The dawn of another summer day. Mamaw tightened the soft cashmere throw around her thin shoulders. Slivers of light pierced the velvety blackness over the Cove, and pewter-colored shadows danced on the spiky marsh grass like ethereal ghosts.
Mamaw sat huddled on an oversize, black wicker chair on her back porch, her legs tucked beneath her. The fog was moist on her face and the predawn chill seemed to penetrate straight to her bones. She couldn’t seem to get warm with Lucille gone. Since her dear friend’s death, many nights she’d awakened from a fitful sleep and come outdoors hoping the fresh air would settle her. She’d found scant warmth or peace in the chill of predawn. In the distance, the Atlantic Ocean, her mercurial friend, roared like a hungry beast. The waves were devouring the dunes in a relentless rhythm. Echoes reverberated over Sullivan’s Island.
Over a week had passed since Lucille’s death. Yet she still felt her old friend’s presence around her, hovering in death as she had in life. Dear Lucille. Death came to us all. She knew that. Mamaw was no stranger to death. At eighty years of age, she could hardly have been spared the loss of loved ones. She’d buried her parents, and, too early, her son and husband. Tonight she felt the past was more alive than the present. Memories of her loved ones played vividly in her mind.
Mamaw drew a long, ragged breath. From far away, she heard the mournful bellowing of a ship’s foghorn. From a nearby tree, a bird began calling out his strident dawn whistles . . . a cardinal, she thought.
She listened, stirred from her lethargy by the dawn song. She watched as the morning light, in degrees, brightened the skyline, revealing the ragged tips of green sea grass, palm trees clustered on a hammock, and the towering Ravenel Bridge, appearing as two great sailing vessels, in the distance. Slowly, the rising sun illuminated the darkness, peeling away the shroud from her heart. She felt her despair dissipate with the mist. Mamaw said a prayer of thanks to the rising sun and took a deep breath of the cool, mud-scented air.
Another day was dawning. The worst was over.
Foolish old woman, she chided herself as the gray sky shifted to blue. Look at yourself, sitting in the dark, mourning your friend. Wouldn’t Lucille give you what for if she spied you moping like this outdoors in the damp chill, still in your nightclothes? Who had time to lollygag? Their plan for the summer was not finished! She’d invited her three nearly estranged granddaughters to Sea Breeze in May—and they’d come. The first time they’d been together in over a decade. True, it had so far been a tumultuous summer of change and growth, ups and downs, joys and heartaches. But it was her triumph that they’d weathered the vicissitudes together. Eudora, Carson, and Harper had rediscovered the sisterly love they’d shared as children when they played together during the summers here on Sullivan’s Island. Howling at the moon? She should be crowing like a rooster!
Yet, much was still to be done and she was running out of time. It was already August. The sea turtles were finishing another season, the children would be heading back to school, the ospreys would soon head south with the other migrating birds and butterflies. Summer’s end was fast approaching. Soon, too, her Summer Girls would be leaving.
Mamaw felt a twinge of loss at just the thought. She would miss them—their sweet faces, their chatter, tears, laughter. The footfalls in the house, the drama, the hugs and kisses liberally offered. What a summer it had been!
Her smile slipped. Not only would her granddaughters leave in the fall. She, too, would be leaving Sea Breeze. Moving to a retirement home when Sea Breeze was sold. With her granddaughters and Lucille gone, she would, she thought with a shudder, be utterly alone.
Mamaw lowered her cheek to her palm. She at least knew where she would go at summer’s end, but where would her girls go? Each of the women was unsure of what her next step would be when she left the safe embrace of Sea Breeze. Dora’s divorce was pending, Carson was pregnant, and Harper was, for lack of a better term, completely adrift.
“Ah, Lucille,” she said aloud to the presence she felt hovering in the pearly light. “You were the one who always rallied me in my dark moments. We lured them here. And there is still much yet to do to finish our plan.” She sighed. “I don’t know if I can do it alone. But I must try.”
Mamaw’s eyes rose to the sky, where great shafts of pink and blue continued to break through the horizon. A smile eased across her face. The moon might be gone, she thought. But the sun was rising on another day.
In another room of Sea Breeze, Harper lay on her bed in the steely light, her hands tucked beneath her head, listening to the mighty roar of the ocean. How loud the sound of the waves was this morning, she thought. The echoes reverberated in the still night. She thrilled to the sound, so different from what she was accustomed to in the city.
In New York, Harper awoke to the blare of police sirens, honking horns, and banging garbage trucks. So much was different here. She was different here. Over the past few months since she’d arrived on Sullivan’s Island, her body had slowly acclimated from the fast pace and sense of urgency she experienced in the city to the slower, quieter rhythm of the lowcountry. She no longer went out to parties or bars until late at night, nor did she charge out of bed in the morning at the sound of an alarm. At Sea Breeze her days were ruled by the sun. Early to bed, early to rise.
Harper smiled, wondering if she’d ever foreseen how much she’d enjoy this lifestyle. No, she didn’t think she had. In fact, initially she had quite dreaded the prospect of spending time at Sea Breeze this summer. She recalled her outrage when, only a few days after her and her sisters’ arrival, Mamaw had announced her true intentions: that the women stay the entire summer. Harper stretched languidly while the light brightened to give the room a pearly glow. As she turned to her side to look out the window, her hand brushed against something. Surprised, she sat up to investigate. Sheets of paper lay strewn across her bed and scattered on the floor.
She rubbed her eyes as understanding took hold. Her book . . .
She must’ve fallen asleep while reading her manuscript, she realized, yawning. She rose from her bed and gathered the two-hundred-some sheets into a pile, taking her time to put the pages in order. As she did, her eyes reread a sentence here and there. Not bad, she thought to herself. The emotions in the words felt true. Then again, she was a biased judge. Her mother had made it brutally clear when she was just a girl that she didn’t have talent. Just like her father, her mother had said dismissively, waving away Harper’s fledgling attempts at short stories and poems. Her mother was a renowned editor, so Harper had taken her words as fact. Those fateful words still stung, even after decades.
Since then, Harper hadn’t shown her writing to anyone. She’d pursued a career as an editor, discovering she had a talent in assisting others with their stories, with taking their innermost thoughts and putting them onto the page.
Yet she’d found editing others’ words didn’t bring her the same satisfaction as writing her own. So she’d continued writing—in her room, in coffee shops, on trains—in secret. Like a sinful pleasure she could indulge in when she wanted to dish out her anger or amusement. Not until this summer, this block of time she’d given herself without interruption—or rather, the time that Mamaw had thrust upon her, not taking no for an answer—had Harper decided to write a book. A whole body of work with a beginning, a middle, and an end. She would never know whether she could actually write a book until she’d finished one. And, she thought, picking up the papers in her hands, she was nearly done.
Harper rose and placed the manuscript on her desk, resting her hands on the pile of papers, overcome with a sense of ownership and pride.
Her sisters thought she’d been taking the summer off, shamelessly idle while they scrambled to find jobs and apartments. True, she’d been enjoying her break at Sea Breeze, gardening, swimming, talking with her sisters, and roaming the far ends of the island. But she’d been privately working, too. She didn’t dare tell anyone about it, because if she did, she knew they’d want to read it.
No, she thought, slipping the manuscript into the desk drawer. She would keep her manuscript all to herself. She wasn’t as outgoing as her sister Carson, who was quick-witted and clever. Nor was she as bold as her eldest sister, Dora, who had strong opinions on every subject, even when unasked. Harper expressed herself best on paper.
And, she thought with a rueful smile, her sisters wouldn’t be pleased to learn that she was writing about them.
Outside her window she heard the strident dawn whistles of a bird singing in a nearby tree. She paused to listen, wondering what kind of bird it was that awakened her most mornings. She vowed to find out. She wanted to learn the names of the birds and the trees and the plants of this island that she’d come to love. She’d spent all of her twenty-eight years in beautiful places—her mother’s fashionable apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City, the house in the Hamptons, and her grandparents’ manor house in England. Not to mention the exclusive boarding schools and Ivy League college she’d attended. But nowhere did she feel so at home or content, or as much herself, as she did here in the lowcountry, by the ocean, at Sea Breeze.
She’d be leaving soon.
The thought came unbidden and struck a chord of sadness in the morning’s sweet music. Harper went to the window and opened the wooden slats of the plantation shutter to peer out. Pale gray light illuminated the shadows. Carson was always nattering on about how glorious it was to be out on the water when the dawn exploded over the ocean. How it was her favorite time of the day. Carson could be so passionate about anything connected to water.
Harper suddenly felt a stirring to witness that sight for herself. Why not now? she asked herself. Before it was too late. What was she waiting for?
She quickly slipped into a swimsuit and denim shorts. Laced up her running shoes. As quietly as the mouse she was nicknamed after, she slipped open the sliding door that separated her bedroom from her grandmother’s. It rattled on the track, and grimacing, she paused. She didn’t hear Mamaw stir in her dark bedroom. Harper tiptoed quickly across the carpet, closing the door behind her.
The house was quiet, everyone still asleep in the wee morning hour. Even Carson, who, for all her talk, had begun sleeping in after announcing her pregnancy. Making good her escape, Harper flew out the front door, aware that the sun waited for no man or woman. She was met with cool and sweet-tasting morning air. The wind that had roiled the ocean all night had chased away the humidity and heat, leaving the morning air unusually refreshing for August. In the quiet, all sounds were amplified. Above her, the leaves of the great oak tree rustled in the breeze and the palm fronds rattled. Beneath her feet the gravel crunched loudly as she hurried across the driveway to the garage. The rusty, trusty old bicycle leaned against the wall. She pulled it out from the garage, swung her leg over the seat, and took off.
Despite her twenty-eight years, Harper felt no older than thirteen as she pedaled furiously along the streets. The neighboring houses appeared blanketed in the shadows, their occupants still asleep in the hush over the island. Only a few feral cats darted soundlessly across the roads. She hadn’t seen as many of them clustering on the island this summer as she remembered from her girlhood summers spent at Sea Breeze. People said it was the coyotes. She kept her eyes peeled as she pushed on along the muted street. Past Stella Maris Catholic Church, with its hallowed steeple. Past the ominous, giant molelike burrows of Fort Moultrie. Past the tight cluster of restaurants, shuttered now and deserted. Only a few joggers and an occasional automobile shared the road with her.
At last she reached the northern tip of the island, where Carson had told her the surfers gathered. She turned off Middle Street toward the sea. Several cars, all with roof racks for surfboards, crowded the narrow side streets. Harper pushed the wheels of her bike through the soft sand of the path past the tall barrier of shrubs. The surf was unusually loud this morning. When at last the path opened up to the beach, she stopped to catch her breath.
The dusky blue sky and gray sea came together to form one infinite horizon line. The sun did not rush to her glory. She rose at her own pace, imperious, radiant, bursting in her display of achingly beautiful pastels that were reflected on the water. Harper felt small in the presence of a view so profound. Yet at the same time, she felt connected to it. Empowered to be part of this godlike perpetuity. In that dazzling moment she felt the glistening light enter her soul to fill her with hope. Harper understood at last why Carson so loved this moment, had risen early to catch it day after day. It truly was spiritual.
Harper clutched the handlebars of her beach cruiser tight. The new day was spread out before her like a blank page, ready for her to fill with her words, thoughts, feelings. She’d given herself this one summer to discover—at long last—what she wanted to do with her life. No longer would she continue meekly following what her mother had planned.
She didn’t know what her future would bring. Standing in the glow of the rising sun, Harper was filled with a tingling sensation that her future was only just beginning.
The sea was calling her. Carson lay in the dim light of her bedroom listening to the incessant roar of her old friend the ocean. It was rare for the waves to come in hard, as they were now. When they did, Carson had always grabbed her board and gone to the water. It was in her nature to do so. Salt water ran in her veins.
Carson didn’t jump from her bed this morning, however. She continued to lie still, her palms resting on her abdomen. She no longer was free to follow her whims. No longer the fearless surfer or world traveler, able to pick up and leave when she wished.
She let her fingers gently stroke her belly, still flat despite the life growing beneath the taut skin. So much for her womanly intuition. It had taken the echolocation of one very intuitive dolphin to tell her she was pregnant.
“Oh, baby,” she crooned. “What am I going to do with you? I’m not married, I don’t have a job, I don’t even have my own place to live. How am I going to take care of you?”
She brought to mind her last conversation with Lucille, the night she’d died. Carson had been struggling with what to do about the pregnancy and went to Lucille to sit at her knee, as she had so many times growing up, and once more ask for advice. Lucille hadn’t told her what to do. That wasn’t her style. Instead, the old woman guided Carson’s thoughts to find her own answer. Carson would never forget her words.
You’ve got good instincts. Listen to them. Trust them. You’ll know what to do.
Carson knew Lucille was right. When she was surfing, Carson had to trust her instincts on the wave, to know when to step left or right. It was all a matter of balance.
She had to listen to her instincts now. It didn’t make sense for her to have a baby now. All her rational arguments were against it. But over the rational thoughts her instincts spoke loud and clear. That and her raging hormones, she thought with a snort. Lying on the bed, listening to the echoing sound of the waves rolling to the shore, Carson knew she had to ride this wave home.
“Well, baby,” she said, patting her tummy, “it’s me and you now. I’m not running away.”
Dora’s arm shot out to silence the alarm clock. She groggily opened one eyelid: 7:00 a.m.
“Rise and shine,” she mumbled.
Dora moved in a stupor, accustomed to the routine. She dressed quickly in running clothes, splashed cool water on her face, applied SPF moisturizer, then did a few stretches. This past summer she’d learned that she had to get her exercise done first thing in the morning, because if she waited, she’d slip into a thousand lame excuses why she didn’t have time. She’d learned to make time for the things that mattered to her.
And nothing mattered more to her than her son.
Dora swiftly walked down the hall and gingerly pushed open the door to Nate’s room. She wrinkled her nose at the stuffy, closed-in smell. Nate, unlike the rest of the inhabitants of Sea Breeze, did not like to sleep with his windows open. He was adamant about his likes and dislikes, quick to let you know if something was right or, more often, wrong. She went to the side of his bed and stood for a moment, staring into her nine-year-old son’s face.
Her heart bloomed with love for him. Did a child ever look more angelic than when asleep? she wondered. Nate’s long, pale lashes fluttered against his cheeks. His lips were slightly parted as he breathed heavily. He was small for his age, but his thin frame had filled out this summer at Sea Breeze and his skin glowed with a tan. Sea Breeze had been so good for Nate, on many levels. He loved the water now. Dora smiled. She called him her little fish. As her eyes hungrily roamed his face, she noted that his shaggy blond hair needed a trim, and she made a mental note to take him to the barber. It would be a fight, she thought with a sigh. Nate hated to have his hair cut.
Poor little guy, she thought as she reached out to gently stroke hair from his forehead. She felt the perspiration at his brow. Cutting his hair was the least of the changes he’d be facing soon. Her obstinate, fretful son who hated any change would soon transition from homeschooling to a classroom. It was a big decision, long and hard in coming. She’d found a private school that specialized in bright children with special needs, like his Asperger’s. The school offered highly individualized instruction and schoolwide positive behavioral support. Dora had to face the reality that Nate was older and needed more than she could offer. He needed to learn to communicate and socialize with his peers.
Dora sighed. They both did. Isolation had not been good for either of them.
On the heels of this decision was her intention to move to Mt. Pleasant, closer to the school. A new school . . . a new home . . .
She bent to gently kiss Nate’s cheek, breathing in the scent of him. When he was awake, he didn’t like to be kissed.
“We’ll be fine,” she whispered close to his ear. “Mama’s here. I won’t let you down.”
As Harper pedaled back to Sea Breeze, her mind filled with words that could capture that glorious sunrise: iridescent, shimmering, glittering, ethereal, inspiring . . . Harper parked the bike in the garage and hurried toward the house, eager to slip quietly back into her bedroom and begin writing. She wanted to describe what she’d seen and her feelings that had swirled like brilliant colors. As she made her way across the back porch, a cough drew her attention. Harper turned her head to the back corner of the porch and was surprised to see her grandmother sitting tall and straight-backed in one of the large, black wicker chairs. In the dim light, wearing her long, white cotton nightgown, Mamaw appeared almost ghostly.
“Mamaw!” Harper exclaimed. “What are you doing out here?”
Mamaw smiled as Harper approached, but it was a tired smile. Her pale blue eyes were sunken and her arms were wrapped around her slender body as though she were chilled.
“I couldn’t sleep. I woke very early and my mind kept wandering.” Mamaw shook her head. “It’s so exhausting when that happens. A curse of old age. I just gave up and came out here to sit a spell. I thought the fresh air might help.”
On the glass-topped table Harper saw a line of playing cards. Her heart pinged. Mamaw was playing solitaire. The image of Mamaw and Lucille playing endless games of gin rummy together on the porch at all hours of the day and night flashed in Harper’s mind.
Harper hurried to put her arms around her grandmother’s shoulders. “How long have you been out here?” she asked, alarmed. “You’re chilled to the bone.” She rubbed Mamaw’s arms briskly with her hands, trying to warm her.
“Mmm . . . that’s nice. Thank you, dear.”
Harper pulled up a chair and dropped into it. She leaned forward, elbows resting on her knees. “What’s got your mind wandering?”
“Oh . . . I was thinking of Lucille,” Mamaw said wistfully.
Of course, Harper thought.
“It was a nice funeral, wasn’t it?” Mamaw asked.
“It was. I’d never been to a Gullah funeral before. So much song, tears, and rejoicing.”
“And amens,” Mamaw added wryly.
Harper smiled in agreement. She’d been moved by the unrestrained calling out at the service, the passion, the strong sense of community.
Mamaw looked back out over the water. “I was sitting here, looking across the Cove, and it brought to mind what the preacher talked about at Lucille’s service. How their ancestral spirits who came to the lowcountry—those by force and those who came after—lived, thrived, and died here. They worked hard, cooked rice, cast nets for shrimp, raised children, and now they’ve all moved on to the bounty of the afterlife. That’s what Lucille believed, you know. She was tired at the end, I daresay looking forward to crossing the water.” Mamaw sighed, remembering. “I confess, lately I might be ready, too.”
Harper leaned forward to grasp Mamaw’s hand. “Don’t go yet. We still need you.”
Mamaw’s lips slipped into a wobbly smile, briefly, then fell again. “I’m having a hard time believing she’s really gone.”
“It all happened so fast.” Harper also felt deep sorrow at Lucille’s swift battle with cancer.
Mamaw looked at Harper. “Do you believe in an afterlife?” she asked pointedly.
Harper released Mamaw’s hand, leaned back, and scratched her head, thinking this was a heavy conversation to have before a first cup of coffee. She’d never warmed to the idea of a God that rewarded the good with heaven and the others with an eternity of brimstone and fire. It seemed so unforgiving. Still, after much soul-searching, she’d come to believe there was a higher being. She’d felt a connection to that infinite power this morning while staring out at the sunrise.
“I guess so,” she said with hesitancy. “I don’t think much about it.”
Mamaw smiled ruefully. “You’re young. You think you’re immortal. When you get to my age, you’ll think about it . . . a lot.”
“I don’t like to see you out here alone, playing solitaire and thinking of death. It’s a tad morbid.”
“I’m not feeling the least bit morbid. Quite the opposite.” Mamaw patted Harper’s hand with a weary smile. “Death is becoming an old friend.”
Harper rose and tugged gently on Mamaw’s arm. “Come inside and I’ll make you a nice breakfast. Something warm.”
Mamaw resisted, leaning back in her chair. “I’m not hungry. I’ve just got the dwindles.”
“How about I bring you a nice hot cup of coffee?”
Mamaw perked up at the suggestion. “Well, I wouldn’t say no to that.”
“Coming right up.” Harper paused. Mamaw was always an elegant woman who took great care with her appearance. She had been a leading Charleston socialite known for her extravagant parties as much as her polished beauty. To see Mamaw sitting on the porch still in her nightclothes, her white hair flowing unbrushed, wrapped up in a coverlet like a bag lady, shook Harper to the core. This was an outward sign of the state of Mamaw’s mind.
Harper made a bold suggestion: “Mamaw, while I make coffee, why don’t you get dressed?”
Mamaw turned her head to deliver a stern face with a brow raised. “I beg your pardon?”
Harper rushed on, “Don’t you remember, you used to tell us how Thomas Jefferson wrote his eleven-year-old daughter letters on deportment from France? He admonished her to always rise and dress promptly. Neat and clean and tidy.” Harper paused, pleased to see her grandmother was listening. “You told us your mother read you his letters, and you read them to us. Why, if you caught us lying about in our jammies, you sent us straight to our rooms to get dressed.”
“I’m delighted to learn you paid attention.” Mamaw offered her hand in a regal manner. Harper took it and helped Mamaw to her feet. “Very well. The sun is up and so I should rise with it. It is, to paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara, another day.”