Back then the road they lived on was a dirt road and they lived at the end of it, about a mile from Route 4. This was in the north in the potato country, and back when the Appleby children were small the winters were icy and snow-filled and there were months when the road seemed impassably narrow. Weather was different then, like a family member you couldn’t avoid. You took it without thinking much. Clayton Appleby attached a sturdy snowplow to his sturdiest tractor, and he was usually able to clear the way enough to get the kids to school. Clayton had grown up in farm country and he knew about weather and he knew about potatoes and he knew who in the county sold their bags with hidden rocks for weight. He was a closed book of a man, he inhabited himself with economy, but his family understood he loathed dishonesty in any form. He did have surprising and sudden moments of liveliness. For example he could imitate perfectly old Miss Lurvy who ran the Historical Society’s tiny museum—“The first flush toilet in Aroostook County,” he would say, heaving back his narrow shoulders as though he had a large bosom, “belonged to a judge who was known to beat his wife quite regularly.” Or he might pretend to be a tramp looking for food, holding out his hand, his blue eyes beseeching, and his children would laugh themselves sick, until his wife, Sylvia, got them calmed down. On winter mornings he let the car warm up in the driveway, scraping the ice from its windows, exhaust billowing about him until the kids tumbled down the salt-dappled snow of the steps. There were three other kids on the road—two boys in the Daigle family, and their sister Charlene who was close to the age of the youngest Appleby child, a strange little girl named Annie.
Annie was skinny and lively and so prone to talkativeness that her mother was not altogether sorry when she spent hours by herself in the woods playing with sticks or making angels in the snow. She was the only Appleby child to inherit the Acadian olive skin tone and dark hair from her mother and grandmother, and the sight of her red hat and dark head coming across the snow fields was as common as seeing a nuthatch at the birdfeeder.
One morning when Annie was five and going to kindergarten she told the car full of children—her brother and sister and the Daigle boys and Charlene—that God spoke to her when she was outside in the woods. Her sister said, “You’re so stupid, why don’t you shut up.” Annie bounced on the seat beside her father and she said, “He does though! God talks to me.” Her sister asked how did he do that, and Annie answered, “He puts thoughts in my head.” She looked up at her father then, and saw something in his eyes as he turned to look at her that stayed with her always; something that did not seem like her father, not yet, something that seemed not good. “You all get out,” he said, when he pulled up in front of the school. “I have to speak to Annie.” When the car doors had slammed shut, he said to his daughter, “What is it you saw in the woods?”
She thought about this. “I saw the trees and chickadees.”
Her father stayed silent a long time, gazing over the top of the steering wheel. Annie had never been scared of her father the way Charlene was scared of hers. And Annie wasn’t scared of her mother, who was the cozier parent, but not the most important one. “Go on, now.” Her father nodded at her, and she pushed herself across the seat, her snow pants squeaking, and he leaned and got the door, saying “Watch your fingers,” before he pulled it shut.
That was the year Jamie Appleby did not like his teacher. “He makes me sick,” Jamie said, throwing his boots in the mudroom. Like his father, Jamie was not a talker, and Sylvia, watching this, had a quick flush come to her face.
“Is Mr. Potter mean to you?”
“I don’t know.”
Jamie was in the fourth grade and Sylvia loved him more than her daughters; he caused an almost unbearable sweetness to spread through her. That he should suffer anything was intolerable. She loved Annie gently because the child was so strange and harmless. The middle child, Cindy, Sylvia loved with a mild generosity. Cindy was the dullest of the three and probably the most like her mother.
It was also the year Jamie saved up his money and gave his father a tape recorder for his birthday. This turned into a terrible moment because his father, after unwrapping the present with barely any rips to the wrapping paper, the way he always unwrapped things, said, “You’re the one who wants a tape recorder, James. It’s indecent to give someone a present you want yourself, though it happens all the time.”
“Clayton,” Sylvia murmured. It was true that Jamie had wanted a tape recorder, and his pale cheeks burned red. The tape recorder was put away on the top shelf of the coat closet.
Annie, talkative as she was, did not mention this to anyone, including her grandmother next door. Her grandmother’s house was a small square house, and in the long white months of winter the house seemed stark and bare naked, the windows like eyes stuck open, looking toward the farm. The old woman was from the St. John Valley and was said to have been beautiful in her day. (Annie’s mother had once been beautiful too, photos showed that.) Now the old woman was stick thin and tiny wrinkles covered her face. “I would like to die,” she said languidly, from where she lay on her couch. Annie sat cross-legged in the big chair nearby. Her grandmother drew in the air with her finger. “I would like to close my eyes right now and pass away.” She lifted her head of white hair and looked over at Annie. “I’m blue,” she added. She put her head back down.
“I’d miss you,” said Annie. It was a Saturday and it had snowed all day, the flakes big and wet and thick, sticking to the lower windowpanes in curves.
“You wouldn’t. You only come over here to get a piece of candy. You have a brother and a sister to talk to. I don’t know why the three of you don’t play together.”
“We’re not in the appetite.” Annie had once asked her brother to play cards and he had said he was not in the appetite. She picked at a hole in her sock. “Our teacher says if you look at the fields right after it snows and the sun is shining hard you can get blind.” Annie craned her neck to see out the window.
“Then don’t look,” her grandmother said.
When Annie was in the fifth grade, she began staying at Charlene Daigle’s house more. Annie was still lively and talked incessantly, but there had been an incident with the long-forgotten tape recorder—a secret that she shared with Jamie—and ever since the incident it was as though a skin was compressed round her own family; the farm, her quiet brother, her sulky sister, her smiling mother who often said, “I feel sorry for the Daigles. He’s always so grumpy and he yells at the kids. We’re awfully lucky to have a happy family.” All of it made Annie picture a sausage, and she had poked a small hole in the casing and was trying to squirm out. Mr. Daigle did not really yell at his kids; in fact, when she and Charlene took a bath he often came in to wash them with a washcloth. Her own father thought bodies were private and had recently become red-faced and yelled—yelled hard!—because Cindy had not wrapped her sanitary pad adequately with toilet paper before putting it in the garbage. He had made her come and get it and wrap it up more. It caused Annie to tremble inside; the skin of the sausage was shame. Her family was encased in shame. She felt this more than she thought it, the way children do. But she thought when she was old enough for that awful thing to happen to her own body she would bury the things outside in the woods.
So she went to Charlene’s house after school and they made large snow people that Mr. Daigle sprayed with the hose so they would turn icy and glass-like in the morning. When it was too cold to be outside Annie and Charlene made up stories and acted them out. Her father, stopping by to get her, would stand with Mrs. Daigle and watch them. Mrs. Daigle wore red lipstick, there was something fierce about her; Clayton Appleby got a twinkle in his eye when he talked with her. It was not a look he got when he talked to his wife, and one Saturday afternoon Annie said quite suddenly, “This is a dumb play we made up. I want to go home.” Walking back up the road to their house she still held her father’s hand as she had always done. Around them the fields were endless and white, edged by the dark trunks of trees and their spruce boughs weighed down with the snow. “Daddy,” she said, blurting it out, “what’s the most important thing to you?”
“You of course.” He did not break his stride. “My family.” His answer was immediate and calm.
“The most important of all.”
Joy spilled around Annie, and in her memory it stayed that way for years. The walk back up the road to her house, holding the hand of her father, the fields quieting in their brightness, the trees darkening to a navy green, the milky sun behind their house that was the color of the snow. Once inside she knocked softly on the door of her brother’s room. He was in high school and small hairs were on his upper lip. She closed the door behind her and said, “Nana’s just a mean old witch. Nobody likes her. Not one person.”
Her brother kept looking at the comic book he held open. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. But when Annie sighed and turned to go, he said, “Of course she’s an old hag. And don’t worry about her. You always exaggerate everything.” He was quoting his mother, who said that Annie exaggerated things.
The farm had belonged to Sylvia’s father. Clayton came from three towns away, and he had been raised in a trailer with a family that had no money, farm, or religion. He had worked on farms though, and knew the business, and after he married Sylvia he took over the farm when his father-in-law died. At some point before Annie’s memory, the house for her grandmother had been built. Until then she had lived in the main house with the rest of the family.
“Listen to this,” Jamie had said, coming to Annie one day before supper, and they went to the barn and huddled in the loft. “I hid it under Nana’s couch before Ma came over.” The tape recorder clicked and whirred. Then there was the clear voice of their grandmother saying to her daughter, “Sylvia, it gags me. I lie here and I want to vomit. But you’ve made your bed. So you lie in the bed you made, my dear.” And there was the sound of their mother crying. There was some murmur of a question. Should she speak to the priest? Their grandmother said, “I’d be too embarrassed, if I were you.”
It seemed to be forever, the white snow around them, her grandmother next door lying on her couch wanting to die, Annie still the one who chattered constantly. She was now an inch short of six feet and thin as a wire, her dark hair long and wavy. Her father found her one day behind the barn and he said, “I want you to stop going off into the woods the way you do. I don’t know what you’re up to there.” Her amazement had more to do with the disgust and anger of his expression. She said she was up to nothing. “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you Annie, you stop, or I’ll see to it you never leave this house.” She opened her mouth to say, Are you crazy, but the thought touched her mind that maybe he was, and this frightened her in a way she had not known a person could be frightened. “Okay,” she said. But it turned out she could not stay away from the woods on days when the sun was bright. The physical world with its dappled light was her earliest friend and it waited with its open-armed beauty to accept her sense of excitement that nothing else could bring. She learned the rhythms of those around her, where they would be and when, and she slipped into the woods closer to town, or behind the school, and there she would sing with gentleness and exuberance a song she’d made up years earlier: “I’m so glad that I’m living, just so glaaad that I’m living—” She was waiting.
And then she wasn’t waiting, because Mr. Potter saw her in a school play and arranged for her to be in a summer theater, and people in the summer theater took her to Boston, then she was gone. She was seventeen years old and the fact that her parents did not object, did not even ask her to finish high school, occurred to her only later. At the time there were various men, many of them fat and soft and with large rings on their fingers, who held her close in darkened theaters and murmured how lovely she was, like a fawn in the woods, and they sent her to different auditions, found her people to stay with in different rooms in different towns; people, she found, who were extraordinarily, unbelievably kind. The same compression of God’s presence she knew in the woods expanded into strangers who loved her, and she went from stage to stage around the country and when she came back to visit the house at the end of the road she was really surprised by how small it was, how low the ceilings. The gifts she bore, sweaters and jewelry and wallets and watches—knockoffs bought from city sidewalk vendors—seemed to embarrass her family. Her very presence seemed to embarrass them. “You’re so thespian,” her father murmured in a voice coated with distaste.
“No I’m not,” she said, because she thought he had said lesbian.
His face had gotten heavier, though he was still lean. He slid a watch across the table to her. “Find someone else who can use this. When have you ever seen me wear a watch?”
But her grandmother, who looked just the same, sat up and said, “You’ve become beautiful, Annie. How did that happen? Tell me everything.” And so Annie sat in the big chair and told her about dressing rooms and small apartments in different towns and how everyone took care of each other and how she never forgot her lines. Her grandmother said, “Don’t come back. Don’t get married. Don’t have children. All those things will bring you heartache.”
For a long time Annie did not come back. She sometimes missed her mother, as though she felt across the miles a wave of sadness lapping up to her from Sylvia, but when she telephoned, her mother always said, “Oh, not much here is new,” and did not seem at all interested in what Annie was doing. Her sister never wrote or called, and Jamie very seldom. At Christmastime she sent home boxes of gifts until her mother sighed over the telephone and said, “Your father wants to know what we’re to do with all this rubbish.” This hurt her feelings but not lastingly because those she lived with and knew from the theater were so warm and kind and outraged on her behalf. The older members of any cast treated Annie with tenderness and so without realizing it, she stayed in lots of ways a child. “Your innocence protects you,” a director told her once, and in truth she did not know what he meant.
There is a saying that every woman should have three daughters because that way there will be one to take care of you in old age. Annie Appleby was everywhere—California, London, Amsterdam, Pittsburgh—and the only place Sylvia could find her was in a gossip magazine at the drugstore, where her name had been linked with a famous movie star. This embarrassed Sylvia; people in town learned not to mention it. Cindy was nearby in New Hampshire; she’d had many children quickly and a husband who wanted her home. So it was Jamie who stayed at the farm, unmarried. Silently he worked alongside his father, who remained strong even with age. Silently he tended to the needs of his grandmother next door. Sylvia often said, “What would I do without you, Jamie?” and he would shake his head. His mother was lonely, he knew. He saw how his father increasingly did not speak with her. His father began to eat sloppily, which he had never done. The sound of his chewing was notable; bits of food fell down on his shirt. “Clayton, my goodness,” Sylvia said, rising to get a napkin, and he shook her off. “For Christ’s sake, woman!”
Privately Sylvia said, “What’s wrong with your father?” But Jamie shrugged and they did not talk about it again until Jamie, going through the books, realized what was happening. Terribly, it all made sense: His father’s querulousness, his sudden asking repeatedly where Annie was, “Where is that child? Is she in the woods again?” All this fell into Jamie’s stomach with the silence of a stone falling into the darkness of a well. Within a year they could not care for the man; he ran away, he started a fire in the barn, he drove them insane with his questions, “Where’s Annie? Is she in the woods?” And so they found him a home, and Clayton was furious to be there. Sylvia stopped visiting because he was so angry when she came, one time calling her a cow. The sisters were informed, and Cindy came home for a few days, but Annie could not. She said she could be there by spring.
When she turned off Route 4, Annie was surprised to find the dirt road had been paved, and it was no longer a narrow road. A few new and large houses had been added near the Daigle place. She would not have recognized where she was. Cindy was in the kitchen, which seemed even smaller than the last time Annie had come home, and when Annie bent to kiss her, Cindy just stood without moving. Their mother, said Jamie, was upstairs; she would be down after the kids had talked. Annie felt the physical, almost electric, aspects of alarm and sank slowly into a chair as she unbuttoned her coat. Jamie spoke carefully and directly. Their father was being asked to leave the home he was in; he was abusive to the orderlies, Jamie said, making sexual passes at all the men, grabbing at their crotches, and was altogether disruptive. A psychiatrist had seen him, and their father had given permission for their talks to be shared, though how a man with dementia could give permission Jamie did not understand, but as a result Sylvia had learned that for years Clayton had a relationship with Seth Potter, they were lovers, Sylvia said she had often suspected this, and Clayton was, demented as he might be, referring to himself as a raging homosexual, and he was very graphic in things he said; they would most likely have to put him in a far less pleasant place, there was no money unless they sold the farm and no one was buying potato farms these days.
“All right,” Annie finally said. Her siblings had been silent for many minutes and their faces seemed so young and sad although they were middle-aged faces with middle-aged lines. “All right, we’ll deal with this.” She nodded at them reassuringly. Later she went next door to see her grandmother who seemed surprisingly unchanged. She lay on the couch and watched her granddaughter go about turning on lights. “You came home to deal with your father? Your mother’s had a hell of a time.”
“Yes,” Annie said, and sat in the big chair nearby.
“If you want my opinion your father went mad because of his behavior. Being a pervert. I always knew he was a homo, and that can drive you insane, and now he’s insane, that’s my opinion if you want it.”
“I don’t,” Annie said gently.
“Then tell me something exciting. Where have you been that’s exciting?”
Annie looked at her. The old woman’s face was expectant as a child’s, and Annie felt an unbidden and almost unbearable gash of compassion for this woman who had lived in this house for years. She said, “I went to the ambassador’s home in London. They had the whole production there for dinner. That was exciting.”
“Oh, tell me everything, Annie.”
“Let me sit a minute.” And so they were silent, her grandmother lying back down like a young person trying to be patient, and Annie, who up until this very day had always felt like a child—which is why she could not marry, she could not be a “wife”—now felt ancient. She thought how for years on stage she had used the image of walking up the dirt road holding her father’s hand, the snow-covered fields spread around them, the woods in the distance, joy spilling through her—how she had used this scene to have tears immediately come to her eyes, for the happiness of it, and the loss of it. And now she wondered if it had even happened, if the road had ever been narrow and dirt, if her father had ever held her hand and said his family was the most important thing to him.
“That’s right,” she had said earlier to her sister, who cried out that were it true they would have known. What Annie did not say was that there were many ways of not knowing things; her own experience over the years now spread like a piece of knitting in her lap with shadows all through it. In her thirties now, Annie had loved men; her heart had often been broken. Currents of treachery and deceit seemed to run everywhere, the forms it took always surprised her. But she had many friends and they had their disappointments too, and nights and days were spent giving support and being supported; the theater world was a cult, Annie thought. It took care of its own even while it hurt you. She had recently, though, had fantasies of what they called “going normal.” Having a house and a husband and children and a garden. The quietness of all that. But what would she do with all the feelings that streamed down her like small rivers? It was not the sound of applause Annie liked—in fact, she often barely heard it—it was the moment on stage when she knew she had left the world and joined fully another. Not unlike the feelings of ecstasy she’d had in the woods as a child.
Her father must have worried she would come across him in the woods. Annie shifted in the big chair.
“Did they tell you about Charlene?” her grandmother asked.
“Charlene Daigle?” Annie turned to look at the old woman. “What about her?”
“She’s started a chapter for incest people. Incest Survivors I believe they’re called.”
“Are you serious?”
“Soon as that father died, she started it. Ran an article in the newspaper, said one out of five children are sexually abused. Honestly, Annie. What a world.”
“But that’s awful. Poor Charlene!”
“She looked pretty good in her picture. Heavier. She’s gotten heavier.”
“My God,” Annie said softly. She stood to go, touching lightly the top of her grandmother’s head, thinking how in the kitchen Cindy had said quietly, “We must have been the laughing stock of the county.”
“No,” Jamie had said to her. “Whatever he did, he hid.”
Annie had seen how their distress showed in their guarded faces. “Oh,” she had said, feeling maternal, protective toward them. “It doesn’t really matter.”
But it did! Oh, it did.
Back in the main house, Sylvia sat with her children for supper in the kitchen. “I heard about Charlene,” Annie said. “It’s unbelievably sad.”
“If it’s true,” answered Sylvia.
Annie looked at her siblings, but they looked at the food they moved into their mouths. “Why would it not be true? Why would someone make that up?” Jamie shrugged and Annie saw—or felt she saw—that Charlene’s burdens were nothing to them; their own universe and its wild recent unmooring was all that mattered now. Sylvia went upstairs to bed, and the three sat talking by the wood stove. Jamie especially could not stop talking. Their silent father in his state of dementia seemed unable to keep himself from spilling forth all he had held onto secretly for years, and Jamie, who had been silent himself, now had to tumble all he heard before them. “One time they saw you in the woods, Annie, and he was always afraid after that you’d find them.” Annie nodded. Cindy looked at her with a pained face, as though Annie should have more of a reaction than that. Annie put her hand over her sister’s for a moment. “But one of the strangest things he said,” Jamie reported, sitting back, “was that he drove us to school so he could, just for those moments, be near Seth Potter. He didn’t even see him, dropping us off. But he liked knowing he was close to him each morning. That Seth was only a few feet away, inside the school.”
“Oh God, it makes me sick,” Cindy said.
Jamie squinted at the wood stove. “It puzzles me, is all.”
The vulnerability of their faces Annie could almost not bear. She looked around the small kitchen, the wallpaper that had water stains streaking down it, the rocking chair their father had always sat in, the cushion now with a rip large enough to show the stuffing, the tea kettle on the stove that had been the same one for years, the curtain across the top of the window with a fine spray of cobwebs between it and the pane. Annie looked back at her siblings. They may not have felt the daily dread that poor Charlene had lived with. But the truth was always there. They had grown up on shame; it was the nutrient of their soil. Yet, oddly, it was her father she felt she understood the best. And for a moment Annie wondered at this, that her brother and sister, good, responsible, decent, fair minded, had never known the passion that caused a person to risk everything they had, everything they held dear heedlessly put in danger—simply to be near the white dazzle of the sun that somehow for those moments seemed to leave the Earth behind.