A Sky for Arcadia (Chapter One)

On Sunday I had tried to explain to Mother, and that was what started it. I wanted to tell her how I felt about Allison. Not just that my daughter was swept away from us at an impossibly young age, but how, for me, that loss represented a broken chain. A chain of mother to daughter from the beginning of time—broken not just for today, but into infinity. My mother didn’t understand.

The next day, a sunny Monday afternoon by the lake, I looked down and saw everything in sharp focus, thinking this must be what the world looked like to an eagle or a foraging owl. The parking area and a line of trees running down to the water marked the west side of the scene. A field of jonquils bounded the east. They flattened in the stiff prairie breeze and then sprang erect again to shake their bright yellow heads in the sun. The original jonquil bulbs had been planted long ago by a woman who used to live in the town of Arcadia and who wanted to remember it as it once was.

Above all this and somewhere to the south, I was floating, but I had no sense of insecurity. It was as though I was suspended high above the ground, the still brightness supporting me in a transparent cocoon of white light. I was safe.

The constantly revolving lights on the AmCare ambulance were superfluous in the April afternoon. Flashes of blue and red, which turn the most minor nighttime accident into a scene of terror, lost any threat in the soft spring light. Even the popping strobes were pale incongruities compared to the brightness around me.

Look at all those people, I thought, running around like ants. The emergency personnel, clad in ridiculous orange pinnies, had the look of an awkward group of men trying to emulate a girl’s field hockey team. Their quick movements, a result of “rigorous training,” looked stiff and self-important. Their controlled haste somehow appeared jerky and contrived.

The only completely still object in the scene was me.

Clearly that was my angular body lying supine, the long legs I have always thought of as clumsy, now inert. The sodden skirt and blouse were certainly the ones I had put on that morning. Their muted tones, turned muddy by the wetting, made my body look like a water splotch on dry sand.

The skirt clung to me, hiked up around the top of my legs, revealing a majority of inner thigh. If I could have felt anything at all, I suppose it would have been embarrassment.

The earnest young man kissing life back into me, or rather attempting to, was beyond embarrassment.

Barry, my brother the doctor, looked on, his hands jammed into his slacks pockets. He was the image of our father, without the clerical collar, as I remembered him twenty years ago. Like our father, Barry is tall, with the self-possessed, purposeful arrogance professional men often have.

How had he gotten here? I could not remember having talked to my brother or to his wife, Margaret, in weeks. Perhaps Mother had been worried about me and called him. She knew how I loved to slip off and visit the drowned site of my childhood.

“Excuse me, sir.”

One of the young men was holding a clipboard and touching Barry on the shoulder.

Barry shrugged away from the scene and turned to face the man.

“Yes?” His voice was tight with anger.

“Excuse me, sir, but if you know this lady, I would like to get some information.”

“I know her,” Barry said.

The man raised the pen and clipboard to the ready. “Name?”

“Mine or hers?”

“The victim’s, sir.”

“The victim’s name is Mary Anne Brooks Conway.”

“Address?”

Barry continued with a terse recitation of whatever necessary vita linked my body to the paper on the clipboard.

“Your name, sir?”

“Dr. Barrington T. Brooks.” Barry emphasized the title slightly as he had emphasized the word victim.

“Any relationship?”

“Brother—hers.”

The bitterness in his voice floated up to me with the words. I did not care.

The paramedic looked at Barry diffidently as he handed him the clipboard. “Please sign this,” he said, and then added, “Sir, if you’re a doctor, would you like . . . ?” The young man gestured toward the body.

Barry shook his head. “You men are doing fine. I’ll see to her at the hospital, if she makes it. Which I doubt,” he added.

Barry signed the paper on the clipboard, and both men turned to watch the proceedings.

The late afternoon spangled ripples on the lake, but the reflections were not sufficient to completely obscure the strange sight of neatly laid out strips of concrete running from the edge of the sandy bank, where the men stood around my body, into the lake. There, other concrete strips crossed at right angles, the white grid finally fading into the bottle green depths of the water.

This was Arcadia where I grew up.

More precisely, it was what was left of Arcadia. During the thirties and forties, when the building of dams on the rivers of the southwestern plains was at its height, several communities, such as my hometown, had been completely inundated by the rising water of man-made lakes.

The Army Corps of Engineers meticulously moved, or removed, all the buildings from Arcadia. In fact, St. Paul’s Church, where my father was, and still is, rector, had been removed and completely reconstructed on its present location in Summit, the nearest, and much larger, town.

That was in the spring of 1949. I had just had my seventh birthday and finished Miss Thompson’s first grade.

The drowning of my town had been exciting and horrifying. Tales circulated among the early-grade-school set about old people who would refuse to leave and pets that would not accept their new homes and insist on staying in the town even though the waters would drown them as surely as it would take their homes.

Such tales were, of course, unfounded, and by the time the slowly rising waters inundated the site, nothing was left but streets, sidewalks, and the ghosts of gardens.

But the fears of the first-graders were perpetuated that year, marked by the death of Albert Fugate. Albert was a copper-haired second-grader, a big boy to us. That same spring he died of complications from measles, and at least to my seven-year-old mind, Albert was inextricably linked to the death of my town as I had known it.

Even though Albert was properly laid to rest in Summit’s Memorial Gardens Cemetery, full of new graves, with Arcadia’s old caskets and headstones, to me he still lived in the engulfed town.

I imagined I could see him, riding his red bicycle furiously down the sidewalks, unimpeded by the surrounding waters. He would stop to rest under the branches of the apple tree beside our fence, his alert eyes keeping eternal watch over the premises.

While the Corps of Engineers carefully relocated all of the human sites and signs, the natural things were purposely left.

The trees, nine-tenths underwater, disturbed me. Their branches seemed like woody fingers, clawing at the sky in a vain attempt at rescue.

“Fish habitat,” my father had patiently explained. He told me that tree branches in the water made a secure home for fish to live in, just as they did in the air for birds. This I could understand, since the apple tree in our garden had been a place of escape and reverie.

Now as I stared down from the warm white light at Barry and the frantic ministration of the men on the beach, I felt the same security I had once had sitting in the apple tree staring down at Dad.

“Oh shit!” Barry’s voice exploded above the general hubbub on the beach.

His attention had been caught by the squeal of brakes in the parking lot. A fire-engine red Trans Am slid to a halt on the gravel, and a tall, muscular teenager bolted from the front seat. The boy managed to kill the engine but left the door on the driver’s side wide open, key buzzing.

Hayden, my son, ran full tilt down the hill. As he neared the group of people, his knees collapsed like a jackknife under him so that he skidded to a halt in a kneeling position near the body. The toes of his sneakers marked the sand in deep grooves.

The movement was at once awkward and graceful, an accomplishment that seems reserved only for the young and naturally athletic.

I had once seen him slide into home plate in that position, judging, correctly, that such a slide would best avoid the catcher’s tag. He had put both hands on the plate and given the frustrated catcher a beatific smile.

There was no smile now. He was weeping openly, mouth open in a rictus of fear, tears dripping from the chin below.

“How the hell did you know about this? Does the whole fucking town know?” Barry challenged.

Ignoring the question, Hayden managed to sob out his own query. “Why? Why did she do it?”

“How the hell should I know? Maybe she came out here and decided to go for a swim. Maybe it was an accident,” Barry said.

Hayden shook his head in disbelief.

His uncle continued, “Probably because she’s crazy as hell.”

“Fuck you, Barry!”

My stable cocoon seemed to move ever so slightly. It was not like my easygoing son to say such a thing to his uncle.

The paramedics, except for a hasty glance or two, ignored the boy as they continued their efforts.

Hayden’s dark hair gleamed as he bent toward my body.

“Mom, oh goddamn, please, Mom, please, please.”

I seemed to be swaying slightly in the light breeze. I could feel my soul stretch long and thin in the air. Hayden’s words grasped at me in a way Barry’s could not, and I was being pulled downward, sucked into a tubular vortex, drawn up as a straw gathers the pool of liquid in the bottom of a paper cup.

Oh God, I don’t want to go back, I thought.

But like the liquid drawn into a mouth, the last of me slipped inevitably away from the cocoon toward the inert body on the sand sucked up with a final gurgle.

The gurgling became a painful retching. Bile, water, and phlegm—all of it smelling rankly of vodka—spewed from my mouth onto the wet sand.

“Turn her over, turn her over!”

“She’s coming around, she’s coming around!”

Assholes, I thought, do you have to repeat everything?

I don’t remember much of what followed. There was more discomfort than pain, especially in my throat and nose where the oxygen tubes were inserted. But the sweet, cool oxygen was worth the trial.

I remember the vivid blue blanket they laid over me on the AmCare stretcher for the trip to the hospital. I remember being hauled onto the gurney in the hospital emergency room, and most of all, I remember Hayden’s warm fingers wrapped around my icy ones through the ordeal. Finally, I slid into a dark hole, created by exhaustion and Xanax fed directly into my vein through a plastic tube.

Now I can forget, I thought.

Little did I know how minutely I would come to examine the last twenty-four hours, both those few lucid moments as well as those erased by alcohol as surely and completely as a magnetic tape wiped clean.

© 2008 Janet Taliaferro