When the Killing's Done
T.C. Boyle's most powerful and fully realized work yet-"terrifically exciting and unapologetically relevant" (The Washington Post).
Principally set on the wild Channel Islands off the coast of California, T.C. Boyle's new novel is a gripping adventure with a timely theme. Alma Boyd Takesue is a National Park Service biologist spearheading the efforts to save the islands' native creatures from invasive species. Her antagonist, Dave LaJoy, is a local businessman who is fiercely opposed to the killing of any animals whatsoever and will go to any lengths to subvert her plans. As their confrontation plays out in a series of scenes escalating in violence, drama, and danger, When the Killing's Done relates a richly humane tale about the dominion we attempt to exert, for better or worse, over the natural world.
The Wreck of the Beverly B.
Picture her there in the pinched little galley where you could barely stand up without cracking your head, her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she’d dutifully—and foolishly—tried to make so they could have something to keep them going, a good sport, always a good sport, though she’d woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago. She was wearing an oversized cable-knit sweater she’d fished out of her husband’s locker because the cabin was so cold, and every fiber of it seemed to chafe her skin as if she’d been flayed raw while she slept. She hadn’t brushed her hair. Or her teeth. She was having trouble keeping her balance, wondering if it was always this rough out here, but she was afraid to ask Till about it, or Warren either. She didn’t know the first thing about handling a boat or riding out a heavy sea or even reading a chart, as the two of them had been more than happy to remind her every chance they got, and Till told her she should just settle in and enjoy the ride. Her place was in the kitchen. Or rather, the galley. She was going to clean the fish and fry them and when the sun came out—if it came out—she would spread a towel on top of the cabin and rub a mixture of baby oil and iodine on her legs, lie back, shut her eyes and bask till they were a nice uniform brown.
It was only now, the boat pitching and rolling and her right hand vibrant with pain, that she realized her feet were wet, her socks clammy and clinging and her new white tennis shoes gone a dark saturate gray. And why were her feet wet? Because there was water on the galley deck. Not coffee—she’d swabbed that up as best she could with a rag—but water. Salt water. A thin bellying sheet of it riding toward her and then jerking back as the boat pitched into another trough. She would have had to sit heavily then, the bench rising up to meet her while she clung to the tabletop with both hands, as helpless in that moment as if she were strapped into one of those lurching rides at the amusement park Till seemed to love so much but that only made her feel as if her stomach had swallowed itself up like in that cartoon of the snake feeding its tail into its own jaws.
The cuffs of her blue jeans were wet, instantly wet, the boat riding up again and the water shooting back at her, more of it now, a shock of cold up to her ankles. She tried to call out, but her throat squeezed shut. The water fled down the length of the deck and came back again, deeper, colder. Do something! she told herself. Get up. Move! Fighting down her nausea, she pulled herself around the table hand over hand so she could peer up the three steps to where Till sat at the helm, his bad arm rigid as a stick, while Warren, his brother Warren, the ex-Marine, bossy, know-it-all, shoved savagely at him, fighting him for the wheel. She wanted to warn them, wanted to betray the water in the galley so they could do something about it, so they could stop it, fix it, put things to right, but Warren was shouting, every vein standing out in his neck and the spray exploding over the stern behind him like the whipping tail of an underwater comet. “Goddamn you, goddamn you to hell! Keep the bow to the fucking waves!” The ship lurched sideways, shuddering down the length of it. “You want to see the whole goddamn shitbox go down . . . ?”
Yes. That was the story. That was how it went. And no matter how often she told her own version of what had happened to her grandmother in the furious cold upwelling waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in a time so distant she had to shut her eyes halfway to develop a picture of it—sharper and clearer than her mother’s because her mother hadn’t been there any more than she had, or not in any conscious way—Alma always drew her voice down to a whisper for the payoff, the denouement, the kicker: “Nana was two months’ pregnant when that boat sank.”
She’d pause and make sure to look up, whether she was telling the story across the dining room table to one of her suitemates back when she was in college or a total stranger she’d sat next to on the airplane. “Two months’ pregnant. And she didn’t even know it.” And she’d pause again, to let the significance of that sink in. Her own mother would have been dead in the womb, washed ashore, food for the crabs, and she herself wouldn’t exist, wouldn’t be sitting there with her hair still wet from the shower or threaded in a ponytail through the gap in back of her baseball cap, wouldn’t be teasing out all the nuances and existential implications of the story that was the tale of the world before her, if it weren’t for the toughness—in body, mind and spirit—of the woman she remembered only in her frailty and decrepitude.
Of course, she felt the coldness of it too, the aleatory tumble that swallowed up the unfit and unlucky while the others multiplied. And if there were a thousand generations of shipwrecks in the same family, would their descendants develop gills and webbed toes or would they just learn to stay ashore and ignore those seductive unfettered islands glittering out there on the horizon? She was alive, in the crux of creation, along with everything else sparking in the very instant of her telling, and one day she’d have children herself, add to the sum of things, work the DNA up the ladder. Her mother’s father was dead. And his brother along with him. And her mother’s mother should have been dead too. That was the thing, wasn’t it?
The month was March, the year 1946. Alma’s grandfather—Tilden Matthew Boyd—was six months home from the war in the Pacific that had left him with a withered right arm shorn of meat above the elbow, nothing there but a scar like a seared omelet wrapped around the bone. Her grandmother, young and hopeful and with hair as dark and abundant as her own, broke a bottle over the bow of the Beverly B. while Till, restored to her from the vortex of the war in a miraculous dispensation more actual and solid than all the cathedrals in the world, sat at the helm and the gulls dipped overhead and the clouds swept in on a northwesterly breeze to chase the sun over the water. Beverly was happy because Till was happy and they ate their sandwiches and drank the cheap champagne out of paper cups in the cabin because the wind was stiff and the chop wintry and white-capped. Warren was there too that first day, the day of the launching, a walking Dictaphone of unasked-for advice, ringing clichés and long-winded criticism. But he drank the champagne and he showed up two weekends in a row to help Till tinker with the engines and install the teak cabinets and fiddle rails Till had made in the garage of their rented house that needed paint and window screens for the mosquitoes and drainpipes to keep the winter rains from shearing off the roof and dousing anybody standing at the front door with a key in her hand and a load of groceries in both her aching arms. But Till had no desire to fix the house—it didn’t belong to them anyway. The Beverly B., though—that was a different story.
She was a sleek twenty-eight-foot all-wood cabin cruiser, solid-built, with butternut bulkheads and teak trim throughout, a real beauty, but she’d been dry-docked and neglected during the war, from which her owner, a Navy man, had never returned. Till spotted the boat listing into the weeds at the back of the boatyard and had tracked down the Navy man’s quietly grieving parents—their boy had been burned to death in a slick of oil after a kamikaze pilot steered himself into the St. Lo during the battle of Leyte Gulf—in whose living room he’d sat with his hat perched on one knee while they fingered the photographs and medals that were their son’s last relics. He sat there for two full hours, sipping tepid Lipton tea with a bitter slice of lemon slowly revolving atop it, before he mentioned the boat, and when he did finally mention it, they both stared at him as if he’d crawled up out of the pages of the family album to perch there on the velour cushions of the maplewood couch in the shrouded and barely lit living room they’d inhabited like ghosts since before they could remember. The mother—she must have been in her fifties, stout but with the delicate wrists and ankles of a girl and a face infused with outrage and grief in equal measures— threw back her head and all but yodeled, “That old thing?” Then she looked to her husband and dropped her voice. “I don’t guess Roger’ll be needing it now, will he?”
Over the course of the fall and winter, Till had devoted himself to the task of refitting that boat, haunting the boatyard and the ship chandlery and fooling with the engines until he was so smudged with oil Beverly told anybody who wanted to listen that he half the time looked like he was rigged out in blackface for some old-timey minstrel show. Her joke. Till in blackface. And she used it on Mrs. Viola down at the market and on Warren and the girl he was seeing, Sandra, with the prim mouth and the sweaters she wore so tight you could see every line of her brassiere, straps and cups and all. Careful, that was what Till was. Careful and precise and unerring. He never mentioned it, never complained, but he’d given his right arm for his country and he was determined to keep the left one for himself. And for her. For her, above all.
He had to learn how to make it do the work of his right arm and wrist and hand, punching tickets for the Santa Monica Boulevard line while people looked on impatiently and tried to be polite out of a kind of grudging recognition, the dead hand clenching the ticket stub and the newly dominant one doing the punching, and he learned to use that hand to fold his paycheck over once and present it to her like a ticket itself, a ticket to a moveable feast to which she and she alone was invited. At night, late, after supper and the radio, he’d let the hand play over her nakedness as if it knew no impediment, and that was all right, that was as good as it was going to get, because he was left -handed now and always would be till the day he was gone. And when they launched the Beverly B., he was as gentle and cautious with his boat as he was with her in their marriage bed, the right arm swinging stiffly into play when the wheel revolved under pressure of the left . The first few times they never took her out of sight of the harbor. Till said he wanted to get a feel for her, wanted to break her in, listen to what the twin Chrysler engines had to say when he pushed the throttle all the way forward and watched the tachometer climb to 2,800 RPM.
Then came that Friday evening late in March when she and Till and Warren motored out of the harbor on a course for the nearest of the northern Channel Islands, for Anacapa and the big one beyond it, Santa Cruz, because that was where the fish were, the lingcod as long as your arm, the abalone you only had to pluck off the rocks and more plentiful than the rocks themselves, the lobsters so accommodating they’d crawl right up the anchor line and dunk themselves in the pot. A man at work had told Till all about it. Anybody could go out to Catalina—hell, everybody did go out there, day-trippers and Saturday sailors and the rest—but if you wanted something akin to virgin territory, the northern islands, up off of Oxnard and Santa Barbara, that was the place to go. They’d brought along the two biggest ice chests she’d been able to find at Sears, Roebuck, both of them bristling with the dark slender necks of the beer bottles Warren assured her would have vanished by the time all those fish fillets and boiled lobsters were ready to nestle down there between their sheets of ice for a nice long sleep on the way home.
“We’ll have fish for a week, a week at least,” Till kept saying. “And when they’re gone we can just go out again and again after that.” He gave her a look. He was at the helm, the weather calm, the evening haze with its opalescent tinge clinging to the water before them and the harbor sliding into the wake behind, the beer in his hand barely an encumbrance as he perched there like some sea captain out of a Jack London story. “Which,” he said, knowing how sensitive she’d been on the subject of sinking money into the boat, “should cut our grocery bill by half, half at least.”
She’d made sandwiches at home—liverwurst on white with plenty of mustard and mayo, ham on rye, tuna fish salad—and when they settled down in the cabin to take big hungry bites out of them and wet their throats with the beer that was so cold it went down like mountain spring water, it was as if they’d fallen off the edge of the world. After dinner she’d sat out on the stern deck for a long while, the air sweet and unalloyed, everything still but for the steady thrum of the engines that was like the working of a sure steady heart, the heart at the center of the Beverly B., unflagging and assured. There were dolphins, aggregations of them, silvered and pinked as they sluiced through the water and raced the hull to feel the electricity of it. They seemed to be grinning at her, welcoming her, as happy in their element as she was in hers. And what was that story she’d read—was it in the newspaper or Reader’s Digest? The one about the boy on his surfboard taken out to sea on a riptide and the sharks coming for him till the dolphins showed up grinning and drove them off because dolphins are mammals, warm-blooded in the cold sea, and they despise the sharks as the cold agents of death they are. Did they nose the boy’s surfboard past the riptide and back in to shore, guiding him all the way like guardian angels? Maybe, maybe they did.
The last of the sun was tangled up in the mist ahead of them, due west and west the sun doth sink, the lines of a nursery rhyme scattered in her head. She lifted her feet to the varnished rail and studied her toes, seeing where the polish had faded and thinking to refresh it when she had the chance, when the boys were fishing in the morning and she was stretched out in the sun without a care in the world. The engines hummed. A whole squadron of dark beating birds shot up off the water and looped back again as if they were attached to a flexible band, and not a one of them made the slightest sound. She lit a cigarette, the wind in her hair, and watched her husband through the newly washed windows as he held lightly to the wheel while his brother sat on the upholstered bench beside him, talking, always talking, but in dumb show now because the cabin door was shut and she couldn’t hear a word.
She finished her cigarette and let the butt launch itself into the wind on a tail of red streamers. It was getting chilly, the sky darkening, closing round them like a lid set to an infinite iron pot. One more minute and she’d go in and listen to them talk, men’s talk, about the pie in the sky, the fish in the sea, the carburetors and open-faced reels and lathes and varnishes and tools and brushes and calibrators that made them men, and she’d open another beer too, a celebratory last beer to top off the celebratory three—or was it four?—she’d already had. It was then, just as she was about to rise, that the sea suddenly broke open like a dark spewing mouth and spat something at her, a hurtling shadowy missile that ran straight for her face till she snapped her head aside and it crashed with a reverberant wet thumping slap into the glass of the cabin door and both men wheeled round to see what it was.
She let out a scream. She couldn’t help herself. This thing was alive and flapping there at her feet like some sort of sea bat, as long as her forearm, shivering now and springing up like a jack-in-the-box to fall back again and flap itself across the deck on the tripod of its wings and tail. Wings? It was—it was a fish, wasn’t it? But here was Till, Warren bundled behind him, his face finding the middle passage between alarm and amusement, and he was stepping on the thing, slamming his foot down, hard, bending quickly to snatch the slick wet length of it up off the deck and hold it out to her like an offering in the grip of his good hand. “God, Bev, you gave me a scare—I thought you’d gone and pitched overboard with that scream.”
Warren was laughing behind the sheen of merriment in his eyes. The boat steadied and kept on. “This calls for a toast,” he shouted, raising the beer bottle that was perpetual with him. “Bev’s caught the first fish!”
She was over her fright. But it wasn’t fright—she wasn’t one of those clinging weepy women like you saw in the movies. She’d just been startled, that was all. And who wouldn’t have been, what with this thing, blue as gunmetal above and silver as a stack of coins below, coming at her like a torpedo with no warning at all? “Jesus Lord,” she said, “what is it?”
Till held it out for her to take in her own hand, and she was smiling now, on the verge of a good laugh, a shared laugh, but she backed up against the rail while the sky closed in and the wake unraveled behind her. “Haven’t you ever seen a flying fish before?” Till was saying. He made a clucking sound with his tongue. “Where’ve you been keeping yourself, woman?” he said, ribbing her. “This is no kitchen or sitting room or steam-heated parlor. You’re out in the wide world now.”
“A toast!” Warren crowed. “To Bev! A-number-one fisherwoman!” And he was about to tip back the bottle when she took hold of his forearm, her hair whipping in the breeze. “Well then,” she said, “in that case, I guess you’re just going to have to get me another beer.”
She woke dry-mouthed, a faint rising vapor lifting somewhere behind her eyes, as if her head had been pumped full of helium while she slept. In the berth across from her, snug under the bow as it skipped and hovered and rapped gently against the cushion of the waves, Till was asleep, his face turned to the wall that wasn’t a wall but the planking of the hull of the ship that held them suspended over a black chasm of water. Below her, down deep, there were things immense and minute, whales, copepods, sharks and sardines, crabs infinite—the bottom alive with them in their horny chitinous legions, the crabs that tore the flesh from the drowned things and fed the scraps into the shearing miniature shredders of their mouths. All this came to her in the instant of waking, without confusion or dislocation—she wasn’t in the double bed they were still making payments on or stretched out on the narrow mattress in the spare room at her parents’ house where she’d waited through a thousand hollow echoing nights for Till to come home and reclaim her. She was at sea. She knew the rocking of the boat as intimately now as if she’d never known anything else, felt the muted drone of the engines deep inside her, in the thump of her heart and the pulse of her blood. At sea. She was at sea.
She sat up. A shaft of moonlight cut through the cabin behind her, slicing the table in two. Beyond that, a dark well of shadow, and beyond the shadow the steps to the bridge and the green glow of the controls where Warren, with his bunched muscles and engraved mouth, sat piloting them through the night. She needed—urgently—to use the lavatory. The head, that is. And water—she needed a glass of water from the tap in the head that was attached to the forty-gallon tank in the hold that Till had made such a fuss about because you couldn’t waste water, not at sea, where you never knew when you were going to get more. It had got to the point where she was almost afraid to turn on the tap for fear of losing a single precious drop. What was that poem from high school? “Water, water, every where/Nor any drop to drink.”
The mariner, that was it. The ancient mariner. And he just had to go and kill that bird, didn’t he? The albatross. And what was an albatross anyway? Something big and white, judging from the illustration in the book she’d got out of the library. Like a dinosaur, maybe, only not as big. Probably extinct now. But if albatrosses weren’t extinct and one of them came flapping down out of the sky and perched itself on the bow right this minute, she wouldn’t even think about shooting it. Uh-uh. Not her. For one thing, she didn’t have a gun, and even if she had one she wouldn’t know how to use it, but then that wasn’t the point, was it? If the poem had taught her anything—and she could hear the high-pitched hectoring whine of her twelfth-grade English teacher, Mr. Parminter, rising up somewhere out of the depths of her consciousness—it was about nature, the power of it, the hugeness. Don’t press your luck. Don’t upset the balance. Let the albatross be. Let all the creatures be, for that matter . . . except maybe the lobsters. She smiled in the dark at the recollection of Mr. Parminter and that time that seemed like a century ago, when poems and novels and theorems and equations were the whole of her life. She could hardly believe it had only been four years since she’d graduated.
Her bare feet swung out of the berth. The deck was solid, cool, faintly damp. She was wearing a flannel nightgown that covered her all the way to her toes, though she wished she’d been able to wear something a little sheerer for Till’s sake—but that would have to wait until they were back home in the privacy of their own bedroom. She was modest and decent, not like the other girls who’d gone out and cheated on their men overseas the first chance they got, and she just didn’t feel comfortable showing herself off in such close quarters with Warren there, even if he was Till’s brother. She’d seen the way Warren looked at her sometimes, and it was no different from what she’d had to endure since she’d begun to develop in the eighth grade, leers and wolf whistles and all the rest. She didn’t blame him. He was a man. He couldn’t help himself. And she was proud of her figure, which was her best feature because she’d never be what people would call pretty, or conventionally pretty anyway—she just didn’t want to give him or anybody else the wrong idea. She was a one-man woman and that was that. Unlike Sandra, who looked as if she’d been around and who’d shown herself off in a two-piece swimsuit when they’d run the boat down to San Pedro the week before—in a breeze that had her in goose-bumps all over and wrapped in Warren’s jacket by the time they got back to the dock. But thank God for small mercies: Sandra had been unable to join them this time around. She had an engagement in North Hollywood, whatever that meant, but then that wasn’t Beverly’s worry, it was Warren’s.
She slipped into the head, used the toilet, drained her glass of water and then drained another. Her stomach was queasy. That last beer, that was what it was. She ran her fingers through her hair and felt all the body gone out of it, though she’d washed and set it just that morning. Or yesterday morning, technically. But she was at sea now and she’d have to make do—and so would Till, who expected her to be made-up and primped and showing herself off like one of the movie stars in the magazines. She cranked the hand pump to flush, rinsed her hands—precious water, precious—eased the door open and shut it behind her. As she slid back into bed she was thinking she’d just have to tie her hair up in a kerchief, at least till they got there and she could take a swim, depending on how cold the water was, of course. Then she was thinking of the mariner again and of Mr. Parminter, who wore a bow tie to class every day and could recite “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by heart. Then she was asleep.
When she woke again it was daylight and Till’s berth was empty. She tried to focus on the deck but the deck wouldn’t stay put. A great angry fist seemed to be slamming at the hull with a booming repetitive shock that concussed the thin mattress and the plank beneath it and worked its way through her till she could feel it in the hollow of her chest, in her head, in her teeth. On top of it, every last thing, every screw and bolt and scrap of metal up and down the length of the boat, rattled and whined with a roused insistent drone as if a hive of yellow jackets were trapped in the hull. And what was that smell? Mold, hidden rot, the sour-milk reek of her own unwashed body. Before she could think, she was leaning over and spewing up everything inside her into the bucket she’d kept at her bedside for emergencies—the last of it, sharp and acerbic as a dose of vinegar, coming on a long glutinous string of saliva. She shook her head to clear it, wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. Then she got up, fumbling for her blue jeans and a sweater, Till’s sweater, rough as burlap but the warmest thing she could find, and how had it gotten so cold?
It took her a while, just sitting there and picturing dry land, a beach on the island, a rock offshore, anything that wasn’t moving, before she was able to get up and work her way into the galley. She filled the percolator with water, poured coffee into the strainer directly from the can without bothering to measure it—she could barely stand, let alone worry about the niceties, and they’d want it strong in any case—and then she set the pot on the burner, but it kept tilting and sliding till she hit on the idea of wedging it there with the big cast-iron pot she intended to make chowder in when they got where they were going. If they ever got there. And what had happened? Had the weather gone crazy all of a sudden? Was it a typhoon? A hurricane?
She looked a fright, she knew it, and she’d have to do something about her hair, but she worked her way up the juddering steps to the bridge and flung herself down on the couch there—or the bench she’d converted to a couch by sewing ties to a set of old plaid cushions she’d found in her parents’ garage. The bridge was close, breath-steamed, smelling of men’s sweat and the muck at the bottom of the sea. Till was right there, just across from her, sitting on his bench at the controls, so near she could have reached out and touched him. The wheel jumped and jumped again, and he fought it with his left hand while forcing the throttle forward and back in the clumsy stiff immalleable grip of the other one. Warren leaned over him, grim-faced. Neither seemed to have noticed her.
It was only then that she became aware of the height of the waves coming at them, rearing black volcanoes of water that took everything out from under the boat and put it right back again, all the while blasting the windows as if there were a hundred fire trucks out there with their hoses all turned on at once. And here was the rhythm, up, down, up, and a rinse of the windows with every repetition. “Where are we?” she heard herself ask.
Till never looked up. He was frozen there, nothing moving but his arms and shoulders. “Don’t know,” Warren said, glancing over his shoulder. “Halfway between Anacapa and Santa Cruz, but with the way this shit’s blowing, who could say?”
“What we need,” Till said, his voice reduced and tentative, as if he really didn’t want to have to form his thoughts aloud, “is to find a place to anchor somewhere out of this wind.”
“That’d be Scorpion Bay, according to the charts, but that’s”—there was a crash, as if the boat had hit a truck head-on, and Warren, all hundred and eighty Marine-honed pounds of him, was flung up against the window as if he were a bag full of nothing. He braced himself, back pressed to the glass. Tried for a smile and failed. “That’s somewhere out ahead of us, straight into the blow.”
Warren shook his head, held tight to the rail that ran round the bridge. “Could be two miles, could be five. I can’t make out a fucking thing, can you?”
“No. But at least we should be okay for depth. There’s a lot of water under us. A whole lot.”
She looked out ahead of them to where the bow dipped to its pounding, but she couldn’t see anything but waves, one springing up off the back of the other, infinite and impatient, coming and coming and coming. Her stomach fell. She thought she might vomit again, but there was nothing left to bring up. “What happened to the weather?” she asked, raising her voice to be heard over the wind, but it wasn’t a question really, more an observation in search of some kind of assurance. She wanted them to tell her that this was nothing they couldn’t handle, just a little blow that would peter out before long, after which the sun would come back to illuminate the world and all would be as calm and peaceful as it was last night when the waves lapped the hull and the sandwiches and beer went down and stayed down in the pure pleasure of the moment. No one answered. She wasn’t scared, not yet, because all this was so new to her and because she trusted Till—Till knew what he was doing. He always did. “I put on coffee,” she said, though the thought of it, of the smell and taste of it and the way it clung viscously to the inside of the cup in a discolored slick, made her feel weak all over again. “You boys”—she had to force the words out—“think you might want a cup?”
Then she was back down in the galley, banging her elbows and knees, flung from one position to another, and when she reached for the coffeepot it jumped off the stove of its own volition and scalded her right hand. Before she could register the shock of it, the pot was on the deck, the top spun off and the steaming grounds and six good cups of black coffee spewed across the galley. Her first thought was for the deck—the coffee would stain, eat through the varnish like acid—and before she looked to her burn she was down on her hands and knees, caroming from one corner of the cabin to the other like the silver ball in a pinball machine, dabbing at the mess as she went by with a rag that became so instantaneously and unforgivingly hot she burned her hand a second time. When finally she’d got the deck cleaned up as best she could, she fell back into the bench at the table, angry now, angry at the boat and the sea and the men who’d dragged her out here into this shitty little rattling sea-stinking jail cell, and she swore she’d never go out again, never, no matter what promises they made. “There’ll be no coffee and I’m sorry, I am,” she said aloud. “You hear that?” she called out, directing her voice toward the steps at the back of the cabin. “No coffee today, no breakfast, no nothing. I’m through!”
The pain of the burn sparked then, assailing her suddenly with an insidious throbbing and prickling, the blisters already forming and bursting, and she thought of getting up and rubbing butter into the reddened flesh on the back of her hand and between her scalded fingers, but she couldn’t move. She felt heavy all of a sudden, heavier than the boat, heavier than the sea, so heavy she was immovable. She would sit, that was what she would do. Sit right there and ride it out.
That was when the water started coming in through the forward hatch. That was when her feet got wet and she began to feel afraid. That was when she thought for the first time of the life jackets tucked under the seats in the stern that was awash with the piled-up waves—and that was when she pulled herself along the edge of the table to look up into the bridge and see her husband and brother-in-law fighting over the controls even as she heard the engines sputter and catch and finally give out. She caught her breath. Something essential had gone absent in a way that was wrong, deeply wrong, in violation of everything she’d known and believed in since the moment they’d left shore. The ghost had gone out of the machine.
In the sequel she was on the bridge, trying to make Till and Warren understand about the water in the cabin, water that didn’t belong there, water that was coming in through a breach in the forward hatch that was underwater itself before it shook free of the weight of the waves and sank back down again. But Till wasn’t listening. Till, her rock, the man who’d survived the mangling of his arm and the fiery blast of shrapnel that was lodged still in his legs and secreted beneath the constellation of scars on the broad firmament of his back, sat slumped over the controls, distracted and drawn and punching desperately at the starter as Warren, wrapped in a yellow slicker and cursing with every breath, fought his way out the door to the stern while the wind sang through the cabin and all the visible world lost its substantiality.
Disbelieving, outraged, Till jerked at the wheel, but the wheel wouldn’t respond. The boat lolled, staggered, a wave rising up out of nowhere to hit them broadside and drive down the hull till she was sure they were going to capsize. She might have screamed. Might have cried out uselessly, her breath coming hard and fast. It was all she could do to hold on, her jaws clamped, the spray taking flight up and over the cabin as Warren pried open the hatch to the engine compartment, some sort of tool clutched in one hand—Warren, Warren out there on the deck to save the day, but what could he hope to do? How could anybody fix anything in this chaos?
He was a blotch of yellow in a world stripped of color, there one moment and gone the next, a big breaching wave flinging him back against the cabin door and pouring half an ocean into the rictus of the engine well. Till snatched a look at her then, his face drained and hopeless. Warren, the figure of Warren, flailing limbs and gasping mouth, slammed at the window and rose impossibly out of the foam, the slicker twisted back from his shoulders— inadequate, ridiculous, a child’s jacket, a doll’s—and then he was down again and awash. In the next instant Till sprang to his feet, twisting up and away from the controls, the wheel swinging wildly, lights blinking across the console, the scuppers inundated, the bilge pump choking on its own infirmity. He took hold of her wrist, jerking her up out of her seat, and suddenly they were through the door and into the fury of the weather, the wind tearing the breath out of her lungs, the next wave rearing up to knock her to her knees with a fierce icy slap, and she wasn’t sick anymore and she wasn’t tired or worn or dulled. Everything in her, everything she was, howled at its highest pitch. They were going to drown, all three of them, she could see that now. Drown and die and wash up for the crabs.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Warren, unsteady, hair painted to his face, made to seize Till’s arms as if he meant to dance with him, even as Till shrugged him off and bent to release the skiff .
“It’s our only chance!” Till roared into the wind, his legs tangled and rotating out of sync like a drunken man’s. He flailed at the shell of the skiff, jerked the lines in a fury.
“You’re nuts!” Warren shouted. “Out of your fucking mind!” He was staggering too, fighting for balance, and so was she, helpless, the waves driving at her. The boat heaved, dead beneath their feet. “We won’t last five minutes in this sea!”
But here was the skiff, released and free and riding high, and they were in it, Warren leaping to the oars, no thought of the life jackets because the life jackets, for all their newness and viability and their promise to keep men and women and children afloat indefinitely even in the biggest seas, were tucked neatly beneath that bench in the stern of the Beverly B. and the Beverly B. was swamped. Stalled. Going down.
Heavily, like a waterlogged post in a swollen river, the boat shifted away from them. They’d painted her hull white to contrast with the natural wood of the cabin— a cold pure unblemished white, the white of sheets and carnations—and that whiteness shone now like the ghost image on a negative of a photograph that would never be developed. Unimpeded, the waves crashed at the windows of the cabin and then the glass was gone and the Beverly B. shifted wearily and dropped down and came back up again. The decks were below water now, only the cabin’s top showing pale against the dimness of the early morning and the spray that rode the wind like a shroud.
Beverly was there to witness it, huddled wet and shivering in the bow of the skiff, Till beside her, but she wasn’t clinging to him, not clinging at all because she was too rigid with the need to get out of this, to get away, to get to land. No regrets. Let the sea have the boat and all the time and money they’d lavished on her, so long as it spared them, so long as the island was out there in the gloom and it came to them in a rush of foam and black bleeding rock. They rode up over two waves, three, and they were on a wild ride now, wilder than anything the amusement park would ever dare offer, and all at once they were in a deep pit lined with walls of aquamarine glass, everything held suspended for a single shimmering moment before the walls collapsed on them. She felt the plunge, the force of it, and all of a sudden she was swimming free, the chill riveting her, and it was instinct that drove her away from the skiff and back to the Beverly B. for something to hold fast to—and there, there it was, rising up and plunging down, and she with it. The wind tore at her eyes. The salt blistered her throat.
She didn’t see Warren, didn’t see where he was, but then she’d got turned around and he could be anywhere. And Till—she remembered him coming toward her, his good arm cutting the black sheet of the water, until he wasn’t coming anymore. Where was he? The waves threw up ramparts and she couldn’t see. He was calling her, she was sure of it, in the thinnest distant echo of a cracked and winnowed voice, Till’s voice, sucked away on the wind until it was gone. “Where are you?” she called. “Till? Till?”
The waves took her breath away. Her bones ached. Her teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. A period of time elapsed— she couldn’t have said how long—and nothing changed. She clung to the heaving corpse of the Beverly B. because the Beverly B. was the only thing there was. At some point, because they were binding her feet, she ducked her head beneath the surface to tear off her tennis sneakers and release them into the void. Then she loosed her blue jeans, the cuffs as heavy as lead weights.
When finally the Beverly B. cocked herself up on a wave as big as a continent and then sank down out of sight, she fought away from the vortex it left in its wake and found herself treading water. The waves lifted and released her, lifted and released her. She was alone. Deserted. The ship gone, Till gone, Warren. She could feel something flapping inside her like a set of wings, her own panic, the panic that whipped her into a sudden slashing breaststroke and as quickly subsided, and then she was treading water again and she went on treading water for some portion of eternity until there was nothing left in her arms. Till’s sweater dragged at her. It was too much, too heavy, and it gave her nothing, not warmth, not comfort, not Till or the feel or smell of him. She shrugged out of it, snatched a breath, and let it drift down and away from her like the exoskeleton of a creature new-made, born of water and salt and the penetrant chill.
She tried floating on her back but the wind drove the sea up her nose and into her mouth so that she came up coughing and spewing. Had she drift ed off ? Was she drowning? Giving up? She fought the rising fear with her spent arms and the feeble wash of her spent legs. Aft er a time, she lost all feeling in her limbs and she went down with a lungful of air and the air brought her back up, once, twice, again. She thrashed for a handhold, for anything, for substance, but there was no solid thing in all that transient medium where the dolphins grinned and the flying fish flew and the sharks came and went as they pleased.
And Till? Where was Till? He could have been right there, ten feet away, and she wouldn’t have known it. She closed her eyes, snatched a breath, let herself drift down and let herself come back again. Once more. Could she do it once more? She’d never known despair, but it was in her now, colder than the water, creeping numbly up from her feet and into her ankles and legs and torso, overwhelming her, claiming her degree by degree. Water, water every where. Just as she was about to surrender, to open herself up, open wide and let the harsh insistent unforgiving current flow through her and tug her down to where the waves couldn’t touch her ever again, the ocean gave her something back: it was a chest, an ice chest, floating low in the water under the weight of its burden. A silver thing, silver as the belly of her fish. Sears, Roebuck. Guaranteed for life. She claimed it as her own, and though she couldn’t get atop it, it was there and it sustained her as the wind bit and the sun rose up out of the gloom to parch her lips and scorch the taut white mask of her upturned face.
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