Sunday Stories: “Tender Waters”


Tender Waters
by Devin Kelly

All summer long we went skipping stones, my sister and I. And we held hands, down through the trees that we called the gatekeepers of the river. And we kept our bodies close and those two hands hidden as if they were watching. When winter came, it was cotton on cotton, no more skin on skin, the trees covered in snow, blind and white like the skin of a child, our arms swinging out in the open. We kept our coats heavy with rocks, the smooth ones, ones we had run our fingers over to make sure the flatness was flat enough and the curves were curved right. In the winter we called it skating, not skipping, flicking those things low and spinning to see how far they could hiss along the ice, always trying to get them out of sight.

You throw like a girl, my sister said to me. And I did.

I throw like a man, she said, her hair in her eyes. We were young then, and she did.

Watch me, she said.

It was that in-between between summer and fall, then. And I watched her. In that moment before the toss, she looked like she was speaking to the water, calming it. How it laid itself flat and still for her. Like you could walk upon it. Like you could walk upon it and it would be solid. And she crouched and kept her wrist below her elbow and all my young life I tried hard to slow down the moment of her flicking the stone, and I never could. It was a breath of wind and there it was, the rock having let go of all conception of gravity, falling, touching, rising, falling again, touching again, rising again, into some distance. Most of my rocks acted like rocks should. They sunk. Sometimes they rose and those times we both called miracles and those times we both laughed. I could have watched my sister all those days. I could have sat behind her and fiddled with the long stems of plants that rose tall from the river mud. Now I am older and I have not seen my sister in twenty long years and if prayer is something harder to come by in this age, then I know it must be only because those days we spent past the gatekeepers were all little prayers and that patch of mud and grass and stone where we stood and crouched and sat and knelt was our little church and we spent too much time in that one place for there not to be a god, if there is one, and if he answers the things we were always too young to call our pleas, our little prayers.


That in-between of time between the seasons was when Lily Perkins died of spinal meningitis. We were all twelve, almost thirteen, and we did not know how to pronounce the name of the thing that killed her. I guess we thought then that death was such a distant thing, it could not have a familiar name. But it killed Lily, and I knew Lily. In the eighth grade, she gave me my first cigarette and told me a story about her father. The cigarette tasted how my mother’s coffee smelled. Lily’s father worked in a lumberyard and lost his ring finger on account of an accident with a table saw. He was married then, just married, and too caught up in all the blood, his blood, pouring from where his finger used to be to see how both his finger and his ring were lost in a pile of wood and dust that were sent off to be chipped into smaller bits of wood and smaller bits of dust, if there are such things.


I wrote the first and only poem of my life the day her father died, three years later. I have it with me now, tucked somewhere inside the old and crusted pages of a dictionary. I have not pulled it out and never will. But I was ten miles from town, holding my first rifle and aiming it shaking and so far from steady at a deer soft-plodding through the trees. And a winged thing fell steep from sky, dead, and landed with some kind of pillow sound in the river as it curved into parts unseen. Then it floated away. When I got home, I heard Lily’s father had died. He was driving. His heart tore lose from his body and shocked him with such force into the back of his seat that it broke before he teetered forward and leaned with all his weight against the wheel as the car crashed into the trunk of a tree. They said it happened close to where I was that day. They said the horn sounded long and loud for over an hour before they found him, his forehead dripping red with blood and the front seat squeaking as it tried to decided whether to rest reclined or move back upward again.

I do not know what beauty is, or how it comes before you look and see it is there. But I wonder now, and always have, what kind of split-second called itself forth in the moment between when Lily’s father knew he was going to die and when he finally did. Now, older, I think he must have thought how young he still was, and strong, to break a chair in two. Some mornings, rising early to watch the light bend through the just-lit trees, I place myself in the seat next to him, and I watch him die, wordless and unafraid. He speaks to me, in that second before crashing, in that second of heart-burst. He says do you see it. Younger, I would have asked what. Some great mystery. But now I say yes. Some shining beauty. And I place a hand on his back as the car we are in careens full-speed off the road and into the tree, and we are both unaffected by its crashing. We are young and strong and so full of something we no longer see what is missing, or how it left us, and why.


The house in which Lily lived sat across the river from where my sister and I skipped our stones. Sometimes we could see her and her father playing hide-and-seek along their side of the water. Sometimes, bent behind a larger rock or the trunk of a tree, she would catch our gaze and wave to us and put a finger to her lips as if we had the voices to carry her location back across the water and into her father’s ears. My sister would always frown when these moments presented themselves. She hated Lily, for girl reasons that only a girl would understand. I never did. I loved Lily. I loved her fierce and hard. I tried to skip my stones into her backyard. Once I took a marker to one and painted a little heart and tried to hover it across the water, but it sunk like my stones always did and like all stones always will. There is a word for what I feel now about Lily and about this memory, and it is sorrow. It sinks heavy in my chest as I sit to call this knowing into her.


We smoked a cigarette a day for a hundred days straight the year that Lily died. We sat on the bench that was dugout on the field that was our town’s field. She liked to talk and I liked to listen. She loved birds.

Did you hear the one about the crow and the telephone pole, she said.

No, I said.

Well, she said, all smiling, he wanted to make a long distance caw.

And that was the first time I choked on the smoke of my cigarette. I remember sometimes I got that feeling where I wanted to put my hand on the pale white mountaintop of her kneecap and where I felt that she wanted it, too. But there was never the asking and never the placing. But I swear now it could have been something, if there was more time.

Why do hummingbirds hum, she said.

I don’t know, I said.

Because they don’t know the words to the song, silly.

This was all before I knew about her mother. I asked her one day why I never saw a woman who could have been her mother running around their backyard.

She left, she said.

Why, I said.

She said my daddy played too many cards and didn’t care about the things that really mattered. Like money and jobs. She said he was good and decent but not good and decent enough. That’s what she said, she said.

We were not yet thirteen and we had no money and we had no jobs. After school we smoked our cigarettes and then went home to do our schoolwork and left it sitting on the tables we sat beside before I went by the river and she ran around outside. A week after, she got sick and I did not see her and our streak of cigarettes came to an end. I thought she would get better. I thought it was nothing, but it was something. I thought she would get better but she never did, and then she died.

The first day of snow after Lily’s leaving, my sister and I walked from our house down to the river. But something was different. I reached for her hand but she kept it tucked into the pocket of her coat.

I can’t hold your hand no more, she said.

Why, I said.

Because I’m in love with a boy at school, and I can only hold one hand and it is his.

I knew then that not all things were supposed to last.

My sister crouched low by the river that was cold but not yet cold enough to freeze. And she held a stone in her gloved hand and flicked it long and low across the water and we stood there to watch it disappear and then she turned and walked back to the house. All that afternoon until dark I practiced my skipping until the rocks were gone and my hands were numb. And there was no one to watch across the water. When I was done and finished, I saw a man that must have been Lily’s father walking amongst the trees beside her house, as if he was looking for something. He was walking slow, I think tiptoeing. I can see him now, peeking around the corners of the larger rocks, trying to find a thing that was not there any longer.


I sit now, on the porch of this house. And my cigar canoes and I pull angled from it as if I am drawing the sap from a bent maple. And there is another river stretching into outer dark, and it sounds. After Lily died, I stood too long by that other older running water, watching the trees lose all their detail until they became darker than shadows. I used to think they took up more space at night. Some kind of imagined space. The kind, brave and still a child, I thought of walking through the way each night a dream moves through you while you sleep all unknowing.

A bird calls, and it is answered, and the first calls again, but there is no reply. I know now that sorrow and regret have a sound, and it is loud. It can make a sparrow quell its singing. And all the trees that creak in winter. They are heavy with these losses. I do not know anymore what I am talking about. I once broke a bottle over my first wife’s head. For no reason other than the need. I still remember how the handle felt, upturned in my hand. Smooth and solid and so ripe for the breaking. This is love, I thought then, kneeling over her to kiss the blood from her still soft cheek. Not the beating, but the breaking. She had done nothing wrong but make me sad. She had not even said a word. She had only looked up from across the table the way a child looks across a distance, into nothing. Not knowing how far it goes and what hurt is there still invisible on that long horizon. And the bottle was empty and I was drunk.

Tonight I will wait for my wife to fall asleep before moving into bed with her. I want her chest soft-rising and falling. I want to lay next to her stillness. I want to disappear wholly into her, as a stone does into water after its skipping.


At Lily’s funeral, her father kept excusing himself silent and without notice into the trees among the headstones to smoke a cigarette and look the other way. After the funeral, I walked toward him.

Can I have a cigarette, I said. He looked down at me. There was a part in my hair and my mother before pushing me gentle and quiet out the door took two fingers to her tongue and patted down a cowlick that had risen from the waves.

You just a boy, he said.

I did not say anything. Only looked up and down and up again. He sighed. He lit my cigarette and we stood and looked an odd pair. He held his cigarette with his left hand in that empty space between his pinky and middle finger. I tried to do the same, curling my ring finger back toward the place of its making, but I kept dropping it. He laughed once and not again.

Shit, he said. Who are all these kids.

They had brought us there to the cemetery in a school bus. All of us four feet tall and shuffling and stuffing hands in pockets to play with lint.

Friends, I said. I lied.

We stood silent for a time, listening to the sound of the wind busy-bustling the branches of the sycamore above us. Though I only know it was me doing the listening, and listening to that. I know now that he may have been listening to something else, some other sound, loud but still quiet. How a memory comes at you from a distance, without your knowing or wanting it to. Appearing in that private space where all your thinking is done, not knocking, no warning, only to open the doors you thought you locked before leaving for other rooms.

I was her friend, I said. He did not say anything. Maybe nodded. Maybe not.

My sister hated her, I said. He laughed, and, it seemed, woke from something.

You know why, he said.

No, I said. I stomped my feet into the grass. I shrugged. Girl reasons, I said.

A great mystery, he said.

I smiled. I looked up at him and wanted him to smile back, but he did not. I thought of Lily and how, in the moment after our laughing, she would look out and away and all the way past me. Into some quilted ribbon of trees. As if trying to find something. And she would stare and I soon stopped staring with her, knowing she would not care if I sat gentle and plain and watched her eyes commit their gaze. She knew the sounds of things, would speak the names of the singers into the air. The gold-breasted finch. The common waxbill. She only went by my side of the river once, and only breathed, only watched me skip stones and fail and turn, embarrassed and pink-cheeked, in the aftermath of my trying. I was old enough to know I wanted to kiss her, but still young enough to not know how. And I never did.

I do not even know the name of the thing that killed her, her father said, or how to say it if I did.

I turned the word meningitis around in my head without speaking. I had looked it up in a dictionary. An invasion of bacteria. A source that must be identified before treatment. A medical emergency. And all these things surrounding. All swaying in a breeze that whispered through some leaves.

Meningitis, I said, in a whisper.

What, he said.

Nothing, I said. My sister’s got a boyfriend, I said.

I wanted him to say something. I wanted him to say I’ll keep you company. I wanted to ask him to come skip stones with me, or teach me how to throw a rock flat and spinning into some distance. But he only looked down at me and gave some sort of half-nod and flicked his cigarette atop the plot of a grave and walked away.


Ten years later, my sister married. The same boy from ten years before. I arrived late and stood in the back of the church wondering if I had missed the part where the preacher asks if someone objects to this certain union. He never asked, and I knew I would not have raised a hand. She was taller then, and pretty. And the boy was older and his hair curled in a pirouette atop his brow. I thought of how graceful they must have been in bed. Bodies that weren’t bodies. Hands that weren’t hands. Then, I preferred the word rut to fuck. I worked in a sawmill, and all day and on through the night, my hands felt like tools. Pliers gripping the skin of a woman’s bust. Her above me on a bed coated always in a layer of sawdust that turned our bodies raw and red by morning.

Each day upon waking I longed for stiller waters. I grew tall, too, and built, and strong, but I never learned how to grip a stone. How to twist it and curl it and make it fly with the grace of a sister who is, in a dreamlike memory, forever young.

The last day by that river before she met the boy who became the man she would later marry, my sister skipped a stone until it disappeared. We watched it together. Watched it fall and rise and fall again, only to rise up and move as if dangling from some unseen string into a greater distance. We never saw it sink. It moved too far from the confines of our vision.

Do you think it made it, she said.

Made it where?

To the other side.

I had no answer. I loved her, then. I loved how she was more of me than I ever was, or ever could be. Brushing her hair from her eyes as she waited for my response.

Yes, I said. I saw it, I said.

And who was she to know I didn’t?

I saw it hop up onto that other shore, I said.

And she smiled. And laughed. And kicked the dirt we stood upon. And jumped a bit and landed and jumped again. And hugged me. And kissed me on the cheek. And I stood there and watched her skipping upon our shore, not knowing then that all I could have wanted was a moment longer in that moment.

We did it, she said.


Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He is a co-host of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in Manhattan. His collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence, is forthcoming from Anchor & Plume Press. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Drunken Boat, Gigantic Sequins, Armchair/Shotgun, Post Road, The Millions, and more, and his essay “Love Innings” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He works a college advisor for high schoolers in Queens, teaches English at Bronx Community College, and lives in Harlem. You can find him on twitter @themoneyiowe.

Image source via Creative Commons.

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