The Silence That Followed
If my father’s death at sea hadn’t been an accident, I knew that it might have something to do with what he had found working the grounds of the Crane estate the weekend before his death. He had come home at dusk, lumbering downstairs with a decaying crate that smelled of newly-turned dirt. It wasn’t unusual for him to bring work home with him, but the box he hauled down the steps stood out now in my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about how he hadn’t started working on whatever was in the crate that night, and now it was gone.
To find out more, I set out in my pickup for Crane castle on one of those cold, blustery winter evenings when most of the town huddles underneath scratchy wool sweaters or stands within a wood stove’s narrow circumference of heat. I drove through the center of town, past the First Congregational Church on Town Hill, the one known for the single devil’s footprint embedded in one of the rocks near the base of the spire. According to legend, the devil and the first minister battled for days for the souls of the townspeople until the devil was sent tumbling down from the spire. Near the Heard House and Whipple House, relics of the town’s Puritan and revolutionary pasts, I saw the Ipswich River where as a kid I’d skated until my ankles surrendered, calloused and swollen. How different my journey was now, not the untroubled meanderings of childhood but the necessary search for answers about what happened to my father. Even the frozen river was now clogged with branches reaching out from below the surface, a far cry from the assured current that flowed in other seasons into the ocean several miles away.
The reality of my father’s death had escaped me, perhaps a conditioned response to the weeks he’d spent out at sea. This is where I thought he was, except when my mind would stir back to the moment on the boat when we found my father, grave faces pointing to the yellow rain slicker billowing on the surface of the ocean. I had joined the search party knowing that there was little I could do to help. At eighteen, I knew less about the ocean and fishing than my sixteen-year-old brother Patrick, and especially on that search boat, working with my father’s men, I was ashamed. I awkwardly helped the others drag him into the boat, feeling the sickening hardness of his arm and chest, frozen by the Atlantic. His face had turned to me, eyes wide with surprise, perhaps for the unspeakable leap to the other world and whatever it may hold or for the necessity of letting go of all his life had given him.
At Town Green I took a left onto Argilla Road, following the winding pavement as it gradually lost all its connection with the town, embracing instead the thick marshland and waterways that lead toward the beach. I drove past the abandoned shack that teemed with life on mid-summer days, but on days like these, stood like a slumbering sentry.
Occasionally, rocks spun up from the gravel lot, hitting the delicate underside of the pickup, almost as if they too were surprised by my January arrival. There were a few cars on the Ipswich side; there’s always someone there, much the way I’ve passed roadside restaurants on Route One in the middle of the night and seen lonely cars dotting the parking lots, leaving me wondering who had passed underneath those flickering signs and what had brought them there in the deepest part of the night.
I bundled up with more layers than I thought I’d need, a conditioned response from years of my mother’s advice. Beyond the dunes the unfettered wind strikes boldly and without hesitation.
At the top of the boardwalk, I glimpsed the ocean I had avoided since my father’s death—the white caps breaking on the open sea and Plum Island, a barrier beach taking the brunt of oncoming waves. My bones ached from cold and wind. I tried to protect myself from the wind-blown sand, remembering how on other trips to the beach I had returned only to find granules of sand in the crook of my arm, or between the second and third layer of sweatshirts, or even between the shoulder blades, places where I had felt protected from the relentless sand.
Up on a hill, Crane’s castle stood brooding in the darkening sky. I followed the beach until it bent away from the boardwalk, a place where I had once come across hundreds of sand dollars at low tide, and found the wooded pathway through the dunes.
The path was no mystery—as kids we had snuck into concerts on the Grand Allee during the Fourth of July—but everything else about that night was.