That day, in the middle of March, I could hear the river talking through my bedroom window. The river behind the farmhouse ran fast in the springtime. It wasn’t really a river, but for me, it was wide enough to be one. My father told me many times to stay away from the water, especially in the spring, but I never listened. That wasn’t true, I did listen to him say the words. They bellowed out of his mouth with tiny droplets of spit that hung like rain in his black beard. It always happened when he was excited. His arms would bounce up and down as he shouted for me to stand away from the edge of the water. I would pretend not to hear him, lowering myself to crouch closer to the surface, watching the currents drag branches and last year’s leaves along with it as it hurtled towards the rickety old wooden bridge.
“Mary Elizabeth Clark you get the hell away from that water. You are going to fall in and die!” he would shout. He called me by my full name when he was angry or frightened. I used to hate it when he did that, but after hearing my name so often, I stopped to care.
That morning, however, there was silence. My father was in town getting the parts to fix the tractor. Aunt Tilda was supposed to be looking after me, but she fell asleep with her crochet work spread across her lap in the living room. I got bored waiting for her to wake up, and went outside to play. The snow had melted so quickly with the warmer weather that the corner of the yard was flooded. The water had risen up from the other side of the drive way and over into the yard by the tire swing. Ice floated in chunks. I could see one large piece just under the water, waiting to be stepped on. The cold seeped through my rubber boots. I was careful not to step in too deep. Water pushed against the rubber, touching my skin. I liked the sloshing sound that it made the deeper I went. I toed the ice. It didn’t move. Disappointed, I waded over to a stick that was floating nearby. I plucked it out of the water, and poked at the ice. Little pieces broke off, but the ice was still attached to the ground. I gave up after a couple of minutes, and pushed my way through the water back onto the highest part of the driveway.
Somewhere in the distance, I could hear geese calling to each other. I carried the stick with me as I picked my way through the stones on the driveway, kicking at the ones that were loose. I thought about finding my soccer ball, but remembered that Toby, my dog ate it. I still loved that stupid dog. Only he would mistake black and white leather for something alive and good to chew on. The hen house was quiet. Only Betty and Lucy were left to sit in the old hay after my father had taken the axe to the others. I liked Betty and Lucy much better than the stupid rooster. He chased me around when his head came off under the axe. I was glad he was dead. The field behind the hen house was black and hard to walk on. Some of the furrows were thawed and muddy, others were still hard like stones. I walked in the rows that were the straightest, and only got stuck once. My boot almost came off, but I held on with my toes. The further I walked in the field, the more the mud layered itself onto the bottom of my boots. By the time I reached the bridge over the river, my legs were heavy and it was hard to walk.
The wood planks were black and grey from the water and left over winter. I picked my way over the broken parts, and waited until I was balanced before trying to sit down. It wasn’t really much of a bridge. One wall of a barn on Mr. Little’s land fell down. He didn’t have the money to fix it, my father said. The wood floated down last spring and got stuck in the long grass. I didn’t mind it. The barn boards were not bad for making a bridge. The frogs liked it in July when the river shrank and left them with mud and grass to hide in. I liked it because I knew the frogs were there to catch. I could hear the water rushing underneath as I crouched down over the edge to see through to the bottom. It was still too cold for frogs. I knew they were sleeping. I poked my stick into the mud of my boots to try to clean them. I didn’t want to walk back with them thick. The mud came off in chunks. One part under the heel of my boot was stubborn. I pushed hard against the stick. My boot flew off my foot, and I was left poking my red sock instead of the pink rubber. I scrambled onto my knees and looked for my boot. It bobbed just out of reach in the water. I whipped the stick out and touched the rubber mouth. I stretched as far as I could to shove the stick in to save the boot. With my other hand I held one of the planks, trying to give myself a few more inches. I heard wood crack as I pulled on it. I was so close to reaching my boot. I didn’t want to walk back to the house without it. The sun came out from the bank of clouds suddenly, drowning the water in light and blinding me. I could only think of the trouble I would be in if I ruined my red socks walking back in the mud. I reached out as far as I could go. The splash was the last thing I heard.
Of course, I didn’t die that day. I fell in and grabbed my boot. The water was so cold it snatched my breath right out of my lungs. I didn’t have enough to even yell. The current was strong, and I slipped underwater. I could see the underside of the bridge was I went through and the sky flashed above through the spaces in the boards. Then when I was on the other side, I hit a log that I didn’t know was there. It grabbed me around the middle and threw me up above the water. I felt like a moron. I didn’t really know what a moron was, but my father called everyone, especially people wearing suits on Sunday morons. He meant they were stupid for sitting for a whole morning listening to some guy dressed in robes pretend he had the right ear of God. The sun was out while I grappled with the slick bark of the submerged log. I shimmied myself up to the end that was closest to the riverbank and threw my boot to safety. My long hair was plastered to my face. I pulled at it. Somehow the ends were wrapped around my neck. I tried to jump onto the ground from the log, but I missed the edge of the grass. One foot sunk into the mud. It didn’t matter. I was soaked from head to toe. My bones were shaking from the cold.
I didn’t bother to put my boot on. I walked, lopsided through the furrows until I got to the long grass that lined the back edge of our yard. I could see Aunt Tilda’s white hair flying in the wind. I could see from where I stood in the field that she was angry. Her one arm was across her face trying to shield her eyes from the sunlight; her other hand trying to contain her hair. I winced, wanting to disappear into the black soil behind me; disappear from her sight. I sniffed. Tears were stinging my eyes, pricking at my lids like burrs from the bushes along the hen house. I swallowed hard, and continued my plodding through the grass and black walnut trees.
“Land sakes Child, what happened to you?” she screeched when she saw me. I wasn’t given a chance to answer. She grabbed me by the elbow and steered me up the concrete steps. I realized, while lying in the floor of my bed room closet, under the long dresses of my mother’s that were now stored there, she had to clean me up quickly before my father came home, otherwise he would have discovered she’d fallen asleep.
“You are a very lucky girl” she said as she scrubbed my legs until they were bright pink and no longer dotted with mud. “One these days I won’t be here to save your hide.” Aunt Tilda clucked and fussed worst than the chickens did. I stood staring out the bathroom window while she dried my body off and pulled a fresh dress over my head. The elastic neck caught on my nose, bending it painfully.
“Ow” I said. She shook her head and didn’t apologize. I half expected her to, but she didn’t. The door of the hen house was open. The space gaped wide like a black toothless smile.
“Won’t the chickens get loose?” I asked suddenly. Aunt Tilda looked down at me. Her blue eyes flashed and she frowned upside down. I simply pointed to the window. My other arm was stuck at the elbow, caught between the rickrack that was coming loose around the armpit.
“Oh Lord.” Aunt Tilda screeched and left me, half naked, standing on the baby blue bath mat. I heard the side door bang against the wall as she ran out to save Betty and Lucy. I laughed to myself, yanking the dress off over my head. I walked buck naked into my room and dug out a pair of jeans and my favorite shirt. The hens never moved off their shelf, not since the rooster died. I thought they forgot that they could get down and walk around. They just sat, clucking quietly and didn’t even move when I came in to check for eggs on the days that I remembered to.
I crawled into the closet and watched the darkness through the dresses. The air was warm, which was good. My bones were still chattering in my body from the cold. I reached into the gloom and pulled out one of my mother’s fancy silver shoe. Even in the half light under the hanging clothes, the straps glowed. I ran my finger gently over the stitching. I thought about her. My mother left on a Tuesday, late at night. I woke up hearing her shouting. I thought I was dreaming. I looked out my bedroom window but the laneway was empty. I swore to my father later that I heard the gravel popping, but I don’t think he believed me. The next morning, everything was different. The room where my parents slept every night was empty. She took everything with her when she left; everything except the silver shoes. I took them and hid them in the corner. My father never said a word about her leaving; not to me. I didn’t ask.
The door banged below me. I listened to the heavy footsteps on the hardwood. My father was back from town. He was predictable on a Saturday. I knew he would boil water for coffee before going out to his workshop to fix the tractor. The door banged a second time. Aunt Tilda came in from the hen house. I rolled over onto my side and pulled my knees to my nose. I was still cold. I heard them talking through the floor boards. I closed my eyes, and let the murmurs wash over me. I must have fallen asleep because the sun cut through my room at weird angles when I crawled out of the closet. Aunt Tilda was calling my name.
“Mary? Do you want a snack? You must be hungry now.” She said brightly. I guessed that she had not told my father about finding me soaking wet in the yard. If she did, she would have had to explain to my father why I was left on my own. I rubbed my face and wandered to the top of the stairs.
“Can I have cinnamon toast?” I asked. Aunt Tilda nodded and disappeared into the kitchen. I walked down the stairs. I let my heels smack each step, listening to the hollow thud each time.