HALFWAY THROUGH THE woods Mattie could hear the river. The earth was soggier as she went along, dense with moss, thick with fallen leaves and ferns. Mattie’s feet kept dry in her husband’s boots. Soon enough she saw her father-in-law and the boy who’d come back without a leg. They were watching the river, their backs to Mattie, eating the lunch she’d made them. They didn’t hear her walking over the ferns, through the white birch and the pines. Her boots were worn from the steps her husband had taken, and she made little noise; her skirt fluttered around her legs. Mattie was twenty-five and a widow. Everything in her life had already happened to her, the wondrous and terrible both. Her whole world was over; all the rest would only be marking time. She had a sudden deep desire to run. She thought of deer and how they slipped through the woods, invisible, as if they were ghosts themselves. She thought of the river at twilight; she would crouch down onto hands and knees to drink from the cold water, her long pale hair tumbling into the shallows, the ends turned to ice. No one would find her. No one would know where she was. She imagined taking off her clothes, leaving on only the thin undergarments that had belonged to Constant, then stepping into the current, her feet settling between the iron-red rocks, the eels rushing past until they could find a tangle of wild water hyacinth to wrap themselves around, until they had carried her away.
Evan Partridge was finished with his lunch. Bread and butter and some slices of orange cheese. There were fresh wild strawberries, crushed but still good. He closed his eyes against the haze of sunlight falling through the tall trees. For a moment he was back in time, with his brother beside him. He was running home from the schoolhouse, so fast the dust rose behind him in a cloud. He heard the snap of a branch under a boot heel in the woods and caught a faint glimmer from the corner of his eye. He thought of gunfire and doves, and he turned like a shot himself. He saw Mattie Starr, stumbling over a sapling, falling to her knees. He forgot he had only one leg. He galumphed over the forest growth to made sure she hadn’t hit her head on a rock. She hadn’t even put her hands out to stop herself. It was as though she had just given up and let herself fall.
Mattie’s eyes were closed when he reached her. Evan put his arms around her and said, “Wake up.” Then he shouted out, and Will Starr came to squat down next to him. In a few moments, Mattie opened her eyes. They were blue. They were like the sky in Virginia, hot and pale, open and endless.
“I saw her,” she said. “At the riverside.”
The men waited for Mattie to get her bearings, then helped her to her feet. William recognized his son’s boots, his socks, the sleeves of his undergarments on Mattie’s girlish frame. It should have brought him comfort to know he wasn’t alone in his grief, but it caused him only more sorrow. They walked on together to the place where Mattie had seen the little girl. The tall grass was high enough for a child to hide in. They searched around and found nothing. Evan was ashamed to be limping about, hopping around like a frog. Once when he seemed unsteady, Mattie put a hand under his elbow. “You ran fast to come help me,” she said to him in gratitude. She was trying to be kind, but Evan bowed his head, even more ashamed of who he had become. From then on when she thought of anguish, Mattie would think of the way he had dipped his head to glance away, as if the world was much too vast and wide, and the only thing contained within it was loneliness.
They sat in a circle in the haunted place, to see if they experienced anything unusual. Will Starr remembered that his little sister used to come here to throw stones in the water. He laughed at her when she told him blue stones could make a wish come true. His sisters Amy and Mary had both been beautiful girls, one lost to the river, the other gone off with a traveling man, leaving behind a family where grief was the only emotion. His other sister, Olive, he had argued with long ago. Will laid his head against a birch tree stump and closed his eyes. The sun was warm and he fell asleep. Soon he was snoring.
“Do you think she has a message for us?” Mattie asked Evan Partridge, referring to the ghost she thought she’d seen. “Maybe she can lead us to the world beyond this one.”
Evan didn’t know. He wasn’t even sure there were such things as spirits and ghosts. “Maybe it’s only the way the sunlight comes through the trees. It appears to be a figure, but it’s really just a shadow.”
“She had a doll with her. I saw it in her hands. Do shadows have dolls?”
Evan smiled. “I suppose not,” he said.
“I don’t suppose anything,” Mattie told him. “Not anymore.”