Nantucket Essays

“To Him My Tale I Teach”

by Robert P. Barsanti

On a June evening full of weddings, we drove out to the Sconset Market for an ice cream. The fog remains ascendent in Siasconset, wrapping the homes, the hedge and the trees in winter’s packing. While town was lit with rehearsal dinners and bachelor parties, Sconset slumbered still.

The store was open still. The brooms were out and the counters cleaned, but the door remained unlocked. We weren’t out here for anything but a drive. The store was an endpoint, but not a goal. Perhaps some pecans. Perhaps an ice cream. We left home with nowhere to go and arrived here when we were stopped.

He was a touch taller than I am, a touch lighter, and touch older. He called out our names and held out his hand. And then he unwound a tale.

“In an unfinished basement in Tom Nevers, I was unwinding a roll of wire mesh for the cement. A narrow rod, six inches long pierced me below the temple and emerged just below my other ear, and I fell. When I woke up, I was alone in the dark. I tried to sit up, but felt a pain. I could not speak. I could not shout. I was not bleeding as far as I could tell, but something was wrong. When I felt my head, I sensed it. The pain overwhelmed me and I fell back. When I awoke again, I saw a man in a gray hood. He was unshaved, but I could see nothing else. He extended his finger to me and indicated for me to follow him.”

“I did not. Instead, I pulled the metal out of my skull and fell onto the floor again.”

“I do not know what happened after that. I am told that I was placed in a car, raced to the hospital, and then flown off-island. When I finally resurfaced, I was in a hospital room in Boston. I was in that room for three months. And in that time, I was visited by the figure in the hoodie twice.”

“When I was finally released from the hospital, I returned to my father’s house in Kansas. He cared for me and saw that I had the therapies I needed. He needed to unretire and return to active service, but he saw me through.

“After several years there, I progressed a great deal from my injury. I was healthier, stronger, I had put on weight, and I could even drive. And I saw the figure for the last time.

“I had pulled up to a red light in my father’s county squire. The figure stood on a corner opposite, turned his darkened hood my way and pointed at me. And I froze. I was no longer in a hospital, peering into the abyss. I was not on a cement floor with a blade of metal transfixed in my skull. I was in a car, at a red light, in Kansas.”

“I did not move. I looked both ways at the still traffic, I looked up for falling planes, I looked behind me at the honking cars. Then I inched forward. I knew I was going to die, right then. I inched forward until I had extended into the intersection. He watched as he floated two inches off the ground.”

“And, for some reason I don’t know, the idea came up in my head, and I spoke it. I said ‘thank you.’ The weight lifted, the panic left me, and I accelerated and drove home. I lay on my father’s sofa, soaked in sweat, and said the words a thousand times.”

He paused then, and he smiled at us. He apologized for preventing us from getting ice cream. The Sconset Market had closed, and our cars were the only ones left in the small lot. The fog remained as thick as ever. The light cast rays in it.

“I have heard him mentioned by six other people. Some have seen him skiing, some in the hospital, some on a boat with a fish on the line. They survived, obviously, as I have. I don’t know what he is. But I am grateful.”

We said our thanks and made our apologies. The night was late, we had people to see, and we appreciated his time. Then we came back to town by way of the Polpis Road. By the time we returned to the evening before all of the weddings, his story had retreated and I had remembered most of the first stanzas of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

It did not take long to corroborate the mundane parts of the story. The accident was well-known, as was his father, as was the tale. The moral, less so.

I have been in my own life-threatening situations, and they have been gray frictionless struggles in a fog. They came without signal or signaler and disappeared almost as fast. While I have yet to have a piece of wire transfix my temple, my situations could also have had permanent and cooling results. No such man has visited me.

And yet, those words frame the best prayer we can utter. In the wash of change on this island, when familiar faces leave and unfamiliar ones arrive, and the future of this small community out in the Atlantic has been cashed out, it’s worth saying a “thank you” to the man in the hood.

On a day like today, when the rain drips and the wind blows us all into sweaters and polar fleece, we can still sit on a bench on Main Street, drink a cup of coffee, watch the wedding guests head home, and marvel at the couples that are holding hands.

We live in a special place at a special time, for as long as the man in the gray hood lets us stay.

(Some details have been changed from the original story.)

Articles by Date from 2012