Jill Birdsall: Oker’s Pond

At age thirty, Isaac Eldredge sailed south to find treasure in the Carolinas. His parents sent him for seeds to plant up north. It was the first and only time he’d left home. He visited merchants and shop owners. He bought rugs and vases and lamps. Then he found Dolly on her father’s farm. He had never before seen a woman the same color as a field. It was sunrise and she walked through a cover of wheat, her skin and hair awash in fire-orange. He wanted her the first moment he saw her. And when Isaac returned to Cape Cod, with him he took the rugs, vases and lamps, the seeds, and Dolly.
They were sixty days at sea together and during that time, Isaac hardly slept. The sea spit and churned in front of him, but he paid no mind. All he could think about was the sweet girl beside him. Not once in those sixty days did his attention stray–not in the warm morning light, at noon, or finally at sunset when he saw that which drew him most inextricably to her, the heat of sadness behind her eyes. For Dolly squinted south, watching the land, her mother, her home, shrink then eventually disappear from sight.
In the years that followed, Dolly’s eyes never did fully re-open, until one morning she woke and saw that her husband was suddenly old. His teeth had fallen from his mouth and he could no longer chew. So, Dolly fed him raw egg by spoon. Without a word, she gathered the day’s eggs and set up on the porch. She folded the eggs into the apron of her dress. A cool white, they were smooth and pleasing to touch. When she shook them, Dolly felt the movement of their insides, the rawness of what could-have-been. Carefully, she poked a thin silver needle through the narrow end of each egg. She turned the needle in the hole then brought the egg to her mouth to suck the inside out. She sucked just enough to draw the white. Then she propped the egg upside-down in a teacup and waited for the rest to follow. She had to rock the egg to coax the yoke.
Dolly used a child-sized spoon to feed Isaac. She had a way of touching the tip of the spoon to the corner of his lips so no trace of egg was left behind. It was like the beginning when she did this. Like the first years of their marriage when he reached to brush her hair from her forehead. She smoothed his sleeve then, slipped her finger under his collar. Each time, there passed a flicker between them. Although they wanted children, none came. It was just the two of them. They belonged to each other.
Still, there was a time early in November, every year they were together, when Dolly fell silent. She grew serious, then sullen. And Isaac knew she was listening for the whistle of their wings–wild geese, hundreds. Each year when they passed over from Labrador, Dolly followed them as far as Oker’s Pond. But this year when she heard them, she dropped the spoon from her husband’s mouth and ran instead to the window in the attic.
It was a small window above her head. She used Isaac’s old sea trunk for support. Their wings flapped furiously and Dolly leaned in to the glass. The geese called plaintively. The call of one continued by the next, then the next. Like a ribbon their voices floated in the sky. They passed so quickly and in such numbers, Dolly couldn’t think. She searched one after another. They were grey with blue on their heads. But it was their wings that caused the biggest stir. They slapped the air, relentless in their motion. She stood on her toes. Already the geese in front of the flock were out of sight. The wind pulled those in back forward.
Dolly lifted the window and, since she was frail now, she fit through. She stood on the roof, close enough to see dark feathers beneath their eyes. Nimbly, Dolly made her way to the roof’s highest peak. She threw her head back, her long hair swinging side to side. She felt dizzy beneath their cover.
They were flying south.
Dolly knew Isaac waited downstairs, under the table kicking his slippers off then on. Still, she couldn’t help but think this could be the year the geese would swoop her up and off she’d go, carried away on their wings until she found herself once again in South Carolina where she’d begun. And because she wanted it so much, she thought it might happen. She shivered under their long shadow. Like a deep then deeper cloud, they passed over, enveloped her, until she was lost inside their hundreds of wings. Like a wave they took her.
She was falling was the truth of the matter. She had lost her footing on the roof, slipped, and was falling. Her bones were rearranging, realigning, as she fell. She felt a snapping inside. And suddenly she was light and free of any pain or worry. Wind and wings stroked her aching limbs. Like water the motion cleansed her until she felt smooth, reborn. It was the most amazing sensation. If she had known, she would have let go long ago.
Then she landed: The geese were gone. She’d broken an ankle. And Isaac was hungry.

Her bone set crooked but as soon as Dolly could walk a distance, she fed Isaac and headed to the pond. Oker’s Pond was a short walk down Queen Anne Road. Dolly passed but one neighbor on the way: Lieutenant Zachariah Small’s stepson, Ebenezer Paine. He looked forward to the times Dolly passed. He stopped raking, trimming, clipping, whatever work he had before him. He stopped long enough to tip his hat and smile. “Hellooo there,” he called. Dolly gave a nod, her eyelids lowering then lifting in slow motion.
Dolly was fond of Ebenezer because of Will Toby’s tree. Will Toby was the last slave of Lieutenant Small and one day while making a fence for Ebenezer, he came upon a young pear tree in his way. He split the tree with his axe. This was years ago and still Ebenezer cared for the tree marked by Toby. He tied the two sides of its trunk together with a double strand of cord. He pruned, fertilized and, although it wouldn’t bear fruit, made a habit of standing beside that tree. When Dolly passed on her way to the pond, Ebenezer gazed kindly at her.
This time when she passed, Ebenezer noted something different in Dolly. He’d heard of her fall. She was limping. But it was a look in her eyes he noticed. She wasn’t seeing him or his pear tree. She was searching for something down the road.
Oker’s Pond was a deep blue pond with the smoothest of surfaces. There were other ponds in Harwich, but Oker’s was the only pond Dolly knew. Here was a place she liked to linger. Everyone in Harwich knew the story of Oker Phillips. He was so small when he was born he fit into a tankard. Appropriate, as it turned out, because as soon as he was of age, like his father before him, Oker took to drink. And women: He charmed Lieutenant Small’s daughter Mary.
Together they had eight children. With the birth of each child, the Lieutenant expected Oker to give up drinking, but he couldn’t. Instead, he passed his love of liquor to each one. After child number eight, Oker enlisted to serve in the French and Indian War.
It was hard work, the war, and one day, when no one was looking, Oker ran. It took him seven days to make his way back to Harwich. Instead of heading home to his wife Mary and their children, he hid on a remote section of his father-in-law’s property where Ebenezer set him to making charcoal.
Each day Oker made charcoal and swam in the pond. Each night he slept down Depot Road near Will Toby, a stolen army gun at his feet.
Then four o’clock one morning a quake shook the earth all the way to Boston. Chimneys tumbled.
Oker was so afraid he ran faster than he’d ever run three miles south of the pond, back to Mary and their children.
The next day, his wife made him return the gun.
He rejoined the army instead.

From their house, Isaac could see the pond. He watched Dolly circle the water’s edge. She walked fast. She was so light now she almost flew, her hair straight out behind her. At sunset, the trees shined gold. Dolly wore them like a halo, Isaac thought.
He heard people talking, calling Dolly an angel. What they meant was her head was in the clouds. Isaac didn’t like what they said. But he knew why they said it.
Since her fall, Dolly had lined his sea trunk with the eggshells left after feeding him. She piled them under their sink. Over time she tucked as many as would fit behind their stove, filled their drawers and stashed extra under their bed. Isaac wanted to throw them outside with the compost. Better yet, bury them. But he didn’t dare. Just as the inside of the eggs were his, the shells–perfectly intact–belonged to Dolly. She didn’t know her husband watched her empty her apron. Every day he saw her carefully place more shells inside flour sacs in the pantry, into pillowcases in the closet. He knew she cut holes inside their mattress to tuck some safely there. Pale white eggshells the color of her skin.

The sun had set such that the pond seemed surrounded by a ring of fire. Dolly sat at the water’s edge, her shoes empty beside her. She wore a sweater, her mother’s. When Dolly’s mother died, her sister sent her a box filled with her clothes–a sweater, a skirt and an apron. She imagined her sister packing these, her hands folding them.
When they talked about Dolly in Harwich, this was what they said: that she was no longer practical. The fact that remembering her sister’s hands made her cry was considered emotional.
Dolly wet her feet. She let them dangle in the water. The bone crooked from her fall meant that one foot dropped deeper than the other. The white of her skin glimmered beneath the deep blue surface.
She lifted the eggshell from her apron pocket. If she painted she would have covered the shell with landscapes like her father’s farm. Long horizons where wheat met sky. Sunrises and sunsets. If she painted she could have painted herself at the edge of one of these landscapes. But she didn’t paint. So she held the shell in her palm. She turned the egg around, held it up to the setting sun and stared. She could almost see through to the other side.
A wind passed over the pond and she held the shell under it until it filled. There was a resonance in the wind, memory of that which breathed before. This wind remembered Oker Phillips and his lone charcoal-making days. And like a seashell repeats the ocean’s rhythms, Dolly could hear Oker’s whispers in the empty eggshell she carried.
Dolly saw the light in her house flicker and knew she should head home to Isaac. But where she sat leaves had fallen, opening a view she hadn’t noticed before. And when Dolly looked across the pond, for the first time she saw the other side: miles of sweet red cranberry bogs. She stood and stretched, straightened her neck. She lifted the backs of her feet from the ground and leaned forward. Leaves brown like tissue crunched beneath her toes. She looked past these and saw a bed of pine needles pale tan stretched before her.
Dolly made her way through a grove of pine trees, through a thicket of wild brush, until she reached the bogs. As long as she lived in Harwich, her entire adult life, she hadn’t visited the other side of Oker’s Pond until now.
Dolly waded all the way around to the back of the pond. She followed the path easily. A wind caught under her shoulder and lifted her slightly as she walked. It was a good thing, because the ground underfoot was wet like a marsh. There was the sound of suction below her. And with each step, she had to pull herself up from an earth that laid claim to her.
Dolly kept moving. Her skin felt flushed and firm as she picked up her pace. She lifted her face to the sky. She opened her shoulders and raised her arms. She reached up and touched the moist air. She felt salt from Buzzard’s Bay. Her fingers remained outstretched.
Then there was redness everywhere. Nothing but red.
When she stepped in, the bog glistened like rubies. The cranberries were shimmering. She was aware of their movement, an energy she could feel. So much so that Dolly thought she heard breath beneath them. This breathed in sync with her own.
Dolly’s heart beat wildly as she returned by Queen Anne Road. It didn’t quiet even when she saw her house up ahead.

Isaac watched her approach. He was hungry. While she fed him, he would act as if she had traveled far from Harwich and left him behind.

The next Tuesday when all of their neighbors were at a meeting at the church–Isaac’s brother William was preaching–Dolly came down with a fever. She attended church in the morning but didn’t return after lunch.
The afternoon was long and the higher Dolly’s fever rose, the more she thought about the cranberry bog. Eventually, she decided she must make jam for Isaac. So she set a flame up on her stove, lighting this from the fire Isaac had brought from Ebenezer’s before church. Once the fire was set up, Dolly made the trip to the other side of the pond.
She left the door to her house open.

Isaac’s brother William met him at the top of the hill. He took his arm and helped him the rest of the way to meeting that afternoon.
The church stood alone on the hill, surrounded only by the graves of its past parishioners. Marked by marble and sandstone, these lined the church’s west windows.
When Isaac and William entered, the congregation was already talking about the nor’easter that was blowing in. Desire Ryder’s brothers were at sea, fishing at the Grand Banks. And the William Rotch was due back in New Bedford from a whaling voyage. Isaac was worried Dolly wouldn’t think to shoo his chickens inside.
Behind the pulpit was the church’s tallest window. While the Deacon spoke, most gazed dreamily at the Cape’s darkening sky. Isaac strained his eyes down the hill where he saw what looked like Dolly on Queen Anne Road.
The temperature had dropped significantly since morning meeting adjourned. Isaac pulled his jacket around him. He leaned on a pillar of rough-hewn oak. Part of the original church structure, its pillars held the roof secure. The church smelled of damp wood and the closeness of eighteen founding families.
Before long Deacon Eldredge’s voice filled the space so completely that there was little room for anything but his sermon inside the walls of the old meetinghouse and in the minds of its parishioners.

The bog was in shadow when Dolly arrived so that it seemed brooding under the blackening sky. Once inside, Dolly knelt to touch the cranberries. She cupped them in her hands. She rolled them between her fingers until they popped and broke open. Inside was a thick red-like purple center. She pressed the color into her fingertips. It dyed her skin.
Dolly reached into her apron. Her finger caught on the hole at the eggshell’s edge. She pulled back. Her finger was hooked inside. Carefully, she reached deeper.
Once in, Dolly felt the hollow of the egg. Its emptiness. She continued, eyes closed, feeling her way. Side to side she searched. But she felt nothing. The egg had been emptied. She’d fed all that was there to her husband.

Deacon Eldredge’s voice raised in pitch, his sermon speaking intimately to his parishioners now. All stared through the window above the pulpit. The leaves seemed to change even as the parish prayed. Yellow to orange. A sudden burst of red at the base of the hill would have earned remark if at that moment the Deacon hadn’t called the congregation to song. Instead, they reached for each other’s hands and lifted their voices. The sound was so exquisite, Isaac wept.

Dolly’s face flushed with fever. She lifted the egg from her apron, her finger still inside. Back and forth Dolly rubbed, spreading color from the cranberries along the interior walls of the shell, but as she did, the rough edge of the hole cut her finger. She cried out, and the entire shell broke into pieces.

If not for Ebenezer Paine, who had stayed back from church that afternoon, no one might have known what had happened. He was working outside when he heard a strange snapping sound coming from the Eldredge’s. Immediately, he ran to see what was the matter.
About halfway up Queen Anne Road, he knew. And, when he arrived at her house, Dolly had already made her second trip to Oker’s Pond for water.

While she was gone, a wind had entered Dolly’s house, stirred the fire on the stove and spread it throughout her kitchen, bedroom, and eventually throughout her entire house.
Returning with a second pail of water, Dolly entered the house set on saving her bed, its feather mattress one-of-a-kind. By this time, the flames had reached the ceiling.
Those flames formed fire-red walls behind and in front of Dolly. She turned left, right, back then forward. No matter which direction she faced, the flames blocked her. And they were traveling fast.
The fire ate everything inside: the rugs, vases and lamps. It raced through the kitchen, covering the sink and stove, through the pantry. It swept through drawers and under tables. Made its way right on up through the attic where it flipped open the lid of Isaac’s sea chest then shot in a flash out the window.
The fire spread until all that was left was Dolly.
And then she was gone too.
With nothing left to hold them up, the walls and floors and roof had no choice but collapse. First they shifted, then cracked. Deep divides opened between them. One after another. Until finally, no support, in one enormous burst, the whole building broke into countless pieces. And this is how Dolly’s house fell in.

Ebenezer was the one who interrupted Deacon Eldredge during his afternoon sermon. The Deacon told his brother Isaac of the fire that burned but a half-mile away. Without a breath, the congregation ran past the graves and down the hill.
They knelt where the small house once stood. Solemn, they reached to touch the still smoldering ashes. Deacon Eldredge led the group now in the quietest of prayer.
His neighbors reached around him, but Isaac paid no mind. He had dropped to his knees where his bed had been just hours before. All he could think about was that sweet girl who for all those years lied beside him. And his eyes, wet with tears, wouldn’t move from the earth. Because there he saw the small pile that was her bones. Hard and dirty-white, they were all that was left of the wife he had brought north from South Carolina.



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