Ruth Connelly used to think she had the perfect life--an attractive husband, two children, a partnership in a Boston law firm, and a summerhouse where generations of her family have reveled in the elemental beauty of the Maine coast. But without her even realizing it, everything has started disintegrating. This summer, there is no escape from the tensions which have surfaced between her, Paul, and their beautiful, troubled sixteen-year-old daughter Josie--or from the tragedy that overwhelms them when a long-promised sailing trip turns their son's birthday treat into a nightmare.
Trapped in a spiral of guilt and denial, Ruth knows only the darkness of grief until she finds the courage to return to Maine and confront her loss. There, she finally learns to understand why we sometimes inflict the greatest pain on those we love the most.
In a novel that brings to mind bestsellers like The Pilot's Wife, A Map of the World, and Deep End of the Ocean, Susan Madison looks deep into the heart of marriage and motherhood with unforgettable power.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Susan Madison is a pseudonym. She lives in Oxford, England; The Color of Hope is her first novel.
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The Color of Hope
By Susan Madison
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Susan Madison
All rights reserved.
ALL HER LIFE Ruth Connelly had feared death by water.
Once, standing as a child at the sea's edge, foam covering her feet, she had been filled with the sudden knowledge of terror, clear and sharp as the knife her parents sliced bread with.
She held their hands, as water heaved away from her and lunged back again, heavy with intent. Wrinkles of water, glinting where the sun caught them. Diamond fingers, beckoning,
Terrified, she tried to move away, out of its reach, but they urged her forward. Go on, don't be frightened, it won't hurt you. Unconvinced, she pulled at their hands but they held her tight, stepped nearer themselves. It's the sea, they said in high bright voices, come on, honey, the sea.
Pebbles shifted under her toes. Slippery. Cold. The ground gave way. She stumbled and fell. Mommy! Daddy! She heard them, miles above her, laughing. She tried to stand but an unexpected wave slammed into her, green and glassy, determined. Daddy! She screamed again and the sea poured through her, swamped, deluged her. The gasp, the choke, clutching at green, at water, which slid through her fingers: she remembered it still, salt stinging in her eyes, burning the back of her throat. She would never forget the purity of her panic, the premature step into adulthood as she sensed something of which she should not yet have been aware.
Death. Oblivion. Nothingness.
You were only under the water for a second, her father soothed, big, jovial, as he swung her up against his chest, it's all right, baby, it was only for a second.
It was a second that would last a lifetime.
All her life, she had feared death by water. All her life, she had imagined that the death would be her own.
STANDING on Caleb's Point, the low bluff which marked the ocean-most edge of their property, she looked down at the scene of that unforgotten moment. Beyond the fallen boulders was a tiny strip of sand, not even sand, small pebbles really, ground over the centuries to the size of peas. A beach, that was all. Nothing to be frightened of. But all these years later, she still feared the sea. At some instinctual level, she knew that it would destroy her if it could. And yet she loved this place. Up here, with the murmur of the waves, the honey-colored air, the waving grass brilliant with devil's paintbrush and field daisies, she found solace. She had come here so often during the years of her growing up. She did the same now, as an adult, a mother, a wife.
The point pushed out into water dotted with lobster-pot buoys. Arms of green woodland curved around the horizon on either side, trees falling down to narrow shorelines of rocks crushed and scarred by the fierce winter tides. The woods were broken here and there by the shingled roofs of summer cottages. Further out, in the open channel, lay the gray hump of Bertlemy's Isle, a barren piece of granite which rose from the water like a turtle shell, crowned with a small stand of spruces. Tomorrow, as they always did, the four of them would be sailing out there to celebrate Will's birthday. She grimaced, thinking that they needed something to celebrate.
Wind flattened the dry grass of the bluff. Hawkweed leaves scratched the back of her thighs as she lowered herself to the ground. Behind her, a granite boulder reared out of the earth; the rain-formed dip at its center provided a toehold for reindeer moss and sphagnum, a creep of bearberry, asters, blue iris. Ruth leaned against it and closed her eyes, turning her face up to the sun, smiling as she remembered how, as a little girl, Josie had believed that the boulder was a pixie's garden. She sighed. It was so peaceful up here. No arguments. No bickering. No tension. Ants scurried over her feet. Maybe she should get one of the local carpenters to make a bench so she could sit in comfort.
Every time they came up to Maine from the city, she toyed with the idea of suggesting that they move here permanently. Paul already held a part-time visiting professorship down at Bowdoin; he would surely find it easier up here to finish the book he was writing than in the Boston apartment, spacious though that was. The children, it went without saying, would be ecstatic. What held her back were her own needs. She would probably find work with one of the legal firms in Portland or Bar Harbor, but she had worked too hard, for too long, to want to start again at the bottom.
She stared at the distant whale shapes of Mount Desert Island on the horizon. Triangles of white sail were scattered across the water, heading out to sea from the little yacht club down at Hartsfield. One of them belonged to the children, though at this distance it was impossible to say which. Could they see her up here, watching from the bluff like a new-made widow still scanning the heaving sea for the drowned sailor who would never again come home to sweep her into his arms, smelling of salt and wide horizons? Though she did not feel like smiling, she waved, just in case. Smiled. Just in case.
At her back, higher up the slope, were the pine woods. Spruce, red and white pine, balsam, hemlock. The hot resin-scented air always recalled the simplicity of summer days when she was still just a mother and not a lawyer as well. Picnics under the trees. Hide-and-seek. Swimming in the pond. All the innocent things which, as a child, she had done in this dear and familiar place with her own parents.
Where had it all gone, that security, that sweetness? Time had rushed by, leaving her to wonder what had happened to the chirping voices of her children, to their unconditional love, their trust. There had been so many picnics here, so much fun. The slipperiness of pine needles under her feet, the taste of crab cakes and fresh-made whole-wheat bread, chocolate brownies and carrot sticks. She had been happy then. Consciously happy. Glad to subsume ambition in the treasure of her children. Will, with his freckled face and cowlick; Josie, hair tied back in pigtails on either side of her head, smiling, adorable in tiny raggedy shorts and a stripy top. They had filled her world. Had been her world. Often, overcome by a rush of love, she would squeeze the little creatures close and murmur, "I love you, I love you," pressing the words into the nutty fragrance of their hair, breathing them in while they squealed and wriggled and said they loved her too, they would always love her, she was their mommy, she was squeezing too tight, she was hurting.
Will had not changed much since then, but Josie had grown so secretive, so distanced from them. She knew this was only to be expected, part of her daughter's reach toward adulthood, a necessary element of parenting, something to be endured. But even so, Josie's hostility was hard to live with.
She got to her feet, brushing at the back of her shorts. Her spirit sagged. Time to go back into the real world. She took the trail which led down through the woods, past the boulder from which Josie, playing king of the castle, had fallen and torn open a gash above her eyebrow which had required six stitches. Across the tree trunk which spanned a shallow ditch; the tree had toppled one winter during her childhood and, years later, watching her own children cross it with shrieks of thrilled terror, she recalled how huge it had seemed then, how deep the chasm it crossed. Through moss and fern, blueberry and wild ginger, into the sunshine and out of it, stepping over the thin lines of fallen sapling birches. Halfway down the hill the trail forked, one path leading on further into the woods, the other descending sharply toward the house, passing the wild cranberry bog, and the bend toward the fresh-water pond, before ending at the rear porch and the door which led into the mud room at the back of the house.
The boundaries of their property were wide—though, strictly speaking, it was not their property but hers alone, deeded to her on her marriage by her parents, who had thankfully retired to Florida after a lifetime of New England winters. There was hardly a square yard which did not hold special memories of her own childhood and that of her children, as well as those of the people who had lived here over the years, legends handed down through the generations.
"That's where Grandma's wedding hat was blown into the pond, isn't it, Mommy."
"That's where Great-Grandmother was stuck in the bog."
"Over there's where Great-Uncle Reuben fell off his horse 'cause he was drunk."
Again, the prattling voices filled her mind, and behind them were echoes of her own voice when she herself was a child, and all the children who had been here before her. One day Josie's children, and William's, would listen just as eagerly to the same stories and, in their turn, pass them on.
As she came out of the trees, the house stood before her. Carter's House—her house. Foursquare, white clapboard, wraparound porches, shingled roofs and turrets. It had been built more than a hundred and fifty years earlier by Ruth's seafaring great-great-grandfather, Josiah Carter, who spent thirty years on the China run before making his final landfall. He had worked his way up from ship's boy to owning his own clipper, probably indulging in more than a little piracy on his way to amassing a considerable fortune. A prodigious womanizer and a legendary drunkard, it was said that he would drink until reason left him and then, rolling about the upper decks of his boat, he would spy all manner of wonders: frozen demons in the rigging and angels setting the sails, mermaids riding the crested waves, Neptune rising from the deep. Then came the day that God himself, albatross-shaped, admonished him from among the shrouds—'Josiah, Josiah, why hast thou forsaken me?'—calling upon him to forswear the demon drink and the loose living. Accepting the inevitable, for even he could not fight with God and hope to win, Josiah had made his last voyage and retired.
A canny businessman, he had over the years purchased a number of fields and a large acreage of wooded hillside above the little cluster of stores and houses which comprised the village of Sweetharbor; there he built his cedar-lined house and filled it with the spoils of his many voyages. Having found himself a virtuous wife, he spent his life thereafter preaching hell-fire and damnation to terrified but appreciative audiences, who came by the cart- and carriage-load to quake deliciously at his descriptions of the afterlife they would endure for all eternity if they did not repent—and perhaps even if they did. Paul called him the nineteenth-century equivalent of a horror movie.
On the landward side of the property, there was no sign of other human habitation, for, in his misanthropic Yankee way, Josiah had bought to the horizon on all sides, in order not to be disturbed by sight or sound of his neighbors. Succeeding generations had cared lovingly for the place. There had been some modernization, of course. Ruth's grandfather, Jeremiah Carter, had brought electricity in. Wringers and iron tubs had given way to washing machines and dryers. The plumbing had been updated several times, the septic system overhauled. Her father, Jonathan Carter, had installed central heating, glassed in the two side porches, planted a small garden of exotic shrubs, but in its essentials the house had remained unchanged. Were old Josiah to rise again from beneath the white marble cross which marked his final resting place down in Harts-field, he would find his home very much as he had left it, still smelling of cedar, still full of the curiosities he had brought back from distant shores.CHAPTER 2
"I'M NOT COMING tomorrow," Josie said.
"Of course you are," said Ruth.
"I have better things to do, thanks, than go off on some stupid kid's picnic."
"I'm not a kid," said Will.
"What kind of better things?" Ruth asked.
Josie looked belligerent. "I said I'd drop by the Coombs."
"You wouldn't know them, Mom: they're only year-rounders, not worth your while cozying up to."
Josie's contemptuous tone was infuriating. "You're coming with us," Ruth said shortly.
"Why should I?" Josie had been working on one of her canvases; there was a smudge of blue oil paint on her face, and more on her fingers. When she moved, her clothes gave off a faint whiff of turpentine. "Anyway, I've had it with sailing."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I'm not interested anymore. It's all kind of meaningless."
"But you've been sailing since you were a little girl."
"Yeah, and now I'm all grown up, Mom, in case you hadn't noticed."
"I want you to come with us," Ruth said. She felt helpless in the face of Josie's determined strength. "It won't be the same without you." When Josie made no response, she added: "Besides, it's your brother's birthday."
"So he'd like to take the boat out one last time before we go back to the city." Ruth began spreading chocolate butter frosting on the cake which Will, with a little help, had made earlier in the afternoon. "We all would."
"Not me. I don't care if I never set foot on a boat again in my whole life."
"That's nonsense, Josie. You were out sailing yesterday. I saw you."
"Only because Will forced me."
"If you don't come, you'll ruin Will's day."
"Yeah, and I'm the birthday boy and you have to do what I want."
"You're nuts, Will. I mean, who'd want to listen to Mom and Dad screaming at each other all afternoon? I sure as hell don't, I can tell you."
"Thank you, Josephine."
Will, the peacemaker, flashed his dental braces at the two women. "I'd really like it if you'd come, Jo-Jo, but if you don't want to, you don't have to."
"Don't call me Jo-Jo."
Will was always so equable, so reasonable. Like his father used to be, Ruth thought. She slapped at his wrist when he snuck a finger into the bowl of frosting.
"Count me out," Josie said.
"Aw, c'mon," said Will. "It'll be cool. Besides, it'll be our last chance to go out in the boat."
"Jeez, you are such a wimp."
"Are so." Josie wrinkled her nose. "You and your dumb braces."
Ruth felt her temper rise. Will was sensitive about the iron-work on his teeth. So was she, for that matter: it had cost a sizable fortune. "That's enough out of you, young lady," she snapped. More than enough, to tell the truth. She tried to tell herself that her daughter had been zapped by adolescence, that inside she was a mass of bewildered hormones, but it did not help much. She decided there was no point in even trying to be an understanding mom. "You're going to come to Will's picnic—and you're going to behave yourself."
"I'm nearly seventeen: why do you still treat me like a kid?"
"Why do you still behave like one?"
"How come we have to go to this fucking geekfest at the Trotmans' first?"
"I already told you why."
"Because it's important. Because Ted Trotman wants me to come."
"Since when did we all have to kiss Ted Trotman's ass?"
"Don't use language like that in this house. Ted has sent a lot of business my way." Ruth wanted to slap Josie hard across the face. "Besides, he's asked someone specially to meet me."
"What, another rich gross-out like himself?"
"I'd prefer it if you didn't talk about my friends like that," Ruth said. "This is someone who could be a very useful contact. He and his wife are driving up from Brunswick especially to meet me. I can't just not show up."
"Jesus Christ, don't you ever stop brown-nosing?"
Furious, Ruth slammed the knife back into the bowl and put her hands on her hips. "I'm warning you, Josephine. I won't tolerate you speaking to me like that."
"Networking, then," Josie conceded, unwillingly moderating her language. "Sucking up to people like this guy, in the hope of getting business from them. I'll just bet he's fat. Bet he's wearing nerdy shorts, white ones."
"And a baseball cap," added Will. "On backwards."
"I don't know about his taste in hats," Ruth said lightly. "Just that I have to be there to meet him."
"We're supposed to be on vacation."
"Time doesn't stop just because we're up here," Ruth said.
"Why do we always have to do your stuff, but you never do ours? Like, we're supposed to show up at some nerdy party, but you couldn't be bothered to come to the school art exhibition last semester, which had no less than three of my paintings, as if you cared, and you missed Will's last game, and at Christmas you didn't even—"
"I explained why I couldn't come, Josephine. I have a responsible job, I can't just take time off whenever I feel like it."
Excerpted from The Color of Hope by Susan Madison. Copyright © 2000 Susan Madison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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