Coming to Terms with Death, and Life
Previously, in Island Wars… Donovan Graham wants to travel the world and write about exotic places. His first gig, on Grand Seal Island off the coast of Maine, has seen him walking barefoot on hot coals, enduring a Talent Night that was downright freaky, falling madly in love with a gorgeous sculptress named Eliza, and witnessing the escalating show of force between the United States and Canada. Click here to read earlier entries, or read on to see Van's latest update.
Henry met Cory in Eastport. He told me that as we chatted over beers in The Larboard. By “chatted,” I mean that I sat there and listened carefully as Henry, who at last had consented to a formal interview, presented to me the story of his life, beginning with his earliest memory at age three. By “over beers,” I mean that I had a beer sitting in front of me on the counter, slowly losing all its fizz, and Henry had nothing at all.
Henry, not exactly known for his flights of wild imagination, presented his life story chronologically, punctuated with blue-eyed glares from over the half-glasses he always wears. The earliest-memory thing was a hailstorm that struck GSI when Henry was still in knickers.
“The sky was pitch black,” he said, without a hint of emotion. “I stared out through the screen door and watched the chunks of ice hitting the rocks, bouncing like popcorn. That is my earliest memory. Write it down.”
I wrote it down.
He continued in this vein through the major milestones of Little Henry’s life: the measles, the chicken pox, and three inner-ear infections, the always-good-for-a-laugh loose-frog-in-the-bedroom incident, the run-away-from-home effort (a bit difficult on a small island), the Discovery of the Secret Cave (discovered before and since by innumerable generations of GSI boys), the rafting trip around the island, the time his father died at sea.
Secret pain is at the heart of most deep conversations.
“He was a fisherman,” Henry told me, as though that was news, “and one day, when the sky off to the east was especially dark and grey, his boat never came back to the docks.”
I waited, not quite sure what to say. How do you console someone for a death that happened more than half a century ago?
He cleared his throat, steadied his shaking hands on the bar, and finally continued. “I’ve often wondered what that last trip was like for him,” he said. “He set out from the docks like he always did, in his little line trawler. It was called the Beatrice, after my mother. Mother saw him off that morning, like she always did, and then she came back into the house to wake up us kids. She didn’t have to wake me, though. I was staring out the window at my father, for reasons I didn’t know.
“We never found any part of the boat, or any part of him. A squall line moved from Newfoundland down toward Cape Cod, and the Beatrice was evidently caught in it. I suppose the waves caused the boat to founder, then flip. In the cold water out there, my father would have died in less than thirty minutes.
“When he was a few hours late getting back, after the sun set and the sky grew dark, Mother and I waited down by the docks, holding lanterns to help Father navigate. But nothing came in. He didn’t come back. Finally, in a dead-calm voice, Mother said it was time for me to go to bed. She walked me back to the house and tucked me in, promising that Father would say hello when he got home.
“He wasn’t home by breakfast the next morning, but I believed in the core of my being that he was simply tied up somewhere. Maybe he had seen the squall coming and ducked into an inlet to wait it out. Maybe his rudder was broken in the storm, and he wouldn’t make it home until he got it fixed. I thought of a hundred reasons why he would be a day late, and I believed every single one of them.
“Then, as the days passed by, those reasons one by one fell to dust. If he had ducked into an inlet, he’d be home by now — so that wasn’t it. If his rudder had broken, he’d have fixed it by now — so that wasn’t it.
“The fishing season ended before I ran out of explanations. Eventually, I had just one left. I knew that he had died in that squall, and that no other explanation made sense.
“He must have been scared, when it was happening to him. The wind. The high, choppy waves that you can’t predict. The freezing rain. He must have known he was in serious trouble, and he must have been scared. It’s hard to imagine him scared, though. He could curse so hard he’d turn granite into sand. I don’t think he was ever afraid of anything — except maybe that last wave.”
Henry was silent for another long minute. Cory had been listening on the other side of the bar, off to one end, and when Henry paused, she twisted open a bottle of dark rum and poured him a hefty glass without ice. He downed it in a shot, locked his jaw, and refused to show any sign of emotion to some pipsqueak reporter from the mainland.
Once the rum had worked its way through Henry’s gullet and into his stiffened arteries, he continued with his story. He went to Eastport Community College, majoring in business, and it was there that he met Cory. She lived in Eastport at the time — a townie with a degree from UMaine! — but Henry liked her no-nonsense style and her intestinal toughness. (Given that Cory was in the room as he told me this, you’d think he could have worked in a line or two about her drop-dead gorgeous eyes or her fetching smile or her lilting laugh, but not Henry. I’ve seen more sentimental cadavers.)
After a proper, staid, New England courtship, followed by a proper, staid, New England wedding and a proper, staid, New England impregnation, the happy couple returned to GSI to live out their days blissfully salting cod. Henry worked the fishing boats for a good many years, and then he ran for mayor when Archie had served just one term. He won the job by a narrow margin over his rival from the Minot clan, and he has been busily running the affairs of Grand Seal Island ever since.
“It must have been terrifying,” he said, almost immediately after the end of his story. A guy could get whiplash from these abrupt changes of topic. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to know that the big wave coming toward you is the one that’s going to do you in.”
Then he stood up. “Interview’s over,” he declared, running his hand through his short white hair. He walked firmly out of the bar and pushed through the door that leads into the Coffin residence. As he was leaving, I could just hear “never even found his damn body,” just under his breath.
Cory continued to clean the glasses behind the counter, an unnecessary activity that had given her an excuse to stick around and listen to Henry’s stories. She didn’t say a word, just kept her eyes down, mostly facing away from me. She polished glass after perfectly clean glass for almost ten straight minutes in silence. Then she grabbed the bottle of dark rum and plunked it down on the counter in front of me.
“Yours, asshole,” she said, still without looking at me. “Don’t drink it all in one place.”
Then she left, following her husband of nearly fifty years.
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — MapleLeaf249: Hey, the fishing business isn’t for sissies. You take your chances every day out there.
Comment — NavyBrat414: My father died in the first Gulf War. You don’t ever get over it.
Comment — Gemstone: I love what Henry had to say. He might be a tough old man, but he clearly loved his father very much. That kind of love transcends everything else — even death.
Comment — Chester881: My father died after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. It was painful for everyone. I’d rather be taken out by a big wave any day.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.