Mary E. Plouffe
She knew there wasn’t a thing about this that made sense.
Miriam took pride in knowing who she was and what was true. Goodness knows, she was almost forty, old enough to let go of any “fancy ideas” as her mother would have called them. “Miriam, we’re just plain folk; nothing to be ashamed of in that,” her mother told her growing up. “Don’t set your sights too high and you won’t be disappointed.”
She had flirted with a life once years ago; married a bright-eyed, loud-talking boy from Bangor when they were both twenty-two. The night the blue lights pulled into her driveway she knew it had been foolish, a silly fantasy. She grieved that more than the boy. The next weekend she went up alone to see where the accident happened: high on a bluff, a sharp corner where the Rangeley Lakes surprised you as you came around the curve. It was easy to see his eye caught a second too long, going a bit too fast, before the car hit the ledge. Ma had let her move back without even an “I told you so.”
In the years after Willy died, she kept to herself. She worked at the diner, where the familiar smell of fried eggs and bacon grounded her each morning. At night she filled in at the Clam Shack when they needed extra help. That was mostly in the summers when tourists and truckers packed the booths until the sun was almost gone. It made for a long day; breakfast at the diner, then closing the shack and cleaning up with Sal after all the folks left. But the ache it left in her loins felt good, complete somehow.
It must have been in early summer, she thought, counting backwards. Must have been, but God knows if she could remember. Right now all she felt was stupid. Thirty-nine and pregnant. She hadn’t even considered that the thickening around her waist was anything more than helping Sal finish up the lemon merengue too many nights at closing.
Maybe the doc got it wrong, and I’m starting the change. Maybe my luck is changing and I should start playing the lottery. Stupid thoughts like that kept rumbling around in her head, pushing out anything sensible, like what the hell she was going to do about this.
She and Willy had talked about kids years ago, one fall night when they were drinking in a half empty café. “Maybe someday,” Willy had tossed off, “but we got a lot of practicing to do before then.” He winked, she laughed. God, they were young. Thought the whole world was there for the taking, whenever they wanted it. She knew better now.
There had been no boyfriends since Willy died. The first few years she had chances, but after a while, word got around. “Miriam’s a pretty one but not interested,” she heard one of her brother’s friends mutter. “It’s a waste, I say.”
The truckers sometimes looked her up and down over a plate of clams, checked out her figure and lifted their eyebrows in that universal interested? sign. That never worked. She had no interest in the whole merry-go-round of partying and prettiness; of looking good, and tossing your hair and wondering what curve would take the next one.
She only went with the ones who didn’t look. The ones who skipped the usual foreplay dance. It was something behind their eyes that caught her. She called it consolation. She could feel it in the way they nursed their coffee, ran a finger around the cup’s edge and read the coffee grounds. She liked it best when they didn’t talk, when the simple touch she offered was taken silently, gratefully, like an exhausted child falling asleep in your arms.
She never let herself remember the nights she went with someone. She turned off that part of her brain that would record a face or a few words of interest in seeing her again. “No, sorry, I shouldn’t have done this,” was her standard lie. It let them think she was married, making a one-time mistake, giving them both permission to forget. If they showed up again at the diner she ignored them, and returned their questioning gaze with a gray wall of blankness. Nope, wasn’t me, it said. Most men were too proud to break through that.
She knew what her mother would have said. Get rid of it. Stupid to let it happen. She could hear her mother’s voice in her head. Ma always started with the conclusion and skipped the arguments unless you fought her. Even when she told Miriam about her cancer, she started at the end. “I’m dying soon,” she said, “probably before summer.”
Miriam didn’t like thinking about her mother since she’d gone. It wasn’t sadness. It just took her to a harsh place, a coldness in the pit of her stomach that didn’t feel good. But what was in the pit of her stomach now was different: a shaky, quivering feeling that had nothing to do with her life. But there it was. And how it got there didn’t matter.
She knew she wasn’t meant to be a mother. She decided years ago that Willy’s death had been a blessing in that way. If he’d lived, they might have found themselves with kids without thinking. They could have become like so many other folks she saw, like her own mother was, burdened with children she had no idea how to nurture, no idea how to love.
“You’ve got some time to decide,” the doctor had said. “I can arrange it in Bangor if you want. Not something I like doing myself,” he mumbled apologetically, then added, “It’s up to you. Just let me know and I’ll make the call.”
That was almost a month ago now, and she wished she had asked about time. How much time, she should have asked. But she said nothing when she left.
Then the crazy thoughts started. Silly ideas about winning the lottery, or entering a contest for a cruise to the Caribbean. They made her laugh some days, like this whole pregnancy thing was lodged in her brain, cutting off her sensible side and teasing her that if this bizarre bad thing happened, maybe some good stuff could happen, too. But it was a waste of time. What she needed to think about was what to do. And she just couldn’t get her head to slow down enough to make a plan. It wasn’t that complicated, really. Take a few days off, call in with the flu, and get it done, she told herself when the thoughts died down. That’s it, that’s all there is.
But then the probability parade of madness began again, and she was like a kid sitting on the curb, watching the floats go by, one more fantastic than the next. Maybe I should pick up the guitar again, the one I played in high school. Maybe the recipe I put together for pumpkin cinnamon pie could win that magazine contest I saw in Woman’s Day last week. Maybe I ought to hop on a cross-country bus to Alaska, go see those glaciers they show on T.V. specials. What was going on? Was she really just scared and mad, and losing her mind now, too?
Can’t let myself get like Hazel, Miriam thought. The possibility made her shiver. Poor Hazel, who’d been on the corner for years, leaning on the old lamp post, wrapping and re-wrapping herself in a ratty old blanket no matter what the weather. Sometimes, Miriam brought her a cup of coffee and a few broken cookies from the diner. “Praise the Lord,” Hazel would say as she took them, but her eyes never moved from the food, and Miriam never spoke. At least I’ve got my senses, Miriam always thought as she walked away. I should be grateful for that.
There was no one she could tell. Certainly not her brother, who’d drive her nuts trying to guess who the father was. He’d get all pumped up about her having a secret lover, and make it seem like she’d finally joined the human race. He’d think even less of her if she could get him to believe the truth; she wasn’t hiding anything. She really didn’t know.
For the first time, she felt bad about that. Bad about not knowing the names or the faces of the men she took consolation with. Somehow, it didn’t matter before, but now it felt small and selfish. She wasn’t sure why. She’d never have tracked him down; even if she knew which one was the father. Telling some stranger he’d made her pregnant made no sense at all. This was her problem to be solved, her mistake to correct. That’s all there was to it.
The calendar seemed to scrape at her. First it was Labor Day. This year that simple marker of summer’s end was taunting. Then, on September 16th, her birthday. It felt awkward to cross the line to forty, as though she should have grown into her own skin by now. Instead it felt like she was going backwards, less certain than ever about who lived there.
The last Sunday in September, she took a ride out to Freedom. There was a place out there she liked, a small marshy pond formed by the Sebasticook River drainage from the north. It was shallow and weedy and the water was always warm. There wasn’t much public access, but she’d found a way in one time, a place for a single car to park and a path that led to one of the coves. She came here once in a while to think. She liked the idea that a powerful river slowed itself somehow to create this small, quiet place, where turtles sunned themselves on protruding logs, and blue herons fished for trout.
At the southern end the pond became a river again, winding its way south to Sebago Lake. She’d been there once or twice, but it was too big to sit with, too expansive to find your own thoughts. Sandy Pond was the right size, and, except for the occasional grumpy fisherman who wanted silence as much as she did, she would be alone.
Today, that was not true. As the trail rounded the corner, she saw a figure wrapped in a familiar blanket. Miriam stopped, but it was too late to turn. Hazel had seen her. How did she get here? It was miles from town, and it seemed impossible that Hazel even existed away from the town corner where she was a fixture—like the antique lamp post. They had never had a conversation, but it felt wrong to turn away and leave.
She started to walk again, planning to nod a greeting and keep moving. But then Hazel spoke. “Sit,” she said simply. “Sit.” It was a command more than an invitation, but it was said gently, as if by someone who knew what you needed more than you did. Miriam let herself down on the soft mossy undergrowth, picked up a few brittle brown leaves, and turned them to dust between her fingers.
“Winter’s coming soon,” Hazel said.
“I guess,” Miriam said softly.
“Best you figure it out before then.”
“What do you mean?” Miriam looked at her, frightened for a moment.
“Don’t know, but I can see it on your face. Something’s eating at ya.”
Miriam hesitated, then Hazel went on, “When your mind’s as messed up as mine, you get so you read faces pretty good, so you know what’s real to be afraid of. I’m not afraid of you, though. I like them cookies you bring.”
“Why are you here?”
“Got a little shack up the trail a bit, and a rowboat somebody left. It quiets my mind to sit in it, float on the water and let it carry me.”
Miriam closed her eyes then, and the smell of wet reeds brought tears. “I’m pregnant.” Her voice startled her, but once it was out she did not stop. She began in a whisper, but as the story grew, she rocked from side to side, and the gently wailing sound got stronger. “I didn’t mean… I don’t know… I can’t seem to…”
Then the story flowed out of her like a river, washing over them both. She told Hazel about the men, about how she didn’t even remember whose child it might be. She told her about feeling stuck, knowing what she wanted and not being able to do anything to make it happen. She didn’t know why, but she found herself telling Hazel about how Willy died and about her own mother too, how that dried-up old witch never knew anything about caring. Hazel did not move.
When it was done, Miriam was exhausted. She lay back on the wet grass. The only thing she’d held back were the crazy thoughts and the idea that she might be losing her mind. Sparing Hazel’s feelings, she thought, then winced. Who are you to judge?
“Anyway, that is my mess of a life,” she said a bit too loudly, as though to pull back some fragment of self-respect. She could feel Hazel’s expression, a soft nod in response.
“River-blessed,” Hazel said. Gently, like a priest offering benediction, she leaned over and kissed Miriam’s forehead. Her lips just grazed the skin and were gone before Miriam could move. She felt Hazel’s breath, the soft “s” sound wash across her face.
“What did you say?” Miriam was confused, but not afraid.
“You are river-blessed with a child,” Hazel spoke reverently. “Ah, yes, river-blessed.”
She began to sing softly under her breath:
Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel’s feet have trod?
With its crystal tide forever, flowing by the throne of God.
Hazel’s voice was low and soft, and Miriam breathed it in, letting the gospel melody surround her like a comforter. The phrases were familiar, the melody stored like a lullaby deep inside. Hazel seemed gone, absorbed inside the music. Miriam closed her eyes and let herself float on the sound.
Yes, we will gather by the river… the beautiful, the beautiful river,
gather with the saints at the river… that flows by the throne of God.
Soon we’ll reach the shining river… soon our pilgrimage will cease,
soon our happy hearts will quiver…
When Miriam awoke, Hazel was gone. She had no sense of how long she had slept, except that the sun was low in the sky, and the air was beginning to bite. She shivered, pulled her jacket around her, and rose. She stood for a moment, deciding, and then continued down the trail, following it around to the next cove. The rowboat was there, sitting in the reeds. It was small and dirty, and there was green paint peeling a bit on the sides, but it looked sturdy.
Without hesitation, Mariam climbed inside. She began to row toward the center of the pond. Everything looked different from here; the shape of the land, the trees and the small islands dotting the water. Only twenty feet from shore and it’s not the same, she thought. She rowed a bit more, and then pulled the oars in. Her mind was quiet now, and she did not want to move.
She looked down at the water. The first few inches were clear, but it was murkier below. She could see water moving down there, swirling and waving the marsh grass and reeds attached somewhere deep beneath. She could see the flow.
Not yet, she thought. I’ll sit for a minute more. She put her hands on her stomach, gently. I don’t need to rush. The voice in her head was kind, gentler somehow.
Whenever you are ready. Dip your hand. Touch the river.
Feel what it brings.