Near Mansion Beach
In summer, we are not surrounded by the great whoosh of the winter wind. The first day after a very long Fourth of July weekend celebration is not peppered with fireworks and boat horns, instead, softer, gentler, sounds fill the air.
I realize it first when I go outside, to hang clothes on the line in the backyard, east of my house. A light clanging, almost maritime, floats over the hills. I look up, baffled, and realize there is more of a breeze than I realized. My neighbor's flag is fluttering, all sharp red white and blue against a pale summer, and it is the halyard bumping the pole that I am hearing.
It is another of those lessons in sound and space: I never hear it inside, even when the south windows are wide open, as they are most of the summer, and the lapping of summer-small waves and the laughter of children playing at the water's edge rolls up from the shore. The flagpole is just south of the old farmhouse on the hill above Mansion Beach, and from my kitchen I see only the top of it and on the most still of days can barely tell if the flag has been hoisted.
From my clothesline, a few scant yards to the east, the whole pole is in full view. It all makes sense then, when I go out to check on the dryness of the laundry, I stop and wonder if maybe it is something beyond my sight I am hearing. The breeze has abated, flag flutters and falls.
It is just one more thing to put on my list, with the bell offshore than I might hear on a winter night, or even the clanking of some metal on the other side of the island at the transfer station, sounds I know I would not be given in a busier, traffic filled place, ones I find oddly comforting or fascinating merely for the fact I hear them. They give me a sense of place and direction and weather.
Yet, I am one of those people who does not notice an errant fog horn beyond the initial early wondering what that odd sound to which I had become unaccustomed could be. At first, it sounded loud and close. Soon, it was distant background noise, noticed only when someone else mentioned it, and then it faded from my consciousness after only a few blasts. Perhaps I just think it is always foggy somewhere, or I am used to hearing, especially in this season of open windows, something mechanical drifting in off the water, a horn, an engine, an echo of one or the other.
My dog, I am grateful, has taken my lead. While other folk worry about their pets escaping during fireworks, breaking through screens and running off, terrified, to find themselves lost on a strange island as happened this holiday, or being wrapped in “thunder shirts” which I am told help with fireworks as well as storms, Autumn fusses a bit then resigns herself for the duration.
This year, the night of the announced fireworks, the grand display off Town Beach, she made a circuit of the yard and barked at the first volley, and a few following, those single bangs so like gunshot. She barked at an imagined intruder, then, getting no suitable response, came back inside, even before I expected, and flopped down on a piece of cardboard I had put over the rug one day when her paws were muddy. I left it there, in anticipation of open doors and summer dust and morning dew, a combination that leaves her furry feet both damp and dirty.
The fireworks went on and on, what I thought was the grand finale was nowhere near that. Through it all Autumn displayed no fear, no anxiousness, no interest after ascertaining she was not going to get a direct response to her own noise. I was half expecting her to yawn and go to sleep.
The next night, the night of the Fourth of July, there were more fireworks than I had anticipated, and I went outside, curious at the odd sounds. There was the expected popping out over the New Harbor, a spattering of Rice Krispie-sounding colors off the east beach, more single shots somewhere in the west, it seemed, but noise travels in odd ways so I am still unsure.
There was rumbling, distant thunder I had thought at first, then realized it had to be coming from the mainland, the sound of shoreline fireworks floating out over the water, where it is unimpeded and travels so far and so well.
I stood in the dark of the barnyard and wondered if I had heard it before and did not remember, or if the big displays there had been the same nights as those here and the sound intermingled and what the heck was that over in the west, anyway, then I realized I had walked out into the most magical of so many magical Block Island summer nights.
It was not the stars. As wonderful as they in summer, in winter they are sharp and bright and white in a black sky, more defined when the air is clearer and there is less glow from artificial lighting, more visible when there are no leaves in the trees.
It was fireflies that startled me, then seized my attention, dots of flashing gold, dancing around the edges of the yard where the grass is tall. I think of them in late spring and, then, have every expectation of seeing them soon, but somehow, always, my mind is otherwise occupied and my first encounter with them is the same wonder and delight. Every year I stand and marvel at this minor miracle in my yard, there by none of my own doing, like the gentle surf washing the shore, or the enveloping cricketsong that comes in the evening, these little creatures carrying their own lanterns, in their own way lighting the night.