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Lisa SheaGemlike stories that sparkle with intelligence and fire.
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Although each richly layered tale stands independently, readers of Ship Fever (National Book Award winner) and Barrett's extraordinary novel The Voyage of the Narwhal, will discover subtle links both among these new stories and to characters in the earlier works.
The title story of this volume was selected for Best American Short Stories 2001 and for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 2001.
Author Biography: Andrea Barrett lives in Rochester, New York. Barrett has been a fellow at the Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library. In 2001, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
Kingsessing, on the Schuylkill
September 8th, 1810
He rode past earlier, that slip of a Sophie at his side: James. If you knew what I feel when I see him ... But why shouldn't you know? If I can imagine you, not your face or your gestures perhaps but your mind and your heart, why not imagine you capable of feeling all I feel? I picture us on the bank of the river here, near the fieldstone bench, exchanging confidences. I think how, when at last I find you, I will hand you these lines and you will know me.
The aunts do not even look up as he passes. The hayfields surrounding us, north and west, belong to James; the lush pastures to the south; the oats and rye and cattle and sheep, the fine stand of timber between our wedge of river-front land and the ramble of the Bartrams' botanic gardens—his, all his. He is nearing thirty, not yet married though rumored to be looking for a wife. Wealthy, now that he's come into his grandfather's estate. And favored in all the other ways as well. About him there is a kind of sheen, the golden skin of good fortune.
In the room below me the aunts ignore him as they work on their Manual of Geography: a book for school-girls, they have such high hopes. Lessonscomposed of questions and answers, which a classroom of girls with scraped-back hair may murmur in unison:
Q. What is the climate of the Torrid Zone?
A. It is very hot.
Q. What is the climate of the Frigid Zone?
A. It is very cold.
Q. What is the climate of the Temperate Zone?
A. It is mild or moderate; the heat being not so great as in the Torrid Zone, nor the cold so severe as in the Frigid Zone.
Aunt Daphne, Aunt Jane. If they knew what I think. If they were to step outside and hail James, and if he were ill-mannered enough (which he's never been, in his five years as our neighbor) to inquire about our unusual family, they would say they are cousins; they are not. That they are my aunts, which they are not. Not looking at his broad shoulders, the strength of his hand on his horse's reins; not looking at the planes of his jaw or the shape of his brow, because they care for the minds but not the bodies of men, they would point out the charms of our small stone house. Three women, and everything just so. They would not say that I was born on a farm near Chester, to a family with two parents, two sisters, three brothers all dead of the yellow fever when I was an infant; the surviving brother torn from my side while a few pigs and chickens wandered bewildered through the dirt. The aunts took me in, I belong to them. They think I will live here forever with them, sharing their studies, caring for them: I will not.
Their book is to have a section on meteorology. Why there is weather. What it is. From the papers and books their friends have loaned us, I am to collate the theories of rain. What will be left of all my work, after they simplify it? Something like this, which they wrote today:
Q. What surrounds the Earth?
A. The Atmosphere; composed of air, vapor, and other gases.
Q. What can you say of the Atmosphere?
A. It is thinner or less dense the further it is from the Earth.
Q. When water dries up where does it go?
A. It rises into the air.
Q. How can water rise into the air?
A. It is turned to vapor, and then it is lighter than the air.
Q. When vapors rise and become condensed, what are they called?
Anaximenes, I tell the aunts—offering this scrap much as our cat, Cassandra, brings moles to the kitchen door and lays them at my feet—Anaximenes thought air might condense first to cloud, then to water, then to earth, and finally to stone. Why not include, I asked Aunt Daphne, this:
Q: Why are raindrops round?
A: One theory is this: Because the corners get rubbed off as they fall side by side. And because the round shape overcomes the resistance of the air; and because even the smallest parts of the world are obliged to represent and mirror the round image of the universe.
But the aunts are no more interested in these old theories than in the question of why Cassandra has extra toes on her paws. Aunt Daphne said, "Lavinia. When will you learn to keep in mind our audience?"
Yet why would the girls who will someday sit in a hot schoolroom, bored and weary with reciting these lessons, not feel the longings I feel? For the tantalizing theory, the mysterious fact—Descartes' assumption that water is composed of eel-shaped particles, easily separated. Urbano d'Aviso's proposition that vapor is bubbles of water filled with fire, ascending through the air so long as it is heavier than they are; stopping when they arrive at a place where the air is equally light. Why must all we write be practical?
September 13, 1810
He comes, he goes, he comes, he goes. The other one I would tell you about: Mr. Frank Wells. He is well enough favored, tall and slim, thinning brown hair, a nose as long and sensitive as a greyhound's. A bit older than James, with printer's hands. He has his own business and has built a house upriver from us, which I have never seen. Unlike James he likes the way I look. He comes, he goes, along with the others—botanists and geologists; a Frenchman named Rafinesque, fat about the waist, whose shirt escapes from his pantaloons and shows bare flesh as he lectures us; a shy and friendly entomologist named Thomas Say. They admire the aunts and their work and the way they have raised me. Our house of three virgins, so studious. So neat. Every hour occupied by something useful. We rise, cook, sweep, and wash, tend to the gardens and then study and study, always useful things. The aunts wear spectacles, their eyes are weary. At night they ask me to read to them. Their spirits are weary as well. Aunt Jane has spells.
"It is all too much for me," she says. April, often. Or September, like now. When everything around us is lush and damp and hot and fertile and florid. The box-hedges send out a powerful smell and the vines trying to strangle the trees send out another, even stronger; the mockingbirds sit on the roof and sing all night; a sound you would like, as I do. Aunt Jane takes to her bed, her skin muddy and cold and her limbs unmoving, with a cloth on her eyes and tufts of cotton blocking her ears from the bird-song. She gets sick for no reason, well for no reason. One day she rises, resumes her duties, declares that she is better. In a few months it will all be too much for her again. Her friends, those studious men, shake their heads in sympathy and whisper, Melancholia.
The aunts are Quakers, and have raised me the same. On our day of rest we go to Meeting, we sit in silence, we wait with the sun streaming through the windows for the spirit to enter and move us. In that calm still place I struggle not to leap from my bench and shout—but what is the use of talking about this, when you are not here to advise me? What is the use?
September 24, 1810
James again. He nods as he rides by, once more on his way to visit Sophie. The slip of a Sophie, in her house on the hill. Half my weight and half my brains and half my wit; and a hundred times my fortune and a father, who's a banker. Around her neck, a fine gold chain. Little rings on little fingers; little kid shoes on little feet. James could pick her up the way I might a spaniel, if we had a spaniel: the aunts do not like dogs. No doubt he has lifted her lightly into a carriage, or onto a saddle. I hear she plays the piano beautifully. In the garden I watch him passing by; I stand so he can see me and he nods. He rides on, lovely, taken.
If the aunts knew what I think. If the aunts knew what I dream. Aunt Daphne has her room and Aunt Jane hers but they bundle at night in the same bed—for comfort they say, for warmth—and they think I will settle for this.
September 8, September 13; October 1, 2, 3—what is the point of dating these words as I write them? They are for you, and when I find you, dates will mean nothing to us. You are in Ecuador, or in Cleveland; in England or Boston, the Rocky Mountains; or perhaps you are a few miles away, stripped as I was of our family name. Wouldn't I recognize you, though? No matter how you'd changed? If I saw you at the market, or passed you on the street....
I have but the faintest memory of our last day. The aunts said the plague left only us alive: a little boy, barely five years old, and me, not yet turned two. Did you cry when the wagons came? When everything inside our home was burned, the bedding and furniture piled and torched but the things outside, uncontaminated, prudently saved and divided? The aunts took me, some hoes and hay-rakes, two pigs, a horse, a cart. Whoever took you, said the aunts—and how could they lose the name of that family who stopped on their journey to someplace else and, out of pity and charity, left with an extra, orphaned child?—whoever took you, also took the cow.
On September 13 I turned twenty: I am grown and what I write is mine; I may write whatever I want in any fashion. Wherever you are—perhaps you have headed out West?—you are now twenty-three. On an arid plain you may have picked up a glossopetra, shaped like the tongue of a man or a snake or a duck, and wondered if it rained from the sky on a moonless night. If you were here I would lift that triangular stone from your hand and say: This has nothing to do with the rain; this is the tooth of a shark.
A few times I have been alone with James. Once he arrived with a side of venison, a gift for the aunts, who were out. I was still a girl, perhaps sixteen; I was alone in the house. He arrived without servants and wouldn't let me touch the meat or help him convey it to the smokehouse. As if I were a young lady, as if I had never prepared a meal or handled a bloody bundle of ribs. Even then I felt something like lightning pass between us. It has nothing to do with who we are, who we think we are; he knows nothing of me and I know only what I can see of him, his actions and possessions: the mysterious current leaping between us comes from someplace deeper. Our bodies speaking. Or maybe our souls; it has nothing to do with our minds.
Once we met in the woods, his woods, he out marking trees for felling and I walking furiously away from the aunts, filling my lungs with air; around me the wild profusion of tulip trees and witch hazel and honeysuckle, the beeches and myrtle and sugar maples, magnolias and pitcher plants. He asked if I was enjoying myself and when I stopped to answer I blushed and broke into a sweat, the hollows of my armpits weeping: all this from the sight of him, standing like a tree himself in the cool dark shadows.
And once—it is this that wakes me at night—once we were together a little longer. The aunts keep bees, not just for the honey but for what they represent. Our visitors are trotted out to the hives, shown their neatness and order, subjected to Aunt Daphne's monologues about the virtues of bee-civilization. How the bees work as one, for a common goal; how they aid and nurture each other, raise their young, store up food for the winter; a community of females, the epitome of order. Into this model of virtue come the king-birds, who love above all else to eat bees. Once, last August, the aunts appealed to James for help and he came with a shotgun and slaughtered twenty birds. The aunts fled from the carnage, but I stayed. One bird, James said, was leading all the others; he pointed out a beautiful creature who snapped with great determination at a line of bees returning from the clover. This bird he brought down with a single shot, then retrieved it and laid it at my feet.
"May I show you something?" he said. "You're not frightened of blood?"
"I am not," I said.
He knelt with a penknife and slit the bird from throat to vent, plunging his hand in the craw. On a bit of smooth grass he laid handfuls of bees, shaking his head at their number. The sun was blazing bright, the air heavy with the scents of grass and clover; in that syrupy atmosphere the blanket of bees began to stir. To my astonishment half of them rose like Jonah from the whale, licked clean their rumpled golden down, and flew back to their hives apparently undamaged.
"All those," he said with satisfaction. "In that single bird."
I couldn't say a word. I think he knew what I felt. A cloud passed over the sun as the bees vanished into their hive; the sky darkened and mosquitoes rose from the pond and arrowed toward us. I was looking at James, watching hypnotized as he lifted his arm and reached in my direction. Gently, firmly, he pressed his palm against my forearm, flattening the creature who had already penetrated my skin. When he lifted his hand we both stared at the streak of blood, so red against my whiteness. He was the one who blushed that time; he picked up his gun and bowed. "I am glad I could be of use to your aunts," he said; and then he left. I wanted to lick the blood from my arm, I wanted to lick his arm. Oh, what use is this?
Mr. Wells again today.
He sat with us, we all drank tea; the aunts showed him part of the Manual. "And Lavinia?" he inquired. His hands on the papers were long and intelligent.
"She helps with every step," said Aunt Jane.
"But also," I said, "also I am working on something of my own."
Aunt Daphne sniffed; Cassandra entered, bearing a grasshopper, and busied herself in tearing it apart.
"What is it that interests you?" Mr. Wells said. Which no one ever asks me.
"What you would expect," I replied, and told him what I would tell you, if you were here. "How a cloud floats, when water is much heavier than air. How cloud particles form from vapor; and how raindrops grow from those particles. Whether the winds drive the particles together, coalescing them."
He looked puzzled yet also, I thought, interested. "There are rains of manna and quails in the Bible," he said. "And in Pliny the Elder, rains of milk and blood and birds and wool."
What I wanted to say was this: It was raining the day they took us from each other.
Q. What kind of rain?
A. A light rain, a drizzling rain.
Q. You remember that?
A. It is almost all I remember. On the muddy ground our household burns without flame, the smoke rising up through the fine rain falling down. You have no face. Your figure, clad in damp homespun, disappears into a Cloud.
What I said was, "Rains of fish." The aunts, who don't remember the rain, have no idea what asking me to collate these theories has meant. "And of frogs and hay and grain and bricks," I continued. "But almost everyone agrees that those result from whirlwinds."
Mr. Wells bent down to Cassandra, meaning I think to rescue the grasshopper; too late, she had left nothing but the wings. He straightened with these in his right hand. "Rains of stone," he said, augmenting our list. "Do you know the theory of the lapidifying juice?" Aunt Daphne struggled to maintain the expression of deferential interest she feels is proper with such men.
"Through the earth's crust moves a fluid body, or juice, that can turn various substances into stone," said Mr. Wells, nodding in the aunts' direction but addressing me. Really his face is very kind, almost handsome in its own way. His linen is clean, his hands as well; but on the middle finger of his right hand is a callus always stained with ink. "it is also found in the sea, and in the atmosphere, in a gaseous form: moving through these layers as blood moves through the body. In the air this lapidifying juice makes pebbles, which fall to earth."
"I have never heard of this," I said.
"A sixteenth-century theory," he said, setting down the broken wings. "An attempt to account for the generation of stones, and a distinct advance on the theory of the petrific seed."
Another phrase I had never heard. The aunts turned the conversation toward their textbook before Mr. Wells could finish his thought, but later I was able to thank him for teaching me something new.
"It's nothing," he said. "Do you investigate the theories of snow and hail and dew, as well as rain?"
When I told him I was interested in all the hydrometeors, he made me spell and define the word. "It's just as you would expect," I said. "If 'meteor' is any atmospheric phenomenon—think of meteorology—so we speak of the aerial meteors, or the winds; the luminous meteors, such as rainbows and halos; the igneous or fiery meteors, such as lightning and shooting stars. Among the watery or hydrometeors are all those things you mentioned."
"Now we have made a fair trade," he said. "You have taught me something new."
He is kind enough, smart enough. If you were here, would you tell me what to do?
Q. What is it I feel for James?
Q. What is it James feels for me?
Q. What theory accounts for these feelings, which can come to nothing?
In the garden Mr. Wells held out a sheaf of papers. "From my Charleston cousin, William Wells," he said. "He practices medicine in London now, and in his spare time studies nature. He is writing an essay on the dew."
Perhaps you are in London as well, perhaps you are leading the life I long for, rich in friends and good conversation, the universe unfolding before you. I smoothed my skirts against the bench, aware that Mr. Wells was watching me as he talked about dew as rain that falls very slowly, particles of water moving toward the objects that attract them. He stuttered and looked down at his lap, at the papers in his lap.
"Does dew come from the earth, or from the air?" he read from his cousin's notes. "Does it rise or fall? What is the source of the cold that condenses the vapor? At first I thought that the deposition of the dew might cause the cold we observe on those objects. But I have come to realize that the cold precedes the dew."
He turned to another page. "My cousin did an experiment," he said. "Which we might try to repeat."
We gathered uncarded wool from the aunts' stores, and on the balance they use to weigh mordants and pigments for dyeing, we weighed out two equal amounts. One sample we spread in a loose circle on the grass. Inside a long, thick-walled piece of clay drainage pipe, set on end so that it was open to the darkening sky, we spread the other sample in a circle the same size. The aunts watched, unimpressed but polite. They have borrowed many books from Mr. Wells.
"I'll return in the morning," he said. "Quite early, if you don't mind."
When the aunts didn't offer him a bed, he rode off to his own home. The legs of his horse disappeared in the mist, then the horse's head, and then his own, leaving only the silver rays of the moon and the clear, cold air. Aunt Daphne made me come inside but then she and Aunt Jane kept me awake, arguing in the fierce, airy whispers they think I can't hear through the wall between our rooms. Their words were lost but not their tone and I knew they had settled into their favorite topic:
Q. What shall we do with Lavinia?
A. Is there an answer to this?
I slept, and dreamed of you. In the morning Mr. Wells arrived and we gathered and re-weighed the samples. Just as his cousin had found, the sample out on the grass had collected more dew.
"Which it would not," I said, "if dew fell from the sky like rain; an equal amount should have fallen within the cylinder as without."
"My cousin's point exactly," said Mr. Wells. "He contends that the cooling of the earth's surface causes water vapor to condense from the air. What matters is how much heat is radiated into the atmosphere. What matters is the exposure of the objects on the surface to the air. The sheltering walls of the drainage pipe lessened the radiation to the sky; it was colder outside the pipe than within, hence there was more dew outside."
My skirt was wet, our hands and arms were drenched, there was damp wool everywhere and the smell of sheep. "Ill borrow some thermometers from my friends," he said. "We'll set them around and see if the dew is heaviest where they read lowest."
As I spread my arms, pointing out a sheltered hollow and a promising rise, I caught him looking at me. I forget sometimes how long my limbs are, how fleshy I am in the shoulders and bust. You are built the same, I expect, tall and strong and capable, like James. Mr. Wells looked me over shyly and said, "Forgive me, I don't mean to stare. But you have such amplitude. You are very different from your aunts in this way."
They are not my aunts, I wanted to say. Instead I reached over to brush off the bits of wool on his coat, which caused him to color up to the roots of his soft brown hair.
A rain that moves in swirls and gusts, pushing the leaves against the limbs, pushing my hair away from my face; then a rain hardly more than a mist, seeming simply to condense on my skin: it is raining today. And although you disappeared in the rain, perhaps because I last saw you in it, I love the rain. In it I am sleek and slender and smooth, attractive as Sophie is attractive, a woman someone might love. The wide span of my hips reduced, the thick mat between my legs tamed and trimmed and my monthly bleeding dried to a few dainty drops—oh, forgive me for these thoughts. You will know what I mean by them.
Out of the rain stepped James. Behind him his wagon, and on it two boxes: two solid, well-made wooden hives. Gifts for the aunts. But once more they were absent. "I thought they might like to enlarge their apiary," James said.
When I told him they had gone to consult with a printer about their book, he murmured something about their industriousness. "A pleasure," he said. He smelled of wood and wool and leather harness, of honey, and himself. "To have such neighbors."
"I'm sure they'll be grateful," I replied.
He nodded and stood at the door for a moment, before hoisting the first of the boxes and hauling it past the barn and the sheds, to join the others among the apple trees. A second trip and he was done, back before me, sweat slipping down beneath his heavy hair. He did not refuse the glass of water I offered. He drank slowly, steadily, the muscles moving in waves beneath the smooth skin of his throat. After he passed me the empty glass, he stepped back. "Why are you looking at me like that?" he asked.
"There is something," I said faintly. "A little spot of something, on your cheekbone."
The gesture with which he raised his hand—index and little fingers spread, ring and middle fingers together, the whole strong shapely hand displayed—was that of a beautiful woman. Two fingertips brushed his cheekbone, where I would place my tongue. He knew that, knew there was nothing to brush away but a few drops of sweat. That was pity passing over his face, and fear at the hunger in my gaze, and pleasure, just a little, at being so sharply admired. He started to say something, stopped, shook his head, and left.
I cannot have James. This is perfectly clear. In my mind I know he belongs to Sophie and I accept this, I understand it. In my mind. Still my heart lags behind. Though even if my heart wants to be broken, if part of me wants to be brought to my knees, it is not to be my choice. For James I will never be more than one of the three virgins he passes daily.
The aunts have no idea of this, but it is from the likes of James that they have wished to preserve me. From that giving in, that going under, they would preserve me as they've preserved themselves. Not the children born every year, half or more of them to die; not the daily bowing down, the loss of my own thoughts and my independence; not the loss of my mind nor (the thing the aunts can't envision) the loss of that clear separate place in me where I dream of you, and long for you. Through that channel of longing, the world enters me.
Yesterday Mr. Wells took me to visit our elderly neighbor, William Bartram who has grown so reclusive. We've met before; when I was a girl, still in short skirts with my hair in a braid, the aunts occasionally trotted me over to him. Great man, they said, introducing him to me. Then me to him: Our niece, whom we are raising. She is very studious. A few questions they would put to me, so Mr. Bartram might see how well I answered. After those I was expected to be silent.
Excerpted from Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett Copyright ©2003 by Andrea Barrett. Excerpted by permission.
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