Set on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Michael Parker’s fifth novel takes the form of a biblical narrative tracing the fate of New World exiles across 150 years of imagined history steeped in original sin.
The barrier island’s mythical genealogy begins with socialite Theodosia Burr Alston, schooled in French, Latin, and Greek, the refined daughter of disgraced United States Vice President Aaron Burr. In an ill-fated voyage to New York from her South Carolina slave plantation, Theo is shipwrecked on the banks in 1813 and taken in by an island hermit named Old Whaley, with whom she bears children.
The unlikely couple’s descendants inhabit the island until 1970, cut off from the outside world but committed to preserving Theodosia’s battered portrait and faded legend against hurricanes, human treachery, and general indifference.
Parker’s lenticular chapters shift back and forth between the two centuries, exploring memory, pride, love, loneliness, and the endless human capacity for self-delusion in a sun-bleached, weather-beaten environment that’s impervious to modern civilization.
Old Whaley eventually flees the island and abandons Theo, leaving the white aristocrat in the care of a black handyman, Hezekiah Thornton. That racial dynamic of codependency becomes a permanent feature of the island’s landscape. A century and a half later, the island’s last white descendants, two elderly women named Miss Maggie and Miss Whaley, find themselves locked in a parallel relationship with Hezekiah’s scion Woodrow.
All-but-lost to the outside world, the 20th-century islanders cling to their mythology of honor and endurance, viewing mainlanders with suspicion and befuddlement. The last three inhabitants adhere to some mysterious code of chivalry that deems it treason to seek a better life inland, surrendering their fate to the sun, the mosquitoes, and the wind.
By Michael Parker. Algonquin Books. 2011, 272 pages, hardback, $23.95. To order a copy from Algonquin Books, click here.
Excerpt from The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker
Adapted from The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker. © 2011 by Michael Parker. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.
Theodosia Burr Alston
Nag’s Head, North Carolina
The day Whaley came for her she had spent among the live oaks, huddling and shivering in the squalls of frigid rain. The low tight trees provided tolerable canopy, yet eventually the driving rain came at her sideways. No protection from its furious winds. The coast brought out the worst in rain. What a few miles inland would have been restorative, replenishing, here seemed inutterably desperate. The hues of the landscape exacerbated the loneliness or, rather, hue, for everything turned the dun color of wet sand. Even the dull green of the live-oak leaves. Especially the roiling ocean.
Hours in the wet sand. She knew she needed to rouse herself and stroll the beach for that was where they would be searching for her, the party her father would have sent to rescue her, but she could not summon the strength to abandon her paltry shelter. Her shivering turned the supplications she repeated into stutter. A message typed out in code. But her father heard. Late in the day he came to sit with her. He covered her up in blankets, pulled dry wool from a satchel. He made her a cup of tea. Cakes and fresh strawberries. Don’t speak, child, he said when she tried to form syllables unbroken by shiver, tried to tell him how the ship she’d boarded in Charleston to visit him in New York hit high wind and rough water off the Outer Banks of North Carolina; how she’d left her maidservant retching below deck and made her way topside to find even the captain ashen and unsettled; how, through the wind-slanted rain, Theo had spied a blinking, had pointed to the ship and they’d made for it, only it wasn’t a ship but a lantern tied to the head of a nag by thieves luring ships to the shallows; how, when Theo was brought above deck by the men who boarded the ship and presented to their leader, Daniels, she had refused to let go of the portrait she had brought along to present to her father upon his return from exile in Europe; how the woman in the portrait had spoken to her and how she had spoken back to the woman, who was no longer a reasonable likeness of her but her protector and savior; how she had screamed her name, her father’s name, what stray phrases entered her head: I do not love my husband the governor I am the empress of Mexico not a ship at all but the head of a nag; how Daniels, disturbed by her outburst, had deemed her “touched by God,” and spared her life. How this was the moment that Theodosia Burr Alston died, and the woman who spent her days scouring the beaches for the glint of a bottle, a sheet of parchment curled within, her father’s beautifully slanted hand visible beneath the sea-clouded glass, was less born than unsheathed, for who was she all along but a fraud incapable of the simplest virtues.
She explained none of this to her father because he would not let her speak. Every time she tried he shushed her and drew the blanket tighter around her body. The fire caught and crackled as he fed it. Never before had she been so comforted by such an essential element as fire.
He said, finally: It’s a pity, the way the world treats its most vigilant servants. Both of us end up exiled from the things we love. Sent to some purgatory where we are doomed to hide who we really are.
She asked why.
Oh Theo, it’s not for me to answer why such hardships occur in the world.
No, why us? Why is this happening to us? What did we do to deserve this? For surely we provoked it?
You speak as if we’re such great sinners, he said. The fire was dying down. His voice was as cold and gray as the ocean twisting and crashing in the distance.
Father, she said, but he was gone, as was his fire, the warm mug of cinnamon-spiced tea.
In his placed hovered the other island ward. Old Whaley, he was called. On his knees in the wet sand, one hand holding back a branch. She blinked, as if this would make him disappear. But he was even more present when she opened her eyes.
They watched each other. Rain dripped off their noses, then their chins.
Theo had seen him only a few times, always in the distance: moving over a dune, disappearing into a copse. He lived along in a lean-to in a wood by the sound. A hermit, he sold his catch or traded it for sugar, coffee, his few store-bought needs. Mostly he survived on what he scavenged. He looked like it ––rail thin, skin the ghastly gray-white of a fish belly. His beard was a tangle. Yet nothing could dampen his eyes, which were vivid blue beacons.
“Come with me now, miss,” said Whaley. She realized, staring at him, that he was a lot younger than most who called him Old Whaley.
Since he too was touched, did that mean she had to keep up pretense around him? Or was he mad enough not to notice her relative madness?
She fell back to her failsafe silence.
Whaley shrugged. “You want to stay here? Out in this mess? It’s set in now.”
He raised his shoulders again, no shrug this time, but a respectful acknowledgment of the heavens—perhaps of the God whose touch damned and saved both of them. Theo could only acknowledge the irony of God’s touch determining her fate. Her faith was a Sabbath faith, and her lack of devotion if made known to even one other person or even fully admitted in her heart would have filled her great-grandfather Jonathan Edwards with ire and shame. God was the one thing lacking in her rigorously modern and masculine education, since her father, the son and grandson of preachers, had replaced the Calvinist dogma of his youth with freethinking Greeks and Romans after reading Mary Wollstonecraft and deciding his daughter should be educated as he had been, minus the scripture.
“It’ll not likely let up anytime soon,” said Old Whaley.
She looked past him at the screen of rain.
“I don’t have much but it’s dry.”
She spoke before she could stop herself. “Do you have a fire?”
He smiled. She saw his brown chiseled teeth and thought of food and a place to stay for more than a few nights. For months they had moved her around the island, sheltered her in shacks and sound-side cottages. The families who had been ordered to take her in all but ignored her. Mostly she ate what would have been slopped in those households lucky enough to own a few pigs. If she was lucky, she got salt, fish, biscuits, tack. Vegetables were dreamed. Fantasies of fresh ears of corn slick with hot butter, salt-studded. What a thing to dream, given all her thousand wants, yet there it was in front of her, slowly spinning, golden with promise as a rising sun.
“Yes. I have a fireplace.” He nodded and scooted out backward. Beyond the thin shelter of her live oak, he turned and waited. But she hesitated. She’d been talking to her father and blinked awake to find old Whaley. Therefore this Whaley was a figment. What awaited her should she follow was surely worse than a few more frigid hours beneath her tree.
“Come on then,” he said. “Let’s get you next to that fire.”
She shook her head no.
“You’ll die out here,” he said. She watched the wisps his words made. What was language but steam? Better not to speak at all than to waste precious breath in a dissipating cloud.
Old Whaley went away. Her father did not return. Only Theo and the wind, rain-laden, unrelenting, determined to take both her and island apart.