Howard Cunnell is the author of
‘Marine Boy’ (2008), and ‘The Sea on Fire’ (2012),
and the editor of Jack Kerouac’s
‘On the Road – The Original Scroll’ (2007).
He is currently completing a memoir:
‘The Following is Based on a True Story’.
‘Island’ is part of a story sequence,
‘Whitman’, exploring loss and absence.
“When I was a young man, not much more than a teenager, I lived alone on a boat in a place like this: Ash Island on the Thames.
A cut-off world of dripping trees and moving water.
The river rising and falling underneath you as you slept.
Woodsmoke and permanent damp.
A cesspit in the woods. What I remember are the silences.”
Opiated nights in their bed in the floating bow. No hard edges.
A line of light from the settling fire shows below the curtain that separates the bed from the main cabin. The faint apparition of illuminated woodsmoke.
Gloria is asleep. Empty foil, tube and lighter on the nightstand.
He watches the dark length of her body for a long time, then sleeps.
Later the baby wakes.
Dale holds his son in the wheelhouse.
The island darkly visible against the violet sky.
The wideness of the river is slowly revealed in the early morning clearing mist. The water is tiger-striped in light and shadow, its surface an endless series of moving helixes.
The dives of trim, softly angular cormorants barely disturb the river’s surface.
The immense shining undersides of planes pass high overhead and are reflected on the water.
The boy’s aromatic downy head warm below Dale’s chin, his small heart thumping against his father’s.
She smoked brown even after Luke was born. Running around the island late at night, in the woods. Gloria loved the moon. After she leaves he sits on the boat talking to the boy but the boy doesn’t answer.
Rain in pools on the partly frozen, umber-coloured ground. Gloria has been gone for a month. It’s about need. He never stops hoping she’ll come back. Somewhere above sounds a woodpecker’s percussion. In vain they look for the bird against the darkening sky. Dale hears a clicking coming from the boy’s mouth. Something moves against his milk teeth.
“What are you eating?”
Luke doesn’t answer. Does Dale shake him? His son is crying when he finally opens his mouth. Dale picks the wet, round stone from his son’s tongue. Looks at the boy. The fair lights in his dark curls. Dale holds the warm stone in his hand. The heat of it. Dale holds the stone out to him.
“Dogs eat stones,” he says. “Are you hungry?”
Luke shakes his head.
Bright red and orange leaves spiral down onto the cold, pleated water. Lowering autumn sunshine lights the riverbank a fractured gold. The water is moving fast, and Dale can see the current boiling up the muddy river bottom in rising, cinnamon-coloured clouds. There are scudding clouds racing across the sky, too, interrupting the low sun, and Dale thinks that the world had somehow speeded up and left him behind. Luke holds bright fallen leaves, shows them to Dale. Luke has picked the deepest red and the brightest gold leaves from the riverbank. He is smiling. The leaves are fanned out in his hand. Some of them are still wet from the river. Luke leans forwards to catch more leaves as they come by on the current. Dale watches. Luke is in the water. Looking funnily surprised at first as he spins on the current, then forlorn as he slowly begins to sink and then goes quickly under and disappears. More red and gold leaves circle on the surface for a moment, before being taken downstream.
For the divers, strong halogen lamps on tall stands are placed at the water’s edge. Above the noise of the generator that powers the lamps the white noise of the fast-moving river. While it was still light divers searched a long way downstream, where the swiftly moving water might have taken the boy. Together with the lamps to help them, the divers have torches, and Dale can tell, by the light they make and by their illuminated bubble streams, that now they are working close in, against the current, moving slowly towards the point on the riverbank – a muddy slide – where Dale has told them Luke went into the water.
All the lights in all of the houseboats on the island are burning.
The two divers come empty-handed from the river. Their black suits are dented by compression, and water falls from the dark and corrugated material in oddly angled, irregular streams.
Much later, Dale is taken to a quiet, overlighted room where he talks and talks.