Banshee – Part 1
New York City
Fear once set in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by….
The last ferry across the Great South Bay had left hours earlier and with it the voices of panic and admonition. Fair Harbor, one of several small villages on Fire Island, a barrier island off the south shore of Long Island, was now nearly deserted. He had been living in Fair Harbor since early spring as he had for the past four years. What once had been a refuge of solitude and simple existence this year had become his own Devil’s Island. All had been lost or left behind, time and mileage and the various vicious twists to which any one life is prone had left their imprint on his soul.
He was weary and worn, neither hero nor victim, just another man who had already lived the majority of his years as best he could, without fear nor ever despair, always a worthy opponent to whatever challenge might rear itself from without or within. He had at times lost but had also won now and again, whatever those terms are supposed to mean within the framework of living. The sacred geometry of chance was the true taskmaster, after all, and the best any man could do was balance himself on the precipices. That much he had done many times before. But he was now approaching the endgame as evidenced by the fact that many, if not most, of the people he had once been close to were now dead. It was not that he felt particularly aged, quite the opposite, but the fact remained— his contemporaries, friend and family and foe, were gone. Although always a melancholy sort he was not given to surrender nor certainly self-pity but he did indeed understand the nature of futility. But if perchance he were to die tomorrow he would have had his fair share of laughter.
He no longer derived the same potent pleasure from life he had as a young man but neither was he ready to bid bon voyage to its many pleasures, however transient. Death to him had always been life’s safety valve—one could always check out. Beyond that, however, he harbored no dismal death wish so when he was warned in no uncertain terms by the lot scurrying to escape the coming storm that he was mad to stay on the island he did, in fact, think twice. But long before he had learned it best to ignore the demands of another’s anxieties and fears, the tyranny of another’s emotions were always to be avoided for they were seldom the voice of reason and never that of altruism. This would not be the first time his life was threatened, nor even the second, but he was well aware that such experiences did not lessen the impact. There are those who believe that courage was a total sum from which a little more was extracted each time called upon. Perhaps that was true. If so, the nights and days to come might well prove draining. He hoped that whatever reserves remained would prove sufficient.
One last time he asked his partner if she wished to leave. She said no. She loved this place. It was her heartfelt home and had been for many years. She placed her trust in Yemanja, in Brazilian Condemble she is the patron deity of oceans, motherhood and Ogun River in Africa. The spirit of water, her favorite number is seven and she is reputed to favor cigarettes and Champaign offerings at dawn. Good choice of patrons to put faith in, he thought, given the impending forces.
A volunteer fireman and a cop came around with the final warning. He told them he would keep an eye on things while they were gone – see you when you get back. They did not find him amusing. They warned him of waves, very high waves and 90-mile-per-hour winds. He told them he had seen such before. If the waves proved massive enough to engulf the island only a boat would do and if so there were several moored nearby. They said they would not come back to save him. He told them that had he ever waited for anyone to save him he would not be alive today. If the problem was that they did not want to save him not to worry, they were absolved from any responsibility. His life was his own, always had been. The argument ended when he showed them his social security number written in large numerals on his forearm in magic marker. He knew this was mandatory in mandatory evacuation procedures. Okay, let the stupid bastard die, they must have thought. Few things ever change. So be it. He had no intention of dying. But given the reports from places to the south which had already been hit he was willing to leave it to chance.
And if the storm hit the coast as expected this island might well be a good place to take shelter given the power would go down, trains would not run, the expressways would flood and general chaos might well ensue on shore. He had food, bottled water, firewood, not enough Irish whiskey but some, tequila if desperate, tobacco and a dynamo-powered radio. And mops, of course. Did he feel lucky today? No. Truth be told he had nowhere else to go. All things considered he would take his chances here. Once again he missed God. An atheist is ever on his own. With a respectful salute to Neptune he would leave his fortune to the whims of whatever goddesses may be.
There was not one soul to be found anywhere by late afternoon, an oddly eerie sensation. PBS warned repeatedly of the violence of the approaching behemoth, its force expected to last for thirty-six hours, perhaps longer. Dire tales of destruction from along the eastern seaboard abounded. There was no point in regret now since there was no way off the island, nowhere to run, no choice other than to accept whatever the fates should choose. At 5:10pm, three hours after the power company had originally indicated all power was cut. He noticed its absence only some time later when he looked at the frozen hands of the clock on the wall as the radio announced the time on the hour. Better without power, no need to fear ending up as charcoal brisket when stepping in an electrified puddle.
There would no doubt be some rather large puddles soon enough. It is a short distance between the Great South Bay to the north and Atlantic to the south of Fair Harbor, sitting as it does on the thinnest sliver of earth on Fire Island. The wind was fierce and constant from the northeast, the waters of the Bay higher than he had ever seen, already nearly engulfing the ferry dock. The waves on the Bay were relentless, those of the ocean thrashing madly, lashing out like a sea hag gone mad, easily over ten feet high and rising. It was nearly dark. They slept. The storm was only starting.
It was not sudden but gradual the rising force of the wind. What started as ‘blustery’ had overnight slowly and steadily become an intense force which pounced mercilessly. A native New Englander, he learned as a boy it was best to get out into a storm as it grew, before it reached its full force, to navigate it as best one could and gauge how quickly it rose as well as to face it squarely rather than sit back and allow it unchallenged control over one’s emotions. Spitting into the wind did have its wisdom if only as a last act of defiance.
The house they were in rested on ancient wooden supports nearly six feet above ground to the rear and just above ground level in the front. The flooding which had started early in the morning was now rising rapidly. From the rear deck he could see that the level was now halfway to its floorboards. If it should start to thrust it would easily take out the deck and possibly the house with it. For the moment it was rising only upward but not flowing sidelong. He went out to check on its wider progress.
The waters from the Bay were advancing quickly, in some places along Central Walk, the main road which ran the length of the village and beyond to Saltaire, Kismet then to the Burma Road, a dirt path which ended at the Lighthouse where he had meant to head as a last resort, as high as a short man’s waist or, as a different clumsy standard of measure, halfway up the side of a Jeep. How high would that be in meters? The ‘meter’, as defined by a rather bombastic professor of technology as he addressed the class of reprobates sitting in a half-empty amphitheatre who were once his mates in a small college far away and long ago, was the length of a bar of platinum which sat in a museum in Sevres, France. This knowledge proved worthless now to measure the water level but the memory served to remind him once more that he had lived an interesting life peopled with fine friends and several daffy ducks. He was a lucky man.
He had no idea exactly how high the water had risen, in either system of measurement, but he knew himself to be nearly six ‘feet’ tall and that whoever owned the abandoned Jeep would soon need new upholstery. And had it been the Datsun hot-rod which the old professor had tooled around in way back when, the flood waters would have been just above the hood. An effective, albeit wholly inaccurate, method with which to estimate how long it might be, all things remaining somewhat constant, before he would regret his nonchalant approach to childhood swimming lessons.
The winds were already ripping away and tossing about anything not heavy or not secured. Plastic trashcans thrashed wildly about, a ‘For Sale’ sign flew of its post and was blown helter-skelter down the road. And according to the radio broadcasts the storm’s main thrust was as yet hours away. It was then a small, highly unwelcome worm of fear began to slither into his consciousness. This time he was not, as was his custom, taking a risk alone—his partner was here too.
He went back to the house, ‘Wit’s End’, aptly named after all. She sat silently listening to NPR. She did not move. Nothing if not stoic. He tried but failed to conceal his rising apprehension. He asked her once again if she wanted to leave now, taking to the road before it was entirely impassable. Although already perhaps too late, his fear was not so much for himself, he had always been and was still rather quick on his feet and agile, he began to be concerned for her. She was neither. If those waters continued to rise and flow there might well be real danger of those wooden stilts in the rear being swept out from under the house causing its collapse. She looked at him impassively. I have been through hurricanes here before, she flatly stated, and I am not leaving my house. He persisted, unsure if she fully understood the potential danger. She had not been outside. Her calm was somehow spooky and for an instant he even doubted her sanity or at least her ability to comprehend what was about to come upon her. She looked at him coldly and said, ‘Don’t panic.’ Bloody hell! He was not in any panic but had realized that he was profoundly afraid for her, afraid also that this time one of his decisions might bear horrible consequences not only for himself but for someone else.
Had he confused bravery with stupidity? Would his decision to face the fear, ever an experience junkie, cause harm to another? The fact that she had wished to stay also did not now enter into it. What matter should the worst happen? Her dead calm was exceedingly unnerving but at least she was certainly not in any panic herself. He hoped fervently that she would not. She said again, ‘I am not leaving my house and all I have to do if I wanted to leave would be to call my friends and they would drive here and pick me right up.’ Once again, he doubted her immediate sanity, especially whether she was taking this risk for the wrong reasons, making assumptions wholly unreliable at their source. No one would come here, not for her or anyone else. They had either left or were about to flee soon. But she was right that it was not a good idea to leave one’s shelter. Last chance, now or never. ‘No’, she said. So be it. He admired her resolve but knew he would not be able to bear it should something happen to her. The winds outside were blowing harder and the waters were rising. It was now late morning of a steel-grey day and Adamastor was quickly approaching with all the relentless and furious violence only nature can unleash.
To be continued tomorrow …
Bio: MC Alves is a free-lance writer, former journalist and contributor to various publications. He is the author of a collection of short fiction and has also written two books on Information Technology. He lives in New York City.