Some believed the whole island was haunted, stem to stern, from the top of Lighthouse Hill to the bottom of Shubrick Point. One little lighthouse keeper’s house was nothing compared to the constant ripping of flesh from bone just off the shore. It was a violent place. There was that female skeleton found inside Great Murre Cave, resting as though she’d stopped for a nap a hundred or a thousand years ago. The naturalists tell me this on my third day, matter-of-factly, while we’re anchored fifty feet off the cave, waiting for a white shark to come back to finish its freshly-killed sea lion. The air smells like the dumpster of a Long John Silver’s and globs of blubber float serenely past my side of the boat. I’m a scientist now, I have to keep reminding myself, and focus on this one-in-a-million opportunity. We’re floating some hundred feet above barrels filled with nuclear waste sunk by the U.S. army in the ’50s and I’m supposed to be recording minutia about one of the world’s greatest alpha predators doing their sharky thing. Instead I'm wondering if the woman from Great Murre Cave isn’t the lady’s voice I heard while trying to get back to sleep last night at 4:26 a.m.
The room where I sleep is at the top of the stairs and to the left. There are three people sharing the room across the hall. I thought it had been nice that they gave me private accommodations, a welcoming gesture. In the ’60s, an intern painted Barbarella on the inside of the bedroom door, and even though the homage had been mercifully painted an institutional brown in the ’70s, we still called it the Jane room. Even people who stay in the Jane room call it “the Jane room” instead of “my room.” It’s just what you do. A hundred years ago, at least one of the lighthouse keeper’s children died of diphtheria on the island. Probably not in the Jane room, they all tell me, nodding.
What you don’t know about this place is that the Cassin's auklets burrow into the rocks and right after those weird little seabirds come back from hunting after sunset, they fill the island with a terrible roller coaster of sound. It’s like a thousand lunatics getting high off of helium. Every night I convince myself that sleep is impossible, but then bolt wide-awake sometime later. The clock always says 4:26 a.m. The auklets are gone but instead I hear the asthmatic rasps of a dying child in Jane’s room. I mentally sing ’70s sitcom theme songs because it’s impossible to be afraid while humming Welcome Back, Kotter. Even still, the room gets damp and cold. I’m not sure if I’m hearing ethereal whispers or just the mice trying to dig through my duffel for the last of my PowerBars. I am a scientist, I remind myself. It’s the mice. Of course it’s the mice. It sounds like they are scritching out my name. They accuse me of not doing well enough in high school geometry, of being such a pretty face, of never really sitting up straight. And that’s when I usually hear that lady’s voice. Sadness. Ice water. A feeling of being strangled.
In the morning, over almond milk and Kashi, I laugh, telling my fellow scientists about the voice and the chill. I ask them which of the three across the hall has been hiding the smoker’s hack. The DNR guy asks me if I’m sleeping in “that damn Jane Fonda room” and then says simply “Yup, that’s why. Damned ghost.”
Until the damned DNR guy said that, I realize that I had been hoping for a new nickname. Superstitious Nancy or maybe something like Newbie Pansy. A nickname would have been nice. Congenial hazing or something.
That day in the boat, a 20-foot white shark splashes us with her tail. In the spray, for just a moment, I swear I see a figure standing at the base of Great Murre Cave. This time, I don’t say anything to my fellow scientists. No answer is a good answer. A fine answer in fact. I hum the Kotter theme song because it seems like the right thing to do.
At night, at 4:28 a.m. I look out the Jane room’s window and see shapes fly past, white shapes that seem more liquid than bird. There is a high-pitched wheeze in the darkness, more urgent now than before, somewhere near the closet. Someone needs to get that poor baby to the doctor, I think, but where. Where? Outside, a face looks up at me. She's beautiful and strange and she waves to me.
Welcome back, she says, well come back.
All rights reserved to Wendy Wimmer.
Illustration by Jarad Jensen.