Houseboats

Once upon a time, many years ago, I visited an island, a small rise of sand and palm trees, off the east coast of Panama. At high tide the island barely measured two acres. I had not known how small it was before I got there.

It was so contained I could feel its pulse, its aliveness, all the minute reaches of it as it expanded and shrank with the tide. I watched the island's life as the sun rose behind the 11 palms of the next island, as the shadows lengthened westward in the afternoons.

The island grew larger every day, a quantity not reckoned by any worldly span , only in the measurement of my mind. New vistas were always there, surprising me, startling a slumber cast by tropic heat, luring me around this smallness of surpassing size.

One day, many years after leaving the island, I put a deposit on a houseboat, not a sudden decision, but one thought about for quite a while, always on the edge of my mind. Still - dreaming is one thing; acting out a fantasy, another. I went home that day searching for a yardstick.

I stood in the middle of the living room of my mini-cottage-with-the-wonderful-view and drew a 10-by-20-foot rectangle on the bare floor. The hull of my new craft was 40 feet long and 13 feet in width; however, the cabin perched atop it, our intended living space, was what I saw before me outlined on the floor. The area looked pitifully small in that 16-by- 30-foot room.

I glanced around at all my furniture, my piano, my accumulated tangible life of nearly fifty years. I gathered my old boxer, my seven cats, myself, within the rectangle. How could we live in such a small space?

I looked out my long windows facing the sea. It was early September. Rough winds were battering the surf near the shore. It was quite chilly, almost cold. Was I really doing this? Would I want to be out there this night? Could my craft last through a Northeastern winter in the water? My about-to-be-home had always spent winters cradled ashore, protected, a plaything under the summer sun. Grandma, as she was called then, had led a rather sheltered life.

Suddenly I saw my cottage as a castle of infinite size. Set high on a hillside, it was a cave of many rooms on descending levels, all windows facing the inlet waters that began across the street.

That night I decided I could part with nothing. I went to sleep.

In the clearness of the fall coastal morning, early, before the sun yet later than the night, I scurried down the hillside with my old dog, helping him who once flew across fields and fences, a magnificent brindle blur. Now we slowly walked the low tide sandbar, out to its distant sloping edge, collecting mussels for breakfast. The morning beach was calm, a fresh wind crisp and light leaning against us as we walked.

Later, at home, after mussels, I wrote a letter to a woman who had once said, ''If you ever want to sell that wonderful old upright. . . .''

I opened the back door of my truck and filled the inside with chairs and tables, beds, and cabinets, pictures, pots - the whatevernesses of life. And every day thereafter I held a ''garage sale'' out of the truck, in front of my bookshop.

By late October the house was quite empty. There were a cot, some blankets, one pot, one frying pan, a few utensils, some clothes, some frivolous things, and 40 cartons of books. With these - and Barney and Zoe and Anna and Nicholas and Caro and Chrissy and Sarah and Earthy - I moved aboard my island.

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