Heat Lightning

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Ever since the death of their parents in a boating accident on the Kittiwake River when Tilly and Mole were babies, the girls have lived with their aunt Hy in a small and quiet lakeside town. Their aunt's reluctance to discuss the tragedy in anything more than the most cryptic, fragmented terms has only served to feed the sisters' curiosity -- giving rise to secret fantasies and unifying Mole and Tilly in their devoted quest for buried truths about the history that has been denied them both. But this warm and ...
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1997 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. Clean and tight-unused copy-Excellent! ! Sewn binding. Paper over boards. 336 p. Audience: General/trade.

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New Ships From Canada. New in new dust jacket. Sewn binding. Paper over boards. 336 p. Audience: General/trade. From Booklist Cohen, widely praised for her nonfiction book Train ... Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World (1994), has brought her acute powers of observation to her debut novel, a gleaming tale propelled by the curiosity of a sensitive 11-year-old girl called Mole. Mole and her slightly older sister, Tilly, have lived with their aunt Hy along the banks of the Kittiwake River ever since their parents drowned under puzzling circumstances during a storm. Practical and reticent, Hy has told her nieces little about their parents, leaving it up to them to create their own myths to live by, but the fragility of their imaginings becomes alarmingly clear to Mole after the arrival of the Rouens, a volatile family headed by two scientists studying freshwater mussels. Delia is strong and focused, but Bill exudes a reckless sensuality, a force connected, in Mole's quicksilver mind, to her sister's sudd. Read more Show Less

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1997 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. Sewn binding. Paper over boards. 336 p. Audience: General/trade. From Booklist Cohen, widely praised for her nonfiction ... book Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World (1994), has brought her acute powers of observation to her debut novel, a gleaming tale propelled by the curiosity of a sensitive 11-year-old girl called Mole. Mole and her slightly older sister, Tilly, have lived with their aunt Hy along the banks of the Kittiwake River ever since their parents drowned under puzzling circumstances during a storm. Practical and reticent, Hy has told her nieces little about their parents, leaving it up to them to create their own myths to live by, but the fragility of their imaginings becomes alarmingly clear to Mole after the arrival of the Rouens, a volatile family headed by two scientists studying freshwater mussels. Delia is strong and focused, but Bill exudes a reckless sensuality, a force connected, in Mole's quicksilver mind, to her sister's sudden blosso Read more Show Less

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Overview

Ever since the death of their parents in a boating accident on the Kittiwake River when Tilly and Mole were babies, the girls have lived with their aunt Hy in a small and quiet lakeside town. Their aunt's reluctance to discuss the tragedy in anything more than the most cryptic, fragmented terms has only served to feed the sisters' curiosity -- giving rise to secret fantasies and unifying Mole and Tilly in their devoted quest for buried truths about the history that has been denied them both. But this warm and gentle summer is different from most. In this season of exploration, a subtle change is taking place that draws Mole's close confidant and inseparable companion farther and farther away from her. And others have arrived at Pillow Lake -- strangers invading a protected domain -- disturbing the delicate tripartite balance Mole, Tilly and Hy have maintained with the past for years, bringing doubt and confusion to two children on the precarious brink of adulthood while, at the same time, offering the luminous promise of understanding.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
The motivations that lie behind the weaving and the unraveling of the family mosaic are central to Leah Hager Cohen's first novel, Heat Lightning. Cohen, the author of two assured works of nonfiction, Train Go Sorry: Inside A Deaf World and Glass, Paper, Beans, here explores the relationships between three strong women over the course of one remarkable summer. Through the finely nuanced narrative voice of 11-year-old "Mole" Grummer, we learn that she and her older sister, Tilly, have been raised from infancy by their Aunt Hy after their parents drowned during a storm on the Kittiwake River. Caring but remote, Hy has never been very forthcoming about their parents' death, supplying only meager and, from the sisters' point of view, impractical scraps of information: Violet liked peanuts, pretzels, "anything with salt." "David was handy." Nevertheless, Mole and Tilly hoard these infrequent utterances, memorizing them and adding them to their precious store of knowledge. The only tangible keepsake they have is a stack of black and white snapshots that they keep enshrined in a battered cookie tin:
For years, one of Tilly's and my favorite games involved arranging these snapshots on her bedroom floor and making up stories and dialogue to animate the images, the way other children might have done with dolls. These twelve pictures afforded us such latitude in constructing an idea of our parents that we learned not to mind the paucity of Hy's reminiscences; her story we appropriated as well, and privately embellished. Thus, the storm, in mymind,comprised hail, gales of wind, thunder and lightning. The sky was gray-green, the color of the place between yolk and albumen in a hard-boiled egg. The rowboat was read. Our parents wore rain slickers: hers yellow, his navy blue. They washed up on the sand clean and pale, their mouths and eyes closed, their fingers interlaced.

As we got older, our need to flesh out the story grew — not just the costumes, props and blockings, but things we couldn't name, temperament and motivation and, in a way, a moral — and bit by bit, we supplied these elements, too, so seamlessly that they appeared to have been spawned by the story itself....

Eventually all the details we contrived, singly or jointly, mundane or ethereal, combined in a sort of life-giving alchemical reaction so that as the story increased in size it increased in legitimacy. Our own contributions took on such steadfast authority that they melded with fact. It became our own private gospel.

As sole custodians of this latter-day concordance, the sisters have long shared an unchallenged intimacy. But when Hy begins to spruce up the abandoned bungalow the girls think of as "the dead house" with the idea of renting it out for the summer, they recognize the threat to their cherished privacy and voice a united chorus of disapproval. Their attempts to change Hy's mind only serve to introduce the first notes of familial discord, and Mole notices, not for the first time, that Hy has "gone off," put a mental distance between herself and the girls.

The Rouen family arrives with the summer, and reluctantly the sisters begin to take an interest in the new occupants of the dead house. Mole is secretly thrilled to discover a "mussel connection": Bill and Delia Rouen are a husband-and-wife scientific team making a study the local mussel population, and she has long maintained a half-hidden dollhouse of moss and mussel shells on the banks of the Kittiwake. The Rouens explain that they are looking for patterns, hidden, undescribed truths, the "many, many small things" that may one day "become part of the bigger picture." This, too, strikes a chord with Mole: Isn't this what she and Tilly have been doing all these years, trying to complete an elaborate jigsaw puzzle from the flotsam and jetsam of their parents' lives? But when she tries to express her excitement, she finds that Tilly has gone off in her own way, assuming subtle affectations and enforcing a new separateness between them. Worse, in flirting with Walter, the oldest of the four Rouen children, Tilly has blithely offered up the jealously guarded story of their parents' death and, unthinkably, changed the holy writ. Tilly hints darkly of an unsolved mystery, "something fishy" about the affair, in order to catch Walter's interest. And as a variety of excuses to investigate with Walter are contrived — a trip to the library to pore over ten-year-old microfiche, a graveyard excursion to search for their parents' headstones — Mole finds herself gently but unmistakably excluded.

Ultimately, the only mystery revealed is the age-old mystery of coming of age, and the only thing fishy going on is in the dead house itself. Growing up in small-town isolation, neither Mole nor Tilly has ever known a family "in the middle of trouble," and the warning signs — arguments, drinking, and the underlying sexuality of Bill Rouen's banter — while obvious to the reader, are missed by the girls. Cohen parses out hints of the Rouens' troubles over the course of her story, generating a tension that propels it to its denouement. But Heat Lightning's real triumph is the exquisite realization of the intricate dynamic between Mole, Tilly, and Hy, and the achingly real portrayal of that age when the certainties of childhood are replaced by the questions of adolescence.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In what seems an explosion of literary creativity, Cohen, whose provocative nonfiction book Glass, Paper, Beans appeared in February (following the memorable 1993 Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World), has written a haunting first novel that exquisitely captures the perceptions of a young girl on the verge of puberty.

Narrator Mole (for Martha) and her older sister, Tilly, were babies when their parents died trying to rescue boaters in a storm. They were adopted by their loving but taciturn Aunt Hy, who has told them very little of the circumstances in which their parents drowned, so that the girls, closely bonded by their situation, have added details to create their own story about that night. During an oppressively hot summer when the girls are 11 and 12, their carefully constructed version of the world begins to crack. Hy rents the empty house where the girls were born (they call it "the dead house") to the Rouens, married marine biologists who, with their four children, have come to the area to study mussels. Outwardly appealing, the family is subtly dysfunctional. Tilly, suddenly crossing the bridge to adolescence, is drawn to 14-year-old Walter Rouen, even as his father attempts to seduce her. Her burgeoning sexuality loosens her sibling bond, and Mole is hurt, lonely and abandoned, as well as bewildered by adult behavior. "No grown-up around me offered any clear message or instruction," she mourns in a premonitory passage.

Cohen delicately conveys the uncertainty and moodiness of young girls on the verge of puberty. Her sensuous language bursts with charged imagery, as do her descriptions of a rural hamlet whose apparent summertime languor hides simmering emotions. So suspensefully does her story move along that one is somewhat disappointed at the end to find no closure to the events that Mole has been foreshadowing with plaintive gloom. That a small revelation at the end apparently satisfies their natural desire for knowledge about their parents conveys the message that deprivation of their past is somehow no longer important to the sisters. But if Mole doesn't learn much about her past, she does begin to understand her future, and the reader hopes to share more of her life.

Library Journal
Mole and Tilly lost their parents in an accident when they were babies and have been raised by their Aunt Hy in a small town near Lake Pillow. Their parents' death has always been something of a mystery to the girls. The summer Mole is 11 and Tilly is 12, the Rouens rent "the dead house" down the road; soon, they and their four children invade the previously exclusive haunts of Tilly and Mole. As the summer progresses, it becomes clear that the Rouens' marriage is in crisis.

Meanwhile, Tilly begins to exhibit all the signs and symptoms of puberty, to the consternation and confusion of her younger sister. Solid becomes liquid, what is known becomes uncertaineven the stories the girls have made up about their parents' deathand both Mole and Tilly must grapple with a new reality. Vivid description and detail make these characters come alive; Pillow Lake becomes real, and the heat of the summer shimmers throughout the story. Beautifully written and told, this first novel by the author of the acclaimed Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World (LJ 12/93) is recommended for most collections.
--Joanna M. Burkhardt, University of Rhode Island, College. of Continuing Education Library, Providence

Library Journal
Mole and Tilly lost their parents in an accident when they were babies and have been raised by their Aunt Hy in a small town near Lake Pillow. Their parents' death has always been something of a mystery to the girls. The summer Mole is 11 and Tilly is 12, the Rouens rent "the dead house" down the road; soon, they and their four children invade the previously exclusive haunts of Tilly and Mole. As the summer progresses, it becomes clear that the Rouens' marriage is in crisis.

Meanwhile, Tilly begins to exhibit all the signs and symptoms of puberty, to the consternation and confusion of her younger sister. Solid becomes liquid, what is known becomes uncertaineven the stories the girls have made up about their parents' deathand both Mole and Tilly must grapple with a new reality. Vivid description and detail make these characters come alive; Pillow Lake becomes real, and the heat of the summer shimmers throughout the story. Beautifully written and told, this first novel by the author of the acclaimed Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World (LJ 12/93) is recommended for most collections.
--Joanna M. Burkhardt, University of Rhode Island, College. of Continuing Education Library, Providence

School Library Journal
A novel written from the point of view of an adult looking back at a fateful summer. Remarks and conversations that puzzled her as a child become clear, but without the power of recourse. Mole, 11, and her older sister, Tilly, live with their aunt in a small Maine community. Orphaned since they were very young and given a bare-bones account of their parents' drowning, the girls have speculated and romanticized about the tragedy, contriving a secret story that is almost mythical to them. When the Rouens move in nearby, they seem like a perfect family-professional parents with four children. Mole has already developed strong interests in the local plant and wildlife and is drawn to Mrs. Rouen, who is conducting a study of river mussels. A romance develops between Tilly and teenaged Walter Rouen. Mole experiences her sister's growing away from her and is shocked to realize that Tilly is presenting their parents' death in the guise of a mystery to attract the boy. The girls see Mr. Rouen's abuse of his wife and his inappropriate sexual advances toward them, but also his care for and devotion to his children. As lightning often will result in fire, so the sexual tensions between the Rouen couple and between the young people set off confrontations that end in an actual fire in Mole's house. The summer family departs, ending the tension and clearing the air. The climax is dramatic and believable.

--Frances Reiher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA

Kirkus Reviews
A first novel by the already much-praised Cohen (Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World, 1993; Glass, Paper, Beans, 1996) stuns with its lean, unadorned artistry as it limns the tale of two preadolescent sisters in their search for the truth about their parents' death, their own past, and the connection that binds themtogether.

Tilly and Mole's parents drowned in the Kittiwake River one stormy night while trying to rescue a boatload of partygoers—or at least that's how the story goes. Now, 11-year-old Mole (real name Martha) and the prettier 12-year-old Tilly have spent the nine years since their parents' death embroidering on this sparse family legend—imbuing their mother and father with invented personalities, passions, and tragic flaws that their guardian, Aunt Hy, and their small-town neighbors have neglected to provide. Over time, Mole has come to consider this story of death the sisters' greatest treasure, and she's outraged when Tilly casually uses it to impress a city boy whose family is vacationing on the lake. The family, renting a house from Aunt Hy for the summer, is headed by a pair of scientists whose marital troubles cast a shadow on Mole and Tilly as well as on their own four children. As Tilly is drawn ever deeper into the vortex of this troubled clan, Mole deals with Tilly's abrupt abandonment of her in exchange for romance by painstakingly collecting clues to the true story of her parents' lives, hoarding and treasuring each shiny bit of information as a potential tool to bring her sister back to her—and to rescue her from the perilous brink of adolescence.

Cohen's taut, unsentimental prose brilliantly evokes Mole's strange imaginaryworld. A radiant coming-of-age story in which every character rings true.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380974689
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/28/1997
  • Pages: 326
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Our mother and father drowned in the Kittiwake River when Tilly and I were babies. This is the story Tilly said Hy told us before I could even talk:

A storm came and our mother climbed to the top of the hill to watch it come. She had loved storms (Tilly said Hy said). She would listen to news of one's approach on the black transistor radio she kept over the kitchen sink but often carried with her from room to room, diligently monitoring the predictions of radio meteorologists, delivered in that dislocated drone that got people comparing aches in their knuckles and knees, got them noting aloud the peculiar behavior of house pets. I'd imagine our mother bending her ear toward the metal grille of the speaker, listening to the forecast, following the storm's course.

This particular storm had been a little storm. It had no name. But the sky grew dark just the same, and when the wind picked up toward evening, our mother stepped out into it.

She climbed the hill and walked the path that trimmed the edge of the ridge, high above the wide river. From there she spied a rowboat in which she counted several passengers, first hooting and tossing bottles into the water, then, as the wind slapped up bigger waves, struggling to row ashore. She watched for a quarter of an hour before it became apparent that the boaters, on their own, would not manage to reach land.

She ran then, back down the dark, wet hill in order to call the police station. But the telephone on the kitchen wall would only crackle and spit. So she and our father climbed back up and over the hill themselves. Their bodies washed ashore the following afternoon.

"But where were me and Mole?" Tilly thought to ask whenshe was about six.

The three of us had been making Kool-Aid pops at the kitchen table. Hy, our mother's older sister, had brought home the pop sickle kit from Coffey's Hardware, where she worked. It came with six plastic molds, red and yellow, and its own yellow plastic rack that slid into the freezer. Tilly and I each took a turn with the wooden spoon, dissolving the pink powder in a heavy glass bowl of steaming water. Artificial cherry vapor rose thickly around our faces. We all had bare arms: Hy's sturdy and tufted with straw colored hair, Tilly's ravaged with mosquito bites she'd clawed, mine tan and plump as fried chicken drumsticks. I remember this afternoon in detail; it is the only time I can recall Hy telling us the story in any fullness.

'Well, you were fast asleep in your cribs," she replied. "Before they left, your parents got me to come over and sit with you." She took a final stir with the spoon, set it on the table with the muted rap of wood on wood.

I wanted to ask a question, too. "What happened to the people throwing bottles?"

"They all stayed in the boat," came the answer, smooth and neat as hospital corners. "It never did capsize. Later in the night, after the storm passed, they rowed themselves in."

"But . . ." I croaked, and trailed off.

Tilly tried for us once more: 'Was there lightning?" But that wasn't what she meant, I knew; neither of us was able to frame a question that could get at the information we might need.

"I don't remember," said Hy. She tipped up the bowl, poured warm liquid into the neat plastic molds. "Some."

That, as we knew it, was the tale in its entirety. For years I had no memory that did not include this story, etched spare and exact in my mind. I would tell it to myself in bed at night, constant as an old newspaper dipping that has been creased and smoothed, creased and smoothed, beyond legibility—nothing ever altered, nothing further explained.

To whatever other questions Tilly and I had once thought to pose, Hy supplied such disappointing answers that we eventually stopped asking. We knew that our mother had been born twelve years after Hy, that our parents had gotten married at eighteen, that what family our father had (Hy had never met any of them) lived in Maine, that our father had worked on a road crew, pouring asphalt. Later in life Tilly and I would be able to make surmises from such facts about our parents' lives, to interpret them in ways that led to at least probable textures, partial elucidation— but for us as children, they existed simply as bricks of information, perfectly literal and frustratingly opaque. And even such bricks were sparse; Hy demonstrated a limited ability to describe anything of her younger sister and brother-in-law beyond the most meager and impractical scraps of information.

"Violet liked peanuts and pretzels and ham," she once told us. "Anything with salt."

And: "David was handy. He built those shelves in the front hall."

And: "Violet had an inborn sense of direction. You could plunk her down blindfolded somewhere and she'd tell you which way was north."

Such details fell randomly and infrequently from her lips. Tilly and I were hoarders, jealously storing them, much as we did the particular shells and stones and bits of soft-edged glass we had been inspired to collect from the lake and keep on beds of cotton in old cardboard gift boxes: undisputed treasures whose usefulness, we felt certain, we had only to decipher. Here, Hy was no help. When milked for further details, she would only shrug and damp her lips; when pressed she would say, "I don't know, you have the cookie tin."

She meant the old butter-cookie tin filled with snapshots, which she had given us to keep. Tilly kept the tin beneath her bed. Its lid was awful to pry off, especially in humidity; an array of dents along the rim betrayed my various efforts with a spoon, a barrette, and once a pair of nail scissors (the results of which attempt had led to four stitches across the heel of my left hand).

When the lid finally popped free, the contents would release a dense, pointed scent. Twelve photographs, all of them black and-white with scalloped borders, showed the same young man and woman engaged in a variety of activities. The man lay in high grass, shirtless, reading a newspaper; the woman, eyes shut as the picture was taken, grinningly displayed a lopsided loaf of bread on the flat of her palm; the man pushed a frilled baby carriage down a partly sunlit lane; one of them (it was impossible to say which; Tilly and I had debated the matter more than once), face obscured by a hooded parka, tobogganed down a snowy hill.

The picture I liked best must have been taken by a third party. It showed both the woman and the man sitting on a woodpile. It might have been early morning. She had eyeglasses on and a thick braid coming out in wisps; he had what looked like a trace of shaving cream on his ear and wore a plaid jacket; they both held cups of something hot. They looked as if they didn't realize anyone was taking their picture—her staring heavily into the steam from her cup, him watching as though waiting for her to speak. This was our mother and father.

For years, one of Tilly's and my favorite games involved arranging these snapshots on her bedroom floor and making up stories and dialogue to animate the images, the way other children might have done with dolls. These twelve pictures afforded us such latitude in constructing an idea of our parents that we learned not to mind the paucity of Hy's reminiscences; her story we appropriated as well, and privately embellished. Thus the storm, in my mind, comprised hail, gales of wind, thunder, and lightning. The sky was gray-green, the color of the place between yolk and albumen in a hard-boiled egg. The rowboat was red. Our parents wore rain slickers: hers yellow, his navy blue. They washed up on the sand dean and pale, their mouths and eyes dosed, their fingers interlaced.

As we got older, our need to flesh out the story grew—not just the costumes and props and blocking, but things we couldn't name, temperament and motivation and, in a way, a moral—and bit by bit, we supplied these elements, too, so seamlessly that they appeared to have been spawned by the story itself: thus Violet's passion for storms bordered on madness, but a kind of magical, fairy-tale madness; she could not help herself; she was some kind of water sprite; she was enchanted. The woman holding the lopsided bread and the woman staring into the steam in her cup became, in another picture, a woman running through trees and running through rain, followed into the stormy Kittiwake by a man who loved her enough to join her there. That was how we worked it out; if they were heroes for risking their lives to save the people in the boat, they were even more heroic for the qualities of magic and loyalty with which we endowed them. We did not articulate it as we did the rest, but it was there between us, this part of the story, unspeakably frightening and glorious; it bound Tilly and me with its shameful beauty.

Copyright ) 1997 by Leah Hager Cohen

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

OUR MOTHER AND father drowned in the Kittiwake River when Tilly and I were babies. This is the story Tilly said Hy told us before I could even talk:

A storm came and our mother climbed to the top of the hill to watch it come. She had loved storms (Tilly said Hy said). She would listen to news of one's approach on the black transistor radio she kept over the kitchen sink but often carried with her from room to room, diligently monitoring the predictions of radio meteorologists, delivered in that dislocated drone that got people comparing aches in their knuckles and knees, got them noting aloud the peculiar behavior of house pets. I'd imagine our mother bending her ear toward the metal grille of the speaker, listening to the forecast, following the storm's course.

This particular storm had been a little storm. It had no name. But the sky grew dark just the same, and when the wind picked up toward evening, our mother stepped out into it.

She climbed the hill and walked the path that trimmed the edge of the ridge, high above the wide river. From there she spied a rowboat in which she counted several passengers, first hooting and tossing bottles into the water, then, as the wind slapped up bigger waves, struggling to row ashore. She watched for a quarter of an hour before it became apparent that the boaters, on their own, would not manage to reach land.

She ran then, back down the dark, wet hill in order to call the police station. But the telephone on the kitchen wall would only crackle and spit. So she and our father climbed back up and over the hill themselves. Their bodies washed ashore the following afternoon.

"But where were me and Mole?" Tilly thought to ask when she was about six.

The three of us had been making Kool-Aid pops at the kitchen table. Hy, our mother's older sister, had brought home the popsicle kit from Coffey's Hardware, where she worked. It came with six plastic molds, red and yellow, and its own yellow plastic rack that slid into the freezer. Tilly and I each took a turn with the wooden spoon, dissolving the pink powder in a heavy glass bowl of steaming water. Artificial cherry vapor rose thickly around our faces. We all had bare arms: Hy's sturdy and tufted with strawcolored hair, Tilly's ravaged with mosquito bites she'd clawed, mine tan and plump as fried chicken drumsticks. I remember this afternoon in detail; it is the only time I can recall Hy telling us the story in any fullness.

"Well, you were fast asleep in your cribs," she replied. "Before they left, your parents got me to come over and sit with you." She took a final stir with the spoon, set it on the table with the muted rap of wood on wood.

I wanted to ask a question, too. "What happened to the people throwing bottles?"

"They all stayed in the boat," came the answer, smooth and neat as hospital corners. "It never did capsize. Later in the night, after the storm passed, they rowed themselves in."

"But ..." I croaked, and trailed off.

Tilly tried for us once more: "Was there lightning?" But that wasn't what she meant, I knew; neither of us was able to frame a question that could get at the information we might need.

"I don't remember," said Hy. She tipped up the bowl, poured warm liquid into the neat plastic molds. "Some."

That, as we knew it, was the tale in its entirety. For years I had no memory that did not include this story, etched spare and exact in my mind. I would tell it to myself in bed at night, constant as an old newspaper clipping that has been creased and smoothed, creased and smoothed, beyond legibility--nothing ever altered, nothing further explained.

To whatever other questions Tilly and I had once thought to pose, Hy supplied such disappointing answers that we eventually stopped asking. We knew that our mother had been born twelve years after Hy, that our parents had gotten married at eighteen, that what family our father had (Hy had never met any of them) lived in Maine, that our father had worked on a road crew, pouring asphalt. Later in life Tilly and I would be able to make surmises from such facts about our parents' lives, to interpret them in ways that led to at least probable textures, partial elucidation--but for us as children, they existed simply as bricks of information, perfectly literal and frustratingly opaque. And even such bricks were sparse; Hy demonstrated a limited ability to describe anything of her younger sister and brother-in-law beyond the most meager and impractical scraps of information.

"Violet liked peanuts and pretzels and ham," she once told us. "Anything with salt."

And: "David was handy. He built those shelves in the front hall."

And: "Violet had an inborn sense of direction. You could plunk her down blindfolded somewhere and she'd tell you which way was north."

Such details fell randomly and infrequently from her lips. Tilly and I were hoarders, jealously storing them, much as we did the particular shells and stones and bits of soft-edged glass we had been inspired to collect from the lake and keep on beds of cotton in old cardboard gift boxes: undisputed treasures whose usefulness, we felt certain, we had only to decipher. Here, Hy was no help. When milked for further details, she would only shrug and clamp her lips; when pressed she would say, "I don't know, you have the cookie tin."

She meant the old butter-cookie tin filled with snapshots, which she had given us to keep. Tilly kept the tin beneath her bed. Its lid was awful to pry off, especially in humidity; an array of dents along the rim betrayed my various efforts with a spoon, a barrette, and once a pair of nail scissors (the results of which attempt had led to four stitches across the heel of my left hand).

When the lid finally popped free, the contents would release a dense, pointed scent. Twelve photographs, all of them black-and-white with scalloped borders, showed the same young man and woman engaged in a variety of activities. The man lay in high grass, shirtless, reading a newspaper; the woman, eyes shut as the picture was taken, grinningly displayed a lopsided loaf of bread on the flat of her palm; the man pushed a frilled baby carriage down a partly sunlit lane; one of them (it was impossible to say which; Tilly and I had debated the matter more than once), face obscured by a hooded parka, tobogganed down a snowy hill.

The picture I liked best must have been taken by a third party. It showed both the woman and the man sitting on a woodpile. It might have been early morning. She had eyeglasses on and a thick braid coming out in wisps; he had what looked like a trace of shaving cream on his ear and wore a plaid jacket; they both held cups of something hot. They looked as if they didn't realize anyone was taking their picture--her staring heavily into the steam from her cup, him watching as though waiting for her to speak. This was our mother and father.

For years, one of Tilly's and my favorite games involved arranging these snapshots on her bedroom floor and making up stories and dialogue to animate the images, the way other children might have done with dolls. These twelve pictures afforded us such latitude in constructing an idea of our parents that we learned not to mind the paucity of Hy's reminiscences; her story we appropriated as well, and privately embellished. Thus the storm, in my mind, comprised hail, gales of wind, thunder, and lightning. The sky was gray-green, the color of the place between yolk and albumen in a hard-boiled egg. The rowboat was red. Our parents wore rain slickers: hers yellow, his navy blue. They washed up on the sand clean and pale, their mouths and eyes closed, their fingers interlaced.

As we got older, our need to flesh out the story grew--not just the costumes and props and blocking, but things we couldn't name, temperament and motivation and, in a way, a moral--and bit by bit, we supplied these elements, too, so seamlessly that they appeared to have been spawned by the story itself: thus Violet's passion for storms bordered on madness, but a kind of magical, fairy-tale madness; she could not help herself; she was some kind of water sprite; she was enchanted. The woman holding the lopsided bread and the woman staring into the steam in her cup became, in another picture, a woman running through trees and running through rain, followed into the stormy Kittiwake by a man who loved her enough to join her there. That: was how we worked it out; if they were heroes for risking their lives to save the people in the boat, they were even more heroic for the qualities of magic and loyalty with which we endowed them. We did not articulate it as we did the rest, but it was there between us, this part of the story, unspeakably frightening and glorious; it bound Tilly and me with its shameful beauty.

Eventually all the details we contrived, singly or jointly, mundane or ethereal, combined in a sort of life-giving alchemical reaction, so that as the story increased in size it increased in legitimacy. Our own contributions took on such steadfast authority that they melded with fact. It became our own private gospel. So seriously did we take it, that any time Tilly's idea of the story and mine happened to clash, we fought bitterly--one time in particular I remember disagreeing over how many people had been in the rowboat: four or seven. I had ended up knocking Tilly into the corner of her dresser; she'd had to go downstairs and have her temple iced.

It is difficult now, looking back, to be sure how much we really came to confuse our own version of the story with Hy's lean account. What is certain is that we found it far preferable to hers, which gaped ominously full of holes; we felt the cold shudder and rush of things pressing to inhabit them. Or did we wish the danger, wish the holes, which we then so meticulously filled in ourselves, on endless afternoons on the floor of Tilly's room, the snapshots laid out on her braided rug, her and my fingers colliding as we moved the images around and made up sentences for our dead parents to speak? When I think of our story and of all the years Tilly and I spent telling it back and forth, stroking and shining it like a secret inheritance between us, what I wonder is not how we came to make it up in the first place, but why we ever let it get away from us one summer, let it grow so recklessly large and poorly tended that it had no chance but to hatch shatteringly, falsely apart.

I imagine Tilly correcting me: "You do know why."

She would hate for me to say that she has become like Hy, equating the baldest facts with the purest explanation, but she did grow more Hy-like every year, cloaking herself in formidable plainness, excluding all that was not obvious and useful and daily. For my part, I remained unconvinced that explanations did not lie low between the facts, emerging only with their retelling, with their manipulation. Even all these years later I can't keep from going back and worrying the events of that summer like a scab, chipping and prying that I might understand what exactly we surrendered that summer, and why.

But "You already know," Tilly insists in my mind in her cool, impatient way, so sure of being right--and in a way, she is right. "That was the summer the Rouens came."

JULY

CHAPTER ONE

WE GREW UP at Pillow Lake--the name of both a lake and a town. The lake, two miles around and shaped like an egg on its side, separates our house from the town. On our side of the lake rises the hill, which is wooded and sparsely populated, but long ago it had been the reverse: where the shops and buildings now stand had been only farmland, while the hill had teemed with activity. All of this we got from Hy, but Tilly and I could see for ourselves it was true. Back in the woods we had found the mossy stone foundations of several houses, and at the top of the hill a graveyard lay webbed in weeds and ivy, its field rock markers cracked and fallen.

We had lived with our aunt nearly ever since our memories began. Tilly had been three, and I not quite two, when our parents drowned. Hy had told us she'd always wanted children but never cared to marry; as children we did not find this odd and naturally considered her lucky to have us. Hy was tall, near six feet, with big hands and crinkly brown hair, which she usually wore in a print kerchief, knotted either at her nape or up across the top of her head. She had an oblique smile, which is to say a dimple in only one cheek; it showed when she was fretful as well as when she was glad, and it made her pretty in a way that she otherwise was not. She had the awkward grace of a large-boned animal--many, many years later I came to think of her as having possessed a kind of loneliness that gave her dignity. She must have been in her forties the summer the Rouens came.

Our house stood three-quarters of the way up the hill. It had been built by our great-grandfather late in the last century, before Ice Cart Road even had a name. The road wound behind Pillow Lake, past our house, to the top of the hill. Here it branched, with one tongue continuing around the lake, the other snaking sharply down a rocky drop. Below this drop flowed the Kittiwake.

Long ago, before refrigerators, people used to harvest giant blocks of ice from Pillow Lake. Our own grandfather and his father as well had worked winters on the lake. Operating a horsedrawn ice plow, they'd carved fault lines across the frozen surface. Once the blocks of ice were cut loose from their grid, they got carted up the hill on a little custom-built railroad, pulled across the flat top by horse, lowered on cables over the ridge, and sent on steamboats twenty-seven miles down to the city, where people purchased pieces to stick in their iceboxes. Hy told us this was how people had kept their meat and milk and vegetables cold.

"Why didn't they just cut the ice out of the river instead of lugging it from way up here?" Tilly had asked.

Hy said Pillow Lake was famous for the purity of its ice. "And in any case," she added, "the Kittiwake is brackish."

"Brackish?" I said.

"Salty," said Hy. "Backwash from the ocean."

"Brackish, brackish," I whispered, charmed, and for the next several days then, under my breath: "Brackish Kittiwake, Kittiwake Brackish," which sounded like possible names for a mysterious girl. I wrote these down on blank recipe cards, a stack of which someone had given Hy and she had passed on to me. They all said, "From the Kitchen of Hyacinth Moore," and had cornucopias pen-and-inked along the borders; I stashed them in my underwear drawer.

From our house we could approach Pillow Lake by either of two routes: Ice Cart Road, which wound around to the public beach on the town side of the lake, or the shortcut--a zigzag footpath that angled steeply through the woods across the road from our house and ended, not in a proper beach, but in a rocky cove. Tilly and I most often went this route; we considered the cove almost private, almost ours, in spite of occasional evidence of interlopers: a used Band-Aid or a cigarette butt in the sand; an old aluminum rowboat half beached just downshore. We'd roll crackers and grapes and decks of cards in our towels and go skidding in flip-flops over rotten leaves. At the bottom we'd spread our towels on flattish rocks and play spit or crazy eights or--as Tilly was suggesting more and more frequently by the summer the Rouens came--separate games of solitaire, side by side.

There was home in the lake. We skated on it and swam in it; I even drank from it, much to Tilly's disgust. "Dogs swim in there," she would say. "Fish go to the bathroom in it." But I liked to let the water into my mouth. It tasted fine, sweet and pale green, with a smooth heaviness, like a spoon.

We did not play by the river, which was wide and serious and led to places we had never been: up to Canada, out to the ocean. Our parents' lives had ended in it. This same river flowed both in our story and, in fact, every day below the hill. We regarded it from the old graveyard there, observed sailboats and barges skimming across, practiced our throwing arms by chucking things over the drop; but we never ventured down the steep road to it, did not wade or fish or sun or skate there. It was because of the river that the Rouens came. But Tilly, even now, would say I make too much of such details.

Tilly was named after Matilda, our mother's mother, and from photographs we knew she resembled her in parts: the straight black hair, the long thin nose, the eyes like wet black olive pits. Her face is wide and flat, like the lady in the moon.

I am Martha, but then I was called Mole, being small an brown like the animal. We were eleven and twelve years old that summer.

And they did come because of the river.

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