In the bow of the ship, high above the sea, stands a girl of seventeen. She looks like a figurehead carved from wood, her arms never moving, her hair chiseled in place and painted with gold.
The ship carries her north at the speed of the wind, as though forever in a calm. The flags at the mast are twists of limp cloth, the smoke a gray column rising straight from the funnel. It’s the sea, not the ship, that appears to be moving. It bursts on the bow and roars down the sides in tumbling foam. It carries rafts of torn kelp and logs that tilt through the waves. Seagulls and auklets skitter away, but the girl stares only ahead.
At her side is her daughter, dressed all in red. Too small to see over the rail, she crouches instead on the deck, peering through the oval of the hawsehole. Her tiny hands are cupped on the metal, and she stares out between them, the way a cat watches from a windowsill. Wedged between her knees is a red plastic purse, its flap buttoned across a Barbie doll too long to fit inside. A frizzy head juts out from one end, a pair of pink feet from the other.
The sea marches past, bashing at the bow, flinging droplets of spray that skitter like beetles on the water. It surges below the girl standing there, now reaching toward her, now falling away as the ship, meeting a wave, rises to the crest. And far ahead a tiny bright cap appears on the skyline. A single white eye blinks at her over all the miles of water.
In a moment it’s gone, lost in the waves as the ship drops from the crest, as the foam at the bow billows toward her. But the girl watches and waits, and again it appears, the little red cap, the blink of the light. It’s what she’s been watching for ever since the Darby turned at the Kinahan Islands an hour ago. And at last she moves. She raises a hand and covers her mouth.
The island seems to rise from the sea like a surfacing whale. Trees and rocks appear, veiled in a silver of spindrift and mist. A tower forms below the red cap, at first so tiny and white that it makes the girl think of a gravestone. Then buildings emerge, red roofs and white walls. Squares of green lawn. Dark swaths of salal.
Each little piece fills the girl with a particular feeling, with a picture in her mind, or a smell or a sound. She was born on that island; she’s the lightkeeper’s daughter. Her name is Elizabeth McCrae, but all her life she’s been known as Squid.
“Tatiana, look,” she says. “That’s Lizzie Island there.”
The child doesn’t answer. She seldom speaks. Her little shoulders are bent, her head thrust forward. She’s always been small for her age, but now she looks tiny and fragile, closer to two than to three. Squid settles beside her, on the gray steel of the deck. She holds on to Tatiana as though the child might slide through the hole and into the sea.
Tatiana looks up, her eyes jiggling, all her teeth showing in her peculiar grin.
“You doing okay?” asks Squid.
“We’re almost there. You’ll meet your grandma and your grandpa. They’ve got a boat with a glass bottom, and a little tractor that can pull you in a wagon.”
Squid wants to tell her everything: about Glory, the little winged horse; about Gomorrah and the wailing wall; about Alastair’s flute and the singing of whales. But Tatiana isn’t listening. The child has already turned back to the hawsehole, watching the water rush past the boat.
On the island, the wind feels brisk. It drives the waves against the shore and shreds them into spray. It gusts up the rocks and over the sodden lawn, where Murray McCrae, the lightkeeper, stands in his khaki shorts.
“Darby’s coming,” he says, making it sound as though he doesn’t care, as though he hasn’t been watching for the ship since dawn first came to Lizzie Island. In his hands he holds the things the sea has cast ashore: strands of kelp and bits of bark and sticks like old men’s fingers, warted with barnacle shells.
Six feet behind him, Hannah looks up and turns toward the sun. It’s well to the south so late in September, and it glares off the waves, off the rocks wet with spray. She squints, then puts her hands to her face and peers through the tunnel made by her fingers, the shape of a heart on the sea.
The Darby is far in the distance. A plume of brown smoke, a speck of red for the hull. Her daughter’s out there, an hour away.
Murray carries his sticks to the edge of the grass and heaves them back where they came from, over the cliff and down to the sea. He claps his hands together, then hitches up his shorts. “Better get hopping,” he says. “I’ve got things to do. Sand to carry.”
In a moment he’s off on his little tractor, bulging above it like a circus bear. A rickety cart, rusted and squeaking, bounces behind him as he rattles down the boardwalk and into the forest.
Hannah goes the other way, over the trestle and up through the tower, out at the top to the platform that circles it. For nearly a week, a lone humpback whale has been feeding on the shallows off the island, and she looks for it now as she might watch from a porch for a friend passing by. The wind buffets at the long, dark dress of the lightkeeper’s wife, at the crimson scarf tied round her hair.
Once this was her favorite place, above the houses and the patch of emerald lawn. Ringed in by the railing, she was never frightened by the height, though she stood so high above the sea that the birds flew below her and the surf flickered white on the distant reefs of Devil Rock. Autumn, once, was her favorite time, a summer’s end when the whales and the birds stopped to rest on their southward migrations. But now the island is a prison, and the sea a wall around it. Autumn is the start of winter and the coming of the Undertaker. Even the wind makes her frightened.
She believes now that it has a voice. She has heard it often in the last three years—as a breath in the summer’s tall grass, as a whisper through the forest of moss-bearded trees. It has shouted her name in the storms that come from the south, when the gulls are flung through the sky like scraps of paper. She hasn’t told Murray any of this, but the voice on the wind is their son’s.
Yesterday he was there. When the storm was at its peak and the house rattled and shook, when the Canadian flag tore itself into streamers of red and white, she looked out and saw him in the flash of the light. He was gone in the darkness that followed: there and then gone. Poor Alastair—four years drowned—blown up from the sea in the storm.
Hannah shudders, remembering that, her vision of him. She moves back from the rail and leans on the glass. Though eighty feet above the sea, it’s stained with salt, remnants of last night’s storm. Hannah rubs at the white splotches with her hand, and then with the scarf, tearing it off to let her hair blow in tangles. Every five seconds, the light flashes in the cupola.
It’s a pathetic thing now, that light, a plastic dome on a little stick of a pole. The old lantern is long gone, the one that floated in its mercury bath, going round and around with a brilliance brighter than sunlight.