Elizabeth Gaffney is a native Brooklynite. She graduated with honors from Vassar College and holds an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her first novel, Metropolis, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, was published by Random House in 2005. Her second novel, When the World Was Young, was published by Random House in 2014. Gaffney has been a resident artist at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the Blue Mountain Center. She also teaches fiction and serves as the editor at large of the literary magazine A Public Space. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their daughters. elizabethgaffney.net
This is an EXCERPT from Elizabeth Gaffney's story, Bodies by the Sea, which can be read in full in Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City's Forgotten Waterfront.
September 15, 1907
Blue and bright white, a sparkling day. I am out of gray yarn.
Sometimes she daydreamed of bodies washing ashore as she sat in her chair by the window.
The boat had sunk three years ago, long before she ever came to North Brother. That was the first time Mary'd heard of the island. A thousand women and children drowned or burned when the steamer Slocum went down.
She glanced over to see if the dog, Tyrone, could see them, smell them, but no. He slept on, twitching and groaning.
She stared out the windows at the view: riverscape, cityscape, skyscape vaster than the city itself permitted. Not quite the coast of Ireland, what with the oil tanks just across the water, in the Bronx, but still the air was good and damp enough to let the skin breathe. And here she sat, leading a life of indolence, when her mother'd never rested an hour straight.
It was a dream, a life of ease—if only she had chosen it freely. It was a foreign prison, which might have tolerable if only Freddie were there with her. They might have enjoyed the solitude together. If only Carrie Bowen weren't out there skipping along the shore like it was the coast of Maine, counting the bodies the way she used to count anything—lobster boats, seagulls, lady's slippers—practicing her numbers. Four hundred and eighty, four hundred and eighty-one, four hundred and eighty-two. Mary tried to calculate how many minutes it would have taken the child to count to a thousand.
She wondered how she was going to survive without any company other than ghosts. Reading, knitting, housekeeping—for what? As for cooking, she could hardly bring herself to do it, just for herself. Only such a very few of all the people she'd cooked for in her time had ever taken ill. People did take sick, just on their own, after all. It was the doctors' own fault if they couldn't help poor Carrie, but Mary was the one who'd been made to seem the devil. And now here she was, forbidden even to break bread with anyone.