“We’re never so defenseless against suffering as when we’re in love.” Sigmund Freud
They were the Thompsons, and everybody knew them, and when Charlie Goose heard they’d drowned, he said, “It isn’t for us to judge.” How could we not judge, though, knowing them as long as we did?
Even as a kid, I thought they were the most beautiful couple alive. They were still beautiful in the end, even if Mrs. Thompson was obviously sick. Still, drowning the way they did — especially so late in the season — it didn’t make any sense.
Or maybe it did. What do I know? All I can do now is tell my side of things, starting with the day I took the Thompsons out to their island in the launch.
Not many cottagers come up this time of the year. Most of the boats are either dry-docked or taken away on trailers. We tend to close the marina after the Thanksgiving weekend. We still keep a launch available for the local residents and hunting parties. Other than that, we’re mostly busy closing up the store, making sure everything’s ready for winter.
That’s what we were doing when the Thompsons pulled into their usual spot near the dry-dock sheds. Charlie and Burt Sugar were nailing up tar paper on their cabin across the inlet. They ran the marina before us and were voted an allotment by the Mohawk band council when they retired.
Anyway, May, my wife, and I came out of the store as Mr. Thompson was opening the trunk. Mrs. Thompson was still sitting there in the passenger seat, wearing a turban — I guess it was a turban. May thought it looked more like a scarf. Mrs. Thompson’s face was very thin and her eyebrows were painted on — painted or drawn on, I don’t know which.
“Hello, Johnny,” Mr. Thompson said, and we talked a bit since we hadn’t seen them all summer. We loaded their stuff into the launch, then got all these blankets for Mrs. Thompson, tucking her in real good, putting a tarp over the blankets.
Usually, Mr. Thompson would stand next to me in the wheelhouse, his old briar pipe going. Now he sat in the stern with Mrs. Thompson, his arm around her, that beautiful gray hair of his blowing in the breeze.
We passed the gull islands, and went up the channel, across Grover Sound. Their island sat near the east end. The cottage itself sat up on a cliff. It was a long, rambling place, added on by three generations of Thompsons.
At the base was an old elevator, basically a small platform running up on tracks to the top. I don’t remember which of the Thompsons put that in, but it’d been there since I was a kid. Our band council said we should put one in at the main lodge, being on a cliff as well, but we never did.
Anyway, we docked, and took everything up on the elevator, including Mrs. Thompson. “Thank you for everything,” she said to me, which seemed strange, seeing as I’d always taken their stuff up to the cottage for them.
So I got the Thompsons settled, and told them Joe Corby could be reached in case of an emergency. Joe and his wife have a place just past the gull islands. Mr. Thompson walked around, looking at the pictures on the wall. Some of them dated back to Old Man Thompson. He built the original cottage in the twenties. Charlie’s grandfather used to take him fishing and helped build most of the foundation. “They carried all the stones up in baskets strapped to their backs,” Charlie told me one time.
The outbuildings, the bunkies, the work shed, had all been stripped of wood to repair the old main building. One shed still had black silhouettes of the tools from when Mr. Thompson’s father was fixing the place. It seemed every generation did something. None of the tools were left.
We got the two big oil stoves going and the main fireplace. I said I’d bring over more wood the next day. “That’s fine, Johnny,” Mr. Thompson said. “Perhaps you could fix the swing.”
The porch swing was hanging from one chain. I didn’t know what I could do to fix it. I checked around, found some chain and rope, and managed to get the swing reasonably stable.
When I came inside. the Thompsons were in the den. “We’ll be staying in here,” Mr. Thompson said, unfolding the couch. Even with the fireplace and the oil stoves going, it was cold, and I worried about them. “We’ll be fine,” Mr. Thompson said.
I was putting the groceries away when I heard them talking, and something Mrs. Thompson said seemed odd at the time. “Thanks for not being tragic,” she said to him. He didn’t say anything back.
The next day, I showed up with wood, and two trout Charlie asked me to give them. They’d made the place reasonably comfortable. I packed the wood into the woodbox, noticing as I went out a few of the blankets on the swing. They’d obviously been sitting there earlier. I don’t know how Mr. Thompson managed to get Mrs. Thompson out there by himself.
Before I left, I stuck my head in the den, asking if they needed anything else. They were curled up on the couch by the window. Every pillow in the place seemed to be there, kind of a nest of sorts for Mrs. Thompson.
“Thank you again, Johnny,” Mrs. Thompson said.
“Do you need anything else?” I asked. “I can come by tomorrow.”
“No, that’ll be fine,” Mr. Thompson said.
I was going to ask when they were leaving. Somehow it didn’t seem appropriate. They looked so peaceful sitting there. Maybe they were reflecting, if that’s what you want to call it. Charlie wondered if time had anything to do with it. Not time in general, but time in a sense that it was their time. “Who knows?” he said, putting another log in the stove.
It was cold that night, a cold October in general. The wind was blowing from the west, coming in off Georgian Bay. In the morning, there’d be a thin layer of ice in the inlet and the lichen would crackle underfoot.
The following night, around eleven o’clock, I got a call from Joe Corby. Usually, Joe and his wife are in bed by ten. He was calling to say he noticed a light out in the channel. It was heading towards the bay. “I don’t know what anybody would be doing out there now,” he said. “I thought it might be you lot.” The wind was picking up. He was thinking of getting his coat, going out to the dock. Then the light disappeared.
“I can’t see anything in this dark,” he said.
He hung up and didn’t call back that night.
Around nine the next morning, Joe called to say he’d been out around Pointe au Baril. “I found a rowboat washed up on the shore,” he said. I took the launch out and found Joe and a few council members looking at the rowboat. I was pretty sure it belonged to the Thompsons.
Joe went home to call the marine unit. I went over at the Thompson’s place. I knocked, nobody answered. Then I looked through the window.
The place was empty. I went inside, found the blankets still on the fold-out couch, the pillows, an empty coffee cup. On the desk were Mrs. Thompson’s two wedding rings. There was no note, nothing to indicate why.
I asked May about that later, about what it takes — what any of us would expect to do in the same situation. May said it was decided. Everything was decided before the Thompsons even left Toronto.
“How sick do you think she was?” I asked.
“Sick enough,” she said. “He couldn’t live without her.”
May was standing on a ladder, doing an inventory of the store. She handed me down two cans of beans. “Go start dinner,” she said. After feeding the kids and putting them to bed, I wandered around the inlet to Charlie and Burt’s cabin. They were playing cards in front of the fireplace.
“Grab a chair,” Charlie said. “Has May had any more revelations?”
“No,” I said. “Just the one.”
“Sometimes one’s all it takes,” he said.
Charlie shuffled the cards and dealt, the three of us hearing the wind outside. We shivered thinking about it. Who wouldn’t? They were still out there somewhere. Charlie asked if I was in or out.