The island’s lush, green abundance had been home for as long as Currie could remember, before the first man crossed the Bering Strait and migrated south to the Americas, before the gardens of Eden were plundered and deserted. Lemon trees dangled yellow ovals of fruit. Figs clustered behind deeply lobed leaves, and sweet, red cherries bumped up against mellow apricots. Hibiscus blooms vied with rose petals and iris--riots of color around each winding path, wafts of perfume lingering at each bend. Mankind might have killed every last passenger pigeon and cut down forests to build suburbs, but no one touched Verdanta.
Waves crashed on the jagged rocks that surrounded it. Currents swirled trespassing boats away from its shores, back to the hulk of British Columbia. Only the ferry, and the male mortal who ran it, were allowed safe passage to its dock. Only invited guests could put foot on Verdanta’s soil. And so far, those guests had been chosen wisely. They treated the island with respect on their brief stays.
But time changes everything, and the ferry man, Currie’s mortal father, was buried in its rich, fertile soil last week. Flowers and snow-on-the-mountain already covered his grave. Emeralda, the wood sprite, now temporarily manned the wheel in the ferry’s small cabin. Currie’s mother, Gaia, was not ready to choose a new mate yet.
“I was too attached to Samuel,” she explained. “I can’t join with another male until I’ve paid proper respect for all he brought to us.”
Currie and her sisters understood. Samuel had guided them and listened to them while their mother roamed the earth. He was always there for them, and he’d grown more precious as the years went by. Married to their mother, he showed few signs of aging, other than his dark hair turning white and his blue eyes growing paler, to warn them that his time with them had run out. On the day his heart gave its last beat, he’d taken the guests to the mainland and returned home alone as he had for the last two or three hundred years. Time, for nymphs, is infinite. But since Samuel’s death, time felt different--longer.
Currie had never suffered loss before, had never felt the ache of a loved one’s death. Saffron and Brie, her sisters, had both lost their mortal fathers, but they rarely talked about it. Now, Currie realized why. Too painful. Still, life goes on. And routines give purpose to one’s days. So it came time for their mother to return to her duties, and for them to greet another ferry filled with twelve hapless humans.
Gaia gathered her daughters in a group hug. “I need to go now. Emeralda and your guests will arrive soon. You have things to do.”
Their jobs, their destiny. “Everyone is put here for a reason,” Gaia often told them. “No one gets a free ride. Nymphs are caretakers of the earth, and hopefully, if we restore humans with Earth’s bounty, they’ll appreciate those resources more.”
Brie and Saffron looked from their mother to Currie and hurried to the dock. They’d give their sister one last moment before the next batch of people arrived at the island retreat. Once the mortals stepped off the ferry for their month stay, all of the sisters’ time would be devoted to their healing.
For now, Currie straggled behind, waiting to say a final goodbye to their mother. Whenever Gaia stopped during a two week break after the last guest left and before the next dozen people arrived, it was a special time. After all, their mother cared for many islands tucked in obscure places of the world, and there were daughter nymphs and granddaughter sprites in those spots too. But this visit differed. It was a time to say goodbye to Samuel and to bury him.
Currie walked with Gaia to a small cove, out of sight of the dock. “I know that you’re sad that your father died.” Gaia waded into the waves to become one with them. “He was a mortal. He lived longer than most, and I made sure that he had a good life and a good death.”
“How else can I provide the earth with new nymphs? The trees and streams, fields and air need all the care they can get right now. When I bear a child with a mortal man, that child is tied to this earth, but has my immortality.”
“But you only have daughters,” Currie said.
“Yes, child, that forces a certain dependency between us and mankind.”
Currie sighed. As far as she was concerned, that dependency was a mixed blessing.
“Your father was a good man. We’ll miss him.” But Gaia had other mortal men tucked away on other islands, and other fathers of many daughters. Samuel was the only father Currie had, the only mortal she’d ever loved. “Love never dies,” Gaia said, and with a final smile, she swirled away in the tide.
Currie walked slowly to the dock to join her sisters. She put a hand over her eyes to shield them from the sunlight and watched the ferry near the shore. Odd. A cluster of gray clouds hovered above the boat, following it. The island was worried, bless it. Was it concerned that they could deal with the guests on their own? A sudden chill prickled her skin. It was a warm day, but Currie shivered and wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
“Are you all right?” Saffron asked, misinterpreting Currie’s discomfort. “Samuel’s death was harder for you.”
Saffron’s father had died centuries ago, Brie’s before that. “It only happens once,” Brie told her, “and time will help you heal. We have plenty of that.”
“Death has an added benefit,” Saffron said. “It will help you understand what humans cope with all their lives. They’re born, knowing that someday they and their loved ones will die.”
How did they stand it? Currie wondered. How did they cope? She and her sisters had been born and raised on the island, surrounded by friendly sprites, occasional visits by their mother, and the constant presence of Currie’s father. No wonder humans had so many problems, she decided, if they suffered losses on a routine basis. She scanned the faces of the people on the ferry. What kinds of problems did this new batch of mortals bring with them to the island?
Each person’s hurt was different. Brie, the oldest of the three girls, specialized in the intellectual and financial problems people grappled with. “Playing to her strength,” as Dad used to say. She handled all of the scheduling and accounts for the island retreat, besides teaching the knitting, sewing, and quilting clinics. Saffron, the middle sister, dealt with spiritual problems. She led meditation and gardening activities and was responsible for maintaining the abundance of nature on the island’s grounds. Currie herself treated the emotional side of mortals. She was also in charge of the dining room, providing three meals a day for their patrons and giving cooking and art classes for the clients who were interested.
Between the three of them, they somehow managed to take a dozen mortals at a time, people who limped onto the island, tired and troubled, and return them to their ordinary lives, restored and invigorated. Not everyone left whole, of course. A month was too short a time for miracles, and physical ailments were beyond their expertise, but everyone experienced some healing from their stay at the retreat.
“No time for grief now,” Brie said, all business. “We have a job to do.”
“It’s not that simple,” Saffron said. “I remember how I felt when I lost my mortal father. Yours died so long ago, you’ve forgotten.”
But Brie shook her head. “I’ve never forgotten my father. He was wonderful. I’ll never let anything hurt me that much again.”
“What could?” Currie asked.
“I’ll never take a mortal lover and have a sprite for a child. I couldn’t bear losing him and, eventually, her.” Nymphs’ children, the sprites, lived long, happy lives, but weren’t immortal like their mothers.
Currie looked at her sister, surprised. She’d never considered mating with a human or having a child, but Brie obviously had given it a lot of thought. Brie was the brains of the family, prickly and intense. Currie always thought that mortals were too flawed to attract her and that the silliness of sprites only annoyed her.
Brie blinked, embarrassed to have shared her vulnerability, so Currie changed the subject quickly and asked, “What’s the mix this time?”
“I try to keep them even,” Brie said, efficient once more. She scanned the list of names on her chart. “Four for you, four for Saff, and four for me, but you never really know until they get here.”
The ferry pulled to the long wooden pier and people began to disembark. More men than women this time, Currie noticed. Two of the men especially caught her eye, both of them in their early thirties, neither of them exactly handsome, but both definitely attractive. She wondered what brought them here at such a young age. Usually, men waited until they were older or widowed. But perhaps she’d answered her own question. Maybe they’d lost wives or found out that they had an incurable disease and were looking for ways to deal with it. An even younger man struggled over the dock on his crutches. A sudden accident, she guessed, and he needed to learn to cope. But her musings were interrupted by her sister.
Brie stepped forward to greet their guests. “Hello and welcome to Verdanta. I’m Brie, and these are my sisters Saffron and Currie. We’ve come to lead you to the main lodge and explain about the retreat. After that, you’re free to find your cabins and relax before our evening meal.”
Brie took the lead and began the walk to the long, low building that served as the common room for the retreat. Its stained clapboard sides and red tiled roof held the classrooms and dining area for their guests. The nymphs lived on its second floor, the sprites in cottages nearby. A dozen, cozy cabins were hidden among the lemon and orange trees. The wisteria and bougainvillea that surrounded them created a private oasis for each guest. No televisions or telephones were available except at the main office, and they were off limits except for emergencies. People came here to heal. And the sisters did everything they could to assist them.
The gray clouds followed their progress briefly before the sun burned them off. Dark skies were so unusual here that they were almost welcome, a break from the usual perfection, but Currie found these clouds oppressive. She was happy to see them leave.
Brie opened one of the double screen doors of the lodge and ushered their guests inside. “Welcome to Verdanta. We’ll share it with you for one month. Pick any fruit off of any tree, walk anywhere that you wish to go, and enjoy the beauty around you. You’ve come here to get away from the daily grind. There are no rules, no schedules except for meal times, no pressure, except that each one of you will be assigned a task, and we’ll expect you to complete it before you leave. If you do, the cost of your stay will be cut in half.” She motioned toward a well-stocked library. “Read, relax, and indulge. Supper will be at six. If you’re hungry, we’ll see you there.”
Currie pointed to a chalkboard with each guest’s name written on it and the cottage each was assigned to. “We’ll be happy to help you find your rooms. I’ll take numbers one through four, Brie will help five through eight, and Saffron nine through twelve. Follow us.”
It took Currie a while to deposit each of her guests in his or her cottage, and when she was finished, she walked back to the main building to meet her sisters.
“Lucky you!” Saffron teased. “You’ve got three good-looking men in your group--the firefighter, the hotshot business guy, and the super brain.”
“Super brain’s not good-looking,” Currie said. He’d introduced himself as Avery Ritter, forty-eight. He had a long, narrow face, gray eyes that were a little too close, and thin lips.
“He’s not ugly, and he’s under fifty. That’s a novelty on this island.”
“They’re all troubled mortals in need of therapy,” Brie reminded them.
Saffron and Currie grinned. “Yes, Mother,” they said in unison.
Brie laughed. “Quit it already! Don’t you have something to do?”
“The willow by the lake is drooping. Nothing I’ve tried has helped.” Saffron headed for the door. “I want to check on it. It acts like it’s lonely, depressed.”
Currie’s father often sat beneath its branches and looked across the water. The tree was grieving for him. She’d have to remember to visit it, to sit with it.
“I have some paperwork to finish before I set up my quilting frame,” Brie said. She raised an eyebrow at Currie.
“I know, I know. I have a supper to get ready. See you later.” As Currie started for the kitchen, she thought about the four people in her group--all here for emotional healing, her specialty. What had happened to damage them? Why had they left the world for a short period of time to find solace here? Hopefully, she’d learn the answers to those questions when she sketched their caricatures after supper.