I looked at the body again, throttled and flayed and drowned and somehow made immortal in the process.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Martin straightened, then began to speak in a grandiose tone. “Come, you, and gaze upon the tar man! Blackly he reposes, tender face the color of soot, withered limbs like veins of coal, feet lumps of driftwood hung with shriveled grapes!” He threw his arms out like a hammy stage actor and began to strut around the case. “Come, you, and bear witness to the cruel art of his wounds! Purled and meandering lines drawn by knives; brain and bone exposed by stones; the rope still digging at his throat. First fruit slashed and dumped – seeker of Heaven – old man arrested in youth – I almost love you!”
He took a theatrical bow as I applauded. “Wow,” I said, “did you write that?”
“Guilty!” he replied with a sheepish smile. “I twiddle about with lines of verse now and then, but it’s only a hobby. In any case, thank you for indulging me.”
I wondered what this odd, well-spoken man was doing on Cairnholm, with his pleated slacks and half-baked poems, looking more like a bank manager than someone who lived on a windswept island with one phone and no paved roads.
“Now, I’d be happy to show you the rest of my collection,” he said, escorting me toward the door, “but I’m afraid it’s shutting-up time. If you’d like to come back tomorrow, however—”
“Actually, I was hoping you might know something,” I said, stopping him before he could shoo me out. “It’s about the house I mentioned this morning. I went to see it.”
“Well!” he exclaimed. “I thought I’d scared you off it. How’s our haunted mansion faring these days? Still standing?”
I assured him that it was, then got right to the point. “The people that lived there—do you have any idea what happened to them?”
“They’re dead,” he replied. “Happened a long time ago.”
I was surprised—though I probably shouldn’t have been. Miss Peregrine was old. Old people die. But that didn’t mean my search was over. “I’m looking for anyone else who might have lived there, too, not just the headmistress.”
“All dead,” he repeated. “No one’s lived there since the war.”
That took me a moment to process. “What do you mean? What war?”
“When we say ‘the war’ around here, my boy, there’s only one that we mean—the second. It was a German air raid that got ’em, if I’m not mistaken.”
“No, that can’t be right.”
He nodded. “In those days, there was an anti-aircraft gun battery at the far tip of the island, past the wood where the house is. It made Cairnholm a legitimate military target. Not that ‘legitimate’ mattered much to the Germans one way or another, mind you. Anyway, one of the bombs went off track, and, well …” He shook his head. “Nasty luck.”
“That can’t be right,” I said again, though I was starting to wonder.
“Why don’t you sit down and let me fix you some tea?” he said. “You look a bit off the mark.”
“Just feeling a little light-headed …”
He led me to a chair in his office and went to make the tea. I tried to collect my thoughts. Bombed in the war—that would certainly explain those rooms with blown-out walls. But what about the letter from Miss Peregrine—postmarked Cairnholm—sent just fifteen years ago?
Martin returned, handing me a mug. “There’s a nip of Penderyn in it,” he said. “Secret recipe, you know. Should get you sorted in no time.”
I thanked him and took a sip, realizing too late that the secret ingredient was high-test whiskey. It felt like napalm flushing down my esophagus. “It does have a certain kick,” I admitted, my face going red.
He frowned. “Reckon I ought to fetch your father.”
“No, no, I’ll be fine. But if there’s anything else you can tell me about the attack, I’d be grateful.”
Martin settled into a chair opposite me. “About that, I’m curious. You say your grandfather lived here. He never mentioned it?”
“I’m curious about that, too,” I said. “I guess it must’ve been after his time. Did it happen late in the war or early?”
“I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know. But if you’re keen, I can introduce you to someone who does—my Uncle Oggie. He’s eighty-three, lived here his whole life. Still sharp as a tack.” Martin glanced at his watch. “If we catch him before Father Ted comes on the telly, I’m sure he’d be more than happy to tell you anything you like.”
* * *
Ten minutes later Martin and I were wedged deep in an overstuffed sofa in Oggie’s living room, which was piled high with books and boxes of worn-out shoes and enough lamps to light up Carlsbad Caverns, all but one of them unplugged. Living on a remote island, I was starting to realize, turned people into pack rats. Oggie sat facing us in a threadbare blazer and pajama bottoms, as if he’d been expecting company—just not pants-worthy company—and rocked endlessly in a plastic-covered easy chair as he talked. He seemed happy just to have an audience, and after he’d gone on at length about the weather and Welsh politics and the sorry state of today’s youth, Martin was finally able to steer him around to the attack and the children from the home.
“Sure, I remember them,” he said. “Odd collection of people. We’d see them in town now and again—the children, sometimes their minder-woman, too—buying milk and medicine and what-have-you. You’d say ‘good morning’ and they’d look the other way. Kept to themselves, they did, off in that big house. Lot of talk about what might’ve been going on over there, though no one knew for sure.”
“What kind of talk?”
“Lot of rot. Like I said, no one knew. All I can say is they weren’t your regular sort of orphan children—not like them Barnardo Home kids they got in other places, who you’ll see come into town for parades and things and always have time for a chat. This lot was different. Some of ’em couldn’t even speak the King’s English. Or any English, for that matter.”
“Because they weren’t really orphans,” I said. “They were refugees from other countries. Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia …”
“Is that what they were, now?” Oggie said, cocking an eyebrow at me. “Funny, I hadn’t heard that.” He seemed offended, like I’d insulted him by pretending to know more about his island than he did. His chair-rocking got faster, more aggressive. If this was the kind of reception my grandpa and the other kids got on Cairnholm, I thought, no wonder they kept to themselves.
Martin cleared his throat. “So, Uncle, the bombing?”
“Oh, keep your hair on. Yes, yes, the goddamned Jerries. Who could forget them?” He launched into a long-winded description of what life on the island was like under threat of German air raids: the blaring sirens; the panicked scrambles for shelter; the volunteer air-raid warden who ran from house to house at night making sure shades had been drawn and streetlights were put out to rob enemy pilots of easy targets. They prepared as best they could but never really thought they’d get hit, given all the ports and factories on the mainland, all much more important targets than Cairnholm’s little gun emplacement. But one night, the bombs began to fall.
“The noise was dreadful,” Oggie said. “It was like giants stamping across the island, and it seemed to go on for ages. They gave us a hell of a pounding, though no one in town was killed, thank heaven. Can’t say the same for our gunner boys—though they gave as good as they got—nor the poor souls at the orphan home. One bomb was all it took. Gave up their lives for Britain, they did. So wherever they was from, God bless ’em for that.”
“Do you remember when it happened?” I asked. “Early in the war or late?”
“I can tell you the exact day,” he said. “It was the third of September, 1940.”
The air seemed to go out of the room. I flashed to my grandfather’s ashen face, his lips just barely moving, uttering those very words. September third, 1940.
“Are you—you sure about that? That it was that day?”
“I never got to fight,” he said. “Too young by a year. That one night was my whole war. So, yes, I’m sure.”
I felt numb, disconnected. It was too strange. Was someone playing a joke on me, I wondered—a weird, unfunny joke?
“And there weren’t any survivors at all?” Martin asked.
The old man thought for a moment, his gaze drifting up to the ceiling. “Now that you mention it,” he said, “I reckon there were. Just one. A young man, not much older than this boy here.” His rocking stopped as he remembered it. “Walked into town the morning after with not a scratch upon him. Hardly seemed perturbed at all, considering he’d just seen all his mates go to their reward. It was the queerest thing.”
“He was probably in shock,” Martin said.
“I shouldn’t wonder,” replied Oggie. “He spoke only once, to ask my father when the next boat was leaving for the mainland. Said he wanted to take up arms directly and kill the damned monsters who murdered his people.”
Oggie’s story was nearly as far-fetched as the ones Grandpa Portman used to tell, and yet I had no reason to doubt him.
“I knew him,” I said. “He was my grandfather.”
They looked at me, astonished. “Well,” Billy said. “I’ll be blessed.”
I excused myself and stood up. Martin, remarking that I seemed out of sorts, offered to walk me back to the pub, but I declined. I needed to be alone with my thoughts. “Come and see me soon, then,” he said, and I promised I would.
I took the long way back, past the swaying lights of the harbor, the air heavy with brine and with chimney smoke from a hundred hearth fires. I walked to the end of a dock and watched the moon rise over the water, imagining my grandfather standing there on that awful morning after, numb with shock, waiting for a boat that would take him away from all the death he’d endured, to war, and more death. There was no escaping the monsters, not even on this island, no bigger on a map than a grain of sand, protected by mountains of fog and sharp rocks and seething tides. Not anywhere. That was the awful truth my grandfather had tried to protect me from.
In the distance, I heard the generators sputter and spin down, and all the lights along the harbor and in house windows behind me surged for a moment before going dark. I imagined how such a thing might look from an airplane’s height—the whole island suddenly winking out, as if it had never been there at all. A supernova in miniature.
* * *
I walked back by moonlight, feeling small. I found my dad in the pub at the same table where he’d been, a half-eaten plate of beef and gravy congealing into grease before him. “Look who’s back,” he said as I sat down. “I saved your dinner for you.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, and told him what I’d learned about Grandpa Portman.
He seemed more angry than surprised. “I can’t believe he never brought this up,” he said. “Not one time.” I could understand his anger: it was one thing for a grandparent to withhold something like that from a grandchild, quite another for a father to keep it from his son—and for so long.
I tried to steer the conversation in a more positive direction. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? Everything he went through.”
My father nodded. “I don’t think we’ll ever know the full extent of it.”
“Grandpa Portman really knew how to keep a secret, didn’t he?”
“Are you kidding? The man was an emotional Fort Knox.”
“I wonder if it doesn’t explain something, though. Why he acted so distant when you were little.” Dad gave me a sharp look, and I knew I needed to make my point quickly or risk overstepping. “He’d already lost his family twice before. Once in Poland and then again here—his adopted family. So when you and Aunt Susie came along …”
“Once bombed, twice shy?”
“I’m serious. Don’t you think this could mean that maybe he wasn’t cheating on Grandma, after all?”
“I don’t know, Jake. I guess I don’t believe things are ever that simple.” He let out a sigh, breath fogging the inside of his beer glass. “I think I know what all this really explains, though. Why you and Grandpa were so close.”
“It took him fifty years to get over his fear of having a family. You came along at just the right time.”
I didn’t know how to respond. How do you say I’m sorry your father didn’t love you enough to your own dad? I couldn’t, so instead I just said goodnight and headed upstairs to bed.
* * *
I tossed and turned most of the night. I couldn’t stop thinking about the letters—the one my dad and Aunt Susie had found as kids, from this “other woman,” and the one I’d found a month ago, from Miss Peregrine. The thought that kept me awake was this: what if they were the same woman?
The postmark on Miss Peregrine’s letter was fifteen years old, but by all accounts she’d been blown into the stratosphere back in 1940. To my mind, that left two possible explanations: either my grandfather had been corresponding with a dead person—admittedly unlikely—or the person who wrote the letter was not, in fact, Miss Peregrine, but someone who was using her identity to disguise her own.