Coastliners a novel, p.25
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.25

           Joanne Harris

  I put my art folder against the wall and my case under the packing-crate bed, then went out again onto the dune. By now the sun had mellowed a little, and the tide was going out. Far across the bay, a single sail wavered against the sun’s reflection, far away beyond the protective ring of La Jetée. I could not make out its shape with any accuracy, or imagine who could be sailing so far out at this time. I began to make my way down toward La Goulue, occasionally glancing at the distant sail. Birds yarked at me as they wheeled. It was difficult in the troubling light to identify it correctly, no one from the village in any case. No Salannais would be so ham-handed with his steering, tacking feebly, losing the wind, finally ending up adrift, sail loose and flapping, as the current bore the craft away.

  As I came closer to the side of the cliff I saw Aristide watching from his usual place. Lolo was sitting next to him with a cooler of fruit for sale and a pair of binoculars around his neck.

  “Who is that, anyway? He’ll end up on La Jetée at this rate.”

  The old man nodded. Disapproval lined his face. Not for the careless sailor—in the islands you have to learn to look after yourself, and to ask for help is a shameful thing—but for the good boat left adrift. People come and go. Property endures.

  “You don’t think it’s someone from La Houssinière?”

  “Neh. Even an Houssin knows not to go out that far. Some tourist, perhaps, with more money than sense. Or something adrift. You can’t be sure at this distance.”

  I looked down onto the crowded beach. Gabi and Laetitia were there. Laetitia was sitting on one of the old pilings at the side of the cliff.

  “D’you want a melon slice?” suggested Lolo, looking enviously down at Laetitia. “I’ve only got two left.”

  “Okay.” I smiled at him. “I’ll take them both.”


  The melon was sweet and good against my dry throat. Away from Adrienne, I found my appetite had returned, and I ate slowly, sitting in the shade of the winding cliff-side path. I thought the unidentified sail looked a little closer now, though that was probably a trick of the light.

  “I’m sure I know that boat,” said Lolo, squinting through his binoculars. “I’ve been keeping an eye on it for ages.”

  “Let me see,” I said, taking a few steps toward him. Lolo handed over the binoculars and I looked through them at the distant sail.

  It was typically red, quadrangular, and bore no visible markings. The boat itself—long and slim, little more in fact than a skiff—was low in the water, as if it had been flooded. My heart gave a sudden lurch.

  “D’you recognize it?” urged Lolo.

  I nodded. “I think so. It looks like Flynn’s boat.”

  “Are you sure? We could ask Aristide. He knows all the boats. He’ll be able to tell for sure.”

  The old man looked through the binoculars in silence for a few moments. “It’s him, heh,” he declared at last. “Far out, and drifting, but I’d lay money on it.”

  “What’s he want out there?” asked Lolo. “He’s right out on La Jetée. D’you think he’s run aground?”

  “Neh.” Aristide snorted. “How could he? All the same”—he got to his feet—“it looks like trouble.”

  The identification of the craft had changed things. Rouget was not some unknown tourist, drunk in charge of a hired boat. Within a few minutes a small group had gathered on the top of the cliff, watching the distant boat with anxious curiosity.

  Aristide wanted to take his Cécilia out straightaway, but Alain beat him to it in the Eleanore 2. He wasn’t the only one. Word reached Angélo’s that there was a problem at La Goulue, and ten minutes later there were half a dozen people at the beach, armed with hooks, poles, and lengths of rope. Angélo himself was there—selling shots of devinnoise at fifteen francs each—and Omer, Toinette, Capucine, and the Guénolés. Farther down the beach, a few tourists watched and speculated. From the cliff the sea was silver-green and crepey, barely moving.

  It took more than an hour to reach La Jetée. It felt like longer. Rouget’s little skiff had gone beyond the sandbanks, too close to the shallows for the bigger boats to reach it easily. Alain had to maneuver the Eleanore 2 into position around the jutting sandbanks while Ghislain pulled in Flynn’s boat, using hooks and poles to keep it a safe distance from Eleanore 2’s hull, then together, haul the rescued craft out toward the open sea. Aristide, who had insisted on coming too, held his place at the rudder, voicing his pessimism at intervals. The wind was strong outside the bay, the sea was riding high, and I had to stand beside Alain at the stern of the Eleanore 2 to control the swaying boom as the little boat pitched and rocked. So far there had been no sign of Flynn at all, either in the boat or in the water.

  I was glad no one commented on my presence. I had been the one to recognize the sail in the first place. That gave me a kind of right, in their eyes, to be there. Alain, sitting at the prow of the Eleanore 2, had the best view of the proceedings, and kept up a running commentary as Ghislain maneuvered Flynn’s boat into range. He had fastened a couple of old car tires to the side of the Eleanore 2 to protect the hull from a possible shock.

  Aristide was typically gloomy. “I knew there was trouble,” he declared, for the fifth time. “I’d had that feeling, just like the night the storms took my Péoch ha Labour. A kind of doomed feeling.”

  “Indigestion, more like,” muttered Alain.

  Aristide ignored him. “We’ve had too much good luck, that’s what it is,” he said. “It was bound to turn eventually. Why else would this happen to Rouget, of all people? The lucky one?”

  “It may be nothing,” said Alain.

  Aristide threw up his hands. “I’ve been sailing for sixty years, and I’ve seen it happen twenty times or more. Man goes out alone, gets careless, turns his back on the boom—wind changes—good night!” He put his finger on his throat in an expressive gesture.

  “You don’t know that happened,” Alain said stubbornly.

  “I know what I know,” replied Aristide. “Happened to Ernest Pinoz in 1949. Swept him right over the side. Dead before he hit the water.”

  At last we got the little boat within range of the Eleanore 2, and Xavier jumped aboard. Flynn was lying motionless at the bottom. He must have been lying there for hours, Xavier guessed, because there was a stripe of sunburn across the side of his face. With some difficulty Xavier lifted Flynn under the arms, struggling to move him within reach of the rocking Eleanore 2 while Alain tried to secure the boat. Around them the little skiff’s useless sail flapped and slapped, the loosened ropes flying dangerously in all directions. Though he did not recognize it, Xavier knew better than to touch the thing—something that looked like the soggy remains of a plastic bag—wrapped around Flynn’s arm and trailing pieces of itself in the water.

  At last, after several attempts, the boat was secure.

  “Told you, heh?” announced Aristide with grim satisfaction. “Takes more than a lucky red bead to save you, once your time’s come.”

  “He’s not dead,” I said in a voice I did not recognize.

  “No,” panted Alain, hauling Flynn’s unresponsive body from the waterlogged skiff into the Eleanore 2. “Not yet, anyway.”

  We laid him down in the stern of the boat, and Xavier put up the warning flag. With unsteady hands I kept busy with the Eleanore 2’s sails until I could trust myself to look at Flynn without shaking. He was already burning up. His eyes opened occasionally, but he did not respond when I spoke to him. Through the semitransparent thing that clung to his skin, I could see red lines of infection shooting up his arm. I tried to keep the tremor from my voice, but even so I sounded screamy to myself, dangerously close to hysteria. “Alain, we have to get that thing off him!”

  “That’s a job for Hilaire,” said Alain shortly. “Just let’s get the boat back to the shore as quickly as we can. Keep him out of the sun. Trust me; there’s nothing more we can do here.”

  It was good advice, and we obeyed, Aristide holdin
g a piece of sailcloth over the unconscious man’s face while Alain and I maneuvered the Eleanore 2 as quickly as we could into La Goulue. Even so—and with the good west wind at our backs—it took almost an hour. By then there were more would-be helpers waiting on the shore, people with flasks, ropes, blankets. Rumors were already flying. Someone ran to fetch Hilaire.

  No one could be certain what the thing—still wrapped around Flynn’s arm—could be. Aristide thought it was a box jellyfish, washed up the freakish trail of the Gulf Stream from warmer seas. Matthias, who had come over with Angélo, dismissed the likelihood with scorn.

  “It’s not,” he snorted. “Are you blind? It’s a Portuguese man-of-war. Remember the time we had them off La Jetée? 1951, it must have been, heh, hundreds of them riding the edge of the Nid’Poule. Some of them came all the way to La Goulue, and we had to drag them up away from the shoreline with rakes.”

  “Box jellyfish,” said Aristide stoutly, shaking his head. “I’d lay money on it.”

  Matthias took him up on that, to the tune of a hundred francs. Several other people followed suit.

  Whatever the thing was, it was no easy task to remove. The tentacles—if indeed those feathery, frondlike ribbons were tentacles—adhered to bare skin wherever they had touched it. They clung there, defying all attempts to remove them cleanly.

  “It must have looked like a plastic bag, heh, floating in the water,” speculated Toinette. “He leaned over to scoop it up—”

  “Lucky he wasn’t swimming, heh. It would have been all over him. Those tentacles must be a couple of meters long, at least.”

  “Box jellyfish,” repeated Aristide with grim satisfaction. “Those marks are from the blood poisoning. Seen it before.”

  “Man-of-war,” protested Matthias. “When d’you ever see a box jellyfish this far north, heh?”

  “Cigarettes. That’s what you use for leeches,” said Omer La Patate.

  “Maybe a shot of devinnoise,” suggested Angélo.

  Capucine thought vinegar.

  Aristide was fatalistic, saying that if the thing was indeed a box jellyfish then Rouget was done for anyway. There was no antidote to that poison. He gave him twelve hours, maximum. Then Hilaire arrived with Charlotte, who was carrying a bottle of vinegar.

  “Vinegar,” said Capucine. “I said that would do it.”

  “Let me through,” grumbled Hilaire. He was gruffer than usual, hiding his anxiety behind a mask of irritation. “People think I’ve nothing better to do, heh. I’ve got Toinette’s goats to see to, and the horses from La Houssinière. Can’t people pay attention? Do they think I enjoy this kind of thing?” Anxiously the little group watched as Hilaire removed the clinging tentacles with tweezers and vinegar.

  “Box jellyfish,” said Aristide under his breath.

  “Head full of rocks,” replied Matthias.

  They took Flynn to Les Immortelles. It was the most sensible place, insisted Hilaire, with beds and medical supplies. An adrenaline injection, administered on the scene, was all Hilaire could give, and he was reluctant at this stage to make a prognosis. From his surgery he rang the coast, first for a doctor—a rapid motorboat was available in Fromentine in case of emergency—then to the coast guard to issue a jellyfish warning.

  So far no more of the creatures had been spotted at La Goulue, but the old measures were already in place at the new beach, with a cord and floaters stretched across the swimming area, and a net to filter out any unwanted visitors. Later, Alain and Ghislain would sail across to La Jetée to check there. It was a procedure sometimes used after the autumn storms.

  I lingered on the outside of the little group, feeling superfluous now that there was nothing useful left for me to do. Toinette volunteered to go to Les Immortelles with Rouget. There was talk of calling Père Alban.

  “Is it that bad?”

  Hilaire, who was not familiar with either of the disputed jellyfish types, could not say for sure. Lolo shrugged. “Aristide says by tomorrow we’ll know one way or another.”


  * * *

  I don’t believe in omens. In that I am not a typical islander. And yet the air was filled with them that evening; they rode the waves like gulls. A tide was turning somewhere, a dark one. I could feel it on the turn. I tried to imagine Flynn dying; Flynn dead. It was unthinkable. He was ours—the island’s—a piece of Les Salants. We had shaped him, and he us.

  As evening approached I went to Sainte-Marine’s shrine on the Pointe, spattered now with candle wax and guano. Someone had left a plastic doll’s head with the offerings on top of the altar. The head was very pink; the hair blond. There were candles burning there already. I put my hand in my pocket and took out the red coral bead. I turned it in the palm of my hand for a moment, then placed it on the altar. Sainte-Marine looked down, her stone face more ambiguous than ever. Was it a smile on the blunt features? Was that arm raised in a blessing?

  Santa Marina. Take back the beach, if that’s what you want. Take anything you like. But not this. Please. Not this.

  Something—a bird, perhaps—screamed in the dunes. It sounded like laughter.

  Toinette Prossage found me still sitting there. She touched my arm and I looked up; behind her, coming up the Pointe toward me, I could see more people. Some carried lanterns; I recognized the Bastonnets, the Guénolés, Omer, Angélo, Capucine. Behind them I could see Père Alban with his driftwood staff, and Soeur Thérèse and Soeur Extase, their coiffes bobbing against the sunset like birds.

  “I don’t care what Aristide says,” Toinette told me. “Sainte-Marine has been here longer than any of us, and there’s no knowing what other miracles she can perform. She brought us the beach, didn’t she?”

  I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. Behind Toinette the villagers were arriving in a line, some carrying flowers. I saw Lolo following at a distance, and in the village, a few tourists watching curiously.

  “I never said I wanted him to die,” protested Aristide. “But if he does, he’ll have earned his place in La Bouche. I’ll find him a plot next to my own son.”

  “There’s no call for any of this talk of dying and burials,” said Toinette. “The Saint won’t allow it. She’s Marine-de-la-Mer and she’s the Salannais’ special Saint. She won’t let us down.”

  “Heh, but Rouget isn’t a Salannais,” pointed out Matthias. “Sainte-Marine’s an island saint. Maybe she doesn’t care for mainlanders.”

  Omer shook his head. “The Saint may well have brought us the beach, but it was Rouget built the Bouch’ou.”

  Aristide grunted. “You’ll see,” he said. “Bad luck’s never far away in Les Salants. This proves it. Jellyfish in the bay, after all these years. Don’t tell me that will improve trade, heh?”

  “Trade?” Toinette was indignant. “Is that all you care about? Do you think the Saint cares for it?”

  “Maybe not,” said Matthias, “but it’s a bad sign all the same. Last time that happened was in the Black Year.”

  “The Black Year,” repeated Aristide darkly. “And luck turns like the tide.”

  A few days earlier, his doom-laden tone might have made me smile. But I found that I had almost begun to believe in omens again. Once more I glanced at the Saint, trying to read her expression.

  “Our luck has not turned!” protested Toinette. “We make our own luck in Les Salants. This proves nothing.”

  Père Alban shook his head disapprovingly. “I don’t know why you all wanted me to come here anyway,” he said. “If you want to pray, go to a church that’s still standing. If not—heh! All this superstitious carrying on. I should never have encouraged it.”

  “Just a prayer,” urged Toinette. “Just the Santa Marina.”

  “All right, all right. Then I’m going home, leave you here to catch your deaths if you like. It looks like rain.”

  “I don’t care what you say,” muttered Aristide. “Trade matters. And if she’s our Saint, then she should understand that. That’s the luck of Les Salants.

  “Monsieur Bastonnet!”

  “All right, heh, all right.”

  We bowed our heads like children. Island Latin is pig-Latin, even by church standards, but all attempts to update the service have been rejected. There is magic in the old words, something that would be lost in translation. Père Alban has long since stopped trying to explain that it is not the words themselves that hold the power, but the sentiment behind them. The idea is incomprehensible to most Salannais, even a little blasphemous. Catholicism has naturalized here in the islands, reverting to its pre-Christian origins. Charms, symbols, incantations, rituals are what remain most strongly rooted here, in these communities where so few books—even the Bible—are read. The oral tradition is strong, details added with each retelling, but we like miracles better than numbers and rules. Père Alban knows this, and plays along, knowing that without him the church might soon become altogether redundant.

  He left as soon as the prayer was finished. I heard the crunching sound of his fishing boots in the sand as he left the little circle of lanterns. Toinette was singing in a high old-lady’s voice; I caught a few words, but it was in an old island patois, which like the Latin, I did not understand.

  The two old nuns had remained, and standing on either side of the driftwood altar they supervised the prayers. Quietly, the villagers waited in line. Several people—Aristide among them—removed the lucky bead from around their necks and placed it on the altar beneath Sainte-Marine’s dark, ambivalent stare.

  Leaving them to their prayers I made my way down toward La Goulue, spread out wide and red in the sun’s afterglow. Far, far out toward the water’s edge, almost lost in the gleam from the flats, a figure was standing. I walked out toward it, enjoying the cool of the wet sand beneath my feet and the soft lapping of the receding tide. It was Damien.

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