Once Upon a River

• Chapter One •

The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart. She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salamanders in the ferns. She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees and to count the herons in the heronry beside the Murrayville cemetery. She tied up her boat and followed shallow feeder streams to collect crayfish, watercress, and tiny wild strawberries. Her feet were toughened against sharp stones and broken glass. When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her.

She waded through serpentine tree roots to grab hold of water snakes and let the river clean the wounds from the nonvenomous bites. She sometimes tricked a snapping turtle into clamping its jaws down hard on a branch so she could carry it home to Grandpa Murray. He boiled the meat to make soup and told the children that eating snapping turtle was like eating dinosaur. Margo was the only one the old man would take along when he fished or checked his animal traps because she could sit without speaking for hours in the prow of The River Rose, his small teak boat. Margo learned that when she was tempted to speak or cry out, she should, instead, be still and watch and listen. The old man called her Sprite or River Nymph. Her cousins called her Nympho, though not usually within the old man’s hearing.

Margo, named Margaret Louise, and her cousins knew the muddy water and the brisk current, knew the sand and silt between their toes, scooped it into plastic cottage cheese tubs and sherbet buckets and dribbled it through their fingers to build sagging stalagmites and soggy castles. They hollowed out the riverbanks, cut through soil and roots to create collapsing caves and tunnels. If any kid stood too long in a soft spot and sank above his knees, he just had to holler, and somebody pulled him free. They spent summers naked or nearly naked, harvesting night crawlers from the mossy woods and frogs’ eggs from goo in underwater snags. They built rafts from driftwood and baling twine. They learned to read upon the surface of the water evidence of distress below. Once, when Margo was eight and her favorite cousin, Junior, was nine, they rescued an uncle who’d fallen in drunk.

They all fished the snags at the edges of the river for bluegills, sunfish, and rock bass, though they avoided the area just downstream of the Murray Metal Fabricating plant, where a drainpipe released a mixture of wastewater, machine oil, and solvents into the river—some of the fish there had strange tumors, bubbled flesh around their lips, a fraying at their gills. On certain windy days, the clay-colored smoke from the shop wafted along the river, reached them on their screen porches, and even when they closed their windows, the smoke entered their houses through floorboards and the gaps around their doors.

The Murrays were a stubborn tribe, and Bernard Crane was no less stubborn for being born the bastard son of Dorothy Crane and Old Man Murray during his bout of infidelity, forgiven in time by a wife who, despite (or perhaps because of) her forgiving nature, died young. The old man begged Dorothy Crane to give their child his last name, but she put on the birth certificate father unknown. Some said Dorothy was part Indian and that was why Bernard was so small, and others said that she had begrudged her baby sufficient milk at her breast because the old man would not leave his lawful wife, while others, including Cal Murray, denied that Bernard was in any way a Murray. Years later, however, when Bernard Crane, whom everyone called simply Crane, and his wife, Luanne, gave birth to a beautiful green-eyed daughter, a spell of reconciliation was cast across the river, and all the Murrays claimed Margo. The girl’s mother even enjoyed the favor of the other women for a while. More often, they referred to Luanne as a “free spirit.” They did not mean it as a compliment.

When the weather allowed, Margo and her cousins swam all day long. Even when drought made the river shallow enough to walk across, they swam to the big Murray farmhouse on the north bank, where Aunt Joanna was hanging laundry or baking bread and where Uncle Cal might let them shoot skeet with shotguns or plink targets with .22 rifles.