Joe heard the snap of the door opening and the barest crack as she slammed it behind her. One more thing to have to repair sooner than later. He stubbed out his cigarette in the dirt of the dying African violet and glanced over his shoulder. Maddy stared at the picture window, eyes asquint in the late afternoon light, pencil tight between her teeth. He imagined she was trying to see how hard she could bite down before it snapped but maybe that was his own feeling welling up. It was hard to say what she was feeling. They were alike that way.
The two of them had hunkered down early, right after breakfast. That’s when Isla had born that look of hers right into the living room and then back to the table then to the front door.
“I can’t stand the way the rooms turn in on you, the dust and smoke and silence choke me,” she said, shaking her mane of mahogany hair, trying to clear her head. “If there’s not more light soon, I’ll be gone to Arizona, wait and see, Joe Talford!” She touched the fern in the corner, then batted it. “The desert’s needing me, that makes it even harder! I’ve surely had enough!”
He found this amusing, as if a desert would need anyone. She meant You and Maddy don’t, so why put up with this endless snow and darkness if I get so little? It wasn’t true, they so needed her, just not so much like this.
She needed ubiquitous light like water needed sky, she felt not enough herself without it. She needed attention like the temperamental violet. He saw that and tried to do better even when he didn’t feel the urge. He’d never known anyone who required direct eye contact as much as Isla did. But then, he tended to be zeroing in on other things.
It was mostly this way every winter. Joe wasn’t sure if her tone had changed much but something in her shoulders had. The gentleness was eking away, the slopes had become ledges, sharp and taunting. At night in their cramped room if he’d reach for her, she’d surrender with little delight and afterward her warmth cooled so fast his hands were surprised. This Isla was not the Isla he knew and liked so well. But to be fair she’d had little idea what the winters were about when they’d moved back to his family’s land eight years ago. Words were nothing compared to reality.
“She didn’t take her gloves or button her coat,” Maddy noted.
Maddy chewed on the eraser, but when Joe lifted a bristly eyebrow at her, she lay the dented pencil on the table. What she really wanted was a cigarette. Her parents didn’t know she sneaked one from her dad’s pack once a week. She liked how the smoke shocked her mouth and lungs before sliding out in a mysterious whirl of smoke. She’d take one out back into the woods as she gathered kindling or followed a blue jay deeper down a packed, narrow trail or if it was about dark, just sat on the giant stump behind the tool shed, smoking away in peace. She liked how it made her feel foreign to her age, not quite fourteen but she felt she was leaning toward sixteen. But at sixteen she’d be close to executing her plan to get out of there: move into Marionville, start community college. Right now she could play at life a little. Pretend she was tougher than she felt, have a laugh all on her own. Sometimes she shared a smoke with Hanes, the boy down the road a half- mile, and the next time he’d bring one from his aunt’s pack. He was her age but smarter about some things, she thought, as he’d lived here all his life and his family before. But she never told him about her mom, though she could have. He’d likely know about cabin fever.
It had taken practice to not cry out when her mother took off like that. She used to run after her but her dad always caught her arm, tugged her back.
“She’s not going far, my girl, she only needs bigger space, more air awhile.”
“I know, but I want to go with her.”
“That’d be unwise. We’ll wait.”
He’d put one big flannel-clad arm about her and hold her still. Maddy knew what he meant even a few years ago but that didn’t make it any easier to see her mother unhappy. Mad as a trapped animal. Which she was, she told them many times. And they can get mean. Now Maddy didn’t even move from wherever she was.
She didn’t have the same problem as her mother; she couldn’t quite recall Arizona. The tightly sealed walls felt safe to her, the radiance of heat from the burning wood and its acrid-sweet fragrance lulled her into peace. And her dad was mostly how she liked him, quiet, and there when needed. He worked on illustrations from dawn to two or three in the afternoon (with lunch at his drafting table) and then he read or worked around the cabin or split more wood or went snowshoeing. She often went with him after school; sometimes her mom did, too, if it was a day when she found their life good or even enchanting again.
“Going up to the loft,” Maddy said, picked up her books and notebook, padded up steep steps in her heavy socks, ran past the narrow office space where her dad drew, slid past the half bath and into her room.
“Yep,” he said, too late to be heard.
Joe stirred in his chair, looked out the window. It’d been an hour since she’d left and he had work to finish and yet he sat. He knew she’d be at Twyla’s house (or Marty’s, her other good friend) by now after a long slog through snow in her heavy boots, so resisted calling her. He had a commission to finish in a week but was also intruded upon by a recent dream: a mad jumble of red rock, searing sand and scorpions with faces and Isla sailing about overhead. He’d liked the amazing desert plants and many mountain ranges, the sunrises and sunsets. He did some of his best work while they were there. But the brilliant sun was relentless, the merciless heat kept him caged like the snow did Isla.
In Arizona she had taught art to elementary school children but after twelve years she’d had enough of their racket and carelessness but even more, the yearly budget problems, having to buy her own classroom supplies. She quit and was at loose ends. Isla was meant to be a painter but the years of stressful teaching had taken a toll on the free flow of her own creativity. She had tried, found the well dry of much watercolor inspiration. She’d begun to sew everything from clothes to handbags to curtains. She sold a few things here and there, and then more and more.
And then Joe learned of his inheritance, the family land and cabin. They’d decided they could do the same work in the far north. But it was not easy for her. It was like an impossible course to run, she’d told him once in the middle of an argument, tipping a tentative truce, no more faking it.
“Or worse! It’s like a foot binding–I can’t even hobble about here with any sense of balance, can’t even take off my shoes most of the year much less walk freely in and out any day, any night, or even think half the time! My creative vision is dimmed by this–this pinched density of what you call God’s country! What I’d give to cut down all these trees to see the whole sky for once, Joe…”
He’d crouched by the wood stove while she’d gone on and on about how too much of the year she had too little nourishment, the outdoors and she had become estranged. She felt lost and small and sad. That night, like many, had ended with her tears and recriminations, his laying awake most of the night, awakening with a mean crook in his neck.
Yet Joe knew this: he loved her. He needed her in his life and so did their Maddy. And every winter crisis he feared she would not come back, either she’d perish or she’d find her way to the nearest airport. He had for years believed that the richness of the north country would loosen her with greater familiarity. That she’d learn to adore the dark rich earth and majestic forests, adapt to a rugged but comforting rural life. That she would delve into beauty, each season like magic as it spun new stories from old, the back country a balm, not a poison. He’d even believed each winter she’d made some progress. She enjoyed snow shoeing and watching birds and foxes and deer, the snow falling on the land like a pristine afghan, creating gentle shapes and bright swirls of ice on windows. He and Maddy had found their place. For Isla, it was never quite enough.
He saw with a shock that his wife was, heart and soul, a genuine desert flower. She could die here. Had all the anger and tears been warnings he had thought were passing eruptions?
He got up, pulled on his jacket and cap, grabbed her red woolen gloves and his stained leather ones and set out. It was not the first time but it had to be the last.
Maddy came out of her room and leaned over the loft railing as the door closed below her. She knew better than to follow. But she still wanted to as she eyed the sewing machine at one end of the living room. It’d been unused the past month, maybe more. She wondered if it was broken, like her mom might be, and a shiver of terror ran up and down her bones.
Isla knew her way around their little patch of country. She’d made the trek to Twyla’s or Marty’s often enough–or vice versa. The path through the acreage was covered partly as her last foray was a few days ago and more snow had laid itself down. Still, her feet knew how to find the trail to the fence and the broken slats where she either climbed over or pushed herself through the other side to Twyla’s a half mile away. She shoved her hands into her deep wool tweed pockets. It’d have been better to wear her so-called ski jacket and mittens but she’d been eager to leave Joe’s punishing silence, Maddy’s listening ears. Snow flurries danced about her face and barely skimmed the trees. Her mink-oiled boots squeaked on the path as snow packed down with each step.
Mustn’t forget Dan might be there. He was not the most sympathetic of men, neither easy to talk with or easy to avoid in a room, his bulk like that of one of the lovely beasts he liked to hunt and kill, whose heads adorned the walls. He seemed to want to stare her down. Twyla told Isla that he didn’t hear well so was straining to get all her words but Isla found him suspicious of any outsider. Joe was not one. His family owned the cabin and land for two, nearly three generations.
She knew Dan was expert at fixing all manner of ruined things. Twyla was stalwart and ingenious; she made do with little and made it look easy and good. She was born to this life, not the territory since she’d been raised in the upper Northeast but this was not so different. Isla and she would have had little in common except for Twyla’s quilting passion, her creative snug alongside her practical side. And, too, there was her nephew, Hanes, who she’d raised as her own. Maddy liked Hanes a lot. Isla could see why; he was resourceful, independent-minded and easy to look at. He taught her much about how to adapt there just as Twyla had done, or tried to do, for her. But Twyla knew Isla had not the heart for this life though she’d never said so. She had grown to like having neighbors who were an arty sort and Isla read to her as she quilted, helped Hanes with his homework sometimes.
Isla was grateful for this friendship; though hard to build at first, it was woven strong over the years there. But this time, she didn’t know what she’d tell her. It had started to seem like she could not stay in this land any longer. The past three months of winter nights had gotten rockier and mornings were shaped by sameness and chores and when she picked up the fabrics they felt heavy and useless in her hands. Her website had shown a dip in sales. She had so little motivation to fill orders, made excuses to customers and felt deeply embarrassed. If this kept on, she may as well quit. May as well pack her bags and go home.
“Home,” she said, her breath aloft in crystalline air. Then: “Arizona.”
She took an involuntary intake of the air and it hurt her lungs. She licked chapped lips and kept on, cold seeping into her flesh. The sky was low and thick with grey clouds as it always was in winter, no hope of sunlight getting through. In the distance, she barely made out smoke rising from Twyla’s chimneys. They had a fireplace in front as well as a woodstove in a back room–a sprawling house, larger than most if showing wear and tear. She could have called her friend but she was nearly always home this part of the day. They could show up at each other’s homes about any time. Dan would likely be gone.
There was a muffled sound behind Isla. She exposed an ear from her cap to listen and looked about but it was nothing, or a deer streaking through the pines as it saw her. She loved the wild creatures, it was true, this was the main part holding her here other than her own family. And sheer will. She started to leap-run across the field, boots sucked into the foot of snow at times, her strong legs pulling free. Heat soon radiated from her chest as she got closer to the side door, Her thicket of hair was damp so she pulled off her hat, stuffed it in a pocket and took long strides until she reached the steps.
The screen door was closed but the inside door was open.
Isla mounted the stairs fast. She pressed her face against the nylon mesh and peered into the darkened rooms.
Nothing but the quiet crackle of flames in the fireplace. She pulled open the creaky door and entered the kitchen so redolent of apples, bananas and oranges in a bowl, fresh bread. She looked about, and in horror fell to her knees.
On the floor was Twyla, her legs and arms askew, wavy bottle-blonde hair now half-red as blood seeped and pooled on the cracked grey linoleum. Isla looked into her unfocused, half closed eyes, felt for a pulse so soft she wasn’t sure it was there, examined a gaping wound at the side of her head.
“She must have fallen, hit the counter edge!” She reached for her phone. Not in her pockets, nowhere.
“Mrs.T? … Isla?”
Her name careened through the rooms in a barely restrained scream. Hanes came around the corner with hands plastered to his face, breathing fast with cries caught in his throat, cell phone skidding across the floor.
“What happened, Hanes? Did you call for help?” She got up and put her hands on his boney forearms.
“She–she cried out, put a hand on her head, she fell, hit the counter edge… no not yet I couldn’t find my phone at first…” He blinked back tears to no avail, face dazzled with fear. “What’s wrong with her? What do we do?”
She grabbed his phone, called 911, explained what she could then called Joe. No answer.
“What’s your uncle’s number, is it in here? Where is he?”
Hanes pointed out the door toward the woods, then ran to it, calling out his name. Hunting, likely; who knew if a signal would carry.
“Call him, Hanes. Tell him the ambulance will be here in less than fifteen minutes. Hanes!”
The boy was pressed against the screen door, looked about to run into the snow so she called his name again loudly. He turned and caught the phone when she tossed it. Dialed Dan. No answer.
She sat by Twyla, afraid to touch her but afraid not to and so she placed her hands on the woman and prayed. What to say? What words even mattered? She lowered her face to Twyla’s.
Keep this good woman alive, damn it, don’t let her go until she’d an old lady, she’s one we all need in the world. God, you hear me talking? We need help here. Save her from this trouble, such an ending. Give me a chance to love her more, for Hanes to know her longer, for Dan to care for her better. Lord, answer me with help now.
“I see someone,” Hanes whispered out the screen. “Who…?”
The sirens could be heard from a long way off, even through the tough old trees, even with the snow-laden earth and dull clouds that capped the world. She felt Twyla’s warmth and her blood saturating one jeans-clad thigh and time was a snail. Twyla’s face was so small. Isla closed her own eyes. Life was made of many smallnesses. Microscopic, really, such tiny moments and the fine-laced snow and shards of ice and cellular mystery of blood. Anguished and joyous hands of a child, this kind woman dying right in her bountiful kitchen. Her life staining Isla’s own skin, the wind freezing tears on her nephews–no, her boy’s–face. And it becomes an infinite flood of life careening here and there, you don’t know how much it all matters until its being torn into jigsaw pieces, life strewn across sand and dirt. If only she saw more good in the scheme, felt less the struggle. Twyla did. Gave much more than sought for herself.
Two hands fell upon her shoulders, someone’s breath warm on her neck as chill air moved about her.
“Isla, you can let go of her now.” Joe pulled her up, engulfed her in his arms. “Isla, they’re here for her. Could be a stroke but she’ll live, they think–thanks to you, my love.”
It can happen just like that, she thought later as she sat with Dan and Joe, Maddy and Hanes and Twyla on the front porch. One day you believe you know what’s best for you and then the next you see how little you ever knew and everything changes and life goes one in a decent, even finer, way.
“Snow’s about done and look at that petal!” Twyla noted happily to Isla.
Dan smiled, teeth barely showing. “Spring is coming, as usual.” He looked at Isla and Joe with quite a bit less of a squint. “You made it another winter. Stayin’ on again?”
“Not sure, we’ll see,” Joe said but his voice held hope as much as caution.
Maddy elbowed Hanes, lifted an eyebrow. He returned the knowing look and they got up and went around the back of the cabin.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure we’re staying for another year, anyway,” Isla said as she laced her fingers with Joe’s.