You probably want to know a little more about the hermit, Alfred. From the start I’ll tell you that it’s very hard for the islanders to talk about Alfred, although we all carry him on our conscience. On the day that Alfred died just about everyone on the island passed by his house and saw him waving from the window. Although most unusual, we all waved back and continued on our way. We knew how friendly Alfred really was in the off-season and away from crowds and we all at some point during the week would go to visit him for a drink and to laugh at him in his red boxers with the hearts on them, drinking Pimm’s Cup #1 and hand-feeding bird seed to the mice. Everybody loved Alfred. But on this day Alfred was suffering a stroke and was trying to signal someone to come in. And we all were too busy to walk the 50 feet to at least see that he was alright. He was found unconscious later in the day and was helicoptered off. We never saw him again. We also learned that his slow but steady decline was not the result of alcoholism (although that didn’t help), but the result of many little strokes over many years. Even that does not explain all the eccentricities that made up the man Alfred: crazy man, hermit, clown, wise man, artist, naturalist, sweet, sweet person.
Alfred was a sensitive person born into the hardest, most macho environment I have ever experienced. What we now simply call the cartoon grew from an intense competition for scarce resources when the islanders were dirt poor. Any town work was given out based on favoritism and retribution. Before breakfast every morning, every child had to completely circumnavigate the island in search of anything brought in by storm or tide that could be sold or used. Lumber, furs, tools, coal and piano key ebony from the 110 wrecks that ring the island — the flotsam had been washing ashore for many years, especially after a violent storm that would shake it loose from wreckage or rock wedges. Alfred was raised and protected by his grandmother right up until he went off-island to attend art school and become a potter, probably where he discovered he was gay. The pressure of the intolerance of the 1950s brought him home to what he knew, what was safe and where he was loved. He opened a pottery shop, working only in island clay.
What beauty there is on this weather-punished rock is completely at the behest of Alfred. For many years the island was burned over annually and grazed by sheep that were brought from the mainland, so there was no growth of any kind, save grass. In spring every open space announces the end of winter, first with the seductive appearance of snowdrops in south-facing nooks and crannies, followed by the splash of crocus which set the stage for an explosion of daffodils and narcissus on every piece of open ground in every yard on the island, bringing us all out of our winter funk, bringing back our joy. Alfred planted them all. Property lines didn’t exist for Alfred; it was his island and he treated it as his canvas, planting hundreds of fruit trees, pine trees and two American chestnut trees (both male, God’s wink), as well as watercress and cranberries in the west end bogs and flowers, flowers and more flowers.
Somewhere along the way Alfred began losing his joy. We thought it was due to alcohol, but it was something more sinister and tragically fixable. He hadn’t been to a doctor in the 25 years that I knew him; in fact he hadn’t left the island in that time. The only daylight traveling he did was between his two houses. Alfred was not a great housekeeper and his mice were worse than teenagers. Every spring the whole town would move him to his other house and clean the one he had been living in until it was spotless. The mice would bail on their own and follow him. We have to take Alfred’s word for that because we could never tell his mice from the ones we were killing with a vengeance. The next spring we would move him back and clean that house and on it went for years, like some bizarre, black, comic ritual with Alfred leading the band being carried in a chair like a pharaoh, having gotten himself well-oiled for the occasion and cracking jokes the whole way, glass raised to the heavens, the island’s version of Truman Capote right down to the ugly end.
We knew Alfred was dead before word came. We could feel his spirit on the incoming tide slowly make its way into the pond, a non factor, a non person, one at last with the world around him. It raced where the current raced and in the peace of the eddies slowly turned as though being shown something of importance. It hesitated wherever that was the thing to do, waited patiently, then slowly, almost imperceptibly moved on, appearing careful to leave things as it had found them. We were drawn to the pond to witness the moment and the life that preceded it. We told him how sorry we were, but it didn’t matter any more and when the tide turned we knew that he was gone.
In my mind’s eye Alfred is lying on his couch still drinking Pimm’s Cup #1 in the boxer shorts with the hearts on them, hand-feeding bird seed to the mice and watching raunchy movies. Once in awhile, usually in August when we had just about enough of the boat people, someone would ask for the millionth time about what it’s like to live on the island year-round. We liked to send them up to Alfred’s. It’s the best we could do.
We miss you, Alfred, and every time we look out over the island you so lovingly resurrected from a barren rock, we think of you and smile.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.