Here are the first chapters of the six books shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2018, starting with the winning novel.
The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
SILAS REED’S SHOP OF CURIOSITIES ANTIQUE AND NEW
Silas is sitting at his desk, a stuffed turtledove cradled in his palm. The cellar is as still and quiet as a tomb, except for the slow gusts of his breath which nudge the feathers. It gives the bird the appearance of movement, as if the ghost of the creature were about to reinhabit its sharp grey beak and pick over oyster shells from the Thames.
Silas puckers his lips as he works and, in the lamplight, he is not unhandsome. He has retained a full head of hair in his thirty-eighth year, and it shows no sign of silvering. He looks around him for a moment, at the glass bottles which line the walls, each labelled and filled with the bloated hulks of pickled specimens. Swollen lambs, snakes, lizards and kittens press against the edges of their confinement.
‘Don’t wriggle free of me now, you little rascal,’ he mutters, picking up the pliers and tightening the wire on the bird’s claws. He likes to talk to his creatures, to make up histories which have landed them on his slab, though he could not say why. After considering many imagined scenarios for this dove—disrupting barges on the canal, nesting in a sail of The Odyssey—he settled on one pretence he liked; and so he rebukes this companion often for its invented habit of attacking cress-sellers. He releases his hold on the stuffed dove, and it sits stiffly on the wooden post.
‘There!’ he exclaims, leaning back and pushing his hair out of his eyes. ‘And perhaps this’ll teach you a lesson for knocking that bunch of greens out of that little girl’s arms.’ He is satisfied with this commission, especially given that he rushed the final stages as he grew too absorbed in the skeletisation of a bat. The artist should be pleased nonetheless: the bird is well-mounted, and frozen as if in mid-flight, its wings forming a perfect ‘V’. What’s more, Silas has skimmed further profit by adding another dove heart to one of the yellowed jars. Little browned orbs float in preserving fluid, ready to fetch a good price from alchemists and apothecaries.
Silas tidies the workshop, wiping and straightening his tools. He is halfway up the ladder rungs, his hand pressing against the base of the trap-door, when the consumptive wheeze of the bell sounds.
He knows at once who is at the door. Sick of working through Albie’s knockings, which meant that the boy took the best specimens to medical students, osteological shops and other collectors, Silas fitted a crude system of wires, pulleys and springs, and told only Albie where to find the bell pull.
He hurries through his shop. Perhaps this will be the day when he opens the door and finds Albie holding a creature beyond his wildest imaginings.
After all, if Silas’s collection is to stand the test of time, he needs something truly exceptional to complete it. He thinks of the bakery nearby on Fleet Street, which made a poor trade with its bulky wholemeal loaves, good only for doorstops. Then the baker, on the brink of debtors’ prison, started to pickle strawberries in sugar and sell them by the jar. It transformed the shop, made it famous even in tourist pamphlets of the city.
This is what Silas’s museum will need: a special, unique item which he hopes Albie might one day bring. The trouble is, he often thinks he has found it—the pickled strawberry which will make his name—but then he finishes the work and he finds himself hounded by doubts, by the ache for more. The pathologists and collectors he admires—men of learning and medicine like John Hunter, Richard Bright and Astley Cooper—have no shortage of specimens. He has eavesdropped on the conversations of medical men, sat white with jealousy in drinking holes opposite King’s College London as they’ve discussed the morning’s dissections. He might lack their connections, but surely, surely, one day Albie will bring him something—his hand trembles—remarkable. Then, his name will be etched on a museum entrance, and all of his work, all of his toil, will be recognised. He imagines Flick’s pride, her hand in the small of his back.
‘Albie,’ Silas says, opening the door a sliver. Thames fog snakes in. His chest quickens, but he knows to stay calm, to rein in his keenness. It is an interaction carefully staged, and Silas is never sure whose hand controls the puppet strings.
A ten-year-old child grins back at him (‘ten, I knows, Sir, because I was born on the day the Queen married Albert’). A single yellow tooth is planted in the middle of his upper gums like a gallows.
Silas glances down the dead-end alley, at its ramshackle houses like a row of drunks, each tottering further forward than the last. It might be dark and empty, but it is never quiet.
‘Thought you wasn’t coming,’ Albie says, taking a step back. ‘I was on the point of taking my haul to Porter’s—’
‘Patience, Albie,’ Silas says, tweaking him under the chin to reassert his position. The boy flinches. ‘What you got me, child? The foreleg of a Megalosaurus, or perhaps the head of a mermaid?’
‘A bit chilly for mermaids in Regent’s Canal at this time of year, Sir, but that other creature – Mega-what-sumfink – says he’ll leave you a knee when he pops it.’
‘Kind of him.’
Albie blows into his sleeve. ‘I got you some right jewels all the same.’
The boy unravels the cord of his sack. Silas’s eyes follow his fingers. A pocket of air escapes, gamey, sweet and putrid, and Silas raises a hand to his nose. He can never stand the smells of the dead; the shop is as clean as a chemist’s, and each day he battles the black coal smoke, the fur-dust, and the stink. He would like to uncork the miniature glass bottle of lavender oil that he stores in his waistcoat, to dab it on his upper lip to allay the stench, but he does not want to distract the boy—Albie has the attention span of a shrew on his finest days.
Albie dips a hand into the bag. He pauses. ‘It’s a beauty,’ he says, whipping his hand out and proffering the corpse of a ginger cat. ‘And red, just as you like them.’
Silas lifts the animal into the light. Its needle-sharp teeth are bared in rigor mortis. He feels its swollen belly, takes in its ginger fur greying at the snout. Fat and slow; he should have guessed. True to form, he pricks his finger on its shattered skull.
‘And I suppose this one tripped under a cart, too?’
‘Well, exactly, Sir. How did you—’
‘Nothing to do with you, I should imagine.’
‘Why, Sir—the accusation! If the dead cat could speak, he’d tell you all about that mucker of a flower seller, not a thought for the beast sleeping peaceably under its wheel—’
He trails off when Silas glances at the fresh red scorings on his wrist. Albie pulls down his sleeve. ‘From a brawl, Sir. Nought to do with the cat—but if you knew, Sir, how hard it is with the bone grubbers pinching the best of the trade—’
‘‘What else?’ Silas demands. ‘I’ve told you before, the skeleton’s good for nought with half his brains out, and the pelt bloodstained to boot.’
The boy frowns, then winks, grappling with the sack, pretending it is alive. He snorts when Silas winces.
Silas summons a smirk that feels hollow on his lips. Albie pulls out three rats and a bird which writhes with maggots. Silas’s stomach turns. Its innards have been gutted. Probably into Albie’s stew for dinner, he thinks.
‘A pittance,’ Silas says, starting to close the door. ‘Take it to Porter’s, see what they—’
‘Hang it, Sir, the last piece’d be the making of Porter’s—’
Silas pauses, curses. He hates to see this urchin, this bricky street brat, tease him. It makes him draw back into himself, to recall himself at Albie’s age, running heavy clay saggars across the pottery yard, his arms aching from his mother’s fists. It makes him wonder if he’s ever truly left that life, as even now he’ll let himself be hoodwinked by a single-toothed imp.
Silas says nothing. He feigns a yawn, but watches through a sideways crocodile eye that betrays his interest by not blinking.
With the flourish of a chef with a silver cloche, Albie grins, and unmasks the sacking to present two dead puppies.
At least, Silas thinks it is two puppies, but when he grabs hold of the limbs, he notices only one scruff. One neck. One head. The skull is segmented.
Silas gasps, smiles. He runs his fingers along the seam of its crown to check it isn’t a trick. He wouldn’t put it past Albie to join two dogs with a needle and thread if it fetched him a few more pennies. He holds it up again, sees its silhouette against his gas lamp, squeezes its legs, the cartilage of its joints, the stones of its vertebrae.
‘This is more like it, eh,’ he breathes. ‘Oh yes.’
‘A florin for’t,’ Albie says. ‘No less—’
Silas laughs, pulls out a dogskin purse. ‘A shilling, that’s all. And you can come in, visit my workshop.’ Albie shakes his head, steps further into the alley and looks around him. A look almost like fear passes over the boy’s face, but it soon vanishes when Silas tips the coin into his hand. Albie hawks and spits his phlegmed disdain on to the cobbles.
‘A bob? Would you have a lad starve—’
But Silas has closed the door, and ignores the hammering which follows.
‘If the dead cat could speak,’ Silas muses on Albie’s earlier words. ‘Perhaps we might not like his story, young Alb.’
After Silas closes the door, Albie relaxes at last.
He bites the shilling between his tooth and gums, for no reason except that he has seen other men do the same. He sucks on it. It tastes bloody. He is pleased; he never expected a florin. But if you ask for a florin and you get a bob, what happens if you ask for a bob? He shrugs, spits it out and then tucks it into his pocket. He will buy a bag of boiled pigs’ ears for his breakfast, and give his sister the rest. As if agreeing with the idea, his stomach rumbles, and it quickens his keenness to leave the chill quiet of the alley. Nobody lives in it except Silas, and he can never fathom why – surely even the most destitute beggar wouldn’t mind the meaty, chemical stink? Besides, he has another task to complete, and he’s already late.
There is a second hemp sack next to his Dead Creatures bag, which contains tiny skirts he sewed through the night. He is careful never to mix the two. Sometimes, as he hands over the bag at the doll shop, he is convinced he has muddled them, and he feels an arrow-quiver in his heart. He would not like to see Mrs Salter’s gnarled face if she opened a bag of maggoty rats.
He shoulders both sacks, blows on his little fists to warm them, and takes off at a run, zig-zagging through the streets. His rickety legs bow outwards. He runs west, through Soho with its banked muck, piss-reeks, and gaunt whores who track his racing legs with tatty eyes, like worn-out cats watch a fly. The sun is rising, picking out the puddles in orange.
He emerges onto Regent’s Street, glances at the shop which sells sets of sets of teeth for five guineas, taps his single tooth with his tongue, and then catapaults into the path of a horse. It bucks and rears. He leaps back and masters his fear by bellowing at the rider, ‘Watch it, cove!’
And before the man has had a chance to shout back at him or crack him with his whip, Albie has darted across the street, and crossed the threshold of Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium.
MRS SALTER’S DOLL EMPORIUM
Iris runs her thumbnail down the seams of the miniature skirts, poised to crack the shells of any fleas. She picks at a loose thread. She sucks the end, knots it cleanly.
Her mistress Mrs Salter is yet to rise for the day, but her twin sister sits behind her, head bowed over her sewing.
‘Flea-less, at least. Do take more care with the threads, though,’ Iris says to Albie. ‘There’s a whole city of seamstresses who’d sell their newborns to pinch the work off you.’
Albie wrinkles his nose and extracts a particularly blackened curl of snot with his finger. ‘But Miss, my sister’s got influenza and I nursed her through the night—it ain’t fair—’
‘Poor thing.’ Iris looks around, but her sister Rose is preoccupied. She lowers her voice. ‘But you must remember you are dealing with a devil, not a woman, in Mrs Salter, and fairness never has been a concern of hers. Have you ever seen her stick out her tongue?’
Albie shakes his head.
Albie grins, and it is such an open smile, so free of artifice, that Iris wants to embrace him. His mucky dark hair, his single fang-tooth, his soot-stained face—none of these things are his fault. In another world, he could have been born into their family in Hackney.
She hands him the next stack of fabric, checks again that Rose isn’t looking, and then proffers sixpence. She planned to put it towards a new paintbrush. ‘To buy broth for your sister.’
Albie stares at the coin, hesitant.
‘It isn’t a trick,’ she says.
‘Thank you, Miss,’ he says, his eyes as black as marbles. Then he snatches it from her, as if afraid she’ll change her mind, and scampers out of the shop, almost barrelling into the Italian organ-grinder who swats him with his cane.
Iris watches him go and allows herself to inhale. He may be a filthy little urchin, but even so she can never understand why he stinks quite so foully of decay.
Dark Barn by L P Fergusson
The explosion was deafening. It juddered up through the Messerschmitt, into Lukas Schiller’s body. He felt his stomach twist, a fizz of terror squeezing the tip of his tongue. Had he been hit? He strained around in his seat, staring into the twilight. The sky was empty. No puffs of ack ack, no Spitfires. He looked at the temperature gauge; 120°C and climbing. What the hell just happened? Could he make it back across the English Channel, back to the German base at Coquelles? Yes, maybe. But not up here. He must drop down, hide in the cloud base, let the engine cool.
‘Now, mein Schatzchen,’ he said, ‘See how carefully I treat you. I won’t let you burn your insides out.’
He reached forward to turn off the ignition. His hand was trembling; he must steady himself. The engine cut and he was gliding now, his breath booming in his helmet as he watched the needles drop. There was even time to glimpse enemy fields between the breaks in the clouds. They were white with snow like the Alps of Swabia. He felt calmer, listening to the gale outside, calm enough to wonder if he would ever walk in the mountains again, see the ice crystals forming rainbows in front of his eyes.
He pulled off his oxygen mask to give himself more freedom and a smell smacked into his nostrils, hot metal and fuel. Waves of panic swelled inside him, pushing up into his throat. He was low now, eight hundred feet, grey clouds boiling all around him. Time to fire up the engine again. Metal screamed against metal, his ears pulsed under the agonising volume then…
The engine had seized.
He needed to move fast. He tore off his flying helmet, his elbows crashing against the cockpit. He grabbed at the lever and jettisoned the canopy. The sudden explosion of wind and noise was terrifying. He gasped, gulped at the freezing air. The canopy was wrenched from his hand. He heard it grating along the fuselage behind. He released his seat belt, pushed up into the slipstream. Pushed again. And again. He was jammed. His parachute pack was wedged, the gale raging around him, forcing his body down. Beneath him he felt his plane begin her final dive, a roll to the right, a drop of her nose. He was going down with her, down into the void. With a great pump of adrenaline, Lukas leant into the roll and pushed with all his might.
And he was out, rolling along the side of the plane, the powerstorm tossing him like a rag doll. He tried to brace his head with his arms, certain he was going to smash into the tail section but then he was falling. He was clear. Tumbling through the sky, he reached up, grasped the handle and pulled.
Nothing happened. He was dropping like a stone, the wind thundering in his ears. Fields widened, expanding beneath him as he plummeted. Cold earth, hard as iron, rushing towards him. He grappled behind his neck, his hands desperately trying to feel the opening to the pack to help the ’chute out. Billows of silk and line bubbled up by his side, wrapping itself around his arm. Lukas twisted and tossed his body about to give it free passage. Silk streamed past him. He looked up, saw the parachute fill, felt the full force of the deceleration in his shoulder and pain – a panting, searing pain. The cord shook the arm free, dropping it limp and useless by his side. He twisted, trying to lessen the pressure of the harness against his shoulder but the ground was coming up fast. The parachute rotated him. His plane swam into focus, way over there, in the distance. She was diving silently down towards a field. A herd of cows bolted away from under her, their tails held high, their hooves kicking up lumps of mud and snow. His plane sank out of sight, over a ridge and he heard a muffled thud as she hit the earth. The parachute spiralled him round again and the wind carried him further away from her, swinging him towards some trees. As he pendulumed down towards a spinney he heard her ammunition begin to fire, a fanfare calling the enemy to muster and search but as he crashed down through the branches he heard a crackling explosion. His Messerschmitt had destroyed herself.
Millie Sanger woke with a start. It was still dark outside but she could hear noises coming up from the farmyard. One morning, she thought, just one morning, let me be in the cowshed before that blasted Land Girl. Cursing, she pulled her clothes out from under the bedding, still warm from her body and hauled them on over her pyjamas. She struggled with the buttons; she’d always thought it was old people who got chilblains but this morning her fingers itched like hell. Downstairs she pulled on one of her husband’s overcoats. It completely swamped her but it was warm. She wrapped a piece of binder twine several times round her waist, pulling it tight. Struggling to bend, she pulled on her boots, snatched her gloves off the line above the range and tied a headscarf around her ears before heading out into the darkness.
The light from the milking shed seeped out along the base of the blackout baffles. Not a cow in sight. Brigsie had rounded them up into the byres all on her own. Millie stood for a moment, composing herself, fighting down her unreasonable irritation. She ducked into the shed and called out,
‘Why didn’t you wake me?’
Brigsie’s head popped up over the back of a cow.
‘I thought you needed your sleep,’ and that, thought Millie, is the impossibly irritating thing about Brigsie, her intentions are so kind but she makes me feel utterly inadequate and idle.
‘Thanks, Brigsie,’ she said.
The head disappeared again but Brigsie’s voice floated up over the animals into the steamy air.
‘Mrs Wilson saw a plane come down last night.’
‘Did she?’ Millie said. Her golden Labrador came trotting up the shed towards her, making the cows shift and stamp in their byres. He swerved as a cloven hoof lashed out backwards but skittered on, his tail wagging as he trotted. She squatted down, pulled gently on the dog’s ears, soft as suede. ‘You’ll get such a kick one day, Gyp,’ she whispered, laying a kiss on the top of his head.
‘Said it didn’t make a noise at all,’ Brigsie was saying, ‘no flames, nothing. Disappeared over the horizon.’
‘That’s good then.’
Millie went through to the dairy to collect a clean bucket.
‘It came down somewhere near Norrington,’ Brigsie called out, ‘over at Manor Farm. Morney Beswick took a gang of his men up there with pitchforks to get the crew.’ Millie squeezed a path between two cows in the double byre, pressed the stool against her coat and sat.
‘Morney would,’ she said.
The milk whined into the bucket, the sound growing lush and deep as it filled.
‘It must have blown up when it hit the ground,’ Brigsie called. ‘They heard the explosion from a mile away. By the time they got there it was completely burned out.’ Millie rested her head against the flank of the cow, the rhythm of the milk squirting into the bucket soothing her.
‘How many bodies?’
‘It was a fighter apparently, so just the one. Blown to pieces they say.’
‘You wouldn’t say that if you had family in Bristol. Well over a hundred dead I heard. Morney’s got a daughter over there. He told the men to skewer any crew they found on the spot.’
‘Blown to bits or skewered by Morney. Some choice.’
On the other side of the combe, Hugh Adamson was battling with a starting handle. The tractor rumbled twice, shuddered and spat out a cloud of exhaust, black as soot, before settling down to a regular chug. He climbed up into the seat and turned out of his farmyard onto the lane leading over the Downs to Enington Farm to collect Millie’s churns from the dairy.
Getting the Fordson going in the morning always warmed him up but as he travelled the mile and a half along the top of the Downs, the December wind began to bite through his army great coat and he hunkered down into the collar. He used to be able to see Millie’s lights from here, burning out in the darkness on the other side of the combe but not now. Not since the blackout. The sky ahead seemed paler but he couldn’t work out if it was the dawn or just the glow of the snowfields.
The tractor began to drop into the combe and the roof of a dark barn, crouching in the valley, rose up into his field of vision. Bad business all that, he thought. Place still gave him the spooks, the way the mist lay in that airless gorge. As he watched, a pair of rooks rose up from the snow like black rags blowing in the wind. Millie should have that barn pulled down. It’s too far from the dairy to be any use to her and God knows, she could reuse the materials.
He pushed the Fordson into a lower gear to get a bit more power, get him past the combe as quickly as possible and as the track rose once more, so did his mood. He saw the roofs of Enington Farm ahead; heard the cows stumbling out of the shed, their hooves clacking on the concrete.
‘Morning ladies,’ he shouted over the noise of the engine as he turned into the yard.
Millie was swamped by Adam’s old coat. He wished she wouldn’t wear the damned thing. About a week after it all happened, he’d walked into her kitchen and she was wearing that damned coat, bending forward, putting something in the bottom oven and he thought for all the world that Adam was back. He told her it was morbid to go on wearing it. Well, he didn’t say that exactly. He said he thought it was odd but she’d shrugged, said it was warm.
Millie turned, raised a hand and waved. One of the cows slipped beside her, a hoof veering sideways through the muck. The animal lumbered and tossed her head, slumping against the others.
‘Whoa, Patty – get a move on,’ Millie shouted, slapping her on the rump. Hugh smiled. Millie was certain cows with names were more productive.
‘C’mon, move Daisy, move,’ as she slapped another.
He could see Brigsie inside the shed. That woman never felt the cold. No coat or gloves, just her Land Army jodhpurs and jumper. There she was, built like an Amazon, a big, powerful woman, solid, pushing a cow round to face the exit. That type of woman pumped out heat. He half expected to see steam rising off her shoulders.
‘Go on, Betty. Go on,’ he heard her shout. As the cows began to move outside, Hugh hopped down from the tractor and strode into the shed. He grabbed the rubber hose and began to spray into the corners of the byres, stepping through the dung and straw river as it flowed towards the centre of the shed. Millie turned in the yard, gave him… well, the most wonderful smile. She looked so delicate, swamped in that coat and, with the quickness of a boy, she bounded towards him, grabbed hold of a broom and started pushing the river along, out through the door and over the edge of the concrete, turning the snow an ochre yellow.
In the dairy he heard Brigsie clanking the lids onto the top of the churns and thumping them down with her fist.
‘Better fetch the trailer,’ he said and Millie paused, leant her elbow on the handle of the broom and nodded, her face a pale triangle under the skeins of dark hair escaping from her headscarf.
The Fordson was still guggling away at the top of the yard. He crunched it into gear and backed the trailer up to the door. Brigsie, legs apart to steady herself, was rocking the first churn backwards and forwards, dragging it across the floor in the direction of the door. Millie hauled away at the second. She may be half the size of Brigsie but she was strong, tough. He jumped down, heaving the final one past them. Standing on the trailer platform he tugged the churns up, his head raised with the effort, then hopped down, barely out of breath, wiping his hands on a piece of cloth.
‘Didn’t need to cool it this morning,’ he said.
‘Be lucky if they collect it before it freezes.’
‘Can you spare a cup of tea, Millie?’
‘Of course. Brigsie?’
‘No. I’m all right. I’ll start on the litter,’ Brigsie said.
‘She’s a hard worker,’ Hugh said when they got inside, ‘We’re lucky to have her.’ He stripped off his coat and threw it over the back of a kitchen chair. ‘So, how are you getting on? Were you all right last night? A plane came down over Norrington.’
‘I thought about you.’
‘I was fine.’
The kettle began to crack and pop as the water heated.
‘I think about you a lot,’ he said.
Millie, who was watching the kettle with her back to him, rolled her eyes. She wished he wouldn’t do that. She was always pleased to see him, genuinely liked having him around but ever since Adam died, he was like a dog starved of affection. She knew if she patted him, he’d be all over her. She turned and leaned against the towel bar along the edge of the chipped range. He was sitting forward on the chair, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands linked beneath his chin, looking up at her. Compared to the service men, his hair was long, dark as a gypsy’s, messed up from where he’d pulled off his hat.
‘You mustn’t worry about me,’ she said.
He laughed lightly and sat back in his chair.
‘Did you hear? Bristol got it again last night,’ he said.
‘I thought I heard the bombers coming over.’
‘Coventry, Southampton, Bristol – when will it ever stop?’
‘When Britain surrenders?’
‘Then it’ll never stop,’ Hugh looked up at her. His eyes were so deep-set, the pupils so dark, they seemed all of a piece with his eyebrows when he frowned hard.
‘Do you think we’re in danger here?’ she said.
‘Coltenham maybe. They might target the munitions factory but we’re pretty safe up here.’
‘What about the plane that came down?’
‘It wasn’t a bomber; it was a fighter. I suppose it went off course. It was flying low and the gunners at Shawstoke hit it.’
‘Take me over to Norrington today. I’d like to see the wreckage.’
Hugh looked at her and she saw his expression change.
‘I most certainly will not. Women shouldn’t see things like that.’
‘It’s not just a plane, Millie. It’s a man.’
‘Brigsie said there wasn’t a body.’
‘Not as such.’
Hugh got to his feet, his movement sudden and impatient. ‘For goodness sake, Millie. What’s got into you?’ She stared at him, knew he would blunder on. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘The front half of the plane was blown to smithereens and that wretched pilot would have gone the same way. What are you hoping to see? A hand hanging in a tree? A foot under a hedge.’
‘I suppose,’ she said, ‘I’d quite like to see the body of a man who’d been killed in action.’
Millie gave a laugh.
‘It would make a change.’
‘Oh, stop it, Millie,’ and Hugh paced away from her, picked up his coat, paused and flung it back down. He swung round and said,
‘You need to put it behind you, move on.’
How many times had she heard that bloody mantra during the past six months? She wanted to mock him for his lack of imagination but she felt an infuriating stinging behind her eyes, saw the room distort as tears oozed into her eyes. ‘Oh no – come on, don’t cry,’ he said, irritated or maybe embarrassed. He stepped towards her, jerking her against his chest, the wool of his jumper prickling her cheek.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice muffled against his jumper, ‘I didn’t mean to bait you.’ She pushed away from him.
He reached behind her and pulled a dishcloth off the rail, offering it to her as a handkerchief. ‘Don’t blow your nose on it,’ he said; his little joke, but Millie wasn’t ready for that yet.
‘I’m too angry to move on, Hugh. I can’t forgive him.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Hugh said. ‘That’s enough of all that.’ He moved a strand of hair from across her forehead and tried to poke it back underneath her headscarf, his fingertip rough, then he glanced towards the window – Looking for escape, she thought.
‘You’ve had a stinking run of bad luck,’ he said. ‘It’s enough to knock the stuffing out of anyone but it’s best not to dwell.’
Angel Derby by Mary Ann Kurtz
There was an Angel and the Devil, in the muddy baptismal water, holding hands – Anon
Black Tupelo, Tennessee 1939
The stone step was smooth and cool under her legs as she waited for something to take her away. She was singing a little song to herself. A song that the bigger girls at school sang when they jumped rope. She wasn’t allowed a jump rope so she sat on the step and sang softly to herself.
‘Hush, hush, hush, here come the bogeyman. Hush, hush, hush.’
She closed one eye and then the other, making the trees by the river jump back and forth. She fluttered her eyelashes, making the whole world dance. She shook her head from side to side, faster and faster, her hair slapping her cheeks until it almost hurt. With a stick she drew around her shoes in the dirt, spat on her finger and rubbed hard at a scuff on the toe. She put them on the wrong feet, as if she didn’t know better. Wearing her shoes like that felt good.
At the sound of her father’s voice she stopped singing and looked down at her shoes. They were shiny black leather and two sizes too big, her prized possession. Aunt Sissy found them in a cardboard box at The Salvation Army store. ‘A rose among the thorns,’ she’d said, holding out the shoes. Ardis didn’t know what Aunt Sissy meant by that but those shoes were the prettiest things she’d ever seen.
Her father’s tall figure cast a shadow across her lap, blocking the sun. He was a lean sinewy man with a gaunt face and sparse brown hair. His hands were rough and hung stiffly at his sides. She sat very still hoping he was just stopping on his way to somewhere else. That in a second or two he would move away and give her back the warmth and light. She closed her eyes and prayed hard to the God of Pretty Things that he would never mind about her shoes.
‘What have I told ya, Ardis?’
A heartbeat. ‘What’s that Pa?’
‘Pride and covetousness are Satan’s doing.’
Another beat. ‘What do ya mean?’
‘Sweet Jesus won’t have ya loving those shoes.’
Her heart was galloping now. ‘These are such pretty shoes Pa. Don’t Sweet Baby Cheeses like pretty things?’
She squinted up at him, into the sun, as he started in on his words. Words that meant something was going to happen. Something from Pa’s Book of Truth, that heavy thing he carried around inside his head. His voice was even, like slow sinking sand. She listened out for sounds of salvation, wanting to be ready for what was coming. In her mind, she wore her thin white gown and stood at the edge of the pit waiting for him to wash her sins away. It’s cold out, she thought. The pit might be frozen over and she’d be walking on water like Jesus. There’d be men boring holes in the ice and dropping in their fishing lines. Pa might bore a hole and drop her in. She didn’t want to get lost under that ice, afraid the water would take something from her. A leg or arm. Some part of her that she might need later on.
She heard the word ‘deliverance’ and decided to run. This was a time before she knew that running from Pa was not a good thing to do. She was fast, the good Lord made her that way, but her shoes were on the wrong feet and Pa was faster. He caught up and threw her high into the air. Sun filled her eyes. The world tipped dizzily around her. In that instant she had wings and was flying. She laughed and scrunched her toes with all her might not wanting to lose her shoes. For those few seconds, it was a game. That was all. She sensed a kind of possibility and closed her eyes almost in shock or pain that she felt so free. Then she landed hard on his shoulder and realized it wasn’t a game at all.
The gravel path to the house was tangled with roots and he stumbled. His hold on her loosened and she slid from his shoulder into a long slow free fall, landing on the ground in a crumpled heap. The pain in her head was sharp. Her knees gleamed with scraps of flesh, blood and stone. She blinked, but wouldn’t cry. One eye didn’t work like it should so she shut both and pretended to be asleep. Hoping he would leave her alone. The crunch of gravel under her father’s boots made her open her eyes and she saw him reach down for her shoes.
She was mad because he wasn’t what she’d been waiting for. It wasn’t Pa who would take her away. More than that she was mad at Sweet Baby Cheeses for not wanting her to have those shoes.
It was the next Sunday and with a sharp wind in her face, she trailed behind Harlan to church. Winter was coming shortly and she wore an old wool coat over her thin checked dress. The coat was done up with the one remaining button, tangles of dark thread hung where the others used to be. Every so often, she stopped to tie her boots or look for her handkerchief to blow her nose or say it was slippery so she had to go slow else she’d fall.
‘What’s wrong with ya?’ Harlan’s face got uglier each time he turned around to hurry her along.
Seeing Aunt Sissy and not having her shoes, she thought. That’s what was wrong. She said nothing and walked the rest of the way without stopping because she didn’t want to see that ugly face again.
At the church, Aunt Sissy and Russell were standing where Ardis feared they would be. Right under the Church of Believers – Miracles Every Service sign waiting until the last person was inside. ‘Last in, first out,’ Aunt Sissy always said.
‘Why ain’t ya wearing your new shoes?’ Aunt Sissy was smiling and seemed happy about Ardis having those shoes.
Ardis’s heart thumped noisily in her chest. Her mouth was a little dry. ‘They’re gone Aunt Sissy.’
It was the truth. Just with the bad part left out. Pa was standing next to her. She smelled the pine tar soap on his hands and crossed her fingers behind her back.
‘What do ya mean, gone?’ Aunt Sissy’s smile began to fade.
The backs of Ardis’s knees started to sweat. The insides of her elbows itched. She didn’t scratch because she’d have to uncross her fingers. She didn’t want to say too much. Her voice wasn’t strong.
‘Them shoes were too big. They fell off,’ she said quietly and looked down at the ground.
‘Did ya stuff the toes with newspaper like I told ya?’
‘And they still fell off?’ Aunt Sissy’s voice was getting louder.
Aunt Sissy looked up at Harlan and back at her. Ardis was sweating and itching all over now.
‘Did somebody take your shoes?’
Ardis never told a lie before. Pa didn’t allow it. Lying was for sinners. She remembered once when Russell got caught telling a lie. Aunt Sissy beat him with a belt. Afterward he’d told Ardis something she never thought she’d need to know.
‘When you’re telling a porker, don’t go looking all over the place. Look ‘em straight in the eye or they’ll know you’re lying.’
Ardis didn’t want the belt and she didn’t want the pit. She looked at Sissy, straight in the eyes, and nodded her head. ‘No,’ she said.
‘Does he know where they are?’ Aunt Sissy never spoke directly to Harlan and always called him ‘he’.
Ardis shrugged and looked away. ‘Don’t know.’
That was another lie. She figured Aunt Sissy knew it because there was no trace of a smile left. Aunt Sissy was looking at Harlan. He was looking back at her. The corners of his mouth turned up into the smallest smile. Seeing Pa smile sent a shiver running through her. Aunt Sissy must have been finished asking about the shoes because she hawked and spat a greenish gob on the ground. Her aim was good. It landed right next to Harlan’s foot. He didn’t even flinch.
The next day after school she walked home slowly, dragging her feet in the dirt. She had an empty feeling in her chest, an ache. Like being hungry and knowing there was nothing to eat. The school bus had left without her and she was five so getting home took a long time.
It was a lonely walk down a long stretch of the road. The only house was surrounded by knee-high weeds and a tall metal fence. A dog growled as she passed, making her heart beat a little faster. She wrapped her arms around her lunch box and rested her chin against the cool metal, pretending not to be afraid. The dog barked and crashed through the weeds, throwing itself against the fence. Ropes of drool swung from its fangs. Standing on its hind legs, that dog was the biggest thing she’d ever seen. Even bigger than the bogeyman. She screamed and ran.
Her knapsack slid down her back, the books inside bounced hard from hip to hip. Her lunchbox sprang open, spilling out wrappers and leftover crusts of bread. She didn’t stop or turn around until that dog was a long way back, not even for the half-eaten Hostess Twinkie she’d traded for at school. When she got to the end of the road, her heart was pounding and she felt a sudden urge. She hiked up her dress and squatted in the dirt, watching the stream of pale yellow liquid soak into the ground.
Running from that dog made her feel small and want to cry. Nobody was around and she was glad, not wanting folks to see her scared. She thought about resting for a minute and lay down by roadside. Clouds moved slowly across the sky. An eagle circled way overhead. I want to be there, she thought. Floating around like that bird. Way up where nothing can get at me. Not that dog or Pa or anyone. After a while of looking at the sky and not thinking about much at all, she didn’t feel so small anymore and walked on.
She cut through the woods and saw Aunt Sissy in a clearing, pulling up plants and putting them in her basket. She stood and watched for a while. Aunt Sissy could cure almost anything with the potions she concocted using those plants. ‘Can cure anything but heartache’ is what she always said. Ardis wondered if there was something in that basket to ease the ache in her chest. But since it was an ache that came from lying about her shoes she didn’t ask.
Aunt Sissy turned. ‘Strange child,’ she said, putting her hand on her heart as if something was going to fall out. ‘Ya can’t just stand and stare at a person like that. Scared me half to death.’
‘Russell got pains?’ Ardis said.
‘No, he’s fine.’
‘Then what’s all that in the basket for?’
‘Making something special.’ Aunt Sissy had gone back to looking around and picked up a bunch of tangled brown weed. ‘This’ll do just fine.’
There weren’t any fiddle-leaf figs or red clover or even a dandelion in her basket. Just a bunch of twigs, some moss and a withered apple that looked like a shrunken head.
‘Ya making voodoo?’
Aunt Sissy laughed. ‘What do ya know about voodoo?’
‘Some kids at school make little dolls out of twigs then stick ‘em with pins. Supposed to bring somebody bad luck.’
Aunt Sissy looked like she was thinking for a while then said, ‘well I guess that’s what I’m doing. Making my own special voodoo.’
Sunday came and the weather had finally turned. It was cold with dark clouds low in the sky, threatening rain. Harlan was taking longer strides than usual and she had to hurry. Her socks slipped inside her boots but she didn’t stop to pull them up. She couldn’t make Pa wait. He believed in sitting right up front, as an example for the congregation to behold, and that meant getting there early so nobody took his seat. Aunt Sissy said that sitting up front was just bragging to the Lord. Like saying ‘lookie here God, it’s me.’ She always sat at the back because sometimes she fell asleep and didn’t want the Reverend shoving any God fearing stuff down her throat on the sly.
Ardis didn’t like bragging or sitting up front either. Sometimes she dared herself to look around to see if Aunt Sissy was asleep. More often than not she’d be wide-awake, sucking a Brach’s peppermint with the noise of a deaf woman and looking at the door.
They got to church as the rain came down. It was loud, like a sacrament. Must be the same sound that Noah heard, Ardis thought. Everyone was crowding inside. Taking off coats and hats. Funnelling down the center aisle, every pew filling fast. The women wore starchy dresses and shoes that pinched their feet. The men had combed their hair, wore suspenders and ties, the dark smoke of barbeque and whiskey from the night before came off their skin.
Two ladies who were taking their time deciding where to sit blocked the aisle. Harlan was trying to push past. Ardis didn’t mind because her socks had slipped all the way down into her boots and she was busy pulling them up.
‘Lordy,’ she heard one of the ladies say to the other. ‘Look who’s sitting in the front row today.’
Harlan stopped. Ardis banged into his legs.
‘My, my and what’s she got on her head?’ the other woman said.
Ardis stretched up on her toes and craned her neck, trying to follow Harlan’s gaze, but she couldn’t see past all the backsides and trouser legs.
‘I’d say it’s a hat.’
‘Well she is sure gonna catch the Lord’s eye with that one.’
The women slid into a pew and Ardis could finally see the front row. Not able to stop herself, she gasped. Aunt Sissy was sitting in Pa’s place and she was wearing half the forest on her head. It was a hat made from what she’d collected in the woods and it spread out so wide there was only enough space for Russell at one end, a few old ladies at the other. Her own special voodoo.
Harlan pushed her into the second row where the only empty seats were right behind Aunt Sissy. Ardis knew he that begin there would make him mad and sat very still. No matter how much he twisted and turned, the only thing he’d see was that hat. To her it was an enchanted forest with gnarled sycamore twigs, like bleached bones, draped with moss and red berries, withered apples stuck with pine needles, the stink of black cherry bark. For a while she was a woodlouse crawling through the Sumac and brown curled leaves tied on with string. Tiny paper birds attached by wire bobbed over a nest still lined with downy feathers and bits of brown speckled shell. She pinched a sprig of blue cedar dangling from the brim and held it to her nose. It smelled like her bedroom closet where she sometimes slept.
‘Whore’s hat,’ she heard Harlan say.
Ardis knew Pa was wrong about that. She’d read about whores in the Bible and Russell had told her a lot more.
‘Whore’s don’t wear hats, Pa,’ she said, sitting a little straighter with the importance of what she knew. ‘Russell says whores don’t wear much of anything. Not even underpants.’
Rain slammed against the tin church roof, making a sound so loud that the preacher was shouting to the congregation. Ardis couldn’t make out what Pa said back to her. Something about a ‘rod’ and ‘back’ but she wasn’t sure. She was on the edge of her seat, swinging her legs back and forth, looking at Aunt Sissy’s hat and feeling glad she wasn’t a whore. Especially with it being so cold outside.
All through the sermon Aunt Sissy waved her arms in the air and her words were fast and jumbled, as if she was speaking in tongues. A chorus of ‘whooooaaaa’ rose from the congregation when she bowed her head and started to topple forward, hat first. She steadied herself with a hand on Russell’s shoulder, shouting ‘amen’ and ‘halleluiah Brother, halleluiah Sister’ and sang way too loud for somebody who didn’t know the words. Bits of moss, twigs and leaves went everywhere. The two little birds broke free and landed in Harlan’s lap. Ardis looked up at his flushed face, the blue vein pulsing in his neck. Everybody along the pew was smiling. Except Pa. He brushed the birds to the floor and without looking, crushed them under the heel of his boot.
‘Think I’ll wear this hat more often,’ Aunt Sissy said to the preacher after the service was over and he’d come by to shake everyone’s hand. ‘Folks seem to like it.’
The preacher wasn’t smiling but she didn’t seem to notice. When he’d walked on, Aunt Sissy swivelled around in her seat, the hat just missing Russell who was busy picking twigs from his hair and looking like he wanted out of there.
‘Maybe when ya turn six,’ she said to Ardis. ‘I’ll get ya another pair of those shoes.’
Ardis nodded her head just enough so Pa didn’t see, in case he said she wouldn’t be getting another birthday. Aunt Sissy turned and spoke to Harlan. Something she never did.
‘Mark my words, Harlan Granger,’ she said, without a smile or any particular look on her face. ‘I’m gonna bury ya in this hat.
Four Degrees by Julie Carrick Dalton
Sadie pried a strip of bark off the dying pine tree. Her fingers, blistered and raw from hunting the elusive pine beetle, froze as a gush of insects writhed against the exposed wood. The beetles scattered for cover, but not fast enough.
“Got you.” Her voice, scratchy and dry from not having spoken in days, echoed off the granite boulders in the sparse forest. She scraped the insects into a small envelope and tilted her head up to the morning sun.
When she got home she would storm her research director’s office, dump bags of dead beetles on her desk and her lap, and nail poisoned wood samples to the wall. No one who looked at her evidence would be able to deny the insects had migrated from the Rockies to New England. ‘I told you so’ burned sweet on her tongue.
Sadie shook the envelope to the rhythm of a song she couldn’t quite remember. The spirited rustle, like seeds anxious to be planted, emboldened her, even as her body ached under the fifty-pound backpack. She trudged beyond the tree line. Only fifty meters to Mount Howell’s summit.
Smoke scratched the back of her throat, confirming the late summer wind was already pushing the forest fires east. She paused for a sip of water. Working alone in the woods, Sadie marked time in elevation and ounces of water. She was running out of both.
This drought. This spate of fires. This beetle. With a four-degree increase in summer temperatures over last half century, New Hampshire had practically invited the insidious invader and the fires that came with it. Sadie could slow the wildfires if someone would just believe her. The anticipation of being right, of being the hero, had lulled her to sleep the past several nights under the canopy of stars. Cocooned in her sleeping bag, she’d written the opening to her imagined Ted Talk. When someone says you’re overreacting, but you know you’re right, keep reacting until it’s over.
She dialed Thea, her research director.
“It’s the pine beetles. Just like I thought.” Sadie’s breath grew heavy as she stutter-stepped on the gravelly incline. “They’re killing off the pines, and with this drought, it’s all going to burn.”
“The fire’s shifting. You need to come down.”
“Wait till you see my samples.”
“If we thin the infested trees, we can get ahead of the fires.”
“We lost the grant.”
Silence as deep as her dying forest surrounded Sadie.
“I’ve got proof now. It’s just like California and Colorado. You want me to pretend nothing’s happening just because I don’t have grant money?”
“Write a paper. You’ll find more funding.”
“By then the whole state will be on fire.”
“They took you seriously enough to start digging firebreaks. You did that. Be happy.”
“But the beetles.”
“Show me the samples tomorrow.” Sadie heard Thea’s fingernails cantering against her desk. “Or I’m done defending your research.”
“I need more time,” Sadie said, but Thea had already hung up.
Sadie’s backpack grew heavier, compressing her knees and spine, as if she might crumble into the rock under her feet. She had hoped the summer fellowship would morph into a full-time forestry position so she could escape teaching college students who only wanted an easy science credit. They wouldn’t care about her beetles either.
She forced herself up the final incline. If gravity pulled from the dense fist at the center the Earth, then the higher she pushed herself up the mountain, the farther she removed herself from the core, the looser gravity’s grip would be. It tugged at her heels and stole the oxygen from her lungs. Only on the summits did Sadie feel a lightness in her chest. She stood untethered in the rushing wind. Anything seemed possible from the top of a mountain.
Sadie dropped her pack to the ground. A gust whipped her hair across her face, carrying traces of pine and the reedy flute of a distant hermit thrush. Wind stretched the clouds below her like raw cotton on a comb, allowing the rusty tips of dead pine trees to peek through. She pulled samples of tree bark and pine wedges from her backpack and laid them around her in a semi-circle. The invasive beetle she had been hunting the last four days had carved lacy lines into the wood. The pea-sized creatures were killing off trees and leaving them as kindling in the parched woodlands. She stroked the delicate destruction with her finger. The wood was stained with the mountain pine beetles’ telltale blue fungus—the color of Civil War soldiers and the autumn sky before sunset. That color meant death to a forest. She held a wedge to her face and inhaled the freshly cut wood. The tang of sap should have rushed in. But dead trees don’t bleed. They burn.
Smoke blurred the edge of the mountaintops to the west. Mount Griffin rose from the mist, green on the north slope and charred on the south. When she finally convinced crews to start thinning the beetle-infested pines, she would salvage a few trunks to mill into floorboards for her home. If she ever stayed still long enough to own a home. The grooves the beetles carved would feel better under bare feet than the slick linoleum in her one-bedroom apartment.
From the mountain top, home felt distant, as if it might not be there when she came down. Time moved more slowly in the woods, sliding by like the lazy flow of pine sap. As a child, she used to imagine the outside world slipping away as she leapt from rock to rock through the ferny woods surrounding her home. The pine and beech trees had been her friends. They had guarded her, swallowed her secrets whole.
It was her turn to protect the forest.
Silence enveloped the summit, an island of stone floating in the low-hanging clouds. If only time would stop. Right here. Right now. The beetles would pause their insatiable attack, the fires would stall, her grant would freeze in place, and Sadie would remain at the top of the world, where she could hide from gravity.
She didn’t like the gnawing whisper inside her, taunting her that the fires presented an opportunity. If they proved to be a bigger threat than expected, and if Sadie’s research stopped an inferno, it would transform her career, her future. She did not want to want that fire, but a small voice inside called out to the flames. Come if you dare.
Sadie selected a potato-sized stone from the ledge and dusted it against her thigh. She pressed her tongue to the rock, leaving a wet oval to reveal its hidden mineral life. The dull grays and browns of New Hampshire granite burst into streaks of silver and layers of radiant amber at the touch of her saliva. A creamy, jagged vein glowed in the sunlight. The oval shrank as wind sucked the light from the rock until it reverted to its flat finish. The iridescence of veiled colors fizzed on her tongue. Her mouth watered.
She tucked the stone in the bottom of her backpack, cradling it in the center of the tambourine she carried to scare off bears. When she built her own house someday, the rocks she’d collected would form the skirt around her hearth. Pieces of every hike, markers of time. The stack of stones—at least thirty by now—formed a cairn in her apartment. She often wondered if the dilapidated building could bear the weight, or if one day it would all come crashing down.
Her cell phone buzzed against the granite slab as a text came through.
It’s Daniela. They found him.
The minerals on her tongue turned to acid. She read and reread the words until they became a jumble of illegible letters, and the screen powered down. She hurled a rock off the ledge and held her breath until it struck the slope below, unleashing a torrent of cascading stone. This couldn’t be happening.
I’m home. I need you here, Daniela texted again. They’re questioning my dad.
Sadie imagined the text message in Daniela’s childhood voice and didn’t restrain the sob that burst out with decades of compressed guilt. More than twenty-five years had passed since she had spoken to Daniela Garcia. If she acknowledged Daniela, Sadie would no longer be able to pretend that long-ago summer had never happened. The fiction of Sadie’s childhood, rewritten and edited so she could sleep at night, would come undone. The single gunshot echoed in her mind.
Or she could stay on her mountaintop and turn off her phone. She put her head between her knees and stared down at the fissures in the slab. She scratched a rock on the surface of the ledge, leaving white letters next to her wood samples. Sadie was here. It felt childish, but she traced over the letters until they stood out in bold blocks. Sadie was here.
Horizontal lines in the granite recorded time, a hundred thousand years between each striation. Climbing her mountains meant traveling through time, treading on scars of each millennia. Unknowable catastrophic events had bent and broken the stone. Sedimentary lines collided at violent angles, as if time had folded in on itself. Moments that were never meant to touch, fused together in geological history.
She imagined the panic in Daniela’s dark eyes. As much as Sadie wanted to hide in the woods, the ferocity of the bond Sadie once shared with Daniela swelled in her chest, shaming her for wanting to abandon her friend again, as she had done so many years ago.
Her thumbs felt thick and clumsy as she typed a response.
On my way to the cottage. Meet me at 9 tonight? The tacky layer of sap, which felt like part of her skin after four days of climbing trees, stuck to the screen as she typed. She added three rocks to a cairn someone else had built. An offering. A prayer. The chilled morning air telegraphed the metallic peal of mineral against mineral, broadcasting her location into the valley.
Daniela—like the forest—had been her ally, her friend, a keeper of her secrets. Sadie had played everything like a grand adventure back then. Until the game became real. Maybe she had always hoped the truth would rise one day. Or maybe she had convinced herself that the deeper she hid in the woods, the more gently she walked this Earth, the more likely their secret would stay where they left it—where they left him. Buried in the woods.
The warped floorboards in the kitchen played like a piano under Sadie’s feet. If she maintained her rhythm and bounced from the long board in front of the sink to the short plank behind her father’s chair to the narrow strip in the middle of the room, she could coax the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” out of the moaning, creaking wood.
Standing at the threshold between the kitchen and the hallway, Sadie mapped her route across the kitchen, seeking out the stiff, mute boards that promised silent passage to the door on the other side of the room. Thin light filtered through the muslin curtains at a familiar angle. Six thirty a.m.
Sadie often stole mornings while her parents slept to practice in case she ever needed to escape from something. What she would need to escape from, she did not know yet. Notice your surroundings. Know your escape route. Like Sherlock Holmes. With six leaps, she landed in front of the screen door and eased it open enough to squeeze her torso through. If she opened it one inch too far, the squeak would alert her parents.
Outside, a frothy mist hung over the lake. She tiptoed out to the end of the rickety pier and sat, letting her feet dip into the tepid water. At first Sadie didn’t notice the boat, half obscured by the fog. But as it crept closer, the small vessel broke through the gauzy curtain. A yellow rowboat, drifting alone with no captain, no passengers. She stood up to see inside. Maybe someone lay on the bottom. A lost child. Maybe a murderer ready to jump out and grab her. Pressing up on her toes, stretching as far as she dared over the water, she still couldn’t see inside.
The boat floated closer, closer, then passed by her pier on the barely noticeable current without pause.
The morning sun infused the mist with a creamy, molten glow. Pressure swelled inside Sadie’s rib cage. A longing rippled through her muscles and clung to her bones, pulling her toward the boat as if the universe needed her to act. If she hesitated, if she went inside to ask permission, it would be gone. Disappeared into the clouds, like a dream she would never remember. She peeled off her pajama top and shorts and looked back at the house. Her toes curled around the edge of the warped, gray boards, clinging to the rules she always obeyed.
She filled her chest with the misty air, pinched her nose, and jumped.
The lake water caught her as it had a thousand times before, but its embrace felt foreign at this early hour. Her limbs felt dense and stiff as she chopped through the water, trying not to sink too deep, where the water grew cold. From eye level the billowy vapor distorted her depth perception and she lost perspective of where she drifted, where the boat hid. Or the shore. She kept paddling forward. It had to be there. She tried to whistle a low tone to echo off the boat, but humid air absorbed the sound as it escaped her lips.
Finally, her outstretched hand swept the cold aluminum side of the boat.
“Hello?” she whispered and rapped on the side. Fog muffled the hollow echo of her knuckles on the hull. She pushed the front of the boat and kicked with all her strength. The abandoned craft resisted, but as Sadie fought, the boat slowed, then grudgingly reversed direction. Her labored breath echoed off of the boat with a hush. As she entered the shallows in front of her secluded beach, she lodged the wayward craft in the sand and stood up.
Two oars lay next to a rope coiled on the bottom. Plenty of dings, but no holes. A perfect vessel. As if it had drifted to her, for her. Someone meant for her to find this boat. She would explore the whole lake on her own, discover a place no one knew existed.
Sadie surveyed her house, and, seeing no sign of her parents, she dragged the boat fifty yards around the shoreline and tied it to the drooping birch branches behind the rocks where she used to play pirates.
Sadie ducked as a ribbon of starlings curled above her head, their wings murmuring secrets she couldn’t understand. She used to love watching starlings’ complicated choreography until she read that they were an invasive species that pecked holes in swallows’ eggs to kill the babies. The arc of iridescent green-black wings swooped toward the water where Sadie stood, wet and naked. She hugged her arms around her waist and hurried through the shallows to get her pajamas from the pier.
Sadie’s knees shook as she eased the screen door shut behind her. She snuck back over the creaky kitchen floor, the nighttime chill still held firmly in the peg nails securing the warped planks. She pressed her back against her door. Water dripped off the ends of her red ringlets, forming tiny puddles near her feet.
Sadie slipped into the shower to hide her morning swim. She wanted to keep the boat. But even if no one claimed it, her parents would never let her take it out alone. She would be too scared. She imagined her boat with no captain and slammed the shower door.
The smell of coffee greeted her as she reentered the kitchen. Her mother blotted a tangle of bacon with a paper towel and offered the plate to Sadie. The salty, chewy bacon exploded in her mouth, filling her nostrils with the bold smell of hickory.
Through the window she spied a glint of gold peeking between the rocks where swaying branches left a sliver of the bow exposed. It glowed, singing a come-hither song only she heard. She squeezed her knees together and prayed her parents wouldn’t notice the blaze of anxious yellow.
She would take her boat out. No one would ever know.
The Fate of a Golden Boy by Susan Hurley
The New York Times
Mother and son reach safety.
By Milton Krum
15 August 1979
HONG KONG. Dung is a six-year-old Vietnamese boy whose emaciated condition brings tears to the eyes of his doctor at the Jubilee Refugee Camp’s hospital. His skeleton is conspicuous; his skin is ulcer-ravaged, exposing bone at his wrists. He weighs only thirty-two pounds.
Dung and his mother Mai were found staggering through the streets of downtown Hong Kong six days ago, their clothes filthy and tattered. When they were brought to the hospital Mai was delirious, but a male inmate of the camp recognized the pair and has been assisting the police interviewing her.
Authorities believe Mai and Dung escaped from the southern Vietnamese province of Ca Mau in a small boat. Fishermen rescued the pair at sea near Hong Kong and dropped them on shore under cover of darkness. It is illegal for citizens of Hong Kong to help refugees in this way.
Ivan Hadley, the American heading up the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ Support Services in Hong Kong is astonished that Mai and Dung survived the journey. ‘It must be close to one thousand kilometres from Ca Mau to Hong Kong,’ he said. ‘And this woman had to row most of it after Thai pirates stole her boat’s engine and fuel.’
Over 60,000 Vietnamese refugees are now housed in Hong Kong’s detention centers, and boats packed with more escapees from the Communist government arrive each week. Hadley says each vessel brings another harrowing tale of hardship en route.
As well as pirates, who also stole the pair’s water and rice supplies, Mai and Dung had to contend with a severe storm. July is typhoon season in the South China Sea and waves over thirty feet high are common. Mai says she bound her son and herself to the mast to avoid being washed overboard.
The only word young Dung has spoken since being rescued is ‘Ma’.
Golden Boy, that’s what we called him: not to his face, but not in a mean way either. He was my boss. I worked for him at the biotech start-up that was developing the drug he invented. Golden Boy was brilliant—seemingly effortlessly so—universally acknowledged as an all-round good guy, and already a star of the medical research world when he died at the ridiculously young age of thirty-three.
His name was Dung, but I only learnt that at his funeral. While he was alive I never heard a soul call him by that name, the name his mother—or perhaps his father; someone who loved him anyway—bestowed. Dung. I hadn’t expected to cry at his funeral, but that realisation undid me.
Golden Boy. Dung. I still think of him every day, even now, ten years after ‘the incident’, which is what people call what he did, how he died. Because, in a sense, what I did killed him.
I’ve tried to make my mother proud. Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây, she would say. When eating the fruit, think of the person who planted the tree. I’ve tried to do that, and more. I’ve tried to live honourably, to treat people well, even when they’ve treated me badly. I’ve tried to be different from my father, to look after the women in my life, like he didn’t. Especially you, little sister, I’ve tried to look after you. I’ve been trying to atone for what I did, without even knowing what it was. But all the time I’ve been walking Spanish.
It started when he went on TV with Charlie Cunningham. I saw them, on the news. It was a Saturday, a Saturday in May, and my salon was the only business in the lane still open when the news came on. I normally shut at six, but my last client had come late. I was sweeping the floor and Trà My was putting clippers in the steriliser when Wendy arrived, almost thirty minutes late. Wendy did not care that we were packing up. ‘I need a full pedi,’ she said, ‘and a manicure too, darl.’ She had only booked a toenail file and paint, but no problem. Business is business.
So Trà My started applying remover to the chipped polish on Wendy’s finger nails. Wendy wouldn’t try shellac, even though I had told her, many times too, that it would last longer than the Big Apple Red polish she always went with. Shellac would be good value, worth the extra money, but Wendy is cheap. I was on feet, even though I am the boss of Trà My. Trà My says smelly feet make her want to puke. I was sitting on the stool in front of the footbath checking Wendy’s feet, which are always in a bad way because she squeezes them into pointy, too-tight stilettos, when Wendy said, ‘Let’s catch the news.’
The Trouble with Mr Bean was playing on my new TV, a fifty-inch flat-screen that I got on a plan. I didn’t have to make the first payment until January. I hadn’t told my brother about the TV. I suppose I should have. He was my partner in the salon. But Dung would have said it was silly to spend money on a fancy TV. He would have been mad about the payment plan too.
Dung had given me the Mr Bean box set. The Trouble with Mr Bean is my favourite episode. Even though I’ve seen it many times I still laugh out loud when Mr Bean chucks a cupcake full of wasps into a car where a thief who has just tried to steal Mr Bean’s car is sitting. The thief squirms like a worm, but can’t escape the wasp.
Trà My switched the TV over to the news like Wendy wanted, I didn’t care. I couldn’t see the screen. I was on feet and my new TV was on the wall behind me.
I wasn’t even listening to the news when Dung came on. I was hungry. I was thinking about the canh chua Má would have waiting for me when I got home. On Saturday it is always canh chua.
Trà My saw him first. ‘Ly,’ she shouted, ‘Nhìn kìa!’
I looked up. Pissed. I had told her many times: ‘Call me Natalie in front of clients, not Ly, and speak English.’ Speak Vietnamese, then clients want the Hanoi price, or the Phuket price, or the Bali price. Wherever they just went on holiday, they want the same price in my salon. I give good prices, good Aussie prices. Not Ho Chi Minh prices. No way. So speak English.
‘Anh của Ly trên TV kìa,’ Trà My said, pointing. I turned to look. And Trà My was right. There was Dung, on TV, on the news. That was how it started.
I picked up Wendy’s right foot and put it in the footbath, then the left foot with the bulging bunion. ‘Soak for five minutes Wendy,’ I said. I stood up to see Dung better.
It looked like he was at the hospital. He had a white coat on and the thing he used to listen to patients’ hearts slung around his neck. He was talking to an old lady who was lying in bed. Sick, I suppose, but she looked okay. What was going on? Dung did not look after sick people any more. Now he did experiments, research, to find new medicine.
Wendy sighed loudly. ‘I am in a bit of a hurry,’ she said.
My brother often gave me advice ‘Call your clients by their name. Aussies like to hear their name,’ he said when I opened my salon. He was making a joke, but still I try to follow his advice. I make jokes too. Jokes to myself. Jokes to remember the names of clients. Sourpuss Samantha. Moustache Michelle. Wino Wendy. It works, to do that.
Wendy had smelt of wine when she arrived at my salon. She must have had time for drinks with friends. Then she decided she needed a manicure and a pedicure. Now, she was in a bit of a hurry. Well, too bad for Wendy. ‘Your callouses are hard. You must soak,’ I told her. The water in the footbath was warm and bubbly. Wendy could relax. Enjoy!
But Trà My said, ‘No problem Lady, we quick.’
Lady! Trà My is such a peasant. I only hired her because her mum Kim got Má when we arrived here. Cleaning the houses of Aussies was the job. Má had told me that now it was our family’s obligation to do Kim the favour. What Má meant was that it was my obligation. And it is not just the family of Kim I had to help. I had to return all the favours that were done for Má. Otherwise she would feel shame.
On TV, Dung was somewhere else now, where he worked I suppose: ‘the lab’ he called it. He had taken off his white coat. He and an Aussie man—young like Dung, but fat—were sitting on stools in front of a bench. At the bottom of the screen were their names: Charlie Cunningham and David Tran.
Trà My yapped: ‘Lady Wendy, that Natalie’s brother. Dung …’ She stopped and corrected herself. ‘David. David is doctor.’
‘Really Natalie, your brother is a doctor?’ Wendy asked.
‘Yes Wendy,’ I said. What was her problem? Did she think I was stupid like Trà My? Too stupid to have a doctor brother?
‘He doesn’t look like you,’ Wendy said.
‘Agree with your clients’ was another piece of advice Dung gave when I started my business. ‘The customer is always right—make that your motto.’
But I did not want to agree with Wendy. ‘Well, my brother is tall,’ I said. Dung was six foot three, much taller than me. I am five foot nothing. And even though they were sitting on stools, I could see that my brother was also much taller than Charlie Cunningham. Dung’s neck started where Charlie Cunningham’s potato head finished.
‘Handsome too,’ Trà My said.
Trà My was right about that at least. Dung was handsome, and on TV that night he looked handsome. His buzz-cut hairstyle looked good. I had cut it for him the week before, in my salon, even though I am not a hairdresser. Number three. Buzz-cut. Just how he liked it since he had started his business and made me cut off his ponytail. His clothes looked good too. A nice white shirt, a sky-blue tie that matched his eyes and navy stovepipe trousers that suited his giraffe legs. Dung was smiling, happy. He was always happy.
‘What you think Lady? Handsome?’ Trà My asked Wendy.
‘Mmm … he’s not really my type,’ Wendy said.
Not her type! Did Wendy think she was Dung’s type? As if! I grabbed the remote and turned the sound up on the TV. Someone was asking Dung and Charlie Cunningham questions, but that person was not on TV. Charlie Cunningham was saying he had started a company that would sell the medicine Dr Tran had discovered. The name of the company was SUPERMAB. I already knew that.
‘What say?’ Trà My asked Wendy.
‘Natalie’s brother is going to be very rich,’ Wendy told her. ‘Charlie Cunningham is saying sales of the drug he discovered will be a billion dollars a year.’
‘Yes, wow!’ Wendy said. ‘What’s the problem, Natalie? You don’t look happy.’
I pulled the plug from the footbath. ‘No. No problem.’ I picked up the scalpel. ‘All good.’ I began to scrape the still hard dead skin from Wino Wendy’s heels.
Trà My blabbed on. ‘Lady, other one, Aussie man, get rich too?’
Wendy laughed. ‘Charlie Cunningham? He’s already rich.’
‘Your type?’ Trà My asked.
‘Darl, he’s so rich he’s everybody’s type.’
That was how it started. Dung, going on TV with Charlie Cunningham. Charlie Cunningham saying a billion dollars. And the stupid thing, the thing that makes me want to shout out when I’m sad, is this: it wasn’t even true. That’s right. The fat Aussie, Charlie Cunningham, made up the billion dollars.
‘If it was on TV, on the news, it must be true,’ I said to my brother.
‘No Ly, it was just an ad,’ Dung said, ‘an ad for our company, an ad for us.’
Charlie Cunningham made up the billion dollars. He made the movie of him and my brother talking. He sent his movie to the TV and they put it on the news, as if it really was the news. And that was how it started.
It was dark when we finished Wendy. ‘You go,’ I told Trà My. ‘I’ll clean up.’
I knew that the man I used to call Pa would be waiting at home for me. He would have heard Charlie Cunningham say the billion dollars on TV, or someone would have told him. He would already be sitting in Má’s kitchen, his snake eyes ready to watch me slurp my canh chua.
I had been too busy that Saturday to eat lunch. Now I was very hungry. I still had the cá kho tộ Má had given me. Aussies do not like its fishy smell, so when Má gave me cá kho tộ I chucked it in the bin. But the night Dung went on TV with Charlie Cunningham, I put my cá kho tộ in the microwave, I switched off the lights in my salon, I sat in the dark and ate it.
It was raining when I got off the bus. I walked the four blocks to my street fast and didn’t slow down until I was outside number eight. I could smell pho. I could see the number-eight Nguyens inside, sitting at their table, talking and laughing while they ate their supper. The number-eight Nguyens were eating beef pho.
I kept walking. When I got to number fourteen I stopped and lit the cigarette I’d taken from the pack at my salon. Má would smell it when I went inside. Well, too bad.
I could see the number-fourteen Nguyens inside watching TV. I stood on their nature strip and looked across the road to my house. The man I used to call Pa had parked his black Merc outside. It was parked crooked, staring like a tiger at me. He was already inside. He would be sitting at our table, playing with his big, ugly ring. His foot would be resting on the yellow wall making a dirty mark. Má would have to scrub hard to get that mark off, so hard the paint would come off too. She would have taken the Johnnie Walker whisky out from the back of the cupboard and poured him two fingers. She would have made him a sandwich too. Peanut butter. His favourite. Má would be sitting with him, quiet, while he sipped his whisky and ate his snack. But her hands would be underneath the table, her thin fingers picking her cuticles. She would pick till her cuticles bled. Then she would pick some more.
The rain had stopped, but my denim jacket had got wet. I was cold. I chucked my cigarette butt onto the number-fourteen Nguyens’ grass. I thought about Dung. My smart brother. That day, not so smart. I crossed the road and opened our gate. That was how it started. Seven months later, Dung was dead.
The Revision of Eleanor Reddy by Eva Sandoval
For a slice of time, for little reason other than circumstance, her parents were friends with Professor Wade Lawson.
Her mother – Janet Arlington, a civil rights attorney who took offense for strangers but gave little to her own kin – deemed him impressive, whereas her father – Harvey Reddy, also a professor – usually said the man sure could talk.
Professor Wade Lawson taught Psychology at Hunter College in Manhattan where her father taught Economics; where their offices abutted each other; where Freud made a game of leaving his car in Keynes’s parking spot. Professor Wade Lawson had a loud voice. His knuckles smelled sour when he pinched her cheeks. He sat in her father’s armchair and said he’d never been married; simply wasn’t the type. Her mother said that was too bad, that it must get lonely and shouldn’t he come visit – as often as he liked? You’re too kind, said the professor.
So Professor Wade Lawson did come visit – as often as he liked. Her mother didn’t cook, but she did pour wine and she ordered Chinese. Her father discussed politics and Johnny Carson; Professor Wade Lawson fixed his eyes on the small girl in the corner.
She’s shy, said her father. Don’t worry. But soon, it was Professor Wade Lawson who first said the words abnormal out loud, who went so far as to declare, not merely suggest – as had done her grandparents and teachers – that something was wrong with a child who was five years old and could not speak.
And her mother said: Won’t, you mean. Not to us, not to the nanny, not to her grandparents. Won’t, not can’t.
And her father’s voice, rising like a flame: She’s shy. She understands us. She’ll talk when she’s ready.
She sat. She listened. The year was 1985; before parenting came in Ritalin form. If she didn’t speak she had her reasons, none of them being that she was slow. So she burrowed under blankets and heard her mother’s voice through the door: I don’t know what to do. She hid inside kitchen cabinets while they had company: Have kids when you’re young; don’t wait like we did. Her mother’s whispers to her at night, folding her unyielding limbs into pajamas: You can talk, I know you can. Talk for mommy. And her father, who tried again and again to take her in his arms, who called her Pal, was on her side, always blindly on her side, while her mother was angry, always angry, and she hid under the bed and her mother said, Wade says something’s wrong and her father said, She’s fine and her mother said, It’s time we admit it. Wade can refer us to someone… and her father said, Absolutely not. The child – understanding, not understanding; remembering, not remembering – heard it all. And one night, she traced the yellow tiles on the kitchen floor and heard her father say, I can’t stick my head in the sand anymore. Something is wrong. But it’s not as you say. You jogged during the pregnancy. You smoked grass in law school. It’s your fault that she can’t act like other kids.
Her father was wrong. Her mother was right. Won’t, not can’t.
She was absolutely right.
The silent little girl in the cupboard is Eleanor Frances Reddy. She’s the daughter who wouldn’t talk to her parents, to her nanny or to her cousins, but who could talk, of course. Alone in her room, she’d tested out sounds for years – dog, baby, problem, suffer, go away. She’s the one who could talk but wouldn’t because as far back as she could remember, the sound of voices unsettled her – a feral instinct somewhere between panic and fear – so why add to the noise?
Eleanor Reddy is the one who, at age six, sat on Dr. Nigel Buckingham’s black leather couch. The one who drew purple clouds during the Art Therapy sessions. Why do you choose the dark colors, Eleanor? Who felt ashamed to put her parents in her drawing of “home”; as though it might not be allowed. Who suffered interminable minutes of staring at the doctor’s hands: What did you do today? Nothing. Do you love your parents? Maybe. Yes. But they didn’t love her. At home, her fingernails pricked dents in a green crayon, the zipper of her blue coat twisted off its track: It’s not working. She’s not getting better.
She’s the one who stayed in her room after school and on the weekends, silent as a mummy when the Guatemalan nanny tapped on the door – Nena? Do you need? – and wondering if there was something she could do, anything at all, that wasn’t freakish.
She’s the one who first spoke out loud in front of her parents at the age of six-and-a-half. Because, She does it to hurt me, she gets pleasure from it said her mother – sniffling, always sniffling, with the red eyes.
Professor Wade Lawson: I’m sure that’s not true. Is there mental illness on Harvey’s side of the family?
Her mother: No, she came out this way – funny. She cried all the time but she wouldn’t talk. I didn’t know if she was hungry or sick or just hated me. I still don’t know. She pretends not to hear me. Sometimes she even pretends not to see; she’ll start to walk into traffic, just to make me panic.
Now now, The professor’s hands on her mother’s. His thick finger tracing the path of the tears slipping down her cheek. You mustn’t do this to yourself, darling. Eleanor didn’t care about the noise anymore. She just wanted to not be “funny”; to never have to see the doctor or Professor Wade Lawson again. So the barest minimum: Milk, please and Goodnight and Thank you. It was enough; the joy on her father’s face! Hey, just listen to that little voice. What do you say, Pal, what do you say? The relief, washing out of her mother’s eyes: Oh, thank God. The end of Dr. Buckingham. Not, however, the end of Professor Wade Lawson.
She is the one who watched the other children at school. The way they looped arms around each other’s waists and made fun of each other while smiling the whole time. The way their hands shot out like beggars’ when one of them had a snack. The stupid things they said in silly voices: Olly olly oxen free. Hunter and Jessica sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. And then the mean things they said to her: You never talk, is it because you’re sad? Fine, don’t play with us, then; be that way. She tried not to learn their copycat rhymes. She understood that they pitied her and if it weren’t for that, they would never talk to her, never look at her, because they didn’t like her, and if they didn’t like her, she couldn’t like them.
Eleanor Reddy is the redheaded girl with the narrow face and deep-set gray eyes who wasn’t pretty and, as such, was never petted. That was okay, sort of; anyway, she wasn’t weak, so she didn’t cry. Sometimes, though, if there were no seats for her at the lunch table, if her mother said Honestly, Eleanor, in that choking tone of voice, she’s the one who could be found sitting behind a wall, fanning her hands in front of her eyes. It mostly took away the sting.
That was the core of Eleanor Reddy, okay; the raw, rough elements. But two things happened later on that hammered her into her true shape: fatal alchemy.
The piano lessons
This had been risky of her parents – after all, she didn’t like the dolls they gave her. She didn’t like the sports she was made to play at school. She didn’t like ballerinas or unicorns or dress-up and, at first, she didn’t like the idea of piano lessons either. But when she was seven years old, her mother took her to an apartment in Chelsea, full of wide red bodega carnations and tiny cross-stitches of proud and timid dogs, where there lived a Southern woman called Coraline Duncan who had feathered blonde hair and a honeyed mouth. Southern Coraline Duncan said Ell-nore this is Middle C. When Eleanor touched that slender white key, it sang out, sweet and pure, and it was her making that noise, her fingers humming like bees. And if she did whatever Coraline Duncan said, Coraline Duncan played a song just for her at the end of the lesson. At home, on the phone, Eleanor’s mother said, We’ve gotten Eleanor piano lessons. Finally, something she likes! And you know, she isn’t half-bad at it? Harvey and I are absolutely thrilled.
In that small Chelsea apartment, Eleanor Reddy savored her first tastes of anticipation, excitement and pride – the anticipation of hearing beautiful noise; the excitement of learning to make it herself; the pride of finally creating something good. She liked Joplin best, the bouncy, thrilling Maple Leaf Rag, and when she secretly pressed her heels against the back of the piano while Coraline Duncan played, she felt the music in her legs, in her knees, through her entire body. Like magic. Like thunder.
The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway in 1988. Yes, with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman as The Phantom and Christine (!)
Oh, this was very special. Why did her father take her there that night? He wasn’t a music man; he listened to Doo Wop, to The Miami Sound Machine. Who had told him that there was a place filled with velvet drapes with musicians hidden underground, that there was once a disfigured genius who lived beneath the Paris Opera House; that Michael Crawford had the most wonderful voice in the world? There he was in his white mask, wrapping his hands around Sarah Brightman’s waist. There was the chandelier, threatening to crash down and destroy everyone’s lives. Eleanor’s hands gripped the seat in front of her. Her lips tried to mumble along with the notes. Her heart pounded when Christine kissed the Phantom behind the wall of that music.
When the lights finally came up, Eleanor couldn’t breathe. You really liked this, didn’t you, Pal? Eleanor said nothing. She said nothing later when he took her to see Cats – darts of ecstasy piercing her heart when Grizabella belted “Memory!” – and she said nothing further, even as she thrilled in secret silence, when he took her to see Les Misérables. Cassette tapes began appearing in Christmas stockings: The King & I, Chicago, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Man of La Mancha. Every show was a glorious mishmash of sounds upon the first listen; each its own world with its own pulse, and, soon, each note more familiar than any freckle on the backs of her hands. Why Miss Ell-nore, you want to play Broadway music? I don’t see why not! Eleanor Reddy covered school notebooks with her favorite libretto lyrics; scrawled a mental mindfuck can be nice in red ink down the freckled underbellies of her arm. For all anyone cared about her, “Mr. Cellophane” should have indeed been her name!
There was the Don Quixote, the madman of La Mancha, who saw dragons where there were only windmills and virgin Dulcineas where there were only prostitute Aldonzas. The miserable French urchin Eponine, who loved the student Marius and suffered agonies upon watching him fall in love with the bourgeois Cosette. She saw herself in the Phantom – a musical genius shunned by all. It was the beautiful villains she loved the best – the Phantoms, the Judases, the Javerts, the Evitas, the Engineers. Theirs were the voices sung by the black keys, and when she sat down at the piano sometimes, instead of playing Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita, she touched different keys in different rhythms and those different rhythms became her own melodies, and they were good, and one day she thought, Could I make a musical, too? My very own musical with my very own characters that someone would put on a real tape and people would buy and listen to and love?
She thought, Maybe it could be an old story made new and cool, like Miss Saigon.
She thought, Do I know any good old stories? Would people like the one I chose? Will anyone want to listen to the music I make?
At the piano, pummeling the keys with all her despair and hope, she sometimes thought it could happen, and from then on, when she woke in the mornings, she wanted to get up; she sat up and put one foot in front of the other and those steps took her to the piano, to the music she was making on her very own.
Bluntly put, musical theater saved Eleanor Reddy’s life.
Eleanor, said her mother, Don’t you have any friends?
Eleanor Reddy at age ten: gangly, restless, and hard. Two years after the divorce. That was Professor Wade Lawson again – information Eleanor had learned from the walls long before her father did. But she didn’t mind too much; after all, Professor Wade Lawson’s disappearance was almost as fast as his meddling had been destructive, so he was gone, finally, good riddance. Was Janet sad? Yes, Eleanor could see that, and once she tried to sit near her, tried to touch her hand, but Janet said, Go to your room now, so Eleanor touched hands with no one. Was Harvey angry? Maybe, but around Eleanor he only smiled with tight white lips. So Eleanor thought about other things: her perfect afternoons at the piano while her mother read briefs in her study – the black tension a protective cocoon Eleanor came to treasure. Her weekends with her father at the Central Park Zoo, at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, at Coney Island. She could be as quiet as she wanted while her father led her down the rickety salt-sprayed boardwalk, weathered slat by weathered slat, as he told her about the history of the Astroland amusement park, how very old the roller coaster was and could she just imagine how it must have blown all those pantalooned Victorians’ minds? She could watch the Wonder Wheel’s lumbering descent; listen to her father and chew fried clam strips and Nathan’s hot dogs until her belly hurt. She could pretend to be asleep on the train ride home – another precious cocoon.
But Eleanor’s mother always needed an answer. So, did she? Did she have any friends?
No, Eleanor said, because it was true. The kids at school still called her Mute and they still called her Weird but they usually just ignored her so what was the point of talking to any of them, or to the teachers who, just in time for Parent-Teacher conferences, stopped her in the hallways and asked her if she was okay?
The word hovered between them. And Eleanor’s mother looked sad, the way she often did when Eleanor’s father came to pick her up on the weekends, or when she watched the phone; rubbing her naked ring finger with her thumb.
But, Janet said, don’t you think you’d like some?
Eleanor said, No.
Janet said, Why?
Eleanor said, I hate people.
Her mother said, Life will be hard for you, daughter of mine.
Was it hard? Ask someone who knew any different. Eleanor Reddy went to school and did her homework and went to piano lessons with Coraline Duncan; she opened birthday gifts in May and, in December, sat down to Christmas ham with her mother. Her cousins talked about My friend Jessica from Cheerleading and My friend Rebecca from Sunday School but Eleanor met Jessica and Rebecca and they looked at her funny, and God was just a terrific story like Santa Claus, so what was the point?
Eleanor Reddy was ten and Eleanor Reddy was eleven and then Eleanor Reddy was in Junior High, bleeding every month on the outside, bleeding every day on the inside. She saw the other girls, the Normal Girls, who sat on each other’s laps, doing quizzes in glossy magazines; who sprayed their bangs stiff and wore kiwi-scented lip balm. Those Normal Girls could do anything, Eleanor thought. Everything was easy for them. They were pretty. They had friends. The boys sent them folded-up notes that made them giggle and asked them to the dances, which made them squeal. Nobody asked Eleanor to the dances. Nobody sent her folded-up notes.
The teachers talked about careers, about purpose. Eleanor wanted to tell someone, anyone, When I grow up, I want to be a composer like Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now and then, she thought about telling Coraline Duncan but something had told her even back then that the woman was not to be trusted; some whispering, girlish intuition that Eleanor felt compelled to obey, so she told Coraline Duncan nothing; showed up to lessons and did what she was told. No; a great desire burned in her chest but there was no one to tell because there was no one who cared what she wanted, if she was happy, if she was sad, or if she got hit by a car, maybe. Sometimes Eleanor liked to do that; cross the street, feel the energy of the air when a car rushed past her and wonder – what if I didn’t move – would I be Cellophane then, too? Would it move right through me, would anyone know I was there?
Was that the definition of a hard life?
Maybe. But then, one day, there was Mina.
Eleanor Reddy on her first day of high school, September 10th 1994. Wearing black Doc Martens and holey purple stockings, her red hair in dreadlocks and safety pins through her earlobes because it’s a hard day in any girl’s life when she accepts that she will never be beautiful, that no amount of sunlight can turn a thick-waisted, narrow-faced, redheaded thistle into a rose. Her mother, balancing a stack of briefs and peering at her daughter over horn-rimmed bifocals, said, Eleanor, don’t you want boys to like you? And Eleanor said, Who cares? The joke was on anyone who had ever called her a freak; on her mother who had suffered every day since having her, on her father who pandered her with hollow kindness, on Dr. Nigel Buckingham who had wasted her parents’ money. Eleanor was biding time. Pulling all As and Bs. Soaking up Coraline Duncan’s teachings to perfect her craft. Counting down the years, months, and weeks in her head until December 1997: when she could audition for The Juilliard School and show them all..!
But her schedule put her in Mrs. Daughtry’s Third Period English Honors class – not Mr. Greene’s or Mr. Lowenstein’s. Eleanor sat in the back of the room. She steeled her ears against the noise and examined her Docs; frowned at the fresh smear of yellow bubblegum on the heel. Yo! Your safety pins are kickin’; how did you get them in there? Do they hurt? Great, the sarcastic dickweeds never wasted any time ganging up on the freaks, did they? Geez… I was just asking… Never mind, then.
She heard Mina before she saw her. The shrieks. The giggles. You had to look – that was the entire point. And Eleanor looked. That was the first time she ever saw Mina’s face, stamped forevermore in her mind like the relief of a cameo – pale against the halo of white flowers that were clipped to her black, pin-straight hair. She was standing on a desk. She was wearing a red tutu.
Mrs. Daughtry said, Hannah Levitz, please sit down! The girl on the desk put her hand on her tutu-ed hip. She pouted. Sit down, Hannah. These are very old desks!
And then the girl sang.
My name isn’t Hannah; it’s Mina. She held her arms out to the class like Evita Perón: Don’t cry for me, Eastside High School!
The day Eleanor was born.
The first piano lesson in 1987.
The first musical in 1988.
The first time she heard Mina sing.
She stared down at her desk: BRITTANY HATES TODD was scratched on the plastic surface in leaky blue ballpoint pen. The girl was still singing; belting and then hitting high, piercing notes. Hannah Mina please sit down! She was amazing. She was tragic. She was the most beautiful sound Eleanor had ever heard. Fine! You’ll all be sorry when I’m famous! BRITTANY HATES TODD. The yellow gum on the bottom of her Doc. Eleanor blinked back tears; mortified; pressing the insides of her wrists into her eyes. The girl’s voice was like coming home.