One Way to Weather a Storm at Sea
There’s an old folk song that I learned once, when I was a kid. We had the Fireside Book of Folk Songs on the piano in our living room, and I flipped through it every now and then looking for cool stuff. One day, I stumbled on Joe Hill.
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.
Alive as you and me.
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”
“I never died,” says he.
“I never died,” says he.
“The copper bosses killed you, Joe.
They shot you, Joe,” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
Says Joe. “I didn’t die.”
Says Joe. “I didn’t die.”
I was too young to know that this was actually a song about unions and organized labor. I just thought it was a neat song about a guy who gets shot and dies, but then disagrees with the outcome. I loved the idea of arguing with a guy about whether or not he was dead.
There’s also Clementine, of course. The ‘Oh, my darling’ one. As everyone in the entire country knows, Clementine “hit her foot against a splinter, fell into the foaming brine.” She drowns, mainly because the narrator was useless: “But alas, I was no swimmer, so I lost my Clementine.”
At the end of the song comes a Joe-Hill-like verse about her return from The Other Side:
In my dreams she still does haunt me,
Robed in garments soaked in brine;
Though in life I used to hug her
Now she’s dead, I draw the line.
Obviously, Americans have a strange fascination with people coming back from the dead. It’s all fun and giggles when it’s confined to corny folk songs and stirring union rallies, but it’s not so amusing when it messes up your nights.
Ever since Eliza drowned, I’ve been dreaming about her. It’s not deliberate, the way it used to be. I used to try my damnedest to work Eliza into my dreams, because my Eliza dreams invariably involved scorching sex while Bo was on a rowboat halfway to Portugal. But for the past several nights, Eliza has been in my dreams in a different way. She’s been kind of spooky, actually. Creepy and disturbing.
She’s usually soaking wet — which, again, would have been a good thing a month ago. But now it’s just a reminder that she drowned herself, and yet here she stands in front of me, dripping and pale and cold, and she seems immensely sad. She never speaks, never gestures, never acknowledges my presence. She just stands there, shivering and mournful. And after I stare at her for what seems like hours, I wake up, somewhat cold and damp myself.
I got to thinking that these dreams might mean something. Not that Eliza is trying to contact me from The Great Beyond or anything — Houdini pretty much answered that question for us — but I thought maybe the dreams mean I hadn’t yet said goodbye to her. After all, I’m the jackass who watched her swim away and didn’t realize what was going on until it was far, far too late. I needed some way to put it all into some kind of frame. Not to forgive myself or forget Eliza or anything that goofy — that’s “in a cavern, in a canyon” stuff — but I just wanted some way to part company gracefully.
I thought about heading down to The Village again, to drink and hang out and see if that cleared my head. But I needed something pretty strong to get myself back on track, and everything — and everyone — in The Village seemed too thin. Too dilute. Too weak. I’m still not sure anyone down there knows my name.
So I went to the Quaker Meeting instead.
It was my first time going there without Meg serving as my primary motivating force. I just went myself, because I wanted to sit in a quiet room with people who know what it’s like to lose someone to the sea. And who care.
I parked at The Larboard, of course, and walked to The Meetinghouse. I sat down on a bench that was perpendicular to the Coffin Cordon. I didn’t want to sit next to Meg today, and I didn’t want to stare at her the whole time, either.
Other people shuffled in, as they always do, and took their seats. Most of them had regular spots that they sat in every time, but a few always liked to mix things up. Henry was there, tall and upright, dressed in black and grey and white. Cory was next to him, wearing deep purple. Meg was really beautiful, with a long, pale blue dress. Why is it that some women are at their most gorgeous in church?
No music, of course. No organ. No hymns. Just a bunch of GSI townsfolk who came together to sit in silence and listen for God’s voice inside their hearts.
I closed my eyes and tried to listen, too. I had a million questions, though, that crowded my mind and made it hard to settle in. It was like a hamster wheel, going around and around in a whirl of lunacy. Why did Eliza kill herself? Because she couldn’t be with Bo any more. Why didn’t she turn to me? Because you’re not Bo. What’s the matter with me? You’re not big and strong. You’re not an artist. But I would have done my best to make her happy. You didn’t even know her — you only thought you did. Why couldn’t she see that I’m a good guy? Because she didn’t know you — you only thought she did. Why can’t I say goodbye to her?
Because she left you on a beach.
I was contradancing with these thoughts in a vigorous swing-your-partner when Ben Bow stood up. I hadn’t even seen him come in. I didn’t even realize he left the house enough to go to Meeting anymore. It was a miracle he could find the Meetinghouse.
But he stood, off to my right, and gripped the back of the bench in front of him. His gnarled hands shook even though he had them planted for support on the pew, and his wrinkled, ancient face seemed sad. Even sadder than usual.
“When my Lily died, I thought I’d never be able to go on,” he said in a surprisingly loud and even voice. I peeked — he wasn’t looking at me. He spoke with his eyes closed. “One of the things that helped me go on living was this Meeting, right here. It was all of you. Some of you visited me, and some of you brought me food. That was nice and very thoughtful. But mainly it was knowing that you all were here. It was this community that mattered.”
He paused for a moment, but he didn’t sit down. Then he continued. “A community is different from a collection of individuals who are doing something together. A community has connections, ties that link each member to all the others. When Lily died, we held a memorial service here at the Meetinghouse, and everybody came. Some of you knew Lily well, and some didn’t know her well at all. But everybody came, and we sat together, and we shared the Silence in a way that brought us closer. Now, even though I don’t do much besides sit on my porch and stare at the sea, some of you still come by to talk and bring me little things to make my life easier. Some of you come just to sit on the porch with me and pass the time, not saying much except to ask occasionally whether you can make me a sandwich.” He still wasn’t looking at me. “It’s those connections that make us a community, and I appreciate every one of them. I appreciate every one of you.”
He paused again.
“God understands all things,” he said, his voice trembling just a bit. “And He loves you exceedingly. He loves you just the way you are.”
I peeked again. This time, he was looking right at me.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Got a comment for the “Island Wars” blog? Post it here:
Comment — FreedomFirst: Hey, Van. Enough with this stuff. What’s happening with the warships and the battle for Grand Seal Island?
Comment — Gemstone: God does love you, Van. The trick is to find out what God is telling you.
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