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Excerpt

Excerpt

When the Killing's Done

THE WRECK OF THE BEVERLY B.

T. Coraghessan Boyle

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 cableknit 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 . . . ?"

The month was March, the year 1946. Seaman First Class 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. Beverly, young and hopeful and with hair as dark and
abundant as any combed-out movie star's, 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 windowscreens 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's 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
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, and 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
out there 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 into 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 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 which
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 goosebumps 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 was 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 cabin 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 in his chair 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 was 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."

"How far?"

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 to 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 in 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 controls, but the
controls 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 till 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 drifted off? Was she drowning? Giving up? She fought the
rising fear with her spent arms and the feeble wash of her spent
legs. After 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.

She had never been so thirsty in all her life. Had never known
what it was, what it truly meant, when she read in the magazines of
the Bedouin tumbling from their camels and their camels dying
beneath them or the G.I.'s stalking the rumor of Rommel's Panzers
across the dunes of North Africa and water only a mirage, because
she'd lived in a house with a tap in a place where the grass was
wet with dew in the morning and you could get a Coca-Cola at any
lunch counter or in the machine at the service station around the
corner. If she was thirsty, she drank. That was all.

Now she knew. Now she knew what it was like to go without, to
feel the talons clawing at your throat, the tongue furred and
bloating in the tomb of your mouth, barely able to swallow, to
breathe. There was ice in the chest --- and beer, chilled beer, the
bottles clinking and chirping with the rhythm of the waves --- but
she didn't dare crack the lid, even for an instant. It was the air
inside that kept her afloat and if she lifted the lid the air would
rush out and where would she be then? The bottles clinked. Her
throat swelled. The sun beat at her face. But this was a special
brand of torture, reserved just for her, worse than anything
devised by the most sadistic Jap commandant, and she kept wondering
what she'd done to deserve it --- the ice right there, the beer,
the sweet cold sparkling pale golden liquid in the bottle that
would shine with condensation just inches away, and she dying of
thirst.

She swallowed involuntarily at the thought of it, the lining of
her throat as raw as when she'd had tonsillitis as a girl and
twisted in agony with the blinds closed and the starched rigid
sheets biting into her till her mother came like an angel of mercy
with ginger ale in a tall cold glass, with sherbet, Jell-o, ice
cubes made of Welch's grape juice to suck and roll over her tongue
and clench between her teeth till all the moisture was gone. Her
mother's hand reached out to her, she saw it, saw it right there
framed against the waves, and her mother's face and the dripping
glass poised in her hand. It was too much to bear. She gave in and
wet her lips with seawater, though she knew she shouldn't, knew it
was wrong and would only make things worse, and yet she couldn't
help herself, her tongue probing and lapping as if it weren't
attached to her at all. The relief was instantaneous, flooding her
like a drug --- water, there was water inside her. But then, almost
immediately, her throat swelled shut and her cracked lips began to
bleed.

To bleed. That was the secondary problem: blood. Both
her elbows were scraped and raw and there was a deep irregular gash
on the back of her left hand, the one the scalding coffee hadn't
touched. How it had got there, she couldn't say, and she was so
numb from the cold she couldn't feel the sting of it, though
clearly it would need stitches to close the wound and there'd be a
scar, and for some time now she'd been idly examining the torn
flesh there, thinking she'd have to see a doctor when they got back
and already making up a little speech for him, how she'd want a
really top-notch man because she just couldn't stomach having her
skin spoiled, not at her age. But she was bleeding in the here and
now, each wave washing the gash anew and extracting from it a pale
tincture of pinkish liquid that dissolved instantly and was gone.
That liquid was blood. And blood attracted sharks.

Again the flap of panic. Her legs trailed behind her like lures,
like a provocation, like bait, and she couldn't see them, could
barely feel them. If the sharks came --- when they came --- she'd
have no defense. She was trapped in a childhood nightmare, a
vestigial dream of the time before there was land, when all the
creatures there were floated free amidst the flotilla of shining
jaws that would swallow them. She tried to hold her hand up out of
the water. Tried not to think about what was beneath her, behind
her, rising even now from the lazy depths like a balloon trailing
across the sky at dusk. But she had to think. Had to terrify
herself just to stay alive.

For as long as the ice chest had been there she'd maneuvered
around it, straddling it like an equestrian as it rode beneath the
clamp of her thighs, pushing it all the way down to tamp it with
her feet and perch tentatively atop the tenuous wavering shelf of
it, lying flat with its lid tucked between her abdomen and breasts
so that her back was arched and her legs could spread wide for
balance. Now she tried to huddle atop it, to kneel beneath the full
weight of her limbs and torso as if she were praying --- and she
was praying, she was --- struggling to hold her gashed hand clear
of the water and balance there like an acrobat stalled on the high
wire, but the waves wouldn't allow it. She kept slipping down while
the cooler bobbed up and away from her so that she had to swim free
and snatch it back in a single searing beat of white-hot terror,
thinking only of a mute streaking shape lunging out of the depths
to snatch her up in its basket of teeth.

She'd seen a shark only once in her life. It was on the Santa
Monica pier, just after Till had come home from overseas. They'd
walked on the beach for hours and then promenaded all the way to
the end of the pier, her arm in his, the stripped pale boards
rocking gently beneath their feet and the sea air deliciously cool
against their skin. She was so alive in that moment, so attuned to
Till and his transformation from the recollected to the actual, to
the flesh, to the hand round her waist and the voice murmuring in
her ear, that the smallest things thrilled her with their novelty,
as if no one had ever conceived of them before. A paper cone of
cotton candy, so intensely pink it was otherworldly, seemed as
strange to her as if it had been delivered there by Martians from
outer space. Ditto the tattooed man exhibiting himself in his
bathing trunks in the hope of spare change and the eighty-year-old
beauty queen in the two-piece --- even the taste of the burger with
chopped raw onions and plenty of catsup they ate standing under the
sunstruck awning of the stand at the foot of the pier that was like
no other burger she'd ever had. Her feet weren't even on the
ground. They were there in the flesh, both of them, she and Till,
strolling along like any normal couple who could go home to bed
anytime the urge took them, day or night, or go get a highball and
listen to the jukebox in the corner of some dark roadhouse or drive
slow and sweet along Ocean Boulevard with the windows down and the
breeze fanning their hair. It was her dream made concrete. But
then, right there in the middle of that dream, was the shark.

There was a crowd gathered at the far end of the pier and they'd
gone toward it casually, out of idle curiosity, people looping this
way and that, little kids squirming through to the front for a
closer view, and there it was, more novelty, the first shark she'd
ever seen outside of a picture book. It was suspended by its tail
on a thick braid of cable that held it, dripping, just above the
bleached boards of the dock. The fisherman --- a Negro, and that
was a novelty too, a Negro fisherman on the Santa Monica pier ---
stood just off to the left of it while his companion, another
Negro, took his photograph with a Brownie camera. "Hold steady
now," the second man said. "Less have a smile. C'mon, give us a
grin."

A woman beside her made a noise in her throat, an admixture of
disgust and fascination. "What is it?" the woman said. "A
swordfish?"

The first man, the fisherman, smiled wide and the camera
clicked. "You see a sword?" he asked rhetorically. "I don't see no
sword."

"It's a dolphin," somebody said.

"Ain't no dolphin," the fisherman retorted, enjoying himself
immensely. "Ain't no tunafish neither." He bent close to the thing,
to the half-moon of the gill slit and the staring eye, and then
cupped a hand over the unresisting snout and tugged upward. "See
them teeth?"

And there they were, suddenly revealed, a whole landscape of
stacked and serrated teeth running off into the terra incognita of
the dark gullet, and it came to her that this was a shark, the
scourge of the sea, the one thing that preyed on all the rest, that
rose up in a blanket of foam to ravage a seal or maim a surfer and
ignite an inflammatory headline out of La Jolla or Redondo Beach
that everybody forgot about a week later.

"What this is, what you looking at right now? This a great white
shark, seven feet six inches long. As bad as it gets. And this
one's not much more than a baby. Hell, they five feet long when
they come out their mother."

The crowd pressed in. Till's eyes were gleaming, and this was a
thing he could appreciate, a man's thing, as bad as it
gets
. There was only one question left to ask and she heard
her own voice quaver as she asked it: "Where did you catch it?"

A pause. A smile. Another click of the camera. "Why, right here,
right off the end of the dock."

The image had stayed with her a long while. She'd asked Till
about it, about how that could be, what the man had said --- right
off the dock, right there where she'd been swimming since she was a
little girl --- and he'd tried to reassure her. "They can turn up
anywhere, I suppose," he said, "but it's rare here. Really rare."
He gave her a squeeze, pulled her to him. "Where you really find
them," and he pointed now, out into the band of mist that fell
across the horizon, "is out there. Off the islands."

People died of shark bite. They died of thirst. Of hypothermia.
She was dressed in nothing but bra and panties, naked to the water
and the water sucking the heat from her minute by minute, and she
clung there and shivered and felt the volition go out of her. Let
the sharks come, she was thinking, dreaming, the cold lulling her
now till she was like the man in that other Jack London story, the
one who laid himself down and died because he couldn't build a
fire. Well, she couldn't build a fire either because water wouldn't
burn and there was nothing in this world that wasn't water.

She woke sputtering, choked awake, a cold fist in her throat.
She was coughing --- hacking, heaving, retching --- and the
violence of it brought her back again. Sun, sea, wind, waves. Sun.
Sea. Wind. Waves. The ice chest bobbed and she bobbed with it. And
then, all at once, there was something else there with her,
something new, a living thing that broke the surface in a fierce
boiling suddenness that annihilated her, the shark, the shark come
finally to draw the shroud. She shut her eyes, averted her face.
She didn't draw up her legs because there was no point in it now,
the drop was coming, the first rending shock of the jaws, sadness
spreading though her like a stain in water, sadness for Till, for
her parents, for what might have been . . . but the next moment
slipped by and the moment after that and still she was there and
still she was whole, bobbing along with the ice chest, bobbing.

The next splash was closer. She forced open her eyes, tried to
focus through the drooping curtains of her swollen lids. Her pupils
burned. The blood pounded in her ears. It took her a moment to
understand that this wasn't a shark, wasn't a fish at all --- fish
didn't have dog faces and whiskers and eyes as round and darkly
glowing as a human's. She stared into those eyes, amazed, until
they sank away in the wash and she looked beyond the swirl of foam
to the sun-scoured wall of rock rising out of the mist above
her.

Anacapa is the smallest of the four islands that form the
archipelago of the northern channel islands and the closest to the
mainland, a mere eleven miles from its eastern tip to the harbor at
Oxnard. It parallels the coast in its east/west orientation, from
Arch Rock in the east to Rat Point on the western verge, and is,
geologically speaking, a seaward extension of the Santa Monica
Mountains. In actuality, Anacapa comprises three separate islets,
connected only during extreme low tides, and it is of volcanic
origin, composed primarily of basalt dating from the Miocene
period. All three islets are largely inaccessible from the sea,
featuring tall looming circumvallate cliffs and strips of
cliff-side beach that darkly glisten with the detritus ground out
of the rock by the action of the waves. As seen from the air, the
islets form a narrow snaking band like the spine of a sea serpent,
the ridges articulated like vertebrae, claws fully extended, jaws
agape, tail thrashing out against the grip of the current. Seabirds
nest atop the cliffs here and on the tableland beyond --- Xantus'
murrelet, the brown pelican and Brandt's cormorant among them ---
and pinnipeds racket along the shore. Average rainfall is less than
twelve inches annually. There is no permanent source of water.

Beverly knew none of this. She didn't know that the landfall
looming over her was Anacapa or that she'd drifted some six miles
by this point. She knew only that rock was solid and water was not
and she made for it with all the strength left in her. Twice she
went under and came up gasping and it was all she could do to keep
hold of the ice chest in the roiling surf that had begun to crash
round her. All at once she was in the breakers and the chest was
torn from her, gone suddenly, and she had no choice but to squeeze
her eyes shut and extend her arms and ride the wave till the force
of it flung her like so much wrack at the base of the cliff. Stones
rolled and collided beneath her knees and the frantic grabbing of
her hands, she was tossed sideways and the breath pounded out of
her, but her fingers snatched at something else there, sand, the
floor of a beach gouged out of the rock. It was nothing more than a
semicircular pit, churning like a washing machine, but it was
palpable and it held her and when the wave sucked back she was
standing on solid ground. She might have felt a surge of relief,
but she didn't have a chance. Because she was shivering. Dripping.
Staggering. And the next wave was already coming at her.

The foam shot in, sudsing at her knees, driving her back
awkwardly against the punishing black wall of the overhang. She
found herself stumbling to her left, even as the next breaker
thundered in, and then she was crawling on hands and knees up and
away from it, the rock pitted and sharp and yet slick all the same,
up and out of the water and onto a narrow perch that was no wider
than her berth on the Beverly B. She hugged her knees to
her chest, clamped her hands round her shoulders, shaking with
cold. Her hair hung limp in her face. The waves crashed and
dissolved in mist and everything smelled of funk and rot and the
protoplasmic surfeit of all those galaxies of wheeling, biting,
wanting things that hadn't survived the day. She didn't think about
Till or the boat or Warren, her mind drawn down to nothing. She
just stared numbly at the wash as it stripped the beach and gave it
back again, torn strands of kelp struggling to and fro, a float of
driftwood, the suck and roar, and then she was asleep.

When she woke it was to the sun and the beach that had grown
marginally bigger, a scallop of blackly glistening sand emerging
from the receding tide, the teeth of the rocks exposed now and the
wet gums clamped beneath them. She'd been in the shadows all this
time, huddled on her perch, tucked away from the tidal wash and the
sun too, but now the sun had moved out into the channel and the
heat of it touched her and roused her. For a long while she sat
there, absorbing the warmth, and if she was sunburned it didn't
matter a whit because she'd rather be burned than frozen, burned
anytime, scorched and roasted till she peeled, because anything was
better than the cold locked up inside her, a numbness so deeply
immured in her she might as well have been a corpse. She gazed out
on the sea with a kind of hatred she'd never known, hating the
monotony of it, the indifference, the marrow-draining chill. And
then, abruptly, she was thirsty. Still thirsty. Thirstier than
she'd been out there on the sea when she was thirstier than she'd
ever been in her life.

In that moment her eye jumped to the gleam of metal at the near
end of the cove. The ice chest. There it was, upright in the sand,
its lid still fastened. She sprang down from the rock, slimed and
filthy, her limbs battered and her tongue made of felt, and ran to
it, tore back the lid and saw that the ice was gone and the bottles
smashed --- all but one, the precious last remaining dark brown
sweating bottle with the label soaked off and sand worked up under
the cap. Lifting the beer to the sun, she could see that it was
intact, its bubbles infused with light and rising in a slow
hypnotic dance. Beer. Cold beer. But she had no opener, no
churchkey, no knife or screwdriver or tool of any kind. And where
was Till? Where was he when she needed him?

She remembered how casually he would slam the neck of his beer
against the edge of the counter or the work bench in the garage and
how instantly the cap would fly up and away and the cold aperture
of the bottle came to his lips, all in a single fluid motion, as if
the opening and the draining of the bottle comprised the same
continuous physical process. Overhead, chased on a draft, a gull
appraised her, mewed over her torn and abraded flesh, and was gone.
She looked wildly around her for something, anything, to make a
tool of, but there was nothing but sand and driftwood and rock.

Rock. Rock would do it. Of course it would. And then
she was smoothing her hand over the wall of the overhang, feeling
for a rough spot, a ledge, any kind of projection, and here, here
it was, the cap poised just so and the weight of her burned hand
coming down on it, once, twice . . . and nothing. She worked at it,
frantic now, angry, furious, but the best she could do was flatten
the ridges till the cap was even more secure than when she'd begun,
and it was too much, she couldn't take a single second more of this
--- and then it was done, the neck shattered and gaping and she
draining the whole thing in three airless gulps and if there was
glass in it and if the glass cut her open from esophagus to gut she
didn't give a damn because she was drinking and that was the only
thing that mattered.

But the beer was gone and the thirst was there still, rattling
inside her like a field of cane in a desert wind, and was it any
surprise she was light-headed? She'd always been a capable drinker,
proud of her ability to match Till beer for beer, but this one hit
her hard and before she knew it she was down in the sand, sitting
there cross-legged like a statue of the Buddha, as if that was what
she'd meant to do all along. The sun seemed to have shifted somehow
in the interval, dropping down close to the flattening gray surface
of the sea where the fog could take hold of it and snuff it out
like the burned-up butt of the cigarette she suddenly wanted as
much as she wanted water. She stood shakily and went to the ice
chest. It was right where she'd left it not ten minutes ago (or had
it been longer? Had she dozed off?), but now the incoming tide was
running up the beach to take it from her all over again. Seizing it
by one corner, she dragged it awkwardly across the sand to the
declivity beneath the overhang, then worked it up to her perch six
feet above the beach. Inside, amidst the litter of broken bottles
and stripes of sand and weed, there was a liquid that might have
been a mix of beer and meltwater, that might have been potable,
that might have quenched her thirst, but when she thrust a finger
into it and licked that finger all she could taste was salt.

Dusk fell, aided and abetted by the fog, which closed off the
beach even as the tide ran in, and though the water was up past her
knees, she probed the scalloped ledges at both ends of the cove,
looking for a way out. She braced herself, one foot up, then the
other, straining for a handhold. Working patiently, her face
pressed to the rock, she got as high as fifteen or twenty feet
above the beach, but after she fell for the third time, coming down
hard amidst the litter and the cold shock of the water, she gave
up. It was no use. She was trapped. A single pulse of panic
flickered through her, but she suppressed it. She wasn't afraid,
not anymore --- that was behind her. All she felt was frustration.
Anger. Why had she been spared only to wash up here to die of
thirst, hunger, cold? Where was God's hand in that? Where was His
purpose? Finally, when it was fully dark and the fog settled in so
impenetrably as to close off even the stars, let alone the running
lights of any boat that might have been plying the channel looking
for them, for survivors --- and here she saw Till and Warren,
wrapped in blankets in a gently rocking cabin, the glow of the
varnished wood, lanterns a-sway, mugs of hot coffee pressed to
their lips --- she held fast to the ice chest and willed herself
asleep.

In the morning, at first light, there was the sound of the gulls
that was like the opening and closing of a door on recalcitrant
hinges, but there was no door here, no bed or room or clothes or
warmth, and she couldn't see the gulls for the fog. She shivered
into the light, slapping at her thighs and shoulders and huddling
in the cradle of her arms, and then the thirst took hold of her. It
roused her and she rose to her feet, fighting for balance, the tide
having receded and risen all over again, reducing her world to this
rock and the wall above her. She wanted a pitcher of water, that
was all, envisioning the white bone china pitcher in the kitchen at
home, a hand-me-down from her mother she brought out for special
occasions, and it took her a long moment to realize that there was
a persistent cold drip tapping at her shoulder and that she'd been
shifting unconsciously to avoid it. She lifted her face and saw
that the cliff was wet, the fog whispering across the rock above
her, condensing there, dripping, dripping.

What she didn't know was that forty years earlier a man named H.
Bay Webster had leased the island from the federal government for
the purpose of raising sheep, but that the sheep had failed to
thrive because of overgrazing and lack of water, and that finally,
in their distress, had been reduced to licking the dew each from
the other's fleece in order to survive. Not that it mattered. All
that mattered was this drip. She held her tongue out to it, licked
the rock as if it were a snow-cone presented to her by the lady
behind the concession stand at the county fair. And when one of the
little green shore crabs came within reach, a flattened thing, no
more than two inches across, she crushed it beneath her foot and
then fed the salty cold wet fragments into her mouth.

It took her a long while after that to get her courage up,
because she knew now what she had to do though her whole being
revolted against it. She kept praying that someone would come for
her, that the prow of a ship would ease out of the fog or a rope
come hurtling down from above, anything to spare her getting back
into that killing water. The funny thing was that she'd always
liked swimming --- she'd joined the swim team in school and trained
so relentlessly her hair never seemed to be really dry her whole
senior year --- but now, as she climbed down from the rock,
clutched the ice chest to her and fought through the surf, she
hated it more than anything in the world. Instantly, she was cold
through to the bone and thrashing for warmth, then she was fighting
past the breakers and out into the sea.

Here was the nightmare all over again, but this time there was a
difference because she was saved, she'd saved herself, and she kept
close to shore, trembling, yes, exhausted, thirsty, but no longer
panicked. There wouldn't be sharks, not this close in, not with the
sea full of seals, armies of them barking from the rocks and
sending up a sulfurous odor of urine and feces and seal stink. The
sea was calmer now too, much calmer --- almost gentle --- and from
time to time she tried floating on her back, head propped on the
chest and elbows jackknifed behind her, but invariably she had to
roll over and pull herself up as far as she could in an effort to
escape the cold. Fog clung to her. Great fields of kelp, dun stalks
and yellowed leaves, drifted past. Tiny fishes needled the water
around her and were gone.

As the morning wore on, the world began to enlarge above her,
birds uncountable lifting off into the fog and gliding back again
like ghosts in the ether, the cliffs decapitated above skirts of
guano, shrubs and even flowers so high up they might have been
planted in air. She let the current carry her, periodically forcing
herself to unfurl her legs and paddle to keep on course, telling
herself that at any moment she'd come upon a boat at anchor or a
beach that spread back to a canyon where she could get up and away
from the sea. How far she'd drifted or how long she'd been in the
water, she had no way of knowing, the cold sapping her, lulling
her, killing her will, every seal-strewn rock and every black-faced
cliff so exactly like the last one she began to think she'd circled
the island twice already. But she held on, just as she had when the
Beverly B. went down a whole day and night ago, because it
was the only thing she could do.

It must have been late in the morning, the sun lost somewhere in
the fog overhead, when finally she found what she was looking for.
Or, rather, she didn't know what she was looking for until it
materialized out of the haze in a cove that was no different from
all the rest. A rust-peached ladder, so oxidized it was the color
of the starfish clinging to the rocks beneath it, seemed to glide
across the surface to her, and when she took hold of it she let the
chest float free, pulling herself from the water, rung by rung, as
from a gently yielding sheath.

The universe stopped rocking. The sea fell away. And she found
herself on a path leading steeply upward to where the fog began to
tatter and bleed off till it wasn't there at all. Above her,
opening to the sun and the chaparral flecked with yellow blooms
that climbed beard-like up the slope, was a shack, two shacks,
three, four, all lined up across the bluff as if they'd grown out
of the rock itself. The near one --- flat-roofed, the boards
weathered gray --- caught the flame of the sun in its windows till
it glowed like a cathedral. And right beside it, where the
drainpipe fell away from the roof, was a wooden barrel, a hogshead,
set there to catch the rain.

She was in that moment reduced to an animal, nothing more, and
her focus was an animal's focus, her mind stripped of everything
but that barrel and its contents, and she never felt the fragmented
stone of the path digging into her feet or the weight of the sun
crushing her shoulders, never thought of who might be watching her
in her nakedness or what that might mean, till she reached it and
plunged her face into its depths and drank till she could feel the
cool silk thread coming back up again. It was only then that she
looked around her. Everything was still, hot, though she shivered
in the heat, and her first thought was to call out, absurdly, call
"Hello? Is anybody there?" Or why not "Yoo-hoo?" Yoo-hoo would have
been equally ridiculous, anything would have. She was as naked as
Eve, her blue jeans gone, Till's sweater jettisoned, her
underthings torn from her at some indefinite point in the shifting
momentum of her battle against the current and the waves and the
sucking rasp of the shingle. When she touched herself, when she
brought her hands up to cover her nakedness, they were like two
dead things, two fish laid out on a slab, and she fell to her knees
in the dirt, hunched and shivering and looking round her with an
animal's dull calculation.

In the next moment she rose and went round the corner of the
house to the door at the front, thinking to clothe herself,
thinking there must be something inside to cover up with, rags, a
bedsheet, an old towel or fisherman's sweater. But what if there
were people in there? What if there was a man? No man on this earth
had seen her naked but for the doctor who'd delivered her and Till,
and what would she say to Till if there was a man there to see her
as she was now? She hesitated, uncertain of what to do. For a long
moment she regarded the door in its stubborn inanimacy, a door made
of planks nailed to a crosspiece, weather-scored and unrevealing.
Beside it, set in the wall at eye-level, was a four-pane window so
smeared as to be nearly opaque, but she shifted away from the door,
cupped her hands to the glass and peered in, all the while feeling
as if she were being watched.

Inside, she could make out a crude kitchen counter with a
dishpan and an array of what looked to be empty bottles scattered
atop it, and beyond that, a sagging cot decorated with an army
blanket. A second window, facing north, drew the glare in off the
ocean. She tapped at the glass, hoping to forestall anyone who
might be lurking inside. Finally, she tried the door, whispering
"Hello? Is anybody home?"

There was no answer. She lifted the latch and pushed open the
door to a rustle of movement, dark shapes inhabiting the corners, a
spine-sprung book on the floor, shelves, cans, a sou'wester on a
hook that made her catch her breath, fooled into thinking someone
had been standing there all along. It took a moment for her eyes to
adjust, the shapes manifesting themselves all at once --- furred,
quick-footed, tails naked and indolently switching, a host of
darkly shining eyes fastening on her without alarm or haste because
she was the interloper here, the beggar, she was the one naked and
washed up like so much trash --- and she let out a low exclamation.
Rats. She'd always hated rats, from the time she was in
Kindergarten and her mother warned her against going near the
garbage cans set out in the alley behind their apartment building
--- "They bite babies," her mother told her, "big girls too, nip
their toes, jump in their hair. You know Janey, upstairs in 7B?
They got in her cradle when she was baby. Right here, right in this
building." Her father reinforced the admonition, taking her by the
hand and probing with one shoe in the dim corners of the carport so
she could see the animals themselves, the corpses of the ones he'd
caught in spring traps baited with gobs of peanut butter. In
secret, in the dark, they would lick and paw that bait --- peanut
butter, the same peanut butter she ate on white bread with the
crusts cut off --- until the guillotine dropped and the blood
trailed from their crushed heads and dislocated jaws.
Rats. Disease carriers, food spoilers, baby biters. But
what were they doing here on an untamed island set out in the
middle of the sea? Had they swum? Sprouted wings?

The thought came and went. She flapped her arms savagely. "Get
out!" she shouted, rushing at them, whirling, clapping her hands.
"Get!" They blinked at her --- there must have been a dozen or more
of them --- and then, very slowly, as if it were an imposition, as
if they were obeying only because in that moment her need was
stronger than theirs, they crept back into their holes. But she was
frantic now, snatching the blanket up off the cot without a thought
for the rattling dried feces that fell like shot to the floor and
wrapping it around her even as she fumbled through the cans on the
shelf --- peaches in syrup, Boston baked beans, creamed corn ---
and the utensils tossed helter-skelter in a chipped enamel dishpan
set on the counter.

She ate standing. First the peaches, the soothing thick syrup
better than anything she'd ever tasted --- syrup to lick from the
spoon and then from her fingertips, one after the other --- then
the creamed corn, spooned up out of the can in its essential
sweetness, and then, finally, a can of tuna for the feel of it
between her teeth. Only when she was sated did she take the time to
look around her. The empty cans, evidence of her crime --- theft,
breaking and entering --- lay at her feet. She sank down on the
cot, pulling the rough blanket tight round her throat, and saw,
with a kind of restrained interest, that the walls were papered
over with full sheets torn from magazines, from Life and
Look and the Sunday rotogravure. Pinups gazed back at her,
men perched on tanks, Barbara Stanwyck astride a horse. A man lived
here, she decided, a man lived here alone. A hermit. A fisherman.
Someone shy of women, with whiskers like in the old photos of her
grandfather's time.

She found his clothes in the trunk in the corner. Two white
shirts, size small, a blue woolen sweater with red piping and a
stained and patched pair of gabardine trousers. Without thinking
twice --- she'd pay him back ten times over when they came to
rescue her --- she slipped into the trousers and the less homely of
the two shirts and then stepped back outside to see if she could
find him. Or one of the men who must have lived in the other
shacks, because if there were four shacks there must have been four
men. At least. And now, standing outside the door with her face
turned to the nearest shack, some hundred feet away, she did, in
fact, call out "Yoo-hoo!"

No one answered. The only sounds were the ones she'd become
inured to: the sifting of the wind, the slap and roll of the
breakers, the strained high-flown cries of the birds. She went to
each of the shacks in succession, and though she found signs of
recent habitation --- a bin of rat-gnawed potatoes, a candle melted
into a saucer, more canned goods, crackers gone stale in a tin,
fishing gear, lobster traps, two jugs of red wine and what might
once have been sherry turning black in the unmarked bottle beneath
a float of scum --- she didn't find anyone at home. It was as if
she were one of the wandering orphans of a fairy tale arrived in
some magical realm where all the inhabitants had been put under a
spell, turned to trees or animals --- to rats, black rats with no
fear of humans. Finally, after searching through all four of the
habitations and calling out in the silence of futility, over and
over again, she went back to the first shack, opened another can of
peaches, ate them slowly, one by one, the juice running down her
chin, then stretched out on the cot, wrapped herself in the
blanket, and slept.

Beverly woke that first day to the declining light and creeping
chill of evening. She sat up with a start, uncertain of where she
was, and there were the rats, gathered round, staring at her. They
were leisurely, content, taking their ease, draped over the chair
pulled up to the counter, nestled in the refuse on the floor,
hunched over their working hands and the things they'd stolen to
eat. Enraged suddenly, she shoved herself violently from the bed,
casting about for something she could attack them with, drive them
off, make them pay --- and here it was, a shovel set in
the corner. The rats fell back as she snatched it up and began
flailing round the room, the heavy blade falling, digging, caroming
off the walls. Within seconds, they were gone and she was left
panting in the middle of the room, the shirt binding, the pants
grabbing at her hips and the sea through the window as hard as
stone.

She went out the door then, the rage still building in her,
muttering to herself, letting out a string of obscenities she never
until that moment realized she knew, and began tearing through the
heap of driftwood stacked behind the shack. Without thinking,
without regard for her unprotected hands or the sobs rising in her
throat, she flung one log after another over her shoulder and onto
the flat between the shacks. When all of it was heaped in a
towering pyre and the sweat stung at her eyes and soaked her hair
till the ends hung limp, she went barefoot down the path to the
beach and scoured the sand for anything that would burn and she
hauled that up too. There was newspaper, rat-shredded, in a
cardboard box just inside the door of the second shack. The matches
she found in a jar atop the woodstove.

She waited till it was full dark, hunched over her knees in the
too-tight shirt and the blue sweater with the red piping that
smelled of a strange man's sweat, eating pork and beans from the
can and savoring each morsel, before she lit her signal fire. And
when she lit it and fed it and kept on feeding it, the flames rose
thirty feet in the air, visible all the way to the mainland she
could just make out through the gauze of fog as a series of
drifting unsteady lights, as if the stars had fallen into the sea.
The fire raged, sparked, tore open the night. Someone would see it,
she told herself, someone was sure to see it. That first night she
even called out at intervals, a hollow shrill gargle of sound that
was meant to pierce the fog, ride out over the sea and strike the
hull of whatever boat might be passing in the night to see her fire
and hear her call. The second night, she saved her breath. By the
third night she'd used up nearly all the wood she could scavenge
and thought of setting the shacks afire --- or the chaparral. At
the end of the first week, she was resigned. She scattered rats,
ate from the cans, drank from the barrel. When she wasn't gathering
wood she lay in bed, dozing, thumbing through the yellowed
newspapers to weigh the news of events that had been decided years
ago, politics, economics, war stories, and would the Allies take
Monte Cassino and push through to Rome, would the Marines land at
Guadalcanal, would Tojo triumph or turn his sword on his own yellow
belly?

The rats persisted, gnawing, thieving, slipping in and out of
their cracks, thumping in the night, and she persisted too --- her
fires, of necessity, smaller, but beacons nonetheless, urgent
smoldering pleas for help, for release. She saw boats suspended in
the distance with their tiny quavering sails and she waved her arms
like a cheerleader, fashioned flags from sticks and the tatters of
an old faded-to-pink towel and waved them too, but the boats never
grew larger or drifted out of frame, as static as figures on a
canvas tacked to the very farthest wall in the most enormous room
in the world. No one came. No one landed. No one existed. And where
was Till? Where was he? He would have come for her by now,
if he was alive, and how could he possibly have died in America,
aboard his own boat off the lobster-rich Channel Islands, when the
Japs hadn't been able to sink him in the whole wide blinding
expanse of the Pacific?

The answer was too hard to grasp so she let it go. She let it
all go. Even the rats. And then, on the first day of what would
have been the third week of her imprisonment in a place she'd come
to loathe in its changeless, ceaseless, ongoing and never-ending
placidity and indifference and sheer brainless endurance, a Coast
Guard cutter, free as a cloud, rounded the point and motored into
the cove.

And what did the Coast Guard find? A sunburned woman unused to
the sound of her own voice, her hair stringy and flat and her eyes
focused on nothing. She was the wife of a drowned man, a widow,
that was all. She climbed into the rowboat and the sea shifted
beneath her and kept on shifting until the big boat, the cutter,
sliced across the channel under the downpouring sun, until the
shore, with its sharply etched houses, swaying palms and glinting
automobiles, rose up to take her in and hold her as firmly and
securely as she could ever hope to be held again.

* * *

Excerpted from WHEN THE KILLING'S DONE © Copyright 2011 by
T. C. Boyle. Reprinted with permission by Viking Adult. All rights
reserved.

When the Killing's Done
by by T. C. Boyle

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670022322
  • ISBN-13: 9780670022328