Birds On An Island, by Charlie Bookout

I sent the last package to Arkansas today. I made it a point at the beginning never to use the same post office twice, so I drove up to Lubec this time. The roads in this part of Maine don’t offer much to look at—miles of pine forests, wild blueberry fields, little else—and it’s a long way back to my house, so I’ve fallen again into thinking about the lady who came from there, from Arkansas. I hate that I can’t remember her first name. I mean, who the hell knows where your memory goes when you get to be my age? But it goes, slowly, through invisible holes, like air escaping a kid’s balloon. And the important moments seem to go first, as if to leave room for things that never mattered. I can see that little scar on her chin like she was sitting in the pickup next to me. But, honest to God, I can’t remember her first name. Her married name was Busbee, and I remember the moniker her hillbilly neighbors had given her—it was the sort of dumbfuckery I’d expect from an Arkansan—but her real name was elegant, lyrical. My wife, long dead, was a famous lover of Greek myths, and I can imagine the woman’s name appearing in one of those stories.

I can look at the little scar on the woman’s chin anytime I want; after all these years, it’s still right there in front of me. And even though I sometimes wish I couldn’t, I can relive the impossibility that saved her life in the same way.

That Saturday, the woman from Arkansas went into eight fathoms of choppy North Atlantic foam just as casually as you might hop into the shallow end of the pool. I shut down the motor and ran to the rail. I couldn’t find her at first, and then I saw her way off the starboard side, twenty yards at least. I hadn’t swum in years. I knew I’d never reach her. I screamed at her and threw a lifejacket. It didn’t even come close. I felt ill. It looked like she was trying to swim toward the lighthouse but she kept going under. I actually remember wondering what my life would be like from then on, whether or not I’d ever get a good night’s sleep again knowing I’d watched someone drown.

She disappeared, and I just stood there watching, my guts wiggling like a sack of dying squid. Then something in the air caught my eye, one of the laughing, black-headed gulls my late wife loved to feed. (On windy days, they’d hover in front of her and take Doritos out of her hand.) Two other gulls arrived as if from nowhere, then ten more. They chuckled to one another and formed a tight group over the spot where I saw the woman go down. Then the air was full of gulls, more than a hundred, had to be. They flew round and round, a carousel of birds. That’s when I saw the weird purple light for the first time. It started out as just a flicker in a window of the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, but then the water underneath the birds started roiling and glistening with the same purple. A column of mist spun up from the water to meet them. The column was thick and gray like one of those waterspouts you see in pictures but never see in real life. At first, I thought I was imagining the shape, but then I was sure; a figure had formed in the droplets of mist. It was a woman. Were there wings, too?

The cackling of those goddamn gulls was nearly unbearable and I would’ve cowered in the wheelhouse, but just then, I caught a glimpse of the Arkansas woman’s tee-shirt. She surfaced and kept going up and up until she was above the waves, three feet, twenty feet, and if I try hard enough, even now I can close my eyes and see the water ghost holding the woman in her arms. The storm of gulls drifted over my boat. The woman landed easy on the deck.

It can’t be. I know. But it’s never changed in my memory. Neither has the moment I first met this woman who should’ve had a mythical name.

I was coming in from checking the traps when I first saw her. I think about it a lot actually, how she looked standing there on the pier that afternoon. I still gave tours back then, too, and I had a little shack set up where the floating dock was attached. There was a sign on the wall. I could see her reading it as I maneuvered the boat into an empty slip. DOWNEAST COASTAL TOURS. I’d painted the letters in bright yellows and blues, but by that summer, the words had faded to dirty shades of cracked pastel. SEE WHALES – SEALS – PUFFINS, and then the words I would soon learn were among her husband’s last: CROW ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE.

She watched me as I stepped over the railing and tied the boat to one of the cleats. I remember becoming suddenly aware of my crooked posture and the way I was moving with the arthritic care of an even older man. She met me at the front of the shack. She smelled like cigarettes and perfume. Her frayed jeans and cartoon tee-shirt hung loose on her bony frame. Her eyes were the color of tobacco juice.

“Missus,” I said, raising the bill of my cap. “Could I help you?”

“I…I wanna go on a boat ride,” she said. Her smile was too big, too white; roebuckers, I figured. And she was a Southern girl, plain as day, with a voice nearly as sunburnt as her face.

“Okay, we can surely take care of that,” I said. I added some rural Maine to my own accent. She was a tourist. That’s how you talk to tourists. I fished the key to the shack from my pants pocket. “Lemme step in here, and we’ll have a look at the calendar.”

“I wanna go now.”

“Howzat?” I said.

“I mean, as soon as possible.”

“Well, I’d say you’re in luck then. I didn’t schedule anybody today on account of the weather. But looks like the fog’s liftin’. How many in your group?”

“Just me.”

I motioned toward the sign’s small print. “Sorry, miss. One wouldn’t quite pay for the fuel. Hope you understand.” I tried to put on a gentle smile.

She dug around in her purse and produced a roll of ragged bills. “I can pay extra,” she said.

“I suppose we can work something out,” I said and shook her hand. “Name’s Paul Weaver. Call me Captain Paul.”

We bobbed around the local islands for half an hour while I gave my little talk on history and wildlife. She stood next to me at the wheel. Her smoky perfume wrapped itself around us. “I never been in a big boat before,” she said over the noise of the motor.

“That so?” I said. “Well, I’m partial to the Maddie’s Way; she’s a fine craft, no mistake.” I rounded the peninsula, and there was the unmistakable profile of Crow Island. Crow slopes up from the west and ends in a steep promontory on its seaward side. The lighthouse sits on the edge of the cliff, and the tower rises from the eastern gable end of the keeper’s home, giving the entire island the look of a sharpened wedge. I remember thinking that on that day it looked like the dorsal fin of a giant shark breaching the fog. “And here’s the finale,” I said. “The lighthouse was built in 1858, but Crow Island’s been a sacred place to the Penobscot Indians since a long time before that. They believed a sea hag lived there who’d lure fishermen onto the rocks and make them stupid so they’d do her bidding. One version of the legend claims she’d actually suck their brains out of their heads—that’s how the Indians used to eat crayfish, you know.”

“It looks so lonely,” she said.

“Abandoned, yes. Lonely, no. The bird numbers are climbing. Last year alone there were over twelve hundred nesting pairs of Arctic terns. And there’s the human residents, of course; they’re all dead, but there’s a lot of them, too.” I kept a little black and white photo tacked above the GPS. A young bride was smearing wedding cake onto my young face. I caressed the picture frame. A cloud moved and cast a shadow over us.

She drummed her foot on the floor. When she spoke, her voice trembled. “So…there’s a cemetery on Crow Island.”

“It’s what Patroclus asked of Achilles.” I stared out over the bow for an awkward moment. “Sorry, my wife was really into Ancient Greece, and…no, nobody’s buried there. Crow Island Lighthouse is a columbarium. It’s a place for your ashes to go if you get cremated. After the Coast Guard decommissioned the light, some folks bought it and started sellin’ vault space for cremains. That’s the word they use—cremains. Howdaya like that? And for a pretty penny, I might add. They charged people over two grand. They called it Forever on The Atlantic. No telling how many people they ripped off before they got their license yanked. The brochure showed marble floors and mahogany cabinets with little niches for each urn. Real swanky, you know. But the Cemetery Board sent letters to the families saying they shut the place down. They said when they went to inspect it, they found the urns stacked on the ground or on shelves made outta rotten plywood and cinder blocks. What’s worse, the birds had got in and knocked a bunch of urns over. Imagine all those fine Catholics and Methodists spending eternity covered in pelican guano.”

I took us around the east side of the island so she could get a better look at the weathered shingles and the scarred face of the tower. Her lips twitched. She gave her hair a tug. “People should go get the urns and keep them someplace else,” she said.

I laughed. “Crow Island’s off limits. Protected bird sanctuary. Maine Fish-n’-Wildlife owns it now. See all those white birds with the tan heads? Those are northern gannets. They’re thick this time of year. Oh, and there’s a cormorant. That’s a lucky find. They say—”

“So we don’t actually get to go into the lighthouse?” she asked me. I could hear panic in her throat.

“‘Fraid not,” I said. “This is as close as we get. But if you look just there, you can see a pair of Leach’s storm-petrels.”

She dropped her purse to the wheelhouse floor and stepped out onto the deck. She counted to three, and then she jumped over the side.

The impossibility happened.

The gulls broke from their formation, and the shaft of sea mist, and the spirit lady inside it, collapsed, falling on me like rain. The purple light danced briefly along the railing. Then the light was gone, too.

Seawater poured from the woman’s mouth and nose. She curled into a fetal position, coughing and gagging. I switched the radio to channel three and called for Craig Dunlap, Winter Harbor’s police chief. I’d known him for years. “Go ahead,” he said.

I couldn’t decide what to say. Finally, “Craig, it’s Paul on the Maddie’s Way. I just had a lady go in the water over here off Crow.”

Copy that. She wearin’ a PFD?

“I’ve got her back on board, but she took in a lot of water.”

Gouldsboro’s your closest port. I’ll radio their first responders to meet you there. They’ll want her stats right now in case she’s unresponsive when they get to her.”

I realized then that she’d never introduced herself. “Ten-four. Give me a minute,” I said. Her purse was at my feet. I opened it to look for some ID. A swell jarred the boat and I spilled the purse’s contents. That’s when I found her pistol. It was no bigger than a kid’s squirt gun, but I figured it could kill a man all the same. I shoveled everything back into the purse as quickly as I could.

“Craig, you copy?” I said into the mic.

Go ahead.”

“I found something in her purse. It’s a… Stand by.” Most men would’ve found the woman far from lovely. But her look of protest, the valleys between her eyebrows and the aggravated angle of her jaw—It was a face that made you have no idea what was coming next, what you might do next. My wife used to make me feel that way sometimes. “I found an Arkansas driver’s license, but that’s it.” I gave him her name and then, “Five-five, dark brown hair, hundred sixty pounds. It’s an old license; I wouldn’t put her at more than one-fifteen, one-twenty.”

Ten-four,” he said.

She was gagging again, and I went to her. “You’re okay, miss,” I said. “Just keep gettin’ rid of that water. An ambulance is gonna meet us at the dock.”

“No,” she said. “Please.”

“You need to get checked out,” I said. “You nearly died.”

She reached for my hand. “But I didn’t. If there’s an ambulance, the cops’ll come too, and that’d be the same as killing me. Please… I have to get to the island.” She went into another coughing fit and then vomited.

I helped her sit up. I took a blanket out of the dry box and draped it around her. I had no intention of taking her to Crow Island, and now she was asking me not to take her to Gouldsboro either. But we couldn’t sit there drifting. The light was getting poor, and the wind was picking up. I started the boat and headed for the mouth of the Narraguagus. There’s a little cove downstream from Milbridge I knew I could hide in even at low tide.

We were there in a few minutes. When I killed the motor and dropped anchor, she came around. “What are we doing?” she asked me. “I’ve gotta get to Crow Island.”

A burst of radio static, then Craig Dunlap’s voice: “Maddie’s Way, you copy?

“You’re not getting there in my boat,” I said.

She reached for her purse. I remembered the pistol. “Wait,” I said.

“I can’t pay you much more.” She brought out another fistful of bills. “But I’ll give you the rest of the money I’ve got.”

Maddie’s Way one-zero-three-two-three-five-niner, this is Winter Harbor. Please state your position, over.”

I sighed, relieved that she didn’t plan to shoot me. But I was overloaded. I turned the radio’s volume down and then stood there. The boat rocked in the dying light.

She hung her head. When she spoke, the voice wasn’t hers. “What’s wrong, darling? You look like a man who’s between Scylla and Charybdis.” The Southern drawl was gone and it sounded exactly like something my wife would’ve said. Exactly.

I touched her hand. Her skin was as rough as a shark’s. For a second or two the weird light crackled around her like violet fire.

I breathed as deeply as I could and replied as if the day were still sane. “There’s just no possible way, ma’am, I’m sorry.”

When she looked up at me again she had managed a sort of sensual smile. “I could let you do me, right here if you want. Nobody’ll see.” It was the Arkansan voice again, somehow damp with sweat and honey-thick. I felt blood rush to my face and moments later to other parts of me I’d nearly forgotten. An uninvited image of my wife’s naked ankles came to me. I turned to hide my tears.

“Never mind,” she said. “Who am I kidding?”

“Missus Busbee, I—”

“You don’t have to call me that. Nobody calls me that. You wanna know what they call me?” She grinned big and tapped a false incisor with her fingernail. “These teeth were my husband’s last gift. Hardly anybody’s ever seen me with ’em. Everybody says I must have bought a boob job with all the money I save on toothpaste. They call me Gummer.” She lifted her breasts and gave them a squeeze. “Whataya think, Captain Paul? Was it a fair trade?” Her eyes had begun to glisten.

“Okay.” I said. Such an offer was unlikely to come again. Ever. Then I saw the photo of my wife through the wheelhouse window. “Somewhere else, though. Do you have a hotel room?”

She stared at me for a moment. “I drove here straight from Arkansas.”

I fired up the motor again. “Let’s go find someplace private,” I said.

I’ve worn a colostomy bag since a little later that summer, and while I’m sure my mother celebrated my successful potty training more than sixty years earlier, the last normal shit I took before that God-awful surgery meant nothing to me. It’s like that with everything. We acknowledge our firsts. First steps. First words. But life never affords us the chance to give so much as a nod to any of our lasts.

Almost never. I hoped my last steps were still a few years ahead of me. But I’d known for a long time that my last intercourse experience was almost a decade behind me. And I was fine with it. Then this woman in my boat made her offer. I accepted because, it turns out, part of me was still alive. But another part of me wanted my last time to always be that morning with my wife a month before she slipped away. So when we got back to the dock we used the woman’s car, not my pickup. Like the boat, too much married life had gone on in my pickup. Gummer’s car, on the other hand, was all Gummer. It looked like it had started to rust when the Eighties were coming to an end; not unlike her, I imagine. And the inside of it was thick with the same stale aroma of perfume and cigarette smoke.

I asked her to drive eight or so miles down to the Schoodic Point parking lot. It’s always empty at night. We climbed into her back seat, and did what we did. I wasn’t sure how well I’d perform, but I don’t suppose it mattered. The man inside her wasn’t me; it was her husband. And when I came into her, I said my dead wife’s name.

She tried to sleep, and an uncomfortable hour had gone by when the sound of her phone startled her out of what looked to me like a cold, prickly stupor. She mumbled something unintelligible, and then more clearly, “Twenty-two.” She sat up in the Ford’s moldy back seat, scrambled over the console and took the phone from the glove compartment. It vibrated in her hand. Its light filled the cab. BFF, the screen shouted.

“What if it’s him, somehow?” she asked. She wasn’t really talking to me. The phone buzzed again. The ring was James Taylor promising Gummer she had a friend; sounded like he was singing through tin foil.

She stomped on the floorboard. “I know it’s a trick, baby. Just like you said, the DEA’s in bed with the phone company. If I answer, they’ll know where I am. Just like you said.” The phone thrummed again. She winced. “But what if it is you?”

She swiped the screen, but it was too late. No one was there.

She rocked back and forth, then steadied her hands long enough to light a smoke. She closed her fist around a lock of her hair, yanked twice—hard enough to bring tears—and then resumed rocking. “I overdone it again,” she said, finally looking at me. “It’s eighteen hundred miles from my house to Winter Harbor, Maine. Odometer said so. I drove thirty-six straight hours.” She opened the ashtray and held up the little vial she’d hidden there. “But not without help.” She gave it a shake and something rattled inside.

She licked her lips and peered out the window. “I’m forty-three years old, and yesterday was the first time I ever seen the ocean. I been dreamin’ about it for as long as I can remember.” She squinted out into the dark. “Wish I could see it right now. It’s out there somewhere, not far from the sound of it.”

I wondered if the ocean sounded to her the way it did in her dreams. A gull laughed. I shuddered. She wiped the inside of the windshield and we caught a glimpse of the horizon, straight and red like the edge of a bloody razor. But then it was gone. Fog smothered the granite tip of Schoodic Point.

The ringtone she’d picked for her BFF came again. “Winter, spring, summer, or fall—” She swiped the screen. “Hello?”

The phone wasn’t on speaker, but in the silence I could hear most of what the caller said. “Thank goodness. Where are you? You haven’t answered since Monday. I thought you might pick up if I used your husband’s phone.”

“Can’t tell you.”

What?

“I can’t tell you where I am, Sandy. It’s between Jeff and me.”

A long pause. “Your husband’s dead.”

“Yeah, I know. But he told me some stuff—secret stuff—before they killed him. I had to do this. Don’t worry about the kids. They’re old enough to take care of themselves.”

Your children are six and nine years old. Where the hell are you?

“Let’s just say that if Jeff was right, I’ll be one of the first people in America to see the sun today.”

Don’t tell me you left the state. You know you can’t—

She pressed the END CALL button. “I shouldn’t have answered,” she said. “It was my probation officer.” She looked at her phone and then switched it off. “I don’t want to hear that song again. It was me and Jeff’s song.”

She curled into a ball and shivered.

There was no sunrise to watch. Dawn—always early here in the summer—crept in unnoticed like thick and quiet soup. I started to fade, and when sleep finally came, it came in intervals more irritating than restful.

She shook me awake. “You ready to take me to the island now?”

“I suppose,” I said. “It’s Sunday morning; maybe nobody’ll notice me anchored so close to it. But first, tell my why you want to go.”

She rolled her window down and lit a cigarette with trembling hands. “I ain’t into tellin’ people my sob story. You’ll either go through with your part or you won’t.”

“I’ve got a lot to lose if we get caught,” I said, “so I think you should at least tell me what’s so important out there.”

She opened her wallet and showed me a crumpled family photo. “They’ve grown since this was took, but those are my kids, and that’s their daddy. He tried his hardest to take care of us. But our luck just kept gettin’ shittier. A couple of weeks ago he told me he was going way up into New England, someplace. Said it was a favor for his friends, and that they’d pay him for it. His so-called friends are bad dudes, and I had a feeling I knew what the favor was. But we were so strapped the welfare people was fixin’ to take our boys, so I kept my mouth shut. When he showed back up last Wednesday night he was acting weird, said he was exhausted, and went straight to bed, but when he got up the next day he was still freaking out, scared but excited too. He said, ‘Baby, we’ve gotta lay low for awhile, but I’ve found us a way out. Somethin’ crazy happened, somethin’ you’d never believe. And I’ve come into some money because of it, big money. I brought a little back with me, but there’s a lot more. Enough for you, and me, and the boys to start over.’ When I asked him where the money was, he said, ‘It’s best you don’t know yet. But let me put it this way: If you were there, you’d have been one of the first Americans to see the sun this morning.’ He kissed me and ran across the street to Jiffy Stop to buy smokes, and I never seen him again. I thought I heard gunshots. I knew for sure when the sirens came. I looked through the blinds and seen the ambulance guys workin’ on him, but I knew he was gone.”

She finished her cigarette, tossed it out and lit another one. “I found a bunch of twenties in his jeans. And a piece of envelope with two things written on it in Jeff’s handwriting, two things that ain’t done nothin’ but stink up my brain for three days: Crow Island Lighthouse, and the number twenty-two. I still don’t know what the number means, but I Googled Crow Island, and I figured that’s gotta be where the money is. And if it’s enough money for those guys to kill Jeff over, the Feds probably know something. If I didn’t leave right then, I’d chicken out. There was soup in the cabinet and some nuggets in the freezer. I hugged my boys tight. I told them to behave, and keep the door locked.”

She put the photo back in her wallet. She sat awestruck by the gray-green waves that hammered the shore’s rock face. “Just look at it,” she said. “I wish Jason and David could see it. I always imagined the ocean being deep blue under marshmallow clouds—but it’s good enough.” She turned and looked at me, and I’ll never forget the pain in her eyes. “I guess it’ll have to be,” she said. “I doubt I’ll go home with anything else.”

My wife always called thunderheads marshmallow clouds. “Listen,” I said. “Maybe there is something for you on Crow Island.” I wasn’t sure what else to say. I only knew that some impossibility had saved the woman’s life; an impossibility that needed an explanation. She looked at me again, and her eyes blazed faintly with ghost purple. “There’s more to the Indian legend about Crow Island,” I heard myself say.

“Well? Spit it out.”

“See that bird?” I asked her. I pointed to the laughing gull that had just landed on a snag of driftwood. “There’s a story about why their heads and wings are black.”

“The Indians where I come from have crow stories, too,” she said. “But that ain’t no crow. I know that much.”

“No, it’s a laughing gull. But the sea hag would sometimes turn herself into a crow. The Penobscot say she’d fly out during the day and steal all of Gull’s oysters for her supper. She’d bring them to her island and build a big fire to cook them in. One evening, Gull was starving and asked for a few oysters back. This made the sea hag angry. She tried to put Gull in the fire along with the oysters. Gull escaped, but his head and wingtips were scorched. That’s why they’re black. But Gull didn’t give up. He came the next day while the hag was out and ate his fill. He’s been laughing about it ever since.” I looked over at the driftwood, but the gull was gone.

“It’s a nice story, but if there’s a lesson, I ain’t gettin’ it. Are you gonna take me to Crow Island or not?”

“You can find a lesson in any story, like the Greek myth about a bird called the halcyon. That one says you can still have better days, kinder days, even after you lose a part of you that you thought was…most of you. And yes, I’ll take you there.”

She drove us back to the village, found Harbor Street, and parked near the pier where I kept the Maddie’s Way. She killed the engine and looked at herself in the mirror. She grimaced. “These falsies look so fake I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off without ’em.” She opened the door. The air outside was salty and fishy. But I could tell it felt good on her face. She breathed it in as we started our walk down to the dock.

We were halfway to the slip when three men got out of an SUV. They walked quickly toward us. My heart raced when I realized they were dressed alike: khakis, white polo shirts, black ball caps. “You there,” one of them said.

She whirled and in no time had the pistol out of her purse and pointed at the men.

DROP IT! DROP IT!” One of them fired a gun. Several more shots came. I think some of them were from her pistol. Then we were both on the ground. I crawled to her. My left knee felt strange. I looked down and saw that my foot was facing the wrong direction. A fiery pain crawled in my gut.

MOVE AWAY FROM HER!

The woman was on her back. The center of her blouse was becoming a pond of blood. Her left shoulder was nearly gone. Her face was already growing pale. “It’s not so bad, Jeff,” she whispered. “Remember how I used to be so…afraid to die?”

SIR, BACK AWAY NOW!

She coughed. A red mist settled around her lips. “It’s actually kinda nice…like, like when we used to do…hydrocodone…. Everything’s cotton candy.”

SIR!!

“I love you, Jeff.”

“Don’t go,” I said.

That’s when they tackled me.

Craig came to see me the day after my second surgery. I’d already been in the hospital for a month by then. When I think of his visit, it’s like remembering a fever dream. He may have said everything I remember, but I may have hallucinated some of it. I don’t want to know how involved you are. Just be careful what you say when they start asking questions. They know about the woman’s husband. The Canadians are dead, too. Drowned, according to the news. The coroner told me their brains were missing. How the fuck does that happen? The drugs were in a duffel bag strapped to one of the bodies. But they have no idea where the money is.

The guys with the questions showed up in my hospital room the day after that. I was more alert but still high on morphine; everything was still cotton candy. The man in the tan blazer said he was from the State Attorney General’s office. I don’t care to remember his name. “We have a few questions for you, Mr. Weaver,” he said.

“I’m doing better. Thanks for asking,” I said.

He shared a look with the other one, a kid with a goatee sucking on an after-lunch toothpick. “You were walking toward the boat slip at Winter Harbor with Mrs. Busbee on July thirteenth when the shooting occurred, is that correct?”

I nodded.

He took a notebook and pencil from his inside pocket and jotted something. “And she didn’t have anybody with her? Friends? Family?”

“No.”

Goatee took a step forward. “Taking just one person on a tour is against your policy, isn’t it Mr. Weaver? ‘No more than seven, and no fewer than three.’ Isn’t that what your sign says?”

“She paid extra,” I said.

“And how did you know her?” Tan Blazer asked.

“I’d just met her. I have a coastal tour service, and I was taking her to see the puffins.”

“Hang on a sec,” Goatee said. He stabbed the air with his toothpick for emphasis. A tiny pendulum of spit dangled from its tip. “I’m confused. You mean you were taking her to see the puffins again?”

“How d’ya mean?”

“You took her out the day before, on Saturday the twelfth,” he said. “You were gone for quite some time we understand.”

A glittery purple orb ran along Tan Blazer’s arm, up his neck and sat still on the top of his head.

“That’s right!” I said and chuckled. “I’ve had quite a day already. I must be a little confused myself.”

Tan Blazer laughed with me. “OK, now that we’ve got that established,” he said, “Did she tell you anything about herself? Like where she was from?”

“Not that I remember,” I said.

“Arkansas,” Goatee said. “I spoke with Chief Dunlap yesterday morning. He said you told him she was from Arkansas when she fell off your boat.”

“I don’t understand why you’re asking me these questions,” I said. “All I know is I got caught in a gunfight between your people and some woman I know nothing about—beyond the fact that she was hell-bent on seeing nature up close and personal—and that as a result, as you can see, my life’s been ruined.” I raised my stump into the air. “The first operation took off a leg.” Then I pulled back the sheet to show off my shiny new ostomy pouch. “The next one relocated my asshole to just below my ribcage.”

Tan Blazer made another note. The orb bounced on his head like a rubber ball. “Your involvement in the incident was unfortunate.” His eyes seemed dull, as though he were looking through me at nothing. “And I’ve been assigned to find out all I can. I think you’ve given me everything I need. Please get in touch if you think of anything I might want to know.” He took a business card from his wallet, placed it on the food tray next to my bed, and left.

The orb hovered and then faded. I got the strange feeling it was kissing me goodbye, and then it disappeared.

Goatee followed Tan Blazer, but paused in the doorway for a final, inexplicable jab. “And by the way,” he said, “The men at the pier weren’t our people. They were drug enforcement agents. You wanna talk about something that’ll ruin your life? What do you think the minimum sentence is for someone convicted of trafficking narcotics in the State of Maine?” He didn’t stick around for an answer.

I waited over two years. Long enough, I figured, for the questioners to decide I couldn’t have played an intentional role in what Craig Dunlap seemed to be calling a drug deal gone bad. I waited long enough to learn how to swim with parts of me missing. And I waited for the perfect day: a Sunday with heavy fog and water calm as molten wax. It came in September.

Climbing the western slope of Crow Island was tricky. I knew it would be. But I fell only twice, and only the gulls laughed at me. Even though the rusty padlock on the keeper’s door gave me trouble at first, it broke under a bigger rock.

The parlor was dark, full of vague shapes. I struggled to work out the shadow on my right. An ornate fireplace. An iron poker hung from its mantle. The dim little square at my feet slowly became a crumpled cigarette box (not Gummer’s brand) sitting on the hearth, and when I plucked the poker from its nail to stab at the box, I had the feeling I was the first person to touch it since the final keeper hung it there. There were beer cans. Here was a pair of panties and a flip-flop. The smugglers and I hadn’t been the only visitors since “Forever on The Atlantic” had closed, but as I moved across the room—taking care not to snag my prosthetic on any of the crap on the floor—I couldn’t help thinking how preserved the place seemed.

A purple light touched the door on the far side of the room. It was the same clean, sparkling purple light that had seen me through agonizing days of rehab at the pool, the same light that first came to me when the impossibility happened on my boat.

The door was hinged to swing away. I pushed, but something was blocking it. I pushed harder and it opened with a puff of rank dust. In a hallway that led in the direction of the tower stood half a dozen containers; some ceramic, some pewter, all open, standing in the muck they once contained. As I walked, I left fresh footprints in human ash.

The plywood and cinder block shelving ran along the right side of the hallway. The spaces were marked with strips of faded masking tape: #107 – Daniel J. Callison, #106 – Mary Harwell, #105 – Harold Sandoval. The fancy wood cabinets on the left were marked with little brass plates: #76, #75, #74. The hallway emptied onto a stone room splashed white with pelican shit. Sealed crypts, beautifully polished and glowing purple in the impossible light, lined the walls. I followed to the left. My fingers glided along the surface. Inscriptions interrupted the smoothness of the marble.

#25… #24.. . #23… #22 Madelyn June Weaver 1944 – 1995 The journey was easy. My new wings are swift.

I stood there and listened as Maddie read from the Iliad. Her voice echoed across decades from a snowy night long ago. For never again shall I come from Hades, once you burn me in my share of fire.

“It’s what Patroclus asked of Achilles,” I said to the dirty purple room.

“Paul.” The voice was all around me, in my head, everywhere. The light dimmed. The voice weakened. “Funny how the Greek meaning of my name is high tower.” The voice laughed. Maddie. Maddie laughed.

“I’ve missed you,” I told her.

The voice and the light grew dimmer still. “I know… somebody else, somebody who’s been here a long time, helped me do what I did…hope you’re not mad…just wanted them to have a better life….”

“It’s OK. I’m sorry I never gave you children of your own.”

“Can’t stay…under the floor mat in the wheelhouse you’ll find…I want you to….” And then she was gone.

For a second, there was only blackness, and I noticed for the first time how badly it stank, and how alone I felt. But then the tiniest fleck of purple lit the edges of Maddie’s vault. I can’t be sure of what came next. I looked down and saw that I still had the poker. I watched myself whaling on the vault, destroying her epitaph, pulverizing it. The black trash bag sitting next to her urn, in the dust and marble shards, didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem real until I got it to my boat, back to land, and onto my kitchen table.

I counted the money from the black trash bag three times that night. It was nearly a quarter million, in new hundred-dollar-bills.

I went up to Lubec today to send the final package. It’s a long trip, but I’ve driven much farther to make a delivery. I hand-delivered the first one, and it took me a lot longer than thirty-six hours to get there. A day of spying before a secret drop-off on a rickety Arkansas porch was risky, but I had to know if, beyond hope, the boys still lived in the same house. They did. An aunt or a granny had moved in with them. She looked hopeful from a distance, and hope was all I had. Hope that they’d stay put, hope that if they ever moved away they’d leave a forwarding address. But more than that, hope that I was doing the right thing, what Maddie had meant for me to do. I mailed packages from post offices all up and down the East Coast, and as far west as Ohio. Packages of clothes, shoes, toys, video games, making wild guesses as I grew even older and even more out of touch with what a kid wanted or needed. I never included a return address, but I sometimes placed a little note inside. From Mister Artemis. A clumsy joke for Maddie. I think I remember her saying once that Artemis protected the vulnerable.

I found the Busbee address under the mat in the wheelhouse, of course. It was on a scrap of envelope from the woman’s purse. To Jeff Busbee, it read. 1575 Picher Ave. – Cedar Hill, AR 72734. And in pencil on the back: crow island litehouse #22.

I sent cash this time. The rest of it. It was a lot, but they’ve reached an age when they’ll need it. I hope they’ll know it’s from their mother. A lady with a voice nearly as sunburnt as her face. A lady whose real name has permanently left the tip of my tongue. A lady I remember as “Halcyon,” on days when I’m thinking about her. Those days come often.

Charlie Bookout lives with his family in Gentry, Arkansas—a stone’s throw from the hillbilly infested Ozark Mountains. His fiction is set in (or refers to) Cedar Hill, Arkansas, a weird take on his already weird home town. His stories can also be found on Pseudopod. The reading of one of them was a Parsec Award finalist a while back, so now his name shows up if you search for it in Wikipedia. When he isn’t writing, Charlie hangs out with his buddies in Gentry’s abandoned mortuary. There they compose and record funky music, make funny and scary short films, and throughout the month of October, operate a haunted attraction that’s designed after a story that was “a bit grim for Shimmer’s tastes.” More at his website MortuaryStudios.com

Other Birds:

The Earth and Everything Under, by K.M. Ferebee – Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace – Smoke rose from the center of Asunder Island, marring a sky so blue and so clear it made Aurelia’s eyes ache. The sailors had been insisting for days she would see the Atrox swooping and turning overhead, if only she watched long enough, but there was nosign of the great birds.

Another Beginning, by Michael McGlade – Ógán is a magpie, but he wasn’t always a bird…

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