by Bronwyn Hughes
The rusty Texaco star clung to its pedestal above Main Street, welcoming me back to my hometown. Beneath, a brightly painted visitor center had displaced the long-defunct filling station where we used to smoke cigarettes. Were they expecting tourists? I strained to see the bones of Mobjack Courthouse under a veil of self-consciously cute updates, like sidewalk bump-outs planted with native seagrasses.
The drive from Brooklyn to the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay was just long enough to finish my audiobook on empty-nest syndrome. “Wake up, Brooke.” I tapped my sleeping daughter’s knee in the passenger seat of our rented SUV. She was wearing her orange Princeton hoodie, like she had every day since her acceptance last spring.
“Mom, please call me Khady,” Brooke said, rubbing her eyes under her glasses. That was the Senegalese name my adopted African American daughter had chosen for herself to start college. I had no objection to her name change, but the transition was hard for me.
“Look.” I pointed. “Lucky’s Diner is still here!” I pulled to the curb. “Let’s grab a bite.”
After a spine-popping stretch, I tugged my tank top down to reach my leggings. Brooke trained her handheld movie camera on me, asking how it felt to be back in Mobjack. “Like my arms are too pale for late summer,” I said, pulling my gray bob into a ponytail.
Everyone looked up when we entered the restaurant. The place was plastered in ’50s nostalgia, just the way I remembered it from the ’70s. The smells of fried fish and crab cakes triggered memories of humid, buggy summers on the water. An elderly “from-here” playing solitaire behind the counter pointed to a booth that was freeing up. I erased the wrinkles from around her watery blue eyes to see if she was somebody I knew, but nothing registered.
A waitress with a mullet approached our booth. As a teenager in the ’80s, I had experimented with a mullet—the perfect hairstyle to express my bisexuality. I’d still have one today if the New York fashion police would allow it. Reaching across the Formica tabletop, I pushed Brooke’s camera into her lap, stage-whispering over a Johnny Cash song, “It’s rude to film in the restaurant.”
“Y’all decided on whatcha gonna have?”
In a local accent I thought I had lost, I said, “Yes, ma’am, I’d like the fried oyshters with a side of collards.” Brooke’s mouth flew open with a horsey snort. Scowling, I handed both menus back, saying in an exaggerated New York accent, “And she’ll have the chicken Caesar—with no croutons.”
Brooke’s perfect white teeth gleamed when she laughed, reassuring me her braces were worth the financial stretch. Her face turned serious. “Mom, I want to ask you something.”
I knew I didn’t want to hear this by the way she sat on her hands and hunched her shoulders. “Do not tell me you forgot some piece of film equipment. The last electronics store was—”
“No, no—that’s not it. I want you to consider something.”
I folded my arms. “Consider what?”
“Since we’re here, what if I made a documentary about you reconciling with your father?”
“Oh my god, Brooke.” I lunged forward, jostling the condiment caddy. “We came all this way so you can make a documentary about Dragon Run. Do not tell me you’ve changed your mind.” My back thumped against the cherry-red seat as I refolded my arms.
“Khady,” she said in a hushed tone, glancing around to see if people were staring. “If you’re going to drag me into these all-white spaces, can you at least not make a scene?”
I should have known. Ever since she found a spider’s nest in her sleeping bag on that Unitarian camping trip, her curiosity about nature had turned to disgust. She had sweet-talked me into this trip, saying she wanted to make a documentary about a place she knew was special to me. A series of coincidences had protected the Dragon Run watershed from human impact for over four hundred years, keeping it much the way John Smith encountered it in 1607. My father and I used to canoe to the headwaters to pick mushrooms and marvel at the ancient swamp cypresses.
“I knew your first reaction would be no,” she continued, recording our conversation like always. The summer before her junior year, I helped Brooke apply for funding to make a film about Goree Island in Senegal, the largest slave trading center on the African coast. Her film won a major competition and was screened at the New York Film Center where she met her idol, Spike Lee. He urged her to take her film equipment everywhere and record everything. At first, the intrusion of her camera in our everyday lives had annoyed me, but I learned to live with it.
“All I’m asking is for you to consider reconnecting,” Brooke pleaded. “Twenty-five years is a long time. Wouldn’t you want me to forgive you?”
The idea of my father had always intrigued Brooke. As a child, she would fall asleep asking questions like What was his favorite book? How did I think he would die? I expected her to ask about her birth family, but she never did.
“If I say I’ll consider it, I’m afraid I’ll raise false hopes. That chapter of my life is closed.”
“Please?” She put her camera down and pressed her hands together, the way she used to beg for more screen time when she was little.
“Fine,” I said, shaking my head no, like a hostage.
The mullet appeared with our plates. Brooke always ordered the same Caesar salad in every restaurant, while I tried local specialties. She declared her salad substandard. My oysters tasted sweet, like summers from childhood before I knew my father’s love was so fragile.
Tall cedars lined a long gravel lane, creating a grand approach to a historic property known as Seven Oaks. I would have recognized any of Mobjack’s majestic waterfront homes from the water, but I had never been inside one. Up close, paint peeled from columns, plantation shutters dangled, and a few balusters were missing from the second-floor balcony.
“Look at this place,” Brooke said. “I bet they had slaves.”
“Might have. The description said the house was built in 1813 by a doctor who traveled by boat to reach his patients.”
I found the key box and punched in the Airbnb code while Brooke sat on the porch swing, twisting her budding locks with her right hand and filming my activity with her left. Brooke and I didn’t need a place that could sleep twelve, but the listing showed kayaks available, and hurricane season rates made it affordable.
While I dragged stuff in from the car, Brooke explored, hollering from upstairs, “I call the Doctor’s Suite.”
“Like hell you do,” I hollered back, anticipating the moment when she would discover the house had no Internet.
A librarian at Brooklyn College, I had plenty of opportunity to gather research for Brooke’s project. I spread colorful maps and scientific studies across one end of the long dining room table. One of the photos reminded me of how scared I was the first time I watched my father eat a mushroom from the banks of Dragon Run. I had nodded as he explained the differences between death caps and true morels, but they seemed so subtle.
As I stocked the fridge with organic vegetables from our food co-op at home, the sky darkened, and breakers advanced toward the pier like warriors.
“Brooke! Come help me finish unloading the car. It’s about to pour.”
“Khady! What? Nooooo!”
There it was.
“It’s just one week,” I apologized. “You’ll survive.”
That night, hail pelted the metal roof as gale-force winds took down power lines, leaving us without electricity. Waves crashed over the riprap, submerging the pier and flooding the lawn. Brooke and I ended up sharing the king-sized bed in the Doctor’s Suite because neither of us wanted to be alone during the storm.
I rose early and decided to brave my way into town to pick up breakfast. Mobjack Courthouse was deserted in the blackout. I kept driving, remembering how my father clutched his shortwave during storms. I saw lights at the general store where I used to buy candy, so I stopped in for homemade muffins, the local newspaper, and—oh thank god—hot coffee.
Back at the house, Brooke had set up her mobile editing studio at the other end of the dining room table. I stood behind her chair, reliving our harrowing drive down the New Jersey Turnpike.
“Maybe the weather will clear this afternoon, and we can try out the kayaks,” I suggested on my way to the kitchen to find plates for our muffins. The rattling windows didn’t justify optimism. “Or we could tour the historic triangle—Yorktown, Jamestown, and Williamsburg.”
“Those places where people dress up like slaves and masters?”
“No,” I corrected. “Those are the James River plantations. These people dress up like Native Americans and colonists.”
“Isn’t there a Starbucks around here with Wi-Fi and electricity? I’m going to need to charge my equipment soon.”
“Let’s go to the library after breakfast because the…”
Brooke finished, “…measure of a community is its public library.”
I slid a lemon poppyseed muffin toward her, handing over a section of the Mobjack Mirror. Looking at the obituaries, I commented, “This woman passed away after a long career as a professional bra-fitter at Mobjack’s Department Store—I remember that witch!”
Brooke swallowed the last of my coffee. “Mom?” She was sitting on her hands again.
“Oh no, what now?”
“I didn’t want to tell you yesterday because I wasn’t sure how you would take it.”
“You know how your father sends letters every so often?”
“Every April, for my birthday, but I never respond.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about—last spring, I responded.”
“To my father?” I choked on my bran muffin. “You had no right to—”
“I knew you’d be mad, but I felt so sorry for him, always writing about the weather and hoping you’ll visit. I wanted him to know about me.”
“Oh, Brooke…” I reached into my backpack for my water bottle.
“Khady,” she whispered. “He was so excited about my film idea that he sent money for all of this film equipment.”
“I thought you bought this stuff with money you made from tutoring.”
“You have no idea how much this stuff costs.” She thrust her neck toward me. “I have over three thousand dollars of professional equipment here. But you’ll like this—he wants to help pay for Princeton!”
“You’ve been taking money from my father behind my back? How often do you two communicate?”
“I dunno, once a week? Grampa’s too old to text, so we talk on the phone.”
“Grampa? Oh my god, Brooke, this is too much.” I jammed my arms into my wet raincoat.
“Still Khady,” Brooke mumbled. “Don’t forget you promised to consider reconnecting.”
I slammed the heavy wooden door behind me.
Later that evening, I boiled pasta on the gas stove and left a bowl for Brooke. She spent the day in front of a mirror in the entry hall, practicing her hip-hop moves in dim natural light with no music. I crashed early to read by flashlight until my batteries weakened and died.
Wide awake in the darkness, I listened to the storm beat against the wavy glass, imagining conversations between my father and daughter. He raised me to be like him, a self-reliant survivalist. I raised Brooke to be open-minded so she could rely on the strength of a community. My father taught me to catch eels for bait and read the water as we picked our way through the Dragon’s muddy channels, as if my livelihood would depend on it. I taught Brooke to read people, and how to navigate socially for the same reason.
I fell asleep just before dawn, dreaming about how angry my father was when he discovered my lesbian erotic poetry. When I awoke, it was late morning. The clock radio was blasting static, and red numerals were flashing, like the bodega lights outside my window at home. Relieved to have power back, I went downstairs to brew my Zabar’s Ethiopian blend.
Cradling my coffee, I found Brooke asleep on a couch in the den. “Good morning sleepyhead,” I said, patting her shoulder. She squinted, groping for her glasses. “It’s still pouring, but the power’s back on.”
“Yeah, Grampa says it’s a nor’easter,” she yawned.
I flinched at her casual mention of him. “Get dressed,” I snapped. “We’re going to the lighthouse.”
The ditches overflowed, blurring the edges of the road. I strained to see the yellow center line through the frantic wipers. “Why,” I began, “is it so important to have a relationship with the Captain?”
“You mean Grampa?” Her camera was recording.
“He used to make everyone—including his daughter—call him Captain. Can you explain what led you to contact him?”
“I always wanted to be part of a big family, spending summers the way you did—with chaotic meals at a long farm table.”
“Why would you think he’s the key to that dream? He’s the most solitary person you could ever meet. The stories I’ve told you about large family gatherings were from when he was at sea, and I stayed with the neighbors, sometimes for months.”
“He obviously cares about you,” Brooke said, eyeing me through her viewfinder. “Why else would he keep sending letters and offering to pay for stuff?”
“Stubborn, I guess. Trust me, his love—and money—require me to pretend I’m someone I’m not. Frankly, I can’t believe he’s so accepting of a Black granddaughter.”
Arriving at the promontory facing the lighthouse, I cut the ignition.
“Well, he doesn’t exactly know I’m Black.”
“I wanted him to know ‘the content of my character before he judged the color of my skin.’”
The cattails lay flat in the wind driving across the marsh. I remembered how I had waited as long as possible before telling the Captain about my first girlfriend.
The shape of the lighthouse was hard to make out through the storm. Everyone who grew up in Mobjack knew the story of how the hurricane of 1933 left it isolated from the mainland, perched in solitude on rocky stubble. I reached across the console to fish my Swiss Army knife from my backpack.
“Would you ever consider forgiving him?” she asked, aiming her camera in my face.
“There’s nothing to forgive.” Unfolding the largest blade to cut slices of cheese and apple for our breakfast, I handed her a slice of Gouda on my index finger. “I’ve accepted who he is and moved on, and you should too.”
We ate in silence, watching the bay churn. The windshield framed the dramatic scene, like a black-and-white clip from a Bergman film. Brooke turned off her camera and traced a single raindrop down the window with her fingernail.
Turning the car around, I said, “Let’s be grateful for what we do have—each other and an exciting film project planned as soon as this weather clears. How ’bout going to the movies this afternoon?”
Brooke leaned forward and sat on her hands for the third time in as many days.
“What the hell now?” I slammed on the brakes and pulled over.
“Grampa invited us to come to his house this afternoon, and I told him we would.”
“Let me get this straight,” I exploded. “You duped me into coming down here by saying you wanted to make a film about the Dragon so you could film me reconnecting with him?”
“No, Mom. I really do want to make the Dragon Run film. But I also want to make this one.” More pleading hands. “Please say we can go.”
“Absolutely not.” I pulled back onto the slick road to return to our Airbnb. “Tell him we’re not coming.”
When Brooke came down the stairs three hours later wearing the white dress and low heels we had purchased for her acceptance speech when she won the film competition, I realized she intended to keep her appointment with the Captain. Her defiant look dared me to stop her.
“This has gone too far, Brooke. I need you to be smarter than this, or I won’t be able to trust you away at college.”
“For the last time, it’s Khady. I need you to stop suffocating me, Mom!” She snatched the rental car key.
Desperate to stop her, I grabbed the hood of her raincoat, yanking her head back. She swung around in a rage, raising her fist at me.
Our eyes locked, until I let go.
The empty house felt cold and lonely. I decided to build a fire in the wood stove. I found dry logs in the woodshed, and plenty of small sticks downed by the storm. Smoke filled the house as I fanned the kindling with a naturalist guide to butterflies. My mind traveled to the Captain’s den, where a brass mariner’s clock chimed every fifteen minutes, keeping his home on land as shipshape as his life at sea.
I had worked so hard to protect Brooke from people like the Captain. To my knowledge, she hadn’t experienced any overt racism yet because I raised her in a multicultural open-hearted lesbian community.
The front door flew open.
Brooke sloughed her raincoat to the floor. “What happened?” I asked, jumping to my feet. “Are you okay?” I followed her to the living room couch.
She pulled her knees to her forehead and sobbed, “You were right. I never should have gone there. I should have listened to you.”
“Tell me what happened,” I said, rubbing her back. “You weren’t gone very long.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, or think about it, ever again. Here.” She handed me her camera. “Watch for yourself. I filmed the whole thing!” Gripping the banister, she disappeared upstairs.
I fumbled with the camera’s menu to figure out how to play back footage on the tiny screen. Here we go. I recognized the lane leading to my old house in Horn Harbor. The Captain emerged from the kitchen door, bent with age, stomping across the gravel toward the camera, yelling something I couldn’t make out. When he got closer, the microphone picked up “stolen belongings” and “going to file a sheriff’s report.” Brooke’s silence enraged him. He accused her of being “too stupid to speak.” The camera shook as he said, “This is why we can’t trust you people.” His face fell. “Wait, who are you?” he demanded.
My daughter’s voice was faint, but clear. “I’m your granddaughter.”
The camera swirled as she got back into the rental. My father slapped the passenger window, insisting she come into the house, repeating, “Brooke, I didn’t realize…”
The screen went black.
I dropped the camera and hiked the stairs, two at a time, to comfort my daughter. At the landing, I stepped over her discarded outfit and knocked gently on the bathroom door. Sloshing bathwater stilled to an echoing drip.
“Khady?” I called from the other side. No response. I slumped down the wall, missing the days when I could make everything okay for her.
Finally, I gathered her clothes, folded them, and left them in a neat stack on the newel post. “I’m downstairs if you need me.”
In my absence, my fire had gone out. With only one match left, I looked around for more paper. Crumpling my maps, directions, and studies, I placed them under the wet twigs and struck the last match.
The paper caught, and the stove’s cavity roared to life. After a brief display, the blaze shrank, and charred flakes spiraled up the flue. Without more matches, I felt helpless to do anything but watch. As I was about to turn away, an underlying twig ignited and slowly passed its flame to higher ones.
Khady came downstairs in her pajamas and sat on the bench beside me. To my surprise, she left her camera on the couch where I had dropped it. I wrapped my arm around her. We sat together in silence, watching the bright orange glow blacken the stove’s glass door, and then burn away the creosote.
Early the next morning, the storm released its grip on Mobjack, moving down the Bay. I lifted the window sash, filling the Doctor’s Suite with the fresh scent of salt air and pine forest. Though the tide was out, the sparkling creek swelled with rainwater. It would have been a perfect day to paddle to the headwaters of Dragon Run.
Bronwyn Hughes is a certified public accountant currently working on her MFA in creative writing from Randolph College. She enjoys beekeeping, filmmaking, and boating on the many creeks and rivers feeding the Chesapeake Bay. Bronwyn lives in Tidewater, VA, with her partner and a Maine coon cat. Her work has appeared in Atherton Review and Evening Street Review.