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The Wild Child

An Excerpt

The feeling was unmistakable. Creepy. Eyes on her back, watching her from the forest on the other side of the creek as she scythed the knee-high grass near the house. Or from the wooded area behind the old, overgrown garden as she nailed plywood over broken windows. Or... from somewhere.

The first few days she hadn't been sure. She was too busy getting set up for the summer to worry about weird feelings and imaginings--dusting, cleaning, ferrying over foodstuffs and supplies from Half Moon Bay, forty minutes away in the aging fiberglass runabout with its tattered dodger and temperamental Mercury outboard. Besides, she was quite sure she was alone.

The weather had been fine which had made her frequent trips to the mainland easier, and if there's one thing she'd learned from a childhood spent on or near the water under her sea-dog father’s demanding eye, it was how to fiddle with a temperamental outboard. Her unseen companion? Most likely an owl hidden in some monumental cedar tree keeping track of the intruder from the city. Or a vigilant nesting osprey. Or a rabbit. There were no bears on Liberty Island and Eva didn't believe in ghosts.

This summer, Eva was spending part of her summer vacation tidying up affairs for an eccentric distant relation, a cousin of her mother’s, who’d broken her hip in the spring and who, at eighty-six, would not be returning to Liberty Island to live. Be prepared. Eva didn’t want any surprises so her first task was to make sure everything was ship-shape for the two or three weeks she’d be occupying Doris Bonhomme’s ramshackle house. That meant laying in plenty of oil and wicks for lamps, a spare propane tank for the kitchen range and refrigerator, among other necessaries. She wasn’t bothering with gasoline for the emergency generator, which she didn’t expect to have to use. What constituted an emergency on Liberty Island, where she and her sisters had spent the happiest summers of their childhood? Not being able to get "Jeopardy" on the ancient rabbit-eared black-and-white Motorola that Doris fired up occasionally to, as she put it, "keep in touch?"

Definitely not! But you never knew. Jack Haines, who’d spent as much of his life as he could on or near the sea, had taught her well: only fools depend on luck.

Alone? Hey, what was she talking about--she had Andy to keep her company. She smiled, recalling how the ancient donkey had kicked up his heels, baring worn yellow teeth in a joyous "hee haw" welcome when she'd first arrived, then had bucked and galloped in an awkward circle just to show her, she was sure, how frisky he still was. Andy had been left to fend for himself when his mistress had been airlifted to hospital and taken from there to a care home at the insistence of her doctor. Although Doris had reluctantly agreed that she could no longer look after herself in her isolated island home, she insisted that her beloved donkey was too old to uproot.

"I'm not putting that poor dumb creature through what I've been through," she told Eva, during a visit to St. Mary's Hospital, shortly after Doris’s accident. "He's too loyal. He doesn't deserve such a fate at his time in life. Your dad will know what to do."

And he had. Jack had arranged for a farmer from a nearby island to check on the animal throughout the winter, dumping off hay weekly, and treats like apples and carrots. It wasn't as though either he or Doris would dream of requesting assistance from Doris's actual neighbour at the other end of Liberty Island if, indeed, anyone lived there now....

It was so stupid, really. Eva's gaze strayed to the long thin crescent of land that stretched eastward, curving south, thick, dark woods all the way to the rocky headland. No sign of a house, but she knew there was one, nestled in the trees somewhere. Or had been once. The Bonhommes and the Lords hadn't spoken for fifty years, not since Doris had quarrelled with Hector Lord. What about? No one knew. Eva had never actually set foot on the Lords' side of the island. As a child, she hadn’t dared; as a grown-up, now, she hadn’t gotten around to exploring yet. Her mother, who had been a girl at the time of the upset, had told her everything Eva knew--that the Lord house had been grand, that Hector had been a tall, dark, handsome man, wildly attractive to women, that the family had money, pots of money, as Eva recalled her mother’s expression. Eva and her sisters had always imagined the Lords’ money—pots of it--like pirate booty, gold and jewels spilling out of thick oaken sea chests and massive porcelain Chinese jars.

Doris herself had never spoken of the matter. As far as she was concerned, the island ended where her property did, at the creek, and plunged in a perfectly severed line, as though chopped with an ax, straight into the sea.

Hector Lord was long dead and Eva had no idea who owned the eastern half of the island now. A trust? Heirs? The house had probably fallen into its cellar and grown over with ferns and moss. It wouldn’t take many years to obscure all signs of any habitation in the fecund West Coast climate.

Certainly, there’d been no sign of life in the five days since she'd arrived: no smoke, no lights, no whine of outboards. Eva sighed and headed back to the Edie B. to retrieve the rest of the supplies she'd brought from the mainland that afternoon. How silly of Doris to nurse a grudge for so long. Fifty years!

Speaking of Andy--where was he? The donkey usually met her at the dock when she tied up after a trip to Half Moon Bay but there was no sign of him now.

Eva’s task this summer included finding a new home for the donkey. Most of the old woman’s assortment of worldly goods would go to thrift stores or be burned, but it was her dearest wish that her property become a marine park eventually, one of a chain that ran north and south through the Gulf Islands of the coast of British Columbia. The Bonhomme half could be signed over to a marine park trust—and that was something else Eva was investigating--but, of course, Doris had no control over the part she didn't own.

Finding a home for Andy would be a challenge. How long did donkeys live anyway--forever? This one didn't look as though he'd suffered spending nearly three months on his own in the company of seals and seagulls and the elusive handful of wild goats that were supposed to still live somewhere on the island--that was it!

Eva straightened and put her hands on her hips, blowing a stray lock of hair from her hot face. The half-empty runabout rocked gently, but she adjusted her stance so automatically she didn't even notice the motion. Why hadn't she thought of the goats? She gazed inland, past the woods, past the gentle rise where Doris's house stood, well back from the sea, to Abel's Peak, the rocky pinnacle that marked the high point on the island a good quarter mile behind the house. The water supply for the house originated up there, in an ancient stone-and-timber dam that funnelled spring water to both Doris’s house and, at one time, the residence on the other side of the island.

Of course! It was probably a goat she'd sensed the times she’d been so certain someone--or something--was watching her? Like Jedadiah Island nearby, Liberty Island was rumoured to be home to long-abandoned goat colonies, which some said went back to the days when the Spaniards cruised the area, Cortes and Valdez and Galiano, mapping the coast for Spain in the 1700's and accidentally losing some of their shipboard livestock in the process.

Eva bent down to heave a carton of tinned goods to, first, the seat of the boat, then onto her hip. Balancing carefully, she stepped onto the dock and deposited the box beside the pile she'd already unloaded. No one knew if the story was true. Just as no one knew if the legendary goats were, less romantically, a few escapees from a farm on a neighbouring island, clambered ashore during an especially low tide sometime in the last several decades.

Whatever. Next job--moving everything up to the house. That was a job for the boxy wheelbarrow, equipped with two large bicyle wheels that Eva had found in the wood-shed the day she arrived. Doris recycled everything. The home-made cart did an admirable job of transporting freight from the dock. It also handled a decent load of firewood.

Eva began to trundle toward the house. In late afternoon, the house looked dark and rather forlorn under the shadow of the tall cedars and the lofty arbutus trees to the west of the overgrown garden. There were shingles missing on the roof and any paint that had ever existed on the siding had worn off long ago. No need for repairs now; not unless the marine park people wanted to fix it up for a caretaker's house, which was highly unlikely.

The crunch of her shoes on the weedy shale and broken rock that led to the house seemed over-loud in the warm not-quite-evening air. There wasn't a stir of wind. She was hot. She wished now she'd brought Freddie. Her father had offered his dachshund "for protection," he'd said with a wink.

She wasn't worried about protection; simple companionship was more like it. At least Freddie would bark if anything real was lurking about.

Why hadn't she remembered the goats earlier, for heaven’s sake? Before she'd gotten herself all worked up over nothing?

"...once again author Judith Bowen displays her dazzling storytelling ability with this tale. Characteristic of all her books, THE WILD CHILD captures the heart and imagination with flair that makes all of her books extraordinary."-- Cindy Penn, Wordweaving