Phosphorescence [story] by Martha Anne Toll

In winter she sat by the window and watched the ice floes drift down the Pamisquaddy River. They were the season’s flotsam, envoys from an unknown shore. She tried to imagine where they came from—a pond breaking up in Canada, or perhaps the next town over, the closest one up Maine’s jagged coast. If she could swoop down like a giant bird and collect them, she thought they might fit neatly together, the scattered pieces of a frozen jigsaw puzzle.

The river was tidal, coupling with the ocean in an endless cycle of ebb and flow—every hour, every day—across time itself. Even in the deep black that connoted cold and dormancy, the river’s ice floes were edged periwinkle blue, or brushed violet at dusk. Like snowflakes or fingerprints, no two were the same.

It was an indulgence, this big picture window that faced northeast. Exposing her city origins, she had had it cut the length of her living room wall shortly after she moved in. No self-respecting local would have undertaken such a violative act. It flew in the face of what they had known since their English forebears had landed here hundreds of years ago to trawl fickle seas or eke out a subsistence from rocky, unforgiving soil: shelter from winter’s cruelty was the object of a home. Tight joints and small windows maximized warmth; walls should stand sturdy and defiant against unpredictable and remorseless winds.

She had had a bench built in as well. It lay just under the window. Lined with a long flat pillow that was colored burnt umber, it was well worn from the hours she spent seated on it as she sipped tea or held a paperback limply in her hand, too distracted by the river to take in more than a few words of a book.

From the outside, the fit with the town was better. The house was white clapboard with cobalt shutters. It was smaller than its Bellington neighbors, but it shared the same skin. If theirs were painted lemon yellow with black shutters, or had widow’s walks that were raised in the times when men went whaling, hers was a cottage that brought no offense. It sat modest and unobtrusive, facing the river with its never-ending permutations.

There were newer houses carved into the pine woods just out of town, but the heart of Bellington remained its three long streets lined with elegant, proud clapboard homes. Only a few had been converted to antique stores or inns. Most of the original dwellings were inhabited by descendants of Bellington’s founders, with names that had heft in Maine–Sewall and Elwell and Wallace and Morse.

Her name was Wilhelmina Abbott. It was decades since she had been called anything other than Willa, a childhood nickname that had stayed with her as her hair whitened and thinned, and the early morning ache in her bones began to cling to her throughout the day.

Not fifteen miles from Bellington was the Stroudwater settlement, where Willa took her household of one during the summer. She had been raised in privilege in Boston, part of a social stratum that took for granted summers up the coast. Families migrated to Victorian communities embedded in the cliffs of Newport, or, like hers, to summer colonies tucked up against the peninsulas of Maine.

In Boston, Willa had been a dutiful wife and mother, the kind of woman who knew how to manage the household help; who wrote thank you notes; who saw to it that a balanced meal was served to her family each night; who went, uncomplaining, to her husband’s business dinners and even proffered wit and charm. She had hosted cocktail parties and attended them as well. Her home was immaculate; she had redecorated when the times required it. The silver had been polished, the china cleaned, the garden tended. She had donated her husband’s worn suits to charity; made sure her daughter’s outgrown toys went to a worthy cause.

But then her child fledged and her husband died. Just after her seventy-seventh birthday, Willa sold the place in Boston and moved permanently to Maine.

Now everything reminded her of something else. Each fresh experience pinged a tone from the past, those years before she was fully formed. World events that had taken place shortly before her birth—that were ancient history when she was younger—she now realized abutted her life. Eighty was closer than last night’s supper.

Her familiarity with sand and kelp, with limpets and sea urchins, with low tide and high, dated to her infancy. Stroudwater had whet her lifelong appetite for Maine. It was there that she had first tasted the salt of the sea. Where she had been doused in nature’s baptismal font—the endless expanse of Atlantic Ocean—azure on calm sunny days; an angry, seething gray cauldron when storms tore through.

Her summer house overlooked a vast sand beach, the longest in the state. End to end it stretched a mile and a half. No one had ever been allowed to build anything near the beach; it remained pristine. At low tide it was flat as a pine board, sparkling with shards of mica and shell fragments. Wave upon wave broke upon the shore, their height and color variable according to weather and season.

Beyond the western marsh was the granite peninsula on whose cliffs sat Willa’s summer house, an aging Victorian with too many rooms and a sagging roof. Once it had been filled with children chasing each other down the hall, their feet caked in sand, their bathing gear dripping wet, their parents’ authoritative voices trying to impose order. Once it had been a way station between the woods and the beach. Now it aged humbly alongside the other summer houses, their owners also hungry for a piece of the magnificent outlook.

Year after year Willa made the journey to Stroudwater, and with increasing anguish, tore herself away. Before her daughter attempted her first steps, Willa had dipped her baby’s toes in the icy sea. Her little family of three had vacationed there each summer. Willa had gradually taken charge of the house as she lost one, and then the other parent.

Always the longing to return. To Maine, to Stroudwater, to the view of the ocean that still evoked twinned emotions slapping against each other like outgoing waves in an incoming tide.

From her rocker on the Stroudwater deck, Willa had a bird’s eye view of the sun rising in the east, the first blush of day illuminating spume coming off the water. In the afternoons she looked down the beach to see children chasing tufts of foam; or middle aged women combing for shells; or young couples staking their place near the dunes, certain they were the first to discover the intoxicating mix of salt air and love.

But Willa had been there too, in that place near the dunes. Could it be sixty years ago?

There was a boy who lived a few doors down from them in Stroudwater. He was one of three brothers, although maybe there had been four. They came from Rye, New York. The one that mattered was James. Jimmy they called him, but to Willa he would be forever James.

Willa was in that place near the dunes. In the black bowl of the night sky, the Milky Way stretched to the horizon. The constellations were a riot of glistening white points. An occasional shooting star streaked across the heavens. The sand was cool and soft. Willa and James were lying on their backs, holding hands.

“You have to see the phosphorescence,” James exclaimed. “Come to the ocean with me.” The waves were smaller than usual, tamed by the warm night.

“Leave your clothes near the beach grass so we can find them again.” He laughed, then noticed her hesitating. “We’ll need to get warm afterward, no reason to get our clothes soaked.” He smiled. “I’ll beat you in!”

He started ahead as she chased after him. She could see the outline of his tall spare body streaking through the dark toward the sea. The shock of icy water was made inconsequential as they swung their arms, each movement igniting a thousand particles of light. The ocean was aflame around them.

“What’s happening?” Willa asked.

“Phosphorescence. It’s caused by microscopic animals that light up when the water is stirred. The fireflies of the ocean.” He twirled, arms akimbo, brightening his surroundings. “Dance with me!” Facing each other, the two of them bounced in the surf, each kick transformed into a marine comet.

“I love you Willa.” He kissed her salty eyelids.

“James.” He turned her around and cupped a breast in each hand. Her feet were numb from cold, but her body was warm. Leaning into James was like pressing against the glossy fur of a seal. She should stay here, enfolded in his arms for the rest of time.

He held her tight and bent to whisper, “Look down the beach.” Each eruption kindled the foam, illuminating the stillness between cracking waves. He nibbled her ear. “Will you swim?” Amid the waves, he kissed her on the mouth.

Moving in tandem with him, she felt a craving to become a mermaid. They could swim beside each other always. Nights they would light the way with their strokes, days they would bathe amongst gardens of sea anemones.

The next morning he gave her a note.

Dear Willa,

I feel as new as the cormorants breaking out of their eggs off shore, or the baby hermit crabs scampering at the edge of the surf.

To us.

Love, James

She had memorized every word of it. Wherever she had lived, she had tucked it carefully away in a place known only to her.

She could see James now. Running the length of the strand at low tide. His legs in long strides, his feet splashing through the edge of the surf. She had never seen anyone so beautiful. Then or since. All sinew, like some sleek wildcat, or a racehorse pulling out from the starting gate.

How he loved that beach. Awestruck by its possibilities. The horizon that stretched around the earth. He understood it, that endless expanse of water and sky. He knew his small place beneath the stars.

Their families shared picnics on the beach. They talked about the war. The insatiable Germans; the British stiff upper lip. Rationing for the most basic goods—sugar and gasoline. It was the same in Rye as it was in Boston. Every parent’s son was destined to fight. James’s parents wondered aloud whether they had raised their boys for the sole purpose of serving as cannon fodder.

Willa ran off with James and his brothers. They played tightrope on logs, built forts out of driftwood, held relay races. Dared each other to get wet first. Body surfed.

Remember the bonfires? The two families built them on the beach before anyone knew better. Roasted hamburgers and hot dogs, corn in tinfoil. Sang sea ballads. No one noticed when Willa and James left to stargaze.

Something about the bonfires suggested the end of summer—Labor Day and the return to school. Back to Boston, far from Stroudwater, far from Rye. Willa’s long sad leave taking. The poignant good-bye until next year.

But then James enlisted in the Navy and failed to return, a flag without a body. They don’t dredge for sunken sailors.

He had been two years older than Willa, a rising college sophomore when he signed up. Service to his country a higher priority than his undergraduate education. If only he hadn’t volunteered, his life could have been spared.

For the thousands of times she had repeated that litany, Willa knew better. Even back then. James was bound to be drafted, so why not go of his own accord? Determined and proud, a sailor for the cause. His consideration of her couldn’t have figured into it; he would choose his own fate rather than wait for one assigned him by the United States military.

Nevertheless, dead at twenty.

James’s memorial service took place on a furious March afternoon. Willa drove with her parents through pelting rain to Rye. The promise of spring was shattered by the wind that might as well have been tearing across an ocean, and by death.

Willa could still feel her jaws tightening to force back tears. She had clutched the edge of her pew wondering whether she would be able to speak when James’s parents invited remarks from the congregation. What could she say? Together, we discovered the stars? We found them in the heavens and in the sea. They were ours for a slice of one summer. Or, please don’t call him Jimmy. To me he will always be James.

When James’s father, struggling to maintain his equanimity, opened the floor, Willa did not speak. Afterward, the mourners huddled around James’s parents, clicking their tongues in sympathy. While Willa remained fixed to her seat, hoping the world would end. Praying that wherever he was, James would shine on her.

Had James thought about her while he was poring over navigational charts? While standing at attention on deck, his dress whites starched? In rank and humid air, swaying in a hammock at the base of his war ship’s hull, dreaming of phosphorescence?

And how had he died? Was he killed instantly by a torpedo; or drowned in a driving monsoon with sharks eagerly circling; or starved, blistered and clinging to a scrap of debris? Maybe he had been cradled by the sea, bypassing human demise, assumed heavenward like some biblical figure. Not dead at all, but transfigured into a great blue heron gracefully winging above white pines. Or a muscular osprey soaring up and down the salt marsh, canny and wise, seeing all from on high. So that the Stroudwater beach and the ocean and the infinite sky could unite as his shrine.

James was why Willa had married so young. Her husband Charles—steady and calm. She had trusted that he would stay home and live. He had lifted her spirits and suggested a future for her at a time when she couldn’t see any. He gave her a child. They stayed true to the end, ‘til death do us part.

What if Willa had married James? Would she have had more children, forgone her miscarriages? The two of them, Willa and James, phantom husband and wife, parents to a whole brood. Her body, a vessel that birthed twin families: a cherished earthly one, and a second that adorned the walls of her mind. The second, spectral family, brooked no disappointments, no sleepless nights, no anxious days, no spoiled milk.

From her Stroudwater deck, Willa could see the lighthouse gleaming white on a grassy island. Boats raised their spinnakers in tribute as they floated past it, their brightly striped sails visible from her porch. In dense gray fog, the horn from the lighthouse could be heard clearly on land; the ocean’s allure unremitting. The roar that went on without cease, the unlimited visual possibilities, even the black scoter ducks that plied its surface. The secrets stored beneath its roiling waters. They must be infinite—fishermen washed overboard in pursuit of their daily living; families heaved below when ferries capsized in surprise Nor’easters.

The silent numbers who, like Willa, had stood at water’s edge and ceded their longing to the immense, enigmatic sea.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story refers to the poem “Eclipse” by Elizabeth Catanese.]

“Phosphorescence” is an excerpt from Martha Anne Toll’s novel in progress, The Boston Beethoven Society. It was a finalist (but not published) in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. Toll’s work has appeared on NPR; in Wild: A Quarterly, The Millions, Narrative Magazine, and the Washington Independent Review of BooksShe is the executive director of a nationwide philanthropy organization focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty. Her website is; you can tweet to her @marthaannetoll.

Image by InAweofGod’sCreation