By Elizabeth Graver
(CNN) -- At the age of 26, Elizabeth Graver became the youngest writer ever to win the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize (1991), for her first collection of short stories, "Have You Seen Me?"
Now Graver marks another promising first -- a novel entitled "Unravelling," about a 19th century New Hampshire farm girl who heads to the fabric mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. After giving birth to twins out of wedlock, she returns home to shame -- and "an impossible distance" that has spread between her and her mother.
This for the two stones inside me,
The two shadows gone from me--
That they may begin to understand.
At night, because it is summer and the air is hot and close, the
mosquitoes float like snowflakes over the bog. I step onto the peat,
which gives like a mattress, and the insects circle me in clouds.
When I was a child playing here, my flesh was plump and sweet and
they flocked to me and drank my blood; now I am no longer a girl,
but still they swarm me. On my bog there is heat lightning, and
lightning bugs too, blinking across the pond which grows bigger
one year, smaller the next. In the beginning I thought that pond
would mark my life, its circle growing smaller every year, hemmed in
by the peat until it was only a puddle, a drop, a memory in the sludge.
Then I noticed how the mass of floating land inched forward one year only
to inch back the next.
My mother liked to say that life is a long straight road if you
live it right, but mine has turned and tumbled. In 1829, when I was
born, she picked my name from an article in The Ladies' Pearl.
Aimee. At Factory Improvement Circle, I learned how in French it
meant Loved. My mother did not know.
"It was a lady's name," she told me. "You were born with
fingernails like a lady's. You waved your fingers in the air and
howled like you owned the world."
First I was loved, like my name. Then I was unloved. Now I
have Amos and Plumey who visit me, the village cripple and the
village orphan, as they are known in town. I have my rabbits who
give me fur to spin into yarn. I have my house, built to last, chickens
who leave me eggs, clear vision and a strong back, a mother I never
see. Amos brings me trinkets and sings me songs about pretty girls,
though I have lived thirty-eight years on this earth.
In beauty I am no longer a great believer, nor proud the way I
used to be. It is a fact that I was prettier than most at the factory,
pretty as an angel, I was told. When the strangers came through, the
factory owners from England looking at how it was done, I was one
of the girls who was led to the front looms and asked to
demonstrate. When the men from Washington came through, I was
one of the girls to carry the banner: "Welcome to the City of
Spindles." We wore white muslin dresses with blue sashes that day.
We carried parasols edged in green. We marched singing to the
factory: "How Doth the Busy Bee." Afterwards they made us give
the dresses back.
I wove that, I wanted to say, or if not that one, then one like it.
I knotted the knots when the thread broke, and ran from
one crashing loom to another, and threaded the two thousand weft
threads until my fingers swelled like rising dough.
Mine, I wanted to say.
I only looked like an angel.
Perhaps if I had been named something else, things would
have turned out differently. I might have been named Charity, or
Faith, perhaps, or Grace. But Grace can go crooked and Charity is
often no more than a guilty conscience, and of Faith I have my
portion--or would I still be waiting every day?
This morning, like most mornings, I make my way over the peat
and wash my face in the dark green water of the pond at the center
of the bog. Once a fortnight in the mild seasons I bathe there, too,
and if I raise my leg to see the kiss of a black leech or feel a water
snake circle my ankle, I do not shriek the way I would have as a
child, do not flounder and splash and make the birds cock their
heads toward my voice. A leech is a leech; a water snake, a water
snake. I am in the habit. My body in the water is as bare as when I
was born, and if they come while I am bathing--if the tribes of boys
or some hunters spot me there--I try to take no notice, but keep
cleaning myself with my sponge of brownish moss.
The hunters, when they see me bathing, crash like awkward
bears into the woods. The boys, when they come, usually hide
behind trees and peek at me, but today they grow brave and start to
There once was a woman
and what do you think?
Bok bok bok!
She lived upon nothing
but victuals and drink.
Bok bok bok!
And though victuals and drink
were the whole of her diet,
this dirty woman
would never keep quiet!
Then they stick out their necks, fold their arms into their
armpits and flap like chickens. "Never mind them," I can hear Amos
saying, though he is not there. "Just a stupid song they'll sing about
anybody. They didn't even make it up."
But later, when they are gone and the song is still circling my
head, I must wonder: What do most people live on? What do I?
"Victuals," I might have told the boys, "and drink and
The chickens and rabbits are scrambling with hunger, so I feed
them. The twig brooms I started yesterday are crooked, so I trim
them. In this way, the hours pass. It is almost noon when Amos
comes to me with blueberries and sits down for a cleaning. They did
a poor job of it, the doctors who cut and sewed him up. Over the
years the skin on the end of his thigh has healed in deep folds like
the inside of a navel. Amos will not clean himself, says it makes the
bile in his stomach rise. He sits on a log stool by my door and unpins
his coverall leg, and I lower myself down, kneel, and lean over the
place where he lost his calf to gangrene, the surface veined and
marbled with a month of stubborn dirt.
"You'll lose the rest of it," I tell, "the way you treat it."
"Clean," says Amos, "or I'll throw the berries to the birds."
He tries to whistle a birdsong, but it comes out thin and plain.
"The blueberries come in strong this year?" I ask him. I dip my
rag in the water he has carried in a bucket from the bog pond and
begin to wipe.
He shakes his head. "I found you all there is in the state of
New Hampshire. Spent a week going after them."
"I found some myself," I say, "with Plumey--the low, wild
ones. We meant to pick enough for a pie, but we kneeled right
down and ate them there."
"If you have found honey," Amos tells me in his holy voice,
"eat only enough for you, lest you be sated with it and vomit."
He was studying to be a preacher before he lost his leg, and
with it the love of a woman and all faith in the workings of the Lord.
"Stay still," I tell him, for he is squirming, the skin still tender,
he says, after all these years, the ghost of his leg still begging to be
The bog water is cloudy in the bucket but clear on my
rag--strong, preserving water; bodies in the bog do not decay.
Cows have been found along the bottom whole years after they went
missing, still with flesh on their bones and their brandings left intact.
People, too, though not in my lifetime. A witch, they say, with
recipes for potions scratched needle-thin up and down her body. A
hunter with his quiver of arrows still strapped to his back. No
maggots and worms do their speedy work here. Water like this does
I pour the water over the skin, into the scarred folds so that
they fill like rivers at melting time, then run into a waterfall down
where his calf should be. Between my fingers I mash some jewelweed
and rub my fingertips stained green with juices along the ridges of
his stump to keep the rash away.
Month after month I have tended Amos's leg, year after year.
In the beginning, he would hardly look at me, his mouth pressed in a
bitter line, but then one day he must have felt how my hands were
touching him where he would not even touch himself, for his hands
moved from where they were clenched at his sides to rest lightly on
I did not smile or look up, except deep inside myself. I cleaned.
He did not ask me to do it, the first time--so many years ago
by now. He had fallen in the woods, not far from my house, and I
found him with his wooden leg cradled in his arms, his wound new
then, the bandage come undone, attracting flies. I brought a bucket
of water to where he was, cleaned him off, wrapped him up. He was
silent, went off just like that, but the next month he returned with a
jug of cider strapped to his back, sat by my house and rolled up his
trouser leg. That was the start of us; soon the town was talking.
Soon Amos was staying through the night.
"Say another part of the Book," I tell him now, not because I
want to learn how to walk on the righteous path, but because I have
been hearing those words for longer than I can remember and love
the turnings of his voice.
He grins, shifts on the log that is his seat, and says, "Your lips
distill nectar, my bride. Honey and milk are under your tongue. The
scent of your garments is the scent of Lebanon."
"Another part," I say.
"Why not this?"
"No nectar in the cupboard, and I'm not a bride."
And Amos answers, "All right, the scent of your garments is
the scent of your rabbits?"
I cannot help smiling.
"And you have snakes under your tongue?"
I open my mouth and lift my tongue. Amos peers, but when he
gets close I clamp my mouth shut.
"Nothing," I say. "No honeybees or snakes."
"They're just hiding," says Amos. "Let me see."
He cups my chin and tries to kiss me.
"Stop," I laugh. "I have to wash you. You'd think we were
"Come here, pretty girl."
"I'm no girl."
I believe Amos when he says he likes how the skin around my
eyes shows the prints of where I've been. We get better and better,
like fine wine, he said to me last week, and I pictured how vinegar
turns to cider, cider to wine--rich, full, and only slightly bitter.
Time, I thought, as I lay in Amos's arms, is supposed to smooth the
edges of all things, so why am I so jagged sometimes, still, so filled
Now I lean forward and run my finger down his face, over the
curve of his steep nose, along the cleft above his lip. He is older
than I am by four years. His face is scarred from the pox, lined from
the weather; his hands are rough from work. But his eyes are the
deep, keen gray of slate after a rainstorm--slate flecked with the
yellow hanging-ons of moss.
"Can't stay," he says, nibbling my palm. "Too much work to
"It can't wait?"
He shakes his head.
"What is it?"
"A new henhouse door at the Bacons'. A fox keeps getting
"They came a few months ago, related to the Prescotts
somehow, living over on Osterhold's land."
"How many of them?"
"A Mister and Missus and four or five little porkers. And the
mother, they brought her along. I saw her coming from the church."
"An old lady?"
He shrugs. "Not so old, old enough. Like some other mothers."
He pauses to let his silence gather, but I will not linger there.
"Time to go," I say briskly, though we both know he is not
going anywhere. I must still wind his leg with bandage, pick up the
wooden part, strap it on with the leather thongs and let the blue
cloth fall. I must cover him up until he becomes something the
people will look at when he goes to town. I will wash him clean as
the inner petals of a bud.
"Get along," I say, but I take my own sweet time.
On the beams of my house are things I have not thrown away:
a shell comb, a brooch pin wound with hair, a blue sash, letters from
my mother. Over the door hangs my rifle, my powderhorn, and bullet
pouch. At night, sometimes, I bring the rabbits in to sleep with me;
there are foxes in the woods, and owls. In the twelve feet by twelve
feet of my house, my rabbits eat from my hand. I give them oats and
barley, apples, corn and carrots. Outside, milkweed and lupine could
kill them, mudholes could suck them down. "Shush," I say, stroking
back their ears. Near the door I have hung a salt lick on a piece of
wire. When I set the blind one before it, she lifts her nose and sniffs,
then licks, and I watch as she tastes comfort in its roughest shape,
the salt of tears and skin.
Plumey, who has no parents, sleeps in town, in the Doctor's
house. Amos sleeps, most nights, in his cottage at the foot of Red
Skunk Hill. My father is under the ground, not
preserved in the bog. My brother Jeremiah died of consumption
when I was still at the mills; my sister Harriet died of a thickness of
the blood after I had come back and moved into this house. They lie
beside my father in the churchyard. My brothers Thomas and John
live out West--a place I cannot picture and will never see. And my
mother? Just through the fields, over the hill, living out her days
with my brother Luke in the house where I grew up. A few
heartbeats, a short walk, an impossible distance away.
Still, it must be said that in my way, I am rarely alone. My
thoughts have been dense with voices, thick with bodies, and I have
heard coughs and hiccups, breaths and cries and other things.
Sometimes the crowd inside my head makes the days move faster.
Other times the days move slowly, and I worry that I am nothing but
a stubborn woman spiraling in on herself--the way they must think
of me in town.
Mostly the days move like days, and sometimes I gather things
to eat or tend the animals, and sometimes I sit with Plumey on the
bank, and sometimes I lie back on my bed with my knees bent up, as
if I were birthing. Or I lie on my side with my head bowed and my
knees tucked to my chest, as if I were waiting to be born.
(C) 1997 Elizabeth Graver
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