My name is Crow.
When I was a baby, someone tucked me into an old boat and pushed me out to sea.
I washed up on a tiny island, like a seed riding the tide.
It was Osh who found me and took me in. Who taught me how to put down roots, and thrive on both sun and rain, and understand what it is to bloom.
The island where we found each other was small but strong, anchored by a great pile of black rock that sheltered our -cottage—a ramshackle place built from bits of lost ships—nestled on a bed of earth and sea muck, alongside a small garden and the skiff that took us wherever our feet could not.
We didn’t need anything else. Not in the beginning.
At low tide, we could cross easily to the next island, Cuttyhunk, through shallows strewn with bootlace weed and minnows.
At high tide, the cottage sat so close to the risen sea that it felt nearly like a boat itself.
For a long time, I was happiest when the water rose and set us apart, on our own, so just the two of us decided everything there was to decide.
And then, one night when I was twelve, I saw a fire burning on Penikese, the island where no one ever went, and I decided on my own that it was time to find out where I’d come from and why I’d been sent away.
But I didn’t understand what I was risking until I nearly lost it.
I’ll never know for sure when I was born. Not exactly.
On the morning Osh found me, I was just hours old, but he had no calendar and didn’t much care what day it was. So we always marked my birth on whatever midsummer day felt right.
The same was true of my other milestones: moments that had nothing to do with calendars.
Like the day Mouse showed up at our door, whisker thin, and decided the cottage was hers, too. Much as I had.
Or the first time Osh let me take the tiller of our skiff while he sat in the bow and let the sun coddle his face for a while, his back against the mast, the fine spray veiling him in rainbows. Or the ebb tide when a white-sided dolphin stranded on our shore, Osh gone somewhere, and I came back from Cuttyhunk to find her rocking and heaving, her cries babylike and afraid. I used my bare hands to scoop away the wet sand that stuck her fast. And I grabbed her crescent flukes and tugged, inch by inch, until the water lifted her enough so we both slipped back suddenly into the sea.
She looked me in the eye as she passed, as if to memorize what I was at that moment. As if to say that I should remember this, too, no matter what happened later.
None of which had anything to do with calendars.
Still, I know I’d lived on that tiny island for eight years before I began to be more than just curious about my name. The dream that woke me, wondering anew about my name, was full of stars and whales blowing and the lyrics of the sea. When I opened my eyes, I lay for a minute, watching Osh as he stood at the stove, cooking porridge in a scabby pot.
I sat up and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. “Why is my name Crow?” I asked.
When Osh stirred the porridge, the spoon made a sound like a boat being dragged across the beach. “I’ve told you,” he said. “You were hoarse with crying when you washed up here. You cawed over and over. So I called you Crow.”
That answer had always been enough before. But it didn’t explain everything. And everything was what I had begun to want.
“In English?” I asked.
Osh sometimes spoke in a language I didn’t know, his voice like music, especially when he prayed, but also when he painted his pictures of the islands and the sea. When I first asked Osh about it, he said that it was one of the few things he’d kept from life before the island. Before me.
Even though he did not speak it often, that other tongue flavored his English so he sounded different from everyone else. Miss Maggie called it his accent. But I thought maybe it was everyone else who had an accent.
“No, not English at first,” he said. “But people here speak English. So: Crow.”
I stood and stretched the night out of my bones. My arms, in the thin morning light, looked almost nothing like wings.
But when I stepped onto a stool in front of our mirror—just big enough for a face—I could see the resemblance in the curve of my nose. The birthmark on my cheek that looked like a little feather. My hair, darker than anyone else’s. My dark eyes. My skin, like Osh’s after six months in the sun.
I looked down at my skinny legs, my bony feet.
Plenty of other reasons to be called Crow besides the way I had once cried.
Osh, himself, had three names. Daniel: what Miss Maggie called him. The Painter: what the summer people called him. Osh: what I had called him since the time I could make words out loud.
His real name was complicated. Difficult for a small child to say. “Osh” was all I’d been able to manage. And Osh was what I’d called him ever since.
“I wish I knew what my real name was,” I said.
For a long moment, Osh was still. “What do you mean by real ?” he said.
“My real name. The one my parents gave me.”
Osh was again silent for a while. Then he said, “You were brand-new when you arrived here. I don’t know that you ever had a different name.” He scooped some porridge into a bowl. “And if you did, I don’t know how we’ll ever learn what it was.”
I fetched two spoons. “What it is, you mean.”
When Osh shrugged, the hair that lay on his shoulders rolled up like night waves. “Was. Is. Will be.” He filled a second bowl. “It doesn’t much matter, since you’re here now. And you have a name.”
The sound of the porridge thwupping into the crockery, the tock of the wooden spoon against the edge of the bowl, made me wonder who had named those things. And everything else in the world. Including me.
I could feel my curiosity strengthening, as if it were part of my bones, keeping pace with them as I grew.
But more than that—more than simple curiosity—I had a nagging need to know what I didn’t know.
I wanted to know why there were pearls tucked inside some of the Cuttyhunk oysters but not others. I wanted to know how the moon could drag the ocean in and out from such a distance, when it couldn’t stir the milk in Miss Maggie’s tea. But I needed to know, among other things, why so many of the Cuttyhunk Islanders stayed away from me, as if they were afraid, when I was smaller than any of them.
I wondered whether it had anything to do with where I’d come from, but that didn’t make any sense. What did where have to do with what? Or who?
Something, yes. But not everything.
And I needed to know all three.
Osh didn’t. When I asked questions about pearls or tides, he did his best to answer them. But when I looked beyond our life on the islands, he became the moon itself, bent on tugging me back, as if I were made of sea instead of blood.
“I came a long, long way to be here,” he once said when I asked him about his life before the one we shared. “As far as I could get from a place where people—where my own brothers—jumped headlong into such terrible fighting that no one could see a thing through that bedlam. And for what? Over what?” He shook his head. “Over nothing worth the fight. So I refused to be one of them. And here I am. And here I’ll stay.”
While I waited for Osh to bring our porridge to the table, I tried to think of another name that suited me well, but I came up with nothing better than Crow, which I already had.
And it pleased me that I was named for a bird that was smarter than most. Smarter, even, than some people. So different from the gulls and fish hawks that wheeled and dipped over the islands that I felt a certain kinship with the big, black birds that drifted over from the mainland like lost kites, tipping to and fro in the wind before settling noisily in Miss Maggie’s hornbeam tree. They didn’t seem to belong on the islands. And sometimes I felt like I didn’t, either. But we were islanders, nonetheless, no matter what anyone else might think.
Osh called me other animal names from time to time. Cub. Kit. Mule when I was stubborn. Wren when I was good.
Now and then, he called me a mooncusser, too, because I liked to scour the shore at night for whatever the tide had brought in, but I did not lure the ships that wrecked off Cuttyhunk, and I was no thief afraid of being moonlit as I searched for lost treasure. I had never cussed the moon.
But for the most part, we didn’t rely on names. If we were apart, we were far apart, beyond calling. If we were together, we talked the way people talk when there’s no one else. Names didn’t matter much.
Osh had built our cottage from whatever he could wrestle off the nearest shipwrecks that were slowly settling into the seabed, breaking up in storms, and otherwise disappearing, bit by bit.
The rest of the house was flotsam that had come to him, floating in on the tide, as I had, sometimes into our own little cove, sometimes on Cuttyhunk, where no one else wanted it.
He’d built the frame from long beams, the roof and walls from decking, the chimney from a vent pipe off a lost steamer, one window from a porthole. Our door was a piece of keel. Our hearth, a hatch lid. Our table a crow’s nest turned upside down.
Osh had salvaged, too, many things that had no purpose but to be dear to us. The finest of these, two figureheads—solemn women with long, flowing hair—stared at us from either side of our fireplace, never blinking. And a pair of sun-white whale ribs arched over our doorway, a tarnished ship’s bell hanging from their pinnacle.
And I’d found my share of baubles while searching the wrack line. Bits of sea glass among the mermaids’ purses and limpet shells. A brass money clip with an elephant pressed into its face, all of it a crusty green. A banjo clock that would never again keep time but had a tiny cupboard where I kept the other trinkets I’d found. Another thing I had in common with crows: our habit of prizing the poorest of riches.
When I asked him what he’d done with the skiff that had brought me ashore, Osh told me he’d busted it up for firewood and burned it to keep me warm that first winter. For a long time, before I knew better, I wondered why that—of all the wood he’d salvaged—had ended up in the fire rather than our home.
With the money he made from lobstering and cutting ice out of Wash Pond and selling his paintings to the summer people, Osh had bought nails, a hammer, and whatever else he lacked. He dug clay from the sound side of Cuttyhunk, sailed it around to our cove, and mixed it with wood ash and salt to make the chinking that sealed the cottage against draft and hard rain. And he did everything else he could to make it strong and snug.
When I was old enough, I helped him keep it that way.
But even as we worked together on this home we’d made, I could not stop thinking about who had made me. Who had looked at me, soft and fresh as a blossom, and decided to give me to the tide. And why.
I carried those questions around with me like a sack that got heavier as the years went by, even though I had become accustomed to the idea of it. Even though I was not unhappy with the life I had.
I just wanted to know. To understand. To put that sack down.
Some things I knew through and through.
Osh had told me many times—so often that it had become like a bedtime story—how he’d found me in an old skiff that had beached itself on the wrack line overnight. Had he not found me when he had, the incoming tide would have taken me back out again, to somewhere else. But he had wanted fish for his breakfast and had gone out to cast for a striper or two.
The skiff was barely seaworthy, but it had survived the trip to the island, even through the wild currents that wrecked much bigger boats.
What Osh expected to see when he came up to the little skiff I don’t know, but it could not have been a new baby, lashed to the bench with strips of dirty linen, inches above the water that had seeped into the hull.
Osh told me how I stopped cawing and lay silent as a mouse when a hawk-shadow comes—I blinking up at him and he down at me—that morning when we first met.
He lived alone in a place that was difficult even for a grown man, but he took me in first before deciding what else to do with me. And I stayed.
He often told me how hard it was in those first days after I arrived. How he had traded lobsters for milk at the Cuttyhunk grocery, poured it in a little flask, and fashioned a nipple from a clam neck made to squirt seawater. I sucked salty milk from it, as if from the sea itself. He swaddled me in wind-softened sailcloth, washed me in a smooth sink in the rocks where rainwater collected. Tucked me up alongside him at night so we slept as one.
By the time Miss Maggie and the others found out about me, Osh had decided that I was his until someone else could prove otherwise.
Miss Maggie had tried for a while. Not, she said, to take me away. Only, she said, to make sure no one was searching for me. Perhaps, she said, my mother hadn’t been the one to send me to sea. Perhaps, she said, my mother was pacing the shores across Buzzards Bay, her breasts swollen with milk.
So Miss Maggie bullied the postmaster until he sent word on his telegraph machine to ports from Narragansett to Chilmark, asking if anyone was looking for a newborn like me.
And she wrote letters, too, and sent them to places too small for a telegraph machine.
From some, she got no answer: Onset; Mattapoisett; even Penikese, though it was the closest.
And none of those who did respond knew of a missing baby.
But it didn’t really matter.
By the time the replies made their way into Miss Maggie’s hands, I’d already become Osh’s. And he had become mine.
It was a mystery why the skiff had washed up on our little island and not on Cuttyhunk where most treasure and flotsam came to rest. But I was glad that it had.
I couldn’t imagine that any of the other islanders would have fostered me had I drifted up on their piece of land. I thought it far more likely that they would have sent me off to the mainland, to some place without so much sea and sky. And that would have been a shame. Osh and I were surrounded by a wild world. And I preferred it that way.
Still, there were a few people on Cuttyhunk I liked well enough. And they seemed to like me in their odd way. But they never touched me. Never came close. Seemed content to know me from a distance. Which had been true from the very start—all I’d ever known from them—so I didn’t question it much until I was older and began to pull on the loose threads in my life.
When I did that and everything began to unravel, a seam opened up and let in some light, which helped me see my life more clearly, but it also made me want to close my eyes, sometimes, instead.