My grandmother’s old blue bicycle clattered loudly on the uneven dirt road. I wasn’t in any hurry to get to Vera’s since she never wore a watch and the dusty, wooden clock in her kitchen ticked loudly for another time zone.
I reached my pink-tipped fingers out to grab another raspberry from the bushes as I trundled along. If I’d thought to bring an old ice cream tub, I could have picked it full without getting off my bike. I popped the berry into my mouth and hummed a few broken lines from a tune that I only half-knew... something about the sea.
The road turned and the trees got thick overhead, cooling me as the berry juice covered my tongue and lips. It was going to be a hot day. Another bend in the road, another pothole made by the big potato trucks, and then I could see Vera’s old cottage, half-swallowed by apple trees. Beyond that was her son Donald’s farm, and beyond that, the lighthouse and the beach.
Vera limped around the side of the garden shed with a cracked plant pot in one hand and a short, dark rope in the other. The rope twisted eerily around her wrist. I hopped off my bike to unlatch the old gate that was supposed to be propped against the fence, overgrown with hop vines.
"Who fixed the gate?” I asked. I leaned my bicycle up against the shed and the peeling, green paint flaked off as I brushed against it.
“Donald’s got some hired man down here for the summer,” Vera grumbled. “He’s from Gaspe... a young French fella. Donald keeps sending him up here to fix things,” she snorted. “He’s supposed to come this afternoon to work on the roof.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” I glanced up to the yellow, mossy shingles as she led me behind the shed to where she’d been building some kind of miniature hut with dead leaves and broken plant pots.
“Good?” Vera snapped as she unceremoniously shoved the black garter snake into his new house. “The poor snake’s nerves are fried. He’d lived under that gate for years! That French fella tried to kill the poor little thing.”
“I’m sure Don means well,” I smiled. “Where’s Barty?”
“Hiding on the veranda,” Vera sighed. “He’s scared of the snake.”
I whistled for the dog and Barty stuck his nose around the side of the house. “Come on, boy. It’s not a cobra,” I told him. He whimpered and disappeared around the corner again.
Vera sent me out into the garden to pick the cucumbers and cauliflower that she needed for her pickles. I picked until the old apple basket was full, then I dumped the veggies in a pile on Vera’s kitchen table before going out to fill the basket again. She cut everything up while the pendulum on the old clock ticked and chimed.
An hour later the dirt from the garden had mixed with my sweat to make a mud paste over my hands, feet, and legs. As I brought the last load in, I looked out the window at the beach - the water was so blue.
“Oh, go on! Go!” Vera snapped, jovially. I hugged her hard, then ran out of the kitchen with Barty. “Be back in half an hour for lunch!” Vera roared after us.
I raced by Donald’s farm and paused where the lane ended to kick off my tattered grass and berry-stained sneakers. It was one thing to have dirty shoes but it was another matter entirely to have dirty shoes that smelled like rotting seaweed. I chucked my t-shirt on a piece of driftwood and my shorts joined it a moment later. Barty wandered off down the beach to chase seagulls. I whistled for him and he completely ignored me.
I waded out and dove in. The relief from the heat was incredible. I swam parallel to the shore, enjoying the cool ripples of water as they rushed over my skin. Through the green murk I could see the white clam shells and the little hermit crabs that were scattered along the ridged sand. The beach was protected by a long reef, so the water was fairly still and prefect for swimming.
“Hi!” I stopped swimming when I heard the greeting and stayed low, only letting my head show above the water. There was a man standing there, smiling. He looked like he was about twenty-ish. “I’m Guy!” he called. “Are you Sarah?”
“Yes,” I said, confused. “How do you know my name?”
“I’m working for Donald, but I ‘ave to go up to Vera’s. I was wondering if you wanted to walk with me.”
“I’m in my underwear!” I snapped, as I suddenly remembered that very important fact. Had he been watching me? What a creep!
"Oh,” he said. His cheeks went pink. “Well, maybe I’ll see you later. Sorry.”
As soon as I was sure he was gone, I got dressed and went back to Vera’s. The French guy didn’t seem to be around, which was just as well because the seawater had soaked through my clothes, since I’d been in too much of an angry rush to let myself dry a little.
“Ugh,” Vera sighed as she saw me. “Go and put the dress on.”
I stomped upstairs to the guestroom and dug the old dress out of the closet. The pink flowers had faded, but it was still pretty. It was the only thing of Vera’s that was small enough to fit me. We’d figured that out last spring when I’d fallen into the manure pile at the bottom of the garden.
Vera had cold fishcakes and hot tea waiting for me at the kitchen table. She eyed me through her thick glasses as I ate, then said, “You wouldn’t weed the garden this afternoon, would you? Someone needs to hoe around the turnips and my hip is too sore.”
“Yeah, sure,” I sighed, still cross about being caught in my underwear. How much had that Peeping Tom seen? I drank my tea, put my dishes in the sink, and went out the back door. The hoe was leaning on the wall and I grabbed it and set to work.
A gentle voice drifted down from the roof above. “I really am sorry I bothered you.”
"It’s fine,” I grumbled, irritated that he’d be watching me all afternoon.
I hoed the lambs quarters out of the red dirt as Guy scraped the moss from the red shingles. When I stole the odd glance at him, I could see that he was suffering up there in the sun more than I was in the lush garden. The sweat soaked his hair and just when I was about to break down and get him some water, he climbed down and got a drink from the garden hose. When the clouds covered the sky and the air grew still, Vera called us in to eat. We had fishcakes again - hot this time.
I wished Guy would go away.
“You’d better stay the night,” Vera said. “You’ll never bike home before the rain.”
I nodded. She was right. The clock chimed once, awkwardly, and Vera and I whipped our heads around in time to see the both hands fall to point at six. The humidity and heat had expanded the metal hands so they wouldn’t hold.
“It’s coming!” I gasped.
“Maybe,” Vera chuckled. “Don’t get excited - the clock isn’t always right.”
“What’s coming?” Guy asked. I’d forgotten about him, but he was still sitting at the table, eating supper.
“The Phantom Ship,” Vera smiled eagerly. This was one of the few subject that didn’t make her cranky. “It’s a ghost ship that sails the Northumberland Straight when the weather is just right.”
“Really?” Guy looked skeptical. “What ship is it the ghost of?”
Vera shrugged and sat down as I started to clear the table. Her arthritis was bothering her a lot lately. “No one knows. Some people think it’s Captain Kidd coming back for his treasure, some think it’s an Acadian deportation ship that sank. There have been all kinds of ships lost around Prince Edward Island... especially near that reef.” She gestured vaguely in the right direction. “But I used to know an old lady who said that the natives used to see... something... before white men and their ships ever came here, so that’s a pretty good argument that it’s just swamp gas.”
Guy walked over and dried the dishes as I washed them. He didn’t know which cupboards to put them in so he stacked them on the counter.
“So it’s just a boat?” he asked.
“It’s a great ship!” Vera sighed, annoyed at his lack of imagination. “It’s in distress, ready to go down with all hands! Sarah’s never seen it but I’ve seen it six times in my life. She’s spent a lot of nights here waiting up for that thing.”
I wanted to see The Phantom Ship more than I’d ever wanted anything. I caught Guy looking at me and I frowned. What was his problem?
I wasn’t sure if the thunder woke me up or if it was the sound of the thrown pinecone hitting the window pane. I’d waited up for hours but the ship didn’t come and the sky had cleared up enough to reveal the yellow moon. The clock had been wrong and I was crushed. Another cone bonged off the glass, then another. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and went to the window. Guy stood in the rain, looking up at me. He pointed to the beach, excitedly, and as the thunder rumbled closer, I saw what he saw - flashes out on the water. My mouth fell open. I motioned for him to wait, then I pulled on the dress and tiptoed out of my room. He’d stayed up to watch for the ship? For me?
“Don’t get hit by lightening,” Vera mumbled from her room across the hall. I gave up all pretense of sneaking out and thundered down the old stairs as the clock bonged and the hands fell for the second time that night.
Guy was waiting for me on the porch, but I barely looked at him. I only had eyes for the storming, gray sea and those flashing lights. We ran down the road, ignoring the muddy puddles that splashed over our sneakers. The lights disappeared behind the dunes and we veered off the road, chasing them. Guy was strong from working so hard on Donald’s farm. His legs pumped and he pushed himself up the sliding sand in his stiff, wet jeans, while I fell behind. I looked down at the mounds of sand that filled my shoes, and then a strong hand closed around my arm and Guy pulled me up as he climbed the dune a second time.
The wind howled freakishly around us and the rain crashed down from the black void of sky above. The beaten spruce trees along the shore creaked in agony and then the loudest boom of thunder I ever heard made me crouch down in fear. Guy was not afraid and he held my hand as I stood with my hair and dress plastered to my body.
There was something on the water. Something big. I squinted through the rain at the three vertical lines and the dark mass underneath. The thunder detonated and as the lightening lit up the sky, I saw it. A great ship in distress, fighting the storm that was tearing the timbers apart. The wind ripped the sails and brandished them violently around and the lanterns on the deck swung as the hull pitched up and down in the foaming, white waves. Someone seemed to be steering the vessel away from the shore, but I couldn’t see any crew.
The ship was moving faster now and Guy and I raced along the tops of the dunes, trying to keep up with it as it approached the reef. Could I hear splintering wood or was it only thunder that tore up the air around us? The ship moved faster than we could and it disappeared around the edge of the coast. Guy pulled me along as we chased after it, but when we rounded the corner, it was gone.
“Did you see him?” Vera asked in response to the squeaking floorboard outside her room.
“Who?” I asked. “Guy?”
“No, the sailor. Did you see him fall overboard?”
I frowned. “No... just the ship.”
“Hm,” Vera chuckled. “Maybe you will next time.” I waited for a moment but when she didn’t say anything else, I started for my room. “I used to look for him,” Vera said, suddenly. “Everything would wash up on shore when a ship sank... even the sailors. The old people buried them in the dunes. I used to wonder if his crew wasn’t looking for him, too.”
The next morning, Guy was waiting for me on the porch. His boots were dirty from working in the barn and he was tired. He took my hand and we walked down to the shore to look around. The beach was littered with driftwood, black ropes of seaweed, and shells. Guy squatted over an old piece of splintered wood with a big spike in it.
“Vera told me there was a wharf here once,” I said.
“Yeah, it must be from de wharf.” He sounded skeptical.
Black things crunched under our shoes as we walked and Guy let go of my hand to pick one up.
“It’s a mermaid’s purse,” I explained. “Well, it’s really a ray egg, but Vera always calls it a mermaid’s purse. They’re supposed to lead you to treasure.” Guy didn’t answer and when I followed his gaze, I could see why. The edge of a dune had been eaten away by the storm and the exposed treasure glistened in the sun. We knelt down next to it, in awe of the riches. There were diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, all caught up in an ivory cage. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.
Guy frowned and touched the smooth, white ivory with his rough, cracked fingers. He looked at his hand for a moment, then slowly touched the side of his own chest. “Tabernache,” he whispered. He reached out and dusted at a mound of sand next to the treasure until two hollow eyes appeared, then teeth. I gasped and he crossed himself.
The wind picked up as we stared in wonder at the sea glass that had been caught up by the sailor’s ribcage in the storm. The sand blew into our eyes and dusted over the treasure, slowly beginning to cover it back up.
“We’d better go and tell Donald,” I said.
Guy looked at the mermaid’s purses that lay all around us, and nodded.
Check out Mary's website here http://www.maryjwebster.com/
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