Post Road Magazine #27

The Wild Pandas of Chincoteague

Gregory J. Wolos

We've waited for the drawbridge to lower, driven through the deserted stretch of tourist-town Chincoteague, and passed over a second bridge leading to the refuge where the wild ponies herd. Six-month-old Greta fidgets behind me in her car seat. My daughter won't remember this visit, but, even if we don't see any ponies, someday I'll present her with a memory she can treasure. When that day comes, I'll be counting on my little brother Austin, seated now next to his niece, not to contradict me.

"She hungry?" I ask, glancing in the rearview. We've been making our way south down the coastal highways for two days, following the same route I took with my parents when I was Austin's age, eleven. Austin splits his seat time—in back with Greta when she needs nourishment or entertainment, up front with me whenever she naps. When there's a diaper issue, we pull over. If this tour of Chincoteague goes quickly, we'll be at our rental in Nag's Head on North Carolina's Outer Banks by early evening, four hours from now.

I watch Austin waggle Greta's bottle over her car seat. His delicate features are set patiently, as if he's trying to tempt a big fish. All I can see of my daughter is a lock of dark hair and a red, white and blue ribbon. In the back of the SUV we've got a cooler packed with bottles and bags of frozen breast milk—more than enough, my absent wife and I have calculated, for this week long vacation.

"She's not taking it," Austin says.

I'm the elder brother by nearly twenty years. Austin and I have two things in common: the same Mom and dead fathers. His passed away after a protracted bout with cancer two years ago; a massive coronary got mine a year later. During Robert's hospitalization, my dad lent my mother a hand with Austin, even though the child was no kin to him. When Robert finally passed, Dad moved into the guestroom of the dead man's house without anyone thinking twice about it. Mom went back to work. My brother called my dad "Uncle Jim."

"Well, let her be, I guess," I tell Austin. We've entered the Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge, and we're bumping along a narrow road surrounded by leafless oaks, skinny pines, and scrubby brush. Our map shows that the road ends at a beach. Signs mark walking paths and parking lots, but we won't be leaving the car: it's February, and the East Coast all the way to Georgia has been locked in a record setting cold snap.

No ponies. We get to the beach in about two minutes, and all we see is empty space: sand and sea and sky.

"They must be somewhere," I mutter. "God-damned Misty." Misty is the wild Chincoteague pony from the book I read when I was a kid. I forget why a wild pony had a name. Maybe Austin knows. He inherited all my books. When I open them now, there's a faint odor of mildew.

"They must walk along this road," Austin says about the missing ponies. "Look at all the poop."

He's right. You'd think they'd hire somebody to clean up. "So," I say, "at least we've got evidence of ponies. I bet that's more than most people see."

My parents divorced a dozen years ago, just after I started college. Mom waited until I was "independent" to announce to my father that she'd been in love with her co-worker for years. Mom told Dad she still loved his familiarity, but that she and Robert were "soul mates." Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of my freshman year there was a divorce and remarriage, and a new house across town where I began spending half my vacation time. Mom, ten years younger than Dad, presented her new husband with Austin, his first child, before the Halloween pumpkins had ripened the following fall. At twenty, I became a brother.

Greta, fed and diapered, is asleep in her car seat, and Austin has joined me up front. My wife, not my brother, was supposed to be on this trip. But Briggie, an emergency veterinarian with special expertise in panda bear births, got a call from the San Diego Zoo the day before we were to leave: Lu-Lu had borne a pair of twins, and, as is typical for panda moms, she'd picked one to nurse and had rejected the other. I suggested we cancel the Outer Banks vacation, but Briggie protested.

"You go. If I can fix this quickly, I'll fly to you when I'm done. Take Austin. Your mother said she's worried about him being home alone during his break. There's plenty of milk—you'll just have to be careful to keep it frozen." It's because of Briggie's "panda emergencies" that we keep a multi-week supply of her milk in the freezer. Whenever my wife's not nursing Greta, she's got a pump clasped to her breast.

Right now, Austin, who didn't need a second invitation to take this trip, is reading from the AAA guidebook, even though it makes him carsick. He'll read a sentence and look out the window, and then dip back to the book.

"It says here that the legend of how the ponies got to Chincoteague might not be true," he says. "It's not likely that they swam ashore from a wrecked Spanish galleon. It says the local farmers probably used the island as a natural corral."

"Humbug," I say. "Of course there was a Spanish galleon. Farmers don't need ponies. They'd want horses or mules."

"If the farmers don't need ponies, why would the Spanish? What good are ponies?"

"Listen," I say—Greta has started to whimper, and I see a Kwiki-Mart ahead I can pull into so I can see to her needs—"never sacrifice a good story for a more logical explanation."

Austin goes into the Kwiki-Mart to pee and get us drinks, and I change my daughter's diaper in the back seat. I've left the car running for the heat. While I clean her up, Greta blinks up like she's trying to place me. "It's me, your Daddy-O," I say. The milky, diaper-y smells and my daughter's Lake Geneva blue eyes remind me of her Swiss momma, and I wonder how Briggie's getting on in San Diego with the pandas.

When he returns, Austin waits outside the car for me to finish. He shrinks into his hoody against the wind and leans on the door, a drink in each hand. He's fair-haired and slight, like his father. I'm big, like my dad. We don't look like brothers, or like father and son, which I'm sure most people mistake us for. I plop Greta back in her seat when I'm done. I've got to use the men's room myself now, and, as I exit, I pretend I'm going to crush the balled up Huggies diaper in Austin's face. He squeaks and limbos under it, then settles in beside his niece. "Entertain her," I call through the window after shutting the door.

On my way back to the SUV, I see my brother's bowed head, and I know he's feeding Greta. A passerby would probably think he's on his iPhone playing games like any kid, but I see him as third in a kind of dotted family line of male caregivers that runs through my dad and me. The partners at my law firm may think I'm on an extended bereavement-paternity leave, but I know I'm never going back. Briggie's well paid for her panda expertise, and how could I be expected to concentrate on tax codes and torts when I've got a baby to raise?

Austin's still reading aloud to us in the back seat from the AAA guide, though it's late afternoon and there's not much light. Whenever he pauses, Greta coos and gurgles.

"'Legend has it'," my brother reads, "'that Nag's Head takes its name from a practice of Outer Banks land pirates, or "Bankers." At night the Bankers lined up ponies with lanterns fastened to their heads along the shore. Ship captains mistook the bobbing lights for safely moored vessels. They sailed too close to the dangerous shoals and wrecked their ships. The "Bankers" plundered those wrecks, ransoming or murdering the survivors. There are houses still standing in Nag's Head today built from timbers of those shipwrecks. Often new houses are built with a plank or two of "Bankers wood" for good luck.'"

"It wasn't such good luck for the people whose ships sank," I say.

"Another pony story," Austin sighs. "What's a pony say, Greta? A pony says, 'Neigh.'"

My daughter screeches something whinny-ish.

"Good girl!" my little brother laughs. "I think she really gets it. You really get it, don't you Greta?" I glance into the mirror and watch him pluck thoughtfully at Greta's ribbon. "But this story's probably just a legend, like Chincoteague, right?"

"I don't know—murder, plunder. It's got the ring of truth."

"Maybe we'll find 'Bankers' wood' in our beach house."

"Why not? Every house has secrets," I say, in a tone somewhere between wise and mysterious.

My cell phone buzzes just as Ms. Smith, our realtor, welcomes us at the front door of our beach house. I've got Greta under my arm as I take the call—it's Briggie, from San Diego. Austin follows behind me, carrying the cooler of frozen breast milk. Ms. Smith looks past him, probably expecting the baby's mother.

"We just got here," I say to my wife. "It looks very nice."

"The first floor's got an open plan—kitchen, dining, big den with a view of the ocean—it's too dark to see the water now," Ms. Smith says, shifting her attention between me and Austin. My brother is already in the kitchen, where he's packing away plastic bags and bottles in the freezer. Ms. Smith is plump and round-faced. Her shadowed eyes remind me of the moon's seas. There's a black ribbon pinned to her overcoat.

"Fridge is empty, except for that liter bottle of cola and what you're loading in," she says. "Turn right on Route 158 for the supermarket. It's at Mile Marker Five. Store closes at nine. They're predicting sleet tonight, can you believe it? This is a bad weather record. Usually the ocean temperature keeps us above freezing." Her eyes flicker pink at Greta. "Cute little girl. Don't see many babies on vacation without their mommies."

I've settled a sociable smile on Ms. Smith, but my attention is on Briggie. "It's freezing here," I tell my wife. "Record lows. And they say sleet for tonight. We're stocking the freezer with your milk. You're expressing there?"

"Mm. But I've got leak-spots on my blouse anyway," my wife says. "I might be able to get someone to bring it to a clinic—for premature babies."

"What about the panda baby?"

"Give my milk to the panda baby?"

"No, I just meant—"

"But that's the thing—my milk's no better than the formula they're force-feeding it. The problem is Lu-Lu. She gets aggressive when we bring her the second baby. We're afraid she'll hurt the one she's feeding. She almost bit Dr. Ralston a little while ago."

I jiggle Greta near the phone. "I'm putting you on speaker so Greta can hear you. We think Mommy should nurse the panda baby, don't we, Greta?" Ms. Smith looks perplexed. "Are you doing the lullabies?" I ask my wife.

That's Briggie's trick—she's Swiss, a dual citizen now, and half by accident she discovered that the yodel-lullabies she learned as a child stimulate a panda mom's sluggish nurturing instinct. There's a video of my wife at work that's gone viral: she warbles away to a bored-looking panda that's lying on a heap of straw. After a few minutes, the panda begins to moo and rock, then scoops up something from the straw that looks like a chicken giblet, clasps it to her breast, and turns away from the camera.

"Mommy's going to sing, baby," I say to my daughter, who smacks her lips and lolls her head toward the phone when she hears her mother's voice.

"Hello, baby," Briggie purrs. She yodels soft, Germanic syllables that fill the kitchen.

"My wife sings to pandas," I explain to Ms. Smith over the melody. "It helps the species survive. They seem to want to be extinct, to tell you the truth. We're the ones keeping them going."

When Briggie hears me, she stops yodeling. "We don't know they want to die," she says, "I think they're just depressed. Did you like the singing, Greta? Momma misses you!" Greta thinks Ms. Smith is the one talking and grabs at her. The realtor steps back, her lips puckering.

"I saw those panda bears on their ice floes on TV," she says. She notices that I'm looking at the black ribbon on her collar, and her eyes flare a warning for me to ignore it. "They say it's the global warming that's killing them. Doesn't feel like global warming outside now." She hugs herself. "I expected you to cancel. The rest of the houses on this street are empty."

Austin's at her side. "You saw polar bears," he corrects. "And climate change explains weather extremes like we're having. But, can you please tell me where the Banker's wood is in this house?"

"The what?"

"The Bankers' wood—from the shipwrecks the land pirates made houses from. You know—they put a piece in every house for good luck. It's in the guidebook." Austin's gaze wanders from the kitchen cabinets to the den's paneled walls. There's a huge picture window that looks as solid as a slab of black marble. All of us are reflected in it.

"Jesse?" Briggie's voice touches me like a blind person's hand. "I have to go now. Austin's okay?"

"I'm fine," my little brother calls. "We're looking for the Banker's wood!"

"Good boy," Briggie says. "Keep looking, and you'll find it, whatever it is. Bye, Jesse, bye, baby. I love you. I'll call soon, maybe in the morning."

"Save the panda!" I sign off, as if I'm quoting a political slogan. Ms. Smith watches Austin squint along the den's ceiling beams. Greta's fixated on the key dangling from the woman's hand. "That mine?" I ask, and snatch it when Ms. Smith looks at me. "Thanks," I say. "If there's a problem, I'll use the same number, right?"

"I wouldn't put much stock in those old Banker stories," Ms. Smith murmurs. "The same number? Yes, use that."

It's a huge beach house, and we're only using the first floor. I've set up Greta's porta-crib at the foot of my bed, but my baby's with me, pressed up against my side like she would be at home. Except at home she'd be "between," and here, without Briggie, there's no such thing. There's a film of sweat where my skin touches hers—I'd turned the thermostat up high to drive the chill out of the house, and now it's too warm. Greta's smacking her lips in her sleep. She's going to be hungry soon. I lift her onto my chest, surprised as always by her slumbering weight and the size of my hands around her. My baby's wet mouth nears my nipple. I imagine her taking it, and shiver. I shift her so that her head rests in the hollow of my chest. Far away, I'm thinking, there's a tiny panda baby whose mother has left it on a straw-strewn concrete floor—a chill I hope Greta doesn't feel brushes my heart.

My mother didn't nurse me. Nobody did back then, Mom says, and it would have been difficult when she returned to her job. And she said she was too old to nurse when Austin was born. "The milk will be curdled," she said "Or powdered, like instant coffee." I watched Robert hold his infant son in the crook of his arm and feed him his bottle of formula, their faces equally placid. Though for a decade I ate half of my holiday meals with my mother's second husband, I hardly knew him. He was polite, but quiet. Did he worry that I resented him for stealing my mother or that I saw him as some kind of hedonist because of the "passion" he'd inspired in her?

When my dad died I lost my biggest fan, my unconditional nurturer, my favorite storyteller, my family historian. Dad had loaned himself to my little brother in the guise of "Uncle Jim." But what had Austin lost with his own father's passing? When I look at the boy's face, I strain to see the edges of buried stories working their way to the surface.

Greta squirms—it's feeding time. I pull on my robe, hoist her onto my hip, and pad into the kitchen. Before long, she's seated on my lap at the table, gulping at a bottle of Briggie's milk as we both doze, eyes winced shut against the stark fluorescent lighting. It's nearly four AM, according to the sunburst clock above the refrigerator.

I yawn, aware of a constant, muffled sizzling. It's not the ocean, which I still haven't seen, though I'd lain for hours listening to the surf pound the beach.

"Hear the sleet?"

Austin's voice startles me, but my baby doesn't miss a suck. She makes little growling sounds. My brother's head rises like a pale balloon above the back of the sofa separating the kitchen area from the den. "The lady said there was going to be a storm, remember?" my brother says. "And there's no Bankers' wood in this house. It's too new. I've been all over it—upstairs, in the basement, in the closets. Nothing." The glare of the flashlight he waves blinds me, and he snaps it off.

Still feeding Greta, I lift myself from the kitchen chair with tired thighs and join Austin on the sofa. He's right about the sleet. And beneath its hiss I hear the rumble of the surf. The window we're staring at captures a photo-negative of everything behind us—cabinets, the refrigerator, a clock with its hands reversed.

"Probably they built it into the frame," I say. "Your wood is in the roof joists or in the frames of the walls."

"Nope." He shakes his head vigorously. "It doesn't make sense to hide your luck. Besides, I found it. It's not inside." He hops up, steps to the big window, and presses his forehead to the glass. He shields his eyes from the kitchen light with his hands. "There's a shed back here in the yard," he says. "It looks like it's a million years old. I bet the whole thing is made of Bankers' wood. Come look."

"I'll take your word for it, l'il bro." My baby's snug on my lap, and my legs are leaden from hours of driving. If it's four AM here, I'm thinking, than it's only one in San Diego, and maybe Briggie's still up."I'll look tomorrow when I can really see it. But a little out-building for good luck makes sense. Like a shrine or something."

"Like a hermitage."

I cock my head. "A hermitage? What do you know about hermitages?"

"Uncle Jim told me. He said a long time ago in England when rich guys started to like poetry about poor farmers and shepherds and hermits, some of them built tiny little houses in their gardens, then hired old guys to live in them. Like a personal hermit."

Greta's wriggling. I palm her diaper, and it's full. "My dad told you this?"

"Uncle Jim, yeah. 'What a great job!' he said. But the hermits usually didn't work out. They'd get bored and wander off."

There's a hum—the lights dim, and I feel as if I'm falling. I hug Greta against my chest. Austin grunts like he's been punched. Then it's dark.

"We lost power," I tell Briggie. It's nine AM in Nag's Head, six in San Diego, and my wife's been at the zoo all night. "I tried to get Ms. Smith on the phone," I say, "but there's just an 'out of service' message. I called you because my battery's low, and I don't want you to worry if I can't recharge. What about you—what's going on with the twin?"

"We're at a crisis point. Lu-Lu moved into a corner with the cub she picked. She won't face us." Briggie's hoarse. I'm sure she's been yodeling lullabies all night. "And the little one that she's rejected is giving up. It stopped taking formula. We even tried my milk, just a little from a dropper. But no luck." Briggie clears her throat. "Jesse—what about the milk? Will it stay frozen without power?"

"Oh—" The question catches me by surprise. I look at our daughter, swathed in blankets, napping in the porta-crib I've moved into the den. Austin stands beside her, looking out at a bruise-purple ocean. We haven't seen a sunrise—it's overcast and still sleeting. Snowflakes mix in with the pellets. Ice crusts the short back lawn and the beach that runs to the sea.

"The milk was still frozen, last time I looked. I'm sure we'll have power back soon. But it is getting cold in here. I've got Greta all wrapped up, and soon I'll have to make a fire in the fireplace."

"Good. But don't let the milk go bad. This might take a few more days. Or it could be over in a few minutes. Either way. I don't know when I'll be able to get there."

"We can put the milk in the shed," Austin says. He's been listening to my end of the conversation. "It's freezing out—it's supposed to stay this cold for days, remember?"

I step to the window. The shed is no more than forty feet from the house. It's about six feet square, with a flat, tarpaper roof, built low to keep from blocking the ocean view—I doubt I could stand up straight in it. Its gray walls are made of weather-beaten planks—Austin's "Bankers' wood." Next to the shed is a stack of split firewood.

"Austin's got a good idea," I tell Briggie. "There's an old shed out back where we can store the milk. It's supposed to stay cold here through the weekend. I'd leave it on the front stoop, but animals might get it."

"Tell her the shed is made of Bankers' wood," Austin says. "It's supposed to be good luck."

"What's he saying about luck?" Briggie asks.

"Just that we're lucky to have the shed right here." I haven't got enough battery left for an explanation. "We have to get to the grocery store for supplies. We'll see if everybody's lost power, or if it's only us. So love and kisses, honey. Save that panda!"

It's stopped sleeting. The plan was to start the SUV to melt off the ice encasing its windows while the kids waited inside, but the engine won't turn over. There's just a click when I turn the key. I check the dashboard for some button I might have forgotten to push, and I see that the headlights were left burning overnight. When we arrived I must have hurried us into the beach house without shutting them off. But Ms. Smith should have noticed the lights when she was leaving, and wouldn't she have let me know?

I lift the hood and appraise the guts of my SUV without much hope. The icy wind at my back carries the boom of the surf. I wiggle a few wires. There's not much I can do except call AAA. I'll have to stand out in the cold with the attendant while he gives me a jump. I'm in awe of men who work outside in conditions like this—AAA mechanics; sailors; scavenging land pirates.

Back inside, I discover that I needn't worry about shivering in the wind while the AAA guy works on the SUV—my cell phone's given out, and I won't be calling anyone. I slump on the den sofa next to my brother, Greta on my lap. We're all still bundled up for the trip to the supermarket we can't make.

"I'm sure Ms. Smith will show up soon. She must know we need help," I say without the confidence I'd hoped to show. Had our realtor honestly not noticed the SUV's lights, or had her silence been a choice?

"It's cold," Austin says, standing. "We need to make a fire. I'll bring in some of the wood that's next to the shed."

Greta's hungry again. We'll need that fire to heat up her milk—and we need to take care of the milk supply.

"I'll get the wood," I say. "While I'm at it, I'll carry the milk out to the shed for cold storage. This is like the good old days."

My shoes crunch prints into the layer of sleet as I carry the cooler of milk-baggies and bottles out to the shed. I'm hatless, and the wind slices at my ears. The surf thunders away. There's an ax leaning on the wood pile, and the sight of it makes me feel like an outdoorsman. The plywood shed door, probably not from a shipwreck, heaves open at my first tug. I look back over my shoulder and spot Austin in the beach house window. He's got Greta propped up on the sill, and he lifts her arm to wave at me. I give the children a thumb's up and stoop into the shed with the cooler.

The interior's dark. I take one step and gasp—I'm not alone. Tucked right inside the door is a man seated on a lawn chair. I fumble the cooler, but don't drop it.

"Hello?" I say. My frosty breaths waft over the silent figure. "Excuse me—" gets no response either. The man's not dressed for the weather: he's wearing a dark suit, black dress shoes, and a white shirt and tie. Maybe he'd sought shelter from the cold in our shed. Why hadn't he tried the house?

"Hold it—" I place the cooler on the dirt floor next to a coiled garden hose and hunch over the man. His white hair is combed back neatly. His exposed skin is the color of pewter, and he seems deep in thought—his head is bowed and his laced fingers rest in his lap. "Sir?" I poke the man's shoulder. He's stiff—frozen or rigor mortised, he's obviously dead. I glance out the shed door to make sure the children at the window can't see the frozen man. For now, I'll have to leave him as I've found him. I'll worry about what to do when I'm back inside.

I step out of the shed and yank an armload of wood from the pile. I'm numb to the wind now, and it's my pulse roaring in my ears, not the surf. I trudge back to the house. If the kids weren't looking, I'd peek again into the shed to assure myself that the man is really there.

It's late afternoon, and I've got a fire going. My daughter and little brother snuggle together on the sofa looking at one of Greta's animal-sound board books. The firelight's not strong enough to read by, so we've lit some of the candles we found in a kitchen cupboard. Austin's flipped through the books a dozen times, but Greta still burbles and rocks each time he howls or moos or oinks along with the pictures. I've pulled a wicker chair close to the fire "to tend to it properly," I tell Austin, but really because I can't warm up. My thoughts are stuck on the frozen man in the shed. What should I be doing? Should I have patted him down for an ID? But maybe the authorities would accuse me of tampering with important evidence. I wish Briggie were here—she's the expert on life and death. I think of the baby panda she's trying to save and close my eyes—if I concentrate, maybe I can feel its life force. Come on, baby, I cheer silently, but my thoughts drop like stones. "You'd think surviving would be instinctive," I said to my wife once. "For your pandas, it seems to be 'extinctive.'" "Maybe we just don't understand," my wife said. "Maybe they're just evolving into something else."

My brother and I fill up on peanut butter, bread, and cola. Greta's appetite has been voracious. Austin has learned how to warm her milk bottles in a pan of water pushed close to the fire. Because my hands are so cold, I'm reluctant to hold my daughter—what if she burst into tears at my touch? Austin's taught her a peek-a-boo game: he makes his fingers into eyeglasses, and she giggles in a perceptive way that I wish I could capture on my phone's camera for Briggie. But if the phone worked, I'd have already called 911 about the frozen man. What about Ms. Smith—she's in charge of this property. In my mind's eye, her black ribbon is laced around her throat like a cravat.

It's been dark for an hour. I'll have to fetch more firewood soon, and Greta needs more milk. Austin's eager to see some "genuine Bankers' wood from a shipwreck" up close, but I won't let him go outside. I tell him it would upset Greta if he left her, so he sits beside her on the sofa with his arm around her. What I'd like to do on my next trip to the shed is bring a blanket to cover the dead man, but I don't know how I'd explain that to Austin. Right now he's telling my daughter a story, and she sits as still as a Buddha, her eyes glittering in the light cast by the fire and candles.

"So the ship full of pandas was on its way to America—hundreds of wild panda daddies, panda mommies, and panda babies," my brother narrates. "They were almost here when they got caught in a storm, and, oh no! The ship sank. But no worries—pandas are excellent swimmers, and, weren't they lucky? There was an island right near where their ship went down. So they swam and they swam and they swam—" Austin makes swimming motions with his arms, then lifts Greta onto his lap, facing him. He takes her hands and paddles them, and she puffs her cheeks with delight. "—and swam and swam. And all of them made it, all the panda moms, dads, and kids! They pulled themselves up onto Chincoteague Island, where we were yesterday. And the wild pandas have lived there happily ever since."

"The wild pandas of Chincoteague?" I ask.

"That's right," Austin says, still paddling the baby's arms. "Why not? We saw as many pandas as we did ponies." He stops the game and squints at me over Greta's head, which she swivels like an owl to see what her uncle is looking at. "I hope that panda baby is okay," he says. "I hope Briggie's lullabies work."

"Me, too," I say.

Suddenly, Greta's face crumples. She starts to wail in tremendous sobs. Austin frowns and rubs her shoulders, but she twists away. He looks at me helplessly, but I'm still reluctant to subject the child to my icy hands. How will I change a dirty diaper?

"She misses her mother," I say. "She recognized Briggie's name when you said it." I get up and shrug into my coat. "And she's hungry again. Hold her for just a minute more, okay? I'll be right back."

Milk and wood, I repeat like a mantra on my way to the shed. I glimpse whitecaps on the black surf and think of Austin's pandas struggling like soggy teddy bears to reach the shore. The shed is my only refuge from the ripping wind, but when I reach it, the door won't open. There's a padlock through its rusted hasp. When did that happen? I look back at the house and see my brother and daughter silhouetted in the window, the firelight shuddering behind them. My eyes fall on the ax beside the woodpile and I grab it—it's heavy and unbalanced. I grip it just below the head to shorten the arc of the strike I intend for the door. I don't want to miss and chop down into my thigh—can you see me lying a hundred yards from the sunless sea, blood gushing from a severed artery: a tragic story for the children I'd have failed?

The rusty hasp and new lock break off at my second blow, and I pull open the door, half-expecting a greeting from the frozen man. But his chair is empty. As are the dark corners and dirt floor—there's no place to hide. There's just the cooler of frozen milk beside the garden hose. After a moment, I sag into the lawn chair and let the ax drop. Did the frozen man just up and leave, like those hermits-for-hire my father told Austin about? What's my responsibility now?

My thoughts spin. What I need is an explanation—a story—one I can share someday with my brother—and Briggie, and even Greta, years and years from now. Remember the trip down South, I'll say, to Chincoteague and Nag's Head? Remember the beach house, the ocean, the shed made of Bankers' wood? I'll tell them about the man they never knew existed, and they'll be shocked and thrilled, but they'll understand why I'd been silent about him for so long. By then they'll have learned that accounting for the frozen men in our lives will always be a dicey matter.

The frozen man, I think, imagining that I'm reading from Austin's AAA guidebook. What if he were the last in a long line of pirate-kings, the last of the Bankers? His death at a ripe old age marked the end of their reign. Banker tradition dictated that his widow leave him for one last, symbolic day in a crypt made of blessed Bankers' wood. If I rise from this lawn chair and peer inland out the shed door, past the house, past my dead car in the driveway, I might catch a procession of headlights following a hearse toward a Nag's Head funeral home. Maybe Widow Smith rides in the first car behind the hearse. Maybe she tells the driver about her recent experiences with panda-worshippers.

Those headlights, wavering over the pocked beach road like a string of lantern-bearing ponies . . . there's a story I can live with.

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