Gale winds scream a familiar song to Captain Jay, a strangely welcoming
sound on this gray November afternoon. Hard rain and a growing northwest sea easily convince him to set a long term mooring after refueling at Burton's dock. The safety of South Manitou Bay's natural harbor is a delight to the likes of Captain Jay, who expect the land to always offer protection enough that they may never have to face disaster or to let fear dictate their actions.
It is nearly two decades since the night Captain Jay had first
seen the fixed beam of light shine across a vicious Lake Michigan. Though it was his inaugural venture on Lake Michigan, he had often heard stories of this passage from other seamen. The light's invitation had come none to soon for his heavily loaded ship, wet fuel wood, and
crew wearing white faces and eyes of disbelief. Families held
each other, desperate prayers in a language Captain Jay did not understand. He had wondered if all control was lost to a much greater force, when the light appeared as though by miracle of his own pleas to the sea.
Their passage through the canal had been a long awaited victory for many of
the immigrants, who equated their move to the new America with freedom
and endless land. Great Lakes cities meant work, progress, a new
beginning. Through the crossing, many had lost friends and family to a
sweeping and unknown illness, burying them and their fears in an unknown
sea. They'd come to Captain Jay's steam vessel from Scandinavia and a few from Buffalo. Come with strong hearts and light loads. They risked all that they were, and knew not what they might become.
Captain Jay stands at the end of the pier chewing on the end of his unlit
pipe, looking out at his safely anchored ship. Some of the crew have
already made their way to the Centerboard Saloon, knowing the routine of
a stranded night on the island. He'd wait with the boat, having not set
foot on the land in the dark for many years. Tomorrow they would load
wood if the wind stayed right. Something about the night gives him the
chills. Maybe it is the memories, or most likely just the cold wind he
figures. He taps the pipe on a piling thinking of the woman and the
same confusing story that is often in his mind. She haunts him every
year when the leaves began to drop and the trees reached their skinny
fingers to the low sky.
It was in this season, it was that first night on the island, that they
had broken the cold earth with shovels. The wind had blown like a son
of a gun for two days and nights, and on the third switched to the East.
An east wind sends the sea right into Manitou's bay, and can make any
captain lose his bearings.
He had noticed her standing in the open deck wrapped in a sheep wool
blanket and a long black dress, her pale white skin unchanging in the
autumn sun's light. She stood there often since they'd lowered her
husband into Erie. They were on their way to Chicago, the husband had told
him, until the illness had taken his body in a few days time. She too
had begun to show the dark circles under her eyes and coughed herself to
sleep along with other stricken passengers. Captain Jay wished like
magic that he could become a doctor instead of a sailor. Between the
Straits and Manitou they had lost twenty-some passengers, including
men from his crew. They had decided to wait for land to bury and the
bodies rested in the box near the life boat. The woman had looked as though
she was inviting Death to take her. When the waves began to crash over
the bow, one of the crew took her below.
Captain Jay sits in the little shack at the end of the pier and
listens to the wind howl and the sounds of spirits crying. With the east wind threatening their mooring and a long sail ahead of them, the crew and he had begun rowing the bodies to shore just as the sun was setting. The pit had taken them all day to dig and Captain Jay's fingers bled and were wrapped in a torn up old shirt. He was exhausted, but had not been able to sleep peacefully in many nights. He wondered then if he ever would.
When the last body had been tossed into the pit, the survivors bowed their
heads for a minute and then began to quickly replace the earth. Captain
Jay noticed the wool blanket of the woman and stopped shoveling to look
to the sky. He had never even spoke to her, but his heart went out to
her like no other. The wind continued to build until waves started to wash
over the dock. Logging company owner and old time islander Burton
warned Captain Jay that "it was best he get out of here before he run his vessel aground."
Abandoning the half buried pit of bodies, they fought
the waves back to the ship.
While pulling the anchor he had seen a person standing on the shore. He
chose to not believe his eyes as they cast off and the woman with her
black dress walked into the water and disappeared. The other men saw
her too, but they never spoke of it, not even to this day. When the
leaves begin to fall and the autumn winds blow like they do tonight, Captain Jay thinks of her. The stranded nights on the island he knows when the wind
will be shifting east, for he hears a moaning.