A Ring of Endless Light (Austin Family Series #4)by Madeleine L'Engle
Vicky Austin is filled with strong feelings as she stands near Commander Rodney's grave while her grandfather, who himself is dying of cancer, recites the funeral service. Watching his condition deteriorate as the summer passes on beautiful Seven Bay Island is almost more than Vicky can bear. To complicate things, she finds herself the center of attention for three… See more details below
Vicky Austin is filled with strong feelings as she stands near Commander Rodney's grave while her grandfather, who himself is dying of cancer, recites the funeral service. Watching his condition deteriorate as the summer passes on beautiful Seven Bay Island is almost more than Vicky can bear. To complicate things, she finds herself the center of attention for three very different boys: Leo is an old friend wanting comfort and longing for romance; Zachary, whose attempted suicide inadvertently caused the Commander's death, is attractive and sophisticated but desperately troubled; and Adam, her older brother's friend, offers her a wonderful chance to assist in his experiments with dophins but treats her as a young girl just when she's ready to feel most grown-up.
Called upon to be dependable, stable, and wise, Vicky is exhilarated but often overwhemed. Forces of darkness and light, tragedy and joy, hover about her, and at times she doesn't know whcih will prevail.
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A Ring of Endless Light
I saw him for the first time at the funeral.
He stood beside my elder brother, John, and they both had closed, clenched jaws and angry eyes. He was as tall as John, and I could see that he was as full of grief over Commander Rodney's death as the rest of us.
I didn't know who he was, but I liked him.
Because he was standing with John, I assumed that he, too, had a summer job at the Marine Biology Station, which was housed in half of the Coast Guard headquarters.
It was a strange place and a strange time to see somebody and know that I wanted to meet him, to call him by name. But there was something about him that struck me asto use an old-fashioned wordtrustworthy; and that's important in an untrustworthy world where death can strike when you aren't looking.
This wasn't the first time that I'd come close to death, but itwas the first time that I'd been involved in this part of it, this strange, terrible saying goodbye to someone you've loved.
I was sixteen (almost), even if not sweet, and I'd had my first proper kiss at fourteen, but I'd never before stood at an open grave, waiting for a pine box to be lowered into it.
The part at the church hadn't been so bad, maybe because it was in a familiar setting, the small white church on Seven Bay Island, the church we've been to every year of our lives when we've gone to visit our grandfather. It was a sad time, the time at the church, yet it was somehow beyond time, on the other side of time.
Commander Rodney had been our friend for ages. He was Mother and Daddy's age. And he'd died of a heart attack after saving the life of some dumb rich kid who'd gone out in his sailboat in complete disregard of storm warnings. The kid, whoever he was, wasn't at the funeral, and maybe that was a good thing, because I, for one, held him responsible for Commander Rodney's death. And if I felt that way, what did Mrs. Rodney and their kids think? No matter how often our doctor father said you could never be certain what caused a heart attack, and blaming someone was no help at all, I still felt that the capsized sailboat and the half-drowned kid had a lot to do with it.
My little brother, Rob, stood close by me. Commander Rodney had been his special friend, more Rob's friend even than Mother and Daddy's. Rob wasn't crying; he hadn't cried at all; but his face was white, the way it looks when he's going to get flu.
John was near me on my other side. He'd just finished his first year at M.I.T. and tended to think he was so much bigger than the rest of us he hardly condescended to talk to us. But hereached out and held my hand, firmly, something he hadn't done since we were kids. And on John's other side was this unknown young man with sea-grey eyes. Well. Like John, he probably thought he was much too important to talk to anybody who wasn't in college.
Behind them were the people from the Coast Guard and the Marine Biology Station. One man with thick-lensed spectacles and thinning hair was unabashedly wiping his eyes.
My little sister, Suzy, thirteen, going on thirty, was with our parents, near the Rodneys. Mrs. Rodney had her hand on Daddy's arm, as though she couldn't have stood up otherwise. Leo, the oldest, had his arm around her. His eyes were closed, as though to shut out the people and the coffin and the open hole. There was so much pain in him that I turned away and looked at the group from the Marine Biology Station, and at the young man who had stepped forward so that he was just slightly in front of John, and I could look at him without being obvious. He was tall and thinnishnot skinnyand his hair was what Rob calls hair-colored hair, not quite brown, not quite blond, like mine. His eyes were open, and there was somehow light behind them, the way sometimes the light on the ocean seems to come from beneath the water, rather than just being reflected from above. He was standing in a relaxed manner, but a little muscle in his cheek was twitching just slightly, so he wasn't as easy as he seemed.
Looking at him and wondering about him was a good way to keep my mind off what was happening. Then he stepped back so that he was blocked by John, and I had to come into awareness again.
Grandfather stood at the edge of the open grave, dark earth piled up behind him. When we got to the cemetery there'd been a carpet-like thing of phony green grass over the earth, and Grandfather had said with quiet steel, "Take it away," and two of the Coast Guard men had silently removed it. I wondered fleetingly what Mr. Hanchett, the regular minister, would have done. Ever since Grandfather retired and moved to the Island he's taken the church for one month a year, July, so Mr. Hanchett could go on vacation, and that's why he was burying Commander Rodney. His prayer book was open in his hand, although he wasn't reading it. He looked as finely drawn and as beautiful as an El Greco painting, and it was Grandfather who made me want to weep.
"Wonder who'll be the next to go?" a woman behind us asked in a loud whisper. I shivered, the way you're supposed to if someone walks over the place where you're going to be buried.
Grandfather's voice was low, and yet it could have been heard a mile away, I thought. "You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, 'You are dust, and to dust you shall return. ' All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."
No one could miss the joy in Grandfather's voice as he said those alleluias, and his face was so alive, so alight, that I didn't hear what he was saying next. It was as though I had moved into a dream, and I woke up only when, gently but firmly, he pushed away one of the funeral-type men who was handing him a vial ofdirt. It was obvious he was making the funeral people feel frustrated, rejecting their plastic grass and their plastic dirt. He was emphasizing the fact that Commander Rodney's death was real, but this reality was less terrible than plastic pretense.
I looked at the rich, dark brown of the piled earth, and there, hovering over it, was a gorgeous red-and-gold butterfly. Its wings moved delicately and it flew over the coffin and quivered in beauty as it hovered there. Grandfather saw it, too, because he stood still, looking, before he reached down and took a handful of earth and threw it onto the coffin, which had been lowered into the grave. "Earth to earth," he said, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." The butterfly still hovered. And the words which followed seemed to me to have more to do with the butterfly than with what he had just said. "The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him, and give him peace."
What did those radiant words mean, after the ashes-to-ashes and dust-to-dust stuff? What did it mean to me, and to my family, who were friends of the man who was being committed to the dark earth? What did it mean to his wife, and to his kids?
Slowly, gracefully, the butterfly flew off and was lost in the dappled shadows of the trees.
I looked from the butterfly to Leo Rodney. I've always thought of Leo as a slob and wiped off his kisses (which certainly didn't count as real ones), and I didn't much like him now, but that was his father in that box there, that box that was going to be covered with earth, not plastic, but real earth, which grass could grow in and butterflies fly over. I looked at Leo and his face wasall splotchy as though he had cried and cried, but he hadn't cried, and he needed to. I wasn't sure what anybody cried about, not with my grandfather saying those paradoxical, contradictory words.
And my grandfather was dying.
The woman's whisper stuck in my ears: "Wonder who'll be the next to go?"
Unless some kind of unforeseen accident happenedas it had happened to Commander Rodneymy grandfather was likely to be the next one. He had leukemia.
And he was saying all those words as calmly as though he had all the answers about life and death and God and all the cosmic things. And Grandfather would be the first to say he doesn't.
Leo moved just then, calling my attention to him; and I remembered last year, when he was on a religious kick and was telling us exactly what God is like, Grandfather had said quietlynot rebukingly, just quietly"As St. Augustine says: If you think you understand, it isn't God."
Looking at Leo, I wished he was still on his religious trip, when he thought he knew all the answers to everything.
John pulled my hand gently.
It was over. We were going to the Rodneys' to help out when the people of Seven Bay Island came to pay their respects. The house was full of casseroles and salads and pies and all the things people had been bringing in; Mrs. Rodney wouldn't have to cook a meal for weeks. It was a good thing they had a big freezer for all those funeral baked meats.
It wasn't too bad at the Rodneys' because I was kept busyserving people, washing dishes, and pouring vast quantities of iced tea. The Coast Guard and Marine Biology people drank the mostI must have filled the grey-eyed young man's glass half a dozen times.
The last time he smiled at me apologetically. "You're John Austin's sister, aren't you?"
"I'm Adam Eddington."
So that was his name. A good solid name, Adam Eddington. I liked it.
"It's nice to meet you, Vicky," he said, "even under these circumstances."
"They're not the best." I stood there holding the pitcher of iced tea, which was wet and dripping. "But I don't think I've really taken it in yet. I keep expecting Commander Rodney to come walking in and ask us what we're all doing."
"It's rough. He wasn't that old."
"My father's age." I glimpsed Daddy talking to a cluster of people from the Marine Biology Station. Then I turned back to Adam.
He took a long swallow of tea, and looked at me over the glass. "You know when you cut yourself really badly, it doesn't hurt at all for a while. You don't feel anything. Deathour reaction to deathis sort of like that. You don't feel anything at all. And then later on you begin to hurt." He was speaking with a quiet conviction, as though experience had taught him what he was talking about. I wondered what had happened, who had died, to make him speak like that. He continued, less tensely, "He was a really great guy. He knocked himself out to be nice tome, treating me like an intelligent human being and not a mere flunky. I'll miss him. And I've known him only a few weeks."
I shifted the pitcher from one hand to the other. "I haven't begun to hurt yet, but I guess I will. You've been at the station for a while?"
"I got out of school the end of May, and I was lucky enough to be able to start here the first of June. It's great having John come to work in the labI was the only one under forty."
"Are you working with starfish, too?"
"Some. But mostly I have an independent project going, on dolphins."
"I love dolphins! Though I've never met one personally, only at Sea World."
"Would you like to meet one?"
"Would I ever!" I almost dropped the pitcher.
"I think maybe I can arrange that. You strike me as being a dolphiny person."
That might not sound like much of a compliment, but I knew that it was.
"We have one dolphin who's going to pup in a week or ten days. Ever see a dolphin baby?"
"I'll introduce you to one, then. Andhey, are you good at listening?"
Before I could answer, Dr. Nora Zand, John's immediate boss, dropped a hand on Adam's shoulder and told him it was time to go. And I saw that the crowd was thinning out, and then we were leaving, too.
Leo took my hand. "Vicky, I wish you didn't have to go."
Leo's hand always felt clammy, and now it was cold as well. "I'm sorry." I tried not to pull my hand away. I was filled with pain for Leo, but I'd much rather have had Adam holding my hand. "I think your mother wants to be alone with just you kids for a while."
"Can I come see you tomorrow?"
I managed not to turn away when he kissed me, not a passionate sort of kiss, but I didn't want any kind of kiss from Leo. And yet I ached so for him I found myself giving him a quick hug before we left. When Leo started hurting, he was going to hurt much more than we were, or than Adam Eddington.
We got into the station wagon and drove across the Island and up the hill to Grandfather's, and there, parked in front of the house, was a hearse.
Well, I had hearses on my mind.
It wasn't a hearse; it was an enormous, brand-new, black station wagon. And a tall, pale young man with black hair was lounging elegantly against it.
"Good grief," John exploded. "It's Zachary Grey. Just who we don't need."
Daddy murmured, "His timing has always been unerringly inconvenient."
I hadn't seen Zachary for a year. I'd never expected to see Zachary again. After a summer during which he sort of pursued me, he'd dropped completely out of sight, far off in California, with girls a lot more glamorous than I could ever hope to be. But I didn't think of him as some kind of moral leper, the way therest of the family did. And it was Zach who'd given me that first real kiss. My cheeks felt hot and my hands felt icy cold.
He waved. "Hi, Austins, long time no see." He grinned at me. "Zach's back."
"Hi," I said stupidly, and hoped my flushed cheeks didn't show.
"Come for a ride?"
Still stupidly, like a ten-year-old kid, I just shook my head.
Daddy said, "Zachary, we've just come from a funeral. We're all tired, and sad, and we need to be alone. Could you come another time?"
"Certainly, sir," Zachary replied swiftly and courteously. "Tomorrow, Vicky-O?"
"Yesall right." I wasn't sure I liked Zachary's thinking he could drop me for a year and then expect to find me waiting for him as though we'd seen each other the day before. At the same time, something very odd was happening in the pit of my stomach. Zachary was having the old effect.
He took my hand. Unlike Leo's, his was warm and dry. "Sorry, Vic. I see the bad penny's turned up at the wrong moment. I'll give you a ring in the morning." He kept my hand in his, and the look he turned on me was dark and full of pain. Whatever the pain was for, it was as acute as Leo's. "Sorry ..." he said again, and the flippancy was gone from his voice. "Need you, Vic ..." He turned his back on us and got into his ostentatious station wagon, the latest, most expensive model of the same kind of station wagon he'd had before. Why did he want a station wagon that looked like a hearse?
And how had he found out we were on the Island?
I went indoors, unhappy and confused. We weren't using the front door, because some swallows had built a nest just above it. We had no idea why, but there were three swallows, not two, fluttering about the nest, and they got very excited if we got too close. The eggs had hatched and occasionally we could see little beaks peeping over the straw, cheeping away for food. So we weren't going to use the front door till they were out of the nest. There was a side door, or we could walk around to the back and go through the screened porch and into the kitchen.
Being confused because of Zachary was nothing new. Unlike Leo, Zachary was completely unpredictable, and his kiss was nothing like Leo's adolescent pawings. Seeing him now, at this moment, and in this place, was so completely unexpected that it was as though two different worlds had bumped into each other, and I was shaking from the collision.
We all went into the big screened porch where Grandfather sleeps when we're at Seven Bay Island so Mother and Daddy can have his big four-poster bed. And suddenly I realized it was hot, early-July hot (and that's why Adam drank all that iced tea), and I'd been feeling cold all day, deep inside cold.
Mother turned on the big old-fashioned wooden ceiling fanonly it was new-fashioned, because she and Daddy had given it to Grandfather for his last birthday.
Suzy asked, "Okay if I make lemonade?" and, not waiting for an answer, went into the kitchen.
The funeral had been in the late morning, but what with going to the Rodneys' and trying to be useful and available and whatever else one can be at an impossible time to be anything, it was now mid-afternoon. The tide was moving up the beach, and we couldhear the soft thrumming of the surf, seeming to say, Relax, relax, let it all go, relax, all is well, all is well ...
Grandfather sat on the old, sagging couch. Mother and Daddy had urged him not to give up his comfortable bed, but he had just said quietly, "Let's keep it all as normal as possible for as long as possible."
Mother rocked in the old wicker rocker, and she was looking at Grandfather, and I wanted to hug her, to hug Grandfather, to hold them both against the dark. And I could not. Nobody could.
The screen door was propped wide open and Rob sat on the worn porch steps and looked out to sea. Mr. Rochester, our Great Dane, sat on his haunches beside him, and I noticed that Mr. Rochester was getting very grizzled about the muzzle. Mr. Rochester loved us all; we were his family; but Rob was his baby. When Mother used to put Rob outdoors in his carriage or playpen, Mr. Rochester would lie watchfully beside him, and Mother didn't have to worry about anybody coming near. And now Rob was seven and no longer a baby and Mr. Rochester was growing old. A Great Dane's life expectancy isn't more than eleven or so years and that, Daddy reminded us, was something we must accept when we become fond of a dog.
Grandfather's cat, Ned, minced around the corner of the stable and then sat down between Rochester's paws, preening himself. Ned is fifteen, but cats have longer lives than large dogs.
Daddy and John sat in the wicker swing, and the sound of Mother's rocker, of the swing creaking from its hooks in the porch ceiling, and the waves rolling into shore, all merged into a soporific counterpoint.
"Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations to help some German prince or duke who had insomnia to get to sleep," I remarked.
Instead of jumping on me for showing off, John asked the ceiling, "I wonder how long Zachary has been at Seven Bay?"
I knew what he was thinking. Ordinarily it would have burned me up and I'd have exploded at my brother, but the same thought had occurred to me, so all I said was, "Don't go leaping to conclusions."
Daddy raised his eyebrows. "What conclusions, Vic?"
"John thinks Zachary was the rich kid Commander Rodney saved from drowning."
Daddy looked from me to John and back again to me. "I don't recall John saying anything of the kind."
"But you do, don't you, John?" I demanded.
John shrugged. "You said it."
Suzy said, "Everybody thought it was queer the Island paper didn't give a name." She stood in the doorway holding a silver pitcher.
Daddy said, "Mrs. Rodney requested the paper to withhold names."
"Jacky thinks the parents paid off the mainland papers," Suzy continued.
I almost started to say, "Jacky and Leo are slobs," and then I remembered that, despite Daddy, I did blame the rich kid for what had happened, and if I were the Rodneys I'd be feeling anger and outrage and probably worse. So all I said was, "We don't know whether or not Zachary just got here this afternoon."
Mother added, "If he knew about it, he'd hardly have turned up here right after the funeral. That the lemonade, Suze?"
And we all looked at the silver pitcher.
Grandfather spoke for the first time. If I noticed a change in Grandfather this summer, it was that he didn't talk as much as usual. "I haven't seen that pitcher in years, Suze. Where did you find it?"
"Up on the top shelf of the corner cupboard. I just gave it a quick polish. I hope you don't mind?"
"I'm delighted," Grandfather assured her. "Let's use all the pretty things as much as possible this summer. That's what your grandmother always said they were for, to be enjoyed. When I'm alone I'm afraid I tend to be lazy. But when we're together, let's appreciate everything to the hilt."
I don't think Grandfather intended anything he said to have double meanings, but to me, everything did. Let's enjoy it, because tomorrow it may all be cut off.
There are a lot of leukemias in old people which can be arrested, if not completely cured, but Grandfather didn't have one of these. It was a rare kind, and lethal. Daddy was giving him some new medication which might make things easier, but he couldn't stop the disease or even hope for remission. He was completely open with us about this.
John slid to the floor by the low table with the pitcher of lemonade and the tall glasses. "Dad, I know I don't have to declare my major yet, but I'm taking all the pre-med courses I can fit in."
It was a change of subject from Zachary and I was grateful. I even thought John might be doing it on purpose. He may tend tobe high and mighty, but he's also nice, much nicer than I am, and since he got home from college we haven't bickered nearly as much as we used to.
"What about space research?" Daddy asked.
"Oh, I'm still into astrophysics. But it would be a good idea for me to have an M.D. anyhow. Adam and I were talking about it."
"Adam?" Mother asked.
"Adam Eddington. He's working at the Marine Biology Station this summer, too. He's the one who was standing next to me at the cemetery. We're pretty good friends."
"He's cute," Suzy said.
Why did that annoy me? It did.
"The weird thing," John said, "is that he grew up just a few blocks away from our house in New York. We might even have passed each other on the street last year during the Christmas holidays."
"Too bad we're moving back to Thornhill," Suzy said. "The boys around there are all nerds."
"Not true," John said. "Wait and see. You'll find they all grew up as much as you did while we were in New York. Adam knows a heck of a lot more about marine biology than I do, but he's getting a veterinary degree as well as his Ph.D. for his work."
"What's his special field?" Daddy asked.
"This summer he has a project with dolphins, but he's studied a lot about limb regeneration. You'd be fascinated, Suze. Not only starfish, but lizards and tortoises have been able to grow new limbs."
Suzy sparked. She's the beauty of the family, petite and piquante and all the things I'm not. She also has a mind like ascalpel, and she's wanted to be a doctor ever since she could talk, though lately she's been edging more and more toward being a veterinary surgeon. She and John and Daddy got into a scientific discussion that was completely above my head. And nobody said anything more about Zachary.
Grandfather's house is, to put it mildly, unusual. It used to be a stable, a real stable for real horses. When Grandfather bought it before he retired, he left up most of the stalls and had bookcases built in them, for all the hundreds and thousands of books he's collected over the years and can't throw away, either because he's going to need to check something in one, or they might be useful for a grandchild or friend or neighbor. Leo, for instance, uses Grandfather's library for most of his school papers.
Grandfather's bedroom is the only real bedroom. Up in the loft there are half a dozen cots, and that's where we sleep. We'd never before spent more than two weeks at a time on the Island, and it's always been special and a holiday and fun to sleep all together in a dormitory.
This time it was different. We were there for a purpose: to be with Grandfather. Mother and Daddy hadn't said anything about time limits, just that we'd stay as long as Grandfather needed us. And yet I knew that Daddy had to be back in Thornhill right after Labor Day. Unlike John and Suzy, I am not scientifically inclined, but what came through to me, and it came through loud and clear, was that our doctor father did not think Grandfather would live through the summer. I could not imagine the world without Grandfather.
At the same time I found myself thinking, totally selfishly,that I wasn't sure I wanted to sleep in a dormitory for more than a couple of weeks. The older I grew, the more I needed times and places of privacyor privatecy, as Rob calls it, which sounds considerably more private than privacy. Privatecy to write in my journal, to write and rewrite, and rewrite again, poems and stories. To try to find out not only who I am but who everybody else is, and what it's all about.
That night after Commander Rodney's funeral, up in my cot in the loft, next to Rob's, I couldn't sleep. Rob was snoring softly; his allergies bother him not only when the pollen count is high in the autumn but whenever he's deeply upset, and I knew that his snoring this night was not because of the pollen count. I thought of going down the loft ladder to ask Daddy for an antihistamine, but Rob was sound asleep and he wasn't wheezing. My urge to go to Daddy was more for myself than for Rob.
I put my hands behind my head and waited for the beam of the lighthouse to swing across the loft, touching each cot with its friendly light. My eyes were so awake they felt gritty. I wasn't quite sure why Commander Rodney's death hit me so hard. He was our good friend, but not so intertwined a part of our lives that things would never be the same again, the way they'd never be the same for Leo. And yet, in a way, when anyone dies, even someone you don't know, someone you read about in a newspaper, life never will be quite the same again.
What was it Grandfather said? If someone kills a butterfly, it could cause an earthquake in a galaxy a trillion light-years away.
From downstairs I heard the sound of Mother's guitar, and I knew that either Grandfather or Daddy had asked her to sing forthem, and maybe for the four of us up in the loft. She started with a French song, one of my favorites, "Les filles de Saint-Malo ont les yeux l'couleur de l'eau."
It wasn't the Goldberg Variations, but it worked, and I fell asleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night; well, not quite that late, because the full moon was pouring its light through the attic windows and that was what woke me. The loft was filled with a pearly light which almost drowned out the lighthouse beam. The words of the verses Grandfather had painted on the wall were clearly visible:
If thou could'st empty all thyself of self, Like to a shell dishabited, Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, And say, "This is not dead," And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou And hast such shrewd activity, That when He comes He says, "This is enow Unto itself'twere better let it be, It is so small and full, there is no room for Me."
Sir Thomas Browne wrote those lines at least three centuries ago, but they always made me think of Grandfather, empty of all the horrid things, and filled with gentleness and strength. As forme, I felt replete with very me, full of confusions and questions for which there were no answers.
Suzy cried out in her sleep. John turned over, and the old springs of the cot squeaked as though John had disturbed their rest. Then I looked at the cot on my left and it was empty. I wasn't worried. Mr. Rochester, who slept at the foot of the loft ladder, would have let us know if anything was wrong.
I heard the ladder creak, and Rob clambered up, trying to be quiet.
I sat up and whispered, "Where've you been?"
Rob sat on the edge of his cot. "Talking to Grandfather."
Not Mother and Daddy. Grandfather. "You shouldn't have disturbed him."
"He was awake."
"How'd you know?"
"He was reading."
"What'd you talk to him about?"
Rob was only seven. Still young enough to talk about things you don't talk about, especially to someone who's dying. But why don't you? If I had a fatal disease I'd want people to talk to me about dying, instead of getting embarrassed and pretending I was going to get well.
We weren't pretending that Grandfather was going to get well, but we weren't talking about it, at least John and Suzy and I weren't, not to each other. Perhaps Mother and Daddy were braver. As for Robhe was Rob.
"Do Mother and Daddy know you're up?"
"They're asleep. Only Grandfather."
"We'd better stop whispering or we'll wake John and Suzy." As I said that, John bounced, and his springs protested loudly.
Rob gave me a hug and kissed me before getting into his cot. He hadn't done that in quite a while and I'd missed it. Rob's so much younger than the rest of us that I've wanted him to go on being a baby, or at least a little boy, forever. But of course he can't.
I lay down. It wasn't quite warm enough with just a sheet, and a little too warm with the lightweight summer blanket. I pushed it halfway down and tried to relax, listening to the wind in the trees and the surf's slow pounding against the shore.
That, too, was soporific.
During vacations, breakfast is a floating affair. Mother plugs the percolator into a timer before she goes to bed, for those who drink coffee. Otherwise, we're on our own. At Grandfather's, we fix our breakfasts in the kitchen and take them out on the porch, unless the weather is bad.
Our first day on the Island this summer, John gave the big round table a fresh coat of white paint, and this morning it was set with deep blue mats and matching blue seersucker napkins we could just throw in the washing machine. The china was white, with a blue stripe around the edge. Some of it was chipped, so we didn't look like something out of House Beautiful, just cheerful and normal.
Mother, Daddy, Grandfather, John were all there before me. I'd heated up milk in the kitchen, and took a big blue-and-white cup of café au lait out to the porch with me.
I said, "Good morning," and sat down between John andGrandfather. The sky was hazy, the kind of soft blue-lavender haze that means a hot day, with clear skies later on, and perhaps a thunderstorm in the late afternoon or evening.
"Any plans for today, Vic?" Mother asked.
"Nothing, except to go down to the beach for a swim."
"Want to take a picnic?" she suggested.
"I don't think so ..." I stopped myself from looking behind me toward the kitchen phone, or, farther, toward the stall where Grandfather had his desk and his telephone.
But John asked, "Zachary call yet?"
"If the phone's rung this morning, I haven't heard it," I replied stiffly.
Daddy, who'd been reading the paper, missed this, and handed the paper to John, pointing. "This ought to interest your friend Adam."
Suzy came out to the porch, poured herself a glass of juice, waved a general greeting to us all, and leaned against John's chair, reading over his shoulder.
"No, oh, no!" she cried and sat down next to Mother, looking about to burst into tears.
"What?" Mother asked.
Suzy's voice was trembling. "Porpoises, a thousand porpoises beaten to death with clubs."
Mother looked shocked. "Where?"
John looked up from the paper. "Japan."
"But why," Suzy moaned, "why did those fishermen have to kill them?"
"Because they were eating all the fish," John explained, "and the Japanese fishermen depend on the fish for their livelihood."
"But to kill them," Suzy protested, "to club them to death when they're so friendly and playful and unsuspecting"
Suzy's relations with animals have always been passionate. But Daddy says she won't be a good doctor or vet until she can control her emotions. Now she was outraged and tears quivered on her long, dark lashes. She brushed them away, shaking her head so that her tousled hair caught the fire of the sun. There's no denying that Suzy's got looks as well as brains. I have brains, I guess, but next to Suzy I don't have looks. However, as Fortescue said, and Mother keeps reminding us, comparisons are odious.
John handed the paper back to Daddy. "Full of comforting little tidbits, isn't it? Porpoises clubbed to death; a bus hit by a train; a lethal explosion at an oil refinery; a"
"Stop!" I held up my hand. "You sound like Zachary!" And I thought of Adam's summer project, and how he'd probably feel as sick as Suzy about the porpoises.
"It's all there in the paper, Vic," John said quietly. "I thought a year in New York had you over your illusion that we live in a safe and peaceful world."
"But the porpoises!" Again Suzy's purple eyes filled with tears. "Those other things are accidents, but the fishermen clubbed the porpoises to death on purpose."
"As John pointed out," Daddy said, "those fishermen depend on fish for a living."
"It's lousy, Suze," John said. "I agree with you about that. But I can see, too, that the fishermen may have been desperate, with kids to feed and no money coming in. Which do you choose, people or porpoises?"
"Porpoises," Suzy replied without hesitation. "Porpoisesdon't hurt anybody. They don't murder or have wars. They don't pollute the environment."
"But," John added, "they eat the fish which are a matter of life and death for a fishing village."
"I hate it!" Now Suzy did start to cry.
"Let her weep," Grandfather said softly to Mother. "We've none of us done our grieving about Jack Rodney."
It seemed there was death everywhere. The paper was always full of death, violent death, accidental death, wanton death. I think I felt as bad as Suzy did about the porpoises, as bad as Adam would feel, but my eyes were dry.
John rose. "Time for me to get to work. Dr. Nora Zand's a stickler for people being early. Not just punctual, mind you, but early. Otherwise, she's a super boss and trusts me to do all kinds of things on my own. All right if I bring Adam home for dinner sometime, Mother?"
"Just give me a little warning so I can water the soup."
"Maybe tonight, then, if he's free, okay?"
Mother nodded. "Okay."
"See you a little after five."
John was lucky to have something definite to do for the summer. He finished his first year at M.I.T. with all kinds of honors, which made job hunting easier for him than for people without his kind of record.
I didn't take a job for the summer because Daddy'd asked me not to. The Woods, in the big house down the hill (the people who'd sold Grandfather the stable), wanted me to work for them. Their seven-year-old grandson was spending most of the summer with them, and they wanted me to baby-sit him, andcook lunch, and do odd jobs. We all try to work as much as we can, to help earn money for college, and I thought I was all set. But Daddy took me aside.
"Vic, this is asking a lot of you, but I'd appreciate it if you'd let Suzy take the job at the Woods'."
"Why?" I asked indignantly.
"This is going to be a rough summer for all of us, but particularly for your mother. I'd like you to stick around to help out with anything that's neededthe cookingthough there won't be much of that, because she loves to cook. Basically, to be moral support, and to help with Grandfather."
"Oh." He didn't need to say anything more. "Sure. I'll be glad to."
"And I'll pay you what you'd have got at the Woods' ."
"No! I don't want any money, Daddy, honestly. Not for helping Mother or Grandfather. Please."
He looked at me from under his nice bushy eyebrows, and his brown eyes smiled. "We'll think of something, then. Thanks, Vic."
As it turned out, Suzy didn't want the job with the Woods. She said she'd find something to do around the docks. "Rob's enough of a seven-year-old kid. I couldn't stomach another for a whole summer."
"You're an idiot," I said. "They're offering good money."
"You take the job, then."
I shut up. It wasn't that Daddy'd sworn me to secrecy about staying home, but I knew he didn't want me to talk about it. AndSuzy's never liked baby-sitting. She may want to be a doctor, but her specialty won't be pediatrics.
Three things happened at once. Rob came down for breakfast; the phone rang; and Leo Rodney and his brother, Jacky, came along the path and up to the porch.
"I'll get the phone." Suzy hurried into the kitchen and I let her. It mightn't be Zachary, but if it was, I didn't want to appear too eager.
Leo knocked. "Hi."
"Come in," Grandfather called, and Leo and Jacky pushed the screen door open.
"Where's Suzy?" Jacky asked.
Leo spoke simultaneously, "Come for a walk, Vicky?"
My ears were cocked toward the house. "Suzy's on the phone."
"Vicky," she called, "it's for you."
I called back, "Who is it?" After all, we've been coming to Seven Bay Island all our lives. There were other people it could be besides Zachary.
Suzy slammed onto the porch without answering, so I knew it was.
"Be back," I said to Leo, and went in, nearly falling over Rochester, who was lying in the way as usual. I went through the kitchen and to Grandfather's study. "Hi," I said into the phone.
Nobody but Zachary has ever called me Vicky-O, but automatically I asked, "Who is it?"
"Who do you think it is, idiot?"
"I'm not an idiot, and I'm aware that you're Zachary Grey." It was not the ideal way to begin a conversation.
"Get off your high horse, Vicky. 'Smatter of fact, do you want to come horseback riding this morning?"
To my surprise I heard myself saying, "I can't. I'm going for a walk with Leo." Now why on earth did I say that? When I went to the phone I thought Zachary was going to be my excuse for not going for a walk with Leo.
"He's the oldest son of Commander Rodneywhose funeral we were at yesterday," I replied clumsily.
There was an odd silence at the other end of the line. Then, "How about this afternoon?"
"This afternoon's fine."
"Good. Pick you up about two." He hung up without saying goodbye. Zachary would never identify himself on the phone for me; he was certain I'd recognize his voice. And yet I felt he was far less sure of himself than he wanted me to think he wasor than he wanted himself to think he was.
I went back to the porch. Rob was eating toast and homemade beach-plum jam. Suzy and Jacky had gone off somewhere together. Leo was patiently waiting for me.
"Do you have to go somewhere with someone, Vicky, or can you come for a walk with me?" Leo was anything but sure of himself.
I looked at Mother, who nodded. "I can go for a walk." I tried to sound more enthusiastic than I felt.
We said goodbye and started off. "Where'll we go?" Leo asked.
"To the beach."
Grandfather's stable is up on a bluff, at the highest end of the Island. The quickest way to the beach is down a very steep path cut into the bluff and kept from erosion by logs pounded in horizontally every yard or so. Tough little bushes have grown up on either side, and they can help slow your descent if you get ahead of yourself, or help pull you up on the steep climb home. The beach at the foot of the bluff is a lovely crescent which we call Grandfather's cove. There's a rock there that I like to sit on, particularly when the tide is coming in, and I can watch the little waves coming closer, breaking in pearly patterns of foam.
Now the tide was going out and the rock was high and dry. The sand around it had dried in the morning sun and wind, though if we dug down with our fingers the water would squish against them.
Leo walked slowly along the ocean's edge, letting the waves break over the toes of his sneakers. We both had on jeans and T-shirts, but I was wearing sandals and I took them off so I could wade. It wasn't until his sneakers were thoroughly wet and sandy that Leo bent down to unlace them and pull them off.
We splashed along in silence. We left Grandfather's protected cove, and the waves were rougher and the pull of undertow stronger. Leo turned inland and I followed him to the bare fallen trunk of a once great elm. All the bark was long gone, and the old wood had washed smooth in the rains and salt winds; it made a comfortable seat. Leo looked at the ocean. "I'm glad it was your grandfather and not Mr. Hanchett at Dad's funeral."
"So'm I. Mr. Hanchett's a dear, but he makes even a wedding sound gloomy."
"What are you going to do after this summer?" Leo asked, as though he were continuing and not changing the conversation.
We had been on the Island barely a week when Commander Rodney died. We were all tired, and we thought we had all summer to catch up with everybody, and our attention was on ourselves and on Grandfather. We hadn't even seen the Rodneys except to wave at in the post office or the market.
Except for Rob. I knew Rob had gone on his own over to the Coast Guard to see the Commander. I wondered what they'd talked about.
"Vicky?" Leo prodded. His face was still splotchy and his fair hair was limp.
"We're going home to Thornhill and the Regional High," I answered. "Daddy's returning to general practice."
"You're not going back to New York, then?"
"New York was never meant to be forever," I replied. "Daddy had a year for the research he never had time to do when he was a busy country doctor. And the doctor who took our house and Daddy's practice was having a sort of sabbatical year from running a big hospital in Chicago, and he has to be back there in September. So we're going home."
"Home." Leo worked at a small sliver of wood on the old trunk. "The Island's always been home to me. How did you like living in New York?"
"I loved it and I hated it. I learned a lot."
"Like what?" Leo stopped pulling at the sliver and looked at me.
I looked out to sea. Near the horizon I saw something dark leap out of the water in a beautiful arc. A porpoise. I shivered."Ohhow very protected we'd been, living in a tiny village like Thornhill all our lives, with visits to the Island a couple of times a year. I'd been under the illusion that most people are pretty good."
"And now you think most people are pretty bad?"
I shook my head. "But people are a lot more mixed upmore complexthan I thought they were. I thought most adults were like my parents andyours. But they aren't."
"How come your father's free to spend the summer on the Island?"
"WellI just told you, the other doctor's going to be in Thornhill till September. And Daddy's working on a book," I said to Leo.
"I thought he was a doctor, not a writer."
"He is. It's not a book-type book, it's scientific. I wouldn't understand a word of it."
"Are you glad to be going back to Thornhill?"
"I don't know," I said. "I just plain don't know."
I certainly wouldn't be the same innocent hick who'd left Thornhill a year ago. And we'd made friends in New York, real friends; I didn't know if we'd ever see them again.
Leo slid from the old dead elm onto the beach. "I was supposed to go to New York next winter. I was accepted at Columbia. I had a good scholarship, too, and I was counting on your being there."
"Wellwe lived just a bit below Columbia last year. That's the part of New York we know best. We can tell you lots about it."
"It doesn't look as though I'll be going now. Commanders in the Coast Guard don't leave fortunes to their families."
"Aren't there pensions and stuff?"
"I don't think it's all that much. And I'm the oldest and I'm not sure I ought to go off, leaving Mom and the kids"
I looked at his round, earnest face. He wasn't trying to play on my sympathies the way some kids might (I'd really become very suspicious about human nature in my old age); he was trying to think things out, and what he ought to do. Only a year ago, Leo knew what God thought, and what he and everybody else ought to do on every occasion, and I liked him much better this way, though life used to be easier for him when he knew all the answers.
I didn't know the answers, either, but I did know one thing, and I said as much to Leo: "Your parents would both want you to get your education, I'm positive of that. You want to go to Columbia, don't you?"
"As much as I've ever wanted anything."
"Okay, then. And we'll give you lots of clues about life in that neighborhood. It's colorful, all right."
"Vicky." He leaned over the grey wood of the elm and reached for my hand. "You really do think it would be all right for me to go off in the autumn? To leave Mom and the kids, with Dad" He broke off and swallowed hard, so that his Adam's apple bobbed.
"I think your mom and the kids would be furious with you if you gave up a good scholarship because you thought they couldn't manage without you."
"But I'm the head of the family now ..." It sounded old-fashioned, and yet I knew he meant it from the deepest recesses of his heart.
"All the more reason you should get a good education." Gently I withdrew my hand from his. "It doesn't have to be settled today. And I really think you ought to talk to your mom."
Leo's mother is short and a bit dumpyhe has more of her genes than his father'sbut she radiates good sense. She isn't very exciting, but she's solid; if she says she'll do something, she'll do it. Enough has happened to me in sixteen years that I've begun to stop underrating solidity and overvaluing excitement.
"I always talked to my dad," Leo said, and then clamped his jaws shut so tightly that all the muscles of his face were strained, but that didn't stop the tears overflowing and trickling down his cheeks.
Without realizing what I was doing, I put my arms around him. "Cry, Leo, don't hold it back, you need to cry" I broke off because I was crying, too, crying for Commander Rodney, for my grandfather, who was dying slowly and gently, for a thousand porpoises who had been clubbed to death ...
I held Leo and he held me and we rocked back and forth on the old elm trunk, weeping, and the salt wind brushed against the salt of our tears. And I discovered that there is something almost more intimate about crying that way with someone than there is about kissing, and I knew I'd never again be able to think of Leo as nothing but a slob.
Our tears spent themselves. I think he stopped first. He pulled up his T-shirt and used it to mop his eyes. He was all red and mottled from weeping, and I supposed I was, too.
"Let's swim," I suggested.
He looked at me in surprise and I sighed. "Not skinny-dipping. In our underclothes. That's more than a lot of bathing suits." I pulled off my jeans and shirt and draped them over the elm, left my sandals on the sand, and ran across the beach to the water. I splashed through the shallow waves, dove under a big comber coming at me, and swam until I was beyond the surf and could turn over on my back and rest on the undulating swells. Leo joined me; he's a strong, fast swimmer, like any kid who's grown up on the Island.
"Don't go out too far," he warned. "This bay's pretty safe, but the tide's still going out."
I couldn't so much feel it sucking me seaward as notice that I was farther from shore than I had been only a moment before. "Race you in."
The swim back took at least three times as long as going out. I was panting when I flung myself onto the crest of a galloping wave and body-surfed into shore. Leo was a good three lengths ahead of me. As I splashed in to join him, I saw Rob climbing down the cliff and calling to us, so we hurried back to Grandfather's cove and reached him as he jumped onto the beach.
"Mother says Suzy's gone to the Rodneys' with Jacky, so why doesn't Leo stay and have lunch with us?"
This was the kind of casual back-and-forthing we were used to on the Island; only today it seemed different. Suzy's going to the Rodneys' was different, even though ordinarily the Commander wouldn't have been home at lunchtime.
"Sure," Leo replied. "I'd love to stay. What time is it? I left my watch down the beach with my clothes."
"Nearly noon." Rob pointed at the sun, which was almost directly overhead.
Leo looked at me. "I didn't think we'd been gone nearly that long."
"We'll just let our underclothes dry," I told Rob. "It won't take more than a few minutes in this sun. Then we'll get our clothes on and come along up to the stable."
"Okay," Rob said. "I'll tell Mother." And he started the hot climb up the cliff.
Leo and I strolled slowly back to the fallen elm, letting the sun and breeze dry us. Leo made a face. "Yuck, my sneakers are all sopping."
"You'll need them for the climb." I pulled my shirt over my head and spoke through the warm cotton.
Leo was strapping on his watch. "Your grandfather" He stopped, and started trying to shove his sandy feet into his wet sneakers. "I think I know him better than you do."
"You'll get blisters. Go rinse your feet and your sneakers and put them on at the water's edge." I sounded bossy as all get-out, but I did not like, not one little bit, the idea that someone like Leo thought he knew my own grandfather better than I did.
He followed my instructions. When he came back across the sand he said, "In the winters when things get too noisy at home, or I have a problem about something and Dad's too busy and I don't want to bother him"for a moment the tears filled his eyes again, but this time they didn't overflow"I bike across the Island to your grandfather's and we have tea together and talk. He's been a very civilizing influence on me. He's a wise man."
"I know he is." I stopped myself from adding, 'He's mygrandfather.' I don't know why I was feeling so ungracious toward Leo. Perhaps because our weeping together had been more intimate than I was ready to be.
"I'm sorry he's sick," he said.
"How'd you know?" It wasn't that we were keeping it a secret, as though we were ashamed of it or anything, but we weren't going around talking about it, either. I guess I think death and sex should be allowed privacy.
"He told me."
I wanted to ask, 'Why?' but I didn't.
Leo answered anyhow. "It wasn't long before you came, and I asked him how long you were going to stay, and he answered, Most of the summer. You usually don't stay more than a couple of weeks, so with my big mouth I kept on asking questions, and he told me." And then Leo did something which didn't fit the picture I had of him, even the Leo with whom I'd sobbed out rage and grief. He ran back to the water's edge and shook his fist up at the bland blue sky and the brilliant orb of the sun, too bright to look at, and swore, loudly and steadily. I'd thought, between the kids at school and a year in New York, that I knew all the words, but Leo came out with quite a few that were new to me. He swore with intensity and a strange kind of elegance, and then he dropped his arms and turned his back on the water and the sun and strolled over to me as though he hadn't done anything unusual. We walked without speaking to the foot of the bluff, with the path rising steeply ahead of us.
"Where was your grandfather before he came to the Island, before he retired?"
I looked at him questioningly. After all, he'd said he knew Grandfather better than I do.
He looked down at his wet sneakers. "I never asked him much about himself, because I was so busy thinking about me."
"Aren't we all, most of the time?" My mind flicked briefly to Sir Thomas Browne's words in the loft; surely Leo was no more replete with himself than I was with me, and surely we weren't that much different from anybody else. "About Grandfatherwhere didn't he go and what didn't he do is more like it. When Mother was my age, he was in Africa."
"Being a missionary?"
"Wellhe and our grandmother were living with a very small and ancient tribe, and learning their language and setting down their traditions and their wisdom and their historywhich were beginning to get lost as the elders died."
"That's not what most people would consider being a missionary," Leo said. "But then of course your grandfather's not most people. What else?"
"Well, he had a big church in Boston and he was tremendously popular. His sermons got rave reviews in the paper, and our grandmother used to tease him about women swooning over him. And just when the church was overflowing he handed in his resignation, like a bomb, and he and Gram went to a tiny mission church in Alaska. He was sixty, but the only way for him to get to all his congregation was by seaplane or helicopter, so he got a pilot's license, so nobody would go without at least one visit from him every few months." I'd started climbing and stopped to catch my breath. My climbing muscles hadn't beenthat much used in New York, and the backs of my legs felt the pull. Leo lived on the far, flatter side of the island, and I could hear him puffing behind me.
It had been, I thought, a far more interesting morning than I'd anticipated. I'd learned about the complexity of human beings during the year in New York, but maybe not as much as I'd believed. Leo was certainly much less of a slob than I'd thought.
A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT. Copyright © 1980 by Crosswicks, Ltd. All rights reserved.For information, address Square Fish, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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