Waterwoman

Waterwoman

by Lenore Hart

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425190074
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 06/03/2003
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.24(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.66(d)

About the Author

Lenore Hart is currently at work on her second novel.

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One

We always had our differences, my sister and I, but I never meant to hurt her. I surely never wished her dead. Though sometimes, late at night, when I'm sitting here by her bedside, I wonder. Because in my twenty years of living, I believe I've received more than one omen of where love, hate, and rivalry has finally taken us, now that we're both grown women.

For instance, that one fall day in 1906, when Rebecca was three and I was seven. Dad had roused us early, in the yellow-gray light before dawn. He'd clumsily bundled us up as we yawned and complained, stuffed cold biscuits in our hands, and put us aboard his work boat, an old bar cat with a green sail.

"Your mam's sickly today," he told us. "Needs her rest. So you squits'll have to come along with me, God help us."

I'd never before in my life heard him use a curse word or take the Lord's name in vain, but I was too thrilled to be shocked. "Oh, yes," I shouted. "Yes, please, Dad."

Rebecca only squealed and hopped around. I was sure she was too young to grasp the rare privilege of finally being allowed what I'd thought then all little girls dreamed of: to ride along on Dad's work, to sit in the stern wearing a cap like a real waterman.

But we hadn't gotten far, only to the channel between our island and the next, when I turned to see my sister's red coat, her wool leggings, her patent shoes disappearing over the side. She dropped without a sound. The vanishing clothes were so unexpected a sight, a bewitched moment passed before I recalled Rebecca was inside them. And that she couldn't swim a lick.

I looked quick to my father, to see what he'd do about it. He was fiddling with the sail,his back to us, and hadn't seen. For yet another moment I couldn't speak; couldn't even recall Rebecca's name or my own. All I could think to do was scream. Dad dropped his line and turned to look. "What, Annie?" he said. Sharp-edged worry creased his forehead.

"Becca," was all I could get out. So I pointed over the water behind us.

Back in our wake a flailing arm, a last billow of bright red material. That was all.

He came about sharp, and in a moment we were at the spot where she'd vanished. He rushed to one side of the boat then the other, looking down. I leaned over the stern, and saw her there below. About a foot down, her face turned up to the sky, eyes open. She hung suspended in the water, trailing a string of bubbles like oversized pearls, hair a dark cloud around her face, as graceful as one of the water sprites in my fairy book. Beyond her lay the dull moon-rubble of an old oyster bed. To me it looked as if Rebecca were rising to the surface. Coming to me, not falling away. A mermaid about to be born.

My father shoved me out of the way, pushed the tiller over to head us into the wind, and jumped in. He came up with my sister clutched in one arm and hauled himself into the boat with the other. Laid her on the thwarts and turned her head, and did things to help her cough up water. At last he sat her up and wrapped her shivering body in his oilskin jacket.

Then he spanked me.

I understood why. It would have done no good to say I hadn't seen it happen; that the first I'd known of it was the sight of her legs disappearing suddenly over the side, any more than it would have helped to lie and claim I hadn't seen a thing. At seven, with Mam sick all the time, I had long since understood that my sister was my responsibility.

I endured the punishment without crying. Anyway, Dad generally had a lighter hand than Mam. Then he made me sit beside my sister.

"You're not to let go of her, maid. Not ever. She's not got the sense to look after herself yet."

I wouldn't look at him, but I nodded.

"You swear it, now?"

"Yes, Dad."

He seemed satisfied then, and went back to the tiller. Rebecca leaned into me and stopped sobbing long enough to glance up, her dark lashes clumped and spiky with tears and saltwater.

"All wet, Annie," she said, plucking at her sodden clothes. She shivered again.

I waited until my father turned away to hoist the sail before I risked giving her a light pinch. I frowned down at her, then made a big point of looking away.

Dad came about directly and headed home again. He squinted into the risen sun and muttered something like, "Mend blasted nets on such a God-given day."

Rebecca pressed closer and took my hand. When I felt hers curl like a small, cold starfish around mine, I relented and hugged her tight against me, astonished at how easily she'd almost been lost. But I still felt aggrieved. Her weight seemed to settle on my shoulders like dropped anchor chain. How long would it be before she had any good sense? It seemed hard that, until that day, I was supposed to look out for her.

Some of these winter nights now, after I've cleared the table and put away the dishes, I sit by Rebecca's bed. I sip hot tea with a little of the shine whiskey our friend Sam Doughty brings, and listen to be sure my sister's breathing is easy. If she's awake, I talk of the things we'll do when she's well. I remind her of the mischief and pleasure we found as kids, like that time I once cut all my hair off to try to be a boy. Or the way she used to always drop a ball in my lap when I was reading, to get me to come out and play.

And though it's the one story I never tell, I wonder if she ever remembers as far back as that accident in the old bar cat--the first time she nearly drowned. Or what she recalls of the night six months ago, when we fled this island and tried to outrun a storm in a motor launch.

Worse than the great nor'easter of 1897, is what I hear folks are claiming now. That one was three years before my birth, so I couldn't say. This last storm tried its damnedest to flatten our little islands, though, and the rest of the Virginia coast. No doubt they'll soon be calling it the great nor'easter of 1920, and make their children and grandchildren yawn with repeated tellings.

From the water it's easy to see the damage. But you have to walk away from the house here on Yaupon, over the dunes to the seaside, to find the sandy plot we keep for our dead. A body can count a good many more crosses there now than three months ago. We haven't put a marker out for Nathan. Not yet. Some days, though, I have gotten as far as planning one.

It'll be wood, like the others. But I picture his differently. Carved with a seabird, or maybe a curved, leaping fish. That would make Reverend Scarborough happy; he needn't know it's not the sign of Christ. But it's all Rebecca's decision, when she's feeling better. This time I won't insist on having things my own way. I understand now what it costs a body to be set on getting what you want, no matter what.

Our little island is only about a mile across. It seemed wide when I was a child, and the only place that could ever be home. We didn't know much of anywhere else then. Even now, being twenty and fully grown, I don't feel the need to, either. The buy boats that take my catch are the same ones that bought up the fish and crabs and oysters my father pulled from the water. He explained to me once that they sold them again to people in New York and New Jersey. And yet, he said, folks there sometimes went hungry and begged on the streets. It had to do with banks and markets, and sometimes business was poor.

Those lean times we ate more of the fish and crabs ourselves, but even a lazy man would be hard put to go hungry on the Eastern Shore. We still have no electricity, but ducks and muskrats and other game crowd the woods and shore. You can grow anything green most of the year, and there's always the water, full of crab and shrimp and mananose clams. All that city business seemed far away to us then. It still does now.

I'm the sister who was never much to look at, even as a baby, when most are at least passably cute. But until I went to school, mainly just my folks saw me growing up on Yaupon Island, and Granny Jester and my little sister Becca. So I was a happy child with a coming appetite, and gave no thought to good looks or what they might mean to a girl in this world.

I didn't know any better than to stay happy for a long time. Didn't know there might be more than what all we had. And then, when I finally discovered something to hunger after, it hadn't a thing to do with banks or cities or even electric-powered gadgets. Some days I believe it was my selfishness and greed that brought calamity down on us, just like Mam and Granny Jester said I would. Other days, I know it was only bad judgment and bad weather.

I don't have much to fear losing now, but I intend to hang on. What's left is all the more precious to me. I intend to spend the rest of my natural life free of envy and spite and the bother of love, or what passes for it in most folks' minds. As vain a wish as any human could make, I guess. But I aim to give it a go, nonetheless. I told Rebecca that just the other day, and it got a smile out of her. She knows me well enough not to be impressed.

-- from Waterwoman by Lenore Hart, Copyright © June 2002, The Berkley Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam, used by permission.

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Waterwoman 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was a excellant book. I just loved the storyline. I can relate to the location were the book takes place because I have been to those places. Can not wait for the next book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is wonderful!! I was impressed with how hauntingly beautiful this book was written. You definately feel sorrow for the characters as they are thrown into the events that take place. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading more from this author!!!!!