Arrowood@Laura McHugh Page 0,1
there hadn’t been much tying me to Colorado. I was twenty-five years old, working as a graduate assistant in the history department, and renting an illegal basement apartment, the kind with tiny windows near the ceiling that would be difficult to escape from in a fire. The college fund Nana and Granddad had left for me was close to running out. I sat alone in my room at night staring at blank pages on my laptop, my fingers motionless on the keys, waiting for words that wouldn’t come, the title of my unfinished thesis stark on the glowing screen: “The Effects of Nostalgia on Historical Narratives.” Colorado had never felt like home. I had thought at first that the mountains could be a substitute for the river, something to anchor me, but I was wrong.
With the loss of my dad, the number of people in the world who knew both parts of me—the one that existed before my sisters were taken, and the one that remained after—had dwindled to a terrifying low. I worried that the old me would vanish if there was no one left to confirm her existence. When the lawyer said that Arrowood was mine, my first thoughts had nothing to do with the logistics or implications of moving back to Keokuk and living in the old house alone. I didn’t wonder if the man who had haunted my dreams was still there. I thought of my sisters playing in the shade of the mimosa tree in the front yard, of my childhood bedroom with the rose-colored wallpaper and ruffled curtains. And I thought of Ben, who knew the old me best of all. A sense of urgency flared inside me, electricity tingling through my limbs, and I was dumping dresser drawers onto the bed, pulling everything out of the closet before I had even hung up the phone.
THE PEOPLE OF IOWA WELCOME YOU: FIELDS OF OPPORTUNITIES. As I passed over the Des Moines River and saw that sign, my breath came easier, like I’d removed an invisible corset. I had been born at the confluence of two rivers, the Des Moines and the Mississippi, and an astrologer once explained that because I was a Pisces, my life was defined by water. I was slippery, mutable, elusive; like a river, I was always moving and never getting anywhere.
It was strange, crossing into Iowa, that I could feel different on one side of the bridge than the other, yet it was true. Each familiar sight helped ease a bone-deep longing: the railroad trestle, the cottonwoods crowding the riverbank, the irrigation rigs stretching across the fields like metal spines, the little rock shop with freshly cracked geodes glinting on the windowsills. I rolled down the window and breathed the Keokuk air, a distinct mix of earthy floodplain and factory exhaust. The Mississippi lay to my right, and even though I couldn’t yet see it beyond the fields, I could sense it there, deep and constant.
I followed the highway into town, which, according to the welcome sign, had shrunk by a third, to ten thousand people, since I’d moved away. A hundred years before, when riverboat trade thrived on the Mississippi, Keokuk had been hailed as the next Chicago, at one point boasting an opera house, a medical college, and a major league baseball team. A dam and hydroelectric plant were constructed to harness the river, and at the time of their completion in 1913, they were the largest in the world. Later, factories cropped up along the highway, but many had since shuttered their doors, the jobs disappearing with them. What remained as Keokuk faded was a mix of grandeur and decay: crumbling turn-of-the-century architecture, a sprawling canopy of old trees that had begun to lose their limbs, broad streets and walkways that had fallen into disrepair.
The houses grew older and larger and more elaborate as I passed through the modest outskirts and into the heart of town. Block after block of beautiful hundred-year-old homes, no two alike, some well preserved, some badly neglected, others abandoned and rotting into the ground, traces of their former elegance still evident in the ruins.
I crossed over Main Street to the east side, where the road turned to brick and rattled the loose change in my cup holder, reading the familiar street signs aloud as I passed them. Though I’d never driven here on my own, I didn’t need signs to find my way. I turned left onto Grand Avenue, the last street