At last this year’s Scene of the Crime on Wolfe
Island, Ontario, the guest authors were asked to write a five-minute
short story set on the island. This was mine:
SECRET OF WOLFE ISLAND
Visitors from Canada and the States have always marveled at Wolfe
Island’s happy, smiling inhabitants. That smile led one canny
observer to remark that the island seemed to have swallowed an
immense canary. And in a matter of speaking it had.
That night in 1887 when the Wolfe Islanders realized their luck they
smiled that smile for the first time. Then they swore a mighty oath
to keep their secret to themselves.
Afterward, Abigail Tilley lay in bed musing pleasantly on the future
that lay ahead of them living on this island, this other Eden, this
demi-paradise. Suddenly she sat bolt upright. Mr. Tilley lay there
sleeping beside her. But was he happy? she asked herself. Was
everybody on Wolfe Island happy? Mrs Tilley saw that that was what
they had to fear most, some sorehead in their midst, oath or not,
spilling the island’s beans.
The next morning she and her closest friends formed a club. They
called themselves the Happy Gang, their job, to make sure their
neighbors were happy, that everyone got birthday cards and flowers
for wedding anniversaries, that every girl had a date to the high
school prom and every boy got his turn at playing center on the
hockey team. At night Happy Gang members tiptoed around the island
listening at windows and keyholes to sniff out unhappiness. Down in
the dumps? Call up the Happy Gang. They’d hitch old Dobbin to the
Happy Wagon and in no time fifteen clowns in full regalia would spill
out of the little wagon at your door with honking horns and custard
pies at the ready to jolly you out of it.
Of course the island always had changeling stories, mainlanders who
switched their grumpy babies on the sly for island children who never
cried and drooled in the most enchanting way. So twenty-five years
ago when a howling little baby Angus Broome arrived on the scene the
Happy Gang started a changeling\incipient sorehead file on him right
off the bat. Its first entry read: “Baby looks like he fell out of
the ugly tree and hit every limb on the way down.”
In grade school Angus was short and awkward at games. In high school
he was a sour pus loner who played oboe in the school band. But the
Happy Gang had no solid evidence to bar Angus from being initiated
into the Secret of Wolfe Island along with the other
The young people were led deep into the woods where their elders
waited for them in a solemn circle holding flaming torches. There
they were told how years before a kind of cloud of bewilderment had
descended on the island. Something wasn’t just right. Then someone
noted that the tax collector’d stopped coming to call. No one was
going to complain about that. Nor did they miss the visits from
windbag politicians, whether Grit or Tory, come election time.
Islanders, after all, like to be left alone. Otherwise they would
move to the mainland. Curious to find out what was going on they sent
two elders to Ottawa to look around on the sly.
To their astonishment they discovered it had started with an innocent
mistake at the York Map and Poster Works in Toronto where they were
finishing up the first map of the newly confederated Dominion of
Canada. The senior color man was feeling under the weather. He’d
spent an exacting afternoon coloring the Thousand Islands red. Nine
hundred and ninety-eight, he counted. Nine hundred and ninety-nine.
Just as he moved his brush to Wolfe Island the factory whistle blew
to end the workday. Laying down his brush the senior color man
hurried off home through the snow, his fingers still red with empire.
His wife took his temperature and packed him off to bed.
The next day the junior color man finished up the map by painting in
the northern states of the US --and Wolfe Island which had been left
blank-- in green. From that day forward Canada believed that Wolfe
Island was part of their neighbor to the south. And Washington, which
had maps of its own, still believed the island belonged to the true
north strong and free.
The young people got the message. No taxes. No politicians. They
were happy to swear the oath of secrecy.
But the Happy Gang still wasn’t sure about Angus Broome. When he
sat practicing his oboe by the window they watched through binoculars
as if hoping to read his mood by the way his eyebrows moved. And they
followed when he took brooding walks in the woods. Angus was an easy
follow. If he sensed them behind him he always stopped, then turned
around, giving them time to pop behind the trees.
The Happy Gang decided his problem was short and ugly. Soon every
woman Angus passed on the street in Maryville would smile and say,
“Hi, Good-looking!” And when he went to the Legion the men would
shout, “Hi, Big Guy!” and send over beers. The truth is he didn’t
like beer much and only went there to play cribbage. And it was hell
to practice the oboe the next morning with a hangover. Worse still,
he knew the bathroom mirror and the yardstick didn’t lie. So let
the whole island make fun of him. He didn’t care. Soon he’d be
leaving the place for good to go to the conservatory in Toronto to
study and become the Glenn Gould of the oboe.
And so it might have happened if the Happy Gang hadn’t gone too
far. To get the chip off his shoulder they sent the Happy Wagon
around two days in a row. As a result he came down with sinus
cavities impacted with custard pie, a disorder circus doctors call
Bozo’s Disease. Sinus cavities are the nasal heart of the oboe. His
career in music was over before it had begun.
As he left the doctor’s office Angus swore revenge. These people
who’d mocked him had now destroyed his life. Well, he’d fix their
wagon. Yes, he’d spill the beans to Ottawa. The tax collectors
would take the island to the cleaners what with back taxes and
Without even packing a bag he set out for the Kingston ferry. He
knew once he got on board among the mainlanders he’d be safe.
Halfway up the passenger ramp he sensed he was being followed. He
stopped, then turned around. There was no one behind him but a dozen
tourists, new to the island by the cut of their jib.
But when the ferry was in mid channel Angus Broome changed his mind.
Ottawa? Hell, he’d fly to Washington. The Yanks would be grateful
to learn that Ottawa believed Wolfe Island, that most precious jewel
in the diadem of the Thousand Islands, was part of the United States.
By tomorrow the Marines would be wading ashore.
Just then the voice of the ferry captain came over the
public address system. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I call your
attention to the port side where you can witness a battle between
those two rival denizens of the deep, the sword fish and the
hammerhead shark just as Kingston’s own Father Louis Hennepin
described it in 1675.”
The tourists rushed to the port railing. Angus Broome remained
behind, smiling at their gullibility, for the captain’s little joke
was one he told on every crossing. Angus smiled again, thinking the
tourists were like some Burnham Wood rushing to a portside Dunsinane.
Then he blinked and turned around. Twelve Wolfe Islanders were
standing close behind him, women who’d called him “Good-looking,”
men who’d called him “Big Guy,” and the young minister who’d
aimed a sermon right at him about how the Almighty did not measure by
earthly yardsticks or judge a book by its cover.
But before he knew what was happening two elderly ladies stepped
behind him and dropped a large burlap sack over his head. The young
man in the clerical collar hit the head beneath the burlap with a
clerical sock filled with sand. Eager fingers tied the sack shut. Two
dozen hands carried it to the rail and pitched it overboard. They all
stood there for a moment to watch the water of the mighty river close
over the body in the sack. When the sheepish tourists drifted back
from the port side they found the Wolfe Islanders chatting among
themselves as nice as pie.
Copyright © 2004 by James Powell