THE NATURE OF THE GRAVE
Wednesday, January 13, 1999
The island was flat, and the cold howled across the moors like a living thing. With no trees for protection, no hills or valleys to channel it away, the wind blasted into the weathered clapboards of the house, shooting icy drafts through the meager insulation, a malevolent banshee trying to force its way in.
Sarah Jarad snuggled deeper under the covers, deciding firmly that nothing had prepared her for winter on Nantucket.
Like all newcomers, Sarah had learned quickly that heating oil was an imported and precious commodity. Each morning she woke with only the tip of her cold nose showing outside the comforter. She slid out of bed, leaving the warmth of her sleeping husband and scrambled into layers of fleecelined clothing.
The kitchen was the only truly warm room in the house. Her grandfather from Vermont, wise with sixty years of New England winters, had shipped them a wood stove as a wedding present. Back in September, Sarah had scoffed, but now the stove held a place of honor, enthroned on the blue slate hearth. She lit a handful of driftwood sticks, bleached brittle and white like ghostly fingers. Wood was another expensive concern. A cord here cost twice what she had paid for it on the mainland,and since they were saving every dime toward a mortgage,
Sarah had taken to the beach, scavenging. John had thrown a fit when he found out what she was doing, until she proved they were saving a third of a month’s pay just on fuel. Her husband had given in, grumbling that he had married his mother, whose thrift was legendary.
Overhead in the loft, Sarah heard John stumble out of bed. He bumped down the narrow stairwell, struggling into a rough woolen sweater. Planting himself in a chair, he ran his fingers though his hair, putting it in order. Sarah cheated the coffeemaker and set his mug on the table. As she did, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her, unprotesting, onto his lap.
“I woke up, you were already gone.” John worked his face into the folds of Sarah’s bathrobe, inhaling deeply. Sarah lifted his face in her hands and kissed him. “And good morning to you, too.”
“Is there a hurry? I don’t have to report to the station until nine.”
“I want to get to the bank, first thing.” She rose, retying her robe and pulling a check from her pocket. “Meredith sent me a commission.”
“We’re not hurting for money.” John sat back in his chair. “The rent’s not due for another two weeks.”
“I know that, but I like seeing the money in our account. I sleep better, knowing it’s there.”
John smiled to himself. Getting used to married life was hard enough, without discovering, after the wedding, that your wife had a phobia about bouncing checks. He had tried to explain to Sarah that the town’s automatic payroll deposit system had worked without a glitch for years, but she would have none of it. She had been footloose, a gypsy, for too long; Sarah didn’t believe the money was real until she held it in her hand. John sighed. There would be no fooling around before work this morning. He had learned to recognize that gleam in his wife’s eye. She was on a mission.
Sarah raised the coffeepot. “Touch-up?”
“Just a little,” he agreed, pushing his mug across the table. They had been married only four months, and he still found the whole idea of “having a wife” pretty amazing. Sure, there had been girlfriends before, and serious ones, too, but no woman had ever rearranged his life like Sarah had. She blew into town last May, and wham! Everything had changed.
“Must be love,” he muttered, pushing back from the table and finishing his coffee over the sink. “Don’t run any water for a minute, okay? I’ll jump in the shower.”
“You got it,” Sarah agreed. It amused her they were still working on house rules.
She fixed herself a second cup and went to the window to check on the weather. Another picture perfect January day, clear and crisp. Fresh snow had dusted the bayberry and wild rose bushes that filled their yard, or what passed for a yard on Nantucket, for no one here really had a yard, or even tried growing a lawn. People in town kept brick walkways and clipped boxwood hedges; outside of town they built their homes in the middle of isolated sandy clearings, leaving the remaining property pretty much as they had found it: pitch pine, poverty grass, broom crowberry.
Sarah had asked John why people built their homes this way, and he had given her a one word answer: ticks.
It proved to be another example of misguided human kindness. Passing sailors had rescued a deer swimming across Nantucket Sound and released it to run wild on the island. Years passed, other humans worried the buck might be lonely, so they imported mainland does. The does brought deer ticks as a housewarming present, the ticks carried Lyme disease, and as result, no one on Nantucket ever walked in tall grass anymore.
No matter, Sarah shrugged. I’ll take this island as it is. From the moment the ferry had entered the harbor around Brant Point and she had seen the quaint gray palette of a town spreading out before her, she had known this place was home. And it was home for her without apology; home in the corny, old-fashioned sense of the word.
Sarah was the first to admit that her choice made no sense. She certainly had no ancestral claim to this part of the world. One-half of her family had stepped off the boat from Ireland, the other half was eastern Shawnee. Claiming County Cork or the Ohio River valley made a whole lot more sense than loving an isolated elbow of sand thirty miles to sea. But home for Sarah had always been a matter of heart, and her heart had never been ruled by common sense. Nantucket was her home in everything from the way the salt breeze stirred her long hair to the muted colors she discovered in the lapped layers of tidal sand.