Back then, she hardly dreamed at all. It was as if there wasn’t room enough in her head. She was so busy running.
She had been eleven days on the road when she saw the strip of meadow bordered by woods spilling down the hill to her left. “Wow,” she said, without intending to. She said it in a whisper. This was late in the afternoon. As far as she could recall, it was the first word she had uttered that day.
She continued driving. After a quarter mile she signaled, pulled over into a truck turnout, and stopped. She sat in her car, blank-headed, the engine running. She made no effort to organize her attention. She made no effort of any kind. It felt good to her, just sitting there. Another car shot by her on the highway, upsetting the silence and disturbing the composure of the weeds. And then another. Each time, the silence put itself back together. The world beyond the windshield, visible, recognizable, was like a text she could not read.
She was, she understood, still caught up in the glow and delirium that had carried her clear across the continent nearly to the coast, less than an hour to the east. She was sitting in a strange car, acquired three days earlier in a trade for her old one, in . . . the name of the town escaped her. On the other hand there was the surprise of this stillness, which felt also familiar in some way, like the reappearance of something she had once known but had forgotten.
It was early summer. A fat fly buzzed past her window. Somewhere in the distance a crow called. Five quick calls—wank wank wank wank wank—then quiet. A minute passed with neither a repeat nor an answer. It disappointed her, this deficit of noise.
She turned the car around and slowly accelerated back onto the highway, heading west now. All the rush and the momentum were gone. Instead she felt a wariness, an anticipation laced with something like dread, as if traveling in the opposite direction required an about-face of emotions. She drove, watching the hills to her right, which appeared improbably dark to her now from this other angle, the sunlight slightly in her eyes. But whatever doubt this may have provoked did not deter her. She had the feeling she had made a decision, though she didn’t know what that decision was. It was as if that field had spoken to her, its voice oozing up from the earth through the stems of its grasses and weeds.
The road wound left, then right, drawing her back beyond where she remembered. A sliver of the meadow flickered between the trees, and all at once it loomed into view on her right. There was no traffic behind her. She slowed. Where the shoulder of the road widened, she pulled over and shut the engine off. For a moment she sat, as if to prepare herself, then got out of the car and stood, leaning against the fender.
There it was.
“OK, what?” she said, again in a whisper, for she was speaking really to the meadow, a thing one does not do out loud. She looked at what there was to see, taking in long and careful breaths and moving only her eyes, as if inhaling and seeing were the same thing.
The meadow was what meadows are. Grasses intermingled with grasses. Crowds of weeds had come into flower—particles of yellow and lavender and orange shimmered over the surface like live and colorful dusts. As she stood, gazing, the weight of the afternoon sun had its effect on her, and she felt herself yielding to the odor and the heat, the press of all that vegetation. On the highway behind her a truck roared by. She watched the wake of its passing churn across the meadow.
A short distance beyond her car, a gravel road began its ascent from the highway. On tiptoes she traveled it through the meadow with her eyes, shielding them from the sun. The road wound, avoiding the bordering woods. Along its route there were sections she could not see as it dipped or veered to disappear among the taller grasses. But it was a road. It went somewhere.
She started walking. The road at first climbed steeply, then leveled off. Turning around, she noticed that she could no longer see her car. As she walked, her sandals slipped at times in the dry gravel and took on stones and raised dust that clung to her ankles like a new skin, but she kept on. The day was hot, though she could see the sun was already dropping in the sky. How far she walked was hard for her to judge. At one point she was dismayed to see the road veering toward the woods. But soon it cut back again, keeping to the meadow.
In places the meadow was rocky, and the tall weeds gave way to clumps of brush, changes she noted uneasily. The weeds, the grasses, the bushes all were nameless to her. She walked tentatively, like one making her way through a field of incomplete thoughts. She kept the splayed fingers of one hand pressed to the skin just below her neck, as if afraid of losing something there—a scarf or a piece of jewelry, though she was wearing neither. What she did hold there, beneath her breastbone, was a certainty—that she had done the right thing, coming back to see this, whatever it might turn out to be. Perhaps it was this that she was afraid of losing.
Had someone stopped her, had someone asked her where she was going, she wouldn’t have known what to answer. There was something she needed to see, and soon enough she would see it. This was all she knew.
Finally she reached the crest of the hill and understood then that she had been walking a driveway, for there before her was a house, the gravel road looping to the right to end in the patch of meadow that had taken over its front yard. She approached cautiously, though it was soon clear that no one lived there and that no one had for a long time. The house—a two-story, squarish structure with a fat brick chimney at its center—sat solidly under a cluster of tall evergreens. The surrounding meadow, sprawling in full sun, had been almost too bright for the eyes, but the house, shaded by the trees around it, seemed of another world.
At the edge of what she imagined had been the yard, she paused, gazing at this unexpected house, trying to recognize in its appearance some trace of the feeling she had carried with her all the way up the hill. But she wasn’t sure whether—perhaps beyond a faint sadness—she felt anything at all.
She continued her approach until the gravel of the driveway ran out, swallowed by weeds whose stalks lay bent and flattened in tire tracks. Someone had recently driven there. Slowly she advanced along the front of the house, peeking in windows. Through panes of glass filmed over with neglect, she saw bare rooms, their walls and ceilings dulled by the years. A velvet of dust covered the floors and window sills, which were peppered also with dead flies. Everything about the house, inside and out, appeared a bit removed, as if she were seeing it through a vapor of grey. Or no—as if she were not seeing it, but somehow remembering it.
On the clapboards beneath one of the windows, someone had stapled a real estate sign. There was what appeared to have been the agent’s name and a phone number, but the sign had been vandalized and both were unreadable.
Ducking under the limbs of the evergreens, she wandered around to the back of the house, where one of the windows had been broken. On the floor inside she could see sneaker prints, small ones, trafficking through the dust. It was what happened to old houses—children invaded them.
A sound she did not recognize drew her attention down toward the meadow, which sloped away behind the house, ending in a bog. There, by a hummock of grass and rock, she thought she saw movement. She stood, distracted, waiting to see it again, whatever it was. The sound had been like the guttural cry of some large bird. She watched for something to take flight.
The bog was entirely quiet. Stumps and skeletal trees the color of metal stuck up out of the swampy ground. Between them a tiny black stream meandered, its water moving so slowly that the stream seemed not to be flowing in one direction or the other but rather lying, black and impenetrable, like a ribbon of some substance not of this world. Nothing moved. Nothing made a sound. She stood, her body twisted toward the bog, her hand pressed to the skin at her neck.
In time the breeze picked up a little, setting the limbs of the spruce in motion and rustling the grasses. She stirred then. She continued her walk around the house. And then, before starting back down the drive, she walked around again.
By the time she got back to the highway, the sun was close to setting. As she was opening the door to her car, she noticed a mailbox on a rotted wooden post lying in the weeds at the foot of the driveway. Next to it, tilting toward the drainage ditch, was a real estate sign. The agent’s name was missing, but there was a phone number.
This was how it began.
* * *
To start with, she pitched a tent in the grass—in the front yard, right by the house. The grass in places came almost to her chin. She prepared the ground by stomping it all down in a great circle, a task she performed with energy. At the end she was grinning and out of breath, which was when her eyes fell on the real estate sign. Prying with a screwdriver, she popped the staples off, collecting every one of them in her hand. The sign and the staples went into a plastic trash bag. And that was that. The ground she had trampled was soft and dry, perfect for camping, though she noticed there were ticks.
Scavenging beneath the evergreens, she collected armfuls of dead wood—branches as thick as her wrists. She worked without pause, cutting the branches to length with a camp saw, and stacking them by the house. That evening in a pit she built a small fire. The flames threw a flickering glow on the tent and on her car and on the house looming over her in the night. Moving between the fire and the house, she was startled more than once by the size and sweep of her own shadow ranging across the front wall—a thing connected to her, but apparently with a life of its own.
The very next day she started in, tackling the kitchen first. She had noticed a certain smell to the house, and whatever that smell was was coming from the kitchen. It took her the better part of a day, scrubbing down the walls and the floor, the counter, the sink, the cookstove. Something had made a mess in one of the cabinets—some small animal, having found its way in through a hole in the wall. The work was hard. The place had only a dug well, and someone had stolen the pump. She had to carry all the water in in buckets. When she was finished, she had one more thing to do: she cut her hair and died it black. She crawled into her bag that night, her hair still wet, wrapped in a towel.
Officially, she didn’t own the place yet. But it was OK with the sellers, her moving in. They were happy to have someone living there, the agent had told her, “what with kids now breaking into the place.” Kids breaking in meant the jimmied window in the back, which as far as she could see hadn’t amounted to a lot. A few of the walls had graffiti on them—just silliness, kids’ names. Bill + Sophie. Grace loves Mark. In an upstairs bedroom she found a candle on the floor and some new-agey-looking symbols of the occult drawn on the wallpaper. Like some preteens had held a seance.
She worked her way through the house that first week, cleaning and painting rooms. On the third day she went into town and bought a gun. Town was fifteen miles away. It was where she got her groceries, her cleansers, her paint. The gun was Italian-made—as far as she knew, the kind the Mafia used. The thing weighed a ton.
She liked the house. She talked to it as she worked. She felt evidence around her of a personality, stern but not unfriendly. The house had eleven rooms—a room for every day she’d been on the road. There was one in particular she had her eye on: a corner room in the back on the second floor, overlooking the bog. The paint was barely dry when she spread her air mattress and sleeping bag out on the floor. The house had not a single stick of furniture, nor had she brought any of her own. Furniture had been the least of her worries, in her rush to leave behind the horror that was her husband.
The nights were cool and, it seemed to her, without boundaries. Mists oozed out of the blackness, blanketing the meadow and the bog. She lay inside her bag, her hand on a flashlight, her eyes on the grey of the ceiling. Noises crept at her out of the dark, frantic little rhythms, scratchings and scurryings. Mice, or maybe squirrels. The house creaked and creaked again like a ship, slumping one way or the other in the wind. On the floor beside her head lay her Italian-made gun. And every so often, tearing through the night, there would erupt from the bog a terrible sound. She waited in the silence, her attention fixed—it was her impression—on something behind the night. She felt it then, in a way that would not leave her—the world might not be what she’d thought it was.
Late one night in the second week, close to sleep, she noticed a different sound separating itself from the silence—the growl of a car or truck engine laboring up the hill. She froze, listening as it seemed to approach along the curve of the drive. A blue-white glow traveled the ceiling and walls of her room, as if the moon were rising out of the grass in her front yard. The vehicle seemed to stop in front of the house, the engine idling. She listened to the resonant rumble of the exhaust. Whatever it was was big. She heard no voices, no truck doors opening or slamming shut. The house lock was a flimsy doorknob-button type anyone could have kicked through.
After what seemed a long time, she heard the engine rev again. The light swept again along the ceiling as the vehicle apparently backed out and returned the way it had come. She listened until the sound lost its shape, as did her memory of it, except for the certainty that it had been there.
She asked a contractor to look things over, which he did wordlessly. She followed a few steps behind him as he methodically circled the house exterior, then entered and peeked into rooms. He took no notes. Whatever calculations were going on in his head he kept there. Finally he turned to her. The house would need a new roof, he told her cheerfully. The windows wouldn’t stand up to winter. The place would have to be rewired, or else, one of these days, it would go up in flames. Then there was that rotten patch on the sill where animals had been getting in. He paused then, perhaps measuring her reaction. Otherwise, he added—almost in a different voice—the house looked solid.
The assessment did not faze her. She had enough money. It was, in fact, about all she’d brought with her, escaping from her so-called husband, taking only what had been hers anyway, though the distinction likely hadn’t registered with him.
She could well imagine the way it had gone, once he learned that she’d left him. His eyes narrowed. He hardened, fell silent as if he were thinking, but it would not have been thoughts going through that head. Day might settle into dark without him moving a muscle. Until at last something broke him out of it, and then the hunt began. He would devote everything to it, tracking her down. He would not give it up. And if he were ever to get his hands on her, that would be the end of it. She knew—hands that could crush things hands had no business crushing. A glass jar. An electric razor. A woman’s neck.
But he would not get his hands on her. He would have to find her first, and he would never find her. The way it was, she could barely have found herself. She had that in her favor, that her desperation had made her so improbable. It pleased her, perhaps even more than being free of him: the pain it would cause him, his failure to find her.
She bought a table and chairs, some dishes, curtains for the windows. There was much work to do in the house, and she was eager to do it, but for some reason she could not keep herself there. She was instead gripped by an impatience, a longing to see what was outside. She kept glancing through windows. Again and again in daylight she wandered the meadow, and at night its sounds, its stillness weighed upon her heavily. The way it felt, she was more than a little in love with it, threading her way amidst the singing of crickets along paths she didn’t know, the threads little by little connecting her, stitching her to these patches of ground.
From the beginning she had trouble sleeping. She at first suspected the camping mattress, which seemed, in a way she couldn’t explain, to leave her vulnerable to the floor. A real bed would be better, she reasoned, contemplating the problem while standing up, her feet where her head had been.
But there were dreams, of a kind she had never experienced before. They troubled her, not for their content, but for the ease with which they passed as episodes of her waking life. Had she really gone into town during a thunderstorm on some errand? Had someone spoken to her there about the need for secrecy? She had dreamt these things, she at last decided. But the memories unsettled her. She wondered about other events in her life.
In one dream she was seated at a table in what appeared to be a room without walls. Everything in the room glowed unsteadily, as if by the light of a fire. She sat with one hand in her lap, the other resting on the table, holding a crude bowl in which there was liquid. There was the expectation of a meal. As she lifted the bowl from time to time, the liquid shimmered, but she did not drink. Someone was seated across from her . . . . who, she did not know. But whoever it was—the face hidden—was afflicted with a terrific hunger. In the dream the meal never arrived. She ate nothing. There was only the waiting. There was only the intent and the need of this someone looming before her.
Within the dream she felt an undercurrent of longing, a promise of something to be fulfilled. Even when she awoke, the feeling did not leave her. She rose immediately then and stood by her mattress, her eyes bewildered by the newly painted walls. Her bedroom, by the ghostly sweep of her flashlight, looked oddly insubstantial. Before she knew what she was doing, she was descending the stairs to the kitchen, barefoot. There she poured a glass of water and drank it. The kitchen—also freshly painted—had a remote, vacant look to it, like an imitation of a kitchen. She poured another glass of water and drank that too. She struck a match and lit the kerosene lamp by the sink. She rummaged then through the cabinets and her styrofoam cooler and fired up a burner on top of the range and made herself a generous breakfast, which she ate by the flickering light of the lantern as if feeding an impatient heart. Before long dawn eased its way in around the edges of the new curtains. She watched as she sat at her kitchen table, both hands wrapped around a cup of tea. Within a week she had purchased a bed. But the dreams persisted.
By day she wandered out into the meadow, where even in full sun her dreams haunted her. Some of the dreams she could not remember, though they took hold of her with such energy that she felt herself alive in two worlds—a meadow world and a shadow world. She kept out of sight of the highway on her walks, which was not difficult, for her attention was more often pulled in the opposite direction, to the back side of the hill. Her excursions soon wore paths from the house into the meadow and from the meadow into the bog, where again and again she was drawn without knowing why. This landscape drowned unto stillness—it was after all what had brought her here, though of course she did not understand what that meant. Three, four, five times a day, she ventured to the soggy edge of the bog to stand amidst the whine of insects and gaze into the black waters wetting the tips of her shoes. Her eyes were quick, trying to look at everything at once, so certain was she that she would see something there.
The contractor sent a man over to work on the windows. The man was young and muscular and bronze-skinned. He told her on the first day that his name was Dale. He brought the windows, a few at a time, along with lumber in the back of his truck. In his every move he was followed by a gangly and energetic dog the color of cinnamon. First thing each morning Dale set up his table saw, which he plugged into a generator, also in the bed of the truck. He worked quietly and efficiently, moving counter-clockwise around the house, beginning with the windows in front on the first floor. Whenever he needed to cut lumber, she noticed, he would cut everything at once, then shut the generator off, for which she was thankful. He was forever measuring, it seemed to her. Sometimes she would hear his hammer or his drill, but mostly he was so quiet in his work, she hardly knew he was there.
Every day at noon he mounted a boulder at the edge of the meadow and ate what appeared to be sandwiches out of a brown paper bag. Now and again she paused at the window and gazed at him distractedly. She was alone, after all, and aside from the house and the meadow and the bog, what else was there to look at? As he ate, his legs straddling the rock—she observed—he divided his attention equally between the sky and the meadow and the dog that lay at his feet. She had no idea what it was in his sandwiches, except for the onions, which she could smell from across the yard. Anyway, he ate it eagerly and washed it down always with orange soda.
Dale wasn’t especially talkative, but whenever their paths would cross in the course of the day, he would be ready for her with some banality. “Fine day, isn’t it?” he would say. Or, “Better enjoy this one while we can.” He never used the same expression twice. Sometimes he would only smile. She was moved by these little courtesies, which were clearly intended to set her at ease. On one occasion he asked, “So how do you like the house?”
“I like it,” she said.
He looked at her in an odd way. “Have you seen anything?”
“What do you mean?”
He shook his head. “Oh, when we were kids we used to say the place was haunted.”
She heard herself laugh. “Why?”
“Oh . . . .” He shrugged. “Rumors, you know.”
“I have seen children,” she said. “Twice. Both times they stood in a line at the edge of the meadow and threw stones at the house.”
“Oh, that’ll stop, once they get used to someone living here.”
There were places on the hill where the skin of the earth lay open. Fingers of bedrock, unrelenting, had worked their way into the meadow. Boulders, shaggy with lichen, ruminated among the grasses. She felt herself drawn to these brooding landscapes of stone, where the meadow appeared less like a hayfield and more ancient and somehow necessary.
From one of her excursions in town, she brought home a book on the flora of meadows. Sitting at the kitchen table, she opened it, and browsed. For three days she forgot about cleaning and painting and lost herself in its pages. Her walks took her hours—she paid attention to everything. She’d never known there were so many grasses. And that grasses could be so beautiful. And the weeds. Hawkweed, bellwort, lady’s slipper, bloodroot—all of them had names. Their flowers—yellow, orange, purple, and pink—assumed distinct shapes. They could be bell or funnel or trumpet-shaped or tubular or cruciform or stellate. They might occur in clusters, round or elongated. The author cautioned, however, that, in practice, the shape of any one particular flower might be difficult to determine. The thirteen shapes he had listed were those recognized generally by botanists. But the flowers one encountered in the field, he wrote, “might have other ideas.”
She was thrilled. All of it was strange to her. She understood, it would take time for her to come to know this world. Meanwhile, this sensation of not knowing, this pregnant stupefaction, she did not want to miss.
She collected samples and kept a notebook, divided into sections headed Edible, Inedible, Toxic, Medicinal. She had never in her life done anything like this. Onto the pages, she taped—one sample to a page—sprigs of sedge and rush and grass. The blank spaces around these samples filled up immediately with notation. The writing in her own hand and the corresponding actual plant matter seemed to work a sort of chemistry together. The notebook, bulging with words and vegetation, felt in her hand like a treasure in the making. For the wildflowers, of course, she would require other notebooks.
In fact it was as she was jotting down a note alongside a sample of hair fescue—her thinking distracted at the same time by some unrelated reverie of speculation—that she lifted her eyes above the edge of her notebook and . . . saw something. At the edge of the bog. Where she was used to seeing only rushes and cattails. Standing right close to the water on the opposite side of the creek was . . . . it took her a moment to figure out what it was she was looking at. The trunk of a great dead birch, she decided, the whitish bark peeling away at the top and lower, revealing darker brown—but of an extravagant shape, the sheets of bark coming undone, like wings unfolding.
She could not take her eyes off the thing. She was trying really to see it, to recognize what it was. And then it moved. As she was watching, it seemed to pivot, somehow fold, and . . . dissolve into the woods.
It was gone.
Staring at the spot, vacant now, she held very still. She could barely breathe. Her eyes bore down on the place where it had stood—hopelessly, as if in an effort to make a memory visible. And then she was on her way downhill, breaking into a run, straight for the bog, until she was stopped at the edge of the creek just across from where the thing had stood, her thinking all flutter and deflection, trying to hang onto the image. Could it have been someone, instead of something? Some local person, crazily dressed, out for a hike. A hunter, a surveyor, lugging some piece of equipment. Had she seen a dead tree fall and sink noiselessly into the marsh? Or had it been . . . . she didn’t even know how to ask the question.
* * *
One day, returning from one of her walks, she saw Dale straddling his lunch rock in the sun. But on this occasion, he had no lunch in hand, only an orange soda. It was barely noon. The windows were nearly finished.
“No lunch today?” she said.
“Naw.” He slid off the rock. “Magic got to it first.” He stooped and held up a shredded paper bag, grinning. He said, “Didn’t even leave me the crumbs.” He grabbed the dog around the ears and ruffled her fur, and the dog wagged her tail. He spoke as though he were speaking to the dog. “She don’t know any better, she’s just a puppy. Aren’t you?”
“Here, I can fix you some.”
“Oh no, that’s O.K.”
“Nonsense, I’ll bring it right out.” She stepped past him and headed for the kitchen, where the countertops, freshly painted white, were laid out like museum tables with sprigs of flowering plants. There was barely room to set a slice of bread down, but she managed to throw together some sandwiches, which she brought out on a tray with chips and juice and cookies.
Dale had to tie the dog.
She set the tray in the grass and sat cross-legged next to it. They both ate. For awhile neither of them said anything. Still, she was able to see him out of the corner of her eye. She guessed he couldn’t be much older than twenty.
He asked finally how the painting was coming along.
“O.K., I guess.”
He gazed out over the meadow toward the hills to the south. He said, “Are you, like some kind of biologist or something.”
She laughed. “No, not yet anyway. Just . . . living here with all this . . .” She swept an arm out to include the meadow. “I got interested in it.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. He seemed to understand.
Looking up at him on his rock, she had to squint against the sun. She said, “So you used to say the house was haunted?”
“Some of the kids said they saw things.”
He shrugged. “Spooks. I don’t know. Why, have you seen something?”
She hesitated. “Yeah.”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t tell what it was.”
“Down there.” She turned toward the bog. “Just across the creek.”
He swiveled completely around on his boulder and stared toward the creek in silence. It was a silence that gave her hope, as if the matter they were discussing was not just a joke, but there was some weight to it.
He said, “You ought to talk to my uncle.”
She looked at him.
“He’s a motewolon. One who knows things.”
She didn’t say anything.
“You should talk to him. He’s a good man, my uncle.”
She nodded. “Thanks,” she said. “Maybe I will.” That was what she said, even though she knew she wouldn’t.
The lack of sleep must have taken its toll, for at last she fell sick. For two days she kept mostly to her bed, her awareness roiling in and out of focus. She did not know where she was. Or, rather, her surroundings seemed to shift and exaggerate themselves crazily. At times there was something resembling daylight and at times a darkness flooded back in, but for her it hardly made a difference. She was driven by a particular fear. There was someone, never far away, chasing her—someone she knew, but also did not know. She hid in a wooden box. It was not a coffin even though it looked like one. At some point she understood, it was her pain who was chasing her. There was nothing she could do. She was tossing endlessly, suffering, in a tide of white heat. Her hallucinations dragged her out into the meadow, where the sun seemed to weigh on her steps and even her thinking. Finally exhausted, she sprawled on the wet ground, entangled in tall grass, unable to budge. Her hand closed around something soft—a small pouch, like a bird’s nest, stuffed with a mix of needles and leaves. She lay marking the passage of time with her breaths, holding the little pouch to her breast and squinting up at the broad and too bright sky, ready to meet a torment she could not name. There was this comfort: she understood that she had come to an end. And beyond that? She wiggled her fingers and her toes to see whether she were still alive. A shadow moved over her then, blocking the sky and casting a blackness over everything, after which she remembered nothing.
When all of a sudden she opened her eyes, someone was bending over her. A man she had never seen before. She lay utterly still in her bed, the room apparently illuminated by firelight, as in her dream. But she knew that this was not a dream. She felt pleasantly calm, even a little light-headed, as though, if she were to encourage it, her body might possibly ascend above the bed and float away out one of the windows. She was not frightened by the sight of the man, though his expression looked grim, perhaps even angry. He was speaking energetically, but it took her a moment to realize she could not understand the language. She blinked, and he was gone.
The next time she opened her eyes, sunlight was pouring in through the windows. A woman was sitting beside the bed, reading. When she stirred, the woman glanced at her and smiled, slipped a scrap of paper into her book, closed it, and set it aside. The woman leaned over and studied her face and then reached and caressed her forehead. The sensation gave her such comfort, she could have cried.
“I think I feel better,” she said, because she could not keep silent.
The woman’s name was Grace. She was Dale’s aunt. The man who had earlier stood over her in her delirium was Dale’s uncle, Joseph—the one who knew things.
She was half-sitting, half-lying in a lawn chair in the sun when she heard the vehicle’s tires on the gravel. She saw Dale’s truck rise out of the meadow grasses, lumber in her direction, and roll to a stop close by. Next to Dale in the cab was Joseph.
As the two men got out of the truck, she tried to stand to greet them, but Joseph motioned her to stay seated. He introduced himself and shook her hand. His other hand held an orange baseball cap, which now he placed on his head. He said something to Dale in his native language, then turned back to her. “I’m going for a walk,” he said. “I’ll be back.”
Still he stood there, saying nothing. His eyes searched her face with such insistence that finally she grew tired and her own eyes closed.
For awhile in her chair in the sun, she drifted in and out of sleep.
Then he was standing before her. It occurred to her that she might be dreaming. “How was your walk?” she said, testing.
She had the impression he almost smiled. He lifted his cap to run a hand over his head, then turned, squinting toward the bog and replaced the cap.
He squatted next to her. He held up the little pouch full of leaves that she had found during the height of her fever. He looked straight at her. “Where did you get this?” he said.
She told him she didn’t know. “It came to me,” she said.
He stared at the ground, adjusting the bill of his cap. Then, as if to demonstrate something, he took a pinch of the flakes in the pouch, crushed them between his fingers, and let them drizzle as powder on the breeze. “This is medicine,” he said. “It’s what we used to cure you.” He continued measuring her.
“Thank you,” she said.
He shook his head. “Don’t thank me,” he said. “You’d better not thank me.”
She expected him to say more, but he did not. He stood up and looked past the house toward the bog. He seemed to settle into himself. She wondered why he had come. He was standing, gazing toward the northern end of the creek, as if he might have expected something to appear there. He stood for such a long time that she grew impatient. She wanted him to tell her things. She wanted him to teach her.
“So . . . ,” she said, “you think it’s friendly? The ghost?”
He looked at her. “Yeah,” he said. “Casper. The friendly ghost.” He shook his head.
“I want to understand,” she said.
His gaze, when he spoke, was still directed toward the bog. “It’s not a ghost,” he said. “It’s a pisuwin. A spirit.”
“Is it evil?”
“No. Not evil,” he said. “Not evil. But spirits have appetites. And you are like a child.”
She started at the word “appetites”, not knowing exactly what he meant.
“I can learn,” she said.
She understood there was no point in arguing with him.
“Sister,” he said finally, though she must have been twenty years younger than he, “this is a local spirit. It is attached to this place.” He spoke facing the bog, in a voice so forceful he might have been addressing multitudes or trying to convince the very bog itself. “Do you understand what I’m saying? You must leave here.”
So he stood there, arguing—it seemed—for her soul. And by the time he was done, she saw that he was right, though there were things he said by way of warning that thrilled as well as frightened her.
“Your choice is simple,” he said. “You’re standing on the edge. You can go one way. Or the other.”
That night she did not leave the meadow as Joseph had advised. Instead she went inside the house and locked all the doors and ascended the stairs to her room. Feeling a new strength rising within her, she sat down on a chair beside her bed—the chair Dale’s aunt had used while reading—and waited in the dark. She did not wait long. She listened. The night was silent but somehow not at rest. An unsteady, troubled light from outside was agitating the darkness in the room. She rose and went to the window and looked out over the meadow, which under the moonlight seemed a tortured fairyland. She felt it then and turned from the window, and there descended around her a buffeting, like the beating of enormous wings. She did not defend herself, nor was she afraid. It was only that her body felt utterly slack, as though her heart, caught between beats, had lost track of itself. The thing did not advance toward her, but seemed simply to increase, overwhelming her until she felt herself composed of nothing but particles of excitement. The excitement lifted her like a wave, carried her, and then forgot about her.
Upon awakening the next morning, she found she was already up and dressing herself—as if having blundered into her own consciousness. She recognized that she was fully alert, her attention fixed on an odor she hadn’t noticed before. Even in her sleep she had known what the odor was. There was no need to think about anything. Wearing shorts, her sneakers laced up tight, she was down the stairs, out the back door, and onto the path that cut through the meadow to the bog. The sun was just rising, glittering through the woods to the east. Over the meadow’s surface, bees and hornets and birds already were fussing, submerging themselves and reemerging as if from cloud.
At the edge of the bog she paused, looking north toward where the creek disappeared in a stand of skeletal tree trunks. It was as if she’d realized only now what it was she was going to do. She didn’t know the first thing about bogs. There was the chance that she’d drown. Still she watched herself going ahead with it, as if pulled by something she couldn’t resist. On her first step, she sank to her ankles. Immediately she took another, trying to balance on clumps of sedge. But the clumps were unstable. A few steps further and she was in over her knees and teetering. There was nothing to hold onto, her legs were scratched, and the mosquitoes had found her. And there beneath her was the black water of the creek, looking like polished stone. She leaned forward, let herself go, and slipped into it. She was almost surprised to find it liquid. She tried swimming, but her feet hit bottom, every step plunging her ankle-deep in muck. Roots grabbed at her legs. The water roiled with mud and particles as if she were bathing in a dark vegetable tea, from the surface of which arose the odor that had awakened her earlier. She followed the creek north, half swimming, half wading, finally exhausting herself. Somehow she found her way back.
The next day she did it again, and again the day after that, and then, it seemed, every day. She got better at it. She learned how to walk without getting wet, how to swim without touching bottom. The sneakers came off and disappeared. She lost track of time. The bog observed her comings and goings through the eyes of insects and spiders and frogs, which she observed in turn. Some of them, she discovered, could be eaten. Turtles and beavers awaited her every approach as if it were the fulfillment of a prophesy, then slid heavily into the water, turned themselves into ripples, and moved off. She didn’t mind that she was being watched. She didn’t mind removing leeches from her skin. She was part of something. Little by little, she was leaking away.
She had looked at first in the water like an albino frog. Gradually the tannin tinted her skin. She was beginning her forays before dawn now, leaving her clothes at the edge of the bog, and returning by moonlight. Sometimes she stayed out overnight. Usually she didn’t go far. Though the creek did branch, and sometimes she was distracted and lost her way. One night, wandering dreamily in and out of the water, she came upon a lake flanked by hills. Standing on the shore of that lake, she saw not a single light, except for those in the sky. She sat down in the sand, and the stars poured themselves into her. She didn’t know what the lake was called, nor any of the stars. Anyway she had her own names for things. The names came to her in dreams—dreams that were very much like her own days and nights.
She understood that her life had slipped out of its shape and become something else.
He came for her on foot, leaving his car on the highway. The sun had set moments before. She was standing at an upstairs window, her stare lingering on the band of orange silhouetting the western horizon of trees, when she saw him moving like a stain across the greying space of the meadow. Even in such light and from such a distance, she recognized him immediately—the scissor-like motion of his limbs as he walked, the looming emptiness of him. His grotesquely red shirt. He was flexing his fingers, opening and closing his fists, unable to conceal even that as he came for her, lurching over the uneven ground.
The moment collapsed around her. She was already down the stairs and all at once out the door and into the meadow, heading toward the bog, running. She was fast, her feet in touch with something, as if the ground were only now awakening beneath her. And what about the gun she had purchased? Had she been thinking, she would have remembered. It lay in the kitchen drawer under dish towels, where she had put it weeks ago. But she was not thinking.
Hearing him stumble and curse some distance behind her, she paused and turned to see him descending the hill, coming straight for her. At the edge of the bog, watching him, she slipped out of her clothes. As he came at her, she faced him, the dusk congealing around them. His pace slowed, perhaps because of her nakedness, something he hadn’t counted on. Or it might have been that he saw the end was near.
He stopped. There was, over the meadow where they stood, a nagging confusion of the light, typical at that hour, when night collides with day. The air itself seemed restless. From overhead, something fluttered and squeaked at him. He waved it away with his large hands.
“Where you headed, Pet?” he said.
She knew better than to answer.
His eyes traveled the length of her. “I do like your outfit. Is that for me?”
She looked at him, wonderingly, as if seeing the whole of him for the first time. There was so much she had forgotten. His shirt the color of a cancer. She could feel his world advancing, eating up the moments, shitting pieces of itself behind, making itself anew. At some point, it occurred to her, everything she knew would be useless.
He stepped toward her—now onto wet ground. She could hear it bubbling under his boots.
She took a step backwards into the sedge, and then another.
He lunged for her then but skidded in the muck at the edge of the creek, and she avoided him easily. There he was, knee-deep in water, and she grinning down at him from the sedge. She could feel the anger in him as he stood only a few feet from her, shaking his head. She could see him coming apart.
She stepped back again, taunting him with a look
He lunged again in a rage, sinking immediately to his thighs.
“You’re only making it worse,” he said.
“Shh,” she said. “Come.” She slipped obliquely into the water.
His eyes locked onto her as he advanced, wading, until he was there, almost pressed against her. He reached and caught her by the neck and hoisted her like a prize fish. She could feel his fingers positioning themselves.
Knowing what she knew, she looked for the change in his expression. It wasn’t long in coming. Just a spark of bewilderment. And then—for the first time between them—something like communication. He looked as though he might be about to ask a question. His body convulsed then, and he let go of her.
She sank into the creek and rose again to see the blood red of his shirt puddling and swirling in the black water.
It was the last she saw of him. It might be said also it was the last she saw of herself, for she seemed from that moment to dissolve into a story that was not about her but about the ground and the black waters and the sky she inhabited.
The days and the seasons passed. What she still knew about herself was this. She no longer ventured into town. Expecting nothing now, she kept her lopsided hours, stalking the night meadow and day meadow in clothes that dwindled eventually to rags. Her gait was fluid, no longer entirely upright, for the bog was giving her the skin and bones of a salamander. Airplanes continued patrolling overhead, halfheartedly keeping an eye on things, but she knew how to curl herself in a ball and lie, blocking their radars. Heavy rains eroded the driveway. No more vehicles ascended the hill. When pressed, she would crouch in the grass and glare at berry-pickers. And the children who used to come and throw stones at the house—now, when they saw her, they turned and ran.