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Haunted by a past crime and a past lover, a psychoanalyst tries to protect his daughter from his mistakes—but at what cost?
“This dazzling gothic-tinged thriller takes us deep into a labyrinth of secrets, lies, and deceptions.”—Dan Chaon, New York Times bestselling author of Ill Will Daniel Abend is a single parent in New York City, with a successful therapy practice and a comfortable life: an apartment on the Upper West Side, a teenage daughter, a peaceful daily routine. When one of his patients commits suicide, it is a tragedy, but one easily explained: The young woman suffered from depression and drug addiction.
But soon after, Daniel receives an ominous note that makes him question the circumstances surrounding his patient’s death. He is provided with a provocative series of clues—a mysterious key, a cryptic poem, a photograph with a chilling message. A few days later, his daughter abruptly disappears.
Daniel is swept into an increasingly desperate search for his daughter, and for the truth—a search that stretches back decades, to when he was a young man living in Paris, falling in love with a woman who would ultimately upend his life. As he is tormented by a steady flow of anonymous letters, Daniel recognizes that he must confront the secrets of his past: There is a debt to be paid, an account to be settled.
Advance praise for The Waters & The Wild
“Elegant, elegiac, enigmatic: three words to describe The Waters & The Wild. DeSales Harrison crafts a series of intricate psychological layers that blur the lines between what is past and present, real and unreal. This is a compelling debut that is equal parts character study and literary labyrinth.”—Matthew Pearl, New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club and The Last Bookaneer
“A cryptic, beguiling puzzle-box of a book, The Waters & The Wild is chilling in its acuity and deep in its sorrows—a mesmeric exploration of guilt in the vein of Vertigo or The Secret History, with the frantic nightmare-logic of a thriller.”—David Gilbert, author of & Sons
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Waters & The Wild
Father, you will not remember me. My name is Daniel Abend.
Even if you have seen my face, it was only one among the many faces gathered at the funeral of Jessica Burke, and that was three years ago, almost to the day. You do remember Jessica Burke—do you not?—dead of an overdose, the daughter, I believe, of a woman in your congregation. I had not attended your church, nor any church for that matter, in many years. No special claim to grieve had brought me there, beyond the bond between a psychoanalyst and his patient, that unequal, equivocal hold that also holds at bay.
For two years she had been my patient, my analysand, so I had seen her four times a week, five times even, at the beginning of the treatment. During those years, I had listened to Jessica Burke longer and more attentively than I listened to my daughter, Clementine, suddenly hidden from me in the maelstrom of her adolescence. I believed I knew Jessica Burke well, as well as I knew any of my patients. I believed as many at the funeral seemed also to have believed that she had come to flourish, that she had indeed found a new life. What is more, I am convinced she believed this as well and credited me with having helped her in this. After several failed attempts, Jessica had finally kicked free of the heroin. She had begun to “make art,” as she put it, had reenrolled in a life-drawing class she’d stormed out of a year before. She had made an appeal to be reinstated at her college and had begun attending night school courses. She had repaired severed relations with family. I believed she was better, believed she had eluded a danger, and because I believed these things, the news of her death came as something more than a shock.
I have lost patients before, sometimes gradually, to illness or age, sometimes suddenly, and a young one more than once or twice. And I have known that deep, narrow grief any analyst knows, having peered so long into a soul freed from its contexts, unfolding and growing under the lamp of his attention—only to have the lid shut, the lamp blown out. They say psychoanalysis is a school of limits: the session must end, the treatment must end, because childhood must end, and life. Perhaps so. Even with my youngest patients, I have never felt it impossible that they could die.
And yet for Jessica I had thought it so, or felt it, even to the moment of taking my seat in a pew, alongside old Itzal, the doorman from my building, whom she had befriended. I had felt it simply, merely, impossible that she could have died—Jessica Burke!—whom I had seen as recently as the previous Friday, who remarked on her new boots as she settled herself on the couch in my office, crossing her ankles as she always did. They were motorcycle boots, the leather stiff and uncreased, so new I could smell it, tannic and fishy, as the session progressed. “I’ll have to walk a million blocks,” she’d said, “before they stop hurting me.” It had been the first time in she didn’t know how long she’d gone out and bought new shoes, and where could she walk a million blocks except in the future, a future crowded with plans and appointments, a bustling territory claimed as her own?
I said that the news of her death had come as something more than a shock. I should have said that it came as something less than one: the shock had yet to arrive. Something detained it, held it in abeyance, perhaps out of pity for me, perhaps savoring in anticipation the bitterness of comprehension once it arrived.
After the ceremony, three years ago, I had thought to write you, to send you a note. In fact, I went so far as to find your address at the church. What would I have said? That I was grateful, for her sake, that someone intelligent and articulate and without illusion had spoken? That you had helped us to bid farewell, without falsifying the pain of her life, her perennial suffering, the frequent dissipation and final annihilation of her potential? Even now I remember with gratitude how you began your eulogy. An overdose! Too much. More than a body can handle. More than anybody can handle. We had lost our friend, our daughter, Jessica, to an overdose. Yes, and that alone was too much, but in another way, in our grief, we were all overwhelmed in the flood of death, the waters rising up to our necks. I remember thinking that you must have children. That perhaps you too have a daughter, as I do, perhaps a troubled daughter, or lost. That the death of Jessica Burke had struck you deeply as well. We were all in over our heads, you said. Everything was too much, our lives were too much. Too many temptations, allurements, false starts, false promises. Too much pain. Too much grief. And there was nothing to be said about this: some griefs, you said, outstripped all consolation.
As for explanations, we would never be satisfied. That is what I remember you saying: that the world is more full of weeping than we can understand. I had never heard at a funeral, certainly not from a priest, comfort held in such disdain, and I wanted to thank you for that. If I had written, or rather, if I had written before now, that is what I should have said.
The purpose of your sermon, you said, was to set us a challenge. The first part of the challenge was for us to make an admission: that Jessica Burke had taken with her the possibility of consolation, the possibility of satisfactory explanations, that she had abandoned us on a hard, unmarked terrain. The second part was to make a leap of faith, not faith in the providence or wisdom of God (because that would merely be another consolation), but faith that her own journey, every bit as solitary, every bit as hard, was now over. What we must begin anew each day, each one of us alone, was now for her completed. For her, something entirely new has begun. Jessica Burke is not who is lost, you said. The faith you wanted us to have that day was the faith that we were the lost.
You went on to say more, but by then my mind had withdrawn into itself, its cloud of memories, among them the memory of what a police officer had said to me afterward, after he had asked what he called “his routine slate” of questions. “It must be hard for you guys,” he said, “when you lose one like this.” It moved me how he had said it, his grave and serious “you guys.” “Yes, it is,” I had replied. He had been right, as you had been—the hard, unmarked terrain. But against that hardness, that flinty ground, something had kindled itself in me (or so I felt in the pew), something that could never go out, a grief making itself known like a dim but unkillable flame. Unkillable! Good God, how gratified I was by the thought, by the satisfactory phrase, as though the words alone could feed her unappeasable memory—or mine. And so I wept, without shame, as though it were my due. Hiding my face in my hands, old Itzal’s impassive form beside me, I wept.
Had I written you, perhaps that is what I would have told you, how satisfied I had been by the funeral. I must admit it: what I felt then was a kind of happiness, as though a slaking grief, sweet and unkillable, were my compensation and inalienable right, as though that moment were not the last happiness I was to feel, the last of my life’s allotment, as though the death of Jessica Burke were not for me the end of all satisfactions—all, that is, but the very last.
There: I have made a beginning to it, this confession. Will you hear it? Will you hear it even though I believe nothing, even though I cannot say whether it is a confession of guilt or a confession of sin, or whether it is a confession at all? I tell you I believe nothing. I do not offer it in hope of forgiveness, much less of absolution or redemption. What is more, when I tell you that it is I, that I am the one who caused the death of Jessica Burke, you will not believe me. You will think there is nothing to forgive, that what I need is not forgiveness but help. That is what you will believe right until the end, until my story forces its conclusion on us both. Then you will see how the man I was is beyond all forgiveness.
But know this, Father: I never laid violent hands on Jessica Burke. In fact, after shaking hands in our first consultation, I never touched her at all. I knew she lived just six blocks from my building, but I never saw her on the street or in the neighborhood. Even in all the hours she spent in my office, how fleetingly her face turned toward me. Only for an instant at the end of the session, as she rose from the couch, would she lift her eyes to meet mine, and always as though she had forced herself to do it, just as she seemed to force herself to say, So long.
I believed I had done my part, that without reproach I had safeguarded the integrity of the analysis, revealing nothing of myself, interpreting each instance of transference, defense, or resistance with equanimity and objectivity, as professional obligation required. I believed then that she had come to appreciate, as patients often do, this neutrality, this bland and studied featurelessness in her analyst. Is it horrible that I don’t know more about you? she had asked once. Is it horrible that I don’t want to know more?
“Sometimes you lose one,” the police investigator had said when he interviewed me. Surely he was right. Who isn’t touched, from time to time, by accident and evil luck? So I thought at her funeral, as though the story had ended, while in reality it had yet to begin.
After the funeral, for a few days’ grace, life appeared to resume its rhythms, though I scheduled no new sessions in the daily hour that had been Jessica Burke’s. I entertained vague plans of spending that freed time in observance of her disappearance, walking around the reservoir, maybe, or if my daughter, Clementine, had a free class period, meeting her for a coffee or cocoa and an elephant ear at Esmé’s, a café we liked, just across the street from her high school. The plans, however, remained unrealized, and I passed Jessica Burke’s empty hours staring at the tetrahedron of daylight the sun cast on the strip of wall at the foot of the couch. Over the hour it would change shape, though never so quickly that I could see the change as it happened.
That shape of light had been what Jessica Burke had looked at in her sessions over the two years she had been in my care. What was I doing, staring at it now? Waiting for that flatness to vibrate, to release a whispered echo of Jessica Burke’s words? Those words had been in every way unremarkable, the runoff of everyday frets and worries, the white noise of the day-to-day muffling all cries, whether of ecstasy or terror. I had disliked her voice at first, noting my distaste as the first instance of negative countertransference, the analyst’s inevitable resistance to the patient’s inner turmoil. Despite her dishwater hair and thrift-store clothing, an unconcealable Brahmin croak bridled her voice’s upper register, and though a tattooed word bruised the back of her knuckles, her gesticulations dispensed a blasé, patrician nonchalance. It had taken months for me to appreciate the brittle frailty in these traits, to discern in her profile the beauty she labored to obscure, to acknowledge what I must have noticed when first she appeared in my office: that her eyes were a bright lapis blue.
It seems to me now that after the funeral entire weeks must have passed like that, a score of Jessica’s widowed hours dissolved in my staring at the wall. In reality, however, the interval was brief, no more than the two or three days required for a letter to make its way across town, to appear among the other bills and statements on a hall table. It was an ordinary letter, in a plain envelope, addressed to me at home. Maybe I had overlooked it or had neglected the mail for a few days. In any event, it was Clementine—no doubt looking for something else—who brought it to my attention.
“Who’s sending you a key?” she asked, holding the envelope up to the light.
It was unmistakably that, a little lopsided weight in the corner of the letter, its shape shadowed on the outside of the envelope by the pressure and grime of the post office sorting belts. Inside, there was nothing else, no note, no letter, just a key affixed to a tag bearing my name, spelled out in neat capitals: abend, d. The key itself was stamped with the letters usps and what looked like a serial number: a post office key. It was my own post office key, I concluded, sent to me in the mail. Like many analysts, I have always kept a post office box for patients who send checks in the mail, to preserve analytic anonymity. Clementine would tease me about this postal box, calling it my love nest, my trysting bower, but in fact I checked it only infrequently, no more than once a week. Surely I had lost the key somewhere without noticing that it was gone. Anyone could have turned it in to any post office, and the post office, identifying it from the numbers, must have sent it to me. Why not? Nor did I think to verify that my postal key had in fact gone missing. How couldn’t it have, if this was it?
So that was when it began, the awareness, the first flush of it, like motion caught in the corner of the eye—an intimation prior to thought. It was there and gone even before it occurred to me to check my key chain. The awareness began as a kind of puzzled befuddlement (what is this thing? where is it from?) but turned suddenly into something else—not dread exactly, not yet, rather the solution from which dread would precipitate, a solution odorless and colorless yet permeated by an equally clear not-quite-rightness. When Clementine asked me about the key later that evening, and I reported that it was a post-box key I’d lost, that colorless, odorless wrongness was the reason I knew instantly I was lying—not just mistaken but lying. That wrongness was why I avoided checking my key chain, and why, when I finally did, I was not surprised to find my own mailbox key still there on the ring.
DeSales Harrison is an associate professor of modern poetry and acting director of the Creative Writing Program at Oberlin College. He earned his BA from Yale University, his MA from Johns Hopkins University, and his PhD from Harvard University. He studied psychoanalysis at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in New York. He is married to the literary critic Laura Baudot, has four children, and spends part of the year near Nevers, France.