Around the Moon
By Jane Greensmith
My father watches the sky. When I was a little girl, he and I would go out into the night and look for signs. Harbingers, warnings, the flight of birds, the smell of the wind.
Red sky at morning, sailor take
My father is a sailor. An admiral. No longer in active service, he hasn't been on a ship for years. But he still watches the sky, faithfully, religiously. He's ready for storms. When the wind picks up and blows in off the sea, you can almost see his ears twitch. His face becomes taut with tension. I can imagine him walking the captain's deck. Watching the sky. Issuing orders.
"Mr. Harville, reef the topsail."
"When you're ready, Mr. Benwick, when you're ready."
My father is gouty. He says the aches in his bones confirm what he reads in the sky. Now he's doubly sure when a storm will hit. He sends over his man to warn me to bring the children inside, batten down the hatches, crouch under tables. He instructs me to stay away from the windows—they can shatter, he says, sending shards of glass everywhere that you can't see but will make you bleed unexpectedly when you step on them in the night.
When a storm hits, I know that my father does not stay inside, though, crouching like a child or a woman under a table and away from windows. No, he stands post at the window. Watching the sky, reading the signs. He's not afraid to venture out to feel the sleet pummeling his face. He'll face all that the sea and the sky deliver. He'll walk into the eye of the storm and pray for peace. The peace that has passed him by.
We live in Cornwall. I live in a village with my children, just getting by on a Navy pension. I'm a widow these past nine years. My husband died off the Barbary Coast in '41, trying to protect the English fleet. My husband, my Ned, had just made post-captain. He lost his first and only ship to pirates—outlaws, liars, and cheats who murdered him and all his crew.
My father lives in a cottage near the cliffs. He never wants to be without the roar of the sea. He says it muffles the past, and that's good. He also says it's good when his grandchildren visit him—I let them go, Neddie and Bess, down the path that winds from the village to the cliffs. They play in the wind with his dogs and eat apples and fried fish. They gather flowers in summer and collect driftwood from the shore below for their grandfather to carve into animals and mermaids. They come home with his words in their mouth... mackerel skies and mare's tails make ships carry lowered sails.
Neddie and Bess are learning to watch the skies too. In their sweet young voices, they warn that if clouds look as if scratched by a hen, get ready to reef your topsails then. How can I tell them that no matter how hard they try, they'll never really see disaster coming before it strikes. I tell them that their grandfather was blindsided by signs from the sky.
There were no ominous reckonings that day when I was twelve and a wheel came off my mother's coach as she was returning from Uppercross. She died from a broken neck, leaving my father with a broken heart and me with a shattered future. That's when we moved to Cornwall, my father and me, leaving behind Bath and its mouldy politics and sad white buildings. Like two lost souls, we found the cottage at the end of our island and started watching the skies.
I went to school in the village, and married a local boy. I loved him so. Handsome, strong, and brave. The ruddy skin of a sailor and the blue, blue eyes of a Cornish man. My father liked that he was a Navy lad and not just a fisherman's son. Ned had been through the academy at Portsmouth and had a keen eye and a quick hand. My father dredged up old connections and even played the Elliot family card. Ned did well. Yes, I missed him when he was gone, but then my father would pull out his maps and trace his route and tell me what Ned was seeing and what the weather was like and where Ned would find safe harbor and when he would be home. And he was never wrong...except that last time.
My father went up to the Admiralty himself then, for news of Ned's ship. He learned the fate of the Pretty Mary and came home to tell me. I hadn't seen that look in his eyes since the day Mama died. He held me as I wailed. He fed the children and the chickens. He lit the fires and drew the water. He looked to the skies, searching for what he had missed, not understanding why he hadn't been able to warn me.
Last night it snowed. It rarely snows in Cornwall. It's cold here, mind you, but it's a bone-chilling, mind-numbing cold that freezes you from the inside out, penetrating layers of wool and years of fortitude. But last night it snowed. Sleet at first—pellets of hard frost hammering the windows and doors—but then the wind died and big, soft fluffy flakes drifted down. Our wild world became silent as the snow blanketed houses, trees, wagons, and all.
My father was here at our house when it started to snow. We finished supper and he took the children outside and together they searched the gray sky eagerly, looking for a break in the clouds so that they could see the moon. It was a full moon, he said, behind those clouds.
He left for his cottage while it was still snowing. Before he left, he took me aside and held my arm, "Remember, lass, a rainbow around the moon means more snow. That's a promise, now. A rainbow is a promise." And then he kissed my check and tossed the little ones, as well as he could, old as he is.
"You'll be alright, Papa? Walking home in the snow?"
"Aye, lass. I'll be fine in the snow. So peaceful it is. So quiet."
And then he was gone. We found him the next day. He had fallen into a little ravine that came up near the path's edge. Of course, he had stumbled off the path, blanketed in snow as it was, no moon that there was. His face was peaceful, no longer taut with the tension of watching for signs.
The constable took him to his cottage, where I stayed with him and made him ready for his burial at sea. Ned's parents cared for Neddie and Bess while I cared for my father, this one last time.
The snow has stopped and the cold has set in. It's growing dark. I light the lamps and make the fire roar. I stop my work and go outside to read the skies and pay my homage. And there, low on the horizon, hangs the moon, still full but waning, its halo speaks of coming snow, or worse, rain. Its halo is iridescent, a rainbow around the moon. A promise of peace. Peace at last.
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