Excerpt from "Island Nights"
What follows is an excerpt from "Island Nights: Book One of the White Woods Chronicles," one of four novels I've written. I present it here for your enjoyment, I hope, and to encourage you to purchase this book or any of the others I've written.
This novel, along with "The Islander: Book Two of the White Woods Chronicles," and "Cabins in the Mist," is available in trade-paperback form on-line through Amazon.com and other major outlets. The three are also available at Brace Books on Franklin Street in Watkins Glen. My fourth novel, "The Maiden of Mackinac," is currently for sale in spiral-bound format in northern Michigan or by contacting me. It will be published in paperback form early next year.
As a matter of introduction, this story takes place in the 1950s on and near Bois Blanc Island in Michigan's Straits of Mackinac. The protagonist is named Avery Mann -- which roughly corresponds to me. This is, in fact, a fictional memoir -- a compilation in narrative form of some of my childhood experiences. The girl with Avery is Addie Winger, a summer islander with whom Avery is quite smitten. The men who come to their rescue are Jacques Lafitte, known as Lightfoot Jack, a ferryboat skipper; Avery's grandfather; and Eliot, a summer acquaintance with a background full of heroism.
We pick up the action in Chapter 21, titled "The Wrath."
-- A.C. Haeffner
We'd gone along the southern coastline of Bois Blanc for three or four miles and then traversed nearly the entire distance of Straits separating Bois Blanc from tiny Gull Island when the weather suddenly turned nasty. It was hot and muggy and hazy one minute, and the next minute the winds had reached howling proportions and the sky had darkened and the waves had started working themselves to a fever pitch. The odd thing was that the storm was moving in from the east, completely opposite the normal weather pattern.
We had to shout to be heard.
"Let's go back!" Addie was yelling. She had moved from the bow seat to the one nearest me, but even at that distance I had trouble picking up her words. But I could read her lips and the concern in her face.
"No!" I answered. "It's too far! We might capsize! We're going to Gull!"
I waved in the direction of the approaching island, and Addie, after gauging the distance back to Bois Blanc, nodded her assent. Not that there was much choice. Any land was better than none. Gull might have been small, but at least it was solid.
The boat struggled in the face of the waves, which were gaining
strength now as they gathered speed from the east. But after
I maneuvered so that Gull was blocking out some of their force,
we made headway and managed to land just as the storm intensified.
We were drenched by then from the spray off our bow, and were
no longer hot, the temperature having dropped twenty-five degrees
almost instantly. Heat at that point would have been welcome;
a chill was upon us.
Then we sat down, backs to the east, thinking we might wait it out that way. But a sudden gust actually lifted Addie off the ground and onto her feet, and she stumbled toward the surf. I grabbed madly as she lurched away, and caught hold of the top of her pants, at the waistband, and yanked backward. She sat down hard.
"Ow!" she said. "I don't like this!"
"Me neither!" I called to her.
We hit on the same idea instantly, and voiced it together.
"The boat!" we yelled.
Being careful not to get thrown off-balance, we bent in unison and slowly lifted the craft up on one side and let the wind flip it over. As it did, the gas container disconnected from the engine and bounced away to the water's edge. When the boat settled, the engine propellers were pointing skyward. Then, taking hold of the gunwale near the oarlocks -- now pointing downward -- I tilted the boat up on its side about two feet and motioned for Addie to enter near the bow.
"You first, my lady!" I yelled.
Addie nodded, crouched down and crawled underneath. Before I followed, I looked to the east and shuddered. The sky was pitch black in the distance and would soon be the same here; and worse, I spotted lightning dancing not more than a mile away. God, let it hit somewhere else, I prayed. The last thing I noticed before diving for cover was the size of a wave working its way rapidly in our direction. It was easily large enough to wash right across Gull.
"Damn," I said, and scrambled in after Addie.
"Hi," she said nervously.
"Hold on to the seat above you," I said. "There's a big wave coming fast."
We gripped the front seat just in time. The wave washed across the island like the spray from a fire hose, jarring the boat and lifting it a few inches westward, which meant waterward, which wasn't good. But our combined weight held the craft from further movement, and we lay there, under the boat, in the dark, breathing hard as the residue from the wave washed across our backsides.
I felt in the following few moments a measure of peace, despite the circumstance -- or maybe because of it, because of the intensity. I was seeing things in simple, basic terms now. Part of it was the proximity of Addie, lying so close by. She represented good, while the elements outside the boat -- the churning waters, the wind, the coming rain -- represented bad. Nothing else mattered.
That feeling of peace, of life viewed in a simple black-and-white framework, ebbed and flowed with the waves as they crashed across the hull of our boat, periodically threatening us. We were struggling, but held fast, giving up only a few inches of vital real estate.
"I ...don't ... like ... this!" Addie grunted after one particularly violent wave.
"Hold tight!" I said. "We haven't lost yet!"
And she did, and I did, and our muscles started to ache with
the effort. But with the aches came a feeling of growing confidence;
we were holding; we weren't going anywhere; we'd ride this out.
We were equal to the challenge of the waves, but woefully unprepared for something with much greater destructive power. The lightning I had seen dancing in the distance was now passing overhead, and one of the bolts made a direct line for Gull Island, attracted not by the lone tree -- the island's highest point -- but by our propeller shaft, sticking high like an antenna.
That's how it sounded, or how I think it did. It was two sounds in one, a sleek missile with a nasty warhead. But I wasn't analyzing the sound at the time. I was screaming, along with Addie, for the bolt had indeed struck the propeller and the engine, pounding it with such force that the metal ripped through the rear of the boat and bounced skyward, shattering the rear quarter of the craft and sending it outward in a hundred tiny pieces. Had it imploded, we would have been the consistency of strawberry jam. As it was, we suffered the shock of anyone who has experienced lightning up close without being scorched: our nerves were temporarily impaired and our thought processes scrambled.
The explosion had also ripped the seat above us from our grip, leaving us virtually defenseless just as another wave hit. The boat, no longer anchored by our hands and our limited weight -- and shorter and lighter than it had been before the lightning strike -- lifted up slowly, held there momentarily as if making up its mind, and then hurtled seaward when struck by a sudden surge of wind, the rope securing it to the tree snapping near the bow.
We lay there, breathing hard, trying to regain our senses. We had escaped the bolt of lightning, but I couldn't see our luck holding against the wind and the waves -- not where we were. So I put my mouth near Addie's ear and yelled.
She looked over at it, back to me, and vigorously nodded.
Holding hands, we crawled, belly to sand, toward the tree and the rope still tied around it. Once there, we raised ourselves to a sitting position on its western side, away from the onrushing waves, and I grabbed the line.
"Hold fast to me!" I yelled, and Addie wrapped her arms around my waist.
As quickly as I could, I fed the rope around the tree and back around us, repeating the maneuver until I came to the point where the line had snapped, and decided to just hold it tight. Reaching around Addie, I returned her desperate hug, and we sat there like that -- facing away from the direct blast of the wind and the waves, letting the trunk of the tree take the brunt of the storm -- and prayed.
And hoped that there wouldn't be another lightning strike.
And prayed some more ... prayed for an end to this mayhem.
But an answer was slow in coming.
The storm would not abate for more than two hours.
In those two hours, the only sounds I heard were those of the wind and the surf, the only sights I saw were white-capped water and black clouds illuminated by lightning, and the only things I felt were the incessant pelting of cold raindrops and the periodic arrival of waves hurled horizontally, smacking into my exposed shoulder as Addie and I hunched together behind the tree's trunk. As late afternoon yielded to evening and nightfall moved in -- though in the storm's darkness, there seemed little difference -- my senses grew numb. The combination of cold rain, cold surf and plummeting temperatures had combined to leave me -- us -- shaking violently.
Talk was fruitless; it was difficult to hear with all the noise. But beyond that there was nothing to discuss; we were simply reduced to holding onto each other, literally for dear life. If the rope snapped and we were separated, I had serious doubts about our survival. Together we had some heft and could help each other. Singly, we were featherweights and virtually defenseless. But there was danger even if the rope held fast, for hypothermia was looming as a possibility.
Eventually, despite the constant barrage of howling wind and crashing surf, another sound seemed to be trying to assert itself. I heard it, listened closely, lost it, heard it again. I nudged Addie and pointed to my ear and out toward the waters between Gull and Bois Blanc. That's where I thought it was coming from. She listened, shook her head, listened again. The sound faded away, and was gone for so long that I thought I must have been imagining it. But then it came back stronger than before, and I realized it could be an engine. Hope washed over me, competing with the waves. Addie poked me, and was nodding her head. We listened together, cheek against cheek, as if the physical contact would enhance our senses and make the sound more accessible. Our emotions rose and fell as we lost the sound, picked it up again, lost it again.
"Where is it?" Addie shouted, squinting into the darkness.
"I don't know," I yelled. But then, in an instant, I did.
Not more than 150 feet to the northwest, bucking wildly in the waves, the vague form of a boat appeared.
"There," I yelled, pointing, and Addie nodded.
I couldn't tell in the heavy rain and the darkness what boat it might be. But I could sense it moving closer, edging toward us, pitching wildly up and down, feeling its way.
And then, when a trio of lightning bolts sparked across the sky, lighting the scene before us, I could see it was the Sylmar. Jacques had found his way there in the storm. The boat continued drawing closer, as close as it could without running aground, coming in rear first, and I saw Jacques at the stern, yelling to us. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but then another figure appeared on his right side, and one on his left: Grandpa and Eliot. They were motioning, moving their hands and fingers together and then pulling them apart. I was befuddled at first, but then understood the message: "disengage."
Jacques, who had briefly left the stern, returned and held something aloft; it looked like a coiled rope. Yes, I was sure that's what it was. I nodded, and started reversing our rope, releasing it from around us and the tree, unleashing us from the sheltering trunk.
Free of the rope, I stood upright with some difficulty, my muscles having gone stiff with the tension and the exposure. I pulled Addie up and together we staggered to the edge of the shoreline, closer to the boat. Jacques nodded, yelled something I couldn't hear, and tossed the coiled line in our direction, holding fast to his end; we watched, squinting through the driving rain as it uncoiled, waiting for it to descend from its arc and into our hands; but it fell short, a yard out in the water. Addie and I stepped into the surf to retrieve it, but as we bent over, reaching for it, a blast of wind whipped it away from our grasp.
"I'll try again!" Jacques yelled.
He rewound the rope, reached back and tossed it, but the wind caught it and forced it down before it could reach our hands. Again, it quickly drifted away. Jacques rewound for a third try, and as the line sailed toward us, I lunged for it. In that instant, I lost hold of Addie and lost my balance and went down hard into the water, without the rope, without Addie, under the churning surf. I was at a drop-off but found footing, and pushed up with my legs. I raised my head clear of the water and then stood in the chest-high surf, feeling about, trying to grab either the line or Addie. I saw neither, but my hand ran over the line and I squeezed it. Holding tight, I fought to keep my balance, stabilized myself, and turned to yell to Addie.
But she was gone, nowhere to be seen -- seemingly swallowed by the storm. Lightning slashed across the sky, but the added visibility didn't help. She wasn't there. I started to panic, looking about frantically, shouting her name, but there was no sign of her. I turned to the boat, hands up in supplication, and they were pointing to my left. I dove into the water in that direction, but found nothing. I dove again, with the same result. I had lost the rope by then, but wasn't worrying about that. My only thoughts were of Addie. I dove a third time, and a fourth, and was rapidly losing my energy, thrashing about, crying.
And then I was pulled underwater, grabbed by a sudden swirling
current. Reaching for the surface, trying to gain another foothold,
I failed; taking in water, I started choking and believed it
was all over, that I was a victim of the storm, and in my final
moments took some solace in the fact that I was going down with
Addie -- that we'd be together again before long. But just as
survival instinct gave way to acceptance, I felt something grip
my shirt and lift me up. I spluttered as soon as I reached the
surface, coughing up what I had taken down, gasping for air,
firm once again in my resolve to live. Shaking the water clear
from my face, I swiveled to see who had saved me.
"Eliot!" I yelled. "I can't find Addie!"
He was nodding, and handed me the end of the rope I had dropped. He motioned toward the boat, saying something I couldn't hear, but I could read the words on his lips.
"I'll get her," he was saying. "Go."
Exhaustion had me, and so I could only nod. I gripped the rope, wrapping it twice around my left hand, and motioned to the boat. I could just barely see Jacques leaning over the stern, but he saw my signal and started pulling me toward the Sylmar. After a few yards I was pummeled by a wave that spun me over and briefly pushed me underwater, and then -- suddenly -- I was at the boat, and Jacques and Grandpa were each grabbing one of my arms and pulling me onto the deck. I cleared the railing and landed in a heap, but soon pushed myself upright. Grandpa and I hugged briefly, and then turned back to the dark waters, peering out, waiting. Jacques was yelling for Eliot, presumably to give him a bearing to work from; in return, we heard nothing but the rushing wind. Seconds ticked away into minutes. Two, I figured, then three. Jacques started chanting something -- an Indian prayer, I guessed -- and I said an English one of my own. Grandpa squeezed my hand as I mumbled my fervent plea.
As he did, another hand suddenly reached up from the water and grabbed the edge of the Sylmar deck on the starboard side, near the stern. In the same moment, we heard a voice cutting through the storm.
"A little help!" Eliot yelled.
Jacques and I jumped to the edge, reaching down for him, but
instead of taking our hands he handed something up to us. I realized
with a shock that it was Addie. We grabbed hold of her arms and
pulled her on board, carefully setting her down on the deck.
Panic welled as I saw close up that she wasn't moving, wasn't
conscious ... wasn't breathing. Leaning over her, I started applying
mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Grandpa and Jacques pulled
Eliot aboard. They stood watching me for a few moments, but then
Jacques knelt and tapped my shoulder. I looked up, saw him motioning
me off, and shook my head vigorously; I wasn't about to give
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