This essay first appeared in the author’s essay collection, Not A Place On Any Map.
“It was reported her hat and cane had been found on the bank of the Ouse River. Mrs. Woolf had been ill for some time.” –Virginia Woolf Believed Dead, by special cable to The New York Times, April 2nd, 1941
A year since we bought the house along the river and weeks since it rained. But now, thunderstorms crackle the edges of sky, perhaps in the next valley, or in the one over from that. Close enough that standing on the back deck, I feel a whisper of wetness on my arms, like the spray from a prow after a lone wave, a sensation I wait for again and again. The dogs tap around the house, circling one corner and sitting, then getting up again to perform the same ritual in another corner. Are they looking for safety or comfort, or simply driven to complete the dance? The storm cracks a whip over the house, and Jazzy, the rescue pit bull with bad nerves like her human mamma, dashes—as if under a hail of enemy fire—from her pallet to the bathtub. Diving into the tub, the shower curtain crashes down upon her, and there’s nothing to do now but go to the medicine cabinet for the doggy sedatives. The storm is coming.
The river is as low as we’ve seen it, the river bed a bleached boneyard of granite and glacial till, and I am—as usual—antsy for the rain, for a deluge, for something to happen. I scramble along the riverside, picking trash out from between rocks and gnarled knots of the boxelder roots that cling to the riverbanks, exposed by erosion. But I shan’t go mad, not today, I think, as Keith grins from the yard. He hitches one pant leg up, leans on the weed eater like a cane, and waves. “No hat or cane,” I shout, but he cups one hand over his left ear to indicate he doesn’t hear. I’ve been reading Woolf and thinking about suicide—not as something I want to do, nor as a romantic gesture—but as an act that is both single and cumulative. It’s one act in a long line of others, like fetching the mail, making love, and baking pies, but it’s one that wins out somehow. I imagine Woolf filling her pockets with these heavy Vermont stones and then drifting down river. I imagine her sitting lower and lower in the water, until she spins out of view, around the bend in the river by the dairy farm. But nothing if not practical, I allow that drowning oneself in such shallow water would be difficult, if not comically macabre.
I yank a mud-caked skein of pantyhose free from the box elders and hold them up for Keith’s appraisal. “Creepy,” he yells. As usual, I’m looking for something: an image, an object, something of use, a release. I find one feedbag, one can of Skoal, an ear of corn (munched clean), and a small, flat bottle of something called “Dr. True’s Elixir, Established 1851, Auburn, ME.” Later, I look it up online and find it was an herbal remedy for pinworms, something akin to bitters, along with wild claims of digestive rapture and testimonials detailing expulsions of spotted lizards and live, 80-foot tape worms. Medical researchers later debunked the claims, and Dr. True had to remove all mention of worms from his advertising, yet sales of the remedy continued to skyrocket. I suppose everyone wants to believe in an elixir.
I bag my trash haul and put the elixir in my pocket, but I am still waiting for something. The storm. We need the rain, yes, but more than the rain, I need the relief that comes after the rain, the relief that comes after the awful black mounting and the storms marching upon the land. I need the rain to come and wash me clean.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/AdamChandler86