Six weeks after Rosanna decamped to the cave with her children and a wagon full of furniture, clothing, and several crates of books, a stranger arrived at their doorstep, his appearance so sudden it was as if he had risen up out of the river, miraculously dry. He stood at the lip of the cave and waited to be invited in. “Oh ho!” he said. “I hope you weren’t hiding, because I’ve found you out.” He glanced back the way he’d come, down a path so smooth it might as well have been paved. Moving in, Rosanna had driven the wagon to within fifty yards of the cave. They were not hiding. They were not hard to discover.
He was shorter than her, and had the hard, small belly that thinner men gain as they age, though he looked to be no older than thirty. She did not step forward to shake his hand. Percy stood beside her, and she knew without looking that her son wore an expression even more unsmiling than hers. His element was stone. His bones were made of it.
“Arkwright Avery,” the man said. “Most pleased to meet you, Mrs. Rasmussen. I’ve waited some time to have the honor.”
She blinked at the riverbank, lit with the white light of morning. A sudden breeze revealed the pale underbellies of leaves. The man gave her the smile only a man like him ever gave: it said he knew she didn’t like him, but he couldn’t imagine why.
▴ ▴ ▴
The cave was eighteen strides wide at the mouth. At its tallest point it was twice as tall as a not-very-tall man. It was a cocoon of stone and Rosanna knew that the form she took going in was not the form she would take coming out. Whenever that was. Winter, when it arrived, would decide such things.
“What a comfortable little setup,” Arkwright Avery remarked.
When it rained, even the slightest wind brought the water in. The children considered it an adventure. Though summer now, the nights were cool, and they all slept together under a sheaf of blankets. In the morning, Wilbur awoke drenched in sweat. It was not a fever. It was simply his constitution. He had fire under his skin, as Rosanna had cool water pooled under hers. People were made of one or another of the essential substances. She had learned this from the readings that had once come to her in packages from Boston and New York and Philadelphia. But in Wisconsin, where the soil still held the footsteps of the Indians, the very land was alive with a power that allowed people to do impossible things.
The man paced the perimeter of the cave, examining the books stacked on rocky outcroppings, glancing at the neatly made bed, and at the trunk that held all their clothes. “May I ask your business?” Rosanna said.
The man fingered the tines of a fork on the table. “I’m an inquiry agent.”
She gave her son a light push to let him know he should go find his brothers. “What would you like to know?” she asked when he was gone.
“Why, there’s a great deal I’d like to find out about you. You’re a fascinating woman—I felt that immediately on learning I was after someone who’d moved her family into a cave.” He laughed to show that he meant no offense. “How long do you plan to stay here?”
“Through the summer, at least.”
She glanced past him at the slick stone walls. When she lit a lamp on rainy days, the surfaces seemed to reveal pictures within them, but now they were dark and without any magic. “Then we will go somewhere else.”
“You and your children…”
“My husband went out for work a few months ago.” A partial truth. Men had a way of reappearing when they had reached the bottom of their other options.
The man said, “You know, Mrs. Rasmussen, the way I figure it, the work we do is more or less the same.”
From outside the cave came distant shouts, Eugene’s hollering and Wilbur’s squeaky reply. Percy was either with them or on his own somewhere else. At school one day, while the teacher’s back was turned, one of his classmates had passed him a scrap of paper with a pencil drawing depicting a creature half-woman half-wolf, howling at the moon. Beneath the picture was scrawled: perseys ma. Percy had stood from his seat and tipped his classmate out of his, which caused him to be sent home in punishment, the teacher’s shouts chasing him down the road.
Rosanna frowned. “I can’t imagine any similarities between the way an inquiry agent spends his days and the way a mother spends hers.”
“Ah—your other work, then. I looked up past issues of the Ledger. They put you in their pages pretty frequent.”
A poetess of sweet expression, Lac Luissant’s local paper had introduced her when they published her first poem: a sonnet on the subject of a lake wearing down its shore. She said, “That’s my vocation. You had mentioned work.”
“They weren’t bad,” he went on, “in my opinion. Though I’m no great reader, myself.”
She wrote poems that spilled out of her like blood. Some she sent to the paper to publish; readers of the Ledger enjoyed poems about dew and lilacs, about fish and the moon. They found God where they wanted Him and ignored the mysticism. But there were other poems that she kept to herself. Wrote them with a hand that would not stop moving, as if the fingers were drawn over the page with a magnet. “I can write a satisfactory line of verse. But there’s little in my poems to inspire praise.”
“I know something about seeing beyond the surface,” he said as if he hadn’t heard her. He walked out of the cave and squinted up at the sky. “I suppose this is a sort of paradise for your children. Little boys growing up in town—they don’t gain the skills that a man needs in the world. Hunting and fishing, and the like.”
“Percy and Eugene are quite good at that.”
“And your youngest…?”
“He’s only three, but he enjoys it more for being younger.”
The agent was holding a notebook in one hand. He hadn’t written anything, but Rosanna sensed him thinking of its pages. “Three years, you say? But then, what of the baby?”
She heard once again the whoops of her boys. Then there was silence. “Who is employing your services, Mr. Avery?”
Arkwright Avery grinned. He seemed to be having a very good time.
Her husband had gone with her to have her committed. She was not a hostage; she did not rave. No handcuffs, no rope. A panel of citizens in Lac Luissant had determined that her husband’s case against her was sound. Rosanna had not tried to speak up in her own defense because her brain at the time was mushy and soft. But even if she had spoken, it would not have done any good.
On the train to Mendota, she watched the woods and the yellowing fields trundle past. All the world was moving, while she was a still point. And elsewhere were three others: Percy, Eugene, and Wilbur, who was one month old. Her milk had not come in and this was part of the evidence against her.
As they made their way from the platform, Rosanna remained two steps behind her husband, weaving between the bodies that were all in the way. Some of the bodies had their souls within them, and others did not. It depended whether a person was going or coming. The soul traveled faster than the body when it was willing to go. But it was not always willing.
They took a cab to the asylum, and three others shared the cramped carriage for the first part of the journey, talking all the way, jolly and jostling, but they got off at a row of smart, square houses with little front gardens and a clean white dog straining at the end of its leash, and then the carriage was quiet until it went through the gates of the asylum and up to the door.
Her husband sat beside her in the office and answered the doctor’s questions. Cries often? Oh, yes, a fair bit. And she doesn’t respond when addressed? Not when she don’t want to. What is the main problem, in your estimation? I put a mirror in front of her, asked who it was. She couldn’t tell me, Doctor. Didn’t know her own name.
Rosanna’s soul was a window that did not fit into its frame. During the long labor with Wilbur, it had been knocked loose and now it would not settle again.
The office had a window that looked out onto the lawn. The sky was gray, the grass a faded green that was becoming yellow. It had begun to rain just after they stepped through the door, and now the rain was decisive; it made a thrumming noise on the roof and a higher-pitched tapping on the windowpanes. Rosanna considered the murder of crows speckling the trees far-off. They kept the souls of dead Indians folded under their wings, and when the birds took flight, the souls were kept aloft by the mechanics of the wind. Crows kept close to the places where Indians had lived, which made her wonder about the grounds of the asylum.
As she watched, a single crow rose flapping into the air and disappeared from view.
▴ ▴ ▴
At first, Rosanna’s meetings with the doctors were only glancing. They made their rounds in the common room where she and the other women sat in relative silence: the patients were discouraged from speaking to each other. Most of the women did not try to speak very much, anyway. Rosanna could read, but she didn’t care to, so she sat with the view out the window, which, after a month, had turned grayer. One in every three or four days, the clouds cleared away to reveal a bowl of blue so empty she could hardly bear to look at it. There was nothing to be read there, no answer or shape. Soon it would snow, and she would be starved for color.
“What is your feeling toward the child you bore?”
Rosanna would turn slowly from the window when the doctor’s shadow fell over her. She did not reply to his question. Even as he spoke, she turned to look outside again. Visible from this angle were a distant line of trees, a nearer stand of woods, and a sloping lawn. The trees had all shivered themselves naked, except for the pines, which kept all their shaggy silvery-green. She was trying to memorize the angle of every branch and twig. The splitting of each trunk. All the world, she had realized, could be reduced to lines.
“What do you feel? At night, do you wet your pillow with tears? Do you take comfort in God? Is your heart full or empty?”
After a minute or two, the doctor would move on to the next patient. Some loved to talk to him. Some only spoke to themselves, or to invisible companions, whose actual presence Rosanna tended to believe in.
▴ ▴ ▴
Once she had begun talking again, the doctor saw her every morning in his office. He did not look at her as he spoke but instead gazed at the steeple he had made of his fingers. “The act of giving birth is a shock to the mind as well as to the body. Many women recover from it as they are meant to do, but others do not. They are lost, floating away from the world. It is our work to bring them back.” The doctor leaned forward. From this vantage point, he appeared to be looking down at Rosanna, though in reality she was nearly at the same level.
Another day, he said, “Mrs. Rasmussen, you are aware that we do not keep secret the methods with which we are trying to heal you. This is not true of everyone here. We can try other medicines, but the fact is plain to me: you have stopped floating away, but you have not yet been reeled all the way back in.”
She was his experiment; others did not receive the same kind of treatment. His instructions included taking several walks a day, which required the accompaniment of a nurse if she were to go out of doors. Due to the lack of staff, most of these walks were limited to the halls of the building, back and forth and back again.
Rosanna did not mind the walks—it felt good to move. Other of the treatments were more bizarre. She was to put one hand flat on her head and the other on her stomach and press both at once as she breathed out, hard. These exercises made her feel light-headed, and after a time she stopped. In the privacy of his office, the doctor had her extend her hand across the desk, and he proceeded to stick the tips of her fingers with a needle. “Do you feel it?” the doctor asked. Yes, she replied. “But you don’t feel it as pain.” She replied that oh, yes, it did feel like pain. “You say this,” he said, “yet you show no response.” He reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a hand mirror. “Look at yourself and tell me what you see.”
This time, he drew blood, but Rosanna admitted that what he said was true: she showed no reaction. “What expression are you looking for?”
The doctor shook his head in dismay. “It is not the specific nature of the reaction. I am looking for signs that you have reentered your skin.”
She turned to the window. The crows could only be seen from this angle, this office. Rosanna had begun to look forward to their meetings because she wanted to see the flying shadows that kept the souls of dead Indians under their wings. White people’s souls were carried in the beaks of tiny birds: sparrows, wrens, finches. When eating, the birds simply swallowed them down and then vomited them up later when their stomachs began to ache.
She forced her eyes back on the doctor. “I am trying,” she said.
The pinprick sessions continued. At night, in bed, Rosanna curled her fingers around her palm. Now, when she went to see the doctor, she watched him touch steel to her skin, and truly, she didn’t feel it at all.
One day, in the middle of one of these sessions, he stopped. “You have not yet progressed as I had hoped.” He stood from his desk and walked to the other side. His expression had been stern—it was always stern—but suddenly he dropped to his knees and buried his face in her lap. “I want to help you,” he nearly sobbed. “I want to make you well.”
This was how the next stage began. She was never certain whether it had been his intention all along, or if she was the one to suggest it. Whether it was something in her that brought out the response in him.
When it became clear she was pregnant, the doctor arranged for her to be sent back home. Healed, he proclaimed her. Rosanna decided she would accept the diagnosis.
She was no more than two months along, and she had been at the asylum for half a year. The seasons had changed once, and then again. It was spring now, and she was healed. She took the train back up north, alone.
▴ ▴ ▴
Her husband was not good with arithmetic, but still he was suspicious. Four days had passed since the birth, and Rosanna was bright-eyed with fatigue. But her milk was flowing and she had hoped he would be satisfied. Seven months, he said, counting on his fingers. He narrowed his eyes at the two of them, his wife and her daughter. Then he crossed the room and lifted the infant out of her arms.
The little body was buried in a bluff above a lake that elbowed out from the river; in its crook was a raised sort of island with outcroppings of sandstone. There was an old logger’s cabin there, abandoned when all the good timber was gone from the place. Rosanna had not wanted to bury her daughter in the cemetery. You didn’t become human until six months, a year—before that, you were a creature and belonged in the wild. She buried her in as remote a place as she could find within walking distance of the house, with wild onion scenting the air and the slap of water against the rocks below.
She put the body in a little box in order to keep the raccoons from scratching around. Then she piled stones in the place so she could find it again.
▴ ▴ ▴
She was still bleeding from the birth when a feeling came like water rising inside her. She put a hand to her stomach to hold in what was trying to escape. But there was no holding it in. She moved the hand to a pen, and let the poem come that way.
The next day, she handed it directly to the editor at his office down on Water Street. He laughed at the tiny scrap of paper that fit into his palm. “Written by a fairy, was it?” he said. As he scanned the neat lines, he chewed his mustache and his eyes got smaller until they nearly disappeared into his face. “All right,” he said with a clipped nod. He set the scrap, torn from an envelope, onto his desk. “We’ll see how our readers like it.”
The paper began publishing a new poem of hers every week. A local preacher accused her of un-Christian behavior, saying her poems were pantheistic, that she seemed to worship the natural world as if it were imbued with spirits. His message didn’t spread far. Lac Luissant was becoming a real town, the largest now in the western part of the state. They seemed to require culture, and a local poetess was a start.
A year passed, then two. Rosanna was pregnant once, but she bled and that was the end of it. A little while later, her husband disappeared again. It was April and there was snow on the ground; when he crossed their lawn again it was September, his shadow trailing behind him like a blanket. He remarked that Rosanna was dark, and she did not say that this was because he had missed all the summer. She did not say it was because she and the children had picked strawberries and then raspberries and then gooseberries, and sold them by the road, and all this work had been performed stooping under a sun so hot it was as if they were being beaten by it.
“You’ve missed me,” he said without expression, and as she watched, he took from his pockets a knife, a dirty cloth, an old lump of cheese, and a couple of coins that he rubbed together as if to show how very few of them there were. Picking berries all through the hot summer, the mosquitoes had eaten them alive. The boys scratched until they bled; the sheets were all spotted with crimson.
“Mr. Henry came by yesterday, looking for the rent,” she said.
“He’ll wait till next month.”
“He came last month too.”
Rosanna’s husband hocked some phlegm from his throat. “Don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that.”
“An honest day’s work. Bring some money home, so your children don’t starve.”
He struck her on her jaw, grim but decisive. He had hit her harder than this before, and it did not particularly surprise her. “You feed them,” he said, “with all the pennies you get from that poetry you scribble.”
He got a job at a furrier’s later that week, however, and the money got them through until spring.
▴ ▴ ▴
When the ice broke up and the river was running, she went to visit her daughter’s grave. The job at the furrier’s was done and all the men had flooded out of town again, back onto the river to send autumn’s logs down, but her husband had declared that he wouldn’t join them. He had been an ax man once but no more. The money, he said, wasn’t worth such work.
The snow was still deep in the shadowed woods when she went to look for the grave, and at first, she couldn’t find the pile of stones. But a few crows were perched on the branches above a spot that looked familiar, and when she dug down through the snow with her bare hands turning numb, at last she found the curved surface of a rock. She looked up and the crows were there, watching, with the clinical malice that is natural to their kind. It struck her that her daughter must have had Indian blood running through her veins. The doctor had been so fair, his eyes the pale gray of ice. Rosanna, on the other hand, had dark hair, dark eyes, and her cheekbones were higher than was typical of Norwegians. Her blood, then: if it was true of her daughter, it was true of her sons. This bound them together. Her husband had other blood and was bound to none of them.
Covering up the grave again, Rosanna headed back down the hill.
She would ask him to go for a walk, she decided. He would do it if she gave him a reason—she had found a secret cache, perhaps, but was afraid to retrieve it. They would go down to the east bridge, which was not yet completed and did not have a rail. Down there, she would tell him, leaning out and pointing, then pulling back to let him look. There’s a ledge below, and I found a box sitting on it.
Just after dusk, the paths and the bridge were empty of people. She imagined bats circling over the spot where he fell. Not silent and still, as the crows had been, but chittering and squeaking. This time of year, the river was high, the water swift and black and gleaming. She would walk back to the house and relieve Percy from the duty of watching his brothers. Off to bed with you, she would say to each of her sons, and none of them would ask where their pa had gone because they had learned by now not to be surprised by his absence, nor to wonder where he had gone, or when he’d come back.
“Of course, I could tell you who’s employing me.” Arkwright Avery tapped a finger to his nose. “But I’d rather you guessed.”
Rosanna stood with her arms at her sides. If she had done what she planned, then she would have been waiting for news of a body surfacing downriver, waiting for someone to come hold her accountable. But she had not had the chance. When she returned home from visiting her daughter’s grave, the door had stood open, her sons playing outside. Her husband was gone. Two weeks later, the landlord came to the house, looking for his rent, and she paid it with the small bundle of cash she had managed to secret away over the months. By the time he’d come twice more, what money remained Rosanna knew she must keep for food. Three days, she told the landlord, and then they’d be gone.
With the help of the children, she had fitted up the cave to its fullest comfort. They had wooden crates that served as table and stools, and a straw-stuffed mattress that sat on a frame. There were carpets on the ground, which stank of mildew, but then the whole place had that odor. She would not let her husband into the cave if he came looking. She would not ever let him enter any home of theirs again.
The inquiry agent was smiling at her with narrowed eyes. “Won’t you venture a guess?” he repeated.
Outside, the wind started up and ruffled the trees. A train whistle came with it, the tracks a few miles distant. If her husband had died somewhere in his wanderings and this man came bearing the news. If he had returned to an empty house and was in search of them now. But the man had asked about her youngest: And what of the baby?
“My children are fond of guessing games, Mr. Avery. I am not. I can’t think why anyone in Lac Luissant would send you looking for me.”
The inquiry agent tilted his head. “But I’ve come from farther away, Mrs. Rasmussen. I took a train to get here”—he lifted his finger in the air at the sound of the faint whistle—“and it took me close on five hours.”
She’d only taken the train to one place in her life. Going, she couldn’t have said how long it took. But coming back, she had counted the hours till she would see her children again. She’d put a hand on her stomach to steady herself then. She’d be able to keep it a secret from her husband, she figured, because he never bothered to undress her all the way, just enough to get at what he wanted. At four hours, the sky changed, the clouds higher and flatter. They weren’t yet to five when she’d recognized the shape of a hill from far off. The train had slowed and she got off at a station just like all the others, a platform and a wooden shed with all the white paint rubbed off.
“You’re from Mendota,” she said at last.
“I knew you’d get it. And on the first guess, too.”
“What does he want, then?”
He put a grave expression on his face. “The doctor is poorly, I’m afraid. Something with the gut.” Patting his own stomach, gingerly, he said, “As he figures it, there’s only a month or two left for him here.”
Rosanna felt nothing for the doctor. If he still felt something for her, it was not her concern.
“It’s the child,” the inquiry agent pressed on. “He wanted to meet the little one.” He glanced around at the cave, set up for Rosanna and her three boys, the youngest too old to be the child he was seeking.
“I had a daughter who died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Her eyes were trained on something outside, neither the river nor the bank nor the trees nor the sky. She was looking at the air between it all, at the nothing filling it up. At last, she turned to him with a face oddly flushed. “You’ll have to tell the doctor he has no daughter to meet.”
He moved his face around, thinking. “You know, it wasn’t very hard to find you, once I arrived here in town. Folks are eager to talk about a woman who lives in a cave. But on the train coming up, I didn’t know what to expect. A husband can make things pretty difficult, you know. Learning a child’s not his, that’s tough on a fellow.”
She looked at him evenly. “Would it be hard on you?”
“I’m not married, so it’s not a thing I’ve ever had to consider.”
“But surely you can put yourself in another man’s shoes.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Yes, or even a woman’s. Was the child born, Mrs. Rasmussen, or did you have a sickness?”
She had been so exhausted, she hadn’t thought to worry when her husband lifted the baby out of her arms, hadn’t yet stood from her chair when he raised his hands and dropped the infant, head down, onto the floor.
It was getting close to noon now and the shadows outside had tightened and shrunk back into themselves. The brightness made it somehow darker inside the cave. “Born early,” she said. “She didn’t live four days.”
“What was her name?”
Rosanna squeezed her hands together, squeezed them so hard she thought she might break her own bones. Her face might show the pain, but the man wouldn’t see it, a hurt that had nothing to do with him. “No name.”
Arkwright Avery would be paid, even if the news he brought back to the doctor was a disappointment. But he was needled. There was something else here to discover. As he was preparing to go, he asked what Rosanna would do for money until her husband returned. He was naturally curious and didn’t like to leave unsatisfied.
“There’s little work for a woman,” she replied coldly. “But what there is, is mostly a winter trade. That’s when the lumbermen are all back from the woods.”
The inquiry agent jerked back his chin. He walked several steps outside until he was standing in the sun. Then he turned back, ready to ask if it would really come to that. Her expression told him that it wasn’t worth asking: there was never any knowing what one could do.