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Islander: Book Two of
By A.C. (Charlie) Haeffner
The following is the start of a novel the publisher of this website wrote a few years ago. Just for fun, we're going to begin running it here. This is the prologue and first four chapters, with more to follow in coming weeks. This book is a sequel to Island Nights, which was a sort of childhood memoir wrapped in a mystery -- and which left unanswered a key plot thread. Hence the sequel, which takes the reader back and forth in time -- with a focus on World War Two, the fate of Mussolini, and questions of religious faith. It's pretty wild ride -- and really stands alone without need of reading the first book (although we'll probably get around to presenting that one, too. Meanwhile an excerpt from that first book is here).
There is a saying that has long circulated in Europe, which on the face of it makes no sense. It goes like this:
“Death is life.”
It was first attributed to gypsy bands that roamed the region. They used it when explaining the crystal – The Crystal of Death, Il Cristallo di Morte – to the uninitiated.
The story they would tell held that the crystal – actually several of identical shape and size, though nobody but gypsies has ever seen more than one at a time – had been given to an elder in a gypsy tribe many centuries before.
Just who gave the crystals is a matter of some debate. In one version of the myth, they came from an angel; in another, from an extraterrestrial visitor; in another, from a god or a celestial messenger who came to earth in the guise of a bear.
The reason for the gift, again, depended on the version. In the tale of the angel, it was given the elder for services rendered to mankind. In the alien version, it was because the elder had helped the visitor fix his spacecraft after the latter had crash-landed on Earth. In the one with the bear, it was because the elder was profoundly good, helping free the bear from a trap that had snared the beast while he was pursuing the old man through a forest glen.
The carpenter said he preferred the bear version, since he felt an affinity with the beasts of the forests, one reason for his choice of current living quarters. My old friend Jacques felt likewise.
That particular version, first related to me in a letter from Jacques that reached me by mail just before I left on a trip to visit him on the Island – a kind of preamble to a much longer story that he planned to tell me – had the elder wandering out into the woods in search of firewood, and straying far from his tribe. Trying in vain to retrace his steps, the elder became disoriented and wandered even deeper into the forest, into a shaded portion where little light ever filtered through.
It was there that he heard the beast’s roar, and saw the lumbering giant charge him – some say the derivation of the term “bearing down.” The elder started running, although speed at his age, some four score years, did not come easily. The bear, therefore, was gaining rapidly when there was a sudden snapping sound and a shriek from the beast, who was no longer moving forward, but lying immobilized.
The elder, unclear what had happened but realizing the animal’s pain, drew closer until he saw that the wooden spike of a trap had pierced the animal in the leg and side, drawing a bright viscous red. To compound matters, the trap had wound vines around the bear’s neck and hindquarters, preventing all but the most minute of movements.
Debating whether to help or run, the elder chose to stay and, at great personal risk, pulled the spikes free of the animal and unwrapped the vines, freeing the beast. The animal, which the old man thought might thank him with a fatal swipe of his great paws, instead spoke in the old man’s language.
“You have proven yourself a truly good man,” the bear said, “and your reward shall be a gift of uncommon sight for you and your people.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, the bear produced a small bag with a drawstring and handed it to the old man, who opened it. Inside he found a number of clear pyramid-shaped crystals of identical size, each giving off a soft light, an eerie glow in the darkness of the forest. Mixed among them were occasional blue oval gems.
“They are very nice,” said the old man. “But how will they improve our sight?”
“The clear crystals,” said the bear, “will give to those of unusual sensibilities the added ability to see beyond the earth and the stars, to that realm of mists and promise to which you all aspire.”
“I don’t understand,” said the old man.
“A person who wears one of these and is worthy will be able to see that which is uncertain to his peers,” the bear said, “to know that which the peers can only guess. It is a window to the outer reaches of the afterlife.”
“The wearer can commune with the dead?” asked the old man.
“Not commune, but envision,” the bear said. “By the simple cosmic law of the universe, it offers vision and knowledge of the hereafter to the worthy. And upon death, the wearer passes swiftly into the realm of good and plenty.”
“And the unworthy?” asked the elder.
“It offers them nothing – they cannot see what the worthy can. And if, upon the advent of death, an unworthy person should be in contact with the crystal, it prevents that passage to the promised land that awaits the worthy in the same circumstance.”
“How does it prevent it?”
“Within the stone itself ... like a genie in a lamp. It is a solitary existence which can be broken only if the soul finds another host.”
“How would the trapped soul accomplish that?” asked the old man.
“Where evil dwells, danger lurks,” said the bear.
“Uh huh,” said the elder, not really understanding. “And the blue crystals? What are they?”
“The blue crystals are much rarer, and must be dealt with cautiously. For they offer an ability to see what is yet to come.”
“Why cautiously?” asked the elder.
“While knowledge of the future is a great power,” said the bear, “it can carry dangerous consequences.”
“Consequences?” the old man inquired.
“Only the strongest can carry the knowledge of what is to be without losing some soul ... some humanity ... some peace of mind. And such knowledge, in the hands of the wrong person, can be corrupted. There is, therefore, a built-in safeguard: Only a worthy person, or a person who has attained the crystal with the willing consent of its previous owner, can partake of its power.”
“I don’t understand,” said the elder. “What kind of corruption?”
“If in the hands of a conscienceless individual, the future could be compromised; altered. And in that lies the potential for great destruction. Therefore, do not dispense the blue crystals lightly.”
The old man and the bear stood silently for several moments, regarding each other. At last the old man spoke.
“Dispense?” he said. “Is that what I am supposed to do with them?”
“Yes,” said the bear. “Distribute them to elders like yourself in tribes around the continent. They will give them as earned to persons who either exhibit good or do unselfish acts that benefit others.”
“How many are here?” the old man asked, peering into the bag.
“Enough,” the bear said. “And not too many. Now go ... see to your task.”
“Very well,” said the old man as the bear turned and started away from him. “But wait ... what do I say when someone asks the name of the crystal I am giving them?”
“Tell them it is the Crystal of Death,” the bear called back over his shoulder.
The elder did not understand.
“Wait!” he called out. “If one stone offers a vision of everlasting life, and another a look at life ahead, how can either be called the Crystal of Death?”
“In death is eternal life,” the bear said. “And in life is death.”
And with that, he disappeared into the darkness.
The call came at 2 in the morning.
Nobody calls at that hour with good news. But this was uncommonly bad.
“Your father’s been stricken,” my mother’s voice said across the lines from Florida. “You’d better come quickly.”
She sounded strong – always sounded that way – but I knew she wasn’t; not now. She was devoted to the man – more than fifty years’ worth of devotion – and would not handle his passing well. So as shocked and saddened as I was at the news, I was more concerned for her. My father’s God – if indeed there was one – would take care of him now; Mom would need earthly caretaking, at least for the short term. And so I moved quickly.
I rousted my wife and two youngest boys, and we packed, drove the six miles to pick up my eldest son at his apartment, and were airborne from Syracuse – a ninety-minute drive from home – as dawn broke. We were walking up the front walk to my parents’ condo before lunch.
Mom met us at the door, looking as strong as ever ... until we hugged. Then she started weeping, great heaving sobs into my chest. I patted her on the back and held her until she gathered her control and stood straight, smiled at Susan and the boys, and turned back to me, locking her blue eyes – hazel blue, now dimmed by cataracts – onto mine.
“He’s in the bedroom,” she said. “Asking for you.”
“Where’s Ben?” I asked. My oldest brother lived twenty miles away. The middle brother, Jesse, was en route with his family from Michigan.
“Making arrangements,” she said. “Making sure the minister is ... you know ... ready.”
“Arrangements?” I said, the fear of imminence striking at me. “Soon, then?”
“Soon,” she said, and reached out and ran her right hand
up and down the fabric of my left sleeve.
I entered the condo while Mom tended to her grandchildren and daughter-in-law, made my way through the foyer, noticed the binoculars hanging in their familiar place, went through the living room with its view of the golf course my parents loved to play on, and entered the back corner bedroom. There, on their king-size bed, lay Dad, covered to his neck by a sheet, looking gaunt and pale. He no longer possessed a whisper of his younger self; was not even a shadow of the robust elderly gentleman I had last seen a few months before.
“Hey,” I said softly after I pulled a cushioned chair from a corner of the room, placed it next to the bed and seated myself. Now that I was off my feet, I felt heavy, dull. Jet lag, I told myself, though I knew I was feeling the weight, too, of impending grief.
My father’s eyelids fluttered, and he took several seconds before focusing on me. When he did, he smiled wanly.
“Hey,” he said back, the word a whisper. “You made it.”
“Yes,” I said, thinking how eighty-four years can wear a man to nothing. “I made it, so don’t you go leaving on me, now. You hear? It wouldn’t be hospitable.”
Dad laughed, a short bark that was more like a wheeze.
“Can’t help it,” he said. “Engraved invitation.”
“Yeah, so I heard,” I said. “Can’t let those command performances go by.”
His hand slid out from the side of the sheet and reached out to my hand; his finger tapped against one of my fingers. He was trying to say something more, but was having trouble finding the strength.
“What?” I said.
“The glasses,” he whispered.
“Your glasses?” I said. “What? To read?”
He tapped my finger again.
“Binoculars,” he managed to say. “You. The binoculars.”
My father had brought back a pair of German binoculars from the war, his war, World War II – the binoculars I’d seen hanging from a hook in the foyer – and they had been a part of the family ever since. They’d been to ball games, on trips … wherever we had gone, they had gone. They were always kept near the front door, no matter where my parents had resided.
“What about them?” I said.
Dad had closed his eyes again, and I feared he might have passed away. But I saw a slight movement in his chest, and knew he was still present, if only barely.
“What about them?” I asked again.
He rallied, opened his eyes, stared at the ceiling and then – turning his head toward me – tapped my finger again.
“The binoculars,” he said. “You take ... carpenter ... moose ... bear ... fill ... terse ... see ... a ... head...”
His eyes suddenly lost focus, and then life. I could practically see it leave him. His chest, barely discernible in its rising and falling before, was definitely motionless now. The finger he had used to tap mine was no longer moving. His essence was ... just no longer there.
I stared at his unseeing eyes for a full minute before reaching out and closing the lids over them. Then I stood, leaned down and kissed him on the cheek, turned and walked out of the bedroom, into the living room. There, everyone was seated – Mom in an armchair, Susan and our youngest boy, David, on the couch, his older brother Jonathan and grown brother Bill on a love seat.
They all looked at me, and knew. Susan hugged David; Bill and Jonathan leaned into each other, and Mom sat motionless, tears streaming down her face.
I walked over toward the front door and stopped in front of the binoculars. They were in their plain black case, hanging motionless by the case’s black leather strap. I lifted them gently from the hook, unclasped the lid, slid the glasses out and replaced the case on the hook.
Then, gently and with a reverence clearly not intended for them, but for their previous owner, I wrapped the binoculars in my arms and drew them into my chest, and hugged them tightly.
And I wept.
The binoculars were unremarkable in style or appearance: standard black, with markings that put their power at “7x50.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. I only knew that they were strong enough to pick out license-plate numbers at a hundred yards, to serve the needs of spectator or voyeur from three hundred yards, and to connect me in a spiritual way with my father.
They were maybe not what they used to be, but not bad considering their age was something approximating mine. They had a little nick here, a scratch there, a couple of eyepiece filters that were never used – tucked into small pockets near the mouth of the case – and a rawhide neck strap I’d recently had to substitute for the original leather one. But they were still sturdy, still functional, still a link to my past – a piece of family lore.
The stiff case – dull black with no distinguishing marks, and what appeared to be dark stains on either side – had kept the binoculars protected for all of their fifty-plus years, save for those few short bursts when they’d been removed for use at sporting events or to spy on the young blonde who lived three doors down from us when I was a teen-ager.
The rubber of the binocular eyepieces was still smooth, with no hint yet of the shredding that would seem inevitable after a half-century. But like I said, the case...
I had the binoculars out – the case at my feet, the rawhide around my neck and the glasses to my eyes, as the Sylmar III fought the surging waves on the crossing from Cheboygan on a chilling autumn day. Sunlight was sporadic as thick layers of cloud whisked by at the urging of insistent winds.
I had the glasses trained off to the left of the Sylmar bow, toward the Island’s southwest corner. By necessity – spray-covered binoculars being of little practical use – I was in one of the Sylmar’s two protected passenger cabins. A sliding door was open several yards ahead, giving air flow to an otherwise stale interior. Windows along the port side gave me a clear view of the Island’s southwestern shoreline.
Between the boat’s rhythmic dips into the trough of the waves blanketing the Straits of Mackinac that day, I could make out the pump house on the Island’s southwest point, a small cinder block structure that had once provided residents with extra water that could, if needed, be used to fight fires; it might yet. Beyond it, many years before, had sat an auto graveyard, an anomaly on an otherwise pristine shore; I couldn’t see if it was still there. To the right of the pump house, on the southern shore to its east, were several cottages and a field – two fields, actually, traversed by a road that disappeared into the woods of birch and pine trees that dominated the Island.
“No hotel,” I muttered, scanning the vacant lot on the road’s left. Addie had told me years before that it was gone, the victim of lightning, but I had never seen the physical evidence. And to the right, across the road, was another vacancy.
“The mansion,” I said softly, remembering. It, too, was gone, of course. I had seen its charred remains the night it burned. But in my mind, somehow, it still stood tall.
“What’s that?” asked a voice at the doorway, and I looked there. It was the boat’s skipper, making the rounds to check on his passengers. His first mate was manning the wheelhouse above us, accessible by a ladder just outside the passenger area.
“Oh, nothing,” I said. “Just dredging up some old memories.”
“Yeah,” he said, stepping inside and moving toward me. “Dad said you were here a long time ago. When was that?”
“When I was a teen-ager,” I said, studying him. He was middle-aged, four decades removed from the infant I remembered. He’d been too young back then, in 1956, to recall me now at all.
“Yeah? And never since?” he asked.
“Nope. No real reason to come back, at first, and then I moved away. You know ... it’s the old story: life kind of takes you over.”
“Well, I don’t really think the place has changed much,” he said, leaning forward and peering through the port windows.
As he did so, I noticed the ease with which he bore the boat’s undulating movement; I struggled to maintain balance, but he had no such problem. He was at ease with his craft and the Straits.
A sense of familiarity washed over me as I recalled my last visit, my last ferry journey to the Island. The familiarity wasn’t in the craft I was riding, for the original Sylmar had been nothing much like this one; it had been smaller and homelier, but with more personality. This one was sleek, state-of-the art, built for speed, comfort and maximum effectiveness; it was wider, longer, and could carry a dozen or more cars compared to its forebear’s one. No, the familiarity was in the crossing itself – the Island tree line growing from thin green ribbon to imposing, inviting forest as we approached – and in the skipper. This skipper was similar to the one I remembered from those years ago – not physically, but in his mannerisms. Look at this man directly, and it was difficult to see the connection. Look at him askance, with peripheral vision, and he could pass for his predecessor. Genetics can do that, play that little trick.
But this man, this skipper, Johnny Lafitte, was not his father. Johnny was too conventional, too thick in the middle, too tall: my height or a touch higher. His hair was too short. He wore glasses. And his eyes were neither as penetrating nor as knowing.
No, his father was unique. There was only one Jacques Lafitte, one Lightfoot Jack, captain of the original Sylmar.
That’s who I was going to see now, across the straits from Cheboygan.
He was waiting for me on Bois Blanc Island.
“You staying out at the tavern? Nice cabins.”
The question came from a woman, one of two people who had just entered the passenger cabin and seated themselves to my right. Most of the other passengers had opted to stay in their vehicles on the deck for the duration of the trip, a form of antisocialism that also provided the warmest crossing, for none would feel the knife of the Straits’ cold northwest wind. Three or four hardy souls were standing outside, at the bow, braving the wind and spray. Johnny Lafitte was still at my side, though he seemed anxious to leave the cabin as soon as the woman entered.
I judged the woman to be a few years younger than me, but decided that she looked older. After 52 years, I still looked no more than 40 or 41. Again, genes; but in this case, they had little to do with mannerisms, for my father and I were dissimilar in that department. In truth, we had little in common physically other than height, and even that was of the unremarkable average variety. No, Dad and I were primarily similar in something a little less tangible – in the tardiness with which age made its visible appearance upon us.
At the same age that I now bore, my father had, thirty-some years before, earned the undying enmity of his former college classmates at a reunion that showcased his youthful mien in the reflection of their aged pallor. He was still young, and they were not. Thus, he was the embodiment of life’s unfairness and worthy of their scorn. My, how he loved that.
Now, observing this woman on the Sylmar III, I felt a little of my father’s pride ... while recognizing it had nothing to do with personal achievement. But with prolonged youth comes vanity, and with it a measure of misguided ego. And so I chided myself while at the same time taking pleasure in the moment.
“No,” I said to the woman. She was dressed in a parka that concealed what form she might possess; a knit cap, blue jeans and steel-toed boots completed the disguise. All I could tell for sure was that she was a good deal shorter than me, that her medium-cropped hair – peeking out from underneath the cap – had gone nearly white, and that her face was a map of long experience. The eyes, a light blue-gray, were surrounded by crows feet and bags; the nose was slightly crooked, as if broken and poorly repaired; the lips were downturned in a perpetual scowl, and a scar ran the length of her left cheek, from eye to jawbone.
“Haven’t seen you around,” she said in a raspy voice that fit with the rest of her. “Can’t have rented a cottage, or I’d of heard. You’re not packing camping gear. So ... you’re a guest. Who you staying with?”
“The old man,” said Johnny.
“Lightfoot?” the woman asked.
“How you know that old buzzard?”
“Don’t, really. Well ... that’s not true. I knew him years ago. When I was a kid. A teen-ager, really. Thirteen.”
“Yeah? When was that?” She was studying me now, trying to gauge my age. “Sixties, right? You knew him back about thirty ... maybe twenty-six, twenty-seven years ago.”
I smiled. It was over forty years, but I couldn’t see the point of pricking her bubble.
“That’s good,” I said, smiling. “Twenty-seven it was.”
She smiled, showing her best feature – white teeth, evenly placed. They looked like the real thing, anyway.
“Hey, you hear that, Claude? I guessed right on the money.”
She had turned to the other passenger, a man roughly her age who had seated himself next to her on a bench along the right side of the cabin.
“I heard you, honey,” he said. “You did good.”
He gave me a disinterested once-over, and then looked straight ahead, toward the port windows, though I don’t think he was paying attention to anything outside. He was either concentrating on warding off seasickness, I decided, or simply resting; it was impossible to tell which.
The woman turned back to me.
“My husband,” she said. “Claude Smythe. I’m Wilda, but folks just call me Willi.”
She held out her right hand, and I reached down and shook it. It was a firm grip, which I met with firmness.
“Avery Mann,” I said. “Pleased.” And we shook loose of each other.
“Where you from, Mr. Mann?” she asked.
“Oooh,” she said. “Hear that, Claude? He’s from the city.”
“No, actually,” I said. “I’m from Upstate.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed, and then looked to her right, through the cabin door, motioning toward the cars on the deck. “So which one’s yours? That Rover out there?”
“None,” I said. “I left it on the mainland. It’s kind of old. If the Island’s roads are still as I remember...”
“Oh, they’re all of that,” she said. “Bone-jarring. You’ll be okay, though. Old Lightfoot has transportation. He’ll get you around. What’d you say you’re going over for?”
“Oh ... a little unfinished business.”
“He’s writing a book. About my father.”
Willi had cocked her head toward Johnny, but kept her eyes on me.
“That right?” she asked.
“Well ... I don’t know,” I said. “That remains to be seen. I might do something on Jacques, but I might not. It’s kind of up to him ... how much he wants to tell me.”
“Jacques?” she said. “You call him Jacques?”
“Well ... yeah. I did when I was a kid,” I said.
“Nobody calls him Jacques,” she said. “Everybody calls him Lightfoot ... or just crazy.”
“Why’s that?” I asked. “Why crazy?”
“He lives off by himself,” she said. “Like a damn hermit. I’m surprised he’s having you out there to that cabin. Never wants to see anybody. It’s unnatural. He used to come see Claude and me regular. Now, months go by sometimes between visits. Isn’t that right, Claude?”
He didn’t even turn his head this time.
“That’s right, honey.”
“Well,” I said, “some people, the older they get, the more they like their privacy.”
“Privacy’s one thing,” she said. “Lightfoot’s just plain antisocial. It ain’t right.”
She signaled an end to the conversation by making a dismissive sniffing noise, rearranging her rear end on the bench, straightening up and peering, as her husband was, at nothing in particular. I watched her, then glanced toward Johnny. He was smiling at me, and shaking his head.
I smiled back, and then – raising the binoculars to my eyes – took another look ahead at the Island. The boat was only about a half-mile out now, and closing fast.
“Well, later,” I heard Johnny say, and I nodded
without breaking contact with the binoculars.
I scanned the shoreline to the west, near where the hotel and mansion had been, and could make out a dock, with a hint of cribs in the water on either side of it. Those cribs – laid bare by storms and waves – had once been the base of a portion of the former main dock. It had been years since I’d heard – in fact, it had been Addie who told me the last time I’d seen her – that the dock had been ripped up by waves, so I was a little surprised to see any part of it remaining. The section that still stood above water was directly perpendicular to the shore, and reached out a moderate distance; it had extended farther years before, not to mention to the sides. But though smaller now, its presence pleased me; it was a visible connection to my fond cache of Island memories.
I lowered the binoculars and – following Johnny’s lead – strode from the cabin. Once on deck, I made my way past the parked vehicles, fighting the undulations created by the waves until I reached the bow. The boat was slowing now, and the mist and wind had diminished accordingly. Taking hold of the railing with my right hand, I raised the binoculars to my eyes with my left and studied the scene on the current main dock – a scene now just a hundred yards away.
There were several people who had braved the weather to
meet the boat as it arrived, but one stood out as we approached –
a short, slender, wiry old man with long gray hair blowing in the wind.
I couldn’t see the knowing eyes and confident, quiet smile at first,
but as the distance between boat and dock diminished, there they were
– though on a much older face than I had carried in my memory.
If I came to the Island, he had told me, I’d have no trouble finding him.
“You get here, I’ll be here,” he had said. “And we’ll talk.”
And that’s what I intended to get him to do. Only then could I hope to find the answer to a nagging question left dangling from that long-ago summer, that summer of Addie and Eliot and Grandpa and the storm.
What I didn’t realize was that once Jacques opened
up, I would learn far more than I bargained for – or perhaps had
a right to know.
The main dock was much larger than its predecessor – a concrete and steel affair for the most part, bordered by a breakwater. As I stepped onto it from the Sylmar III and set my bag down, I noticed that it began as a dirt road, running out from the Island’s primary road – also dirt – before yielding to the strong, inflexible surface upon which I now stood. The breakwater, built along the south and west perimeters, was composed of huge boulders that clearly – judging from the healthy condition of the dock – kept the elements at bay. The entire dock, which bent eastward to form an L, could probably take on the title of pier if the natives so desired.
The old dock, I recalled fleetingly, had been built with narrow boards that had given way under the slightest strain. Driving cars across them – necessary for ferried vehicles to reach or leave the Sylmar – had always seemed daring. But this newer dock ... there was no give to it at all. It could handle a fleet of vehicles at once.
As soon as I completed this mental comparison, I looked for him among the faces moving to and fro. A couple of men were grabbing lines and securing the boat; another was helping Willi Smythe step off the boat and onto the dock; several more were just milling about. But I didn’t see Jacques among them.
And then I felt a hand on my left elbow.
“We should go,” he said. “We’ll soon be losing light, and my night vision is not what it once was.”
I turned at the touch, and stared speechless at the introductory remarks. I had somehow expected a welcome, perhaps a pat on the back or a brief hug. But they would not be forthcoming, nor did they need to be. Old friends, if truly they are friends, can pick up where they left off after a separation of great distance or time.
In this case, it had been both. I had not lived in the state of Michigan for decades, and had rarely visited it in recent years; and on those visits I had come nowhere near the Island. And the matter of time ... it was written in Jacques’ face. A little weather-beaten and wild forty years before, it was still wild, but burnished and deeply etched now by the years of sun and wind along the Straits.
“What are you driving?” I asked him.
“Pickup,” he said, pointing to an old red truck sitting amid a dozen vehicles parked in the dock’s dirt lot.
“Let’s go,” I said. Lightfoot Jack nodded once and strode off. I picked up my bag and followed him.
The drive west and then north rekindled old memories – of childhood days bouncing along the rutted dirt roads in my parents’ 1952 Ford station wagon on journeys to Snow Beach or to the dump or the airfield, and of a trip in a pickup driven by the state conservation officer, Al Jones, when he transported me and Grandpa and my friend Addie Winger to the lighthouse on the northern side of the Island.
On this present-day trip with Jacques, there was little said, for the pickup truck was very old and very loud, discouraging conversation. And so I enjoyed the time, jostling along, remembering, wrapping myself once more in the aura of Bois Blanc.
The first landmark I recognized was Al’s old conservation office, off to the right, set well back from the road. The lawn in front was where Grandpa and Al and the Island’s minister, the Reverend J.J. Stellingworth, had met periodically to discuss life’s vagaries back in those halcyon summers of the mid-’50s. The last time was 1956. That was when I had met Eliot Ness, at one of those sessions, telling tales about his crime-fighting days in Chicago.
We had never heard of Eliot before then, for he was not famous. The fame came later, after his death, with publication of his autobiography, “The Untouchables,” and with a popular TV show of the same name that made him look like a super cop every week for several TV seasons. Which of course he wasn’t – super, I mean, although I gather from my research that he was pretty good at his job. But like all of us, he was flawed, too: a defender of Prohibition who drank, sometimes to excess; a political creature who wasn’t very good at politics, eventually leaving the limelight after losing election for the office of Cleveland mayor; a businessman who was constantly struggling in his last years to make ends meet. When he dropped dead, in 1957 at age 54, he had very few assets.
In that summer of ’56, he had told his tales of Chicago and Prohibition and Al Capone as if clinging to his glory. I had believed his words, but the old men in the group were skeptical ... at least until they’d been drawn into a web of intrigue created by an old gangster who had chosen to settle on Bois Blanc. Turk McGurk, a onetime fearsome hired gun of the Chicago mobs who’d been sent to prison largely through the efforts of Eliot, had anonymously drawn Eliot to the Island to even the score. It turned out, though, that the score had nothing to do with violent revenge. But that’s a rather involved story that would lose something in the translation. For details, you can read this book’s predecessor, Island Nights.
The point about Eliot here is that, in the end, he proved himself a hero in a nasty storm out near a tiny speck of land to Bois Blanc’s southeast called Gull Island. Addie and I had been boating and took refuge there when the storm hit – and were at the point of exhaustion when Jacques and Eliot and Grandpa arrived on the original Sylmar to rescue us. In trying to grab a line they were tossing us, though, I lost my footing and my hold on Addie, and we both went tumbling into the churning surf. With the rain pouring down and lightning dancing about and waves crashing across Gull and into the side of the Sylmar, Eliot dove from the boat and pulled me out of the Straits as I was about to drown and then doubled the effort and found the seemingly lifeless body of Addie. He dragged her up from the dark, turbulent waters and back to the boat, handing that precious cargo up to me and my Grandpa and Jacques on the Sylmar deck.
It's perhaps churlish to suggest that if Eliot hadn't done that – risked his life to save ours – I might have known those many years ago if there was a power beyond this physical existence ... might have known if there is a God. For without those heroics, I would surely have died. In the years that followed, I had given little conscious thought to that night or to God or eternity. But more recently, with images of that night imposing themselves upon me, I had been wondering ... begun a mental quest, I suppose, for answers of a religious nature. The most prominent question was this: Is there a God? And a close second was this: Where do I look to find Him?
For inherent in Addie’s rescue was a religious overtone. My grandfather – the victim of a stroke not many months before that had left him convinced that God required a selfless act of him – had pleaded on that storm-swept deck to be taken in Addie’s place. While he had survived the storm – though physically and mentally spent by the effort – Addie had in fact come back to us. I had wondered at that … wondered if the old man had in fact effected a trade of sorts, but on a delayed basis. For it was not many more months before a second stroke took him from us.
The unresolved matter of Addie’s experience that night – supported by those newly born religious questions – had helped bring me back now, decades later, to the Island. Despite my repression of the incident across the years, there was always – somewhere in my mind – a recognition that the subject must someday be faced. For it was in the saving of Addie that the greatest mystery of my life had always resided.
When fished from the waters, she had apparently been dead. Resuscitation efforts had failed. Grandpa’s pleas to the heavens had had no seeming effect; she was simply not breathing. Jacques had proclaimed her passing with the words “God’s will … God’s will.” And yet ... and yet after all of that she had revived and had survived, seemingly after the fact of her death. Eliot pooh-poohed it as a trick of suspended animation, and neither Addie nor I knew what to make of it. But Jacques ... he was sure she had died, a certainty that the Reverend said later was as ironclad as the next day’s sunrise.
Jacques, he said, would recognize death, for – in addition to locally renowned empathic abilities – he had gained the capacity somewhere along the line to discern the moment when a soul crossed the fine line of transfer between life and whatever transpired afterward. Beyond that, the Reverend would say nothing.
After that summer I left the Island behind in both a physical and mental sense. I discarded the past in exchange for living the present of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s. But then, in the previous few months, I had suddenly felt compelled to delve into that summer – into that storm and that remarkable recovery by Addie, with the attendant religious questions – and did so in a kind of frenzied pursuit, with a need to grab hold of that which was tantalizingly beyond my grasp. I had examined the experience in my mind, and put it to paper in Island Nights. I had dreamed about it, analyzed it, talked about it, and – concerned that it was becoming an obsession – tried without success to forget about it. But whatever my approach to the subject, to that year, or to that evening at Gull, I was continually left with the unanswered questions that had remained dormant for decades, were always there and always nagging, and were now unleashed in all of their layers of ramifications.
How did Jacques know Addie had been dead?
And with an ironclad certainty?
We rumbled along into Pointe aux Pins, the community in which I had stayed as a child, and turned at the corner that had once been the center of Bois Blanc social life. The remnant of the old main dock was on our left, and just before it was the boathouse that had once served as a candy shop; it was where Addie and I had met. North of there, on the road leading into the birch and pine woods, were the vacant sites of what had been the Vanderpool mansion on the right and the hotel on the left – buildings rife with memories but reduced to nothing by lightning. When we reached the woods and started negotiating the sharp turns of the narrow shaded road, I suddenly remembered the deer. They had been plentiful back in my childhood; I wondered how they had fared over the years.
Jacques tapped my shoulder and pointed to the right, into a clearing beyond a line of birch trees. There a family of deer, at their ease, stood watching us, but not with any evident alarm. It was as though they had expected us and were merely nodding acceptance at our passage. They peered our way until we were almost past, and then turned to forage for food along the forest floor.
I looked over at Jacques. He was intent on his driving, fighting the failing light of encroaching dusk, but there was a smile on his face, too.
“What?” I said, loud enough to be heard over the engine.
“They have always been important to you,” he answered. It came out almost a shout.
“The deer. The way they roam the Island freely in all but hunting season. They are, for you, a treasure.”
I smiled back at him.
“You think?” I said, knowing it to be the truth.
“I know,” he said.
“I guess you probably do,” I said.
I turned my attention to the road, thinking that my eyes might somehow help Jacques’ in the dusk. And as I peered ahead, focused on the winding path ahead, my mind toyed with Jacques’ keen insights, rolled them over as though caressing finely smoothed stones washed up at the water’s edge, begging inspection.
Why wouldn’t he know, after all? Jacques – a man of proven empathic powers, which had enabled him to locate Addie and me out there at Gull in the middle of that storm – had anticipated my recent phone call to him, my first overt contact with him since that summer. He had known I would be calling, he said on the phone, and for a simple reason: he had been empathically connected to me in a general way ever since Gull. Such connections were a minor albatross, he had told me, reserved for people who mattered to him.
I had thought briefly, between that phone conversation and my arrival on the Island, that perhaps I should feel a little violated by this psychic link; but I had discarded the notion. He had not been reading my mind; that was beyond his ability. And so my thoughts and secret pleasures and secret guilts remained mine. The link, he had indicated, was a non-specific one, keyed to my general welfare. I found the concept, after some study, to be comforting; it wasn’t a bad thing, having somebody looking after me. Besides, the fact of the connection was seemingly beyond Jacques’ control; had he been given a choice, I think he would not have borne the burden.
Along the way we passed a side road, hard to see in the deep shade cast by the trees; I might have missed it altogether if not for the man standing at its mouth, watching our approach. I spotted him several dozen yards away, for we were on one of the road’s rare long straight-aways. He was an Island resident, I gathered, for it was after the summer-cottage-crowd season. Besides, he looked thoroughly at ease in what I imagined was standard garb among the natives: denims and a surplus military jacket over a flannel shirt. He had a neatly trimmed brown beard and appeared deeply tanned, his shoulder-length windblown hair a brown bronzed by the sun.
My eyes locked onto his figure as soon as I spotted it, for it was the only human form apart from Jacques’ that I had seen since pulling away from the main dock in the pickup. As we neared, my eyes were drawn to the man’s face, and I got the unnerving feeling that I should know him. As the pickup passed him, I could see that he was looking at me. He smiled gently and nodded; I returned the gesture, and could see as my face passed within mere feet of his that I did not, in fact, know him at all. But the look in his eyes seemed to say he knew me.
“Who was that?” I said to Jacques after we had passed by.
“Who was who?” he answered.
“The guy we just passed. In the military jacket and blue jeans.” I pivoted in my seat and looked rearward; the man was growing small in the distance.
Jacques checked his rearview and side-view mirrors, then turned toward me.
“I didn’t see anyone,” he said. “What did he look like?”
“Didn’t see him?” I said. “Jacques, he was right at the side of the road. Long hair, dark tan, flannel shirt. Tallish. Maybe six feet.”
“Nope,” said Jacques.
I studied my old friend, trying to see if he was having some fun at my expense. But he looked back at me and shook his head vigorously.
“Nope. Sorry. Didn’t see him.”
I nodded acquiescence, and turned my attention back to the road in front.
Odd, I decided. Jacques’ eyesight was good enough to negotiate the curves and bumps of this narrow wooded road; and he had spotted the deer off to the side not long before. How could he not see that man?
I pondered it through a few more mild curves and sharp turns, and then gave it up, storing the matter away for future consideration, if the need arose.
We made the cabin in good time. After I took in the view across the Straits, where the Mackinac Bridge reigned majestically, and stood on the front stoop breathing deeply of the clean air – much cleaner, I realized, than the air back home – my eyes settled for a moment on a reed-filled field just west of the cabin. It had played a memorable role in my childhood adventure there.
“You remember when you snuck up on us in those reeds?” I asked as I entered the cabin. Jacques had gone inside ahead of me.
The reeds, though still flourishing, had yielded slightly over the years, permitting the widening of a path leading from the woods to the cabin. The path was now a full lane, indistinguishable in width or potholes from the track that it met at the tree line some fifty yards away – a track that cut through the woods from the wider road that had carried us north from Pointe aux Pins. The north-south road that crossed the Island had widened since my childhood, but was still primitive by most civilized standards: dirt, potholed, and barely wide enough for two vehicles.
Jacques, who was leaning against his kitchen counter, nodded, a slight crinkling around the eyes the only hint of his amusement.
“Sure,” he said. “You came out here to see if Eliot was in trouble with Turk McGurk and maybe if your Grandpa and Al Jones had stuck their feet in it, too. But when you were sneaking through the field there, it sounded like wild boars chasing dinner. I had no idea reeds could make such a racket.”
I laughed, looking around the cabin. I couldn’t believe I was there again, after forty years. The place hadn’t changed much since Turk had lived there with his two cousins – since he’d drawn Eliot north from his home in Pennsylvania. There was electricity now, though, and Jacques – who had purchased the place from Turk’s estate in 1970 – had installed running water and had an indoor toilet instead of the old outhouse. But that was about it as far as evolution had gone.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Subtlety wasn’t exactly my strong suit. But I couldn’t believe how you suddenly appeared in the reeds next to us. I didn’t hear you approaching at all.”
“You weren’t supposed to.”
“Yeah. Still ... you remember what you told us?”
Jacques squinted in thought.
“That everyone was fine?” he asked. “That Eliot was in no real danger?”
“No. About the snakes.”
He thought a moment, and then nodded.
“Sure,” he said. “I’d forgotten. You thought that because of the drought, the rattlers would stay out of the dry reed bed; that they liked things wet.”
“But you said I was wrong; that they liked it dry,” I said. “Boy, did we ever get out of there in a hurry ... at least when it sank in. I don’t think it registered at first. But then Addie and Freddy kind of prodded me.”
“Ah, Addie,” said Jacques. “Yes. A gentle soul. Quite a lovely girl.”
It was our first mention of her since our phone call. She would be a
principal subject of our discussions, but for now ... I didn’t want
to push too quickly. I wanted to get Jacques warmed to the idea of talking.
If he was as much of a hermit or as crazy as Willi Smythe had said on
the boat ride over, then he might not be inclined to speak too freely.
I would have to work on him, develop a rapport. So I didn’t dive
right into the subject of Addie Winger and all the attendant questions.
“Freddy Vanderpool,” Jacques echoed. “I haven’t thought of him in ... I don’t know how long. After the mansion burned, the Vanderpools left the Island, you know. Never came back. Freddy’s mother pleaded ill health, said her constitution couldn’t take any more. Fact is, I don’t think she ever liked it much here. It was her husband and Freddy who liked it.”
“They had a home near Detroit, right?”
“Yes, a huge place. The mansion here was just a summer place, a rich man’s cottage. Better than any year-round homes on the Island back then, but that was the Vanderpools: bigger and better than everyone else. Anyway ... they went back home to Grosse Pointe. As far as I know, they spent the rest of their summers there, too.”
“You ever hear anything about Freddy?” I asked.
“Oh, bits and pieces. Inherited the family fortune when his parents died. They went about a month apart; one had heart disease and the other cancer. I don’t remember which had which. So Freddy got their millions, and as far as I know still lives in the family home. Married. Had a couple of kids; boys, I think. And he kept on racing boats. Lives near the Detroit River, so he used that.”
“Right,” I said. “He had the fastest boat on the Island. A two-cockpit job that really flew. Took it out every morning. In fact, that’s what Addie and I rode in when Freddy brought us out here that day. She and I were kind of wedged into the rear cockpit. You think he takes those morning jaunts any more?”
“Oh ... still his habit, I imagine,” said Jacques.
I was admiring the clear northern night sky. It was cold sitting outside, but my wife had sent me on this journey prepared. In addition to sweaters and long johns, she had made sure I packed a winter coat, winter hat and winter gloves. I opted for all but the long johns after dinner, grabbed my binoculars from their case and wandered out Jacques’ front door while he was cleaning up in the kitchen.
Once outside on the small front stoop, I breathed deeply of the fresh, crisp air, and stared skyward. The Big Dipper was easy to spot, along with the Pleiades and the Northern Star. The rest of the sky was filled with pinpoints of light, some bright, some barely discernible, a mix of intensities that seemed, in their inequality, to be dancing.
“Beautiful,” I muttered, and stepped forward off the porch and down a hardened path to the dock that fronted the cabin. It was L-shaped, breaking off to the right at 90 degrees after three full steps out above the water. I couldn’t tell in the darkness, and had not noticed in the light, what the age of the structure might be. But it was shaped exactly as I remembered the one there four decades before, the one Addie and I had sat on with Grandpa after discovering that Turk McGurk was not the malignancy I had imagined – that he was just an old man bent on regaining an edge on some level of his life, but peacefully.
It probably was the same dock, I surmised, but upgraded periodically, new boards replacing those rotted by the wind and the rain and the sun and the waves.
The moon, almost full, was high in the sky to the east, visible just over the woods bordering Jacques’ cabin. I gave it a brief look through the binoculars, and marveled at the result. I could see craters clearly, the craterless Sea of Tranquility, and even some detail on the slivered portion that was still in shadow.
I was still looking when I heard the creak of the door to the right and behind me as Jacques came out, and his footsteps as he trod the path and the dock. He soon reached me at the end of the structure, and without a word we stood there together, looking eastward and then turning toward the northwest and the tourist mecca of Mackinac Island. The stores in the distant downtown section of Mackinac were brightly lit, a common sight in the late spring and throughout the summer, but not for long in the fall. They would be blackened before too many more nights passed. The shops that were the Island’s primary draw – purveyors of fudge, leather goods, tourist trinkets, clothing and fine dining – would be closing with few exceptions for the winter season soon, as would the magnificent Grand Hotel.
Addie and I had visited the hotel, as had Eliot, during a daytrip there in 1956. According to brochures I’d seen in preparation for this journey more than four decades later, the hotel and its lush grounds were little changed; great care had been taken in its upkeep. It had in fact been used in the early 1980s for scenes in the movie Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, which said something for its condition. Hollywood is, if nothing else, particular about its settings.
“You are remembering the last trip you took there,” Jacques said. “The one with Addie and your grandfather and Al Jones.”
“Yes,” I said. “You ferried us over. Visited the cemetery up high in the Island’s center, as I recall. Your ancestors.”
“Indeed. I visit there regularly. I find it a fulfilling exercise, keeping touch with my roots.”
We were silent again for a minute, each with our thoughts. I imagine he was contemplating those visits, or perhaps those ancestors. I was thinking back to the portion of that bygone day in which Addie and I, heated from riding a tandem bike around the Island perimeter, had shucked our clothes down to our underwear and jumped in the Straits to cool down. The proximity of her clearly defined flesh had, however, only served to heat me up again.
“She was in the water far too long to have survived,” Jacques
said, breaking into my thoughts.
“I can’t attest to that,” I said slowly. “I was a little disoriented myself, almost drowning and all. And then the emotion of it, when I thought she was dead...”
“She was dead, my friend.”
I was both surprised and not surprised by the declaration; I mean, I knew of his and the Reverend’s belief in what had transpired out there, but the simplicity of the pronouncement was stunning. My answer, accordingly, was argumentative.
“But the line between life and death is not that easily defined, Jacques, not without medical equipment.”
Jacques looked skyward, to the northwest, and picked out a star; I didn’t know its name, but it was bright – easily outshining the others.
“See that?” he said, pointing. “The one that stands out most.”
“Yes. Sure,” I answered.
“Bright star, yes?”
“Uh huh,” said Jacques. “Obviously. But is it not true that by the time we see many of these stars, they have already burned out? That the light we are seeing is in fact a death throe that takes so long to reach us that it no longer exists at its point of origin?”
“Yes, as I understand it,” I said. “We are, in essence, viewing the past.”
“The past,” said Jacques. “Yes. But more to the point, it is an example of things not being what they seem. The star seems to shine, but of course it no longer is.”
“How does that relate to Addie?” I asked.
“How you perceive things and how they are can sometimes be radically different,” he said. “For instance, there is your perception of Addie’s drowning.”
“If in fact she drowned...” I said.
“Do you know how long you were in the water … how long you were, in fact, underwater?” Jacques asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “As I was saying, it was confusing.”
“Just so. Your perception was – and is – skewed by the shock of the event as it applied directly to you. It disoriented you. Do you remember that she went under first?”
“Yes,” I said. “I fell into the water trying for the line, and by the time I got back up, she was gone. I desperately tried to find her, and was in the process of drowning when Eliot reached me.”
“Yes, well, you struggled to find her for a good two minutes, and then another three passed while Eliot saved you, handed you the line and got you pointed toward the boat. Another couple went by as you thrashed about on the way to the boat, another one as you were hoisted aboard, three more as you regained your breath and your strength, and then at least six more until Eliot suddenly popped up with Addie.”
“I thought that only took a couple of minutes, after I got my sea legs,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll compromise it to five,” said Jacques. “No less than that. You were, as you say, confused. And that makes sixteen minutes from the time she went under to the time we fished her out.”
I was shaking my head.
“But Eliot said it could happen. A suspended state, or maybe she wasn’t underwater all that time.”
“It was another seven minutes, easily, before she suddenly came alert,” said Jacques. “That’s twenty-three. But even without those last seven, I tell you she was dead.”
I swiveled my head left to take in the old man at my side. But there was little to see in the darkness, for even with the moonlight his face was too burnished to reveal much.
“I’m afraid,” I said, “that I can’t be convinced of that on the basis of your time estimates. I just don’t have enough facts. How long was she underwater? How long can a body survive without taking an apparent breath? Did the cold of the storm and the water somehow slow her heartbeat or breathing? Was there some sort of suspended animation?”
“There was no suspension,” he said evenly.
“Perhaps not,” I answered. “But Jacques, I need more. Look … In our phone conversation, you indicated a willingness to talk about your past – the past the Reverend said was the key to this thing. Are you still willing?”
Jacques took a deep breath.
“I suppose,” he said. “Now that you are here, though, it is not as easy as I thought. But I said I would, and I shall. But not tonight, Avery. It is drawing close to my resting time, and I prefer to tackle this from a fresher perspective.”
“And the tape recorder, Jacques? I brought it, with plenty of cassettes, as you suggested.”
It was, in fact, at the bottom of my travel bag. I had harbored doubts as to whether he would accede to its use once I was here, but I had brought it nonetheless. Nothing ventured...
“As you wish,” Jacques said. I could barely see his head nodding affirmation in the moonlight. “We will talk in the morning. But we must break in the afternoon. We have to go back across the Island for something.”
“Okay,” I said. “Business?”
“I have to pick up a package.”
“No,” he said. “My son will be bringing it across on the boat. Now, let me say goodnight. I will be sleeping in the bedroom. You can take the couch.”
“Okay, Jacques. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll stay out here a little while.”
“That’s fine,” he said. “See you at first light.”
He shuffled back along the dock and the path toward his front door, but stopped before going inside.
“Avery,” he said.
“Did you get the letter I sent you – about the Crystal of Death? About the bear myth?”
“Yes, just before I left from home,” I answered. “I was wondering about that; you didn’t explain why you sent it or what it meant.”
“It is necessary preamble,” he said. “You will understand. Good night.”
He swung open his front door and stepped inside, closing it gently behind him.
Alone again, I scanned the shadow of land on the horizon, first to the west and the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and then to the north, where the Upper Peninsula sat in its quiet, wooded splendor. Then my eyes swung back toward Mackinac as, one by one, the lights of its shops shut down for the night, turning the Island from a bright beacon to ... well, a barely discernible obstruction in the flow of the Straits.
With the glow muted, I couldn’t understand at first why there
was so much light above and to the right of Mackinac; it made no sense
to me. It hadn’t been there when all the lights were on, so why
Now, the Northern Lights had just come out to play again. I don’t know how common an occurrence it is there, to see them from Bois Blanc. But from a personal standpoint, a handful of sightings over half a century qualified the moment as unusual – and quite special.
And so I sat and gawked, marveling at nature’s wonders, and wondering if they were the handiwork of some God ... which of course would mean there was a God after all. Something so ethereal, so beautiful as those lights almost couldn’t be a mere accident, I thought. Or could they? Just where could I find an answer?
Well, I had a sense of where I might look. Especially if Addie had really died … had been resurrected those many years before. If so, then wouldn’t God have played a role?
Yes, I could look right there, on Bois Blanc. Right there, in the person of an old man thought crazy by his friends.
Maybe, just maybe, I could find some firm signpost in my visit that could point me in the direction of a deity ... give my poor religiously muddled brain a shove away from its stubborn position in the middle, away from the morass that lies between faith and utter disbelief.
Next: Chapters 5 through 13 can be reached by clicking here.
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