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The Island by Mark SmithOn a moonlit night in February I awaken and peer outside. Snow covers the ground and smoothes the contours of the hillsides. Below me my daughter's car catches the reflection of a moonbeam and glints back up at me. Tree shadows move gracefully on the white background, cut up only by the driveway which slices between two hillocks. At two in the morning it is easy to imagine the eternity of landscape and sky. The little indentations we have caused seem insignificant. This hill which our house is tucked into used to be called "the island", a strange appellation for modern ears, like "the inch" in Scotland, which means island, and is sometimes used inland, far from water, to designate a cut-off place, a hill, or even a peninsula.

Who called our hill "the island"? Local memory fades fast, and we can only trace the hearsay anecdotes so far. A man named Steffens must have told me once, when he was back here eight years ago, scouting out some property to buy. The Steffens family goes way back in East Leland, which is to say a hundred years back, or maybe a little more - as far as memory serves. This particular Steffens had been back in town for a family reunion and discovered ten acres adjacent to us for sale near his old family home. He had many happy memories of playing here as a child. He had hoped to acquire some land as an exercise in nostalgia and self-renewal. The property did not sell, and was eventually taken off the market. A series of people looked it over, all with their own little dreams and baggage, but as far as we know the ten acres is not on the market any more. And yet, its status is not fully resolved.

Somehow, about twenty-five years ago, one of Leelanau County's many "trust fund babies" acquired this land we now own and built an improbable cabin, perched on the southeast-facing hill looking over a valley. Half a mile of isolated dirt track driveway leads up to our house. We have lived here a mere ten years. The original décor of our house is a seventies version of ethnic/rustic, with plenty of rough hewn impracticalities, like a redwood-lined shower which had to be immediately gutted because it leaked badly and was rotting the sub-floor. Over the years I have fixed up our house and garden and made it more livable. It is our haven of tranquility. The shoulder of "island" ("where we kids used to play" is all I know from the Steffens man) protects us from the northwest wind on these cold, clear winter nights. Tall ash trees sway gracefully in the wind, alongside twisted old wild black cherries. The shadows play across the white car below, white on white overlapped with forking shade.

If the tree-covered ridge called the island is the shoulder that protects us, our house sits in the hollow of the collarbone, the right collarbone, just below and to the right of my chin -- in fact right in the place where I broke my own collarbone in a motorcycle accident many years ago. It still feels like the center of a bad nexus of nerves on a cold day, and tonight I feel the presence of the old wound. I situate myself with the house and peer out over the valley to the east as it descends in front of our house in the night. That's as far as our property goes, to the bottom of the hill, and as the valley rises beautifully on the other side, the metaphor of body no longer applies. It's another body altogether, somebody else's. The moon is behind me, more to the west, and the pine tree ridge on the far side of the wide valley glistens. All is quiet.

We have a dog now, after many years of my refusal to entertain the notion. My wife and daughters finally prevailed and the collie has become a part of our family. Like all dogs, she is territorial, barking at deer in the night who come to paw snow at the base of the apple trees below our house. She is nervous, like me, about noises. Who could that be? What did I hear outside? Nobody comes this way. An owl hoots, the house cracks. It was nothing, I suppose. Until we got the dog, my wife did not appreciate my own vigilance - hearing a four-wheeler go tearing by at the bottom of the valley, and going to investigate, chasing off stray dirt bikers who would otherwise carve eroding paths through the hills and woods. Until we got the dog, my wife thought I was just a busybody. Until we got the dog I did not know how little I could help the dreams which come repeatedly to me at this time of night. It seems to be in my genes too.

In my dreams there are yellow backhoes at the base of our hill. I have been sleeping, and they have already started. It is morning and they have the jump on me. I go down the driveway to inquire, but the bulldozers have already done their work. It's not my property anyway, down there, and unless you own as far as the eye can see, you have to "let go" of it. But this time, and every time in my dreams, they have encroached. There seems to be some mistake, but there is no going back. Sometimes they are already behind me, on the ridge just above us, working on a rich man's house. The house will overlook ours and will be perched on the very top of the shoulder, looking both ways like a pirate's parrot. I turn my head to look back and have to crane my neck. My collarbone aches (where our house would be) and I wake in a cold sweat. And yet, it seems possible.

Tonight's dream was different. This time it was a high a rise conference center, and before I even noticed it the poured walls rose to the level of our upstairs. Rebar bristles from the wall heads, not three feet out from the front of our balcony. You could almost step across. Down below, at ground level, there will be room only for a dark walkway between the buildings. A mason works in the dirty snow, putting on a brick veneer, and a laborer fetches him more mud. As the building rises, we will be blocked from the morning sun. We will be in the perpetual grip of frost. There will be no point in staying, yet who will buy our house now?

Who am I anyway but the last in a long line of interlopers? Look around at the orchards and fields and tell me what was here before. Old fence lines show themselves with bulging scars of barbed wire embedded in the maple trees. Flattened stumps testify to clearings made, and wood hauled. Up and down the hills are widened paths, grown over now with saplings, once used as logging trails. But what came before, and where is it now? Wave upon wave of change, geological, social and economic, have carved out a place where we perch, and the more I look down at the moonshadow on snow, the more I know that none of it lasts, in the way we hope, but all of it remains the same. Under the blanket of snow there is a story which reveals itself only in dreams.

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Copyright 2001 Manitou Publishing Co. & Mark Smith • All Rights Reserved.

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