A Novel Expedition
Then I forget
it all, then remember Kierkegaard:
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must
be lived forwards. *
--Jason Bredle, "Marc McKee"
Our family wasn’t fancy, even if we did eat by candlelight.
Our mother liked traditions. She still does. She also likes the ocean, very much, as long as it doesn't come up above her chin.
We can only imagine how she got when we got away from her.
In those days, a man named Frugal spent a lot of time at our home. He ate all of our breakfast cereal when we weren’t looking.
Frugal had newly acquired a boat -- or the skeleton of a boat -- a very old one. He said our father was the best woodworker he knew.
"Frugal says a lot of things," our mother said.
Frugal was our father's friend. Our mother, on the other hand, tolerated him: she put up with him generously, but barely.
Frugal was an inventor. He said he had invented something he called “fiber-optic fur,” which transmitted sun straight to your skin. He said he had invented another thing he called “tantoos,” which made pictures on your skin if you wore them out in the sun. He said he invented a kind of carpet that grows. Frugal didn’t call himself an inventor; he used the word “biomimeticist.”
Frugal believed strongly, he said, “that you should sleep the same way you want to be when you’re awake.” When he stayed over as a guest in our home, he might head off to bed wearing a track suit so in the morning he could literally hit the ground running, which he did barefoot. Or Frugal might sleep with a book across his chest. Often the books were about learning to sail, but at other times they might pertain to knots, or tropical fish, or “Cooking Foods the Caribbean Way.”
For our mother, however, sleep was sacrosanct, a ritual of the highest importance. She believed in tending our garden early in the morning. “That gives the plants all day to stretch themselves out.” Although our mother is now retired from her post at the university, and she knows her plant biology, too, we still believe she couldn’t have been more than half-joking when she told us that plants do all of their growing at night. And that we did our best growing then, too.
And so, before our nightly reading and saying thanks, we always took a hot shower and donned fresh pajamas to prepare properly for the sandman.
The strangest sound we ever heard came one night when our mother was preparing for bed. She was startled to find Frugal in the upstairs bathroom with the lights out. Frugal had planned to spend the night sleeping in his wetsuit and snorkel, and had already dozed off, face-down in the tub.
After that, mother directed Frugal out. It was several weeks before we saw him again.
But he did return, and with his sailboat. Frugal had gotten his new sloop from a friend of a friend, a soccer player he and our father knew from college. The boat had originally been christened "The Sea Robin" by walrus hunters in Newfoundland, back when walruses had been hunted.
Eventually, Frugal and our father finished rebuilding the hull, rigging up the masts, and furnishing the cabin. They kept the boat down in a vacant lot beside Mr. Charleston’s hardware store. They coated it in layers of "electric sapphire" paint. Ultimately, the two of them calligraphed in bright white elegantly across her stern a revised name: "The Sea Wren."
"It's very bad luck to change a boat's name," Frugal explained to us. "But," he said, that since they had replaced so much of the boat's old original frame, it seemed disrespectful to keep the name exactly the same.
When school let out for the Summer, our family towed the Sea Wren behind a dually pickup truck across the country to the coast, to Woods Hole, in Massachusetts, in the northeast part of the country. Besides the two of us, and our mother and father, three of our cousins squeezed into the truck’s cab, as well. Frugal followed behind our family with his pet ferret, Chester, in a sputtering car he called a Brat.
When we ran out of road and reached the coast, our parents sailed us in the Sea Wren out from there to nearby Martha’s Vineyard, an island whose coastal towns were lined with what our father referred to as “gingerbread houses.” Further on, separated from the main island by a swift flowing channel was the island’s smaller sibling, Chappaquiddick, a little bit of land the people who lived there called “Chappy.”
The coast of Chappy was heavily wooded, and dotted—not with the chain of gingerbread pink and purple and blue and green and yellow homes we had seen on the main island—but sporadically, with alternating sheds and mansions, each one clad in gray and weather-worn cedar shingles. The nicer homes were accented with bright white trim around the windows and doors.
For the Summer, our parents had rented out a dock-side cottage. During most of the year, a ship’s captain lived in that boathouse. At that time, however, the captain left the little home and the long dock behind. The family who owned the property had recruited him to take them for a long excursion down to the tip of South America, in Patagonia. That family lived uphill from the cottage, in a home so grand that it had its own name: the Blue Point House.
The rented cottage, however, was much too small for our whole clan. The shower was beside the uphill entry door. Inside the cottage was just enough space for a kitchenette, a closet with a toilet, a sofa, and the full-sized bed that our parents would sleep in.
We children rotated on the sofa -- one each, each night --while the rest slept belowdecks on the Sea Wren, in the cabin that shared a wall with the one where Frugal spent his nights. Sleeping out on the boat, where she bobbed, moored not far from the dock, always inspired the most curious dreams.
One night, Frugal decided to go into Edgartown to stay in a hotel, and our parents assented that all of us children could sleep in the boat.
"Don’t forget,” Frugal said to us before he rowed the dinghy away toward town, “that there is such a thing as a bottomless question.”
Emit was wild that night with an energy none of us had seen in him before. His head spun with possibility. “Frugal said there was a bottomless question!” Emit recounted. "You know what that means!”
“It means,” Maribeth said, setting her four-year-old eyebrows into a matter-of-fact furrow, "a whirlpool."
“I think he was just being weird?” Rose, who was then eight, replied uncertainly.
“No, it means you throw answers into it and they get stuck,” Tay, six, corrected.
“No. You're all wrong. You're not even making sense,” Emit said. “Frugal’s telling us that he wants us to follow him! He wouldn’t have headed to town if he didn’t have a fantastic plan for us.”
“But we can’t follow him,” Rudy, who was also eight, objected. “Frugal took the rowboat. Your parents are going to be so angry at him.”
“He knows that. That’s how we know Froog’s doing something worth the risk.” Emit was clearly exasperated at how much more he knew about the world than the rest of us did. He was eleven.
“I’m staying right here,” Rose said. “Otherwise we’re in big trouble.”
“If the harbormaster sees us out on the water, we could all be in big trouble. Even Mom and Dad,” Tay said.
“You’re not listening to me!” Rudy complained. “The rowboat is gone. We cannot, cannot leave.”
Emit tilted his head down to look Rudy in the eye.
“I’m not swimming,” she said.
“I’ll swim!” Tay blurted, but then he caught himself. We looked across the channel and out to the Atlantic. The water was dark.
We all remember how the full moon drew a bright white line that night across the surface of the ocean.
“You guys,” Emit said, “We don’t have to swim. We don’t need a row boat. This thing we’re on? It’s a boat. It’s not meant to stay here. It’s meant to go.”
“I’m going to bed,” Rose declared. “Come on, Maribeth.”
Rudy and Tay followed the girls to the berths, and, after preparing dutifully for bed, went to sleep.
You can probably guess that—even though Frugal had outfitted the Sea Wren with a set of engines and autopilot system, one he claimed to have developed himself, and which could be operated with a single button— a crew ranging in age from four to eleven is not up to the task of moving a sailboat across even the tiniest of seaways, even when there isn’t a swift current pushing it out to sea. But you couldn’t have convinced young Emit of that, not before he unhooked the line that tethered the Sea Wren to its mooring buoy.
Our mother now says we were away that night for five hours and forty-seven minutes, measuring the time between the moment she called the harbormaster and the time the tug had pulled the Sea Wren back, and the Coast Guard had ferried us back to our mother’s arms. We remember a crowd of onlookers and a news crew watched us through the breaking light of the morning. We remember our father somehow overtook that hug, embracing all of us, including our mother, all at once, while Frugal looked on. Could he have been crying?
We never saw Frugal again. We'll never be able to ask what adventures he had panned, if any. In fact, to this day, our mother distrusts Emit so that she doesn’t allow him even to carve the turkey at Thanksgiving, in spite of the fact that he’s her own nephew, and that we’re all now old enough that we have children of our own.
Whatever the case, our mother must be wrong: it can’t have been just five hours, or six, or even seven weeks that we were away. What happened after Emit shoved us off seems too incredible to say. But each of us remembers it exactly the same . . .