Many thanks to littlesoprano for being a very perceptive second set of eyes! Once again I am in her debt for making this story that much better.
Thanks also to Sherwood Schwartz for creating these wonderful characters.
You'll Be a Man, My Son
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!
From "If" by Rudyard Kipling
Gilligan leaned back against the roots of a storm-upended tree, one long leg slung down the side of the fallen trunk for balance, the other drawn up until his knee pointed towards the deep burnt orange of the sunset sky. The dying sunlight wavered on the waters of the lagoon and gleamed on the blade of the bayonet that he turned restlessly over and over.
Mrs. Howell spotted him as she emerged from the jungle foliage. When she saw what he was doing, she screamed. "Oh! Don't do that!"
The sudden cry nearly made the first mate impale himself. As it was, Gilligan fumbled wildly with the hilt as Mrs. Howell rushed out of the jungle and tottered over the sand in her high-heeled shoes.
Gilligan barely had time to sit up before she reached the log, but he instinctively reached out a hand to guide her to a safe seat. The moment Mrs. Howell was settled, she pointed with a shudder to the bayonet. "Oh, Gilligan dear, please don't commit kamikaze or whatever it is just because of those silly phosphorescent rocks! There'll be other airplanes to see them!"
"Yeah. They fly over here all the time. Maybe we've just got the wrong colour signal fires." Gilligan's dark eyebrows rose at the bitterness in his own voice, and he sighed in embarrassment. "Sorry, Mrs. Howell."
Mrs. Howell smiled brightly. "That's all right, dear boy. I'm just so glad to have found you! We've been looking all over for you!"
"You have?" Gilligan sounded anything but delighted.
"Oh, yes!" Mrs. Howell continued. "Why, the Captain's been down here several times, hoping he might find you fishing or checking your lobster traps."
"It figures. He wanted to bawl me out again, huh?"
She blinked in surprise. "Why, no. He simply wondered why you weren't at breakfast this morning; we all did."
"Oh." He looked down. "I got up real early, Mrs. Howell. I didn't sleep so good last night."
"Oh, what a shame. Perhaps some of Thurston's tranquillizers would help."
Gilligan shook his head. "I don't think so, Mrs. Howell. Thanks anyhow."
"Well, you're certainly welcome to them any time. But oh, everyone will be so relieved! We didn't know what to think!"
"Why, about you disappearing, of course!" Mrs. Howell exclaimed, as though it were perfectly obvious. "The Skipper told us he'd finally let you out of the jail last night after you'd tried to dig your way out. He said you came back to the hut with him and went to bed, but then you vanished before breakfast."
Gilligan nodded, silent.
Mrs. Howell carried on as though she hadn't noticed. "Well, we all expected you would have returned by noon, of course. Then over luncheon we became involved in such a lively discussion that we lost track of time altogether."
"I'll bet it was some discussion," muttered Gilligan.
"Oh, indeed it was! And right after that we began to worry about what had become of you." Mrs. Howell's gloved hands fluttered dramatically. "The Captain sent us all out in searching parties, and just a few minutes ago we all met at camp again, hoping you might have turned up for dinner. When you hadn't, we feared the worst!"
"What do you mean, Mrs. Howell?" Gilligan said quietly. He did not meet her eyes.
"Why, we thought you might have run away - to the other side of the island, I mean. Everyone's resting for the time being, but we'd planned to start out again in an hour. The Captain says he'll search all night if he must."
When Gilligan still didn't look up at her, Mrs. Howell tilted her head slightly, her eyes searching his face. She reached out and laid her hand against his cheek. "You will come back with me, won't you, Gilligan? It's all been forgiven and forgotten, you know."
Gilligan turned his head, twisting away from her touch. With a flick of his wrist he sent the bayonet whirling end-over-the end into the sand, where it fell and gleamed in the orange light. "Not by me, it isn't," he said softly.
"Whatever do you mean?"
"I made such a mess!" he rasped in a tone Mrs. Howell had never heard him use before. "It was gonna be my chance to show them, Mrs. Howell! To show all of them! And then I went and showed them, all right!"
"I don't understand, dear. Showed them what?"
"That putting me in charge of anything is preposterous! Preposterous and ridiculous and idiotic..." Gilligan's voice trailed off as his Adam's Apple bobbed and his eyes glittered.
One of Mrs. Howell's carefully-drawn eyebrows rose. "Good gracious. I've never heard you use words like that before, Gilligan."
"I didn't. The Professor did. And the Skipper. And Mr. Howell!" At the last name Gilligan flushed guiltily, but just for a moment. He folded his arms and hunched back a little. "Why shouldn't I go live on the other side of the island, Mrs. Howell? There's only wild animals there. At least they don't say things like that!"
Mrs. Howell regarded him in silence for a moment before she answered him. "Well, if that's what you feel you must do, Gilligan, then you must do it."
"I must?" the first mate replied, not a little surprised.
"Why, of course. The girls and I did the same thing; don't you remember? When we felt we weren't being treated fairly by you men, we went away to the other side of the island to live. It certainly seemed like the only thing to do at the time. Don't you agree?"
Gilligan sat bolt upright now as he remembered. "Wha-no, Mrs. Howell!" he insisted. "You ladies shouldn't have done that! It wasn't safe! And we needed you back at camp, and we really missed you and..." He slowed to a stop as he realized. "Oh, I get it. Nice try, Mrs. Howell." He shook his head. "But this just isn't the same."
"Oh? How is it different?"
Gilligan was silent for a moment, his throat working as he tried to get the words out. "You didn't act like a heel," he said, almost too softly for her to hear.
"A heel?" Mrs. Howell was a bit confused. "Forgive me, Gilligan, but I'm not familiar with that term, unless you're referring to a shoe."
Gilligan shifted uncomfortably on the log. "A heel is a guy you don't want to know. A guy who's dishonest and selfish and just plain rotten!"
"Oh!" She nodded. "You mean something like a scoundrel or a cad?"
"Something like that, I guess. Whatever it is, I never knew I was one before. And I hate it."
Mrs. Howell shook her head. "I afraid I still don't understand, Gilligan. I know that Thurston does tend to express his opinions rather frankly, but I've never heard him call you anything of the sort. Clumsy, perhaps. Naive, on occasion. But I can assure you, I've never heard Thurston or anyone else question your moral character." She smiled a little, as at a private joke. "In fact, Thurston told me what you said when he tried to bribe you. I'm afraid I had a little laugh at his expense. 'Oh, Thurston,' I said, 'you should have known better than to try! That boy's the Soul of Honour!'"
"'Soul of Honour', huh? Now that's a laugh."
Mrs. Howell stared, perplexed. "Gilligan, I still don't understand."
Gilligan looked up at her, his face a shifting portrait of grief, guilt and anger. "Look what I did, Mrs. Howell! We could have been rescued by that search plane, and I ruined everything! I put everyone in jail! Even you!"
"But that's what you were supposed to do, Gilligan. That was your job."
"No it wasn't! My job was to keep everybody safe! Not to be the somebody everybody needed to be kept safe from!"
"My dear, if you're going to become overwrought, neither of us is going to get anywhere." Smiling gently, Mrs. Howell leaned forward and patted Gilligan's knee. She watched him lean back a little, the tension easing in his long limbs. "That's much better. Now let's try again. You told me that this island police force business all went wrong: well, I can assure you that you're not alone in thinking that. But when do you think it began to go wrong, Gilligan? At the beginning?"
"Well, no. Not at the beginning." Gilligan drew in a deep breath as he tried to pierce through the murk of his emotions to remember the events of the previous day. "At first it was okay. I was directing the traffic, and the Skipper said I was doing a good job. Even when I arrested Mr. Howell for taking the Skipper's binoculars, the Skipper said that what I did was right." Suddenly Gilligan looked at Mrs. Howell, and his voice dropped in apology. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Howell, but that's what he said."
Mrs. Howell simply smiled and nodded, offering no objection. "And what happened then?"
"And then...that's when it all started. When we put Mr. Howell in jail."
"You mean in the Professor's jail," said Mrs. Howell.
"Well...yeah. Yeah, it was his idea. He told you that, Mrs. Howell?"
"Eventually," she replied, her gloved fingertips drumming a soft tattoo on her knee. "That was one of the things that arose during our discussion this afternoon. But yes, he did tell us that."
"Well, the Skipper and I weren't too keen on the idea of a jail, but the Professor said it would reduce crime 'cause it would be a detergent."
Mrs. Howell drew back for a moment, putting a finger to her lips as she searched her memory. "Really? I was certain the word he used this afternoon was 'deterrent.' Ah, well, whichever it was, we ladies didn't find it very convincing."
Gilligan looked out where the shadows were spreading on the rippling waters of the lagoon. "The girls were real mad that I'd put Mr. Howell in the jail. At least Ginger was. When the Skipper went away, we started to argue about it. And that's when I – I grabbed Ginger."
Mrs. Howell drew back in surprise. "I beg your pardon, Gilligan, but I'm sure I must have misheard you. Did you just say that you...grabbed Ginger?"
Gilligan nodded miserably. "Yeah. I grabbed her by the arm." Completely missing Mrs. Howell's look of relief at the anatomical reference, he sucked in another deep breath and blundered on. "And then when Mary Ann told me to let Ginger go, I yelled at Mary Ann. I threw them both in jail. But it wasn't because they broke the law – it was just because they made me mad!" He looked up at her in anguish. "I still can't believe it, Mrs. Howell! I've never done anything like that in my life! My dad always taught me that no real man ever raises his hand to a woman! The Skipper taught me the same thing! I just don't know what came over me!"
When Gilligan nearly sprang to his feet in his distress, Mrs. Howell leaned forward and squeezed his forearm tightly. Only after he quieted and sat back down did her hand fall to rest lightly on his wrist. "You may be awkward at handling the appurtenances at a tea party, Gilligan, but your conduct with women has always been impeccable. Why do you think it happened?"
His voice was hoarse with shame. "What's it matter? There's no excuse, Mrs. Howell!"
"I didn't say there was, you know. But don't you see that it's terribly important to understand why you acted as you did?" She squeezed his hand briefly. "Will you try to remember, Gilligan?"
"Well..." When he looked up at her, her blue eyes were nothing but kind. "It's awful hard to say no to you, Mrs. Howell."
"Good." She gave him another gentle smile. "Very well, then: you said that Ginger became angry about Mr. Howell being imprisoned, and that's when your disagreement occurred. But I don't understand, Gilligan. I can't see you taking hold of Ginger simply because she stood up for Mr. Howell."
"Well, no, that wasn't when I did it. It was when she..." Gilligan's eyes clouded as he remembered. "...she laughed at me."
"Why did she laugh at you?"
"Because I burned my foot when I tried to put out the girls' fire."
Mrs. Howell's hand flew to her lips as she gasped in dismay. "Good heavens, dear boy, you never told us you were wounded! Was it a serious? Will you need a skin graft? I have a leather handbag that-"
Gilligan held up his hand as he gave her a sheepish, half-hearted smile. "Naw, I'm okay, Mrs. Howell. The reason I didn't tell anybody was 'cause I didn't really get hurt. It was just hot for a second. I didn't even burn my shoe."
Mrs. Howell gave a great sigh of relief. "Oh, I'm so glad to hear it. I couldn't imagine either of the girls laughing at someone's being injured; they're always so solicitous of everyone, and I know they've both nursed you any number of times."
"Yeah, they have," said Gilligan, sighing. "Ginger even cut off her hair for me when I went bald – and I wasn't exactly grateful about it either. You're right: she'd never laugh if I really got hurt."
"I wonder why she did laugh, then? And why did you have to put out the girls' fire?"
"Well...I told them that the fire was too near the hut."
"Don't they often make it near the hut?"
"Yeah." Gilligan gave a guilty nod. "And I knew it. But the Skipper'd just been there, and it was all 'yes, Skipper,' and 'what do you need, Skipper,' but then Ginger started complaining to me about Mr. Howell being in jail, like it was my idea to put him there! Why didn't she complain to the Skipper when he was standing right there? Why didn't she complain to the Professor?"
Mrs. Howell gave an enigmatic smile. "She has, now. We ladies gave that gentleman a piece of our mind this afternoon. We expressed our opinions to all of the gentlemen, as a matter of fact. But do go on, please. You were telling me about the fire."
He sighed. "It wasn't dangerous. I guess I was feeling kinda full of myself. Maybe I was throwing my weight around a little. Well...a lot, actually. But then when I was kicking the fire out and I yelled when my foot got hot, Ginger laughed at me. I told her it wasn't funny, but she just laughed harder." His eyes clouded again for a moment, giving Mrs. Howell the sense that she was looking down a very, very deep well. "I've been laughed at a lot by girls, Mrs. Howell...and when she wouldn't stop and I remembered all those words the Skipper and the other guys said about me, I just thought, I've had it!"
"Had what, dear boy?"
Gilligan's eyes flashed fire. "Had it with being a boy, Mrs. Howell! I'm twenty-three years old, I was in the Navy, I was the Skipper's first mate and I work hard every day here on the island, and after all this time, everybody still treats me like—" again the Adam's Apple bounced; Mrs. Howell watched him stiffen and swallow and blink furiously for a moment until the fire finally won. "—like a boy."
They had come to the heart of it. Mrs. Howell took a deep, introspective breath; the fragility of the male ego was very familiar territory. "But we don't think of you that way, Gilligan."
"Sure you do, Mrs. Howell. Everyone does."
She blinked innocently at him. "But you aren't a boy, Gilligan; I mean it isn't as though you sleep with a teddy bear or something." That innocence transformed into a mischievous, affectionate grin.
Gilligan couldn't help chuckling in return. "Well, no, but – you know what I mean."
She nodded. "I think I do. You mean you want to be treated as a man: as someone who can be depended upon, who can be strong in a time of crisis."
"Exactly, Mrs. Howell!"
"But my dear boy—" She caught herself and smiled self-deprecatingly. "Forgive me, Gilligan. Just a figure of speech."
"I know, Mrs. Howell. I didn't mean to yell at you just now." He looked back up at her. "But that is how everybody thinks of me. They even say it to me! Remember when that tribe of savages landed on the island, and I was the only one of the guys left that hadn't been captured? Ginger up and says, 'What are we going to do? That was the last of the men!' Right in front of me!"
Mrs. Howell sighed. "Gilligan, when people are afraid, they often say things they don't mean. Ginger said that because she was very frightened. But she ran after you when you left to rescue Thurston and the others. All of us women ran after you, begging you not to leave us! Would we have done so if we didn't think of you as a man?"
"Well...I guess not."
"And would I have tried to make a match between you and Mary Ann if I didn't believe you were old enough?" Mrs. Howell pretended to be scandalized. "Good Heavens, Gilligan, do you believe I go about encouraging romance between minors?"
Now Gilligan laughed again. "So it was you behind all that! Gosh, Mrs. Howell, you sure can be sneaky when you want to."
"Oh, my dear Gilligan, you have no idea." Mrs. Howell patted her hair a little and smiled a Mona Lisa smile. "But Gilligan, people take the lead in different situations. It all depends upon their experience and knowledge. I couldn't possibly go in and chair one of Thurston's board meetings, and I know he'd be positively at sea trying to organize one of my charity functions. We each lead when it's our turn. Ginger leads when we want to put on a musical entertainment. Mary Ann leads when we decide what things to plant and grow. It all depends upon what we're best at."
"And what am I best at, Mrs. Howell? Making mistakes?"
"Now, now, Gilligan. Sulking hardly becomes a man. You offer splendid ideas for solutions when we have problems. Why, the Professor himself said you have the wisdom of King Solomon!"
"He did, Gilligan: you mustn't contradict a lady, especially one who's your elder. And the Professor was absolutely right. I saw that wisdom in you in the first few weeks we were on the island. "
"You did? When?"
"Why, when you retrieved our flare gun from that little chimpanzee, of course!"
"Oh. You mean when I shot it off and blew up all our flares," said Gilligan glumly.
Mrs. Howell wagged a finger at him. "Now don't interrupt, Gilligan! I believe I shall have to lend you a book on etiquette! Besides, whatever are you talking about? It wasn't all the flares. You led us to that crate of flares in the jungle that the monkey had taken, remember? Besides, shooting that flare gun was a moment of impulse, and we'd never have had the gun in the first place if not for you. But I wanted to speak of that moment when you retrieved it."
Mrs. Howell's eyes grew distant and the diamond bracelets on her gloved wrists glinted as she clasped her hands. "I shall never forget it. We were all in a frightful dither about what to do. For all we knew, the creature might fire the gun or give us a nasty bite or even vanish into the jungle if we tried to get too close. Then you strode up and simply said, 'Get behind me!' And everyone obeyed you, because they saw your authority: in the way you moved, the way you spoke, even the way you stood. You were the man in command."
Gilligan raised an eyebrow and gave a quirk of a smile. "Yeah...I guess I was, wasn't I?"
She nodded enthusiastically. "You knew exactly what to do. You approached this wild beast of the jungle as though you'd done it a thousand times before. When he pointed the gun at us, you told him, 'No,' and he obeyed you. He trusted you. Within moments, you had done what no one else could do: you'd gotten the gun and no one was hurt, not even the monkey. It was absolutely splendid." Once again her eyes gleamed with mischief. "And you did it all while barely dressed."
Gilligan gasped and his hands leapt to cover his chest, even as he remembered his stolen clothes and improvised grass skirt. "Gosh, I hope nobody else remembers that part, Mrs. Howell! But it was nice to have people look up to me for a change."
"Each time we have to deal with the island's animals we look to you for guidance, my boy. Thurston told me you were the one who led them to the gorilla's cave when the beast took me prisoner. A year later you convinced that gorilla to throw away all those old grenades he'd found, so that no one would be hurt. We presented you with a medal on that occasion, remember?"
Gilligan smiled shyly. "Yeah. I've still got it."
"And will we ever forget the way you tamed that dreadful lion? He might have devoured us all, but for you! Who else could have done what you did?"
Gilligan's smile was still growing, lighting his face like the burnished glow of the sunset. "I kinda see what you mean, Mrs. Howell. Gee – maybe I kinda kick myself when I'm down, don't I?"
"We all do, dear. To ourselves, I mean. After all, you're hardly the only person on the island who has an inferiority complex. All of us have our insecurities. We're just a little better at hiding them, that's all."
Gilligan drew back in disbelief. "The others? Insecure? I don't believe it, Mrs. Howell. How could they be? I mean, look at Ginger. She's so beautiful! She's so talented! How could she be insecure?"
"Ginger doesn't react well to being laughed at either. Don't you remember what happened when that awful Mr. Hecuba came here and laughed at her acting?"
"Oh, yeah," said Gilligan sadly, as he remembered. "She cried and cried. She wasn't even going to come back home with us." He blinked. "Boy – I never thought of it like that. But you're right, Mrs. Howell. Ginger doesn't see herself the way we see her."
Mrs. Howell nodded. "And what about dear little Mary Ann, sending all those letters to a non-existent boyfriend simply to try to convince us all that someone could care for her?"
Gilligan shook his head. "She's so sweet and pretty; gosh, why would she even think she'd have to pull a stunt like that? But you're right: she did."
"As the Professor has said on occasion, 'Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!'" Mrs. Howell put a finger to her lips in thought. "Though I do believe he's incorrect in attributing that phrase to Shakespeare; I believe it was Sir Walter Scott."
"Well, the Professor's one guy who couldn't have any kind of complex. He knows everything! Everybody listens to him!"
Mrs. Howell laughed, though not unkindly. "Don't be too certain, Gilligan! Do you recall that evening when I dined with the Professor in order to make Thurston jealous?"
"Yeah. What about it, Mrs. Howell?"
"Well, the Professor certainly made a most charming dinner companion, but you've no idea how hesitant he was at first. 'Oh, Mrs. Howell, I'm flattered, but I'm afraid I know very little about courtship or romance!' And how right he was! I had to coach him thoroughly before the 'performance,' and even prompt him during the meal itself! 'Say something poetic, Professor!' 'Say something scientific!' Oh, dear." She patted Gilligan's arm lightly as she laughed. "Do you know, Gilligan, I think it was easier teaching you to be Charles Boyer!"
"Are you sure, Mrs. Howell? Do you think Mr. Howell would have been jealous of me sitting there saying, 'Come wiz me to zee Kasbah, ma cherie!"
They both burst out laughing at that. Then Gilligan shook his head thoughtfully. "Now Mr. Howell: there's class. He's got education and money and all kinds of respect. What's he got to be insecure about?"
"I've often asked myself the same question, dear boy." She sighed softly. "My Thurston is so sweet and kind and thoughtful, it seems to me that everyone who knows him should love him. But he does doubt himself sometimes, you know, because of his money."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, so many people have pretended to care about Thurston when they truly didn't. They only wanted the benefit of his money and position, you see. And because of that, over the years it's become very difficult for Thurston to trust anyone. You people were a revelation to him. For the first time in so very long, Thurston met people who didn't care about his money. You only cared about him."
"Gee, I never thought of it that way."
"So you see it is true, Gilligan. Everyone has doubts about himself. It's part of being human."
"Everyone does? Even the Skipper?" Gilligan shook his head. "Naw, Mrs. Howell, that can't be. He's so brave and strong and sure of himself. Everybody looks up to him."
Mrs. Howell glanced briefly down as she tried to suppress a smile. "Well...I'm not so certain my husband does, as fond as he is of the dear Captain. But there are times when I don't believe the Captain is nearly as sure of himself as you suppose. For instance, you would think such a man would have been able to come right out and ask us why he hadn't received an invitation to our annual cotillion. But the poor man simply couldn't bring himself to face us! He believed we'd deliberately excluded him! Imagine, Gilligan! After all this time!"
Gilligan nodded, shamefaced. "We were all pretty silly about that, Mrs. Howell. But you're right – the Skipper was pretty broken up about that."
"And look at the way that awful Smith woman had him simply tied up in knots! Thurston told me the Captain behaved like a bashful schoolboy around her. Why, Thurston actually said it was as though the man had never spoken to a woman before in his life!"
"Oh, the Skipper's spoken to plenty, Mrs. Howell," said Gilligan. "He's got a whole bookful of them. I guess she was sort of in a different class."
"Oh, pooh. I daresay Mrs. Tiffany-Smith is in much the same class as those ladies, Gilligan. She simply has more expensive packaging." Mrs. Howell patted her hair and then shook herself slightly, as if to rid herself of the ghost of her old nemesis. "But the Captain certainly has more to worry about than designing women and party invitations! Just think, Gilligan. Imagine the tremendous responsibility of being the leader and keeping us all safe! That must weigh very heavily upon the Captain's shoulders."
"He's always looking out for everybody; that's for sure," said Gilligan.
"Exactly. Think of what a burden that must be! He would never forgive himself if anything happened to any of us: especially you."
Gilligan dropped his gaze for a moment, but Mrs. Howell pressed on. "Weren't you the one who told Thurston that you were all the Captain had in this world?"
"Yeah," said Gilligan softly.
"Well...I'm happy to say that now the dear Captain has five other people as well. But he thinks the world of you, Gilligan. I've seen how very concerned he becomes when you're sick or hurt or in some kind of danger. I even remember how angry he was with me when you'd lost your hair and I made that foolish blunder about hard bald eggs. And today when we thought you might have run away, the poor Captain was beside himself." She placed her hand over her chest. "You're like an anchor to him, Gilligan. I think you keep him from going adrift. But that anchor's long, pointy bits—"
"The flukes," Gilligan supplied automatically, but his eyes were locked on hers.
"The flukes – is that what they're called? How musical!" Mrs. Howell beamed in delight for a moment before becoming serious once more. "The flukes are buried deep in his heart. One small tug, and..." She made a tugging motion and grimaced in pain. "Little wonder he's so protective of you. He wouldn't last a day without you; I'm convinced of it."
When Gilligan spoke, his voice was so low that Mrs. Howell could barely hear him over the lagoon waters lapping the shore. "Aw...I know that, Mrs. Howell. And I know I forget it sometimes. I guess I just...I just wanted to show him, that's all."
"Oh, Gilligan. You know, I find that it's often when we try to 'show them,' as you say, that all we end up showing is the worst side of ourselves."
"What do you mean, Mrs. Howell?"
"Well, you know how difficult it is to be the youngest man on the island. I wonder if you've ever considered what it's like to be the oldest woman."
Gilligan stared at her for a moment, open-mouthed, as she shook her head. "It's not the most pleasant position to find one's self in, I can assure you," she said. "You see, with a man, it's mainly experience and maturity that are valued. With a woman, it's youth and beauty. And once you've lost those, demon doubt begins to haunt you. Do people still see you as a woman? Or do you simply disappear?"
"But you're not old, Mrs. Howell!"
"I'm not young," she said gently.
"And you are beautiful! It was just like I said in the Miss Castaway contest: all you ladies deserved to win!"
"That was so kind of you, Gilligan. And in spite of the way we reacted at the time, it was the height of tact on your part not to choose any one of us as the victor."
"Oh. I'm glad you're not mad about that, Mrs. Howell. That whole beauty contest idea of mine was pretty dumb to begin with."
"And why did you even suggest it, dear? Because I couldn't bear that another woman had gotten a compliment. I couldn't bear that the Skipper had told Ginger she was beautiful. I had to make a great to-do of it. I had to 'show them,' as you say. Most of all, I had to hear Thurston tell me that I was beautiful too." Mrs. Howell shrugged gracefully. "And I behaved like a heel."
"But you didn't-"
"And I've been a worse heel than that, dear boy. You know it better than anyone. Remember when we put on Ginger's play, and I insisted that Thurston give me the leading part of Cleopatra?"
Gilligan nodded, mute.
"I heard Thurston praising Ginger's beauty, and then telling me that I kept doing everything wrong. I felt that I was losing his interest in me. I had to show him I could still be beautiful, so I took the one thing that Ginger wanted most - and nearly broke the poor girl's heart."
Gilligan was leaning forward in protest now. "But Mrs. Howell, you gave the part back to her!"
"Only after you convinced me to, dear."
He carried on as though he hadn't heard. "And besides that - of course Mr. Howell thinks you're beautiful! He loves you, Mrs. Howell! We can see it all the time: the way he talks to you, the way he treats you...he's crazy about you!"
Mrs. Howell's hand stole briefly to Gilligan's cheek again. "I know, dear. You know, I once told Mary Ann that to be a good wife was to be a completely fulfilled woman. But there's another thing most people believe a woman needs to be completely fulfilled, and it's been the source of my greatest insecurity for a very, very long time."
"What's that, Mrs. Howell?"
"A child." She nodded as Gilligan stared at her in surprise. "Thurston and I wanted children very much, you know. He especially wanted a son, to carry on the Howell name. And of course, his family very much expected it. We were so looking forward to welcoming Thurston Howell the Fourth into the world."
Beneath the darkening sky the silhouettes of the palms leaned gracefully over the lagoon like female forms rocking a watery cradle. "But...but then...why didn't you...?" Gilligan fell silent, ashamed to ask a question so deeply private. He sensed, though, that she wanted him to ask.
Mrs. Howell reached out and took his hand. "I'll let you in on a secret, Gilligan: one that only the people in our own family know. We found out the second year that Thurston and I were married: up until then they had been the happiest two years of my life." She looked the young sailor frankly in the eyes. "We learned that there would never be a Thurston Howell the Fourth, Gilligan, at least not one born to Thurston and myself. We went to the best specialists in the world. Hundreds of thousands of dollars later, we learned that I simply wasn't able to conceive a child."
It was a moment before Gilligan could speak at all; he could only squeeze her hand in silence as the enormity of the confession overwhelmed him. "Oh, Mrs. Howell," he whispered at last.
She squeezed back, as though she were giving strength to him. "It's an old hurt, dear boy. They do grow easier, with time. But when we first learned the truth I was devastated, of course. I couldn't bear the thought of being responsible for Thurston never having a child of his own; I even told him I would give him a divorce, if he wanted it. But he wouldn't hear of it." She smiled proudly. "And not just because of the scandal a divorce would mean; Thurston hadn't cared about scandal when he'd eloped with me. Our families had a long-standing feud, you see. Rather like Romeo and Juliet." She sighed fondly. "Do you know the play, Gilligan? It's always been my favourite. 'My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.'"
"Gee," said Gilligan softly. "That sure sounds like you and Mr. Howell, all right."
"And Thurston was wonderful, Gilligan. Absolutely wonderful about it all, though it certainly wasn't easy, those early years. There we were, with our families just beginning to reconcile themselves to the idea of our marriage, and we had to face them with this. Oh, they were polite to my face, but underneath that veil, there was embarrassment and pity, and not a little resentment. But my Thurston insisted he was the luckiest man in the world to be married to me."
"Wow. What a guy. But I don't understand, Mrs. Howell," said Gilligan, feeling his way with great caution. "I mean...it must have been awful that you couldn't have your own baby. I can't imagine what it would be like. But couldn't you have adopted? What kind of adoption agency would have said no to the two of you?"
"Oh, Thurston would have adopted, Gilligan. He told me the moment the medical tests first came through. But this time I was the one who wouldn't hear of it." She paused, her hand fluttering to her chest. "I...I think it may have been foolish of me at the time...but I knew how very important family and tradition were to the Howells. It was like a religion to them. And the very idea of a child who wasn't a Howell at all – even a girl, who would have had a claim to a share of the fortune, if not ultimately the name – seemed like a betrayal. I couldn't have asked Thurston to defy his family again. We decided that we'd eventually settle the inheritance on one of Thurston's nephews, and we'd live for each other.
And we have, Gilligan. We've had so many wonderful years together, and my Thurston has been as true as steel. But I'm only human, after all, and every so often when I feel that I'm no longer the object of his desire, or that he's taken notice of a woman young enough to give him a child, that old demon rears its ugly head." Mrs. Howell smiled sadly. "And I act like a heel."
"You're no heel, Mrs. Howell."
"You taught me that, Gilligan. I couldn't have had a kinder, more understanding teacher. And I want you to know that in spite of what happened yesterday, you're not a heel either. You gave way to your demon once, but that doesn't mean it owns you. As Thurston once told me, 'That boy is all heart.'"
"Really?" said Gilligan, touched. "When'd he say that?"
"When we adopted you."
"Oh. Hey, wait a minute, Mrs. Howell!" Gilligan drew back, puzzled. "You just said you and Mr. Howell wouldn't adopt, but you adopted me, that time. You even gave me the Howell name. Why'd you change your mind after all these years?"
"Can't you guess, dear boy?" When Gilligan hesitated to answer, she answered for him. "Because we love you so. Because you've brought so much to our lives. Do you know, Thurston and I took that trip to Hawaii because we'd become so distracted – he by his work and I by my social commitments – that we hardly had time for one another anymore. We wanted to rediscover each other, but we never dreamed how much we would find. Oh, Gilligan, it's as though when we came here and lived among all of you, we started to remember how to live again. And we've never been so happy."
Gilligan gazed at her for a long moment. At last he murmured, "Oh, Mrs. Howell, I was right. When they made up the word lady, you were the one they were talking about. I don't know how to thank you."
She smiled. "I'll tell you how: by coming back to camp with me and seeing the others. I know you have some things you'd like to say to them, and I know they have some things they'd like to say to you. It will be all right, my boy. I promise."
As they got up, Mrs. Howell bent down, picked up the fallen bayonet and handed it to the first mate. "Don't lose this, Gilligan. A very brave man once risked his life to save us by taking this from a Japanese sailor. I wouldn't want that man to lose it."
Gilligan slid the blade through his belt loop like a sabre. "I won't, Mrs. Howell."
"Good." She looked up at him with the stir of an old, old longing, and her hand stole to his cheek one last time. "You know, Gilligan, if I had borne a son of my own, I couldn't have wished him to become a finer man than you."
Gilligan's eyes glistened in the last of the light. "He would have been, Mrs. Howell. If he'd had a mother like you."
He took her hand and kissed it, as a man might kiss the hand of a queen. Then bowing slightly, he bent his arm for her.
Mrs. Howell rested her hand lightly on Gilligan's arm, and together they walked slowly up the trail to the soft lullaby of the rustling jungle.