"And Memory Takes Them"

 

by

Helen H.

 

 

 

 

It was nearing twilight when he threw his line in for the last time.  Darkening skies come early in October, and Convict Lake was no exception; once the sun disappeared behind Laurel Mountain the dividing line between day and evening would appear on the ridge opposite, the temperature would plunge -- the lake was at 7,850 feet, after all -- and it would be time to take bucket, pole and catch back to the cabin.  And catch 'em Harry did.  It had been said that he could find fish in a puddle, and half the time he believed it himself.  The four Rainbows he’d managed to land from the bank were testimony to that, the fishing good today despite the wind. 

It was the next-to-last day of a one-week vacation.  Jamie had been insistent that he take some time off, and protests that there was too much work to be done had fallen on deaf ears.   Dr. Jamieson had come close to pointing his Chief Medical Officer finger at the main gate, so Harry called his old friend Charlie Higgins to book a cabin, packed up his gear and made the drive to the eastern side of the Sierras.  Though he’d never admit it, he was glad he had gone.  This particular trip had given him a chance to unwind from his latest foray to Washington, an arduous round of congressional hearings and in-briefs with government bigwigs who seemed to delight in creating obstructions.  One more stupid question from those fools and... good thing his two senior officers had been there to run interference and stave off any serious confrontations.  Lee and Chip had done double duty as welcome distractions, important whether the audience was a Capitol Hill committee or a gaggle of newspaper reporters and camera crews.  Harry cut an impressive figure himself in his dress uniform with its shiny gold stripes and chest full of ribbons, but the CO and XO of the Seaview were handsome men, and their presence always made a splash, particularly with the females in the audience. 

Appearances aside, the two were a formidable team.  Aided by a crack crew they kept Seaview at peak efficiency, pushing the boundaries of science while oh so quietly keeping the world safe from harm.  Harry had worked the two men hard on this trip, sending them all over Washington to meet with as many officials as possible, reinforcing the importance of their mission.  It had paid off; in the closed-door sessions at which such matters were discussed there had been pats on the back and hearty “well dones” from senior executives and cabinet officers. It had given Harry a great deal of satisfaction to watch as Lee and Chip took it all in their stride.  They were intelligent and competent individuals, and he was proud of them.  He had not articulated these feelings, of course.  There were some things four-star admirals did not do. 

Waking up this morning, he’d known it would be a good fishing day.  The air was cold and crisp, sky clear as the proverbial bell.  When he’d stepped out of the cabin there’d already been a sharp breeze blowing the fallen leaves across the path to the lake, so he’d picked a spot near a line of thick scrub brush that would provide some shelter from the wind.  Underneath a nearby cottonwood tree a picnic table held his gear and a Thermos.  He was seated at the table now, keeping an eye on his pole and enjoying a cup of strong, dark coffee.  The drink felt good as it went down his throat, soothing and warm. 

Harry rested his elbows on the tabletop and stared across the lake.  He well knew the history of the place, knew that this idyllic setting had been the scene of a bloody gun battle in 1871.  Six brutal criminals had broken out of the Carson City jail and fled across the state line to this obscure part of California, called then Monte Diablo Creek.  Cornered in a canyon they'd turned on their pursuers and fought it out, killing the posse's Indian guide and a local merchant, Robert Morrison while losing two of their own.  It had been the eager storeowner who’d been the first to spot the crooks as they took cover among the rocks, and leading the charge, he’d been shot to death.  “Mono Jim” was buried on the spot, but a gentler fate was in store for Morrison; his body was taken back to his family and fiancé in the small town of Benton and buried in the suit he'd planned to wear for his wedding. 

The lake and the creek that fed it soon acquired descriptive new names, but inevitably, the passage of years obscured the past.  Convict Lake was famous now not for a dark moment in time but for the lunkers hiding in its deep waters and postcard views of mountains and trees and endless blue sky.  This day’s picture was different, though; today it was lowering clouds and waves that were pewter colored, skipped up by gusts of wind into powdery bursts.  It reminded Harry of conditions he’d often encountered at sea.    

His thoughts skittered away to memories of those voyages, some made during wartime conditions, where the safety of nighttime was a blessed relief to hours of foul air and oppressive heat, hours of waiting and praying that the enemy destroyers circling above would miss with their depth charges.  Countering that were the watches spent under a blinding peacetime sun, the ocean smooth as glass, resembling nothing so much as a vast platter of sparkling highlights.  Then there were the days when the boat shook and shuddered through waves breaking high on the bridge, when the roiling saltwater tearing along the sides matched the grayness of the skies above.  As gray as the water and sky was today.    

“It’s looking near to winter, wouldn’t you say?”

The coffee sloshed over his hand as Harry jumped.  Swinging around on the bench, he stared up at a young woman standing besides the tree.   He centered in on her smile first, a smile set in a pleasant face highlighted by a small nose and brown eyes.  A paisley shawl covered her hair and she was wrapped in a long black duster, a band of ruffles from a white dress peeking out underneath.  The wind was taking the tails of the shawl and tossing it around her shoulders, and she reached up with a pale hand and smoothed the edges down, holding the scarf across her throat.

“I'm sorry,” she said, her smile turning to an embarrassed grin.  “I didn't mean to frighten you!” 

Harry waved that off with a quick “Not at all, not at all,” covering for his momentary shock at her sudden appearance.  “I just didn't hear you walk up.  I was lost in thought, I guess.”

“I do tread softly. And the lake has a habit of taking your mind away to other things.”

“It does that.”

“Have you had any luck?” she asked, leaning slightly towards the large paint can that served as his fishing bucket.

“Five nice ones today, counting the one I'm about to catch,” Harry said, grinning.  “I'll have a couple for dinner and add the rest to my cooler for the trip home.”

“So you're a good fisherman.  Everyone else has given up, seems like,” she added, looking up and down the bank.

“Good enough for today.  Are you staying up here, too?”

She shook her head from side to side and tightened the shawl.  “Just looking around.”

Harry nodded and took another sip of his coffee.  He glanced over at his line, bowing in a great half-circle as the wind swirled it around in the current.  No fish there yet. 

The woman had moved up to stand sideways from him, gazing out over the water.  He could see the tips of nose and chin inside the shawl, lips slightly parted as she mouthed something he couldn’t hear.  She turned her head and looked towards the mountains at the head of the lake, their surfaces darkening as evening took hold of the day.

“Waiting for someone?”  Harry slid around on the bench and his eyes swept the parking lot below the resort’s store, thinking perhaps who ever she was with was inside.  But Charlie’s battered Jeep was the only vehicle in the lot. 

“Always,” she said softly.  “It’s sure blowing a gale.  Don’t you mind the cold?”

Harry had dressed for the outdoors with an Annapolis sweatshirt under his thick parka.  His hair was hidden under his lucky hat, a battered floppy bucket draped with old fishing lures that he’d pulled down around his ears.  Corduroy pants kept his legs warm enough.  The coffee helped.  And then there were all those years of being exposed to the chilling bite of saltwater....

“I’m used to such places,” he answered.  “Best thing to do is just remind myself I’m working for my dinner.  And every so often I hide behind the tree.”  His eyes crinkled up in another smile, and he was gratified when she did the same.

“Still, there’s a reason you’ve not left yet.  I’ll wager it’s the quiet.  Even with the wind, it’s peaceful.  You’re comfortable here, like you are in other places, aren’t you?”

Harry was startled once again.  He had been thinking about how he felt at home here, how there was something about the whole Owens Valley area that called to him, just as the sea sang its siren song.  He’d realized it from the minute he’d first driven up from Los Angeles those many years ago.  It had been right after a friend from Academy days had been killed in a hit and run accident.  He had visited with the family and attended the funeral, then decided to use the rest of his leave time to do some fishing in an area he’d heard so much about.  The moment he’d gone past the old hotel at Little Lake and found the mountains of the Sierras looming over the small town of Lone Pine, the same sensations he felt in the middle of an ocean that stretched from horizon to horizon he felt here, too.  It was a place where the vastness of life was actually physical, where human beings were dwarfed by the rocky masses rising above them.  People who believed themselves the center of the universe had to be humbled by the sight of these peaks, their lofty heads hidden in the clouds.  Or at least they ought to be.  He knew it worked for him.

“I find priorities rearranging themselves out here. It takes a while, but eventually I find myself truly relaxing, wondering why I go so long between visits,” Harry admitted.  “Then reality sets in and I recall that I have research projects and a myriad of responsibilities and duties to come back to.  So I’m good for about a week and then it’s time to go back, back to work I enjoy very much.  I begin to miss the excitement too, I guess. Sometimes there’s too much excitement.  It’s certainly never boring.”  To his surprise, Harry found himself talking easily to the young woman, his usual reserve absent. 

Her eyes bored into his as she studied his face, then she allowed another smile to emerge on her features.  “It’s pleasing to hear that you are happy and content.  Happiness is a gift that so many never receive.  It helps that you are surrounded by people that admire and care for you.  I know that they do.” 

Harry laughed at that.  “Happy?  Yes, I suppose I am.  But the rest?  I think you’d get some arguments there.  I doubt if I’ve made many friends among the people that work for me, past or present.  My standards are very high and I expect the utmost from them.  Not everyone measures up.  And--”

“--And you train them up in the best way you can.  They are reflections of you, sir.”

That gave him pause, too.  In his long military career he had done all he could to insure that those who served under him were human beings first and superior naval officers second.  He did not find the two to be incongruous.  Military service did not mean that the ability to wage war negated your responsibility to be answerable for your actions.  Later on, these standards had been extended to Seaview.  The submarine’s nuclear capabilities made it necessary, indeed imperative that those in charge understood that the decisions they made had possible world-changing consequences. 

Suddenly he found himself thinking of Lee and Chip.  Lee Crane had completely settled in as captain, had proven himself to the crew after a shaky start.  He was everything the commanding officer of Seaview needed to be, and more.  Harry had had some qualms about giving Lee the command over Chip Morton, Lee’s Academy roommate and best friend, but if Chip was unhappy he never gave a sign of it, and the way the two placed professionalism first soon made his fears groundless.  They had been pushed beyond the usual limits of human endurance many times and had survived, and had seen to it that those around them did, too.  Harry could not have asked for better officers, or better men, to oversee the boat’s operations.  Whether in Washington facing a table-full of congressmen or below the surface of the world’s oceans confronting all manner of enemies, they never gave less than their maximum effort.  He could say that the success of everything he was involved in, from the Institute to Seaview herself, owed much to these two young men.  How easily they fit into his life now.  If he had had children, this is what he would have wanted his sons to become.  If they were in some small measure like him, he could think of no greater legacy.

Harry brought himself back to the moment.  The way the girl was looking at him... it was as if he’d spoken aloud.  Impossible, he thought to himself.  Why, this young woman was a complete stranger!  “All I’ve done is given the people who work for me the chance to showcase their abilities,” he said gruffly.  “The rest is up to them and--” 

Hearing a muffled yell, he broke off talking to look up in the direction of the store.  The lights were off in the building and Charlie Higgins was just getting into the Jeep.  Charlie waved towards Harry, flashed his lights and drove off.  Harry waved back and glanced at his watch.  It was almost an hour after sunset.  Just a few more minutes and he’d have to pull in his line.

“Oh -- you've got a fish!”

Harry turned and looked at the water.  He took a second to put down his coffee cup and then strode over to the water's edge, just in time to see a good-sized trout break the surface of the lake. Grabbing the pole he gave the line a strong yank and set the hook.  “It’s a good one, from the way he's pull--” Turning around, he realized he was once again alone.  The girl was gone, departing as quietly as she had appeared.  A vague sense of disquiet passed over him, and then he was distracted by another strong tug on the line.  Turning back to the work at hand, Harry reeled steadily in. 

In mere seconds the fish was landed and went directly into the bucket.  Harry sat back at the table and finished off his coffee, staring up at the clouds forming themselves over the peaks, locking the picture into his senses once more.  These mountains gave him a feeling of... belonging was the word that came to mind.  It was the same feeling he felt on the bridge of his boats.  Joseph Conrad had written about the sea that it had “its irresponsible consciousness of power.” Harry thought that extended to mountain ranges, too.  If he could assign anthropomorphic characteristics to ocean or rock, he would say that neither cared who you were or what you thought you can do.  It was necessary only that you bow to their will, and then you could take your place honestly and fairly.  And he had done that, he thought, in his life and in his career. 

Picking up his gear Harry walked to his cabin, then took his time cleaning the fish and getting dinner ready.  The wind was making the aspens around the cabin sing, and Harry was grateful for the fireplace and the warmth it provided.  Standing at the stove in the small kitchen, ignoring the sizzle coming from the frying pan where his dinner was cooking, Harry recalled the encounter with the young woman.  That the girl -- ruefully, he recalled he had never asked her name -- had caused him to think, no, even talk about himself, he found hard to believe.  It was an odd sensation, one that he wasn’t at all used to.  

He turned the fish over in the pan, realizing he was working up to berating himself.  His solid New England upbringing had instilled in him a reluctance to display his feelings.  They were to be kept inside, where they belonged.   It had served him well in wartime, when death was a constant presence, when friends could be taken in an instant.  It had also led to a solitary existence.  He had determined early on not to go to war leaving loved ones behind; in submarines the chance of dying was just too great, and it was a burden he was unwilling to leave to a wife and family.  As the years went by he’d found no reason to modify his decision, concentrating instead on building a future in the Navy. 

There had been women in his life, of course, many whom he remembered with fondness and a few with longing and desire.  Edith had worked on him for a while with a succession of friends and associates, but his sister had had to acknowledge eventually that he was a lost cause.  The women had all drifted away, unwilling to compete with the females in his life whom he seemed to value above all else -- his beloved boats.

Submarines and the “silent service” had thus defined his life.  He’d enjoyed a long and gratifying career complete with honors and distinction, rank following rank until he’d retired as a full admiral.  Along the way he’d also gained a reputation of being stand-offish and unsociable.  A prickly personality, many would say, if they felt like being polite.  There were plenty of people who would use even stronger words to describe him.    

With retirement came a determination to leave the world a better place.  Founding the Nelson Institute of Marine Research had accomplished that.  It had taken thousands of hours of work and millions of dollars, but the Institute was now world-renowned, present and future generations benefitting from the work the Institute’s scientists and researchers conducted.  And one of the Institute’s proudest achievements was a fantastic submarine.  From stem to stern Seaview was his, built to specifications that only a great mind could visualize and achieve.    

The pop of sizzling oil brought Harry back to the present.  He set the table and grabbed a cold beer from the refrigerator as the thoughts churning in his mind settled.  Perhaps it was a good thing he was leaving tomorrow; there’d be no chance to run into the young woman again.  Though he would ask Charlie about her when he checked out.  Just to satisfy his curiosity.   

In a few minutes the fish was done and on the table.  He picked up his knife and fork and dug in.  It had been a very good vacation.

 

* * * * *

 

Swinging the door of the store open, Harry advanced with his hand out and a big grin on his face.  “Glad to see you’re here, Charlie!  How’s your day going, Chief?”

Charlie Higgins reached a beefy hand out and they shook hands.  “As right as rain, Admiral!  Checking out?  I’ll be sorry to see you go, sir!”

Charlie was a friend from diesel boat days.   Harry had told him about Convict Lake, and after retirement Charlie had found a job at the resort, where he enjoyed visiting with his old navy buddies and swapping both fish and war stories.  He was a big, well fed fellow with a crop of snowy white hair and a drooping white mustache, his blue eyes matching Harry’s in their brightness. 

They stood together catching up on each other’s business as Harry turned in the key and took his receipt.  He waited while Charlie dealt with a couple of fishermen buying bait and then as soon as the door shut behind them asked the question that had been on his mind since the previous evening.

“Do you have anyone staying in the other cabins, Charlie?”

Charlie shook his head, mustache ends swinging from side to side.  “You’re it, Admiral.  We’re getting ready to close. If it hadn’t been you calling for the reservation, nobody’d be here this week.”  He laid a finger alongside his nose and winked.  “Gives me the chance to have some peace and quiet, get some fishing in all by myself before the season ends.”  Grinning, he rubbed his hands together and said, “‘Course, I never mind fishing with you, sir.  Sorry I didn’t get a chance to walk down last night.  Missus had a chore waiting for me when I got home.  You looked mighty lonely down there all by yourself.”

Harry flashed a grin of his own, eyes twinkling.  “But I wasn’t alone.  Had a nice conversation with a young woman.  She was standing there talking to me when you came out of the store.  I didn’t ask her name, thought you might know.”

Charlie’s expression sobered and he looked questioningly at Harry.  “Admiral… there wasn’t anybody down there with you yesterday.”

Harry chuckled again, and rubbed the back of his ear.  “Now, Chief, I know your eyes are getting old, but you weren’t 75 yards from me.  She was standing there right beside the picnic table.  And don’t get any ideas.  I’m just curious, that’s all.”

Charlie folded his arms and regarded his old boss, then nodded his head decisively.  “Was she wearing a long black coat and a white wedding dress?”

“She had on a long black coat, but I don't know about the dress part,” Harry said, frowning.

“Oh, it's a wedding dress alright.  She was gonna wear it for her wedding to Robert Morrison.”

“Robert Morrison… what are you saying, Charlie?”

“I’m saying that you got to see our resident ghost, Admiral. Jenny Bell's up here looking for her husband to be, poor old Bob Morrison who was killed by those rotten outlaws from the jailbreak in Carson City, so long ago.”

“A ghost.  That's impossible.”

Charlie shook his head.  “That's what they all say.  Everybody figures it’s a prank, a sick joke by some of the bored kids around here.  But I've checked.  There's no girl in the valley or up at Mammoth that looks like the one you saw.  Except for the girl in this old photo.”  Charlie turned around, plucked a picture off the wall and handed it to Harry, who took it and looked down, ready to argue.

The words died on his lips.  In the center of the photograph was a young girl standing with her hand on the shoulder of a seated young man.  The man was looking off to the side, looking solemn, but the girl was staring into the camera, smiling.  It was the same smile that he had seen the day before, the same eyes.  The sepia coloring of the print kept him from knowing the color of the dress she was wearing.  But he did not need color to recognize the shawl around her shoulders. 

“That was taken a week before Bob went up the mountain after the convicts.  They were going to get hitched as soon as he got back.  Jenny spent the rest of her life alone, living in Benton and grieving.  These days, she's up here looking for him.  People tell me they’ve seen her late in the day, walking towards the creek.  They get closer, she’s not there anymore.”

Every fiber of Harry’s scientific training was rebelling against this.  “I just can’t accept it, Charlie.  There’s got to be another explanation.”

Charlie took the frame and placed it carefully back on the wall.  “I figured that too, sir, ‘til one time when I was out there by myself....  You and me must be special, Admiral.  She’s talked to us.  Knows a kindred soul when she sees one, I guess.  Lost a lot of shipmates, we have.  Sudden-like, sometimes.   She got me to thinkin’ about all those guys on eternal patrol.”  Charlie’s sun-darkened face reddened and he cleared his throat.  “I like to think that maybe, some day, I’ll see them again.”

Harry stared at the old chief, seeing a history of the service flash before his eyes.  The friends, the crewmembers, even the men he’d never met but who were fellow shipmates just the same.  The violent death of so many, whether by enemy action or accident, was hard to forget.  Like Tom Sheppard, killed by a driver that hadn’t had the guts to stop.  Much as his rational mind railed against it, Harry would not be surprised if some of them roamed the world, intent on remaining involved with the living.

“What is it that John Donne said?  ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’,” Harry mused.

“John who, Admiral?  What boat was he on?”

Harry laughed, and clapped his old friend on the shoulder.  “Never mind, Charlie.  If you say it was a ghost, I’ll believe you.  After being on Seaview, I’m pretty much up for anything.”

After another round of handshakes and well wishes Harry left the store and headed for his car, taking one last look at the lake.  There was a lone fisherman standing on the bank.  Harry watched as the man took a mighty swing and heaved his line far out into the water.  Silently he wished him luck.   

Harry opened the trunk of the car and carefully put away his belongings and the cooler full of fish.  He would make plans to come back when the season opened next year.  Maybe he’d see Jenny again, after all.  As he’d told Charlie, service on the Seaview had convinced him that nothing was impossible.  Then again he hoped that there would be no sightings of her, hoped that in the meantime she’d find what she was searching for. 

He thought back to what she had said about happiness being a gift.  Had he actually told her that he was happy?  He had to admit, he had.  He toyed for a few moments with that, his analytical, no nonsense brain looking for ways to contradict it, and had to conclude there were none.  At another time and another place he might have said something else, but here, in these mountains, to concede that he was happy was a certainty he could not deny.  And then, what she had said about the people around him.... maybe that was something he needed to accept, too.  In Santa Barbara, two young men who had enriched his life awaited his return.  Perhaps it was time to let them know how much he appreciated their forbearance with a grouchy old sailor.  

Shutting the trunk on his gear, Harry started up the car and drove down the road, heading for home. 

   

“Friends depart, and memory takes them

To her caverns, pure and deep.”

Thomas Haynes Bayly, “Teach me to forget

 

 

 

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