Authors: Abi Maxwell
“Any whales?” Oscar asked when Alice returned.
Alice was dripping and cold and in her hands she held her life jacket, snorkel and mask, and flippers. Wet and burdened as she was, she looked nothing but pathetic.
“The baby didn’t die and the van’s still there,” she said. “You can tell your Clara that.”
Back home, the woman who had become Cici put water on for tea. She took out her stack of records but decided instead on silence. In the bottom of her underwear drawer she had a picture. She locked the doors of her place and took that picture out. Sun
poured in. It had been like that then; all of her memories of that time were filled with light plunged down for their small family alone. And that had been good, full, and surely would have grown. But now what was she to do? She could not ever say that when that great beast with barnacles on its back rose from the depths she had chosen to leave her family and instead join with that animal in a flight far above all that her life had ever been or would be. But that is what she had done. It might not have been a mistake.
ALICE RECEIVED HER
first letter in early spring. It wasn’t expected. The last stretches of ice had vanished from the lake just days ago. In her time so far on the island, Alice had performed this ritual of checking mail every day. It began at her cabin. She would sit on her porch in the late hours of morning, the spread of empty lake before her, and when the mail boat drifted across the horizon like a slow, sure animal, she would slip her shoes on and begin her short run to the mail dock. When she arrived, Kenneth, the mailman, would just be docking his boat. His job was to deliver mail to all the islands. Here, though no one ever got mail, there stood a spread of boxes, one for
each summerhouse that speckled the shore of Bear Island. Until today, the mail itself had never been Alice’s purpose, though she had imagined, more than once, that Josh had tracked her down and sent her a letter. Not that she would take him back—she felt sure she would not. Since she came to the island, the mornings of immobility, those days when she felt she could sleep for a hundred years, had vanished. Yet there was something she felt she still wanted from him. It had scarcely been two months since she had left that cold place, and though she felt impossibly wiser now, some part of her wanted to know that in her days in the north, distant though it all seemed now, she had not been a fool. That he had loved her then—a small piece of her still wanted and would always want to know that. But of course such reassurance would never come, and during these long days on the island it simply felt good to have a ritual, and a person to greet each day. Now, as she withdrew her letter, Kenneth the Federal Agent—as he liked to call himself—peered over her shoulder.
“Bet I know that handwriting,” he said. “But that ain’t for a Federal Agent to be saying.”
Alice placed the worn envelope in her back pocket and flushed. Kenneth, that’s who she imagined had written it. A bit of a gift. He untied his boat and was off.
Door to your cabin says Wickholm Ice Cream & Candy. Heavy door with a mail slot. So I’m no stranger. Guessing you know the Wickholms since you’re out there at Signe’s place. Malcolm Wickholm been like family to me, but he don’t know about the cabin far as I know. No one but Signe knew, don’t know why. Signe wanted the cabin fixed up and she hired me to do it, five years back, maybe a few more. Simon Wentworth is my name
Anyway I got out there and the place had been destroyed, rotted
right through and the roof sunken in with snow, so I cleared it all away and fixed up another. Something you might like to know, your cabin is an old chicken coop. I went over there to the Phillipses’ farm and I see the coop they’re all set to burn and I buy the thing. Jack that thing right up, put it on runners, tow that place out right over the water. Fixed it up. Now you’s living in an old chicken coop
I ain’t on the island now. Up north working on an old barn. Don’t know what you like, but it’s something. Old notched beams. Maybe I’m speaking down to you by saying there ain’t a nail in the place
I seen you fixing up that cabin, that’s all. I got a place out there inland so I seen what you done and Patty Jean told me who you were, and once I heard your name I realized I remember you from school, you were a few grades younger than me. All I’m saying is the thing was liable to fall into the ground. Now you’re there and you painted the porch. Raise the flag in the morning. Flag ain’t my kind of fixing but looks nice in the wind all the same
Also I seen you read. Signe’s books are good but if you want something else you go inside your cabin. Top shelf behind the door, find an old property map all rolled up. Find Wentworth easy. Only place inland on the island. Combination 5731. Old ice cream store number, Malcolm’s store. Don’t know why I chose it but I did. You go right in. Don’t need to check no books out. If there’s food eat it. Be on the island soon
As far as Alice knew, the only other living soul on the island was Patty Jean. That woman lived just one cove down from Alice, and Alice had made something of a ritual of visiting her, too, but only in the evenings. That was because she didn’t want to intrude. “How I love my lonely days,” Patty Jean had said once, when Alice asked her how she kept herself busy. She was an old woman, her husband gone and her daughter off with her own life
somewhere. In winters, Patty Jean lived in an apartment in New York City, but each spring, as soon as the ice cleared enough for passage, she found herself a ride out to her island house, and there she stayed until the freeze began in fall. On her walls hung framed notes from her late husband, things written on scraps of paper and even napkins.
Gone to pick mushrooms, don’t eat all my dinner up. Me and the dog and the cat love you, and we’re all sorry for being cranky
. Also she kept framed photos of herself, black and white, alone or with a baby on her lap. In these photos she sat bold and so serene. Evenings, Alice would sit with her on the screened porch, and together they would listen for loons while they cut squares for the quilts Patty Jean sewed.
With Patty Jean sharing this strip of land Alice had never before been afraid out here, but now she looked behind herself wondering what man might be lurking in the woods. She put the letter into her pocket and heated that great big, freshly seasoned pan over the fire. The entire lake was dark now. A deep wind had set in and the whitecaps were picking up speed. She wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and peeled her garlic and threw whole cloves into the hot oil, and as it sizzled she kept her vision fixed on the waves, and it wasn’t long until her thoughts boiled down to become nothing at all. Nothing but her cabin soaring across the water, this Simon at the bow as though he were aboard a great ship.
I have received your letter, what a special gift. Also I have found my way up to your cabin. I must say that it was an offer I did not originally intend to accept, yet with all the free time on this island it simply became too tempting a journey. And as you say, I suppose we
two are not strangers, though I am afraid I do not remember you from school; sometimes I marvel at how I was able to keep so to myself in a town as small as ours. Anyway, how grateful I am for your books, as I have recently committed myself to the Classics
Your cabin is something—so well thought out, such reasonable, usable space. And insulated! Do you stay on through winter? These cold nights I often start a fire in my small woodstove, but the heat vanishes straight through the thin walls
Save for Patty Jean I have not yet seen a soul out here. Except of course Kenneth, the mailman. It was he who first delivered me to the island—though he said it was against the law to carry a passenger aboard the federal mail boat, and insisted I keep the small journey a secret. I’m confident that my secret is safe with you. When were you here? Why didn’t you introduce yourself? Know that incurable shyness is certainly something I understand. I often curse myself for being incurably shy
I look forward to meeting you out here on Bear, Mr. Simon Wentworth
With her first letter written from the island, Alice walked early to the mail dock and waited for Kenneth. When his boat arrived she headed to the end of the dock and caught the line he tossed to her. After she’d tied the stern of the boat up, and Kenneth had come off to tie the bow, she walked to him and waved her letter his way.
“Oh, no, missy,” Kenneth said. “That ain’t the law. Things is different on this here lake.” Kenneth went to the side of the mail boat and released a latch, pulled forth a narrow set of stairs just long enough to hit the dock, and held out his hand for Alice.
“It’s the law, missy,” he said. Alice took his hand and he led her up the stairs, onto the mail boat.
“Thought no one was allowed on,” she said.
“Women,” Kenneth mumbled, and then, “Ain’t no one allowed a
.” Here he winked at her. “Dropping outgoing mail into the box a whole other matter altogether.” He released her hand, pointed to the blue box that was anchored to the floor of the boat, and then shaded his eyes. “Privacy,” he said, “is a very important part of a Federal Agent’s responsibilities.”
“Don’t you know he just makes up every single one of those rules,” Patty Jean would tell Alice later. “It was thanks to him I quit sending mail long ago.” But still, Alice would continue to feel quite right about every part of the official island process. The wasted effort she rather enjoyed.
Cabin’s insulated right up, good to stay the winter, though I ain’t never done that. You want yours warmer? I’d say we could do something easy. Fix the roof up first thing in order. Insulating a chicken coop ain’t the brightest thing I ever heard of, but I seen stupider things done. What I’m saying is I’ll do it if you want. Won’t cost much and besides I got some stuff we can use
Where you been these last years? Be on the island soon
I daresay this island is the most beautiful corner of the world I ever did know. Summer has arrived, I swim each day, and Patty Jean has taught me how to hunt for, pick, and dry some edible wild mushrooms. It frightens me a bit, to eat the little things, but Patty Jean assures me that she is an expert and that life is too short to miss out upon black chanterelles
You asked where it is I have come here from. Most recently I was up north of the mountains. I had some difficult times there.
Inheriting this cabin was a pure surprise and blessing. At the time, I had nowhere to go. My first and in truth my only thought was to go into the lake. That sounds strange and terrifying, but I do find it astonishing that after such a thought I should land in this blessed place. It is difficult to describe. The simplest version is to say that I was raised by my father; my mother left us when I was an infant. Recently I drove northward and tracked her down in the place my father said she would be. She lives in a small village on the eastern tip of the continent, in Canada. While I was there she left an envelope on the seat of my car. In it were the details of this place, my inheritance. It seems that in the year I was born, this Signe you speak of gave my mother the deed to this cabin and land, with the instructions that I should have it when I was old enough. I do wonder what would have happened had I never showed up. Would the papers have just sat there in a drawer? And as for this place? Anyway, I’m afraid that I never knew Signe, and am yet unsure of my relation to her. I also do not know the Wickholms—of course, I know who they are, but I have never had an occasion to meet them, though I am now inclined to believe that we too share a strong connection. Oh, it is all still so confusing to me! Suffice it to say that I am trying to figure it all out, and in the meantime there isn’t a place in the world where I would rather be
Being from Kettleborough, you must know the story of the Witches. Patty Jean has just retold it to me. Ida of the Witches! Growing up, my father told me that story many times. He would joke that that woman had been my ancestor. But aren’t those only stories? Now, standing on shore and looking out to those black rocks—how like witch hats they do look—I can so clearly imagine a woman dropping within to have those rocks rise up in her place. Yesterday I found the spot marked “Witches” on the map, and I walked the perimeter of the island until I came to the place nearest to them. I stood there on shore for some time and imagined myself the woman of the story. How strange, I know. But it seemed a wonder to me that my feet were
planted so closely to the last solid spot that such a legend stood. I truly felt rooted there. It was as though the rocks called out to me. I stared and stared while the time passed. And time did pass—it was nearly dusk when I came to. I walked back to my cabin then, thinking all the while of this floating strip of land, this great expanse of lake, and those great rocks. It all fills me with a pure steadiness, Simon. Is it strange to say I feel I have come home? This island holds me up in some real way
I look forward to your arrival. Solitude is wonderful but now and again quite lonely. How does Patty Jean make it out here so long alone? Ghosts, that is what she tells me! Perhaps, but I think I prefer the living
Be well, dear Simon
P.S. I would love to fix this place up some more. Please do let me know the details
Live alone and maybe I already told you but I have a dog. Yesterday maybe 5 in the morning I throw the tennis ball for him, throw it way out into the woods. He runs off, gone all day. Evening I start to call him, hear him bark back at me so I don’t worry none. Arthur. I let him do what he wants. But I wondered, because that dog likes to eat, and usually he shows up for dinner real early. Round 9 o’clock I get ready for bed and the slobbering beast runs in through the screen door wagging his tail so hard he knocks a glass of water off the table and it breaks. I look at him and that son of a bitch has the ball in his mouth, no shit. Out there looking for it all day. I couldn’t believe it
I got insulation for you. Whole one-ton truck full of it. I’ll get out there soon. We’ll fix your place up good enough to winter the island
Dog is good but it will be nice to have some company out there