The bottom of Prioleau Lake buckled and shoaled but the man driving the water taxi wove through the shallows without looking, rolling a cigarette at his waist. He knew where the rocks were. They shot into the open channel past a thousand islands, inlet after inlet, but to Tristan it was all the same — water led to more water, shore to more shore. Tristan sat with his feet in the air, braced on the bench between his mother and another passenger, a man he’d never seen. His mother’s long black hair whipped across his face, into his mouth. He kept brushing it away. The arm of the man beside him was as wide and warm as a dock plank in the sun, the opposite of his mother’s, which was so slight Tristan could feel the nub of her elbow through her coat. Inside, his mother took on the temperature of a room. Outside, she took on the temperature of the sky. She was so cold now that he leaned away from her into the plank arm. Hoping she wouldn’t notice, he shifted his weight a little at a time, in rhythm with the waves knocking at the bow.
As the boat rounded Treble Island, Rachel thought it might not be so bad to live here. Treble had no farming acres. It was only woods, a wild place, and so nothing less than a paradise or hell, depending on how you felt. She had memories of landing on Treble to go to the trading post with her father. She could still see him drinking on that wide porch. They would stay past sundown, then cross the water home in the dark. Maybe he stayed late for no other reason than that night ride, flying low over the water blind. Sometimes he did nothing but smoke and drink, not saying anything to the next man. Now and then, many people gathered on the porch, playing music and dancing on the long boards, which bent underfoot with the give of a diving board and made Rachel feel the muscles in her legs. She danced with everyone, not only the boys but also the men and women, and she remembered how their bodies through jeans and loose shirts were hard from work, how she drew in close and took any affection allowed her, and how a bad sunburn could make the cool of evening come on stronger.
As the boat slowed, she smelled the trees. The air snapped its fingers like a smelling salt and seemed to wake her. From what sleep she didn’t know. She held her hand in the air and the air washed her hand. She bent her head and it washed the back of her neck.
The other passengers gathered their bags and stepped off the taxi. Rachel and Tristan were supposed to follow them along the boardwalk through the tall grasses to the trading post, then take the wide path right to the old church land. A cabin was waiting for them, she’d been told. It had no windows, but it did have a stove. It had a door they could open to move the air, Codas had said. But Rachel didn’t follow the crowd up the boardwalk through the grasses, not even with her eyes. She looked out at the water and tried to imagine how deep it was, and how many islands lay just below the surface.
Tristan held on to the bench with both hands as they jerked into reverse and pulled away from the dock. Treble Island had come and gone. The boat hit the waves harder without the weight of the other passengers, and he felt each wave as a blow to the stomach. From his stomach a bad feeling rose into his chest and spread across the tops of his shoulders like big hands pressing him down. He was soaring and drowning, or he was crying, that was it.
He closed his eyes as Rachel put her arm around him. She held the top of his shoulder, but it was so small it didn’t fill her hand. She’d made this shoulder, but it was smaller than her idea of it. Did she not know him? Not even his shoulder. But she had saved him, and herself. The debt they would have found taking charity on Treble Island was not the kind that could be paid off. It was the kind of debt that could only be forgiven.
“Your island?” the man driving the boat yelled over his shoulder.
“What’s your number?”
There were hundreds of islands. He knew them by number, even the sliver islands in the shadows of the mainland. In his mind, the islands formed constellations, but he also saw them as single points of light.