In Search of Fortunes Not Yet Lost
MAR Vol. XXXIV, no. 1
They had heard the rumors not to live beyond the prairie. This is Wynamucaquam, the townspeople told them. Ice storms, chopped wood, wild animals. Don’t be anxious to tempt nature. Nobody lives at the end of a dirt road in a yawned space. It isn’t forbidden, just abnormal.
Sully and Madeline couldn’t distinguish between lies and the earnest caution of townspeople. They had come to Wynamucaquam with a fit of nostalgia. “Our relatives once lived here,” they told the locals. The town had been settled centuries ago, a handful of miles before the Salagusa empties into Leech Lake. Most people never went east of the Erskine bluffs. The ones that did never were the same.
Sully was determined to come north. He wanted to walk in a field of snow and find only his footprints. He wanted to accidentally run out of firewood and have to smother himself in blankets. He wanted dead trees, icicles, dogs with thick fur, and frozen ponds. He wanted to grow a beard and look like a woodsman.
“Like in Snow White,” Lorelei said.
He had to promise not to cut out anyone’s heart.
They fell in love with a gingerbread Victorian on three acres of unfallowed parsnip fields with a barn full of what might have been horse bones. Unoccupied for twice a quarter century. It was nestled on the southern slope against a grove of trees that ran down the butte. Inside the Victorian were uneven floorboards. None of the doors closed. Only two of the windows weren’t shattered.
“Not much privacy,” Madeline said.
Sully grinned. “Privacy from what? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” she said, running her fingers through her hair the way she did when he started to get ideas.
He convinced her they could remodel the house themselves before winter. They would live off the land. Goats. Wild turkeys. Fishing. Old-timey stuff. The old man who sold them the property seemed amused by their expectations.
“Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t go believing you’ll survive what nature offers. This town wasn’t made for survival. It’s a place of disappearances, not visitations.”
At first they were afraid to meddle with the house and its ruin. Admire the front-facing gable. Little sips of sarsaparilla. Watch Lorelei get her head stuck between the balustrades and need a good buttering to wrench her loose. Three bottles of sarsaparilla. Gaze at cobwebs. Trot beside the wraparound porch with its warped stairs and rails. Hide-and-seek in closets. Cunnilingus at high noon while Lorelei was down at the pond. Sully was fond of the polygonal tower where he imagined nesting during the winters with a telescope while the world became an insomnia of ice.
For weeks they avoided the attic. It was only when Lorelei got lost that they discovered the roof had been damaged by the recent thunderstorms. Patches of sunlight and yesterday’s rain dripped through hollowed-out spaces.
“You’re not a handyman,” said Madeline, tugging at his elbow. “Call someone.”
“I know things. I can handle roofs.”
“You’ve never been on a roof. You won’t even climb trees.”
But he was already pacing, his eyes fixed on the hollows, feet shuffling through broken shingles.
“I can fix it before winter. The stairwell, too.”
She shook her head, knowing he had an infantile affection for decay.
“There’s plenty you don’t know about me,” he said.
She knew him as the heir to a soda-bottling factory. His grandfather had been a glass blower, his father a factory man and part-time soda jerk. On their wedding day Sully received the first portion of his inheritance: one thousand cartons of fountain soda. Schwengers. A deranged sarsaparilla. The family brand. She had always suspected it was a joke. The factory had burned, the estate auctioned, the collectibles dispersed. But the soda was part of the will and now that Sully had the house he was the proud owner of another thousand cartons. They kept the inheritance in the barn.
In bed Sully and Maddie laughed about living in a town where it seemed all the clocks had slowed. Like after they closed on the land and the paperwork had been signed, they invited the old man to share a glass of sarsaparilla. They stood on the second-floor open porch where in the distance Sully could see the smokestacks of the abandoned distillery edge out from the tree line.
“What happened?” Sully asked.
“Town quit drinking.”
“There’s a saying here: no need for liquor once you have a taste of winter.”
“Are you lying or being serious?” Maddie sniggered.
He looked at her with an odd furl of his eyebrows. “What’s the difference?”
The remodeling was not finished before the first snow. It was a light dusting and it melted within three days, but enough to make them nervous. While Lorelei slept, Sully and Maddie hung canvas tarps blocking off the stairwell and upper floors. They would live together in the guest room through the winter. There was a single bed. They could huddle for warmth, he told her.
“We might freeze. If what people say is true.”
“We have plenty of wood,” Sully said, although he really had no idea.
A group of old women arrived that afternoon calling themselves a welcoming committee, but Maddie believed they were curious to see if the city people had survived the first snow. They brought the warm regards of the mayor. They were widows, mostly, except one housewife who was married to the grocer. Maddie invited them inside for coffee but they refused, insisting on introducing her to the local tea. Everyone in town drank the stuff.
For two hours the widows lectured Maddie. Too many middle-aged yuppies moving into town. People get ideas in a tired, cold place. They come to trudge barefoot through a nor’easter and think they can survive by pissing on their own feet, the kind of people amazed at rotted bones in an abandoned barn.
“Bunch of idiots,” one of the women said.
“You’ve never seen a town so full of ice,” said another.
“Yes, I hear the winters are brutal,” Maddie smiled.
They corrected her: It was when the ice thawed that the misery settled.
“Once you have a winter you never want it to end,” one of the widows said.
“Come April all you have are old wishes and empty bottles,” another said.
“Change is the worst sort of thing in a place this far north,” one of the fussy women said. “It’s better if it just keeps snowing. You can leave things out in the snow and forget all about them. When the thaw comes, you have to remember everything. It’s terrible.”
Later, Maddie found Sully out in the field. She had tried not to laugh when he came home with an assortment of tools and soils and seed, along with the look on his face like a kitten unsure what to do with a dead bird.
“Don’t you need a horse? Maybe a plow?”
“Shaddap,” he groaned. “I got hands. See? Old-fashioned,” he said. “Half an acre to start. Nothing I can’t handle.”
“What about the roof?” she said.
He had stopped listening and was swinging a pickax.
She had tried to tell him nobody plants right before winter. He said the roots needed to freeze in order to maximize flavor. Don’t worry, he knew. Seeds needed water, not snow, and what about sunlight? she asked. He said he’d go out each night and piss the half-acre wet if needed. Don’t worry, he knew. He’d been reading books on parsnips, knew it so well he had even used the pages as kindling for the fires. By June they’d be swimming in parsnips. “This is the way my grandfather did it. I remember. Did I ever tell you about my grandfather’s farm?” he said.
“You’ve been hearing too much about grandfathers.”
“What does that mean?”
She walked back to the house, almost slipping on the porch steps thick with ice.
They lost Lorelei to a salt well. They found the window open and the bed empty and it was easy to follow the footprints in the fresh snow. They could only reason she had found a ladybug perched on the windowsill and followed it down the butte and into the thicket. Just that night at dinner she said she had made friends with one. “Ladybugs are good luck,” Maddie said, half-smiling. “She must have gone looking for it.”
People in town expressed sympathies. They all seemed to love the girl with the marigold hair.
Sully circled the well opening with some men from town. They lit crumbles of papier-mâché and let them float down into the blackness. When they squinted they could make out what looked like a little girl.
“Footprints end here,” Sully said. He barely choked out the words.
“Won’t do you any good to fish her out,” said one of the graybeards. “Too risky.”
“I want the body,” Sully said. “It’s my daughter.”
The men all stuffed hands in their pockets and murmured.
“With the spring thaw the pressure from the brine pool causes the well water to rise. Frozen water on top, liquid brine beneath. When it thaws she’ll bubble right up without a scratch on her. She’ll be fresh as the day she died.”
“Isn’t there something else we can do?” said Sully.
The graybeards shrugged.
“There’s a chance she might rise up on her own. You’d be surprised,” said one of the graybeards.
“Nobody in town will dig a grave in mid-January. Even for a little girl with hair like that.”
“Hmph,” said one of the graybeards.
They were quiet. They smoked more cigarettes.
Sully first had the idea after finding the frozen bird. He had seen it outside Lorelei’s window, completely still, with its wings spread like it was trying to scare off a predator. The next day it was in exactly the same position. He climbed the tree and discovered it was frozen stiff. He boiled a large pot of water on the stove. When he dropped the bird inside it sank to the bottom, then slowly rose to the surface.
He hefted the bucket of steaming water, hesitated, then began pouring it into the black skein of the well. He listened to the water disturbed below. For a moment he wondered what would happen if he let himself fall. Would he just keep falling? Then he emptied the rest of the bucket. He did this nine more times. How many buckets would it take to make her rise? he wondered.
He did not tell Maddie. She wanted to be different now, for Lorelei’s sake. No more out of the ordinary, she told him.
The town widows had come to invite her to join their association of widows. They brought an assortment of pies and breads. Sully didn’t want to offend them so he excused himself and trudged off into the woods. Maddie listened to these fussy little women correct her about her feelings and then declined to join with them. After all, she wasn’t a widow. It would be best if she had some time alone.
“Best,” one of the widows half-smiled.
“Yes, but thank you for your kindness,” Maddie said. “But no, no, thank you.”
“No, thank you, please,” said another woman.
Maddie shut the door and sat in the darkness of the house. She built a fire, then listened to the widows shuffle off the porch.
She went into Lorelei’s room. Nothing had been touched since the accident. The princess dresses in the closet, the glitter on the carpet, the books at the foot of the bed. There was a brush on the nightstand with whorls of Lorelei’s hair.
Maddie smashed the nightstand with her hand until one of the legs bent. Then she used her foot. She looked at her hand, waiting to see if it would bruise.
No, thank you, please, the hand seemed to say.
In the distance she thought she heard Sully splitting a cord of wood. She found him half-dangled over Lorelei’s well drinking a bottle of Schwengers. He dropped it, listening for the echoing splash.
“What’s all this?” she said.
He dropped another bottle.
“Gravity,” he said.
After two months she insisted he shave. She rummaged through the attic and found an old straight razor. First she steamed a towel and wrapped it around Sully’s face. She opened and closed the old-fashioned, straight-edge razor. She was listening. For what, she wasn’t quite sure, only that it would be there when she least expected it. She flattened his cheek and pulled the razor over the skin. Maddie had never shaved a man before but she remembered spying on her father when she was four years old. She pulled the blade over the chin and it sounded like a door off its hinge, a door that had been slammed too often.
“You got out of bed last night,” he said.
“I needed the fresh air. I wandered off the trail,” she lied. “The snow caught me by surprise. I got lost. That seems to be going around.”
His neck was a little bloody now. She was not being careful. He did not flinch.
“Tell me again the story you told Lorelei.”
“I’d rather not,” he said.
“Humor me. I’m holding the razor, remember?”
Once there was a girl with golden hair and silverslate eyes whose mother sent her into the forest to gather fruit to sell at the market. No matter where she looked she found berries and sweet roots and herbs, and her berries were never bitter, and her apples never too tart, and her figs never lost their flavor. And then during harvest morning the girl found two ladybugs huddled close on a fallen tree trunk. She watched them dance along the mossy bark. As she crept closer she realized it was a ladybug wedding. When they saw her the ladybugs made the girl with the silverslate eyes promise not to tell anyone their secret, reminding her that words are little sparks that can create large fires. The little girl tried to keep her promise, but it was such a curiosity that she whispered to the aphids and the butterflies the secrets of the ladybugs, and no sooner had it happened than she wished she could turn back the clock, because when she stepped into the clearing she saw how Lady Luck had turned on her: The corn fields had been harvested and the stalks gathered and set on fire, only the farm hands had been careless with the matches and the winds had carried some embers to house and barn and her mother and sisters and her father and brothers had been burned into neat little piles of ash.
“You shouldn’t have told her that story,” Madeline said. “You should have kept your damn mouth shut, just this once.”
Sully let her finish the shave. There was no sound in the kitchen except the razor on his skin. Hearing it made Maddie feel tired, like jam spread over too much bread.
She crawled into bed. She had waited until he left the barn before joining him inside the house. She must have woken him up with the sound of the ax, but once outside he was distracted, not looking for her but hauling buckets back and forth. She had watched him. It didn’t matter what he was doing. She didn’t want to know his secret—she just wanted to keep him from hers. This is what happens in a place so far north.
“You frightened me,” he said, as she tried to get comfortable in the bed.
He adjusted his pillow and put his arm around her. There were times before Lorelei had passed when she felt him slip into the bed smelling of winter soil and she wanted to be naked next to him, like it was before, but there was no going back to how it was before and each hour her mind felt like a tea leaf being sieved.
“I need to rest,” she said.
It was strange to lie to him about something as insignificant as chopping wood. The idea came to her after smashing Lorelei’s dresser. She liked the bruises that appeared, the way they purpled, then yellowed, so alien to what was normal. She liked how they took days to appear, making her alive with anticipation. She held them up to the mirror. In a strange way, one she could not explain, the bruises helped her feel close to Lorelei, who she imagined white and bruised at the bottom of the well.
Madeline had taken the broken pieces of the dresser and dumped them in the well. She felt an immediate calm. She tossed more of Lorelei’s things into the well each day, everything her husband had not put in a cardboard box in the shed. Then she had the idea to cut down trees. She would cut down the whole goddamn forest if it meant sealing off the well.
She had never handled an ax before and was worried she might slip and gash her thigh and have to crawl through the wood calling his name and he would mistake her for just another animal howl. Mostly she held the ax and never swung it: breathing the cold air, counting the seconds for her fingers to freeze, then her nose, wondering how Lorelei had lost feeling. Was it her legs that quit kicking? Did she know her screams had not reached out of the well? Tonight she had gotten the nerve to take a swing and found herself smashing bottles of sarsaparilla.
“Do you remember that time we ran barefoot through the snow?” she said.
He didn’t answer. Maybe he was asleep. She reminded him anyway.
It was at the base of Mount Sugarloaf. What was the name of that shitty town? They had gotten lost looking for the Berkshires. That night he had dared her to go swimming across the Connecticut and if she froze to death he would keep her alive with his breaths until the sun came up. After they had both crossed he had told her to keep running to avoid freezing, the way animals survive a sudden cold. There was that moment when she stopped and he kept running, did he remember: left her behind while he ran with a wild screech and she was standing in the snow in the middle of nowhere, a young girl with this boy that she might love but wasn’t sure, and she was naked as a peach and instead of freezing her toes began to burn. It was strange how something cold burns. She looked closely and saw she had scraped her toe. A little patch of red in the white snow. She decided then she wanted to marry him, to have a child made from their blood, a child who bled like them. It was a strange thing, naked in the snow, strange what the body does when it feels too much. It burns so that it doesn’t have to feel at all. It was like nature slipping out and seeping inside all at once and not sure if you wanted more or less.
To anyone else the number of buckets would have been innumerable, but Sully never lost count. In a matter of weeks he had discovered how many steps from the back porch to the pump just beside the barn, from the barn to the stove where the buckets were heated, and then to the salt well. He knew how many seconds it would take. He knew how many drops of water would fill a bucket. His life was measured in numbers.
He wondered about his little girl’s face, fearing that her eyes had become washy swirls of yellow, or that submerged so long strands of her hair would grow like wildweed along the well wall, or that the brine had pickled her. She wasn’t quite dead though, was she? Not breathing but not rotting. Somewhere between.
He just wanted to see her hair one more time.
She was floating up. All those buckets of water. He was sure of it. In a few days he would be able to reach down and feel her. There was less splashing now, like the water was closer. He liked to tell himself it was only a question of time. There was plenty of that in the winter: time to think about time, to feel time, time to watch in the mirror as his body kneeled to the wants of time, time to wonder if it was true what his mother had told him, that when the day of judgment came the Lord would wake all his creations from the beginning to the end, a sudden rapture of dead things made fresh. As a boy she had told him that when God resurrected him he would know if he was going to heaven if the first thing he saw was a ladybug. They were the luckiest of all of God’s creations.
Sully poured bucket nine thousand one hundred eleven.
He fingered through the ice on the rim of the well, hoping to find a ladybug. There had been one the other night, during bucket eight thousand seven hundred forty-seven, and he had chased it through the wood. He swore it made this whirring noise, and while he knew it was crazy thinking, he listened for it now.
But the noise he heard was Maddie’s ax thucking into the stump. He followed the sound until he found her. He watched her from the tree line. He had seen her doing this before late at night when she thought he was asleep. It was a waste. Didn’t she know she might slip and leave a trail of her blood in the snow? There was plenty of firewood. What could she want with all this wood?
She knew he was watching but she kept swinging, following through the arc of her body and letting the ax handle slip down to the tips of her fingers. Let gravity do the work, she told herself. She steadied the next block and heaved. Soon she wouldn’t be satisfied splitting wood from the forest. In a few days she would start dissecting the house: the floorboards, the walls, the stairwell, gutting it as if in search of the invisible weight that dragged her through her daily routine like a puppet on strings.
She paused to wipe the sweat from her face. Sully stepped from the edge of the trees fingering the patch of ice in his hands. He told her he was looking for ladybugs.
“Hmph,” she said.
“Hmph,” he said.
She kept splitting wood. Practice swings. She tried to sync herself with the falling snowflakes. Sully watched, wondering if in Wynamucaquam there was a natural rhythm of falling things.