by Marcia Lee Laycock
For as long as she could remember, Cassie had fallen asleep listening to the river sighing and whispering beneath her bedroom window. She had discovered if she laid her ear on one of the logs that made up the wall separating her room from the swirling current, the sound was clear, as though it were magnified. She would wrap her quilt around her and lay her small body along the logs, and dream that she was part of the water, always moving in slim silver streaks, catching the light.
Her father had added her bedroom onto the back of the cabin when she was a baby, newly weaned. He had added another room onto the side when her brother Andrew was born, and had started a room for Joshua, but Cassie had begged to have the baby in with her for a while. After all, she was ten and very reliable, and Josh had been so tiny, so very tiny. The crib was put under the other window in her room by the river, and the work on the last addition had gone slowly. Now, of course, it had been abandoned altogether.
Cassie sat up suddenly, staring for a moment into the blackness, into the corner where she had seen the spider’s web earlier that day. Then she remembered she had swept it away and cleaned the logs from floor to ceiling before getting into bed. Slowly she lay back, covering her ears with her hands and rolling over to the edge, away from the wall, as far as she could without falling out. She fell back to sleep curled tightly into a ball, her hands still clamped over her ears.
As morning light spread across the floor of the bedroom, Cassie became aware of her tingling arm and the stiffness of her back and legs. Then she heard the river and slipped quickly from her bed, dressed and went into the kitchen. She began laying kindling in the stove’s firebox, aware of her parents, moving about in their bedroom. Her mother was first to appear, in a heavy housecoat and moccasin slippers trimmed with white rabbit fur. Cassie stared down at the slippers, remembering how she had stroked Josh’s cheek with the fur and how he squealed, tucking his chin down.
“Cass, we need water. Go fill a pail for me, will you?”
“But I’m lighting the stove.”
“I’ll do that. Your Dad will want his coffee.”
Her mother pushed her gently toward the door as she spoke. Cassie slowly pulled on a pair of heavy rubber boots, took a white plastic pail from the porch and pushed through the screen door. The sound of the river seemed to flow over her as she walked toward it, staring at the bottom of the pail gripped tightly in both hands. She followed the path automatically, stopping at the edge of the large smooth rock where she had so often dipped the pail into the river. In the heat of the summer she would sometimes lie on this rock, her cheek pressed to the cold stone, her hands trailing in the ice cold water. Now she stood trembling, staring down at the rush, the toes of her boots carefully placed at the edge. She must have stood there for some time, unaware of anything but the swirling eddies and whirlpools a few inches beneath her feet, unaware of her father, standing behind her, watching.
He said her name softly and placed a large hand on her small shoulder, feeling it tremble, then jerk back from his touch. “It’s all right. I’ll get the water, Cass.”
She dropped the pail and ran to the house, the heavy rubber boots thudding on hard-packed earth. When she reached the front door she stood for a while leaning heavily against it, her chest heaving. She stayed there until her father came with the pail, reached around her and opened the door without saying a word. Her mother looked up and seemed about to speak, but a glance at her husband made her turn back to the stove, her question unspoken.
Andrew charged in, breaking the silence. “What’s for breakfast, Mom? I’m starved.” He peered around his mother at the stove as he shoved his shirt-tail into his pants.
Jim Chambers chuckled. “Are you ever anything else?”
Cassie watched the laughter in her father’s eyes fade as he saw her watching him. She quickly looked away. Her mother placed a plate of toast on the table and sat down as they all bowed their heads and waited for the usual blessing to be said. It was the custom at the morning meal to ask the blessing not only on the food but on the family, naming each one and asking for God’s hand upon them. As Cassie listened, her father named each of them, speaking as though God were sitting there at the table, then he paused. Cassie clutched at her dress, waiting. “And Lord, be with little Josh too, and give us peace. Amen.”
Cassie’s hand trembled as she took a piece of toast from the plate. She did not look up nor speak as the others discussed the day ahead. She stared at the toast in front of her, remembering how they had laughed the first time they gave Josh peanut butter. He had made a face and licked the roof of his mouth several times, then grabbed a handful of the brown butter and smeared it over the tray of his high chair. Cassie turned suddenly from the table. The baby’s high chair was gone from its place in the corner.
“What did you do with it?”
The tone of her voice caused everyone to jump. She continued to stare at the empty corner.
Her father sighed. “We gave it away, Cassie, with the crib.”
She turned back to the table, lifted the piece of toast from her plate, then put it back and stood up. “I’d better get ready for school.”
Cassie’s mother waited for her to leave the room before speaking. “I’m worried about her, Jim.”
The tall man wrapped his arms around his wife before answering . “Give her time, Lynn. We all need time.”
Lynn held tightly to her husband and sighed. “I know. I just wish we could leave, go away for awhile.”
She felt the strength of her husband’s rough hands as they pushed her gently away. He looked down at her. “Leaving wouldn’t solve anything. We’d just take it all with us and bring it all back again.”
Cassie found them still in each other’s arms when she returned to the kitchen. Her father stepped away and turned to her. “I have to take the truck into town this morning, Cass. Why don’t you ride with me?”
“No. I want to take the bus.”
“I’ll go with you, Dad!” Andrew bounded into the kitchen, his books in disarray under his arm.
“Okay, son, let’s go then.” Jim did not take his eyes from his daughter’s averted face as he spoke. As he turned to leave his shoulders sagged making him look small and older than he was.
Cassie waited until she heard the truck rumble from the yard, then gathered her books and left the house. The morning was fresh with the first crisp touch of fall. Cassie thought impatiently of the winter. Winter would stop the river, seal it into a thick, silent slab of gray. Following the lane toward the road where the school bus would pick her up, she walked slowly, glancing now and then between the straight green trunks of the aspen trees. Now and then she caught the gleam of the water.
She stopped and listened, then put her books down carefully on the side of the road and plunged through the bush. She did not feel the wild rose bushes scratching at her legs, or the thick high-bush cranberry that slapped at her face, but she could hear the river getting louder, laughing louder, as she ran toward it.
Panting and disheveled, she reached the river bank, stooped and grabbed up a handful of stones, heaving them into the water. “I know you have him! Momma says he’s with Jesus, but I know you have him!” She was whispering the words between clenched teeth as she threw stone after stone. “Daddy said it was my fault, but it was you – you called him and he went to you. You took Josh away.”
As she stooped to pick up another rock, a large black spider crawled out from under it. Cassie froze. Then she began to scream. She did not know she was screaming. She was staring at the spider, studying it the way she and her brother had studied that other spider on that other morning last spring.
It was a morning like this one, cool and bright with early spring sunshine. Andrew had noticed the spider first as it worked delicately, spinning a fine web between two small branches on the bush near their front door.
“Hey, Cass, come look at this!”
Cassie had Josh in her arms as she stepped into the yard. She quickly became entranced with the spider, watching as the insect skittered along the fine threads of the web that held the morning dew. Josh had begun to squirm and she put him down beside her, his small hand in hers. She became fascinated with the colors on the spider’s body, the way it moved its spindly legs with such precision. She did not notice when Joshua’s small hand slipped from hers, nor hear his tiny bare feet as he padded along the path to the river.
They were still watching the spider when their mother called them for breakfast. Cassie had not noticed Josh was gone until she stepped back into the kitchen. They all dashed back into the yard, calling his name, looking up and down the lane, thrashing through the bushes. Cassie was staring down the path to the river when her father had caught her by the shoulders and begun to shake her. “You were supposed to be watching him! Where did he go? Where did he go?” Her mother had come, finally, and pulled him away, leaving the girl silent and trembling.
Someone was shaking her now. Slowly she became aware of her mother’s voice. “Cassie, stop, please, stop it!” The voice sounded like someone yelling beside the blaring whistle of a fast moving train. Slowly the whistle began to change into the wail of a human scream and finally she knew that it was her own. She stopped and stared for a moment into her mother’s face.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “I’m sorry.” She let the stone slip from her hand and let her mother lead her along the river bank to the house.
They were still sitting on the couch, Cassie wrapped in a large quilt, crying quietly, when her father came home. Lynn met him at the door and Cassie could hear the murmur of their voices. Her father came and sat down beside her, slowly putting his arm around her. She stiffened beside him. They sat silently for some time. When Cassie finally looked into his face and saw that he too was crying, she sagged into him. “I’m sorry,” she said again.
“I know, Cass, I know. I should never have blamed you. I was in a panic and I just didn’t know what to do. I know it wasn’t your fault.”
“But I should have been watching him!”
“So should I, and your mother, and Andrew. All of us, Cass, not just you, all of us.”
Cassie crawled into her father’s lap and lay there for a long time before asking one more question. “Will God forgive us, Daddy?”
She felt his strong arms tighten about her as he answered. “Oh, yes, my girl. He already has.”