Summer didn’t let us down easy this year. By the time October was turning orange, the island had already been through sickness, betrayal, abandonment, dementia, and a couple of deaths. Some losses are expected, the inevitable bereavements we steel ourselves for: The elderly man who took leave of his mind and then, a few months later, his body. His wife is a realist; she didn’t try to battle the turning of seasons. Another man, younger, more vibrant, stretched between loves and consumed by cancer, left a much bigger hole. His children, his wife, his lover, his lover’s husband and children all slogged in unsympathetic tandem through the weeks that followed. The rest of us grieved as best we could. It seemed as though much of our individual comfort lay in recognizing that others had it worse. And then, instead of following Halloween haunted trails, we found ourselves combing through brambles and scrambling down cliffs in the grim fellowship of search parties. You don’t imagine people disappearing in real life, on an island so small that every tree you pass has a familiar face; if anything, the problem is you can’t avoid seeing people.
I’ll call her Sylvia. She was as pale and lovely as a Victorian lily, sometimes seeming fragile and even transparent at the edges. Other days, maybe when her barometer registered a different internal pressure, she stood sturdy on her feet in a cotton dress, like a pioneer wife, her hips strong and wide, so that you could envision her pick-axing acres of potatoes or raising a mug of beer in a rollicking tavern. She had talked to me about art a few times, about trying to find space in her life for it, while her unquenchable children clamored for every molecule of attention. I hadn’t had many answers except to say solitude can be a mixed blessing.
Disappeared. Eerie for all of us, and especially for her little boys, with dark circles under their eyes—children whose mother had walked a lonely road at twilight and been snatched away, carried under the hill, the opening in the earth made invisible behind her.
The hopelessness of real-life searching engulfed us, and in a haze of amateurism and frustration, we redoubled our efforts with gridded maps and team leaders. Looking at the land, rain hanging colorless on the tangle of thorny stems, we rediscovered its imperviousness; it could hold any of our deaths and give no sign. The outside world’s indifference was stunning: The police, when we could get them to come over, glanced around at the mute wilderness and settled for repeatedly interrogating her husband. All the search dogs were away at some search dog conference, the only one left available being a remedial case that could find no trace of scent. Later, the cadaver dogs had no luck either. People and dog—we were all impaired by vagaries of land and moisture, and the conflicting natural scents: the otter middens underneath those houses by the water, the shells dropped by seagulls and crows, the clots of seaweed and sharp fir balsam tang. Death and decay are normal things here; they don’t stand out.
Other things proved temporary and disappeared as well, this fall, among them the ring off my finger, the income out of my bank account, the companion and nemesis from my bed. Such disappearances remove more than the obvious: they steal faith and innocence, replacing them with an acrid worldliness you never aspired to. A new and alien framework has to be constructed, its pillars sunk in ground still shuddering with aftershocks. We build what we believe in out of available materials, so we scour the raw landscape to see what’s at hand: the wet and stoic trees, the clouds and wind and owls. Each bent stalk shapes the direction of our thoughts, suggesting a possible pathway.
Three months into Sylvia’s disappearance, when the island was bared to winter and, even with all the leaves stripped away, there was still no sign of her, a memorial was held. A need was felt to bury something and also to bring her ending back into the human realm. We needed to look at each other and recite the stories of who she had been in our lives and who we were without her. It was a different kind of search, another way of finding her.
We also needed to enfold her husband and children into our midst, for our own sakes as well as for theirs; not having taken sufficient care of Sylvia, we needed them to be her proxies, so that we could lavish care on them. Over recent weeks, there had been a steady surge of casseroles and beach fires, tools and material help, sleepovers for the children, but now we could offer a composite reflection of their wife and mother, which rose to the extraordinary and mitigated the opaque silence of the landscape.
We gathered in the high-ceilinged one-room school with her friends and family from elsewhere, and a man who turned out to be Sylvia’s father sat next to me in the circle of chairs. A quilt had been pieced together, as we often do for births and graduations, but this one had a strangely dreamlike quality: unlike our normal quilts, which are constructed of washable fabrics with decorations stitched firmly down, this quilt was only an idea of itself. It was sewn in some places, but it was also partly glued and stapled and painted, with photographs and mementoes dangling from bits of yarn. The back of it was covered with pockets, and slips of paper were provided so people could write notes and tuck them into these pockets. After the gathering, the quilt was folded into a tiny casket, maybe the size needed to bury an infant.
In the cemetery, we stood in a circle while the box was lowered into a deep grave. Her grave. Leaves and berries were tossed down onto its lid, this not being the season for flowers, while our faces were needled by an icy mist. The way you could tell that a body wasn’t in there, aside from the smallness of the box, was the way the children (hers included) clowned around on the dirt mound at the edge of the hole, almost falling in. There wasn’t the reverence an actual body commands. Regardless of this, we stubbornly worked at following the imperative we felt. We stood while the grave was filled in, as usual letting the children mostly wield the shovels. We sang. It took a long while—maybe more than an hour—for the grave to be filled, but we stood in the cold because she deserved it and because now it was the only thing we could do. I felt chilled, biking back in the half-rain. Another solitary neighbor stopped by my house on his way home, maybe to buy a dozen eggs. I built up the fire, heaped in dry fir to overheat the room, turned on lights before we needed them.
At her memorial, one person said Sylvia belonged to the whole island because she went out into it and we all searched and so the loss is born by all of us. It’s not like when someone sickens gradually and their circle compresses until it’s just family and a handful of people giving care at the end. How often in this day of the world do you find yourself clambering through briar walls of rose-brush, staring over driftwood horns, and parsing the calls of crows as you seek the body of a beautiful woman who has cast herself into the arms of death?
Her mental illness with its soundless interior storms had shaken our confidence. It could have been any of us; we all felt vulnerable. There weren’t the usual boundaries between the dead person and those who remain, standing around the grave. Instead, she was the dark figure living in all of us, the one whose face we try not to see. Something about this universal vulnerability made us feel we should have been able to know what was happening with her, to cure the pain or drive it away. It’s not like when someone is taken by physical illness, where if medicine runs out of answers, it’s clear that only an act of God can intervene. Part of what we needed in coming together was to forgive each other for what we hadn’t been able to do.
When her body was found, about a week after the burial, she landed solidly, back out of the mythic universe, into a few square feet of acute physical reality. It turned out she had not taken flight under an endless sky; instead she had crawled through the unlocked window of an empty house and burrowed into a closet, gone inward instead of outward, into a closed interior, with a generator to eat away the oxygen from her breath.
It’s better to know, people said. It’s better for her children, for all of us, to be able to walk the paths through the woods again and not be afraid of what we might stumble upon. We face enough mysteries already. Distance can extend through different realms, and when we drew our search-grids on the map, we were charting the entirely wrong landscape. She traveled so far inward she became invisible to all of us for months.
For her, ultimately, even the closet wasn’t safe enough or small enough, so she brought the machine with her to take the air and take her mind and take her down deep enough to find relief. Oh, Sylvia, I know: the safety of walls, when you crave somewhere small enough that nothing outside yourself can fit. There is an allure simply to stopping. Stopping the trying and the talking and the incessant tidal roar, and just existing . . . or not. It must have been loud, with the generator. I wonder if she used earplugs. We don’t know. None of us know the other one’s pain. None of you know how close to the cliff my toes are.
Her ashes were sent back to the island in a box, registered mail. When it hadn’t been picked up by closing time, the postmaster (not wanting to lock it in the office all weekend) signed the receipt herself and drove around the island with the parcel on the front seat of her truck, searching for a chance to find Sylvia’s husband safely away from his children. Some neighbors probably know what he did with the ashes, but I don’t. He’s a gentle young man, a carpenter, making his way now with his two boys in mental weather I can’t begin to guess about. As we learned how many rehearsals Sylvia had staged for this departure, how many collapses and rescues and hospitalizations, the depth of his calm became all too comprehensible.
Later, there were secondary reverberations. Unease smoldered and crackled below the surface.
The off-island family who found her body in their vacation house made claims of their pain being ignored, which furthered their personal storyline of unfair treatment over the years. News of their discovery percolated very slowly outward. I didn’t even hear the plane; it was an email here, a phone message there, the irritation and hurt feelings resulting from who was told and who wasn’t, and an off-island cleaning crew who took professional control of what remained. Nobody called the family to offer sympathy, they said; nobody cared about the trauma they’d suffered. They were, historically and by their own intention, outside the social circle; now, faced with an unspeakable invasion from the year-round community into not just their house but a private closet within it, they couldn’t figure out who to blame.
Actually, rumor had it that, during the time of the island-wide search, they had refused permission for searchers even to cross their land, protesting it as an invasion of privacy. This version of events had been taken at face value since the family often interpreted collective actions of the community as disregard for their personal property rights. Afterward, there were conflicting stories of whether they had been aware of the search at all. Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact remained that even though Sylvia’s truck was found closer to their house than to any other, nobody had gotten a key from them, and the sheriff never got a search warrant. When we searched around their house, we had looked around and behind and underneath it, leaving it as a locked island while we continued on into the brambles beyond.
Why hadn’t they come to check on their house, we asked each other, if they knew what was going on here? Why hadn’t the sheriff tried to get permission to search? Why didn’t we ask him to? Who was responsible for the fact that this family, who had no use for the prickly intimacy of the year-round community, now had a trauma to overcome? Their ancestral roots were in this soil, but those roots were emphatically not connected to the present-day human web. So another gathering was held, this one about where the rupture had occurred and whether something crucial had been overlooked.
I could have told them nobody here will protect you. Not even from each other, let alone from fortune’s drive-bys or the chill of death. (As I write, it is spring, and another neighbor has felt the tap on his shoulder, has been handed the medical test result with the black mark.) I, too, have gone inward—not so far as Sylvia did, but the island has little to offer the harmed wife of a favorite son, and its roads hold no shelter for me right now, either.
The second gathering was smaller, at the post office on a stormy day, attended by only a dozen or so unsettled souls. But again, nothing was laid to rest. Two therapists were invited in for the meeting, but they could do little in the face of an extensive history that wasn’t theirs. They sat with us in our circle and politely delivered platitudes when appealed to, but their presence merely underlined the fact that outsiders couldn’t begin to untie our knots. We struggled before the meeting, arranging and rearranging chairs in the heavy shadows of the old log building so we’d have a chance of seeing each other’s faces. The big barrel stove offered warmth, but light on a winter day was not to be had even with half a dozen candles lit, and the middle of the room remained murky. The corners were pure blackness. Nothing was concluded at the meeting, and the family who wanted to complain was boycotting it anyway—or maybe they hadn’t wanted to attempt the channel-crossing from the large island where they actually lived. They did appoint a spokesman to represent them, from among the entourage of would-be islanders who don’t actually live here but still claim the right to be outraged when the community doesn’t do what they believe it should. Before the meeting started, Sylvia’s husband stopped in briefly on his way to meet a barge, which was bringing renovation materials for the old farmhouse he’s moved into. The house sits out on a wide meadow with a view to the snowy mountains and a curve of beach, with the nearness of tilled rows, flowers and vegetables, and good neighbors—a place for his little boys to thrive in sunlight. Turning his hand to the wholesome work ahead of him, he didn’t need to be part of what the rest of us were trying to sort out.
I could only look at the offended family’s representative there in the post office, standing in the shadows, a little apart from the rest of us, and think, Well, they’re not the only ones. It’s the nature of this collective organism: if someone treats you badly, we’re all too interwoven for the others to separate themselves and react independently. Instead, we become blind to what’s right in the foreground, right in front of us. The boundaries of a tiny island—the beaches and the waterline—are only stand-ins for deeper limitations. We all choose whether we can live within these limits, live with what’s here and not scream for more, or decide it’s truly inadequate and we have to leave.
The limits aren’t obvious. We define ourselves as a community partly by the belief that we look after each other; we share a persistent illusion that if you just reach out with clear enough need, then your neighbors will join together and rescue you from whatever looms. After all, they can pull your truck out of a swamp, patch your roof, or give you a ride to the doctor and even pay your bill. But it is only what it is, that perpetual mismatch: the needs as drifting and mythic as the cry of seabirds over shifting gray tides, the ability to help turning out to be an awkward tool in bad repair. The way we most need rescuing is likely to be exactly what isn’t available, so we’re forced into the wilderness of our own internal terrain. If we ease each other’s pain, it’s often accidental. Or it may consist only of the faint biological nourishment of presence: another member of our species, warm and breathing the same air. It’s not enough, and it’s more than enough, and it stops at the shores of your own skin.
The community meeting, the island’s governing body (itself revered or reviled depending on individual agenda), has one basic rule: You are a voting member if you show up. Simply being there in the room is the only criterion that counts. And even standing right next to someone, we can’t map what’s hidden away. We can’t reach past the closed doors, can’t enter to search what’s kept locked. We don’t have each other’s keys—even if we should have had them, even if, after the fact, we don’t understand why we didn’t have them. Nevertheless we continue to show up and accept the physical warmth of the hands holding ours in the circle and say, Well, regardless, here we all are. That’s the banner this community has, to hold up against the tide of trackless and brambled years: Regardless, here we all are.