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The Eyes of the Amaryllis
By Natalie Babbitt
Macmillan Copyright © 1977 Natalie Babbitt
All rights reserved.
"Well, Mother," said the big man uneasily, turning his hat round and round in his hands.
"Well, George," the old woman returned. Her voice was strong and brisk, but, for him, a little critical. She looked up at him from her wing chair by the sunny window and saw — her son, yes, but also a stranger, well into middle age, tall but stooped, with the pale skin and scratchy-looking clothes of an inland man of business. And she saw in him also what he had been: a happy, wild-haired boy running barefoot on the beach. The two were one and the same, no doubt, but she loved the man because she had loved the boy. For her, the boy had been much easier to love.
"So you've broken your ankle," the man said.
"So it seems," she answered. She looked down impatiently at her foot propped up on a hassock. It was thick with bandages and wooden splints, and beside it on the floor a crutch lay waiting. "It's a nuisance, but there you are. Where's my granddaughter? Where's my namesake?"
"She's out on the beach. She's — well, she's never seen the sea before, you know. I suppose she's ... interested in having a look."
"Interested! Yes, I should imagine so." The old woman smiled faintly.
The man took a deep breath. "Look here, Mother, you know we've always wanted you to come and live with us in Springfield. Now that you're laid up and can't take care of yourself, it's a good time to leave this godforsaken place and come inland where we can look after you."
The old woman shook her head. "It's good of you, George, of course. But when I wrote to you, that wasn't what I had in mind at all. You've brought Geneva down to stay with me, haven't you? That was the plan, wasn't it? My ankle will mend, and when it does, I'll go on the same as I always have."
"I just don't understand it," her son exploded then. "All by yourself here, year after year! The sea pounding, day and night, the dampness, this blasted sand everywhere. And the wind! It never stops! I can hardly bear it for five minutes, and you've been listening to it for thirty years!"
"Fifty, George. You've forgotten. Your father and I, we came here fifty years ago."
"No, but I meant ..."
"I know what you meant," she said. "You're thinking it's thirty years since the day your father was drowned."
The man gripped his hat more firmly. "All right, Mother, never mind that. Be sensible for once and come back with me. There's plenty of room for three in the buggy, and we can send a wagon later for your things. Surely you can't be so all-fired stubborn about it now, when you can scarcely hobble."
His mother shook her head again. "I don't need you, George. Not yet. It's not time yet. I'll come to you at Christmas, just as I've always done. But the rest of the year I belong right here. Geneva can take care of me till my ankle mends, and then you can come and fetch her."
The old woman frowned at him and her eyes flashed. "George! Enough! We've had this argument a hundred times, and it bores me. You ran away from here a long time ago, and that's all right for you. But I will not budge an inch, not one inch, until ..." She paused and looked away. Her anger seemed to leave her all at once, and she sighed. "George. Send Geneva in to me and then — go away, George. We only make each other cross."
At this the man seemed to sag a little. A look of pain crossed his face, and he turned half away from her, toward the door, though he watched her still. She was as handsome and vigorous as ever, her gray hair still streaked with red, her back straight as ... a mast, he thought unwillingly, and then corrected it. Straight as a yardstick. A safer image.
She saw that he was watching her, and her face softened. "George. Dear boy, come and kiss me."
He went to her at once and knelt, and she put her arms around him and pulled him close. For a moment, the last long thirty years dissolved. They were mother and child again, she newly widowed, he newly fatherless, and they clung to each other. Then she loosened her hold and pushed him away gently. "Tell me," she said, smiling at him. "Geneva — what sort of child is she getting to be, do you think?"
"She's exactly like you," he said, sitting back on his heels.
The first Geneva Reade nodded and her eyes twinkled. "It's a judgment on you, George. Well, send her in. And then go home to Springfield and leave me in peace."
The big man kissed his mother's cheek and stood up, putting on his hat. Then, at the door, he said carefully, "I should have thought, though, that you'd want to come away from this spot. I couldn't stand it, looking out there every day, remembering. I'd have gone mad by now."
"Mad?" said his mother. "Well, perhaps I am a little mad."
"Mother," he blurted then, turning back to her, "for the love of heaven, watch out for Jenny. She's all we've got. Don't let her —"
"Hang your clothes on a hickory limb, and don't go near the water," the old woman chanted, bobbing her head from side to side. And then she said, scornfully, "Don't worry. I'll keep her out of the sea. You weren't such a faintheart before your father died."
The man's face closed. "I'll be back in three weeks," he told her flatly. "To fetch Jenny home. And if you're not mended by then, you'll come and stay with us till you are, whether you want to or not."
"Goodbye, George," said his mother, dismissing him. "Have a pleasant ride home. We'll see you in a month or two."
"Three weeks, Mother. Not a moment longer."
"Goodbye, George," said the first Geneva Reade.
* * *
The journey that takes a traveler from inland places to the sea will follow roads that stay, in themselves, exactly the same, but they seem to change entirely. Carefree and busy, now leaf-shadowed, now blank and blinding in the summer sunshine, they stretch ahead importantly between green fields, and the air lies lightly on them. But by the time they have come within three miles, then two, then one, of their destination, they have turned submissive. The trees stand back and stand thin, and scrub pines appear, ragged as molting birds. The edges of the roads are lost now in drifts of sand, and the grass, thinner, like the trees, is rough and tall, rising, kneeling, rising, kneeling, as the breeze combs by.
There seems to be more sky here, a great deal more, so that the traveler is made aware, perhaps for the first time, that he moves along quite unprotected on the crust of the earth and might do well to move with caution, lest all at once he fall off, fall up, endlessly, and disappear. So he holds his gaze to the ground and finds that the air has grown heavy with new, wet smells, and the roads and everything around them look uncared-for. But this is not the case. They are cared for with the closest attention — by the sea.
The second Geneva Reade had observed all this on the way to Gran's house and was astonished by it in spite of the heavy presence beside her in the buggy. Her father had not spoken a word for miles, and he had allowed the horse to slow its pace to a clopping walk. His clenched hands, wrapped in the reins, were white at the knuckles. Jenny observed this, also, but she could not worry about it now. She was going to see the ocean for the first time in her life.
To be away from home — to stay with Gran and help her while her ankle mended — this seemed a very grownup thing to do, and Jenny had boasted about it to her friends. But in truth she was a little alarmed about that part, though her grandmother, whom she had seen before only for the two weeks of the yearly Christmas season, had long been a figure of romance to her. Gran was not like other grandmothers, smelling of starch or mothballs, depending on the time of year, and spending their time watering their plants. Gran stood straight and proud. Her face and arms were sunburned. And though she talked and listened, there always seemed to be something else on her mind, something far more absorbing than Christmas conversation.
But Jenny did not care for household chores, and was not at all sure that somewhere in her lay hidden the makings of a bedside nurse. So it wasn't that part of her adventure that excited her. No, the real enticement was the ocean. But this she could not admit. She was the only one of her friends who had never been to the shore. Preposterous, when it was only thirty miles from Springfield! But her father had never let her come, had always refused to discuss it. He hardly ever went, himself, to see Gran at her house.
But now, because of Gran's ankle, all that had changed. She was going to see the ocean, and she had all she could do to keep from bouncing on the buggy's padded seat. When would the water show itself? Over the next rise? Now! The buggy started up — and then she had gasped once and sat erect and very still.
For there it was, suddenly, the great Atlantic, so vast a thing that all of her imaginings could never have prepared her. It stretched away so far beyond the grassy plain that its sharp horizon curved to prove the roundness of the planet. In an instant she felt diminished, and with that new sensation came an unexpected sense of freedom. The breath she had caught and held slipped out in a long sigh, and she turned her head to see how her father was responding to the sight. But his face was rigid as a stone.
So she had turned back, and as the buggy rolled nearer, the coastline below them revealed itself slowly. A bay emerged and, far to the leftward tilt of its concavity, a tidy-looking town, with docks and the hulls of a few small ships. Then, as the buggy, reaching a fork, turned right, she saw that there were houses scattered all along the shore. Far to the right, however, they sat fewer and farther between until at last there was only one house, quite by itself, on a low bluff at the farthest edge of the bay, where the land curved slowly in and down and sank a heavy arm into the water.
"Is that Gran's house?" she had asked, pointing.
"Yes," said her father.
"That's where you lived when you were little?"
"Yes," he said shortly.
Her head filled at once with a thousand questions, but it was clear that he didn't want to talk. "I can ask Gran," she had thought to herself. "Later."
When the buggy rolled down and stopped at last beside the house, Jenny had climbed out slowly, her eyes turned to the beach. "Can I go and look?" she pleaded. "Before I go in to see Gran?"
"All right, I guess so," her father said. "But, Jenny, remember what I told you. Stay back from the water. Don't ever forget that it's dangerous." And then, taking down her satchel, he had gone to the door of the house, knocked once, and stepped inside.
The sea did not look dangerous. Jenny saw the whole of its low-tide shore behavior in one long glance — how it tipped and slopped, sifting the wet sand, stroking the beach with sliding foam. Well up on this beach, a straggling fringe of seaweed, like a scratchy penline, lay drying where the last high tide had stranded it, and here, too, intermingled, had been left abandoned pebbles by the million and broken bits of shell. Above the seaweed the toast-colored sand was loose and warm, and she longed to take off her shoes and stockings and dig her toes into it. Not now. Later. After her father had gone. Gran had promised her that if she, Jenny, were ever allowed to visit here, there would be much to do on the beach, things that could only be done correctly if one were barefoot.
Jenny took a cautious step over the seaweed line, down to where the sand was hard and wet, and at once a sly finger of foam slid up and curled around her ankle. She leapt back and the foam slipped away with a sigh, to be lost beneath the curl of the next small wave. Now new fingers of foam reached for her up the sand, and she retreated behind the seaweed reluctantly. Another wave, a soft thump, the slide of foam, repeated over and over again. She watched it, amazed and faintly hypnotized, and the feeling of freedom that had come to her at first grew deeper. Wisps of her dark red hair, tied back so neatly at home by her mother, blew about her face as the breeze swept past her, and suddenly it seemed as if she could hear it speaking. True to yo-o-o-ou, it whispered, and the foam answered: Yes-s-s (thump) yes-s-s (thump) yes-s-s.
She heard her father's voice behind her and, turning, plodded up across the sand to where he stood at the edge of the swaying grass.
"Jenny, look at you. You've soaked one foot already," he said despairingly. "Will you promise to stay safe, now? Will you be careful? I've kept you away from this place as long as I could, and — I know you're nearly grown, but still, it worries me to death to leave you here."
"I'll be careful, Papa," she said.
He put his hands on her shoulders and peered into her face, and then, dropping his hands, he shrugged. "Well, do your best to be useful to your grandmother. It's remarkable how she never seems to change, but still, she's getting on. You'll see. She's waiting for you — better go on in. I'll be back in three weeks."
"All right, Papa."
He left her, then, and climbed into the buggy, and as he urged the horse into a turn, she saw the stiffness of his shoulders ease, and he looked back at her almost cheerfully. "Goodbye!" he called.
She answered, "Goodbye," and added, to herself, "He's happy to be leaving." She watched him go and felt stranded and lonely, like the pebbles, but then she turned back for one more look at the sea and the lonely feeling fled away. For it seemed as if she had known this beach and loved it all her life, that she belonged here; that coming to this place, with its endless sky and water, was a kind of coming home.
* * *
"Quick, child, come and tell me," said Gran from her chair when Jenny went inside. "What did you find on the beach? Anything unusual?" And then she caught herself. "Dear me, listen to the old lady, ranting on without even saying hello." She held out her arms and Jenny went to her and gave her a hug of greeting.
"Well!" said Gran. "So here you are at last! Let me look at you." She sat back, folding her arms, and tilted her head solemnly. "Your father says you're just like me, and I know he thinks I'm stubborn and unreasonable. Are you?"
"I don't know," said Jenny, laughing. "I guess so, sometimes."
"You've still got my red hair," Gran observed, "but otherwise you've changed a little since Christmas. How old are you now?"
"Eleven," said Jenny. "Last February."
"Yes, and now it's the middle of August," said Gran. "So you're halfway to twelve. Not a child at all, really, though you mustn't expect me to stop calling you a child. I have a hard time remembering new things, sometimes. But I can remember the old things as if they happened yesterday. I met your grandfather for the first time when I was thirteen. Imagine that! He was twenty-one, and as handsome ... well, as handsome as a walrus."
"A walrus!" said Jenny, laughing again. "Walruses aren't handsome."
"Well, now, that's a matter of taste," said Gran with a smile. "Your grandfather was a big man, heavy-set, with a fine, big pair of mustaches. To me he was wonderfully handsome, and I fell in love with him at once."
"When you were thirteen?"
"I'm not in love with anyone," said Jenny, "and no one's in love with me."
"Someone will be, someday," said Gran.
"Oh, no," said Jenny. "I don't expect it. I'm much too ugly."
"Ugly!" Gran exclaimed, throwing up a hand in mock dismay. "But, child, how can you be ugly when you look so much like me? Your grandfather fell in love with me, remember."
"When you were thirteen?"
"Oh, no, certainly not," said Gran. "Years later. He was a sailor — well, you know that, of course — and when he wasn't on a voyage he would come to Springfield to visit his sister. Your Great-aunt Jane. It was ten years later, when I was twenty-three and he was thirty-one — that's when he noticed me. Two years after that he had his own ship, and we were married and came to live right here, in this house." She looked about her with satisfaction at the tidy, low-ceilinged room with its simple chairs and tables, and its mantel full of odd bits of china. "Then — let's see. Your father was born six years after that, in the spring of '36, and then when he was fourteen, that's when the Amaryllis was ... lost. Out there on the rocks in a terrible storm." She said this calmly enough, tipping her head to indicate the stretch of sea outside the window behind her, but a look of intensity came to her face and she leaned forward and put a hand on Jenny's arm. "You went down to the beach just now?"
"Yes," said Jenny.
"Did you see anything? Anything at all?"
"Well," said Jenny, "I saw sand, and pebbles, and some long, stringy-looking weeds, and — the ocean, Gran! Oh, it's wonderful! It makes me feel ..."
"Free!" said Gran triumphantly.
Excerpted from The Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt. Copyright © 1977 Natalie Babbitt. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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