Bethany climbs the library steps, books clutched against her chest. In a minute she will see her. The wind from Lake Michigan shivers her neck but her face is flushed and her heart is pounding. Bethany who, at forty-seven, has been happily married for twenty-six years, wonders if she’s losing her mind.
“Happy’s like cotton candy, Bethie. Nothing but air. It’s got no bite at all,” Anna said as she was dying. “It’s like the word ‘nice.’ Your mother was nice. Big fucking deal. You know what I mean?”
She’s not like her mother nor is her marriage like her parents’. Smooth is the word she’d use to describe it, like the Apple River she’s fishing tomorrow, a safe, shallow river with a slow, steady current. Her parents’ marriage was like the Fox, quick changing; dangerous, riddled with rapids, like her father’s sudden rages, her mother trembling like a moth. Even after he left, she trembled. Lovely but helpless, that was her mother. Had been her mother. Her mother was dead.
Anna was fire, fierce and flaming. “I dare you, Bethie,” she said as a child, perched on the roof. “Climb out the window. Come up here with me!” But Bethany was afraid of heights. She was afraid of everything. So was her mother. That was the trouble. Bethany’s task was to mother them both.
Bethany pulls the library door open, and there she is: Persis, standing behind the desk, graying hair, brown eyes, square solid frame. None of this makes any sense but Bethany feels her heart sing.
Persis looks up. “You,” she says in her calm flat voice that could mean anything. Something or nothing.
Bethany smiles. Her mouth aches.
“The book was wonderful,” she says.
“Beyond Belief.” Bethany blushes. She often does when talking to Persis.
“I knew you’d like it.”
“Did you?” says Bethany, wondering how.
They’ve known each other for several years but Bethany has told her little, and Persis has told Bethany nothing at all. Almost nothing. It’s so strange. If it makes sense, well, she can’t see it, and she does love David, a kind man, gentle, though repressed, but what Bethany sees as repression in him seems, in Persis, more like containment.
She looks at Persis across the desk. She imagines kissing Persis. Imagines Persis kissing her. Is that what she wants? She isn’t quite sure.
Persis looks up and Bethany blushes, afraid that Persis is reading her mind.
It’s strange how lost she feels these days, as if she’s entered some dark forest. After five years of therapy, in her thirties, Bethany thought she had the answers, but something has shifted, she isn’t sure what.
“It’s the Change,” David said when she tried to explain. “Menopause does that. The body plays tricks.”
He was right about that but it wasn’t what she meant. Something was coming alive inside her. Persis was part of it. So was the fishing.
She thinks of asking Persis but doesn’t. Persis is older but not by much. She has one child. Her husband is dead. “I never liked him,” she said last winter, words coming from nowhere out of the dark. It was late afternoon, and the library had closed. A blizzard was forecast. They walked to their cars, and Bethany mentioned that David had flu. “Men are such babies,” she said, and laughed an affectionate, though perhaps condescending, laugh. David would think so. Not other women. It was how women talked about men. How Bethany talked. Except with Persis. She hardly talked with Persis at all.
“I never liked him,” Persis said in her soft steady voice. The voice of reason, Bethany thought, and waited for more. But that was it. Her husband was never mentioned again.
Though they see each other every week, they talk about books, and not once have they touched. But they look at each other. Persis looks now.
“Does fishing help you escape?” she asks.
“Maybe,” Bethany says, surprised.
Bethany’s never mentioned fishing. She’s never mentioned anything, certainly not what she feels for Persis. She thinks maybe she will, thinks maybe it’s time, but before she can, a child runs up.
Her hair is like sunlight. One shoe is untied. She holds up a book, The Secret Garden.
“Will I like it?” she asks.
She stands with her legs crossed. She is four years old, or maybe five.
“When you’re older,” says Persis. “Go quick to the bathroom.”
The child nods, solemn, turning away. Her sneakers slap marble, a butterscotch sound. Bethany thinks of herself at that age, the first time she came here, how frightened she was. No place felt safe when she was a child, not until she met Juneau, that is. Even the floor was terrifying, stark black and white squares, but the ceiling was worse with its vast painted dome of scowling bearded men in robes.
She thinks of her father, and remembers his eyes, cold as marble and black like his hair. He was hairy all over, arms, chest, legs. There were even black tufts of stiff hair in his ears. Bethany shudders. She was glad when he left and never returned, even if her mother wasn’t. But her mother knew nothing. Nothing at all.
She looks at Persis who is checking in books. The computer keys click, a comforting sound. She types slowly but firmly. Her nails are short.
“Persis,” says Bethany. She likes saying her name. “How did you know, about fishing, I mean.”
“The books you take out. Our fly fishing books.” She looks up, briefly. “Three years ago. That’s when it started.”
Three years ago Anna took Bethany fishing. Though her cancer had recently been diagnosed, the prognosis was good. “You’ll like it. I promise,” Anna had said, and she was right. She loved the river and the flickering fish she couldn’t yet catch but it was enough to know they were there. More than enough to be there with Anna.
Anna was given a clean bill of health, and for two years her luck held out. They fished together many times, and Anna taught Bethany all she knew, laughing at Bethany’s sudden passion. “What’s it about, do you think?” she asked, but Bethany had no idea though this year she fishes for Anna as well.
“Hold me, Bethie,” Anna whispered, nothing but brittle bone and eyes, her fierce flaming friend reduced to ash. Bethany climbed into her bed, a narrow hard white hospital bed—a slab of marble, Bethany thought—and held her, gently, like a flower, all through the pale afternoon, willing Anna not to die. But Anna did—of course she did—and Bethany felt her slip away, out of that body, into the air.
Bethany walks home through the park. Home is close, on the bluff near the lake. In winter she hears ice crack like glass, especially now that the children are gone. Bethany doesn’t mind the quiet. She likes being alone—she always has—and she likes walking, too. She stops by the iron deer in the park. She touches its flank. The iron is cold. In winter it burns. Once, as a child, she licked its neck, believing it would spring to life. But her tongue held fast, stuck, and she jerked away, ripping a gobbet of flesh from her mouth.
She screamed, and the blood on the snow, and her mother not there. Bethany’s mother was often not there. That day it was Juneau who finally came, Juneau who worked in the library too, washing the floors, and who never once spoke. Juneau who held her, and wiped up the blood.
It’s close to dark when she reaches the house. The house is quiet, Lake Michigan calm. David is staying in Chicago tonight. When he calls at seven, they talk for an hour. She talks and he talks and Bethany listens, but closing her eyes it’s Persis she sees.
In the morning Bethany heads north to Wisconsin. Her fishing gear is already packed: fly rod, reel, waders, vest. She tries to go fishing at least once a week. “You’re crazy,” says David, and maybe she is.
The sun is rising as she drives. Fall is Bethany’s favorite season, and she drives with her windows open, smelling apples and wood smoke and sweet-scented hay. Like fall, the north holds poignant promise from Santa Claus to Stuart Little. The end of the book always made her cry. “There’s nothing sad, Mom,” said Willy at seven. “He’s heading in the right direction. That means he’s going to find Margalo. Books don’t lie.”
“You’re right,” said Bethany, and he was. But that was books; it wasn’t life. Life promises, and takes away. In the shelter where she works, Bethany sees this all the time. An advocate for battered women, Bethany listens, watches their eyes. Terrified and haunted eyes. This is all I deserve, they say. Her mother’s eyes were like that too.
It’s nine when she reaches the Apple River. She parks by the bridge, and climbs out, and stretches. Bethany feels older this fall—not just her body, her mind too. Her thoughts are scattered; nothing sticks.
“You know what it’s like?” she said to David. “That computer command. DISK FULL. ABORT ENTRY. There’s no room left. My brain’s filled up.”
She meant to be funny, but he didn’t laugh.
“We’re all going to die,” he said without smiling, and cracked his knuckles, a habit she hated. She noticed that his neck was ropey. When had that happened? Was he sick?
“Something has to last, I guess.” He spoke softly, to himself, this person she’d lived with for twenty-six years, and suddenly she didn’t know him. She had no idea what he meant by that, or who he was. For that matter, who was she?
Bethany sighs and jams on her hat. She pulls on her waders and then her vest. She looks at the river, the color of tea, and feels the stillness settle inside. ‘Dark brown is the river/golden is the sand…’ It was a poem she loved as a child.
The water, deeper than it appears, pushes against her up to her waist. The current is strong. There was rain last week, but the water has cleared, amber water, smooth as glass.
The fly, like milkweed, lifts and settles. Slowly, Bethany moves upstream. It’s an hour before she catches a fish, a brook trout on an Adams nymph. Bethany fishes until mid-afternoon. When her arm goes numb, she starts for the bank. Not once all day has she thought of Persis, of anything but fly, fish, water. Her heart is quiet but her legs are weak, and Bethany, careless, steps into a pool.
There’s no time to catch her breath. She’s in over her head, and her waders fill up. Bethany struggles, thrashing her arms, but her waders are anchors pulling her down. I’m drowning, she thinks, and her life flashes by—just the way they said it would—her mother in a blue dress, weeping; a young Anna, freckled, high on her roof; her father’s shadow on the wall, an empty glass, the basement stairs. The weight of water pushes down, and she can’t breathe until she sees Persis, her calm quiet eyes. “Relax,” Persis says, and Bethany does.
Rising like light, her face meets air. She climbs out, gagging, and throws up. She can’t stop shaking though she tries. Her body has, somehow, come apart as if she’s a puppet whose strings have been cut.
The fall sky darkens, the color of plums. I almost died, she says to herself, but it means nothing alone in the car, as if it had happened to somebody else. As if it hadn’t happened at all. A riddle of sorts, a mysterious split, familiar somehow. She has no idea why.
Above a field she sees a balloon, a small round shape, drifting. She can’t see the color but she sees the string, something tied to the string, a white slip of paper. The answer, she thinks, but it’s too far away.
In the morning when she goes to work, Selamawet sits on her lap. The child’s in pain, but she doesn’t cry.
“We could not seek help,” says her mother in English she’s learned from Sesame Street. “She bleed when he hit her and I think sure she die. Where I come from men are bad.”
“Men are bad in America too,” Bethany says, and wishes she hadn’t. “But many are kind. My husband is kind.”
“He would be,” says Winchet. “Lovely, you are. I love you, Miss Bethany.”
Bethany hugs her. “I love you, too.”
She does love Winchet, loves them all. Yesterday she almost died.
When the morning is over she leaves work. She drives to the library looking for Persis. She needs to see her, a need like an ache.
Persis is there, not lovely but solid.
“I almost drowned,” says Bethany though she hasn’t told David, and probably won’t. He doesn’t like her fishing alone.
“It was scary,” Bethany says, and blushes. Scary was a child’s word, but that’s how she feels, awkward and shy. “Terrifying, really, until I relaxed.”
Persis smiles. “Good,” she says, but who knows what she means by that. Whether she cares or whether she doesn’t. Her lips are full and faintly pink, and freckles sprinkle her nose like stars. Bethany thinks of kissing her lips. “Hold me,” she wants to say.
She walks back to the stacks where she catches her breath. It was back in the stacks that she met Juneau, down on her knees, the floor glossy and wet. Juneau, in her shapeless dress, smiled, but she didn’t speak. She never spoke, ever, but she held out her arms, and pulled Bethany close. Bethany closes her eyes, and sees her, the round calm face, the apron, the scarf.
In the children’s’ section, she finds the book, the very same copy she read as a child. She knows because she marked the page. ‘Away down the river, a hundred miles or more.’ Her eyes fill with tears. She hears someone cough.
Looking up, she sees Persis. Bethany quickly wipes her eyes.
“Stevenson’s poems,” says Bethany. “I used to love them. I still do.”
Persis nods. “How about a walk?” she says. “Today’s my half day. I could use some fresh air.”
They drive to the lake in Bethany’s car. It’s cloudy and cold and no one is there. Wind whips the water into white foam. The sky overhead is the color of pewter.
They walk quickly because of the cold. A seagull cries. Waves lick the sand. They walk without talking, hugging themselves. I can’t believe this, Bethany thinks, though nothing has happened.
They walk for a mile before Persis speaks.
“Tell me why you like fishing,” she asks, wind carrying her words so they rise like a song.
“I’m not really sure. It’s so many things. Being alone on the water, a river or stream, something that flows… like life, I guess, the way it keeps moving, and the fish down there, hidden, that maybe I’ll catch.” Embarrassed, she laughs. “Like I’m looking for something but I don’t know what, but everything seems connected somehow, when I’m fishing, I mean, like nothing else matters, like everything’s there.”
“Anyway,” says Bethany, “that’s enough about me. What about you?”
“I don’t like talking about myself.”
“So I’ve noticed.”
Persis laughs but she says nothing.
Bethany smiles. “I knew someone like you once. She worked in the library, washing floors. Her name was Juneau. She never talked. She couldn’t, I guess, but she taught me to read.”
“How could she if she didn’t talk?”
“I’d sit in her lap and look at the words and one day they just came to life. Where go the Boats, that’s the poem I remember. I could see it, the river and leaves.
“’Where will all come home,’” says Persis.
“That’s the question,” Bethany says. “It’s so sad. ‘Other little children will bring my boat ashore.’ As a child I used to wonder…” Her voice trails off. What did she wonder? She can’t remember. There’s so much she can’t remember.
“What’s sad about that? When we die, that’s what happens. It’s our children’s turn then.”
“Let’s sit,” says Persis. “Under those trees.”
Bethany looks at Persis who’s looking at her.
“Persis,” she says. “I know nothing about you. Tell me something. Anything.”
“There’s nothing to tell. You know where I live, where I work, what I read. I eat too, and sleep. I get dressed in the morning.”
Persis teasing! Bethany stares. Persis grins “OK,” she says. “You can ask me one question.”
“Oh God, I don’t know,” says Bethany, flustered. “Where were you born?”
Bethany laughs. It’s not at all what she expected. New Hampshire perhaps, or maybe Vermont.
“You don’t have an accent.”
“It was fifty years ago. I’ve lived in a lot of places since then.”
Bethany turns to look at Persis. “I have a confession.” She takes a breath. “I made Juneau up. She felt real though. In fact she still does. That’s the trouble I have. I mean, telling what’s real.
“You don’t mean Juneau.”
“No,” says Bethany. “I always knew I made her up. But I needed her. She kept me safe. My mother didn’t. Things happened, I think…I don’t know but maybe…” Bethany draws in the sand with her finger. Wind stings her face. She doesn’t look up.
“You really do remind me of Juneau.”
“You told me,” says Persis, “but I’m here. I’m real.”
And Bethany nods, not sure what she means. If she means anything. Something or nothing. But, somehow, now, it doesn’t matter.
They sit in silence, side by side. A seagull soars. It disappears. She thinks of Anna, the bird, the balloon—of bright fish in dark waters. Invisible. There. Everything, all of it, here, unfolding. Whatever she feels for Persis will pass, and whatever she needs to remember she will. Someday she’ll learn to mother herself. Someday, somehow, all will come home.