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Under the Reservoir

by Anna Laird Barto

Clara was drowning. She rode beside her granddaughter Alice in the wagon, but the water seeped in through the cracks in her mind, filling it slowly, like the reservoir behind them, lapping at the steps of the house her great-great-grandfather built of stone, so it would last forever, turning the rooms into aquariums, washing over the sills of the second story window where she’d passed the months of her confinements, gazing east across the tobacco fields to the trees changing color on Mount Lizzie. When the leaves were as red as they could get before falling, she felt the trickle of water between her legs. The pains came so hard and fast she thought they would carry her into the next world, but she opened her eyes and saw the colors against the grey sky. Once the leaves had fallen, she nursed her sons in the rocking chair by the window, looking out at the granite ledges on Mount Lizzie, a row of mastodon teeth between the trees, where they’d quarried the stones to build the walls around her. On the other side of the mountain, far to the east, the thirsty city waited.

The rumors had been around as long as Clara could remember, so she wasn’t surprised when Walter, the oldest, was six years old and came to her with big round eyes. He’d heard some of the big boys at school talking. Boston needed water, they said; the Charles was so full of trash you could walk across it without getting your feet wet. Now the Governor was sending a great flood, enough water to quench the city’s thirst for a thousand years. The flood would fill the Valley where they lived like a bathtub, and drown all the people and towns. She must promise not to tell, but the boys were building an ark down by the river, lashing together the biggest sticks they could find. Walter couldn’t decide which of his bantam hens he should take with him in the ark, what did she think? Clara rubbed her chin, concealing a smile, and said that reminded her; she still hadn’t decided which of her little boys she would take on her ark. She thought maybe she’d choose the one who showed the best comportment, so why didn’t Walter run along and shuck some corn for dinner? She laughed as she watched him run off, then forgot all about it.

For months afterwards Walter lay in bed thinking that the whoosh of the wind in the maple trees was the rising tide come to sweep him away. He looked over at his little brother Johnny, asleep in the next bed, long lashes quivering like insect antennae against his chubby cheeks, and for the first time in his six years he felt hate. He knew no ark could save him now. The waters would close over him as punishment.

By the time the rumors became reality, Walter was a man, with a wife and child of his own. They all lived with his mother and bachelor brother in the stone house where they were born. When the Metropolitan District Commission decreed that the four towns of the Swift River Valley would be submerged under the new reservoir, Walter wanted to take the house with them. It was the only stone house for a hundred miles; passers through mistook it for the town hall and stopped to ask the way to Boston. Walter stood quietly by while Johnny sent them in the opposite direction, down dirt roads winding deep into the woods where the ferns grew higher than the windshields.

Walter figured they could dismantle the house stone by stone and pack it in the ice truck—same as the blocks they cut from the pond when their father was alive—and reassemble it when they got to higher ground. His wife Rebecca talked him out of it. She told him it wasn’t practical. She didn’t tell him what the house told her, when she was alone all day in the narrow rooms with low ceilings and high wainscoting—alone except for her mother-in-law, but Clara was part of the house, a granite gargoyle with sparks of mica for eyes, watching everything that happened inside the walls.

The old stones told Rebecca she was lucky. Of all the factory girls who longed for marriage, pricking their fingers on the tips of the palm fronds they wove into sunbonnets, hers had come true; she, plainest of them all, except for the red flash in her hair when the sun shone directly on it. It was the only thing her Irish parents left her when they died on the dark ocean somewhere between Galway and Boston. She was too young to remember, except in dreams where she saw their pale faces bob like icebergs in the black water before vanishing under the waves. She was raised by an English couple who found the three old wandering the docks alone, her face hidden behind rust colored snarls.

She still wondered why Walter chose her. He was a descendent of the first man to plant shade tobacco in the Swift River Valley, where it grew to uncommon height and yielded broad, smooth leaves ideal for wrapping Cuban cigars. It was true that the family didn’t act rich. The girls at the hat factory couldn’t understand it. The wife wore nothing but Puritan gray all year round, and the husband buried his money in the cow pasture so the taxman couldn’t get it. But when the sons walked by, the girls looked up and giggled, except for Rebecca, who stared at her feet, wishing the dirt would turn to water so she could sink into it.

Johnny was the handsome one, tall and blond with a face as pretty as a girl’s. They said he once flew a homemade glider 500 feet off the ledges on Mount Lizzie before it nosedived into the treetops—and he walked away without a scratch. Walter had dark hair and crooked teeth, but he was so kind, they said, that when a calf was born with two heads and three eyes, he wouldn’t let his father shoot it, but raised it with a bottle, and for as long as the mutant lived the it lumbered behind him wherever he went.

The house was right, Rebecca thought. The herbs that hung drying from the rafters reached down and patted her on the head. Silly girl, believing Walter married her for love, not charity! She tried to pick the desiccated leaves from her hair, but they stuck like burrs. Cold and hard against her back, the stones insisted that she deserved what Johnny did to her in the pantry, night after night, while the others were upstairs asleep, because part of her wished her husband desired her with the same urgency that left crab apple bruises on her back, instead of mounting her in the dark so furtively that in the morning she wondered if it really happened. The stones piled in her throat. Yes, she told Walter, it would be more cost-effective to start over.

So Walter salvaged what was most valuable from the house—the crown moldings that came on the boat from England, the china doorknobs, the maple banister polished with the oil of generations of hands, and the hearthstones from the granite ledges on Mount Lizzie—until the ice truck was filled floor to ceiling with the dismembered parts. The rest he left to be submerged in the reservoir, a shipwreck in reverse.

The stone house was the last one left standing when the others had been cut loose from their foundations. It was March when they joined the exodus and patches of icy snow covered the fields where Danny Shays once rode, raising an army of farmers against the city to the east.  The road was crowded with wooden shells of houses hitched to teams of aging horses or the tractors that had replaced them. Three-year-old Alice swiveled in her grandmother’s arms to watch the pharmacist’s house slide by behind a team of bays. The yellow Cape with smiling shutters had been split apart from gable to gable, rooms exposed like sections of fruit. Dust from the road settled on the sea green porcelain of the Water Closet, and the crystals clinked on the chandelier as the house jerked along. When the trestles stuck in the spring mud the horses groaned, and the whip rose and fell against their haunches. Alice began to cry. Her grandmother’s hand tightened around her shoulder and the green veins bulged like old copper pipes. Alice kept on crying, although she had forgotten why. Clara didn’t look back. As the water rose, the memories disappeared, one by one, like the towns on the map of Massachusetts. Under the weight of 412 billion gallons, her mind broke free from the bone, a fish swimming home.

Clara’s husband rode in the back of the wagon, safe and dry in his casket. The hinges were rusted, but otherwise it had held up well over the last ten years. The brothers had split the 18 dollars to buy him a new a plot in the cemetery the Metropolitan District Commission had built to accommodate the 7,500 whose eternal rest the reservoir would disturb. They didn’t trust the MDC to move him; people were saying they just reburied the bodies pell mell, not even bothering to match the headstones; some said the headstones were all that they moved. If Walter Sr. were alive he would have chained himself to the steeple of the Congregational Church and railed against the MDC until the water rose to silence him. Now only his wife could hear the faint rattle of bones above the creak of wagon wheels.


Johnny didn’t come with them. He’d gone west as soon as the Act came down. The reservoir gave him the reason he’d been waiting for. His spirit had left years before, leaving behind only the animal to plunder the fields and briars of the Swift River Valley. The town might as well be at the bottom of a lake, for all it offered a young man, the world glittering high above where he could only gasp and splutter at it.

So it was left to Walter to reinstall the banisters, crown moldings, door knobs, and hearth stones in the new house in the town on the hill. He built it himself, out of timber—stone was too expensive—working day and night to finish it in time. It wasn’t half the size of the house they’d left behind, but it had a brick fireplace, hardwood floors, and big windows facing south across the common.

When Rebecca thought she was alone she took off her shoes and skated in her stockings across the fresh laid floorboards where the sunlight struck and turned them to golden ice. At last she had a house that was her own. She inhaled the smell of sawdust and wet paint until her head felt light as a buoy. At the window, Walter, who had come back for his gloves, stopped and stared. He hardly recognized her. She looked so happy. Her hair flashed red in the sun. He had no idea what caused this change, only that he had failed to bring it about himself. Ten years had passed since he first got up the courage to touch her, in the field behind the hat factory, smoothing the hair out of her face, and lifting her chin until finally, her green eyes met his—and still he knew her so little. He thrust his cold hands into his pockets and walked away before she saw him.

At first Johnny sent letters, page upon page about waterless lands with no hills, only clouds on the horizon, from which no rain ever fell, and almost nothing about himself. Walter read them aloud while Clara rocked and Rebecca scrubbed the already gleaming floorboards. Alice climbed up her grandmother’s black skirts and curled in her lap. Her grandmother didn’t even remember her name—she always called her Rebecca, or even Johnny—but there was something about the rhythm of the rocking chair and the old woman’s mossy smell that transported her, carried her far to the east, under fields and orchards, factories and slums, into the Charles on the way to the sea. Beneath the black skirts her grandmother’s ribs swelled to rotting logs and floated downstream, history mixed with the sewage pouring into the bay, poisoning the whales and the cod—Danny Shay’s revenge.

Friends and neighbors sighed and said it was a mercy the old woman’s mind was gone; how could she bear it if she knew that the only home she’d ever known was 150 feet underwater? Rebecca wasn’t so sure. One afternoon, when she was busy in the kitchen, Clara took Alice up to the attic—how she managed not to break a hip on the ladder Rebecca couldn’t fathom. An hour later, just as Walter arrived home for supper, bringing with him two hungry bachelors from his crew, Clara and Alice reappeared at the top of the staircase.

When Rebecca saw them she dropped her spoon into the pot of boiling water. Clara had on her wedding dress, or what the mothballs had left of it. She glided slowly down the steps, trailing yellow lace and pearl beads, which popped loose with every stride and spilled down the staircase (for the next ten years Rebecca would encounter them every time she swept, under the radiator, between the cracks in the floorboards).

By the hand, Clara gripped Alice, dressed in one of Johnny’s old sailor suits and brandishing a toy pistol. With her blond curls tucked behind her ears, pistol pointed at Walter and his guests, Alice was the spitting image of Johnny in the old family portrait, taken back in 1914. Rebecca reached out to steady herself and burned her hand on the stove. Walter just laughed, and greeted his mother with a bow at the bottom of the stairs. He waltzed her clumsily around the room as his guests applauded. Rebecca was too upset to speak. She met Clara’s eyes over the top of Walter’s shoulder, and they were clear and calm as the water in the reservoir. The old woman couldn’t fool her. She grabbed her daughter, and carried her, squirming and sobbing, back upstairs, where she forced her into a dress, and tied a ribbon in her hair.

When they came back downstairs, Clara took one look and said the girl still looked like her father, then went back to smushing her carrots, one at a time, between her dentures. Walter patted his mother’s shoulder and shrugged apologetically at his guests, as if to say, poor old dear, she hadn’t been the same since she lost her home. Rebecca let out the breath she’d been holding. The neighbors were right. It was a mercy; no matter what the old woman said, no one would believe it.

For the rest of the family, the last glimpse of home had come from atop the loaded wagon, but every day for five months,Walter retraced the the exodus, driving slowly through the ghost towns in the bed of an MDC truck with other men on the clean up crews. Their job was to fell trees, dynamite bridges and raze whatever buildings were left before the river backed up behind the Windsor Dam. That way, the water that spurted from the faucets on Beacon Street would be clean and clear as a mountain spring. No one in town blamed Walter for taking the job, times had never been so tough, and they’d rather the work went to one of their own then to the Woodpeckers, Irishmen from South Boston who didn’t know one end of an axe from the other and exhaled their r’s like smoke from cigars. The MDC paid Walter more to lay waste to the land than he’d ever made farming it. It would have been enough to make his father roll over in his grave, if the MDC hadn’t seen to that already.

When there was no tree was left standing, only fields of chimneys where towns had been, the crews set fire to what remained. The debris from the demolished towns went up hot and fast, but it took months to burn through the briar thickets and the fleshy, thick-veined tobacco leaves. The clouds of smoke darkened the days of midsummer, and when the wind blew from the west, ash flakes fell on the Public Garden 50 miles away and dissolved in grey eddies in the Swan Pond. On the park benches, citizens looked up from their newspapers and sniffed the air with its moist suggestion of rustling palms, as if someone passing had lit a Habanero.

At night when he arrived home, Walter stomped clouds of ash and soot from his boots, but they were never clean. The yellow floorboards looked as though they’d been sprinkled with salt and pepper, and every morning Rebecca shook the grains from the crisp white sheets. She made Walter bathe in the old cast-iron tub they brought from the farm, so that he wouldn’t dirty the tiles of her new water closet. She sat on the bed and watched him pour the water over his head, the soot streaming black down his shoulders. He squatted in the tub with the steam rising between his knees, and told her the things he could not bring himself to tell the rest of the family.


One day he told her about the house. He had been riding with the crew in the bed of a truck when he saw the stones through the smoke. He knew it was the house where he was born, but it might as well have been a ruin left by Druids or Aztecs. These scorched stones were not his home any more than the box of bones they’d unearthed was his father. The roof was gone and the rooms filled with rubble. The back wall had been knocked down so you could see through the vacant windows to the green hills behind. He closed his eyes but the image wouldn’t go away. The next morning he opened the newspaper and there it was again—the house of stone, the roof blown away and the blackened walls—only the headline said it was Poland; the Nazis had just invaded.

As Walter told the story, he felt like weeping, but Rebecca never flinched. She was so strong. Walter felt himself rising with the steam toward the ceiling and he reached for her. Her body was gravity, hard as rock and smooth as eggshell. If he pressed hard enough he almost remembered his edges, her nails on his back like running through briars. As he ran, the hills and valleys rippled around him until he no longer knew one from the other. Rebecca arched out of the water above him, steam rolling off her skin. If only he had the strength to hold back the water, but it was no use. A Valley was just a mountain in the sky. His limbs tingled like roots torn from the ground and his head fell back hard against the tub’s metal rim.

Rebecca licked the soot from Walter’s collarbone and the sweet black grit stuck to her tongue and crunched beneath her teeth. It didn’t matter if it was love or charity; he pushed between her legs like everything depended on it. This was all she’d wanted; so why did she still feel the cold stones against her back? One-hundred fifty feet wasn’t deep enough. The pressure was too strong; bubbles escaped to the surface. She clamped down harder on his thighs, but it was too late; she’d hit the boiling point. The feeling shot out the ends of her fingers and toes and hit the surface with a burst of steam.

Walter pulled his body out from under hers. What was the matter? Why was she crying? She felt angry at herself and cried harder. He cradled her head between his hands. Had he hurt her? He didn’t mean to be rough, he wouldn’t do it again. Sobs choked her. No, that wasn’t it at all. Then she was telling him, telling him everything she’d wanted so badly to leave forever at the bottom of the reservoir.

Afterwards Walter wrapped a towel around his waist and marched from the room, letting in a cool draft. Rebecca hugged her knees and stared at the puddle of water where he had stood.

Walter climbed the stairs to the second story, gripping the banister so hard his nails left grooves in the wood, where they would remain for the next 30 years until his grandson bought a new electric sander and wanted to prove to his wife that it hadn’t been a waste of money after all.

He’d built the gable so steep that he had to stoop as he stood beside Alice’s bed. The little girl slept under a white sheet, which barely fluttered as she breathed. He reached down and stroked the hair on the pillowcase, so blond it was almost transparent; it would never turn dark like his. Her fingers curled tightly around her stuffed dog; she wouldn’t play with dolls like other girls, which worried her mother but secretly pleased him. The long lashes trembled against her cheeks when he touched them, but she didn’t wake. Under the pink lids were hazel eyes just like Rebecca’s, bottomless. He stood there until he was sure he still loved her, then he went back downstairs to his wife.

Nine months later, Donald was born in the new hospital, which turned out babies like parts on an assembly line. Rebecca remembered nothing except a bright light and the doctor in a white mask bending over her. The same month, Clara died in her rocking chair. It was Rebecca who found her, closed her eyes and forced the already stiff limbs into her tattered wedding gown. Walter wrote to Johnny but he never showed up to the funeral. Rebecca didn’t go either; she was too busy with the baby. Alice was the only one who stood shivering beside Walter at the cemetery, the reservoir glittering between the bare trees.


Alice and her brother grew up playing along the reservoir’s wild shores. It was beautiful there, especially in the fall when the leaves reflected red in the water and Mount Lizzie’s rounded back rose in the mist. The beauty only made it harder for their parents to go there, so it belonged to the children and animals alone. Deer and their fawns stepped out of the forest to drink, standing in the cloud shadows near the water’s edge. Bald eagles nested in the stone ledges of Mount Lizzie and there were rumors that the catamount, long believed extinct, had returned.

Alice let Donald tag along with her and friends as they waded through the ferns and tore aside the pricker bushes to reveal old cellar holes and Indian burial mounds. They always made Donald go first down the cellar holes. Dry leaves rustled as he crawled between the clammy stones, tree roots tickled his face and every shadow became a crouching raccoon or woodchuck. He looked up over his shoulder at his sister and her friends. The sunlight streamed through the trees behind them, darkening their faces and illuminating their hair. No matter how many times he proved himself, he could never be one of them. Alice and her friends had been born under the reservoir—in that mythical lost valley where Danny Shays rode and his grandfather and his grandfather grew shade tobacco with giant ruffled leaves. When the girls gazed into the reservoir Donald was sure they saw things he could not, because he was born too late, when the Valley was already covered in water. No matter how hard he stared, the still water revealed nothing of the epic past.

One day, Donald reached into the darkness of a cellar hole and touched something smoother and colder than rock. As his fingers closed around it there was a hot flash of pain. He cried out and backed out of the hole as fast as he could, clothing catching on the prickers. Alice and her friends rushed to his side. Blood dripped onto the dry leaves from the cut on his hand as he held up a chipped goblet to the sunlight. It was covered in dirt and algae but in the light you could see the bubbles trapped inside the glass. They made an interlocking pattern, like frog egg sacks, but that wasn’t what made the glass so familiar. It wasn’t until they rinsed it in the reservoir and and were unable to wash off all the green that they realized: it was the same pattern as the dishes in the spare room cupboard, the ones that had belonged to their grandmother. Maybe this one had belonged to her too, way back when the reservoir was rolling fields and famers raised their pitchforks against the government? But when they showed the glass to their mother she shrugged; she said they made thousands of those back in the '30s; they were so cheap they used to give them away in cereal boxes. Still, when they set the goblet in the cupboard with the others, chipped rim facing inward, the set was complete.

When Donald was nine and Alice was 12, they built a raft out of trees limbs that blew down in a Nor’easter, and set sail for Mount Lizzie. Kids at school said that if you climbed to the top of the highest ledge you could see the roads and bridges laid out under the reservoir, and when there was a drought church steeples stuck up above the water like the masts of sunken ships, skewering unsuspecting fishing boats. Donald half believed the stories, even though his father said they weren’t true, he’d seen the buildings demolished with his own two eyes. The raft made it only a few hundred yards before it sunk from under their feet, coming to rest on what had been the ninth green of the Dugmar golf course, leaving the children to swim ashore.

Their mother was furious when they arrived home white-lipped and dripping wet. They would catch their death of cold! Not to mention they could have drowned and then who would take care of her when she was old? She snatched at Alice’s blouse where the fabric stuck to her chest and the dark areola showed through the pink and white flower pattern.

She said Alice better be careful or she’d get a reputation, and then God only knew what would happen to her. Averting his eyes from Alice’s blouse, Donald tried to explain that the raft was all his idea. His mother wouldn’t listen. She took Alice into the pantry and locked the door behind them. Donald threw himself against the door but he couldn’t save her. He heard the switch rise and fall and his sister sob.

After that, their mother forbid them to go to the reservoir. They went anyway, inventing baseball games and slumber parties so they could sneak down and watch the eagles circling over the blue water and wonder what secrets lay submerged there.


When Alice turned 18 she went to secretarial school in the city. She was surprised how easily her parents agreed to let her go; they always spoke about Boston as if it were Sodom and Gomorra. Her mother even helped talk Father into the idea; what kind of husband could she hope to find in Hampshire County? There was no one left here but rednecks and beatniks. Maybe she just wanted rid of her: Alice always had the feeling her mother didn’t like her very much.

Father and Donald saw her off at the depot. Donald stood straddling the gap between platform and tracks. It wasn’t too late to change her mind, he told her, staring down the tracks, which cut an open swath through the woods. And if the city boys gave her hard a time, he had no problem coming out there and—he flicked his cigarette on the rails. Father dug his hands in his pocket. Doesn’t matter where you come from, he said, it’s where you’re going. Donald puffed on his cigarette. Tell that to the Hahvahd boys. The train whistle sounded. Donald’s eyes teared in the smoke. Too quickly Alice was alone by the window of the moving car, her reflection distorted in the blur of woods and sky.

At school Alice lived with other girls in a boarding house in the Back Bay. When her new friends heard her r’s, clear and crisp as if preserved in ice, they asked where she came from, and she answered with the name of the only home she could remember, the town that sat high on the hill above the reservoir—not that any of them had heard of it anyway. Was that what her father had been trying to say? Or was it something to do with the way she felt as she stood with her friends before the shop windows on Newbury Street, admiring fur stoles and tulle hats they could only afford in wildest dreams? These avenues of stately brownstones looked as though they’d been there forever; it was hard to believe that the land they stood upon was man-made, that beneath the wide stoops and stone lions lay an ancient swamp. Alice couldn’t stop wondering where they got the earth to fill in the muddy backwaters. She imagined a hole in the land outside the city, large enough to swallow an entire town, or four; a valley where once there had been a mountain. The sludge beneath the streets was home to rats big as cats, and on warm nights they emerged from the sewer grates to feast on the topiary hedges and the petunias trailing from Victorian urns. Fear of the rats, more than fear of the Boston Strangler, kept the girls off the streets at night. Long after her roommates were asleep, Alice lay awake on her narrow cot, listening to the faucet drip and the old pipes bang and hiss. When finally she slept, she dreamt of water, water the color of tobacco juice. She swam, frog kicking her way down like they taught her at the Y, but she couldn’t find the bottom. Her hands felt only rotten, slimy leaves.

One evening she went alone to the docks. She stood with her back to the city, watching the tall ships sail into the harbor. She didn’t startle when the stranger stepped up beside her. He was a tall man, his shoulders hovering just above her head. His long shadow stretched out over the grey water, enfolding her slight, mounded one. The wind swept the dark hair across his brow and it made her want to stand closer to him. When finally he asked where she came from, Alice answered, without thinking, with the name of the town that didn’t exist anymore.

In her dreams that night she finally swam deep enough; she reached into the darkness, and touched the roofs of her lost Atlantis, sloping down toward the deepest part of the reservoir. She felt her way along eaves dripping with phosphorescent algae, parted the grass that grew like corpse hair from the windows and peered into rooms where the tables were still set with Depression glass and seaweed wrapped in double helixes around the bedposts. As she alighted on the bottom, a shaft of sunlight filtered through the clouds of silt and all along the streets of the lost town the stones sparkled like fish scales.

The next weekend Alice took James—that was stranger’s name—to the reservoir. They rode the train, watching the spaces widen between buildings until there were only cornfields and low hills covered in trees. It was October and the leaves were almost as red as they can get before falling. When they got there they spread a blanket on the grass by the water’s edge and watched the bald eagles circling. James put his hand on hers and she felt the soft pressure all the way to her toes. Afterwards they rented a canoe and glided through the still water out past Mount Lizzie to the center of the manmade sea. James rowed, and Alice leaned over the side, trying to see the place she came from, but all she saw was her reflection, and the reflections of the clouds.


Anna Laird Barto grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, in a house that may or may not have been moved from its original site in the Swift River Valley. She holds an MFA from Emerson College and has had work published in Matador, Transitions Abroad, InTravel, and GoNomad. She is an editorial assistant and occasional blogger for Fringe Magazine.
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