I'd always looked up to Willie, but that was nothing unusual in itself. He was two years older than I, and he was my brother.
He had just turned thirty two when he started having pains under both his arms and a tightness in his throat. Having never had a real illness before, Willie did his best to ignore things in the hope that the discomfort, whatever it was, would soon go away. Two months passed by, and still the pain under his arms remained, and the throat tightness got progressively worse, rather than better. In the end, it was Frannie, his wife, that finally convinced him to see the doctor and have it looked after.
On the small Island where we all lived, Willie was the catalyst that made everything happen. He'd gone abroad for five years, finishing a mainland education, before taking an additional year to tour the parts of the world that he'd always wondered about while growing up. It was during this year long Odyssey that he'd met and fell in love with Frannie.
Every Island woman and girl had been disappointed on the day that Willie returned with his beautiful Irish bride. It was remarked on many times that, over the next week, more Island girls lost their virginity's than in any previous year. They had pretty much all been saving themselves in the hopes that Willie would return and pick them to be his bride. It was also said that most of the boys and men, who were the recipients of these virgin gifts, had been forced to put up with torrents of tears and anguished wailing while they ravished these virgins for the very first time.
I myself, had been offered numerous opportunities to be the second choice of some of those girls, but I gently turned each offer down, not wanting to serve as a poor second choice, or a Willie substitute. I had hopes of someday finding someone who would want me as her first choice, not as some, lesser, consolation prize. Ten years later, and I was still looking.
The doctor was enough concerned about his earliest preliminary findings that he sent Willie away for further testing and consultations on the mainland. Willie spent two weeks at Johns Hopkins undergoing a full battery of diagnostic exams. In the end, all the physician's were in agreement about what Willie was afflicted with, and Willie was allowed to return to the Island to get his final affairs in order.
After my father had died, Willie had inherited the Island. He owned everything, lock, stock and barrel, fee simple, and unencumbered. My father had always told us that we, meaning our family, owned the Island and other things in an unofficial trust of sorts, a partnership that was implicit, rather than being either a legal obligation or somehow, binding on us. We were the caretaker's of the Island, and ownership was more a legal technicality, than an actual state of being.
When Willie returned to die, there were seven hundred and eleven souls living on the Island. Word quickly spread about Willie's condition, and soon the Island was in utter turmoil. Uncertainty usually produces fear, and this fear produces some high emotions and panic. When my father had died, everyone had known that Willie would be taking over, and there was only the sadness at my father's passing. With the news of Willie's rapidly approaching death, the Island residents were fearful of the change that might be coming. This was fueled by a rumor that Frannie was going to sell the Island and move back to Ireland with Seamus and Megen, Willie and Frannie's two young children.
I didn't see Willie for several days after he returned. I knew that he'd want to spend time alone with Frannie and his children. I walked the windward side of the Island, head down and chin tucked in, dealing in my own quiet way with the loss that I was already feeling. My parents had only been able to produce two children before my mother drowned in a sailing accident when I was two. My father never remarried, and we were raised by most of the Island's women. Willie and I were welcomed in every Island home and felt like we both belonged to a huge, extended, Island family. It never really occurred to me that we were the Island's Royal family until the week of my father's passing.
As I walked back and forth among the dunes and washed up flotsam, I couldn't help wondering what I'd do if Frannie did sell the place of my birth. I'd never left this Island because all I had ever wanted was right there for me already. I'd never applied myself in school because Willie was already taking care of that himself by undertaking a strict and comprehensive course of study. He was being groomed and prepared for the role he would one day have to undertake. As the younger son, I was allowed to indulge myself in whatever made me happy or caught my interest and fancy.
I was a decent sailor, able to make my way competently, in anything with sails that was under sixty feet in length. I could swim as well as anyone I knew, and I could dive beneath the waves and stay under for two minutes or more on a single breath. Climbing the palm and coconut trees was easy for me, and I had hunted the wild pigs with success from the age of nine. I knew everyone on the Island, and had never been in a fight or had to strike anyone in anger. Those were my skills and accomplishments, not much in the way of either foundation or preparation, with which to undertake a new career, in a strange place, where I'd be unknown to everyone.
I looked behind me as I walked, hearing a distant voice calling after me. It was Willie, and he strode after me with his long steps, that just seemed to glide above the sand. I never knew how he managed to do that, as I'd sink down to my ankles when I walked along the same sandy path as him. "Clark, hold up now. Don't force me to keep chasing after you." I stopped and waited for him to reach me. When he was close enough, he circled me into his arms, and the two of us shared a moment of closeness and sadness. We didn't discuss the health news, mostly because neither of us had anything to add or say about the medical reality. Willie loosened one arm from me, and with the other arm he pushed me forward in the direction I had been going before he approached me. "It's good to see you C.C., I was hoping to run into you before now. You got a new girl or something?"
"Willie, I figured I'd give you some time with Fran and the little nippers first. It's gotta be hard trying to explain things to everyone. Doc Mahler told me what the people over at Hopkins said. I don't understand why shit like this has to happen. First pop, and now you. It's like no one I give a rat's ass about ever makes it past forty five or so. How can you get cancer like that, throughout your whole system, in less than a year?"
"Well, the symptoms for a year maybe, but the cancer, who knows when it first started?" I looked at my brother then, waiting for him to tell me about how long he'd felt bad things happening inside him. I wanted to cry, and to go out and destroy something, all at the same time. It was so unfair. It wasn't just Willie and Frannie and the kids and me. It was the hopes and lifestyles of more than seven hundred people that were being affected by this cancer. It was killing Willie, but none of the rest of us were exactly going to escape untouched by it. "I've got two or three months C.C., that's what we need to worry about now. We need to make sure that everything can go on pretty much like before, after my time is done. It's going to be up to you, big guy, that's what Frannie and I decided."
I stopped and just stared at him. There was no way that he could even believe that I could fill in for him. I didn't want to, that was the first thing, but even if I did, I wasn't qualified to do it. I'd watched him preparing for years to do what he now did. I remembered the first year or two after dad died, the sixteen and eighteen hour days that Willie had to put in seven days a week. All the daily decisions that needed to be made, and how one thing always affected ten others.
Willie made mistakes too, plenty of them in the beginning, and that's where most of the time was spent, doing things to make the mistakes less costly and harmful to the Island. Our economy was a fragile thing, and not at all self sustaining. Food had to be shipped in and money that we made in mainland investments had to be used to keep everything balanced and working. I knew nothing about how things worked on the Island. I turned on the shower, but I didn't know what it took to keep all the pipes working and the water supply clean and safe. Those were Willie's responsibilities.
"Frannie needs to sell the Island then Willie. I can't do it." He just looked at me with those sad eyes that I'd seen all of my life. It always hurt me more to disappoint Willie than anyone else, even our father. He knew I wasn't trained for this. It wasn't fair for him to ask me either.
"We're not selling C.C. It isn't an option, so just forget that, okay? When I die, the Island goes to you. I don't control it, that's in the original charter. Frannie won't be leaving. Megen and Seamus, this Island is their birthright, so they aren't leaving either. You need to be the caretaker now. When Seamus gets older, if you've done a good job and gotten him trained right, maybe then you can turn it over to him and go back to sailing and fishing and hunting all day. Not before then though. Do a good enough job and you'll get to sit back when you're fifty five and start living your perfect life again."
"I can't do it. Nothing you can say is going to make me qualified to do it Willie. Maybe we can hire someone to come over and manage it for us?"
"I really feel bad for you Clark. If I could change places with you I would. I'm sure you think that my dying is a lot easier than your having to take care of things for a few years. To me though, I'd love the chance to stick around and do what I always planned on doing. You didn't ever plan for anything C.C. Don't you think it might have been a good idea to look in once in a while just to see how things ran? Didn't it ever occur to you that this day might come? You're thirty, and you've never done a day's work in your life. You need to grow up, and it better be fast, because in a month, when my strength starts to fail, and they're shooting me up with pain killers, you won't have anyone else to answer the questions that you need to be asking me now."
"You never asked me to learn anything Willie. Today's the first I've heard that I was your backup plan for the Island. Couldn't you have at least warned me, or dropped a few hints?" I was scared and, maybe, more than a little bit pissed at how he was treating me now. All of my life I checked with Willie about almost every decision I'd made. When dad died, I never did anything without Willie telling me that it was okay. He wasn't being fair now.
"I'm sorry C.C. You're right. I thought there was more time and that it wasn't necessary for you to learn. I'm sorry. I guess I just don't want everyone to suffer because I wasn't prudent enough to anticipate this possibility. I'm scared now more than I've ever been. Not just of dying, although that's no picnic either. I'm scared for Frannie and the kids, for you, and for the Island and all it's people. I've botched things up badly and I need you to step in and pull everyone out of the mess I've made. I'm a poor steward, and dad would be disappointed in how I'm leaving the responsibility he entrusted to me."
I hadn't seen Willie cry since my father's funeral, almost nine years before. Both of us were crying now. I couldn't do what he wanted me to do, but I couldn't let him die thinking that his whole life, and what he believed had been his sole purpose for existence, was ending in abject failure either.
"Willie, if you could learn it, how hard can it be? You think I can learn it all in a single day, or should I plan on it taking two or three?" He looked at me with the look I'd always wanted from him. We walked back to his office at the plantation. He started right in during the walk back, letting me know that Frannie would be a big help to me, and telling me who on the Island really understood how different things worked.
When we got to his office he started in by showing me where all the paperwork was kept, and how the various accounts were all interconnected with each other. We sold tea, tobacco leaf, sugar and fish to the mainland and bought almost everything else we needed from them. There was a complicated investment portfolio which had to generate sufficient income to pay for the difference between what we earned from sales and what we spent for supplies and for replacement parts for the worn out Island systems.
We had no phones, and our electricity came from three small diesel generators and some windmills hooked up to batteries. Our water system was a natural cistern and jerry rigged pipes that had been set up and added to in a haphazard manner over the past fifty years. It cost my family more than one hundred thousand dollars of our family's investment income every year to keep the Island economy afloat. In the eight plus years that Willie had charge of the Island, family income from Island activities had dropped to the point where we were dipping into investment principal every year for the past four years. This year, our annual shortfall was projected to be more than twenty thousand dollars.
Of the seven hundred residents on our Island, only sixty or so contributed to our economy in any direct manner. Until that day, I was one of the heavy majority that had contributed nothing.
We owned a store on the Island, but people just came by and took what they wanted or needed, and wrote down in a book the things that they'd like us to get for them. No one ever paid for anything. Willie told me that was how it had always been, and that was how our father told him to continue doing it.
I used that month he'd promised me, and a lot more besides. As Willie began taking more and more pain medicine, the time we spent together became more about two brothers saying goodbye, and less about the old guy breaking in the new guy to the workings of his job.
Willie began to slowly disconnect and drift away from all of us. Cancer can be all consuming, eating away at more than just the interior organs of it's victim. The day finally came when Frannie begged me to leave Willie alone with her and the children. She felt that seeing me made Willie feel his guilt at having somehow failed the Island more intensely. She wanted him to die surrounded by the successes of his short life, and not what he perceived as his failures.
Reluctantly, I said goodbye and told him that I loved him. As tradition demanded, the plantation bell was rung five times, telling the Island that Willie was finally at peace. I heard the bell as I walked not far from where Willie had caught me that day when he first told me that I was to be his successor. I dropped to my knees and finally let out my own anger and my own very real fear of failure.
With Willie now dead, some large part of me wanted to jump in one of the fishing boats and head off to the mainland. I knew I could easily lose myself in one of the cities on the coast and find a way to live out my life being only responsible for myself.
If I'd done what I wanted to do, this would be a far different story. It was dark out when I finally got my emotional things together and stood back up and walked home to my small shack. I got up in my hammock and rocked myself to sleep.
Life on the Island for me had always been so simple. I fished and hunted and walked all over watching to see what everyone else was doing. When I got hungry I went to someone's house and they fed me and gave me something to drink. In thirty years no one had ever turned me away. I would take my fish and bring them to houses and divide the catch up among the people who fed me. The same held true for any wild pig that I killed. I often helped people trap sea turtles and to harvest the delicious sea turtle eggs when they were laid and covered on the beach.
Coconuts, mangoes, pomegranates, bananas and other fruits could be picked from the trees while I was walking around. I knew who liked what, and would often drop things off as I walked by. Rock lobster was something I had to dive for, but I knew all the places where they could be found and was always ready to go for a quick dive.
When Willie died, my perfect Island lifestyle died with him. We buried him next to my father, and near the headstone we'd put up for my mother when she'd drowned and her body hadn't been found.
Tradition dictated that I needed to speak at every Island funeral now. Willie's funeral was my first official act as the new owner. I said some words and spoke of what Willie had meant to me, and about how he always wanted to do his best for the Island. I told the people that Willie had been the last of the traditionally trained owners, and that I would be flying without a compass or any training to speak of. I ended by telling them all that there would be big changes coming and that they better get prepared. After the funeral, I walked Frannie and the kids back to the plantation, and then I turned to head back to my shack.
"Where are you going Clark? Your place is here now. I've moved all of our things out of the big room. That's where you are to live now. I'm staying in Poppy's old room until the children and I decide what we'll be doing." After my mother had died, my father couldn't stand their huge bedroom suite anymore, and so he'd moved everything of his out to a big downstairs room on the leeward side of the great plantation house. His room had opened up to the veranda in the side yard and that was where he'd spent the remainder of his life. That room was right next to Willie's office, now mine, I had to keep reminding myself. I had planned to use Pop's old room myself on nights when the weather was bad and I didn't feel like walking back over to my shack.
When Willie and Frannie came back to the Island, my father had installed them in the main suite where he and my mother had spent their entire married life. No one had asked me or told me of their plans for me living there. I didn't think I'd be comfortable living up there in that room that was more than three times as big as my comfortable shack. I hadn't slept in a real bed for more years than I cared to remember.
I didn't think that it was a good day to upbraid Frannie for being presumptuous about dictating where I was to sleep. I knew that I could hang my hammock out on the upstairs balcony anyway. My parents had a hammock out there for many years, and my father had left it when he moved out of the room. It was gone now, but I could get another, or make a new one if I had to.
I went upstairs after telling the family good night, and found that someone had packed up most of my things in wooden boxes and carted them over from my shack. My old hammock was on top of one of the boxes and it only took me ten minutes to plait a braid that extended the hammock to fit the two large hooks that stretched across the veranda railing's six by six support beams. It was a little lower than I was used to, but it would serve unless a rain squall came in from the East. Luckily, that was very unlikely for another six months.
I slept out on the balcony, comfortable enough considering that it was the first time I'd been back sleeping in the plantation since I was twelve years old. My father hadn't believed in being too controlling of his children, especially with me. He pretty much let me make my own living and eating decisions as long as I reported in to either him or Willie at least a couple of times each week.
In the ten years before his death, I couldn't remember my father ever needing to come looking for me. I would see him almost everyday anyway, because the Island wasn't that large, and because I made it a point to see a lot of the Island every single day. I may not have done much that was productive, but I made sure that everyone knew that I was still around and willing to pitch in if needed.
I came downstairs at about seven the next morning and went into the owner's office. For the first time I sat down at Willie's desk and swiveled in his chair. I was four months from my thirty first birthday. I stood at about six one and weighed somewhere near one ninety. I could read and write and do sums to at least a tenth grade level.
There wasn't a single paper in the owner's office that I'd ever signed myself, not a contract or agreement that I'd ever approved or ratified, but by some process that I still didn't understand, and knew that I had never really agreed to, I found myself responsible for everything on the Island. My Island now, and my responsibility too.
I wasn't qualified by either skill or temperament for the job I found myself filling, but I'd do my best and hope that a combination of luck and willing knowledgeable advisers would see me through until Seamus was ready and able to take over for me. My goal was simple. I wanted to keep the Island afloat financially until then, and I'd try to see that everyone here could go about their normal lives able to live like we'd all lived for the past hundred years or so, on this beautiful serene Island of ours.
When I saw the double doors to my father's old room open sometime within that first hour that I was sitting in Willie's chair, I was caught up in the sight that Frannie gave me as she stood between me and the morning light wearing a thin white nightgown. With the strong sunlight behind her I could plainly see the outline of her body underneath her gown. She was a gorgeous woman, although caring for Willie in the last days of his illness had taken it's toll, her clear fair Irish complexion and her wonderfully muscled and toned body were on full display.
I'd always marveled at Willie for summoning the confidence to have ever approached this Irish Goddess, and never more so than when I saw her standing there in that light, posing for me, both of us knowing that this was a deliberate act on her part. It constituted an unequivocable offer, I was sure. It appeared that my beautiful sister in law had made a momentous decision about her own future, and about the futures of her children as well. I found myself wondering whether it had been her decision or something that Willie had pressed upon her.
I had never been with a woman. This was a decision that I had made on my own. Over the years I'd had many opportunities, but I'd never given in to my desires and cravings. I'd carried a vision of what I wanted in a woman. Frannie, silhouetted in that sunlight, surpassed that vision in almost every aspect.
I felt myself grow hard. At the same time, I was determined that I'd do nothing to dishonor either her memory of Willie, or the high regard I held both of them in. I stood up from my chair, knowing that my erection was plainly visible outlined against the pant leg of my thin white cotton trousers. I bowed slightly in her direction, acknowledging her even though I couldn't trust my voice to speak to her right then.
I walked outside and went looking for a morning meal. Surely Frannie knew that this was going to complicate my situation, at a time when I was already overwhelmed. I closed my eyes and traced mentally the shape that she had so casually allowed me to see. Willie had once told me that Frannie was unlike any woman he'd ever known. He hinted that he'd known his fair share, and more, while attending university. As I'd admitted to having had no experience with girls or women, Willie had not attempted to go into specifics with me. "She's the perfect balance and blend C.C., no inhibitions or hold backs. She has beauty, brains and an unlimited ability to enjoy life. I tried to get her to bring Fiona, her sister, here for you, but she absolutely refused to."
We'd never spoken of her like that again, but I remembered the look on his face as he described her. Willie had never seemed more enviable than at that moment in time.
While he lived, I'd coveted nothing of Willie's. Was I going to end up taking his place in every aspect of his life? Would I somehow lose myself, my own identity, and become Willie's surrogate, a father to his children, husband to his wife? Is that what I'd settle for? I could certainly have settled for far less.
I spent all of the next month doing a careful, house by house census of the Island's population. It had shocked me when Willie had claimed that only sixty people contributed directly and positively to the Island's economy. There were now seven hundred and ten of us living on the Island.
My preliminary data showed that there were forty seven children under age five, thirty two aged five to nine, forty seven between ten and fifteen years old, and fourteen that were between sixteen and seventeen. Under children I had a total of one hundred and forty. There were seventy four boys and sixty six girls. None of the children had jobs that made material contributions to the Island economy.
There were two hundred eleven Island residents between the age of eighteen and thirty four. Of these, one hundred thirteen were males, and ninety eight were females. Thirty one of the males were engaged in productive labor that benefitted the Island economy. Eleven of the females were productive in the economy as well. This meant that one hundred and sixty nine people in our prime working age demographic were uninvolved in producing anything that directly contributed to the economy of the Island. I was shocked when I saw that number.
I wondered how my family could have permitted and allowed something like that to take place. I knew that I had long been one of the residents that was non-productive, but I hadn't realized that I was the norm rather than an exception. I began to see why Willie had encountered so much trouble balancing the income with the outgo.
The thirty five to fifty nine age group contained three hundred forty six residents. This consisted of one hundred thirty three males and two hundred and thirteen females. Twenty one of the males were productive to the Island economy, as were fourteen of the females. Again, that meant that three hundred eleven in that age group were classified as economically non-productive.
There were thirteen residents aged sixty or more. Our oldest resident was "Granny Torres" who claimed to be ninety seven, but was probably closer to eighty from the ages of her children still living on the Island. Tony, her eldest, was fifty seven, and he remembered his mother being a young and pretty woman when he was growing up. The other twelve were sixty to seventy, and were all females for some reason. Tony Torres was our oldest resident male at fifty seven years nine months of age. None of the eldest residents were economically productive for the Island.
By my tally, seventy seven people added to the wealth of the Island. That was a better number than Willie had given me, but that still represented barely more than ten per cent of our population. I knew all of these people too, and I knew that many of them were close to being self sufficient in terms of meeting their own food needs and in maintaining their homes and the paths leading from their properties to the central congregating areas of the Island. It wasn't all simple black and white numbers that I was dealing with.
We had forty people engaging in our commercial fishing fleet, but there were another six that operated the boat that delivered fish to the mainland. Only two people grew our tea, but seven others worked the harvests that occurred several times each year. Five of the tea harvesters also worked in the fishing industry as well. Three people tended the tobacco leaf growing, but they grew their tobacco on pieces of land maintained by several other families who didn't participate in the planting, tending or harvesting.
The sugar cane was spread out on one whole side of the Island. Many people worked in the cane fields during harvest, but only five spent time clearing and burning the fields for later new growth. There probably wasn't a house on the Island that didn't have three or more machetes that were kept sharp and ready to help with the cane harvests. I had always worked the cane harvests for at least a portion of the cycles.
Another fact I unearthed was that our commercial fishing hadn't produced a net operating profit in the past seven years. Our boats were in degraded shape and we had no one on our Island who was able to perform anything more complicated than simple maintenance on the engines on any of the boats. We had lost a lot of our fishing skills when people who knew their trade had stopped teaching it to our young. More than half of our total work force was involved in plying a trade that wasn't making us any money.
If we used profit as a standard to judge productive labor, we had twenty seven people engaged in work that returned a profit to the Island.