I was the only passenger on the ferry crossing to Grand Manitou Island. As I stood on deck holding tight to the railing while we dipped and tumbled on the green, roiling waves, I understood why tourist season grinds to a halt when the November winds blow.
I was called to the tiny island in the middle of the Great Lakes by a dead woman. I traveled there at an unwelcoming time of year to learn the story of her life, hoping to discover my own story as well. A few whitecaps and swells wouldn’t keep me away.
A summons from the dead is a strange way to begin a tale, but, as I have since learned, it’s really no stranger than any other story in my family. As it turns out, I come from a long line of people who hover on the edge of reality. My family history isn’t merely a chronicle of births and deaths and weddings and accomplishments, though it includes those things. No, the stories of my relatives sound more like fairy tales—Grimm’s, unfortunately—with witches, hauntings, and malevolence all wrapped up in regrettable and sometimes bloody mishaps.
Until recently, I knew nothing of this. Growing up, I had an altogether different notion of who I was and where I came from. Then the truth began to reveal itself, as it always does. Truth seeks the light of day, needs it just like we need air, and so it finds ways to seep out of the sturdiest, most skillfully hidden boxes—even those buried deeply in the hearts of the dead.
My truth took its first breath one foggy autumn morning, nearly a thousand miles away from where I stood on the tossing ferry. That particular day didn’t begin with anything out of the ordinary. Isn’t that always the way? Life is thrown into chaos while you’re making your way through mundane everyday tasks—an accident on the way to the grocery store takes your beloved, a heart attack interrupts a lazy Sunday morning, or, in my case, life- altering news arrives with the morning mail.
I awoke in my little bungalow overlooking Puget Sound and lay in bed awhile, listening to the barking of the seals. Then I pulled on a sweatsuit and sneakers and headed outside for my usual morning walk. I had already crossed the street and started up the hill before I noticed the fog settling in, dulling the edges of the world around me.
Some people find the sound of a foghorn romantic, evoking images of travel to faraway places with strange- sounding names. But I’ve never liked the fog. It obscures reality with what seems to be sinister intent, erasing all that is not within arm’s reach. Anything could be out there, beyond.
I knew it was silly, being unnerved by fog in a seaside town, so I continued to walk my usual route, listening to the tinkling of the wind chimes—tubular bells— that were hanging from the eaves of various houses along the way.
I can’t explain why--did I sense what was coming?--but the back of my neck began to tingle with a thousand tiny pinpricks. I paused, holding my breath, dread seeping off the cold pavement into the bottoms of my feet and working its way up my legs. Then something convinced me to hurry home, and I arrived at my door just in time to see the mailman materialize out of the fog.
"Pea soup," he said, shaking his head as he handed me a stack of mail.
"You be careful out there, Scooter." I smiled at him. "I couldn’t see you until you were on my front step."
"Don’t you worry about me, Ms. James. I’m old friends with this fog."
I watched him disappear into the whiteness and took the mail inside, where hot coffee was waiting, and poured myself a cup as I sorted through the stack. Along with the usual assortment of letters, bills, and catalogs was a large manila envelope labeled archer & son, attorneys-at-law. I noticed the postmark: Grand Manitou Island, a popular tourist destination in one of the Great Lakes, halfway across the country from my home.
I sat at my kitchen table sipping coffee, turning the envelope over and over in my hands. What was this about? What did this lawyer want with me? Finally, I took a deep breath and tore it open to face whatever it contained.
I found two letters inside. One bore my name and address handwritten on the front of a thick creamy envelope, the back flap sealed with crimson wax. It was old-fashioned and lovely, reminding me of an invitation from another time and place. (As it turned out, that’s exactly what it was.) The other was a white business-sized no- nonsense envelope. I opened that one first.
Dear Ms. James,
It is with deep regret that I inform you of Madlyn Crane’s death. I am Ms. Crane’s attorney and the executor of her will. Please contact me at your earliest convenience.
William Archer Attorney-at-law
Madlyn Crane. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Why did this lawyer regret to inform me of her death? A feeling of undefined, unexplainable apprehension began to cling to me as I picked up the second letter. Why was my heart pounding so? Why were my hands shaking? I broke the seal on the back of the envelope, unfolded the letter, and began reading. It was dated almost one month ago.
Thirty years ago, my daughter and my husband were killed in a boating accident near our island home. Imagine my surprise to find that they--you and your father--are very much alive.
I don’t quite know how to continue this letter. What do I say to my only child, for whom I have grieved all these years?
I’ll start here. When I learned that you were alive, I was as stunned as you must be now. I had the impulse to pick up the phone and call you immediately, but then it hit me: I could not do that. I had no idea what you had been told.
Did you believe I was dead? Did you believe I had abandoned you? Your father could have told you anything. But now you’re a grown woman. If you had any inkling I was alive, you would have found a way to contact me. I came to the conclusion that you and I must have been told the same lie, each believing the other was dead. We were both deceived.
How does a mother rise from the dead and enter her child’s life? I thought of coming to see you, but simply showing up on your doorstep did not seem wise. A letter seemed like the gentlest way to turn your world upside down.
Excerpted from The Tale Of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb.
Copyright © 2010 by Wendy Webb.
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction
is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or
medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Wendy Webb will read at Magers & Quinn Monday, April 5, at 7:30pm. Details are here.--David E