Izzy had been awake for almost three hours. Since Caleb’s death she never seemed to sleep much past five a.m. She filled the time marking papers, responding to emails and going over counselling case files. It was never hard to fill time. She grew to enjoy being present when the dark sky gradually turned to a grey light over the tops of the mountains. She anticipated the moment when the dawn quiet would be shattered by the incessant squawking of stellar jays as they perched in the tall trees, vying with the distant crowing of Liam’s rooster to announce a new day.
After a well-deserved stretch she returned to her chair at the writing table. She saw Justin disappear along the trail toward the greenhouse garden on the other side of the cabin. Justin was a very attractive young man. It was more than the dark-golden glow of his hair or the brown eyes flecked with warm hazel tones; more than the generous mouth and slow smile that lit his whole face; more than the clean muscular lines of his broad shoulders and lean hips. Beyond all of this he possessed a quality that seemed untouched. Izzy’s grandmother had once described the sensation of looking into some people’s eyes as being in the presence of old souls. It was this quality – like something shiny and new but older than time – that caught Izzy’s attention.
Justin had certainly turned out to be a golden triumph for Micah Camp. Not all the kids who came to the Camp were raving success stories but a large number were. They screened for success – that was part of the Board’s mandate. Their client base was young people who were coming out of the foster-care system. They were looking for kids between the ages of eighteen to twenty who had a certain edge. Sometimes it was an artistic interest, drawing or music maybe; other times it was a high math or science score or advanced computer skills; or maybe that edge was the passion of a kid who had read every book that ever came her way. A year at Micah Camp would help fill in educational gaps, smooth the way to post-secondary opportunities and kick-start what would be a lifelong process of dealing with emotional baggage.
That was where Izzy came into the picture. Though she was not the type to brag, it was due in large part to her skills that so many of the young people who came to Micah Camp emerged a year later ready to capitalize on their talents. She was a gifted trauma counsellor and her skill was born of her ability to enter totally into the stories her clients told her. In the end it was all about hearing the story. Izzy believed that people had their own answers to what they needed in order to heal and that these answers were embedded in the stories they told. She knew she was good at what she did but was at a loss to explain how or why simply listening and bearing witness to someone’s story was so powerfully healing. She often felt tongue-tied when asked by colleagues to explain her therapeutic skills and counselling methods.
Izzy glanced down to consult her daily list, a proverbial burden she couldn’t do without. She carefully crossed off tasks already completed and then took a moment to write in a task done that hadn’t made the list. She diligently crossed it off as well. She contemplated the day ahead. Beulah would be picking up the new tenant in Dearborn in the late afternoon and Izzy needed to be on hand to welcome him and get him settled in at the guest cabin.
Two months ago she had made the decision to put an ad on the internet offering the guest cabin for rent. There weren’t many guests in the offing and having a cabin that sat empty day after day was a waste. She was surprised to get a response so quickly and even more surprised at who had responded. When she shared the news that the person who was going to take the cabin for a year was a Catholic priest, Liam had raised an eyebrow ever so slightly. Izzy could only describe his face as mostly inscrutable, all angular planes and dominated by those blacker-than-black eyes. That was it though – just a raised eyebrow.
Consulting her leather-bound daybook, Izzy noted back-to-back counselling sessions scheduled for that morning. After she got the Reverend Patterson settled in she needed to prepare for the monthly book-club potluck. It would be a larger gathering than usual. Justin was invited. At Izzy’s suggestion he had read Alistair MacLeod’s novel, No Great Mischief. Bethany’s niece, who had picked Beulah’s copy off the table and apparently wolfed it down in a day, would also attend. The Reverend Patterson would be invited as well. It would be a good time for him to meet everyone and a convenient opportunity for Izzy to appear hospitable.
She leaned her elbows on the desk and cupped her face in her hands, glancing down the lake that was starting to ripple lightly in the breeze. The morning sun glinted off the top of each tight roll of water like row after row of sharpened steel blades. The book-club nights always took a toll. She missed Caleb when she had to plan or be part of a social gathering and book-club potluck night had really been Caleb’s thing. He entered into each monthly gathering with a gusto that totally belied the fact that he would be the only one attending who had barely skimmed the novel in question. He would search out theme potluck dishes and would often come up with a prop or two to emphasize the book’s theme. No doubt for tonight he would have had a Rankin family CD playing during dinner or maybe a Rita McNeil song or two. He might have served up a traditional Cape Breton meal and convinced Liam to join him in some spoon playing around the table. That level of planning was far beyond Izzy’s capacity.
Book-club night stopped abruptly when Caleb died. For almost a year and a half, as if by some type of tacit agreement, they all knew they couldn’t be in the same room at the same time. It was as if their collective grief would multiply, rebounding endlessly within any closed space like an image in a house of mirrors, until the pain would overcome them all. Then, as if emerging from some type of fog, Liam casually suggested the title of a book to Izzy and the monthly gatherings resumed. The first time, without Caleb, was as painful as they all knew it would be. But now that the ball was rolling, Izzy would make sure it kept on rolling. She would take her turn at picking a book; she would act as hostess; and she would make one of her trademark, potato dishes. The evenings obviously suffered in comparison to what they had been when Caleb was around, but at least it was a suffering for which they were now developing some tolerance.
A frown tightened Izzy’s features. Every encounter, even the most innocent, was affected by Caleb’s absence. This was as clear to her as if the others were shouting it to the mountaintops. A sharp line had been drawn across all of their lives that clearly defined every moment now as being less than it could have been if only Caleb hadn’t died. Nothing she could do would change that. She knew that after the book club she would end up sitting alone on the cliff deck drinking too much wine and regretting it all when she woke with a splitting headache at five the next morning.
Bethany stood by the kitchen counter slowly drying the lunch dishes. She felt comfortable and totally at ease in her kitchen. She gazed with pleasure at the neatly arranged row of potted herbs on the ledge of the dormer window set in over the sink. The ceramic pots were painted with delicate sprays of flower blossoms. She brushed her fingers across the small leaves of one of the plants and the scent of chocolate mint filled the air. The window afforded a rare side-view of the mountains that formed the backdrop to the cove. Bethany loved the view of the trees marching up the slope in alternating bands of colour, from light to medium to dark-green and finally giving way to bright-white patches of snow on the mountaintops.
The screen door slammed and Beulah came across the length of the A-Frame’s main floor. She stopped just slightly behind Bethany. Brushing the long blond hair from the side of her neck, Beulah kissed her softly. Bethany turned to rest her head on Beulah’s chest. Tipping Bethany’s chin up with her hand, Beulah said, “You OK, Bethy?”
Bethany smiled faintly and nodded, “Ya, I think so. I want to get out in the boat today. I probably won’t be back when you come home from town.”
Beulah was resting her hand lightly on Bethany’s cheek and thinking about how blue Bethany’s eyes were – the softest blue of a robin’s egg, flecked with motes of darker-blue that seemed reflected over and over into their depths.
At that moment, Lisa-Marie came through the door and took in the scene across the bar in the kitchen. “Gross, go to your room or something . . . OK . . . have some consideration for your house guest. I am an easily influenced teenager, after all.”
Bethany broke away from Beulah’s embrace with an uncomfortable laugh, “Where have you been Lisa?”
“Been to London to see the Queen, Auntie Beth,” Lisa-Marie sailed by them and out to the veranda to plop onto a deck chair.
Rounding up the Ford keys from the hook on the wall near the door, Beulah shook her head at the sight of Lisa-Marie sprawled out on the deck and then called back to Bethany, “Tonight’s the potluck. What are we bringing?”
“I’ve got some chicken out. I’ll fry it, I guess. People usually like that.” Bethany’s mind was already wandering to thoughts of her fishing tackle box. She wondered if she had the right lures for what was promising to be a warm afternoon.
“Sounds good . . . chicken and whatever potato concoction Izzy comes up with. We won’t starve. I suppose that free-loader Liam will bring pickles or something. Maybe he’ll outdo himself and bring a loaf of our own bread.” Beulah ignored the way Bethany shook her head sadly at the reference to Liam. “I’d better get moving. That bread won’t deliver itself.” Beulah called out towards the deck, “Hey, impressionable teenager, help your aunt with that chicken for tonight. Make yourself useful.”
Lisa-Marie wandered into the kitchen from the veranda when she was sure she could hear the ATV near the top of the trail. She sat down at the table and looked across the kitchen bar to catch her aunt’s eye. “I went over to the Camp to check it out. I met this woman – Josie. She said she could use me for a few hours every morning to knock soap out of the forms and to do other jobs like that. They pay minimum wage but that’s not bad.”
Lisa-Marie was absentmindedly tracing the design that ran along the border of the tablecloth when Bethany looked up from whipping eggs and milk in a pie plate, “You didn’t have to do that just because Beulah ribbed you, sweetie; you don’t need a job. Maybe it would be better to hang around and help with the bakery.”
Lisa-Marie caught the concern in her aunt’s voice and she suspected that what she really meant was that it would be better if she stayed close where they could keep an eye on her. She wasn’t sure how to handle the feelings that suddenly turned her face a hot-red colour and made her breath hitch in that awful way that could only mean one thing – tears. Lisa-Marie hated crying almost more than all the other things she hated combined.
“There’s nothing wrong with me, Auntie Beth. You don’t need to keep an eye on me like I’m a mental case or something.”
Bethany began to dip the flour-drenched chicken pieces into the pie plate of frothing egg and milk and then into the dried bread crumbs. Each piece was on the way to the heavy, cast-iron frying pan that was already on the stove. Lisa-Marie rose from the table and walked around the bar to stand in front of the stove. She silently took the large metal fork her aunt handed her and began pushing the browning pieces of chicken around the pan. The kitchen was quiet except for the sound of the sizzling chicken.
Lisa-Marie spoke without raising her eyes from the frying pan, “I wish you wouldn’t worry about me Auntie Beth. That’s all. You know it will only make Beulah more pissed off, right?”
Bethany reached over to turn off the burner under the chicken, “It’s good enough for now.” She took the fork from Lisa-Marie’s hand and laying it down on the counter she put her arms around her niece. “I’ll try not to worry, sweetie.”
She stroked Lisa-Marie’s soft brown hair and they stood together like that for a few moments. Bethany was thinking of the effort she had put in over the years to be a long-distance aunt to Lisa-Marie. She wrote tons of letters. When Lisa-Marie was small the letters were on big pieces of paper in all sorts of bright, felt-pen colours with funny little pictures drawn in the margins. Lisa-Marie responded with pages of childish printing. These pages slowed to almost nothing when Lisa-Marie entered her teens and went to high school. Bethany wasn’t daunted by the silence. She was rewarded for her patience with a birthday card each year – Lisa-Marie’s large and looping handwriting declaring her love.
Bethany was not one to pray but if she were, she told herself, she would pray now. She would pray with all her heart that the closeness she had worked so hard to achieve with Lisa-Marie, over the miles and the years, was going to be enough to carry them into a new, more complicated relationship.
She wondered how to put together the thing she wanted to say to Lisa-Marie. It was a bit like a complicated fishing lure. It would have to be arranged just so if it was to go down with any sort of smoothness. She began to clean up the dishes while Lisa-Marie was putting the chicken into the baking dish. Slowly Bethany began to speak. “When I first came here to Crater Lake to live with Beulah I was pretty screwed up but I didn’t really know it.”
Bethany continued to talk as she ran water into the sink, “I knew that some bad things had happened to me in the past and I had seen a lot of counsellors and social workers and people like that and I felt like I had told a lot of people about stuff, but . . . I don’t know how to say this, Lisa. It was like someone else was saying the words and sometimes it was like I wasn’t really here at all.” Bethany paused to see if Lisa-Marie was listening. Though her niece’s back was turned, Bethany could sense the quietness in her and she saw Lisa-Marie nodding her head slightly.
“Beulah was pretty good friends with Izzy’s husband, Caleb. He said maybe it would help if I talked to Izzy sometime. Beulah wanted me to and I didn’t really care. Like I told you, I had talked to lots of people before; it wasn’t a big deal to me. But when I talked to Izzy it wasn’t like any of the talking I had ever done before. Izzy’s different. I can’t really describe it.” Drying her hands on the towel hanging on a hook at the end of the counter, Bethany turned to pat Lisa-Marie on the shoulder, “I was thinking that maybe you might like to talk to Izzy sometime. It’s up to you of course. It wouldn’t work if you didn’t want to do it.”
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Genre – Contemporary Fiction / Literary Romance
Rating – PG13