Iím not one to pass much time thinking about things before I
do them. My father shakes his head and says thatís how his
beauty Eliza got into this trouble. My mother smirks and
wonders out loud how I can think Iím so special when all I
know how to do is get into trouble.
Alone in the midnight blackness, for once I do stop and
think. I stand on the riverbank thick with cottonwood and
willow trees and stare at the water as it rushes past, brown
like the mud that nearly brought me skidding to the hard
ground as I stumbled to get here. I shiver even in all Iím
wearing, both my skirts over my drawers and corset, two
blouses, little jacket, two moth-bitten shawls, stockings
and best boots, the only ones with no hole in them. I dare
not leave anything behind. Iíll need it all, the coins,
too, tucked inside the string bag stuffed in the pocket of
my inner skirt. Even under all that, the chilly air
squeezes in on me like a too strong boy who wants what he
wants and sees no reason why he shouldnít have it.
I push my dark hair back from my forehead. Tonight of all
nights I dare not start thinking. I should just lay hands
on Johnís canoe and go.
Heíll hate me for it when he comes to. But thatís the least
of what heíll hate me for. And what do I care anyway? For
every speck of hate heíll have for me, Iíll have twice as
much for him.
The liar. The cheat. The brute I married. Though now I
half wonder if I really did.
I shake my head hard, as if that will clear it, and tell
myself again that tonight is no night to dwell on the past.
I canít spare the time. Or lose my courage. If I linger
too long, the drink will wear off and John will rouse.
Heíll come looking for me even before he sees my clothes are
gone; I know it. Then what?
I shudder. Almost better that a wolf or bear find me
first. And either would be better than a ghost to rise
before me, unearthly white from the plague that got him.
Who knows how many souls are buried along this river? If
you make the mistake of dying on a steamboat, thatís your
fate: eternity under the riverbank or your corpse swept away
with the water when it changes course.
Itís the fear of creatures both alive and dead that sends me
edging again down the grassy slope, closer to the river.
Itís so dark I canít even make out the bank on the other
side, but I know this clutch of trees and believe itís close
by here that John lays his canoe. The water is moving
fastófaster than it looks when I see it in the day. When I
see it but have no scheme to climb inside that old boat and
let it free on the river to carry me far, far away. Now
that I can truly imagine myself on that treacherous journey,
I shudder again and my foot slips in my stupid shoe. I give
a little shriek and grab at the shrubs around me to stop
from sliding into the current.
When finally I settle again, I try not to pant but to keep
silent. What if someone heard me cry? Yet I pick up no
shuffling among the trees. I can hope itís too cold for
anyone to be afoot. And hard as my ears strain, all I can
hear is the river. No, I hear something else, too, that
familiar screech. A panther. Distant, thank God. And
upriver, not the way Iím going.
Iím going to Hermann, I remind myself, where the Missouri
meets the Gasconade. I hear tell thereís a post office
there, and somebody once said thereís an inn, not that heíd
seen it. I could find work, and not the kind I do here,
that leaves my hands blistered and crusted with dirt and my
back bent as if I were already old.
Iím not old yet. Yes, Iím four and twenty, but if I hold my
tongue and keep my eyes downcast I can pass for younger. I
still have my looks, near fresh as ever. When my courage is
up I donít doubt I could marry again, though I wonder why
Iíd want to. I know now all that does is make a man free to
do what he wants with you and in near one year Iíve had
enough of that for two lifetimes. But if ever I changed my
mind, whatís to stop me? For if John Haycraft could amble
into this town and forget everything that went before, why
couldnít I go to Hermann and do the same?
That thought makes me feel like a girl again, strong and
bold. I remember when I would lie in the grass and stare up
at the blue, blue sky, dreaming of being far away from here,
away from these rutted fields, away from these people who
donít care if they never see past this stretch of river.
Even if they came from somewhere I canít conjure, from
Kentucky or even Virginia, they donít think about that
anymore. Itís as gone from their minds as if they woke from
a fever. Even for my father itís that way. When I was a
girl I thought all the time about what lay beyond the curve
in the river and for a time I was fool enough to think John
Haycraft would take me there. Lately Iíve started wondering
about it again, knowing if I only dared, this coursing water
could lead me to a different life than the one Iím stuck
with now, these pitiful days that stretch out one after the
next all the very same. If I stay put here, the days wonít
change until the day Iím dead.
Iíve walked further downriveródue to the fact thatís closer
to our place and John is more likely to be lazy than
notówhen I startle at a soft laugh behind me.
ďWell, well. Whatíre you out looking for this time of
A womanís voice and I know it in an instant. My head spins
around and I see my sister Sarah.
ďYouíre not looking for Johnís canoe!Ē She says it in a
triumphant kind of way, eyes gleaming, like sheís sure
thatís what Iím after. ďWhy do you need that? Youíre not
going anywhere. You wouldnít go in the day,Ē she tells me,
ďlet alone in the dark.Ē
If somebody had to find me I wish it were our sister Visa
Ann, but she would never be out at this hour. Even our
brother Asa would be better to find me than Sarah. But itís
Sarah who can pick up a change on the wind.
She eyes me. Sheís dark-haired like I am but older and
harder of feature. People shouldnít tell her that, but they
do. Even our father does. ďYouíre not going anywhere,Ē she
repeats. Sheís sure sheís on top of me in this. ďAnd even
if you do, heíll come after you.Ē
I donít want to tell her much because every word will make
it back to our motherís ears, and maybe Johnís, too. ďThis
has nothing to do with you,Ē I mutter. That Sarah keeps
telling me I wonít go puts even more fire in me. I spin
back around and lose my footing, which only makes her cackle
louder. I know she wonít think for a moment of helping me.
Sarahís our motherís daughter through and through.
ďYouíre wearing both your shawls, too,Ē she mocks me. ďYou
must think youíre really going. Why this time?Ē and in that
question I hear a curiosity she canít hide. We all in our
family live so close, one on top of the other, which means
she knows my shame, and like our mother she enjoys it.
Look at our beautiful Eliza! So special but still getting
that from the man she begged to marry.
ďBecause this time was one too many,Ē I tell her. I wonder
if John will admit the true story once Iím gone. I doubt
it. It casts no good light on him. I doubt heíll stay,
come to think of it. Thereís nothing for him here. Like us
Harpers, John Haycraft owns no land. Couldnít he hunt
anywhere, and trap? Heíd be better off trying his game
somewhere new. Heís the sort of man you donít mind seeing
the back of once the shineís worn off and you have to look
straight on at what little is really there.
But despite everything, the thought of John gone, forever
gone, does pain me. I feel a sting behind my eyes and look
away to hide my face. See? It did me no good to start
ďHe woke up, you know,Ē Sarah says, in that same triumphant
tone. I know something you donít. ďI heard him
calling for you and not in his nice voice, either. I came
out to warn you.Ē
Thatís a lie. Sarah doesnít want me to get away from John.
She wants him to find me then see what he does after. I put
my back to my sister and keep moving, my eyes madly
ďSo where you think youíre headed?Ē My sisterís voice
taunts as she matches me step for step. ďHermann,Ē she
guesses, and I hate that my plan is so obvious it rises to
even her mind. ďThatís not far enough,Ē she tells me.
ďHaycraft will sure enough find you there.Ē
Then I spy the canoe, my salvation, in front of me to the
left, its paddle lying in the middle like itís aiming to
split the boat in half. Itís always John who puts the canoe
in the current, laughing that Iím not strong enough, but
tonight I will find the strength to do it.
Sarah must see the canoe, too, because she rushes forward to
set herself between it and me. She pushes her hands into my
chest, hard, so that I stumble backward. ďYouíre not
leaving me to mind Mamaís brats on my own,Ē she tells me.
Now her voice is rough as her hands. Then she puts her
fingers in her mouth and lets loose a whistle so sharp and
loud it could wake all those ghosts under the riverbank.
I scramble past her for the canoe. And though she yanks on
my skirts and my hair and bangs on my back, somehow I push
it closer to the river. I feel as if a kind of mad force
has gripped me, as if I can do things I never could before.
Sarah whistles again, even more of a shriek this time, and
after that I hear a commotion behind us and figure it has to
be John coming this way, just my luck, scrambling fast
through the trees and the shrubs. So he was out already,
roaming and looking, just like Sarah was. They were a pair,
the two of them. My sister just found me first. And if she
was going to warn anybody tonight, it was going to be him
and not me.
Sheís on his side and no wonder. This wouldnít be the first
time she wants what I have, but this time Iím ready to give
it up. Maybe sheís drunk the potion I mustíve drunk when I
first met John Haycraft, which full wore off tonight.
Iíve got the canoe only a few feet from the river when he
finds me. I spin around to face him. My clothes are torn
from Sarahís pulling and my hair is crazy wild, but Iím calm
inside now I canít undo what I started. Sarah backs off a
pace as I watch Johnís eyes move to the paddle Iíve taken in
ďPut that down, woman.Ē
I will not, but I donít spare the breath to tell him that.
I just raise the paddle higher in the air.
He stares at me, panting, hands on hips and eyes narrowing.
People didnít trust him when he showed up here out of
nowhere, since they didnít know him and they didnít know his
family. It wasnít much more than a year ago, but I mustíve
been young and stupid then because he won me over with his
sweet talk and his stories. Then his kisses started and
that sent me over the edge. Even now, when thereís dirt on
his trousers and I can smell the drink from here, any woman
would tell you heís a fine-looking man. I mustíve thought
that was good for something when I married him.
ďWhat I said before doesnít matter,Ē he tells me.
It does matter, but I wonít give him the satisfaction of
another go-round on the topic. ďJust let me go,Ē I say,
though now I doubt I need his permission.
ďI donít think so.Ē He cocks his chin at the canoe behind
me. ďDonít start thinking that belongs to you.Ē
ďIf Iím your wifeĒóI keep my voice lowóďIíve as much right
to it as you.Ē
I hear a little whoop from Sarah. She knows Johníll take
those as fighting words and that she wants to see.
He steps closer. I can tell itís one of those times he
doesnít know how to handle me. ďI say what youíve a right
to. And woman, you should know by now that Iím the one
whoíll do the leaving.Ē
Truth to tell, by this sorry point Iím not sure heíd mind my
going. I think heís had enough of me like Iíve had enough
of him. I just think he doesnít want me to best him,
especially not with Sarah watching.
ďShe means to go to Hermann,Ē my sister offers. Then:
ďSheís got coins in her skirts.Ē
John lurches forward faster than I can do anything about it
and grabs the paddle from my hands. He throws that aside
and knocks me backward, pushing fierce on my shoulders. I
fall hard, half on the canoe and half on the ground. Pain
grinds through me and I taste blood in my mouth.
Heís on top of me then and I worry heís going to want to do
what he always wants to do, never mind Sarahís watching.
That brings me to. I push at his hands, beneath my skirts
now, but for once itís not my drawers heís after.
ďHer pockets!Ē Sarah shrieks.
Heís ripping at me, heís tearing at me, I can smell the
drink strong in my nostrils, and when I know heís going to
find my string bag with the coins, I stop fighting. That
really makes him madóit always makes him mad when I pretend
I donít care what heís doingóand I can tell Iím right
because he doesnít just rip the bag out of my pocket. He
rips the whole pocket off then raises himself halfway up to
hold it high above me in the air. Still astraddle, he
stares down at me for a moment then whips the bag down and
across my face.
I close my eyes tight and donít let loose the tiniest
whimper. I know what he wants and I wonít give it to him.
So he does it again.
Behind John, Sarah makes a sound. This might be too much
even for her.
ďYou gonna cry, woman?Ē John grunts.
I will not. I donít care how many times he does it. I
donít care how much blood I have in my mouth. I didnít cry
when he threw those words at me tonight and I wonít cry when
he throws his fists at me now. He hates when I go cold like
this, when I donít react at all, because he knows he canít
get to me then, whatever he does. I surprise him with the
strength I have. Really, I surprise myself.
He relaxes and I find that crazy strength again. I kick my
legs out at him and hit him somewhere, I donít know where,
or care, but this time itís him toppling backwards. I
scramble to my feet and whirl around and push the canoe
closer to the river, itís so very close now, and then itís
edged out over the water and I fling myself inside and the
force of my body pushes the canoe all the way into the
The rushing water takes me fast, so fast. I turn around on
my hands and knees in the rocking canoe and see John and
Sarah on the bank staring after me. I donít think Iíll ever
forget their faces, splotches of paleness in the black
night, looking like theyíre seeing something theyíll never
I feel a stab, then, quick and sharp, for the life Iíve
lived here, for my father, for my younger sistersÖ I may
never see little Minerva again, or Lucinda, or Visa Ann.
The canoe takes no heed. Itís moving and Iím in it. I have
no paddle, I have no coins, Iím spitting my own blood out of
my mouth, but Iím in it.