Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (5 page)

BOOK: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
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"No, you don't have your own place here," said Sheriff Elwell. "There's not one of you that's got a registered deed to the land on this island. I've been to the town clerk about it. Not a single one of you owns any land on the island."

Lizzie felt The Change begin.

"My granddaddy built that house there, my daddy built the fence around it," said Reverend Griffin. "They worked like dogs tending your granddaddies' and daddies' places in Phippsburg so they could pay right for every nail. There's no one here lives on a piece of land like that, father and mother after father and mother, that doesn't own it."

The tall frock coat put his hands in the side pockets of his vest. "Your grandfather saw fit to build this house on land that did not belong to him—that does not belong to you now. The sheriff is trying to explain the consequences of that."

Reverend Griffin looked at Sheriff Elwell, who shrugged. "The law's the law. You got no deed that says you own this place."

"Then who does own this place?"

"The state of Maine," said Sheriff Elwell.

"And does the state of Maine have a mind to settle right here?"

Sheriff Elwell shrugged again. "The state of Maine does what the state of Maine wants to do."

A long pause. Lizzie waited for the gulls to return over the high ledge, but they didn't. Maybe they'd gone across to the Kennebec and were swooping down on more Zerubabels. She felt the movement of the day and knew that the tide would be running in soon, covering the Zerubabels. Covering the clams, too, and she hadn't dug hers yet. Now she probably wouldn't.

"Sheriff," her grandfather said slowly, "you've taken the trouble to come out here to tell us this."

"You'll let the others know, Preacher? They'll need to be out come fall."

"Before I do that, I wonder if all you might take a walk with me." Silence. "A little ways in."

He did not wait for an answer but turned, Lizzie with him and still waiting for The Change to drop his voice. He set out on a path that threaded through knots of pines, looking into them and nodding now and again. The path was clear enough that even the frock coats were able to keep up pretty well, though Lizzie doubted that they heard the sounds of those who had come off their doorsteps and now walked silently beside them, hidden by the trees. They all followed the path as it fell down between the sharp halves of a cracked boulder, came into pine woods again, and finally rounded into a sudden clearing.

Lizzie's grandfather waited for the frock coats to come up. "This here," he said, "this here's our deed."

In the clearing, sixty graves lay quiet and still, restful. Wood crosses with printed names too faded to read stood at their heads. Some had piles of pink-grained stones gathered from around the island placed carefully at the foot of each cross. Some had sprigs of violets, some fresh evergreen boughs. The pines quivered around them, and the moss softening the stones in the piles was so green that Lizzie wondered whether even the frock coats want to kneel down and smell it. It was all as neat and welcoming as if Nature herself had swept and tidied up her best room, figuring on guests coming to call.

Reverend Griffm stopped by a grave with a whitewashed cross."This here's Thaddeus,"he said."Next to his mother. And that there, that's her daddy." He held his hands out. "Their bones—our bones—they're all part of this island. We can't leave."

The tallest frock coat sniffed. "This will have to be cleared away."

Reverend Griffin turned for the first time to one of the other frock coats. "Sir, your collar says you're a preacher."

Reverend Buckminster nodded. "I'm the new minister at First Congregational."

"Then you know," said Reverend Griffin, "that when God gives you a place to live, you don't leave it even if all the armies of the Philistines come down among you. You don't leave it till God calls you someplace else."

Lizzie waited, and golly Moses, she saw that the new minister understood.


"No," said Reverend Buckminster, looking at the other frock coats. "No. I'm sorry for your trouble, but First Congregational will help out as much as it can to see you folks settled somewhere. The Ladies' Sewing Circle has already begun to knit mittens, and scarves as well, I believe. Perhaps just mittens. We plan on a collection next Sunday."

"You be out by fall," said Sheriff Elwell.

Just then the flock of gulls appeared again overhead, calling and calling, as if searching for lost souls. The frock coats turned back toward their dory, and the sheriff walked behind them with Reverend Griffin and Lizzie. "You'll know what to tell them," said Sheriff Elwell, "the rest of the folks on the island. You'll have better words than I would."

"I'll tell them that times move on."

The sheriff nodded.

"That maybe God's calling on us to move on."

Another nod. "You'll find a place. You people always do."

"Just one more thing, Sheriff." The sheriff stopped and waited. "What'll happen when times move on again and it's your turn?"

For a moment, the sheriff seemed to understand. His eyes looked down. Then the moment passed, and full and sudden he laughed louder than the calling gulls. "Times will never move on that much," he said.

When they reached the shore, the frock coats boarded and the sheriff pushed the dory out until the water reached his knees, clambered in—carefully, so as not to splash the frock coats—and began rowing back up the New Meadows. "You'll know what to tell them," he called back. "By fall."

Lizzie held close against her grandfather as the people of Malaga Island came out from the pine woods, gathering around their preacher on the shore to hear what had been said. Before they turned, Lizzie felt her grandfather ebb as though his soul were passing out of him, the way the last waves of a falling tide pass into still air and are gone.

She took a deep breath, and she wasn't just breathing in the air. She breathed in the waves, the sea grass, the pines, the pale lichens on the granite, the sweet shimmering of the pebbles dragged back and forth in the surf, the fish hawk diving to the waves, the dolphin jumping out of them.

She would not ebb.

Then she turned with her grandfather to tell the gathering people of Malaga that times had moved on, and they would have to leave their homes.


all that's holy, Turner, you couldn't wait before you decided to embarrass me in front of a new congregation?"

"I didn't mean to embarrass you."

"First you harass Mrs. Cobb, walking past her house without a shirt and throwing stones at her fence. And now you brawl in the street with Deacon Hurd's son. With the deacon's son! But perhaps you're right. I cannot possibly imagine how that would embarrass me, the new minister. 'Look,' people will say—are already saying—'he can't handle his own son. How can he possibly handle a church?'And that's not all they'll be saying. They'll be saying—"

A single high metal ring on the phone broke off what people would say about the new minister. Glaring, Reverend Buckminster went to answer it, and Turner wondered if he was free to go upstairs. His damp clothes were pretty much clamped against his skin, and as they dried, the starch was tightening. Soon, he figured, he wouldn't be able to breathe.

He supposed he'd better wait for his father. Heaven only knew what new sin committed by the minister's son was being announced over the phone. It was probably Mrs. Cobb doing the announcing.

Turner looked up and down the shelves of his father's study—the first room in the house that had been readied. Sunlight glinted on the gilt spines of the books. It smelled impressive, all that leather. Still, he wondered if there was a single book on those shelves that any human being really liked to read. "
The Heresies of the Modern World and the Infallibility of Orthodoxy
" he said into the still air."
An Alphabetical Compedium of All Sects. A View of All Religions. Occasional Sermons of the Reverend Emmons.
" He decided he could probably come up with better titles:
Huckleberry Finn and the Merry Apostles,
The Piratical Adventures of Peter on the Sea of Galilee. Occasional Sermons on How God Intended Baseball Be Played.

He felt his father come back into the room. The door shut. Tightly.

"You were naked in Mrs. Cobb's kitchen," Turner's father said, slowly and quietly.

"Not naked."

His father waited.

"I was in my underwear."

"You were in your underwear in Mrs. Cobb's kitchen. Let us praise God that decency reigns."

The rest of the conversation went about as badly as it could go, particularly at the end, when Turner had to promise he would ask Mrs. Cobb's pardon the next day, and would, to improve his own soul and to bring light to her dark loneliness, resolve not only to read to her for the summer but to play the organ for her at least three times a week as well, taking care all the while to remain fully dressed. And while it was to be recognized that he was still a young boy, yet he would resolve to conquer his debased self so that he would not be an embarrassment to his father but would instead shine brightly as an example of Christian charity to all—much like Willis Hurd.

Turner left his father's study, climbed the stairs to his room, and put on another perfectly white and starched shirt. He was desperate to find a place where he could breathe.

Whatever that place was, it wasn't his room, which was long and narrow and slanted downhill. Someone had put up the wallpaper during the Civil War, Turner figured—for a girl, he was sure—and it had clung to the walls for longer than it should have. By the one window, all of its yellow blooms had faded to a general gray, and Turner had started to peel it away. He took a long strip off now, wondering if it would be a sin to open his window and lean out. It probably was in Phippsburg, Maine, and someone would call the new minister and tell him that his son was hanging out the upper story and being a bad example for younger children, who would unwittingly follow his lead and fall to untimely deaths without any of their last words being said, never mind heard. His father would be embarrassed again. Turner thought about getting to work on conquering his debased self, but decided that could wait till morning. He wasn't up to shining brightly, and he wasn't much inclined to do it anyway. He lay down on his bed, held his baseball glove up to his face, and breathed in its leathery scent.

He kept it over his face until his mother called him for supper.

Getting through supper was like being dangled on a spiderweb strand over hell. But he resolved to avoid the one misstep that might send his soul down to perdition. He was as polite as an angel all the way through the roast and potatoes. He ate the egg pudding without complaint While carrying out the dishes, he was as helpful as St. Timothy.

One misstep!

He had avoided it all through supper.

Afterward, Turner climbed back to his narrow room. For a moment he held his glove to his face again; then he suddenly crossed the room, jerked open the window, and sat on the sill dangling one leg out, not caring if he was shining brightly or not.

He watched the day begin to settle into sleep. It yawned out a white fog the sea breeze carried in close to shore and then left hovering there. Aside from the low ringing of the buoy offshore, it was all so quiet that Turner thought he could hear the tide pulling away from the gravelly beachhead. The merry flight of the bats around the steeple of First Congregational stilled, the blurred stars began to come out, and the first owl call sounded, low and sonorous. Everything faded from gray to grayer to grayer still, so that soon there was hardly any color, and then the gray was so dark that Turner couldn't see through it. And suddenly there was the moon, joking around in the haze and tossing a dull light that shimmered the fog to the color of old pearls.

Turner thought that maybe there were times when Maine would do. Then he heard the phone ring and, after a minute, Reverend Buckminster hollering up the stairs. "Turner, you're not climbing out onto the roof, are you?"


Turner went to bed and lay awake most of the night. He figured if he couldn't light out for the Territories and had to stay in Phippsburg, he'd need to find a place to breathe—someplace where no one else would come around, someplace where no one was even likely to come around. And it wouldn't hurt for it to be by the water.

So in the morning, Turner set his face to the sea breeze and followed it down Parker Head Road, across the peninsula, and toward the water. He was perfectly dressed in another startlingly white shirt, and not a soul whom he passed on the street or who eyed him through a parlor window—and there were plenty of souls who eyed him—could find a single blessed fault. He walked as if he were in the company of the elect, so that even Mrs. Cobb would have had to stretch to find something to remark on.

Turner hated himself for playing the minister's son. He desperately wanted to pull out his collar, or to run, or just to holler. But he couldn't. I am not my own, he thought, but belong body and soul to every parishioner in Phippsburg who might have a word to say about me to my father. And there seemed to be plenty of words and plenty of parishioners to say them.

So he went on toward the sea. He passed the yellow-shuttered house, half wishing that Mrs. Hurd were on the porch. He passed the picket fence of Mrs. Cobb's, steering as clear of it as if it were the wall of Jericho about to fall. He kept his face to the sea breeze as the line of white houses at the end of Parker Head sputtered, revived in a solid row, and finally gave out and let the road twist by itself up into cedars.

Turner held himself to a slow walk, his hands politely out of his pockets. (Who knew if Mrs. Cobb might still be watching him from some murky spot where dark things lurked?) But as he climbed into the thicket of trees and the air grew cooler, and as the road thinned to a path, and as the cedars gave way to birches, then aspens, then pines, Turner felt as though he were taking off the black robes that enveloped his father. He unbuttoned his stiff collar as he passed through into scrub pines and laid it on a branch. And then he was out in the open.

BOOK: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
10.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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