Innisfree Strange things had happened at Innisfree before. In fact, strange was usually normal at Innisfree. But what had happened the night before was a new sort of strange. A frightening, unsettling sort of strange, the sort of strange that nags at you when you try not to think about it and flickers behind your eyelids when you try to go to bed at night and won’t let the sleep come.
Sadie hadn’t come home.
The game of hide-and-seek had ended hours before, at dusk, as usual. At Innisfree, games of hide-and-seek took place in the tangled woods surrounding the shack on all sides, and they lasted all day. You could hide anywhere, practically. Up in a tree; behind a thorny bush; in a hollowed, burnt-out stump. You could even bury yourself in the dirt and leaves and wait there for hours, breathing in the musty smell.
But there were rules too. Rule number one: you couldn’t hide in the river. The river might look cool and inviting, but it was filled with tricks and temptations and secret dark swirls that would grab a little girl around her ankles and pull her down to the bottom.
“Look down, but don’t lean over too far,” Emery had warned his girls one day as he paddled them along the river currents in the rowboat. “Just far enough to catch a glimpse.”
A glimpse of what, Tennyson and Hattie had asked their father.
“The little girls at the bottom of the river,” he answered. “That’s what the Mississippi does. It tempts you in, and then it catches you. It loves you and doesn’t want to let you go. So it pulls you down to the bottom and keeps you there. If you look down, you’ll see the faces of the little girls who didn’t listen.”
“I see one,” cried Hattie, who was only five at the time, pointing down at the water. “She’s staring up at me! Oh, can’t we reach in and save her?”
Emery laughed. “That’s just your reflection,” he told her.
And how was Hattie to know? There were no mirrors at Innisfree. No pictures, no paintings, no way to see what you looked like, except when others described you back to yourself. The only reflections at Innisfree were words.
So, that was one of the rules. That the Mississippi was hungry, and would resort to all sorts of intrigues to trap you in the dark, silty stillness at the bottom for eternity. That’s why no one was allowed to hide in the river.
Another rule: the game was over at dusk. Always. Because you never know what could happen to you in the woods after dark. So when the sun began to sink down low over the river and the air around you started to turn purple-gray and the lightning bugs hung like fairy lights in the haze, it was time to go home. You would come out of hiding. You would pad barefoot through the trees, slapping mosquitoes away from your ankles, until you saw the damp yellow light of the oil lamp on the porch of Innisfree.
Everyone knew these rules. Which is why Tennyson and Hattie grew worried when their mother Sadie hadn’t come home at sunset.
“What if the river caught her,” Hattie whimpered. “What if she’s stuck down there at the bottom, with all of the little girls who didn’t listen?”
Emery sat on the stairs of the front porch and stared out into the black woods. The right side of his sweaty face glistened in the light of the lamp. He didn’t say anything.
“How will we get her out of the river?” pressed Hattie, who was eight years old now.
“I don’t know, baby,” Emery said.
Tennyson, who was eleven, sat cross-legged on the far end of the porch, just outside the ring of yellow light, in the sticky black shadows. She watched her father, who was rocking ever so slightly, as though lulling an invisible baby to sleep. His lips moved and he was saying soundless words. But he wasn’t talking to Hattie. And he wasn’t talking to Tennyson. He was having a conversation with someone who wasn’t there.
“She’s not in the river,” Tennyson said. “And this isn’t a game. She’s gone away, hasn’t she.”
Emery stood up and brought the girls inside. “Go to sleep,” he told them, and turned off the oil lamp. “I’ll be back in the morning.”
Moths danced on the screen of the girls’ bedroom window. It was too hot for sheets. It was too hot for nightgowns even. It was so quiet that Tennyson could hear her own heart pounding.
“Tennyson,” whispered Hattie, even though there was no one there to scold her for being awake so late at night. “Tennyson.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t sleep. Let’s go on the swing. Papa’ll never know. He won’t be back till the morning. He said so.”
They turned the key in the oil lamp in the main room, and warm, reassuring light washed over them. This reminded Tennyson of wetting the bed, when you would wake up to a feeling of odd warm comfort and terrified guilt at the same time.
A thick rope, knotted at the bottom, dangled from a rafter above. A different family would have had a dining room table in the middle of that room. But the Fontaine family had a rope swing instead. Tennyson let Hattie take the first turn. Her little sister’s body looked like a fine white fish, clinging to the rope and sailing through the air.
“Push me!” shouted Hattie. Tennyson gave her an extra-hard shove and cringed as her sister hit the far wall with a thud. Several sheets of paper that had been tacked to the wall fluttered to the ground.
“Sorry,” said Tennyson.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Hattie from the air. “One more bruise won’t make a difference.” She was right. Blue-purple bruises and scratches covered her legs and Tennyson’s too. The bottoms of their feet were as thick as hides from running barefoot in the woods all the time.
Tennyson tacked the yellowing papers back up onto the wall. Poems and stories had been written on these papers. Sadie, their mother, was a poet and a story writer, and she had written them. Usually the room felt noisy with all of these words shouting from the papers on the walls. But tonight, a tomblike quietness filled the room and throbbed in the corners. Tennyson looked at the poems and stories and missed her mother. But she knew that Emery missed Sadie even more. Her father was a strong man. Sometimes it seemed to his daughters that he didn’t need food or even water, but he needed Sadie. Even Tennyson knew that, and she felt terrible for him.
The girls took turns on the swing until Tennyson’s head began to swim with tiredness. They had used up almost all of the oil in the lamp, and the room was hot, like somebody’s breath. The black began to drain from the sky in the east, and still Emery didn’t come home.