In the summer of 1977, my parents and I moved to Vancouver Island, Canada, from our rambling ranch home in Wyoming. My father had been offered a position with Sea Corp, a company devoted to studying marine life. He would no longer be Dr. Jack Richardson, marine biology professor at the university; instead, Dr. Richardson would be studying killer whales and recording their vocalization.
My mother was ecstatic about the move. She couldn't wait to return to Canada where most of her family was living. She chatted nonstop about all the new things we would see and do. Both my parents promised me that I would make many new friends. And I, like most eleven-year-olds, hated them for making me leave the friends I already had.
My father rented out our ranch to a nice elderly couple, leaving our furniture behind. I was quite happy that no children were going to be living in my bedroom. Miserably I watched my mother pick through my belongings, deciding what I could and couldn't bring. Our new house was fully furnished, she had explained to me the week before. So I said goodbye to my little bed and mismatched dresser.
That night as we watched TV in a hotel room, my parents talked about our new home--our future in Canada.
"Sarah?" my father said after a while. "Time for bed. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
I lay on the bed staring at the ceiling, wondering what life would be like stuck on a tiny island. How boring my life was going to be! My best friend, Amber-Lynn MacDonald, was probably crying her eyes out. I missed her already. Who was I going to tell all my secrets to?
Life is so unfair.
Little did I know then, just how unfair life could be.
It felt like days later when we finally arrived in Vancouver. We drove to a ferry terminal and waited in a long lineup of vehicles. Finally we boarded a small ferry and I excitedly rushed up the stairs to the upper deck where I stood against the rails watching the mainland disappear. The water was choppy and the ferry swayed gently side to side. We could see Vancouver Island approaching and dismal gray clouds greeted us. I immediately missed the scorching dry heat of Wyoming.
The drive from the ferry terminal to our new house seemed relentlessly slow. Some of the roads were unpaved, bumpy and pitted. The main road up the east coast of the island was used mostly for huge logging trucks and we passed many on the way. I watched the intimidating trucks roll precariously close. I held my breath, waiting for the huge bands that held the logs tight to snap, releasing the lumber onto our car.
"Where's the ocean?" I demanded, leaning forward to nudge my mother's shoulder. My mother reached back from the front seat, lightly brushing her hand across my cheek.
"You just saw it," my father chuckled.
"No, I mean the ocean ocean," I whined. "That was just like a big lake. I want to see the real ocean, where it stretches out for miles and you can't see the end."
"You just wait. You'll see it soon enough," my mother laughed.
The trees that surrounded us were enormous and forbidding. Moss hung eerily from damp branches and a fog danced around the tree trunks. Then the sun broke out from behind a cloud, free at last from its dark imprisonment.
"Close your eyes, Sarah. Don't open them 'til I say," my father said suddenly.
I obeyed and held my breath in anticipation. The ocean! I'm finally going to see the ocean.
My dark brown hair hung limply to my waist from the humid dampness of the car, my bangs sticking uncomfortably to my forehead and, being a typical eleven-year old, I had to sneak a peak.
"Okay, now open!" my father said excitedly. He chuckled as he looked at me in the rear view mirror, catching me with my eyes already open.
Pushing my bangs from my eyes, I scrunched my face up close to the window. The ocean lay spread out before me, interrupted only by a tiny island here or there. The water was choppy with whitecaps, and looked dark and mysterious. The sun danced on the ocean's surface. I rolled down the window, listening to the sound of waves crashing along the shoreline.
Back in Wyoming, we saw endless stretches of green hills and grass, with mountains rising in the distance. That was all I had ever known. I could go horseback riding and never see water bigger than our pond. Now before me, the ocean seemed to go on endlessly.
"Well? What do you think?" my father asked. "This road winds all along the western coastline of the island, so we'll see the ocean almost all the way to Bamfield. Our house is just east of the town, right on the water." He reached over and tugged at a piece of my mother's long auburn hair.
"The house will be ours for the next three years," my mother said, smiling at me. "It belongs to an older couple so we'll have to take very good care of it. They've gone to Florida while we're here."
Twenty minutes later we saw a sign. Welcome to Bamfield. We had been driving for almost two days and I was tired of being cooped up in the car. I breathed in a sigh of relief – we were almost there. We passed unnoticed through the modest town of Bamfield. It was much smaller than Buffalo, the town nearest our ranch in Wyoming. After stopping at Myrtle’s Restaurant & Grill for a delicious supper of deep-fried halibut and greasy french-fries, we clambered back into the car and drove to our new home.
We reached a small, barely legible sign that read: 231 Bayview Lane. The gravel driveway curved and disappeared into the trees, away from the shoreline, and we were plunged into darkness. In some places branches reached out, caressing the roof of the car like a thousand hungry fingers. I hate to admit it but I felt restless and uneasy. I knew that my life would change the second we drove into the trees. Destiny or fate?
"The house is just up ahead," my father reassured us. Turning to my mother, he smiled, "I know you're going to love this house, Dani."
Daniella Andria Rossetti was born and raised in San Diego, California. Her parents were immigrants from Italy who had moved to the United States after World War II. When she was eighteen, Daniella's parents moved again, this time to Vancouver, Canada. She took advantage of their move, left home and moved to Hollywood with hopes of becoming a famous actress. After numerous rejections and insulting offers from some sleazy directors, she gave up her stalled acting career to study art and oil painting instead.
Within a couple of months her work was shown at a popular art gallery, Visions, in San Francisco. It was there that she met Jack Richardson, a Canadian marine biology student. Within six months, Daniella had moved in with Jack--much to her parents' disapproval. Four months later they were married in a small church with Daniella's parents and a few friends present.
For the next three years, Jack and Daniella tried unsuccessfully to have a child. They had almost given up hope when they discovered that Daniella was finally pregnant. Six months into her pregnancy, Daniella miscarried. They were totally devastated.
Eight months later, Jack's stepfather and mother were killed in a car accident. During the reading of his stepfather's will, Jack discovered that he was the new owner of a rambling ranch home in Wyoming. Daniella was upset at leaving the bustling city of San Francisco for the wide-open plains near Buffalo until the curator of Visions, Simon McAllister, promised that she could courier her paintings to the gallery.
After a year on the ranch, Daniella couldn't imagine living anywhere else. Her work had thrived. Her paintings reflected images of country living, meadows and mountains. Then she was rewarded with unbelievable news. She was pregnant again! Nine months later, Sarah Maria Richardson weighed in at eight pounds, four ounces. At three months, I had thick black hair and dark brown eyes--and my parents doted on me.
When I was about six years old, my mother told me how she and my father had met. She told me how handsome he had looked the day he walked into the art gallery. She said she had fallen in love with him that very moment. It sounded like a fairytale. I knew my parents loved each other and that they would be married forever.
Now, years later, the Richardson family was driving along the rustic coast of Vancouver Island, anticipating the reactions to our new home. The tall cedar trees surrounding the car finally opened to reveal a lush lawn carefully landscaped with small shrubs. The ocean was again visible along the line of trees and a deep sunset blazed across the water toward a two-story cedar house at the end of the gravel driveway.
The cedar house stood just beyond the lawn, on a small hill close to the rocky beach. The shingles on the roof gleamed in the reddening sunlight. From the back, the house seemed forlorn, empty. A screen door led to a small screened-in patio overlooking the yard. The main door into the house was solid wood, with no window. Only three small windows on the back of the house were visible from the car.
"Well…not much to look at from here but I'm sure it's much nicer inside," my mother mumbled, more to herself than to anyone in particular. "We could always punch out a window or two."
"Dani, my love? You wait until you see inside. Looks can be deceiving." My father grinned and kissed my mother's cheek. He pulled the car over until it was on a cement pad beside the house.
"The garage?" my mother asked with a smirk.
"You're so funny, Dani," my father replied sarcastically as he unfolded himself from the car. He threw me a quick wink when my mother wasn't looking and, leaving the suitcases in the trunk, we headed inside.
It was the brightness, the dazzling light that hit us first. We stood in the doorway, stunned to see large picture windows wrapping the entire front of the house facing the water. I ran to one of the windows, almost knocking over a potted plant that was in desperate need of watering. I stared, mesmerized, as the setting sun sparkled on the bay. The inside of the house glowed like the embers of a fire.
"Oh my!" my mother whispered breathlessly. "Jack, it's beautiful!"
"I agree," my father nodded. "And it's private. The nearest neighbor is about a fifteen-minute walk along the beach. Sarah? Do you want to check out the rest of the house?"
When I nodded, he tugged my jacket off, indicating a large closet by the door. Then leading me to the far side of the open room he said, "Over here is the living room. Check out the neat fireplace."
"What is that thing?" I asked, pointing to a large black monstrosity.
"That's a wood-burning stove!" my mother exclaimed behind me. "How charming! I love it, Jack. You were right about this house."
The main floor was open and airy with a living room to the left, decorated in bronze and copper tones. Two plaid couches framed an area mat. And then there was the wood-burning stove. A cedar shelf mounted onto the peach-colored wall above it displayed a collection of oddities. An eagle's feather, a fisherman's glass ball still wrapped with twine, a skull from a small animal and even a crab shell lined the shelf. Above the shelf was a painting that made me gasp.
"That's your painting, Mom!"
It was a painting of a mountain waterfall. My mother had painted it while she was pregnant with me. It was her very favorite…and mine also.
"I sent it on ahead, Dani, so it would be here when we arrived," my father explained. "I asked the caretaker to hang it for us. He also made sure we have lots of firewood, and he turned the electricity back on too. That's why the house is so warm."
A dining room table and four chairs claimed the area in front of one of the windows beside the living room, while the spacious kitchen, complete with wooden island, lined the back wall to the right. The walls of the kitchen were painted the palest teal color and along the ceiling edge ran a soft leafy border. Wrought iron stairs led from the kitchen to the upper floor.
Next to the stairs, a sliding glass door opened onto a cedar deck and I breathed in the salty air, while my father wandered outside. A large picnic table with two padded benches sat in one corner by the railing. From the deck we could walk down a few stairs, follow a short trail cut into the rocks and grass and we would be on the beach. It was mesmerizing listening to the waves lapping softly on the shore.
I was thrilled with my new home. It was much better than I had expected. I couldn't wait to see the upstairs so, grabbing my mother's hand, I urged her to follow me.
"Come on!" I shouted to my father, who merely smiled at us and stayed framed in the doorway to the deck.
Upstairs, I entered the first room on the right. It was a small sitting room with a large bookshelf. The walls were painted white but they looked like they had definitely seen better days. Dusty books inhabited the shelves and a rocking chair sat motionless near a large bay window.
"This room needs a good dusting," my mother muttered.
I looked at her suspiciously, positive that she had plans for me that included a dust rag in one hand and lemon Pledge in the other. "I want to see my room!" I demanded, changing the subject and barging past her out into the hall.
The next room I entered boasted a large brass bed with down-filled pillows and a flowered quilt, two white colonial dressers and a cedar bench-seat built into the bay window. I turned to my mother, fingers crossed behind my back.
"Is this your room?" I asked, fervently hoping it was not.
My mother looked around the room and pointed to the boxes stacked neatly in one corner. On the bottom box, the letter S had been scribbled in red marker.
"Looks like it's yours, Honey Bunny," she chuckled. My parents had been calling me that ridiculous nickname since I was a baby and I didn't have the heart to ask them to stop.
Looking around my new room, I was elated. This room was twice the size of the one back home, the bed was huge and I could see the ocean from my window. I loved it!
Stifling a yawn, I quickly checked out my parents' room, the large bathroom and the laundry room. Then I followed my mother downstairs to the dining room where I devoured my supper. I wrestled with exhaustion, afraid that I would miss something wonderful. My mother noticed and sent me off to bed anyway. That was probably the first time I didn't argue with her about going to bed early.
As the moon dipped lower behind tall cedar trees I climbed into my new bed, smelling the fresh sheets. Cranking open my window, I could hear the waves, soft and gentle. And in the distance I heard the lulling cry of a water bird searching for his home. I didn't know it then, but I had found mine.
Everything in the new house was perfect but I missed Amber-Lynn. I promised myself I would call her in the morning. After all, best friends were hard to find. Amber-Lynn and I had been best friends since we were two years old. Her parents and mine often got together to play cards while Amber-Lynn and I would stay up late, watching movies until we fell asleep.
That night I lay in my cozy bed hundreds of miles away from my friend and pledged my undying devotion to her. I missed her, and my only consolation was that in three years I would be returning to Wyoming, to my ranch and to Amber-Lynn.
Three years. To a child my age three years was a lifetime.
I snuggled deeply into the warmth of my bed and quickly fell asleep.
"Dad? Can I go outside?" I asked my father during breakfast. My mother was still sleeping.
"Sure thing, Sarah. Let's go for a walk."
My father and I strolled onto the deck, down the stairs and across the rocky trail to the beach. The sun gleamed off his blond hair, highlighting a few gray ones. At forty-one, my father was the most handsome man I knew. I loved him more than I loved anyone in the world--I idolized him.
He always made my mother and I laugh by imitating people at work. He often pretended he could understand the creatures of the sea and he would tell us what they thought of his co-workers. The whales didn't have many nice things to say about them sometimes.
I watched my father lean forward and pick up a rock. He examined it carefully with what my mother and I called his ‘scientific mind’. Then he skipped it across the water. I tried to mimic him, but my rock simply sank with a thud.
"Like this," he instructed, showing me how to select a flat stone and fling it towards the water's surface like a Frisbee. "You have to throw it hard but keep it flat."
I practiced skipping stones until I finally succeeded.
"There you go!" my father cheered, grinning proudly.
We followed the shoreline around a bend a few yards away from our house and I squealed with delight. The rocky shoreline disappeared and a sandy beach curved toward the water.
"A raft! Look, Dad!" I pointed to a floating raft anchored maybe fifteen yards out into the water. The bay widened and just beyond it, the ocean loomed.
"This is all part of our property," my father said. "It's safe to swim out to the raft, just don't go any further. Okay?" His eyes turned serious and dark.
I studied the raft and noticed a small island not too far from it. My father was staring at the island too and I wondered what he was thinking. It wasn't until after supper that he told my mother and me the story of Fallen Island.
"Last year the son of one of our neighbors tried swimming out to Fallen Island," he began quietly. "The story I heard was that the boy had challenged his sister to swim from the raft to the island but when she refused, he went anyway. Apparently he made it most of the way across." My father paused and I clung to my chair, waiting.
"No one knows if he got caught in an old fishing net that had been washed into the bay, or if he just got too tired. His sister tried swimming out to him but I guess she panicked and went back to the raft. Her parents found her an hour later, sitting on the raft, just staring at the island."
"Did they find him?" I asked hopefully.
My father shook his head and said, "Search teams dragged the bay but they never found his body. I heard that his sister went to the shoreline every day afterwards, hoping to catch sight of her brother because she believed that he was still alive. The boy was only fourteen years old."
"That's an awful story, Jack," my mother scolded. She turned to me, patting my back reassuringly. "Your dad never should have told you."
"There's a reason I did, Daniella," my father said seriously. He looked at me directly and said, "I want you to promise me that you'll never swim farther than that raft."
There were times when my father scared me. The intensity of his words combined with his piercing blue eyes made me swallow hard.
"Promise me," he repeated gently.
As I made that solemn vow, I reminded myself that promises were sacred, not to be broken. I knew that my father loved me and that he was only protecting me – or trying to. He would always be my protector.
The first week went by quickly. Our days were spent strolling along the rocky beach. My mother was happy because my father did not have to go to work for another week. I watched them take off their shoes and run along the water's edge, laughing like children and holding hands. If Amber-Lynn had been there I would have felt mortified by my parents' display but since I was the only witness, I just smiled and watched.
During the second week, my father often went into town to get supplies. I'm sure he just wanted to escape all the cleaning my mother had planned. While he was gone, I helped my mother clean the upstairs sitting room. We dusted the numerous books, washed the floor and stored all of the owners' boxes in the small basement beneath the house. The room was much larger than we had first thought and by the end of the day, my mother had completely emptied one side of it to make room for her easel and supply table.
"There!" I said, placing a blank canvas on the easel. "Now you're ready to paint."
"Not quite," my mother grinned, shaking her head slowly. "At least, not that kind of painting."
Then, to my dismay, she pulled out two cans of paint and two brushes. It appeared that the walls were going to get a new coat. Resigned to my fate, I grabbed a brush and started painting. Actually, looking back on that time, I realize now that it is one of my most favorite memories of my mother. She started on one side, I on the other, and we met in the middle. By the time the room was painted a rich amber color, we were covered in paint and giggling like small children.
Admiring the finished result, my mother and I shook hands, congratulating each other on a job well done. The room sparkled and a faint, lemony fragrance lingered in the air. We placed some candles and an oil lamp on the round table beside the rocking chair. I imagined sitting in this room, curled up in the rocker while my mother painted.
Closing the door behind us, my mother leaned against the wall.
"Okay, now I'm exhausted…and thirsty," she grinned breathlessly. "How about some ice tea on the deck?"
I laughed, racing down the stairs ahead of her. By the time she reached the deck, I had two tall glasses, complete with lemon slices and a pitcher of ice tea on the picnic table.
"Mom?" I asked hopefully. "Can I go swimming?"
My mother contemplated my request for a moment. The bay looked peaceful and inviting but I had never gone swimming unsupervised.
"I promise I'll just swim out to the raft. You know I'm a good swimmer."
I knew she was thinking of all those swimming lessons I had taken at the Buffalo Recreation Center. I was ahead of most kids my age--not many eleven-year-olds could swim as fast or as far as I could. In fact, the last class I had taken before we had moved was with kids two years older. I even had a badge for passing Intermediate Lifesaving.
Finally, my mother sighed and nodded. "I'm going to lie down anyway," she said. "Just for two hours though. Don't be gone longer than that. Your father will be home by five."
I gulped down my ice tea, blew my mother a kiss and then checked to make sure I had put on my watch. It was already two o'clock. I would be back by four. That was plenty of time for a swim.
I ran upstairs to change into a yellow, one-piece bathing suit. Catching my reflection in the dresser mirror, I stuck out my barely formed chest. One day, I sighed. One day they will grow. I pulled my thick mahogany-colored hair into a quick ponytail and secured it with an elastic band.
Grabbing a towel, I headed back downstairs. My mother was still outside finishing her ice tea. She waved to me and said, "Be back by four." Then as I reached the rocks I heard her yell after me, "No farther than the raft!" I rolled my eyes, shaking my head. Mothers!
When I arrived at the beach across from the raft, I flung my towel over a fallen log, removed my sandals and stepped into the warm water. A few pieces of seaweed swirled around my legs but other than that the water was clear. I laughed and plunged into the water, shocked by the salty taste in my mouth.
Swimming toward the raft, I glanced at the forbidden island across the bay. I floated on my back for a few minutes, staring up at the clouds, then turned over and dove below the surface. When I finally reached the raft, I pulled myself up the metal stepladder and onto the wooden deck.
Lying on my stomach, I traced the outlines of someone's initials carved deeply into the weathered wood--R.D. + M.C. forever! A few swear words had been scratched out with black marker, but I could still read them and I giggled to myself. I glanced at my watch. Lots of time. Propping my chin up in my hands, I admired the view. It was so peaceful.
I yawned loudly. Cleaning and painting the sitting room, combined with swimming, had made me more tired than I had realized. Resting my head on my arms, I dozed for a few moments under the warm rays of the sun.
All of a sudden, I heard a loud splash. At first, I thought maybe I was dreaming. Until I heard it again and looked up. Something was sticking out of the water about ten yards to my left.
I sat up, captivated by the strange spectacle. Seawater sprayed and foamed off something black and white, and then whatever it was sank underwater, out of sight. I waited for it to reappear and I admit I was a bit nervous about going back into the water.
What if it's a shark? I didn't even know if there were any sharks in the bay. My father had never said anything. However, I knew I could not stay on the raft all day.
Pushing myself up on my elbows, I strained my neck for a better view of the water. Staring out into the bay, I suddenly sensed something moving in the water behind me.
"That was my brother," a voice whispered.