Charles Grant - Night Songs
"Wow!" said Matt Fletcher softly, his large eyes blinking rapidly in disbelief. "Wow, how'd you do that, Mr. Ross?"
Colin held up his right hand, turned it over, turned it back. The hell with physics, he thought; that throw was pure magic.
"C'mon, Mr. Ross, how'd you do it? It's a trick, right? Can you show me? Can you show me how to do it?"
Colin glanced at the young boy beside him, at the elaborate castle, at the shell now corralled by an incoming wave. He raised a thin eyebrow in a parody of nonchalance. "Well, it's all in the wrist, actually. And in eyeballing the fine line of the intended trajectory, testing the prevailing winds, watching your-"
Matt giggled into a palm.
"Mr. Fletcher, I detect doubt in your attitude."
"You were lucky," the boy accused. Colin shrugged again. "So there's a law against lucky?"
"My mother says luck ain't nothing but dumb skill."
"Even assuming you knew what she meant, don't say ain't."
Matt sighed loudly in melodramatic exasperation and shoved a hand slowly through his tangled black hair. "There's no school today," he muttered. "Besides, you teach art, not English."
Colin grunted a quick laugh and jammed his hands into the pockets of his hooded blue windbreaker. The inescapable and definitely refutable logic of a kid out of school, he thought, and no safe way out except to ignore it.
"Luck," the boy repeated as he sidled away. "It was luck, that's all." He grinned mischievously, ready to run.
The laugh broke this time, and Colin shook his head in confession. "I could never do that again in a zillion years."
They stood a dozen yards from the castle, the only interruption along the dark wet apron of the two-mile beach. In swimtrunks and sneakers, light jackets and dried sand, they listened as the tide prepared to turn over. The breeze off the diamond-backed water was cool, but they gave it no credence. It was Indian summer and the sky was nearly cobalt, the beach close to bronze, the few gulls overhead like lazy kites above a park. Soft air, softer light, while at the tips of the dark, slick jetties that flanked the public beach-and quartered it as well-the seaspray fanned wider, lasted longer, flared through with gold as the ocean found its thunder.
It was time to leave, but Colin shifted only slightly, his green eyes squinting comfortably, broad shoulders at ease. His thinning brown hair, still streaked by summer's sun, was just long enough to curl inward at the edges, and stirred as the breeze moved to brush across his cheek. His forehead was high, his nose a measure too large, and his chin not quite squared at the end of a lean jaw. He pulled thoughtfully for a moment at the side of his neck, turned his wrist just far enough to see the face of his watch.
Damn; it had already been a long day, and it would probably get longer. He wished with passing guilt he could stay until tomorrow.
He'd come to the beach shortly after lunch, hoping for solitude and finding instead a half dozen boys working on the castle. As soon as he'd stepped from the woodland separating shore from town he was spotted, and the ensuing invitation to join them was boisterous and laughing. It felt wonderful. Their teacher in school, yet no ogre to be avoided after the last bell had rung. And the two hours had fled in less than an eye blink before the others had wandered off in search of adventure, leaving him behind to share the castle's finishing touches with Matt, and test all the snacks Peg Fletcher had prepared for the occasion.
He glanced at the small wicker hamper, and his stomach instantly contracted. A beautiful woman Matt's mother was, but cooking was something she should leave to the elves. And if he wasn't going to embarrass himself at the funeral tonight, he'd best stop at the Inn for a giant sandwich or two.
"We gonna leave it?" Matt asked. He was tow-headed and thin, with skin a natural shade darker than most of the others on the island. With a shirt on he looked frail, but without it one could see the young muscles filling into cords. "Maybe I'll build a wall in front. You know, to keep the waves off?" He hugged himself and zipped his jacket halfway closed.
"Better yet," Colin said, "you ought to head on home. Your mother'll have a cat fit if you miss supper tonight."
Matt kicked at the sand. "Oh, she won't care." He looked up defiantly. "I'll be ten at Christmas, y'know. I can take care of myself."
Colin coughed and looked to the sky. "I'm sure you can, pal, but you know mothers."
"I said she wouldn't care."
"Really? Are we talking about the same woman here?"
"Sure we are."
"You mean the woman who runs that tacky little drug store on Neptune Avenue? The woman who says I draw like John Nagy? The-"
"Who's John Nagy?"
"Never mind. You're too young." He turned the boy back toward the hamper with a slap to his buttocks. "And the very same woman who single-handedly, as it were, arm wrestled Ed Raines at the Inn and beat him three falls out of four? That woman?" His voice rose as he walked. "Are we talking about the lady who condescends to feed starving teachers now and then? The woman who-"
"What does condescend mean?"
Colin put his hands on his hips. "Matthew, will you please stop changing the subject?"
"Well, jeez, I just wanted to know. Mom's always telling me to ask if I want to know something. So I'm asking." He scowled and shoved his fingers under his waistband. "Gee. Nuts. Goddamn."
"Matthew," he cautioned, "watch your mouth. I've seen your mother turn into a raving, bananas monster when she hears you talk like that."
Matt looked up at him, wide-eyed and innocent. "Mr. Ross, are we talking about the same woman here?"* * *
At irregular intervals through the woods, narrow, gray-planked boardwalks had been laid to guide swimmers to the beach. After snatching up the hamper, Matt jumped to the nearest pathway and began walking briskly, almost marching, whistling at the birds hidden high in the thick autumn foliage. Colin trailed more slowly, taking an extra-deep breath every few paces to see if he could capture a scent of the pastel air-the lazy slants of sunlight touched through with bronze and gold, the shadows more crimson than black, the underbrush still clinging to blotches of stubborn green. For the few minutes the walk would last he could easily still be back in New England, yet the muted grumbling of the surf behind him never let him forget he was riding the ocean on the back of a rock.
A flash of red on the ground.
He swerved toward it, stepping off the boardwalk to the base of a stunted pine. He took a deep breath, then expelled it with a soft grunt as he kicked loose dirt and leaves over what he had seen. When he returned to the boardwalk, Matt was staring with a frown. "A beer can," he said, waving the boy on.
Matt was clearly doubtful, but he made no move to argue. Colin shoved his hands into his pockets to ward off a chill.
He had found a gull, wings and legs torn from their sockets, feathers matted with grime and dried blood, its head eyeless and crawling with busy ants and silent flies. He had found two others like it over the past week, all in the woodland facing the ocean. Still more, a dozen in all, had been discovered on other parts of the island. Street-corner conversation lay the blame on dogs; night whispers said it had to be Gran D'Grou.
Colin had no answers of his own. If it had been dogs, the mutilations were all the more vicious because none of the birds had been even partially eaten. And he didn't believe a dead man would return to stalk the island just to wring the necks of a few raucous birds.
"You going to the funeral?" Matt asked without looking back.
He shuddered once to banish the gull's image. "Yup."
"We're not," Matt said as if he regretted it and at the same time wasn't sure it was safe to be relieved. "I know."
Matt shrugged, and tilted his head. "Mrs. Wooster is with her sister in Philadelphia. She's sick or something. She won't be back until Tuesday. She's not really my babysitter, y'know. She's the housekeeper. I'm too big for a babysitter."
"Right," Colin said quickly, laughing silently without showing a smile.
"Mrs. Wooster," the boy said a shade louder, "she thinks it's silly anyway. She says people oughta be buried in the ground, not in the water."
"She isn't island, Matt. She thinks we're strange."
"She eats pits. Peach pits and plum pits and orange pits." He giggled. "That's weirder than burying people in the water."
Colin admitted the boy might be right, though it was easy to understand the housekeeper's attitude. There were no provisions for the dead on Haven's End. The nearest town was ten miles inland and had the only cemetery within easy driving distance. None of the island locals bothered to use it. They had lived here for too long, for too many generations, and those who'd first settled here during the Revolution had chosen the Atlantic to be their graveyard. It was illegal, but even those who'd left for the rumored excitement of the mainland were able to find a certain indefinable comfort in the slow trail of boats that would slip through the twilight, form a tight ring from bow to stern, raise high the torches, and break into a deep-throated jubilant hymn as the enshrouded corpse was eased into the current. There were rumors, of course, among the busybodies who sat in the park in Flocks: that the island's inhabitants were obviously immortal since none of them seemed to take sick and die; that rites of foul cannabalism and satanism were performed during the hours of the darkest full moon; that vampirism flourished; that they were nothing more than a colony of ghouls.
Haven's End didn't care. The balm for its grief was stronger than gossip.* * *
Matt paused to shift the hamper from right hand to left, and hitched mightily at his trunks to keep them high on his hips. Then he looked up into the trees, off to one side, a quick check to be sure Colin was still there.
"Did… did you know Gran D'Grou?"
"Sure did. He was one of the first people I met when I came here." A short laugh for the memory. "He said I didn't draw so hot but I had good hands."
"Did you like him?"
He frowned and pulled thoughtfully at a vagrant curl tucked around the back of his left ear. Gran was a black pipe cleaner twisted into the vague shape of a man, with an afterthought lump of black clay for a head-eyes gouged, mouth gouged, cheeks thumbed in, and a surprisingly aquiline nose. Only the old man's hands seemed carefully planned, long-fingered and dexterous, more expressive than his eyes. When he spoke, he whispered as if from the back of a sea cave, and when he wasn't working at the family luncheonette, when he wasn't doing his carving on the bench out front and laughing with the children, he was walking the cliffs and the woods with dark rum snug around him.
But had Colin liked him?
Gran, as more than one person had been eager to tell him, had arrived penniless and frightened from the West Indies with his infant daughter, saying little except to let them all know he was determined to take advantage of what he called America's vast pot of gold. He wasted no time establishing the luncheonette. He charmed the ladies with his French-Caribbean accent, and fascinated the men with stories of the islands he had visited as a young man. In time, his daughter found a husband who had no objection to taking Gran's name; in time, there was a granddaughter who worshipped the old man and became his constant shadow.