Hudson’s River Valley,
Als de maan vol is, schijnt zij overal.
“When the moon is full, it shines everywhere.”
THE LONGEST DAY of the year and a full moon. I read to the children for a long time. The boy’s breathing quickly deepened, and his gaze subsided into the depth and darkness of his pupils, but the girl’s eyes remained bright, and she continued to ask questions, not comprehending the story because of my own distraction. I could not answer her queries, as I was not listening to the words coming from my own mouth. My reading did not find the cadence in the tale, so absorbed was I within my internal heart. I had to backtrack in the text. Finally, I shut the book, kissed her again, snuffed the candle, and retreated from the bed, blowing her a kiss before I shut the door.
As I stepped toward my own enticing bed, the soles of my feet sucked up the coolness of the polished flooring, as if they were tasting something savory. The evening air too was honeyed, thick with summer. Lilies yawned around the house where I had planted bulbs in the autumn, and wafted their yellow dust, both spicy and sweet. My husband had scythed the grass in the yard of the house, which seemed a miracle in and of itself. The scent of maple pollen rode the wind toward the house from the woods, floating on the warm platform of the smell of the grass. Its golden dust settled on the sills of the windows.
I stood in the dark, drawing my breath up through the skin of my feet. Standing still with closed eyes, I could smell the salt of myself mingled with the odors of the night. I noticed the sensation of my ribs expanding and contracting, and I awakened to the rhythm of this. The breath rising and falling has its own sweetness if you attend to it. I pulled apart my thighs merely by shifting my stance, as the skin at their top was gently chafing. My breath ruffled the back of my throat.
Above the sound of my breathing in my ears, I could hear the high chirping of the tree frogs and the low burping of the bullfrogs, and knew exactly where he was. He lay on his back by the pond up the hill behind the house, watching the moon rise, swilling from a green glass bottle filled from a keg. The danger was that sleep would grab him and he would not awaken until the moon had crossed the sky, drawing the sun up in its wake. The back of his trousers and shirt would be soaked through by then. I inhaled deeply and, with my mind, called him to me. Lifebeckons you from your reverie. I am your wife. Rise up, Sir, and come to me.
I slid to the cupboard and removed my cap and then my clothes. I took my brush and pulled it through my hair. I smoothed my chapped hands with oil from a little glass cruet. I drew the porcelain bowl from under the bed and squatted. I patted myself dry. I donned my bed shift, slipped between the cool linens, a wedding gift now stained and worn but still quite a luxury. In the bed, I faced my own peril. The work of this day released from my hands, my neck, and my shoulders, but the work of the next day was listed in my mind and wore me out. If I slept now, I would be awakened by his snoring at dawn, and such a sound would fill me to overflow with regret. Could I face the particular dismay of yet another lonely night alongside the labors of the day? Surely I could. I had long learned to take refuge in discourse with my children, or even with the cat or the farm animals. But the assault of a rising ire could not be fended off in that moment when I first awoke to the coarse and dry disappointment of the sound of his rough breath rattling in the aftermath of too much juniper. I willed myself to wait for the creak of the kitchen door and the tread upon the step, no matter how long. I sat up listening. Frogs, breath, tread.
When I got up, the cow was lowing. I went to milk. It was late. The kitchen door, by far the portal most transgressed—plumb from its lintel but worn at its saddle—stepped out into a little fenced yard and flower garden. I grew the herbs there for season, for household, and for healing. Melissa, at the door for fragrance and good luck. Lavender, also for its sweet smell, easing of pain, and repelling of pests. Sage, to rub the skin of poultry and grouse. Dill, for pickling. Yarrow, to make an astringent for the skin. Cramp bark, for my monthlies. The wild rose bushes, for their sour hips. Marjoram, for sausages.
The house was in a clearing on a slope and encircled by sugar maples that had grown grand and stately since the pole saplings had been cut away. These were used to pen the pigs. The hardwoods beyond the maple sentinels were birch, sycamore, black cherry, sassafras, red oak, and horn-beam. The forest was not so thick with trees and vines that you could not find your way through it, but it was chock with stone as blue as water. The white foam of streams, which pushed the stones all together and then cut through or frothed over the boulders, always made it seem that the mountains were laughing at us. Ferns waved their verdance across the forest floor, and the sun spilt down through the canopy to touch the sway of their fronds.
The path through the garden led toward the fine Dutch beamed barn with its gambrel roof, wide planks, and wider doors. Its broad structure was built on the slope just below the house, and though as tall, we could look upon its fine roof from the upper windows.
The fence of the yard ended at the track, which was a sorry rutted thread that led to civilization. If we did not brave its puddles, we would see no one. The track led only one way: to us, so travelers did not pass by. My husband had picked the spot for its charm, seclusion, and its proximity to the mountain trails, and had discounted the prudence of living closer to our village. He was especially enamored of the knoll, as if it set us above our neighbors on the flatter plain below. The pond, surrounded by long-needled pine trees, gathered several streams together on the mossy rock shelf behind the house clearing. The water was clear and cold from the mountain runoff. Across from the track, we had a sheep pasture, bordered by stone farm walls wide enough to stop the sheep but not so very high. We grazed the cow in this meadow full of clover, butterweed, thistle, and vetch. Her milk was sweet enough.
One lone apple tree stood in our pasture like a beacon, silhouetted against the blue forests of the upslope at the edge of the fields. My husband and I had planted seven others in a circle we called our orchard on a rolling slope below the barn the first year we were here so that in spring the white blossoms would form a halo. One could feel blessed within such a circle. The deer would often come and help themselves to the low-hanging fruit of the laden branches. My husband would sometimes shoot a buck here for our stew pot, but, as often as not, let them eat, even as he complained when the cider barrels ran low.
Well into the morning, with the children fed a large breakfast and set to their tasks, I hear the footfall above the kitchen, and the pots hanging on the rafters gently sway. Then whistling, like a fife, that gladdens my heart. I had separated the coals on the hearth stone, for soon the day would be warm, but I now scraped them together and put up water in the heavy kettle. I have made flat cakes with Indian meal on a pallet, and we still have maple syrup, March’s harvest. I made a strong tea with the Dutch contraband (we did not drink English tea) in a pot, but when he came down, he went to the cider barrel and took a long draught. I could see I had mistaken the whistling for good humor. He was actually quite distracted and had a look on his face that let me know he would not speak to me. He did not touch or look at me either. Now what?
I asked him if he was well, which clearly annoyed him. He said he would go outside to smoke, which he did. And several hours later, after washing, grinding, chopping, boiling, frying, pouring, pressing, combing, sorting, folding, tending, singing, and answering questions, I called the children and him to dinner. He did not answer, so I went and looked to find him back against the hay, squinting at the sun, his hands clasped behind his head.
“Time for dinner, Sir.” I turned my back to his face as haughtily as I could and flounced away as quickly as I had come.
I served soup first, made with early potatoes and all the new spring greens. Meat then, a spring lamb, devoured by all, grease dripping on cloth. I loved my table, a great slab of oak. The children’s faces were alive above the dark wood of it, and their chatter spilled into the soup. He inquired of them and knew their world. I looked away from the food that stuck to his short, dark beard and dribbled on his shirt. He hunkered down at the table and over his pewter plate. I did not enjoy watching him eat the food I had prepared, with his elbows firmly planted on my table.
After cleaning up following the meal, I stalked out to find him and asked him, “What do you plan for the rest of the day?” I could not subvert the insinuation of my question. “A hundred things need attending. Hundreds,” I told him. A farm was like that. He thought for a moment before he replied with a curled lip, “As they always will.”
“And what is your meaning, Husband? That you will leave them to me because there are too many tasks that require attention? If you do not stack wood, there will be a cold supper.”
Not wishing to be beseeched by me, he fumbled to his pocket for the spall and tinder to light his pipe. Dutch men were always hiding in the crater of their pipes. “It is not so much that what you ask of me but that your tone implies that you are after me for more than stacking wood.” His eyes were cast down to the bowl at the long end of the pipe handle, as he drew repeatedly, his suck on the tobacco a whisper between us. He glanced up but briefly before he turned away from me, as to remove the catch of the flame from any wind.
“Sir! Don’t stride away! I have not done with our negotiation. What will you do today at the height of the summer? The blossoms and the berries, you hardly know to gather them. But where will sweetness come in winter? Surely you do not plan a forage in the glade from which you will return with nothing but the tale of your nap-cultivated dreams? What could that be worth? Our fields and livestock need cultivation, not your dreams!”
“You would be in my dreams if you would only enter them. Wife, I will do as I will, and your challenge is neither wanted nor womanly!”
“And how would I be a woman if I am but a drudge and you an idler?”
“Ah, you did not call me an idler last night. You cried out other noises, like an animal in the hay of her stall.”
“That service does not put food on the table, you bed-presser! And you are not so skilled a pleasuremonger as you now claim.”
I had insulted his manhood, and he now began to give me a mouthful of his own wind. “Termagent! Scold of a woman! Carp of a wife.” I lashed back, and soon we were at familiar odds, our voices rising over the garden and venomous words spewing from our mouths.
“Godverdomse Smeerlap! Bastard, you! Illegitimate son of a snail!”
“And you, despot of a wife, you will not decide what work will be done and when.”
I clenched my fists to my waist with my elbows behind me and inched my tormented face close to his. “Despot, am I?” I spat out. “If I shall not decide this, then who? A blunderheaded bedpresser? A wastrel?! He who gets up at noon and naps after dinner and nips through the night? Ikke, ikke en de rest kan stikken.” “Me, me, the rest can choke.”
And then we follow each other around the yard, tensing out from our clothing and leaning into each other’s faces, spittle on our lips and hatred in our speech. We circle, and cannot unlock. He calls me moronic, and I call him a cur, lower than the lowest pitiful, whimpering, wormy puppy. “Hond! Dog of a man! You cannot, will not, should not call me a scold for wanting the farmwork done and an orderly house! Klootzakken!”
His eyes widened at this, and his upper lip tremored with rage. He had not yet heard such vulgarity from me. I too was surprised that I could refer to a man’s anatomy. Those round and tender parts, vulnerable at the base of the triumverate—the son and holy ghost beneath the ruling father. I enjoyed the shock on his face, for he seemed truly dumbfounded. This final word seemed to deflate him. I saw him now stubbornly turn away from me, and I knew what was next. Flight.
The long-legged and lanky dog, Wolf, never very far from my husband, had kept at the perimeter of the storm with his head down, his eyes wary, and his tail only wanting to wag as if it were he that was being scolded for digging in the garden or chewing a harness. The dog was like his master in so many ways—good-looking enough but giddy and vagrant. Now sensing that my husband might be making an excursion on which he surely would be invited, he made a wide berth around me in order to follow my husband into the barn. I swung my leg and kicked out toward him so that he broke into a trot, and the dust of my wrath swirled and glimmered in the sunlight before it settled again in the dirt.
My husband emerged silently from the cavern of the barn. I saw the old gun used for turkeys and doves at his side. His back was toward me, and he looked not in my direction—his jacket hiked at his waist and his shirt trailing beneath it, with the dog circling at his heels. The dog looked back with his yellow eyes only once, hesitating but for a moment. My husband tap
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Seven Locks begins in 1769, with the disappearance of a Dutch farmer near what’s now called the Hudson River. After a spat with his wife, he heads toward the mysterious Catskill Mountains with his rifle and his dog and never returns, and she is left to run the farm while raising two small children. The father’s disappearance creates fault lines in the family, as her son blames his mother for his absence and her daughter, Judith, increasingly chafes at the farmwork, preferring to spend time at school or reading on her own. Years go by without the husband’s return, and when the tumult of the Revolutionary War unfolds in the Hudson River Valley, it changes life in the little Dutch village forever. Judith’s brother joins the New York militia and Judith runs away to make a life of her own, which leaves the narrator adrift and alone. When her plans for remarriage fail and her farm is devastated by an army’s raid for supplies, she throws herself in the Hudson River. Rescued by two slaves, she makes her way to New York City. estranged from her broth see more