The Island

Today the sea is dark, but while the sky is too cloudy for the ocean’s surface to reflect blue sunlight, the water seems to hold a glow of its own. Tessa and I keep the big rolling doors at the front of the workshop open as often as possible, even if it means layering on an extra sweater or two; the shingled building faces the sea, with the seaweed-strewn high-tide line just a hundred yards away down the rocky beach. From the sawhorse tables inside, we can watch the Monhegan ferry make its daily courses towards the mainland past Carver’s Cove.

I keep one eye on the black edges of the waves as I paint varnish on the wooden blocks lined up before me. Stretching for a minute, I stand straight and crack my back, then stoop down for my mug on the bench next to me. I flick sawdust off of the surface of the lukewarm coffee and slurp at the contents. My mind is still focused on the water.

Tessa is restless, too, but Tessa is always restless. She rubs her nose and flips her braid over her back, then follows my gaze outside, tracing the horizon briskly with her eyes before surveying the shop again. “Nicholas wants us to take a look at the new lumber coming in on the 5 o’clock tonight. We should try to take care of this before then,” she tells me. I watch her calculate something in her head but, as always, I can’t tell if it has anything to do with what she’s talking about or something else entirely. Possibly both. She pulls a pencil out of her hair and scribbles a figure directly onto the board in front of her before moving it aside.

“I can finish up here, if you want to go meet the boat and check out the new wood,” I offer. She looks sharply at me to see if I’m giving her something I shouldn’t with that, but I keep my face expressionless and level before hiding it in my coffee mug. She pauses, then looks back out to sea, and sniffs the air.

“We’re going to get frost tonight, tomorrow night at latest,” she says suddenly. “Yeah?” I am surprised but don’t doubt her. “It seems awfully early for that.”

“It’s nearly mid-September, Emma,” she reminds me. I had forgotten; summer’s really ended, then. No wonder Tess is restless. Winter is coming—my second winter on the Island, but the twenty-third for Tessa, having lived here all her life. My mug doesn’t come up fast enough to cover the thoughts on my face, and though perhaps I only imagine it, Tessa’s flushes for a second before she grabs up her cap. It’s not my place to be concerned. “Yeah—” she is brusque. “I’ll go grab that lumber. Mind if I take the truck?”

“Nah, go for it,” I say. “There’s not much left here to do and I’m not going anywhere.”

She walks out of the shop and jumps into the truck parked outside. Even from here I can see the muscles leap in her thin shoulder as she slams the door and puts it in gear. There’s a little radius of bare cement in the middle of a patch of sawdust on her side of the shop that marks where she had been standing, and I can’t stop glancing at it as I finish up: a small shadow of Tess, lingering even after the sun has gone down. I sweep every other part of the shop before closing the bay doors, but I leave that patch alone.

I’m not from Isleshaven, or “the Island,” as anyone who was from there would call it. I’m a mainlander, a born-and-bred coastie, but a mainlander nonetheless. I went to the public school on the mainland with the sons and daughters of everyone else who worked at the mill in Bangor. Though I lost my electricity with the rest of the county whenever the nor’easters came through, I never worried about whether or not the stopped ferry would cut me off for days or a week at a time in bad storms. Worst-case scenario, my family always knew that we could snowshoe to Miller’s general store for food, to the Brennan’s house for their generator, or flag down a truck on the main road and get into town. The Islanders do not have these luxuries; the ferry runs three times daily into Jonesport and back, but in bad weather there’s no guarantees it’ll run at all.

I was a wharf rat from the outset, though, always have been. My mother shook her head at me, bewildered at how an inland woman like her could have given birth to such a salt. My father smiled through his mustache, resolutely hiding the twinkle in his eye on the page of his book whenever I dragged myself (or was dragged) back home smelling like tar and sawdust. I never was much of a talker, especially when I was little, but I had a real knack for spying out this bit and that of mischief. My mother, she was a real trooper, that’s for sure.

More than anything else, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the horizon line, when it didn’t wrap itself around me and swell, slowly, such that by the time I hit my teens I thought I’d burst if I couldn’t hold it all. That I just needed to run straight at the point where ocean met sky, and that would be the only way I could control its power over me. It happens that way to people sometimes.

Still, I’m not sure if I would have ended up out on the Island if I hadn’t fallen in with Tessa like I did. If her uncle Captain James Fitzpatrick hadn’t hauled me out of the Bay just shy of my thirteenth birthday, I’m not sure if we’d have met or paid each other much mind. But haul me out he did, when I looked to near drown myself in my most misguided attempt to go to sea.

I’d taken a canoe out from our lake, portaged it straight down Gunticook Stream to the sea, and struck out for Matinicus Island: the outermost point where the Bay turns into open ocean. I figured that if the Indians had taken canoes into the Atlantic, so could I, and reckoned I’d be the only one at the lake whose canoe had touched open water. I guessed right on that part but didn’t figure that the Indians had probably used something sturdier than our little aluminum fishing canoe. Tessa’s uncle found me braving the swells of the Penobscot Bay, bailing steadily with a plastic milk jug.

James Fitzpatrick didn’t haul me up by the collar and throw me on top of the bait bags on the bottom of his boat, but rather pulled alongside me, idled the engine, and cordially offered his assistance. I considered briefly before just as politely accepting it. A few short hours later, after motoring across the Bay in Captain Fitzpatrick’s boat, I was huddled shivering by their woodstove on Isleshaven with Tessa Nissen and her older brother Nicholas staring curiously at me.

Nicholas, almost eighteen and ever the high-minded pragmatist, was disgusted with me. “What were you trying to do?” he asked. I shrugged under my blanket and tucked bedraggled hair behind an ear. But Tessa, two years older than I, was intrigued and impressed. While Captain Fitzpatrick drifted in and out of the kitchen, stopping to advise me to tuck the blanket well around my toes, Tessa sized me up as a comrade.

I had few playmates my age that cared overmuch about differentiating beyond one end of a boat from another, and I found Tessa equally intriguing. She knew things about boats, much more than I did. She was an Islander. She painted lobster buoys for Captain James on the weekends, and sometimes went out with him on early mornings to haul traps and set the finished buoys out.

I was hungry to get off the mainland. Out in the Bay, in Tessa’s world, the roads looked as wide and broad as the horizon. Transport was governed not by the shoulders of the highway, but by submerged parameters unknown to me. Even in bad weather, the fog banks held an aura of mystery to me, not enclosure; the thick mists of the coast transformed the well-known paths on land into places that, with a little bit of imagination, could have been anywhere at all. I lifted my chin thinking about it. Tessa looked at my face and she smiled at me.

I spent the rest of that day on Isleshaven while Tessa’s mother alternated between spooning soup and coffee into me, and talking to my own mother on the phone. Everyone decided that it was probably for the best that, if I wanted so badly to get out into the Bay, I ought to try taking the ferry next time as far as the Island. That’s how I started spending my weekends with Tessa.

Tessa knew what she was about, even at fourteen. The girl was a walking barometer, and probably could estimate an isobar change within a quarter point by the time she finished primary school, just by lifting her face to the wind. Sharp-eyed and quick, she reminded me a bit of a bird: sudden and startling in her rapid, jerky efficiency at times, and yet also capable of standing so still long enough, concentrating on something you couldn’t see, that you wondered if you had only imagined her and she was actually part of the scenery.

We spent enough time together that every now and again someone would mistake me for an extra cousin. Tessa and I worked for Nicholas in the summers—two for the price of one, he joked. Together they taught me the differences between Islanders and Mainlanders, how to pick out a yachtee from a schooner bum at a hundred yards distance, and the best ways to make fun of tourists while still making money off of them. We rode around in the back of Nicholas’ truck and pretty soon, I myself all but forgot that I wasn’t an Islander.

Growing up, Tessa would sometimes tell me I was lucky to be a transplant, a coastie mainlander who came and stayed. “Look at that, Tess,” I said to her one evening as we dangled our feet in the water, staring at the spot where the sun had been ten minutes earlier on the horizon. “If we started now we could get to England for breakfast. Go get Nicholas.”

“Breakfast in two weeks, you mean,” she laughed. “Or their breakfast, washed up on shore, if you’re thinking of taking anything tied up on this dock across the Atlantic.”

“I can’t believe you’ve always had this out your bedroom window.” I brought my hands up on either side of my face, making a box to block the shore out of my vision. “Look—do this and it could be any horizon.”

“Yeah except it’s not, it’s this one.” I kept staring out to sea while she talked. “I would never leave the Islands forever, like some kids do. I love this. But you really are lucky to be able to come and go like you do, and not necessarily belong here.” I didn’t reply; I was counting the flashes on the channel buoy in my head, the light only just starting to shine as the sunset faded.

Tessa and I, we figured out early on that we had two big things in common. We loved the ocean, for one. But then there was that other force, linked to it but not the same thing, some unnamed drive that pushed us both. It was a few years, too, before we realized that they weren’t quite the same for us. We both understood that homesickness for places that you’ve not yet seen, but the difference was that I could find relief for mine, feed it, keep it from fussing—and Tessa never could.

Tessa went offshore to fish the Grand Banks after she finished school, while I plodded through my own last year at the mainlander school. When it was my turn to graduate, it was natural for us to go in together on the upstairs rooms above the workshop in Carver’s Cove, split the rent, and work as a team: half the week doing woodwork, and half the week out hauling traps. But there was something more Tessa was always listening for, or listening to, I came to realize; something that wasn’t part of the Bay. I was always settled by the sight of a ship coming out of the Island’s shadow, but Tessa’s restlessness was a more mutable thing. I knew what I needed, and that was an open door and the knowledge that if I needed to, I could use it. The more we came to understand our own wanderlust, the more disparate we were. And as I learned how to manage mine, Tessa got quieter.

When Tessa came back home that night, Nicholas and I were in the kitchen sitting in front of empty soup bowls, nursing a beer in the lull after food and conversation. We both looked up when we heard her step at the door. The last-light glow of the kitchen cast deep shadows on her face and I could see circles under her eyes that I hadn’t noticed before.

“Hey,” I said, and nodded in the direction of the stove. “We’ve got tomato soup, saved you a good amount. There’s fresh bread, too. How’d the lumber look?”

“Hey. Good. Thanks.” She nodded at Nicholas, but she stayed standing in the doorway, fiddling with her bootlaces and shifting her weight from one leg to the other while balanced on the threshold. I scooted my chair back and got a bowl out of the cupboard for her. “The wood’s decent,” she said, “some in the back if you want to check it out, too. We got a good deal on it.” Sidestepping at last into the kitchen, she puttered over the stove for a minute.

“You sleeping enough, Tess-o?” Nicholas asked her, leaning back comfortably in his chair, elbow propped up and one hand behind his head.

“Why?”

“You’ve just looked under the lid of that pot three times, and I’d bet you still couldn’t tell now what’s in it.”

She narrowed her brown eyes at him, then laughed lightly, moving back to the pot and spooning herself some of its contents. “Sure you’re not just gettin’ vain about your cooking and my interest in it?” She lifted the ladle a second time, reconsidered, then put it back in the pot and moved a chair around so she could sit backwards at the table. “Heat’s come back on, three nights ago now,” she said, by way of explanation. “The radiators have been talking all night; I haven’t slept.” Tessa spoke often, lately, of odd sounds with odder descriptions; the radiators spoke, mice breathed in the corners, the waves wouldn’t be quiet. “Did you hear that?” she would ask me.

“It’s an old house,” Nicholas replied, and tipped his beer back. “It’s not quiet.”

“No,” she said, but she wasn’t listening anymore. She frowned into her spoon.

I watched her out of the corner of my eye as I put the better part of her soup into a Tupperware and threw it in the fridge.

“Emma.” She had caught my gaze and was looking back at me.

“What?”

“Don’t fuss.”

“Sorry.”

“What?” asked Nicholas.

“Nothing,” said Tessa.

He shrugged before standing up and rinsing out his bottle. I avoided looking at Tessa altogether and studied Nicholas instead where he stood, partially turned away from me, at the sink. In that light, the family resemblance between them was especially clear; thick brown hair, arched noses, and stubborn mouths.

“See you in the morning,” Nicholas said before heading out the front door. “Don’t stay up late talking and then go whining about it at dawn tomorrow.” He was off the stoop before I could roll my eyes at him. Tess and I set about cleaning the kitchen in silence.

Tessa turned to me a few minutes later as I was reaching up to hang a pot on the top shelf. “Yeah?” she asked.

I looked at her blankly. “Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”

“I thought you said my name,” she said. She rubbed both hands over her ears before stuffing them into her hair.

Tessa was right, we did get a frost that night, and a chill permeated the air during the next few weeks as September turned into October. With the cold came an increasing peculiarity that was hard for me to put a finger on. We had always thrown our clothes in the same pile but by the end of the month, our pants were falling off of her hips. She borrowed a pair of Mattie’s and I pretended not to notice. They were slow changes; she laughed and spoke easily with me, but started wandering off, distracted, sometimes mid-sentence. It was odd. The weather held Tessa’s interest as much as it always had, but when she went out and stood at the end of the dock, hands in her pockets and her eyes out to sea, I felt a different quality in it than I had before. I could tell she was worried about something when I saw her shoulders deliberately compose indifference before going about winterizing the shutters.

And she began wincing. At first this was accompanied by a question: “Yeah?” she would ask me. “What?”

“Nothing,” I would reply, quizzical. “I didn’t say anything.” She would almost cringe, glance around, and move on. Then the questions stopped, replaced perhaps by a quick eye-flick, but the cringe kept coming—little facial contortions of fear that she would smooth out again so quickly that it was impossible to know what they were. In the shop, I tried to watch her without her noticing.

“Hey Tess,” I said, trying to pitch the comment at her casually. “What’s with the wince?” She just looked at me. “That face you just made—you got a bruise you keep hitting or something?” I realized that the blank of her face was something like terror and started to feel alarmed.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“I just…” I trailed of lamely.
“You’re crazy,” Tessa said. She spoke nonchalantly, but repeated it, almost thoughtfully.

“Yep. Crazy.” She turned it over with her tongue, still looking at me, then spun on a heel and left the shop, disappearing into the afternoon. I didn’t speak of it to her again.

One afternoon, while Tessa was gone to the mainland, I went and found Nicholas. He had architectural plans for a sloop laid out on the table in front of him. His once-crisp, now frayed button-down collared crew shirt had varnish speckles down its front, and a red bandanna was tied around his forehead. I cleared my throat and he looked up, his eyes focusing on me slowly. “Heya, Emma. How goes the latest project?”

“Goodenough, goodenough. We should be done with the refinishing by Thursday.”

“You want some coffee?” He picked a mug up off of the table, looked in the bottom of it, put it back down and grabbed another one off of the bookshelf by the phone. This one was deemed clean enough and he sloughed the last of the contents of his coffee pot into it, and handed it to me. I was glad to have something to hold onto. I looked at its slightly oily surface as I spoke.

“I was actually just coming by because I wanted to talk to you about Tess…”
He squinted at me, slightly worried-looking. “You two had a spat or something?”

“Nah, no, nothing like that. I just, she’s seemed a bit, off to me lately, distracted. I don’t know. Something going on.” I swirled my coffee but stole glances up at him as I did so. “I was wondering if you’d noticed anything different about her.”

He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “She’s seemed a bit distracted. Hard to say.”

“Has anyone else mentioned it…?”

He re-buttoned one of his shirt cuffs as he replied. “Nah.” He looked at me, then tucked both hands in his pockets. “I don’t know, Emma. It’s probably nothing. You know Tessa. Always itchin’ about something.”

“You think?”

“To be honest, you see her a whole heck of a lot more than the rest of us do.”

“Yeah.” I scuffed a foot on his floor.

He picked up a paper off the table and turned it over without looking at it. “You coming up to our parent’s house for dinner tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I’ll be there. We’ll be there.”

He smiled at me. “Good. And if that refinishing isn’t done until Friday, that’d be okay too.”

I go into the woodshop after work that evening, looking for my sweater, and when I switch on the light I see her sitting alone on the bench in the back. She blinks in the sudden light and squints at her hands, folded together at her knees.

“Tess?” I say, and my voice sounds oddly normal.

“Hi. Emma,” she says. “Em—do you hear the talking at night in the house?” she looks up at me, her eyes flicking lightly back and forth, as though there’s more that she isn’t saying. “The wind around the eaves? How do you always sleep through it so well?”

“I don’t know,” I tell her. My throat aches. “I just do.” She’s wearing both of our fleeces and shivering a little. I grab my sweater off the table and walk over to her, stopping so that my toe nudges her sneaker. She gets up, and hugs me. Then she comes back inside with me and lets me make her a sandwich.

One day Tessa starts walking down the pier and just never stops. It is December; ice chunks mix with the white foam caps to dot the ocean’s surface. Her thin shoulders are set normally and her gait is calm and sedate, but later I will remember the hair prickling on the back of my neck as I watched her progression from the loft window. She doesn’t turn once, or slow her stride, but I think she knows that I am watching her. I don’t understand why my breath comes in oddly until after I see the meaning in the deliberate plodding of her boots, and then she is gone and I am flying down the stairs, through the shop, yelling for Nicholas, for Captain Fitzpatrick, Tessa’s mother, anyone, in a whisper that even I can’t hear.

Tessa was sent away after that, to a hospital in Boston. She’d lost an index finger and two toes to the cold, but that wasn’t why they kept her there. I left the Island that winter and went back to the mainland, to my parent’s house. I could have stayed on Isleshaven, kept working; they probably would have helped me with the rent. But for the first time, I understood Tessa’s feeling of being pent up on the Island. And, rather than wishing that I could hear what she listened for on her long walks and quiet, searching moments, I was afraid that I would find it.

That April, a letter came in the mail: a college acceptance. I spread the pages out flat with my fingertips at my kitchen table, examining the letterhead instead of my parent’s faces. I did not look up at them until I thought I knew what I wanted, and when I finally met their eyes I found that their expressions were not so contrary to my own. So I let my fingertips fall into the page creases, lifted my shoulders, and made up my mind. Four months later, I was washing the salt from my clothes and packing the car to drive inland.

When my parents ask me if I’d like to stop by the Island one more time before I go, say good-bye to the Nissens and the Fitzpatricks, I shake my head no. “You could take an extra day, leave later,” my father tells me.

“That’s alright,” I tell them. That morning, I think that perhaps I see the stern of Captain Fitzpatrick’s boat just at the edge of the harbor in the mist, but I stay where I am standing among the dock pilings, my hands closed in my pockets.

I have been a college student for three months when I get a notice that I have a package. It is nearly Thanksgiving; I wrap my old coat around my shoulders and walk to the post office. Picking up the parcel, I see that the postmark is from Isleshaven and slip it into my bag. It sits on my desk unopened until late that night. Finally, I take out a pair of scissors and carefully cut all of the tape off of the box.

Inside, a letter in Captain Fitzpatrick’s handwriting rests on top of what looks like a bed of sawdust. I pick it up to read it first. News of the Bay marches out in his crabbed writing, and a faint imprint tells me that he probably used a piece of plywood for a writing surface. The last three paragraphs of the second page he dedicates to Tessa, detailing her psychiatric diagnosis and how she’s been. She is still in Boston. She might be coming home soon, he writes. He doesn’t say anything about the fact that no one is sure if or when I myself will be back.

The rest of the package, he writes, are just a few things that we put together for you. Everyone says hello. There the letter ends, with the practiced signature making its distinct presence under the less well-worn text above. I turn it over, to make sure I had missed no other notes—nothing from Tessa, no postscript from Nicholas—before refolding it, laying it aside, and returning to the rest of the contents of the box.

Out of the sawdust—cedar, I think, from the smell—I lift out the collection of objects one at a time. There are a few stones, one empty periwinkle shell, a bar of soap and a jar of honey. I line them up carefully on my desk. Last I pull out a small glass bottle, carefully sealed. A Turk’s head has been knotted around it, and when I tip it from side to side, I can see that it holds seawater: grains of sand and bits of shell swirl lightly around before settling again on the bottom. I hold it up to my lamp, and tiny bits of mica sparkle. The light filters through them and in my mind’s eye I see Carver’s cove, lit with the last dregs of daylight. Something in my stomach shifts, settles, and my throat loosens; the muscles in my neck ache from an old tightness I had not realized was there. Then, for the first time since they pulled Tessa out of the mid-winter ocean, I can taste the salt of it on my own cheek.

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