My father was a minister when I was a child, but the church was constantly having to relocate him. We moved for the last time when I was nine. We were sent from Baltimore to a large island in coastal South Carolina. My father considered this a personal affront, because he hated the South, but I preferred the South because it had produced my mother. I also thought palmetto trees were exotic.
My mother explained that the people at our old church had not been smart enough to understand my father’s complex theology. My brother and I were lying on her bed in our new home while my father was at work.
“Really?” my brother said. “No call from God this time?”
At sixteen, Mason was suffering from a loss of faith that made him sarcastic. Before, he’d been my primary source of religious instruction, as our father rarely spoke of God outside of church and our mother rarely spoke at all. Mason read the Bible to me when I was in second grade, and I liked lying on his floor, throwing his balled-up socks at the ceiling fan, thinking about life inside of a whale: was it scary and dark, pressed in among cold organs, each at work and unaware of you? Or was there a space there, cozy and warm, where a traveler might find refuge? Mason had preferred the darker mysteries, the book of Job and the trial of Abraham and Isaac. But now he was listening to the Grateful Dead and spending hours doing homework, and I was suffering from a lack of stories.
Our mother frowned at Mason’s tone. She pulled a dress from her closet. She added that, for now, she would be staying elsewhere during the week. She would join us for church on Sundays.
Within weeks of our move, I could see my father beginning to unravel. He had a barking laugh that frightened me. I watched him stand in the church doorway on Sundays, shaking men’s hands and slipping his arm around their wives, his green eyes filled with peculiar light. He was not an angry man, more of an empty one, and when he smiled we knew something terrible was going to happen.
I was in love with our new home, which sat at the edge of a wide, lonely marsh. I imagined secrets curled in the snails clinging to the cordgrass, and codes being passed by the oysters clicking under the water when the tide was high. Cheerful neighborhood dogs emerged from the woods at dusk and crossed our property as part of their nightly patrol. They walked along the marsh, smelling the gloamy sadness and the evening, passing through our yard like noble shadows of some happier life.