The Hermit (excerpt)
A story by Robert Young
Sketch by Diana Young
The Hermit and Other Stories / Sketches from a Sketchbook
That night when she was a girl came back. Was it down there on that beach, barely visible in the dark? Was it on those very grains of sand, or have the tides washed them away by now and replaced them with others? Over the years, all the tides and storms have mixed the sand. The county dredged up fresh sand from the floor of the Sound five years ago. There might be a few grains left from that night, the night Mark and Laurie came to her room and begged her to go out with them to Salt Island.
“This is our last summer, Ellen,” Mark whispered. “We leave tomorrow. It’s your last chance to see the hermit.”
“I don’t think so,” Ellen said, showing how hurt she was that Mark and Laurie had gone out in the sailboat that day without her. All summer, she had sailed with them every day, flying up and down along the beaches until being with her cousins had defined living. Then, that morning, her mother had sent her out to the grocery, and when she came back, the sailboat was gone from the pier. She panicked.
Her mother said, “They want you to meet them on the beach.”
Ellen raced down the driveway, crossed Beach Road, scurried down the sea wall, churned her way across the hot sand, but her cousins had already cast off and disappeared. She walked out the pier to wave at them if they should come by. Under the pavilion at the end, on a wooden bench in the shade, she waited all afternoon, but they never came back. The sun set and she walked home.
“You find em?” Momma asked.
“No, ma’am,” she replied, hoping that the hollow anguish of betrayal didn’t show in her voice. She sat on her bed and thought about how futile life could be and how empty.
When Mark and Laurie came to her room in the dark later that night, she was dead from the day. Dead, that is, from their disloyalty.
“We’ve seen the hermit,” Laurie whispered.
“No, you haven’t,” Ellen said, thinking she’d never trust them again.
“Ellen, now don’t be foolish. We need for you to come with us. The hermit needs us.” Laurie’s arm circled her shoulder.
Ellen’s reluctance faded with the promise of danger and being in Mark and Laurie’s good graces again. The three of them tiptoed down the gallery to the back stairs. Ellen’s rapture at that moment, well, she never forgot it.
The bright, full-moon night, and the wind in from the Gulf, sweet with heavy clouds out there trembling and rumbling and flashing. It was paradise, being with Mark and Laurie and flying in the little white-hulled boat out to Salt Island. Expectancy itself filled the sails. Ellen would have sailed to Mexico! To Yucatan and climbed the pyramids!
As they approached the island from the open waters of the Gulf, a white beach stretched naked and phosphorescent under the dark line of trees. Ellen jumped into the shallow surf and helped pull the boat up onto the sand. Mark tied a rope from the prow to a fallen pine. For a moment, they all stood gasping and Ellen almost said she wanted to go back.
“We made it!” said Mark. “Let’s go. Be as quiet as you can. And watch where you step, because I fell and cut my arm a while ago.” he must have sensed her indecision and grasped her elbow. “You okay? For sure?”
“Of course I’m okay,” she lied.
“The old man’s waiting for us,” Laurie shouted over the wind. “Haven’t you always said you wished you could meet the hermit? Don’t you be afraid. He’s a truly quiet man and he’s waiting for us. He needs our help.”
“Have you already seen him?” Ellen said, but her cousins had turned away.
Mark crept into the palmetto thicket with Laurie close behind. Ellen hesitated for a second, then took up the rear.
As they entered a pine thicket, Laurie reached back and took Ellen’s hand. Ahead of them, Mark vanished down a narrow footpath. For a long time they tracked Mark through the prickly undergrowth, thorns tearing at Ellen’s legs. For a moment, she wondered if she could keep up. She wanted to scream, to lie down and just breathe. She bumped into Laurie when her cousin halted at a clearing.
In the open space was a hut covered with palmetto leaves. Mark whispered, “You and Laurie wait while I make sure everything is all right. As soon as you see the candles being lighted, that’s your signal to come in.”
Ellen’s dream had come true, acceptance by her cousins. But did she want it after all?. She had yearned to be included, to relieve her own isolation, to just breathe their smells, touch them and be touched. Accepted, she felt awkward and sensed that she was still unwanted. She was sorry for pestering this poor old man, sorry to have shown her cousins her need for them.
Candlelight appeared inside the hut and Laurie tightened her grip on Ellen’s wrist. Ellen searched Laurie’s face and saw, even in the dim light, eyes that were cold and impassive. She felt more alone than ever. Laurie tugged at her arm and drew her across the clearing.
“Come on in, it’s okay,” Mark said, holding open the canvas flap that served as a door. Ellen followed Laurie inside. Stretched out on the floor, a man.
The hermit was dead. He had been dead for a long time. No skin on his skull. His cranium was green with mold and fungus.
Mark sat cross–legged beside the carcass, a pile of rotten denim and leather. Laurie squatted next to Mark and drew Ellen to her side. The only sound was that of their feet crushing dried palmetto leaves. Mark stuck a candle into a rusty sardine can. The wax sizzled in the humid air.
Ellen was about to ask why they had come when Mark said, “We must bury the hermit.”
She wanted to look down at the mossy thing at her feet, but what caught her eye were dozens of glimmering reflections all around the hut. He had covered the walls with frames the size of a postcard, their pictures wrinkled, faded. What would it be like to take them down and see what the hermit had preserved with such great care? Were they family snapshots? Images cut from magazines?
Laurie must have sensed Ellen’s enchantment, because she said, “Come on, Ellen. The fact of it is, he’s dead. He’s dead and must be buried and we are the ones who must do it.”
Mark and Laurie had already dug the hermit’s grave out on the edge of the clearing. Ellen helped them scoop up the denim-wrapped bones and deposit them in the shallow trench. Her fear disappeared and she only felt numb. She hated herself for interfering with the man’s mausoleum, his tomb lined with scenes from his life. Yet the pictures drew her closer to regard the testaments like the votive paintings on the walls of the chapel at Our Lady of Bon Secour.
After the burial, she took a candle and eased slowly back into the hut. In the flickering light, she realized he didn’t frame the images with glass. Assorted bits of glass and metal glittered, pieces the hermit collected from the island’s beaches and secured to the wall with bits of faded nylon rope, blue, green, orange. She thought of votive candles at the altars of the saints. The faded and discolored photographs and newspaper clippings tacked to the wall wavered in and out of focus. Were these the people of his life? Mother? Father? Siblings? Wife? Children? She moved closer and held the stump of a candle as close as she could to a photograph that appeared to be a studio portrait of a family. Mother, Father, the Children, a boy and a girl. Suddenly, she had the sickening realization that she would never know the answer to their identities. Nobody ever would. He had wiped the faces into unrecognizable smears. He had not scratched but touched. She saw the finger of the hermit caressing memories until he died.