Authors: Abi Maxwell
Sophie had not said as much, but the Swedish church in Boston that her aunt Signe used to take her to was the place where she had first come to God. She would like to take her son there. She placed the tin with her son’s ashes in her purse, along with a train schedule, and first thing Sunday morning Sophie tiptoed across the hall and opened Malcolm’s door and called his name to tell him she would take him on an adventure, they would go to Boston and they could go to lunch there and he could get a box of chocolates and they could even go visit that old Chinese street he liked, she would give him five dollars and he could spend it any old way.
“Malcolm?” she said. The harsh wind knocked at the storm windows. “Malcolm, honey, wake up. Malcolm?” She rushed across the room and tore off the covers though she knew already that her son was gone.
Jennifer in Oregon. That was Sophie’s first thought as she flung open his top drawer and reached in the back to just the place where she herself would hide something. There they were, those three opened letters. Like a beast she tore through them. Then she went to the window and threw it open. The lake rose up below and Sophie screamed her son’s name, knowing he would not hear.
“Over here, honey,” Mrs. Randolph had told Malcolm the day before. Winter was soon and she and her boys had begun to keep a fire in the old woodstove on the porch. From her rocking chair she could reach both the pile of old clapboards and the top of the stove, so she did not have to get up to keep the fire fed.
Malcolm had the dead turkey in his arms. When he had pulled it by its feet from the top of the woodpile and brought it down, its wings had given a flap and he had thought it would take life and flight again, but of course it would not.
“Boys,” Mrs. Randolph had called quietly, and that was all. They came out and they knew just what was to be done. When he was shown and it was his turn with the feathers Malcolm took Mrs. Randolph’s seat. It was warm and safe and each time he pulled a feather that pink skin gave a little tug and then bounced back down.
“If you ain’t going to eat it,” Mrs. Randolph had said, “I’m guessing there’s a woman with a baby and another on the way wouldn’t mind a gift from you.”
So that is what Malcolm had done. His family would eat beef that his father had bought last spring from the Phillipses’ farm. Otto thought that family to be good, hard workers, so he had bought the meat despite the fact that he considered himself a modern man who ought to buy meat at the store. The Wickholms would eat beef on Thanksgiving, and June would have a turkey.
And the gun would go in the lake. Malcolm had decided that as he sat there on that porch and looked down toward the cold water. The lake would be frozen soon. He would go out tomorrow.
June said she would cook the turkey early because it gave her an excuse to turn the oven on and heat the place up. If she had seen Malcolm go out in his canoe she would have said that he had better not go in this weather. Malcolm paddled out to the center of the open water. In the distance Kettleborough sat small as a village for gnomes. He laid his paddle on the floor of the canoe
and took up the gun. He held it high above his head and counted to ten. With the wind he could scarcely hold his arms steady. When he released the gun, it fell more slowly than he would have thought possible. In the water it spun downward, and he watched it go. When it was out of sight he took up his paddle and though the lake was rough he did not have fear, for somewhere deep within Malcolm knew he would never die in this big lake.
Sophie left the window open and ran to the telephone to call Otto at work.
“Our Malcolm has left us,” she said when he answered. Her voice was quiet but firm, with a pronounced shake to it. She had to grip one hand on the banister to keep from tipping over. “It’s our fault,” she said bravely.
Otto did not speak, but she could hear his slow, steady breath on the other end of the line.
“Ours,” she said again. She didn’t care if Mrs. Randolph heard. “The baby,” she said. “You and I,” she said. She would have gone on, but Otto cut her off.
“One more word,” he said slowly, “and I will put down this telephone and not ever speak to you again.”
Sophie opened her mouth but no sound emerged. She dropped the phone, let it hang there by its cord, and stood alone in the bright living room. After a few breaths she crossed the room, found her purse, and ran out the door.
Mrs. Randolph had heard Sophie calling for her son, and now she could see that Malcolm was at the bottom of the hill, headed homeward, a baby in his arms. So we’ve finally come to this, she thought. She looked toward the Wickholm house just in time
to see Sophie run out the door, slip on the ice, and fall to the ground.
“He’s here,” Mrs. Randolph hollered as she rushed the short distance from her own porch to Sophie’s house. “Malcolm. He’s coming up the hill.”
The contents of Sophie’s purse had spilled in her fall. A small can of aerosol hair spray and a fold of powder. There, three pictures of her illegitimate grandbaby. Her wallet, a tin, a letter addressed to Jennifer in Oregon. When Mrs. Randolph arrived at Sophie’s side, heaving, out of breath, she picked up Sophie’s spilled belongings and placed them back inside the purse. All except those photos. These she handed over one by one. Sophie took them in her hand and looked up at the figure that hovered above her. The sun was bright and large behind Mrs. Randolph, and because of it her face wasn’t a face at all, but just a shadow of a being. Still, Sophie knew it was her neighbor. The two had never even shaken hands before. What had Sophie become? She gave Mrs. Randolph her empty hand, and though just moments ago Sophie had meant to flee Otto and Kettleborough and the entire life she had created, now she looked back toward her tall house.
“We’re not all perfect, is we?” Mrs. Randolph said, and helped to pull Sophie to her feet.
With the ice on the ground, Otto had driven down to the shop rather than walk, and now when he pulled in Mrs. Randolph was back on her porch, and Sophie and Malcolm were standing in front of their own house. Otto could see before he even pulled the car to a stop that Malcolm held a sleeping baby in his arms.
“It’s not Karl’s,” Malcolm called as his father emerged from the car. His voice was loud, a fight against the harsh wind. Otto
walked to them, stood before them with his arms crossed at his chest. He looked at his wife and then let his eyes fall on his son. Malcolm clenched his teeth. His father had never hit him but he had a clear vision now of that firm hand coming across his face. Yet the hand did not, and with no one else speaking Malcolm continued. “This is Todd. June’s son. June who lives at the boathouse. I have offered to help her. She is alone. She said I could bring the baby up to meet Mother.”
“June has a husband.”
“He is gone out west,” Malcolm said, and handed the baby to Sophie. She took him willingly as she stood there in the life she knew she would never have the courage to leave. “He is not—” Malcolm began, but his father cut him off. What would he have said? He is not a replacement for our Karl’s child?
“Hush,” Otto said. “That’s enough. We’ll be quiet now. That’s quite enough.”
And it wasn’t enough, but in another way it was. They were quiet. People can live that way.
TWO YEARS AFTER
they married, Clara Thorton told her husband, Paul, that she wanted to drive as far east as they could get. He had finished a job and had a hunk of money and that was the way he preferred to live—build a house, take a break until the money ran out. Together they outfitted the van. They secured a crib to the backside of the driver’s seat. They put a bed where the backseats belonged and she sewed curtains and he even made little wooden cupboards for her things. There was a camp stove and rope and tarp to extend their living space, and they were in love then, and things would be good.
Before they had adopted Alice, Clara had been different; of
course she had. She had liked to disappear at night, to go off alone and watch the stars if they were out, or the moon, and if neither was possible then to just look into the warm houses and imagine the lives inside. She never told him where she went at these times and he understood to not worry or ask. She liked to drink wine then, too, and often when he kissed her maroon lips they would be sweet and pruned. They hadn’t expected to keep the baby for good but they hadn’t worried over it, at least not together. He had said that it would be a fun project—those words exactly—and so she had agreed.
Her worry took over when the papers were signed and the baby was theirs and the promise was made to not ever tell the child where it was she had come from. “Is she breathing?” Clara would ask. “Paul, Paul, wake up, she feels hot, is she dying?”
“Ease up,” had become his constant refrain, and in protest to her nervousness he had become careless. He let the baby cry for longer than his heart would have allowed. He put a bite of squash into her mouth in the days before she was supposed to eat solids.
But on this trip they drove over the mountains and when they crossed into Canada the land spread open and she opened the window and hung her head out to let her long hair trail behind her. She felt free as she ever had. They shared a few beers as they drove and they kept their hands on each other’s lap and the baby stayed silent, she usually did, and they together laughed.
And look at those cliffs! Some red as a desert and others slick and black, all of them dropping straight down to that endless blue ocean. They didn’t take their time getting to the cliff that was nearly one thousand miles from Kettleborough, all the way on a northeastern leg of the continent, only a throw from Newfoundland, where they planned to park the van and spend a week. They just drove for nearly twelve hours, parked on a logging
road and slept, and drove for twelve more hours. Clara keeps a photograph from that night on the logging road. The roadside was filled with knapweed, lupine, and Queen Anne’s lace. Paul balanced a steak on two sticks and cooked it over the fire. The baby was calm, and both Paul and Clara felt filled up with all they would ever need. The sun stayed late, and the photograph is dim, but there Paul is, up close, looking at the camera and giving for the last time that perfectly mischievous smile that she knew was reserved for her alone.
The place they were headed to was a cove at least one hundred miles from any real feeling of civilization. The last leg of the journey—perhaps forty miles—took nearly three hours. It was that washboard dirt road, and the height. Out there the only place for living was atop the cliffs, so that’s where the road ran, right along the edge, and death became not a presence or an event but a place, just there, one step to the east.
“Ease up,” Paul said once as he drove, because Clara wanted him to slow down even more.
The road ended at a village of trailers and weak houses trapped on one side by ocean and the other by deep, wet forest. At the tip of the village—which was the tip of the land—there lay a field of grass dotted by picnic tables. This was the campground where they would stay. It was the only accommodation in the village. There was an outhouse and a water pump and a shower that they could feed dimes into. Paul chose their spot and Clara told him that she wanted one farther from the edge and again he said it, “Ease up,” so she did. The bells on the buoys clanged with the easy motion of the water, and this was as beautiful a place as Clara had ever been to.
They ate lobster bought from the man who ran the campground. He had a strong accent born of this far-off place, and they did not understand everything he said, but Clara knew he said that whales lived out there in the cove, and that if she watched long enough she would surely see them. After the baby was asleep she lay down for a time with Paul, but when the moon rose she went back outside and sat on the grass with her heels touching the edge of the cliff, and she did not take her eyes off the gleaming water for hours. A ship went by, and though it was probably only a ferry on its way to Newfoundland, Clara imagined red carpets and a brass band, women in billowing dresses headed to a foreign land. Eventually she fell asleep out there. Paul woke her in the early hours of morning and she sat up wide-eyed, happy. There was a mass of birds above, Paul had been watching them for about an hour while Clara slept on the grass, and they circled and dove and circled and dove. They were terns; Paul knew their name. They would float on their cloud of air as if nothing in the world would disturb them, ever, and then one bird would decide to drop and bam, the bird was gone. Bam, bam, one after another, that is the only way to describe it. The birds dove down to the water and right through the surface with the force of a bullet.
“Feeding grounds,” Paul said, and he told Clara there would be whales there. Which there were; he saw many of them. “There!” he would say, and point, and “There!” again, but not once did Clara see a whale he pointed to.
The cliff was broad, but in one spot near to them it transformed into a narrow, rocky bridge like the neck of an hourglass. Over that short bridge you could walk to a small splatter of grassy land that seemed itself the very end of the earth. After breakfast Paul draped the baby over his shoulder and headed toward that spot.
Clara called to him, told him not to cross with Alice. And he heard her, plain as day he did. But he did not respond.