“Startling and fresh...ripe with originality.” --San Diego Union-Tribune
Three years after leaving Lake Gormlaith, Vermont, Effie Greer is coming home. The unspoiled lake, surrounded by dense woods and patches of wild blueberries, is the place where she spent idyllic childhood summers at her grandparents’ cottage. And it’s where Effie’s tempestuous relationship with her college boyfriend, Max, culminated in a tragedy she can never forget.
Effie had hoped to save Max from his troubled past, and in the process became his victim. Since then, she’s wandered from one city to another, living like a fugitive. But now Max is gone, and as Effie paints and restores the ramshackle cottage, she forms new bonds—with an old school friend, with her widowed grandmother, and with Devin, an artist and carpenter summering nearby. Slowly, she’s discovering a resilience and tenderness she didn’t know she possessed, and—buoyed by the lake’s cool, forgiving waters—she may even learn to save herself.
Wrenching yet ultimately uplifting, here is a novel of survival, hope, and absolution from a writer of extraordinary insight and depth.
“Greenwood is a writer of subtle strength.” –Publishers Weekly
Praise For T. Greenwood’s Breathing Water
“A poignant, clear-eyed novel...filled with careful poetic description.” --The New York Times Book Review
“A vivid, somberly engaging book.” --Larry McMurtry
“Greenwood sensitively and painstakingly unravels her protagonist's self-loathing and replaces it with a graceful dignity.” --Publishers Weekly
“With its strong characters, dramatic storytelling, and heartfelt narration, Breathing Water should establish T. Greenwood as an important young novelist who has the great gift of telling a serious and sometimes tragic story in an entertaining and pleasing way.” --Howard Frank Mosher, author of Walking to Gatlinburg
Blue night. I am standing at the edge of the lake, shivering in
my summer dress when they pull her body out of the water.
I am shivering and tearing at my cuticles when they lay her on
the moon-drenched, indigo grass. At the edge of the lake, I tremble
with cold as I watch Max’s shadow pulling the boat out of the
water and hear the scream of the wooden bottom scraping against
A woman who lives in the small cabin nearest to the landing
covers the girl’s small, dark body with a blanket the color of
morning sky. There are about five of us standing close to her
now, closer to her than most of us have dared to go before. But
now we circle her with our own bodies, as if to shield her from
Mrs. Forester, her caretaker for the summer, is still standing
waist-deep in the water, holding the hem of her white cotton
nightgown. I can hear a low moan coming from somewhere deep
inside of her. The sound of an animal. The sound of loss and
pleading. The moon makes her almost transparent as she stares
toward the center of the calm lake. She too is shivering in the
cold, her body shaking. She wraps her arms around herself and
continues to moan. Mr. Forester ignores this and kneels down
next to the dead girl.
As Max ties the boat to a rotten tree stump at the shore, I
stare at the strange pink of the girl’s upturned palms. She could
be asking for something with this gesture. Answers, perhaps. To
be left alone now. I look at the girl’s small face, still full of color,
and envy this. I envy the way she seems to sleep, warm and quiet
beneath the blanket of light. I envy her, because I am colder than
the water, colder than the air. I am colder than the dead girl
whose mother thought she was sending her somewhere safe.
No one speaks as Mr. Forester covers her face with the blanket.
And when her small face, her strange dark face is covered, I
am tempted to pull the blanket back. I am tempted to pull the
blanket from her and carry her away from this place. To take her
somewhere she belongs. But there is no such place. Not here.
And so instead, I find my fingers pulling the satin edge of the
blanket further so that her hair, beaded with glistening drops of
water, is covered too.
Mr. Forester stands up slowly, his knees creaking. When he
sees his wife still standing in the lake, he walks toward her, wading
into the lily-laced water. When he reaches her, she seems not
to notice that he is there. She is rocking and moaning in her
transparent nightgown. He puts his arm across her shoulders and
waits patiently until she collapses in his hands.
After the dust from the cars and ambulances has settled, I find
Max’s old leather suitcase in the musty closet in the loft. After
someone has called her mother in New York, I fold his shirts,
gather his shoes. After he has calmly lied to the police, who
wanted to know where he found her and why he was in the middle
of the lake in the middle of the night, I decide.
I come down the precarious stairs from the loft into the dark
living room. I walk through the darkness and into the kitchen,
where I set the suitcase by the back door. When I return to the
living room, I see him sitting in the corner on the dusty wooden
floor. The air still smells of basil and garlic from dinner.
“Go,” I say. It is all I can manage.
He doesn’t look at me and he doesn’t speak. Slowly, he begins
to bang his head against the wall, each strike leaving the wet imprint
of his hair. I look away from him to the window. The moon is full and bright, reflecting and trembling on the dark surface of
the lake. All of the voices from this night have faded; even the
crickets, usually restless, are quiet. The only sound is the water
lapping the rocks at the edge of the lake and the rhythmic banging
of bone on wood.
“Please,” I plead.
He stands up slowly, still stumbling and stinking of too much
drink. His jeans are damp, his bare feet caked with mud from the
lake. He reaches toward me.
I walk to the kitchen and push the screen door open, my arm
“No more,” I say.
He comes closer then, and my shoulders shrink in remembrance
of all the other times. My spine recollects and recoils.
“If you touch me, I’ll kill you,” I say.“I swear to God I will.”
He pulls me toward him. I can feel him both asking and demanding
that my body give in to him. When my shoulders remain
stiff, when I fail to yield, he shoves me away. I stumble with
the force of his push and the screen door slams shut. I put my
hands on my hips to steady myself, and I feel quite suddenly like
a stubborn child. He veers past me toward the door. He pushes it
open and lets it slam behind him. He grabs awkwardly at the suitcase,
knocking it over, and then kicks it clumsily into the driveway.
“Stop,” I say, and my eyes feel wide and strange.
He turns toward me and then comes close enough to the
door that separates us for me to smell the stink of drink on his
“You know it’s not all my fault,” he says, pointing his thick
finger close to my chest. “Weren’t the Foresters supposed to be
I feel the fire, warming me, filling me with remarkable heat.
“How was I supposed to know she’d be out there?” he asks,
his voice softening in the still night. His chin is quivering. He
opens the door.
My heart thuds softly, and I start to feel sick. He seems vulnerable
now, incapable of causing harm. His eyes plead and
promise. I imagine him pleading with his mother to Stop, stop. I
imagine the cigarette burns in the palms of his hands, the stigmata
of his mother’s cruelty. And I reach out to touch him; I watch my
hand in disbelief. His shoulder trembles under my touch.
“And where the hell were you?” he asks, his voice growing
louder and louder. “If you hadn’t decided to run off to your
grandmother, Oh save me, Gussy, from my horrible life, then maybe I
wouldn’t have been out there in the first place.” The softness of
his face and his voice is gone now, and my hand returns to my
side. Now I can only think of myself pleading with him to Stop,
“I hate you,” I whisper.“I hate you, hate you.”
“You can’t pretend that I’m the only one at fault. You think
that if you send me away that I’ll be gone. You think you can put
this, this night, away into a pretty little box, shove it under your
bed, and forget what’s inside. But you’re wrong. Because you
were there with me, Effie. You were inside my head when I went
out there. You were there too. And you won’t get away with this.”
He cups my chin in his palm and looks at me with disgust.“You
won’t get away.”
He slams the screen door again and walks to the car. When I
hear the engine start, roaring with his anger and impatience, I
shut the storm door and hook the ridiculous latch. He has already
broken it once this summer. I lean all of my weight against
the door and listen for the sound of the tires crushing gravel and
grass. The radio pierces the quiet night. The motor hums, and I
But suddenly the car door slams again. I hear his heavy footsteps
coming back. Closer and closer. I hear him breathing on the
other side of the door. I will the lock to hold. I close my eyes.
“I love you, Effie. I’m sorry. It was an accident. You know
I put my hands over my ears, listening to the blood thudding
dully at my temples and in my chest. I wait for him to push. I listen
and wait. Any moment now, I know he will push and send
me flying backward into the sharp corner of the stove or the
cupboard. I wait for glass to break, for something, anything, to
It could be hours that I lean against the door, listening to my
heart and his breath through the wood. It could be minutes. But
then, suddenly the engine roars again and the headlights sweep
through the windows.The yellow beams touch the bookcase,the
worn fabric of the love seat, and my clenched hands. And then
the light is gone.
I move away from the door;my shoulders are cramped.I walk
slowly through the dark kitchen and living room, quietly up the
stairs to the loft. I almost slip as I reach the landing, feeling in the
darkness for the mattress. I sit down on the edge of the bed and
stare out the window at the road that has taken him away, at the
road that could bring him back.The sheets still smell of his sweat.
I stand up then and tear the pillowcases off the pillows and the
sheets off the bed. The hems are strewn with Gussy’s embroidered
sunflowers. My chest aches as I stuff them in the cedar
chest, and I can’t stop shivering as I lie down on the bare mattress.
I try to rest, to slow the fluttering of my heart. I try to imagine
something else: that I am not here. Not now. But every time I
close my eyes I see her limp body on the grass. On the back of
my eyelids, I see all of the faces white with moon, staring at the
girl like a discarded toy underneath the late summer sky. And I
see Max walking calmly back to the camp with the policeman,
his hands gesturing toward the place in the lake. His false heroism
as transparent to me as water, but an answer the police find easier
than the truth. I watch them scribble his words onto their pads,
ink turning his explanation into indelible history. He has always
had the ability to make people believe. No questions. I see his
hands steadily pouring coffee. I see hands reaching for me,
promising tenderness, and then fingers threatening to tighten and
not let go.
And so I keep my eyes open and stare out the window at the
lake until the sky fills with light, and I listen for the sounds of his