The morning started like any other, with a midsummer fog pressing down on the waters of Balboa Bay. Donovan and his brothers, Gareth, older by three years and Whiting, younger by three, stood ankle deep in the shore-side waters in a row, eldest to youngest, waiting for the call from inside that would push them, yelling and laughing, into the chilly bay. Some Nordic ancestor had passed on the cold water gene, the one that made a sixty-one degree swim feel like a comfortable eighty-two, to surface in these boys thirty generations later.
“You first, Donovan,” Gareth said, shoving him on the back of his shoulders. Donovan gave into the push and dived under the still, early morning waters, surfacing twenty feet from shore. With that the other two followed suit, but not with the skill of Donovan, by far the best swimmer in the family. He stayed ahead of his brothers as they swam out to the sailing boats, still unseen in the fog, moored in the middle of the bay. This was the ritual of their mornings, before their mother or Leonore, her helper, cooked breakfast and their father finally emerged late from the cottage bedroom, on vacation time.
Whiting yelled to Donovan, “Don’t forget. We’ve got to be back by nine. Don’t swim too far.” Whiting was the brother who paid attention to deadlines and ultimatums, the one who felt order must be maintained, and who passed on instructions from on high.
They continued the swim out to the boats, a hundred yards away and just now becoming visible in the fog. The outlines of the summer cottages on shore disappeared behind them in the dome of pearlescent white.
Donovan stayed ahead of his brothers, stopping only to rest for a few seconds at the buoy holding the line for the first boat. When the other two had almost reached him, he was off again with splashes toward the silhouette of the next boat out in the bay. Their father, Jameson, had taught them that this was the easy way to swim across from Balboa Island to Newport on the other side, to divide and conquer. Breaking a long distance swim into a series of sprints appealed to the boys and they often did the whole sequence twice a day. Donovan could swim it on his own, against the express instructions of his parents.
“Let’s go back, Donovan. We’ll be late,” called Whiting. But Donovan disappeared into the fog. Gareth and Whiting turned around for the swim back to shore. The whole family was expected at the marina in about thirty minutes, for the start of their sailing trip to Catalina Island. They would join the Honeycutt family, with their three daughters on their eighty-foot sloop Honeytime for the long day trip to Catalina. There were four cabins, one each for the parents and one each for the Merrill and Honeycutt offspring. The women cooked meals in the galley, sat in the sun on deck and the men and boys tended the lines, charts, sails and matters of navigation.
This trip had evolved into a tradition between the two families, with three previous summers to establish it. They sailed out against the wind and it was always a long day of tacking back and forth. The Honeytime would spend the night, or perhaps two nights if things went well, moored in Avalon Harbor, and then set out on a return trip, a fast-moving sail back to Balboa with the prevailing winds at their back. The round-trip to Catalina had become the highlight of the summer for both families.
Donovan continued his swim without his brothers from boat to boat in the fog. There was a rocky stretch of shore when he reached the Newport side, so he turned around and rested an extra long spell at the first buoy on the return. The heavily fogged morning swims were his favorite, the room of silence following him out and back. If he swam ahead of his brothers, this was the only time he was truly alone. Not in the constant company of brothers and family. Alone. Quiet. Happy.
At last, the Balboa Island shore appeared in the mist. He had drifted down-shore so must swim parallel to the island for a while to emerge at the same location. It was important always to depart and return at the same place, Donovan thought. He could see his father, dressed in white trousers, a blue shirt and red bandana kerchief, waiting on the beach with a towel.
“Donovan, you’re in deep trouble. We’re already almost an hour late for the Honeycutts and you know how important an early start is.”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Here, dry off. Your mother has decided that you should be punished by not going to Catalina. You can stay with Leonore at the cottage.”
“Okay.” It was not really a punishment for Donovan in his secret mind. The Honeycutt girls, each a foot taller than the corresponding Merrill boy, were impatient and ill-tempered, and Honeytime cabins smelled of cleaning fluid and damp. Since the trip was popular with everyone else, Donovan never talked about his own strong dislike to his family.
“And we’ve told Leonore that you cannot swim in the Bay or even go to the beach until we get back. That’s four full days in the cottage.”
Now that was a punishment. Leonore did not like him very much, but he could put up with that. No swimming in Balboa Bay was going to hurt. His mother had a keen sense of justice and she could concoct with sweet irony the perfect penalty when things went awry.
Donovan and his father walked back to the cottage where the rest of the family stood by the car, impatient to be on their way. Whiting looked very proud in his white trousers, blue shirt, and kerchief matching his father’s outfit in diminished version. Gareth, already seated in the back, did not seem to care one way or another. His mother, without a word, shook an angry finger at him and stepped into the front seat.
With Donovan captured and no more to do, they were into off to the marina. Leonore stood on the cottage porch waiting for Donovan.
“In a pickle again, Donovan?” she said.
“I guess so.”
“You make everybody late, you must pay. Come in and I’ll cook your breakfast.”
“Can we have pancakes today?”
“They would not be in the spirit of punishment. However, we do have a new jig-saw puzzle that your father brought down. A thousand pieces. Since you are forbidden to swim, we should finish it in two or three days.” Leonore came from Germany, so she still used Old World words like “forbidden.”
With that, his horrible days began. After a breakfast of scrambled eggs and orange juice Donovan went into the room he shared with his brothers. He had never just sat in his room, before. He was not going to like this. He tried to read for a while, but he lost interest and lay on his bed thinking.
Late in the morning, Leonore, after cleaning the cottage and washing the dishes, set up the puzzle on the breakfast table in the kitchen. It was a puzzle with the image of a Canton Blue and White platter, a circular scene of a country nobleman and his many concubines, standing or sitting around a many-roomed house and its porches, willow trees and fishponds in the foreground with sharp mountains and fluffy clouds behind. Since the whole puzzle was all the same blue color, it was going to be hard. Leonore turned the pieces to color side up.
Leonore asked him, “So why does it take so long over to Catalina and so quick to come back? I will never understand that.” Leonore spoke perfect English, but she still pronounced her “Ws” like “Vs” and it always made Donovan smile.
“It’s called tacking,” he replied. “Back and forth at an angle when you go into the wind.”
“Into the wind? However can you sail into the wind? Why do you laugh?”
“It’s too complicated to explain. You’re getting all the blue heads and hats in your pile. That’s not right.”
“And you’ve piled up all the clouds and flying birds. Stop complaining. I picked the heads first.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t pick anything and hoard it. That’s the way Gareth plays.”
“It’s the right way. Gareth is right.”
They worked all morning to delineate the outside border of the plate, a repetition of small waves with fishes. After stopping for lunch, Donovan went to his room for a nap. The pattern of their days was now set: a few hours with the puzzle, a meal, and a nap, then more hours with the puzzle and another meal. The center of the puzzle went slowly, even with each of them hoarding a pile of like-patterned pieces.
At night when the light was not good for puzzles, Leonore read out loud. A couple of months without the radio was good for the boys, Donovan’s mother had said, making them pay attention to books more, to what mattered in the world. Donovan liked to hear Leonore read as she sat in an amorphous chair with a heavily ruffled slipcover of brownish roses and faded stems. A floor lamp with a yellowed parchment shade cast a cone of warm light around Leonore. She read well, with a change of voice for the different characters even though they all sounded somewhat German. She always skipped through much of the long wordy parts without dialog.
Leonore was a very thin woman, with closely cut dark hair. Donovan thought she did not really look at all like a woman, almost like a slim man dressed up as a woman. She wore pale dresses without sleeves in a faint pattern of flowers, the fabric washed almost to oblivion. Donovan felt her ribs and backbone when he had to hug her before going to bed and she smelled slightly of vinegar.
But her voice was soft and the story compelling, so Donovan always liked the hours before bedtime when she read. His mother had chosen a pile of books at the library before they left Pasadena, a special vacation arrangement from the downtown branch. Dickens was everybody’s favorite. Leonore had read Tale of Two Cities twice in their years at the cottage. Hawthorne and Melville put everybody to sleep, so they were vetoed, and they had all read Mark Twain in school. That night Leonore started an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Donovan’s mother disapproved of children’s books like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, but English mysteries and Mary Roberts Rinehart were allowed.
On their third night alone together, Leonore was reading the part about the arrival of an anonymous hate letter, pasted together from magazine headlines. Leonore could imitate Miss Marple’s voice with an English accent, so that Donovan pictured the old woman’s thin lips pouring out righteous outrage. The High Street in St. Mary Mead must have been a dangerous place.
There was a knock at the door. It startled Donovan. Leonore put down the book and went to the door.
It was Donovan’s grandfather McBeale and his son Eugene, Jr. They never had come down to Balboa Island before, so why now in the evening after it was dark?
Grandfather McBeale said, “We did not know who we would find here. Why are you here and not on the boat?”
“It was decided that Donovan stay here as a punishment,” Leonore replied. She switched on another light.
“Donovan, sit down, because we have bad news,” his grandfather said. He leaned over and put his hand up to his eyes. He wiped his eyes on a handkerchief and blew his nose. Donovan wondered what could be so bad that his grandfather, a man, would cry tears.
“The Honeytime never arrived at Avalon Bay. Since they filed a mooring permit by phone last week, the harbormaster called me this afternoon. It was important to follow up on no-shows, he said.”
“What does this mean? Have they gone somewhere else?” Leonore asked.
“We don’t think so.”
Eugene, Jr. spoke up. “The harbormaster said that there were late afternoon squalls off Catalina on the day they were supposed to arrive. The day was clear before that, but apparently your family and the Honeycutts got a late start. They ran right into the storm when they should have already been in the harbor. He told us that the Honeytime must have capsized with all aboard. The Coast Guard has given up the search.”
Leonore lowered her glasses and looked strongly at Donovan, who did not understand what had happened.
He said, “But we went through a storm last year and it wasn’t all that bad. We got to wear those yellow slickers and lower the sails.”
Eugene, Jr. said, “It could have been a rogue wave in the middle of the squall. A wave like that can turn a boat upside down and sink it in a matter of seconds.”
Grandfather McBeale, who had stopped crying, took off his glasses and wiped them, said, “I always told Jameson that it was too dangerous to sail in the channel with the whole family, but he wouldn’t listen. We’ll wait to see if there’s any more news, but I think that they were all lost at sea.”
Donovan looked over at Leonore and she watched him with her glasses down on her nose. Did that mean she thought he was to blame because he made them all late? He could not return her gaze, so lowered his eyes to the floor. How could a storm be his fault?
“Let’s get some sleep and tomorrow we’ll drive you back to Pasadena. Is their car at the marina?” Eugene, Jr., said.
“We’ll go by there on the way back and I can jump the starter.” He and Grandfather McBeale went into the parents’ bedroom to lie down.
Donovan walked slowly to the bedroom he had shared with his brothers. A bunk bed for him and Whiting, and a single one for Gareth. It could not be possible that his long swim had caused all their deaths as Leonore seemed to believe. She always said he was to blame for everything.
Thoughts of treading water between giant waves and the faces of his brothers swirled around as he fell asleep. He dreamed that they were on a slow carousel twirling around deep into blue waters, all his family and the Honeycutt girls holding on to painted horses as it circled down, rotating a grim path until it was too black so see. A long corkscrew of bubbles followed up to the surface.