Home > Count the Ways

Count the Ways
Author: Joyce Maynard




Toby was just a baby—Alison four years old, Ursula not yet three—the first time they launched the cork people. After that it became their annual tradition.

Eleanor had always loved how, when the snow melted every spring, the water in the brook down the road would race so fast you could hear it from their house, crashing over the rocks at the waterfall. A person could stand there for an hour—and in the old days before children, when she would come to this place alone, she had done that—staring into the water, studying the patterns it made as the brook narrowed and widened again, the way it washed over the smaller stones and splashed against the large ones. If you felt like it, you might trace the course of a single stick or leaf, some remnant of last summer, as it made its way downstream, tossed along by the current.

One time she and the children had spotted a child’s sneaker caught up in the racing water. Another time Alison had tossed a pine cone in the brook and the four of them—Eleanor, Alison, Ursula, and baby Toby—had watched it bob along, disappearing into a culvert but showing up again, miraculously, on the other side. They had followed that pine cone along the edges of the brook until it disappeared around a bend.

“If only we had a boat,” Alison said, looking out at the racing water, “we could float down the stream.” She was thinking about the song Eleanor used to sing to them in the car.

“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,” she sang now, in her sweet, high voice.

Life is but a dream.

When they got home, she was still talking about it, so Eleanor suggested that they make a miniature boat and launch it just below the falls. With little passengers along for the ride.

“We could make them out of Popsicle sticks,” she said. “Or corks.”

Cork, because it floated. Cork people.

Every year after that, usually on the first warm weekend in March, Eleanor laid out the craft supplies on the kitchen table—pipe cleaners, glue gun, string, pushpins, Magic Markers, and corks saved from a year’s worth of wine, which wasn’t all that much in those days.

They constructed their boats out of balsa wood, with sails attached made from scraps of outgrown pajama bottoms and dresses. For Alison, the future engineer, it was the boats that occupied her attention more than the passengers. But Ursula took the greatest care drawing faces on the corks, gluing on hair and hats. Even Toby, young as he was, participated. Every cork person got a name.

One was Crystal—Ursula’s suggestion. She had wanted a sister with the name but, failing that, gave it to a cork person. One was Rufus—not a cork person, in fact, but a cork dog. They named one Walt, after their neighbor, and another was named after the daughter of a man on their father’s softball team, who got cancer and died just before they went back to school.

When they were done making their cork people and the vessels to carry them, the children and Eleanor carried them down to a spot they’d staked out, flat enough for all four of them to stand, and one by one, they would lower their boats and the passengers they carried, attached with rubber bands, into the fast-moving waters.

Goodbye, Crystal. Bye, Rufus. See you later, Walt.

They were on their own now, and there was nothing anyone could do to assist them in the perilous journey ahead.

It was like parenthood, Eleanor thought, watching the little line of bobbing vessels taking off through the fast-moving waters. You made these precious people. You hovered over them closely, your only goal impossible: to keep them out of harm’s way. But sooner or later you had to let the cork people set off without you, and once you did there would be nothing for it but to stand on the shore or run along the edge yelling encouragement, praying they’d make it.

The boats took off bobbing and dancing. Eleanor and the children ran along the mossy bank, following their progress. They ran hard to keep up, Eleanor holding tight to Toby’s hand. Toby, the one who could get away and into trouble faster than anyone.

The journey wasn’t easy for the cork people. Some of the boats in which the children had placed them got stuck along the way in the tall grass along the side of the brook. Some disappeared without a trace. If a boat capsized, bearing one of her precious cork people, Ursula (the dramatic one) was likely to let out a piercing cry.

“Oh, Jimmy!” she called out. “Oh, Crystal!” “Evelyn, where are you?” “Be careful, Walt!”

Some cork people never made it through the culvert. Some fell off the vessel that was carrying them on a wild stretch of rapids farther along. Once an entire boatload of cork people capsized right before the stretch of slow, gentle water where, typically, the children retrieved them.

One time, as they stood on the shore watching for their boats to come dancing down the brook, they had spotted a cork person from the year before—bobbing along, hatless, boatless, naked, but somehow still afloat.

Toby, four years old at the time, had leaned into the shallows (holding Eleanor’s hand, though reluctantly) to retrieve the remains of a bedraggled cork person, and studied its face.

“It’s Bob,” he said. Named for one of Cam’s teammates on his softball team, the Yellow Jackets.

Ursula pronounced this a miracle, though to Toby there seemed nothing particularly surprising about the unexpected return of an old familiar character.

Cork people went away. Cork people came back. Or didn’t.

“People die sometimes,” Toby pointed out to Ursula (older than him by a year and a half, but less inclined to confront the darker side). Not only people whose songs you listened to on the radio and people you heard about on the news, and a princess whose wedding you watched on TV, and a whole space shuttle filled with astronauts, and a mop-topped rock and roll singer whose songs you danced to in the kitchen, but people you knew, too. A neighbor from down the road who showed you a gypsy moth cocoon, and a guy who came to your parents’ Labor Day party and did an imitation of a rooster, and a best friend who took you to a water park one time. And dogs would die, and grandparents, a child to whom you once offered your last mozzarella stick at your father’s softball game, even. And even when those things didn’t happen, other terrible things did. You had to get used to it.

But here was one story you could count on, one that never changed. Spring, summer, fall, winter, the water flowed on. These rocks would be here forever—rocks, among the things in the world Toby loved best, and as much as Toby had considered the losses around him, the thought that he and the people he loved best would ever cease to exist was beyond his imagining.

In Toby’s mind, their family would always stay together, always loving each other, and what else really mattered more than that? This was the world as they knew it. This was how it seemed to them then, and maybe even Eleanor believed as much, once.



Part 1




A Familiar Road

The sound reached them all the way down to the field where the chairs were set up—so loud that if Eleanor hadn’t been holding Louise as tightly as she had, she might have dropped her. A few people screamed, and someone yelled, “Oh, shit!” Eleanor could hear the voice of one of the assembled guests begin to pray, in Spanish. Louise, observing the scene, burst into tears and called for her mother.

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