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By Ken McAlpine
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Ken McAlpine
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Chapter OneThey ran across the sloping deck like marionettes, arms and legs akimbo, and when the waves caught the sailors, their arms jerked out, snatching at the night, before they disappeared without a sound.
The rude cold filched her breath. When the waves rushed toward her, foaming and leaping and rumbling across the deck faster than any man could run—she knew this now— she drew what breath she could and felt her body clench. The waves carried their own wicked cold, so cold it burned, but the fizzing blackness they brought was worse, shutting her away in the darkest loneliness on earth. She believed in God. She prayed for the time between the waves, when the wind screamed and the snow made angry locust clicks but the stars hung peacefully and were still. She imagined the stars were angels, waiting.
She supposed she might not die. Father had tied her to the mainmast, carefully folding her arms across her chest. The rope had cut into her, although she no longer felt its bite. She had watched his hands proudly, the beautiful fingers expertly cinching the knots, but there was something different in his face. Mother had believed in God, but Father trusted no one, not even God, and when he finished his tying, he fell against her and pushed his lips to her ear and told her to keep her secret close and fight for her life. He prayed a lie, promising God he would do anything if he gave her safe passage, and then asked her to forgive him for what he had done to her. She accepted everything, kissing his eyelids, and when the waves swallowed them she felt his arms about her. Finally, a wave smothered them and, as if he didn't care anymore, he was gone, and she almost gave up.
Far above her, the last sailor regarded the red pinprick of lanterns on the shore and loosed his fingers from the icy rigging. He fell like a pinwheel in a faint breeze, and when he struck the Asia's deck, he gave an odd little hop. He was a quick-handed boy, marvelous at jacks, but now he lay twisted in an impossible shape, sliding down the deck to join the black waves lumbering to shore.
The great wave rose in the same way her friend had fallen, with queer slowness. It kept rising, gray front streaked with white, until she wondered if she was sinking. She said good-bye to the stars, closing her eyes and squeezing Miss Lolly to her chest.
The deck shuddered. She was swallowed again in iron cold. She felt herself tipping, the mainmast splintering away, and she was swept easily into the sea, riding for a moment as if on the softest mattress. And then she was spinning, turning over and over, her lungs screaming for air in roaring darkness that never gave way to show the stars.
She wanted to die, but she fought to live because Father wished it, and it was possible that God listened to everyone's prayers, even Father's.
On the beach, Captain Edwin Merton's agonies were many. His mistake had seen his ship, his crew, and his only child into the sea. The wave that had deposited him ashore had snapped four ribs and a femur. Crawling toward the great cliffs, he had felt the separations only as mild burning; cold and shock had served as anesthesia.
At the foot of the cliffs, he had lain for a time, confused. With all the sensations clamoring for his attention, it was difficult to concentrate on any one matter until the angel arrived, holding the reins of the great white horse. The angel had dissolved behind the passing curtains of white, so that at first Edwin Merton thought it a hallucination. But when the angel crouched beside him, the breath behind the brilliant smile was rancid. The knife sliding down his midsection brought a stench equally as real, and blood filled his mouth as he turned his cheek to the snowy sand.
The blade's deft workings brought him great focus. Yet even as he suffered agonies he had not thought possible, he recognized the justness of his punishment. He shouted agreement, raining oaths upon himself and powers that would see a child to such an end. The angel brushed his cheek tenderly with downy knuckles and spoke encouragement in his ear, lauding him for atoning for his sins, but it was only his daughter's voice he heard; after a pause, the angel returned to cutting. The angel was an artist, skirting the organs that sustain life, touching the places that chimed. There were partings, tuggings, burstings, sour nausea, regret. Snow caressed his organs. Lifting his head, he saw his body's warmth, a steamy wavering in the dark, not quite a soul.
The punishment was just, but the pain was too great. Captain Merton set his will against the knife. His will was strong; his raging only aided his demise.
His end caused the angel a melodious sigh. Applying the knife carefully, the angel removed the organ that mattered. When he finished, he buried Captain Edwin Merton with the same precision that had ushered his end.
Hewing to nature's course, child outlived parent. Two miles south of Edwin Merton's grave, at the foot of the Cape Cod cliffs, Isabella Merton, spread upon the wooden table in the day house, looked up into a boy's eyes. The boy had sad eyes, but not so sad that Isabella forgot her own troubles.
After all her efforts, she was certain. "I'm going to die," she said.
Above her, the boy kept staring, his mouth making strange motions. She thought of her father and the broken sailor, and her mother with her helpless eyes and phlegmy cough. Nothing could be done. This understanding brought a sleepy comfort.
Don't be frightened," she said. "It can't be helped."
She pressed her chin to Miss Lolly's head, feeling the coarse wood where the hair, once flower-petal soft, had torn away. Everything grand, now ruined and spoiled.
"Miss Lolly and I were going to be the talk of New York," she whispered. "We were going to ride in a steam elevator. I hate the sea."
A kettle whistled merrily. She tried to keep thinking about the elevator, but her legs, which had only tingled at first, were warming. It was not a comfortable warming like the morning sun against your skin, but a fast-rising heat, as if she had stepped too close to a fire. When the big man drew back the canvas, she saw her legs and she knew something terrible was rushing up on her.
The big man had lied to her, although his lies, like his face, had been kind. She and the big man had played a game, pretending they hadn't seen the truth. The silent boy hadn't played. She liked the boy for not lying, nearly loved him for the way he looked at her as if they were best friends, but when he reached for Miss Lolly, she had to scold him.
When the big man placed the handkerchief, rolled like a sausage, in her mouth, she closed her eyes and bit down hard, and her heart scampered.
There was a creaking, like a wagon wheel starting to turn. The pain was shocking. Almost as quickly, a deadening flowed over her. The black ocean, the fire in her legs, her faithful doll, they drifted away. The wooden table became her hilltop swing. As she rose and fell, the wind tickling her ears, she gazed again beyond the farthest edge of England's green fields, toward the grandest country in the world, a place where stalwart men and upright ladies dressed in the latest fashions and danced to music played on electric phonographs and rode in steam elevators, up, up, up, beyond the birds. It was sore disappointment to have sailed across the ocean to find instead an America so loud and foul-mannered. America didn't deserve her secret. She wasn't going to change the world. She was just going to die.
When dawn came, only the ocean raged, as the jagged remains of the Asia lay dark against the gray November sky.
Chapter TwoThe storm that saw to the Asia's end passed to the west. Ferocious cold pooled in its wake, gripping the Cape for a week. In Wellfleet, Chatham, and Provincetown harbors, the winter of 1882 cemented its already considerable reputation by crushing a dozen dories in ice. In the marshes, jagged blocks of ice as big as men lay strewn about, and the creeks and channels shone milky white. Even Ezekiel Donne, who in all seasons walked about the dunes in his underthings, remained inside. At the Cape's far tip only the wild dogs padded through the Provincelands, moving like lethargic shadows.
On the eighth day, a wan sun appeared and the Peaked Hill Bars surfmen buried the Asia's dead. A steady wind blew from the northeast, jostling the smaller limbs of Provincetown Cemetery's lone oak, the sound like bones scraping.
The men had built a fire first, hoping to thaw the frozen ground, but it proved nearly fruitless.
"Better luck burrowing under a nun's knickers," said Willie Bangs, bouncing his shovel off the stubborn moraine.
Still, they proceeded with muted curses. Eight sailors, glazed with the same crust as the frozen earth, waited for their single grave. The girl lay in the supply wagon twenty yards away. The wagon was no more than a wood slab resting on spoked wheels; without sides, it allowed a clear view of the small pine coffin.
Daniel Cole frowned on delay and swearing. Captain Daniel Cole, keeper of Peaked Hill Bars Lifesaving Station, always insisted on a prompt burial, but weather and circumstance had forced a rare exception. The Atlantic had been slow in relinquishing the dead; burying made no sense until all the bodies were collected.
The Asia's crew washed ashore over the course of a week, the surfmen transporting the bodies to Peaked Hill Bars Lifesaving Station in the supply wagon. Thoreau, the brown bay gelding, strained as the wheels slipped in the sand. The lifesavers stacked the bodies outside, cinching a canvas tarp tightly over the pile. The wild dogs normally kept to the desolate Provincelands, but winter's deprivations drove them farther afield.
On Captain Cole's order, the girl remained in the day house just away from the main station, her body packed in snow and wrapped in canvas. The corpse proved inconvenient. Resting near the edge of the high sand cliffs, the day house served as a lookout for ships in distress. The single room, with its potbellied stove and table, was already cramped, and although the girl was small, the table was smaller. Performing day watch, the surfmen had to move gingerly to avoid bumping the protruding canvas.
Each man handled the inconvenience in his fashion. Frank Mayo and the Swede, Martin Nelson, kept their backs to the corpse at all times; Mayo because he cared little about any death, save his own; Nelson in a doomed attempt to forget. Antone Lucas, the diminutive Azores islander, was consumed with avoiding his reflection in the windows: seeing one's reflection in the presence of a corpse was invitation to die next. Hedging his bets, he kept one hand jammed in his trousers pocket, squeezing a lucky acorn. Ben Maddocks prayed for the girl's soul. During his watch, Willie Bangs engaged the girl in amiable conversation; it was rare to pass time with someone who never interrupted. Cole relieved young Hiram Paine of day watch, a rare exception to duties executed to the letter.
Though the men were unhappy about digging, they were glad to be rid of the bodies.
Willie watched Captain Cole walk to the supply wagon. As Cole bent to the coffin, Ornish Helms sidled toward the keeper. Provincetown's undertaker, Ornish Helms had supplied the pine box. There was no time to craft coffins for the sailors, and more pertinent, no one to pay for them. There had been no money for the girl's coffin either. Cole had had to summon his ample powers of persuasion to get Ornish to donate the girl's box.
The thin undertaker approached the wagon slowly. It amused Willie that most people approached the keeper in the same wary fashion, as if engaging a mad dog or an irate spouse— not, in Willie's experience, that there was much difference.
But when Cole turned away from the coffin, Ornish Helms fairly leapt forward. The keeper stood still while the undertaker's hands danced in the air.
Willie rested his shovel against a weathered headstone and rubbed his wrists. "No doubt lamenting another heinous financial slight resulting from his generous nature," he said. "Why we had to bury these men on a day when the ground is balkier than a deaf mule is beyond me. It's not like they were going to sit up and walk off in a huff if they weren't accommodated."
"They might walk off at the rate you're digging," said Frank Mayo.
Normally, Mayo enjoyed listening to Willie. The man's tongue was lively and its waggings produced amusement and distraction in a job that saw little of either. But Mayo's every joint ached, and Willie's desultory digging wasn't improving his mood.
"The dead could outshovel you and get us out of here sooner," Mayo added.
"They're welcome to up and lend a hand," said Willie, "though I doubt they share your concern with time."
The other men had stopped digging. They stood silent, displaying hangdog faces. Their dour mood made Willie's spirits rise.
"The rest of God's creatures appreciate the moment," he said. "I'd wager they even appreciate a day as miserable as this. But not man. Even in our happiest moments, we're rushing off somewhere else. What's our hurry?" His eyes swept the cemetery. "Here's what we're rushing to."
"Bad luck to speak of death," muttered Ben Maddocks, crossing himself and commencing to dig again.
"I don't know if you're paying attention, but I doubt our luck could turn much worse," said Willie. "But as these gentlemen would no doubt heartily attest, even the worst moments are worth living. Still, you have to step back and notice them. Keeping your eyes on the ground is fine work for cows and moles."
"Maybe you'd like to explain your philosophy of leisure to Captain Cole," said Mayo.
"God knows I've tried," said Willie, glancing toward the wagon. Ornish Helms was still waving his hands at the keeper. "The man isn't much for philosophy, as we all well know. He isn't much for any of the world's pleasures that I can tell."
"That would include an afternoon in your company," said Mayo, resuming his digging.
The rest of the men took up their digging too.
"You'd be surprised who enjoys a lengthy afternoon in my company," said Willie, snubbing his shovel. "You could start by asking some of the women you've courted."
Frank Mayo possessed tousled, wheat-colored hair and a like-hued mustache, lovingly tended. "The women I court might be interested in you as a museum piece," he said.
"Women enjoy an older man," Willie said. "He's more apt to pay attention to their needs, rather than his own reflection."
"You need to pay attention to digging, or we'll be burying these men in the dark."
Despite himself, Willie jumped. In ten years of service under Daniel Cole, Willie had never gotten used to the man's approach. He walked like a deer and, more annoying still, rarely announced himself. Had it been any other man, Willie would have sworn he was the butt of a subtly crafted joke.
Willie forgot his good mood. "I wish you'd quit walking like a wisp of fog. Man my age can't take too many starts."
"You won't die of overexertion," said Cole, taking up a shovel.
"I prefer to parcel my energy wisely."
"It would be wise to be gone from here before nightfall," said Cole.
"I'm at home in the dark," said Willie. "Just ask Mayo's ladies."
Several of the men laughed softly. Cole glanced at Hiram. The boy shoveled silently, a burlap sack at his feet. Cole felt Willie's eyes on him, but he ignored the surfman's stare.
Cole had left Antone Lucas to man the station. Before they left for the cemetery, Willie had come upstairs to Cole's quarters to ask that Hiram stay behind too. Willie had argued that even a blind man could see the girl's death had shaken the boy deeply; to have him dig her grave would be callous and uncaring, a sign that man was no better than the beasts. Cole had ignored the inference and the request. Death was part of their job. The sooner the boy grew accustomed to it, the better off he'd be. Hiram had walked the two miles to Provincetown cemetery with the rest of them.
Willie resumed digging, his mind on the boy. At seventeen, Hiram had already seen his share of life's fickle cruelty, but the boy still brimmed with energy and wonder. He was sad at times, and this was to be expected, but when he was absorbed in the present, he fairly boiled with curiosity and life. He reminded Willie of the electric ball that had careened through one of the station's windows during a lightning storm. The apparition had hummed about the station for an instant before buzzsawing back out the window, leaving everyone's hair on end. When Hiram joined the station as winter man two months earlier, hired to bolster manpower in a season that saw an average of two shipwrecks a week along the Cape's shore, he had infused the station with life. The men had taken to him instantly.
Excerpted from Fog by Ken McAlpine Copyright © 2012 by Ken McAlpine. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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