On nights when our father would gather Evan and I close to talk about the beginnings of our community, he would call it a “beautiful dream”. When I was little I thought this meant he and my mother and the other founders had literally dreamed the island into existence. Now I think it was his way of acknowledging how it had fallen apart over time, because it had been built on something intangible. I couldn't see this instability at the time because it never felt that way to me. It felt like an exoskeleton, as vital and secure as my own spine. And despite his later misgivings, I know my father felt the same. Of course, you could say we're bonded to this island because of the time and the work we've given it, but I don't think that's it. You see, I don't believe that our people settling here was a coincidence. Oh, I've heard the stories about how Ironwood, this one kidney-shaped fleck of land tossed off into the Atlantic, had it all; the right soil, the right topography, the right zoning to allow for commercial development, which was in the founders' plan to provide sustainable income for the community. And all at the right price, too. But I don't think it ends there. I think the island called to them, just as it called to Noah and the darkness he harbored some twenty-five years later. In order to really get into that night, and what happened between all of us, first I need to tell you about Evan's accident. It was the catalyst, the chemical explosion that set everything else spinning off its axis. And it happened on such a clear, harmless day.
In my brother's room there's a working alarm clock that he uses through harvest, but I like to let the sun wake me. After I was up and dressed I went downstairs to the kitchen to start on our breakfast; a cup of cold goat's milk, grain, and two apples apiece. Evan was sitting in the family room, oiling his tools for the harvest. I skirted around him and set his dishes on the wooden table. He nodded his thanks without looking up. I ate my breakfast leaning against the kitchen counter and then scraped the leftovers into the compost bin.
By the time I left for the shore Evan was already hard at work, a wide river of sweat darkening his shirt between his shoulders. I had my grey bucket and my fishing pole. I followed the dirt path west through the red pines, down the craggy rocks, to the little protected cove that was my favorite fishing spot. On my way I passed The Hilltops; four squat wooden structures with sprouted roofs. When they were occupied they’d held herbs and medicinal plants for the families that lived there, but now they're overgrown with all sorts of opportunistic flora. A couple of the doors and most of the windows are gone; once we were reasonably certain new families weren't coming we started taking things we needed. Same thing went for the community kitchen and the schoolhouse on the other side; after our numbers dwindled it was easier just to cook and teach your children at home. I have only the vaguest memories of using the schoolhouse; lots of noise and bright afternoon light and sharing a quilt with my desk-mate during the winter.
When I reached the cove I set my bucket down and dug my fingers in the mud, trying to get purchase on some bait. My thumb hooked around something thin and viscous and I pulled a wriggling pink worm, at least four inches long. I threaded it onto my hook and slung my pole across my shoulder. Then I tied my dress up in a knot nearly to my hips and waded forward. The sea was icy as it licked my knees, making my breath catch in my throat, but I adjusted to the temperature and gradually made my way to the middle of the water. Sand and sodden pine needles sifted up between my toes and swarms of minnows nipped at my shins; I stood stock still until the sea life had acclimated to my presence. Then I cast out. I had a nice pull that day; the fish were agitated and easy to lure. I ended up leaving for home much earlier than usual, and thank God I did.
I can still remember every single detail of that afternoon. I remember the sun was small and cradled high up in the clouds. I remember I was halfway home, sitting on a tree stump with my leg propped up on a nearby fallen branch, and digging a splinter out of my baby toe. Next to me sat my fishing pole and the gray bucket, which was now teeming with salmon and mackerel. I remember sweat was beading up around my temples and streaking down my face so that I tasted salt when I licked my lips. I slid part of my fingernail under the splinter and with one brutal flick, sprung it free. I sat back, watching a tiny dot of blood bubble from the wound, and smiled. Next to me the salmon splashed against the bucket's plastic walls. I think, I’m pretty sure that’s when I first heard Evan scream. The sound was primal, visceral, and the weight of it stopped my blood. I jumped to my feet and began tearing through the trees. I tried sidestepping the branches, or else I pushed off them with my feet to propel forward, faster. I had to go faster. When I reached the clearing I stopped and squinted against the light, trying to find Evan in the field. I couldn’t hear him anymore. Someone else was running in my periphery, a black shadow speeding through the grass, and I knew it must be John Christiansen. A fellow founder and best friend to my father, he has a good fifty years on me but is as fast as I am, if not faster.
“Do you see him?” I called to John. He shook his head and disappeared around the side of the porch.
“Evan!” I called out, turning and cupping my hands around my mouth. He didn’t answer. I kept calling his name, even as I circled closer and closer to the house. I thought, I should be able to see him by now. Even if he’s on the ground, I should be able to find him. But I only heard the faint echo of his cries. My stomach was twisting up painfully, my head swimming with panic.
“Edie!” John yelled somewhere far away. “He’s behind the house!” I started sprinting, even as my lungs and muscles howled with the strain. I found John at the door outside of our lean-to. He was staring down at something I couldn't see, my view blocked by the bulk of his body. Then I heard squirming and panting, and I pushed John to the side as I scrambled forward. There, on the dirt floor, I found Evan rocking back and forth, his hands gripping his left leg just above the knee. My eyes followed his arms, his tightly knotted fingers to the stool leg piercing through his upper thigh. Blood was seeping out around the wooden stake and pooling on the ground. It wasn’t gushing or spurting, which I knew was a good sign. I knelt beside him and moved his hands so I could take over.
““Edie,” Evan choked. His eyes were wild.
“I’m here,” I said. “I’m right here.” Above us, John tore off a strip of fabric from the bottom of his shirt and tossed it to me.
“Tie this above the- above it.” I did as I was told, but before I could finish Evan was on me. He locked his fingers around my arm so hard I could feel his pulse throbbing against my skin. I finished anyway, working against him, and when it was done I pulled his hands away and laced his fingers in mine.
“I’m right here Brother,” I said again.
“Edie…Edie, “ his speech was punctuated with jagged breaths “Get- get it out. Of. My leg.”
“No.” It was John who answered him. “We can’t do that Evan, you could bleed to death.” Evan looked up at him hopelessly, and his breath began to quicken. I wanted to scream at John, even though I knew he’d done nothing wrong, but I bit the impulse back. I had to hold it together for Evan.
“I tried… to move,” Evan began again, and I squeezed his hands in response. “But it’s. So. Heavy.” I looked back down at the stool; it was one our father had carved down from a single hunk of wood. One of its legs, the one that had run Evan through, had a splintered end. It held weight fine so we'd never bothered to sand it down. Now the full weight of the stool, along with gravity, was literally pulling Evan’s leg apart from the inside. I reached for it, hoping to take some of the weight off, but then my eye caught on something hanging above the workbench and suddenly I had a better idea.
“John,” I said, my eyes flashing up to him. “Rachel’s studio- she has a telephone, right?”
“Call Purcell. Go now, we’ll be okay.” John nodded once and was gone.
“You’ll st-stay with me?”
I nodded, but at the same time I was beginning to stand up. Evan dug his fingers into mine even harder.
“I’m not leaving,” I soothed him. His grip slackened a little, and I got to my feet. “I’m just getting the handsaw.”
“What?” he cried.
“For the stool leg,” I added quickly. He gasped.
“The leg. It’s. Tearing.”
“Sh-sh-sh just hold on Brother,” I told him, trying to imitate that smooth honey-drip voice my mother used on us when we were children. “Hold on.”
As I stood my dress stuck to my legs uncomfortably. I looked down. The hem of my skirt was soaked with Evan’s blood. I was overcome by a wave of revulsion and nausea that swept me sideways onto the workbench. I closed my eyes, took a couple of deep breaths through my mouth, and righted myself. Then, drawing on courage I didn’t really feel, I reached for the small saw.
I positioned myself on the floor with the seat in my lap and got to work. I tried to be as gentle and efficient as I could, but every once in a while the saw would catch on the grain and stool leg would shake a little inside Evan's thigh. When this happened he would shut his eyes and go very still, and I knew he was in agony. After what seemed like hours it was finished and Evan was left with a wooden pole poking out an inch or so on either side of his jeans. Once the weight was off the wound Evan’s breathing evened out a little. I set the saw back on the workbench and knelt on the ground beside him. He rested his sweaty forehead against my shoulder, and we waited together for John and Dr Purcell. I glanced at the upturned stool, now missing one leg. It rested a foot or so from the workbench. About five feet above the bench hung several different cords of rope each tied neatly into their own bundles. I sighed. So that’s what he had been reaching for. If only he had tipped forward, he could have caught himself on the workbench and none of this would have happened.
The wind had grown fierce, strange for early summer, and the tree branches shook brutally in its wake. Then, all of a sudden it stopped, and everything was quiet except for my steady breathing and Evan’s shallow gulps. A dark blur appeared on the path, joined by another. The two, I saw, were joined by a thin bridge that bobbed between them. I sat watching this strange apparition approach us, and my arms locked tighter around Evan's chest. The blur drew closer and began to flesh out, and I saw they were Dr Purcell and John Christiansen. Between them they carried a canvas stretcher.
The last time I’d seen James Purcell, known as the Good Doctor when he lived on the island, was about two years ago. Although I liked the man fine, the memory of him grave and cold outside our father’s door was not one I enjoyed revisiting. Still, as I made out his features against white-hot sky, I couldn’t help feel a surge of gratitude that he’d come for us.
“Edie, you’re going to have to help us,” John panted when they reached the door. They set the stretcher down on the ground just outside the lean-to. I glanced at the doctor, and he nodded once in greeting.
“Stretcher won’t fit inside with all of us,” John continued, “so we’ll have to carry him out and lay him down. You getting all this Evan?” he added, a little louder. Evan nodded.
“And then what?” I asked.
‘There’s a medevac chopper out there by the shops.” The doctor stuck a thumb out behind him. That explains the wind, I thought. That brutal wind.
John was easily the strongest of the three of us, and he knelt down and hooked his arms under Evan’s shoulders. The good doctor went for his injured leg, but I stepped deliberately in front of him, a protective glint in my eye. Even though I knew he only wanted to help us, some base part of me couldn’t bear to trust him with another member of my family.
“Keep it stable,” he instructed, and moved to the uninjured leg. Unfortunately, all my efforts to spare my brother were in vain. As soon as the three of us had Evan off the ground, he began to make these awful guttural sounds, like swallowed screams. I could tell he was trying not to move; every muscle felt rigid under my hands, but the agony in his face was unmistakable. It was even worse when we set him down on the stretcher. He sort of collapsed, and the stool leg hit the ground first and scraped up the inside of his leg, grating against the bone. He rocked side to side for a couple moments while the three of us stood over him, unable to do anything but watch. Finally, he calmed down enough to find a position where the pole wouldn’t press against anything. The two older men bent, picked up the ends of the stretcher, and started for the road.
I kept pace, walking alongside Evan so that he could see me. The helicopter, hunched unceremoniously over a flat stretch of the Ring Road, was painted in screaming red and white stripes. The propellers were still spinning, which I later found out was standard procedure. A “hot offload” was what the pilot called it when he got on the radio with the hospital. John, Dr Purcell and I approached the helicopter, where a paramedic stood waiting to help us into the back.
“What’s that?” he shouted, pointing to a spot just above the stool leg.
“It’s a tourniquet,” John called over his shoulder. He and Dr Purcell were already ducking down so they could load Evan into the cockpit.
“How long’s it been on there?”
“About an hour,” I replied, struggling to make my voice heard over the whir of the chopper. The paramedic pressed his lips together.
“Better take it off once we get in there,” he told me. “We don’t want him losing oxygen in the rest of his leg.” I nodded once, my jaw clenched shut so that the hot lump in my throat couldn’t rise. Evan, for his part, seemed to take no notice of this exchange. All I could think was how I’d made it worse. I had only been trying to help, but I’d made it worse.
“You can fly with him, Edie,” Dr Purcell told me.
“We’ll meet you there,” John added. They both turned away.
Tears began to flow freely down my cheeks. I tried to angle my face away from Evan so he wouldn’t see. In the helicopter I sat behind him and stroked his hair so that I could keep on crying. On the other side of the cramped space the paramedic leaned down and unfastened the strip of fabric, without another word to me.
John and Dr Purcell shrunk to the size of dolls as we lifted off the ground. I watched the trees sway and grow smaller out of the bubbled window before they disappeared entirely and we were flying over the sea. The ride was violent but mercifully short; it only took a few minutes to reach Halifax, and then we were approaching a large empty rooftop painted with a white circle. After that it was a full assault of doctors and nurses in paper masks and matching flat blue uniforms, come to take my brother away. I knew it was irrational, but when I was standing in that hallway, watching them wheel Evan through the heavy double doors, I felt a pang of resentment and fear, like they were taking him away from me for good. Then, with the force of a hammer coming down on my chest, I realized it wasn’t irrational; it was a very real possibility. And I began to crumble.
It turned out Dr Purcell took the ferry alone back to town, while John stayed behind to talk to Rachel and the Janssens. Once he arrived he immediately found me in the hallway and led me to a sparse, brightly lit closet called the “Family Room”. In the Family Room the good doctor informed me how lucky Evan had been that the stool had missed his femoral artery, because if that had gotten nicked, he would have bled out in a matter of minutes. Instead, the wood had chosen “the path of least resistance” as Dr Purcell had put it, and only splintered the bone.
“Of course, we won’t really know the full extent of the damage until Dr. Weldon closes up, but he’s a good friend of mine, Edie, and a great surgeon. He’s the one I’d want operating on me, if it came to it.”
“But if it’s just a cracked bone, I mean- bones heal, right? He’ll be okay, he’ll,” I forced myself to say it, “he’ll still be able to walk fine, and run, things like that?”
“Oh Edie,” he said, resting his wide hand gently on my arm. Right now, the only thing you need to focus on is being thankful. Evan is very, very lucky.” Then, he stood up and left the room. It was only half a second later I realized he hadn’t actually answered my question.
They let me stay in the Family Room. Over the course of the day I learned that all doctors were experts in that way of not quite answering your questions. They all wore the same sterile smile, and patted the same place on my arm, and gave me the same line about how “lucky” my brother was. This last part annoyed me so much, because it was such a lie. If Evan were lucky, he would have lost his balance on that stool and fallen forward. Or, better yet, he wouldn’t have fallen at all.
In the family room I leaned my head back against the wall and imagined I was home, on Ironwood. Never had its verdant green hills, its dips and peaks and secret crevices called me back so fervently. Just the thought of it made the stagnant air of the hospital feel like it was pressing hard against my nose and mouth. I pulled my knees to my chest and studied the family room. It was passively warm and sterile, muted pastel walls, paintings of flowers in plastic frames. I closed my eyes again and imagined I was back at the protected cove catching fish for supper. The thought dropped heavy in my stomach as I thought about how I would be responsible for Evan's work as well as my own until he recovered. How long would it take for him to be back on his feet? The doctor said he hadn’t broken any bones. A week? Maybe two? And then John could help him until he was completely healed. Maybe we could just trade for a bit and he could hobble around the house while I worked in the fields and the stocks. Sometime during my reverie the nurse slipped into the family room. She stood over me, clipboard pressed to her breasts.
“Evan Strake?” she asked. Her voice sounded haggard and weighted down. It took me a moment to understand that this was her way of addressing me.
“Yes. Is he out of surgery?”
“Not quite. Who are you, girlfriend?”
“No,” I answered quickly. “I’m his sister. But we live together, so I really need to know-”
She cut me off. “I can start getting together the post-care instructions if you’d like to look over them. It’s mostly just changing bandages, looking for signs of infection, thrombosis, that sort of thing.” She was talking fast, her eyes scanning the pages on her clipboard.
“Now there was extensive tissue damage, as well as possible nerve damage, so when he starts his physical therapy you’re going to want to meet with the therapist as well. A lot of the at-home exercises require someone to, you know, help out and you don’t want to slack off on those, understand?”
“Physical therapy?” My voice was hollow.
“This is a very serious injury your brother has sustained. This kind of major vascular trauma, it takes time to heal.”
“How much time?”
The nurse blinked twice, then answered, “at least eight weeks, depending.”
Eight weeks. Two months. As soon as the words hit me I felt myself begin to shake. For two months I would still have to cook and clean and fish and prep, but I would also have to do all the work in the field as well preserve and store everything. I’d have to represent the family at the Janssens’ meetings on Tuesdays, but Tuesdays were when I taught the Janssens’ daughter Lucy… there was no way I could make it all fit. It was just too much for one person.
“Miss?” For the first time since the nurse had entered the room her eyes met mine. I watched her take in my clothes, my hair, my dirty knees and bare feet, and I saw she was beginning to put ideas together. “Have you called your parents dear?” The nurse asked me, after a few moments of tense silence. I shook my head.
“Our parents are dead.”
“I see. Yeah, he has you down here as next of kin. How old are you then?”
“Nineteen,” she repeated, her voice full of skepticism. “Have you spoken with registration yet? They’re going to need your home address, and your brother’s SIN so they can start processing everything.”
I immediately tensed up. All of my father’s warnings about people from the city flared up in my mind.
Nothing about our life here is against the law, Edie. Never let them make you feel as if you’ve done something wrong.
“Miss, are you alright?”
I shook my head to clear it of my father’s voice. “I’m fine. I’m just, I’m trying to figure things out.”
“I can have the social worker come to see you.”
“No, that’s alright.”
I could tell from the look in her eye that the nurse was not prepared to give up on this idea so easily, but then a black box began buzzing at her hip and she left the room in a hurry.
A few minutes later the social worker entered. She was middle aged and a head shorter than me with frizzy red hair.
"Hi, my name is Meredith, I'm your brother's case worker. He hasn't come out of the anesthesia yet so I was wondering if you could answer some questions for him?"
"I can try," I said cautiously. In my head I still heard my father's voice.
"Your brother's full name is Evan Zachariah Strake?"
"His date of birth?"
"April 8th, 1963."
I paused, and then narrowed my eyes at her. "He didn't give this information to the doctor, before his surgery?"
She made a show of going through the papers on her clipboard.
"Everything goes so fast in the ER, I'm just filling in the holes in the paperwork. Country of origin?"
I straightened. "My brother was born in America but he's got Canadian citizenship through our mother."
She smiled at me placidly. "Do you know his SIN?"
"Not by heart. He probably does."
"Do you know your SIN?"
"I'm not the patient," I replied coolly.
"Fair enough." When I didn't respond she continued. "Name of his employer?"
I stared at her, unsure how to answer. "Whom does he work for?" she said again, slower. "What does he do?"
"He works at home," I said. She raised an eyebrow and opened her mouth, presumably to launch into a new series of questions, when the door opened and the nurse from before scrambled in. She muttered a quick, "sorry Meredith," before looking straight at me.
"Woke up about five minutes ago. He’s asking for you."
Seeing Evan for the first time after his surgery was a relief, and at the same time it ushered in entirely new feelings of dread. When I entered the room I found him propped up in the far bed, a mound of blankets covering his wounded leg. He looked pale and spent, his golden hair lank. Plastic tubes marked with tape traveled up his arm. It felt so wrong to see him like this, like a wild animal in a cage, removed from his home and transplanted to a cold foreign place. After a beat he seemed to sense my presence and he looked towards me. His smile was weak but genuine, his eyelids half opened. I moved to his side and grabbed his hand in both of mine.
"How do you feel Brother?" I asked him. My voice sounded small, childlike.
I laughed. "You're not supposed to say that. Remember what Dad said, about illness?"
He tried to shrug. "I'm not sick, I'm crippled."
"No, you're not," I said angrily. I couldn't let him think like that.
"Might as well be." He looked at me with wide eyes. "Eight weeks, Edie."
"We'll make it work."
"John and Rachel will help us."
"They can't carry us. It's harvest season for them, too."
"I'll hire someone then. Just for the season."
"With what money?"
I swallowed. "I'll talk to Karl."
Evan gave me a firm look. It was still several shades weaker than I was used to seeing from him, and it made me feel sick and helpless. "Now listen to me. Don't you go throwing our family on the mercy of the Janssens. I mean it Sister."
"I'd rather lose the house." His words made me wince.
"I'll figure it out, I promise."
Evan laid his head back on his pillow and shut his eyes, a sign that he was too tired to argue. I slid a nearby chair over to the bedside and sat down, leaning my head across his good leg. After a few minutes he lifted his hand out of my grasp and rested it on my hair. We had to be okay, I told myself. I'll find someone, and I'll find a way to pay them. A small, menacing voice in the back of my head told me I'd better prepare myself to grovel at the feet of Karl Janssen, because that's surely what it was going to come to, but I shoved it back. I'd deal with that when and if the time came. Until then, I had to focus on simply keeping our heads above water.
"Maybe, a boarder," Evan slurred. His voice startled me; I thought he was asleep. "Dad told me they used to take them in all the time, back when, back when..."
"Yeah, he told me about it once, too," I whispered. People from the city, college students, writers, sometimes transients who came to the island during harvest season and were gone by winter. People willing to exchange field work for a free place to stay and maybe a glimpse into something considered "countercultural". But that had been back in the early days, when every hut and structure was occupied, when the fields were brimming with every kind of living thing. Would it, could it work now?
"Maybe," I told him. "I can ask Rachel when I get back."
And that's where the idea began. It started small and innocuous, a single-celled organism that grew and festered the further I ran with it, infecting everything it touched. But as many times as I’ve gone through these events, I can’t find that single turning point where I could have saved us. In the beginning everything was moving so fast, but later on though- like when I first met Noah- I should have seen the symptoms.