Vanessa dreams she is a grown woman, heavy with flesh and care. Her two limber, graceful daughters are dancing and leaping on the shore as she watches from the grass where the sand ends. Their dresses utter chalk-white, like apple flesh or a sun-bleached stone. A calescent sun shatters on the surface of the water, luminous shards slipping about on the tiny waves like a broken, sparkling film. One daughter stops to turn and wave wildly, and Vanessa, her heart aching with love, waves back. The girls clasp each other’s forearms and spin in a circle, shrieking with laughter, until they collapse on the sand.
Rising and conferring with their heads close together, they hike up their dresses to wade into the sea. Don’t go too far! calls Vanessa, but they pretend not to hear. Walking wide-legged like awkward herons, wetting their hems, they peer into the water for fish and crabs, until the younger one turns back and yells, We’re going to swim, Mother!
But you can’t swim! Vanessa cries frantically. Heedless, they crash into the water and begin paddling away, kicking their slender legs and thrashing with their hands. Swiftly, borne by a powerful current, they grow smaller and smaller. Vanessa tries to run to the edge of the sea, but her feet are stuck fast, woven into the ground like tree roots, her legs paralyzed as dead stumps. She opens her mouth to call them back, but instead of urging her daughters back to shore, she finds herself screaming, Swim faster! Get away from here, get out, now! The sun vanishes and the sea turns dark, roiling and spitting, and their beloved faces shrink to motes. Vanessa clenches her fists, closes her eyes, and shrieks, Never come back here again! I’ll kill you if you come back here! I swear I’ll fucking kill you both! The girls disappear into the horizon, and Vanessa drops her face into her hands and weeps.
Thief, whispers a voice that seems to come from everywhere, echoing and groaning in her rib cage. Blasphemer. The ground softens, and she falls through a sea of dark slime into the raging black fire of the darkness below. Her bones snap like sticks. Rotating her head violently on a broken neck, she sees her daughters writhing next to her, their straight, slim legs bending and shattering as their white dresses burn.
Then Father is there, shaking her, holding her. “Vanessa, relax,” he says as she trembles and whimpers. “It’s just a dream.” She loosens her fists and sees, in the gray dawn light, that she has cut small, dark crescents into her palms.
“What were you dreaming about?” asks Father sleepily.
“I can’t remember,” she replies, and no matter how often the dream comes back to haunt her, smearing and dissolving hotly in her brain as she gasps and claws her way to consciousness, she always tells him she can’t remember. She knows instinctively it is not something to be freely given away to adults, like a flower or an embrace. is dream, the dark embodiment of blasphemy, is a shameful secret rooted strongly as a tooth or a fingernail. And Father, muttering vaguely as he kisses her sweaty brow, never tries to wrest it from her.
Sometimes, in the drowsy mornings after, she gazes at Mother and wonders what she would call out if Vanessa were swimming away from her, toward the wastelands.
The long spelling lesson is done, and Mr. Abraham is now talking about soaking and curing leather. As he rambles on about techniques for concentrating urine, Vanessa inhales lightly and cautiously, as if her lungs are about to be scalded by the acrid smell of leather curing in its vats. The half-vinegar, half-musk scent hangs in the air for weeks in early spring, and she’s already decided she will never marry or even live near a tanner. Keeping her eyes open and her face attentive, she drifts off into daydreams of summer. When Letty reaches back to scratch a shoulder blade and drops a note on her desk, Vanessa jolts into the present. Using her bitten nails to pick open the small package, she reads:
Do you think it was her first time?
Half an hour ago, Frieda Joseph burst into tears while trying to spell “turnip.” They weren’t tears of frustration, but big, dry, gulping sobs like she’d been punched in the throat. Mr. Abraham took her out of the classroom for a while. He must have sent her home, because he returned without her.
Frieda’s chair sits naked and prominent. All the girls around it are carefully looking in another direction. There’s a bloodstain on the wood, bright and ragged, with a dark, crusting drop on the floor. Everyone knows it wasn’t there yesterday.
Vanessa is silent, lost in memory, and Letty shifts in her seat and eventually turns to cast her a questioning look. Annoyed, Vanessa shrugs curtly at her.
Letty faces front again and flakes off a tiny corner of paper. She writes something with the thin charcoal pencil, stretches extravagantly, and drops it on Vanessa’s desk.
Vanessa snatches the paper and cradles it in her lap, squinting. The charcoal is smudged and she can barely make out the words: What a baby. I didn’t cry my first time.
Vanessa bites her tongue in exasperation. Carefully separating a piece of paper from her sheaf, she writes, Liar. Stretching forward, she drops it on Letty’s lap like a little yellow butterfly. Letty shoots Vanessa a hurt look and then assiduously turns toward Mr. Abraham and fakes interest. Vanessa begins winding the ends of her braid through her fingers, wishing she were outside, running.
All the girls wear braids, smooth and sinuous over their shoulders, and they toy with them when nervous or excited. It’s a deeply ingrained fidget, and when girls turn to women and put their hair up, their fingers utter uselessly in the air as they try to remember what is missing. Hems are another favorite target for irritable fingers, and it is a rare girl’s dress that bears a neat, well-stitched edge. Today they are dressed in whatever their mothers saw fit for May, which leaves some chilly and some sweltering. A few of the dresses are pink from berry juice and others yellow from roots, while some are simply the undyed off-white of light wool. The dresses are smudged and stained, darkened at the armpits and splattered with the remnants of messy eating. Summertime is for intensive weaving and sewing, and the dresses will either be let out or let down, firmly scrubbed and reused, or given to a family with a younger girl. While the older girls often wear new, fresh dresses, the younger ones are always swimming in threadbare smocks ready to fall apart.
As Mr. Abraham drones on, Vanessa wishes there was enough paper for drawing, but the wanderers decided a few years ago that the island should produce its own paper, instead of relying on leftover sheaves from the wastelands. Mr. Joseph the arborer has been experimenting, but this year’s batch is an extravagant failure; the paper crumbles and separates almost at a touch. Even so, they know better than to waste it. When Bobby Solomon drew a sheep breathing fire on one of his sheets, his teacher Mr. Gideon whipped him so badly he limped for days.
The clock seems to run slower when three o’clock approaches, the hands creeping and stuttering. Vanessa wonders if Mr. Abraham remembered to wind it this morning. It’s a beautiful thing, beaten from wasteland copper and full of the tiniest gears and wheels possible, like infinitesimal tawny beetles, so small they could fit on a forefinger. As much as Pastor Saul likes to talk about sin and war, Vanessa can’t help but think that they were doing something right in the wastelands if they invented such miraculous devices.
Gabriel Solomon brought some parts to school last year, filched from his clockmaker father, who received the precious objects from the wanderers. The children gathered around, always impressed by wasteland goods, begging to touch the miniature glimmering shapes. Sometimes when Vanessa sees the stars, she imagines little sprockets and gears from a broken clock, flung up into the black. She wishes her father were a clockmaker, even though a wanderer is much more important. The holy wanderer walks the wastelands without becoming part of the disease, Pastor Saul likes to say. Vanessa once asked her mother which disease he was talking about, but Mother didn’t know. She asked Father, and he talked of the diseases that ravaged the wastelands after the war. He wouldn’t tell her about the war itself, though; he never does. Vanessa has attempted various charming ways to ask Father questions—he likes her cleverness, but despite her efforts, he refuses to discuss it. She can’t find anything about it in their library either. Everything that ever happened must be in books, somewhere, but none of the ones she has access to have proved helpful.
Finally the clock reaches five to three. Mr. Abraham erases the large slate in the front of the classroom, wiping clean the chalky detritus of learning, and the children stand automatically with their heads bowed and hands clasped. Ceremoniously, Mr. Abraham takes down a copy of Our Book, the only book ever written on the island. It’s handwritten on wasteland paper and bound in the strongest leather, but he still has to use a finger to keep loose pages from uttering to the ground like dead, holy leaves.
“From the fires of wickedness we grew forth, like a green branch from a rotten tree,” he reads. “From the wastelands of want came the hardworking men of industry and promise. From the war-stricken terror came our forefathers to keep us safe from harm.” Like everyone else, Vanessa mouths the words along with him. “From the cleansed and ravaged dust of the scourge came the flowerings of faith and a new way. With the ancestors to guide us, we will grow and prosper on a straight and narrow path. O ancestors, the sanctified first ten, plead with God on our behalf, and save us from impurity. Amen.”
“Amen,” repeat the girls. They file quietly out of the room and then scatter, their heels clacking on the wooden floor like a handful of pebbles tossed to the ground. The girls mingle with the other classes, streams of boys in ragged pants and long shirts, younger children shrieking and running happily ahead. Sarah Moses catches Vanessa’s arm as they run down the stairs and into the humid air.
“I bet it will rain soon,” Sarah says, squinting up at the hazy sky. Her hair is frizzy with moisture and outlines her head in a jagged halo. “It’s not even June,” Vanessa replies crossly. “It never rains before June.”
“The woodbirds are burrowing into the trees already,” Sarah says gleefully. “Mother says that’s a sign. Tom’s been sharpening rocks all winter.”
Vanessa rolls her eyes. Tom Moses has dreams of making weapons, but so far all he’s ever done is throw rocks and dart away, hooting. “Shouldn’t he be helping your father weave?” she asks Sarah pointedly.
“He does,” Sarah says. “We’ve made lots of cloth this winter, Mr. Aaron’s thread is good this year. We’ll have mountains after summer. The new sheep they brought from the wastelands really helped. Sometimes the lambs are speckled.”
“I know,” Vanessa answers. Everyone went to stare at the spotted lambs when they emerged from their mothers. Grown, they look like they’re splattered with mud, although the rains haven’t started yet. “Does that mean the thread is brown?”
“Kind of tan,” Sarah says. “Not dirty-looking, just different.” Vanessa nods thoughtfully, wondering if the wanderers had to round up each sheep separately, or if they’d stumbled across a whole pen of them. New animals are rare, but this was a stroke of luck; about half of the lambs on the island had begun dying from some unknown illness, and the wool had been brittle and weak for years.
Despite the damp warmth, Vanessa enjoys her walk home. Blackbirds are muttering in the trees, and the tall, slender grasses shiver with unseen animal life below; the rhythmic swoop of a rabbit or the whispering rustle of a hunting cat. Dodging the fields of shorter green pasture, she walks in the amber, knee-high meadows, letting the blades brush her legs with swift strokes.
At home, Mother has made cookies. Ben, Vanessa’s three-year-old brother, looks like he’s been eating them all day. Amused, Vanessa brushes golden crumbs from his blond ringlets and is rewarded with a wet, milky smile. Mother comes up beside her with two honey and corn cookies on a clay plate, and fresh milk in Vanessa’s favorite lacquered cup. Intently, Vanessa stirs the milk with a finger and watches as blobs of tawny cream rise to the surface. She dunks in a cookie and carefully licks each drop of cream clinging to its sweet, crumbling mass.
Eight years ago, when Vanessa was five and her grandparents drank their final draft, the family moved to this house, leaving the old one for Mother’s sister. Like most of the island houses, it is built almost entirely with wasteland wood, treated with a water-repellent tincture from the dyer Mr. Moses. While the house itself is well constructed and sturdy, the Adams’ kitchen is the nest on the island. Father, who likes to build things, set to work on the kitchen as soon as his parents were buried, adding special drawers that could be filled with our or grain, and metal rods at different lengths from the hearth fire, with a clay door to shut so the room wouldn’t fill with smoke. He laid dove-gray and lavender stones fanning out from the oven door, the closest of which could be used to keep food hot. Vanessa remembers Mother walking around the new kitchen in a daze, smiling and giving Father joyful glances filled with a strange longing Vanessa couldn’t quantify.
The crowning jewel of the entire house is the kitchen table, also made of wasteland wood, but shimmering with rich, iridescent tints of gold and crimson. Father’s family has passed it down over the decades, and it bears the stains of use: a burnt-black spot in the middle, scratches along the legs that scar blond. To protect it from further injury, Mother has covered it almost completely with a rough woven mat, but Vanessa likes to lift up the edges and run her fingers over the blushing wood, watching as the oils of her skin make a greasy film on top.
“Watch you don’t spill,” says Mother as Vanessa presses her fingers into the table. “Father wants you to go to bed early tonight,” she adds. “He says you don’t sleep enough.” Vanessa looks at her, but Mother is busy scraping burnt crumbs into a bucket by the wall. Sighing, Vanessa dips her fingers into the milk and presses them into the remaining cookie crumbs, making a paste. “Oh, and Janet Balthazar is birthing soon, so we’ll be attending that. Probably in the next couple of days.”
Vanessa winces. Janet Balthazar has had two defectives, born blue and slimy and dead like drowned worms in a puddle. If she has a third defective, she won’t be allowed to have any more babies. Her husband, Gilbert, will be encouraged to take another wife. Occasionally, women choose to take the final draft rather than live childless. Pastor Saul likes to commend those women.
Vanessa can’t imagine quiet, boring Gilbert Balthazar making any big decisions. He and Janet will probably grow old and sad, and then die quietly and without fuss when he is too useless to do anything. Hopefully he’ll have taught someone else how to forge by then. All the boys want to learn, betting that he won’t manage to have children and will have to train someone’s second son. He is constantly swatting them away from his fire and yelling at them to go play.
“Do we have to go?” says Vanessa. She remembers Janet’s birthing of her last defective, which was horrifying and repulsive.
“It’s our duty,” says Mother, which means yes.
“Can I go into the library?” asks Vanessa.
“If your hands are very clean,” says Mother. Vanessa recites the next phrase under her breath with Mother: “I want you to remember how lucky you are to have books at your fingertips. Nobody else on the island has that privilege.”
All wanderers are also collectors. How could they not be, wading through the detritus of civilization past? Each wanderer family not only inherits a pile of treasures, but adds to it each time the wanderer visits the wastelands. Sometimes it’s all a jumble: delicate flowery plates and glittering jewels and pieces of machines. Sometimes there’s a theme; the wanderer Aarons have pictures and sculptures of horses, their strong legs unfolding while their delicate necks arch forward, eerie to island children who have never seen anything larger than a sheep or faster than a dog. Father, like all the Adams back to their original ancestor, brings back books. Their library is nearly as big as the rest of the house’s rooms put together. Father hid some books in a secured chest, saying they are only for the eyes of wanderers, and Vanessa has never been able to budge the lock. But most of the books are just stories, and these he keeps standing proudly on simple shelves that run around all four walls. The books are staggering in their variety: some as tiny as the palm of a hand, some so big Vanessa has to prop them on her stomach to lift them. They are covered in buttery leather finer than she’s ever seen, or cloth woven so tightly it hurts the eyes to pick out the warp and weft, or thick paper splashed with illustrations that never flake off. Vanessa thinks the prettiest is the book that has a very thin layer of gold on the peripheries of its pages, so when it’s closed, it looks like a shining treasure. Despite its outward glory, The Innovations of the Holy Roman Empire has no pictures to tell Vanessa what the Holy Roman Empire was, and no definitions to tell her exactly what it invented.
Father scratches out the publication dates of all his books, saying wasteland years are meaningless, but he leaves in the names of the authors and everything else. The names bowl Vanessa over with their strangeness. Maria Callansworth. Arthur Breton. Adiel Waxman. Salman Rushdie. On the island, everyone bears the family name of an ancestor. First names are approved by the wanderers, the names of someone on the island who is already dead. Vanessa thinks her name is boring; she’d much prefer to be named Salman.
They have books at school, huge ones that students share during class time. At school they don’t scratch out the dates, but that doesn’t mean much because nobody knows what year it was when the ancestors touched shore. As in Father’s books, the names of the publication locations are exciting and impossible to pronounce. Philadelphia, Albuquerque, Quebec, Seattle. The students have made up stories about what these places were like before they all became the wastelands. Philadelphia had tall buildings of gold that shone in the sun; Albuquerque was a forest always on fire; Quebec had such cold summers that children froze to death in seconds if they went outside; Seattle was under the sea and sent books up to land via metal tunnels.
Vanessa finds many of the books in Father’s library dull. Father once gave her one he said was good for girls, but it was all about people who wouldn’t call each other by their first names and never thought about anything except getting married (the process of which seemed alarmingly complicated). Father was amused at her report and gave her The Call of the Wild, which she’s read eight times. There are dogs on the island, but not massive and ferocious and strong, like in the book. She learned so much from it; all about sleds, and competitions, and outdoor fires, and wolves. Sometimes she dreams of herself alone in the cold, striding through snowy emptiness with bristling, savage wolves at her side.
Today, Vanessa picks out a book called Cubist Picasso and flips through the pictures. The first few pages are torn out, and the rest are only images. Father says he doesn’t know what Cubist or Picasso are. She likes the strange pictures showing things that don’t exist, grown people with eyes on one side of their head like defectives. Lindy Aaron once let her touch a painting, even though she wasn’t supposed to, and it felt rough and thick under her fingers. These images look like they would feel that way, but under her skin is just paper.
After a while, Vanessa tires of lying around, and goes outside. Farms and gardens spread green in ragged patterns under the hazy sun, and the Saul orchards are a faint, dark line on the horizon. Since Father is a wanderer, he receives regular tribute from every island family of the freshest, most delicious food that the fields, gardens, and sea have to offer; Vanessa’s family thus only needs a small vegetable garden, and creamy grasses sweep and lean in the wind around their home.
A dog is trotting around, brown and thin. Vanessa calls to her, and the dog lopes over happily. It’s Reed, one of the Josephs’ dogs. Reed puts her big head on Vanessa’s breastbone and grunts, and wriggles around like she is trying to bore through her rib cage. Vanessa scratches her ears, and the warmth from Reed’s forehead spreads through her. Vanessa wishes she were a dog; all she’d ever have to do is run around and eat things. Although so many litters of puppies are drowned that she would need luck to make it to doghood.
Dinner is mutton and potatoes. Vanessa dislikes mutton, although Mother always tells her to be thankful for any meat they have. Her attempts to be thankful have failed; the mutton tastes like dirt. Father eats it with gusto, closing his teeth over the fibers and chewing lustily. Looking around, she sees chewing mouths, closing on flesh and turning it into slime, and she clenches her jaw against the turn of her stomach. She nibbles at a potato with butter and some burnt, crunchy mutton skin. Eventually Father notices and says, “Vanessa.” Forcing the mutton down, Vanessa barely chews, pretending she is a dog. Dogs don’t chew, they just swallow.
“Would you like something to help you sleep tonight?” asks Mother. Father frowns. He thinks the sleeping draft is unnecessary and is always disappointed when Vanessa takes it. Vanessa nods at Mother, careful not to look at him. Her evening glass of milk has a bitter, acrid undertaste.
That night, Vanessa barely awakens. When she does, the wind is making everything move rhythmically and tree branches are slamming into the walls. It’s almost summer, she thinks, and then darkness overtakes her once more.
The church is halfway underground. Mother says that when she was a child, it was mostly on top of the ground, but it’s been sinking ever since.
When the ancestors came to the island, they built a massive stone church before they even built their own houses. What they didn’t know was that such a heavy building would sink down into the mud during the summer rains. The enormous church slowly disappeared below the surface, its parishioners unconsciously hunching their shoulders lower and lower as the light filtering through the windows became obliterated, like a black blind drawing upward. Undaunted, the builders added more stones, and the church, in response, kept sinking. Every ten years or so, when the roof is almost level with the ground, all the men on the island gather to build stone walls on top of it, and the roof becomes the new floor. Vanessa asked Mother why they couldn’t just use wood, but Mother said it was tradition, and it would be disrespectful to the ancestors to change it. All the eligible stones on the island are long mortared into vanished church walls. The wanderers have to bring new ones in slowly from the wastelands; if they tried to bring them all at once, it would sink the ferry.
Vanessa can’t help but think that if she were in charge, she would build it just a little bit differently, so it might last longer. But she suspects that when she is a woman, she will see no problem with the current method of church building. She’s never seen an adult express anything but enthusiasm for the process of building up and then sinking the church.
The stones the wanderers bring in are beautiful and multicolored, and Vanessa finds the texture pleasing, the way they stick out from the clay walls. She likes to run her hands over the smoothest rocks, the same way she likes to rub a perfectly round pebble that she keeps in her pocket. One stone has the fossil of a small eel imprinted on it, and all the children enjoy staring at the graceful patterns of its bones.
It’s disappointing to go down the long set of stairs into the dim building. The windows are carefully constructed from larger fragments of glass, which makes them appear fractured, like someone smashed them and then sealed them up again. Currently they are half buried in black mud. Sunlight hovers faintly near the ceiling, spreading in delicate veils. Vanessa always watches the windows carefully, even if she’s listening to the sermon. Letty swears that once a huge animal, like a big worm but with teeth, swam up against a pane until its white belly was flat against it, writhing and biting until it wriggled away. There are many legends of enormous underground creatures, bigger than the church itself; they glide through summer mud, curling around children in a soft, muscular embrace and then swallowing them whole.
The pews are polished wood, the smoothest to be found on the island. Although they are worn with the imprints of hundreds of buttocks, Vanessa still slides around uncomfortably; she can never find a place to settle. Pastor Saul is at his lectern, framed by the massive stone wall behind him.
As usual, he is speaking of the ancestors. “They came from a land where the family had been divided, where father and daughter were set asunder, where sons abandoned their mothers to die alone. Our forefathers had a vision, a vision that could not be satisfied in a world of flame, war, and ignorance. The fire and pestilence that spread across the land were second only to the fire and pestilence of thought and deed hovering like a black smoke.”
There is an old tapestry, fragile as a moth’s wing and colossal as a cloud, hung with care on the wall behind him. It depicts the founding of the island, each ancestor delineated by slightly different hair color. The ancestors alight on shore, build the church, build their houses, have children, have meetings with different children under fruit trees, stride around taming nature or yelling at birds (it’s hard to tell), comfort old men, die, and rise into the sky. The cloth used for the tapestry, while faded and tattered, is still gorgeous: furry green material with golden threads winking through it, water-spattered maroon cloth thick and slippery as a cut of meat, a pale yellow that Vanessa knows was once golden and luscious as a setting sun.
Alma Moses, another wanderer’s daughter, once told Vanessa that her father mentioned a machine that went awry in the wastelands and turned everything to flame. That pretty much the entire world caught fire. A lot of what the pastor says sounds like it. Fire first, pestilence after. The scourge. But then, wanderers go to the wastelands all the time and come back with cloth, metal, paper, even animals, none showing any sign of immolation. Perhaps everything burned up and then grew back again. Hannah Solomon, another wanderer’s daughter, said her father told her it was a disease, a disease that rotted flesh and killed people where they stood. Another girl, June Joseph, said that then the dead people rose and shambled around, setting things on fire with their eyes until their corpses rotted, but June is known to exaggerate and her father is a goat farmer anyway.
Now the pastor is talking about women, which as far as Vanessa can tell is his favorite subject. It gets him more worked up than anything. She pictures him striding about in his bedroom at night, lambasting his wife when all she wants to do is go to sleep. He has two sons, so she would be the only woman available to upbraid.
“When a daughter submits to her father’s will, when a wife submits to her husband, when a woman is a helper to a man, we are worshiping the ancestors and their vision. Our ancestors sit at the feet of the Creator, and as their hearts are warmed, they in turn warm His. These women worship the ancestors with each right action, with each right intention. Surely the ancestors will open the gates of heaven, and our grandfathers’ grandfathers will welcome us with open arms.” Vanessa feels Father staring at her and reluctantly stops gazing out the window.
“Only when these acts of submission are done with an open heart and a willing mind,” the pastor continues, “only when this is done with a spirit of righteousness, can we reach true salvation.” Vanessa knows that if you don’t get saved and go to heaven, you slip into the darkness below forever. Once, before she started having her nightmare, she asked Mother if that meant going underground, where the monsters lived. Mother laughed, but then sobered and said maybe. Thanks to her dream, Vanessa is now intimately familiar with the darkness below and the terror it brings. She struggles to be righteous all the time, especially in her thoughts. She imagines her ancestor, Philip Adam, scrutinizing each unworthy thought that comes into her mind and making a black mark on a piece of paper.
“Men, we are not without task in this,” warns the pastor. “We must treat our daughters with kindness and sensitivity. We must not hurt them at a whim, or damage them, but engage with them as the ancestors contracted when they left a forbidding land. We must deliver them safe, wise, and loved to their husbands. We must allow our wives to feel cared for, as cared for as they felt in the arms of their fathers as young children.”
Vanessa turns to look back at Caitlin Jacob, who always has fingerprint bruises on her arms, just as the people sitting near Caitlin turn their heads to look at something else.
“Our society is built on our women,” says the pastor, “on dutiful daughters and dutiful wives, but we must help them and protect them. We must be good shepherds. We must remember the teachings of the ancestors, and why they came to this land.”
There is movement in the corner of Vanessa’s vision, and she realizes with a start that Janey Solomon is staring at her from a few pews over. Vanessa and Janey are the only girls on the island with red hair, which gives them a certain status they would enjoy even without their other attributes. Vanessa’s is a clear, dark brown-red, which she finds boring next to Janey’s hair, which burns like fire. A red that is almost orange, it glistens and sparks, its coppery strands crackling outward. She seems to give off her own light from where she sits.
Vanessa hesitantly meets Janey’s eyes, which are gray to the point of colorlessness, and suddenly their pupils dilate until her eyes seem black. Frowning, Vanessa remembers the last time Janey stared at her, years and years ago, and what happened afterward with Father the same week. Her heart beats faster. Can Janey see the future?
Everyone is afraid of Janey. She hasn’t reached fruition at the age of seventeen, which is unheard of. They say she eats almost nothing, to keep herself from it, only just enough to keep her eyes open and her blood owing through her veins. Vanessa tried it once, to see what it would be like to eat almost nothing. She got tired and hungry by the afternoon, and ended up eating two dinners.
Part of Janey’s aura of intimidation stems from memories of summer. When summer arrives, Janey and her younger sister, Mary, are unstoppable. Even the boys are scared of them. They say Janey gouged Jack Saul’s eye out and then made it look like an accident. They say her father is so scared of her he doesn’t even talk inside the house. They say nobody’s ever laid a hand on her without regretting it.
And now she’s staring at Vanessa. Breathless, Vanessa glances back, then away, unable to meet the black gaze. What does she want? Vanessa looks away until she feels dizzy and then looks back at her. But now she sees Janey’s staring past her, looking at somebody else— or maybe looking at nothing and running in circles in her strange, fiery head.
Vanessa watches Janey’s incandescent braid, so brightly colored it seems to move, writhing and snaking over her shoulder. When it’s time to stand, Vanessa forgets to get up until Father touches her shoulder. She jumps.
It’s time for the reading of the island laws, which the pastor calls the ancestors’ commandments, and everyone else calls the shalt-nots. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not listen at thy neighbor’s walls. Vanessa’s mind drifts lightly as her mouth forms words so familiar that she could recite them in her sleep. Thou shalt not disobey thy father. Thou shalt not enter another man’s home uninvited. Thou shalt not raise more than two children. Thou shalt not fail to give thy wanderer proper bounty. There are plenty of shalt-nots, but she can’t remember a time when she didn’t know them. Father told her once that there used to be only ten or so, but the numbers rose as the wisdom of the wanderers increased. The voice of the congregation swells to support her absentminded murmur. Thou shalt not forget thy ancestor. Thou shalt not touch a daughter who has bled until she enters her summer of fruition.
Vanessa wonders, as she always does, why the commandments use words like “thou” and “thy” when she has never heard anyone talk like that. other than when reciting the shalt-nots. Even the pastor doesn’t talk like that. She imagines saying to Fiona, “Shalt thou invite me to thy house after school, that I may play with thy dog and eat thy cookies?” and has to bite her tongue to keep from snickering. A baby starts shrieking, a long howl that turns rhythmic as her mother starts bouncing her, cooing the shalt-nots into her face like a lullaby. Thou shalt not allow thy wife to stray in thought, deed, or body. Thou shalt not allow women who are not sister, daughter, or mother to gather without a man to guide them. Thou shalt not kill.
After the shalt-nots, the collection plate is passed, and the needle. Father has it in his lap and is sucking blood off his finger. You don’t have to do it until you reach fruition, but Vanessa, always precocious, started when she was eight. She carefully takes the needle, inserts it into the pad of her finger, and squeezes a drop into the red, gelatinous puddle. Afterward, the clotted blood will be poured over a crop field that’s struggling. To Vanessa, whose family has never had to farm, the crop fields are huge holes all waste goes into: animal dung, human waste, blood, dead bodies. She tries not to think about the fact that her food comes out of those holes as well.
Talking is forbidden after the service, until the home worship is complete. Her fingertip tastes like metal. Getting up, people file out of the pews and up the long steps to the doorway. Vanessa glances hopefully at the sky, but it’s a bright blue. She smells heat in the wind. The last few weeks before summer are always the worst.
They walk home quietly, nodding at other families processing toward the church; services will repeat all morning. Once they reach their house, Father opens the altar room, which has a separate entrance. Most houses don’t have special rooms for their altars, but Father built one when Vanessa was a baby, and soon the other wanderers followed suit. Mother cleans it faithfully, with a rag and soapy water, but it always becomes dusty. Motes twist and whirl, glittering in the sun like tiny weightless birds.
The altar is made of a light wood, polished and carved in a way that Vanessa has never seen an island carver achieve; it’s a piece Father found in the wastelands. Propped up on the altar is a tattered copy of Our Book. The originals have dwindled to dust, and part of the pastor’s duties is carefully scribing new ones. Next to Our Book is a beeswax candle speckled with tiny black dots—gnats must have found their way into the wax as it cooled—and a picture of the first Adam, Philip Adam, and his family. Father says it’s not a drawing, but a way to capture a moment in time that people used before the scourge. Like the pictures in the schoolbooks, but glossy and vivid and alive. Vanessa assumes this means that people back then were almost gods. How else could they capture time on paper?
Philip Adam stands tall and strong and blond, smiling like he’s about to laugh. His dark-haired wife is partly turned toward him, gazing at him with adoring eyes, her hands placed lightly on his side. Next to them is a lanky boy, tall but without breadth, grinning awkwardly and showing too many teeth. On the other side is his daughter, thin like his wife, too thin. She’s dark as well, her shadowed eyes like holes in her head, her mouth a dark line. At their feet a baby with an impossible tuft of blond hair looks wary. You could have more than two children, back then.
On the island, worshiping God is about as useful as worshiping the sun: words of praise or words of pleading are unlikely to move either. God sits high and untouchable, a creator with nothing more to create, a father who lost interest in his children ages ago. It is the ancestors, those godly men of yore, who watch over the mortals on the island. It is their strong, capable arms that greet the dead into heaven or strike them into the darkness below. Any prayer is passed from their lips to God’s ear, as well as any lapse or blasphemy. “The ancestors see everything, everywhere on the island,” says Our Book, and for a time in her childhood Vanessa felt like she was defecating for an audience of thoughtful ancestors.
Each family will be worshipping its ancestor right now. Other families are gazing at drawings or relics of Philip Adam, one of the first ten ancestors, and offering him their words of worship. It seems somehow licentious that more than one family can call Philip Adam their own. When Vanessa marries, she will praise a different ancestor, which will be strange; she has spent so long gazing at the miraculous picture of the handsome blond man that she worries the next ancestor will be a disappointment. They say Philip Adam was a genius. He wouldn’t sleep for nights on end, scribbling copious notes that would eventually be condensed into Our Book, then lapsing into trances, having to be fed and cleaned while he wept. He gathered the other ancestors and urged them to the island before the apocalypse he foretold. He was the first pastor too and planned the first church.
“In your name, Philip Adam,” Father says, kneeling in the dust and touching the picture with a reverent finger. “In your name.”
“In your name,” parrot Mother and Vanessa, while Ben says, “In name.”
“First ancestor, bring us strength. Teach us wisdom. Reach to God with your arms, bring Him into our lives, wind Him around our thoughts, bury Him within our breasts. Let the men be strong like trees, and the women like vines, the children our fruit. And when we sink into the earth, gather us into your arms and take us to God’s domain, and let us not look downward into the darkness below.”
“Amen,” say Mother and Vanessa. Ben has gotten distracted by a small shimmering moth. Mother pinches him, but this only makes him yowl and clench his small fists.
Mrs. Saul the wanderer’s wife, with her pinched face and tart tongue, is not whom Amanda would have chosen to perform the ritual, but she was available and Amanda was impatient. They step into the birthing building, Amanda’s candle flickering and dancing lightly over the tightly hewn walls. The wood is swollen with the stale, metallic smell of dried blood, the leavings of hundreds of squalling infants and wailing mothers. Amanda wrinkles her nose; Mrs. Saul notices and snaps, “Haven’t you been to a birthing before?”
Amanda doesn’t answer. She has, one time. Mother took her in order to show that she was doing her maternal duty, although Amanda suspects she didn’t fool anybody. They sat silent and morose as Dina Joseph, the goat farmer’s wife, screamed and thrashed and delivered a dead infant, deep blue streaked with scarlet and white slime. Dina sobbed, and Amanda felt irritated that she was forced to witness this raw, bloody grief. She glanced at Mother, who looked bored, and suddenly thought, We are utter defectives. At least, when we’re together. As if reading her mind, Mother glared at her, and Amanda glumly returned to staring at the blue pile of flesh and gore in Dina’s heaving arms.
Mrs. Saul sighs. “Do you know the ritual?”
Amanda has heard the stories at school, about babies being sliced out of screaming women, examined, and placed back inside, but she doesn’t trust her informants. “Not really,” she says.
“Well, no matter,” Mrs. Saul says briskly. “It won’t kill you, and then you’ll know. But take care it is kept secret. Men do not know of this, nor should they. This is women’s business. We are the ones who need to prepare ourselves.”
Amanda nods. “Mrs. Saul?” she asks.
“You’re an adult now,” Mrs. Saul replies, “and you can call me Pamela.”
“Um,” says Amanda. The idea of calling Mrs. Saul by her first name seems blasphemous. “Why does it have to be a wanderer’s wife?”
“You would prefer someone else?” inquires Mrs. Saul icily.
“No, no, it’s not that,” lies Amanda. “I’m just wondering. Why.”
“Because as wanderers’ wives, we hold power, and we are as wanderers among the women,” says Mrs. Saul grandly, and Amanda nods, although she’s doubtful about the accuracy of this comparison.
They are silent, breathing in the bloody air, and then Mrs. Saul says, “Are you sure you want to do it? Many don’t. There’s nothing wrong with waiting until the birth.”
“Yes. I’m sure.” Amanda pauses. “What do I do?”
“First, take off your dress.”
Amanda grabs the hem of her skirt and pulls it over her head, then for good measure unties the cloth binding her swollen breasts, so she stands naked. Mrs. Saul squints at her and says, “About four months along?”
“About,” says Amanda.
“You are thirteen? Fourteen?”
“A good age for your first child. Lie here, let me get some straw.”
Mrs. Saul scoops up a pile of hay in the center of the room. “Lie back, legs straight.” Amanda obeys, peering at the dim ceiling. “This will be painful.”
“I can handle pain,” replies Amanda stiffly.
“I believe you can,” says Mrs. Saul, and Amanda stares at her, suspicious. Is Mrs. Saul paying her a compliment?
Reaching into the pocket of her dress, Mrs. Saul pulls out a small knife, instantly ablaze with candled reflections that leap and twist in the rippled metal. Bringing it to Amanda’s breastbone, she begins singing.
She doesn’t sing words, but rather a tune with nonsense syllables, a melody that wavers like the candlelight. She has a low, husky, beautiful voice that Amanda never dreamed could emerge from Mrs. Saul’s sour throat. The knife lightly traces downward from Amanda’s sternum to where the swell of her belly curves upward. Taking a deep breath, Mrs. Saul begins cutting. She doesn’t cut to muscle, but enough to break through layers of skin, and blood begins to bead and swell in glossy vermilion spheres. Amanda is mesmerized by the slow incision, the freezing-cold line on her skin that turns boiling and steams with agony in the knife’s wake.
“Breathe,” says Mrs. Saul, breaking off midsong, and Amanda does.
Once Mrs. Saul is done, Amanda gazes down at herself. Mrs. Saul has cut an impossibly neat, straight line down her rounded stomach, all the way to her pubis. The song lulls her, carries her to and fro, toward and away from the pain. Cool blood trickles down either side of her belly, striping her ribs and turning her into some strange animal in shadow.
Mrs. Saul pauses in her tune, and Amanda takes the opportunity to whisper, “Now what?” But Mrs. Saul only glares at her and resumes singing. She opens a small, thick cloth bag and takes a breath as if to steel herself. Her ropy hand rises with a handful of something white and crystalline, and she quickly, violently smears and pushes it into Amanda’s wound.
Screaming, Amanda arches, feeling cracked open, the torment burrowing deeper and deeper into her flesh. The line of pain blossoms, a searing crimson flower, sheds arcane patterns on her belly that burn bone-deep. She can’t get enough breath to wail all her agony, and she pants, sobs, chokes.
“Breathe,” says Mrs. Saul.
Amanda tries to turn, but Mrs. Saul’s hands are firmly on her abdomen, pressing on each side. She’s not sure how long she lies there, writhing and gasping like a beached and gutted fish. As the pain begins to recede, wave upon wave softening and retreating, her attention fixes on Mrs. Saul’s hands.
“What do you feel?” she whispers.
She can tell from Mrs. Saul’s face. Clenching her eyes shut, she tries to move something inside her gut, shove her baby into life. After a few minutes she opens her eyes once more and sees that Mrs. Saul has tears streaming down her face.
“It’s a girl,” Amanda says accusingly.
“It’s a girl,” says Mrs. Saul, nodding, her song done. “She didn’t move at all. She just stayed silent and still, despite the pain. It’s a girl, may the ancestors help her.”
“The ancestors don’t help anyone!” shouts Amanda, and can tell by Mrs. Saul’s face she’s gone too far.
“May they forgive you,” Mrs. Saul says loudly, punctuating each word.
“May they forgive me,” repeats Amanda meekly. Her blood-smeared belly aches and twinges, and she bursts into tears. Mrs. Saul moves to her head and strokes her hair soothingly.
“It’s all right, Amanda,” she whispers. “We were girls. We are here now. Our daughters will endure. Think of the summers, think of the love you will have for her.”
All Amanda can think of is a filthy winter, time spent trapped in her bed by bonds of flesh, clenching her teeth against a scream, over and over and over.
I won’t do it, she thinks. I won’t do it. And then, By the ancestors, I have to do it all over again. She weeps with a grief so strong it flows through her veins like a sickness. Mrs. Saul puts her arms around the recumbent Amanda and lays her head against Amanda’s throat. Her hair smells comfortingly of goat’s milk and dust and salt.
“Weep now,” whispers Mrs. Saul. “Weep deep. When you are through, rise and return to your husband with a cheerful face. Endure. I have done it and so can you.”
Amanda’s daughter, too late, kicks and circles in her womb.
Caitlin has a recurring dream that she dreads, of a world without summer. A world where the rains never come and everything goes on the way it did before. A world where there is heat without freedom. Sometimes she worries that she’s going crazy, like the Solomon boy who gabbled and banged his head against the walls. His parents patiently waited for him to die so they could have another, more useful child, but he stubbornly survived for years, and when he suddenly vanished everybody knew what had happened. Caitlin would rather not have that happen to her.
When she wakes from the dream, she grabs her ears and pulls until they hurt. The thread of pain running through her head brings her back to being Caitlin, who is not crazy, who knows there has never been a world without summer, and there won’t be one now.
Caitlin is almost to her summer of fruition, but with any luck she won’t bleed soon. Some of the girls look forward to the summer of fruition, and she knows she should. Afterward, she’ll get married and live somewhere else. Joanna Joseph says that everyone enjoys it, but if you don’t you can drink things that help you enjoy it. Caitlin isn’t sure what scares her more, going through it as Caitlin or becoming not-Caitlin, and waking up afterward with no idea what happened to her.
In Caitlin’s mind, the summer of fruition is as terrifying as the wastelands and the darkness below. Father talks about the wastelands a lot. Caitlin’s father is not a wanderer, but he claims they tell him terrible things. Late at night, Caitlin mulls over his stories, lengthening and embellishing them until a nightmare blossoms from the grisly seeds. She pictures scenes so horrifying that sometimes she cries for the wasteland children, even though she’s not completely sure that there are wasteland children. Although there must be, since she was one. But that was long ago, and she can’t remember it.
As for the darkness below, Mother says she won’t have to go as long as she is good. And so Caitlin tries her best to be very, very good.
Mother is very, very good. Sometimes at night, if they can tell by Father’s snores that he won’t wake up, Caitlin crawls into bed with her. Mother curls around her like a warm, sheltering blanket. They can’t sing songs or talk the way they would during the day, but Mother hugs Caitlin so tight and safe that she almost can’t breathe. It feels good, the pressure. Sometimes she can sleep, then. Caitlin has heard there is a syrup you can drink that makes you sleep through just about anything. She’s afraid to ask about it and hear a firm no, preferring to dream of a golden-thick world where sleep comes like a breath, unconscious and inevitable.
Every day after school, she tries to help Mother as much as she can. The house chores must be performed quietly, unobtrusively, never bothering or annoying Father. It’s hard to keep up with what needs to be done, as Caitlin’s house is falling down around her. Mother is skilled at quietly scrubbing and sweeping so that dirt and dust are collected and discarded, but Father has forgotten to rebuild soft spots in the wood. Every couple of years, men must apply a tincture made by the dyer to prevent mold from blossoming, but Father has forgotten that too. The walls are a luxurious riot of black and brown, plumes branching from a spot on the bottom of the wall and flaming up to lick the ceiling in swirls of tiny dark spots. She and Mother will sometimes take cloths and patiently scrub, or even use their fingernails to scrape off the stains, but their efforts never do any good. Caitlin can see pictures in the mold, the way people see things in clouds. A tree. A butterfly. A monster.
Other buildings sometimes seem almost too clean, too intact, the walls uncomfortably dry and staring and bare, the frightening freedom of not needing to know what parts of the floor to avoid. Stairs that she can run up and down with abandon, instead of deftly skipping the rotting steps.
Life must be lived this way because of Father, who does not like to be disturbed. He takes the instructions of the ancestors to keep patriarchal order in his home very seriously. It embarrasses her that everyone thinks Father beats her, but she knows that it’s just because she bruises so very easily. Father sometimes jokes that she’d bruise in a strong wind. If he lays a hand on her leg, it bruises. If he pulls on her arm to punctuate a point, it bruises. Sometimes she doesn’t even feel it. Caitlin hates the marks; it’s like her body is a tattletale, blabbing everything that everyone else’s body keeps silent. Her body is so garrulous, with its bruises and pink marks and maroon spots, that she rarely talks, not wanting to add to the din. If she can’t be smart or pretty, she can be quiet. And good.
Caitlin is a rare first-generation child. Mother and Father came to the island when she was a baby. A lot of the children used to ask her what she remembered from the wastelands, but the honest answer is nothing. She asks Mother, who says she doesn’t remember either. It would seem odd to someone else, but Caitlin thinks she is telling the truth. Mother is so wonderful, but she’s different from other mothers: thin and pale and curling into herself. If by a miracle there is nothing left to do, sometimes she’ll just sit at a table for hours, staring into space. If Caitlin asks what she’s thinking about, she’ll half smile and say, “Oh, I’m just . . . ” and never finish the sentence. When Father is in the room she instantly reverts to shadow, skittering around the edges, magically removing plates and wiping counters without actually being seen.
It’s a little easier to get Father to talk about the wastelands, especially if he’s drunk on mash-wine. The problem is, Caitlin can’t find the right questions. She’ll ask if there was a big fire, and he’ll laugh and say “Was there ever!” in such a way that she can’t tell if he’s joking or telling the truth. She asks why he and Mother came, and he says something about the ancestors and the shalt-not about listening at walls. She asks if there are still horses, remembering the sturdy, leggy giants from pictures in schoolbooks and the Aarons’ paintings. He says, “Horses! Why do you want to know about horses?” She asks if there are children in the wastelands, and he says, “Keep asking questions and there’ll be one.”
She never asks him questions if he’s not drunk, or if he’s too drunk. She has to time it just right. Once she got him to admit that there were dogs in the wastelands, and she was popular at school for two whole days, but then everyone started ignoring her again. Caitlin knows they wish she was smarter and could ask better questions. It’s hard with a father like Father, but she doesn’t know how to explain that to anyone else.
During times of quiet, afternoons when Mother is staring at the wall and Father is snoring in the bed, her mind is always running, running. She can’t shut it off. Strangely, the only place that seems peaceful is church. Despite the pastor’s grim warnings of the darkness below, and the inevitable sinking disappointment at how bad she is, church is predictable. People sit in the pews while the pastor strides and thunders. She doesn’t have to say anything or answer any questions, and she knows every single person in the pews has to sit there and stay quiet, like her. Sometimes she closes her eyes and falls slightly into a doze, so she still hears the pastor but sees colors and ashes of faces behind her eyelids.
On this Sunday, she is slipping off to sleep in the pew when suddenly a movement in front of her flips her eyes open so wide they feel lidless. Janey Solomon has turned and is staring at Caitlin, who nearly shrieks. Of all the people in the world, Janey scares her the most. More than Father, more than the wanderers with their secret meetings and sweeping decisions, more than Haley Balthazar, who once punched Caitlin in the stomach at recess. It’s not just Janey’s unique appearance, with her shining hair and bounteous freckles, or all the rumors about what she’s like in summertime. It’s that Janey herself isn’t scared of anything, which is the most terrifying thing about her.
Caitlin looks down at her lap, at the rough-woven dress with a moth hole. She looks up at the ceiling as if she’s found something interesting there. She even tries a jumpy little wave in Janey’s direction. Janey’s gaze doesn’t change, she just tilts her head like a dog hearing a faint noise. The light gray eyes with wide black pupils travel over Caitlin’s forearms, which have mottled bruises peeking out through the long sleeves. Caitlin feels a sudden urge to shout, “It’s okay! I bruise really easily!” but of course she’d rather die than yell anything in church. Janey’s freckled lips pull to one side. Caitlin is considering crawling under the pew when Janey turns around and faces front again. Heart racing, Caitlin slowly creeps her hand down the side of her thigh, finger-walks it across the wood like a hesitant spider, and seizes her mother’s fingers. Mother squeezes Caitlin’s palm briefly, like a reflex, and smiles vacantly toward the front.
Amanda goes into one of her staring spells in the root cellar, while she is examining carrots. She’s holding a bunch in her hand, deciding which to use in a salad for supper, and then suddenly something shifts. There’s a quiet weight to her shoulders, lost hours settling over her like a mantle. Walking slowly upstairs, she checks the clock. About two hours this time. She hesitates, then sighs and goes back down into the cool dimness.
Amanda once told her neighbor, Jolene Joseph, about the lost time. Jolene laughed and said it was “pregnancy crazy,” and that the same thing happened to her. Amanda laughed too, and didn’t mention that she’s had these spells as far back as she can remember.
Her episodes of lost time have gotten worse since the baby started kicking. At first Amanda thought her digestion was off, but then she realized that the utters were too regular and quick to be gas. A moth beating against a window frantically, then settling with a shiver onto a windowsill. The first time she recognized its trembling, Amanda pressed her hand deep into her belly and thought, Hello, baby girl. Then she ran to the outhouse and puked into the miasmic pit. She lost time then, staring into a mosaic of sewage through a faded, lime-smelling wooden opening. When she came back to herself, she slowly walked back to the house, thinking, There’s no way to know. It could be a boy. Now she knows for sure.
Amanda is terrified that, upon having a daughter, she will turn into her mother. Mother hated Amanda from the moment she was born. Amanda found out later it was Father who fed her, using goat’s milk and a cloth, when Mother refused. Father had diapered her, cleaned her, and played with her while Mother sat in bed, staring at the ceiling and crying.
When Amanda was two, Elias was born, and Mother adored him instantly. Father was always busy repairing roofs during the day. At first, Amanda tagged after Mother and Elias, but they pulled into a shell made only for mother and son, leaving her lost and confused. Eventually she stopped seeking their company. She only laughed and talked when Father was home, when he would take her on his lap and rub her feet between his hands, and curl locks of her light brown hair around his fingers.
Amanda even slept with him in her child’s bed, with Mother and Elias sprawled out in the bed meant for two adults. As she grew, she started butting against him with her kneecaps and elbows and hips. When she was six, Father’s body stretched across the bed made her wakeful, and then she couldn’t sleep at all. Even if Father was sound asleep, she jerked at every twitch, tensed at every snort. Eventually she started sleeping curled in an impenetrable ball by the replace if it was cold, and sprawled on the roof like a limpet if it wasn’t. Father teased her at first, then pleaded, and then commanded her to sleep in bed at night. But as soon as he fell asleep, she slipped away.
When the other girls at school found out that Amanda was sleeping on the roof, they thought she was different and brave, a fearless rebel. She didn’t mind that designation at all. Given her threadbare clothing and disintegrating shoes—Mother only mended Amanda’s clothes when they were at the point of falling off her—it was better than being known as pitiful.
Soon even sleeping on the roof was too much proximity to Father, and she began roaming around in search of other places to sleep. She learned she could sleep in the cold, although not in the snow. Eventually she began sleeping at the edge of the island, where the brackish water lazily cozied up to land. The morning horizon was always foggy, and she could never see very far, but she liked the way the light filtered through the fog like a gentle touch, the way the outlines of trees and driftwood glowed and sharpened as the sun rises. She liked the little hermit crabs, scuttling around with one fist triumphantly thrust into the air, and the sound of fish leaping and plopping in the water. She even liked going back to Mother’s scowls and Father’s glum, sickening affection, because she knew that a few hours had belonged just to her.
Amanda doesn’t want her daughter to sleep in the cold because her mother hates her. But Mother probably didn’t plan to hate Amanda. It just happened.
When Andrew comes home, Amanda is still holding a bunch of carrots in the root cellar. Her candle has almost burned to a stub. The cellar is stone, carefully built and mortared so that muck doesn’t seep in during the summer. The fading light jumps and flickers on the smooth walls, so that the hanging chickens and piles of potatoes seem alive and threatening, things with teeth.
“Is that dinner?” he asks, laughing. He puts a hand on her swollen belly and kisses the back of her neck. For the first time in Amanda’s life, she wants him to go away.
“Dinner will be late,” she says. “I took a long nap.”
“That’s fine,” he answers. “On Thursday there’ll be half a rack of mutton ready at Tim’s, all smoked and ready for the cellar. I should have asked for a whole one; his roof will hold for decades. Longer than the rest of the place.” He is covered in sawdust and twigs, and she wonders if he was crawling under a tree.
Amanda can never quite believe she married a man who does the same work as Father. Now the reminder makes her gorge rise, and she tries to force it back down her throat and focus on the conversation.
“I don’t know,” she replies. “A whole rack could go a bit off before we eat it.”
“Not with the appetite you’ve been having,” he says, grinning at her.
“Not me,” Amanda says, touching her belly. Don’t say “her.” “The, the baby.”
“The baby,” Andrew agrees.
“I’m actually not very hungry tonight,” she says.
“Would you like me to go to George’s?” he asks. George is Andrew’s older brother, another roofer and an overall cheerful man. He has two daughters.
“Would you?” says Amanda, forcing a smile that feels like a lie. “It’s just that I’m . . . so tired.”
“Of course,” he says, taking her hand, and she loosens her fingers from her palm one by one so that he’s holding a hand and not a fist. That night she eats unwashed carrots for dinner, squatting on her haunches in the root cellar, savoring the metallic taste of the dirt as much as the sweetness of the vegetables.
Late that night, she hears sobbing from the house next door. From the pitch of it, she can tell it’s Nancy Joseph, who recently started bleeding and so is facing her summer of fruition. Sighing, Amanda rolls over fretfully, frustrated at her inability to block out the sound. Eventually she dozes off, but the soft weeping clings to her mind and follows her into her dreams. She dreams of a child crying desperately, skinny and hunched over, and Amanda is frozen and unable to say or do anything to comfort her.