Water All Around

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
September/October 2004

By Marian Homans-Turnbull, Illustrated by the author

The sun rose as usual that morning, but no one saw it. There was no shortage of watchers; the two fishermen on Bell Island were up mending their nets, watching the horizon for the glow that would tell them it was time to set out, and the beady-eyed gulls were watching in their wary way from nests on shore and seats on the ocean’s broad back, and their favorite vantage point, the sky. The quiet old lady on Middle Island was awake, gazing at the eastern sky and dreaming of sunrises long ago when she bustled about making breakfast for her children, and wondering if any of them ever stopped to watch the sunrise, and the little girl in the little white house next door was just getting out of bed, not because she had to, but because she always woke up with the sun and there was really no reason to stay in bed. It was not the watchers that were missing, it was the sun.

The little girl—she was not really so very little, but was more a little girl than anything else—was the only one to think it strange. The fishermen, when they had waited long enough, simply smiled at each other and started the motor of their boat, and the old woman too knew the Nova Scotia fog well. But to the girl, as she stepped out of the door into the misty dawn, it was like waking to a whole new world. The surrounding islands, near enough to swim to the day before, had vanished, replaced by swirling clouds of thick fog that wetted her skin and hair but without the striking feeling of rain. It was like being on a ship miles from anywhere, she thought. All she could see was water. Water and fog. She sat down in the grass then, tousle-haired and dreamy-eyed, hugging her knees and breathing in the mystery.

Water All Around looking at an island

The surrounding islands had vanished, replaced by swirling clouds of thick fog

The fog had not lifted when the little girl’s mother called her name. It was their last day on the island and it was time to pack up and leave, to drive to the ferry and return to civilization. And the little girl remembered that she was not really a captain’s daughter on a three-masted schooner off the coast of Scotland, but was a little girl named Miranda who was starting algebra and Latin in the fall and was going to lead the poetry club. So she went inside and drank the hot chocolate her mother had made for her, and put her cup in a suitcase, and then remembered to say good morning, and wrung out her nightgown, which was very wet with sitting on the dew-soaked grass.

When the packing, which should only be lived through once, was over, and the suitcases were all piled on the red motor boat, Miranda’s mother went to wake the baby. Miranda slipped out the door and set off on the path around the island to say goodbye to her friends. It was still at most two hours past sunrise, but she knew everyone would be awake, because where there are no electric lights or other such extravagances (as on any proper island), daylight hours are precious and no one wastes them in bed. So she said her goodbyes and returned to a wailing baby and distracted mother, and in time things fell into place, and they clambered into the boat and scrabbled perches amongst the luggage, and Mother pulled the cord on the outboard motor and as it stuttered to life they set off into the fog.

Miranda’s mother knew the way from island to shore, and could steer straight despite the fog, but wind and tide conspired against them, and pushed the boat off course, so that a rock came up to starboard that they had not knowingly steered toward, and the trip which had been an adventure turned frightening. All they could see was water and fog. They could have been heading out to sea, or straight at a reef, or anywhere. The fog seemed menacing now, and the excitement was gone. The spray flung at them by the wind had turned cold, not cool, and the wind itself was harsher. Miranda took the tiller while her mother hunted frantically for the compass, but it was packed deep in some unknown bag. One arm around baby and the other hand on the tiller, Miranda could not reach up to brush her wind-tossed hair out of her eyes, so she shook her head, then suddenly released baby and felt her hair with her hand. She stared at the waves for a long moment, then cried over the growl of the motor, “The wind! It was coming from the north, from the mainland! Steer into the wind!”

Mother nodded, and said something, but the wind carried away her words. Then Miranda remembered that she was steering, and swung the tiller around so that the little boat faced the wind. It blew her hair back for her but she freed her hand anyway to take off her salt-encrusted spectacles to rake the horizon with her eyes for any sign of land. Baby crept over to Mother, looking for a sheltering arm, and the three huddled down in the boat as the wind and spray hit them, and presently there came a shadow in the fog, and it grew clearer until it became a wooded promontory and a weathered dock, and presently the little girl found herself climbing up the ladder, and that her heart was no longer pounding, and that her cheeks were wet with something more than mist and spray. And she blinked her eyes as she pulled baby up with her cold hands, and she fumbled with her glasses one-handed as she hauled bag after bag up the hill to the car, and she finally had the glasses on when they drove away. And presently she came to be smiling, because it didn’t take much to make the little girl smile, and because her hands were growing warm.

When they reached the ferry, she stopped smiling. First her smile grew weaker when she saw the gray angularity of the city, because it made her remember that summer was almost over, and that her clothes had not been washed for over a week and were encrusted with salt, and other inconvenient memories. Then it faded altogether when the car stopped at the ferry dock and Mother spoke to the funny little man in the booth. First she said, “Emily Jackson,” and “zero-seven-four-six-eight-zero-three,” the way she always did, but then she said, “What do you mean, oversold?” and “It can’t be “and “This is just insane,” and then the man came out and they talked and then they yelled, and the man said that they had oversold the boat and that he was very sorry but since they were the last passengers to arrive, there was no room for their car. And Miranda covered baby’s ears as Mother tried everything and grew furious, and then Mother, in a stroke of genius, ordered the man to put them on the boat as foot passengers and send the car over on the next ferry; she would pick it up. They piled a few clothes and medicines into what bags they could carry, and snatched up their life jackets for when they got to Maine, and ran onto the boat with minutes to spare; getting lost in the fog had taken longer than they thought. They found seats and sat down, and when some time had passed, Miranda found that she could smile again, for this was just the next part of the adventure, and she was back to being surrounded by water, and no land in sight, and that was really the way she liked to be.

Her mother grew worried again, because the friends in Maine could not come to meet them at Bar Harbor where the ferry docked, and they needed to find some way to get from Bar Harbor to the friends’ island at the head of Somes Sound. But Miranda wasn’t anxious at all. She was not happy, certainly not, and she was cold and salty and hungry and exhausted, but she wasn’t worried. Things would work out. And if they didn’t, there would just be more adventures.

Baby went to sleep and Mother was reading, so Miranda went out on the deck and leaned out over the water with her arms folded on the railing. The water rushed past, blue-black and bottomless green-gray with flecks of white at the peak of each wave until it met the boat, then churning, frothy and white with swirls of the palest blue and green, and none of it the same from one moment to the next. The wind, still from the north, was behind them now, and there was a visible change from the glassy rollers in the lee of the giant ferry to the darker, wind-ruffled water beyond. Mere yards from the boat, the water ended as the sky came down to meet it, throwing its sodden white blanket of mist over all beyond.

At the other end of the deck stood a white-haired old gentleman, the sole human there on the deck apart from the girl. A few brazen gulls pecked at the deck between them. He too had been watching the ocean go past, but now he was watching the little girl standing silently with her tangled hair blowing about her white face. She seemed intent on something, barely smiling and gazing so serenely at the water, and looked frozen, standing pale and motionless and listing slightly in the wind. But he knew her name. It was a pretty name, and fitting for a girl so obviously of the ocean. As he had been. And still was. So he said the name, softly. “Miranda.”

The little girl’s eyes lit up and she turned, smiling fully again, and full of wonder.

“How do you know my name?” she asked.

He told her that he had watched the scene below, and noticed her, and wondered how it had turned out. He was sorry for them, especially because he had reserved the last place. He asked her where she was going, and—though she had been drilled in not talking to strangers, she was still young enough to listen to intuition, and to have intuition worth listening to—she told him, about their sailor friends in Maine and the magical times they’d had, there and elsewhere but always with the sea, and the weeks on Middle Island and the friends she had made, and the races and the exploring and the boats and the swimming, and even about the Latin and the algebra and the poetry, because they had a large place in her heart too, only she sometimes forgot them in the excitement of the sea, just as she sometimes forgot the ocean in the long months of school, but could never really forget either one.

And she asked him where he was going, but he just smiled and replied, “Oh, wherever the winds take me.”

And they spoke on, about everything and nothing, she merry and full of three months of play, and he vague and with always a secret smile in his eye. And presently they found that they had talked enough, and were content to stand and watch the waves roll by. And when the little girl looked up again, the old man was gone.

She was worried then, remembering how secretive he had been, and how much she had told him, and wondering if perhaps she had done wrong. But she put her worries away shortly, seeing her mother walk out onto the deck looking as if she had finally learned to put worries away. While baby placidly ran her toy motorcycle over their feet, Mother told Miranda in an excited murmur, “That gentleman you were speaking to just now is the captain of the schooner Eagle. He apparently has her moored in the harbor but was today going to take her up to her other mooring, near Somesville, where she spends the early fall.”

The little girl’s eyes and mouth were wide open now, and her face shone.

“He wants to know if we would like to go with him, and row from the boat to Sheep Island!”

Water All Around boat with sail

And oh, what a glorious sail it was!

The last became one glorious crescendo in breathless unison as daughter finally grasped mother’s meaning and was too impatient to be told. They both knew the incredible kindness this man was showing them, and tried to show collected gratitude when he came, but Miranda, though very calm, was still radiant at the prospect of going home on a real, live schooner, being a girl whose knowledge of sailing extended little beyond the nine-foot dinghies she had learned in, and her mother was still reeling from the sudden reversal of fate that turned her desperation into gladness. So the three talked out the logistics, and before they knew it, the fog began to clear and the town of Bar Harbor suddenly came into view, with great craggy hills and acres of dense pine, and Captain Harris, for that was the old gentleman’s name, pointed out his lovely ship, sitting at anchor but with pennants flying. And then they were climbing down the stairs and onto the land, with packages that suddenly seemed lighter than before and the life jackets they had so luckily thought to bring, and before the little girl could fully catch her breath she was in a little dory rowing out to the tall ship, and soon she was clambering aboard, and now the crew of three sturdy men who seemed a multitude had the sails up, and now they were off, truly off, and sailing!

And oh, what a glorious sail it was!

The fog had lifted fully now, and the sun shone fiercely. The wind came roaring, still from the north, and it was a series of long easy reaches down to the bottom of the island. There were great, following swells, so that they could almost have been surfing, but the sea was not choppy. The only other boats were a few tiny sails on the horizon to port, and to starboard rose the pine-covered crags of Mount Desert. The Eagle fairly flew along the water, with all her sails well out and the gay flags on the stays whipping. The Captain sailed at first, while bags were properly packed and life jackets were scrambled into and baby was loosely tied to a ring in the middle of the deck, but then he offered Miranda a turn at the wheel, in a very open place. Her eyes glowing, she took it, and steered straight ahead, which wasn’t really so very hard, after all. And though she had not been worried, she was still relieved at the happy ending of their close call, and knew how close it had been, so her broad smile was still a trifle pensive. But then she forgot all that in the glory of the wind and waves, and her smile grew brighter, like sunshine across a calm sea. And she looked forward to sailing into the harbor, to her friends’ envious faces and the welcome of the little island. And presently she came to see the funny side of the whole thing, and the little girl laughed, with her head thrown back and her sun-bleached hair tossing in the wind, and her eyes like stars, and her hand on the wheel, and white sails flying, and water, deep, shifting, shining water, all around.

Water All Around Marian Homans-Turnbull

Marian Homans-Turnbull, 13
Guilford, Connecticut

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