Sometimes when it rained in the night he’d wake hearing the sound of rain and, in its empty cadence, thought he heard her voice. Now that it was well into summer, it rained often. The sea almond trees around the servant quarter stood solemn dripping rainwater from their lacquered leathery leaves, the fruits now ripened and red, and if it rained early in the evening the resident bats would not come out.
Sometimes after leaving the hamlet late in the afternoon, he would wander on the beach till it got dark. The early-rising moon was orange-colored, and when it rose high it changed to autumn-leaf yellow. Sometimes high tide came in early and he saw blue crabs leaving their burrows to feed in the tide-darkened, wet sand. Where fishing boats had unloaded their catch in the afternoon, sometimes he saw a bluefish or sea bass and he’d pick it up, heavy and slick in his hand with the eyes already gone clouded, and toss it back into the ocean. He’d wash his hands and watch the phosphorus in thin white trails leaving his hands in a dwindling swirl as it sank into the dark water. There were moments when the sea was calm and he could see the moon’s reflection in the blue-black ocean, the moonlight like an immaterial veil floating and spreading with the waves, the glowing lanterns from fishing boats going to sea at night, far out like wakeful eyes. On the mud flats, there were oyster shells lying strewn like rocks, and they crunched underfoot. The bonfire sometimes burned early, too, and walking past it and past the basket boats and fishing nets being hung out to dry, he could smell their haunting fish stench that followed him home.
There was a dirt path that took him from the hamlet through the swale between the foredunes and the backdunes. When the sun was high, the noon heat ghosting over the sandy slopes and all the animals burrowing themselves from the swelter, he saw pitcher’s thistles flowering pink on windswept slopes, and that was the only color in the unforgiving heat. Then farther down he came upon a pond sheltered by sand-dune willows. The ground was thick and rough with arrow-grass and silverweed, and by the water’s edge he would stop and watch sandpipers skittering after the windblown ripples, or sometimes a solitary heron like a cloaked monk standing silently on a log-anchored bush of sweet gale waiting for a sight of fish. Beyond the pond, in the hollow of the swale, flowering parsnip grew wild and tall, carpeting the ground in a dazzling canary-yellow from the depth of the swale up to the south-facing slopes. Overnight the flowers had bloomed. During the day the wind would rip through the trough between the dunes and the field of parsnip would ripple and the wind sometimes blow yellow petals spinning in the air. In the middle of the field stood a scarecrow swathed in tattered burlap, wearing a black visor cap wrapped with a string around the head to protect against the wind.
One late afternoon, coming back through the swale, he saw all the parsnip flowers had fallen. Beyond the pond he saw her standing on the edge of the field. In the field the hamlet women were cutting down the stalks and gathering them in bunches. She was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat with a black band. The sand-colored hat was tilted up as she photographed the harvesting women. The wind blew her lilac calf-length skirt so that it billowed and then wrapped around her legs. He came up behind her and stood watching the women at work. Some, giggling, covered their faces and some turned away and then turned back, smiling shyly at the camera.
When she turned around to face him the rims under her eyes were moist with perspiration.
“Hi,” she said with a faint smile.
That was the first time he had heard her voice since the night they spent in the forest hut without the knowledge of her sexually impotent husband. It had been over a month.
“Hi,” he said. “I’ve never thought I’d see you out here again.”
“I have to be out here,” she said, putting the cover back on the lens. “Or I’d go insane.”
“What’d kept you back in?”
She tugged at the camera strap, her eyes wavering for just one brief moment. “I must keep peace in my family, especially with my husband. And he’s been under much stress lately.”
“You mean his health.”
He nodded. “Because of your trip?”
Her gaze fell in his. Her graceful almond-shaped eyes that held much of her unspoken thoughts, at times hard with dogged determination, at times soft, alluring. He lowered his voice, “Did he ever ask what you’d done up there?”
“Yes?” his voice shot up and immediately he said, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be alarmed. I told him the business part―not the other part.”
“It must’ve been hard on you.”
“Don’t worry for me.”
Her even tone and her stony face threw him off balance. He looked down at his feet and back at her. “It’s good to see you again,” he said with difficulty.
“What brought you out this way?”
“Business.” She glanced toward the women busy at work in the parsnip field. “I’m putting together a portfolio for our business development with outside investors.”
“You’re an entrepreneur now.”
“Well, I have been. My husband is my principal partner and advisor.”
He’d often thought of the consequence of their act in that hut, driven by her own choice to have a child for her husband. The thought of seeing her carry a child had troubled him, how painful it would be should it become a reality. Now, standing face to face with her, he couldn’t find words for it.
“You want me to walk you back?” he said finally. “It’s a long way.”
“Thanks. But don’t bother. The car’s waiting for me.” She motioned with her head toward the outside road behind the backdunes, linked to the swale by a flagstone walkway.
He squinted his eyes toward the road and saw the tail end of the black Mercedes parked on the roadside. “Well,” he said, dropping his voice, “I hope to see you around.”
He turned and took the walkway and headed out to the road.
s s s
For two weeks he did not see her again. Then one evening after dinner, having gone back to his room and sat down on the bed and taken off his shirt, ready for a night bath, he heard a knock on the door. He flung the shirt over his shoulder as he opened the door. On the dark veranda she was standing, arms folded on her chest, back turned toward him, gazing at the grove of sea almond trees.
“Hi,” he called out to her.
She turned around. “Can I come in,” she said, barely loud enough for him to hear.
He stepped back to let her in and closed the door. In the cage hung from a ceiling hook, the myna croaked, “Hello guest!”
“Hello there,” she said, touching the cage as the bird tilted its head to regard her. Then she spoke without looking at him, “He must be speaking very well by now, am I right?”
“What he likes to do is birdcalls. He’s alone by himself most of the time so he picks up anything he hears from outside.”
“Poor little one.”
He draped the cage with his shirt and then brought the only chair he had and placed it in the center of the room under the naked light bulb in the ceiling. Then, after she sat down, he stood around, his hands jammed in his pants pockets, and then slowly sat down on the edge of his narrow bed. She was still in her business suit, single-breasted navy-blue gabardine and cuffed pants legs, and the air had a scent of her perfume, which he remembered well.
“I hope you’ve been fine,” she said, her hands clasped in her lap.
“I have no complaint. How’ve you been?”
“Okay.” She nodded then brushed back a strand of hair that had slipped down on her forehead. “I found out yesterday that I’m pregnant.”
Something very cold went through him and he shivered in his bare torso. He simply nodded.
“I’ve thought I was at one point,” she said, holding in her breath and then slowly exhaling. “But I wasn’t positive of it till yesterday when our physician confirmed it.”
He wondered if their personal doctor knew, too, of the truth of her pregnancy. He felt overwhelmed. She ran her fingers through her hair. Her jacket sleeves stopped just at the wrists, where they revealed the white cuffs of her shirt. She lowered her gaze at his bare torso and then looked up into his eyes.
“I want to tell you something, she said, and I want you to be ready for it.”
“You can’t stay here any longer.”
He slumped and then immediately straightened his back. “I hear you,” he said.
“You rarely ask questions, I notice.”
“I don’t think my questions would change anything.”
“You don’t even want to know the reason, do you?”
He fixed his gaze on her face. The hollow in him was so desolate he saw her face like just another face. Then he saw in those almond-shaped eyes the sorrow he had sought words for. He knew he loved her. More than ever. He nodded. “Yeah. I want to know.”
“He won’t tolerate your presence around here when I tell him. The father of my unborn child.”
Again he nodded. Then words came to him. “I think I know how he would’ve felt.”
“Do you? And do you know how I feel?”
He crimped his lips. “I wish I knew.”
“I must live with the guilt that I’ve put you through all this.”
“Is that all?”
She pursed her lips like she was stuck with thoughts. Then she let out a deep sigh.
“You have no feeling for me?” he said.
“What do you think?” Her voice was nearly inaudible. “Must I speak it?”
“That’s what I thought,” he said, hearing the muted pain in her voice and feeling the weight of her sorrow.
She looked down at the linoleum floor, sighed, and looked back up at him. “You must leave tomorrow morning. Your foreman will drive you into town. Once I tell him tonight, my husband would want you out of here.”
“I can leave any time. I’m more worried about you.”
“I can take care of myself. May I ask where you’ll be headed to?”
“I don’t know.” He smiled. “I wish I knew.”
“Is that the truth?”
“I never lie. At least that’s what we have in common.”
“Only that much?” Her eyes were half closed with the familiar softness he knew well.
He drew a deep breath. “Sometimes,” he said, “what isn’t said says a lot more.”
s s s
It was past evening now and, after his bath, he went to the barn and saddled the quarter horse. Her stallion wasn’t in its stall. He led the horse out of the stable and down the gravel walk to the gate. As he opened the gate, standing in the cold silver illumination the lamps cast about him, he looked up toward the second-floor veranda where the railing etched quietly in white against the night. Her husband in the wheelchair wasn’t there.
Night dew had wet the sand, and the water in the pond by the parsnip field looked pale in the moonlight. Toads croaked, their throaty calls echoing in the swale. He stood the horse and gazed at the field. Gone now were the breathtaking yellow flowers that dotted the field like myriad butterflies fluttering. Now the stalks, slender and broken, had browned, and the stubbled field was sterile looking. The horse lowered its head to nip at the stalks. Paperlike seeds lay scattered on the ground, and in the stalks fireflies blinked and the field seemed to be speaking to any soul that understood its soundless voice.
He rode along the dirt path toward the lighthouse and up the slope, cresting it under the peaceful creamy moonlight that bathed the sea, the dunes. In the breeze the whistling pines smelled of dried cones now lying like well-worn rocks among a mat of rusty red needles. When they shed and had paved the ground thickly, hamlet children would come and rake them and bag them for firewood. The air then reeked of a pleasant odor.
The sea was calm and high tide was a long time coming. He rode down the slope through a patch of goat’s foot vine, the horse snorting heavily, kicking up sand as they crossed a long, long tract carpeted with evening primrose flowering pink and white, and among them dune sunflowers rose tall and yellow as the moon. Sea breeze brought their heady scents so thick he had to breathe through his mouth to clear his head.
The horse found its footing along the rocky shore and up the slope screened with tall sea oats, trotting between clumps of prickly pear cactus and saw palmetto till it reached the hard ground around the lighthouse. He patted the horse and walked up to the tin-roofed house where the keeper lived. The sand felt rough between his toes in his sandals, the congongrass scissoring his calves with their sharp blades. There was no light inside. He stood by the cane chair and remembered the old man, the red fox. He didn’t want to wake him up just to say goodbye.
Wolf spiders were now coming out of their burrows in the sand where the horse stood grazing. He watched them push out the tiny pebbles they plugged their holes with against floodwater. He turned the horse back, heeled it hard and it took off like a crazed horse. He could feel the breeze warm and dry on his face and the wet sound the hooves made on the damp sand and the waves lapping the shore endlessly. He was riding hard till he saw farther up the shore her white horse standing on the watermark the waves left, and up on the sand she was sitting, her knees drawn up to her chin, her hands hugging her knees.
When he reined up he couldn’t hear his own breathing for the heavy snorting of his horse. He got down.
“Hi,” he said as he took off his sandals and stood holding them in his hands.
“Hi,” she said, lowering her head to rest her chin on her knees. She was barefoot in her tight blue jeans. The breeze fluttered the loose sleeves of her white T-shirt.
“I thought you’d never come out this way again,” he said, standing in one place as his horse found its friend and now stood side by side with the stallion.
“I thought so too about you.”
“Well, looks like we have to say goodbye one more time.”
“One more time, yes.” She didn’t brush back the stray hair the breeze left tangled on her face.
“I wanted to say goodbye to the old man keeper but he was asleep.”
“Most people have gone to bed now.”
“I kinda wished that you’d be out here. But, well, I also wished that you wouldn’t.”
That drew a faint smile from her. “Why?”
“I don’t know why. Maybe it’d be very hard to say goodbye again.”
“I imagine so.” Then she gazed up at him. “Why don’t you sit down with me?”
He placed his sand-coated sandals between his feet, sitting with his arms cradling his knees next to her. The breeze brought an herbal fragrance from her hair and suddenly he felt lightheaded.
“How’s the little guy doing,” he asked without looking at her. She had told him the autistic boy was the son of her husband and his now deceased wife. After his wife died and before he remarried her, twenty-five years his junior, some sickness has left him sexually powerless.
“He’s fine,” she said. “I don’t know what to tell him when he notices that you’re gone.”
“How could you tell that he could tell?”
“I just know.”
“You want me to give him the myna?”
“No. If there’s someone you want to give it to, it’s me.” She smiled a gentle smile.
“Then it’s yours. It can say your name very clearly. It said where’s Ly now after you left tonight.”
“No, keep it. I don’t want it to remind me of something that’d haunt me thinking about it.”
He gazed out toward the distant mud flats, dark and shimmering. The blind man wasn’t in sight. The first time he knew about the blind man, he was riding on the beach with her and she raised her arm and pointed toward a small human figure, slumped and pale in the moonlight, working on a sand flat halfway between them and the bonfire. The figure moved a hand net along the wet sand, a basket hoisted on the hip. “See that person?” she said. “He’s blind.”
“I see him.”
“He’s from the hamlet. Born blind. He picks clams and fish, those dropped by fishing nets when they haul them out of the boats in the late afternoon.”
“I guess he never needs no light on the beach to do what he does.”
“No. Just have to be aware of the tide cycle and the moon cycle. You don’t want to be swept away by high tide when you’re out here by yourself at night. He told me every night he goes out and away from the hamlet as far as he could, till his ears could no longer pick up any sound, human and dogs, from the hamlet. He did get lost sometimes though. Told me when that happened he had to rely on his nose to smell the wind, even use his tongue to test the wind to find his way back.”
Now she caught him gazing and said, “What’s out there?”
“I guess I wouldn’t see him again before I leave tonight.”
“The blind man.”
“It’d be late when he’s out there during high tide.”
“Sometimes I caught fish out that way and just threw em back in the water cause he wasn’t there.” Then he shook his head. “His is a different world.”
She broke her gaze with a nod of her head. “Ours too.”
“You and me?”
“Your world and mine.”
“You know what I often wish for?”
“You’re a man of few words so I’d be delighted to hear.”
“That when I met you, you’re just an ordinary girl from a poor home like me.”
“What made you think that would work out for you and me?”
“You’d have nothing to give up for.”
“You’ve never said you love me.”
He looked into her eyes, gentle and demure, and in that moment he saw the graceful softness that had melted his heart once and again. “I love you,” he said. “But it’s never easy for me to say it.”
She leaned her forehead against his and, her eyes closed, touched his face with her hand. “Do you regret that you met me?”
“No.” He tried to smile. “I learned from you to like surprises.”
“Did you really?”
“Do you regret it?”
She shook her head and put her finger on his lips. Her tearstained face felt cold against his and the fragrance of her hair brought him the very name of sorrow.