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The River Wife

by Jonis Agee

 

"Agee's long-awaited fifth novel is more than simply a work of fiction; rather, it's an all-consuming experience. This mesmerizing saga teeming with memorable characters, sharp depictions of frontier life, and lucid, beautifully wrought prose will haunt readers long afterward." — Booklist

 

"Agee delivers an enthralling family saga.... Lush historical detail, a plot brimming with danger, love and betrayal, and a magnificent cast." — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

 

"What a grand and gorgeous novel this is: passionate, stirring, filled with action, intrigue, romance, and surprise. Jonis Agee's The River Wife is glorious." — Ron Hansen, author of Mariette in Ecstasy

 

The River Wife
by Jonis Agee
Available July 17, 2007
Random House
How to Buy
 

From acclaimed novelist Jonis Agee, whom The New York Times Book Review called "a gifted poet of that dark lushness in the heart of the American landscape," comes the sweeping story of four generations of women that unfolds along the current and the shores of the mighty Mississippi river.

In 1811, when a great earthquake rocks the peaceful cove of New Madrid, Missouri, Annie Lark finds herself pinned under the massive roof beam of her home. With little hope of freeing their trapped daughter, and the river rapidly rising, the family says a final, tearful goodbye and leaves the young woman to her fate. Within days, French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, out scavenging nearby abandoned houses, rescues the girl from the brink of death and nurses her back to health. Soon, Annie learns to love this strong, brooding man and resolves to live out her life as his River Wife. Together they build a new community called "Jacques' Landing."

More than a century later, in 1930, Hedie Rails comes to Jacques' Landing to marry Clement Ducharme, a direct descendent of the fur trapper and river pirate. The young couple begins their life together in the very house Jacques built for Annie so long ago. When, night after late night, mysterious phone calls take Clement from their home, a pregnant Hedie finds comfort in Annie's old leather bound journals. But when the pages tell of sinister dealings and horrendous misunderstandings that spelled out tragedy for the rescued bride, Hedie fears that her own life is paralleling Annie's, and that history is repeating itself with Jacques' kin. But the journal entries do not end with Annie. Emerging from the pages are three other women who helped to shape Jacques Ducharme's life — Omah, the freed slave who joins his side as a river raider; his second wife, Laura; and their daughter, Maddie. Each relay the haunting tale of this enigmatic, industrious, and ultimately dangerous man, their stories weaving together with Hedie's, as the journals serve not only as a guide to the newest River Wife at Jacques' Landing, but also, perhaps, a warning.

Jonis Agee vividly portrays a lineage of love and heartbreak, passion and deceit against the backdrop of the nineteenth-century South. The five women of The River Wife come to discover that blind devotion cannot keep the truth at bay, nor the past from flowing into the present.

 

Chapter 1

Hedie Rails Ducharme

 

            The trees were so vertical—that’s the first thing I noticed, even before the river. And the land that rolled carpet flat away from the eye.  As I stepped from the Packard in front of the court house in Jacques’ Landing, Missouri, just above New Madrid, the only shiver I felt was the slight vertigo. I held onto the door of the coupe for a moment, and Clement Ducharme must have thought I was reconsidering, because he put his hand under my free arm and lifted me away. I was taller than him by a good two inches, and it seemed to make him proud. He insisted I wear my high heels whenever we were in public. Over the next few years, he would buy me pair after pair of shoes, all high heels, open toed, many with tiny straps and coy little rhinestone buttons. I was too young in love to question then.

            In the street, tired farmers came and went, worrying about taxes, foreclosures, money they didn’t have. It was 1930, the Great Depression, and everybody was poor but us, and nobody stopped to talk.

            Cotton fibers floated in the air, rising and settling again, as if on an invisible tide rinsing over the town. They caught in the screens of doors and windows, settled over uncovered dishes of beans and cornbread and fresh tomatoes, and clung to your tongue when you tried to talk, so you constantly found yourself licking every syllable as if it were part of a filthy word as you scraped your tongue against your front teeth and swallowed.

            We climbed the worn flagstones, each small trough from eighty some years of feet, up the cupped grey granite steps, and into the round green marble atrium. He pointed up at the green stained glass rose that domed the roof three stories above us, and made me squint to see the repaired glass on the right side.

            “Cannon fire from the Yankee bombardment,” he said.

            In fact, I would discover later that it was Billy Shut, the Confederate raider, whose rifle went off during a brief skirmish not long after the town was taken.

            The light from the dome was green and slightly milky, and I wondered if I needed to slip on my glasses for a moment. It was the only secret I kept from him in the beginning--my weak eyes that wouldn’t let me decipher words and details up close.

            But I saw the drifts of dust in the shafts of green light, saw the cotton lint on the shoulder of his grey suit jacket. Harvest was early, the yield poor in the relentless heat, and he'd left a puny, half-full wagon in the farmyard to take me to town. There was still a slice on his chin where he'd cut himself shaving at the last minute. Do I have to explain everything? My mother had made me leave. I was seventeen. My sisters had stood aside. I would not be welcome back in the family for ten more years, but by then it would be too late.

            My soon-to-be husband stood patient, red faced and freckled from the sun, his orange red hair slicked down with oil, with a part along the right side that looked like it was made with a razor, the scalp bright red in the groove. Somehow he had managed to get a hair cut that did not rise so far above the ears that you could see a rind of moon white where his lobe ended. Even farming, he was a neat man, clean, almost prissy about his nails and teeth that he cleaned nightly with salt and a slick of river willow bark he would slide between each of the small pegged points. You have child’s teeth, I would tell him a few weeks after the wedding.

            Although I would later return to the courthouse to retrace my path into the peculiar destiny I had chosen, family history wasn’t what I was thinking about that day as I followed the path of Billie Shut’s horse up the steps and felt the places where the iron shoes scored the marble floor as he began to collapse. The soles of my shoes were the thinnest leather, and in the other part of my mind, I would be registering the gouges with my toes as we stood there in the atrium waiting for Clement’s Uncle Keaton to come witness for us.

            “Is your Uncle coming?” I finally asked. He looked at the clock over the entrance to the courtroom, then at his wrist where he had on a gold Hamilton watch with a brown alligator band that stank a little when he sweated too much.

            “Did you tell him we had to do it before the Courthouse closes?” I asked. It wasn’t only that—and he knew it. I couldn’t go back home. I'd spent all my money on the bus ticket down here and a present for him—a cat’s eye ring for his little finger. It was the only size they had at Johnson's Jewelry in Resurrection when I left that morning, and I couldn’t come empty-handed, nothing but a cardboard suitcase my mother begrudged me.

            My feet began to ache after a while, and when I shifted my weight so I could lean against one of the columns, my heel caught in a chip from the horse shoe, and I started to go down. He caught me, though, and held me briefly, his ear against my chest, as if he could hear the double heartbeat through the good linen of my white suit. It was the last white suit I ever owned.

            “Do you think—” I started to say it again, but he put his fingers to my lips. His hands smelled of tobacco and the soft lavender scent he ordered from the barbershop twice a year. As much as anything, it was the scent of him that made my stomach pull hard with want, and made me want to open my blouse to him there. I was so young and there was a mystery unraveling, a door opening to the other side where the whole business you watch as a child suddenly becomes your own. You’re grown up and now the world throbs with something bright the color of blood.

            At 4:00, Clement turned to me and nodded, his jaw clamped shut, lips thinned. It wasn’t a face I wanted to see on my wedding day, but it was all I had, so I took his arm and we walked in a straight line through the atrium to the judge’s chambers. When it came time to slip the ring on my finger, he pulled out a platinum band with a large round yellow diamond embedded in the middle. It was so big I had to squeeze my other fingers around it to keep it from sliding off.

            When it came time to kiss, he whispered in my ear, “Get that ring fixed so it don’t ever come off, hear?”

            I was thrilled that he wanted to so thoroughly claim me, and after he paid the judge, we walked proudly arm and arm through the hot milky green light out into the late afternoon.

            That was my wedding day. His Uncle Keaton Shut waited three months to come to visit and by then the damage had been done. We didn’t care though, we were happy. And almost nothing can dent that kind of joy. We were going to have the baby at home, where children of his family had always been born. I wasn’t even afraid. And he was a good husband to me, bringing me flowers, feeding me ice cream, a spoonful at a time in the panting heat after dark when the river swished against the banks and the bullfrogs’ deep bass rode the low notes below the peepers high throbbing. Afterwards, he would make love to me, sucking my swollen nipples until I felt an urgency, a burning so shrill I wanted him to tear me open, empty me and refill me with himself. I tore at his skin, and my own, trying to put us closer and closer still, as if the blood mingling could do that. We spent our days napping in the cool of the fan blowing over a cake of ice, and our nights loving, as we waited for the baby. I didn’t care if another soul ever came to the door in those days. In fact, I didn’t want them to—

            This is love, I kept saying to myself as he sponged cool water over my shoulders and face while I lay in the tub, this is love, the yellow diamond ring wedged so tightly on my swollen finger that it sat between two ridges of flesh. And this is love as the light in the room darkened with an afternoon storm, and we stood out on the second story porch, naked in the green rain, watching the tree limbs along the river flatten and spread horizontal in the wind while the phone in the hallway behind us rang and rang and rang.

            “Clement,” I said, looking out across the flat land shimmering in the heat, “this isn’t a land to love, is it?”

            He shook his head. “The bootheel is a different kind of country altogether.”

            Jacques’ Landing sits west of New Madrid, above the water in the table flat bottom land spread between the foothills of the Ozarks, a distant shadow to the west, and the Mississippi to the east. St. Louis is only 165 miles north. Hanging between Kentucky and Tennessee to the east and Arkansas to the west, it’s as if  the whole state of Missouri has been trying to shake it off for years, like a vestigial tail.

            I miss the Ozarks—the deep hollows and iron colored streams of the woods, the crying birds running from tree to tree overhead as my sisters and I plunged through the underbrush, looking for purple pawpaws and ripe persimmons, then rested on the granite outcropping of the natural bridge we thought only our family knew about while we peeled and sucked the sloppy sweet juice of the fruit we'd found. I missed the dense scent of moist bark and pine needles, that heavy spice that filled your head like smoke until you were dizzy and falling into the wet leaves and wild grass. When you stood still and listened, the woods ticked and rustled around you, always it seemed wet there, just after rain, just before rain, even in the fall—something primordial and damp, dirt being made beneath your feet, the slick silver trails of snails across the dead branches and dried leaves, the moist undersides of rocks soaking the air of the woods. I was never afraid as a girl. It took Clement to teach me fear.

            “You’re just tired with waiting,” Clement said. “Come lie down now.” He led me from the second story porch where I’d been lying in a white wicker lounge with a pillow tucked in the small of my back which ached so I couldn’t ever sleep for long. The baby rolled and kicked inside me every time I tried to turn until I felt oddly battered and could not stand to be touched anymore, as if Clement’s hands would bruise me.

            I read magazines, Harpers and National Geographic and Scribner’s, anything old because I could not stand the present or the future anymore. It was all I could do to last through another hot day, I did not want to imagine all that living outside this house. I began to stay up all night, holding my belly like a water filled melon between my legs, panting in the heat on the balcony, wetting towels to lay across my chest while Clement slept on until the telephone rang.

            “Who is calling here every night?” I asked him.

            “Just sleep,” he said. “I’ll be back before morning.”

            I watched the lights of his car bob against the willows across the road, then slash from one side to the other as the driveway turned into the road, pocked with holes and ruts after the recent rain, and the purr of the big Packard engine was soaked up by the wet air and replaced by the high grating rasp of the cicadas. If I had a torch, I’d set fire to every living thing tonight, I thought. A barge chugged up the river, its lanterns lit so I could see the men on deck, passing a jug of moonshine and laughing, even their curses oddly clear. Someone began to play a fiddle and another joined in with harmonica, and two of the men stood and began to dance side by side, the clogging style so familiar in the hills. I tried to let it soothe me. I tried to think of the warm brown water slopping in its big basin, but I was seventeen and the doctor would only promise that I wouldn’t remember a thing when the baby came. They’d give me a shot and I’d wake up a new mama.

            I went downstairs to the library with the dark forest green walls, heavy mahogany furniture, and brightly colored Tiffany lamps and sank naked into the cool whisper of the Moroccan leather chair, lifting my feet to the footstool and finding relief from the heat at last. Determined to wait up for Clement, I gazed at the walls of books around me, thinking to find a title that would take me through the night. When I got to the bottom shelf on the wall to my right, I noticed a row of identical brown leather bound books without titles on their spines, the sort of thing people used as diaries or journals or sketchbooks. I got up and awkwardly knelt down, pulling out the first. It had been there a long time apparently for at first it appeared stuck to its neighbor, then the leather let go with a sticky tearing sound and the book eased into my hand. Inside the water-spotted cover was written:

 

                            Annie Lark Ducharme, 181l-1821, Volume I.

 

                               The roses so red

                               And the lilies so fair—

                              The myrtle so bright

                              With the emerald dew—

                              He taught me to love him

                              And called me his flower

                              That was blooming to cheer him

                              Through life's dreary hour—

                                                     "A Wildwood Flower"

 

             Was this his great grandmother? Clement had never mentioned her. And what an odd name. I thumbed the pages, noting the drawings of insects, birds, butterflies, and flowers. It was probably one of those naturalist field books that would prove boringly exact, but it looked varied enough with narrative passages in the neat penmanship of a previous age, that I thought it might keep me awake.

            Actually, it began with a curious passage, noting that what followed was a true account, a witness of death and resurrection, following “the great New Madrid Shaking.” My first impulse was to put the book away. I was in no mood for a religious tract of some sort, having heard of the “earthquake Christians,” fanatics and Holy Rollers who abounded here in the bootheel since the disaster. But her next sentences caught me—seeming almost familiar ...

            And so it was that the women of the old house on Jacques’ Landing began to tell me their stories over the years I’ve lived here. Sometimes I read the words they had written, sometimes they visited me in dreams, and on many occasions they spoke outright, out loud to me, and I’ve never told a soul—until now. What follows is a true account, in their words and mine, the only wonder that we are so separate when the years are as a veil of dust put to dancing when one of us moves through the rooms of the house One-armed Jacques Ducharme built.

Copyright © 2007 by Jonis Agee

Reprinted with permission

Random House

Click here to see the Ducharme Family Tree

Click here for information about the Great New Madrid Earthquake