The Devil in the Water
We passed by a place that is dreaded by the savages, because they believe that a demon is there,
that devours travelers; and the savages, who wished to divert us from our undertaking, warned us
against it. This is the demon: there is a small cove, surrounded by rocks 20 feet high, into which the
whole current of the water rushes; and, being pushed back against the water following it, and
checked by an island nearby, the current is compelled to pass through a narrow channel. This is not
done without a violent struggle between all the waters, which force one another back, or without a
great noise, which inspires terror in the savages.
—from the journal of Jesuit missionary, Father Jacques Marquette, 1673
I. Vespers—The Devil’s Backbone
Whistling in trills keeps my lungs occupied, distracted; keeps me from wanting a cigarette. The excess air blows up the bluffs from the river, drowning out my whistling and reeking of yellow ragweed and oil from the barges. The trees at the back of the house have been chopped down and left, toppled pines with spines split, cut into wedges and wheels of firewood. The workmen in their bright vests are long gone, leaving crooked piles just on the verge of rot.
At night I listen for the groaning of the barges, low in the water from the weight of coal, their red-green eyes slitted by the slim, nervous reflection in the water. I think of John coming home to me with his hands raw after a long night towing the barges down from St. Louis. Late at night, the screen door leaking june bugs into the kitchen, he’d make himself coffee, whistling to wake me then feigning surprise when I appeared in the doorway wearing his pajamas. “Oh. You’re awake.” The air he brought in from outside was damp on his sleeves and left a brisk, spruce smell in his hair. He’d reach into the pantry, feeling along the top shelf for the bottle of whiskey, an amber ribbon as he poured. “I have a sore throat,” he would say, mixing brown sugar in with the coffee and whiskey. I was never sure whether I should believe in the sore throat, or in the stories he’d tell about the towns along the river. He learned local histories gradually, ghost stories and landmarks, which he shared generously while I sat at the kitchen table, drowsy and warmed by the haze of his voice and the scent of Irish coffee.
“There used to be four thousand people living here,” he told me once. “There was a factory and a shipyard and even an amusement park just east of town, on Walker’s Hill where the Catholic cemetery is now. There are more people in the graveyards, Edie, than there are living in this town.”
I did not feel the weight of it at the time, the knowledge that we, the living, were outnumbered by the dead, but since John has found his place on Walker’s Hill, I feel how rare it is to be alive, as if by merely being alive, I am an oddity.
I never wanted to realize that this sad, sick, stubborn little town had a history at all, would’ve much rather let it keep its weak secrets, but John always came home ready to tell about river pirates and the iron foundry and the girl who was found dead the night before her wedding, crushed against the rocks along the riverbank. They say that during thunderstorms you can hear her ghost screaming, and I’ve often listened for her when I lay sleepless in John’s pajamas, but the storms here have recently been guarded and hushed.
He used to want to sleep with the window opened, to open it himself mutely, naturally, like the unbuttoning of his shirt. “You have a sore throat,” I’d say, pushing it shut—a clumsy, deliberate act in comparison to his.
Once, it was after midnight when John was in the middle of telling one of his ghost stories, and I asked him if he’d ever seen a ghost. He looked toward the pantry, dipping a finger in his coffee to test its warmth.
“You won’t believe me anyway,” he said and shrugged. But I waited, watching him look past my head at the clock without reading the time. He started to tell me even without my reassurance.
“It wasn’t a ghost, it was the devil,” he said, and I laughed sleepily, knowing he made the whole thing up for me.
“I was just a teenager, about sixteen or seventeen, getting drunk with my cousin where the old iron furnaces were—”
“I don’t know where that is,” I told him, because he liked to share the geography of his growing up, liked to show his knowledge of the town and its landscape.
“It’s on the west side of the Devil’s Backbone, between the rock formation and the river. Just a pile of bricks, really—like a big altar. We’d crawl into the space underneath where they used to build the fires, and we’d drink cheap whiskey. That night, we walked to the Jenkins’s old barn and climbed up into the loft. Matthew fell asleep, and I was sitting up, smoking a cigarette, when I felt, all of a sudden, that there was someone watching me. I could feel their gaze on my back. I dropped my cigarette and sat with my arms crossed over my chest, hiding my shaking hands in the crooks of my elbows, and trying to find the courage to turn around. I looked all at once, craning over my left shoulder and saw, up high, framed perfectly in the loft window, the shoulders, head, and torso of a man hovering thirty feet above the ground. The man was a steel color and seemed to reflect the darkness like burnt metal. We just looked at one another for a moment; I was in a panic, but I didn’t make a sound. Then the man-shape vanished, moving sideways so that he wasn’t framed by the window anymore. I called to Matthew, and we ran.”
“How did you know it was the devil?” I asked.
“I just knew. I knew it was the devil watching us from that hayloft window.”
I don’t know many songs, I realize. I just keep whistling the same tunes until they become automatic, like a player piano—tinny and detached. The truth is, I miss smoking. I miss mostly that these things used to be forbidden, how as a teenager, living with an old widow, I would hide my gin and cigarettes in a rusted watering can behind her shed. The cigarettes would sag from the dew, and I would sneak in with shoes soaked, smelling recklessly of cheap tobacco. It seemed so necessary, when any mutiny, no matter how fragile, was a heroic act.
On Saturdays, I venture down to the farmer’s market. Once there was a woman sitting on a lawn chair with two parakeets; she was telling fortunes. One bird was blue and the other was yellow and there were small, blank, colored squares of paper in a pile on a card table. You were invited to ask questions and the birds would pick a card, and each color meant a different answer. The blue parakeet was for yes-or-no questions, while the yellow was for open-ended questions.
I asked the blue bird, “Should I leave this place?” It was plucking at the corner of a yellow card, punching tiny holes with the point of its beak, but didn’t pick it up.
“The yellow means ‘yes,’” the fortune-teller told me, fanning herself with her hat.
“Where should I go?” The yellow bird flapped its wings and preened itself, looking bored and overheated. The fortune-teller nudged the bird toward the cards with the flat of her hand. It chose a white card, half-opened its clipped wings and toddled toward the fortune-teller with the card in its beak. The woman shrugged.
“Anywhere,” she said, showing her teeth, which were black in places. “The world is opening itself for you.”
I didn’t believe in the birds; they seemed so weary and distracted, but I paid her and she smiled. Her teeth, although rotting, were perfectly straight, like a double row of dominoes.
“Can the birds say anything?” I asked.
“They’re not the best talkers,” she said, not looking at the birds or at me. “But they can whistle.”
“What can they whistle?”
She had one of the birds squeak a few bars of “All Through the Night.” Halfway through, it stopped mid-strain and began again. The other bird only knew the first nine notes of “Goodnight, Sweetheart.”
“They’re both lullabies,” I said, curious. “Why?”
“That’s just what they know,” she said, picking at her teeth with her thumbnail.
She was also selling a few cartons of very small strawberries and I bought one. They were hard and bitter, and as I ate them later I thought of her teeth, dark and hollowed by rot, used up. I thought of the gaping whiteness of the blank card in the polished oyster-pink beak of the parakeet. The card had nothing to say, not even a color to convey a message. The world is not opening itself for me; it is too late.
At night in the fall, teenagers build fires along the riverbank—huge, greasy bonfires, unholy, primitive. I can smell the smoke from the edge of the bluffs; it quivers and curdles fatly, spiteful like a sickness. The river bends out like a neck craning, and the stiff current circles back on itself, creating a long sandbar where the teenagers settle like birds on a wire. They leave their beer bottles for the morning tide, which quenches the last dregs of seething tinder and pulls the charred branches into the river’s middle. Sometimes, standing on the shore, you can see things pulled down into the whirlpool that opens up behind Tower Rock, the water rolling away in a trundling newborn motion.
South along the river, white stone turning green, is the old orphanage, facing away from the water where the bluffs are lower. Sometimes the teenagers go there for a thrill, to smash the remaining glass from the sooty, spindling windows and paint obscenities in red and green on the walls of the dining hall. It is like some sort of ritual, the destruction of that place by the younger generations. I know the nights when they are there, can feel their journey through the thin corridors, their oily tennis shoes over the white tile and the flat blades of their flashlights across the thin wire bed frames in the girl’s dormitory. I wait for the sound of police sirens, an empty threat, before dropping off to sleep again.
I don’t dream anymore of the orphanage as I remember it, only of the teenagers stumbling through, the girls clinging to the backs of the boys with their stringy hair and hot, alcoholic breath. I dream that they line up empty beer cans along the sills of the upstairs windows and throw small pebbles at them, bits of broken pencils, and shards of glass. They sit on the long benches in the thin room the nuns called a chapel, which still had bars over the windows from when the building used to be an asylum. It had been a “State Hospital for Insane Criminals” until it was closed down in the early ‘20s and donated by the state as a charitable home for orphans. We did not speak of the structure’s history, were not curious, and the nuns said only that we should be grateful this building was now serving God’s purpose.
The orphanage had a rough, metallic smell. The nuns all smelled that way—like iodine and oily hair. Their wooden rosaries clacked against their thighs as they moved, a sound like teeth rattling on a string, and many of them had hard faces with dark unibrows and wiry hairs around the corners of their mouths. They talked to one another in French and Latin so that we could not understand, and we talked with our hands, inventing languages in gestures, or spilling out made-up words, hums and clicking of tongues so they wouldn’t learn our fears, our desires, so they wouldn’t know when we were hungry or sore from the spankings.
In the corner of the dormitory was a curtain rod they used to beat us with when we were up late stuttering with our hands, making a smothered whispering against the covers, when we cried in our sleep, or when the little ones wet the bed. One of the girls eventually took the rod from the corner and broke it in half, hiding the pieces behind the garden shed. But it changed nothing.
As we aged, we became less brittle, learned to make no noises as we slept. The barge lights flickered faint red through the narrow windows and I lay wakeless, raging, watching their watery glow across the bedspread. I remember one night waking frozen by the toothy click of beads, thinking it was the nuns. But it was one of the girls crouched beneath the window, her nightgown blushing translucent red from the lights off the river. She was swallowing a rosary, bead by bead, holding the string in the quiet dampness of her palm, muting their wooden prayers. I sat up in bed, watching her as she put a tiny bead in her mouth, holding it there like a pearl on an oyster’s tongue, then her throat moving as it slid soundlessly down. It reminded me of a story my mother once read me long ago of a snake swallowing a ruby, and I had wanted to swallow a ruby, feel its smooth heat in my stomach. I was almost jealous as I watched the girl; it seemed so sane somehow, and I realized that I had been praying in my head each time she put another bead in her mouth: “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death. Amen.” She dropped the beads and they scattered over the tiles wildly, a chirping chorus of Hail Marys and Our Fathers; one of them had caught in her throat. Sister Agatha came with her rod, throwing the light switch and pulling her up from the floor by her long braided hair.
The next day she bled through her wool skirt in history class, a cardinal stain on the seat when she stood up. Sister Agatha pretended that she thought it was a menstrual stain and accused her of feminine slovenliness. She made the girl stand with her back to the class reading from Leviticus, the passage about the uncleanliness of women, all the while a line of blood running down the back of her leg. We all averted our eyes as she read the words:
“When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean.”
We were all reminded of our own uncleanliness. It was inescapable. When we bathed, we weren’t allowed to be completely naked because the nuns said it was shameful and wicked and encouraged sin, so we bathed in our underclothes which stank and hardened around our legs like plaster.
When I was fourteen, I was placed in a home where the woman made me clean the floors and walls, working up the wooden ladder from the bottom rung to the top. Eventually, reaching up, I couldn’t feel the rag anymore—it became an extension of my arm, fleshy and grey. I whistled tunelessly to keep the voices of her sons out of my ears; it was also a reminder of how to breathe, how to keep the air coming. I wore my long hair up in a kerchief, though the woman told me I should cut it and often appeared with polished scissors in the door of my room—an empty threat; something made her afraid to touch me.
The windows at the back of the house were covered over with boards, where the house overlooked the river, and this was somehow worse even than the bars on the windows in the chapel which did not block out the river or the lights from the barges. At night the woman would not let me wear pajamas, locked my closet doors. I slept naked and her boys would come in and put their hands on me beneath the sheets. Another form of unseemliness, I thought of the nuns coming in with the curtain rods to beat them away from me, and then beating me for my shameful nakedness. But no one came.
My bedroom door in that house, constantly opening and closing, kept my ears full of the croaking of the hinges and the whine of the knob as it turned. One morning, beneath the sheets, I was waiting for those sounds, listening to my own breathing and realizing that it had changed somehow. Even my own body had become something foreign, the depth from my throat to my lungs unfathomable, the air passing into me was as strange and invasive as the rough hands of the two boys, gurgling and reaching. I thought I smelled something burning somewhere. I wrapped the blanket tight around me and started running, down the splintered staircase and out into the street, my bare feet slapping against the damp pavement like flesh hitting flesh, a hand smacking a face. I remember thinking that I hadn’t slept in weeks, but how could that be true? The morning was empty, the sky a white screen, dim gauze just above the cliffs, and there was no one on the street. I had already sworn violently when I left the orphanage several weeks before that I would never go back, but that’s where I went. I couldn’t hear anything but my own frayed breath, thought my ribs would cave in, thought I would solidify—a dark, permanent mass, all the spaces filling in. I fell, and stood up, and ran again. In the parking lot beside the orphanage, I saw the priest, Father Lewis, getting out of his car, and I heard it slam shut but the sound was like the pop when a light bulb burns out. He called out to me, and I said I wanted to speak to one of the sisters. I was ashamed because I was wearing nothing beneath the blanket. He said I could tell him what the trouble was. I said I couldn’t go back to that house, and he said it was my home now. He took hold of my arm, and it was meant to be a comforting gesture, I think, but I felt his fingers begin to grip more tightly, and then I yelled. It was an honest, naked sound, and it made me feel real again, awake, at least. I pulled away from him, and two sisters came down the steps from the orphanage, the hems of their long black robes gathered wet from the pavement and darkened. My hair was loose, and it grew heavy in the haze of rain that had grown from the air like pale moss on the cliff side. The weight of my hair and the habits of the nuns, misted with the dew from the air in a gray raveled halo, made me think that we weren’t so different. I ran between the cars in the parking lot, gray and black and red, and ducked between them. I crawled beneath a truck where the pavement was still a little dry, a diminishing square, and I just waited, watching their feet as they looked for me. I couldn’t run anymore. Under that truck, I thought of the time my mother once said she was proud of my hair, and she touched my head and wound it into a single thick coil, like a length of durable rope.
I didn’t speak of these things to John. When he asked me about the orphanage I found myself unable to finish my sentences.
We used to walk along the edge of the bluffs, not hand in hand but with our fingers close, the distances narrowing, our feet drawing toward the edge. I kept my eyes ahead, feeling the weight of his walking at my right side, the path closing up with bright weeds, and his voice coarse and cloistered in his throat, like the noises of the birds that had built their nests in our chimney. He let me walk nearest to the cliff, a couple yards away, feeling the height in my shoulder and the river down below keeping quiet. The suddenness of that open space made me feel brave, but if I drew too close he would touch my elbow, saying, “There’s a good enough view from here, Edie.”
John had always liked views, would hike long distances for them, but I only cared for the feeling of open space, not for the shape the landscape took from great heights.
“It’s like walking with a sleepwalker,” John said once when I absently wandered toward the edge, his hand on my elbow, and a couple of ring-billed gulls eye level with us. Sometimes I would briefly forget there was any drop at all, forget even the river. There were dark brambles that hid the fall. They grew at the cliff’s edge and down the slope in patches, blackberry bushes, the fruit’s quilted surface glinting jet like the birds’ eyes as they ate and chanted—catbirds mewing in the brush. Sometimes John would try to imitate their raspy, tuneless call, but the sound was almost mechanical, like a train.
II. Compline—The Orphanage
Last night I smoked the first cigarette since John and I were married. God will forgive me. This is something I could confess, if I still went to confession, rigid in the box with my clothes heavy with the reek of stale tobacco. And the syrupy, double-chinned voice from behind the screen, “Are you polluting your body, my child?”
On the back porch, curled into myself like an ingrown nail, knees pulled up and John’s pajamas grown rough and loose like sackcloth, I breathed as if I’d forgotten how. I felt all the blank spaces, grey and vacant like rooms in an empty house, the old hotel on Front Street, swept clean by the smoke. It was not as foreign as I thought it would be, more like the smoke of the riverside bonfires I’d been breathing all my life, condensed and fleeting.
This was the most ritualistic thing I could’ve done, a year after John’s death, breathing for the both of us. John was one who loved to watch his breath in wintertime, the frost lifting, huffing through his beard with his hands in his pockets and his ears flushed and brightening. So I watched my exhale, thinking of him, lungs widening to let in the river-flavored smoke, then folding up again to push it out. I thought of the pipe organ in the chapel at the orphanage that none of the nuns knew how to play. I was full of the knowledge of this tuneless, flattened town, all squeezed out with the graveyards bursting. It was sunset, and a ribboned, carameled, shorn sky sagged above the backbones of trees. I watched the smoke leave me, a rounded ghost, all wisps of hair and gauze and nothing else, while in my chair I leaned forward over my knees, shrinking inside his pajamas. I’ve grown thin. I flicked the end of the cigarette still glowing out into the dry leaves at the edge of the woods, wondering if they would catch. They did not.
The forest that presses up against the back of this town is still growing. We have to keep it in check or it will swallow us—taking this clearing, filling it back in. The forest is very thick, with underbrush waist-high, a tide of foliage. I sometimes hear the bracken splintering as deer smash through, pursued, and occasionally charge into the backyard, bodies tearing recklessly, eyes rolling frantically. I’ve never seen the predators—coyote, dog, or bow hunter—though I watch for them. The boundaries of this town are so clearly marked, with the river to the east and the forest curving round, smothering limbs to keep us hidden, and no bridge to cross the river for thirty miles in either direction. There is one road leading out of this town that connects to the highway—a branch, sickly and rough-paved, wading through the woods to meet the farmland on the other side of the railroad tracks. The trains do not stop here, only the barges on their way north, waiting at the levee to be loaded with coal, squat and dim and brown.
The leaves on some of the trees have turned grey, shrunken on the branches like tiny fists, ready to crumble at any touch like ash. The air is dry and full of a powder—pollen and coal dust and cinders from the bonfires. In the fall there is a fire every night. They burn leaves piled over the parched driftwood where the water pulled away from the shore, and the smell is prickling and dense. The rain has been scarce, so the tide won’t rise much more until spring.
There have been so few changes. I am much skinnier, and now there is a pack of cigarettes on the kitchen counter that wasn’t there before. The tide is so low that there is dry riverbed all the way from the bluffs out to Tower Rock, and kids are scavenging for arrowheads. Tower Rock is just a pile of slate in the middle of the river with a few scrubby conifers on top. John said that just beyond the rock, the tides are strongest.
“You can feel the tow,” he said, “the whole end pulling forward. It wants to wrap around that rock, and it takes some real skill to get her straight again.”
He called the current “treacherous”; he told me about a couple that was married atop Tower Rock in 1839 when the river was high and the currents unreliable. Between the rock and the shore, the boat of the departing wedding party was caught in a whirlpool, and everyone was drowned. John’s barge was named after the dead bride, “Penelope Pike,” and he said he was glad he didn’t believe in bad luck. He believed in ghosts, but not bad luck. His stories about the river made me realize how dangerous it was to be a barge pilot, and for awhile I started praying again.
I do not want to wear John’s pajamas anymore. They hang around me now, immense, and at night I wake up with them twisted and coiled around me. But I don’t want to sleep naked, which is shameful. I’m waiting for a time when these sorts of things won’t matter anymore. I had another cigarette this morning, not going out on the back porch, just opening the kitchen window and leaning over the sink. The yellow curtains will smell stale.
Smoking, with my fingers pressed lightly, somehow makes me think of communion—perhaps the delicate, passive movement of hand to mouth, as if the cigarette were a wafer. We were meant to think of Christ’s body as the white disk dissolved in our mouths, but I could think only of my own—my flesh on the tongue and my blood in the cup. The chapel was close and dank, the walls moldering toward the ceiling, and it was difficult to swallow. The candles moved, dismembered wings of light over the green stones, and my stomach ached with the holy food inside me burning.
I had my first cigarette in the bathroom of the funeral parlor on Market Street when I was sixteen. For a little over a year, I had been living with an old woman, Mrs. Hardwick, cooking for her, doing laundry and cleaning. She was frail and anxious, had heart problems, but I liked watching her move; she was so careful and slow, shuffling down the hallway with one hand along the wall, a grey streak there where the paint had worn away just beneath framed Currier and Ives prints of farmhouses and frozen lakes. I’d been living with her four months when she died, her heart finally collapsing as she was lowering herself from the front porch steps into her garden to pull up a weed.
At the funeral, her scant white hair was spread behind her in a stringy halo. I said a prayer for her, my hands gloved, and a man in a dusty suit played “Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin” on the organ. I grew hungry and bored, and after the service, one of the girls I’d known from the orphanage put her hands over my eyes and rasped, “Edith, I have cigarettes.” Her name was Gloria; she was red-haired with a creamy, confiding voice and small, fluttering hands. She’d been forced into the orphanage when she was ten because her father disappeared and her mother was an alcoholic, but she was not an orphan, like me. She was shrill and sinewy, and swore frequently. I asked her how she knew Mrs. Hardwick, and she shook her head: “I just work here,” she said, and we locked ourselves into the bathroom and smoked, with her perched on the toilet while I was sitting on the tile floor. We’d talked about cigarettes in the orphanage when we were girls of thirteen who’d seen the gardener smoking behind the shed, leaning back, dirty and spitting. In the movies languid, willowy women smoked, serious, with their hair back-lit. In the funeral parlor, we opened the tiny square window near the ceiling and the smoke made somber shapes in the low dim mirror with the unpolished tile and the short end table covered in burgundy damask. It seemed natural to me—drawing, pulling, mouth and lungs. It seemed both reckless and careful.
“You like working for the undertaker?” I asked.
“He’s a bastard,” she said, and I felt somehow grateful to her.
I find that I can remember each of the million ghosts and songs and floods that John brought home to share, his voice dim and waxen like a waning candle. He said he loved the river best after a long heat when the water grew warm and milky. He liked the stagnant waters, when the current stilled and the barges slowed and he could stay home, his feet propped on the back porch rail in his bathrobe, glass in hand with a swallow of whiskey, reading with his lips moving. He liked when the river pulled back like lips away from teeth to show a few arrowheads, sandy and blunted. John brought one home once, placed it in my open palm, beaming and expectant, as if it were jewelry. It was dark grey like pale flint, and I put it in my dresser drawer where I kept a couple old letters and trinkets and even some jewelry that I never wear anymore. I remember John used to say when the river was at its lowest:
“This town is measured in a flow of water, Edie. The river stops, then the barges stop. Business slows. The waters rise, and everyone gets nervous talking about flooding. You notice how the years are always counted that way: ‘1993—The year that twelve people were drowned in the flood; the year the town was underwater.’ Listen to people talk. They get nervous when the water levels get too low, thinking business’ll dry up. Then they get nervous when they’re too high, thinking of a flood.”
He would tell about the dozens of towns along the river that died when the railroad tracks were laid, making boats useless. He’d say we were lucky to have work left—the power plant and the coal depot, and the towboats needed pilots. But everything in our town has become something else: we traded an amusement park for a graveyard, an insane asylum for an orphanage, steamboats for a pair of train tracks.
John talked about these things as if they were the borders surrounding his life, the time in this town’s history when he lived. I think he must’ve thought of the town as eternal, outlasting him, with more stories to be built and told by future river pilots and the families of levee workers. But I know that it can only be a matter of time before this town dies altogether, snuffed out, with the river rising to reclaim, or the forest. Then the 624 remaining people will leave finally, a feeble, strangled exodus with their belongings in pillowcases, just getting out.
Once when the river was low, when John and I were sleeping in the daytime, playing dead for the heat, a sheet across us and the window sash swollen and jammed from the humidity, I dreamed a petty, half-hearted nightmare. In the dream, I was sickly and dizzy from the thick heat, wandering down Front Street and looking for John. I stopped outside the old, run-down hotel and watched the holes in the glass, jagged and soiled. I played a game in my head that I used to play as a child, trying to imagine the hotel in the 1920s—brilliant red and gaudy green false front, cut glass chandeliers in the lobby and the dining room, carpets on the floors. But in my mind the rooms stayed empty, had always been empty—an eternity of vacancy in every direction, and looking up and down Front Street in my dream, I saw that every building was that way.
It somehow made sense that I should be the last one, the only remaining. The town had shriveled, grasping, vitreous, a mouth full of glass and rotting teeth, ever loosening to pull away. I was the only one living with the graveyards bursting, no room for another soul. And in the dream I thought cautiously that I should get out, just beginning to feel the burden of being the sole remnant of this town’s slow, persistent history—a town with a population of one. But I couldn’t act, I put all thought toward action and still stood looking through the holes in the hotel windows, feeling the spaces hammering, empty eye sockets, a fresh grave, that dark space in the old iron furnace where John sat with his cousin, the barn where he saw the devil that since has burned down, the myths drying up, the place among the rocks where that woman was found dead the night before her wedding—all of it like a string of glass beads. I knew, could taste, that no one had been here for years, no teenagers on the sandbar, no breaking of glass in the empty orphanage, not even rock pigeons roosting in the bluffs. And still I could not bring myself to remember how to leave this place, the river on one side and the forest pressing everywhere else, prehistoric, growing up to reclaim the streets.
There are no roads leading out of this town. There is nowhere outside of it. I’m not sure I even fear that thought anymore. No natural disaster that could wipe this town from the corner of the river’s mouth in a miniature apocalypse could bring me to my knees in prayer. Not for this town, not for myself. A lifetime of distances measured: how far until the next town (by road or by river or as the crow flies), how long since the last flood, how many people drowned, how many ghosts (forty-six hauntings, not counting the devil). At this time, there are almost as many ghosts as children in this town. We have a small number of young couples to give more children to the town, and several dozen elderly to make more ghosts in their dying.
Sleepless and numb in the orphanage, I’d cross from my bed to the tarnished window with the blue-grey hem of my long nightgown mustering the layer of silt on the floor into flurries around my ankles. I’d watch as the barges went from violet to black at nightfall, my eyes aching from folding back the heavy darkness to find the exact instant when the barges’ dim bulk was absorbed—fading all at once, their boundaries rinsed away by the murk of the air. Until that moment, their movement was almost indiscernible, sluggish and measured; they bled an aching silence—the coal creaking like stiff joints, bone on bone. The barge horn was a bellowing baritone trumpet to pull me from sleep, and years later, as I lay awake listening, John would touch my back to tell me: “Think of it as a song.” He meant a lullaby, but the barges, so wakeful, pushed up against the edges of the autumn fog, thick as milk fat close on the river. Behind the skin of fog, only the eyes of red and green were visible, and audible, the wailing of the barge horn to keep the rocks away. Its song was eerie, not soothing, and long after John had drifted, his hair soft where it bent from his cowlick to touch the pillow, I was awake with the barges’ voices sounding like whalesong—underwater and tuneless, sounding like one word again repeated: “along.” All against the night, the whole house sleepless except for John, the window an open eye to fall through, lidless and wise, with the smell of the dew clinging to the curtains, the floorboards moistening an inch at a time. John fought most to keep the windows open in the fall, claiming he loved the smells of the brushfires and the river turning to mist. After he’d fallen asleep, I was always too cold beneath the blanket, too stiff and idle and accustomed to motionlessness to cross to the window and shut out the moist air. Beside me, John lost warmth in his sleep, his body temperature dropping, until three or four in the morning when I would touch his hand on the counterpane and find it cool as a corpse’s. Then I would cross to the casement and pull the window closed.
The dreams I had on these nights would sit sour in the pit of my stomach, and I’d roll onto my side with their weight pressing outward, as if I’d swallowed something that was making itself permanent. I would try to mark the time between dawn and my sudden waking by the color of the air in the room, a moon honing a shadow on the wall to a fine point, the wallpaper turning grainy and unfocused before the morning had quite taken shape. I could imagine the sound of water lapping at the feet of the bed, a light sucking in seams between the wood slats of the floor, and in my dreams the water was delicate as it entered my nostrils; it was the same as breathing.
John’s face was always untroubled as he slept, the shadows pooling over the hollows of his wavering eyelids. In the mornings, he rose before I did, a straying foot testing the floor as if for the wetness I’d dreamed. I would wait, nuzzling at the deep, feathered pillow, until I heard the gentle sound of eggs sputtering in the skillet, and sleepily, I’d enter the kitchen to watch John’s puckered mouth miming a silent whistling.
“Do you wanna know what I’ve been dreaming about, my dear?” He never waited for me to answer, and it was a long time before I realized that I had, in fact, stopped wanting to know. But still, I never interfered. His stories would find a way of being told anyway, whether as dreams or histories. One of his dreams I remember as vividly as if I had been the one dreaming—a memory handed down, when the town was bright and alive, as it used to be before either he or I were born.
“I wasn’t in the dream,” he said, “I was just watching it, like somebody looking in a window from outside. I saw one of the dance halls as it used to be in the old days—Rodger’s Dance Hall, which then became Huffmann’s Store until it closed down. But in the dream, the brick was still pink, and there were scores of people all dressed up coming and going, wearing costumes like Romeo and Juliet, Marie Antoinette, George Washington, Columbus. Somebody was dressed as an Indian, and there was one couple dressed like a Roman emperor and empress. Inside, a big room was all filled with paper lanterns hanging from the ceilings, some of them were shaped like pineapples and others were purple and green and blue with flowers painted on them.”
John had told me that in the late 1800s, Grand Tower was famous for the masquerade parties held in the dance halls. Droughts and floods hardly kept people from traveling miles for the parties, and costumes were special-ordered from St. Louis for the occasions. I’ve seen Huffmann’s, a dank little shop on Front Street, with holes punched through the glass and an abandoned bird’s nest in the display window. The upstairs windows are empty and sunken; two of them are boarded up. I have stood on the street trying to see into the open upstairs windows, but the interior is blind and absent. This absence makes the exterior of the house look like a dead man’s face—vacant, passive, with the life pressed out through a trio of lidless eyes. Perhaps John was drawn to the building for this reason: he could put any story there, any guess or projection; the building wore them well—all his fictions. But I found it hard to believe in the paper lanterns, the people in gowns and feathered masks. To believe in these things, I realized, is dangerous. When the past has grown richer, more real and vibrant beneath us than the dour black-and-white of the present—that is when we forget that the people around us are real, not visions, not ghosts. Even those that remain are forgotten. But John had eyes for the old river. His dreams knew its history.
“They used to hold dances on Fountain Bluff,” he told me. “‘Square Dance Rock,’ they called it—just a flat hunk of cliff with a railing to keep dancers from falling into the river. Well, in the dream, they started pouring out of the dance hall, and they walked in pairs along the bluffs in their costumes carrying lanterns and singing ‘Sweet Violet’ and ‘Old Joe Clark.’ They walked out to Fountain Bluff, and I could see them all dancing. The men spun the women around, and their long skirts billowed out around their little ankles. But there were two drunk boys sitting on the railing, and they both just fell over backwards at the same time. I knew they were gonna fall before they did, and everyone ran to the railing and looked down toward the river, but it was dark, and they couldn’t see anything. That’s when I woke up.”
I remember wanting to ask John if he’d been at the railing too, looking down rather than watching from a distance. But the idea frightened me somehow. Darkness in dreams is always richer and deeper, more pure and complete than anything we can see, and I hated imagining what John might have seen looking down toward the place where the two bodies of the drunken boys were swallowed up.
III. Matins—Tower Rock
This afternoon, I wanted to pull the bottles down from the pantry, to start afresh. I was going to pour out John’s whiskey, letting these desperate, cowardly actions build up until I am finally forced to leave—it will be the only logic left. I will leave something by his gravestone, not flowers, but perhaps the smooth river stones they sell at the farmer’s market, painted with violets or columbine. It will, at least, be something permanent that the slugs cannot feed on. I can leave the flat, stone flowers on Walker’s Hill, then I could leave, with no real concern for the world across the river or through the trees. These things are brittle. Only the act of leaving matters; John will learn to forgive me.
But I did not pour the whiskey into the sink as I intended. I poured it into a mug and drank. It soothed my tired throat, and after a while my stomach was glowing warm as I put my hand to it, a liquid furnace beneath. I wondered vaguely if pregnant mothers felt this warmth when they touched their bellies, the baby a body of low heat, flesh-pink and translucent as a soft flame.
I drank and walked down to the levee, my coat over my arm though it was chilly. A couple of men greeted me outside the coal depot, grimy in overalls, taking their lunch break in the galled, raw, peeling sunlight. These men have never been sure how to treat a widow—with too much seeping pity, or looking away too soon, not holding my eye; they do not like to consider what John’s death might’ve done—dulled my eyes, grayed my hair, driven me to drink.
From the levee I could see Tower Rock, where John Davis and Penelope Pike died just after their wedding. It was a strain to think of a wedding as an ending instead of a beginning. According to the story as John used to tell it, a baby was born the same day the newlyweds drowned; she was a niece of the bride and groom, and they named her Penelope Davis in remembrance of the couple. Twenty years later, in 1859, the niece held a birthday party on Tower Rock. She and all her guests saw every dead member of the wedding party marching out of the river in procession. Penelope Pike’s wedding dress was yellow with waterstain, the long, dragging train full of tiny freshwater mussels. The preacher at the head of the convoy handed a scroll to the niece, and the wedding party turned, slogging back into the Mississippi, Penelope’s train billowing on the surface before she sank and vanished. The scroll foretold that in a few years, a terrible war would break out, separating families and killing thousands. Two years later, the Civil War began.
John told me that story more than once. Sometimes on Penelope Davis’s birthday we would sit on the beach, waiting to see if the wedding party would appear. He would even bring snacks—Cracker Jack and marshmallows, as if it were a show. He’d leave the Cracker Jack for the birds, sowing it like seed, all the while a glazed humming, like locusts, in his throat. We never saw anything. He said it was because I didn’t believe in it. I said maybe next time he would see it even though I couldn’t, and he seemed contented anyway.
I sat on the levee, watching the boats, half-drunk. Tower Rock was a hobbled knee, a humpback, a deformity. I never understood it; it shouldn’t be there. In the mid-1800s, all the rapids and large rocks in the area were removed with dynamite. This was the only one left, the only rock they didn’t break apart and haul away. Why did they leave it?
I wanted a cigarette, but I’d left them on the countertop. The sun was bleaching the tops of the ragged pines on Tower Rock, and a few birds were circling close to the water, looking for fish. The whole history of that sick, fleshless crag of limestone was lapping around my throat, falling through me; it was forceful in its memory. I heard John. I didn’t look to either side of me, leaned back on the heels of my hands and watched the rock darkening as the sun plunged like a gull.
“A long time ago,” John was saying. “Before iron smelting and the railroad, before even the river pirates sheltered in the caves in the bluffs to rob the flatboats, the Indians would stand atop Devil’s Tower to throw a captive into the river at its roughest current. The captives were meant as sacrifices to the evil spirit they believed dwelt in the water. In 1786, the Indians threw twenty travelers from the rock and only one escaped, a little boy named James Moredock, who vowed to kill the whole tribe. He hunted the Shawnee the rest of his life—”
I didn’t want to hear anymore. I stood up, unsteady and brushing the dust from my sleeves and pants. I could smell the coal in the air; the piles, waiting to be shipped, formed their own black landscape behind me—hillocks, small rushing peaks and steep dunes. The smell got in my mouth, pithy and penetrating on the roof and the tongue, a hot, earthy, oily smell—grim and impenitent. I felt a hand on my shoulder, heavy tan workman’s gloves and a voice like kerosene, “Edith, what are you doing down here?”
It was Joseph Abernathy, one of the workers at the coal depot. He used to be our nearest neighbor until he moved with his wife into the squat, gray duplex on Grand Tower Road. His beard had a chunk of white at the chin. I hadn’t seen him since John’s funeral.
“My shift just ended; I can walk you home,” he said, and I think he smelled the whiskey. He looked embarrassed. “Do you want me to walk you home?”
I laughed at his outdated gallantry, then was immediately sorry I laughed. “I guess it’s been a long time since anybody offered to walk me anywhere, Joe,” I said. He reached for my elbow as I slipped on some loose gravel. “How’s your wife?”
“Same as always,” he said, his eyes seeming to shrink. He removed a glove and put a hand to his forehead as a shield from the low western sun. “Fine. Happy.”
His wife, Mary, had suffered brain damage in a boating accident after she and Joseph had been married eight years. She was radiantly beautiful and soft-spoken, only easily confused. In church, she would sometimes ask the priest uncomfortable questions.
Once, I remember walking to their house to say hello and return a record album I’d borrowed. I admired their new carpet, an oriental rug they’d bought to cover a stain. Before I left, Mary had cut a corner from the rug and given it to me.
“For you,” she said. “Since you like it.”
She was always doing things like that. One time, she forced the mailman to take her raincoat, though it was many sizes too small for him and it wasn’t even raining that day.
“But it might rain,” she kept insisting.
“No,” he said. “I have one at home.”
“It could rain right now. Any minute. Don’t risk your health. I don’t need a coat, I never go outside.”
Which wasn’t true. One winter she was outside in the snow, wearing nothing heavier than a sweater and some jeans, trying to feed icicles to a dog.
“Your wife is the sweetest, truest person I know,” I said to Joseph. I was sorry I’d made him uncomfortable. I was over-articulating my words. “Give her my love. And I don’t need you to walk me home.”
John told the stories; now I can smell them in the whiskey. I can hear them in the fat, swollen barge horns at night. I fell in love with the sound of his voice. I keep the stories close, so now I can’t be free of them.
I came home from the levee, still feeling the weight of Joseph Abernathy’s hand on my shoulder. I poured myself another glass of whiskey.
John’s stories at the rim of the glass make a chill, fetid pang in the nostril; I drink and feel my body accepting. It is loose, filling up and ripening like a flaxen apple on the branch. I am suddenly aware of the cigarettes on the kitchen countertop, sweet-tipped and heathenous, and I shake one from the pack. On the wall above the counter is an Audubon plate of two bitterns—one long-necked, the other hunched, the female almost seems to rest her head on the back of the male. John used to say those birds were he and I.
“You can tell they’ve been together a long time,” he used to say. “Look at how comfortable they seem.”
The male in the picture does not look comfortable; he is wide-eyed, alert, one grayish-yellow leg striding forward. The female seems empty and graceless, her single yellow eye reaching forward in suspicion. I’d seen bitterns in the long yellow grass near the marshy part of the riverbank north of town, stepping high and slow between the cattails. When they think they’ve been spotted, they keep still and point their bills upward, as if imitating the slender reeds. They think they’re hidden when they’re not, the speckled plumage standing out in the pale grass. Their call sounds like a clogged water pump—a swollen, gurgling snore. They conceal their nests of reeds among the wavering stalks below the flat, plunging height of the bluffs. I found a nest once, abandoned, with dim shards of olive-blushing eggshells scattered like dense ash—a faint powdering among the stiffening joints of bent reeds like an aged and dissolving snow.
John said the print of the birds used to belong to his mother. It once hung in her kitchen, fading in strands of sunlight coming in through west-facing windows. John spent a good part of his childhood watching the color slowly leaving the bitterns’ brown feathers—gently, gradually being erased like an old photograph gathering too much light over time, washing back into a blank.
I hold a cigarette in one hand, an empty glass in the other, staring at the bitterns, wondering vaguely if John was right, if I was anything like the hunched bird. I like the feel of these things in my hands, the truth of their shape, the simplicity: glass and ice, paper and tobacco. There is something I’ve been wanting to do.
I want to lie in our bed and smoke a cigarette, maybe more than one, as I’ve seen in the movies—bachelors in tenement apartments, Burt Lancaster in The Killers. I want to lie flat on my back with an arm cocked behind my head and blow the smoke upward in a straight line like a thin chimney, like the chimney of the old iron furnace, watching it fade gray and lavender with the light falling. I don’t know why, but this seems important, and I go into the bedroom to strip the sheets off, so they won’t reek of smoke, be stained with ash or singed by the cherry when it drops out. I open the window; the wind pushes in to steal the smoke from my lungs—a storm traveling up the throat of the river with thrashing, watery-eyed gusts—carrying with it the sound of the sobbing bride I’d listened for in the past, another story John used to tell.
Her name was Esmerelda. She was the daughter of the superintendent of the ironworks factory. “She gets more beautiful every time I hear the story told,” John said. Her father kept her sheltered her whole life, away from men, shut away in that big stone house that is now just a ruin. She fell in love with a riverboat pilot—a tall, rough-faced man who whistled and sang and brought her sagging scraps of poetry he’d written on the river. The poems were about Devil’s Tower and the fierce currents alongside it; they were about Esmerelda waiting at her window—not very well written, but charming and raw and honest. But her father didn’t think the poor pilot was good enough for her; he locked his daughter in her room, and she stood at the window, waiting just as she did in the pilot’s poems. He wrote her letters, made promises, and they planned to run away. She would wait for him in the one of the caves in the bluffs where the river pirates used to hide. She would wait, wearing her lacy gown, and he would take her away on his riverboat.
She kept waiting, and he never came; instead, he died in a boiler room fire on his boat. It was storming the night that she jumped from the cliffs, and her drenched and broken body was found the next morning on the riverbank.
I lie on the naked mattress, feeling as though I am waiting too, listening for Esmerelda, whose ghost still screams in the storms. I think I hear instead the deep froggy sobs of a bittern, calling back to his mate on her nest. I can almost see Esmerelda framed in my window, the tiered lace curtains the billows of her white gown. She had said, before she jumped, that she was cursed by the devil. Everyone else said she had been driven mad by her lover’s death. I wondered what her face had looked like, what color her hair was, or how we knew her name.
The summer before John and I were married, I made a pilgrimage with him to the ruined foundry house atop the Devil’s Bake Oven, the crooked hump of a hill where Esmerelda used to watch the riverboats as they were loaded with cargo at the dock below. I asked him why it was called the Devil’s Bake Oven, and he said he didn’t know.
“Everything around here is named for the devil,” I said, as we faltered up the path. “I guess this is the devil’s country.”
“I think it must be ours by now,” John said. It was an hour or so before dawn, and he was holding a heavy flashlight loosely, as if willing it to slip away. The gravel path resonated sharply beneath our unsure feet, a sound like grinding teeth. I felt for John’s hand but missed it in the darkness; he was just ahead of me, holding back the trailing branch of a thorn bush for me. As I passed, I felt his breath close to my ear, and I shivered. He asked me again if I was afraid. I told him I didn’t believe in ghosts.
“Well, they’ve seen her up here,” he said behind me. “Maybe not for a long time, but they have. A misty shadow in the shape of a girl, and she disappears between the rocks when you try to follow her.”
“I wish you’d stop trying to scare me,” I said. But I wasn’t scared of seeing her ghost, I was more frightened by John’s belief in it. He whistled weakly for awhile and then fell silent again.
There were a few weary frogs cricketing in the ditch along the path, their throats throbbing fleshy like a heartbeat. John held his flashlight over them, the beam touching the skim of ditchwater, the drained brown saliva of the Mississippi.
When we reached the ridge of the hill I saw the faint, crouched stone—a dim outline, a large square in the open space like a ring of trees cut down. We passed through, John standing in the middle moving his flashlight in a circle to measure the space between us and the absent darkness. I remember thinking how young we were in comparison to that place, to the town itself. We stood steeping in our sweat and breathing heavily from the incline.
“There’s nothing here,” I said. He was poking between the rocks to find some token—a rusted watch chain, an old coin, or a headless cornhusk doll, half-buried. But there was nothing except broken glass and cigarette butts.
“The old roads were built as the crow flies,” John said. “There used to be a road running straight down the hill through those woods.” He lifted the hand holding the flashlight to point with its beam.
“I’m not going down there,” I said, watching the knotted bracken unfolded over the faintest wraith of a trail. He didn’t try to convince me. We waited among the ruins for the sun to rise, listening as the frogs stilled for the silence before the birds began their matins.
I wake to find the cigarette has burned a hole in the mattress. The air in the bedroom is chill and withdrawn; I think I can see my breath for a moment as I open my eyes, a faint frost close to my face, but I realize as I rub my arms that it isn’t cold enough for that. I flick the cigarette butt through the open window, closing it with one hand, thinking of the winter that Gloria and I used to smoke every day in the churchyard on Railroad Street. It was a few months after my first cigarette with her in the bathroom of the funeral parlor.
I was living with a widow at the time, another frail and aging Mrs. Hardwick, her oriental carpets wheezing dust beneath her cautious shuffling while her three snow-white terriers followed, all of them graying at the muzzle. Her name was Mrs. Broder, and she played a flaking, yellow piano with crooked hands, the notes trembling between the densely tapestried walls with uncertain punctuation, many years out of tune. She always kept the curtains drawn; she scolded when I turned a light on, or when I came home smelling of tobacco, my clothes heavy with the rusty reek of cigarettes. I went on long walks to keep from smothering in the whine of the withered piano, the yelping of the dogs, and the quiver of her doleful chastising. As I walked, I’d often find Gloria smoking outside the funeral parlor, or buying a soda or some mascara at the drugstore. Eventually, we started meeting every day in the churchyard.
It was a dim, dragging winter that year—everyone cosseted indoors in armchairs with blankets across their laps, and outside the snow floundering on the gravestones where we would sit, squat and hunched like gargoyles. We didn’t talk much; the air was thin and bleeding, and the stone figures in the churchyard were haloed in snow tinged blue or yellow by the light, depending on the time of day. There was a clock on the outside of the small tower, without numbers, just twelve metal circles like a ring of eyes, rust at the corner of each and an empty bird’s nest between the fifth and sixth circles. The whole town would bottle itself up when both hands of the clock pointed toward the bird’s nest, everyone shuttered inside their houses with the front windows lit, leaving the new gaps of the freshly shoveled sidewalks to be filled in again by another snow. Gloria told me about her mother, the alcoholic, when they used to live in St. Louis, years before they moved here and she was taken away to the orphanage. She said that when she was young, a man with a salt-and-pepper mustache would sometimes wait outside her apartment building and say dirty things to her on her way to school. When her mother found out about it, she screamed at the man with her red hair falling long and wild around her face. She was six foot three, and towered over him, spitting while she yelled, leaning and rocking back on her heels like a swaying elm tree.
“What did she say?” I asked, thinking of my own mother’s small stature and bright lips.
“She said: ‘What’s the matter with you? What kind of a sick bastard are you?’”
“What did he do?”
“He tried to ignore her. He was reading a newspaper. Sort of hiding behind it. I even remember the headline. It was about a rabies outbreak. She grabbed the paper and threw it down. ‘I’m talking to you,’ she said. ‘So you better listen. Stay the fuck away from my daughter,’ she said, ‘do you understand me? Believe me,’ she said, ‘you’re messing with the wrong girl.’ That’s what my mom said. I remember loving her for her rage. All that anger directed at that sleazy guy. He never bothered me after that.”
It was late in the afternoon; Gloria and I were perched on our headstones smoking one cigarette after another, and we saw a group of teenage boys bearing a coffin on their shoulders coming up Railroad Street. They were all bundled up in wool caps with mittens and dark coats, and we couldn’t see their faces, mostly hidden by bright scarves.
“Who the fuck died?!” Gloria stood up fast, running to the iron gate and leaning over it to watch the coffin bearers nearing us. Since she was working part time for the undertaker, she was shocked that she hadn’t heard about the burial that day.
“He never tells me anything anymore,” she said, frowning. “It could be my goddamn cousin in there for all I know. In a town this small, we should know when somebody kicks the bucket. It’s just not right.”
We watched as they passed, shouldering the black coffin, and as they drew nearer, Gloria screamed, “There’s no lid on it!”
The lidless coffin was brimming with snowballs, perfect glinting spheres, we could see them nestled like egrets’ eggs against the pearl-pink satin lining. The boys were heading up to the iron foundry ruin on the Devil’s Bake Oven. Kids had snowball fights there in winter and mud wars in spring, hiding behind the crumbling low stone walls—a moldering fortress white and green beneath frost and lichen. The boys looked reverent and solemn, bearing scores of snowballs to the battlefield, where they’d be divided up, counted out with meticulous precision. Gloria started climbing over the wrought iron fence, screaming, “Where’d you get that coffin, you little bastards? I’m about to call the police, and they’ll turn you over to the undertaker, and he will cut you up, I swear to God.”
“We’ll put it back,” one of them said, “No one was using it,” but a couple of the boys abandoned their fellows and started running. The coffin teetered on the shoulders of those remaining and fell. The boys scattered, laughing and hooting like ragged coyotes with their scarves trailing. Gloria had left the funeral home unlocked overnight, and the boys had snuck into the basement, stealing one of the coffins and staying up until daylight making snowballs to fill it. It must’ve seemed like a good joke to them, chuckling as they packed the snow, proud and half-scared of the brave irreverence of filling a waiting coffin with snowballs.
Gloria and I dumped the snowballs out into the street, and it made me sad to watch them turning brown in the slush of the gutter. The inside of the coffin was wet, and the pink of the lining had deepened, like blushing cheeks. Gloria was crying.
“He’s going to kill me,” she said. “I’ll lose my job, and then he’ll kill me.”
IV. First Hour—Walker’s Hill
I have breakfast on the back porch: a half glass of airy, teasing ginger ale to settle my stomach and a plate of fried eggs. There is a light, blunted frost on the rail, and I can see a dead bird beneath the course, stunted juniper shrubs by the steps. It is a brown finch, beak parted as if taking a deep breath. This was the sort of thing we used to find in the garden behind the orphanage, poking with sticks beneath the bushes without much curiosity and sometimes finding dead robins with their chests still hearth-red, or oddly shaped stones—once, a tiny geode. I remember the birds and the places where the feathers had worn away showing the stalks of pinions, barbs of needles in the sallow, drooping flesh. It made me always think of what the bird would be if it were naked—how its shape might change, becoming a tiny, uncooked chicken in the hollow of my hand. I shared this thought with the other girls once, and they laughed. Sometimes we might just laugh, or leave the bird to grow increasingly naked in the open air. But when we were feeling reverent and daring we might bury the birds in the herb garden while the nuns weren’t being too watchful.
With my feet on the porch rail, I don’t look away from the finch, stiff beneath a glaze of gray frost, and I wonder how many dead birds had been buried in that herb garden. A number between one and ten; I can’t remember.
I have not visited the graveyard in a long time. It seems seasonless there, with powdery leaves always on the ground, and the trees always look empty, even in spring with the miserly buds like blemishes on the colorless bark. The grass is often left uncut and the cemetery is full of slugs. Along the abutting slope of the hill, a man named Abner East keeps pigs, and on two occasions I’ve seen children sitting on the wall of the graveyard throwing apple cores and pebbles at the animals.
At the Farmer’s Market, a man is selling photographs of Tower Rock in woodgrain frames. They are set up on a plastic folding table in three rows; some taken at dusk, some from the water, others from the cliffs. In one, you can see the white head of the barge late in the day with the lights of the tug windows beginning to show and a flock of crows lifting just above Tower Rock.
“Are you the photographer?” I ask him.
He nods, his eyes very placid. And suddenly, before I’d even thought them, the words are already in my throat, raw and swelling and foreign. I’m not even looking him in the eye; I’m touching the glass of a picture frame when I hear myself:
“Did you know my husband, John Wright?”
He is chewing his thumbnail, his eyes thick-lashed and watery like a cow’s. I am tilting toward him the photograph of the barge with the crows ascending, as if it were a picture of John, something the man could recognize. He shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “I don’t know that many people anymore.”
I move away to the other stalls, angry at myself. Someone is selling pinwheels they’ve made out of pages from floral magazines. I buy one of the flat stones with small, painted flowers that I sometimes see resting on other grave markers. The stones are polished and brightened by the river, collected by this woman who must stand at the edge of the current in her rain boots looking for the smoothest, flattest stones. She decorates them with clusters and wreaths of pale blue, purple and white flowers. On the table is a little card with Hand-Painted Memorial Stones written in permanent marker. They are ugly, sad little stones—muted, gray-brown with the sloppy flowers scattered and crooked on the glossed surface—but I would rather leave something tidy and cold like this than flowers that will rot and feed the slugs.
I hold the stone in the hollow of my hand and put it up to my face. To the woman selling them, it must look as if I’m about to swallow it, but I’m just curious if it still has the clammy, tart smell of the river. It smells like tempera paints. I’m grateful anyway.
The weight of the stone in my fist as I walk up Walker Hill makes me suddenly aware of the differences in our hands. John’s were so calloused that he could strike a match on the heel of his hand. He liked the sound of a match striking, liked to light a candle then put out the flame with the tips of his fingers.
John and I had hiked up Walker’s Hill together before, finding the oldest gravestones and doing childish math with the dates carved in the markers. Once, I remember, we were arguing about Esmerelda. John said he could find her headstone, and I didn’t believe him.
“That was a stupid thing she did,” I had said abruptly, “to throw herself from that cliff.”
“No, no,” he said, his forehead quivering faintly. “It was a beautiful gesture. That’s real love, Edie. Mixed up and sad, and the real thing.”
I don’t know if it brings me any comfort when I think that so many lives have been lost in the river, so many people drowned, their lungs filling inch by inch, growing heavy. This is what so many of John’s ghost stories are really about; they depend, faintly, on a fear of drowning. Or perhaps a fear of the river itself.
The Indians threw their human sacrifices in—a sacrament, an offering, a religious act of sinister worship and atonement. Appease the anger, keep the river low—plump and sluggish and full of human bodies. They were smart. But it wasn’t enough.
Still, so much depended on the act of moving downriver, people would risk their lives. The earliest French explorers and trappers knew this place; it appeared on the first maps of the region. Marquette and Jolliet knew it; Lewis and Clarke camped at its base. Another Frenchman erected a cross there—on that ugly stump of a rock that I’ve looked at all my life. I think some part of me must’ve expected that it would grow or change—like a weed at least. Or like the river itself. But it always keeps the same shape, a negative against the opposite shore, silhouette like a grave marker, a headstone, a haunch, the Devil’s hump of his crooked spine—the knot of his backbone. I can see it from the east-facing windows in the den. I see it always, every time I stir out of doors. There are paintings and photographs of it in the post office and the general store, and I feel some part of me is waiting for it to sink. I wish the god in the river that the Indians feared would rise and swallow it.
There is a stray dog in the graveyard, nosing at a clump of goldenrod growing just inside the gate. His head has a wolfish tilt, and he looks at me for an instant with weepy eyes, the crust running in twin, curving lines down his muzzle. He lowers his head, still watching me through the brown and yellow of his eyes, wearily snuffling after rabbits, touching at a tiny dead turtle with the black bead of his nose. I watch him a long time, fingering the stone, icy in the wool of my pocket, before he ambles off, his matted coat patchy over the angled ribs, heavy with burrs and foxtails. In his look, I could feel his hunger, knew its density and range, its color—rusty and pus-yellow in the dried-up stomach. I knew he was too slow and hungry to catch the rabbits he smelled among the webbed weeds, the dying Queen Anne’s lace and the yellow pointed grass. I call after him, but he disappears through the gate; I have nothing to give him anyway.
Once John and I walked up the hill to the graveyard, and standing just outside the gate was a woman with her ancient dog, a gangly, wilted thing. We didn’t know the woman; she was from Prairie du Rocher, a little farm town about thirty miles from Grand Tower along Highway 4, but John bent down to pet her dog, a rough hand on either side of the tawny face.
“You got family in here?” John asked the woman, still looking at her dog. In the wind, the wrought iron gate was swinging free, the cricketing hinges turning orange and powdery.
“My grandmother is buried here. Drowned in the flood of ‘93. She was eighty-nine years old. This was her dog.”
John asked to see her grave. He told the woman he’d known her grandmother, but not very well. He’d carried groceries for her once, took her elbow when it was icy. At the memory of her grandmother, the woman’s voice was suddenly trembling, and she was spilling over with dozens of images of that flood—the farmlands around Prairie du Rocher all underwater. She said there were branches and strands of hay tangled in the power lines—that’s how high the water levels got. The river had rushed in, leaving a dim trail above the drowned pavement: milk jugs floating like ducks, the long strands of hay like wisps of wet hair—the cruelty of a river repossessing the land.
John was curious about the stone fort at Prairie du Rocher, a pile of bleached limestone quarried from the bluffs, built by French settlers in the early 1700s.
“It was all under water,” she said. I thought of that fort beneath the floodwater, looming through the muck like a mermaid’s castle, choked with silt. I thought of the water snakes passing through chinks in the rocks, nesting in the cracks until the water levels went down and the stone smelled of rot. Then the snakes sunned themselves up on the ramparts, the hay clinging while below the townspeople waded through the knee-deep sludge to count their dead. The image terrified me—the fort disappearing, reappearing an inch at a time.
“A lot of our history was lost,” the woman said. “Town records, family photo albums, the library’s archive of newspapers going all the way back to 1908.”
“It was the same for us,” John said. “A lot of damage.”
“But you’re higher up.” The dog was fidgeting faintly at the end of his leash. The woman pulled him closer, and his face brushed her knee. I saw his cloudy blue eyes and realized he was blind.
“That didn’t matter,” John said quietly. “The river still got us. How many did you lose in all?”
The image of the wet stone and the snakes was sharp in my mind, and the dog’s blind eyes seemed to stare, blinking infrequently. I thought I might watch him dissolve as he stood there against her knee. The old woman had drowned but her dog had survived; this was something I didn’t understand. I felt a pressing urgency building, and I touched John’s arm.
“I remember that flood,” I said; my voice was strange to me.
The woman stood looking at me, her hands hidden in the pocket of her jacket, the dog’s leash looped around her wrist. Her face was round and thick, and she wore sweatpants, but there was something sinister about her; her upper lip quivered slightly, and the dog trembled as if with cold.
John was looking at me; I could feel his eyes on the side of my face like a faint, pricking glow. “What are you remembering?”
“The snakes,” I said. “All over the levee, so that sometimes it looked like it was moving. Cottonmouths and copperheads and rattlesnakes.”
“They were driven there by the rains,” John said, as if he were trying to fill in the gaps. “It was their high ground. No one was bitten, fortunately.”
“And you were still here, John, remember? You wouldn’t leave. Even when they thought the levee wouldn’t hold, and almost everyone was gone, you were still either hauling sandbags or on levee patrol duty, around the clock.”
“We made it through,” John said, smiling at the woman. “By the grace of God.”
“Things have sure changed since then,” the woman said, but she didn’t say how they changed. Her mouth was tight and her skin was pale. There was a glistening, gossamer string of drool hanging from the dog’s lip.
John is buried near the back wall of the cemetery, where a persimmon tree bends to drop its fruit a few feet from his headstone. In late summer, dozens of birds peck at the fruit, threads hanging from their beak, the flat dark pits glossy where the syrupy meat was eaten away. He is buried next to his father and mother, and there is a place for me on his left side, almost directly beneath the persimmon tree. Some fruit would fall on the earth covering me, and the birds would eat it, the slippery seeds rattling against their beaks. That stray dog might nuzzle for rabbits in some low bushes nearby. If there is another flood like the one in ‘93, I would be underwater, like the streets and buildings of the town, the snakes still struggling for survival when it has escaped me, their bodies clinging to that same levee where John and I once sat before we were married, talking while the moon rose, listening for owls. Why couldn’t the snakes leave that place alone? Why couldn’t they drown willingly, quietly, without the undignified writhing and panicking of their long bodies covering the spot where we used to sit cross-legged, facing each other with a flashlight between us, switched off. We would watch each others’ faces as the light changed, and the dusk erased us line by line. We would wait in the humid darkness until we were each just a separate voice, the faint blue outline of a body, the breeze pulling at the trees on our left while the barges on our right moved mournfully, the wake sloshing toward the shore.
Once he spread a map between us in the darkness. I could hear the paper crinkling as he smoothed the folds with the flat of his hands. He placed a pen in my fingers and we each made a mark. He said that in the morning we could measure the distance between our marks. In the morning we could visit the places, find a new town we’d never been, explore. His mark fell in water, a faint trembling x over a thick line of blue.
When John and I used to meet on the levee, we sat low and hunched and murmuring like geese, leaning forward through the night into the sound of the other’s voice, and it was there that I first heard John tell a ghost story. There was no moon that night, and the river purred like a quivering wire. I saw twelve falling stars in the course of John’s story, and I felt the pricking of mosquitoes on my forearms as the stars trailed overhead like loose sparks, trackless as they fluttered and went out. I would call John’s attention to them, pointing up to show him where to look.
“I can’t see where you’re pointing,” he’d say desperately, and he would seem hurt that I had seen some splendor that had been denied him. “My eyes aren’t quick enough.”
The story he told was about his father meeting a ghost once on a summer night after cutting the grass in and around the cemetery and wiping the birds’ ash-white droppings from the marble headstones.
“He was completely alone, and the air was heavy, and there was no wind. Not even a whisper. The sun was going down, and he was just finishing up. You know how from Walker Hill Cemetery you can see the lower ground all the way around in every direction, and there’s that one path that leads into the graveyard? You can’t get in by any other way. Well, he’s standing at the gate, about to lock up, and he turns to look back at the graveyard to make sure he didn’t forget anything, and there’s an old man in overalls face-to-face with him. My father said he almost jumped out of his skin at the sight of him. The old man moved very slowly, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a coin and handed it to my father and said, ‘Looks like you’re doing a good job.’ My father looked down at the coin in his hand; it was a centennial silver dollar from 1876, shiny as if it were brand new. When he looked up to thank the man, he’d completely vanished. There was no one there. My father ran, without locking the gate, with the sun lowering just behind him and night close on his heels. About a month or so later, he was down at the coal depot telling the story to some workers and showing his silver dollar around. And as he was telling it, one of the worker’s eyes kept getting bigger and bigger. My dad said, ‘What’s wrong, Don?’ and the man told about how his grandfather had helped to lay the brick that surrounds the cemetery, and his grandfather used to tell a story about an old man in overalls that appeared from nowhere, handed him a silver dollar, saying ‘Looks like you’re doing a good job,’ and then vanished.”
John showed me that silver dollar once. I held it in the hollow of my palm, and it was cool and smooth like a polished stone, like an egg, with a strange weight to it. When I held the coin I asked him, “John, when your father took the silver dollar from the ghost, did their skin touch?”
“I don’t know,” John said, touching the silver dollar in my hand with a single finger, pressing down gently as if trying to leave an imprint. “I never asked him. Why?”
“I just wondered. Does a ghost feel cold or fleshy, or what?”
I keep the silver dollar in the drawer with the arrowheads and old jewelry, but I don’t look at it anymore. I don’t open that drawer. A part of me wants to give it back, but that old man in the graveyard hasn’t been seen since. The coin makes me anxious sometimes, because John told me that his father’s friend Donald, the coal worker whose grandfather had seen the same ghost, kept his grandfather’s silver dollar for years and years. One night, he had some friends over for dinner, and when he told the story, his friends asked to see the coin. So he passed it around, and when they were finished looking, he set it on a little table in their living room and forgot about it for the time being. A week later, his house burned down, everything was burnt to raw ash; even the chimney fell in. The only thing still standing was the little table with the coin in the center. Donald said, “Looks like the work of the devil to me.” I never believed this story, told John it sounded like nonsense, but I still feel uneasy about the coin in that drawer. If I were less afraid, I might throw it from the bluffs into the river, let it sink, finding its way to the bottom through water green as blown glass.
In the graveyard, it begins to rain as I lay the flat, flowered stone on John’s grave. I feel a pressure to speak, to say even a single word: hello or goodbye, but I can’t. It’s impossible to speak to the sunken earth, remembering it still as a rough mound, the earth raw and brown after his burial. The men who carried the coffin said it was very heavy, although John wasn’t a large man, not thick or towering, but he grows in my memory. Thickets and vines grow in brown, bare tangles like arms and snake bodies wrapped around the tree trunks and around the low back wall just behind his grave. I wonder if the vines will ever cover him, ivy creeping along the ground like moss, a disease of contagious leaves, hands and the spindling fingers of the vines reaching to touch his headstone, taste it, before swallowing, spreading, moving forward with a hungry abandon. I am frightened, and the rain is in my hair, and I’m aware of the strands clinging to my cheeks as it did when I was younger and it was longer, when I was brave enough to disregard the rain, or when I would allow myself to cry, sometimes the hair getting between my face and the pillow as I lay in the orphanage smelling the dirt on our bodies and the reek off the marshy corners of the river. The taste of it would fill my whole mouth, like a holler about to happen, a round flavorful sound I couldn’t make. I’d try to swallow it, the sludge and mire of the brown, humid air, and feel that I was choking, squirming between the sheets in the heat.
After John died, I would sometimes wake with that feeling, a slow, greasy feeling at the back of the neck, the roar and din of the river inside my throat, and I would think upon waking, “It’s going to strangle me. It’s trying to smother me in my sleep.” I still wonder sometimes: how do I keep surviving?
As I watch the vines in the cemetery, I see suddenly from the corner of my eye a glowing white and red shape, round and dappled light through the rain on the other side of the wall, beyond the draping ivy and the branches of young trees with greedy roots. I am trained to think of ghosts in this place, the old man holding a coin out for me, but it’s only a young horse—white coat spotted and ruddied by the red dirt of the field beyond. As we stand motionless, with only his tail moving in a low arc, a faint swish like water, I realize that his eyes are brown like mine, the same shade and depth; and as he watches me, he seems to know me, as a stranger may recognize himself in another stranger. I move forward guardedly until I am pressed up against the wall. There is an old peppermint in the pocket of my sweater and I unwrap it for him, thinking of the stray dog that was given nothing and feeling guilty. The peppermint is round and glossy in my palm, like the coin of that old man’s ghost, an offering. The horse bends, and I feel his nose warm with the moist breath blowing gummy against my fingers, the long hairs on his chin like very fine needles pricking my fingertips. Does a ghost feel cold or fleshy, or what?
I watch the mud of the field creeping up his legs just as the rain on the grass is soaking my pants at the ankles. The horse shakes his head, snorting and greedy in the wet dusk; he turns his back on me, wanting to shut me out. He tears at the grass with his blunt teeth, breathing the sharp peppermint through his yawning nostrils, and I turn my back on him, the grass squeaking and slurping underfoot as I move toward the gate without looking back.
My mother’s body is buried near the gate in the farthest corner of the cemetery from John; it is a bare patch with no trees nearby, just the blank stretches of wall angled around her. I count my footsteps as I cross to her grave. I have nothing to give her. But then I have nothing of hers either.
At her graveside, I think of all the distances stretching and opening, then receding back into a single dot on the map, like the taut mouths of fish breathing the water through, letting it fill and pass. John thought the world was becoming more orderly as we aged, everything assuming its final shape—the purposes narrowing down to a quartet of directions: north, south, east, west.
“There are only a few ways you can travel,” John said once, happily, as if it were simpler that way.
That comment reminded me of my mother who, I am convinced, died trying to get away from something, trying to get both of us away. We were pulled along in a current of her own making, and I was too young to know any of the things she wouldn’t tell me: why we were on this road, heading into the sun instead of away from it, where we were supposed to end up. All I knew was the long parallel of the roads and rivers and the pair of yellow lines separating our path from its opposite, and these things made sense—the air slipping over the body of our car in the smoothest possible motion. I don’t know what happened to that car; it seems like something I should’ve inherited, even belatedly.
I wasn’t with her when she died. There was a priest and a doctor at her bedside—one to fold her hands and close her eyes, the other to draw the wide cross in the air, the lines that have no beginning and no ending, stretching on into space until north meets south, east meets west. This is the length and depth and breadth of our own private sins, for it says in the scriptures, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
My mother was everything, a universe immense, and she filled all the spaces around her with her self, her touch, braiding together the things that should be united, separating the things that shouldn’t. She never belonged to this town; dying here was no kind of surrender. She was dark-haired, her eyes removed from everything except the distance at the end of the visible road; she was the one and only stranger here, leaving me behind to fill that role.
I had never known that she was sick. She was never fragile, sweeping through night and day on the roads as if they were the same, her hands gripping the steering wheel thickly, and I remember our broken radio inside of a world where things didn’t break, nothing without its own specific turning. I had a thousand dreams of the car driving itself, taking me away, but I was never frightened, didn’t flinch when it spun or the tires screeched like a bird call. It was the same when the nuns put their hands on my shoulders and pushed me along, my legs each a tiny machine (I’d never thought of my body as tiny or mechanical before that), and they showed me the little wire bed that would be my own. I was five years old, and I realized that I was alone, that I might be alone until I died like my mother with two strangers in the room to watch the final breath going stiffly out of my lungs. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. This is what I thought I was supposed to be waiting for.
By her grave, I think of my mother’s body folded and put away, like winter clothes in a drawer, something kept for later use. I never thought of the grave as permanent somehow, as if she is waiting beneath the soil, the husk, her coiling hair—gathering strength, measuring time in tick marks and clusters of lines, dormant like a seed in winter.
I reach for the gate, a hand brushing the twin spines of pointed metal, and I leave John and my mother to the brumed veil of new rain.
V. Third Hour—St. Cosme’s Cross
Late at night, with winter coming on and dusk falling early, sometimes I will stand in the bedroom undressing and hear the water turning on in the kitchen. I can hear the faucet running, a low fluid hissing, almost mechanical, and the drumming of the stream against the metal basin of the sink. It is the same sound I used to hear when John came home late, filling up the coffee pot with tap water. Sometimes he whistled in tune with the water, sometimes he kept silent. This sound is the closest I’ve come to facing John’s ghost, but whenever I go into the kitchen, the floorboards creaking like a hungry stomach, there is no one standing at the sink. He is never there, looking over his right shoulder at me, saying, “You still up?” I always find the faucet dripping in a slow, endless rhythm—three ticks of the clock for each drip, as always.
And I think: even if I saw John’s ghost, I don’t think I could believe in it. The sound of the faucet running in the other room is the closest I can come to believing. And if I ever saw him again in that kitchen, having tracked tiny tide pools of mud across the floor, I might think only that he is home again, and I would sit down at the kitchen table, watching him choose a mug from the upper cupboard as I grow sleepy waiting for the sound of his voice.
Sometimes as I stood in front of the dresser mirror with my hair in my hands, braiding, John would come up behind me and put his hands on my upper arms. Our eyes would meet in the mirror, and I always felt my reflection looking away a moment before I willed it to. I didn’t like the image, the stiff symmetry of it. John and I were close in height, but I could see my own shrinking, the passage back, the sense of something that was never quite ripe, and even with his fingers against the flesh of my arms, I was already forgetting his touch. And the spaces we’d carefully built between our two bodies, like the bitterns in the Audubon print above the kitchen sink, the birds not quite touching, made less sense when seen this way, a cautious reversal and the whole room on the other side of the glass, empty and welling up with a numb muteness. John would fasten the clasp of a necklace for me or zip up my dress, acting out of a marital calm, like the morning songs of the pair of birds just outside the window gathering the tufts of hair I’d cast outside after a trim.
When I stand alone before the mirror now, I wonder, did he leave too much of himself behind, or not enough?
We have recently received our first snow—a moist November snowfall that makes the earth smell mildewed; the wood and brick and limestone of the houses takes on the same musty smell, and the sidewalks grow stale underfoot. John always called the first snow “a benediction,” and I thought of God’s hand on our heads as the flakes settled, a light touch against the hair.
A few nights before that first snowfall, I had a dream that I used to have as a little girl. In the dream, I was standing by a car in an empty parking lot, and it was snowing. Elaborate dream-flakes like ornately patterned lace; you could see the blue thread-thin lines of each flake as it fell and the space between the lines. Each was a tiny web. The door of the car was open, and the snow blew inside, covering the seats and steering wheel, but it didn’t melt. It piled up inside, drifted in the car, and when I finally sat down on the driver’s seat, sinking into it, it wasn’t cold or wet—just thick and soft and everywhere. I started the car, and the snow was with me as I drove.
It was a sort of meager prophecy—the snow revealing itself to me in sleep, while it was still gathering in the clouds. I found a place on the bluffs above the river where I could look across the water to the far shore and see the snow falling there first before it reached the east bank. It was like a net in the hair of the trees, a white glowing dust, an all-white sunset as the clouds moved forward and the snow was on the river. Flakes lay flat on the cold water for the slightest instant before dissolving. The water carried the snow a fraction of an inch before it fell back into the dark, forgetful wet as if into sleep—the river swallowing the snow, with the hovering clouds still spitting it out.
In the moments before the first flakes touch the earth, the earth feels so exposed—like Adam and Eve discovering their nakedness for the first time, their flesh blank and unwritten, the newest bodies. The difference is, the hills and bluffs and empty trees feel no shame—they don’t hide their faces or breasts from God, and the snow in its grace and innocence does not know whose unpainted mouth it is kissing.
I watch the white, wallowing “benediction” from my place on the cliffs, as the snow gathers and shakes itself in updrafts of air like a wet dog, sifting down into chimneys and through the open windows of an abandoned school bus.
Tower Rock gathers snow gradually, tentatively. Above, snow is still stewing in sack-flat clouds with bellies like gutted fish. A skein of Canadian geese landed there a week ago, and they will probably head further south in a month or two; they don’t usually stay through January. The mornings are filled with their trumpeting; I wake to the sound with a faded, colorless light spreading like moss over the floor rugs and down the wallpaper.
John and I used to walk where the gaggles wandered with their young, fat backs suddenly rising into the air to disappear, melting into grains of stale sunlight until they dissolved like myths of silver and dross roiling, a flood of northern lights and sunrise trapped within pale wing and goose flesh.
“I envy them,” I told John once, watching a slanted skein moving southwest, heading toward the low, yellow marshlands thirty miles distant, where the air isn’t so sharp.
“Why?” John said, rubbing his hands together to warm them. “What would we do if we could all just rise up into the air whenever we felt like it? We’re too restless. Senseless. We’d never stay put. People wouldn’t be any good for one another anymore.”
In December, when the geese are readying for flight, the wind blows the feathers into the air; the down drifts on the surface of the river like huge billowing snowflakes. The geese leave behind only tidy piles of droppings, firm and calloused beneath a shell of frost.
John believed that history is prophesy, that he belonged here because his ancestors belonged here, built here, died after enduring the same natural disasters—floods and earthquakes; they studied the currents and made maps to navigate the river, piece by piece. But I know that history is brittle and our own separate pasts mean less when measured against the legends a place offers up. I try to keep my head above the rush of false memory—the memories of the ghosts, the broken boats and the buildings that aren’t here anymore, the superstitions of a demon in the water.
In the place on Tower Rock from which the Indians used to throw their human offerings, a cross was erected in 1698 by a French missionary. It was a white cross, made from lightly polished limestone cut straight from Tower Rock’s uneven surface. The missionary was called St. Cosme, and he wrote in his journal: “Fourteen savages were once lost there, which has rendered the spot fearful among the Indians, so that they are accustomed to make some sacrifices to this rock when they pass. We saw no figure there as we had been told.” God above and the devil below, a cross on the rock and the devil in the water—they were looking for him, but he wouldn’t appear, and the missionary hoped the cross would erase the superstition, would set everyone’s mind at ease. It didn’t. As soon as they were gone, the Indians pulled it down; more boats had been lost to the current, and the solid Catholic symbol of protection and deliverance meant nothing to them. St. Cosme wrote in his journal that as they planted their beautiful cross, they sang the Vexilla Regis, a hymn of conquest, the sanctifying invasion of the cross.
We used to sing this same hymn in the orphanage, first in Latin, then in English. We gargled the strange words around in our mouths, the echoing English sounding just as foreign and stilted. The nun leading us, Sister Francoise, would sometimes crack her fingers in the air while she was conducting, a gesture we found threatening. She told us about St. Cosme, his beneficence and the sacrifices he made to extend Christ’s Sovereign Grace to the savages clinging ignorantly to their false superstitions. We sang mechanically, and I don’t think any of us believed in grace. I don’t know if the nuns believed in it either, sweat clinging above their lips in the stuffy chapel as Sister Francoise waved her arms, mouthing the words like some ancient incantation. I remember one of the girls fainted once, right in the middle of the song, collapsing flat on her back with her arms sprawled outward on either side of her. Sister Francoise shook her head, hollering above our shrill harmonies: “Keep singing. Don’t help her, Laurel. Stand up, girl. She’ll be all right. I’ve told you a hundred times not to lock your knees.” We were aware of nothing outside of the collective heat of our bodies inside the loose wool uniforms and Sister Francoise’s meaty fingertips and the song, splintering in our mouths like rough-hewn wood, coarsening the throat. I remember only the first two verses:
Abroad the regal banners fly,
Now shines the Cross’s mystery:
Upon it Life did death endure,
And yet by death did life procure.
Who, wounded with a direful spear,
Did purposefully to wash us clear
From stain of sin, pour out a flood
Of precious water mixed with blood.
One superstition traded for another—the blood and water mixing in the river as its currents breathed, rising and falling with slow, timeless rhythm, swallowing the cross back up as the Indians cast it down from the summit, stone by stone, into the water, no grave to mark the drownings.
The river swallowed John like all the rest, not knowing him as any different, not remembering his face at the rim, looking down where the bottom hides itself, and the lapis and copper-scaled fish gaze soulless past the sinking of things. The river consumed my husband, concealed him in its rapid, seething throat, dragged along the body like a boat but without navigation, drained of destination. This was the last hunger still remaining from those ancient, pagan offerings, a taste of blood with the river god wakening at the roughest current to draw them all down, the devil in the water like a voiceless siren watching cold and still through the gleaming wet green and brown of the river’s rolling surface, a slanting eye quivering, formless—just as he first watched John through that barn window. He had already claimed him then. John told the story like it was an unfulfilled prophecy, a Bible story with the characters waiting on God, fearful—the cross, crucifixion, and resurrection foretold in one breath.
“I knew,” he said. “I knew it was the devil watching me through that window.”
John was the only one lost in that particular storm. “Just a brief bout of bad weather,” they said afterward. “The winds only lasted twenty minutes all together,” as if this were meant to be some kind of reassurance: twenty minutes, the time it took for John to slip and fall. The rain was like a varnish on the deck as he jumped from the towboat to the flat bed of the barge to tie something fast that was loosening—the canvas covering the beady-eyed mounds of coal, a rope lashed fast, wet and coarse in his hands. His head was bent as they passed the white swirl of current just beyond Tower Rock. In the water, the mouth filled with the foam of a beaten current, whipping into his lungs, and I know that as he sank like a polished stone, he must’ve had a thought for Penelope Pike and all the others, must’ve given himself over to their company, must’ve dreamt in the moments without air of marching fifty years from now up toward the shore—with nothing in his hand: no scroll, or coin, or flat striped peppermint, or smooth stone from the river’s bottom, and with no one there to receive. No one waiting.
There was a single man from the Pike-Davis wedding party who survived, and no one ever speaks of him. He was a slave, carried half-conscious three miles downstream with both his arms broken. He never said a word from that day until his death. I am not surprised that he wouldn’t speak; the river took his voice. This is one of my fears.
The light is more damaging than I realize; my eyes are getting bad. I sometimes catch myself looking into the sun where the geese vanish, like rainwater evaporating from the measuring glass that John set on a fencepost, years ago.
The light leaves its mark like a thumbprint on my vision, and I think of the weight of John’s body as they pulled him out. How did they find him so heavy like that? How did they measure the new dimensions? Why was John so heavy in his coffin? John, who thought of himself as a bird, weightless—a bittern with its clogged crowing at the edge of the river’s slowest places. He was granted flight, but always kept near, remained faithful, skimming the surface of the water with lowered fingertips, testing the temperature. Why is he underground—a man in love with air and water, always moving above, never underneath like a blind mole, made hungry in the patterns of burrows?
There is no direction in my body. We are always aware of north and south because of the river, sleeping on its side, the anger in its rolling. And the hunger. Just as John last perched on the ropes like a crow, slipping at last, the pull of the surface, and the rain like a quick, trilled whistling against the river’s wide open face. This was just as I’d first seen him: waiting on the shore as the barges passed, sluggishly, like a funeral march. He stood with his back to me, feet apart, with the sooty rain darkening his hair.
I loved the barges even before I knew John, as I waited like Esmerelda, a look-out, an open ear, an eye to the window forgetting everything that came before—forgetting in every direction. And like Esmerelda, I knew that, for me, there was no leaving; she was like steel and fire, something forged in the fires of the foundry, shimmering at her window like burnt metal in her white dress, the devil on the other side looking in on her, already claiming her on the river’s behalf. If John is air and water, and Esmerelda is metal and flame, then what am I? The rock of the bluffs, the stones quarried to build up the walls of the orphanage, the bricks forming the white cross? Am I the beads of the rosary dripping like dew from the orange-red berries in the waxy-leafed bushes that the birds stay away from? Their chalky white insides are poison. I was already swallowed, bead by bead, on the floor of that orphanage, but the river still keeps me awake. I am empty of benediction, of blessing, of a God outside the boundaries that were drawn in John’s dying, but were in place long before that.
I have recently been in the habit of walking along the railroad tracks with the snow falling like a crowd of tiny hands. The trains are heavy, resisting the snow, black as the barges, their dark bodies obstinate. The trains in their passing fill every hollow of hearing, substitute their thunder for blood or pulse, even the taste in the mouth, an acrid glint, the trundling of wheel on the tracks, throwing heat. The small fire in the nostril is something mythical. I cannot take hold. The trains will not carry me, do not slow as they pass, no acknowledgement from the engineer as I watch his face, a flash lit from inside. It is like trying to memorize the crook and bend of a bolt of lightning in the instant that it touches down, sudden and cold and unforgiving. Not holding anything back.
Once, when Gloria and I were about nineteen, we climbed the steps up to the bell tower of the Catholic church. We counted the steps, but I can’t remember the number. It seemed unimportant even then, something to distract us from the thundering in our chests, the tight places where the bones pressed together like hardened lips, and the moldy air stiffening in the lungs. It was dark in the spiraled stone stairway, though outside there was still a remnant of sunlight chiming, caught in the tops of trees like a blonde finch showing its breast, about to fly out over the water. We felt the walls, our hands moving through a faint lace of dust and cobweb, and now and then in a slant of light from somewhere above we could see the dust our fingertips released from the wall, moving in weary channels upward toward the light and downward toward our tilted faces. We would wait for the air to clear, and I would imagine I could hear the flecks of dust colliding, clacking like tiny teeth, the smallest beads that I can consume, until they re-gather on the walls of my throat.
When we reached the top, we sat below the bell, and our voices echoed down on us like the voice of God ringing back to mirror our own. Gloria lay on her back and extended her leg until her toes rested on the rim of the bell, trying to move the bell without making it ring, then stilling it with her foot. She said it was very heavy. I wondered if the pulse of the clapper hitting the side would deafen us instantly, at least shutting out all sound for a moment except the metal hammering.
Gloria asked if I’d tell her something that I wouldn’t tell a priest in confession. I told her I hadn’t been to confession in over a year.
“I don’t think I could ever tell a priest that I only believe in God part of the time. Some days, I don’t believe in him at all.”
“But you believe in the devil always,” Gloria said, lightly, still lying on her back, looking up into the mouth of the bell.
“No, I don’t ever believe in the devil,” I said.
“That’s not so bad. The priest would just say you were having doubts, and that you should pray more: you should pray and ask God to reveal himself to you. And then you wouldn’t pray, or you might, but it wouldn’t make any difference, and life would go on. The priest wouldn’t even know who you were. What’s so bad about that?” Gloria’s voice was muffled; she was chewing on her thumbnail, her eyes glazing slightly in familiar boredom.
“I wouldn’t want to tell someone who devoted their whole life to God that I had doubts about his existence. They’re living every day for God, and I don’t even believe in him some days. It just seems embarrassing. I look at a crucifix and it’s just a piece of metal or wood, and I don’t think Christ made such a difference. Not for me. For some people maybe, for the priests, but I just don’t think I could say that to one of them. I would be too embarrassed.”
Gloria twisted her mouth until it looked, in the faint light, like a knot of pink ribbon. She said, “There’s one thing I’d never tell a priest, not ever. But I’m afraid that if I tell you, you’ll think I’m dirty.”
“I won’t think anything,” I said. “I promise.”
“You won’t judge me?”
“Judgment is reserved for God,” I said, trying to sound sarcastic, but my voice was uninflected, bored.
Gloria turned her face away from me. There was a shadow resting on the curve of her face like dark gauze. “I used to stand at my window at night and watch the trains pass,” she said. “There was one engineer who would always drive the 11:30, freight cars empty, back from Murphy. I would wait up for him. I mean, I would stay awake until he drove past. I would stand at the window with all the lights on, facing out, and just before 11:30, I’d take my dress off. Let it fall around my feet. Then I’d just stand there while he drove past looking up at me.”
I listened to her confession, not really understanding it. She waited, as if listening for a prescription of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, then she said cautiously, “If you believe in hell, do you think I’ll go there for that?”
“Do you believe in hell?” I said.
“Yes.” She turned her face so the shadow was resting down the middle of it. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t think you’d go to hell for that. Even if you never tell a priest.”
“I’ll never tell a priest,” she said.
I thought of her confession on the rusted railway bridge above the dried-up creek bed where John kissed me for the first time. The thought of her standing naked at the window frightened me; it seemed undignified. I looked down into the creek bed, watching the ferns folding back along the bank, supplicant, and I saw a snake moving in the thin trickle of water among the stones, a red mosaic pattern on his spine, his body glinting in the sun-cured, cidered patches of creek bed. He swam in a purposeful S, longways, a trail wakeless and untraceable. John and I leaned together over the railing as it began to rain, and the rain over the bluffs rattled like teeth chattering with faith and fear, like the girls freezing in the stone pews of the orphanage’s chapel, their arms bare. The rain on the metal of the railway bridge, on the tin roof of the sheds along the track, sounded like the coffee cans the gardener filled with pebbles and shook to frighten the rabbits from the garden, which always withered early anyway, before the summers were over. We could hear him from the open windows of the classrooms, shaking the cans and shouting.
The thunder began all at once with lazy fury, sounding like a single muted note from an organ, held out too long, weighty in the pipe. It sounded like a last, heavy heartbeat, the noise of the body before death as all the breath is breathed out. I felt John behind me, and he turned me around slowly. I touched his sleeve, and folded back the cuff to look at the burn on his arm, not yet a year old. The burn was from a small engine fire on the towboat, and there was a faint hole in the flesh, a mouth raw and angry, the skin pushed back, as he pushed back the wet hair covering my face.
I said, “Why are we still here, in the rain?” And I was thinking of uncommitted sins, of Gloria’s sin, wondering weakly if she’d just made up the whole thing—something she wanted to do, but, in the end, was too afraid.
When I was eight years old, the nuns dressed me up like a small bride for my first communion. This was a ceremony that each child endured on their eighth birthday; the church chose this age to mark the dawning of self understanding, when a child knows enough about right and wrong to face the prospect of eternal punishment. I wore plain white dress, veil, and white gloves; they’d grown slightly yellow over the years. These dresses were kept in a closet that smelled like wine turning to vinegar, tarnished metal, and the urine of small animals, and I breathed that smell all around my face as I stood before the priest. He lifted the veil away from my face, and his hand was crooked, a claw pinched together around the gauze. The claw held a wafer, and I took it like a bird into my mouth, knowing that the little disc would turn to flesh inside me, shivering with fear—Christ in the stomach, the bloodstream. The smell was still there as he put the cup to my lips, and I tasted the sour vinegar of Christ’s blood for the first time. I wanted to spit it back into the cup, but I swallowed it, and it felt like a coating of liquid tin in my throat.
Afterward, Sister Francoise took me aside, still trembling, and told me sternly: now that I’d taken Christ’s body, if I sinned and died before confessing, I’d go straight to hell. I was terrified, but I wouldn’t let her see me cry. With the veil close around my face, she wouldn’t have seen anyway.
As John and I knelt and received the priest’s blessing at our wedding, I thought of myself as that tiny quaking bride, and I felt myself renouncing that memory, trying to shed it as the veil was lifted and we passed the cup. John touched my mouth with a white cloth where the wine had purpled my lip like a gentle bruise.
VI. Sixth Hour—The River
The air in the house is heavy and soundless. The clock in the kitchen has stopped, and I don’t know how to fix it. I refuse to take it down off the wall and peer into the works, all the cogs and mechanisms, the unfamiliar shapes that keep time moving in a circle around the face that quivers like a compass with twelve points, never offering direction. The clock stopped at 12:42, while I was lying in bed, sleepless, or perhaps when I went out to get the mail. Anyway, I didn’t hear it stop.
This morning, I put a coat on over the pajamas and move with the damaging, limp shuffling of a sleepwalker, barely keeping my head above sleep. A dense, lead rain washes the snow away—a fog in the gutters, full of blackened salt and grit and the spit of the depot workers trying to get the taste of coal out of their mouths. A train’s whistle rushes down the Front Road. My hands are bare; they stretch and grasp in the cold.
The woman in the general store wants to talk about the weather as she places a pack of cigarettes on the counter, smiling. The people of this town have made weather their religion, devoting their life to watching the sky, tasting the air—learning for themselves when it will rain, when it will flood, when the river is absorbed into the air, a fat brown haze on our skin, in our hair, our clothes. My whole life I’ve watched the farmers and children of farmers sitting on the porch as the storms roll in—the cathedral echo against low clouds of flightless birds sheltering in the fruit trees. I know the holy tremor of their eyes turning upward and the shiver of the air wracked and raw with thunder. A religion.
John’s father, for instance, left the house every day with a little notebook in his left breast pocket. John said that each morning he would stand in the lawn, record the temperature from the yellow thermometer near the bird feeders, and write down cryptic phrases describing the weather that, over time, became increasingly poetic, reverent. 68˚F. Red dawn, low clouds in west . . . 57˚F. Soft rain. Mist. Dropping temp. and lowering clouds. No wind.
When John’s father died, this was what John asked for. The notebook and the silver dollar were the only things he wanted for himself from all his father’s possessions. For awhile, after his father died, John checked the temperature every day, standing outside in his green bathrobe, but the tradition did not last. After the flood of 1993, he ignored the weather.
That flood erased all means of escape, the river unmanageable and the trucks on the levee stranded, crushing the snakes beneath the wheels as they rolled back and forth, looking for breaks in the rain-dampened headlights—the froth and spittle of the river’s skin just a thin, dark gleam over the gravel, like molten glass. John would’ve had no way of getting out if the levee broke—all hope on a couple of light skiffs that could easily get caught in a hard current, or have the bottoms ripped out by tree limbs or the roofs of sheds. It is hard to remember where things are when they are underwater, a whole new system of navigation to learn, seven feet above the streets. I realized then that he chose the town, the river, and his life there—reluctantly perhaps, but he did choose. He did not want to live somewhere else with me if the town were destroyed—did not want to live at all if this place sank and crumbled like a shore-bound shipwreck of a few meager square miles just wiped away. It was our chance to start over, and he refused. He sent me on to safety while he remained either to die with the town or survive with it. I realized that he was enacting the same choice every day on the river as he piloted the barges, and that was the first time I really was afraid.
The town stood up beneath the flood, looking shrunken and slightly withered with the waters drawn back like lips to show toothless gums. We returned—those who’d fled to higher ground, and I kept living my life though I couldn’t remember who I was. What claim did this place have on me?
In 1871, all of the outcroppings in the river surrounding Tower Rock were destroyed by dynamite because of the hazard they presented to river traffic. The only thing that saved Tower Rock from destruction was a letter to President Grant from the Secretary of the Interior, Columbus Delano, entreating that the rock be kept as public property. President Grant was well familiar with the danger surrounding Tower Rock, as he frequently sailed past it during the war aboard his floating headquarters: the ammunition ship, Araco. But what Delano brought to his attention was the fact that Tower Rock would make an ideal natural pier for a bridge spanning the river. This bridge was never built. If the rock had been removed, would John still be alive? Would the waters have grown sleepy and tame?
Had the bridge been built, it would’ve certainly saved the dead little town across the way. Wittenburg, Missouri once thrived—a community of carpenters carved small flatboats and their lumber was shipped downriver. The town now has a population of six people, and there is a single aging carpenter who converted the town’s post office into a workshop. He carves tiny sailboats from blocks of wood with a penknife. How did this town survive, while that one dried up?
Standing on the bluffs facing the far shore, I think of the bridge that will never be built as a thin line, the wavering thread of a spider’s web spanning the gap where Tower Rock cuts the current in two, the cable of a tightrope walker—the space pulling and balancing and fighting to swallow the faint ghost of the bridge. It would have to be high enough above to let the towboats clear seamlessly underneath, and the barges would still move like their own water-bound portions of bridges, dead end meeting dead end just above the surface of the water, perpendicular beneath the quavering bridge. I don’t imagine the bridge would be particularly beautiful, cutting through the air, drawing a line across so east could meet west. But it would, at least, be a way out—a road over the one unfaltering boundary. The river has fought its whole long life to keep the shores separate, keep everyone to their own confined fates, an avenue in which only those that have already surrendered are allowed to move. A bridge could have defeated the river in this one respect. I’m beginning to think that we have each and every one of us been forsaken, in one way or another. I know one thing: a bridge would have made leaving easier.
I begin to feel that the winter will destroy me, that I won’t last until spring. The bedroom window, which I opened on a temperate evening in early November, has jammed open; now it will not close. I lie freezing between the sheets, thinking of the dampest nights in the orphanage when we would huddle, as many as six girls to a bed, for warmth. We would think of songs and rhymes we knew to distract ourselves from acknowledging the cold, though our bodies were already learning to accept, numb and loosening, binding with the nearest flesh, the girl on my left or right.
“What songs do you know? Do you know any that aren’t hymns?” A girl was folded with her foot in her mouth to try and keep the toes from freezing.
“Martha, that’s disgusting . . . What do your feet taste like, Martha?”
“Like cheese . . . and holy water.”
We all laughed at this sacrilege. We’d learned by then how to laugh without sound, the open hole of our mouths, tongues pressed to roofs to hold the laughter inside.
“Martha, how do you know what holy water tastes like?”
“I’ve tasted it. It just tastes sort of salty and dusty.”
I knew a song that wasn’t a hymn—the last verse of a song my mother used to sing into my hair in motel rooms when we were between towns. I sang the song almost under my breath for the girls in my bed with the blanket over our heads.
I wish I were a little sparrow,
And I had wings that I could fly.
I’d fly away to my one true love
And all he’d ask, I would deny.
I had forgotten my mother’s warmth, her touch on my hair, brushing it when I couldn’t sleep, and the soft hushing of the comb through the strands would put me to sleep, lulled by the whisper of the bristles.
Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep in the orphanage, I would sit up on my bed, running a comb through my hair for hours. I once stayed awake all night brushing my hair. It was as if I’d let go of something, forgotten I was awake, the motion becoming so natural that it was unconscious. When Sister Agatha came in to wake us, she found me holding my comb with my hair like velvet across my chest. I was beaten for sins of vanity, but she didn’t make me cut my hair. I told her it was the one thing my mother had left to me.
When I think of the winters in the orphanage, our bodies condensed into a single warmth, when I think of the bruises I gathered absentmindedly, or my mother who died here accidentally, I wonder at all the surviving I have done that has led me to this moment. If this winter drowns me out, I will let myself be forgotten, as my mother tried to do.
I often forget the highway, the places just beyond this town where other people move and keep sweeping past, a whole new weather outside this place, a new language, names I’ve never heard before.
Outside on that rubbled highway two nights ago, a semi-truck collided with an old woman driving south to be with her children for Christmas. I read about it in the newspaper the following morning. The truck was full of lumber and, as it tipped over on its side along the curve, the chains snapped and the logs came loose, spreading out like the game of sticks dropped at random, settling in the ditch, long steady arms reaching.
I heard something of the accident through a muddled sleep—the urgency of tires smoking against the blacktop, the creak of the truck as it toppled, the terrible weight crushing itself and the leaking of fluids—fuel and blood spreading out, a glistening map, new territories across the paved road. I woke up and the room was full of a faint greenish light, tingeing the wallpaper like the glow from a distant traffic light, though there are no traffic lights in this town. I heard the sirens—the sharp, aching nearness, as if pulling me forward—a sound that can’t be muffled by the air and the close-knit trees, a sound that my dreams won’t duplicate though I often hear them in sleep, high-pitched across the water like a mechanical keening.
That night, the green dawn hatching and the impossible wailing silence following the wreckage on the highway, I pulled on John’s deep woolen overcoat and left the house, a half-pack of cigarettes rustling in my pocket. My first instinct was to walk up to the highway to see the disaster I’d imagined in the half-moment after waking, but I stayed near the cliffs, walking with my feet half in my shoes. I thought: everyone must think I’m losing my mind, but what kind of sanity is allowed here? The insane asylum was built overlooking the river because they thought it would bring the patients peace of mind. They didn’t know the river like I do; it doesn’t offer peace, doesn’t bother with peace. In the last chapter of Isaiah, the scripture reads: “For thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I extend peace to her like a river,’” but not like this river with its ever-changing harlot’s mouth awash with a strange language that speaks of decaying places and the ending of all things. The name Mississippi means “river of waters from all sides” in Ojibbeway, and that means, to me, that there isn’t much chance of escaping from it. The Indians must’ve known that, too.
I grew up in that asylum—same space but a different purpose, a “home” for orphans. I watched the river through barred windows just as the old inmates must have. That repetition, perhaps like a prophesy fulfilling itself, frightens me. But I have come to accept the slow shifting of time with me inside it, like Jonah in the belly of the whale.
I kept walking, the dawn still leaking, ending up across town where the road leading out to the highway crosses the railroad tracks. That is where Joseph lives with his wife, Mary. John and I used to visit them on Sunday afternoons, bringing fresh fruit or flowers from the farmer’s market—rubied tomatoes, gingered peaches or little yellow primroses. Mary, always grateful and eager, would taste the fruit right away, and with the sweet, bright innards around her mouth she’d tell us, “This is the most wonderful peach I’ve ever tasted.” I’d been thinking of her lately, especially since running into Joseph at the coal depot in October and asking after her. I was pleased to see her on their porch as I passed, holding a branch of evergreen and using it as a broom to brush the half-melted snow from the railing. She sees me, motioning me over with the slender pine branch; it waves like plumage, and for a moment I watch her with it, smiling, before crossing into the yard.
“Did you hear the crash, Edith? Sounded like the world’s coming to an end. I can’t sleep after all that racket, that’s for sure.”
She’d painted the mailbox yellow with red and blue flowers since I’d last been there. I brushed the snow off it with my bare hand to get a better look at the flowers. There was a little blue bird painted on top; its wings half-spread behind it.
“It must’ve been a bad accident,” I said, bending closer to look at the bird’s one eye, a dot of white with a dot of black inside it.
“There are no accidents,” Mary said, coming to the edge of the porch. “At least, that’s what Jesus said.” After Mary hit her head in the boating incident, she attributed almost everything to Christ. She thinks the Pledge of Allegiance is in the Bible.
“Where’s Joseph?” I said, and my white breath looked slack in the air like a pale kite without wind.
“He’s inside. He was making coffee, but he sat down at the kitchen table and fell back asleep. He’s sleeping now. Edith, why don’t you come sit with me awhile?”
I ducked under the clothesline; a pair of Joseph’s red socks were frozen onto the line, hanging there like two red birds clinging upside down. I wondered how long they’d been there, or if they’d ever come down.
“Joseph lost a finger,” Mary said, as I settled on the wicker-bottomed chair beside her. “Smashed it while unloading something, smashed it right off. He won’t be back to work for a little while. He’s still too sore to handle a shovel, you know? He’s not much use lifting things either. One little finger gone, and it causes all this trouble.”
Joseph actually lost that finger over a year ago, but I don’t correct her. Since the accident, Mary has very little long-term memory. She has to be told about herself: where she came from, their wedding day—the world and its past, her past, all splintered apart. Mary’s memory remains in fragments that have to be gathered and pieced back together, and I wondered how it feels to be blinded like that, whole passages of a life falling dark. Does she ever invent new truth for herself? What would I do with that kind of a clean slate?
I remember when Joseph lost that finger, a couple months before John died. Mary told me that they buried the finger in the backyard, next to their dog’s grave.
“We loved that dog,” she said, a few days after the accident. “Joseph loved him probably more than his own finger. I guess we don’t really think about loving a finger, even if it is a part of us.”
I was sure this was true. Does having a part of yourself cut away change you, even if it is so small? I thought of my own hands—the part of my body that I see the most of, always before me, the most familiar part of myself. If I’d gone my whole life without looking at myself in a mirror, a piece of polished glass, or still water, then almost all I’d know of myself, all that would make myself me, would be in my hands. I remember thinking this when Joseph took the bandages off and I saw the place on his left hand where his ring finger used to be.
I looked at Mary beside me on the porch, tracing her hands in my mind, measuring. Does her hand still fit into Joseph’s? Does she mind the blank space?
“Did you know it’s my birthday tomorrow,” Mary said, watching the socks on the line, but not really seeing them. Joseph told me once that sometimes Mary will wake up thinking it’s her birthday, so he’ll bake a cake, and she gets to have four or five birthdays in a year. He said that it’s nice, since they both like cake so much.
“I won’t tell you how old I am, Edith. But I’m starting to get old. Do you know what aging feels like to me? I feel like I’m turning into a piece of driftwood—just floating along with my body drying out a little bit at a time. You know what I mean?”
I told her I thought I did know. Mary is wiser than I am. Mary, with all her blankened past, still knows herself better than I do. I told her then that I should get going. I was beginning to really feel the cold, but I didn’t want to invite myself in. Mary never seems the least bit aware of low temperatures. Her breath was puffing all around her, cheeks dusted rose and she wasn’t even shivering in her light blue housecoat.
“It was nice chatting with you, Edith. You should come round more often.”
I was already down the path and to the sidewalk, when I heard her call out: “Say hello to John from me. Tell him that his buddy has one less finger, so the next time they shake hands it may feel a little different. Send him our love.”
“I will,” I said, and I was trembling as I walked away. For an instant, I thought that I was going home to tell John about the finger, just as it happened before. Nothing had changed; Mary’s imperfect fractured memory had restored the past. I was leaving everything the way that it was—the dawn, the path, the telephone lines. I was going home to the bottle of whiskey still precarious on the top shelf, empty now, almost empty. Everything is drying up. John will come home, turn on the faucet in the kitchen. I’ve seen him fall asleep at the table before, his head on his arms. You don’t know a person until you see sleep take them suddenly like that. That was the moment I felt I knew him best, watching his face, almost seeing into his half-dream. In that dream, I imagined he was walking, running on the water, skipping like a fawn, throwing out his arms and jumping up to untangle a kite from the power lines. He was just perched atop the pole, looking out with the purple and green kite pressed to him, ready to fly above the cliffs but thinking, “I should wait until I’m in top condition. I should wait until my throat isn’t quite so sore.”
Everything remains, I was telling myself as I walked home from Mary’s. The only difference is John won’t be coming back—not up out of the water like John Davis and Penelope Pike. I am just letting things molder as I wait, letting the clock rust through, its ticking gone, the water in the pipes beginning to freeze. How can I break loose—letting myself age, even all at once, dead wood crawling in the current as Mary described getting old, the swift inches pulling, the grit of the shore a net to catch my body. Is this the way to surrender? I am here with the flood, the rest of the world dry as a bone. It is time I let myself dry out.
VII. Ninth Hour—The Road
Today, a bird smashed itself against the picture window above the sink and broke its neck. I was standing in the kitchen with my arms crossed over my chest and an unlit cigarette in my mouth, and the noise of it hitting the glass was immense; I felt it in my chest like the firing of a cannon. It was almost as if I shuddered an instant before hearing it strike the window, as if I felt it coming, my body prophesying the bird’s swift ending. Afterwards, I thought for the briefest instant that my heart had stopped, just shutting off mid-pulse like the clock, whose dying at 12:42 had gone unnoticed.
I went around the house to see what it was, remembering a time I’d shown John the wren on our back porch that had smashed against the glass doors. It was the same thing then, its body turning to thunder as it died, the neck breaking too quickly to measure. He had said, “Why are these birds always dying against our windowpanes?” It was not the first time this had happened, but I thought it was a strange thing to say.
But today, as I rounded the corner of the house, I saw a flash of bright blue with black bands, and my heart dropped in my chest. It was a parakeet. It had fallen onto the woodpile and had a dainty, swooning look except for the neck cocked wrong, and its feet stretched upward like hands lifted in praise, perhaps like a tiny priest about to make the sign of the cross.
It struck me as horribly unnatural, seeing a parakeet outdoors in December, dead on a woodpile dusted with last week’s snow, and the one thought that swallowed me was that it was trying to get inside. It died trying to get back to a world it understood. I wondered if this was the same bird that told my fortune this past summer—the blue bird for yes-or-no questions. I didn’t know anyone else in town who kept parakeets. If I knew where that woman lived, I could take it to her. I held the bird in my hands, watching its shape cupped in my palms. I took it inside and placed the body in a tea box, closing the lid and thinking of the fortune-teller on her lawn chair, the birds picking at the colored cards and whistling. “The world is opening itself for you,” she said. I doubt that it’s the same bird.
I remember always the fear of getting lost, the horror when you are waiting to become familiar with a landscape, where the world takes on a strange shape, cockeyed; the air seems red around the edges, at the corners of your eyes. But that doesn’t seem to frighten me anymore. I want to walk out into the night like a sleepwalker, who has no fear of wandering, the peaceful trailing ghost of a white nightgown, like a bride, perhaps. There is still wonder left, even asleep—the people in this town are dreaming on their feet, dreams much like memory. They remember what their feet do in the daytime: walk, carry them through the house and down the street to the post office. I wonder if we have ever lost anyone over the cliffs this way, but I doubt it. Our sleeping bodies are more trustworthy than we think, ambling downhill, following the curve of the earth rather than the persistent sidewalk or road. Perhaps this is the only real freedom left—the only way to move beyond the walls of river, forest, blacktop road falling away in two directions like a double-sided current. Leave it up to chance—the flip of a coin, a spinning compass.
I realize that even my smell has changed. I wake in the mornings and smell my body, an earthy musk, faint with dry soap and dry bread and the skin withering up, gathering itself against some storm—like driftwood shrinking on the shore. I have become a stranger. I don’t recognize that smell—where did the rest of me go? When I was young I felt blurred; I couldn’t tell where I ended and the next person began. John was not so much an extension of heart and soul as arms and legs, the real solid self, the dangerous visible places. Once those parts are removed, how can we be anything anymore? Joseph’s finger buried because it was a part of himself, wanting to always know where it is even though it can never be a part of the body again. Is this how I feel about John? Is that why I didn’t want him cremated, fistfuls of ash thrown from the Devil’s Backbone like an offering? That is the highest point along the bluffs, and John mentioned once that it might be nice to have his ashes drift down onto the water, be carried downstream—always belonging to the river. I didn’t have the strength to surrender his body to the water. “John, we both have plots in the cemetery.” “I guess that’ll be nice, too,” he said. He needed the earth, needed to dry out, needed to be kept from the river’s hands that swell to meet the land.
This town has been on the verge of dying out scores of times, John said. But still, it keeps surviving. Massacres, tornadoes, fires, earthquakes, floods, and fevers, but we’re still here at the edge of the river, at the edge of some wilderness that maintains its ancient body around us—the place where the devil still breathes, lays his head on the water’s surface. If Jesus walked on water, could the devil lie down on its surface, resisting the sinking that claims and draws the dead? There is nothing passive about a river with its rocks and currents, there is nothing accidental about the blood beaten back (the ripples at the shore where the fires begin to blaze again, now that the snows are diminishing), the lungfuls and swallows of water where John tried to breathe it in, tested himself, his strength, and failed. He was buoyed there—a boat, a raft, a bird, a body, but never the water itself, never the devil smiling up from beneath. This has somehow become familiar. Perhaps I dream this brand-new fragility, how he was conquered and swallowed and drowned with his face watching the depths—thirty feet, twenty feet, the shore turning its back as if it never knew him. He was just one more casualty, one more dead, the town dying one man at a time, one woman, one more bride or child or dog starving in the graveyard.
John once told me that in 1838, the entire town was nearly wiped out from an epidemic of fever caused by a long drought and intense heat. Everyone was sick—the doctor fainting over his patients, so much dying that the dead were left in their beds and flies buzzed over the brown sheets pulled up to cover their faces. No one was strong enough to lift a shovel, dig a hole, pour in the bodies like wine, the blood faint and distant in the veins. On September 18th of that year, while everyone lay gasping for water, shriveling up all at once like dead leaves in a gust of drought, there was an eclipse of the sun. The Indians said that the Great Spirit was angry—everyone would be wiped out. The settlers spoke of Judgment Day, the ending of everything like a dark curtain being drawn to erase the world. They said the preacher lost his mind; he crawled from his bed and stood naked beneath the twin heavenly bodies on shaking legs, reading scriptures aloud. “It will come about in that day,’ declares the Lord God, “That I will make the sun go down at noon and make the earth dark in broad daylight. Then I will turn your festivals into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring sackcloth on everyone’s loins and baldness on every head. And I will make it like a time of mourning for an only son, and the end of it will be like a bitter day.” But when the eclipse ended, the rains came suddenly. The air was purified and the sick recovered. The town was delivered from God’s wrath, or the devil’s.
In the year 1880, a census was taken in Grand Tower, and the population was 1,585. Of these residents, only eight were over the age of seventy. 1,466 were below the age of fifty. Now, the population is 642, of which only ten people are under the age of fifty. These statistics are the truth that no one pays any attention to. We are dying out. This town is going to dry up. But I won’t be here to see it. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Which world do they mean? Not this one. It couldn’t be this place.
I think of where I could go, and it is always fantasy, an unlivable story, impossible, untrue. I could live in the caves where the river pirates sheltered, the twin hollows in the cliffside like nostrils flaring gently. I could live in empty boxcars. I could live in the woods in a house I build with my hands, sitting in the doorway with ears only for the owls. Or. I could not live.
And when I think back to the most sane moments—the only memories that seem really true, uninvented, the ones that I carry some evidence of in myself—I believe in the rosary being swallowed bead by bead. I believe that makes sense. I believe in the bird that said, “Yes, leave. The world is opening itself for you,” and then died against my windowpane like a comet dissolving back into fire and ice, shedding motion, or collapsing like a balloon with all the air released.
In my mind, John was the same way. I remember his shape when he died – how he seemed to expand, to fill the whole room like some mythic god of candlelight and the sprigs of lavender strewn around his coffin. Then I remember the smallness of the hole in the ground where he fit so neatly, suddenly small; suddenly the coffin was a shell of shed skin, and the mystery was: how did it not just blow away, like a toy boat in a storm?
He died in the spring and left me in this town. This nowhere town. My mother had done the same thing already. She died in the spring and she left me here to get swallowed up, to grow, to know the boundaries, the geography of this place. Perhaps she was right, and the only way to leave is to die. I think I remember her saying that we were just passing through. We’d been moving north along Highway 4. We stopped for the night, stayed in the hotel on Front Street. I hadn’t known she was ill; she kept that from me. And I am always the one to survive, to keep on, the gradual process of being etched further into this place, like words on a gravestone—making me nearer, drowning me like light in the water, breaking apart, swallowing itself piece by piece, flakes in the waves, sharp cut, huddling together as if to regain its shape.
John did not ask many questions about my origins, assuming perhaps that I had risen up out of the town like a wraith. That was what he always loved anyway: Esmerelda, Penelope Pike, tied down here, perfect in forms that he could see through, still drinking in the view from the cliffs behind them, the invisible women. Perhaps by not asking questions, knowing only that I had no family here, no history, it left my past wide open, to melt away and sink until I could become something with no memory outside of this place. He constructed a life for me, cautiously—the orphan washed up on the street of this town like a river stone—the floodwaters receding, and I’m what is left, the remnant, the dregs. He takes me up, fills the blank slate he’d been hoping for, the lovely ghost in her white dress. Maybe once I’d said, “John, why can’t we get away, just for a little while?” But he already knew a way out: the river pulling him up and down.
“But it always leads me back to you,” he’d say. He wanted to think of me waiting. He still wants me waiting, god damn him. Was Esmerelda’s gesture an attempt at reunion—complete and eternal, the lasting intimacy of death? Or was she just ending the waiting all at once in a single jump, fluid. Tired of remaining stationary, she fell, the cry in her throat rising like smoke, sharp like gulls and ringing off the cliffs like a chorus of faint repeating bells. How to end this. How to remain. To outlive. Sometimes, I wonder now, in the clarity of the night when I wake up knowing nothing, not the walls that frame the air, not the body that frames the breath in my lungs, I wonder if I could have just imagined him in every meticulous, intimate detail. I trace back, thinking that his was a name I found on a gravestone in the cemetery—a name and a pair of dates, beginning and end, a life that fit neatly with mine. Do I have the power to invent a whole life, a complete, elaborate set of memories? No. It’s impossible. Because if I constructed it somehow, then why would I end it like this? Why would he leave me? This is how fragile sanity is. This is the power of doubt in every person, every place. I have no faith left.
What do I need to finish? What can we learn from death repeating itself, history running parallel, two notes in a chord played simultaneously from separate instruments. If I could find the road my mother followed to get us to this place, make her journey in reverse, if I could understand the distances and forget my fear of getting lost, maybe I’d have a chance.
Dawn unfolds like a blank flower, unrolling in a half-dozen shades of white. The twin eyes of the sky, ripening sun and wasting moon, lift their lids along the ridge, a wink, a little cockeyed. I haven’t slept yet. I’ve been afraid of the dream I had two nights ago. Sleep is dangerous, more dangerous than the ghost of running water in the kitchen. Maybe I lost my memory long ago; maybe I was born without one, constructing a life inside my head, fragments like snowflakes that can’t fit together. I put on my shoes and stand at the gate looking up and down the pathway leading along the bluffs. Where am I going? I have become a long, lingering remnant. I can taste the melted snow under the soles of my feet, the places where it has dissolved back into the soil. The cold creeps up my ankles, growing over my legs like moss, as if it could take me over. I want to remain empty, a vessel to be filled—the hull of a boat scraped clean and wafer-thin, a sleepwalker with only the dream of movement happening without will, without purpose. A bell rambles down the Front Road. My hands are naked, reaching and stretching in the cold to learn its depth, sensing its vastness, measuring.
I am awake as if for the first time, the ground sifting between my two feet. I remember all at once how to make movement happen, how to create distance, how to forget. I can move in one direction for as long as I need to, without knowledge or discovery. I pause beside the railroad tracks because there is a little girl there, bareheaded, a pink coat over her cotton nightgown. I look her in both eyes, as I can’t remember ever doing. I feel that I’ve never really met anyone’s gaze, but I’m meeting hers. We are strangers to each other, and we wait to see what will happen, if anything needs to be said.
She says cautiously, testing the shape the air will make around her voice, “Do you know me?” She is hopeful. “Do you know my papa?”
“I don’t know. Are you lost?”
“No.” She says it very firmly. She has very long hair, and her eyes are full of water.
She turns away from me, walking back the way I’d just come in red rain boots. I watch her climb the porch steps of a blue and white house, opening the screen door and disappearing inside without looking back at me. I turn away; the highway flickers in the space where the trees part, bending away, a car scuttling past in the damp.
There is a sudden unending clarity between those trees. I look overhead and feel that the air is fixed on a compass of eight stars. I know north, south, east, west—I can point them out—each has a different face but they are all similar, like brothers and sisters. We had thought the snows were finished for the year, but I can see the rippled edges of the clouds pregnant with snow, and each is like a still lake, lathered with a passing storm, filling up gradually, swelling against the surface of the sky where the compass-point stars dimple a smooth dawn. I wait to watch the sky falling through me, torn up and bleeding white, a moist chalk on my face, those eight stars falling right down on me, numb and flashing as they fall like coins turning over in the air. They settle on the sleeves of my coat like tiny globes of cold blue flame and then the rest of the snow comes all at once, drawing back around the tributary of the road emptying out, and I see every detail—the snow like a veil over the hollied mouths of winter birds. A man is trimming the branches of an evergreen, and the smell is everywhere—a dim, pagan wreath in the nostril, the green circling upward like a stationary flame—the truth between two points on the compass, the shortest distance. It is a faint brushing—like the pine needles touching down, waiting to be covered. It is an etching of a thousand faces in profile.
The town is changing shape behind me. I used to have dreams in which I watched the streets broaden and the sidewalks become suddenly smooth and firm. The streets fill up with shops, storefronts, restaurants, yellow houses. I am moving through the shredded air, wondering how long it will take the snow to fill in the hole I make with my leaving. How long will it take before we are separated by the new veil, before I am erased with my breath still hot in my throat and puffing out beneath the new snow.