Ben At The Door, 3:15 a.m.
By Marcia Fairbanks
At first we think it’s only the rising wind. The canvas awning on the cottage deck snaps and flaps against the tie-downs. The door on the outside shower thumps against its restraining hook. We ignore both as we drop onto the futon. Iwa Night revelry has ended for another year. The residents of Sandcastle Circle drift into sleep.
All of us who live in the circle have joined in the costume parade and the burning of the replica of Iwa’s skiff: The fireworks, the toasts and the tales, the boasts of exclusivity that living in Sandcastle Circle foists upon us. The fatigue of trying to explain the celebration to outsiders—there are always a few—who in spite of their eager questions won’t allow the flowering of their minds to the mystical.
The snapping and flapping and thumping registers in our tired brains as knocking. Daniel raises himself on one elbow. “Who’s there?”
We hear a high-pitched voice, words indistinguishable. I grope around on the floor for my nightshirt, an extra-long, discarded shirt of Daniel’s. He stays in bed, tucks the blanket around his nudity.
As I flick on the outside light and open the door, a small child is moving one of my chrysanthemum plants into the lee of the wind. The boy wears a gray hooded sweatshirt, unzipped, over a yellow t-shirt and black sweatpants. A black bandana is tied bandit-style around his neck. Black face-paint masks his eyes and cheekbones. The hood is tied into a little black point on either side of his head.
“Oh,” I say.
Daniel calls from the bedroom. “Judith?”
“It’s Iwa’s horned lark.”
The little boy lisps, “I’m lost. I can’t find the truck.” At least, I think that’s what he says.
“It’s Iwa’s lost horned lark. Go back to sleep, I’ll deal with it.” I open the door wide for the little boy.
Ucikese, the island across the channel from our island, accommodated the state’s leprosarium for sixteen years in the early 1900s. That barren, windswept hundred-acre lump in the throat of Buzzards Bay was deemed suitable for the “dirty, damned foreigners”–Cape Verdeans, a Greek, Russians, a Southerner, Caribbean islanders, Chinese, and a Japanese craftsman named Iwa who made companions of the birds.
Every September 9th we who live in the seven cottages of Sandcastle Circle, and our invited friends, throw a private party for Iwa and the others of Ucikese. And every year gawkers from the mainland hurl the same ridicule. “Weird person to honor, ain’t it, even if all you islanders are a little loopy. A leper? What’s the deal here?”
Well, we try to explain, there’s honor in living a hopeless life with hope. Iwa tried to row himself to freedom, twice. The authorities burned his skiff. He couldn’t communicate with the staff or the other detainees. So he caught and raised baby birds to talk to, among them a bittern, a short-eared owl, and a horned lark.
We live in the seven leper cottages that were transported across the channel from Ucikese under cover of darkness when the leprosarium was abandoned. My cottage belonged to Iwa. The off-island strangers we attract on Iwa Night don’t follow us inside our houses; they stay upwind of us on the beach.
I spend the next ten minutes kneeling beside the little boy with my arm around his quivering shoulders, trying to find out who he is, where he came from.
“Ben,” he says.
I offer him the bathroom.
A glass of juice.
A seat on the couch.
He sits on the floor after he has wandered around the small room, running his fingertips along the walls. Pausing at the built-in cupboard, cocking his head. He answers my questions with his mouth full of seeds picked from his sweatshirt’s pouch pocket. It doesn’t help my understanding much.
“Who made your costume, Ben? It’s a good one. I don’t remember seeing you in the parade.” I rub my thumb against the face-paint. It doesn’t come off.
“We had a fire,” he answers instead. “On the beach.”
“Were you sleeping on the beach?”
“I want to go get my stuff.”
“Why don’t I get a flashlight and help you find your stuff?”
If he can lead me back to where he was, I can figure out who he belongs to. I look out onto the neighborhood circle. No one is child-hunting. Why aren’t they searching for him?
I pull a pair of sweatpants on under my nightshirt and yank a sweatshirt on over it. The flashlight works for a change. I don’t stop to put on sneakers. Ben and I are out the door.
He leads me behind my cottage, squeezing between the compost pile and the stack of firewood, over the split rail fence, through the dune grass and down East Harbor Road to the public beach access; all this in bare feet, both of us. The wind pushes us sideways and I almost drop the flashlight as I put an arm around Ben to keep him from flying off.
There’s a pickup truck in the parking lot, with a yellow-eyed owl on the roof. The bird’s low-pitched alarm call sounds like a small dog barking. The surf outroars the wind. I play my flashlight around. In a depression between the dunes I see three pair of sneakers, a cooler chest, and two blanketed lumps on the sand.
Ben walks over to a flattened lump, his sleeping bag and pillow, and starts dragging them toward me.
“Wait a minute. There’s someone here. See?” I shine the light on one lump and spotlight the back of a head barely emerged from one sleeping bag. The other bag shifts slightly.
“See, they didn’t go away. They’re still here. Why don’t you get into your sleeping bag, too. It’ll be warmer.”
“If I take you away with me, they won’t know where to find you.”
Ben nestles in and I zip him up. “OK?”
“Good-bye,” says Ben.
I smooth my hand over Ben’s sleeping bag and then start home along the shore toward the Sandcastle beach steps. When I turn around once, to look back, I see the owl circling low over the dunes.
Marcia Fairbanks writes concise fiction, personal essays, and poetry wherever there’s salt water to further the shrinking process. Her work has been published in flashquake, Tampa Review, Northeast Corridor, Contemporary Haibun, and other literary journals.
Photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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