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  • PRIVATE
    Diary of Katherine Emily Austin

    May 2, 1920
    Diary, another house is empty on the Island! The Phillips left to live ashore, in town. Julia was in such a state that she forgot to wish me a happy fourteenth birthday. Moving to town cannot possibly be more important than leaving one's fondest friend. These last days she has talked only of running water and electricity. As I walked back up the hill I resolved to turn my head aside as I passed Julia's house. I could not bear to see the curtains drawn. The poor house breathes emptiness, although they have been gone only hours.

    Grammy always said that my birthday was the first sincere day of spring. The tulips by the porch opened just this morning. The fields that Papa and the boys burned over are a bright green, but I feel everything is ending, not beginning. Good night, Diary, I will not look down to Julia's house this night. It is as if the stars were leaving the sky and darkness engulfing the familiar.

    May 12, 1920
    It has been far too long since I last wrote. Tonight we held the school speaking contest. What was to be the high point of the school calendar ended as a threadbare affair. Four students are gone now. Poor Miss Higgens hastily rearranged the program. I'm sure I don't know what difference another month would have made to them. Spring fishing begins each year with the usual complaints about the tide, hauling bait and carring lobsters till the buyer comes. But when J.W. Hardwick opened his wharf in town they couldn't pack up and leave soon enough.

    Even though Mama assured me the speaking contest was a great success, all I could think of was Julia's name beside mine in the program notes. I felt only half there. When I looked about me I saw only the empty desks.

    Papa said he heard talk at the store in town that a black man is staying with Harvey Arnold's sheep out to the Little Island. I cannot imagine a more lonely life. Nothing but gulls and sheep for company. Days when we have bright sun the Little Island is locked in a dungeon fog. Papa says he must pick his days to row the ten miles to town. Grampy allowed as how he must have a stout heart to launch his vessel from that rocky shore.

    "Only island I ever seen that never had a lee shore," remarked Grampy. "Which ever way the wind blows its always onshore on every side."

    May 13, 1920
    A sou-west gale sweeps up the hill and pries at the shingles. It has put Luther in a black temper all day. It serves him right. He was too have gone to town today. He said there wouldn't be room for him to bother with either the twins or me as he had a load of laths and rope for his traps to bring back. Ever since he began to see Connie Harper he has had neither the time nor the inclination to be a brother.
    Tonight at the supper table Luther complained that nothing would ever change on The Island. "The rest of the country drives cars and goes to see the movies," he said. "Here I am stuck out on a chunk of wind blasted rock waiting for the tide."

    "Our lives are our own here," Papa answered. "The families that leave will never have in town what they had here."

    I thought Grampy was asleep in his rocker by the stove, but he put down his old clay pipe with a clack. His eyes gleamed in the lamplight. "You can always leave," he said. "Just that first step and you're already gone. But I tell you, you won't always find what you left behind."

    I prayed for the Great War to end before it took Luther. The last soldiers are home now. I thought our life on The Island would go on as it always has. But change has come and no one is content any longer.

    May 31, 1920
    Decoration Day. We gathered in the cemetery by Grammy's grave. I carried the first apple blossoms. Mama brought an armful of lilacs: blue and purple and white. Grampy wore his uniform. The medals on his chest shone splendidly. The twins were after him again this morning like a pair of puppies. All they can think of are the tales of which the medals give silent testimony.

    Grampy's eyes, which are now so often misty, grew sharp and gray. "Each medal is a bitter weight," he snapped. "I would gladly exchange a life of glory for an evening in the porch swing."

    Papa read the memorial service and prayer this year. Grampy's eyes tire easily. His uniform seems to have stretched and the weight of his wide black hat bowed his head.

    The grass creeps up around the stones in the plots of the families who have left The Island. Can the souls here sense their abandonment?

    June 8, 1920
    The Indian family arrived today in their canoes. They have set up their camp on the north shore where the sweet grass grows. Three years ago, when they were last here, Mama sent me to their camp with milk and eggs. In exchange they gave Mama baskets woven of sweet grass. Julia and I received birch bark canoes. Models of the very ones they used. I have mine still, although I am much too old now to play at boats as I once did. Julia left hers at the shore and lost it to the tide. She has always been careless. A month now and, though I have written her several times, not a word from her. At first I excused her, thinking of all the confusions of moving. Now, I can only think she has forsaken The Island and me.

    Luther says the black man on the Little Island sometimes stops over with our Indians if it breezes on. "They call him the Cowboy," he said. I'm sure I can't think why.

    June 28,1920
    Oh Diary I am sorry to have neglected for so long. I have been busy straight from dawn to dusk. Three more families have left us. Rachel Hamilton told Mama she may close the store now that so many have left.

    Today I watched Papa walk down the hill to the shore to work on his traps. He walked slowly as if to put off arriving. So much of the work that many hands made light of he struggles to finish alone.

    We had to have the Strawberry Social inside the church today as the east wind and fog made it raw and unpleasant out of doors. The talk was all of leaving. "I don't know what what is left to stay for," Manny Joy said to anyone who would listen.

    July 4,1920
    Diary, I am so proud of Grampy. Now I know what it must be like for a soldier to stand straight and proud in the face of the enemy's fire.

    Papa took us all to the celebration in Rockhaven. Just the day before Papa had finished painting the Carrie-Mi and we made quite a sight coming into the harbor flags a-flying. We had our dinner aboard before joining the festivities.

    The twins simply had to enter the pie-eating contest. Frederic won, although I am afraid his best Sunday shirt will never be the same. Mama absolutely refused to allow them to enter in the greased pig chase. In the late afternoon the Indians paddled across the bay, with them came a small boat with a red sail. Mama remarked on the most peculiar set of the sail. It appeared to be set sideways. Somehow, I knew at once it must be the Cowboy.

    Grampy and I watched him walk up the long quarry wharf where a crew set up for the fireworks display. He was in uniform just as smart and straight as if for review. Even his boots shone. My, how his heels rang loud against the granite blocks!

    A crowd of idlers round the quarry's cog rail car muttered and spat in the dust. One of them called out, so as to make sure he was heard, a rude marching song. Another marched crudely behind the Cowboy. Finally several of them ran ahead and positioned themselves squarely in his path. The Cowboy faced them and made no move to go around. The air was tense and heavy as it sometimes is before a thunderstorm.

    Grampy called out in a voice I have never before heard him use. "Have you no shame!" His call rang in the air like the toll of a bell. No, more like the singing whisper of Grampy's saber leaving it's scabbard. "On the birthday of freedom in this land you would taunt a man for his differences?" he asked them. "We have all travelled that we may drink at the well of freedom. You would begrudge a man who has served the cause of freedom the chance to enjoy the fruits of his great labor. Shame, I say, for casting down that which on this very day we hold so dear."

    The crowd around us had fallen silent as Grampy spoke. Now they gave a great Hurrah. Grampy stepped up to the Cowboy and saluted him. The Cowboy snapped to attention and saluted back. The crowd cheered again.

    Grampy led the Cowboy to meet our family. It was as if they had become comrades in those few short minutes there on the quarry wharf. Even though I now know his name, when I think of him, the Cowboy he remains. He bowed quite elegantly to Mama and me. Mama offered him a glass of lemonade which he accepted most graciously. Papa asked him about his boat and how he found life on the Little Island. He replied that while it was not as lively as Paris, neither was it as desolate as the great deserts of Egypt. I scarce heard the rest of the talk. I was struck by the thought that a man so cultured and traveled should be treated so poorly at the hands of a few dusty stone cutters in this, his native land.

    I wonder if the bright medals on his chest are as great a burden to him as are the medals and memories that Grampy carries with him?

    August 12, 1920
    Again I must apologize for my neglect, dear Diary. Until today what news there has been was too sad for me to record here. So few students are left that there has been talk of closing the school next fall. Mama is writing Aunt Florence to see if I could be of some help there in exchange for my board.

    Imagine my surprise to come back from taking a can of milk and a basket of Mama's beans out to Miss Watson and her company and finding Manny Joy and Rachel Hamilton waiting for me. Manny brought over a package left at the store in town for the first boat to bring over. Of course Rachel would not be denied her right to among the first to know. It was an oddly heavy little bundle addressed to Miss Kat Austin. I had to think a moment before I realized it was me. Inside was a beatiful golden cat. Its eyes are brilliant green stones. Around its neck is a collar of blue. Its air is both mysterious and ancient. Papa held it as gently as if it were a living creature.

    Mama gasped. "Who could have sent such a thing? Of course you can not keep it."

    But Grampy smiled when he read the card. "A cat for Kat."

    No signature, only an odd drawing of a man on horseback and the rayed sun behind. "You can't return a gift given as this one. Not without offending," he announced as though it were decided.

    "Katherine, you are a sly one." Rachel simply had to have her say. "But who is he?"

    Grampy snorted, there is no other word for it. "Plain as peas. It's a fellow who has felt the sharp edge of words."

    Mama sent me out to weed the garden so they could talk it over. After supper Papa said simply that the cat was mine. I will keep her with you, Diary, to guard you.


    September 5, 1920
    Terrible news has come. Today the Cowboy's boat was found adrift by Harvey Sawyer as he tended his gear on the Middle Ground. Harvey set Eddie Junior ashore on the Little Island. The camp was empty and although he called and walked the shore, he found no one.

    I walked to the Indians' camp. They have been gone a week now. Maybe he was on his way to join them up country. If they had been there I do not know what I would have said to them. We are familiar, but we have never really spoken. In another week one could not tell from the fire blackened stones and clam shells whether they were gone a month or a hundred years. I cast the last sweet peas from the garden onto the water. The sou'west wind carried the bright petals out across the bay.

    September 15, 1920
    Word has come from Aunt Florence, although not the news Mam had hoped for. Aunt Florence and three of the children are sick with the flu. Mama says we must go to help her, as Uncle John is away at sea and not due back until after Christmas. Papa and the boys will join us after the fall fishing is over. But we will return. As soon as the ice is gone and the Line Gales of March are spent, we will return.

    I will have no time nor room to myself so I will leave you here Diary and the cat with you. Here, on my secret shelf, I know you will be safe.

    Good-bye my island home. Winter shall fly past and I will be home once more.
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