She wondered what it would feel like to drown. How the water would fill your mouth and throat, how you would sink to the stony bottom where the currents were so green and cold, the chilly places the eels like best. You would look up and see the sky through the water and everything would be reversed. Perhaps time itself would go backward, unspooled like thread.
That’s what she wanted. This life of hers undone. Mattie went down to the river while her father-in-law slept and the boy stretched out in the grass. She took off the heavy boots and her socks, then unbuttoned her dress and pulled it over her head. Evan sat up straight when she did so, his mouth dry. He’d been seeing things ever since he’d gone to war and perhaps this was simply one more mad vision: the doves flying up, his brother’s face, Mattie Starr’s nearly naked body, her shoulders, her legs, her back.
She turned and gave him a look. She was real, all right. Evan struggled to his feet. The water was rushing so fast, one step and she would be taken downstream. If he wasn’t quick, he would watch mutely while she was swept away, the way he’d watched his world blown to pieces. Evan refused to allow his fate to be this and nothing more, to stand by helplessly while she drowned herself. He would not be defined by his inability to be a man. He raced down to the steep bank. He concentrated and willed himself to run and there he was, his arms around her. She pulled him in with her when she made the jump. They fell slowly, entwined in their strange embrace. There was barely a splash as they went in. It was more of a disappearance. Something invisible, yet there all the same. The river was colder than they would have imagined, ice water from the top of the mountain that had come tumbling down.
They went under to where everything was green. The air bubbles were like clouds. The clouds were like white stones thrown into the far distance. Evan circled one arm around Mattie Starr’s waist and with the other he held fast to a log jutting out from the bank. They sputtered and lifted their heads out of the water. They were in a quiet pool set off from the rush of water by stacked logs that served as a dam. The sunlight was falling into the water, spreading out in waves. The air was damp and sweet. Mattie looped her arms around his neck. She kissed him, then pulled away. When she saw the look on Evan’s face, she kissed him again. She put her tongue inside his mouth, kissing him more and more deeply. When the undershirt she wore slipped off her shoulders, she didn’t grab for it. It floated away, like a white lily. The water was shallow and they could nearly stand up, but it was easier not to. She took his hand and put it between her legs. She let him pull her undergarments down. There were frogs on the banks and tadpoles in the shallows. It was the season of peepers calling all day and all night. She whispered to Evan that it was what she wanted, so he moved himself inside her. He watched her close her eyes, lean her head back. There was no place else and no other time. They weren’t going backward or forward. Blackflies spun in a funnel above the current. Evan’s head was filled with the sound of water. He thought of the ghost in the grass, her blue dress and bare feet. He thought of the way the doves had flown up into the sky all in a rush, startled by gunfire, and then all he could think was that despite everything that happened, he was alive.
THE TRUTH ABOUT MY MOTHER
MY MOTHER BEGAN A NEW LIFE HALFWAY through her own. Such things happened often in our town. Blackwell was deep in Berkshire County, where the weather was mysterious and the people were equally unpredictable. Several of the inhabitants were descendants of the founding settlers, families who had intermarried often enough so that many of the women had red hair, with mercurial tempers that suited their coloring. The men were tall and quiet and good at most everything. All of the dogs in town were collies, smart, fast dogs, used to herd cows and sheep; they answered to an individual whistle as if they were birds instead of dogs and understood songs as easily as words.
There were new folks in town as well, people headed out west who were stopped by the mountain on their way to Ohio or Colorado. No one knew how many residents had arrived simply because they were running away from something or someone. My mother, for instance, told everyone she was a schoolteacher and that she’d been born in Manchester, England, and trained in Boston. She said her name was Elinor Book. Because that is what she said, that was what people believed. At that point Blackwell had only a one-room schoolhouse, and my mother taught every age and subject. The town council was happy to hire her when she appeared one day with a small suitcase and no recommendations. She had beautiful handwriting, with full, sensuous letters that betrayed her inner nature. She was given the cottage behind the Brady house, the oldest house in town. When she first arrived, she would stand outside in the garden late at night, when everyone else was in bed. People thought they were hearing coyotes, or one of the dozens of panthers that remained in the woods, but it was my mother, standing in the yard, crying.