Rumpus Original Fiction: Breaking Through

By

It’s cold here. Even after seven years—how long I’ve been away from home—the depth of it surprises me. Back home in Kingstree, winter meant a persistent drizzle and a certain moody, hovering grayness: a wet cold, and the damp got in your bones. But it never lasted long, did it? Just beyond lay the promise of light, of heat, and you could always reach down for a handful of dirt, alive and supple, spring-smelling. Here, though, cold runs deep.

I step through the sliding glass doors my husband Bill installed last winter and onto our deck, which overlooks the lake we live on: Burden Lake—which is not so much a lake in this spot, but more what we’d call in South Carolina a marsh and what people here in upstate New York, always harsher and readier with cold truth, call a swamp. Right now, the late sun shines weakly on the glass of it. When I squint against the light, the cattails look like dark, thin sentinels: broody judges.

At four, Claire will be home.

I breathe and the air inside me freezes, won’t pass all the way through. My feet hurt suddenly, and I look down to see that I’m standing on the icy deck without shoes, without socks. My toes are blistery red, as if they’ve been heated, not frozen. Glad Bill’s not here to see these stubborn Southern toes refusing to acknowledge degrees of cold.

Inside, I put my slippers on and stand beside the wood stove; thawing, my toes ache. The lake follows me in, reflected light against my eyes. I draw the curtain, reducing it to a glow against dark fabric.

Time to start supper. Tonight we’ll have chicken and dumplings, which used to be Claire’s favorite. Now she picks only the chicken out, only the white meat, and only after scraping away every morsel of gravy. And she’ll eat a salad, no dressing, and later maybe an apple. And after that she might go into the bathroom and stay a while, music turned up high, and when she comes out I’ll look at her without seeming to, checking to see if her eyes are red and watery. And she will turn away from me.

I’ve thawed this leftover chicken in the refrigerator all day, but as I try to pull the pale pieces of breast meat apart, some of it sticks together, stubbornly frozen still. The icy flesh reddens my fingers.

Last week when I stood out on our deck, it was later than this, early evening. Dark had set in. Bill wasn’t home yet; Claire was visiting her friend Sharon across the lake. We’d had our January thaw, but it was bone-cold again, like now, and again I stood barefooted. Didn’t realize how cold I was till after, of course; all I knew then were the sounds, the cries, somewhere out there ricocheting off the icy edges of hills and trees and cattails, sounding so close sometimes, like they were in my own throat. Sirens sounded, too, eventually, and other voices, desperate, calling; but what I heard as I stood on my deck were those calls, echoing: louder, then quieter, then stopped.

But not altogether: I read somewhere that sounds don’t stop, they keep going all the way into deep space, reflecting off whatever might be in the way and speeding infinitely on. My head feels like deep space, and those voices haven’t even begun to wind down in there.

 

 

In the picture on my kitchen wall, Claire’s face looks bright and untroubled. When was that taken—five, six years ago? Sometime soon after we moved here, after Bill and I were married. She’s standing in the snow—on top of it, actually—on her new cross-country skis, holding up her poles and showing all her teeth. Looking for my fifteen-year-old in that smiling, open face, I’m hard put to find a trace of her.

Don’t you sometimes wish you could freeze time in its tracks? I do; sometimes I long for those days when Claire thought nothing about coming to sit close and nestle her head against me. When she wanted a bedtime story and a song every night, couldn’t sleep without it. Claro, Claro, Claro, Bill would stand at her door and sing, last thing, and we would laugh together at his silliness. Before she’d let me leave her those nights, she’d give me endless butterfly kisses, lashes silk against my cheek.

I hardly go into her room for anything now, much less to tuck her in; the click of her lock is the last sound I hear from her at night.

Bill thinks I have a tendency to overreact. He teaches in the high school here and so do I, when they need me—I’m a substitute teacher’s aide. He says it’s just Claire’s age; it has nothing to do with me. He often sees her laughing, having fun with her friends in the halls at school, he says. But I can’t remember the last time I heard Claire laugh. So how does it not have something to do with me, I ask him.

 

 

I knew Jen Fontana before I knew her by name. From the time Claire and I moved up here, I’d seen her at every school function, every community bake sale, car wash, food drive. She was a large, dark-haired woman with a flashing smile and a laugh you could hear across a room; one of those capable, unflappable people, no-nonsense—a person who knows how to make things work. When I first met her she was president of the PTO, a volunteer at the fire department, and kept the books for the local EMT group. Her three kids went to church; they looked scrubbed and happy. Two of them were in college and her youngest, Christa, was a senior over at the high school. Popular, active—student council president, played flute in the band, ran cross-country—she was like Jen, like her mother. Last week their two voices calling in the dark, somewhere out there on the lake, were barely distinguishable, one from the other.

 

 

When I was a girl, people in Kingstree used to say I was like my mother. The quiet type. Still waters run deep, they’d say, arching their brows and winking, like that was clever or meant something. And it’s true my mother didn’t say much. When I went through my fifteen-year-old troubles, it was my father who lectured me, grounded me, often took his belt to me.

When he died, my mother lived on in that same house, grew quieter still. After I got married the first time, I stopped by to visit her almost every day. But we never talked much; she’d have her stories on the TV and we’d watch together a while. I had no idea what she thought about, all that time alone in that quiet house.

After Claire was born, my mother came to our house every day, helping me through those first hard weeks. She made soup, washed diapers, sterilized bottles. Then, I welcomed her quiet; I didn’t want to answer any questions. She didn’t ask any, either, though she could have. Why did my husband leave before dark and come home long after, for instance? What did the two of us have in common; what were our dreams, our plans? But my mother had never been a questioning woman. Even when I’d dropped out of community college to marry, pretty much out of the blue, this boy I’d only been dating for a few months, she hadn’t asked me why. Or asked, a bare month later, why I took silently to my bed for two weeks, trying to stop the relentless, seeping loss of what would have been my first child—a girl, the doctor told me later—who went from me nameless, untouched and unacknowledged.

That girl would be seventeen now; I think of her often. Sometimes I wonder this: Is she out there somewhere still, existing in some form or other? Is she lonely; does she hold her heart hard against me? Sometimes at night, I’ve imagined her looking down on me, that girl, asking why did I fail to hold her.

From the time Claire was born two years after that, I made up my mind not to repeat my mother’s quiet. I talked to my girl. Read her books, sang her songs, chatted while we drove, pattered during meals. She didn’t speak the first word until she was nearly three. No need to; I filled our days with sound.

They were filled with little else. My husband and I grew further and further apart, Claire our only tether. He got in the habit of staying out later and later, right up until the day he came home to say he’d met someone else. He was sorry. Claire and I went on living alone until one of her teachers introduced me to her Yankee cousin. The first time I saw Bill I knew, though it took half a year for him to.

When I left Kingstree, brought Claire north and married Bill, people there claimed they’d always known there was something going on under the surface with me, something hidden under all that quiet. My mother told me they said it, then let her voice drift off. And maybe that’s when I could have opened my mouth and told her things that would’ve mattered, things like: I know life wasn’t easy for you sometimes with Daddy; I know he was a hard man. Or, thank you for being there for me, Mama, I could have said. But I didn’t fill that silence she offered up, and it grew wider still, with all those miles between us. When she died, the new quiet hardly made a ripple in the old. I mourned her at night, in the dark, to myself.

 

 

Jen and Christa Fontana always seemed the perfect mother and daughter to me. At soccer games, after a big play, Jen would wave and whistle and jump around like a fool, and Christa would wave back, grinning, not embarrassed by her mother in the least, far as I could see. At the PTO bake sale last fall, they worked together in a way that made you know it was something they did at home, too; once, looking over at the two of them, Jen’s dark head bent close to Christa’s blonde one, I saw how much alike they really were: reflections of each other, echoes of what was and would be. That’s what I thought then. My lost girl is Christa’s age—those words came to me from nowhere as I stared at them. I felt a terrible dark heat in my head I named envy, and was ashamed, and turned away.

 

Looking around for Claire that day, I found her at the far end of the hall, talking with two of her friends. She glanced up just at that second, as though I’d called her, then quickly slid her gaze from me with all the coldness of a stranger. I kept my eyes on her, though, and found her pale, dark-shadowed. A chill passed through me; it was the first time I’d noticed how thin she’d gotten. We walked separately to the car that afternoon, meeting there when the sale was over as if by accident. For once, I couldn’t think how to fill the stillness between us, which grew thick enough almost to taste.

So began our mutual silence. And now it seems to me that the noise I filled our days with before, all these fifteen years, was meaningless, mindless babbling, sound for its own sake. What, after all, have I said that mattered? Where has it got us? To this place on the lake, where I bear silent witness while the secrets she holds close thin her down to bones. In the dead of night I rise, creep to our den, sit in the quiet dark, mourning afresh. In that stillness, inside my head, I say to my daughter the real things I never have spoken. You had a sister, I say, but I lost her. She does not know this. I was a child when I married your father; we couldn’t stay together, but we made you, and I’m glad of it. She does not know this. You are my girl; I do not want to lose you.

 

 

Jen called Christa last week, they say, just at dusk, to tell her supper was nearly ready, it was time to head home. Christa was catty-corner across the lake, at Lynn Veronski’s house.

“I’ll meet you halfway, hon.” I can imagine Jen’s eyes as she held the telephone and looked out over Burden Lake.

“Mo-om.” Maybe Christa’s voice betrayed some kind of impatience, chafing at her mother’s care. “You don’t need to do that; I’ll be right home.”

Jen would likely have had the sense not to argue. “See you in a minute, then.” And did she say I love you, or did Christa? Jen probably put the phone down, smiled to herself, put on her boots and fleece-lined jacket, and headed out the back door to escort her daughter safely across.

My first time on ice happened when I flew up to visit Bill before we were married. He took me cross-country skiing. We slid onto a lake called Thirteenth, in the Adirondacks. It was a crisp, crackling day; the sky was electric blue. I stood still in the middle of Thirteenth Lake on that windless, cloudless afternoon, staring at my soon-to-be husband, and was filled up with the pure glory of cold, joy shooting through me like a current. I opened my mouth to say something, what I don’t know, because at that very instant came a noise, sharp as a whip cracking, and the ice I stood on trembled, and the snow parted about a hundred feet away and zigzagged a high-speed trail, straight toward me. How fast it came!—my mind couldn’t get around it; my mouth stayed agape, soundless. That crack in the ice came to and passed me by—shifting my body only slightly, rocking me back—then continued on, past where I could see. “That’s just the ice settling,” said Bill quietly, coming to hold me, as I turned my astonished face to his.

Here’s what I want to know: Did Christa hear that whip-sharp sound, out there in the dark, just before she went through, before the breathtaking water engulfed her, before she had time to call out that first, strangled cry for help? And Jen, halfway across a path so familiar she could find her way blindfolded—hearing her girl, did she lose her bearings? Did her heart grow so instantly heavy with grief and fear that the ice couldn’t bear the weight of it and gave way with a terrible crystalline crash, jagged edges too razor sharp for hands to hold?

I don’t know. And try as I might, I can’t see. I only know what I heard later: that Christa went in first, still near the lake’s edge, and cried out; but was also, even at that moment, pulling herself out—rattled and shivering, but climbing out. Within seconds of Christa’s icebreaking, they say, came her mother’s, from somewhere farther out on Burden Lake. “Christa!” she screamed, as she broke through, they say; and her daughter, far enough away not to see but close enough to hear, answered, “Mom!

Milo Faluda, who’d been icefishing near the Veronskis’ house, was by that time just steps away from Christa where she hung, half-in, half-out. He lay himself down and stretched out his arms, saying, “Hold on, Christa, hold on; I’ve got you. Pull.” And she did, and struggled up and out of the ice that would have held her close and long, answering all the while her mother’s cries with her own.

Marilyn Thacker, who always likes to be the first with any kind of news, called me—it must have been around then, just as Christa was being hauled out—to ask did I know someone had fallen through the ice. I was by the stove when I answered the phone, tending the soup and shaping biscuits, old-fashioned ones like my mother used to make, that Claire used to love and probably wouldn’t eat. But I was shaping them, cutting perfect circles with a glass. After I hung up, I walked straight to the door, thinking, of course: Where is Claire, why isn’t she home? As I stood on the icy deck, in the seconds it took to know the calling, pleading voices were someone else’s child, someone else’s mother, I believed retribution was come at last, my punishment was at hand, and I would lose once and for all what had been slipping from my grasp for years.

But it was not Claire crying out, nor my voice answering. It was those two, those perfect two.

Who became one, even as we listened. We, all of us living here on Burden Lake, stood on our porches or at the water’s icy edge, straining towards those calls, and later, the cries of the would-be rescuers, who first couldn’t find Jen and then couldn’t get to her; not even the fire truck, sirens mingling with screams, could help. The last cries were only Christa’s, hoarse and broken, before the long silence, before we all turned back to our homes.

 

 

It’s quarter to four now; the light’s changing. I pull back the curtain and look out at the lake, already picturing Claire coming in from school, holding her books close and barely answering my greeting, closing the door to her room and turning on her music, music that drowns out other sounds, so that when I call her for dinner she won’t hear me the first or second or maybe even third time. I will keep calling, though. Claro, Claro, Claro, I will say, and something in my voice will hold, will move her.

I slide back the door and step out onto the ice-covered deck again. On the lake, the light casts pink now, and pale yellow; the grasses bend sharply at its edge, beckoning. I picture myself out there on the ice, standing in the center of our small bit of Burden Lake. Maybe I will turn my head towards the sun and open my mouth, split the stillness with a sound whose harsh push I feel now in my heart. My throat will burn with cold fire, but I will not stop; and the sound will speed on in a straight line towards somewhere more than empty space.

 

***
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis


Rebecca T. Godwin has published two novels, Keeper of the House and Private Parts. Her stories and essays have appeared in Paris Review, Oxford American’s Best of the South issue, The Sun, Epoch, South Carolina Review, and elsewhere, and she has received MacDowell and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. For 13 years she taught literature and writing at Bennington College, during which time she conceived and was faculty editor for plain china, an online journal showcasing undergraduate writing and art from around the country. She is currently at work on two novels and a story collection that includes the story “Breaking Through.” More from this author →