"I told you not to come,” she said.
I closed the door and smiled, placing our bags down in the hallway.
“Hi Penelope,” I said.
Ralph and I kept our shoes on. The floors were a tan oak, but with deep grooves and plenty of splinters. I searched for Penelope’s eyes while she twisted hair around her index finger.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hey Penelope, good to see you.” Ralph went to hug her and it was awkward, her arms straight as he tried to avoid her large belly. He gave her a smile before he asked, “Do you have something for us to eat?”
“There’s salmon in the freezer,” she said, waving to the corner of the room, “not much in the fridge, I’m waiting for the delivery. Veggies in the garden, grains in the pantry. Why’d you come anyhow?”
I laughed. “You knew we were coming, we drove all the way from Toronto.”
“Aren’t you going to welcome us with a drink or something?” Ralph asked. Penelope’s eyes finally met mine. “Yah, okay” she said, “I’ll give you some beer. Daan keeps them in the basement. But after that you have to go.” She pulled up the slouching arm of her dress and moved to sit on the couch.
“How’ve you been keeping up?” I asked and tilted my head to Ralph.
“Haven’t seen anyone for a while. Talked to Daan on the radio yesterday, he said the fishing is good.”
“Great,” I said, “Can I make us some tea?”
“Sure.” She nodded her head and looked down, rubbing the creases of her stained purple dress.
“Got beer,” said Ralph, running up from the basement. He bent down to open the huge freezer and let out a yelp. “This is an ocean full of fish you got, huh Penelope? Remind me that I put some beers in here will you? If I can find room.” I could hear him moving around some big pieces of salmon.
“Can you take some out for dinner?” I asked.
“Not for me,” Penelope said, “Fish for lunch, fish for dinner, I can’t eat no more damn salmon. You guys take it with you on the road, okay? Where are you heading to anyhow?”
I decided not to answer and walked over to light the stove. The counter was bare, but I knew where she kept the tea.
“When was the last time you ate?” Late afternoon August sunshine came through the windows but there was no smell of food in the house.
“I had some berries from the garden a couple of hours ago. They’re good now, you guys should try some. The tomatoes are ripe too.”
I handed Ralph a large silver bowl and waited to hear the screen door.
“Penelope, we’re not leaving.” I walked over to the couch, squatted down in front of her and placed my hands on her knees. “You’ve been on this island alone too long girl.”
Her eyes creased suspiciously before she started to smile. “You think you’re so damn practical don’t you Jane? Remember that time you brought those narcs to my house?”
I nodded and sat down beside her.
“That guy with his fake fur vest and corduroy pants and the other guy’s afro. What a gimmick! Trying to pretend like they knew you, they thought you girls were some lead. Idiots! They followed you all the way from Manitoba, huh?” She was smiling and laughing. “So, you didn’t bring any of them with you this time, did you, sis?”
“Nope,” I said, “not hitchhiking anymore, we got our van.”
“And you’ve got Ralph too, that helps.”
“Yes, yes, it does.” Her loneliness was seeping into the crevices in the floor, pouring out like a thin concrete. I wanted to ask her about Xavier, if she missed our brother but I was afraid of what she’d say. The kettle sang. “Shall we take the tea outside? I’d love to see the garden.”
“Yes.” I watched her raise her swollen body with skill and walk to the back door.
Ralph was crouching in some herbs when I brought out the tea, his beer propped up in the earth. On the cement, there were two sturdy green plastic chairs and, in between them, a small white table with an ashtray full of water. Penelope was stretching her legs out in the sunshine. Just behind that warmth, I could feel the bite of the North Pacific breeze.
I handed her the tea. “Are you still doing that starfish gardening?”
“Starfish, seaweed, crushed up shells, fish bones, it all makes great compost, just look at my garden. I’ll have the tallest corn on the island again. Mary’s been helping me with the garden, Norm comes by too every couple of nights to check in. He doesn’t fish much anymore, but brings in the food from the mainland for those of us who’ve checked out.” She gave me a wink.
“Not a bad place to check out, is it?” Ralph said. “I’m going to pick some herbs for the fish…”
“Look,” Penelope interrupted, “hummingbirds. They are doing the mating dance. Shhhhh.”
We watched the small ruby-throated hummingbird before it disappeared up and up into the blue sky. Seconds later it dove down deep, then up again. I heard a soft buzzing noise, that unexplainable mix of hover and song.
“The other one is just behind the flowers. She is watching him,” Penelope said. Her face relaxed and the tired crease around her eyes faded. I knew the garden was at least half of the reason she stayed. The ocean was the other half, Daan’s half.
“So you like it out here?”
She leaned her head back into the sunshine. “It’s okay. Midwife is coming up in a couple of days so we won’t have to go down to the city. Doctor says she must have turned round on the boat, no longer breach. We are thinking a midwife should be fine.”
Ralph was picking some small yellow and orange tomatoes. One squished in his fingers, so ripe. I wanted to say that it wasn’t right her being out here alone with the baby.
“Almost forgot today’s Norman day to come by, stormin’ Norman,” Penelope said.
Norman, Daan’s friend with the rough hands and kind voice. He called after Xavier’s accident.
“Is Norman still with that sweet woman from New Zealand?” Ralph asked.
“Nope, he beat her away,” Penelope responded and chuckled, “Norm’s okay, the point is to not get too close.”
I nodded. It was like that out here, you had to rely on who could help you out and those people, well, you took them as they came. “He still drinking?”
“Yes, but he tries to behave well now that I’m pregnant.” Penelope turned her head towards me and smirked, “pregnancy, that one moral cure.”
Ralph and I locked stares and he raised his eyebrows. One of the hummingbirds had returned and Penelope watched it feed on some red flowers.
“So you guys came to rescue me? If we had planned it better, I should have got you to bring some things from the mainland.”
How could I tell her that I’d asked her three times if she needed anything?
“Will Daan be back in time for the baby?”
“Why? He doesn’t need to be.” She started to smile.
“What do you mean?”
“We’re just the delivery, Jane. Xavier, it’s what he needed to come back, some time to find a new home.”
I heard the door creak and looked back to see Ralph. “Xavier’s dead, Penelope.”
“Yes, he is,” I said, “he’s gone. Inside you is a new life.”
Penelope shook her head, grabbed firmly onto the sides of the chair and pushed herself up. We watched her open the screen door and let it bang behind her.
Ralph tried to reassure me; he walked over and placed his hand on my shoulder. I looked at the garden and the huge evergreens behind the house, at all the beautiful solitude of the place. Penelope had placed driftwood and rocks along the path up to the house and wildflowers of blue and purple shot up between them. There was tranquility in the smell of the flowers, the grass, the lingering scent of salt that traveled up from the beach, the hush of the breeze. But, it was a thought of the driveway and how its rocky dirt road meandered out of the forest and onto the pavement, the smooth ride of our van rocking slightly as it made its way to the ferry that gave me the most hope. I set my gaze on the light illuminating from the kitchen, let my hand slip into the firm grasp of Ralph’s and stepped back inside.