19 February 2008

from The Maytrees by Annie Dillard


When he was a young boy, his mother took him along the night she went to see a fishing boat aground on Peaked Hill Bars in a storm. Frisch Fragonelle was the first to go. In the blackness Toby Maytree knew him by his narrow shape, as everyone on the beach knew every man clinging in the rigging by shape. He squinted into spray and happened to see Frisch Fragonelle let go. Seas ruptured on bars in rows behind the vessel and before it, so streaming foam silhouetted Frisch Fragonelle’s drop an instant before it covered it. He fell upright and straight as a plumb bob.

—Hell, young Toby’s mother said close by, the very hell. The whole frozen town on the beach groaned.

His father and the whole coast guards at the Peaked Hills Bar station had already tried everything: firing the breeches buoy; launching their boat into the breakers; and even launching an old whaleboat that Captain Mayo’s tractor hauled down the beach from town. At first the men hooked in cordage and spars were waving to the people on the beach, as if hallooing them in midnight high spirits, or as if pointing out their situation, or as if warming their blood by saying ate a volta, adeus, good-bye. Seas, spray, and sleet froze on them. Toby and the others onshore waved and jumped and all useless else, as if their encouragement would lighten the men’s hearts, and maybe it did.

The stranded crewmen dropped all night like acorns. More groans low under the high wind. Toby saw something like laundry roll in a breaker. The next wave presented it as Frisch Fragonelle’s body. Maytree’s father and another coast guard brought it in and laid it at his wife’s boots without a word. Mothers were turning their children and heading toward town.

—Do I have to go home now? Toby was eight. He hoped she would say, Yes, darn tootin’ go home. You must shun the sight of the men of our own fleet, your friends’ fathers, dying almost an arm’s length from shore, and us helpless to save them.

His mother bent to his face and looked at him. Her face was chapped. Two wool shawls covered her head; she had wrapped her fingers in the fringes.

—No, she said. You don’t have to go home. This is part of life.

Damn, he thought—not that he would watch his neighbors drown, but that it was part of life.

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