Although I’m basically a city boy, you can’t grow up in South Carolina and not experience the salt water, at least a little. It’s a very small state, so even if you live in the Piedmont area—the foothills, well named in South Caroline because they’re about as high as your foot—you’re still only a couple hundred miles away from the Atlantic. I’d ogled babes on the beaches that are among the best in the country, been out deep sea fishing compliments of a big advertiser with the newspaper, water skied, that sort of stuff. What I’d never done before is been out in a boat alone.
Changes the game considerably. Even if you’re never out of sight of land, you’re still alone. Alone as in all by your freaking self. Depending on your rented motor running, and if it stops, depending on somebody to answer your call and come tow you in before you die of thirst. Lucas had told me about sand bars and how to watch for them, but basically you had to know where they were not to run over them and get stuck. And if you did, maybe you could raise your motor and pole yourself free, and maybe you had to sit it out until the tide came in and floated you off.
So my first day out in the ocean I was an old lady behind the wheel of her Oldsmobile, both hands on the wheel, driving 20 mph below the speed limit. Except out in the water—it wasn’t even the ocean, just estuaries and bays and creeks—there wasn’t a speed limit to guide you, just good sense. So I tightened up my life jacket and took it easy.
It was unbelievable. Glorious, exhilarating freedom in a way I’d never experienced before. And very macho. Like some sort of Viking, or maybe a Polynesian on my very own balsa-log raft.
I didn’t go out to the island that first day. Just putted around, checking out the tides and the mud flats. Cut the motor and drifted for almost an hour, watching three dolphins playing their joyous games a mere hundred feet away. Seagulls dove into the water with an ungainly splash, coming up with a squirming fish every time. That afternoon I managed to net enough bait to try my luck fishing. Actually caught a couple, although nothing stupid enough to end up on my hook was worth keeping. Still, if I’d been abandoned on a desert island with nothing except a power boat, cast net, fishing rod, a couple of hundred bucks worth of paraphernalia, and a gas pump, I wouldn’t have starved to death. Made me proud of myself, all out of proportion to my actual accomplishments.
* * * * *
“Missed you for breakfast yesterday. Wedding coming up soon and already you’re two-timing me?”
“Sabrina, you know I’d never run around on you. I was out fishing.”
“Good lord, that’s even worse. If it was only a woman I’d kick her ass and have you back before your head stopped spinning. But the river, she’s tough competition. That’s the only reason I agreed to marry you, I figured you were too much of a city boy to spend your mornings out drowning bait.”
“When in Rome, you know. Besides, there’s not much appeal in lolling around in bed all day by yourself. Remind me what day our wedding’s set is for again?”
“Next Monday. That’s always my day off, next Monday.”
“But we just missed out on Monday.”
“Yes, but that wasn’t next Monday. Here, try these hash browns. I know, I know, they’re Yankee food. But Wanda’s been trying them out, perfecting the recipe while seeing if the customers would like some as a change from grits and biscuits. We’re serving them on Tuesdays and Thursdays now. Figured it’d be easy to remember that way. A day that start with a T means “taters.”
“I thought you were going to tell me it meant, ‘T’aint grits.”
“Wise ass.” She ruffled my hair, to which one of the customers responded by yelling, “Get a room.”
When I left Peckerwoods I headed straight for the boat ramp. Hadn’t even packed my fishing gear: today I was going to Avalon.
I put the coordinates Lucas had given me into the GPS, but it didn’t show anything there except open water. I understood: Avalon was not on the map they’d downloaded. But it spooked me a little nonetheless. Like science didn’t want to acknowledge the presence of the island either. Somehow you expected better in the electronics age. More data, less magic.
With my old lady driving style, it took me considerably longer to get there than it had taken Lucas. But eventually I got close enough to see the island, only it wasn’t there. Fortunately I was prepared for that and just kept heading toward where it was supposed to be. And eventually, there it was. Sort of appearing out of a low mist that wasn’t even all that noticeable.
The misty isle of Avalon.
I rode around the island like Lucas had done. It was pretty big; took me more than an hour to complete the circuit at maybe five miles per hour (the speedometer was thoughtfully calibrated in MPH rather than knots, whatever the hell they were). It was a lot rougher on the outer shore than the landward side. A steady stream of waves rolled in although they didn’t break which, if I recalled my high school physics correctly, mean that the water there was pretty deep—waves only break on beaches when the height of the wave was 1/3 the depth of the water, or something like that.
Avalon looked more like a chunk of the mainland than it resembled the other islands I’d passed. They were flat and forested by scrub; this island had real trees, mostly live oaks with branches that reached out over the water in places. And although you could pull up to the shore of the other islands, there was nothing on any of them that you’d call a beach. Avalon had a flat place maybe fifty yards long that definitely qualified as a beach, out toward the ocean side. It wasn’t beach sand white, although it clearly wasn’t mud either. And in the middle was the hill, hard to make out for the trees in between, but rising twenty or thirty feet above the shore line.
Not exactly a welcoming place, but I felt nothing like the antipathy that Lucas had described. With my limited perspective from down at the water level, I wasn’t able to get a good picture of what it looked like. Couldn’t even tell if it was round or more elongated. I would have liked to have seen it from the air, get a better overview. Maybe I could charter a plane for an overflight.
Finally I headed straight for the beach, cut the motor, and let my momentum carry me up onto the shore. Climbing over the gunwale, I just stood there for a minute before lugging the anchor up from the waterline and sinking the prongs into the sand.
After the steady noise of the motor, the silence was—what, deafening? At least freaky quiet. The only sound was the calm wash of the waves hitting the shore. Looking out toward the ocean and away from the boat, there wasn’t a trace of civilization as far as I could see. No boats, no channel markers, no power lines, no beer cans washed up on the island. It was primordial solitude, and I a latter day Robinson Crusoe standing on the shores of Avalon, S.C.
The beach was steep and firm beneath my feet, at an angle to the ocean so that the waves ran along the shore at an angle. Now that I was standing on it, I could see that it was moderately dark sand covered with bits of shells. My probing finger revealed that the shells were at least a half inch deep. Apparently the angle of the waves meant that more were deposited than were washed away. The woman in the painting that George had left unfinished could have been standing right on this spot—except there weren’t any rocks, only bits of shell.
I walked the entire length of the beach, my shoes barely leaving tracks in the shelly sand. On both ends it just tapered away so that the bank itself touched the water. The bank was almost exactly as high above the beach as the distance between my knee and foot, making it a perfect bench from which to watch life go by. I did exactly that, slipping into a reverie—or perhaps a hypnotic trance driven by the relentless precision of the wave. But I received no visions about George, the golden-haired woman, Sabrina, or the meaning of life. Just a peaceful calm.
Hey, maybe this was enlightenment. Maybe I was the next Buddha and Avalon, S.C. was my bo tree.
Yeah, right. And maybe the fish would grow wings and fly up out of the sea to perch at my feet seeking wisdom.