excerpt from Chapter 3
As the night sky began to brighten, Mary Bradley pulled onto the bridge. Beside her, a truck horn blew, and the driver, a blond kid with a bandana tied around his long hair, gave her the thumbs up. Fancy lettering on the truck body, white against red, spelled out Eastern Shore Crab.
Eastern shore crab. The tidewater. The bay.
If she had stayed at the restaurant that night, she wouldn’t be driving over the Delaware River right now. But she’d wanted to finish a painting, so she made her excuses and rushed to the door, and when she opened it and turned the corner onto Seventh Avenue, she stopped. This was New York, but she had stepped into a luminous twilight that smelled like the ocean. The smell of home.
Mary smiled at the kid in the truck, and he pulled ahead of her, with a roar that shook and rattled her little Volkswagen bug. She followed him to the end of the bridge, down the ramp and onto the sands of the Delmarva Peninsula.
As he went north toward Wilmington, she turned left, heading south on the Dupont Highway. Across the flatlands outside New Castle and over the rolling hills of northern Delaware, through Christiana, Odessa and Smyrna, she didn’t stop until she got to Dover. In Dover, with the sun rising pink on the bricks of the old-world houses, she ate eggs and grits and had two cups of coffee, and then continued driving south and onto the flat plain of the Lower Peninsula. In a little over two hours she crossed over into Maryland – Salisbury, Princess Anne, Pocomoke City – and finally, at New Church, came into Virginia.
An hour later she saw the silos of the Spangler farm and then the tiny highway sign for Sand Hill. She turned off the main road and slowed down, passing through fields of corn and soybean, and, as she got closer to town, between the tall loblollies and cedars lining Ocean Street.
When she arrived at the square, the center of Sand Hill, she rolled down the window. Maple trees shone brilliant orange and yellow in the morning sun, and the smell of damp earth and dry sun pricked her senses awake. It was the smell of Grandma Edith’s back yard in the fall, of jumping in the leaves with Dorothy and playing Capture the Flag with the cousins.
At the firehouse, a man stepped out from behind a fire truck. He must be Raymond Pettigrew, gone gray and sprouting a beard. He stared at her, and she waved. He lifted a finger in greeting, but looked confused, probably wondering who she was.
An exotic beauty, the owner of the Borsody Gallery on Lexington Avenue had called her. Last year he showed three of her paintings. But was she exotic? With her sandy hair and blue eyes? Maybe it was because of those sarong-type shirts she liked to wear. Or maybe the Nanticoke Indian genes.
At the other side of the square she got back onto Ocean Street and, instead of turning off at Turkey Creek, toward the cabin, she kept going. Toward the beach. The Isle of Pines.
At the parking lot, she jumped out of the car and bounded up the path, the windy breath of ocean enveloping her with scents of fish and bird and seaweed. When she reached the top of the dune, she stopped, picking a wild rose and sweeping her gaze along the coastline curving out below.
The Isle of Pines was not an island but a spit of land, extending out from and paralleling the coast. A place she could wade in the tide pools or wander by the sea undisturbed.
She took off her shoes and walked down to the beach, curling her toes in the warm sand. Waves were breaking on the shore and gulls calling over the wind and a man and dog walked along the water’s edge. She sat down.
The sea, the sea… today it pulsed dark beneath a pale sky. When she was young, she would float and dive and submerge, staying in for hours, opening her eyes in the silent yellow light beneath the surface, immersing herself in this gentle womb. Her father called her the dolphin.
She thought of herself as a mermaid. Part fish, part girl, her truest home was the ocean. When she went to Florida with her parents and watched the Waikiki Mermaids, languid and ethereal, circling and dancing behind the glass in their underwater world, she was thrilled to her mermaid soul. Here were kindred spirits, and she could become one of them. At the age of eight, she had found her vocation.
The horizon was fading into a gray haze, the man and dog growing larger against it.
But her life had followed a different track, and now her immersion was in a sea of color. Of color and texture, fabric and oil and acrylic. She picked up a stick of driftwood and ran her fingers over the rough and smooth of the bleached wood. Of course. Her next painting would be a mermaid. Part fish, part woman, like a Waikiki girl, but more like one of the Sirens…
“Mary May Bradley.” A large form towered above her, a shadow with a smile.
She fumbled, pushing her hair back and shading her eyes with her hand. “Do I know…?”
“Jameson O’Neill,” he said, bowing. He pointed to the dog, a golden retriever who was sniffing and pawing at the sand. “And Susie.”