:





The Reach




:
  1. A Breach of Trust
  2. KREACHERS TALE
  3. Reaching agreement
  4. ³ - REACH

Stephen King

 

 

The Reach was wider in those days,'' Stella Flanders told her great-grandchildren in the last summer of her life, the summer before she began to see ghosts. The children looked at her with wide, silent eyes, and her son, Alden, turned from his seat on the porch where he was whittling. It was Sunday, and Alden wouldnt take his boat out on Sundays no matter how high the price of lobster was.

What do you mean, Gram? Tommy asked, but the old woman did not answer. She only sat in her rocker by the cold stove, her slippers bumping placidly on the floor.

Tommy asked his mother: What does she mean?

Lois only shook her head, smiled, and sent them out with pots to pick berries.

Stella thought: Shes forgot. Or did she ever know?

The Reach had been wider in those days. If anyone knew it was so, that person was Stella Flanders. She had been born in 1884, she was the oldest resident of Goat Island, and she had never once in her life been to the mainland.

Do you love? This question had begun to plague her, and she did not even know what it meant.

Fall set in, a cold fall without the necessary rain to bring a really fine color to the trees, either on Goat or on RaccoonHead across the Reach. The wind blew long, cold notes that fall, and Stella felt each note resonate in her heart.

On November 19, when the first flurries came swirling down out of a sky the color of white chrome, Stella celebrated her birthday. Most of the village turned out. Hattie Stoddard came, whose mother had died of pleurisy in 1954 and whose father had been lost with the Dancer in 1941. Richard and Mary Dodge came, Richard moving slowly up the path on his cane, his arthritis riding him like an invisible passenger. Sarah Havelock came, of course; Sarahs mother Annabelle had been Stellas best friend. They had gone to the island school together, grades one to eight, and Annabelle had married Tommy Frane, who had pulled her hair in the fifth grade and made her cry, just as Stella had married Bill Flanders, who had once knocked all of her schoolbooks out of her arms and into the mud (but she had managed not to cry). Now both Annabelle and Tommy were gone and Sarah was the only one of their seven children still on the island. Her husband, George Havelock, who had been known to everyone as Big George, had died a nasty death over on the mainland in 1967, the year there was no fishing. An ax had slipped in Big Georges hand, there had been bloodtoo much of it!and an island funeral three days later. And when Sarah came in to Stellas party and cried, Happy birthday, Gram! Stella hugged her tight and closed her eyes



(do you do you love?)

but she did not cry.

 

There was a tremendous birthday cake. Hattie had made it with her best friend, Vera Spruce. The assembled company bellowed out Happy Birthday to You in a combined voice that was loud enough to drown out the wind . . . for a little while, anyway. Even Alden sang, who in the normal course of events would sing only Onward, Christian Soldiers and the doxology in church and would mouth the words of all the rest with his head hunched and his big old jug ears just as red as tomatoes. There were ninety-five candles on Stellas cake, and even over the singing she heard the wind, although her hearing was not what it once had been.



She thought the wind was calling her name.

I was not the only one, she would have told Loiss children if she could. ' 'In my day there were many that lived and died on the island. There was no mail boat in those days; Bull Symes used to bring the mail when there was mail. There was no ferry, either. If you had business on the Head, your man took you in the lobster boat. So far as I know, there wasnt a flushing toilet on the island until 1946. 'Twas Bulls boy Harold that put in the first one the year after the heart attack carried Bull off while he was out dragging traps. I remember seeing them bring Bull home. I remember that they brought him up wrapped in a tarpaulin, and how one of his green boots poked out. I remember . . .

And they would say: What, Gram? What do you remember?

How would she answer them? Was there more?

On the first day of winter, a month or so after the birthday party, Stella opened the back door to get stove wood and discovered a dead sparrow on the back stoop. She bent down carefully, picked it up by one foot, and looked at it.

Frozen, she announced, and something inside her spoke another word. It had been forty years since she had seen a frozen bird1938. The year the Reach had frozen.

Shuddering, pulling her coat closer, she threw the dead sparrow in the old rusty incinerator as she went by it. The day was cold. The sky was a clear, deep blue. On the night of her birthday four inches of snow had fallen, had melted, and no more had come since then. Got to come soon, Larry Me Keen down at the Goat Island Store said sagely, as if daring winter to stay away.



Stella got to the woodpile, picked herself an armload and carried it back to the house. Her shadow, crisp and clean, followed her.

As she reached the back door, where the sparrow had fallen, Bill spoke to herbut the cancer had taken Bill twelve years before. Stella, Bill said, and she saw his shadow fall beside her, longer but just as clear-cut, the shadow-bill of his shadow-cap twisted jauntily off to one side just as he had always worn it. Stella felt a scream lodged in her throat. It was too large to touch her lips.

Stella, he said again, when you comin cross to the mainland? Well get Norm Jolleys old Ford and go down to Beans in Freeport just for a lark. What do you say?

She wheeled, almost dropping her wood, and there was noone there. Just the dooryard sloping down to the hill, then the wild white grass, and beyond all, at the edge of everything, clear-cut and somehow magnified, the Reach . . . and the mainland beyond it.

 

Gram, whats the Reach? Lona might have asked . . . although she never had. And she would have given them the answer any fisherman knew by rote: a Reach is a body of water between two bodies of land, a body of water, which is open at either end. The old lobstermans joke went like this: know how to read y'compasswhen the fog comes, boys; between J one sport and London theres a mighty long Reach.

Reach is the water between the island and the mainland, she might have amplified, giving them molasses cookies and hot tea laced with sugar. I know that much. I know it as well as my husbands name . . . and how he used to wear his hat.

Gram? Lona would say. How come you never been across the Reach?

Honey, she would say, I never saw any reason to go.

In January, two months after the birthday party, the Reach froze for the first time since 1938. The radio warned islanders and main-landers alike not to trust the ice, but Stewie McClelland and Russell Bowie took Stewies Bombardier Skiddoo out anyway after a long afternoon spent drinking Apple Zapple wine, and sure enough, the skiddoo went into the Reach. Stewie managed to crawl out (although he lost one foot to frostbite). The Reach took Russell Bowie and carried him away.

That January 25 there was a memorial service for Russell. Stella went on her son Aldens arm, and he mouthed the words to the hymns and boomed out the doxology in his great tuneless voice before the benediction. Stella sat afterward with Sarah Havelock and Hattie Stoddard and Vera Spruce in the glow of the wood fire in the town-hall basement. A going-away party for Russell was being held, complete with Za-Rex punch and nice little cream-cheese sandwiches cut into triangles. The men, of course, kept wandering out back for a nip of something a bit stronger than Za-Rex. Russell Bowies new widow sat red-eyed and stunned beside EwellMcCracken, the minister. She was seven months big with childit would be her fifthand Stella, half-dozing in the heat of the woodstove, thought: Shell be crossing the Reach soon enough, I guess. Shell move to Freeport orLewiston and go for a waitress, I guess.

She looked around at Vera and Hattie, to see what the discussion was.

No, I didnt hear, Hattie said. Whatdid Freddy say?

They were talking about Freddy Dinsmore, the oldest man on the island (two years younger'n me, though, Stella thought with some satisfaction), who had sold out his store to Larry McKeen in 1960 and now lived on his retirement.

Said hed never seen such a winter, Vera said, taking out her knitting. He says it is going to make people sick.

Sarah Havelock looked at Stella, and asked if Stella had ever seen such a winter. There had been no snow since that first little bit; the ground lay crisp and bare and brown. The day before, Stella had walked thirty paces into the back field, holding her right hand level at the height of her thigh, and the grass there had snapped in a neat row with a sound like breaking glass.

No, Stella said. The Reach froze in '38, but there was snow that year. Do you remember Bull Symes, Hattie?

 

Hattie laughed. I think I still have the black-and-blue he gave me on my sit-upon at the New Years party in 53. He pinched methat hard. What about him?

Bull and my own man walked across to the mainland that year, Stella said. That February of 1938. Strapped on snowshoes, walked across to Dorrits Tavern on the Head, had them each a shot of whiskey, and walked back. They asked me to come along. They were like two little boys off to the sliding with a toboggan between them.

They were looking at her, touched by the wonder of it. Even Vera was looking at her wide-eyed, and Vera had surely heard the tale before. fr you believed the stories, Bull and Vera had once played some house together, although it was hard, looking at Vera now, to believe she had ever been so young.

And you didnt go? Sarah asked, perhaps seeing the reach of the Reach in her minds eye, so white it was almost blue in the heatless winter sunshine, the sparkle of the snow crystals, the mainland drawing closer, walking across, yes, walking across the ocean just like Jesus-put-of-the-boat, leaving the island for the one and only time in your life on foot

No, Stella said. Suddenly she wished she had brought her own knitting. I didnt go with them.

Why not? Hattie asked, almost indignantly.

It was washday, Stella almost snapped, and then Missy Bowie, Russells widow, broke into loud, braying sobs. Stella looked over and there sat Bill Flanders in his red-and-black-checked jacket, hat cocked to one side, smoking a Herbert Tareyton with another tucked behind his ear for later. She felt her heart leap into her chest and choke between beats.

She made a noise, but just then a knot popped like a rifle shot in the stove, and neither of the other ladies heard.

Poor thing, Sarah nearly cooed.

Well shut of that good-for-nothing, Hattie grunted. She searched for the grim depth of the truth concerning the departed Russell Bowie and found it: Little more than a tramp for pay, that man. Shes well out ofthat two-hoss trace.

Stella barely heard these things. There sat Bill, close enough to the Reverend McCracken to have tweaked his nose if he so had a mind; he looked no more than forty, his eyes barely marked by the crows-feet that had later sunkso deep, wearing his flannel pants and his gum-rubber boots with the gray wool socks folded neatly down over the tops.

Were waitin on you, Stel, he said. You come on across and see the mainland. You wont need no snowshoes this year.

There he sat in the town-hall basement, big as Billy-be-damned, and then another knot exploded in the stove and he was gone. And the Reverend McCracken went on comforting Missy Bowie as if nothing had happened.

That night Vera called up Annie Phillips on the phone, and in the course of the conversation mentioned to Annie that Stella Flanders didnt look well, not at all well.

Alden would have a scratch of a job getting her off-island if she took sick, Annie said.

 

Annie liked Alden because her own son Toby had told her Alden would take nothing stronger than beer. Annie was strictly temperance, herself.

Wouldnt get her off 'tall unless she was inacoma, Vera said, pronouncing the word in the downcast fashion: comer. When Stella says 'Frog,' Alden jumps. Alden aint but half-bright, you know. Stella pretty much runs him.

Oh, ayuh? Annie said.

Just then there was a metallic crackling sound on the line.

Vera could hear Annie Phillips for a moment longernot the words, just the sound of her voice going on behind the cracklingand then there was nothing. The wind had gusted up high and the phone lines had gone down, maybe into Godlins Pond or maybe down by Sorrows Cove, where they went into the Reach sheathed in rubber. It was possible that they had gone down on the other side, on the Head . . . and some might even have said (only half-joking) that Russell Bowie had reached up a cold hand to snap the cable, just for the hell of it.

Not 700 feet away Stella Flanders lay under her puzzle-quilt and listened to the dubious music of Aldens snores in the other room. She listened to Alden so she wouldnt have to listen to the wind . . . but she heard the wind anyway, oh yes, coming across the frozen expanse of the Reach, a mile and a half of water that was now overplated with ice, ice with lobsters down below, and groupers, and perhaps the twisting, dancing body of Russell Bowie, who used to come each April with his old Rogers rototiller and turn her garden.

Wholl turn the earth this April? she wondered as she lay cold and curled under her puzzle-quilt. And as a dream in a dream, her voice answered her voice: Do you love? The wind gusted, rattling the storm window. It seemed that the storm window was talking to her, but she turned her face away from its words. And did not cry.

But Gram, Lona would press {she nevergave up, not that one, she was like her mom, and her grandmother before her), you still havent told why you never went across.

Why, child, I have always had everything I wanted right here on Goat.

But its so small. We live in Portland. Theres buses, Gram!

I see enough of what goes on in citieson the TV. I guess Ill stay where I am.

Hal was younger, but somehow more intuitive; he would not press her as his sister might, but his question would go closer to the heart of things: You never wanted to go across, Gram? Never?

And she would lean toward him, and take his small hands, and tell him how her mother and father had come to the island shortly after they were married, and how Bull Symess grandfather had taken Stellas father as a 'prentice on his boat. She would tell him how her mother had conceived four times but one of her babies had miscarried and another had died a week after birthshe would have left the island if they could have saved it at the mainland hospital, but of course it was over before that was even thought of.

She would tell them that Bill had delivered Jane, their grandmother, but not that when it was over he had gone into the bathroom and first puked and then wept like a hysterical woman who had her monthlies particularly bad. Jane, of course, had left the island at fourteen to go to high school; girls didnt get married at fourteenanymore, and when Stella saw her go off in the boat with Bradley Maxwell, whose job it had been to ferry the kids back and forth that month, she knew in her heart that Jane was gone for good, although she would come back for a while. She would tell them that Alden had come along ten years later, after they had given up, and as if to make up for his tardiness, here was Alden still, a lifelong bachelor, and in some ways Stella was grateful for that because Alden was not terribly bright and there are plenty of women willing to take advantage of a man with a slow brain and a good heart (although she would not tell the children that last, either).

She would say: Louis and Margaret Godlin begat Stella Godlin, who became Stella Flanders; Bill and Stella Flanders begat Jane and Alden Flanders and Jane Flanders became Jane Wakefield; Richard and Jane Wakefield begat Lois Wake-field, who became Lois Perrault; David and Lois Perrault begat Lona and Hal. Those are your names, children: you are Godlin-Flanders-Wakefield-Perrault. Your blood is in the stones of this island, and I stay here because the mainland is too far to reach. Yes, I love; I have loved, anyway, or at least tried to love, but memory is so wide and so deep, and I cannot cross. Godlin-Flanders-Wakefield-Perrault . . .

That was the coldest February since the National Weather Service began keeping records, and by the middle of the month the ice covering the Reach was safe. Snowmobiles buzzed and whined and sometimes turned over when they climbed the ice-heaves wrong. Children tried to skate, found the ice too bumpy to be any fun, and went back to Godlins Pond on the far side of the hill, but not before little Justin McCracken, the ministers son,caught his skate in a fissure and broke his ankle. They took him over to the hospital on the mainland where a doctor who owned a Corvette told him, Son, its going to be as good as new.

Freddy Dinsmore died very suddenly just three days after Justin McCracken broke his ankle. He caught the flu late in January, would not have the doctor, told everyone it was Just a cold from goin out to get the mail without mscarf, took to his bed, and died before anyone could take him across to the mainland and hook him up to all those machines they have waiting for guys like Freddy. His son George, a tosspot of the first water even at the advanced age (for tosspots, anyway) of sixty-eight, found Freddy with a copy of the Bangor Daily News in one hand and his Remington, unloaded, near the other. Apparently he had been thinking of cleaning it just before he died. George Dinsmore went on a three-week toot, said toot financed by someone who knew that George would have his old dads insurance money coming. Hattie Stoddard went around telling anyone who would listen that old George Dinsmore was a sin and a disgrace, no better than a tramp for pay.

There was a lot of flu around. The school closed for two weeks that February instead of the usual one because so many pupils were out sick. No snow breeds germs, Sarah Havelock said.

Near the end of the month, just as people were beginning to look forward to the false comfort of March, Alden Flanders caught the flu himself. He walked around with it for nearly a week and then took to his bed with a fever of a hundred and one. Like Freddy, he refused to have the doctor, and Stella stewed and fretted and worried. Alden was not as old as Freddy, but that May he would turn sixty.

The snow came at last. Six inches on Valentines Day, another six on the twentieth, and a foot in a good old norther on the leap, February 29. The snow lay white and strange between the cove and the mainland, like a sheeps meadow where there had been only gray and surging water at this time of year since time out of mind. Several people walked across to the mainland and back. No snowshoes were necessary this year because the snow had frozen to a firm, glittery crust. They might take a knock of whiskey, too, Stella thought, but they would not take it at Dorrits. Dorrits had burned down in 1958.

And she saw Bill all four times. Once he told her: Y'ought to come soon, Stella. Well go steppin. What do you say?

She could say nothing. Her fist was crammed deep into her mouth.

Everything I ever wanted or needed was here. she would tell them. We had the radio and now we have the television, and thats all Iwant of the world beyond the Reach. I had my garden year in and year out. And lobster? Why, we always used to have a pot of lobster stew on the back of the stove and we used to take it off and put it behind the door in the pantry when the minister came calling so he wouldntsee we were eating 'poor mans soup.

I have seen good weather and bad, and if there were times when I wondered what it might be like to actually be in the Sears store instead of ordering from the catalogue, or to go into one of those Shaws markets I see on TV instead of buying at the store here or sending Alden across for something special like a Christmas capon or an Easter ham . . . or if I ever wanted, just once, to stand on Congress Street in Portland and watch all the people in their cars and on the sidewalks, more people in a single look than then there are on the whole island these days . . . if I ever wanted these things, then I wanted this more. I am not strange. I am not particular or even very eccentric for a woman of my years. My mother sometimes used to say, All the difference in the world is between work and want, and I believethat to my very soul. I believe it is better to plow deep than wide.

This is my place, and I love it.

One day in middle March, with the sky as white and lowering as a loss of memory, Stella Flanders sat in her kitchen for the last time, laced up her boots over her skinny calves for the last time, and wrapped her bright red woolen scarf (a Christmas present from Hattie three Christmases past) around her neck for the last time. She wore a suit of Aldens long underwear under her dress. The waist of the drawers came up to just below the limp vestiges of her breasts, the shirt almost down to her knees.

Outside, the wind was picking up again, and the radio said there would be snow by afternoon. She put on her coat and her gloves. After a moment of debate, she put a pair ofAldens gloves on over her own. Alden had recovered from the flu, and this morning he and Harley Blood were over rehanging a storm door for Missy Bowie, who had had a girl. Stella had seen it, and the unfortunate little mite looked just like her father.

She stood at the window for a moment, looking out at the Reach, and Bill was there as she had suspected he might be, standing about halfway between the island and the Head, standing on the Reach just like Jesus-out-of-the-boat, beckoning to her, seeming to tell her by gesture that the time was late if she ever intended to step a foot on the mainland in this life.

If its what you want, Bill, she fretted in the silence. God knows I dont.

But the wind spoke other words. She did want to. She wanted to have this adventure. It had been a painful winter for herthe arthritis, which came and went irregularly was back with a vengeance, flaring the joints of her fingers and knees with red fire and blue ice. One of her eyes had gotten dim and blurry (and just the other day Sarah had mentionedwith some uneasethat the fire-spot that had been there since Stella was sixty or so now seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds). Worst of all, the deep, griping pain in her stomach had returned, and two mornings before she had gotten up at five oclock, worked her way along the exquisitely cold floor into the bathroom, and had spat a great wad of bright red blood into the toilet bowl. This morning there had been some more of it, foul-tasting stuff, coppery and shuddersome.

The stomach pain had come and gone over the last five years, sometimes better, sometimes worse, and she had known almost from the beginning that it must be cancer. It had taken her mother and father and her mothers father as well. Noneof them had lived past seventy, and so she supposed she had beat the tables those insurance fellows kept by a carpenters yard.

You eat like a horse, Alden told her, grinning, not long after the pains had begun and she had first observed the blood in her morning stool. Dont you know that old fogies like you are supposed to be peckish?

Get on or Ill swat ye! Stella had answered, raising a hand to her gray-haired son, who ducked, mock-cringed, and cried: Dont, Ma! I take it back!

Yes, she had eaten hearty, not because she wanted to, butbecause she believed (as many of her generation did), that if you fed the cancer it would leave you alone. And perhaps it worked, at least for a while; the blood in her stools came and went, and there were long periods when it wasnt there at all. Alden got used toher taking second helpings (and thirds, when the pain was particularly bad), but she never gained a pound.

Now it seemed the cancer had finally gotten around to what the froggies called the piece de resistance.

She started out the door and saw Aldens hat, the one with the fur-lined ear flaps, hanging on one of the pegs in the entry. She put it onthe bill came all the way down to her shaggy salt-and-pepper eyebrowsand then looked around one last time to see if she had forgotten anything. The stove was low, and Alden had left the draw open too much againshe told him and told him, but that was one thing he was just never going to get straight.

Alden, youll burn an extra quarter-cord a winter when Im gone, she muttered, and opened the stove. She looked in and a tight, dismayed gasp escaped her. She slammed the door shut and adjusted the draw with trembling fingers. For a momentjust a momentshe had seen her old friend Annabelle Frane in the coals. It was her face to the life, even down to the mole on her cheek.

And had Annabelle winked at her?

She thought of leaving Alden a note to explain where she had gone, but she thought perhaps Alden would understand, in his own slow way.

Still writing notes in her headSince the first day of winter I have been seeing your father and he says dying isnt so bad: at least I think thats itStella stepped out into the white day.

The wind shook her and she had to reset Aldens cap on her head before the wind could steal it for a joke and cartwheel it away. The cold seemed to find every chink in her clothing and twist into her; damp March cold with wet snow on its mind.

 

She set off down the hill toward the cove, being careful to walk on the cinders and clinkers that George Dinsmore had spread. Once George had gotten a job driving plow for the town of Raccoon Head, but during the big blow of '77 he had gotten smashed on rye whiskey and had driven the plow smack through not one, not two, but three power poles. Therehad been no lights over the Head for five days. Stella remembered now how strange it had been, looking across the Reach and seeing only blackness. A body got used to seeing that brave little nestle of lights. Now George worked on the island, and since there was no plow, he didnt get into much hurt.

As she passed Russell Bowies house, she sawMissy, pale as milk, looking out at her. Stella waved. Missy waved back.

She would tell them this:

On the island we always watched out for our own. When Gerd Henreid broke the blood vessel in his chest that time, we had covered-dish suppers one whole summer to pay for his operation in Bostonand Gerd came back alive, thank God. When George Dinsmore ran down those power poles and the Hydro slapped a lien on his home, it was seen to that the Hydro had their money and George had enough of a job to keep him in cigarettes and booze . . . why not? He was good for nothing else when his workday was done, although when he was on the clock he would work like a dray-horse. That one time he got into trouble was because it was at night, and night was always Georges drinking time. His father kept him fed, at least. Now Missy Bowies alone with another baby. Maybe shell stay here and take her welfare and ADC money here, and most likely it wont be enough, but shell get the help she needs. Probably shell go, but if she stays shell not starve . . . and listen, Lona and Hal: ifshe stays, she may be able to keep something of this small world with the little Reach on one side and the big Reach on the other, something it would be too easy to lose hustling hash in Lewiston or donuts in Portland or drinks at the Nashville North in Bangor. And I am old enough not to beat around the bush about what that something might be: a way of being and a way of livinga feeling.

They had watched out for their own in other ways as well, but she would not tell them that. The children would not understand, nor would Lois and David, although Jane had known the truth. There was Norman and Ettie Wilsons baby that was born a mongoloid, its poor dear little feet turned in, its bald skull lumpy and cratered, its fingers webbed together as if it had dreamed too long and too deep while swimming that interior Reach; Reverend McCracken had come and baptized the baby, and a day later Mary Dodge came, who even at that time had midwived over a hundred babies, and Norman took Ettie down the hill to see Frank Childs new boat and although she could barely walk, Ettie went with no complaint, although she had stopped in the door to look back at Mary Dodge, who was sitting calmly by the idiot babys crib and knitting. Mary had looked up at her and when their eyes met, Ettie burst into tears. Come on, Norman had said, upset. Come on, Ettie, come on. And when they came back an hour later the baby was dead, one of those crib-deaths, wasnt it merciful hedidnt suffer. And many years before that, before the war, during the Depression, three little girls had been molested coming home from school, not badly molested, at least not where you could see the scar of the hurt, and they all told about a man who offered to show them a deck of cards he had with a different kind of dog on each one. He would show them this wonderful deck of cards, the man said, if the little girls would come into the bushes with him, and once in the bushes this man said, But you have to touch this first.'' One of the little girls was Gert Symes, who would go on to be voted Maines Teacher of the Year in 1978, forher work at Brunswick High. And Gen, then only five years old, told her father that the man had some fingers gone on one hand. One of the other little girls agreed that this was so. The third remembered nothing. Stella remembered Alden going out one thundery day that summer without telling her where he was going, although she asked. Watching from the window, she had seen Alden meet Bull Symes at the bottom of the path, and then Freddy Dinsmore had joined them and down at the cove she saw her own husband, whom she had sent out that morning just as usual, with his dinner pail under his arm. More men joined them, and when they finally moved off she counted just one under a dozen. The Reverend McCrackens predecessor had been among them. And that evening a fellow named Daniels was found at the foot ofSlyders Point, where the rocks poke out of the surf like the fangs of a dragon that drowned with its mouth open. This Daniels was a fellow Big George Havelock had hired to help him put new sills under his house and a new engine in his Model A truck. From New Hampshire he was, and he was a sweet-talker who had found other odd jobs to do when the work at the Havelocks was done . . . and in church, he could carry a tune! Apparently, they said, Daniels had been walking up on top ofSlyders Point and had slipped, tumbling all the way to the bottom. His neck was broken and his head was bashed in. As he had no people that anyone knew of, he was buried on the island, and the Reverend McCrackens predecessor gave the graveyard eulogy, saying as how this Daniels had been a hard worker and a good help even though he was two fingers shy on his right hand. Then he read the benediction and the graveside group had gone back to the town-hall basement where they drank Za-Rex punch and ate cream-cheese sandwiches, and Stella never asked her men where they had gone on the day Daniels fell from the top of Slyders Point.

Children, she would tell them, we always watched out for our own. We had to, for the Reach was wider in those days and when the wind roared and the surf pounded and the dark came early, why, we felt very smallno more than dust motes in the mind of God. So it was natural for us to join hands, one with the other.

We joined hands, children, and if there were times when we wondered what it was all for, or if there was ary such a thing as love at all, it was only because we had heard the wind and the waters on long winter nights, and we were afraid.

No, Ive never felt I needed to leave the island. My life was here. The Reach was wider in those days.

Stella reached the cove. She looked right and left, the wind blowing her dress out behind-her like a flag. If anyone had been there she would have walked further down and taken her chance on the tumbled rocks, although they were glazed with ice. But no one was there and she walked out along the pier, past the old Symes boathouse. She reached the end and stood there for a moment, head held up, the wind blowing past the padded flaps of Aldens hat in a muffled flood.

Bill was out there, beckoning. Beyond him, beyond the Reach, she could see the Congo Church over there on the Head, its spire almost invisible against the white sky.

Grunting, she sat down on the end of the pier and then stepped onto the snow crust below. Her boots sank a little; not much. She set Aldens cap againhow the wind wanted to tear it off!and began to walk toward Bill. She thought once that she would look back, but she did not. She didnt believe her heart could stand that.

She walked, her boots crunching into the crust, and listened to the faint thud and give of the ice. There was Bill, further back now but still beckoning. She coughed, spat blood onto the white snow that covered the ice. Now the Reach spread wide on either side and she could, for the first time in her life, read the Stantons Bait and Boat sign over there without Aldens binoculars. She could see the cars passing to and fro on the Heads main street and thought with real wonder: They can go as far as they want . . . Portland . . . Boston . . . New York City. Imagine! And she could almost do it, could almost imagine a road that simply rolled on and on, the boundaries of the world knocked wide.

A snowflake skirled past her eyes. Another. A third. Soon it was snowing lightly and she walked through a pleasant world of shifting bright white; she saw Raccoon Head through a gauzy curtain that sometimes almost cleared. She reached up to set Aldens cap again and snow puffed off the bill into her eyes. The wind twisted fresh snow up in filmy shapes, and in one of them she saw Carl Abersham, who had gone down with Hattie Stoddards husband on the Dancer.

Soon, however, the brightness began to dull as the snow came harder. The Heads main street dimmed, dimmed, and at last was gone. For a time longer she could make out the cross atop the church, and then that faded out too, like a false dream. Last to go was that bright yellow-and-black sign reading Stantons Bait and Boat,"where you could also get engine oil, flypaper, Italian sandwiches, and Budweiser to go.

Then Stella walked in a world that was totally without color, a gray-white dream of snow. Just like Jesus-out-of-the-boat, she thought, and at last she looked back but now the island was gone, too. She could see her tracks going back, losing definition until only the faint half-circles of her heels could be seen . . . and then nothing. Nothing at all.

She thought: Its a whiteout. You got to be careful, Stella, or youll never get to the mainland. Youll just walk around in a big circleuntil youre worn out and then youll freeze to death out here.

She remembered Bill telling her once that when you were lost in the woods, you had to pretend that the leg which was on the same side of your body as your smart hand was lame. Otherwise that smart leg would begin to lead you and youd walk in a circle and not even realize it until you came around to your backtrail again. Stella didnt believe she could affordto harve that happen to her. Snow today, tonight, and tomorrow, the radio had said, and in a whiteout such as this, she would not even know if she came around to her backtrail, for the wind and the fresh snow would erase it long before she could return to it.

Her hands were leaving her in spite of the two pairs of gloves she wore, and her feet had been gone for some time. In a way, this was almost a relief. The numbness at least shut the mouth of her clamoring arthritis.

Stella began to limp now, making her left legwork harder. The arthritis in her knees had not gone to sleep, and soon they were screaming at her. Her white hair flew out behind her. Her lips had drawn back from her teeth (she still had her own, all save four) and she looked straight ahead, waiting for that yellow-and-black sign to materialize out of the flying whiteness.

It did not happen.

Sometime later, she noticed that the days bright whiteness had begun to dull to a more uniform gray. The snow fell heavier and thicker than ever. Her feet were still planted on the crust but now she was walking through five inches of fresh snow. She looked at her watch, but it had stopped. Stella realized she must have forgotten to wind it that morning for the first time in twenty or thirty years. Or had it just stopped for good? It had been her mothers and she had sent it with Alden twice to the Head, where Mr. Dostie had first marveled over it and then cleaned it. Her watch, at least, had been to the mainland.

She fell down for the first time some fifteen minutes after she began to notice the days growing grayness. For a moment she remained on her hands and knees, thinking it would be so easy just to stay here, to curl up and listen to the wind, and then the determination that had brought her through so much reasserted itself and she got up, grimacing. She stood in the wind, looking straight ahead, willing her eyes to see . . . but they saw nothing.

Be dark soon.

Well, she had gone wrong. She had slipped off to one side or the other. Otherwise she would have reached the mainland by now. Yet she didnt believe she had gone so far wrong that she was walking parallel to the mainland or even back in the direction of Goat. An interior navigator in her head whisperedthat she had overcompensated and slipped off to the left. She believed she was still approaching the mainland but was now on a costly diagonal.

That navigator wanted her to turn right, but she would not do that. Instead, she moved straight on again, but stopped the artificial limp. A spasm of coughing shook her, and she spat bright red into the snow.

Ten minutes later (the gray was now deep indeed, and she found herself in the weird twilight of a heavy snowstorm) she fell again, tried to get up, failed at first, and finally managed to gain her feet. She stood swaying in the snow, barely able to remain upright in the wind, waves of faintness rushing through her head, making her feel alternately heavy and light.

Perhaps not all the roaring she heard in her ears was the wind, but it surely was the wind that finally succeeded in prying Aldens hat from her head. She made a grab for it, but the wind danced it easily out of her reach and she saw it only for a moment, flipping gaily over and over into the darkening gray, a bright spot of orange. It struck the snow, rolled, rose again, was gone. Now her hair flew around her head freely.

Its all right, Stella, Bill said. You can wear mine.

She gasped and looked around in the white. Her gloved hands had gone instinctively to her bosom, and she felt sharp fingernails scratch at her heart.

She saw nothing but shifting membranes of snowand then, moving out of that evenings gray throat, the wind screaming throughit like the voice of a devil in a snowy tunnel, came her husband. He was at first only moving colors in the snow: red, black, dark green, lighter green; then these colors resolved themselves into a flannel jacket with a flapping collar, flannel pants, and green boots. He was holding his hat out to her in a gesture that appeared almost absurdly courtly, and his face was Bills face, unmarked by the cancer that had taken him (had that been all she was afraid of? that a wasted shadow of her husband would come to her, a scrawny concentration-camp figure with the skin pulled taut and shiny over the cheekbones and the eyes sunken deep in the sockets?) and she felt a surge of relief.

Bill? Is that really you?

Course.

Bill, she said again, and took a glad step toward him. Her legs betrayed her and she thought she would fall, fallright through himhe was, after all, a ghostbut he caught her in arms as strong and as competent as those that had carried her over the threshold of the house that she had shared only with Alden in these latter years. He supported her, and a moment later she felt the cap pulled firmly onto her head.

Is it really you? she asked again, looking up into his face, at the crows-feet around his eyes which hadnt sunk deep yet, at the spill of snow on the shoulders of his checked hunting jacket, at his lively brown hair.

Its me, he said. Its all of us.

He half-turned with her and she saw the others coming out of the snow that the wind drove across the Reach in the gathering darkness. A cry, half joy, half fear, came from her mouth as she saw Madeline Stoddard, Hatties mother, in a blue dress that swung in the wind like a bell, and holding her hand was Hatties dad, not a mouldering skeleton somewhere on the bottom with the Dancer, but whole and young. And there, behind those two

Annabelle! she cried. Annabelle Frane, is it you?

It was Annabelle; even in this snowy gloom Stella recognized the yellow dress Annabelle had worn to Stellas own wedding, and as shestruggled toward her dead friend, holding Bills arm, she thought that she could smell roses.

''Annabelle!''

Were almost there now, dear, Annabelle said, taking her other arm. The yellow dress, which had been considered Daring in its day (but, to Annabelles credit and to everyone elses relief, not quite a Scandal), left her shoulders bare, but Annabelle did not seem to feel the cold. Her hair, a soft, dark auburn, blew long in the wind. Only a little further.

She took Stellas other arm and they movedforward again. Other figures came out of the snowy night (for it was night now). Stella recognized many of them, but not all. Tommy Frane had joined Annabelle; Big George Havelock, who had died a dogs death in the woods, walked behind Bill; there was the fellow who had kept the lighthouse on the Head for most of twenty years and who used to come over to the island during the cribbage tournament Freddy Dinsmore held every FebruaryStella could almost but not quite remember his name. And there was Freddy himself! Walking off to one side of Freddy, by himself and looking bewildered, was Russell Bowie.

Look, Stella, Bill said, and she saw black rising out ofthe gloom like the splintered prows of many ships. It was not ships, it was split and fissured rock. They had reached the Head. They had crossed the Reach.

She heard voices, but was not sure they actually spoke:

Take my hand, Stella

(do you)

Take my hand, Bill

(oh do you do you)

 

Annabelle . . . Freddy . . . Russell . . . John . . . Ettie . . . Frank . . . take my hand, take my hand . . . my hand . . .

(do you love)

Will you take my hand, Stella? a new voice asked.

She looked around and there was Bull Symes. He was smiling kindly at her and yet she felt a kind of terror in her at what was in his eyes and for a moment she drew away, clutching Bills hand on her other side the tighter.

Is it

Time? Bull asked. Oh, ayuh, Stella, I guess so. But it dont hurt. At least, I never heard so. All thats before.

She burst into tears suddenlyall the tears she had never weptand put her hand in Bulls hand. Yes, she said, yes I will, yes I did, yes I do.

They stood in a circle in the storm, the dead of Goat Island, and the wind screamed around them, driving its packet of snow, and some kind of song burst from her. It went up into the wind and the wind carried it away. They all sang then, as children will sing in their high, sweet voices as a summer evening draws down to summer night. They sang, and Stella felt herself going to them and with them, finally across the Reach. There was a bit of pain, but not much; losing her maidenhead had been worse. They stood in a circle in the night. The snow blew around them and they sang. They sang, and

and Alden could not tell David and Lots, but in the summer after Stella died, when the children came out for their annual two weeks, he told Lona and Hal. He told them that during the great storms of winter the wind seems to sing with almost human voices, and that sometimes it seemed to him he could almost make out the words: Praise God from whom all blessings flow/Praise Him, ye creatures here below . . .

But he did not tell them (imagine slow, unimaginative Alden Flanders saying such things aloud, even to the children!) that sometimes he would hear that sound and feel cold even by the stove; that he would put his whittling aside, or the trap he had meant to mend, thinking that the wind sang in all the voices of those who were dead and gone . . . that they stood somewhere out on the Reach and sang as children do. He seemed to hear their voices and on these nights he sometimes slept and dreamed that he was singing the doxology, unseen and unheard, at his own funeral.

There are things that can never be told, and there are things, not exactly secret, that are not discussed. They had found Stella frozen to death on the mainland a day after the storm had blown itself out. She was sitting on a natural chair of rock about one hundred yards south of the Raccoon Head town limits, frozen just as neat as you please. The doctor who owned the Corvette said that he was frankly amazed It would have been a walk of over four miles, and the autopsy required by law in the case of an unattended, unusual death had shown an advanced cancerous conditionin truth, the old woman had been riddled with it. Was Alden to tell David and Lois that the cap on her head had not been his? Lorry McKeen had recognized that cap. So had John Bensohn. He had seen it in their eyes, and he supposed they had seen it in his. He had not lived long enough to forget his dead fathers cap, the look of its bill or the places where the visor had been broken.

 

These are things made for thinking on slowly, he would have told the children if he had known how. Things to be thought on at length, while the hands do their work and the coffee sits in a solid china mug nearby. They are questions of Reach, maybe: do the dead sing? And do they love the living?''

On the nights after Lona and Hal had gone back with their parents to the mainland in Al Currys boat, the children standing astern and waving good-bye, Alden considered that question, and others, and the matter of his fathers cap.

Do the dead sing? Do they love?

On those long nights alone, with his mother Stella Flanders at long last in her grave, it often seemed to Alden that they did both.


: 2015-09-15; : 7;







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