Leland Richards was twenty-three, a farm boy from the Virginia Tidewater. Curiosity drew him to Niagara Falls in the summer of 1860, and the roar made him jump right in. The water yanked every limb from its socket. Just in time, rescuers hauled him out with ropes and pulleys. Summoned to the banks of the Falls, a doctor popped Leland’s arms and legs back into place.
Newspapermen couldn’t get enough. “Miracle Man,” ran one headline.
“Did Niagara Falls call your name?” asked one reporter, a woman with a twist to her lips.
“You could say it called me,” he said. Her eyes distracted him and her lovely ears, showing beneath her hair. Joy began at his toes and spread up through his body. “Miss,” he said, “I’m a happy man. I went from being not unhappy, but you could say I failed to appreciate, go ahead and write this down, I failed to appreciate my life.”
“I suppose you’ll become a minister,” the woman said, tapping her teeth with her pencil. Leland knew that his mother, ever aware of the importance of a woman’s teeth and skin, would have put a stop to the tapping.
“A minister. No,” he said.
The woman reporter said, “I can’t leave until you tell me something new, something you haven’t told anybody else.”
Sunlight rolled through the windows of the hotel parlor in eye-watering brilliance. The landlady hovered, offering cold spiced cider. The landlady was no longer charging him. The Miracle Man was a luminary, good for business. A haberdasher had provided a new suit. A dentist pulled for free a tooth that was bothering him. Confectioners sent candy and nuts.
The reporter accepted a glass of cider and sipped it. She had a hitch in her voice and in her walk, though Leland wouldn’t say she limped. For a short girl, she had a long stride. “It’s not fair,” she said. “People will pay attention to anything you say.”
The parlor was filling up with honeymooners ready for card games and piano playing. Leland stood and guided the reporter out onto the porch, where rocking chairs see-sawed to the motion of guests’ vigorous behinds and legs.
“This is not the story I want to write,” the woman said, frowning. “I want to write about war. I can smell it coming.”
He took that for a farewell, but she had more to say.
“Have you thanked the men who saved you?” she asked.
“Of course.” He wanted the men to fish with him someday on the York River. He pictured them in his boat, with this woman back on shore where voices would reach her. In his mind, it was a mild gray day, with dogwood white on the bluffs above the river.
She barely came up to his shoulder. With his hands, he measured the difference in their height. She would not be jollied. She finished her cider and set the glass on the porch railing.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“I have a sister your age,” he said.
Two rocking chairs became vacant, and they sat down. He said, “When we were little, my sister and I, we used to play store. One would be the merchant, the other the customer.”
“That doesn’t give me the story I’m after,” she said, but she was rocking right lively.
“All right,” he said. “That sound. It was like voices. Laughing. An explosion that went on and on. It was what I’d been waiting for.”
She was writing.
“Longer I listened, the louder it got. You know how a shell sounds when you hold it to your ear?” Her lovely ear. She nodded. He said, “I answered that call.”
She put her pencil down and rested her chin in her hands.
She was a question mark, what with all the questions she asked, and a question mark was the shape her body made, when they danced together that evening in the hotel parlor, and she was a question mark in marriage, when she lay with him. Her parents’ wedding gift was paper and pens and ink, so she could write to them.
Her name was Octavia. My dear wife, he wrote from camp. He wore a pair of wire mesh spectacles that he found in a field. The mesh tempered sunlight and dust.
Since recovering from measles, he had been assigned the duties of a quartermaster’s clerk. The work suited him. His commander looked into Leland’s heart and divined thrift. Blankets, shoes, buttons, coffee. Not enough of anything. Soap, thread, tobacco. Horse liniment in attractive brown bottles. The hoarding and doling out, it got to him some days. He set aside a shelf in his office for lone, prized items: flyswatter, box of mourning stationery, rug beater. He counted bullets, tallying them in hundreds with a mark on his hand.
Only a magician could supply enough, he wrote Octavia.
Witch hazel for piles. Camphor. Boot polish. Bayonets and glue.
If General Lee came in right this minute and asked for lamp oil, a toothbrush, and sheet music, I could put his order together in a minute, long as he’s not picky about the music.
He had more letters from his sister, Emily, than from his wife.
What you do now, for the army. Is it like when we played store? Emily wrote. Remember we used acorns for money, and for wares, we had things Mother gave us. Commonplace things—chipped plates, dull scissors, watch fobs Father no longer wanted.
Nails and paint, turpentine and salt. A tin of chocolate powder. He pried it open, dipped a finger in it, and licked the glorious bitterness. He dreamed of a honeycomb and woke slapping at bees, but it was February and he was in the mountains, the Blue Ridge sharp and purple.
“How much rope, Leland? How much hay?” the commander asked him when they passed, and it was better than a game, because Leland always knew.
Candles, dye, canvas, lye. Burlap and barrels, shovels and staves. Never enough. He burned a shipment of spoiled lard. The men would have eaten it.
Would that I had bins of extra limbs and boxes of eyeballs, he wrote Octavia, thinking she deserved to know. Yr aff. Husband.
He pictured his sister and his wife at home on the farm, with his mother. His father was long dead. He imagined his wife and his sister playing store, as he and Emily had done in childhood, and it was for them that he did his job well, for the store-players, the shrewd tiny merchants. It is lasting forever and ever, he wrote in the fall of 1862, when it had been months since his last furlough. The windfalls he received from generous families were foolish: dozens of mousetraps, a box of cardboard-soled slippers in too-small sizes. He bought fried pies from a sutler and got sick from them. One of the men claimed that the pies were made from dog meat, and Leland believed him. With his own eyes, he saw the date on a shipment of hardtack: 1812.
Time for the mesh sunglasses and a letter home.
My dear wife, he wrote Octavia. Ask Emily if she still has the dibble. Mother let us use it for Store. Emily did not know what it was and I told her, for planting. It cost her many acorns.
Would you quit writing about that damn game and tell me about the war, Octavia wrote.
He was fighting again, for he was fully well. He was promoted to major. One day he had one of the rare letters from his mother: It is how I have felt all my life a war going on the men away the hands run off it is almost a relief Son now that it has happened for it matches up with how I have felt inside all ways, Yr. Loving Mother, Frances Abigail Whitten Richards.
One day he had word from his sister that their mother had fallen ill and died. Octavia and I and the preacher dug the grave. It took a long time. The preacher is old and I was afraid it would be too much for him. We had only two spades so one rested while the others worked. Emily enclosed a package of horehound candy. He unwrapped a piece and sucked on it as he read. Her letter concluded, Octavia has grown taller. You will be surprised.
When the war was over and he got himself home, the woman who greeted him at the door of his farmhouse was nearly a foot taller than he was: Octavia.
When the war was over. After the war. As if saying, “After breakfast.” Nobody should have to say that.
After we were married, my wife grew. After I got home again, once the war was over, I saw this myself. She was—is—still beautiful. Just tall. The tallest person I have ever seen.
Even as he stood at his own doorstep, holding his breath and looking up into Octavia’s eyes, these sentences ran through his head as if he were writing a letter. He was too accustomed to letters to let go of the habit. All during the war, nothing had been more real than a letter. Maybe if he’d been wearing the mesh sunglasses to meet Octavia at the door, he would have been less shocked. Encountered through tiny screens of wire, the tall stranger might have loomed less.
Was this what the roaring Niagara tried to tell him, those five years ago? For it was a personal cry, that volume of sound that beckoned him over the side. Meeting his wife at war’s end, he remembered his exultation as he pitched himself into the water. During the war, the sound had become a tale he told himself, a marvel and a treasure he could take out and turn over in his mind. He could close his eyes and smell the cologne and flowers in the parlor of the Niagara inn. The roar came back to him in this homecoming, a day of unseasonable cool in early May, with the sky blue as a jay over his smaller-than-he-remembered-it farmhouse.
He spoke his wife’s name and reached for her hand. Surely she was standing on a chair or on a footstool hidden beneath her long dress.
Of course, I reacted when I saw her, but no I don’t remember what I said. I did not, as the expression goes, believe my eyes.
A clattering wagon pulled up, and a group of people climbed down from it, shaking out their shabby clothes, then heading toward him and Octavia with the self-righteousness of those bent on diversion.
“They have to pay first,” Octavia said—her first post-war words to him. “Take care of that, Leland. This is how we eat. It’s how we live, Emily and I.”
When he didn’t answer, Octavia shooed him toward his task. “Go get Emily,” she said.
Would Emily too have become a giantess? Was their farm some magnifying place or was he cockeyed from war and journeying?
“Emily’s hanging out wash, around back,” Octavia said. “And Leland? Ask her to bring some water. We usually give people some, with syrup in it when we have it.” To the visitors, she said, “Pay my husband. Then you may come in.” She closed the door so that they might encounter her for best effect when she swept it open, seven feet tall in a patchwork dress. The visitors paid Leland amiably with a cardboard box of baby chicks and strolled into his house. From outside, he heard them gabble and gasp.
Most of the fighting I did was in Virginia, he wrote his imaginary correspondent, a recipient born in this instant, so you may wonder how it was that I did not get home except for the occasional visit. You ask how it was I did not know of this great change. Well I did have the one letter from my sister Emily, that mild warning, Your wife has grown taller. During the war, soldiers might gain height into their early twenties. I believed girls had their height by fifteen or sixteen. I assumed my wife was completing her growth and that this meant she was getting enough to eat. Though I was fighting in Virginia it was often far to the West, in the mountains, and when I was East, in Petersburg, the fighting was such that I could not leave. If I’d known, I’d have come home right away. To do something. I do not know what.
The chicks made gleeful sounds. They were falling out of their box with laughter. He sank down on the grass of his own yard, amid the hilarious chicks. After a while, he got up and went around back to find his sister.
“Exactly how many times, during the war, did you see your wife?” This was a doctor in Norfolk to whom he took Octavia. The doctor measured and examined her, made her walk away from him and toward him, and then spoke privately to Leland. To Leland, the conversation felt like the letters he was always writing in his head.
“She said her parents are of normal size. Is that accurate?” the doctor said.
Leland nodded. Stern Yankees, a beribboned old lady permanently outraged over some slight, the father a sleek cat of a man, ears flattening and flickering with the town’s news.
“Well,” the doctor said. “This is rare enough.”
“What causes it?”
“Perhaps some kind of imbalance in the body, or a catastrophe.”
“Like the war?”
“I meant something more like a bad fall, a blow to the head. Even that’s just a theory.”
“She’s had no such accidents that I know of,” he said, thinking, I’m the one that almost drowned.
Can’t I go to war again and come home again and find her as she should be? That box of baby chicks, why they pecked at each other and died, the whole batch. What was wrong, that they pecked each other to death, a batch of baby chicks?
“Is she through growing?” Leland asked the doctor.
“It’s hard to say.”
The doctor’s office was located near a school. Children were outside in the schoolyard, at play. Rising and falling, their muted shrieks reached Leland through the windows. “Love me, love me,” the voices seemed to cry.
Go back to the day I bought the ticket for the train ride north. The station floor was covered with peanut shells and the air smelled smoky, from a fire not far off. A farmer was clearing a field. Go to boyhood, to a rainy day when I sat in the hallway paging through a book with engraved illustrations and fell in love with the Falls. The book belonged to Papa.
“Be careful with her,” the doctor said.
Octavia’s head in its bonnet nodded far above him as they walked out of the doctor’s office, down the street and away from the capering children.
I must be dreaming. No woman would greet her husband like that, say to a man home from war, ‘They have to pay first and then they can have a look at me.’
“Love me,” the children’s voices chorused,
distant now as Leland and Octavia paced farther from the school. “Love.
Me. Love. Meeeeee.”
“There was a knock on the window before your mother died,” Octavia said one evening.
Emily nodded. “Three raps. We both heard it. We looked out the window, but there was nobody. No breeze, either.”
“That was the morning of the day she died,” Octavia said. “She passed away that night.”
“I’d heard all my life about that knocking, but I didn’t believe it,” said Emily.
This was his life, and he was getting used to it. His mother was dead and his wife was grown tall. Emily was the same, as far as he could tell, though Octavia told him Emily took to cursing during the war, cursed so hard Octavia was afraid of her. He could not imagine such words coming out of his sister’s mouth.
He had not allowed anybody to pay and to view his wife since that first day he was home. He was providing for his family, though they lived on sweet potatoes and fish. Octavia liked her yams almost burnt, loved the sugary blackened sap that rose from the flesh and crusted when cooked a long time. “Candy,” she said, closing her eyes. “It’s how the earth itself would taste if you put enough sugar in it.”
He was two people now, the falls survivor and the veteran, and his wife was two people, the young reporter and her alpine self. It was hard to keep up with them all. Working the fields brought a reward: the sound of the train whistle from miles off, the first bars of a beautiful song. And in bed at night, he still found sweetness with Octavia. But her breath burned his bare skin. Floorboards creaked differently than he remembered. He dreamed of wheat fields and cornfields like a rolling ocean, splendid and windy and gold. Sunday still came, and he and his wife and sister walked to church. There was no piano or organ, just people’s voices as they sang the hymns. The church bell was gone, melted down for bullets.
The day he’d gotten home from war and found his sister hanging wash in the yard, crying because the sheets were muddy, he hugged her and spoke her name. She exclaimed over him, said she’d feared she would never see him again. Then she said something he didn’t expect.
“Why do cats have that little nubbin of skin halfway up the back of their legs? Leland, why? It’s like a little leather island,” and she’d grabbed a kitten, tears on her cheeks.
What could you say to that? The kitten sprang from Emily’s arms, leaving red scratches.
And now this new voice spoke in his head, as if somebody were after him, arguing, jabbing him in the brain.
How did the river taste?
Clean, almost salty, though it is not the sea. It’s far from the ocean. I would have to think about that, about how it tasted.
That happiness. Did it last, the joy and certainty you felt in surviving?
I can’t work things out with all this in my head.
All right. What foods did you dream about during the war?
Oh. That’s easy. Pickles, cheese, brandy, sausages, applesauce, pears and peaches. Stop. I can’t think to sing the hymn.
You should have heard them cursing, those women, when you were off at war. Not just Emily. Your wife too. Both of them were cursing when your mother died. She died with those words in her ears.
That’s a lie.
You weren’t here. Right funny when you think about it—them cussing, her dying.
He didn’t know whose voice it was invading his thoughts or what to make of the struggle inside him, the quarrels taking place in his head. He didn’t tell Octavia or Emily.
“It’s part of their paws,” he said to Emily at supper, and she raised her face to his, startled. “That little thing on a cat’s leg,” he said. “You asked me about it.”
“Don’t do me that way,” she said, “pick up talk from so long ago that I’ve forgotten all about it. Now tell me something, Leland. What was it like to kill people? Those other soldiers?”
He chewed his food for a long time. “I used to pretend they were just little towers.”
“And the towers fell?”
Emily hung her head.
He was waiting and for what? For the train to play the song that its whistle suggested, to finish the tune begun by those sparse bars of music that carried miles to reach his ears. Waiting for his wife to top out, like a tree or a shrub that would get its height first and then fill out, like the snowball bush he and Emily played store beneath, as children.
Think back. Go way back. What did Emily used to call that snowball bush? Back in childhood, in the days of dibble and store?
Oh. She did have a funny name for it. Wait and I’ll ask her?
No. You have to remember.
Mow-mow bush, that was it. Rhymes with cow. We used to cut the blooms off and make believe they were snowballs and throw them at each other.
That’s good, Leland. Very good.
Do you know how bad it got? There was pipe-clay ground up in the hardtack. And alum. We could taste it, yet we still ate it.
Kill the commissary, hang the sutlers. Pity you in your little mesh spectacles, you couldn’t stop thinking about your belly.
“Octavia,” he said. “Let’s go out in the yard.”
They pushed their chairs away from the supper table, and she followed him. The air smelled of wood smoke. He led Octavia to the well. He had her pour bucket after bucket of water over his head, and he wouldn’t tell her why.
He wanted to invite his Niagara rescuers to visit him. His old plan: to take them fishing.
“For God’s sake,” Octavia said. “How would we feed them?”
“We don’t have to have them here,” he said.
“Well, I do get lonely,” she said. “Don’t you think I’d like to go see Mother and Papa? They don’t know how tall I’ve gotten.”
“Would you come back?” he said.
“I’d come back,” said Octavia.
But she made no plans to go. One day she said, “All those people who used to come and pay to see me? It was Emily they ended up watching. She is very strange. Haven’t you noticed the way she twists her hands? Your mother knew about her.”
“There’s nothing wrong with her.”
Octavia said, “Yes, there is. People watched her, and they knew.”
He didn’t summon the Niagara men, but they came anyway, brothers named Messier. They were traveling the South to visit Antietam, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Appomattox. “It wasn’t hard to find you,” the older brother said. His beard reminded Leland of the frothy Falls.
“The selling’s started,” the younger Messier said. “Roadside stands selling belt buckles and stuff. The battlefields are stores now.”
“How are my parents?” Octavia asked, serving cornbread and buttermilk. Outside, the men’s horses and wagon filled up the yard.
“He’s still writing his newspaper,” the bearded brother answered. After a pause, he asked Octavia, “Did it hurt? To get so tall?”
“Don’t answer that, ma’am,” said the younger brother. “You should be famous for being beautiful.”
Emily, sitting in a corner of the room with a cat on her lap, spoke up. “Was he heavy?” she asked the visitors, indicating Leland with a nod of her head. “When you pulled him out of the water?”
“Yes,” the brothers said together. The older brother raised his arms in a gesture that made the muscles bulge through his shirt.
Leland was sorry to have caused such trouble. He said so.
Emily said, “He wants to marry me off. Either one of you will do.”
The guests looked at each other and laughed. Emily joined in and so did Octavia, giggling at first, then howling, Octavia spilling her pitcher, Emily’s cat springing from her lap, the Messier brothers’ mouths stretching, shoulders jolting. They all looked ill, beset, bewitched.
Leland went to Octavia and took the pitcher from her hands. He eased her down in her chair and said, “Shh now,” but her face kept working. To the men, he said, “Let’s go fishing.”
Leland. Forget the river and the channel and the men in the boat and the women back on shore looking pretty. Let them laugh, and don’t ask why.
This is hard, Leland said to the voice in his head.
Poor Leland. Listen to your wife. Pick out her voice from the others. She sounds the way she does when she gets all worked up, doesn’t she? All worked up in bed?
He rushed the brother who was nearer to him, the bearded one, seized him and wrapped his hands around the man’s throat. How was it the man kept on laughing? His breath smelled of buttermilk. His beard felt soft. Leland squeezed the laughter right out of him while he fought back, landing a kick in Leland’s gut and straining to tear Leland’s hands from his throat. The women were shouting. The younger Messier leaped on Leland’s back, pounding him with his fists, until finally Leland let go of the other man, who coughed and clutched at his neck.
In the silence, Octavia reached out and righted the pitcher, which had spilled buttermilk over the table and onto the floor. Emily’s cat crept forward and lapped the milk. They all listened to the lapping, the tiny neat sounds, until the cat stopped and sneezed.
“You’re crazy,” the younger brother said to Leland. The man’s eyes took up his whole face, bulging eyes Leland would remember, a fine blue.
“We’ll go, we’ll go right now,” the older brother said. His neck was red, his voice a rasp.
Emily married the preacher who had helped to dig her mother’s grave, and they moved away. Leland expected Octavia to grow until her head brushed the ceiling, like a star on a Christmas tree too tall for the parlor. But she stopped, and carried herself with a grace that he preferred to her younger, pugnacious stride.
It was summer when she died, summer 1872, every afternoon a shower and then long lighted evenings. Hay, corn, and tobacco grew in such abundance that Leland hired a dozen people to work alongside him in the fields. At day’s end, the hum of their activity ceased. Cicadas sang in the trees. Leland toed the earth, smelling rain.
Leland. You’re all alone. The Falls forgot you long ago. Are you happy, Leland?
Yes, he answered, I’m happy, and the voice stopped, as if it had everything it wanted.