The Rattled Bones
There is no name for what I am.
Boys have their choice of titles—lobsterman, sternman, fisherman—but since I’m a girl, I am none of these. My gender isn’t welcome at sea, which is ridiculous since no one is more tied to the moon and the ocean than a female. But maritime lore has always claimed that a girl on a ship is bad luck, even though nearly every sailor in the history of braving the ocean has named his boat after a girl. Men even invented the mermaid to feel safer at sea.
I’ll always defend my right to fish the water.
But today I don’t want to be here.
I nudge my wrist forward, pressing against the throttle to make the Rilla Brae quicken. My lobster boat—the one Dad named for me—cuts a certain path through the rough, curling Maine water. The morning fog parts as I push against its
thickness, the displaced mist twisting into thin gray fingers, beckoning me toward deeper waters.
I go because I have to.
Because it’s what my father would have wanted.
I steer toward the swath of ocean my family has fished for generations while the GPS bleeps out navigation points. I silence the machine and its piercing electronic pulses because I don’t need technology to find the string of lobster traps my father set into the deep three days ago—his last day on earth. The watery pathway leading to the Gulf of Maine is an artery I’ve traveled since before I could crawl. Its inlets are as recognizable—as memorable—as the laugh lines that track around my father’s eyes.
The VHF radio above my head wakes with static before I hear Reed’s voice. “All in, Rilla Brae?”
I pull down the mouthpiece and press the side button to talk. “All in.” It’s the same response I always give Reed when he checks in on my fishing. All in. These two words let him know I’m on the water. That I’m all right and that I love him—things you need a code for when talking over a public channel.
A wave of static and then, “Charlotte Anne, out at Lip Gulley, watching for you, Rilla Brae.” The voice is Billy Benson’s, captain of the Charlotte Anne—a vessel named for
his wife—and I’m not sure if he’s watching for me or my boat or both. I don’t have time to respond before Emmet Teale’s call comes across the wire: “Maddie Jean, good to hear ya on the line, Rilla Brae.”
“Heavy seas today. Keep beam to.” George Mank, telling me to keep my boat perpendicular to the swells, even though I know what he’s really telling me. How all the fishermen are using their own kind of code to say the hard things.
I press the VHF button and ask: “You boys gonna tie up this channel all day with this lovefest?”
Being a wiseass might be the most sacred language among us on the water. It tells the men that I’m okay, even if I’m not.
The radio chirps with a lighter chatter about weather and bait prices as I slow near a green-and-orange buoy bobbing with our family’s fishing colors. Dad, Gram, and I spent the winter painting all eight hundred of our Styrofoam buoys—a thick horizontal stripe of orange crossed with a thin vertical strip of green. The specific colors and design mark our traps. My traps now. Every fishing family knows each other by the colored pattern of their buoys. Just as every fishing family knows it’s forbidden to set one’s traps in another family’s fishing grounds. It’s a hard thing to think I’m a fishing family of one now. Well, me and Gram. But Gram doesn’t go out on the water anymore.
I flick the throttle to neutral and step outside the wheelhouse to cast my hook, spearing the buoy rope on the first try. I pull the lobster line manually—old-school—straining the muscles in my arms and back to coax the metal crate from the bottom of the sea. It rises inch by inch through the layers of water as I work the wet rope through my hands.
My arms tire quickly.
The soggy, slack rope curls into a sleeping snake behind my feet as the corner of the first lobster trap breaks the water. Its green metal edge winks against the gray waves as it sloughs off excess water. My heart stutters as I hold the trap at the waterline, unable to let it fully break the surface.
“This is the moment,” he’d say, and I’d watch my dad’s frame swell with hope for the catch, each trap a new gift. “What treasure will the sea bestow upon us?”
I want to hold the trap suspended like this for the rest of time, feel my father’s enthusiasm here with me. But of course I can’t. I reach for the trap, insert my gloved fingers into the wire mesh, and wrestle the cage onto the deck.
And then a smile crests on my lips. A pop of laughter jumps from inside of me.
Because the trap is full and it feels like a gift from my dad.
I cast my eyes to the sky to thank him, even if I wasn’t raised to believe in heaven or happily ever afters.
* * *
By the time I reset my string of a hundred pots and deliver my catch to the fisheries co-op, the sun has bullied away the fog and swallowed every drop of cool air. I shed my heavy rubber overalls and strip down to my everyday uniform of leggings and a plain white tee. I turn my course toward home, where Gram will be waiting.
I raise my face to the sun to let its warmth reach inside of me, stretch into my bones. I keep my hips pressed against the boat’s steering wheel, coasting in the sea that has calmed now. My reliable engine hums as I watch the sleek missile dive of an oil-black cormorant. The bird retrieves a fish from the water and spreads her wings against the blue-and-white marble sky as she flies off with her breakfast.
Life and death in a heartbeat.
The bird disappears into the thick green tree line of a nearby island just as my boat lurches to a violent stop, pitching me forward. My hip bone slams against the corner of the instrument panel and pain sears along the length of my body, hot as fire. At the back of the boat, my engine misfires with a shotgun blast that raises thunder in my heart. Then the engine dies.
Leaving me bobbing, alone at sea without power.
Every mariner’s nightmare.
I scan the console, but it’s darkened to black. No electricity. No VHF. I throw the motor into neutral and crank the key. The engine doesn’t speak. The boat tumbles with the sway of the waves. I try the key again. Nothing. And no cell reception along this waterway.
I draw in a deep breath. I know this boat. I’ve got this.
Except, maybe I don’t.
I move to the engine at the back. I run my fingers along the fuel lines, testing every valve, every connection. The fuel filter’s clean. No broken belts, no blown hoses. I straighten, mystified. And that is when Malaga Island draws my full attention—or rather, the small wooden boat resting at its shore. The empty skiff is old, its paint beaten bare from Maine’s harsh seasons. But who does it belong to? And can they give me help if I need it?
Help. Something I’ve never been good at asking for.
The current pushes me closer to the uninhabited island, which isn’t much more than a rough mound of stone. The island’s trees are thick green spruce, with pointed, triangle tips that gobble up the sunlight. Tufts of fennel grass cling for life along the rough, small beach. And then, a figure.
Maybe my age.
She is bent and focused as if rubbing something against the
rocks. Her dark braids slip over her sharp shoulders as she leans forward, pulls back. Rhythmically. Expertly.
I wave, but the girl doesn’t look up.
I call to her, my hands cupped around my cry. “Hello!” I fan my arm again, cutting a single arc through the air. The girl doesn’t respond. I stare at her too-long dress, its white lace seeming so out of place.
The air buckles, allowing a cold current to sweep across the water. The wind has the bite of winter in its breath, too icy for June. My skin blooms with gooseflesh.
Then I hear her.
The girl raises a song over the pounding waves, a low and mournful melody that lifts louder as she presses forward and back, her eyes never leaving her task. Her tune sounds like a lullaby from my childhood. Maybe something Gram would hum as she cradled me in her rocking-chair lap. Or is it from the forgotten depths of days when my mother lived here? Did my mother know this song? Sing it to me?
My memory can’t pull up the words, but it doesn’t matter.
Because it feels like the girl is singing for my loss.
I call to her again. “Hello!” My yell is primal, and I’m not entirely sure it has anything to do with my need to be rescued. When she looks up I see her brown face, her large eyes finding me. Do I know this girl? A word forms on her wide mouth, but
the shrill bleat of an air horn devours all other sound. I startle and turn.
Old Man Benner’s slick new lobster boat—appropriately named Pretty Penny—putters beside mine, dwarfing the Rilla Brae. He cups one hand around his mouth and calls, “Ya’s all right, Rilla?”
“Fine.” The lie is quick and spiteful. I’d rather swim home than accept help from Reed’s grandfather, but I hear my dad’s words: “You get farther with sugar than you do with spice, sunfish.” I throw a forced smile.
“Glad ta see ya pulling them pots.” Now it’s his turn to lie. Only one morning after Dad’s death, Old Man Benner called Gram to bully me off our fishing grounds. I listened with my head pressed to hers, our ears tented over the kitchen wall’s landline receiver. When I heard Old Man Benner’s dense Maine accent spit out the words “Ayuh. Ocean’s no place for a girl,” I hung up on him, leaving me alone with Gram and her stern stare. I set twice as many traps into the deep that day.
“Sorry again ’bout ya father.” Old Man Benner’s tongue is thick with Maine, making father sound like fath-ah. It’s the regional accent Dad trained out of me from the first words I spoke. Not because he was ashamed of our roots, but because he knew it would mark me, and he wanted me to make my mark on the world instead.
“Need anything?” Old Man Benner calls.
A tow. My father. I need to believe I didn’t fail Dad on his last day, the way his heart did. I slide my dignity down where I can’t hear its protest and move to the rail. A request for help sits on my lips, but my pride won’t give it sound. “I’m all set.” Another lie.
“Ya shouldn’t be out he-ah, Rilla.” Benner sucks on a toothpick, teetering it between his teeth. “No sayin’ what could happen to a girl alone.”
The threat smacks me hard enough to rattle my head. My blood thickens with hate. “I’ll keep that in mind.” I stretch my arm toward him, hold up my open palm when I want to hold up my middle finger. He laughs at my fisherman’s—fishergirl’s?—wave, jimmying that gnawed toothpick deep in his bite.
My wave is enough to make him move on, and I flip him the bird once he’s passed. His boat stirs a wake that leaves me bobbing in giant man-made swells. When the sea settles, I try the key again. Nothing. It’s okay, I tell myself. I’ll ask the girl for help. It’ll be easy. People ask for assistance all the time. I reach for a rag under the console, find a white square of torn sheet and raise it over my head, readying to wave the international distress signal.
But the girl is gone. I trade the SOS cloth for my binoculars and scan the island.
She is nowhere.
I settle into the captain’s chair—my chair now.
I search Malaga with a strange disappointment swelling my heart. I don’t know why I feel solidarity with the girl; maybe because she’s not supposed to be out here. Same as me.
I stand quickly, feeling trapped. My binoculars catch the edge of the key as they fall from my lap. The electronic gauges light up. “Well, hello,” I say, bringing my fingers to the dashboard. I turn the key fully and the motor turns over with a smooth rumble, shimmying the boat to life.
“Good girl.” I pet her console before I set the Rilla Brae in gear and ease nearer to the island. I stop before the sea becomes too shallow. I look for the girl and her boat, but there are no signs of either. I press the heels of my palms against my eyes and know I need more sleep. Could I have imagined her? How else could she be here one minute and not the next?
Because a boat can’t just disappear.
Unless she pulled the skiff ashore and it’s resting in an island inlet I can’t see. I decide that’s what’s happened before turning the helm toward home. I set my course to Fairtide Cottage, the only home I’ve ever known.
And I see our flag at half-mast.
All the flags on our fishing peninsula ripple at half-mast.
When I dock the Rilla Brae, Gram greets me, barefoot as
always. She’s made of sturdy Downeast stock and tries to hide the grief that slumps her shoulders as she marches across the yard, intent on inspecting the cooler filled with a sampling of today’s catch. Tonight’s dinner.
With each of Gram’s steps, the melody of the girl’s song returns, rising as Gram gets closer. It feels new and old all at once. Like I know it, but I’m also discovering it. My ears fill with the tune. My heart swells for it. My memory reaches for it. The song wraps me in the safety of my past and promises the same for my future. Come here, come here. My dear, my dear, it says.
“What’s that song?” My words sound weak, as if I were too afraid to speak them.
“Song?” Gram bends to tug on my dock lines to make sure they’re secure.
I clear my throat. “The one you were singing.”
“Wasn’t me singing this time,” Gram says. She’s been the world’s biggest fan of ?The Who since forever ago. It’s not uncommon to hear her belting out “Pinball Wizard” while she’s beating eggs or glazing a pie. But today Gram puts her hand on my shoulder, like she knows maybe the song I’m asking about is in my head. Like she knows my head is crammed with too much noise. She gives my shoulder a gentle squeeze and the music stops.
We’re left to the beat of lapping waves and the chorus of brawling seabirds hovering always at the shore.
Gram boards the Rilla Brae as I study the rise of granite
and trees that make up the forty acres of Malaga Island. I’m searching still for the girl, even from here. Listening for her song. Gram watches me carefully, an unasked question in her eyes. “Maybe Hattie’s singing.” She nods up at the house. “She’s waiting for ya.”
Hattie. The last girl I want to see.