A Far and Away Place“A Far and Away Place”
There always seemed to be more birds than people on Tangier Island. Egrets, with their long, white wingspan and strong croaking mating calls were a dime a dozen during the summer months. Tourists who came across the Chesapeake to see the sinking island during the summer would try and feed the birds their stale, mainland Wonderbread, but the egrets always ignored the tourists’ offerings. Instead, they would sit, wading in the marshes, waiting for their prey to come to them. But it wasn’t summer now. Instead, Delilah heard the distinct clicking tick of the winter Virginia railbird coming from the marsh on a bright and cold February day as she peddled her bike to work. Growing up on Tangier, her Grand Pappy always said that the rail was a secretive waterfowl, hiding in the marshes, but always giving themselves away with their ticking. Their click-ticking calls reminded Delilah of a clock counting down to something she did not know.
The air was crisp with saltiness – just the way Delilah liked it. During the summer months, when the tourists would take the ferry boats over to Tangier from both the Maryland and Virginia shores of the Chesapeake, the air was always heavier, even stifling, like the tourists themselves created a front that settled on the isolated island from May until September. But with several months until the first ferry of the summer would port in Tangier, the winter air remained as Delilah thought it should be: untouched.
The wind picked up as she rounded the bend on Twin John Lane and passed the two-room post office, wedged between the island’s one pump gas station and small sundry store. She saw Hilda and John Crockett’s golf cart parked outside of the post office. Delilah assumed that they were picking up their new movies for the week. The Crocketts visited their cousins in Norfolk in Christmas who told them about a website that would send them whatever movies they wanted, and could even play some movies on their computer if the signal from the mainland was strong enough. Ever since, they’ve been at the post office every Monday morning waiting for their mail and movies to come over from Crisfield. Modern conveniences like that were a big deal on the small island that didn’t get Internet until 2007. Delilah thought about stopping in the post office to pick up her mail, but decided not to in the hopes of avoiding the Crocketts regaling her with the plot of one of their weekly movies. Last week they asked if she had ever seen Castaway, as they jokingly yelled, “Wilson!” to each other like it was 2001. As much as Delilah appreciated that more culture was traveling across the Chesapeake, she didn’t much feel like hearing the Crocketts synthesize whatever mid-2000s movie they watched over the past weekend.
She picked up her bike’s speed, deciding to get her mail later, letting the chilled air breathe straight through her coat. Delilah hadn’t seen anyone else on the road until she pulled onto the beginning drag of Main Ridge Road, where a beat up, black Jeep Wrangler with unfamiliar tags sped past her in the direction of the Big Gut, going well over the maximum 15mph that was enforced throughout the entire island. Usually, when Delilah would see a lost tourist going from dead end to dead end, she would offer her help and guide them to where there destination was. But Delilah didn’t stop to help the driver of Jeep. They were heading toward the Big Gut, the only place on the Island that Delilah hadn’t been in almost 10 years. It was strange seeing a car – let alone a speeding car – on Tangier, considering that the main forms of transportation on land were golf carts or bikes. There was really no need for cars with the majority of the 740 acres of the Island being made up of marshes and waterways. In fact, most cars couldn’t cross the small, wooden bridges that connected the numerous marshes together. There were very few roads on Tangier to begin with, but now with the water table rising year after year, more and more roads would flood enough to wash away the imported asphalt, creating another gut in a marsh.
Tangier had been sinking as long as she could remember, with each flood, storm and hurricane swallowing the island bit by bit, creating suppressed worries in the hearts of the islanders. Just last year, after Hurricane Sandy, the Hog Ridge part of the island went completely underwater. Bethel Charnock, who had lived in her grandfather’s home for 50 years drowned after she refused to evacuate her home during Hurricane Floyd and died of carbon monoxide poisoning after running a generator inside her bedroom. It was rumored by some of the kids on the island that Bethel’s ghost haunted the family home. Unlike the Charnocks, Delilah’s family, the Stuckes, had enough sense to know when a flood was coming. The house where Delilah’s family had once lived in Canaan, a neighborhood on the Uppards’ part of the island that was completely abandoned by 1930 due to perpetual flooding. When she was younger, her Grand Pappy would take her kayaking along the abandoned marshes to look at where his parents’ home used to be.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he would say in his High-Tider accent as they would look at the old pilings where his parent’s home used to sit, “this Bay has been taking back what’s hers ever since them two Pocomokes sold it for two measly overcoats. They were fit right to sell it.” He would always pause when he reached this point of his speech, usually to rest his paddle across his lap and dip his right hand in the water, like he was petting the Bay the same way he would a coondog. “Sooner or later, Delilah,” he’d continue, “this whole place will be underwater and disappear – left to the birds.” Grand Pappy was right. Surveyors, geographers, and any other science minded folks had been coming to Tangier over the years to document and study the island’s descent back into the Chesapeake. Some of the families who had been on Tangier for generations had left the island for life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland unable to afford on their waterman’s salary to renovate their family homes that stood for years and were damaged by storms and essentially swallowed by the Bay whole.
After watching the Jeep turn down a road that petered off into a dead end marsh, Delilah pulled her bike up to work, feeling smug at the driver’s mistake. She leaned the bike against the side of the building and approached the storefront where she worked. Decals emblazoned on both of the bay windows read: Blue Pelican Books: the Shanty for All Your Literature Needs. Delilah thought that the building was indeed a shanty of sorts. The exterior of the building had been weathered from countless hurricanes, galls, and flooding, cracking and peeling the lettering of the decaled windows, which gave it the authentic, dilapidated shanty look. “It’s shabby-chic,” her mother would say when someone suggested that she replace the decaying shiplap.
The chime above the door rang as Delilah stepped into the bookstore, signaling the beginning of her workday. Blue Pelican Books wasn’t a large store, but it certainly wasn’t a hole in the wall. Delilah’s mother, Elaine Stucke, had spent every weekend after Grand Pappy died changing his tackle shop into a place where people of Tangier could get reading material that wasn’t from a preacher. There were three whitewashed walls of shiplap with black stained loblolly pine bookshelves that went from floor to ceiling. All of the books that Elaine had accumulated throughout the years were shelved in alphabetical order according to genre. In the back of the shop there was a narrow staircase that led to a catwalk where Elaine stored her more valuable and expensive books that were usually bought by visiting politicians from Onancock. A small wall filled with taped on Christmas cards and thank you notes stood behind the old-fashioned hand crank cash register.
Delilah’s favorite part of her mother’s bookshop was a cart next to the register that was only filled with brown paper wrapped books. Back when she first got the idea to sell some of the less known books, Elaine wrote five words on the brown paper covers that she thought described the books in their deepest sense. One night, after a particularly busy day full of tourists coming in and out of the shop, Delilah came across a book with a green cover, a weak spine, gold lettering on the front. It read: “The Lady of Shalott.” Inside were illustrations of a redheaded woman in a boat on one side of the page, with lines of poetry on the other side.
“Ma,” a much younger Delilah said to her mother, “this lady in the boat, she looks like you when we go kayaking. She has red hair just like you.”
Elaine looked up from a pile of beach read books that she was organizing for another day of tourists and walked over to where Delilah was wrapping the books.
“Well, I’ll be, Delilah, she does sort of does look like your old mother, but I think her boat’s a little bit nicer than my black kayak. And plus, she’s got bright, crimson hair. Your old ma’s got faded red hair.”
“I think she’s very pretty,” Delilah said ignoring her mother.
“Yes, she is. Why don’t you read it, and come up with five words that you think describe it, and then we’ll wrap it the brown paper and see if anyone buys it.”
So, Delilah read. She read about a curious woman who died before making it to Camelot and her beloved Lancelot. That warm summer night, Delilah wrapped the book in crisp brown paper, and wrote five words in her elementary scribble on the cover and hoped that someone would buy it the next day. But no one did. In fact no one bought it that summer, and still 10 years after that summer, the summer when Elaine’s body was found floating face down in the Big Gut with dead seaweed tangled in her hair, the brown paper wrapped book about the Lady of Shalott still sat on the shelf, hidden among the other wrapped books.
Even after years of speculation and confusion, no one knew for certain the cause of Elaine’s death. Authorities immediately ruled out foul play. With the small amount of people on the Island that late August night, what with the tourism season officially over and the ability to have all of the local’s alibis corroborated by their neighbors, murder wasn’t a possibility. No one would murder Elaine Stuckes, everyone said. Delilah remembered sitting in the Town Hall with her Auntie Gert – her Grand Pappy’s younger sister – when the Coast Guard said that they found Elaine’s kayak five miles from where they found her body in the Big Gut. They didn’t find anything unusual in the small cargo section of her kayak – just a few bottles of water, a safety whistle, and pocketknife, but they did find something of note on Elaine’s person. Delilah remembered one of the coast guards handing her a loop of twin with two vials, no bigger than a tube of lip balm, filled with gritty sands. Even though they were floating in water for hours, the two vials of sand still managed to look different from one another – one a light brown and the other a pure white.
The Coast Guard handed the two vials to Aunt Gert, unsure if he should address Delilah. He wasn’t from Tangier. “Do you recognize or know what these are, Delilah?” Aunt Gert asked handing her the two vials. Delilah rolled the vials between her fingers, hoping that the smooth exterior of the glass would erode away allowing the rough sand to scratch her palms. They were familiar to her, except the last time she saw the vials was when she was in her mother’s bedroom and saw them on top of a trinket tray on her dresser. Delilah had never seen the vials before that night in her mother’s bedroom and was fascinated by the vial with the white sand, the other looked like it was filled with sand from Tangier. Rolling the vials in her hand like the night she would when the coast guard showed her, Elaine walked into the room, “You like the white one, huh?”
“What is it?” Delilah asked her mother.
“That’s a piece of our past.”
“Let’s just say that it’s from the place where I got you,” Elaine answered gently taking the vials from Delilah’s hands and putting them in a drawer.
Those vials were familiar to her, but Delilah didn’t want to tell her Aunt Gert or the coast guard. Something in her told her not to. After the investigation, the Coast Guard returned the vials to Delilah after they yielded no purpose in leading to a certain cause of death. Ever since she wore the vials on a chain like a momenti mori piece of jewelry. The death was ruled an accident to this day, but Delilah knew better than that. She knew that her mother knew how to handle herself and her kayak even when there was a squall on the Bay. Aunt Gert said some things never reveal themselves, but Delilah knew there was more to her mother’s death, but refused to share her thoughts with anyone – even Aunt Gert.
Fingering the vials on the chain, Delilah, knocked out of her reverie, walked to one of the bay windows to assess the current damage of the blue pelican decal. The peeling and cracking of the decals confirmed Delilah’s decision of having it replaced before the upcoming summer season. Looking out the window Delilah could see the graveyard across the street outside the Methodist church where many Tangier families were buried. The graves were cramped with less than a foot between them. They looked like matches in a matchbox: laid out in parallel order in order to get the most out of the space. Before the two churches on the island and their graveyards were built, Tangier families used to bury their dead in the yards of their homes. It was rumored that island folklore said that the original settlers buried them in their backyards for good luck and protection from the Pocomokes. Some of the older homes lucky enough to escape the Chespeake’s swallows still had tombstones of their ancestors right in their front yard. Delilah had a friend growing up name Jessie Pruitt, whose family was one of those with the graves in their backyards. They had generations of Pruitts buried in the backyard of their purpled, Victorian home, painted by the eccentric Otto Pruitt – Jessie’s great, great, great grandfather. In the summer time, when the girls were little, Jessie’s mother would set up a slip and slide in their backyard, but because of the several Pruitt headstones dominating the yard, Jessie’s mother had no choice to put it between some of the headstones, creating a neon, latex runway between the generations of the Pruitts long gone.
Disposing of the dead had started to become a problem for the islanders once the water table started rising and washing away dirt from the graveyards. A man from the health department last year came to the Island to speak with the mayor about how to properly dispose of the Tangier dead in this time of ‘sinking’. The Island was no longer permitted to bury anymore bodies. Instead, they were to either cremate them, or bury them in a cemetery on the outskirts of Crisfield on the mainland that the state set aside specifically for the Tangier dead. Something about how the increasing water table would cause the graves to be exposed to the surface again.
As Delilah was looking out the window, she saw the black Jeep from this morning park in front of the Blue Pelican. The driver, a woman, stepped out of the car and walked inside. The woman had short cropped, strawberry blonde hair. She wore khaki shorts that ended at the top of her knees, a light blue cotton tank top, and a faded baseball cap. She didn’t look old, but she didn’t look young, Delilah thought. “Uh, hi,” the woman said awkwardly, “I was just driving by and saw that you, sold books, obviously. And I was wondering if y’all had any maps of the island?”
Originally, Delilah thought the woman was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a tourist poking around, but the woman’s deep, drawing ‘y’all’ made Delilah think she was from somewhere in the Deep South.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t think a map’s going to do you any good. There are only about a dozen roads on the island, and I’ve seen you and your Jeep drive down about half of them on my way here,” Delilah said.
The woman laughed. “You got that right. They told me – back in Charleston – how small and away this place was, but I underestimated them.”
“Small is definitely a word for it,” Delilah said.
“Hi, I’m Samantha. I work for a surveying company down in Charleston,” the woman introduced herself.
“Delilah. Nice to meet you. I trust you’re here to see how much longer we have left?”
“You know, how much longer we have until the whole island is underwater. Surveyors have been coming year after year, measuring the water tables and whatnot.”
“Oh, right,” she chuckled. “Well, judging by the fact that most of the streets I drove down this morning have standing water on them, even though the last time it rained substantially was about two weeks ago, I would say y’all don’t have that much time left.” The woman began walking around the bookstore, pausing to look at some of the books on the wall and out the window. “Are you – is your family native to the island? Have y’all been here for awhile? They told me that people on Tangier are usually multigenerational families.”
Samantha was right. Once people came to Tangier back in the 1800s, they usually stayed and never left. “Pretty much. My mother’s family can be traced back to some of the original settlers. My great, great grandfather was apparently the mayor during the turn of the century,” Delilah answered.
“Is your dad’s side from the island too? I imagine everyone here are all distant cousins are something?” Samantha gestured to the staircase that led to the valuable books, as if she was asking for permission to go up.
“Go on up. That’s where my mother kept her valuable books.”
“So, what about your dad?” Samantha asked again from the catwalk.
“Oh, well, I don’t know too much about him. My mother left the island for a few years, and somehow came back pregnant with me. Threw my Grand Pappy, I mean grandfather for a loop. But I guess it turned out alright.” Delilah couldn’t figure out if she liked Samantha or not, but she felt like she was compelled by something to answer her questions.
“What about you? You ever left for awhile?”
Delilah was taken aback by the question. She didn’t know quite how to answer it. Sure, she tried the whole college thing down in Norfolk, but it didn’t last. She spent a month with a friend in Richmond, but something kept pulling her back.
“I tried the mainland, but I guess you could say, well that it didn’t take.”
Samantha came back down the stairs, pausing to look at some books on the other side of the room. “Sorry, I have the tendency to overstep my boundaries. It’s just this place, Tangier, I have to admit is a little strange. I thought where I grew up was a little quaint, but it’s like y’all are stopped in time or something.”
“I guess you can say that.”
“Sorry, I have one more question, and then I’ll be on my way to the, uh, Big Gut. Is that what it’s really called?
Delilah stiffened whenever she heard someone mention the Big Gut, and still avoided it at all costs. “Yeah, the Big Gut, it’s all the way to the south of the Island.”
“Well, judging by my other colleagues’ research, that’s the channel that’s going to give y’all the biggest trouble.”
“Y’all seem to be sinking a little over an inch each year. That’s faster than New Orleans. And it seems to have started over there, and will probably end there judging by the soil saturation.”
“My grandfather always said the Chesapeake would take back what was rightfully hers.”
“Your Grand Pappy was right. I’m sorry, I just got to ask, and then I’ll be on my way to the Big Gut.”
“Go right ahead,” Delilah was unsure of what this familiar stranger was going to ask her.
Samantha paused, then started to speak, and then paused again, like she couldn’t find the right words. “Look, I know I’ve been on this sinking island for less than a day, but it just seems like y’all aren’t afraid, especially young ones like you.”
“Afraid of what?” Delilah asked.
“Not afraid of drowning in a flood or something like that. That’s not what I meant. But sooner or later there isn’t going to beach for y’all to fish on much less survive. I understand that the old folks probably won’t care. Hell, judging by from what I’ve seen and from what you’ve told me, they’ll probably go down with the flood that takes their house. But you, let me tell you, you’re not going to be able to raise any little Delilah’s here.”
“You could say it’s a graveyard in the making,” Delilah said deflecting the question.
“I guess you could,” Samantha said. She began to wander toward the cart with the brown paper wrapped books. “So, a map won’t do me any good?” Samantha asked as she began picking up the books, reading their descriptions.
“I’m afraid not,” Delilah said with a smile.
“I have to ask: what are these?” Samantha asked picking up a brown book.
“Those were an idea my mother had. She hated when tourists or even islanders would come in here not give some books a second glance. So she decided to wrap them in brown paper and write five words that she thought described the book in its ‘deepest sense’, she would say.”
“Hmm. Another strange thing about this town,” Samantha said as she read the descriptions. Delilah smiled at her. “I think I’ll take this one. Curiosity, island, shadows, cursed, and crimson. Phew, I could barely make it out. It looks like a kid wrote these or something,” she said reading the description.
“A fine choice,” Delilah said.
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly.”
“Think of it as something to remember the sinking island by,” Delilah said.
“Well, thank you.”
The two looked at each other for a few moments before Samantha broke the silence. “Well, I best be on my way to the Big Gut. It was a pleasure talking to you, Delilah.”
“You as well,” Delilah responded.
“I hope you find what you haven’t been looking for,” Samantha said as she exited the shop, the chime signaling her departure.
Delilah walked outside of the bookshop and watched Samantha drive away toward the Big Gut, nervously fingering the vials around her neck, unsure of what to make of Samantha’s parting words. She better have four-wheel drive in the Jeep, Delilah thought. She stood outside a little longer, half hoping that Samantha would come back, for what reason, Delilah didn’t know.
Just as she was about to go back inside the register, something in the sky caught Delilah’s attention. It was a single gull overhead, cawing loudly to something unseen. Rolling the vials between her fingers again, she looked down at the one filled with brown sand, the sand that looked like it came from the coast of Tangier. She had a sudden urge to feel the rough grit of the sand, causing her to open the vial. The vial opened easily, and she poured the brown sand on her hand, letting the course pellets exfoliate her skin.
Satisfied, finally, Delilah brushed the brown sand on the ground, back to where it belongs, she thought. Putting the empty vial in her pocket, and making sure the white one was still firmly around her neck, Delilah looked through the window at the cart with the wrapped books, the shelf looking pleasantly barren in the fading pelican storefront.