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?"
.... There is more of this story ...