Read an Excerpt
Finally, the men appeared. They were wordless, exhausted
from running with the dogs, huffing in the dark. First came
the boy who owned the dogs, and then two men, side by side,
massive redheads so close in appearance they might be twins.
Dabs of firefly light drifted everywhere; the night was heavy
with the smell of manure and flowering apple and pear.
Finally, the westernmost hound discovered a new direction,
and dogs and men lurched on.
The girl scrambled through ditchwater and bulrushes,
desperate to erase her scent. For a perilous moment she
dared to stop running, to stand motionless, listening, holding
her dark skirts out of the water. In the moonlight, her beautiful
face was hollow as a mask, eyes like holes above the
smooth cheeks. The booming in her ears faded slowly, and
she listened to the night air. No wind through the trees. The
frogs had stopped shrilling. No sound except the dripping of
her skirts and, far away, the dogs.
Nineteen years old and already a widow. Mary Boulton.
Widowed by her own hand.
The girl stood in her ditch under a hard, small moon.
Pale foam rose from where her shoes sank into mud. No
more voices inside her head, no noise but these dogs. She saw
her own course along the ground as a trail of bright light,
now doused in the ditchwater. She clambered up the bank
and onto a road, her stiff funeral skirt made of bedspread
and curtain, her hair wild and falling in dark ropes about her
face. The widow gathered up her shawl and fled witchlike
down the empty road.
at daybreak she was waiting for a ferry, hooded and shivering
in her sodden black clothes. She did not know where
she was but had simply run till the road came to an end, and
there was the landing. A grand, warning sunrise lay overhead,
lighting the tips of the trees, while the ground was in shadow
and cold. The hem of her skirt was weighed down by mud.
She whispered in camaraderie with herself, the shawl about
her ears, while another woman stood uneasy by the empty
ticket booth and held her children silent. They all watched
her with large eyes. Even the smallest seemed to know not
to wake the sleepwalker. Out above the river’s surface, fat
swallows stabbed at unseen bugs and peeped to one another
in emotionless repetition. The ferry sat unmoving on the
other side, a great flat skiff with a pilot’s cabin in the rear.
The widow considered the ticket booth, realizing suddenly
that she had no money. Behind her was the long, vacant road
she had come down. It was stick-straight and lined with trees,
and at the limit of sight it bent to the left where no movement,
no human shape was yet visible. Her mind had cleared a little
because she felt less afraid, and she now saw the world around
her in a sharper, simpler way. Even the wind, rising and subsiding
and fluttering her collar, followed a less ornamented
rhythm than before. She could see it blowing, an infinite
number of slack lines waving before her.
A boy on the other side of the river came to the edge of
the bank and waved. One of the children waved back. He put
his hands to his mouth and hollered. A man’s voice hollered
back. The widow turned to see a tall figure in coveralls coming
down the road, his hand aloft. He must have emerged
from an unseen path through the trees. He unlocked the door
to the booth, stepped inside, slid back a tiny window, and
leaned on his elbows. The woman and her children crowded
in at the window and together they debated in hushed voices.
A child’s hand reached up to finger the dull coins and was
slapped away. Once they had paid, the woman moved her
children away to the dock. The river swept by in lavish, syrupy
whorls, over which the ferry now laboured. The sky was
withering with morning, whiter by the second, and over the
shallows and the slim line of sand, insects could be seen gliding,
carried giddy on the wind.
The widow roused herself, tucked a strand of hair under
her shawl, and went up to the tiny booth with its window.
Inside, the ticketman’s racoon face floated in the dim, close air.
“I haven’t . . .” she began.
He said nothing, simply waited. His hand lay on the counter
before him, knuckles heavy and cracked.
The widow gazed in disgust at his fingernails, pale and
sunk into the flesh, with a rim of dirt about each one. A cluster
of slumbering things, and above them, darkness and the man’s
“I haven’t any money,” she managed.
“Can’t get over if ye can’t pay.”
Her mouth fell open. Part desperation, part surprise at
hearing an actual human voice. “Please, I need to get to the
other side. I’m . . . late getting home.”
“Out late, eh?”
The feral face came a little farther out of the gloom, fixing
her with eyes that were clouded and small. He seemed to be
considering an alternative meaning to her statement. She
held her collar tight and waited as he gathered the unknown
“Been visiting?” His face took on the shadow of a smile.
It was not an unkind face, exactly. The widow nodded, her
heart beating hugely.
“Your mother will miss ye, won’t she, if ye don’t get
The widow had never known a mother, and yet she nodded
The ticketman’s smile became a leer. “Can’t have that.”
He rose and stepped from the wooden booth, taking the
widow’s elbow in his massive hand. They walked together
down to the river. The ferry, now docked, churned and
roared and dug up the river mud. A scarf of cloudy water
made its way downriver, where the current stirred the clear
and the murky together. Black smoke issued from the ferry’s
funnel and was snatched away by wind. The man helped her
to the railing, then went back to the shore.
The widow looked down into the boil of water, wood,
and parts of fish churning in the soup, the ferry rocking
deeply as if trying to tip her in. Her stomach lurched and
she moved over by the engine-room door. Inside, the ferryman,
who couldn’t have been more than sixteen, struggled
with various levers. She closed her eyes and clutched her
hands together as the boat backed away from the shore,
leaving solid ground, and swung slowly out into the current.
The horn bawled suddenly, then again, acknowledging the
ticketman left on the shore, and he raised his hand, standing
among the flowering trees.
An hour later, two men stood waiting at the river’s
edge — red-headed brothers with rifles across their backs.
Large men, identical in every way, standing close by each
other, not speaking. Each with huge chest and arms, sleeves
rolled up, like two lumberjacks in a rustic play. But these
were not lumberjacks. The pallor of their faces, the close
trim of their beards, belied any suggestion of work. And they
wore fine black boots.
The ticketman, like most superstitious country people,
mistrusted twins, disliked the puzzle of them, the potential
for trickery, the sheer unnaturalness. He’d been to sideshows
to see the horrors in which twins figured as highlights: bottled
“punks” and rubber replicas, conjoined monsters melted
together by the breath of hell. He’d stood with his neighbours,
scandalized, all of them sharing the barker’s opinion
that human birth is a treacherous thing, and woman is its
greatest dupe. Now, studying the brothers from the gloom
of his little booth, he tsk-ed in sour disapproval. Twins or
not, he overcharged them anyway.
the widow headed down an empty cart track with the
river to her right. She was two hours from the ferry and
already the day promised to be scorching. So keen was the
sun’s heat that she was forced to pause in the shadows of trees
to cool herself. Once, she sat on a fallen trunk and cracked
the mud from her hems and shook them hard, sitting back
to watch the dust eddy about her like fairies. Even in shade
the ground griddled back the day’s heat; it came through
the soles of her shoes. She brushed dust from her bodice,
smoothed the dark fabric over her hollow stomach. She tried
not to look at her hands. Who knew what was painted there?
Roosters crowed in the distance. She regarded the river
passing by in its curious patterns and tried to deduce the
shape of the riverbed by its gurgling signs. Her eye naturally
followed any floating thing, then the next, moving as if reading
line by line, watching a leaf or any small body scrolling
along the surface.
They would come after her, follow her, even across the
river. Of course they would. She stood up and hurried on.
Past massive oaks, and in the ditches and hollows, sumac
tufts with their blood-red cobs, the morning grand and white
and arid over the scrawny maples. At a wide bend in the river
she passed a stone house where a caramel-coloured dog
exploded against the rickety slats of a fence. The widow
stood in a comic posture, hand at her breast, while the animal
abused her in its own tongue, spittle flying. Finally a human
voice shouted from inside the echoing house. “Shut up, you
bastard. I said shut up!”
The widow staggered into the hot morning, invective
fading in her ears. There had always been something about
her that disturbed animals. She knew how to ride well
enough, but the horses always reared and shied at first, jerked
their heads and did not want her to mount. Domestic animals
merely tolerated her. Cats watched anything in a room but
her. Birds seemed not to know she existed. Bread tossed
from her hand was invisible to them. She remembered a girl
from her youth standing on the sidewalk with cubes of bread
on her hat while sparrows alighted and squabbled, jostling
with their papery bodies. The smile on the girl’s face had
made her seem like an expensive doll, dreamy and staring,
her hair in doll’s ringlets.
Now the widow was passing bigger houses and more garbage
strewn about the riverbank. The cart track broke in
two and one branch forded a shallow swill that flowed across
the imaginary lines of property. The other track climbed a
whitish and crumbling hill above the river that meandered
through scraggy trees. The widow chose the second way, and
she clambered between rutted cart tracks holding her skirts
up in front. The heat was leaden now, and she felt the blackness
of the fabric draping her shoulders. In the shallows fish
ran in idle patterns, churning up little blooms of reddish clay,
and turtles lay dripping on the warm rocks, unseen in their
She heard the voices of men and, later, children from below
her, but she could not bring herself to look over the bank to
see whether anyone was really there. There or not, they
called to her as she passed, and their words were not words
but accusations and longing. The river opened into wide
pools where one massive catfish strafed in wearied bursts
against the current and drifted in the shadows. She found a
backless chair set out upon the grassy edge, dragged to this
spot perhaps by someone who wished to fish or be thoughtful
or watch a sunset. The widow sat herself within her damp
clothes and felt an ants-crawl of sweat down her belly. Her
mouth open, panting. She removed the shawl and shook it
out and bent to pick at dollops of mud and crusted vegetation
that clung to it.
She looked closely at the bits of flora hiding in the shawl’s
nap. The world is full of stowaways. Frowsy little flowered
weeds that dry out and crumble and float on the air to reproduce.
Burrs carried on an animal’s body until chewed or
scratched away; any dog trotting through underbrush wears
clusters that cling to clusters, and carries them far from home.
She found each hooked fibre and picked it free and dropped
it to the grass. There at her feet were the knockings of a
man’s pipe tobacco.
Her father had smoked a pipe. How many times had she
divined her own father’s nocturnal wanderings by the signs
he left behind. The quiet, melancholy man drifting away to
be by himself in the dark, leaving a scattering of spent
matches, a splatch of tobacco ash. Not so secretive, not so
private. The nests of dried filaments seemed to the widow to
be left deliberately by men to mark their presence. Here the
grass was trampled down and the chair legs sunk immovable
into the soil. She shifted from side to side and the chair legs
did not loose themselves from their sockets. A heavy man,
she thought, who sits and smokes. She smiled and spread
her legs and fanned her skirts to cool herself.
Raspberries, strawberries. These were easy, but if eaten
too often would cause cramping. She hoped soon to see an
orchard, wondered about this part of the world and whether
people grew fruit. Behind some of the houses she had seen
leggy chickens. She knew how to deal with poultry; but
where to find a knife and something to cook them in? She
had noted the chicks hovering about the scaly knee bones of
their mothers, ignoring the widow’s warning shadow, running
after their dams as if tugged by little threads.
There was renewed booming in her ears. Her pulse huge
and painful, racketing in her head. She must not think of
babies. Must not think at all.
The widow gripped her knees in apprehension, stared
down at the dreaming surface of the river, and held her
breath. Would she see figures there? She hummed a short
hymn to stave them off. Rocked back and forth. A small
breeze rose. The booming subsided slowly. In the end, the
river did nothing.
It was with grinding certainty that her mental lapses
came, sometimes accompanied by noises — a booming in her
ears, yes, but also voices, strange and distorted. Terrible things
were imparted to her in non-words, in senseless howling. Or
the sound of a cricket chirruping. Or a clatter, like a spoon
thrust into a fan. She would press her hands over her ears —
pointlessly, because the noise came from within — press her
palms there as if to keep the horrors from leaking out of her
into the room. First the sounds, then the visions. And every
time, she suffered a sense of fatedness, of punishment. She
was like a woman forever woken from a nightmare, afraid to
go back to sleep lest it pick up where it left off. The world has
gone black before, and surely will again — because you make it so.
What spooks will come? What hand come to startle the sleepwalker?
She knew there was a truth or near-truth in those
terrifying moments, a lesson she must undergo. She suffered
the stuffing in of it all, while her body remained in the world,
exposed, her flesh in its clothes and shoes, going about its
business, an empty, drifting engine.
So now she hummed her little hymn, her incantation to
stave off the rolling darkness. Sometimes it worked.
the rest of the day the widow hurried along through the
heat, clutching her shawl. There were no houses now, only
fields with roads crossing them. Slowly her eyes fell till she
was simply watching her boots swing forward and then back,
crescent puffs of dust in each footfall. Unslept for several
days, she simply walked, the regular pulse of her breath in
her ears all that hollow afternoon, her life reduced to rhythm.
When the light faded entirely, she became part of the night.
The dark was heaven, and heaven was the night. She mouthed
incantations to it: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever
shall be . . . world without end. Walking slowly now, she still followed
the river. Trees stood in grand postures over the bank,
bushes in pools of their own shadow.
Finally, she found herself standing still. How long had she
been here? Swaying slightly, her mind vacant. After a moment,
she crawled under a cascading bush to sleep. But she could
only lie awake, her eyes closed while ants explored her face.
Eventually she scrambled out again. The moon lay small and
not quite full over the river, a pale lamp. Crickets thrilling in
the grass. She skidded down the riverbank to the sandy beach
and stood there by the nearly silent flow, then squatted and
drank palmfuls of cold water.
Behind her there came a light exhalation of breath.
She whirled around to see two small figures sitting
together under the earthen overhang of the riverbank: two
little girls holding hands, their eyes huge.
“Hello,” one said, her voice strangely deep. The child
brought something to her lips. A red spot glowed by her
The widow sighed with relief and put a hand to her breast
to calm her leaping heart. “Goodness, girls! What are you
two doing out of bed?” she said.
The children looked at each other in obvious mirth and
exchanged the cigarette.
“What time is it? Do your parents know you’re here?”
“Yes,” they said together. “Everyone knows.”
“I can’t say I believe that,” the widow said, noticing the fine
little nightdresses, the delicate slippers in the sand. Beloved
and privileged children, alone in the dark.
“We always come here,” said the other girl, squinting one
eye against the ascending smoke. “This is our place.” Plump
cheeks and pursed lips, a wintery look of assessment in her
eyes, a ridiculous mime of adulthood.
“You should be at home, in bed,” said the widow.
“So should you!” laughed the first girl.
“And you oughtn’t to smoke. It’s unattractive, and you
might form the habit.”
“Or we’ll end up like you, I suppose.”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Sure you do!” one said, and they both shrieked with
laughter. This impudence caught the widow off guard. She
felt like a child trying to best another child and failing. The
widow did indeed smoke, when she was alone and no one
was likely to see.
“We lie on the beach sometimes, if it’s not raining,” said
the first child. “Feel the sand. It’s still warm from the sun.”
All three now put their palms to the soft white sand,
which radiated a gorgeous heat. The widow stood again and
looked down at the girls’ little heads, the small bare arms
coming out of their nightdresses, hands passing the cigarette
“We lie, but we don’t sleep.” The deep voice was almost
like a man’s now.
“And what does that makes us?” the other girl sang out, as
if in a familiar chant.
“Tired, tired, always tired,” they said together.
“You girls wouldn’t happen to have anything . . . any food?”
the widow faltered. “I only ask because —”
“Oh. I see.”
“Are you terribly hungry?” one asked, her smile distinctly
A question began to form in the widow’s mind, a muted
warning, like a drone from another room, getting louder. As
if in answer, one of the children said, “We came up just to
There was a long silence, the only sound the river’s sluicing
beyond and the hiss of wind through dry bushes. When
the widow spoke again, her voice was a dilute and timorous
whisper. “Up from where?”
They pointed together at the dark river. Their eyes like
The widow’s heart leaped and pounded painfully in her
throat. “Oh no,” she said.
She forced her eyes down, away from the vision, and as
she did, tears surged up. Defeated again by an imagined
thing. And yet, she could not quite believe this solid thing
had come from within.
Nothing mattered but the fact of them, two children in
white, their huge eyes watching her. One moved a foot, and
she could hear it on the sand. How alive the illusions always
were — there is art in madness, in its disastrous immediacy.
Four little slippers resting in the sand, one of the toes cocked
slightly inward, the way any child’s foot might.
She turned sharply and made her way back up the
embankment, grasping roots and tufts of grass with trembling
hands as she went, her eyes wide and terrified. For a
moment, the white nightdresses of the girls were there in the
corner of her eye. And then, just as surely, they were gone.
The widow remembered how, as a child, she had snuck
out one night with a young Scottish maid, carrying a pair of
her late mother’s shoes. The girl had whispered, “You do it. It
has to be you.” In the soft, wet summer earth, they had dug a
hole with their hands and the widow had dropped the shoes
into the hole.
“May her spirit never walk,” whispered the maid, and spat
on them. It never had. Of all the apparitions the widow had
seen in her nineteen years, her mother had never been among
It was night, and dogs came through the trees, unleashed
and howling. They burst from the cover of the woods and
their shadows swam across a moonlit field. For a moment, it
was as if her scent had torn like a cobweb and blown on the
wind, shreds of it here and there, useless. The dogs faltered
and broke apart, yearning. Walking now, stiff-legged, they
ploughed the grass with their heavy snouts.