The Memory of Water

Published March 4, 2008
ISBN-10: 0451223039
ISBN-13: 9780451223036

The Memory of Water

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On the night their mother drowns trying to ride out a storm in a sailboat, sisters Marnie and Diana Maitland discover there is more than one kind of death. There is the death of innocence, of love, and of hope. Each sister harbors a secret about what really happened that night—secrets that will erode their lives as they grow into adulthood.

After ten years of silence between the sisters, Marnie is called back to the South Carolina Lowcountry by Diana’s ex-husband, Quinn. His son has returned from a sailing trip with his emotionally unstable mother, and he is deeply disturbed and refusing to speak. In order to help the traumatized boy, Marnie must reopen old wounds and bring the darkest memories of their past to the surface. And she must confront Diana, before they all go under…

“The enduring ties between two estranged sisters drive the darkly engaging latest from White…Careful plotting, richly flawed characters and a surprising conclusion mark this absorbing melodrama.” 
Publishers Weekly

“In this moving novel, White explores the bond between sisters, the link between artistic genius and mental illness, and the keen hold a place can have on a person. She vividly describes the lush Lowcountry and the pull of the sea. A chilling revelation, a love story, and a bittersweet ending add to this gripping tale.”

“…this story is as rich as its South Carolina Lowcountry setting and filled with sympathetic, endearing characters that reasonate. It’s an engaging, deeply moving story.”
—TOP PICK, 4 1/2 stars, RT BookReviews Magazine

“Karen White delivers a powerfully emotional blend of family secrets, Lowcountry lore, and love in MEMORY OF WATER–who could ask for more?”
—Barbara Bretton, USA TODAY bestselling author

Beautifully written and as lyrical as the tides. THE MEMORY OF WATER speaks directly to the heart and will linger in yours long after you’ve read the final page. I loved this book!”
—Susan Crandall, Award-winning author

“A heart-felt and emotional tale, THE MEMORY OF WATER is a Perfect 10, a book readers will savor and bring to mind long after they have turned the last page.”
—Marilyn Heyman, Romance Reviews Today

“A carefully plotted melodrama of estranged sisters…[White] skillfully mines the mother lode of mentally unbalanced parents.”
—Teresa Weaver, Atlanta magazine


The marsh at night has an ethereal feel, where the lush smells and throaty sounds creep under your skin and into your blood, so that you become a part of the saltwater creeks and estuaries, an arm reaching out to the ocean where all things eventually flowed.  I wondered if Marnie knew this; knew that if you were born by the ocean, you were destined to return to the place that nourished you.  Before there was a Diana and a Gil for her to come back to, there had been the ocean, biding its time, waiting for its prodigal daughter.

We didn’t talk on the ride back, each of us content to listen to the marsh music.  She didn’t object when I took her hand to help her out of the boat and didn’t let it go.  When we reached the fork in the path that determined whether we would go up to the house or down to the beach, I pulled her toward the beach and she resisted.

“Come on,” I said gently.  “The moon’s out and I won’t let go of your hand.”

She stood still, not answering.

“It’s not only Diana and Gil who need to face their fears, Marnie.”

She hesitated just for a moment before allowing me to lead her down toward the beach.

“Are you afraid of anything, Dr. Bristow?”

“Lots of things,” I answered carefully.  “Of making a mistake with one of my patients.  Being late with my taxes.  Walking into a room with my fly down.”

She bumped into me.  “No, really.  I’m serious.  I’m talking fear as in the fear of speaking; or the fear of the ocean; or the fear of not knowing what your brain might tell you to do.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because if I know that you’re a real human being with real fears, then I won’t be ashamed to let you see mine.”

We had reached the bottom of the steps, the short expanse of beach splayed before us like an open fan as the ocean waited beyond the sand like a chained dog.  “I’m afraid of heights,” I admitted.

Her hand trembled within mine and I gripped it tighter as we continued to move toward the water.  She kept talking as if the words would keep her fear at bay.  “Because of your brother’s accident?”

“Yes, I think so.  Before he fell, I’d never had a problem with heights.  There was something about sitting high in a tree and looking at the rooftops around you.  At least there is until you watch your brother slip on the branch below yours just as he’s reaching for your hand.”

We’d stopped walking, still safely on the soft sand that the encroaching tide hadn’t yet claimed.

“I grabbed the cuff of his t-shirt, then heard it rip.  It happened so fast that all I could do was stare at the cuff in my hand and wonder where Sean had gone.”  I looked up at the unforgiving moon, all light with no warmth.  “My parents weren’t home and the neighbors lived too far away to hear me shout.  I waited up in the tree, holding that damned cuff and seeing my brother’s body on the ground.  There wasn’t a thing I could do; I was absolutely powerless.  And even now I wonder if it’s the fear of being powerless and not heights that keeps me on the ground.  Because I can still feel how wonderful and freeing it is up on a mountain, or sky diving, or even up on a ship’s mast.  But I think I can run away from the fear by putting myself in control of every aspect of my life.”

“By solving other people’s problems.  By fixing them.”

“Pretty much,” I said, aware of how her skin glowed in the moonlight.  “But I think I’m beginning to understand that running away from fear doesn’t make it go away.  It’s still there, waiting around the corner, and I figure one day I’m going to catch up to it and finally face it.”  I touched her cheek with the tip of my finger, feeling liquid moon.  “Like you running to the desert, Marnie.  Sooner or later, you were bound to find the water again.”

Her hair blew softly in the night breeze and reminded me of what I had been about to tell her at dinner.  But the moment had passed and I had lost my courage.  And then she’d mentioned Diana, and I realized that I would probably never tell Marnie the truth about me and Diana.  As she had told me herself, they were sisters and that one word carried an ocean of meaning which I couldn’t cross.

She looked at me, her eyes luminous, but she wasn’t seeing me.  “The night of the accident, we saw St. Elmo’s Fire.  It was sudden, just these ghostly blue flames that appeared like magic and lit the mast like a candle.  And I wasn’t scared—because Grandpa had told me that St. Elmo was the patron saint of sailors and that when he appeared, I’d be safe.”

The tide moved up and incoming wave teased our legs with warm droplets.  I still held her hand and felt the trembling there, but she didn’t step back.

“But the rational part of my mind also told me that if I was seeing St. Elmo’s Fire, then there was a bad storm approaching.”  She turned away, toward the water as if trying to see her boat, to call it home.  “I told Mama, but she ignored me.  She acted as if she hadn’t even heard me.”

Marnie bit her lip.  “The funny thing is, I’ve never remembered that part about St. Elmo’s until now.  And I wonder…”  She stopped, looking down at the wet sand at our feet, the water reflecting the moon’s intense gaze.  She looked up at me again.  “And I wonder if it’s because of what you said, about running from my fear.  Maybe it’s not the water I’m afraid of; maybe it’s remembering what really happened that night that I’ve been running from all this time.”

I stepped closer to her and I thought I could smell the sun on her skin.  “Whatever it is, Marnie, you don’t have to face it alone.”

She tilted her face up to mine and it was the most natural thing in the world for me to pull her closer and press my lips to hers.  She tasted of wine and salt air and in my arms she felt just like the girl I’d seen all those years ago with the wind her in hair and defiance in her eyes. 

Her arms came around my neck as she pressed her body close to mine before pulling her head away.  “In the restaurant, you were about to tell me something.  Something you were saying you should have told me before.”

“I don’t remember what it was,” I said, pulling her closer to me again as the waves crept even closer encircling our feet like the fire of St. Elmo, dancing and leaping until finally retreating from where it had come.