Today I present a short story that I wrote a good while ago, an artifact from a place in my life now long behind me but still present in a lot of ways. For two years, I lived near the Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia; I knew it was long
beloved by poets, artists, and writers, going back to the earliest days of the city, and the more time I spent close to it, the more I came to see why.
The Wissahickon makes you want to try to capture something of it. I tried to do that here, and it became a setting for a theme that seems to be recurring in a lot of my work: two very different people meet each other and the experience is transformative in some respect. It’s also a ghost story, and a story about murder and despair, but mostly I think it’s about the way time bends in beautiful places, and the way they have of hanging on to you.
And the Wanderings of Water
They met by the creek. They kissed by the creek. One hot and sticky day in July, they made love by the creek, out there in the shameless open on a mossy rock with her skirt hitched up around her thighs and his breath panting into the crook of her neck. And when the night fell they lay by the creek, smudged with dirt, leaves in their hair, and he held her hand and talked about their future, about what would come after the summer. She was afraid of being seen but he shushed her and no one came, and no one saw them but the mourning doves and the grackles and the squirrels that crouched in the branches overhead and watched them with black raindrop eyes.
All these things happened. Lying there under the stars and feeling the fluttering rush of her heart, like a hummingbird beating its tiny wings against the inside of her ribcage, she was sure the summer would never end. But it did.
* * *
The dark rocks, ancient orogeny of long-dead mountain ranges, half covered by years of earth, roots curling around them as though the world was holding them close to itself with long, gnarled fingers. Thick ferns, thick treetops that whispered to each other in the freshening breeze. Dappled sunlight. The glitter of mica. The soft babble and coo of the water. She knelt on the gravel bank and trailed her fingertips over its cool surface, catching a floating leaf with her forefinger before she released it again. It was autumn and the creek was covered with leaves, carrying little treasures of bright red and gold. She smiled, and she didn’t see him until he was beside her and the rocks crunched under his feet.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You didn’t.” Her fingers extended again and caught another leaf at their tips, as brilliant crimson as the flash of a cardinal’s wing.
“Oh.” He sounded a little surprised, and she wondered with brief amusement whether perhaps he had been hoping to startle her and was now disappointed. “Anyway, I just… I dunno, I saw you looking at something and I figured I could come see what you were looking at.” He paused. “What are you looking at?”
She tossed her head back, white hair flying out of her eyes, and she laughed. The creek laughed with her. “This.” She extended a hand across the water with its little treasure boats shining in the morning sunlight. Lots of things changed but this was the same every year, and every year it was worth looking at. She turned to see him more fully; he was young, an unlined face topped with a shock of red hair, red like the leaves, so red it made her breath pause in her throat. He was wearing black bike shorts, a yellow t-shirt, and with the yellow and the red together, and his clear blue eyes, she thought he looked like some kind of forest sprite, dressed in autumn and come out to dance on the wind. But he was just standing there and looking at her, and she didn’t think he really understood.
That was all right. Lots of people didn’t.
“I guess it’s nice,” he said, his gaze following the line of her hand. “Good colors this year.”
“Yes,” she said, still smiling. “Good colors every year.” She held out her hand to him. “I’m Rachel.”
“Brian.” He took her hand, his movements a little awkward, and he paused as he held it and he looked momentarily distracted by something.
“What is it?”
“Your hand is so cold.” He smiled uncertainly. “Are you all right?” And she could see what he was thinking–an old woman, poor circulation–and that was funny for reasons she didn’t want to explain, so she only nodded and kept smiling, and it wasn’t like it took very much effort. He was very handsome, standing there in the sunshine with his red hair and the freckles dusting his cheeks, and he made her remember things. Not all of them were bad.
“Yes, I’m fine.” She gathered up her skirts and pushed herself up to her feet, listening to her bones creaking quietly to themselves. Complaining. They were being kept busy long after they would have liked to rest, she thought. Well, it wasn’t up to her. It never had been.
“Why don’t you walk with me a while?” She extended her hand again, and when he took it this time a great deal of the awkwardness was gone.
“I have a bike…” He paused and smiled again. “But I can lock it up.”
So they walked. They didn’t speak to each other. It didn’t seem necessary. But they watched the birds dance and swoop out of the trees and over the water, flying, it seemed, for the sheer pleasure of flying, and the squirrels chattering furiously at each other and going on great and indignant chases across the network of branches overhead. They stopped on a stone bridge, or rather, she stopped and he stopped with her. She looked ahead of them and stepped gingerly out onto the pavement.
“It’s fine,” he said, not letting go of her hand. He was frowning as he watched her, equal parts puzzled and concerned. Once, many years ago, his confusion would have made her impatient. Now she only walked with one hand held out as if for balance, looking from side to side.
“It’s the concrete,” she said softly, and turned to him. “It doesn’t–” At the point where road and bridge joined and nestled to the side, there was an old toll house. She looked at it with a kind of desperation; it was empty but that didn’t matter. Suddenly the treasure floating out toward the river and the soft breath of the wind and the dancing birds… none of it seemed to matter, and she felt so very old.
“Take me across,” she whispered, closing her eyes tight. “Hold my hand.” He held her hand, held it tight, and he led her across the bridge with his other hand soft and steady at her elbow, and once their feet touched the other side she felt herself beginning to ease.
“Thank you,” she said, and stepped away, her fingertips light at her face as if trying to see if it had changed. “I’m all right now.”
“Someone walked over my grave,” she said. She smiled, trying to be reassuring, but he still looked doubtful and she wasn’t surprised at all. She reached down and took his hand in hers, tucking a stray strand of white hair behind her ear with the other. “It was just a spell. I’m all right now. Come on, let’s keep walking. Days like this don’t come often enough, do they?”
“I guess not,” he said, but as they continued down the road, the loose gravel crunching under their feet, she thought that he stayed closer to her than he had, and held her hand just a little tighter, his brow slightly furrowed.
* * *
“I always used to come here” she said softly, pausing a short time later. They were facing the creek, and on the bank in front of them was a green copper plaque set onto the stone.
THE FIRST BAPTISMAL SERVICE
OF THE CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN IN AMERICA
TOOK PLACE AT THIS SITE
ON CHRISTMAS DAY 1785
“It was so cold,” she whispered, curving her arms around herself. “The water… half of it was frozen over. But they went in, immersed themselves… their faith was so great.”
“So crazy, more like,” he said, just as softly, and looked off down the path. What she could feel from him wasn’t impatience, but the kind of faint frustration that always comes when people find themselves a bit outside their understanding.
She smiled. “That could be another word for it.” She turned to him then, touching a wrinkled finger to his forearm. “What’s your last name, Brian?”
“Winthrop,” he said, glancing down at her hand. “I’m Brian Winthrop.”
“That’s an old name.” She sighed and turned her face up to the trees. “My name is old, too.”
* * *
It was so cold, but they went out in the early morning, pushed by their faith, drawn to the water on a holy day to perform a holy deed, that God would look down and bless them for their strength of spirit. The ice creaked and cracked in the thin sunlight, but where the water was moving fast there was no ice, and they stepped out into it and it swirled up around their thighs. She was first and they drew her backwards into the water, and she tilted her head back and looked up at the ice glistening in the trees, making it look as though all the world was made of fine crystal. She could feel the child quickening in her belly. No one knew it yet. She gasped as the freezing water touched her head, her face, her back and her breasts, and she prayed that a way might be opened for her, that she might somehow be saved.
The summer ended and the winter seized the world. It was a long time before it let go.
* * *
“You should get back to your bike.” They had stopped again and she was sitting on a bench by the side of the path, looking up at the painted trees and breathing deeply. “It’s good of you to walk so long with an old woman, but I’m keeping you past when I should.”
“It’s okay,” Brian said. He had let her go, somewhat reluctantly, and was standing a few feet away with his helmet in his hand, watching her. She could feel his eyes on her, and it was like pressure, like she was fragile, because she was. A shadow, a shade, a wil-o-the-wisp. She was standing at the edge of a twilight land, and all these bright colors were, in the end, not for her.
She shouldn’t even be here. Yet here she still was.
“You’re a good boy,” she said, turning her hands over themselves. The babble of the creek was gentle in her ears. “You remind me of someone, you know.”
He took a step closer to her, a half smile tugging at his mouth. His red hair was flashing gold in the sunlight. “Your son? Grandson?”
“No,” she said, and her smile was sad. “I never had a son. I never had any children at all.”
* * *
She came to the creek when it was her time. She had sent word for him to meet her there. For months she had hidden it with heavier clothes, and hidden herself, feigning illness and shunning doctors. But now there was no hiding it anymore and she was afraid. It was late in the spring and the air was soft and kind, and as she panted her way down the path, catching hold of saplings to steady herself, she prayed that the world would be kind to what she carried. What she wouldn’t carry for much longer.
She called his name when she saw the gleam of the water in the darkness. She called it softly, afraid to be heard as much as she wanted him to hear her. It didn’t occur to her that he might not come. Of course he would come; he had pledged himself to her, and he had gotten her with child, and they were bound together by love and by God’s grace. A secret marriage, witnessed to only by the birds and the water, but real to her. So real.
But the creek looked unreal in the moonlight, coolly reflective and softly flowing. The young leaves fluttered over her head like the constant whispering of an invisible crowd.
He was there, standing across the bank, across the wooden footbridge. She went to him, her skirts gathered up at her waist, and she embraced him. She had been holding to him for a few moments before she realized that he was not holding her. His arms were stiff at his sides. She pulled back again, frowning, grimacing when a sharp pang took her.
“What is it?”
He shook his head. In the near-total darkness his eyes were nothing more than black pits in his face.
“Say something!” she cried, the cry twisting up into pain as she was shaken again, her body shuddering out of her control. “You came here for me, you know it’s my time. Our child! Say something!”
“They’ll cast us out,” he said then. His voice was full of the same bright coldness that cast itself across the water, that made the stones glitter. “You’ll shame us. Both of us. And that child’ll grow up a bastard.”
“If you had married me,” she moaned, despair seizing her. She could already sense the direction in which this was going. She was wrenched suddenly by a stronger pang than any before and almost fell, reaching for him, clinging. But he threw her off roughly and she tumbled into the leaves, sobbing and holding her belly.
“It’s too late for that now.” He was looming over her, and in the darkness he looked like one of the trees, all of them tall and solemn, like rows of black-robed judges. “Too late for anything. But I can still try to save us.”
“No,” she whispered, raised a hand against him. It felt as though the child was tearing at her in its desperate efforts to get out of her, beating at the walls of her belly with tiny fists. “Please…”
“No one has to know,” he said, bending to her. “There could be any number of reasons a woman might vanish. There’s wild animals. Savages. I’ll weep for you, I swear it. I’ll pray for you and you’ll see Paradise. No one ever need know of this at all.”
His hands were on her before she could even think of trying to beat him off, if she had been strong enough. They were rough and strong, and as they closed around her throat she remembered how gently they had touched her before, how softly they had moved across her skin, the faint hesitance in them matching the look of awe in his eyes. She remembered lying with him here on these banks, when he would tell her about their future. After the summer. Now it was long after the summer, and he had never told her about this.
“Please,” she whispered with the little air she had left, and then the darkness seemed to seep in all around her vision, clouding it, blackening it.
* * *
“Did you want a family?” he asked, and then immediately flushed just a little, as though he wasn’t sure about the appropriateness of the question. But she smiled.
“I did,” she said softly. “I had a good family growing up. My mother, my father… no brothers or sisters. I always did want a little sister to play with, but it wasn’t to be.” She sighed and looked out at the water, running off and away to join the bigger river under the falling sunlight. The nights were coming earlier now, and already there was the barest hint of a bite in the air. The summer was over. Winter was coming and there was no stopping it.
He had taken a seat on the bench beside her, and she reached down between them and took his hand in hers again, squeezing it, and after a moment or two he returned the squeeze.
“I was in love,” she said. “I wanted a family. But nothing worked out quite like I thought it would.”
* * *
A horrible, wrenching pain in her belly woke her. She was lying on her side, half curled, and her hands were sticky. There was a moment of blind panic and she dropped her hands to her stomach. Something was wrong. She could feel it.
And she was sure she was alone. That was wrong too. Perhaps he had thought he had killed her and had left her there. Perhaps…
She sat up, groaning, looking around her–and he was there, lying beside her and about a foot away. His face was turned into the ground, but the moon was on him, and in its thin light she could see the horrible wound in his head, the matted and clotted hair, and the bloody rock lying beside him.
Now she remembered the stickiness of her hands. She raised them to the light and whimpered softly. So much blood… She scrambled backward, breathing hard, stopping only when the pain took her again and twisted her around itself, drawing a scream up and out of her straining throat.
No, not now. Not now…
Sweat broke out across her forehead and ran down her neck and between her breasts. She slid back against a rock, her skirt torn, her hands caked with mud and blood, her legs drawing up against her middle. “Please,” she sobbed. “Please…”
She wasn’t sure whether what happened next was an answer to prayer or just the cruel and random event of a cruel and random world. But whichever it was, there was a final blinding stab of pain, and then an excruciating feeling of being stretched, and she threw back her head and wailed as she felt the baby emerging from her.
The baby did not wail. She gathered it up into her arms, a sad little bloody bundle, warm only from the lingering heat of her body. She held her child and wept, and as the tears fell onto its face and onto the ground, she felt herself fading. After a time she got to her feet and walked, slow and steadily, down to the edge of the water. It wasn’t fast-moving, but there it was deep, and when she stepped into it she was instantly up to her thighs, and then her waist. She had been here before. It felt like blasphemy. It felt like the only thing she could do. Up to her waist, she let her legs sweep out from under her and turned in the gentle current, her eyes closed, cradled and held by the creek like the child in her arms.
When she was still, the night was silent but for the leaves and the water, moving together in a whispering, conspiratorial chorus, as if they were an audience shocked and murmuring at what they had just seen.
* * *
“You’re crying,” Brian said. He frowned and leaned forward, taking her hand again. She sighed, wiped at her face, tried to smile at him. The sun was low and in her eyes. The water looked like liquid gold, gold and rubies in gold, carrying all the pretty leaves away. High above and far away, a mourning dove was calling.
“I’m just a silly, sentimental old woman,” she said, and sniffed. “It’s the evening. And the season. They make me think too much.” She paused, looking past Brian and away, and already the tears were drying. After this long she only had so much left in her for weeping and her bones were old and dry. Drier even than they looked.
“You know,” she whispered, reaching up to catch a slowly tumbling leaf, “this place never looks the same two days in a row.”
“Is there somewhere I can walk you back to?” Brian asked. “Do you have a car or something?” He was sitting hunched over and close to her, his brow furrowed and his helmet passing from hand to hand. Worried again. She felt a swell of warmth, almost an alien feeling outside of the sunshine, and lifted a hand to his cheek. He flinched for an instant, but she knew it was just the cold of her palm, and she wasn’t offended.
“You’re very dear,” she said. She leaned in and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “No, I don’t have a car. And there’s nowhere else to walk me to.” She stood, slowly and with a quiet groan. She was old. She had been old for a very long time now. “This is my home,” she said, and she laughed softly, and the creek laughed with her, just as soft.
“I don’t–” he said, shaking his head, but then she was gone, and the creek was no longer laughing. The mourning dove was silent. All was quiet but for the leaves and the water, and their whispering. Slowly, Brian stood, looking out through the trees for some sign of her, some white flash of her hair or her pale skin. But there was nothing. The sun was out of the gorge. The light was dim, the colors dulled, though the creek still carried its little treasure boats out toward the river.
Brian turned and walked back down the path, back to his bike, and as he went, he had to fight back a shiver. Autumn was reeling to its end. Winter was coming. Some days were warm and kind and fooled you, and made you think that even in the midst of autumn, the summer would never end.
But it always did.
© 2010 by Sunny Moraine