Three years after leaving Lake Gormlaith, Vermont, Effie Greer is coming home. The unspoiled lake, surrounded by dense woods and patches of wild blueberries, is the place where she spent idyllic childhood summers at her grandparents' cottage. And it's where Effie's tempestuous relationship with her college boyfriend, Max, culminated in a tragedy she can never forget.
Effie had hoped to save Max from his troubled past, and in the process became his victim. Since then, she's wandered from one city to another, living like a fugitive. But now Max is gone, and as Effie paints and restores the ramshackle cottage, she forms new bonds--with an old school friend, with her widowed grandmother, and with Devin, an artist and carpenter summering nearby. Slowly, she's discovering a resilience and tenderness she didn't know she possessed, and--buoyed by the lake's cool, forgiving waters--she may even learn to save herself.
Wrenching yet ultimately uplifting, here is a novel of survival, hope, and absolution from a writer of extraordinary insight and depth.
"Greenwood is a writer of subtle strength." –Publishers Weekly
Praise For T. Greenwood's Breathing Water
"A poignant, clear-eyed novel. . .filled with careful poetic description." --The New York Times Book Review
"A vivid, somberly engaging book." --Larry McMurtry
"Greenwood sensitively and painstakingly unravels her protagonist's self-loathing and replaces it with a graceful dignity." --Publishers Weekly
"With its strong characters, dramatic storytelling, and heartfelt narration, Breathing Water should establish T. Greenwood as an important young novelist who has the great gift of telling a serious and sometimes tragic story in an entertaining and pleasing way." --Howard Frank Mosher, author of Walking to Gatlinburg
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I fled. When the sun came up the morning after Max left, I was perched at the edge of the bare mattress. And in the half-light of early morning, I took flight. I ran as far away from the familiar as I could. I brought only the bare essentials and told only a few people where I intended to go. To Gussy, I muttered Arizona, California. To my mother, I said Just away, and I'll write.
I didn't know where I was going. I only knew it had to be far from this place. I took trains and buses so that I could be certain I had left that world behind me. Through windows, I watched Vermont disappear in the distance. I didn't sleep, because I was afraid that while my eyes were closed we might change direction and I would wind up back where I had started. Every night, while the other passengers slept or read under the soft lights above their seats, I looked out the windows to make sure I was still headed away.
I didn't stop traveling until the sky no longer resembled the one over Gormlaith that night. Only then did I stop moving, did I trust that I had gone far enough. In the mountains of northern Arizona, I was grateful for the closeness of stars. For the brand new shade of night. I stayed there for a month, thought about looking for an apartment, a job. But the sound of the train passing by the hostel where I stayed lured me back. I wasn't ready to stop.
I arrived in Seattle two months after I left Vermont, drawn by the stories of dew-drenched grass and gray skies. I got off the bus downtown and walked through the throngs of tourists at the Pike Place Market, across Alaskan Way, and out onto one of the long wooden piers. Standing at the edge of the water, it could have been the edge of the world, and I knew I was finally far enough from home. Max thought I was in New York in graduate school as I had planned; he didn't even know that I had fled.
Even after I had settled in Seattle, I couldn't stop moving. It had become a habit, I suppose, this fugitive life. Living alone in this city of rain, I feigned anonymity. I came and went from my apartment when I knew that no one in the dusty building would see me. In every new apartment, I became what I hoped was just a curiosity: a newspaper disappearing each morning, the smell of coffee escaping through the cracks in the woodwork, someone softly snoring. As soon as people began to recognize me, I found myself searching the newspapers for a new place to live.
Soon, I imagined, I would disappear altogether. That eventually no one would be able to see me at all. When I first fled, I was careless. I was accustomed to people speaking to me, noticing me, touching me. I talked to the other travelers on the trains. I made up stories about where I was headed and why. But after I stopped moving, I had to learn how to fade. I was becoming more ethereal as each day went by. Diaphanous. I was losing my dimensions. I was becoming small.
It's easier to live like a fugitive than someone with nothing to fear. Boxes get moved from place to place. After three years, I didn't even bother unpacking anymore. I dragged the boxes with me to each new apartment without even bothering to undo the packing tape. There could have been books or dime-store dishes, clothes or fragile sentimentals inside. It didn't matter anymore; I could have been carrying around cobwebs or air for all I knew.
I was living in my third apartment in Seattle when I found out about Max. I had just moved in. At first I thought this might be a place I could stay for a while. It had a deep clawfoot tub and a view of Elliott Bay. A bed pulled out of the wall, and the ceilings were twice my height. I liked the way it smelled. I liked how quiet it was. But when you are a fugitive, you never sign leases. That way there's nothing to break. I knew moving again would be easy.
It was May, and my mother's voice at the other end of the line sounded like snow melting. At home, in Vermont, spring was late. I listened to my own voice, raining on her from three thousand miles away.
"I'm coming home," I said.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"I want to live at the lake again. I can help Gussy."
"You're coming home?" my mother asked softly, hopefully. "Gussy will be so happy. It's been so long —"
"Max is dead, Mom. I just found out."
Her sigh: ashamed relief, the same relief. I have always shared my mother's breath and shame.
I found out that Max was dead when the university's alumni newsletter arrived. It was stuck in the narrow metal mailbox like any other flyer for groceries or tune-ups, sweepstakes promises or postcards with blue photos of lost children. It had traveled all over the country to find me: the layers of yellow forwarding address stickers a testament to my flight.
Inside my new apartment, I curled up on the couch and stared at the glossy cover. Shiny blond coeds dissected by cartoon lacrosse sticks, hallowed halls, and impossible trees. It was something that should not have found me at all. In the three years since I'd run away, I'd been able to avoid most reminders like these. Fugitives rarely get mail.
Near the end of the booklet, I found my own name, highlighted as MIA. There were ten of us who couldn't be found. There were nine others who, for whatever reason, had also disappeared. And between us and the stories of our more successful classmates were the newly dead, alphabetized like books in the musty library where I used to hide. Bingham, Cane, Doyle, Findlay, and then him.
It wasn't until later that day that I learned the details of his death. Of the needle that was found still stuck into the lean crook of his arm. Of the vomit that stained his chest and linoleum. Of the cats that had multiplied and then starved to death in his studio apartment above the bar where he worked and ate and drank himself to sleep.
It was raining. While the voice of my only old friend, Tess, described with almost morbid glee the supposed color of his skin and stench of his carpet, the decay of his small life, it rained. Incessantly, gently, and I didn't cry. Instead, I hung up the phone and felt my chest heave and then fall with a vague sense of freedom. The way a child feels when the puppy who messes on the floor more than he bargained for is suddenly struck by a car. Or the way a man feels when his own father who rarely remembers his name stops breathing. Terrible freedom. Freedom tainted by guilt.
I curled my knees to my chest, pressed my face to the watery pane of the window and concentrated on my breath. Below, on the slick dark street a bus stopped for no one and then lurched forward, exhaust rising in a cloud behind it. A girl without an umbrella appeared then, running and just a moment too late, and the driver didn't see her or didn't care and left her behind. She slumped down on the bench, and threw her fist at the sky. A ridiculous gesture. Futile and small.
I hadn't even lived in this apartment for a full week yet. I was still having a hard time remembering which faucet in the kitchen meant hot instead of cold. Sometimes they were backwards; you never knew in the older buildings. And maybe because everything was so new, the newness of his death didn't create panic or pain. It wasn't any different than the smell of newly painted cupboards or the new view from the kitchen window.
After I put the newsletter down, I went to the kitchen and washed my hands. I let the water run over my skin until my palms flushed red with the heat. It was almost dusk; the streetlamps had just turned on outside, casting strange shadows on the street below as the backs of my hands burned. I held my hands under the water until tears welled up in my eyes. Wrong tears, but tears no less. It was raining that day.
When he was still alive but no longer in my life, I dreamed that he was making bread in my kitchen. Over and over, in each new apartment, I'd fall asleep to different sounds and smells and have the same dream. I'd open the door and he would be standing there busily making bread, flour on his hands and face. He always found me in my dreams and made himself at home. But that night, as I listened to the rain tremble against the window, I dreamed that I was in the elevator of this new building. I was ascending and then heard the loud snap of the cable above my head. And I was suddenly, sharply, plummeting. It wasn't as simple as begging him to stop spilling flour on the floor, as taking the hot loaves and throwing them away. In this dream, there was nothing I could do except tear at the walls as I fell.
"Gussy is talking about selling the camp," my mother said.
"What?" I asked, my throat constricting.
"Since Daddy died, she doesn't have the energy to keep it up. It's a lot of work, Effie," she said. "It's too much."
"I'll help her," I said, my words struggling past the new growth in my throat. To watch the loons, to tame the dandelions, to keep the break-in kids from staining the floors with strawberry wine.
"It's just talk, Effie. Maybe she'll change her mind."
"Tell her I'm coming. I'll be there by Monday."
When you live like a fugitive, you don't make friends. There's never the danger of becoming too familiar or attached. Of course, I knew faces. I recognized plenty of faces, but they didn't recognize mine. It made me pleased, and it made me sad. I had become every face, or no face at all.
Working at a library lends itself to anonymity, especially when you're not in Circulation. The Circulation girls all wear lipstick and stand in huddled circles outside smoking cigarettes on their breaks. I worked at the oceanography library at the university for an entire year before one of them noticed me. And even then, after the quick hello, there was a moment of uncertainty. There was the flash of fear in the girl's face that she had mistaken me for someone else.
It was the smallest library on campus, in the basement of an old building. The small windows in the archives where I worked were level with Portage Bay. When it rained, all you could see was water through the glass. I had become attached to this place despite myself. I emptied the drawers of my desk: paper clips, gummy erasers, aspirin.
Estelle said, "Have a safe trip home, Effie."
"I will." I smiled.
"It'll be nice to get out of the rain I suppose," she said. Her teeth were small, her eyes shifty.
"Um-hum." I nodded.
I had thought about taking a bus the whole way back to Vermont. But this time, I was going home. I was returning instead of running away. There was no need to watch through windows to make sure I was headed in the right direction. And so I packed my few boxes, mailed them to Gussy, and bought a one-way plane ticket home.
As I waited for the bus to take me to the airport, I grew dizzy with the heady scent of freshly cut flowers in the market, each bundle competing with the next in the endless parade of impossible colors to ward off the gray. It was 10:00 A.M., but it looked like twilight. Cars shined their lights, and the streetlamps glowed eerily in the darkness.
I've heard that this rain is enough to drive some people to madness, to their medicine cabinets, or to the tops of the tallest buildings and bridges. That these are the martyrs, the sacrificial lambs, who die so that others may be reminded of the slender distance between pain and rain.CHAPTER 2
Lake Gormlaith, Vermont
Late May 1994
The bus from the airport dropped me off in Quimby. The bus doesn't go as far as the lake, so I waited in front of the drugstore for an hour for a taxi to take me the rest of the way. Gussy offered to pick me up, but I wanted to get settled in at the camp first. I wanted a little while to be alone before I saw my family.
As we drove away from town, the road turned from pavement to dirt. The foliage became thicker and thicker, but finally through the trees I could see the blue of the lake. And then there was the camp. The paint was peeling, and the grass was overgrown. It looked abandoned.
Gussy has always kept the key to the padlock underneath a large gray rock by the back door. It's a good hiding place, because moss crawls across the smooth surface of the stone, making it look as though it has never been moved. I found the key, and my fingers remembered the simple trick of a tug and twist before the lock relented. Then, there was the familiar sound of lazy hinges waking.
The scent of the camp when you first open the door to May air is thicker than cigar smoke, sweeter and mustier than the thrill of a bonfire. I was dizzy with the scent of Grampa's old books and homemade candles and moth- eaten sweaters stuffed into drawers for colder evenings. I breathed the smell of the kitchen, stopping to open the cupboard doors, opening empty tins and running my fingers over the rows of spices, salt, and pepper. Dusty brown bottles of vanilla and molasses. The refrigerator was empty except for a fresh, unopened orange box of baking powder. I found Gussy's wooden rolling pin and rolled it between both hands. I remembered clothes powdered in flour and sugary wild blueberry pies. I lingered in the kitchen, rifling through drawers, so that I could hold on to the sweet anticipation of the rest of the cabin for a bit longer.
The living room was dark; the wooden shutters were closed. I walked slowly across the floor, careful not to trip over any forgotten piece of furniture. The threshold to the glassed-in porch came more quickly than I expected, and it startled me. This was my favorite room in the camp. I would spend the entire summer here if I could, watching the lake, reading myself to sleep each night.
The wooden floors, faded the rust color of autumn, were worn smooth with time. The metal-framed daybed was up against one wall, the sheets tucked tight. The heavy feather pillows were covered in blue and white ticking and propped up expectantly. The wicker chair, the small table for Chinese checkers or chess, and Grampa's desk were all there, as if unmoved in so many years. The door from the porch to the front yard was sealed shut; I don't remember ever using it to come and go from the cabin. It would have disturbed my grandfather as he worked at his desk if I'd been able to run in and out through the front with my muddy feet and constant chattering. By going through the back door, Gussy was always able to keep me in the kitchen long enough to dry off and calm down before I greeted Grampa.
The air in here was warm, the sunlight pressing persistently against the closed blinds. But there was something pacifying about the stagnant air, as if all past summers had been captured there. I felt like a strange puppeteer as I pulled the strings that controlled the sunlight. Dust rose and fell gently. Dead insects lay in piles as if slumbering after an orgy of wings and stingers. I brushed them into my cupped palm and opened the neglected door to the front yard. I walked all the way to the shed and tossed their dead bodies into the bushes.
I didn't remember the camp looking so run-down, and it was hard to imagine that the paint could have weathered so much in only three years. The grass tickled my shins. I wondered if Gussy had succumbed to a power mower yet. Grampa had always used the old hand mower that looked to me like an iron-toothed monster.
They call summer homes camps here. I suppose it's because the houses used to be so rustic: no electricity, no running water, each with a wooden outhouse instead of indoor plumbing. Of course, over the years they've become less primitive. Even Gussy and Grampa gave in and put a toilet and shower in, had the camp wired and plumbed. I could only vaguely remember the outhouse with the crescent moon carved out of the door, the earthy smell of excrement, and my fear of what might reach up and grab my naked bottom in the middle of the night. Now Gussy's compost heap stands where the outhouse used to, chicken wire and last summer's grass clippings and garden skeletons.
I walked across the dirt road to the bank where Gussy kept her wooden boat. The oar locks were rusty; the oars were probably inside the shed. Gormlaith was still today. The blinds in the windows of the other camps around the lake were still drawn. It was too early for there to be children and noisy motorboats; May was too cold, and the black flies of June kept most summer people away until July. I picked a dandelion from the shore and plucked the bright yellow head off. It landed in the water.
I heard a car coming up the winding road that circled the lake and saw Gussy in her old Cadillac. I walked back toward the camp as she drove past me, waving and grinning. She pulled into the driveway, stopping just short of the shed door.
"Effie," she said. "When did you get here? Are you hungry? Look at how small you are."
"I've always been small, Gussy. Since I was little." I laughed as she opened up the trunk and struggled with a grocery bag brimming with green leaves.
"I stopped by Hudson's, because I didn't know if you had planned supper yet. You haven't planned supper yet, have you? I figured you would want to get settled before you went shopping," she said, and I opened the back door for her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Breathing Water"
Copyright © 1999 T. Greenwood.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Lake Gormlaith, Vermont - Late,
October 3, 1987,
June 29, 1994,
July 3, 1994,
Late Summer, 1991,
August 24, 1991,
A READING GROUP GUIDE -,
A CONVERSATION WITH T.,
A Q&A with T. Greenwood
Q: Did you envision Lake Gormlaith as a setting you'd return to in future books when you first created it in BREATHING WATER?
A: Honestly, I didn't think that far ahead. I started writing Breathing Water when I was 28 years old. I'd been living on the west coast for several years for grad school, and I was homesick. I created Gormlaith as a way of going home without having to pay for an airline ticket. It was also my first novel, and so I followed all that "write what you know" advice I'd been getting in school. I knew the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. And I knew Gormlaith. (It's a very loosely disguised version of my family's own summer place.) And what happened after that, was I realized I'd created a world of sorts. A small world, but a world nonetheless. This world had not only a geography, but a history. It had people living in it. I returned to Gormlaith first in Undressing the Moon and then later in Two Rivers, The Hungry Season, and Grace. People always ask me if I ever think about my characters after I'm finished with a novel. And my answer is, "What do you mean? Of course I do." Because for me, as real time passes, so too does time in this fictional world, and I feel like I need to keep checking up on my characters to make sure they're okay. In my next novel, Bodies of Water, we visit Effie again years after this novel's summer. I suspect I'll always keep checking in on her.
Q: We've seen some of the characters from BREATHING WATER in other books as well. Who would readers recognize, and who might they not immediately know?
A: That's a good question! I think most characters are recognizable. Effie and Devin appear in many of the novels. For example, in The Hungry Season, Mena and Effie are friends. In Bodies of Water, which comes out in October 2013, we visit Effie in the present day while also hearing Gussy's sister's story (set in part at Gormlaith in the early 1960s). Gussy's camp (and the tree house), as well as the lake itself, serve as sort of geographical touchstones for me. In Grace, Elsbeth visits the island that both Harper and Effie refer to. In my mind, this world exists, and these people's lives progress and intersect. I love that I can pick up with any one of them where I left off and find a new story.
Q: How much influence does the location have on your writing now? Do you set out to work a story to fit the Lake setting, or Two Rivers, where TWO RIVERS and GRACE were both set?
A: Setting is probably one of the first decisions I make when writing a new novel. It's as critical as point of view or plot. I don't feel grounded until I know where my characters live. I don't usually set out to write a story set in a particular place unless I know the character lives there (as with Bodies of Water). Instead, I figure out who they are and part of that is where they live. But I can't help returning to this world. It feels real to me. I like to call my work autogeographical.
Q: You grew up in Vermont, so you know it well. Does your childhood there inspire your novels at all? If so, which ones and how?
A: A professor of mine once told me that Flannery O'Conner said, "Anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life." I think this is true, in part, for me—particularly when it comes to place. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a magical setting. It's not somewhere that a typical reader has ever visited. (Someone once asked me what state Vermont was in. When I replied that it was a state, she said, "One of the United States?") There are many, many writers living in Vermont, but not many of them were born there. I consider myself one of the lucky few who was. There's something special about growing up somewhere. It becomes a part of your DNA. I have lived in southern California off and on for the last fifteen years, and I still don't feel quite ready to set a novel here. I still spend my summers in Vermont with my daughters; each time I go back it's like a return to my own childhood. And when I set a novel there, it always feels like going home."