I had one friend named Connie Bronson who lived two houses up the street from me and was one year younger than I and two grades behind because she had had brain fever. She had blood-red hair and a freckle-spattered face, and was called Bones by the boys at school, who regarded her with intense loathing and in bad weather often spent whole recesses devising other, more terrible epithets for her.
All of this was a source of great sorrow to her mother, who took a job in a drugstore so that Connie could have piano and tap-dancing lessons, and gave parties for her on every pretext, ordering huge cakes from the bakery encrusted with coarse, dusty frosting and blowsy sugar-roses, calling the mothers of each of the children in Connie’s class to be sure that the parties were well-attended.
She had once even bought the girl a pony which, since her means were limited, was very old and sickly and ill-tempered, and was put up for sale again a few weeks later because it bit Connie’s hand, breaking her little finger, which, though it was set and re-set, healed veering outward at the first knuckle. This, of course, cast a show over those of her mother’s hopes that rested with the piano lessons, and provided another theme for the inventions of the little boys at school.
Connie, however, cared about none of this, meeting hatred with hatred as intense, yet of another order, preoccupied and entirely self-possessed. She apparently accepted the world as hostile and decided to conform herself to it without defensiveness or apology—even with a sort of detachment. In the spring and summer she never left her house without a large glass jar with holes punched in the lid, into which she put bees most commonly, but also spiders, ants, butterflies and grasshoppers. The jar was always in her hand, and often at odd moments she would study its tattered and languishing contents, then give the jar a thorough shaking and go on with what she had been doing. Sometimes, looking me full in the face with the same impersonal calm, she would pinch my arm until I hit her hard enough to make her stop, and then we could be on good terms again, as if she had only felt that the lawfulness she had discovered in things must now and then be reconfirmed.
We remained friends, however, only until the summer I was nine. I remember one morning very early in the spring of that year when the earth in the garden had just begun to soften and there was still snow in the woods across the river and in all the ditches and gullies, when Connie came walking across the Simpsons’ back yard, which lay between ours and hers. I could tell that she had left the house without waking her mother, because her clothing, which was usually buckled, snapped, tied, belted and suspended in every way her mother could contrive to make it stay on her thin body and in place, was hanging loose and pulling apart, her shirttails out and her anklets already disappearing under her heels. And although it was chilly enough so that the overalls that my grandmother had left on the clothesline overnight swung heavily in the wind and rasped when they touched, Connie wore only a scarlet sweater tied around her neck by its sleeves, like a cape.
We had planned together, the afternoon of the day before, when it had been almost warm, to get up early that day, a Saturday, and go down to the river because the snow would surely be off the banks and there might even be tadpoles or minnows in one of the pools—planning it all as we walked along from school beneath branches as barren-looking as roots with the earth shaken out of them, carrying our coats and scarves because the afternoon was bright and warm, except when the wind blew.
That was the first time I had ever gone to the river without Gil or August or my grandmother, although it ran so near our house that we always heard the sound of it, loud in the evenings after supper when Gil and August smoked their pipes on the back step and I played with Connie or alone at the foot of the garden, imagining sometimes that I would climb over the fence into the deep grass of the gully and cross the road and follow the steep little path on the other side through the trees and bushes, until I came to where the river shone among the lucid shadowed places, or glittered dimly as it swelled and broke over the rocks in its channels.
The windows of my room overlooked the river, and in warm weather, when they were left open, it seemed even louder and nearer, and as I lay waiting to fall asleep I thought I could hear every sound, even the smallest, of frogs and mosquitoes and katydids, and of the leaves of the branches that dabbled in the water, flicked by its current. On those nights the river often suggested dreams to me. But my dreams and imaginings always ended at the same place, with my having come to the river but only standing beside it or looking down on it from the bridge. Or they blended with one of the stories Connie’s mother told us when she explained to us why we must never go there except with an older person.
It was very dangerous, she said, and it was, because the river was quite deep and ran between banks of large, heaped and broken rocks in places where trees grew down close to the water and nearly met above it, keeping a constant damp shade among themselves in which ferns thrived, and skunk cabbage and huckleberries, and in which moss overgrew the ground and the rocks, stringy and slick at the brink of the water. Many children had been lost there when they came alone to fish or swim or gather berries and slipped off the rocks and were pulled away from the bank by the slow, strong current, shouting perhaps but no one would hear them, or if he did hear would not come, thinking it was only the crickets or a catbird (for sometimes I would think I heard someone calling from the river when no one else was awake, and wait until morning to ask August, who always said it was only a catbird, and would take me to the river to show me that no one was there). Or if their friends were there and saw them fall, and reached and shouted to them, they were pulled away nevertheless, to be settled on the smooth brown sand against a rock where eddying water tugged at their clothing and stirred in their hair possessively, low-voiced and tranquil, until someone at least came and saw, beneath the quiet surface speckled with pollen and pricked by water-striders, the vivid blue of a dress or sweater, and lifted the child out again.
My grandmother and Aunt Rosalie used to say that Alice had liked to go to the river alone, because she would go there in the morning or late in the evening when they thought she was in her room. I used to wonder if she really did like the river, and what she found to do when she got there. There were ranks of boats on the dresser in her room, carved by August after the engravings of sleek Phoenician vessels and Viking ships he found in my grandfather’s history books, perfect to the ringed shields mounted on their sides. But she never sailed any of them, since they might be lost or broken. My grandmother said Alice liked to pull petals off the roses and drop them into the water from the bridge or scatter bread crumbs and watch the fish rise for them. But I used to think that she did not like the river at all, and would not have gone, certainly not alone, except that sometimes she thought she heard someone crying there, too, and went down by herself to see. The stories of lost children were told and retold, and she must have heard them, and wondered about them while she lay in her bed and listened to the hushed incessant river, as I did.