Book segment



White Hill, Michigan – October 1939


Put something down.
Put something down some day.
Put something down some day in.
Put something down some day in my.
In my hand.
In my hand right.
In my hand writing.
Put something down some day in my handwriting.

~ Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), “Sacred Emily”



Mary Walker crouched against the attic wall, waiting. Two floors below, her husband hurled an ax into logs stacked near the woodstove, and she could hear chunks of wood clatter against the walls and floor as he cursed her. The fire was cold, there was no supper prepared, and she’d brought her coat up into the attic with her so that he would believe she was out. But hidden upstairs, her body was attuned to his every motion and his exact location in the house.


Eventually he would leave. He would leave either to go looking for her or to get drunk and forget about her. She just had to wait. Patience was so difficult for her. But she was just hours from freedom now—she and Robert would depart tonight. Tonight! She clutched the two small bags she had packed for the crossing to Chicago on the Fata Morgana. If all was going as planned, Robert was waiting for her this very minute, just a half a mile away in the Lake Michigan channel.


In recent weeks, Bernard’s fits of fury had intensified, almost as if he sensed Mary’s intention to leave him. And his rage about her inability to conceive a child made it clear what she was to him, and that he would never truly support the woman and the poet she had been before they married. She had no doubt about the importance of getting away from him. But in this moment, when she was finally packed and ready to make this cold water crossing, the lake’s violence and the unsettling purple sky made Mary afraid.


Pulling her gaze from the round window beneath the attic’s peak, she turned to the sewing box in her lap, for it had always comforted her. A loose knob jiggled just as it had when her mother owned the box, and a quilted lining held needles and pins purchased before she was born. She had loosened a few tacks in the lining so that she could hide the special needle, and she reached in with one finger. Yes, it was still there—the needle that had nothing to do with sewing. She tucked it deeper, yearning for the relief of her medicine. Up against it, she slid a folded poem that no one would read until she was far from this White Hill life. In Chicago she would be a different woman. She would use another name to publish her poetry, and thousands of people would read every line. But until then she had to hide the most dangerous words.


“If you think you can make a fool of me, Mary Walker,” Bernard roared to no one, “you haven’t learned a goddamn thing.” Her heart stuttered at the heavy thud of something being thrown to the floor, and she shrank closer to the wall, her hands clutching the sewing box more tightly. Bernard knew how she cherished it, and if she left it here, he would smash it apart. She stared into the box at the threads and buttons, running her fingers lightly over their gentle shapes. No, she wouldn’t leave it behind; she must take it. The truth was, she’d need something like this in her new life—she’d need precisely this! With no furniture of her own, with nothing of home, she might really go mad. Part of her could live in this box.


The small window’s frame rattled in a blast of wind, and she leaned over to look out, hollow with fear. The night sky was starless and black. It was past time to go. God help her if the storm raged too long. Once they pushed off into that cold lake, she could never return to White Hill.


At last the front door slammed, and seconds later, she saw Bernard taking long strides down the road, away from the lake and toward town. Her eyes caught on an object gripped in his right hand. It was the ax. Her gaze swooped blindly around the dim room, then returned to the dark form of her husband. Was he looking for her with an ax? Even from the attic she could see that his gait was drunken with anger. When at last he had been swallowed by shadows and trees, she sat frozen, forcing herself to wait. Just three minutes. Two.


“Gather your courage, now, Mary. Get on with it,” she said finally, and the feeling of her voice in her throat gave her strength. She stuffed strands of blond hair up under her hat, stood beneath the low ceiling, and moved quickly, gripping the bags’ handles with sweating hands. She picked her way along a memorized path through the dark attic, raced down the stairs, and crossed the cold, naked floors of the house to flee through the windblown sand and grass. The sewing box knocked against her hip, her bags grew heavy quickly, and the sky began to hurl rain. She scanned the wet darkness. No one was near.


No one following.


Then at last it was there—the channel light—and thirty steps later she could see Robert’s boat rocking wildly near the pier. She wanted to laugh and cry. She searched the open, storm-blown sand again, and then again, in every direction, but she detected no watching eyes, and out on his boat that loyal man was waiting, just as he had said he would be.


Her feet sank and slipped in the damp sand, and her heart smashed against her ribs. Wind threshed the grasses that hissed around her knees, and as her boots reached the solid pier boards, the Fata Morgana heaved up and down on turbulent waves, its prow slapping the lake.


The voices of the water and the night urged Mary to hurry, crying out that she was only doing what she had to do, that the notion she could stay in White Hill and make her life work was only a fantasy. She had never really had a choice at all.