Western Windby Paula Fox
Each day while Gran paints, Elizabeth explores and is slowly drawn to Aaron,
Twelve-year-old Elizabeth is angry about spending the summer with her grandmother in Maine. She's sure her parents want to be alone with her new baby brother. Elizabeth loves Gran, but she feels stuck on Pring Island in a primative cottage with no hope of friends. Why is she really here?
Each day while Gran paints, Elizabeth explores and is slowly drawn to Aaron, the strange son of the only neighbors on the island. Then, almost without realizing it, Elizabeth feels closer to Gran and hears her words in a way she won't forget.
But nothing could prepare her for what was to come...after that summer on Pring Island.
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By Paula Fox
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Paula Fox
All rights reserved.
Six months after Elizabeth Benedict was born, her grandmother, Cora Ruth Benedict, moved to Maine. Now, eleven years later, Elizabeth was to spend the month of August with her on a small island in Penobscot Bay she had never seen, in a cottage without electricity or plumbing.
"What is there to do there? What will I do?" Elizabeth asked her father, Charles.
"There'll be plenty to do: swim —"
"Swim! I know about Maine swimming. You turn into a tray of ice cubes as soon as you stick your toe into that water," she said.
"The water is warmer in the coves," Daddy said.
"Coves!" exclaimed Elizabeth scornfully.
Daddy laughed. "That's the first time I ever heard cove used as a swear word."
"What about food? Or do we live off the land?" Elizabeth asked.
Daddy ignored her sarcastic tone. "There's a boat that comes to the island once a week from Molytown on the mainland. It'll bring groceries and mail — and we'll expect weekly letters from you."
"Groceries? Canned corn ... stale bread," Elizabeth muttered.
"You have a poor attitude about this, my girl. You love Gran. Don't you? What's eating you?"
Elizabeth flushed and turned away. Love had nothing to do with it. She began to flip the pages of a law journal on a nearby table. Daddy knew what was eating her. She wasn't going to put into words what she felt — he would argue with her then, the way he probably did in court with a prosecutor.
She glanced at him over her shoulder. He was staring at her. She was startled by his expression, how uncertain he looked, as though he'd stumbled on evidence that didn't fit his case.
"I was going on the bicycle trip with Nancy to New Hampshire," she said. "I've been thinking about it for months."
She turned to face her father, feeling a faint hope she might still persuade him to go back to the original plan for August.
"The trip was only for a week. You can do that any summer. You're going to Gran, and that's that," he said matter-of-factly.
"Found guilty," Elizabeth said under her breath.
Her father smiled. She recognized the powerful grown-up smile of a parent who has made up his mind absolutely.
She started across the room to the door of the study.
"Where are you going?" he asked pleasantly.
"To pack winter clothes for August in Maine," she said as coolly as she dared.
Old Mrs. Benedict was not a grandmother in name only, as some of her friends' grandmothers were. Elizabeth, her father, her mother, Emilia, and Gran had visited each other as far back as she could remember. The younger Benedicts would go to Maine for a week or so as soon as Elizabeth's school closed for summer recess. They stayed in a bed-and-breakfast inn outside of Camden, where Gran had a small apartment overlooking a street that, she told Elizabeth, filled up with snow in winter and tourists in summer.
Ten years ago, Gran started renting the cottage on the island during July and August. It was a good place for a painter, she said. None of the Benedicts had visited her there. It was too hard to get to, Gran insisted, and it certainly wasn't big enough for four people. "We'd go mad!" she'd said.
"Why does she need two places at her age?" Elizabeth heard her father ask her mom. "In some ways, she's as extravagant as an adolescent."
"She's a painter," her mother had replied. "They never grow older than the age at which they began to paint."
It wasn't, Elizabeth knew, that her mother didn't care for her mother-in-law. But there was a kind of hesitation in her feeling for Gran, like a hiccup before you get out a word.
Elizabeth could hear that hesitation in the way her mother laughed, always a few seconds late, at something odd or comical Gran said. And she could see it when Gran came through the front door of their farmhouse north of Boston at Christmas, carrying her old morocco leather suitcase in one hand and a shopping bag of gifts in the other. Mom would nearly always wait a minute too long to hug her so that Gran, after a brief pause, would walk past her into the living room. Then she might say something like "I'm glad to see you haven't blocked up the fireplace yet" or "I hope you don't pull the shades down on these shorter days. The light is so smoky and mysterious. These folk around here tend to pull down their shades at five P.M., and they'll do it on the last day of the world."
Elizabeth could see her mother's mouth tighten at the very moment she was trying to smile.
The farmhouse had been Gran's before she'd deeded it over to Elizabeth's father and his family the year she'd moved north. Before that, before Elizabeth had been born, the three of them had lived together while Charles Benedict was finishing law school.
Even though Elizabeth's mother had already begun teaching the fifth grade in a local public school and had regular paychecks, living with Gran had been a financial godsend, Daddy said. There hadn't been much money in those days.
Elizabeth understood how irritating Gran could be, yet she knew that her mother admired her. Elizabeth did, too. Though Gran didn't pay much attention to her as a rule, and she could be sharp.
One Thanksgiving, she'd told Elizabeth that if she described something as cool once more, she'd have her arrested for melting down the English language.
"The police don't arrest you for that," Elizabeth responded.
"I'll make a citizen's arrest," said Gran, and burst into laughter.
That was how it often went between the young Benedicts and the old Benedict. Gran would say something cutting, then smile or laugh outright. But when she was around, there was an edge to the days, a kind of nervy liveliness. Even Elizabeth's father, a rather silent man, would grow talkative, arguing with Gran about painters he thought were better than she did, or about the government, which he thought worse than she did, and about a dozen other things. The hundred-year-old conversation, Elizabeth called it in her mind.
Now and then, on a rainy day, Elizabeth would go up to the attic that Gran had used for a studio when she had lived in the farmhouse. There were two old steamer trunks there, a battered easel near the big north-facing window, and a few canvasses propped against an unfinished wall. Some pencil sketches were still tacked to a rickety screen. One was of Elizabeth as a tiny infant. At times she thought it looked like her, but at other times it could have been any infant in the world.
There was one finished painting among the canvasses. It was a winter landscape. Two crows sat on a fence that slanted across snow-covered corn stubble in a long field that reached to the horizon. Elizabeth liked that painting and told Gran so.
"It looks just like what I see out the window in winter," she'd said.
"Do you only like what you can recognize?" Gran asked her. She seemed really curious.
"How can I like something I can't recognize?" Elizabeth asked after thinking a moment.
"Why do you have to like everything?" Gran asked.
Elizabeth was speechless.
"I mean," Gran went on in an unusually gentle voice, "can't you just be interested in things? And forget about liking?"
She'd brought Elizabeth a small pearl ring one Christmas. She'd found it in a shop on a shabby boulevard in Paris.
"One of those places you can't imagine surviving from one week to another, like some of the little stores you see here in town. The owner had a few rings in the window, a cameo or two, a boring gold chain, and the ring I got you. The shop was no bigger than a closet, but when I went inside I saw that the walls were covered with photographs of a beautiful chestnut racehorse. It turned out the man owned that horse. It had won two races for him. Suzerain was its name, and it was what he most loved in the world. He kept the shop to support the horse, not himself. I found out he was originally from Algiers. Your little ring is connected to all of that, Elizabeth. Do you know where Algiers is?"
"Sort of," Elizabeth had replied.
"'Sort of' won't do for geography," Gran said. So very soon, she'd found an atlas in the house and shown Elizabeth just where Algiers was, and told her a few things about colonies and revolutions.
Gran was an encyclopedia of her own interests.
But she didn't know much about music of any kind. As for books, all Gran read was poetry, or the diaries and letters of painters. She could see why people liked stories, she told Elizabeth, but after a few pages of a novel, she'd find herself dropping the book and going to a window or a door to look out at something, a bird winging its way across the sky, or a tree branch, or even some tourist on the street below her living-room window in Camden, pausing a moment to stare around blankly and scratch his bottom.
What poetry told her, Gran said, was "about the hidden and true life inside yourself," about longing and hope and sorrow. In that conversation, Elizabeth had felt oppressed by Gran's words, her intent expression. She'd felt a powerful impulse to shout something rude.
Once, Gran had read to her a few letters a painter named Vincent van Gogh had written to his brother, Theo. It seemed to Elizabeth that they were all about not having any money and needing to buy paints.
"What do you think?" Gran had asked her when she'd finished reading. "Did you notice that he didn't even mention he was half-starved?"
Elizabeth didn't know what she thought. But she felt a small thrill of pleasure, as she always did when Gran spoke to her that way — as if she could think if only she would.
During these exchanges, Elizabeth didn't feel Gran was paying attention to her so much as she was paying attention to what most concerned her. She never asked Elizabeth about schoolwork or grades, or what she wanted to be when she grew up. Elizabeth had to admit to herself that it was a relief that she didn't.
Yet despite all the things about Gran that made her fun to be with, unpredictable and ungrandmotherly, she was the last person on earth Elizabeth wanted to spend a whole month with.
She knew exactly why she was being sent away. It was because of Stephen Lindsay Benedict, one week old on July 19, her brother, around whose bassinet her parents stood as though it held a holy object, and whose raspy kitten cries woke Elizabeth all night long.
Mom and Daddy were old, in their forties. What kind of a thing to do was that — at their age? By the time the baby was as old as Elizabeth, they'd be using walkers.
"We didn't really plan him," Mom said to Elizabeth, her face rosy and smiling. Elizabeth shuddered. "But that's life," Mom said, as she pressed the wrapped-up bundle with the red moony face close to her chest.
When Elizabeth first told her friend Nancy that her mother was going to have a baby, she was embarrassed. She could barely get the words out.
Nancy looked grave. "And they call us irresponsible," she remarked.
"It's disgusting," Elizabeth burst out, and felt a twinge of guilt.
The worst part of it, now that Stephen Lindsay had arrived to live in the old farmhouse, was a thing she couldn't bear to say out loud. It was that her parents wanted to be alone with the little thing so much that they could hardly wait to get her out of the house.
Then they could eat him all up. Pet him and spoil him. Murmur and croon and smile foolishly while he split the walls with his howls for attention.CHAPTER 2
Elizabeth flew from Boston to Bangor, Maine. It was the first time she had been on an airplane. She sat next to the small, scratched window, looking down on the earth below. Much of the land seemed arranged in patterns so precise they might have been drawn with a ruler. "It will look sort of cubist from up there," Gran had told her on the telephone when she spoke with Elizabeth about arrangements to meet her. "You'll find it a different view...."
Last summer, Gran had had a show of her work at a Camden gallery. Despite Elizabeth's faint discomfort at being introduced as the artist's granddaughter, she'd been pleased, too. Gran was wearing small turquoise earrings and a long clay-colored linen skirt and shirt when she arrived at the gallery. She had looked pretty good. But Elizabeth didn't like her new paintings, about which Gran had also said to her, "sort of cubist."
Fortunately, Gran never appeared to expect her to make comments about her work.
As the plane began its descent to Bangor, Elizabeth felt a kind of anticipation she couldn't account for. She was still resentful that her parents, Mom carrying Stephen Lindsay, ridiculous in a sun hat that made him look like a cream puff, had left her much too quickly at the airport gate.
Gran was waiting for her at the gate. She hugged her briefly, held her arm by the wrist, looked at her steadily for a minute, and said, "Let's get your stuff and get out of here."
They drove for over two hours, the road following the Penobscot River part of the way, until they arrived at a small settlement, Molytown, whose narrow wooden housefronts, like the faces of old, quiet people, overlooked Penobscot Bay.
Gran parked her dusty, noisy old car in a roughly carpentered garage, where it would stay for the month, near an open shed filled with stacks of lobster pots. She'd gone on and on about the car during most of the drive — how it had cost only three hundred dollars, how Ray, a local mechanic, had done a lovely job fixing it up, how salt air affected cars. Elizabeth had been silent.
Now, as she stood waiting while Gran locked up the car, she sniffed the air. It had a prickling, lively smell, different from the dampish country air at home that she was used to in August. She was suddenly eager to go out onto that vast bay that was like a tray holding bits of land on its metal blue surface.
"We have to call your father and tell him you arrived safely," Gran said. "I'll pick up a few things at the store." She pointed down the street that ran past several long wharves standing on tall spider legs, to a small store that bore a sign: SADIE'S FOOD. "There's a public telephone just outside. Would you like to make the call?"
Elizabeth shook her head. She tried to smile, aware of how long she had been silent. Gran shrugged and went off along the street, and Elizabeth sat down on a wooden crate near the shed.
She was actually in Maine with Gran. She realized that she'd been hoping for a reprieve at the last moment, even as her parents had said good-bye to her in Boston. It seemed to her, now, that the bicycle she had so often imagined herself pedaling through New Hampshire villages had rolled away on its own to collapse in a corner of the farmhouse cellar. Yet there was another feeling, strong and insistent, that — despite herself — she was about to be happy.
Gran appeared soon, carrying a paper sack.
"Your daddy says hello and love," she reported. "There's our transportation." She waved at the nearest wharf, where Elizabeth saw a small boat bobbing at the end of a long rope tied to a piling.
"We're going in that?" exclaimed Elizabeth. "It's like a pea pod!"
"We're going in that," Gran said brusquely.
They walked out on the wharf, which swayed and creaked beneath their feet. Gran pulled on the rope until the boat was close to a ladder that descended into the water. "It's easier when the tide isn't so low," Gran said.
Along the bottom of the boat lay a pair of oars, a rolled tarpaulin, and rags. To Elizabeth's relief, a small outboard motor clung like a claw to the stern.
"I'll go first. Then you start down and hand me your suitcase and backpack and the groceries," Gran said, descending the ladder with sure steps.
Elizabeth handed down the things and stepped into the rocking boat herself. "Do you have to cross over from the island every time you need something from the store?" she asked.
"Oh, no! I'd be at sea all the time. See the launch over there? The one with El Sueño written on the bow? That's Jake Holborn's. He brings it over to Pring Island once a week. I give him a list. Next time, he brings me what I asked for, and the mail. The launch was built seventy years ago. It used to carry servants and supplies out to the rich people who once owned many of the islands in the bay. It's a beautiful old thing, isn't it? Like my car. Jake keeps the brass polished."
A gull flew to one of the pilings and folded its wings. It seemed to stare coldly at Elizabeth.
"But what if you need something in a hurry? Do you have a phone?"
"Put the stuff in front of you, Elizabeth, and sit in the middle of the seat. We don't need a phone. There is a family on the island, the Herkimers."
Excerpted from Western Wind by Paula Fox. Copyright © 1993 Paula Fox. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
- Brooklyn, New York
- Date of Birth:
- April 22, 1923
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- Attended Columbia University
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