This story is by Sarah E. Mckee and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
As the small canoe glided down the river, Indary listened to the soft splash of the paddle as it rose from the water. She looked around at the thick forest and admired the beautiful fall colors. The trees were wearing their finest today, bright red leaves with gold and copper trimmings. They wanted to look there best before their long winter sleep.
It was a nice contrast from the black clothes Indary had on. For a moment she forgot her heart was as heavy as a sunken rock. Indary’s husband of sixty-eight years had just died a few days before. The funeral was beautiful, filled with love, family and friends. Yet Indary was filled with regret from never telling her children the story from her past. She feared it would be too sad and it never felt like the right time. Indary wanted to wait until her children were grown, but now they were having children of their own and the old feelings of remaining silent returned.
“Won’t be long now,” said Indary’s son Will, as he paddled the canoe. They were on their way to bury his father’s ashes.
Their boat turned a corner and the river opened into a large opened lake. In the center of it laid a small island with a single inhabitant: a willow tree. Its long branches allowed the red and gold leaves to hover above the water’s surface.
“Look at that,” said Indary under her breath. “Just look how tall it got.” A hint of a smile arose on her lips as she looked at her young granddaughter’s excited eye’s. “This is your first time to the island isn’t it?”
“Yes, grandma. It’s so pretty.”
Will looked embarrassed as he continued rowing. His eyes were down as he said to his daughter, “When I was your age, grandma and grandpa used to bring us here every spring. That’s when the wildflowers are in bloom. Your mom and I have been meaning to take a day trip here, but never found the time.”
“We are all here now. That’s what matters,” said Indary. She twisted in her seat to look behind her at the family and friends that followed them in boats. In all there were nine people that came on the journey to say their final goodbye’s. Indary’s hand reached down and touched the basket that contained her husband’s ashes. As she looked at her granddaughter Lilly she asked, “Do you know why this island is important?”
“I do grandma. This is where you and grandpa met up, the day you decided to run away together.”
Indary gave a small nod. There was more to the story and she knew today would be the best time to tell everyone. Today, while they were all together as she couldn’t put it off any longer. Life can change in a heartbeat after all.
Finally, they reached the island’s shore. With a helping arm from her son, Indary slowly walked to the center of the island. Her fingers stretched up as she reached for the trees bark. Indary stood there a moment in silence as the memories washed over her. A strong wind rolled across the lake and caused her to inhale deeply the cold crisp air.
One by one the family and friends emerged onto the island. A chair was set up for Indary to sit on, while a small hole was dug for her husband. As they buried him under the tree, Indary’s eyes started to tear up. It’s time, it’s time, she thought.
Her daughter came over and placed her hand on her shoulder.
Indary knew it was now time to speak. She placed her hand on her daughter and the words fell out. “My dear Willow. You are my oldest child, but you are not my first. There was anoth…” Her throat closed in on itself as she covered her face and cried. For a moment she envied her husband in the ground. Indary opened her eyes and saw her loved ones watching her. There was compassion in their eyes.
“Mom,” said her son Will softly, “what do you mean?”
Indary said, “Your father and I fell in love at a very young age. He was always sweet and kind to me. Yet his family said he was to marry another girl, for my family was too poor. We decided to say our goodbyes in secret. He kissed me and I kissed him back.” Indary held back a big smile as she giggled to herself. “It was a perfect night and we promised to never speak of it. But when my belly swelled with the baby, my father killed it.”
Willow’s lips were trembling. “Oh, mother. You never spoke of such a thing.”
Indary nodded and said, “If a girl got pregnant out of the marriage bed, then she was sentenced to death. No punishment for the boys, just the girls were in the wrong. My own brother dragged me here to Whispering Willow Island. When we arrived, he tossed me out of the boat. I pleaded with him not to leave me. I even walked into the water after him, but he kicked me away. They didn’t teach us girls to swim since we never went fishing with the men. Drown or starve. That was my choice.” Indary stopped talking as she realized she was rocking back and forth.
Will was kneeling down in the dead weeds by his mother’s feet. With a smile he said, “I remember dad telling us the story. He said you two were forbidden to marry so he stole his father’s boat and food from the kitchen. Then he met you here and said, ‘I love you Indary, I love you. You are precious to me. We don’t have to marry today or tomorrow. Not until I build you a proper home. A home of our very own.’ And you both left and made your own family. Mom, you taught me how to swim. I just assumed you got here by yourself.”
“Oh, I learned!” Indary said while laughing. “I taught myself to swim and made sure you kid’s all knew how.” She let out a heavy sigh as she looked up at the long thin branches of the tree. The tree was laughing with her as the wind rustled its red leaves. “I thought the tree was dead that day. It was a bad dry summer. The island here was much bigger as the water was low. The leaves were a deep dark red color. Almost black. I wondered if the tree had soaked up the water of the girls before me. It was rare, but there were others. Other girls like me that were sent here to die. That tradition has ended, they don’t do that any more. But it was a horrible long night and I felt worthless. There was the distant sound of water splashing and it made me sick with fear. Louder the splashing became and I heard your father’s low voice whispering my name. He came for me. He came. I didn’t know he was going to do that. To leave his family and life behind.”
Young Lilly smiled and said, “I remember you and grandpa always laughing together. He made you happy, didn’t he?”
Indary smiled as the tears started to fall again. “Yes, my dear child. When you really love someone, you make them laugh as much as you can.” Indary felt the stress rise off her shoulders as her secret was told at last.
“Did you ever see your parents again?” asked Lilly.
“No, never again. My family sent me to the edge of the world, to fall off it and die. But I didn’t. You see, one mistake did not define me. We can always fall, but not getting back up is where we fail. My family thought I failed at life. I proved them wrong. This tree heard the cries of sorrow and heartache from myself and the other girls. Later it heard the cries of joy as my children raced around it’s trunk, trying to hide among the leaves. I hope it will continue to hear the laughter.”
“It will Mom, I promise,” said Will.
“Me too grandma. I promise to bring my children here and I’ll tell them all the stories. Good and the bad.” Lilly wrapped her arms around her grandma’s neck. She started to cry as she said, “I miss grandpa.”
Indary kissed Lilly tenderly on her head. She said, “The memory of pain dulls with time. But love lasts a lifetime. I was kicked out of my home but fell in love with my real family. And when you fall in love, death itself can’t break that bond. I chose this island as a final resting place for your grandpa, not for him but for us. So we can enjoy it and have hope for the future.”