Island story

Stephanie Barbé Hammer is the author of two novels, two poetry collections, a novelette and a how-to-write-magical-realism manual. A former Manhattanite, she currently lives on Whidbey Island, WA.

You thought you wanted to live by the sea. You craved it. All those years you spent in that big cement city, known as Tall Money, you dreamed of the sea out here in the West: the sea dotted with unnamed islands where you had to take boats and you had to know how to swim and steer, and use an oar, and hoist a sail, just in case, you know, the motors weren't working. You thought of towns with piers and ropes clanging against the metal hooks that kept the craft from slipping out. Seagulls crying by day and the seals barking and bellowing at night. The water always crashing in the distance. 
You thought that island life would be heaven and it was for a while because of the water and the gulls and the seals. But the island people surprised you. They looked at you strangely, when you came into the grocery store or into a political meeting with your gray-green eyes, which your man tells you are like the sea. But the island people's eyes weren't like water but instead like sky: blue. Their noses very small and straight. It was strange for you to realize that the island people look nothing like your father, who was actually born here, even though his eyes were green like yours. In addition, his nose was big, and his voice was loud, as though he wanted to out-crash the waves breaking on the western side of the islands -- the side that was no longer sea but ocean. But then, he was always the exception to the rule. Which is perhaps, why he left the island and came to marry a woman in Tall Money. He always told you he missed the islands here, but he only came back for short visits. With you and your mother. 
So you come years later to this nameless island with your man of the brown eyes and black hair, and you feel right away – well, not right away but soon --  that you are not welcome. It's not just the large nose and the green eyes, but something in how you stand and how you walk and how you talk about books all the time instead of gardens. These habits make you a foreigner. A foreigner who doesn't just come and visit and spend money and then go back home to another wealthy country, but a foreigner from that terrible cement city who has the temerity to come and stay.  Who brought cement loving values and biases. Someone who likes masses of people with all kinds of eyes and noses. Unreliable. Suspect. 
"What's wrong with Tall Money?" you ask the wine-seller one day. She is the one friendly person in town, so you go to the wine shop and you use the purchase as an excuse to talk to her. You come in the afternoon, when the store is empty.
"Nothing," she says. "It's just that cities make the people here feel angry and small."
"But there's a big city right near here," you say, stroking a rosé wine label that has a pink octopus on it.
"You mean Software Needles?" she says. You nod, pulling out your credit card to buy the wine. 
"But that's not considered ‘here,'" she explains. "People here don't want anything that Software Needles has to offer." 
"But it's just across the bridge," I argue.  "It's so close!" 
"That's the problem," the wine-seller said. "It's too close." She lowers her voice because four customers are just coming in.  
"The other blue-eyeds fear the influence of Software Needles will come and make us all into city folk."  
You shake your head, and put the bottle in your backpack. 
You walk to the bus stop, because your man has the car. You wait for half an hour, but when the bus appears it does not stop. Instead it passes you, and then makes a left. You shrug your shoulders.  This happens all the time. The bus changes routes continually without warning. Would-be passengers have been advised in the most recent transit newsletter to do a three card spread tarot reading to divine the trajectory, before setting out. But you didn't have time for tarot this morning. 
You begin to walk the four miles back to the house among the pines, where you can see eagles and owls. 
A truck screeches to a halt because five deer are crossing the road.
"Hey lady," the driver says to you. He looks at you appraisingly. The word foreigner appears for a moment above his head. But he doesn't say it.
"There are better places to hike than this," he tells you, instead. 
"But my house is up this way."
"You mean you live here?" he says. You nod. He drives off. 
You notice a small parking spot along the road. Someone has designated this area as a sculpture trail. You walk in and see metal butterflies perched on trees. A ways down, three men with a crane are talking on tablet with a woman in a strange language. At last you think. More foreigners. 
"What are you doing?" you say. 
"Talking to the sculptor in the other America, the one below ours. Or above, depending on how you are looking."
You don't know why but you wave to the lady on the screen. Her eyes are smokey... a color that keeps on changing... 
"Are you the artist?" you say. 
"Yes," says the woman. "Can you explain to them how to arrange these pieces of my installation?" 
You see brightly colored metal and cloth and lace ribbons and cushions. 
"Won't the fabric of the sculptures get wet?" you say. 
"It's all covered with a resin," she says, and as she's explaining the process, you look at the colors and the textures and you can see just how to arrange them. 
You direct the men with their cranes, and the artist is nodding and explaining and tweaking. It all hangs from the trees. Like something you'd see at a gallery in Tall Money. But outside. You have to look up to see it. And when you do you see things that look like buildings, and things that look like animals. There's a pink spiraled lace that's round with arms, like an octopus. It dances in the wind. 
You walk back to the house slowly -- it is a very long way, especially with a wine bottle -- and you see the sea blinking in and out of the trees. Sailboats sculpted onto the green water. Birds dangling from invisible strings from the clouds. All this time, you've been thinking about  your father, and now, suddenly, a displaced memory slots itself back into your mind. You remember how he crafted a tiny human figure out of wood, using a knife one time when you visited this island. He made more of them, a host of pretend people, and he set them in front of you on the bench by the sea. 
"When you make things," he said, "you're never alone. You join other makers, and together you remake the world." 
He had moved to Tall Money to make his fortune, but the cement city broke him. Cities do that. 
But loneliness breaks you too. 
But what really breaks you is rigidity. The kind you carry inside you. The kind that passes for certainty. 
Right then, you promise yourself to email the smoke-eyed artist. You promise yourself to go back to Tall Money and that you'll cross the island bridge and visit Software Needles. You'll bring your man to the sculpture trail, and you'll embrace him under the dance of lace and metal under trees. You'll promise to refuse these differences even as you name them. To love all of it. To call all of it. Home.

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