Arcadia: Excerpt


The women in the river, singing.

This is Bit's first memory, although he hadn't been born when it happened. Still, the road winding through the mountains is clear to him, the rest stop with the yellow flowers that closed under the children's touch. It was dusk when the Caravan saw the river greening around the bend and stopped there for the night. It was a blue spring evening, and cold.

On the bank, trucks and buses and vans circled like bison against the wind, the double-decker Pink Piper at the heart. Handy, their leader, was on the Piper's roof doing sun salutations to the dying day. Naked children darted on the fringes of camp, their skin rough with goosebumps. The men built a bonfire, tuned guitars, started sup- pers of vegetable stews and pancakes. The women washed clothes and linens in the frigid river, beating wet fabric against the rocks. In the last light, shadows grew from their knees and the current sparked with suds.

Bit's mother, Hannah, unbent to peel a sheet like a membrane from the water's surface. She was all round: cheek, limb, hair in a golden loop of braids. The denim of her overalls was taut at the belly, where Bit was inside, building cell by cell. On the bank, his father, Abe, paused to watch Hannah, her head cocked as she listened to the other women singing, a smile just under her lips.

Later, the smells of supper died beneath the woodsmoke and the fire blazed against the cold. More music: "Froggy Went A-Courtin" in Handy's famous rasp, "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," "The Sounds of Silence." The laundry dried on the bushes, specters at the edge of sight.

It is impossible that Bit could remember all this: weeks before his birth, three years before Arcadia, 1968 all over the radio, Khe Sanh and the Grenoble Olympics, the Caravan in the middle of a hopscotch across the country, that evening with its blue light and bonfire and sheets ghosting in the dark. But he does. The memory clings to him, told by Arcadia until it became communal, told again and again until the story grew inside him to become Bit's own. Night, fire, music, Abe's back keeping out the cold, Hannah leaning against Abe's toasted front, Bit himself curled within his parents, wrapped in their happiness, happy.