Then several things happened that helped my case enormously. First, Uncle Bobby got cold feet about my spending the summer with him—because who wants a nutcase living in their house? So my schedule was suddenly wide open. Next, my dad learned that Cairnholm Island is a super-important bird habitat, and, like, half the world’s population of some bird that gives him a total ornithology boner lives there. He started talking a lot about his hypothetical new bird book, and whenever the subject came up I did my best to encourage him and sound interested. But the most important factor was Dr. Golan. After a surprisingly minimal amount of coaxing by me, he shocked us all by not only signing off on the idea but also encouraging my parents to let me go.
“It could be important for him,” he told my mother after a session one afternoon. “It’s a place that’s been so mythologized by his grandfather that visiting could only serve to demystify it. He’ll see that it’s just as normal and unmagical as anyplace else, and, by extension, his grandfather’s fantasies will lose their power. It could be a highly effective way of combating fantasy with reality.”
“But I thought he already didn’t believe that stuff,” my mother said, turning to me. “Do you, Jake?”
“I don’t,” I assured her.
“Not consciously he doesn’t,” Dr. Golan said. “But it’s his unconscious that’s causing him problems right now. The dreams, the anxiety.”
“And you really think going there could help?” my mother said, narrowing her eyes at him as if readying herself to hear the unvarnished truth. When it came to things I should or should not be doing, Dr. Golan’s word was law.
“I do,” he replied.
And that was all it took.
* * *
After that, things fell into place with astonishing speed. Plane tickets were bought, schedules scheduled, plans laid. My dad and I would go for three weeks in June. I wondered if that was too long, but he claimed he needed at least that much time to make a thorough study of the island’s bird colonies. I thought mom would object—three whole weeks!—but the closer our trip got, the more excited for us she seemed. “My two men,” she would say, beaming, “off on a big adventure!”
I found her enthusiasm kind of touching, actually—until the afternoon I overheard her talking on the phone to a friend, venting about how relieved she’d be to “have her life back” for three weeks and not have “two needy children to worry about.”
I love you too, I wanted to say with as much hurtful sarcasm as I could muster, but she hadn’t seen me, and I kept quiet. I did love her, of course, but mostly just because loving your mom is mandatory, not because she was someone I think I’d like very much if I met her walking down the street. Which she wouldn’t be, anyway; walking is for poor people.
During the three-week window between the end of school and the start of our trip, I did my best to verify that Ms. Alma LeFay Peregrine still resided among the living, but Internet searches turned up nothing. Assuming she was still alive, I had hoped to get her on the phone and at least warn her that I was coming, but I soon discovered that almost no one on Cairnholm even had a phone. I found only one number for the entire island, so that’s the one I dialed.
It took nearly a minute to connect, the line hissing and clicking, going quiet, then hissing again, so that I could feel every mile of the vast distance my call was spanning. Finally I heard that strange European ring—waaap-waaap … waaap-waaap—and a man whom I could only assume was profoundly intoxicated answered the phone.
“Piss hole!” he bellowed. There was an unholy amount of noise in the background, the kind of dull roar you’d expect at the height of a raging frat party. I tried to identify myself, but I don’t think he could hear me.
“Piss hole!” he bellowed again. “Who’s this now?” But before I could say anything he’d pulled the receiver away from his head to shout at someone. “I said shaddap, ya dozy bastards, I’m on the—”
And then the line went dead. I sat with the receiver to my ear for a long, puzzled moment, then hung up. I didn’t bother calling back. If Cairnholm’s only phone connected to some den of iniquity called the “piss hole,” how did that bode for the rest of the island? Would my first trip to Europe be spent evading drunken maniacs and watching birds evacuate their bowels on rocky beaches? Maybe so. But if it meant that I’d finally be able to put my grandfather’s mystery to rest and get on with my unextraordinary life, anything I had to endure would be worth it.
Fog closed around us like a blindfold. When the captain announced that we were nearly there, at first I thought he was kidding; all I could see from the ferry’s rolling deck was an endless curtain of gray. I clutched the rail and stared into the green waves, contemplating the fish who might soon be enjoying my breakfast, while my father stood shivering beside me in shirtsleeves. It was colder and wetter than I’d ever known June could be. I hoped, for his sake and mine, that the grueling thirty-six hours we’d braved to get this far—three airplanes, two layovers, shift-napping in grubby train stations, and now this interminable gut-churning ferry ride—would pay off. Then my father shouted, “Look!” and I raised my head to see a towering mountain of rock emerge from the blank canvas before us.
It was my grandfather’s island. Looming and bleak, folded in mist, guarded by a million screeching birds, it looked like some ancient fortress constructed by giants. As I gazed up at its sheer cliffs, tops disappearing in a reef of ghostly clouds, the idea that this was a magical place didn’t seem so ridiculous.
My nausea seemed to vanish. Dad ran around like a kid on Christmas, his eyes glued to the birds wheeling above us. “Jacob, look at that!” he cried, pointing to a cluster of airborne specks. “Manx Shearwaters!”
As we drew nearer the cliffs, I began to notice odd shapes lurking underwater. A passing crewman caught me leaning over the rail to stare at them and said, “Never seen a shipwreck before, eh?”
I turned to him. “Really?”
“This whole area’s a nautical graveyard. It’s like the old captains used to say—‘Twixt Hartland Point and Cairnholm Bay is a sailor’s grave by night or day!’ ”
Just then we passed a wreck that was so near the surface, the outline of its greening carcass so clear, that it looked like it was about to rise out of the water like a zombie from a shallow grave. “See that one?” he said, pointing at it. “Sunk by a U-boat, she was.”