The Waters

Bonnie Jo Campbell

January 8, 2024 
The following is from Bonnie Jo Campbell's The Waters. Campbell is the author of six works of fiction, including American Salvage, finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Once Upon a River, a national bestseller. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, and a Pushcart Prize, she lives outside Kalamazoo, Michigan, with donkeys.

The town has a troubled soul.

Article continues below

Once upon a time, M’sauga Island was the place where desperate mothers abandoned baby girls and where young women went seeking to prevent babies altogether. But in living memory, Rose Cottage on the island was the home of the herbalist Hermine “Herself” Zook, who raised her three daughters there. The oldest, a lawyer named Primrose, was the most accomplished; the middle daughter, Maryrose, called Molly, a nurse, was the most practical; and the youngest, Rose Thorn, was lazy and beautiful. Hermine’s medicines—her tinctures, salves, and waters—are now discredited in the light of day, but at night the people of Whiteheart, Michigan, still use them if some tidy housekeeper or other busybody hasn’t tossed away the unlabeled jars and bottles. Only tiny amounts of these fixes are required, as they have become more effective with time— sometimes just unstoppering a bottle is enough to release a cloud of soothing into an ailing household. The island and its women loom large in the dreams of local folks, who sometimes wake up sweating from visions of witches in black (though the island women never wore black) or of crows watchful in treetops, or of swamp streams bubbling up through the floorboards of their houses. It is said the island, where healing waters percolate to the surface, was a place where women shared one another’s dreams, a place where women did what they wanted.

Anybody around here can give you directions. Head northeast off the old highway onto County Road 681 and turn left at Dinzik’s barn— people will say it’s red, but there’s hardly a flake of rust-colored paint left on the wood—and down a potholed lane known as Schoolhouse Road, though the school burned down before anybody still living was born. Schoolhouse ends at Lovers Road. To the right is the gun club, so go left instead. Some years ago, Ada McIntyre’s grandson, while drunk, kept going straight off the end of Schoolhouse Road and into the swampy waters, where he hit a tree at full speed. He’s dead now, having bled to death from the hemophilia that runs in the family. Take that left, and you’ll see on your left a tavern housed in a military-issue Quonset hut with the name Muck Rattler stenciled in block letters over the door.

Past the tavern, for the next mile and a half on that side of Lovers Road, there are farm fields, and on the other side (the north, the swamp side), a line of giant willows. Keep going until you come to a hay barn and a pasture on the south side of the road where two old donkeys graze, a gray jack named Triumph and a spotted jenny named Disaster, nicknamed Aster, like the flower. There is a high-ceilinged two-story house set way back from the road, with a sign at the driveway that says “Boneset.” Naming a house and property was an extravagant gesture in these parts, and Wild Will was extravagant, but in fact he borrowed the name from his wife. The weathered cedar of the house and the barn—neither has ever been painted—glows silver at sunrise and sunset if you see it from certain angles.

Across Lovers Road, in a grassy area shaded by giant willow trees, sits the Boneset Table with a locked cash box bolted to the top. Through a break in the willows, if the fog isn’t too heavy, you can see the edge of what everyone around here calls the Waters, where a sort of island rises up, accessible by a bridge three planks wide, strung between oil barrels floating on the watery muck. There, under the branches of sycamores, oaks, and hackberries, the green-stained Rose Cottage sinks on the two nearest corners so that it appears to be squatting above the bridge, preparing to pitch itself into the muck. Beyond the cottage, the trees give way to a mosquito-infested no-man’s-land of tussocks, marshes, shallows, hummocks, pools, streams, and springs a half mile wide between solid ground and the Old Woman River. This is where Herself harvested wild rice, cattails, staghorn sumac, and a thousand other plants. Rose Cottage is boarded up now, but if you check at the county office, you can confirm that the taxes are paid up on the hundreds of acres of the Waters still owned by Hermine Zook.

Article continues below

The Waters occupies the northeastern quarter of the town, six thousand acres, and all of it apart from Hermine’s section is under state protection for half a dozen rare wildflowers and the Blanding’s turtle, as well as the endangered massasauga “m’sauga” rattlesnake. The state wetlands don’t bring in any revenue, apart from a few birdwatchers stopping at the gas station. Even families in Whiteheart who have never farmed this area know how the Waters can creep into lowlying cropland and undermine what looks solid.

Half a century ago, Wild Will Zook ventured into the Waters and fell in love with Herself after she treated his rattlesnake bite and cooked and fed him the snake that had bitten him. Maybe he married her because of some spell she put on him, or maybe just because it was the most outrageous thing a man could do in this town. And it did impress everybody, made him seem even taller than he was. After they were married, he bought the Boneset land for them at a tax sale and built the big cedar house, from which vantage point he looked down upon the island, but he was never able to convince his wife to live there with him. That this high-ceilinged two-story dwelling sat empty with its windows boarded up for decades was a testament to the power and determination of Hermine Zook. People loved to decry her stubbornness, both for refusing to live there and for keeping it empty all those years, and especially for her refusal to sell any portion of her holdings, the Waters or the dry land at Boneset.

During the time she and Wild Will were together, Hermine made medicines that were pleasant, reliable, and sweet, flavored with blackberries and honey. Back then, Hermine used to let folks come to the island to bathe in the shallow mineral pools, to have their blood pressure corrected by leeches, to have their wounds debrided by maggots, even to have bones set if the fractures were simple. But after fifteen years, when she sent Wild Will away, her medicine changed. While she continued healing, she never again allowed anyone onto the island and only dispensed medicines sparingly, meeting her patients by the road, at the Boneset Table. Her cures changed; now they tasted raw, and they burned the skin upon application and the throat going down. Similarly, the aged whiskey she had once produced for Wild Will from old stores under Rose Cottage disappeared, and she offered only the bootleg juice that took the enamel off men’s teeth, and then there was no liquor for sale at all. Signs appeared at the edges of her vast swamp property, images of menacing skulls painted on trees and rocks, with no words, some with piles of bones around them.

The newly embittered potions inspired fear, and so the cures were thought to be stronger and more effective and gained Herself a new kind of respect. As more folks left their farms and began working in the paper mill, they became mistrustful of a cure that didn’t include a punishment, that didn’t intensify momentarily the suffering it promised to alleviate. And in more recent times, they came to her confused and angry, with slow-growing cancers of the liver and reproductive organs, disorders she could not cure. Sometimes people stood at Boneset and shouted their demands for healing across the swamp channel as though she was a dispensing pharmacy.

Even considering the planet’s rising temperatures, winter in Whiteheart remains long and cold, and when spring finally comes, when the ground thaws, people here begin to feel energy trickle up through the topsoil and into them through the soles of their shoes. Now, more than ever, they are hungry for beauty, and they dream about Hermine’s youngest daughter, the lazy, lighthearted, goldenhaired Rose Thorn, flowing back to them like a bright stream in a riverbed that has been dry, though she also might appear in the form of a sly starved animal trotting across a field. Or they dream of her enrobed in sheaves of golden wheat or rising up from the heart of the tender, pale celery stalks—even whole fields of celery rising up through the mud, though none of the few remaining farmers grow wheat or celery anymore, just corn and soybeans, as recommended by the Farm Bureau.

Article continues below

As a child, Rosie was so thin-skinned that she suffered from chilblains and frostbite on the short walk to the bus stop—that is, whenever she was bullied into going to school by her sister Molly. More often, she skipped school and spent her winter days in bed on the island reading Oz books and fairy tales. From the time she was a teenager, she ran away from home for part of every winter to visit Primrose, who was practicing law in Southern California. There is more than one old photo of Rosie tucked in a Ziploc bag and hidden someplace where a man’s wife or girlfriend won’t think to look. None of the blurry photos do her justice, but any libation is welcome in thirsty times.

Complaining about Rose Thorn’s foolishness still makes the local men and women feel cheerful, and complain they do. Recalling Rose Thorn smiling and blinking in sunlight with a beer in one hand and a Pall Mall coffin nail in the other, not bothering to swat away mosquitoes or ground bees, inspires folks to plant their gardens, to kiss their misbehaving children, and even to make love. The truth is, Rose Thorn is right here in unincorporated Whiteheart now, in the flesh, though she no longer lives on the island. She stays out of the public eye these days, and in cold weather she exists in something like the languid state of the overwintering massasauga rattlesnakes, a brumation, in which a creature still drinks to sustain itself and bites if threatened. If Rose Thorn needs something from a neighbor, it will be her daughter who comes asking for it.

In spring, the local men, before stopping in at the gun club at the other end of Lovers Road, drive past the island, sometimes idling and looking down the bank to check if the new gate leading to the island bridge is still locked. (Titus Clay, the closest neighbor, installed the gate for added security, though the more effective security is the fact that the planks in one ten-foot span of the bridge over the quickmuck have been removed.) A combination of superstition and guilt and respect and fear keeps people from trying to get across, even if it doesn’t prevent men from occasionally shooting at rattlesnakes from the edge of Lovers Road.

Sometimes at two a.m., when a group of working men get kicked out of the Muck Rattler by the bachelor barkeep, Smiley Smith, they are drawn to the island, especially if there’s a full moon or a remarkable crescent hanging over the mound of land like a hunting horn, or if an auspicious warm wind is blowing from the southeast. Starved for an old mystery, they head down the road to the spot where Hermine used to sit with the afflicted. They rest their cans of beer on the Boneset Table—its six legs now made of iron pipes driven deep into the earth—beneath which the little Babby Basket still hangs, lined with a fresh blanket. Where Herself once provided a rich selection of herbs and cures and medicinal eggs, something to heal wounds and ills even in bitterest winter, now there are only a few odd vegetables or berries or bark, left there by who knows whom.

Herself used to fix the rotten feet and sluggish guts of Whiteheart, and for every baby born here (or babby, as she said), she left on this table a swallow of healing donkey milk, which was said to make smarter, better-behaved children. In addition, it is said the donkey milk entered the blood to work as a prophylactic antivenom, reducing the reaction to rattlesnake bites. The milk was a way for Herself to touch every babby at least once. Though Titus Clay swears the old woman is still alive, she has not lifted a finger to help anybody for years, has not even attended a funeral to burn cedar and herbs for cleansing and for remembering the way she always used to do. Everybody knows Titus, now owner and operator of Whiteheart Farms, the acres that spread out at the end of Lovers Road, once the largest celery farm in the world, has an interest in the family that goes way beyond procuring a medicine for his disease, what Hermine Zook has always called thinblood.

Article continues below

Rose Cottage used to glow with the light of its inhabitants but now is dark at night and often shrouded in fog, which cloaks it from view. You can hear a frog ga-gunging or a great horned owl hooting or occasionally a goatsucker whippoorwilling. Such old, quiet sounds after hours make the men feel not only their aches and pains and patches of raw skin but also a restless worry that without Herself, the future could mean a worsening of their symptoms, along with the deterioration of the natural world that nourishes them. The cool, rich scent of swamp flowers and rot can bring to men’s minds a queer longing to be touched and listened to, and since reaching out to one another is out of the question, a man will take a swig of something from his pocket. Somebody might tell a story of Wild Will, who they say stood seven feet tall and had arms like John Henry who beat the steam drill, arms scarred by barbed wire and animal bites and a tattoo on each arm, on the left the name Hermine with snakes wrapping around the letters. Wild Will was known to tell ghost stories that would shoot chills through your vertebrae and spawn a fear in you that any mysterious figure you saw in the swamp might be a water demon or a soul stealer. Though people don’t recall those tales precisely, they still feel fear at any light or sound out there in the Waters whose source they can’t trace.

Nobody outside the family knows the crime that made Hermine banish her husband after fifteen years of marriage. Within the family, there is some acknowledgment that what happened was not technically a crime at all—since his stepdaughter Prim was seventeen, above the age of consent, and she said it wasn’t rape. Herself sending Wild Will away saved his reputation and added to his mystique by allowing him to simply disappear while still a vital and handsome man. Even if he had gone so far as to confess, many men might have made excuses for him, might have hearkened back to the Bible and refused to condemn Lot for what they saw as the crimes of his daughters.

Standing near the Boneset Table in the dark on any given Saturday night, a few men not home with their wives remember when there was life and laughter here, and sometimes they just need to express their confusion or sorrow or rage. One man pulls the revolver from his belt holster and shoots from the hip at the old green cottage, whose windows have already been shattered and covered with plywood. In response, another man takes out his 1911 target pistol from a shoulder harness and shoots a few rounds through the fog to conduct the night orchestra, establishing authority over the buzzing, whistling, murmuring creatures, who go abruptly silent. A man slides his father’s twelve-gauge shotgun from the rack in the cab of his truck, aims, and fires at a remaining section of the bridge, which is already sinking on its oil barrels. However, after a few volleys, the men, who have to go to work or church in the morning, feel sick to their stomachs and decide to stop wasting ammunition on the carcass of a creature that, for all intents and purposes, appears to already be dead.


From The Waters by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2024 by Bonnie Jo Campbell.

Article continues below

More Story
Maja Thomas on the Future of the Book Write-minded: Weekly Inspiration for Writers is currently in its fourth year. We are a weekly podcast for writers craving...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.