There was no discussion of her parents’ decision so perhaps Alice hadn’t understood that it was an entire summer in a cabin with six girls who would snicker at her nightgown and snatch her stuffed tiger to make fun of its missing eyes. When her mother left, Alice was standing beside the iron-framed bunk bed, her tiny hands trembling.
“You’ll write me a lot?” she called out, but her mother was already on the path in front, sunglasses returned to face.
“Your daughter, she’s asking for you,” said one of the counselors—they’d all be so kind, braiding her hair so it wouldn’t tangle at night, allowing her to slink into the woods while the others paddled canoes. They probably thought she wanted to be alone when she cried.
“Bye, sweetheart,” her mother said in return, fingers to her lips then whisked into the air. The most arms-length of kisses.
Alice wasn’t someone who made friends quickly. Eight weeks was barely enough time to invent a secret language or perfect a map of the woods. But these girls weren’t interested in that sort of thing. With them, the talk was of boys and TV shows and pop music.
“How old are you?” one of them asked when Alice suggested they play fairies and elves on a rainy morning. She was seven.
When she was by herself, which was often, she walked to a tree she’d discovered was particularly good for climbing. There, perched in its branches, she read or wrote letters home and could tell by the height of the sun when it was time to head back for lunch.
One evening after dinner, Alice went for a walk while the others played capture the flag. As the path curved, she was presented with a full view of the lake: its black-mirrored surface, horseshoe of pale sand, murky blur of woods beyond. A swell of excitement made her fall to her knees. How did she know that this was prompted by the dying, violet light and the indigo smell of that lake? How did she know that the happiness barreling into her was linked to everything around her? Because these things were connecting with her in their own ways and it ran like a current between them: a conduit right to her heart.
But then she lifted her head and there was a row of sunburned knees.
“Um,” said the tall girl with yarn bracelets along her arm. “Why are you on the ground?”
Alice stared up. She was dizzy enough that the girls all looked the same. “They were talking to me,” she said. “I could feel it.”
In their silence that followed, Alice could hear the woods murmuring, the tide lapping, a loon.
“Oh my God,” one of them laughed.
And then a counselor put her arms around two of the girls and herded them back toward their cabin. Another helped Alice up and asked if she wanted to see the nurse.
“Also,” the counselor said, pulling a pine needle from Alice’s hair. She said this gently: “I’d keep these sorts of things to yourself.”
For weeks, Alice wandered to and from activities, barely aware of the other girls who laughed when she tripped at dinner, spilling punch down her shirt and her hamburger out of its bun and onto the floor. Was it possible that she was, in some magical way, different? The idea of it kept her up late and dominated her daydreams. She had to tell someone. Since there was no one else, she wrote her mother.
When her mother’s letter arrived, it was the same as always. Brief, breezy. The weather was pleasant, their dog had been sprayed by a skunk. And then this: I read the bit about your magic moment in the woods. Seems like you need to make more friends! Alice put down the letter. Her face burned with shame. Outside, the other girls were singing “Thriller.” And so, when she was seven years old, Alice squirreled away this kernel of mystery, this curious episode in the woods. For the next thirty years of her life, she did everything she could to distance herself from such ridiculousness.
Alice graduated summa from Yale and went on to Harvard Law School where she met her husband Paul in the first week. His pride in her accomplishments was fierce and proprietary. After a drink or two at parties, he would bring up the national significance of her latest case or mention she’d been the youngest clerk for the chief justice. She rarely spoke of her own work but she never stopped him. He made it sound so important when to her, truthfully, it never felt that remarkable. It came readily to her, the academics and focus, hard work and cerebral arguments. Did she honestly care about the negligent soda company or car manufacturer’s malfeasance? These cases were merely buffers between her and that strange moment at camp, and with each layer of accomplishment, she was covering the memory as though she could snuff it out completely.
Of course she could tell no one. How embarrassing it would be, how fantastical and childish. So at odds with her high-profile litigation and amicus briefs and vast knowledge of jurisprudence. What could she do with it now? And then, when she was thirty-seven, she became a mother.
Their daughters, Frankie and Caddy, were twins. Shortly before their birth, Alice decided she would leave her job at Trevor William to take care of them. There was enough money for a nanny, but Alice wanted to be with her children. It wasn’t that she particularly loved the tedium of child-rearing, especially at the beginning. The physicality of it was primal: not just the heaving and toting of children, but the sensations that overcame her. Such waves of emotion: aching exhaustion, soul-seizing terror, overwhelming love. When, after an arduous morning of tantrums and overturned cereal bowls, she finally got them both asleep, she gazed down at their pale cheeks and tiny arcs of eyelashes, and her life became radiant and meaningful: a growing, glowing force. The educated woman in her knew this was due to hormones and chemicals in her brain, but still she was beguiled by the rip-roaring joy, the incredible significance of her life now. She had given these babies life and they, in turn, had hurled it back to her like a cannonball. These were feelings she had never felt before and yet they seemed so elemental. How had she lived so long without them?
She took the girls everywhere. They collected pebbles and made little cairns. They learned to identify leaves by their shapes, butterflies by their patterns. She rented canoes and plopped the girls, stuffed into life vests, onto the low wooden seats. Paddling down the Sudbury River, she pointed out marsh grasses and dams beavers built. The girls skimmed their fingertips along the water’s surface. They brought sketchpads and drew what they saw: cattails, brown fish, herons.
Alice bought a book on birds: a hundred gorgeous illustrations and beside each one a button to press for the unique song. They spent hours studying the pictures and listening to the calls. It sounded so otherworldly in their Cambridge living room that smelled of woodsmoke and musty Persian rugs. The tch-tch-choooweee of the Speckled Sun Finch. The wwwurrrrr-wheet of the gray osprey. Alice loved how hungry her daughters were for the world around them. She had them draw shells from Ipswich and flinty spangles of mica from Lincoln. If someone had asked what was important about all this, she would say the thrill of discovery, the pleasure of a narrow trail through the woods, the satisfaction of spotting a dust-colored bird and knowing exactly what it is. But there was something else too. A personal joy, unrelated to her daughters. It was like a beloved song from childhood, forgotten for decades, had returned to ring inside her.
Once the girls were in school, people began to ask: What are you going to do now? As though without warning, she was handed a brand new life. Many of the mothers who eschewed professional careers, Alice learned, volunteered. There were myriad committees to join at their private school. The Lost & Found Committee alone had three Ivy League lawyers. “It takes them days to reach a majority opinion on what to do with a lost sweater,” her friend Tanya used to say.
Alice had met Tanya when their daughters started kindergarten. She liked her bawdy humor and frequent profanities. There was something primeval about her too that Alice found appealing. She foraged for mushrooms and collected rainwater. She taught her daughter how to make sundials and start fires with a wooden spindle.
By second grade, Tanya knew Alice was unsettled. She was forever offering suggestions.
“Fantastic kids’ clothes,” she’d announce, blue eyes shining. “There’s not a single shop that sells stylish kids’ clothes that aren’t a bloody fortune.”
“I’m not opening a store,” Alice said.
“Your girls always look great. You could totally open a clothing store.”
“I’m not opening a store.”
“You should call it Frankie. It’s an excellent name for a shop. You can sell those amazing French sneakers.”
“I’m not opening a store.”
Tanya had sighed heavily. She ran a hand through her witchy-black hair.
“I know,” she’d said. “Neither am I. But what the fuck are we going to do with ourselves?”
For Alice, the girls’ absence was a hollow carved in her body. She collected horse chestnuts for them, the polished nuggets clunking softly in her pocket, but felt a pang at the sight of their discarded shells, browning and smashed in the streets. She sketched squirrels and birds’ nests and sycamore bark but crumpled the pages in her pocket. What would the girls do with these things? They had their worlds now, their stories and chatter.
She told Tanya she went for walks. “I’m learning to identify trees,” she said.
There was a brightening in Tanya’s eyes and she seemed on the verge of something. Alice even leaned in. But the moment passed and she didn’t bring the subject up again. By next year, Tanya was gone. It was the talk of their small school: how a mother could leave it all behind.
Once, Paul asked, “Will you stick with Trevor William?”
Alice looked at him as though he spoke a foreign language. “I’m not planning on returning at all.”
“What about going in-house? Your hours would be so normal.”
“I’m not going back anywhere. I don’t think I could do it anymore.”
“Being a lawyer.”
“You have to be something.”
Alice should have expected this conversation. Paul was from Cambridge and his father still taught at Harvard. His was a childhood of trips to Angkor Wat with the chair of the Asian studies department, of dinner parties frequently included a Nobel laureate. “I can’t believe how lucky we are to have found each other,” Paul had told her on their second date. Until Alice, he had never met a woman as smart and driven as he was. And she was lucky because here was the one who would push her far from that lake and keep her away. When Trevor William made their offer, he’d been more excited than she was.
How could she go back now? It seemed so trivial; what she had done with the girls felt essential. Yet what nagged at her in the hours when they were at school was what to make of it all. How to turn that into a life.
Caddy came howling into the kitchen, cheeks glazed with tears, gripping her wrist. Once Alice pried Caddy’s hand away, she saw the pink bull’s-eye where she’d been stung.
“I can see the nest, Mommy!” she said between sobs. “You have to get it!”
Paul had walked in at that moment and laughed. “Your mother isn’t going near that thing.” He ran his arm around Alice’s waist, kissed her neck. “I’ll get it, bunny.”
And for a moment, as she was tending to Caddy’s wrist, Alice had forgotten she was allergic to beestings.
“Actually,” she said, the idea unfolding as she spoke. “I’m going to try.”
They stood at the kitchen window while she was outside, hand like a visor, gazing up at the nest which was wedged between roof and gutter. It was ovular and mud-colored, the size of a football. Wasps. They watched as she dragged the ladder from the garage and placed it against the house. Paul came outside once she was on it.
“Alice, don’t be ridiculous. I’ll call an exterminator. You’re going to get stung.”
She was midway up and stopped climbing, but there was no hesitation in her face.
“I’m actually not,” she said. “Watch.”
She continued, Paul at the base of the ladder now, waving sternly at Caddy to stay inside. Frankie was reading in her room as that was the year she’d discovered Harry Potter.
When Alice reached the top, she took the nest in both hands, tugged gently and it came loose in her grip. A black knot of wasps shot out, unspooling wildly around her head and Paul shouted from below: “Jesus, be careful!”
She was looking down at him and laughing.
“What the hell am I supposed to do with it?”
“Don’t drop it.” His face was pinched with fear, knuckles white against the ladder.
Alice cradled the nest in one hand so she could hang on with the other as she came down. And she came down calmly, two feet on each rung. By the time she reached the ground, wasps were crawling her arms. Their oily black bodies and sharp slivers of wing looked alien. Paul stepped back, unable to turn away from his wife.
Alice said, “Should I put it in Yard Waste?”
But she didn’t move except to tilt the nest slightly and examine it. “We’re really going to throw it away?”
“It’s a fucking wasps’ nest, Alice.”
She started toward the green bin but stopped. In her hand, the nest was still but she could feel a muffled vibration.
She said, “It just seems sad to throw away something alive.”
Inside, Caddy was at the window with her hands clamped over her ears. Her expression was grave. After the nest was deposited in the bin, she raced to find her sister and regale her with the incredible news.
Alice was never stung. She blew at the wasps along her arms and they lifted off. Paul watched his wife, cowed and incredulous. And then there was Frankie, breathless after running from her room, standing barefoot in front of Alice. She held Harry Potter, a finger stuck halfway through the book to mark her place.
“Caddy said you pulled out a wasps’ nest with your hands,” she said. There was so much admiration in her voice.
“It was under the roof,” Alice said, and Frankie’s lips parted as she stared up.
She looked at her mother. “What was it like?”
“I could feel something inside.”
“Wasps?” Frankie said.
Alice remembered the thrumming in her hands. “I don’t know what it was.”
Frankie’s eyes were locked on her mother. “Where did you put it?”
“There,” Alice said, pointing to the green bin and Frankie went to it. She leaned close to its lid, like she was listening. And then she straightened. When Alice saw her daughter’s face, that memory from camp returned. It had been nestled deep, a jewel buried at the bottom of the sea now loosed and rising to the surface.
“Yes,” she said to Frankie.
After the wasp incident, Alice felt a shift in her relationship with Paul. He regarded her the way he would a snake found in the garden: with equal parts awe and concern. But it was Frankie who had woken her up that night, clutching a stuffed cat to her chest, and whispered that the wasps needed to be set free. Alice swung her feet to the floor and the two of them hurried downstairs.
“Don’t tell Caddy,” Frankie said as they watched the wasps drift into the night, something forlorn and aimless in their freedom.
Alice frowned and Frankie said, “Caddy would be scared.”
“You’re not scared?” Alice searched her daughter’s face. “Those were wasps.”
Frankie smiled. She said, “Mom, they weren’t going to hurt us.”
In the mornings, Alice was up first. She scrambled eggs while Paul made coffee, the two of them alone in the kitchen before Alice woke the girls for school. It used to be they talked about work, but now Alice would tell him about spring rabbits all over the woods or how she discovered a cluster of vermillion pansies in the valleys between roots. What she didn’t tell Paul was when she touched their velvet petals, they touched her right back.
Paul listened but there was a vacancy to his gaze, a weariness to his smile.
“My naturalist,” he’d say.
Once, he asked, “I want to know what’s changed.”
Alice had stopped what she was doing at the sink and they looked at each other for such a long time. Even in that silence, there was communication: an acknowledged weighing of risk and reward.
Finally, she said, “I’ve been spending so much time in the woods.”
But she was thinking of all the things she could tell him. The thrust of grass through soil, glide of trout in water, chug of sap through a tree. That she’d been tamping these things down for so long.
Paul was quiet for a moment, his gaze falling from his wife to the mug of coffee he held in both hands.
He said, “You could transition to environmental law.”
Always, he’d tidy up the dishes and cups, finish his coffee at the sink, kiss his wife goodbye before he left for work. Beside her lambent wonder was this quiet, uncontested loss.
Frankie gave her mother a story she had read in class. It was about a woman who was gradually turning into stone. She’d met a stone carver who appreciated the nuance and beauty of rock. He took her to Iceland—where he was from—and told her that in the myths of his country, her situation was not uncommon.
After she read it, Alice went to Frankie’s room where the girl was curled in her worn armchair, deep into a hardcover book. She sat at the foot of the chair, tucking her legs beside her, and took her daughter’s hand.
“What do you think happened when the woman turned to stone?”
Frankie put her book aside. “Well,” she said, tracing her mother’s hand atop hers, “I think it was a metamorphosis. She was turning into something else.”
“So she didn’t die?”
“No.” Frankie’s eyes were shining now, not with tears but with the wildness of the idea. “She could see things now. Elves and creatures.”
Alice stared at her daughter.
Frankie continued, “I think it’s a happy story actually. What happened to the woman was magic.”
Magic, Alice thought. Good Lord. She had to breathe in fully, then let the breath go.
“Mom,” Frankie said, her voice dropping so low it was hard to hear. “Remember the bees’ nest?”
Frankie waited but Alice wasn’t sure how to respond.
“I think something special is happening to you,” Frankie said, and for an instant, there was the unmistakable glisten of tears.
They sat, Alice at Frankie’s feet, hands slipped into hands. The radiance that had once burned so brightly when Frankie was a baby had dimmed, but Alice felt it again now. She had become this remarkable being.
“Are you going to tell Daddy?” Frankie asked.
“What would I tell him?”
“He won’t understand,” Frankie said.
“Do you think I’m going to turn into stone?”
In the silence that followed, Alice realized what a ridiculous question it was to ask her daughter, even if her daughter was a little different than most.
“I’m sorry, Frankie. That was a silly thing to ask.”
Frankie let go of her mother’s hands. She leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees.
“Whatever happens, I don’t think you should stop it.”
Alice could hear Caddy’s footfalls as she padded down the hallway toward the bedroom. She hoped, guiltily, that Caddy would pass by. But then she was there, wearing her nightgown, and Alice held out her arms.
“What are you guys doing?” Caddy asked.
Frankie said, “Reading the story of the stone woman.”
Caddy scrunched up her nose and, folding herself into her mother’s lap, said, “I didn’t like that one.”
Alice tilted her head so she could look at her daughter. “No?”
“It was silly,” Caddy said with a shrug.
Alice smoothed her daughter’s hair. Caddy still smelled like she did as a baby: musky and sour. Essential smells, somehow. Alice could breathe that in forever.
She said, “You don’t believe people turn into stone?”
Caddy giggled. “You’re not supposed to believe it.”
Frankie stretched out her leg and kicked angrily at her sister’s foot.
“What?” Caddy snapped. “It’s a myth. Mrs. Brown told us myths help us understand things.” She lifted her chin and glared at Frankie. “But they’re not true.”
They rented a cabin in Vermont that summer. Paul said it would be restorative for everyone.
“Maybe at the cabin, you can figure things out.”
Beside him, Alice looked up from her book. “What am I figuring out?”
“I assumed you were thinking of what to do now.”
Alice closed the book and Paul put his hand on her knee.
He said, “I want you to be as happy as I am.”
It almost made her cry, that kindness. She shut her eyes and said, “Do you think it’s possible that I could hear the sun shine?”
He lifted his hand from her knee. Alice suspected he was pressing his fingers to his brow.
“I’m serious,” she said.
“Believe it hypothetically,” she said. “And tell me what I’m supposed to do about it.”
“You’re not supposed to do anything about it. Because it’s ridiculous.”
She reached for his arm. “I know. You think I don’t know?”
He looked tired. “Then why are you even entertaining it?”
Alice laid her head back on the sofa and stared at the ceiling. She had chosen him because he wasn’t one to accept nonsense readily.
She said, “Because I don’t want to ignore it anymore.”
“Ignore what anymore?” His voice was rising. “What are you even talking about?”
“There aren’t words to explain it,” she said, knowing how ludicrous this must sound to him. “You’d call it a useless gift.”
He smirked, even though it seemed like he was trying not to. “Hearing sunshine? Is this a euphemism? Is that really what we’re talking about?”
“We don’t have to talk about it.”
“But we’re having a conversation.”
She made herself smile at him. “Forget the sunshine. I’m just tired.” She pressed her hand to his wrist. “Vermont is a perfect idea.”
The cabin had three rooms, batten-board walls, antlers over the fireplace. There were burned-down candles in the candelabra on the table and empty bourbon bottles under the sink. Caddy screamed because there was a spider in the bathroom sink.
“Kill it—it’s poisonous!” she cried and Alice looked at her incredulously.
Alice captured the spider with a jam jar and set it free on the porch. Frankie joined her there and they stood for a while, sun weak on their faces as it slid into the tops of trees beyond the meadow.
Frankie asked, “Are you going for a walk?”
Alice took her daughter’s hand and squeezed. “Soon.”
“Can I go with you?”
“On a walk?”
Frankie waited until her mother looked down at her. She said, “Wherever. I just want to go too.”
For days, they canoed and hiked and made dinners from vegetables they bought at a farm stand along Route 7. They found a cow skull on one of their forest tramps and Paul soaked it in bleach until it was white as marble. The girls fought over who would keep it.
Finally, Paul raised his hands and said, “We’ll hang it in the living room.”
“Over the fireplace?”
“Over the fireplace.” Paul looked pleased with this outcome. “To remind us of our escape to Vermont.”
At that, Frankie looked for her mother, who was on the porch, sweeping for the third time that day. Ever since arriving at the cabin, Alice had woken each morning with a start, like she’d been untethered and drifting away. She watched the waxwings circle higher and higher over the pasture.
“Mommy, we can take this home!” Caddy shouted from inside, holding out the skull to her mother. “Come see it, Mommy!”
Frankie was standing behind her sister and whispered something into her hair. Caddy’s smile diminished only slightly but a sadness came across her face and she turned away.
She’s not coming home, is what Alice imagined Frankie telling her. The idea of it thrilled through her body.
On their last day, Alice woke before everyone. She left the house barefoot, moved quickly across the grass, slipped into the dark heart of the woods. It had rained overnight and the earth gave with her steps. Later, she wondered if she’d expected something that morning: some empyrean sunbeam or the murmuring sentience of trees. A divine gesture. Or had she simply wanted to lose herself? She thought of her daughters. How different they were from each other. The way Caddy cried at thunder while Frankie waited for it, counting the seconds after lightning. The way Frankie once held out her arm in the Whole Foods parking lot and, like a miracle, a seagull dove from the sky to land on it. The way Caddy wanted the windows rolled up in the car, how she hated dirt on her clothes but loved cursive and arithmetic. So many ways to live, who was she to judge?
Alice stopped. She breathed in the spice of pine needles, touched the sodden bark of trees. It wasn’t magic. There were no elves and creatures. She decided this was how it was going to be: a life infused with dazzling bits, the way a rock—an ordinary gray rock— could conceal a network of glittering veins inside. Rose quartz and amethyst and citrine. Imagine the surprise of someone cracking her open and discovering luminous sheets of treasure. She laughed out loud at such ridiculousness, and yet the secret of it glowed inside her, warm as an ember.
When she returned to the cabin, it was still early so she sat on the porch steps and stared at the dark smudge of trees beyond the pasture. How easily she could have kept walking, how quickly she could have disappeared between those pines and sugar maples. But what would that solve? Better to appreciate the radiant lode she stored; better to feel lucky to live with this gift.
Soon, Frankie joined her on the steps. They listened to whispers of wind, crinkles of roots. In a cluster of elms: a bird, a startling cheee-woo-wee like an alarm. Frankie’s eyes widened.
Alice said, “I think so.”
“And that?” Frankie asked.
Alice frowned with concentration. In the house behind them, Caddy and Paul were still asleep as the sky brightened.
Finally, Alice said, “You mean that humming?”
“That’s the sun,” she said.
Alice nodded and they listened together. It was a sound like a finger run round the rim of a wineglass. Frankie seemed to consider this for a long time, getting used to the idea, letting its meaning sink deeply, settling into her bones and blood.
Finally, she asked, “Are we going home today?”
Years later, Alice would consider that morning a watershed. She was general counsel now, caught up in corporate governance and intellectual property, so proud of Caddy as she breezed through high school, accepted early at college. Frankie captivated her: both kindred spirit and mystery. Her unconventional life elicited judgment and ridicule, but she seemed to ignore it all. “I wish she were more like you,” Paul often said to Alice. “You had your dalliance with nature but you sorted it all out. You found your way.” He was talking about her professional accomplishments. Alice would manage a smile but stay silent. Of course she kept the truth in her heart. She was good at squirreling away; it had become her life’s work.