Arrival on Salt Spring Island
Story by Alanna Rossi, Illustrations by Jaclyn Simon
Lucy held onto the warm cup of coffee and stood at the railing looking out at the coast passing by. The air smelled salty and felt cool against her skin. It was early June and the weather was still on the chillier side. Lucy wore a worn-in grey sweatshirt from her University, jeans and a ball cap with an embroidered “NY” on it which she borrowed from a guy she used to see and never returned. Her long brown hair whipped around in the breeze. The sun was still low on the horizon. Lucy could tell it would be a beautiful day.
It was a Thursday and Lucy had caught the first ferry out from Tsawwassen. She preferred the early sailings as they were typically a lot quieter. She had the entire deck to herself, save for the odd seagull who eyed her up every now and then, hoping she would toss them something to eat. She sipped her coffee and tried not to think about all the things she had to do when she arrived on Salt Spring Island. A small part of her regretted her decision to uproot her life and move to a small Gulf Island for three months, but a much larger part was excited and looking forward to some much needed time away from the city.
For so long her whole world consisted of studying, reading books, and writing papers. Now, she was on her way to Salt Spring to do some field research. There was one particular plant she wanted to study called the Phantom Orchid. It was rare and endangered and supposedly only grew in very specific areas on the island. It was practically an enigma and after reading so much about it, she was eager to find it in person.
Lucy had spent most of her meagre savings on a small house to rent near the water just outside of town, and based on the photos it seemed pretty idyllic. It was situated on a small property and it had a garden. She sublet her apartment back home to a friend who promised to take care of her plants. Lucy had her doubts but she was determined to be optimistic. An announcement came over the speakers announcing that they would be arriving at Long Harbour terminal shortly. Lucy drained the rest of her coffee and tossed the paper cup into the recycling bin and made her way to her car.
In her car, a used Subaru SUV she had leased the previous year, she closed her eyes and waited for the unloading to begin. Some impatient person had already started their engine. They were probably the same type of person who stood up to get their bags from the overhead compartment the second the plane lands. Lucy decided that she would go to the grocery store when she got off the boat before going to the house. Her stomach growled and she realized she forgot to eat breakfast that morning.
Once off the boat and on the road that led people into town, Lucy took a smaller road and left behind the throng of cars full of tourists who were heading to Ganges. She knew of a small general store run by a husband and wife which was conveniently on the way to her house. She rolled down her windows in the car and felt herself starting to relax. What was it about the Gulf Islands that had such a calming effect on a busy mind? Lucy had a pretty good idea. The road she took was lined by tall cedars and there was barely any traffic. She was so accustomed to driving in the city she forgot how much she actually enjoyed driving when she wasn’t stressed out.
She pulled into a small gravel parking lot and grabbed an empty tote bag from her trunk.
An elderly woman greeted her as she walked into the store and Lucy smiled in return as she grabbed a basket.
“Good morning dear,” the woman said kindly. “You let me know if you need a hand with anything.”
“Good morning,” Lucy said in return with a smile.
She just wanted to grab a few essentials – milk, eggs, butter, bread, coffee and maybe some snacks. She brought her items up to the counter and paid. The woman told her to have a lovely day and Lucy thanked her. She popped the full tote into the passenger seat and pulled out a post-it note with scribbled directions on it. She was warned about poor cell reception on the island so had to rely on her hand-written notes on how to find the house. She had a general idea of where she needed to go to get the house, but she couldn’t remember the name of the street. “Miller Road” her note said, and it wasn’t too much further.
She soon turned onto Miller Road which was a lot narrower than the main road she was just on. To her right was forest and on her left were other small homes with big yards. Lucy marvelled at the amount of space everyone had. She wondered what it would feel like to have so much space of her own for the next three months after living in a glorified shoe box back in Vancouver. Near the end of the road was her destination. She double checked the address and pulled into the short driveway.
Lucy could tell it was an old house, but it clearly meant a great deal to the owner. It was in decent shape and had been tended to recently. It was painted white and had window boxes full of geraniums. Lucy saw a small gate in the fence and walked over to it. Opening it, she saw that the garden in the back was full of flowers with bees and hummingbirds were busy working away. Closing the gate, she headed back towards the front of the house. She punched in the code the landlord gave to her into the lockbox which was situated by the front door, and retrieved the key. The entryway was small, and smelled much like what old homes smell like, but it was oddly comforting. In front of her was a short hallway to the kitchen and to her left was a living room, with two big comfy couches and a chair which was situated in front of a fireplace. There were stairs which she assumed lead to the bedrooms, two in total. The smaller one she would turn into a makeshift office. She put the keys down on the small table beside the door and walked into the kitchen. It was small, but very clean. It had an island and a wooden table with four chairs near a backdoor which led out to a deck. She opened the doors to let some air in. The back deck overlooked the yard and the garden and just beyond the tree line was the ocean. It was quiet and peaceful. So quiet she could hear the bees in the garden. It was exactly what she needed for her work she had to do. She walked back out to the car to grab her bags and lugged them upstairs to the bedroom. The larger bedroom had a double bed, a dresser, and a cozy looking reading chair near the window, which also looked out to the yard.
She finished unloading the car and unpacked the groceries she bought earlier. Once her fridge and pantry were full, she put on a pot of coffee and opened up her laptop to see if she could sort out the internet situation. The landlord assured her that the internet wasn’t too terrible, and it seemed to be okay so far. She checked her email and the news, neither contained anything uplifting and when the coffee was finished, she shut the laptop and headed outside. Past the garden was a path that led down to the water. She took the steps down the deck and made her way to it. At the end of the path she stopped and sat on the grass and took in the view. She thought about the orchid she was there to find. She had first heard about the orchid in her second year at University when a classmate of hers told her about it. He had grown up on Vancouver Island and they were swapping stories of their favourite places to visit, when he mentioned it to her. She was immediately hooked.
Lucy spent the rest of her day puttering around the house, unpacking, and getting her office set up. She took a peek at the bookshelf in the living room. She made herself dinner, scrambled eggs on toast, and went to bed early. Lying in bed, she reflected on the day and as she started to make a mental list of all the things she had to do the following day, she quickly drifted off to sleep.
When she woke up the next morning, she knew that it was still early. The light outside the window was dull and a light fog had rolled in from the ocean behind her house. It made the yard look like a Scottish moor. She yawned and stretched standing in front of the window then threw on her sweatshirt and headed downstairs to make coffee.
The coffee machine percolated and she stood at the counter checking messages on her phone. She had plugged it in when she arrived at the house the previous day and had turned it on silent and forgot about it. She had a couple missed calls and some text messages. One from her mom making sure she settled in okay and a couple from her best friend who lived on Vancouver Island asking how the move went and if she met a guy yet.
Lucy responded to the messages and then took her coffee out on the back deck. The air had a damp chill to it, and there was a slight breeze. It was going to be another beautiful day, but at that moment it felt like fall. She sat in a chair sipping her coffee, watching the flowers in the garden sway in the breeze. Ravens cried in a nearby tree and she could hear the sound of waves crashing up against the shore, just a few yards away. She noticed a couple of deer near the trees. Other than the sounds of nature, it was quiet. No cars, no people yelling out on the street. There was none of the city noise she left behind. She thought to herself that this was the ideal way to start a morning. Sitting in a chair with a hot cup of coffee watching the island wake up.
A couple hours later, after a hot shower and a breakfast of toast and peanut butter, Lucy was in her car driving to the town of Ganges. There was a bookstore there she wanted to check out. She snagged a parking spot right out front of the store and she saw that it was already open. The smell of cinnamon buns from the coffee shop next door made Lucy’s mouth water and she took a mental note to try one sometime. The bookstore was small, but it was jam packed with books. Lucy adored bookstores. She could spend hours looking through titles and taking her time picking out new books to read. It was her favourite thing to do when she had free time. She was there to find a specific book, one about local plants that she was unable to find in Vancouver. It was written by a local who had lived in Salt Spring and came recommended by one of her professors.
There was a young woman behind the counter sipping coffee out of a chipped mug that said “BOOKS 4 LIFE”. She had pink streaks in her long blonde hair and a nose ring. She had her nose in a book but looked up when Lucy approached the counter.
“Good morning!” The woman said. “Anything I can help you with?”
“Good morning,” Lucy responded. “I’m looking for a book written by a local, a… Susan Thornby. It’s called ‘The Unique and Varied Flora and Fauna of Salt Spring Island’. “
The woman smiled. “You’re in luck, I’m pretty sure we have a used copy. Should be over here…
The woman walked out from behind her desk and went to a section of the store near the back. It was obviously the nature section and was full of well-used books of all different subjects.
“Wow, what a collection. Some of these are actually quite rare,” Lucy said as she pulled out a book about roses with beautiful illustrations inside.
The woman chuckled. “Yeah, I’m a bit of a book nerd. I love old books about plants. I just adore the illustrations. Anytime there’s an estate sale or yard sale I check it out and buy up whatever they have. They don’t sell very well, but I don’t mind. Oh, here we go.” She said as she pulled a small worn blue book from the shelf.
“We lost the dust cover ages ago, but it’s in pretty decent shape otherwise.” She handed the book to Lucy who took it. The small blue book was heavier than it looked and at first glance, full of beautiful illustrations and detailed descriptions.
“This is perfect,” Lucy said. “I’ll take it.”
They walked back to the register and Lucy took out her wallet to pay for the book.
The woman smiled, her green eyes wrinkling at the corners.
“First one’s on the house,” she said. “ You’re new to town right? I heard that someone had rented out the old house on Miller Road for a few months.”
“Oh wow, thank you. Um, yes that’s me. My name’s Lucy and I’ll be around for a while. I’m here studying local plants,” Lucy said somewhat awkwardly.
“Ah, hence the book,” the woman said, gesturing to the book in Lucy’s hand. “Well, my name is Max. Welcome to town. If you need anything just let me know. I actually live in the apartment above the bookstore so I’m pretty easy to find,” Max laughed. “What sort of plants are you here to study anyways? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“No, I don’t mind. I’m here to study a plant called the Phantom Orchid,” Lucy replied.
“Wow, sounds spooky,” Max said. “I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it before.”
Lucy brought out her phone to show Max a photo. “Here, this is what it looks like. Pretty, right?”
Max nodded. “Very pretty. You know, now that I’m looking at it, it actually does look familiar.”
“Really?” Lucy asked. “Have you seen it before?”
“No, never in person but … Oh! Hang on. Give me on sec.” Max turned and ran up a small flight of stairs behind the counter.
When Max reemerged moments later, she was holding a leather journal.
“This belonged to my granddad. He loved plants and always went for these really long walks and would record everything he saw. The photo you showed me reminded me of a drawing of his in here … let’s see if I can find it …” Max said as she flipped through the pages of the journal.
Lucy caught snippets of illustrations and neat handwriting as Max rifled through the pages. When she finally found what she was looking for she turned the journal around for Lucy to see.
“See, look! Is this the same plant?” Max asked.
“I think so!” said Lucy. “It does look really similar. Do you mind if I …”
“Oh, please, here. You can borrow it. I’m sure he has all sorts of notes that would be useful to you,” Max said, handing the journal to Lucy.
“Are you sure? This journal must mean a lot to you. You don’t even know me,” Lucy said.
“Yeah but you seem trustworthy enough and I know he wouldn’t mind. Plus, I now know where you live,” Max said with a wink.
Lucy laughed. “Well, thank you. I promise to take good care of it. I can’t wait to flip through it and see what else he wrote about,” Lucy glanced at the wall clock behind the counter. “I should get going. I have lots to do today and I should let you get back to work. Thanks again for the book,” Lucy held the book up. “I’ll see you around. I’ll pop by to return the journal.”
“Hold onto it for as long as you need,” Max said and waved goodbye. “See you around, Lucy.”
Lucy walked back to her car holding both books and headed back to the cottage. She liked Max. She assumed they were around the same age and a part of her thought it would be nice to get a coffee with her one day. It would be nice having a friend on the island. Back home, Lucy sat in one of the chairs on the back deck and flipped through the journal Max had given her. Lucy could see where Max got her love of botanical illustrations from. Her grandad seemingly illustrated everything he saw on his walks. His drawings were delightful and his descriptions made Lucy chuckle. When she found the page with the Phantom Orchid on it, she read through his descriptions of it and saw that he had written down and underlined the name “Gwendolyn Wileman” beside the picture he had drawn. She didn’t notice it back at the bookstore because he had written it so small.
“Gwendolyn Wileman?” Lucy muttered to herself. “Who the heck is Gwendolyn Wileman.” She realized she didn’t know Max’s last name, perhaps it was a relative of hers? It was such an unusual name. She made a note to ask Max about it next time she saw her.
* * *
Back at the bookstore, Max was getting ready to close shop for the day when she remembered something her grandad had told her years ago. She had completely forgotten about it until now. Memory is funny that way. She was probably ten years old and had asked her grandad to tell her a story. He told her a story about an old woman who died a long time ago who lived on Salt Spring. The woman lived in a small house near the forest, and spent most of her time in the woods, wandering aimlessly, talking to the plants. The kids called her a witch and were frightened of her. When she died, supposedly under mysterious circumstances, the locals reported seeing a ghost of a woman in the woods near pale white flowers. Max remembered feeling afraid after her grandad told her the story and when she asked if he believed it, he just smiled at her. She wondered if she should tell Lucy. It was obviously about the plant she was talking about earlier, but it couldn’t possibly be relevant. It was just a silly ghost story after all.
To be continued…