A Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of 2014!
In Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry, Maia is a teenage piano prodigy and dutiful daughter, imprisoned in the oppressive silence of her adoptive parents' house like a princess in an ivory tower. Cass is a street rat, witch, and runaway, scraping by with her wits and her knack for a five-fingered discount. When a chance encounter brings the two girls together, an unlikely friendship blossoms that will soon change the course of both their lives. Cass springs Maia from the jail of the only world she's ever known, and Maia's only too happy to make a break for it. But Cass didn't reckon on Jason, the hypnotic blue-eyed rocker who'd capture Maia's heart as soon as Cass set her freeand Cass isn't the only one who's noticed Maia's extraordinary gifts. Is Cass strong enough to battle the ancient evil she's unwittingly awakenedor has she walked into a trap that will destroy everything she cares about? In this time, like in any time, love is a dangerous game.
About the Author
Sarah McCarry was born in Seattle and lives in Brooklyn. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship and has written for Glamour, The Stranger newspaper, the Rumpus, and Tor.com. She is the editor and publisher of Guillotine, a nonfiction chapbook series focused on revolutionary nonfiction.
Read an Excerpt
By Sarah McCarry
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Sarah McCarry
All rights reserved.
NOW: BIG SUR
Before any of this, she thinks, there was the kind of promise a girl just couldn't keep. Before the bad decisions, before the night sky right now so big, so big it's big enough to swallow the both of them, before her hands shaking stop shaking stop shaking stop shaking. She is standing at the precipice of a cliff, the edges of her vision sparking out into static, the heaving sea below her moving against the rocky shore with a roar. The wind is wild in her ears, singing her down. Not even the work of a jump. Just let yourself tip backward, let it go. Before any of this, was there ever a chance for something else? The lowering moon swollen huge. Her hands ache, longing and more than longing. If there were chords that said this. Out there beyond the farthest reach of the world, out at the edge of everything, he is waiting for her. White face and long black coat and the knife-thin beckon of his mouth. His eyes darker than all the dark around her. The promise of him: honey flowing from the cracked earth, a crown of stars at her brow. The wildness of her despair at last made quiet. In her nostrils the heady tang of blood. A dog howls in the dark, three times. She can see the black palace on the white plain, its hundreds of doors open to welcome the night in. She takes a step forward. You can play again, he says. Play for us. You can play for all the years of the long night in my kingdom.
"Hey, princess," says the familiar voice behind her. "Come on. Come back from there." A hand takes hers, pulling her away from the brink. "What are you doing? You're going to fall." Cass's touch is insistent, bringing her back to her own skin, the solid earth under her bare feet. The madness leaches slowly out of the night. A car door slams somewhere behind her in the campground; a child shouts. "Maia. Come on. Girl. Come away from the edge." She shudders, thinks of leaping free like a deer, plunging into the abyss, and then the spell of Cass's gentle hands on her bare skin brings her back to herself and her twitching limbs still.
What did I almost just do, she thinks. Oh god, no, I don't want to fall, even as she stumbles backward, her clumsy feet carrying her away from the precipice. Back to the campfire's kind glow, their tent, Cass's arms around her, Cass's soft voice in her ear, murmuring, "Come on, princess, one foot after the other, come on. Nice and slow."
I will wait for you, child, he says, his voice deep as stone in the heart of her. I will wait. You will play for us.
No, she says.
But even in the circle of Cass's arms she can see his smile.
Oscar is wearing his white suit today and he's unhappy with her. "Again," he says. "This passage. We will play only this passage, until it is correct."
He doesn't mean "we." He means her. His disappointment is like a rain cloud filling the room, drizzling resignation across his neat features and tiny frame. In the white suit he looks even more like a child: his ageless face unlined, though Maia knows he's at least fifty, his snowy hair still thick and unruly, his eyes bright and alert as an owl's. And as dispassionate.
"Do you see," he says, pointing to the page, in a tone that clearly indicates she does not. "Here is the song, here in the left hand. You bury it. We listen and we ask ourselves, 'Where is the story? Where is the beauty in this piece?' It is like listening to something that is, how do you say. Muddy. You play this and it is a wall of mud, Maia." Oscar's English is perfect; he's lived in the States for decades. But he likes hamming it up when he's displeased.
"No mud," she repeats dutifully.
"The mud is agonizing to me, Maia."
She nods. Sets her hands at the keys. Plays the arpeggios for him again, and again, and again, each time faster, each time more precise, as though by mastering the passage with near-inhuman speed she can somehow open up whatever it is that's closed in her. When she plays it for a tenth time Oscar gestures to her to keep going and she surges forward, borne away by her own momentum, the notes rolling off her fingers, the music pounding through her and tumbling across the keys. When she's played through the étude, Oscar straightens the lapels of his white suit and leans back in his chair.
"You are very good," he says after a long silence. "You know this. You are the most gifted student I have taught in many years. You work. You practice. You are serious. You have the ability to make a career. Even now, if we were not here"—he makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses the entirety of his house, the city, the backward corner of the world in which they have found each other—"if we were not here, and lived in a real place, a place of culture, who knows what would happen for you already. But you know what I am about to tell you. I say this to you always."
"No emotion. Tell me, what is it you are so afraid of?" She is silent. "You will not tell me. This is unfortunate." His French accent thickens. "Chérie. You mustn't think as much as you think. You must breathe it. You must trust it with your own hands. This is why we practice and practice and practice, so that the notes become our own, so that we inhabit them until it is as though we wrote them ourselves. Until we see through to the other side. We are not draft oxen. It is not enough to work. Anyone can work. If you were only to work it would be better for you to shovel a ditch, do you see? For to only work, it is never to be great, and if you are never to be great there is no point in trying. You pick a profession that is sensible and have little babies and a house." He says "babies" with a tone of utter disgust. "This is all clear to you?"
"I want to be great," Maia says.
"I know this, I know you do. I see it in you. You look at me, here, all alone, I play for children. I do not mean you. For these wretched children with their runny noses, every day they come to me, their parents say, 'Oscar, you make my child a musician,' and I say in my heart, 'I cannot make a peasant into the queen of France.' You must not end up like me. Broken and old. I could also have been great. I will never be great now. I am a sad man with a sad life, which I have ruined for myself, as you know. But you, child, your life is ahead of you."
He purses his lips. "It is not a matter of try. Come, let us end on a pleasant note, if you will forgive me a little pun. Play for me Chopin's Sonata in B-flat Minor. Just a little of the funeral march, if you please, to soothe my sad old heart. Do you know Schumann said that this piece had something repulsive about it? It only goes to show you that there are Philistines in even the most unexpected places. But of course, now we remember Schumann as a man who could have been one of the greatest composers of the nineteenth century if only he had been coherent, which is not a criticism we apply to Chopin, is it."
"No, I guess we don't," Maia says.
Oscar is placated by the Chopin and releases her at last. She gathers her things and he escorts her to the door, as he always does, though she's spent countless hours of her life in this house, knows the worn path from the piano to the front door so well she could mark it out with her eyes closed. Oscar's creaking old Victorian is nothing like her own beige-carpeted house with its white walls and spotless floors. Even now, the cleaning lady is probably bleaching counters, scrubbing toilets, washing already-clean white sheets. Oscar's house is an oasis of shabby majesty, littered with books and papers and dirty coffee cups, overflowing ashtrays teetering precariously atop stacks of newspapers and notebooks and sheet music. When she was little, he'd let her linger after her lessons in his enormous library—an entire room full of nothing but books, crammed shelves stretching from the floor to the ceiling, books spilling over into piles on the floor. Books in French and English and Spanish and Italian, books about music and history and gardening and cooking. A disintegrating leather-bound set of the complete works of Balzac, translated into English, that she'd devoured in the drowsy afternoons until he sent her home to practice. Biographies of Ravel and Debussy and Chopin and Fauré, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, Oscar's own teacher Nadia Boulanger. (She has seen him mimic her countless times; when someone asks him what he thinks of something Maia knows he finds distasteful, he says, vaguely, "Oh! You know what I think about that.") A battered paperback of Les trois mousquetaires that she'd struggled through in the original French. If Oscar was happy with her he would read passages aloud in a hilarious, affected baritone.
The rooms in Oscar's house are papered with ancient, hand-painted wallpaper, once grand but now peeling in long strips from the walls. His dusty wooden floors are scattered with threadbare Oriental carpets, piled three or four deep; the windows are hung with velvet drapes, in some places so worn that light drifts through them to stain the dark floors gold. The disorder of Oscar's house is like a sanctuary. No one here to follow after her with a dustcloth, check the soles of her feet for dirt, demand she remake the bed until the spread lies without a single wrinkle, the ruffles falling from the decorative pillows just so. Not that Maia has friends who might see the dust ruffle askew. Oscar can pick a single bad violinist out of a symphony orchestra, but Maia cannot imagine him noticing if she moved a pile of dirt into his kitchen with a bulldozer.
Only Oscar's front room, the piano room, is tidy. Oscar keeps his immense Hamburg Steinway—Maia has no idea how much it cost, or how he'd afforded it—polished mirror-clean. No rugs on the swept floor, no shelves on the walls, no tables littered with teapots and packs of the Gauloises that his cousin sends him from Paris by the carton. No paintings, no chip-eared busts of famous composers, no highball glasses with sticky smears of bourbon at their bottoms. Just the piano and Oscar's armchair, where he has sat and watched her play three times a week for the last fourteen years.
"Listen," he says now, one hand coming to rest lightly on her shoulder. "I wish for you to play something new."
"Okay." She stands the way her mother hates, one foot turned inward, resting her weight on its outside edge. He takes his hand away and disappears into the other room for a moment, returns with a sheaf of sheet music.
"Gaspard de la nuit?" She riffles through the pages. Ravel, three movements. She can tell at a glance that it's harder than anything she's ever played.
"It is, how do you call." She resists the urge to roll her eyes. "Difficile."
"Comme tous les autres."
He laughs. "Bien sûr, chérie. We will begin with the first movement. 'Ondine,' you will play for me next week. I wish you to play it for your audition." He means her audition for the music conservatory in New York he has chosen for her, the audition this spring that will decide the course of her future. "It must make you think of demons and that sort of thing."
He clicks his tongue against his teeth. "Demons. Demons and ghosts."
She keeps her face neutral, wonders if Oscar's shucked straight off his rocker. "Demons. Okay."
He beams, pats her shoulder. "Demons. Next week."
"Next week." As always, when he holds the front door open for her she almost curtsies.
* * *
It must have rained while she was at Oscar's; the sidewalks are slick and slug-streaked, and there's still a faint mist to the world that leaves her cheeks dewy. If she walks home it'll take her an hour and there will probably be hell to pay, but she's restless for no reason, too antsy to wait for the bus that won't come for another twenty minutes at least anyway. She tucks Oscar's music into her shoulder bag. She can walk along the canal and cut over to the university before she reaches the freeway.
The January air has a chilly, damp edge to it, and she pulls her jacket tighter as she walks. The streets are deserted. Her brown loafers make a neat tap on the wet pavement. She's tempted to step deliberately in a puddle, take some of the shine off the polished leather, but even tiny rebellions never go unnoticed in her house. Sit up straight, cross your legs like a lady, chew with your mouth closed, speak when spoken to. The severe line of her mother's unsmiling mouth, immaculately lipsticked in her immaculate white face. Tasteful pearl earrings, silk blouses without a single wrinkle, the delicate gold cross always at her throat. Blond hair pinned back into a neat chignon if she's teaching, spilling down her shoulders in rich honeyed waves if she's going out. The click of her heels—never in the house, never ever on the floors; no one wears shoes in the house. Her cool green eyes. When Maia was little, her mother dressed her like a doll, ruffled pinafores and starched collars and a red wool coat that buttoned all the way to her throat; Maia dreams about that coat sometimes, dreams where she's choking. Her mother dresses her still. It's easier than fighting and anyway, what does she care about clothes. When she sees herself in a mirror, her dark hair sleek and straight, twins of her mother's pearl earrings—a sixteenth-birthday present from her father—dotting her own ears, pressed khakis, the loafers with their tassels falling neatly over her instep, she sometimes fails to recognize herself. And then she sees her brown face and remembers. Her skin makes it hard to forget.
She stops by the canal for longer than she should to watch a yacht make its stately way toward the Sound. Even this early in the year the water's dotted with kayakers, wetsuited against the chill. Their boats flash bright yellow and orange against the grey water, double-bladed paddles dipping with a rhythm like wings. Her father took her kayaking once, when she was small. They'd both been clumsy, splashing more water than they moved through; Maia nearly upended herself in the lake. Shrieking with delight, sun hot on her shoulders, the white sails of a nearby boat crisp against the blue sky. The water so close to her fingers, that far from shore, was disconcerting. If she'd fallen she could have tumbled endlessly through that deep green world to some alien kingdom at the bottom of the lake, where fish-finned women swam with their long hair streaming behind them. A palace she could almost picture, dark turrets rising against the darker depths. But there's no fear in the memory, only joy. When she thinks of darkness, she thinks of sleep, not death. The moments of her life when she was happy are easy for her to catalogue, because there are so few of them that aren't at a piano. She keeps walking.
It takes less time than she thought it would to reach the Ave, and she wonders why she's never walked home from Oscar's before. If she hurries, she might even beat her mother home from her afternoon seminar. Her mother teaches the history of ancient Greece; it's easy to impose order on dead civilizations. Maia's never sat in on one of her classes, but she can imagine the scene. Her mother, starkly beautiful, moving her elegant hands to illustrate the difference between kinds of spears. The front row of desks crowded with admirers writing down her every word.
Despite the chill in the air, the Ave is crowded. Students laden with books hurry to classes; a couple of jocks play Hacky Sack outside a coffee shop; a patch of scraggly street kids trailing hemp ropes and mangy dogs begs for change on a corner. Maia looks away from them, walks faster as she passes. One girl calls out to her. "Hey, princess. Spare a quarter?" Maia pulls her shoulders up to her ears. But the voice gets louder. "Hey, princess. You got somewhere to be?"
Maia stops. The girl's gotten up to follow her. She's about Maia's age, with wild-cropped blond hair dyed red at the ends. She's wearing a dog collar as a necklace, a filthy T-shirt under a cardigan three sizes too big for her, and a pair of camouflage pants tucked into black combat boots. But the most striking thing about her is her eyes—sea-grey pools Maia can't look away from. "You got somewhere to be?" the girl repeats. Maia shakes her head. Then, panicked, she nods. "Which one is it?"
"Somewhere," Maia whispers. "Somewhere to be."
The girl looks her up and down. "Tea party? Etiquette lesson? Damn, girl, who put you in those shoes?"
"I don't have any money."
"Someone you know does." The girl's mouth twitches into a smile that's gone so fast Maia wonders if she imagined it. "Come on. Help me out."
"I really don't."
"Then at least do me a tiny favor. Look, I'm not from here. I need directions."
"Complicated directions. I need a map. Can you get me a map?"
"A map?" Maia repeats.
"You dressed like a stockbroker and deaf? Hello, cruel world. I bet they have some kind of map in that convenience store. Of the area. Or the state. State parks. Like, any kind of map. But listen, you don't know me, right? So don't act like you know me. Because you don't. Come on."
"I told you I don't have any money."
"Then get me a free one."
The girl propels Maia with one hand toward a convenience store across the street. Bemused, Maia lets herself be directed. Once they're inside, the girl whips her hand away and saunters over to the beer aisle, whistling. She pulls bottles out of the refrigerated case, puts them back again.
Excerpted from Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry. Copyright © 2014 Sarah McCarry. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Now: Big Sur,
Now: Newport Beach,
Now: Bodega Bay,
Now: Santa Cruz,
Now: Los Angeles,
Now: Barra de Navidad,
Now: Barra de Navidad,
Excerpt from About a Girl,
Also by Sarah McCarry,
About the Author,