A dark sky, the magnificent tail of a great comet, the crack of a ship overturning in the breakers. Wine, white grapes, nuts, and rolls of Pina cloth from India wash ashore.
In the morning, Mr. Kilburn packs his belongings. He has spent his last night with the Brownes and their son, Stephen. As the town’s sole schoolteacher, he boards with a new pupil every six weeks. Mrs. Browne asks where he will board next. ‘With the Caswells.’ He cannot help but notice how she turns down her eyes. Mary Nye Caswell, clever and withdrawn, is nine. She lives in the dunes.
With clerical dignity, Mr. Kilburn walks to the clapboard schoolhouse, where he pushes bark, pine cones, and sticks into the potbelly stove. He rinses the tin cups and opens the doors to the students, who have arranged themselves neatly into two lines outside. News of the shipwreck, and the thirteen lives lost, has made them unruly. ‘Enough,’ Mr. Kilburn says. But two boys chatter on. Mr. Kilburn threatens to draw circles on the board. The boys grow silent. They do not want to stand all day, pressing the tips of their noses to the centres of these circles.
The class recites the Lord’s Prayer.
Wood pops in the stove.
The windows are covered in droplets of water.
Mr. Kilburn calls roll.
It is my charge…
Mr. Kilburn assumes his duties as a teacher with considerable seriousness. ‘It is my charge,’ he thinks to himself, ‘to educate the children, boys and girls alike, with prudence, integrity, and zeal. It is my charge to teach the Four R’s: Reading, Riting, Rithmetic, and Religion. It is my charge to board with every pupil. It is my charge…’ and so on and so forth.
A homely place
Sand trickles into Mr. Kilburn’s boots. Mary leads him through the dunes. They wend their way around vernal pools and cranberry patches. Beachgrass bends in bursts of wind. A slow heat crawls up Mr. Kilburn’s throat. It’s been one year since he moved from Boston to the tiny coastal town, but he’s not yet ventured into the dunes. He does not like sand.
Mary lights a gas lamp and several candles. ‘No teacher has ever boarded here,’ she says.
Mr. Kilburn smiles, appraising his surroundings. The house is small and homely, and he is pleased to see a shiny kettle atop a clean stove, a handsome breadboard, bread towels, and a proper salt box hanging on the wall.
Cloth sacks dangle from the rafters. ‘There are mice,’ Mary explains. ‘Food must be tied up.’
‘Where are your parents?’
But Mary does not heed his question. ‘Food on the table might remain untouched if you push away the chairs.’
Mr. Kilburn watches as Mary raises and lowers the handle of the pump. Will water ever be drawn up from the earth? But then all at once, it splatters into the bucket, red with rust. The sight of it startles Mr. Kilburn.
He is relieved when, seconds later, the water comes out clear.
From his bed in the loft, Mr. Kilburn writes:
April 21, 1835
Dearest Thomas, It has been ten days since I’ve arrived. I have yet to meet Mary’s parents.
He pauses. The taste of boiled mutton lingers on his tongue.
I believe she lives all alone.
A visit’s true purpose
‘It was nice to see you. Thank you for the pudding.’
‘But of course, it was my pleasure, Mr. Kilburn.’
‘Before I leave,’ he says to Mrs. Browne, ‘do you know where I might cross paths with Mrs. Caswell?’
Wrinkles break over her face. Her smile wilts.
She is sitting in an armchair in a parlour house by the wharf and laughs outright when Mr. Kilburn asks if she’s Mary’s mother. She presses her hands into the white peonies woven into her black skirt.
They talk at length, but she only speaks in riddles, Mr. Kilburn thinks. When he stands up to leave, she pulls up her skirt and says, ‘What might people believe if they knew their respectable schoolteacher patronised an establishment such as this?’
Mr. Kilburn digs into his pockets and procures several coins.
‘You look tired,’ she says. He is struck by her bodily heat when his fingertips graze her small palm.
I got lost in the dunes today. The wind thundered in my ears. It was terrible, the sound. I was wondering what would happen if I never saw you again when Mary appeared. She took hold of my shoulders and turned me ever so slightly and the world grew deathly quiet.
I hear the surf rumbling now, as if the house were directly beside the ocean.
Oh, how the house cracks and moans in the wind! The mice are skittering. Sparring.
I hear Mary breathing below.
Thomas, I am unsettled here.
In the dunes, Mr. Kilburn looks up at the night sky. There, the comet, bright and moving to behold. He understands that, when it hurtles away, it is very likely he will never lay eyes upon it again.
He tries to imagine how the town must have been when the comet last arrived, decades ago, and how it might be when the comet returns.
He shivers all over.
After many fitful nights of sleep, Mr. Kilburn, ever so weary, regards the handbell on his desk while the children outside join hands, and sing!
‘Cape Cod girls, they have no combs. They comb their hair with codfish bones!
Cape Cod boys, they have no sleds. They slide down dunes on codfish heads!’
What, Mr. Kilburn wonders, did Mary’s mother mean when she said that the dunes would ‘beckon the demons of one’s own making’?
Why did she say that Mary was no longer her Mary, ‘my beloved Mary,’ but a stranger?
She said that he must not ‘dither in all that sand’ before it was too late, but too late for what? And how would he know?
And who, exactly, did she have in mind when she said he ought to return to ‘your Love and your Faith’?
How, Mr. Kilburn wonders, might she have suspected?
The day’s lessons have concluded, and Mr. Kilburn and Mary are alone in the schoolhouse.
‘I’ve spoken with your mother.’
Mary, at her desk, does not respond.
‘Two weeks ago,’ Mr. Kilburn says.
She looks up at him.
‘You don’t have to live in the dunes.’ He tries his best to sound obliging, and adds, ‘Alone.’
‘I am not alone.’
‘And when I am not there?’
‘But Mr. Kilburn, there are so many others—’
‘—and they won’t be well pleased if I leave.’
‘Who, Mary?’ Mr. Kilburn says, unable to conceal his alarm. ‘Who?’
But she won’t say another word.
Mr. Kilburn takes up the ferule in response to Mary’s refusal to elaborate
‘Stand your body tall,’ Mr. Kilburn says.
He smacks the ruler ten times against Mary’s hands.
Of a certainty I will never post this, nor any other letter to you. It breaks my heart to know that you shall never receive my words again
Dearest Thomas, I do not like it here. I am afraid to be alone with myself. I do not
Was what we had between us such a grievous affliction, as some have whispered?
It is a dark sorrow, to have had to have left in such haste.
My Love and my Faith,
The distance has done nothing but
A scientific excursion
As Mary leads Mr. Kilburn to the ocean, he has the uneasy sensation of being watched. But each time he turns his head, no matter how subtle, there is no one, nothing. ‘Did you know that a group of godwits is called an omniscience or a prayer?’
‘No,’ Mr. Kilburn says. ‘I didn’t.’
‘And that a drove of nightingales is called a watch?’
‘How is it that you’ve come to know so much about birds, Mary?’
‘Several turtledoves together is called a pitying.’
‘Was it your mother who taught you?’
‘An assembly of warblers is called a confusion.’
The sand berm crumbles under their weight and they slide down onto the vast and empty beach. The water is rough, lurches into jade curls that slam onto land and push trembling seafoam onto the swash. Long, broken planks of wood have washed ashore. They are from the shipwreck.
‘Do you think the comet’s arrival is bad luck?’ Mary asks.
‘Superstitions have no place in our minds, Mary. That’s Halley’s Comet,’ Mr. Kilburn says, unbending in the battering wind. ‘Its appearance has been proven by science.’
Mary squints up at him. ‘Can everything be proven by science?’
‘If God wills it,’ Mr. Kilburn answers. Mary stares straight into his eyes. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I’ve seen enough of the ocean. Quite remarkable as it is, we must be getting back.’
Oh, how the house cracks and moans in the wind!
Mary, returning from the outhouse, ducks headlong into the house. The door is thrown open with a loud crash. The wind yowls around the room. The cloth sacks sway like the chain weights of a skewed clock. Mr. Kilburn’s papers flutter into the air. In his nightshirt and nightcap, he sits upright in the loft, bewildered.
Mary shoulders the door shut and sets to work collecting the loose sheets. Mr. Kilburn joins her.
‘Who is Charles?’ she asks.
‘Sorry, I did not mean to pry.’ She hands Mr. Kilburn an untidy pile of papers.
He thumbs through them—his letters—and grows perplexed. They’ve all been addressed to someone named Charles. ‘Charles?’ Mr. Kilburn says. ‘But who is Charles?’ He looks at Mary. ‘Who is Charles?’ he asks, his voice loud and tremulous.
‘I don’t know,’ Mary says.
‘What have you done?’ Mr. Kilburn looks over the letters. The name has been indisputably scrawled in his hand. But when? How? His body begins to tremble, a vertical crease deepens on his brow. ‘What have you done, Mary?’ He shakes the papers. ‘What have you done to Thomas?’
‘Please, Mr. Kilburn,’ she says, ‘you’re frightening me.’
Night, below the comet’s icy tail, Mr. Kilburn scrambles through the dunes. He claws at the sand. His nightshirt billows out with a snap, his nightcap has been blown off. Though he shivers, his blood burns within his body. ‘Mary!’ he calls out. ‘Please, come back!’ Sand gives out beneath him. He tumbles down onto the beach. ‘Mary!’ The waves crash and crash.
He did not mean to hurt her.
‘Thomas,’ Mr. Kilburn whimpers.
‘Thomas,’ he hears so many other voices echo.
As God wills it
Morning. Gray skies. The seagulls clamour.
There is sand on his cheek and earlobe. Mary has taken his head into her lap. He pries open his eyes.
‘You are cold, Mr. Kilburn.’
Indeed, he cannot utter a single word. He is chilled to the bone.
Mary studies the silent movement of his lips, and then, as though she has interpreted his unheard words, says, ‘As God wills it.’
The waves crash, crash.
‘As God wills it, Mr. Kilburn.’
There are whispers, and plenty of suppositions, but no can be sure why Mr. Kilburn has left so hastily.
And no one can say where he has gone.
The dunes communicate with one another, convey their needs.
One dune pushes away another.
Time passes. Swirls of turbulence.
There is no longer a schoolhouse, or a house in the dunes. No longer a parlour house by the wharf.
The distance between the dunes increases very slowly.
Swirls of turbulence.
The kettle shines no more. The salt box is mouldy. When the pump’s handle is operated, a sad moan bulges up the old pipe.
Mary and Mr. Kilburn have long been dead and buried. The dunes reach a distance where one’s power over the other is lost. There is nothing more, it seems, that needs to be conveyed between them.
‘A Cape Cod Story’ was shortlisted for The Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize 2022. The 2023 prize, to be judged by Mariana Enríquez, Tiffany Tsao and Ottessa Moshfegh, is now open for entries. Deadline 16/04. For more information, visit their website: Desperate Literature Prize 2023
Young Rader lives and writes in Berlin. His work has appeared in the New England Review, Little Star, Passages North, and elsewhere. He was a 2014-2015 Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.