by Rudy Koshar
Carla sees a tiny black damselfly, no more than one inch long and so dark it almost blends with the asphalt except for two green shoulder stripes, broken like twin exclamation points. It gropes across Big Bay Road from the reedy pond on one side toward the Lake Superior shore on the other. Its slow movement matches the dreamlike weather on Madeline Island where August dithers into September and the nights are cold, crystalline wonders.
“A female Fragile Forktail,” says Henry, Carla’s husband, who only days ago in La Pointe bought a handbook on damselflies. “Uncommon in the north woods but still not rare. If you look closely, you can see it has a minute forked protuberance at the end of its abdomen. It’s not a very good flier.” Henry is ready to launch into what his wife calls his “lecture mode.”
“I wonder what it’s doing here,” Carla says.
“Well, unlike most other varieties of damselfly, the female Forktail mates just once in its life. Maybe that’s why it’s walking across the road, to mate.”
Carla kneels down to look closer. She extends her hand, puts her index finger in the path of the insect. As if on cue, the Fragile Forktail crawls gently, almost lovingly, onto her finger. Smiling, she looks at Henry, who kneels stiffly beside her. To their surprise, the Forktail curls her abdomen to form half of a mating wheel, the heart-shaped configuration, unique to damselflies, that copulating pairs create.
“She’s confused,” laughs Carla. “She’s lost her lover.”
The damselfly quickly straightens her abdomen, walks off Carla’s finger, and resumes a tortuous crawl over the hot asphalt.
“I wonder if I should help the poor thing to the other side,” she says.
“I wouldn’t. You don’t want to intervene in the natural course of things,” replies Henry. “And anyway, there’s hardly any traffic.”
“She seems so fragile and alone out here on the road. So defenseless.”
“Still,” says Henry, rising. “There’s really nothing we can do for it. It has to make it to the other side of the road on its own. Maybe it’s at the end of its life cycle anyway. Or it’s injured. Survival of the fittest, and all that good Darwinian stuff.”
“Maybe you’re right. She’ll find her way. Or not.”
They look up and see an elderly woman eyeing them some twenty yards away. She stands in the middle of the two-lane blacktop road holding a small table lamp from which an electrical cord dangles.
“Are you okay?” the old woman calls.
“We’re fine,” says Henry.
“Did you hurt your leg?” asks the old woman.
“No, we’re okay,” says Henry. “We saw a damselfly and we thought she needed help.”
“A damsel?” says the old woman, cupping her free hand to her ear.
“A damselfly,” cries Henry.
The old woman stops for a moment. She has a faraway look that turns to concern, as if something of immense gravity has just occurred to her.
They walk toward her down the middle of the road. The wiry old woman, blond but with broad gray streaks in her long frizzy hair, extends her hand. “I’m Tonna,” she says. “It’s an ancient Swedish name. Dates to as early as the thirteenth century. But I’m not that old, even if I look it.”
Carla laughs while Henry remains straight-faced. He looks at the small lamp Tonna holds.
“Oh, this,” she giggles. “I’m trying to clean out my garage, over there.” She points across the road to a ramshackle storage shed. “But I’m not having much luck. I’ve simply accumulated too many things over the years. It’s hard to throw stuff out. Every piece has a memory attached to it. What part of your past can you just give up?”
Carla and Henry look at the shed, then back at Tonna. “Are you just visiting Madeline Island?” asks the old woman.
“Yes, we’re renting the little brown cottage down the road,” answers Carla. “The one just before Old Schoolhouse Road.”
“Beautiful day for a walk, isn’t it?” says Tonna, whose diminutive hand brushes an unruly strand of hair from her forehead.
“Gorgeous,” Carla replies. “We’ve been outside all day. The weather’s been unbelievably summerlike. We even swam yesterday. Imagine—swimming in Lake Superior in mid-September! And there are so few other tourists. It feels as if we’re alone on the island.”
“It has been warm,” nods Tonna. “The old-timers say too warm. They say the fishing’s been off because the water temperature stays too high.”
“Global warming,” says Henry.
“Don’t know ‘bout those things,” smiles Tonna.
“Are you a full-time islander?” asks Carla.
“Yes I am. I’m eighty years old, born and raised here, or just down Big Bay Road. If you drive toward town you’ll see the big farm on the right. We had horses and cows and chickens, even some goats. My father planned to try sheep but he never got that far. The folks who have the farm now have let it run down a bit, but it’s still there. Don’t know why my parents sold it, really. Even has the corral from when I was a girl. But they don’t have horses any more. Too bad. I bet I could hear the horses whinnying clear over here if they had them and the wind was right. I like the sound of horses.”
A rusted blue Ford F-150 truck comes slowly down the road in the direction from which Carla and Henry came. The three move to the shoulder and the driver waves.
“That’s old Ollie,” says Tonna. “He’s in his eighties too. I think he wants to ask me out, but he’s too shy.”
Carla smiles at Tonna, whose blue eyes match the lake’s brilliance. Carla realizes how petite the older woman is. And how pretty. Her cheekbones are well-defined, her teeth white and perfect. Her nose is too large for the small face, but it still has a pleasing effect, giving her face subtle proportion rather than obvious beauty. Carla thinks of what she would look like at Tonna’s age and frowns. She feels a mix of anger over her vanity and admiration for the older woman.
“Where you folks from?” asks Tonna.
“Madison,” replies Carla.
“Madison! That’s where my husband was murdered.”
“Oh,” says Henry. An uncomfortable silence settles over the three as crows make a ruckus in the stand of birch trees farther down the road.
“On the operating table. At the university hospital. A routine procedure, they said. His heart. He bled to death right there, with the doctors and nurses. They never explained to me exactly what happened, not really, and they never apologized. The doctor was from India, or maybe Pakistan. I don’t know. But she never apologized. She murdered him as sure as someone gets murdered in a drive-by shooting. I won’t step foot in Madison.”
“I’m so sorry to hear about that,” says Carla. “It’s very sad. When did it happen?”
“It’ll be thirty years ago this November. Sig was just fifty years old. Just got done building this house. We were going to live here the rest of our lives. The kids were already grown—three daughters and a son. They’ve scattered all over the place. North Dakota. Florida. Seattle, Kansas City. I’ve lived here alone since then. Thirty years. Our dream house.”
Carla and Henry look at the house, a modest but comfortable looking wooden structure, two stories, a gray shingle roof, brown exterior paint. It gives the impression of solidity. Unlike the storage shed, it’s well-maintained, though the fascia needs new paint and the asphalt driveway could use re-sealing.
“It must be cold on the island in the winter,” says Carla.
“Oh, not so bad at all. Not for an ornery old islander like me.”
“It doesn’t get lonely?” asks Carla.
“Well, I don’t have many people to talk to, that much is true. Usually just me and the four walls.”
Carla searches for something more to say while Tonna appears lost in a daydream.
“Sometimes I guard against the wolves,” says the older woman suddenly.
“Wolves?” says Henry with a wry smile. Carla wonders if Tonna sees Henry’s disbelief.
“Last March, the lake was still frozen over, and out of my picture window I see three, four wolves out on the ice chasing a deer. Well, the deer won’t do too well on the ice, so I run inside, get my shotgun, run back out and fire a few warning shots. Scared ‘em for several minutes, but then I saw they got the deer anyway. Poor, sweet thing. A doe. Took her down just fifty yards from where the end of my dock is in the summer months. The bloodstains were there on the ice for weeks after. You know, the state introduced the wolves, and I think the deer population really suffers. I wish the state wouldn’t have done that.”
The conversation flows very freely now and Tonna does most of the talking. Carla has the impression they’ve unleashed a torrent of words that were bottled up inside Tonna for some time. Carla nods, tries to interject a comment when she can, which isn’t often.
Henry tries to switch again to lecture mode. He explains why the Department of Natural Resources wanted to re-introduce wolves into the eco-system. When Tonna complains about the constantly rising price of the ferry from the mainland to the island, he mentions escalating fuel prices and high costs for employee health care.
Henry never gets very far. Each time he begins to develop a point, Tonna changes the subject and goes in a new direction. She talks of memories of riding her father’s horses bareback on the beach, walking across the frozen lake to Bayfield in the winters, her son’s carpentry business, her youngest daughter’s beauty salon in Kansas City, the wolf spider she found in her basement.
Carla notices the color of Henry’s ears hangs between vermilion and scarlet, which means he’s irritated.
Tonna asks them a second and third time where they’re from, and each time she tells the story of her husband’s murder on the operating table in Madison. Henry gives Carla questioning looks. Carla too is looking guiltily for a gracious way to exit. She had hoped Henry would make love to her this afternoon. She feels their marriage is in jeopardy. They’d each had too many affairs, too much work, too much disappointment trying to have children. Or did Henry really care about the children part? Henry’s indifference has increased in the past months. He’s colder than usual. He laughs less, lectures more. A stay on the quiet east side of the island seemed like just what they needed.
The more time they spend with Tonna, Carla thinks, the less time they could spend alone with each other. Does Henry feel the same way? Is he thinking of her tanned body underneath him at this very moment? Or of his ritual afternoon glass of amber ale? She debates whether to say she’s tired and needs a nap or she has to fix dinner. She settles on the second, which is plausible—it’s now half past four—but Tonna’s soliloquy immediately takes another right-angle turn.
“You folks ever need a place to stay on the island, you can rent the upper story here. It’s got two bedrooms, full bath, beautiful view of the lake. The house is so empty. It would be nice to have renters. Why, you can see the lighthouse in Ashland from the east window there.” She points. “Where’d you say you folks were from?”
Carla ignores the question, focusing instead on Tonna’s offer. “Thanks so much for the invitation,” she says. It’s an intriguing possibility, she thinks. Twice in the past five years she and her husband had tried to rent a cottage for a week on the island and found that everything was booked. To have a kind of secret summer rental stashed away for safekeeping is a nice thought. But maybe Tonna offers her upper story to any tourist who passes by. Or maybe Tonna is on the edge of senility and she doesn’t remember her offers. And maybe, thinks Carla, she and Henry would not be together next summer, or the summer after that anyway. And finally, there’s the matter of Tonna herself. Could they stand living in the same house with this babbling little eighty-year-old?
When after another quarter hour of rambling conversation they say their goodbyes, the older woman warmly grasps Carla’s hands. Tonna’s face has danced during most of the conversation. Now it settles and darkens. When their backs are turned toward Tonna, she asks loudly “What was the name of that bug you folks were looking at?”
“A damselfly,” said Henry, turning around. “A damselfly.” Carla feels annoyed by Henry’s condescending tone.
Tonna nods but says nothing. She still holds the small lamp in her left hand. She has rolled up the electrical cord and it hangs loosely around the neck of the lamp. Carla wonders for a moment if she would throw it away. And how many other small pieces of furniture, pictures, old skates, and torn snowshoes there are in the run-down garage.
Henry exhales loudly as they walk back down the road toward their cottage. “God, what a relief to be done with that,” he gasps.
“Oh, I thought she was sweet. Even if she did talk a lot. She’s so alone,” says Carla, shaking her head. “So lonely. Out here on her own.”
“She didn’t seem to be doing so badly to me,” he retorts. “Think of her firing her gun over the ice in the dead of winter. Trying to scare off the wolves. She must be pretty capable. Or crazy enough to survive. Of course, she could be going batty. That murder thing, you know?”
“Living alone like that, with only your memories to give companionship, that would unhinge anyone.”
They walk in silence. The wind has picked up and the lake responds with an insistent whoosh of the tide against the sandy beach. Carla feels suddenly alone, as if the sun and soft wind encapsulate her in a small room from which there is no exit. At least it’s a pleasant room. She looks at Henry, feeling he is about to speak.
“Every man dies alone,” he says.
“Every man dies alone. It’s the title of a novel by the famous German writer Hans Fallada. From just after World War II. It seems apt, doesn’t it? Tonna. Her husband’s death, alone on the operating table. Her isolation from the world. Thirty years in that house on an island in Lake Superior. The doe devoured by the wolves on the ice. Every woman dies alone.”
Carla’s panic is abrupt and painful. She stops in the road as a distant memory flashes through her mind. She remembers when she found out she was adopted and discovered that her biological parents had died. Then too, she felt as if she were alone in a tiny room without exit. Only that room was stifling, and the walls edged toward her at a glacial pace.
She shakes her head and says, “Let’s see how the little damselfly is doing.”
They cross the road to re-trace their steps. As before, they walk down the yellow centerline of the road without worry. Only one car passes. Along the roadside are thick stands of milkweed, ferns, goldenrod. Many ferns wear autumnal brown and the goldenrod has already lost much of its summer luster. Slugs crawl on the faded green leaves of milkweed. Yellow tansy, smelling of camphor and rosemary, glows brightly. They see a peregrine falcon perched high on a white pine. It launches from its branch, swoops directly over the two walkers toward the lake, then comes back, returning to the same tree. As before, they walk in silence, but more slowly and with their heads down.
“I bet it has already made its way to the other side of the road. It’ll be hard to see, in any case,” Henry says. “I bet it’s as tough as old Tonna.”
Carla’s eyes sweep the road. Hurrying his steps, Henry walks a few paces in front of her.
“Not so fast, honey,” says Carla.
“An image of a frosty glass of Bell’s Amber Ale is beginning to form in my mind,” he says over his shoulder. “This is really a waste of time. The first time we saw the thing was pure chance.”
When he doesn’t hear a response from Carla, he turns and sees her several paces back, on her knees, looking at the road.
“My god,” she says softly, “she didn’t make it.”
She puts her hands to her face. Her shoulders shake. She feels Henry’s hand on her shoulder. “It’s just an insect,” she hears him say. “Come on. Let’s have our drink.”
Less than a year later, early July, mid-morning.
Carla sits with Tonna on her screened-in porch. The sunlight is brilliant. The water is azure, as calm as a mirror. They rose at six to pick wild raspberries. Now they have scones and coffee on the end table between their chairs. Carla looks at her juice-stained fingers.
“So nice to have you stay for the whole summer,” says Tonna. It would be the first of several times she’d say those words that day and every day Carla rented the upstairs. Tonna rocks contentedly in her chair.
“Have you decided if you’ll come back in the winter, too? I’ll just ask you to chip in a little for utilities.”
“I may. It depends in part on the settlement and what my lawyer can get for me. I want to, in any case, so we’ll see.”
“This afternoon we can go back to the garage and sort through more things, if you don’t mind,” says Tonna.
“Of course,” responds Carla. “I’ll help wherever I can.”
“There’s another letter for you. Came this morning. From Madison, again,” says Tonna. “I hate that town. It’s where Sig was murdered.”
Carla nods. “I’ll take a look at it later.”
“I think it’s from Henry again.”
“I’m sure it is,” says Carla.
“I don’t like to pry,” says Tonna.
“You’re not prying. You’re just showing concern. I haven’t been very forthcoming about what happened, have I?”
Tonna smiles, looks toward the lake. Two rowers glide along in a kayak one hundred yards from shore. Seagulls eye them disinterestedly from the long dock piercing the water farther down the beach.
“Just a minute. I have to get a book,” says Carla.
Tonna’s eyes follow Carla out of the room. She hears her go up the creaky stairs. In a few minutes, the stairs creak again and Carla is back.
“This is Mary Oliver’s poetry,” says Carla, sitting on the edge of her chair and facing the old woman. “She’s famous, a Pulitzer Prize winner. One of my favorite poems by her is ‘The Measure.’ I’d like to read a couple of lines for you. They explain everything.”
“Oh, I love poetry,” smiles Tonna. “But I don’t understand a damned thing of it, most of the time. It’s just the sound I like. Maybe that’s a big part of the meaning.”
Carla nods. “Well, maybe I’ll start reading you poetry. We could spend an hour or so every evening. Would you enjoy that?”
“I would,” replies Tonna, beaming.
“In this free-verse poem, the narrator is driving and she comes across a box turtle in the road. She decides to help it cross. ‘Who wouldn’t give aid to such a shy citizen?’ the narrator asks. ‘Who wouldn’t complete the journey for it, taking it of course / in the direction of its desire: a pinewoods.’ The turtle’s goal is to get to a patch of blueberries that have ripened early.”
“And later the narrator thinks of how nature, or fate, or the cosmos, God, whatever, ‘the mystery of the hours and the days,’ puts a box turtle in the road a person is traveling on, a person in a hurry, and measures a life by what she does. How she responds.”
Tonna pauses, reflects, sighs.
“I read this poem the other day for what must have been the tenth time since last summer. It makes me think of the little damselfly Henry and I saw the day we met you. It makes me think I’m that damselfly, or that box turtle. And how even with my husband I was alone. We couldn’t help the damselfly. But the narrator could help the box turtle. I needed a narrator.”
Tonna smiles again.
“And you’re it, Tonna.”
Tonna’s eyebrows jump. “I just remembered. I need to go into town to Ed’s for some smoked lake trout he said he’d have ready for me. Want to go with?”
“No, I think I’ll sit here for a while longer. It’s so beautiful. Mind if I don’t come along? I’ll have lunch ready when you get back.”
“A fair deal, Carly,” says Tonna.
Carla grins at the thought that Tonna is the only person in the world who calls her “Carly.”
Ten minutes later she hears Tonna’s pickup pull out of the drive. She looks out at the lake, where seagulls still squat on the wooden dock. She watches them for a few minutes before she notices a female goldfinch fly past the porch and settle on a low branch of the white pine at the edge of the yard. She would check Tonna’s feeders for her later. On the periphery of her vision, to the left, Carla sees something flit by. Its flight is like that of a damselfly—low to the ground, erratic, no more than a momentary thing. Carla rises to take the poetry book back upstairs.