Where We’re From, Where We’re Going
Previously, in Island Wars… Grand Seal Island isn’t exactly the jungles of Borneo, but greenhorn journalist Donovan Graham is covering it anyway. He was sent to the island to write about a brewing International Showdown between the U.S. and Canada. But he’s also found time to commandeer a moldering shack for his home, walk barefoot across hot coals, party hard in the Village, and get to know some odd characters in the island’s Town. Click here to read earlier entries, or read on to see Van's latest update.
Cory Coffin considers human life to be sacred. I’ve often wondered how she rectifies that belief with the homicidal tendencies of her driving habits, but I choose to keep that question to myself.
She shared this revelation one day when she was attempting to be the first woman from Maine ever to put a baby-blue Bronco into near-Earth orbit. She had driven down to The Stump to pick me up, even though we hadn’t made any plans along those lines, and she had walked into my little shack without so much as a knock or a hello. I considered this fabulously rude — what if I were naked or something? Then I realized that if I were naked in The Stump, the mosquitoes would have sucked my body dry within seconds, so all Cory would find would be a deeply embarrassed pile of desiccated dust. So the odds were good that she would find me either clothed or dead. I decided to forgive her.
She of course began with pleasantries about the weather, charming inquiries into my state of health, that sort of thing. Actually, it came out as something like, “Get in the truck, asshole,” but I’m sure she meant all those pleasantries anyway. I climbed into the Bronco, and Cory slammed the transmission into fourth gear. It takes a lot of gas to get a Bronco going from a dead stop in fourth gear, but Cory wasn’t shy with her accelerator. My hair shot backward, my cheeks squeezed back into the kind of grimace you see on astronauts’ faces during takeoff, and I think I swallowed my tongue. As we rocketed up the dirt road toward town, Cory moved her mouth like she was speaking. It was only after we stopped, however, that her words were able to catch up with us and I could find out what she had been saying. Rushing forward at the speed of sound came a blur of Cory sentences. It seems that she had been talking about her grandparents.
We were stopped at the edge of a large and very old cemetery, just west of the Quaker Meetinghouse. The graveyard, which covered the top of a large, gentle hill, was surrounded by a small wooden fence. The roaring sea splashed salt spray just to the north, and the bulk of GSI lay to the east and south.
Cory climbed down out of the Bronco and waddled her stout little body through the gate. I followed, still not entirely certain why we were here.
Some of the headstones dated back to the early 1800s. One worn and mossy stone marked the grave of Ezekiel Webster, who was born in 1796 and died sixty-two years later in 1858. His stone was carved in the shape of a tree stump, and on the top of the stump were the words “His Spirit is With the Lord.”
A rectangular stone not far from Ezekiel’s marked the collective burial sites for the Bates family. Andrew Bates seems to have been the patriarch; he died in 1926 at the robust age of eighty-nine. His wife was even tougher, though — Mary Bates held out until 1932 and died at the age of ninety-one. Still, life must have been hazardous and wearying for people on Grand Seal Island in the decades before electricity, telephones, penicillin, morphine, and decent plumbing. Next to Mary was the grave of son Andrew, age sixteen.
Off to the west was another small church. I hadn’t noticed it before, and I asked Cory about it.
“That’s the Church of the Sea,” she explained in an unnecessarily gruff voice. “It’s Byzantine Orthodox.”
I wrote that down in my little reporter’s notebook. Then, in my most solemn church-and-graveyard tone, I inquired: “What do members of a Byzantine Orthodox church do? How do they worship?”
Cory shook her head and grinned.
“You’re a seriously dumb little shit,” she said, piercing me with her usual strip-search stare. “How the hell should I know what Byzantine Orthodox people do? Didn’t that die out in the Dark Ages?”
“But the Church of the Sea — ”
“The Church of the Sea is just that,” she said. “The Church of the Sea. It’s not part of any larger set of churches. The Minots worship there, and — ” her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper — “I’ve heard they sacrifice journalists on the altar!”
She laughed out loud this time. I should have seen it coming. Obviously, in the absence of drunken Canadians, it takes a church and a whole lot of dead people to make Cory Coffin feel giggly.
I followed her to the edge of the graveyard. Along the fence closest to the sea was a row of graves, their lightening shades showing the spectrum of ages. At the far left was the grave of George Chandler, and next to him was his wife, Eileen. They became permanent members of the cemetery within six days of each other, back in 1802. Moving to the east, we walked past the graves of Henry and Edna Chandler, who lie next to their children: Arthur and his wife Ophelia, Catherine and her husband James Wright, Duane and his wife Norma. Next comes Randall and Karen Chandler, who both died in 1879. They were the parents of Cornelius Chandler, who evidently married another woman named Norma and lived happily with her until he died in 1910. Norma followed him to this hill in 1912. A marker with a crumbling ship etched into the stone described how their first-born, Nathaniel, died at sea and was never found. Their second son, Conrad Chandler, opted for a change of existence in 1948, and his wife Kimberly caught up with him in 1952. Next to them were John and Martha Chandler.
We were getting close to the corner of the cemetery, where the fence cut an arbitrary line separating the land of the living from the land of the dead. There was room for maybe five or six more graves before the dead people ran out of real estate in this row. I’m guessing that the space is reserved for Henry and Cory, and then Meg and her children.
We stood in silence for a while, looking at the graves and the grass and the sea. Then Cory crouched down and slapped the earth with her open hand. She stood and faced me.
“Some people wonder who they are,” she said harshly. “They try to ‘find themselves.’ Well, tell your readers this: If you ever want to know who you are, this is where to look.”
She slapped the ground again.
“Right here, damn it,” she said. “Over there’s where you came from, and over here’s where you’re going. God is a mystery. Life is a mystery. But I’m no damn mystery. I’m the space right there between Martha and Meg.”
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — Gemstone: Towns like GSI may not be as exhilarating as The Village, but what they lack in sizzle they make up for with permanence. Tradition. Heritage. Family. You won’t find that in The Village, Van.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.