“Are you sure it’s not too cold for this?” It was late, almost 11:00, Illy guessed, and she, June and Margaret were walking on a dirt path along a river, lit only by the moonlight that slipped through the branches overhead. It had been a warm day, but now there was a chill in the wind coming off the river and Illy was realizing she should have worn more than the tank top and jeans that had seemed perfectly adequate a few hours earlier.
“Let me guess, you didn’t let your jeans dry all the way after you washed them.” June grinned at Illy. It was true. Illy had the terrible habit of wearing her favourite clothes when they were still damp. She just didn’t have that many great jeans. “But not to worry; I was expecting you might complain about the cold, which is why I brought these.” June stopped and set down her backpack. She pulled out a plastic shopping bag and held it above her head like a triumphant Santa Claus.
Margaret and Illy looked at each other and waited. You just never knew what weird surprise June might be excited about. “These, my dear friends, are my gifts for you. I’ve been working on them with my Grandma for months.” She pulled out piles of mittens and hats and scarves, all knitted with a mismatched rainbow of colours.
“You knit these?” Illy pulled on a purple and orange striped hat with a yellow pompom. It reminded her of the old hats her dad used to wear on hunting trips.
“Yep. With my Grandma. It’s hard to tell which ones I made, since hers are sort of crooked because she’s eighty-five and arthritic, and mine are sort of crooked because I’m not very good. But they’re not lacking in loving intentions.”
“Or colour. June, these are amazing!” Margaret had put on mittens in two different shades of pink and was wrapping a turquoise scarf around her neck. By the time they had donned all their handmade treasures, Illy had forgotten about her cold jeans and felt brave and eccentric.
The outing had been June’s idea. She and Steve, who Illy was beginning to suspect was nerdier than June let on, had figured out that today was Margaret’s second Jupiter birthday or something, and June thought it was the perfect excuse to plan an outing. She and Illy had prepared potato soup in tall thermoses and a loaf of crusty bread from Margaret’s favourite bakery. They’d surprised Margaret at her house after she’d already gone to bed—June was insistent it needed to be dark so they could see the stars, which meant a late night at this point in the summer—carrying birthday cards decorated with planets. Although she was confused about the science behind the event, Margaret quickly agreed to join them on their Jovian birthday adventure. Even Illy didn’t know where they were going. June insisted she had something she wanted to show them and had driven to a park outside the city.
They continued their walk along the river, admiring the way the moonlight turned the leaves a sparkly silver, and trying to recite moon poems.
“Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon-” Illy began. “I can’t remember the rest. And why did the cow jump over the moon anyway?”
“I don’t think nursery rhymes are meant to stand up to logical analysis,” Margaret laughed. “How about this one?” She paused, then in a small clear voice began to sing, “I see the moon and the moon sees me. I see somebody I want to see. So God bless the moon and God bless me, and God bless somebody I want to see.” She stopped singing, and then, so quietly Illy had to turn her head a little to hear her over their footsteps, she said, “My dad used to sing that every time we saw the moon. It always seemed like a magic spell to me.”
Illy looked over at her friend. Margaret didn’t talk about her family much. She had mentioned once that her parents had divorced when she was young and neither of them seemed to be much of a presence in her life. Her siblings lived somewhere out west. That’s about all Illy had picked up in all the months of knowing Margaret. It had never occurred to Illy before this moment that Margaret must be lonely. She realized Margaret had never talked about cousins or old university friends or grandparents, and she lived in that little house in the middle of the impersonal suburbs. Illy imagined Margaret as an isolated bubble, revolving slowly in the sky just above the crowds and traffic and families around her.
But at this moment, all that pastel yarn wrapped elaborately around her, laughing at June’s made-up moon poem, Illy thought Margaret looked truly happy, like she was connected to something, even if it was just a trio of yarn-happy nerds, celebrating a planetary birthday.
“Okay, here we are.” June was nearly squirming with excitement. Illy wondered what complicated scheme she had concocted. She hoped Steve’s brother’s techno band wasn’t going to appear out of the forest. Or a stripper dressed up like an astronaut.
June spread a denim patchwork quilt on the ground and pulled out the thermoses. Her mom had made that quilt out of June’s old jeans when the girls were in high school and June had been mortified by it. It was only the summer after their graduation when June’s mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer that June pulled it out of her closet and started using it at every possible occasion. By now it had been a couple years since her mom had died, and Illy always felt a little weird sitting on the blanket. If it was hers, she probably would have packed it away forever, wanting to preserve it and the memory of her mom exactly as they were. But June didn’t seem to worry that the quilt was fading and stained. She loved any excuse to use it, and really Illy knew that June’s mom would be so proud to know how many picnics and folk festivals and camping trips that quilt had been a part of. And she’d love that they were eating homemade potato soup on it by the river. Illy sat down and rubbed a frayed edge between her fingers.
June made an elaborate presentation of their soup and bread, and Margaret raved and fussed over it like a toddler’s fingerpaint art. They ate in silence for a while, slurping the soup and watching the river.
“So, June, this is all perfect and beautiful, but where was the surprise exactly? Or are we still waiting for something—Jupiter to appear on the horizon maybe?” Illy dunked her bread in her soup.
June laughed. “I’m afraid I couldn’t find Jupiter in a well-labelled diagram of the solar system. No, the surprise is there.” She pointed at the river.
“The river?” Margaret was as perplexed as Illy.
“Not just the river. Right there. At the bend.” June’s voice wavered a little. Illy realized she was hurt that they hadn’t noticed it already. “Don’t you see where all those rocks are piled up across the river making all those tiny waterfalls? I found this place on a jog a few weeks ago and have been waiting for the right occasion to share it with you. I call it Fairy Falls since it looks like a thousand fairy-sized waterfalls. I thought it was so beautiful.” June looked like she might cry. Illy had rarely seen her so emotional. June was usually the stoic or the clown, not the teary one.
The three of them watched the water sparkle and splash over the rocks. Illy couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed earlier how beautiful it was.
“June, it’s magical.” Margaret was beaming. Illy wondered if her eyes were a little watery or if that was just the reflections form the river. “Thank you for showing me how to notice something so exquisite that on my own I would have totally missed. I can’t imagine a better Jupiter Birthday present.”
“She’s right, June. It’s amazing. And way better than an astronaut stripper.” June and Margaret both looked at Illy, then burst out laughing.
“Don’t worry, I’m saving that for your birthday.” June tore off three more pieces of bread and passed them around. Illy tugged her hunting hat lower over her ears. The wind was picking up, but Illy didn’t want to mention it. This moment was way too good to complain about.
“So, I have an idea and I need your advice.” Margaret was still watching the waterfalls. “Ever since I read that guy’s novel a while ago, I realized how much I enjoyed it—the reading, I mean, not the novel. I liked figuring out where the plot had gaps and which characters felt flat. And of course, there were so many comma splices to point out.”
Illy winced. She kept forgetting to look up what a comma splice was.
Margaret paused. “There’s a job opening at Hartfield House for a line editor, which is basically a real job doing what I did for that guy, and I’m thinking maybe I’ll apply.” She clenched her eyes shut for a second, then opened one a tiny bit, peeking out to see how her friends were reacting.
Illy and June both had their mouths wide open. “An editor?” Illy nearly shrieked.
“That’s awesome! You have to do it, Margaret, it’s perfect.” June leaned over and hugged Margaret, who had relaxed and opened her eyes.
“I’m not really qualified for it, but I read a lot and was always good at writing and grammar, and I’ve been soaking in all those publishing fumes for years at Hartfield House. Surely that should count for something, right?”
“Absolutely.” Illy was thrilled. Finally Margaret could escape that dreadful reception desk and do something she loved. “You’ll be amazing. Do you think you’ll get a nice office? Does it pay well? Will you name be on the books when they’re published?”
“Whoa. Slow down. I haven’t even seen the application form yet. I’m hoping to have a resume together by the end of the week.” Margaret popped the last piece of bread crust into her mouth and smiled at her friends. “An office would be nice,” she mumbled through the bread.
Continue Reading: Chapter Thirty-Four