At first there were only a few Canada geese, five or six, then ten, eleven, twelve, all busy with sparse summer grass. Twelve were about all that fit on the tiny triangle of land that formed the tip of the lower part of the island. Willow loved the long curves of their necks and the efficient clip of their beaks. She had seen the island on her walk home from shopping in the downtown pedestrian shopping zone and come with her sketchbook. Geese were always a good subject for sketching. There was even a willow on the banks of the river opposite where she chose to sit. That in itself had to be a good sign.
Until fifth grade, she had thought her given name was special. So had her parents. Plus, her mother’s brother, who had died in a car crash before she was born, had been called William. But in September of fifth grade, there had been not two, not three, but four Willows in her class, including her. The following year, the other three Willows were gone again. Families were always moving in and out of town these days, though hers had lived here all her life and there was no plan to ever move. Her best friend, Lisha, too, had been here for all that time, and her family, too, had no intention of moving away. Lisha was a nickname derived from Letitia, and unfortunately she was no great use during the summer, only during the school year. Lisha was strait-laced and never went anywhere for exploratory jaunts, not even shopping, unless it was with her family, which was then awkward for Willow, always provided she was asked along in the first place. Lisha didn’t go dancing or to parties, she hadn’t even participated in the school-sponsored dancing lessons. She wasn’t a member of the youth choir. Nothing. The only extracurricular event Lisha ever attended was a monthly series of concerts and plays during the school year. So, for summer vacation, Willow was pretty much on her own. She was a bit tired of the bland flavor of boredom in her days. Being bored felt undignified, though. She tried her best to at least not look undignified. Everybody else always seemed to be so full of energy and adventure. Most of the other kids she knew were away on trips somewhere. She yearned for some adventure of her own.
Willow had been coming every day for a week when a group of five young people, older than her, maybe in their twenties, came down the seven steps from the upper level of the island with its street vendors. They were laughing and having a boisterously good time. Four guys and one woman. Two of the guys had guitar cases on their backs. That drew Willow’s interest. That and their hair, long hair on the men. In fact, the woman’s hair was the shortest of the lot, in a pixie cut, bleached blond with uneven purple ends.
To make room for the newcomers, Willow moved as close to the tip of the little island as was possible without danger of falling in. The geese had all left with a great big swoosh at the boisterous descent of the five young people. In order to look busy, Willow pretended to study her current drawing in her sketchbook, this one of the stone walls edging the island, parts of it polished slick by the water, the rest covered with patches of moss.
“Let me see,” one of the guys said behind her.
“I haven’t figured out yet how to draw the soft look of the moss,” Willow said.
“Looks pretty good to me,” the guy said. The woman gave Willow a wary glance. Come on, Willow wanted to say. I’m just a high school student. No competition for you. But she held her tongue.
From then on, some of them came to the island every day. Usually, it was just the four guys. She learned their names. Angelo, Mark, Jeddy, and Fred. The name Angelo made her giggle. What kind of name was that for a guy? He decidedly did not look like an angel. Stubble on his cheeks, and a tooth halfway to the left of his mouth was missing, not right out front but still visible. He was friendly enough, though, almost shy. The woman’s name was Dora, but she rarely came. The guys told Willow they slept under one of the bridges in bivy sacks. Truly. Though obviously not in the commercial center of town. Sometimes in graveyards, one of them added. Willow didn’t know whether to believe them. There were no bivy sacks or sleeping bags in evidence, just the two guitars which belonged to Angelo and Jeddy. They did play from time to time, and they sounded pretty good, especially Angelo. They reminded Willow of the time she had gone to a rock concert by a high school band, and she’d gone backstage to talk to the guitarist who had looked attractive. She was gushing compliments and he thanked her but acted unsure as to what to do about her and her backstage appearance. It had certainly not led to any kind of groupie encounter of the sort she read about in her teen magazines.
Angelo and Jeddy, probably due to their age, acted more experienced. Willow wasn’t physically attracted to them or the other guys, which was just as well because they felt out of her league, age-wise and in other respects as well. They seemed sophisticated in ways she found intriguing. They were certainly not the kind of guys to take home and introduce to her parents. She knew her parents wouldn’t approve of them. They clearly didn’t live anywhere in town permanently, though they had to manage to get a shower or a bath from time to time. They didn’t smell homeless. They didn’t appear to have jobs either and they seemed to be too old to be students, though one could presumably be a student at any age. She didn’t want to ask at first because she didn’t want to come across as nosy, and later it always felt wrong to ask, as though she should have known all along. One day she might find out. Not that it mattered.
On the much larger upper level of the island, a small boutique with beautiful clothes often brought some of the merchandise outside on racks. There was a blue and green long dress Willow thought was beautiful. She didn’t have enough money at the moment. Besides, hanging out with these guys down below required jeans and inconspicuous T-shirts, not flowing gowns. She sometimes considered the idea of flirting with one of these guys, but she couldn’t decide on which one. Angelo maybe. When he played his guitar and bent over it, looking down on the strings, his long hair fell into his face which made him look absorbed and mysterious. She liked that. Normally he looked pretty ordinary apart from the missing tooth. At times she had imaginary conversations with her parents or other authority figures, defending the guys’ long hair. Jesus, after all, consistently had long hair, and nobody had any objections to that, did they? But these conversations never came up in reality, which was just as well.
Willow was surprised when she saw the first leaves tumble down from a tree across the water in a gust of wind. She was not very good at identifying trees. Maybe a cottonwood? She wished her family had gone somewhere during the summer, if only for a short trip, but this year they hadn’t gone anywhere at all. She had almost filled her sketchbook. And then she came to the island for four days in a row, and none of her new friends, if you could call them that, were there. She had grown used to them. A little bit of good-natured bantering, a little bit of teasing, a little bit of mock flirtation, the kind you would use on a younger sister. She could tell they didn’t take her quite seriously, not like a fellow adult, which was good in a way, because it meant they were protective of her and didn’t bother her with untoward attention. She felt safe with them. Not like the guy on the balcony across from their apartment who had stepped on his balcony every morning when she was getting ready to go to school. Until she noticed and realized she had better lower the blinds. It had left a bad taste. The guys on the island never touched her, not even for a hug. The lack of untoward attention from them was, however, also not a hundred percent good because it left her stranded with her occasional regret that not one of them was about to fall in love with her or try to kiss her or anything like that. Still, all in all, they had given her the romance of living slightly provocatively, if not exactly dangerously, in a summer that was otherwise dull, but productive enough as far as her sketchbook was concerned. A romance of feeling alive without consequence. Now they were perhaps gone without so much as saying goodbye.
On the fifth day, however, Jeddy was there, without his guitar, but with the woman Dora. When Willow walked down the steps, they were holding hands, and Willow almost turned around with embarrassment, but then decided to go down anyway. This was her island, too. She nodded to them and walked behind them to the tip of the island, disrupting the three geese that had been grazing there and now dropped into the water, then took off into the air with their loud watery swoosh. Jeddy, usually a cheerful guy, and Dora both looked serious. Willow felt it wasn’t proper to look at them, but she really wanted to look, and so she did. Dora was crying. Willow didn’t know what to do. She was still standing. They were both sitting on the mossy stones with their feet dangling down toward the water.
“Angelo died,” Jeddy said without looking at Willow. There was dirt under his fingernails on his hand holding Dora’s. Dora’s shoulders shook with a sob at his words.
Willow froze. She didn’t know how to respond. It wasn’t possible. Just last week Angelo had been there playing his guitar. It had to be true, though, otherwise Dora wouldn’t be crying like that. Willow didn’t want to ask intrusive questions, so she just kept standing, frozen. At first, she couldn’t even say she was sorry. She didn’t know how.
“It was a motorcycle accident,” Jeddy volunteered, now turning his head to look at Willow.
Willow felt betrayed by all the strange emotions welling up in her. She hardly knew Angelo. Or any of them, really. It had nothing to do with her. And because she didn’t know Angelo, she really didn’t have a right to grieve.
“I am so sorry,” she finally managed to say. She didn’t want to stay, but she didn’t know how to leave gracefully. In short, she didn’t know what to do. “I am so sorry,” she repeated, scraping her right foot helplessly on the stubbles of grass that remained after the geese had had their way with it. Jeddy didn’t volunteer anything about a funeral. Besides, this really had nothing to do with her. And still she felt betrayed. Angelo had no right to die to her knowledge.
I need to go now. Willow wasn’t sure she said it out loud. She held Jeddy’s hazel eyes for a while. Dora had meanwhile taken her hand out of his and held her face in both her hands, crying quietly. Jeddy’s eyes were soft and shining with held-back liquid. “I am so sorry,” Willow said for the third time and then looked away, quickly scanning the flowing water, some geese bobbing near the riverbank over by the willow. Then she turned and walked back up the stairs, her head filled with a thick, grainy throb, like a protective skin pulled over the beauty of the day. Nothing seemed to penetrate from the outside, not the traffic of the city, not the children chasing each other around indignant street vendors, not the scent of grilled hamburgers and hotdogs. She wished she could cry like Dora, but she had no reason to cry. For her, it was all too distant. Something momentous had happened and it didn’t belong to her.
She didn’t return to the island, though she might return to the upper level to buy that dress she had liked some day when she had enough money, whether she needed it or not. But her first purchase would have to be a new sketchbook. Perhaps she could talk her parents into buying that for her, though, as part of school supplies. School was to start again in just short of two weeks anyway. Everything would return to a normal routine. Safe and without surprises. She longed for that sort of unadventurous existence just now. She’d always know what was going to be on the agenda from one day to the next. It was alright. She had wanted to be a rebel, though without tattoos or spiked cuffs, and she apparently had no great talent for even a mild version of rebellion. She didn’t crave the cool of danger at all anymore. There was no call to actively pursue it. If it was meant to be, adventure would find her in due course all on its own.
© Beate Sigriddaughter
Beate Sigriddaughter, www.sigriddaughter.net, grew up in Nürnberg, Germany. Her playgrounds were a nearby castle and World War II bomb ruins. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico, where she was poet laureate from 2017 to 2019. Her latest collections are short stories Dona Nobis Pacem (Unsolicited Press, December 2021) and poetry Wild Flowers (FutureCycle Press, February 2022).