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A tale of two sisters over seventy years that recovers the vibrant and unforgettable voice of Beverly Jensen
In 1916, Idella and Avis Hillock live on the edge of a chilly bluff in New Brunswick, Canada—a hardscrabble world of potato farms and lobster traps, rough men, hard work, and stunning beauty. From "Gone," the heartbreaking story of their mother's medical crisis in childbirth, to the darkly comic "Wake," which follows the grown siblings' catastrophic efforts to escort their father, "Wild Bill" Hillock's body to his funeral, the stories of Idella and Avis offer a compelling and wry vision of two remarkable women. The vivid cast includes Idella's philandering husband Edward, her bewilderingly difficult mother-in-law—and Avis, whose serial romantic disasters never quell her irrepressible spirit. Jensen's work evokes a time gone by and reads like an instant American classic.
Beverly Jensen died of cancer at the age of forty-nine without publishing her work. Since her death, her fiction has been championed by a dedicated group of supporters, including Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates.
Beverly Jensen earned an MFA in drama from Southern Methodist University. After her death in 2003, her story "Wake" was published in the New England Review, included in The Best American Short Stories 2007, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is survived by her husband, Jay Silverman, and their two children.
The women stayed in the bedroom a long time with Mother. It got quiet. Every once in a while the door would open and Mrs. Pettigrew or Mrs. Doncaster would slip out, the door swooshing softly behind them. They'd check the water on the stove, or go to the window and look out toward the road, looking for the doctor to come.
The whole while, hours, Idella sat on the wooden bench. The rough edge of it rubbed under her knees. The warmth from the fire pushed on her face, like someone breathing close up against her cheeks and forehead. Wisps of hair stuck against the side of her cheek. But her bare feet were cold. If she put them against the stove someone might see her. She put one on top of the other and tried to rub them warm. She could see out the window from here. She couldn't see the road, where the doctor'd be coming from, but she could see out over the field.
It must be getting on towards dawn, Idella thought. The light had gradually changed. Morning fog had pushed up from out of the bay, hovering grey outside the windows. It'd swirl around your feet like smoke when you walked on the fields. Mother said it was like walking through the clouds, only better, because it smelled of the sea.
Idella had been up this early before. There were times she and Avis and Mother would hold up the lanterns for the men after they'd been out fishing all night. The men would clean the fish and set them on racks to dry in the sun. Herring. Some would be kept for winter and some would get barreled and pickled and sold to people all over the world. Idella's arm would get achy trying to hold the lantern just right. Mother told her to concentrate on the coming and going of the fog, to listen to the birds and the sounds of the water from the bay. That made it a little easier, and Idella knew that what they were doing was important, but she always wished she was back in bed.[…]
The bedroom door opened. Idella drew back. Mrs. Doncaster went to the bottom of the stairs and looked up toward the girls' bedroom, listening. Idella thought she heard the door close up there. Avis. Then Mrs. Doncaster went to the window by the door. She stood for a long time. Idella could see her plain. Mr. Doncaster came in the house. He put his arm around her and she leaned up against him. Idella'd never seen anything like that between them. "She's awful weak," Mrs. Doncaster whispered, "awful weak."
"The infant's crying. I come to get you. Lilly don't know what else to do with it." He brushed her hair out of her eyes.
She nodded. "The best I can help her now is to feed her baby." Mr. Doncaster kept his arm around her and helped her out the door.
Idella was trembling. Mrs. Doncaster was going to feed Mother's baby. It didn't have a name. No one was even thinking about giving it a name. Idella pressed her knees tighter and tighter till they hurt. She started rocking back and forth, hugging her whole self with her arms.
Suddenly, Mr. Doncaster came running back. "They're coming! They're riding full out!"
Dad and the doctor rushed through the kitchen and into the bedroom, closing the door behind them. They didn't even wipe the mud off their boots. The muffled sounds of the men talking were low and thick. Idella strained to listen. Sometimes she heard Mrs. Pettigrew's voice, or Mrs. Jaegel's, but barely.
Suddenly the voices got louder. "Emma! Emma!" Dad was calling Mother's name. Something made a loud noise, like a crash, something heavy hitting the floor. There was commotion. Then everything stopped all at once and got quiet. There weren't even whispers. She listened and listened, pressing her whole body down so that nothing would move, but there was still no sound.
Finally, the bedroom door opened and Mrs. Jaegel came out carrying the bowl of hot water, holding it with both hands. Steam was still rising from it. The water droplets slid down her face. She stood in the middle of the room and said out loud, quiet but clear, "She's gone."
Gone. Idella heard the word over and over in her head. Gone, she thought. Mother was gone. Idella crumpled over onto the bench. The cries that she had held off for so long came shuddering through her.
"Holy Mother of God!" Mrs. Jaegel was standing over her, trying to lift her. "Come, child. Come on out from there." Idella clung to the bench, her fingers grinding into the rough grain of the wood. "Get her upstairs. Dear God, let's get the child upstairs."
"I'll take her." It was Dad, suddenly standing in front of them. Idella reached for him and grabbed him and pulled herself over into his arms. Dad lifted her chin and looked down at her. His face was tired and loose and strange. "Come, Della, come sit with me." He carried her over to a kitchen chair and sat with her on his lap. He put his hand on the back of her head and stroked her hair. Idella rubbed her face against his red woolen shirt, feeling its worn softness. She grabbed onto the front with both her hands and pulled it to her. It smelled of the barn, of hay and the horses.
"Now, now," Dad said, his hand taking up the whole back of her head, gently, like it was a teacup, and pressing her softly up against him. "She's better off, Della." He whispered it. "Your mother is better off away from here."
"I want to go with her," Idella sobbed.
"Me too," Dad whispered. "I want to go with her too."
from The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay