Without the Sound

Fri, 01/06/2017 - 10:45am

The rain has abated at last, the drizzle that began yesterday as we approached the big church on Chapel Street to attend a funeral dreaded for the fact of it marking the end of a life cut too short. It proved to be quite beautiful in its celebration, filled with both ritual and simplicity, with the formality of the ancient church but also the personal touches that we expect, we take for granted will be part of the service, in our little town.

The ground was not yet soggy, rather it was soft underfoot in the cemetery, the grass a mat, light years from the parched hard earth it can be on a summer day when the longing is for shade or breeze or both, the lingering footnote who succumbed to the heat. Neither had it the unyielding harshness of deep winter, remembered years later by the inches, measured and marked, of frost in the ground when the grave was dug.

It was raining, enough that some umbrellas were pushed opened but it is Block Island and we tend to dress for “weather” over ceremony, certain anyone who spent any length of time here would understand there was no disrespect intended. It was drear but there was no downpour to drown out the words of the priest, no pelting rain to soak those standing around the grave, a spot of land in an old cemetery, like so much surrounding it, ground made sacred not so much by spoken blessings as the generations laid to rest over the centuries.

 I grew up on Block Island; this cemetery was the one I knew before it was tended by the town and of a Sunday afternoon, neighbors would be there, clipping grass on the plots of the long departed, trying to make sense of tangled family trees. My mother often spoke of the fact it was not denominational; a particular concern, I eventually understood, grown from the separation in death of her own family in her hometown in Massachusetts, brothers buried not in different sections but in wholly different graveyards, the sole determining factor religion.

And so it happened on the way to the service officiated by the priest from the St. Andrew Church, I walked past the gravestone of the man who had handed me my first Bible in the Baptist Church on the hill above the harbor, a memory that had been stirred only a few days earlier.

The weather held, marginally, then worsened as night came, the wind picking up, blowing hard and cold and wet out of the east, shutting down the boat for yet another day. 

It has been a strange end of year. Christmas and New Year's Day have fallen on Sunday previously but I do not remember it feeling so everlastingly odd as it did this year, even before this tragic too-soon death cast its shadow over the latter long weekend.

A boat not running is hardly a rarity of early January but what might have felt a sort of extension of a long weekend another year this time was one more day not back toward whatever normal has become to us. The rain kept up throughout the day, the sort of rain that does not seem all that bad until a corner is turned and what was a mist on the wind turns to a wall of pure wet.

It was after dark that I turned off the volume coming from the television, white noise that became a distraction when I picked up the phone. Later, after hanging up — or, more accurately, hitting “end” wondering how long that expression “hanging up” will survive — we were in that after-the-rain-before-the-wind-lull, when the rumble of the surf is softened by the moisture filled air. The lights of the harbor across the water were fuzzy, from spray, or salted windows, but without the sound inside I could hear the low mournful call of the fog horn, a signal to which I am so accustomed I am taken aback every time I recall it is not a part of the natural world.

When the storm ends after the sunset there is no rainbow, no last gasp of golden light falling across the land, illuminating the newly washed white trim that punctuates so many cedar shingled houses, giving a sharpness to the old Victorian hotels around the harbor.

 At night it is the sound, or the absence of it in the world turned quiet, if only for a short time in January, a sort of brokered, transitory, peace that marks the end of the storm.

 The promise of sun tomorrow is cautionary, clouds scattered by afternoon, a sun that will rise stealthily, providing no more than ambient light in the morning, pale blue and grays working their way across the sky.

 The beach will have been altered, by the ocean and the wind. The wrack line, defining the reach of the high, storm tide, will be near the toe of the dunes, the gentle, mobile hills whose east faces will be layered with sand on its seasonal march inland. In winter there are days the beach feels as alive as the ocean, moving, shifting, building, in a way that can go unnoticed unless one travels the Neck Road every day, or stops the morning after the storm, when the water is flattened white, its strength sapped as it tries to keep pushing, pushing, pushing up the sloped shore.

The dunes swell with an east wind; out toward the south end of Crescent Beach, the black sand, filled with particles of iron, reappears, the most tangible sign of the ever-changing nature of the shore.

The ocean remains our comfort and our refuge, providing a constancy of our lives, these tides that rise and fall, waiting for no man — or woman.