The girl said, “You’re not a leopard.”
Her first words, after a mayday signal at six in the morning, me having only a kayak to nose this kid in her rowboat away from the rocks and with the wind coming up. Good strength, thank God, this little girl. The fishboat who’d sent out the alert watched from deeper water and I bet Warren whooped when he saw us finally beach. Now he’d reverse around the cliffs towards my scrabbly old wharf and come up for the next act, and hot tea.
“No,” I said, trying to keep a neutral tone. “I’m not a leopard.” This girl was maybe eleven, twelve? About half my size and, standing safe by the woodstove, she looked like a wet racoon even in my red sweater, except her body was square and a touch less defiant. I picked up a dry towel and went to turban it over her hair.
“Stop! You’ll get infected and your skin’ll drop off.”
Christ. I turned and put the kettle on the cook stove. She’d better like tea. I got sugar out of the cupboard and set the table. I live alone and silence is just fine.
“Where’s the colony?” she said. “I need to go.”
Not a chance in hell you’re going anywhere. As slowly as I could I said, “What in God’s name is all this you’re talking about?”
“I am too leaving.” She was heading towards the door now, floundering like a caught moth in my big clothes. Where goddammit was Warren?
I grabbed what I could reach of the sweater and turned her around, but her strong arms came up and she broke my grip. I know too damn well you’re not supposed to be rough with a kid but I squeezed those arms and got her on her knees so she couldn’t kick, and let her spit in my face since she couldn’t do anything else. My own face was inches from hers when the proverbial light went on. Blotches dark and light spread over her skin.
Standing up, freeing her but bracing the door closed, I said, “You’re not a leper.”
“Am too. Everyone says I’m going to make them sick.”
My arms ached. “You’ve got something called… I forget. The dark and light are just what your skin looks like and it’s healthy as any other skin. It’s not going to peel off. There’s no colony on the West Coast either. Not like that, anyway.”
She was backing away, looking around for a door, I’m sure, so she could escape the crazy lady. Lucky for me the back and side doors were warped shut. My house was an old wooden place built by a man in the thirties to house people clamming on the beach. He built it like a real house with a basement, attic, and windows which must have been shipped in.
Warren pushed the door open and in a minute wore the girl’s same wary expression as he stepped quickly around our two staring figures to shut off a screaming kettle. “I’ve stashed the oars,” he said, placed teabags in the pot, brought the Brown Betty to the table, sat, folded his hands under his chin, and waited.
“Come have some tea,” he said after a minute, and smiled at the girl. She backed up to the wall. He pulled a box of cookies from his sack, chocolate as usual. “Irene,” he said without turning to me as he slowly poured himself a cup and selected a cookie. “These are for you, too. Let’s replay this movie, eh?, now I’m in the picture.”
I didn’t want to leave the front door unguarded. “This is Warren,” I said. “The fisherman who saved you.” The girl’s lips formed into a thin smile and I couldn’t tell if she was happy or dismissive.
“I used to play football,” and he looked like he still could with his big frame. “You stole a boat. If you want I can run interference for you with the mainland. But I can’t do it unless you tell me your side of the story.”
Warren had shown no surprise seeing her blotched face. Just the same as with me, whenever he’d drop over, no surprise at what I was up to or looked like. He let me be, knew I didn’t like to talk, and would put the kettle on, maybe help himself to the makings for a sandwich and go sit on a chair outside. Sooner or later it’d be both of us watching the firs and the water.
“Come sit down,” he said again, pouring a second cup of tea and shoving it towards the far side of the table. When the girl had approached and sat, he pushed the plate of cookies over, and said, “I’ll tell the mainland you’re staying with Irene for a few days.”
News to me, and he wasn’t even glancing in my direction. Like he already knew.
Warren had a kind, watchful face, sort of a good-dog face but with knowhow. I’d made this comment once and I remember him saying, “Well Irene, I’m one of those smart salmon herder dogs, eh?”
“I’m Warren,” he was saying. “I’m not from here but I married into the village. My wonderful wife’s passed now. I stay and do firefighting and I own the Agnes Edna. If the lighthouse sees some trouble they call the cops and the cops call me. And you? Why were you in such a hurry to leave—Port Barbour or up towards Milltown?”
The girl concentrated on her cookie.
“At least tell me your name.”
She sipped at her milky, sugary tea.
“Okay, I’ll call you Rower.” That brought her thin smile back, a little broader now, but she kept her head down and stared into her cup.
“I radioed my auntie and she’s getting you some more dry clothes we hope’ll work better than Irene’s rags. They’re only fit for a giraffe.” Now he grinned at me. “Tea?” he said pleasantly. “A few cookies to put some weight on your old bones?”
Rower now stared wide-eyed back and forth from Warren to me. My mind was wrapped around how she’d probably seen adults act.
Gradually we chatted about cookies, boats, lepers, and Warren introduced the need for Rower to get an all-clear from a doctor after a seagoing adventure like hers, and she could do it while she was with us, or the authorities would be the ones to make her. They’d take her back to the mainland. All we found out was she didn’t want to go back to town ever. Warren told me later that Rower’s mother had said exactly the same thing to the police. “I never had a baby looked like that. I know somebody switched her. Thank the Lord she’s gone.”
That evening, walking Warren down to the dock, he began to tell me more he’d learned from the cops when he reported back the all-safe after the mayday. “She’s twelve—thirteen in October. Her name’s…”
“Stop! I don’t need to know. She ran away. Her past’s on the mainland.”
“And yours, Irene?” The same circling questions, and I gave him my same answer.
“I’m the me you know. Take it or leave it.”
Warren got her a doctor’s appointment and said he and his auntie would pick her up the next day at six, show her some fishing on the way to the mainland, maybe catch a few salmon on the way back, and should he pick up anything for supper or did I have enough? Bring the salmon, I said.
Finally I had a day again where I could sit outside, my way, free, without anyone else, in the silence I’d come to this place for. But for a long time my head swam with noise, endless clippings of leopard, rags, football, mayday. Eventually the sounds unwound into a drone and then stopped, as if a needle had finally been lifted off a vinyl record. I had the bird song back, my landscape, the pine air, the far glint of waves. And, unexpectedly, my quirky curiosity.
Not even Warren knew my mind played these games: my old need for an intellectual tonic resurfacing despite me having no interest anymore in the outside world. Some unanswerable question would come up in my brain to tease me. For the past few weeks the question had been landscape; at what point in human evolution did people look at the landscape around them for its beauty only: not for food, gods, or anything else. I liked how unimportant questions broke the surface of whatever I happened to be doing or thinking, like a waterdrop in a muddy pool to ripple into wider and wider circles.
One day before the mayday, the ins and outs of another question had sprung up: is loneliness the price for ultimate freedom? This morning I was free and enjoying the alone loneliness, or was there another word for a good feeling? I heard fishboats nearby and gave up.
Rower was sleeping the following morning when I left to collect firewood. I couldn’t find her when I got back. Sprinting down to the beach I could see the rowboat was still there, but not her. I knew she’d hide if I called. I went back to call Warren and my old prospector’s phone meant I had to stand at the door of my house to get a good signal. I heard a noise in the basement and I’d have liked to give her hell.
“What’re all those books downstairs for?”
Slowly I said, “Breakfast?” The basement was absolutely out-of-bounds and I needed to make this clear.
“I know you don’t like talking,” Rower said, “but you have lots of books.”
I took my time with the porridge. “I was a teacher.”
“You don’t sound like a big shot.”
“Not here I don’t.”
“I’m in grade six.”
Do you go? “Do you like reading?”
“I like your books. Can I look at a big one?”
“What about?” Leper colonies? Motors for small boats?
“I want your best big book.” She drew back. “I won’t hurt it, I promise.”
After tea I brought “A History of World Cultures” to the table: about two inches thick and full of illustrations. Rower stood, cleared a large space in front of her for opening the book, and began to leaf through the shiny pages. She looked like a minister at the pulpit intent on a holy text. It socked the breath out of me.
“Can you read the words okay?”
“I don’t know.” She bit her lip and, head still down, half-looked at me. “Is it bad? Assy-ran?” Her finger pointed at the illustration of a wall painting.
“Uhn uhn.” My degrees started showing through. “The Assyrians were people who lived almost three thousand years ago in the Middle East and made those wall paintings.”
“That man has a beard and four legs. Where’s Middle East?” and quickly, “Don’t tell me. I’m going to look from the beginning.” She found the first illustration, of the Lascaux cave paintings, and began to run her finger slowly along the text underneath.
Who was this kid? Apart from what she’d made obvious and I caught so intimately: curiosity, independence. I left her alone, and outside, on the bench under the window facing the water, I tried to come to terms with her unsettling me.
Reminding me of my past? Jealous she’d made it to a place in twelve years that had taken me forty?
My past was my secret to keep; Warren had been the only other person to see this part of it, the books, when I’d hired him one winter to do house repairs. “Boy, do you ever read,” he’d said, in the same offhand way I might’ve said, “Boy, do you ever fish.” But knowing it was Warren fixing up the house, the villagers had started asking him, “Where does she get the money to live on, why does she hardly speak when she comes to get groceries, does she think she’s better than us,” and all the other where and what and why questions. Warren told me he’d shrug and say, “She likes the quiet life is all I know.”
With Rower, all I knew was, I didn’t want to ask her questions and I didn’t want her to ask me. I have my past, she has hers, but we began at the mayday and it’ll go from there.
Warren cooked a salmon, I made mashed potatoes, and Rower sat sullen and belligerent at the decision she’d been asked to make. The law, Warren told her, said she had to go to school, and, a twelve-year-old has to live with an adult. If she didn’t want to go back home, did she want to try the village? Maybe that could be arranged. But, he continued, you can’t live with me because I’m a single man and not a relative. He’d had to explain also that he couldn’t pick her up from here every morning in his fishboat to take her to school.
I’d been too honest; “I just can’t live with anyone.”
“You could live with Warren. He’s your boyfriend.”
“What made you say that?” I didn’t look at Warren because I knew he’d be smiling.
“He brings fish. He cooks. He did the dishes.” She finished with a sharp, “You do something for him, I bet.”
I wouldn’t let this conversation go any further.
Warren broke the silence with a neat sidestep. “My auntie said she’d love to have you stay with her. And I could bring you here on a weekend, or arrange it if I’m off fishing. That would work, eh Irene? Eh, Rower?”
I suppose, for right now. Rower, elbows planted on the table, pursed her lips and scowled, “Your auntie’s old.”
“Mabel, she’s really my wife’s auntie, did I tell you about her great dog? Bella. Part collie, part something else. She likes to fetch. Ready with the potatoes Irene?”
Over supper Warren dropped more hints. Rower could spend time at Auntie Mabel’s house, he said, she’d had kids stay before, and Rower’d have a chance to play with the dog and see if she liked her. She didn’t have to make up her mind about staying with Mabel until after that. Before starting school he’d show her teacher what the doctor wrote about her vitiligo, that the big blotches of dark and light in her skin were genetic, she wasn’t sick.
Rower spent the next two days at Mabel and Bella’s. Warren told me they walked around town, passed by the school, and ate in the Chinese restaurant with Bella whining outside. Warren showed her a safe place for the rowboat. A few days later Rower moved out and I made sure she had a box for “A History of World Cultures”, and she could choose any other book she wanted.
In a little over two weeks several worlds, including mine, had changed.
I sat outside the whole of the next morning, the sun out on the pines and water, the colours deep and dancing from last night’s rain, the air fresher, the silence broken by no one.
Cover photo courtesy of Jared Berg.