Authors: Julia Alvarez
Tags: #General Fiction
A Shannon Ravenel Book
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, Guides us by vanities â¦
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
T. S. E
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
from “Voices from Lemnos”
The child carriers are all but forgotten, but their humble if wholly unrewarded efforts deserve a place in human recollection.
from “Francisco Xavier Balmis and the Introduction
of Vaccination in Latin America”
In the fall of her fiftieth year, Alma finds herself lost in a dark mood she can't seem to shake. It's late September; she has actually not turned fifty yet, but she has already given that out as her age, hoping to get the fanfare and menopause jokes over and done with. It's not her own mortality that weighs heavily on her. In fact, it makes her sad when she reads that women of her profile (active, slender, vegetarian, married) will probably liveâif they take care of themselvesâto ninety and beyond.
She should probably feel glad that her glass of time is half full. But instead she wonders who might be alive in her dotage whom she would care to be with? Richard, her husband, overworked and project-driven, will probably not live that long; Tera, her best friend, over-weight and full of political-activist rage, will likely die before Alma does; her saintly neighbor Helen, already in her seventies, fat chance she'll stick around. Day after day, Alma feels that peppery anxious feeling that she has truly lost her way.
Earlier this year, she went to see the local, small-town psychiatrist, a very short man with an oversized face that reminded her of the post-deaf Beethoven. She explained that she felt as if a whirling darkness were descending on her, like dirty water going down a drain or that flock of birds in the film by Hitchcock.
The doctor, who'd been jotting down her explanation, had looked up. He was so young; he probably hadn't seen the film. “What kind of birds?” he had asked.
At least he is being thorough, Alma thought.
He asked a lot of questions, referring to what seemed a long list on a clipboardâabout whether Alma had fantasies of killing herself, whether she had a gun in the house (Richard did keep an old shotgun down in the basement, which he would occasionally use on the raccoons and groundhogs that invaded his garden), whether there had been any untoward events in their family.
Alma tried to be accurate and provide him with the information requested. She was baffled by this dark mood but still trusting that medical science in the guise of Dr. Payne (incredibly, that was his name) could help her get back to her old self.
Months go by and one after another of the antidepressants Dr. Payne prescribes fail by her lightsâshe is “better” but numb all the time; she sleeps well but can no longer smell the paperwhites Richard brings her; nothing truly upsets her, even when her agent, Lavinia, sends her an ultimatum letter about Alma's overdue novel. (She is going on her third year overdue.)
One afternoon when she is trying to rouse herself into some wifely attractiveness before Richard gets home, she goes into their bathroom, opens the cabinet and collects all the prescription bottles she has accumulated over the last months of treatment, and for some reason, rather than flush them down the toilet, she puts on her coat and walks to the back of their property near the tree line. She scoops a small hole in the ground with her boot and pours the contents of these vials insideâno doubt hundreds of dollars worthâthen kicks some dirt over it. She is concerned that deer or raccoons or groundhogs will find this trove and drug themselves into a stupor and thus become easy targets for anyone with a shotgun, perhaps Richard himself. In these small ways Alma finds she can still trust herself. She rolls a heavy boulder over the spot, circles it with the upended emptied bottles wedged into the earth (the ground has not yet frozen), and then waits, for it seems some ceremony should close this moment. But she can think of nothing, so she merely stands there for a few more minutes before the dusk and cold draw her back indoors.
She tells no one, not Richard, not Tera, whose impatience with Alma's persisting sadness Alma can hear in her friend's voice. As always, Tera is involved in one or another of her causesâantiwar, anti-mines, anti-somethingâand any confession on Alma's part will bring on an invitation to join Tera on the front lines. But Alma knows she can't treat this thing with peace rallies and political work. So, no, she does not tell Tera either. (Another sign that her instincts are still trust-worthy: she knows who to talk to, mostly who not to talk to.) Most definitely, Tera won't approve.
We're all so goddamn lucky
: hers is one of the voices lodged in Alma's head.
Depression is nothing but a first-world disease
(she parcels out the word that way). Tera has been Alma's best friend since Alma ended up in this rural state two decades ago, still young enough to be thought of as a waif, not a lost soul. Now Alma is older, and as her sense of detachment grows, she watches Tera go about her campaigning, her picketing, her trips down to Washington with her live-in companion, Paul, to protest any number of atrocities that Tera somehow always finds out about; e-mail has proliferated her sources of horror. Alma watches Tera the way she would a movie, a good movie, but one she has seen several times already and that, therefore, leaves her slightly bored.
Alma pretends to Richard that she is still taking her antidepressants, but she goes about her own way. She writes Lavinia back and tells her an outright lie, that the novel is done and she is merely going through it one last time. She is still making an effort to maintain her old life, covering for herself, as if she is setting up mock models in one or another room, Alma cooking, Alma going to bed, Alma writing a letter, Alma writing a novelâdisplays people can look at through a lit up windowâbut meanwhile she has slipped out the back door with no idea where she is going except somewhere far from this place.
She has every intention of returningâthat, in part, is the reason for her secrecy. But she has no story yet to lead her out of her dark mood and restore her to the life that, she has to agree with Tera, she's damn lucky to be living.
BOUT TWO WEEKS LATER
, Alma is standing by the window on the landing looking out at the place where she buried her pills. She has not revisited the spot since. There have been a couple of what the weatherman calls snow showers, dusting and disguising the ground, so she isn't even sure that the mound she is looking at is
Again, it's that time of afternoon when even in happy periods of her life, Alma often feels a heaviness of heart. In fact, she once read an article in a woman's magazine about how this time of day, dusk, was the most often cited as the nadir of mood swings. She is standing at the window, not having had lunch yet or, more accurately, not remembering if she has had lunch yet, when she sees a man coming up out of the woods. Without a coat, that's what she notices first, wearing only one layer, as people up here like to say. She would be adding what she later learns if she says that this stranger's hair is longish, that the shirt is a worn plaid, that he is attractive in a mildly disturbing way. The man is walking up from the line of trees that separate their own from Helen's property. Pin oaks, Richard has told her, the last trees to let go their leaves. In fact, they still have their brown, withered foliageâwhy Alma might not have seen the man right off.
She thinks of calling Helen but then thinks again about the wisdom of worrying an old, near-blind woman, alone in a run-down farmhouse, relying on a walker to get around. Besides, this man isn't doing something wrong, he isn't carrying a gun or a chain saw. But the fact that he isn't wearing a coat strikes her for some reason as suspicious. He walks with large, easy stridesâin good shape, every once in a while stopping, looking around, finally spotting the house. Alma steps back to one side of the window before he can see her and watches as he climbs up the slight rise toward the house. He is still a distance awayâthey have ten acres, “more or less,” surprisingly a legal phrase in the local registries. It crosses her mind to check that the doors are locked, but the man has stoppedâand this is the curious thingâat that mound, though she can't swear it's
mound, but she has herself believing it is. He has taken on the pose of discoverers or explorers in statues: one foot on that boulder as he looks around, reviewing
the house, the surrounding pasture, Richard's garden, the pond with the raft already pulled out of the water and resting on four wooden blocks. Then the man turns, facing the woods, assessing, assessing Alma doesn't know what.
She stands there, waiting, annoyed at the ringing phone. For some reason the answering machine has not kicked in with Richard's curt welcome and instructions. Finally, when it seems that the ringing won't ever quit and the man has indeed turned to stone, she races down the rest of the stairs. Her intention is to get the portable and hurry on back to her lookout on the landing.
” a woman's voice asks when Alma picks up.
Alma considers correcting her. But the woman has pronounced Richard's last name correctly, so Alma assumes the caller is someone he knows, perhaps a childhood friend from Indiana. “This is Richard Huebner's wife. Can I help you?”
“Okay,” the woman says as if that's all she called to settle.
“Can I help you?” Alma asks again. Why doesn't she just hang up? The caller is obviously no one she knows. But she can't not respond. Years ago, she briefly dated a man who accused her of having a “victim personality.” You make eye contact in subways, he explained. You stop when someone scruffy says, You gotta a minute? Good for me, Alma thought. But the man meant it as a criticism. As a reason for breaking up with her.
“Are you alone?” the woman wants to know.
By this time, Alma has made it back to the landing. The stranger is gone. “Who is this?” she asks. The woman now has Alma's complete attention. Of course, Alma is alone. Richard is at the office, meeting day today, two hours at least before she'll hear the garage door coming up under the floor where she has her study. “What is this about?”
“I'll tell you, I'll tell you,” the woman snaps back. “It's not easy for me either, you know.”
What can it be? Alma's mind begins racing around, inventing ways
her life will soon be destroyed. She supposes that even a determined runaway will turn back if she looks over her shoulder and her house is on fire. Unless she has set that fire herself, of course. Alma feels a pang of guilt, as if she has brought on whatever losses are coming, even though she never intended anything to change. Her present state of mind is baffling and private. She doesn't want to lose Richard over it.
“I'm an old girlfriend of Dick's.”
Richard, she almost interrupts the woman. Before Alma came into his life, Richard had been known as Dick among his family and circle of friends. From early on in their romance, Alma hated calling him Dick, a name she associated with the punch lines of stupid party jokes. Richard himself admitted that he disliked the nickname but didn't want to make an issue of changing it. Alma began referring to him as Richard to their family and friends, and slowly most everyone followed suit. It's one of the little changes she has brought about in his life that she prides herself on. This woman obviously knew Dick before his life with Alma transformed him into Richard.