I never used to go home in summer. I avoid summer anywhere, following winter back and forth across the Equator. If I’m caught in the wrong hemisphere at the wrong time, I take to the nearest mountain range, the higher the better. As a free-lance journalist, once my research is done, where I write my articles is not always important.
But for the past five Junes, ever since my father’s death, I’ve come home for several days to be with Mother on their wedding anniversary. It’s a hard time for her. Of course, she doesn’t say so. She even made some fluttery protests the first year. Now she expects me, which is close enough to a welcome.
My being home or not on special occasions didn’t matter much when Dad was alive. When Mother and Dad were in the same room together, they barely looked at or spoke to anyone else. My high school girlfriends used to envy me having such good-looking parents who were so blatantly enraptured with each other. They thought it sublimely romantic.
Widowhood has left Mother looking smaller, as if some vital nutrient were lacking in her diet. Outings and long conversations weary her, though she is only 65 and in excellent health. She doesn’t bother to sustain a social self. I am her daughter in that, I suppose, though in my case it’s the constant traveling and my solitary work that interfere with building close friendships.
One bored afternoon near the end of my visit this June, I was prowling through the attic and brought down two dusty photo albums. In one was a snapshot of Stacey and me on the tire swing in the apple tree. It was in black and white, yet the summer yard behind us loomed green and fetid, more an impending presence than a backdrop. Stacey had been our next-door neighbor for only a year. That was our only summer together.
I looked at the photograph a long time. Two smiling nine-year-olds in sleeveless cotton blouses and baggy Bermuda shorts, barefoot, with dirty knees. Stacey’s hair was sloppily braided into two beribboned pigtails. My hair had been cut short, so I wouldn’t get heat rash on the back of my neck.
I hated that thatched style, even though I was a bit of a tomboy. When Stacey and I acted out fairy tales, she always got to be Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, and I always had to be the prince. It was the logic of the hair. I wasn’t consoled by the fact that the heroine of these tales was invariably subjected to unfair cruelties against which she was powerless, nor by the fact that I, as rescuer, was the one who shaped the happy endings.
There were other photos of Stacey and me in the album. Clad in chunky coats and leggings, we stood on either side of a tall snowman. We sat on the couch in party dresses and held hands. There was one skewed shot that I must have taken of Stacey and my mother raking leaves.
But I kept returning to the tire swing picture. It filled me with a lumpen sadness, yet I felt compelled to examine it. The sadness derived from the fact that late that summer Stacey had drowned in the river that flowed through a small wood behind our house.
The coroner named her death accidental, but for a time there was talk in town of “foul play.” No one could believe it, and most people put the suspicions to an over-zealous police chief who, like Stacey’s widowed father, was a newcomer to our town.
Our community was, and still is, small and insulated. Many residents are blood relatives in some way or other. Children were never warned against strangers because there were none. And certainly, everyone asserted, there was no person and no reason to do bodily harm to a child.
There was no denying the deep gash on the side of Stacey’s head, but in the end the majority opinion prevailed that the wound had occurred when her lifeless body knocked against a sharp rock. The river runs quite rapidly in some places. There’s one such treacherous spot just downstream from our stretch of river.
I was lifting the photo out of the little black triangles at its corners when Mother entered the room.
“What have you got there?” she asked, noticing the albums.
I held out the photo of me and Stacey.
“Of course,” she replied, adding, “But I didn’t realize we’d kept those photos. Your father must have boxed them away.”
She sat down in an easy chair and picked up the romance novel she was currently reading. I hurried to speak before she opened it.
“Mother, there was sort of a mystery to Stacey’s death, wasn’t there?”
“But wasn’t there some speculation—”
“Oh, Dina, in such situations, there will always be those who speculate. What happened to poor Stacey was terrible, but it was simple and straightforward.”
I looked again at the picture. A sting of agitation clutched at the back of my throat, a sensation I get whenever I meet a promising idea for an article. This time the excitement went deeper than usual. There was a quiver in my gut that I would almost call trepidation.
I’d been trying for some months to find a topic suitable for a series of articles that would allow room for analysis and side stories, room to stretch. In my most recent pieces, I had felt cut short. I was tired of the restrictive reign of chaste facts.
In journalism school, they’d have you believe that facts equal truth, and that a good journalist knows which facts are essential to understanding and which are expendable. But it seemed to me that the extra details in the last graph, the ones the editor or the paste-up guy were most likely to crop, often held the real story, the cluttered, human story behind the facts.
Take Stacey’s “simple, straightforward” story. It must have held meanings for people other than her father and the police chief and the town gossips. Had it shaken our community’s belief in itself as able to protect its own? Did the townspeople feel guilty or ashamed for having “let” a child die in such a way? Did it make a difference that Stacey and her father were outsiders?
“You know,” I said, staring at Stacey’s pretty face, “there may be some good stories here.”
I didn’t expect my mother, engrossed in her romance, to answer, but she did.
“Stories?” she said sharply. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know yet exactly.”
“Dina, for a writer, you can be very uncommunicative sometimes.”
“I’m sorry, Mother. It’s just this picture. It’s so haunting.”
“Then put it away, dear. Put them all away.”
She stood up suddenly.
“Here,” she said, picking up the albums, “I’m going upstairs; I’ll take them back to the attic.”
She put out her hand for the tire swing photo.
“I’d like to keep this one,” I said. “All right?”
“Certainly,” she answered, sounding exasperated. She is a woman who values reasonableness and order.
“I might want to write something about Stacey and how people handled what happened,” I offered in explanation.
“No one will have anything to say now, Dina. Nothing but what you’d expect, anyway.”
“But I don’t have any expectations, Mother. It’s just the germ of an idea.”
“A waste of time,” she muttered, leaving the room.
I watched her walk briskly upstairs, her lips moving slightly in some private commentary. It was curious. She usually had no strong opinions about my work. On my visits home, I’d bring her my clips. She’d thank me for them as if I’d brought her a generic, impersonal box of chocolates.
Having lost the bright girdle of her marriage, my mother has lived the past five years almost as a hermit. Perhaps, I theorized, she was discouraging my notion of writing about Stacey not because she considered my idea slight but because she was worried that my stay would be prolonged and my company become intrusive.
In my bedroom, I tucked the photograph into the corner of a wall mirror. My child self and my adult self both looked back at me. My girl-body appeared scrawny and angular next to Stacey’s complaisant plumpness, yet there was a loose-limbed ease to it. I’m still thin, but there’s a tight, pinched quality to my body now that wasn’t evident then. As I stared at Stacey and the two me’s, I mourned that loss of grace.
To shake my unexpected melancholy, I sat at my schoolgirl desk to write down all I could remember about Stacey.
Stacey and her father had moved to our town after her mother’s death in a car crash. It had happened right in front of their house, so Stacey’s father thought it best that they not continue to live there.
They arrived in November, which meant that Stacey was behind in school. That is, she would have been if not for my mother. She was Stacey’s teacher. She asked the principal to put Stacey in her class because she felt sorry for her and because, being the next door neighbor, she could help Stacey catch up in the afternoons after school.
In September, my mother had asked the principal not to put me in her class. I guess she didn’t feel sorry for me. But sometimes I felt motherless, too. My beautiful mother bestowed her radiant smiles and her affectionate touches most often on my father, then on her students, then on me. It wasn’t that she didn’t love me. It was more that her love for me was absent-minded. Even as a young child I knew that, and I had, I thought, accepted that I wasn’t grand enough or large enough to repay her attentions with the same magnitude as her adoring husband or her interesting job. I took my position in line behind them without protest. Until Stacey cut in.
“Poor Stacey,” my mother said whenever she referred to her. She meant that I, too, should go out of my way to be nice to the girl. I did enjoy having a playmate so close by. I don’t think Stacey connived to win a place with my mother. That is, I don’t think that now. But back then, I was more narrow-sighted.
My recollections about Stacey’s death were more clouded than my recollections of her brief life among us. It was late August. The air was thick with heat even in the six-o’clock shadows. I remember Stacey’s father coming to our house to get her for dinner.
My mother must have taken us girls to the river earlier that afternoon. A cool breeze usually lifted off the water by 2:00, and she liked to sit on the bank with a book and a thermos of lemonade. She brought us along as an afterthought most of the time. She always seemed genuinely surprised when we begged to accompany her.
As well-behaved, obedient little girls, we were trusted to play by the river unsupervised and often did so. However, we were allowed to go into the water only when an adult was present. That was the lure of my mother’s company for Stacey, who loved to swim. Though I can swim, I am afraid of deep water, so for me, never venturing into the river above my kneecaps, the lure was simply my mother.
I loved seeing her look up again and again from her book to check on us. I loved to sip lemonade from the metal thermos cap that she drank from. I never tired of watching how the breeze-stirred leaves dappled her with golden light and brown shadows.
When Mother and I were alone at the river, she always waded with me for a while before retreating to the shade to read. We’d search out tadpoles, diving beetles, and water striders, and float dead leaves downstream, squinting against the sunlight on the water to follow their paths through eddies and around rocks. Once we built a small dam with pebbles and sand to form a pool for my boats.
But when Stacey was with us, Mother would do none of these things, even if I asked her. She thought Stacey should be diversion enough for me.
Routines of living can fool the mind. You believe things happened in a certain way in a particular instance because that was how they did happen repeatedly. I say my mother must have taken us to the river because that was how we spent so many summer afternoons. In my memory, that afternoon was indistinct from many others.
What I did recall definitely was my mother telling Stacey’s father that we had returned from the river at 4:00 and that Stacey, realizing she’d left her towel behind, had gone to fetch it. Since Stacey didn’t come back to our house and since it was nearing dinnertime, my mother assumed she’d gone straight to her own home from the river.
My father wasn’t present at this brief back door conversation, though I remembered him joining the search party of neighbors that formed an hour later. Perhaps he was upstairs showering. Occasionally, my parents closeted themselves in their room for an hour before dinner. These sessions invariably ended with my mother coming downstairs in fresh clothes to cook and my father singing in the shower.
When I awoke early next morning and sat up, the photo tucked in the mirror caught my eye. I had the crazy impression that the two girls in it had been watching me while I slept, had been waiting for me.
I got up and walked to the window. Below me spread a dogwood laden with pink and white blossoms. Beyond it was the backyard lawn and then the woods, and beyond that, I knew, was the river, though I hadn’t been there in years.
I dressed and went downstairs. My mother is late sleeper, so the house was still. I took a glass of orange juice and a corn muffin out to the front porch. I watched two sparrows taking a dust bath in the neighbor’s dirt driveway. Stacey’s old driveway. Strange, how the photos had led me to view the tired scenes of my personal history as hers too.
I decided to go to the offices of the local paper to dig through their files on Stacey’s accident. Yesterday’s curiosity about whether there was anything significant enough to be tracked at greater length had resolved into a nagging need. I left my mother a note on the refrigerator and drove downtown.
The woman in charge of the morgue at the Daily Record turned out to be an acquaintance of mine from high school. She was intrigued by my idea of using Stacey’s story as the lens through which to scrutinize the social structure and belief systems of a small town. She spent a good hour pulling up related reports, editorials, profiles, and letters to the editor.
It was more than I had expected. My former classmate brought me a large mug of black coffee and left me to my task. I soon surmised it could easily require a couple of days’ work to digest and integrate all the material. I decided to use the initial report of the accident as my keystone, hooking everything else to it. I settled down to read the report very slowly, looking for leads for future research and likely interview subjects.
Near the end of the story perched one of those throw-away details that on a heavier news day would not have made it into print. Mr. Arthur James, who is familiar with the currents in the area of the search, directed the officers dredging the river to the exact spot where the body was recovered. Mr. Arthur James. My father.
It made sense. A strong swimmer, my father was indeed familiar with the currents in the length of river behind the house in which he had lived his whole life. But I hadn’t known of his part in finding Stacey. It was a dramatic fact to have forgotten. I wondered why my mother hadn’t mentioned it yesterday.
The windowless basement room in which I was working suddenly seemed unbearably stuffy. My eyes ached from scanning microfiche, and my stomach was queasy because I’d skipped lunch. It was time to call it quits. I closed my notebook, stood up unsteadily, and slung my purse over my shoulder.
Mother’s car wasn’t in the garage when I got home. It was her day to do the week’s food shopping. My key is for the back door, and when I’d rounded the house, I looked across the yard to the edge of the woods. Though I couldn’t feel it, a breeze must have been blowing, because the leaves on the aspen tree at the head of the river trail were trembling. As a child, I had believed that when the wind lifted the aspen leaves so that you could see their pale undersides, it meant a storm was coming.
“All right,” I said, as if giving in to someone, and headed for the tremulous aspen.
The walk through the woods was shorter than I remembered. I was startled when a twist in the trail brought me abruptly to a small beach. Fat and browned with spring rains, the river faced me across a few yards of gravelly sand. I stopped, struck by the silky silence of the place.
The river’s movement was easily visible, but it pursued its course quietly. I walked to the water’s edge and bent over to dip my fingers. The cold water slithered around them and crawled up the back of my hand.
I watched the river for what seemed like a long time. I couldn’t visualize my younger self there, though it had been a familiar childhood realm. And yet it was not, of course, really foreign to me either. There was a sense of deja vu to the spot, as if I were both there again and there for the first time, as if everything were just as it should be except for one elusive element.
I looked up and down the river and tried to guess where Stacey had been found. My eyes fixed on a small whirlpool a few feet out in the river. I stared at it until an incongruous claustrophobia washed over me, a feeling that I was encased in a stale, narrow room rather than standing in the gentle, open air of a riverbank.
My distaste for summer asserted itself. In contrast to the quiet moment of my arrival, noises bombarded me, a raucous crow and shrill cicadas, the river obscenely gurgling and suckling, the jarring slap of branches as a squirrel fled from tree to tree. I could smell algae and rotting leaves and a cluster of stinkhorn mushrooms nearby. My eyes were glutted with green, so many different greens on every side.
Summer environments press themselves upon you shamelessly, taking the motions of life to their limits. For all its fecundity, summer reeks of death. Standing at the river’s edge, with the woods around me poised to bolt headlong into the heart of that deceptive season, I was clutched by dread. I turned back to the house.
Our dinners were usually quiet affairs. Mother and I were both used to eating alone, and in each other’s company, we were used to a pattern of irregular snatches of talk interspersed with consoling silences. That night I was particularly quiet. The mood from the river had remained with me to some degree. One dining room window was open, and I fancied summer waited tautly on the sill like a prowling cat.
“I went to the river this afternoon,” I said at dessert.
Mother took a sip of wine and looked at me over the rim of the glass. I noticed how lovely her eyes were, heavy-lidded and a blue so dark they seemed brown in certain lights.
“Why did you do that?”
“I just wanted to see it again. I read today that it was Dad who found Stacey’s body.”
“He didn’t, strictly speaking, find poor Stacey. He just knew the river and made an educated guess.”
“What made them decide to dredge in the first place?” I asked, still caught in her deep eyes.
“Oh, it was that police chief. I think he wanted to drag the river before he lost daylight. And her towel had been found at the water’s edge.” She looked down at her plate. “But you must know all this from the newspaper. Let’s talk about something more pleasant.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about Dad’s part before?”
“Part? It doesn’t deserve to be called that.”
“Why didn’t you mention it?”
She shrugged and brushed some crumbs off the tablecloth into her hand.
“It’s of no importance,” she said.
“Mother, you know my work’s important to me, and right now this subject is my work, so all the details of it are important, too.”
“An accident that happened to a little girl so many years ago? It seems a minor tragedy in the greater scheme of the world and even in the lives of we who knew her.”
She stopped, as if shocked at her own words.
“Of course,” she hastily amended, “her father was simply wretched over it. He moved away soon afterwards, and I heard that within the year he had married a widow with three young children. Trying to fill the gap, I suppose.”
“But don’t you see, Mother? That’s one of the things I’m trying to get at. What the accident meant to people, what, maybe, it still does mean for them.”
Mother pushed back her chair and stood up.
“Well, Dina, to me it means a troubled time best left buried. Now I’m going to have a hot bath and a cozy read in bed.”
I cleaned up the dinner things, then, edgy and disinclined to read, I watched two videos before I felt sleepy enough to turn out the lights. I slept fitfully, only sliding into true slumber at dawn. That’s when the dream came.
My mother and I were standing on the riverbank. I was staring at an osprey circling high in the sky.
I heard a splash and lowered my gaze to the water. My father was out in the deepest part of the river. He was gasping for air, having just surfaced from a dive. In a moment, he dived again. His bony ankles and feet flashed whitely above the dark water.
Again and again, he surfaced and dived, surfaced and dived. Each time he came up, he looked across to my mother and shook his head no and threw her a kiss. In response, she threw him a kiss. The pace of this eerie ricochet kept increasing until I couldn’t move my head quickly enough back and forth to follow it. I was getting dizzy trying. I had to sit down on the sand.
Just then the osprey plunged down, talons open to snare a fish. Somehow the bird had miscalculated, however. It missed the river altogether and smashed itself on a boulder right next to me. My right arm was splashed with its blood.
My mother pulled at my other arm. We ran together into the woods and towards our house. I could hear my father splashing out of the river to follow us.
We ran as you run in dreams, straining mightily but making slow headway. My feet were so heavy I could barely lift them. My heart pounded with the effort. My mother, clutching my hand in hers, was dragging me forward. I knew she was trying to help me, but I thought that if only she’d let go of me, I’d be able to move faster. There was a terrifying sense of pursuit and danger, though the only things behind us were a dead bird and my wet, barefoot father.
I woke up with a start while we were still in the woods. A thin film of sweat coated my face and throat. My heart was pounding. I lay motionless for some minutes to let the terror evaporate.
The dream stayed with me all morning, like a toothache. I didn’t leave my bedroom. I kept puzzling over the events of the nightmare. I was convinced it was about Stacey’s death; specifically, about something I had once known about her death and had somehow forgotten.
Finally, I thought I knew, but I would need courage and all my reporter’s skills to question the one person who could tell me for sure.
I found my mother in the kitchen. She was chopping celery for tuna salad.
“Mother, I’ve remembered something about Stacey’s death.”
The rhythm of her chopping slowed, but she didn’t look up.
“You were just a child,” she said.
“Exactly. So what I’ve remembered may be lopsided or even imaginary. But there’s an awful truth there, just the same. I’m sure of it.”
“Dina, you’re so melodramatic. But then, you always were.” She was trying, unsuccessfully, to sound light and amused.
“Please, Mother. Don’t put me off. You may be sorry you did.”
She put down the knife and looked at me. Her face was closed except for a slight knitting of the brows and a dancing behind her eyes. She could have been studying a chess move.
I sat down at the neat kitchen table, and so did she. It was set with two chairs, as it had always been. I used to breakfast on a high stool at the counter across the room and watch my parents eat and converse as if they were in a stage play. We ate dinner all together at the dining room table, but there, too, I’d been mainly an audience.
When Stacey ate dinner with us, as she did three or four times a month, my mother was conscientious about including us girls in the talk, playing the proper hostess even for a child. This irked my father, who usually ate quickly on those nights and retreated to the living room with the newspaper, sometimes even skipping dessert.
I knew how he felt. I didn’t like sharing my mother with Stacey, either. I had too little of her myself to be generous. But I was more tolerant than my father. Because I was less spoiled.
My mother was waiting for me to speak, but my carefully formulated questions had deserted me.
“I’ll make us some tea,” she finally said, beginning to get up.
I hadn’t meant to sound as harsh as I did, but it had the desired effect. She dipped down into her seat again.
“Let me tell you what I remember, first,” I continued. “And then, I’ll tell you my conclusions.”
She nodded. For once, I had all her attention.
“I remember seeing Dad dive for Stacey’s body. Before any searchers were there. Even before Stacey’s father knew she was missing. I remember you were there, too, and that you were frightened.”
“We were all upset that day. The whole town was troubled for weeks after. Children in my class would begin to cry for no reason. That’s why I think that it’s better not to—”
“Wait, Mother. Let me finish. I think…God, this is so hard…I think Dad had something to do with Stacey’s death.”
“Whatever can you mean?” Her voice was a curdled whisper.
I had read of people going white, and now I saw it. Her face drained of color. Even the blue seemed to fade from her eyes, leaving them a pale gray.
“Mother, I believe that somehow, intentional or not, Dad caused Stacey’s death.”
“And you’re going to write that?” The whisper was gone. She shouted her question.
“Yes. Unless you can help me understand otherwise.”
She stood up and paced the room, halting at the spice rack, on which sat a framed snapshot of her and my father, arms linked, smiles broad and sincere. There are similar photos all over the house. Her back was to me, so I couldn’t see her expression as she stared at the picture. The upper half of her body leaned toward it, as if she yearned to climb into the photo and become that polished, glossy image of herself, caught with my father inside the safe boundaries of the gilt frame.
“Dad was home that afternoon, wasn’t he?”
“It was a Friday.” She was talking to the photo. “He arrived unexpectedly after lunch. I was just about to go to the river with you and Stacey. Another ten minutes and he would have missed us.”
“We didn’t go to the river?”
“Your father didn’t want to go.”
She clutched her body as if she were standing in a cold wind.
“Well, of course, I chose to stay home.” She rubbed her hands briskly up and down her upper arms. “Stacey made an awful fuss. So I promised I’d meet you at the river later.”
“But Dad met us, too, didn’t he? And maybe he played that game with Stacey where he’d throw her into the air and pretend to miss catching her and she’d splash into the water and come up laughing and sputtering and begging for him to do it again, and he’d look at you on the shore, and you’d be laughing, too, and clapping, and so he’d do it again. And maybe he threw her too far one time and she hit her head on a rock and sank and wouldn’t come up, wouldn’t ever come up. And maybe he was even a little glad.”
My mother whipped around toward me.
“No, no! How can you invent such horrible things?”
She was crying, and she wasn’t bothering to wipe the tears from her face. Her fists were clenched at her sides.
“You knew, didn’t you?” I was unmerciful. “You both knew what had happened before anyone else.”
“Why didn’t you tell? Why didn’t you tell, if you had nothing to hide?”
“It was for you. Because of you, Dina.”
“For me? You never even inconvenienced yourselves for me. You kept quiet to protect him.”
“No, Dina. It was you. You killed Stacey.”
Her words fell into me like quicksilver, heavy and poisonous. My blood carried the deadly weight of them to every part of my body. In an instant, they were as inseparable from me as my bones.
Even in my loneliest, most resentful hours, I had never conceived of my parents’ love for each other as this exclusive of me, that my own mother would call me a killer to save the good name of a dead man.
But the poison in what she said lay not just in that. My shock was edged with guilt. There were times when I had wished Stacey irrevocably beyond my mother’s sympathy. I had prayed that Stacey would move away. The truth was that more than once I had imagined her dead.
Nothing in the kitchen appeared substantial or reassuring, though it is, as kitchens often are, the most intimate room in the house. I felt as if I were looking at a 3-D comic without the special glasses.
Slowly, I became aware of a throbbing malevolence reverberating through the room, beating against us. I wondered which of us, myself or my mother, was its source. Like the first sulfuric flash of a struck match, the suspicion sprang up and then away from me that it was neither one nor the other of us, but the thickened air between us that shimmered with lethal emanations.
I didn’t realize my mother had sat down again until I heard her voice close to me. She had reached across the table and was resting her hand, palm down, a few inches from my elbow. Like in the historical tableaus Mother used to direct at the grade school, neither of us moved when she began speaking.
“As I said,” she intoned, as if reasoning with a frightened child, “you and Stacey went to the river, and your father and I stayed home. In about half an hour, you came back alone, screaming for us. The bedroom window was open, so we heard you before we saw you. We rushed downstairs and met you at the kitchen door.”
I pushed my chair back a bit and looked away from Mother. She left her outstretched hand on my side of the table, though it was an awkward position that forced her to lean forward unnaturally.
“You were nearly incomprehensible, but we gathered that Stacey was hurt. We all ran down to the river.”
Mother straightened up, sliding her hand away from me.
“Go on,” I said in a voice so flat it seemed to me that someone else had spoken.
“Dina, perhaps this isn’t wise. I can’t remember all the details…”
“You’re right about some of it. Arthur did dive for Stacey, and I was frightened, especially because you kept shrieking that you’d hit her with a rock and killed her. You finally became so agitated we had to take you back to the house and give you half a Seconal. You slept for hours.”
She stopped again and looked around the kitchen inquisitively, like a young animal abandoned in a strange place. I heard the ticking of the hall clock a room away.
“We were beside ourselves,” she continued. “We were afraid to call the police. Poor Stacey was beyond their help, and anyway, we weren’t sure of what exactly had happened.”
“You said I killed her. You just said I killed her.”
Mother slammed her fist on the table, an uncharacteristic outburst.
“You forced me to say that, Dina. Let’s stop now, before it’s too late.”
“We can’t, Mother. Not until we’ve come to the end.”
“Are you so sure you’ll know the end when you reach it?”
“Maybe not. I didn’t recognize the beginning.”
Our conversation was like walking together on a trampoline. Each step changed the territory, and neither of us could anticipate just how the other would alter the landing of the next footfall.
I looked hard at my mother. She couldn’t maintain her anger before my gaze, which left more room for mine.
“But you recognized the beginning, didn’t you?” I said. “You tried to stop me from doing this story because you knew it would come to this, to you and me. And to the dead ones, too.”
“No, Dina, I didn’t know it would come to this.”
She sounded tired and defeated, but I could still sense tendons of resistance stringing through her. That reinforced my determination.
“And when I woke up,” I said. “What did I say?”
I’d almost asked “what did she say,” so far away and unknown did that little girl seem.
“You were groggy and confused. You began crying and saying you were sorry and asking if Stacey was all right.
“We hadn’t planned it, but at once Arthur told you Stacey was at home with her father, that since you were sorry you should just forget about all of it. He said we would never speak of it again. You nodded and stopped crying. I took you to the kitchen for a snack as if it were an ordinary day.
“You didn’t flinch when Stacey’s father came looking for her, not even when you heard me lie to him. It was as if your mind had simply plucked a typical day, laid it over that awful day, and obliterated it. Then I knew it was the right decision. For you. For our life here.”
Mother rested her hands on the edge of the table. Her left thumb twirled her wedding band around her finger, a habit whenever she was anxious. I watched the alternating flashes of gold and diamonds.
“Why should we have done otherwise?” my mother went on, reclaiming self-assurance. “Both you girls were past it. What could be gained? Some pure ideal of justice or truth? Far saner to set life back on track. It’s what survivors are meant to do.”
On the table, beside the Willoware sugar bowl, stood an old Mason jar filled with smooth black stones. My father enjoyed searching for them whenever he went to the river. His standards of shape, size, smoothness, and color were high, so only an occasional stone was allowed to go home to the jar. He tried one time to teach me his system of evaluation, but I must not have understood it as well as I thought I did because not one stone I brought him ever made it into the jar.
I was better at choosing skipping stones for him. I even became so proficient myself at flinging the flat rocks that they’d skitter over the surface of the water almost to the opposite bank. This small skill of mine delighted both my parents, and indeed it pleased me immeasurably, too. There was a sense of power, however brief and false, in defying the laws of nature by making a rock float.
Suddenly, as I was staring at the jar of stones, Mother’s diamonds still scintillating at the edge of my field of vision, I reached a barren island in the thrashing sea of my emotions. It was more a becalmed place than a peaceful one, but it was free at least of the deafening agitation of my heart. I was intent on keeping absolutely still. It seemed I must shatter irreparably if I moved or spoke. Then, in the next moment, I had to speak to save myself from screaming, for there on that stuporous island, as unthinkingly as raising a window shade, I had remembered.
“Stacey is in the deep water,” I said, looking away from my mother and lifting my voice over her inarticulate moan. “We both know it’s forbidden, but she’s a good swimmer, and she’s annoyed that you changed our plans at the last minute just because Dad came home.
“I’m skipping rocks. One jumps quite near Stacey. She yells at me to stop. Then I start skipping them close to her on purpose, to tease her and to test how well I can control their paths.
“She keeps on yelling. She’s getting angry. She says she’ll tell, but I know she won’t because then she’d have to say she’d been swimming without a grown-up there.
“She sees I’m not going to stop, so she starts coming to shore. I have to throw the rocks faster and faster. Now they’re not skipping at all.
“She’s in the last section of deep water, the place by the big boulders where the current runs strongest. I scoop up two fistfuls of rocks and hurl them at her. They spray down all around her. The river in that spot looks like it does when a heavy rain is falling. Stacey is like a frog in the rain, blinking and surprised.
“Then there’s blood — blood on her forehead and sliding over the side of her face. And she just glides down under the water. She doesn’t thrash around or call out. She doesn’t go down three times like in stories. She just glides under. The water is smooth, the woods are silent. It’s as if she had never been there at all.”
I looked at Mother then, looked into those blue eyes, filled with alarm. For the first time in my life, I wanted nothing from her but to be left alone, which, ironically, had been the one thing I could always count on getting. It must have shown in my face.
“No, Dina, no,” she said. “It was an accident.”
I heard her anguished voice as if my head were swathed in layers and layers of wool.
“You weren’t there, Mother.”
“I know you, Dina.”
She was pleading. Odd that though her words were muffled, the emotion behind them reached me with acute clarity.
“You don’t know me, Mother. You never have.”
She seemed to shrink in her chair. Again she glanced around the room searchingly.
“You didn’t mean it,” she insisted hoarsely.
“I did mean it. God help me, I did mean it. At least part of me did, at least for one moment. And that was enough for the deed to get done.”
“But why? It makes no sense. A happy child like you…”
I felt a crooked smile form slowly over my face. It couldn’t have communicated either joy or pity, even to my desperately hopeful mother. It was as removed from them as a cloud crossing the moon.
When Mother saw the smile, she lifted her hands to her mouth. Her lips quavered behind the cage of her slender fingers.
“Dina, listen.” Now her hands were clasped under her chin prayerfully. “I think you tried to save her. Maybe you did mean to hurt her, but then you tried to save her. You were soaking wet when you came to get us. Even your hair was wet.”
“Give it up, Mother. No more lies. It’s too late to save any of us.”
“Dina, it could be true. I could be. It must be. Try to remember.”
But I was slipping off my island. I felt cold and buffeted by fear, beyond rescue. The sound of breathing, my own and Mother’s, pressed against my ears, sucked at my limbs. This must be how it feels, I thought, to be in deep, deep water.
I can not imagine a time, past or future, out of the reach of this memory. People talk about “hard facts,” implying that truth is their granite underpinning. But I know better. Truth is fluid and plural, and it offers no shelter. It is always summer somewhere.