She slept fitfully that night, tossing and turning as her own nightmares resurfaced without mercy. She had meant only to create a simple portrait of herself and Maya in the woods with Jack the day he had unwittingly knocked down the barriers between them; something that would convey the intense emotion of the moment since neither one of them could find the words. They were awakening things long dormant in each other and with each passing day, she found her painting was telling the story within the story, just as her book did. Jack would know that once he had finished it. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be there when he did.
Isabel was fighting to untangle this subconsciously, in ways she could not do when she was awake. She rolled over and threw the covers off, clutching her pillow. Somewhere in the distance an owl began to hoot, but she wasn’t aware of it. The moon shone silver and lit up her face through the window, touching her cheek tenderly as she slept… guardian to her dreams.
It was the middle of the night and her brother Drew was pounding on the door, yelling at the top of his lungs, pleading for her to open it and let him in. “Okay okay, just a minute!” she yelled. He wouldn’t let up. She stumbled out of bed and threw her robe on, wondering what on earth he was doing at the Lodge, but when she tried to open the door, the knob was glowing red and hot to the touch. She jerked her hand back, wincing in pain. “Go away, Drew, you shouldn’t be here. It’s too late! Come back tomorrow!” She was screaming… but he did not hear her over the insidious roar. He kept banging and yelling until finally, he lay down on the ground and spoke to her in a whisper through the crack in the door. All other sound ceased, but for his voice.
Smoke came pouring into the room with every word, billowing around her until she couldn’t see anything. Her eyes were stinging. It was terrifying. She covered her ears and squeezed her eyes shut against the stabbing pain, begging him to stop the hateful words she didn’t want to hear. There was no air left in the room and she was gasping for breath. She sank to the floor, wrapping her arms around her body to try and ward off the horror. Her heart exploded anyway, and all the pieces fluttered up and away, disappearing into the smoke like carelessly torn shreds of paper lit, but left unattended; her life reduced to ashes in just a few words. She lay down on the hard wood floor and prayed that God, in his mercy, would allow her to stay there for all eternity. She tried again to close her eyes against the sting, but sleep eluded her. She could hear her brother’s ragged breathing. It matched her own.
Drew lay in front of the door outside, weeping, totally spent. He had been there with John the entire time, and he had been unable to save his brother in law. He used up every word he knew, telling her in desperation how hard he had tried. But he thought if he never had to speak again, it would be too soon. He would blame himself for the remainder of his days and he was certain that she would too. He would always be the one who had stood at the door to her home and her heart on this last fateful day and delivered the news that would change the course of both of their lives forever. She had closed the door without a word and while she lay on one side of the deepest chasm he had ever known, he lay on the other... long into the night. The sound of the waves behind him crashed against his spirit and dragged it out to sea. Neither one spoke and for the first time in his life, he knew he could not reach her.
The moon was merciful then and she slept another hour without dreaming. She shivered and unconsciously pulled the blankets tighter around her, folding her arms close about her body, the way she had on that terriblenight.
Isabel woke at dawn with tears soaking her pillow. She didn’t move, but lay for a long time looking out at the water as it began to shimmer in the early morning sunlight… thinking, allowing her mind to come backto the present.
The wildfire was unexpectedly swift and John had been separated from his team, battling a remote section of it deep in the heart of Yellowstone. They were unable to reach him before the trees fell, blocking his only exit. The images that played over and over again in her head were relentless. It was a scene she knew she would never be able to obliterate from her soul. The clock struck three times and the house was silent. His presence was gone forever and just like that, time stopped abruptly for her, while moving faster than ever around her. She rolled over, a soft cry escaping her lips.
John was dead. No matter how many times she said it, the reality refused to take hold. She was left stranded for all eternity on the shores of a hell she had never seen coming. He’d made it home from Sicily, only to be torn away from her back home by a wildland fire? It was an agonizing ocean of pain where the one word that came in with every tide, was… why? Why why why? It was like a tidal wave, washing into every space inside of her, drowning out all else.
It would never make sense. One word. Just one word. With no conceivable answer.
For most people, time moves in a linear direction, but it had ceased to behave in such an orderly fashion for Isabel long ago. Instead, her life had become a series of treks through the rooms of her memory, as she walked mile after mile of silent winter forest in her dreams. There was something soothing in the sound of her footsteps crunching on snow and ice and it cooled the fire inside of her. The long shadows of the woods she trekked in her mind, made her feel less alone somehow, as if even the trees were willing her into their embrace, longing to comfort her. The secrets of her heart were safe there and it felt like being on another, more peaceful planet. It was a melancholy place tucked away from the rest of the world and it was beautiful, even in its sadness.
She had far preferred the cottage on Lake Ontario to the place in the Adirondacks, but she had chosen to keep thehouse in the woods anyway, because John had loved the place. It was an old white two story home that had belonged to her grandmother’s family. Now, she was very grateful for that decision as she divided most of the year between that base in the mountains and the one in Cape Vincent, on the road to the lighthouse. She had tried desperately after John’s death to remain at their home on the lake but in the end, the pain was too overwhelming and she had asked her attorney to put it on the market and handle the sale without her. The office had called her one week later to tell her that two buyers had locked horns over the property and fought well into the night over its price. The cottage sat on one of the most beautiful stretches of shoreline in the region and though she had only wanted to recover costs, she had received a tidy sum above her asking price, from the lone benefactor who had refused to give up the fight. She knew nothing about him, nor did she care to, but she was glad it had gone to someone passionate enough to fight for it. She used the proceeds to buy a small place on the water near the lighthouse where she and John had spent many sunset hours together, though it had never quite felt like home.
She had gone back to their lake house only once, to retrieve her two paintings and she stood in the center of the room, trembling, looking into the bedroom that now stood empty. She remembered how the sunrise would creep in through the windows to wake her gently and how she would always leave the shades up so she wouldn’t miss it. She heard the waves rolling gently onshore and saw the thin, wispy clouds muting the landscape to the softest shades of blue and pink and gold as the day wore on, covering it all with a blanket of rippling diamonds. She could watch flocks of geese fly low over the water in formation, before landing with a quiet splash in front of her window without ever leaving the comfort of her own bed.
She had reached for the paper on her nightstand one morning, clutching it with excitement. John was on his way home from Sicily and would be there in time for the holidays. She had lain there making plans and creating a mental “To Do” list that would keep her busy for days. Rummaging around in the drawer, looking for a pad of paper and the fat orange pen the realtor had left behind, she wrote it all down so she wouldn’t forget a thing. When she was finished, she noticed that something was stuck to the bottom of the pad of paper and she pulled it off, discovering an old letter from John… one he had sent to her the day he had arrived in Sicily.
My dearest Isabel,
I sat on the stoop in front of my father's house this morning as the sun came up and I thought of you far away across the ocean. How is it that coffee smells so wonderful but tastes so bad? Still, a little cream and sugar mixed with this beautiful sunrise, and I can tolerate it. (I know you keep my secrets...) I watched a single honey bee in my mother's garden next to those crumbling old steps today. I really need to find the time to fix that! Maybe next week, before Carolyn returns me to the airport when this mission is complete. How it reminds me of your little garden back home.
Anyway, it was carrying out the task of gathering nectar in order to make something sweet. Have you ever really thought about that? It's such a miracle, really. I mean, how do they know when and where to gather it up? How do they always find their way home? And I find it so interesting that they never seem to go in a straight line. Their purpose is very straightforward and clear, but they wander from one petal to the next, in seemingly random order. It's fascinating, if you take the time to stop and ponder it for awhile. (And I do!)
When this is over, I will head down to the coast and sit for awhile listening to the waves, in your honor. I know you would love this village I used to call home. It is dotted by rusty, time-worn boats, simple rooftops and row after row of colorfully painted homes. Life slows down here and while it takes awhile to match their pace, I find I breathe easier and relax more when visiting Sicily. There’s something about it I never can quite put my finger on. Maybe it is similar to the way you feel about Hawaii. You’ll have to tell me when you visit Sicily someday. I will enjoy very much, seeing Taormina through your eyes, Isabel. I already miss you.
If I have gained anything at all from these times away from you it is this: The very real knowledge that every moment is precious and should be savored for the sweetness it is. You don't get them back and you don't get to do anything over again, as much as I know you long for that. Savor them, Isabel. Cherish the moments when they happen. It's important. Remember that for me, okay? I may need you to remind me again, someday.
As always, lovingly yours...
It was one of the longest letters he had ever written to her, and certainly more words than he had ever used at any one time in their lives. It was almost as if he had known, somehow instinctively, that they would be the last words she would hear from him for two years. She had clung to them in the darkest hours after he had gone, and they had sustained her. The day she had received it she had wandered down to sit on the dock with her feet splashing in the water, sadly watching the sailboats and thinking about how very like him, it was. He used to say, "Not all who wander are lost, love." It was one of the most quoted phrases in the book, but she didn't care. She loved it anyway. A young couple passed in front of her that day, completely lost in each other, oblivious to the outside world. "Don't ever take it for granted." she thought solemnly. “It can vanish in an instant. Say what you need to say, while you still have the chance to say it.” It was impossible to know what tomorrow might bring.
Softly, she whispered into the silence, “I know, John. I believe you. Not all who wander are lost, my love. I hope you’ve found your peace.”
She still carried that letter with her everywhere, stamped on her heart. She had memorized every word. “The very real knowledge that every moment is precious and should be savored for the sweetness it is. Savor them. Cherish the moments when they happen. Remember that. Always.”