“Is that what you were doing in the river?”

They both laughed then. She turned around while he took up his clothes and got dressed. When he asked her to join him for lunch, she sat down and accepted one of the sandwiches Ruth Carson had made him, but she ate only the bread. He asked her a list of questions, the sort he asked everyone he interviewed. Where and when she was born, when had she come to Blackwell, when had she married, the simple facts of her life.

“I don’t like to talk about myself,” she told him.

She looked skittish and Ben didn’t want her to leave, so they spoke of other things, mostly about Ben. He found himself telling her about his brother. At last, he got past the part of the story where his brother cried out in pain while Ben hid in a closet so he couldn’t hear. He choked up afterward and had to turn away. That was at the other side of the telling, his great despair and loneliness. Perhaps it was because this woman had come upon him nearly naked that he felt as though she had seen through him already and was at last able to show the deepest part of himself. It was getting late, and the woman grew nervous as darkness began to fall. When he asked her to tell him one thing about herself, anything, she relented and told him her name. It was Susan. She laughed and said, “Don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.” He nodded, but she pressed him for a promise, so Ben crossed his heart.

THAT NIGHT HE couldn’t sleep. He thought of his brother tossing and turning in his bed, fevered, losing consciousness. He thought about how beautiful the woman at the river had been and how he’d felt alive in her presence. The next morning he went looking for her again. When he found her, they sat together by the river. She was both intensely present and inaccessible. There, and yet removed. Once more Susan wouldn’t answer any of his questions. The day was far too short, and before they knew it the afternoon was gone. All at once she told him he had to leave. It was evening; the lack of sunlight panicked her once more. Ben, too, should hurry, she told him. He should run back to Mrs. Carson’s house before anyone else might appear. Indeed, Ben saw a boat coming down the river in the darkening light.

“Your husband?” he asked, for there was old man Kelly, a lantern on the bow of his boat, not three hundred yards away.

“You think he’s my husband?” Susan laughed and sent him off.

That night Ben Levy went back to the Jack Straw Tavern. He needed some company.

“Find yourself a character?” Joshua Kelly asked.

“A few.” Ben nodded.

“And did you meet her?” Joshua wanted to know. “My uncle’s wife?”


“She says she’s not his wife,” Ben confided. He had been wondering if perhaps he should do something to save Susan. He couldn’t stop thinking about her. Although he had never thought of himself as heroic, any man with half a soul would have begun to imagine he might rescue her and have her for his own.

“Is that what she says?” Joshua gave Ben a drink on the house, since he was going bankrupt anyway. “Well, that’s what happens when you find your wife in the Brattleboro Asylum up in Vermont.”

Ben Levy walked back to town in the dark, baffled by the way he felt. He had no idea why he couldn’t stop thinking about a woman who was a stranger and nothing more. It would soon be September, and the air was cool after the sun went down. He reached Ruth Carson’s house, but continued walking, through the woods and the low bogs, to the river. He felt confused, as if he had drifted inside a dream. Waking up was out of the question. He now understood himself to have fallen in love, like a stone dropped into a river. He was a man quite out of his senses. He went to the place where he had found her, and soon enough she came to sit beside him in the dark. They held hands. She told him that she was married.

“You can come to New York with me,” Ben said. “No one will know you’re married.”

“I’ll know,” Susan insisted.

She stood up and took off her clothes. Her black coat, her boots, her dark dress. He held her there right on the ground, not thinking about the mud or the cool air. He felt the way a drowning man might, gasping, barely surfacing until they were done. At last she pulled away. “If I was yours,” she said, “I know you’d set me free.”

She told him never to look for her again or to speak her name. Before he could argue with her, she went to the edge of the river and dove in, leaving her clothes behind. Ben ran after her, calling, but she was soon submerged under the water and quickly swam away. Ben ran through the woods, but when he reached the shack, he saw the fisherman at his door with his lantern. There was no choice but to make his way back to town.

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