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And then, as we lurched over the crest of yet another wave, a buffet of wind lifted a hank of Helen's hair, and I saw that she was not bent over herself in despair. She was biting, gnawing steadily, with her yellow, worn teeth on the rope that bound her wrists.
I heaved myself to my feet, Jane wrapped tightly around me, and began to stagger awkwardly toward the bow.
"What are you doing? Sit down!" the inspector snapped.
The boat dipped and I with it, nearly losing my balance. Another dose of cold water flew over the gunwale, soaking the front of my dress and the back of Jane's.
"Sit down, Trudy!" Oskar yelled. "What are you doing? You'll tip the boat!"
What was I doing? I felt as if I were yanking myself free of a current in which I'd been caught. I had loved him, joined him, gone with him, followed him, but now I could think of nothing but stopping the destruction we two had set in motion.
"Sit down!" Archie made a lunge at me.
"No! We're going back! We're going back!"
Helen had freed her hands, and she bent over her feet, tugging at the ropes, trying to find the weak points. The tender stood out clearly, only about fifty yards away. The captain had seen us and was calling to the boilerman to stoke the engine.
Archie's arms closed around Jane and me together, as if we were one of the barrels. He dragged at us, trying to force me back onto the bench. Then Helen rose. I can't say there was understanding between us, but we were bent to a common cause. When the next swell began to lift the boat, we leaned together, Helen, Jane, and I, concentrating our combined weight against the gunwale that was already dipping dangerously low. We leaned together, and we overturned the boat.
It's one thing to have cold water splash your skin and another to be submerged in it. I remember the shock and the freezing rush around my ears as I plunged. Little Jane was like a stone around my neck, and my heavy skirt tangled around my legs like a mermaid's fingers. I buried my fingers in the crossed straps of Jane's pinafore to hold her tight against my chest, and then I kicked and kicked, drawing my legs together, as I'd seen little octopi do in our tubs.
Jane and I surfaced as a two-headed creature, gulping the breathable air. For a moment I could see nothing but the gray-green slope of the next wave that bore down upon us, but rather than break over us, it lifted us to its crest along with a small, empty kerosene keg over which I easily threw my free arm. The tender had dropped its lifeboat, and within minutes I was twisting Jane's straps around a boat hook that the captain himself held out to us.
They'd come to our rescue first, but the rest were close by. While the captain wrapped Jane in a blanket, I looked anxiously for Helen's dark head among the men. She wasn't beside the two sailors who'd heaved themselves over the hull of the capsized longboat, nor near the inspector who'd grabbed one of the floating oars. Nor was she with Archie, who clung to a large barrel. I craned my neck, but in every direction I could see only waves, riding relentlessly toward the sh.o.r.e now shrouded in murk. I was hopeful; I didn't think a woman who could dive for abalones and spear fish while swimming was likely to drown when the sh.o.r.e was in reach.
I searched for Oskar, too, and when I didn't spot him at once, I a.s.sumed that he was beyond the next wave or on the far side of the capsized boat or hidden by one barrel or another. After all, he had no reason to swim away. But soon I was screaming his name, standing on the seat to extend my view and trying to sc.r.a.pe at the fog with my eyes. This time no one tried to make me sit down.
We rowed in widening circles for an hour while the foghorn moaned. Jane was shaking with cold and I with a fear that made me vomit over the side. We found the mail pouch and all of the barrels, but Oskar, along with our valise and our trunk, was gone.
"A drowned man ought to float," the captain insisted stubbornly.
It was then I remembered all he'd sewn into his pockets-the ax head; the pestle; the flat rock "possibly for grinding acorns"; the sc.r.a.per "perhaps used to clean hides or peel bark"; the smaller version of the same "likely used for scaling fish"; the pieces of jade, bored through and strung on a twenty-six-inch length of braided hair, "ornamental, ceremonial, or spiritual"; among many others, more than enough to drag him to the bottom.
At last the captain would search no longer, and we rowed back to the beach. The captain and the inspector rode the platform with us to the top, and they waited while Archie packed his things. The inspector said he'd overlook the kidnapping, since the child had been returned, but he couldn't allow a man who'd been insubordinate to his superior to keep a post at a lighthouse. Archie muttered that he was done with the place anyway and couldn't wait to be quit of it.
Euphemia told me later that the captain had come to her and Henry. "I may know what happened to the young man," he'd said. "But it's a raw thing for the widow to hear." He told them that from the deck of the tender, before he'd stepped into the lifeboat, he'd seen Helen, or as he described her, "a strange beast with a human head and arms but a fish's tail"-she'd not, apparently, been able to untie her feet in time-cutting through the waves like a porpoise in the direction of the beach. Such a creature, he maintained, might easily have consumed a man.
WE'VE SEEN ALL through the buildings, watched the filmstrip and drunk the cocoa, and been encouraged to buy a key chain or a mug or a postcard of the Fresnel lens. The teenagers are beginning to slouch back down the morro of their own accord, their faces hidden in the wings of their hair. The little boy is hanging off his mother's hand, suspending himself at a forty-five-degree angle to the ground. It's time to go.
As we're making the turn at the base of the light tower, I think of one last thing. I walk to the edge and lean out to take a look at the cairn. Although it had always been difficult to see from this angle, I know just where to stand. But there's nothing there except more brown rock.
Lydia gives a little gasp, hurries over, and begins to pluck at my arm. "Please. You're far too close to the edge."
I step back as I turn to her. I don't want to give her a heart attack. "I was looking for the stones." I hadn't known it was a grave before I'd read Trudy Swann's story. To me, it had been more like an altar.
"What's that, dear?" Lydia's raincoat is folded over her arm. She holds a hand against her brow to s.h.i.+eld her eyes from the sun as she squints at me, puzzled and a little impatient.
"The pile of smooth stones. It used to be below the light tower here."
"Oh, you mean the baby. Yes, I don't like to mention it if there are, you know, children in the group. It might upset them."
She doesn't ask how I know. Some people have no sense of curiosity.
"Someone threw the stones away. Probably the same who shot the windows up. You know how people are. It's better, I think, that the little body is unmarked. Who knows what people might do in a place like this?"
"So there's still a body there?"
"Oh, yes. Lucius Crawley. The name was carved right into the tiny coffin. I like to think of him as a little angel now. The angel of the lighthouse."
We were walking down, and I had to take Danny's arm and concentrate on where I was placing my feet and on not thinking about the pain in my knees. Then, too, at my age it takes a long time for understanding to bubble up through years of sludgy a.s.sumptions. It wasn't until I'd packed myself into his j.a.panese box and we were bowling along what I still think of as the "new" highway, looking west at the brave stand of buildings and that breast of a mountain upon which I'd been raised, that I realized that the little Crawley grave confirmed the suspicion I'd formed when I'd read Mrs. Swann's story. I was the mermaid's daughter.
Trudy Swann had written that she wanted "someone to know how she lived." The mermaid, I believed she meant, the woman she had saved. But now I saw how I, too, had lived. Three times I'd been delivered into the world, first by the one who had birthed me, then by the one who had raised me, and then by the one who had restored me to them both.
"Let me tell you," I said to Danny as we rounded a bend and Point Lucia was no more, "about Trudy Swann. I want someone to know how she lived."
FOR SOME MONTHS, I was in a dark state and unable to pick up my old routine of schoolteaching and housework. Nevertheless, the lighthouse had to be tended, and only the Crawleys and I remained to do it, so I took my turn there, insisting on covering Oskar's night s.h.i.+ft. Sleep was impossible for me, anyway. Through the long stretches in the boiler room, I tried to read or develop new lessons for the children, but my mind wouldn't take hold of the words or figures. I couldn't even sew. An hour after I'd taken a garment into my lap, I would discover myself sitting idle, having added only two loose st.i.tches to a seam or a patch.
Nightly, I was drawn to the catwalk, where I would stand with my waist pressed against the slender rail, leaning into the blackness, looking. Although I didn't dare articulate my yearning, I wished fiercely for both Oskar and Helen to materialize again. I imagined so vividly each lying on the sand or caught in the rocks, in need of me, that I often thought I heard a human cry below or sensed a human movement on the moonlit beach, and I strained my ears and eyes for more. Inevitably, I had to admit that these signs had been created by my own mind, not by them. In the light of day, I had no hopes or illusions.
Euphemia, kindly, left meals in my kitchen, from which I swallowed a little soup or chewed a bit of pilot bread while standing among the cans and sacks and bottles of provisions that had come with the inspector. Euphemia had stacked them as neatly as possible but, being strict about the organization of her own kitchen, thoughtfully left the putting away for the time when I was ready to face it. Two of our three store cupboards had been entirely bare by the time the tender had arrived, and at last I began with these, thinking to wipe them out with warm water and vinegar before filling them. When I opened the first, I discovered my mother's linen tablecloth rolled into a bundle. I lifted it-it was surprisingly heavy-and unrolled it on the kitchen table. One by one appeared the tools from the workshop that we'd believed Helen had stolen. Her insistent "no," when I'd gestured to her about the wholesale breaking of the windows, I now saw had been a denial.
Philip sent a letter of condolence.
But what is this about a woman? he added in a postscript. I understand that she drowned as well, but was she really an Indian, as Roberts seems to think? No one has reported a local native, you know, for at least a quarter century. Should I come and investigate?
I replied that Oskar had indeed believed her to be an Indian, but who could say for sure? Oskar, I reminded him, had been imaginative and p.r.o.ne to enthusiasms. I implied that she might have been an eccentric, like the Yale man people talked about. Along with my letter, I sent a few primitive items that I'd asked the children to make-an awkward gra.s.s basket, a pinecone and mussel-sh.e.l.l "sc.r.a.per," a tool made of driftwood and a sharp bit of tin can. I claimed that we'd found these in the woman's hut. Did he think they were, as Oskar had speculated, evidence of her Indianness? It hurt me to betray Oskar in this way, making him look a fool, but I'd learned to do what needed doing. Though Philip and I corresponded for many more years, he never mentioned the Indian again.
Euphemia had remembered to put my letter to the Chicago Scientific Company into the mail pouch. Although it must have been dampened by its time in the ocean, it was obviously legible, since the jars and chemicals arrived on the next tender. Our business slowly grew much in the way we'd envisioned it during those nights we'd kept the light together; we were careful to cull only a few specimens, the way my mother had taught me to cut flowers from her garden, so that there would always be more.
Within the first year, it was clear that we were observed at our work, because prettily woven baskets full of whatever we were hunting appeared on the cairn. I wondered what Helen imagined we were doing with these things, but I was grateful less for the specimens themselves than for the evidence that she was alive and considered herself a friend to us.
Euphemia drove us to expand, scouring the journals to which I was soon subscribing, picking out biologists who might be interested in our "authentic Pacific Coast specimens," as she put it in the letters she sent. Our lighthouse logo, a duplicate of the china print, was her idea, and she affixed it with great satisfaction to each crate.
After what seemed a very few years, Mary went to San Francisco to enroll in business college, and the boys, one after the other, joined the navy. They wanted to see some of the places we'd marked with pebbles on my trunk. I had hope that Jane would stay to work with me. She'd developed a keen interest in biology and had always taken pleasure in her drawing. I thought together we might produce a finer, more comprehensive edition of the catalog. But she was infected with the longing to make her own life or create her own destiny or some such youthful nonsense. One day she left on the tender that took her to the train in San Francisco that took her to a normal school in San Jose. I never saw her again.
Only a little time later, the Crawleys left me, too, following their youngest daughter to San Jose. Although we did not, in the end, provide urchins to Switzerland, we were by that time supplying enough colleges and universities in the United States and Canada with specimens "dried and preserved" that Euphemia and Henry could afford to retire from the Lighthouse Service and open a grocery store.
Oskar's ambitions had made me fear the consequences of anyone else discovering Helen, and so that I might keep the world away from Point Lucia, I fought for permission to tend the light without a.s.sistants when I became chief lighthouse keeper. The new inspector, Mr. Roberts's successor, understood that I couldn't easily be replaced, especially since he himself wasn't familiar with all the procedures at the light station, and when he saw that I was capable of making life unpleasant for whomever was sent to a.s.sist me, he agreed to give me a fair chance-a week's observation-to prove myself. In his later years as chief, Mr. Crawley had built an ingenious system of pulleys and platforms so that the oil could be transported to the light with little effort, and the mechanism that controlled the foghorn had been improved so that it could go hours longer without resetting. (That Oskar might have engineered such advancements, had he been less concerned with dazzling, wasn't lost on me.) In the end, the Lighthouse Service wasn't sorry to save itself a great deal of money in salaries and supplies. They set me up with a radiotelegraph-apparently, electricity was in the air-and told me to study the code so that I could communicate with a pa.s.sing s.h.i.+p in case of emergency.
Since the Crawleys have gone, I've collected fewer specimens, having become uncomfortably aware that I'm doing to these helpless creatures precisely what Oskar wished to do to Helen. I concentrate on my own studies instead. My hours of gazing into the tide pools have made me think of these tiny bodies of water as simplified versions of the world at large, and so as convenient opportunities to examine the ways in which each species, and perhaps each individual organism affects the others with which it shares its limited world. It's a romantic notion, I admit, but I've written a handful of articles on the subject, and the scientific community has been for the most part gratifyingly receptive.
My parents did visit. I had not, after all, crossed an ocean in the nineteenth century, as they had done. They urged me to return "home" now that, as my mother said, nothing held me "to the edge of the earth." I declined, obviously, and by now my old world is mostly a s.h.i.+mmer of memory beyond the mountains, although Lucy and I correspond still. She can't imagine my life nor I hers, and her descriptions of concerts and cookery and her work at the Settlement House have the same fairy-tale quality that my mother's stories of the gilt-legged tables and ceramic shepherdesses of Hamburg had for me as a child. I once asked Philip to visit the shop in San Francisco where we had p.a.w.ned our things. The silver toilet set and the pocketknife were gone. He sent me a pickle fork, but I don't think it was the right one.
I've recently begun a new project-although Euphemia would laugh-a sort of collage affixed to the tower. I pretend it's a monument, a way of melding the lighthouse with its surroundings, but it's a means of preserving the last of what I can't bear to lose, the detritus and wonders the children collected, the occupants of my nursery.
I have not been entirely alone. Not long after the baskets of specimens appeared on the cairn, the children began meeting Helen again among the rocks. The s.p.a.ce between us began to dissolve. It may have been because Archie had gone, although I like to think that my coming, too, had a hand in it. First she met us openly on the beach. Eventually, she and I taught the children to swim, and then she took them farther out and taught them how to dive for abalone. At last she showed herself at the top of the morro, delivering her offerings in person, rather than leaving them on the cairn, and she stayed to eat with us at the plank table above the sea. She would never move into the empty house, although the Crawleys and I did our best to make clear she was welcome. At the end of an evening, she would always go back down the mountain.
So even after all the others had gone, I had a friend who helped me gather plants and animals from deep water where I feared to dive, who arranged my cans in pyramids when she came to visit me, for whom I named a crab in my catalog-Pugettia Helena-although, as Oskar would have pointed out, that wasn't her real name.
She lived for twenty-six more years, and I suspect she knew when her life was nearly over, for she spent many months carefully fas.h.i.+oning a dress of fully feathered bird skins. I have more than once displayed it to Oskar in my dreams. When I found her lying still and cold, she was wearing the dress along with the coral necklace that I'd given her at last some years before. If her body is ever disinterred, I wonder what theory will arise from the discovery of a California Indian in a necklace made of Florida coral. No one will guess that it came to her by way of Wisconsin.
I'm free to go now, I suppose, but I believe I'll stay. Here, I've experienced a world beyond my imagining; here, I've walked on my own feet. Here, at the edge of the earth, I am content.
I'M GRATEFUL TO the resolute Jennifer Rudolph Walsh for her toughness and kindness, as well as for her insightful and generous reading. Because of her, I can make a living writing books. I'm grateful to the warm Greer Hendricks for her acute perception, meticulous care, and bolstering enthusiasm. It seems that I can't write a novel without Caitlin Flanagan to prop me up. In this case, I was particularly demanding and she met the almost daily challenge with her characteristic big-heartedness and dazzling creative instincts. So many friends honored drafts of this ma.n.u.script with their time, attention, and honest and helpful reactions: I thank Jennifer Stuart Wong, Jenny Kowal, Abigail Deser, Gina Hahn, Barbara Faculjak, Sonja Alarr, Cindy Davis Stephenson, Linda Rudell-Betts, and Alan and Kathy Buster. For help with German translations and spellings, I thank Belinda Cooper and Nick Meyer, who also explained some facts about electromagnetism. The scene on the western train platform owes much to Helen Hunt Jackson's poetic and lively account of her trip across the United States, Bits of Travel at Home, published in 1878. I'm indebted to Ben and Nicky Schwarz for their willingness to survive on pizza for weeks at a time. Above all, I trust Ben to tell me when I've gone wrong and when I've got it right. I'm grateful for his inflexible expectations, his unstinting commitment, and his uncompromising editorial eye. He is the best reader I know.
CHRISTINA SCHWARZ is the author of three previous novels, including the Oprah Book Club pick Drowning Ruth. Born and raised in rural Wisconsin, she lives in Southern California.
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