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Volume 39 Issue 1 • Nov 23, '09 - Jan, '10
now in our 39th season

Island in Winter

by Robert P. Barsanti

It’s dark now.  The sun slips beneath the horizon at the same hour that we used to get to the beach.  A warm wind blows up from the south and smothers the moon and stars.  One house in a hundred has a light on.  Otherwise, the streetlights cast what little glow the island can claim in winter.  Were they all to wink out, the island would disappear into the night ocean.

The island has become as beautiful and as desolate as the sea floor.  I stood at Cisco in the teeth of our most recent storm and watched brown waves the size of houses run and somersault into the sand.  They broke for the hour I stood there and for the infinity that I wouldn’t.  The cold brown water rolled up over the base of a lifeguard stand, and then slipped back into the implacable pounding.  A mile out to sea, in the light of evening, hundreds of thousands of Old Squaw ducks flew westward to calmer water and more secure ground. It’s a handsome time.

For most of the winter, we live in a gray silent world of fog, overcast, and mist.  Very few cars pass by after seven o’clock at night.  In the mid-winter murk, the occasional bicyclist makes his dark way home from work.   My own headlights carve out a tunnel in the darkness.  The tube of light briefly illuminates eight deer at the holly bush, and then they leap back into the marsh and the heather.

I have come to recognize my fellow islanders by their headlights.  In the brief flash, I wave two fingers at them: Bruce, Nancy, Cathy, Mike.  They get the message and return it with a wink, smile, nod.  Then they slip back to their worn path to the store or to home or to work for the evening.  We have things to do.

This isn’t the winter for charity auctions and benefit dances.  This isn’t the winter for dinners out or trips to New York or months in Antigua.  This is the winter of Campbell’s soup, coupons, and the blue flash of the television.  This is the winter of the library and the cribbage board.  This is the winter of the sweater and the leftover.  It’s dark now.

Many familiar faces have gone.  The golfers have gone back to Connecticut and have taken their wives and their cocktail appetites with them.  The roofers, shinglers, and sweepers are back on the Cape.   The party kids have decided to stay in college, the house cleaners went back to New York, and the kite-boarders have moved on to Costa Rica.

It’s just us.

We can walk up Main Street at four o’clock on a Saturday and identify the owner of each car, and, if she has left her lights on, we can go into St. Mary’s and tap her on the shoulder.  When you take your daughter out for French fries and football, you are seen, noticed, and commented on.  We know how many beers you had, we know how long you stayed, and we know what your wife had for dessert when she went out with the girls later.  Must be nice, we comment.

You can get away, of course.  The moors have aged to brown, red, and gray with long, winding sand paths amid hidden ponds and thickets. You can walk for hours amid the deer and the cranberries.  We may only run by with our Labrador, and we will nod.  You can walk any of the beaches.  Your feet will ride on the hard, frozen sand and the ocean will drown out every other sound.  The terns and pipers will dart in and out of the hollows of the waves.  The wind will fling a steady hail of spray and sand at your back.  We will see you at one of the access points, and we might nod.  Don’t worry, it’s just us.

We aren’t malicious when we notice.  Sure, we are making comments to ourselves and passing summary judgment as quickly as a math teacher checks homework.  But we are also taking attendance.  We note, with approval, those who have come and stayed.  We check up and tug on the lines that connect. It’s just us, in the underwater dark of winter, and we need to hold on tight.

In the early hours, the scallop fleet motors out from the harbor. We are a hungry fleet these days.  The boat and the dredges that were an amusing pastel hobby in the monied past have taken on an earnest and deadly pallor in the hungry present.  We will trade the finest and most delicate seafood on the East Coast for steak tips and electric bills.

In the wet dawn, we call to each other, boat to boat, and never raise our voices.  The wakes shake the eider and buffleheads from their sleep, but will not send them into the air.  Each of us peels away to his own corner of the ocean floor, close enough to see his brother, but not to intrude on his work.

Last week, one of the scallop boats lost power.   A late season storm was building and the wind had turned northeast, bringing spray, cold, and whitecaps down on the fleet.  Unable to point its bow into the waves, this one boat turned broadside, rocked and was pushed, slowly, to the lee shore.  Its sole captain, crew, and swabbie waved off aid and help, then waited for the sad grind of sand beneath his hull.  A hundred yards off, four boats stood guard.  Within two hours, the harbormaster had arrived, a rescue was effected, and the wounded ship and captain returned to Children’s Beach under unmanly tow.

It had been watched.  Across the island, from surreptitious webcams that scan the water, dozens of interested eyes followed the progress of the disabled boat on computer screens.  A string of calls had come into the police and the Coast Guard while another hundred went out to the working scallopers.  Could they do anything?  Was he all right?  Were the conditions as bad as they looked on the screen?

We are an island of lifeguards.  We will watch and wait and hope nothing bad happens.  And, if it does, we will slide from the stand, step to the water, and pull you out of the cold dark depths and back to shore.  We watch out for each other and keep a polite and silent vigil.  We have our hands out and are ready to help.

It’s dark now and it’s just us.

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