Steven woke me at 6 a.m., shining a flashlight in my eyes. We hefted our knapsacks and padded down the stairs while our parents were still asleep. Light had just begun to seep through the fog as we followed a grassy track along the curve of the bay. Seabirds shrieked and surf boomed in the empty spaces below the clifftops.
“See? Easy,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.” He was twelve, I was ten, but more importantly he was the organizer, the planner. “Low tide in half an hour.”
The shoreline curved around to the northwest, where the tip of Orca Point plunged to the ocean in a mad fusion of rock, sand, foam, and spray. We’d already scouted out a chink in the cliffs, a steep gully, clogged with purple-flowered ice plant, that took us down to the water. I knew we weren’t supposed to be there, but I followed Steven as usual.
Lupine Station had been in our father’s family since the 1860s, when the first white settlers came to California’s Lost Coast. Three generations of Flemings and McLeans had logged the hills, herded sheep, raised dairy cows, and traded with the coastal schooners that anchored in our doghole harbor. Now, though, the sawmill was a ruin, the fences had fallen down, and no one had felled a tree (except for Christmas) in thirty-five years. We kayaked in the cove, but no ships came there. Our father’s woodcut prints sold briskly at galleries and art fairs; our mother’s more eccentric creations were slowly taking over the old barn across from the Victorian ranch house.
One night in January, my parents and I had listened as Steven read aloud his favorite passage from Shipwrecks of the Humboldt Coast, a 1930s-vintage volume in one of the bookcases that lined our living room. He was sitting at a roll-top desk that had come around the Horn from Boston in the 1890s. Wind-driven rain rattled in bursts against the windows and forced smoke back down the chimney.
We’d all heard the story before, parts of it at least, but it was one that Steven kept coming back to. In 1919, the Yolanda Ruiz, a fishing boat out of Fort Bragg, had run aground off Lupine Station while headed for Eureka in heavy fog. Even now, fifty years later, pieces of the wreck could still be seen on the rocks below the headland when the tide was low enough—a section of keel with a few ribs attached, a twisted metal framework wedged between two boulders, a rusted cube that could have been an oven or (why not?) a safe.
“All hands lost,” Steven repeated when he got to the end of the entry.
“Horrible,” our mother said. “Does it tell in there about the captain?”
“What about him?”
“The other men all drowned. But the captain, he cut his throat.”
“Is that right?” Our father frowned. “I don’t think I ever heard that.”
She looked as though she didn’t understand the question, and he just shrugged.
“Did you ever go out there?” Steven asked him.
“No,” he said after a telltale pause. “And don’t you even think about it.”
“Oh God, no.” Our mother reached out in panic, as though we were about to leave that second.
“All right,” Steven said. “Of course. We won’t.” I knew exactly what that was worth.
What had looked from above like a quick rock-hop to the wreck turned out to be a maze of slippery boulders and surging channels. Wading waist-deep through a pool fringed with kelp, I was gently lifted off the sandy bottom by an incoming wave. For a moment I hung there motionless, as if I’d suddenly learned to fly. Then the wave crested and fell back, and the undertow pulled me out through a rocky funnel into open water.
I knew how to swim, but the shock of the colder water and the drag of my clothes paralyzed me. I paddled feebly to stay afloat. A diagonal wave rolled over me, filling my nose with salt foam. I heard Steven shouting, but I couldn’t see him. I felt my eyes grow enormous as I searched all around.
The next wave pushed me closer to shore, and the one after that slammed me against a rock crusted with barnacles. I clutched it as the receding water sucked my shoes off and pulled me over the jagged surface. Then Steven was standing above me.
“Stupid little bastard,” he hissed as he hauled me up by the collar.
Our father, when we skulked past the door of his studio, turned his head and said something, without seeming to notice that I was barefoot, bleeding, and dripping wet. But our mother knew at once where we’d been. We weren’t in trouble, necessarily, but it seemed that we’d crossed some line only she could see.
“Don’t you know enough—“ She knelt, holding each of us tightly by one wrist, and whispered fiercely, as if she were afraid of being overheard—“don’t you know to stay away from haunted places?
At first, I didn’t understand—I thought she was just trying to scare us. Then, looking at Steven, I saw him roll his eyes and realized that it was much worse, that she actually believed her own story.
She pulled us closer. “What did you see?” she asked. “Was he there? Tell me.” The bright oval of her face blurred for me. All I saw was the dazzling blue of her eyes, brighter than they should have been, and the shadows around them.
Steven twisted his arm out of her grip and walked away, with just a half-smile over his shoulder at me, as if to say, “You’re on your own.”
© Tom Gartner
Tom Gartner has had short fiction and poetry published in various journals, including The Madison Review, Concho River Review, California Quarterly, New Limestone Review, and Levee. One of his stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives just north of the Golden Gate Bridge and works as a buyer for an independent bookstore in San Francisco.