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Islander: Book Two of
(continued -- 6th and final excerpt)
By A.C. (Charlie) Haeffner
The following is the final segment of a novel the publisher of this website wrote a few years ago. The previous chapters can be accessed here and here and here and here and here. 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).
Our remaining discussion dealt only with the specifics of the plan for the binoculars.
Then, that completed, there was nothing more to be said, short of a thousand questions about religion and creation and the afterlife, but I couldn’t quite ask any of them. I don’t know if the reluctance was within me, or applied by the will of the carpenter, or simply a product of time and location. All I know is we finished and, in so doing, the carpenter shook my hand.
“Thank you for helping,” he said softly, and nodded toward his front door. I turned, took the few steps to the door, and paused to look back.
“And don’t forget the binoculars,” he said.
“I won’t,” I said, and stepped through the door, expecting to be met by the large furry guide again. Instead, I instantly found myself back on the northern shore of the first of the Twin Lakes, with Addie and Jacques those several paces ahead of me, frozen in mid-step. I felt wobbly for a moment, as if my equilibrium had been compromised, but a deep breath seemed to correct the problem. Looking out on the lake for the boy and the old man in the fishing boat, I found a surface devoid of anything but gently rippling waves.
Scanning the shoreline around me, I spotted the binocular case just to my left, knelt to retrieve it and placed its strap back over my left shoulder.
Then, wheeling toward my companions, I saw them complete the steps they had begun so long before – or what seemed like so long before.
“Hey, guys!” I called out.
As they planted their newly landed feet, they turned and asked in unison:
“Wait up,” I said. “You’re going too fast for me.”
We passed through the channel and hiked into the woods bordering the second lake, making our way through the thick growth until it gave way to the clearing surrounding the cabin. Before approaching the front door, Jacques turned to us.
“Now, are we agreed on the procedure? We feel him out, try to get him to submit to an exorcism. If my father holds any sway at all, we may be able to pull it off. If Mussolini has control, then I don’t see that he would submit – except perhaps as a challenge. We might go for the manhood angle; make him feel like a coward for not taking up the gauntlet.”
“Sounds okay,” said Addie. “I just wish we weren’t flying by the seat of our pants on this.”
I didn’t say anything, and they both looked at me.
“What?” I said.
“Are we agreed?” said Jacques.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Whatever you guys want.”
Jacques nodded, satisfied, but Addie looked at me closely through slitted eyes.
“What’s going on?” she said.
I wanted to tell her, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t feeling the sense of denial feared by the carpenter, but was facing a simple fact: If I tried to describe what had happened, I’d sound crazy. After all, walking on water? A bear guide? The carpenter in the woods? Besides, even if I was so inclined, the old man’s cabin was no place to get into it.
“Nothing,” I said, trying to sound innocent. “Let’s do it.”
She studied me a couple of moments more.
“You heard him,” said Jacques. “Let’s go.”
She shook her head slowly, almost imperceptibly. I don’t think Jacques saw it, but I did.
“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
Jacques knocked, and the old voice carried through to the front stoop.
“Who the hell is it?” it shouted.
“Sounds like we’ll have to challenge the bastard,”
he said, before raising his voice and shouting back.
“You can come in, and she can!” the old man shouted. “But that young pup can stay outdoors!”
Jacques turned toward me, seeking help.
The carpenter and I had, in our final moments, anticipated the old man’s possible responses upon my approach; this was the most likely. So I was ready.
I whispered instructions to Jacques.
“Tell him I’ve brought the binoculars, but add this – that I thought he might like to hear a story about ... how they are part of the Legend of the Crystal of Death.”
Jacques stared at me, no doubt wondering what game I was playing. How, I imagined his look to be saying, did the binoculars fit into the legend?
“What are you doing?” Addie hissed. “We didn’t discuss any such story.”
Jacques reached out and touched her shoulder.
“Wait,” he said, and thought a moment before turning back to me. “You have such a story?”
I nodded once, quickly.
Jacques gave a little motion of his head, and turned back to Addie.
“It’s all right,” he said. “Let’s go his way.”
She appeared to want to say something, but held it in check, whatever it was. Jacques, satisfied, spoke through the door again.
“The young man has something to tell you, Papa. He knows what a World War Two buff you are, and has brought along some binoculars that once belonged to a Nazi. He thought you might like to see them, and hear how they are connected to Il Cristallo di Morte.”
There was silence from within, and I think I heard a snort before the voice was raised again.
“The Crystal of Death?” the voice answered.
Another silence was followed by accord.
“Very well,” he said. “He may come in, too. But I expect him to be on his best behavior.”
“He will be, Papa,” said Jacques, opening the door and leading us into the cabin.
The interior was without lamp or other artificial light. The only illumination was from the sunlight coming through the three windows adorning the living room, but the old man had minimized that too by almost completely closing the windows’ curtains.
He was seated in his reading chair, but in the absence of light was not reading this time. I suspect he had been napping when we approached. Anyway, it took the better part of a half-minute for my eyes to adjust to this shadowed interior – before I could clearly see the expression on his face. But I could tell from the tone in his voice how pleased he was to once again have Addie in his midst.
“Ah, my dear,” he said, extending his bony right hand toward her. She in turn placed her right hand in his and allowed him to bestow a gentle kiss upon her knuckles.
“Mr. Lafitte,” she said softly. “How very good to see you again.”
“The pleasure is all mine, my dear,” he said. “Please sit down next to me. Jacques, pull that chair by the window over here.”
Jacques went to the western wall, where a spindle-backed chair was set. He carried it across the dozen or so feet to the side of the old man, set it down and dusted it with his hand. A small cloud lifted from it. Once he was done, Jacques motioned to Addie to seat herself, and she complied.
Only then, after she was seated – and after giving her another kindly smile – did the old man turn toward me and acknowledge my presence. But it wasn’t really my presence that he was interested in; it was what I had brought with me.
“So,” he said, setting his eyes upon mine. “You have
brought something? A memento from the war?”
After staring at the glasses for a protracted period, he spoke.
“What do they have to do with the crystal?” the old man asked. “Is this story of yours fact or fiction?”
“Oh, I’ll let you be the judge,” I said, and looked at Addie and Jacques. It was for them, too, that the words would be spoken. I found it necessary – in light of the plan the carpenter and I had decided upon – to tell them some of the binoculars’ history, without mentioning the carpenter. That particular aspect would remain confidential for a while, and perhaps forever: a private memory. But I needed my friends to understand the power of the binoculars; and I needed Mussolini to know too, but for a different reason. I needed him to know so that he would feel an overwhelming compulsion to obtain them, to possess them, to use them to his own evil ends.
And in so doing, I could set up the transfer, and get him out of the body of Jacques’ father.
I reviewed the legend of the bear, with emphasis on the rare blue oval crystal, and related the history of Abraham Mann and his visions and his ocular creation. I went over the horrors inflicted on the Jews in Berlin and of the Nazi stranglehold that ultimately swept Abraham up and sent the binoculars on their way; recounted the glasses’ path as they worked their way across Europe to my father’s hands; and told of my father’s final moments and how the binoculars had consequently been passed to my care-taking.
When I finished, I waited for a response, but none was immediately forthcoming. The old man had his eyes fastened on the binoculars as I continued to hold them and, periodically, swing them gently in front of him. Jacques was looking in turns introspective and curious, his eyes darting from the old man to the glasses, over to me and back to some point in front of him as he absorbed all of this new information. And Addie...
Addie was looking at me as though I had stepped out of an alien spacecraft, as though she didn’t recognize me but wanted to discover, through dint of visual study, what made me tick. I gloried in her response, and gave her an enigmatic smile in return that probably came off a little smug. But then, I felt a little smug.
The old man was the first to speak.
“And the filters are ... in the glasses?”
I patted the binoculars case.
“In here,” I said. “Where they’re normally kept – set in little protective sleeves.”
“Can I see them?” he asked. “Try them?” The tone was almost polite, but a touch of greed was in there, too.
“Not here,” I said. “They work best in sunlight, and where the vista is clear and distant.”
That wasn’t the case at all, as far as I knew, but it was essential that he think so.
“When then?” he asked. The words were practically spit out.
“Soon,” I said. “I was thinking of maybe on the western
shore, over at your son’s cabin. They should work well there. What
do you think, Jacques? Can we arrange a little get-together, say tomorrow?”
“Too cloudy,” I said, embroidering. “Tomorrow is supposed to be clear and bright. We can do it early – say around 10. What do you think, Jacques? All right with you?”
Jacques wasn’t at all sure what was transpiring. I could sense that I had confused him with my story – where could I have come up with it, and to what end? – and with my sudden evident belief in the legend, not to mention my assertiveness in dealing with the old man. But he decided to play along.
“Yeah. Sure. Ten would be good,” he said. “Papa, I can swing by and get you a little earlier, then take you out to my place.”
“No need,” I said. “I’ll come in and pick him up; save you a trip. Then we’ll meet you and Addie back at the cabin. I’d like a little time alone with him, anyway. Okay with you?”
Jacques studied me, glanced at the old man, and shrugged.
“Whatever,” he said. “If that’s what you want.”
“Addie?” I asked.
She was still staring at me, gauging.
“Addie?” I said again. “Okay with you?”
Her eyes flickered, and she worked a smile onto her face.
“Fine with me,” she said, almost convincingly. The old man didn’t seem to notice her hesitation.
“And you, Mr. Lafitte?”
He pried his eyes from the binoculars and looked up, his eyes seeking mine in the dim light of the cabin’s interior.
“Don’t be late!” he said.
By the time we had finished with the old man and returned to the northwest shore, neither of my companions was talking to me.
Jacques and Addie were clearly thrown off by my sudden acquisition of the Abraham Mann saga and by my sudden change of spots, as it were, from skeptic to proponent of the ethereal.
Addie kept shooting me looks that suggested I was a turncoat, even though the turn had been in her direction. What bothered her most, I was certain, was my failure to confide in her before relating the saga in the presence of the old man – although where or when I might have accumulated such knowledge was no doubt gnawing at her, too.
Jacques was more difficult to read – part of his normal persona as a rule, but more pronounced now, as though he had pulled a shade down over his eyes that said “Do Not Enter.” His thoughts I could perhaps surmise, but the effort seemed too daunting; I was having enough trouble dealing with my own.
Disapproval I could take, but the silence each was imposing on me was a bit much, so I opted for a walk in the woods.
“Going out,” I said.
“Oh? Where to?” asked Jacques.
“Why bother asking?” asked Addie. “He won’t tell us, anyway.”
I gave her what I thought was a suitably wounded look before answering.
“Oh, back on the track, then maybe into the woods. I haven’t really explored much in this area yet.”
“Well ... be back before dinner,” Jacques said. “I’ve got plans for us.”
“Oh?” I said. “What?”
“Plans,” he said. “I’ll tell you later. Now go ... go.”
He pushed his hands forward, as if shoving me away.
“Yes. By all means go,” said Addie, her nose up.
I grabbed my coat and started to leave, but turned back to pick up the binocular case from the card table and hang it by its strap off my right shoulder. As I reached the door a second time, I stopped, looked back at Addie and gave her a smile. I meant it as a peace offering, but I guess she could have interpreted it otherwise. Anyway, she saw it but pretended not to, turning her head suddenly aside.
“Back by dinner,” I said, swinging the door open and then closing it softly behind me.
The walk did not yield much of discovery at first – a couple of deer, some solitude and a windbreak – but provided me a chance to ponder all that had transpired that day: the trip to see the old man, complete with some half-baked notion of an exorcism; the boy and man on the lake, and my first-ever walk on water; the bear; the carpenter; the tale of Abraham.
As a trained observer, it all seemed real to me; and yet, as a trained observer, it all seemed a bit beyond reason.
I found a clearing in the woods and sat, my back against a tree stump, the day’s weak and sporadic sunlight filtering lightly down around me. As I rested there, the light seemed to brighten, caressing me, urging me to continue my thought process.
Was it possible that all of that had really happened? I told myself that logically – by the laws of physics and everything earthly – it could not have. But then again, what had happened – if it happened – was not of the earth, and so why should physics and logic apply?
Could I have hallucinated something so detailed, remembered it so vividly, learned a history so layered and so tightly fitted to the one that Jacques had related?
Did not the words my father uttered on his deathbed make sense in view of what I had now seen and heard?
Or was my subconscious working overtime trying to make something of those very words – creating a scenario by which I could understand my father’s dying message?
“Oh, my,” I muttered, rubbing my eyes, closing out the sun’s rays and the gently shadowed scene before me. Perhaps if I just kept my eyes closed, looked elsewhere, looked inward...
I uncovered my eyes, staring ahead at nothing in particular, weighing whether I really wanted to do it, or whether I should. “What if it doesn’t work?” I mumbled to the woods, and when they failed to answer, I asked this: “What if it does?”
I hadn’t really given direct thought before to the possibility of putting the carpenter’s story to the test. And now that I was thinking about it, I could feel my heart accelerate as if I were running. My left hand worked its way across my chest and down my right side, to where the binocular case rested, angled on the ground and against me, its strap still dangling from my shoulder.
“Well, what the hell,” I said. I slid the strap down and lifted the case up onto my stomach, unfastened the clasp and pulled free the binoculars. Then, gingerly, careful not to damage them – or perhaps a little wary of them – I pulled the two filters from their slots.
They were unremarkable, just blue bits of glass encased in circular black metal framing. Small, I thought. How could anything so small be the cause of so much mischief?
I held one up toward the soft light above, trying to see something, anything, on the other side, but all it yielded was a dark blue hue.
Holding the binoculars steady in my left hand, I placed the filter in the eyepiece on the right and snapped it in place.
“Easy enough,” I said, marveling that I had never utilized them – whether my father had removed the filters from the case years ago or not. I had, after all, had them in my possession since his death.
I took hold of the second filter and placed it in the left eyepiece and felt it seat itself. Then I sat for several moments ... perhaps more than several ... screwing up the courage to take a look through the binoculars.
“Come on,” I said to myself. “It’s the only way you’ll know for sure.”
But as soon as I said it, I wondered whether even a vision of the future would thoroughly convince me – for if I somehow had hallucinated the bear and the carpenter, surely I could hallucinate a future that would never be.
“Oh, lord,” I said. “Get a grip. You’re here alone, on the Island, in the woods. This is all real, just as that was all real. Your butt is freezing, for heaven’s sake, so get a move on.”
And that was the clincher, really: my rear end was cold. I was sitting in a damp spot, and the cold of the forest floor had worked its way through my pants and was starting to numb my backside.
My eyes and ears might deceive me, I decided, but my rear end wouldn’t ... and wasn’t. Whatever was about to transpire was grounded in reality.
And so, with barely a breath between that revelation and the subsequent motion, I lifted the binoculars to my eyes and peered through them into the forest.
I encountered Addie in front of Jacques’ cabin upon my return. I had been gone longer than I expected – wandering the woods, thinking – and early evening had taken hold, bringing with it a dimming light and a hint of the chill of the coming night.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked. “Where’s Jacques?”
“He said he wanted to rest,” she answered. “Besides, I needed some fresh air.”
She was seated on his small front porch, legs touching the patch of lawn that fronted the building. I sidled up next to her, but didn’t sit, leaving one foot on the lawn and placing one on the porch. From there I could look down at her and, following her gaze, out across the Straits in the direction of Mackinac.
“Pretty,” I said, for the scene was more than just an island a few miles away. The sun was off to the left of Mackinac, softening as it fell, leaving the Island shadowed from our perspective: a dark mass to the right of a reddish evening flame cast across the Straits, a flame reaching all the way to the shoreline a few feet in front of us. The water, rippling slightly in the gentle wind, gave the flame the illusion of motion, as though it were swaying slightly, dancing to the song of the handful of stars coming out in the sky overhead and to the east. Stars seemed to be dotting Mackinac, too, as a few of the shop lights on the island’s main street popped on.
“Do you remember our visit to Mackinac?” Addie asked. “Our tandem bike ride around the island, our swim, our trip to the Grand Hotel?”
“Indeed. It’s indelibly etched. Especially the swim.” The image of Addie stripped to her underwear that long-ago day – and me to mine – brought a chortle from somewhere deep inside me.
Addie swung her arm into my leg; it was intended as rebuke, but came
off as something much less.
“It was a grand day, a grand summer,” she said.
“Yes,” I agreed. “And it seems as though it doesn’t want to let go.”
Addie looked up at me, squinting in the dusk, trying to see what my face revealed, and – finding an answer there – nodded.
Addie and I had just walked in, but didn’t see our host. I called out softly, so as not to wake him if sound sleep had claimed him.
“In here,” he called from the bedroom, and stuck his head out. “Just getting up; be right out. You were gone a long time. Have a nice walk?”
“Yes,” I said. “Quite interesting. The Island is a very ... inspiring place. Good for clearing the cobwebs.”
“Yes, it is,” called Jacques. “But listen, I was thinking. How’d you guys like to see a different island tonight?”
Addie clapped her hands and looked at me with bright eyes.
“Mackinac,” she said. “Oh, let’s.”
Jacques came into the living room. The only interior light came from an overhead bulb in the kitchen. It was supplemented by the rapidly fading sunlight wafting through the various windows.
“I thought you’d like that,” he said. “It will
be a good change of pace; let us all clear our minds a little.”
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “There’s not much to do over there. I’d definitely say no if you had a TV, Jacques...”
Addie hit me in the arm.
“Ouch,” I said. “I mean, great idea. It’s been too many years ... Really. It sounds good.”
“That’s better,” she said.
“There’s still a handful of shops open, a couple of night spots, the Grand Hotel,” said Jacques. “The island will be pretty much shut down for the winter in another week, except for a couple of restaurants and bars. Snowmobilers and cross-country skiers are about all it will soon be seeing.”
“The Grand Hotel!” said Addie. “Oh, yes; it would be such fun to see it again.”
I liked this Addie a lot better than the one who had been casting verbal aspersions and nasty looks my way earlier, and I hated to put a damper on her enthusiasm. But there was an obvious question that needed to be asked, and I just hoped Jacques had a good answer.
“But Jacques, how do we get over there?” I said. “There’s no boat at your dock. We gonna have Johnny take us over?”
“No,” said Jacques. “Remember the day of Gull Island, back in ’56, before the storm, when you needed a ride back to Pointe aux Pins? You had gotten a lift out here to Turk’s cabin with Freddy Vanderpool when you thought Eliot needed help, and Freddy left in a huff after discovering that Eliot was in no danger. Remember how you got back?”
“Sure,” I said. “You had the Sylmar anchored up around the bend, in a little cove.”
Jacques was smiling broadly.
“Oh, wow,” I said, suddenly excited. “You don’t still have the Sylmar, do you?”
He was nodding, almost giggling.
“But Jacques,” said Addie, “you’re not in competition with your own son, are you?”
“No, no,” he said, “it’s just something I’ve kept for private use. It’s almost like a member of the family. Anyway, it’s there, and we can be on it and under way in a matter of minutes. First, though...”
He walked over to the kitchen, lifted a crock-pot from the counter and carried it to the card table. I hadn’t even noticed it there, despite the aroma of cooking food. Removing the lid, he smelled the contents.
“Ah, yes,” he said, pleased. “First we have some chili con carne. That’ll give us a little stick-to-the-ribs sustenance for the cold night air.”
He retreated to the kitchen again for a minute, returned with bowls and spoons and drinks, and we all dug in.
Little detail of the Sylmar could be seen in the dark, but the short dinghy trip felt like a homecoming, anyway, for the Sylmar held a place in my memory as a vital and appealing link between mainland life and the magic of the Island. A Sylmar journey had been the first and last Island-related experience every summer in which my family had gone to Bois Blanc. My memory bank cherished the quality of those rides: the hum of the engine, the swaying motion, the spray kicked up as the ferry sliced through the waves, and the foghorn voice of the skipper – Jacques, Lightfoot Jack – as he casually piloted the craft while chatting with his passengers. And I remembered – embraced – the role the boat had played in saving me from the Gull Island storm, and in bringing Addie back from apparent death that violent night so long ago.
After we reached the Sylmar on this night and climbed up from the dinghy, the first thing I did – the moment I was on deck – was caress the boat’s port railing, as though it was a long-ago lover.
“Beautiful,” I muttered as I wandered the deck, examining the vehicle and passenger areas, touching a window here, a chain there, a seat cushion, and finally the pilot’s wheel itself.
“Yes,” said Addie, reacting in much the same way, joining me on my tour.
“Okay, time to go,” Jacques said after securing the dinghy and checking out the engine compartment astern. He moved quickly across the length of the boat and claimed his seat, forcing Addie and me aside.
He started the engine quickly, and we were under way.
I couldn’t see much through the windshield, other than some lights along the Mackinac shoreline – shops on the main street – and, up the hill to their left, the brightly lit portico of the Grand Hotel.
The trip was bearable despite the chill because of the presence of a heater to the side of Jacques’ perch. After she had warmed herself, Addie wandered to the rear of the cabin – separated from the open ferry area by a canvas flap – and, lifting the flap’s edge, ducked underneath it and went outside.
Jacques and I exchanged a look, and then I followed her, lifting the flap as she had and passing by into the night air. I was stunned at first by the cold – a product of the autumn temperature, the Sylmar’s motion and the spray that was flying by as the boat cut a swath to Mackinac. But a couple of deep breaths helped me adjust, and I continued toward the rear.
Addie was standing slightly to the starboard side, a bit more than halfway back, looking down at the spot where, so many years before, she had lain apparently dead while my grandfather had keened to the heavens above from a position farther astern.
She had come back that night, and lived, and served her God for most of her natural existence – and now, in this moment, had returned to the very spot, though not geographically, from which she had recovered and risen.
I tried to think of something fitting to say, but was at a loss. She broke the silence.
“Funny,” she called out above the wind. “I don’t feel any older; not really. It seems like it just now happened.” Then she looked up at the sky – a starlit heaven with an occasional rapidly moving cloud – and then at me.
“Your grandfather,” she yelled. “He’s out there, you know.”
She motioned skyward with her hand, and I scanned the stars.
“I suppose,” I said. “But where?”
“The place where good souls go.”
“Can you point it out?” I said, feeling a bit churlish. “Is it, like, near the Big Dipper, or what?”
She moved closer and reached up to touch my cheek.
“You’ll see him someday,” she said. “Because you are a good soul, too. I know ... it’s difficult to visualize such a thing, but believe me: souls exist, and leave the body, and the good ones go to a place of grace. I’ve seen them, and I feel their peace. I can’t tell you where this place is ... but I believe it is out there.”
“And the bad ones?” I said.
“I’ve encountered a couple,” she said. “They feel the antithesis of peace.”
“That, regret, resentment ... many negatives rolled into one. They know that something unpleasant is ahead.”
“But not what.”
“Not at the point where I’ve seen them, no.”
I looked into her eyes, thought of the closeness we once felt, the closeness we still felt, though of a different order. I reached out and touched her hair lightly.
“Let’s go back in,” I said.
“Not yet,” she said. Instead, she strode to the stern, where she looked back across the water we had traversed, back to the south and Bois Blanc. It was darkly shadowed there save for one window – Jacques’ kitchen window – giving off a pinprick of light.
I positioned myself next to her again, to her left, and leaned on the rear gate that for years had doubled as an entry and exit ramp for all those vehicles the Sylmar had ferried. It had probably been turned up in its locked position now for a decade or two; might even be rusted shut.
“What happened to you out there today, Avery?” she said softly, leaning in so I could hear her over the wind and the waves and the engine’s whine.
I thought of several possible answers, some way around the truth that would not set her off on another of her fits of pique. Well, I thought, I would have to tell her the truth sometime, so why not now? But I couldn’t – it was too complex, too bizarre for me to deal with right then – and so I decided instead on a simple, direct and misleading response that elicited exactly the kind of reaction I should have anticipated.
“I found Jesus,” I said.
Her reaction was swift and well aimed. This time her punch had some speed and meaning to it, and caught me in the fleshy part of my right arm.
“Owww!” I howled. “Geez, Addie. Chill out.”
“Damn you, Avery,” she hissed. “I asked a perfectly reasonable question. I do not expect a smart-ass answer.”
I was rubbing my arm, wondering what – if anything – to say next. What was safe?
“Sorry,” I ventured, taking a step back just in case. “Let’s just say I had ... a revelation.”
“A revelation,” she echoed, a touch of sarcasm in her voice. But then she said it again, toyed with the word before continuing. “A revelation ... what, like a vision or something? Or aren’t we really talking theologically here? I mean, where did that binocular story come from?”
“The story...” I said, trying to figure out an acceptable response that wasn’t a blatant lie, yet something that would satisfy Addie’s evident view of me – religiously speaking – as a doubter, a skeptic, and a person whose beliefs lay somewhere in the muck.
And then I remembered my distant ties to old Abraham Mann. “Let’s just say the story is an old family heirloom,” I said, “passed down from one generation to another.”
“Ah, hah,” she said victoriously. “I thought so. It’s like the myth … but not true. I mean … you can’t see the future through those things. Right? No … of course you can’t. What am I saying? Like you’d be in charge of a magic crystal.”
I smiled. She was making this pretty easy. But I decided to string her
along a little – to play hurt.
Addie looked at me to see if the tone – accompanied by a pained expression – was sincere. And decided it wasn’t.
“Yeah, right,” she said. “I’m sure that the powers-that-be would entrust something like that to Mr. Skeptical.”
I looked at her and just gave a quick half-smile, as though to say, “Okay. You win.” But she wasn’t through; wasn’t quite ready to let it go.
“In a pig’s eye, they would,” she muttered, and then another thought clearly struck her. “But then ... what’s all this about tomorrow, Avery? With the old man? Why get him over to Jacques’ place?”
“Oh, that,” I said airily. “Just to get him away from his little castle; his little throne. I thought we might have an advantage on our own turf.”
“Yeah ... okay,” she said slowly. “But what about the binoculars? I mean, as soon as he looks through them, he’ll know it’s a con.”
“Addie,” I said, tiring of the questions, “trust me on this one, okay? I’ve got it covered. Let’s just enjoy the evening; forget about the old man and try to enjoy ourselves. Any chance of that?”
The Sylmar’s horn sounded, startling us both. We turned in unison and looked around the starboard side of the cabin, to the approaching docks bordering downtown Mackinac. The shop lights shone brightly now, the darkness of night having long since settled in.
“Okay,” she said, leaning back toward me. “A little fun would be fine. But Avery...”
“Jacques is counting on us to help him with that old man. Whether you believe the Mussolini story or not, I need you on this one.”
I was nodding my head, but wasn’t sure she saw it.
“I know,” I said.
Mackinac Island – home of fudge and leather and an historic old fort on a bluff overlooking the Straits – is a tourist mecca in the summer. But come autumn, it starts folding in on itself until only the hardiest of souls – winter-lovers – venture to its shores. Most of it essentially goes into hibernation.
Now, though, it still boasted fine dining, entertainment and – up at the hotel – a show of wealth. As soon as we docked and made our way to Main Street, we could see the effect of summer’s end in the locked doors and “Closed for the Season” signs in more than a third of the shops. But that left two-thirds, and so we wandered into and out of them before deciding to visit a local tavern that was featuring a ragtime piano player.
The tavern, a second-story affair of worn wooden floors, polished brass
fixtures and comfortable round tables bearing the scars of knives and
forks, offered a basic menu of chicken wings, pasta and beer. Jacques
and I opted for the beer and some beer nuts, but Addie asked for a soft
The piano player was a middle-aged fellow in striped vest, baggy dark pants and bowler hat. He was taking requests, but fortunately had his own songs, too, to fill in the time. The tavern turnout – low – was yielding few people with a yen to hear personal favorites.
The three of us watched, mesmerized by the man’s dancing hands, until he took a break nearly a half-hour after we’d arrived.
“He’s good,” said Jacques. “I’d forgotten that they get some pretty sizable talent over here. I come to Mackinac quite often, but it’s been years since I did something like this.”
With the break, and warmed by the food and drink, we left, wandered back down Main Street, took a left and climbed a gently sloping road toward the old fort, a structure overlooking the Straits that had been a key point of defense two hundred years earlier but was now but a curiosity and a visitor attraction.
When we reached the base of the fort’s bluff, we looked up at the long walkway that would take us up to the fort’s entrance if we so desired; at this point, though, it would be but a matter of exercise, the fort being a strictly daytime operation. It was locked tightly now.
“I think,” I said, “that we’ve probably walked off our food; I don’t fancy that climb.”
“Nor I,” said Jacques, looking up the walkway and then back down the hill we had just negotiated. "You know, it’s very peaceful up here – at least at night; it’s too busy during the day, really. This is my favorite time on this island; the quiet seems to help conjure up the glory of its past. It’s quite a rich history, you know; the French, the British...”
He lapsed into a silence, and the three of us stood there, looking out over the roofs of the Mackinac shops and restaurants, out into the darkened Straits, the night cold slowly working its way back into our blood.
“Well,” said Jacques at last, shaking himself from whatever reverie had overtaken him. “Shall we move on?”
“By all means,” I said, eyeing that long walkway up to the fort again and giving silent thanks that Jacques wasn’t in a climbing mood.
“Where to?” said Addie.
“Over a couple of blocks,” said Jacques.
“The Grand Hotel?” she asked, a touch of excitement in her voice.
“The Grand Hotel,” he answered.
We were stopped at the entrance to the opulent hotel by a male employee who wore a uniform that was the same rich red color as the carpeting we could see in the lobby beyond him.
“Registered guests?” he inquired.
“What? No, no, we just wanted to see the place,” Jacques answered.
“I’m sorry,” the doorman said, “but we can only let our registered guests into the hotel, unless one has placed you on a special visitors list. I take it you are not on our list?”
“No, I’m sure we’re not,” said Jacques.
“Then I’m afraid I must refuse you entrance,” the doorman said. “Unless, of course, you are here to register.”
“How much are rooms?” I asked, curious.
“They start at $250, sir,” he said.
“A week?” said Addie. “That’s not too bad.”
“No, ma’am,” the man said. “That’s nightly.”
“What!” she said. “Good lord. What’s the high end?”
“Rooms can be booked for as much as $750 per night, ma’am.”
Addie leaned over and whispered to me.
“They’ve gotten a little snooty,” she said.
“I think they always were,” I whispered back.
“Yeah, but they used to let us in.”
Jacques spoke up again.
“My good man,” he said. “Perhaps you would find it in your heart to make an exception in this case.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the man said. “Rules are rules.”
“Yes, so they are,” said Jacques. “But …”
“Excuse me, but is there a problem?”
The voice came from within the lobby – a voice belonging to man I could not at first see, my vision obstructed as it was by the doorman.
“No, sir,” said the doorman, straightening perceptibly and turning slightly toward the oncoming man. “I was just explaining…”
“Jacques!” said the newcomer, who now came into my view to the doorman’s right. “What are doing out on such a cold night? I thought your joints were too old to stand such weather.”
Jacques stepped forward, brushing past the doorman and clasping hands with the stranger – who obviously was no stranger, at all; at least to Jacques.
“Bernard,” he said, smiling up at the man, for the fellow stood a good five inches taller than Jacques. “I was just about to ask for you through this gentleman. It’s good to see you; it’s been too long.”
“Indeed,” Bernard said, and then turned to the doorman. “Consider these people my guests, Cecil.”
“Yes, sir,” said the doorman, stepping to his right – our left – to clear the way for our entrance. Accordingly, we took several steps inside, stopping near Jacques and his friend.
“And who,” said Bernard, peering down nearly a foot to Addie, “is this enchanting creature?”
“Ah, Bernard,” said Jacques. “Allow me to introduce Miss Addie Winger and Mr. Avery Mann. They are friends of mine, visiting for a while and staying on the Island with me.”
“Indeed,” said Bernard, as he took Addie’s hand. “It is an honor to have you here, Miss Winger. And you as well, Mr. Mann.” But I doubted his sincerity in my case, since he barely looked in my direction.
“The place looks great, Bernard,” said Jacques. “But I didn’t realize you’d buttoned it up so tight. Don’t like the public invading anymore?”
Bernard gave Addie a last smile, and let loose her hand. Then he straightened and turned to Jacques.
“Ah, it is not that exactly. We would love to accommodate everyone, but it is increasingly difficult – especially since that movie they filmed here … that “Somewhere in Time,” with Christopher Reeve and the Seymour woman. It has gained a cult following, you know, and … well … has inspired some of its devotees to seek souvenirs beyond those available in the gift shop, if you get my drift.”
“I think I do,” he said. “Short of nailing everything down, there’s no real way to defend against sticky fingers, is there?”
“Indeed,” said Bernard. “And so we reluctantly have become more exclusive.”
“A shame,” said Jacques, who then addressed Addie and me.
“Bernard is an old friend. He too has ancestors up in the graveyard. And as is clear here, he has a position of responsibility at the hotel. What’s your title now? Night manager?”
“Yes,” Bernard said. “Not bad, eh? I started as a bellhop, and now I’m in charge after dark.”
“Indeed,” said Jacques. “Well … what are the chances of a little tour? My friends here visited this place many years ago, and were looking forward to doing so again. I’m afraid I encouraged them, not knowing your visitor policy.”
“Not a problem; not a problem,” said Bernard.
“I would like in particular one thing,” said Jacques.
“And what is that?” said Bernard.
Jacques motioned to their right, held his hand out for us to stay where we were, and adjourned to a point some twenty feet distant, where he whispered in his friend’s ear for the better part of twenty seconds.
When Jacques was finished, Bernard thought a moment, and then nodded.
“Yes,” he said. “That can be arranged.”
Jacques returned to us, and nodded.
“He’ll give us the tour now,” he said. “Ready?”
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Addie, her words laced with suspicion. “What ‘particular thing’ is it you want, Jacques?”
“Oh … just a personal favor,” said Jacques.
“Like what?” I said.
“Just personal,” he repeated. “You’ll see.”
And he set off after Bernard, who was moving now toward the right rear of the lobby, heading – if I remembered correctly across forty years – in the direction of the dining room.
My memory was sound.
We entered the dining room and crossed it briskly, heading toward what I gathered was the area of the kitchen. Along the way – through a front room and a larger rear dining hall, I noticed but a dozen tables in use by patrons, and decided the hotel was surely on its last pre-winter legs.
We exited the dining area through a swinging door, and indeed entered the kitchen – a stainless steel-dominated, L-shaped room that was likely akin to a beehive in the summer, but was now lethargic in pace and manned by a mere handful of employees: a dishwasher, a couple of chefs and what I assumed were two busboys – both leaning against an unused sink, chatting as we came in. When they saw Bernard, they jumped to attention.
Bernard paid them no heed, though; just marched past them, around a couple of counters, and took a right at the room’s L – at which point we lost sight of him. Jacques followed him around the corner, and Addie and I – lagging behind – regained visual contact with the two men only after we too had reached the room’s turn. They had by then stopped several yards distant, at the entrance to a large walk-in cooler. Bernard was opening its heavy door, and stepping inside.
Jacques turned as we approached.
“Stay here a moment,” he said, and followed his friend into the cooler, closing the door behind them.
Addie and I looked at each other in the ensuing silence.
“What’s going on?” she said.
“You tell me,” I said.
We stood like that for perhaps three minutes, maybe four. During that time, we said nothing; conversation seemed somehow out of place in that sterile environment. Finally the door swung open, and Jacques came out.
“Ready?” he said.
“For what?” I answered.
“For this,” he said, and stepped aside.
Bernard was coming through the door now, his arms outstretched and palms up in front of him, carrying a sizable chocolate-covered cake. Three candles stuck through the frosting were burning atop it.
“Voila,” said Bernard, and bent over so he could hold the cake low, at an angle. In that way we could see the top – or more specifically the script written in white frosting across it. It said this:
“In 3 there is strength. Thank you, my friends.”
I looked at Jacques. He was beaming.
I looked at Addie. She was crying.
“Oh, geez,” I said. I never could deal with a woman’s tears. And in light of the sentiment expressed on the cake, I had to wonder if I was doing the right thing – if my plan the next day was the proper one … or perhaps a misguided venture that by its very independence marked it as a fool’s errand. Perhaps the strength Jacques saw in our friendship was the key to solving his father’s plight.
But then I recalled what I had seen that day in the binoculars, and renewed my resolve. I felt slightly traitorous about it, but saw no alternative. And so, as we retraced our steps to the dining hall, cut the cake, ate it and washed it down with champagne supplied by Bernard, I celebrated our trinity as I plotted my own separate course.
The morning broke as predicted in the forecast: bright and clear, with the promise of some warmth. I was the last one up, and entered the cabin’s living room just as Jacques and Addie were sitting down to eat some pancakes that Jacques had prepared. The pancakes were stacked on a platter, and he was shoveling three of them off onto Addie’s plate.
Jacques nodded to me as I entered, but Addie cast what I took to be a wary look. Her eyes seemed to say that she still didn’t like my plans for the old man as she understood them, with this addendum: Don’t let Jacques down.
But Jacques cast no such looks, maintaining his inherent civility.
“Plenty of flapjacks,” he said. “You’re welcome to dig in.”
“Thanks. Don’t mind if I do.” I knew I would need fortification for the challenge that lay ahead, and pancakes seemed to offer a suitable energizer.
I sat down opposite Addie, and Jacques dropped three pancakes on my plate and two on his. I slopped on some butter and poured a liberal dose of maple syrup on top, and dug in. My companions seemed equally famished; the meal went on for several minutes without conversation. We were all intent on filling our bellies.
After finishing and wiping my mouth with a napkin, I watched Addie take the last couple of mouthfuls from her plate and then, together, we watched Jacques polish off his last bite.
Now done, we sat there, each casting glances at the others. But nobody said anything, and after a few moments Addie rose, walked to the front door and quietly exited. I excused myself a short time later, went into the bedroom, gathered up the few items I would need for my morning’s journey – a yellow rain poncho that compressed into a small pocket-sized pouch; a couple of candy bars for fast energy in case it got too enervating out there; and of course the binoculars – and bid Jacques goodbye.
“Be careful on the curves,” he said. “The truck’s kind of loose. Too fast and you might lose it into the trees.”
“Right,” I answered. “No problem.”
I stepped outside the door and turned to my right, toward the truck parked at the side of the cabin. As I swung in that direction, my eyes caught sight of the figure of Addie out on the end of Jacques’ dock, her legs dangling over the edge, swinging, her shoes not quite touching the water.
Stopping to watch, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the young Addie, about the same size, who had seemed so easily dwarfed by the scope of the Straits and the sweep of the woods and the wide northern sky. From here, at this distance, I could almost believe I was looking at the girl who had so enchanted me in my formative years.
But of course I wasn’t.
After a few seconds, she turned her head to look at me, squinting her eyes against the bright morning sunlight. We stared at each other for several seconds, but said nothing; and then I resumed my mission, heading for the truck and, once there, starting it and heading down the track away from Jacques’ cabin – driving toward the Island’s interior and an evil old man whose time should have long since passed.
The trek to the Twin Lakes was uneventful, and I drove closer to the cabin than on the two previous visits by continuing up the narrow tree-lined track and parking near the rough entrance drive that Jacques had told me about – that he hoped one day to repair enough to use. I could see as I got out of the truck that the drive was impassable – overgrown and full of huge holes and swales that would rip a vehicle’s underbody to shrapnel in moments. I didn’t like the idea of parking in the one-lane roadway, but saw no choice. I reasoned that the old man’s condition wouldn’t permit the lengthy walk along the two shores that Jacques, Addie and I had negotiated; that it was worth the risk of temporarily blocking an oncoming car or two. As it turned out, none happened to approach while I was parked there.
The old man slowed my progress after I arrived at the cabin; he kept me waiting while he put in his dentures and puttered around his bedroom. It was odd, I thought, considering his seeming impatience the day before to try out the glasses and filters; although I think, in retrospect, that perhaps he suspected something was amiss and part of him was forestalling whatever unpleasantness might await him. I could swear I heard him muttering in Italian in his bedroom, which struck me as fairly careless.
Then the walk to the pickup – despite the abbreviated distance – took longer than expected because of his deliberate gait, his joints and bones having rusted years before.
“Slow down,” he said as we worked our way through the woods, even though I had already slowed more than I wished. “I can’t possibly keep up this pace, short of having a heart attack.”
I ignored him for several paces, but was brought up short when he grabbed my sleeve and yanked on it, digging in at the same moment with both heels.
“Or maybe you want me to have a heart attack,” he spat, eyes narrowing.
“Nonsense,” I said. “It’s just that if we take too long, we may lose the good light. I’ve heard it’ll cloud up this afternoon.”
“Light, schmight,” the old man muttered. “We go slower, or we turn back.”
I reached toward the binocular case, hanging by its strap from my neck. Taking hold of the strap, I leaned forward so that the case was temporarily dangling away from my body, and swung it gently, tantalizing and taunting him at the same time.
“We turn back, you don’t get to see these,” I said.
He glared at me, and I in turn smirked at him until, after a standoff
of some seconds, he grunted.
“Right,” I said. “Slower.”
And we continued on to the pickup at the same pace.
When we turned left at the end of the side road, toward Pointe aux Pins instead of Jacques’ cabin, the old man – who had seemed to weather the walk well – was quick to react.
“You turned the wrong way,” he said.
“No,” I answered. “Didn’t I explain? We’re on Plan B.”
“You said nothing.”
“Well, Addie figured that if we wanted a good clear view, we might as well go out on the water. That way, you look around in all directions without obstruction. From Jacques’ shore, you basically only have the west and southwest to look toward, and part of that is obstructed by Round Island. You know ... that little state-owned preserve off of Bois Blanc?”
“I know, I know,” the old man muttered, though whether he did or not I couldn’t be sure. If there was still some of Jacques’ father in there, then of course he knew; any resident of Bois Blanc would be very familiar with Round Island. But if Mussolini had gained total control…
“So, anyway,” I said, “the idea is to take Jacques’ old boat, the Sylmar. But the water at Jacques’ dock is too shallow for the Sylmar to get in there, so rather than have you try to board it on a wobbly dinghy, Jacques and Addie will swing around and get us on the main dock on the south shore. Sound all right?”
The old man didn’t answer.
“Okay?” I said.
He lifted a bony hand and waved the question away.
“Whatever,” he said.
The main dock wasn’t particularly busy, it being a good hour or more, I figured, before Johnny and the Sylmar III came across from Cheboygan on its daily mail run.
There were a handful of mid-sized craft tethered to the dock, and a couple of them had activity aboard. Beyond that, a half-dozen or so people were spaced out along the length of the dock, a couple on the dirt causeway that jutted out from the main road to the dock’s concrete and steel, and the rest on the dock proper. One man was fishing, while a trio was deep in conversation near him, seated on three of the hundreds of huge boulders that were piled along the dock’s exterior to serve as a breakwater. The trio seemed to be doing exactly what they intended to do for most of the day: waste it.
As we parked in the dirt lot along the shore, the old man scanned the scene ahead.
“They’re not here,” he said. “I thought you said they’d meet us.”
“Yeah. I guess they’re running a little late,” I said. “No problem. Let’s just go out to the end of the dock and wait.”
“What’s wrong with here?” he asked. “I’m comfortable.”
“No breeze,” I said, and indeed it was easily the stillest I had seen the Island since arriving – and rapidly gaining warmth. “Too uncomfortable here. We can catch some wind out there. Come on.”
“Oh, hell,” he said, opening his door and struggling to the running board and then down to the ground. “Dragged all over just to get a look through some binoculars.”
I smiled at his discomfort, and saw him eyeing the binocular case hanging from my neck and resting on my chest.
“Well, we can always take you back,” I said. “I don’t care if you look through them or not.”
The old man grimaced at me.
“I’ve come this far,” he mumbled. “Might as well go the rest of the way.” And he pivoted and marched – if an aged limp can be called a march – to the beginning of the dock and out onto it.
We waited out there, seated at the end of the concrete walkway, our feet dangling over the pier’s edge, for 10, then 15 minutes – long enough so the old man was getting impatient and starting to let me and anybody else within earshot know it.
“Plan B, eh?” he said. “And a mighty fine plan it is. What moron came up with this, anyway?”
“Addie,” I reminded him.
“Oh, that’s right,” he said. “Well, shows not even she’s perfect. Horrible idea. Damned boat probably wouldn’t start; or sank. And I thought you said there’d be breeze out here; it’s so dry it’s practically suffocating me. I’m not gonna sit here much longer.”
He went on for a couple more minutes in that vein, but eventually paused – just long enough for a voice to break in on us from behind.
“Excuse me,” it said, and I turned to see a man standing not three feet to our rear. The old man didn’t seem to notice, so the stranger repeated himself.
“Excuse me,” he said again, and the old man turned and looked up. The stranger was backlit from our angle by the bright gray sky, and so his features were obscured.
“What?” the old man answered gruffly, squinting hard against the light.
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear,” the stranger said. “You seem to be waiting for a ride. I have a boat off the end of the dock here, and was wondering if I might be of assistance. I was just about to head out toward Cheboygan; I have business there that will take about an hour. Is there any chance you’d be going in that direction?”
The old man looked at me, and then leaned back to see around me to our left. I followed his gaze to a ramp running down from, and parallel to, the dock, and to the boat tethered there: a red-hulled inboard with seating for four. It looked powerful enough to get us across the Straits in short order, but of course that wasn’t the intended goal.
“You say you’ll be over there an hour? Then what?” the old man said, looking up at the backlit figure again.
“Then I’ll be coming back here. Why? You planning on returning here today?”
“Yeah, you might say that,” answered the old man, who clearly was going for the bait. He wanted to get out on the water and try the binoculars.
“No problem,” said the figure. “I can bring you back, too.”
The old man struggled to his feet, looked over the breakwater to the west, turned to check out the east, and then scanned the open water south. There was no sign of the Sylmar.
“We accept,” he said.
“Now wait a minute,” I said, figuring that good form mandated I at least try to put in a word on behalf of our tardy friends. But the old man cut me off.
“We accept,” he said again, looking down at me. “It’s better than nothing. No arguments.”
I gave a slight shrug, pushed myself upright, and looked up at our benefactor. With the backlighting no longer in play, I could see the beard and the long hair and the military-style jacket. His face was serious; and I guess mine was, too.
“My name’s King,” he said, holding out his right hand. I extended mine to his, and taking hold, he pulled me in close, whispering in my ear.
“This part was easy,” he said, and backed away, pivoting toward the old man, who was waiting now at the edge of the dock, where the ramp began. The carpenter took him by the arm and guided him down the ramp and onto the boat.
As he did, and as I followed them on board, I couldn’t help but think ahead to the grim nature of our self-imposed assignment.
The storm materialized out of nowhere, its huge blackness and ferocious winds preceding a sheet of rain that we first saw racing toward us off the starboard bow and ahead of us – a hundred yards to the west and south.
“What the hell?” I yelled. “Where’d that come from?”
I was behind the carpenter, in a rear-facing seat but kneeling so that I faced forward. The carpenter was directly in front of me, the old man in the seat to his left. On the dashboard in between them hung a coil of rope on a hook. We had been out for but a couple of minutes, a ride that proved rougher than the old man had envisioned. Where the Sylmar or Sylmar III could ride small waves smoothly, this craft bounced over them with sharp slapping movements. The old man was gripping his seat, and had gone paler than usual; the thought of trying to use the binoculars had not been raised since the carpenter accelerated away from the main dock.
And now this: a sudden storm of frightening dimensions.
“Turn!” the old man yelled. “Turn it around! We can’t go into that.”
“No kidding!” the carpenter yelled, and veered left, away from the wall of falling water that quite literally had developed in a matter of seconds. This was completely contrary to most Straits storms, which you see and smell coming for miles. It was, however, reminiscent of the startling abruptness with which the storm had struck in 1956, stranding Addie and me on Gull Island – the storm in which she had died, in which she had lived.
I don’t pretend to understand the powers that directed that storm of ’56, nor do I possess any inside information on how this current one was being engineered. I only knew that it was in the hands of the carpenter, part of the grand plan he had outlined for me in the most general of terms before my departure from his cabin the preceding afternoon.
“Trust me on this,” he had told me near the end of that session. “We’ll start things, and let nature do most of the work. It will be a fury.”
And so here it was, to our right and straight ahead and – I could see as we turned sharply east – also to the north, the direction from which we had just come. It was in the shape of a horseshoe, leaving us but one direction in which to travel ahead of its path, one safe passage to pursue as it narrowed at our sides and closed in behind us.
We sped along, throttle wide open, bouncing higher now as the waves ahead joined their compatriots around us in swelling and slapping at the hull of our craft. The wind, howling, may have been actually pushing us, adding to our forward progress; I don’t know. I was too intimidated by the slashing sheet of rain and the lightning starting to dance in its midst to take stock of such fine detail.
I couldn’t gauge for sure, but thought in the midst of this mayhem that the carpenter had surely worked it all out. Our path was on a direct line to the only body of land we had a chance of reaching before being absorbed into and tossed about by the elements. We would no doubt reach it in time, I told myself; gain some measure of safety by the very fact of footing underneath us.
Yes, that bit of land directly ahead was his intended destination; had been all along.
We were heading for Gull Island.
The next couple of minutes, as we bore down on Gull, were a whirlwind of fear and uncertainty and anticipation. I kept looking behind and to the sides, fearful of the lightning above all else, as I had been in that storm those many years before. In the midst of the wind and the fear, I somehow managed to pull out, and unfold, the yellow poncho I had grabbed before leaving Jacques’ place; but that precautionary garb, born of the carpenter’s weather warning, did me no good. A massive gust caught it and ripped it from my grasp, and carried it out into the Straits.
The carpenter, meanwhile, was steady at the helm, keeping the boat on course, skipping from wave to wave and ahead of the horseshoe-shaped curtain of rain. The old man was still gripping his seat, and I think whimpering, though it was difficult to hear in the wind and the thunder and with the boat’s engine whining.
Landfall seemed one moment to be immeasurably distant, too far to outrun the oncoming storm, and in the next almost upon us. Being a small piece of land with probably no more than 500 square feet and but one defining characteristic – a tough, gnarled old tree that was top-heavy with thick leaves up high, and devoid of branches down low, a tree still thriving more than forty years after I’d first seen it – Gull didn’t look large either at a distance or close up, accounting for the seeming suddenness with which we were on it.
The carpenter kept the engine going full bore until the final few feet, and then cut it and gripped the wheel with one hand and his seat with the other to brace for impact. I wrapped my arms around the sides of my seat, hugging in closely. The old man, I saw, had one arm braced over the back of his seat, and one extended out to the dashboard.
We hit the western edge of the island straight on, and the boat –
slowed but still moving forward – careened up and, airborne, cleared
half of the Island’s width before landing hard and then sliding.
It came to a stop about three yards short of the eastern edge, and the
carpenter jumped right into action.
“Turn it over!” he shouted, pointing to the starboard side at which he stood.
The old man and I hurried around the bow and over next to him. Then we all reached low on the hull, finding a grip in the fiberglass molding, and lifted, although I can’t say just how much good the old man was doing. But the boat slowly rose upward at our urging, and we managed to get it high enough so that the wind did the last of the work, pushing the craft until it rolled over, hull up. As it landed, the windshield crumpled, and the boat settled lower, hugging the ground.
“Underneath!” was the next command, and the carpenter leaned down, grabbed the gunwale and lifted the boat up about a foot, providing space for the old man and me to scurry along the ground and into the relative shelter of the boat’s interior, now a protective bubble.
As soon as the two of us were in there, I had a disquieting flashback to 1956, when Addie and I had tried a similar maneuver with a smaller boat and had had it blasted off of us by a bolt of lightning. I found myself doing two things in the moment of remembering that: I crossed myself and looked anxiously for the carpenter. But he was not there; had not followed us to shelter.
The old man discovered the same thing at the same moment.
“Where is he?” he had to yell, for while the sound of the wind and the waves and the thunder was muted, the torrent outside was drum-beating loudly on the hull.
“I don’t know!” I answered.
“He shouldn’t be out there!” the old man shouted. “We need him here!”
There was a wild edge to the old man’s voice, and I suspect his eyes would have reflected it – if there was light in there to reflect anything. But it was dark enough so that I could barely discern his outline, even though he was but a couple of feet away.
I was debating what to do when I felt the old man’s bony hand on my forearm; he was squeezing hard.
“We need him here!” he yelled, his voice high and panicky. The grip was quickly turning painful.
I had no idea why he was so desperate for the carpenter’s presence, for they had just met for the first time on the dock scant minutes before. Perhaps the carpenter comforted him; he could have that effect. But to allay the old man’s fears – and more importantly my own – I announced a course of action as an alternative to staying put.
“Okay! I’ll check!” I yelled, and pried his hand from
my arm. But rather than relinquish me completely, he clutched at my shirt
– and caught hold of the binocular case still hanging over my neck.
“Go get him,” he yelled, “and I’ll give them back!”
I knew he wouldn’t without a struggle, but considered the matter of little importance at that moment, in that circumstance. He was too scared and too feeble of hand – and it was too dark – for him to even try to find the filters and install them in the eyepieces. And even if he’d been able, I knew it would do him no good.
And so I left him the glasses, turned, lifted the edge of the boat and rolled out into the screaming wind and crashing surf and pounding raindrops attacking Gull Island.
The shock of the cold rain forced me to hunch down before I could get my bearings. Collecting myself and shielding my eyes from the onslaught, I managed to raise myself upright and peer around after a few moments, scanning quickly, keeping the rain slanting in from the west at my back. Then I started backing into the rain, looking right and left, swiveling my head, trying to find some sign of the carpenter.
I ran into something solid, and thought for a second that it was the gnarled tree. But then I saw the tree to my right – illuminated by a flash of lightning – and turned quickly.
“Nice night!” the carpenter yelled into my face, and I momentarily staggered with the surprise of the greeting. He caught me at the elbows and steadied me, looking me over as he did so.
“The binoculars!” he said, leaning in close to my left ear.
“Where are they? Does he have them?”
“He grabbed them!” I shouted. “Almost broke my neck. I was gonna just leave them, like you said, but he really wanted them. The bastard’s strong!”
The carpenter leaned in close again.
“Good!” he said over the storm. “Whether you left them, or he took them, it doesn’t matter. We’re all set for the next phase.”
“You mean the transfer?”
“Yes,” he said. “I think you’ll appreciate it. I don’t think I mentioned it, but you might want to hunker down by that tree. It’s going to get nastier.”
The tree again. Forty years before, Addie and I had lashed ourselves to that very tree to try and ride out the storm that had erupted around us so suddenly. Then Eliot and Grandpa had arrived with Jacques, and Addie had been taken from me by the Straits, only to be resurrected. But “hunkering down” would do little good without something with which to secure myself.
“Here,” the carpenter said, holding something out to me. At first, with the storm’s fury, I couldn’t make out its shape, but a prolonged lightning flash revealed it to be the coil of rope I had seen in the boat.
I took it and stepped back, trying to read in his face the strategy here, but the rain obscured his features. In the process, I squared directly to the wind and now caught the full force of a blast of air and rain. I stumbled back another step before righting myself, only to find myself flinching at an especially bright bolt somewhere above. But in the light of the moment, I managed to see something that seemed out of sync with the fury of the storm and the nature of our task: the carpenter was wearing a broad smile. He was fully enjoying himself.
It was but a moment between that smile and the carpenter’s gentle touch on my arm, a directional push accompanying a movement of his head in the direction of the tree. As soon as he took a step toward it, I followed, looking back over my shoulder at the boat, wondering what the old man underneath must be thinking, wondering if he had pulled the binoculars free and was frantically trying to find the filters, wondering whether he was feeling fear in the midst of the maelstrom, or indeed if he were even truly capable of fear; for he was, I had to remind myself, the remnant of a horrible dictator who had killed without compunction in Italy and aligned himself with an even greater beast across the Alps, in Germany.
As the carpenter and I reached the tree, we turned in tandem back toward the boat – some twenty-five yards distant – and, leaning into the wind, fought off the continuing deluge.
“What now?” I yelled.
He pointed to the rope in my hand.
“You’ll want to wrap that around the tree and tie yourself in,” he called back. “As soon as it starts.”
Then, his message evidently complete, he cast his gaze skyward, into the dark, looking for something, though exactly what I could only imagine. All I could see, looking up, was the tree bending in the wind and, beyond that, sheets of rain.
I turned toward the carpenter.
“What’s happening?” I shouted.
“Obviously!” I yelled. “But how is it happening? Where does that come from?”
The carpenter was shaking his head.
“Trade secret!” he yelled. “Just watch. You will learn all that you are capable of learning through your eyes. I can add no more.”
I looked at him, thinking – with journalistic curiosity, I suppose – that there must be some way to pry more out of him, but he was not looking at me. He was looking up at the beam, and then looking at the boat where the beam had landed.
“It will get rough now,” he said. “Time to lash you down.” He took my arm and had me sit by the tree, facing west – away from the boat – shook the coil of rope free and wound it around me and the tree, securing me to the trunk for the second time in my life. The rope was loose enough, though, so that I could maneuver my body left and right – twist to see what was happening around me.
“What about you?” I yelled. “Shouldn’t you be tied down, too?”
“No need!” he answered, and took a step back, focusing his attention on the light show and then turning at the sound of fury arriving from the east. I swiveled and, straining, looked east as well, and saw the funnel as it sprang up from the Straits not fifty yards from our tiny atoll, a dark foreboding shape that would have been obscured if not for the beam of light playing upon the overturned boat.
The distinction between the two phenomena was simple enough, as was the general role of each: positive and negative forces were at play, antitheses that I suspected would soon collide.
As I watched, the funnel kept climbing from the surface of the water, feeding from it, gaining in intensity until, a hundred yards high and perhaps ten across, it started moving away from its place of birth, moving south a few feet and then north, as though trying to find its balance. Then, settling, it started moving steadily in our direction, straight for Gull, its rushing sound competing successfully with that of the storm still breaking on all other sides of us.
Inexorably it came our way, my way, gaining speed as it approached, sweeping in quickly now, throwing mist ahead of it and then – as it churned closer to land – bits of sand and some small pebbles. They hit me like tiny razors, forcing me to stop watching, to snap my head back toward the west, away from the funnel, positioning my body so the trunk of the tree was shielding me.
When it reached the shoreline, the bite of debris on skin increased, though it was merely hitting me on my right shoulder, the part of my body exposed from that angle. And then – I could see this peripherally, without turning my head much – the dark funnel collided with the beam of light, and lifted up, clear of the sand, to a point some yards above Gull, and stopped sending the small stinging missiles.
With the cease-fire, I ventured a look to my right and up, and saw the beam and funnel bumping, the dark shape bouncing back a few feet and then crashing into the light one, and then repeating the maneuver, as if trying to break through a protective zone. On perhaps the tenth such collision, the two merged, and the light faded from intense to something less. The funnel maintained its shape and dark texture within the confines of its brighter partner as they started a slow rotation.
Wiping aside the water running down from my hair and into my eyes, I lowered my gaze to check the status of the boat that covered the old man. There, in the light still touching the boat, I saw a name stenciled or perhaps engraved on the rear of the hull – something I had not seen at the dock or, naturally enough, out on the water. It was upside down now, and so escaped my immediate understanding; but my subconscious played with the lettering for a few moments and fed me what my eyes could not decipher.
The name was this:
The first word I understood. But the meaning of the letter and number designation initially eluded me. I sought out the carpenter; he had disappeared from my sight, but I spotted him on the eastern side of the tree.
“Hey!” I yelled.
He edged over.
“What’s the C-2 mean?” I yelled.
“What do you mean? I don’t get it!”
“Just sound it out!”
And so I did. And then I grasped what it stood for – if not its
It was a reference to the locale of Mussolini’s initial “death.” I gathered it meant that this transfer was simply designed to finish the job.
“What’s going on under there?” I yelled. “Under the boat?”
The carpenter didn’t answer, and the beam of light changed from its semi-bright cast to yellow-orange as the dark funnel lost its definition and merged completely with its host. Then the light turned red, and the boat started to vibrate. I thought for a few moments that it might splinter, much as the smaller boat had forty years before.
“What’s going on?” I yelled again.
“Don’t worry! It isn’t going to blow up,” the carpenter shouted back, as though reading my concern.
“Good,” I said, as much to myself as to him, and then watched as the vibrations intensified. “But what’s it gonna do?” I muttered.
The light turned a deeper and deeper red, reaching a richness that reminded me of velvet, before snapping into a bright multiple hue, a rainbow of colors that seemed to be dancing about but were, I decided, actually rotating; the beam was twisting about now, carrying its colors with it in a counterclockwise direction.
And then the rotation stopped, so abruptly that I thought the light show might be ending. But instead the beam lifted slowly off the ground, an inch and then a couple more, and with it arose the boat itself, the Ligurian C-2.
Maybe ten inches up, maybe a foot, the beam resumed its rotation, gradually at first but picking up speed, its colors dancing, reflecting off the sheen of the hull, piercing the darkness and enhanced by the raindrops, spinning faster and faster and starting to take the boat around with it, slowly at first, then picking up speed until beam and boat were a blur, an inverted T cutting a colorful path in the maelstrom, impervious to the violence of the storm around it, creating its own violence, its own physics.
I could not tell, in the brightness of the light show, what might have become of the old man. It was still shadowed underneath the central portion of the craft, at the axis of its wild spin, and the boat’s rotating movement, combined with the storm’s contributions, helped obscure visibility even more.
It didn’t seem that the rotation could be any faster, but it increased in tempo almost as soon as I had dismissed the possibility, and continued to speed up for fully half a minute, the rainbow of lights and the red hull fusing into a beam that soon only hinted of the colors and then lost them entirely, becoming a mass of white that started lifting upward a foot, then two, then five, finally stopping about ten feet above Gull, spinning faster the whole time, kicking up not a bit of surf or sand but clearly – I could see now in a softer, trailing light – leaving nothing underneath the boat: no old man, no binoculars; nothing.
“Jesus,” I said, and then glanced at the carpenter, wondering if he had heard the name.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I don’t mind.”
And together we watched as the spinning light show started crackling, little sparks popping out from its border. Then the light turned orange, segued to a deep red again, and shifted back to white before gradually changing from a constant brightness to something else – a brightness inhabited by some form, some shadowy substance or image; I couldn’t tell what at first.
But then it came into focus, gaining in shape quickly, and bringing from me a gasp: I was looking at a face, the face of a bald-headed man, the face of a man being squeezed agonizingly, the face of a man I had seen in old newsreels and history books – the face of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.
“Is that his spirit?” I yelled to the carpenter.
I still could see no sign of the old man, and worried at that – but decided not to ask. It would do no good, I figured. And so I just watched.
And as I did, the shadowed face of Mussolini started screaming, an ear-splitting emanation cutting through the wind and the rain and the thunder, piercing the air of Gull Island, shaking the ground underneath us, sending a shiver from my head down through the nerve endings of my extremities. In the moments that followed, a parade of images appeared on the face, a flickering light on the dark contours of the eyes and nose and mouth; it was like viewing an old newsreel with the projector vibrating. I could make out scenes of Mussolini speaking to a crowd, ranting, waving his arms; and troops marching through the streets, passing in review in front of Il Duce; and him sitting, talking to Hitler; and an execution of some poor fellow by firing squad, and of another by hanging. And I saw images of Mussolini making love to a woman; and being hustled away by German paratroopers – no doubt his successful rescue; and being nearly killed in a roadside garden; and ducking down in the middle of a firefight with red-banded Nazis; and falling into an ocean and struggling underwater with someone – a young Jacques; and grabbing hold of the Crystal of Death in that struggle, and then ... then sitting in an easy chair in a cabin, reading, and cackling.
And as suddenly as the images started, they stopped, and the face of Mussolini registered surprise, and was contorted, and was squeezed inward as the beam of light – still rotating rapidly – narrowed in diameter from feet to inches and started accelerating upward. Another scream, but this one low and mournful, signaled Mussolini’s departure as the light continued upward, its tail its brightest spot, the mass growing smaller until it was dimmed by the storm clouds overhead and finally disappeared, leaving us with little light, no boat, no binoculars and…
I heard the moan before I saw the figure; thought at first it was the wind playing tricks. But no … there was a figure where the boat had been, where there had been no figure before, and it was lying on the ground, writhing about. I freed myself from the tree and – a little frantic, I realized – started scrambling on my hands and knees in that direction. As I neared the figure, I saw through the gloom that it was, as I had thought, the old man. He was lying there stark naked, his bony old frame hunched over like a newborn babe.
I glanced back at the carpenter. He was standing behind me, removing his military-style jacket, which he then handed me.
“Cover him with this,” he said.
I took the jacket, at the same time casting a look about to see if there
were any other clothes at hand, or the binoculars. But the area was picked
clean; the old man’s naked body was the only object there. As I
placed the jacket over him, he looked up at me with questioning eyes;
he was disoriented.
Still on my knees, I leaned back and pivoted in the direction of the carpenter, intending to ask him just how we were supposed to get off the island without a boat. Perhaps walk on water? But he was not there – not anywhere behind me. I looked to my left, but that section of the island was empty too. Pushing up and twisting, I took in the remainder of Gull in one fluid motion, keeping it slow so as not to miss anything. But he wasn’t there.
“Oh,” I said, the word escaping my lips as a hiss. “Now what does this mean?”
A groan from behind me brought my attention back to the old man, and I knelt by him again.
“Where are we?” he asked, and I realized as he did so that I could hear him clearly despite a weakness in his voice; the noise of the storm was no longer dominant. The wind was dying rapidly, and with it the howling, and the rain was reduced in an instant from deluge to trickle. The sky was turning quickly from near-black to gray, and the thunder and lightning were ceasing their dance with but a flickering afterthought.
“Gull Island,” I answered him.
The old man tried to rise, but the strength wasn’t there. He held his hand out to me, and asked:
“Could you help me sit up, please?”
I took hold and leaned back, and pulled. We were both now at the same level, and studying each other. I wanted to make sure he was okay, and that I wasn’t still dealing with an old Italian bastard. I didn’t think it possible, considering the light show I’d just witnessed; but confirmation seemed imperative. Before I could say anything, though, he spoke.
“We’ve met before?” he asked. “You look familiar, but ... no, I don’t think so.”
“My name is Mann,” I said.
“Mann?” he asked, and looked closer. “Ah ... it’s in the eyes. Amory’s boy. You must be.”
“Yes,” I said, encouraged that this man was nothing like
the one I had been experiencing in his stead.
“Avery, yes,” he said. “Your father ... he was a good man. I was sorry to hear of his passing.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The old man was looking around now, taking in our situation.
“I’m afraid I don’t remember how we got here,” he said, and seemed embarrassed by it. “I’ve been a little ... indisposed lately.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s part of why I’m here.”
“It is? I don’t understand,” he said. “My mind; it’s been ... unbalanced, I think. Like I wasn’t in control; wasn’t ... myself. But I seem fine now. But...”
He paused, and looked confused.
“What?” I asked.
“What ... has happened? Why am I not wearing clothes?”
I was about to answer when I heard the noise coming from the northwest, from the direction of the main dock on Bois Blanc. I smiled at the old man.
“I think your son can fill you in,” I said.
“Jacques?” he said, and looked around the island again.
“He’s coming,” I said, and swung my left arm around, toward the sound I had picked up, a sound the old man with ancient ears had not yet heard.
He looked past me, squinting, in the direction I was pointing.
“Ah, yes,” he said.
I smiled at his evident pleasure, and turned, too.
There, in the distance, cutting a swath through the Straits of Mackinac and heading directly for us, was the Sylmar – its familiar throbbing engines laboring against the still-churning surf.
Jacques decided to take his father back with him to the cabin on the northwest shore, rather than to the Twin Lakes. The old man was enfeebled by his exposure to the storm, and would be in need of some supervision until he got his strength back – assuming he did get it back; but he had sustained no injuries requiring medical attention despite the fury of the transfer. Jacques deemed himself the logical nurse, since he would have little else to do with his time now that the invader had been ousted.
It was readily obvious to both Jacques and Addie that Mussolini had been dispatched; the difference in the old man’s temperament, speech and appearance was far softer than it had been before Gull and consistent with the personality Jacques had known his father to possess almost all of his life. But what they didn’t understand was how the restoration of that personality had come to pass; they had seen the lights cast by the dancing funnel and beam from a distance through the storm, but nothing definitive. The transfer show had mainly served as a multi-colored beacon for them.
Little had been said upon their arrival at Gull. Their energies were focused first on getting from the Sylmar to the island in a dinghy, and once there helping me hoist the old man into the dinghy and then on board the Sylmar for the trip back home. The return route chosen was north around the eastern shore of Bois Blanc and then west.
We lay the old man on the deck in the Sylmar cabin, a bench cushion underneath him for comfort. I sat behind Jacques as he piloted the craft; Addie knelt by the old man, holding his hand and casting agitated looks in my direction.
We had reached the southeast corner and turned before anybody said anything beyond the instructions we had provided each other in transferring the old man from the island to the boat. Addie uttered the next words.
“Not very bright, Avery.” It came out a hiss.
At first I wasn’t sure she was speaking, what with the sound of the boat’s engine. But when I looked at her – saw the anger in her eyes – I knew she had spoken and wasn’t finished.
“You could have killed him,” she added, this time at a level I could clearly hear.
“But I didn’t,” I said. “As you can see.”
She left the old man’s side, sliding over toward me on her knees, to within comfortable earshot.
“You had no right to do this alone,” she said.
I looked to my left, toward Jacques. He was keeping his eyes forward, though I’m sure his ears were working past the whine of the engine and the sound of the surf, and homing in on our words.
“No right to do what?” I said. “To get rid of an Italian murderer? You’re the one who wanted to do an exorcism. You don’t think that might have killed him?”
“That’s different,” she said. “That would have been under controlled conditions; in a bedroom if we wanted to, for Christ’s sake. But this … out in a storm. And alone!”
I rubbed my eyes. They, and I, were suddenly very tired. I looked past Addie, out past the stern, and marveled at how the overcast left in the wake of the storm had now broken up. Sunlight was playing off the Straits, becalmed now as the sun passed its zenith.
I turned back to Addie.
“You think I got us out there on Gull by myself?” I asked.
“Well ... didn’t you?”
I hesitated, pondering the best response ... the best way to lead up to who had taken us out there – and decided to answer instead with a question.
“You two knew we were out on Gull,” I said. “How?”
Addie started to speak – I assume, from the petulance still readable on her face, in an argumentative vein – but my question had clearly thrown her. She thought better of whatever she was going to say, and took a softer tack.
“Well ... when it became clear you weren’t coming back to the cabin,” she said, “we decided to find out why. We didn’t have any transportation except the Sylmar, so we boarded it and headed for the main dock. By the time we got there, the storm had hit out on the Straits. It was placid in by shore, but clearly dangerous farther out.”
She paused, looked over at Jacques as if seeking his input, saw there was none forthcoming, and continued.
“A couple of fisherman said you’d gone out not long before in a powerboat. By then, Jacques had picked up your distress signal – your fear – like he did back in ’56.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “And did these fishermen say how we came to take this particular craft?”
“Ummmm, no,” she said. “Jacques picked up on your problem before we got any more information. We kind of left the dock in a hurry.”
Addie was calm now; a little curious, I could tell, and confused by where I was going with these questions.
“So ... you think I just happened to come up with a boat out of the blue, stole one in plain view of fishermen and whoever else might be lurking around at what amounts to the Island’s midday social center?”
“We were invited, Addie. It’s that simple. I was invited with the old man to go out on a boat, and we were taken to Gull Island.”
“By whom?” she said. “No; wait a minute. There was no boat out there when we arrived...”
“Destroyed in the storm,” I said.
“And nobody else but you two,” she added. “There was nobody else.”
“True enough,” I said. “Not by the time you arrived.”
“Meaning he was gone by the time you and Jacques got there.”
I looked at her, at the old man, over at Jacques and out the starboard windows, and took a deep breath. How much could I tell? How much did I believe? How much would she believe? How crazy was I?
But before I could answer, Jacques interjected.
“He was,” he said.
My old friend’s voice jolted me, it was so unexpected. Addie looked taken aback, too.
“He?” she asked. “He who, Jacques?”
“I’m not sure,” Jacques said. “But ... I sensed a third person out there, when we started toward Gull from the main dock. He had ... I don’t know ... an aura that precluded fear. There was excitement, and satisfaction, but no fear.”
“I don’t understand,” said Addie.
Jacques swung sideways in his seat, so that he could see both ahead and back into the cabin. It was the same physical maneuver he had adopted long ago when ferrying customers from Cheboygan to the Island and back again. He could navigate and chat as though the two went hand-in-hand, although of course they didn’t. It was an ease born of years of practice.
This time, his words were directed at me.
“It was him, wasn’t it?” he asked.
“Him who?” Addie said. Her tone signaled a growing exasperation.
“I’m not sure I know who you mean,” I answered.
“You saw someone on the road shortly after your arrival on Bois Blanc,” he said. “In the woods, on the way to my place.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I saw no one,” he said, “and you let it drop. But there was someone there; I know that. I picked up a faint emanation. Almost as if it was the vapor of a person. It was the same man, wasn’t it? The same man who took you to Gull.”
I thought of working around the question; denying it, saying I wasn’t sure, anything but what I had perceived. But Jacques’ eyes held a light – whether reflection of the afternoon sun or something burning from within, I wasn’t sure – that demanded an honest response.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Who?” Addie interjected. “Who are you two talking about?”
“Are you going to tell us?” asked Jacques.
I looked at Addie, now full of frustration and confusion and curiosity; and at Jacques, who I think believed I held the key to a secret door that needed unlocking.
“Yes,” I said. “But where it’s quiet. Let’s get home first.”
Jacques nodded in satisfaction, put his right index finger to his lips as he glanced at Addie, and swung back around for the last few miles of our trip to the northwest corner, to his cabin, to the cabin of Turk McGurk.
After the old man had been fed some warm soup and tucked into the lower bunk in the bedroom, Jacques motioned Addie and me outside.
“It’s best to keep it quiet here for awhile,” he said. “Let’s walk.”
We followed the path used by the pickup – which was still stranded over at the main dock – and hiked south, away from the cabin, toward the woods. Halfway there, Jacques spoke again.
“Okay, Avery. I think we’d like to hear what happened.”
I was silent for several paces.
“Avery?” Jacques said.
“I’m thinking,” I said.
“Tall order,” said Addie.
I thought she might still be angry with me, but a look at her face told me otherwise. She was walking quietly, pensively, patiently, and flashed me a smile to reassure me. Mercurial, I thought.
“Yeah, well...” I said, trying to find a point at which to begin. “Now that it’s all over, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I mean, I think I know, but I might have been hallucinating…”
I thought back to my walk alone in the woods, and what I saw when I had looked through the binoculars; or more precisely through the filters and the binoculars.
“No,” I said, taking back my hesitancy. “Scratch that; it definitely happened. Only ... it wasn’t what it would seem to be.”
Jacques slowed, and Addie and I slowed with him. And then he stopped,
bringing us all to a halt.
“I’m rambling,” I said, realizing it.
“A bit,” he said. “It helps me sometimes to think things through chronologically. So...”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll start when we were on the road, when I first saw him. Fair enough?”
“Fine,” he said. “And be as detailed as you can, okay? It will all be rather fresh to me, and completely new to Addie. We are a rapt audience.”
I started walking again. The two of them hesitated until I turned and
waved them forward.
I waited for them to catch up before I resumed walking. A few steps
later, I started my account.
I talked slowly as the three of us meandered along the track, well into
the woods, into the shade of the forest’s overhanging trees. I related
it roughly as I have related it on these pages, with one exception.
The one thing I didn’t tell them, couldn’t tell them, was what I had seen in the binoculars. I saw little need of that. Mussolini had, after all, been routed, and the old man was still alive. That was the crux of the original mission as planned by Jacques and joined by Addie.
The full truth could lie dormant; could wait.
Besides, I wasn’t fully confident I was right in my assessment – at least then. I was still sorting out some of the particulars. And so I let it rest.
In the end, I stayed but one more day. That afternoon, Jacques and I went on the Sylmar over to the main dock to retrieve the pickup; I drove it back across the Island while Jacques returned home in the boat. We linked up again at the cabin with Addie, who had remained behind to keep an eye on the old man.
In the evening, I stayed with Addie while Jacques drove back to his father’s cabin to retrieve some of the old man’s clothing and personal possessions.
“He’ll be living here awhile,” Jacques explained. “Can’t have him feeling like a stranger.”
While Jacques was gone, the old man slept, and Addie and I found ourselves chatting about the day, and about Mussolini, and about the carpenter, and about the Island.
“Did you notice,” she asked, “that on the way back from Gull, we passed the lighthouse?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Something, huh?”
The route we had followed, westerly along the Island’s northern shore, had taken us past an occasional isolated cottage and – we could not help but notice – past the Island lighthouse. Addie and I had visited it as kids on a 1956 daytrip with my grandfather and his friend Al Jones, the Island conservation officer. Addie and I had climbed the old lighthouse tower that long-ago day, a feat of bravado that had left me perilously close to vomiting in fear.
The place was vastly different now, though. Instead of rundown and vacant, as it had been in ’56, it was shipshape and clearly occupied – by an individual, I surmised, instead of by the state. It had that loving touch that comes so often with private ownership, and so rarely with bureaucracy. The bricked residential portion of the structure, which had traditionally housed state-employed lighthouse-keepers before it became too costly and difficult a post to man, was sandblasted now, and its wooden trim-work was painted a dazzling red. And always telltale of residence: the windows were curtained. The old attached tower, a painted wooden structure that had been peeling badly and was in danger of rot forty years earlier, was now a bright white – a clear sign of maintenance.
“Someone’s living in the house!” Addie had enthused as we passed by on this day. And then, softly, she had added what I was feeling at seeing an old signpost from my childhood turn out so well:
“That’s grand,” she said.
Addie and Jacques turned in early that evening, before 9 p.m. We moved Addie to the bunkroom where Jacques’ father was now ensconced, while Jacques and I took over the living room. I drew use of the couch on Jacques’ insistence; he said sleeping on the floor, while a bit unusual for him, might help a sore back he’d been nursing.
“I never go to bed this early,” I said as we all exchanged good-nights in the living room. “So I think I’ll do a little reading.” Addie had moved her suitcase into the bedroom, and then had come back out. She and I were stationed near the bedroom door, while Jacques was rolling a sleeping bag out onto the floor.
“With the kind of experience you’ve been through,” said Jacques, “I’d think you’d be exhausted.”
“No argument there,” I said. “I feel tired; but oddly energized, too. Like my brain doesn’t want to let go of the day; it’s still replaying things.”
Addie reached out and patted my shoulder.
“Good night,” she said softly, and then, to our host, spoke louder: “I’ll keep one ear open for your father, Jacques. You know … his breathing and so on.”
“He should be all right, Addie, at least for now,” said Jacques. “He just seems … tired. I’ve been thinking, though. Tomorrow, if he has the strength, I might take him over to Cheboygan for a checkup ... though I doubt he’ll cooperate. Never has.”
“Yeah, about tomorrow,” I said, and they both turned to me.
“Well, I’m planning to leave, you know ... but not until the afternoon. I was just wondering if anybody had any ideas on what we might do before then.”
Addie was smiling.
“What?” I said.
She shook her head.
“Nothing,” she said. “You’ll see.”
We were up relatively early and ate a ham-and-eggs breakfast before Addie and I took a walk along the shoreline up toward the Sylmar. Upon our return, Jacques said his father had awakened, eaten a light meal and fallen back asleep.
“I think I’ll stay with him; let him rest,” he said. “Why don’t the two of you go somewhere and enjoy the day? Then maybe we can all go later to the main dock when it’s time for Avery to leave. And if he’s strong enough, I’ll take Papa across the Straits then for that checkup.”
And so Addie and I headed south in Jacques’ truck, with me driving, toward the other side of the Island.
“Where to?” I yelled over the engine after we had passed the airfield and the dump and were approaching Pointe aux Pins.
“I don’t know,” Addie called back.
I glanced over at her. She had scrunched up her face, holding back a smile. But she couldn’t, and it shone through.
“Down near the hotel,” she said finally.
“It burned down. Remember?” I said.
“I don’t mean go there,” she said. “Just near there. Across the way, on that side street.”
“Ah,” I said, remembering a visit we had made there after our first Gull Island experience.
“Right,” she said. “The church. A lovely little place.”
“Yes, it was,” I said.
“Still is,” she said, and her smile brightened. “At least that’s what Jacques tells me.”
A few minutes later we reached the edge of the clearing that signaled the start of the village, and slowed for the left turn. Then, maneuvering slowly onto the street, it being narrow and tree-lined, I parked the truck alongside the road maybe thirty yards in – directly opposite The Pines’ lone church, an Episcopalian structure called the Church of the Transfiguration.
There, sitting primly amid a host of pine and birch trees, was a building that seemed quite old but at the same time fresh, which of course meant someone had been tending to its physical needs.
It was, in fact, not exactly as I remembered it. Where I had recalled a stone and white-clapboard structure, it was mostly clapboard. There was a stone structure – an arch – but it fronted the church, giving entrance to a short walkway. A wooden peak topped the arch; it housed a small bell used to call the congregation to service. A sign out front listed Sunday services, but no minister.
“They have church without a minister?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Addie. “Without a regular one. They have guest and lay ministers. But just during the summer.”
Before moving under the arch and up the short walkway to the church’s green wooden steps, we paused while Addie knelt and said a short silent prayer. Then she rose and, looking up at the bell above the arch, smiled. As we approached the church, her attention shifted to the grounds on the church’s east side, where a picket fence surrounded a plot lined by trees and perennial plants.
“We talked to the Reverend over there. Remember?” she asked me without taking her eyes off the grounds.
“I do,” I said. There had been benches outside the fence back then, benches upon which we had been seated during one of the most unsettling discussions I believe I’ve ever had – at least in terms of permanence. It was there that the Reverend J.J. Stellingworth had assured us that Jacques was right about Addie’s death, an endorsement that was still ringing down through the years.
Addie’s focus swung back to the church building.
“Well,” she said, “we might as well go in. I’d better get the lay of the land, so to speak.”
“Why?” I asked. “Planning on buying it?”
“No, silly,” she said. “Churches aren’t generally for sale.”
“Duh,” I said. “I was just kidding.”
“I know,” she said. “Let’s go in.”
I reached out and took hold of her arm as she moved forward; held her back gently.
“Why?” I asked again, and this time I was pretty sure of the answer.
“Don’t you think,” she said, “that the new Bois Blanc minister should see the house in which she plans to worship?”
I found myself smiling with her.
“You,” I said. “That’s great. But I thought they only had summer services. How did you manage to get assigned here?”
“I haven’t,” she said. “But I will. This church – this Island – needs somebody who has a feeling for its history and its soul – and for more than just the summer. It isn’t just summer folks here; there are several dozen year-round residents, too. My bishop’s been talking about doing this; mentioned it a couple of times to me. I’m sure he was suggesting – without really saying – that he thought it should be me. So when I ask, I have absolute faith that they’ll give it to me.”
“How did this come about?” I asked. “You didn’t mention it before.”
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I woke up yesterday thinking about it, and the idea just kind of grew. It was like someone had given me a jolt of inspiration while I was sleeping.”
I nodded, satisfied. It felt like a good decision for her.
“You’re set on this?” I said. “It’s what you want?”
“Absolutely,” she said.
Addie and I entered the church, and while she wandered about – gently touching statuettes, carvings and the small stained glass windows that ran along the building’s two long sides – I examined a couple of ceremonial objects near the altar and then sat in one of the pews and waited. It was there, so long ago, that my grandfather and father had jointly undergone Confirmation under the tutelage of the Reverend, in the closing days of my grandfather’s last summer with us – the summer of Gull and Eliot and Turk. The service had come after Addie had departed for home, for Ohio, and I had been left heartbroken in her wake.
But now, long past that first lost love, and here in the church with that very same girl turned woman, I felt as though I had come full circle. And if I hadn’t, certainly Addie had, for she was intent on staying, on taking up the calling that began for her the moment she was revived on the Sylmar in 1956, the moment she was brought back from death. It had all started for her here – this fervent belief of hers – and so a return to the geographical source of her faith seemed fitting.
How it had come to pass was a mystery to her, of course, but not to me.
She had gone to bed without the idea, and had awakened with it –
clutching it, wanting it, planning it.
No. She had had some help.
Turk had paid her a visit: the Turk the carpenter told me was the devil in disguise. Turk had given her the idea, had sent her in the direction of this small church; had in so doing given the church new life, and the Island the possibility of renewed spirit.
Hardly devil-like, I mused.
But then, of course, Turk wasn’t the devil at all.
When Addie was done with her inspection – “It’s neat,” she decided – I said it was my turn to pick a destination, and so chose Snow Beach, a white-sand oasis on the Island’s southeast corner that we had visited as kids. The drive out seemed longer than I remembered, and extremely bumpy, especially after we passed the turnoff that would have taken us north toward the lighthouse; from that point eastward the Island seemed even wilder and more primitive than the western and northern sections, if that was possible. The journey proved a disappointment, in any event; after arriving, we found a bitter wind knifing through.
“Ugh!” Addie said. “Not exactly beach weather.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Okay; let’s go back. Your choice.”
She opted this time for another spot in Pointe aux Pins: the southwest corner. After traversing the Island and parking near the old pump house, we walked along the beach that had once borne the auto graveyard, and on past some of the Island’s more expensive cottages. Cutting back along a forest track, we eventually exited the woods and came to a corner lot across the street from the old main dock.
It was a route we had followed as children.
The lot had long ago housed a tennis court, but was now occupied by a ranch-style home. There was no sign of the blacktopped playing surface that had once existed, although the house bore a sign that said “Wimbledon.”
“Hmmmph,” I said.
“What?” said Addie.
I pointed to the sign on the house.
“A tennis fan bought it, but took out the court. Kind of a contradiction, don’t you think?”
“Dunno,” she said. “A house seems a little more practical. Oh ... look.” She walked to the property’s edge, reached down for some weeds growing there and, grabbing a handful, yanked on them.
“Remember these?” she said, holding them aloft. In her hand were a dozen or more pointed, and quite sharp, “stick-ems” – the name we had given years ago to Island weeds that became weapons when they were unsheathed from the base of the plant. Each one, when free of the base, had a nasty little tip that could stick to clothing and issue a wound like a pinprick.
“Sure do,” I said.
“We used to throw these at each other. Remember?” she said.
“Sure,” I answered, and then I saw the smile. “Addie, I don’t think that’s a good…”
Before I could finish the sentence, she drew her arm back and hurled the fistful of darts at my midsection. Her aim was true; most of the weeds stuck in my jacket, and a few went lower, piercing my pants and poking the skin of my left leg.
“Ouch!” I yelled, and it wasn’t for effect; those little points truly smarted.
“Gotcha!” she yelled, just as I was reaching down to scoop up a handful of my own. She was laughing as I unsheathed the darts, and turning as I cut loose. They hit harmlessly on the back of her fairly thick pea coat, a few sticking but most tumbling to the ground.
She turned back, still laughing, and I joined in it. Gradually we subsided to giggling, and then to just smiling at each other.
Addie was happy, and I was happy for her.
She had found her niche, a home, a cause to carry into her future.
And I ... I had found an old friend.
Another order of business: my father.
Jacques’ long and detailed story of my dad’s war exploits had gotten buried in the wave of events that followed the telling of the tale. But now, with time to ponder, I began to wonder just what kind of man Dad was. All my life I had known him as salesman, family man, tennis player and then, in his late years, golfer. He was a man who loved to tell a story or joke, to entertain whatever company he might bring home for dinner in his role as salesman. His sense of humor was spontaneous, his laughter ready to erupt.
I did not know the warrior, for in my realm of experience he was a man of peace, forbidding guns in the house and sidestepping confrontation whenever a kind and gentle word would assuage. Fighting among his three sons was discouraged, as were contact sports.
“Aggression breeds aggression,” he would say, and I would nod sagely in my younger years while not understanding. Later, of course, it all made perfect sense.
What I couldn’t make sense of now was the secrecy surrounding his wartime role. He had been in the Navy, I’d been told; had seen no battle action; and had found the binoculars on the desk of a Nazi after the Germans had cleared out of an industrial school in Bremerhaven at the war’s end. Well ... at least the two accounts dovetailed in Bremerhaven. That was somehow reassuring.
It is difficult, when you’ve been told one story all your life, to hear an alternate version so far-flung from the original. And so it was that Jacques’ account had tested my belief system. Was I to believe my old friend, or my father’s rendering? Clearly one was not true; and the wealth of detail provided by Jacques – and buttressed by the carpenter – told me logically that Dad had not been very forthcoming.
But even though relatively certain of the validity of Jacques’ account, I felt compelled to verify it. Call it journalistic training; call it caution; call it a nagging skepticism.
It was time, I decided, to check in with the one person who knew my father best. It was time to call my mother down in Florida. I used the phone at the church.
“Hi, honey,” she said. “How’s my baby?”
“Fine, Mom,” I said. “How you been?”
“Good,” she said, “but it’s been cold down here. Not great golf weather.”
“Too bad,” I said. “It’s pretty cold where I am, too.”
“Right. The Island,” she said.
As related in the book that precedes this one, I had called her several days earlier seeking information about Jacques and his whereabouts before I had contacted the man himself and agreed to travel to Bois Blanc from my New York home. She had professed at that time not to know what had happened to him, but now that I thought about it, she might have known but been reluctant to part with the information; might have suspected what I’d learn.
“Yeah,” I said, “but I don’t remember telling you I was definitely coming here.”
“You didn’t,” she said. “I called your home. Susan told me. Which you would have known if you’d been calling home yourself.”
“Yeah, Mom, I will,” I said. “Just as soon as I’m done talking to you. Listen, Mom, I’ve been talking to Jacques a lot and he’s been telling me about his experiences in World War Two, and ... he’s raised some interesting questions in my mind.”
There was no response, and I thought for a moment I’d lost my connection.
“Mom?” I said after several seconds had passed.
“I’m here,” she said.
“Well, about Jacques ... he was telling me some things about the war that I had never heard before.”
I was hoping for some sort of reaction, but wasn’t getting one.
“They were things,” I went on, “about how he actually knew Dad in the war, in Italy.”
There was still silence, and it struck me as a little on the chilly side.
“Did you know they’d met in the war, Mom?”
She cleared her throat.
“Of course,” she said. “There wasn’t anything that your father and I didn’t share.”
“Uh huh,” I said, going carefully. “Well, I found it kind of fascinating, since it was something I’d never heard before. In fact, I was under the impression somehow that Dad had never seen any action in the war. But Jacques says otherwise...”
“That old man’s crazy, you know,” she said.
“So I’ve been told,” I said. “But that doesn’t really answer the question. Crazy or not, is he telling me the truth?”
I heard her sigh.
“It’s nothing I wish to discuss,” she said. “It was an unhappy time in the world, and an unhappy time for your father and me. Accept what your father told you of it, and let it go at that. It’s all you need to know.”
“Well,” I said, recognizing dangerous ground when I was on it, “Jacques was very detailed, Mom. He told me an interesting story about Mussolini...”
“A horrible person,” Mom hissed.
“Mussolini,” she said. “A brute. He should have gotten worse than the Ligurian Sea.”
There was another silence, and in it I could hear her realize her mistake: her indirect concession that Dad had hooked up with Jacques, had spirited Il Duce away, and had lost him at sea.
And in the mistake was something else – a clear indication that she was unaware of Il Duce’s re-emergence on Bois Blanc. He had, to her knowledge, sunk for good in the waters off Italy. But Dad had said “Moose” in his closing words; he had known what Mom clearly did not, that Mussolini had resurfaced, so to speak.
So Mom was wrong in one regard: she and Dad hadn’t shared everything.
“Mom,” I said softly. “History tells us the partisans shot Mussolini. Strung him upside down like a slab of meat in a Milan plaza. Nothing about the Ligurian Sea.”
“Oh,” she said, even softer. “I must have been mistaken.”
“Yes, I guess so,” I said, and decided to try one more subject. “There was another thing, Mom. It was about the binoculars...”
“I’m tired, son. Finish up there and go home. Your family needs you, just like you needed your father. Remember that.”
I didn’t know what else to say, and so opted to end the conversation. Something in Mom’s voice warned me that it was time.
“I will, Mom. Be good; be healthy.”
“And call your wife,” she said. Then the line went dead.
I did as she bid, called home, and told Susan I’d be leaving later
that day, arriving home the next.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Quite a bit. Not the fun it was.”
“You were a child back then,” she said. “A child can find fun in the unlikeliest of places.”
“No, it’s more than that,” I said. “It’s lost some of its spunk. But Addie should help cure that. She’s staying on as minister here.”
“Addie’s there?” she said. “You didn’t say anything about Addie being there.”
Whoops, I thought. Susan had read my account of that long-ago summer, and so was acutely aware of the role Addie had played in my youth. After reading Island Nights, in fact, she had urged me to visit Jacques – to learn the truth about Addie’s apparent resurrection. But she hadn’t figured on Addie showing up. In fact, the possibility had likely never entered her mind.
I had been wondering how to broach the subject, and then stumbled blindly into it. Stupid...
“Yeah,” I said. “Well ... Jacques invited her.”
“I see,” she said, and there was silence on her end.
“Susan?” I said. “Still there?”
“Yes,” she said. “Did you ... um ... say she was a minister?”
“Yeah. Episcopalian. Very religious,” I said.
“No kidding. Well ... that’s good.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I thought so.”
There was another pause before Susan spoke again.
“How is she?” she said. “Changed much?”
“Well ... she looks the same,” I said. “But she’s a whole lot different.”
“Well ... yeah.”
“Different how? Like ... better?”
This was not going well. I had to try harder.
“Yes, I guess; but not in any particularly feminine way. She’s ... close to God.”
“Religious,” Susan said.
“Oh, yeah. A hell of a lot more religious than I’ll ever get. She’s really into that stuff.”
“No,” I said. “I can’t imagine she ever would be.”
There was another pause before she responded.
“She’s married to her work. It’s like her life. You know?”
“Ah,” said Susan, and in that simple word I could hear her relief. “That’s very good.”
“You’ll come back and visit, won’t you?” Addie said.
We were on the main dock, near the Sylmar III; its engines were warming for the trip to Cheboygan. I would be picking up my car over there and, with any luck, make Sarnia, Ontario, by bedtime, cross Canada the next morning, re-enter the U.S. at Niagara Falls and be home four hours after that.
“Without a doubt,” I said. “How could I not with such magnets as yourself and our old friend here?” I glanced to her side, where Jacques stood watching his son readying the boat. “Well ... it’s certainly been an educational experience, and I hope one with closure.”
“Oh, I think it was that,” said Addie. “Closure, but a new chapter as well. I’ve never felt so right about anything since I entered the ministry.”
“You’ll do great here,” I said. “I’m just sorry I’ll miss the first service.”
Addie had contacted her bishop an hour earlier and gained tentative approval of her plan, along with the go-ahead to preach at the next Sunday service.
“Stay three days and you won’t,” said Jacques. It was late Thursday afternoon, and the sun, shielded by gray clouds, was going low in the west, out past Pointe aux Pins.
“Can’t,” I said. “The family and responsibility beckon.”
“Too bad,” said Addie, a touch of a smile on her face. “It would have been nice to see more than just Jacques at the service.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll turn out in droves,” I said. “Well, if they had droves around here, they would. What’s the population this time of year, anyway, Jacques?”
“About fifty, I guess,” he said. “It’ll shoot up for awhile with deer season, but won’t crest until summer. There’ll be a few there Sunday, though. I’ll see to that.”
“Yeah, I bet you will,” I said.
“Time to go,” Jacques said, motioning past me to the boat. I turned, and Johnny was waving to us. Jacques’ father, en route to a checkup in Cheboygan, was already on board, as were several other passengers – including, as luck would have it, Claude and Willi Smythe again. Johnny was on the dock, at the bow, ready to free the line. Another Islander – one I didn’t recognize – was holding the aft line.
I turned to Jacques.
“Just a sec,” I said.
“Certainly,” he answered. “I’ll see you on board. But do not tarry. Johnny gets impatient. And I’ll see you later, Addie.”
Jacques strode the two dozen paces to the boat, stepped on deck, and headed for the passenger area where his father sat waiting.
Addie and I stood, watching, then faced each other, both a little shy at this second Bois Blanc farewell. Our first, forty years earlier, was playing on my mind, and probably on hers – a farewell that had ended in a heartfelt hug and romantic kiss. But of course, there would be no romantic kisses now.
“Let’s keep in touch,” I said at last. “Maybe better than we did as kids.”
“Yeah, our letters kind of petered out fast, didn’t they?”
“Puppy love,” I said. “It sort of gets trampled by time.”
“You have my number,” she said. She meant the church rectory’s phone I’d used to call Mom and Susan earlier in the day.
“And you have mine,” I said.
We came together then in a hug. But this was without the emotion of the one in 1956; this was a hug of kindred spirits who have worked their way back to each other, and are on call for the future.
Pushing apart, we held each other at arm’s length, and studied one another’s eyes. Then I turned, crossed over to the Sylmar III and boarded. Johnny and the other man cast off the two lines, and Johnny hopped aboard and raced up the ladder to the pilot’s house. Once there, he slowly opened the throttle and edged the boat away from the dock, toward the end of the concrete walkway and the breakwater. Then, slowly gaining speed, he swung to the right around the breakwater and accelerated away from the Island, out toward the Straits, toward the mainland.
I watched this from a perch aft, out in the open air. Then, after checking to see that Jacques and his father were comfortably ensconced in the passenger cabin, I nodded in satisfaction, gave a little wave of greeting to the Smythes – who were at the port side just outside the cabin – and returned to the aft railing. From there I could still see the dock, and on it Addie. She was watching our departure from the concrete walkway – short hair barely moving in the breeze, hands tucked down inside the big pockets of her coat, a determined look on her face.
“She’s tough, isn’t she?” someone said at my elbow.
I glanced to my right, but didn’t really need to; I recognized the voice of the carpenter.
“That she is,” I said. “She’ll do fine here.”
“It’s not without challenges,” he said.
“I suspect she’d have it no other way.”
As the boat sped on, carrying us southward, we watched the outline of Addie diminish to little more than a dot.
“Well,” the carpenter said at last, “the reason I’m here is this.”
He was holding something in front of him, out toward me. For a moment I didn’t realize what it was; my mind was still back on the Island, on the dock with my friend. But then I saw: it was the binocular case, dangling from his hand by its strap.
“Hey!” I said, delighted. “The binoculars! I thought I’d seen the last of those.” I reached out, but was stopped by a sudden thought. “Wait. If you could only get these through the transfer, how can you just hand them back to me?”
“One way is hard, but the other is easy,” he said.
I was about to ask why, but he waved me off.
“Don’t bother,” he said. “I’ve never understood it either. Just one of those things.”
“So...” I said, taking hold of the case. “They didn’t do you much good, did they?”
“You could say that,” he muttered. “Kind of worthless without the filters. You realize, of course, that you proved to be a great disappointment.”
“I imagine,” I said. I could, in fact, clearly envision his consternation when he had discovered the filters were missing; and the anger he must have felt – if his kind feels anger.
“When did you find out?” he asked.
“Oh, I think part of me might have known all along,” I said.
“Uh huh,” he said. “But there must have been something specific. I thought it was a pretty good setup.”
“Well,” I said, and peered back over my shoulder to see if anyone was looking our way. I wondered – in light of Jacques’ inability to see him on the road that first day – if the carpenter was visible now to anyone else. Since the old man had seen him on the dock before the Gull Island trip, I figured the carpenter could pretty much cloak or reveal his presence at will; I had no idea whether he was cloaked now or not.
Scanning the deck and the half-dozen cars on it, I saw only one person – Claude Smythe – and he was facing away from us. So I figured the matter was of little importance.
“Well,” I said again, “first I’d like to know what to call you. Is it like you said earlier: Billy?”
“Right,” he said.
“Okay, Billy,” I said. “Here’s the deal. I took a little walk in the woods after I talked to you at your cabin, and decided to try out the filters for myself. See what all the hoopla was, you know?”
I waited for a reaction, but none was forthcoming.
“I was sitting there,” I went on, “all alone in this wooded glade, and I popped the filters in and looked through, and you’ll never guess what I saw.”
I waited longer this time, and finally he responded.
“Pray tell,” he said. “I’m all ears.”
“Hmmmm. Yes, I thought as much.”
I paused, glancing once more over my shoulder. Again, no one seemed to be watching.
“The fact is,” I said, “I was looking south, in the general direction of the Twin Lakes. I don’t know how it worked – what with miles of woods between me and there – but there they were in the glasses: the lakes, and then the shoreline beyond, and then the cabin you were building in the woods. I gathered – since that is what the filters offer – that I was looking into the future. I saw you there, outside your building, looking like you do now with your beard and your long hair and your military jacket – and dangling from your neck were these.”
I tapped the binocular case in my hands. “You walked inside, and then I could see indoors, and the place was dimly lit, as it was on my visit. But it was light enough so that I could see you walk to the fireplace and set the binocular case down on the mantel. And then I could see you standing there, transforming, suddenly evaporating. You became a kind of wobbly transparent image, like the heat that rises from blacktop. Then you were a flash of flame, and then ... I don’t know ... you went through all sorts of human shapes, like a snake trying on different skins, until you settled on one that seemed to suit you.”
I looked at him again, expecting some reaction, but there was none. And so I continued.
“And you sighed, as though contented, and pulled the binoculars from the case and inserted the filters and looked through them ... and started cackling. And I knew I had to do something to see that this scene didn’t really happen; that the filters were beyond your reach.
“I remembered your tale of Abraham Mann, and how the future he foresaw seemed immutable; seemed destined to happen the way it appeared through the filters. But then I remembered the Legend of the Crystal and how the bear warned the old gypsy that the blue crystals were dangerous in the wrong hands; that the future could be altered. And so I decided – saw no other choice, really – that I could in fact do the altering, though not for harm as the bear warned.
“The thing was, the shape you had chosen was very familiar to me. Hell, it would be familiar to anybody who knows anything.”
I hesitated, looked to my companion, and continued.
“You were Hitler,” I said, and paused again. The sound of the boat and the water churning behind it filled the void in the silence that followed.
After a few seconds, maybe longer, he answered.
“So?” he said. “I looked like Hitler. So what?”
“That’s not what I mean,” I said. “I mean you were Hitler ... back in the war. You were Hitler. You went through all these shapes in the cabin and came up with a comfortable one ... one you were used to, had worn before. And it was Hitler.”
“Nonsense,” he said.
“Not nonsense,” I said. “Everybody’s always saying that Adolf Hitler was the personification of evil. It makes perfect sense. Besides, I’ve been fooling around with the letters of his name. Pretty interesting. And pretty alarming.
“You can rearrange the letters in ‘Adolf Hitler’ to read DEATH FILLOR ... death filler. He was ... you were ... filling some sort of need, or quota, in which people were required to die frightening, cruel, violent deaths.”
Billy was grinning at me, but not in mirth. It was a grin that bared
his teeth; signaled opposition.
“Yeah,” I said. “A question, really. One word: Why?”
“Why?” he echoed, and cut loose with a short bark. “Hah! Why indeed. Why not, is more the point. Everybody dies, Mr. Mann. And everybody is sinful. And everybody is virtually nothing. You are all experiments in the scheme of existence – nothing more. So why should I not experiment?”
“What, like with lab rats?” I asked.
“What makes you any better than a lab rat?” he said. “Your kind kills them without compunction; I see that your kind is killed. It’s no different.”
“Christ,” I said, and felt a chill sweep through me. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that he could probably do something violent to me, too, if he was of the mind. But then ... so could just about any human. Somehow I found that fact reassuring: sort of a perversion of the safety-in-numbers dictum.
Another thought struck me, and I found myself smiling through the fear.
“What?” said Billy. “You are finding humor in other people’s suffering?”
I shook my head.
“No,” I said. “It’s just that you ended up doing a good deed out there on Gull – sending Mussolini packing. What was that all about?”
“Maybe I’m not such a bad guy?” he answered.
“Yeah, right,” I said sarcastically. “A real prince. Remember: I saw the agony Il Duce was going through in that funnel. Not a pretty sight. So what happened with you guys: a falling out?”
Billy was looking down into the water at the rear of the boat, watching the wake. Just as I thought he was going to ignore the question, he surprised me with a response.
“I ... had asked him to leave; he was complicating the equation. As you got closer to him, I figured he would talk; try to gain his own ends by blabbing about who I really was. He never was very close-mouthed; got him in all sorts of trouble in Italy.”
He stopped, and I waited.
“But he laughed at me,” Billy said. “Told me he was going nowhere. And so, when you were balking at handing over the binoculars, I figured that was an opportune time to offer up his ouster. But ... well ... he had it coming anyway, the fat bastard. He was becoming tiresome.”
“So ... if you hadn’t looked through those filters, I’d have had them?” he asked. “You wouldn’t have removed them?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was already a little suspicious on some subconscious level. There just seemed to be so much ... I don’t know ... death and violence and evil involved with the glasses, that I had to ask myself if the real carpenter, if he exists, would be a part of it all – all those wartime fatalities.
“And I also had to think he – you – was a pretty heartless deity if he didn’t really care that an old man had been invaded by a thug like Mussolini. Which you just sort of pooh-poohed at first...”
“I have to take exception to that line of thought,” Billy said. “I think the carpenter gets more credit than he’s due. He’s not really all that nice a guy. Has a real strain of arrogance. Quite frankly, I think this whole faith thing is overrated.
“Besides,” he added, “just who’s calling whom heartless? If you knew what I was up to, how could you possibly trust that old man to my caretaking? I could have just let him die in the Gull transfer, you know.”
I was nodding my head before he finished.
“You’re right,” I said. “I was heartless. If you had let him die, there would have been hell to pay from Addie – but Jacques would have accepted it as an improvement over Mussolini’s presence. Call it a calculated risk; when I saw you through the filters – when you were changing shape – it occurred to me that since the binoculars were in your possession in that particular future, that I had willingly given them up. And the logical assumption beyond that was that in the giving, I had received in return something of value to me – in this case the return of Jacques’ father. The myth – and your own description of the rules involved in transfers – seemed to indicate you wouldn’t cheat. That you needed to play fair in order to attain your goal.”
“Hmmmph,” said Billy. “You know what they say about assumptions.”
“Yes, I do,” I said. “But I was willing to risk being an ass.”
“You were that sure I’d leave the old man alive.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And then you went and double-crossed me.”
“Yes,” I said again.
He shook his head.
“You give the concept of ‘good’ a bad name,” he said.
“My pleasure,” I answered. “Oh, by the way … I think you should know that your act needs working on. Nice touch, with the bear and all: resonant of the legend, and somehow warming. But telling me that Turk was actually Billy – was you – didn’t wash.”
“Why would you warn me away from Jacques and Addie? If I’d listened to those warnings, odds are I would have simply fled the Island. And that wouldn’t have helped you at all. Besides, I’d seen Turk years ago, knew his general aura. It just seemed like him...”
“Seemed like him,” Billy said. “In other words ... intuition.”
“Yeah ... maybe,” I said.
“How annoying,” he answered softly.
“Yeah, well,” I said. “One thing I don’t get, though: If Turk really wanted to warn me away, why didn’t he just tell me your game plan? Let me know who I was dealing with out at your cabin?”
“Ah, how little you understand,” said Billy. “There are rules of warfare, Mr. Mann. Rules of warfare. Turk was merely abiding by them.”
I was shaking my head.
“No, I don’t understand,” I said.
“Anything else?” he was asking. “Any other mistakes I should work on?”
“Oh ... yeah,” I said. “That light show out on Gull. Very impressive, and maybe that’s how you normally do a transfer. But it’s not how the carpenter would.”
“And just how do you come by that?” he asked.
“I was out there forty years ago, remember? Addie was taken without any of those theatrics. That was the real deal: low-keyed ... at least compared to your show.”
“Whoa,” he said. “I told you that was no transfer in ’56; that was a natural crossover – a natural death. I wasn’t lying about that. And just to clear up the record ... I didn’t have a hand in that little matter.”
“Then tell me I’m wrong,” I said. “Would the carpenter put on as big a show as you did?”
Billy was smiling.
“No ... not usually,” he said.
“One other thing.”
“How much of the history you fed me about the binoculars was on the level? Were they really created by a relative?”
“Oh, that. Yes. That was all on the up and up.”
“But how did they find their way from Abraham Mann – a relative in one branch of our family – to a relative in another branch. You didn’t by any chance have a hand in that, did you?”
Billy shrugged, a sheepish look on his face.
“Naturally,” he said. “While the course of the glasses was random at first, it was ultimately directed.”
“By you,” I prompted.
“Yes … by me. Their desirability was clear from the outset, and so your father – kin of the late Abraham – was selected. It was apparent that such a relationship could be utilized to my advantage; that your father might respond to the kinship and – informed of the inherent danger in the power of the glasses – deliver them to me. Bremerhaven happened to be the most convenient spot to give them to him.”
“So simple,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “It didn’t hurt that your father received an invitation from Jacques and was headed, ultimately, for this island. With Gull so close, the loose ends seemed to fall into place.”
“But what about the crystals?” I asked, touching on a subject that had bothered me from the moment I’d embraced the truth behind the myth. “Where did they really come from? How do they work?”
“You really don’t understand much, do you?”
“Not about the crystals.”
“And you never shall. They are beyond human ken, Mr. Mann.”
“But they have to come from somewhere,” I said. “Certainly I can understand that...”
Billy was shaking his head.
“They come from no place physical, no place mental, no place of dimension. They just are – although I must say they are exceptionally rare; especially the blue ones. I’ve yet to find another, though you can bet I’ll keep looking.”
“The legend, then,” I said, refusing to let go of the subject. “It wasn’t real? It didn’t happen? Then how did the gypsies get the crystals?”
“Such persistence,” he said. “Really. Some things will just have to remain unknowable. Now then ... I don’t suppose I could invite you to drop the filters off somewhere convenient, like at Gull Island, or perhaps in the Bermuda Triangle.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said.
“I thought not. But just to satisfy my curiosity, what did you do with them?”
“Oh, they’re in a safe place,” I said. “Quite safe.”
“Mmmmmm,” he said. “I was afraid of that.”
I patted the binocular case.
“I’m glad, of course, to have these back. But why did you return them? I imagine you plan on gaining something from it.”
“Perhaps,” he said.
“Perhaps,” I echoed.
“Yes. Well … I’m betting that with them in hand, you’re going to be very tempted to misuse them. Employ the filters yourself. And you can’t without the glasses.”
“Misuse them?” I said. “You mean as you would have?”
“Oh, I doubt you’re as imaginative as I would have been. But ... in essence, yes. And quite frankly, a little mayhem is better than nothing.”
“Uh huh,” I responded. “And you figure that as long as I’m tempted – as long as I have the means at hand to wield this power; to use the knowledge the glasses and filters together impart – I’m not likely to harm the prize.”
“You said it; not me,” he answered. “Well ... until next time.”
“One more thing,” I said, this time with a slight edge to my voice. He had started to fade from my sight, but rematerialized.
“What?” he asked, a trace of annoyance in his voice.
“Don’t give Addie trouble. Give her a hard time, and I will smash them.”
He smiled back.
“That leaves me little choice,” he said. “Ciao.”
“Ciao,” I echoed.
And he disappeared.
I popped loose the snap on the case. Pulling the binoculars out, I put my eyes to them and looked in the direction of the Island. I could barely see the main dock, and Addie was but a memory. I was too far away. But I could imagine her walking along the dock, toward shore; reaching the parking lot and Jacques’ pickup; climbing in, starting the engine and grimacing at its roar; and pulling out of the lot, kicking up a dust cloud as she headed west, back toward Pointe aux Pins.
“Hell,” I said to myself, her image clear in my mind. “Who needs binoculars, anyway?”
And then, tucking them back in their case and looping it over my neck, I answered myself.
“I do,” I said.
In Cheboygan, at my car, I said goodbye to Jacques. He had left his father momentarily in Johnny’s care while he saw me off.
“Listen, Jacques,” I said. “I want to thank you.”
“For what?” he said. “It is I who should be thanking you. You gave me back my father.”
“No, really,” I said, “I want to thank you for, you know ... for the ‘call,’ the hospitality, the family history ... This whole experience should make for interesting reading – that is, if you don’t have a problem with me writing about this…”
He shook his head.
“None,” he answered. “As I said, I am obliged. It would be rather petty of me to object to you practicing your craft.”
I held out my hand, and he took it, grasping firmly. When I moved to let go, he held firm.
“There is one last thing,” he said. “About your father.”
“My father?” I said. “What?”
“His last visit here, the summer before he died, he expressed certain ... misgivings.”
“About ... being less than truthful with his family regarding his role in the war. He was able to raise you boys easier that way – it made the maintenance of a peaceful environment more easily attainable. He didn’t want you growing up thinking violence was an answer. But while the ends were attained, the means bothered him.”
“Oh, I think I would have figured that out,” I said. “It’s not a problem.”
“Good,” said Jacques. “Remember, we all have secrets, and most of them for very good reasons.”
“Not me,” I said, straight-faced.
“Everyone,” said Jacques. “Anyway, he wanted to tell you the truth, after you had matured, but could not bring himself to broach it … until it was too late. And there was your mother ... she was disinclined to discuss those years or have them discussed. So that was an inhibiting influence.”
“I understand, Jacques ... really,” I said. “It’s not an issue with me. It just makes him a little more ... complex in my mind. I’m fine with it. We all have skeletons, and we all have fictions.”
“Good,” said Jacques. “Then I can bid you farewell now.”
I wanted to smile, but found myself mirroring the serious expression on Jacques’ face.
“’Bye, old friend,” I said. “I’ll be back this way.”
“Not so long this next time,” he said. “I cannot guarantee I will be here another forty years.”
“Maybe in the summer,” I said.
“Good,” he answered. “I will look for you.”
And with that, he turned quickly and strode away, his hair blowing in the wind that was whistling through the Straits.
The traffic south toward Flint was sparse, and so I put on the cruise control and the radio and coasted along comfortably, just under the speed limit.
I thought, with so much that had happened, that my mind would start replaying the past few days, but it didn’t. I found myself, instead, humming and singing along with the tunes on the radio.
Part of that clear-headedness, I suppose, was a reaction to the sheer volume of events on my visit; it would take a long time to digest them all. And having accomplished that, it would take still more time to assess them and maybe get them on paper. But part of my reaction came from a sense of satisfaction, too; I had reached a place in my mind and my heart where I felt good about my father, and about the Island, and about a couple of old friends, and about the prospects of an afterlife.
I hadn’t met the real carpenter, and still harbored nagging doubts about his very existence; though having met what amounted to his counterpart was certainly testament to the possibility that he was around. I contented myself on that point with the thought that the carpenter and I – should he exist – might yet cross paths before I left this curious orb.
But none of that was on my mind as I headed home. Mental calm prevailed. I was going back to my loved ones a slightly changed man, with the hope that the change was for the better. I was leaving behind a land that I had known as a boy and now, finally, knew as a man; and friends with whom I had lost touch but had now reconnected. I had attained a sense of fullness, a sense of direction in an otherwise meandering life.
I was also bolstered by the prospect of returning to the Island – to see those friends, to attend a service in Addie’s church, maybe to revisit the lighthouse.
And, of course, to retrieve the filters.
I hadn’t been kidding when I told Billy that I had put them in a safe place. I left them in a place I figured he’d never go, where the rules of warfare he espoused hopefully barred his entrance at the door, where I believed – I think correctly – that he literally couldn’t find them. Not that he’d want to, now; they would do him no good without my acquiescence – at least as long as the rules he outlined were not altered.
I left the filters in the church. Addie’s church. I put them there when we visited the building that final morning. I hid them while Addie was wandering about, getting familiar with what was to become her business establishment, so to speak.
I put them in the holiest place I could think of – a place that even I must concede was clever in its simplicity. I hid them in ... no. No, no, no. I just can’t. Won’t. Better not.
It had best remain a secret. I don’t want anyone who reads this going in there to check out my veracity, or claim the filters as a souvenir. And I don’t want to tempt fate by letting Billy know.
Anyway ... about my return to the Island. I told Jacques I might be back the next summer. That would give me time to sort everything out, I figured, give me a chance to decide if I would dare use the filters or should destroy them – smash them to dust.
In the meantime, I would have plenty to think about: Jacques, the war, Mussolini, the carpenter, the bear, the legend, Abraham Mann, Gull Island, Turk McGurk, and a Crystal of Death that carried the knowledge of eternal life.
And there was Dad to think about, too, and that deathbed message. I finally understood the first part, though comprehension hadn’t come until near the end of the trip – with verification that the carpenter was not what he had seemed to be.
“Take ... the carpenter,” Dad had said. I had believed that he meant “Take the binoculars to the carpenter.” That interpretation had temporarily misled me there in the carpenter’s – in Billy’s – cabin. I had thought that by handing the glasses over, I would be doing my father’s bidding.
But that’s not what he meant at all. Knowing now what I know of my father, I believe he meant quite the opposite.
The way I see it – the way I prefer to see it – is he meant “Take the carpenter.” As in the fight manager’s rallying cry to his boxer: “You can take him. Just watch out for that left hook.”
Well, I don’t think that I “took” him, but I did manage to avoid the hook – and to regain the binoculars in the bargain.
Yes, I succeeded, after a fashion. And in light of that, I knew there would be satisfaction in my future ruminations, a kind of congratulatory self-hug whenever I thought of Billy’s chagrin at coming up empty.
And there would be a concurrent warmth as I thought about Bois Blanc and its many charms – its white woods, its twisting dirt roads, its thick forests, its scenic shoreline, its isolation ... and its church in Pointe aux Pins.
And with the advent of a new minister, I figured the Island had more than a fighting chance against the encroachments of civilization and the whims of a willful force such as Billy.
If I was a betting man, I told myself on that drive home, I wouldn’t bet on Billy. Not while he’s on that Island. Not against that minister. If I were him, I wouldn’t even let her know I was around.
The last thing he’d want to feel would be the wrath of Addie.
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