Casco Bay had nearly frozen over during the past several days, but not quite. Karen could still make it over to Big Chebague Island before the family reunion, but it was getting late and the ferry was running well behind schedule. She stood on the wharf peering out over the water against the bitter gusts. Everyone else was inside the building looking through the window in the door. There weren't many others. Not all of them, she knew, would be going to her island. She was about to turn and go back inside when she heard the hoot and just made out the bow of the Abenaki looming through the mist, heading for the landing.
Karen waited outdoors while the boat tied up to the pier. The people in the waiting room eventually began to move slowly out into the fog and the blow, but Karen was first in line when the deckhand opened the gate and put down the gangway to let the inbound passengers off. They moved past her soundlessly, or nearly so, their faces hidden beneath their hoods, behind their scarves, their heads bent forward before the thrust of the northeast wind. Their breath issued from under their headgear in pearly clouds that settled on their clothing in the form of freezing mist.
When the last of the passengers had disembarked the deckhand touched Karen's elbow and she boarded, the others following behind her. None sat out on the wooden bench that followed the curve of the gunwale or on the other ice-cloaked seats on deck. The cabin was not warm either, but at least the gales could not get at them. No one said anything. A heavy old woman sat down next to Karen and vented a sigh -- of relief, of sorrow, of resignation: Karen couldn't tell. The woman kept her hood up but put her head back against the window. Karen could just make out her eyes. They were closed.
The ferry sat rocking at the wharf for several minutes after the last passenger had boarded and been seated. The motor hadn't been shut off, though. It idled as the hull rose and fell with the waves rolling in from the open sea, diminished and muted by the bay but sizable nevertheless. Captain Thurlow moved around the wheelhouse obviously killing time. Karen knew him well from a lifetime of traveling back and forth from her childhood home to Portland and, in her later years, far beyond. She hadn't been home now for several years, but nothing seemed to have changed. Capt. Thurlow hadn't aged, nor, so far as she could tell, had the boat, although it was wooden and covered with many coats of green and gray paint. Karen wondered what they were waiting for.
She found out when the deckhand and another man dressed in a long black coat wheeled the coffin into the cabin. She turned to look out of the window behind her and saw the hearse parked on the dock. She turned back in time to see the deckhand and the undertaker lift the coffin off its carriage and place it against the far bulkhead. "It won't move there," the undertaker said. The deckhand nodded. Karen watched the man in black plunge out into the whipping wind, holding his hat on with a thin, gloved hand, his scarf flapping behind him. He got into the hearse, backed off the wharf, and drove into the warren of cobbled waterfront streets.
"We're just about set to sail, folks," Capt. Thurlow said, sticking his bearded face out of the wheelhouse. He nodded to the hand who put up the hood of his yellow slicker and plunged out again onto the deck. He hauled in the steel gangway, closed the gate in the gunwale, and pushed off with a gaff as the Abenaki hooted twice and began to back into the bay.
Karen sat and stared at the coffin. She found that she was curious about it. Who was in it and where was he or she going? "The Captain would know," the woman beside her said. Karen started and looked up, but the woman was looking at the coffin too, not at her. Karen cast a glance about the cabin and saw that everyone else was looking at the coffin as well. They must all have been thinking the same thought. It made Karen uneasy to be a part of such a gloomy assemblage. She got up, walked to the door of the wheelhouse, and stood there looking out the windshield as Capt. Thurlow guided his ferry, steering carefully to dodge the hundreds of clumps of ice. When he hit a relatively clear stretch of open water he glanced over his shoulder.
"Hello, Miss," he said. "It's nice to see you again. How long has it been since your last trip?"
Karen moved to stand beside him. "Five years," she said. She threw back her hood and unwrapped her scarf so that the lower half of her face was no longer covered and her words would not be muffled as she spoke them. Her long dark hair fell loosely over her shoulders. "It's nice to see you again, too. I wasn't sure you'd still be here."
Thurlow made a sound halfway between a snort and a laugh. "Not you, too! Why do people think I'd want to retire?" He gave the wheel a half-turn. "Everyone thinks I'll go out of my mind -- from the boredom," he said, easing the steel wheel through his rough hands. "But it's impossible to get bored. Weather changes the view every minute, and I never get tired of it." The bow pushed the black water into the mist. There was no sound other than the mutter of the motor, not even the cry of a tern.
"You've not changed much either," the captain said.
"Nice of you to say so," Karen replied.
"I take it since you're traveling alone that you're not married yet?"
"Not yet, maybe not ever. Why do people think I want to get married?" The captain gave her a droll look and steered clear of a large floating chunk of ice.
"Everybody probably thinks you'll go out of your mind -- from the boredom," he said.
"I'm never bored," she said.
He laughed. "I saw that one coming. Look!" He pointed to a seal pup on an ice floe. "It's beautiful out here, but the waters are tricky. You've got to keep your eyes open all the time." But it seemed to Karen that there was no time, that it did not exist, that the ferry lay becalmed in a bubble of silence upon black waters amid a universe of mist. "You'll have to excuse me a minute," he said.
Karen shook off her revery. She looked out the window and saw that they were approaching one of the islands. She moved out of the wheelhouse and sat down again next to the old woman who was beginning to gather her things together.
"Who is in the coffin?"
"I forgot to ask," Karen said. "Does it make a difference?"
"I don't suppose so." The ferry nudged the landing, the deck hand threw a couple of hawsers over bollards and put the old woman ashore. When they were back at sea Karen went into the wheelhouse again.
"So, you're going to the Christmas reunion, I take it?" Capt. Thurlow asked. Karen nodded. "You're not the only one."
Karen looked at him and then at the other passengers in their gray hoods sitting along the outer bulkhead. "You mean there's some of my family aboard? I don't recognize them." She stood quietly for a moment. She'd already gotten her sea legs back, for she hardly noticed the motion of the deck. Now and then a swell smacked the bow with a dull sound as the Abenaki cut through the slaty water. "And they don't seem to recognize me, either. No one's said a word except that old woman who got off."
"Probably that's because they can't," Thurlow said squinting ahead.
Karen started. "You mean the coffin?"
"Who is it?"
"Your Aunt Julia," he said.
Karen blinked. "I hadn't heard." She blinked again. "I was probably en route." Aunt Julia was the one who had made the collection of vials filled with sand that lay in the bottom drawer of one of the chests in the master bedroom of the family home on Big Chebague.
Julia had liked to take day trips to various beaches here and there along the Maine coast. Sometimes, when she'd been younger, she had ranged as far along as Cape Cod and Long Island Sound on the Connecticut coast. She would take a glass vial out of her purse and stoop to sample the world. Later, at home, in a room faint with lavender and shadow, Karen supposed, Aunt Julia would label the vial and lay it in the batting, inter it in her bureau drawer with the others.
She would exhume them from time to time, no doubt, when the day closed in, or perhaps the season. She would enjoy recollecting the day she trod on Number Twelve; Number Three had been a fine blue afternoon, the combers like white roosters coming to take her seed, sand smoothening against her nail.
Karen imagined now that the dark, as some child slid the drawer to, would close over Aunt Julia's strands, the conch of stillness echoing among the hours sequestered against that day when, in a fine riptide of shattered glass, all her being would come together in a dune of years, and she would be lost at last in siling time.
"Do you know where she was when she died?" Karen asked Capt. Thurlow.
"The coffin was shipped from Florida," he said.
"Her last trip," Karen remarked, looking at the long box through the doorway. "I wonder what she was doing there?"
"Visiting, I would imagine," he said. "Soaking up some heat into those old bones."
They made three more stops among the rocks of Casco Bay. The passengers one by one arose, bent their hooded heads against the brooding wind, and stepped ashore to disappear into the bleak winter light. Karen sat beside the coffin until there was no one left aboard excepting herself, the crew of two, and Aunt Julia.
When she saw that the Abenaki was approaching Big Chebague at last Karen arose and walked back into the wheelhouse. "Thank you for the ride, Captain Thurlow," she said. "My aunt and I will be leaving you now, but I imagine I'll see you on the way back."
"Without a doubt." The old sailor never took his eyes off the sea. "I'll be here. It's simple," he said. "The people can't be left stranded." As the Abenaki neared the ferry landing Thurlow looked through tired, bloodshot eyes. "I feel great." He nodded his shaggy head when they were tied up. The wind was bitter as the deckhand took the coffin out onto the deck and then ashore. Karen moved to leave and waved. "I could do this forever," the captain said and waved back.