Where Water Runs

We wrote a novel together. Talked about taking risks, about possible storylines that held conflict, and finally chose the drowning of Hannah, a twelve year old girl. We discussed settings and moved into a small fishing village on Cape Cod, into the lives of nine characters who impact this story. We wrote from inside their skin, exploring significant memories, secrets, prejudices. 

Leaps of imagination—gender, age—opened up points of view. Prompts took us into authentic dialogue, imagined conversations, compression and expansion of time, significant details, descriptions, revision, and research. We generated new work in solitude, in small groups, and within the workshop. We always had an immediate audience. As our characters saw themselves through the eyes of other characters, they became more complex. Now we are extricating from this novel—that belongs to the entire workshop—and imagining them in scenes of their own.

—Ursula Hegi               

1. Jack


I find her backpack by my boat. Floating. There’s a gap in the zipper where a jacket sleeve is peeking through, drenched, and when I pull the bag back onto the dock, water gushes right out. Then I see her sneaker. Bobbing.  

First time I met Hannah, I was driving past the monster maple tree in town. Saw her same sneakered foot pop out from a branch. Pulled my truck over, rolled down the window, called out, “Wouldn’t put my weight on that branch if I were you. Thing’s rotted to the core.”

Then another foot dropped out and she came sliding down the trunk. “I’ve climbed this tree before. I’m a professional.”

I said, “Little girl, where’s your mother?”

“Don’t have one,” she said. 


“Don’t have one either.”

“Where’d you come from then, Martians?” 

She tried not to laugh, let her mouth curl up so she didn’t have to give me the satisfaction. Look on her face said she thought she was too grown for Martian jokes. 

“What are you doing up that old tree anyway?” 

“I’m looking for my cat,” she lied. 

I told, her cat or not, she’d better get home. It was late. Dark. She asked, could she have a ride? I told her no. 

Then I thought about the first time my sister ran away, and how when Mama dragged her hide all the way back home, the first thing she told me was that she spent three days eating berries in the woods out by the highway. Alone. 

So I said, “All right, get in. Am I turning left or right?”

Hannah said, “Neither. I’m running away.”

“Like hell you are. Now, spit it out. Left or right?”

She crossed her arms, gave me a look like she hated my stinking guts.  


2. Pastor Rob


I’ve always found, at roadside shrines, in graveyards, that stuffed animals are the bleakest part. She’s dead. She’s gone. She doesn’t need a toy. But then there’s the mother, the sister, the best friend needing something to cling to while they look out at the stretch of water that drowned their girl. 

There was a storm last night. The prayer candles are flooded with rain. Pictures of Hannah run with teal-blue water lines, and they’ve sunk like a paste into the sand. A teddy bear is in the middle of it all. It’s a cheap thing. Soggy and purple. The plastic fur sticks to my fingers. I wring it out, let the rain water fall in a stream. I must look like I’m strangling the thing.

If anyone is watching, I bless the place. A default, Psalm 23. I clear away waterlogged notes and browning carnations. There is one, exactly one photo that hasn’t been destroyed by rain. Exactly one person who thought this through, who protected their picture in a sandwich bag. I prop it up against the bear’s foot. It’s of Hannah as a little girl, bending over the roof of a red plastic playhouse, grinning. That boy Noah is standing in tall grasses below her, his face covered in mud. 

When I was that age, wandering through grass, a snake rose up and whipped between my legs. I screamed. My father came running. Wielding a shovel, Father cut the snake in half. Two writhing serpent ends. The ends kept moving. I watched them. They were curling a cursive which I could not yet read.

I draw a cross in the sand. As I walk back to town, I pop the head off a white carnation, and pocket it.

2. Ms. Park


Exams gave Nora some quiet in the middle of the day. For twenty or so minutes, a well-placed quiz could be enough for Nora to recharge for the next wave of students. 

But the silence of the classroom wasn’t enjoyable today. It was the first since Hannah died. The absence of sound was unsettlingly placid, like the nearby water of the town. The very same waters that killed the young girl that horrible day. 

Luck favors the unprepared. Nora lived by those words ever since Ms. Henning introduced them to her in seventh grade. But nothing could’ve prepared Nora for the death of her prized pupil. Old people die. Sick people die. But young, healthy people like Hannah shouldn’tdie. 

Nora’s eyes fixed onto the vacant seat, as though staring at the thing hard enough would bring Hannah back to life. The teacher knew it was a silly thing to consider, even for a fleeting second, but how else should she spend the rest of the period? Even if she triedNora knew she wouldn’t be able to focus elsewhere. 

Nora’s empathy, usually a facet of herself that she embraced, now felt like an incurable disease. A tumor that called for removal. Oversensitivity was a fever she just couldn’t sweat out, annihilating every last cell in her body with prejudice... 

RIIIIING.Had twenty minutes passed already? Did she really spend all that time lamenting over her late student? Nora couldn’t continue on like this. There was a fault line between concern and obsession, and she had a foot planted firmly on either side. It wouldn’t be long before it split her in half. 

“Pencils down. Hand your papers in before leaving, please.” Her eyes returned to Hannah’s unoccupied chair. She still wasn’t there.

4. Leah       


I hear whispers when I walk around school. I see stares. I’m now the sister of the dead girl. Outside the principal’s office I shove in my ear buds and pump the music up loud. So loud I stop thinking of mom’s cries and dad’s yells, the ones that started when Hannah disappeared. And now she’s gone for good. I wished for her to disappear so many times. I wished she had never been born. I’d wished it over and over again, and my wish came true. So why am I so sad? 

If one more girl texts me how sorry she is, I think I might throw my phone across the room. It’s all bullshit. No one cares. Not really. It’s the story of the moment. That’s it. Next year, everyone will forget. Except us. The school bell rings. They’ll be here soon. My father in his wrinkled, white button-down shirt, probably stained pink from ketchup or yellow from mustard from some fast food lunch. My mother following in her typical oversized t-shirt and sweats, looking at her shoes or the floor, trying desperately to avoid eye contact. I can hear him now, demanding an explanation, like he gives a crap. “I’ll sue your asses.” And if she comes in saying, “My baby, thank God you’re all right,” I’ll be so pissed. They only pretend to care because Hannah’s gone. 

It’s inevitable. It will be a mess. I shouldn’t have thrown that punch.I hate my life. I hated it before. It’s even worse now.I will never make a wish again. Maybe I’ll go into the sea too or just take off and start again. Without this stupid town, this stupid family and this stupid school. This world sucks.

5. Stanley


This sorry ass town has one thing going for it, and that’s water. We have the bay and the ocean, gulls calling as they sail over the harbor. I love a day on the water. Flick my line out, wait for a bite. I know how to play the line. Reeling her in, I hold her high, scales flashing rainbows. 

“I’m sorry, Stan,” the Sheriff says. “Standard procedure. I hate like hell to ask this but I need you to identify the body.”

In the morgue he stands by my side as the tech rolls out the gurney.

I smooth the hair from my daughter’s eyes. The horror of her death is a tidal wave and I’m a child in the surf, facing down the monster racing towards me. “Jump!” my father screams, but the wave is too high. I can’t breathe.

 “Yeah, that’s her.” My voice catches. And I see Hanna at ten, face screwed up with concentration, hunched over her math homework. On the soccer field at four, a feisty, determined girl, kicking the ball into the goal, undeterred by bigger boys bearing down on her. 

Twelve years, gone by in a flash. Always my favorite. A good baby—so sweet. Easy to put down for a nap. Laughing at her own jokes. At two she made up songs, clapping along. “Home, home, home…” she sang—happy to be going home. 

But now she’s going home for the last time, and I’m in the eye of the wave, slapped with tremendous force, spinning like a test tube in a cylinder, inside that silent roar upended. 

I don’t eat fish; never even tasted them. I give them to the owner of the rental boat, ask for a discount, or sell them to yachts that dock here. Wish I could afford one. That would be sweet. But I never catch that kind of break.



Dentist appointments are a waste of my time.

I have four children to feed and do homework for, and on top of it all, I’m still breastfeeding. The bloodsucker, I call him. In my head, never out loud. He’s attached to my right when the mother of the dead girl ducks into the office, head down.

I brush my teeth three times a day. I shouldn’t have to be here. But Deborah makes sense. After your daughter drowns, oral hygiene tends to fall to the wayside.

But Deborah’s life fell to the wayside long ago.

Everyone knew something was up. That girl was always trying to get as far away as possible. It was only a matter of time.

I pick up a magazine. Jennifer Lawrence is on the cover. She’s pretty but she has a loud mouth when it comes to politics and I don’t think her face is symmetrical. She’s talking about feminism. What a luxury –to have time to think about equality of the sexes! It like, appeals to me hypothetically, but I’m too busy raising children not to be little assholes.

How could they let her drown?

Bloodsucker wants my phone. Why milk yourself into a coma when you could iPhone yourself into one? The blue light calms him far better than breast milk. He presses chunky fingers to the touch screen until YouTube materializes. He finds hour-long videos of adults unboxing toys.

I’m proud Deborah’s here to see me breastfeed. If only I’d been that good a mom to my daughters, she’ll think. Maybe if Deb had breastfed, she wouldn’t have all these problems with her girls.

Statistics say breastfed children adapt better. But some people are selfish. Excuse me if I’ve got a toddler hanging from my nipple. If anyone complains, I’ll scream. Don’t mess with Mama Bear.

7. Deborah


Thirty-eight days since Hannah died. Stanley tells me talk in the town’s gone quiet. Says he can buy a tomato in the Quick Mart without more than one or two sympathetic nods. Stanley thinks people are moving on, but I think they’re just worried he’ll throw a punch at them like he tried to do to poor Pastor Robert. Lately, I been forgetting that I’m supposed to love Stanley and he’s supposed to love me. I’m forgetting that I’m supposed to love Leah, too. I feel bad puttin’ that on paper, but Pastor Robert told me that writing ’bout the truth is the only way I’ll ever recover from this.          

I put the journal down, then listen to exactly four of Stanley’s snores before whispering, “Am I dreaming?” I attempt to push my right index finger through the middle of my left palm. I tell myself that I am awake. Then I set the alarm for three a.m. I tell myself that at three a.m., when the alarm rings, I’ll turn it off without opening my eyes. My body will go back to sleep. I won’t be able to feel my limbs. Then I’ll see the colors, and from those colors, my daughter will emerge. This time, I’ll remain calm. I’ll tell Hannah about the nest of finches I saw under the awning of the library. I’ll tell Hannah about her sister’s new boyfriend, and how her teacher swears she saw a bird shit on Carol after church. I’ll ask Hannah to remind me if it wasn’t her eighth or ninth birthday that Dad gave her that pogo stick her sister ended up throwin’ out the living room window. In the morning, I’ll record everything in my journal. The following night, I’ll wake up with my eyes closed one more time.

8. Noah    


It’s Hannah’s idea to wade in the toilet. We’re four. Our feet are in the bowl and I’m tickling her toes with my toenails which need to be cut. She’s making weird grunts to keep from laughing out loud; she’s afraid of getting in trouble. I’m not. I like to trap ants and pull them apart. I chase the dog with a bat, pretending she’s a monster until she hides under the hedge.  I squeeze Colgate gel into the sink, making a nest of blue worms that I smash apart with the handle of my mom’s hairbrush. 

Hannah never hurts the ants or chases the dog. When she’s in charge we make up stories. Today the toilet is our beach. I flush to make waves.  I want her to laugh out loud, for my mom to throw open the door and sigh Christ Noah, can’t I turn my back for two seconds?Hannah won’t get in trouble but her cheeks will turn red and she’ll cry a little. I want this to happen as much as I want to have my toes touching hers in the bowl.

The room smells like soap and lavender and the sun through the blinds draws lines on the walls. The windows are closed, and we are a little bit sweaty. Hannah’s hot breath makes mist on my shoulder.  Beyond the bathroom I hear seagulls and further off the clang of buoys.  

Eight years later I sit on the closed toilet in the middle of the night. I shiver and count the seconds between the foghorn blasts. When it’s quiet for too long I wonder if it means someone else is dead.

9. Hannah


The bay is glossy and calm, and it looks deeper than I know it is. It holds the reflections of clouds perfectly still in its surface like a just-polished table, the purely decorative kind that wealthy people put in the foyers of their summer homes. If I were to dip my hand into the cold water right now, would it cling to my skin and drip from my fingers like paint as I pull free? At the pebbled shoreline, water laps in small folds like the top hem of a bedsheet against my chin. I want to tuck myself inside the bay, feel the weight of its water over me for just a little while.

Down the beach, docks are empty and slick with snow. Fishermen launched their boats at dawn, and no one else has reason to be awake this early. The town looks like a print from one of those vintage Currier & Ives cookie tins my grandmother used to have. Every Christmas, my sister and I would help her fill them with an assortment of homemade treats — brownie squares, hazelnut truffles, rolled cinnamon pastries that I nicknamed swirly sweets, and sugar cookies topped with red or green jam.

In the other direction, earth slopes upward into a sandy cliff topped with spindly trees that know better than to grow too tall up there in the wind. But this morning, the air is still, like inside the walk-in freezer at the seafood market. I wiggle my feet inside my boots to make sure all ten toes are still attached, then ball my hands into fists inside my gloves so the empty fingers flop like uninflated balloons. Geese cut through the chalky sky above me, and I worry their call will wake the town. Not yet, please. Not yet.

URSULA HEGI is the author of twelve books. Her Burgdorf Cycle encompasses four of her novels: Stones from the River, Floating in My Mother's Palm, The Vision of Emma Blau, and now Children and Fire. Hegi's work has been translated into many languages, and her awards include the Italian Grinzane Cavour, an NEA Fellowship, and a PEN/Faulkner Award. She has taught at Barnard College, the University of California at Irvine, and Bread Loaf. She has also served as a juror for the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle. Currently, Hegi is a professor of creative writing at the Stony Brook Southampton MFA Program.