From her old bedroom window Melissa could just see the place she used to call Rock Bend. At a few minutes’ walking distance behind her parents’ country home, at the edge of the woods, the small river turned westward and slowly flowed into the distance. A large, solitary rock stood at the bend, overlooking the stream as it changed its course. The rock was an ashy gray and more than twice her size as a child. Still, she always managed to find her way up its rounded sides, and would sit for hours while she watched the river change color with the setting sun.
As a child she used to wonder which had come first: the water or the stone. In the summer, when the river ran low, she imagined that the rock had stopped there on its way to somewhere else to keep it company, and had decided to stay after a while. In winter, when the snow-hooded boulder stood desolate and lonely, she believed the river—which almost never froze—passed by to entertain it with a cascade of stories of the places it had been.
Melissa’s father had encouraged the Rock Bend mythology, and used to ask her to tell him about the rock and the river. Her mother would now and then suggest that a girl her age might spend her time differently, but her counsel was of little avail. To Melissa, the big old stone at the bend in the stream had become the symbolic center of her childhood; a time and a place where everything was safe and uncomplicated. At Rock Bend, there were still indivisible things: the stone and the river, she and her father, love and happiness.
Her mother had fallen ill almost a year ago and had died the previous fall. Melissa was a little disconcerted by her unemotional reaction—almost indifferent, she sometimes thought—to her mother’s death. By contrast, she had dreaded the idea of having to live without her father; somehow she had expected her mother to just always be there. Now, she didn’t know how to react to her absence.
Melissa’s father had decided to move south. The old house was too big for him to live in alone. As promised, she had come up to help him pack, but her arm was in a sling and her mind was restless, even though she had tried to overcome her fatigue and her anxiety. She hadn’t wanted to trouble her father with her worries at a time when he had enough concerns of his own.
“They’d just polished the staircase. Marble gets real slippery. You know me, my mind’s always a million miles away.”
“Want me to scribble something on the cast?” His voice, as always, was sonorous and pleasant.
She smiled at him. “I’m a big girl now.”
“Can look after yourself and all that, huh?” He held up his pipe and a matchbox in one hand as he struck a match with the other and lit the pipe. The image of her father lighting a pipe, his hands cupped in front of his face, his eyes fixed on the flame, was one of Melissa’s oldest memories—it was good to know that some things never changed.
“Sure. Never worry.”
Perhaps her silence had been a bit too long or her tone a bit too shaky, but her father gave her that poignant, just-not-sarcastic look over the rim of his glasses: he could tell she was hiding something. He blew out the match and puffed at his pipe a few times while he delicately placed the thin, burnt match in the wooden ashtray at his side, careful not to break it. He leaned back and enjoyed his smoke in silence, his eyes closed, his breathing even.
The atmosphere was peaceful and soothing. The smell of her father’s tobacco relaxed Melissa; he had smoked the same blend all her life—a warm, spicy, woody scent. The restful sense of belonging that came over her strangely upset her as well. Her father’s presence gave her a feeling of protection and safety that involuntarily prompted her to let down her guard. And the memories flashed back, quick and hard—images, voices, sounds—and as she suppressed them she had to fight back tears as well.
Her bedroom had been made a guest room after she had moved to the city, six years ago now, but now it was littered with boxes and bags. The bed was still there, though, and she wanted to sleep in her old room—probably for the last time. She had left the lights off and was standing by the opened window, scanning the dark landscape before her. It was a pleasant, warm night. The moon was bright and cream-colored and Melissa could hear the rustling of the old oak tree’s crisp young leaves.
She hadn’t talked to many people about the—incident. She was embarrassed and hurt, as though it reflected on her integrity, her self-sufficiency and independence. She didn’t mean to hide it purposefully, she just didn’t want to bring it up.
“It’s a mess, isn’t it?” Her father stood in the doorway, leaning against the post. He was a tall, broad man. His thick hair had turned gray at an early age, but his face was smooth and youthful, with sharp, taut features.
“Isn’t it supposed to be?”
“I guess so.” He stepped into the room. “I’ll miss Rock Bend, though.”
She laughed. “Don’t tell me you still go there.”
“Well, every now and then. You know how people get sentimental as they grow old.”
Melissa smiled, “Which is why you shouldn’t be.” She touched his face. “You’re looking good. I was a little worried. You sounded beat over the phone.”
“It’s a tiring business—putting your life in sixty boxes. Just about every object in this house has a story attached. I’m surprised a single cardboard box can contain so many stories.”
“Imagine how many boxes there are inside your head. And those you can’t get rid of.”
“I know. But you, young lady…” He mock-punched her on the cheek. “… shouldn’t need to worry about that. Compared to mine, your head should be half empty. Or rather, full of expectation.”
Silence. Melissa felt awkward and insecure.
“Instead, you seem pretty preoccupied.”
“Well, you know how it goes. When you’re young, you think a lot of things are very important.”
“A lot of things are very important. Needless to say, as far as I’m concerned, you’re one of them.”
She looked at him. He wasn’t pressing, but he wouldn’t be brushed off either. “You’re sweet.”
“Can’t help it,” he sighed. “You’re the only kid I’ve got.” He kissed her brow. “Sleep tight.”
Alone again, Melissa felt a warm tickling sensation in her belly. She knew it was happiness—simple, tender, and vulnerable. She pressed her hands to her abdomen and the quick shot of pain raced through her. From her pelvis it shuddered upward. Her legs tensed, her fists clenched, her neck was hard and tight. Quickly, she released the tension; she breathed again, her lips quivering.
Her gaze was fixed on a shadowy spot outside, but she didn’t see. As she fought to clear her mind she spiraled into a consuming darkness. Images raced toward her and shattered when they got too close: streetlights, a sudden movement, a stifling.
She shook her head fiercely, but it was too strong. Her heart throbbed—the fiery eyes—the swirling lights, the pavement, the shadow. She cried, pleaded, lost all sense of balance, shrieked. A rap to her stomach, she retched, was spun around. Everything flashed, everything whirled around her.
Then suddenly, with a powerful thud, she landed on the ground, on top of her elbow—a sharp jolt of pain. There were hands, pushing, feeling. No. Those eyes. The pungent stench of soiled, sweating skin. The tussle, and at once the piercing—and the piercing pain. The trees, the black sky, her outstretched hand—everything rocked, her head soared, senseless, merciless.
Melissa crouched, holding on to the window sill; she was dazed and she was dizzy and she needed to be sick. She slid down on the floor and concentrated on her breathing. She looked around her, at the room, the bed, the boxes. She swallowed. She took a deep breath. She rested her head against the wall.
Quietly and deliberately, she got up and sat down on the edge of the bed. Again she looked through the room. She breathed deeply.
Slowly, she started to take off her blouse, her shoes, her slacks. Then, naked but for the cast, she moved to the window and looked out again. She thought she would like to go for a walk through the field like that, and she laughed at herself. That’s good, she thought.
She could not see the rock, but she saw the moonlight reflected off the river, shimmering.
She looked down at her body. There was hurting inside, but it was still her own; even the pain was her own, she realized. Her body had the same old imperfections she loved to hate—and some added bruises—but it still looked better than average. But she felt sticky and dirty, she needed to be cleaned. She needed to be cleansed.
Before the entered the bathroom, she stopped to listen if she could hear her father downstairs. Nothing.
Early next morning, Melissa went to Rock Bend. The air was fresh and humid. She’d slept remarkably well.
As she approached the bend, she found the boulder to be somewhat smaller than she remembered and more worn, its surface smoother. She touched it—it was cool and moist. She kneeled by the stream and let the water play through her fingers. The scooped up a handful and splashed it on her face. It felt cold and invigorating. She shivered and laughed.
She leaned against the old rock and overlooked the river as it came and flowed away. Once in a while some small white fish would dart by, and dragonflies hovered over the surface. The rising sun covered the scene before her in a blanket of clear, yellow-orange light.
Melissa decided that she wanted to sit on top of the rock, as she used to do. It was smaller than she was, but it was wet and slippery and she could only use one arm. She sat against the stone and pushed and pulled her way up backwards. There was a slight protuberance on the stone’s surface, and she wedged her foot against it and pushed. It chipped off—she slipped and slid down. She tried again, more slowly. This time, she got on top. It felt great; she giggled a bit and wiggled a bit to make herself more comfortable.
There was a crackling among the trees.
“Thought you might be up early.”
“Father of mine!” She waved.
“The early morning is the most powerful part of the day, my girl,” he said, holding up his little finger. “The lightest, the least tainted. Your brain is still fresh and sharp. Never waste your mornings.”
“Now you do sound like an old man.” She was serious.
“You’re right, it’s none of my business.” After a moment’s silence he said, “Polished the stairs, had they?”
“That’s what I said.” Melissa couldn’t lie again. She hoped he wouldn’t force her.
“Marble staircase, isn’t it?”
“You’ve been there.”
He nodded and drew in the air. “Nice and white and delicately veined.” He peered out over the gently tumbling water. “Haven’t lost my marbles, though. I can tell you.” His tone of voice feigned indifference, but the coy glance he gave her reassured her.
He patted her leg. “See you at home.”
She watched him while he walked back to the house. His gait was long and swift and proud. She loved him.
As the minutes passed she saw the veil of dawn lift off the land. The light became clearer and harder and she felt the sun’s comfortable heat on her back. She felt good and she was getting hungry.
As she slid off the rock, Melissa felt the damaged spot on the surface under her hand. Inside the small hollow the stone felt rough and cool. She bent down to look for the chip and soon found it among the growth of weeds. She first wanted to give it to the river, but then decided to keep it herself. After all, this was the last she’d see of Rock Bend. She was entitled to a memento of her own past, she thought.
She held it in the water and rubbed it clean.
She wanted to say something, a kind of good-bye, but she felt silly. She started for the house and whispered, “So long, guys.” She followed her father’s tracks, and even tried to imitate his stride. She laughed.
She held the fragment of stone in her open palm. It quickly dried in the sunlight.
• • •