Island Life for Two and a Child

MY absolute jealous adoration of the rowboat made me current. By current, I mean it gave me something to talk about with the working people of the island, who considered the raspberry-vined Eden their birthstone in the middle of the sea. Even Captain Sam who motored me and my young wife back and forth, with groceries and supplies, to my lonely post as appointed park ranger, talked to me about my boat. The boat was "cranky," he said, like the people on the island: They'd survived a lot of things out there. It was a 12-foot skiff, cedar on oak, white lapstrake, with gray oars and white tips, like a seagull. It was low to the water at the gunwhales, waves swirled by above oarlocks, but it was cranky enough to right itself, in a storm, and float or slide like a cork. We bought it on two paychecks and charged groceries on my badge at the local store. That perhaps was my first mistake, using officialdom wi th the storekeeper, who was glad to have my trade, but told me flatly, "No one cares about that badge around here."

The islanders did have it good, except for the park which split the island. A one-room schoolhouse with a flag, the peace of lanterns when the generator went off at 8 p.m., fathers who harvested the waters, the nourishment of the deeps. I represented landlubbing tourists, incomprehensible laws about where local kids could camp, the coming of the commercial square-riggers from Nantucket, who stopped long enough to get partiers lost on mountain paths with pairs of broken high heels. Citizens had for years started a fund to trade or buy off the park land, which, as they said, "got on a wrong list." A petition was then in the works in Washington, D.C. But meanwhile 201> a man and a gun had to "enforce the laws of a federal reservation." Moi.

I was told by my park superintendent, sea miles away at Acadia National Park, not to make unnecessary waves in my officialdom, or I would find my belongings floating in the sea. A low profile was called for.

Captain Sam gave me the same advice, towing my boat into the tiny harbor. He pointed out a floating Clorox bottle of his own I could use for a mooring, "Never mess with another man's mooring. Especially out here. They'll cut you loose."

Things went quietly for a while. I drove around the island in my ranger truck, hiked the mountain and woods, spent a day walking around the shore with my shell-collecting wife. I stood on the dock and welcomed visitors, directing them, when possible, away from the village. No one called on us and we didn't know anyone to call on.

At 5:30 p.m. I would go out for relaxation in my little boat, rowing out to see the island as its residents saw it. My little boat was helping things to work. When I came back to the dock, children of the natives, fishing or looking in the water, caught my bow or took my painter. I walked around in the day with imprints of oars in my hands. I felt I was gaining.

THEN came the incident. Three college students camped out of bounds and started a small fire on the south side of the island. The village fire department responded, with me. But two acres near the shore were burned. I enjoyed even the smug camaraderie with the volunteer firemen, who told me how impossible it was to watch every acre of the rugged park at night. It was clearly beyond my watchful control.

But the next morning I found the little ranger house where I lived in the woods wrapped in toilet paper. The only person who I knew had that many rolls to strew in trees and around the house was the storekeeper. He confirmed it with his eyes the next time I saw him.

"Don't take it so hard," my wife said. "You're doing your best."

I began rowing alone, farther and farther out. Meanwhile, my wife had taken to waiting for me on the dock, knitting with the local wives, and getting to know the children. Sometimes out past the light on the open sea I came to quarter-mile swells - big heaves that lifted the boat as if a leviathan was coming up under me. The thought of myself as Ishmael, thrown out of a harpoon boat, oars, rope, and all, began to scare me. Just as though the residents might throw me off the island. How could I get it to gether? Protect the village and the whole park?

We were just two and a child. It wasn't fair. I began to look at the sea as cruel, cruel. "A pair of ragged claws scuttling across the bottom of the sea 201> ." It caused shipwrecks, ate wood with barnacles. Stinging salt. Odd people lived by it. And now, I was sure, bubbling up from the depths, a leviathan encrusted with parasites, sandpaper skin, and terribly calm eye, like the islanders, would watch me sink. 201> What was down, down there, under me? Who were my enemies? I had no quarrel with them.

I pulled hard, reversing the boat, and headed back to the safe light and passageway. On the way in an osprey screamed at me, mad, mad that I was passing her nest high in the rocks. Before, I had delighted in that scream.

MY wife, enjoying the company of another woman on the dock, wanted to try the boat. She had seldom taken the boat out. I held the child and helped her into the boat. I watched with a mixture of pride and wonder as she mastered the heavy oars, from strong arms that carried about our baby. She disappeared in patches of evening sun on the water. She looked beautiful and our baby was beautiful. The woman she had been talking to smiled at me. She understood about two and a child.

While I was waiting for her anxiously to come back through the sheen of light and mist, a crab fisherman pulled up and began culling his catch at the dock. In shock, I watched him break off the legs of the crabs and throw the heads into the water. Some floated for a few seconds, then went down under the dock, this way and that. That's what I felt like, defenseless, a head only, no legs, on the bottom.

"They'll grow back," said the woman, who had her little boy with her on the dock now.

"Come on," I said, doubting it. Then I realized I needed to grow some new legs, here. Who had torn them off? The government? The village? That didn't matter. I couldn't be responsible for the cruel things that had happened in the world, or to me. But I could do my errand here: I had two hands and two legs and a wife and a child, same or better as anybody.

She came back through the mist. I helped her stow the oars. "No, silly, I want you to go back out there with me. The cormorants are nesting, hundreds of them. They're so beautiful the way they fold their wings."

"I'm so glad you got this boat," she said, holding our baby in the stern.

I was going to tell her about the crabs; but I said, "And we're all together in it."

When we came back, we must have been generating an acceptable happiness. The storekeeper was there waiting for Captain Sam and supplies; my wife waved to his wife and he must have thought she was waving to him. He lifted his hand grudgingly to her, then his wife took up our baby. He looked at me, then offered me a hand up. "They love it here," said the wife to her husband.

"I want to live here forever," said my wife, happily with the warmth of the water on her face.

We didn't, but things went better that summer and we had a few friends who called on us. And though I still remember those crabs at the bottom of the sea, I also recall the shock as the storekeeper pulled me out of the boat, and stood beside me on the dock close enough for the beginning of something.

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