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The night of her grandfather’s memorial Sam wandered around the verdant lawn overflowing with guests and relations that had congregated at her family’s summerhouse to celebrate her late grandfather’s life. The family’s house was on Squirrel Island, a little rocky outpost on Maine’s jagged coastline. Other cousins owned various houses on the island as well; the family had been summering here for a little over a hundred years. The many doors of the cottage had been thrown open to the dusky air of the August night and the guests milled about on the sloping lawn. The party had originally been intended for family only, but as a last minute decision they had invited everyone else who lived on the island as well, under the assumption that they would show up anyway.
There were buckets and buckets of fresh oysters, and a local had been hired to shell them for the guests. Sam eyed him from a distance. She liked his red plaid shirt and the way he tied his long brown hair back in a ponytail. He worked swiftly and efficiently, and looked up with a smile when she approached.
“What does it taste like?” she asked.
“Eating an oyster is like jumping into the ocean: cold and salty,” he smiled, “you should try one.”
“Maybe.” She looked at his hands, which were busy prizing an oyster open with a knife, “Is it difficult to do that?”
“Not really, but I grew up doing this.” He looked back down at his callused hands. Various guests wandered over to the table and took opened shells, popping them into their mouths to swallow the meat.
“Can I try opening one?”
He looked back at her, “Are you sure you want to?”
He shelled a couple more oysters and then gestured towards her, “Come over here.” Sam walked around the table and stood next to him. He showed her how to find the crack between the two shells and how to work the knife in between them to break the two halves apart. Then he took off the chain metal glove protecting his hand, “Put this on.” She slid it over her left hand; it was cold, wet, and heavy. He handed her his knife and an oyster from the big bucket at his feet and told her to try. She pushed with the knife and made no progress. The oyster refused to open. She attempted again, embarrassed. Then, with a pop, she felt the knife go through the hard muscle and she was able to run the blade up the tip of the oyster and open it completely. He showed her how to cut the muscle away from the shell so it would slide off easily. “You should eat it,” he said. “You should eat the one you have opened.”
Sam lifted the shell to her mouth and swallowed the oyster whole. It was just like he had said: a burst of salt and wet and cold and then it was gone. Not sure that she wanted to eat another one, she took a sip from her glass of Peligrino, thanked him, and walked away, still holding the oyster shell in her hand.
Tired of avoiding interactions with her many family members, she turned away from the cottage and walked down a narrow path to the water. As she walked down to the shore she could hear the sea smashing violently against the rocks, a dim roar behind the babble of the party guests. Sam sat down on a rock a little above the water’s edge. She took another sip from her glass, enjoying the bubbles as they rolled over her tongue. The wind brushed by her skin, and she shivered slightly. She looked out at the birds as they wheeled about in the sky, swooping low to graze the water’s surface. She thought about how in the summer her grandfather, the poet, used to walk down to this shore every dawn. The first stars peeked out between the clouds that were filling the darkening sky; the Heron Island lighthouse sounded out and flashed its yellow light. She counted the rotations of light and sound, thinking back to the last time she had been there, the last summer before her grandfather had fallen ill.
Sam and her grandfather had had a unique friendship. She was the oldest grandchild and he had always spent more time with her than the other children. They were both passionate about nature, about the wild wide outdoors. At parties he would joke with her about the idiosyncrasies of their various family members, and sometimes, when they were quiet in front of the crackling fire on foggy Maine days, he would talk to her about poetry. This past summer he had taken her out on his 17 ft Boston Whaler to explore Heron Island, a small outcropping of rock covered with bushes and tall grass. A few scraggly pine trees burst out of the crest of the island, but it was really too small to sustain any substantial plant life. As they approached the harbor she could see the lighthouse situated at the far end of the island; it looked like a finger pointed up to the sky from a clenched fist. Her grandfather had pulled the boat up to the small floating dock, allowing her cleat the boat to the dock before they started out on their walk. They both knew the steps to take across the wind blown surface of the small island; they had both been here before. There was the slightest idea of a path to the lighthouse, a hint that perhaps people visited this lonely post occasionally. The lighthouse was a simple cylinder, the bottom half built from huge slabs of granite, the top from painted white bricks. It was connected to the island by a rickety wooden bridge that led to a narrow iron balustrade that circled the circumference of the tower. Sam followed her grandfather around the side facing away from the island. They both sat down with their legs hanging over the edge. Her grandfather took an orange out of his pocket and slowly started to peel it without letting the rind break. The peel came off in a curling ribbon. Then he split the opened orange in half, took a section and gave it to Sam. She put it in her mouth whole and let the tangy sweet juice seep over her tongue.
Her grandfather spoke softly, “I have always returned to this spot.” He took another section of the orange and handed it to her, “When all of my life was turbulent, this lighthouse was the one thing that stayed fixed. Sometimes I didn’t manage to come back for years and years, but I always knew it was here. Waiting.” Sam looked down at the ocean swirling around the base of the lighthouse below her, frothy and salty. “When you are old, and this day is a wisp of a memory in your mind, you will more fully understand the comfort of things older than yourself.”
Sam looked into the clear blue eyes of her grandfather, “But everything changes eventually.”
“Yes, of course,” he said, standing up. “It’s warm out today.” He looked down at the water. “Water looks nice and cool.”
“Yeah, it does.”
He took off his blue polo, “I think I’m going to go swimming now.”
“Yes. Absolutely.” And with that succinct statement he slipped his feet out of his Birkenstocks, lithely pulled himself over the railing, and jumped out into the sea.
Sam jumped up, “Grandpa! Grandpa are you ok?”
His grey head emerged, “Yes, of course. I might be getting old, but I’m not too old to make the same jump I have been since my childhood. Are you coming in?”
Sam looked at him, bobbing peacefully in the dark blue waves. “I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure? It’s nice.”
“No, it’s ok. Really.”
“Are you positive you don’t want to jump in?”
Sam winced upon remembering the way she had dismissed her grandfather that day. The lighthouse called out mournfully to her across the water as she felt the first raindrops fall upon her blonde head. She was still holding the empty oyster shell in her hand. She sat there a moment longer, then stood up and threw it out towards the ocean. As she walked back to the house the rain started to come down harder through the conifers. By the time she reached the house only the oysterman was still outside, working hard to collect his buckets of oysters and collapse the folding table to protect them from the penetrating rain. Sam walked over to him and helped him carry the table to the porch of the house. It was only when they were under the shelter of the porch roof that they spoke.
“Thank you,” he said, “you really didn’t have to help me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, hugging herself with her arms to keep from shivering. “I don’t think I ever introduced myself. I’m Sam.”
“Do you live on the island?”
“Yeah, I’ve been here my whole life.”
“And I’ve been coming here every summer since I was born. It’s a shame we never met before.”
“Do you ever go to the bonfire parties at Sandy Cove?”
“Sometimes, but I’ve never seen you there.” She smiled to herself; her family owned the beach at Sandy Cove.
“What are you doing tonight? After this is over?”
“Hanging out with you, of course.”
“If you want,” he smiled, “I think a bunch of us are getting together tonight, the usual: bonfire, beer. That is, if this rain stops.”
“Want to meet me there, around eleven?”
After solidifying their plans for the night, Sam twisted her way through the crowd of people to the wooden stairs and walked up the two flights to her attic bedroom. She pulled her wet white dress up over her head, droplets of water running down her tan legs. Then she slipped on a white t-shirt and a pair of comfortable ripped jeans. For the rest of the party, Sam made an effort to be nice to her relatives and family friends. Her mother smiled at her appreciatively through the crowd, and she overheard her father lauding her college acceptance to a friend of her grandfather’s.
By eleven all the oysters had been eaten and the rain had stopped. Many of the guests had left. Sam pulled on her black zip up hoodie, told her mother she was going out, and stepped into the darkling night. She followed the dirt road leading away from her house to the little beach just down the road from her house. A few cars were parked on the side of the road, and she could see the flicker of a fire through the beach roses. There was a circle of people sitting around the fire, a few had wandered off from the group and had rolled up their pants to splash about in the cold sea. Sam lingered in the outskirts until she had spotted Jack, then she walked over to him.
“Hey,” he said, upon seeing her. “I’m glad you showed up. Do you want a beer? A coke?” "Coke, please," she said. He led her back to the cars to his black Jeep Wrangler. He opened up a cooler in the back of the car and pulled out a bottle of coke and opened it for her. Then they went back to the circle of people: mostly locals, but Sam recognized some other summer people. Jack introduced Sam to everyone; she could see their faces glimmering through the spits of flame that the fire shot up. At some point in the night someone pulled out a box of fireworks, and they lit them off into the starry sky.
By the time Sam got home the house was dark, her parents and relatives slumbering in their beds. She quietly tiptoed up to her bedroom; the slanting walls were bare frames, without any insulation. She took off her pants and slid her bra out from underneath her shirt, then crawled under her white down comforter. Her rustic bed was right next to the window. When she looked out she could see the throbbing light of the lighthouse through the darkness.
When Sam woke up early the next morning she could no longer see the lighthouse from her window. The sky was filled with sheets of fog. No one was awake yet, and she wandered downstairs to the kitchen to make breakfast. She put a pot of steel cut oatmeal on the stove, and then took out some fresh blueberries and strawberries from the fridge. She cut the strawberries in quarters, lengthwise, the red juice staining her fingers. She took a turquoise bowl out of the cupboard and put the blueberries and sliced strawberries in the bottom. She stirred the oatmeal, which was boiling, the steam rising up to her face. Then she took a few oranges from the bowl by the sink and squeezed them for their juice. Then she poured the ready oatmeal into her bowl and poured some local honey on top. She set the bowl and glass of juice on the table then wandered into the adjoining room, and pulled a slim volume from the crowded bookshelves lining the wall. She sat down at the table and ate and read slowly, letting the food and words dissolve on her tongue. Sam was reading her grandfather’s first published volume of poetry, A Silence Opens. Sam had never read this collection before, content in the past to simply peruse her grandfather’s recent publications, if she looked at any of his work at all.
A few members of Sam’s family were just waking up when she finished eating, so she went upstairs and put on her running clothes. She started down the dirt road away from the house at a brisk pace. Everything was grey and the pine trees that hung over her were laden with small droplets of moisture. She followed the road towards the harbor, smelling the seaweed left behind on the ebb tide. Gulls squawked through the mist and as she approached the main harbor she could make out the low engine hum of the ferries. Despite the oppressive fog, Sam became hot and sweaty, with each stride her legs burned all along her calves. The island undulated beneath her as she ran up and down hills, the forest on one side, the sea coming into view on the other. A black Jeep Wrangler came rumbling down the narrow road towards her, and when she moved to the side to let it pass she recognized Jack. He stopped his car and leaned out to say hello.
“It’s early,” she said, wiping her forehead, and catching her breath “I’m surprised to see you again so soon.”
“I like the morning.” He smiled. “I had a good time last night. We should hang out again sometime.”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Ok, I’ll see you around.” Jack started to drive away, but then he stopped and backed up towards her again. “Listen, I know you’re running right now, but would perhaps be interested in going for a boat ride with me?”
“Right now?” she asked, “It’s not very nice out.”
“It’s foggy here, but I’m heading up the Damariscotta River to go pick something up from the oyster farm. If we go up the river far enough, the sky will clear.”
“Yeah. Come on.”
“Ok.” She got into the passenger seat of his car and they continued down the road towards his family’s dock. They parked and he led her down to his boat, an old Boston Whaler with a blue hull. They were soon making their way slowly away from the island. The air was wet and cold, and Sam quickly couldn’t see land at all. “How do you know where to go?” she asked.
“Memory,” he said quietly, “and sound. Can you hear that?”
She was silent, and then she heard the familiar mournful moan of the lighthouse coming out of the distance. She nodded.
“That lighthouse stands at a ninety degree angle between this harbor and the mouth of the Damariscotta River. If I know where the lighthouse is, I know where I am going.”
There was no need to talk as they continued over the smooth sea. Sam’s eyelashes became coated with moisture, as did her entire body. The air was still, silent except for the soft lapping of the water against the sides of the boat and the quiet purr of the engine.
“Do you hear that?” Jack asked presently, “That clanging sound?”
She listened, “I think so.”
“That’s the bellbuoy that marks the shoal waters at the entrance to the river. We’ll see it soon.” They passed the floating red marker; it swayed slowly with the waves, causing the bell at the top to clang with the rhythm of the water.
Just as Sam started to feel convinced that they would never emerge from the monochromatic fog, she saw the faint outline of a fir-lined coast on either side of the boat. The fog started to lift from the surface of the smooth water and Jack was able to speed up. For the first time all day, Sam felt the sun’s rays. Just like he had promised, the entire river was illuminated by sunlight. A wall of fog behind them shrouded the progress they had already made. As they passed beneath an abandoned train bridge, Jack started to tell her about oysters.
“Do you see those mounds on the river bank? The Indians were eating and shelling oysters long before we ever came here. These essentially were their garbage heaps, they put shells, charcoal, and bones on these banks. Now these mounds are the only reminder that we have of them. Glidden Point, the oyster farm where I work, is the site of some of the oldest of these.”
“How old are they?”
“Some are supposed to be over two thousand years old.”
They stopped at the oyster farm, and Jack quickly went in to pick up the buckets of oysters he was delivering. It was getting close to midday and Sam was hot. As they sped back down the river she saw the bridge up ahead that they had passed under before. She asked him about it.
“My friends and I go swimming there sometimes,” he said. “It’s really fun when the tide is rushing out, like it is right now, because it caries you along. The water warms up a lot in this river during high tide, up to about eighty degrees. That’s why it’s possible to grow oysters here.”
He had slowed down the boat, and Sam reached over to the side and dipped her hand in the water, “It is really warm,” she said. “Do you want to go swimming?”
“Yes.” She smiled.
“Sure.” He slowed down the boat and maneuvered it so they could tie up at the riverbank, just downstream from the bridge. “Do you want to jump off the bridge?”
“I’m not sure.”
“That’s fine. You should come up with me though, it’s a great view.”
She followed him up the riverbank to the rusting bridge. It was missing planks, but Sam felt safe following Jack, who knew just where to step.
He slipped off his Birkenstocks and took off his t-shirt. He looked at her, “I’m jumping. Do you want to jump with me?”
Sam looked down at the swirling water, and then at his expectant face, “I don’t think so.”
“Ok. If you’re sure.” Without another word he leapt off the bridge. The current was so strong that by the time he emerged he had already been pulled down past the boat. He looked happy, swimming towards the shore with sure, swift strokes. Sam hesitated; she felt more alone than she had in the days since her family had driven up to Maine for the memorial. She thought back to the day, at the lighthouse, when she had refused to jump. She looked at the distance below her now; Jack was busy splashing about in the water below her, content to let her do as she wished. Quickly, without any further thought, she stepped out of her shoes and jumped from the bridge. She screamed as she fell, a deep primal scream, her arms flying up over her head. And then she plunged into the unexpectedly warm water. She plummeted down into the depths and opened her eyes to see the light of the surface above her. She paused, and then powerfully kicked her way back up. Jack had already clambered to the shore and whooped and clapped his hands when he saw her break the surface. She smiled and let the current sweep her along for a few meters, than swam towards the riverbank and back to the boat. She pulled herself up out of the water, Jack went to get the shoes, and then they untied the boat and continued down the river. When they reached the mouth of the river the fog had barely lifted.