I had one friend named Connie Bronson who lived two houses up the street from me and was one year younger than I and two grades behind because she had had brain fever. She had blood-red hair and a freckle-spattered face, and was called Bones by the boys at school, who regarded her with intense loathing and in bad weather often spent whole recesses devising other, more terrible epithets for her.
All of this was a source of great sorrow to her mother, who took a job in a drugstore so that Connie could have piano and tap-dancing lessons, and gave parties for her on every pretext, ordering huge cakes from the bakery encrusted with coarse, dusty frosting and blowsy sugar-roses, calling the mothers of each of the children in Connie’s class to be sure that the parties were well-attended.
She had once even bought the girl a pony which, since her means were limited, was very old and sickly and ill-tempered, and was put up for sale again a few weeks later because it bit Connie’s hand, breaking her little finger, which, though it was set and re-set, healed veering outward at the first knuckle. This, of course, cast a show over those of her mother’s hopes that rested with the piano lessons, and provided another theme for the inventions of the little boys at school.
Connie, however, cared about none of this, meeting hatred with hatred as intense, yet of another order, preoccupied and entirely self-possessed. She apparently accepted the world as hostile and decided to conform herself to it without defensiveness or apology—even with a sort of detachment. In the spring and summer she never left her house without a large glass jar with holes punched in the lid, into which she put bees most commonly, but also spiders, ants, butterflies and grasshoppers. The jar was always in her hand, and often at odd moments she would study its tattered and languishing contents, then give the jar a thorough shaking and go on with what she had been doing. Sometimes, looking me full in the face with the same impersonal calm, she would pinch my arm until I hit her hard enough to make her stop, and then we could be on good terms again, as if she had only felt that the lawfulness she had discovered in things must now and then be reconfirmed.
We remained friends, however, only until the summer I was nine. I remember one morning very early in the spring of that year when the earth in the garden had just begun to soften and there was still snow in the woods across the river and in all the ditches and gullies, when Connie came walking across the Simpsons’ back yard, which lay between ours and hers. I could tell that she had left the house without waking her mother, because her clothing, which was usually buckled, snapped, tied, belted, and suspended in every way her mother could contrive to make it stay on her thin body and in place, was hanging loose and pulling apart, her shirttails out and her anklets already disappearing under her heels. And although it was chilly enough so that the overalls that my grandmother had left on the clothesline overnight swung heavily in the wind and rasped when they touched, Connie wore only a scarlet sweater tied around her neck by its sleeves, like a cape.
We had planned together, the afternoon of the day before, when it had been almost warm, to get up early that day, a Saturday, and go down to the river because the snow would surely be off the banks and there might even be tadpoles or minnows in one of the pools—planning it all as we walked along from school beneath branches as barren-looking as roots with the ear shaken out of them, carrying our coats and scarves because the afternoon was bright and warm, except when the wind blew.
That was the first time I had ever gone to the river without Gil or August or my grandmother, although it ran so near our house that we always heard the sound of it, loud in the evenings after supper when Gil and August smoked their pipes on the back step and I played with Connie or alone at the foot of the garden, imagining sometimes that I would climb over the fence into the deep grass of the gully and cross the road and follow the steep little path on the other side through the trees and bushes, until I came to where the river shone among the lucid shadowed places, or glittered dimly as it swelled and broke over the rocks in its channels.
The windows of my room overlooked the river, and in warm weather, when they were left open, it seemed even louder and nearer, and as I lay waiting to fall asleep I thought I could hear every sound, even the smallest, of frogs and mosquitoes and katydids, and of the leaves of the branches that dabbled in the water, flicked by its current. On those nights the river often suggested dreams to me. But my dreams and imaginings always ended at the same place, with my having come to the river but only standing beside it or looking down on it from the bridge. Or they blended with one of the stories Connie’s mother told us when she explained to us why we must never go there except with an older person.
It was very dangerous, she said, and it was, because the river was quite deep and ran between banks of large, heaped and broken rocks in places where trees grew down close to the water and nearly met above it, keeping a constant damp shade among themselves in which ferns thrived, and skunk cabbage and huckleberries, and in which moss overgrew the ground and the rocks, stringy and slick at the brink of the water. Many children had been lost there when they came alone to fish or swim or gather berries and slipped off the rocks and were pulled away from the bank by the slow, strong current, shouting perhaps but no one would hear them, or if he did hear would not come, thinking it was only the crickets or a catbird (for sometimes I would think I heard someone calling from the river when no one else was awake, and wait until morning to ask August, who always said it was only a catbird, and would take me to the river to show me that no one was there). Or if their friends were there and saw them fall, and reached and shouted to them, they were pulled away nevertheless, to be settled on the smooth brown sand against a rock where eddying water tugged at their clothing and stirred in their hair possessively, low-voiced and tranquil, until someone at least came and saw, beneath the quiet surface speckled with pollen and pricked by water-striders, the vivid blue of a dress or sweater, and lifted the child out again.
My grandmother and Aunt Rosalie used to say that Alice had liked to go to the river alone, because she would go there in the morning or late in the evening when they thought she was in her room. I used to wonder if she really did like the river, and what she found to do when she got there. There were ranks of boats on the dresser in her room, carved by August after the engravings of sleek Phoenician vessels and Viking ships he found in my grandfather’s history books, perfect to the ringed shields mounted on their sides. But she never sailed any of them, since they might be lost or broken. My grandmother said Alice liked to pull petals off the roses and drop them into the water from the bridge or scatter bread crumbs and watch the fish rise for them. But I used to think that she did not like the river at all, and would not have gone, certainly not alone, except that sometimes she thought she heard someone crying there, too, and went down by herself to see. The stories of lost children were told and retold, and she must have heard them, and wondered about them while she lay in her bed and listened to the hushed incessant river, as I did.
But that Saturday was disappointing. I watched Connie from the kitchen window as she walked unevenly across the clumps of stiff grass, shadowless in the gray morning, and went to the door to open it for her as noiselessly as possible, since it was not yet six and everyone in the house would be sleeping for another hour.
(“Hi, Connie,” I whispered.
“Do you still want to go?”
She stretched her sweater down over her thin arms. “It isn’t very warm out.”
“You should’ve brought a coat.”
“It’s too cold anyhow.” And she seated herself on one of the chairs at the kitchen table. “I bet the river has ice on it.”
“We could wait a little while, till it’s warmer.”
Connie shrugged. “What’s in the sack?”
“I brought cake.” She placed a bag beside mine on the table. “Let’s eat ‘em here.”
“You said you wanted to go to the river with me.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t say I wanted to freeze to death.” Connie had opened the bag of sandwiches and was judiciously pulling one of them into ragged halves. “If I took a chill I could get sick again, you know,” she said sententiously, gazing at me as she licked jam from a skeletal finger.
“I could loan you my coat,” I said. “Wait, I know what!” I went to the door of the pantry and reached up into the metal box nailed to the doorframe, in which wooden matches were kept, and spread a dozen of them over my open hand, for Connie to see.
“Your grandma’ll kill you,” she said, but she was interested.
“She won’t find out.”
“My mom’ll kill both of us.” She reached out and took one of the matches and examined it closely. “Butchie Witherspoon can light one of these with his thumbnail.”
“So can Gil. I lit one once on the heel of my shoe.”
“Anybody can do that.” She scratched at the head with her own nail twice ineffectually, wincing each time, expecting flame to burst up. “Got any marshmallows?”
“I don’t know.”
And after that we went to the river whenever we could, almost every Saturday morning, and gradually built a fort against a mass of rocks, its perimeters delineated by more small rocks laid in an enclosing semicircle, and provisioned it with a candy bar and some band-aids and the remaining matches, all buried in a coffee can, the digging up and reburying of which constituted most of the activity in the fort.
Then as it became really warm Connie began to smuggle glass jars down to the bank until she had seven in a row against the outcropping. These she called “the dungeons” and kept filled by squatting at the edge of the water long, patient minutes—until a school of minnows came by, dusky black against the yellow-brown bottom when they passed into the sunshine—holding a jar which suddenly merged with its reflection and drew up a few of them just before they disappeared into the shadows again with a sudden, simultaneous quirk of their tails. She caught frogs, too, and butterflies, and whatever else she could trap and bottle, all of which she roasted with inquisitorial thoroughness over small fires.
I did not like the things that Connie did at the river and more than once I thought of smashing the seven jars and throwing the can of matches into the water. I even dreamed that I was with August at the beach, which was rubbled, in the dream, with blackened but still hinged and jointed bones, huge leg bones and spines and antennae, and that August was amazed, and kept stooping to pick up one after another, working it in his fingers as he asked me, “What is this? And what is this? And what is this?” while I waited, sick with guilt for him to look at them a little more closely and know.
However, if I did not allow her to make the fires and continue the persecutions I doubted that she would come any more, at least with me. So I sat around, spooning little caves in the damp sand or rinsing stones to see what colors were in them when they were wet, ignoring her most of the time, except once when I retrieved a frog which had somehow slipped away and was limping past me toward the water, weary and strangely awry after the fashion of those of her victims that were called pets for a while and were given a name and subjected to a protracted handling before being commended to the flames. I picked him up and took him back to her, and it was that night when I dreamed that I came to the river with August and found the charred bones.
One day, however, after Connie had crouched jar in hand at one place and then another along the bank with diminishing patience, she finally came over to me and said, “I can’t catch anything.”
“I can’t catch anything.”
“You’ve already caught them all.”
“No, I haven’t. I saw some tadpoles, but they were out in the middle where I couldn’t reach ‘em.”
“Probably everything will stay out there till they get farther down the river.”
Connie looked thoughtful. “I know! I could catch them when they come out from under the bridge.”
“You couldn’t even reach the water from the bridge.”
“Yes, I can. I’ll show you.”
So we went to the bridge, built jointly by my great grandfather and the man who owned the land on the other side when there were still only a few houses around ours. It was low and level, resting close above the river on squat, solid beams, and floored with beams also, several inches apart so that you could see down between them darkness and gleams of water, but nevertheless sturdy enough to support a wagon or even a car. There were also handrails perhaps four feet high, with vertical members at close intervals, all designed to keep children from falling over the sides.
Connie and I walked out onto the bridge, she scrutinizing the railing from the inside, then hoisting herself up, hanging across the top rail on her ribs so that she could look at the bridge’s outer side and the water, her brows drawn together in her absorption with some undisclosed plan.
I watched her waving, balancing legs with apprehension. “You’re going to fall over.”
“No I won't.”
“I told you you couldn’t reach far enough.”
“Yes I can.” She dropped down beside me again. “Hold that,” she said, and put the jar into my hands. I started to follow her to the end of the bridge, but she told me to go back to the middle and wait, so I did. She went around the end, and taking hold of the vertical boards under the railing stepped from the bank onto the narrow ledge and pulled herself almost upright. Then she began to move gradually toward me, leaning out sideways over the water.
“Oh, Connie, don’t,” I pleaded. “Go back. You’re going to drown!” But she was intent on her stratagem and did not answer. In a few moments she was opposite me, already looking down over her shoulder into the water for signs of prey.
“I think I see a baby perch,” she said. “It’s something pretty big. Give me that jar.”
I pressed the jar to the space between two of the boards, and then between several more, though they were all of equal width. “It won’t fit through.” So I set it on top of the railing. But Connie had slowly crouched down to the water, and held herself there by one hand. “Give it to me,” she said, indifferent to the difficulties involved.
After some hesitation, I boosted myself up on the railing as she had done, balancing on my stomach as I reached the jar down to her. She seemed to have forgotten about it entirely. “Look at that,” she said, pointing to a stationary shadow in a sunlit place, near the sand. “I bet that’s a trout.”
“It’s too big to fit in the jar. It’s too far down.”
“I wish I had a fishing pole.”
“Why don’t you take the jar,” I asked, short of breath and a little uneasy.
Connie bent down, taking a lower and lower grip on the railing. She struck the water with her hand and laughed as the fish glided away.
“Take the jar if you want it,” I said.
She looked up at me with a sudden, calm interest. “Are you scared?”
“Yes you are.” Reaching up as if for the jar she took hold of my wrist instead, and pulled me a little farther over, toward the water.
I remember my reflection in the water pulling into bright segments and merging again. “Connie, let go. Please, Connie! If you don’t, I’ll tell! I really will!” I was looking past her into the dark, cold water, already hearing the pressure in my ears and worrying about the weight of my shoes, which would hold me perhaps just inches from the air—convinced that I would surely fall in, because the sense of falling had been so real that the fact seemed inevitable.
But Connie’s mother had heard shrieking from her backyard and came running down the bank calling, “Stay where you are! Don’t move, Connie, Mother’s coming.” So Connie released my hand and began to edge along the bridge to the opposite bank, stepping into water waist deep and wading up the side while Mrs. Bronson called, “No, darling! You’ll get a chill,” white and distraught, out of breath with her running. She had stopped halfway across the bridge near where I stood brushing splinters out of the front of my dress, and she put out her hand and caressed my hair and my neck and shoulder absently at first, with a slight, cool touch, saying, “You could have both drowned. It’s a wonder you didn’t.” Then her fingers gripped my shoulder and she began to shake me a little. “You don’t have any excuse,” she said. “You’re a big girl. You know perfectly well why you’re not supposed to play down here. Don’t you?” Connie had stopped a little distance away to pull up a sodden anklet and examine a mark on her knee, while Mrs. Bronson looked at me with weary, tearful, angry eyes and shook me again to show that she expected an answer. I said yes, I knew why, but by then Mrs. Bronson had knelt on the bridge in front of Connie and was chafing her wet legs with her skirt, saying, “Oh, Connie, why do you do these things? Is it just to make me worry?” while Connie removed and replaced the pins that held her mother’s coiled hair.
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