A northeast wind was blowing the day we buried Mama on a hill overlooking the sea. I remember that particularly because I knew a storm was coming, had known it for days. Mama always said the sea was in my blood. Once, when I'd cut my finger, I'd tasted the blood and it was salty, so I guess she was right.
With Mama gone, that just left Papa and me, Aquila Jane MacKinnon, here at Devils Rock Lighthouse. I'd been born here twelve years before, April 18, 1846, and had never been anywhere else. If Mama hadn't taught me differently, I might have thought Devils Rock was the sum total of the world.
Devils Rock isn't an easy place to live. There's nothing here but birds and seals and the never-ending wind. Even though it's only five miles off the coast of Maine, fierce storms can cut us off from the mainland for weeks at a time. Sometimes we don't see another living soul for months on end, but at least when Mama was alive, she was always smiling and singing and it seemed we didn't need anyone else, we had each other.
We share the island with ghosts, too. Mr. Sinclair, the last lighthouse keeper, drowned rowing between here and the mainland, and Mr. Blair's wife went mad from the loneliness and flung herself off the cliffs. I've seen her shadowy figure moving over the rocks and heard her voice wailing above the wind. Before, I didn't understand how loneliness could drive someone crazy, but I was beginning to. Mama had only been gone a few hours and already I could feel the loneliness settling in for a long stay.
"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," Papa whispered after Mama drew her last breath, but I was so mad at God I could spit. Seems he'd done a lot more taking away than he'd given. I was angry at Papa, too, though I couldn't tell him because he was already broken. I blamed him for Mama's death.
When Mama took sick, I'd begged him to take her to a doctor.
"Quila, you know I cannot leave the light un-attended. Besides, your mother's strong. She'll be all right." When it became clear she wasn't going to get better, he would have rowed to the moon to get help, but it was too late.
The storm hit by evening and battered us for three days, howling and shrieking like a thousand banshees. I think Papa was glad for the storm, for he was so busy keeping the light burning that he had less time to think about Mama, but for me the storm was pure torment. I was trapped inside with all the memories of Mama pressing in so close I thought I'd suffocate: memories of Mama knitting by the fire, Mama coming in from a winter walk all rosy-cheeked and her blue eyes laughing, Mama singing me to sleep. Whenever I opened a book, the words came to me with Mama's voice attached, her stories of mermaids and pirates and kingdoms under the sea, and so reading brought no comfort. Neither did food. I baked bread, but when I pulled it from the oven, the warm, yeasty smell that had always been one of my favorites so reminded me of Mama that I threw it outside. At least the gulls would enjoy it.
Except for the wind, it was the quiet that near drove me mad. Always before, Mama had told stories, and if she wasn't telling stories, she was singing, and if she wasn't singing, Papa got out his fiddle and played "Blackbird," "Devil in the Kitchen," and "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" while Mama and I danced till we were breathless. Papa could make his fiddle moan like the wind as it snarled and prowled round the lighthouse tower, and I could never tell if he was answering the wind or if it was answering him. Even the seals came up on the rocks to listen, their dark bodies silvery in the moonlight.
Papa had never been one to say much--Mama said he let his fiddle speak for him--but when she died, Papa put his fiddle away and it was as if he'd lost his voice. Throughout the days of that storm, I never heard him utter a word. Me, I wanted to howl along with the storm.
When the storm finally blew itself out, I fled the silence of the lighthouse and ran to the cliffs.
Seabirds screamed and circled below me, thousands of them, jostling for nesting sites on the ledges. Soon there'd be thousands of eggs, and Papa and I would have eggs for breakfast, dinner, and supper. Mama and I'd always loved spring, when the sun was bright again, the birds came back to nest, and the wild geese flew north. Their haunting cries tugged at me and made me want to fly with them.
If Mama were here, she and I would have been combing the beach area for shells or brightly colored sea glass ("gifts from the sea," Mama called them) or searching along the cliff edges for all the tiny wildflowers, but I didn't have the heart to hunt for them myself. It just seemed another reminder that she was gone forever.
Out of habit, I scanned the horizon. I was good at spotting things, had "eagle eyes," Mama had said. That's what my name means, eagle. Papa had taught me how to read the water, how to tell where there were rocks just under the surface, for there were many such rocks surrounding Devils Rock, all of them dangerous, all of them waiting to bring ships to their doom. Papa had also taught me how to look for whale spouts, far out to sea, or rafts of seabirds, which indicated a school of fish. By the time I was two, I was announcing ships before Papa and Mama could see them. But on this day, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. It was as if the storm had scrubbed the sea clean.
It wasn't until I dropped my eyes that I saw something, something dark in the white froth of the waves. At first, I thought it was a seal, but when I saw a door float by, I knew a ship must have gone down in the storm.
Excerpted from Gifts from the Sea by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock; illustrated by Judy Pederson. Copyright © 2005 by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.