A short story by Robert Cormack.
“We’re never so defenseless against suffering as when we’re in love.” Sigmund Freud
They were the Thompsons, and we all knew them, and when Charlie Goose, one of the elders, heard they’d drowned, he'd shaken his head and said, "It isn't for us to judge." He’d been there when the boat was found, caved in by the waves and rocks. None of us could think of a reason for them being out there, especially given Mrs. Thompson's condition.
The Thompsons didn’t make a secret of her being sick. I told the authorities that when they asked about their emotional state. I was the last person to talk to them afterall.
"No," I told them, "they acted fine to me." They were still the same folks I’d known since I was a kid. How many times had I taken them out to their island in my launch? The cops asked that, too. I told them more than I could count. “Well,” one of the officers said, “maybe we can go back a bit. Tell us about that day. Let’s start there.”
It was later printed up in the newspapers. They added a few things, like the fact that the Thompsons were philanthropists, and the island had been in the family for years. The rest was what I explained, starting when they arrived at the dock that that day.
Not many cottagers come up this time of the year. Most of the boats are either dry-docked or taken away on trailers. We tend to close the marina after the Thanksgiving weekend. We still keep a launch available for the local residents and hunting parties.
Other than that, we’re mostly busy closing up the store, which is what we were doing when the Thompsons pulled into their usual spot near the dry-dock sheds. Charlie Goose and Burt Sugar were nailing up tar paper on their cabin across the inlet. They ran the marina before us and were voted an allotment by the band council when they retired.
Mrs. Thompson’s face was very thin and her eyebrows were painted on — painted or drawn on, I don’t know which.
May, my wife, and I came out of the store when they showed up. Mrs. Thompson was still sitting there in the passenger seat, wearing a turban — I guess it was a turban. May thought it looked more like a scarf. Mrs. Thompson’s face was very thin and her eyebrows were painted or drawn on, I don’t know which.
“Hello, Johnny,” Mr. Thompson said, and we talked a bit since we hadn’t seen them that summer. We loaded their stuff into the launch, then got all these blankets for Mrs. Thompson, tucking her in real good. We put a tarp over the blankets.
Usually, Mr. Thompson would stand next to me in the wheelhouse, his old briar pipe going. Now he sat in the stern with Mrs. Thompson, his arm around her. I remember his gray hair blowing in the breeze.
We passed the gull islands, and went up the channel, across Grover Sound. Their island sat near the east end, the cottage itself up on a cliff. It was a long, rambling place, added on to by three generations of Thompsons.
At the base was an old elevator, basically a small platform running up on tracks to the top. I don’t remember which of the Thompsons put that in, but it’d been there as long as I can remember. Our band council said we should put one in at the main lodge, being on a cliff as well, but we never did.
Anyway, we docked, and took everything up on the elevator, including Mrs. Thompson. “Thank you for everything,” she said to me, which seemed strange, seeing as I’d always taken their stuff up to the cottage all the years I'd known them.
I got the Thompsons settled, and told them Joe Corby could be reached in case of an emergency. Joe and his wife have a place just past the gull islands. Mr. Thompson walked around the living room, looking at the pictures on the wall. Some of them dated back to Old Man Thompson. He built the original cottage in the twenties. Charlie’s grandfather used to take him fishing and helped build most of the foundation. “They carried all the stones up in baskets strapped to their backs,” Charlie told me one time.
One shed still had black silhouettes of the tools from when Mr. Thompson’s father was fixing the place. It seemed every generation did something. None of the tools were left.
The outbuildings, the bunkies, the work shed, had all been stripped of wood to repair the old main building. One shed still had black silhouettes of the tools from when Mr. Thompson’s father was fixing the place. It seemed every generation did something. None of the tools were left.
We got the two big oil stoves going and the main fireplace. I said I’d bring over more wood the next day. “That’s fine, Johnny,” Mr. Thompson said. “Perhaps you could fix the swing.”
The porch swing was hanging from one chain. I didn’t know what I could do to fix it. I checked around, found some old rope, and managed to get the swing reasonably stable.
When I came inside. the Thompsons were in the den. “We’ll be staying in here,” Mr. Thompson said, unfolding the couch. Even with the fireplace and the oil stoves going, it was cold. I worried about them.
“We’ll be fine,” Mr. Thompson said.
I was putting the groceries away when I heard them talking, and something Mrs. Thompson said seemed odd at the time. “Thanks for not being tragic,” she said to him. He didn’t say anything back.
The next day, I showed up with wood, and two trout Charlie asked me to give them. They’d made the place reasonably comfortable. I packed the wood into the woodbox, noticing as I went out a few of the blankets on the swing. They’d obviously been sitting there earlier.
Before I left, I stuck my head in the den, asking if they needed anything else. They were curled up on the couch by the window. Every pillow in the place seemed to be there, kind of a nest of sorts for Mrs. Thompson.
“Thank you again, Johnny,” Mrs. Thompson said.
“Do you need more wood?” I asked. “I can come by tomorrow.”
“No, that’ll be fine,” Mr. Thompson said.
Charlie wondered if time had anything to do with it. Not time in general, but time in a sense that it was their time.
I was going to ask when they were leaving. Somehow it didn’t seem appropriate. They looked so peaceful sitting there. Maybe they were reflecting, if that’s what you want to call it. Charlie wondered if time was the reason. Not time in general, but time in a sense that it was their time. “Who knows?” he said, putting another log in the stove here in the store.
Anyway, it was a cold night for the Thompsons. The wind was blowing from the west, coming in off Georgian Bay. In the morning, there’d be a thin layer of ice in the inlet and the lichen would crackle underfoot.
The following night, around eleven o’clock, I got a call from Joe Corby. Usually, Joe and his wife are in bed by ten. He was calling to say he noticed a light out in the channel. It was heading towards the bay. “I don’t know what anybody would be doing out there now,” he said. “I thought it might be you lot.” The wind was picking up. He was thinking of getting his coat, going out to the dock. Then the light disappeared.
“I can’t see anything now,” he said.
He hung up and didn’t call back that night.
Around nine the next morning, Joe called to say he’d been out around Pointe au Baril. “I found a rowboat washed up on the shore,” he said. I took the launch out and found Joe and a few council members looking at the boat. I was pretty sure it belonged to the Thompsons.
Joe went home to call the marine unit. I went over to the Thompson’s place. I knocked, nobody answered. Then I looked through the window.
On the desk were Mrs. Thompson’s two wedding rings. There was no note, nothing to indicate why.
The place was empty. I went inside, found the blankets still on the fold-out couch, the pillows, an empty coffee cup. On the desk were Mrs. Thompson’s two wedding rings. There was no note, nothing to indicate why.
I asked May about that later, like what any of us would do in the same situation. May said it was decided. Everything was decided before the Thompsons even left Toronto.
“How sick do you think she was?” I asked.
“Sick enough,” she said. “He couldn’t live without her.”
May was standing on a ladder, doing an inventory of the store. She handed me down two cans of beans. “Go start dinner,” she said. After feeding the kids and putting them to bed, I wandered around the inlet to Charlie and Burt’s cabin. They were playing cards in front of the fireplace.
“Grab a chair,” Charlie said. “Has May had any more revelations?”
“No,” I said. “Just the one.”
“Sometimes one’s all it takes,” he said.
Charlie shuffled the cards and dealt, the three of us hearing the wind outside. We shivered thinking about it. Who wouldn’t? They were still out in the water somewhere.
I guess it was love. What else could it be? Love and sacrifice.
May said something like that. Charlie asked if I was in or out. I said I was out.
Robert Cormack is a satirist, novelist, and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Skyhorse Press or Simon and Schuster for more details.