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Joy Castro

The River

            For one hundred and thirty-two years in the town of Halford, North Dakota, there had secretly flowed an underground, life-giving force.  This force, the Ladies’ Literary Society of Halford, no longer required its members to wear gloves—though some of the most elderly ladies still did, their white kid fingers gripped incongruously around the aluminum poles of their walkers, their lovely pastel wool suits altered by the best tailors in Bismarck to curve snugly over their humps. 
The Ladies’ Literary Society no longer suggested the wearing of elegant hats, but it continued to meet on the second Tuesday of every month at three o’clock (a schedule instituted back in the mists of time to accommodate the social whirl of a deeply coveted prospective member, the wife of an early president of Halford State College), and the gatherings continued to rotate from one member’s well-appointed home to another’s.  And there, in their scrubbed and polished living rooms, after the little bell from Portugal had been rung by the president, after the minutes had been read, the announcements announced, and the literary paper read aloud by its writer and discussed by all and sundry, the coffee, lemonade, tea, and homemade biscuits prinked with colored icing would be served.
            For one hundred and thirty-two years, succeeding generations of women had upheld these customs, which had flowed like a life-giving stream under the surface of Halford’s social routine, offering the slender, tenuous joy of anticipation so needed to surmount the dark tedium of the winters, the icy gray skies that began already, by mid-December, to feel utterly, inescapably permanent.  With the Ladies’ Literary Society of Halford, there would be something to look forward to each month, something gracious, pretty, something interesting to think about and talk about with other ladies all dressed up.  It flowed beneath the visible surfaces of ordinary life, because membership was by invitation only, invitations whispered or murmured in private tête-à-têtes, and because, as the yearly programme clearly stated under ‘Rules,’ members were to make no public mention of the Society’s existence.  Its doings had never graced the pages of the Halford Daily Register.  Only the best people joined.

          Now it was June, and Ilsa Thompson had flung her windows open.  Birdsong had filled the sunny little house all morning, and even with the arthritis in her knuckles—in her hips, her ankles, even her knees now—even so, moving from room to room had been a joy, opening up the wooden folding chairs with their padded leather cushions and arranging them in rows across the carpet, wiping one final time the silver serving platters that Angel had polished on Friday, taking the little biscuits hot from the oven, sliding them with a spatula onto the cooling rack, and then squeezing out dollops of pink and yellow from the cones.  The squeezing had hurt her wrists.  But still, it was a joy. 
She had been so happy, back in January, when the little forest-green booklet had arrived in its unassuming envelope, to scan its pages and find her name listed as hostess in June.  During the long months without sun, the house could look dark, even dreary, but June would be perfect:  wisteria would be blooming and fragrant and heavily pendent from the pergola as guests came up the walk, and she’d have made sure all the flowerboxes were stocked lushly with spicy-scented petunias and perhaps some tumbling variegated vines and other things. 
And she had made sure.  One front-facing window opened over the sink, and she stood with her hands in the dishwater to breathe the sweet smells as they lifted into the warm air.
           For forty-three years she had lived in the little house, just blocks down the street from the college that had offered her Tom a job fresh out of graduate school at the University of Montana.  For decades she had been Mrs. Thomas Thompson, wife of an esteemed professor of biology.  For quite some time after they’d arrived in Halford, she would clarify, upon being introduced to someone new, “I went to Wellesley.”  And then one day she forgot to mention it, and then never said it again. 
            They had planned to move from the tidy little house to something bigger when the children came, but children did not come.  The house was snug and just right for two, she brightly told her parents and sisters many times, and really, it was much better this way.  She could travel with Tom on his collecting trips, and in the evenings during the semester when he came home tired and frustrated from campus, there she would be, pretty and crisp with his scotch over ice ready in her hand, able to listen with her full attention from the opposite loveseat.  She had never before imagined just how tumultuously a simple department of biology could seethe and churn and feud. 
Tom had become a biologist long before the fashion changed, back when being a biologist meant being in love with nature, when it meant to be, oneself, a small piece of nature wondering at all the other pieces and how they fit together.  Nowadays, according to what Tom had said, it meant cells.  It meant micro.  It meant a lifetime in a fluorescent-lit lab.  Once the laboratory had been only the helpful supplement to the real work, the work that went on out in the world, in the woods, in the water, where you were just another animal walking or floating and noticing.  When people became biologists back then, it was because they had, as children, once awakened from a sunny nap in the woods to find a deer and her fawn grazing very close upwind and lain there taking the shallowest, quietest of breaths until the two creatures had ambled delicately away.  Or they’d seen a hawk swoop so close overhead they could see its separate tailfeathers tinged with red.  There had been a reverence, there had been a wonder, there had been wind and sun on the face.  Now biology was just another indoor career for clever people, like computer science. 
She had heard Tom say this in the last years, frustrated, losing ground.  It was all very interesting, the tales of departmental infighting and the passionate lectures-for-one after dinner and the long collecting trips in the summers, all very interesting for years and years and then he died.  And with microwaves the rest of a casserole needn’t go to waste, so she kept cooking as she always had, something hot with a nice fresh salad, and cleaning as she always had (though the name of the help would change, and sometimes the girl would be from Halford and sometimes, like Angel, would drive in from the reservation in a rickety car that embarrassed Ilsa while it sat all day every Friday in front of her tidy house in its row of neat faculty houses.  She often went out on Fridays.)  But everything was largely the same, except that there was no Tom at the center and no Mother or Father, either, of course, but her sisters still called every week from Florida and they’d talk for a good hour, and there was church, too, and she had her friends, and the garden, and she read all winter long as she always had, curled in her soft flowered chair next to the unlit fire, only now a hired man came to shovel and salt the walk and driveway, Tom didn’t do it.  And on the second Tuesday every month there was the lovely Society meeting to look forward to.
            Not that it hadn’t also changed, in its way.  When Ilsa had first begun attending—oh, the joy of that murmured invitation from the sublimely coiffed Ellen McCauley, one Sunday afternoon on the bright lawn of Christ Lutheran—back then, the papers had been about genuinely great books, the masterworks of literature, Moby Dick and War and Peace and Shakespeare.  Ilsa had once given a paper on The Cherry Orchard, and the questions people asked had been quite hard.  But the younger women who joined and sat on the annual Text Selection Committee shook things up.  They liked themes, not greatness.  One year they’d read Betty Friedan and Housekeeping and parts of The Second Sex, and Ilsa felt proud to be aware, to be keeping up with things.  But nowadays they read books with Spanish words mixed in and left undefined, so you didn’t know quite what was happening, and practically all the main characters of novels had been abused as a child or humiliated in some crushing and formative way, which they then had to overcome by unlocking the Secrets of their Past.  And the questions the younger members asked were sometimes tiresome, as though they’d invented the very concepts of oppression and hierarchy and power relations and subversion and had to keep saying the words many, many times to ensure that the ideas would catch on.
          It’s not as though we didn’t know about those things, Ilsa wanted to burst out sometimes.  We just didn’t talk about them endlessly.  She and her husband and their friends had been children during the Holocaust, after all, and the atom bomb; they’d lost fathers to Normandy and the Pacific.  It’s not as though horrible things were new.  But she said nothing, content to sigh audibly and shift in her chair and roll her eyes at Maisie Williamson, who would grin covertly back.  These young things and their diatribes and their self-righteousness and their jeans.  We wore jeans when they were called dungarees, when it meant something.  Oh, well.  Each generation had to discover things for itself.
            Like sex.  Each generation had to discover it afresh and go around acting like they’d invented fire.   It was 1957 when she and Tom had settled into their little home on their little street; later, they’d had to read in the newspapers and Life about the flower children and women saying yes to men who said no, because the sexual revolution hadn’t very much visited Halford.  She remembered wondering why all the fuss.  When she and Tom had discovered it, they hadn’t rushed into the streets to proclaim it.  They’d simply done it and done it and done it, privately, nightly, and assumed everyone else was quietly partaking of it as well, and that’s what led people to secretly smile sometimes, and that’s what it meant to be grown up.  When she and Tom had discovered sex—
            But here were the first ladies coming now, joining together in pairs in the street as they got from their cars and walked up the walk as in a procession.  And yes, they were pausing just under the pergola to point and admire.  Ilsa sighed with satisfaction.  The sun shone, the linoleum gleamed, and stacked china cups winked from the sideboard.  Everything was perfect.  She untied the strings of her apron and lifted it over her head with a little groan—her shoulders, too, sometimes ached—and hung it on its hook with satisfaction:  her flower-sprigged dress was still immaculate.  She slipped on her summer-weight cashmere cardigan, pale daffodil, to conceal the loose winging flesh of her arms, poor things, and smoothed her hair as she passed the hall mirror.  The doorbell rang.

            And everything went perfectly:  the flurry of greetings and compliments on her décor, the settling into chairs, everyone finding a comfortable place, the reading of the minutes, of a letter from a member summering in Sweden, of the announcements, of the paper on Barbara Kingsolver, and then afterwards the nice discussion, everything happily oiled and leavened by the fond glances from one friend to another.  And then everyone rose and there were the effusions of thanks and again compliments on her house and her dress and the pretty little decorated biscuits, and happy chatter about upcoming summer vacations and grandchildren’s graduations.  Even the amount of cream in the little pitcher was perfect; she hadn’t needed to leave the living room to refill it.  And then eventually came the tapering off, the quick light hand on her arm, the thanks and smiles and good-byes, some cheek-kisses, and she could see through the hall window that little knots of them were still standing about on the front patio, gesturing toward the wisteria and the little wrought-iron table and chairs and the large glossy ceramic pots full of zinnias.  She hoped, she willed them to stay, young and old and middle-aged, talking and gesturing with admiration, so that they’d be visible for as long as possible from all up and down the straight little tree-lined street, so that her neighbors would see she’d had some kind of party, with all her guests dressed so gaily, too, in such distinguished pretty clothes and calling good-bye to one another in low cultivated tones and getting into cars that could never embarrass anyone.  Those were the kinds of friends she had. 
            She closed the door behind the last guest and the house seemed to sigh happily with her as she turned to gaze upon the disarrayed folding chairs, the trash of wadded pink paper napkins and smeared plates strewn across the sideboard and coffee table, all of it still seeming to quiver and hum with the energy of the lovely gracious ladies who were her friends and near acquaintances, though she did not, it’s true, know some of them well.
            She gathered up some dishes, stacking them, gripping them carefully with fingers she knew to be treacherously unpredictable in their sudden bouts of weakness, and headed toward the kitchen.  She’d considered asking Angel to come in afterwards but had decided against it, wanting to savor instead the private pleasure of cleaning up after something wonderful, the way as a teenager in Newton she’d slipped down early on Saturday mornings after her parents had hosted a dinner or cocktail party the night before, one she and her sisters were sent upstairs for, and she’d revel in cleaning up alone, soaking the crystal wine glasses with their thick maroon scum like the very promise of adulthood, humming La Vie en Rose and Que Sera, Sera, imagining she was in a garret in Montparnasse or Montmartre cleaning up after her own wild, bohemian party while her lover (a tumbling-haired painter) slept, and she moved through their tiny apartment—no, atelier—on the wingéd feet of love.  She remembered all that now, feeling a similar rush of pleasure.  Only now this was real.  A girl growing up on a perfectly ordinary street, she had sweetened her chores by dreaming of Paris.  She’d never made it there, though, or to Petra or Alexandria or Istanbul, places in the picture books she mooned over.  How had a girl like that ended up planted in Halford?  But she had.
            Wellesley had been the pinnacle of her adventure, really, and meeting Tom.  Once when he’d been in graduate school and they’d lived in the little married student apartments in Billings, she’d thrown a Come As Your Madness costume party, after Anaïs Nin’s, and the other future biologists and their wives had seemed nervous and shocked and then had rather enjoyed it.  But that was all, really:  the extent of it.  She had come to Halford, enjoyed her happy life with Tom, and then grown old.    
   Ilsa laughed aloud, not a laugh derisive of her younger self or bitter with life’s swift passing or anything like that, but a soft, fond laugh that partook of the pleasure of the moment, of seeing everything and not minding, of cleaning up after a perfectly routine meeting of the Ladies’ Literary Society as the late sun poured through the French doors at the back of the house, the polished panes of which showed the pretty backyard with its long slope of lawn that unspooled like a smooth green carpet down to the Souris River.  This was real life, and it was lovely.  Birdsong once again filled the house.  In the kitchen, she set the plates on the counter, and another sound reached her.
          “I know.  My god.  I thought it would never end.”  It was the low voice of a young woman, and another low voice laughed.  Ilsa froze.  They were right beneath the window. 
            “I mean, maybe it was relevant once, you know, when none of them had jobs or anything, and all they did was take care of kids all day.”
            “Yeah.  Back then they probably had to give papers just to remember they even had brains.”  Nearly all the parked cars were gone from the street.
            “Well, I can’t do it.  An afternoon off work every month for this crap?”
            “Please.  I analyze stuff all day.  On deadline.  This isn’t my idea of fun.” 
            “I know.  Tea parties with grandma.  It’s all so genteel, it’s bizarre.”
            “But what else are you going to do in a place like Halford?”  
            “I know.  These freaking meetings are the barometer of exactly how pathetic my social life has become.” 
            “Thank god for the Internet.” 
            “Thank god for the airport.”  They laughed throatily and moved off across the lawn.
            Now Ilsa could see who they were, and she felt a delicate, horrible shock.  They were, she had thought, such nice young women.  She had voted yes to induct them two years ago.  The one with the long auburn ponytail and black pantsuit was a new professor at the university, in media studies, and the slimmer one with short dark hair and the peasant skirt had moved here for her husband’s job but did things on her computer for an environmental group in the Twin Cities.  The young women waved to each other, got in their cars, and drove away.
            Ilsa leaned on tiptoe to look down over the windowsill to where they’d been standing.  Fragments of petals lay scattered where they’d ripped and dropped them as they’d talked.  Suddenly the house felt very still and pressurized, as though air were being forced into it from somewhere.  Those young women had stood there, talking, absently shredding her flowering clematis. 
            Her breath, she realized, was coming fast in little gasps.  In a daze she left the mess and wandered to the French doors at the back of the house and stood there, looking out, away from the street, one hand on the curved brass s-handle and the other hand curled tightly in the center of her chest.  A loud buzz sounded hotly in her ears.  Her green lawn rolled down to the riverbank, and both sides of the yard were edged with high wooden fences.  The back garden had always been private, a refuge.  She pushed the handle down and out, and the cool smell of cut grass rushed soothingly in.  Those women and their views were nothing to worry about.  They were merely an overheard insignificance.  Theirs were the subjective views of foolish young women.  But she couldn’t make the buzzing stop.
            Standing just outside on the flagstones, she held onto the open French door for support and stepped out of her elegant low-heeled pumps.  Through her stockings came the damp cold shock of stone.  Something was buzzing at the edge of her memory, and she reached up under her dress to her waist with both hands and rolled the pantyhose down.  She suddenly had a fierce, bizarre need to get the constriction away from her skin.  No one could see.  Across the river were only woods.  She held onto the door again to slide first one foot and then the other from the nylon, which she dropped in a little heap next to her shoes.  It lay there, unsightly and rumpled, flesh-colored, faintly embarrassing, like the shed shell of a cicada.  What was she trying to remember? 
She stepped barefoot into the grass, and its cool freshness shot up through her:  the smooth lawn, groomed by Tom for years, was so shaded the grass felt almost wet, even in late afternoon after a day of sun.  The backyard had been a point of pride for him, something they enjoyed together in private.  One could, if one wanted, lie down at the top and roll down its long gentle slant right to the edge of the river without incurring a single scratch or bump.  One night they had done just that, in the moonlight, in the snow, all bundled up in their waterproof insulated clothes, giggling, and the next morning they’d laughed together at the wide twin tracks to the river’s ice and made up imaginary snow-creatures with Latin names that could have left them.  Thirty years ago or more.  Emotion recollected in tranquility flashed suddenly into her mind, which Wordsworth had said about poetry.  All she’d had, for years now, was tranquility and recollection.  A woman’s longer life span was nothing to be envied.  She walked slowly through the grass toward the water as though feeling her way through a dark house at night.
            Ah, there it was.  A story.  It had been sometime during the 1960s, yes, and the Society had met at Julia Richards’ house, with its mod pillows shipped direct from New York, to discuss the stories of Katherine Mansfield.  In those days, they’d all read the whole book in advance and could ask informed questions, not like today.  People had more time then and felt more responsible. 
            Amidst all of Mansfield’s stories of bohemian fresh young things falling in and out of love, which Ilsa had loved the most, and stories of precocious children who sensed deep truths, and epiphanies and losses of innocence and everything having symbolic resonance, there had been one old-lady story.  In the 1960s, she’d paid it little mind. 
But now it came back to her.  The main character had been an old lady, an aging spinster, a tutor of some kind, dressed up and sitting in the park on a sunny day and seeing everyone suddenly as part of life’s great pageant, all acting together in a beautiful romantic play or opera, and herself proudly perched on the bench in her little old fur, dressed up for her part—a bit part, admittedly, but a part nonetheless, a role that mattered; just her witnessing, appreciating presence mattered—with her fox tippet much repaired but lovingly brushed and fairly shooting out gleams of elegance, everything marvelous and this little old lady swimming in her wondrous apprehension of wholeness and radiance and belonging.  Ilsa remembered it all now. 
And then the boy and girl had appeared at the end of the bench, young lovers eager for privacy who said rash, careless, casual things about the old lady—Miss Brill! that was it, and Mercy Putnam, who gave the paper, had explained that brill meant a small fish but also might mean brilliant, but of what significance that was, Ilsa could not recall.  The couple said those casual, cutting things about Miss Brill loudly enough for her to hear, not because they were cruel but because they were oblivious and young and full of their own desires.  And the old lady’s whole vision of radiant harmony folded at once like a tent collapsing, and Miss Brill folded herself up and walked home to her small apartment and closed herself in and put the fur away in its box, reassuring herself bravely that all had been well, that the day had been fine, that young people will simply be young, that’s all.  But as she stored the box away—Ilsa thought she could recall the passage now, decades later, almost word for word—as she put it back up on its shelf, Miss Brill thought she heard the sound of something crying.
            And that was all.  That was the end. 
            Ilsa, slowing her descent to the river, remembered the story clearly now.  The cold damp made the bones in her feet ache, but the wind rushed through the leaves overhead with a beautiful sound, and it shushed against her face.  Lovely.
            There would be no sound of crying here.  Recalling the story gave her sustenance, made her determined to not, herself, inhabit the role of a defeated old lady with all her pleasure punctured, a cliché imaginable by some young minor writer-girl, however clever, who died of TB at thirty-four.   To hell with young girls and their pantsuits.
            And the Ladies’ Literary Society had done that for her.  Books and reading had fortified her. And she had learnt that thing about Miss Brill alone, with a book, reading, not in company with people discussing.  Just by herself with a book.
            Caught by surprise she might have been, but not caught without resources.  She would be richer, stronger than little Miss Brill.
            Say, perhaps, that Halford was an awful place, and a frigid one at that:  each winter some poor old fool doddered out in a blizzard and died twelve feet from the front door, and she’d often wondered if that would be how she’d go, frozen, disoriented.  Halford was an unforgiving place.  And perhaps her life did amount to just so much nothing, as those girls had implied.  She didn’t even have the excuse of children, just herself and Tom, and every summer the flowers in the garden, and traveling for his collecting trips, and years of reading wonderful books, hundreds and hundreds of them.  A biologist’s idea of romance, too, was an odd thing, perhaps not what one dreamed of as a girl.  Once, holding her, Tom whispered, “You have the prettiest ears of any creature of your species,” and her whole body became warm.  It was all perhaps terribly small, really, and she saw it suddenly and clearly as the girls must see it, tiny and far away, inconsequential.
            Suddenly she saw herself like an ant in a colony or a bee in a hive, industriously getting along with all the other bugs—how Tom would have chided her, calling them bugs instead of insects—trying to conceal anything about her own little wax pod that might seem alarmingly different, might make the others turn on her, attack or shun her.  She wondered which would hurt more:  being shredded and devoured, or the silence of turned backs.  She imagined the most vicious of them—Lydia from church with the rigid hair, or that snippy bow-tied classics professor, who seemed to hate everyone born after Christ, and women especially:  he thought them all simply dumb.  She could tell by the way he never bothered to look in her eyes at faculty events but was always gazing around for someone more intelligent.  He had once abandoned her mid-sentence to read the back label of a pale-blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin.  She imagined him and Lydia and those two young women as insects ripping into her, their multifaceted eyes glittering, their slavering jowls, et cetera.  Oh, how often she had longed to be just a hobbit in her hobbit-hole, tucked away, satisfied with little comforts and treats.  But she was getting self-indulgent.  Living in community was perhaps problematic, perhaps complicated, but she was no hobbit, no bug. 
            She had reached the river, and she placed her feet in the silt and watched the water run over the purple knots in her pale skin.  The ache of the cold was bitter, but she lowered herself slowly backward, cautiously cantilevering her bottom down to the grass at the water’s edge.  Most of the river was shadowed by trees, but where sunlight struck the water, it looked gold. 
            In the old days they’d all worn bow ties and tweed, even Tom.  Now you could tell by the bow ties who felt besieged by the new, who missed the dear old comfortable definitions and the days when men were men and Shakespeare was indisputably great rather than just the subject of various ages’ constructions of meaning.  These shorers of fragments wore their bow ties and tweed and premature paunches like a badge of struggle, like signs by which they could be recognized among the nations, and Ilsa felt it odd that although she agreed with them on many things and found herself often longing, too, obviously, for the comfort of old definitions, she could not like them very much.  Sometimes even very young men wore those things, like those shouting fellows on television, and she wanted to take them aside and give them normal young men’s clothes and pat their cheeks and say, Now darling, as when mothers gently untied the capes and took the plastic swords away so their overexcited boys could settle down and get ready for bed.  But to see them and their shouting in that way was to simplify and condescend, she knew, and they were dangerous, they made wars, and surely there must be something worthwhile and complex in their views.  But she had listened carefully to the news hour on PBS and could not find it.
            The Souris was a rippling, calm, unfazed river, a river she had watched as it swelled and ebbed and kept flowing at the edge of her property for upwards of forty years now.  Steadily, beautifully:  flowing and freezing and thawing.  Fluidly changing, yet always there.  But she watched the news; she knew about climate change and terrible hurricanes and drought and the end of known things.  One couldn’t go around wantonly making symbols out of nature just to have something to hang onto:  rivers could become irreversibly polluted or dry up at their source.  She reached out and touched the water’s cool skin with her fingertips.  Rivers were vulnerable, too.  It filled her with sudden anguish.  What mattered to her most would one day no longer count, the lines of maps would be redrawn, and the life she’d built with love looked stupid to other people.  What could one lone person do, then?  How then must we live?  That was Tolstoy.
            She thought of those girls and their glossy thick hair that they’d never yet tugged side to side in the mirror, wondering if they looked scalpy.  There was so much they hadn’t suffered yet, didn’t know, the erosions of physical dignity, the loss of true love.  It filled her with a kind of tenderness, the vast regions they didn’t know yet.  They were just young, she thought kindly.  It wasn’t their fault.  Her life did seem tiny, microscopic, but it didn’t sicken or appall her.
            No, there was no sound of crying here.  She wiggled her aching toes in the river.   She would herself be something to hang onto.  She would call those girls and invite them to lunch, and she wouldn’t make delicate lady-sandwiches in triangles with cucumber slices thin as paper and the crusts cut away, but the sort of sandwiches she ate alone, thick slabs of everything:  turkey, tomatoes, the homemade bread itself thickly cut, and plenty of grainy mustard and real mayonnaise.  Something to wrap both hands around, to bite into.  She could ask them about their loneliness.  Dozens of years and the information age need not separate human souls.  She had been lonely, too, in Halford, when they’d first arrived.  “I went to Wellesley,” she’d repeated again and again.
            Perhaps they would never think of her as anything better than old and sweet and dotty, but one can only control one’s actions, not what others think.  Suddenly, she wondered what Angel thought of her.  She had wondered that before, and carefully tidied away private or dirty things before Angel’s arrival.  Angel cleaned other houses in the neighborhood, and Ilsa didn’t want her talking. 
But what did Angel think about when not thinking about her?  She had never even wondered.  How extraordinary.  She would ask.  Perhaps she would make Angel that sort of sandwich and set down two plates on the kitchen table, and ask something benign, inconsequential, at first, so as not to make her shy, and then listen.  They had never eaten together.  Did Angel read books?  She felt a sudden quake of awakening like a thin whistle of pain all through her body.  There Angel had been, week after week, in her own home, and Ilsa had not seen her, not really. 
Her throat cramped up, muscular and hot, and her eyes burned with the sudden dampness of tears at the thought of Angel and the sandwiches.  Perhaps all one lone person could do was not to be like the world, pitiless and unreliable, but instead try to be steady and true and kind.  What would it mean if she and Angel sat down together, chewing happily, talking about books or anything, anything Angel wanted to say?  Her body rang like a bell being struck.  Steady, true, kind.  Massaging her knuckles, she stared across to the other side.
            Her eyes’ wet brimming made everything spring into clarity for a moment, and her vision sharpened so she could see into the woods across the river.  The rough bark of quite distant trees leapt into view.  Each twig was crisply etched against the light.  How strangely visible everything was.  Ilsa knew the woods went on for a long way, but it seemed as though she could see more deeply into them than she’d ever seen before.