top of page
  • Writer's pictureemilyinprague

Out with Lanterns

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

The moment hung in the midday Sunday sun, a burst of vine-ripened blackberry plump and ready to be picked, yet no one dove in. The three teenagers stood in a line at the edge of the dock, knock-kneed and gleeful with anticipation. Caboose to their train was Whitley, two years old and limbs twisted from the club foot that turned at a sharp angle to the rest of her body. Whitley belonged to Lolly; Lolly belonged to the stars in the sky and the mood of the moment. Her cousin Billy tried his very best to keep Lolly from lollygagging, from forgetting her chores, her bedtime, her daughter’s bedtime. He wasn’t very good at it. And Frank, Frank tried his very best too, at everything. He tried. That was all Whitley needed him to do.


Lolly always had to be first— an unspoken rule among them. When she finally went for launch, she ripped her bandaid on the claw of the grayish puce lobster that had escaped from its pot and was skittle-sidling across the boards, in a race for its liberation. Both girl and lobster plummeted, the prehistoric thing never to be seen again. But Lolly popped right back up with a face so full to brimming with pleasure and the allowance of pleasure and incredulousness that pleasure was there just for the taking, she almost broke wide open with it. It wasn’t that she couldn’t believe it, it was that she believed it all, rather, believed IN it all. Like, like everything was god, like everything was a prayer and everything was listening and everything was an answer to itself. Like, being 15 and three-quarters on a dock on an island in the middle of the coastline in the middle of the country in the middle of the landmass in the middle of the planet with her cousin and her brother and her baby wasn’t enough, and she had to believe in something else too, to make it matter. Something beyond her favorite poet Emily Dickinson, something beyond gangly lobsters and whales out in the distance and bread and butter waiting back at the main house, though maybe there was nothing much else beyond all that.


To doubt nothing, or rather . . . with nothing to doubt but doubt itself, any disbelief would have been disingenuous. And yet. If everything was god and God was always up there playing blocks and also down here hanging out with whales, why’d she feel so insignificant and so capacious all at the same time? Capacious. That was a word Mrs. Solomon had taught her in the eighth grade, right before she had to leave because Mrs. Mabel Misselthwaite, the 200 year old Principal, said her swollen belly might upset the new students. What new students, there’s 11 of us, Lolly snickered, then Misselthwaite reached for a ruler and Lolly turned on her heel and never looked back.


It is butt-crack early, Billy complained. Lolly giggled at the word they weren’t allowed to say back up at the big house. Baby Whitley giggled too; she understood words though all she ever said back was one single syllable. Though Frank was 17 years Whitley’s senior, he shared her language: the language of goodbyes, of birds, of nature and simplicity. They both knew that when the time was right, they’d find the words.


Never too early for a swim, Lolly called back from the water, splashing and taunting the others until they jumped too. Except she didn’t taunt Whitley. To Whitley she opened her arms wide; to Whitley, everyone on their island opened. Everyone, except for Madame. Madame couldn’t countenance an open acceptance to anyone who could not lay claim to “People.” Lolly and Lolly’s mother Guinevere were Madame’s people and Madame had not raised them to give birth to bastards.


Strips of duck drying for jerky, braids of garlic, garlands of citrus slices strung with rosemary and cloves suspended dumbly down from the rafters of the boathouse. Around the periphery, frilly white flowers curtsied their skirts, twining their vines between the loose planks where sunlight wiggled through. To the main house, hypnotized, the troops trooped after the swim, hauling their lobster pots full to rattling with crawling angry crustaceans. Whitley rode astride Frank’s shoulders and Billy ran ahead a bit, hoping to toughen up his legs, achieve the physique of one of his Superheroes on the television. It was about time, thought Lolly, to memorize and plagiarize and tenderize the tough stuff and fluff the pillows of it. All of it, or so Lolly thought, all good, all god, all the time. What was it her beloved poet said, ‘God is everywhere, and yet we think Him a recluse.’ She thought of him as a lighthouse maybe, busy with the job of looking for boats to save. “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations.”



Lolly, Eulalia as her grandmother called her, relished words, especially the ones that echoed her name: glossolalia, euphonia, epiphora, euphoria. How euphoric to cry like that, epiphorically, with the teardrops spilling over the margins, to speak so many tongues and hear so much joy and decipher codes. Now that she’d learned their meaning, blinking lights out in the harbor signaled something real and true. Lightning bugs flashed love notes to each other, airy phosphorescence with music in their gooey little bodies.

Those bright darlings on the cusp of their adulthood learned much that summer— watching for signals—how to grow wild and cultivate savagery too, much closer to home. How to slow down, hone in, simmer for a minute, fold up their three-legged easels of reality. How to expect the best but prepare for the worst all the while leaving room open for hearts to break, ancient and new. How grief could break a body even while its trajectory remained intact.


Some of them learned how to light a match, how to touch it to wick. What they had yet to apprehend was how to tend its flame.


Their island was peopled well if sparsely: Lolly and Frank who had been dropped off last March when the winds were high with a promise to come back and get them when pinecones littered the forest floor; their cousin Billy (related honorarily through a convoluted series of truncated marriages and grown-ups with other fish to fry); the baby Whitley, of course, who went where Lolly went, like it or not. Aunt Louisa, who served as handmaid to her sister “Madame” Geneva; and the Frenchman, Marcel, with his baguettes and his Gîtanes so politely hidden in the top drawer of the old dresser, thereby stinking it up so that forevermore anybody’s lingerie would smell faintly of softly seasoned tobacco, rolled like a miniature baguette. Imagine how tight the spliffs of a man who kneads dough for a living. Imagine what else he could do with his hands. Louisa certainly had.


Once the brigadiers had traipsed up from the dock and dropped off their morning catch on the table outside the kitchen, they high-tailed it to a locked storage cabinet, where Lolly got hold of a lantern. Which is to say she reached behind the iron grating, hooked across the makeshift cabinet, turned its salt-rusted latch from the inside, then wedged the lantern out without spilling a drop of its oil. Where she got the match no one knew. Their grandmother Geneva, whom they were instructed to call Madame, never Grandmother, never let anyone under the age of 16 handle matches. Frank was all of 19 and a half, but she said he didn’t count.


One match.


One match is all it takes.


———


Lolly declared, after she had the contraband lantern in her possession, Hey look! I am out with lanterns, looking for myself. That’s nonsense talk, Louisa hushed her. If Geneva hears you quoting Dickinson, she’ll take away your books. Whitley said, Ta. Frank also said, Ta. Billy smiled at them all and said, That’s right. You’re all right. Ta and ta and hush and ta indeed. Billy was like that, always terse and poetic at the same time. Like when he said, Let’s get cracking, pointing to the lobsters to shell for dinner that night, nobody ever knew if he meant let’s get to work or if the work to which he referred was specifically cracking shellfish. Pun or no pun, no matter—off to the splintery picnic table behind the kitchen they went, with their nutcrackers and their seafood picks to crack away at the work “Madame” told them they must do if they wanted to eat.


While they worked, joking and watching that Whitley didn’t poke her eye out with a seafood pick, there stood Marcel, just outside the doorway smoking one of his twice-daily cigarettes and watching the baby not even out of the corner of his eye; straight on but wonderstruck, like a tired lion watching a lithe gazelle, lapping at the watering hole. Not hungry to devour. Hungry for its grace.


Billy loved Lolly and Lolly loved Whitley and Whitley loved Frank and Frank loved the little minks Madame would never let him bring inside. He fed them crab orts and oatcakes and liked to watch them sip from the china saucers he left out for them full of sweet milk and jellied cod. That’s what Madame served on Sunday nights in the kitchen, the nights she’d take the little rowboat across to play four hands of whist with the two Misselthwaite sisters Mabel and Hortense, and Bea, Drunk Lombard’s alewife, though everyone knew she was more wife to Hortense than she ever was to Drunk Lombard.


While Madame was deep into the second hand of cards, deeper into the scuttlebutt that filled her cup deeper than any port Hortense ever poured, Drunk Lombard got drunker and the hour got later and the stars grew first more luminous then more shrouded in an unpredicted cloud cover. Incandescent almost as Lolly’s Looking Lantern. Hidden as a most reclusive God when his children, so intent on living, forgot to seek.


After the freshly picked shellfish was put on ice, after the jellied cod was left in its tureen, after Marcel had fed his starters and proofed his dough and upended Whitley’s favorite blocks on the gleaming linoleum floor, Lolly grabbed her lantern.


Lolly! Billy called, looking high and low for her around the keeper’s house and the garden chata and the boat dock and the little sleeping cabin that housed Whitley’s toys, both the ones she had grown out of and the ones she’d yet to grow into. It made Marcel wistful every time he saw the wooden duck he’d carved to which he’d attached yellow leather feet, handsewn webbing and all. (Again with the strong hands. Strong and impervious to hurt. Sensitive to others’.) She was too big to pull her ducky now, but too crooked on the one side to make her big wheel go, even if her legs had been long enough to reach the pedals.


Whitley’d learned to walk trailing that duck behind her, determined to get back up again and yank its lead a little further down the path, until one day she could get from cabin to main house without even once plopping down on her diaper-padded bum. That was the day Madame put it away, even though Louisa would pull it back out again on the sly and let Whitley pretend to feed it jellied cod. Auntie Louisa would bandage Whitley’s feet and lace and relace her heavy shoes - how could something so small, the shoes, not the girl, be so ugly? but even Louisa, who had Madame’s ear if not her heart, couldn’t convince her sister to let Lolly’s little girl play with anything Madame thought would be taken for a crutch. Doomed, Madame had said. I am doomed to care for that illegitimate child just as she is doomed to live life as a cripple. And I’ll not go courting doom.


Lolly! Billy called again and again, poking his head down into the pump house where they used to hide, C’mon out now, Lolly Gag, you’re starting to scare me. Ta! shouted Frank, and Billy rubbed his shoulder, Don’t worry about your sister, Frank. She’s always playing these games, isn’t she? Isn’t she? Ta, Frank nodded as he lagged behind Billy, on their way out to the jagged point. Ta meant yes, unless it meant no, or never, or I don’t know or This water is freezing as Satan’s balls on ice or I’m really not so sure if she is playing games or isn’t but I’m scared too.


It had already been past suppertime when Lolly had taken off with the lantern. The cod, now colder than it was meant to be, or rather lukewarmer, who is to say which is more unappealing?, sat in its jelly as shaky and forlorn as Whitley felt, left all alone on the kitchen floor with her blocks in her unlaced shoes. Though Mister Marcel was rarely too busy to play with her, just now he was flicking his silver lighter and thinking his mercurial thoughts and she loved him enough to leave him alone with both. She thought she heard Auntie Loulou’s voice calling him from upstairs, speaking gently like the cooing doves that roosted outside Lolly’s upstairs alcove where she slept in her crib every night. Every night but tonight.


Ta? she said to no one as she wandered out the back door and down towards the rocky shoreline in the direction of Uncle Billy’s calls for Lolly which she echoed. Taaaa? Ta-ah? She made a game, TAtaTAtaTAtaTAta, the TA’s falling with each clumsy lopsided step, the ta’s falling off to the other side.


When her TA foot caught in a crevice, twisted at an angle more catawampus than what she’d been born with, she plooped down hard on the rock and thought for a minute about crying until she saw the snails in the tidal pool, the shells colored the same as garden vegetables, the seaweed dancing like the ballerinas Aunt Louisa had let her watch on the department store television in town. She was okay. She pooched out her little lip. She watched the microcosmos operate. The clouds looked like her blankie and the sky looked like a songbird and she let the rocking of the ocean lull her gently off to sleep.


———



Lolly! Jiminy Crickets, Billy swore when he found her burrowed deep under a stack of macintoshes on John Dory’s boat. He shook his head. NOT the cat’s pajamas, Lolly, he shamed her. Not the bee’s knees. Not even cool as a cucumber. Billy was trying to be cool as a cucumber.


Ta, Frank scolded.


With her lantern and a little notebook Mrs. Solomon had given her before she left school, Lolly had tucked herself into a hideaway where she could pretend to be Emily Dickinson. She was feeling quite chuffed with herself for how long she’d evaded Billy. Even though he always won at hide and seek, she’d forestalled his eventual find longer than ever before. But with his exasperated, hollowed out voice, as if blue stones clung to the back of his throat, he took the fly-high-fun out of it. And now, Jeepers creepers puddingandpie wouldntyouknowit here came Madame, rowing home. The kids were caught red handed as a bandit frying flapjacks flat palmed and plated with no hot pad.


Fiddlesticks, they cursed. Would it be worse if Madame discovered them here, or found their bunk room empty when she made her nightly rounds? She would surely wonder how the lantern had been lit—should they extinguish it now and just stay on the dinghy, hoping that once she docked they’d be able to run around the back side of the island and beat her up the path and be all tucked in their beds, Game Over, by the time she was any the wiser? Yes, yes, that would be the plan. Ta.


The lantern gave off an astonishingly bright glow, entirely enveloped as it was by the ink of night. The light unto their path guided them on their way over muddy ravines, deep ditches and tire ruts. The last time Lolly and Frank’s mother had made her way up here in the family station wagon, she’d spun out twice in those same crevasses. Guinevere came over twice a year on the ferry that delivered furniture and parts, shingles for the new roof, books that Louisa ordered for the children and bags and bags of flour for Marcel’s breads. He bartered the ferryman for his French cigarettes, though no-one ever knew what he gave in return. The ferryman could get anything he wanted from around the world, it was well known, except for, apparently, what Marcel had on offer. Remember: in some places it is not taboo for one man to hold the hand of another. The strong, unwavering hand.


Our plan worked, Lolly and Billy whispered to each other across the bunk room. Sweet triumphance. Taaaah, faded out Frank’s sleepy voice, swallowed first by a yawn then by a slow tumble down the deep and waiting chasm of imperturbable sleep, imperturbable at least until, just past midnight, the first rogue wave crashed so hard against the flagpole at the top of the mound of rocks, it knocked, tilted sideways, nevermore to salute straight up again.


Lightning ripped the sky at its seams and winds banged the shutters against the sturdy house, the house that Madame had built, stalwart and buxom and hardy and hard. William, light the hurricane lamps, she yelled, forgetting she had forbidden him to handle fire. Eulalia, count the chickens and lock them in the coop even if they’re not all there. If we don’t find the rest by morning, the coyotes will. Francis! Francis? Oh never mind Francis, I’ll do it myself. She wandered over to where the young man stood mute over Whitley’s empty crib. Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta


Whitleeeeeyyyy, wailed Lolly.


Wait, what do you mean? Whitley’s right — interjected Billy. No. Whitley was not ‘right.’ Not right here, not right there, not right anywhere. Louisa appeared in the doorway, frighted and harried and as still as a world-class busybody could manage to be. Later, Lolly would realize she’d never seen her aunt’s hair mussed, yet there she was, in a purple (gasp!) lacy (gasp! gasp!) nightgown, her once raven hair now oyster-gray and hanging loose around her bare shoulders. What else was bare? Even more alarmingly so than her un-brassiered cleavage? Her feet. None of the children had ever seen their mother’s spinster sister without her pointy toed boots laced up tight, yet here she was, standing on the cold hardwoods, holding her own boots in one hand and Whitley’s, the only pair the child owned, in her other.


Billy fumbled with the task of lighting the candles. Truth was, as much as he’d groused about the deprivation of this privilege, he did not know how to strike a match and draw forth light. Lolly, well Lolly now was helpless and hysterical, and from the looks of things out in the yard (the floodlights had been turned on; for now at least, there was the blessing of the electrics) the coyotes would have a feast to break their fast.


The fivesome formed a tableau turned on its head. You’ve seen such paintings in your American art museums. A family, an idyllic setting, all the merry members rendered lifelike in oils and gouache, stilled by the painter’s eye or frame of mind. What happens when all those frozen figures, captured precisely at the moment before the moment when everything changes, can no longer hold the pose? Now’s when the other shoe drops. Now’s when tragedy, or quite possibly, but rarely, don’t hold out hope or hold your breath, redemption, sets the whole scene in motion again.


Lolly grabbed the shoes from Louisa and levitated down the stairs, seemingly, for she made it to the bottom and out the door before anyone else could say boo. At the console in the foyer she grabbed, inexplicably, a crab pick and a nutcracker. One of Frank’s minks slipped between her legs, slinky as wet soap on dry hands, and she reached down and grabbed it too. Out into the storm she charged. She left behind her lantern.


Phones are out! Billy yelled. Why he’d thought to check was anyone’s guess. Not that an ambulance or a search-and-rescue could have made their way over the storm-buffeted seas with any real haste if the situation got worse.


When he set the heavy black receiver down, he didn’t actually let go of it. He kept his hand wrapped around it like a wizard holds a sceptre or a dying person holds the hand of what will tether him to the land of the living. While still in contact with this piece of the outside world, doing him crack-all good, he whispered a little prayer he hadn’t thought of since Frank and Lolly still called their mother Mom, instead of Guinevere. Since before she’d sailed away with that strange man down to that island with the strange name so far away he couldn’t find it in his favorite dog-eared Atlas with his top ten “Mountains to Climb Before I’m Old (50)” circled in its pages.


“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” —But, he’d always surmised, even as he pressed his hands together under his chin, ‘whoever this ‘Lord’ character is, I don’t want anybody keeping my soul.’ He whispered the prayer again, all the way through, just the same. Then he said it a third time, audibly, because three felt right, felt like a ritual, felt like the Lord in all His/Her/Its Infinitude might like that.


Well good golly, phone might be dead but at least we still have light, went his next line of thinking while he stood in the dark kitchen chasing his tail yet standing absolutely still. But when he moved to the switch on the wall, thinking maybe he’d find some matches and light those tapers just in case, it flicked, flicked, flicked. No light. No light in the hall, no light out in the yard. Why then in the holy name of Lord and God and whales and the New York Mets and Yankees too was the stupid rooster crowing? Why was light coming from the bunk room upstairs, soaring and searing and haloing and beaconing the whole house now?


The lantern


One match is all it takes.



———



Guinevere heard the news on the AM radio in the tiny break room at the back of the greasy spoon where she’d been working in town for tips until she could get enough rent money to collect her kids from her mother’s place out on the island. Mabel and Hortense and Bea were having their regular breakfast of regular oatmeal at their regular table on what was no longer a regular day. John Dory turned up the tinny volume. Drunk Lombard poured another slug into his coffee cup. “Fire breaks out on Seabord Island, two missing, one confirmed dead. Early conflicting reports speculate probable causes: lightning marks on the ground next to a bent flagpole, as well as one faulty and overturned lantern on the top floor of the main house and the remains of a lit cigarette on the ground near a wooden work table. Updates after the scores from last night’s baseball showdown in New York City. . .” The voice trailed off and an advertisement for Gigi’s Books and Magazines jingled its way into the desolate, vacated diner.


Two missing, one confirmed dead. One Dead. One Dead. Guinevere recited it like an incantation, her legs lead, her arms swinging out of rhythm with her step, as if detached from her body, her head going through the motions of what a head must do to get from restaurant backroom to parking lot to traffic light to ferry bridge. No ferry til the Coast Guard gives the all clear, the man in the yellow slicker reported, shaking his head. Je suis désolé.


One dead, one dead, one dead. There were no other words.


Je sais, I know, I am very sorry. . . he hesitated, though with the language or with speaking to her out in the open, his haunt-eyed woman with the secret upon her skin, it was hard to say. . . .Guinevere. Would you like a cigarette?


Guinevere shook her head. Managed to croak, Gave it up for the kids. Didn’t so much care about my own lungs, she shrugged, guess I just didn’t want them to see me doing it, get off on the wrong foot, end up dying themselves. She picked at a cuticle with her teeth, then regarded her finger like she didn’t know where it had come from.


She looked off in the direction of Seabord. Even though the rain wasn’t coming down as hard anymore, wind kicked up spume and limited her vision. She couldn’t see the island. She couldn’t see her nephew-by-default Billy, her gentle giant son, Frank; her bright and shiny Lolly-girl, her precious Whitley, child of her heart. She could barely make out the land mass at all, and she couldn’t make out what Stéphane the ferryman was saying over the competing sounds of the creak of the boats against the dock, the engine of her own car she’d forgotten to cut off and the guttural roll of the r’s in his throat, his accent the language of gulls.


Pardon?


Pardon, he pronounced it first as she had, in English, the r tucked in, the d half-swallowed, the n hard. Then again, pardon? a different sound altogether, the p a puff of smoke, the r a pause, the d snapped like a snare and the n left by the wayside.


Pardonner, that means to forgive in my language, you know this, oui? Mais, what does it mean, to forgive? The sky does not forgive the clouds their rain. The ocean doesn’t forgive itself for great waves that dash and course and flow and mistake themselves for whales. Ah bof, you must excuse my, euh, rambling. I was just saying that, well, euh, perhaps one dies whether one smokes how you say, like chimney or non. Sois, you follow your bliss with une certaine joie de vivre, sois you deprive yourself of joy — you still die in ze end, tu sais?


She recognized the French question, you know? although it sounded so different in his way than the Polynesian patois she’d picked up in Hiva Oa, the place Billy couldn’t even find in his atlas. Do I know? Yeah, I know. I know what you are saying. You’re saying one of my children could be dead, maybe even my granddaughter Whitley, so what would it matter now, how they lived or how I lived or what choices I made or which ones Lolly wasn’t allowed to make for herself. You’re saying, carpe the goddamn diem. You’re saying, Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.


One dead one dead one dead.


She breathed in. Exhaled. Actually, I will take one of those.


He reached into the pocket of his macintosh and extracted a slightly soggy packet of cigarettes with its slim font and black and red logo, and a silver monogrammed lighter. She’d seen Marcel with a nearly identical one.


“Where did you get that?”


“What, zis?” He quickly shoved the keepsake back into the pocket of his waxed farm jacket worn underneath the raincoat.


“It was a gift from my nephew, Marcel’s son, when he left le Havre to sow his wild, how you say, grains?”


“Oats.” Guinevere sighed. “Wild oats.” Oats. Frank. Frank liked oats. He ate them every morning, and the next day he always asked Louisa to fry up his leftovers into little paddies to feed to the minks. One dead.


Wild, that was Lolly. Untameable. Feral as a mink and soft too. That’s how she’d ended up with Whitley. Whitley. Soft. My God, that child was astonishingly soft. The blanket of her skin. Her cheeks, her shoulders, the tops of her feet. Her poor little feet. Lolly. Whitley. One dead.


——-


“Get in!” Mabel Misselthwaite shouted from her rowboat. Her face, looking more like wrung-out laundry than human features, tilted up towards Guinevere’s from down in the water by the dock, which she’d maneuvered herself right up next to. John Dory was also in the boat, seated in the stern holding one of those new-fangled high-beam flashlights you could only get mail-order from Sears. “Get in!” ordered Mabel again, "I don’t have time for dilly-dallying. Ferryman, you come too. We’re gonna need all the help we can get, given what God has laid in store for us over there on the other side. Not even saying we can mend what we find. As they say, time will break what doesn’t bend. I can’t bring myself for sure to say there’s anything that can put asunder—“


“All due respect, Mabel,” interrupted Guinevere. “Shut up and row.”


——-


Hours after Whitley had wandered away from the lonely kitchen, she woke and found herself still penned in by the yawping mouth of rock that had grabbed her foot and held her down. She knew it was time for ‘night ‘nights and she really wanted her Lolly now. She was wet, and yearned for bread, and where was Lolly? Where was Loulou? Where was home??


Her owie foot was stuck between two granite boulders. Not being able to move was nothing new to her but being lonesome was. On any normal evening, she had people who would play with her, put on and take off her shoes, tie ribbons in her dark brown page boy locks. She wasn’t used to being alone. Even the anemones had wandered off while she wasn’t looking. She had wanted to ask very politely for someone to come and hold her hand and help her walk away. But all she could say was ta, so that’s what she said for a while, ta ta watching the waves roll in, ta ta ta. Ta ta ta. Ta ta t—-


She closed her eyes and began again to drift. She dreamed of rain in great cold splashes and swimming horsies big blue horsies with white manes. Horsies cannot swim, she reasoned then she remembered so many beautiful blue horsies in bedtime storybooks and suddenly her owie foot was loose oh ohh that felt much better and then she was borne on the backs of the big blue watery horsies. She thought she might be dreaming or floating on a bedtime story her Lolly didn’t read her because her Lolly was out looking for herself. She thought she might be only imagining Monsieur Marcel telling her a story, only this story was not like the ones he usually told her about a little mouse in a little house it was about a boy from a place called France who went off to sow wild grains, no that’s not right, Monsieur Marcel had paused and said, wild oats. Like what Frank and his minks like to eat? Whitley wanted to ask through her thick and dreamy head, and Monsieur Marcel would have answered her, yes exactly ma chérie, like Frank and his minks like to eat, so there was this boy, my son, who left France and came to this country and met your mother Lolly while she was too young to know what love meant and so was he but they thought they were in love, and so they made you, they made you out of what they thought was love one night, your father told me this, he took my hand and told me this, because where we’re from it is not taboo for one man to hold the hand of another. They made you out of love, their bodies swaying in time to the symphony of the sea.


Then your maman—My Lolly? Whitley had wanted to ask. Yes, Monsieur Marcel would have answered, your lovely lovely Lolly, her body became a house for you—A little mouse house? Like we build out of my blocks? Oui, a little mouse house. But not so little. The ladies in the school and in the town thought the little mouse house was too big of a mouse house for the other lollies and billies and franks to look at so they sent her away, they sent her here to live until you grew so big you came out of your mouse house. And then your Lovely Lolly wrote a letter to my son and my son wrote a letter to me and so to your island I came, to see after you, to bake bread for you, because every little mouse needs someone to bake her bread and build her houses out of blocks and move heaven and earth and boulders and rocks and burning buildings to keep her safe.


All the while while they’d been sharing these words spoken and unspoken, Marcel had moved the rocks aside for her, as easily as rearranging two of her wooden blocks, blocks which he knew she adored because he had, every evening, correction, almost every evening, spread them out on the floor beside the warm stove while the dough proofed. He moved the huge rocks and then he lifted her up and then he ran with her to hide under the picnic table to wait out the whooshes and bangs and booms because it was too dangerous to run through the yard and back into the house while the storm raged on. And while they were under that table, while the whooshes got whooshier and the booms got boomier, a new sound, crackle crackle roar roar began up by Whitley’s bedroom where Lolly and Billy and Ta and that Tree Lady named Madame and Auntie Loulou usually slept but now they were up and running and hollering? What were they hollering? It sounded like Whitley whitley whitleywhitleywhitleywhitleywhitley


She said nothing, she thought “Ta.” She carried on her unspoken conversation with this kind man: Grand-père Monsieur Marcel, you don’t mind that my leg grows so crooked and doesn’t look like all the other little mousies? Whitley asked in her sleepy sleepy mind. Her mind that really didn’t know anything was different with her leg except for sometimes when Madame tut-tutted and huffed and puffed and hurried her along and took her flap-footed Duckie away from her. Frank would sometimes lift her high up in the air and plop her on his shoulders and run like a horsie and those were her favorite days and then she would come inside for bread and Grand-père Monsieur Marcel would kiss her and sing to her in a bird language and Auntie Louisa would make tea and Lolly would come running in from wherever she’d run off to and sing like a bird too, like a bluebird, like a bright and shiny bluebird out of its tree.


No, of course I don’t mind, you are my perfect perfect bunny mouse, my Whitley, my granddaughter, of course I don’t mind your perfect special leg. And her leg, not perfect but perfectly imperfect, didn’t hurt her any more.


——-


Even before Whitley could walk well, when she still fell down all the time and was very slow, Lolly taught her how to swim in the cold water off the dock. It felt so good like she could fly and it didn’t matter that her foot was owie and her leg was poky as the puppy in one of her bedtime books. It didn’t matter because the other lady, the lady who was not a tree but was a feather bed, that lady who looked like Madame and a little like Lolly would lace her shoes up very patient and slow and gentle the way Whitley liked it and oh she was so sleepy now, so very sleepy and she didn’t mind because her foot and her leg and her whole little bunny mouse self had stopped hurting anyway, the horses had her and that’s when Marcel kissed her and said finally to her, before he left her, Let them think I did this, Whitley, let them think it was me and my midnight cigarette that set this house on fire. I will go away from here I love you I love you I love you Lolly must never take the blame and let not God be blamed either, for He is Everywhere. Tell them, when you begin to talk, tell them it was me, your grandfather who loved you very much who hates to leave you who will see you again some day before too long. Tell them that I left you but not before I freed you, not before making sure sure sure you and your mother, who gave me you who made you out of love with my son would be safe if not forever at least for a little while longer. And tell Louisa that I loved her too


——-


Coast Guard sailors clad in wool sweaters smelling rank as a Scottish bog on shearing day greeted John Dory and hoisted his passengers ashore. John, Guinevere and Stéphane ran towards the main house, stumbling and righting themselves, stumbling and righting themselves in the mud, so many times Guinevere wondered if she should just stay down. If she could just sink below the level of the moss and first-growth evergreen roots and stay, then she’d never have to learn who the One Dead was. It wouldn’t be the first time she would be counted among the missing.


Shouts from up ahead rallied her. Muffled at first, then clearer as she slogged closer to the scene of the fire. “We found her!” she heard Billy call. “We found her!” Her breath caught in her throat, a throat that used to sing a bluebird’s song, but for a long long time had been singing to a bird in a cage. Now the song came out a sob. One dead. One dead. One dead.


“We found her! We found Whitley!” Billy ran around the corner, followed by Madame, holding baby Whitley draped in her arms the same way she carried sheets from the washing tub to hang on the long line up the hill. A Coast Guardsman ran past Guinevere, his galoshes sloshing mud against her already covered clothes. John followed but then slowed down and reversed course, heading back down along the washed out road to take Mabel by the arm and guide her towards whatever catastrophe awaited.


Madame draped Whitley’s inert body on the boards of the picnic table, where as recently as one day ago, before the whole world changed, the silly bunch had been boistering around, pinching each other with dead lobster claws, fishing tender morsels of meat from crenellated tails.


Just then, Lolly emerged from the slashing waves, where she’d been diving in the icy waters in her pajamas. Her ripped top hung off one shoulder; her hands were scraped and bleeding and her hair was a nest of seaweed and broken bits of periwinkle shell. She and her mother Guinevere met at the stairs at the front of the house and took hold of each other— clutching, pulling apart, moving together as one. They made their way toward the small group, Coast Guardsman, Billy, Frank of course, glued and monitoring with his all-seeing eyes, and Madame, bent over Whitley.


Billy held up a hand the way he’d seen the officers do on all his television shows, but it was useless as trying to hold back an oncoming train. He didn’t want his Aunt Guin or his cousin Lolls to see the tragedy that lay before him. Whitley’s leg was gashed, her little toes were black and blue. Her lips as well were the color of the dark line where horizon met sky. Guinevere and Lolly both lunged for her at the same time, but it was Frank the toddler reached out for.


Ta? she asked him, burying her burnished brown hair into his shoulder.


Ta, he answered. He crossed in front of Madame, moving the old goat aside in a gesture nobody but her would have argued with. She frowned and clutched at her pearls and opened her mouth to scold him. Guinevere, for the first time in her life, became unafraid of this woman who’d made her own grandchildren and great-granddaughter call her Madame, not Gran or Grammy or even Grand-mama, but Madame.


Stop, Mother, she said. Stop talking.


Frank gathered Whitley up with all the tenderness and love he’d kept trapped inside his boxy, wordless body all these years. He hugged her shivering frame against his skin, an energy radiating off him that felt to the others like a school of dolphins echolocating underwater. Taaaaaaaaaaaah, he moaned a tidal wave a jet stream an edgeless Sargasso Sea of sound that poured forth from the river within him flowing below the river that makes language in most of our mouths, but saves silence for the saints who walk among us.


One of the Coast Guardsmen cloaked Lolly with a blanket, and bandaged Whitley’s leg as best he could at the angle it dangled since Frank refused to release her. Stéphane hugged Guinevere and tried to wipe some of the mud from her sweater, then gave up, tugged it over her head and threw it in the ashy rubble at their feet. She stood there in a camisole, the hibiscus flower tattoo’ed on her shoulder revealed for her mother to see for the first time. No one spoke, really, except for the few words John mumbled to Mabel about finding her a place to sit down. No, I want to see Geneva, Mabel protested. Let’s let her tend to her people now, John cajoled to which Mabel replied, I AM her people.


They were all, by and large, in blood line and in history, her people, but Madame didn’t tend to any of them. She stared without focus at the charred remains of the interior staircase of the house. The group had moved inside, which thankfully, had not been torn asunder. There were plenty of overstuffed chairs with antimacassars, ottomans with heavy wooden support legs, stacks of musty books and needlepoint and yellowing family albums, photographs taken before the time of renegade Guinevere and her ragtag brood. Once John had gotten Mabel situated on the divan between two Boston ferns and a Tiffany lamp, he sat on the piano bench and nervously tapped one key. Guinevere mused out loud but half-heartedly that hot bread would sure be comforting in a time like this and Stéphane said he’d go see about his brother, fetch the butter and a knife.


Guinevere could breathe easier now, despite her mother having seen her of a piece, muddied and ornamented in a way no-one there had seen in all their lives. The One Dead, Guin reassured herself, was not Lolly and it was not Frank and it was not Whitley. Though Guinevere loved her mother, she never liked her much but was glad she was not the One Dead either all the same. And still. One Dead.


Madame went to the closet and took out a broom. A veil of oblivion hung around her, the malevolent spirit that resided inside her made visible in the aftermath of this disaster. She began to whistle uncharacteristically as she swept, swept, swept the black ash that fell like a snowstorm in the underworld from the burnt-out second story up above. Rain dripped in through holes in the roof. Here and there, a few cinders still smoldered, luckily (was anything lucky here?) out of reach of Geneva’s dry broom or else another conflagration could easily have flared and who is to say whether or not Madame would have jumped out of its way?


The others were mesmerized momentarily by the rhythmic rustle of baled bristles against worn wood. Lolly had stripped out of her sopping pajamas and into a pair of dungarees and a faded jumper she’d pulled from the bottom of the steamer trunk left in the den from last summer. She’d dried Whitley head to toe, diapered her and kissed her and attached the brace to her legs and fitted her into her snuggly snap-up romper, the one with the bunny on it and the feet attached (Of course they’d cut the left one and re-sewn it just right to fit.) and Whitley had fallen instantly back to sleep in Frank’s arms. Billy had gone off to find Stéphane and Marcel and the men from the coast guard and John and to see about the flag pole, the broken glass, a ladder, perhaps a bottle of Scotch. It didn’t seem to him like Madame could say no to anything just about now. She’d said no to the match which, in the end had made no difference, so a snort of Glen Livet wasn’t going to make matters worse.


Would Billy ever speak to Lolly about the lantern? Ever, ever? She knew and he knew and she knew he knew and he knew she did too and maybe that was all that ever had to come of that. The question that scorched in them though was this, Would they ever speak of the vision they’d seen, looking out the window at that first startling lightning, its scar of white running down the flesh of the sky and letting the light shine through? Billy had seen Marcel, hacking at something on the rocks; Lolly had seen him too, the red lit tip of his cigarette a pinpoint, a period at the end of the sentence that was his reason for being on the island, baker for a house full of people perfectly capable of baking bread for themselves. When Billy had looked later to that same spot and seen nothing but a last remaining glow of cadmium next to late summer dry grass, and he wasn’t proud of this, mind you, he began in one instant to formulate a story, a way for Lolly to escape blame, a way for all of them to deny the single match, the stolen lantern, the careless way Lolly had left it burning by her bedside just under the open window with its curtains of lace and voile. When Lolly had looked, all she could see was the silhouette of a man, his back bent, his love as pure as his intentions, his body at one with the symphony of the sea.


And now the count was One Found. One Missing. One Dead.


Stéphane came back from the kitchen shaking his head and fiddling with whatever was in his pocket. “I do not know where is my brother,” he said, “but I do know about wires and ze telephones and such. I will rhee-pair your telephone and comme ça, we can call to the mainland, oui?”


“Oui, oui, yes, Stéphane, that sounds. . . Yes. Sure.” Guinevere had begun to weary. The all-encompassing gray, the way Mabel’s heaving breaths fluttered the fronds of the ferns in their stands, the smell of soot and smoke and wet and heat, and the absence of the intoxicating aroma of bread too. Was absence a smell on its own? All she wanted now were tea and bread. Where was the bread? Oh yes, Marcel had not been found. One Missing. One Missing. One Found. One Missing. One Dead.


As if reading her mind as only a mother can, for mothers, no matter how distant and untouchable, can still do that, Madame laid her broom solidly against the rickety doorframe, rickety because it had nothing to attach itself to, the other side of its threshold having completely burned away. Tea, she announced. Her utterance sounded like a variation of Ta.


Tea, I think, would be lovely just now. Shall I just go up and get Louisa? She always makes the most sensible pots of tea. Louisa? Lou-i-sa! she called as if impatient, as if Step lively Louisa, do I need to repeat myself.


Nothing.


She heard Nothing. Nothing stirred. Nothing . . .happened.


Loulou? she called up the stairs. Neither Lolly nor Billy nor Frank had ever heard their Madame call her sister Loulou. Nicknames were for children and weaklings. Madame said Eulalia. She said William. She said Francis even though Frank didn’t know who that was.


Loulou.


LOULOU.


LOULOU!


Whitley woke up. Ta? Tatata Tutu tutu, La. Lala. Lulu She was babbling now, happy as a clam at high tide. Ta-ta Tutu La-la Lulu. Looloo Woowoo Loowoo? Loulou. Loulou? She got up off of Frank’s lap and toddled over to stand next to the tree trunk that was her great grandmother, a great grandmother who had never lifted her up or played blocks on the floor with her or picked blueberries with her or pretty purple clover and happy white and yellow daisies and put them in a vase by her crib. Her crib which had burned up while she had been outside looking for her Lolly who had been outside looking for herself.





Who is to say when Whitley would recall all that Marcel had said to her but when she did, when she finally spoke those words at some point much later, she spoke them clarion clear. She remembered every word, and what’s more, every minute Marcel had spent with her, playing blocks and singing gull songs and building her a mouse house out of buttered bread. And saving her from the wave that came so close she tasted it, that scared her like a monster, that washed away the pretty little minkie but didn’t gobble her up the way the fire ate the big mouse house where she used to live.


For now, she stood beside the tree trunk of her great-grandmother who had not moved, had not budged, from her sentry point at the last stair landing. Loulou Louuuulouuuu? Whitley called up the stairs. AUNTIE LOULOU, we can has tea?


Whitley was found. One Found.

Marcel was gone. One Missing.


Louisa . Auntie Louisa . Loulou.

The lantern. The curtains. Her hair.


One Dead.



42 views3 comments

Recent Posts

See All

3 Comments


boxxawoxx
Feb 29

You're everything to me;

you're everything to God:

● NOPEcantELOPE.blogspot.com ●

Though I seem odd,

7thHeaven's odd, 2,

where we can be 1.

Coming, dear??

Like
boxxawoxx
Feb 29
Replying to

Howja like todo lottsa gobbsa

writing after our demise?

999+ oemnillionsObooks,

999+ oemnillionsOyears,

999+ oemnillionsOdesires??

yooNeye definately can;

we can do anything and

everythn VanGogh's 'starry sky'

...for E T E R N I T Y, gorgeous!

Here's how, miss adorable:

● NOPEcantELOPE.blogspot.com ●

Love you. Cya soon. b@peace.

Like

Wide Open Writing
Wide Open Writing
Aug 23, 2023

oh my, Emily. You take us on such a dream journey, the world that is both so solid and severe and yet so loving and ethereal. Thank you thank you thank you

Like
bottom of page