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Authors: Lindsay Starck

Noah's Wife

G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS

Publishers Since 1838

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

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New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Lindsay Starck

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The author acknowledges permission to reprint the following:

“Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp” from
The Collected Poems: 1956–1998
by Zbigniew Herbert. Translated and edited by Alissa Valles. Copyright © 2007 The Estate of Zbigniew Herbert. Translation copyright © 2007 by HarperCollins Publishers LLC. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-40785-5

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Starck, Lindsay Rebecca.

Noah's wife / Lindsay Starck.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-0-399-15923-7

1. City and town life—Fiction. 2. Interpersonal relations—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3619.T37335N63—2016 2015007435

813'.6—dc23

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

For my parents

who keep me
afloat

 

I thought then

I should save

one

small

warm

true

thing

from the flood

—Zbigniew Herbert, “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and
Lamp”

PROLOGUE

I
n the beginning it was not raining, but it is raining now—and steadily.

It has been raining for so long that even though it has not always been raining the townspeople begin to
feel
as though this is the case—as though the weather has always been this way, the sky this gray, the puddles this profound. They feel, sometimes, as though the sun has never risen over their town at all, not ever; that its very existence is nothing but a rumor: a product of the same sort of fallacy and telescopic inaccuracy that had everyone thinking for so long that the world was flat or that the constellations were arranged in patterns.

“There are no patterns!” they say to one another now—and darkly. “There are no stars. There is only the rain, and the clouds.”

They divide their lives into two sections: the time that came
before the rain and the time that will follow it. But after a while the rain soaks so thoroughly through their consciousness that they begin to feel as if there is no time but the present.

“Today is the only day!” says Mauro to his neighbors when they enter his general store.

“You mean—there is no day but today,” they say. They propel their arms in circles to rid their sleeves of rainwater.

In the beginning they had all believed that it would end because whenever it had rained before (as it rains everywhere), it had always ended. After a few weeks, when it didn't stop, they tried to find a scientific explanation for it. At first they congregated in the library to seek counsel from written accounts of great rains of the past, and rotated the rabbit ears of their television antennae in a vain attempt to find a weather station that would illuminate their situation. As the rain continued, the transmission of their televisions and their radios grew worse and their sense of isolation increased. They turned the damp pages of their books, and when they met on the street they exchanged theories about the rain as some sort of meteorological quirk resulting from a change in the winds or the tides. Later on, as the vitamin D drained from their blood and a damp despair seeped deep into their hearts, they decided that there was nothing that could explain it and so they stopped trying.

“It is not something to be explained,” they say to one another, philosophically. “It is merely something to be endured!”

They endure.

What is more: they take pride in their endurance. They strive
to see the rain as something that sets them apart, makes them stronger, wetter, wiser. “If this had happened to anyone but to us,” they remind each other, “those people would not have been able to bear it. They would have left long ago.”

Thus
staying
becomes the quality that singles them out. Staying becomes the symbol of their strength, their response to clouds hanging heavy and low, the mantra that they mutter when they find their outlook to be especially gray. Sometimes, on the days when they believe they cannot bear it any longer, the rain seems to let up—but the clouds never scatter, and a day or two later it has begun to fall again in earnest.

The water pours down roofs and rushes through gutters and falls in silver arcs from the eaves to the ground. It collects between the cracks in the sidewalk and then spreads in pools across the pavement. The townspeople postpone school picnics and town parades, put away their bicycles, carve ditches through their lawns, take baseball bats to knock the rust from their cars. They purchase special light boxes from a mail-order catalog because the description promises that the bulbs will cheer them by simulating the sun. They look at the sky so often that they become experts on the many different shades of gray. They collect ponchos and rain boots and wear them with self-conscious style. They learn how to walk two abreast on the sidewalk while carrying open umbrellas. The trick is in the tilt: a slight movement of the elbow toward the side of one's body so that the spokes do not collide.

“How lovely the streets look with the colors of all the
umbrellas!” says Mrs. McGinn to her neighbors with a fierce and dogged optimism. “How pleasant it is not to have to water our lawns or wash our cars.”

In short: they adapt. They are, in fact, surprised to find how
fluid
their lives are. They are surprised to discover how easy it is to make these alterations, how simple it is to shift their daily habits to fill the empty spaces and restore balance. Weeks become months and years. By the time the new minister arrives in town with his birdlike wife, it seems as if it has been raining forever.

“There really is a certain beauty in it, isn't there?” exclaims the wife, examining the jeweled drops that cling to the windowpanes. She looks attentively to her husband.

“My cup runneth over,” says the minister, watching the water topple out and over the edge of a brimming rain gauge. His voice is hard and bright.

“There are good days and there are bad days,” explain the townspeople—and this is true. There are days when they wake full of pristine joy, when the town outside their windows seems cleansed of trash and filth and old muddy dreams. But there are also long hours of mildew and frustration; there are moments when they lash out at their friends with bitter words or threaten each other with strong resentful shakes of their spiked umbrellas.

They are not always happy, or at peace. They miss their shadows. Sometimes when they step outside in the morning the first drop of rain on their plastic ponchos echoes in their ears
with the resounding toll of a funeral bell. Sometimes when they return home in the faint gray light of evening, they cannot bear the hoarse whispers of their rusted wind chimes and they cannot bear the sight of the water rising in their rain gauges. They despair; and they are sick of despair. With swift and sudden anger they take up the shining cylinders and they hurl the water into the grass and they fling the gauges with great force toward the concrete, standing and watching while the glass shatters and breaks. At the moment of impact they feel something crack within their very souls and then they go inside—repentant—to find a broom to sweep up a pile of pieces that are jagged and clear.

In the rain, the wreckage shines like
diamonds.

one

I
t was raining on the day that Noah's wife met her husband.

The sky was plum-colored, the sea wrathful and wild. The wooden planks of the boat wailed in the wind as the storm tossed it across the sea and pitched her to one side. Noah's wife would have fallen if she had not thrown out a hand and accidentally struck Noah's shoulder.

“Whoa there!” he had said with a cheerful flash of white teeth, lifting his own hand and grasping her forearm. “Are you all right?”

That had been her first impression of him: thick dark curls smashed flat to his head by the rain, open face wreathed in a smile, eyes that were soft and black as coal. His face was craggy, his beard coarse and closely trimmed. He was, she guessed, eight or ten years older than she was. She could tell by his expression that he was pleased that they had been thrown together
(“by fate,” he teased her later), and the pressure of his fingers was warm against her skin. She was tall but he had a good six inches on her, and when the boat rocked again she was thrown so close that her cheek slammed against his plastic slicker. For a moment—before she pulled away, embarrassed—she heard his heart pounding through a chest as solid as the hull they stood upon.

“I'm so sorry,” she murmured, withdrawing her hand. He continued smiling, assured her that he didn't mind. She took a few unsteady steps toward the pilothouse, looking for something to hold on to. As she went she could feel Noah's eyes on the back of her neck, beaming through the hood of her raincoat.

She had never liked boats. She would not have set foot on one on dry land, much less on a stormy sea, but the choice was not hers. The photographer who usually took tourists' photos for the whale-watching company had called in sick that morning, and so the studio had sent her. The water was too rough for her to set up her tripod, so as far as work was concerned it was a wasted trip. The anger of the ocean took her by surprise, reminding her of the stories of the vengeful Greek gods she had pored over while in middle school. She remembers watching the buildings in the harbor grow smaller while the little boat rocked and churned, thinking to herself that, if nothing else, at least this would be a dramatic way to die.

The passengers careened from side to side with their hands shielding their eyes, looking for whales. No one could find any. They didn't know if they should focus their search over the left
side or the right side of the boat—“Port or starboard,” she heard someone correct them pretentiously—and so they kept switching back and forth, stepping quickly across the rolling decks with arms outstretched for balance.

Made drowsy by the pair of pills she had taken to prevent the onset of seasickness, she settled down on a ledge between two lifeboats and rested her chin on her orange life preserver. She looked out at the water, watching for whales from half-lidded eyes. After they had been at sea for about fifteen minutes, the rain fell harder and she could feel the wind picking up, could hear it whistle through the railings. The lifeboats were lashed close to the pilothouse and in brief moments between the gusts of wind she could hear the captain talking to his first mate.

“Pretty rough,” said the captain.

“No kidding,” said the first mate. “Probably shouldn't have come out.”

Noah was among the throng sliding from side to side when the ship rocked, and he happened to catch her eye at the moment of this exchange. Even back then, he had been able to read her as easily as one of his psalms. He told her much later that from the minute he saw her he loved the way her emotions tumbled across her face, genuine and bare. He said that he fell for her right there, right on the heaving deck of that boat when he saw her gripping the straps of her life vest with her knuckles white, her expression at once fearful and composed.

“Don't worry!” he had shouted over the wind. “It'll be all right!”

She lifted one hand to tighten the straps on her life jacket. Her coat was pale green and soaked through to her shirt and her skin, the hood plastered to her hair and stuck to the sides of her cheeks. Noah had beamed at her then, and she felt a little warmer.

“Really! We'll make it back just fine!” he said again.

“How do you know?” she yelled back.

He shifted a coil of wet rope and sat down beside her. Then he grinned. “I just do.”

The storm was too loud for them to speak very much after that, but she snuck sly glances at his profile and kept her leg where it was when the boat rocked perilously to one side and caused her to lean and to slide, to press her thigh against his. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him smile. When another wave knocked their shoulders together, she smelled peppermint and soap. He leaned in and promised her that once they got back to shore, he would take her out for lunch and she'd forget they ever nearly died at all.

She liked him, instantly. He reassured her. Over the months that passed, she grew to love him for that confidence, for his unwavering faith that no matter how high the waves or how strong the wind, they would all make it safely back to solid ground. By the time he asked her to marry him (she said yes before he had finished the question), the rain and the wind were so deeply embedded in the story of their romance that she didn't mind the fact that it rained on their wedding day; she saw the inclement weather, in fact, as a good omen. When she thinks of
the wedding now, she remembers the soggy tangle of her veil, the streaks of mud that her guests carried into the church on the heels of their galoshes. She recalls the thunder that shook the steeple, thrumming through the pews, and the lightning that lit up the altar after the power had gone out. Noah had laughed at the whole thing and she followed his lead, wandering gaily among their guests while they waited for the worst of the wind to die down so that they could drive to the reception. Even after they had arrived at the restaurant to discover that the power was out there, too, she remained unfazed. Everyone drank warm beer and passed around cold plates of cheeses and meats, exclaiming at the flickering beauty of the dining room by candlelight. There was no music, but when the meal was winding down his friends raised their glasses and sang, Noah's baritone bellowing steady and full through the chorus. She tugged his suit coat off the back of his chair and draped it across her bare shoulders, and then she leaned back and took large bites of her cake, feeling warm and at peace. Noah had frosting in his beard and she loved it, loved that he ate as he lived: with gusto. She was expecting him to teach her how to live with gusto, too.

And she was right about the luck of the rain. The first five years of their marriage have flown by in a haze of celebrations: a steady succession of weddings and baptisms, anniversaries and birthdays. True, she has heard the rumor (passed around at coffee hour) that Noah brings in so many new members not on account of his righteousness—although he
is
righteous—but simply because he is so handsome. No doubt it would be better
if people adored the Lord at least as much as they adored the assistant minister, but Noah's wife understands as well as anyone that it is easier to believe in a God who would choose someone like this for his instrument: someone with such rich hair, with such a straight nose and dignified jawline. When he preaches, his dark eyes shine and his teeth glint through the space between his mustache and his beard. His congregants hunker down in their pews and, even if most of them do not heed the actual words that he is saying, they wait for the low gravel of his voice to tumble over them and then they believe—for the time being, at least—as though they have been saved.

Noah's wife always sits in the front row with her shoulders back and her hymnal open on her lap, although she never sings. She grew up without ever having set foot in a church, without any strong opinions about God or heaven or much else, for that matter. And yet there is something persuasive about Noah. Whenever he speaks, whenever he leans over his pulpit to close the distance between him and his congregation, she finds it much easier to accept the world as he sees it: benevolent and just, full of mystery and unfathomable beauty. His congregants, she supposes, must feel the same way. The pews are always packed.

Noah's first call out of seminary had been as an assistant minister to a large church in the city. His wife edits his sermons and collects petitions from his congregants; she distributes the newsletter and organizes picnics. At church functions she takes
photographs, arranging group shots in front of the building or setting up her tripod behind the banquet table to snap candids as people serve themselves. Noah's congregants like her macaroni salads and her dry humor and her open devotion to her husband, but most of all they like to see her pictures. She develops them herself. In the weeks following the event they gather around the bulletin board in the nave to exclaim over their favorite prints and to compliment one another on how healthy and happy they look. Noah's wife has a way about her, they all agree; she has a talent for bringing out the best in people.

•   •   •

T
HE SUN IS BRILLIANT
on the day Noah receives the call. His wife is waiting for him to come home, sitting on the gritty concrete of the front stoop with a mug of tea cupped between her palms. Spring is nearly over—the leaves are darker every day, and the air feels dry and taut. She stands when her husband pulls up to the curb, watches his shadow lengthen as he strides across the grass with steps that are swift and certain. She has always loved the way he moves.

“I've been called!” he tells her. “I'll have a congregation of my own.”

His skin is flushed with energy. She would not be surprised to hear his beard crackling with excitement.

“That's wonderful, Noah!” she exclaims. “Where is the church?”

The news is unexpected. She had not known that Noah was looking for another church; she had assumed that he would eventually take over the lead position at the church they are attending now. She is further disconcerted when, instead of naming a neighborhood she knows, Noah tells her that the church is a half day's drive from the city—nestled deep in the northwestern hills.

“So—we're leaving?” she asks him.

“We're leaving,” he confirms. “We're expected there by next week.”

Of course he can tell that she is staggered by the thought of it; she has lived her whole life bound within the borders of this city. Before she can respond, Noah draws her close to reassure her. He kisses the top of her head and leaves his lips there, so that when he speaks his voice is muffled in her hair.

“I know it's huge,” he says. “I know it's unexpected. But I believe that we can really do some good out there. I believe we are needed, that this has happened for a reason.” He kisses her again. “And I promise that no matter what, we'll be together.”

She rests her head against the shirt that she had pressed for him that morning, feels his heart beating through the linen, and remembers the whale-watching boat in the rain. He is happy, and so why should she be troubled?

That evening she goes directly to the public library, determined to learn all there is to know about the place where they are headed. She stays until the building closes, riffling through
the card catalog and paging through brittle newssheets, but there is little information to be had. She finds one yellowed profile on the businessman who had established a zoo there and a few articles on the animals they had acquired afterward. Noah's wife peers for a while at the faded images of exotic birds and wildebeests, but she fails to locate anything written on the town in the past ten years. Even the librarian whose assistance she requests finally has to throw up his hands and admit defeat.

“We've got nothing here,” says the man, unbuttoning and rebuttoning his cardigan several times in evident distress. “It's as if that place has fallen out of our books.”

•   •   •

S
HE REFUSES TO LET
this faze her. “That only makes it more of an adventure,” she tells Noah as they are leaving. His body is tense in the driver's seat, but his face softens when he looks sideways at her.

“You're so beautiful, my dear,” he says. He pulls their battered station wagon away from their old life and turns toward the new, and as they head up the highway she rolls down her window and feels the sun on her face, removes the map from the glove box and unfolds it across her lap. She looks for the crease that marks the spot of their new town, its name faded, the print almost too small to read. The drive takes them along the rocky western coast, hugging the sea before turning toward the mountains. There is only one highway that leads into the
town, the road as smooth and sloping as a dragon's back. For most of the way they ride silently, and although it is not like Noah to be silent, his wife is too full of her own thoughts to press him into speech. She tries to focus on where they are headed rather than what they are leaving behind; she deliberately does not think of the photography studio where she has worked her whole adult life, nor of the owner who tried to persuade her not to go. She even turns her thoughts away from her best friend. Noah's wife has made up her mind to be as delighted as her husband about this sudden change in fortune.

Indeed, when she first sees the charcoal-colored clouds that have collected over their destination and hears the rain begin to patter against their windshield, she takes it as a good omen. As their car growls into town, she considers the clouds curling thick around chimneys and the jumble of roofs obscured by a beaded veil of rain. Along the main drag she can make out the hazy shapes of the inhabitants ambling along sidewalks, umbrellas blooming in vivid bouquets wherever they stop to meet on corners. They turn to watch the car go by, their faces sullen. She squeezes Noah's hand and tries to smile at them. She continues smiling as the car chugs down the road and up the driveway of the empty parsonage, a rambling, gray-blue house with shuttered windows and three slightly tilting stories. She smiles even while they are unloading boxes from the back and setting them down in a dining room that smells of mildew, the dust rolling in soft whorls across the groaning hardwood floors. She does her
best to smile the whole evening through, and only dares to let her face relax when the lights are out and she can hear Noah snoring beside her in an unfamiliar bed. The rain taps all night on the shingles above her, eventually lulling her to sleep. It is still raining when she wakes.

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