The boy and the girl played in the surf and lay on the sand all morning. For lunch they ate sandwiches from plastic bags and blew up the bags and popped them but the noise was lost in the sound of the sea. After they had eaten they made love then fell asleep wrapped in each other like the knot in the leather strap that held the binoculars around the old man’s neck.
When he was certain they slept the old man stood and brushed the sand from his dark corduroy pants and the sleeves of his navy blue pea coat. He stretched, pressing his fist into the small of his back and popping the vertebrae, and cursed the years that had made him old and left him on this beach like some dark, twisted lump of seaweed.
He lit a cigarette, cupping his hand around the wooden match against the wind. Cooler on the seaward side of the island, he thought. He walked around in a small circle before settling back down in the shallow depression he had scooped out with his hands in the scruffy dune.
He finished his cigarette, crushed it out in the sand and slipped the butt into his pocket. He thought of the flask pressing into his hip but decided against the indulgence.
A buzz of static came from the Ear as the needle jumped and danced. He fiddled with the knobs and held the earphones to his head straining to hear. At first, there was only the sea shell roar of the ocean, then---
“---tell me?” It was the girl. “I mean---you know. It’s not like I’m prying or anything.”
“No, of course not.” The boy this time. “I want you to know. I want you to know everything. I love you.” The words were new to his lips and, like the crying of a newborn infant, had a quality distinct and unique.
“And I love you,” she echoed, perhaps more smoothly, more matter of fact. Or maybe I’m just a cynical old goat, the old man thought.
Silence. The old man looked through the binoculars. More kissing. He felt a stirring like he had not been bothered by for years and quickly dropped the glasses, once more twisting the knobs of the Ear to busy himself.
“---today---“ the boy was speaking again and the old man twisted the volume up painfully high to hear, “I’ll take you to the house and introduce you to my father. He’ll understand---he’ll have to accept you---“
Then they were making love again and the old man rose and ran swiftly across the dunes with the Ear across his back like a rifle and crouching low he looked like a soldier on patrol
The boy’s father listened to what the old man had to say. His head nodded lower and lower on his chest. When the old man finished he wasn’t sure if the father was awake or not. He coughed.
The father’s head jerked up and the old man saw the tears staining his cheeks and he felt his own face flush. He looked away across the tiled patio to the gardens where the monks moved between the rows of flowers silent and intent. The sky was blue and the sun warm on his face, but his stomach was chilled and his chest heavy with the sight of his friend’s sorrow.
“You know what must be done?” The boy’s father spoke, his voice strained, he sounded older and more tired than his youthful dark hair and gentle brown eyes would suggest.
“Yes, sir,” the old man bobbed his head.
“You’re a good man, Father Umberto,” he reached up to the taller man’s shoulders, a smile on his lips at the joke that was as old as their friendship.
“Not good, rabbi, only old---old and tired,” Bert said, for his name was really Bertrand Barnes, and almost added “and likely to get much older before this day’s work is done” but, seeing the look in his friend’s eyes, thought better of it.
The island was near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay just out of sight of the Virginia shoreline. The house was a plantation home with white columns and high doors and tall windows. Even with the well-kept grounds it looked out of place---like a movie set built for a few scenes then left behind when the filming ended.
The story goes a smuggler who collaborated with the North during the Civil War and was paid off in the Reconstruction years built the house. The legend goes part of his pay was permission to keep slaves on the island for years after the war in a secret agreement signed by Ulysses S. Grant himself. One day his slaves overpowered him and hung him from the rafters in his wine cellar and swam to shore and disappeared.
The island was left uninhabited till the 1920’s when the government set up a Coast Guard station there. The family bought the island at the beginning of World War II and moved there from France to escape the Nazis. That was when Bert and the boy’s father had been young and together they had fished and sailed and swam and learned every island and cove and peninsula in the whole of the Bay.
Bert thought of those days and the memory warmed him far better than the failing rays of the evening sun as he stood in the shadow of the patio porch. It was evening and the monks had moved to their wooden chapel they had built beyond the garden wall. Two nuns walked between the low hedges on the stone path around the edge of the fishpond. They glanced at Bert, but said nothing. If they moved a little faster going away from him, it was probably because they were late for their evening prayers.
Soon the garden was empty and Bert moved even further into the shadow of the doorway leading to the path that ended at the boat dock. Fog was gathering thick and unpleasant and the dampness deadened the sound of the young couple’s approach.
“I don’t understand,” the girl was saying, “you told me you were Jewish---not that it matters to ---but there are priests---“
“Monks---from the monastery in France,” the boy corrected.
“Monks, then. And nuns. But there aren’t any crosses---not on the church or around their necks or anywhere. I mean, all the Catholics I know are always putting crosses on everything they can.”
“My family doesn’t care much for crosses,” the boy explained, a tight smile on his face. “Please, Diana. No questions now. Soon you will have all your answers. I promise.”
“Soon,” Bert silently agreed. He wanted a cigarette badly and a drink worse but most of all he wanted to be somewhere else---anywhere.
“You must stay here,” the boy was saying. “My father comes out on the patio at evening and smokes his cigars. An old habit from before my mother died when she would chase him out of the house. You’ll like him. He’s---special.”
“Like his son,” the girl said and the boy looked away, embarrassed and pleased.
“Wait here,” he repeated, “and, Diana, I love you, but you must promise me this.”
“If anyone---anyone but me comes down those steps into the garden you must run back to your boat and go home and never come here again.”
“I can’t promise that.”
“You must or I will not speak to my father and this will end like it should have the first day you sailed here from the coast.”
“All right,” she lied, “I promise.”
“I love you.” The shadows merged briefly into one then parted.
Bert held his breath as the young girl, wearing jeans and a pink halter-top, leaned back against a tree not three feet from where he hid in the shadows.
The girl pulled a crumpled pack of Marlboro Reds from the pocket of her jeans and, after three tries, managed to get the sweat soaked lighter to sputter and flame. She lit the cigarette and the breeze carried the smoke to where Bert hid. He breathed deeply and gratefully.
Then there came the sound of loud voices from the patio above their heads.
“You must select your wife from among the Sisters, just as I chose your mother!”
“No! You haven’t met her, Father---you can’t know---she’s---“
The girl crushed the cigarette beneath her sandled foot and muttered, “Enough of this shit.”
There was a brief flash of hope in Bert’s heart, then the girl turned toward the steps leading up to the patio.
“Bloody twit,” Bert hissed. “Why couldn’t she save us all the trouble and run like the boy said?”
Bert caught her from behind on the second step. One hand went over her mouth, the other around her waist, and he pulled her easily off the ground and back against his chest.
“MMMPHTTT!” She snorted and kicked and struggled, but Bert’s hold was tight.
Bert could still hear the boy and his father arguing.
He moved quickly through the wooden door in the stone garden wall and down the path to the dock.
The girl’s teeth bit through the webbing between his thumb and fingers just as her wooden sandal connected with his right kneecap.
Bert’s hand slipped from her mouth and with a muffled curse he struggled to hold on to a hundred pounds of squirming, teenage girl flesh---
Bert brought the heel of his palm into the girl’s throat applying a steady pressure. Her air supply cut off, the thrashing slowed and, as the black bubbles on unconsciousness burst before her eyes, she fell limp.
The boy’s voice told him it was too late. Throwing the girl over his left shoulder like a half-filled duffel bag, Bert sprinted the hundred yards down the beach to the dock.
The sun now set, the fog was thickening rapidly. The light at the end of the dock seemed to be hung in space like an errant moon. Bert dumped the girl into the small, single-engine boat and began casing off.
The boy’s cries and the sound of running feet came through the muffling fog.
The girl was awake and sitting up when Bert joined her in the boat. Ignoring her, he bent over the outboard and began working the pull cord to start the old and often cranky motor. The girl stared through eyes shimmering with tears of pain and outrage at the broad-shouldered back of her attacker. The motor caught, then sputtered and died. No one has so much as spoken harshly to her in all her sixteen years and now this---this Man had nearly choked her to death!
Then she saw the small skiff she had hidden beneath the brush on the other side of the island tied to the stern of the boat.
“My boat!” She said with pouting accusation, but the effect was lost as the motor took hold with a guttural roar.
Bert opened the throttle full and they lurched away from the dock.
Just as the dock disappeared into the fog, the motor coughed and flooded. Bert, launching in to a full-fledged cursing of all mechanical devices since the wheel, once more bent over the recalcitrant motor.
“Diana!” The boy’s cry was punctuated by the sound of his feet on the wooden dock.
“Ben?” The girl returned his call.
Then a strange silence fell over the girl and Bert looked up, searching her face in the dim light. Then he saw her eyes---staring past him---saw the look of fear that drained as fast as it came to be replaced by confusion laced with wonder and the first, glimmering dawn of recognition.
Even before he turned, Bert knew what he would see.
A sudden breeze had parted the fog like a curtain being drawn. The light from the dock shed a circle on the remarkably surface---a bare stage waiting for a drama to unfold.
The boy was walking across the water to the boat.
“Ben?” She whispered.
Bert bent over the motor.
The boy stopped. He looked down at his feet like a small child embarrassed to find he has wet his pants.
The motor took hold, splattering the silence like a buzz saw striking a nail long buried in the branch of an ancient tree.
The fog closed around the boy and they were gone.
A week later the man the nun’s called Father Umberto found himself standing in front of the small store on the coastal town where he bought milk and fresh eggs for the family every Thursday. He was staring at the newspaper rack, staring and lost in thought as old men often are.
His mind was moving back to the dark days at the start of World War Two when France was falling. He was a young lieutenant in the British army, too young to know such bitterness and defeat, to see such death. They were ten miles from Dunkirk and the whole countryside reeked of blood and panic and urine. It was night and what was left of his platoon had been ordered to a bombed out farmhouse where a family of Jewish refugees huddled together.
He had been scavenging for food and found precious little. The night was blazing with the lightning and roaring with the thunder of the constant shelling. He had run to the house and past inside all he had found. A half full tin of sardines and a lump of dry crusty bread he had bitten the mold from one end of and an empty bottle he had filled from the creek that ran beside what once had been someone’s home.
He was under orders to stay outside, to protect the family and make sure they got safely to the boats, but not to interfere with them in any way. But he was young and the shelling and the fear had been too much and he huddled in the darkness behind the door.
He remembered the boy---of course it had been the boy’s father back then---remembered how he had taken the fish from the tin and made sandwiches from the bread. Watch him break the bread and serve his family. There were ten of them with his brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents and they had all eaten and been filled.
Then the boy looked up as if he had known all along where Bert was hiding. He walked across the floor to the shadow of the door and held out the dusty bottle and a crust of bread.
“Will you join us, Father Umberto?” The boy’s eyes twinkled at the joke.
The bread smelled of yeast and was warm from the oven and the bottle Bert had filled from the creek was now filled with wine.
And he had known.
He shook himself, throwing off the memories like a dog shedding water.
He looked into the girl’s eyes staring at him through the cloudy plastic of the newspaper rack like through the fog that night. Beneath her picture the caption read “Still Missing and presumed Dead.”
He remembered that long night with his coat tied around the oar gently shoving her away from the boat till she tired and sank beneath the water. He thought of all the others over the years whose only crime had been getting too close to the truth. The long line of faces that paraded past him as he lay seeking solace in dreamless sleep at the bottom of the bottle. Nameless or with names he had forced himself to forget.
“Diana,” he muttered to himself as his shoulders slumped under memory’s cruel weight. “Her name was Diana.”
Then the Protector of the Heir turned and walked through the narrow streets of a town on the Virginia coast to the dock and took the boat back to an island in the bay.