The following is an excerpt from The Waters by Bonnie Jo Campbell, just announced as the January selection for the Today Show’s “Read With Jenna” book club. The Waters is coming January 9 from W.W. Norton.
Bonnie Jo Campbell is one of my favorite writers, and The Waters is a phenomenal exploration of themes that run throughout her work: womanhood, rage, identity, family secrets, pain and healing, and the simultaneous beauty and brutality of rural life. I’m delighted to share this work by one of the most important voices in contemporary American fiction.
Titus Clay will always love Rose Thorn
While the men were watching Titus, Rose Thorn picked up Darling’s untouched glass of draft beer from the table and drank it down in slow, luxurious swallows. It was malty and flat and soothing. She hadn’t been able to keep a beer down for a long time, but this one hit the spot, made her want another.
Titus parked right next to the door, where he always did. He headed inside without looking over at the table and came back out with a long-necked bottle from the cooler behind the bar in one hand and something the size of a loaf of bread under his other arm. Halfway to the table, Titus stopped, and the bottle fell from his hand and foamed in the dirt. His other arm held a coyote-colored puppy, who slid down his leg and landed on his scuffed work boot with a yelp.
“The glorious sun has arisen!” Titus shouted above the generator noise. His voice carried like nobody else’s. Everybody said he could have been a preacher. “Could that be an angel dropped down from heaven?”
“Looks like you dropped something.” Rose Thorn grinned through her exhaustion, maybe didn’t even feel that exhausted anymore.
Titus picked up the beer first and then the pup and brought them both to the table. The girl puppy squirmed and wiggled and knocked over Whitby’s Mountain Dew. Whitby grabbed the Dew with a long arm before too much spilled. Titus’s bottle continued to foam in his hand without his noticing.
“Rose Thorn, love and light of my life,” Titus said. Only he could talk in this flowery, romantic way with the sincerity of quoting a Bible verse. The whole landscape began to glow around them, a reflection of Rose Thorn’s glow. “You came back to me just like in my dreams.”
“You’re paying for that, Titus,” Smiley said, nodding at the longneck bottle. “Whether you drink it or spill it.”
“Take all my money, Smiley. I’m the richest man in town. My Rosie has come back to me,” Titus said.
Whitby picked up the puppy, cradled her in his arms. Still sitting at the table, Rose Thorn took the beer out of Titus’s hand and drank most of what was left with slow, even gulps. The men watched her throat as it was revealed by tipping back her head, and every man except Titus took a long drink of something of his own. Titus took off his orange Allis Chalmers hat and smoothed his thick curly hair and put the hat back on. Rose Thorn meant to set Titus’s bottle on the table but mistook the edge and dropped it onto the gravel, where all but the last sip spilled out. Darling picked it up and placed it on the table. The dog squirmed away from Whitby and sat beside Rosie, put her little nose against the backpack. Sniffed.
“You know she’s not old enough to drink,” Smiley said to Titus, his voice straining to rise above the generator. “Honey, I’m sorry, but I got to ask you not to do that. They’ll take away my license.”
Titus looked up at the milky sky and grinned at his God, who had made him the way he was, with his passion for the land he would inherit and his passion for Rose Thorn, and his knowledge of right and wrong. He’d loved her since she was eight years old and he was fourteen, and he’d promised God and himself to wait for her, however long it took. He’d been dating a girl from Kalamazoo for a couple months now, had tasted that girl’s fruits every night, but he’d gotten restless and broken it off a week ago, and now it all made sense. The whole world made sense. He grabbed Rose Thorn’s hand, and she barely had time to put her backpack on again before he grabbed the other, which poked out of the rolled-up sleeve of the work shirt she was wearing—one of his own shirts. He pulled her right up onto her feet, and her exhaustion slipped away. The way the pack hung off her shoulders told the other men it did not contain stacks of cash from a bank heist, nor did it contain books, as Rose Thorn was known to read so many of. It contained something heavy and soft without sharp edges, like cantaloupes or honeydew, though they couldn’t imagine how a girl would get melons in May.
Rose Thorn moved with Titus for a few steps, lightly, gracefully, getting caught up in his sweet energy, despite the disorienting roar of the generator. She gazed into his Sunday-shaven face, his dark melancholic eyes. She hadn’t planned to fall in with him this way without negotiation, but here she was, the bedraggled witch’s daughter in the fairy tale dancing with the town’s prince. She pulled away and sat on top of the picnic table again, called the dog to her.
“Nice to see you smile, Rosie!” Dickmon said.
“What a beautiful little creature,” Two-Inch Tony said when Rose Thorn resumed petting the dog.
“That’s going to be a big dog,” Smiley said. “Hey, Titus, you get her from Marshall Wallace’s shepherd? Maybe her daddy is that roaming mutt of Ed Cole’s.”
“She’s going to be a farm dog,” Titus said. “She’s going to chase off critters. Auntie Ada’s got those little yappers she keeps in the house. But you want her, Rosie, I’ll give her to you. I’ll give you everything I got.”
“Marshall got any more pups?” Standish asked. “I’d like to give my daughter one like this.” His daughter was a gloomy child, and he would do just about anything to see her face light up.
“Where’ve you been, Rosie?” Titus asked. “You’ve been gone too long. You’ll break my heart if you ever go away like that again.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d gone to stay with Prim, but it was the first time she had gone without a word and stayed so long.
Tony leaned across Darling and whispered into Rose Thorn’s lap, where the puppy’s nose rested against the backpack, “Maybe you’re half coyote.”
Rose Thorn smiled; she didn’t have the energy to hide her pleasure. Wasn’t that the problem? She loved Titus, she loved all of them, everybody here. Even this dog—she already loved this little dog. When she had first arrived at Prim’s in California, she’d claimed she wasn’t ever going back to Whiteheart and the Waters, because she loved it so much there at Prim’s, so near the Pacific Ocean, but now the ocean seemed like a big empty place.
“Nice dress,” Titus said, nodding at the shirt he’d given her—it hung nearly to her knees. He’d heard men say that if you gave a woman a piece of clothing, you had a right to take it off her, but he decided to keep that joke in his pocket. He hoped she’d thought about him every time she pulled that big shirt on or off, every minute the cotton lay against her skin. He’d gone through a brutal dark time during which he’d thought he was finished with Rosie, but he’d come out the other side now.
“Is that blood on your hand, Rosie?” Smiley asked.
She spat on it and wiped it away. When she looked up at Smiley, Whitby startled to see that her right eye was half full of blood.
“Maybe that’s rust,” Whitby said, hoping it all wasn’t evidence of some new violence perpetrated against her. “From a fence post or something.”
When the puppy squirmed away from Rose Thorn’s hand, Titus noticed a thin wash of reddish fluid coming from under the shirt, trickling down her inner thigh. He flushed and handed her a red bandanna out of his pocket and gestured downward with his eyes. Then he pointed into the swamp to distract the men, saying there was a sandhill crane landing.
They all looked and saw nothing.
“Rib eye of the sky,” Standish said, because that’s what he always said about that big bird he wasn’t supposed to hunt. Titus said his dad had seen a couple woodcocks doing their mating spiral last night.
Rose Thorn had thought she was done bleeding when she tossed away her pad at the airport in Grand Rapids. She took the cloth Titus offered and held it to her face to inhale his scent before dabbing her thighs with it and slipping it inside her underpants. When the men looked back, she was petting the dog again. Fortunately it was just a little blood, nothing like earlier, when she’d been on the plane.
Titus screwed up his forehead and silently asked if she was okay, but as well as concern, he was feeling shame for her, shame that she would be so careless (or was she drunk?). Even the lowest of women managed to take care of the blood coming out of them. He wanted to think only sweet, clean thoughts of her, but she made that difficult sometimes. Already he’d forgiven her for running off after he’d asked her to marry him, and now he needed her to be worthy of that forgiveness. He’d taken a great risk and gotten a tattoo for her last year—he could have bled to death—and she hadn’t even been willing to see it before she refused him.
Darling meanwhile poured some beer into his cupped hand and offered it to the puppy. She stuck her nose in it and whimpered, and the men laughed. Still, her tail wagged with enough force that it knocked Tony’s beer can right off the table. It was empty, so nobody picked it up.
Rose Thorn drank down the remaining swallow of Titus’s beer, and Smiley pretended not to notice. She would’ve drunk ditch water had it been offered; she’d never been so thirsty.
“You going home, Rosie?” Darling asked. “I’ll give you a ride for a kiss.”
“Shut it, Ralph,” Titus said, “or somebody’ll shut it for you.”
“What? It was a joke. You know me, Titus. I’m always joking.” Darling didn’t know why he’d said it, except he felt relaxed and familiar with Rose Thorn and was happy she was there.
“Rosie, I’ll give you a ride home,” Titus said. “I just seen your ma out in the garden.”
“Hey, she just got here,” Darling said. “Stay a little longer, Rosie.”
“She’s tired. Can’t you boys see when a woman needs a rest?” Titus said.
“You’re going to stay around, aren’t you, Rosie?” Standish asked. He appreciated that she’d always had eyes only for Titus, even if she behaved loosely and sometimes said outrageous things.
“Of course, she’ll stay,” Titus said, holding up his beer bottle, surprised to find it empty. “She’s home. Aren’t you, Rosie?”
Rose Thorn stood, carefully pulled the backpack around in front of her again, and walked on shaking legs to Titus’s truck. She paused to lean against the tailgate. Titus followed, briefly forgetting about the puppy, who jumped down from the table and followed, scrambling to keep up.
“You still got to pay for that beer, Titus,” Smiley shouted after them.
Titus opened the passenger-side door and put the puppy in the middle of the bench seat. Then Rosie climbed in.
“Can I really have her?” Rose Thorn asked, petting the little dog.
“What’s mine is yours,” he said. His voice had a swing in it, like a gate that could be opened and then, just as easily, swung shut.
Excerpted from The Waters: A Novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Copyright © 2024 by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.