The Kellys watched from the steep bank as Mr. Partridge threw himself in to rescue me, and they helped to revive me. When I came round, I said I couldn’t remember what had happened. Only that my parents had drowned and that my name was Sara. I seemed slow-witted, perhaps from my time in the river, but I soon turned out to be a fast learner. People in Blackwell were amazed by how bright I was. Mr. Partridge adopted me and gave me his name that very week. We both signed papers in the meetinghouse and afterward there was a party where mussels and fish that had been brought all the way from Boston were served. Mr. Partridge gave me the two horses in the barn for my very own and, as a special surprise, bought me a pug dog to keep me company. I loved that dog and called him Topsy, allowing him to sleep in my bed atop the feather quilt. In return for all Mr. Partridge had done for me, I gave him the only thing I had. He married my mother on the first of June. As far as he was concerned, she came from Manchester, England, and had been educated in Boston. Just as her contract with the town had stated, she’d never had children of her own, though anyone could see she was partial to me. She was the town schoolteacher and the love of his life. I was the girl who had nearly drowned, but had managed to save myself instead, in the year I turned ten.



MY SISTER SARA CALLED ME TO HER ROOM on the morning of her death. She was in quarantine in the cottage behind our house, stricken with the Spanish flu, unable to eat or drink, her fever so high she had begun to speak with people who weren’t there. In a lucid moment she gathered her strength and wrote a note she then shoved beneath her door. I stood in the yard and read it. It was September and everything was yellow. The bees’ nests were high in the trees, which meant a hard winter would follow. Sara wanted me to grant her a last wish. I had never been able to deny her anything. I was ten years old and she was twenty-five, as much a mother to me and my younger sister, Hannah, as our own mother had been. It was an honor to be asked such a favor. If I was afraid of anything, it was only that I would fail her in some way.

Our parents had died the year before, our father first, our mother soon after. They were bound together, people said. They had never spent a night apart and always called each other Mr. and Mrs., as though still delighted and somewhat surprised to find themselves husband and wife. Sara was our father’s favorite. He called her his charm and said she brought him luck. Even after she’d married Billy Kelly, who later went to war in France and was now in quarantine himself in the navy yard north of Boston, unable to see his wife as she lay ill, Sara had always come to our father for comfort and advice until his death last winter. Now, perhaps because there was no one else, she’d sent for me.

Mrs. Kelly, Billy’s mother, was helping us keep house, but she wouldn’t venture inside the cottage for fear of my sister’s disease, even though Sara had fallen ill after visiting her son. Each evening, Mrs. Kelly carried a tray across the yard. She fixed a bowl of broth, a plate with some dry rolls, and a pitcher of water. She slid the food through an open window. Even though she had no contact with her daughter-in-law, she wore a mask over her face and hurried back across the yard as if our darling Sara was a venomous snake. I refused to look like a coward to my sister. Sara had told me that a woman who could rescue herself was a woman who would never be in need. But there was no rescue for her now. Her skin was pale, and we could hear her coughing far into the night from across the yard. Our younger sister, Hannah, went to sleep with her hands over her ears so she could blot out our dear Sara’s suffering. But I listened. I heard. I sat by my window and wondered what came next, in the world beyond our own.

I SLIPPED ON my good blue dress for the visit, even though my black one had been cleaned and pressed and was waiting in the bureau. I didn’t wear gloves the way some people did when ministering to the ill. Sara had always been so brave. Perhaps that was why our father favored her. I didn’t blame him. She’d been a strong swimmer as a girl and had gained some fame when she crossed from Boston Harbor to Swampscott. A small rowboat had tried to keep pace with her in case she faltered, but they had lost her in the fog. Sara told me that seals had followed her, as if she was one of their own. She was photographed for the newspapers with a garland atop her head, a huge grin across her face, soaking wet in her swimming suit. She was the sort of woman who was more beautiful in difficult times, resolute, ready for action. She had always hiked and fished with our father, and she loved horses. She had a natural affinity with them and said people who used a whip when they rode should be whipped themselves. She was also a painter of some note, and her watercolors were prized not just in Berkshire County, where we lived, but also in Manhattan, where she’d studied. She laughed and insisted that even though she had a New York soul, her heart was in the Berkshires. I had one of her paintings above my bed. It was of Hightop Mountain, which I could see out my window. I preferred my sister’s version to the original. When I looked at that painting, I imagined I was Sara, and that for once I could see through her eyes.

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