Capt. Eddie Sommers cautiously sips a steaming cup of coffee on the bridge of a World War II-era cutter, waiting to break a path through the ice that has sealed up the harbor, when the crew of the Steven Thomas arrives.
The 90-foot ferryboat docked behind him is being loaded with milk, food, medicine and other supplies for the folks who live on the mile-long island that separates the Chesapeake Bay from Tangier Sound.
They depend on the town of Crisfield for just about everything the islanders can't catch from the water. Since Tuesday, Tangier Island has been frozen in -- no one can get on or off -- and supplies are running low.
But Sommers's boat, the Tawes, a Maryland Natural Resources Police cutter, was called in Saturday because of an even more urgent problem. A waterman had died on Tangier, and although his funeral had been held, his body cannot be buried because there's no space for him on the island.
Over the centuries, the cemeteries on Tangier have either filled up or washed away. The small yards of islanders' homes are dotted with headstones and markers, and for the first time, a generation of this fishing community is buying plots on the mainland.
Some do so reluctantly: "I'd rather be washed ashore than buried there," one island saying goes.
Others, who have watched as the island itself has worn away in the tides, figure there's no point in fighting it. When graves are dug in the few remaining family plots, they sometimes fill up with water before the casket can be buried.
"I love Tangier to death," says Wallace Pruitt, 63, who with his wife runs the bed-and-breakfast here and who figures two-thirds of the islanders who die now are buried in Crisfield or Onancock, Va.
"I'd rather be on hard ground," says Pruitt, a distant relation of the deceased. He has already bought his family burial plots on Virginia's eastern shore, where six of his eight siblings live.
Once the groceries and supplies are loaded, the ferry captain radios to Sommers that he's ready to go.
Sommers gently pushes the throttle of the cutter, and it lurches forward like an aged ox, escorting the ferry boat to drop off the goods and pick up the body. A couple of mallards skitter out of the cutter's way as it pushes its way slowly through the ice.
Clyde Pruitt died last Monday after several long illnesses. He and his wife, Emily, met on the island when she was a senior in high school. He was seven years older, tall and handsome. He owned one of the fastest and best-kept boats on the island.
But she was pretty and popular and had dated several boys on the island.
It didn't take long for Clyde to become smitten. He proposed marriage quickly, "to keep the other boys away," Emily Pruitt remembers. But having a family proved difficult.
She lost a baby girl, Anita, and then miscarried triplets. They finally had a little boy, whom they named Clyde Jr. Eventually, he gave them three grandchildren.
For 46 years, Clyde Pruitt worked the guts and the shallows of the island and the depths of the sound and the bay, dredging for crabs and oysters. Like many on the island, he suffered from heart disease. Three years ago, the doctors told him his heart was functioning at only 30 percent and that he needed bypass surgery. He had the procedure, but they could remove only one blockage. He went on special medications that helped to some degree.
What killed him, however, was skin cancer. Despite having gotten regular checkups at the dermatologist for more than 30 years, the cancer had spread to the bone by the time they caught it. In the end, half his cheek was missing and doctors wanted to remove his eye -- the one that still worked. He refused.
In Swain Memorial United Methodist Church, his casket sat on the altar, surrounded by at least a dozen floral arrangements. Friends began gathering them up to send along for his grave.
The body went back to Crisfield Saturday, but Emily Pruitt will have to wait until tomorrow for her husband's final service. With more cold expected, everyone said it was too risky for the islanders to take the ferry back to Crisfield; they might get stuck there.
So when the men came to carry Clyde Pruitt's coffin from the church, she held back.
"I don't know if it'd make me feel better or worse to go along," she says, as the coffin was placed in the back of the waiting ambulance, the pallbearers closed the doors and began walking behind it toward the docks.
Through hurricanes and epidemics, the residents have stubbornly refused to abandon the island. They went off when their country called them to war but always returned; the names of the men and women of Tangier who served are memorialized in bronze near the white picket fence outside the church.
They figured it would always be that way, as long as the island was there. But Tangier is shrinking, and so are the harvests. Partly because of regulations, partly because of nature, crab catches are declining. Oysters are so bad that many don't even bother any more and instead seek out construction jobs or other part-time work -- on the mainland, if necessary.
More than ever before, the young ones leave the island and don't come back to live. In the past 20 years, the population has declined from 1,200 to 585, and the largest age group that remains is over 60.
Within a year or two, the last few burial spots on the island are expected to be gone. Town leaders recently got together to consider options. They talked about whether the Army Corps of Engineers might be persuaded to use mud dredged from shipping channels to build up part of the island, where they could then start a new cemetery.
John Williams, an Onancock funeral director who is handling Clyde Pruitt's funeral, would be interested in buying a small lot behind the power plant on the island for a new cemetery, but it's too early to say if that will happen.
Some islanders plan to move the graves of loved ones to plots they have bought on the mainland. Emily Pruitt plans to have her daughter's grave brought with her when she is buried next to her husband in Crisfield someday.
But for now, she weeps as she watches the crew close the gates to the deck of the ferryboat, where her husband's casket now rests, covered with a worn quilted blanket. The boat pulls away -- this time, led by a Coast Guard cutter from Hampton, Va.
It slips past the dock where Clyde Pruitt used to keep his boat and where his son's is now tied up, past the white cross that someone erected in the harbor a few summers ago, lettered in black: For God So Loved the World, and into the open waters of the sound.
Behind the ferryboat, its slushy wake freezes up again almost as quickly as it is cut. Within minutes, the harbor will be all but impassible again, and Tangier will once again shut off from the world.
Passengers on the ferry are anxious to get back to Crisfield.
Keith Ward keeps looking at his watch; he's hoping to make it back for the annual volunteer firefighter's banquet in Salisbury. Larry Laird is joking about going to the rodeo to see the mutton bustin' contest, where little kids climb aboard a sheep and then hang on for dear life as it busts out of the chute and bucks around a ring.
Wallace Pruitt's brother Fred, 69, or "Uncle Freddy," as he is known, had been stuck on the island since Tuesday when the freeze locked everyone in. Born on the island, he worked for 50 years as a waterman. Nineteen years ago, he and his wife moved to Onancock to be near their son and grandchild.
He's quiet while the younger men banter on about their plans for the evening, then speaks up.
"How's Emily getting back tonight?" he asks of the island's newest widow.
"She ain't got to," says the ferryboat captain, Wallace Thomas. "She didn't get on the boat."
"Well, who's going to get the body to the cemetery?" the older man asks.
"Maybe somebody called Johnny Williams," a voice offered, referring to the funeral director.
There is silence.
Turns out, the hearse is parked next to the docks when the ferry arrives, and Williams and his son, John T., start loading the flowers into the back of a SUV, clearing the deck around the casket.
After all the passengers leave the ferry, a few men linger to help carry the casket. They have to ask a few duck hunters to help lift the coffin off the boat and into the hearse.
People sometimes call them sons of the island, the ones that come from the long line of Pruitts, Crocketts, Parks or Dizes who were among the first settlers here in the 1600s -- more generations than most can count back now.
Now, when islanders die, their houses may stay empty. Sometimes they are sold. In the past few years, 12 to 15 have been bought by people who call them their summer homes.
A year before he died, Clyde Pruitt sold off his prized boat, the Emily S., and all his gear.
This spring, his grandson, Brian, plans to fish peeler pots.
Clyde Pruitt won't be there to take his grandson crabbing after school, like he always did. But Brian will have his grandfather's waterman's license, which is something.
"If I didn't have it, I wouldn't be able to do it on my own," says Brian, 16. Like many young men in Tangier, he's uncertain where the future will find him.
"I think it would be pretty cool to go to another place and all," he says. Then he pauses. "But I don't know how I'd take it if I get homesick."