She jumped and her heart raced, she hadn’t heard footsteps, nothing, she couldn’t even tell where the voice came from.
It was a man’s voice and a question more than a greeting and, while the tone was not unwelcoming, something in what was unsaid made it obvious he wondered what she was doing there.
He coughed as if to help her locate him and she felt the unreasoning and slightly unreasonable anger at being caught.
She made herself take her time in turning to face, whoever he was there at the edge of the clearing, still in the shadow and, with the sun through the branches above, just a dark bulk among the slender birches. She raised her hand to shield her eyes and hated being at such a disadvantage.
A figure stepped forward into the clearing and she realized it was him. The man from the beach. There he was; faded blue work shirt with the sleeves rolled up above the elbows, tanned arms loose at his sides an axe held loosely in one hand. The man who bolted last time, the runner on the beach. Damn, I’m on his property she thought.
“I saw you on the rocks the other day,” she said and immediately felt she had blurted the obvious. The pause was only a second but it felt like an eternity. “I, I’m Becca. I didn’t see any signs. I was just looking.” Her voiced trailed away as the silence stretched and he just stood there. She shifted impatiently and had just about made up her mind to walk away with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Angus,” he said finally as though she had asked a question yet he seemed to look past her.
She waited to see if he was going to manage anything more. Maybe he was going to run again she thought and almost smiled at the image of him suddenly breaking and running through the forest.
“I’m staying at the Berndt’s place,” she added feeling the need to explain her presence. Naming the house and her connection gave her validity, provided a sense of belonging and connection.
“My house is the yellow one,” he said as though that explained everything. “Do you like my sauna?”
She wondered if there was more to his words than appeared on the face of them or if he was just prone to conversational skips and lurches. The whole conversation was taking the air of an overly intellectual foreign film. “It’s like a fairy tale house,” she said and then, glad to be on safer, more practical ground. “I love the color of the logs.”
“It took a couple of years for them to go that silver gray,” he ran his hand along one of the logs remembering the winter he cut them. “That first summer they were raw and almost yellow, poor little sauna stood out like a sore thumb back here.”
He stopped and the birdsong and rustle of the birch leaves was suddenly loud.
“I was just coming down to start the fire,” he went on.
“Oh, go on, please,” she said. “I was just out exploring, don’t let me stop you.”
“You must have walked up the east side of the island, you didn’t come by the house. It’ll be dark if you go home that way. If you don’t mind waiting a moment, we can walk back up by my place. It’s shorter than walking all the way around the way you came.” He wondered why he cared, she seemed the type to take care of herself. He half expected her to say no thanks and stalk off.
But she perched on one of the bentwood rockers there on the small porch and slipped her sunglasses on, and watched him split wood from the stack by the side of the sauna. He didn’t mind the audience, anyway after a moment he forgot she was there. He swung the familiar heft of the axe and felt the sure, quiet focus of the task at hand.
Angus and the Zen of chopping, Stu had liked to say. Watch your Uncle, This, the man can swing, and always the pause, and the twinkle, an axe that is.
The axe came down and the kindling leapt away from the piece left wobbling on the block. He paced around the block splitting off piece after piece. His hands strong on the shaft of the axe and his shoulders tight under the faded blue cotton of his shirt.
He gathered up an armload of sticks and stooped to go into the sauna. The wood was dry and, with a curl of birch bark, started easily. After a moment the smell of smoke eddied and swirled with the wind through the little clearing.
He stopped half in and half out of the little door as he came back out, a bit comical with his lanky frame hunched over in doorway, and grinned lopsidedly as if he had remembered it was something he was supposed to do. He really was at once the most graceful and graceless man she ever met.
“Are you ready then,” he asked.
Graceless, she thought but she smiled as much at the thought of being out of the awkwardness of the situation and moving again as anything.
“Yes,” she said. Where did that come from, she thought. A week ago my first response would have been no thank you and I’d have walked the long way home just because. Automatic avoidance.
* * *
He shut the sauna door carefully, smiled a brief flicker and led the way along a narrow path through the woods and into a field with his yellow house. A wide, covered porch opened on two sides, late pink roses sprawled beside the steps. He paused at the bottom step and looked up at the door.
He hated this moment. He had no idea what she expected or what was expected of him. The road down to the shore ran in front of the house as plain as could be but she looked everywhere but down the way she would be going. The gardens, the greenhouse, the woodshed, she took it all in. Staying down at their place, she’d be measuring it up against the places down southward. He felt the dinge of it all, the grey of worn weathered wood, and cracked peeling paint. He’d meant to get to that trim round the windows all summer He shuffled his feet and cleared his throat.
* * *
She could tell he wanted her to go, part of her felt badly that she had him dangling there, when he clearly had things he wanted to be doing, but the gardens really were spectacular. Flower gardens arced around the house in wide beds and an enormous fenced area of raised beds were still full and rich with color and promise.
“It is a magnificent garden,” she said simply. She knelt by a bed that spilled out a riot of reds and yellows and breathed in the scents and let her hands trail through the bright petals.
“Some people say flowers are just a waste of time and garden, but I always loved flowers. The garden seems empty without them.”
She turned back and smiled at him.
“I, I, look its early, well, I mean for,” he stopped and she was struck again by the mix of competence and mastery the garden so clearly showed and yet the complete loss of stringing together a single simple sentence. She straightened and decided not to rescue him. If he had something to say he would have to figure it out for himself.
“I was going to have a snack,” he said finally. “Would you like to join me.”
If it takes him as long to get food together as it does his thoughts I’ll starve she thought.
“Yes, that would be wonderful,” she said realizing suddenly that it would be wonderful and she was starving.
He gestured to the scattering of brightly painted rockers. “Have a seat,” he said. “I won’t be a minute.”
There was that end of a loaf. He tapped it on the counter it still had some give to it. Dry bread had some fancy name. Stu had called bru something and they’d made a joke of it ‘brother bread’, tough as hell and sure to break your teeth but by god you can count on it no matter what. He leaned against the counter and felt it sweep through him. It wasn’t grief anymore, it had become too dull and worn to be grief, sorrow fit though. Shit, he told himself, it’s a loaf of friggin bread, move on, and he took out a knife to cut it along with slices off a chunk of sharp cheese.
He glanced through the window as he cut the loaf. Her profile with the lines of shadow and light strong and stark on her face and the full curve of her breasts and, Jesus, Angus, he said to himself, keep your eyes on the job or your like to cut a finger off and then what. But it was there, the feeling. The strangest feeling that he’d seen her long ago and wasn’t meeting her but remembering her.
He stacked bread and cheese and a small plate of olives on a tray along with glasses and, damn and blast what would she drink. If he brought just water he’d look stingy, if he took out the bottle of wine that had been there for half of forever he’d look forward or bold and if he did the tea thing he was sure to be a fogey or a, hell, there was no way to win.
He took a deep breath and stuck his head through the door.
* * *
She leaned back in the rocker to catch the last of the afternoon sun. She could feel the glow on her face from the sun and time spent outside. Her sunglasses were dark and he couldn’t see where she was looking or if her eyes were closed. She was safe. She watched him half in and half out of the door, stuck again she thought. Honestly.
“Yes,” she said.
“I wondered what you’d like to drink,” he asked. “Water, wine,” Coffee, tea,” he trailed off.
“A glass of wine would be lovely,” she said.
He returned a moment later with food, bottle and glasses balanced on a small painted tray.
“That was fast,” she said pushing her sunglasses up.
He’s blushing, she thought and it was silly but endearing.
“I only have the one bottle,” he said. “Rose. Trying to hang onto summer I guess.”
“It is a wonderful feeling isn’t it,” she said.
He handed her a glass and raised his. “Then, to summer.”
* * *
There on the porch with the last of the summer sun on their shoulders and the level in the bottle dipping, he felt he knew her, had known her and he wondered at the feeling. She talked easily, the island, her connection to it and where she’d been exploring and what she’d seen. The sound of her voice and the direct and easy flow of her talk there on the porch made him smile. I have been out here too long he told himself.
The one moment when she’d pushed her sunglasses up her eyes were wide and startlingly clear. And the color, somewhere between yellow and green with a shimmer and brightness that made him think of sparks. He’d watched her as they walked up the path to the house, she didn’t look around so much as direct her gaze, as if she were touching and remembering everything. Drawing the world in more than looking out.
At first glance he would have said she looked serious but intense or intent was closer, he thought and there was a glint of humour as though she knew more than she was willing to tell. As though she was seeing something that wasn’t there yet and hoping it would come. Her smile transformed her and he wanted to make her smile again.
For once, instead of feeling lost as he sometimes did in the tumble and roll of conversation he felt at ease so that her question, when it came caught him off guard.
“Angus,” she asked, “why are you here? What are you doing here, on the island?”
“Writing,” he said, hoping that was enough.
She leaned forward in her chair, closing the distance between them and he felt intensity from the set of her shoulders. “How long will you stay? And writing what?”
“I’m not sure. I love the light in the fall.”
“Not sure what you’re writing or where you’ll go?” She wasn’t going to let him off the hook.
“I don’t know,” he said softly. “I don’t know. It isn’t always like this.” He gestured at broadly at the field, the forest, the gardens.
“The summer feeling, the island is harsh even unforgiving in other seasons.”
“Do you write poetry then, that was lovely,” she had leaned back in her chair and her legs were tucked up under her.
“I’m working on a few things mostly a long way from poetry if I do it’s just for myself. Write poetry I mean,” he answered, “but the unforgiving part isn’t poetry, just the truth.” He could tell she saw the slip in his face. He could see she wished she hadn’t asked. There was a comfort here being with her, he barely knew her and yet, these moments beside one another were, he wasn’t sure what to call them only sure he didn’t want to let them end, didn’t want her to stand up and go.
What do you do,” he asked in a rush, eager to take the focus away from himself.
“I’m a forensic accountant. They call me in when the auditors need auditing.”
“Ah, a number cruncher,” he said and cursed himself for a doubled damned fool as soon as the words were out of his mouth.
“Yeah, something like that. But you needn’t sound as if I think the world can be reduced to numbers.”
Her tone was light but he knew the feeling, he’d gone and put her in a box not bothering to see who she really is. She probably has me pegged just like all the Neanderthals out there, he thought.
He glanced at her and she was looking across the field to where the trees still swayed in the dying nor’westely wind and he sensed a sudden restlessness in her. He felt he needed to explain, to find the moment of easiness that had been there between them before, before I do what I always do he thought, put my foot in it.
“You still haven’t answered my question you know,” she glanced at him and he wished he could tell what she thought but she looked away quickly. He was left with the sense of her eyes, so clear and still that, like the pools of water in the woods road, they were dark and bright at the same time and always deeper than they appeared.
* * *
“You don’t need to say more. I don’t mean to pry.”
“No,” he said, “no, it’s OK, I.The lakes here,” he began again, “the lakes were gouged out by the glaciers. Some of them were scraped out between the mountains and they are long and cold and dark and deep with the rock rising above them. One winter the cold came before the snows and the lakes froze clear and clean. I was fishing then, lobstering, and I skated every afternoon I got the chance. I was there alone some evenings, alone on the ice at the end of the day, and I just flew down the lake with the wind. All alone on the great sheet of ice and no boundaries just the wind at my back and I just flew. Then for no reason I happened to look down and I saw the ice was thin and I was skating over the barest skin. It was like the bottom was ready to drop out from under me and I saw myself suspended, hanging by a thread, above the terrible cold and dark. Then I was across and it was over but that’s how sudden, that’s how fragile it all is. That’s how fast it happens.”
The sun slipped below the spruce trees along the road in front of the house. She’d shoved her sunglasses back down and in the shadows so it was impossible to read her eyes.
“You never know”, she said and even she wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement.
“Su and I were working in South Africa then and when I drove you’d see the people walking, miles from anywhere woman with babies on their backs bundled in old towels walking and if I was far from the city I could stop and take them home or to the doctor or whatever. But in the city I could never stop because you never knew, if maybe there wasn’t someone hiding there using them for bait. It was like the ice the not knowing what is beneath, just below. And then there’s nothing there nothing to stop you falling.”
“I’ve said too much,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
She saw the shadow come across his face, as sure as if it had been a curtain being drawn.
“I should go add more wood to the sauna,” he said, standing. “Not much good if it’s cold.”
She stood to face him and took his hands.
“She’s coming tomorrow,” he said as if it explained everything. “I have to be ready.”
“Who’s coming, Angus?” she asked.
“Stu’s girl, my niece. I’m all she has now, just Uncle Angus and the island.”
“Don’t go there.” Her voice just a whisper.
“I’ll be back,” he said.
She looked up into his face ruddy with sun and wind, the lines around his eyes so quick to turn from smile to seeking and she wondered where the stories had come from. She glanced down at his hands still in hers. Warm and work hardened hands, rough from the life he’d chosen. Or maybe it had chosen him. His stories hinted but at exactly what she wasn’t sure. God if his writing was anything like his talking it would be that thoroughly impenetrable crap everyone talked about but no one ever really read. But, she did know she hadn’t held a hand like that since she was a girl. Not since she held her father’s hand.
“I’ll be here,” she said, not quite sure what she was promising or where it might lead.