Read an Excerpt
On that night, a Sunday in February, Jane read under the covers with a flashlight, skimming a novel for a page she wanted to read again. Every so often, she closed the book and looked at the cover, where her own name appeared in the title. It was exciting to see it that way, in carved letters. It made the book hers. She had a pen and her notebook with her, too, just in case; she liked to write things down. She was the kind of girl who felt New Year's should be in the fall, at the beginning of school, the kind of girl who begged for chores and saved quarters in a jar to buy a pony. Beneath her nightgown she wore a pair of fresh underpants she'd spent the night with a girl who put them on before bed and she'd copied the idea. As usual she'd braided her hair to make it look smoother for school. Her brother Sean slept in the other bed, flat on his back with his hands dangling. Their little sister and brother twins were in their room down the hall. At nine Jane had begun to want a room of her own. She was writing a book.
For a while there was noise and music downstairs, and then the adults came up. Her father's footsteps, and Uncle Francis's, were discernible, but it was only because she knew what to listen for that Jane was able to track Via, her mother, who had a habit of going barefoot in the house. Via's movements were dreamy and for the most part silent, but her bracelets gave away her whereabouts. She always wore three thick gold bracelets, even in the ocean and the shower. Slave bracelets, she called them.
The footsteps stopped outside her door. "Good night, sleep tight or not," said Uncle Francis to Emlin and Via. He was spending the night in the guest room just on the other side of Jane's wall.
Via giggled. "You're bad!"
"I should hope so. I try, at least."
"Sshh! I'm going to check on them," Emlin said.
Jane shut off her flashlight. The door opened quietly, and in floated her father's head, a dark balloon.
"Misses?" he whispered.
She hesitated for a second. But he would never suspect her of deceiving him, so she couldn't do it. "Yes?"
"I thought you'd be up." He groped his way to the edge of her bed and sat down. She smelled his cigarettes and Scotch and, faintly, Royal Lyme. "Were we too noisy?"
"No. I was reading."
"Is this your leg?"
Jane pushed the switch on the flashlight and it shone up through the blankets and his hand. He laughed. "I guess not. I thought it felt funny."
Jane switched the light off again. "You're not going to the hospital?"
"Nope. No emergencies tonight, at least not so far. Are you ready to go to sleep?"
"Soon." She knew he'd accept that. He wasn't as insistent on a good night's sleep as Via because he barely slept himself. He was a heart surgeon. Dr. MacLeod, pronounced "Ma-Cloud," which had to be explained to nearly everyone. Via's real name was Olivia.
"Okay. Soon," he repeated. He bent to kiss her. She pressed her cheek against his and moved her face so she could feel his scratchy whiskers. He began to pull away, but she reached out and circled his neck with her arms and he stayed, patting her back. Somehow it was like summer. His breathing like waves. She wanted him to stay all night. It was a sacrifice to let go, and she felt holy when she made herself do it.
"My girl." He patted her leg, and then the flashlight. She gave a small laugh to let him know she got the joke, and then she thought, quickly, of something to keep him there.
"I wrote a poem today," she said.
"About when I was born."
There was a pause. "Are you and your friends talking about that?"
"No. I remembered it."
"What did you remember?"
She knew what she'd written in the poem, but that wasn't the same as telling it. It was hard to explain. "Do you want to read it?" she asked.
"Tomorrow," he said. "As soon as I come home." He stood up and opened the door.
"Who was your favorite Beatle?" she whispered. "Mine was George."
"Oh, me too. "Definitely George. Don't stay up too late."
"Leave the door open?"
She watched him walk down the hall. Beyond him she could see Via sitting on the bed, bending her head forward as she unfastened her necklace. Emlin waved as he shut their door. It was one of those nights when Jane heard not just the click of the catch, but also the scratching of metal as the lock slid into place. All she could see then was a thin line of light in the crack beneath their door. Light for a few moments, and then darkness. She turned her flashlight back on.
It was a frigid month in eastern Pennsylvania, but the fieldstone house held the heat well and ponderous quilts coated the children's beds. Yet Jane felt the cold. When she moved even slightly, she touched gelid spots of sheeting, and when she emerged for air, her nose grew numb and rubbery. She reached for her notebook. The MacMillans will get caught in a twister, she wrote. At her school they used connected printing, but she was teaching herself cursive. She'd written her poem in cursive.
Sean murmured, and Jane listened to see whether or not he was only talking in his sleep. He was eleven months younger than Jane, her Irish twin except that they weren't Irish. They were of English and Scots descent, with drops of German and French, and, Jane liked to think, American Indian. Emlin's grandfather had been a doctor among the Sioux in South Dakota, on what became the Rosebud Reservation. She thought something, some deep tie, must have drawn him there. The tie of family.
She and Sean didn't look much alike; Sean was brown-eyed and ruddy, like Via, while Jane was said to look like Emlin's mother. Jane stared and stared in the mirror, trying to see that tiny old woman reflected back at her, but there were only her own green eyes, her crooked teeth she'd just gotten braces and her thin, tangly pale hair, which Via had her wear pushed back with a plastic hairband that gave her headaches. In the summer she had freckles, which surprised her every year. She was tall, with long legs and, as Via could foresee, her father's artless elegance. In recent months she'd begun to dress like a boy; there was more freedom to being a boy.
When Sean kept babbling, Jane sighed and went to sit by him. She was a watchful child, whereas Sean was, according to Via, mischievous. He got into trouble, but he also made Via laugh.
She pulled his blanket up. "Sshh, shhh," into his ear, until he settled down.
She went back to her own bed and was awakened sometime later by a shout. Around the edges of the shades the sky was obsidian; still night.
Sean murmured again. Via said he slept like a wrestler wrestled.
"Go back to sleep," Jane whispered. "Everything's fine."
She closed her bedroom door behind her and stood in the hall, her feet curling away from the chilly floor. She felt a presence nearby; Uncle Francis was standing in the doorway of the guest room, listening. Presently there was another shout, bleak and full of anguish, coming from her parents' bedroom.
"Go back to bed," Francis whispered, but when Jane didn't move, he reached for her hand.
Francis Gordon had come to the MacLeod's house that day for two reasons: one, because he'd ended an affair, and needed a break from his apartment and the scents and mementos it still contained. The other reason was that he wanted to watch the Beatles' performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in the company of his sister, Via, with whom he could share a self-regarding excitement that he didn't trust anyone else to stimulate. He'd seen the Beatles in Hamburg on one of his louche trips abroad. He'd seen them in a scruffy, dank club at the time, they were scruffy, dank boys and came back telling everyone they'd be famous. No one listened; he'd had to be a bore and remind his cynical friends of his prescience when he turned out to be right. Via, on the other hand, had called him the instant she read about them in the paper. "Isn't that the group you told me about?" She was a match for his own, if disguised, romanticism, except that he configured himself as dashing while she dreamed of the adoration of a dashing man.
As he'd expected, Via was thrilled to have him, especially as Emlin had gone off to the hospital. When she arrived at the station just before noon, the car brimming with children in coats and boots and mittens and scarves, she greeted him with such a look of ironic despair that he precipitously tipped all the cards he'd planned to hold to his chest and lay down one by one he imagined Via pleading for details over the course of the afternoon. The persona he'd created of a searing aesthete, biceps enlarged by his burden of weltschmerz, evaporated around her. She'd known him when he was just a goofball.
"Dumped again," he said merrily.
Via handed him a cig and they lit up together. "Me, too," she said. "For a seventeen-year-old from Australia, no less."
It took an instant for him to figure out that she was referring to one of Emlin's patients. He spread his arm like a languid cat along the top of the seat and cuffed her shoulder.
"You win," he said, ready to forget New York, to have Via play with him.
She turned to him. "Do I? What prize is that? The prize for having made the biggest mistake?"
He wanted to keep laughing, but she was serious. He realized he'd come on a bad day; from the depth of her tone low, exasperated, defeated he guessed all the days had become bad ones.
She jerked the wheel hard toward the exit, and he turned to say hello to the children.
"So how about it?" He was big, loud, merry.
"Hi," they said shyly, and stared out at the parking lot.
Jane was expected at her friend Susan's in half an hour; Via decided to kill the wait by driving around. Francis, who hadn't been to Wynnemoor in quite a while, groaned at the harsh sensations brought on by the sights.
"I'm in hell," he hissed as they passed the blunt orange brick buildings of his old school.
Via blew a plume of smoke at the windshield. "No, you're just visiting. I'm the permanent resident."
"You know what your problem is," Francis said. "You're too avid."
Jane opened her notebook. The last episode had the MacMillans sitting on their terrace drinking lemonade after chasing a burglar away. Instinctively, she understood avid.
"You have to play harder to get," Francis said matter-of-factly.
Via depressed the turn signal. Her smallest gestures had flair; she could wear hats with net veils over her eyes and not look pretentious. "How am I supposed to do that, when I already married him?"
Sean began to read aloud. "'I think I better stay home from work for a while, in case the burglar comes back,' said Mr. MacMillan."
Jane snapped the notebook shut. "Stop peeking!" She opened it again, but higher this time, and shifted to face him so he could only see the outside cover.
Francis rolled his eyes. "God, are you a ninny. You have no idea how much power you have, do you? Look, you have to decide what you want, and then plan how to get it."
"And this method works for you?" Via sat up straighter and peered ahead, as if she'd spotted something in front of the car. It was difficult to tell if she was teasing or being cruel.
Francis chose not to take offense. "Even an idiot can tell you when you have a hole in the back of your sweater."
"I suppose." Via turned the wheel sharply and the children listed like dominoes toward the left door.
"Oh God." Francis clapped his hands over his eyes. "You're torturing me on purpose, aren't you?
Via was pleased with herself. "See? I'm capable of carrying out a plan."
They approached the dour gray edifice of the Church of St. Paul. The children righted themselves. Jane decided against reading anymore and tucked her notebook inside her jacket.
"No!" Francis made a cross with his index fingers, as if warding off a vampire, and held it up toward the steeple. Then he dropped his hands. "That's not going to work, is it?"
Via giggled. She twisted toward the back seat while keeping her eyes on the road. "Children, did you know Uncle Francis was an altar boy?"
"Hold your breath or you'll have bad luck!" Sean ordered as they glided past the pretty yard of snow-capped graves.
After playing outside for a while and eating a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, Jane and Susan did their homework. An author would be in their class the next day and they had to write something to show her. Jane's stomach purled when she thought about it. She could see herself at the front of the room, reading aloud, reading well, receiving praise from a stranger that might change how she was seen; but she could also imagine being passed over. It mystified her that she was unable to make herself known. Her head clamored all the time with loud ideas. How was it that no one noticed?
When she and Susan became friends on the first day of kindergarten, they were the same. Within a few weeks there was a difference. The teachers and children issued an unspoken invitation to be at the center of all things that happened in the room. Susan received it. Jane didn't. Why?
Susan's hair, for one thing. At recess girls asked her if they could braid it, but it was so slippery that no braid would hold. The buttery strands unraveled until they were all across Susan's back again, a sunny curtain.
And the way she talked. Teachers smiled. Over and over, they said she had a good imagination.
The teachers said little about Jane. The green eyes her grandfather called the windows of her soul were nothing. She'd started off with the wrong clothes.
"Why do you want to be a sheep?" Via asked.
"I don't." Jane dipped her chin and hugged her own ribs. It was hard to explain. Via let her choose her dresses and she'd chosen wrong. "I need a Fair Isle sweater. I'm going to wear my kilt."
"I thought you said it was too itchy."
It was, but Jane wanted to be able to complain about it, along with everyone else.
She had friends now; she'd figured out how to do it. But she still wasn't seen, not really. She was a burning shadow.
In Susan's room she settled on the window seat, her back pressed against the molding, her notebook propped on her knees. Susan lay on the floor. Susan's indifference to the window seat never failed to astonish Jane. She thought if she had one, she'd sit there all the time.
During the past couple of months, the backyard had been made peculiar by snow. The change didn't faze her; she shied away only from slush, and the black-flecked boulders banked along the main streets. She watched the birds dive toward the feeder and studied the surely drawn lines of animal tracks to see if there was anything out there other than pets. It began to snow again. She made a game of counting the flakes as they appeared at the window until there were too many falling at once. The new snow began to stick to the old crust, and the birds took a last seed before seeking shelter. A line of fresh snow trimmed the beam at the top of the swing set. She stared at the scene, playing with her vision and making it blurry until her focus began to shift.
Suddenly she was tumbling helplessly in a wave, then inching through a dark passage, breathless. Through eyes still mucked up and blurry, she saw her mother and she breathed. Everything was bright, and people, a doctor and nurses, handled her like a football and cleaned blood and gunk off her as if she were a muddy shoe. She recognized the images; she'd always remembered being born. When she was six, she'd described it to Via, who hadn't believed her. Since then she'd kept the memory to herself, but now it begged for form, pressed at her chest and arm, until she picked up her notebook and wrote.
She wrote from a voice that spoke in complete lines; she wrote fast, as if she were a secretary taking dictation. When she reread the page, she couldn't believe it had come from her. It was like nothing she'd ever written before. It was a real poem.
She saw what Monday would be like; the teacher would call her to the front of the room and the author would praise her in front of everyone. She saw herself describing how it felt to write it. So significant.
Susan groaned and rolled onto her side. "That's finished," she said. "Wanna play checkers?"
Jane was far away, so far that at first she didn't understand what Susan said. She was caught up in a new language, the grammar of creation.
"Jane? Are you okay?"
That got through; Jane flew back to Earth, Wynnemoor, the Roberts's house, the window seat. Part of her wanted to read the poem to Susan right away, but it didn't really go with a game of checkers. Solemnly she closed her notebook. Susan would have to be surprised along with everyone else.
Copyright © 2002 by Alice Elliott Dark