The summer began with the island, and the island began with Christmas of the winter before. Church bells heralded Christmas, and so in a way rang in the existence of the island. Isobel remembered easily now, clear as the carillon resounding from the bell tower at Our Lady of the Lake on a snowy afternoon.
On Christmas Eve Victor came home, not with gifts for their children, but with three peppermint candy canes.
In the back porch he shed snow, his stomping punctuating Isobel's questions. "Presents?" He grinned, his tone was derisive, sly. "Bah, Isobel, any child can have presents on Christmas." He shrugged in through the kitchen door.
Isobel, baffled, sat back down. "Aren't our children any children?"
What could possibly make any child different from another on Christmas? If there was one universal emotion among an age, she thought, it would be the thrill of children everywhere upon waking Christmas morning. Christian children, anyway. What was he up to?
"Don't tease, Victor. What can you mean, you've bought no presents?"
He leaned to her hair and said in a conspiratorial tone, "Oh, Izzy, I've bought better than presents."
Isobel could smell the alcohol on him. She shot out of her chair. "What can you be thinking, coming home drunk on Christmas Eve!"
Victor patted her into a sitting position and splayed himself into a chair. "Good God, Isobel, can't a man have one drink on a holiday? It's Christmas, for Christ's sake!" He chuckled at his phrase and repeated it, tapping a knuckle on the table. "Christmas, for Christ's sake."
"Oh, I see. Drunk and blasphemous. Victor! What about"
"The presents?" He pulled a tight roll of documents from the inner pocket of his coat and laid them on the table before her. "Right here." He spread out a deed and a legal description. He took a small photograph from his breast pocket and slapped it down.
From what Isobel could tell with a cursory glance at the papers, he had bought land.
"Land? Victor, I don't understand."
"It's an island, Izzy, a gorgeous place."
Isobel squinted at a purchase agreement and gasped. Fifteen hundred dollars! As much as she'd made in the last year doing seamstress work. Victor's signature sprawled next to the date, spelled out formally, December twenty-fourth, nineteen hundred and thirty-five. Ink from the official seal of the county land office bled into the description. Five and one half acres, island parcel, tract 78, Lake Cypress. Isobel picked up the photo. Five and a half acres. It looked like nothing. It looked like exactly what it was, a mound of pine-studded granite jutting from a plane of black water. As she looked at the picture, the question burned her throat.
"You didn't ask me?"
Victor offered empty palms in response.
In sixteen years of marriage they had always been together in every decision, no matter how trivial. Just that morning they had lightheartedly debated whether to have creamed potatoes or roasted for Christmas Eve dinner. Victor wouldn't so much as place an advertisement for the tailor shop without Isobel's approval. If new machinery was purchased, it was only after the two had put their heads together and both had concluded that model X was better. Whether the living room walls would be papered in pine green or olive was worth days of discussion; deciding on a name for a baby could and sometimes did take weeks. But in the end they agreed. Always. Together. Isobel glared at the snapshot. The kitchen was quiet save for the distant bells from Our Lady of the Lake, ringing in Christmas Eve.
As the last chime faded, Isobel rose from her chair and slapped her husband's face in one clean motion. His head jerked neatly sideways and stopped abruptly, as if he meant suddenly to examine the wall.
From These Granite Islands by Sarah Stonich. © March 2001, Little, Brown & Co, used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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