STORY – Along a river slough, long since cut from the Snoqualmie River, something started and failed. A farm had once tried to grow along the river but the Snoqualmie had jumped the banks and had left a shallow lake. The fields turned swampy and filled with cattails. The fruit trees grew twisted and their branches filled with blackberry vines. The empty pastures filled with alders and finally cedar trees.
The old farm house still stood. Silvered fence posts with caps of moss were all that remained of the pastures. They ran in broken lines through the cedar tree forest, up to the edge of the old river bed. The roof of the house had been replaced and a stone foundation laid. Below the house the still waters of the slough reflected the forest and the clouds.
The sun was out, and already the cool air that hung around the river in the morning had blown down the valley. Now a stifling heat clung to the trunks of the red cedar trees. Ellen walked along the rutted road toward Josephs house above the slough.
Ellen planned to tell Joseph straight out, regardless of how he felt, that she was leaving next month for school in Amherst. She had already registered and filled out the forms. Her parents had already found her a room with distant friends of distant relatives. She was leaving regardless of anything that had happened between them.
When Joseph had first come home, he had still worn his uniform and green garrison cap. Ellen had sat across from him at the dinner table at his parents house. They asked him how the trip from California had been. He laughed while he told stories about his friends saying good bye to one another. Grown men almost cried, Joseph said. Joseph said he was going to miss them. While he looked at Ellen Joseph said he was glad that he was back. His father, who looked like Joseph – with the same small face and big neck that made their bodies look much larger than they were – made a speech about the house he was going to give to Joseph. He said that his son needed some rest after the perils of killing the Japs. Joseph didnt smile during the speech. He stared into the water glass next to his plate. Ellen stared into the clear water as well, and saw the green of Josephs uniform twisted around. She looked up at his face. He had cut himself shaving before dinner and the blood had scabbed into a brown spot under his chin. The hair on his head was still so short that she could see the shape of his scalp; his hair was the length of the bristly fabric on the couch. Josephs father coughed after he finished his speech and the moment of silence left everyone playing with their food, scraping their silverware along the edges of their plates.
She had brought the stack of the letters he had sent her and she paired them with the letters he had written to her, the ones he had sent her from California and then later from the Philippines, until she had a huge stack of crinkled paper in all colors, white, pink, and brown. Somehow having him in the room with her washed away the months of missing him. His actual presence didnt feel as intense to her as his distant and romantic figure had with its classified address. Now all she had to do to make contact with him was to lean her arm out and brush the flat of her palm across his shoulders. She said, Im going to read our letters straight through. She wanted to retain some of the intensity his absence had caused in her feeling for him.
You dont have to, he said. Just talk to me.
But she didnt say anything. They slipped outside and walked down the dirt road to the slough. They sat alone on his new houses porch, folded into each others arms and watching the sunlight drop below the tall line of fir trees. Ellen felt like she could jump out of his arms at any moment. Her body felt oddly light like it was formed out of balsa wood. She breathed in the smell of the early summer flowers, buttercups, and daisies, and the fertile smell of the river mud.
He turned the light off and he took her out onto the porch. He sat down on the steps. He lit a cigarette and offered one to her. But Ellen didnt want one. Below them, the ox bow of the Snoqualmie River edged close to the house. The yard sloped down into the water. The reflection of the cigarettes tip sparkled in the waves.
He lay his arm around her. Ellen lay her head on the itchy wool of his green uniform. Take these off, she said. Come on, she said. She pulled him down to the shore of the lake and told him that they were going to go swimming. He looked into the dark woods. She caught his eyes slowly searching the woods and shadows. She pulled on his tie and he said he thought he heard something in the forest, something out there.
She laughed and pulled her dress off. Her skin felt warm against her fingers as she unfastened her girdle. As the fabric bunched around her ankles and she stepped free, she felt her limbs grow as light as dandelion fluff. And then she was down the muddy slope, her naked feet sliding across the slick grass. She plunged into the blue depths. Joseph yelled behind her and they swam in the water together. Their pale, slippery bodies slid across each other. Even though she knew Joseph was home, his name still made her think of the distant islands where many men had died. In the months he was away, she hadnt expected him to return. But here he was, swimming in the water with her. A month ago, she would have been more likely to believe this person would be someone other than Joseph. But here Joseph was, home, and she decided she would be happy this summer.
During the long summer, she visited his house after work, walking down the dusty road, and Joseph sat on the porch drinking old A&W bottles of his fathers homebrew, or he read a book while laying on the bed with his shoes on, or hed be out, somewhere in the woods, and the oak floors of the house would echo with Ellens pacing up and down the hallway. Joseph had never said he would go with her and Ellen had stopped asking him.
Now, Ellen planned to leave for school in a week. She was on her way to say goodbye to Joseph, to whom she had written so many letters and spent that night with when he first came home. The gravel in the tire ruts of the road crunched under her feet. The barely swaying limbs of the trees made soft brushing sounds and the syrup smell of the blackberries hanging in the sun blew over her. She finally heard the first trickles of water. Her shoulders ached, and her elbow felt empty where it strained with the basket of food for dinner. She shifted the handle to her other hand. She didnt think about the sunlight or the hot air sweltering around her because her skin felt cold.
In the heat, a gray nausea tickled the side of her stomach. Pools of black specks crept into the corners of her vision. Relaxing her right shoulder Ellen stopped on the hot dusty road. She breathed the dusty air into her mouth tasting pollen, dirt, and swamp air. In front of her she could see the abandoned farm.
Joseph swam in the slough. Hello, he said as water trickled down his chest dragging the black hair in one direction.
Hi, she said. I brought some food. She dropped the basket to the ground. Could you carry it inside?
You cant see all of me, he said and winked.
Biting down on the waving static of sickness, Ellen looked into the jostling clear water of the slough. In the surface she could faintly see the reflection of the maples and cedars. She saw the submerged orange shadows of Josephs legs. Then she saw the black mat of his pubic hair and the white fleshy skin of his penis. Ellen dropped the basket and went inside. Not today, she called from inside the house. She found a pair of his slacks thrown on the back of a chair in his bedroom. They felt stiff under her fingers. She threw the slacks into the yard without looking.
She thought the heat and exertion of carrying the basket had made her feel queasy and sick. Many things made her fell sick now. Her shoulders ached, and her arms tingled without the stress of the basket. She still felt the ghost of the handle in the palm of her hand. A tight ball of pain collected in her chest. In the bathroom, she turned the faucet on to cover the sound of her kneeling at the toilet. She washed her mouth and wiped her lips. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her hair had come undone from the fastener. She splashed cold water over her face to cool her skin down and get rid of her flushed cheeks.
In the main room, Joseph sat at the table with a brown bottle. He held another unopened one for Ellen. Joseph ran his finger tip around the small, smooth lip of the bottle. He swung one of his legs back and forth under the chair. Come sit down and have a beer.
Waterd be fine, Ellen said.
Joseph took the other bottle and stood. I need this one myself, he said.
Ellen sat at the other chair at the table. She knew she had made the right choice in leaving. In a few weeks she would be in the world, doing things, instead of waiting in the woods in the middle of Washington State.
Joseph set the glass of water down on the table. The glass was one of his mothers and was made of crystal. Ellen had always liked the glass. When he set it on the table a faint ring sounded from the crystal and the ice chunks clinked. Condensation coated the glass and pooled onto the table. The two of them sat for a long while, looking at each other and glancing away when the other person caught them looking.
Will I hear from you when youre gone? Joseph asked. Or will I have to read about you in the papers?
You can come with me instead of hiding in the forest, she said.
Im not hiding. Im drinking a little, fishing a little, and taking each day as it comes. I think Im entitled to a little of that.
Its been months since you were discharged.
What should I be doing? he asked.
That would be?
I dont know, she said.
Joseph drank from his beer bottle. You dont have to go, he said. I waited for you while I was away.
Ive already made my decision, she said.
What about all those letters you wrote?
Ill write you more.
What about the way you kissed me when I finally came home?
I dont know.
What about that time, when I first came back and you came to visit me and we woke up in the morning and swam in the slough and you climbed on top of the log and yelled, Cannonball! and splashed water all over my face?
Weve had a good time, she said.
Fine, he said. Ive made my plea and now we can just enjoy ourselves one last time. Did you make a pie?
I always do, she said.
Im going to miss your pie.
They laughed. She watched him open the basket and set the food on the table, chicken, baked beans, rolls, a pie, and oranges. Good, good, he said. He brought out the plates and the silverware.
As they began to eat he asked her, You sure you dont want a beer?
Ill have a beer, she said. Ill have just a beer.
Drink a couple.
Let me see.
He gave her a bottle and they ate without talking. He ate quickly and she watched him eat, smiling when he asked if she was going to eat all of her chicken.
After he had finished most of the pie they sat in the yard. The light had started to fade, filling the forest with blue shadows. In the swamps behind the slough and near the river, the bellow of croaking frogs was very loud. Joseph built a fire. They sat with their arms around each other looking into the flames.
That was a good idea, she said.
I didnt have an idea about it, he said. I just did it.
It is warm, she said. She lay back and looked up into his face. To her, he didnt look concerned about her leaving. The fire light cast sharp shadows over his eyes and along his jaws where the blonde whiskers sparkled in the light. Then she also thought that if he was concerned about her leaving then that would be a reason for her to stay. The entire summer he had grown more and more attuned to doing whatever he wanted to do, regardless of what she asked. One time when he hadnt shown up for dinner, she had started to yell at him. He had said, Ive had two years of people telling me what to do. No more. Now, she wanted Joseph to ask her something about herself. She wanted him to show as much interest in her as he had when he was in the Philippines and she was in Snoqualmie.
Come on, he said, lets go swimming.
No, she said.
Well Im going swimming, he said. He stood up and she stood up.
I know you want to, he said. He took her hand, and pulled her to the edge of the water. Come on, he said. He started to pull off his clothes. He pulled off his shirt, then his shoes, and his socks. But Ellen didnt move. She grabbed the collar of her shirt, bunching the fabric in her fists. She felt bloated like a sponge left in a pool of water.
They stood on the shore of the dark slough. In the distance, under the croaking frogs and the burbling stream, they heard the low groan of the river. Their shadows flickered on the water. She could feel the cold air over the water and she didnt want to be in the black still lake. She didnt know what was there.
He stood naked and the fire light turned the ridges of his chest yellow. In a moment youll be in the water, he said. He dove. When he stood up in the water he laughed. Its cold. It feels good. Come on!
She stood on the shore aware that she would be in Seattle tomorrow and in Massachusetts the following month and next year Joseph would still be in Snoqualmie. The water jostled across the slough and settled. Ellen could see the faint mirror image of her and Joseph. He leaned into the water and kissed her image. He kissed himself. She brushed her skirt down over her legs and went inside even though she wanted to dive into the water and feel the cold water wash clear through her body.