[From a workshop, where we created things – almost everyone else painting or clay or drawing, but I swerved over to my comfort zone: writing. With, yes, one small picture drawn in the corner of the original....]
When I came to the island, it was late afternoon. Houses rose up from the water, from the narrow and shifting strand, up gentle hills to peaked, small towers, and a few other houses. Clear views down, across irregular lines and boxes – not crowded, with a sense of air and quiet.
In walking up from the harbor, I passed two or three men, a group of women arranging bowls on a table – they didn’t seem particularly surprised to see me, faintly curious perhaps, but preoccupied with their own activities.
The torn, handwritten map – there are only a few streets, in irregular, loosely arranged arcs up from where the boats docked – led me to a small, blue house at the end of a lane, near the top of the hill. I knocked, and a comfortable-looking woman opened the door, showing no surprise. She took me up to a pair of rooms, said she would make dinner in a couple of hours, and went back downstairs, still immersed in her work, her life, her house – unworried about me, assuming that I would figure things out for myself.
I decided to leave my bag on the floor by the bed and walk around the streets until dinner – at the back of my mind, fragments of questions around what to do, and when, had already taken on a ghostly, faded quality, one of… let's say, unimportance.
I like small houses – especially when they have irregular, loosely drawn lines, slightly curved walls, handmade doors, oddly-shaped windows. Narrow beds of plants, some flowers growing out of a hole in a wall – everything suggested a kind of casual, unworried attention. I passed children running, playing an incomprehensible game – a boy stopped and stared at me for a moment, then one of his friends ran back lightly and slapped his shoulder; making him, I suppose, ‘it’ – and ran away with a brief flash of laughter. Pulled back into the game's web, the first boy ran after him, without looking back…
It was while recrossing the circle of streets, meandering from one side to the other, a street or two above the boats, that I realized why I would be happy here: just these things, this world, a handful of streets and people, and of course the sea – along with so much forgotten, so much left behind: and never missed.
I came in from walking around town, after having been there for some days, or perhaps weeks – I don't know how many. My landlady was sitting at the table in the front room, looking thoughtfully out an open window... she saw me and moved the chair next to her, indicating that I should sit down. She wanted to discuss an idea she had – to travel to a nearby island, and see her sister. But she was also – calmly – wondering about several possible concerns... she said, we don't always reach the island we aim for – and sometimes people do not find their way back; or perhaps they settle on another island.
I am unsure just what she wants me to say, and look out of the window; there are clouds to the east, moving in slowly, darkening – there may be rain this evening. She goes on: she first came here years ago from another island, and has never been back there – it is common for people of the islands to remake their lives if they are stranded far from their homes; or, of course, if they simply decide to stay...
But she wants to see her sister, at least one more time. I ask if there is anything she would like me to do, hoping it is nothing too complicated; it must be some weeks – no, I ought to say: months? – since I had any real tasks, errands, urgent or pressing responsibilities. Well, it would be you, and the house... she pauses and looks at me expectantly.
The pause is a little too long, and I sense a slight irritation growing on her side. I ask, countering: what if you don't come back? For a while? She says well, that may happen. Deciding not to wait for me to catch up, she tells me how it's going to be: you need to keep up the garden, and you should get fish from the smaller stall in the square, not the large one. There is a key if you want to use it, but I honestly wouldn’t bother. Don't let the woman from up at the green house tell you what to do with the front steps, by the way, she has no idea what she's talking about.
I ask her, so should I just stay here? She shrugs: whatever you want. You aren't going anywhere else, are you? And she gets up and goes into the kitchen to make tonight's dinner.
… some days, or some months perhaps, after she left, we had several weeks of rain and fog – followed by a few days of blazing heat. In the morning I watered the flowers at the side of the house – when she comes back, or – or whether she comes back, I thought it would be best if I keep things alive. The house near mine – by now I think of this as my house: and, of course, it may well be – is occupied by a self-assured young girl, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, and her little brother. I asked her once, were their parents away? – but she didn’t seem to understand, or didn’t want to talk about it. But they were good neighbors – occasionally she left some tomatoes in a stone jar on my steps, and I’d told the boy they were welcome to the herbs and flowers, as long as they left some to grow.
When the sun was high, I walked along the shady side of the street; most everyone had gone inside, though I passed a wrinkled old man working slowly, heavily, on the wheel of a cart. I paused to say hello; he continued working almost aimlessly in the heat, as we exchanged vague pleasantries and pointed out to each other the self-evident weather.
Moving on up the hill, crossing hotter patches of sun, skirting buildings, I reached one of the high meadows beyond the last tower house. I sat under a gnarled tree along the meadow’s edge… fascinating tangled fragments of bark, peeling away from the tree in thin, irregular strips and patches. In some ways it looked hurt, wounded: is this like liege-oaks I’ve read about, the ones that seem to bleed? But the long strands of bark, the shades and splinters across the trunk, don’t look painful: not the agony of the liege oak, but only the scraped, torn surface of the sturdy, living tree…
I grew up with a tree like this – if you looked to your left from the front door, it was in the corner of the front yard, all the way up the smooth curve of the hill, right next to the start of the pavement. I would walk around it as a boy, or near it when walking up and down the street. It was much shorter than the other trees in the yard – most of our trees were very tall oaks, elms, walnuts, that had had lost most of their lower branches, that were taller than the two-story house. I could see those trees from my bedroom window, which looked straight into the leafy depths of them: like a vast, intensely rich sea of green....
But this one was smaller, perhaps ten feet high: almost human-sized. And its wounds... perhaps it was strange that I would spend so much time around it; I remember being furious near it, angry at my brother or my mother, running through chaotic tirades of self-justification while circling that tree. It did occur to me, usually after a while, that I could be seen from the road; and that I might have looked fairly odd: an unhappy boy with glasses, stalking up and down, gesticulating to the world enraged instructions in how it should appreciate him, respect him.
That tree was very much like this one – exactly like, in fact, it seems to me now. More and more, it seems utterly familiar, as though it is a part of me – I can reach out and peel off a strip of bark, dropping it away; and then, another one....