The summer began with the island, and the island began with Christmas of the winter before. Church bells heralded Christmas, and so in a way rang in the existence of the island. Isobel remembered easily now, clear as the carillon resounding from the bell tower at Our Lady of the Lake on a snowy afternoon.
On Christmas Eve Victor came home, not with gifts for their children, but with three peppermint candy canes.
In the back porch he shed snow, his stomping punctuating Isobel's questions. "Presents?" He grinned, his tone was derisive, sly. "Bah, Isobel, any child can have presents on Christmas." He shrugged in through the kitchen door.
Isobel, baffled, sat back down. "Aren't our children any children?"
What could possibly make any child different from another on Christmas? If there was one universal emotion among an age, she thought, it would be the thrill of children everywhere upon waking Christmas morning. Christian children, anyway. What was he up to?
"Don't tease, Victor. What can you mean, you've bought no presents?"
He leaned to her hair and said in a conspiratorial tone, "Oh, Izzy, I've bought better than presents."
Isobel could smell the alcohol on him. She shot out of her chair. "What can you be thinking, coming home drunk on Christmas Eve!"
Victor patted her into a sitting position and splayed himself into a chair. "Good God, Isobel, can't a man have one drink on a holiday? It's Christmas, for Christ's sake!" He chuckled at his phrase and repeated it, tapping a knuckle on the table. "Christmas, for Christ's sake."
"Oh, I see. Drunk and blasphemous. Victor! What about–"
"The presents?" He pulled a tight roll of documents from the inner pocket of his coat and laid them on the table before her. "Right here." He spread out a deed and a legal description. He took a small photograph from his breast pocket and slapped it down.
From what Isobel could tell with a cursory glance at the papers, he had bought land.
"Land? Victor, I don't understand."
"It's an island, Izzy, a gorgeous place."
Isobel squinted at a purchase agreement and gasped. Fifteen hundred dollars! As much as she'd made in the last year doing seamstress work. Victor's signature sprawled next to the date, spelled out formally, December twenty-fourth, nineteen hundred and thirty-five. Ink from the official seal of the county land office bled into the description. Five and one half acres, island parcel, tract 78, Lake Cypress. Isobel picked up the photo. Five and a half acres. It looked like nothing. It looked like exactly what it was, a mound of pine-studded granite jutting from a plane of black water. As she looked at the picture, the question burned her throat.
"You didn't ask me?"
Victor offered empty palms in response.
In sixteen years of marriage they had always been together in every decision, no matter how trivial. Just that morning they had lightheartedly debated whether to have creamed potatoes or roasted for Christmas Eve dinner. Victor wouldn't so much as place an advertisement for the tailor shop without Isobel's approval. If new machinery was purchased, it was only after the two had put their heads together and both had concluded that model X was better. Whether the living room walls would be papered in pine green or olive was worth days of discussion; deciding on a name for a baby could and sometimes did take weeks. But in the end they agreed. Always. Together. Isobel glared at the snapshot. The kitchen was quiet save for the distant bells from Our Lady of the Lake, ringing in Christmas Eve.
As the last chime faded, Isobel rose from her chair and slapped her husband's face in one clean motion. His head jerked neatly sideways and stopped abruptly, as if he meant suddenly to examine the wall.
In the echoing silence she looked at her palm as if it were a stranger's. Shaking, she hung her apron on a hook. Calling upstairs for Louisa to come down, she turned to the sink and waited, counting the footfalls, the seconds it took for her daughter to bounce down the back steps. The door squealed open.
In a barely controlled voice, she instructed Louisa to baste the turkey at intervals, check the yams, and set the dining room table. The girl nodded curiously at her mother, sneaking a sidelong glance at her father, still facing away in his strange posture.
Isobel turned on her heel and pushed out of the room, away from Victor. She imagined him rubbing his cheek and staring at the swinging kitchen door until it bumped to stillness behind her.
She climbed the stairs, rasping knuckles along the dark beadboard, veering into the room she shared with Victor. Snapping on the light, she pawed through her underwear drawer until she found the envelope of money she'd saved from her dressmaking. She carefully pulled bills from the thin packet. Victor's smug face loomed before her and she stuffed three of the dollars back into the envelope.
She was grateful Thomas and Henry were out of range. Earlier she'd seen their snow-blurred movements from the kitchen window. All afternoon they'd struggled over an igloo at the edge of the creek, their caps cardinal bright against bare trees and colorless blocks of icy snow.
Downstairs, she pushed her felt cloche over her eyes, shouldered the porch door open against a low drift, and aimed herself downtown to stretch her bit of savings into a decent Christmas for her family.
Main Street was nearly deserted, most shops already closed for the holiday. Isobel blinked through fine lashings of snow and plucked her way through ankle-deep drifts. Each time her foot came down, slush shot up to spatter her stockings and hem.
She saw a figure move toward her and she pulled her scarf up high, but not fast enough to avoid Mrs. Sima's eye. Sima's butcher shop was next to Victor's tailor shop. Mrs. Sima trotted closer, trailing a wake of snow, her voice ripping through the curtain of white.
She took refuge in her hat, pretending she hadn't heard.
As Isobel turned she managed a surprised look, suddenly glad for pelting snow that explained away the red sting in her eyes.
"If you're looking for Victor, dear, he's left the shop... oh, hours ago now." Mrs. Sima rubbed her arms like a channel swimmer. "About noon, I'd say." Powdery snow rose from her fur coat. When Isobel only smiled, Mrs. Sima cocked her head sideways. "You haven't lost him, have you?"
Isobel blinked, her smile cast in place. "I don't think so, Mavis. Why do you ask? Had you thought I would?"
After a beat, the woman chortled. "Ha! Ha, well...."
"Well, isn't this a perfect Christmas Eve? Made to order!"
"Yes." Isobel nodded at the doorway of the mercantile. Large, garish boxes were gift-wrapped and propped in a tower against a display window coated from the inside with false snow.
"Here's my stop, Mavis."
"Last-minute shopping? Goodness, I had everything bought and wrapped by Thanksgiving."
Isobel put her hand on the door. "Always prepared, Mrs. Sima, just like a Boy Scout."
"Ha. You tell your family for me to have a very merry–"
"Yes, merry. Same to yours." Isobel slipped into the door, but not before hearing Mavis muttering into her fur, "Butter wouldn't melt..."
If the children were disappointed the next morning at the tin banks, adventure books, and sketch pads she had found on picked-over shelves at the mercantile and the dime store, they didn't show it. Nor did they display any false enthusiasm. Receiving their perfunctory kisses and lukewarm thanks, Isobel fought tears. She was tired, had been up late cleaning the kitchen and wrapping gifts. She had restlessly tossed all night next to Victor's snoring bulk. Still wearing her bathrobe and slippers, she sank into an armchair. Victor took down the roll of documents tied to the tree with a silver ribbon.
The deed to the island thrilled the boys to awe as Victor described the island's rocky ledges, the copses of aspen, the mysterious peat bog that could suck your foot under if you were careless, the precipices of granite, a small beach where every stone was the perfect skipping stone broken from the slope of shale that stood like a giant's foot in the shallows of the north end. The palisade log cottage needed just a bit of fixing. He explained how they would have their own permanent camp, accessible only by boat and complete with tents and bonfires. A paradise. They would be like the Rough Riders out on expedition.
Louisa remained curled around a cushion near Isobel's feet while the boys fought for space on their father's knee, grabbing at the photograph of the island until it was bent and smudged.
"Are there owls?"
"Are there badgers?"
"Daddy, are there bats?"
And in unison. "Are there bears?"
Victor shook his head. "No badgers. No bears, but we'll have teddy bear picnics, just like Roosevelt's children."
Isobel looked up, puzzled. "Teddy's or FDR's?"
Victor ignored her. "We will be Lewis and Clark"– he winked– "paddling the wild, charting our own wilderness." The boys threw their arms around their father's neck and shoulders. Through a tangle of limbs Victor gave Isobel a sidelong look of triumph. Payback for the slap. Isobel slumped, glaring at the tree.
She managed to put the island out of her mind until after the ice melted from the big bay in spring. Victor packed her into the car one April evening and drove her to the boat landing at Chalmer's Point.
"I just know you'll feel differently after you've seen it, Izzy. It's a marvelous place."
While Victor fiddled with an anchor and readied the boat for launch, Isobel kicked off her shoes, pulled a pair of borrowed opera glasses from her handbag, and climbed carefully onto the hood of the Ford. Satisfied her weight wouldn't dent the metal, she clambered higher to stand on the slope of the black roof.
When Victor looked up from his task, he was astonished to see his wife balanced like a bowsprit atop the car, searching the horizon. Loose tendrils of blond hair skipped across her cheekbone, and her skirt billowed around her calves. Oblivious in her perch, Isobel held the glasses to her eyes, scanning the lake and focusing the tiny binoculars. She slowly swept her gaze level with the far shore, her motions concentrated and minute. Suddenly she went very still.
Isobel stood, a slender woman with clear skin and the sculpted features of her European ancestors. Her light hair was cast gold with the same bright evening light that made her squint and washed her skin the colour of a tea rose. Breeze moving off the lake carried ribbons of chill that pressed her blouse to outline her small breasts and angular shoulders. Victor walked slowly to the car, stepped onto the running board, and reached out to hold one of her ankles.
To steady her?
His hand wrapped easily around. Pressing his thumb lightly into flesh and sinew, he felt a twinge at the fragility of his wife's bones. Clouds reflected in the enamel of the Ford and shifted with the fast-changing black pool, her skirt casting its movements.
Victor wondered, had he never held her ankle? If he had, he'd not taken any real notice. He had lived with Isobel for sixteen years. Could it be he'd never touched this fine place? Her feet were small and narrow, so highly arched that he could slip a leaf underneath and pull it out the other side without her knowing. The warmth of her under his hand brought a sudden sharp desire to him.
They hadn't made love since before Christmas.
She hadn't openly rebuffed him, but had simply managed to be asleep each time he got into their bed. In the mornings she was up and dressed before he woke.
Perhaps after getting out to the island?
His own hand felt rough as he felt upward along her calf, taking care not to snag her stocking. Tailor's calluses ran in crested ridges across his fingers, and he wondered idly if he could file them down with the stone he used to grind scissors blades.
He laughed that he was even considering such a vain notion.
Isobel lowered the opera glasses to her chest and smiled crookedly at him.
He grinned hopefully. They used to go off, just roam away from the house, even if only for a half hour after the children were asleep. They would talk, and she would laugh and hang from his arm and he would tell her jokes or stories he'd heard, aping the voices of the townspeople, relaying what recent gossip he'd been privy to in the shop. Not very long ago, yet it seemed ages, the last time he'd made her laugh. It couldn't have been as long ago as autumn?
They'd been walking under the turning maples in their neat neighborhood. As he kicked leaves, Victor spied something on the ground. He picked up a scrap of white paper, folded it to a square, and held it to his collar, mimicking Father Thiery's oil-thick Irish brogue. He whispered somberly into her ear.
"Why aye, lad, I'm as fond of curly little darlin's as the next feller, but in yer capacity as a shepherd-in-training, these types of impure thoughts about the lambs might.... What's that, boy? Well, perhaps it's not so great a sin if ye were thinkin' of good St. Francis whilst...." When Victor wriggled his eyebrows in mock consternation, Isobel laughed so she had to lean against the neighbors' fence. "Now, did you say flock, son?"
She folded herself into a crouch and wiped her eyes with her knuckles. Victor looked down the street and back, waiting for his wife to stop laughing. He held out his hand.
"Up now, there's a girl."
"I can't!" There was an edge of hysteria in her voice.
He knelt next to her, the cloying accent back. "And why's that, my child?"
"Stop it!" Her tears were mixed now, and her answer was a hiccough. "B-b-because I've wet myself." She slapped his chest. "You've made me . . . I've peed on Mrs. Perlin's sidewalk!"
They both started laughing then, but hers was thin, and as she walked awkwardly away she gave him an accusing look. "Having three babies will do that to you."
"Aye." The accent thickened. "Wonder what four'd do, lassie?"
She looked at him with disbelief before pulling free of his arm. "Victor, not everything is a joke."
Steadying herself against a sudden wind from the lake, Isobel gingerly climbed down from atop the car, taking the hand he offered her. The gravel was a shock after the smooth metal of the hood, and as she limped to her shoes she brushed off her skirt in sudden industry.
He was reminded of her demeanor in the shop, her movements there swift and economical. She had worked nearly every day since Thomas, their youngest, had started school. She'd bring lunch, and while he ate she'd work on the account books or wait on customers. If she had a dress order or alteration or was sewing something for the children, she bent quietly over her machine through the afternoon, rising promptly at the sound of the school bell so she could rush home to greet the children.
She glanced at the lake, at the far speck of the island, before turning to look into her husband's eyes.
"I've seen it. Now take me home."
(c) 2001 by Sarah Stonich