MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother’s house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped this world years before I entered it. It was he who put us down in this unlikely place. He had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more. So my grandfather began to read what he could find of travel literature, journals of expeditions to the mountains of Africa, to the Alps, the Andes, the Himalayas, the Rockies. He bought a box of colors and copied a magazine lithograph of a Japanese painting of Fujiyama. He painted many more mountains, none of them identifiable, if any of them were real. They were all suave cones or mounds, single or in heaps or clusters, green, brown, or white, depending on the season, but always snowcapped, these caps being pink, white, or gold, depending on the time of day. In one large painting he had put a bell-shaped mountain in the very foreground and covered it with meticulously painted trees, each of which stood out at right angles to the ground, where it grew exactly as the nap stands out on folded plush. Every tree bore bright fruit, and showy birds nested in the boughs, and every fruit and bird was plumb with the warp in the earth. Oversized beasts, spotted and striped, could be seen running unimpeded up the right side and unhastened down the left. Whether the genius of this painting was ignorance or fancy I never could decide.
One spring my grandfather quit his subterraneous house, walked to the railroad, and took a train west. He told the ticket agent that he wanted to go to the mountains, and the man arranged to have him put off here, which may not have been a malign joke, or a joke at all, since there are mountains, uncountable mountains, and where there are not mountains there are hills. The terrain on which the town itself is built is relatively level, having once belonged to the lake. It seems there was a time when the dimensions of things modified themselves, leaving a number of puzzling margins, as between the mountains as they must have been and the mountains as they are now, or between the lake as it once was and the lake as it is now. Sometimes in the spring the old lake will return. One will open a cellar door to wading boots floating tallowy soles up and planks and buckets bumping at the threshold, the stairway gone from sight after the second step. The earth will brim, the soil will become mud and then silty water, and the grass will stand in chill water to its tips. Our house was at the edge of town on a little hill, so we rarely had more than a black pool in our cellar, with a few skeletal insects skidding around on it. A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and drenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and our cold hands.
* * *
My grandfather had a job with the railroad by the time he reached his stop. It seems he was befriended by a conductor of more than ordinary influence. The job was not an especially good one. He was a watchman, or perhaps a signalman. At any rate, he went to work at nightfall and walked around until dawn, carrying a lamp. But he was a dutiful and industrious worker, and bound to rise. In no more than a decade he was supervising the loading and unloading of livestock and freight, and in another six years he was assistant to the stationmaster. He held this post for two years, when, as he was returning from some business in Spokane, his mortal and professional careers ended in a spectacular derailment.
Though it was reported in newspapers as far away as Denver and St. Paul, it was not, strictly speaking, spectacular, because no one saw it happen. The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock. A porter and a waiter who were standing at the railing at the rear of the caboose discussing personal matters (they were distantly related) survived, but they were not really witnesses in any sense, for the equally sound reasons that the darkness was impenetrable to any eye and that they had been standing at the end of the train looking back.
* * *
People came down to the water’s edge, carrying lamps. Most of them stood on the shore, where in time they built a fire. But some of the taller boys and younger men walked out on the railroad bridge with ropes and lanterns. Two or three covered themselves with black grease and tied themselves up in rope harnesses, and the others lowered them down into the water at the place where the porter and the waiter thought the train must have disappeared. After two minutes timed on a stopwatch, the ropes were pulled in again and the divers walked stiff-legged up the pilings, were freed from their ropes and wrapped in blankets. The water was perilously cold.
Till it was dawn the divers swung down from the bridge and walked, or were dragged, up again. A suitcase, a seat cushion, and a lettuce were all they retrieved. Some of the divers remembered pushing past debris as they swam down into the water, but the debris must have sunk again, or drifted away in the dark. By the time they stopped hoping to find passengers, there was nothing else to be saved, no relics but three, and one of them perishable. They began to speculate that this was not after all the place where the train left the bridge. There were questions about how the train would move through the water. Would it sink like a stone despite its speed, or slide like an eel despite its weight? If it did leave the tracks here, perhaps it came to rest a hundred feet ahead. Or again it might have rolled or slid when it struck bottom, since the bridge pilings were set in the crest of a chain of flooded hills, which on one side formed the wall of a broad valley (there was another chain of hills twenty miles north, some of them islands) and on the other side fell away in cliffs. Apparently these hills were the bank of still another lake, and were made of some brittle stone which had been mined by the water and fallen sheerly away. If the train had gone over on the south side (the testimony of the porter and the waiter was that it had, but by this time they were credited very little) and had slid or rolled once or twice, it might have fallen again, farther and much longer.
After a while some of the younger boys came out on the bridge and began to jump off, at first cautiously and then almost exuberantly, with whoops of fear. When the sun rose, clouds soaked up the light like a stain. It became colder. The sun rose higher, and the sky grew bright as tin. The surface of the lake was very still. As the boys’ feet struck the water, there was a slight sound of rupture. Fragments of transparent ice wobbled on the waves they made and, when the water was calm again, knitted themselves up like bits of a reflection. One of the boys swam out forty feet from the bridge and then down to the old lake, feeling his way down the wall, down the blind, breathless stone, headfirst, and then pushing out from the foot. But the thought of where he was suddenly terrified him, and he leaped toward the air, brushing something with his leg as he did. He reached down and put his hand on a perfectly smooth surface, parallel to the bottom, but, he thought, seven or eight feet above it. A window. The train had landed on its side. He could not reach it a second time. The water bore him up. He said only that smooth surface, of all the things he touched, was not overgrown or hovered about by a cloud of something loose, like silt. This boy was an ingenious liar, a lonely boy with a boundless desire to ingratiate himself. His story was neither believed nor disbelieved.
By the time he had swum back to the bridge and was pulled up and had told the men there where he had been, the water was becoming dull and opaque, like cooling wax. Shivers flew when a swimmer surfaced, and the membrane of ice that formed where the ice was torn looked new, glassy, and black. All the swimmers came in. By evening the lake there had sealed itself over.
* * *
This catastrophe left three new widows in Fingerbone: my grandmother, and the wives of two elderly brothers who owned a dry-goods store. These two old women had lived in Fingerbone thirty years or more, but they left, one to live with a married daughter in North Dakota and the other to find any friends or kin in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, which she had left as a bride. They said they could no longer live by the lake. They said the wind smelled of it, and they could taste it in the drinking water, and they could not abide the smell, the taste, or the sight of it. They did not wait for the memorial service and rearing of the commemorative stone, when scores of mourners and sightseers, led by three officers of the railroad, walked out on the bridge between handrails mounted for the occasion, and dropped wreaths on the ice.
It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element. At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.
It seems that my grandmother did not consider leaving. She had lived her whole life in Fingerbone. And though she never spoke of it, and no doubt seldom thought of it, she was a religious woman. That is to say that she conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one’s destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting. She accepted the idea that at some time she and my grandfather would meet and take up their lives again, without the worry of money, in a milder climate. She hoped that he would somehow have acquired a little more stability and common sense. With him this had so far not been an effect of age, and she distrusted the idea of transfiguration. The bitter thing about his death, since she had a house and a pension and the children were almost grown, was that it seemed to her a kind of defection, not altogether unanticipated. How many times had she waked in the morning to find him gone? And sometimes for whole days he would walk around singing to himself in a thin voice, and speak to her and his children as a very civil man would speak to strangers. And now he had vanished finally. When they were reunited, she hoped he would be changed, substantially changed, but she did not set her heart on it. Musing thus, she set out upon her widowhood, and became altogether as good a widow as she had been a wife.
* * *
After their father’s death, the girls hovered around her, watched everything she did, followed her through the house, got in her way. Molly was sixteen that winter; Helen, my mother, was fifteen; and Sylvie was thirteen. When their mother sat down with her mending, they would settle themselves around her on the floor, trying to be comfortable, with their heads propped against her knees or her chair, restless as young children. They would pull fringe off the rug, pleat her hem, pummel one another sometimes, while they talked indolently about school or worked out the endless minor complaints and accusations that arose among them. After a while they would turn on the radio and start brushing Sylvie’s hair, which was light brown and heavy and hung down to her waist. The older girls were expert at building it into pompadours with ringlets at ear and nape. Sylvie crossed her legs at the ankles and read magazines. When she got sleepy she would go off to her room and take a nap, and come down to supper with her gorgeous hair rumpled and awry. Nothing could induce vanity in her.
When suppertime came, they would follow their mother into the kitchen, set the table, lift the lids off the pans. And then they would sit around the table and eat together, Molly and Helen fastidious, Sylvie with milk on her lip. Even then, in the bright kitchen with white curtains screening out the dark, their mother felt them leaning toward her, looking at her face and her hands.
Never since they were small children had they clustered about her so, and never since then had she been so aware of the smell of their hair, their softness, breathiness, abruptness. It filled her with a strange elation, the same pleasure she had felt when any one of them, as a sucking child, had fastened her eyes on her face and reached for her other breast, her hair, her lips, hungry to touch, eager to be filled for a while and sleep.
She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace. She knew a thousand songs. Her bread was tender and her jelly was tart, and on rainy days she made cookies and applesauce. In the summer she kept roses in a vase on the piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the blooms ripened and the petals fell, she put them in a tall Chinese jar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon. Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with wind. Of course they pressed her and touched her as if she had just returned after an absence. Not because they were afraid she would vanish as their father had done, but because his sudden vanishing had made them aware of her.
When she had been married a little while, she concluded that love was half a longing of a kind that possession did nothing to mitigate. Once, while they were still childless, Edmund had found a pocket watch on the shore. The case and the crystal were undamaged, but the works were nearly consumed by rust. He opened the watch and emptied it, and where the face had been he fitted a circle of paper on which he had painted two seahorses. He gave it to her as a pendant, with a chain through it, but she hardly ever wore it because the chain was too short to allow her to look at the seahorses comfortably. She worried that it would be damaged on her belt or in her pocket. For perhaps a week she carried the watch wherever she went, even across the room, and it was not because Edmund had made it for her, or because the painting was less vivid and awkward than his paintings usually were, but because the seahorses themselves were so arch, so antic and heraldic, and armored in the husks of insects. It was the seahorses themselves that she wanted to see as soon as she took her eyes away, and that she wanted to see even when she was looking at them. The wanting never subsided until something—a quarrel, a visit—took her attention away. In the same way her daughters would touch her and watch her and follow her, for a while.
Sometimes they cried out at night, small thin cries that never woke them. The sound would stop as she started up the stairs, however softly, and when she reached their rooms she would find them all quietly asleep, the source of the cry hiding in silence, like a cricket. Just her coming was enough to still the creature.
The years between her husband’s death and her eldest daughter’s leaving home were, in fact, years of almost perfect serenity. My grandfather had sometimes spoken of disappointment. With him gone they were cut free from the troublesome possibility of success, recognition, advancement. They had no reason to look forward, nothing to regret. Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle, breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time. If heaven was to be this world purged of disaster and nuisance, if immortality was to be this life held in poise and arrest, and if this world purged and this life unconsuming could be thought of as world and life restored to their proper natures, it is no wonder that five serene, eventless years lulled my grandmother into forgetting what she should never have forgotten. Six months before Molly left she was already completely changed. She had become overtly religious. She practiced hymns on the piano, and mailed fat letters to missionary societies, in which she included accounts of her recent conversion and copies of two lengthy poems, one on the Resurrection and another on the march of Christ’s legions through the world. I have seen these poems. The second speaks very warmly of pagans, and especially of missionaries, “… the angels come to roll away / The stone that seals their tomb.”
Within six months Molly had arranged to go to China, to work for a missionary society. And even while Molly belabored the air with “Beulah Land” and “Lord, We Are Able,” my mother, Helen, sat in the orchard talking softly and seriously to a certain Reginald Stone, our putative father. (I have no memory of this man at all. I have seen photographs of him, both taken on the day of his second wedding. He was apparently a pale fellow with sleek black hair. He appears at ease in his dark suit. Clearly he does not consider himself the subject of either photograph. In one he is looking at my mother, who is speaking to Sylvie, whose back is to the camera. In the other he appears to be grooming the dents in the crown of his hat, while my grandmother, Helen, and Sylvie stand beside him in a row, looking at the camera.) Six months after Molly left for San Francisco and thence for the Orient, Helen had set up housekeeping in Seattle with this Stone, whom she had apparently married in Nevada. My grandmother, Sylvie said, was much offended by the elopement and the out-of-state marriage, and wrote to tell Helen that she would never consider her genuinely married until she came home and was married again before her mother’s eyes. Helen and her husband arrived by train with a trunk full of wedding clothes, and with a box of cut flowers and champagne packed in dry ice. I have no reason to imagine that my mother and father were ever prosperous, and so I must assume that they went to some trouble to salve my grandmother’s feelings. And yet, according to Sylvie, they did not spend twenty-four hours in Fingerbone. Relations must have mended somewhat, however, because a few weeks later Sylvie, in a new coat and hat and shoes, with her mother’s best gloves and handbag and valise, left for Seattle by train to visit her married sister. Sylvie had a snapshot of herself waving from the door of the coach, sleek and young and proper. As far as I know, Sylvie only came home once, to stand where Helen had stood in my grandmother’s garden and marry someone named Fisher. Apparently no snapshots were made of this event.
One year my grandmother had three quiet daughters and the next year the house was empty. Her girls were quiet, she must have thought, because the customs and habits of their lives had almost relieved them of the need for speech. Sylvie took her coffee with two lumps of sugar, Helen liked her toast dark, and Molly took hers without butter. These thing were known. Molly changed the beds, Sylvie peeled the vegetables, Helen washed the dishes. These things were settled. Now and then Molly searched Sylvie’s room for unreturned library books. Occasionally Helen made a batch of cookies. It was Sylvie who brought in bouquets of flowers. This perfect quiet had settled into their house after the death of their father. That event had troubled the very medium of their lives. Time and air and sunlight bore wave and wave of shock, until all the shock was spent, and time and space and light grew still again and nothing seemed to tremble, and nothing seemed to lean. The disaster had fallen out of sight, like the train itself, and if the calm that followed it was not greater than the calm that came before it, it had seemed so. And the dear ordinary had healed as seamlessly as an image on water.
One day my grandmother must have carried out a basket of sheets to hang in the spring sunlight, wearing her widow’s black, performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith. Say there were two or three inches of hard old snow on the ground, with earth here and there oozing through the broken places, and that there was warmth in the sunlight, when the wind did not blow it all away, and say she stooped breathlessly in her corset to lift up a sodden sheet by its hems, and say that when she had pinned three corners to the lines it began to billow and leap in her hands, to flutter and tremble, and to glare with the light, and that the throes of the thing were as gleeful and strong as if a spirit were dancing in its cerements. That wind! she would say, because it pushed the skirts of her coat against her legs and made strands of her hair fly. It came down the lake, and it smelled sweetly of snow, and rankly of melting snow, and it called to mind the small, scarce, stemmy flowers that she and Edmund would walk half a day to pick, though in another day they would all be wilted. Sometimes Edmund would carry buckets and a trowel, and lift them earth and all, and bring them home to plant, and they would die. They were rare things, and grew out of ants’ nests and bear dung and the flesh of perished animals. She and Edmund would climb until they were wet with sweat. Horseflies followed them, and the wind chilled them. Where the snow receded, they might see the ruins of a porcupine, teeth here, tail there. The wind would be sour with stale snow and death and pine pitch and wildflowers.
In a month those flowers would bloom. In a month all dormant life and arrested decay would begin again. In a month she would not mourn, because in that season it had never seemed to her that they were married, she and the silent Methodist Edmund who wore a necktie and suspenders even to hunt wildflowers, and who remembered just where they grew from year to year, and who dipped his handkerchief in a puddle to wrap the stems, and who put out his elbow to help her over the steep and stony places, with a wordless and impersonal courtesy she did not resent because she had never really wished to feel married to anyone. She sometimes imagined a rather dark man with crude stripes painted on his face and sunken belly, and a hide fastened around his loins, and bones dangling from his ears, and clay and claws and fangs and bones and feathers and sinews and hide ornamenting his arms and waist and throat and ankles, his whole body a boast that he was more alarming than all the death whose trophies he wore. Edmund was like that, a little. The rising of the spring stirred a serious, mystical excitement in him, and made him forgetful of her. He would pick up eggshells, a bird’s wing, a jawbone, the ashy fragment of a wasp’s nest. He would peer at each of them with the most absolute attention, and then put them in his pockets, where he kept his jackknife and his loose change. He would peer at them as if he could read them, and pocket them as if he could own them. This is death in my hand, this is ruin in my breast pocket, where I keep my reading glasses. At such times he was as forgetful of her as he was of his suspenders and his Methodism, but all the same it was then that she loved him best, as a soul all unaccompanied, like her own.
So the wind that billowed her sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary. Soon the skunk cabbage would come up, and the cidery smell would rise in the orchard, and the girls would wash and starch and iron their cotton dresses. And every evening would bring its familiar strangeness, and crickets would sing the whole night long, under her windows and in every part of the black wilderness that stretched away from Fingerbone on every side. And she would feel that sharp loneliness she had felt every long evening since she was a child. It was the kind of loneliness that made clocks seem slow and loud and made voices sound like voices across water. Old women she had known, first her grandmother and then her mother, rocked on their porches in the evenings and sang sad songs, and did not wish to be spoken to.
And now, to comfort herself, my grandmother would not reflect on the unkindness of her children, or of children in general. She had noticed many times, always, that her girls’ faces were soft and serious and inward and still when she looked at them, just as they had been when they were small children, just as they were now when they were sleeping. If a friend was in the room her daughters would watch his face or her face intently and tease or soothe or banter, and any one of them could gauge and respond to the finest changes of expression or tone, even Sylvie, if she chose to. But it did not occur to them to suit their words and manners to her looks, and she did not want them to. In fact, she was often prompted or restrained by the thought of saving this unconsciousness of theirs. She was then a magisterial woman, not only because of her height and her large, sharp face, not only because of her upbringing, but also because it suited her purpose, to be what she seemed to be so that her children would never be startled or surprised, and to take on all the postures and vestments of matron, to differentiate her life from theirs, so that her children would never feel intruded upon. Her love for them was utter and equal, her government of them generous and absolute. She was constant as daylight, and she would be unremarked as daylight, just to watch the calm inwardness of their faces. What was it like. One evening one summer she went out to the garden. The earth in the rows was light and soft as cinders, pale clay yellow, and the trees and plants were ripe, ordinary green and full of comfortable rustlings. And above the pale earth and bright trees the sky was the dark blue of ashes. As she knelt in the rows she heard the hollyhocks thump against the shed wall. She felt the hair lifted from her neck by a swift, watery wind, and she saw the trees fill with wind and heard their trunks creak like masts. She burrowed her hand under a potato plant and felt gingerly for the new potatoes in their dry net of roots, smooth as eggs. She put them in her apron and walked back to the house thinking, What have I seen, what have I seen. The earth and the sky and the garden, not as they always are. And she saw her daughters’ faces not as they always were, or as other people’s were, and she was quiet and aloof and watchful, not to startle the strangeness away. She had never taught them to be kind to her.
* * *
A total of seven and a half years passed between Helen’s leaving Fingerbone and her returning, and when she did finally return it was on a Sunday morning, when she knew her mother would not be at home, and she stayed only long enough to settle Lucille and me on the bench in the screened porch, with a box of graham crackers to prevent conflict and restlessness.
Perhaps from a sense of delicacy my grandmother never asked us anything about our life with our mother. Perhaps she was not curious. Perhaps she was so affronted by Helen’s secretive behavior that even now she refused to take notice of it. Perhaps she did not wish to learn by indirection what Helen did not wish to tell her.
If she had asked me, I could have told her that we lived in two rooms at the top of a tall gray building, so that all the windows—there were five altogether, and a door with five rows of small panes—overlooked a narrow white porch, the highest flight of a great scaffolding of white steps and porches, fixed and intricate as the frozen eke of water from the side of a cliff, grainy gray-white like dried salt. From this porch we looked down on broad tarpaper roofs, eave to eave, spread like somber tents over hoards of goods crated up, and over tomatoes and turnips and chickens, and over crabs and salmons, and over a dance floor with a jukebox where someone began playing “Sparrow in the Treetop” and “Good Night, Irene” before breakfast. But of all this, from our vantage, we saw only the tented top. Gulls sat in rows on our porch railing and peered for scavenge.
Since all the windows were in a line, our rooms were as light as the day was, near the door, and became darker as one went farther in. In the back wall of the main room was a door which opened into a carpeted hallway, and which was never opened. It was blocked, in fact, by a big green couch so weighty and shapeless that it looked as if it had been hoisted out of forty feet of water. Two putty-colored armchairs were drawn up in a conversational circle. Halves of two ceramic mallards were in full flight up the wall. As for the rest of the room, it contained a round card table covered with a plaid oilcloth, a refrigerator, a pale-blue china cupboard, a small table with a hotplate on it, and a sink with an oilcloth skirt. Helen put lengths of clothesline through our belts and fastened them to the doorknob, an arrangement that nerved us to look over the side of the porch, even when the wind was strong.
Bernice, who lived below us, was our only visitor. She had lavender lips and orange hair, and arched eyebrows each drawn in a single brown line, a contest between practice and palsy which sometimes ended at her ear. She was an old woman, but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease. She stood any number of hours in our doorway, her long back arched and her arms folded on her spherical belly, telling scandalous stories in a voice hushed in deference to the fact that Lucille and I should not be hearing them. Through all these tales her eyes were wide with amazement recalled, and now and then she would laugh and prod my mother’s arm with her lavender claws. Helen leaned in the doorway, smiled at the floor, and twined her hair.
Bernice loved us. She had no other family, except her husband, Charley, who sat on her porch with his hands on his knees and his belly in his lap, his flesh mottled like sausage, thick veins pulsing in his temples and in the backs of his hands. He conserved syllables as if to conserve breath. Whenever we went down the stairs he would lean slowly after us and say “Hey!” Bernice liked to bring us custard, which had a thick yellow skin and sat in a copious liquid the consistency of eyewater. Helen was selling cosmetics in a drugstore, and Bernice looked after us while she was at work, though Bernice herself worked all night as a cashier in a truck stop. She looked after us by trying to sleep lightly enough to be awakened by the first sounds of fist fights, of the destruction of furniture, of the throes of household poisoning. This scheme worked, though sometimes Bernice would wake in the grip of some nameless alarm, run up the stairs in her nightgown and eyebrowless, and drub our windows with her hands, when we were sitting quietly at supper with our mother. These disruptions of her sleep were not less resented because they were self-generated. But she loved us for our mother’s sake.
Bernice took a week off from work so that she could lend us her car for a visit to Fingerbone. When she learned from Helen that her mother was living, she began to urge her to go home for a while, and Helen, to her great satisfaction, was finally persuaded. It proved to be a fateful journey. Helen took us through the mountains and across the desert and into the mountains again, and at last to the lake and over the bridge into town, left at the light onto Sycamore Street and straight for six blocks. She put our suitcases in the screened porch, which was populated by a cat and a matronly washing machine, and told us to wait quietly. Then she went back to the car and drove north almost to Tyler, where she sailed in Bernice’s Ford from the top of a cliff named Whiskey Rock into the blackest depth of the lake.
They searched for her. Word was sent out a hundred miles in every direction to watch for a young woman in a car which I said was blue and Lucille said was green. Some boys who had been fishing and knew nothing about the search had come across her sitting cross-legged on the roof of the car, which had bogged down in the meadow between the road and the cliff. They said she was gazing at the lake and eating wild strawberries, which were prodigiously large and abundant that year. She asked them very pleasantly to help her push her car out of the mud, and they went so far as to put their blankets and coats under the wheels to facilitate her rescue. When they got the Ford back to the road she thanked them, gave them her purse, rolled down the rear windows, started the car, turned the wheel as far to the right as it would go, and roared swerving and sliding across the meadow until she sailed off the edge of the cliff.
* * *
My grandmother spent a number of days in her bedroom. She had an armchair and a footstool from the parlor placed by the window that looked into the orchard, and she sat there, food was brought to her there. She was not inclined to move. She could hear, if not the particular words and conversations, at least the voices of people in the kitchen, the gentle and formal society of friends and mourners that had established itself in her house to look after things. Her friends were very old, and fond of white cake and pinochle. In twos and threes they would volunteer to look after us, while the others played cards at the breakfast table. We would be walked around by nervous, peremptory old men who would show us Spanish coins, and watches, and miniature jackknives with numerous blades designed to be serviceable in any extremity, in order to keep us near them and out of the path of possible traffic. A tiny old lady named Ettie, whose flesh was the color of toadstools and whose memory was so eroded as to make her incapable of bidding, and who sat smiling by herself in the porch, took me by the hand once and told me that in San Francisco, before the fire, she had lived near a cathedral, and in the house opposite lived a Catholic lady who kept a huge parrot on her balcony. When the bells rang the lady would come out with a shawl over her head and she would pray, and the parrot would pray with her, the woman’s voice and the parrot’s voice, on and on, between clamor and clangor. After a while the woman fell ill, or at least stopped coming out on her balcony, but the parrot was still there, and it whistled and prayed and flirted its tail whenever the bells rang. The fire took the church and its bells and no doubt the parrot, too, and quite possibly the Catholic lady. Ettie waved it all away with her hand and pretended to sleep.
* * *
For five years my grandmother cared for us very well. She cared for us like someone reliving a long day in a dream. Though she seemed abstracted, I think that, like one dreaming, she felt more than the urgency of present business, her attention heightened and at the same time baffled by an awareness that this present had passed already, and had had its consequence. Indeed, it must have seemed to her that she had returned to relive this day because it was here that something had been lost or forgotten. She whited shoes and braided hair and fried chicken and turned back bedclothes, and then suddenly feared and remembered that the children had somehow disappeared, every one. How had it happened? How might she have known? And she whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if re-enacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again, or as if she could find the chink, the flaw, in her serenely orderly and ordinary life, or discover at least some intimation that her three girls would disappear as absolutely as their father had done. So when she seemed distracted or absent-minded, it was in fact, I think, that she was aware of too many things, having no principle for selecting the more from the less important, and that her awareness could never be diminished, since it was among the things she had thought of as familiar that this disaster had taken shape.
And it must have seemed, too, that she had only the frailest and most inappropriate tools for the most urgent uses. Once, she told us, she dreamed that she had seen a baby fall from an airplane and had tried to catch it in her apron, and once that she had tried to fish a baby out of a well with a tea strainer. Lucille and me she tended with scrupulous care and little confidence, as if her offerings of dimes and chocolate-chip cookies might keep us, our spirits, here in her kitchen, though she knew they might not. Her mother, she told us, knew a woman who, when she looked out her window at night, often saw the ghosts of children crying by the road. These children, who were sky black and stark naked and who danced with the cold and wiped their tears with the backs of their hands and the heels of their hands, furious with hunger, consumed much of the woman’s substance and most of her thoughts. She put out soup, which the dogs ate, and blankets, which in the morning were dewy and undisturbed. The children sucked their fingers and hugged their sides as before, but she thought she might have pleased them in some way because they grew more numerous and came more often. When her sister mentioned that people thought it was strange to put supper out every night for the dogs to eat, she replied quite sensibly that anyone who saw those poor children would do exactly the same thing. Sometimes it seemed to me my grandmother saw our black souls dancing in the moonless cold and offered us deep-dish apple pie as a gesture of well-meaning and despair.
And she was old. My grandmother was not a woman given to excesses of any kind, and so her aging, as it became advanced, was rather astonishing. True, she was straight and brisk and bright when most of her friends had bobbling heads or blurred speech or had sunk into wheelchairs or beds. But in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulders shaking. In my earliest memories of her my grandmother was already up in years. I remember sitting under the ironing board, which pulled down from the kitchen wall, while she ironed the parlor curtains and muttered “Robin Adair.” One veil after another fell down around me, starched and white and fragrant, and I had vague dreams of being hidden or cloistered, and watched the electric cord wag, and contemplated my grandmother’s big black shoes, and her legs in their orangy-brown stockings, as contourless, as completely unshaped by muscle as two thick bones. Even then she was old.
Since my grandmother had a little income and owned her house outright, she always took some satisfaction in thinking ahead to the time when her simple private destiny would intersect with the great public processes of law and finance—that is, to the time of her death. All the habits and patterns and properties that had settled around her, the monthly checks from the bank, the house she had lived in since she came to it as a bride, the weedy orchard that surrounded the yard on three sides where smaller and wormier apples and apricots and plums had fallen every year of her widowhood, all these things would suddenly become liquid, capable of assuming new forms. And all of it would be Lucille’s and mine.
“Sell the orchards,” she would say, looking grave and wise, “but keep the house. So long as you look after your health, and own the roof above your head, you’re as safe as anyone can be,” she would say, “God willing.” My grandmother loved to talk about these things. When she did, her eyes would roam over the goods she had accumulated unthinkingly and maintained out of habit as eagerly as if she had come to reclaim them.
Her sisters-in-law, Nona and Lily, were to come and look after us when the time came. Lily and Nona were twelve and ten years younger than my grandmother, and old as she was, she continued to think of them as rather young. They were almost destitute, and the savings in rent, not to mention the advantages of exchanging a little hotel room below ground for a rambling house surrounded by peonies and rose bushes, would be inducement enough to keep them with us until we came of age.
Copyright © 1980 Marilynne Robinson