What beach was this, he wasn’t certain. Rock and sand, a harbor town, and everywhere the sort of pottery he’d combed for as a boy in the 1940s. Let his brothers fill their pockets with sticks and shells, ordinary sea glass: he knew how to look for the curved ridge on the underside of a slice of saucer. Flip it over and find the blue flowers of Holland or China, a century ago or more. All his outgrown fixations had returned to him now that he was old. Once, on the beach outside their summer cottage down the Cape, he had discovered two entire clay pipes, eighteenth century, while his six older brothers sharked and sealed and barked in the water; beyond them he could see, almost, the ghosts of the colonists who had used the harbor as a dump, casting out their broken bowls and mugs so he could find them in his own era, put them in his own pockets. But this wasn’t the Cape, or even Massachusetts. His brothers were mostly dead. That is, they were all of them dead but in his head only mostly: they washed up alive every now and then, and Louis would have to ask himself, Is Phillip alive? Is Julius, Sidney?
Study the beach. Here, half-buried: a tiny terra-cotta cow with its head missing, otherwise intact, plaything for a child dead before the Industrial Revolution. The sea-worn bottom of a bottle that read Edinbu before the fracture. Lots of bits of plate, interesting glaze, violet and coppery brown. On an ordinary day in his bedroom at home he might hesitate to reach down for fear of falling over. Not here. He found the pottery and snatched it up. A teapot spout. A cocked handle from just where it met cup. A round crockery seal with a crown and the word FIREPROOF. He thought, That which is fireproof is also waterproof, but he wasn’t sure whether that was true. Good picking anyhow. Some boy was calling far off for his father, Dad! Dad! Louis looked up. He was that father. There was his boy. Boy: a full-grown man, shouldering a plaid bag, standing on the steps that led from the storefronts of the harbor town down to the little beach. On the street above, a man in a kilt passed by. A Lady from Hell. What they called the Black Watch. They were in Scotland. His son had brought him here, to this island.
“We’ll miss the boat,” his son said.
“Let’s not,” he answered, and put his treasure in his pockets.
He had wanted a kilt and Irene (née MacLean) had forbidden it: that was the story of their marriage. He was one of those Jews who could pass for a Scot, redheaded and black-humored. Why did he want a kilt so? He liked to sing:
Let the wind blow high, let the wind blow low.
Through the streets in my kilt I’ll go.
All the lassies shout, Hello!
Donald, where’s your troosers?
Of course it had never really been about the kilt. He was the youngest of seven brothers, none of whom ever married, except he, at the age of forty-seven. Before that, and for years, he and his brothers had run the family department store in Salford, Massachusetts. Back then, their parents dead, the brothers still went every year down the Cape for two weeks’ vacation, crammed into a cottage called Beach Rose, until Irene MacLean met Louis Levine in Wellfleet and took him away. He had deserted one family and wanted only to belong to the next. He’d thought he might wear a kilt to their wedding. “Oh, no,” said Irene. “No kilt.” “But your uncles—”“No kilts anywhere.” “Bagpipes?” “I hate them.” What could be sadder in a marriage than incompatible feelings about bagpipes? Ought they still marry? They eloped, and had a child, and never argued, except for the one thing. It became a running joke: the man wanted a kilt. “I have fine calves,” he said.
Now Irene MacLean Levine was two months dead of a heart attack, and their son, who’d been working as a translator in London, had flown Louis to one island in order to take a ferry to another island to take a boat to a third uninhabited island that promised puffins. David himself didn’t like birds, couldn’t tell them apart, didn’t want to: it struck him as feebleminded, to stare at the throats and tails of birds for a flush or flash, just so you could name them. Seagull, pigeon, chicken, hawk, that was all you needed. All other birds were sparrows to him. As a child he’d found his father’s ornithological obsession a moral failing: the man had never asked a single question about his son’s life, or the lives of any other living humans. Louis loved animals, ate them; the mass grave of the local natural history museum had made David a vegetarian at age thirteen. Study me, he’d wanted to say to his father: the narrow-footed David, the bearded Levine, the flat-arsed vegetarian. Write me down in your book.
He missed his gloomy mother. Together they called Louis “the Infernal Optimist.” He’d burn the house down looking for a bright side.
They boarded the boat in brilliant Tobermory. One of the men who worked for the tour company helped Louis down with a gentle hand. Poor old Dad, thought David. Then the man offered him the same courtly assistance, saying, “Here we go,” in the analgesic voice of a nurse. The boat was filled with the particular anxiety of paying customers who wanted the best seat.
“Here, Dad,” said David. He gestured to the bench along the gunwale.
David was not superstitious except in this way: he liked to feel lucky. No black cat or broken mirror bothered him, he never crossed fingers or made wishes, but every day was an augur for itself. He oscillated between his father’s cheer and his mother’s dolor: everything was perfect, unless it went to shit. The sun was shining in Scotland, clouds like storybook sheep above them though the local sheep were goatlike, angular, uncanny. It was a good day, which meant it would be a good day, which meant every day for a while might be good. He’d packed the plaid picnic tote provided by the house they’d rented: bottle of water, bottle of wine, truckle of cheese, bread, cookies, fruit. They would picnic among the puffins.
Over the PA came the voice of the captain, the voice of God.
“Beautiful day,” he said. “This is our one day of Scottish summer and you’re lucky to have it. Should be a nice trip to the Treshnish Isles, little more than an hour journey. First stop is Lunga, where we’ll have two hours, then to Staffa and Fingal’s Cave. If you have any questions, Robby will answer.”
Robby was the man who’d helped them into the boat. Now that he had a name, he became particular, a smiling man in oilskins, one starboard dimple, a boxer’s nose. David tried to decide whether to dislike him.
“Finkel’s Cave?” said Louis.
“Fingal’s,” said Robby.
“Finkel,” said Louis.
Robby shook his head, smiling uncertainly. “Fingal. Guh-guh-guh. Scottish giant. Same hexagonal rock formation as the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. Basalt pillars.”
David said to Louis, “Finkel’s Cave sounds like one of your competitors.”
Levine’s of Salford had closed the year before David’s birth; his father was already managing the benefits office of the hospital. The escalators, the layaway counter, sliding ladders in the storeroom, all gone, the Levine brothers dispersed, dead, buried in a line in the Jewish section of the Salford cemetery. Louis Levine, in the back of a boat headed to the uninhabited Treshnish Isles, was the last bit of equipment: a blinking man, a blinking sign, Levine’s, Levine’s, Levine’s.
All shipwrecks begin with a ship. David assessed the other passengers. Who would be saved and who lost? His father still went to the Y most mornings to swim laps, could save himself, but David was sturdy and without children and was certain that Robby would deputize him in case of catastrophe. He decided to rise to the occasion.
A group of tall Swedes carried their lunches in waist packs and would not sit down, a hale septuagenarian English couple wore matching sensible shoes that looked like baked potatoes. The largest bunch came from some Eastern European country. It was hard to pick out how they were all related, easy to find their darling, a beautiful ten-year-old girl with Down syndrome. She had dark brown hair and prodigiously thick eyelashes, slate blue eyes, salmon cheeks. A selkie, a very selkie: at any moment she might assume her seal form and dive into the water. She scanned the horizon with binoculars and then, laughing, trained them on the faces of her family. David looked at his father, whose brother Sidney had had Down syndrome, too—Sidney, like all the brothers, had worked at the store until he died.
But Louis: Louis had forgotten where he was again. This was his secret. These days, when he daydreamed (dreamy Louis, all the time), he lost himself. His brain went along its track and when coming round did not recognize the station. Still, a station: you could make sense of it, you could navigate any train station in the world, despite the language, the local customs. Train stations obeyed. Keep still till you know where you are, you’ll be all right. Outside the boat, the water flashed, bent, bulged, and fish—fish! He said it to his son, “Fish!”
“Dolphins!” said David. “Look!”
Blue sky and dolphins, the wind battering their ears, a laughing girl, a picnic at their feet: a triumph.
“Will there definitely be puffins?” a tall Swedish woman asked.
“Were yesterday,” said Robby.
“Is it guaranteed?”
“Puffins yesterday, most likely puffins today,” Robby said. “Sir!”
Louis was leaning over the side of the boat, kneeling on the bench and staring at the water. The Swedish woman grabbed him by the collar of his coat.
“Upla!” she said, gentling Louis back on his seat.
“Hey,” said Robby. “Look after your father.”
“Look after him,” said Robby.
“All right, folks,” said the voice of God. “We’re going to take a closer look at our friends on that rock.”
The line of rocks on the larger rock lifted their heads and revealed themselves to be seals. The laughing girl gasped, went silent, laughed again.
“Puffin!” Louis said suddenly; he thrust his finger at the sky, at a flying bird. “Puffin, puffin!”
“Puffin!” the girl agreed.
“Puffins can’t fly,” said David.
“Yes, they can,” said several voices in several accents.
“You’re thinking of penguins,” said Robby.
“Puffins fly,” said Robby firmly. Then he leaned in and said in David’s ear, so the children couldn’t hear, “Don’t confuse them with penguins. They fuckin’ hate that.”
The website for the tour had said that the path to the puffins was rocky. What that meant was bouldered. Each rock was the size of a human head or larger, and loose, and teetered when you stepped.
“Look for the flat ones!” called Robby, who would stay on the boat.
People stood on their rocks, trying to figure out which way might not kill them.
Disaster, thought David. He tried to steady the picnic bag on his back. It kept swinging to his front and knocking him off-balance. His mother might have been delighted by a fancy picnic; his father for years had every morning stuck a deviled ham sandwich in his back pocket, sat on it till lunchtime when it was warm and flat and ready to eat. He needed, he had always needed, so little. David started crawling over the rocks on all fours, the bag a ringing bell of stupidity. His father was seventy-seven. They had no business here. The tour company should have warned him.
“Are you all right?” the Englishwoman called.
David straightened to see his father standing like a statue on a rock, facing away, staring at a little inlet. Marooned. He’d gone the wrong direction.
“Do you need a hand, Dad?” David called.
No answer. His father could do this now and then, get lost in thought, but in an armchair. What happened if an old man broke his hip on the Treshnish Isles? Would he be airlifted to safety? Buried at sea? Run away, David told himself, then, of course not.
“Dad!” David called again, then, all around him, the voices of his fellow passengers like birdcall: “Sir!” “Sir!” “Hey!” “Buddy!” “My friend!” “Sir!”
Slowly his father pivoted. He gave a knuckle-fluttering wave with the back of his hand and made his way tightroperly across the rocks to rejoin them.
On the shore, they were faced with a muddy climb straight up a hill. David struggled with the bag. Ahead of him, Louis clambered up at an angle, as though against the wind, dipping his fingertips in the muck. Then they stood on a wide, green plateau. David turned and regarded the view: blue sky above, slate sea below, grass and—
“Oh, little brothers,” his father said, in a fond voice. “Look, Davey, look at them.”
White-breasted, orange-beaked, hopping along the ground, birds the size of books: puffins, dozens of them, so many you couldn’t count, or see them as individuals—they constituted mere puffinosity. People walked right up and took pictures. They were not seagulls nor pigeons, who begged for food or stole it: they were merely the locals, accustomed to the seasonal influx of gawkers. Patient, accessible, aloof. They could fly but chose not to. David pulled out his phone. When the bird in front of him appeared on the screen, he almost laughed.
“I didn’t think they’d be so close,” he said. “Why aren’t they afraid?”
“Because their predators are,” said Louis. This fact was like a shard of pottery: it lay there, he snatched it up. “The puffins know that if humans are near, their predators won’t be. They live in burrows. See them hopping, in and out?”
“They’re so sweet,” said David, wonderingly. He wanted to pick one up, dandle it on his knee. There was more island to scale—the voice of God had told them the views from the top of Lunga were astonishing—but why risk it when they were here and already astonished? He set down the bag. The puffins were endearing and ridiculous, with expressions that suggested they thought the same of you, coming all this way to gawk at puffins. He pulled out the cheese in its black wax armor and held it in his palm like Yorick’s skull.
“Is that your father?” said a passing Swede.
His father had walked to the edge of the plateau, to the sheer drop that overlooked the bouldered beach. He leaned over on one foot, windmill-limbed.
The day was lovely, till Dad fell off the cliff.
“Come back!” called David. His father had once been afraid of heights (one thing they had in common). Now he leaned farther out. David knew he should go retrieve him; he didn’t think he could. “Dad!”
Louis folded his limbs together and pointed behind David, to the island’s peak. “Let’s go up.”
“Well, I think—”
But his father was already heading toward the path, and David had to follow. He slipped the cheese back in the bag and left it behind.
The ground was mud-shifty. You had to use your whole body to go up. How was his father moving so quickly? David was not, he thought, acrophobic. He had Acrophobia by proxy. He felt everyone else was about to fall off the mountain: the old English couple, the Swedes, above all his father, who seemed to have been bitten by one of the cliff-walking sheep on the Isle of Mull. There he was, striding along the path to the—was it a mountain? A hill? Just all island? David cursed his worn-out running shoes. He could not match his father’s pace. He hoped that their shipmates—there were several different boatloads of tourists on the uninhabited island—would look after the old man. The path was narrow. The mud persisted. He tried to keep his father safe with the force of his mind.
When David got to the top, his father was absolutely fine, not even out of breath. He was peering into a little grotto.
“Nesting cormorants,” said Louis. “Look. Mother and chick.”
The cormorants were waist-high, terrifying, with enormous mechanical heads. They looked as if they could nip your hands off like shears. David backed away. Even as a teenager he had understood his father’s love of birds as a kind of religious belief: so deep a longing to see a winged creature it could not be satiated by a single sighting, you had to keep going, you knew you would never reach perfection, you strove for it even so, red-throated, yellow-tailed, lesser, greater. David was like any child of a zealot: he could not compete, he would not be comforted.
The voice of God was right: The view was astonishing. Boggling. Better than the view below? Yes. All right, David told himself. The walk was worth it. The day was saved. He felt some rigging in his soul relax. He could use a bit of water, but he’d left it behind.
“Beautiful!” said Louis, still looking at the cormorants.
“Let’s go down,” said David.
Years before, when they were young—not young people, but a young family—they had gone to Plimoth Plantation, where you could look at so-called pilgrims in their habitat, actors refusing to acknowledge the modern world while they went about their duties. This incensed Irene, as did nearly anything that involved grown-ups pretending: clowns at the circus, or dinner guests playing charades. She and David narrowed their eyes at the phonies. What a terrible way to earn your living! But Louis had loved it. The pilgrims’ calmness as they dipped their candles, ground their corn. They reminded him of the Levine brothers. There was always something to do, back in the long ago, and yet his brothers had started to die almost the moment Louis had left the house: he had turned out to be a load-bearing wall.
It was a pleasure to be among the puffins, who reminded him of the pilgrims, who reminded him of his brothers.
“Lunch among the little brothers,” said Louis, once they got back to their bag. He had not read about puffins in years, but everything was still there. “Their genus is Fratercula, which is Latin for ‘little brother.’ Because they look like monks, I guess, in robes. Myself, I think puffins are Jewish.”
“Because of the beaks.”
“Not only. They’re pelagic. Fish at sea.”
“Of course.” David opened the box of cheese biscuits, which turned out to be charcoal, black, like dog biscuits. The picnic tote even had a cheese board and knife, as well as plastic champagne flutes, cutlery, and plates for four, all of it unnecessary and now hilarious. He cut a wedge of cheddar. “The company of puffins,” he said.
Louis said, regarding one, “Irene’s trying to get rid of me.”
“She’d deny it.”
“Dad. She died.”
“I know that,” said Louis, irritated. “Nevertheless.”
Yes. She was dead. That didn’t change things. Irene had not trusted him to live alone. “We have to plan for the future,” she’d said. Who wanted to? Let the future itself do the planning. Louis thought of his brother Sidney, who sometimes bothered the customers by simply existing, his beaming smile, his joy over strangers. Why don’t you put him in a home, people asked, he could be with other people like him. What they meant was: I am different from him and do not wish to be near. Why don’t you put him away?
Because I want him near. Because he is with people like him, his family. Oh, Louis had never really wanted to leave his brothers, enter the world of ordinary people, live with a woman and all her, what were they, accoutrements. His brothers would have looked after him forever.
“The feeling persists,” said Louis.
“I’ve lost your name,” said Louis. He reached out to touch a wrist.
“Daddy!” said David.
“Oh,” said Louis. He realized he’d said the wrong thing. “Of course I haven’t. Don’t be daft,” he said, as though he’d become the Scotsman he’d wanted to be.
“Why did you say that?” said David, alarmed at the anger in his own voice. He recognized what was happening; in a way, he knew it was an occasion for sympathy, not anger, but the sympathy he had—inexhaustible!—was buried beneath a layer of fury, and he had to tunnel through, he had to scrabble to get at it. He had to go back in time, before his father had forgotten his name, when he was saying unforgivable things. “Dad,” he said again.
“I didn’t. David,” he said. There it was.
He knew what year it was and he could do nearly everything for himself, but thinking clearly while he was daydreaming was like standing while asleep, he could not manage it. The puffins hopped in and out of burrows as if stockrooms. His confusion hung between them; they both understood they wouldn’t speak of it. Not for years, and even then, it would be gentle. Dad, you’ve forgotten. Yes, I suppose I have.
“You got up here!” said a woman. “Good for you.”
They turned to look. It was the mother of the Eastern European family. Her English was confusingly perfect. “I wore the wrong shoes,” she said, lifting her foot to display a white sneaker half-browned with mud. “I didn’t understand.”
“No,” said David.
“Still it’s lovely. Puffin therapy,” said the woman. “They call it so.”
“I can understand that,” said Louis. He turned to look at the puffins. “They’re peaceful. They give you a sense of peace. Don’t you think, David?”
Well, yes, David looked at them and he felt better and he resented them. The birds indeed had the curvilinear heads of his father’s family, rounded foreheads, hooked beaks, secretiveness, industry. He could believe that they thought things, which he had never believed about birds. (Some people love animals for how alien they are—that was Louis—others, for how like—that was David.) Already he had convinced himself that momentarily forgetting his name was something his father might have done any day of his life.
Little brothers. Fraterculini. His mishpachah. No brothers but puffins, no uncles but puffins, no cousins. He wanted to call his mother.
“It lifts your heart,” his father said to the woman, who answered, “All nature does, no?”
“No,” said David. He didn’t want it to be all nature. He wanted it to be something you had to travel for, a fairy-tale journey: a boat, another boat, a treacherous approach, a terrible revelation, a comic revelation on a cliff.
“Perhaps,” said Louis.
“Cormorants,” said David. “They’re not uplifting.”
“They are!” said the woman. “When they fly—
“I’m not interested in birds when they fly,” said David. Then, to change the subject: “Where are you visiting from?”
“Tomorrow we fly ourselves to Helsinki.”
“That’s home?” Louis asked.
“Ah,” David said, “you’re Finnish.”
“Finnish,” said Louis. “Like a fish.”
“Just so,” said the woman. “Ah, here are my people.”
Here they came. They seemed to have multiplied during their time on the island, still led by the girl, still laughing. She saw Louis, and waved, then her mother, to whom she ran. She said something in Finnish, a language David did not understand.
He repacked the bag, the glasses, the cheese with one wedge cut out. He drank as much of the bottle of water as he could, to make the bag lighter. For a flashing moment he thought, Maybe I’ll just walk off the cliff, then, Maybe Dad will, he didn’t want either of these things, it was all disaster or triumph for him, as usual. Why is life so easy for some people, he wondered, as he had many times in his life, though this time he wanted an actual answer. He thought it might be something you could study for.
The whole boat understood now: the old American man was their ward till the end of the day. He’d almost gone overboard. He’d wanted to step off a cliff. The scramble across the rocks was no easier on the way back except that the picnic bag was emptier and it seemed more likely they’d survive. The Finnish woman took one of Louis’s hands and one of her teenage boys the other, and the girl with her binoculars led them to the boat. Robby stepped from the deck and pointed at good rocks to land on, as though coaching a game of chess. “There’s a flat one, and there’s another, and another.”
David knew his mother had not wanted to get rid of his father. Life did. His father had never been able to tell the difference between the two.
“We’re lucky with the weather!” the Englishwoman with the potato shoes said to Louis as they resettled in the boat.
“Are you?” said Louis. “Good for you.”
The woman gave a wry smile, then said to David, “Did you get to the top?”
“No. Fear of heights.”
“Vertigo,” said the woman’s husband. They both had white hair that showed the pink of their scalps beneath. He pointed to himself. “Just found out. Hell of way to do it.”
“You’re all right,” said the Englishwoman.
“I bloody am not,” he said.
Staffa was an enormous lump of rock with a green top, vertically ribbed around the middle like a midcentury juice glass: spectacular, hard to make sense of. The boat came round and showed the maw of Fingal’s Cave, dark and glittering, accessible only by a narrow ledge with rope bannister. If you stepped wrong, you would end up on the rocks below. It looked like the first stop in the Afterworld, the place you’d come to in order to get sorted.
“Oh, no,” said David.
“No,” agreed the septuagenarian Englishman. “You know, a bloke died here a few years back.”
“Well . . .” Robby shook his head. Again he leaned in close to David, and it was impossible to tell whether he meant to menace or joke man-to-man. “Just the one. German. Backed off a cliff snapping his camera.”
“Shall we go together, love?” the Englishwoman said to Louis; then to David, “I’ll take him,” as though this were what happened all the time: the terrified, the stumble-footed stayed behind, and a swap was made. The brave must go with the brave. The chickenshit sat with the chickenshit. For a moment David felt a wave of relief—when his father dropped from a height, as he’d been trying to do all day, it wouldn’t be David’s fault. I didn’t even see it happen, he imagined saying.
“You’ll be my husband,” said the Englishwoman to Louis, taking his hand.
“No, no,” said David. “I’ll come.”
“Well done,” said Robby, in a voice of doom.
You walked the ledge on a sheer cliff, till you inched round a corner and there it was, Fingal’s Cave, a cathedral half-built by fairy folk. The ledge sloped up. Rock face to your right, a drop down to more rocks on your left. The walls were built of basalt columns like polygonal organ pipes, gorgeous and threatening, and the cave echoed. Some people balked going in, acrophobes and claustrophobes, so they turned back to the hard beach, also composed of the hexagonal rock but sawed off, the kind of geometry you’d see under a microscope, startling life-size and out in the open.
The cave was an enormous space with water sloshing in; the ledge itself was narrow for one-way traffic, never mind the necessary two: people sidled in and saw what they wanted, then returned and had to negotiate the oncomers, who froze against the wall with discomfort, or skirted the edge and tried not to look down. Why would you do it? It was nearly slapstick, people fitting their bodies together (bottom to pelvis, bosom to Adam’s apple), reeling their arms in the air. Gravity is hilarious, until it kills you. Another thing his father had brought him to, full of excitement, that he had hated: silent movies at the revival house. Plimoth Plantation. The Museum of Natural History. The old battleship in the harbor. The graveyard to do rubbings. The trolley museum. His mother’s wake.
“This is awful,” David said aloud.
The Englishwoman reached behind with her free hand and took his.
Echoey commotion ahead. You couldn’t come out unchanged. They should turn back. It was he. He was the weak one. The Finns were deep in. The mother with her muddy shoes looked less brave here, perhaps why she hadn’t gone up, and the darling daughter was making little ah ah ah noises of care, and so she could listen to her voice resonate. David thought he might faint. He tried to get his hand loose. If he were to faint, if he were to tip over, he would pull the Englishwoman with him, and then his father, who might have joined up to who-knows-who in front. A daisy chain of tourists in free fall, not just one careless German. Lunch for Fingal.
The story of this trip was supposed to have been the past: Irene was dead. He had thought the future was a ways away. She would have hated to outlive me, Louis had told him. The sad thing was, she’d been looking forward to it. She loved his father, she’d miss him: at least the house would be quiet.
All of a sudden, without planning to, David was sitting down.
“Op!” said somebody in back of him.
He crossed his legs and leaned against the wall. Below him the water sloshed. Where did the tide go, when it went out? He’d always imagined it balling up in the middle of the ocean, but what if it were a blanket tugged between sleepers, first one side of the bed, then the other.
“Vertigo,” he heard a woman pronounce in an English accent.
On either side people were trying to coax him to his feet. It was too narrow a foothold for kindness. Someone tried to go behind him, another stepped over his legs.
“Get up,” the Englishwoman said.
No. He would have to be pulled from the cave like a tooth. The only solution for fear was stubbornness. His mother had taught him that. She had raised him to believe in the Power of Obstinance, and now, on an uninhabited island in a cathedral built by nobody, he clung to his faith. He was the only child of an old man. That had meant one thing when he was a boy, and new things now.
Then his father was there, leaning over, hands on thighs.
“Well,” said Louis. “What have we here?”
“I should get up,” admitted David.
Louis looked around them. His eyes settled on a girl—he recognized her as one of Sidney’s countrywomen, her face round and flat and, at the moment, impressed at this peculiar behavior. Then Louis sat, too.
“This is not progress!” yelled one of the Swedes.
“Come on, friend,” said Louis. “Let’s stand up.”
“I’m not your friend,” said David.
Louis nodded. No, his beautiful, pessimistic son—pessimism is a form of cowardice, of course, but Louis knew better than to say so to his beloved pessimists. “Nevertheless.”
“I don’t know how.”
“The usual way, I think,” said Louis. Then, helped by a dozen hands, as in a child’s séance, they were lifted up, and the cave was filled with applause, genuine, sarcastic, dutiful.
Nobody mentioned anything on the boat home.
“Subdued!” said Robby, appraising them as they boarded, one by one, then, to David, “You caught the Scottish sun. Rare but deadly. Should have worn a hat.”
Back in Tobermory they passed a poster for the Highland Games, held that day at the golf course. Already the cabers were being packed up. That’s what we should have done, thought David. By next month he might not even remember the puffins. But around the world a story would be told, in Helsinki, in Devon, in Malmö: A man panicked. We saved him. Without us he would have died.
In front of the bank a teenage boy played violin for money; when David concentrated he recognized it as “Good Vibrations,” heart-lifting and strange. He put his hands in his pockets and found one fifty-pence piece, polygonal like the rocks of Staffa. He tossed it into the open case.
“Got any pound coins?” he asked his father, and Louis dug in his pockets, produced two handfuls of broken things.
That morning they’d been to the little history museum. Had his father stolen something? Blue, coppery brown, violet: the pottery looked old, older than his father, older even than Levine’s of Salford. Exhibition old. It was beautiful, timeworn, a jumble. These things had been broken a long time. David could not make sense of any of it.
“Where’d you get this?” He picked up the headless figure of a cow.
“There.” Louis pointed at the beach. Low tide now, better picking.
“What are you talking about?”
His father regarded him with those pale eyes, gone mother-of-pearl with age. Louis pointed again. “There.”
The two men went down the concrete steps, greened from the tides.
“Careful,” said David.
“Careful,” said Louis.
He leaned over, displayed a bit of teapot, black and white, what looked like a castle turret. He gestured to the ground and David picked up a rhomboid shard of plate painted with radiating lashes of blue. A yellow sliver of cup with violet flowers. A spout.
“Where did it come from?” said David.
“It washes up,” said Louis. “The past. They used the harbor as a dump. Same as when I was a kid. There’s a box of it, in the attic. That will come to you, too.”
It would all come to David. They both knew it and hated it, and yet: saucer, lip, hand-painted flower. The tide went out, revealing things. The ocean would not swallow them today.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” said David.
“I don’t know,” said Louis, but he remembered how little they ever agreed on.
They picked and picked but they could not pick it all. Mere men could never undo the work of mere men. From the hill, the sound of pipers: the games had ended, the pipers were squallingly headed home. The violinist quit; it wasn’t a fair fight. David straightened, looked at the pieces in his palm, turned them all bright side up. A glory, so vivid and so unmendable. His now. The pipers blared louder. When he looked out toward the water he thought he could see, almost, the old people, the auld ones, casting their pottery into the sea just so he, David, David Levine, could find it generations later.
As for Louis, he had turned the other way to watch the pipers come round the corner and onto Tobermorey’s main street. Dozens marching in cadence. So young, the pipers, high school kids, boys and girls—it was a girl in front, spinning the red bass drumsticks. You could hear your own name in the music of the pipes, the names of all your ancestors and descendants, wherever they came from, wherever they were going. What could be sadder than not loving this sound? Everything swung in time. He was alone on a beach as usual, gladdened, slaked, exhausted. The muscles of his legs twitched.
Oh, Irene: it was always about the kilt.