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The Rope Walk
A Novel
Written by Carrie Brown

The Rope Walk
Enlarge View

Category: Fiction - Literary
Imprint: Anchor
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: May 2008
Price: $13.95
Can. Price: $15.95
ISBN: 978-0-307-27809-8 (0-307-27809-3)
Pages: 336


Chapter One

It was going to be a beautiful day.

Alice climbed onto her bedroom windowsill and sat down, wrapping her arms around her legs. Early morning mist hovered in mysterious levels over the lawn below. In the tree branches that inclined near her window, the low sun ignited little white signal fires that flashed at Alice from the velvety spaces between the leaves. It was dark still beneath the ragged hems of the firs at the side of the house, and a cool, musty smell rose from under the old rhododendron bushes, but across the front lawn, downy stripes of sunlight began to unfurl between the long shadows of the trees. Beyond the lawn, and then farther out beyond the low border of the stone wall, fields revealed in the growing light raced away to the wooded horizon.

On her windowsill, Alice waited, watching. The full energy of the day, like a parade assembling its drums and cymbals and marching players, lay just out of sight, gathering strength at the edge of the world. Any moment now, the day’s brimming cup would spill over the far treetops and flood the hour with light.

Today, the twenty-ninth day of May, was Alice’s tenth birthday. When she was younger, her brothers had told her that the annual Memorial Day parade in Grange, the creeping procession of fire engines and floats and flag bearers that Alice watched with shining eyes from atop her father’s shoulders, was held in celebration of her birthday, as if she were a princess whose subjects collected for her pleasure. Now she could not remember what it had felt like to believe this fiction, though she was assured she had believed it. She could only remember the uncomfortable dawning of her doubt: the gravity of the white-haired soldiers formed into a trembling V whose size diminished each year; her correct linking of the word memorial with the word memory—this, she puzzled, was not language for a birthday celebration; and her adding up of the other signs, too. No one saluted her as they went past. No one came to one knee before her. No one said happy birthday.

She could not remember what it had felt like to believe in Santa Claus, either. That faith, too, had slipped away from her with casually troubling ease. Like discovering a hole in her pocket through which a precious trinket had dropped and been lost, she could not pinpoint when the miracle had left her.

Out of loyalty, each spring the family still attended the Memorial Day parade, shabbily reinforced over the years by opportunistic floats from other jurisdictions: a pickup full of people in Star Trek costumes, a van from the television station in Brattleboro, a Frito-Lay truck from which employees in matching black polo shirts tossed bags of chips, a woman in her pink Mary Kay car trailing ribbons like a honeymoon vehicle.

But now there was a birthday party, too.

Already someone—one of the boys, probably—had carried the rush-seated dining room chairs outside for the party and arranged them haphazardly on the front lawn beneath Alice’s windowsill; one had toppled over onto its side into the wet grass.

Alice made a box like a camera lens with her fingers and looked down through the aperture at the fallen chair. The trees’ monumental shadows, cumbrous as ocean liners as the sun climbed higher in the sky, lay across the lawn. Alice followed them with her camera over the dewy grass and back to the house. A red, white, and blue bunting had been hung over the front door, and a rippling candy stripe of crepe birthday streamers wound along the porch railing . . . and there were the black-handled kitchen scissors, too, their tiny jaws agape, forgotten on the porch floor. Alice pretended to take a picture of them. How strange things looked when they were not where they were supposed to be.

She hitched around on the narrow sill and raised her camera a degree to fix on the cloud bank of white balloons tied to the flagpole and holding sway over the daffodils. Past the yellow heads of the flowers and over the stone wall, the tall grass in the fields, still heavy-headed with dew, lay down in silver waves all the way to the horizon, a rough pinking-shears strip of dark green woods against a blue sky. Alice swung her imaginary camera back and forth experimentally, like an eyeball rolling wildly in its socket, and the world whistled and winked and nodded its shining head at her, beckoning and calling. The fields, the orchard, the lawn and flower borders near the house, all of it rolled beneath her, twinkling and flashing in the spring sun as if mirrors were turning in the grass and among the leaves of the trees.

Alice’s heart strained against the cradle of her ribs. She had lived in this place all her life, in this house in a small town in the rocky southern hills of Vermont, with her five older brothers and her father, who was a Shakespeare scholar and a dean at the nearby college. She could not imagine ever leaving. Indeed, she thought she would fight like a lion, roaring and biting and tearing limb from limb, if anyone tried to separate her from this place, these people. It was interesting, horribly and yet irresistibly interesting, to imagine being inspired to such heroic lengths, though sometimes she frightened herself with the possibility of danger and loss, forces that might surround her and try to drag her away.

This was a recent development, the idea that something could happen to threaten the world and her place in it.

Valiant in play, armed with a painted cardboard sword and wearing a blue velvet cape sewn for such games by her late mother, Alice liked to leap from tabletop or tree branch or the back of the couch, brandishing her weapon at the empty air. Usually victory was effortless and inevitable, a ballet of acrobatic thrusts and parries and swirls of the cape, after which her invisible enemies fell left and right or scuttled away howling into the trees. She was prince, captain, and knight, poised on a rock, sword point aimed triumphantly skyward.

Recently, though, her games had begun to unsettle her. Now her imagination supplied not just the juvenile idea of adversaries—witches with long greasy hair, slit-eyed goblins worrying something inside their bulging cheeks, monsters squatting on warty green haunches, ready to spring; it also whispered the truth, which was that suffering was real. She did not know how she knew this, or when the change had taken place. But she would not play now in sight of her brothers, whose teasing she had once failed to notice, or, if she had noticed, to mind. Suddenly this year she did not want to be watched as she struck out on all sides, for now there were things against which she felt truly helpless—the actual misery of the world, things that were unfair, wrong—and she came home quietly at the end of an afternoon of play in the woods, her long sword stuck in her belt, her face a mask.

The world of her childhood, with its endless days and deep, certain sleep and quicksilver possibilities, had been abraded, roughened, its perimeter made vulnerable by the apprehension of dangers—death and poverty and terror and war and sickness—arriving from the real world, things that rose up against the clumsy, makeshift enemies, the dear enemies of her youth, and opened their hideous red mouths to swallow whole the fragile companions of her play. Now when she looked out into the world from her windowsill, it was with the knowledge that she could lose it. She did not know how or when. But she knew it was possible, and that made all the difference.

The night before, Alice had dreamed again that she could fly. Usually these dreams were deeply pleasurable. She swam through warm air, her body undulant as an otter’s. Up from the earth came the familiar scents of pine and hay and river and blackberry. When she ran through the long grass in the meadows, reservoirs of granite, marble, slate, and talc lay beneath her feet. Beneath those, from a time long ago when the northern hemisphere’s arctic sea covered what are now Vermont’s grassy slopes, and when the places Alice knew and loved did not yet exist, rested the bones of ancient beluga whales. This year in school, her class had studied the geology of the Champlain Basin, and they had been taken on a trip to see the bones of a prehistoric white whale found underground one hundred and fifty miles from the nearest ocean. The whale had been named Charlotte, for the town in which she had been unearthed, said their young, ponytailed museum guide, and she had been twelve feet long. The shortest child in her class, Alice had been urged to stand up front at the exhibit, grave and watchful, her face inches from Charlotte’s long, blunt, grizzled skull. Charlotte had died peacefully, the young man informed the children. No violence here. Her teeth were intact; her bones had drifted gently into the sediments of an offshore estuary.

Since then, whenever Alice flew in her dreams she saw below her the familiar acres of her house in its surrounding fields and also the swells of topography and what lay buried beneath the woods and tumbled rocks. The sleeping bones of whales and dinosaurs, prehistoric birds whose notched wings spread like the carbon shadows of kites over roads and meadows, barn roofs and the twisting curves of the river lay exposed as if in an X-ray. In her flying dreams she saw far and wide: a little vole scrambling over acorns in the oak woods; the crashing falls of the river where it tumbled into a green basin of bubbles and foam; the arrangement of bones sleeping under the hills.

Alice never fell in these dreams. But last night, for the first time, there had been a shocking vertiginous drop, as if the fabric of the dream were thin in places, her own weight too heavy for it. She had awoken with her hair damp and sticking to her face, her breath coming fast.

Now Alice blinked into the sunshine, the soft, gauzy morning air growing in brilliance as the day advanced. Down on the grass, a crow flapped heavily over the lawn and landed on the overturned chair. Already the light had crested the treetops, careening over the fields.

Soon, the guests for the birthday party would arrive.

Alice had been told repeatedly that the windowsill was a dangerous place to sit, but it did not feel precarious to her. She had never been afraid she would fall. She pressed the knobs of her spine against the window’s frame and flexed her bare feet in the groove of the sill. Once, Alice had tried to draw from memory everything that was in the bedroom behind her. It had been surprisingly easy, one recalled detail leading quickly to another, like a bird alighting from branch to branch and leading the way through an unfamiliar wood. Inside the glass-fronted bookcase, the spines of books gleamed. The slipper chair striped in worn barbershop red and white that had been in her father’s childhood bedroom was nearly buried under a messy heap of discarded clothes. Alice’s old stuffed monkey Sinbad, with his bashed-in Egyptian fez and tattered red jacket, sat on the dresser. Everything in this room was known and familiar; she could recall it down to the smallest detail, even with her eyes closed.

From the Hardcover edition.