His mother takes him to the Soapstone Shipwreck when he is old enough. He is sixteen, this is the coast, and he has never kissed a girl. The shipwreck, he thinks, looks like a discarded spine. It’s smaller than the brochures, with their fancy camera angles, make it out to be, but he can’t help imagining what the rest of the ship looked like when it was a three-masted schooner instead of a rotted keel. He doesn’t know that everyone who has ever visited Soapstone has thought the same thing, nor that you can use the internet to look up pictures of it.
The wreck of the Lady Rusla is covered with bodies. He’s not yet worldly enough to tell the tourists from the locals, but he knows the legend: anyone who sits on the ship’s keel until high tide and then dives into the Ol’ Briny will see the faces of the ship’s crew – the Captain, with her hair in a tight ponytail behind her tricorn, blue officer’s jacket with buttery lace spilling out at the wrists and throat, palm cap pistols crossed at her chest, and her Mates, First through Third, following her, awaiting a command that will never be issued – hovering in front of your eyes just before you surface.
He’s almost out of arcade coins and had planned on wasting the rest of the afternoon onboard the keel. But it’s crowded. Some are thumbing away on phones, some absorbed in magazines, some squinting out at the sun as if they don’t know what it is. A heavily sunscreened family of three wear identical straw hats and deal playing cards upon folded legs. A woman with a half-shaved head holds a book in front of her face, pretending she’s alone.
Only one other is hitting the Skee-ball lanes today. She’s a girl about his age, in a zebra print
bathing suit, brown hair tied back in a ponytail, flip-flops on sandy feet.
“Weird,” he says. “There’s as much sand in here as there is on the beach.”
She launches one of the wooden balls up the lane and scores forty points. “I guess,” she says. She lets him tell her everything he and his mother have done so far this weekend, then she shares the fact that she’s also here alone with her mother, and that hers has a rule against eating out.
“It’s a waste of money,” she says.
He asks what do they eat, then.
“We cook in our room at the motor-lodge.”
“I’d be sneaking out every morning for those continental breakfasts,” he says.
He rolls three of his own balls and ends up in the gutter each time. He’s awarded with ten pity points for his efforts. “Do you believe all those suckers out there? Wasting their whole vacation. Like, what’s supposed to happen? The dead Captain makes you a part of the crew? Do you get a share of the plunder?”
“No,” she says. She hits the fifty-pointer. “You just see their faces.”
“I’m sure it makes a great story.”
“It’s true.” She cups the final ball in her palm. “My mom and I do it every year.”
He rolls the rest of his balls rapid-fire, and lands twenty on the final roll. He hopes that she saw it, but also hopes that she didn’t.
Her final ball nicks the one-hundred hole, but lands in the gutter. “See you around?”
Then he blurts it out, as he must: “Want to hang out later tonight?”
It turns out she does, but only after he apologies for calling her tradition ridiculous. On the beach after dark, she brings along a plastic container full of oysters she fried herself, and shares with him. He squeams a little, but muscles them down. They sit on the edge of the Lady Rusla’s keel.
“It must’ve sucked,” he says. “They sailed all the way from wherever they came from, and then shipwrecked here and died. I bet if someone had told them their lot in life was to give bored tourists something to talk about, they’d have stayed in front of the fireplace.”
She says nothing to that at first, but then she says, “Dive in. I can tell you want to.”
He doesn’t do it, and they don’t talk about the ship again. She doesn’t kiss him or even set her head on his shoulder, but she does agree to meet him for breakfast before she and her mom take off tomorrow morning.
In the morning, though, the keel is once again full of people and empty of her. He and his mother spend the rest of the day together, and she knows exactly what he’s moping about. They leave the following afternoon. As they ascend the highway, he watches trees and guardrails slowly overtake the view of the coast. The ocean finally slips out of sight, and he feels a weight in his chest, as though he’s leaving something behind. He will never be so emotionally involved again. Then he thinks on those sailors, how if they’d had a better Captain, they never would have been smashed upon the rocks of this stupid tourist town. What he doesn’t know is that no one died in the shipwreck: the Captain wrung out her jacket, adjusted her tricorn, extended the gangway, and walked off into history.
The kayak collides with the sailboat because the kayaker is staring at a woman with a half-shaved head sitting on the spinal column of the Lady Rusla, her legs stretched out so that the flocks of tourists awaiting the tide have to maintain a certain distance, and this is what the kayaker is enamored with, probably – her legs, not the hairdo, not what she’s reading or where she’s set the two-dollar bookmark she bought at a local rip-off-out-of-towners store, but because she’s stretched out like that, she does stand out from the tourists, one of which she is, of course, and if you were the kayaker, you wouldn’t see that her legs were unshaven or know that she buzzed her own skull in a hand-mirror or that she’s stretched out because she’s recovering from a gymnastics injury and can’t cross her legs, and you wouldn’t think to yourself that no one actually wants to be called Belle of the Beach or Lily of the West or, indeed, Lady Rusla, because names like that would historically get you killed, but the blood would be cascading moronically inside you, to parts you have no use for right now, and you wouldn’t hear the sailboat operator call you a Yankee jerkoff because you’d be too busy toppling out of a capsizing kayak, and once you were totally submerged, you wouldn’t think about sharks or the furious foreign sailboater or the fact that the kayak is a rental and you have to pay if you bash it up, because there’s something you’re trying to hang on to, something up there, something like the oil paintings they have in the hotel lobby of an old wooden ship staring mightily into a gale, something that can’t be forgotten, something that can’t just mean nothing.
I shaved it myself. It just had to be the same weekend as the New England Shipwreck Tour (one of the geekier things I’ve done in my life as an involuntary loner) that I tore my hip flexor and gashed the side of my head on the corner of the beam. It would start bleeding again when I did the most minor of things: get out of bed too fast, settle into yoga postures, shower. By the time I realized it, my hair would be caked with blood. So I took out the clippers, and here I am, hobbling to Soapstone Beach from the inn, hoping whatever’s left of the Lady Rusla is clear of, erm, crew, as it were.
A woman sits alone on the wreck. The tide’s going to be in soon, and she looks like she’s been waiting awhile. She fidgets. Candy bags peek out of the backpack that leans against her thigh. I sit on the other end of the keel and crack my book open.
Three chapters in, the sea is up to my ankles. A plastic cup snarled in seagrass is taken by a wave. The woman ties her hair back. Her shoulder muscles ripple under her skin, and something about how carefully she knots her rope of hair makes me think she’s felt me noticing her, and now I can’t look away from her. I notice a mole just above her bikini line. This performance, with me as audience, goes on until the tide has drowned the keel up to the waterline. Then my woman stands, grips the splintered edge with her toes, and dives.
It hasn’t happened yet, but once the waves slam her into the jagged wood that makes up the keel’s side, she’ll surface, sputtering up salt and dignity, and will hear nothing but my laughter. Then I’ll see the blood leaking from her sliced torso. I’ll wrap her in my skull-and-crossbones beach towel, and hurry her to the ER. Five stitches later, on the car ride back, I’ll introduce myself: “I’m Miri, by the way.”
We’ll just so happen to be staying at the same inn. We won’t leave the lobby until long after the clerk has killed the lights and the reggae muzak. She’ll be giddy on pain meds, and will reveal that she doesn’t speak to her parents. I’ll try to empathize, but will feel a crush of jealous guilt at my lack of childhood trauma. All this time, we’ll be sitting under an oil painting of the Lady Rusla’s captain: a stylized alkyd portrait in which she glares despondently past the viewer, her tricorn in place, a blue powder-burn around the left corner of her mouth. “Did you see her down there?” I’ll ask.
“The Captain. You’re supposed to be able to see her face when you dive.”
But my woman’s never heard of the legend. She just dove.
Then she’ll do a kiss lean, and I’ll see tangled fingers and a tossed bouquet in a banquet hall. I’ll see myself in a lacy dress, leaning against the bar, and someone behind me will say something about fate, and I’ll laugh even though I’m not supposed to.
Here in the lobby, though, I put my finger on her lips and push her back – maybe tomorrow, when the drugs are washed away and we’ve had one of those continental breakfasts together. Maybe when I ask you why you dove, and you can’t answer, and the next time we look out at that broken wooden spine, we’ll see three masts and ruffling canvas in place of abalones and baking seaweed, hear a real song, something imperfectly timed, bellowing to the turning of the capstan just as it must have when the Lady Rusla plunged into her final port three hundred years ago.
But for now, in this moment, I set my book down, and she dives. Oh yes, she does.
Richard Hartshorn lives on the Rensselaer Plateau. He was recipient of the 2011 Richard Bausch Short Story Prize, and his work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Atlas and Alice, The Writing Disorder, and other publications. Richard received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.