Beautiful young women stretch their bodies along the cliffs to catch the sun. Their wet bathing costumes, the thimblefuls of water in their navels, begin to dry as the sun rises and warms the air. Seagulls eye their wiggling toes.
“What a day for a swim,” someone says, though they swim every day. Each morning as the sun crests the mountains, they dive into the waves. “Swimming is good for beautiful girls,” Mother Ives likes to say. “Seawater purifies the skin.” Their arms and thighs ache from the cold.
Out they swim in a staggered line, long pale arms stroking the water, bathing caps bobbing like so many buoys, until they reach the island. The strongest swimmers tap the rock with their fingertips, then somersault and kick back to shore. The lazy, the less endurant, lift themselves up onto the island’s shoulders and lounge like mermaids on thatches of sea grass. Fish nibble algae from the rocks when the tide is high.
The swim back, urged on by the waves, is easier. The quick girls collect shells until the rest return, then up they all go, bare feet slipping on the sandstone path, to lie and catch their breath and let the sun skim the water from their skin.
Beautiful young women fling their bodies into the waves each morning as the sun crests the mountains. “Seawater makes your hair lustrous,” Mother Ives often says. Bathing caps bob like so many buoys—girls duck under the waves and pop up in the foamy aftermath.
On the bare, flat top of the island, Marie finds a tiger clam’s shell, pink and opalescent in the morning sun. She considers its journey from somewhere deep in the stomach of the ocean, the monstrous current that dredged it up and deposited it here. She swims back with the shell tucked in the bust of her bathing suit. At the top of the cliff, she claims a spot next to Tess.
“Found you something,” Marie says. She places the shell on Tess’s chest and watches her pry open an eye to examine it.
“A keeper,” Tess says.
Marie glances at the line of bodies that shimmer with specks of sand.
“Where’s Penny?” she asks.
Tess sits up to look. She prods her neighbor. “Have you seen Penny?”
Like dominoes in reverse, one by one the girls sit up and look around. One of them is missing.
Girls change quickly in their dormitories, donning white pinafores and their sturdiest shoes. Their footsteps thunder on the staircase.
From a distance, the long white house on the cliff, with its many turrets and balconies and circular windows, looks like a great steamship casting off to sea. Navy blue bathing costumes hang from windows like flags. A wind picks up and sends them fluttering. The heath-grass and mustard weed that fur the hillsides weave and bend.
Search parties march up and down the shore until the sun begins to set. Then the girls retire their binoculars to their cases. They return to the big house and remove their pinafores, put on their nightgowns, and kneel before their beds to say a short prayer for Penny—they whisper her name a final time—for tomorrow her brush, books, slate, and chair will be gone.