Part 1: The Postman
The postman used the roads and the woods alike and bareheaded on a day that provided such weather. If he came upon Frances it was always she who saw him first and he who, knowing himself watched, was pleasantly startled. A tree became a girl, he allowed himself to wonder.
Today, the stream was full with a sudden rain after a dry spell but he was a man of all weathers. Perhaps this was how he came to be postman. He dressed for modesty and economy in the same layers June and January. In spring the mud was clean and deep so as could heal a wound and if the postman had ever put his mouth to a gash in a maple tree and sucked the sap he told no one.
At the edge he held a sapling for balance, put a hand in, dabbed his forehead.
At first he thought it was an odd reflection from a reddish leaf, or a brick-colored stone on the bottom. Then he leaned in closer and it was surely blood for it curled and sank through the water. He thought to himself, it's one of those thin-skinned summer boarders who's gone and torn the hook out and then thrown the fish back in the water. It was only that much blood, as would come from a fish's mouth, but it was strange, he could smell it. Too rich for fish blood. It was mammal. Once he caught the scent it clung to the back of his throat like sulphur. He tried to clear his throat of the viscous sweetness. Cloying, like the smell of a dead animal lodged where he'd insulated with horse hair and some sawdust beneath the cold floor of the bedroom.
The postman lifted his eyes across the stream half expecting to catch a cowed fisherman in city attire and ill-fitting boots borrowed from Frances's father. Instead he saw Frances. "Hello!" he called before he could stop himself. She floated on her back, her undergown swept aimlessly about her. Her long hair was unwoven, the light green of willow wands through the water. Where had she left her clothes, then?
He felt the way he always felt when he saw her. Braced himself against the sapling, a prickling like the little sharp hairs when his wife shaved the back of his neck in the kitchen.
The curtains of the forest would be tightly drawn and then suddenly she would issue forth, throwing the green gauze wide, not the least bit bashful. He would crash forward as if to catch her at her new game and however she might explain herself would delight him. She might say, "Why Mr. Heald, you've caught me bathing. A bath in live water has countless benefits." And she would break off, as if distracted by the very air itself, fragments of light and shadow.
The forest rang as if he'd hurled a stone instead of spoken. He broke off a dead branch for the crack it provided. There. A hand in the water revived him.
It was ice cold. She might have frozen before she drowned. Too cold for the season from all the rain. He drew his hand out quickly. A man must not presume to share her bath. I must say a prayer. For the girl Frances who would consider a stream fine as this one succor enough for soul and body.
* * *
The postman did not speak during dinner. He thought to make
up for his misplaced greeting in the forest. Mrs. Heald kept her gaze on her
plate until she could stand it no longer. She rose abruptly.
After dinner, as was the habit, Mrs. Heald reached for her collage-making box and the scissors and paste she stowed on the mantelpiece. Willard Heald used his dark sleeve to brush salt from the table.
"Will you pass me a bit of the newspaper." He broke the silence. Mrs. Heald withdrew a sheet from beneath her project.
Sometimes his wife had cut out headlines or drawings to include in her collages, and then Willard leaned over to see what had interested her. If she added a scrap of fabric, a round wooden button, dried flowers, it was a haphazard quilt, and he became irked and remarked how would she store it?
From Garner by Kirstin Allio, pages 11-25. Copyright Kirstin Allio 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Coffee House Press.
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