I walked to the library on Sunday as I had been doing since summer. I looked forward to the time I spent there with Cristine, and to my conversations with Norm, Cristine’s long-time friend who was a retired professor of humanities. Each week when I arrived at one in the afternoon, there was a stack of books on my desk that needed to be re-shelved. Norm left this task to me as he found shelving to be extraordinarily frustrating. “I can’t be bothered,” he’d say. “You’re young—you do it.”
While I worked, Norm would talk to me about his marriages, his kids, the case for American literature over Canadian, Hobbesian philosophy and his time teaching at the university, a period in his life he regarded with gratitude, saying, “I’m still amazed that my job was to think and talk about all the things I wanted to think and talk about anyway.” He kept his hair clipped short, his beard trimmed, and owned a hyper little dog that he took out for walks each day, sometimes past my house. His favourite tea was available only in Taiwan, so he needed to ship it over. He had a reputation for being sarcastic and wry, a quality of his I liked very much.
I hung my coat and scarf on the hat rack and began putting the returned books back on the shelves. Reaching the top of the shelves was easy as the bookcases weren’t all that tall, but I had to rattle off the alphabet in my head to find the right spot for each book. TUVWXYZ. W–A–L–S–H. WATSON. LMNOP, QRST. A few times I’d been stuck and had to repeat the letters over and over in my head as I stood facing the fiction section, blankly staring at the spines. This week was a light week, though, with only fifteen books to re-stack.
The last in the pile was a recent copy of a scholarly journal named Biological Psychiatry. On the cover was a full-sized black and white photograph of twelve children between four and twelve years old taken at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1942. The children were lined up behind barbed wire, were all facing the camera and were wearing matching striped jackets. The heading along the bottom read, “Holocaust Exposure Induced Intergenerational Effects.”
“What are you reading over there in the corner?” asked Norm, several minutes of silence later.
“This magazine.” I held Biological Psychology out for him to see.
“Good,” he said. “You’re far better off studying science than anything else.” He got up from the chair at the front of the room and sauntered toward the stove at the other end, sidestepping tables and chairs. Everything—all the books, the reading nooks, the DVDs, the children’s picture books, the front desk—was stuffed into the cleared-out basement of Beacon House. There were windows, but they were five small rectangular slits equally distributed along the topmost area of three walls. There was a small bathroom and on the other side of it, a full-sized sink and a stove that protruded widely into the children’s section, which was decorated with stuffed animals, streamers, coloured posters of book covers, and framed photographs of Island kids smiling from the walls.
“Does anyone want tea? I’m going to put the kettle on and go for a smoke outside. If I don’t stop smoking, I’m going to get cancer, you know,” he said and winked at me.
“No tea for me, thanks.” I shifted my weight to the other foot. “Hey Norm, what do you know about Tabacca Jack?” Norm was practically beside me filling the kettle with tap water. “Keith told me he lived here on the Island.” I put the journal back in its place on the shelf.
“Yes, I know the story well,” Cristine cut in from across the room. “Jack Craig lived here a few years ago, closer to Norm. They called him Tabacca Jack because he could always be found sitting on his porch smoking and playing that guitar. He home-schooled his son, I guess—I forget the boy’s name—and his wife worked somewhere in town to bring in money. Anyway, it’s accepted fact that he earned what he got.”
“He was a bad guy, huh?” I asked.
“He was the worst kind of guy,” said Norm, placing the kettle on the burner and setting the stove temperature to high. “He hurt that wife and poor kid. Always yelling and angry, no matter what. You could hear him hollering all the way down the road. We were all pretty satisfied when they left to go back east.”
“Someone told me there was a support group for Jack’s wife,” I said.
“They started that after she stabbed him to death,” replied Norm.
At some point during the summer of 2005, Jack Craig, then fifty-four, told his wife to get ready to leave their home on Protection Island where they had lived for almost ten years. He had a notion to start fresh in Kemptville, south of Ottawa, where he had grown up. He said they would sell the house, buy a thirty-two-foot RV and hit the road for Ontario. Jack had dreams of starting another business as he had burned a lot of bridges in BC and figured his luck would be better somewhere else. It had been a few years since he’d started and lost a Chinese restaurant in town, and his appetite for entrepreneurship was creeping back into his thoughts.
His wife, Teresa Phochoo Craig, worked days as a cashier at the Salvation Army and their nine-year-old son Martin stayed home, supposedly home-schooled by Jack. There wasn’t enough room on the Island or money in the bank for Jack to realize his dreams of wealth and stardom, and he figured Ontario was as good a place to try his luck as anywhere else. He’d been getting disability cheques as a result of a car accident years earlier, but they still had trouble making mortgage payments on the house. Whether neighbours asked or not, Jack told everyone about his dreams of buying a chuckwagon and turning it into a buffalo burger stand—that or he was going to open up a blues bar.
When they arrived in Kemptville after ten days on the road, Jack noticed an advertisement for the sale of a nearby convenience store. He called the agent’s phone number and with a little money in the bank from the sale of the house on PI, he bought the store. The next week Jack parked the RV at his new business; a new life had begun. In the weeks that followed, the Craigs worked to fashion themselves the best home they could out of the four-hundred-square-foot RV. Martin had recently turned ten, and Jack found he could use the boy to help with lifting and prepping for the store’s opening. Like on Protection Island, Jack spent the evenings writing and playing songs on his guitar, dreaming of superstardom and plowing through cases of beer.
A doctor from Nanaimo sent Teresa an email inquiring why she’d missed her last three appointments with him, noting that he hadn’t been able to reach her by phone. Teresa replied by explaining that the family had moved back east and she wouldn’t be coming to any more appointments. The doctor thanked her for her message and said he could refer her to another doctor in Ontario that specialized in depression and suicide. Teresa told him it wouldn’t be necessary, that she was doing much better even though it had been only less than a year since her suicide attempt and subsequent two-week stay at the Nanaimo General Hospital. The doctor wished Teresa luck and dropped the issue.
Handy’s Convenience was situated near the main road but wasn’t drawing the customers or the revenue Jack had anticipated. Six months after buying the store, the money from the house sale was gone, the credit cards were maxed and it looked like Handy’s was going the way of the Chinese restaurant. Neighbours had originally offered to help but once they saw enough of Jack’s violent outbursts, they chose to keep their distance. Jack was on his own; this business was going to succeed or fail because of him alone. Money was tight, but Jack was optimistic.
There had been fights, with Teresa and with the boy, but lately the arguments had lessened. Then, in the early morning hours of March 31, 2006, just as the long and dark winter season was giving way to new spring blooms, Teresa slid out of the bed she was sharing with her son, positioned herself between the sofa and coffee table where Jack lay asleep, put a pillow over his face and stabbed him four times in the chest with a thirty-centimetre blade. He died in hospital an hour later.
“Did you know them when they lived here?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Norm. “Teresa’d come over to talk with my wife and drink tea. I knew she wasn’t happy, but I didn’t involve myself in her business. My wife was certainly concerned though.”
“The sweet boy,” added Cristine. “He was very polite, just a little boy then. He’s been placed in foster care, of course, since his father is dead and his mother is in jail for the crime.”
The library door opened abruptly and Rebecca barrelled through: grocery bags, her child and a handful of flowers hung from her at all sides. The cold air from outside rushed in with a chill. “For heaven’s sake, close the door!” Cristine cried.
“Sorry. Here.” Rebecca looked exhausted. “Are you still going to town today?” Rebecca said to me, pushing the front door closed with her elbow. She untangled and dumped an armful of groceries on the chair beside her. “I forgot to buy bread. I was hoping you could pick some up for me if you’re going.”
I looked at the time and then at Norm and Cristine. Both looked as calm as could be. “Okay if I go now?” I asked and Cristine nodded in agreement.
“I’ll walk you to the dock. I’m going that way anyway,” Rebecca said.
I put on my coat and picked up the bags Rebecca had dumped on the bench. Now a part of the gust of energy that Rebecca had brought to the tiny room, I headed out of the library’s warm cocoon and into the sideways wind and rain toward the docks.
“Are you sure it’s okay to pick up bread? Is your boat working?” asked Rebecca as we walked.
“The boat doesn’t work. It stalled again the other day in the middle of the ocean. I have to take the stupid asshole ferry until we get it fixed. Which’ll cost me, for sure. We have to get rid of the boat, there’s no question.”
“I’ll never get a motorboat. My rowboat is enough for me to worry about. Listen, thanks for your help.”
“It’s no problem. I was about to go to town anyway. We really need milk and toilet paper.”
“When you drop it off, let’s have a glass of wine, okay?”
We arrived at the ferry dock and I passed Rebecca the bags I’d been carrying. We hugged goodbye and I watched her and her son trek back up the ramp toward her house. The boy was tripping every few feet because his eyes were covered by a hat that kept slipping down his face. From behind and even at the growing distance between us as she walked, I could feel her strain: at parenting, at loneliness, at living here on the Island and all the extra work that it meant. I felt this strain because it was also my own. I sat down on the cold, wooden bench to wait for the ferry.
The Woods is available from Nightwood Editions.
Amber McMillan is the author of The Woods: A Year on Protection Island (2016) and the poetry collection We Can’t Ever Do This Again (2015). Her work has appeared in Arc, PRISM, Best Canadian Poetry, The Walrus and others across North America. She lives and works on BC’s Sunshine Coast.