Patti Callahan Henry’s debut, Losing the Moon, was hailed as “lyrical, sensual and as delicate as a seashell.” Now this talented newcomer delivers an engaging new novel about a woman who goes back home to fact the past – and discovers herself.
Meridy Dresden was once a free-spirited, fun-loving girl. All that changed when the boy she loved was killed in a tragic fire. Since then, she alone has carried the burden of a terrible secret. Years later, married to a wonderful man and mother of a teenage son, she is shocked to learn that a childhood friend is being blamed for that long-ago fire. Fearful but determined, Meridy returns to the South Carolina Lowcountry and summons the courage to make a deicion that may destroy her well-ordered life, her family’s reputation, her contented marriage , and everything she’s worked so hard to protect…including her heart.
"If you don't know where you are going, you should know where you came from." —Gullah proverb
A sweet-hollow nest below my heart tells me there is more as I stand at the dock's edge where the flowing river rounds the bend past my home to meet the sea. The wind caresses my face. Two dolphins, mother and baby, rise in synchrony, then their silver bodies disappear below the rolling surface of pewter water. I throw my arms wide, begging the world to bring to me everything I long for. It is my twelfth birthday, Mother and Daddy have given me a pink banana seat bicycle with tassels hanging off the handlebars. Yet this gift just doesn't seem like enough-sacred enough.
I turn from the river and jump on my bike. I am wearing my lime green party dress and I stand on the pedals, careful not to rip the tulle. I am eager for what all the boys on the street already have-the freedom a bike offers. I've learned to ride on my neighbor Timmy's bike. I ride past my home on the long river road that will end in a cul-de-sac. Mother is standing on the porch yelling at me to come back right this instant and change clothes before I run off on the horrid bike. I push down harder on the pedals. Mother screams to my daddy in the shrill cry of exasperation I often bring to her, "Dewey, I told you we shouldn't have gotten her a bike, she's wild enough already."
"Oh, Harriet, let the girl have some fun," Daddy says.
I never hear Mother's response; I am long gone, rounding the bend to the dead-end street. I can't go too far away as we live on a street shaped like the curled water moccasins running below our land and marsh-a twist to the left, then the right, then the left again-one long street following the curl of the river until it meets the sea at the tip of the land. Even after I learned that the expanse of blue river behind my house ran to the sea, then across to Africa, I did not believe it. I don't believe many things adults tell me. They have obviously stopped living life-always worried about things like their hair, or their car, or what party they're invited to.
I screech to a halt-a moving van with a dented black ramp stuck out like a tongue from its open mouth fills the end of my street in front of the Carmichaels' old house. Large men, completely soaked in the heat of the Lowcountry, unload boxes labeled "Danny's room," "Living Room," "Library" in large black letters. I prop my bike up with my legs on either side, my green tulle skirt puffing out like a dented balloon.
The door to the gray-silver shingled house stands open and another ramp leads to the front porch. A man, taller than most I know, appears in the doorway. He looks straight at me and waves, wipes his brow with a white handkerchief. I wave back. He holds up his finger in a hold-on motion and takes a step out onto the porch. "Daniel," he calls out.
A boy appears from behind a bush, jumps up onto the bottom step. "Yes, sir?"
"Looks like a friend has come to welcome you to the neighborhood."
The boy turns. His face is splattered with freckles, his eyes are so blue I see the color from where I stand. He wears tattered blue jean shorts and a PINK FLOYD t-shirt. Oh, Mother would just die. I smile, wave.
The boy turns back to his father. "She's a girl."
The large man laughs, slaps the boy on the shoulder so hard he stumbles forward. "You're brilliant, son."
"Dad, I don't want..."
The man holds up his hand, motions for me to come up to the porch. I drop my bike and join them.
"Welcome to the neighborhood," I say, nervous in an unfamiliar way-like I've eaten too many raw oysters. "I'm Meridy McFadden and I live up the street and today is my twelfth birthday."
The man leans down, puts his hands on his knees. "Well, hello there. Happy birthday to you. You look like a little fairy. I'm Chris Garrett and this here is my son, Danny."
I stick out my hand toward Danny. "Nice to meet you. Where'd you come from?"
Danny grabs my hand, shakes it loosely, drops it and turns to his daddy.
"Answer her, son. Cat gotcha tongue?"
"Birmingham," Danny says.
"Alabama?" I stand on my tippy-toes-I think it makes my legs look longer and this boy looks down at me.
"Is there another one?" The boy named Danny turns away from me.
"Yep. There is. In England." I try to stand taller, but can't. I trip, stumble on the front porch.
Danny glances over his shoulder. "Do we look like we're from England?"
"Son." Mr. Garrett cuffs Danny on the ear. "That was rude."
"Sorry." Danny blushes and his freckles blunder into a red mass.
"Wanna go for a bike ride? I'll show you the whole street," I say.
"The whole street. Wow, that should take about five seconds." Danny says.
I feel like a puppy that has been kicked. I skip down the steps to the wilted summer grass-I won't show my embarrassment.
"Wait, little fairy." Mr. Garrett's voice follows me.
I turn. "Yes, sir."
"You're gonna have to forgive my son. He's a little pissy about the move. He'd love to take a bike ride." Mr. Garrett points to a rusted blue Schwinn at the side of the porch. "Wouldn't you, son?"
"Dad, not with a girl...what if someone sees me..."
"Go on, son, and that's an order."
"Yes, sir." Danny slouches down the steps and grabs the bike, mounts it, then takes off down the driveway toward the road.
I jump on my bike and follow, calling after him, "Wait, wait...you'll get lost. And it'll take more than five minutes, the street is two miles long."
We race up the street with nowhere else to go as Danny's house is at the very end of the road, surrounded on both sides by water. I catch up with him, come alongside him. "Hey, you don't know where you're going."
"Doesn't look real complicated to me," Danny says, stopping.
I jump off my bike. "It is. If you go too far that way,"-I wave to the left-"You'll be seen by Mrs. Foster and then she'll come outside and you'll be obliged to have tea and cookies with her. You have to go on the other side of the tree line. And," I point, "if you go too far on the right side there, Mad Mr. Mulligan will come out and start screaming at you about grenades coming and getting back under the fox hole. Mother says he thinks he's still in World War II. I think he drinks too much whiskey. There's lotsa things you need to know about riding your bike here. You can't just go pell-mell up and down the street."
"Pell mell? You sound like an old lady." Danny stands with his legs wide on either side of the bike.
"Yeah, well then catch me." I jump back on my bike and pedal as hard as I can down the length of the road. Wind and marsh-sweet fragrance envelop me. The warmth of the sea-soaked air mixes with a sudden, piercing thought-Danny Garrett will fall in love with me. Why else would he show up on my birthday, on the day I received my first bike? Life is finally coming to me instead of me running after it.
The rush of his tires whir behind me. I imagine I feel his breath although I only hear it. He is trying to catch me-I won't let him.
My skirt flies out from the sides of the bike, my tangled blonde hair flaps in my eyes and I believe I am exactly what Mr. Garrett called me: a fairy. Then the tires make a terrible screeching sound. The ground rushes up at me and I soar through the air. My skirt catches in the chain of the bike and my face crashes onto the gray-sand dirt at the side of the road.
I roll on the ground and the bike flips over my head, bangs the side of my temple with a pain similar to the time Daddy used the spoon on my bottom when I'd told Mother to shut up. I curl into a ball and wait for the pain to pass, wait for Danny Garrett to be swallowed into the earth so he won't have to see me sprawled on the ground.
Laughter pours over me, but I won't open my eyes to see him. I want to fade away right there on my twelfth birthday before I am ever loved by the freckle-faced boy who is laughing at me.
Then the sound becomes familiar and I open one eye and look up at Timmy. "Meridy McFadden, what in the tarnation you doing?" Timmy Oliver, my next-door neighbor, childhood rival and best friend rolled into one, stands over me.
I jump up. "I'm fine...fine."
"Your mama is going to just kill you."
I look down at my party dress, smeared with dirt, rock and torn pieces of lime tulle. I groan.
Timmy's smile falls. "You okay?"
"Mother is going to kill me." I glance over at Danny; he is standing next to his bike, his mouth open. He looks so helpless and adorable, my heart opens wide.
"Timmy...that's Danny." I point at him. "He just moved in the old Carmichael house...today.'' I brush what dirt I can off my skirt.
Danny walks toward us, reaches his hand out and touches my temple. "You're bleeding. Should I go get your mama?"
"No, no, don't do that." I grab Danny's arm. "If I need something, I go see Timmy's mama...this is Timmy."
Danny looks over at Timmy. "Hey."
"You just moved in?" Danny motions with his hand toward the end of the road.
"Yep," Timmy says.
They circle each other like dogs until Danny's face breaks open into the most stomach-butterfly inducing grin I've ever seen. "You live on this street too?" He asks Timmy.
"I do. Welcome." Timmy nods.
I push my skirts to the side. "Hey, I found him first."
Timmy and Danny look at each other, double over in laughter, slap each other on the shoulders as if they've known each other for years.
"He's not a puppy, Meridy." Timmy picks up my bike.
I lift my chin. "Bet I can beat both of you to the dock."
"Since I don't know where the dock is, you probably can." Danny winks and my heart loses a beat.
"Let me grab ole Silver.' Timmy disappears behind his house and emerges pedaling toward the dock at the far end of the road, playing cards flapping in his tires.
"No head starts," I scream after him and stand hard on my pedals, suddenly hating my pink seat and pink pom-pom tassels. My older sister, Sissy, probably picked out the bike to humiliate me. I tuck my skirt up under the seat and lean forward over the handlebars. Danny is right behind me and I hope my hair is flying like a bird's wings and not a mass of tangles.
We all reach the dock's edge simultaneously and drop our bikes, each declaring ourself the winner.
I glance at both boys and then run to the start of the dock, screaming, "Only way to break the tie..."
"No way, Mare." Timmy runs up behind me, grabs my arm. "You can't jump in the river in that dress. You'll be double dead."
"No one can be double dead, dim-wit. You just don't want to lose."
"Lose?" Danny steps between us. "Never." And he takes off running down the length of the dock.
I holler and run after him, but he reaches the end of the dock ten steps ahead of me; the fastest twelve-year-old boy I've ever seen. I catch up, stare at him.
Timmy comes up behind us. "My God, where'd you learn to run like that? I never seen anything like it."
"Nobody's won yet," I say, spread my arms, place my toes over the edge of the dock.
"Oh, I dare you," Danny says.
I close my eyes and jump out from the dock, arms splayed to the side as I imagine my party dress floating like the fairy wings Danny's father saw.
Both boys holler my name as the water envelopes me. I stay under, like I always do for a moment or two, with the sweet caress of the sea wrapped around my body. The sea and I have a special relationship-it waits for me, hugs me, loves me. I speak to the water under the wave-filled top. "I found him. His name is Danny Garrett and he came here for me." I always imagine the water reads my thoughts...know what I want and need.
Betraying me, my lungs burn. I burst through the water and stare up at the boys looking down at me, my dress now a tulle bubble floating around me. "I won," I say.
Danny crinkles those blue eyes, turns his head toward Timmy. "She's crazy, ain't she?"
"We don't say ain't here in South Carolina." I wiggle my legs beneath me to stay afloat. "And I won."
The boys wink at each other and jump in after me. We wrestle in the water, the boys in their shorts and T-shirts and I in my party dress, and we bounce off the moss-covered floor of the river and laugh.
Danny grabs my arm and points. A few feet away a dolphin rises from the water, flips his tail and splashes us. A hush, the full-quiet that comes of nature, falls over the three of us in the presence of the smooth animal. I reach out my hand and run it along the backside of the dolphin. Danny gasps, reaches out and his hand comes next to mine on the mammal's back. The dolphin lifts its rounded nose and nods at us, dives back under the water and swims away. He has left a blessing.
When we pedal home, I know that whatever punishment Mothers doles out won't touch my heart. My family stands on the porch when I ride up on my bike. Mother runs out, grabs me. "Oh, oh, my dear God, what happened to you, Meridy?" "Nothing, Mother. Don't have one of your fits."
Danny and Timmy stand at the end of the driveway, glancing at each other, then up the driveway alternately. I wave at them to go on. Mother glances up, points her shaking finger at the boys. "You've been running around with those boys while I was so worried about you. Oh, I've almost called the police."
Daddy steps up, wraps his arms around me. "You okay, precious?" He winks at me.
"I'm fine, Daddy."
Mother shrieks in that voice I dread-a high-pitched wail that means she'll be in bed for three days afterward and Doc will have to come visit and it will be all my fault.
"What are we going to do with her, Dewey? What? We just can't have a daughter..." Mother's words trail off; she slumps on the porch step and the tears start. It'll be days before they stop.
Danny appears at my side. "Sir." He looks up at Daddy. "It's all my fault. I'm new to town-moved down the street-and I asked your daughter to show me around and--"
"It's not his fault-" I interrupt.
"And I dared her to jump in the water, sir-not knowing she'd really do it."
"You've ruined your dress." Mother chokes through her tears. "You've ruined the dress from Mawmaw."
Sissy leans back in the wicker rocker on the front porch, a smirk on her face. "You are so, so embarrassing," she says, tosses her curls behind her shoulder. I stick my tongue out at her.
"Mommy, did you see that? Meridy stuck her tongue out at me. She is just so...gross." Sissy stands and walks back into the house, slams the screen door for emphasis.
Daddy wraps his arms around me and looks at Danny. "And who are you, son?" "I'm Danny Garrett." He blushes, shuffles his feet in the stone walkway leading to the house.
"Well, Danny Garrett. Now you know-Meridy will always take the dare. And it's not your fault."
Mother wails again. I pick up my dripping skirt and look up at Daddy. "It's really not his fault, Daddy, and I hated the dress anyway."
"Meridy, that is disrespectful." Daddy squeezes my shoulders.
"Please, sir, don't punish her," Danny says.
And right there on my twelfth birthday with my mother wailing like a dying animal, dripping in my party dress from Mawmaw with my daddy's arms wrapped around me, Danny enters my heart without even asking.
I turn back to Danny and Timmy. Timmy is gone and I'm confused, turning left and right looking for him. Then Danny walks backward, becoming a smudged outline of a boy with wisps of trailing smoke at his edges. I reach for him; I am older now but not sure how much. Danny dissipates into the Lowcountry sage-green edges of grass and marsh. I turn back to my family-scream, beg for help to get Timmy and Danny back. But Mother and Daddy are gone too. I am alone. Utterly alone. I crumble in upon myself and know I deserve it.
Excerpted from "Where the River Runs" © Copyright 2005 by Patti Callahan Henry. Reprinted with permission by NAL Trade, a publisher of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved.
The conversation guide is available for download in PDF form.
I wish someone had told me that there is a name for what I went through when I was writing this book: Sophomore Blues. I felt completely unprepared to write another book. I was almost paralyzed with the thought that I needed to build another world, get to know another set of characters. The good news is that I did it. I worked through that block of fear and doubt to get to the other side of this story.
- The Gullah proverbs are real and they were the inspiration for this story. The proverb, “If you don’t know where you are going, you should know where you came from.” was the seed of the story.
- The ghost story about the Seaboro Lighthouse is loosely based on the ghost story of the Haig Point Lighthouse on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina.
- Tim’s house on the beach is the house I would build if I could.
- Just like Meridy, I did have a pink banana seat bicycle when I was twelve years old, but unlike Meridy I didn’t live on a river or get to jump off the end of the dock to prove I was tough.
- I have visited a Gullah graveyard, and I described it in this book.