BECAUSE IT WAS a Monday, the day their father, Pastor Eino Hililla, spent eight and sometimes twelve hours preparing the Sunday morning sermon, Lowell led his younger brother Jonas through the parsonage yard, past the cemetery. Past the dark walnut trees, through a thicket of manzanita, down to the dark tongues of water where they kept the wooden canoe. It was made from a Doug-fir their father had felled and hulled and they were allowed to use it if they were wearing their life preservers, awkward kapok-filled jackets with stout straps. And even though Lowell could paddle better without the jacket, even though the sloughs were only three feet deep—four at their deepest—he’d promised his father. The two Tolvi boys had recently drowned in a nearby inlet and it had been Lowell’s father’s job to bury the twins in the parish cemetery. Lowell’s mother was buried there, too. Lucy. Not long after she gave birth to Jonas, she had drowned, but in a different way. Drowned inside her own lungs, their father said, and though Lowell should have grown a healthy fear of water, he hadn’t.
Lowell shrugged into his life preserver first, then trussed Jonas up in the other, him coughing the whole time. Jonas took after their mother, with dark eyes and weak lungs. Arden, their older brother, used to come with them, had been the one who’d first shown them the waterways. But now he had a job in Gearhart setting pins at the Whistling Pines, a bowling alley with ten lanes. And since their mother passed Arden didn’t care for sloughs. Had a scare out there, once. Fell in and his boots filled with the dark water. “Best not to go out there,” was all Arden had to say about his ordeal. “At least, not if you’re wearing boots.”
Lowell wasn’t afraid. Didn’t mind the risk water posed. A mile’s worth of paddling would take them to the decommissioned fort. The war was over. The only evidence of a lower west-coast attack was an undetonated torpedo that a Japanese sub had fired onto a nearby beach. Now there was no use for the fort. No use in pulling it down either. Anything a boy could possibly want was there: cement batteries with narrow corridors that emptied into dark storage rooms, metal stairwells that opened to low lookouts built into the hill or cement wells. The best: the cannon wells. There were two of them, both eight feet deep and wide. One still held a canon that sat on railcar wheels. It could swing along the circular track a full 360 degrees. But it was so heavy, this canon, that they could push all day and it would never budge. Which was, strangely, why Lowell loved it: for its silent heft. For its substance. A thousand tides could rise and ebb and this cannon would still be there.
Lowell and Jonas paddled with slow, rhythmic movements of their arms. The way their father taught them, skimming the brackish water, not plowing. The canoe moved silently, carried them under the canopy of shore pine and around the Scotch broom growing up out of the water. Paddling this way they imagined they were Lewis and Clark and it was their job to collect the fruits of the land: the bones of a western gull, netting brought in on a high tide, once a glass float. If it was low tide they could count on seeing women on the ebb flats, Swedes, who liked to gather the pickleweed best and most. They did this, their father explained on one of those first paddle lessons, to turn one thing into another. With enough heat sea plants could become soda ash and soda ash could become glass.
“Do you believe that can happen? That one thing can turn into another?” his father had asked them. This is how he began the Sunday morning chalk talks with the kids, posing a question they could not possibly answer.
“Yes,” Lowell said, having learned that the most unlikely answer would be the right one. Anyway, he did believe one thing could become another. In dropping fogs the light seemed to come from inside the vapor itself, and it was this kind of light that played tricks on the eyes. Sure, one thing could become another. It happened all the time.
The canoe glided into a dark pan of water. Lowell raised his binoculars and scoped the marsh for the passage that led to the fort. That’s when he saw an arm, white and slender, rising out of the dark water. And then a head, shoulders, and beneath those shoulders a chest.
“Lookit!” Lowell passed the binoculars to Jonas.
“Geez. A naked lady. A naked lady with a naked chest,” Jonas whispered.
Lowell reached for the binoculars, squinted through the lens. With her chest magnified Lowell could see that her breasts were lily white and the nipples wine red. A spatter of freckles covered her shoulders. She turned sharply and Lowell dropped the binoculars.
“I think she saw us,” Lowell whispered.
“Boys.” A voice—high and melodic—cut through the fog. “Come here, boys.”
Jonas squinted. He dipped his paddle and pulled through the water, pulled toward the sound of the voice.
“Stop.” Lowell reached for Jonas’s arm.
“Don’t be afraid,” the woman called out. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
The tip of the canoe pierced the fog, and when they emerged on the other side of the wet cloud the woman was there in the water, her hand on the bow, guiding them gently to a bed of rust-colored algae and pickleweed.
They looked at each other, the woman smiling a soft smile and boys staring at her chest. How could they not? Never in their lives had they seen a naked lady, naked from the waist up anyway. And there she was, her naked lady chest rising and falling so steadily that Lowell wanted to lay his head on it and allow himself to be lulled to sleep by the sound of her soft, fluty breathing.
The woman nodded at Lowell’s binoculars, still hanging around his neck. “You look as if you’d never seen a woman before.”
“We haven’t,” Lowell said.
“Not even your sister?”
“We don’t have one.”
“How about your mother?”
“We haven’t got one of those, either,” Jonas said, and began to cough again.
Lowell forced his gaze from her chest to her eyes, the color of an artichoke in bloom, an uncommon blue that made him blink. “Lady, where are your clothes, anyway?”
She laughed. “Where I come from we don’t need them.”
“What place is that?” Jonas asked.
“A beautiful place,” she said, her gaze resting kindly on Jonas. “Like this one, only opposite. Up is down and down is up. Do you believe a place like that exists?” She sounded just like their father—all riddles, no answers.
“No,” Lowell said. “I don’t.”
She bent at the waist and twisted her hair in a long rope. Her hair shone like herrings swimming in dark barrels. “To live is to die and to die is to live. You were born out of water into this dry place. Your whole lives you’ll long for water that never runs dry.” She straightened and coiled her hair on top of her head. “Surely you believe that?”
She was quoting from scripture, Lowell recognized that much. But she was saying it all backward, plucking words out of order, pinching their meanings.
“I know what I believe,” Lowell said, grounding his paddle in a bank of tidal mud.
“Why are you telling us these things?” Jonas asked, ignoring Lowell.
“Because you looked like you were wanting to know.” She was looking at Jonas, but laid her hand on Lowell’s. Cold, her hand was, and muddy.
“We know plenty.” Lowell slid his hand from under hers.
“Yeah,” Jonas coughed, wiped his sleeve across his mouth. “We know heaps.”
The woman smiled again, wider. So many little teeth crowded in such a small mouth. And those eyes! In the damp they seemed to emit a light of their own. It was almost as if she could see through him, and Lowell wasn’t sure if he liked this—that she could see him so clearly. The brightness of her eyes, Lowell decided. That’s what made him push Jonas to the keel and haul hard for the dark water.
Behind the shifting line of laundry, Lowell washed at the pump, scrubbing at the place where the woman had touched his hand. He made Jonas promise on the Bible, whole stacks of them, not to tell what he’d seen. Though they’d put chickens in the neighbors’ mailboxes every day for a week, had put frogs in the women’s washroom at the church, their father never questioned them, never suspected them of any mischief or foolishness. But tell what they’d seen on the water and Lowell knew that there would be hard questions, a trip to town to the doctor, even. It was why, in part, Superintendent Hoikka dispatched their father to this parish in the first place—to dispel some of the old Lapp mysticism. “They believe in God, sure,” Hoikka told them when he unlocked the house for them. He handed the key, bitten with rust, to their mother. “And lots of other things, too. That’s why we need young blood, young faith.” He smiled at Lucy then. “These old Finns, some of them with deep Lapp blood, they live in the shadows of the light.”
The back door opened and Eila Pippo, who played the church piano on Sundays, waved the boys in. “Supper’s red-up!” she hollered. She had a voice like gravel, but she was nice, the way a lot of church women turn nice when they get old. Every Saturday Eila cleaned their house tops to tails and Teja, Eila’s sister, sent soup and dark bread over for their supper and horehound tea for Jonas’s coughs. On Sundays Teja sat at the end of the pew and passed nickels to Arden, Lowell, and Jonas, something for them to drop in the wooden collection plate. Always Teja sat in the same place in the same pew, fifth one from the altar. It was the way with coast folk to shy from the front. Their father did not make altar calls so that people could walk forward to meet God. This was why it was so terribly important, Teja had explained in lozenged whispers, to sit in the same place every Sunday. How else would God know where to find them?
“It must be so hard, Pastor.” Eila wiped down the range and burners of the stove with a cloth soaked in bleach. “What with three boys to care for.”
Two, Lowell wanted to correct her. Arden looked after himself. Always had. Even before their mother passed.
Eino stood and ran his hands through his hair. Young man’s hair, wiry and thick. He didn’t lose it like so many others do when they lose someone they love. “Thank you, Eila. Thank your sister for us,” he said. “How would we men make it without you women?”
Eila blushed and bustled out the door, dropping God bless you’s the same way she gave out her lemon mints, willy-nilly to whoever was closest. Eila pulled the front door shut and the whole house seemed to draw itself together, holding its breath in the sweet quiet that came with a closed door.
At the table Lowell and Jonas and Arden and their father stood before the food. Eino asked God to bless it to their bodies, bless the hands that had prepared it for them. He asked God most particularly to bless the Tolvis. He asked God to strengthen Jonas’s lungs. When he had finished praying he rubbed his hands over his forehead, pushing with the heels of his palms at his eye sockets. Before he took the job as the itinerant pastor he worked at the lumberyard. Lowell could hardly believe that this man with shoulders hunched over commentaries and concordances, all the books he used to build a sermon, had been known first and best for his skills with a saw. Limbing, setting chokers, and running the haulbacks. Hard believing he’d been so good he kept up with the youngest of the men and many days, beat them.
But now he was tired. It was hard work, their father said, to keep watch over the flock. The sheep of God’s pasture. Hard work because sheep weren’t overly smart. In fact—and this he’d say after one or two of these sheep, usually Widow Neimela, would leave their home, usually in tears—sheep want and ask for the things they shouldn’t have.
But he didn’t hate his flock or feel unkindly toward them. They were like an overgrown family, everyone knowing each other’s business. Everyone knowing each other’s troubles. Every phone call, every visit to the house was on account of a trouble which people brought with them in their purses or tucked under the brims of their hats. No sooner did they step over the threshold than out it would all tumble at the pastor’s feet. Mrs. Lassen required extra prayers because her grown son had acquired a drinking problem. The Heljars were childless and wanted to know why. Oden Mitts was in trouble with the law, a kindly way of saying he’d stolen some money. Again.
But by far the worst: the Tolvi boys. With their bone-white hair and transparent skin, they were always sickly looking. With their weak blood and weak hearts, they wouldn’t have lived long full lives, everyone knew this. Mr. Tolvi had stacked six cords of wood behind the parsonage, payment for the funeral. Afterward the Tolvis sat at the kitchen table, Solveig, their mother, weeping.
“God gives and he takes. I know this,” Mr. Tolvi said. “But why us and why so much?”
Mrs. Tolvi hid her face behind her red, chapped hands. “It’s not natural. A mother should not outlive her sons,” she said between wide sobs. And the sound of her grief that day in their kitchen was so large that Lowell imagined a crosscut saw pushed and pulled through the bark of an ancient fir. If it could be felled, it would become a load-bearing beam of the world’s largest house to hold her tears.
That night after Jonas and Lowell cleaned the dishes and Arden went to the Pines, late, when the dark outside turns the talk gentle, Lowell thought about their mother. Lucy. The moon bobbed, a buoy on a long leash, and he couldn’t help himself, couldn’t help thinking that if she were alive she’d be there with them, sitting on the edge of their beds and singing them to sleep. She would have told them the moon was made of crystal rock candy, would have touched their cheeks and necks, would have laughed with them over the clucking chickens stuffed in mailboxes. She would have explained why the Tolvi boys died so young. She would have held them close and they would feel her skin on their skin. She would have told them what to think of the lady in the water.
Jonas coughed, kicked at the blanket with his feet. “I didn’t know boobs could get that big. Did Mom’s look like that?”
Lowell squinted at the moon. “I don’t know. I don’t remember. Take your medicine.”
Gone, eight years now. Arden knew her better, could remember so much more than Lowell, but Lowell had nearly given up needling for details. Stories. Memories. The things a boy fills his head and heart with to knot up as a net to pull through the dark water.
She liked to sing. That much Lowell could remember. Her song, Lucy’s song, “E’en So Lord Jesus.” She sang it the upland way. When she came to the part about how nobody needs no light, no lamp, no sun, for Christ will be their all, her voice split to hit a high and low note at the same time. Skirling, their father called this, how she turned a phrase and could make her voice be like a flat rock skipping on water. When their father talked like this his voice went hollow. It was clear to Lowell that they were all haunted by Lucy, would always be haunted by her.
The next morning the Hilillas rose early. Easter Sunday, a Sunday when wandering sheep returned to the fold only to disappear again until Christmas, was only five days away, and Eino sat at the kitchen table eating toast and mumbling through the order of the service. The processional. The invocation. A baby dedication. The first hymn. Then the introduction of the grade-school students ready for full baptism—two girls who could recite three of the five parts of the Small Catechism without any slip-ups. And then Jonas. But he had that lingering cough and a low-grade pneumonia Teja called the walking croup. And he was scared. “I’m not going under,” Jonas announced as he pulled a chair and sat at the kitchen table.
“Nobody ever drowned while being baptized,” Arden said.
“I’ll have my hand under your back the whole time.” Eino poured Jonas his milk cut with tea.
But Jonas shook his head. “I don’t want to go under.”
“All right.” Eino held his hands up in surrender. “When you’re ready you’ll know.” And then he retreated to his tiny study packed full of books, chief of which was the Bible. Almost as important was a book of famous quotations from famous theologians and a book of clean jokes, mostly Ole and Lena types for the churchy folk. It was the chinking their father used to fill the spaces in between the important three points to the sermon. Already Lowell could hear him trying out different jokes. It seemed Finns and Swedes—though they’d left the old country and had been in Oregon, some of them, for many generations—hadn’t tired of poking fun of each other. But Lowell couldn’t push away the words of the woman in the water or the reedy sound of her voice in his ears. Something about her made him wonder about his mother. Wonder if that lady knew something about Lucy. Holy Week was fine for holy people, people like his father who seemed made for thoughts of holy things. But for a boy like Lowell, out of school with all that time and nothing to fill it, the week was long. Jonas felt it too, Lowell could tell. After breakfast, they’d set dishes out to dry and now Jonas was twitchy and nervous, kept touching a bulge under his shirt. Their father was in a tetch, pacing the study, calling out to Teja as she mopped the hallway. “What is that smell?”
The odor was one Lowell knew well. Briny and fetid: slough mud. The kind of mud out of which nothing good could grow.
Teja straightened and brought her hands to her face and inhaled deeply. “I don’t understand it, Pastor,” Teja puzzled. “This stink. It’s like a contagion. It’s on the walls. It’s in the furniture. It’s everywhere.”
Lowell and Jonas skulked past Teja, who shook her head in wonder at the smell that seemed to increase even as she acknowledged it. In the yard it was just as easy to dodge Eila. She had soaked load after load of laundry in bluing and was hanging it up, the Finnish way. Undergarments dangled from the line closest to the house, shirts and trousers on the next line out and somewhere between the fourth and fifth line they heard her chastising the sheets that hung crookedly and smelled to her suspiciously of mud.
At the slough Lowell didn’t bother trussing Jonas up in the preserver. There was no point, not with all that bulk stuffed under Jonas’s shirt.
“What do you have there?” Lowell poked at the bulge.
Jonas pulled out a plastic shopping sack, opened it carefully. Inside was a green sweater.
Lowell touched the sweater. “That’s Mother’s.”
“That lady is naked all over. She’ll catch a cold.” Jonas stuffed the sweater back into the bag and climbed into the canoe. No sooner had he grabbed the paddle than he began to cough and turn colors.
“Just rest,” Lowell said. “Your lungs.”
Jonas curled next to the keel, laid his head on the kapok jacket.
It was hard work, pulling for two. The fog dropped, one wet handkerchief after another. Jonas tucked his knees to his chin and coughed.
Lowell grounded the paddle and turned the canoe. “We’re going home.” No sooner had the words left his mouth then he spied her: half in and half out of the water, her torso draped over a rotting log. They must have glided right past her without seeing her.
As before, she was naked, but this time her skin looked altogether different. Not silvery like the dusty leaves of kale, but blue and gray, that same color of Arden’s smashed fingernails after a full night of setting pins at the lanes. He’d lose those nails because they were dead, Arden had explained. And for a split second Lowell considered the possibility that the woman might be dead. Her arm was thrown over her face as if she was shielding herself from an invisible sun. Even so, Lowell could see that her eyes were half-open, her mouth hanging slack.
Lowell eased the canoe beside her, took in her dark hair braided into a tight rope knotted at the back like a noose. He studied her back, how it narrowed at the waist, how her lower half disappeared beneath the mantle of water. Maybe she was a mermaid. Maybe below the dark water where she should have had legs, she had a fluke and scales. Maybe that’s why when they first saw her, she never left the water, why she turned her back to them slightly. Maybe she was only showing her human half, while keeping her creature half hidden in the dark water.
Jonas lifted the bag. “We brought you this,” he said.
She yawned, her mouth open so wide that Lowell could see her many, many teeth. Then she opened her eyes, fixing her gaze on the boys in such a way that Lowell decided she’d known all along that they were there observing her. She tipped her chin skyward and in her eyes Lowell could see the drift of fog pass slowly.
“I’m so glad to see you,” she said. A lazy smile played at one side of her mouth.
“Why?” Lowell asked.
“Because I came back for you.”
Jonas wrinkled his brow. “Why?”
“I’ll show you.” She put her face into the water and her hair, silver and shining, unbraided and fanned out. She pulled her head out of the water and turned to Lowell. “You have to look at yourself—really look—in the still water. That’s when you’ll see.” She touched the sweater then, as if she’d just then noticed the bright fabric.
“See what?” Jonas asked, stifling a cough with his hand.
“Who you are and where you are going.”
Lowell narrowed his eyes, considering. Water told the truth in ways nothing else ever could. Sound traveled faithfully over water. The dark skin of the sloughs reflected the true hang of the trees and the bits of swirling sky overhead. And water—that’s what his father used to baptize. A sprinkle for the babies, a full measure dunking under for the adults. Under they went and then they came back up clean, new creatures, truer to themselves than they ever were before. It had something to do with faith, how fear and knowledge of the old self, the old man, their father called it, fell off in water because nothing cleansed like water. The old Finns, the ones with Lapp leanings, would nod at this kind of talk because it echoed the old logic of the water world some of them still talked about, a world some of them still believed in.
“We know who we are, what we’re meant for, and where we’re going,” Lowell said.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” she said, fixing her gaze on Jonas. “So many people can’t see anything clearly at all. Not even the things right under their noses.” She drew her hand through the water at her waist. “For instance, this very inlet is a portal, a window to another world. A better world where nobody goes hungry. Nobody gets sick. Where I come from there is no need for light, nor lamp, nor sun.”
The hair stood on the back of Lowell’s neck. These were the very words of their mother’s favorite song.
“What place is that?” Jonas asked.
She pointed to the dark water. “The next place. But it takes vision shaped by faith. And faith is the highest act of imagination.”
Lowell tasted bile. Now she was giving them the words his father liked to use. But when his father talked about faith, his words were weary, faithful imagination having worn him out.
“I like it here,” Lowell said.
“Of course you do.” The woman smiled. “You don’t know any different. But it’s so lovely at the next place.” Now she sounded sad. For them, Lowell realized.
“I don’t believe you,” Lowell said.
The woman smiled. “Why don’t you have a look for yourself?”
Lowell peered at his reflection in the water. Try as he might, all he could see was the face of a twelve-year-old staring back at him.
Jonas banked a shoulder over the canoe and studied his reflection on the water. Then he plunged his face under the water. He jerked his head back. “I saw it!” he cried. The canoe wobbled.
“Don’t do that.” Lowell’s chest tightened like a clenched fist. He planted the paddle in the soft mud and set the canoe adrift. “We’re going home now, Jonas.”
The woman leveled her arms over the water. “He is reaching for it,” she said, stepping backward into the fog, away from Lowell and Jonas.
“Don’t listen to her,” Lowell cried. “It’s a trick.”
“But I saw it.” Jonas leaned further over the canoe. “It’s real!”
The canoe lurched. Before Lowell could stop him Jonas was over. With a splash, gone over and under.
“Jonas!” Lowell jumped into the water to the deepest part where the tides grooved a long channel. “Jonas!” Lowell put his head under, but all he could see was murk, and the salt stung his eyes.
All evening and well into the night the men searched the sloughs with lamps and torches. The Heljars brought their dogs. Eila and Teja sat with Lowell in the kitchen, bundled him in blankets and set hot cups of tea one after another before him. He could not stop shaking, could not stop crying until at last Teja drew him into her soft floral middle. “Hush now,” she said again and again.
Sometime after midnight Eino and Arden came back. From the sound of their dropping boots, dull thuds against the wood porch, Lowell knew they had not found Jonas. That’s when Lowell started to shake. Teja lifted him. How she could do it, old as she was, Lowell did not know. But she pulled him into her arms, carried him up the stairs to the bed where she banked blankets on all sides of him, so that he could not have moved even if he had wanted to.
Lowell rolled his gaze to the window. To the moon, a canoe on the dark water. Then a cough on the stairs. “Jonas,” Lowell whispered.
A light in the hall clacked on and Arden and Eino’s long shadows stretched over the floorboards. Arden sat beside him on the bed, his hands resting on the blankets.
“It was an accident. Nobody could fault you.” Arden turned his bleary eyes on Lowell.
Lowell looked at the moon. “It wasn’t an accident.”
In the doorway his father shifted his weight from foot to foot. “Your brother wasn’t wearing his life jacket. The boat tipped,” his father said. “Jonas wasn’t a strong swimmer and he was pulled under. It happened like that.”
It was so strange to hear his father supply a story. Strange to know it was for Lowell that he would do this. Not knowing what happened, not having been there, his father was building a covering for Lowell to shelter under.
“In a few days,” he continued, “after we look a little longer, we’ll get some men together. We’ll fill in that part of the slough.”
“Don’t do that,” Lowell said before he could stop himself. For a long moment Eino looked at Lowell. Then he turned and made the slow descent to his study.
Arden stood and made his way to the doorway. He stopped and considered Lowell. “It was the woman in the slough, wasn’t it?” Arden asked. “She talked him out of the canoe.”
Lowell shook his head slowly from side to side. First yes. Then no. “He wanted to go.” Lowell tried to keep his gaze focused on Arden’s, but there was nothing to see, only a dark shape with the hall light shining behind it. “He was sick. She knew it, too.”
“She’s one of them, you know. One of those from the other world. A false light. The kind you shouldn’t look at.”
Lowell squinted harder. “You sound like Hoikka.”
“Well, what is she then?”
Lowell looked to the moon, shrugged.
Arden stepped out of the room, onto the stair landing, into the rectangle of light. “You smell like her,” he said. Then he snapped off the light.
Through the night Lowell listened to the shearing noises of his father running the table saw. And calling out hard words. Not the sad or sorry ones, but the angry ones. The ones he had only used once before, when Lucy passed. In the morning after he’d shouted all those words, his voice was gone. All the Sunday words meant for the Easter sermon he had worked so hard on—the words of life, how Christ sank into the mire and beat death to bits, how he rose from the grave, broke free of the tomb and nobody then or now has ever found the body—this great story he had wanted so badly to tell, he couldn’t even whisper. Instead Superintendent Hoikka delivered the message, a limp reading of their father’s sermon. After a quick coffee break in the basement, everyone reconvened for Jonas’s memorial service.
The Tolvi family sat closest to the altar, their way of bearing up the burden. Eila played the piano and they sang a hymn that Jonas had liked, “A Little Lambkin Goes and Bears Our Sin.” Lowell mouthed the words: He will be a spring of water for my thirst, a companion with a word for my loneliness. It was the only verse he had up by heart, the only one that made sense. Then Superintendent Hoikka spoke briefly about how the days are passing shadows. Then they rose to their feet and amened it, as if Jonas’s life was as simple as a book closing shut mid-sentence.
Afterward everyone came to the house to pay their respects. Eila and Teja put out eggs, dilled potatoes and bread, lefse, fattigmand. All whites, the spring foods for the celebration of Easter. Only the coffee was black and bitter, the way the men liked it. Lowell could not stand to be with them, eating, talking. Did not like the way the other children moved around him wide-eyed and ghostlike. When Teja suggested the woodstove needed restocking, he was glad to get out of the overstuffed house and stand in the slant rain. He liked the tight squared ends of the stacked wood, wet with the smell of someone else’s sorrow. He liked how the pieces fit snug, only slim shims of air between them. This was comfort, all this wood, and rain, and pitch. From the house came the swell of song, low and sorrowful. One more reason Lowell was glad to be outside. And that’s when he decided he’d go find her. This time he wouldn’t let her trick him with riddles. He’d get her to give him back his brother. But when he got to the sloughs he saw that the canoe was gone. Smashed and sawn to bits in the middle of the night, he realized. But he had two legs, both of them strong, a good heart and lungs, a thick coat, and his father’s walking stick.
Still, it was hard going. He hugged the mud swales for as long as the land held, right up to the place where the sloughs widened to that dark pan of water where he’d lost Jonas. There he kicked off his boots and stepped into the slough, first one foot. Then the other. Cold. The water was colder than he expected. His chest tightened, seized.
He waded into the middle of the slough, to the place where Jonas had gone under, and dragged with the stick. It made no sense to him, no sense at all. Here he was in the deepest part and the water only came to his waist. How could his brother have gone under so fast?
“Lady!” Lowell hollered into the fog. But of course she wasn’t there. Only when he’d given up and turned for home, then did he see her. She lay on her side in the mud, her hair covering her like a beaten silver shield. Her legs, if she had any, were hidden beneath the water, as always. And he realized this was a mystery he would never solve. She was sleeping, and he could hear her soft, fluty breath coming in and out of her nose. He crept closer to her, so close he could have touched the kale-colored skin of her back, could have touched her neck, her shoulder. He could even hurt her, if he wanted. With his father’s stick or a rock, he could kill her—this creature who came and went as she pleased with her laughs and smiles, haunting and hurting. Talking and quizzing. She’d taken his brother, probably lured the Tolvi boys, too. Farther up the mud bank he saw the plastic sack Jonas had brought, fat with the sweater inside of it. Lowell was glad she’d not taken it out of the sack, glad that something that had touched his mother’s skin had not touched hers.
She opened her eyes.
“I came back for you,” Lowell said.
“Why?” She sat up, careful to keep her shoulder turned, her hair a long veil between them.
He wanted to hurt her in the worst way. “They’re going to fill in this marsh.” Lowell punched at the mud with the stick. “They’re going to bury you under tons of dirt.”
She laughed. A sound like delicate glass breaking. Her eyes had turned to cobalt and her lips carmine red. With a finger she drew letters in the water. Maybe she was spelling her own name.
“Why did you do it?”
“I didn’t do anything that wasn’t meant to happen. It was already determined. All the important matters are settled down there.” She pointed to the dark water.
“Man is made of mud. That’s where we come from. That’s where we all go to.”
“Just tell me where the body is. Where have you taken him?”
“I can show you your brother, but sight does not come without consequence,” she said, reaching for his hand. She sounded tired—and sad. For all his anger Lowell really couldn’t find it in himself to hate her completely.
“With some spittle and dust in the palm of his hand, Jesus made mud and made a blind man see,” Lowell said.
The woman pulled a handful of mud from beneath the water. “Do you believe that?”
It seemed all his life he’d been preparing for this moment, this question. “Faith is the highest act of imagination,” Lowell said. “Yes, ma’am. I most certainly believe.”
“All right, then. Close your eyes.” He heard her rising in the water. How he wanted to look, to see for himself just what kind of creature she really was. But he kept his eyes squeezed shut and waited for the smear of mud that was thick and cold on his eyelids.
“Now look,” she said, laying a cold hand on the back of his neck. Lowell plunged his head beneath the water. What he saw he knew in a blink he would never be able to tell anyone, for no one would ever believe him. How could he describe the way light radiated beneath the thick mantle of darkness, this ordinary air that only moments before he’d been breathing? How could he explain that another world lived just beneath the skin of this one? How could he tell his father that he’d seen Lucy, that he’d heard her singing—and Jonas, too—and they were dancing in a whorl of light, the center of which Lowell couldn’t bear to look at, it was just that bright? When he thought his lungs would explode, Lowell lifted his head. He gulped at the stinging air. Above the water it was so dark compared to the brilliance below that Lowell thought he’d been under so long night had fallen. He squinted. He could not see the lady anywhere.
“You see why I didn’t want to show you,” she said.
“Yes,” Lowell breathed. “It stings.”
“That’s the trouble with seeing clearly and understanding what you saw,” she said. “It stays with you.” Then she moved toward the dark tongue of the water, the place where Lowell had looked. She was disappearing into the fog, bit by bit until a dim spot only slightly darker than the surrounding air marked where her body was. And then she was gone.
Some time passed. As he had promised, Eino along with the Olessons and many others filled in most of the ponds and intricate network of sloughs. It took many years. The sting of new tragedies replaced the memories of the old ones. Fishing boats went down at sea. A woman and her grown daughter who was special walked into the mud of the tidal flats and were never seen again. The worst: one day while working in the woods, Mr. Tolvi was killed when the haulback line snapped and cut him in half. After those funerals, Pastor Eino permanently lost his powers of speech and Lowell inherited his post, though when he preached, he did not tell jokes as his father had. Hunched over the podium, he looked like an old man in a young man’s body, and his eyes were so bright, so piercing, they forced even the most faithful to look away.
And then there were the things he said. That there was a world beyond this one, raw and naked. It made the young boys fidget in the pews. But the older folks wondered what he could mean. The young pastor quoted from the book of Joel as he reminded them often that the Lord would restore the years that the locusts had taken. The young men would have visions and the old men would dream dreams. The old women would dance for joy because their land would be healed and their curse would be lifted. It was prophetic talk just strange enough to set their teeth on edge. By and by church attendance fell off and even old Eila and Teja stopped cleaning the parsonage and cooking for Lowell. But they remembered his words later when all these things came true.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.