For Those Who Never Saw the Sea
This story is part of the Collected Stories of Ramsbolt.
Although it contains no spoilers, it is best enjoyed by readers who have met the characters before.
The people of Ramsbolt, Maine were afraid of Degory Howland. More than a mile from town, his once lavish home, three stories high, leaned and swayed on a hundred overgrown acres. If ever a place was to light the spark of childhood imagination, creating an inferno of haunted house tales, it was the Howland House. But no one had been inside for decades, not since Degory was left alone in the mansion to fill it with ghosts of his own making.
Inside, the walls of its twenty rooms closed in with paintings, drawings, and sketches. Fifty years of anguished art leaned against floors, the furniture, and on makeshift shelves. They piled and towered, an architecture all their own, so prolific that extracting one would surely cause the castle to crumble. The walls had been unreachable for so long that Degory had no memory of what they looked like in his mother’s time, the wallpaper faded, out of reach from recollection. But recollection was his only engagement. Putting it to canvas his only ambition.
Degory slept in an ancient chair, his head lolled and dragged to his chest. Wisps of white hair too thin for combing plastered to his head by sweat. Every few minutes his feet would twitch.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Degory lurched to a start, heart hammering in his chest. He ran a hand over his face, wiping away the slumber. He pushed himself to his feet and twisted his neck, hoping for ratcheting relief, but his flexible days were long passed.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
“Damn door. Bastards,” he mumbled.
He twisted and turned to fit his large frame down narrow paths between paintings, his slippers scuffing the bare wood. One wrong turn and he was too far from the entry. Another and he was in the old kitchen. His anger at the audacity, at the banging on the door flamed into a white hot rage. By the time he reached the entrance hall, the fury was a palpable sour on his tongue. Who was it? That man from town come again to ask for money to put lights in the street? A whole town full of people yet they come to him, the outcast, for money.
“I told you I’m not paying for electricity out there. Nothing to see at night.” He let his rage spill out before he reached the door, his voice booming. He fought the iron latch. The giant walnut door had been his father’s pride. It weighed as much as a steam engine, and Degory wasn’t as strong as he once was. He pulled and turned around paintings to swing it open.
“Thomson.” The flame of his white hot rage flared, like gasoline-soaked rag tossed on a fire. Nothing good could drag his brother away from his life in town. Decades had passed since Thomson left to chase a girl he met at the Ramsbolt Tavern. He’d only been on the porch once since. When their father died. Back when Degory was just a kid. Thomson staked no claim on their father’s money. “What do you want? There’s nothing for you here.”
Thomson leaned, his hand was on the door frame and his eyes fixed on the broken planks of the sagging porch. “I come to talk ter ya about the house here.”
“It’s my house. You left. I’ve been alone in this house since I was thirteen. My house.” Degory inched the door closed, careful not to topple a stack of slate tiles painted with scenes of ships in the winter. But his brother’s hand slammed against the door. Thomson shoved, forcing it open again.
“I’m not here to take yer house.” Thomson stepped across the threshold, brushing shards of paint from his hand onto his pants. “Does the whole place look like this?”
“You won’t know. You won’t see it.” Degory shuffled to block his brother’s view. It was bad to an outside eye. He knew by the way the mailman looked at the house, by the glances from the boy he paid to leave his shopping on the porch. By the way the mayor scowled when Degory opened the door to silence his pleas. People in town lived dustless lives in busy, empty cottages. Degory was alone, no one to make nice with and no one to look nice for. He did what he pleased. His giant house was a vacuum, anyway. It started drawing the misery out of him the day his father died in his bed and he’d been drawing the walls in ever since. Bringing them closer so it wasn’t so empty. Throwing every bit of himself and the last of his father’s dreams onto scraps and slabs of wood to keep them alive. He liked it that way. Thomson had no right to see what he’d created. What his father left. No one would ever see it.
“I came to tell you that the town manager said it needs to be cleaned up.” Thomson’s hands shoved deep in his pockets like he had something to hold onto. Thomson could take it with him when he left. “What is all this anyway?”
“It’s mine is what it is. It don’t need cleaned up. I’m not town. I’m not part of all that.”
“He says the house is part of town. You get town services. They bring the mail. You gotta live by town rules. It’s too much clutter, he says.”
“I’ll stop getting mail then. That’ll fix it. Why’d he send you? You’re not here to take my stuff?”
Thomson’s eyes darted around the entrance hall, up the broad staircase piled high with paintings. “He sent me ‘cause you screamed at him when he came to ask about the lights. He saw this fire hazard and wants it sorted up. And I ain’t here to take this stuff. I don’t even know what it is. What is all this? How do you get up the steps?”
“It’s none of your business. I use the back stairs. You don’t want my stuff?”
“No. I want to help you with the town.”
“Shut the door, then.” Degory gave in, but only to get the town off his back. And only as far as foyer. What used to be the foyer. He stepped between Thomson and the tower that was once the stairs. Dust, the flotsam and jetsam of life, swept up in the breeze. The bright sun of late winter warmed the earth but the wind still blew cold and it came through the entry and chilled Degory’s nose. “I can’t offer you tea. Don’t have any.”
“I don’t need tea. I wanna be out from the middle of this.” Thomson bent at the waist, peering through an entryway into their mother’s old sitting room. “What happened to Mom’s furniture?”
“It’s under here.”
“Mom kept it so happy. Bright.”
“Mom threw parties. I don’t throw parties.” Ten years younger than their father, their mother had been a spring bird. She flitted and sang until she died in childbirth. Their newborn sister followed. Degory hid in his bed, under his blankets, his fingers in his ears, but nothing drowned out the sound of the screaming or the shrill of the baby’s cry.
“No, you’ve always been more like Dad.” Thomson stared at the ceiling.
“You wouldn’t know. Once, I’ve seen you since you left here. And that was enough. How are you going to help with the town?”
“They wouldn’t want you to live like this.” Fear or sorrow etched Thomson’s face, Degory couldn’t tell which.
Looking up, Degory saw through his brother’s eyes. Dark clouds of web in the corners. “I like it this way. Keeps people out.”
Degory tore his eyes from the cobwebs, his ears full of the sounds of his mother and sister leaving. The failure of a body asked to do too much. The discord of it was stuck in the house, trapped in the walls. He didn’t hear it as often as he used to. He didn’t hear it when he painted, but it would still haunt him at night, if he weren’t tired enough for sleep.
“I didn’t have any help after Dad died. I was alone out here. A kid.”
“You didn’t want to come live with us. We offered.”
“Because I don’t want to be around all those people.” Degory’s voice shot up an octave. He stamped his foot and a painting slid and slammed to the floor. Thomson jumped.
Degory found satisfaction in startling his brother, though the temptation to rescue the painting was strong. “I have no room for people. That town. I went there one time, to tell you to come out here and help me bury Dad under that old maple tree. Miserable place, that town.”
“Less miserable than this.”
The spooling unease, winding tighter and tighter, twisting inside him threatened to snap. “And when you got here all you did was fuss that the weather tore at the roof. Not your house. Not your stuff. They come out here asking me for money. Dad left his railroad money to me. Not to put lights in the streets. Now they say I have to clean up my house.”
“I’m just the messenger, Deg.”
“Get out.” Degory lunged at his older brother as if shooing a stray dog from the porch. “Get on, now. Out.”
Thomson stumbled back toward the door, hands raised in submission. “I ain’t trying to make you do anything. I just said I’d come out here and let you know.”
“Let me know? I’ll let you know something. The day Dad died he said all he regretted was that he never won the sea. He conquered the land with all those railroads but he never got himself on a boat. That was his regret. So I paint boats.”
“All this garbage is paintings of boats?”
Degory stormed toward his brother, pushing the man off balance and back to the door. “Not garbage. Every room in this house is full of boats. My work. Mine. So now you know, and you can get out.”
“You never told me that. When you brought me out here. You never told me that about him.”
“You left. You wanted nothing from us. I couldn’t dig that hole myself. Six feet down. That’s all I needed from you.”
“Why his boats, though? Don’t you got nothing of your own to paint?”
“That is my own to paint.” Degory pulled at the door, grabbed his brother by the arm, and pushed him onto the porch. “Mom left because she had to. You left because you wanted to. I stayed. It was me. Because I was all Dad had. I took care of everything. And you’re just like those people in town now, laughing and pointing fingers at what you don’t understand. And you come here because you need what I have. You’ll never get it. No one will get it.”
Degory leaned his weight against the door, willing it to close, but his brother pushed from the other side.
“It’s a death trap in there. All that wood.” Thomson’s voice was weak with strain against the door. “Wait a second. Just wait. There’s a way to get the town to leave you alone.”
Degory let go of the door and his brother tumbled in. “Tell it.”
“You still have Dad’s money?”
“What if I do?”
“Give ‘em your share of the lights. Maybe a little more for the trouble. All they want is to make a little town circle with some benches and put some lights on the street.”
“Nitwit. I figured that on my own. I don’t pay bribes.”
“People are afraid of stuff they can’t see. They can’t see you so they don’t know you. Send them some kindness, and they won’t bother you no more. But you gotta clean this up, this is a fire hazard. One bad night with the fireplace, and you’ll never make it out of here.”
“It’s not yours to worry about.”
Thomson’s face fell. “I suppose it’s not.”
“Get on then.”
Degory closed the door but for a crack he peered through, one eye taking in the last of his brother. Once Thomson skirted the worst of the rotten planks, crossed the porch, and lowered himself to the ground, Degory closed the door and locked himself inside, away from the rest of the world. Away from the heat of panic that spread beneath his skin when he got too far from the porch. Too far in the open. Too close to the scrutiny, the inevitable rejection. The shaking, the tingling in his hands and feet. The sky pressing down on him, making it hard to breathe. He gasped for air.
He turned in the hall, righted the toppled painting and wound through the slim passages, past sketches of ships in storms and sailboats at sunrise. He could remember each one, the creation of it. The pencil strokes. The daubs of paint. He could draw up from recollection every sleepless night spent drawing by candlelight, keeping the piercing cries of the past away. Quieting down the howls and the bellows. Pouring the only dream he knew onto canvas after slab of wood, homages to a life unlived.
He couldn’t let them go. He couldn’t let the town take away those dreams, those fantasies lived on the open sea, unbound by land, untethered from the shore. If the only chance to save it all was to pay the town a pittance, he would give the man his fortune and buy his solitude.
He wound through his mother’s sitting room, around stacks of paintings that covered her sofas, and through the morning room where art obscured tables and chairs polished decades before. Twisting and lumbering, he clawed his way through dressing rooms, around ancient mounds of art-covered beds, and into the room that was once his father’s office. One at a time he moved seascapes away until he found his bearings. The edge of a chair, the corner of a desk. He moved his works aside until he could open the drawer of his father’s old davenport. Within it, he found a candle, matches, and some paper yellowed by time. He struck the match against the box. Once. Twice. A puff of sulfur birthed a delicate flare.
He lit the candle, cursing his brother’s scorn. His home was no fire hazard. He painted by candle all the time, and carried them in the night as he wove through the passages he’d created with his art.
With the nib of a pencil, from his father’s seat at the ancient desk, he wrote a letter to the town.
Here's money. Take it. Upon my death, I merely ask that the house and the art return to the earth. Please use the land and my father’s fortune as you see fit. In the meantime, please use the enclosed to bring light to the town. It should be more than enough. I also ask that upon my passing, a small amount be used to build a statue in your town circle, in my likeness and dressed like a sailor, with a small plaque paying homage to those who never saw the sea.