Between the clay banks of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay there is a beach a thousand miles long. The sand is fine enough, but it is sharp with oyster shells and rough with stones the color of ox-blood and ginger. There’s always a tangled line of seaweed running the length of the last high tide. Except for this narrow divider, the rolled farmland and mirrored water meet so seamlessly that on hazy days the big mansions, their pecans and copper beeches like sails, seem to be making their way, somewhere, on the shimmer of the Bay.
On one spot of this beach along the Chester River, there is a boy sitting on the polished curve of a washed-up loblolly pine. His eyes are now dry, but the dirt on his cheeks is streaked and there is salt on his lips. He is holding a crab net and an empty bushel basket, and his broad-brimmed straw hat floats in the water at his feet. Behind him, across a stand of corn beginning to brown in the early August heat, he can hear the steady hum of tractors plowing up an old hay field. Distant on the water he can see seine haulers, waist-deep on the sandbar, setting out the huge net on a necklace of yellow floats. Beyond them the crab boats are painfully bright in the sun, a flash of crystal at the water’s edge.
The boy’s name is Cecil Mayberry; he is 12, white, and he knows something. He knows what his mother is going to make for supper, pot roast and green Jell-O salad; he knows that the Russians have put a Sputnik in the sky. But these are not the items that are just now on Cecil’s mind. He is thinking about a man, a waterman, lying face down in a tidal pool 200 yards from where he sits. Cecil knows the man’s name, Grayson “Tommie” Tubman, and he knows that two 22-caliber bullets have made a mess of Tommie’s head. He knows the first one entered just below the right cheekline, cutting short Tommie’s last Fuck You to the world, and the second one grazed through his hair before nipping in at the peak and blowing out a portion of Tommie’s unlamented brain.
In fact, this is going to be the first time in Cecil’s life—but not the last—that he is an undisputed expert on a certain subject. He knows who shot Tommie, and why.
Cecil is just now recognizing that he has to tell someone what he knows. Choosing among his kith and kin, he can think of three people. There is his mother: her birdy face will go taut, she will reach for the hem of her cotton dress to wipe away the sweat along her hair, and then she will run to the barns to fetch his father. Or he can call his sister, Rheta, in town at Tarbutton’s Jewelers, and while he waits for her to speak the greasy barn telephone will glow hot and slippery on his ear. Lastly, he can tell Mr. Matthew McHugh up at the Big House. Cecil cannot remember ever speaking directly to Mr. McHugh, but he has sat patiently in the pickup and listened to the too-loud and too-quick way his father answers his questions, and he has sensed his father’s slowly diminishing pulse of importance as they drive away. Cecil has never been inside the Big House, but he has a fort in the honeysuckle and raspberries out back. He has watched the old man tend his trees—some just the newly planted twigs of slow-growing hardwoods—dragging a red American Boy wagon full of tools as he limps from spot to spot, a dead arm at his side.
Considering all this, even as he wishes it isn’t so, there is no real choice to make. He has no idea what Mr. McHugh will do, and that is perhaps the chief reason that he believes Mr. McHugh, alone, can help him. He jumps off his log into the soft water—he’s wearing last year’s high tops as crabbing sneakers—and he stoops down to pick up his soggy hat, now fouled with jellyfish tentacles. He places it carefully into his bushel basket, and picks up his crab net. From the water he hears the slow popping of the crab boats, long and white, as they complete a pass and turn for new lines. He’s frightened again, and he claws four-legged up the bank, breaking off clumps of clay that are jagged with shells. He runs down to the place where Tommie’s body lies hidden in the sharp cordgrass, and wedges his basket and net into a marker.
He sets off down the tractor road that cuts through the high corn. He comes to the edge and looks across the flat pastures to the tall red silos and the baking glint of the new aluminum barns. Beyond the far line of lindens that shade the lane he can see the rotating movement of the tractors, his father and Ray Gleason, the farm manager, working as if nothing ever happens on this neck of land. He pauses to reconsider his three choices, and then cuts off the tractor road to follow one of the foul bitter-ends of Earle’s Cove, past a bee-filled Packard hulk, nose down, a flaring fender lapping in the brine. Where the stream widens into the cove there is a hollow locust tree, and Cecil stops to fight the most-forbidden urge to pretend that he’d seen nothing, heard nothing as he crabbed on the rivershore.
Cecil crawls through the last barbed wire fence and steps onto the foreign land of the Big House, a yellow stucco backdrop through the trees that takes over his horizon. Cecil wipes his sweaty neck; it’s so hot that he feels he is rebreathing the same air, over and over; the locusts are already raising a buzz that seems to set the trees on fire. He ducks behind a box bush and studies the three blue doors. He tries to imagine what’s behind them, but he can only picture the inside of his own house: a narrow brown entrance hall just wide enough for a man and a flight of stairs, an attached shed where his mother keeps chickens, a grey kitchen with an oil-cloth covered table and four mismatched chairs.
As he knocks on the middle door he wishes he has something to hold, like a basket of eggs or a bag of green tomatoes. The door opens, and a large elderly woman fills the frame. It is Henrietta, as round and soft as his mother is hard and flat. She lives in a flaky blue cottage in Niggertown, and he rides in the same school bus with her grandchildren on their way to separate schools. Yes Boy? she says, and there is a milky sound to it. He says he has a message for Mr. McHugh, a message, he says, because he thinks it sounds more important, and then he bursts into tears.
A shiny black arm reaches out the door and gathers him inside, and suddenly he is in a cool place. The coolness surprises him, as if he expected all houses to be stuffy with the dry-lumber heat of his own. He’s landed in the kitchen; it looks more like a doctor’s office than a place to make supper, but it’s reassuring all the same. Henrietta guides him to a chair and then comes at him with a wet dish towel, one large palm around his neck as she washes his face hard, pinching down his nose to clear his nostrils, pulling his eyes wide.
“Now, what’s the message?” she asks.
“It’s for Mr. McHugh. Just for him.”
“Is that a fact,” she answers, and leaves Cecil alone in the room. A retriever stirs from the corner and comes over to give Cecil a sniff or two, and Cecil wonders if it can smell the dead man in his head. He sees the first bullet, piercing Tommie’s snarling cheek, and realizes that his last expression as a living human was more like a dog. Off in the house he hears a clock ticking, a door shut, and a large round laugh. Then he hears the limping walk, a step and a shuffle, of Mr. McHugh. A stroke, that’s what his father had told him was wrong with Mr. McHugh, and Cecil wonders a stroke of what?
Mr. McHugh is standing at the door. He looks tall, but Cecil knows it isn’t so; he is wearing tan pants and a white shirt, with a plaid bow tie that is running outside the collar on one side and is pointing almost straight up and down.
“A message for me?” he says.
“I’m Larry Mayberry’s boy Cecil, and I got something to tell you.”
“Hold it, Boy. Slow down. Enunciate.”
“I’m Larry Mayberry’s boy Cecil . . . .”
”. . . and I seen something on the rivershore.”
“Haven’t been there in years,” he says, and Cecil imagines its true enough. Mr. McHugh turns and waves Cecil to follow. They come out into a hallway with a wide turning staircase and a wood stove so tall that the nickel urn on top reaches the second story landing. The floors are covered with smooth straw matting that sings as Cecil scuffs his wet sneakers, and there are pictures everywhere, climbing in sets of four and six so high that all Cecil can make out at the top is a pile of dead ducks in one and a bright red jacket in another. Cecil wonders if his father has seen this, or if he’s ever watched Mr. McHugh turn around backward for the three steps to the porch, holding the rail with his good hand.
“You want something to drink?” he asks as he drops into a wicker chair.
“No.” Cecil is busy wondering which of the many chairs he should sit on, or if he should sit at all.
Cecil decides on a wooden chair with a straight back. He sits facing out, down the sloping lawn with its terraces bordered in box bush and toward the cattails and water elms at the edge of McHugh Creek, toward the water and the faint purple blur of Kent Island far across the river. Through the trees he can see the seine haulers, who have now payed out the net and are closing the trap in a long oval around the sandbar.
“What do you think of trees?”
“I dunno, Sir,” says Cecil.
“Trees are life. Oxygen. The tree of life. Family trees. All comes back to the soil.”
Cecil doesn’t understand, so he says, “Tommie Tubman’s lying dead on the rivershore. He’s shot dead.” “Who says?” asks Mr. McHugh.
Cecil is so startled by this question that he snaps back, “I says.” He tenses for Mr. McHugh to scold him, but he does not. Instead, he stares at Cecil, and Cecil looks at the way his glasses are sliding on a film of sweat until they are stopped by the splotchy bulb on the end of his nose. A minute, perhaps, has passed, and Cecil begins to wither in this silent heat.
“Two 22-caliber bullets, one in the cheek and one in the head,” he adds finally, but he had not planned to tell Mr. McHugh anything except that Tommie was lying there. He did not plan to tell Mr. McHugh, or anyone on God’s earth, that he saw the whole thing from behind a root clump of a washed-up pine tree. He did not intend to say anything further because he fears above all the next question: Who did it?
“You saw it happen?” Mr. McHugh works himself forward in his chair and his trousers ride up to the silk skin of his calves. Behind him the long porch, with its red tile and brown ceiling studded with mud dauber nests, stretches out like a church aisle. “Don’t be cagey with me, Son.”
The word “son” snaps over him like a rifle shot. “I was crabbing on the rivershore,” he says, and he thinks even the locusts are suddenly quiet.
Cecil starts to cry again, the third time in three hours, and he tells Mr. McHugh, “Yes, I was there. I was going crabbing on the rivershore and was just coming around the point and I seen Tommie’s boat on his trap line—he’s always there and he always yells at me for spooking his line—and then I seen someone walking through the corn field coming towards the shore and he had a gun and I knew this was trouble.”
“Who was it?”
“So I was coming around a washed-up pine and I hid behind the root clump, and maybe they already planned to meet because as soon as Tommie saw him he dropped his line and came over and waded ashore.” Tommie wades ashore and the two men start shouting at each other, and Cecil hears Rheta’s name, and then his own Daddy raises his Remington and squeezes off two 22-longs right into Tommie’s head. “Everyone knows Tommie’s no good. He steals from people, he siphons gas from other boats, he gets into fights.”
“What happened to the boat?” asks McHugh. He’s sweating so much that Cecil can see grey twisted chest hairs through the damp white shirt.
“It floated off,” said Cecil. “I dunno where it went.” But that was right—sooner or later someone would find the boat. “I don’t want my Daddy to go to jail,” he says. He tells Mr. McHugh he had to come tell someone because even if the buzzards eat Tommie clean up and no one cares or misses him ever, he knows his Daddy and sooner or later, after milking is done today probably, he’s going to walk into Officer Stapleton’s office and turn himself in.
Cecil is now going to say something about his Mom, and Rheta, and about their dogs Dusty and Blackie, and their house at the end of the farm that has been his whole life and has been his Mom’s whole life because she was born in the back bedroom . . .but Mr. McHugh raises a spotted hand and shushes him short.
“Help me up,” he says, and Cecil goes to grab a boney hand, and pulls him up with so little effort that he wonders why Mr. McHugh asked for help in the first place. Mr. McHugh does not drop his hand before he says, “Now stop worrying. You sit here. Henrietta will bring you a sandwich.”
Cecil waits in his chair. At the very top of the tallest pecan tree there is a slight rustle of wind that brings with it the moist smells of the cows, and he thinks of tails slimey with manure. He thinks of Tommie saying Fuck You, but it was the sharp report of the rifle that echoed out onto the water, far out over the sandbars of the seiners and the narrows where the watermen were digging at the rivers. In the hush he pictures Tommie Tubman stirring, hunching to all fours and wiping the gore from his head as if it were a clot of seaweed, and leaning back to his haunches in front of that small pool while he rubs his temples to clear his sight. Keep away from the watermen, his father had told him, but Cecil didn’t know why. Charky James and Mike Ferguson, their fathers were watermen, and they came to school night in their white shirts and creased green chinos just like his dad, and just like his dad their skin was brown and scarred and flaky except for a line on the foreheads up where the sun never reached that was puffy and white, just like the skin under a Band-Aid or the nose of a newborn calf.
He hears a car approaching, and for a moment he thinks it is Officer Stapleton, but he hears the high yelp of Ray Gleason’s beagles. Henrietta opens the big door, and Cecil hears Ray and Mr. McHugh talking, and, in between, the muffled, beaten sound of his father’s voice. He wants to run into the hall and say Daddy, daddy, everything’s okay, just you wait and see. He waits, and Henrietta comes out with a sandwich and a glass of milk. It is the hottest and stillest part of the day, when the sound of a lone heron shifting feet lingers in air. He is sharpened to it, tensed for the noises in the rooms behind him, waiting for his father’s footsteps, but when the door opens again it is Mr. McHugh, backing down the steps, holding a bright yellow life preserver over his arm.
Mr. McHugh catches his breath for a moment, and Cecil hears Ray’s truck, with its bodyguard of beagles, drawing away back to the farm. Mr. McHugh turns to him. “What we’re going to do now is wrong by every standard but one. You better remember that, all your life if that’s what it takes.”
“It’s history. History’s our judge, Boy. Do you understand?”
“Attaboy. Now help me put this thing on.” He holds out the life jacket. Cecil fumbles a bit before he guides the limp arm through the hole and buckles the three web ties in front, and then realizes that there are also two long straps that come from the back and must be looped through the legs, and he hesitates. “Come on. Tie me up. I’m not going to sink, no matter what.”
So Cecil kneels directly in front of Mr. McHugh and reaches through his thighs for a strap, and guides it along the leg and tightens it well. He does it again on the other side, this time encountering the spongy resistance of his crotch. When he is done Mr. McHugh tries each strap and is satisfied, and he points out the screen door and toward the creek. They make their way down the corridor of box bushes, and they are so closely entwined that Cecil feels what it is like to be lame. Mr. McHugh’s used breath rushes hot and damp into his ear.
When they come out of the narrow path through the cattails and creek grass, Cecil sees Ray and his father pacing at the end of the dock. The farm’s aluminum duck boat is tied alongside, and it booms as it nudges the creosoted pilings. His father won’t look him in the eye, rushing to load Mr. McHugh into the center seat, but once they have pushed off and Ray has brought the small outboard up to speed, Cecil feels an arm coming around him and gathering him in. Even in the breeze Cecil can smell the sour milk and manure and sweat of the farmer. Cec? his father shouts into Cecil’s ear. Yes, Daddy, Cecil answers. Cec, his father says again, and they ride like this with the water crackling against the metal hull and the long wake stretching from side-to-side in the creek, as if it were taking the measure of this marshy little inlet before it became lost on the bay.
Cecil sees ten cement blocks stowed in the center in front of Ray, and a green tarp, a tool box and a spool of new chain. As soon as he realized they were going out on the water he knew what Mr. McHugh had decided to do with Tommie’s body, out in the deep channel of the river a mile from shore on either side, and he’s so glad it doesn’t matter that he’s sure it won’t work. He looks at the brilliant roll of new chain, wound in a perfect repeating pattern of links, and still cannot believe they will throw it over the side, with or without Tommie’s body attached. Cecil is worried that Ray will change his mind at the last minute, and he lowers his eyes to watch as the fresh manure and turned earth, still wedged into his father’s boot soles makes whorls in the clear rainwater on the boat bottom.
The water picks up a slight chop as they round the point in the river, swinging wide by hundreds of yards yet still in barely two feet of water. The seine haulers are hard at it, too busy with a net of frothy water to notice the farmers. Cecil runs his eye up the shining line of sand, but he cannot yet see the high weeds of the duck pond or the marker he made with his net and basket. His father is fighting against the growing swell, and Mr. McHugh is holding on tight with his good hand.
“Do you see it?” Ray yells.
Cecil shouts back, “Not yet. Halfway down maybe.” Then he realizes with a jolt that his father knows where Tommie is, knows better than he does. But Ray lets Cecil’s answer stand, and they push on, past the five posts that are all Hurricane Carol left of a duck blind, past a floating island of water celery and sea weed.
“There,” yells his father, and he reaches a long arm out to point with a lack of shame that catches Cecil by surprise. But Cecil understands his father is at work now—whatever the circumstances, he’ll do his job.
Roy slows the engine and heads in, cutting all power as they guide around the root clump and come to a stop with a gentle scrape a few feet from the beach. Cecil’s father, still in his newest pair of leather boots, jumps out and heads around the clump of cattails, and Cecil runs to catch up, perhaps to see if all his most fervent wishes, for a miracle of God or fast work of the buzzards, have removed the body from the earth. But it is still there; as they approach there is a white scattering of crabs from the half-submerged head. His father stops, makes a confused and nauseous coughing sound, but there is no help for it, it’s bad work like hauling away a cow dead three days in the sun, and when Ray comes up they each grab a leg and pull the body fully onto the sand.
It’s the mouth. That’s what Milly Richardson’s dad, who was a medic in France, said make the dead scary. Even if their face is blowed off, he said, there’s still a mouth, a mouth they spat from or ate through just minutes before they died.
Fuck You was the last thing through Tommie’s mouth. Cecil can see it still on those yellow teeth, on a tongue that is now swollen and milk white; he sees it still on the pierced and broken side of the face and skull that the crabs have picked into long strings of scalp and skin. Then Cecil goes to the cattails and throws up, splattering a clear powerful burst of vomit through the serrated leaves.
When he recovers and looks back, Ray and his father have wrapped the tarp tight around the body, and Ray is putting his full weight against the chain as his father works to catch the tightest link around the waist with a grab hook. They do the same around the neck and feet, cutting off a good length each time with bolt cutters, working smoothly together as if they’re trying to thread a control wire through the guts of a combine. Cecil has always thought of his father that way—he will for the rest of his life: ready to catch or snag or tighten something Ray’s feeding to him, never the boss but always the first one the boss picks. Cecil has taken pride in that, but it seems wrong, today, for Ray to take charge. Cecil wants to hear his Daddy say, “This is my problem, Ray, I’ll take care of it,” or “You go on back to the boat. Cec and me’ll bring him around.”
But he doesn’t, and he and Ray carry the body to the boat. There’s no way to cover the head end, clearly a human skull even through the tarp, sticking up over the gunwale. Mr. McHugh hasn’t moved, held up maybe by the tight padding of the jacket, and though Cecil is grateful beyond reckoning for the decision Mr. McHugh has made, he can’t avoid the beginning of the belief that Mr. McHugh, in some way, caused it all to happen in the first place.
Cecil pushes them off into the slight chop, now a gentle roll pushed by a freshened breeze. The gulls are out again; the sounds from the long white crab boats, pinched at the waist like boxers, are deliberate now, a more purposeful mechanical hum in the place of the drowsy popping of the one-lung diesels. They have now come through the midday heat where men can hide out on the Bay, and are now entering the sharp Western sun that casts long shadows behind everything that moves. Cecil looks back to see how far they’ve come, and sees Mr. McHugh with his lower lip hanging open, the skin inside pink and wet. His father is working over the body, feeding the chains through three blocks at a time and closing the loops with repair links; two times the soft pin falls out just as he’s ready to crimp it with pliers, and he swears. Then he looks at Ray at the outboard, and sees panic in his face.
He whips his head forward and sees immediately that one of the crab boats has broken loose and seems to be heading toward them. Just to Queensville Landing, he tells himself, just going to the crab shacks. But it isn’t true; the boat is up to full speed and is carving a wide arc to intercept them. Throw him over now! he wants to yell, but he knows it’s still too shallow and the body, weighted down with all its chains and blocks, would be impossible to move quickly. His father looks like a mask, a frozen face with wild eyes.
“I think its Avery Miller,” yells Ray, and Cecil does not know if that means anything, anything more than a wave when you pass on the road to town.
“Do you know him?” croaks Mr. McHugh.
Ray shrugs. Cecil can see the man clearly now, standing in his deck house and leaning as the boat banks off course. He’s in waders that make him look like two halves of the wrong man, and he is holding a red megaphone, a long cone that explodes his face at the mouth. “Yo,” he yells. Ray cuts the engine; its over now. Cecil can imagine what they look like to the waterman, so lost and out of place on the river that they might simply have taken a wrong turn at the old elm.
“We’re looking for Tommie Tubman,” Avery Miller yells, but all at once he drops the megaphone to his side, opens his mouth to the roundest “O” Cecil has ever seen, and stares in wonder. “What in hell?” he says.
The two boats rise and fall, 20 feet apart. And then, suddenly panicked, the waterman jumps for his air horn and gives out six short blasts that break into the air cleanly, petrels swooping low and fast above the swells. As the sound slowly dies it seems as if nothing will come of it, but then, a mile away in the Narrows, there is an instant response from the other boat as the rakes come up with a crash and the engine powers to life.
“This isn’t your concern, Miller,” says Ray. “Just keep away.”
“What in hell,” he repeats. He’s pacing back and forth on the low, broad fantail.
“He ain’t worth it to any of us. You know that as well as me,” says Ray.
Cecil is waiting for Mr. McHugh to explain. When he finally speaks, he says, “What matters now is to think very clearly. This isn’t a simple thing.”
But Avery Miller pays no attention to Mr. McHugh. “Who did it?” he asks Ray.
Ray begins to refuse an answer, but his father won’t allow it. “I done it,” he says. “For five years I told him to keep away from my Rheta, but he wouldn’t stop. She can’t go anywhere without him following. Wouldn’t listen to her saying no. Didn’t care. Now he’s saying if Rheta won’t go with him, he’ll . . . well it ain’t for you to know what. Five years is enough, is all. So I told him to meet me on the rivershore.”
Ray says, “Now you know it’s true. You know what Larry says is God’s truth. Tommie’s got no family and no one gives a pig’s ass for what happens to him.”
The other boat has approached close enough to cut speed, and as it breaks into a wide banking turn, Cecil sees that the driver is Morris James, Charky’s daddy, and Charky is there alongside his father, looking scared. Morris James is holding a rifle, and he yells over to the other waterman, “Is that Tommie? This farmer killed him? Holy Christ.”
“That’s the smart of it,” says Avery, trying to sound sure in front of his fellow waterman, but he’s still so shaken his voice breaks into a dry croak. “The crazy son-of-a-bitch went too far this time.”
That’s right, says Cecil to himself, the crazy son-of-a-bitch. And there they bob for a moment or two, the duck boat, the Mrs. Avery Miller, and the Wendy B. Honey. Far down the channel buoy number 6 clangs dully, marking the way toward open water. The aluminum boat catches the side of the crab boat and then comes free with a jolt against the swell that makes the corpse settle slightly. Cecil is afraid his father will get seasick.
“You was going to get him wet?” asks Morris James.
“We’re going to throw him over, if that’s what you mean. And why the hell not?” yells Ray. “Just keep away, goddamn you.”
Cecil feels like the voices are flying all over the river.
Mr. McHugh says, “Hold it. Slow down. Think clearly.”
“You keep out of this, Mr. McHugh,” says Morris. “You keep your thinking to yourself.”
“Grab the line and let’s tow them in,” says Avery, high and fevered. “What are we waiting for?”
Mr. McHugh takes out a handkerchief and washes the spray from his face, and then Cecil understands he’s trying to get up, locking his bad leg at the knee and wedging it against the flotation tank. It’s not working, Cecil says to himself; the others simply watch as the old man struggles upright, like an old cow. Finally on his feet, Mr. McHugh looks at the watermen to either side, and says, “What we’re doing is wrong by every standard but one. It’s history . . .”, but before he can go any further a swell builds from under Avery Miller’s boat and catches the duck boat broadside and sends Mr. McHugh backwards, full weight and free fall across the seat, and if it weren’t for the high padded collar of the life jacket his head would have hit the aluminum with nothing to slow it down but the hard knock of metal. Cecil leaps forward to help, but Mr. McHugh waves him away as he jerkily rights himself, drooling and panting, on the bottom of the boat.
“You shut him up, Ray,” Avery Miller screams again, and Cecil sees now that the waterman is losing control of himself, full force into panic. “By Jesus, that bastard ain’t going to be the one to solve this on my account.”
“Stop worrying about McHugh,” Morris replies quickly in an even tone. “Tommie’s the problem here.”
“Ain’t no one gonna kill a waterman,” says Avery. He doesn’t sound as scared as before, but Cecil knows he’s said what everyone is thinking. He knows Morris James, even his best friend Charky, can’t argue against what everyone, on and off the water, has been saying for generations. Cecil figures they’re lost; his daddy’s gone. The boats have drifted slightly apart now; they’ve long since passed the mouth of McHugh Creek and they’re moving around Hail Point toward the Bay itself.
“It ain’t a waterman I killed,” says Cecil’s father quietly. “It ain’t nobody but a son-of-a-bitch who figured my girl was his special joke. He figured I couldn’t do nothing just because he was a waterman, but that’s my joke on him, because I knew he was just a son-of-a-bitch. I’m done with him now and I’m done with this. So pull us in.”
There’s more silence. Cecil shifts on the hard aluminum seat, and drops his hand into the warm waters of the river. Finally, Morris James says, “Why buy the cow when the milk is free, Avery? That’s my point.”
“It speaks of trouble to me,” says Avery, but he’s calmer now. “Right smart of trouble.”
“Since when ain’t it? We’ve had nothing but trouble ever since Tommie’s been out here.”
“No one kills a waterman,” Avery repeats. It’s the thing that makes the best sense to him.
“Oh hell, in two year’s time he’d be pumping gas, at the rate he was going. Thing is, we’re in it now. I got my boy here.”
Ray Gleason hasn’t said a thing for a long time, but he’s a family man and speaks from the heart. “Larry’s boy’s here too. The boys is the issue. Not us.”
They’re over the deep; a hundred feet, two hundred; it’s enough, more than enough.
“It ain’t just the boys,” says Morris James. “It’s the water. We got to think what’s best for the water. Who’s gonna follow the water after we swallow the anchor, Avery? Kids like Tommie Tubman?”
The two watermen stand, staring into each other while the farmers float. Avery shakes his head once, and Morris gathers Charky into his side. From way back at Carpenter’s Island Cecil hears the big engine of the seine haulers come to life, and he wonders if the five men who worked so hard all day are going home looking at bins only half full of perch and bass. Farther behind he imagines he can hear the bellows of the cows, lined up with full udders while the new hand Bobbie scratches his head. Cecil figures it’s the same at the landing when the boats are late; the water can hurt these men too. None of them can swim, that’s code, just like it’s code when a waterman dies they take his boat out and sink it, and sooner or later a half-submerged wreck finds its way nose up in the grass and weeds.
“You got them chains on good, Ray?” asks Morris James.
Ray nods, and doesn’t even wait a second more before he begins to push the blocks over the side. Cecil’s father is right along side him in a flash and they move Mr. McHugh— Cecil’s forgotten about him—to one side. They wedge two oars under the body and pry it up with the heavy blocks doing most of the work. It catches on the gunwale for a second, but then breaks free with a clatter of chains on the aluminum and sinks down into the deep, tea-colored waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
The watermen stay to watch the body sink, but no one says anything more, and when it’s gone they start up their engines and head for home. Charky turns and gives Cecil a small wave, and the two boys watch each other from their fathers’ sides. Cecil stares at the boats with their long sterns deep into frothy troughs, driving hard for Queensville Landing, a distant water tower above the crab shacks. Above the water tower, behind Kent Island, rises the still new steel lattice of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a wonder of the world that goes clear to Annapolis, and it stands over everything in the seamless flat landscape of water and land, like a piece of road machinery. And the boats, now dark dots in the low afternoon sun, are driving for it because it marks home, and Cecil wonders what Charky’s house looks like, what his mother is cooking right now, and if his daddy ever sang to him at night. He leans into his own father’s arm, but it’s not the same warm side he sleeps against in the car on the way home from the pictures. Suddenly he wishes he’d waved back at Charky, or said something to him, and he wonders if, at night, Charky ever wakes up scared about where everything is headed, and why they’re all living here, on this land just barely afloat on fragile banks of clay and sand.
And almost 30 years later, after Mr. McHugh has died and Ray has retired and the cows are gone and the corn land is leased out to a grain conglomerate, and after Avery Miller has died and Charky comes home from Vietnam changed forever, and the catch is down and the oystermen go to war with the clam diggers and the seine haulers give up for good, Cecil Mayberry brings his three children for a walk along the rivershore. They’re all in funeral clothes, and after the walk he and Rheta will pack up their mother to move in with her sister Gladys. His boy and two girls, who’ve grown up in a Baltimore suburb, run down the rocky beach toward the rounded point that is the only remaining sign of the old duck pond. Cecil watches them stop to pick up bright pieces of plastic flotsam, and the boy holds up a pink tricycle wheel with a hoot, and then they’re gone, deep into the cattails and cordgrass.