This southern shore of Long Island has much sand and few stones, in contrast to the rock-strewn coastline of the west. There, one will hardly notice a particular stone for the mass of them. Here, a solitary stone against the sand will draw your attention and set you wondering.
In this land of beautiful people who lie upon the sand, consonant with its sun-drenched glory, I came across two stones. Sisters. To my eye they did not belong with the others nearby. By appearance they were rather misshapen, not smooth from the wearing of the sea but rough and cast out from the land, in need of the sea’s polish. Perhaps that is why they had come to the shore, hoping for a smoothing of hard features, warmth after a winter carried too long.
Their names are Gertrude and Helen. They walk slowly because they are large. Overweight, full-faced. They lumbered through life together, as I learned, Gertrude slightly ahead of Helen when they were children. She the firstborn, too, though only by minutes. Twins in birth. Helen had dawdled walking to school, and Gertrude would turn to say, “Come on now, Helen, or we will be late to school.” Gertrude arrived at the door, Helen a few steps and a few moments later, but both in time. They were not attractive or coordinated in their movement. One might have suspected damage, but there had been no damage. The sensitivities were simply plain.
I was told they were not made fun of when they were children, as they might have been in another place. Gertrude and Helen fit. They came from the original English stock that settled here in the 17th century. Suspicious of new blood, their progenitors mixed their own, so that in these latter days many of their offspring bore an unmistakable stamp of luck, good or bad. Rough, these stones, but they belonged nonetheless to one place, and in place, they were accepted.
When school age, Gertrude and Helen played games at recess with the other children, albeit slowly and with a noticeable lack of grace. But they laughed with the others and skinned their knees like any of the others and tumbled back into school brushing the dust of a common ground from their skirts. Strong in body, amiable of spirit.
Those who came to vacation on this island’s paradisiacal shores hardly noticed such plodders as Gertrude and Helen, or their cousins, except at the cash registers where the townsfolk traded their service for the sun dollars of the wealthy. Though, in the shifting way of a coastline, these native townsfolk were now being replaced at summer establishments by young men and women with fine necklines and hands and just the right word to say without stopping to talk. The mingled cultures eyed each other guardedly, each grateful they were not like the other, though perhaps with a touch of envy. “Wouldn’t it be grand to live in a big house?” “Wouldn’t life be simpler and happier out here, away from the city?”
Occasionally the rougher stones who live near the water yearlong and who endure the raw winter will go out to the sandy beaches in the summer to feel the sun against their weathered bodies. They will see the summer people, who might not be so at ease as they appear. Like stones from the sea, the sleek may sense they could just as easily be swept out by another tide.
Gertrude and Helen, when girls, traded with their own kind. Boys from some of the fishing families took them out when they got to the age when even stones want to do something more than kick each other around the schoolyard. Gertrude dated Bill and Helen dated Fred, and they went out together to some of the places along the dunes the summer crowd didn’t know. The girls teased and dreamed, and the boys thought they had pretty good stones to press against the sand. They laughed when Gertrude became pregnant. Bill said it was a good time to get married anyway, and Helen said with a spark to her brown eyes, “How about it, Fred?” And the twins got married together just when they graduated from high school.
The young women became fishermen’s wives and didn’t mind the early hours at which their husbands got up to go to their boats. The days started before the sun and ended with the men home later in the morning, their eyes drawn by salt, weary but satisfied with the day’s catch. Both men were wire-thin when they got out of their waders, Fred a head taller than Bill with dark curly hair, where Fred was going bald early.
The twins were happy and laughed short laughs when they had their coffee, either at Gertrude’s house or in Helen’s next door. They got heavier through the years, even more than they had been for their size as girls, so that they rocked back and forth when they went down street together. Sometimes they rocked into each other, and sometimes they rocked in tandem. Either way it was slow, measured, expressive of that older way of living on the Island, and no one minded.
Bill and Fred did come around to say that maybe the women could do some housekeeping for the rich folks, to help make ends meet, and Gertrude and Helen obliged, working a few days of the week. In the summer Helen also baked pies to sell.
The sisters might have rocked easily through the rest of their lives except for a difference early on. Gertrude bore twins that year out of high school, boys. Helen was not able to have children, as she and Bill discovered soon enough. It was a hardship for her, Helen said, but she took pleasure in Gertrude’s boys and Gertrude was willing to share their life with her. The boys grew up thinking they had two mothers, and neighbors would comment now and again when the boys were very young, how the twins would be out walking the twins. “What a sight,” they’d say, looking at the four of them. Still, there was that difference now between the sisters. For all their closeness, Helen felt she had been denied something, and every now and then she looked pained as though she ached thinking about it.
It was with particular force, then, that Helen also lost her husband. It was as if a storm came suddenly upon them. Fishing one day with his nets, the swells great from an actual storm far to the south, though the sun rose clear here, Fred lost his balance in the dory and fell overboard. He couldn’t swim, but he stood on the sandbar where he was just then, and he turned to Bill in the dory and said something like a joke — Bill didn’t recall exactly what, as he spoke of it later. Then as Bill got ready to help Fred back in, a wave hit Fred from the back and he went under. “It must have knocked the wind out from him,” Bill said. “The quicksand, too, and his waders filled up. He just went down and under, and when I saw he wasn’t coming up I couldn’t find him, neither.”
Helen said it was the Lord’s will. Even when parts of Fred’s body washed up pretty much stripped by fish, Helen kept to her faith.
She spent more time than ever at Gertrude’s house. She took pleasure in Gertrude’s boys, seeing them grow. She said it reminded her of when she and Gertrude had played together as girls. She looked wistfully at the boys walking off to school, the one thin like his father but muscular, his brother stockier. The boys attended the same school she and Gertrude had, with the same games at recess, the same dust brushed from their clothes when the boys got into a scuffle. Still, Helen felt the distance between her sister and herself, more than she had when she learned she couldn’t have children of her own.
“Life is hard,” Helen would sometimes say to Gertrude. “Yes, it is,” Gertrude replied, “but the Lord takes care of you, no matter.” It wouldn’t have occurred to Helen to say life was unfair. She said only that life was hard.
The day her boys were 15, Gertrude answered a call at her door. It was a policeman, accompanied by the minister of the church. The policeman stood a half-step behind the minister as the minister told Gertrude her husband and one of her sons had been killed in an automobile accident. Another driver, drunk, ran into the side of them from a side road. Speeding, too. “Young guy himself and him not even hurt,” the policeman said. Gertrude’s other son was with friends at the time.
Gertrude hugged her one boy when he got home, the stocky youth with untrimmed hair and eyes that shone a summer blue. He sat with his head lowered as the minister said something about God looking out for us when there is sorrow. The boy raised his head and looked at the minister like he thought the minister was crazy for saying that. Helen, sitting next to Gertrude’s son, put her hand on his knee. Then the minister, dressed in jacket and tie, gray intruding into his dark hair, his youthful face beginning its retreat into age, bid them to prayer.
Gertrude and Helen felt closer to each other in the distance of their sorrow than they had felt even as children. They passed the next year in each other’s company and said how well Gertrude’s surviving son was handling himself after the death of his twin brother. No sign of trouble. Toward the end of the year Gertrude was able to laugh again while having coffee with her sister. They talked about their lives, what good times they had together, and how fortunate they were in spite of all.
The day Gertrude’s son was 16, a year after his brother’s death, Gertrude was over at Helen’s talking about the birthday celebration they would be having for him that evening. Then the sisters sat stone-eyed, disbelieving, to see the boy crawling up to Helen’s house and collapsing on the back step. He had shot himself, and dragged himself, dying, across the adjoining yards, crying in a thin voice, “Mama, Mama, Mama. . . .”
Gertrude and Helen lived together after that. They are older now, but they haven’t lost their weight. They walk down the street of the village swaying to one side and another, and townsfolk will say, “Good morning, sisters,” and they greet their neighbors with good will. They gave up housework some years back, and at the grocery store they see the Hispanic clerks who have come to the area, and the Hispanic men who do landscaping and take day jobs. Fishing is gone as a commercial venture, or the kind of fishing their husbands did from shore. Younger men and women create what service work they can, or leave the Island altogether.
I met the sisters at the beach one day. I saw them walk onto the sand and lower themselves down near the dunes. I noticed their awkwardness, in contrast to the glistening bodies playing volleyball, or tanning on the blankets, heads tucked into the crook of their arms. I walked over and said, “Good afternoon, sisters.” Helen looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun, and said, “How are you today, Reverend?” Though the years had passed for me, too, I walked barefoot with a light step and sat in the near distance against the dunes. The wind billowed my open shirt hanging loose against my shorts. I gathered strength from the sun and watched the sport of children in the surf.
After a long silence Gertrude said to Helen, “Life is hard.” “Yes, it is,” Helen replied. She said it with conviction, without resignation, and after a breath she added, “But the Lord takes care of you, no matter.” They sat there in the slant of the sun, looking out onto the water.
One day when you walk the beach you will see a stone or two. They will arrest your attention against the expanse of sand. Then the next day along the same walk they will be gone.
The Rev. Robert Stuart, pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church, lives in Springs, where he is a member of the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop. His essays and short stories have appeared in regional publications as well as in The Star.