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Authors: Caitlin R. Kiernan

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Though best remembered, when he is remembered at all, for his landscapes, one of Saltonstall’s best-known works is
The Drowning Girl
(1898), which may have been inspired by a certain piece of folklore encountered in northwestern Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, along a short stretch of the Black Stone [
sic
] River. A common local yarn involves the murder of a mill owner’s daughter at the hands of a jealous fiancé, who then attempted to dispose of her body by tying stones about the corpse and sinking it in the narrow granite channel of the old Millville Lock. Some accounts have the murderer dropping the dead girl from the Triad Bridge, where the river is especially deep and wide. Tradition has it that the girl’s ghost haunts the river from Millville to Uxbridge, and possibly as far south as Woonsocket, Rhode Island. She is said to have been heard singing to herself along the banks and in the neighboring woods, and some claim she’s responsible for a number of drownings.

We can be quite certain that the artist was well enough aware of the legend, as he notes in a letter to Mary Farnum, “Perhaps I will catch sight of her myself on some evening, as
I sit sketching my studies. Sadly, I’ve not yet encountered anything more exciting than a deer and a blacksnake.” While this is hardly irrefutable evidence that he named his painting for the grisly tale, it appears too much to dismiss as coincidence. Could it be that Saltonstall meant to capture a careless swimmer moments before a fateful encounter with the ghost of “the drowning girl”? It seems a reasonable enough conclusion, and one that settles the question for this author.

 

That same day…well, that night, I managed (much to my surprise!) to find the envelope that Rosemary Anne had made notes on all those years before, on my eleventh birthday, in the presence of the painting that had seemed like a window to me. The next day, I returned to the Athenaeum and prowled through volume after volume of Massachusetts and Rhode Island folklore, hoping to come across anything more about the story of “the drowning girl.” For hours, I found nothing at all, and was about to give up, when I finally discovered an account of the legend in
A Treasury of New England Folklore
by Benjamin A. Botkin (New York: Bonanza Books, 1965). Here is an excerpt, and an excerpt I found later, in another book:

A far more malevolent spirit is said to haunt the Blackstone River near the village of Millville. Ask almost anyone in the area, and you may be regaled with the tragic story of a young woman saddled with the good Puritan name of Perishable Shippen. Murdered by her father and tossed into the river, the restless, vengeful ghost of Perishable is said to wander the riverbed, often seizing the feet and legs of unwary bathers and pulling them down to their doom in the murky green waters. Others claim that you can hear the
ghost singing to herself on summer evenings, and that her voice is beautiful, but has been known to lure melancholic souls to commit suicide by jumping from railroad and highway bridges, or even flinging themselves from the steep walls of the gorge just upriver of Millville. The story appears to date back at least to the 1830s, a thriving “protoindustrial” time when Millville was the site of grist, fulling, corn, and sawmills, along with a scythe manufacturer. To this day, teenage boys looking to spook their girlfriends often visit the old railroad trestle over the river on the night of the full moon hoping to catch sight of the “Siren of Millville.”

 

Also, I found:

 

There’s a folk tradition among some residents of the towns along the Blackstone that many years ago, something from the sea became trapped in the river. The tale usually involves a hurricane and/or a flood, though the details often vary wildly from one teller to the next. Few seem to agree on which disaster was responsible, or how far in the past the event occurred. Variously, the tale invokes the Great Hurricane of 1938, the Saxby Gale of 1869, the Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane of 1821, flooding in February 1886, and again in 1955. But most followed more familiar folktale conventions and would only agree it happened many decades ago, or when they were young or before they were born, or when their great-grandparents were young.

As to what entered the river and remains there to this day, accounts can be divided into the prosaic and the fantastic. The former category includes a shark or several sharks, a sea turtle, a seal, a giant squid, a huge eel, and a dolphin.
The latter includes a mermaid, the ghost of a woman (usually a suicide) who drowned in Narragansett Bay, a sea serpent, and, in one instance, a wayward selkie whose sealskin was stolen by a whaler. Yet all agree on two points: the creature or being has caused injury, mishap, and death, and that it originated in the sea. The man who insisted the imprisoned thing was a conger eel claimed that it had been caught and killed when he was a child. He consistently mispronounced
conger
as
conjure
.

(from
Weird Massachusetts
by William Linblad

[Worcester: Grey Gull Press, 1986])

 

As with my file on “Little Red Riding Hood,” I have a thick file on the haunting of the Blackstone River containing almost everything I’ve been able to learn about it over the last eight years. Before
and
after I met Eva Canning—both times, if, indeed, there were two meetings. The file tab was originally labeled “Perishable Shippen,” though Botkin’s is the only account of the legend that grants the murdered woman that name. I’ve never shown the file to Abalyn, though I think now that I should have. That’s one more mistake I made, keeping that history to myself (though, of course, Abalyn believed she’d uncovered her own “history” of Eva). I could make a lengthy roster of those mistakes, things I did that only drove us farther apart. I will say, “If I’d have done
this
or
that
differently, we might still be together.” That’s another, more insidious sort of fairy tale. That’s another facet to my haunting—having driven her away—another vicious wrinkle in the meme.

I’ll come back to my file and its contents, after I force myself to spit up one version of the truth.

“A woman in a field—something grabbed her.”

A line from Charles Fort’s
Lo!
(1931) that I’ve been carrying
around in my head for days. It was incorporated into one of Albert Perrault’s paintings. I wanted to get it down here so that I wouldn’t forget it. All the same, this is not where it belongs, not in the first version of the coming of Eva Canning, but in the second. But now I won’t forget it.

July, two years and three months ago and the spare change of a few days (one way or the other). That night alone on the highway in Massachusetts, passing by the river. That night I left Providence alone, but didn’t return alone. I think maybe now I’m ready to try to write it out in some semblance of a
story
, what I recall of the first version of my meeting with Eva. A story is, by necessity, a sort of necessary fiction, right? If it’s meant to be a true story, then it becomes a synoptic history. I read that phrase someplace, but I can’t for the life of me recall when or where. But I mean, a “true” story, or what we call history, can only ever bear a passing resemblance to the facts, as history is far too complex to ever reduce to anything as clear-cut as a conventional narrative. My history, the history of a city or a nation, the history of a planet or the universe. We can only approximate. So, now that’s what I’ll do. I’ll write an approximation of that night, July 8, the most straightforward I can manage.

But I’ll also keep in mind that history is a slave to reductionism.

Telling this story, I diminish it. I reduce it. I make of it a
synodic
history.

I
render
it. That night. This night.

Begin here:

I work until ten o’clock, so I’ve driven the Honda because I dislike walking home from the bus stop after dark. The Armory is a much tamer neighborhood than it used to be, but better safe than sorry, et cetera. I drive home to Willow Street, and Abalyn is sitting on the sofa with her laptop, writing. I go to the kitchen and pour
myself a glass of milk and make a fluffernutter sandwich, plenty enough dinner. I rarely eat very much at a time. I snack, I suppose. I bring the milk and my saucer with the sandwich back to the parlor and sit down on the sofa with Abalyn.

“It’s a beautiful night,” I say. “We should go for a drive. It’s a beautiful night for a drive.”

“Is it?” Abalyn asks, briefly glancing up from the screen of the laptop. “I haven’t been outside today.”

“You shouldn’t do that,” I reply. “You shouldn’t stay cooped up in here all day.” I take another bite and watch her while I chew. After I swallow, and have a sip of milk, I ask her what she’s writing.

“A review,” which is what I would have guessed, so it doesn’t seem like much of an answer.

For a few moments, maybe for a few minutes, I eat my sticky sandwich and she types. I almost don’t ask about the drive again, because there’s something so peaceful about the rhythm of the evening as it’s playing out. But then I do ask the question, and from
that
everything else follows.

“No, Imp,” she says, looking up at me again. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got a deadline. I need to have this piece finished in the next couple of hours. I should have finished it yesterday.” She tells me the name of the game, and it’s one I’d watched her play, but I’ve entirely forgotten what it was. “I’m sorry,” she says again.

“No, that’s okay. No problem.” I try not to sound disappointed, but I’ve never been very good at hiding disappointment. It almost always shows, so I will assume she heard it that night.

“Know what?” she says. “Why don’t you go, anyway? No reason you shouldn’t, just because I’ve got to work. Might even be better without me along. More quiet and all.”

“It won’t be better without you.”

I finish my sandwich and my milk and set the saucer and the empty glass on the floor beside the sofa.

“I still say you shouldn’t let me keep you from going. It’s supposed to rain the rest of the week.”

“You’re sure? It’s all right if I go without you, I mean.”

“Positive. I’ll probably still be up when you get back, this one’s turning out to be such a bitch.”

I tell her that I won’t be gone more than a couple of hours at the most, and she says, “Well, then I’ll definitely still be up when you get back.”

Regardless, I almost don’t go. There’s a wash of apprehension, or dread. Some brand of misgiving. It isn’t so very different from what I felt back when the arithmomania was so bad, or the night I saw the raven-nuns in the park, or on innumerable other occasions when the crazy kicks into overdrive. Dr. Ogilvy has said repeatedly that whenever this happens, I should make a concerted effort to go ahead and do the thing that I’d meant to do, but was suddenly afraid of doing. Within reason, she’s said, I shouldn’t let the delusions and magical thinking and neuroses prevent me from living a normal life. Which means not locking up.

Normal is a bitter pill that we rail against.

Imp isn’t sure what that means. It just occurred to her, and she didn’t want to lose it.

I dislike this language, the detached argot of psychiatry and psychology. Words like
codependent
and
normal
, phrases like
magical thinking
. They disturb me far more than
crazy
and
insane
. Let it be enough to say,
There’s a wash of apprehension, or dread.

Even so, I almost decide not to go alone. I almost reach for the book I’ve been reading, or go to my studio to work on the painting I’ve been trying to finish.

“I think it would be good for you,” Abalyn says, not looking away from the screen, her fingers still tapping away at the keyboard. “I don’t want to become a ball and chain.”

And this calls to mind another warning from Dr. Ogilvy, that if
I ever should find myself in a relationship, not to allow my illness to let it drift into codependence. Not to risk losing my self-sufficiency.

“If you’re sure.”

“I’m totally sure, Imp. Go. Get out. It’s an order,” and she laughs. “If it’s not too late when you get home, we’ll watch a movie.”

“I have work tomorrow,” I say. “I can’t stay up that late.”

“Go,” she tells me again, and she stops typing long enough to make a shooing motion with her left hand. “I’ll still be here when you get home.”

So I got my keys, and a summer sweater just in case the night was chillier than it had seemed coming home from work. I kiss her, and say I won’t be gone long.

“Be careful,” she says. “Don’t drive so fast. One of these nights, you’re gonna get a ticket. Or hit a deer.” I reply that I’m always careful. I sound more defensive than I meant to, but Abalyn doesn’t appear to have noticed.

“You have your phone?” she asks.

It’s almost eleven thirty when I leave the house, but I don’t have to be at work until eleven the next morning. I pull back out onto Willow, turn onto Parade Street, then right on Westminster. I hardly think about where I might be headed. I hardly ever do on these drives. Any forethought or planning seems to defeat the purpose. Their therapeutic value seems to lie in their spontaneity, in the particular routes and destinations always being accidental. From Westminster, I cross the interstate and drive through downtown, with all its bright lights and unlit alleyways. I turn left, north, onto North Main Street, and pass Old North Burial Ground.

I don’t play the radio. I never play the radio on my night drives.

So, past North Burial Ground, and I continue on through Pawtucket, North Main becoming Highway 122. There’s more traffic than I would like, but then there’s almost always more traffic than I’d like. It’s long after midnight by the time I get to Woonsocket,
with its decaying, deserted mills and the roaring cacophony of Thunder Mist Falls, there where the Blackstone River slips over the weirs of the Woonsocket Falls Dam. I pull into the parking lot on the eastern side of the dam. When I get out of the car, I look up and see that there’s a ring around the moon, reminding me of Abalyn’s warning that rain was on the way. But rain tomorrow, not tonight. Tonight the sky is clear and specked with stars. I lock the Honda’s doors and cross the otherwise empty parking lot and stand at the railing; I try hard to concentrate on nothing but the violent noise of the water crashing down onto the ragged granite island below the dam.

BOOK: The Drowning Girl
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