Authors: Abi Maxwell
Winter was harsh, the Witches were cruel, and the people no longer trusted the lake. They decided to pack their belongings and return to the lives they had left behind. Eleonora’s one remaining child, Signe, packed their family’s belongings. Yet when she took her mother’s arm to lead her to shore, Eleonora would not go. Instead she placed a kiss upon the head of her granddaughter, and she told Signe to go to Kettleborough and raise Ida’s baby as her own.
Signe followed her mother’s instructions. What else was she to do? Perhaps she protested, but she must have known she would be no match for her fierce mother. She left, and my great-great-grandmother went wild on that wild island. She took to killing bear with a jackknife, slicing into their fur and pulling forth their hearts. She kept a lantern lit on each end of the island, a beacon for travelers, and when they stopped for rest she offered a roof and a bed in trade for liquor, wool, and grains. And, for the rest of her days, Eleonora dropped offerings into the lake that had stolen her family. She dropped an ax and a bottle of whiskey, a pair of shoes, an old silver ring, the heart of a bear.
Meanwhile, on shore, people told stories of the beautiful call that had drawn Eleonora’s family into the lake. I used to imagine it in the way so many in Kettleborough do, as the clear call of one of our lake’s loons.
But now I have heard the call, and I know that is not accurate. It does indeed sound like a loon, but the sound is apart from all else, carried across the water and delivered to the listener in the softest of hands. As it travels it splits the air open, so that only that call remains—stark and final and brilliant—and its listener can do nothing but float toward it.
MY AUNT SIGNE
kept a marvelous supply of canned goods. These she ordered from S.S. Pierce & Company, a place down in Boston. She simply called them up and placed her order, and in another week or so the cans were delivered to her doorstep. Immediately Signe dated those cans. She had a walk-in cupboard built in the kitchen, with a wooden pullout step at the base of the wall. The cans dated, Signe pulled out that step and stood upon it to sweep the older cans to the front and place the new ones at the back. In these years since her death, this is what I have said of her: that she kept a marvelous supply of canned goods; that she never did find a suitor; and that she remains the bright pivot of my life.
It was Signe who raised me. At night, when she tucked me into bed in our house at 36 Highland Street, she would tell me the story of our family. They came over in the boat, she would say, with water for their blood. In my bedroom, a lightbulb with a circular shade made of birch bark hung from the ceiling. It turned slowly in the breeze and sent shards of dim light around the room. That refracted light made it seem as though Aunt Signe and I were together under the lake. On weekends we would walk there, to the lake, and from the pier Signe would point across to Bear Island. “Sophie, we two come from out there,” she would say. “Your mother and father dropped beneath the ice and your grandmother turned wild on that wild island.” It was a sad story, yet because I had no memory of anyone in it, the story was beautiful. It was the legend of my very own being, and it made me know that I belonged in this place.
I always believed that Signe, too, belonged in Kettleborough, though now I sometimes think she may have been better suited for city life. When I was a girl, she liked to take the train down to Boston. There we would go to the old Swedish church, where they still held an evening service in what Signe called the old language. And there was a man there. His name was Hjalmar, and his family had been close to Aunt Signe’s father’s family back in Sweden. They didn’t say “Sweden,” however; they referred to that place by sending an unspecific wave over their shoulder. The motion said that their country was not in fact a place, but something tucked away into time. In that gone-by time, Hjalmar had made a living as a tailor, yet here in America he was destitute. Signe would bring him bread wrapped in wax paper, and always a savory pie.
After church we three would walk together, and I vividly remember one of those walks. Night had fallen, and big, heavenly snowflakes fell down upon us. There must have been
streetlamps, yet to me it seemed the snow itself illuminated the world. Hjalmar was a tall man, and he walked between us, his elbows hooked into ours. I felt wonderful with his arm in mine, protected and involved. When we passed a homeless man on the street, Hjalmar stopped and removed his wool coat. He gave it one firm shake. A wave passed slowly through the wool, and, once it was clean of snowflakes, Hjalmar draped that coat over the cold man.
“Hjalmar, your coat,” my aunt said as we walked on.
“I can sew another,” he said.
“You can’t afford the wool for another,” Signe said. It was a reprimand.
“That’s right, too,” Hjalmar said. His voice held no concern.
“Will you ask him to live with us?” I asked Signe that night, on the train ride home. She seemed astonished by my question. Yet if Hjalmar couldn’t afford a coat, I didn’t understand how he could afford to live at all.
“Don’t you love him?” I asked. I must have said more. I knew that it was only when we traveled to see Hjalmar that Signe wore her pearl necklace and a bit of rouge on her cheeks. I must have made my meaning clear: Can’t he be a husband to you?
“I cannot love Hjalmar as a woman loves a man,” my aunt Signe said firmly. She kept her vision fixed on the dark night. I took her statement to mean that Hjalmar would not have her. And I understood to never suggest such a thing again.
My aunt was a teacher at the Kettleborough schoolhouse, and just across the street from that school, in the triangle made by the town’s three roads intersecting, sat the Kettleborough Memorial Library. It was small. But it was also wonderful, made of brick, the south side a wall of buttresses and stained glass. Through that glass the sun shone in singular strands. The rest of the library was dark and musty, like an old stone castle, so
those rays of colored light were striking. Signe, who loved nothing more than to stand in the sun with her eyes closed, used to enter the library, run her eyes over the small place, then walk with purpose to the book upon which the light directly fell. In this way she would decide what next to read.
“They never led to anything, those books,” Signe said once, when I was grown. It wasn’t until then that I understood that she had been on a search.
After school, Signe would cross the street to that library to visit the librarian. I didn’t know the depth of their friendship, but it was clear to me that the librarian was my aunt’s only friend in the area. It was a love of fashion that initially drew the two women together. Both were expert seamstresses, and their drooped necklines and high, fitted waistbands made them stand out in our small town. Though my aunt preferred muted tones, the librarian draped herself in vibrant colors, which certainly matched her personality. She was a joyful, unabashed woman whose husband stayed home to raise the children.
Not long after I asked Signe if she loved Hjalmar, the librarian gave my aunt a book. Signe came to my room with it in her hand. I was fourteen, and not a prude in matters of love. I don’t know how Signe saw this, yet she was right; I had kissed and been groped by a few boys, and it was not something I felt any shame about. In fact, I enjoyed meeting boys in the dark of the boathouses that lined the lake. “This is my duty,” Signe said, and sat at the edge of my bed. Nervousness had splotched her neck. After placing the book on my lap, she stood. Her straight back faced me. Her head was tilted slightly upward, so that her long rope of sandy hair reached her hips. Her hands, hanging awkwardly at her sides, continuously clenched and released. It wasn’t the sort of motion my aunt typically made. She was a sure, firm woman.
“I know nothing of the subject,” she finally said. “I have no experience with it.” She kept pushing to make her meaning clear, though it certainly was to me. “None at all,” she said. “But I do not wish such a fate upon you.” When she left my room, Signe shut the door behind her. To shut a bedroom door was an action never taken in our small world.
When Signe was invited on her first date, I was there to witness it. It was at a town meeting. She had stood to make a plea: the school needed more money for books; all the copies of
were missing pages; the students couldn’t be expected to learn in this way. When she took her seat again, Mr. John Perkins leaned over. “Dinner?” he whispered. In the summers, I was sent away to camp on the lake, and it wasn’t until her old age that Signe admitted to me that in this time she had once attended a two-week charm school in Boston, and that twice she had gone on singles’ cruises. It was the behavior she had learned during such events that I now witnessed—my strong aunt nodded her head downward, ever so slightly, and then held out her hand. We knew Mr. Perkins; people in our town knew one another. Yet her hand said she was pleased to make his acquaintance. “I’d be delighted,” my aunt said. She mouthed the words, her lips full and her tongue soft upon her teeth. I was shocked.
They were to go to Pheasant View for dinner. It was on the outskirts of town, a place set high on the hill, with a stunning view of the lake. Signe prepared a fish pie for me, put it in the oven, and set the timer. She told me what time to put myself to bed. I did not have a bedtime, for I was a responsible teen who enjoyed living on the same schedule as my aunt. Also, she did not have to cook dinner for me; often I cooked for the two of us, and in fact we both knew that I had more of a talent for it than she did.
Hjalmar had given me a cookbook, the recipes written in both Swedish and English, and from it I loved to experiment. So I understood my aunt, on that night, to be intensely nervous. And I understood that it was not the date alone that she feared. In another year I would be off to college. My aunt, then, would be left alone. This date was a chance to find a companion. When she set out I lit a candle and said a small prayer. I wanted her to find a man to live with.
That night I stayed up late. I read poems aloud. I sat straight-backed in a chair, hands clasped together in my lap, and watched out the window for the two of them. It was fall and the maples were afire. In another thirty years or so, fall would become my hardest season, for in it my son would die when his car slipped on wet leaves, yet at that time it was my favorite. I believed, that night, that there was fate to the fact that Signe’s very first date coincided with the change of seasons. I could not go to bed. I sat at the piano and played every hymn I knew, imagining, now and then, a life lived as a musician in the city. Finally, when my fingers could do no more, I went to the couch and fell asleep. Signe, when she came home in the early hours of morning, did not know I was there. The bathroom of that small house shared a wall with the living room, and in there I heard my aunt sobbing.
Virginity was something I had been taught that one loses, so it was over this loss that I felt my aunt must have been crying. And, in a way, I turned out to be right, for my aunt did sleep with that man. Yet it didn’t happen in the way I imagined it. Before she died, when she had finally settled into her body and rid herself of shame, she admitted this to me. It had occurred in the car. She had kept her focus on the glimmering wing of a fly caught both in the vehicle and in a season that was past its own time. There had been no pleasure in his touch, yet she had pretended. “Oh,” she had said. And, “I have never.” She had been brave, to say that. And he had laughed.
On that night, I stayed on the couch until I was sure my aunt had fallen asleep. When I crept to my room, her own door was shut. Yet in the morning, Signe had decided to order a Monel metal sink. The Sears catalog was opened to the page; she was only waiting for me to wake and witness her extravagant purchase. She had a determined happiness about her.
“I will keep it shined at all times,” she said. It came out like a wish.
Also on that morning, Signe did something else uncustomary for our routine life. It was Saturday, one of our two days together, and she left me alone.
All that day I walked idly from room to room. My aunt kept a collection of glass paperweights set deeply with various colors and designs, and I took them from the shelf one at a time and held them to the light in the window. It wasn’t something I had ever done before. I wanted the color to spread across the room, yet nothing happened. The weights would not catch the sun, and I was left infinitely bored.
When Signe finally returned, she was in such a fit that her entrance startled me, and I dropped the weight that was in my hand upon the floor. It bounced, and though it did not split, when I picked it up I saw that a large chip was missing. In all my life, it was the only time I ever saw her furious. Yet when I began to apologize, I quickly saw that her anger had nothing to do with me. In her hands, Signe held a magazine,
stamped in red across the cover. She threw it down upon the table, and I knew she had come from the library.