A LITTLE PEACE
By Sharon Hunt
It was the perfect time to do what she came here to do, an unexpected gift, the isolation of the cottage, the moon just a sliver trying but failing to slice through the fog.
Hannah felt the knife against her leg, hidden in her jacket pocket. It would be easy to grasp, then four steps forward and she would be eye to eye with the other woman; more honourable at least – if honour had anything to do with murder – than sneaking up behind her on the beach tomorrow, when the fog was forecast to be as thick as pea soup and plunging the knife into her back, without having to see the shock and surprise, the pain on her face as she fell forward onto the sand. But on the beach, Hannah could run away and since she knew enough about herself to understand she was no more honourable than the woman a few feet away from her that was the option Hannah would stick with.
Like mother, like daughter, after all.
“You still put that look on your face, like the world owes you something. At least you got a thing or two from me, however useless,” Marg, Hannah’s mother said as, unbidden, she climbed the three steps to the deck. She leaned against it now, pushing strands of hair off her cheek where wind and spray had plastered them.
“You thought I wouldn’t recognize you because you dyed your hair black and cut it shorter than your father’s?” Marg laughed but started to fidget as Hannah remained quiet.
“Hannah, I might have been a terrible mother but not so bad I wouldn’t recognize you,” she said, pulling herself up onto the railing.
“There is no ‘might’ to it,” Hannah said finally. “You were a terrible mother and terrible wife.”
“Well, I’m sure your father would agree, but…”
“He’s dead, so whether he agrees or not doesn’t matter anymore.”
Marg’s arms suddenly turned rubbery, like her legs. Unable to hold onto the railing, she slipped down, slumping on the deck. “When did he die? What happened? I didn’t know.”
Hannah’s laughter sounded high-pitched and frantic no doubt to her mother’s ears, too. She stood up and turned away, leaving Marg alone. When she looked out the kitchen window a while later, Marg was gone.
Hannah hadn’t expected her mother to recognize her, despite what she hoped and what Marg said. She hadn’t expected to talk to her or hear her admit the hard truth Hannah and her father lived with for almost twenty years. She certainly hadn’t expected Marg to look stricken over her husband’s death, she who didn’t even do the decent thing and divorce him, just left him hoping that since no papers arrived, someday she might come home.
Well, she didn’t come home, instead finding a new one here, in a fishing village no bigger than the one she abandoned. All those years of imagining where she might be left Hannah certain it was in a city where the lights never darkened and there were plenty of diversions so her mother didn’t have to be so bored she might kill herself just for the change, or so she threatened those last months. But Colton Harbor? Finding Marg here was even more of a betrayal since it confirmed what Hannah always feared, that her mother didn’t abandon the place, she abandoned them.
This was Hannah’s third trip to Colton Harbour in a month. The end of May weather was cooler than it had been weeks earlier but still warm for this time of year and the water level higher now that the winter ice had melted. The wind coated her lips in saltiness as she drove towards the Point earlier in the day. Whitecaps broke almost to the top of the crumbling lighthouse but the beach was calmer, the surf petering out to foam when it reached the sand.
Tomorrow the beach, the whole Point would be blanketed in grey that would roll in tonight.
“Pea soup,” the locals called the kind of fog where it would be hard to see your hand in front of your face or a knife raised behind your back.
Pea soup was exactly what she wanted.
When Hannah arrived in Colton Harbour this time, the overcast sky cast an eerie radiance over the place, saturating the jewel toned buildings with even richer color. The cottage Hannah rented, next to the lighthouse, sparkled like an emerald. She drove across hard scrabble grass, hiding her car from passersby, at the side of the building. In truth, she was hiding it from only one person, Lillian Templar. That was why Hannah rented the cottage instead of staying at the inn in the centre of town again, hoping to avoid the woman whose quick, assured certainty of Hannah’s plan was not only disturbing, but created a loose thread she would have to do something about.
When the women met at the Historical Society where Lillian gave tours, Hannah liked her. She seemed comfortable with herself and so different from Hannah’s mother, although both women were close to sixty. Lillian was what Hannah imagined older women should be: constant, no surprises, dependable. Even her clothes spoke of those things: a tweed skirt, lilac sweater and flat soled shoes. She wore a small black brooch and a gold wedding band. Her short grey hair was pinned back off her face with bobby pins.
Surprisingly, Marg’s hair was short now too, a brassier blonde that it had been when it was so long she could sit on it. Then, Marg fancied herself a hippie, Hannah’s father said, with her tie-dyed skirts and that long mane of hair covering her like a shawl; she refused to be like the other mothers in their sensible clothes and her hair elicited calls of “Lady Godiva, when’s your ride?”
Marg enjoyed the Godiva reference, knowing that people were watching her. She didn’t even mind that the talk was often catty and cruel; it was talk, she was noticed and for a woman who had to stand out, that was all that mattered, it seemed to Hannah. She hated not being looked at when she lived with Hannah and her father and apparently still hated that. Although pudgy around the middle now, Marg squeezed herself into tight jeans and t-shirts with a single word emblazed across her chest. The word on the morning Hannah saw her up close for the first time since being abandoned, was ‘Bait’. The next morning, the word was ‘Disaster’. If Hannah hadn’t hated Marg so much, she would have been embarrassed for her, making a spectacle of herself in another village.
This one, Colton Harbor, was named after an Englishman who arrived in what was wilderness two hundred years earlier, built a hut and took up fishing, or so the legend went. Long after the story of that lone Englishman had taken hold, someone discovered that John Colton was a deserter from the British navy who killed two of his crewmates before escaping into the woods.
“The rest of the legend became suspect after that, of course,” Lillian said as she gave Hannah a tour. “Colton is buried in the old cemetery, so he did live, even if he edited his life while living it, like the rest of us do.”
Where Marg would have railed against being taken for a fool for believing John Colton’s legend, Lillian was sanguine about the man since, she said, regardless of how things started out, this place became a fishing village of some renown for over a century and John helped get things going in that regard. Colton Harbor fishermen became rich, built houses with mahogany banisters and batten board trim and stone churches with steeples rising to God.
“It is only the past thirty years, as cod stocks were devastated by foreign overfishing, that the place folded in on itself and admitted defeat,” Lillian said. “Still, people like you come here, stay in one of those beautiful houses and learn about the legend. Some of you even come here and stay on.”
Yes, some do, Hannah thought.
Marg had a table at a weekend flea market across from the Historical Society which was where Hannah encountered her the first time she came to the village.
“That’s deadly sharp,” Marg had warned and smiled when Hannah cradled the knife in her hand, unnaturally cautious for someone who wasn’t afraid of anything, especially knives, having spent a lot of her life in hotel kitchens, working with them.
Marg’s easy smile and throaty laugh infuriated Hannah since she didn’t remember much of that when she was growing up. Hannah couldn’t remember the last time her father smiled or laughed around her before he died, either.
What she remembered was her mother’s yelling and crying, her father’s coaxing Maggie, as she was then, back to calmness for a while before the cycle began again. Towards the end, the cycle became a loop that never stopped, as destructive as the knife Hannah held in her hand.
It was the only thing that caught her eye on a table filled with crazed plates and china cups. A stack of yellowed lace doilies was being riffled through by two young men who stroked them with the same reverence that Hannah stroked the knife handle.
At the other end of the table local men picked through rusted hammers and screwdrivers. A bowed handsaw didn’t warrant a glance and neither did pieces of driftwood fashioned into candle holders.
Still, Marg had made some sales since Hannah came along and was now wrapping up the doilies the men had chosen.
The knife had the right kind of blade, pointed and as sharp as a razor. The dark wood handle, although smooth, still allowed her to get a tight grip.
Two swift thrusts would leave behind a gaping maw.
“It’s from the twenties, when my grandfather fished these waters and…” Marg leaned forward on her stool, conspiratorial now, her voice lowering a little. “He ran rum down the coast during prohibition.”
“The knife was protection, then?”
Marg laughed. “It might have been although he was huge with hands like bear paws and when they balled into fists… well…let’s just say the knife was most likely for filleting his catch.”
“Did he fish for cod?” Hannah asked, playing along with the lie, her great-grandfather having been a banker who killed himself after the Wall Street crash.
“Yes, the ocean ran wild with them then, huge monsters, white gold.”
Hannah nodded. “My father fished for cod, too, but by then they were smaller, harder to find. There wasn’t much gold to be had at the end, since the stock had been fished to the edge of extinction by foreign trawlers.” She didn’t add that when there was no longer a life for him fishing, he, unlike Marg’s fictional grandfather, did run contraband, cigarettes instead of rum and that landed him in jail, a broken, finished man.
They settled on eighty dollars and Hannah watched Marg wrap the knife in butcher’s paper.
“I’m Marg, by the way, here tomorrow, too. If you’re flying out, pack it in your suitcase, or they’ll think you’re up to all sorts of terrible doings,” she said and laughed, holding onto the knife for a bit too long before releasing it.
“I’ll be back,” Hannah said, slipping the knife into her bag.
Marg nodded and turned to someone else. “Spode,” she said, “very old and hard to find.”
We had a china cabinet filled with it, Hannah thought, walking on.
Hannah was surprised to get a cottage so late for the first holiday weekend heading into the summer, but it all made sense after Marg’s visit: the unexpected cancellation, the owner of the cottage living just down the beach the agent said, and the only place down the beach a red clapboard where Hannah’s mother lived with Lillian’s husband. Marg had set it up so they would meet again.
“The owner may drop by, to say hello,” the agent told Hannah, then asked if there was something wrong when Hannah started laughing over the phone.
Yes, a lot is wrong, Hannah thought, hanging up.
Hannah had seen Michael Templar around. Once a captain of a fishing boat, he now conducted coastal tours. He had that slow simmering smile and quiet nature that reminded Hannah of her father. When she saw Michael and Marg at the diner one evening, he was sitting back watching as her mother held court with people who stopped to talk. When he laughed at something, it was always laughing in Marg’s direction, like the joke was between them, even though it might have originated with someone else.
Michael’s actions that night reminded Hannah so much of her father that she left the diner feeling sick with the thought it might have been motherhood Marg abandoned and if she hadn’t been a mother, she might still be a wife.
It was early when Hannah came out on the deck Sunday morning. She’d had a restless night, finally abandoning the bed and settling in a deck chair. Everything was quiet except for the occasional brooding tones of a fog horn. The lighthouse emitted an automatic beam of light that flicked over the deck at regular intervals but otherwise, all was hidden behind the dense fog.
Hannah had always been an early riser, something else she got from her mother who she watched creep out of the family house on a morning earlier than this, carrying a suitcase and not looking back.
This morning, Hannah could imagine the dead from “The Fog” rising up out of the inky depths of ocean she could hear but not see, to seek revenge on the living. Hannah had seen the movie a few times growing up, but didn’t think much about it until her father became obsessed with it before he died, watching the movie over and over on a laptop in his prison cell.
Even the doomed can find peace, he wrote in a letter to her, which she found on the computer afterwards. The dead can forgive the living.
But can the living forgive the living?
Hannah blamed her mother’s leaving for killing her father. He just hadn’t had the sense to close his eyes until years later.
Most of his life he had been a ‘never back down when you’re right’ kind of man and in the town where he was born and raised, that was an admirable trait; in prison, it was nothing but a challenge answered with a crushed hand, a broken spirit and a body kept in solitary confinement, for its own good.
“Solitary is much better,” he said the last time she saw him. “I have all these ideas in mind for when I get out of here, what I’ll do, you know?”
At some point between Hannah’s last visit and the call two weeks later, the idea had entered his mind to try to swallow his bed sheet and by the time the guards got to him, he had done a good enough job that he choked to death, clutching the rest of the sheet like a grown up Linus.
After the funeral, Hannah sold what remained of their life and started looking for her mother, leading her to Colton Harbor and the red house on stilts.
The house was little more than a shack with a deck that curved around to rickety side stairs. Back home, Marg lived in a two storey home built by Hannah’s grandfather, with polished wooden floors and curving staircases. It sat on a hill overlooking the bay, turquoise and glistening in the summer sun.
Like John Colton, a legend had grown up around the men in Hannah’s family, that fate looked kindly on James males while at sea or on land but fate looked away from one of them, after Maggie arrived.
When she left, it was just Hannah and her father working themselves into exhaustion, she with school, he with fishing, both trying to keep from falling apart. They often ate at the diner, the kitchen at home like a memorial to Marg who spent more time there, reading at the table, than anywhere else.
Hannah wondered if Marg read in this kitchen.
The last time Hannah stood looking at the house, Lillian came up behind her.
“You’re her daughter,” she said, startling Hannah. “You don’t need to deny it. You’re the face of her.”
“Why can you see it but not her?” Hannah said, up to then Marg not acknowledging who Hannah was.
“She looks too hard in another direction, my husband’s, or at least he was until she arrived. He fell for her and moved out so quickly I couldn’t catch my breath for the first year. And then everyone knowing… I held up in the house for as long as I could without going off my head.”
Lillian shrugged as she raised her hand like she was pointing a gun at the house. “I’ve always believed violence is justified when a person destroys another person’s life. That, in itself, is a form of murder, isn’t it?”
“I saw you buy the knife yesterday.”
“I’m a cook. I like knives.”
“Well, that one has a history around here.”
Hannah laughed. “Yes, rum running grandfather with hands like bear paws. I heard.”
Lillian shook her head. “It’s my husband’s knife. He threatened a tourist on his boat with it a few years back. The charges were dropped but the knife was held for a while. When Michael got it back, he tossed it aside and your mother has been trying to unload it at that table of hers. She must have been happy to see you come along.”
“It’s just a knife.”
“Look a little closer. One edge is sharp but the other has tiny notches. You wouldn’t really notice them unless you really looked. The knife makes a particular pattern if you shove it into something. It’s quite distinctive. That’s why it’s better to slice instead of shove.”
“That’s what I’m going to use it for, slicing vegetables.”
“Well, if you decide to use it for slicing anything else, she likes to walk on the beach when it’s foggy, especially early morning. Not many locals do since it’s easy to end up somewhere dangerous.”
When the fog rolled in over the beach in the movie, maggot infested crewmen walked out of it, with their knives ready to dispatch the relatives of the long dead men who caused the crewmen’s deaths. They returned to find justice.
Or peace, like Hannah’s father before he died, although she couldn’t see that until it was too late.
“Some people you have to let go of, even when it breaks your heart to do it,” he said on that last visit. He laid his hands in front of him on the table, the skin as gray as the pitted steel. Turning them over, he looked at the palms and fingers as if they were something foreign he didn’t recognize. “I know you’re still holding onto your mother but you can’t anymore.”
“Why are you saying this?”
“It got too hard trying to make her happy,” he said, reaching for Hannah’s hands but she pulled them away. “I would have done something terrible if she had stayed.”
“You did something terrible after she left. That’s why you’re in prison.”
“No, I mean something much worse. I would have killed her.”
“She deserved it, she ruined our lives,” Hannah said, not even bothering to lower her voice.
Soon after, the blood drumming in her ears drowned out his call for her to come back, like the surf this morning drowned out his call for her to let go.
Standing on the beach, Hannah waited for Marg who soon appeared, carrying a flashlight and heading towards the lighthouse.
Hannah kept her distance at first but slowly gained ground as the fog grew thicker and she became afraid of losing her mother.
When she got to the cottage, Marg turned and shone the light on her daughter.
“Come here. What you’re planning can wait.”
“I’m not planning anything,” Hannah said, loosening her grip on the knife handle and pulling her hand out of her pocket.
Marg smiled. “If I were you, I’d want to kill me, too,” she said, sitting on the bottom step of the deck and stretching her legs out in front of her. “There’s room here for you.”
A motion light at the side of the deck had come on so Marg turned off the flashlight.
“A few summers ago I had trouble with some people I rented the cottage to. They caused a lot of damage and came back to threaten me after I had the police evict them. I had the motion lights installed after that.”
“Why are you telling me this or anything? It’s not as if I want to know about your life after you left.”
“Fair enough, but I want you to know something about my life before I left. Not that you’ll think any better of me afterwards.”
Hannah didn’t move.
“I loved your father, but I never wanted to be a mother… I know, you’ll say I never was, but I did try, for as long as I could. I told him before we got married that I didn’t want children; I wanted him but that was all and he just shrugged it off, said I’d change my mind afterwards.”
Marg jumped at a sound behind the cottage. She picked up the flashlight and shone the light into the darkness but there was nothing. Sitting down again, she said, “After you were born I thought you would be enough for your father, but he wanted more children although he could see I was already smothering trying to take care of one. You were so needy.”
“That’s what children are, needy.”
“I’m not blaming you. I was afraid of what I’d do if I had another child and then it got to the point I was afraid of what I’d do if I stayed in that house with the one I had.”
“So you left to save me, is that it?”
“No, Hannah, I left to save myself, as selfish as that is. I can’t make you feel better by saying I regret what I did, because I don’t.”
“So, we should just let bygones be bygones?” Hannah felt the dampness in the air now, making her shiver.
“I’m hardly expecting forgiveness or understanding.”
“What are you expecting then?”
Marg sighed. “Nothing, but hoping for a little peace, in this life or the next.”
A glint of metal behind Marg made Hannah reach for her pocket although she knew the knife was still where she left it.
In the seconds between Lillian coming out of the fog and slipping over the deck railing, Hannah could have lunged forward, grabbed Marg’s arm and pulled her away but she had become like one of those dead crewmen, bent on a justice that wouldn’t make anything better in the end.
Marg gasped, trying to stand after the first thrust of the knife. She reached for Hannah, but with the second thrust, her legs gave way and she fell forward onto the sand.
For a moment, Lillian and Hannah stared at each other and then Lillian ran back the way she came, disappearing as the motion light snapped off, leaving Hannah to watch her mother fade into the fog.
The surf lapping at the beach was peaceful, but soon all Hannah heard was her own sobbing.
Sharon Hunt’s short stories have been published in various publications, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Her short story “Ashes to Ashes” was published in omdb! in July, 2017. She also has stories forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
Copyright © 2018 Sharon Hunt. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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