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The year Carly turns eleven, 1907, is filled with playing detective, watching condors, observing a fierce feud involving her family's Southern California ranch, and coping with unexpected tragedies.
It was midafternoon on an unusually warm June day when Carly Hartwick made the following entry in her secret journal:
Northeast bedroom, Carlton Ranchhouse, Santa Luisa, Ventura County, California, U.S.A.—Western Hemisphere, World, Universe, Kingdom of God, on the tenth day of June in the year of Our Lord 1907.
Mehitabel Carlton Hartwick becomes invisible.
It hadn't been easy—she had been working toward invisibleness for a long time with only partial success—but this time everything had been strangely different.
She had begun, this time, by wishing on a special wishbone. She'd tried wishbones before with no luck at all, but today she used the enormous one that she had been saving ever since Thanksgiving, and it had broken just right. Holding the broken pieces one in each hand, she stood perfectly still for a long time with her eyes closed, willing her skin and bones to disappear, to melt away, to dissolve into nothingness.
The first sign was a strange sensation, a floating feeling of lightness and transparency that grew stronger and stronger, until her feet scarcely seemed to be touching the floor. But she still wasn't satisfied. She began to drift around and around the room, thinking of will-o'-the-wisps and gossamer and other light and airy things, all the while humming a high-pitched tune that got softer and softer until it died away to nothingness. By the time the last feathery whisper ended, she was absolutely certain. Moving slowly and softly so as not to break the spell, she pulled her journal out from under the mattress and recorded the miraculous event. Then she went out to make the final test.
The upstairs hallway of the old ranch house was dark and stuffy, a long tunnel smelling of heat and dust. Outside the door of her room the invisible Mehitabel Carlton Hartwick, commonly known as Carly, paused for only a moment before gliding through the dim light to the head of the narrow staircase, and on down to the back hall. Turning into the dining room, she crossed it silently and confidently—absolutely certain that she wouldn't be noticed. And wouldn't have been—even if someone had been in the room. So far so good, but next came the most difficult test—the parlor. There were people in the parlor, two very important people, Anna and Lila Hartwick, Carly's mother and sister.
Anna Hartwick was lying on the sofa reading a book and Lila was standing near the window when Carly walked right between them and out the front door. She walked slowly and deliberately, and it was perfectly obvious that neither her mother nor her sister had any idea that she was anywhere within a hundred miles.
On the broad veranda Carly leaned against the wall and shivered with excitement. She had decided on becoming invisible on her tenth birthday just over a year ago, and since then she had tried everything without success. During that time she had used all kinds of charms and rituals and even prayers, but nothing had worked.
There had been times, of course, when she felt it had almost happened; when it really seemed that not one member of her family had seen or heard her for hours at a time. Always before it had turned out to be only her imagination; but today was different. Carly's shoulders lifted and then fell slowly in another long-drawn-out, delicious shiver.
A familiar combination of sounds—the clop of hooves and jingle of harness—seeped through her invisible shield, and she turned toward the road. A team and wagon was coming down from the high valley. She moved out to the veranda railing for a better view. It was the Díazes' buckboard, and old Mr. Díaz was driving the team. Welcoming another test, perhaps not a terribly difficult one, since Grandpa Díaz was known to be nearsighted, she stayed right where she was, and even raised a hand in a daring wave.
The wagon clopped and jingled by, trailing a cloud of dust, and Grandpa Díaz gave no sign that he had noticed that someone, in plain view on the veranda steps, was waving to him. She was definitely invisible.
Concentrating again, willing invisibleness with her total being, she began the return trip and the final trial. Silently, she opened the screen door and glided back into the parlor. On the red velvet fainting couch her mother continued to read, and at the window Lila went on staring up the dusty valley road. Across the room, and out the door, and down the hall, she went, a silent, unseen presence.
A moment later she swept triumphantly into the kitchen—and a voice said, "Carly dear, you're just in time to lend me a finger."
Nellie, Carly's oldest sister, was at the kitchen table wrapping a parcel. She pulled the string tighter and nodded toward the spot where a pressing finger would insure a tight knot. "They're molasses cookies for Aunt Mehitabel. Arthur's going to run them over for me, and you know Arthur. If they're not carefully wrapped he'll have half of them eaten and the rest smashed before he gets out of the yard."
Carly stood motionless, staring at her sister in dismay. Wouldn't you just know it would be Nellie who would spoil it all? A person just couldn't be invisible, or anything else wondrous and extraordinary around someone like Nellie—someone who insisted on seeing everything in such an ordinary way.
"Carly?" Nellie asked, still waiting with the string pulled tight. Mehitabel Carlton Hartwick, the ex-invisible person, clumped dejectedly to the table and put her finger on the knot. As Nellie's head bent over the package, Carly rolled her eyes upward and made faces at the ceiling—tragic despair—bitter grief—and then, as she looked down at her sister's carrotty red head, a kind of puzzled wonder. It was amazing, unbelievable actually, that three sisters could be so different. Magical, mysterious, almost invisible Mehitabel; and Lila—Lila the Fair, Lila the Lovable, Lila the Lily-Maid of Santa Luisa—and then there was Nellie.
"What is it, Carly?" Nellie finished with the string and looked up, pushing a straggle of curly red hair off her freckled forehead. "What's the matter?"
"Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. Why did you think something was the matter?"
Nellie smiled. "Oh, I don't know. Would you like a cookie? I saved some especially for you. They're in the pantry."
Carly was in the pantry eating a cookie and putting several others in her pinafore pocket when she heard a stomping of boots and a jingle of spurs. Spurs! Stuffing the rest of the cookie into her mouth, she shot out into the kitchen, and nearly collided with her brother. "Arthur," she said through a mouthful of crumbs, "are you riding Comet to Aunt Mehitabel's? I thought you were walking. If you're riding Comet, may I come too?"
Arthur and Nellie laughed. "Would you mind spraying that again?" Arthur said, brushing cookie crumbs off the front of his leather vest.
Carly gulped and swallowed and said, "Could I ride to Aunt Mehitabel's with you? I really ought to go see her, Nellie. I haven't been since Tuesday. I promised her I'd come today." It was the truth. She'd almost forgotten, but she had promised.
"You'll have to walk home," Arthur said. "I'm going on into town after I leave off the cookies."
"I don't mind," Carly said. "May I go? May I, Nellie?"
"You'll have to ask Mama."
"Oh, why? She'll just say to ask you. When Father isn't here she always says to ask you."
Nellie shook her head, frowning, as if she resented being reminded that she was in charge. It was a response that had always puzzled Carly. She herself would not have minded being in control of almost anything, she was sure of that. But Nellie had always been the one to ask when Father was away, even though Arthur and Lila were just a little younger, and Charles was even older than Nellie herself. But then Charles, Carly's oldest brother, who was twenty-one and a grown man in some ways, just wasn't much good at being in charge.
"Well?" Arthur asked, grinning at Nellie. "Am I to be saddled with the infant as far as Auntie's, or not?"
Carly couldn't help giggling. Arthur, at eighteen, was so much bigger than twenty-year-old Nellie; and his face, lean and dark and already shadowed by the beginnings of a beard, looked much older than his sister's. Arthur got the joke. Looking down at Carly, he returned her grin and then, turning again to Nellie, he said in a high-pitched little boy's voice, "May we go, Mummy? Will you let us go to Auntie's?"
Nellie smiled reluctantly. "Well, let's tell Mama you're going, at least. She may want you to take a message to Aunt M. Come on, now." She turned to her brother. "Wait a minute, Arthur. This won't take long."
In the dimly lit parlor neither Anna nor Lila seemed to have moved an inch. "Mama," Nellie said. "Mama!" And Anna Hartwick put her finger on the page to hold her place and slowly raised her dark head—dark like Lila's and almost as beautiful, in spite of the gray strands in her hair and the dark hollows around her eyes.
"Listen," she said. "Isn't this lovely? Come here, girls. Let me read this to you." She raised the book to show the title. "It's from The Old Curiosity Shop."
Before she even began to read, Carly knew it would be about Petey. Once in a while Mama read about other things, verses about autumn colors or snow or yearning for your native land. But more often, as now, what she read was related in some way to Petey.
"'When Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it.'" There was a quaver in Mama's voice as she read, and when she raised her eyes Carly could see the gleam of tears. The innocent and young. Poor little Petey. She felt her own eyes began to fill, but remembering Arthur and Comet, she blinked hard and nudged Nellie to remind her of the business at hand.
"It's beautiful, Mama," Nellie said. "It really is. But just now we need to know if it's all right if Carly goes to Aunt M.'s with Arthur. I'm sending her some cookies."
"To Aunt M.'s?" Mama sighed and shrugged. "Yes, I suppose so. Now that school is out, I suppose Aunt Mehitabel will be expecting to have her little pet right there at Greenwood most of the time." Mama sighed again and smiled sadly at Carly. "But isn't it awfully warm to walk such a long way? Arthur will take the surrey, won't he?"
"Father has the surrey," Carly reminded her, "but Arthur's taking me on Comet. At least on the way down and ..."
Mama's eyes had gone back to her book. "Yes," she said. "Yes, that should be all right. Give Aunt Mehitabel my love."
"All right, Carly." Nellie turned to go and Carly followed, glancing back over her shoulder.
Mama was reading again and Lila had gone back to the window. Against the light Lila made a slender silhouette, the high collar of her white shirtwaist emphasizing her long, graceful neck. Masses of dark hair wreathed her small head and then fell down her back in a heavy braid. Her face was turned away, but Carly knew her beautiful dark eyes would be clouded and distant. "Daydreaming again," people said about Lila when her eyes were like that, but Carly knew it was more than that. Lila was in love. Sixteen-year-old Lila Hartwick was in love with Johnny Díaz and had been for almost as long as Carly could remember. No one else knew. It was a tragic secret love and terribly sad and exciting and Carly would never never tell anyone.
Halfway out the door she turned and ran back. Putting her hand on Lila's arm, she waited until the dreamy eyes turned away from the window. "Good-bye, Lila," Carly said, trying to make her voice ordinary and matter-of-fact while her eyes spoke volumes. "I'm going to Aunt M.'s, with Arthur. Do you want us to say hello to anyone for you? I mean anyone we might meet on the road?"
Lila's smile was vague and lovely. "No," she said. "No. I don't think so."CHAPTER 2
Arthur and comet were waiting impatiently in the shade of the walnut tree in the backyard. Arthur was frowning and slapping his quirt against his booted leg, and Comet was tossing his head and pawing the ground. At the sight of them Carly instantly forgot the dimly lit parlor and Dickens and poor little Petey and even lovely Lila's sad secret.
"It's all right," she said, bouncing with excitement. "I can go." She grabbed for the saddle horn and was jumping on one foot, trying to reach the stirrup with the other, when Tiger appeared out of nowhere and almost knocked the other leg out from under her.
Tiger was Carly's dog and dearest friend, next of course to her family and Aunt M. and Woo Ying. He was small and white with brown spots and funny brown eyebrows, with a hint of Scotch terrier in his appearance and feisty disposition. Next to Carly and food, he loved going places, and at the moment he was obviously planning to go wherever Arthur and Carly were going.
"Uh-oh," Carly said, recovering her balance. "We can't let him follow. I promised Aunt M. I wouldn't bring him next time I came. Woo Ying is mad at him for digging up his petunias. I'll tie him up."
"I'll do it," Arthur said. "It'll take you forever. Here! Hold the reins." He grabbed Tiger's collar and pulled him toward the doghouse. For a moment Carly watched, sharing Tiger's bitter disappointment as he skidded over the ground, his feet braced in a hopeless attempt to avoid the hated tether. But then she turned her attention to the high-strung colt and forgot about poor Tiger.
Holding the reins tightly, she crooned a soothing hymn of praise and admiration, while the powerful dark bay colt sidled around her and rolled his bit, testing the authority of the hands that held him. Completely focused on her exciting task, she was only vaguely aware of Tiger's whimpers as he was tied to the doghouse, and of Nellie and Arthur's conversation. But, a minute later, as she was being boosted up onto Comet's back, she began to hear what Nellie was saying.
"Just don't let her ride astride again with her skirt hiked up halfway to her waist," Nellie said. "You remember what Father said last time."
"But, Nellie," Carly said, "it's a lot safer that way. It's so hard to keep your balance riding sidesaddle."
"I know. But you're a big girl now and if you're going to ride horses you must learn to ride like a lady. And you'll be safe enough if Arthur keeps Comet down to a walk."
Carly knew there was no point in saying that that wasn't the kind of ride she had in mind. So she kept quiet and sat sideways on the saddle skirt, hanging on to Arthur's belt with both hands. It was true that Father had ruled that Carly was too old to ride astride in public places, but Carly knew from experience that Arthur never took rules too seriously, not even Father's. And, sure enough, once out on the valley road she was able to talk her brother into not only allowing her to sit astride, but also into letting the fretting, sidestepping Comet stretch his legs in a quick gallop.
It was wonderful; the wind in her face, her hair flying, the smell of the dusty road and the sweating horse, and the smooth rhythmical surge as the ground flew beneath them. Down the long, flat stretch of road between tall rows of Carlton walnut trees, and then up the slow rise to the foothills of the Mupu Ridge, they raced in only a few wonderful minutes. But suddenly it ended. As they topped the slope, Arthur pulled Comet to a quick stop. "Buggy coming," he said. "Be quick now. As you were, Infant."
Going from sidesaddle to astride and back again was a risky operation, but one at which Carly was well practiced. It involved a quick push backward and then a daring leg over while balanced near the horse's tail. By the time the Hamiltons' sorrel mare trotted past with Mrs. Hamilton peering out and waving, Carly was seated properly with her skirt and pinafore down below her knees.
In front of Greenwood, Aunt Mehitabel's big house on the edge of town, Arthur pulled Comet to a stop, reached back for Carly's hand, and swung her to the ground. The horse was fretting again, wanting to run, and the moment Arthur loosened the reins he leapt forward—and Carly remembered and yelled, "The cookies!"
Arthur pulled up so sharply that Comet reared. His black mane flying, his hooves pawed the air before he came down to dance sideways across the road. Controlling the prancing horse with one hand, Arthur pulled the package of cookies from the saddlebag and tossed them to Carly with a grin. A moment later horse and rider were off toward town in a cloud of dust. Clutching the cookies in both arms, Carly watched and let her mind race with the racing horse.
Excerpted from And Condors Danced by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Copyright © 1987 Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 16, 2010
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