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  • Maine is blessed with islands. From the mainland, their outlines waver in the haze. In winter they seem to float above the horizon. They invite travellers to cross over. Many do. Some for an afternoon and some for a lifetime. Islanders have many tales and they are all true, even the ones they make up. Islands hold their stories. When you visit them, set aside agendas, schedules and plans. Listen. On an island, time flows differently. No clear lines mark where one story ends and another begins.

    They came from L. A. all the way to the little island in Blue Hill Bay. Three thousand miles and more in their shinning new ’47 Ford to an island without harbour or house. They bought a grey dory and a green wheelbarrow and hauled themselves out to the empty windswept pastures.

    That first winter he put bunks in the ten foot square tarpaper shack beside the ruins of the old sheep barn. They ordered a Sears and Roebuck cook stove, hauled it up the rutted path from the shore and fed it a diet of eight inch sticks. They built their house in the low stone cellar that sheltered the sheep in a different age.

    She rode atop the lumber as the barge skidded down the ways to be towed across the bay.

    “Just like Cleopatra on her barge,” she liked to tell me.

    He hung a swing under the porch roof so they could sit of an evening and watch the lighthouse call the last boats home. For forty years only the rising tide of spruce marked time on their world.

    On the bright April day Andy launched his new peapod out of the window above the kitchen not a trace of their lives was visible beyond the old gray dory hauled out at the top of the south facing beach. Not even the smoke from their fires was visible above the dark green and jagged wall of spruce. The entire population of Gotts Island trailed after George’s three-wheeler to see Andy’s new craft meet the ocean. All five of us watched Andy row her across the Pool, skimming high and light as a gull before the north-west wind.

    “Want to row to the Harbour,” Andy called.

    After a winter on the island neither of us needed much of an excuse. A Snickers bar and the mail was more than enough reason for a three-mile pull across the bay.

    It wasn’t until we had cleared Phil’s Ledge and had hit the chop stirred up by the tide spilling across the bar that we noticed the Swan’s Island Ferry wasn’t on her usual track between the islands. Loaded with passengers, cars and delivery trucks, everyone with an appointment to meet and schedule to keep, and the whole bunch of them just about run ashore on the steep scrap of beach just below the windlass the old couple used to haul their dory out of the tide’s reach.

    She waited on the smooth rounded rocks. From a mile away she could have been a scrap of black cloth fluttering in the breeze. Nothing more. The great white ferry and the tiny woman in black frozen in a long moment and only the wind moving and the bright sun glinting harsh on the waves.

    The captain hadn’t gained much in the way of hard information by the time we got there.

    “She’s got the flag up,” he reported. He must have learned the habit of checking for it years ago, before the trees crowded so close. Anyone else would have missed the shred of blue atop the weathered gray pole. All those years of Tuesdays and Thursdays swinging wide around the green can buoy at the end of the Mitchell Bar checking the gray pole as regularly as he checked the fathometer. Always hoping that today would not be the day.

    And now, here we were.

    Andy and I rowed ashore.

    She held the bow as we scrambled ashore and hauled the peapod over the tumbled stones. “I am so glad you could come. I am afraid I need help.” Her voice quiet and soft and matter of fact, as though she expected us.

    We followed her up the narrow path. Patches of ice glinted from the darkness under the thick crowd of spruce. We hurried to keep her in sight. If she’d slipped behind a shadow we would have lost her in the dim and silent wood.

    “What’s going on, deah? Where’s the old man?” Trust George to appear when something was going on. Just now he didn’t have breath for more than a whisper. Or maybe it was the habit born of a lifetime of slipping past the No Hunting signs the old man tended on every possible landing.

    The clearing with the house appeared like turning a page in a book of fairy tales. Dark wood and green trim. A home for forest elves set neat and low in a pocket of meadow. She held the heavy door open for us and waited as we climbed the steps to the long stone porch.

    We edged past her and waited on the small square of carpet by the door, suddenly clumsy in our boots.

    The house was quiet and dark. Dark wood. Dark bindings on the books that lined the walls. And hushed. Like the house was waiting, or, maybe, holding its breath. She climbed the stairs. Her hand brushed the familiar curve of the polished rail.

    We looked at each other, Andy, George and I, and then started up after her.

    He was waiting. Stretched out long on the bed. Dressed for a trip ashore except for his bare feet hanging stiff and yellow over the edge of the bed. The rasp of his breath filled the room.

    He never felt us as we wrapped him in a blanket. His face stayed calm and gray as we carried him down the steps and bundled him into the wheelbarrow.

    She locked the door, picked up the bag she'd packed with a nightgown and a teddy bear, the one with their petty cash inside, and walked away.

    We followed. The ice and stones scraped and cracked under the wheelbarrow’s metal wheel. I pushed the barrow and George and Andy followed behind.

    At the shore we loaded him aboard George’s boat as mute and uncomprehending as the deer George hauled in another season.

    I can come and cut wood for you. When you get back, I told her, breaking the silence, as we paddled out to the waiting ferry After all, where else could she go?

    She nodded.

    What’s she going to do now, I wonder? They asked at the store.

    Out there, all alone, after all these years. They shook their heads down at the Post Office.

    The first day I remembered the silence and didn’t dare bring a chain saw. I left the outboard on its mooring and rowed across. She showed me the stove they bought from Sears that first winter, forty years ago, and the last few sticks stacked neat as cans in a cardboard box.

    We took turns, she said. Staying up nights to feed the fire. On the low table beside the armchair she’d set out a pack of Camels, a can of peanuts, the radio, and his lighter.

    I picked up the old man’s buck saw and followed her. She showed me the trees they’d planted close by the house. Sweet cherry, maple and pine. The garden where the first violets bloomed. The roses they’d carried with them from California asleep under their mounds of earth. She led me past the mossy heap of saw dust beside the mill into the forest.

    I could see from the stumps how he’d cut. Each year the tide of spruce swelled closer to the house. Each year he culled the standing dead. No roads, just shifting trails where he’d carried out the year’s wood on his shoulder, one tree to a time.

    Paths appeared, ran a little way, and gave out. Deer tracks pocked the soft carpet of needles. The old stone wall beside us ended in a jumble of stone.

    She stopped.

    There’s a cemetery just along here. Just a little one. You know where that is.

    I shook my head. I’ve never been here. Only along the shore to set traps.

    It’s beside the beaver pond. You’ve been there.

    I shook my head again.

    She looked back through the close set trunks to the scrap of light where their meadow showed. She ran her hands along the rough, field stone wall as if willing it to carry on and lead the way.

    I always followed him, she whispered
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