Cover image for Water marked : a novel
Water marked : a novel
Lee, Helen Elaine.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Scribner : Simon & Schuster [distributor], [1999]

Physical Description:
319 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Library
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



From the talented author of "The Serpent's Gift" comes a richly textured novel about two estranged African-American sisters who reunite in a effort to understand their father.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

FYI: Lee won a BCALA First Novel Award for The Serpent's Gift. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Lee (creative writing, MIT; The Serpent's Gift, LJ 3/1/94) presents a well-intentioned but tedious novel that rambles on interminably. African American sisters Delta and Sunday Owens have lived in the shadow of their father Mercury's supposed suicide for 40 years. Then a sympathy card from a stranger arrives with their mother's gold locket and a note that Mercury has died. Where was he? Before the reader finally gets answers, there's endless narrative delving into the lives of the sisters and their Salt County, IL, friends and relatives: the colorful Bread Ladies; hairdresser Dinah (her salon is called A Joyful Process); Felix Harris, the river-diver-cum-tombstone-carver; all the sisters' men, who (like Mercury) never stayed around long; and the hovering ghosts of their sad mother, Dolora, and grandmother, Nana J. The metaphors of water, drowning, and the river, whose receding floods mark people as well as walls, are woven in and out of the text. Recommended only for larger collections of African American literary fiction. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/99.]ÄJo Manning, Univ. of Miami, Coral Gables, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One There had been no words for naming when she was born. She was "Girl Owens" on the stamped paper that certified her birth, and at home, she had just been "Sister," that was all. When asked to decide, at five, what she would be called, she had chosen "Sunday," time of voices, lifted in praise. She climbed aboard the morning train with a small suitcase and the note which had summoned her home. "Three days I'll stay," she mumbled as the train pulled away, "three days." For the first time in five years, Sunday Owens was bound for the small, damp town that had formed her, determined to recover the parts of her story she had tried to refuse. She had set off for Chicago half her life before, trying to take with her only what had been resolved and chosen, deciding to leave Girl Owens and Sister behind. Squinting through the train window's scratches and smudges, she looked for the landmarks that would tell her she was drawing close to home. After wiping the glass with her scarf, she recognized a wall of interlocking fieldstones which ran along the tracks and then digressed to mark as separate two neighboring farms. Alone in a vast field, harvested of corn and soybeans, stood the tiny, clapboard building whose sign boasted "Smallest Church in the Whole Midwest." The naked field became a reservoir, and then a parking lot, and in the distance Sunday saw the aged windmill, its four arms still in motion like a resolute and weary Hindu god. The train crossed the landscape as if pushing through memory, flashing the past to Sunday's left and to her right. It was the territory between home and home, witnessed from her many standpoints of departure and return. At the end-point of her train ride waited Delta, last of her blood kin, the sister who was five years older and had never left home. And with her were the dead, their treasures and their crimes half-buried, their secret lives untold. All that Sunday had forsaken lay behind and before her, and she was sure of only a few things. She realized that she had to go back and somehow discover the father whose absence had defined her life. And she knew that in order to find him, she would have to be a sister first. Folding and refolding her Café Car napkin until the creases broke its smooth paper weave, Sunday looked out at a trail of flimsy new buildings, identical in their design and their early decay, and wondered if the land remembered the trees and crops that had given way to asphalt and brick. Home to discount shopping centers and dwellings with low-ceilinged rooms, did the soil mourn its former life? As the train pulled away from the platform of the final stop before home, the graffitied embankment of boulders slid past her window, announcing, "Tyrone was here," "Rita Loves Wayne." "Three days," Sunday repeated to herself as she opened her bag and found Delta's note, staring at the postmark for "LYNCHBURG, IL." The black residents of the town had refused to call it by that name, opting instead for the county title, Sault, assigned for the leaping rapids of its river. Even then, they spelled and called it "Salt," despite the dictionary's pronunciation, "Soo." When the note had arrived, two months before, Reed had brought it to the kitchen that was also her painting studio. He had tried to assess the stage of her work before entering the room, and she looked to be finished working, in the midst of cleaning up. "There's word from your sister," he had said, and she had reached for it without cleaning her fingers, smearing the envelope with paint. Instead of the usual Hallmark card, she had found a sheet of white paper, folded once and unsigned. She had stared at Delta's words until they ran together, and then she had handed it to Reed and stumbled to the living room couch as her sister's words filled her chest, ballooning out and contracting as if the rounded letters themselves were breathing. Pressing her face into the couch cushions, she tried to stop it, to sort it, to place herself within the spin. Reed found, as he held the note, that the looped script was overlaid with Sunday's thumbprints, left in paint. Through a screen of smudges and tiny, cobalt cyclones, he read its message: "He's been alive. He died last week." Awaiting Sunday's arrival, Delta Owens stepped out onto the front porch. She waved at Exie Claybourne, who was on the ground with her flowers, pulling up the fence of frail, white wire humps that lined the beds in summer, covering freshly entombed bulbs with mulch. Delta wished she could get down on her knees and invest in spring, but she just let the bulbs planted years and years ago keep surfacing. The April before, plenty of leaves had driven through and up, shifting the thawing soil with their green, determined length, but there had been only four or five blooms all season. Delta brushed the fallen autumn leaves from the top step and sat down, turning away from her neighbor, whose industry and joy in her planting seemed a reproach. Delta hoped she would be able to find the right way to talk to Sunday after so long. Since that night of grieving, five years before, when the friction that had gathered for decades erupted in accusations and insults, the only words exchanged had been written ones. Delta had tried to demonstrate a persistent bond, depending on the ornate script and polished rhyme of Hallmark cards to express what she had never been able to say. Each one she had signed "Always, Delta" before addressing the envelope carefully and mailing it off to Chicago. She had heard back irregularly, receiving wood-block prints or splashes of paint on wefts of heavy paper with ragged edges or on see-through skins. She had turned these creations round and round, looking for right side up with the help of the signatures. Each one she had saved. Though she hadn't known what, specifically, to make of any of them, she knew their appearance said something about the habit of love. Glancing at her watch, she thought how strange it was not to be at work. When Sunday called, she had decided to take some of the leave time she had accrued and never used. She imagined the train Sunday was riding as it closed the gap between Chicago and Salt County. Maybe she was sitting next to some stranger right then, sipping on a drink from the dining car, sharing her excitement and good memories of home. "Maybe not," Delta said aloud, imagining instead that Sunday had been as anxious as she was ever since her brief and awkward phone call. After all, it had taken her two months after getting the note to decide to come. Sunday had always been clear on how she felt about Salt County. "I'm in a little box," she had complained while growing up, trying to express to Delta how different she felt, how she came from Salt County, but would never be able to stay. And Delta, who early on had fought anyone who criticized her sister, had listened and comforted her, but hadn't really comprehended. Sunday was the one from whom she felt different. Delta pushed the night of conflict from her mind, hoping that this visit might help them leave behind their troubled history. Closing her eyes against the recollection of spilled whiskey and insults, she encountered, instead, the memory of those brown shoes, left side by side at the edge of the swift, churning river. "No," she said, "oh no," and rejecting that, too, she groped for the private language of chosen memory. She invoked the blue bowl, bringing it up, up through the past. She found it within her memory, resting on the counter. Traveling across the smooth, glazed furrows on the sides and then over the lip and down to the curve of the bottom, her hands remembered the iron-gray cracks that were like stray hairs escaped from Nana's tamed and coiled plait. She could hear the rhythm of her wooden spoon against it. Even, like a heartbeat. And the chorus of women working together, making bread. Delta cupped her hands, imagining the bowl, and it filled her open palms. She could see its azure, its hints of purple bleeding out from blue. She put it aside where she could reach it, and called up the next thing: the placket down the front of her mother's worn, yellow house-coat. For this she had to reach further back, and when it rose from recollection it smelled of milk-warm skin. The fabric's tiny flowers were faded almost to white. Anchored with bumps of thread, the pale buttons were streaked and flecked with reminders of their former lives as bone. Their chipped edges worn smooth from daily fingering, they made a steady line: a trail of buttons marking the way home, like fairy-tale bread crumbs through the woods. Once she had the bowl and the placket of buttons in the now, she searched amid the unrest of her life for her third thing, trying to picture the navy blue metal chalk box, its top open, rust spreading at the seams. As soon as she could see it, she retrieved the box from the outside window ledge where she had left it, when she was twelve years old, as the house slept. Raising it to her face, she smelled the rainwater she had collected in the secret envelope of night. If she tried, she could see, through the water, a leaf, new and yellow-green, that had found its way to the bottom. And she could see the other cherished things she had hidden: bits and pieces of colored glass and stone, and a clay fish, flecked with green and red, which she had made. Delta was lifting these things past silence, past the lovers' wildfire that had nearly consumed her two years before. Past a pair of scuffed, abandoned shoes. When she heard the kettle from the kitchen, Delta released her conjured things: the blue bowl, the button road, the rainwater with its sunken world of colored glass and fish. She returned them to their buried places, knowing she would need them again. As the train slowed, Sunday leaned toward the glass and saw the terrain through the faint reflection of her own tired and anxious face. Suddenly she could smell the burnt, sweet odor of the paper mill that sprawled across the edge of town, and as the train got closer, the past became present in all she saw. She could hear her grandmother's, Nana's, voice and she felt herself entering the greens and reds and browns of her own paintings, pulling aside her brush strokes as if they were curtains and stepping through. There were autumn trees on fire everywhere, and as the train approached the river, she moved beyond the surface of color and texture into the layers of the past, from which she had learned to speak her life with paint. After avoiding it as long as she was able, she had called Delta two days before boarding the train to say that she was coming home. As she slipped the note from the envelope, she focused on her unintentional signature of thumbprints, a veil of color over Delta's writing that had darkened and settled into the paper's grain, leaving "alive" the only word unmarked. Note in hand, Reed had followed her to the couch she had streaked with cobalt and russet and perched on the cushion's edge, in the bend of her waist. Sinking his fingers into her springy hair, he had massaged her scalp, smelling paint and linseed oil, wishing he knew what to say to the ardent and trying woman who moved in and out of reach. He had brought her a cloth and turpentine to clean her hands and waited several hours, offering tea and food, pillows and blankets, until she could speak about Delta's words. Reed hadn't had to wonder who the "He" in the note might be. Mercury Owens, ever-present in his absence, had managed to leave her again. "Whatever there is to find out, I don't want, I don't need to know," Sunday had said, remembering the unrest of her last trip home and the even more shameful silence that had followed. Delta, she thought angrily, master of passive influence, hadn't come right out and asked her to return, but had provided the single fact that had the power to draw her home. She had submerged the note at the bottom of a cardboard box filled with old letters and cards, and sealed it with packing tape. But it was the first thing she thought of on waking and it stayed with her, just below the surface of activity, throughout each day. "Where was he?" "Who was he?" haunted her until she was separate from everything, including art. Never before had she been unable to express herself with paint, for her work was where she had turned in times of crisis and danger. She had even used it as a refuge against lovers and friends. But her hands had fallen silent, and then, in spurts, she had been able to work, using every color but one. After two months of intermittent painting and exile from blue, Sunday had torn open the taped-up box in the middle of a sleepless night, finding Delta's note and two mementos, a coaster and a belt buckle, which she had taken with her from home eighteen years before. That night she had accepted the fact that she had to go back and recover Mercury Owens, no matter how much he had wanted to be lost. Returning the note to its envelope, Sunday looked out at Salt County and tried to picture what her sister was doing as she awaited her train. Her nervous hands would be busy with a cigarette, unless she, too, had struggled to quit. She would be reading the paper for local news, drinking coffee, checking her horoscope. Maybe she was playing the piano again. Sunday wondered how Delta had changed. She knew from the return addresses on her Hallmark cards that she still lived in the family house. But did she have a lover and a circle of friends? Did she still work at the tiny, two-room post office, and go to lunch across the street at Frank and Etta's every day? Did she look forty, and have the same bags beneath her eyes that Sunday had? Had her hourglass figure surrendered to gravity, or spread? The top of the mill came into view, its chimneys belching the smoke that settled over Salt County like a weight, and the train edged its way through trash-strewn tracks where discarded and rusted railroad cars had been put to rest, approaching the iron bridge. She watched from now and from before as the train left behind hollow storage buildings to cross the swift, ocher river that had carried Mercury away. And then it passed through the part of town in which she had grown up, where the people were dark and the comforts slim. As the aged stood waiting for late-running buses and young men gathered on corners to fool away time, compact frame houses huddled in the October chill. Exhausted buildings leaned. Sunday revisited Salt County as native and exile, woman and child. She saw it as Girl Owens and Sister had known it, and as Sunday, who was coming to claim her story as she had taken her name. Delta turned off the flame beneath the teakettle and busied herself with arranging a sunburst pattern of cookies on a china plate while she listened for the telephone. At the same time that she was anxious to see her sister, she wondered how they would shed their troubled past and manage to use words to reach, and not wound, each other. She kept returning to the night of Nana's funeral, when they had tried to drink away their grief. In the expansive post, funeral quiet, after the visitors had gone, they had uttered indelible things. Sunday had damned Salt County, and Delta had taken it to heart. "This place clutches you," Sunday had argued urgently, slamming her glass on the table so that the bourbon spilled over the sides and wet her hand. "It sleeps and shelters you, but safety's not the same as health." And Delta knew that just like the town, she was insular, settled and ordinary to most anyone's eyes. Yet she felt just like its yellow-brown river, fitful with secrets and undercurrents, churning, rolling, but bound by the place where it had cut its glacier path from rock and clay. Delta had responded by calling her "arrogant," a "misfit" who thought she was better than the folks she'd left behind. But it was Delta's recognition of her own rancor, as much as the substance of what they said, that had staggered and disgraced her. She hadn't even realized all the things for which she couldn't forgive Sunday, hadn't known her own smallness, until she found herself attacking her sister out loud. As Sunday got off the train and secured her bag to the luggage cart, she heard the coaster and the belt buckle clack against each other in her coat pocket and patted her other side to make sure she had the earrings she had bought for Delta as a gift. She jerked her cart over the places where expanding tree roots had buckled the sidewalk, remembering that Delta had asked her to call when she arrived, since that train was sometimes late. "Oh damn," she mumbled, feeling guilty for not calling...for leaving eighteen years before...for the things she had said and done the last time around. Arrogant...misfit...Delta had gone for her most vulnerable spot. She hadn't meant to condemn her sister; she had been trying to encourage greater reach. It had all started when Delta grilled her about why she had to leave so soon. "Just when the going gets tough," she had said, gulping at her glass of bourbon, "leaving is what you seem to do best." Sunday had sought to justify her departure, and offended Delta, instead. As so often seemed to happen, the words had come out wrong. And just before the heavy-bottomed whiskey glass had left Delta's hand, Sunday had cried, "What would you know about me or this place? You don't see because you can't see. You can't see me or my painting, or even yourself. You won't even make music, because it might hurt." She, too, had aimed for the tenderest place. Intoxicated with expressing long-held feelings, they had spoken without restraint or care, and then the rush of words had ended when the drink hit the wall, scattering ice and glass across the floor, leaving the area above the baseboard dented and stained. Both of them stunned, neither sure for a moment who had done it, they had silently cleaned up the mess and gone upstairs without repairing their other trespasses. Sunday had gathered and packed her things in a wild, tearful stupor of regret and relief, while Delta had climbed into bed fully dressed and wept, both bitter and remorseful at the crude and unruly scene she had helped cause. "It was the bourbon talking," they had both declared the next morning, knowing as they said it that it was neither true, nor enough. As her cart caught on a sidewalk juncture, Sunday was jolted into the present. She bent down to free the wheels, wiped her sweaty face with her scarf, and began to walk more slowly and to look around. She decided to take a short detour to the river that had remained such a force in memory. Standing across the street from its slope, she saw a man in a wet suit at the water's edge. He was moving a large piece of machinery from a boat to the riverbank. What was his purpose? she wondered, as she watched. She was tempted to call out to him or cross the bridge and find out, but she knew Delta would be waiting, and she moved on. She followed the route she had taken from school to her afternoon job: past the post office and the drugstore, then past Salt County's one Chinese restaurant, the Rice Bowl, the Social Security office, and the Y, and then into the black part of town she had seen minutes before from the train. When she got there, on familiar ground, a young man paused from trimming his hedges to nod and say "Mornin'," and she greeted him and smiled back. When she reached the house, Sunday stood at the front steps and stated firmly, "Three days." Looking up at the second story, she pictured herself sneaking out of her bedroom window at night and climbing to the roof or down the adjacent tree to look at the stars or explore the neighborhood undetected. Often she had stretched out on the roof and breathed deeply, becoming a part, it seemed, of the open sky. She hurt to think of how, in those teenage years of soreness and yearning, she had felt herself constricted and apart, but until some time around the age of eight or nine, she had looked up to her big sister, depending on her to guide and protect, and Delta had shared her secrets and let her tag along beside her. For a while, they had been each other's refuge. They had been an alliance of two. All that had long since changed by the time she left for Chicago, just after Dolora died. But there had been fleeting occasions of closeness, Sunday thought as she recalled climbing up there with Delta on a starlit, April night. Sunday looked the house over, seeing that the paint had faded and thinned in patches, noticing the bare flower beds and the unruly boxwood hedges. Chains hung where the porch swing used to be, and all the blinds were drawn. She imagined the sound of Nana singing and the image of Delta seated at the piano, accepting the force of their grandmother's song. When Delta heard the groaning of the wide porch floorboards, she came to the door. Sunday paused, surrounded by saffron and flame-red leaves, and stepped in. Copyright © 1999 Helen Elaine Lee. All rights reserved.