She’d risen before dawn and driven out to Great Point, stopping near the Wauwinet hotel (which was closed in winter) to deflate the ancient green van’s tires. The gatehouse to the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge was deserted; and her spirits rose in the hope that she would find herself completely alone.
She drove over the sand at a snail’s pace for nearly forty minutes, sipping black coffee from an insulated bottle, windows cracked to welcome the crash of the Atlantic waves. At 6:49 a.m. by her watch, the sun rose out of the sea like a burning goddess, and it almost seemed possible that she was the only person on earth alive to witness it.
Great Point is Nantucket’s outflung upper arm, a narrow pen- insula of sand that trails northward for miles. At its tip, the calmer seas of the Sound run headlong into the open water of the Atlantic Ocean, creating dangerous shoals and rip tides and cross currents. Bluefish and bonito, false albacore and striped bass lurk in the rills where the two waters meet, and the fish draw birds
Which, in turn, drew the green van filled with photographer’s equipment, lurching along a beach still wet and compacted from yesterday’s rain.
She parked not far from the lonely white tower of Great Point’s lighthouse and carried her tripod to the lee of its empty keeper’s quarters. It was odd, she thought, that the presence of the buildings did nothing to humanize the spot. If anything, their desertion intensified the solitude. She was surrounded on three sides by ocean and buffeted by wind. Later in the day, gray seals would haul out of the Atlantic to sun them- selves. In this first hour of daylight, little stirred except the fitful branches of beach plum and bayberry. But the air was filled with wings.
She sighted sanderlings, running back and forth in the wash, as she set up her equipment, and a few dunlins as well—common to the Arctic Circle in summer months but hugging a different latitude now that it was December. Gulls of all kinds stalked the waterline, crying harshly. She did not waste her film on them. She waited, her coffee thermos drained and the cold beginning to seep into her toes, for the northern gannets.
She had come out this morning hoping for the heavy white predators of winter seas, with their bright blue eyes and black flight feathers. Gannets had dagger-sharp bills and dove straight from the air into the waves with a terrific splash, stabbing their prey at depths of up to seventy feet. Remarkably, they used their six-foot wingspan to swim underwater. Gannets were the Olympians of the Atlantic, and the ways they manipulated wind and sea fascinated her.
She had brought two camera bodies, both Nikon F2 35mm, that she’d bought as a baby in the 1980s. They were loaded with two different speeds and types of film—the first, with Fujichrome Provia 100f slide film that offered the speed and saturated color she sought for both birds and landscape; the second, with Ilford HP5, a 400 speed ISO black and white film that was brilliant for capturing movement without blur. She also had four different lenses with her, interchangeable on both bodies: the standard 50mm, useful for close-up and still shots; a 24mm wide-angle lens she rarely needed but packed as part of her kit; a 105mm and a 180mm for zeroing in on objects far away.
She had attached an MD-4 motor drive to one camera body to advance her film swiftly as she pointed and shot, and she had brought along a handheld light meter to supplement the one in the camera viewfinder. It was light that influenced how widely she set the f-stops on her various lenses; the viewfinder’s, which operated with a 3V lithium battery, showed only light reflected from the subject, not the depth of her field. For that, she needed the handheld one.
Yes, her work verged on art; but it began with science.
She tested the light now as she moved around the sand, focusing out on the roiling waters of Great Point Rip. It was stronger at twenty past seven, with the persistent heaviness of early December. Moving to the tripod, she attached a cam- era body and 105 mm lens for closer focus and snapped a roll’s worth of snow buntings, quietly enjoying the plump little birds’ alert briskness in the higher dunes. Then she reached for her second camera and attached the 180mm lens, scanning the horizon. Set her f-stop to 5.6, the aperture quite open to capture swift birds in flight. The gannets were out there; she had only to wait.
They appeared at 8:37, a great cloud winging in from the east with the sunlight gilding their feathers. The air was filled with high-pitched cries as they circled a hundred yards above Great Point Rip, a, searching the seas all around her for schools of fish. She pivoted to follow the birds’ flight with her camera’s eye, resetting her f-stops and snapping the powerful wing thrusts, until the first gannet glimpsed prey and, folding its wings back along its body, torpedoed into the water.
It was like watching a fighter jet plummet in a death spiral. The gannets’ speed was suicidally fast. They knifed into the waves at sixty miles an hour, as though punching through concrete. The fish they devoured underwater, at point of impact, then bobbed up to the surface to cry out their satisfaction. She knew enough about them to realize that one or two might not survive the morning’s feeding—the slightest miscalculation of angle as head hit sea, and the bird’s neck would snap.
The cacophony was immense. When she paused to reload her film her hands were shaking with the excitement and pleasure she witnessed. She forgot the cold entirely. Her heart raced and she could not stop smiling.
She had no idea how long they remained, only that after a time the wild calls faded again into the distance, the gleaming white and black bodies were pinpoints on the horizon, and once again, she was alone with the rearing stone tower and its emptiness. Exhausted.
Chapter 8, pg. 51-54
From Death on a Winter Stroll © 2022, Francine Mathews, published by Soho Crime