But that was gloomy thinking and she wasn’t going to have it, not today. Today she was hopeful. Today was New Year’s Day, the first day of her new life, and she was on an adventure, sailing in a schooner out of Santa Barbara with her second husband and her adopted daughter Edith and half the things she owned in this world, bound for San Miguel Island and the virginal air Will insisted would make her well again. And she believed him. She did. Believed everything he said, no matter the look on Carrie Abbott’s face when she first gave her the news. Marantha, no—you’re going where? Carrie had blurted out before she could think, setting down her teacup on the low mahogany table in her parlor overlooking San Francisco Bay and the white-capped waves that jumped and ran in parallel streaks across the entire breadth of the window. To an island? And where is it again? And then she’d paused, her eyes retreating. I hear the air is very good down there, she said, very salubrious, and the little coal fire she had going in the grate flared up again. And it’ll be warmer, certainly. Warmer than here, anyhow.
They’d been up before dawn, gathering their bags by lantern light on the porch of the rented house at Santa Barbara. If it had been warm the previous afternoon under a sun that shone sturdily out of a clear cerulean sky, it was raw and damp at that hour, the sky starless, the night draped like heavy cloth over the roof and the rail and the twin oleanders in the front yard. The calla lilies along the walk were dulled to invisibility. There wasn’t a sound to be heard anywhere. Edith said she could see her breath, it was so cold, and Marantha had held a hand before her own mouth, feeling girlish, and saw that it was true. But then Will had said something sharp to her—he was fretting over what they’d need and what they were sure to forget, working himself up—and the spell was broken. When the carriage came down the street from the livery, you could hear the footfalls of the horses three blocks away.
And now they were in a boat at sea, an astonishing transformation, as if they’d crept into someone else’s skin like the shape-shifters in the fairy stories she’d read aloud to Edith when she was little. A boat that pitched and rocked and shuddered down the length of it like a living thing. She was trying to hold herself very still, her eyes fixed straight ahead and her hands folded in her lap, thinking, of all things, about her stuffed chair in the front parlor of the apartment on Post Street they’d had to give up—picturing it as vividly as if she were sitting in it now. She could see the embroidery of the cushions and the lamp on the table, her cat curled asleep before the fire. Rain beyond the windows. Edith at the piano. The soft sheen of polished wood. That time seemed like years ago, though it had been what—a little over a month? The chair was in Santa Barbara now, the piano sold, the lamp in a crate—and the cat, Sampan, a Siamese she’d had since before they were married, given up for adoption because Will didn’t think it would travel. And he was right, of course. They could always get another cat. Cats were as plentiful as the grains of rice in the big brown sacks you saw in the window of the grocer’s in Chinatown.
She’d had a severe hemorrhage at the beginning of December, when they’d first come down to Santa Barbara, and she’d been too weak to do much of anything, but Will and Edith had set up the household for her, and that was a blessing. Except that now they were going to have to do it all over again, and in a place so remote and wild it might as well have been on the far side of the world. That was a worry. Of course it was. But it was an opportunity too—and she was going to seize it, no matter what Carrie Abbott might have thought, or anyone else either. She heard the thump of feet on the deck above. There was the sound of liquid—bilge, that was what they called it—sloshing beneath the floorboards. Everything stank of rot.
They’d been at sea four hours now and they had four more yet to go, and she knew that because Will had come down to inform her. “Bear up,” he’d told her, “we’re halfway there.” Easier said than done. The fact was that she felt sick in her stomach, though it was an explicable sickness, temporary only, and if she was ashamed of herself for vomiting in a tin pail and of the smell it made—curdled, rancid, an odor that hung round her like old wash—at least there would be an end to it. Will had admonished her and Edith not to put anything on their stomachs, but she’d been unable to sleep the night before and couldn’t help slipping into the kitchen in her nightgown when the whole house was asleep and feasting on the dainties left over from their abbreviated New Year’s Eve celebration—oyster soup, sliced ham, lady fingers—which would have gone to waste in any case. Now, as the boat rocked and the reek of the sea came to her in the cramped saloon, she regretted it all over again.
She was trying to focus on the far wall or hull or whatever they called it, sunk deep into the nest of herself, when Ida backed her way down the ladder from the deck above, grinning as if she’d just heard the best joke in the world. “Oh, it’s glorious out there, ma’am, blowing every which way.” The girl’s cheeks were flushed. Her hair had come loose under the bonnet, tangled black strands snaking out over the collar of her coat in a windblown snarl. “You should see it, you should.”
The idea lifted her for just an instant—why shouldn’t she go out on deck and take in the sights? She wasn’t dead yet, was she?—but when she got to her feet, the ship lurched and she sat heavily again.
Ida’s face went dark. She seemed to notice the bucket then and the way Marantha was holding herself. “Are you all right, ma’am? Can I get you a blanket?”
“No,” she heard herself say, “I’m fine.”
“What about the bucket—could I empty the bucket for you? So it—so you don’t have to—?”
“Yes, that would be nice.” She felt her insides clench at the thought of it, of what was in the bucket and what Ida would have to do with it out there in the wind with the waves careening away from the hull and the bow pitching and pitching again. “But how’s Edith managing?”
“If you can believe it, she’s at the wheel right this minute, with your husband—Captain Waters, I mean—and the man who runs the ship, Captain Curner. He’s letting us take turns, anybody who wants. Me too. That was me at the helm not five minutes ago.” She let out a little laugh. “Could you tell the difference?”
And now suddenly Marantha felt her mood lift—Ida could always do that for her, every minute of her twenty-two years on this earth a rare adventure—and she found herself smiling. “I could. I knew it was a woman’s touch—it was so much smoother.” They both looked at the bucket then. “And that,” she said, pointing, “—that came up when the men were at the wheel, no question about it.”
“But you know, it’s not half as rough as it can be out here, or as it normally is this time of year, or so Captain Waters says.”
“So it could be worse.”
“You’re not affected?”
“No,” Ida said, spinning herself round in a mock pirouette, “not at all. Captain Waters says I’ve got my sea legs. And Edith, Edith too—she has them. Sea legs. That means you—”
“Yes, I know.” She paused, looking round her at the scatter of bags and provisions, the few sticks of furniture Will had allowed her because it just wasn’t practical to ship all that furniture across until they had a chance to gauge how she was acclimating. “But can you believe it’s the new year already?”
The boat fell into a trough, then climbed back again. She folded her arms across her chest, trying to put pressure there, to hold everything in, because she could feel the next cough coming, and the next cough would bring on another spasm, she was sure of it. “It all seems to go by so quickly,” she said, and she wasn’t really talking to Ida anymore.
She was out on deck when the island hove into view (hove: that was the term, wasn’t it? From heave, because everything on a ship was constantly heaving, including your stomach), and she saw it as a tan lump marbled with bands of the purest white, as if it were a well-aged cut of beef laid out on the broad blue plate of the ocean for her and nobody else. But it wasn’t beef they would be eating in the days and weeks and months to come, it was mutton—and turkey from the flock the previous tenant had introduced. And fish, she supposed, because wasn’t the ocean here abounding in all species and varieties of fish? But then she’d never developed much of a taste for fish—aside from lobster, that is, which wasn’t really a fish, was it?—and she couldn’t think of a single way to serve it but baked in a dish till it was dry and tasteless.
There was a wind in her face, a cold wind freighted with pellets of cold salt spray, canvas flapping, ropes singing, wind, but it felt good, felt pure, and the tightness in her chest began to give way. By the time the boat came to anchor in the bay below the sole house on the island, the house that was theirs now, along with everything else within her purview—the rocks and gulls, the sand dunes careening down the slopes, the sheep that were like scraps of cloud scattered randomly across the distant green hillsides—she was so excited she was like a child herself, like Edith, who hadn’t spent more than twenty minutes belowdecks the whole way out. Will had warned her that the house was nothing special, a wood-frame sheepman’s place, built seventeen years earlier by their new partner in the Pacific Wool Growing Company, Mr. Mills, but that didn’t stop her from picturing it in her mind’s eye through every day of the past two months. What would it be like? The rooms—how were the rooms arranged? And the views? Would Edith have a room of her own—or would she have to share with Ida? And what of the hired man, Adolph Bierson, whose face she hadn’t liked from the minute she laid eyes on him at first light that morning? And Jimmie, the boy who’d been out here looking after things these past months—where did he sleep?
The boat swung round on its anchor so that the island was behind her and she was gazing back the way they’d come, beyond the mouth of the harbor and across the iron-clad waves to the mainland that was visible now only as a distant smudge on the horizon. Then they were lowering the skiff, Will scampering round the deck like a man half-fifty who hadn’t taken a minié ball in the soft flesh just above his left hip at Chancellorsville, and yes, she, Edith and Ida were to go first, along with a jumble of sacks and boxes, with Adolph at the oars and Jimmie to meet them on the beach with one of the mules and the sled to bring them up the long hill to the house. And she shouldn’t worry, Will insisted, his big sinewy hands steadying hers as he helped her down the rope ladder to the boat with his eyes on fire and the smell of his breath sharp with the aftertaste of his own excitement, because today was a holiday and they were going to have the remainder of the afternoon to themselves. “I’m not worried, Will,” she said in the instant before she started down the ladder, “not when I’m in your hands,” but with the way the wind was blowing she couldn’t be sure he’d heard her.
Getting the boat to shore without overturning it in the surf was no small thing, but Adolph, grim as a soldier under fire and with the long muscles of his arms straining beneath the fabric of his jacket, managed it. For a long while they’d simply sat there, just outside the line of breakers, and she’d begun to grow impatient—and the girls had too—because here was the beach laid out before them and there the path up to the house, and what was he doing, this clod, this Adolph, when they were all so eager to set foot on terra firma and see what the house had to offer? Finally, though, she realized what it was—he was timing the surf, looking for an opening, the interval between a set of waves that would allow them to shoot in atop the previous one before the next came to smash them against the shore. She counted wave after wave, the seabirds screeching and the boat lurching beneath her, and then suddenly Adolph was at it, rowing furiously, the oarlocks protesting and the spray flying in their faces, and in the next moment they were ashore and leaping from the boat to tug at the painter and pull it high up the beach, and never mind their shoes or skirts or the way the wind beat the brims of their hats round their faces.
To the girls, it was a lark, both of them wet to the knees and laughing in great wild hoots even as she herself managed to save her boots, skipping on ahead of the sheet of white foam that shot up behind her and fanned out over the beach as far as she could see, though the hem of her dress was dark with wet and sprinkled with the pale flecks of sand already clinging there. She was breathing hard from the exertion, but deeply, and without restraint. If she hadn’t known better, if she hadn’t hemorrhaged just last month, she might have thought there was nothing wrong at all.
Edith wasn’t listening. Edith was fourteen years old, tall and handsome, as physically mature as a girl two or three years older, and she had a mind of her own. She deliberately went back into the surf under the pretext of unloading the bags from the rear of the boat when she could just as easily have started at the front, and she and Ida—who should have known better—were making a game of it, snatching up this parcel or that and darting up the beach to tumble everything in a random pile even as Adolph trudged through the sand, a bag under each arm and dragging two of the oak chairs behind him without a thought to the finish or the cushions she’d sewn for the seats. In the meantime, the steamer trunk she’d so carefully packed with her personal things—letters, stationery and envelopes, writing implements, her jewelry, the clothes she’d folded and tamped into place—was still in the boat, its leather surface shining with wet. She wanted to shout for him to fetch it before it was ruined, but she didn’t know how to command him, barely knew him, and the sour look he gave her didn’t help matters.
Flustered—and cold, shivering—she glanced round her in irritation, wondering where the boy was with the mule and the sled to take them up to the house. And that was another thing: she couldn’t for the life of her imagine what sort of sled they were talking about. The sleds she knew were for coasting down snowy hillsides or they were horse-drawn sleighs, with runners, for snowbound roads, but this, as Will had tried to explain, was a sort of travois—the path was too narrow and rough for a cart and so things had to be dragged up and down from the house. The house that was invisible from here, though she craned her neck till the muscles there began to throb. All she could see were pocked volcanic cliffs fringed with a poor sort of desert vegetation.
“I’ll race you!” Edith shouted, waving a pair of hatboxes high over her head, as Ida, her face lit with the purest pleasure, sprinted up the beach with her suitcase.
“Girls!” she cried. “Stop it now. Show some dignity.”
Ida, dutiful, slowed to a walk, but Edith kept on, her skirts dark with wet and her heels kicking up sand, and she didn’t stop till she mounted the ridge that marked the high-tide line. She might have gone on running all the tortuous way up the path to the plateau beyond and right on into the house, if the boy hadn’t appeared at that moment, mule and sled in tow. For an instant, Edith just stood there, staring, and then she dropped the hatboxes, turned on her heels and came running back, giggling, while the boy—Jimmie—stood there gaping as if he’d never seen a girl before in his life, and maybe he hadn’t. Marantha gave a wave of her hand and made her way up the crest of the dune to him while he bent to the boxes Edith had dropped.
As she got closer she could see that the sled was a crude affair, constructed of the salvaged railway ties that composed one of the chief sources of building material here on this treeless island, two lengths forming the struts across which sawed portions had been nailed into place to create a slanted bed. In the center of it, lashed firmly down, was a rocking chair, and that must have been for her, so that she could ride behind the mule, an innovation of Will’s, no doubt. And that was touching, it was, the way he cared for her, the way he thought matters through so as to make things easier on her. She caught her breath and then climbed up over the lip of the dune that traced the margin of the beach, the wind snatching at her hat so that she could feel the pins giving way and had to use her free hand to hold it in place, all the while clutching her overstuffed handbag in the other, the fingers of which had already begun to go numb under the pressure. To make matters worse, she caught her shoe on something, a loop of kelp or a scrap of driftwood, and stumbled so that she had to go down on one knee in the sand.
The boy just stood there as if he’d grown roots, staring from her to the retreating form of Edith and back again. He looked—this was her first impression and she wanted to be charitable—not stupid, really, but amazed or maybe hypnotized, a short, slight, dark-haired boy with sunburned skin, a retreating chin and eyes as black as the mud at the bottom of a pond. When he saw her stumble a second time, it startled him into action, and he came running to her, his arms flung out awkwardly for balance. Without a word, he reached a hand to help her as if she were an invalid already, and she wondered how much Will had told him.
“You must be Jimmie,” she said, trying to mold her face into a smile of greeting.
He ducked his head. Colored. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“I’m Mrs. Waters.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I reckoned that.”
She turned her head to direct his gaze toward the beach. “And that’s my daughter, Edith, in the azure hat, and the serving girl, Ida. And the man—”
“That’s Adolph, ma’am. I know him. We—he—well, he come out already once to help me work the sheep and suchlike . . .”
“Yes,” she said, rubbing her hands together against the cold. “Well, I hope you’ll all get on nicely.” And then, looking to the sled and the mule with its skittish eyes and ears standing up as straight as two bookends and the path that wound its way through the chaparral and up the hill to where the mysterious house awaited her, she added, “The chair—I presume that’s for me?”
He nodded, stabbing at the sand with the toe of one boot. His hair was too long, she could see that, greasy strands of it hanging in his eyes beneath one of those caps the Irish workmen favored. His fingernails were filthy. And his teeth—she’d have to introduce him to a toothbrush or he’d be gumming his food by the time he turned twenty.
But here came the wind again, gusting now, and the sand driven before it like grapeshot. “Very well then,” she said, and again he just stared. A long moment unfolded. “What I mean to say is, what, exactly, are we waiting for?”
There was no room for Edith on the sled once they’d loaded it with everything it could carry, and so she stayed behind on the beach to help Ida and the men unload the skiff on its successive trips to the schooner and back. Edith had pestered her—she wanted to go now, wanted to see the house and her room and the sheep, and why couldn’t she just walk up on her own?—but Marantha was firm with her. She was needed below, on the beach, and she’d see the house in good time. Jimmie stared at his feet throughout this colloquy, which, given Edith and her temperament, lasted longer than it should have, and when Edith finally turned and stalked off he gave the mule a swat and they started on up the path.
The boy led the mule by the reins, walking in a loose-jointed way, sauntering as if he were out for a stroll, but the grade was steep and the mule was laboring. Within minutes its flanks were steaming. A cascade of mud and stones flew out from beneath its hooves and she was twice spattered, three times, four. She could smell the animal’s breath, rank and ragged, careening down the length of it on the wind that grew stronger as they rose in elevation. Her neck ached. Her mouth was dry. Steeling herself, she gripped the arms of the rocker as it jerked from side to side and the heavy struts of the sled scraped along the path, gouging two deep furrows behind them.
As they climbed, she saw that the path wove its way through a natural canyon, which fell away to the thin muddy margin of a creek some thirty or forty feet below. The sky was a uniform gray. Birds started up from the scrub and shot at a diagonal across the gap of the canyon to vanish out of sight. The mule wheezed and sighed. She felt a cough coming on and fought it, breathing fiercely through her nostrils and holding herself as rigidly as she was able. The rocker groaned, the sled chafed. And then, just when she thought they were going to go on forever, up and up till they circumvented the clouds and reached a whole new continent in the sky, they emerged on a plateau in a blast of wind-driven sand and the house was there.
It took her a moment to get her bearings, the mule kicking up clods, the boy swinging the sled in a wide arc across the yard so that it was facing back down the canyon even as he reached up for the hame of the animal’s collar and jerked it to a stop. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, some sort of quaint ivy-covered cottage out of Constable or Turner, hedges, flowerbeds, a picket fence—a sheepman’s place—but this was something else altogether. This couldn’t be it, could it? She looked to the boy, expecting that he’d let her in on the joke any second now—this was the barn or the servants’ quarters or bunkhouse or whatever they called it and in the next moment he’d be chucking the mule and leading her on to the house itself, of course he would . . . but then it occurred to her that there were no other structures in sight, no other structures possible even in all that empty expanse. Jimmie was watching her. A gust caught her like a slap in the face. The mule shuddered, lifted its tail and deposited its droppings on the barren ground. She pushed herself up from the chair, stepped down from the sled and strode across the yard.
Her first impression was of nakedness, naked walls struck with penurious little windows, a yard of wind-blown sand giving onto an infinite vista of sheep-ravaged scrub that radiated out from it in every direction and not a tree or shrub or scrap of ivy in sight. There was nothing even remotely quaint or cozy about it. It might as well have been lifted up in a tornado and set down in the middle of the Arabian Desert. And where were the camels? The women in burnooses? She was so disappointed—stunned, shocked—that she was scarcely aware of the boy as he pushed open the rude gate for her. “You want I should put the things in the parlor?” he asked.
She was in the inner yard now, moving as if in a trance toward the door, which even from this distance she could see had been sloppily cut and hung so that there was a wide gap running across the doorstep like a black horizontal scar. The windowsills were blistered, the panes gone milky with abrasion. A jagged line of dark nailheads ran the length of the clapboards, climbing crazily to the eaves and back down again as if they’d been blown there on the wind, the boards themselves so indifferently whitewashed they gave up the raised grain of the cheap sea-run pine in clotted skeins and whorls that looked like miniature faces staring out at her—or no, leering at her. She recognized this as a delusion and delusions only came when the fever settled on her, but she didn’t feel feverish at the moment, just weak, that was all. Weak and disordered. As if that weren’t enough, just as she was about to lift her foot to the front steps, in the very instant, a quick darting shadow— snake, lizard, rodent?—whipped out in front of her and she had to stifle a scream, but the boy was right there, doing a quick two-step, bringing the heel of his boot down on the thing, which was only gristle and blood in the sequel.
“Ma’am?” The boy was fumbling to pull open the front door for her, wearing a puzzled look—she was the invalid, acting strange, an animated wraith like Miss Havisham, a harpy, a witch, and she knew she had to snap out of it, embrace the positive, be strong and assertive. She willed herself to pass through the door and into the front room, thinking at least there were two stories, at least there was that, and then she was staggered all over again.
Will couldn’t expect her to live here—no one could. The room was uninhabitable, as crude and ugly a place as she’d ever seen in her life. The floorboards were innocent of varnish or even oil and they were deeply scuffed and scoured by the sand, which seemed nearly as comfortable here as in the yard. There were no curtains on the windows. The furniture, such as it was, consisted of half a dozen wooden chairs, a long bare table etched with the marks of heavy usage and a bleached-out sideboard that looked as if it had been salvaged off a ship—which, she would learn, was in fact the case. No rug. No paintings, no china, no decoration of any kind. Worst of all, no one had bothered to cover the walls, which had been crudely whitewashed, apparently from the same bucket that had been put to use on the exterior. This wasn’t a room—it was just an oversized box, a pen, and at the rear of it were two bedrooms the size of anchorites’ cells and an even cruder door that gave onto a lean-to addition that served as the kitchen. Everything smelled of—of what? Sheep. That’s what the place smelled of, as if the whole flock had been using it as a barn.
She came back to herself suddenly—the boy was there still, wanting something. He gave her a pleading look—he was only trying to help, she could see that, only trying to be efficient, to unload the sled and bring it back down for Will and the girls and Adolph to load up again and again so that all they’d brought with them could be arranged here in this sterile comfortless rat-hole of a house that no amount of hope or optimism or good cheer could begin to make right, and she realized, for the second time in as many minutes, that she was making him uneasy. Worse: she was frightening him.
“Should I—? I mean do you want that I should—because Captain Waters is going to be wondering where I got myself to and he can be awful sharp sometimes . . .”
“Yes,” she said, and her voice sounded strange, as if her air passages had been choked off, and she had to struggle to command it. “Go ahead. Do what you must. Shoo, go on!”
The coughing didn’t start till he’d ducked out the door and into the wind-whipped gloom of the day and it carried her to the unfinished stairs that were like the steps in a child’s tree house and on up them to the carpetless bedroom she would share with Will and the sad four-poster bed with its greasy curtains and the counterpane that smelled not of her husband but of sheep—only, and inescapably, of sheep.
* * *