“Richly imagined...lyrical and compelling.” The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A continual delight...exhilarating ambition and inventiveness, an American book of wonders.” The New York Times Book Review
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Longing to escape the rundown commune where she lives with her organic-farmer mother, assorted half-siblings, and a cow named Marilyn, the precociously well-read Saskia White, twelve, imagines herself as the noble contemporary of Odysseys, Marco Polo, and Horatio Hornblower. Saskia's elaborate fantasies are soon upstaged by her real-life, long-lost father, who
Longing to escape the rundown commune where she lives with her organic-farmer mother, assorted half-siblings, and a cow named Marilyn, the precociously well-read Saskia White, twelve, imagines herself as the noble contemporary of Odysseys, Marco Polo, and Horatio Hornblower. Saskia's elaborate fantasies are soon upstaged by her real-life, long-lost father, who leads Saskia and her best friend Jane on a camping trip that turns into an epic adventure of love, sex, and lies.
Saskia is as unforgettable as her own heroes, a young girl whose story resonates with a rare and joyous sense of life and discovery.
“Richly imagined...lyrical and compelling.” The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A continual delight...exhilarating ambition and inventiveness, an American book of wonders.” The New York Times Book Review
Hall, a novelist (The Dreamers, 1988) and an accomplished travel writer (The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia, 1994, etc.), is clearly fascinated by outsized, complex characters. Saskia, at 12, is the most responsible figure in a ramshackle farm on the outskirts of Ithaca. The farm was once a commune (Wonderland), and Lauren, Saskia's mother, who stayed on after its collapse, ekes out a sufficient living from farming to support some hapless eccentrics attracted by her unquestioning generosity. Saskia herself, who loves books, finds time, while overseeing much of the day-to-day life on the farm, for an exuberant fantasy life, weaving together a world based on her affection for such heroes as Odysseus, Marco Polo, and Horatio Hornblower. She's drawn out of herself by a growing friendship with the elegant, worldly Jane Singh (13), and by the arrival of her long-absent father, the charismatic Thomas. (He's been away for so long, he says, because he's been an eco-warrior, going so far as to sabotage a whaling vessel.) Thomas, however, turns out to be manipulative, selfish, and rather alarmingly pleased with Jane's growing crush on him. He's also an extraordinary liar. Faced with a variety of disasters, Saskia grows up, doing what she can to save her friend and coming to grips with her own pastall within a portrait of commune life that's painfully convincing. Hall's cast of characters is very precisely drawn, but most remarkable is his portrait of Saskia. Part child, part alert young woman, she is entirely believable, and her narrative, slyly observant, filled with references to her beloved books, unblinking in its depiction of adult foibles, is compelling.
Finally, Saskia's hard-won accommodation with life at the climax is moving, offering a realistic and satisfying conclusion to a highly original novel.
This is where she is now: a Greek island, low and away, last of all on the water toward the dark. Ithaca lies between two ridges at the head of a long crooked bay. No automobiles desecrate the silent streets. The modern world has been rubbed out like a mistake. The great stone clock tower on the eastern slope chimes the hour, its triad of gongs shimmering in the gelatinous air.
The sun is motionless, huge. How deliciously she can feel the heat on her arms! She peels off her clothes, and her skin is golden like the sun. Her arms and legs glide, buttery at the joints. She can feel quite distinctly the dirt under her bare feet. She glides between the clapboard houses with their wraparound porches, their nested gables and towers. Beautiful homes like carved chests containing fine things: all the people she does not know.
But here is an incongruity amid classical Ithacan order and repose. Her own house: the swaybacked porch, the three floors of mismatched windows, the white paint so indecently peeled that only splotches remain like lichen on the rotting shingles. Rising from the shallow roof is a belvedere, a small room with windows all around. A Captain's room.
There is nothing she wants so much as to get up into that room. She would be able to judge the weather up there. She would pace undisturbed, lost in thought, unaware how much her men admired and loved her.
She bounds onto the porch and tries the door. Locked. She grips the knob and pulls, confident of the swelling strength in her hands. But the door holds firm, indifferent to it.
As always, she wakes early, thinking, thinking.The new girl will be in school today. She saw her sitting in the Vice Principal's office. The new girl!
She listens. Quiet.
The sky is empty of stars. She turns on the light by her bed. Blind blackness presses against her window. How frightening! But when she turns out the light, her faithful stars have come out to cheer her: Orion in the northwest, and directly overhead the Big Dipper, which travelers call the Wagon because it wheels, never stopping, never sinking into the wash of the ocean. A supernova blazes in late-setting Bootes, the Herdsman, who herded Odysseus home. And the Moon, her planet, is a wind-filled sail racing along the ecliptic, waxing, always waxing, toward some fullness, some completion she can hardly wait for, but cannot foresee.
Could it have something to do with the new girl? She is so beautiful.
The stars are fading. She is the only one to keep a safe eye on the cunning dark, to help bleed this blind black to gray. No one else thinks of these things. Perhaps the new girl will. The beautiful new girl.
When she catches the first glimmer of the lake, she slips quietly down and pulls on rubber boots in the back hall. Outside is the sodden snow of a Tylerian January.
In the barn Marilyn lumbers, steaming, to her feet, the back up first on splayed legs, the udder swaying hugely. Saskia dumps a scoop of pellets in the trough and shovels muck into the bin, then squats to rub the furry udder, coaxing the coo into letting down. Marilyn never lies in her own muck. She is a good coo with a clean udder, a pleasure to rub. Saskia works white ointment into the rear teats, and the udder veins bulge, the teats swell. She fires into the bucket a long sequence of pump-action double-barreled blasting. She has the strongest hands of anyone in her grade. At the Ithacan Carnival last summer she pushed the dial on the grip machine up to "Bone-crusher." Afterward, Marilyn is rewarded with a pile of hay and a hug as wide as two arms can reach. Saskia delights in the hot bristle against her cheek. When Saskia was little, an earlier coo pushed her against the wall, making her cry. Thomas ran to rescue her, his brown robe flapping. He lifted her a mile high and kissed her.
In the coop, the chickens mince around her feet like bathers crossing hot sand. She leaves three eggs on the sideboard in the kitchen and pours a saucer of milk for Gorgon, who sidles her fat black body up to the dish with a grunt-like purr. It is a Discipline to love Gorgon, who bites and claws, and squats furtively in corners to do her business along the baseboards. Saskia once wrote and illustrated a reader for the crew that started, "Fat cat, black cat! What cat? That cat!" Pirates threatened, but Gorgon eventually saved the day. A rather pathetic fallacy.
Back upstairs, Saskia picks a skirt and shawl for school. No need for a shower. The caramel smell of Marilyn in her hair is better than any soap. There's a flush of aqua along the eastern ridge. Time to raise the crew. Barring a rescue by the new girl swinging down on a rope with a Tarzan yell? the best part of her day is over.
Across the hall, her boatswain is still asleep, damn her eyes! "Get up, you scoundrel! The wind freshening, and a falling glass no telling what the day will bring!" A lazy dog, yes. But she's damn comely. A hoogily thing. "Come on, Mim, it's almost seven." Saskia rummages through the pile of stuffed animals.
"I'm up!" Mim bubbles up, animals tumbling. "Where's horsey?"
Saskia picks it off the floor. Good God, what the Admiralty sends her. On the lower deck she rouses the rest of the crew Austin, Shannon, Quinny to the usual accompaniment of grumbling. Poor devils, it must be hell to be pressed into this service. Weevily food, never enough sleep. And where does it end? Beheaded by a cannonball or sent shrieking under the surgeon's knife. "Don't blame me," she always tells them when they cry. "Blame Boney." They straggle off to the latrine. (Or is that the loo? Perhaps the ship has no such thing. Simply off the side? Not on this ship.) Quinny takes his sheet with him. "Your hygiene!" she bellows after them. "I'll be checking!"
Tall, capable Lauren is in the kitchen brewing coffee which, like the Captain, she thinks of as soon as her eyes open. She is monumental in her nightgown, her ton of hair unbound. Saskia reports to her back: "Quinny wet his bed again."
Lauren's shoulders sigh. "You stripped it?"
"He does it himself now."
"Well at least he's doing something." She turns to face Saskia, her eyes still cushioned with sleep. "How old is he, anyway?"
"Ridiculous!" She bangs closed the freezer door on her fancy Ithacan coffee. "Get him to make the bed up himself, too. If he's going to do that like a baby "
"I'm working on that."
"How did he get to be seven years old?"
Saskia assumes that's a rhetorical question. "It's not a big deal."
"Teach him to do the laundry. Then he can wet his bed all he wants."
"It's no big deal." You really shouldn't bother Lauren before she has had her coffee.
"Don't be a martyr, Saskia. Nobody likes a martyr." The coffee machine lets out a Bronx cheer. Lauren fills a mug. Hurry up and drink it, you crabby old thing! She sips, smacking at the heat. "If you want to be Quinny's servant, go right ahead. I'm getting dressed." As if getting dressed is the way not to be Quinny's servant. Lauren sips again and closes her eyes appreciatively. What is it about coffee? The Captain fights a battle in a gale off a lee shore and never changes expression. But give him a cup of the real thing after a month of burnt-bread swill at sea, and the sparkle in his eyes is a lovely sight.
"You're a good girl, Saskia," Lauren says, seeming to reconsider.
"Woof!" she says testily.
Lauren shrugs. "All right, you're not a good girl." She goes up to dress.
Saskia scrambles eggs for the crew and sets out Marilyn's milk along with tots of fresh-squeezed rum. Shannon and Austin are sent back to wash their hands. Austin bops Quinny and Quinny blubbers. In the Judgment Book, Austin has eight demerits, Mim three, Shannon two, and Quinny twenty-six. When you reach ten demerits you clean out the latrines or swab the deck, or when it's hot you fan Saskia and Marco with wicker platters and feed them peeled grapes. But Quinny is under a different system. Discipline, in Quinny's case, has proven counterproductive, no matter what Lauren says.
Saskia fills lunch boxes, checks book bags and clothing, tucks a wad of tissue paper in Quinny's back pocket. She wipes his slobbery chin. Lauren reappears in her greenhouse clothes to dispense regal kisses.
The bus jolts down the last treacherous slope and nearly takes out the fence by Lauren's field as the driver, a real toby, backs and fills in the turnaround.
"Morning, Chief." (His daily witticism is to call her Chief.)
They rattle through the bedraggled Tylerian landscape under dirt-soup skies, picking up dregs and pigs. Saskia sits in the front to keep a safe eye on the Toby, and Quinny huddles next to her for protection. Austin and Shannon sit in the back and holler for the short cut, an especially mogully "seasonal" road basically a streambed the Toby will take now and then when he fancies himself a nice guy. The back of the bus whips on that road, sending barns flying. Mim always sits over the rear wheel casing. The seat is saved for her, because everybody likes her and not even the dregs hide it. Two pigs who get on near town sit with her, and they are as quiet and good and neat as she is, although not so furry. The three of them hold their books on their laps and gaze at each other with long-lashed eyes. Saskia wonders what they talk about. When they laugh, they sound like forest mammals, laughing knowingly about mammally things.
The oldest barns get off at the high school. Tyler Junior is next. "You can't come with me, Quinny." He may start blubbering. "I'll be on the bus this afternoon."
"Have a nice day, Chief!"
Her last seconds of freedom are the time it takes her to walk up the concrete path, through the fortified quadruple doors, each with its one baleful eye of netted glass, into the tiled gloom, the bang of lockers, the shouting and pushing and sneering and blubbering. Count off! Baa-aa-aa!
The new girl's name is Jane Sing. Ms. Plebetsky calls it out in English and directs the class to welcome her.
Sing! The new girl nods, acknowledging the praise. She is tall and slender, with skin as brown as Saskia's brown eyes and yards of black hair as straight and glossy as an ironed horse's tail. She turns back toward the Plebe, so that her face is away from Saskia, the hair a satin veil between them. Can Saskia make her pull the veil aside? She bores with her eyes into the back of the new girl's head. Calling Jane Sing. The hum of her heart, the glowing ring of a glass as she rubs her finger on the rim. Sinnnggg . . . Sinnnggg . . . Turn Sing. Turn Jane Sing.
Jane Sing turns. Her eyes run quickly over the faces, glittering as they search for Saskia, and when they find her they pause, they light like blackbirds on their rightful perch, home.
In gym her locker is far away among the afterthoughts, beyond the next grade's Y's and Z's. Hurriedly putting on her uniform, Saskia tries to see Jane Sing through the crush of pigs, but by the time she pushes down to the end, Jane is already dressed, her hair pulled behind her in a ponytail, showing her chocolate wafer ears, which Saskia stares at. Jane looks up. Saskia panics and hurries past.
Her arms and legs glow in the bright gym lights. Her round brown knees are a blur between the shorts and the socks, she handles the ball well. She runs at Saskia bouncing the ball, Saskia watches her beautiful legs, her willowy arms feinting right and left, she watches her flit past and jump for a basket.
"Sheez louise, Saskia! What are you doing? Quit daydreaming!"
Back in the locker room Saskia pretends to read notices on the bulletin board while Jane undresses a few feet away. Walking to the shower in her underclothes, Jane passes Saskia with another sidelong glance, as if to say, "When will you have the courage? Only ask me."
Saskia wraps a towel tightly over her underwear. Her skin is not dark or beautiful. Yellowish, it looks terrible when sweaty, pale and buttery, like something grown in the cellar. Jane's bra and undies hang over a hook outside a stall. They are edged with a pretty scalloped pattern. The bra is a yoke of patches. Of course willows don't have breasts. Saskia can imagine Jane's torso in the shower, the lines of it as straight and pure as her limbs. In her own stall, she bares herself and immediately covers herself again with steam clouds. When Saskia is bare, she is really bare. After two years of mooniness she still has practically no body hair. Even on the triangle there's only a few scraggly hairs like a revolting bunch of insect antennas. The hair on her head is cobwebby. With their inimitable charm, dregs run up and blow on it, as though she were a dandelion gone to seed. Mim is furry and mammally. Jane Sing is a gazelle. Lauren has silky hair all down her floor-length legs. But there is something reptilian about Saskia, something lizardy. Hairless skin, watchful eyes that don't blink.
And she has breasts. No willow, but a stumpy lumpy apple tree. "Cross-your-heart bra!" the dregs yell. "Over the shoulder boulder holder!" Saskia has read books in which heroines long for breasts, in which they bare their fronts to the moonlight to make them grow. But that cannot be right. No real person would be happy to see the first mushy stirrings of the pink blobs, the swelling in the flesh around them like some dreadful allergic reaction. And yet here they come. Udders! Soon they will be swaying hugely and getting in the way. And there is nothing you can do about it, not a thing.
Ms. Rosenblatt spells it on the board, and there is an h hanging on the end: Singh. But you still pronounce it Sing. The h is hanging breathless, Saskia thinks. That's a pun. In her notebook she writes, "Saskia Sing."
"Jane's family comes originally from India," Ms. Rosenblatt is saying with a phony wide-eyed expression. "That's a very long way away!"
Jane Sing keeps her eyes straight ahead. Saskia would be embarrassed, too. The Blatt always talks as if this were the first grade: "Ooh, a vewwy wong way away!" She hovers next to the world map with her pool cue. "Does anyone know where India is?"
"Beautiful place, India," Marco grunts.
"So you've said."
"They're all idolaters. They worship cows." He snorts.
"I worship cows, too."
"No you don't." He gives her a noogie. "You milk cows, Aiyaruk. That's not the same." How nice it is to have friends who know everything about you from the first moment! There are no disappointments, no embarrassing discoveries.
"No one has a guess?" The Blatt is wilting. Saskia raises her hand. "Yes, Saskia?"
"India is that thing hanging down below Cathay."
"China, stupido," Marco whispers.
"China. It's that thing hanging below, there." Like an udder with only one teat. Perhaps that's why they worship cows.
"Yes, very good, Saskia."
"'Yes, very good, Saskia,'" simpers Marco. "The old cow doesn't even know what Cathay is."
"Are all the women in India as beautiful as Jane?"
"All the maidens are. Their flesh is hard. For a penny, they'll allow a man to pinch them as hard as he can. But there is nothing to pinch."
"I guess not." If anyone pinched Saskia, they would get something, all right.
"They all go around naked. Because it's amazingly hot."
"And they're hard and brown?"
"Like mahogany. Even their breasts."
"Jane doesn't have those."
Not swaying hugely, but as much a part of the clean lines as the curve of the hips, the curve of the grain in the wood. "It sounds beautiful, that way."
"Oh it is, my lass." Marco gazes at Jane for a long moment. "A man could lose his mind altogether over a maiden like that."
Marco is kind of a sex fiend.
But here comes the Blatt, down the row with handouts. "We have to hurry through this unit if we're going to get to Rome by March," she says querulously. The handout is a list of dates and headings. Heroic age . . . Periclean Athens . . . greatest artistic flowering . . . cradle of Western civilization, blah blah. Only the Blatt could make Greek history dull. Saskia writes in her notebook: "Rome by March! We March on Rome! Beware the Ides of March!" She wishes she had a lean and hungry look. That is partly what makes Jane so beautiful: a lurking hunger. For what? For a friend, of course. She tunes out the Blatt. Counting syllables on her fingers, she writes a haiku:
Lovely limber limbs Skip past to make a basket The coach yells at me
In the tiled gloom, on the way to her bus, Saskia has a last chance. Jane Sing is at her locker. Saskia has thought of so many things to say advice, something friendly, something special between the two of them, something Jane alone would understand and know was meant for her alone. But Saskia suddenly realizes how impossible they all are. Dumb, barnish ideas.
Jane is arranging things in her locker, intent. She does not see Saskia. She will not glance coolly and say, "Are you ready now, at last?" and turn with Saskia, to walk out into the sunshine with her. She is too tall, too beautiful. She comes from India. Saskia is going to walk past her without a word, hating herself.
"Hey scuz, look out!" Someone shoves her. Her books skitter off the ends of her chasing fingers and fall. Laughter. A pair of dregs splits and passes to either side, happily surveying the scatter. "Pretty clumsy, scuz!" And they are gone in the crowd before she can do anything except stare dumbfounded, think of anything except running and hiding. In front of Jane Sing! She gathers her stuff in the gloom, down among the scissoring legs. Her poor rumpled books! Two stupid dregs, their heads torn off, stuffed into garbage bags, their brainless laughter drained into horror and fear and begging for forgiveness as the bags are thrown into the back of the truck and cackling she pulls the lever that brings down the hydraulic crusher, so lonngg . . . ! Her eyes bulge. She can't believe it, she is going to cry right here.
"Fucking idiots," Jane Sing says from high above.
F Even that word is all right, cradled in her lovely voice. What is it, that voice? Smooth-sided, spoken out of a cedar box. The page with the haiku is in Saskia's hand, ripped at the bottom. It is coming, she has no time . . . "This is for you," she says with her awful squeak, like something getting stepped on. She thrusts the page. "My name is Saskia." Jane Sing's mouth begins to open and Saskia glimpses a pink tongue pointed like a felt-tip marker. But she runs away. She hides in the opium den, barely making it into a stall before the lightning cracks across her forehead, her eyes tumble out, and the rain pours.
In the dark time, propped up in bed beneath her lamp, she labors over her autobiography, which begins:
Like all real people, I go under several names. To the laconic Captain, I am simply "Lieutenant," and proud to bear that humble title under his wise command. Marco calls me Aiyaruk, which means "Bright Moon" in the Tartar tongue. By Odysseus' side I am Saskion Monogeneia. Lastly, the Novamundians, with their typical lack of imagination, call me Saskia White.
My personal color is white, for the obvious reason. Thus, my planet is the Moon and my metal is silver. My armorial bearing is sable, a baston sinister, argent, between a crescent, argent, and sol, or.
The sable background is the night, held at bay by the silver light her eyes shine on it. The baston sinister signifies bastardy. The crescent on the left is herself, while the sol on the right is the one whom she would follow, if only she found one worthy: the Captain to her faithful Lieutenancy, the perfection of gold to which near-perfect silver aspires.
Lauren and I have a farm in Novamundus. Ours is a goodly land, fertile and yielding to the plow. It lies on the western shore of mighty Cayuga Lake, along both sides of fast-flowing White Creek. The farm is now known by the name White-on-the-Water, although it was not always thus.
Actually, Saskia is the only one who calls it White-on-the-Water. She loves geographical names, and English ones seem especially delicious, like sandwiches: Stratford-upon-Avon; Stourport-on-Severn. Lauren calls White-on-the-Water simply "The Place," or if she is feeling eloquent, "The Old Place."
Lauren is Plant-master at White-on-the-Water and her store of wisdom in this matter is great. With the help of silent spells and incantations she causes wondrous things to grow. I am the Animal Keeper. I tend to Marilyn and I encourage the chickens in their laying of eggs. In summer I cut Marilyn's timothy with my personal scimitar. Lowly jobs, some would say, sneering. But I do them willingly and well.
Marilyn and the chickens are at White-on-the-Water only for milk and eggs. Saskia knows the Novamundian practice: chasing the chicken, swinging it like a noisemaker to stop its noise. Or hoisting the coo by the hind leg at the end of the fifth milking year, the wave of blood splashing from the throat into the trough. Lauren and Saskia don't allow any of that barbarity at White-on-the-Water. The chickens mince and dither until they keel over from tiny heart attacks. Marilyn will experience a sudden massive stroke in her meadow on a sunny spring day and collapse in a patch of clover so lush and loving it will lower her gently to the ground. Such care is ordained. If you do not treat the things around you with the proper respect, they will not be good to you. You will not have earned their goodness.
Down, she floats down, deeper, pulling down with her the precious consciousness, a trapped bubble, that she is going down. She monitors her breathing and the slow dissolution of blankets, the confusion of place. Koan: I am in two places at once. This is what it is like. Remember.
A Greek island. No people, no cars. The clock tower chimes the gelatinous hour. She peels off her clothes, feeling the delicious heat. She walks between the beautiful houses, and her own house is there, itself and not itself, the Captain's room rising from the roof. She bounds onto the porch. The door is locked.
But she is getting better. She remembers the crucial fact: she brought a key. It lies solidly on her palm. She turns the key in the lock, and the door opens. How laughably easy! The inside of the house is exactly as she knows it. She climbs the stairs, passing Lauren's room and the crew's quarters and continuing up until she emerges in the top hall, her cabin to one side, Mim's berth to the other. There are no more stairs. The attic is nothing but a crawl space, reachable by means of a folding ladder bolted to a panel in the ceiling. But that is no way to get to a Captain's room.
Looking down, she realizes she is still naked. Strange that she could have forgotten that. The thought of her loose in the house naked, her bare flank rubbing against the bristly wallpaper, makes her feel buttery all over, as if she could shrug off her arms and legs as painlessly as kicking off shoes. She opens the door to her cabin. She is standing on the threshold of an enormous room. Thrones backed against the walls are upholstered in rich cloths and furs: brocade, damask, vair. Saskia runs her fingers over the cloths and along the polished curves of the mahogany. She sits in the thrones one by one, luxuriating in the touch of rough and smooth.
A bard is strumming a lyre and singing of heroic deeds. Men sit at long tables, feasting noisily. Saskia joins them. Nothing could be more right or proper. She has bathed and been anointed with olive oil, she wears a tunic as sheer and soft as the skin of an onion, shining as the sun shines. One of the men spies her and calls out in greeting, "Help yourself to the food and welcome, and after you have tasted dinner, we will ask you who among women you are." A maidservant brings water for her to wash her hands in, pouring it from a golden pitcher into a silver basin. A grave housekeeper brings in the bread and serves it to her, adding good things, generous with her provisions. Saskia puts her hand to the good things that lie ready before her.
This is how it has always been and always will be. The maidservant will always pour from a golden pitcher to a silver basin. The housekeeper will always be grave, and generous with her provisions. Odysseus has complained that young people fail often to act properly when custom demands a thing. "For always, the younger people are careless," he has said. But not all. Saskia strives always to do the proper thing, as you could never have hoped for in a young person. So she puts her hand to the good things that lie ready before her as she has done countless times before in exactly this way, so exactly this way that each instance is not a repetition of an occurrence but the same occurrence returned to, like a dream. She can no more do something different than she can change what she has already done. In this unbreakable web of the done, there is a small, still space into which Saskia fits perfectly.
When she has put away her desire for eating and drinking, the man who spoke to her before says, "Come now, recite us the tale of your sorrows, and tell us this too, tell us truly, so that we may know it: What woman are you and whence? Where is your city? Your parents?"
The men are turned to her, waiting. They would wait forever if necessary, with their goblets empty at their elbows. They would wait, deathless, their grave warriors' eyes turned toward the space into which she fits perfectly. She stands, hooking her thumbs in her copper belt and tossing back a thick mane of hair. "See, I will accurately answer all that you ask me." The warriors catch each other's eyes, nodding approval. As you could never have hoped for in a young person. She begins: "Like all real people, I go under several names . . ."
Today is the day on which Saskia and Jane will become best friends. In the tiled gloom, Saskia proposes to herself a test: she gave Jane the haiku at her locker, so that is their special place now. If Jane is at her locker now, that means she is waiting for Saskia.
She pushes through the fire door and scans the crowd. Of course if Jane is not there, it doesn't necessarily mean anything. Her math class might have run over. She might be hurrying there at this very moment, glancing anxiously at her watch, praying that Saskia has waited for her. Of course Saskia would wait!
But Jane is already there. She is peering into a notebook and twiddling the lock. One leg is lifted, the foot flat against the inner thigh of the other leg, which is locked back, curved like a bow. Saskia catches her breath. She has never seen anything so graceful. Storks stand that way, resting for a moment on their long migrations. So do nomads, like the mysterious Masai who go on safaris with Denys Finch-Hatton, or the Australian Aborigines that Bligh saw from his open boat, after the mutiny. The Masai run for hundreds of miles across the African desert, no one knows why or where. The Aborigines cross and recross their outback, recognizing no boundaries, singing their magic songs. The lifted leg is like a folded wing. If Saskia tried to stand that way, she would keel over.
Yet she knows she can speak to Jane Sing now. Jane is a veldt roamer, but Jane is also waiting for her. The Masai allowed Finch-Hatton to travel with them. Jane must have loved the haiku. "Hi!" It feels so easy all of a sudden.
"Hello." She takes the leg down and opens the locker.
"My name is Saskia."
Of course she remembers, stupido. "What were you looking at in your notebook?"
"My locker combination."
Jane is so tall she can see right onto the top shelf of her locker. "You shouldn't write it there. The dregs look for them in notebooks and steal your stuff."
"The dregs. The boys."
"It hasn't happened to me before."
"Dregs in India probably aren't like the stupid dregs here."
"I've never been to school in India," Jane says coolly. Saskia can feel her face heating up. Did she offend Jane Sing? "I mustn't be late for class," Jane says, turning.
Saskia turns with her. "We're in the same one."
Jane Sing sounds marvelously mature, doesn't she? I remember. That's true. It suits her smooth-sided voice, flowing out of its cedar box. She is from Vastamundus, even if not from India. (Saskia doesn't understand that, the Blatt said she was.) Saskia doesn't say judicious things like "That's true," and it shows what a small-town barn she is. "Have you gotten to know anyone yet?"
They pass under the big clock. "The V.P. designed the schedule," Saskia says, "and it's the most cunning thing you ever saw. Some classes are forty-eight minutes, some are fifty-one. Lunch is twenty-nine! It's all carefully planned to confuse you so they can pile on the demerits and get slave labor in the afternoons. English starts at nine-thirteen! How can any self-respecting class start at nine-thirteen?"
You're babbling. Stop babbling.
"The V.P. is the Vice Principal?"
"Yeah. The Very Putrid. The Vicious Pupil-hater. The Virtually Pandemic." Saskia once spent an enjoyable afternoon with a dictionary, making a list. "The Vitally Polluted. The Vitriolic Pusball." Jane glances sidelong at Saskia, who shrugs, adding, "There's a rumor going around that he's the Antichrist." How big are his shoes? Saskia never thought to look.
"And what about the Principal?"
She asks questions so reasonably! She merely wants information, like a mature person: Ah yes, and what about . . . ? Do tell me about . . .
"That's the P. The Pusillanimous. Did you see him your first day here? I saw you in the V.P.'s office." The folksen she was sitting with must have been her moor.
"Just for a second."
"Yeah, you hardly ever see him. It's pretty sad, actually. He's got leprosy "
"We see him once a year, when he gives a speech at the opening assembly. They prop him up behind this podium that's mainly there to hide his hideous deformities. You can't understand a word he says. They say that's not uncommon with lepers. They keep his office dark and they incense it to hide the smell."
Jane Sing turns her gazelle eyes full and wide on Saskia. She bites her lip. "You're joking." The bell rings.
"Oh, shit," Saskia tosses off as calmly as she can. "Come on!" They run the last straightaway to English and slide in just as the Plebe is swinging the door shut.
On the way to French Saskia says, "Actually, I think he's just shy or something."
"The Principal, you mean."
Note how they are already on the same wavelength. "He's pretty old. I was sent to his office once when the V.P. was out on a rampage rifling lockers and mugging students and so on, and he sat the whole time behind his desk leaning way back and holding his hands out in front of him like he was trying to ward me off." Mumble mumble shouldn't mumble try to mumble and those two old white palms up and out saying noo please go away noo don't come nearer! Saskia felt like a leper.
"So where should I write my locker combination?"
Advice! Jane Sing wants advice! "Don't write it anywhere. Just remember it."
"Numbers don't stay in my head."
"You need a trick, that's all. What's your combination?" Jane hesitates. No, this cannot be right, they cannot have secrets from each other. "Mine is twenty, nine, one. The trick is, if you switch the nine and the one, you get nineteen, and nineteen is one less than twenty."
Jane Sing looks in her notebook. She hesitated because she couldn't remember it, not because she doesn't trust Saskia. She was waiting for her at the locker, it is their locker now, she trusts her. "Twenty-one, three, twelve."
"That's easy! They're all multiples of three."
"I'm not good at math."
"That's not math, that's just numbers." Jane shakes her head impatiently. "OK, twenty-one minus three squared is twelve. Even better, the whole thing's a palindrome."
"I said I'm not good at math!"
Will you just stop showing off? I'm not showing off, I'm trying to be helpful. Jane doesn't think so, she'll decide you're a drip and you'll only deserve it.
But at lunch magnanimous Jane sits with showoff Saskia, anyway. A long silence drags by. Don't babble. Don't be a drip.
Three dregs at the next table have stolen a smaller dreg's cap and are keeping it away from him, braying as he pleads with them tearfully to give it back. Yah! Yah! A shout in your ear. A rubber band aimed at your eye. A thumbtack on your seat. Saskia shrinks, hoping they won't notice her. She wishes dregs would all disappear. Nothing bloody, nothing mean. Just a quiet, genderwide ceasing-to-exist. "What rawholes," she finally says, cowardly quiet.
Saskia takes a roll of shredded wheat stuffed with vermilion sliced almonds and chartreuse cottage cheese out of her lunch bag. "I said, 'What rawholes.' Those dregs."
"This? It's a millet roll with tamarind seeds and camel's milk. I make them myself" Saskia takes a dainty bite. "They eat this all over the Mongolian Empire. Camel's milk keeps better in the desert than coo's milk. Higher fat content. You want to try some?" Jane just stares at it. Saskia holds it out. "Go ahead. I've got plenty."
After looking it over slowly, Jane nibbles one end. "It's cottage cheese."
"Yeah, it's similar. You like it?" Jane doesn't answer. "Well, it's not for everybody."
The next class is Technology. "Mr. Brandt is a big dumb lug," Saskia explains to Jane. Actually, he's the only teacher she sort of likes. He spot-welds metal bands around his biceps and pops them off as he points the way to Muscle Beach. His coffee floats a rainbow sheen, which proves it's really high-grade machine oil. "We're in the middle of a unit, so he probably wants you to double up with someone. You can do my project with me, everybody else is just making candlesticks."
"What are you making?"
"A sextant." The Captain lost his overboard in the horse latitudes and he has a birthday coming up.
Sure enough, after attendance Mr. Brandt comes over and raises the question of Jane's project. "She can work with me," Saskia says instantly.
"OK by me," he says, boring meditatively into an ear with a parsnip-sized pinkie. He doesn't give a hoot about projects as long as you watch him pop armbands. "OK by you?" he asks Jane.
Of course she wants to work with Saskia. She loved the haiku, she was at her locker, she asked for information on principals and locker combinations. Saskia bores a hole in her cheek. Yes. Yes.
"Sure. Sounds like fun."
Saskia's heartwarmth erupts and spreads. Suddenly, Jane Sing giggles. "Big dumb lug," she says, after Mr. Brandt has lumbered off.
The tall dark willow from Vastamundus giggles with the stumpy apple tree from hicksville. Not believable, after all. Yet Jane's coffee eyes sparkle unmistakably. She has found a friend, Saskia whispers to herself. Me! She shivers and hugs herself, she is so very big blooming warm from her stomach lungs heart out to the tips of her fingers and toes HAPPY.
Besides Brian Hall's latest work, Madeleine's World, his previous writings include two novels, The Saskiad and The Dreamers; two nonfiction books, Stealing from a Deep Place: Travels in Southeastern Europe and the Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia; and articles for the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and Granta. Hall currently lives in Ithaca, New York.
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Wow. This is one of those books that leave me astounded, wondering how anyone could have written such realistic, insightful, and well-researched fiction. No wonder it was quickly translated into dozens of foreign languages. It's a world in itself: not only is it an insightful view of the world from the perspective of a precocious 12-year-old female, but it has a vocabulary all its (her) own--mixtures of Danish and Danish-derived words, Latin, French, obscure English words, and Saskia's own personal neologisms--with extensive literary references beyond my experience, insights into the world of environmentalists, and a clever stylistic mixing of real and fantasy worlds. Saskia is discovering herself, her world, and her heritage throughout the book, until eventually coming to some disturbing conclusions that even I hadn't anticipated. I think pre-teen females would enjoy and learn from this book, though there are some realistic situations with sex & drugs. I can imagine Saskia becoming a pre-teen role model. I hope this book is made into a film someday. Loved Sally Mann's cover photograph. Squabble: Inaccurate Latin in places (e.g., 'ubi semper' is *not* Latin for 'underwear').