In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the seawall of Fortune's Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sanhe learns about desire. Desire that slows the breath, that causes a preoccupied pause in the midst of uttering a sentence, that focuses the gaze absolutely on the progress of naked feet walking toward the water. This first brief awareness of desireand of being the object of desire, a state of which she has had no previous hintcomes to her as a kind of slow seizure, as of air compressing itself all around her, and causes what seems to be the first faint shudder of her adult life.
She touches the linen brim of her hat, as she would not have done a summer earlier, nor even a day earlier. Perhaps she fingers the hat's long tulle sash as well. Around her and behind her, there are men in bathing costumes or in white shirts and waistcoats; and if she lifts her eyes, she can see their faces: pale, wintry visages that seem to breathe in the ocean air as if it were smelling salts, relieving the pinched torpor of long months shut indoors. The men are older or younger, some quite tall, a few boys, and though they speak to each other, they watch her.
Her gait along the shallow shell of a beach alters. Her feet, as she makes slow progress, create slight and scandalous indentations in the sand. Her dress, which is a peach silk, turns, when she steps into the water, a translucent sepia. The air is hot, but the water on her skin is frigid; and that contrast makes her shiver.
She takes off her hat and kicks up small splashes amongst the waves. She inhales long breaths of the sea air, which clear her head. Possibly the men observing her speculate then about the manner in which delight seems suddenly to overtake her and to fill her with the joy of anticipation. And are as surprised as she is by her acceptance of her fate. For in the space of time it has taken to walk from the seawall to the sea, perhaps a distance of a hundred yards, she has passed from being a girl, with a child's pent-up and nearly frenzied need to sweep away the rooms and cobwebs of her winter, to being a woman.
It is the twentieth day of June in the last year of the century, and she is fifteen years old.
Olympia's father, in his white suit, his hair a fading ginger and blowing upwards from his brow, is calling to her from the rocks at the northern end of the beach. The rocks upon which it has been the fate of many sailors to founder, thus lending the beach and the land adjacent to this beach the name of Fortune. He cups his mouth with his hands, but she is deaf from the surf. A white shape amidst the gray, her father is a gentle and loving man, unblemished in his actions toward her, although he believes himself in possession of both her body and her soul, as if they were his and not hers to squander or bestow.
Earlier this day, Olympia and her father and her mother journeyed north from Boston by train to a cottage that, when they entered, was white with sheets and oddly without dust. Olympia wished when she saw the sheets that her mother would not ask Josiah, who is her father's manservant, to take them off the furniture, because they made fantastical abstract shapes against the six pairs of floor-to-ceiling windows of the long front room. Beyond the glass and the thin glaze of salt spray lay the Atlantic with its cap of brilliant haze. In the distance, there were small islands that seemed to hover above the horizon line.
The cottage is a modest one by some standards, although Olympia's father is a wealthy man. But it is unique in its proportions, and she thinks it lovely beyond words. White with dark blue shutters, the house stands two stories high and is surrounded by several graceful porches. It is constructed in the style of the grand hotels along Fortune's Rocks, and in Rye and Hampton to the south: that is to say, its roof curves shallowly and is inset with evenly spaced dormer windows. The house has never been a hotel, but rather was once a convent, the home of the Order of Saint Jean Baptiste de Bienfaisance, twenty sisters who took vows of poverty and married themselves to Jesus. Indeed, an oddity of the structure is its many cell-like bedrooms, two of which Olympia and her father occupy and three of which have been connected for her mother's use. Attached to the ground floor of the house is a small chapel; and although it has been deconsecrated, Olympia's family still cannot bring themselves to placed, s their own secular belongings within its wooden walls. Except for a dozen neat wooden benches and a wide marble stone that once served as an altar, the chapel remains empty.
© 1999 by Anita Shreve
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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