The following is from Edan Lepucki’s Time’s Mouth. Lepucki is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels California and Woman No. 17, as well as the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of our Mothers As We Never Saw Them. Her nonfiction has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire Magazine, and The Cut, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.
In 1955, two years before Ursa moved to the house outside Ben Lomond, it rained and rained until the banks of the San Lorenzo River overflowed, causing the deadliest flood in the county’s recorded history. Ursa had no idea, only that the trees on the land were greener than green. She also didn’t know that the mountains she so admired had been tunneled into to make way for a railroad, which had, less than a century later, been dismantled, piece by piece, to make way for a highway, which would defile the mountain even further.
Ursa was too focused on her own story, as small as it was.
All she knew was that she’d been living alone in a beautiful house for half a year, growing bigger each day, more orb than woman, speaking to nearly no one. She knew that Karin had left for India and that Charlie didn’t love her. That she was carrying a stranger’s baby who made her sicker than transporting ever could, which made transporting, her main reason for leaving San Francisco, impossible. And that she would soon be an unwed mother, her own mother’s worst nightmare.
Ursa was, once again, alone.
Soon after moving into the house outside of Ben Lomond, she’d rolled up the staircase’s floral carpet and unhooked two of the chandeliers and drove them into Half Moon Bay in the truck Karin so despised. She sold them to an antique dealer.
Was this what Karin meant by creating something magnificent? Certainly not, but Ursa needed the cash. She had nothing. She had no one.
This was the story she had always told herself, wasn’t it?
Not six months later, Ursa’s myth of herself as a solitary creature was cracked in two by the arrival of a woman Ursa had never seen before. The stranger showed up one morning in the driveway, so tiny between the rows of redwoods, like a sprite among giants. For better or for worse, that’s how Ursa would forever think of Mary: as a sweet, weightless thing.
She seemed to emerge out of nowhere, a woman appearing among the trees like an apparition, and as she got closer to Ursa, who was seven months pregnant and sweating on one of the porch’s rocking chairs, details revealed themselves one by one: the straw bag on her shoulder and the bouquet of lavender in her hand—an offering, she later told Ursa. She wore a man’s shirt and a man’s dungarees, like she was prospecting for gold.
“Are you Ursa?” the woman asked when she reached the porch. She was probably twenty, twenty-two, and gorgeous, with green eyes and long orange hair, freckles everywhere. Mud splattered her pant legs, and she was out of breath. “If you are, these are for you.” She thrust the lavender at Ursa, who did not take it.
“Who are you?” Ursa asked.
“I’m Mary. Karin sent me.”
Mary placed the lavender on the porch railing and pulled something out of her straw bag. Ursa tried to keep her face neutral when she saw that it was a postcard of the Taj Mahal, the same one Karin had sent to the post office box in Ben Lomond. How could Karin send them the exact same postcard?
Mary told Ursa to turn the postcard over and read it, so she did.
If you feel lost go to my house.
A girl named Ursa is there taking care of it for me. She’ll help you. She has a gift.
A girl named Ursa. Was that all she was? Karin said she had a gift. Did she? She could barely recall transporting, it had been so long. Even now, sitting still on the rocker, her last meal—a bowl of rice— was settling badly. Acid rose in her chest. She suppressed a burp.
“Karin didn’t say you were pregnant,” Mary said.
Ursa chose not to mention that Karin had no idea of the pregnancy. “What do you need help with?” Ursa asked finally, handing back the postcard.
“What do you mean?”
“Karin wrote that I could help you. But what do you need help with?” Ursa placed a hand on her stomach. “Clearly, I’m in a pickle myself.”
Mary told her she was living with a man, a farmer, outside of Los Gatos. That these were his clothes, actually. That she didn’t speak to her parents anymore.
“They’re in Santa Barbara. But it’s the dreams I need help with.”
She ascended the porch steps and sat in the empty rocker next to Ursa.
Mary’s green eyes glittered, teary. “Griffin—the guy I’m going with? I had him let me off in town. I didn’t want him to know where I’d gone. I walked here. It took a long time, but I just knew I had to come alone, without the aid of a vehicle. I felt pulled here.”
“It’s the house,” Ursa said as she struggled out of the rocking chair. “It pulled me in too.”
“Like a magnet,” Mary said.
She said that she had turned off the road and wound her way along the path through the woods until she hit the hill and trudged up it, and when she saw the enormous house waiting for her, she had wanted to sink to her knees, crying out in gratitude.
“The house coaxed you forward, didn’t it?” Ursa asked.
“How did you know?”
Ursa hadn’t, it just seemed like an interesting thing to say. She was now standing, revealing her full height, towering over Mary in her rocker. Her head blocked the sun, a border of light behind her like an angel’s halo.
“It’s also you,” Mary replied. “You’re the pull.”
Ursa wanted to push Mary’s puny bunch of lavender off the porch railing and, right at the last moment, thought better of it. The hormones—they were a possession all their own. “I bet you wish your man were here to drive you home,” she said.
“You should know that my gift isn’t happening right now. Pregnancy won’t allow it.”
“Are you planning to be pregnant forever?”
A fine point, Ursa thought.
“It’s a good thing the farmer didn’t come with you,” Ursa said, “because men aren’t allowed on the property unless absolutely necessary.” There it was: Ursa’s first rule. She liked how it felt.
Mary raised an eyebrow and nodded at Ursa’s belly. “No men, huh?” She laughed, a little twinkly fairy bell laugh, and Ursa couldn’t help but laugh too, and she sat back down in her rocking chair.
Ursa paused. “I don’t know anything about dreams.”
“What do you know about?”
“Once this baby is born, I’ll show you.”
Mary moved in. Ursa had already taken the third floor and didn’t want anyone up there with her. She showed Mary the rooms on the second story and told her to take her pick.
Mary chose the first door by the stairs. Ursa was relieved she didn’t pick the largest room with the window seat, which was painted purple. She wasn’t sure why, only that her gut told her someday it would have other uses.
“I hate to sleep alone,” Mary said.
“Maybe others will join us,” Ursa said.
Mary laughed her tinkly fairy laugh.
After that, she took over many of the house duties that Ursa, in her state, had neglected. Mary worked in the garden and did all the grocery shopping. She found Ursa a midwife who would trade care for reefer. And she agreed to meet with Lee, the man who had overseen the marijuana for Karin and Henry.
The marijuana was planted at the back of property, bordered by the live oak trees on one end and the creek on the other. Lee tended to it and harvested it too. It was a tiny operation, if it could even be called that, yet it did bring in money.
“Have Lee teach you how to do everything,” Ursa told Mary. “What about you?”
“You’ll teach me.”
“It’ll be easier if you talk to him too.”
Ursa refused. “It should only be me if absolutely necessary.” Another rule.
When Lee pulled into the driveway, Ursa went up to the turret and turned the deadbolt. To hide, some might say, though Ursa thought of it as keeping watch.
From her perch in the turret, Ursa oversaw developments on the property below. Mary turned out to be a whiz at marijuana cultivation. After Lee gave her a final tutorial, Mary bedded him, becoming pregnant, unbeknownst to Lee, who would never meet his child, let alone know he had fathered one. Not long after that affair, the first contraction squeezed Ursa’s womb, a signal either from or for the baby that his arrival was imminent.
“Breech,” the midwife said, as Ursa squatted on a red towel in the downstairs parlor, her body stretched stem to stern; she was a rubber band about to snap.
Forty hours after the first contraction, Ray emerged bottom first. His mother imagined him scratching her insides with his fingernails on his reluctant exit.
Ray. The love of Ursa’s life. Here he is, squawking, pink, hair sopping with amniotic fluid. Ursa thinks he is the most beautiful baby to have ever been born.
Those first tender weeks of Ray’s life were heavenly in a way Ursa didn’t expect: his eyes gray and glossy as marbles, umbilical nub drying to stone at his navel, the godly seam of his testes, Ursa’s breasts smarting with milk. She knew that one day she would transport back to these weeks, and she wished she didn’t have to wait, for already Ray looked different than he had the day before. Perhaps, she thought, the true purpose of her gift was to return to a younger version of her child.
Any mother would do it, if she could. Wouldn’t she?
When Ray was a month old, Ursa led Mary into the eastern wing. It was finally time to show Mary what she could do. Ursa didn’t feel quite ready—she was so tired from the nursing, and afterbirth still soaked the pads the midwife had sewn for her—but she couldn’t put it off any longer.
It was the full moon of November, and right then, facing the eastern wing’s blue door, Ursa decided another rule. If she could still transport—it had been months, after all—she didn’t want to be asked to do it all the time. And what if she wanted to do it on her own, privately?
“I can only do it on a full moon,” Ursa said. A third rule.
“May the moon be open,” Mary replied.
It was cold that night, the baby bundled in three blankets and the women in baggy wool coats they discovered in an upstairs closet; they resembled bedraggled soldiers who had wandered from their infantry.
They had wrapped scarves around their necks and wished they had something to cover their noses. Their breath was smoke.
Mary was wise enough to be patient, not to pry, to light the candles in silence, the shadows from their lit wicks flittering against the wall. She opened her arms to Ursa, and Ursa handed her bundled Ray, his face scrunched up against the cold.
Unencumbered, Ursa sat cross-legged on one of Henry’s pillows, the green one, and shook out her arms and shoulders. She closed her eyes. The day before, she realized that enough time had passed since she’d arrived in California; she could return to those moments if she wanted to. And she did want to—badly. It had been so long since she’d done this.
She took a breath, and as the air expanded her lungs she sensed the buzz, the yolk, the drippy place. It was far off, but it was there.
Baby Ray began to cry. A weak mewl at first, nothing Ursa couldn’t shut out as she hurtled away.
Ray’s cries grew louder and more insistent, and they brought Ursa back into the eastern wing. She opened her eyes. It was cold. Her nose was cold.
Mary was pacing with the baby, jiggling him. She did not even seem interested in the transport.
“He wants his mama,” she said.
“That’s only what you perceive. Put him upstairs. Come right back before you miss it.”
When Mary returned, Ursa was already going, she was gone, and if Ray was crying, the women couldn’t hear him from behind the closed door of the eastern wing.
By then, neither of them cared. Ursa was crossing the bridge, she was at the darkest spot, all shade and metal, Treasure Island brambly below, her hand grasping the car door, whereas Mary was bathed in her friend’s timelessness, the eastern wing wobbling once then straightening, tightening, brightening. The room filled with what Mary thought was moonlight, starlight. She felt a rush. Her scalp tingled.
This was what Karin dreamed of, Ursa thought later. Something magnificent.
And Ray? He was fine. He was safe. He fell asleep in Ursa’s warm room on the third floor.
Taking care of children requires being tethered to the present, to an endless parade of daily tasks, to the now. That wouldn’t work for someone with this gift.
Thus, another rule, which Ursa announced the next morning over their bowls of millet porridge: No children—not Ray, not Mary’s baby, who would be born on the property in eight months—would be allowed in the eastern wing. Ever.
“Whatever you want,” Mary said, her spoon aloft.
It was into this world that another woman arrived, and another, then another. There emerged a whole universe of rules, an order to this house in the woods.
From Time’s Mouth by Edan Lepucki. Used with permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Edan Lepucki.