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    Original Essays | September 21, 2015

    Annie Jacobsen: IMG Mirrors on the Moon: A Reporter's Story about Sources and Secrets in the Modern World

    As a national security reporter, I write about war, weapons, security, and secrets. The question most commonly asked of me is, "How do you get... Continue »
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Stern Men


Stern Men Cover





Unlike some crustaceans, who are coldly indifferent to the welfare of

their offspring, the mamma lobster keeps her little brood about her

until the youthful lobsterkins are big enough to start in life for


Crab, Shrimp, and Lobster Lore

William B. Lord


The birth of Ruth Thomas was not the easiest on record. She was born

during a week of legendary, terrible storms. The last week of May

1958 did not quite bring a hurricane, but it was not calm out there,

either, and Fort Niles Island got whipped. Stan Thomas\'s wife, Mary,

in the middle of this storm, endured an unusually hard labor. This

was her first child. She was not a big woman, and the baby was

stubborn in coming. Mary Thomas should have been moved to a hospital

on the mainland and put under the care of a doctor, but this was no

weather for boating around a woman in hard labor. There was no doctor

on Fort Niles, nor were there nurses. The laboring woman, in

distress, was without any medical attention. She just had to do it on

her own.

Mary whimpered and screamed during labor, while her female

neighbors, acting as a collective of amateur midwives, administered

comfort and suggestions, and left her side only to spread word of her

condition across the island. The fact was, things didn\'t look good.

The oldest and smartest women were convinced from early on that

Stan's wife was not going to make it. Mary Thomas wasn't from the

island, anyway, and the women didn't have great faith in her

strength. Under the best of circumstances, these women considered her

somewhat pampered, a little too fine and a little too susceptible to

tears and shy. They were pretty sure she was going to quit on them in

the middle of her labor and just die of pain right there, in front of

everyone. Still, they fussed and interfered. They argued with one

another over the best treatment, the best positions, the best advice.

And when they briskly returned to their homes to collect clean towels

or ice for the woman in labor, they passed the word among their

husbands that things at the Thomas house were looking very grave


Senator Simon Addams heard the rumors and decided to make his

famous peppery chicken stock, which he believed to be a great healer,

one that would help the woman in her time of need. Senator Simon was

an aging bachelor who lived with his twin brother, Angus, another

aging bachelor. The men were the sons of Valentine Addams, all grown

up now. Angus was the toughest, most aggressive lobsterman on the

island. Senator Simon was no kind of lobsterman at all. He was

terrified of the sea; he could not set foot in a boat. The closest

Simon had ever come to the sea was one stride wide of the surf on

Gavin Beach. When he was a teenager, a local bully tried to drag him

out on a dock, and Simon had nearly scratched that kid's face off and

nearly broken that kid's arm. He choked the bully until the boy fell

unconscious. Senator Simon certainly did not like the water.

He was handy, though, so he earned money by repairing

furniture and lobster traps and fixing boats (safely on shore) for

other men. He was recognized as an eccentric, and he spent his time

reading books and studying maps, which he purchased through the mail.

He knew a great deal about the world, although not once in his life

had he stepped off Fort Niles. His knowledge about so many subjects

had earned him the nickname Senator, a nickname that was only half

mocking. Simon Addams was a strange man, but he was acknowledged as

an authority.

It was the Senator's opinion that a good, peppery chicken

soup could cure anything, even childbirth, so he cooked up a nice

batch for Stanley Thomas's wife. She was a woman he dearly admired,

and he was worried about her. He brought a warm pot of soup over to

the Thomas home on the afternoon of May 28. The female neighbors let

him in and announced that the little baby had already arrived.

Everyone was fine, they assured him. The baby was hearty, and the

mother was going to recover. The mother could probably use a touch of

that chicken soup, after all.

Senator Simon Addams looked into the bassinet, and there she

was: little Ruth Thomas. A girl baby. An unusually pretty baby, with

a wet, black mat of hair and a studious expression. Senator Simon

Addams noticed right away that she didn't have the red squally look

of most newborns. She didn't look like a peeled, boiled rabbit. She

had lovely olive skin and a most serious expression for an infant.

"Oh, she's a dear little baby," said Senator Simon Addams,

and the women let him hold Ruth Thomas. He looked so huge holding the

new baby that the women laughed--laughed at the giant bachelor

cradling the tiny child. But Ruth blew a sort of a sigh in his arms

and pursed her tiny mouth and blinked without concern. Senator Simon

felt a swell of almost grandfatherly pride. He clucked at her. He

jiggled her.

"Oh, isn't she just the dearest baby," he said, and the women

laughed and laughed.

He said, "Isn't she just a peach?"

Ruth Thomas was a pretty baby who grew into a very pretty girl, with

dark eyebrows and wide shoulders and remarkable posture. From her

earliest childhood, her back was straight as a plank. She had a

striking, adult presence, even as a toddler. Her first word was a

very firm "No." Her first sentence: "No, thank you." She was not

excessively delighted by toys. She liked to sit on her father's lap

and read the papers with him. She liked to be around adults. She was

quiet enough to go unnoticed for hours at a time. She was a world-

class eavesdropper. When her parents visited their neighbors, Ruth

sat under the kitchen table, small and silent as dust, listening

keenly to every adult word. One of the most common sentences directed

at her as a child was "Why, Ruth, I didn't even see you there!"

Ruth Thomas escaped notice because of her watchful

disposition and also because of the distracting commotion around her

in the form of the Pommeroys. The Pommeroys lived next door to Ruth

and her parents. There were seven Pommeroy boys, and Ruth was born

right at the end of the run of them. She pretty much vanished into

the chaos kicked up by Webster and Conway and John and Fagan and

Timothy and Chester and Robin Pommeroy. The Pommeroy boys were an

event on Fort Niles. Certainly other women had produced as many

children in the island's history, but only over decades and only with

evident reluctance. Seven babies born to a single exuberant family in

just under six years seemed almost epidemic.

Senator Simon's twin brother, Angus, said of the

Pommeroys, "That's no family. That's a goddamn litter."

Angus Addams could be suspected of jealousy, though, as he

had no family except his eccentric twin brother, so the whole

business of other people's happy families was like a canker on Angus

Addams. The Senator, on the other hand, found Mrs. Pommeroy

delightful. He was charmed by her pregnancies. He said that Mrs.

Pommeroy always looked as if she was pregnant because she couldn't

help it. He said she always looked pregnant in a cute, apologetic way.

Mrs. Pommeroy was unusually young when she married--not yet

sixteen--and she enjoyed herself and her husband completely. She was

a real romp. The young Mrs. Pommeroy drank like a flapper. She loved

her drinking. She drank so much during her pregnancies, in fact, that

her neighbors suspected she had caused brain damage in her children.

Whatever the cause, none of the seven Pommeroy sons ever learned to

read very well. Not even Webster Pommeroy could read a book, and he

was the ace of smarts in that family's deck.

As a child, Ruth Thomas often sat quietly in a tree and, when

the opportunity arose, threw rocks at Webster Pommeroy. He'd throw

rocks back at her, and he'd tell her she was a stinkbutt. She'd

say, "Oh, yeah? Where'd you read that?" Then Webster Pommeroy would

drag Ruth out of the tree and kick her in the face. Ruth was a smart

girl who sometimes found it difficult to stop making smart comments.

Getting kicked in the face was the kind of thing that happened, Ruth

supposed, to smart little girls who lived next door to so many


When Ruth Thomas was nine years old, she experienced a significant

event. Her mother left Fort Niles. Her father, Stan Thomas, went with

her. They went to Rockland. They were supposed to stay there for only

a week or two. The plan was for Ruth to live with the Pommeroys for a

short time. Just until her parents came back. But some complicated

incident occurred in Rockland, and Ruth's mother didn't come back at

all. The details weren't explained to Ruth at the time.

Eventually Ruth's father returned, but not for a long while,

so Ruth ended up staying with the Pommeroys for months. She ended up

staying with them for the entire summer. This significant event was

not unduly traumatic, because Ruth really loved Mrs. Pommeroy. She

loved the idea of living with her. She wanted to be with her all the

time. And Mrs. Pommeroy loved Ruth.

"You're like my own daughter!" Mrs. Pommeroy liked to tell

Ruth. "You're like my own goddamn daughter that I never, ever had!"

Mrs. Pommeroy pronounced the word daughtah, which had a

beautiful, feathery sound in Ruth's ears. Like everyone born on Fort

Niles or Courne Haven, Mrs. Pommeroy spoke with the accent recognized

across New England as Down East--just a whisper off the brogue of the

original Scots-Irish settlers, defined by an almost criminal

disregard for the letter r. Ruth loved the sound. Ruth's mother did

not have this beautiful accent, nor did she use words like goddamn

and fuck and shit and asshole, words that delightfully peppered the

speech of the native lobstermen and many of their wives. Ruth's

mother also did not drink vast quantities of rum and then turn all

soft and loving, as Mrs. Pommeroy did every single day.

Mrs. Pommeroy, in short, had it all over Ruth's mother.

Mrs. Pommeroy was not a woman who would hug constantly, but

she certainly was one to nudge a person. She was always nudging and

bumping into Ruth Thomas, always knocking her around with affection,

sometimes even knocking her over. Always in a loving way, though. She

knocked Ruth over only because Ruth was still so small. Ruth Thomas

hadn't got her real size yet. Mrs. Pommeroy knocked Ruth on her ass

with pure, sweet love.

"You're like my own goddamn daughter that I never had!" Mrs.

Pommeroy would say and then nudge and then--boom--down Ruth would go.


Mrs. Pommeroy probably could have used a daughter, too, after

her seven handfuls of sons. She surely had a genuine appreciation of

daughters, after years of Webster and Conway and John and Fagan and

so on and so on, who ate like orphans and shouted like convicts. A

daughter looked pretty good to Mrs. Pommeroy by the time Ruth Thomas

moved in, so Mrs. Pommeroy had an informed love for Ruth.

But more than anyone else, Mrs. Pommeroy loved her man. She

loved Mr. Pommeroy madly. Mr. Pommeroy was small and tight-muscled,

with hands as big and heavy as door knockers. His eyes were narrow.

He walked with his fists on his hips. He had an odd, scrunched-up

face. His lips were always smooched in a half-kiss. He frowned and

squinted, like someone performing difficult mathematics in his head.

Mrs. Pommeroy adored him. When she passed her husband in the house

hallways, she'd grab at his nipples through his undershirt. She'd

tweak his nipples and yell, "Tweaky!"

Mr. Pommeroy would yell, "Whoop!"

Then he'd grab her wrists and say, "Wanda! Quit that, will

you? I really hate it."

He'd say, "Wanda, if your hands weren't always so warm, I'd

throw you out of the damn house."

But he loved her. In the evenings, if they were sitting on

the couch listening to the radio, Mr. Pommeroy might suck on a single

strand of Mrs. Pommeroy's hair as if it were sweet licorice.

Sometimes they'd sit together quietly for hours, she knitting woolen

garments, he knitting heads for his lobster traps, a bottle of rum on

the floor between them from which they both drank. After Mrs.

Pommeroy had been drinking for a while, she liked to swing her legs

up off the floor, press her feet against her husband's side, and

say, "Feet on you."

"No feet on me, Wanda," he'd say flatly, not looking at her,

but smiling.

She'd keep pressing on him with her feet.

"Feet on you," she'd say. "Feet on you."

"Please, Wanda. No feet on me." (He called her Wanda although

her true name was Rhonda. The joke was on their son Robin, who--in

addition to having the local habit of not pronouncing r at the end of

a word--could not say any word that started with r. Robin couldn't

say his own name for years, no less the name of his mother. What's

more, for a long time everyone on Fort Niles Island imitated him.

Over the whole spread of the island, you could hear the great strong

fishermen complaining that they had to mend their wopes or fix their

wigging or buy a new short-wave wadio. And you could hear the great

strong women asking whether they could borrow a garden wake.)

Ira Pommeroy loved his wife a great deal, which was easy for

every-one to understand, since Rhonda Pommeroy was a true beauty. She

wore long skirts, and she lifted them when she walked, as if she

imagined herself fancy in Atlanta. She wore a persistent expression

of amazement and delight. If someone left the room for even a moment,

she'd arch her brows and say charmingly, "Where have you been?" when

the person returned. She was young, after all, despite her seven

sons, and she kept her hair as long as a young girl's. She wore her

hair swung up and around her whole skull, in an ambitious, glossy

pile. Like everyone else on Fort Niles, Ruth Thomas thought Mrs.

Pommeroy a great beauty. She adored her. Ruth often pretended to be


As a girl, Ruth's hair was kept as short as a boy's, so when

she pretended to be Mrs. Pommeroy, she wore a towel knotted around

her head, the way some women do after a bath, but hers stood for Mrs.

Pommeroy's famous glossy pile of hair. Ruth would enlist Robin

Pommeroy, the youngest of the boys, to play Mr. Pommeroy. Robin was

easy to boss around. Besides, he liked the game. When Robin played

Mr. Pommeroy, he arranged his mouth into the same smooch his dad

often wore, and he stomped around Ruth with his hands heavy on his

hips. He got to curse and scowl. He liked the authority it gave him.

Ruth Thomas and Robin Pommeroy were always pretending to be

Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy. It was their constant game. They played it for

hours and weeks of their childhood. They played it outside in the

woods, nearly every day throughout the summer that Ruth lived with

the Pommeroys. The game would start with pregnancy. Ruth would put a

stone in her pants pocket to stand for one of the Pommeroy brothers,

unborn. Robin would purse his mouth all tight and lecture Ruth about


"Now listen me," Robin would say, his fists on his

hips. "When that baby's bawn, he won't have any teeth. Heah that? He

won't be weddy to eat that hard food, like what we eat. Wanda! You

have to feed that baby some juice!"

Ruth would stroke the baby stone in her pocket. She'd say, "I

think I'm about to have this baby right now."

She'd toss it on the ground. The baby was born. It was that


"Would you just look at that baby?" Ruth would say. "That's a

big one."

Each day, the first stone to be born was named Webster,

because he was the oldest. After Webster was named, Robin would find

another stone to represent Conway. He'd give it to Ruth to slip into

her pocket.

"Wanda! What's that?" Robin would then demand.

"Would you just look at that," Ruth would answer. "Here I go,

having another one of those goddamn babies."

Robin would scowl. "Listen me. When that baby's bawn, his

foot bones'll be too soft for boots. Wanda! Don't you go stick any

boots on that baby!"

"I'm naming this one Kathleen," Ruth would say. (She was

always eager for another girl on the island.)

"No way," Robin would say. "That baby's gonna be a boy, too."

Sure enough, it would be. They'd name that stone Conway and

toss him down by his big brother, Webster. Soon, very soon, a pile of

sons would grow in the woods. Ruth Thomas delivered all those boys,

all summer long. Sometimes she'd step on the stones and say, "Feet on

you, Fagan! Feet on you, John!" She birthed every one of those boys

every single day, with Robin stomping around her, hands heavy on his

hips, bragging and lecturing. And when the Robin stone itself was

born at the end of the game, Ruth sometimes said, "I'm throwing out

this lousy baby. It's too fat. It can't even talk right."

Then Robin might take a swing, knocking the towel-hair off

Ruth's head. And she might then whip the towel at his legs, giving

him red slashes on his shins. She might knock a fist in his back if

he tried running. Ruth had a good swing, when the target was slow,

fat Robin. The towel would get wet from the ground. The towel would

get muddied and ruined, so they'd leave it and take a fresh one the

next day. Soon, a pile of towels would grow in the woods. Mrs.

Pommeroy could never figure that one out.

Say, where'd those towels go? Hey! What about my towels, then?

The Pommeroys lived in the big house of a dead great-uncle who had

been a relative of both of them. Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy were related

even before they were married. They were cousins, each conveniently

named Pommeroy before they fell in love. ("Like the goddamn

Roosevelts," Angus Addams said.) To be fair, of course, that's not an

unusual situation on Fort Niles. Not many families to choose from

anymore, so everyone's family.

The dead Pommeroy great-uncle was therefore a shared dead

great-uncle, a common dead great-uncle. He'd built a big house near

the church, with money made in a general store, back before the first

lobster war. Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy had doubly inherited the home.

When Ruth was nine years old and stayed with the Pommeroys for the

summer, Mrs. Pommeroy tried to get her to sleep in that dead uncle's

bedroom. It was under a quiet roof and had one window, which spied on

a massive spruce tree, and it had a soft wooden floor of wide planks.

A lovely room for a little girl. The only problem was that the great-

uncle had shot himself right there in that room, right through his

mouth, and the wallpaper was still speckled with rusty, tarnished

blood freckles. Ruth Thomas flatly refused to sleep in that room.

"Jesus, Ruthie, the man's dead and buried," Mrs. Pommeroy

said. "There's nothing in this room to scare anybody."

"No," Ruth said.

"Even if you see a ghost, Ruthie, it would just be my uncle's

ghost, and he'd never hurt you. He loved all children."

"No, thank you."

"It's not even blood on the wallpaper!" Mrs. Pommeroy

lied. "It's fungus. It's from the damp."

Mrs. Pommeroy told Ruth that she had the same fungus on her

bedroom wallpaper every now and again, and that she slept just fine.

She said she slept like a cozy baby every night of the year. In that

case, Ruth announced, she'd sleep in Mrs. Pommeroy's bedroom. And, in

the end, that's exactly what she did.

Ruth slept on the floor next to Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy's bed.

She had a large pillow and a mattress of sorts, made from rich-

smelling wool blankets. When the Pommeroys made any noise, Ruth heard

it, and when they had giggly sex, she heard that. When they snored

through their boozy sleeping, she heard that, too. When Mr. Pommeroy

got up at four o'clock every morning to check the wind and leave the

house for lobster fishing, Ruth Thomas heard him moving around. She

kept her eyes shut and listened to his mornings.

Mr. Pommeroy had a terrier that followed him around

everywhere, even in the kitchen at four o'clock every morning, and

the dog's nails ticked steady on the kitchen floor. Mr. Pommeroy

would talk quietly to the dog while making his breakfast.

"Go back to sleep, dog," he'd say. "Don't you want to go back

to sleep? Don't you want to rest up, dog?"

Some mornings Mr. Pommeroy would say, "You following me

around so you can learn how to make coffee for me, dog? You trying to

learn how to make my breakfast?"

For a while, there was a cat in the Pommeroy house, too. It

was a dock cat, a huge coon-cat that had moved up to the Pommeroys'

because it hated the terrier and hated the Pommeroy boys so much that

it wanted to stay near them at all times. The cat took the terrier's

eye out in a fight, and the eye socket turned into a stink and mess

of infection. So Conway put the cat in a lobster crate, floated the

crate on the surf, and shot at it with a gun of his father's. After

that, the terrier slept on the floor beside Ruth Thomas every night,

with its mean, stinking eye.

Ruth liked sleeping on the floor, but she had strange dreams.

She dreamed that the ghost of the Pommeroys' dead great-uncle chased

her into the Pommeroys' kitchen, where she searched for knives to

stab him with but could find nothing except wire whisks and flat

spatulas to defend herself. She had other dreams, where it was

storming rain in the Pommeroys' back yard, and the boys were

wrestling with each other. She had to step around them with a small

umbrella, covering first one boy, then another, then another, then

another. All seven Pommeroy sons fought in a tangle, all around her.

In the mornings, after Mr. Pommeroy had left the house, Ruth

would fall asleep again and wake up a few hours later, when the sun

was higher. She'd crawl up into bed with Mrs. Pommeroy. Mrs. Pommeroy

would wake up and tickle Ruth's neck and tell Ruth stories about all

the dogs her father had owned, back when Mrs. Pommeroy was a little

girl exactly like Ruth.

"There was Beadie, Brownie, Cassie, Prince, Tally,

Whippet . . ." Mrs. Pommeroy would say, and eventually Ruth learned

the names of all the bygone dogs and could be quizzed on them.

Ruth Thomas lived with the Pommeroys for three months, and

then her father returned to the island without her mother. The

complicated incident had been resolved. Mr. Thomas had left Ruth's

mother in a town called Concord, New Hampshire, where she would

remain indefinitely. It was made pretty clear to Ruth that her mother

would not be returning home at all. Ruth's father took Ruth out of

the Pommeroy house and back next door, where she was able to sleep in

her own bedroom again. Ruth resumed her quiet life with her father

and found that she did not much miss her mother. But she very much

missed sleeping on the floor beside the bed of Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy.

Then Mr. Pommeroy drowned.

All the men said Ira Pommeroy drowned because he fished alone and he

drank on his boat. He kept jugs of rum tied to some of his trap

lines, bobbing twenty fathoms down in the chilled middle waters,

halfway between the floating buoys and the grounded lobster traps.

Everyone did that occasionally. It wasn't as if Mr. Pommeroy had

invented the idea, but he had refined it greatly, and the

understanding was that he'd wrecked himself from refining it too

greatly. He simply got too drunk on a day when the swells were too

big and the deck was too slippery. He probably went over the side of

his boat before he even knew it, losing his footing with a quick

swell while pulling up a trap. And he couldn't swim. Scarcely any of

the lobstermen on Fort Niles or Courne Haven could swim. Not that

being able to swim would have helped Mr. Pommeroy much. In the tall

boots, in the long slicker and heavy gloves, in the wicked and cold

water, he would have gone down fast. At least he got it over with

quickly. Knowing how to swim sometimes just makes the dying last


Angus Addams found the body three days later, when he was

fishing. Mr. Pommeroy's corpse was bound tightly in Angus's lines,

like a swollen, salted ham. That's where he'd ended up. A body can

drift, and there were acres of ropes sunk in the water around Fort

Niles Island that could act like filters to catch any drifting

corpses. Mr. Pommeroy's drift stopped in Angus's territory. The

seagulls had already eaten out Mr. Pommeroy's eyes.

Angus Addams had pulled up a line to collect one of his

traps, and he'd pulled up the body, too. Angus had a small boat, with

not much room for another man on board, alive or dead, so he'd tossed

dead Mr. Pommeroy into the holding tank on top of the living,

shifting lobsters he'd caught that morning, whose claws he'd pegged

shut so they wouldn't rip each other into a slop of pieces. Like Mr.

Pommeroy, Angus fished alone. At that time in his career, Angus

didn't have a sternman to help him. At that point in his career, he

didn't feel like sharing his catch with a teenage helper. He didn't

even have a radio, which was unusual for a lobsterman, but Angus did

not like being chattered at. Angus had dozens of traps to haul that

day. He always fished through his chores, no matter what he found.

And so, despite the corpse he'd fished up, Angus went ahead and

pulled his remaining lines, which took several hours. He measured

each lobster, as he was supposed to do, threw the small ones back,

and kept the legal ones, pegging their claws safely shut. He tossed

all the lobsters on top of the drowned body in the cool tank, out of

the sun.

Around three-thirty in the afternoon, he headed back to Fort

Niles. He anchored. He tossed Mr. Pommeroy's body into his rowboat,

where it was out of his way, and counted the catch into the holding

crates, filled his bait buckets for the next day, hosed off the deck,

hung up his slicker. When he was finished with these chores, he

joined Mr. Pommeroy in the rowboat and headed over to the dock. He

tied his rowboat to the ladder and climbed up. Then he told everyone

exactly whom he'd found in his fishing grounds that morning, dead as

any idiot.

"He was all stuck in my wopes," Angus Addams said grimly.

As it happened, Webster and Conway and John and Fagan and

Timothy and Chester Pommeroy were at the docks when Angus Addams

unloaded the corpse. They'd been playing there that afternoon. They

saw the body of their father, laid out on the pier, puffed and

eyeless. Webster, the oldest, was the first to see it. He stammered

and gasped, and then the other boys saw it. They fell like terrified

soldiers into a crazy formation, and broke right into a run home,

together, in a bunch. They ran up from the harbor, and they burst,

fast and weeping, past the roads and the collapsing old church to

their house, where their neighbor Ruth Thomas was fighting with their

littlest brother, Robin, on the steps. The Pommeroy sons drew Ruth

and Robin up into their run, and the eight of them shoved into the

kitchen at the same time and rushed into Mrs. Pommeroy.

Mrs. Pommeroy had expected this news ever since her husband's

boat was found, three nights before, without her husband anywhere

near it, floating far off course. She already knew her husband was

dead, and she'd guessed that she would never recover his body. But

now, as her sons and Ruth Thomas hurled themselves into the kitchen,

their faces stricken, Mrs. Pommeroy knew that the body had been

found. And that her sons had seen it.

The boys knocked into Mrs. Pommeroy and took her down to the

floor as though they were mad brave soldiers and she was a live

grenade. They covered and smothered her. They were grieving, and they

were a real weight upon her. Ruth Thomas had been knocked over, too,

and was sprawled out, confused, on the kitchen floor. Robin Pommeroy,

who did not yet get it, was circling the pile of his sobbing brothers

and his mother, saying, "What? What?"

What was a word Robin could say very easily, unlike his own

name, so he said it again.

"What? What? Webster, what?" he said, and he must have

wondered at this poor snarl of boys and at his mother, so silent

under them. He was far too little for such a report. Mrs. Pommeroy,

on the floor, was quiet as a nun. She was cloaked in her sons. When

she struggled to stand up, her boys came up with her, stuck on her.

She picked her boys off her long skirts as if they were brambles or

beetles. But as each boy dropped off to the floor, he crawled back on

her again. They were all hysterical. Still, she stood quietly,

plucking them from her.

"Webster, what?" Robin said. "What, what?"

"Ruthie," Mrs. Pommeroy said, "go on home. Tell your father."

Her voice had a thrilling, beautiful sadness. Tell yah

fathah . . . Ruth thought it the prettiest sentence she had ever


Senator Simon Addams built the coffin for Mr. Pommeroy, but the

Senator did not attend the funeral, because he was deadly afraid of

the sea and never attended the funeral of anyone who had drowned. It

was an unsustainable terror for him, no matter who the dead person

was. He had to stay away. Instead, he built Mr. Pommeroy a coffin of

clean white spruce, sanded and polished with light oil. It was a

lovely coffin.

This was the first funeral that Ruth Thomas had attended, and

it was a fine one, for a first funeral. Mrs. Pommeroy was already

showing herself to be an exceptional widow. In the morning, she

scrubbed the necks and fingernails of Webster, Conway, John, Fagan,

Timothy, Chester, and Robin. She worked their hair down with a fancy

tortoise-shell comb dipped in a tall glass of cold water. Ruth was

there with them. She could not stay away from Mrs. Pommeroy in

general, and certainly not on an important day like this. She took

her place at the end of the line and got her hair combed with water.

She got her nails cleaned and her neck scrubbed with brushes. Mrs.

Pommeroy cleaned Ruth Thomas last, as though the girl were a final

son. She left Ruth's scalp hot and tight from the combing. She made

Ruth's nails shine like coins. The Pommeroy boys stood still, except

for Webster, the oldest, who was tapping his fingers nervously

against his thighs. The boys were very well behaved that day, for the

sake of their mother.

Mrs. Pommeroy then performed some brilliant work on her own

hair, sitting at the kitchen table before her bedroom dresser mirror.

She wove a technically complicated plait and arranged it around her

head with pins. She oiled her hair with something interesting until

it had the splendid sheen of granite. She draped a black scarf over

her head. Ruth Thomas and the Pommeroy boys all watched her. She had

a real gravity about her, just as a dignified widow should. She had a

true knack for it. She looked spectacularly sad and should have been

photographed that day. She just was that beautiful.

Fort Niles Island was required to wait more than a week to

stage the funeral, because it took that long to get the minister to

come over on the New Hope, the mission boat. There was no permanent

ministry on Fort Niles anymore, nor on Courne Haven. On both islands,

the churches were falling down from lack of use. By 1967, there

wasn't a large enough population on either Fort Niles or Courne Haven

( just over a hundred souls on the two islands) to sustain a regular

church. So the citizens shared a minister of God with a dozen other

remote islands in a similar predicament, all the way up the coast of

Maine. The New Hope was a floating church, constantly moving from one

distant sea community to another, showing up for brief, efficient

stays. The New Hope remained in harbor only long enough to baptize,

marry, or bury whoever needed it, and then sailed off again. The boat

also delivered charity and brought books and sometimes even the mail.

The New Hope, built in 1915, had carried several ministers during its

tenure of good work. The current minister was a native of Courne

Haven Island, but he was scarcely ever to be found there. His work

sometimes took him all the way up to Nova Scotia. He had a far-flung

parish, indeed, and it was often difficult to get his attention


The minister in question was Toby Wishnell, of the Wishnell

family of Courne Haven Island. Everyone on Fort Niles Island knew the

Wishnells. The Wishnells were what was known as "high-line"

lobstermen, which is to say that they were terrifically skilled and

inevitably wealthy. They were famous lobstermen, superior to every

fishing man. They were rich, supernatural fishermen, who had even

managed to excel (comparatively) during the lobster wars. The

Wishnells always tore great masses of lobster from any depth of

water, in any season, and they were widely hated for it. It made no

sense to other fishermen how many lobsters the Wishnells claimed as

their own. It was as if the Wishnells had a special arrangement with

God. More than that, it was as if the Wishnells had a special

arrangement with lobsters as a species.

Lobsters certainly seemed to consider it an honor and a

privilege to enter a Wishnell trap. They would crawl over other men's

traps for miles of sea bottom just to be caught by a Wishnell. It was

said that a Wishnell could find a lobster under a rock in your

grandmother's flower garden. It was said that families of lobsters

collected in the very walls of Wishnell homes, like rodents. It was

said that Wishnell boys were born with tentacles, claws, and shells,

which they shed during the final days of nursing.

The Wishnells' luck in fishing was obscene, offensive, and

inherited. Wishnell men were especially gifted at destroying the

confidence of Fort Niles men. If a Fort Niles fisherman was inland,

doing business for a day in, say, Rockland, and he met a Wishnell at

the bank or at the gas station, he would inevitably find himself

behaving like an idiot. Losing all self-control, he would demean

himself before the Wishnell man. He would grin and stammer and

congratulate Mr. Wishnell on his fine new haircut and fine new car.

He would apologize for his filthy overalls. He would foolishly try to

explain to Mr. Wishnell that he'd been doing chores around his boat,

that these filthy rags were only his work clothes, that he'd be

throwing them out soon, rest assured. The Wishnell man would go on

his way, and the Fort Niles fisherman would rage in shame for the

rest of the week.

The Wishnells were great innovators. They were the first

fishermen to use light nylon ropes instead of the old hemp ropes,

which had to be painstakingly coated in hot tar to keep them from

rotting in the seawater. The Wishnells were the first fishermen to

haul traps with mechanized winches. They were the first fishermen, in

fact, to use motorized boats. That was the way with the Wishnells.

They were always first and always best. It was said that they bought

their bait from Christ Himself. They sold huge catches of lobsters

every week, laughing at their own sickening luck.

Pastor Toby Wishnell was the first and only man born into the

Wishnell family who did not fish. And what an evil and well-conceived

insult that was! To be born a Wishnell --a lobster magnet, a lobster

magnate --and piss away the gift! To turn away the spoils of that

dynasty! Who would be idiot enough to do such a thing? Toby Wishnell,

that's who. Toby Wishnell had given it all up for the Lord, and that

was seen over on Fort Niles as intolerable and pathetic. Of all the

Wishnells, the men of Fort Niles hated Toby Wishnell the most. He

absolutely galled them. And they fiercely resented that he was their

minister. They didn't want that guy anywhere near their souls.

"There's something about that Toby Wishnell he ain't telling

us," said Ruth Thomas's father, Stan.

"It's faggotry, is what it is," said Angus Addams. "He's pure


"He's a dirty liar. And a born bastard," Stan Thomas

said. "And it may be faggotry, too. He may just be a faggot, too, for

all we know."

The day that young Pastor Toby Wishnell arrived on the New

Hope to attend to the funeral of drowned, drunk, swollen, eyeless Mr.

Pommeroy was a handsome early autumn day. There were high blue skies

and keen winds. Toby Wishnell looked handsome, too. He had an elegant

frame. He wore a lean black wool suit. His trousers were tucked into

heavy, rubber fishermen's boots to guard against the muddied ground.

There was something unreasonably fine about Pastor Toby

Wishnell's features, something too pretty about his cleancut chin. He

was polished. He was cultivated. What's more, he was blond. Somewhere

along the way, the Wishnells must have married some of the Swedish

girls born to the Ellis Granite Company workers. This happened back

at the turn of the century, and the soft blond hair had stuck around.

There was none of it on Fort Niles Island, where nearly everyone was

pale and dark. Some of the blond hair on Courne Haven was quite

beautiful, and the islanders were rather proud of it. It had become a

quiet issue between the two islands. On Fort Niles, blonds were

resented wherever they were seen. Another reason to hate Pastor Toby


Pastor Toby Wishnell gave Ira Pommeroy a most elegant

funeral. His manners were perfect. He walked Mrs. Pommeroy to the

cemetery, holding her arm. He guided her to the edge of the newly dug

grave. Ruth Thomas's Uncle Len had dug that grave himself over the

last few days. Ruth's Uncle Len, always hard up for money, would take

any job. Len was reckless and didn't generally give a damn throughout

life. He had also offered to keep the body of drowned Mr. Pommeroy in

his root cellar for a week, despite the protests of his wife. The

corpse was sprinkled heavily with rock salt to cut the smell. Len

didn't care.

Ruth Thomas watched Mrs. Pommeroy and Pastor Wishnell head to

the grave. They were in perfect step with each other, as matched in

their movements as ice skaters. They made a good-looking couple. Mrs.

Pommeroy was trying bravely not to cry. She held her head tilted

back, daintily, like a nosebleeder.

Pastor Toby Wishnell delivered his address at the graveside.

He spoke carefully, with traces of his education.

"Consider the brave fisherman," he began, "and the jeopardy

of his sea . . ."

The fishermen listened without a flinch, regarding their own

fishermen's boots. The seven Pommeroy boys stood in a descending line

beside their mother, as still as though they'd been pegged to the

ground, except for Webster, who shifted and shifted on his feet as if

he were about to race. Webster hadn't stood still since first seeing

his father's body laid out on the pier. He'd been moving and tapping

and shifting nervously ever since. Something had happened to Webster

that afternoon. He had become goosey, fidgety, and unnerved, and his

reaction wasn't going away. As for Mrs. Pommeroy, her beauty troubled

the silent air around her.

Pastor Wishnell recalled Mr. Pommeroy's skills on the sea and

his love of boats and children. Pastor Wishnell regretted that such

an accident could befall so skilled a sailor. Pastor Wishnell

recommended that the gathered neighbors and loved ones avoid

speculating on God's motives.

There were not many tears. Webster Pommeroy was crying, and

Ruth Thomas was crying, and Mrs. Pommeroy was touching the corners of

her eyes every so often, but that was it. The island men were silent

and respectful, but their faces did not suggest personal devastation

at this event. The island wives and mothers shuffled and stared

actively, reckoning the grave and reckoning Mrs. Pommeroy and

reckoning Toby Wishnell and, finally, reckoning their own husbands

and sons quite frankly. It was a tragedy, they were surely thinking.

Hard to lose any man. Painful. Unfair. Yet beneath such sympathetic

thoughts each of these women was probably thinking, But it was not my

man. They were almost fully occupied with relief. How many men could

drown in a year, after all? Drownings were rare. There were almost

never two drownings in a year in such a small community. Superstition

suggested that Mr. Pommeroy's drowning had made all the other men

immune. Their husbands would be safe for some time. And they would

not lose any sons this year.

Pastor Toby Wishnell asked those gathered to remember that

Christ Himself was a fisherman, and that Christ Himself promised a

reception for Mr. Pommeroy in the full company of trumpeting angelic

hosts. He asked that those gathered, as a community of God, not

neglect the spiritual education and guidance of Mr. Pommeroy's seven

young sons. Having lost their earthly father, he reminded those

present, it was now ever more imperative that the Pommeroy boys not

lose their heavenly Father as well. Their souls were in the care of

this community, and any loss of faith by the Pommeroy boys would

surely be seen by the Lord as the fault of the community, for which

He would punish its people accordingly.

Pastor Wishnell asked those gathered to consider the witness

and testimony of Saint Matthew as a warning. He read from his

Bible, "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe

in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his

neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."

Behind Pastor Wishnell was the sea itself, and there was Fort

Niles harbor, glittering in the hard afternoon light. There was the

New Hope mission boat, anchored among the squatty fishing boats,

gleaming prominently and looking lean and long by comparison. Ruth

Thomas could see all this from where she stood, on the slope of a

hill, next to Mr. Pommeroy's grave. With the exception of Senator

Simon Addams, everyone on the island had come to the funeral.

Everyone was there, near Ruth. Everyone was accounted for. But down

on the Fort Niles dock stood an unfamiliar big blond boy. He was

young, but he was bigger than any of the Pommeroy boys. Ruth could

tell his size even at that significant distance. He had a big head

shaped something like a paint can, and he had long, thick arms. The

boy was standing perfectly still, with his back to the island. He was

looking out to sea.

Ruth Thomas became so interested in the strange boy that she

stopped crying over Mr. Pommeroy's death. She watched the strange boy

during the entire funeral service, and he did not move. He faced the

water for the full duration, his arms by his side. He stood there,

still and quiet. It was only long after the funeral, when Pastor

Wishnell walked down to the dock, that the boy moved. Without

speaking to the pastor, the big blond boy climbed down the ladder of

the pier and rowed Pastor Wishnell back to the New Hope. Ruth watched

with the greatest interest.

But that all happened after the funeral. In the meantime, the

service continued smoothly. Eventually, Mr. Pommeroy, idling in his

long and leggy spruce box, was packed down in the dirt. The men

dropped clods of earth upon him; the women dropped flowers upon him.

Webster Pommeroy fidgeted and paced in place and looked as if he

might start running any minute now. Mrs. Pommeroy let go of her

composure and cried prettily. Ruth Thomas watched in some anger as

the drowned husband of her favorite person in the entire world was


Ruth thought, Christ! Why didn't he just swim for it instead?


Senator Simon Addams brought Mrs. Pommeroy's sons a book that night,

in a protective canvas bag. Mrs. Pommeroy was making supper for her

boys. She was still wearing her black funeral dress, which was made

of a material heavy for the season. She was scraping the root hairs

and rough skin from a bucket of her garden's carrots. The Senator

brought her a small bottle of rum, as well, which she said she

thought she wouldn't be having any of, but she thanked him all the


"I've never known you to turn down a drink of rum," Senator

Simon Addams said.

"All the fun's out of drinking for me, Senator. You won't be seeing

me drink anymore."

"There was fun in drinking once?" the Senator asked. "There

ever was?"

"Ah . . ." Mrs. Pommeroy sighed and smiled sadly. "What's in

the sack?"

"A gift for your boys."

"Will you have supper with us?"

"I will. Thank you very much."

"Ruthie!" Mrs. Pommeroy said, "bring the Senator a glass for

his rum."

But young Ruth Thomas had already done so, and she'd brought

him a chunk of ice, too. Senator Simon rubbed Ruth's head with his

big, soft hand.

"Shut your eyes, Ruthie," he told her. "I've got a gift for


Ruth obediently shut her eyes for him, as she always had,

ever since she was a very small girl, and he kissed her on the

forehead. He gave her a big smack. That was always his gift. She

opened her eyes and smiled at him. He loved her.

Now the Senator put the tips of his two index fingers

together. "OK, Ruthie. Cut the pickle," he said.

Ruth made scissors of the fingers on her right hand and

snipped through his fingers.

"Get the tickle!" he exclaimed, and he tickled her ribs. Ruth was too

old for this game, but the Senator loved it. He laughed and laughed.

She smiled indulgently. They sometimes performed this little routine

four times a day.

Ruth Thomas was eating supper with the Pommeroys that night,

even though it was a funeral night. Ruth nearly always ate with them.

It was nicer than eating at home. Ruth's father wasn't much for

cooking a hot meal. He was clean and decent enough, but he didn't

keep much of a home. He wasn't against having cold sandwiches for

dinner. He wasn't against mending Ruth's skirt hems with a staple

gun, either. He ran that kind of house and had done so ever since

Ruth's mother left. Nobody was going to starve or freeze to death or

go without a sweater, but it wasn't a particularly cozy home. So Ruth

spent most of her time at the Pommeroys', which was much warmer and

easier. Mrs. Pommeroy had invited Stan Thomas over for dinner that

night, too, but he'd stayed at home. He was thinking that a man

shouldn't take a supper off a woman freshly grieving the funeral of

her husband.

The seven Pommeroy boys were murderously glum at the dinner

table. Cookie, the Senator's dog, napped behind the Senator's chair.

The Pommeroys' nameless, one-eyed dog, locked in the bathroom for the

duration of the Senator's visit, howled and barked in outrage at the

thought of another dog in his home. But Cookie didn't notice. Cookie

was beat tired. Cookie followed the lobster boats out sometimes, even

when the water was rough, and she was always very nearly drowning. It

was awful. She was only a year-old mutt, and she was crazy to think

she could swim against the ocean. Cookie had been pulled by the

current once nearly to Courne Haven Island, but the mail boat

happened to pick her up and bring her back, almost dead. It was awful

when she swam out after the boats, barking. Senator Simon Addams

would edge near the dock, as close to it as he dared, and would beg

Cookie to come back. Begging and begging! The young dog swam in small

circles farther and farther out, sneezing off the spray from the

outboard motors. The sternmen in the chased boats would throw hunks

of herring bait at Cookie, yelling, "Git on outta heh!"

Of course the Senator could never go out after his dog. Not

Senator Simon, who was as afraid of water as his dog was inspired by

it. "Cookie!" he'd yell. "Please come on back, Cookie! Come on back,

Cookie! Come on back now, Cookie!"

It was hard to watch, and it had been happening since Cookie

was a puppy. Cookie chased boats almost every day, and Cookie was

tired every night. This night was no exception. So Cookie slept,

exhausted, behind the Senator's chair during supper. At the end of

Mrs. Pommeroy's supper, Senator Simon caught the last morsel of pork

on his plate with his fork tines and waved his fork behind him. The

pork dropped to the floor. Cookie woke up, chewed the meat

thoughtfully, and went back to sleep.

Then the Senator pulled from the canvas sack the book he'd

brought as a gift for the boys. It was a huge book, heavy as a slab

of slate.

"For your boys," he told Mrs. Pommeroy.

She looked it over and handed it to Chester. Chester looked

it over. Ruth Thomas thought, A book for those boys? She had to feel

sorry for someone like Chester, with such a massive book in his hand,

staring at it with no comprehension.

"You know," Ruth Thomas told Senator Simon, "they can't read."

Then she said to Chester, "Sorry!" thinking that it wasn't

right to bring up such a fact on the day of a boy's father's funeral,

but she didn't know for certain whether the Senator knew that the

Pommeroy boys couldn't read. She didn't know if he'd heard of their


Senator Simon took the book back from Chester. It had been

his great-grandfather's book, he said. His great-grandfather had

purchased the book in Philadelphia the only time that good man had

ever left Fort Niles Island in his entire life. The cover of the book

was thick, hard, brown leather. The Senator opened the book and began

to read from the first page.

He read: "Dedicated to the King, the Lords Commissioner of

the Admiralty, to the Captains and Officers of the Royal Navy, and to

the Public at Large. Being the most accurate, elegant, and perfect

edition of the whole works and discoveries of the celebrated

circumnavigator Captain James Cook."

Senator Simon paused and looked at each of the Pommeroy

boys. "Circumnavigator!" he exclaimed.

Each boy returned his look with a great lack of expression.

"A circumnavigator, boys! Captain Cook sailed the world all

the way around, boys! Would you like to do that someday?"

Timothy Pommeroy stood up from the table, walked into the

living room, and lay down on the floor. John helped himself to some

more carrots. Webster sat, drumming his feet nervously against the

kitchen tile.

Mrs. Pommeroy said politely, "Sailed around the whole world,

did he, Senator?"

The Senator read more: "Containing an authentic,

entertaining, full, and complete history of Captain Cook's First,

Second, and Third Voyages."

He smiled at Mrs. Pommeroy. "This is a marvelous book for

boys. Inspiring. The good captain was killed by savages, you know.

Boys love these stories. Boys! If you wish to be sailors, you will

study James Cook!"

At that time, only one of the Pommeroy boys was any kind of a

sailor. Conway was working as a substitute sternman for a Fort Niles

fisherman named Mr. Duke Cobb. A few days every week, Conway left the

house at five in the morning and returned late in the afternoon,

reeking of herring. He pulled traps and pegged lobsters and filled

bait bags, and received ten percent of the profits for his work. Mr.

Cobb's wife packed Conway his lunch, which was part of his pay. Mr.

Cobb's boat, like all the boats, never went much farther than a mile

or two from Fort Niles. Mr. Cobb was certainly no circumnavigator.

And Conway, a sullen and lazy kid, was not shaping up to be a great

circumnavigator, either.

Webster, the oldest boy, at fourteen, was the only other

Pommeroy old enough to work, but he was a wreck on a boat. He was

useless on a boat. He went nearly blind with seasickness, dying from

headaches and vomiting down his own helpless sleeves. Webster had an

idea of being a farmer. He kept a few chickens.

"I have a little joke to show you," Senator Simon said to

Chester, the nearest boy. He spread the book on the table and opened

it to the middle. The huge page was covered with tiny text. The print

was dense and thick and faint as a small pattern on old fabric.

"What do you see here? Look at that spelling."

Terrible silence as Chester stared.

"There's no letter s anywhere, is there, son? The printers

used f instead, didn't they, son? The whole book is like that. It was

perfectly common. It looks funny to us, though, doesn't it? To us, it

looks as if the word sail is the word fail. To us, it looks as if

every time Captain Cook sailed the boat, he actually failed the boat!

Of course, he didn't fail at all. He was the great circumnavigator.

Imagine if someone told you, Chester, that someday you would fail a

boat? Ha!"

"Ha!" said Chester, accordingly.

"Have they spoken to you yet, Rhonda?" Senator Simon asked

Mrs. Pommeroy suddenly, and shut the book, which slammed like a

weighty door.

"Have who, Senator?"

"All the other men."


"Boys," Senator Simon said, "get out of here. Your mother and

I need to talk alone. Beat it. Take your book. Go outside and play."

The boys sulked out of the room. Some of them went upstairs,

and the others filed outside. Chester carried the enormous,

inappropriate gift of Captain James Cook's circumnavigations

outdoors. Ruth slipped under the kitchen table, unnoticed.

"They'll be coming by soon, Rhonda," the Senator said to Mrs.

Pommeroy when the room had cleared. "The men will come by soon for a

talk with you."


"I wanted to give you some warning. Do you know what they'll

be asking you?"


"They'll ask if you're planning on staying here, on the

island. They'll want to know if you're staying or if you're planning

to move inland."


"They probably wish you'd leave."

Mrs. Pommeroy said nothing. From her vantage point under the

table, Ruth heard a splash, which she guessed was Senator Simon's

pouring a fresh dollop of rum on the ice in his glass. "So, do you

think you'll stay on Fort Niles, then?" he asked.

"I think we'll probably stay, Senator. I don't know anybody

inland. I wouldn't have anywhere to go."

"And whether you do or do not stay, they'll want to buy your

man's boat. And they'll want to fish his fishing ground."


"You should keep both the boat and the ground for the boys,


"I don't see how I can do that, Senator."

"Neither do I, to tell you the truth, Rhonda."

"The boys are so young, you see. They aren't ready to be

fishermen so young, Senator."

"I know, I know. I can't see either how you can afford to

keep the boat. You'll need the money, and if the men want to buy it,

you'll have to sell. You can't very well leave it on shore while you

wait for your boys to grow up. And you can't very well go out there

every day and chase men off the Pommeroy fishing ground."

"That's right, Senator."

"And I can't see how the men will let you keep the boat or

the fishing ground. Do you know what they'll tell you, Rhonda?

They'll tell you they just intend to fish it for a few years, not to

let it go to waste, you see. Just until the boys are big enough to

take over. But good luck taking it back, boys! You'll never see it

again, boys!"

Mrs. Pommeroy listened to all this with equanimity.

"Timothy," Senator Simon called, turning his head toward the

living room, "do you want to fish? Do you want to fish, Chester? Do

you boys want to be lobstermen when you grow up?"

"You sent the boys outside, Senator," Mrs. Pommeroy

said. "They can't hear you."

"That's right, that's right. But do they want to be


"Of course they want to be fishermen, Senator," Mrs. Pommeroy

said. "What else could they do?"


"But forever, Senator? Who stays in the Army forever,

Senator? They'll want to come back to the island to fish, like all

the men."

"Seven boys." Senator Simon looked at his hands. "The men

will wonder how there'll ever be enough lobsters around this island

for seven more men to make a living from them. How old is Conway?"

Mrs. Pommeroy informed the Senator that Conway was twelve.

"Ah, they'll take it all from you, for sure they will. It's a

shame, a shame. They'll take the Pommeroy fishing ground, split it

among them. They'll buy your husband's boat and gear for a song, and

all that money will be gone in a year, from feeding your boys.

They'll take over your husband's fishing territory, and your boys

will have a hell of a fight to win it back. It's a shame. And

Ruthie's father probably gets the most of it, I'll bet. Him and my

greedy brother. Greedy Number One and Greedy Number Two."

Under the table, Ruth Thomas frowned, humiliated. Her face

got hot. She did not entirely understand the conversation, but she

felt deeply ashamed, suddenly, of her father and of herself.

"Pity," the Senator said. "I'd tell you to fight for it,

Rhonda, but I honestly don't know how you can. Not all by yourself.

Your boys are too young to stage a fight for any territory."

"I don't want my boys fighting for anything, Senator."

"Then you'd better teach them a new trade, Rhonda. You'd

better teach them a new trade."

The two adults sat silently for some time. Ruth hushed her

breathing. Then Mrs. Pommeroy said, "He wasn't a very good fisherman,


"He should have died six years from now, instead, when the

boys were ready for it. That's really what he should have done."


"Or maybe that wouldn't have been any better. I honestly

don't see how this could have worked out at all. I've been thinking

about it, Rhonda, ever since you had all those sons in the first

place. I've been trying to figure out how it would settle in the end,

and I never did see any good coming of it. Even if your husband had

lived, I suppose the boys would have ended up fighting among

themselves. Not enough lobsters out there for everyone; that's the

fact. Pity. Fine, strong boys. It's easier with girls, of course.

They can leave the island and marry. You should have had girls,

Rhonda! We should have locked you in a brood stall until you started

breeding daughters."



There was another splash in a glass, and the Senator

said, "And another thing. I came to apologize for missing the


"That's all right, Senator."

"I should have been there. I should have been there. I have

always been a friend to your family. But I can't take it, Rhonda. I

can't take the drowning."

"You can't take the drowning, Senator. Everyone knows that."

"I thank you for your understanding. You are a good woman,

Rhonda. A good woman. And another thing. I've come for a haircut,


"A haircut? Today?"

"Sure, sure," he said.

Senator Simon, pushing back his chair to get up, bumped into

Cookie. Cookie woke with a start and immediately noticed Ruth sitting

under the kitchen table. The dog barked and barked until the Senator,

with some effort, bent over, lifted the corner of the tablecloth, and

spotted Ruth. He laughed. "Come on out, girl," he said, and Ruth

did. "You can watch me get a haircut."

The Senator took a dollar bill from his shirt pocket and laid

it on the table. Mrs. Pommeroy got the old bed sheet and her shears

and comb from the kitchen closet. Ruth pushed a chair into the middle

of the kitchen for Simon Addams to sit on. Mrs. Pommeroy wrapped the

sheet around Simon and his chair and tucked it around his neck. Only

his head and boot tips showed.

She dipped the comb in a glass of water, wetted down the

Senator's hair against his thick, buoy-shaped head, and parted it

into narrow rows. She cut his hair one share at a time, each segment

flattened between her two longest fingers, then cropped off on a neat

bias. Ruth, watching these familiar gestures, knew just what would

happen next. When Mrs. Pommeroy was finished with the haircut, the

sleeves of her black funeral dress would be topped with the Senator's

hair. She would dust his neck with talcum powder, bundle the sheet,

and ask Ruth to take it outdoors and shake it. Cookie would follow

Ruth outside and bark at the whipping sheet and bite at the tumbling

clumps of damp hair.

"Cookie!" Senator Simon would yell. "Come on back in here

now, baby!"

Later, of course, the men did visit Mrs. Pommeroy.

It was the following evening. Ruth's father walked over to

the Pommeroy house because it was right next door, but the other men

drove over in the unregistered, unlicensed trucks they kept for

carting their trash and children around on the island. They brought

blueberry cakes and casseroles as offerings from their wives and

stayed in the kitchen, many of them leaning on the counters and

walls. Mrs. Pommeroy made the men polite pots of coffee.

On the grass outside, below the kitchen window, Ruth Thomas

was trying to teach Robin Pommeroy how to say his name or any word

beginning with r. He was repeating after Ruth, fiercely pronouncing

every consonant but the impossible one.

"ROB-in," Ruth said.

"WOB-in," he insisted. "WOB-in!"

"RAZZ-berries," Ruth said. "RHU-barb. RAD-ish."

"WAD-ish," he said.

Inside, the men offered suggestions to Mrs. Pommeroy. They'd

been discussing a few things. They had some ideas about dividing the

traditional Pommeroy fishing ground among them for use and care, just

until one of the boys showed interest and skill in the trade. Until

any one of the Pommeroy boys could maintain a boat and a fleet of


"RUBB-ish," Ruth Thomas instructed Robin, outside the kitchen


"WUBB-ish," he declared.

"RUTH," she said to Robin. "RUTH!"

But he wouldn't even try that one; Ruth was much too hard.

Besides, Robin was tired of the game, which only served to make him

look stupid. Ruth wasn't having much fun, anyhow. The grass was full

of black slugs, shiny and viscous, and Robin was busy slapping at his

head. The

mosquitoes were a mess that night. There hadn't been weather cold

enough to eliminate them. They were biting Ruth Thomas and every-one

else on the island. But they were really shocking Robin Pommeroy. In

the end, the mosquitoes chased Robin and Ruth indoors, where they hid

in a front closet until the men of Fort Niles began to file out of

the Pommeroy house.

Ruth's father called for her, and she took his hand.

Together, they walked to their home next door. Stan Thomas's good

friend Angus Addams came with them. It was past dusk and getting

cold, and once they were inside, Stan made a fire in the parlor wood

stove. Angus sent Ruth upstairs to the closet in her father's bedroom

to fetch the cribbage board, and then he sent her to the sideboard in

the living room to fetch the good decks of cards. Angus set up the

small, antique card table next to the stove.

Ruth sat at the table while the two men played. As always,

they played quietly, each determined to win. Ruth had watched these

men play cribbage hundreds of times in her young life. She knew how

to be silent and useful so that she wouldn't be sent away. She

fetched them beers from the icebox when fresh beers were needed. She

moved their pegs along the board for them so that they wouldn't have

to lean forward. And she counted aloud to them as she moved the pegs.

The men said little.

Sometimes Angus would say, "Have you ever seen such luck?"

Sometimes he'd say, "I've seen better hands on an amputee."

Sometimes he'd say, "Who dealt this sorry rag?"

Ruth's father beat Angus soundly, and Angus put down his

cards and told them a terrible joke.

"Some men are out fishing one day for sport, and they're

drinking too much," he began. Ruth's father put down his cards, too,

and sat back in his chair to listen. Angus narrated his joke with the

greatest of care. He said, "So, these fellas are out fishing and

they're really having a time and drinking it up. They're getting

awful stewed. In fact, these fellas get to drinking so bad that one

of them, the one named Mr. Smith, he falls overboard and drowns. That

ruins everything. Hell! It's no fun having a fishing party when a man

drowns. So the men drink some more booze, and they set to feeling

pretty miserable, because nobody wants to go home and tell Mrs. Smith

her husband is drowned."

"You're terrible, Angus," Ruth's father interrupted. "What

kind of joke is that for tonight?"

Angus continued. "Then one of the guys has a great idea. He

suggests maybe they ought to hire Mr. Smooth-Talking-Jones to go

break the bad news to Mrs. Smith. That's right. It seems there's a

fella in town, name of Jones, who's famous for being a real smooth

talker. He's perfect for the job. He'll tell Mrs. Smith about her

husband, but he'll tell her so nice, she won't even care. The other

guys think, Hey, what a great idea! So they go find Smooth-Talking-

Jones, and he says he'll do the job, no problem. So Smooth-Talking-

Jones puts on his nicest suit. He puts on a tie and a hat. He goes

over to the Smith house. He knocks on the door. A woman answers.

Smooth-Talking-Jones says, \'Pardon me, ma'am, but ain't you the Widow

Smith?' "

At this, Ruth's father laughed into his beer glass, and a

thin spray of foam flew from his mug to the table. Angus Addams held

up his hand, palm out. Joke wasn't finished. So he finished it.

"The lady says, \'Why, I am Mrs. Smith, but I ain't no widow!'

And Smooth-Talking-Jones says, \'The fuck you ain't, sweetheart.' "

Ruth toyed with that word in her mind: Sweethaht, sweet-

hot . . .

"Oh, that's terrible." Ruth's father rubbed his mouth. He was

laughing, though. "That's terrible, Angus. Jesus Christ, what a

rotten joke to tell. I can't believe you'd tell a joke like that on a

night like this. Jesus Christ."

"Why, Stan? You think it sounds like someone we know?" Angus

said. Then he asked, in a strange falsetto, "Ain't you the Widow


"Angus, that is terrible," Ruth's father said, laughing even


"I'm not terrible. I'm telling jokes."

"You're terrible, Angus. You're terrible."

The two men laughed and laughed, and then settled down a bit.

Eventually, Ruth's father and Angus Addams commenced playing cribbage

once more and grew quiet.

Sometimes Ruth's father said, "Christ!"

Sometimes Ruth's father said, "I should be shot for that


At the end of the night, Angus Addams had won one game and

Stan Thomas had won two. Some money was exchanged. The men put away

the cards and dismantled the cribbage board. Ruth returned the board

to the closet in her father's bedroom. Angus Addams folded up the

card table and set it behind the sofa. The men moved into the kitchen

and sat at the table. Ruth came back down, and her father patted her

bottom and said to Angus, "I don't imagine Pommeroy left his wife

enough money to pay you for that nice coffin your brother built."

Angus Addams said, "You kidding me? Pommeroy didn't leave any

money. There's no money in that goddamn family. Not enough money for

a pissant funeral, I can tell you that. Not enough money for a

coffin. Not even enough money to buy a ham bone to shove up his ass so

the dogs could drag his body away."

"How interesting," Ruth's father said, completely

deadpan. "I'm not familiar with that tradition."

Then it was Angus Addams who was laughing. He called Ruth's

father terrible.

"I'm terrible?" Stan Thomas said. "I'm terrible? You're the

terrible one."

Something in this kept them both laughing. Ruth's father and

Mr. Angus Addams, who were excellent friends, called each other

terrible people all that night long. Terrible! Terrible! As if it was

a kind of reassurance. They called each other terrible, rotten,

deadly people.

They stayed up late, and Ruth stayed up with them, until she

started crying from trying to keep herself awake. It had been a long

week, and she was only nine. She was a sturdy kid, but she'd seen a

funeral and heard conversations she didn't understand, and now it was

past midnight, and she was exhausted.

"Hey," Angus said. "Ruthie? Ruthie? Don't cry, then. What? I

thought we were friends, Ruthie." Ruth's father said, "Poor little


He took her up into his lap. She wanted to stop crying, but

she couldn't. She was embarrassed. She hated crying in front of

anyone. Still, she cried until her father sent her into the living

room for the deck of cards and let her sit on his lap and shuffle

them, which was a game they used to play when she was small. She was

too old to be sitting in his lap and shuffling cards, but it was a


"Come on, Ruthie," Angus said, "let's have a smile out of


Ruth tried to oblige, but it wasn't a particularly good

smile. Angus asked Ruth and her father to do their funniest joke for

him, the one he loved so much. And they did.

"Daddy, Daddy," Ruth said in a fake little-girlie voice. "How

come all the other children get to go to school and I have to stay


"Shut up and deal, kid," her father growled. Angus Addams

laughed and laughed.

"That's terrible!" he said. "You're both terrible."

Copyright © 2000 by Elizabeth Gilbert. Reprinted by permission of

Houghton Mifflin Company.'

Product Details

Gilbert, Elizabeth
Mariner Books
Teenage girls
Lobster fishers.
General Fiction
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
June 2001
Grade Level:
8.29x5.57x.79 in. .68 lbs.

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Stern Men Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$4.95 In Stock
Product details 304 pages Mariner Books - English 9780618127337 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Gilbert's comic timing the second half, and her gift for lively, authentic dialogue and atmospheric settings continually lights up this entertaining, and surprisingly thought-provoking, romp." Publishers Weekly
"Review" by , "Stern Men offers some notable successes: Mrs. Pommeroy is a fascinating creation, and Ruth is a character of novelistic scope."
"Review" by , "Gilbert's tangy language has as much music as muscle; the novel is Emersonian in its clarity and Austenian in its sly social observation."
"Review" by , "This is a beautiful novel, funny and moving at the same time and populated by some quite memorable characters."
"Review" by , "Gilbert's novel is funny and offbeat, full of odd characters and a strong-willed, opinionated protagonist who is destined for more than what life has presented her."
"Review" by , "[W]hile the story is more or less contemporary, it has the time-out-of-time quality typical of the best fictionand it has a heroine who owes more to Voltaire than to Helen Fielding."
"Synopsis" by ,
On two remote islands off the coast of Maine, the local lobstermen have fought savagely for generations over the fishing rights to the ocean waters between them. Young Ruth Thomas is born into this feud, the daughter of one of the greediest lobstermen in Maine. Eighteen years old, as smart as a whip, and irredeemably unromantic, Ruth returns home from boarding school determined to throw her education overboard and join the "stern men." As the feud escalates, she helps work the lobster boats, brushes up on her profanity, and eventually falls for Owney Wishnell, a handsome young lobsterman. "Funny, clever and wise" (Seattle Times), STERN MEN captures a feisty American spirit through this unforgettable heroine who is destined for greatness despite herself.
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