BIRCH WATERS by Meg Pendoley


by Meg Pendoley

When she first came to Epping after dropping out of art school in Boston, Davi loved the way everything in the farmhouse was old and falling apart, swollen in August, when she arrived, and then splintering all through the winter. Beth gave Davi one of her dead husband’s orange hunting hats to sleep in, and Beth slept in a camo skullcap. The kitchen was so cold November through March, Beth wore cotton gloves in the morning when she sat at the Formica table drinking instant coffee. For the first few months after she moved in, Davi sketched the kitchen almost every day, usually more than once. The light was so nice in there. Beth liked the sketches and stuck them to the fridge with magnets from the dentist. Davi was over it now, mostly, and the sketches were a little moldy from the moist air seeping out of the freezer.

Last night Beth went around opening the windows and now the whole house smells like defrosting mud. All day it’s been warm and wet, just a constant misting over the hay fields out back, but it’s getting dark and cold. Davi is washing dishes in the kitchen and watching Beth through the window as she sends off the women from Birch Waters. They came by while Davi was out running errands. When she walked into the kitchen they were talking about how to celebrate the new moon. They said maybe it would help with Beth’s chickens—they hadn’t been laying for months—and the women from Birch Waters hoped their couple of cows would let down more milk. Davi soaps down the tea plates and mismatched mugs in one side of the cast iron sink, stacks of ceramic rising in slippery towers to the lip, where some of the porcelain that used to line the whole thing still spots the metal.

It’s the first week of April and everyone is dressed too light for the weather, even if it is warmer than usual. Davi’s fraying Oxford shirt—Old Navy boys size XXL—is open to the third button, which she has replaced with a small safety pin. She’s getting goosebumps on her arms from where the water splashes up, wets her rolled-up sleeves, scalding and then too cool against her skin as the breeze sets in. She squirts dish soap into the cake pan and leaves it to soak on the counter.

Outside, the women from Birch Waters—there are four of them—are idling in an old green Jeep Cherokee. The whole bottom half of the truck is rusted nearly all the way through. In March, Jess, the youngest one by at least forty-five years, the only one of these women who drives, tied a bungee cord around the tail pipe to keep it from hitting the larger rocks when the rain washed out the road to the farm. And there are about half dirt roads back here. Dirt roads and newly paved culs-de-sacs. The tar on the culs-de-sac is still soft and oil-black.

The three older women are buckled into the bench seat under a fleece blanket printed with howling wolves. Jess is in the driver’s seat, smoking out the window. Davi walks up next to Beth. Jess’s black hair is buzzed short and she’s got one heavy boot braced against the dashboard behind the steering wheel, her knee cocked halfway out the window. The truck is already covered in dirt, so it doesn’t really matter that she’s stamping mud all over the broken vent. Jess is wearing tan cut-off overalls and one nipple keeps nudging out.

Beth is a little stooped, and her hair, so white and piled on the top of her head, only reaches Davi’s collarbone. “You ladies know my grand-niece, Davina, don’t you?”

The women in the back nod, rolling down the window to smile and say hello and not officially, no, but wasn’t it so nice to meet her now. Jess smiles and leans over the passenger side and says, “Nice to meet you, Davey. I’m Jess.”

Davi is not staring at Jess’s chest, but she is not not looking. “Nice to meet you too, Jess.”

Davi knows who Jess is. Whenever she goes down to Birch Waters in the evening to pick up eggs or, less often, a whole plucked bird, Jess is the one who works the cashbox. Beth told Davi when she first moved in and started doing chores around the house that there didn’t used to be anyone manning the box at all. Or, she supposed, the better term would be womanning the cashbox; the only man on the property was the bedridden brother of one of the founding women who had since passed. Nobody remembered his full name, but they called him Bud. Not like an old-boy Buddy, more like someone’s subdued retriever. They’d dropped the honor system when the kids from the new developments started riding their BMX bikes down to steal blueberries and the pint bottles of milk that the women flavored with the thin leftover strawberry jam. After the stealing, now that someone has to woman the stand, Davi sees Jess almost every week. Most times they don’t really talk because even though she knows Jess isn’t much older than seventeen, Davi still feels like she’s laughing at her.

Beth wraps her shawl around her shoulders a little tighter. “Well, I guess you ladies better get home.”

Jess nods. “Thanks for having us, Ms. Claire.”

“You’re welcome any time, you know that.” Beth leans her head over to the backseat window and reaches a hand in to pat one of the women on the shoulder. “Take care, Muriel. Honey and lemon tea.” She looks at Jess. “Don’t let her forget.”

Jess salutes her, stubs out her cigarette, and releases the handbrake. Three pairs of hands wave out the windows as the Jeep rattles down the driveway.

It is raining now, but Davi still has her window open. Her room is on the third floor, and she can hear the water hitting the leaves of the tulip tree just outside. Beth’s husband grew up in the house, and there are stories about the boys tying bedsheets between bedposts and the trunk to shimmy out at night. The tree is leaning a little toward the house, and, when Davi’s mother helped her move in, she threatened to call the DPW to get it removed if Beth didn’t get it taken care of. She put her fist on her hip and told Beth that she had not brought Davi here to die in some freak lightning tree accident. The house was enough of a deathtrap as it was.

Downstairs, Beth is reading aloud to herself. Sometimes Davi goes down to listen to her, sitting in the rocking chair while Beth’s tucked into her bed. Davi can hear her reading through the floorboards—the insulation is so bad—or else Beth also has her window open. She’s reading Proust, one of her husband’s old books from school. Davi has never read Proust, though she lied about it when Beth asked. Davi was, after all, the first woman of the family to go to college. “A scholar,” Beth said. Davi didn’t correct her.

Davi still has trouble sleeping in the big house, and listening to her great aunt read in the dark helps, sometimes. She also likes to think of it as some enduring romance, this reading aloud, as if she used to read aloud to Francis and this was a way of talking to him. But it isn’t, not really. Everyone in the family thought Francis had probably been gay. Davi’s mother and aunt had told her about it last Thanksgiving, drunk and looking for someone to tell secrets to.

“He had a lover after the war. Moved to New York for him.” They thought maybe that was the reason he was in the mental hospital and not because his unit had been part of the liberation of Dachau. “I mean they used shock treatment, can you imagine?”

Still, though, they agreed it was sad that Aunt Beth had never known real love.

Davi can’t hear any of what Beth is reading, just her voice, and it’s not really helping her sleep. She nudges her socks off and tries to concentrate on the sound of the chickens rustling in the coop outside, probably vying for the best roost, trying to nestle in for the night, their heads, plucked raw by the rooster, burrowing into each other’s wings. 

On Wednesday, Beth refuses to go to her doctor’s appointment, and Davi decides it’s not worth fighting.

“What’s the point?” Beth asks. “There’s nothing they can tell me I don’t already know.” She is making a thermos of instant coffee for Davi to take over to Birch Waters as a thank you for Jess. She’d come by last night to fiddle with the kitchen sink when the water started pouring out of the cabinet where the pipes are. It was the kind of work Davi had moved in to help with in the first place, that and persuading Beth to go to her appointments in Manchester.

“Fine. As long as you don’t tell Mom.”

Beth sits down at the table and refills her teal pillbox. “My secret’s safe with me, honey.” She’s taken the kettle off but left the burner on, and Davi waits to turn it off until Beth is leaning over to crank open the window. There are still patches of gray snow beneath the gutter. “Look,” Beth says. “Crocuses.”

The stand at Birch Waters is empty, has been all day. Davi walks around to the first greenhouse. Squatting behind a pallet of black seeding trays furry with sprouts, Jess rocks slightly to the pop songs thumping in and out on the portable radio.

“Well, good morning, Davey,” Jess says.

“Hi, Jess.”

Jess gets up and fiddles with the coat hanger taped to the nub of the antenna. “How’s that sink doing?”

“It’s better, yeah. Thank you for coming out, you really didn’t need to do that. I called the plumber this morning—he should be out here by the end of the week to take a look.”

“Not a problem. You don’t want black mold. That shit will fuck with your system.”

“Yeah, well, thanks again.”

Jess grins and lights a cigarette. “I’m really not supposed to smoke in here.”

Davi hopes she didn’t make a face. She didn’t mean to make a face. Though it does seem like a fire hazard.

“Stacey thinks it’ll make the lettuce taste like cigarettes.” Jess ties the tomato twine holding her workpants up a little tighter. “But between you and me, fuck that tyrant.” She walks toward Davi, looking her up and down as she pauses in the doorway. “Tobacco lettuce? Are you fucking kidding me? People would eat that shit up.

Davi only needs half a dozen eggs. The hens at Beth’s have finally started laying.

Jess cuts a cardboard carton in half. “You’re gonna lose those birds to the coyotes all over again if you don’t fix that coop,” she says.

Davi says she thinks it was a fisher cat, actually.

“Well, anyway, you’ve got to make them feel secure. Anxious birds don’t lay.”

When Jess comes back from the small walk-in with a bunch of chives and bag of potatoes, she’s covered in goosebumps. She leans over the card table with the cashbox. “I would be more than happy to come by and help you with that coop.” Her stained white sports bra is worn thin under her open flannel shirt. Jess is making a lot of eye contact, and Davi is trying not to look at Jess’s stomach. Jess fingers the ends of the chives in a way that makes Davi uncomfortable.

“That’s fine. How much for all of this?” Davi asks.

Jess says not to worry about it. “You’re feeding us this weekend anyway. I’m sure the old ladies wouldn’t want for me to take your money.”

“Thanks.” Jess helps her carry the potatoes out to the car. “Do you need any help before I head out? Beth isn’t going to her appointment, and she wanted me to ask.”

Jess shrugs. “I could use help with the old man if you’re up for it, but you really don’t have to.”

“Yeah, of course.”

This is the first time Davi has been inside the Birch Waters House. It’s quiet and mostly empty, cleaner than she’d thought it would be. Two women in their sixties are watching cooking TV in bathrobes on the couch in the living room.

Beth has never answered Davi directly when she’s asked about Birch Waters. From what she can tell, it is a kind of commune, but never with more than ten women at a time. Davi asks Jess about it while Jess makes Cream of Wheat for Bud. “It’s not a cult or anything. It started as a kind of haven for women,” she says. “A bunch of housewives running away from their asshole husbands in the fifties.” She mixes raisins into the mush.

Jess says that except for when her father claimed his custodial rights for four years when she was ten—“bastard”—she was raised at Birch Waters. Her mother wasn’t in the picture, still isn’t, but left her here before she went to go find herself in New Mexico. “I don’t really give a shit,” Jess says. “You’ve got to make your own family, right?”

They carry the tray of pill bottles, tea, and Cream of Wheat up to the second floor. The old man reminds Davi exactly of a corpse. His head is propped up against pillows, and his stubbled chins sag down his neck. Jess talks to him as she sets up the tray. How was his morning? Did he need more blankets or a book? Bud doesn’t say anything but smiles wide at Davi, who is perched on the broken armchair in the corner. There’s a pile of gardening magazines by his bedside, but it doesn’t look like he could hold one up if he wanted to. Jess has buttoned her shirt over her bra, and she looks lost in the oversized clothing. She fluffs the pillows and asks Bud if he wants her to help him with the Cream of Wheat. He shakes his head, says no in a voice that is almost not a voice.

Davi and Jess stand by the window looking at the photographs on the wall while Bud eats his breakfast spoonful by excruciating spoonful. The pictures are all framed wedding portraits. There are big water stains across the ceiling, and someone has plastered over a spot in the wallpaper where the water must have leaked through.

When he’s finished the mush and downed the medication, Davi helps Jess dress Bud in clean clothes. His skin is dry, and purple in the creases. Davi lifts Bud under the arms and Jess inches the fresh long johns over his naked hips. Davi wonders how Jess does this on her own.

In the kitchen, while Jess washes the dishes, Davi asks if Bud shouldn’t be in some sort of care facility.

Jess scrubs at the scum lining the bowl. “Who would pay for it?”

Davi doesn’t remember the thermos of coffee until she is already at the end of the driveway. She turns the car around and pulls up close to the greenhouse, leaving the car running.

Jess is squatting on a milk crate behind the cashbox. She smiles, a cigarette hanging from her left hand. “Back for more?”

Davi swings the thermos onto the card table. “Beth wanted me to give this to you. It’s probably cold now, though.”

Jess opens the thermos and pours a few ounces into the cap. She takes a sip and grimaces. “Mmm, battery acid. Want some?”

Davi shakes her head. “I’m all set, thanks.”

“Tell Beth thank you for me.”

Davi says she will and turns back to the car.

“See you Sunday, Davey!”

Davi climbs into the driver’s seat and sticks her head out the window. “It’s Davi.”

Jess smirks. “Isn’t that what I said?”

On Sunday, Beth and Davi start baking at seven a.m. Beth puts on the classical radio station and sways a little as she moves around the kitchen. It’s warm out, bright sunshine. The backyard is drying from the week’s rain, and it’s fresh and breezy in the kitchen. Beth is cutting chives and cheddar cheese into the scone batter. Davi is sketching the bowl of blue potatoes because her great aunt asked her to.

Beth says that, before Davi moved in, the kids from the university agriculture program used to come by with chickens or ducks. “They were so nosey,” she says. “After Francis passed they wanted to get some kind of inspector out here, probably to get the house condemned. What did they care, anyway? Leave old ladies alone.”

Davi asks if anyone ever has been out here. Beth says no. “I used to have a whole flock,” Beth says. “Francis liked the ducks the best, you know.” Though, she says, really he didn’t like living out here much. “He needed it, I think.”

Beth says Francis used to go out hunting all day with Bud but hardly ever brought anything back. She thinks Francis liked to watch the deer.

Davi folds up a sketch of Beth and tucks it into the back pocket of her jeans. “Is that how you met everyone from Birch Waters?”

“Oh no,” Beth says. She slides a sheet of scones into the oven and walks out of the kitchen. “Can you imagine?” she calls from the stairs. “Two shell-shocked old men wandering around with guns? I don’t know what we were thinking.”

Before the women arrive, Beth has Davi move the rug from her room and to the back porch. The roof over the porch fell through in October, and Davi spent the following weeks cleaning out asbestos shingles and rusted nails. The heavy back door hangs from one hinge, settled into the rotten floorboards where Davi shoved it in the winter so she could shovel a path from the kitchen to the back steps. The porch is clean now, even if the floor does sag gently in the middle. Davi shuffles the kitchen table out, too, and the wicker rocking chairs that crowded the living room all winter. Beth lays a cloth over the table. It’s white with tiny red strawberries embroidered all over. They sit out there while they wait for the other women. Beth is wearing her purple dress, the one with the ceramic buttons shaped like pansies, and a string of fake pearls. She reads her book, and Davi watches a deer pick her way through the ruins of the vegetable patch on the edge of the woods. When Jess pulls up the driveway, honking the horn in a little song, the three older women scooting out of the backseat, Beth is snoring softly in her chair.

The women bring strawberry-flavored milk, butter, and thick cream out to the porch and set them down next to the scones and the chipped teapot. Davi sets up the plastic folding chairs from the kitchen. The other women, Margaret, Muriel, and Stacey, are all younger than Beth, but not by much. Muriel has brought some dried sage from last summer. It’s a little dusty, but she says she thinks it should still work. Stacey wants to burn it at the moonrise, though Beth isn’t sure she’ll make it that late.

Davi goes with Jess to grab the rest of the milk and eggs from the Jeep, and when they come back, Margaret, Muriel, and Stacey are all naked except for their polyester socks. There is something in the way they hold themselves, very upright, but in a relaxed way, that makes their nudity feel natural and less surprising. They glow more now because the afternoon sunlight is touching them directly, but it does seem to come from the skin itself. Their shoulders and thighs are solid or else sinewy under loose skin. Stacey is in the middle of telling the others about her new organic pesticides that a friend from California sent her last week. Both of Stacey’s nipples are pierced. Beth is still in her purple dress and her ankles are crossed beneath her. She doesn’t look at her when Davi places the milk on the table, but says, “Thank you, Davina.” It is the same tone she uses when Davi agrees to sketch something for her, “Thank you, Davina,” as if she’s done something truly beautiful.

Jess is sitting on the kitchen counter. “Are you going to join in?”

Davi closes the back door. Pointing behind her she mouths: “What. Was. That.”

“What, you didn’t know?” Jess asks.

“Didn’t know what? That Dear Aunt Beth was part of a nudist colony? Some kind of geriatric nudist séance group? No, I did not know that.”

“It’s not a nudist colony, Davina, calm your tits. And Beth isn’t even part of Birch Waters,” Jess says. “It’s just”—she holds an invisible teacup up to her lips, her pinky sticking out in perfect form—“tea time.” She jumps down and dusts off her pants. There is flour covering her entire ass. “Honestly, you should try it sometime.” She points to the sketch of the potatoes stuck to the fridge. “Did you do this?”

“Yeah,” Davi says.

“The artist! What is it, apples?” Jess asks, leaning in close. She is wearing the same overalls as last week and is just as naked.

“Potatoes,” Davi says, turning away. And then, “Beth wanted me to draw them.”

Jess goes out onto the porch when a game of Hearts begins, taking off her overalls and then stepping back into them when she comes in to use the bathroom. Davi is watching the women, just in glimpses, while she gets a start on the dishes.

It’s a glass plate that cuts her. It slips and breaks into large, neat pieces in the bottom of the sink. It’s the cleaning up that’s dangerous. A larger shard slices across Davi’s palm when she goes to pick it up. Her hand bleeds all over. Davi wraps her hand in a wad of paper towels before sticking her head out the back door to say that she’s going upstairs to patch herself up.

“Do you need some help?” Jess asks, rising from where she has been sitting cross-legged on the rug. She is already thin and looks thinner with the light from the window and the open roof lighting her up. She bends over to pull on her pants. “Here, I’ll help.”

Upstairs, Davi sits on the edge of the claw foot tub while Jess pours hydrogen peroxide over her palm. It hisses when it hits her skin and then again as it dribbles down the drain.

“You know, I used to want to be a nurse,” Jess says, holding Davi’s thumb back so that the cut stays open. It’s deep but clean.

Davi winces as Jess dabs at her hand with toilet paper. “So domestic.”

There aren’t any big bandages left in the house, so Davi makes a fist around a square of white gauze and jogs up to her room for some scotch tape to hold it in place. Jess follows her up.

Davi wraps the tape around her hand until all the gauze is covered. It’s a little too tight but it will have to work, at least until the bleeding has stopped.

Jess sits cross-legged on the bed. It’s getting dark out, and Davi can hear Beth singing along to some kind of chant with the Birch Waters women. The spring peepers are going off about it.

“So why’d you leave school?” Jess asks, shifting back on her left arm.

“I don’t know. Because I’m good at quitting.”

“Huh.” Jess leans over and points to the drawings taped to the sloping ceiling. “Are all of these yours?”

Davi nods.

“Draw me.”

Davi leans against the wall. There’s nowhere else to sit except for the bed. “What do you mean?”

Jess laughs, unbuckling the straps of her overalls. She stands up and lets them slide down around her ankles before falling back onto the bed, naked. “C’mon, Davey,” she says, and stretches one leg out and touches her neck like a statue pose. “Draw me like one of your fruit bowls.”

“Screw you, Jess.”

Jess rolls her eyes.

Davi is sweating under her arms and behind her knees. Jess is staring at her. “Okay,” Davi says. She gathers her pencils and leans back on the door, the sketchpad balanced across her knees.

“How’s the light?”

Davi sketches the muscles moving in Jess’s forearm and the ropes of tendons on her neck. “It’s perfect.”

“Are you sure?” Jess leans back and shoves the curtain to one side of the open window, letting the last light in. “I want you to really see me.” She lies down again, propped up on one elbow. “So you get the picture right.”

Jess’s upper thighs are lined with straight pale tracks. Davi asks her to turn a little, and the lines are there across her hip, too, and down above both ankles. Davi never noticed them before. Davi sketches the scars in until she has the pattern right. Muriel must have started burning the sage, because the smoke is drifting up outside the window in hazy columns. The smell of it fills the room.

Outside, the women are singing, but it’s familiar folk songs now. Davi opens her hand, adjusting the bandage to cover the crease between her thumb and forefinger. Jess stretches, arching her back before folding her legs beneath herself.

Davi sits up straighter and places the pad of paper on the floor between her feet. The wind carries the smoke in, and it is woody and cool. When she looks up, Jess is still staring at her.

Meg-PendoleyMeg Pendoley was born and raised in Amesbury, Massachusetts, a small town on the border of New Hampshire, where she spent her summers working on a vegetable farm. She now lives and works in Philadelphia. This is her first publication.




Image credit: apalca on Flickr


Comments are closed.