Monday, April 13, 2009

The rower

One warm August night, unable to remain asleep, I rose, dressed, and went outside, hoping that a walk by the water's edge would help calm my thoughts. I set out along the gravel path that leads to the bay, my footfalls crunching on its pebbled surface, guided forward by moonlight and memory. Not until I had passed the last house did I begin to hear the faint lapping of wavelets on the rocks along the shore. Ahead of me, across the water, stretched the long, low peninsula on the other side of the bay; if anyone out there was, like me, stirring at that hour, their lights were too distant and too dim to be seen from where I stood. There were lobster boats moored here and there alongshore, bobbing in the waves as if rocking in their cradles, but the only sign of maritime activity in the offing was far out, beyond the limits of the bay, where one or two large vessels, with drafts too deep for our little harbor, were churning through the open sea, parallel to the coast, bound for Boston or Halifax.

I turned onto the narrow footpath that runs along the shore and headed away from town, keeping my chin down and my eyes on the path's uneven surface, which is broken in places by gullies, washouts, and exposed roots. The tide was high but had crested and begun to ebb away again out of the bay; only a few yards of boulders and patches of coarse sand lay between the path and the water. The wind off the bay was not particularly brisk, but even so it bore a pleasing and welcome chill, though I was not sorry to have picked up my windbreaker before I left the house. On the inland side, as I walked, I passed a succession of wealthy summer homes with long, carefully tended lawns, some of them terminating in low masonry walls adorned with electric lanterns. Though here and there a floodlight shone down on the path the houses were silent, the occupants either asleep or perhaps reading or drinking quietly in solitary inner rooms. After a mile or so the houses gave way, first to a thicket of beach rose and sumac, then beyond that to aspen and stunted white pine, the overgrowth of what had once been burned over in a great fire many years before. The path climbed away from the shore, which briefly disappeared from view, before descending again to skirt a narrow horseshoe of stony beach that was rarely discovered by visitors, even during the height of the season when it seemed that the whole area swarmed with hikers and weekenders.

It was when I had made my way around and was approaching the far limit of the cove that my eye caught something moving in the water, thirty yards or so offshore. It was low in profile and partly hidden by the waves, and at first I thought it might be either a log or a surfacing dolphin, an animal not uncommon in these waters in the summer months. I stood still and watched the shape as it glided through the reflected pallor of the moon, and only after a moment or two had gone by could I identify it as a kind of lifeboat or dinghy, in which a solitary pilot, seated at the middle bench, could be seen steadily rowing with the outgoing current. The craft bore no lantern nor any sign of cargo or tackle, and the silent figure working the oars, dressed in a gray cloak with the hood down, appeared, from its long hair and slightness of build, to be a woman. Her head was bent down from the exertion and her face was turned away from the shore; she rowed as if she had some familiarity with the task but not powerfully, pacing herself, being evidently in no hurry to get where she was going.

I continued along the shore path, matching my advance to the progress of the boat. Beyond the cove the bay widens, but the rower maintained her distance from the shore and did not venture out into the deeper channel. The wind was beginning to pick up and I zipped my windbreaker, but kept my hands out of my pockets to assist my balance on the stony path. Once or twice I stumbled and knocked loose a stone, but the sound that echoed as it struck onto the cobbles below either failed to reach the boat or did not concern its occupant. She rowed on at the same fixed pace, occasionally casting the briefest half glance over her shoulder to hold her course. I began to wonder where she could be heading at that hour. There were no docks or houses to the end of the point, and if she had been so reckless as to go boating alone, for recreation, at night, it seemed high time for her to reverse her heading and make for the shelter of the town. Up ahead, at the end of the point, barely discernible in the darkness, lay the long thin breakwater that sheltered the bay from the heavy surges and swells of the ocean. For an unaccompanied boatman -- or boatwoman -- to venture into those waters at night in such a craft, even in favorable weather, would be an act of almost suicidal folly.

The path shook off the last patches of woods and scrub and descended directly to the water's edge; at the same time it became rockier and more irregular. I clambered ahead as fast as I could manage, clearly visible now on the shore if the woman were to turn, but still she kept her head averted, tucked into her far shoulder. She began to gain ground on me; her way was smoother and she was gaining momentum as the tide drew her along. I stumbled, turned my ankle slightly, and scraped my hand on a rock, then I righted myself, rubbed off the sting in my palm, and hurried forward. She was nearing the breakwater now and beginning to veer away from the shore. I hoped that she was about to turn and circle back, but instead she rowed steadily onward, shooting towards the churning gap.

I stepped onto the breakwater and leaped along its skeleton of immense stones, keeping an eye on the boat as our courses swiftly converged. In seconds I was almost at the jetty's end, and the woman, as she hurtled forward, was now no more than ten yards away. At last I saw that there was no doubting her course, nor hope of stopping her, and in desperation I shouted to her, and at that moment, for the first time, she heard me and turned her face -- or should I say, what remained of her face --in my direction.

Below the thin and tangled filaments of her hair the woman's eyes were so deeply sunken they might well have been hollow sockets. Her nose was eaten away entirely, and all that remained of her lower jaw was a jagged shard of bone and a few exposed and broken teeth. As the craft shot through the gap into the ocean she fixed her gaze on me, but her expressionless face did not once move or twitch and no sound issued from that grotesque maw. Her hands and arms kept to the rhythm of their rowing; I turned my body and met her gaze, watched her recede into the distance, until she suddenly snapped her head down and away from me once more, vanished into a swell, re-emerged, vanished again, and was almost instantly swallowed by darkness.

I did not want to consider what errand might have brought the silent rower into town, whether she had visited some inconceivable lover there or was perhaps searching vainly for a lost paramour or child who had been dead for generations. I stood on the end of the breakwater for some time, trembling and unable to move, petrified that I might lose consciousness and topple into the water and be drowned and battered against the rocks. When I had sufficiently gathered my composure I began gingerly to retrace my steps, buffeted by the wind and the salt spray, until once again I was standing alone on the shore at the end of the point. I fell to my knees for an instant, feeling tears of horror and anguish well up in my eyes, then I collected myself, shook off the chill, and began to make my way back to town.


Anonymous said...

thanks! I've been listening to audiobooks while and draw and just finished Lord Jim. The prose in your blog seems in the same spirit...I liked what you wrote about me, you seem to be a good observer

C. Rippey said...

didnt mean to be anonymous

Chris said...

Sra. Rippey,

Muy amable. There is so much to your work, which I have only recently come to know, but I hope my little piece at least expressed my own reasons for appreciating it. Best wishes.

C. Rippey said...

thanks Chris! and for posting the new work in your blog. I liked the photographs of rural Japan quite a lot. Japan bonding...
the info about the gallery is now posted-- CR