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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:


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 eighteen-year-olds.

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 compounded interest.

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

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The Secret of Wolfe Island

In the Future
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