Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (10 page)

BOOK: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
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If only Lizzie were awake, this would be something out of a dream, something that, had he known he might do it, he would have longed for. But when he looked at Lizzie, there was a sickening tug down deep in his gut. It was getting harder and harder to get her to keep her eyes even half open, and though the bleeding from the wound had stopped, she seemed to be fading from him.

He shipped the oars and turned to face her. "Lizzie? Lizzie Bright?" He shook her by the knee. "Lizzie?"

"We almost there?"


"Turner?" she asked.


"You ever row a boat before?"

Turner hesitated. He wondered if being on the swan boats in the Public Garden counted and figured that probably it didn't. "Not hardly."

"Ever in your whole life?"

"Not until today."

"I thought so."

"Keep your eyes open, Lizzie." Turner went back to the oars, turned the bow toward shore—it wasn't hard in the long swells—and tried to row in again. He kept his strokes slow and long, and though, when he finally turned his head, it seemed the shore lights were not much nearer, they were a little nearer, and he held to the pace until his muscles buckled, and he shipped the oars and watched the lights very slowly withdraw again.

And that was when he first heard the water ripping near him.

The moon had roused herself fully out of the sea and was tossing her silver bedclothes all around. Turner was sure that in that light he should have been able to make out any rocks. But he couldn't see anything breaking the surface. He listened, not moving, and heard the ripping again, but behind him this time, and closer to shore, and ahead of him—one after another. In the moonlight he saw a silver spray burst up into the air, a shower of diamond dust. Then another, and another almost beside the boat, so that he could feel the spray of it against his face, and the dory rocked to the rhythm of the new swells as a great Presence broke the surface of the sea and Turner knew, or felt, the vastness of whales.

Now he almost did panic. One could come right up beneath them and turn the dory over as easily as a pine chip, and he would be floating in the sea, holding on to the upturned dory, holding on to Lizzie, who he was sure could not hold on by herself. That is, he would be holding on to her if he could find her after they capsized.

But though the dory rocked back and forth with the swell of them, the whales never came so close that the boat might capsize. Turner heard them ripping the surface all around him, and felt the diamond spray sprinkle down on him in the moonlight like a benediction. He knew he was in the middle of something much larger than himself, and not just larger in size. It was like being in the middle of a swirling universe that could swamp him in a moment but had no desire to. He might put out his hand into the maelstrom and become a part of it.

But he didn't put his hand out yet, because as he watched, a whale five times as long as the dory surfaced, and rode quietly alongside him in the smooth swells. Turner could not breathe. The whale flipped its tail up a bit and began to roll from side to side, a great gargantuan roll like the roll of the globe, side to side, until it could slap the swells with the length of its flippers, gleaming silver-white in the moonlight. Turner held on to the sides of the dory and rolled side to side with it with this great vastness that had swum past the mountains and valleys of the sea. Together they rocked, and Turner wished that the rocking would never stop, that there would always be this moonlit moment.

But slowly the whale did stop rocking, and the seas calmed, and the rhythm of the swells took hold again. Quietly, more afraid than not, Turned slipped the oars into the water, and with gentle strokes, keeping the oars beneath the surface all the time, he eased the dory forward, hoping that the whale would wait on the surface.

It did. And so Turner reached the whale's eye, and they looked at each other. They looked at each other a long time—two souls rolling on the sea under the silvery moon, peering into each other's eyes. Turner wished with a desire greater than anything he had ever desired that he might understand what it was in the eye of the whale that shivered his soul.

He stretched his hand out across the side of the dory and reached over as far as he could without tipping the boat. But the whale kept a space of dark water between them, and they did not touch. Then slowly the whale sank, the water closing quietly along its black and white back.

And the whales were gone.

"Lizzie," whispered Turner.

There was no answer. He reached back and shook her leg, then her shoulder. Finally, he scooped up water and splashed it into her face—since saltwater will do for everything. "Lizzie, you've got to open your eyes."

"They're open," she said. "You splashed me."

"Lizzie, there were whales."

She didn't answer.

"Lizzie, whales."

"You touch one?"


She took a deep breath. "They only let you touch them if you understand what they're saying."

"What do they say?"

"You'll know when ... when they let you touch them. Home yet?"

He set to rowing again. He did not know how long they had been with the whales. Maybe a century or two. But however long it was, he saw that the dory had not drifted out much from the shore lights, and that now, as he pulled steadily on the oars, the lights really were coming closer. Even though he was as hungry and thirsty as he had been before the whales, he was not at all as tired. The pull of the water against his arms and back thrilled him as he felt the dory moving through the lowering swells, sensed the bow cutting quickly and truly back up into the New Meadows with a new tide.

But the whales were gone.


Soon the lights were much larger, and sometimes they blinked out as though someone had walked past a window for a moment. He wasn't quite sure if he would hit Bald Head right on or if he could find the mouth of the New Meadows and row up to Malaga itself. But he decided he would take the first landfall he could find, beach the dory, and go for help.

His arms felt strong. There was no panic in him.

He had looked into the eye of a whale.

Finally, a light detached itself from the shore and began to bob up and down in the darkness. It tacked well off from them, and then, at the end of a long angle, it tacked again and came back in with the sea breeze; Turner began to row to cut across it.

He had rolled in a wave trough with a whale.

Then he heard a whistle, sounding shrilly over the smooth water.

"Here!" shouted Turner, and waved his arm.

"Why don't you go ahead and stand up and tip us over."

"Lizzie, you can close your eyes now."

The whistle came again, and Turner called out as loudly as he could: "Hello, the boat. The boat, hello. Hello, the boat." Suddenly, a sloop yawed toward them and the moon filled its half sail with bright light. It rode high above the waves, as if it preferred not to get wet. "Hello, the boat!" cried Turner again.

And then a cry from the sloop's deck: "Turner Buckminster! Turner Buckminster!" Deacon Hurd's voice.

"Here! Here!" called Turner. The sail dropped from the sloop's mast, and Turner rowed to its bow until he could make out Willis Hurd's face in the light of the lantern he was swaying over the water.

"Turner Buckminster!" called out Deacon Hurd again from somewhere back in the darkness.

"He's here,"Willis hollered back over his shoulder. "Just off the bow. And it's true. He really does have a Negro with him."

"My God,"Turner heard the deacon declare. "What is this world coming to?"

"I'll keep my eyes closed," said Lizzie.

Turner wasn't sure whether he wanted to sink then and there or maybe row back out into the dark and make their own way in.

"Slide on down to the stern," Deacon Hurd called. "Willis, throw him a stern line. We'll tow you in, boy."

"We need to get Lizzie on board first. She's hurt."

"Hurt or not, no Jonah's daughter is stepping foot on this boat. We'll tow you. Now, catch hold the rope, and while we're bringing you in, you'd best think of some story about what you two are doing out here. Good Lord, boy, don't you ever think?"

Turner caught the rope Willis threw out to him and knotted it in as good a knot as he could to a ring in the bow. It wasn't as good as he had hoped, though, and they hadn't gone very far before it unraveled and pulled out.

"The line's away,"Willis called to his father.

"By all that's holy!" said Deacon Hurd.

Turner figured Deacon Hurd was getting more and more profane as the night wore on.

The Hurds tacked and came around again, and once more Willis hurled the line out to Turner. "Tie a hitch this time," he called. "You can tie a hitch, can't you?"

"I can tie a hitch,"Turner hollered.

He tied another knot—another loose knot—around the ring and kept a length out long enough that he could hold on to it—which he did, for dear life.

"You don't know how to tie a hitch, do you?" said Lizzie.

"Close your eyes,"Turner answered.

So he held on, and the dory jerked through the waves behind the Hurd sloop, the lantern in the bow now so that Turner couldn't see the Hurds at all. But the moonlight played on the sloop so that the boat seemed a lithe, living thing, and if Turner had been in some other moment and not being tugged along behind like a reluctant dog, he might have let himself marvel at the soundless beauty of sail.

He had looked into the eye of a whale.

The Hurd sloop towed them up the Kennebec, calling out to other lanterned ships as they went by. "Found him!"

"How far out?"

"Not so far."

"Is it true?"

"He had her, all right."

"Well, that does beat all."

Turner and Lizzie listened to the same exchange more times than they cared to.

They sailed past Popham, through the narrows off Cox's Head, past the lights of Parker Head, and then on up to Phippsburg, the water going more and more slack as they sailed. Any hope Turner had that they might slip in quietly was gone when he saw the score or more of lanterns down by the docks, and the crowd of people watching.

"Did you find him?"

"Sure enough," called Deacon Hurd.

"How many in the dory?" called the crowd.

Deacon Hurd let a dramatic pause cross the water and hover over his audience. Then, when they were all poised, he cried in a voice that sounded like God's, "Two."

"Oh," said the crowd. And then "Oh" again.

So they came up to the dock, with more than enough hands reaching out to take the bow and stern lines, and then more than enough hands pulling the towrope close in, and more than enough hands reaching down to tie it fast. They all stepped back as Turner guided Lizzie, woozy but with her eyes open, up the dock ladder, Mr. Newton reaching down to take her hand and bring her up. And then the crowd was pushing away from her granddaddy, and he was scooping Lizzie into his arms. She was putting her face in his chest and beginning to cry, and without saying more, they turned and walked off the dock together, the crowd carefully not touching them.

Turner was standing at the end of the dock, alone.

He thought of the whale, swimming so close to him but just out of his reach across the dark water, its skin glistening white and black in the silver moonlight, its great fins slapping the water, and its eye ... its eye.

But now the eyes of most of the communicants of Phippsburg's First Congregational were on him. He felt guilt move toward him like a thickened fog—he could almost see it. The just and perfect Willis Hurd walked past him easily, but the fog embraced Turner like a vampire, and it whispered, "You are not one of us."

His father was coming through the crowd at the end of the dock. He came slowly and purposefully, as though the crowd were not there. Turner waited for him without moving. He could feel his father's footsteps on the dock.

"You're safe, then," said Reverend Buckminster.


"And the girl who was with you?"

"She was hurt. She's with her granddaddy now."

Reverend Buckminster nodded. "Your mother's upset. Come along home."

So they walked off the dock, Turner a little behind his father, but the vampire fog followed him up the shore, past First Congregational, and across Parker Head to the parsonage, where his mother was waiting at the top of the porch steps. She rushed him into the house and burst out with a cry the likes of which Turner had never heard before.

There followed all the frantic questions—his mother kept touching him while he answered. They told him of the sighting of the dory rounding Bald Head, the breathless news brought back to Phippsburg, the efforts of half the boats of the Phippsburg docks to find them before it was full dark, under the godly perseverance of the Hurds.

Then there was a silence, and Mrs. Buckminster stood. "That's enough. Turner will be hungry, and the Lord knows we could all do with something to eat, now that the excitement is over." She paused to look back at Turner, and looked back again just before she went into the kitchen.

"Turner," said Reverend Buckminster quietly.

Turner looked at him. He thought, He's going to come apart. He's holding himself together as best he can, but he's going to come apart.

"Turner, whatever were you doing with that Negro girl?"

"She was hurt. I was taking her back to the island."

"That's not what I mean. You know that's not what I mean. What were you doing with her in the first place?"

How could he tell his father what he was doing? How could he say they were chasing the sea breeze and putting the whole continent at their backs?

"Turner, no one on that island is fit company for a minister's son. Not a single one. Heaven only knows what goes on over there. But whatever it is, it's not for decent-minded folks to be around. Do you understand what I mean, Turner? Do you?"

"Lizzie's not like that. Whatever decent-minded folks are thinking, Lizzie's not like that."

"You're a child, Turner. You don't know how they can take you in, make you think what they want you to think. Tonight it could have cost you your life."

BOOK: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
6.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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