When the winter was over and my nightmares had passed, when someone else's mistakes had become the subject of local gossip, I set out for the island. I made my way in increments, although the town was all of eighteen miles square. To the bluff overlooking the tidal flats. Down the broken black road to the water's edge. To the bridge where her car was found, overturned like a turtle and buried in mud.
The color of bleached bones, the shape of a crooked spine, the Squeer Island bridge was a product of willful neglect. Every ten years some town official proposed a new bridge and promptly fell into a hole full of lawyers. The beaches were private, the summer people moneyed, the year-rounders reclusive. No one wanted the sandy ways paved or the hedgerows cut back. Your deed bought more than seclusion on Squeer Island; here life as you knew it ceased to exist. There had been a family named Squeer, but only Stumpy was left. If you asked how the island got its name, people would say, "'Cause it's queer over there," and they didn't mean homosexual. They meant queer things happened. Peculiar things. Uncommon for a small town.
During high tide there was no access by land. The road to town flooded. Ducks paddled over the bridge. Fish darted through the guardrails. The summer people stocked their shelves with vodka and paperbacks and waited uneasily for the tide to recede. The residents lived for its return.
I left my car on the island side of the bridge. I slogged along the mud banks of the creek, driving fiddler crabs in front of me like herds of frightened crustacean sheep. The grasses were four feet high at the edge of the bank, an inch wide, sharp as razors. They mentioned lacerations across the palms; one in her right eyeball. I closed one eye. I wondered what it was like to sink in this bottomless liquid clay, this mud the fishermen called black mayonnaise. What did it feel like to die this way? They said her hair was encrusted with seaweed and crabs, that an eel had eaten into the armpit. They say she must have struggled to free herself, that as she grabbed at the grass her efforts only increased the suction of the mud. They still call it an accidental death.
* * *
Saltash, Massachusetts, was founded in 1672 and named for a village in Cornwall, England. Summer population: twenty thousand. Winter population: divide by ten. The economy is eighty percent tourism; the leading economic indicator: the number of pickups idling outside Barstow's Convenience at seven a.m. Like any quaint, postcard-perfect Cape Cod town, there are hundreds of stories to be ashamed of here. Only conscience dictates that I start with my own.
If you lived in Saltash, you'd know that I grew up here and had been famous for somethingalthough you probably wouldn't remember what. You might have heard that I left town at eighteen, after having signed a contract for a small fortune, and returned twelve years later. You'd know that I live in a small white half Cape on Round Pond Road and drive a red pickup; that I run a landscaping business with my sister, which (no one forgets to mention) she owns. You might have voted for me for selectman. Everyone I talked to told me they did. (For the record, I received 578 votes.) You would say I wasn't the type to make promises or suck up to people; you might say I kept to myself. You would excuse me for my private life; 578 people obviously did. According to my backers (twelve old men who fancied themselves Saltash's political kingmakers) I had been drawn in by the Squeer Island crowda local epithet implying strange sexual practices and not far from the truth. "Seduced" was the explanation whispered most.
It happened in September, the night of the new moon. A storm was tracking our way. Judith warned me that we were facing one of the highest tides of the year. If I couldn't get over the bridge in time, I wouldn't get through at all. "Gordon expects you. He really wants you there," she said, just so I knew it wasn't her who did.
More than anyone I've ever known, Judith loved rituals. She loved to cook for people. They didn't have to be important people or the best of friends. A festive, well-set table surrounded by guests who weren't watching their weight would do: people who arrived on time and had interests other than themselves and remembered to thank her for her trouble. But tonight was special. There were over thirty guests at the table of Gordon Stone and Judith Silver. It was special because it was Rosh Hashanah, and Judith had instituted the celebrating of the Jewish holidays when she became Gordon's fourth wife thirteen years before I met her. Special because Gordon was dying of lung cancer, and he was saying goodbye.
He looked like a living skeleton. His color was grayish-blue and he could not sit up, but reclined, lying on a couch with heaped-up pillows that had been dragged to the table. Judith was wearing a short red shift tonight and her fine skin and dark hair shone. Her necklace and earrings were silver. Judith did not like gold. She once told me silver was a more human metal because it aged, it changed.
Judith had prepared traditional foods. Buckwheat groats with mushroom gravy and bow-tie noodles, roast chicken, potato kugel, gefilte fish, apples dipped in honey. Those friends who weren't Jewishincluding two of Gordon's adult children whose mother wasn'thummed the songs we taught them and bowed their heads as we blessed the wine, and followed everything we did with the curious respect of anthropologists at an Mbundu marriage ceremony in Angola. What they might have missed, however, was the fact that Judith wouldn't be caught alone in the same room with me, removing herself whenever I tried to pull her aside to talk.
No one on the island asked about Judith and Gordon and me. What was common knowledge was never uttered. What mattered was that Gordon had spent an entire summer vacation helping Stumpy Squeer rebuild his house after a fire; that Judith had had a troubling intuition about a high school girl's painful cramps and drove her through a snowstorm to a good Boston hospital in time to be treated for a tubal pregnancy. There were feuds and there were grudges. But judgments among the year-rounders were limited to practical problems: Whose dog had ripped through whose garden? Who rented to noisy college kids in July?
By the second course, the lights began to flicker. The surf was halfway up the dune. Judith had arranged housing for almost everyone, except of course for me. But after the summer of silence, I was determined to talk to her and, finally, finally caught her alone in the kitchen.
"What do you want with me, David?" She turned her back. "Talk to Crystal. You're going to marry her."
"I don't want to marry Crystal. Can we sit down and talk about this?"
"Not here. Not now. I have thirty people to settle in for the night. If you absolutely insist on talking, wait for me in my shack."
Judith's "shack" was an electronic cottage, part sanctum, part home office. It was fitted out with a computer, two printers, copier, scanner, and faxas well as the double bed where we had made love many times. I lay back against the headboard, waiting, rehearsing my speech while the three cats who had been locked up there for the evening jumped from the dresser to my stomach and off again, taking out their anger on me. Sand pitted the glass and blew in through gaps in the jambs. You found sand in your shoes after nights like this, a film of sand like dust. Every shelf in the cottage shook. Wind lifted the shingles and smacked the roof. The joists shivered and sawdust trickled over the bed like snow. An hour passed. Water ran in sheets down the windows and poured from the downspout. Judith did not come.
When I heard the sound of a car horn, I knew something was wrong. One long drone, as if the driver was leaning on the wheel, and as it got closer, short blasts of pure panic. I ran for the main house, ran hard through the muddy courtyard in the pelting rain.
What I need to say is that I'm telling all this to get it straight, to reduce a tragedy to its parts and somehow understand. Call it an autopsy. A dissection of something that had once been alive; a determination as to the cause of death.