THE RIVER FLOWS SOUTH, AND ALL THE FLOWING WATERS OF half a continent run to it — morning dew, whole gray-white fields of melting snow, rain running down rooftops and cascading through the leaves of trees, rivulets in the streets, brooks and streams and creeks and tributaries — all wash clean over the people and the land, drawing together in the broad and heavy river that pushes south. Even teardrops move to find solace in the warm southern sea; shed too many tears, and they will bear your soul along with them. A loose enough body might follow, only half aware of the currents that carry it along.
That is how Glory found herself driving south one morning in early spring as she wandered out of Minneapolis toward nowhere in particular. Descending from the long plains into Red Wing, the road fell alongside the river, which bore down so heavily against the earth that rounded bluffs rose hundreds of feet above it on either side, each pressing against the other in a rippling succession that unfolded before her, and closed over the receding scenery like a shutting door. The river ran wild, ragged with backwaters, sloughs, and marshes, and tangled with long, low islands flooded by the spring melt, so that the trees that covered them seemed planted in the water. Where the river was wide and clear and blue, gulls turned on the black tips of their wings in the air above, and were mirrored on the surface by the slower white triangles of sailboats.
She saw an eagle rise from the water, heavy with wetness and the gray fish it clutched, and she pulled onto the shoulder of the road to watch it disappear over a ridge.
She thought of that fish, how it would have been surprised by the thunder that broke through the glassy surface, like something from another world, to spirit it away into the air above. Its bulging fish eyes must have been filled at the end with visions of the river falling away into the green world like a dropped ribbon.
Here is a place to die an exotic death.
She pulled away from the shoulder and rolled down the window. The air that poured over her carried in it the hazy gray-blue of the far bluffs and the new, snow-shocked green that ascended sharply in choirs of trees on the slopes beside the road. Her dark eyes took it all in, and killed it there.
At Winona, she found a bridge whose long arch across the river prevented her from seeing its end, so that it seemed to terminate there in the sky. As the bridge lifted her up, the town dropped away on either side, flattened against the ground. Her hands began to sweat. The bridge crested, and there before her lay all the thick green of the valley rolling away into the low wall of the bluffs.
Near the end of the bridge she turned off onto an unmarked exit that curved sharply away from the road and down to an island. The asphalt gave way to a dirt road, which she followed to a small parking lot — there was a boat landing, some picnic benches, a small sand beach. She parked at the end of the lot, away from the few cars that were already there.
She put her head back against the seat, her hands still holding the wheel, and listened to the ticking sound of the engine cooling, the birdsong, and the low throbbing of a tugboat engine on the river. She whispered: “Dear God, dear God.”
A mosquito hummed in her ear.
She would walk back to where the arch of the bridge pressed firmly into the cathedral sky. From that high she would end her life by closing her eyes and pushing away from the fence with her toes.
She was afraid of doing that, which is why she hadn’t allowed herself to fully realize the abstraction of the idea. Now she reasoned that it was no more difficult than learning to jump into the deep end of the pool. That, she remembered, was simply a matter of balances. The weight of all those watching faces — the other girls, their white-capped heads bobbing at the edge of the pool; the instructor treading water out there, her arm outstretched as if to lie, “Take my hand”; the parents in the bleachers — all those faces were like smooth white stones being piled into the arms she held out stiffly before her. When they became heavy enough, the balance tipped, and she threw herself away into the deep water of the pool, where she touched the bottom and choked on chlorinated water. She had been eight then.
She rolled up the open window, leaving a small crack for air, and climbed into the backseat and curled up there to wait for darkness.
She dreamed of nothing. When she woke it was not yet dark; orange light sluiced low through the canopy of leaves and dappled her face. It was hot enough in the car that she had to peel her skin away from the vinyl. She thought she would walk up to the bridge in the day’s last light, with the idea that she could survey the lay of the land.
She went out along the dusty road, beating the blood back into her prickly, sleepy legs. A handful of teenage kids had gathered along the thin beach and started a small fire from which they watched her as she walked by. Rock music with the bass turned up pounded out of their cars — an old blue pickup truck, a rusted out Honda hatchback — so that she could not hear what they were saying to her, or about her.
She slid shut the lids of her eyes and lifted them: there was the child, intent once again on inscribing the road.
A small girl in a white dress crouched down over her bare feet on the road ahead, drawing in the dirt with a long stick. The girl raised her sun-browned face and squinted at Glory against the light, her face framed by tangled blonde hair. Glory hesitated, then stopped. She slid shut the lids of her eyes and lifted them: there was the child, intent once again on inscribing the road. She must have been about four. Glory scanned the area for a mother or father or babysitter, but the girl seemed to belong to no one. She turned briefly to glance back at the kids tending the fire. They were oblivious to Glory and the girl: one of them had thrown a string of firecrackers into the flame, which erupted in a shower of sparks and explosions that sent them scrambling away, shouting and laughing.
The problem of the girl in the road remained. Had she wandered out of the woods?
It’s only a girl. Not my girl. Just a child.
She recalled old habits with small children and pretended to herself that she still knew them.
“Hello!” she called out. “What are you making?”
The girl looked up at her briefly and scuttled sideways a little to continue her drawing. “Don’t step on it!”
“I’m not going to step on it, honey. I just want to see what you’re making.” She looked down at the lines traced in the dirt but could find no pattern in them.
“I’m making words,” the girl said proudly. “See?”
“What does it say?” Glory asked.
The girl was amazed. “Can’t you read?” she exclaimed, standing up. “Oh my gosh.” And she turned around and slapped a sandy hand against her forehead in exasperation before bending to the task again.
Glory crouched down beside her and watched as the girl, who stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth, carefully shaped curves and intersecting lines. If those made words, she had accumulated perhaps a full paragraph there on the road, which Glory tried to decipher but could not. This was not the chicken-scratching of preschool children; here was a full-blown foreign language.
“Aren’t you going to tell me what the words say?”
The girl shook her head.
She stopped writing and considered Glory a moment, as if their roles had reversed: her the preoccupied adult, Glory the pestering child.
“My birthday is pretty soon,” the girl declared. “I’m going to be five.”
She examined her work intently. “There are ants here! Get out of there you ants! Stop stepping on my words!” She began flicking at them with the stick.
Glory stared at the girl and smelled the water and listened to the low sound of a tugboat’s horn somewhere down the river. Five little ducklings, herded by their mother, bobbed in the waves and drifted with the current. The span of the bridge loomed in the near distance; a red light flashed on top of it, and white lights brighter than comets marked the few passing cars. Beyond the bridge the sun flared orange and dropped behind a distant bluff, and the shadow passed over them. Glory looked straight up; a thin net of stars was already set across the darkened sky. Panicked birds seemed to flutter and clatter inside the white bone of her ribs.
She stood up. “Well,” she said, “I’m leaving now. Is your mother around?”
“I don’t know.” The girl had placed her face close to the ground and was scowling at an offending ant. She flicked it away. “Where are you going?”
“To that bridge.”
“To see what the river looks like from up there.” Suddenly she added, “Would you like to come with me?”
The girl gazed off toward the bridge distractedly, then flung the twig into the bushes. “Okay,” she said, and took off running toward it. “Come on!”
Glory followed the child. To a casual observer, she would appear to be the child’s mother herself.
They ascended a grassy embankment to the foot of the bridge, and went along its walkway. A chain-link fence prevented them from falling out into the space that gathered in exponentially increasing volume beneath them as they made their way up the bridge’s long arc. Their shadows turned like the second hands of clocks as glaring headlights passed one after another. There was a small space around where the girders had been punched through the floor of the bridge, through which Glory could see the water far below.
At the top, the girl stopped and clutched the fence with her hands and pressed her face against it.
“Whoa! It’s like flying!” she cried.
It was indeed like flying. The wind lifted Glory’s long hair, contributing to the illusion of motion when she moved right up to the edge and leaned against the fence to take in the broad landscape. Her body tensed against the sensation of falling. Small birds shot out of the trees on the island and passed below them. Faint circles pulsed out from the bridge footings where the long bow of the river passed over them, its heavy water pressed flat against the ground, pushing down, sliding south like some massive snake.
“It’s real beautiful,” the girl said. She pulled herself up the fence, using a crossbar for a footing. Glory grabbed at the back of her dress.
“I want to see!” the girl protested irritably. “I won’t fall.”
For a while they were still, watching the darkness pool beneath them as the light faded in the sky. The girl stuck her thumb in her mouth and chewed it reflectively. She tired, stood down from the fence, stepped up on it again, and stood down again.
“Carry me,” she said, reaching up to Glory with her free hand.
“You’re a big girl. You’re too heavy to carry.”
The girl shook her head and stood there with her arm upraised in supplication. Quietly Glory kneeled and took the girl in her arms, turning her around so she could see the river. She rested her head on the girl’s shoulder and took in the soapy smell of her skin, felt her blood and breath moving so close, noticed the roundness of her small limbs. The downy hairs at the nape of the girl’s neck tickled her nose.
Glory glanced self-consciously at the passing traffic, aware of the tableau they presented: Madonna and Child, illuminated in ephemeral beams of light. Twice as a young girl she had been recruited to play Mary in Christmas pageants; she had forgotten that.
The river below could be the dark heart of the beast, or its mouth stretched wide, waiting.
The girl shivered. She was worried about the dark; more specifically, the unnamed monsters that live in the fabric of the dark. There is nothing to worry about, Glory told her. How do you know? the girl asked.
“Monsters are not real,” Glory said. “They’re only in your imagination.”
The girl was skeptical. Of course no one actually sees monsters, the girl countered, because in the first place they generally only come out when it is too dark to see anything at all, and moreover monsters by their very nature tend to lurk in hiding. Then where do they go during the day? Glory challenged. Into the ground, the girl assured her. And what happens if they get you?
“Then they eat you.”
At this sobering news they fell silent. Glory considered that she should have disabused the girl of her fears, but who was she to argue? It could be, after all, that the children were right and the adults were unknowingly caught in a state of denial. The river below could be the dark heart of the beast, or its mouth stretched wide, waiting.
Instead Glory placed her lips close to the girl’s ear and whispered. “I had a girl just like you, once,” she said, and was surprised that she had. Let me tell you a secret, strange child. “A pretty little baby with a red face and scrunched-up eyes and wisps of blonde hair. She would have grown up to be just like you, I know she would have.
“What’s your baby’s name?”
“She has no name.”
The girl was offended, and scowled. “Why?”
“She has no name because she died.”
Glory nodded. “Yes, she did.”
“She could still have a name.”
“She has no name because she died,” Glory said, the words pouring from her throat like water from a vase, “because I drowned her. In a bathtub. In a motel room. She fell all bloody into the water, she was splashing around, crying. I was afraid someone might hear her. I was afraid — ”
She stopped, shuddered. She was hyperventilating, and unbalanced, and so she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the girl had twisted around to watch her in mute wonderment. Glory found in the girl’s face a vague apprehension, a sudden uncertainty. The girl lowered her gaze and gnawed the knuckle of her thumb ever more vigorously. She understood, Glory thought; she understood, in the way children do, the secret that had been placed in her consciousness like an egg in a nest, like a soft mass of fish eggs at the bottom of the river.
“You go make your words out of that.” Glory lifted the girl’s chin and spoke in a voice that was strong and clear. “You write that in the road for everyone to see, write that there was a mother who killed her child with her own hands. Do you understand?”
The girl nodded shyly.
“Now there’s your father. Is that your father calling for you down there?” They could hear a voice calling out on the island below, repeating a name that Glory could not make out exactly. She let the girl down to the ground and took her hand and led her along. When they had descended to the road again she sent the girl out before her toward the voice and the circle of light cast by the fire on the beach. Glory hung behind and watched from the shadows. She heard, but did not see, the child reunited with the man — presumably her father — whose low, querying voice carried out into the dark indistinctly.
As she returned to the bridge’s apex, the jumping off point, she thought of the child, the first she had touched or even breathed on since the day she had drowned her newborn. God had given souls to mere animals that way, breathing on them. The breath of God flowed out, and there was the Milky Way, a cloud of hot stars strewn all across the darkness; the breath of God flowed out, and all the world was covered in verdant abundance. God breathed and life upon life streamed out in long ribbons through time, from the inception of the universe down through all of human history, passed on from man to woman to child again and again, until it was cut off, abruptly snapped, in her hands, her very own hands. She was as guilty as Cain.
That she had shared this with the girl did not remove her guilt, nor did it ease her conscience. Yet it was all she could make out of what she had, having escaped the judgment of her peers. Their judgment would have been insufficient anyway. They could condemn her, lock her up until she died, or even kill her themselves, but in the end, she thought, it was all mere lip service; they were all barely less guilty than she, and in no position to mete out justice.
But the little girl in the road was as close to innocence as a human being could hope to be, so much so that she hardly believed what she had been told. She would grow into full comprehension slowly. Over a period of years her disbelief would increase until perhaps she would convince herself that no woman once stood on a bridge over the river and confessed to her, of all people, a child, of killing her own live offspring. The girl would grow up, and all of it would become a strange nightmare that would make her shudder as she watched her own small children sleeping. And she would wonder at herself, amazed that such thoughts could even enter her head. But there they would be, and there they would stay, and such would be the judgment on what Glory had done.
And this satisfied her, that the truth would not die with her, but live on in some way, as a testament to her guilt.
Glory was strong, able to pull herself to the top of the fence and then put her legs over in one smooth swinging motion. She trembled. She sat on the fence, balancing by finding a hold in it with her heels, and took the measure of the depth below her. The mottled water still reflected what light was left in the evening sky.
“It’s a long, long way to eternity,” she commented to herself hoarsely. Her taut arms and legs were shaking horribly. She imagined that the dark surface would open like a door when she hit; she imagined, and fervently hoped, that as she plunged through, she would be stripped of her body, and her soul, by the mercy of God, would be washed clean. She was not sure of this — in fact, now her hope was as finely balanced as her body, and in that balance, all was surreal.
She braced herself, all coiled inside, and waited for the cars to pass, just as if she were about to cross the street. She calculated the drivers, blinded by headlights, couldn’t see her; still, she wanted to be sure. When the last of them had passed, and it was quiet, she gathered her courage. She prayed that she would fall into the hand of God, and pitched out into the soft blackness.
The sound she made etched into the emptiness her exact place in the world, until the river closed over it, all smooth.
She did not die, which contradicted her expectations. Instead, she came bobbing up to the surface, her white face lit against the water by the light of the moon, her black hair spread out all around her.
She floated along like that, unconscious, until presently a boat came and cautiously circled her, its motor gurgling in the water. The figure of a man bent over the side of the boat, which tipped toward the water, righted itself, then tipped again. The boat spun in slow circles, drifting, as he worked over her, breathing his breath into her lungs, beating life into her heart.
She coughed up river water, and her eyes fluttered open. She stared up at the stars of the sky moving silently above her, a giant wheel of light turning in the vast darkness. The man pointed his boat toward shore, where his daughter waited patiently.
This story first appeared in the November 1997 issue of Minnesota Monthly magazine.