"Bald Island, Goat Island"
(this story first appeared in Black Buttons 3: A Family Affair from Magnificent Cowlick Media)
On one side of my body I have a father, on the other I have none. Mab Lake has two islands. If you stand on the beach in front of my family's cabin and hold out your arms, you can draw a line to one with your left ring finger, and the other extends from your right little finger.
Bald Island bobs on the surface of the water like half an eggshell. From a distance it looks shorn and cultivated, but a visit reveals briars and rose bushes. Nothing bigger than a shrub grows on Bald Island, and everything has spikes and thorns. The ground prickles all the way up to your knees, making boots a necessity. The visible shore is rocky, but a row around the back leads to sand bars and a gravelly little inlet.
Goat Island is bigger, hiding winding walking paths and an empty house on its thick-forested interior. Stretches of wild grapes beg to be made into jam. When the day plays lazily with the oncoming twilight, the whole length of it lights up like a crack in a burning log.
We go to Bald Island together, my father and I, in a rowboat across the bright water just before dawn. Our little green lights glisten in the gloaming. I have just turned eleven the day before. The boat is named Cattail and I am named Raina, after my father Rainer. He is named for the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who I later learned named himself because Rainer was 'more masculine' than his birth name. My father calls me Raina Raina Rattlesnake.
As we approach, Bald Island is just barely to the left of us, and Goat Island is on our right.
The bottom of the boat scrapes in the water, and my father takes both oars and pushes us through the sandbars. I hop out in water up to my knees, grab the rope tied to the bow, and loop it around a height of dead tree rising from the water. There, in the quiet and solitude of the empty lake, we float above pristine sandy shoals, free of the weeds that grow in front of our cabin. The water is cold and for a moment the island shimmers and jitters like a reflection. Water gets in my eyes, I wipe it away and...
I am alone in a kayak, gliding across the big bright water just before dawn, heading to Goat Island. I have just turned eleven the day before. I am named Raina, after my mother's sister. Later in life she tells me Raina stood by her from the moment she got the blood test results, moved in with us until I started kindergarten, helped my single mother raise an unexpected child. They bought the cabin together, so the three of us could have family vacations away from the cities.
I struggle to paddle in a straight line. Something is missing in the solitude and the gray, and I can't find it before the sun rises and my mother wakes. Slowed, I don't have time to hop out and explore the island, pretending to be an archaeologist. I'm not allowed to be on the water in the dark on my own. There's an extra weight to my kayak.
As I leave, Goat Island is barely to the left of me, the hump of Bald Island like some great whale to the right.
My father and I end our swim as the first early rising fisherman start their day. We take turns rowing home from the island and make omelets together, planning to surprise my mother with breakfast in bed. I come home from Goat Island by myself and make stealthy toast. My mother still sleeps, and doesn't like me using the wood burning stove by myself.
The dry toast sticks in my mouth and I get myself a glass of water. And I get myself a glass of water. There are two half empty on the counter that I don't remember pouring or drinking. I get someone a glass of water, then dump it down the sink in anger.
* * *
There are endless arguments at the Mab Lake Property Owners Association about the reasons for Bald Island's name. Some say it used to be Balled Island, like a crumpled piece of paper, or orange peels. A few old men say it's named for the Norse god Baldur and that a Viking runestone was found on the island in the 1800s. The one historian who owns a trailer here says that's rubbish. Whatever the case, the name took.
I learn more about Scandinavian Mythology and Folklore in a college class. Baldur's name meant bald in Norwegian, or bold in English. I think the latter name suits the little island. Bold Island, sticking its body up like that, a brave little land in uncertain waters. I ask my professor once if any Viking age settlers could have ever made it here and started a place of worship. He tries not to laugh at me.
When the weather is unseasonably hot we, like the Norwegians of the past, have our own road between worlds. I called them crappie weeds when I was younger, crappy weeds for a short and annoying age after that. Now I call them lake cabbage and Eurasian watermilfoil. You can't fish with heavy jigs in them, and they do some boat motors badly. I always preferred my little rowboat, though. They grow in two long lines out from our cabin, and you must angle between them like a runway. Sometimes they grow tiny white flowers that light up your way.
The yard is colored by wild growing bittersweet and planted marigold. Beyond, the transitional plants and grasses separate us from the beach: vervain, gentian, and ironweed. On the beach, a blanket of weeds waits for us every spring when we return after the long winter. My father made a game of ripping them up using our toes, to make a clean swimming beach. But they came too fast, or maybe there weren't enough people ripping and my feet alone were too small. The beach has always been covered in a blanket of species. I don't mind and I don't remember ever trying to control them.
Everyone agrees that Goat Island is named for actual goats, with only a few variations on the legend. There's one house on Goat Island, a big burgundy craftsman, like expensive wine. They say in the winter goats used to tread across the ice to eat the white winter berries that spring up, or the roots of the wild grapes, or other things that grow. They always knew exactly what time of year to stop making the journey, when their cloven hoofs might break through the thawing ice and they would drown beneath that heavy sheet.
But one February a freak Chinook came fast and warm, way past the Rockies, and the ice all around the island melted, trapping the goats. First they exhausted all the winter berries, then the roots, then even the dry leaves and stringy bark. They say then the goats went cannibal and ate the family that lived in the house. Others say the family ate the goats on one particularly cold winter. I don't know. There isn't a family or goats any more, but the town still celebrates Goat Daze, their own little bacchanalian wild grape and strawberry festival. There are street dances, and a few goat carcasses ordered from some North Dakotan farmer just across the border to roast whole.
* * *
If you cross your eyes, the islands become four. Cross them further and they are three. The hidden third revealed halfway between the other two.
* * *
When my mother dies, I inherit the cabin. It's convenient timing. This sounds heartless, but she hadn't been herself for a long time. I was just fired from my customer support job, so I load most of my clothes, cleaning supplies, and my golden retriever into my new-to-me 1999 Suburban (also inherited from my mother), and head to the cabin to empty it out and get it ready to sell. I figure a few trips to the nearest dump, a few trips to the nearest thrift store, and a new coat of paint for sure. Maybe one or two more serious things and then I could go back to job hunting.
My first night here, and there's already a terrible storm. I know these things are common in Minnesota in early April, but I wish it could have held off until I unloaded the SUV. The windows shake and rafters rattle. I pull the covers over my head and all of a sudden I am a little girl again, wishing there was someone to come check on me while my mother snores away in bed. While my parents snore in tandem in bed. While my mother smokes a cigarette outside, laughing madly through the storm.
The loudest thunder I can imagine sends my dog into hiding in the bathroom. She curls up on the floor of the shower that, the more I think on it, needs to be replaced. She's found a room within a room with no windows at all, and some comfort there. I hear the sound of splitting wood, like a magnified version like a telescope looking in on me while I learned to split wood from my namesake. Raina Raina, it's only the rain. It's family, someone said to me once in two voices split down the middle.
In the morning I go out to look and the only tree left in the yard is cracked down the middle. It's black and splintered into a hundred pieces like the frayed end of an old rope. I haven't mowed the lawn yet and I'm wet up to the knees, shivering in the cool spring morning.
I change into a pair of dry flannel pants and decide to stay inside. My goal for today is to go through the old rolltop desk in the middle room, where it secrets myriad compartments, full of old documents and receipts, corks and thumbtacks, bills from decades ago that may have been paid and may have laid in wait.
With a creak, and the holiness like opening a piano, the oak folds back accordian-style, revealing even more cubbies and crannies. There, at the very top, is an old family photo album in leather the color wild grape wine, embossed in crinkling gold. Memories, the crinkles call to me.
There are pictures of me and my mother, with a fuzzy sun blur. There are pictures of my aunt, five years younger than my mother but nearly her twin. She holds me in a life jacket, she holds the camera and captures my mother making sandcastles on the beach with me.
Halfway through, the pictures stop and there are just a couple notes. In my mother's loopy script, handwriting of a woman who ought to be three generations older, the first reads, "the Goat God asks for your body, the Bald God asks for more."
Then, on a smaller piece of paper in handwriting I don't recognize, "you must give your life (mistransl -- self?) to ask for something, may be a child"
I roll the desk back down and decide to paint the walls instead. Spring is to the left of me, the next season to the right.
* * *
I've been here for a couple months now. This cabin holds more that needs fixing and finding than I ever thought it would. Brown drapes are bleached almost white by decades of sunrises, shelves overflow. There are ancient cook books with still more ancient note cards stuck inside of them. I don't know why, but I feel the need to preserve everything. I type all this wine stained detritus into my phone. Jams I'll never make, pickles I'll never taste. What I thought would be over in a couple weeks bled through the storms of early spring, into the early heat wave of late spring. Now summer is a-coming in, as they say, and the farmers markets are starting to open in nearby towns, and vegetable street stands along the highway. They sprout up like they too are a seasonable harvest, an offering.
Beekeepers dip into that golden well they nurture for the first time, and by July they are selling as well. I buy some honey and eat it with toast for breakfast. It's an indulgence without cooking, even though by now I've already replaced the old wood burning stove with a sleek glass-topped electric one. That came with the task of scrubbing all the black stains off the ceiling. Even though I remember my mother always going outside for cigarettes, I cleaned ripe auburn tobacco stains from the ceiling too. Did she smoke at the stove after I went to sleep?
The next time I try to stop at the honey stand it's empty, completely cleared out with a "closed for the season" sign, even though the season is far from over. Instead there's a white goat chewing on the sign post, shredding the wood, letting a little fall from his mouth, then huffing it back in. Paint chips drop from his beard. He looks at me with his horizontal pupils and I do a Y-turn and quickly head home. The cabin is home now, I suppose. My retriever greets me at the door like we've always lived here.
* * *
I pull my car up the hill and onto the patch of dead grass that serves as a parking spot, just in time to see a cluster of weeds the size of a tire bump into the end of the dock. Like lightning, I remember a similar weed floe coming in when I was a child. It was like a massive third island, the secret one between the three maybe, and it came crawling in to land on the stretch of sand between us and the neighbors. Flies buzzed around it. Plants grew out of nothing more than a bed made of other dead and dying plants.
My father and the neighbor wedge their anchors into the middle of it real good. Ours is just a big tin coffee can full of cement and a metal hook. They crank up their motors to tow it back out to the middle of the lake so it won't start attracting bugs and seeding. At least then it will be someone else's problem, not ours. If we're lucky the lake will take it back and put it in that secret space.
I'm inside playing when I hear the yelling, which changes to screaming that changes to blackness. I look out the window between those phases and see my father in the middle of the lake in the middle of the floe, bending down on one knee. My mother shouts on the beach "get out of there!" but the motors swallow most of her voice.
Then, my father sinks into that dirty tangle down to his waist. That's when the screaming starts. I run outside crying just in time to see him disappear.
The neighbor kills his motor and jumps out of the boat, still in his clothes. He tries to dive under but his life jacket stops him. He treads water while he fumbles with the buckles, then throws it to the side. The orange rectangle floats as he dives under the floe. I see bubbles and swell where his legs pump underwater.
Sympathetically, I hold my breath. I tell myself as long as I can go without oxygen my father will also be fine down there. In a minute the neighbor comes back up for air, then goes down again. All the while he must be pulling at my father's legs, arms, anything he can to disentangle him. He comes up and dives again and again. Minutes have passed, my chest feels like bursting.
Red-faced, gasping, and crying, I heave and vomit up cold chunks of nothing, pulling the air into me. I don't even want it, it's not fair, it's not fair.
No, this doesn't happen. The weed floe sits in front of our cabin for months. It floated in weeks ago, but my mother and aunt keep putting off moving it. Over time the blooms and seed pods of the plants are eaten off. Over more time, the entire thing slowly disappears. It's being eaten by something invisible, nibbling on the edges a little more every day until nothing is left.
* * *
I am still here in the middle of fall, now looking for answers to the nibbled edges at my memories instead of cleaning. Snakes hibernate everywhere, their old dens riddle my tree stump and boat house and shed. I worry I accidentally buried some as I try to make the yard presentable. The farmers markets are all closed and I've grown sick of buying staples at the gas station so I drive into down every few days for bread and eggs, milk and dog food. On the way turtles cross the road, one last batch of autumn young. Whenever I can I stop the car and hurry them on their way.
I start knitting myself a thick hat in anticipation of winter. It's my first knitting project ever, cobbled together out of a few different yarns I found in the closet. One is a thick, gray, and soft fiber, the other a rough variegated rainbow of polyester. The ends of the polyester like to fray into a hundred pieces that I have to snip rather than put back together. There is something from the past in it.
The changing leaves stir my heart some with their interplay of color and light, as do the stars. This is the first year I realize how bright they can be away from the light pollution of the cities. The mosquitoes are all gone now, and I can spend more and more time outdoors. One night I light a bonfire, fueled by the childhood album I cannot understand. It gave me questions, but it refuses to give up answers.
I want to reach through time and rip it in two. There on the razor thin tear I can find my missing memories, like the chemical pack inside a Polaroid. I want to stomp my foot and call down lightning and split the earth down the middle. There in the hole would be the bones of a man who could explain what was happening inside my head.
* * *
The islands themselves battle each other in the last wet storm of the year, sending angry clouds and gusting winds. The rain changes direction hourly and the wind blows up and down as much as it gusts north, east, south, and west. This is the sound of impending winter.
The ground is covered in debris when I wake up, with frost settling over the few remaining green little leaves. A whole dandelion head, protected by the gutter, remains intact and frozen. The glass bauble shatters when I touch at it.
I sit at the desk for the first time since spring, trying to write a letter to my aunt. I've made it as far as "Dear," but no further. I can't go on because I can't remember her name. I waste my time jumbling around in the drawers for a pen with more ink or a nicer piece of stationery. Then I tear the letter to pieces, and throw it on the wood scrap pile to burn later.
Something is growing across the lake on Bald Island. A tree springs up overnight. The lake crackles with the first ice and I want to go out and walk on it, but I could break it with a finger tip. The tree is big enough to hold the whole world in its branches and small enough for a single person to disappear into its fork.
I make myself on omelet on the electric stove, I can't remember ever eating an omelet. The cheese bubbles through the cracks and burns in the pan. Is this normal, or am I doing it wrong? The clock runs backwards. Winter has come in. The cuckoo is frozen, the little lamb too, and the billy goat is eating, eating, eating.
It's still morning but the twin suns set in the north behind the islands. The snow comes in between blinks, too high to see the neighbor’s cabin but the wind has blown me a path to the waterfront.
These gods are not forgotten Norse gods, they are not pagan goats. They are what they have always been and they have always been there. I see them now, radiant before me. I split myself in two like a rattled tree. Half of me walks hand in hand with the Bald God, half of me rides the Goat. I sail out to sea on a little weed boat that killed a man that never existed.
This is the price I pay for understanding. For ripping time in two for one brief second to see Rainer laughing at me in a kayak, sneaking me bacon out of a frying pan, smoking a cigar while he washes dishes. Raina, he whispers at me.
Who is Raina?