Authors: Mary Alice Monroe
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Mary Alice Kruesi
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“Holding Each Other Up” by Mark Nepo, by permission of the author.
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This book is dedicated to
my mother, Elayne Cryns,
my grandmother, Alice Monogue,
my friend, Carol Martino,
and to all our loved ones
who have lost the battle
with breast cancer.
And to all the valiant survivors.
Each book is a journey during which I meet so many helpful, inspiring people. For this novel, especially, I have been humbled by the willingness of the following people to step forward to share their knowledge, offer much-needed information, support my work, and help me in any way they could.
First, I feel so fortunate to have my editor, Lauren McKenna. We worked shoulder to shoulder with enthusiasm and respect, and it was a delight to see our ideas come alive. I look forward to many more books together. Thank you to Louise Burke for all your input and support. Many people at Simon & Schuster worked hard to produce and promote this book, and your work was invaluable. Thanks to all.
My literary agents, Kimberly Whalen and Robert Gottlieb, deserve stars beside their names for advice and support that is much appreciated. Thanks, also, to my audio agent, Alanna Ramirez, and my foreign rights agent, Lara Allen at Trident Media Group. You’re a great team.
For ideas that sent my mind soaring and my fingers tapping, I send thanks to my sister, Marguerite Martino. Here’s to the Dream Machine! And to my friend Martha Keenan—the lowcountry awaits your next visit.
I had a marvelous experience recording the audio book with Brilliance Audio, and hugs and thanks to Eileen and Bob Hutton, Elizabeth Pearsons, and Sandy Burr.
The world of fly-fishing is filled with wise and generous people eager to share their knowledge, insights, and experience. In particular I want to thank Starr Nolan of Brookside Guides, Asheville, North Carolina, for not only being my favorite teacher and guide, but for being the inspiring and dedicated leader of the North Carolina chapter of Casting for Recovery. I am indebted to Starr for reading my manuscript and making corrections, thus saving this novice from embarrassing errors like calling a fly rod a pole.
Thank you to Dana Rikimaru for her book,
Fly Fishing: A Woman’s Guide.
It is, indeed, everything you need to know to get started—and keep going—and was very helpful to me in writing the chapter headings. Thanks for your work with CFR, too.
Casting for Recovery is a national, non-profit program for women who have or have had breast cancer. The weekend retreats provide free counseling, educational services, and the sport of fly-fishing to promote mental and physical healing. I met many glorious, strong survivors and thank them for their time and courage. I especially want to thank the guides who gave so tirelessly and inspired me: Charity Rutter (and her fabulous book
Rise Rings & Rhododendron
), Caroline Hassell, Linda Michael, Trish Dumaine, and Mary K. Jenkins. Thanks to Caroline Rhodes and Sarah Manucy at the Charleston Angler, and my fellow “Reel Women,” Catherine Rhea, Dawn Johnson, Sheila and Hadley Northen, Judy Boehm, Paula Skinner, Martha Dean Miller, and Susan Smythe. A special wave to my first fly-fishing teacher and dock pals, Clay and Martha Cable.
I am indebted to the many women who came forward to talk about their experiences with breast cancer. I continue to be impressed by their strength, courage, and honesty. A special thank-you to my dear friends Julie Beard, Brucie Harry, Mary Pringle, Terri Sword, and to Rosalind L. Connor and Ann Caldwell.
I appreciated more than I can say the support (and baked goods) from M. Fitzgerald, Lynn Noyes, James and Patti Frierson, and all the Kruesi, Brock, Frierson, and Killebrew family in wonderful Chattanooga. Thank you, Leah Greenberg, for readings with a view! The town of Watkins Mill and all the characters in this novel are strictly fiction. However, I did use the names of Becky, Skipper, and Katherine Shaffer and Charlie Aiken in this book with their permission. My writer friends, James Cryns, Patti Callahan Henry, Marjory Wentworth, Ciji Ware, Lindy Carter, and Sue Monk Kidd talked the story through with me and helped create magic in my mind. Thank you all so much!
A special farewell to beloved author Robert Jordan (James Rigney). His inspiration lives on through his words.
A nod to the incomparable Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby (“Fly Rod’s Notebook”), and to the many women in the history of fly-fishing who were an inspiration for the development of my character Kate Watkins, and who have shown the world that fly-fishing is a sport for women.
Many people work hard to introduce my books to new readers and I thank you all. For countless kindnesses over the years, thanks to: Patti Morrison, Larry Morey, and Emily Morrison at Barnes & Noble, Mt. Pleasant; Jennifer McCurry at Waldenbooks, Charleston; Tom and Vicki Warner at Litchfield Books; Cynthia Grabenbauer at Vero Beach Books; Christine Stanley, Lisa Estes, and Will Balk at Bay Street Trading Co.; Kim Stokes at Barnes & Noble, Hilton Head; Karen Carter at Edisto Books; Linda and Nat Malcolm at Indigo Books; and Victor Karcher at American Merchandising Service. And to Judy Watts, Cathy Blanco at the Book Exchange, Bill Thompson and all at Charleston’s
Post and Courier,
Vicki Boyd at
Claudia Brinson at
Jason Zwicker, Buzzy Porter, and Terri Ehlinger. A special thanks to Jason Martino and the gang at ePage City in Chicago for the fabulous website that helps keep me connected to my readers.
As always, I conclude with those who come first in my life—my love and thanks to Markus, Claire, John, Margaretta, and Zack for more than I can say here.
HOLDING EACH OTHER UP
Let’s be honest
which doesn’t mean
being harsh, but gentle.
Let’s be clear
which doesn’t mean
being dispassionate, but
holding each other up
in the face of what is true.
Let’s be enduring
which doesn’t mean
being important or famous,
but staying useful like a wheel
worn by rain in the same place
after years of carrying
each other’s burdens.
Let’s be in awe
which doesn’t mean
anything but the courage
to gape like fish at the surface
breaking around our mouths
as we meet the air.
The charm of fly-fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive, but attainable—a perpetual series of occasions for hope.
he river was spawned high in the Appalachian Mountains formed of sedimentary rock and ancient ocean floor. Fed by rain and melted snow, rivulets of cold, clear water gush over boulders and between rocky ridges to lace the mountainsides. Thousands of miles of freestone streams run unchecked, cascading down to form the mighty rivers.
Mia Landan followed the river as it wound in a serpentine manner, deeper into the woods. To her right, the sienna-hued wall of rock was dotted with patches of bright green moss. To her left, the river raced on, rushing forward in a confident current. She reached over the passenger seat of her car to clutch a wrinkled sheet of paper from under a torn road map. Scribbled across the page of directions she read,
Follow the river.
“I am not lost,” she said aloud, though she doubted her words. She was following the pebbles in the river like Hansel and Gretel, believing that they would lead her through the dark forest to a safe haven. Except Mia Landan no longer believed in fairy tales.
Thunder rolled overhead, threatening rain. Back home in Charleston, South Carolina, the spring rain had already given way to scorching heat and humidity. Here in the North Carolina mountains, however, the air was still cool and the forests aflame with wildflowers. Around each bend in the road she encountered a cluster of rhododendrons blooming scarlet or white. A little farther on, the paved road ended to become a rutted bed of dirt and gravel, as worn and filled with holes as a pauper’s coat.
A few fat drops of rain splattered against the windshield, turning the dust to long streaks of mud. She turned on the windshield wipers and her heartbeat matched the metronome click. She leaned far over the wheel, clutching it tight, peering through the sudden deluge at the sliver of road ahead. Where was the cabin? she worried as she peered through the rain and fog. Could it be this far off the beaten track? Just when she thought she should turn around and head back, the river tumbled over a ridge of rocks to a large pool. Beside it on a high bank, nestled between a pair of towering hemlocks, sat a rustic log cabin.
Mia released a ragged sigh, slumped her shoulders, and loosened her grip on the wheel. She had found it. It had been a long, circuitous drive with directions scribbled in haste. But she’d made it. Her wheels hit soft grass and mud as she parked as close to the cabin as she could.
Turning off the engine, she was immediately immersed in a deep mountain silence. The miles still raced in her veins. Her clothes clung and the car seat was littered with empty water bottles and candy wrappers. The stale air reminded her of hospital rooms. She lowered the window enough to let the fresh air awaken her after the long journey. The rain sprinkled in and she lifted her face to it, tasting its cool sweetness.
Mia looked again to the cabin. It lurked, isolated and foreboding, under the canopy of the trees and mist. The woods seemed to close in around her. She felt a shiver of loneliness. But hadn’t she wanted a faraway, secluded place? A sanctuary? Rolling up the window she cast a worried glance at the clock on the dashboard. It was half past six. Belle had told her she would pick up supplies and meet her at the cabin no later than seven. There was nowhere to go. The cabin was locked and the rain was coming down in sheets. She was trapped in this car, in the wilderness, to wait as the night closed in around her. Relentless rain coursed tracks down her foggy window, mirroring the tears flowing down her cheeks. Mia brought her hands to her face and wondered how she got to this place.
It had all begun with fly-fishing. She’d never had any interest in the sport. She was a public relations director for the Spoleto arts festival in Charleston. Though she lived by the ocean and mountains, she didn’t have any connection to either. Her idea of a good time was drinks and dinner at a restaurant with friends. If she went on a boat, it was docked for a party. A trip to the mountains meant a few days at a ski lodge. Nonetheless, her sister, Madeline, had signed her up for a three-day fly-fishing retreat designed especially for breast cancer survivors. Casting for Recovery provided spiritual and physical therapy, and Madeline believed Mia needed both.
So that spring Mia had driven hours from her home in Charleston to the Casting for Recovery retreat in the foothills of North Carolina. She’d agreed to go only to keep Madeline from nagging. Some of the women at the retreat were still early in their treatments. Others were ten, twenty, or more years post-diagnosis. At thirty-eight years old, Mia was the youngest. She was reticent at first, but Belle would not allow her to remain aloof.
Belle Carson was their fly-fishing guide and the leader of the retreat. Belle was a tall, straight-talking, sensitive, and big-hearted woman who had chucked an academic career at the University of Virginia to move to Asheville, North Carolina, and open her own fly-fishing business. Belle gently coaxed Mia out of isolation into group discussions and taught her how to cast a dry fly. Mia was drawn into the group by force of the women’s brutal honesty and their wise understanding. It was an intense three days that felt like three weeks, so much had transpired. They laughed, they cried. They were sister survivors. By the end of the retreat she’d joined their feminine solidarity formed by a shared history.
But it was in the river that Mia felt the first glimmer of life since the shock of her diagnosis had left her heart as numb as the white scar on her chest. Belle Carson had taught her how to cast a thin line from a rod onto the shallow waters of the Davidson River. To her amazement, she found hope rising in thin wisps of speckled silver. She might not have believed in fairy tales, but she believed in that spark of life she felt at the other end of the line.
Eager to share her new excitement with her husband, she’d hugged the women farewell and drove back a day early to Charleston. Closing her eyes, Mia saw again the lurid image of her husband and that unknown woman lying on
marriage bed. She’d stumbled down the stairs, climbed back into her car, and started to drive, her eyes blind and her mind numb.
Mia Landan of two years ago would have stood her ground and confronted them. Then, she was confident in her career, her beauty, her self.
Mia would not have run to the mountains with her tail between her legs. But two years ago Mia had not yet found the lump in her breast.
The wheels had hummed beneath her on the highway. The green road signs passed in a blur as she put miles between herself and her husband’s infidelity. She’d driven for forty-five minutes before she realized she didn’t know where she was. When at last she focused on the signs she saw she was on Interstate 26. Her instincts were acting as her compass, guiding her north, back to the mountains where she’d felt safe.
By the time she’d returned to the retreat, the sun had lowered far to the west and the placid water of the lake had darkened to a deep purple. A few dimples disturbed the glassiness.
, she’d learned they were called, were created by trout when they rose to the surface to sip an insect. She drove past the wall of tall firs and hemlocks that surrounded the lake to the row of cottages that she’d shared with the eighteen other women at the retreat. Now they all stood empty and quiet. One by one, each woman had returned to a husband, a family, a partner. For them, life had gone on post-cancer. At that moment, Mia saw with clarity that she was not a survivor.
She couldn’t go back to Charleston. She could not start the engine and drive. She had nothing and no one waiting for her. She’d brought her trembling hands to her face and began to sob.
Perhaps if she hadn’t felt such hope on the river, she could have maintained the hard shell of apathy that had sustained her for the year of treatment and recovery. But the spirit of the river, the rhythm of the cast, and the tenuous connection to life at the end of a thin line had broken through her shell. It had filled her with silvery light, lifted her up and made her feel whole again. To lose that now…
Belle Carson had been walking down the road and saw Mia crying the hoarse, ragged sobs of a desperate woman. She opened the car door.
“Mia? What are you doing here? Are you all right?”
Mia swung around, lifting her face. “I can’t go back,” she cried in a broken voice.
Belle leaned over, her long braid slipping over her shoulder, and asked more urgently, “What happened?”
“He’s left me. I have nowhere to go.”
Belle took Mia’s arm, then gently but firmly drew her from the car. “Come with me,” she said, putting her arm around Mia’s shoulders. She guided her inside the lodge which, mercifully, was deserted. Belle treated Mia like she would an injured animal, gently and with a calm voice, giving her time to settle until the panic faded from her eyes. She offered Mia coffee, then rummaged through the camp fridge to prepare a plate and set it before her. When Mia sat slump-shouldered and looked at the food with a dazed expression, Belle didn’t nag at her to eat it. She’d sat across from Mia and waited while the sun lowered and the geese honked by the lake, calling their young. When the grief trickled out, Belle handed her tissues, and later, when it gushed, she listened patiently before asking questions.
It was Belle’s dark brown eyes that Mia remembered more than anything she’d actually said. They were calm waters, like the lake, and in their depths she’d felt hope rising.
Then Belle offered Mia what she needed most—safe refuge.
“I have a place,” Belle told her. “A cabin not too far away. It’s not much. It’s been abandoned for years and I haven’t checked on it in months. But it’s yours, if you want to stay there.”
So Mia had returned to her car with Belle’s hastily delivered directions and found her way to this remote cabin. And here she was, still sitting in her car, waiting once more to be rescued.
Thirty minutes later the rain dissipated and from the distance Mia heard the sound of tires and the hum of an engine. She stepped out of the car to see an old green Blazer inscribed with the words
roll to a stop beside her.
“Belle!” she called out.
Belle Carson stepped out of the truck, wearing a green rain jacket with her company’s logo over the pocket. She was somewhere in her fifties but still as narrow in the hips as a girl. Her red hair fell down her back in a long braid under her forest green baseball cap.
“Hey,” she called. She bent to grab a large box from her truck and hurried up the muddy path to the porch with the same surefooted steps she’d taken in the rushing stream earlier that day. Once under the porch roof they shook the rain from their jackets. They stood eye to eye while Belle surveyed Mia’s soaked clothes dripping from her thin frame. Strands of reddish blond hair plastered across Mia’s forehead.
Belle’s lips twitched. “You look like a drowned rat.”
“I feel like it.”
“Let’s get you warm and settled,” Belle said as she handed Mia the large box. “See you found the cabin all right.” Belle pulled out a key affixed to a yellowed, water-stained paper tag that had the name
written in an old-fashioned script. “This here is the original. I’ll have to make another copy so take good care of it.”
Mia thought she had never heard a more beautiful sound than the click of that lock turning over. Then, taking a deep breath, she stepped inside the cabin. Instantly she was assailed by the scents of wood smoke and mildew. She wrinkled her nose. Her hand fumbled against the wall, groping for a light switch and praying some animal didn’t dart at her from the dark. “Thank God,” she whispered when she heard a click and yellow light poured from a hanging fixture that looked like a converted kerosene lamp.
She laughed out loud. All that was missing was a bunch of old men and their fishing gear. She could almost smell the tobacco. It was a compact space with one main room dominated by a fireplace made of river rocks. The dark wood walls were bare. She imagined this was where fish stories were shared on cool nights as unshaven men smoked pipes and clustered around the fire in rocking chairs.
In the pale light, the room appeared ghostly with sheets covering heavy pieces of furniture and threadbare curtains loosely draped around paned windows. Motes of dust rose in the stirred air as her boots left muddy prints across the floor. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was disturbing the peace of the ancient anglers that still hovered here. When the door clicked shut behind her she startled in the tomblike room.
“Well, let’s take a look,” Belle said, grabbing the box from Mia and setting it down on the table across the room. She turned slowly, lips pursed as her gaze swept around. When she faced Mia again she set her hands on her hips and shrugged. “Could be worse.” After cracking a wry grin she shook her head. “But not much. I told you it hadn’t been used in years.”
“It’s not that bad,” Mia replied, but her voice lacked conviction. “Mostly it’s just dirty.”
“It’s filthy. A haven for spiders and mice, looks like to me. I’d understand if you changed your mind. It’s too late to head back to Charleston but you can stay at my place tonight.”
“Really, it’s OK.”
Belle looked at Mia with the same intensity as when studying the waters. “You ever spend time up in the mountains? Alone?”
Mia shook her head no.
Belle rubbed her jaw, struggling with her reply. “Let me show you around. You haven’t even seen the whole place yet. It’s pretty rugged. There’s no central heat, not to mention air conditioning.” She turned and walked to the small kitchen. “This is an add-on to the original cabin. At least they made the ceilings a little higher,” she said, craning her neck to look at the wood trusses and beams. “I don’t imagine those old codgers gave much mind to cooking back when this place was built. It was updated in the nineteen thirties, I figure. Electricity was added, gas, some more modern appliances. All relative, keep in mind. Look at this old stove, will you?” she said, walking to an antique cast-iron and enamel stove. “This has to be an original.”