Excerpt from, “Artificial Horizon,” by Richard Authier Lee, copyright 2019
The trail had turned back in on itself. Yet he was here, after all, proof of some degree that it had happened fifty years ago to the day…
The boy had hardly slept that night, waking a half dozen times to find the room still dark, the sky crystalline black through his bedroom window. When black rose to a deep purple he flung the covers from his bed and went outside, standing at the porch rail and looking out to sea. A square rigger hauling lumber slid by in the fog, barely visible, her bell ringing a faint, ghostly peal as it cleared the point and headed for deep, open ocean.
No one rang back from the island any more.
There’d be a day when the sails would be gone too. The world was changing out there beyond the rim of sea and sky, moving, going, being, changing. People bustling about. Nothing was about to change here. In a few weeks the sky would move from blue to cold gray, the grasses would wither, snow would fly and one or two old folk would not live to turn their gardens in the spring. Everything else here would stand rock still.
This house sat above it all up here, some nights trembling in fierce wind, but always weathering through. All around was the world going by: the Boston to Bangor Packet, the square riggers, the mail boat, the steamers bound for Europe. His feet were planted on the island, but his heart was adrift on the sea and sky.
He was on the path down to the harbor by the time the sun washed the sky to pale blue. carrying a cloth bag with two changes of clothes and his Mother’s Bible. She stood by the door so sorrowfully sure he would never return and watched him until he disappeared beyond the trees where the path met the carriage road.
It occurred to him a half dozen times to turn around. To go back. But he knew, even now, this had been decided. He had already begun not to belong here by the very act of wanting to leave. The horizon had somehow already been crossed, though he knew it loomed fifteen miles out in the mist.
He snatched up a rock from the sandy road bed and snapped it out across the pond behind Bonner’s. It slapped the water twice before rattling up on beach at the other side, just another stone where stones were not uncommon. That old muddy pool was just big enough, feeder spring just deep and cold enough to cool off a bunch of sun‑baked kids on a hot day.
Blister your back in the sun, fish oil up to your elbows from the stinking chum and Bonner’s Pond was one wicked good way to finish a summer day, shocking your body with the cold water, cleaning your skin and hair of sweat and fishy slime. Frankie racing him up from the docks, peeling off their shirts and britches and barreling bare‑assed into the pond before Mattie had the boats tied up. Water was so cold it’d shrivel your pecker to a wiggly nub. Nelly climbing up on the diving rock, standing up there bold as a red feathered cock, diddling it to make it look bigger for the passing of Missy Morrison on her way to meet the boats. Missy paid no attention, being that little‑peckered skinny-dipping boys were hardly an uncommon sight on the Island in the summertime.
Birds whipped up a wild melody on the morning they saw him off to the world. His battered shoes made the boards on the dock rumble. Frankie and Nelly looked up for him as he neared the boat.
“You’re really going to go and do it?” Frankie said with a rueful tone.
“Course he’s going to do it,” Nelly barked, his face about to merge into one huge freckle, tangled red hair going blonde by the fistful from the summer sun.
“I think you both lost your marbles,” Frankie said, tight‑lipped and hurt.
Eddie clapped Frankie on the shoulder. “Change your mind and come with us, bud. What d’yuh say?”
“My Pa’d skin me alive if I ran out on my family,” Frankie said solemnly. The smile slid from Eddie’s face, but Nelly filled the breach. “You got a brain like a road apple sometimes, Frankie. I swear.”
“Wish you fellas would just stay. Ain’t going to have nobody to go swimming with now.”
“There’s always Missy,” Nelly leered. “I’m leavin’ her all to you.”
“C’mon, I mean it, you guys. What the hell am I going to do out here all alone?”
“What the hell have we got, stayin’ here? Nothin’.”
“I ain’t goin’ over to Leitrim with you on the Priscilla,” Frankie said.
“Be back in a couple of weeks,” Eddie said, the smile edging back, but Frankie turned and headed up the dock, shuffling up the path toward Boynton’s store.
“Figure him,” Nelly said with another shrug. “Bout time the two of us rounded up Mattie and pushed off.”
“Getting cold feet on me, Ed?”
“Your mother care you were leavin’?”
“Sure,” Nelly nodded, “but she knows better than to buck me when my mind’s made up.”
“She didn’t ask you to stay or nothin’?”
Nelly thumped his chest with a pointed finger. “I says, ‘I’m sixteen next month and I don’t intend to stay here on this rock my whole life watching the old folks die off, waiting for my turn.’ I says, ‘I got to live. See the world.'”
“And she’s lettin’ you go?”
“Hell, I’m here, ain’t I? Eddie, you can be such a jellyfish sometimes. You can’t expect your Ma to be happy about this. But we gotta do what we gotta do.”
“You want to fry your back off all summer and freeze your ass off all winter out in the back of the Priscilla, till you die?”
“You want to stay here and turn into a taffy‑brained old man that’s never done nothing in his life but gut a mackerel?”
There was a stirring from the boat behind the lobster pots. Mattie Perkins stuck his ruddy face up over the hardwood and webbing. “Now that’s fuckin’ amusin’, Nelson.” Mattie lifted his black cap and scratched his balding head. “Couple a sports like you off to set the fuckin’ world on fire—all the while a countin’ on a taffy‑brained old man to get you there.”
Nelly’s face surged to the color of a winter wind chap. ” I was just chewin’ a cud with Eddie, is all. Dumb talk. Didn’t mean nothin’ by it, Sir.”
Mattie smiled. “Why, I ought to put a boot up your bung hole. And you, Eddie, if it weren’t for the memory of your father…”
Mattie Perkins crushed his cap in his right hand and pointed the fist at the two boys cowering on his dock. “You were born on this island, the both of you and I fished with your Da and Frankie’s till they was lost in that fuckin’ storm six years ago. Now I figure that about makes us family. So when you go callin’ somebody out here a taffy‑brained old man I figure your either talkin’ about me or you’re talkin’ about my kin.”
“Didn’t mean it like that,” Nelly stammered. “Honest, I was just tryin’ to‑‑‑”
“I know what you were tryin’ to do,” Mattie said. “I know all about it, Nelson. Hear it enough every God damned day to want to wretch up. Ever since Bill Boynton’s store got the Leitrim newspaper the two of you have been damned near useless.” Mattie fished into the pocket of his slicker, tore off a plug of Red Man and shoved it into his mouth, talking around the chaw. “Suddenly we’re all too dumb and slow‑movin’ for you young fellas. Suddenly this island ain’t your home no more.” Mattie’s face looked twisted and pained. “Well let me tell you, boys, life has a peculiar way of bringing everything back around where it belongs.” Mattie kicked at a patch of dried chum off the back of his boat, scattering it onto the water where shimmering waves of minnows devoured it. “You think we live out here ’cause some plug‑headed relative of ours got washed up here and never had sense enough to get back off again? You figure we all got dumped out here by mainlanders like some kind of scum stock?”
Nelly closed his eyes and began to shake his head, “Oh, God…”
“You miserable little fuckers. Us or our kin, someone made a choice to come here to live a decent, honest life. No filthy cities, no bosses to be paid off, no thugs, no stinking politicians, no sweat shops workin’ you to a slow death while somebody else gets rich off your labor.” Mattie spat oily brown tobacco juice on Nelly’s shoes. “You choose something else, some other life, that’s fine, boys, just fine. Power of the Good Lord to yuh. But you go shitting all over the people you come from, and God help me, I’ll find you both wherever you be and slit you vent to neck like squirmin’ fuckin’ fish.”
Eddie and Nelly stood frozen. Mattie looked at them with cold, foreign eyes. It was Nelly who finally said, “I guess we be finding another way over t’Leitrim.”
“No,” Mattie said coolly. “I said I’d take yuh. I’m takin’ yuh. Takin’ yuh both right now, God damn it.”
Nelly and Eddie took familiar stations and helped Mattie hoist sail with the tide. It was going to be a long, quiet boat ride to the shore. The wind was brisk and Mattie tacked The Priscilla Downeast, making the mast pull her almost over on her side, the water rushing under her bow in a torrent. Making good time, Eddie thought. Sailing her like hell. Whaleback Island receded as the sun climbed higher in the sky, until it was just a smudge on the horizon. He couldn’t be sure if it was really still there, or if his mind just wouldn’t let go of the sight.