The Island


by Elin Hilderbrand

THE TATE HOUSE

It had sat abandoned for thirteen years. This had happened without warning.

It was a summer house, a cottage, though it had been built well, with high-quality lumber and square-headed steel nails. This was back in 1935, during the Depression. The carpenters had been eager for work; they were careful when aligning the shingles, they sanded, swept, then sanded again with high-grit paper. The banister was as smooth as a satin dress. The carpenters—brought in from Fall River—stood at the upstairs windows and whistled at the views: one bedroom looked out over the mighty ocean, and one bedroom looked out over the bucolic pastures and wide ponds of this, Tuckernuck Island.

The house was occupied only in July and sometimes August. In the other months, there was a caretaker—poking his head in, checking that the windows were tight, removing the small brown carcasses from the mousetraps.

The house had been witness to a wide range of behavior from the members of the family that owned it. They ate and they slept like everyone else; they drank and they danced to music picked up off the shortwave radio. They made love and they fought (yes, the Tates were screamers, one and all; it must have been genetic). They got pregnant and they gave birth; there were children in the house, crying and laughing, drawing on the plaster with crayons, chipping a shingle with a well-hit croquet ball, extinguishing a sneaked cigarette on the railing of the deck.

The house had never caught fire, thank God.

And then, for thirteen years, nobody came. But that wasn’t entirely true. There were field mice and an army of daddy longlegs. There were three bats that flew in through the open attic window, which the family had forgotten to close when they left and which the caretaker had overlooked. The window faced southwest so it deflected the worst of the wind and the rain; it served as an aperture that allowed the house to breathe.

A quartet of mischievous kids broke in through the weak door on the screened-in porch, and for a moment, the house felt optimistic. Humans! Youngsters! But these were trespassers. Though not, thankfully, vandals. They hunted around—finding no food except one can of pork and beans and a cylindrical carton of Quaker oats, rife with weevils (which frightened the girl holding the carton so badly that she dropped it and the oats scattered across the linoleum floor). The kids prodded one another to venture upstairs. Around the island, word was the house was haunted.

Nobody here but me, the house would have said if the house could talk. Well, me and the bats. And the mice. And the spiders!

In one of the bedrooms, the kids found a foot-high sculpture of a man, made from driftwood and shells and beach glass. The man had seaweed hair.

Cool! one of the kids, a boy with red hair and freckles, said. I’m taking this!

That’s stealing, the girl who had dropped the oatmeal said.

The boy set the sculpture down. It’s stupid anyway. Let’s get out of here.

The others agreed. They left, finding nothing more of interest. The toilet didn’t even have water in it.

Again, silence. Emptiness.

Until one day the caretaker used his old key and the front door swung open, groaning on its hinges. It wasn’t the caretaker, but the caretaker’s son, grown up now. He inhaled—the house knew it couldn’t smell terribly good—and patted the door frame with affection.

“They’re coming back,” he said. “They’re coming back.”

BIRDIE

Plans for the vacation changed, and then changed again.

Back in March, when arrangements for Chess’s wedding were falling into place as neatly as bricks in a garden path, an idea came to Birdie: a week for just the two of them in the house on Tuckernuck Island. As recently as three years earlier, such an idea would have been unthinkable; ever since Chess was a little girl, she and Birdie had clashed. They didn’t “get along.” (Which meant that Chess didn’t get along with Birdie, right? Birdie had tried everything in her power to gain her daughter’s good graces, and yet she was perpetually held in contempt. She said the wrong thing, she did the wrong thing.) But lately, things between mother and daughter had improved—enough for Birdie to suggest a week of bonding in the family cottage before Chess embarked on the rest of her life with Michael Morgan.

Birdie had phoned Chess at work to see if the idea would fly.

“I have to call you back,” Chess said in the tight voice that meant Birdie should have waited and called Chess at home. Chess was the food editor of Glamorous Home magazine. She was the youngest editor on the magazine’s staff; she was the youngest editor working for the Diamond Publishing Group, and she worked extra hard to prove herself. Chess’s job was one Birdie secretly coveted, being an enthusiastic and accomplished at-home gourmet cook. She was so, so proud of Chess, and envious of her, too.

“Okay, honey!” Birdie said. “But just put this in your stew pot: you and me in the house on Tuckernuck the week of Fourth of July.”

“You and me?” Chess said. “And who else?”

“Just us,” Birdie said.

“The whole week?” Chess said.

“Can you?” Birdie asked. Chess’s job had seasonal flexibility. The summer was slow; the holidays were insanity. “Would you?”

“Let me think about it,” Chess said, and she hung up.

Birdie paced her house, agitated and tense. She felt like she had in 1972 when she was waiting to find out if she’d gotten a bid from Alpha Phi. Would Chess consider this trip? If Chess said no, Birdie decided, she wouldn’t take it personally. Chess was busy, and a week was a long time. Would Birdie have wanted to spend a week alone with her own mother? Probably not. Birdie picked up her cup of tea, but it had gone cold. She put it in the microwave to reheat and sat down at her computer, which she kept in the kitchen, where she could get the news and recipes. She checked her e-mail. Her younger daughter, Tate, was a computer wizard and sent Birdie at least one e-mail each day, though it was sometimes a forwarded joke, or a chain letter, which Birdie deleted without reading. Today, her in-box was empty. Birdie chastised herself. Chess would never want to spend a week with her alone. She shouldn’t have asked.

But then, just as she was about to sink into the self-doubt that plagued nearly every interaction with Chess (why was her relationship with her elder daughter so fraught? What had Birdie done wrong?), the phone rang. Birdie snapped it up. It was Chess.

“July first through seventh?” Chess said. “You and me?”