Monday, June 24, 2013

On Styron Shoals

During graduate school I took an autumn vacation with a friend to the North Carolina coast in 1987. Weary of classes, traffic, and crowds in Raleigh, we loaded our light luggage in her Honda Civic and, listening to beach music, we cruised east along highway 70. As the landscape flattened I noticed advertising for marinas, storage facilities lined with dinghies, weekenders, and cruisers, and sleepy trailer parks that reminded me of old family movies from the 1960s. The drive out to Morehead was long and relaxing. I rested one foot on the window ledge and sang along with The Drifters.

My friend Sandy had lived on the coast most of her life. Her dad was a construction contractor whose first love was fishing. Sandy’s sister Melanie grew up shopping with their mom, while Sandy went crabbing and shrimping weekend after weekend with her dad, and knew all there was to know about crab pots, power boats, spicy shrimp recipes, and heavy weather sailing. When she was in ninth grade, her parents divorced and Sandy stayed with her dad. She was a water baby through and through. I’d never gotten past a yearly sunburn at Pensecola Beach, but I was willing to be initiated.

So after a good night’s sleep in her dad’s trailer near Atlantic Beach, Sandy woke me with strong hot coffee and the promise of a day on the water. With the windows open and the fall breezes wafting in, I could smell brackish water and hear the gulls squawk overhead. Sandy had been out for a jog on the beach, and I was eager to start the day as well. Dressed for a cool, wet morning, we drove to Beaufort and met her dad at the dock. He was ready to check his crab pots in the waters around Harkers Island. And so the first boat I ever stepped aboard was a short, smelly craft that looked for all the world like a tug boat. Sandy grabbed my hand and pulled me aboard. In this easy way the adventure began.

Sandy manned the wheel while her dad circled his pots and lifted them in, deciding whether to keep or return them to the brown murky waters of the sound. But I was spoiled. I stood in the prow of the boat, bundled in a Gill coat and letting the spray slap me in the face. A tropical depression well offshore was hitting us with some rain and wind, but nothing unmanageable for a weathered sailor.

It must have been about two hours later when Sandy came to me with a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper, and a water bottle.

“Lunch,” she hollered. I smiled. The wind made speaking difficult. She joined me, leaning over the bow, and pointed out favorite locations. We crossed Back Sound and neared the long strip of pale land known as Shackleford Banks. Little pockets of sand or sea grasses indicated high points along its inner side. Sandy leaned toward me and spoke in my ear.

“Some of these places used to be inhabited,” she said. “Houses, stores. Extended families of fishermen and farmers.”

“Farmers?” I asked, surprised. The landscape hardly indicated soil that would produce corn or tobacco.

“The land was higher then,” she said. “The people were tough. But some serious storms, hurricanes, I guess, drove them off eventually.”

“When was that?”

She shrugged. “I’m not sure. I think my dad said around the turn of the century. There was a city along here somewhere, close to the eastern end. And one island where the people stuck it out a long time. It's called Styron Shoals.”  She drew her bright yellow coat closer around her and tightened the draw cord on the hood. “Maybe we’ll see the house.”

“House?”

“Yeah. There’s still an old house standing there. I wonder how close we are.”

I gazed out over the water of the sound, rolling and heaving in a labored way under the vessel. To our right the grassy sands stretched thin, a delicate strand of protection from the vast ocean.

“There’s a house, just one house, standing on a little island?” I asked again.

“Uh huh,” she nodded. “Or there was a couple of years ago. I’ll go ask dad.” And she turned toward the cabin where her dad drank coffee from a thermos.

I turned my face to the northeast. A gray mist seemed to be settling in for the day, and I began to wonder about our choice of season for visiting the coast. The wind had fallen and the water slapped firmly on the hull beneath me. Sandy returned with a grin on her face.

“Yep. Still there, he said. And last time he was out here, he said it even had some sand back around it.”

“Who used to live there?”

“No idea. It must have been decades ago. Some of these islands have been uninhabited for over fifty, seventy-five years.”

I was stunned.  “And the house is still standing? After all that time?”

She nodded. “But it’s the last house. When Dad was little there were two or three.” She shrugged.  “And the cemetery.”

“A cemetery? Out here?”

“Yeah,” and with a little hop she sat on on a massive tool box. “Just a few graves. Really sad.”  She looked at me. “I mean, to bury your loved ones out here, and leave forever, knowing the ocean will claim them,” she paused, “from underneath.”

I shuddered involuntarily but peered with more determination into the gray waters before us. This, I wanted to see. We were silent for several minutes. My mind wandered and imagined the possibilities of such a place.

I asked her, “Did you ever get off the boat, I mean – go up to the house and go inside?”

She smiled. “Yeah, just once. The wind has to be right. It’s a little tricky, even for Dad. It was a long time ago, and Mom was with us, so he insisted that I could go on the island, but Mom was mad, and she said I couldn’t go inside the house. But I went on the porch and touched the door.”  Her eyes drifted into the past. “And I tried to read the gravestones.”

I didn’t ask what she read there. I wanted too badly to read if for myself.

Within minutes Sandy clutched my elbow and pointed a little to the right with her other hand. “There. See it?”

I saw a speck, darker than other specks, and soon I could discern the pointed roof of a tall structure. A soft “ahhh,” escaped my mouth.

“I knew you’d love it,” she whispered in my ear. “It’s one of the saddest places on earth.”

This brought me up short, and I decided we should not both be sentimental. So I asked her, “Would your dad let me get off there?”

“Maybe. I’ll ask. He’s adventurous, and if you’re willing, he’s willing to let you. But do be careful.”  She smiled a little. “I’ll go ask.”

“There’s no dock?”

She laughed and grinned. “No, there’s no dock. I’m sure all the docks disappeared first. I’ll take you over in the dinghy and drop you off.”

“Will you stay out there too?”

Sandy tilted her head to the left, a habit I found endearing. “No, not today. I think you should go alone. It’s just up your line.” She turned to go. “Besides, Dad needs me. He’s got some pots over near Morgan. We’ll come back and pick you up. But let me go make sure.”

So it was all worked out. A few minutes later Sandy and I were approaching the most bizarre place I’d ever seen in a tiny inflatable with a two horsepower motor. A large leaning farmhouse perched upon barely enough sand and dirt to hold its foundation, and a strip of tall grasses stretched behind it like a shadow. Otherwise it was surrounded by the rolling waters of Back Sound. Sandy pulled gently near the sand, cut the motor, and told me to jump out.

“We should be back in a half hour, maybe a little more.”  And she was gone.

I turned, regretting momentarily that I’d decided to come. But it was too late now, and after a pause to peruse the little plot of sand and grasses in front of me, I smiled to realize that no human was here. I was perfectly alone and safe from harm. Only the seagulls had come with me, and a dolphin or two watched over me from the water, I hoped.

The house itself was worn and falling it. I realized instantly I’d need to be cautious inside; the roof sagged wearily and the porch seemed detached from the larger structure, leaning outward. Water lapped gently at my heels and I remembered the subtle forces the home had stood against for … how long? A hundred years? More? It had once been white, and the door and shutters black. Cracked traces of Victorian gingerbread trim hung in the eaves. “A half hour,” I said quietly, and placed my foot on the porch step. The railing gave way under my hand and I tripped, falling onto the porch. I lay there, clutching my knee, and put the heel of my hand to my mouth to ease the pain. A little blood dripped on the gray wood.

The fall was fortuitous though, because from my vantage point at floor level I saw the plaque. A simple tarnished rectangle of metal, it was wedged between two floorboards with only a corner showing. I think that corner cut my hand and produced the blood. I tugged at the corner and removed it. Salter House it said. Est. 1882. I wiped its face clean with my shirt and held it. Why leave it there? The sea will claim it soon. I slid the plate into my coat pocket and stood up.

The house was a simple two-story frame house, four rooms on the bottom and four rooms above. Wracked by waves and storms, the shifting of the house had pulled the stairwell from the wall, and it leaned drunkenly in the center of the house, the upper spindles hanging like loose bones. She was a beauty, I said to myself. The wind whooshed and whistled round her, the seagulls screamed, and her loose bones creaked in a dreary pain. I felt that if I leaned hard against an outside wall, she would collapse gratefully into the sound.

I placed my left hand on a windowsill and walked slowly in a circle, clockwise, from room to room. Each one had two windows, large and broken, that allowed seaward vistas without, and salt spray within. I gasped slightly at the views this family enjoyed, at the sounds and smells that greeted them each morning. I grazed my fingertips along the sills that they touched. I entered the dining room with cupboards built into two corners. One spot on the floor was rough and worn with grooves gouged deeply. Mr. Salter’s feet, I thought. He sat here in his boots year after year, meal after meal.  I stood in his spot and imagined the table spread before me, Mrs. Salter at the far end, carrying bowls and platters, finally sitting down. “Isaac, will you say grace, please?” she asked. A hush fell on the room, and I shivered. The gulls screamed overhead.

I proceeded to the kitchen. Only the massive black stove sat there still, too large to budge and remove. Encrusted with rust and bird droppings, it seemed to me a bit angry to have been left alone of all the Salter family’s possessions. Here it had sat for decades, waiting to be collected. I touched just one corner. It was cold. Then, I was cold, remembering it was October and the weather was shifting into winter. The fourth room, a parlor, was empty, but old wallpaper flapped softly on the cracked plaster. I looked closer; it was newsprint, dry and fragile. I was afraid to touch it, afraid it would disintegrate. I leaned in, reading the words. Wilmington Daily Journal. The date, March 3, 1885. I exhaled slightly and the paper shivered in the warmth of my breath. I imagined Mrs. Salter in her new home, her neighbors coming to help her put paper on her walls for the first time. First and last, I thought.  For months they’d all saved their newspapers, precious to read and discuss together in the evenings. She stands on a ladder, reaching into the corner, noting the article she’d read to her children the night before. “They’ve put up a monument in Washington, D.C., children, a tall stone building pointing up to heaven. They say you’ll be able to walk to the top and see the whole city. Thomas, sit still! See here, here’s a photograph of it, a picture in the newspaper! Look, children!” I leaned in again and peered at the text, the faded picture that shows nothing at all.

I circled back around to the front door, and wondered if Sandy would return soon. The stairs behind me creaked, beckoning me. I turned again and wondered – are they in any way safe? I was tempted dearly by the upper rooms, but their broad views. And before I knew it my foot was on the bottom step, my hand gripping the leaning banister. It felt more solid than I expected, and I leaned my weight into it, ascending. I thought of Mrs. Salter, carrying a baby, perhaps a new baby every few years, up these stairs to the safety of a cradle, rocking away as her house now rocked on the water. “I’ll be the last person to do this,” I thought, and it shocked me. It scared me. I was half-way up. My head was even with the upper floor at last, and I was stunned to find one open room. Somehow, the walls had been blown out, the lumber strewn across the floor. It felt like a ballroom, and my hands grasped the ledge for security as I pulled myself up into the space. From window to window the broad sea swirled around the house. I felt dizzy, seasick. The gulls screamed and flew near the windows, circling and lighting on the sills. Their shrieks were a deafening echo in the space. I stumbled to the back of the house and held myself steady against a windowsill.

Below me was a long patch of sedgy grass, a hummock behind the house. The narrow mounds lay tidily on it, except for one. A thin wafer of headstone marked each grave, except for one.
this grave lay askew, its stone broken. I counted them. Seven. Seven Salters buried here. My hands pressed into the windowsill and a sliver of old glass cut the other hand. And it bled into the sill. I pressed it to my mouth. Then I heard the first cry.

It sounded like a kitten, a mewing. So faint, it was softer than the gulls’ screams. It came from below, and soon a second heavier wail joined it. The sky darkened to an angry gray and salt spray slashed across my face as a leaned out the window. I heard all their cries as they left the house, and I saw their shadows, but only their shadows, moving across the graves. How shadows moved, with such a sunless sky, I did not know. But they walked to and fro, moaning, wailing, sobbing. I felt no fear but only great sorrow, hearing their sorrow. For what did they yearn? What had they lost?

I found myself running down the stairs, crying out, yelling and calling. Out the front door, around the house toward the little yard. But the hill of sedge was deceptive and the ground sunk beneath my feet. I cried out and leapt from one grave to another, looking for something solid to stand upon. Still the voices cried and moaned, surrounding me. I fell, suddenly terrified, and lay upon the seventh grave, my bloody hands on the broken stone.

Thomas Salter, it said. Drowned at Sea. And then the dates, January 23, 1883 – February 4, 1886. I read the words clearly, and my bloody hands gripped the stone as my tears flowed down and the skies opened with rain. As suddenly as they had begun, the howling voices ceased, and I was overcome with fear at kneeling alone there with the graves. Huddled on the infant grave, I glanced over and saw the waves swelling beside me, only feet away. I felt I was clinging to a piece of driftwood, sinking. And as I pressed down on the infant’s death stone, it gave way under me, and a slurry of black water gurgled up onto my hands.

I ran from the cemetery. Sandy was bobbing in the water, having just cut the motor on the dinghy, and she waved cheerily at me. I cried out to her, “Hurry!”

“Did you see all the birds around that house?” she asked, when we were back aboard the crab boat. I was sipping coffee, tepid now but comforting. She was putting antiseptic on my palms. “There must’ve been hundreds of them. On the roof, in the windows, hovering like they do. It was creepy. From far away they sounded like children crying. Didn’t they scare you?”

I could not reply. I thanked her for nursing my wounds, and cupped my hands around civilization again, thinking of little Thomas Salter, now forever lost at sea, and of those who seemed still to mourn for him.

Holland Island house. Photo by baldeaglebluff. See this site.
Stone Ghosts in the Marsh
Holland Island cemetery. Photo by baldeaglebluff. See this site.
 Photos of the loss of Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay inspired this story.
(All text copyrighted by the author.)

5 comments:

  1. That is amazing....just amazing. And the photos that you're shared back it up. Well-done.

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  2. Is that the end or will it become (or is it already) a novel? I was sucked right in... Fantastic.

    Blessings, Debbie

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  3. Thanks, dear ladies! Debbie, it's not a novel, but I'm toying with the idea of a cluster of short stories all told by the same first person narrator (basically me), about various adventures that happened in her past. This is the second one. The first one, if you want to search for it in my search bar on the side, is called "Hotel Sagistal." It will have the same tone.

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  4. Great writing! I think it could be the beginning of a very gripping novel.

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