Though it lies a scant ten miles to the North, I have been to the mainland only twice. Once as Jacob's betrothed, to New Harbour where we had our wedding bands made by a grey eyed goldsmith. And on a second occasion, to Boothbay, where we shared our honeymoon. This last departure was in June six years past. We chose June because the season for lobster had ended and Jacob was free to take the few days.
The days are warm and clear in June and when the late morning sun had burned away the fog we could see our island from the rise above the harbour. We sat and spoke of all that life had in store for us and as we shared our thoughts the island lay within our view, a calm shadow drifting in the dazzling blue expanse that spread to the horizon and beyond.
We revelled for these days in the newness of our love though I recognized a certain impatience within myself to begin the new life we spoke of. The waiting had begun already to burn itself into my blood, though I could not then have known its name or its nature.
With our homecoming by the early morning mail boat, the island welcomed us from beneath a heavy cloak of fog. By the afternoon the mainland had become clearly visible. From the distance I could not say precisely where New Harbour lay or Boothbay but I gave them little thought. I turned my attention to the making of our new home and our new life. Jacob turned his attention to preparing the boat and the traps for the months of fishing to come.
The season came quickly and then another and another. The winter winds were cold, they have always been cold here, but the air was crisp and the island peaceful beneath a pristine mantle of snow. It seemed that there was only the waiting each day for Jacob's return to distress me.
The waiting has always been difficult, more difficult than the cold or the long days of silence. Early each morning I follow Jacob down to the boat and watch him safely out to sea. Then the endless hours of concern begin.
Depending on the month I may fill the day with washing, mending, tending the vegetable garden, a hundred or a thousand small domestic acts. If it is spring and the day's work is finished I may wander for an hour to the flower-strewn meadow and watch the artists as they work. A few are always to be found there. Some live among us - many more come only for a day or a week. They come to paint the light as it filters through the feathered branches of Cathedral Grove, or to paint the powerful swells that pound against the rocks of Gull Cove to the South. The rocks there are covered with moss so fine their surfaces shimmer as if formed of polished glass.
We warn the visitors always to be watchful – the rocks can be a silent invitation to disaster. The currents are strong and the ocean swell powerful, even on a calm day. No-one who has lost their footing has been pulled from the water. No-one who has fallen has been found whether alive or dead. When storms blow, even though miles from the island’s shore, the waves become majestic or terrifying depending on the nature of your eye. Such turbulent days bring the artists to the Cove and I watch them here as well, to pass some moments, but there is little comfort in this, it does not ease the endless nature of the longing for Jacob’s safe return.
Then when he returns we no longer speak of what life has in store. We speak instead of traps, of this seasons catch and of adding yet another line next season. Such are Jacob's dreams.
He leaves me too often alone in the confines of this place. The island is little more than a mile in length, less than a mile in width. While Jacob is at sea I remain behind in what is too compact a world – though to many it is one that holds within its borders wonders beyond count. Visitors come, endless numbers of them, to explore the variety of birds, the rare wildflowers, and the rough hewn cliffs. When they leave each one is given a small bouquet. This tradition has been honoured by the villagers for more than a hundred years - a small token of well-wishing given to each visitor departing.
Last winter the old lighthouse, battered by countless years of storms, collapsed and now the building of a granite tower to house a new light above the meadow has begun. We watch the work with grateful hearts - we have been too many months without the comfort of a beacon to ease our way. Those of us who cross the meadow or skirt the edge of the ice pond when the night is thick with fog have made do with lanterns or torches to find our way and to guide our returning loved ones to safe landing places.
While Jacob is at sea I watch for the evenings, to know when it will be clear and when he will need guidance.
When the evening is clear and calm I stay close to the woodstove preparing dinner. The activity and the stove provide warmth and a sense of security. In the depths of the lobster season the sea is cold and Jacob’s hands become raw and red from hauling the traps. And he is cold, frighteningly cold as if the water and the breath of the sea have drawn all warmth not only from his flesh and bones but also from his heart.
He leaves me too often alone in the coldness of this place where the evening is slow in coming. And I stay close to the woodstove when I am able.
Other evenings may be lost within fog so dense that the island itself becomes all of the world. There is no moon. There are no stars. Such evenings are torments that drive me toward madness. Yet I choose to wrap myself in the solitude - I do not walk across the path to seek company. There is no comfort in counting the hours and the minutes in the company of another who awaits a similar returning. I sit in silence with an unnamed terror burning in my blood, expecting madness to overtake me – or death. Death seems possible - I may die from the never ending hammering of the seconds against my fearful heart.
But I must wait and at the appointed hour I carry the lamps North to Fish Bay. It is a difficult journey when there is fog. On this island, the fog comes as a solid mass that moves as if alive. It envelops us as a dense web that parts with reluctance to allow passage - only to fold quickly behind lest any gap be left unattended.
This has been one such evening and I have made the journey with infinite care, bringing with me two lamps. One lamp is clear, the second is fitted with amber glass. These form a signal, placed three yards apart marking the place that Jacob will row towards so he might safely land. Without them he is as lost within the fog as is the rest of the world.
This night the waiting is long. I sit in the web of blindness and strain to hear the groaning of oars against metal, the slap of waves against wood. I linger through an eternity for the call of Jacob’s voice carried on the wind to know he has found the markers.
I know with certainty that I will remain, until morning, until the sun burns away the denser parts of the fog. But I will endure this infinity knowing it to be for one final time, then I will no longer live with waiting. It will no longer burn the blood that pulses through me.
I will leave, as a token, the winter flowers I have held since turning to the South rather than North . In the end it is a simple thing to end the agony of waiting, – to place the lamps three yards apart above the perilous rocks of Gull Cove. Then I will return home, certain that I have left the waiting, forever.
Irving Ellman's thirty-five years as a designer have been punctuated with periods of inspiration, a number of awards and a recent Fellowship from ARIDO. His writing, on the other hand, has been punctuated with a periodic lack of comma sense. He was born in St. John where family legend records that his first words were 'move, quickly…' Without stopping to think his parents concurred, which led to his growing up in Hamilton. So it was that at this early age he learned how important it is to choose your words with care … and to leave out the adverbs. He now lives in Burlington with his wife (his biggest fan) and their west highland terrier Beardsley who is working (doggedly) on illustrations for the growing collection of short stories. On June 10, 2009, Irving gave a reading of “The Waiting” at CJ's Cafe.
Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.