Lee Upton
Lee Upton

 

Excerpt from The Guide to The Flying Island



There were stories of Jesuits blown off-course, of early native peoples disembarking to bury their dead under basalt slabs, and of two Norwegian brothers creating a settlement, the latter a claim without any evidence other than local feeling. It was indisputable that there had been the beginnings of a monastery—a stone dwelling long ago reduced to a ruined foundation. In 1956 a rudimentary chapel was erected by men from Truror who claimed they found evidence that early inhabitants had managed not only their spiritual lives but storage shelters at the summit. Two decades later much of the island was purchased by a millionaire who, like many of his temperament, bought a thing so as no longer to have to think about it. The little concrete chapel, the three hundred steps leading to the summit, cut into rock and supported with crumbling cement, the tiny giftshop doubling as a tea shop, and at the lower elevation, the rim of cottages and bed and breakfasts on the south shore: all were given whimsical treatment in two guidebooks and a BBC program that spared the island a total of nearly seven minutes.

Before Jake Isinglass was farmed out to foster families, and long before he took boatloads of tourists to the island, he was able to look out his bedroom window and study the distance to see if the island flew—an illusion much like that of clouds speeding across the moon. Better than watching the island was being at the island’s summit, the ocean glittering far below like knives in a mammoth drawer. But Jake knew that with any boatload of religious people—for whom the island had become an especially popular destination—his joining them at the summit after he or his crewmate Kip gave their spiel about the island could be an imposition. He supposed, given his tendency to pant before the fiftieth step, he was a reminder of anything but lofty heights. Never mind. He liked to be alone, too.

The passengers on his boat that Friday were almost all women: glassy-eyed, every one of them wearing fringed bangs and weirdly high hair buns. Not Mennonites, but what were they? Their long skirts, like something from the prairie, a blue faded near-white and scuffed. The women clustered on the first couple of benches of his boat, and he caught a faint shuddering of lips from two of them. The men accompanying the women looked angry and aggressively modern. At least five of them were in leather jackets, which seemed unfair to the women, stuck in those funky prairie dresses.

His passengers didn’t listen to Kip’s lecture on the island’s history but trudged past en masse up the path, speechless except for three of the men, mumbling and hanging together close as if blocking any other visitors.

Jake waited by the gift shop where the caretaker, Carlo, scrubbed off trestle tables. All around him light was breaking like a smashed mosaic. It took well over an hour before his passengers trickled down the cliffside, still bunched together as if roped. The group didn’t visit the gift shop or stay for tea but clambered to the dock. By then the sky was growing steadily darker and Jake was looking forward to the return trip to Truror where the group filed off his boat into a waiting bus.

Only later when Jake took his skiff out that night and rounded the cove did he notice what was missing in the distance: the illuminated cross at the island’s summit.

As soon as light allowed the next morning, Jake and Kip trudged up the 300 steps and found burned candles first, then discovered mounded dirt where the cross was uprooted. A trench had been dug about six feet from where the cross should be. Jake tried to imagine the women carting off parts of the steel cross under their voluminous skirts. In the trench he began shoving aside clods of soil and small rocks. He endured a wave of nausea when he felt the strange softness.


(Editor: Joseph Bates), newly released from Miami University Press; reprint courtesy of the Press.