A HOUSE ON PILINGS
Her fingers traced the pattern of the carved totem pole, pressing hard. She wanted to stuff her hand into her mouth and bite down on it to hold back her anger but she could not, not with the woman staring at her.
“You tell me that again,” she said softly.
Mary Ellen had been up since five, too excited to sleep longer. She had pulled on jeans and flannel shirt and heavy shoes and jogged around the neighborhood, even gone by his house. Now it was midmorning and she was still outside, weeding the garden, when the woman stopped on the front path to talk to her.
The woman’s voice was a whine. “I don’t want no trouble. I didn’t come to cause trouble. I just need to find him.”
“And you say you’re his wife?”
“Who else would I be? Been his wife eleven years. We’ve got two kids. Didn’t he tell you he has two kids?”
Her arms wrapped tightly around the totem pole, she leaned against it, her chin pressed on its top. Inside the house her mother would be peering around the edge of the drapery, wondering who she was talking to, standing there in the driveway. “I guess he didn’t.”
The woman said, “Doesn’t surprise me. A man who goes off and leaves his wife and kids for five years probably doesn’t talk about them.”
“You’ve been looking for him for five years?”
He had moved to the island four years ago and opened his shop. Everyone liked him. There had to be a mistake.
The woman said, “Yes, ma’am.” Her eyes flickered up to meet Mary Ellen’s gaze for a moment, pale eyes under blond lashes, and then away. She was a small woman with a sad face and puffy, freckled arms. Her dress was faded and her shoes were splitting at the seams. She shuffled her foot, as though aware of Mary Ellen staring at her shoes.
A door opened in the house. Mary Ellen did not turn her head.
“Why don’t you bring the lady inside?” her mother called.
The woman looked at the house and clutched her purse with her arms crossed in front of her body.
“Mary Ellen, you really must come in. We have such a lot to do.”
Without turning, Mary Ellen called, “Yes, all right, I will be there in a minute.”
She pressed her cheek against the blue painted top of the totem, as though it were a pillow, and looked through the screen of her long brown hair that fell across her face. It was his totem, really. He had picked it out because he said the slant of the cat’s eyes reminded him of her. They had dug the hole for it one rainy day, and planted it beside the driveway. Her mother protested at first, protested against the totem and protested against the rain. By the time they had finished setting the totem in place, her hair had been pasted around her face and water had dripped down his forehead and beaded his dark lashes.
Her fingers traced the cat’s eyes.
“Tell me where he is, please. I gotta find him.”
With an effort, Mary Ellen pushed herself away from the pole. “All right.” She held out her arm to point, saw the glint of the diamond on her finger, and dropped her hand. “You turn right at the corner, go about two blocks distance, and you’ll see the beach. There’s a big piece of driftwood, bent like a cane, with a bell hanging on it. You’ll see. Park there. There’s a path. It goes down the bank behind some madrones. The house is set on pilings and painted yellow.”
“Is that where he lives?”
“Yes.” Mary Ellen started toward the house, had a thought, and turned back. The woman was climbing into her old car.
“Hey!” Mary Ellen shouted. When the woman stopped and looked at her, Mary Ellen cried, “Tell him I sent you!” Then she ran inside the house.
Her mother stood in the kitchen doorway. “Mary Ellen? Where’s that woman? Who is she?”
She tried to answer. Her throat ached. “She was looking for, for, ah, someone.”
“What was the name?”
What was his last name? Not the one she knew. “I didn’t know it.”
“You didn’t? But you were out there such a long time. Well, never mind. Do hurry. I have your suitcases all packed, but you must check them. I may have forgotten something. Do you need help with anything else? Is there something I can do while you’re dressing?”
“Mother.” She chewed her lip. Then, putting her hands behind herself to stop them from shaking, she leaned against the wall. “Mother, you’ll have to phone Judge Collier. Tell him we’re not getting married today.”
She saw the gasp on her mother’s mouth, felt familiar hands catch her shoulders. A maze of words surrounded her, questions, then soothing sounds, and finally silence. She didn’t try to speak. She closed her eyes against everything else, wishing consciously to see black velvet, nothing else, against her eyelids, the way she did when she wanted to sleep. Instead she saw his laughing face and the glitter of his dark eyes. She shrugged away from the hands, ran up the stairs, grabbed the suitcases that lay open on her bed, and hurled them to the floor.
Later, as she lay on her bed, her face turned toward the window, she heard her mother moving around the room, picking up the suitcases, taking them away. How strange, she thought, how strange that she isn’t asking me why.
Mist moved through the fir trees outside her window, a pale grayness drifting in visible forms above, behind, across the bright spring growth on the tips of the branches. The dampness sparkled. She knew the smell of the trees even though the window was closed. Sometimes, when she had been a child lying in that bed, she had daydreamed of how it would be to hide in those branches that were shaped like green velvet sleeves. She had pretended they were thatched roofs for some South Pacific hut, or moss hangings above some fairy bower. She had pretended she was the mist drifting through them. Now, watching it, she knew the cool pleasure of being mist, forever entwined with the branches.
Beneath her eyelids dry heat burned. She could not find tears. Being dead, she thought, would be more peaceful. If she were dead she would be mist and somewhere in the forest she would twine with other mist and know that he, too, was mist. She could call to him and become enmeshed in him forever, the two of them drifting above the living world, above pain. But she would not call. Silently she would slide by him and he would feel the emptiness of her not calling.
“We shouldn’t have a formal wedding,” he had said. “If we do, we’ll have to invite everyone on the island.”
She had asked him why. She had meant to limit the guest list to close friends.
“Everyone on this island is already a customer of mine or might be in the future. I can’t take a chance on hurting feelings. I’d rather buy you a beautiful ring that you can enjoy forever. We can have a private service and then take a honeymoon trip to wherever you’d like.”
She had been happy to agree to whatever would make him happy.
Now she knew the truth. He had been afraid friends would put their wedding photos on-line.
Much later, when the room was dark and the house silent, she sat up, shaking off sleep. She had not intended to sleep. Quietly, so she would not wake her mother, she picked up her shoes and tiptoed down the stairs, circled through the kitchen, opened the catch-all drawer, found what she wanted and put it in her pocket and left the house.
She slipped into her shoes and hurried down the porch steps and across the driveway. The only sound in the dark night was her own footsteps crunching across gravel and then the pattering of light ran on the blacktop road. She ran faster. Wet branches brushed her face. Then the beach air hit her, cold and smelling of seaweed. Sounds of water lapping against old logs and pebbles washing back into the sea told her where she was in the darkness. An iridescent light glowed where the small waves broke.
She stopped running. Past the driftwood marker, along the sandy path, she walked slowly. The house was a flat, dark shape against the shine of the water. She could see the pilings. Mussel shells cracked beneath her shoes. She could see a light now, a slit beneath a closed window blind. Approaching it, she tried to see into the room but the blind was too close to the sill. The slit of light was a few inches above the level of her eyes.
She went around the house, down the slope to the water side. She reached out and felt the barnacles on the lower half of a piling, little horns of shell, volcano-shaped like the scrapers on a lemon grater. She pressed the wet wood and moisture oozed out on her fingers.
There were footsteps above her in the house. If she went to his door now, what would he say? She wondered how his face would look, pressed against the glass, peering into the night, if she rapped on a window.
All afternoon, lying on her bed, she had heard her mother moving around her, occasionally speaking, and all the sounds had been indistinct because she had been listening and not hearing the sounds she listened for. The phone did not ring. Nor the doorbell.
The woman was not a liar, not insane. Once, during the afternoon, she had tried to believe the woman was a madwoman and had gone away without talking to him. But he had said he would pick her up at eleven and he had not. No, the woman had talked to him. And she was not a liar. Had she been, he would have phoned or rushed over to explain.
Shivering, she turned and stared around the beach. His car was parked near the road. There was no other car. The woman was gone. Why?
Mary Ellen ran to ask him, her heart pounding. Up the crooked steps, across the path, she hurried. At his door, with her hand raised to knock, she stopped. No. For a long while she stood outside the door staring at the shadow shape, trying to see a line of light around it.
Turning, she went back down the path and ran across the rocks and barnacles and mussel shells, stumbling. Her feet slipped. Once she tripped and slipped so far she had to catch herself. Her bare hands scraped across barnacle-encrusted rocks. Hot pain ached in her torn palms. Standing at the water’s edge, she felt a chill seep in around the soles of her shoes. She thought about how it would be to lie on the bottom of the sea looking up through blackness. The mist would be above her and she could watch it thin until the midnight stars shone through.
That would leave him free.
Turning her back to the wind, Mary Ellen stared at the house. Her eyes were used to the darkness now. She could see the flat, jutting roof against the sky, the crooked deck rail beyond the edge of the wall. A dark emptiness welled up from the sand, beneath the drop in the path where he stacked firewood.
She walked toward the woodpile. There were kindling twigs piled on top of the cardboard box where he saved old papers. When she picked up the box, the wind tried to tear it from her hands. She clutched the box against her body, bent forward above it, and hurried to the house. Ducking under it, she felt her way around the pilings that supported it. She knew the construction, knew there were small gaps between the edges of the pilings and the floor of the house. She stuffed the old newspapers into the gaps. When her hands were empty, she pressed her palms against the underside of the flooring. It was dry. Next, she worked the kindling twigs into the wadded paper.
In the tight space she had to keep her head ducked. It was difficult, pushing her cold, stiff fingers into the pocket of her jeans. Finally she found the box of kitchen matches. She struck one. Its light flickered and she lit a corner of paper before the wind caught the flame and blew it out. She struck another match. The smoke from the paper frightened her. Her throat tightened and her heart pounded. She lit another match and touched it to another paper until small flames topped each piling and hissed and shot through the kindling.
Then she was out from under the house, running up the beach, up the path, along the road, her breath burning in her chest. When she reached home she stopped on the porch, turned and looked back. She stared into darkness. There was no light in the sky. Nothing. Not yet. She opened the door carefully and moved quietly into the kitchen. In the chair beside the phone, she sat and waited for her heart to stop pounding.
Picking up the phone, she rang him and waited for him to answer. When she heard his voice, her heart began to pound again.
“You can tell everyone on the island what I did. And I can tell everyone on the island what you did.”
“Darling, what are you talking about?”
“This is my home. You are a newcomer and an outsider. Which of us do you think they will believe?”
“Darling, I can explain.”
Softly, she said, “Darling, your house is on fire.”
And then she cut the connection. In the dark kitchen, she listened. Nothing moved. She had not wakened her mother.
Mary Ellen pressed her hands over her face. The bright images of many little flames glittered in her mind.
Jumping up, she ran outside, ran down the road, and turned toward the beach and saw nothing but dark sky. Would she have to do it all over again? And then she heard what she had hoped to hear. She stopped and leaned exhausted against a large madrone.
Sirens screamed in the distance. The house stood out sharply, a silhouette above a circle of flickering light. There were flames inside now, visible through the windows, and then flames climbing the outside walls. On the path to his house she saw him, his back to the house. He was watching the road. His shape was outlined by the red glow rising into the dark sky.
Under her hot dry lids the tears slowly welled, mist tears, finally overflowing and running down her face. They fed the burning inside her and then they quenched it.