July 24, 2009KR OnlineFiction

Lost Water

For Grace Paley

Each day the water pours out of the mountains. I rise and stand at the door of the shed to hear this water I cannot see, and I think this water is falling down the world, falling to Bishopwood, falling beneath the wooden bridges, a mindless spilling of the earth’s small hold. In the yard, in what was Nadine’s yard, the stillness is an illusion, is only a stage of entropy. The water pump stands on its small slab. It’s crooked, cocked, and the white wood of the house is soft to the touch, the quarter acre of tomato plants wet with cocoons, with burst fruit. Beyond them is the wall of bush that belongs to the architecture of cleared space, green and closed as stone, a wall leading the eye toward the gray of the atmosphere, toward the fog, the cold acres of green where there are no tracks, where nothing is open.

I stand at this shed door or I cross the grass, I sit in the kitchen where the counters are moldering, and I think a father is a kind of pressure over the world to which I am immune. A father is the closed space of the bush, the lost water, the sky which will not open. Now that Nadine is dead, I walk round and round her house, her falling house, and the earth unfolds, I swear it does. The earth empties, as if of light, and the world above, the fruit tree by the front walk, the fallen fence, the striding darkness of the clouds, they take in this light, they possess some kind of life, and in my perception of this alteration I am bound to them, to their muteness, their momentary waking. I don’t put this in my letters to my wife Meg, not because I think she won’t believe me, but because it brings me despair, makes me think of all I don’t understand, of what I’ll die not knowing and never even half-comprehending.

My wife loves her father. He sits in his living room in America and poses questions, unfolds scenarios, suggests prospects and will drink a cup of tea if you ask. But I do not believe in him. I do not think he was born and sired her and walked up and down the narrow hallways of his first home with the hot weight of my wife’s head on his neck, as she has assured me he once did. I do not believe in her father in the way I cannot believe in my own, even now when I sit in the room of what was his mother’s house and I turn photographs over in my hands. I sleep at night in the shed I am told belonged to my father’s father, that housed his hand-tools and his pots of stain before they were taken away.

I flew here to this country to be with Nadine during the last seven months of her life. She is my biological grandmother, but I never knew her, not until I arrived in New Zealand, and so when I think of her now, I do not think of her as a relative, but rather as a family friend, an acquaintance you are told to call aunt when you’re a child.

All my life all I’ve known is women, the way they stand at a kitchen counter, they way they put their hands between the legs of toddlers when they hold them. The usefulness of their hips. In the months before she died, Nadine was clear-headed and kind to me. She was glad to see me at last. The broken ties, the quarrels that had formed the boundaries of her love, she laughed at them. They had meant so much to her, she told me, until she saw me and my suitcases on her front stoop, and then they meant nothing.

When she was still able, we would walk together on the gravel tracks above Bishopwood, stopping to take a sit in the dirt. On these walks, Nadine called my attention to the shredded landscape of this country, the grayness of its sea, the sheep eating their way down the slopes. It was not always this way, she told me. When I was a girl, she said. And there I was with her as a girl, in her youth with her pigtails on my mind, my father passed over, lost, slipping away, unfurling, trailing off, though I’m sure the conversation would have begun with him, as most of our conversations did.

At the end Nadine spent every day in the bed in the kitchen, and Bethany came up from Bishopwood to help when the nurse wasn’t there. Bethany is eighty-four, a childhood friend of my grandmother’s, a widow who has told me she forgets her husband’s face. One morning toward the end of Nadine’s life, Bethany and I were sitting in the kitchen with her eating pikelets, and Nadine remembered the cat. So far she had told me what she thought I wanted to know about my father’s life. When he’d gone off to America, when he’d met my mother, when he stopped returning her calls. Since then, Bethany has told me everything else. How he was the oldest of four boys, and, in the end, easy to overlook. How his father refused to forgive him for leaving and for a few other things as well, but this was years ago and there is so much she forgets.

But on that morning, one of the last of her life, Nadine told us about the cat my father adopted as a boy. A stray, she said, as if it had walked into the room. It was a gray cat, she said. No one wanted the cat around, but it used to follow your father. It would stand and wait for him, cry under the window for him. What else? I said. I could hear how much it strained her to speak, but I was desperate to know, and so I pushed her. She couldn’t answer, wasn’t up to it, and if she could, what would she have told me? What is it I think I could learn that would change anything, that would bring my father to me, that would bring his voice into the room, the presence of the body I’ve never seen, the underside of his chin, perhaps, coming down on my head with the force and warmth I know fathers show their own.

Sometimes I think the voice of the man in town is my father’s voice. I hear this man as I cross the bridge. He is a coach, a teacher at the primary school, a gentle fellow, I know, with a whistle and well-being on his mind. When I hear him calling to the children of this mountain town, when I hear him at the ragged upper register of his voice saying such things as, Thirty seconds, go, go. When I hear him say, Trevor, push yourself. Or when I see him at the local florist, as I did on the day I picked the flowers for Nadine’s funeral, when he was waiting at the back of the shop, his hands in his pockets, his face almost as young as my own, I think I could go to this man. He was standing there in the shop, paying close attention to the vases lined up in the chilled case, and if I were to go to him, he could tell me the names of the flowers, I know he could. Which one is goodwill, which friendship. Not everyone could tell me such things, but this man, he could tell me.

As I cross the bridge into town this morning, I’m on the lookout for this man, but I must have the time wrong. The playing field is empty, and I find myself losing track of the whitewashed walls of Bishopwood Primary, my gaze going off in the direction of the ranges, their worn-down sides, the darkness of green bush above. The sight is not orienting, but too much for me, and I turn back to the road, to the small, occupied storefronts, the red letterboxes, the men and women who no longer turn to check the driver’s seat of Nadine’s car, which has made a reappearance on their streets after its long absence.

I park outside Bethany’s house. I’m here to take her with me to pick and bottle and pack Nadine’s tomatoes. I don’t like tomatoes, I don’t think Bethany does either, but we want to bottle these tomatoes. It’s March here, the end of the summer, and Bethany has already told me she doesn’t believe she’ll see another summer. Not on this earth, she says. On the way to her house, I stop at the post shop and send a letter across the largest ocean in the world. I will get my answer by phone, likely at five in the morning because Meg refuses to commit the time difference to memory. Come home, my wife will say. What are you doing there? she will say. What could you still be doing? So, you see, I need an answer. My dear, I need to be able to say, I’m bottling tomatoes.

When we’re through with all of it, when we’ve boiled the fruit and squeezed the lemon juice into the bottles and submerged them in the water bath, Bethany and I sit at the kitchen table on either side of the spoils of our labor. Between us are sixteen jars of Nadine’s tomatoes, a bumper crop, and a basket of rejects that draws flies in through the unscreened windows. Here in New Zealand you don’t swat flies, you don’t bother, and I find I’m growing used to this now, to their liberty, the black clusters of them on the ceilings at night.

The sun is setting, it’s shimmering off the metal latches of Nadine’s cupboards, and raising a sudden haze of pollen in the grass outside. As the light diminishes, the sound of the water returns, a rushing new flood so loud it is as if a gate were opened in the world and not only in my ears. I’ve got tomato pulp between my fingers and no place to be, not in this country, and so I sit across from this old woman, and the two of us listen to the water outside.

As I’m dropping her off that night, Bethany says, Your wife will be wanting you back.

I tell her she’s right. I say, Meg doesn’t understand why I’m still here two months after Nadine died.

People get angry, Bethany says. She laughs at the dark of her yard, at the stars that surround us. She pushes herself onto her porch, using my arm as support.

People get angry, she says. They get over it, too.

She means not only Meg and Nadine, but me. She’s taking a jab at me, trying to move me along in my grief, turning her age on me like a weapon for the first time, in part just to show me she’s capable.

I say, Have you always behaved like this?

Course I have, she says. She shakes her house keys at me, turns away. To her own door in the dark, she says, We don’t change. We can’t. I’m a little girl. I’m running through my mum’s kitchen.

When I pass the playing field of Bishopwood Primary, it’s dark, but I slow down on the approach to the bridge, just in case. The coach is not there, of course. It’s night, already late, and he has school tomorrow. He’s likely in bed, his curtains drawn, but his window open so that he can catch the sound of the water falling out of the mountains, as he has every day of his life. He’s looking in on his children, checking their pulse by the rise and fall of their chests. Or he’s out in the dark, like me. He’s wandering through his garden with a torch, spreading his fingers into the dryness of the soil, testing, touching the ground like a man might do at the beginning of a long run.

And I know, too, that the run is his life, and the life of his children, not only those that sleep in his house, but those he sees every day on this playing field. Those at whom he whistles, those to whom he calls out top speeds, those he cheers on and summons into the shelter of the school when the time for exercise is through. He’s making them ready, as he would make me ready were I to go to him, were I to stop him on this town’s wide streets and ask him about flowers or about the life cycle of tomatoes, if I were to stop him and stare at his thick fingers, just look at them and admire them, and consider the fact of their absence from that day forward to the end of my life.

At Nadine’s house, I park the car and step out under the stars that seem to cast back an echo of the water. Again, I have the feeling of the earth unfolding. I have the feeling of the space of the bush emerging from hiding and filling the land like smoke, like silver smoke, a kind of mist I have never seen. I have the feeling of the slabs of the stone walk listing under my feet, the whiteness of the walls of this house sinking as the sky rises, as it opens and seems to exert pressure on all of us below.

It’s the finality of the lost water in the mountain stream that brings me outside hours later, that brings me back into Nadine’s yard in the middle of the night. In the remains of the garden, there is movement. Possums, I think. In the sky, I see the clarity of impossible depth, of depth I know I cannot understand. The yard is bounded by this depth and by the sound of the water as it is lost. I would stay here. This is what I want. I want to enter the dark of the bush and follow the water to the spring, to dig up the spring, to pry rock with my fingers, to stumble home in the morning and sit down under my father’s window until his gray cat comes to me to sit with me and wait.