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Alyson Hagy

Graveyard of the Atlantic

His wife was a poet who, in cruel and important ways, was becoming lovelier and more gifted as she aged. She was close to fifty now, her hair threaded with a tarnished silver that looked warm, unkempt, in photographs. She was also thin, as whittled down as she'd ever been, and so argumentative that her friends forgave her, thinking it must be part of some performance she was putting on for herself. He knew better. Something deep had taken hold of his Lucy, a grip which felt relentless even to him. Each morning she set off on her walk through the neighbor's fields limping with tension. He followed her progress along the sun-spackled path, watched her shrink to the size of his thumb, then disappear.

Eaten up with God. That's how she tried to describe it to him, her eyes loden green in the lamplight of her study. She was being called into a dialogue; the pressure within was as physical as a tumor. "There's a fist there," she said. "Almost an actual groping hand." He sat near her and responded with soft, half-lidded eyes as she rarely wanted him to make a parade of his own words.

"We could use the grant money. I've thought about going to the mountains, someplace like the Sierra Nevada where the altitude alone is a prayer. But it seems important-I don't know how yet-to outsmart my beliefs. All of them. So it's the coast, I think. A cottage near the ocean wouldn't be too Spartan for you, would it? You'll be able to explore."

He packed a month later for Frisco, North Carolina, a tiny sprawl south of Nags Head that had neither the glamour nor the isolation he expected. Then again, he reminded himself, this was about Lucy's expectations. She would begin a fourth book of poems down there whether she actually spoke to God or not. So he boxed the Silverstone pans she'd set on the counter though he predicted she'd have little interest in cooking or eating. He zipped up a garment bag filled with batik skirts she'd never wear. The books-St. Augustine, Jung, an untranslated memoir of a French abbess, a much-thumbed Koran lent by a friend-were only talismans and would be no more useful to Lucy than shells on a string. She didn't read much when she worked, especially when she was working well. He added a few books for himself.

They made love the night before they left, and Lucy was all angles and impatience. She moved as though she was still sure of the raw allure of her body, as though their well-worn affection did not need to be coaxed or teased. The urgent pallor of her face excited him, however. It was like coupling with a younger, wraithlike Lucy he'd never known, and he was pleased with his own physical greed. Afterward, as his body cooled and shrank back toward imperfection, he watched his wife fall asleep. That was how it was with them, he thought. Lucy was here, then gone, while he could always be found in his watchful place.

They'd been together fifteen years. He'd been married briefly when he was young and believed he was going to be a lawyer. When it became clear he would take over the stamping plant his father had founded in Waterbury, his wife left him for a sarcastic editor of the law review. He worked, shed a few habits, met Lucy when he was nearly forty. Her first husband had been a poet, and their mutual misbehavior as partners produced animosity and a great deal of writing, though only Lucy's poems had been much good. The ex-husband, Mark, now taught at a small college in California, a job he landed after he finally published a book. "You're damn right I keep score," Lucy announced to her admirers at a party for her third book, a volume she would later tell him, her quiet husband, was calculated and weak-a charade in falsetto. "Anger, deception, even stupidity-it's all nothing unless you turn it into work." She enjoyed implying that her ex-husband had designs but too little will, just as she enjoyed keeping the anecdotes about their smash-up marriage alive.

They didn't talk much on the long drive south, ignoring even the radio. Lucy was good-humored, calm. She wore her hair in a girlish ponytail and insisted on eating breakfast biscuits at fast-food restaurants as often as they could. "We'll move among the people," she joked, slipping on an enormous pair of wrap-around sunglasses that were a gift from a student. "Think of me as Yoko Ono. Escort me like that."

The cottage was small but close to the ocean. Lucy wanted to unpack by herself so after he opened the windows and whisked away a few cobwebs, he stepped onto the windswept deck and watched two large families straggle home from the beach. He cringed when he realized they'd have neighbors who would laugh and quarrel in the heat, who'd bathe cranky children in the outside shower stalls. Lucy was used to silence. But the sight of exhausted, reddened bodies pleased him a little, as well. Company would do him good; he'd have a lot of time to himself. He remembered the last two hours of their trip, how Lucy sped down the eroded coastline as though the flat, sea-gray horizon needed to be pierced.

She chose the back bedroom for her own, squeezing a cheap end table between two sets of bunks and calling it a desk. "I'll squirrel away in here," she said, opening the blue curtains decorated with golden anchors, then shutting them again. "A child's room, stale with dreams. And with the blinds down I'll be able to hear the ocean, just hear it." She seemed to anticipate his objections to the lack of air and good light because she stepped close and hugged him. "I'm happy, Rob," she said. "I can't tell you what it means to leap in like this." He returned the embrace, pressing her against his stomach until he felt her slender bones flex. But he wasn't tender. Neither of them was.

On the continent's silty unseen shelf
Split hulls creak
And gather . . .

Lucy left their bed twice in the night. In the morning he showered and ate a dry bagel for breakfast without knowing whether she was in the cottage or not. He thought of her curled like a dried wasp on the mattress of a bunk, he thought of her wandering in the wilderness of her mind. Instead of settling into a deck chair with the Truman biography and some coffee, he decided to make a trip to the grocery store. He wasn't to follow Lucy down her path, not out of concern or boredom-this was their unspoken pact. He was to play beachcomber or birdwatcher or sluggish retiree. Anything but her disciple.

The cashier at the store hardly looked at him. She slumped over his purchases as though she was blind to new faces, had been drained by them. There was a fishing store next door-the two businesses were connected by a doorway-and he decided to go in. It looked like a place where he could ask questions.

The floor of the Frisco Rod & Gun Shop was crowded with bristling racks of fishing poles and glass-front cases of knives, diving watches, and reels. Standing there with his grocery bags at rest on his hips gave him the same feeling he'd had when he stepped onto the floor of the plant. A good feeling, warm and hard beneath his diaphragm. This was a serious, well-grounded place-a business that knew its business-and he quickly decided he'd buy some tackle or whatever for himself. It took him a moment to realize he'd walked in on a fiercely whispered argument.

A boy in a baggy blue slicker was standing near the cash register, his scabbed fist wrapped tight around a rod that was much taller than he was. The boy had close-cropped hair and a skinny, crooked face that seemed to splotch with humiliation as he listened to the muscular young man who leaned from behind the counter. The boy shook his head, dug his chin into his chest, then shook his head again. The man, who was blond and bearded and stiff with impatience, reached for the rod with an open hand. The boy jerked it away and jammed it into a bucket filled with plastic sand spikes. "You know I don't got the money," he wailed, kicking at air with his shredded sneaker. "Damn you, anyhow." And he ran from the store, coat flapping. Rob thought he could smell the boy's fury in the braided scent of rubber and stale french fries that roiled past him. He was also sure the boy had looked at him before uttering his phlegmy curse.

The blond man made no apologies. He acted as if Rob was the first customer of the day. "Set your things down. Look around. Just let me know what I can do." The man rerolled the sleeves of his plaid shirt above his elbows as he spoke, and Rob suddenly felt dizzy with responsibility. The grocery bags slipped onto his thighs, almost beyond control. "I've never been here," he said too loudly. "I'd like a lot of help."

When he stepped out the door a half-hour later, he carried a two-meter rod and a reel, both rented, plus a gooey baggie filled with bloodworms. Dan, the owner, had refused to sell him anything but the bait. "Rent for a day, see if you like it. Try the pier maybe, and high tide this evening. Most of those cottages have cleaning tables and fillet knives if you need them."

He felt inflated, equipped for adventure, until he saw the boy squatting near the edge of the parking lot. The boy stared at him, half bored, half sullen, his astonishing coat now twisted and knotted around his waist.

"You know, it doesn't cost much to get one of these," he said to the boy before he really thought about it. "It's supposed to be a good time for flounder . . . I mean he, Dan, said it was. I wouldn't know myself. I could lend you some money."

The boy barely changed his expression, only cracking his mouth, and he saw now why the young face seemed crooked. The boy was missing most of his back teeth on one side. "Naw," he said. "Dan, there is my cousin. He'll lend me one after y'all tourists are through. He does me like this all the time." The boy paused to swallow some spit, then opened his jaws in an exaggerated yawn. "I reckon the Lord forgives him even if I don't."

Rob worked his lips but the only sound he could manage was a retreating hum. He walked carefully to the car where he laid the twitching rod across the top of both seats. As he dropped the coagulating bloodworms into a bag of warm groceries, he reminded himself that he was committed to good sense. Lucy needed him; he was her anchor. It wouldn't be a good idea to get too involved in anything while he was down here.

. . . mast, scope,
Bell, rib,
Shell of cannon, shell of bone . . .

That night he retrieved Lucy from the beach. There was no moon, but he was able to locate her with the help of a flashlight he found in a closet. She was delighted to see him, breaking from her statue pose near the foam-threaded surf to smile into his eyes. "It draws us in, doesn't it. So massive and lunar. I didn't want to stay away." He took her hand and led her back across the vertebraed dunes, using the light to scatter the dozens of pale ghost crabs that scuttled underfoot. The dampness of Lucy's skin made him shiver. Later, after her shower, she propped herself on the side of the bed that was closest to the sea. The sliding glass door was open; the wind smelled of salt and insistent storms. Lucy wore nothing but an oversized college sweatshirt that belonged to him, and he watched the perfect furrows of her wet hair leak onto the light fabric, staining it, drying. He wanted her to stay with him, in that bed, until the sun lacquered the water, but knew he couldn't ask for that. She spread her knees, then placed her hands on them in the posture of an elderly bench-sitting man. "Those crabs are fearless," she said. "Actually unwitting. I stepped on a few of them. They create all that motion in the dark, you know, but I couldn't sense it exactly, though I was trying, wanting to. They pinched me. I crushed them. Instincts worked and failed." She left him then, after a careful kiss on his temple, that place so woven with nerves. The light burned in her bedroom for hours.

If I could slink
And divine
Among wrecked keel and stern,
I would.

He got the car stuck less than a mile down the road to the point. He'd let some air out of the tires to improve traction, but it hadn't helped much. Every other vehicle he saw had four-wheel drive, and he cursed his ignorance until he laughed. What difference did it make? Someone would tow him back to solid ground when the time came. He grabbed the duffle bag which contained a sandwich, water, a compass, and a camera, then began to follow the rutted road to Hatteras Inlet on foot. Fishermen passed by in their trucks. He lifted a hand without making eye contact. The wind was steady and bracing, and he became aware of the astringent rush of sand past his ankles.

He'd come to see the site of Fort Hatteras and old Fort Clark which had once stood across the inlet. There was a historical marker near the ferry that mentioned them, and it intrigued him, that solemn commemoration of a forgotten skirmish. The makeshift forts had been poorly defended by the Rebels in 1861, but their capture was the first in a series of successes for Union General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside, he knew, eventually rose to lead the Army of the Potomac, guiding it to a smashing defeat at Fredricksburg. He'd always liked the idea that a person's history could be mapped out along lines of success and failure. And he believed it was important, sometimes, to locate even the most blithe points of personal victory. They were easier to forget than the failures. On this day, alone and focused, he wanted to tread paths once trod by obscure boots. He would follow the trail of good decisions. He veered off the road when he felt like it and churned through the scorching sand to a low plait of dunes. The morning light had gone silvery like the light that haunted the curves of fine black and white photographs.

Nothing. That was exactly what he saw from higher ground, and it was what he'd feared he'd find. There were people scattered up and down the shore, most of them clumped shoulder to shoulder on the point where the fishing was best. There was a small motorboat just beyond the dark bottleneck of the inlet-he could see waves exploding against the chevron of its bow. He wondered what that was like, negotiating the bars and currents of an inlet that had grounded ships for hundreds of years. This had always been the most treacherous part of the Atlantic coast, defined by the rip of the tides and the assault of the sky. There were no military ruins here. In fact, there was nothing manmade in sight except tire tracks and trash.

The heat rose in layers around him, distorting the landscape, rippling. He imagined a crooked file of fly-ridden troopers, broiling in blue wool, gun barrels untouchable. Beating double time and struggling and stumbling and finally reaching the weak palisade of Fort Hatteras from behind. It is no contest. The heavy guns aimed at sea cannot turn on them.

As this vision smoldered, he thought of Lucy and how she wrought words from what eluded her. An afternoon out here-searing, misguided, all but fumbled away-would become a poem for her, a perfect distillation of image and judgment, a revelation. Knowing this, he giant-stepped to level ground, then marched toward the probing surf. His wife knew who she was and what she was about more than he ever would. He swung south when his shoes filled with water, determined to circle back to his trapped car only after he'd passed behind every fisherman-and fisherwoman-he could see. He suddenly needed to peer over their bronzed shoulders, smell their bait, note the brand of their beers. He wanted to hear them talk or, more likely, hear them say nothing at all as they faced the task of the sea.

My love flails against the long-nailed pluck of the tide.

He returned to an empty house. The washer and dryer were running, and the sheets on his bed had been changed. A once-bitten muffin lay sideways on the countertop he'd wiped clean that morning. These were Lucy's little admonitions-she liked things taken care of. He made himself a glass of iced tea and sat to read about the common life of a president, but couldn't concentrate. His back muscles twinged, his stomach rolled. He finally crept down the hall to Lucy's room where he dug into her jumbled boxes until he found a paperback copy of her second book of poems, the one dedicated to him.

The book still frightened him. She'd written about so much-her divorce, her sister's illness, the decision not to have children-and many of the best poems were about him. How she loved him, yet couldn't do so with all of her heart. How he was sturdy enough to survive the infidelities she confided on other pages, stolid enough not to need the assurance of art. She hadn't turned a blind eye to her own flaws; she was a harsh critic of her ambivalence. Yet he was awed by her ability to make those feelings public. She had taken what was intimate between them and refined it, sharpened its reticent claws, then released it in a flutter of language. She'd crushed and resuscitated them both many times in that book, the one that won prizes, the one which rested on his fingertips with its cover curled like a wilting petal, its margins the color of old teeth. There were passages, mere syllables, that still gutted him though he'd never spoken to Lucy about them, not once. Two affairs? Three? He'd never had the courage to ask.

his is
the flesh of my flesh
unrendered, pallid

There were words he'd never forgotten.

A week later he drove to the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge on the advice of a woman he met on the beach. "They've got nature walks and events like that," she told him, twisting on her towel until her bathing suit slipped to reveal a white crescent of skin. "A good place if you've got some time." He winced as he realized how aimless he must look. She'd never guess he thought about touching that skin beneath her arm. Her children plummeted in and out of the blue-green surf, and he thought about inviting her to lunch-with the children, of course. He would drive to a simple restaurant and eat with someone who liked him, who might even admire him. He'd pay the bill, flirt. But the woman's distracted smile cut him off, so he bowed in silence and went his way.

The buildings at Pea Island were low, storm-scrubbed slabs that looked like they belonged next to an oil rig. He stood in the parking lot for several minutes, peering at plastic-shielded maps and reading fine print about the Atlantic Flyway. There were three cars parked near his, and a single government truck. He could see gulls wheeling over the salt marsh, agile and fickle on the wing.

A tall woman in a Fish & Wildlife uniform greeted him from behind a crowded metal desk. Two other women-one gray-haired and large, the other dressed in the waif-like clothes of a college student-looked up from where they were scribbling on identical notepads in the far corner of the room.

"You're busy," he said to the ranger. "I'll come back."

The heavy woman in the corner of the room laughed. "If dealing with us keeps Marie busy, she's a worse waste of taxpayer money than I thought. Do your business. Brynna and I are regulars."

"Too regular," grinned Ranger Marie. "At least we're getting work out of you."

"Well then, why don't you tell this gentleman about us. Before you send him up the road to look at your damned fine ospreys."

"Tell him yourself, Helen, and don't scare him off doing it." The ranger gathered a stack of pale blue index cards in her rough hands. "I've got a birdwatch to do," she said to him. "Pete will be here in about five minutes to answer any questions you might have about the refuge. Take a look at our literature, if you like, or let Helen preach on. She used to be with the church."

"Sisters of Mercy Mild," the heavy woman said, snorting. "But that's another story." She got up from the folding chair she'd been sitting on and ambled toward him. Her round cheeks were flushed with sunburn, her blue eyes bright and guileless. She wore canvas walking shorts and a T-shirt decorated with a peeling white heron. "We're volunteers here, don't let Marie fool you. Organizing people for the turtle hatch."

The girl, Brynna, flipped her straight hair back over her shoulders. "They're gonna come out soon. It'll be cool."

He looked at the girl more closely. She was perhaps twenty with large languid eyes, narrow shoulders, a lithe body draped in a gauzy print dress that clung to her thighs. She wore the kind of clunky sandals he hated, and her blunt toes were creased with dirt. He could also see that her brown hair had a purplish tint to it much as Lucy's did when she used a henna rinse. Recognition of that meaty color against the bones of a stranger's face somehow thrilled him.

"You like turtles?" he asked, wondering if it was possible for him to sound like anyone other than her father. "That must be . . . different."

"Ha," roared Helen, who stood next to him now. "Ha. You take us seriously, mister. Mistake one. Brynna likes to watch loggerhead nests because it gives her an excuse to spend all night on the dunes with boys."

"That's not fair, Helen." Brynna stretched and pouted. "I'm into this as seriously as you are. Pete said he appreciated my commitment."

Helen, however, was still laughing. She wiped her reddened nose with the back of her hand, then clapped that hand onto his shoulder. "If that's not what she's doing out there, she ought to be. I would. It's beautiful work, waiting for a hatch. Also boring as hell."

"I like beauty," he said.

"I guessed that." Helen flicked her fingers at his chest. "Sign up with Brynna there. This is the week." And she was gone, steering her body gingerly through the doorway and out of sight.

He felt himself blush in the sudden silence. He'd come for exactly this-for connection, to offer his services to an island he was stuck on-but it was suddenly too much. He was about to leave when he noticed Brynna watching him, a yellow pencil twitching in her fingers like a wand.

"The nests up here are really important because the temperature is, like, cooler than Florida so it makes most of the babies male. Marie was telling me how that happens before you came in. She's really smart, and I like how it's all scientific. I kind of want to be a vet."

"You've done this before?" He slipped his hands into his pants pockets, then yanked them out just as he was about to jingle his loose change.

"Oh, no. I mean this is my second summer at Nags Head. I wanted to go to Cape Cod with my friends, but my parents wouldn't let me." She pushed her hair over her shoulder again, a smile lifting half of her mouth. He saw that she had good, straight teeth. "They save a lot of whales up there when they get stuck, you know. I'd like to do that."

He nodded. "Do you think I should sign up? I don't know anything about loggerhead turtles."

"Pete or somebody can tell you that stuff. We just need more people for the early shifts, like four hours or so. Mainly to keep each other awake. There's always time to get the rangers before the babies pop out. They say the sand on top starts to boil, sort of."

"And then you catch them?" He tried to alternate his gaze between her face and a stuffed goose displayed on top of a filing cabinet.

"Oh, no." Her brown eyes went round. "We just make sure they get to the ocean. Before the crabs and birds eat them. Since they're endangered and all."

He signed up to arrive before dusk the next night. "You've gotta cool name," Brynna told him, leaning against Marie's desk as a dancer might, hips jutting forward. "You're not a Bob or a Robert, which is kind of seriously formal."

"No," he said, measuring his smile. "I'm not."

"You down in Frisco? I work at this sandwich shop-well, it's kind of a bar, too-at Mile Post 7."

"I'm in Frisco for a few weeks. My wife is a writer."

Brynna tugged at a smeared, Asian-looking earring. "She writes books? That's neat. I don't do so well in English myself. Get a lot of Cs."

"I was . . . I'm a businessman. We've been married a long time."

"And you love her because she's creative, right? That would be so cool. I went out with this painter guy for a while. He made me feel all beautiful and free. He was really into it."

"Yes, well, Lucy's beyond that now." He had himself look into Brynna's eyes, at her body, while he spoke. "When you get older, work like that is more habit than enthusiasm."

Beneath the waves
I am still
Enough to see them all;
Husbanding pelican, gull,
Stabbing tern with blood-bright bill.

He cooked Lucy dinner. Shrimp cocktail, tuna steaks, white wine he'd brought from home. She ate every bite and sat on his lap later as they watched the pocked moon rise over the water. He did all that he could to keep his mind in the present moment, to appreciate the unique accretions of his marriage. It was simply a matter of breathing from within, he told himself, of going deep, much as Lucy did when she was practicing yoga. Though as he looked at his wife's neck and saw how the skin there was beginning to wrinkle, he realized it had been a long while since he'd seen her doing yoga or anything of the kind.

Just when he was sure she'd fallen asleep in his arms, she asked if she could read to him. It irritated him to know she'd folded against him, body pliant as a child's, while her mind was elsewhere. He kept his eyes closed as she slipped down the hall for her notebooks, though he listened closely for the sound of her feet on carpet, then wood, anticipating the swift percussion of each step. When she sat in the armchair across from him and began to speak, he searched her voice for hints of artifice or condescension or doubt. But it was as if she were speaking to him from the expanding chambers of her heart, aligning all that mattered to her into the verses of song. There was no hint of a retreating, jealous God. She spoke of durable love instead, the sunrise, the sea. She described the low, awkward flight of pelicans. She recast a story he'd once told her about betraying his brother in a ballgame many years before, and her version, while brief, became true. She sounded small and honest and warm to him, careful, and it was this he loved along with the wind-softened crash of the ocean. It was this that carried him to sleep.

Bodies mollusk and slippery . . .

He was paired with Helen, and he didn't believe the pairing was an accident. Brynna was to go with a sun-dried old man who'd brought binoculars even though it was dusk. The old man was quizzing Brynna closely, asking if she'd want some soda crackers and cheese during the night, when Brynna caught his eye and gave him an exaggerated wink. He was too surprised to wink back.

He squeezed himself into the rear of Pete's government-issue Blazer while Helen settled in front, her legs so large he could see them on either side of her seat. She began a monologue. "I bet you'd come when I first saw you, told that to Marie but she wouldn't take the odds, said I should stick to bingo like that was a funny thing to say. Ha. I did go to the racetrack some when I was at St. Joe's. I liked it. All that praying for luck without going through God first. All that ridiculous hope. Though the ponies had nothing to do with me leaving the church. No, sir."

He didn't take the bait. Decided he wouldn't ask her why she'd left, no matter what.

"It was the bird-watching, to tell the truth," she said, rubbing the tops of her thighs. "At Cape May, then down here. I told the bishop I just couldn't give it up. Now they're all jealous as hell of my Life List."

He knew enough not to believe her. And he understood that she was trying to find out whether he was going to be sheepish or combative, whether he'd admit his real reason for coming. Pete, a laconic high-hatted ranger, wasn't interested in mediating between them. He didn't interrupt to talk about turtles or habitat preservation or the erosion near Oregon Inlet Bridge. "Nice night," he said, glancing at Rob in the bulky rearview mirror. "I like going out on a nice night."

Pete dropped them off, and they walked the short distance to the beach where they settled into the sun-warmed palm of a dune. The nest was perhaps twenty feet behind them, a staked-out depression in the sand surrounded by reverential footprints.

"I've been thinking about you," Helen said, unscrewing the noisy cap of a canteen. "Wondering if you're an artist, like Brynna says your wife is, or what. You want to help me on that?"

"I ran a business in Connecticut. I'm retired now."

"A businessman? That tells me exactly nothing. Very WASP-y of you to say it that way." She paused to drink. "So you're saying you don't write like your wife? How's it go then-you worship the little words she types?"

He swung his head around. Helen's eyes were stark in the final rinse of twilight. "Yes," he said, "that's precisely how it goes."

She sighed and dug into a hip pocket. He heard the insistent crackle of cellophane and thought about his voice, how it sounded cool and formal in his ears. "I'm nosy, I know," Helen continued. "I like to pick at people from their blind side which is another technique I stole from my lousy past life. But I figure she's either famous, which makes you feel inadequate. Or she's not, and hates that, so she makes you feel inadequate. You can't win with artist types. Though I ought to confess I think it's impossible to win with any type at all."

"You're a cynic on top of everything else?" He tried a dry chuckle, hoping to downgrade the conversation. "Maybe we should talk about turtles."

"We could, but that's dull." She'd stuffed her mouth with cookies, and her munching was jovial, irritating. "I want to know what makes you tick. Do you believe in love? America? Is your precious wife faithful to you? Stuff like that."

All he wanted was quiet. Wanted to retreat into his thoughts and become as perfect as the pitch of the wind which sang through the sea oats above them-perfect and unwavering. Instead this woman was buzzing in his ears, and he could feel something cresting inside him, a thing he'd lived with for a long time.

"You want to know what I really think of Lucy? After all these years, these . . . retreats?" He began to stand, then sat again. He could sense Helen's eyes on him, fixed, guarded. "What if I said she's selfish and loveless and hollow? Would you stop, if I lied to make you happy?" He swallowed. There was much more-he felt the words racing along his tongue.

"Got you going, didn't I?" Helen's voice-toneless, bullying.

"No," he said softly, sliding down the dune as the damp sand gave way before him. "I took care of that myself."

He veered into the dark, feeling shivery and raw. He'd walk, he told himself, whisk his head clean. But he'd gone less than half a mile when he ran into Brynna who'd been at the nesting site just up the beach. "I knew it was you," she said, skirts blown like bracken around her pale legs. "I could tell, like it was a little bit psychic almost. Marie wanted me to get you guys. It's crazy up there, these turtles are everywhere, and that old guy I'm with is going nuts, keeping us back like he's the official guard or something. He even elbowed me in the boobs, he's so into it, then didn't notice enough to apologize. God."

"I'm sorry," he said.

"You would be."

He reached for her upper arm, pretending to steady himself against it, winded. The milky beams of several flashlights were visible against the inland sky as though what was happening there was a marquee event, some kind of ocean premier. Behind him, back up the invisible beach, there were no glimmers or winks. Nothing.

"Want to go see?" Brynna shifted her weight against his in a playful shove. "You might not want to miss something so cool in nature. With Man helping out and not hurting things like we always do."

"I'm fine," he said, wondering how he might undress her in his distracted mind. He wanted to be woozy enough to idealize her, to believe she'd be a relief. "I'd rather stay here. Talk with a lovely lady like you."

"Oh. Sure. Yeah." She smiled and her good, straight teeth looked almost horsy in the rime-frost light that rode the water. "Guys like you always want to talk."

Hissing gulfstream,
Coil my rage in yours.

Lucy was waiting for him when he returned to the cottage. She was drawn into a tight ball on the couch, arms locked around her knees. Her hair was a mess, and her eyes darted right and left between their lids as if they were looking for escape. He thought to himself, My wife has nothing but this. He began to speak. She cut him off.

"Why don't you treat me like I'm Thorazined," she croaked. "Do me that favor."

"Lucy?" Her name a whisper-the best he could do.

"Where have you been?"

"On the beach. With the turtles. I told you about it."

"I went deaf, Rob. I couldn't hear a sound. No words, no scratches. And you weren't here. He's not here!" She screeched into the white valley of skin between her knees.

"I am here." He was drawn across the floor by a thin, scarred ache in his chest. "I was with some people. I didn't know you-"

"You were with someone else? You need to torture me with that?"

"I had an ugly conversation with a nun, that's all. An ex-nun."

"Did you fuck her? Did you want to?"

"Lucy!" She was as strung out as he'd ever seen her. Though it occurred to him that even this might be some kind of wretched test. "You've had a bad time," he said. "We'll work it out. . . ." His words trailed off, however, when he stopped forcing them.

"There are others. I can smell them because I'm a madwoman just now, the insane mute bitch you married. Did you screw her, whoever she was, so young and sure of herself? Just tell me that."

"No," he said. And he hadn't. Though he'd wanted to. Take Brynna, who'd only let him kiss her, and make her understand the consequences of her naiveté, her jellied ignorance. He'd walked the beach for hours after leaving her, his clothes whipping like flags against his body. He'd been so many men on that journey. Husband, lover, soldier, inventor, frontier priest in a cassock torn to rags. Lucy refused to see that about him. How he could imagine and change. How he had mystery.

"Don't lie to me, Rob. It reminds me of Mark."

"I'm not lying. And I'm nothing like Mark, please don't start down that road."

"I will." She pounded the couch cushion with a fist. "I will. Neither of you understands what this costs me. I try to find this . . . these . . .," her hoarse voice went nowhere, "and you're too busy disrupting things. I need you at home."

It began again-the old feelings falling into place like the oiled tumblers in a lock. He loved her, he'd nestle her, she'd come around. But when he drew himself together to lean over and kiss the tangled crown of her head, he couldn't do it. The image was still there: his legs striding, his nostrils filling with wild, invisible air.

"I want to be here for you. But I'd like to go to bed now if you're all right."

"I'm never all right," she sobbed. "I've abandoned too much."

He turned to maneuver down the hallway. As he passed Lucy's room, he remembered some of the poems she had read to him the night before. Fragments of description. A sequence she hoped to craft into a long poem about this rough coast. She wanted the beauty and the danger, the history and the yearning, transformed into words. He paused for a moment to listen-her sobs were rhythmic and shallow now, the hiccoughs of an aggrieved child. He knew the sound too well. What mattered were Lucy's tribulations, and that was what she wrote her life upon-her failures and the failures she insisted upon others.

. . . graves on the shoals,
They have no markers except the muttered lore
Of captains who will not sail again.

He slept until early afternoon, a sweating but dreamless sleep. When he sat up in his tangled bed he realized that the clatter of blinds had awoken him, not sunlight, or even his powerful, gagging thirst. Blinds were clanging and knocking everywhere. The sliding door in his room had been opened, and as he limped into the hallway, he saw that all of the doors and windows in the house were open, curtains pulled back, screens removed. One look in Lucy's room revealed that the miniature chaos of her labors had been cleared away. No books, no papers, no wrinkles on the beds. He thought at first, with a surprised leaping in his chest, that she'd left him. But as he moved into the crosscurrents of the living room, he saw a tidy stack of her belongings near the couch and became less wary. If he'd learned anything the night before, it was that she needed him in the most mundane, pummeling ways.

There was a piece of paper on the counter in the kitchen. Handwritten, creased in the middle as though it had been folded only to be unfolded again, it was held in place by a seashell and a deck of playing cards he'd bought but never opened. A poem, one he'd never seen. Memories of all she had kept from him-the lovers, the gods, the ghosts-twisted hard along his spine, yet he couldn't resist. He stood in the rattling, wind-stripped room and read the poem, then read it again. It claimed, in a language more beautiful and terse than he could speak, that he would forgive her, always forgive her, because it was his lot and his heart. They were twined together, throttling, and he couldn't resist.

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