Sarah Anne Johnson

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1

Near dawn a loud crack came, like a tree falling. There were no trees near the house. Hannah reached quickly for a pair of John’s work pants. She’d never worn pants before, but he wasn’t here to stop her. Out the northeast window, the fog was so dense she could run her hands through it. Pants cinched in a rope knot at her waist, she stood at the kitchen counter eating a piece of salt beef. There was no pleasure in it. Outside, the wind had made the low-lying bushes tilt with a strange bend that made them yearn in the same direction rather than lean. The light, Dangerfield Light, flashed a steady pulse. There was nothing to see but more fog. No cries or calling out from below, only canvas sails snapping in the wind.

The familiar sound of a shipwreck.

From the top of the stairs that led down to the beach, the wreck was a veiled shadow some three hundred feet out from shore. She gazed toward the road, but there was no sign of her husband. John had been gone for a couple of days up Cape for supplies. She’d missed him in their bed, missed the size of him and his arms around her, but she wasn’t going to wait for him, not with sailors struggling for safety. She followed the rickety staircase, down the two hundred and some odd steps that shivered beneath her footfall, easy for her heel to miss and send her to the bottom in a heap of broken bones.

The rain on the stairs sounded like pebbles pouring down, relentless. Rain trickled down the neck of her jacket, frozen until it warmed against her skin. Nearly one hundred and fifty feet she descended to the beach, where the surf frothed at her feet. She kept her eyes on the faint impression of the stranded ship. Wind lashed the covering over the rescue skiff until she got the canvas under control and shoved it beneath the stairs.

Make sure the lines are coiled. Keep the life ring at the ready. The thrill and shiver of the storm vibrated through her as she guided the skiff on rollers toward the surf. She rolled up the bottoms of her pants and waded into the icy cold, holding the boat steady as she pulled the oars from beneath the seat and climbed onboard. She’d promised not to go out alone, to stay ashore and keep the lights flashing, but there could be men aboard that ship about to drown. As she put her back into rowing, the beach faded in the fog behind her and the flash from the lighthouse grew dim. Over her shoulder was the looming architecture of the ship, sunk low in the water, the foremast shorn.

She kept a safe distance to avoid any wreckage, a falling mast or topsail spar. The skiff’s seams creaked, the seat sagged beneath her as the waves knocked the little boat about, but she used the oars to steady it. The wind drummed at her ears, that hard rhythm the only sound now.

She rowed closer, until the ruin took shape. The ocean had poured into the hull from below. It had dismantled hatchways, bulwarks, cupboards, everything splintered apart and drifting. A froth of oil and something red and soupy floated across the water in a wide, reeking arc around the wreck. Seagulls dove into the slick, pecking at bits of bread and food, their cries piercing and debauched.

Hannah rowed to leeward, following the drift of debris, keeping her eyes sharp, glancing over her right shoulder, then her left, shifting her attention aft again. A clunk against the hull stopped her midstroke.

“Hello! Anyone there?”

The fog muffled her voice. Reaching into the water, she dislodged a six-foot piece of rail that rested against the skiff. She tried not to think about how many men had been onboard. Oars set and ready, she watched and searched, scanning the water in circles around the wreck. Minutes passed. Or was it longer?

“Hello!” Hannah called. Was that an arm reaching up from the water? Right there, a man clinging to a broken spar. The life ring was attached to a long rope, which she fastened to the back of the boat. She stood and shifted her weight in rhythm to the waves. She’d never saved a drowning man, but instinct took over, and with a heave, she flung the life ring toward him. Grab it, you can do it.

The man kicked toward the ring, but he wouldn’t let go of the wood spar that kept him afloat. He rose and then dropped behind a wave, rose up, then down again. The wind billowed her oilskin jacket and chilled her. It dried the saltwater onto her skin in a thin crust. Waves splashed the wreck in a rhythmic blast as Hannah pulled the ring in. She tossed it closer to the man this time, intoxicated with the prospect of reeling him in. “Grab hold, man! Grab hold! You’ll freeze out here.” He lifted his head and slowly drifted toward the circle of bobbing cork. When he finally looped an arm through it and let go of the spar, she braced her foot against the stern seat and hauled until the sailor appeared, facedown, behind the skiff. She’d have to bring him over the transom. She pushed the life ring aside and grabbed him under the arms. His legs floated back so that she was able to use the rise of the waves to hook his elbows over the gunwale, then pull him up and tilt him into the boat. He landed in the bilge, a shrimplike curl. Frozen breath hovered by his mouth. She removed her jacket and draped it over him and pulled it to his chin to shelter him from the wind.

Hannah leaned in close to the man. “Was there anyone else? You’ve got to tell me now.” The man groaned and pulled his arms in around his body. His eyes batted beneath the lids, thick eyebrows plastered to his skull, a blue vein marking the side of his face like a scar. She shook him hard. “Was there anyone else?” Hannah scanned the water in every direction. “Anyone out there?” She plunged the oars into the water and took another turn toward the wreck, but the debris had drifted off and there was nothing left to see.

The man didn’t move or make a sound. She took notice of his gray undershirt and long johns, no other clothes. Sailors often removed layers in the water to stay afloat. You’re hardly blue at all. Sole survivor. That says something about a man. She turned to get her bearings. I’ll get you ashore. You may be the first one I’ve rescued, but you’ll not be the last. The wind was dying off, the surf easier now, and the sailor wasn’t jostled. The fog had lifted enough for her to see the beach. She ignored the ache in her arms and steered the skiff toward the lighthouse. If the sailor couldn’t make it up, she’d have to haul him in the life cart. At least he was small. Some of the men John rescued were so big he had to wait while Hannah went for help to get the men up the dunes.

Blood ran from the sailor’s forehead now, red streaks in the bilge water. Hannah crossed the oars in front of her and bent down for a look. A three-corner tear, but not to the bone. She quickly removed her woolen sweater, rolled it into a ball, and stuck it under his head.

When she turned to locate the lighthouse again-she wanted to land near the base of the stairs-there was Tom Atkins, John’s best friend who lived next door, pacing the beach. Hannah recognized his willowy figure, one hand over his eyes to shield them from the hazy light. She didn’t want to have to explain herself, or talk, or do anything but get the sailor up to the house. She’d known Tom since the day she moved to the lighthouse. The three of them-John, Hannah, and Tom-had sat around many fires and tended many half-drowned men. Once they got a man ashore, he was kept alive with heat from the fire, Hannah’s chowder, and good conversation. The sound of people talking kept a fevered sailor attached to this world, Hannah was sure of it.

“Hey,” Tom called, waving as if his worry could bring her in faster. Finally, he walked into the surf, boots, pants, and all. As the skiff lifted and rolled in on a breaker, he guided it onto the beach, eyeing the man in the bilge. “Hannah, Jesus Christ. You shouldn’t be out in the boat alone.”

“I’m not alone, am I?” she said.

“That was a brutal nor’easter, tore the corner of my barn roof off.”

“Storm’s over, Tom. Now, you want to help me or not?”

“It’s just luck you’re okay. You know that, don’t you? It’s pure luck.” His long fingers felt along the man’s neck to find a pulse. “He’s alive, at least.”

They lifted the sailor from the skiff and carried him up the beach. He groaned until they put him in the life cart and covered him with blankets. The life cart was nothing more than an old skiff with wheels on the bottom that John used for hauling injured survivors who couldn’t climb the stairs, but it did the job.

“I went by the house to check on you after the storm, then saw the wreck and had a hunch you might be down here. This was the only one, then?”

Hannah nodded.

Blood from the sailor’s forehead ran down the side of his face. Hannah wiped the blood with her shirtsleeve and took another look at the gash. “We’ve got to cover that,” she said, “to stop the bleeding.” She unsheathed the rigging knife from her belt.

“What are you doing?”

“You look at me like I’m going to kill him, Tom.” She cut a strip of cotton from her shirttail, handed Tom the knife, and went to work bandaging the sailor’s head, folding the strip of cotton in half and covering the wound.

Tom winced and stepped back when she tightened the bandage. “You’ll need a shot of something to warm him up,” he said, and searched through the gear beneath the stairs until he found the bottle. He held the man’s head up and tipped the whiskey to his lips until he swallowed.

With the sailor in the cart, they worked fast to pull it onto the rollers, wooden logs shaved to be even all the way around, and then they maneuvered it back to the dunes.

“He’s shivering near to death,” Tom said.

“So, let’s hurry up.”

“I’ll haul him up, just give me a few minutes,” Tom said, heading for the stairs.

Hannah stared across the water, wondering how many men had been aboard the ship. Over a hundred ships wrecked along this coast every year-last year, 1842, had been particularly bad. And there was nothing anyone could do. No flashing light, no navigational chart could save them-the sandbars shifted during each storm and tides carried off parts of the beach so that the coast was always changing and impossible to chart. Experienced sea captains knew to stay offshore, but in a storm, the northeast wind forced ships onto the shoals where they ran aground and fell victim to the battering surf.

“Hello down there.” Tom tugged on the line, and the front of the cart lifted. Hannah guided it up the dune, over brambles and sea grass until it was closer to Tom than to the beach. Then she trudged up the stairs, the wind at her back pushing her, nearly lifting her up.

***

Once they’d settled the sailor on a bedroll in front of the fire, Hannah tried to open his shirt so he could feel the heat, but he moaned and pulled away from her. She placed his arms by his sides, and when she unbuttoned his shirt, there were layers of bandages wrapped around his chest. “He’s got some kind of injury,” she said. “Broken ribs, maybe.”

“Go on and change into some dry clothes yourself. I’ll take care of him,” Tom said.

In the bedroom, Hannah wrapped herself in a blanket and moved slowly to the closet to find another pair of John’s trousers. As she stepped into them, she couldn’t help expecting him to swing through the door, glance over at the man on the hearth, and say, “Hannah, you went out in the boat alone?” He’d be angry, but what she dreaded more was the look of hurt. They’d argued about it countless times, his need to protect her and her need to pursue her own inclination-she wanted to work in the boat, not stay ashore.

She’d been going out on practice runs in clear weather when John was gone, but she’d never faced the danger of a storm alone, never experienced the surge of energy that enabled her to act without thinking and gave her the strength to lift the weight of a water-soaked man over the transom. She’d never saved a drowning man until now.

With John’s undershirt and a heavy shawl, she began to warm up. She ran her fingers through her tangled hair, and gave herself a quick look in the mirror, but there was no taming her dark, wavy hair. She closed the door behind her.

On the hearth lay the very proof of her ability. John couldn’t argue with her now. When she lifted the sailor’s head and tilted a cup of coffee to his lips, his eyes didn’t open.

“Now that he’s dry, you gotta roast the cold out of him,” Tom said. “He’s bleeding through that rag.”

Hannah tossed a couple of logs onto the fire, and then leaned over the sailor to unwrap the bandage, clotted now with blood. “He let you change his clothes?” They kept a bag of odd clothes provided by the local church thrift for stranded sailors.

“Just his shirt. He seemed in pain if I moved him too much.”

“And the bandage?”

“I left it.”

“Bring me a bucket of water, Tom, and a clean cloth.”

The cut was not deep and only required a good wash in warm water before she applied clean bandages. Tom made coffee in the kitchen, his back to the sight of blood, but Hannah wasn’t afraid. She knew how to treat a wound, ease a fever, and clear a man’s lungs of water.

Tom brought two cups of coffee to the table. “He’ll make it?”

“If he doesn’t, it won’t be from the wound. He feels feverish. I’ll have to watch him.”

She sat at the table across from Tom, in the chair by the fire. Hands wrapped around a hot cup of coffee, she felt the blisters on her fingers. Her palms burned.

“What made you go out there, Hannah? What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking. I just went.”

“Just because you can handle a boat doesn’t mean you should row headlong into a nor’easter.”

“I thought John’d be back by now.”

“You’re changing the subject.” Hannah shrugged. Tom leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Maybe he stayed over in Orleans to avoid the storm. He was going to bring me some roofing nails from Barnstable.” Tom’s talent was for making furniture, but he was an able carpenter, and if any of the widows in town needed help, he was quick to wrangle a group of men to lend their hammers.

If the shape of the Cape was a bent arm, Barnstable was the biceps, a long day’s ride by horse and wagon, Orleans the elbow, and halfway home. Dangerfield was the wrist, exposed to the worst of the northeast storms that pounded its narrow shore.

The man in front of the fire hadn’t opened his eyes. His chest rose and fell with his wheezing breath, so loud you could hear the rattle of it through his mouth. His lips were blue, the rims of his eyes swollen red. He mumbled blurred syllables, his head jerking from one side to another, and then resting as if defeated.

Tom watched him, then looked at Hannah, who was twirling her napkin into a tight rope. “I was planning on riding down to Orleans later if the wind lets up. You need anything?”

Hannah looked closely at Tom, reminded now of the world beyond Dangerfield. “No, I’m set,” she said. He was handsome, with red hair that hung over his forehead and high cheekbones, a strong jaw, and soft chin. He didn’t know his good looks and this made him more attractive.

“If I pass John on the road, I’ll give him a shout.” Tom took his coat from the hook by the door. “You okay with this stranger?” he asked, pointing to the sailor. “I can stay if you think-”

“No. I’ll get him up before too long and send him on his way.”

“Alrighty, then.” Tom hesitated by the door.

“It’s okay,” Hannah said.

As much as she didn’t want to explain the sailor on the hearth, Hannah comforted herself with the thought that John would be home soon, and the responsibility that sat on her shoulders would lift. Whenever he came home from his monthly trips, he rode his wagon straight into its stall, unloaded the supplies, and took Hannah’s hand in his own. “Let’s go up to the lighthouse,” he’d say.

This time, before John left for Barnstable, he’d made her promise to record the passing ships she spotted each day. After his final scan of the horizon and careful notations in the logbook, he’d slung his carpetbag over his shoulder and gone to the barn to hitch up the wagon. But every few minutes, as Hannah stood in the kitchen washing vegetables or putting away the breakfast dishes, John hurried back inside to retrieve some forgotten item-his straight razor and strop, clean socks, his timepiece, which he finally found in his pocket.

“Just go, John. Whatever you don’t have you can borrow.”

“Right,” he said, making an effort to laugh at himself as he swept the black curls back from his forehead and pulled his cap into place.

“I’ll see you in a few days,” she said, playfully pushing him through the door. She’d watched him steer the wagon, checking his pockets and looking back at the house as if willing it to remain attached to the lighthouse, so he could find it upon his return.

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Sarah Anne Johnson

Sarah is the author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife (Sourcebooks), The Very Telling, The Art of the Author Interview, and Conversations with American Women Writers, all published by the University Press of New England. Her interviews appear in The Writer’s Chronicle, Glimmertrain Stories, Provincetown Arts, and The Writer where she is a contributing editor. Her fiction has appeared in Other Voices, and she is the recipient of residencies in fiction from Jentel Artists’ Residency Program and Vermont Studio Center. She has taught the Art of the Author Interview Workshop at Bennington College Writing Seminars MFA Program, Leseley University MFA Program, and at literary conferences.

Read an Excerpt August 6, 2014


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