Barbara Klein Moss | Fiction
Halfway through the drive from his place in Maine to his ex-wife’s house near Boston, Nate remembers the mirror. Eight feet tall, a gilt-rimmed rectangle leaning against the wall of the consignment shop, it had caught the three of them, Nate and Kirsten and six-month-old Violet, as they rushed by. They’d just moved from their cramped one-bedroom in Cambridge to the baby-friendly bottom floor of a triple-decker in Somerville and were looking for furniture to fill the space, but once the mirror snared them, they had no choice but to pose. Behind them, passing shoppers glanced and smiled. “Isn’t that a picture!” a woman said.
Kirsten fell in love with the mirror; they could always buy a couch, she insisted, but a piece like this would never come around again. Nate suspected that the flattery of strangers had momentarily addled her practical mind. A friend with a pickup helped him haul the unwieldy thing home and up the sagging porch stairs to the living room, where they rested it at an angle to fit under the low ceiling. For the next year and a half the mirror framed them at a slant, their random moments falling into the well of it. He and Kirsten naked after lovemaking, waltzing around the empty room on their anniversary, cajoling Violet into her first steps. Fighting about Nate’s neglected thesis, fighting about his obsession with poker, fighting about money. When they vacated the apartment in the middle of the night, behind on their rent, the marriage hopelessly frayed, they left the mirror there. They had enough problems. Let the landlord deal with that one.
Nate wonders where the mirror is now—whether it found the grand mansion it deserved or ended up a perpetual backdrop in some antiques barn. He doesn’t consider himself a fanciful man, but he imagines all those fleeting images still trapped beneath its surface, sediment of their brief togetherness, and at the bottom of the well, that young family just starting out: black-bearded Nate, his Nordic Madonna of a wife in her yellow sundress, the baby cooing to her reflection in the glass.
Violet has just turned eleven. He doesn’t see her as often as he used to before moving to Bath three years ago, but the distance between them is more than a matter of miles. It isn’t only that she studies at the international school where Kirsten is assistant head, staying up past her bedtime to labor over earnest essays in French. These days, activities keep her busy for most of the summer. Girl Scout camp has given way to Music Camp, a serious enterprise where, for six weeks, his serious daughter will play her violin in the company of other aspiring musicians. “Violet and her violin,” he’d teased her. “If we’d named you Penelope, would you have chosen the piano? Clarissa and the clarinet?” She’d leveled him with that look she had, her blue stare scything through his attempt at humor, her lips pressed together like her mother’s.
He’d had to negotiate with Kirsten to exercise his parental rights for the long March break—yes, he would pick Violet up; yes, he would see that she practiced every day—and now that he’s won her for a full two weeks, he has no idea what he’ll do with her. Conversation between them begins bravely but dies a quick death: once they dispense with how school is going and how she’s getting along at home, she’ll feel free to return to her phone. He wonders if it’s her age—that tribal pre-teen universe—or if he’s simply turned boring. She’d liked him once, squealed when he tickled her with his beard and called him her pirate daddy. They had secrets she always kept, forbidden treats that Kirsten would have frowned on: roller-coaster rides, sundaes for lunch, scary movies. He had sensed in her a hidden daring, not eruptive and helpless like his, but measured, experimental. Nate can hardly blame her for being bored with his present incarnation: a working stiff with a modest paunch, clean-shaven as his profession demands. A seller of insurance, God help him. A specialist in risk management.
He can offer Wickham Beach, at least. In March it will be all but deserted, the province of solitary walkers, teenagers who sneak in at night to drink and have sandy sex, and diggers like himself. He’d been in Maine only a few months when he took up metal detecting, after watching a fellow beach stroller in action early one morning and questioning him about his gear. Fletcher had looked forbidding, with his army tattoos and granite cheekbones. “You from New York?” he’d barked, first thing. Nate, assuming a scarcity of Weinbergs in town, feared the euphemism, but once he’d sworn to Boston roots, Fletcher proved eager to indoctrinate a new recruit. A harmless hobby, Nate thought at the time, but it has become his methadone, his nicotine gum. His card-shark instincts subdued to beeps on a stretch of sand. So far his finds have been modest: silver dimes, a 1967 class ring, a lady’s wristwatch with an old-fashioned linked band. Still, he keeps at it. It’s not the objects he covets but the mild rush when the ping changes tone. He digs, lost in sweet anticipation, and is resigned when he unearths a wad of tinfoil.
• • •
He arrives in Belmont a little after noon. The house is neat, as always, the snow-patched lawn free of leaves and the hedges clipped, but he feels the usual twinge of annoyance pulling into the driveway. Why doesn’t Kirsten do something about that beige door? Can’t she see how sickly it looks against the gray shingles? If he lived here, he would paint it a nice dark red.
“You’re early,” Kirsten says. She’s dressed for work in a jacket and tailored trousers. Headmistress’s armor.
“Traffic was light. You’re not going in today, are you?”
“Oh, it never ends. I have meetings.”
Nate bends toward her and they exchange the stiff hug they seem to have agreed on: a handshake, but with the whole arm. Her solidity continues to surprise him; he remembers when he could lift her and spin her around. He supposes she would be called handsome now, her face and body broader, her mermaid hair cut to a sensible length. He has resisted pumping Violet about male visitors—it’s not fair to the child, and he doesn’t want her telling Kirsten he asked—but there must have been a few men over the years. He’s had his share of involvements, flirted with permanence once or twice. Neither of them has remarried, a fact that once seemed significant but has dwindled to a curiosity.
They chat about work until Violet appears on the stairs, dragging her duffel behind her. Nate climbs up to meet her and slings the bag onto his shoulder, nearly losing his footing as the weight hits him. “Hey, what have you got in here, a baby moose?”
When he is safely on firm ground, he throws his arms around her. “My God, you grew another foot!” He nuzzles her hair, the top of her head already grazing his chin. She’s going to be tall, but he doesn’t detect any nascent curves; she’s as skinny as he was at that age, her ribs palpable beneath her sweater.
The violin case is propped near the door. “An hour every morning,” Kirsten says.
“Absolutely.” He’s weary of her surveillance, her telescope always trained on him from afar. “That leaves us the whole day to have fun.”
He and Violet arrange the case in the back seat. “I should sit back here,” she says. “To keep it from moving around.”
“Look, I haven’t seen you for a couple of months,” he tells her. “I’d really like to know what you’ve been up to. I’ll drive slow.”
Close-mouthed, she climbs in beside him. “So . . .” Nate says, “how’s school?”
• • •
The plangent sound of the violin wakes him. Last night he slept deeply, lulled by the primal comfort of another presence in the house. Out of a fog he remembers how Violet would croon to herself in her crib, a meandering, tuneless song that convinced them she was musical. He opens one eye and glances at the clock. 6:55. A whole day to invent.
Nate loves seeing her at the kitchen table he salvaged from the dump and refinished himself. The apartment he rents in a newish building near town doesn’t have much character, but its boxy white rooms suit him. He wonders if Violet is old enough to appreciate how the edited spareness of his place is different from her mother’s utility; each time he restores a piece and sets it just right, he imagines her noticing. He makes her pancakes with blueberries he froze last summer and watches as she drizzles syrup in concentric circles over the golden discs, her mouth pursed in concentration. Such restraint, such deliberation. The mark of an artist, he tells himself; the average kid would have poured. And yet he’s obscurely saddened. Doesn’t she ever let go?
“I’m thinking we might hit the beach today,” he says.
“What for? It’s still winter.”
“Best season for treasure-hunting. You used to be into that.”
“Like, collecting shells?” Her look tells him that she has given up childish things. He picks up the tolerance in it: the practiced patience of the adult in the room.
He gets his gear from a corner of the kitchen. “How about doing a little dirt fishing? I have a lot of fun with it.”
A flicker of interest in her eyes. “What do you fish for?”
“All kinds of stuff gets buried in sand. Jewelry. Old coins. Maybe we’ll find some doubloons.”
He grins, and for the first time gets an answering smile from her, an artifact of their shared outlaw past.
• • •
Following his daughter down the trail to the beach, Nate has second thoughts. The sky is a dull stone gray and the wind is fierce, bending back the grasses that border the path. Violet huddles into her jacket and pulls her wool hat down over her ears. If she develops a cold or cough on his watch, Kirsten will no doubt make another check in her Book of Judgment. He isn’t sure how many strikes she’s already logged against him, but sooner or later he will find that his time with Violet has been pared to home visits on the odd weekend afternoon. Then he’ll have to test the strength of his need against Kirsten’s wall of reason—impermeable, he’s learned through long experience. He will demand his rights, plead his years of good behavior, teeter on the edge of the rage he used to succumb to. She will explain, calmly, rationally, why things must be as they are. She will remind him that it was his choice to move so far away.
A half-hour, he decides, an hour at most, and they’ll head back to town for hot chocolate at the cafe.
But as the beach widens out before them, a long, curving coastline that he loves best in its naked, off-season elegance, he flicks his caution aside. A few intrepid dog walkers lean into the wind; the weather has kept everyone else away. Miles of sand, the sea at low tide, a digger’s dream that they have to themselves. This, for him, is the essential Maine, why he came, why he stays: a wild solitude that swallows him whole. Loneliness is a state of nature here, pure and elemental. It’s only during long nights in the apartment, or cold-calling anonymous names in his cubicle at the office, that his isolation spreads in his chest, tainted with self-pity.
Violet runs toward the water, galloping like a four-year-old. Nate hangs behind, relishing the sight. When Kirsten was expecting, they’d had visions of raising their child near the ocean, the beach a vast playground with science lessons thrown in. He allows himself a moment of smugness. He’s held on to this dream, at least, and he intends to claim it for his daughter, even if he has to dole out its bounty in rationed units.
Nate straps on his work belt and kneepads, adjusts the headphones over his knit cap. He hams it up for Violet’s sake, scanning the ground as if one square of sand were more promising than another, testing its consistency with the toe of his boot, sweeping the detector from side to side with the controlled swing that Fletcher taught him. He takes care to cover every inch of the area; painting the canvas is the way he thinks of it, a metaphor he doesn’t share with Fletcher. A few minutes in, he gets a ping—loud, which means the object is near the surface, not necessarily a good sign.
He digs in with the long-handled scoop, shaking each shovelful to let sand drizzle through. Violet gazes up at him, her old look of expectant delight. He dangles the catch from one finger. This one is a fish too small to keep.
“Tent peg. Relic of dumb beach campers. My pal Fletcher hangs these on his belt like fox-tails.”
Violet examines the item gravely. “Tant pis,” she murmurs.
“That’s the way it goes some days. The thrill is in the search.” But after Nate turns up a Budweiser can and a license for a dog named Sadie, he can see that she is losing interest, distracted by the gaunt charm of a driftwood dragon that survived the winter.
“Ready to give it a try?” he asks.
He gets her kitted out, the headphones balanced precariously over the pom-pom on her cap. She makes the mistake most first-timers make, swinging too wide and high, sweeping over too much ground. “Low and slow,” he cautions, crouching over her. He wonders if the motion will lull her clear, young brain as it does his. “Smooths out the mind,” Fletcher told him that first morning, and then proceeded to spin the saddest of tales to a complete stranger: the only son dead in Iraq at 20, the silent wife, the vegetative lassitude. Metal detecting saved him, got him on his feet again and gave him a quest. Fletcher has become the philosopher king of diggers, his sensor attuned to other lost souls he can bring into the fold.
Maybe you have to be damaged to get the full therapeutic effect, Nate considers. He used to try to explain the allure, but has given up. Apparently the graduate student he once was has left indelible traces: he doesn’t fit the slightly redneck image of the detectorist that people have in their minds. “It’s so beef jerky,” a woman he was dating said, and offered to bring him to her tai chi class. “If you want to go Zen, take up golf,” a colleague at the office advised.
“Dad?” The detector is pinging again, faint but urgent, and Violet is hovering over the spot, her feet planted as if the quarry might get away.
Nate sifts each scoopful carefully; whatever it is will likely be small. Probably a soda-can tab, he thinks, but already his breath is shallow, his whole being sucked into the hole he’s making. The detector is singing soprano now, its shrill tone egging him on.
“Let me!” Violet dances in place, all pretense of cool gone. In the second before Nate remembers he’s doing this for her, his primitive self lunges and makes its claim. “You don’t know how—” he starts to say; then, in the wash of an old shame, hands over the scoop.
She digs as if she has only one chance, gripping the handle with both hands, bringing up too much sand. Before he can caution her, he spots among the pebbles and shells . . . something. Blackened, crusted with sand, larger than a quarter, smaller than a silver dollar. He holds it between his thumb and forefinger. “Could be a button or some kind of token,” he tells her, his heart already speeding up at the feel of the hammered edges. “But I think it’s a coin. An old one.”
“Let’s clean it in the ocean!”
“Too risky. Just a sprinkle from your bottle to get rid of the sand.”
He is grateful for her delicate touch, though he knows that a light rinse won’t penetrate the grime of ages. To his eye, the object is opaque, its character effaced. But Violet, a seasoned interpreter of the shapes of clouds, sees a picture. She traces it with one finger: an Indian with a feathered headdress, or maybe a bird with a tufted crest.
Nate drops the coin in his pouch. “When in doubt, consult an expert.”
• • •
Fletcher lives in a trim, vinyl-sided bungalow set amid lowering pines a way back from the road; he and his brother built the basic structure in the seventies, after he got out of the service, and he has been improving it ever since. The picture window is festive with geraniums that Fletcher’s wife coaxes into bloom in all seasons. Her name is Ruth, but Nate has never been invited to call her that. He’s never been formally invited at all; usually he and Fletcher meet by chance on the beach and fall into a conversation that ambles on until they find themselves in Fletcher’s living room, sitting by the woodstove nursing glasses of whiskey. He doesn’t know what Ruth will think of him dropping in like this, but he hopes Violet will be his passport.
Fletcher comes to the door himself, napkin tucked into the neck of his sweater, wearing the put-upon look of a man interrupted in the middle of a meal. It’s not even half-past eleven, but Nate launches into an apology that ends in an introduction. “Violet’s first time and she finds this,” he says, holding out the coin.
Fletcher slides his glasses down his nose and squints. “Needs a good soak. Meanwhile, you and the lady here can have some lunch.”
Nate senses an instant understanding between Ruth and Violet, two tall women who don’t waste words. Violet is put to work immediately, scraping another can of tomato soup into the pot. While she stirs she glances sideways at Fletcher, who has unceremoniously plunked her coin into a solution of distilled water and dish soap. At the table, she takes polite bites of her grilled-cheese sandwich, her eyes fixed on the alchemy underway in the Pyrex bowl.
When the dishes are cleared, Fletcher fishes out the coin and scrubs it with an old toothbrush. To Nate it looks as black as before, but Fletcher points out a patch where the dirt has thinned and pronounces it “silver, for sure.” He sandwiches the coin between two sheets of paper from a shopping pad and runs the side of a pencil over it. “There’s your picture, Missy,” he says.
A head in profile, barely discernible, wearing a tall hat that translates, after a few seconds, into a crown. On the reverse side, a square with flared corners, the faint lineaments of a crest.
Fletcher’s face has settled into an inscrutable mask that Nate recognizes from his poker days. “Time to go to the library,” he says, and ushers them into the living room.
Thick volumes devoted to coins, ancient and modern, share a shelf with reference works on sea glass, nautical artifacts, and costume jewelry in Fletcher’s bookcase, a brick-and-board affair that expands with his swag and his curiosity. But it’s the shrines, rather than these scholarly tomes, that give the room its odd solemnity. Facing the couch, the glass-topped coffee table where Fletcher’s choicest finds are arrayed on red velvet, a pirate’s hoard of gold rings and chains, single earrings, monogrammed cigarette lighters, a charm bracelet dangling a miniature Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building. Across the room, a large framed photograph of the late son, a narrow-jawed boy in his Marine dress uniform, his face raw and stern under his crisp cap; and beneath him, in a case, the uniform itself, empty arms folded over immaculate white belt, medals pinned to the jacket.
Violet’s eyes swing from one display to the other. Nate wonders whether she finds this coupling of gold and grief as creepy as he did at first. Now, after several visits, the shrines are like the whiskey and the woodstove, part of the room’s homely comfort. In the competition for her attention, the boy wins: untimely death has a fascination at her age. When Fletcher turns to them, finger in tome, she lowers her gaze to her lap like a mourner at a funeral.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Fletcher says, opening the book on the coffee table. “I’ve been fooled too many times. But when I see a match like this . . .” He places Violet’s coin next to a coin on the page. An identical crowned head, another coat of arms.
Nate shakes his head. “These are Elizabethan. Sixteenth century. What would an Elizabethan shilling be doing on a beach in Maine? The area wasn’t even settled then.”
“Oh, it was settled all right. The Abenaki had been around for a thousand years, maybe more. The Wickham colonists were latecomers. They sailed in while this gal’s face was still on the money.”
“There was a colony here? I never heard of it.”
“Nobody has!” Fletcher says with satisfaction. “They call it New England’s Lost Colony. Founded the same year as Jamestown, but Jamestown got all the publicity.”
Violet has been quiet until now. “How did it get lost?” she asks.
“The usual story. Poor leadership. Wickham, the founder, died, and the guy who took over just wanted a quick profit. The natives got tired of being fleeced and turned against the newcomers. After one Maine winter, the whole lot of ‘em turned tail and sailed back to England.”
“Carelessly dropping a silver shilling for my brilliant daughter to find four hundred years later.” Nate ruffles Violet’s hair. “I suppose the site’s been pretty well combed?”
“There’ve been excavations. Last one five, six years ago. A map one of the settlers made turned up in some archive overseas, so the archeologists were finally able to stake the place out. Guy came from a big museum in Boston with his crew; you couldn’t go into the diner without bumping into them sitting at their own table talking shop. There was an article in the paper inviting locals to do the hard labor. Ruth volunteered and put out her back. I said no thank you, I’d rather dig for myself.” He narrows his eyes, giving Nate the full benefit of his penetrating detectorist’s stare. “You’re not thinking of trying your luck, are you? I imagine they got fences on top of fences.”
“Would you rat me out if I did?”
Fletcher shrugs. “Better you than some New Yorker.”
As they get ready to leave, the coin sealed in a plastic baggie, Fletcher taps Violet’s arm. “Here’s something to add to your collection,” he says.
He raises the top of the coffee table and removes an arrowhead that has been hiding in a corner, obscured by the glitter surrounding it. “My boy had a few of these. He was into the Indians.” He takes Violet’s hand and places the arrowhead on her palm, closing her fingers around it. Nate stands by, quietly shocked. Since their first meeting, Fletcher has never spoken about his son.
“From the time he was little, I used to take him hunting,”Fletcher says. “When he was too young to carry a gun, he’d be on his tiptoes, stalking the game like an Abenaki. The two of us, we started out with rabbits and squirrels and graduated to wild turkey and deer. The day he shipped out, I told him we were done with the small stuff, we’d go on one of those African safaris when he came home.” He pauses, gazing at some neutral place in the center of the room. “Now I wish I’d never killed anything.”
• • •
In the car, Nate rattles on about how Fletcher was a Maine version of an old California prospector, how he must really have taken to Violet to give her something so precious to him. She answers in monosyllables, her thumbs busy. He’s momentarily tempted to grab the fucking phone out of her hand. Maybe she isn’t so exceptional after all—just another member of the new race of mutants, indifferent to the life pulsing around their six-inch screens.
“Hey.” He doesn’t bother to soften the edge in his voice. “A shilling for your thoughts.”
She looks up at him, and he is struck by how deeply blue her eyes are, dark Northern lakes like Kirsten’s, the only feature she’s inherited from her mother. “Some early colonists believed Native Americans were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel,” she reports. “More lost people!”
Research. She’s doing research. Relief turns him fatuous. “No GPS back then. You’ve heard of wandering Jews? The poor suckers just kept shuffling around, looking for a place to pitch their tents. Who knows, a few of them might’ve ended up in Maine.”
“Like you,” Violet says.
“Me?” He is pleased she remembers; neither he nor Kirsten ever made much of religion. “I’m a settled Jew. A one-man ghetto.”
“One-and-a-half for the next ten days,” she says.
By the time they reach the apartment she has absorbed whatever Google can offer on the Wickham Colony and passed it on to him. Before shrugging off her coat, she takes the baggie out of her pocket and places the coin and arrowhead side by side on the kitchen table. She sits there for the next half-hour, occasionally moving one or the other to a different position, as if some connection exists between them that only she can discover. He sets a mug of cocoa in front of her. She ladles the melting marshmallow on her spoon and sucks it distractedly.
“When are we going to the colony?” she asks.
“Tomorrow, if you want.” The weather forecast has not improved, but why risk losing momentum? “We’ll take a look at the site first. Plan our strategy.”
• • •
The morning’s wake-up music is a dirge, long, discordant notes suitable for lamenting the dead. Or rousing them, Nate thinks. Violet’s version of reveille. The room is dark, rain dashing against the window. He dresses in layers of flannel and fleece, thinking of oatmeal.
But Violet has already set out bowls and spoons and boxes of cold cereal. ”I thought we should get an early start,” she says.
The rain diffuses into a thick fog while they eat. It takes a half-hour to drive to the beach, wipers clacking morosely, and when they arrive, Nate realizes he has no idea where the excavation is. He is forced to ask the park ranger in the visitor’s center, cozily installed with coffee and Kindle, who raises one eyebrow and directs him a couple of miles up the road. “School assignment,” he mumbles. “Watch out for the mud on the trail, sir,” she drawls, saluting him with her cup. Since when did these overgrown scouts start doing irony?
After parking in a small lot, they follow a fading sign that points them up a dirt path. “Unpaved since colonial days,” Nate says. “Nice authentic touch.” Muck sucks at their boots as they trudge up the slight incline, slipping on slick leaves. They pass a crumbling stone structure that looks promising but turns out to be an abandoned fort from the Civil War.
Nate is about to suggest they try again on a nicer day when they come upon a clearing overlooking the water. If it weren’t for the historical markers, he would have mistaken it for the official Scenic View it must be in summer, the grass lush, the sea dotted with sailboats. Violet darts ahead of him, reading each marker aloud.
He plods along behind her, nursing his disappointment. Fences on top of fences? The railing is maybe three feet high, just tall enough to keep a toddler from tumbling into the drink. If he bothered to think, he’d have realized that any traces of the excavation would be long covered. Somehow, he didn’t expect the place to be so finished, filled in and grassed over like a graveyard. There is even a large rock embedded with a brass plaque. We once were lost, but now we’re found. Watch your back, Plymouth!
“Look, Dad. This is the map Fletcher told us about.” Violet points. “We’re here.”
She’s right: the flattened star-shape in the reproduction is still recognizable as the land they’re standing on. Nate marvels that time has preserved the contours of the colony with such precision when its functional existence was so brief. The areas that were excavated have been outlined on the map and lightly shaded.
“The archeologists missed a lot,” Violet says.
“They can’t get it all. What they want is a sampling of what’s underneath. They go down a layer and find pipe stems and pottery shards. Then they dig another layer.”
“How far down?”
He pulls up the collar of his coat. “It depends. Until funding runs out, or the weather turns.”
“So . . . most of it—the colony—is still under there.”
“Definitely. The stuff the colonists left, and under that, the Abenaki, and under them, maybe some dinosaur bones. Incredible, isn’t it—all that history under our feet!”
She is gazing at him steadily, patiently enduring his professorial awe. He grasps, after a few seconds, that she is waiting for him to catch up.
“I think we’d better come back at night,” she says. “Don’t you?”
• • •
Nate does his insurance man’s due diligence, laying out calculated risks. The earth will still be frozen; if they’re able to dig at all, they’ll turn up tourist crap from last summer. A park ranger may do a nightly once-over of the property, or worse, the local police, trawling for drug dealers. “And if we get in trouble,” he warns, “you know what your mother will do.”
Violet is not given to adolescent gestures, but he thinks he detects an eye-roll. “Not if it’s educational,” she says. “I’ll tell her I’m doing research . . . for my Grand Projet.”
“Your what?” He registers the pause.
“My middle school project. We’re supposed to choose the subject this year and work on it in seventh and eighth.”
“I see. So you’re jumping right in.” Nate is torn between admiration and trepidation. She never mentioned the project before. Is it possible she invented it on the spot? If so, Kirsten hasn’t managed to efface his genetic influence entirely. Gratifying, if a bit too close to the bone: improvising had once been his specialty. “But, you know,” he adds, “we’re probably not going to find anything you can use.”
“The thrill is in the search. You said.”
• • •
At 11:45 on the chosen night, Nate goes to wake her, half-hoping she’ll turn over and go back to sleep. But she sits up in bed, fully dressed except for jacket and boots. They’d stocked a backpack earlier: two flashlights and a spare, their phones, a rudimentary first aid kit (his call), a thermos of cocoa. Violet wanted to bring a full picnic, a celebratory feast they could eat while cackling over their booty, but he’d convinced her of the wisdom of traveling light.
The night is dry but starless, a haze covering the moon like a scarf thrown over a lamp. “A pirate moon,” he tells her, though he isn’t sure there is such a thing. The road to the beach is sparsely lit; even driving at a crawl, he misses the turn-off to the colony and has to reverse.
His edginess fades at the sight of the empty parking area. No furtive transaction underway; no cop dozing in his car; no lovers humping in a back seat, feet braced against the window. In his gambling days he would have taken this as a sign that the gods were smiling.
Violet’s face is pinched, concentrated; he wonders if he’s frightened her with his talk of policemen and drug dealers. “All clear,” he says. “Let the expedition begin!”
He keeps the headlamps on while they gather their gear, but once he turns off the ignition, darkness closes in. He knows he can touch the car from where he stands, that Violet is on the other side of it, yet he feels unmoored, as if he’s stepped into deep space. “Imagine how it was for the colonists,” he says, mostly to hear his voice. “Total blackout every night. Forest all around, no one to turn to, their loved ones left behind. Probably every sound they heard, they thought it was wild animals or the Abenaki creeping up on them . . .”
“Like this?” A torch flashes full in his face. Blinded, he hears her giggling before he sees her.
“You little fucker!”
She claps her hand to her mouth, laughter seeping out. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell Mom.”
The road is easier to navigate this time, the mud less tenacious, their flashlights illumining a few feet ahead. Walking close to her side, Nate senses a subtle shift; they’re no longer just dad and daughter, but partners of sorts. Conspirators is the first word that comes to him—not accurate, but he likes the intimacy of it. The fort looms, a hulking ruin out of a horror flick. Violet thinks she sees something moving inside one of the arched windows. Probably an animal, he tells her, but they pick up their pace.
In the dark, the tamed green that he’d lamented a few days ago feels boundless, an island merging with the black water. Remarkable, Nate thinks, that the mere absence of light can invoke such a sense of menace. It’s easy, now, to feel the desolation that the settlers must have endured during those first long nights in the wilderness, to enter into their broken sleep, their torn dreams of home. He’s about to venture another edifying flashback—the ocean lapping at the colonists’ makeshift homestead—but Violet is barreling ahead, wielding her torch with a purposefulness that unnerves him. He remembers her exuberant gallop on their first visit to the beach. What’s to stop her from jumping over that joke of a fence in pursuit of her goal, plunging straight into the sea?
“Wait up!” He’s not sure she can hear him; alarm is squeezing his airways, cutting off his volume.
“Over here, Dad!” Her flash, held aloft like Liberty’s torch, gooses the night sky; her face shines out at him, grinning, exultant. She lowers her light to the marker displaying the map and Nate jogs toward her, his chest still tight.
“The archeologists stopped digging before they got to the chapel. So we should start around there.” The flashlight plays over a stony piece of earth: the picture of resistance, but her enthusiasm bounces off it, rises. “You know what we might find? Wickham’s bones! There’s a painting of him online wearing a jacket with silver buttons.”
Nate considers introducing a bit of levity about loose change in the pockets, but decides against it. The wind is picking up, shrinking his small store of zeal. “We’re not digging six feet under tonight, sweetheart. We’ll be lucky if we break ground.” He taps the earth with his shovel. “Hard as a rock. But we’re here, aren’t we? That’s the real adventure! So let’s drink our cocoa and make a midnight toast to poor old Wickham and his lost colony and go home to our warm beds.”
Violet stares at him, blank-faced. He watches as disbelief dawns, then something harsher. “We can’t leave now, Dad. We came for a reason.”
“I just don’t want you to be disappointed,” he says.
Absorbed in strapping on the belt, she doesn’t answer. His role, he realizes, is to hold the lights. Possibly she’ll let him do the hard labor when the time comes.
Violet is awkward with the detector at first, but she finds the rhythm. Nate curses the thoroughness he modeled for her. She’s determined to paint the canvas, and already his fingers are frozen into claws, his gloves useless.
Then he hears the ping, faint but steady. It’s as if she willed it.
They home in on the spot and prop the lights on the pack. Once he penetrates the surface, the earth yields more easily than he expected. Shoveling gets his blood flowing; there’s a release in uprooting big clumps of dirt instead of the scoopfuls he’s used to. As his arms and shoulders engage, a feeling of abandon builds in him. He should be conserving energy—before they left he’d instructed Violet in the cardinal rule of detectorist etiquette: if you make a hole, fill it in and smooth it over—but the elusive beep goads him on. This is not dirt fishing, that analgesic pastime that dulls his urges. He’s forgotten what the real thing felt like: the electric certainty, his senses on alert, all his powers poured into the moment. Violet is feeling it too. She knows where he needs her to be. When the signal fades, she chases it down, adjusting her position until the detector starts to talk again.
“We make a cool team.” He sends the words out in gusts. “Almost there, buccaneer.”
Nate looks up and the car is upon them, its headlamps freezing them in action: him with a shovelful; Violet, open-mouthed, clutching the detector. A large cop emerges and lumbers toward them. Middle-heavy, solid, he looks familiar—familial—in the way that locals sometimes look to out-of-staters. Officer Eckels, according to his tag. In the chink in his mind still capable of rational thought, Nate recalls that a year or so ago he sold an Eckels a homeowner’s policy.
His muscles are still buzzing, he has some juice left. He will handle this.
The cop shines his flashlight on each of them in turn, repeating the process as if to make a whole picture of them. He settles on Nate. “What do you think you’re doing? Are you aware this land belongs to the state of Maine?”
Nate lowers the shovel. “We meant no harm, Officer. Just having some fun on my daughter’s spring break. You know, a treasure hunt. We’re going to put it all back, aren’t we, Violet?” His voice, thin from lack of wind, cracks on the interrogative. So much for manly straight talk. He has descended in a few words to the supplication stage, where he once cowered regularly. It will never happen again, I swear. One more chance. Please.
Eckels moves his light from Nate’s face to his handiwork. “That’s a helluva big hole you made for fun.” He shakes his head. “You people. You’ll dig for anything, anytime, anywhere. I had a guy last fall made gopher holes all over a school playground looking for lunch money. So maybe you can tell me what treasure you were after that was worth bringing a little girl out in the middle of a freezing night? What kind of guy does a crazy thing like that?”
Nate can’t speak. He could offer a defense, beg for mercy, plead his case on behalf of divorced dads everywhere. But the cop has summed him up. At the core he will always be that kind of guy.
“My father is here because of me. He’s helping me with a school project.” Violet’s voice is clear and unwavering, a trifle school-marmish. “I’m doing research on the Lost Colony.”
“Lost colony?” says Eckels. “Sounds like police business. How come I don’t know about it?”
“They lived four hundred years ago. They’re Elizabethan.”
Nate reflects on how the high beam of the law dances over his daughter, no longer interrogatory but playful. He stands by silently as Violet offers a capsule history of the
Wickham colonists, their brief travails and lackluster fate. She segues artfully into the coin on the beach and the revelation in Fletcher’s library. She is eloquent on the rigors
of the Grand Projet. Primary sources! Original research!
“I’m working really hard,” she finishes, “because there’s a prize for the best project.”
Do not, Nate prays, call it the Grand Prix.
“What do they give you for all that effort?” Eckels asks. “An iPad?
Violet seems, for the first time, to hesitate. “Just . . . a certificate. But it’s an honor. You get to present to the whole school on Moving Up Day. And it’s excellent practice for college.”
The cop turns his attention to the backpack, removing its contents one by one, unscrewing the thermos cap and sniffing. Then he starts on the Toyota, inspecting its orifices with a thoughtful detachment that prompts Nate to wonder if he could be weighing the credibility of this suspiciously precocious grade-schooler.
You don’t know my girl, he thinks. But that bit about college might have been overkill.
“Now,” Eckels says to Violet, “how about you and me continuing this conversation in my car while your dad fills in that hole? You get in back, and I’ll sit in front to keep an eye on things. We’ll warm up with some of that nice cocoa.”
How long had he been digging? Ten minutes? Fifteen? In that time Nate had managed to make a mound a gravedigger would envy. The reverse effort is slow going. Drained of adrenaline, his body reverts to a middle-aged man’s. A band of pain stretches across his back. His arms feel like dried-out husks; each time he swings a shovelful, he imagines them flying into the hole along with the dirt. He glances over his shoulder at the car, where his daughter is shut in with a uniformed stranger. The sight of him laboring at his punishing task must amuse the cop as he chats with Violet, taking fortifying swigs of Nate’s artisanal hot chocolate as he extracts the old story of her young life. Child of a broken home. Lives with mother, the responsible parent, but sees father every few months. Fun, foolish, feckless Dad. The recreational parent.
When Nate has tamped down the earth with the back of his shovel, Violet and the policeman exit the car.
“You’ve got a bright kid here,” Eckels says. “Well-spoken. I enjoyed talking to her.”
“Pride of my life,” Nate says.
“I should take you in. Write you up for defacing public property. But I’m going to let you go with a warning this time, for the sake of the young lady. She says you’re a smart guy. From now on, do us all a favor and use what brains God gave you. Remember, our kids are watching us.” The cop gives Nate a look that mixes pity and scorn. “I’ve seen you on the beach. You’re one of the regulars, aren’t you? There ought to be methadone for what you people have.”
Violet leans into Nate’s side as they walk back to the lot. Her head lolls against his shoulder as soon as he begins to drive, and she is asleep by the time they pass the visitor’s center. As he turns onto the main road, her eyelids flutter open.
“I wonder what we would’ve found,” she murmurs. “Something big, I bet.”
• • •
They are model citizens for the last week of Violet’s visit. She practices each morning for a full hour, and reaches deep into her duffel for her schoolbooks. He makes his trademark chowder and teaches her the rudiments of chess after supper. They go to the Maritime Museum and to the multiplex for the latest Star Wars. Violet never mentions the Grand Projet and Nate can’t bring himself to ask her about it. He’s on the verge several times, but the words ring false in his mind, tinny with strained casualness.
“I’ll miss the morning concerts,” he tells her at breakfast on her last day.
“You have to come to the Spring Musicale,” she says. “The first week of May. It’s going to be amazing.”
“Naturally,” Nate says. “I wouldn’t expect less.”
On the drive back, Violet is mostly silent. Nate senses that she is already moving away from him, girding herself for the busy, purposeful life that her mother has created for her. He’s glad of it. Grateful. Whatever rogue genes he has passed on to her, Kirsten will mold and shape them, turn them toward productive ends. He can see his daughter in a dozen years, a member of one of those avant-garde chamber groups: a lit candle of a girl, her pale intensity sheathed in a black dress, tossing her hair back as she entices subversive chords from the belly of her violin. He will be in the audience, of course, holding his pride close like one of their secrets.
• • •
Spring has advanced in Belmont in the weeks Violet has been away. The remnants of snow have melted, leaving the yard brown and bare. The house has a shut-up look, but Nate knows Kirsten will be at her desk in the study, listening for the car. On impulse, he circles slowly around the block.
“I never thanked you for bailing me out,” he says. “If it weren’t for you, I might’ve spent the night in jail.”
Violet seems puzzled, as if their nocturnal excursion has long left her mind. “Oh, that,” she says. “The policeman was really nice. I think he just wanted to scare you.”
“You impressed him. He said so. Maybe he figured I couldn’t be all bad if I had such a great kid.” They are approaching the house again, and this time Nate stops. “Listen, I would never tell you to lie to your mother, but it might be best if you don’t mention our . . . adventure.”
Now there is no mistaking the eye-roll. “Like I’d ever. I’m not dumb, Dad.” She puts her arms around him and gives him a quick, tight hug. “I had a really good time. It was different. Exciting.”
Once Kirsten has been greeted, and the duffel and violin deposited in the hall, Violet vanishes upstairs to her room.
“She’s turning into a teenager,” Kirsten says. “For the next few years we can forget formalities like ‘thank you’ and ‘good-bye.’”
“She’s wonderful. We lucked out when we made this girl.” Nate swallows. “Not that it’s a matter of luck. You’ve done a terrific job with her.”
“She has the best of both of us, I think. The older she gets, the more I see it. She’ll have an interesting life, poor child. Not easy, but interesting.” Kirsten’s smile is rueful, but her hand rests lightly, briefly, on his arm.
• • •
Usually, after visits with Violet, Nate drives off quickly, trying to outrun the panic that grips him each time he leaves her. A clot of loss and guilt and shame, it colonizes his chest until he can barely breathe, dissolving gradually when he’s back on the highway, speeding toward his solitary haven by the sea. Today he only makes it to the end of the street. His bellows are empty, but the muscle of his heart is working double-time, its effort loud in his ears. He pulls over and rests his head on the steering wheel. If this is a heart attack, he will die a block from the house where, at this moment, his once-wife must be helping his daughter unpack, asking how things had gone with Dad.
“I had a boy,” Fletcher said that first morning on the beach. Not “my son died” or “my boy was killed,” but the past tense, stark and sheer as a cliff face. I had a boy and now I don’t. Not the grave grassed over but the gaping absence underneath. A hole so deep a man must dig and dig to fill it, taking comfort in any valuables unearthed along the way.
Nate takes one breath, then another, repeating the three-word mantra that always brings him back, conscious of his lungs inflating, his heart slowing to a steady trot. Apparently the army of regret is in retreat; he’s going to live after all. He’s a little light-headed, but he feels unaccountably good, his body so grateful for the gift of air that each cell effuses contentment.
This morning, putting Violet’s bag in the trunk, he’d discovered his detecting gear still stowed there. He’d thought he might stop at Fletcher’s, see if he was up for some late-afternoon foraging to ease the transition back to single life. He decides to go straight home instead. He knows too well how stillness will greet him when he opens the door, how barren the place will seem, his Goodwill rescues lost in his white spaces like someone else’s aged relatives. He knows how the silence will reverberate tomorrow after his phone alarm goes off, the perky singer inviting him to Call Her Maybe, a proposition he will once again decline. A whole day to invent. It’s Sunday, but he will find a reason to go to the office, catch up on paperwork.
And none of this will shake him because he knows what keeps him breathing. I have her. He has his girl, likely will for the duration. For better or worse, he will be sparking her synapses in a thousand hidden ways as she walks into whatever interesting future her life holds for her. It’s a security of sorts, solid enough to bet on.
Still, he wonders: Will she take the coin and arrowhead out in the quiet of her room, move them this way and that with her long musician’s fingers? Or put them in a treasure box with her camp mementos and close the lid?
Barbara Klein Moss is the author of a collection of stories, Little Edens (2004), and a novel, The Language of Paradise (2015), both from W.W. Norton & Company. Her stories have appeared in New England Review, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, Southwest Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Best American Short Stories. She has received fellowships in creative writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, Bread Loaf, MacDowell, and the Maryland State Arts Council. Her novel was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.West Coast Glow by Casey Horner