“California's future is the sea,” he said, his voice booming through hot, humid air of the Grand Parliamentary Chamber. “Do not believe what the railway companies tell you. Their roads will link us to but three or four nations, with all access controlled by them. The sea, though, the sea will link us to the world!”
Senator Williams pounded the dark wood on the side of the podium for emphasis. Several of his fellow senators below him appeared to jerk awake.
“The world, gentlemen. The Republic is a small nation, hemmed in by others who would wish to absorb us. We have no where to expand, so it must be through commerce that we build a nation strong enough to stand up proudly before the rest of the world – to defend ourselves from that world. But relying on the railway companies to supply all this commerce will leave our young nation nothing more than a branch of those same companies, a mere line-item in their accounting books.
And they know the sea is our future for look, they draw their noose around us already! The port at San Pablo is practically a subsidiary of the California Pacific. And the Pacific Electric controls all access to San Diego and its docks. Even here in Monterey, as poor a harbor as this is, the tendrils of the railways are seizing control the Capitol's own port!
Gentlemen! There is but one port left the railways do not control. On the docks at San Pedro, not far from Los Angeles, the Republic's sole unfettered access to the sea remains.
But San Pedro is a poor harbor: Exposed to the sea and half filled with mud. Building it into a port that can link us to the world will be hard work. It will be the work of many years. It will be the work of many dolars! But it is work that must be done if we wish to see the Republic of California anything other than a third-class nation, bound to the whim of the railway companies and forever living at the generosity, the sufferance, of those nations around us.”
The Senator picked up his papers and shuffled them into a neater stack before continuing.
“Therefore, fellow senators,” his voiced boomed even louder. “Therefore, for the future of our nation, we must pass the “San Pedro Breakwater” bill without delay! A “yay” this afternoon will begin the Republic's long journey into the future. A “nay” will condemn us to irrelevance. Vote with your hearts, Gentlemen, and not with the railway's balance sheets. Thank you.”
The Senator came down from the podium to a sea of low – and occasionally not so low – voices grumbling approval or growling disagreements.
In spite of his calls for urgency, the vote would be delayed many weeks. But in spite of the growling, it would finally pass, one-hundred and forty-one to one-hundred and thirty-three. The San Pedro Bay Company would begin construction the very next spring, in 1885. And, most surprisingly of all, it really did cement the Republic's link with the sea...
There's a man on a boat...
In the South Pacific, a thousand kims from anywhere, a ship called the Monterey slowly follows a long , zig-zag track across an endless plain of empty waves. The Monterey, a thirty meter ketch built in the late 1880s, was – in spite of its name – out of San Pedro, RoC, and had spent most of its career hauling passengers up and down the west coast of the Americas. Mostly between the Republic and British Canada, but occasionally as far as northern Novy Ross or southern Peru.
The man, though, while nearly the same age, was from the small town of Auberry in the Californian Sierra foothills and had spent most of his life within fifty kims of the place, the last few as the supervisor of his father's gold mines. Prior to twelve months ago, the ocean was just an uninteresting, far-off place to him and the largest body of water he'd ever seen was on a lone vacation trip to Tahoe.
But then, his world had changed.
It had been a fine Autumn day, fading into an equally pleasant Autumn evening when Bradford Luevano had attended a lecture by one James Churchward, former engineer, former inventor, former tea planter, now historian and writer. The lecture had been on Churchward's amazing discovery of actual evidence of a lost Pacific continent, the motherland of civilizations, the birthplace of the human race: Mu.
At the lecture, Luevano had seen writings from around the world that told of this lost land. Pictures of huge monoliths that showed evidence of Murian origin, carvings of world-altering disasters from spots as far apart as Mexico and India. Evidence of Mu's former colonies was shown to exist on all the continents, in dozens of countries – even right here in the Republic!
And he was told how, finally, Mu was completely obliterated in almost a single night after a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions dropped the broken continent, to fall into the great abyss of fire below. What was once the golden land where the “Naacal” ruled and civilization grew was now a hundred million square kilometers of open Pacific, great green waves its tombstones.
Bradford had never heard anything so amazing in his life.
After the lecture, Bradford stayed to meet the amazing old man who had opened up an entire new world for him. This began a series of conversations, diners and long hours spent in museums and libraries for the two, searching for further clues of the sunken Motherland.
Then Bradford had hit upon an idea. An expedition. An expedition to parts of the Pacific rarely seen, to search for islands, reefs, small remnants of the sacred land. Remnants where ruins might still stand...jewelry or household goods might still exist...maybe even carvings and texts might still remain, untouched by humans since the great catastrophe itself. And he would be the one to find them!
Less than two months later, Bradford Luevano was at the docks of Monterey ready to board his chartered boat and staring out over the grey-green waves of an ocean he had never before seen...but seeing instead only the grassy fields, the sharp mountains, the sparkling towers of a land long since pulled beneath those waves.
Six weeks of sailing those waves and several stops passed before the Monterey reached its destination: A spot halfway between Easter Island and New Zealand, more than six-hundred kilometers from the most southerly of French Polynesian islands, where finally, he could begin his search where no island was to be found on any map.
Every day, Bradford stood at the bow, telescope to eye, and searched the broad horizon for any sign of even the smallest of lands, and every night he carefully recorded the day's findings – lack of findings, really – in the expedition log, marking off the sections of his carefully planned search grid.
In many ways, it was the happiest time of his life.
The ship's crew thought, well, they basically thought he was nuts. But he was a well paying nut, the weather – a sailor's main worry at sea – had remained favorable and, quite frankly, this had been one of the easiest cruises they'd ever made.
Two months later though there was a great deal more grumbling, as “easy” had long turned into boredom and – worse – the cyclone season approached, which could easily make both “easy” and “boredom” vanish in a wall of thirty-meter waves.
Bradford remained at the bow, scarcely even putting down his 'scope to eat or sleep.
Finally, the captain told him: “This is our last pass. When we turn around at the end of this one in six days, it will be to head for port, not to cross off another thousand kim long line on your map.”
Bradford said nothing, but stood there on the deck, arms so limp he nearly dropped his 'scope. He had less than a week...
If Bradford's presence at the bow had been near constant before, it became just shy of permanent now. He barely allowed himself the time at night to do his log and mark his grid, a process that he felt no longer marked his progress, but instead was more like the counting down to a doom. He was not even half done. What would he miss in that other half – and what might he have missed in the half he had supposedly finished?
The days – hours – counted down. Finally, it was his final day, then final night of searching. Bradford was so tired that he had to press the eyepiece firmly against his eye to keep it from closing and it took all his concentration to see more than a blur as he looked through that eyepiece.
But blur or not, something about the ocean off to port looked...odd.
The Moon had set a couple of hours prior and most of the ocean looked like a vast pool of ink covered with small, bluish, dancing reflections of the stars that shown through the partial cloud cover. But that one patch seemed more...disturbed. It seemed, well, frothy.
The ship gradually grew nearer, until the patch was straight to port, and barely half a kim off. And in it, Bradford could see waves crashing.
It took a long time before he could work out what that meant. And when it did, all tiredness vanished. His voiced rang out “land ho!” as if he were in some novel about the Age of Exploration. He ran for the Captain's cabin – pausing only briefly to order the helmsman to stop the ship – and pounded on his door, gleefully yelling that he had found the Motherland.
The breaking of dawn saw Bradford eagerly urging the ship's small rowboat forward as two crewmen rowed the gently rocking craft through the low surf that surrounded the small S-shaped curve of land, about fifty meters long and ten wide at the thickest, that had been revealed as the tide went out. Barely above water even now at full ebb, waves continually swept right over it, the water then draining off in all directions. As land – even as a lowly reef – it was a piss-poor example.
Bradford saw only a golden mountain, shining in the light of the rising sun.
The hull of the boat scraped against the rough rock of the “shore” and Bradford nearly leapt out, every instinct, every need calling out to place his feet upon this tiny remnant of a once mighty continent. Clambering across the sea-soaked rock, he soon reached the highest point of his mini-isle, nearly a full meter above the endless ocean.
Laughing – crying – he slowly turned to survey the glistening stone.
“Mu!” He cried. “Oh Motherland, your children have not forgotten. You children have returned!”
He stood there, the occasional wave soaking his shoes and wetting trouser legs nearly to the knees, for almost half an hour, his eyes seeing not ocean but his land's mighty mountains and broad valleys surrounding him. Till the end of his days, this would be his finest memory.
Finally, his attention caught by one of the crewman tapping on his pocket watch and looking meaningful, he returned to the boat, which returned him to the Monterey. He made his final log entry, carefully entering the thrice-checked latitude and longitude, while sitting at the stern, watching his island fade in the distance as the ship headed east towards South America.
In Sacramento, an old man's eyes grew teary as he read the telegram handed by the young messenger:
There's a woman on a shore...
Out from between scattered clouds, the low evening sun sparkled across muddy-green waters. Here, behind the breakwater, only toy waves rolled against the narrow strip of rocks and gravel next to the Navy Pier.
The pier dated from the teens, built during the fears that the Eurowar would spill over to North America. The breakwater came from thirty years before that. And though older, the breakwater had been kept up. The pier...not so much. The piles seemed to be more barnacle-encrusted black sponge than wood and several of the thick decking planks were missing, lost to the big storm three years ago. And in spite of its name, no naval vessel bigger than a torpedo boat had docked there in the last decade – nor was likely to in the next.
Maria gave a start when she realized her husband had been born within sight of this pier when Mother Cambell had gone into early labor on a visit to relatives then living in San Pedro. Now, nearly four decades later, the relatives had moved a few kims north to the more upscale Del Puerto, the pier was decaying and James was...
...gone. James was gone.
The telegraph currently in her purse told of the French navy finding the ship Naacal capsized, half-wrecked and barely afloat, a hundred kims south of Tubuai. It had been badly worked over by storms and had been drifting for at least three weeks. No one had been aboard, not James, not his father – the boat's owner – not any of it's five man crew.
Not even any bodies were found.
Sitting on the slightly damp rocks by the edge of the harbor she could feel her skirt slowly wicking up the faint, cold moisture as she fished for the crumpled and slightly frayed telegraph to read yet another time. The locations listed on it meant nothing to her, in spite of twenty years of listening to her husband and father-in-law go on and on about the South Pacific and plan their expeditions to it to search for a place anyone not raised on stories of it knew was about as real as a Grimm Fairy Tale.
But she loved him anyway and always just smiled as he talked about his lost land. A smile that had become strained as he and his father had left on two previous trips out into the far Pacific...and almost disappeared during those times he was gone.
Now the third trip had taken her smile forever, as it had taken her husband. Lost in a broad expanse of water she probably couldn't even find on a map.
She tried to avoid shredding the telegraph.
That telegraph had made its own expedition. James's trip should have ended over two months ago, with word reaching her soon after he touched some inhabited land, even if he was still far from home. When first one month had passed, then another was half finished, she had taken the train south to check with the Naval Office in San Pedro to see if they had any word, any information about her husband's ship.
And as she had boarded the train, the mailboat had delivered this telegraph to their home on the small, mid-California island of San Miguel. Because of this, Maria's seventeen-year-old daughter had known that her father was dead before Maria had.
No, that wasn't quite true. Maria had known James was dead weeks before. She had merely been denying it.
Elena had then sailed her own small boat to the mainland and forwarded the telegraph south to their Cambell relatives, believing her mother would be staying with them. But Maria hadn't wanted to impose upon the family on such short notice – and hadn't really wanted the company either – and instead had stayed at a small hotel halfway between the Naval Office and the fishing docks. Three days later, she had run into one of her cousins by accident while strolling near those docks and he mentioned a telegraph was waiting for her at the Cambell house. Even offered to run home and get it for her...it wasn't far...just one trolley...no trouble at all...they could meet again at that restaurant over there for lunch...
...and over the remains of a “Sardine Escabeche,” James's death arrived, as a small, wrinkled sheet of paper.
Now she was waiting for the train that would take her back home. It would be leaving in just under an hour, but the Pacific Electric depot that was the “Ventura Express's” starting point was just a quarter-kim north along the shore and only marginally farther inland than she currently was. A ten minute walk at worst. And any time she didn't have to spend with other people right now was a blessing.
The sun dropped behind the hills backing Point Fermin and night began to march west across the sky as she watched to the sound of endless tiny waves breaking.
The train pulled into Buena Ventura depot at just before ten that night, delayed by an accident on the tracks. Stiff winds tugged at her as she left the car and as she headed across the platforms to catch the “C” line to the harbor, the first ice-cold sprinkles of rain dotted her jacket, falling from a sky that boiled with barely visible black clouds, rolling in from the north.
The rain continued to sprinkle during the twenty minute ride to the Municipal docks, where the family motor-sloop Le Plongeon was tied up, waiting her return. Getting off at the stop, she hefted her small case and slowly made her way through the misty sprinkles to the ship where she planned to sleep until morning. Its cabin was small and the bunk in it smaller, but it would do – had done before – in a pinch. Besides, she couldn't leave until morning anyway – the trip from Ventura to San Miguel averaged seven hours, after all – and her funds were getting too low to waste on another hotel, even just for the night.
The sound of rain – drifting from mist to downpour and back again – surrounded her all night as she fitfully slept on the tiny ship.
Dawn the next day fought through still mostly cloud-filled skies, but it looked as if the storm had passed. A couple of hours of work preparing the ship, a quick meal from the dockyard taquería and at just after nine that morning, she was maneuvering the sloop out of the tiny harbor and west into the still choppy waters off the California coast.
It was more than three long hours later as she was sailing the length of Santa Cruz Island that the rains came back. Unlike the night before, they avoided the whole “sprinkling” routine and went straight into a full, heavy downpour. The clouds that had been teasing the day with leaving instead locked solid together from one horizon to another and the early afternoon skies became nearly as dark as they had been the night before.
The chop began rising. Soon Maria's ship was climbing through three and four meter seas and they only rose higher as she headed on. As the winds changed, she was forced to take down the sails and continued onwards on the auxiliary engine. It took two hours beating her way west before she saw the tiny light on Williams Point, the northern-most tip of Santa Rosa, barely leaking through the clouds and rain. That meant she was still a good twenty-five, thirty kims from Churchward Harbor and its narrow fifty-meter pier. With the wind now almost full on against her, that meant three to five hours from home, through an ever worsening storm.
Already tired from the trip back from Los Angeles and a night spent barely sleeping, her arms, legs, back ached as she held the pilot wheel, struggling to keep the “Plongy” on course. The the need to get through...the need to get home...the fear the rising storm was creating struggled valiantly with her exhaustion, but exhaustion was still winning. She could barely keep her eyes open, her hands on the wheel.
I'm not going to make it, am I? She thought. Then the tepid flash of the William's light brought another thought.
Santa Rosa was right to the south of her and even in this storm, the big Carrillo Rancho cattle pier in Rosa's Bay was just over ninety minutes sail away. And for a third that time, she'd be in the lee of the island, out of the worst of the waves and wind. Exhausted as she was, she could still manage that. She turned the bow south, towards the light. It seemed the sensible course.
That was a mistake.
To be fair, if she had been less tired, less distracted by her husband's death, less...hollow feeling, she never would have done this. Done something so...foolish. Running west into the waves had been hard, every rise and fall tearing at her exhausted, sore muscles a little bit more. But turning to the south put those waves straight onto her starboard side.
The first wave hit. The ship shuddered, listing, then slowly began to roll back, shedding hundreds of liters of water from her deck. Instantly realizing her mistake, she tried to turn it back west. Another hit, tipping it a bit more. Adding a bit more water to the load.
A third hit.
Maria felt the ship begin to roll over. She felt the icy-cold water roar into the pilothouse, tearing her from the wheel and out into the sea. She managed to get a single quick breath before the crash of waves pulled her under.
Battered – only the freezing of the water keeping her from feeling a broken leg and shattered hip – and barely conscious, she hardly noticed as she slipped deeper into the water, as her last breath leaked from her lungs...
...for there was James.
He stood, somehow, on the bow of his boat, waving, growing closer. His hand out to help her on board. And Maria realized that she had been wrong the day before...
...for she smiled.
There's a woman on an island...
San Miguel was not a large island, less than thirteen kims by six. It sat as the westernmost Channel Island, an irregular triangular plateau of rock and earth, scrub and the occasional stunted tree, a good seventy kims away from the coast at Santa Barbara. Elena's home sat on a high bluff above the north-western end of the triangle, overlooking the small islet of Castle Rock and the saltwater spray from the waves far below that during big storms could still soak her front porch.
Fresh water, on the other hand, was harder to come by; winter rains needed to be carefully horded in the three big tanks her grandfather had built almost seventy years before. Everything that Elena couldn't grow herself in her carefully maintained kitchen garden – which wasn't much – or make herself – which unfortunately was – needed to be brought over from the mainland on Elena's tiny boat. Shopping was therefore a two-day affair. More, if the seas picked up. And it was an affair she couldn't afford to do often.
But it was her home...and she wasn't going to lose it.
She was doing a hike she had done more times in her life than her life had days. Past the dry lake. Past the remains of her father's attempt at viticulture on the gentle slopes of Green Mountain, the few remaining vines now simply a source of fruit for her. Past the ghost forest, with its acres of caliché casts of ancient trees. Through the abandoned ranch buildings on the eastern end of the island and down Cuchillo de cañon on a the slender trail that ran in the deep “V” it cut into the bluffs between the island's interior and the sea. Past the old cattle pens, where the island's small herd had been sorted prior to some being sent to market on the mainland. Out onto the beach that curved along the harbor and down to the narrow pier that led to the middle of the harbor and her small boat.
Most of her hike had been through the pre-dawn darkness, and the sun was still sneaking behind the dark band on the eastern horizon that marked Santa Rosa Island as she began her descent to the harbor. She had a meeting with the family law firm at three this afternoon.
Now given her boat could take anywhere from five to eight hours to get to Santa Barbara, depending on the seas – which for today's mild chop probably meant about a six, six-and-a-half hours sail – then toss time tying up the boat in Santa Barbara, paying fees she didn't want to pay, walking to the road and finally a fifteen minute trolley from the docks area to the lawyer's office, and that meant leaving by seven-thirty, eight-o'clock in the morning for a three-o'clock appointment. To be safe, she added a “just in case” hour to her trip, as she always did, so that meant leaving now, with the rising of the sun.
Of course, had it been winter rather than summer, even a dawn sailing would have been leaving too late. But then, she didn't take her boat out in the winter for anything, let alone lawyers...not any more...not since her mother...
...she pushed that thought down firmly as her feet clumped down the worn gray boards of the pier. Seven years wasn't enough time to kill the pain thoughts like that caused...but it was enough that she could learn how to kill those thoughts before they could.
Fifteen minutes later, her boat's tiny engine putted loudly for a few moments as it left the pier, then it cut off and she raised her sails and glided eastwards, out of the bay...
A good wind behind her and gentle seas beneath had gotten her to the wharf in Santa Barbara a little after eleven-thirty, a handful of minutes less than five hours after she cast off from San Miguel more than an hour before she'd originally thought she would and a good three before her actual appointment.
This left her in the unusual situation of having “free time.”
Most in such a situation would have gone to a silvershow, or shopping, or simply gone to lunch. But Elena lacked the funds for such “adventures.” Simply paying the wharf fee for the harbor here was...painful. She didn't want to think about the costs of topping off the petrol tank tomorrow to cover even the little she would use on this trip.
She hadn't seen a silver in, what was it, four years now? As for shopping, she had some money set aside to pick up some items off her Essentials List, on the grounds that if she was going have to make this trip to see lawyers, she might as well do something useful with it as well. But those few items would be picked up after her meeting, as she certainly wasn't going to waste time and energy hauling them across town to a law office and back. Further, buying them involved going to just three shops, all right next to the harbor.
So much for using her “free time” with any of those activities.
And finally “Lunch” – more a breakfast, really – had been made at home last night and already eaten on the trip here. Tonight's dinner and tomorrow's breakfast were sitting side by side in the same basket that her lunch had once sat in, back on the boat. The same boat that she was going to be sleeping on tonight.
For while the sole owner of an entire, respectably-sized island, and all that was on it, she was also almost completely broke.
“Tata” Luevano had bought San Miguel from a holding company lock, stock, and harbor back in 1914. Bradford was at the time quite well off and the island itself was priced quite low, what with the owners being in dire financial straights. So it was relatively easy for him to buy it in full, “cash on the barrel-head” as it were.
Given his obsession, maybe he though it a piece of his lost Mu. Or maybe he just wanted to be as close to that mythical continent as he could. Or maybe as a man who had been born and raised in the Sierras, but had fallen in love with the wide blue sea, this mountainous ocean rock had simply been the best of both worlds to him. His granddaughter never really knew.
Between his trips out to look for non-existent lands, he had gradually made the island a home; first for himself and his wife, then for a newborn son. And finally for that son's wife and their daughter, the first of the family to be born on the island itself.
Along with being the Luevano home, the island in its early years under her grandfather's ownership was a cattle ranch. Indeed, that had been what the original holding company had been using it for and Bradford simply continued on with the business. At its height, a half-dozen hired vaqueros lived in the now abandoned ranch, managing three-hundred head of beef-cattle, raised on the skimpy vegetation of island and shipped to market in Santa Barbara. That venture ended in the early thirties as cheapening shipping costs by the railroads and increasing competition from the ranches on Santa Cruz Island cut out the small edge in price San Miguel cattle had.
Next, while Grandfather tried a brief experiment with sheep ranching, her father – then just twenty – tried wine making, planting a full fifteen hectares of grape vines in the center of the island. A press and wine barrels moved into the empty ranch buildings – along with two sheepherders and a vintner who had once worked at the prestigious “Ridge Vineyards” – and San Miguel Island began a decade long attempt at becoming the next big name in California vineyards.
And after eight years of trying to find a market for what was, at best, vin very ordinaire, that enterprise too ended. Soon after, mutton stopped being a San Miguel product as well.
In the forties and fifties, they'd rented out the long pier to fishermen. But few ever used it, for what was the point? They had to deliver their cargoes of fresh-caught fish to the markets on the mainland, not sit with them on an island in the middle of nowhere. Except for during storms, when the place made a good – and literal – “safe harbor,” only the occasional boat hauling a load of amateurs on a day trip of fishing for fun paid the docking fee.
The sole shared factor all these enterprises had was that they all lost money. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes, not so. For decades, an island whose sole expense to its owners was the property tax on the land itself still could not be made pay its own way.
Grandfather's wealth had bought the island and Grandfather's wealth covered the costs of living there for years. But Grandfather had been slowly eased out of the greater family's mining business, and his own investments often did even poorer than his investment in San Miguel. Still, until the fifties, they had enough to live quite comfortably on the island, even as the last of the island's “businesses” closed down.
Then both her Grandfather and Father had died, as raging storms finally ended a forty year search for their shared fairy-tale. Three months later, her Mother followed them into the Pacific's depths. And if her death was ten rather than ten-thousand kims away, the effect was all the same.
In the following legal trauma, a seventeen-year-old Elena Luevano-Moy ended up becoming a near-outcast from the “mainlander” branches of her family, the sole possessor of the deed to the Island of San Miguel...and the owner of damn little else.
For six years she managed to navigate a tight course of solvency, with her sole income some investments in the canneries down in San Pedro, bought years ago by her mother, and a modest stipend in rent from a Navigation Ministry light beacon that blinked away on the western tip of the island.
Then last year, the Ministry had shut down the beacon as “no longer essential,” and Elena's finances began a slow spiral into the red. She had managed to pay the property tax at the end of last year – just – but it was already obvious that she wouldn't be able to do so this year without selling part of her meager investments. And of course, that meant that next year, she'd have even less money for taxes and have to sell more of those investments...quite probably all.
So baring a miraculous upswing in the sales of canned tuna over the next six months, the island would be on the tax-auction block in just three years, at most. And Elena would on the side of the tracks: No home. No money. No Family. No future...
Elena decided the best use of her “free time” was to walk to the lawyers' place rather than waste a quarter-dolar on the trolley. After all, it was just a bit more than three kims up Nacional, the city's main boulevard, to the offices of Harris & Castillos, Solicitors...which to someone who had a few hours before done a seven and-a-half kim hike just to reach her boat and start her trip was almost literally nothing.
Nacional was an eclectic mix of shops, hotels, offices and the government buildings required by a county seat. Few went over two-stories and the tallest – the Oceanside Hotel – was just five. In spite of being one of the main streets in Santa Barbara, the road itself was just slightly wider than the pair of trolley tracks that ran up its center. Bikes, wagons, and the occasional ORV had to pull right to the edge of the street to let the cars go by.
As a city whose economy depended as much on tourists as it did county business, fishing and farming, decorative, inviting color was a huge component of the street's appearance. From the bright – and often conflicting – primaries that painted the buildings, the street-lining green trees that swayed in the salt-tanged wind coming off the sea, and the floral riots that edged the sidewalks and balconies, Nacional was a swirl of colors that said “Come. Enjoy yourself. Stay in Santa Barbara.”
At least, according to the Chamber of Commerce, that was the idea. Even the cars of the Santa Barbara Street Railway, still of wood long after most companies had gone to steel, were painted to resemble seascapes, rather than the more standard single or two-toned color schemes of other railways. All to enhance the quality of the place as a tourist destination.
Elena thought they might have gone a bit overboard in spots – the County Engineering building was more garish than attractive, for example – but the overall effect was actually quite nice. Some of the larger flower beds reminded her of the fields of wildflowers that covered large amounts of her island in the spring, though they suffered by having swirling masses of pedestrians walking by – and occasionally through – their multicolored brightness.
After a couple of kims worth of walking by this building rainbow, she passed the SBSR shops and carbarn and things settled down a bit. Pedestrian and road traffic thinned. There were still shops and businesses, but they were increasingly interspaced with six or seven unit courts, single homes, and the occasional small hotel or boarding house. Meanwhile, the “few over two-stories” heights dropped down to “few over one-story” and the number of colors diminished to mostly brick-reds and pale blues. The cool ocean breeze, however, still followed Elena up the road.
A kim later, the trolley line hung a left at Mission to avoid some steep hills ahead on Nacional but Elena continued walking north. Just pass this intersection, where the road's climb steepened, sat the offices of “Harris & Castillos.”
They were in a converted Victorian survivor of the quake of Twenty-Five. Unlike the mostly Spanish colonial and craftsman-style buildings around it, it was a tall, narrow building of sharp angles, decorative fringes and several pointy towers. Surprisingly, it was painted in two or three shades of light gray, rather than the pastels usually seen on Victorians, or the bright primaries of the rest of the city.
Elena took a deep breath and headed into the lion's den...
“I won't say the island is literally worthless,” Donald Harris said. “In fact, I am sure if we really worked at it, we could find someone who is – and I'm afraid there is no other way to say this – gullible enough to believe they could make money off of it and sell all or part of the island to him. Assuming they had any money to buy it, of course.
Otherwise, you might be able to get a few thousand for it from someone looking for a place for a summer home or fishing cabin, but it would not be enough to pay your taxes for more than an additional year or two nor to secure you some place to live off the island, should you sell the whole thing, so that really does not help you.”
Harris leaned back in his chair and gestured broadly with one hand.
“Or we could go the donation route. But again we come up against the fact that no one really wants the island, in part or in whole, so who would we donate it to? A possible exception, naturally, would be the county or national government, maybe for some sort of park or military facility. But from the county's standpoint they will be getting the whole thing soon anyway. And if donated to them, Monterey would just end up transferring it to the county, so they'd feel 'why bother with all that paperwork?'
And as the only taxes you have to write off are those on the island itself, donating it brings in even less funds than that unlikely sale.”
Elena squirmed in the hard wooden chair. This wasn't anything she really didn't already know, but it hurt to be said so bluntly.
“In my opinion, you should begin abandonment proceedings on your ownership before the cut-off date where you will be required to pay the property tax. That way, you can at least retain your current stocks in Pacific Canneries and the small income that will bring you, while you search for a job or a husband to provide for the rest of your needs.”
“Señor Harris,” she said quietly. “It is my home.”
“I am sorry, Señorita Luevano-Moy, but to be honest what your parents bequeathed you was not so much a home as an anchor. And if you remain tied to it, it will...ummm...drag you down too...”
Harris tapered off and reddened as he realized that perhaps a “being pulled underwater” metaphor was not the most appropriate one to use with this client.
“I understand,” Elena said. “But I must fight. It really is not all that much additional annual income that I need, there must be some way to obtain it.”
Spreading his hands in a gesture of “what can I do?” Harris sighed.
“At this point, Señorita, the only other way you could bring in that additional income would be some sort of job. But the only way to hold that job would be to live on the mainland, at which point you would have those expenses as well. And, no offense, but given your education and experience, I am afraid you would be unlikely to get any job other than some sort of shop clerk or waitress or maid, and those would not pay enough to cover those new expenses and still leave enough to cover the original ones that you got the job to pay. Plus, it makes very little sense to work and live on the mainland in order to retain an island home you will rarely be able to visit.”
He got up out of his chair, a gesture suggesting he felt the meeting was over.
“We will of course continue looking for other options, but I am afraid at this point, 'other options' is an empty car, heading back to the yard.”
An hour later, Elena slowly came to a halt on her trip back down the hill. From here, she could see the sparkle of the still distant ocean between the buildings and trees and a bank of cloud and fog that marked the vast bulk of Santa Cruz out in the channel. Of her island there was no sign. Ever were she to strip away the buildings, trees and clouds, a low ridge of hills would still block all sight of her distant home.
A home that seemed to be getting more distant the more she walked back to it.
She'd stopped in front of a small hotel – more of a boarding house, really – and was now staring at it without really seeing it, merely because somewhere in that direction lay her island. The opening of the front door and the appearance of happy couple, chatting and laughing as they headed off toward downtown, made her focus on the building itself.
A thought bubbled through her head.
Why not? She thought. Why not sleep someplace where someone else has done all the work? Someplace that isn't the bed I've been laying on for a quarter of a century, or a too-short padded bench on a boat that was old when my Abuelo bought it? Why not have a meal made by someone else, out of food I didn't have to grow or catch or pick? Why not actually have one night to enjoy, before I'm out on the street?
Parts of her mind warred over the “why not” – but the logical, responsible part that wanted to say “because it would use up everything you have saved to buy essentials” was hampered by it having to admit that “essentials to stay on the island” were only essential if she could, in fact, stay on the island...
...and that part of her brain was too logical to fool itself.
She headed up the steps towards the front entrance.
Señora Sheridan-Solis, owner and manager of the “Jasmine Cottage Border and Hotel,” was a short, flowery blur of ruffles and motion, backed by a constant stream of chatter as she welcomed her new guest. She signed Elena into the northeast garret room – “small, but comfortable, and such views!” – then loaded her down with pamphlets describing the Attractions of the Area – though “the Area” seemed to stretch to cover ninety-percent of the Republic – and other hostelries up and down the coast that she confided, as if it were a deep secret, were all run by “nice people, you would like them.”
Supper was at five, breakfast was at eight, and she could use any of the hotel's public rooms, “except for the billiards room, that is just for the men, dear.”
Then she led Elena to her small room, where the floral pattern of the owner's dress continued across the wallpaper, curtains and bedclothes, mentioned that most of the guests took a constitutional after supper to Oak Park, “very beautiful and relaxing, dear. I hope you will join us,” then blurred out of the room and back downstairs, leaving Elena on her own.
The room was beautiful, bed was soft, dinner had been excellent, and Elena was miserable...in spite of her insistence to herself that she was going to “enjoy herself.”
She turned over in bed. Again. For the twenty-seventh time. She'd been counting.
Sighing, she gave up on her attempt to sleep. She'd only been trying because she couldn't think of anything else to do anyway.
Not that she hadn't looked. She'd spent about an hour in the border's small library, looking for a book. Unfortunately, the surprisingly numerous collection sorted down into more or less three categories: Classics, which she found tedious and boring at the best of times; “dime'r” mysteries, which she had read one-after-another in her teen years, right up until she discovered she now could identify the villain within the first fifteen pages. After that, she got bored with them; and “Sea adventure stories,” very popular with coastal California and which she had given up reading after her parent's deaths.
Every damn one had a storm in it.
She'd finally picked a romance novel set in Canada that did not appear too sappy a read, and a tour book, “California's Scenic Wonderlands,” on grounds that at least it had nice pictures.
Appearances, on the first book, had been deceiving. And “nice pictures” of places she'd probably never see just made her more depressed. She ended up reading both less than a third the time she'd taken to choose them and they now sat on the end table besides her bed.
She sighed again, sat up, and looked at the two books. After a half-hearted attempt to decide which she didn't want to read less, she instead grabbed the pile of pamphlets she'd gotten when she checked in.
Elena was again bemused by how far “the area” stretched when it came to advertising “attractions.” A handful of the pamphlets documented places to see and things to do actually in Santa Barbara: The Mission, of course, harbor tours, the vineyards up the coast, even the Opera House downtown got a nod. But most were for points of interest that kept, as she flipped through the pages, getting farther and farther away.
All right, the strawberry fields and orange orchards in Buena Ventura were not too far away, just an hour on the train – though she didn't think they deserved the descriptive “The Great Strawberry Fields and Orchards” because, when you got down to it, they were a bunch of plants and trees, all identical. But it was someone's idea of an “attraction” she supposed.
But then there were fliers advertising sites in San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles! Yes, the Mount Figueroa scenic line was world famous – or as world famous as some place in California could get. Elena had even ridden it on her seventh birthday. But that did not make something over three hours and a like number of train changes away a “local attraction” to Elena's mind. And putting San Pablo, Awanahe Valley and Tahoe in that group was just silly.
The pamphlets covering hotels stretched to places just as far away – though all were along the coast – but at least that made sense, The “Jasmine” was not going to be promoting the competition down the street after all. The half-dozen had names like “Big Sur Cottage,” “Carmel House,” and “Morro Bay Bed and Breakfast.” None of them were very big, or very big named, but they all seemed like nice places to stay if you were on a trip to wherever they were and they all promoted – somewhat smugly at times – the beauty of the areas they were in.
Elena tossed the pamphlets aside. She wouldn't trade the “beauty” of one of those hotels for that of her own home, back...on...the...
...it was late, she was tired, and depressed, and perhaps if she was better rested and in a better mood it never would have occurred to her. But the idea that was drifting around her head made...sense.
She smiled and laid back down on the bed. Tomorrow, tomorrow she was going to talk to Señora Sheridan-Solis about what it took to own a hotel. Tonight she would sleep.
There's a hotel by the sea...
Its owner was doing a hike she had done more times in her life than her life had days. Past the dry lake. Past the remains of her father's attempt at viticulture on the gentle slopes of Green Mountain, the few remaining vines now simple a source of fruit. Past the ghost forest, with its acres of caliché casts of ancient trees. Through the formerly abandoned ranch buildings on the eastern end of the island and down Cuchillo de cañon on a the slender trail that ran in the deep “V” it cut into the bluffs between the island's interior and the sea. Past the old cattle pens, where the island's small herd had been sorted prior to some being sent to market on the mainland. Out onto the beach that curved along the harbor and down to the narrow pier that led to the middle of the harbor.
There her guests were arriving.
Elena always greeted her guests when the thrice-weekly boat arrived at San Miguel's pier, partially because she felt it was good hotelier practice, but also because she had discovered that she actually enjoyed meeting the new people who came every week to her island.
The last three years had been hard work, with the first the hardest of all. Converting her cannery investments into “seed” money – over the strenuous objections of her lawyers – and cleaning up and converting the family home into a small hotel took nearly eight months. Then there were the two frantic months she spent getting the word out that her place even existed and finding a way to transport guests to and from her island that did not involve her personally carrying them over in a boat that barely held her.
Her “Grand Opening” was followed by three months and the despair of only two guests, then four of ever increasing numbers of them, until she spent that last month of the season booked solid.
She had a Christmas celebrating paid taxes, and enough in the bank to cover the next six months expenses, plus maybe some leftover to see a silver or two.
Now two years after that first frantic season, though guests were still limited to the five rooms at “Naacal House,” the former family home – at least, until August when the work refurbishing the ranch house was complete – and this limited her to a few dozen lodgers each month during the seven months of her “season,” it was enough.
Enough to pay for the things those guests needed. Enough to pay for Maria, the cook/maid for the House Enough to slowly add improvements, such as turning the ranch into a second boarding house. Enough to keep paying the taxes, including the new business taxes, that had come the last three years and pay them again this...
...enough to keep her home.
Feet clumping down the length of the pier, she no longer needing to make the occasional extra-wide step to cross a missing board. The “Harmon's Harbor Tour” boat – which now did double duty as the “omnibus” to her island thanks to the contract they shared – was just tying up as she arrived. Its short gangplank dropped, and the first of her weekend guests, smiling in the bright sun and cool breeze, walked down onto the pier.
“Welcome,” she said, smiling just as broadly. “Welcome to the Edge of California!”