The child he spied couldn’t have been more than six, too young to be out alone at this early hour. The river was running so hard she seemed in peril as she scrambled closer to the riverbank. Usually Hildegarde minded his own business, but he started toward the girl, his heart pounding. He cried out, “Be careful,” and the emotion in his own voice surprised him. By the time he reached the patch of tall, plumy grass where she’d been standing, there was only a circle of blackflies in the air.
Evan Partridge saw her in the very same place later that week. He had imagined many things since he’d returned from the battle that had taken his leg and his brother’s life. He’d come back unable to stop thinking about the surprising darkness of the color of blood and the way sound echoed when men fell to the ground. He thought about doves flushed out of the bushes as the gunfire began and the look of disbelief on his brother’s face. Evan managed to get around with a pair of crutches his grandfather Tom made for him. He often came fishing, grateful to be alone at the river, where he watched the high, cold water as if it was a gate to paradise. Each time he was there, he thought about dragging himself over to the banks and throwing himself in. A single step and it would all be out of his hands. He went over the scenario again and again. How cold the river would feel, how fast the water would take him, how pure and deep his last breath would be. He was certain that God would forgive him, considering all he had seen and all he had become at the age of fifteen.
He was thinking about that last cold breath when he saw the girl. She wasn’t wearing any shoes. He noticed that. Her dress was blue and it flew out behind her, like a flag. Evan called out something, he didn’t know what, a blurted word of warning or surprise. He wondered how he would manage to rescue her should she fall into the water. To his shame he could barely manage to navigate the muddy riverbank. He surely couldn’t run. Then she was gone, the way mist disappeared. Evan felt his heart hitting against his ribs as it had in battle when he had embarrassed himself with the intensity of his own fear. He stayed there for a long time waiting for the girl in blue to return. When she didn’t, he went home and sat down to dinner with his mother and grandfather. Something hot and strange had settled over him. He felt jarred awake, thrown into the world. He wanted to ask his grandfather if he believed in the afterlife while his mother was at the sink washing the dishes, thinking they couldn’t hear her crying. He wanted to ask if in all his years his grandfather had ever received a message from the beyond, and if it had brought him comfort or simply added to his grief.
The next day, Evan went down to the meetinghouse, where the town records were stored. He had kept to himself since his service to the Union and most of his neighbors hadn’t seen much of him since his return. Now people nodded a greeting, then looked away politely, not wishing to stare at his single leg. Evan was let into the records room by Mrs. Kelly, who served as the town clerk in her husband’s place now that he was in the army. Along the wall there were dark eelskin-covered books recording every birth and death and marriage in Blackwell. Evan sat down at the trestle table and began at the beginning. Soon enough he found the birth of a Mary Starr on April third in the year 1800. No wedding or death date had been listed. Beneath her name was that of Amy Starr, presumably her sister, who had drowned at the age of six. Hallelujah praise God she will return to us someone had written in blue ink. The ink looked so fresh it appeared to have been written that day. That was how it seemed to Evan when he thought about the doves rising and his brother falling, as if it had happened that very morning, a mere breath away.
Evan went down to the Starrs’ acreage the following morning. They were cousins, but there’d been a falling-out, and the families hadn’t seen much of each other. There was Constant’s father, William, who seemed an old man, older by far, it seemed, since he’d lost his son. William was sitting on the porch. Lately, that was what he did. He had cloudy blue eyes and white hair and he had on his good tweed jacket, the one he’d worn to the funeral they’d held for Constant in the chapel since no body had been sent home for the burying ground. William Starr didn’t say a word when Evan came to sit in a chair beside him, although he was thinking he would give anything to have a son with one leg, on crutches, but alive. Evan spoke of the weather—Still beautiful—and Will Starr answered while gazing down the road where the fiddlehead ferns had unfolded—Indeed. Then Evan asked about the little girl who had drowned in the year 1816, wondering if the figure in the blue dress on the shore might be William’s little sister.