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Kaaterskill Falls (Allegra Goodman)


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  There are times Nina wants to strike Andras like a flint and make him burn. And there are times when she is patient and steels herself with more strength than he knows. But mostly Nina is lonely. She manages everything during the week--the bills, the shopping, the children--and then when Andras comes up, he spends hours walking, or visiting his sisters, sitting in their kitchen with a glass of ice coffee.

Often, Nina looks across the street at the yellow bungalow where the Shulman girls jump rope, or spin on the tire swing Elizabeth has rigged up. Nina admires Elizabeth. Her life is so organized. So neat and disciplined, precise, like her English enunciation. Above all Nina admires Elizabeth's religious observance, natural to her as breathing. Nina always gets to shul before Elizabeth, davens rapidly, fervently, always in the right place in the siddur. She has to try harder, because she didn't grow up with the kind of background Elizabeth had. She'll never have Elizabeth's assurance. It seems to Nina that Elizabeth fits perfectly into her community; she never has to worry about belonging. Nina loves to imagine that, the shelter Elizabeth enjoys, the consistency, the little bungalow where Elizabeth doesn't have to insist, as Nina does, that the family say the blessing when they wash their hands. None of this extra effort is necessary for Elizabeth. She keeps the laws with such elan.

Monday morning when the children are all at day camp, Nina walks over to see Elizabeth, and raps on the frame of the screen door.

"Hello," Elizabeth says, answering the door with her book in her hand. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years.

"I wondered if you would like to come to Olana with me," Nina says.

"And what is that?" asks Elizabeth.

Nina is surprised. "You've never been?"

"No," says Elizabeth.

"Oh, it's a magnificent house," says Nina, "Built by Frederick Church. It's a museum now, for Hudson River School paintings. There is a traveling exhibition there--"

"We could take the children," Elizabeth says immediately. "Do you think we could fit all of mine and yours in the car? Is it open this afternoon?"

Nina doesn't want to offend Elizabeth, but hesitantly she suggests, "I thought you might like to come without the children."

Elizabeth looks startled for a moment. Then she says, "Even better!" and she laughs, as she runs in to look for her purse, and she calls back to Nina, "I'd forgotten we could go without them."

The hum of Nina's Buick is wonderful to Elizabeth. Zooming out of Main Street onto the open road, Elizabeth feels like she's flying.

Wind and sun ruffle through Nina's hair. Like red gold, Elizabeth thinks. Like the first letter in an illuminated manuscript. She's always looked at her neighbor with some awe, because she is so beautiful. She admires Nina's clothes--the cut and colors. In a pressed linen dress Nina sits straight and slim behind the wheel. Her Catholic school emphasized ironing, Nina told Elizabeth once.

They pass Kaaterskill High, a brick fortress of a school built in the 1930s, to last centuries. "Look at the apple trees," Elizabeth tells Nina. There is a whole orchard on one side of the school. The high school seems somehow manorial, the school on the hill, like Penshurst made over for America. Or perhaps the trees were planted for the students as some lesson in economy. Were pupils expected to learn the tending of these orchards? "Lovely," she says to Nina, "to build a school and set it out with apple trees."

As Elizabeth speaks, the words remind her of a snatch of Kipling: "the great gray-green greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees." That isn't the idea at all, but the rhythm is right, and the words hum inside of her. Her mother used to read those Just So Stories at bedtime, and especially the long captions Kipling wrote for his illustrations. All Kipling's explanations of the details in his drawings, and his descriptions of the colors he would have used if the printers hadn't restricted him to black and white. As they drive, it seems to Elizabeth that every sight sparks in her some memory or odd new thought. They speed by, and the wind licks the hills. The mountains beyond Kaaterskill are fresh to her eyes.

Now that the children are in camp, Elizabeth is having her first summer to herself. She doesn't have a baby at home. No one in diapers, or waking up at night. All the children can walk now. There is no one to carry or push along in the stroller. For years she's waited for this. Now that it's happened, it feels strange. It's as if a fog has lifted. At thirty-four, after thirteen years of pregnancies and babies, the constant responsibility, the wide-open eyes and curling fingers, the rocking to sleep, the wiping of noses, she has at last passed into a new stage of life. It's like waking from a dream--an exhausting, beautiful dream. But on waking Elizabeth doesn't feel relieved or peaceful. She is ravenously hungry. She needs something to do.

She'd had all kinds of plans for these hours with the girls at camp, but baking and reading are far less tantalizing with so much time to get them done. In past summers she read her books in snatches, and they were always new. She had only stolen hours to spend with the characters in novels, and so when she could hear about their lives, about Pierre or Emma, Milly Theale or Lydgate, when she picked them up from where they slept beside her bed, she read with emotion and anticipation. Reading was like visiting distant friends. Gibbon held a charm when Elizabeth hadn't time to read. The Decline and Fall spread out before her like a great unfinished afghan. But now, with whole mornings on her hands, she finds herself dissatisfied.

Time or no time, Elizabeth wants to do something. She feels pangs of impatience, and at night after the long sunsets, she can't sleep. She lies in bed with her pile of books, words floating around her, the pollen of other people's dreams. She'd resolved to go swimming every morning, but even that didn't work out.

Two days ago she ventured out to swim in Mohican Lake. It was lovely there. Not a soul on the pebbled beach. She left her dress and towel on a flat gray rock and swam out to the middle of the lake. Carefully she swam, head above the water in a kind of breaststroke. That was all she had learned from her brief lessons at school in England. But even swimming slowly was invigorating. The water rippled cold between her legs, although just skimming the surface with her arms, she could feel a warmer layer on top. She would have liked to float on her back and look up at the sky, but the lake was so quiet and deep, she was afraid. She paddled out slowly and watched the pine trees on the encircling bank.

Then, "Hey!" she heard a man calling from the shore. "Hey, over there. This is a private beach. Are you a guest at Mohican Road?" After all her resolutions to get some exercise, the empty beach was private. She was not allowed.

"You seem quiet," Elizabeth says to Nina now.

But before Nina gets a chance to speak, they enter the estate. Olana.

Through ornate wrought-iron gates the long approach to the mansion is dark with forest, but the house itself rises up clear of the trees on a hill covered with wildflowers. Olana is a palace, vast and delicate, its bricks and roof tiles set in intricate geometric shapes. There are terraces and balconies, fluttering with striped awnings. The whole construction outlandish and Arabian, more fanciful than any of the Victorian spires Elizabeth has seen in the mountains.

When they park the car and come inside the house, they pass through rooms of treasures; jeweled stained glass and Persian carpets the color of dusty rubies. Inlaid tables, and marquetry floors, and tapestry cushions, are all intricately patterned. There is nothing rustic here. Only when she looks at the paintings does Elizabeth remember the dark approach through the forest. These are outdoor paintings, trees and wild cliffs, huge sunsets. Elizabeth sits with Nina on a divan before a cluster of Bierstadts. Deep trees and cerebral winter skies.

The museum is nearly empty this weekday morning. The elaborate gallery still. Elizabeth looks intently at the winter landscapes. And as she looks, she whispers to Nina, "It's marvelous, just sitting here while the girls are at camp."

Nina looks at the floor. Renee is working as a junior counselor at the camp. It was Nina's idea. She thought the job with the Lamkins would be good for her daughter, that it would teach her responsibility and how to care for children. But Renee made a fuss. Nina had to threaten and cajole and, in the end, force Renee to go. There were tears and threats up to the day she started. Even now, Renee is sulking about working there with the little children.

"Renee doesn't like the camp," Nina says. "I think she'd rather waste her time wandering around, doing nothing, playing with that Arab girl. Andras doesn't care. I hear the father owns a trucking business--he just drives trucks from New York to Montreal--" She breaks off, frustrated.

"She's a good child, really," Elizabeth says.

"But Andras spoils her," says Nina. Then Elizabeth sees that Nina is really upset. There are tears in Nina's eyes. It's hard for her to speak. Elizabeth sees it, and doesn't know what to do. They are close neighbors, but they are not intimate friends. Beautiful Nina in her crisp dress, downcast among all these paintings. "He's very...indulgent of the children, both of them," Nina says. "He used to take them to the warehouse and let them pick out any toys they liked."

"At least he's not in the candy business," Elizabeth says. "Toys won't rot their teeth."

"He's going to let Renee quit piano," Nina says bitterly, utterly serious, "and she'll regret it all her life."

Elizabeth tries to look sympathetic. She's heard Renee play.

"And now that Renee is working at the Lamkins' camp, she wants to quit that too."

"He wouldn't let her do that," Elizabeth ventures.

"I don't know," Nina says miserably, and Elizabeth looks over at her, and she wants to say, It can't be so bad. It isn't so awful. She can't know what Nina really wants--that somehow Renee might be friends again with Chani, in fact, with all of Elizabeth's own children, so sweet to Nina's thinking, so pious, utterly sheltered from the outside world. So safe, they don't even know it.

"Let's go over there." Nina points to another group of paintings.

"Oh, look." Elizabeth points to the painting that has caught her eye. A luminous work on the east wall, unmistakable, even from a distance, Kaaterskill Falls. She rushes over to examine it, leaning forward, hands clasped behind her. Falls of the Kaaterskill, Thomas Cole, reads the plaque on the wall. Cole must have set up his easel on the trail--just where she and the girls climbed down from the overhanging park, far down until they reached the stream, the wet hems of their skirts slapping against their legs, the water pouring down from above them over the cliff. She has stood there like Cole's tiny painted Indians, barely visible on the rocks. She has looked out to those mountains and that sky. The place is much more dramatic on canvas, of course, the exuberant water flinging itself below--nothing dirty in this froth. Cole's trees are straining upward toward the clouds, leaves just turning--burnt orange and gold mixed with green. Elizabeth would have dismissed the whole thing as overblown, clichéd, except that she's been there so many times. She's seen the falls streaming down and the enormous smoke-blue sky, the wild mountains. The unabashed, romantic colors are right. It's worth the whole exhibit to see this painting. Knowing the site as she does, she realizes Cole's integrity, and now, among the exhibit's many paintings, this particular landscape seems to mark the truth in all the others.

She moves about, forgetting Nina at her side, just looking at the painting from different angles. She knows so much about the place. The drive up past the waterfall every summer--the children sleeping by this time in the back. The curving footpath down from the road to the pools under the falls. She can see it drawn here by Cole. The sky, luminous above the trees, the crash of water. Piles and piles of yellow leaves pillowing the trail. Elizabeth slipped in them hiking once with Isaac and the children, and she fell right on her face, deep, deeper, falling gradually, losing her balance by degrees. She kept waiting to hit hard ground, expecting something sharp. But she never did hit. The leaves were so deep that she felt as though she were falling in a dream; falling farther and farther until she landed in her own bed. She just laughed; she couldn't get her feet under her; she couldn't stop laughing.

She loves the place; she loves the painting by association. The painting is all associations. All familiar to her; reminding her, inspiring her. It brings back her own half-buried wish to capture and even recreate a place and time that beautiful. More than ever she wants to do something of her own. She has to make something; she has so much energy, she feels so strong. Fearless. She imagines for a moment she could learn to paint, except that she never could draw. She thinks perhaps she could write something. But she's not that sort; she reads too seriously. She couldn't separate her own words from the books humming in her head. She's filled with other music, not her own. Elizabeth looks intently at the painting, that brilliant piece of the world, and gazing at the color and the light of it she feels the desire, as intense as prayer. I want--she thinks, and then it comes to her simply, with all the force of her pragmatic soul--I want to open a store.
 
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Excerpted from Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman. Copyright © 1998 by Allegra Goodman. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.