In Caddis Wood: A Novel

In Caddis Wood: A Novel

by Mary Francois Rockcastle


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A tender, nuanced portrait of a timeworn marriage

Told from the alternating perspectives of a husband and wife, In Caddis Wood explores the competing rhythms of romantic love, family life, and professional ambition, refracted through the changing seasons of a long marriage. Beneath the surface, affecting their collective future, beats the resilient and endangered heart of nature.

Hallie's career as a poet has always come second to her family, while Carl's life has been defined by his demanding and internationally acclaimed work as an architect. The onset of a debilitating illness and the discovery of Hallie's cache of letters from another man set Carl reeling and cause him to question not only his previously unshakable belief in himself but also his faith in Hallie's devotion. As the memories multiply and the family gathers at their longtime summerhouse in the woods of Wisconsin, Hallie and Carl's grown-up daughters offer unexpected avenues toward forgiveness and healing.

With warmth and generosity, Mary François Rockcastle captures the way that the aging mind imbues the present with all the many layers of the past as she illuminates the increasingly unbreakable bonds borne of a shared life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555975920
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 09/13/2011
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Mary François Rockcastle is the author of Rainy Lake. She is the director of The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University, and the founding and executive editor of Water~Stone Review. She lives in Minneapolis.

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2011 Mary François Rockcastle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55597-592-0

Chapter One

Caddis Wood (early June)

Carl sits upright in bed and gazes into the furry dark. Something hot and galloping in the room, black walls leaping like a Tilt-A-Whirl, the steady thump of his heart. Terror. Not from a dream, either. Hallie sighs and turns into his arm. There is a stirring in the corner behind the glass door, and he remembers a similar movement that afternoon while he was weeding in the garden. A motion as of a bird startled, jarred into flight. Scanning the shadowy contours of the room, he sees the pale curtain, the silhouette of clothing hung on hooks. He concentrates on each breath, his eyes locked on the steepled pines that frame the edge of the porch, then pads across the wooden floor.

The air outside is resinous, soft, completely still. Only the silver stream moves. Maybe it's the unnatural quiet that has awakened him, the absence of nighttime's customary clamor: leaves, the soughing wind, whine of insects. The moon is sickle shaped and bright, not a single cloud. Everything—trees, sky, birds—is watching.

Without warning, the image of his own death comes upon him. Nothing concrete—no yellow car, no fire, no empty stairs. But the idea of it is so real he trembles. Look around, he counsels himself: the motionless meadow, the meandering hedgerows and flowery stream banks, the circular vegetable garden. This screened porch he's standing on, the wooden ledge beneath his hand. I made this place. I'm only sixty-one years old. I'm fine. He wants to stop the pitching balcony, the woods advancing toward him. He's had premonitions before, at each of the touchstone moments of his life: the day his father was killed, that was the first one, and then the whole week before his mother died. The morning of Beatrice's accident and that awful March day when Hallie left him. Shaking himself, he adjusts the pillow in the Adirondack chair, pulled close to the screen the way he likes it, and sits.

Anxiety needles through him: Cordelia is flying in from South America, old friends whom he hasn't seen in years are coming, and Beatrice—he can't help worrying about her. Travel can be stressful, and he doesn't like her to put additional strain on her body. It's ridiculous really, all this hoopla, more than he's ever experienced for the opening of a building. "But it's the first retrospective the Weisman Museum has ever done on a Minnesota architect," Hallie reminds him. "You should be proud."

He is proud. His firm has won more than its share of competitions and awards; he believes he's living up to the aim he had as a young man to be a great architect, to elevate, in Louis Kahn's words, the circumstantial to the ideal. If he doesn't always achieve it, he continues to try. Not once has he ever considered lowering the bar. Maybe it's the word itself, retrospective, that bothers him—the focus on the work achieved, the career already made. Finished. Isn't that what's implied, a career past its prime, the best work done?

It pisses him off. As good as he is, he can and will do better. His partner, Alex Thorne, laughs at his frustration that the Weisman exhibition will only be shown at a handful of museums around the country. "Don't be so greedy," Alex says. "What do you expect, MoMA?"

"Good, yes," Hallie says. "Excellent, yes. But who goes through life wanting to be great? What does it even mean?"

He knows what it means to believe yourself capable of being among the best. He wishes Hallie would understand. She's happy for him, happy, too, that their daughters and her sister Clare are coming. It seems small and ungrateful to be pissed off when such an honor has been handed him. And now everyone's coming and there's so much yet to do: his speech, a new door for the shed, the garden.

He finds this looking back sentimental, a waste of precious time, though he's learned to keep this to himself around Hallie. In the old days she would have said there was something wrong with him, that his emotional life was stunted in some essential way. For her, past and present are indistinguishable. "That's because you're a poet," he says in his own defense. And yet the memories keep coming. The ones of his father leave him restless ... wanting. Wanting what? An apology, maybe: I'm sorry for the pain I caused, the mess I made of our lives. He's startled by a gust of wind and leans forward in his chair, the sighing pines stirred out of their uncharacteristic stupor.

As suddenly as the unexpected breeze comes a flood of images. He shakes his head to ward them off but they press forward, whispering and insistent: gold on metal, blue water, pinwheel umbrellas on a crowded beach. His father, Tommy Fens, rolls down the window in his yellow Karmann Ghia and tilts his face into the salty air. Sometimes Carl stops there, takes the story in a different direction, toward the boardwalk and beach where he and his parents spent so many Sundays when he was a boy. Now, however, he stays with the speeding yellow car, watches his father's chestnut hair scatter into the glittering embers on the tip of Carmen Festuccia's cigarette. Neither one saw the semitruck wandering like a lazy eye in the westbound lane. No time to stop or even swerve when the truck veered wildly toward them, plummeting down onto the yellow hood, a cataclysm of crunching metal and glass. The fire was so fierce that witnesses were forced to watch helplessly until a fleet of emergency vehicles arrived.

Carl was in third-hour Latin at St. Joseph's High School when nausea riffled through him and he gripped the side of his desk. Something terrible had happened. When Sister Regina appeared at the door, Miss Hanke, his Latin teacher, frowned at the interruption and trudged over in her rubber-soled shoes. Carl watched her gray head descend toward the principal's black veil. Both women's eyes turned sorrowfully in his direction.

"Carl Fens," Miss Hanke called out gently, motioning him over.

He closed his eyes, willing back the nausea. At sixteen, he was already six feet tall, and he slouched a little as he walked. Sister Regina laid her papery hand on the gray sleeve of his jacket, and the beige tile walls in the corridor lurched. The police man's blue uniform was visible through the glass window of Sister Regina's office.

The officer was tall and overweight, about his father's age, with a silver crew cut and shiny number 47 on his badge. "Your father's been in an accident, son. A car crash on the parkway near Coney Island. I'm afraid he's dead. Your mother didn't take the news too well and she ... well, she asked if I'd come over and tell you. I'm very sorry. I know what a shock this must be. As soon as you're ready, I'll drive you home."

"Was there anyone with him?" Carl asked.

The officer grew even graver then. "Yes, there was someone, but we don't know who yet."

"There wasn't any identification," Carl said.

"Maybe you should wait ..." Sister Regina started but Carl held up his hand.

"There was a fire," the officer said, "so any wallet or purse she might have had was ... well, everything burned."


"Everything inside the car, son."

The nausea rolled into his throat. "It was a woman then?"

"Yes, it appears so. Your mother said it wasn't a relative, though."

"You told my mother about the woman in the car?"

The policeman and Sister Regina glanced at each other. "Yes. She asked, just like you did."

"You better take me home."

As Carl peers into the dark, he hears the owl and leans closer to the screens. Gurgling stream, crickets, wind. Odd how still it was when he first woke and now ... He shivers. HOO-hoo-to-HOOooo, HOO-hoo-hoo-to-WHOO-ooo. The barred owl, hunched in a black spruce on the western edge of Echo Pond, readying for the hunt. If I were an animal, I would be him. He glances over his shoulder to the bed, wondering if the bird's haunting cries have awakened Hallie. Her breathing is soft and steady.

You just don't want to be alone, he tells himself. And why would he, resurrecting such sad memories? Walking up the steps to the front door of their Brooklyn brownstone. Pausing outside the apartment and counting slowly to ten. Partly to calm himself, his erratic beating heart, and partly to prepare. He hadn't let himself think about what the accident would mean for him and his mother, whether she would be able to survive the shock, or whether she'd be better off. No more humiliation over Tommy's infidelities, no more sadness over their lost love.

"I'm so sorry, honey," she said, "having to find out that way."

He knelt beside her and wrapped his long arms around her. She laid her head on his, black on black, her skin carrying the smell of lemons. People arrived: the priest, the mother of one of her piano students, several men from his father's furniture showroom, his best friend, Frank Rossi, bringing toffee bars from home.

Later, alone in his room, he pulled the cardboard box from under his bed and started work on a new birdhouse. The rhythm of the work took over, as it always did, life receding behind the images in his head. He constructed the roof from bamboo sticks and white tracing paper. Beneath each tiny window he created a perch out of Red Dragon chopsticks. He cut metal half-moons from the olive oil cans he'd filched from Mrs. Katsiaficas's garbage and strung them along the edge of the roof.

After he'd retrieved the peanut butter ball covered with waxed paper from the refrigerator, he mounted the stairs to the roof. A sudden breeze caused a carol of tinkling chimes, and the moon shone on an array of birdhouses hung from three clothes trees. He attached this latest one, batting it lightly before he stepped back to view his creations. You could have given her a chance to recover before you saw that woman again. You could have said good-bye, could have swerved, could have leaped out of the car. Nausea flooded over him and he slumped onto the black surface of the roof, gazing west toward Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Carl tiptoes across the wooden floor and slides into bed next to Hallie, letting her warmth lead him toward sleep.

The next morning he trims alders along the banks of the stream while Hallie gathers wild lupine. After bundling the last pile of branches, he scans the landscape: the meadow with its zigzag path that leads to the summer cabin—the one-story house they bought from the estate of Alice Badenhope in 1976 where they lived for almost thirty years—then the pine grove and tall, slender house where they live now. Carl can hear Hallie humming as she works her way in his direction, the sucking sound of her boots. Her straw hat appears alongside the girls' old playhouse, perched on blackened poles that rise in a V over the stream.

The summer he built it, the girls were seven. He worked out the design on tracing paper while Beatrice and Cordelia hung on his arm or over his shoulder. A rectangular house sitting a few feet above the water, with a skylight in the pitched roof that would let in sunlight and enable them to stargaze at night. They shrieked with glee when they saw the Plexiglas floor he'd put in so they could watch the russet stream and its teeming underworld beneath them.

"We'll get you a telescope so you can see the constellations," he said.

"Can we sleep in it?" Bea asked.

"What about the bugs?" Cory poked her finger through the large window openings.

"We'll put in screens, goofy. You think I'd let you sleep out there with all those bugs?"

"We can sleep in it??!!"

They slathered him with kisses, danced wildly round the room. Even now he can feel their wet lips against his face.

Hallie bends toward the bank and plucks a sheaf of blue flag iris for her flower basket. As she stands, she smiles at him, her eyes the same lilac blue as the iris. He returns her smile and heads toward the vegetable garden. The wind carries to him the smell of larch and a dizzying blast of new-mown grass.

In the sunny rectangular plot flanked by pines, he's planted a vegetable garden. By mid summer you can walk through the arbor and down the path into a riot of color—his favorite garden room of all. It was modest in the beginning, just enough vegetables and herbs for his own family with extra for friends and a few neighbors. Over time, however, the garden took over the entire meadow. He now pays two local teenagers to help with the weeding and watering; what he doesn't give away he contracts with a neighbor to sell at the farmers' market in Spooner.

A crimson splash in the cool cone of trees, an aisle of red tulips and narcissus, and he is inside a glade pungent with bracken. He adjusts his eyes to the gloom and lets his gaze drop. There amid the crumbling leaves and needles are the first violets, the rose-colored moccasin flower and showy orchis. Hallie's voice calls to him from the past: Catch me, Carl. Here, over here! A shiver runs through him as he recalls wrestling her to the ground, her long hair wrapped around his palm. Pieces of bark clung to her bare back, her buttocks bruised with violets. He turns away, his legs gone suddenly weak.

He remembers their first meeting almost thirty-five years ago. He was standing on a sidewalk in Amsterdam watching her at a tulip stand across the street. He'd just come from viewing Vermeer's paintings at the Mauritshuis museum and was caught by her glowing copper hair and face, beautifully proportioned and suffused with light. He crossed the street, startling her by standing so close. He muttered something foolish and she laughed, light spilling onto him.

He didn't see her again until that evening at the hostel, when he went outside to ask the group of young people sitting on the steps to quiet down. The window was open—it was too hot to close it—and he couldn't sleep because of the noise. She held out a beer to him, and he sat next to her on the steps. Her name was Hallie Bok. She was completing a Master of Studies in literature at St. Anne's College in Oxford and had been traveling for five weeks. He told her his wallet had been stolen in Oslo, and a pretty Norwegian girl he'd met there lent him a hundred dollars so he could get to Amsterdam, where he was waiting for money to be sent to the American Express office. She liked the fact that he was studying architecture. He had a list, he said, of the great buildings and gardens in Europe. His goal was to visit as many of them as possible.

"What have you seen so far?" she asked.

Dozens, he said, and ticked them off: the Pantheon and Hadrian's Villa outside Rome; Corbusier's Villa Savoye in Paris, his monastery of La Tourette; le Nôtre's Vaux-le-Vicomte; Mies's Barcelona Pavilion.

"Mies who?"

"Mies van der Rohe."

She smiled playfully. "I was just teasing—I know who he is."

He grinned. "I assume everyone's as obsessed with architecture as I am."

"I do the same thing: reel off the names of writers as if they're common vegetables."

"It'd be easy to fool me—I don't know much about poetry." He could feel her studying him. "Have you been to any gardens in Holland?" she asked.

"Yes." He opened his mouth to name them but caught himself.

When he asked if she'd take a motorcycle ride with him, her eyes leaped. He retrieved his bike from behind the hostel and met her by the front steps. She wrapped her arms around his waist as the motorcycle gathered speed. Near the airport he pulled into an open field where they lay side by side in the twilit grass. Departing planes bathed them in a shower of light. She slipped a book out of the waistband of her shorts and read aloud poems by William Butler Yeats.

After they returned to the hostel, she stood on tiptoe outside the women's dormitory to kiss him. He put his arms around her and pressed her body into his, dizzy at the feel and taste of her. She handed him a slip of paper with her address in Oxford and disappeared through the swinging door.


Excerpted from IN CADDIS WOOD by MARY FRANÇOIS ROCKCASTLE Copyright © 2011 by Mary François Rockcastle . Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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