Bewitched Water

Catharine watched the murky brown river from the window of her new home, a three-storey brick on New Castle’s historic register.  She had dreamed of owning one of these storybook houses along the Delaware River.  On the weekends, she’d come to read on a public bench, and when student papers accumulated or the weather was cold or wet, like this gray late September day, she’d go into one of the cafés and drink pots of hot tea. 

She eyed her well-worn copy of Wuthering Heights lying at the top of a box.  Later, I’ll shelve the books and alphabetize them, she thought, bringing the cup of steaming brown tea to her lips.  “Tea,” she said to the windowpane, “or as the Brit Thomas de Quincey called it, ‘bewitched water.’”  She’d never been to England, the home of many of her beloved authors.  “That will have to change, too.”  She set her cup onto its saucer on the kitchen counter as a slim blond woman in jeans and a fuchsia pullover walked into the muddy backyard.  Her backyard.  But it wasn’t much of a yard, really.  The small patch of muddy ground soon turned to tufts of drowned grass and tall weeds, and down the slight slope, the river.  What would someone want in the marsh? 

“Plenty of places to walk in the public areas,” Catherine murmured in disapproval.  She thought of tapping on the window and wagging her finger as she shook her head, a gesture she used when watching the children on the playground from the classroom window.  The woman stooped and stared at some point far out upon the dark river.  The autumn day overcast, no sun shone on the ripples that knit its surface.  Catharine shivered.

She recognized a fellow romantic soul.  She could share her good fortune.  Let her come into the yard.  So what?  What is it about water that draws us?  

She didn’t blame the woman for her trespass.  Before she had bought this house and was still a visitor, Catharine had peeked at the lives behind the antique windowpanes—the bookshelves, the draperies, the centuries’ old tables, the paired wingback chairs pulled close to the fire.  And then one day, as she walked down the street with its cobblestone gutters and crossed to the uneven brick sidewalk, there was her favorite flat-faced Federal-style brick house, with a bright yellow Weichert Realty sign wired to the wrought iron railing.  She took a leaflet from the box describing the house—“You don’t see houses overlooking the Delaware River on the market too often!  Built in 1830, the house boasts deep windows, original wood floors, built-ins, two fireplaces and a recently remodeled kitchen.  The master bedroom has access to a rooftop deck for spectacular river views!—$739,900.”  She had eyed the perfect symmetry of the house with its double-hung sash windows and dentilwork and made up her mind to buy it.

Surely she’ll stop before she gets to the marsh.  

$739,900.  Her father would say it was obscene to pay that much for a home when she could get a perfectly good row house like the one she grew up in for $200,000.  That was exactly what he said.  Her mother joined the protest.  I don’t like you being so close to the river.  Is it safe for a single girl?  Catharine had turned 40 this past February.  She had the money, or most of it, even on an English teacher’s salary.  She’d saved nearly all of the inheritance from her grandmother and set aside 18 years’ worth of hoping to move from her parents’ home to her husband’s.  Except he had yet to turn up, and she had grown tired of waiting.  Now she stood on the doorstep, literally and figuratively.  So what if my Heathcliff hasn’t come along?  It’s okay to want something for myself.  It is okay.  

The woman had descended the sloping back yard into the water.  It lapped about her calves, the brown grass brushing against her blue jeans as she took off her sweater and lay it upon the water beside her.  She removed her shoes and jeans and stood staring at the water.  The woman’s skin was pale against her black cotton underclothes.  She lowered her underwear and stepped out and unhooked her bra.  “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Catharine said to the wavy glass, but then she considered that perhaps the woman had been bathing here since summer and had not yet realized that the house that observed her skinnydipping was now occupied.  

Catherine felt an obscure embarrassment, as though she were the intruder and not this woman.  She noticed that the woman’s breasts sagged, not low like an old woman’s, but lower than the hard breasts of her young students.  Catherine had the same tummy bulge.  The woman’s bleached blond hair and slim figure had made her seem like a woman in her 20s.  In her 40s, most likely, Catharine now realized, and her heart softened. 

How odd.  It’s too cold for swimming, and the current is swift.  Catharine tapped on the glass.  The woman did not turn around.  And to let her clothes float away.  Catharine was reminded of Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, a novel that always made her uncomfortable, angry even.  Edna should return to her husband and children.  What a silly thing to walk into the water to your death.  So what if Edna never became an artist?  So what if she couldn’t have Robert?  She didn’t like to think of Edna at the bottom of the river, her long brown hair swaying like marsh grass.  She knew the book lay at the bottom of one of the boxes.

She tapped on the glass.  The woman didn’t turn.  She knocked as hard as she dared without breaking the window.  Still, the woman did not turn.  “I should call to her.  I’ve had troubles of my own.”  Let’s share a pot of tea and trouble, Catharine’s mother would say.  How bad can troubles get to make a woman stand naked in the marshy area of the Delaware River?  

The woman waded into the river.  Catharine tried to open the kitchen window, but it was painted shut.  “Stop!” she yelled.  The woman waded deeper.  “I don’t want to see this.  Jesus!  Don’t do this!”  Catharine rushed to the window over the sink, knocking her teacup and saucer to the ceramic floor, porcelain splinters scattering.  The window opened easily, but the woman had disappeared.  Through her tears, Catharine saw nothing but tufts of grass steeping in the brown water.

Jayne Thompson

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