In honor of the Mystical Places theme we've been exploring this month, I thought I'd share the story of a creepy island I visited and what happened there. This essay - yes, it's a true story - first appeared in Matter literary magazine, volume 06, Lacuna, Spring, 2005.
The house perched on a cliff, looking over the Strait of Georgia through a wall of glass.
Water, mist, and the rounded humps of islands filled every room, from kitchen to atrium to bedroom, with the sound opening eastward to far glimpses of the mainland. To the north, an island rose. At its tip, a pale lighthouse, ringed by a black widow’s walk, beat a slow tempo and revealed the depth of fog through the night. A smaller island lay behind, in the first one’s shadow.
During the first few days of our stay, I spent my time watching the pulse of the lighthouse and the rise and fall of light and rain, and listening to the ghostly woofing of seals on their spits that shrank and grew with the tides. February on Vancouver Island sifts in muffled grayscale. But unlike the hard-frozen winter of home, the foliage remains lushly green. Instead of the dizzying highs and lows when the cycle of light alternately heats and freezes our thin Wyoming air, the island air extends out of the water and shifts temperature by only a few degrees, over hours and days like the ocean.
Storms came through, detectable because the mist condensed into falling droplets, which sometimes hardened into rain. The fog thinned to shroud only the most distant sights, then without movement, would hide the small island, then the larger, then slide up against our windows, on our island, concealing even the garden lights along the porch.
I settled into the hush.
After those first few days, curled up in a chair in the atrium andwatching the water, I picked up a pamphlet and found there were ferries to our companion islands, identified as Manden and Mirnby. They boasted of glass-blowers and glass artisans, complete with a map of the island and their helpfully numbered studios, along with lighthouses, hiking trails and petroglyphs. A hand-blown starfish sat on a coffee table in the living room; I felt sure the Manden artist’s colony housed the starfish maker and that I would be able to acquire one of my own, to turn over in my hands far from the beat of the lighthouse.
Also, petroglyphs have become a kind of quest for us. The search appeals to David and I as scientists, and it takes us down trails we wouldn’t otherwise pick, showing us new flora, fauna, geology. And we like the chance to touch the artifacts of the past, of another people, wonder at the ancient magic they invoked with their designs.
It required motivation, to get up and dressed by a pre-set time. We drove down the coastal highway past the fish plants and roadside pubs, to the ferry station. Among the vehicles that rolled off the ferry from Manden was a yellow school bus, complete with round faces pressed against the rain and salt splattered windows. Commuters waved or nodded at the waiting ferry riders, but their movements paused for us in our rental car, masquerading with local plates. As they moved past, their faces turned back to track us.
We missed the town on our first pass out of the ferry station. Even accustomed to the blink-towns of Wyoming, we had expected more “town” than was there and mistook the scatter of low lodges and a wooden gabled house for a sort of commune. So we came back down the hill, winding into the silent harbor area, to look for the first numbered artist on my map. Instead we found a “Closed for the Season” sign, and an “Open 1-3" sign on another — mornings apparently see people leave Manden Island. Since our few fellow travelers on the ferry had long since disappeared up the hill road, we had yet to see any people.
“They advertise for tourists, but they don’t like them much,” David commented.
“They’re probably torn,” I agreed. We guessed that many of the people who lived in those cloudy hills were refugees. Some were most certainly draft dodgers from the sixties who took a sanctuary they never abandoned once danger was past. Maybe for some of these denizens, the danger has never passed. They live in houses half-tree, half-assembled from found wood: rambling creations that cried, “No Trespassing.” I am far from being one of them, yet people like these I understand better than the ones who live in one of five models and wear clothes that affiliate them with some sports team they like to watch. David and I are half-shopping, looking for a refuge, too, to someday have our own wall of glass on the water, trespassers discouraged.
We stopped at the gabled house by the road, where a listing shack with a “Java Hut”sign provided a school bell to be rung for service. We scattered water droplets with the bell’s clang and dubiously waited for an answer.
A figure emerged from the house wrapped in some sort of rag rug. He tucked his long grey hair behind his ears and made us mochas, all the while assuring us that no tourists came that time of year, most of the residents were gone or hibernating, but that if we wanted dinner, his wife was making a big batch of chicken paprikash and we could stop back by. We headed up the hill to look for petroglyphs. We would look for the artists later, when they were more likely to be up and about.
We took a second ferry over to Mirnby Island, site of several petroglyphs and a few houses with “artist” designations. The petroglyph directions were vague, stories guiding us to coves near various establishments, or off certain trails in this or that park described in a hiking book. The first establishment we tried, an inn on the outfacing coast, gave us a woman at the desk who, though surprised we knew to ask, directed us down to a large boulder on the beach.
“They don’t look like much,” she said. “Most are worn away by tide or covered with algae. Look around by that rock and maybe you can see something.”
I’d worn my gallery-walking boots instead of beach-hiking boots, so I had some trouble as we clambered down the beach trail and worked our way over the flatly slick rocks. The giant boulder could not be missed, however — it was a fixed point at the center of a crescent cove that framed the open water. The embrace of the island funneled toward this point. We scrambled around like monkeys, using hands and feet for purchase, but the boulder’s faces were unpainted, uncarved. Every vertical face we could find, we checked — being children of the Rocky Mountain West, our search images were limited to the prior experience of drawings on walls.
I was wearing a traditionally flint-napped arrowhead of cobalt fiberoptic glass, a gift from my teach that I often used as a pendulum. David and I were alone on the beach, but for a few circling gulls, so I dowsed for petroglyphs as a well witch might for buried water, holding the image firmly in my mind, letting the swing of the pendulum guide me.
It stopped circling over a flat rock and I felt disappointed that I’d done it wrong. Then I noticed that the pattern of the algae on the rock looked like a sea animal. I brushed it with my fingers and found below the algal slime a painted seal or sea lion. David clawed over the rocks at my call. Our minds’ eyes rotated down to a different pallette, we found more seals or sea lions all over the big rock, encircled by hunters. All formed crescents, pulling in the arrow of the sea.
“From the water,” I said, gazing out, “wouldn’t this beach, this rock, be really easy to spot?”
“I was thinking the same thing — the hunters would hide in the trees,” David said, a hunter himself, though of mountain creatures. “And others would drive the seals and sea lions towards this beach.”
“Magic spells then, to bring the seals here, to hold them here for the kill.”
David nodded. Despite the houses on the high bank above, shrouded in greens and greys of woody vines and trees, the beach felt old, isolated, and unchanged. I could almost hear the shouts of the hunters, the barks of seals. I could almost smell the spill of marine blood and the magic of life and death holding the echoes of their lives to these rocks.
As we left the petroglyphs to their slow submission to algae and surf, I watched the houses peering out through the leaves. They appeared empty and showed no signs of life, though it would be easy for any denizens to observe us unseen.
We returned to the car and followed the road all the way around the island, to the beach with the next set of petroglyphs on my list. From that little dock, we could see the ferry terminal on the opposite curve, a ten-minute boat ride, a half-an-hour drive back around. The dock shop — “Closed for the Season” — was one of the Mirnby artist dots. Two sullen boys sat on a fence, like the cormorants perched farther down, and watched us, not responding even to my wave. I decided not to ask them about which cliffs to look for.
Instead, we worked back down the road, looking for a purported turn-off. I asked David to pull a U-turn, so we could go back to look for a road sign. Scrutinizing the woods, something white and fluttering caught my eye and gave my gut a twist, but I said nothing. David U-turned again when the sign proved the wrong one and as we drove past the spot with — was it a dress? I looked for it again. And I saw it: a tattered wedding gown in the trees — there. I kept silent about thirty seconds, then decided I might be crazy but I wanted David to see it. I asked him to turn around again.
The beauty of being tourists in the off-season, so off that even the locals are gone, is that no one is bothered by directionless drivers. David went slowly and we peered into the trees; he pulled off the road a little more. We both stared at it out the open car window: an effigy in a white lace wedding dress, hair streaming gauze in the drizzle. Her hand clutched a cage with a dead rooster in it, a pointed gaze upon me.
The back of my neck crawled and I felt a vague nausea.
I don’t recall if one or the other said it, but we agreed to go, almost immediately. We drove back down the road in silence.
“Maybe he didn’t like his ex,” David said.
I tried to laugh. “I don’t know what that was.”
“It’s better not to put attention on it,” he said. “Something like that is a warning.”
“Consider me warned.”
But I wasn’t, because when I did spot the correct road sign, I suggested we go ahead and look for the final set of petroglyphs, along the cliff walk in the Provincial Park. We parked at the trailhead, the only car in the lot. The wooden sign helpfully showed the bright loops, the varying lengths and difficulties of the trails. Matching the correct loop to the hiking book, we set off down the cedar chip trail, old growth trees towering luminously red gold against the white mist.
In the fairy tales, the trees have eyes. Movies show glowing orbs here and there in the murk. Every magical story seems to have trees that awaken, that watch, that perhaps offer guidance, perhaps attack. As we walked, I felt a gathering attention, focusing like a static charge gathers before a lightning strike. We emerged from the trees onto the windswept bluffs of the cliff walk. I had thought being under the sky again, out of the claustrophobic forest, would relieve me. But the intensity continued to gather. Unwilling to sound hysterical, I rode it out. But finally I clutched David and said we had to leave.
We trotted, then jogged back down the trail. I tried to explain that something was watching and David now felt it, too. Back at the lot I took the wheel and drove as fast as I could down the winding roads. David checked the schedule and found a ferry would leave in 15 minutes. I wanted off the island immediately. Cormorants and gulls circled above as we raced to the landing, to see the ferry steaming away, two minutes early.
The harbor resort restaurant was closed for the season, so we killed the next hour walking the rocky beach and the pier, greasy with cormorant guano. The birds lifted in sullen waves before us as we pretended to stroll — David acting calm for me, me feigning unconcern. The sun had come out, the brume rolling away to show Vancouver Island’s snowy peaks, a dizzying sight. But my skin still crawled and I stumbled often, falling three times.
“Is it the boots?” David asked.
“No, it feels like I can’t get my balance, like the ground is shrugging me off.”
We eventually caught the ferry back to Manden, which felt only alien, not hostile, and immediately took the next ferry to the mainland. David thought I shouldn’t feed whatever it was with my attention, so we didn’t talk about what had happened.
But that night, with Manden and Mirnby swimming behind the glass by my bed, I dreamed of the Birdwoman. She was tall, narrow, and pointed. Her obsidian eyes matched glass-black hair that fell sharply over her shoulders. Other than her eyes, her face was all beak, a long tine like an egret’s. Then I became her and though I loved my husband, I felt a great hunger. So hungry that I killed him and sucked his brains through my razor beak like a straw. My dreams tumbled all night with these images. Being her, fighting her, shielding David from her.
In the morning, I felt her watching from Mirnby. I sat curled up in my chair in the atrium, watching the beat of the lighthouse in the crepuscular mist and feeling her malice, feeling that strange combination of desire and repulsion. Something both wanting me and wanting me away. And the threat, sharpening with my attention, arrowing across the water. My feline nature stirred, my subconscious flexing her claws. Cats kill birds, I thought. And the pressure backed off.
We had another day trip planned, farther up the coast to Campbell River. We dressed and headed out the front of the house, the landward side, to where our car was parked in driveway, and stopped.
It was completely covered in bird shit.
White, brown, grey, it ran in glops and rivers over the roof and hood and down the sides, completely obscuring the windows. I thought of the restless cormorants on their greasy pier.
The fog condensed into a steady rain, so we climbed into the car and used the wipers to clean the windshield. Once we were a few miles up the coast, I insisted we pull off into a town with a car wash.
“We could let the rental car company take care of it,” David said.
“I want it off now.”
David agreed, after the car was clean, that he felt better about it, commenting as he’d done several times already, that he’d never seen birds do something like that before.
After that, though I could feel her out there, the eyes no longer looked directly across the water at me. I think she lost her fix.
I never dreamed of the Birdwoman again. I thought to look up the old mythologies, to see if I could find her picture, but I never have.
And I’ll never go back to her island.