An Excerpt From The Cape

Your Labor Day beach read: chapter one of Charles Whitecar Miskelly's amazing novel.

THE FIRST WHITE MAN to see the mainland of what would later be New Jersey, and especially the southern end of it, was one Estevão Gomez in 1525, but nobody did anything about it for nearly a century. The land, between its bay and its ocean, lay as it had for ages. Its people, of the tribe of Lenni-Lenape, walked its woods and beaches, and where the brightly colored stones lay strewn upon the bar, they watched the sea and marveled at the winged ships that rode on the sea. But no ship, and no white man, ever came to their shore.

And then, one winter day when a change of wind blew the mists away to let the sun show red beyond the waters of the bay, a ship seemed to sail away from the land. From behind the point of the cape, where the land hooked its finger between the bay and the ocean to form a harbor, the ship sailed out to the sea. It left the shore where the little stream trickled down from the sweet-water pond among the cedar trees, where at the foot of the wooded slope a little band of red people lived, back a way from the beach.

There were a dozen wigwams or tepees, made of skins and bark, each with the totem of the turtle painted on its walls. Each home had its problems, of food and shelter and water. Commonplace things through commonplace ages, until that winter day when the strange ship moved through the east-wind mists and sailed away when the wind had changed to the west.

From the sandy and wooded bluff some five miles to the north, almost as far as the little creek which shoved its salted and twisting thread through the narrow and tree-girt meadow, Wawakna, chief of another band, saw the ship sail away. He stood on the bluff with his daughter, Minyanata, who was eight years old. Forgetting both dignity and daughter, Wawakna shouted and pointed. From the town among the trees, back a little from the bay, his people came running. And Lagunaka, too, the medicine man. All stood and wondered. They were frightened, too, because how could the ship sail away from the land without first having come to it?

No one had seen the ship come in, but Wawakna gravely explained that this was because of the mists. But Lagunaka pondered. Wise in the ways of devils and such, the magician doubted. He believed there was devilry in the wind. He would make a brew and sing a song and shake a rattle, and do what he could to fend off the evil.

However, because of the quarrel between the two camps, none could go down to the point to see what had happened. In the morning Wawakna would send a wampum down to seek the peace and learn the news. But the night wind shifted to the north of east; for four long days a blizzard blew; the snow piled high in the trails. The mystery of the ship could wait a while, and with the waiting the fear of the people lessened. Perhaps, the ship hadn’t been leaving the harbor at all; more likely it had been sailing along the coast, as others had done. After his brew and his song, and especially after the blizzard had begun to blow, Lagunaka explained that the distance had been deceptive: the ship had sailed past the point of land and not from it.

Lagunaka, a jealous man, was extremely isolationist. The magician down by the pond would not agree with him on many matters, and this had been responsible for the neighborhood ill feeling. So things continued as they were until after warm weather had come. But the important point was this: what one ship had done another could do.

Other ships had passed the cape. One was the Half Moon of Captain Henry Hudson, exploring new waterways on his way to the great river and bay which would bear his name. Bypassing the cape, leaving the naming of it to Captain Cornelius Mey, of the ship Glad Tidings.

It was in April, eight years later, when Minyanata was sixteen and John McJack an uncertain 23 that McJack came ashore on a piece of timber, about a mile from the point of the cape and four miles below Wawakna’s camp, up on the bluff.

For more than three hours McJack lay on the beach without even the strength to pull himself the rest of the way out of the water. Half unconscious, he lay with the waves lapping about his waist, then his knees, and then his ankles as the tide receded, leaving him on the hard-packed sand.

The skin of his arms was bloody from gripping a broken timber while the wind howled and the waves buried him in the rush of water. As he slowly moved his arms across the sand of the beach, he heard the crunch as the ship crashed the bar in the thunder squall, the cracking of the planking, and the screams of the crew.

McJack dug his hands into the sand and pulled them back painfully to his side and then stretched them over his head again as if he were swimming. He groaned, opened his eyes, and saw the beach, the marsh, the high ground, and the forest.

“Praise to god and all his saints who brought me through.” He raised himself slowly to his knees and added, “And the saints help all who didn’t make it,” as he saw the litter from the wreck along the edge of the water. A few feet away from him lay the timber with the crooked handle of his adze emerging, its blade sunk deep in the wood.

“And what is this?” he asked himself as he drew his hand across the sand and collected shiny colored stones in his fingers. “Be I lucky enough to land on a bejeweled beach?”

But his exhaustion made his interest short-lived. The sun was setting, and he realized that soon the tide would come back in an effort to reclaim him. He crawled himself beyond the reach of the water where the sand was soft and soon fell asleep.

The next morning, stiff and sore from the night and starved after more than a day without food, he stood on the beach where the forest came clear to the shore, watching the birds come over the water. He was appalled by his loneliness. Except for the visible birds and the invisible beasts, his world seemed empty of living things. But McJack shrugged his shoulders and gave thanks for his adze to the saints an ’all, and raked some clams from among the stones. He wandered down the beach and drank from a little stream.

There was wreckage, broken boards and timbers and pieces of sail, but, thanking the saints again, no bodies. “Best they should rest where they be,” McJack decided. “Mayhap they be better than me, at that.” He had no doubt that the woods were full of wild animals, and probably wild men. Probably they were watching him that minute. He decided it was fortunate the saints were on his side.

He found some canvas and enough lumber to make himself a hut between the reach of the tide and the line of the forest. And that night falling asleep with an empty stomach, he was grateful for his canvas-covered shelter, though he crouched and shivered. There were strange sounds in the dark. An owl. A fox yelped shrilly. And once when McJack had dozed a little because the owl and the fox and the night were still, there came a scream from the dark.

“Saints help me now!” pleaded John McJack. “It’s the devil let loose in the land, and all, to set me teeth a’ chatter with the fright. Or mayhap it were the banshee call: Saints send the mornin’ sun to shine and stop me shivers!”

Next morning, brave in the light of it, or desperate because of hunger, he ventured into the woods, frightened a cougar away from the carcass of a fawn, and broke his fast on raw venison, using the adze blade for a knife. The meat was young and not too tough, and the blood trickled down through the stubble on his chin.

“For a flint and steel I would pay, but I’ve naught with which to pay, so what I shall get I must take. I wonder why the land be so scarce with men? I had heard there were injuns in all of the coastlands. Mayhap some thing be wrong with this land. Mayhap that were a banshee call! McJack, be wise and wary! Ye must, whilst ye wander in the wood.”

But that day, and in spite of his own advice, he did a foolish thing: he chased a tiny bear cub and brought the mother charging at him from a thicket. By a miracle, or by the grace of the saints and all, the battle was short. McJack drove the pin of the adze through the animal’s skull. She reared and roared, spun round and round, the adze handle swaying. She pawed at the thing, and then her spine crumpled and she fell and slowly died while McJack, white-faced and shaking, stood and watched.

That was how he got his robe of stinking bear hide, and the cub for a pet. He christened it Saint Pat. It took until dusk to remove the great hide, and then he moved away from the carcass lest it draw other beasts in the night. He went back to the more open shore of the bay. At first the cub bit his fingers, but later it cuddled down in his arms.

“Sure,” said McJack, “ye be something to talk to, though ye be too young and too dumb to sense that I murdered your mother, and to hold it against me. But this night we can sleep more warm in her hide, do we sleep at all. “And,” he added, “Saints send yer daddy, if ye had one, some other place, else he should come searching. Saint Pat, me lad, quit yer squirming now, would ye know yer own dad did ye see him? Seems that I’ve heard ye would not at all. By all the laws of righteous men, I reckons yerself a bastard! Seems that a bear be like some men: he will get a wench with child and leave her to bear it. And fend for it too. Saints grant that I have not done that same; I cannot be sure!”

This set McJack to thinking of his sins. He made a little prayer for forgiveness, while he crouched in his sailcloth shack and heard the raindrops. Another April shower, and McJack slept a little under his stinking bear hide, cuddling Saint Pat lest he wander away. “Saint Pat, me lad,” he told the cub, “I needs ye to talk to, lest me head be addled with the loneliness. I do, at that!”

Next day he went back to the carcass of the bear; some beasts had been at it. There were cat tracks in the sand, McJack nodded. “Mayhap it will lure the beasts from me,” he reasoned. “I will search a bit further in the wood and stay away from here come night.” And he hadn’t gone more than a hundred yards inland when he came to a trail. It led down toward the point and up to the north. It was almost a yard wide, winding between the thickets and under the towering trees.

“It’s a great highway of a sort, I will wager a wagon,” said McJack to the cub. He grinned. “And do I win that wagon, we will climb aboard and ride.” He scratched his head, felt meditatively his chin where the whiskers were sprouting. “Sure, the path were made by the feet of men, though no tracks show. Mayhap it’s because of the rain in the night. Where it leads up yonder I cannot tell, but to the south it cannot go so far: it would be stopped by the sea. I will go down yon and learn, but slow, and takinh care. There may be injuns there. They may be good or bad. McJack, ye cannot wander long alone in the wood. Mayhap do ye find them, the Injuns will kill ye. Ye will take the path to the sea.”

He went warily, pausing at every turn of the trail. Watching for footprints of men. But he found none, even when the way dipped down into a spot of marshland that wet his feet. On to the south for nearly a mile, through thicketed tunnels and open places, then beneath towering cedars. The path went through and crossed a tiny stream, two cedar logs for a bridge. These were old, beginning to rot, but McJack walked over, adze in his right hand and Saint Pat in his left arm, the pack strapped across his shoulders.

“This land be accursed,” he muttered. “Almost I fears to go on, but go I must. This path leads to somewhere to be sure. I wonder what?”

There was a thicket of briars beyond the bridge and then the land sloped upward to pines and oaks and locust trees and to what had been a campsite. The stream under the bridge ran to a little pond; beyond stood the towering cedars, reflected in the water. Their tops swayed in the springtime breeze, but the water was still.

Not a soul was in sight, no wigwams nor tepees. McJack crossed himself and whispered a charm against pixies and elves and leprechauns… “or injuns, live ones or dead ones. More like it will be the dead, for the life has been burned from the very soil. Naught grows but trees where once the people lived. And there be dead cedars hung with the root ends up, about the camp. I wonder.”

McJack walked warily across the campsite. The only sound at the moment was the sea; he could faintly hear the breakers on the ocean shore. Down the stream course he could glimpse the bay, for the marsh ran clear to the waters there.

McJack shivered. ‘Saint Pat,” said he, “we have a deadened world to our lonesome selves. We have at that! Where be the people that were here before? Why be the place so still?” And he dared the stillness with a loud “Ahoy!”

“Ahoy!” replied the echo from among the cedars. “Ahoy,” it whispered from beyond the bridge, and McJack made the sign of the cross again. “There be naught in the place, and I be afeared of it,” he confessed. “Sure, it did sound like a voice from the dead. I will not shout again at all. I will keep closed the mouth of me, for I’ve learned before now that this same mouth can bring me into trouble. What means that heap of soil over yon? What means these cedars hanging by their tails to swing in the wind?”

These cedar tips had touched and swept the ground. The heap in the center showed the ends of charred sticks. Pieces of pottery had been washed out by the rains. The shaft of an arrow protruded. And where some beast had dug in the soil were feathers, as from a bonnet. These were scorched a little.

McJack drew a deep breath. He glanced around and put the bear cub down. With his adze he dragged the bonnet from the sand.

“Aye, it were once a crown of some heathen sort,” he surmised. “Did I dig in the dirt I might find the man as wore it, the which I shall not do at all. Saints ask the god to give these people peace — it seems the whole village has died, but, then, they could not cover in the sand. Two things be plain,” he reasoned, “either some were left or others came and did it. A dead man, do he be alone, lies where he falls. As will I, mayhap. Which is not a glad thought at all; I will not think it. I be still alive; me hunger tells me so. Wait, what have I found?! A footprint of a man! He wears some sort of soften shoe. McJack, ye should be wary, for mayhap ye be seen! Ye cannot tell.”

But although during the day he found more footprints he could not trail them nor find the man. “Mayhap he were but passing by, the same as myself,” he conjectured as toward evening he stood by the bay to watch the lonely sunset. He inquired Saint Pat’s opinion, but the bear only blinked, and McJack broke the shell of a clam for him, and the cub dined daintily.

“Ye would rather have milk,” surmised McJack, “but that I cannot give ye; I never was shaped to that at all. So we will go back to the edge of this town for the night, for it’s plain the injuns shun the spot and do not tarry there. Ghosts and goblins may be there, but we must risk them. They might fright the guts from a man, but a spirit be less deadly than a spear in the dark.”

So he pitched his tent on the edge of the camp among some saplings and he and his bear cub huddled inside. By that time the bear skin was rank indeed, but the stink was better than the cold, for during the night the frost came down. The new moon was growing; it glinted on the frost and showed clear the surface of the pond, where the cedars reflected their blackness. The bare branches of the trees made serpentine marks on the sand of the campsite, and the sound of the surf sang faintly. No beasts made a sound, although the ducks in the bay seemed to quack at the moon at times. Perhaps these had awakened McJack.

Cramped by his sleeping and with an ache in his knees, he pushed aside his robe and crawled out of his tent. There he was among the saplings; when he stood his head was above them. He could see the pond, and the cedars, and the shapes on the sand among the boles of the trees, there in the glint of the frost. But he saw only dimly, because frost was still falling. He stooped to rub his knees, then stood upright again. He drew a sort of gasping breath and again he whispered his charm word. And he called on his saints. He shivered, for a chill worse than frost had gone up his spine.

Off in the camp among the shades, there where the sand was heaped in its pile, a gray shape showed. It walked slowly; had it not been a ghost it would have seemed feeble. It came toward McJack and stood in the moonlight. It wore a gray cloak, and its beard was white. It raised a hand as if pointing to the moon and, as if obedient, the moon went back behind a cloud. Then the gray thing vanished in the gloom.

“Saints Mary and Michael!” he whispered. “What be the thing, and all?” But nobody answered, and McJack kept his watch until dawn. The ghost didn’t show again. It seemed to have vanished in the heap of sand where McJack was sure that the dead men lay. One, perhaps, had been restless; he had risen to walk the night.

“Can I but live to see the light,” declared McJack, “I will leave this place far behind.”

But in the morning, when he found fresh footprints where the thing had stood, his courage came back, with the warmth and light of the sun. So he tried to follow the tracks, but they led over pine needles and fallen leaves, and he lost them. After that he found some ducks’ eggs, and he choked a little as he sucked them. Saint Pat ate an egg and some grubs that he found. He followed slowly while his master walked around the campsite and into the woods. Then they headed for the dunes behind the meadow.

They rounded a thicket of beach plums. And beyond it, squatting in the sun, clad in a long and ragged coat with woods leaves clinging to it, was the man. His long hair was white and his beard hung down on his chest, his head bowed in sleep. He was so thin that the coat pouched out in great wrinkles, and his hands showed the lines of their bones.

“God help the man!” whispered McJack. “He were no ghost at all. Mayhap he were cast ashore the same as I. He sleeps by day and walks the wood by night. The man looks daft, small wonder. How shall I wake him, now?”

He pondered a moment, looking up and down the shore for caution’s sake. Then: “Ahoy, kind sir! Would ye wake and give yer greetings to a friend?”

The man slowly raised his head and opened his eyes; these were a faded blue and held a vacant stare.

McJack told him gently, “I be a friend; I means no harm at all. I gives ye greetings. And how come ye here?”

But the man didn’t answer. He slowly got to his feet, and in his eyes was a look of disbelief. He came forward and seemed to grope for McJack’s hand. He ran his fingers along his arm, he held his own head sideways to see McJack’s face, and said strange words that made no sense at all, except for his sobbing.

McJack’s eyes were misty; he stooped to put the bearcub down. St. Pat walked over to the edge of the thicket, as indifferent to what was going on as seemed the rest of the wild and empty world. The long beach where the waves rolled in, cresting and breaking from out in the sea. The endless thicketed forest there, the dunes and meadows up the shore. The sun which shone upon it all just as it had done for thousands of years.

McJack’s voice was croaky: “I be a friend, though it’s no wonder that ye weep for joy. Ye have not seen a living man for a long time, I’ll warrant me. Can ye speak to me now? Can ye tell me how ye come, and how ye fared?

But convulsively, the man threw both hands above his head and fell. His body shuddered and was still. McJack stood watching, then felt for a heartbeat as he knelt beside him. He crossed himself. “The man be dead! Seems he has died of the muchness of his joy: it were too great for the poor old heart to stand. Saints pray to god for his soul!”

Already McJack had been long enough alone to sense what the other had suffered, and a chilling fear ran through his mind. “It may be thus with me.”

He was as alone as the other had been, except for his bear cub. Saint Pat, still indifferent, lay down in the sun to snooze, and McJack was alone with the living mystery of the dead man there. A mystery without a sequel, it would seem, for had the man lived he could not have spoken to McJack. The latter sensed this from his speech. “Mayhap he were Dutch,” he surmised. “I cannot tell.”

McJack buried the man beside his hut, using the oar blade as a shovel. He thrust the scabbard into the ground, and the broken handle made a cross. He took for his own the deerskin roll and the flint and steel, and walked up the beach to further learn the lay of the land. There were the dunes and the meadows, and there must be a tidal stream too, he decided, because thousands of ducks rose into the air when an eagle flow over. Then McJack went back to the town site by the pond.

“In the morn I will tread that northern trail and see what I find. I will not sit and watch the sea for succor, and go daft with the watching as that other has done. Mayhap, being daft, he were the one who hung these cedars by their tails; I like not their looks at all.”

So, next morning, before he left, he cut the thongs and let the trees fall. They crackled and bounced heavily. “And that be that,” he concluded. “They made no sense hanging there at all.”

The Cape is available from Exit Zero Publishing, 609-770-8479. For the story behind the book, see Jen A. Miller’s May 14th and August 30th Philly Post items. Reprinted with permission.