Excerpt: The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife
Excerpt: The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife
(sequel to Merry Taylor on Cape Cod)
Note: It's a little scary writing about a marriage, because most books end at "happily ever after" - but it's been a fun experiment! The Irish Gaelic quote means "It takes time to build castles." -S
De réir a chéile a thógtar na caisleáin
It cannot be said that Meredith took to the place like a loon to a lake. Nor can it be said that she was determined to make Burnt Coat into home without forgetting her birthplace. She had never imagined, in all her dreaming, that she would not be a wife in the backcountry of Massachusetts. But she had fallen in love with a veritable fisherking, and her husband had taken her to distant lands, where all her flexibility would be called upon to build a castle - not the cozy farmhouse she had foreseen - but in a square lighthouse on a salty and deserted shore in Maine.
The girl was pioneering and adventurous, and most days she reveled in being domestic. Some days she was even content. But today, the isolation of the island and the boredom were wearing on her. Her little spot to call her own seemed almost repulsive, when she remembered the sun that had filtered through the hickory and oak leaves... and the goldenrod and purple loosestrife that had filled the bogs... and the smell of girlhood perfume in her old bedroom, from the spill on the honey-colored wood floor. These memories made her utterly peevish and her store of grace was running short.
Her husband was not doing his best to replenish that supply, either. He was so absorbed in fishing and trapping and seeing old friends back from sea voyages, that he had been neglecting his bride in the past few weeks. Meredith understood that he had not seen these people in over a year, but she had enjoyed the position, in the early days of their marriage, as the primary object of his attentions, and having grown accustomed to being the only one he socialized with - seeing as they were the only two gulls on the Head - this was a new and shocking inconsideration. The additional fact that she had been knocked off her pedestal in favor of pipe-smoking, briny, leather-nosed, suspender-wearing friends was quite a sting.
It would not have mattered much if she had been included in the galas, as his right-hand queen, but she was left out, without explanation from Evan, time after time, and her bruised pride left her limp.
Lastly, these offenses came at an inopportune period when she was starting to feel homesick. The novelty of housekeeping was rubbing off, and she was still young. Her handsome and vibrant husband had been out at night, and in her present vulnerability she had felt this abandonment particularly keenly. It was not as though she could invite a female neighbor over for tea, to keep her company as she waited for his return. Having a warm body in her kitchen as the wind howled against the little house would be comforting, but she had no female neighbors.
Evan never stayed out frantically late - never past nine or ten - but he went straight to bed, without reading in the sitting room with Merry or playing checkers. His wife was starving for his company but she did not express it. She smoldered underground instead - and her resentment ran like a fire under the surface. It grew, and scattered silent roots, until finally it exploded into vegetation one night.
Saturday morning, Evan said he would not be home for lunch, because he had to make up time fishing. Meredith packed him a tin pail and saw him off, saying she would see him in the evening. She attended to the lamps herself, then went downstairs to wile away her morning hours. There was a basket of laundry on the table that she had taken down from outside, and her hands were glad for the work.
But after it was folded, in fresh, soft piles, there was nothing else to do. The ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece was too prominent, so she buried it under a cushion on the rocking chair. Then the complete quiet of the house was oppressive... so Meredith ran outside into the cool, salty air.
The wind whipped her blue housedress around her knees and she wrapped her arms around her body to keep warm. Behind her the Harbor Road, which led to Swan's Island town and disappeared into the dreary pine woods, was dismally empty. In front of her, the ocean stretched as far as she could see, cloudy and churning gray. Against the mouth of the cliffs, the water foamed and frothed, crashing into the teeth of the seaweedy brown rocks. Even her own house, with its sloping red roof and chipped white paint, was uncompanionable. Evan's boat was out of site, and once he was gone, she felt the wild isolation of the north keenly.
Just last spring, in her golden and empty lands, she was happy to be alone, to be her only companion. But now, on an empty island in Maine, she was failing to keep herself cheerful. Evan softened the atmosphere with his presence, but when he was at sea, it was like her storm shelter had uprooted and blown away. The water was cold and the landscape unfamiliar. Nothing here was of her own bones and marrow. She heard the spirit of Maine singing to her: undine and raucous, as it dashed against the shore, and elusive and intangible, as it whistled through the pines.
Nothing was friendly here. Nothing! Even inside the lighthouse, she could not seek comfort. Five months was not enough time to make a fresh bedspread familiar, new decorations dear, or even dishcloths comfortably routine. Meredith went out to the shore and sat on a brown boulder, deeply veined like a manatee’s back, and cried her soul to the dregs. She wanted home. She wanted her old girlhood quilt, which Mother had given to Marianne, but which had been smoothed over her bed for twenty years. She wanted her mama’s kitchen hearth and red candlesticks and Chestnut Hill. She needed nostalgia that knew her.
If she could not have all that again - if she could never have home again - she could resigned herself to it - if Evan would only come and gather her up and croon, “Oh, you poor, precious girl… only one and twenty… how hard on a young wife this lighthouse life must be!”
But her eyes were dry by the time he came home, and Evan said nothing soothing of the sort. In fact, he even dared point out that next time she needed to remember to light the lights before five in the afternoon. “Alright, Evan,” she replied, but a minute later was secretly resentful.
In the evening, Evan loped up the hill from checking the bell station, and called to his wife through the open door, “Hey, Mer! Want to go to town tonight? I wanted to hit up the Yellow Lobstah for a dance.”
Merry brightened. “Yes!” She did a hop, skip, and a jump in place. She was warmed straight through as if had drunk a tumberful of hot buttery spiced cider. She was loved! Wanted! She ran to the hall to meet him and take down her scarf.
“Great!" Evan swung inside. "You know who'll be they-ah?” Then Evan made a gorgon of himself! “Jack and Bonny, and Abe and Bahb, and a lot more of my friends. I want you to see them.” The expression on his face was genuinely happy.
Merry hung her scarf back up. “Then I won’t go.”
Evan closed the door, shocked. “What! Why, Mer?”
“Because you just want to see your friends.”
He colored up slightly, annoyed at her pettiness. “Yes, I want to see my friends,” he said, unapologetically. “I haven’t seen some of them in a long time.”
Meredith played with the tassles on her scarf hanging on the hook. “...I thought this was going to be a night for us. You suggested it and I got really excited. I thought this was going to be a specially husband-wife time out...” Her rosy mouth came as close to pouting as it ever got, and she melted at her own speech... anyone would, to hear her, she thought. She felt very vindicated.
“It will be a special time,” he assured her. “I promise you you’ll have fun. You’ll like this group!”
“I’m sure you want to see them more than me," she said, getting feisty. "I’m sure of it, Evan Burdock!” She sat down on the bench by the door to make him feel his offense fully.
“And he-yah I thought you’d be happy at the proposition!” steamed her husband, putting his hands against the wall. “I don’t know what you want. I don’t know what mo' you could want. I spent all day with you!”
Her pride was hit, sorely. “Oh!” she jumped up. “So you don’t want to spend any more time with me. You’re real tired of me now, aren't you?”
He took his hands away from the wall. "...Naw," he said quietly. But it wasn't convincing enough to her, and he turned and went into the kitchen without explaining further.
She followed him like a bee. “And you were around all day, sure,” she continued, “But I don’t know how you feel so satisfied with yourself! You fixed traps the whole time. Being in my vicinity is spending time with me, I guess?”
He was shuffling the newspaper on the table, looking for an advertisement with the time. His apparent unconcern was appalling. He said evenly, “If it upsets you this hahd, don’t go."
She stood there, fuming in her pain. This was not the answer she wanted. She wanted him to swing her up in his arms and say, "You are the only one I love! You are the one I want to be with tonight." Yet who swings up a biting, gnashing squirrel?
Meredith was not a pugnacious woman by nature, and she enjoyed giving in, and giving other people pleasure. She actually planned on being convinced to go to the dance. In fact, she had a cunning yellow dress he liked in mind. But before she graciously gave in, she was trying to play her cards so that certain scores would be satisfied. She wanted him to see how neglected she had felt in the past few weeks. She wanted him to see her wound, made by her love for him!
But apparently, she had a losing hand to begin with, because Evan was mortally blind to the fact that her distemper went deeper than a single paltry dance. To the husband, the argument was about the evening, and he was baffled. To the wife, the argument was about the past few weeks... and their marriage... and their life together. Men seemed so imperceptive to her. They could only see the challenge at hand, and intuit no further.
Yes, he was still saying mildly, “If it makes you unhappy, it’s alright; I don’t want to fahs you.”
Biting her lip in frustration and realizing she wasn’t winning the points she wanted to, she walked about silently. She added a cup of rye to her sourdough starter on the counter and stirred it restlessly. Evan was looking at the newspaper quietly, evidently coldheartedly absorbed in other matters already. (He was not.)
She felt herself waver. "The Conversation" was not going the way she planned, and Merry, weak soul, could not sustain an argument for long.
“I’m thinking about it,” she presently informed him, in a voice so sullen that he couldn’t miss the fact that his request was a great burden to her. “What time is it at?”
“Nine,” he said, finding the advertisement.
“What time does it get out?” (Oh, her calm voice sounded like her mother’s when she was angry that Nicholas was going out with friends! Merry did not like that.)
“Qua'tah of twelve.”
“We couldn’t possibly,” she said. “Get back much too late.”
“And I don’t like your friends drinking and then rowing back home. There could be rocky weather,” she said severely.
“The sky is cle-eh tonight,” he said, serenely.
“But I don’t like drinking, period!” Inspired by her own conviction, she added, “At all,” sternly.
“And I can’t readily agree that I’ll enjoy their company, either, like you say.”
“I ain' going to beg,” he answered shortly.
“And we have to be up for church, and it’s really cold out, and... I feel sort of headachey.” (This last point was an authentic issue, but somehow she had not thought of it until now.)
Evan started opening a new package of wicks. “Wallp, why don’t you take three hou-ahs and think about it. Ayuh?” he said mildly, though it was eight-thirty already.
Evan was aware of how indecisive Merry was. His exaggerated jest was well-hit, but unfortunately for the poor man, it hardened his wife’s heart, rather than amused her, and made her feel, with fell resolve, like she would be very decisive for once.... and give a decided no.
“Why don’t you go by yourself?” she said instead.
“Because it is a couple’s dance,” keeping his blue eyes on the waxy knot. “I can’t go without you. Dawn this,” he said to the string, not his wife.
“I knew it!” Merry declared, dropping her spoon in the sink with a triumphant clatter. “I knew you wanted me for that reason. Just to use me, yes? You only want me for my dancing shoes, for my womanly hands - yes?” she said, with all the withering scorn she owned, which was a lot.
He did not answer, but the furrow in his brow deepened as he picked at the stuck knot.
“You just want me as a passport to see your ‘friends’. You don't want to see me or spend time with me. You just need a woman. It could by any old woman.” She didn’t care anymore what she was sputtering. She had given into the spirit of the Fury. If Evan was a man in an old-fashioned novel, he would gather her up in his arms and tell her how precious she was to him. A romantic man would. A real man would.
He succeeded in untying the knot on the package, and was visibly relieved. “You want me to buttah up youh ego," he said, "and I’m not going to do that." It was simple but poignant.
Merry stood stunned. It was a rebuke, but it was just what she needed to hear. It was like Evan, she reflected with some amusement, in a time like this to not scoop her up but to gently reveal her character.
She did want her ego buttered up. At this realization, suddenly the truth of the words spoken in the air broke her and made her change her tone. Humbled, she opened to grace.
She sat down next to him. “You’re right, that is what I do,” she said. The lightness, even humor, of her voice made him look up. “My bruised ego wants buttering. And I know it’s silly and stupid, but you must understand - you must see that my pride has been insulted. A silly pride, but a legitimate one that exists. I'm wondering if you want me: I definitely want you." She then laughed. "Like God, I am a jealous wife. I mean that, you are number one to me; my best friend. I feel insecure when I don't know if I'm in the same position. I feel threatened by these new people, especially since we have spent so much time alone together. I love you, so desperately, and I don’t want to get pushed out.”
“Hey-ah's how it stands,” said Evan, putting away his newspaper. “You’he my wife. I wanted you to meet my friends, and I know you’d have fun. Gihl, you’he my dance pahtnah. Yes, I want to see them. And yes, you have to come for me to go. But I want it to be you they-ah, having fun with us, and no one else. Will you go?”
"Yes! I would love to," she said, and claimed his lap. They sat for a bit in the evening shadows and Meredith heard the clock, which Evan had rescued and restored to the mantelpiece, ticking its stable song. That wondeful clock. "...Would you believe that's what I wanted to hear?" she sighed presently. "That’s all I needed to hear, before I consented.” She paused. “I am so sorry I was bad. I had an emotional day.”
"Bad!" Evan exclaimed, frowning. "You felt huht." No one now could accuse his pet angel; not even herself.
"No, no, I really should not have said those things I did. I went about it all the wrong way." She was insistent.
"Wall, I don't know so much." He put his arms around her and squeezed. “But I fohgive you, wife. And I want you to tell me when you’he upset. Because it’s not the feeling sad or out of tempah that is the problem. It is the not coming to me, or to God, with those thoughts and feelings… but rathah giving in to self-pity. Self-pity does nothing but makes you helpless and mad.”
“You’re right. I shouldn’t let feelings build up. You always said that truth was the key to everything. It is... so relieving."
Evan paused. He really wanted to ask her the source of her sadness. “…Ahe you homesick, Mer?” he said softly.
She did not want to admit this. It might hurt him so desperately… But she was more sick for him than anything else, so she said, “Not now. Oh, Evan, never mind it. Don’t try to figure my confusion out. Some of it is legitimate, but most of it is sheer badness. I am one hundred percent humbled. I was stupid and little-kiddish. And I was selfish and petty and stubborn.”
He kissed her ear affectionately. “Now, now. I won’t have you be like that. Don’t drag youhself down. You wehe sad, and missed me. I should be hahd on myself, since I am not the softest husband when it comes to noticing things and comfahting, so I have a paht to play. I know one of my biggest faults is not making friends and family feel loved. I know it; I’ve been told so; I see it’s so. It’s always been a fault. I’m sorry it’s coming out now foh you to experience, and feel huht by it. Because really, I want to make everyone happy. I just don’t know how. I’m so dull and smat sometimes!”
“No, no, no, you’re not!” cried Meredith, defensive of him in her turn, kneeling up to hold onto his head in annoyance, and completely oblivious to the fact that she had brought similar accusations down on that darling head a minute ago. “And all you have to do is say it - just say it, Evan!”
“Teach me, then,” he said.