The morning of January 14th my father drove me from Piedmont Virginia’s White Oak Academy where I’d been dismissed to the Bay Bridge and over gray clashing waters to Oyster on the Eastern Shore. At the marina he told me, “You won’t need your bags.”
The Mako 21 tilted under his weight as he stepped aboard. He choked the engine, a 250 h.p. Yamaha, knuckled the ignition switch, and the Yamaha caught, causing a thin blue smoke to bubble up from under the murky surface.
He cast off, proceeded slowly along the tidal creek till we reached a channel defined by Coast Guard markers, then throttled forward, the impulse lifting the boat on plane and leaving a wake that disturbed reeds along pine-flanked diminishing shores.
He steered among the sandy barrier islands and anemic gale flattened marshes. At the marina he’d left his fedora on the seat of his Grand Cherokee 4×4, and as he squinted into flaying wind his thick brown hair whipped aside his temples.
After tossing a key ring, he left me standing on a rickety pier, the wind flapping my overcoat. His telling me I wouldn’t need my bags were the only words spoken during the grim five-and-a-half-hour trip that’d bypassed Richmond and home.
The government had maintained the island lighthouse, now a pile of moss-covered concrete blocks overcome and entwined by tangled briars and poison oak. The keeper’s stone cottage remained intact, repaired by my father and his hunting buddies. The padlock fell from the hasp and dangled on a chain.
When I pushed open the door, the faint winter sunlight bled into darkness that smelled of dampness and pervasive mildew. Solid wood shutters covered windows. I circled outside to unlatch them.
Two rooms in the cottage, the first centered around an iron stove, its flue vented through the ceiling. The rimmed ship’s table held a kerosene lamp, a deck of cards, poker chips, and a duck call wound by a leather thong. Corners stored stacked decoys, tangled lead weights, boots, rain gear, a gun.
The second room held canvas cots, no mattresses or blankets. My father wouldn’t feel he hunted unless he roughed it—as if virtue existed in self-induced hardship and pain. He loved rowdy fellowship, burly men who cussed, drank, gambled big at card tables and in business ventures. His Shawnee Explorations owned oil and gas wells in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
I expected him back before dark with supplies. The sun appeared wan as it lowered behind a fringe of thin, wind-tortured cedars. I walked spongy ground to the narrow weathered planks of the pier and looked toward the mainland. Distant red and green markers blinked. Laughing gulls flew from the broken lighthouse. I smelled chalky droppings. The birds swept away crying on a rising wind which brought the night.
I found barn matches kept dry in a Mason jar on a plank shelf beside the sink. The lamp had fuel. I lifted its chimney, twisted the knob that raised the blackened wick, and lighted it. The flame gathered slowly, grew large, smoked, and reeked of kerosene. I cut it back. My enlarged misshapen shadow moved on clammy walls.
I checked the doorless cupboard—a can of Luck’s beans, ketchup, a pickle jar filled with sallow congealed grease, salt caked in the shaker, a packet of freeze-dried noodle soup, Mountain Pride corn meal, a nearly empty fifth of Wild Turkey.
Despite my wool overcoat and leather gloves, I shivered. The cottage’s stone walls baffled wind but had absorbed cold. A wooden box beside the stove held lengths of split firewood and twigs for kindling.
Across the lumpy cushion of a brown, mangy stuffed chair tilted lopsided on a broken foot were spread outdated copies of Field & Stream, Ducks Unlimited, and The American Sportsman. I ripped pages and balled them to drop in the stove. I criss-crossed twigs before striking another match.
Smoke curled lazily into my face. I coughed as I adjusted the draft and damper. The smoke paused, sucked back, and swept up through the flu.
I added wood. Resin bubbled as kindling crackled. I replaced the clanging stove lid and set the lamp at the window, a beacon to guide my father. I stood waiting for heat and sounds of the Yamaha.
Iron creaked as it expanded. I held my hands to it and checked my Seiko. My father could’ve had trouble because of the shrilling wind or lost his bearings in darkness. No, my father never lost bearings.
Another thought. Why at the marina hadn’t he bought supplies? An oversight? No oversights permitted either.
I sat in the chair till I nodded. I dragged a cot to the stove and lay down still wearing my wool overcoat, Cashmere blazer, charcoal flannels, school tie, gloves, cordovan loafers.
My father was punishing me but how? Some man-to-man outdoorsman confrontation? He’d urged me to go out for soccer or lacrosse if not football. Truth is he believed getting the shit kicked out of you built character.
Headmaster Denton would’ve tracked him down. My mother had suffered another periodic relapse after ghosting around nights at the house—the pink of her lacy peignoir submerged in darkness, the Virginia Slims glowing, a vodka-filled champagne flute in hand. She hummed and swayed to Claude Achille Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées and other music she alone heard.
I dozed, and when I woke the fire had nearly died. I laid on wood and held the Seiko to the lamp. Jesus, eleven-thirty.
I tongued the sour film in my mouth. At the sink I worked the pitcher pump’s handle. No water emerged. I sat on the cot and rubbed my face.
During relapses my beautiful, languid mother reserved the same room at the Fairfax County sanitarium where ladies dressed for dinner and were served under chandeliers by white-jacketed black waiters. Tables of contract bridge followed dining.
The lamp’s flame gave out. I searched but found no kerosene. I drifted off, woke confused, and chunked the fire with a poker before adding another length of wood.
I opened the door, and through early morning misted gloom made out fleeing whitecaps on choppy water that swished ashore and sank back. I felt thirsty enough to drink it.
When I again tried the pump, it creaked and resisted. Among fishing gear behind the stuffed chair I located a plastic bait bucket. The tide was up, the wind blowing spindrift across the shaky pier. I knelt to drag the bucket along the crest of a breaking wave, which splashed my pants legs.
I poured seawater through slots at the top of the pump, worked the handle, and got a wheeze, a gurgle, a trickle which spilled into the galvanized sink. I reached to the plank shelf for a jar plastered with a faded Welch’s Grape Jelly sticker. I filled and carried it to the window to hold against the light. Brown water and agitated dregs.
I poured it out and pumped. No flow. I’d emptied the bait bucket and should’ve primed with what’d been in the jar. A second trip carrying the bucket to the pier. I primed and pumped rapidly, changing hands until clearer water drummed the sink and spun around the drain.
I again filled the jar. The water still appeared cloudy. I stuck my tongue into it. Not salty, yet bitter. I washed out my mouth, gargled, spat into the sink. I topped up the jar and bucket for future priming.
Random flakes of snow slanted through the cold low-hanging mist which blocked any view of the mainland. No boat, no nothing except the ceaseless rolling chop. I was so goddamn hungry. I checked the can of Luck’s beans. The metal had rusted. I set it back.
I felt unclean, and the hunger gnawed my belly. From the shelf I drew the packet of freeze-dried noodle soup to read the directions. Merely add hot water. I found a stained pot under the sink. No choice but to use pump water.
I set the pan on the stove, and when steam rose, I stirred the hard stringy noodles and dehydrated chicken chunks with a pot spoon, the kind of steel utensil buyable from Wal-Mart.
My mother owned two antique cherry chests of silverware. She had her own money too, trusts left by a grandmother and her father who’d gotten his bequeathed by his father—tobacco dollars aged and seasoned like the racked golden leaf in Philip Morris’ curing sheds. My father’s supposed words of wisdom: “Unearned money doesn’t spend well.”
The soup was like eating hot gluey straw. I banged the shaker on the table to loosen the salt. I forced myself to swallow. My stomach growled rebelliously.
Hands gloved, shoulders hunched, I waited on the pier. To keep warm, I paced the shoreline. Atlantic combers pounded and swirled frothing across a desolate beach. Eroded fallen trees, their spectral roots lifted. On a fleetingly glimpsed horizon not even a distant ship headed down to Hampton Roads.
Twice during the day I believed I heard the Yamaha. Mid-afternoon I opened the can of Luck’s beans and heated them in the pan. I squirted ketchup from the red plastic bottle before gulping them down like medicine. My mother didn’t allow ketchup in our house.
Maybe some difficulty not even my father could overcome had delayed him. A Georgia Tech trained engineer, he’d worked as operational vice-president for Bell South but had thrown over the secure job and perks to wildcat with explosives and seismic instruments for oil and gas. My mother’s side of the family had argued against it.
I heard an engine and rushed to the door. No boat at the pier but an invisible plane flying above gunmetal clouds. I could just make out another island, remote, ill defined, a phantom. Some barriers were government owned, others held by private interests, mostly hunters and fishermen like my father.
I craved food. My stomach rumbled. Again I heard an engine—in the distance a sport fishing boat sprouting outriggers. Its bow cleaved swells. I waved both arms. The boat continued on as water splashed my loafers.
I toed them free and peeled down my socks to set by the stove. I poured Wild Turkey into the jelly jar. How gross. My mother allowed me to sit with her evenings and drink a glass of wine before dinner. She loved candlelight and La Damoiselle élue.
The first swallow of bourbon gagged me, but I persevered and felt the easing warmth take hold. I looked out the doorway. A blue heron passed, its wings flapping so regally slow it seemed impossible they provided flight.
If not prevented from returning because of trouble, what was my father up to? Trying to scare me into atonement? The hell with that. I shut the door and drank. He wouldn’t let me die.
The second night I burned all the firewood. No more stacked elsewhere around the cottage. Cold again invaded it. He would’ve cut wood here on the island. Bringing enough in by boat was impractical.
I thought of the eroded fallen trees and found the axe leaned to the wall among a set of oars. I pulled on my dried socks and instead of loafers a pair of shin-high boots uncovered in a corner, the leather hard and inflexible. I pulled flaps of a hunting cap over my ears.
I hacked off two sizable limbs of a long-dead cedar, then further cut them into lengths which would fit the stove. A branch snagged and tore my overcoat’s lining.
My breath came fast, I sweated, and the axe almost hit my foot when the blade bounced off a knot. I thought of bleeding to death. Eerie lost cries of gulls seemed my own.
I made mush of corn meal and water. Like eating wetted sawdust. At low tide I found small oysters on the island’s inland side. I used a screwdriver from a toolbox to shuck and eat them raw.
There were also mussels I yanked free and set on the stove till they opened. Ketchup a sin that sheltered all other iniquities of taste. At the sink lay a scrap of dirt-streaked soap. I washed it, rubbed a finger across it, and used the finger to clean my teeth.
I cut wood enough to keep the stove fired. My good Italian leather gloves ripped at the stitched seams, and my clothes were becoming soiled. I squatted in the tarpapered privy behind the cottage, pages of The American Sportsman again fulfilling a need.
Worn down, I became miserly with wood and the third night mummified myself in a moldy sleeping bag left under a cot. Even in sleep I ached. A blister had formed on my thumb. My blazer was smudged, and I’d about ruined my overcoat.
I thought of building a bonfire on the shore to attract rescue. So much mist and fog it might not be seen, and if none arrived, I’d have burned precious fuel for nothing. I could swim, but riot in winter waters. I remembered the oars, but the idea of constructing any kind of boat was crazy. I’d hardly ever held a hammer in my hand and what would I use for materials? Moreover even if successful I might be swept out to sea.
I didn’t know much about guns, but I managed to open the breech of the double-barrel and load in two Remington 12-gauge shells from a partially emptied box. I stood on the pier and shot ten times toward the mainland, the booms frightening gulls and a squawking heron. If anyone heard, they likely believed it hunters.
My father after the divorce had phoned during spring break and invited me to join him on a whitewater raft trip down West Virginia’s Gauley River. When I backed off, he’d said, “Isn’t it about time you leave the tit?”
Using a rod from the cottage and mussel meat as bait, I caught a small flounder on the island’s seaside. The slippery fish almost flapped free. I went to my knees in water to hold and bring ashore its tapered shape, almost impossible to hold.
I found a dull knife in a tackle box. I tried sharpening it by drawing the blade across a concrete block from the base of the collapsed lighthouse.
The flounder still lived. It arched under my hand, and the weird knowing eyes on the same side of its head stared accusingly as I sawed more than cut strips from its body. Accidentally punctured intestines caused a revolting stench. I scraped the bloody massacred carcass off the pier.
I plopped gobs of grease in the pan, set it over heat, and when the grease popped lay in the flounder strips. I let them brown before lifting them out on the pot spoon. I pinched the hot goodness to my mouth.
He wouldn’t let me die, would he?
The flounder was the only fish I hooked. I wished I’d kept what I’d scraped off the pier. I might’ve made a repulsive soup.
My hair felt greasy, my fuzzy face itched, and I was so begrimed and foul of body I stank to myself.
I tore away shredded lining from my overcoat and thrashed the scrap of soap in the bait bucket. No lather. I dipped the lining and swabbed myself down. I washed my underwear, afterwards drying it beside the stove.
I hiked around the island hoping to see and attract a boat. A feeble sun shone. I avoided wind by wiggling my back into a dune. The placid sea remained unoccupied.
At White Oak Academy I’d thought I had a chance of winning the French prize, an award that would’ve greatly pleased my mother. Before marriage to my father, she’d studied art history a year in France. She exclaimed she loved all things Gallic.
I’d stolen the test while in Professor Rolette’s office. The copies lay centered and untended on his desk when the primly bearded professor walked out to post a notice on the corridor bulletin board.
Professor Rolette, however, had printed up an exact number of those copies and discovered a set missing. During the night I’d been wakened and summoned to the Headmaster’s office. I’d not been allowed to say goodbye to friends or classmates.
A swift flight of ducks flew over so low I felt the whistling rush of their wings. The eight circled and set down in a wind-ruffled tidal pond surrounded by reeds.
Bending low, I hurried to the cottage for the gun. I slipped the five remaining shells into slots of a canvas jacket drawn down from a wall peg. The sleeves were so rigid I had to force my arms through.
Though asked, I’d never hunted with my father. He’d carried home and cleaned his kill in the basement where Esther, our live-in maid, did the washing. He’d roasted birds and shanks of deer himself, stinking up her kitchen.
At the table my mother sighed, looked sad, and turned her lavender eyes away. I’d eaten a few bites of venison and nearly puked at the strong gamy taste.
The ducks had flown. I hid among sea oats growing near the pond and loaded shells into the double-barrel’s breeches to wait. Other flights flew over high. None landed. I hiked through darkness to the cottage.
At first light I pulled on hip boots also hanging from a peg and figured how to fasten my belt through the loops. I carried six heavy wooden decoys to the ice-rimmed pond.
The decoys clunked against each other. I waded into water, unwound the weights, and set the decoys in a circle. Mud sucked at the boots. I’d brought along the call, its leather thong tied around a corroded metal button.
The flight of ducks swept in fast. I struggled to my knees, and my clumsiness spooked them. They canted away into mist.
As the sun suffused mist, two ducks flew over low. I blew into the call. To my surprise they swerved back and descended, their wings set, their spread feet pushed forward.
I stood and pulled the triggers. Nothing. I’d forgotten the safety. The ducks seemed to have jumped straight up off the water and were gone.
A long wait before half a dozen birds circled and splashed down. Rather than stand, I crawled through reeds and parted them to peer at the ducks swimming and dipping their heads, their tails bobbing skyward.
I rose hunched and as the ducks sprang from the pond fired twice. Pellets blasted reeds and pocked water. Off balance to begin with, recoil almost toppled me. Not a feather fell.
I slouched to the cabin to eat more cornmeal mush. I poked the fire, adjusted the draft. I might become so weak I’d not be able to cut wood. I thought of my frozen body discovered, an obituary in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Late afternoon I carried the shotgun and three remaining shells back to my blind among sea oats. The decoys floated as if domestically conversing. No ducks crossed over.
As I gave up and stood, a large bird emerged out of the night’s gloom, its body wobbling, wings swishing, and set down into the pond. I fumbled the safety and fired twice. The bird lifted and flapped off awkwardly. As I cursed, I heard it thump the ground.
I ran searching and glimpsed it flopping away ahead of me through slashing sea oats. It dragged a wing. I stumbled, fell, let go of the gun. At the water’s edge I tackled and grasped a horny leg.
The bird struck at me, hissed, beat the good wing against my face.
I got hold of a snake-like neck, strangled it, stomped a boot heel on the head till the body quieted and relaxed, the wing settling.
I lugged the bird to the cottage. In light from the fire I saw it was white except for a pink bill and black wing tips. A snow goose.
I plucked it outside the door, snatching off feathers. They covered my boots and spiraled down to lie trembling in wind. At the pier I lopped off the head with the ax before using the knife to gut. Blood spattered me, and entrails slid steaming. I cleaned out the body cavity by washing it underwater.
I cut away breast meat and fried it. The fishy-tasting flesh was tough but fed me. If rationed, the goose would last two days. Then there were oysters still to be found, mussels dug, maybe another flounder caught. I had the shotgun and one shell. I could try boiling roots of sea oats and reeds. My mother’d be returning home. If I held out, she’d see I was found.
Morning dawned warm and still, no mist or clouds, a January thaw. Cedars laid darker shadows as sunlight expanded. I shaded my eyes to identify faraway glints off the serene water. Possibly reflections from a boats’ windshield or deck fittings.
No mirror in the cottage. Mirrors at a hunting camp were unmanly. I grabbed up the steel pot spoon. I rubbed it in sand to brighten it. A dismal reflection. I thought of my belt, its silver buckle embossed with White Oak’s coat of arms and the words Fides et Virtus.
I stood at the end of the pier attempting to flash both the buckle and pot spoon. After an hour no response. Tiring and discouraged I returned to the cottage for a cold greasy slice of goose and a drink of the bitter water.
Back on the pier, I angled the spoon and mirror toward a white speck seemingly riding above the satiny royal blue surface. The speck grew into a boat. I willed it not to turn into channels among other islands. I raised and lowered a hand in front of the buckle to create a SOS pattern of dots and dashes. The boat grew larger.
Not till just offshore did I realize my father stood at the Mako’s helm. The boat drifted in. He looped the bow line over a pile and climbed on the pier. “Damn if you ain’t hobo rank,” he said. “Need to stand upwind. Get your stuff.”
As I exchanged the hunt cap and canvas jacket for my ruined blazer and tattered overcoat, he eyed the snow-goose feathers strewn before the cottage, sniffed remains of meat in the pan, toed my supply of stove wood, worked the pump handle. He tested the heft of the shotgun and examined the empty shell box.
“You could be fined for hunting without a license,” he said.
He closed the stove’s draft, fastened the shutters, snapped the padlock through the hasp, asked for the key ring. We boarded the Mako. He started the engine and stepped forward to free the bow line.
“My opinion is you are definitely on your way off the tit.”
I moved behind the bastard and shoved him sprawling into the water. He sank and came up thrashing, spouting, cursing.
“Eat mush a while!” I shouted as I geared into reverse. He slogged dripping ashore. He flung off water and began laughing. He joined his hands over his head and wagged them as if crowned champ.
I gunned it to the mainland. Unsure of channels, I followed a workboat to the marina where at the fuel dock I cleated the Mako, told the attendant my father waited on the island, and in Oyster used the credit card my mother had presented me to withdraw money from an ATM and pay for a taxi ride to Richmond.
Esther, my mother’s plump, chestnut-complected maid, opened the front door. I entered past her alarmed face and climbed to my bathroom where I slung clothes to the floor and showered for twenty minutes, letting the soapy cleansing hotness slide along my body, the foaming shampoo to flow over my closed raised eyes.
I drew on clean cotton pajamas, a white terry-cloth robe, my fur-lined slippers. Esther wanted to fix me lamb chops and a salad, but I was starved and wouldn’t permit her even to set my place at the table but sat across from her in the kitchen and gorged on spicy stew she’d made from leftovers. I sopped it up on hot buttered crumbly biscuits and washed it down with cool sweet milk.
I collapsed between my bed’s sleek ironed sheets and fell into sleep as if off a bridge into black eddying waters. During the night I woke hearing the grandfather clock on the landing, its chimes hushed and consumed by sable confines of my mother’s house.
Admittedly my father had provided step by step for me on the island, assumed and trusted I possessed the intelligence and endurance to survive by using the supplies and gear at hand.
I pictured him standing soaked and laughing on the shore, his hands clasped above his head like the champ. The thought provisionally took shape that his revelry hadn’t been caused by a crowning of himself.