She stopped taking the medicines when it had become clear they were no longer of any use. They had crowded her dreams with demons and angels from some nocturnal Disneyland. Now that she was done with them, her dreams were her own.
She awoke in darkness, the deep call of a great horned owl thrumming in her ears. She lay tensed, listening, but did not hear the call again. Had it been an owl in the pine woods behind the house, or an owl in her dreams? Beside her, Margaret breathed deeply and evenly, in time with the sound of the waves on the beach beyond the field. The tide was high. Margaret stirred, then fell back to sleep.
She closed her eyes and saw an owl drop soundlessly from a pine branch and float across the field on soft-edged wings. An owl in a dream. Then, unmistakably, an answering call came in the distance, a wisp of sound that opened her eyes. The nearer owl called again: deep, demanding.
She got out of bed and dressed without a sound. Her fever had spiked and filled her with a strange energy, as though her body were as dry and weightless as the hollow husks of cicadas she’d find on the path in late summer. Leaving Margaret asleep in bed, she glided down the back steps and across the damp grass to the sand road. The nearer owl called again, a deliberate sound in the quiet night. There was no moon. From the way the stars in the clear sky dipped closer to the horizon ahead of her, she could see where the sand road parted the pines. She made her way toward it, looking up, following the stars, her feet feeling for soft sand. The second owl called from the pine grove by the beach, and she walked faster. Sweat broke out on her forehead, and in her excitement she imagined it was the summer heat and not fever. Her ears alert for the owls, she breathed in the scent of pine pitch and the rich, iodine smell of kelp drying on the beach. Though she had walked the sand road hundreds of times, it was all new. She was like a young child again, delighted to be out alone in the night.
This past month had not been what she’d expected. She’d thought that once all hope for a future was gone, she would be left with only the past, fingering it like a string of worry beads: sifting, clutching, examining. Instead she had found that all of it — the mistakes, the chance decisions, the moments of generosity and of meanness — led only to the bright now: this late hour, rich with stars and owls; sweet Margaret asleep in their bed, guardian of the night.
The sand road entered the pines, and she stood and listened but heard only the waves rushing onto the beach up ahead and her heart’s rapid, erratic beat, like a moth against a window screen. She thought of Margaret, her breath rising and falling, her hands curled around the satin edge of the summer blanket: Margaret deep in dreams, the one place where they could not follow each other, no matter how many years they’d shared.
She reached the end of the sand road, where it opened onto the beach, and she saw lights, heard voices. At this time of night? She was disappointed not to find the beach empty, but also excited. What was this commotion? Cones of pearly green light shone into the shallow water beyond where the waves were breaking. As she walked closer, snatches of words came clearly across the open beach: three young men talking over the sound of the surf. She tripped over something, a canvas bag, and sank to her knees in the sand, suddenly exhausted, the fever energy draining from her, leaving her filled with a dry, airy heat, like an empty oven. She sat and watched the three men wading in the bay, shining flashlights or busy with nets on short poles. She started to shiver, and she drew her knees up under her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs for warmth. Her bony shins felt hard and brittle.
One young man worked his way out of the water, legs pumping high, leaving a shining wake behind. He jogged across the sand to the canvas bag and was startled to see her sitting there in the dark.
“You scared me.” He wore hiking shorts and a jersey with the sleeves torn off. Drops of water glittered on his bare skin.
She asked him what they were doing.
“Bait fishing.” He held up a bucket. “We’re netting shiners.” He knelt next to her and tilted the bucket so she could see inside. It was full of tiny silver fish that swirled and flashed, like a bucket of moonlight.
Her eyes were growing accustomed to the dark, and she could see clearly the young man’s lean face, serious gaze, and friendly, boyish mouth. He rummaged in the canvas bag, brought out a thermos, and unscrewed the cap. The smell of strong coffee came to her, and suddenly it was all she wanted in this world: a cup of hot coffee. When she asked for some, he didn’t show surprise, only filled another sturdy paper cup and handed it to her, apologizing for the lack of cream and sugar.
She wrapped her cold fingers around the hot cup. “Are you a fisherman?”
“No,” he said and laughed. “I do this for fun.”
“What do you do when you’re not bait fishing?”
“I’m in law school.”
“And you like it?”
He shrugged. “I guess. My brothers are both lawyers.” He gestured toward the two men in the water.
“And that’s what you want to do? Be a lawyer?”
He dug at the sand with the handle of his net, considering his answer. He had a young person’s ease with large questions. She wondered if she would have asked this of someone with less time ahead of him.
“I’ve put in two years now,” he replied. “Might as well finish what I’ve started.”
“What would you like to be doing?” she asked.
“I really don’t know. Maybe this,” he said.
He tilted his cup back and drank the last of his coffee, then picked up the bucket of shiners. One of the brothers called to him, and he said he was coming. Then he waved goodbye to her, jogged to the edge of the water, and waded in to join the others.
She was chilled despite the coffee. The fever that had sparked such energy now made her shaky and too weak to stand. But she was out on the beach, enjoying the smells and the sounds. She sat there while night ended and the eastern sky above the bay began to lighten. The stars were fading. A lobster boat chugged across the bay, lights burning in its bow. The three brothers, done with bait fishing, came and retrieved their bag, then walked along the beach with their nets and buckets.
Down where the sand road met the beach, a beam of light was moving slowly across the sand, searching: Margaret. She must have awakened, found her gone, and come to look for her. She called Margaret’s name, and Margaret answered with relief, concern, and a touch of annoyance in her voice. And also with joy. She watched Margaret make her way over the sand, the beam of her flashlight ahead of her. The sun was a thin red line on the horizon. The owls called again to each other, distant and dreamlike in the early light.