I’m a photographer. You might have seen some of my work in galleries around the midcoast. Or maybe you saw my book, Maine Cemeteries. I took photos in the soft afternoon light when the large trees cast their shadows over the old stones arrayed along a slope or broad lawn. Some cemeteries have interesting entrance archways like the Grove Cemetery in Belfast, or interesting stones like the one in the Union Cemetery in Lincolnville for one “William Eckley and His Consort,” or the stones in a Hope cemetery for several members of a Civil War Sharpshooter Regiment, mausoleums like Greek temples, old slate slabs.
One summer years ago I did a series on the Islands of Penobscot Bay. There are many uninhabited islands in the Bay and I got some great shots of sandy beaches or rocky shores with the dark of the spruces against the sky, sunrises and sunsets over the water. Some of the small islands have deer on them and I got some shots of them, also ducks and loons, puffins and seals and lots of other wild life.
I stocked my small sailboat with provisions and set out from Rockland to spend the summer camping on the various islands and photographing what caught my eye. The summer had ended along with my project, and fall was coming on, but I had been reluctant to bring the pleasant time to an end.
One day in September I could see a storm beating up behind me by Islesboro, so I put in to the closest island even though it had “Private Property. No Trespassing” signs posted every few feet around the shore. I surged onto the sandy beach in the high surf, pulled my twelve foot sailboat up above the tide mark and set up my tent just as the rain hit.
Before I entered my tent, right in the tumult of the storm, I saw the strangest sight I have ever seen in my life. She was like some female Robinson Crusoe with two round animal skins pulled over her feet and tied around her ankles, a yellow sou’wester with the wide brimmed yellow hat. “Didn’t you see the signs?” she demanded “You’re not welcome here.”
It was coming on dark. I apologized but told her I had no choice and that I couldn’t put off with the storm blowing right into shore. “Leave first thing in the morning.” she said and turned to make her way to the small cottage I could see at the edge of the clearing above the beach.
I fell asleep almost immediately in spite of the roar of the wind and the surf. The morning dawned bright and calm. I ate a hurried breakfast of a granola bar and some nuts, and started to pack my gear back into the boat when I heard a stifled cry coming from the rocks that bordered the sandy beach and covered most of the island’s shore.
I went to investigate. She had been dragging a piece of driftwood up over the rocks when the weight of the rather large piece had thrown her off balance, and she had fallen forward down over a large rock where she had landed trying to brace herself and broke both of her arms. “Is there anyone who can take you to the Pen Bay hospital in Rockport?” I asked. “No!” she replied through tears, I think from frustration rather than pain. “Do you have a motor boat so I can bring you in to Pen Bay?”
“No I burned that years ago. I’d be obliged if you would make splints for them. Under her direction, I cut some lengths of birch bark, packed moss around each arm, and secured the birch bark with some twine I had on my sailboat.
“I’d be obliged if you would stay on for a bit and help me. I’ll pay you” she said.
I’d been a loner all my life, had no place to go and nothing to do when I got there, so I agreed. I really felt responsible somehow and couldn’t in good conscience leave her to fend on her own without being able to use her arms even for light use for a month or so at best.
“My garden needs to be harvested, and I’ll need more wood for the winter, I helped her to the cottage which had just one small room”And the goat needs to be milked every day” she added.
“I never milked a goat.” I said.
“Did you ever milk a cow?” she asked “it’s the same thing. She’s the one with the big udder. Her kid is old enough to forage on his own now. The small flock was here when my family bought the island years ago. They browse for what feed they can find and usually come into the shed on their own at night. The milk goes into that glass jar and is stored down cellar.
“The root crops need to be dug up and you’ll find some bins down cellar filled with sun-dried sand. One for carrots, one for beets and one for turnips. Just push them under the sand. I’ve already saved out the seeds and dried them for next year.
” I’ve already pulled the roots of the pole beans which are dry now and they’ll need to be shelled out and stored in that burlap bag. The onions need to have the tops braided three together and hung from the nails on that rafter there. The potatoes need to be dug and arranged on the shelves down cellar with out touching each other. The same with the apples on that old tree. Pull the cabbage plants up by the roots and hang them upside down from the beams in the cellar. You’ll have to look for the hens eggs, they lay wherever it takes their fancy. There’s half a dozen or so chickens running wild that have survived the hawks.
“You’ll find a buck saw in the shed to cut up whatever drift wood you can find and dead spruce trees to add to whatever I already started. You can dig clams at low tide and haul the three lobster pots on the ends of the long ropes . Occasionally there is a lucky catch. When you clean a fish, use that to bait the lobster traps. There’s a surf casting pole in the shed with mackerel jigs and other lures, or you can dig blood worms for bait at low tide, you can probably find some anyway as you dig for clams down there.”
After her long instructional speech she fell asleep in the rocking chair she was sitting in and I began my new tasks.
The days were filled with harvesting the garden, gathering apples from the ancient tree, and upland cranberries from the high land at the north end of the island, cutting wood, fishing, milking the goat, looking for eggs, and hauling water from the spring. I had to prepare meals under her direction, and we actually ate pretty well: steamed clams and lobster, fish chowder, stir fires, baked beans, a sort of smoothie from grated apples and cranberries mixed into the goat’s milk with a hand egg beater, and of course, eggs which we usually had for breakfast. Nights I returned to my tent pleasantly tired with this new mission in life.
After the first week everything fell into place and the routine became somewhat easier. She observed that the nights were becoming too cold to sleep in a tent and I brought my sleeping bag into the cabin and slept on the floor beside the antique wood stove.
When I asked about her life and how she had come to be on the island she said she didn’t want to talk about it, never wanted to go back to “so-called civilization” again, and would spend the rest of her life right on the island. I asked about the shelves full of books but she said that she didn’t read anymore ever since she had broken her glasses. “I’ve missed that terribly” she said, so after our evening meal I started to read to her: poetry, Shakespeare, the classics until it got too dark to read even by candlelight when she retired to the double bed in the corner of the room, and I to my sleeping bag.
Winter came early. I had stowed my mast and sail and turned the boat upside down, and brought my few possessions to the cabin. We were snug enough with the season’s bounty gathered, and firewood stored. We fed the chickens and goats on whatever scraps were left over, but the goats still rambled out to rummage on milder days, although the chickens tended to stay in their shelter except on very mild days.
It had been a month since I had landed on the island and she was able to use her arms a little. After an afternoon of fishing one day I returned to the cabin to find a stranger there! She had taken off the animal skins from her bare feet, and the frayed jeans and worn shirt. Her fly-away, white hair was neatly groomed and tied back with a scarlet ribbon and she was wearing a white, silk gown with an embroidered red rose at the left breast. I was blown away at how beautiful she looked, standing there like a queen in a peasant hut with a tapestry of braided onions behind her. I was speechless. She smiled and said that she was tired of being grungy. The table was set and supper on the stove and we sat down and ate by candlelight.
“I want to tell you how much I have appreciated all that you have done for me, and how I have come to care for you” she said “And I wish we could go on like this forever, but I am dying, and I feel that I should tell you. I have no family left, I gave away everything I had when I was diagnosed and came to this island that my family purchased years ago. I wanted to spend my final days here rather than in some hospital in a drug induced daze.
“It is getting cold nights and we would be warmer sleeping together. No sex!” So we slept in her bed holding each other until we fell asleep. I had had a few relationships in the past, none of which worked out very well, but nothing as strange and, yet as wonderful as this.
And so the winter passed pleasantly yet sadly, and spring came to the island in all its varied beauty. One morning I awoke with her cold beside me. I dressed her in the white, silk gown and buried her on the high slope overlooking the cottage and the beach. I never asked her name and she never volunteered it. I always called her Robin from “Robinson Crusoe”, So with a cold chisel and a hammer from the shed I carved “Robin” on a flat stone and set it at the head of the grave.
Every April I go back to the Island for a day and think on the strangeness of it all. The cottage is now falling in on itself and will eventually go back to earth, but the chickens and goats still survive. Life goes on.
Arnold Perrin served as Poetry Editor for the New England Sampler and was Editor-publisher of Wings Press of ME. He has been widely published in small press publications and literary journals for which he has won many prizes and awards. He lives in Union ME.