The story had embedded itself in my mind by now, but something still drove me to open the copy of White’s Farallons, Sentinels of the Golden Gate that lived in the dining room and read it again. Images from my dreams emerged as the words described the bouncy four year old with the big smile who was the first human child on the island in the 1860’s. From the moment she’d sat foot on the rock she felt at home and freely wandered the wind scarred slopes exploring the birds nests and watching the seals rest between their journeys in search of a meal that they hoped to find before becoming one. At the end of that first week she began calling herself the “Girl of the Farallones”. Seven years she and her mother had lived happily with the lighthouse keeper. Baking and gardening and washing and singing, always singing.
And then on that seventh December on the island, word came that her mothers’ father had died. It was determined that it would be too risky and too sad a journey for the little girl so just before Christmas she kissed her mother goodbye and watched her being swung in the bosons chair over the heaving waves and into the boat that would carry her back to the mainland to attend to her grieving. All through January El Nino storms bore down on the Victorian. Rain sluiced across the windows and the wind howled in the eaves. The lighthouse keeper tried to keep the little girl company, but he was a serious man and the lights needed tending to day and night, and so often she sat at the window alone and waited, softly singing the songs that she and her mother loved. Finally, in early February, it dawned a sunny day and the lighthouse keeper told her that her mother was coming home. I could imaging the little girl sitting and watching out the window just as I was now, listening to the ticking grandfather clock mark the slowly moving minutes until finally the dark black shaft of smoke appeared and the boat that would end her loneliness grew on the horizon. I could see her running down in the sunlight, wearing the pink ribbons in her hair that her mother had left for her to open on Christmas Day.
The ocean was still in a mood after that month of storms and the waves were large in Maintop Bay. The ship eased in cautiously and the little girl jumped at the sight of her mother on foredeck in her black coat and large black hat. The mother hung onto the rail of the heaving boat but when she saw her daughter she lifted her right hand and waved and smiled. At first the captain signaled that he would have to go back and try again the next day, that it was too dangerous to try to get anyone ashore. But seeing the girl and seeing the mother and feeling the palpable pull between them, he finally swung into range of the crane. It looked as if it would all be all right for a moment. The boson’s chair swung away from the deck at just the right moment and the mother held tight but then, just as she was about to clear the bow, a huge wave crashed into the bay and violently lifted the ship into the air and the spar that ran from the smokestack hit the boom of the crane and the chain broke and the mother tumbled into the water in her big black coat and skirts and suddenly all that could be seen was her hat floating in the foam.
The sun peaked out just for a moment in the crack between the ocean and the sky and painted the underside of the grey fog bank in pink and white. I saw in that moment that I would never leave the islands.