Katharine Mully had been dead for five years and two months, the morning Isabelle received the letter from her.
Standing by the roadside, Isabelle had to lean against her mailbox to keep her balance. Her knees went watery. A wave of dizziness started up in the pit of her stomach and rushed up between her temples. She no longer heard the world around her -- not the birdsong from the cedars that courted the verge in a row of yellow-green and shadow, nor the sporadic traffic from the highway. All she could do was stare down in numbed incomprehension at the letter that lay on top of the bundle of mail she'd taken out of the box. The envelope was smudged and dirtied, one corner crinkled. The address was handwritten in a script that was oh so familiar.
It had to be a joke, she thought. Someone's sick, twisted idea of a joke.
But the postmark was still legible and it was dated July 12, 1987 -- two days before Kathy's death. She must have had one of the nurses mail the letter and it had gone astray to spend more than five years in postal limbo, falling into a crack of the Post Office's regular service, tucked away behind a conveyor belt or between someone's desk and a wall until it was finally discovered and put back into the system. Or perhaps it was the incomplete address that had caused postal clerks to scratch their heads for so many years: Isabelle Copley, Adjani Farm, Wren Island. That, and nothing more, so that the letter sat undelivered until it was noticed by someone who knew the archipelago of summer homes and ice-fishing huts of which Isabelle's island was but one. Wherever the letter had been, now, half a decade later, when it finally finished its journey, when it finally lay in the hands of its intended recipient, Isabelle couldn't open it. She couldn't bear to open it.
She stuffed the envelope in among the rest of her mail and returned to her Jeep. She leaned her head against the steering wheel and closed her eyes, trying to still the rapid drum of her pulse. Instead, Kathy's features floated up behind her eyelids: the solemn grey eyes and pouting lower lip, nose a touch too large, ears that stood out a bit too far but were usually hidden under a mass of red-gold hair, gilded with a fire of henna.
Isabelle wanted to pretend that the letter had never come, just as Kathy, lying there so pale and frail in the hospital, had wanted them all to pretend that she wasn't dying. Isabelle wanted it to be 1972 again, the year she left the island to attend Butler University; the year her whole life changed, from farm to city, from everything she knew so well to a place where the simplest act was an adventure; the year she first met Kathy; the year before she'd fallen under Rushkin's spell.
But that had never been Isabelle's gift, reinventing the world as she needed it; that gift had been Kathy's.
"What's the world for if you can't make it up the way you want it?" Kathy had once asked her.
"What do you mean, make it up?"
"Make it something other than what it is. Make it something more than what it is."
Isabelle had shaken her head. "That's not something we can do. We can't just imagine things to be different. I mean we can, but it won't really change anything -- not in the real world."
"If we don't change the world to suit us," Kathy had said, "then it'll change us to suit it."
"What's so bad about that?"
"I don't like who it can make me become."
No, Isabelle had never mastered the knack of it. And in the very end, neither had Kathy.
Pushing the bundle of mail from her lap onto the passenger's seat beside her, Isabelle sat up. Her vision was blurred and all she could see of the windshield in front of her was a haze. She gripped the steering wheel to keep her hands from shaking. The engine idled, a low throaty drone that played a counterpoint to the hollow rhythm of her own accelerating heartbeat. The ache in her chest was as familiar as the handwriting on the envelope that had reawoken the pain.
If she could have it all to do over once more, there was so much she would change. She would have listened to Kathy's warnings. She wouldn't have let herself fall prey to Rushkin and his promises. But most of all, she wouldn't have let Kathy die. Given another chance, she'd give up her own life first. But malignant diseases paid no attention to anyone's wants or wishes, and neither the world nor the past could be changed simply by wishing.
It was a long time before Isabelle finally put the Jeep into gear and returned to her landing. She tossed the bundle of mail into the bow of her rowboat, got in and cast off from the dock. She rowed with the steady strokes of a long familiarity with the task at hand, back to the island, her gaze on the receding shore but her thoughts circling around the memories of her friend. She'd become unusually adept at hiding them, even from herself, but the letter had drawn them up from out of the shadows and there was no putting them back now. They swept about her like a flock of noisy gulls; each clamoring for special attention, not one concerned with the pain their presence woke in her. They rose up from their secret places, pushing through the cobwebs, churning up a fine cloud that had lain undisturbed for years.
Isabelle was choking on their dust.
Copyright © 1994 by Charles de Lint