The Island

April 3, 2008
By Jaime Kwok, Burnaby, ZZ

I gazed upwards at the boundless canvas of night, admiring the clear sky the winds had left behind, scattered with a multitude of bright lights you could only see away from the city. The stars winked back playfully, reassuring me that they would never reveal my secrets of the past week. I tucked my head back against the cooler located behind the prow seat and sighed, listening to the soft lapping of the ripples against my small boat. The serenity of the coast lent me some of its calm. It was a night very much like this that had triggered the most recent events of my life. I had nothing to fear. He would come, just like he had the day before.

Grandmother. As soon as the word slipped from my mother’s lips, I knew she was concerned about me. Not once during my sixteen years had she given in to my careful proddings at the subject. The slight mention of my grandmother was enough for her to clamp her jaw firmly shut, causing her lips to thin out into an uncharacteristic frown, her expression further pronounced by the darkening of her eyes. Nonetheless, my curiosity swelled and I began secretly searching for records of my mother’s family.

I knew that before I was born, my father had left my mother for another woman. The divorce papers were sent a few months later, two weeks after I was born. From what I could gather, my father didn’t even know I existed, and my mother intended to keep it that way. Determined to untangle the past, I dug deeper after the discovery of the many uses of the local library, searching the births sections near my mother’s birthday. I finally came across an entry from the Island Times, congratulating Elena and Simon Rees on the birth of their daughter, Kristen. I tore voraciously through the editions of the small community newspaper. I learned that the couple had been married the previous spring. Elena was expecting another child. Things became murkier after that. All I managed to comprehend from vague references in later years was that the baby hadn’t survived the birth, and that Simon, out of grief, had runaway and was never seen again.

Unfortunately, my mother had glimpsed a photocopy I had made of her birth announcement as I unpacked my school bag. She caught my green eyes with hers, and in those brief seconds, I saw fury and surprise, but underneath I could detect her hurt and feeling of betrayal that I almost winced. Instead, I challenged her gaze, trying to find answers to the flood of questions that my findings had procured. And, for the first time in my life, my mother was the first to look away, striding out of the room without saying a word. I was perplexed and troubled: my mother had never once been the first to back down, as her success as a businesswoman would testify. That same night, I found an already opened letter lying on my pillow, addressed to my mother. It was from an office on the Island, sent over not even a week ago. Inside, I found a summons for my mother, concerning the will of my late grandmother, Elena, who had left her the sea-side cottage. Involuntarily, I felt hot tears start to prick at the sides of my eyes, at first without knowing why. But my heart already knew I was mourning the loss of a grandmother I had never, and would never, meet.

Weeks went by, and then months, as spring enthusiastically jumped into summer’s wash of sunshine. I, on the other hand, felt drained by each passing day. I felt restless during the school day, incapable of more than a few moments of concentration, as a constant nagging tugged at my mind of something left unfinished. In the evening, I struggled to swim through the endless piles of homework and exams that kept mounting before me and as I dragged myself into my bed in the early morning, sleep would not find me easily. My mother was the first to notice the change in my behavior and I could tell from her constant looks in my direction that she was worried, but she didn’t say anything. A thin wall of silence had grown between us after she had left the letter in my room.

It should come as no surprise that I woke up in a hospital bed one afternoon, the same day as the first of a series of school examinations. I found out that I had fainted fifteen minutes into the exam from exhaustion, though I had no recollection of that morning at all. As I tried to convince my mind to rest by closing my eyes, my ears picked up the familiar sound of high-heeled sandals striking the floor and causing small reverberations through the floor and walls, in the firm and decisive gait that was solely my mother’s. As the steps paused momentarily at the door, then entered, I opened my eyes and stared. There was my mother, dressed in her favorite tailored white summer suit, but something was missing from her usual calm, unshakable air. Perhaps it was the way her eyes seemed dulled and distant.
“Mom?” I asked timidly. She swung her head in my direction. With my eyes, I tried to tell her I was sorry, sorry for what I must have been putting her through the last few months. She answered back with a similar look, and it was the first time I’d seen her looking so utterly vulnerable. She came over to hug me, and it was then that I knew things would become better between us.
“Cass, I’m so, so sorry.”
“It’s okay mom, really.” She ignored me, clenching her fists as if she were waging an internal battle within herself.
“I knew you were…stressed about that letter from…” she paused, looking away out the window. I took her hand in mine, which seemed to encourage her to keep going, this time looking me straight in the eyes.
“…from my mother, your grandmother. You have to understand that this is…difficult for me to tell you, but I think it’s only right that you should know. When I was fifteen, I wanted more than …what the confines of the Island would permit me. My mother adamantly refused to move to the mainland and I wanted an education so I could have the freedom to…move up in society. So, simply said, we exchanged a few words and I left her and took the first ferry over to the city. I…I now regret many of the things I said, knowing I can’t ever take them back.” She stopped to wipe away a trickle that was escaping down her cheek, and then continued on in a level voice. “Anyways, you already know she left me the cottage, but I don’t think I could bear returning. So, Cassandra, look at me, I’ve been thinking you might want to visit the Island, and check up on it for me.” Her voice had regained that business-like tone again. My eyes had widened in surprise, and I searched her eyes to make sure she was alright. She almost smiled at my expression.
“Cass, I’m fine. You need a change of scenery, and the doctor seemed to agree with me. Just some time off to return to your normal self, and you’ll love the place. Really, I’m just glad to have you back.”
“I love you too, mom.”

As she promised, the Island and the cottage were something from another world altogether. I hadn’t felt this blissful for a long time. Without the weight of school resting on my shoulders, I felt as though I was doing exactly what I should be doing, whether I was trying my hand at painting, beachcombing or exploring the enchanting cottage and its surroundings. A local had met me at the ferry terminal to escort me to the cottage. The Island was small enough that I could get a ride from one end of it to the other within an hour. Sam Ahtonen, a local fisherman who turned out to be my escort, told me the cottage was only a ten minute walk from the town.
“I suppose everyone lives down there, then?” I asked, enjoying the feel of the sea breeze tugging at my hair, blowing in through the open window.
“Nah. Those people who live in town mostly settled on the Island after we did. We live on the coast, same as the cottage you’re staying in.” I studied Sam for a moment. He looked to be around the same age as my mother, perhaps younger, with surprisingly smooth skin devoid of the worry lines my mother liked to complain about. He seemed to have a scar or two on his neck, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask him too personal of a question just yet. Instead, I replied “Oh. Then I guess your family has been around longer than mine has. My mom told me I’m the fifth generation from my grandmother’s side, and the sixth on my grandfather’s side. Actually, I was wondering if you might know if any of my relatives are still here. My grandfather’s family name is Rees and my grandmother’s maiden name is something like Videres.” Mom had warned me not to get my hopes up, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask. Midway through my sentence, I caught Sam stealing inquisitive glances at me, and I began to feel self-conscious. Was my hair getting that bad in the wind?
“You’re related to them, then?” He seemed to be thinking about something else as he spoke. “Well I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Your grandmother was the last of your line on the Island after your mother left. I’m sorry,” he added. “Well here we are. If you need any help, or a friend, you can reach me at this number.” Sam handed me a scrap of paper from his breast pocket. I thanked him for the ride and picked up my suitcase, then turned to face the cottage where I was planning to spend a very promising summer.

Three days later, I had begun to pick up the rhythm of things in a place where time seemed to have no bounds. I made myself light snacks when I felt hungry, strolled down the steep cliff to the beach at low tide and slept whenever I felt remotely tired. I grew especially fond of the hammock suspended between two beech trees that gave me a perfect view of the sea as I went through the books I had brought with me. To my own surprise, after a few trials with my grandmother’s easel and brushes, I found I liked to paint the irresistible fairy tale I had landed in. The views were spectacular, and the sea seemed to call out to me, showing off its splendor as the sun rose and set, and its ferocity as it lashed out at the rocks during a brief storm.

But, no matter how strong an urge I had to throw myself into the dazzling water, my body would hold me back. I could not overcome my fear of the open body of water, where there was the possibility of being swallowed whole and tugged every which way, so disoriented that I would not know which way to swim to escape death. And so, I made a deal with myself: I would take the small boat tethered to my grandmother’s own private pier out into the sea, therefore avoiding the watery abyss that lay beneath me. Good fortune seemed to be smiling on me that morning, because it worked.

Casting off had taken me five minutes, as I wanted to make sure I’d be able to retie the knots that had kept the boat docked. After double-checking that the boat had no holes in its bottom, I started to row away from the pier. It took me a few tries to realize I would have to paddle a bit on each side if I wished to escape the circles I was traveling in. I finally gave in and let the boat drift a while as I leaned back, looking at the sky. That was a mistake, for I soon recognized the storm clouds that were quickly approaching, not yet masking the sun’s cheer. Frantically, I moved to grab the paddle I had balanced over the sides of the canoe. That was my second mistake as I moved too fast, knocking it off balance and into the water. Frustrated with my lack of coordination, I reached over the side of the boat to grab the paddle, but quickly moved back again as the boat lurched from side to side. It was then that I realized how far I had drifted from the thin line of beach and from the pier. I could hear the rain breaking free from the clouds overhead, and I remembered seeing a second paddle tucked on the floor near the stern of the boat. Hesitantly, I stepped over the bow seat and immediately spotted the paddle lying just as I had imagined. But right then, the waves came colliding into the boat’s side, and the momentum sent me slipping from the swaying boat and crashing straight into the churning water.

I tried to yell over the raging sea, but it forced water into my mouth and sent my ears ringing. The sun was now hidden from me, and I could no longer tell sky from water as I was tossed relentlessly into the air, then just as quickly shoved down under the weight of the waves. An insurmountable fear clouded all my senses, and I thrust myself in every direction, hoping it might afford me a few seconds above water to take in a new breath. I was still underwater, forcing my eyes into a squint despite the lashing movement of the sea. My remaining breath was painfully being forced out of me, and soon I would be taking in the water. Black and silver dots began playing over my eyes like a television with terrible reception, and I resigned myself to my doom. Then quite suddenly, I felt a hard tug and my head broke through the surface, free from its watery prison. Instinctively I breathed in before being plunged back down. The strength in my body was drained, but somehow, a current tugged me gently away, allowing me to float near the surface. The last thing I remembered was the feel of soft, yet solid, sand beneath me before I gave in completely to exhaustion.

The smell of salty air invaded my nose. Water. My eyelids flew open, staring straight into a stranger’s clear blue eyes. Making an attempt to sit up, my muscles protested strongly against the action and I began to cough. Wordlessly, a cup was pushed against my lips and I drank gratefully from it.
“Thanks,” I wheezed, moistening my throat and cracked lips. The stranger just gave me an amused smile and with that image I surrendered to sleep.

When I awoke again, it was dark outside. This time, I felt it was easier to sit up, though I still felt as though I had received a thorough beating. The sitting room light was lit, and I slowly got to my feet, and after making sure I felt strong enough, proceeded to hobble towards the source of light. Nervously, I entered the room, expecting to see the blue-eyed stranger that I was beginning to think was just a figment of my imagination.
“Hello, Cassandra. It’s good to see you can walk again,” chuckled Sam Ahtonen from the couch. From his expression, I could see he knew I was disappointed. Then his eyes flickered towards something behind me, and from his half-smile, I knew what to expect as I turned around.
“Looking for someone?” The voice was unfamiliar, putting a stress on certain vowels and spoken with a peculiar rhythm that I found almost to be musical.
“Who are you?” I asked, kicking myself inwardly for my bluntness.
“I’m Cai, Sam’s nephew.” Cai was grinning openly now, but in a nice way. I stuck out my hand automatically, out of habit.
“Cassandra, but most people just call me Cass.” He shook my hand, and I flushed, suddenly feeling self-conscious again as I became aware of the wrinkled clothes I still wore.
“So, um…how exactly did you guys find me? I thought you said you lived farther down the coast.” I knew I was babbling, but I wasn’t quite sure what to say to them.
“Well, I hadn’t heard from you for the last couple of days so I thought I might come ‘round to make sure you were getting along alright,” answered Sam. “And you should probably know that I phoned your mother to let her know what happened. She wants you to call her when you feel up to it.” I pondered my thoughts for a moment, then said,
“I’ll do that. But I’m wondering how exactly I got out of that storm alive. By rights, I should be down at the bottom of the ocean.” I felt like they were keeping something from me and the half-glances they shot each other confirmed my suspicions. I crossed my arms stubbornly, waiting to see what they might throw at me.
“Cassandra –Cass-” he corrected himself. “I’m not quite sure how you’ll take this, so I’ll just tell you while I have the chance. Your mother might not remember this, but when she was two years old, her little half-brother entered the world-”
“Half-brother?” I interrupted, slightly dazed as a theory came together in my mind. “The papers said he didn’t live very long and that my grandfather ran away because of that.”
“No,” Sam’s voice hardened. “You see, he knew the instant that baby was born that it wasn’t his. Yes. You’ve probably guessed by now that baby was me, but have you guessed the father? That was the real question.” I shook my head, at a loss for words. He beckoned me to come closer, pointing at the scars on his neck. Only now did I realize how wrong I had been.
“Gills,” he confirmed, keeping his gaze on me, gauging my reaction.
“But if you’re my uncle, then Cai and I are…” I didn’t dare say it.
“Whoa, slow down! Sam is my adopted uncle. Elena had trouble coping after your grandfather left her alone with your mother,” Cai still had on his smile as he spoke and I found it hard not to smile back.
“And so,” continued Sam, “she sent me to my father’s people. You know, you’re taking this pretty well, considering our recent ordeal.” I shook my head again.
“So basically, you guys are telling me you’re mermen, and that Sam is my uncle, but Cai isn’t related to me by blood.” I tried to digest this, thinking back to what had happened to me earlier, all the while wondering if they were just trying to pull my leg.
“I guess I can live with this, though I’m not sure I can say as much for my mother. But I do have quite a few questions…” I sighed inwardly to myself. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so physically and mentally shaken, I wouldn’t have even come close to accepting everything that had been spilt. But that nagging in my brain was telling me there would be at least a grain of truth in all of this, or why fashion such a tale?
“I got your boat back to the pier. She’s in pretty good shape, compared to the state you were in this morning. Did anyone ever give you swimming lessons, by the way? I’d like to congratulate them for your excellent kicking,” Cai remarked innocently, holding up his bruised right forearm. I narrowed my eyes, but the smile that flickered around my lips ruined the effect.
“Come on, I’ll try to answer all those questions you’re bound to have floating in your mind on the way down to the beach,” he teased. I sighed, knowing there was no way I could refuse.
“I guess there’s no point in warning you that my family’s romantic track record is pretty lousy, is there?” He just smiled and went out the door, so I sighed and dragged myself after him. My mother could wait, she would understand, or at least the part about Cai. As for the rest, I’ll let the chips fall where they may.

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