in the Sky
pretended to be married on our island in the sky. I would come
home from work on the oyster grounds just like our daddys did,
dock my boat (which was a fat-tired Schwinn that I tied loosely
to the base of the tree), and climb that mighty oak. Mary would
be waiting, smiling, sitting on her knees in our little patch
of grass, as pretty as anything I had seen in my first decade,
or since. Then we had to kiss. Thats what we were supposed
to do, Mary said. All married people do it. She was
right. Even Uncle Dude and Aunt Maureen embraced every time he
came home from work or left to go beer-drinking at the Dream Inn.
But in a few years, Mary and I, as well as her mom and dad, would
all lose interest in playing house.
Being first cousins, only a year apart (Mary older), we had shared
everything since birth. My family lived across the dirt lane from
Dudes green house, an exact replica of our little red house
houses given to the brothers as wedding gifts from Pop-Pop
Hall. Mary and I had shared cribs, playpens, snow forts, bicycles,
and then we found our own island as secluded and special
as Oysterton Island, where our family had lived forever.
Kiss me. Mary said. She said it a lot. Even more than
my mom said it to my dad.
I was only climbing back down to get her a glass of Kool-Aid.
But I kissed her goodbye as I was told. And though it always felt
a little wrong after we did it for no reason I could discern
without, perhaps, an appropriate Bible verse it felt like
the most righteous thing on earth while we were doing it.
Watch out for the undertow, she added, as I hung dizzy
by my arms.
Since I had never heard of an undertow, I imagined it the term
for the strange, foreboding sensation in my stomach and places
south. It remains my private term for unrequited desire.
Those innocent kisses stirred me so profoundly, I spent the next
ten years trying to recreate their intensity. I suppose it could
have manifested into one of the conditions the psychologists I
studied in college referred to. But those moments were so simple,
so perfect . . . like my first little league home run, my first
guitar that my dad hid in the corner behind the tree on Christmas
morning, or finding my dog Jonzie as a puppy on the marsh.
Life will never be that perfect again . . . so perfectly simple
as my love for Mary in those wondrous days on our island in the
was Hurricane Diane and the resulting flood in 1955 that somehow
left a patch of Mr. Purdys field in our tree. It was just
a small tree then, Momma said, and as it grew, that growth of
weeds and roots and grass took hold until it became part of it.
After decades of blowing sand, falling leaves and acorns, it formed
what appeared in the stark winter as an island in the sky.
Oysterton itself is windblown, salty and sandy, like any one of
the dozens of islands along the Virginia coast: hot and buggy
in the summer, wet and bitter in the winter. Our little island
in the oak tree was just as resilient.
I climbed to it the fist time when I was six. It was a terrifying
climb, until my father nailed some boards to form a ladder up
its massive trunk. A few years later, after I had introduced Mary
to my secret place, we took down the lower cross braces so the
smaller kids couldnt follow us up.
When we started playing our game, the patch of grass worn
as flat and lush as my front yard was large enough for
Mary and I to stretch out side by side and stare up through the
branches. We would lie there for hours, talking and counting falling
stars on warm evenings.
Everything below was water, danger. There were imaginary sharks,
stingrays, black slithering eels in the grass ocean even
pirates that I fought off bravely for a heros kiss. Without
a bicycle boat, we were stranded, forced to hang hand-over-hand
along outstretched branches to reach the safety of the dirt drive.
I fashioned swords from pickets stolen from Miss Paulines
fence, made spear guns out of coat hangers and spools, collected
bottles to cash for tins of bbs. Saving Mary from peril
those long summer days would remain my fondest childhood memory.
father never called during the day. I knew something was wrong.
When he told me about Mary, the first thing I remember thinking,
was that I should have been there . . . to save her. I knew I
I had taken the phone out on the fire escape to have a little
privacy. The sky over Boston was foreboding with still another
summer storm looming over the Mass Pike. I fought back tears as
the rain began to fall. My roommate, Will, was lighting up a joint;
he could tell by my posture that something terrible had happened.
He wanted to be ready.
Mary drowned. Imagine that. She had been dancing at the Dream
Inn on the beach. She may have drunk too much. Her friend Winnie
watched her take off her dress her perfect, lean body would
have been illuminated by the neon lights upon the beach
and run into the black surf. Winnie should have gone with her,
but she was afraid to swim at night . . . afraid of sharks.
When Mary didnt come out, Winnie ran screaming into the
Dream Inn for help. A half dozen young men would have stripped
off their shirts and jumped into the ocean diving repeatedly
beneath the waves, feeling blindly along the bottom for her.
I would have found her in time, or drowned myself trying. I should
have been there.
dad sold our red house on Pop Hall Lane when I entered high school.
We moved to a big brick house on Beach Road with tall pine trees
in the yard. The trees were un-climbable and kept the grass from
Eventually, the new owners of our little house renovated it
adding a second floor and a garage. They left the tree. I went
there after Marys funeral.
There was still an overgrown field where her green house once
stood. It burned down a year after they moved . . . after Dude
and Maureen divorced. Mary was only fifteen then. Aunt Maureen
had taken her three girls to live with her widowed father in the
town of Sorrow, across the bay.
. . . Donnie Halls boy . . . Jack. The man repeated
suspiciously, looking me up and down.
I had hair down my back then, a beard, and a sizable chip on my
And you wanna climb that tree? He cocked his head
in the hazy dusk and looked up at the oak as if seeing it for
the first time.
Long story . . . but, yeah . . . kind of for old times
sake. I said.
You fall down, you aint gonna sue me.
No, Sir, I smiled for the first time in days, I
took a while. That tree had grown, and so had I.
When I finally reached our island in the sky, I found it as unstable
and shaky as I was. I was able to sit and catch my breath, but
I didnt trust it and held on with my free hand.
In the other hand, I held Marys ashes in a metal box. Aunt
Maureen had handed them to me with the photocopied journal entry
the only thing resembling a will that was found among Marys
things. Aunt Maureen never spoke. They led her away and Ive
heard that she was never the same.
I found myself speechless as well, sitting alone in that tree.
I felt I should have said something, but instead, I wiped a single
tear and opened the box spreading the ashes carefully over
the burnt grass, and weeds and brittle roots as per Marys
vague wishes. I was careful not to let them fall into the dangerous
waters below, where sharks still circled and a single pirate watched
curiously from the gangplank of his mighty ship . . . and me,
without a single weapon.
Funny, I would not have imagined Mary remembering those days on
our island. But she had. And apparently, it had meant as much
to her as it did to me.
We had never spoken about it. Even at her wedding, when wed
both drunk too much and smiled at one another from across the
dance floor at the Dream Inn. Perhaps we were embarrassed by our
past. That seemed foolish to me, a grown man sitting in the top
of a tree.
I caught her wedding garter that afternoon. I hung it from the
rearview mirror of my car like a bachelor trophy. And all the
way back to New England, every time I looked in the mirror to
see what I was leaving behind, and saw that white lace, I grieved
for Mary, for our lost youth and innocence. It remained there
until I sold that car and she divorced, both in the same month
a year and a half later.
talk. There were rumors that Mary jumped off the island into the
sea. Even Minnie said it was a cry for help. That
she wasnt really trying to kill herself . . . just too drunk
to swim against the surf. Part of me wanted to believe that, that
it was my help she was crying out for. But I felt I knew Mary
better than that despite the fact that she had grown sad
and troubled since moving back to Oysterton.
the island fading in my rear-view mirror as I careened across
the causeway bridges, I was losing both my home and Mary again.
There were no heroes. . . no trophies; just a plain metal box
washed clean and empty, but for a dried patch of sod and
grass, and a page written in her hand, attesting to all that I
had held as true.
I like to think that Mary was letting go of the past, jumping
fearlessly into the rest of her life for the first time. Sometimes,
the right combination of moon and song and drink can enlighten
you. It can give you a fleeting glimpse of all you ever needed
to be happy; perhaps empowering you to strip off your burdens,
let go, and cleanse yourself in the ocean below.
Maybe Mary was finally facing her fears. Realizing, it is not
the sharks, or the eels, or the pirates . . . That in the end,
it is something as simple, seductive, and deadly as an undertow.
Waine Carpenter is a writer and musician currently living
in Niantic, Connecticut. His fiction and music reflect his southern
childhood--born on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, raised throughout
Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. James is an award winning songwriter.
His stories have appeared in Kudzu Monthly and Storyglossia.