Matinicus, Friday 10 July
The light fades as I take up my pen, this book my only refuge against loneliness and the troubling omens of a strange new life. These past hours the most unsettling of all since my coming to the island, delivered up as wife to old man Isaac. A time of fire and death, and the arrival of a stranger whose presence in this house leaves me not a little afraid.
A chill fog having settled with the southwest breeze this noon, it was the smoke and not the sight of the stricken ship that first spoke of danger. My first thought was for the salt hay at the cove grown so close to harvest. Why, I wondered, had not the church bell been rung as is the custom here in case of fire? To be sure, such a thing might finish us all.
I saw it then, a glow to the west, the light shifting and hovering as if aloft, which as all know means a ship afire. One coming down full upon us.
Unseen feet pounded past me, setting the sheep to a fearful bleating as men shouted and made for the western cove and the place they call the Rumguzzle, so named for the launching of boats for rescue and salvage, much of it in the way of spirituous liquors. Grabbing my shawl from its hook, I called to Alice to pull the chowder from the fire, to turn the beans in a timely manner, and took myself there as well.
O, the eerie scene! The boys and few men not gone to the Banks for the summer fishing, Weston Philbrick, Squire Young and old Tyrus Wivell among them, and Tyrus himself half-addled even when not in rum, all of them, young and old, grown silent. Helpless and expectant amid the shale and dogweed of the cove, watching that awful, sulfurous glow until its direction and thus their action might be determined. The children were like puppies among them, happily freed from Weston’s schoolroom for the event, making a game of stamping out the cinders raining down upon us all.
That the ship had no steerage was certain; no one experienced as one must be to captain such a vessel would dare travel a fog-choked cut between islands as known for wrecks as is Matinicus. And though we could not as yet make her size, her rigging and sails were clearly ablaze.
Only moments later there came to us such a horrible creaking and grinding as ever I’ve heard, the ship doomed for certain now, fetched up hard as she was on the rocky ledges ringing this cursed place. And with an unholy holler that chilled my bones, the boys jumped to the rowing boats and made to pull off through the fog: the Crie brothers, Josh Ames, Daniel Norton and the like—the hope of plunder in their black little hearts. Isaac’s own Seth among them, though he be but five years.
’Twould serve his father right if he was drowned in this effort. For husband Isaac is at sea, if still living; the ship from which he’ll claim a share loaded with as much rum as bait, it is sure. That he too should be lost, I can only hope, for I might then be returned across the bay to Vinalhaven, and happily so. He was a month and a week first widowed and we but a day married when he left for the fishing, with naught but me to care for the unruly brood left him by his dead Patience. She who takes her final rest buried, it is said, with the babe that took her off rather than see itself born.
I was pulled from these thoughts by the sight of Weston on the surf-pounded shore below me. The color full upon his face, sleeves rolled high from his exertion, adding his cries to those of the laughing gulls wheeling unseen above us as he called to the young ones now heading off.
Look to survivors, lads, called he; and leave the salvaging for a time when the fog is not so thick.
Charged as he is with schooling such wild youth as grow here and with so many of their fathers gone now to the fishing, Weston tasks himself with their safety as well. Doubtless he feels there are few enough left as is; no need to lose yet more over such as this.
I had a thought of the chowder then, knowing Alice in her laziness would not think to give a stir to the pot. Mary, though she be but three years, has more wits about her than that one. Supper would surely burn; and there would be nothing but bread and the rest of the milking for the seven of us tonight, and Weston as schoolmaster, boarding with us for the term, certainly deserving of more.
Pulling my shawl about me and turning for home, I was stopped by Weston’s sudden shout, a strong foreboding taking me as I drew my head round. Wading urgently through the surf, he struggled toward something so dark and mammoth it seemed the devil himself coming among us. A seaman, I realized, half washing, half crawling from the waves. And as Weston pulled him to shore, old Wivell with his useless, rum-soaked brain latching to the other arm in like errand, I spied another of the kind bobbing face down not ten feet behind. Squire Young, loathe to soak himself on behalf of one so obviously lost, trying for the man instead with a gaffing pole.
I glanced then to my skirts where Mary clung, whimpering and runny-nosed, at my knee. Blonde and as rosy of cheek as an angel, she is not yet infected with the brutal glee such sights bring out in the others. ’Twill not be long before she too sets the cats ablaze for her evening’s entertainment, buries brothers too stupid to keep fast to the harbor in a squally sea. And with a prayer that supper not after all be burned, I turned and made for the house, pulling her stumbling and sniveling behind. There was the spinning yet to finish, the mending to tend.
In all, five men, living and dead, came ashore here this day. Four whites, three of them gone to God; and a Black Jack, as they call negro sailors here, barely alive. It was the black Weston pulled from the waters and brought to this very house; the injured white man, with knife wounds, it is said, taken off and put under Lydia Tolman’s care.
Thus it is I keep my own knife close, a thing that would surely turn my mother’s heart. The negro sleeps before the fire now, an immense creature taking his ease on the rag carpet Weston brought from his own chamber. Warm and safe among us while the fog presses thick without, as if to crush all in this house to very death.
Read an interview with Darcy Scott here.