keeping the stars from falling into the twinkling water was the broad band of ridge that separated the bay from the Pacific. About thirty-five boats had come up from Monterey and San Francisco bays or down from Bodega for the season. Anna kept the store open late and arrived around six in the morning to serve the men hot coffee and bread with sheep cheese before they putted back out toward the mouth of the bay. In exchange, they would leave her with an aluminum pail of herring or a jar of the fish, pickled with bay leaves, onions, and black and red peppercorns.
“Ruth, down in the gray house, just adores my pickled herring.” One red and bearded fisherman proclaimed. “Anna baby, won’t you drop off a jar for me?”
“I’ll take it.” Pat snatched the jar off of the counter and left the store. At Marie’s he found the door unlocked so he walked in. Marie and Henry were standing in the center of the room. One of Marie’s arms was around Henry’s shoulders and the other waved in the air beside her. Henry grasped her securely around the waste, the translucent, yellow skin of his arm creasing against her.
“She’s walking!” Henry cried as soon as he saw Pat in the doorway. Marie looked at Pat, their eyes met and she smiled, winked. Pat set the jar down on the table beside the door and went out, closing the door behind him. He climbed down the ladder and onto the rocks below. He pulled off his high waders and, still in his yellow oilskin coveralls, waded out into the water. The sun was up now, and though it was December, its light gave the luster of summer to the sparkling waves. He felt the cold water creep up his legs and around his crotch. He dove, and with powerful strokes swam out, then followed the line of the shore toward the mouth, away from Ruth’s house, away from the store, away from the docks. A startled egret flapped its great wings and took flight, squawking its wretched cry.
When Pat returned home, the phone was ringing. He hurriedly kicked off his soggy pants and skidded to answer it. Walter’s voice came to him, choked.
“She’s gone.” He sobbed.
“What? Walt, who’s gone? Ruth?”
“The Hayseed.” Pat looked out the window and saw smoke rising across the bay. Distance muted the sirens, but he could see flashing lights crawling along the winding coastal road toward the boat yard. He laid the phone in its cradle and stepped out onto the deck. There was an easterly wind and Pat inhaled the faintest smell of burning wood.