When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down. And some days it stops altogether. The sky, gray and lowering for much of the year, becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can't help but stop what you're doing-pinning wet sheets to the line maybe, or shucking a bushel of corn on the back steps-to stare up at it. Locusts whir in the birches, coaxing you out of the sun and under the boughs, and the heat stills the air, heavy and sweet with the scent of balsam.
As I stand here on the porch of the Glenmore, the finest hotel on all of Big Moose Lake, I tell myself that today-Thursday, July 12, 1906-is such a day. Time has stopped, and the beauty and calm of this perfect afternoon will never end. The guests up from New York, all in their summer whites, will play croquet on the lawn forever. Old Mrs. Ellis will stay on the porch until the end of time, rapping her cane on the railing for more lemonade. The children of doctors and lawyers from Utica, Rome, and Syracuse will always run through the woods, laughing and shrieking, giddy from too much ice cream.
I believe these things. With all my heart. For I am good at telling myself lies.
Until Ada Bouchard comes out of the doorway and slips her hand into mine. And Mrs. Morrison, the manager's wife, walks right by us, pausing at the top of the steps. At any other time, she'd scorch our ears for standing idle; now she doesn't seem to even know we're here. Her arms cross over her chest. Her eyes, gray and troubled, fasten on the dock. And the steamer tied alongside it.
"That's the Zilpha, ain't it, Mattie?" Ada whispers. "They've been dragging the lake, ain't they?"
I squeeze her hand. "I don't think so. I think they were just looking along the shoreline. Cook says they probably got lost, that couple. Couldn't find their way back in the dark and spent the night under some pines, that's all."
"I'm scared, Mattie. Ain't you?"
I don't answer her. I'm not scared, not exactly, but I can't explain how I feel. Words fail me sometimes. I have read most every one in the Webster's International Dictionary of the English Language, but I still have trouble making them come when I want them to.
Right now I want a word that describes the feeling you get-a cold, sick feeling deep down inside-when you know something is happening that will change you, and you don't want it to, but you can't stop it. And you know, for the first time, for the very first time, that there will now be a before and an after, a was and a will be. And that you will never again be quite the same person you were.
I imagine it's the feeling Eve had as she bit into the apple. Or Hamlet when he saw his father's ghost. Or Jesus as a boy, right after someone sat him down and told him his pa wasn't a carpenter after all.
What is the word for that feeling? For knowledge and fear and loss all mixed together? Frisdom? Dreadnaciousness? Malbominance?
Standing on that porch, under that flawless sky, with bees buzzing lazily in the roses and a cardinal calling from the pines so sweet and clear, I tell myself that Ada is a nervous little hen, always worrying when there's no cause. Nothing bad can happen at the Glenmore, not on such a day as this.
And then I see Cook running up from the dock, ashen and breathless, her skirts in her hands, and I know that I am wrong.
"Mattie, open the parlor!" she shouts, heedless of the guests. "Quick, girl!"
I barely hear her. My eyes are on Mr. Crabb, the Zilpha's engineer. He is coming up the path carrying a young woman in his arms. Her head lolls against him like a broken flower. Water drips from her skirt.
"Oh, Mattie, look at her. Oh, jeezum, Mattie, look," Ada says, her hands twisting in her apron.
Sssh, Ada. She got soaked, that's all. They got lost on the lake and...and the boat tipped and they swam to shore and she...she must've fainted."
"Oh, dear Lord," Mrs. Morrison says, her hands coming up to her mouth.
"Mattie! Ada! Why are you standing there like a pair of jackasses?" Cook wheezes, heaving her bulky body up the steps. "Open the spare room, Mattie. The one off the parlor. Pull the shades and lay an old blanket on the bed. Ada, go fix a pot of coffee and some sandwiches. There's a ham and some chicken in the icebox. Shift yourselves!"
There are children in the parlor playing hide-and-seek. I chase them out and unlock the door to a small bedroom used by stage drivers or boat captains when the weather's too bad to travel. I realize I've forgotten the blanket and run back to the linen closet for it. I'm back in the room snapping it open over the bare ticking just as Mr. Crabb comes in. I've brought a pillow and a heavy quilt, too. She'll be chilled to the bone, having slept out all night in wet clothing.
Mr. Crabb lays her down on the bed. Cook stretches her legs out and tucks the pillow under her head. The Morrisons come in. Mr. Sperry, the Glenmore's owner, is right behind them. He stares at her, goes pale, and walks out again.
"I'll fetch a hot water bottle and some tea and...and brandy," I say, looking at Cook and then Mrs. Morrison and then a painting on the wall. Anywhere and everywhere but at the girl. "Should I do that? Should I get the brandy?"
"Hush, Mattie. It's too late for that," Cook says.
I make myself look at her then. Her eyes are dull and empty. Her skin has gone the yellow of muscatel wine. There is an ugly gash on her forehead and her lips are bruised. Yesterday she'd sat by herself on the porch, fretting the hem of her skirt. I'd brought her a glass of lemonade, because it was hot outside and she looked peaked. I hadn't charged her for it. She looked like she didn't have much money.
Behind me, Cook badgers Mr. Crabb. "What about the man she was with? Carl Grahm?"
"No sign of him," he says. "Not yet, leastways. We got the boat. They'd tipped it, all right. In South Bay."
"I'll have to get hold of the family," Mrs. Morrison says. "They're in Albany."
"No, that was only the man, Grahm," Cook says. "The girl lived in South Otselic. I looked in the register."
Mrs. Morrison nods. "I'll ring the operator. See if she can connect me with a store there, or a hotel. Or someone who can get a message to the family. What on earth will I say? Oh dear! Oh, her poor, poor mother!" She presses a handkerchief to her eyes and hurries from the room.
"She'll be making a second call before the day's out," Cook says. "Ask me, people who can't swim have no business on a lake."
"Too confident, that fellow," Mr. Morrison says. "I asked him could he handle a skiff and he told me yes. Only a darn fool from the city could tip a boat on a calm day..." He says more, but I don't hear him. It feels like there are iron bands around my chest. I close my eyes and try to breathe deeply, but it only makes things worse. Behind my eyes I see a packet of letters tied with a pale blue ribbon. Letters that are upstairs under my mattress. Letters that I promised to burn. I can see the address on the top one: Chester Gillette, 171_2 Main Street, Cortland, New York.
Cook fusses me away from the body. "Mattie, pull the shades like I told you to," she says. She folds Grace Brown's hands over her chest and closes her eyes. "There's coffee in the kitchen. And sandwiches," she tells the men. "Will you eat something?"
"We'll take something with us, Mrs. Hennessey, if that's all right," Mr. Morrison says. "We're going out again. Soon as Sperry gets the sheriff on the phone. He's calling Martin's, too. To tell 'em to keep an eye out. And Higby's and the other camps. Just in case Grahm made it to shore and got lost in the woods."
"His name's not Carl Grahm. It's Chester. Chester Gillette." The words burst out of me before I can stop them.
"How do you know t...