In Connie’s life, there were many empty spaces.
One was in the shape of a cherry, her forbidden fruit. Although she was too young to recall, Lonna told her that the last time she snuck one from the tree at the edge of the lonely little island, her full toddler cheeks had grown twice the size and itched for hours afterward. No amount of marigold leaf or cold rags had cured the rash, just a long sleep and many, many hugs. That was the one allergy Connie had, and one she despised so greatly, for cherries were the sweetest of all the fruits they grew.
One space was in the shape of a friend. You see, Connie lived on an island with Lonna, her caretaker, and her dog. It was quite a small island, only four miles around at best. It was, as one could best describe it, lonely. Connie and Lonna were the only residents of the island, and it was so out of the way on the typical shipping routes that few people were aware of its existence and even fewer had been to visit. So few, in fact, that Connie didn’t remember anyone else but Lonna, for the last human had sailed to the island when she was only two. What with the seclusion and small population of two, Connie often felt as lonely as the island. Most days, when she was bored, she longed for someone to talk to, to play with. Though she wasn’t completely familiar with the word’s definition, Connie longed for a friend.
She sort of had a friend. Bennington, the little old white dog, kept her company while she studied and read, and while she picked apples and cabbages and stared out at the sea, though it became harder for him to keep up as he grew older.
Bennington had been around longer than Connie, but not by much. Fifteen years ago on a blistering day in August, Lonna was visiting the mainland. It wasn’t something she did often for she preferred to be alone, but her orchard wasn’t producing enough to last through the winter, and she needed more produce for storage.
While she was walking the market streets, admiring the stocks of fruits and vegetables, a small yelp caught her attention. The sound came from below her. Her gaze drifted down to meet a small white dog. A puppy, to be exact. He was sitting halfway beneath a table of apricots next to a rotting wooden crate that read “Bennington Farms”. His tail stuck out into the footpath, right where Lonna had stepped. He was young, a few months at most. He gazed up at her with big dark eyes that grasped at her heart. Lonna picked up the little dog and held him close. She gave him a pat of apology, then turned to the vendor of the stand.
“Yes, ma’am?” he replied.
“Apologies, but I seem to have stepped on your sweet little dog's tail.” She held the dog up to the vendor. “I had hoped you could move him to a safer place, possibly out of foot traffic so he isn’t hurt again.”
The vendor huffed. “Keep him,” he said. “He’s a pain in my neck, the only puppy I couldn’t sell.”
“Oh, no, sir, I don’t want to buy your dog. I’ve no need-”
“You can keep him, ma’am. He’s free. Just get him off my hands, please, and I'll give you, say, two crates of apricots. How’s that sound?”
Lonna agreed. When the day was done, she’d bought, and been given, enough food to last her the winter and then some, and she had a new friend to keep her company.
Lonna rowed home in her small boat. The seas were rough; a storm was coming. By the time Lonna made it to the island, it had started to pour. She locked the canoe up in the shed and made her way inside as quickly as possible with the goods.
That night was one of the worst storms the island had ever seen. Wind howled, lightning struck, waves crashed, and Lonna hid indoors. She and Bennington brought a blanket into the bathtub and settled in for the night.
In the morning, Lonna woke to Bennington’s frantic whimpering. He stood on his hind legs and looked over the edge of the tub, trying to jump out. He was so little then, and he couldn’t very well hop over. Lonna stood up and lifted him out. He took off for the back door, scratching and whimpering again. She followed the dog’s sniffing and perked ears over the island until she too heard what he was searching for - crying. It wasn’t far off, just a little closer to the water. When they arrived, her suspicions proved true: it was a baby.
Lonna rushed to the cradle it sat in, soaking wet and freezing cold. The baby sneezed and cried a little more, though less loudly now that it wasn’t alone. It was wrapped in exotic fabrics and papers with foreign writings, the origins of which Lonna did not recognize. It couldn’t be from the mainland she knew. She’d have to consult her library for foreign fabrics and languages.
Lonna searched the coast nearby for a few minutes, then gazed out at the sea. No one was to be found. The baby was alone.
She took the baby back to her home in the center of the island. From there, she raised Contrary, or Connie for short, as her daughter. Connie was quite happy on the empty island; it was all she had ever known. She loved Lonna as a mother, though she never addressed her as such. “I did not give birth to you, Contrary, therefore I am not your mother. You may call me Lonna,” she often told Connie when the girl became curious.
Over the years, they had developed a routine. Mornings were for chores; sweeping, dusting, mopping, weeding, and harvesting. Neither Connie nor Lonna enjoyed the indoor chores; the orchard was a much more enjoyable place to be. Connie would run between the rows of trees, hiding and jumping out and playing with Bennington for hours on end. She found the tallest apple tree and climbed to the top every day as the late morning sun touched her nose. She could have sat there for the rest of her life. Eventually, though, she would climb down to help Lonna finish the day’s harvest. They grew all their own food, so there was plenty of work to be done.
Afternoons were for studies. For a while, Lonna helped Connie with her readings, but by the age of ten, Connie was doing practically everything on her own. She would plan her own work and quiz herself on vocabulary every day. “Lonna! Lonna! Lonna! I’ve found a new word!” A seven-year-old Connie once shouted from behind the dictionary.
“What is it, Contrary?”
“That’s it!” Connie grinned. “It’s contrary! It’s my name!”
Lonna smiled. “That’s wonderful, dear. Can you read what it means?”
Connie’s grin dropped into a furrow of concentration. “That’s the problem. It has so many definitions to choose from. How do I know which is correct?”
“Well, they’re all correct,” Lonna said, “but I want you to choose your favorite. Which one is most like you?”
Connie took her time to read them through. Her finger traced along the words as she read through the many meanings. “I think I like this one best: passionately resistant of containment and persuasion.”
Lonna patted the girl’s hand. “Precisely. That’s the definition after which I chose your name.”
“But Lonna,” Connie asked, “how did you know to name me how I would become if I was just a baby?”
Lonna thought for a moment. “I knew that I would try my best to raise you in the way that contrary suggests.”
“Then I think you did a wonderful job.” Connie plopped back into her chair by the dictionary.
Lonna smiled. “Thank you, Contrary.”
Lastly, evenings were for fun. This was the time when Lonna would bring out her tapestry, or her painting, or whatever she might be working on at the moment. All of her pieces were of views from the island. In her eyes, it was the most beautiful place in the world. She filled their home with artwork depicting the sunrises and sunsets, the blue jays that made nests in the trees around their home, and the smashing waves from every storm that passed.
Meanwhile, Connie would sit on the cliff and watch the sea. For her, it was a time of reflection and of calm. She had visited the place every night since she was eight, when Lonna finally trusted her enough to be alone so high up. Though she would often bring Bennington, this was the time when Connie felt the most lonely. It was also when she felt the most like Connie, and less like Contrary. Being Contrary felt too enclosed and stuck. She felt like she had to be whomever Lonna wanted her to be and not who she herself wished. This was not Lonna’s intention, of course. She wanted Connie to grow to stand up for herself and others, but she had never raised a child before, and had forced her own ideals too strongly on Connie that she began to resent her caretaker for doing so. Connie grew to hate her name, even if she enjoyed its definition. So, she started calling herself Connie. Just in her mind, since there was no one but Lonna to talk to, and she knew she couldn’t convince her caretaker to use a nickname for her.
It felt so freeing to be Connie, like she could do whatever she put her mind to. Connie was a new person, someone who wasn't stuck, who would grow to do great things, to change the world. But how so, she thought, if she’d only ever seen this little island and its surrounding seas? What world could she possibly change? How could she ever get off the island? And even if she could find a way out, she had nowhere to stay on the mainland, no home, no parents to go to.
Parents. The last empty space in her life.
Connie had asked about her parents countless times. It was always over supper, and Lonna would always answer the same way, with the same uneasy tone. “I know nothing of your parents.” she would say. “It is not my business and I do not wish to discuss it.” After that, she wouldn’t finish her supper. She would put down her fork and sit quietly until Connie was done, clean up, and disappear into the study until late into the night. Connie didn’t know what she did in there, but she sensed that Lonna did not want to be bothered.
The thoughts began to plague her. The more her parents were on her mind, the more she wanted to know. From where did they come? The mainland? Another country? What did they look like? Were they kind? What jobs did they hold? Where did they live now? Were they wealthy, poor, or somewhere in between? But there was one question that nagged at her like a gnat buzzing in her ear, one she could push away but would never truly leave: why would they abandon their daughter at sea?
The weight of her thoughts grew and grew. What started out as the bother of a gnat turned into the weight of worlds on her shoulders. Connie stopped jumping around with Bennington and would instead sit at the bases of the trees she’d once played on, thinking. While studying, her gaze would drift away from her readings and off into the distance while her mind kept busy. She asked fewer and fewer questions at supper until she stopped asking any at all. She would spend nights awake, staring out the window at the sea. At night, Connie would dream of waves and boats, of sails and voyages across the ocean. She dreamt of her parents, standing on the beach when she finally arrived, holding their arms open for her. In her dreams she ran to them, throwing herself into their arms with tears of joy. She dreamt of where she felt like she belonged.
One day while taking a stroll to avoid her studies, Connie found herself on the beach that Lonna had rescued her from those fifteen years ago. She had been there countless other times, but it wasn’t nearly as beautiful there as it was on the cliffs on the far side of the island, so she never stayed long. Today, though, she stepped onto the beach. Something about the way the sands enveloped her feet was unnerving, like the island wanted to swallow her whole, to keep her trapped there forever.
She walked on to the far side of the beach where she’d never been. As she approached, something appeared through the trees, something wooden. She reached forward through the brush.
It was a shed. Connie had never noticed this before. It was almost completely enveloped in vines, disguising it as a part of the forest. Connie ripped at the leaves looking for an opening. What could Lonna be hiding?
Finally, she found it. A rusted lock sat on the ground below the handle. It appeared to have simply fallen off. Connie couldn’t believe her luck. She wrenched open the doors as fast as she could.
The shed was dark, save for the late evening light that seeped through the cracks in the roof. In the shadows, Connie could see that there was only one thing in the whole shed: a canoe. It was small, something that she guessed could fit about six people. There were oars thrown on the floor of the shed. Lonna hadn’t cared to hang them up. The wood was wet now from groundwater, but not ruined.
A boat, Connie thought. This could be my way out. She had never been in a boat before. She had never left the island. It would be tricky, but the moment she saw the canoe, she began to formulate a plan.
She couldn’t tell Lonna, nor ask her to come. Connie had asked when she was little about leaving the island, but Lonna had always refused. “Honestly, Contrary, what else could you ever want?” she would ask. “You have all you need right here. And besides, it's terribly unsafe. A storm like the one that brought you here could strike at any moment and it surely wouldn’t bring you safely to shore for a second time.” Lonna hadn’t left the island since that day, the day she found Connie on the beach. She was afraid, even paranoid.
That night, Connie returned home late. Lonna had fallen asleep while embroidering again, and Connie was able to sneak in without waking her. She grabbed two bags they used for harvesting: one for food and one for clothes. She filled both until they were busting at the seams. She packed all she could. She had no idea what to expect.
Connie set the bags by the door and tiptoed her way back to the study. She couldn’t leave without an explanation. She found a pen and paper and wrote Lonna a note. She explained that this was not her caretaker’s fault at all, that she loved her very much. She told of her motivations, how she couldn’t live life on this island with no knowledge of her parents. It was itching at her and she needed to try to find them.
She signed the bottom of the paper as ‘Connie’ and left it at the study desk. Lonna would find it in the morning, she was sure.
She grabbed her bags from the floor and left. She didn’t dare look back, for she might not ever leave if she did.
When Connie got to the beach, the boat was ready. She had spent all evening setting it up. She took a deep breath. Should she turn back? It would be so much easier to stay. No, she thought. I cannot leave my questions unanswered. She set one bag on each side of the boat to keep the balance steady. Finally, she could sit down. One last look, she convinced herself. I get one last look. As she looked up to the only place she’d ever called home, she heard a whimpering. There, on the beach, sat Bennington. He was looking out at her in the boat. She was taken aback. How could she forget about him? She stepped out of the boat and ran to him, kneeling down as he licked her face. “Bennington, you little sneak,” she said. She wrapped her arms around the dog and cried. She would miss him. Playing in the orchard, sitting by the cliff, sneaking him pieces of her supper. They had been through so much together. She could take him along. He would be able to brave the sea.
But what about Lonna? she thought. I can’t leave her completely alone. I would be a monster to do something so cruel. So instead, she sat with the dog, her companion for the entirety of her life. She cried into his fur, holding on for as long as she could. She would have to leave him behind, though it would break her heart terribly.
When Connie was ready, she stood and walked to the canoe. She sat down and faced the little dog on the beach.
“Goodbye, Bennington,” she called. “Thank you for being my friend.”