Desperate to save her marriage, Penelope turns to black magic, exposing her family to the island’s sinister underbelly. Ultimately, Penny and her family suffer unimaginable casualties, rendering their lives profoundly and forever changed. Helen Benedict’s acerbic wit and lush descriptions serve up a page-turner brimming with jealousy, sex, and witchcraft in a darkly exotic Eden.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Penelope lay in bed for two days after they arrived in Seychelles, sweating in the equatorial heat. She knew she should get up and help the children settle, but she just couldn't. She felt too sick from the boat, too exhausted and too damned angry at Rupert.
The journey had been insufferable — all twelve days of it. Propeller planes bumping about in the sky. Those lurching ships, first one from Mombasa to Madagascar, then another from Madagascar to Seychelles. Rupert's shameless flirtation on the ship and that terrifying episode when Chloe had gone missing. Yet even when it was over and Penelope had stumbled onto solid land at last, she had found no relief. She'd looked up at the mountains looming above her, massive heaps of lush and tangled forest, at the myriad black and brown faces staring at her from the dock, and her heart had trembled. She'd felt shanghaied — just as she had on the ship — bound and gagged and dropped into this strange and blaring land, as will-less as a sock.
Rupert and the children, of course, were enthralled. "Look at that!" they'd cried over and over in the taxi that took them to their new home, pointing and jabbering as they craned out its window. "Oh, isn't it lovely!" And, Penelope had to admit, it was. Palm trees bold against fathomless blue skies. Sands white as teeth. The sea a dancing turquoise. Huge round rocks crowning the mountains, swathed in rolling mists — and all of it lit by a bright and spangling sun. But what had it to do with her? It seemed so outlandish, as if she'd stepped onto a stage set. She could imagine putting a hand out of that taxi window and pushing over one of those palm trees, or even the Technicolor mountains as easily as if they were made of cardboard. I don't understand, she thought. What am I doing here?
Penelope had never left England before. Having spent most of her childhood exiled from her family, first in that Devonshire cottage she'd mentioned to Zara, where she'd lived with her nanny throughout the war, then at a Kent boarding school until she was eighteen, she had always clung as close to home as she could. She had certainly never imagined ending up in a place like Seychelles, so tiny and remote one could hardly see it on the map. It was ridiculous, when she thought about it. Africa was a thousand miles away on one side, India almost two thousand on the other, yet Seychelles didn't even have its own aeroport. It was barely a country, really, but rather a cluster of a hundred or so miniscule islands tucked under the equator like an afterthought, most of them inhabited by nothing but bird excrement. Even Mahé, the biggest of the islands and where Rupert had set them up to live, was only seventeen miles long and seven across at its widest. But the final straw, as far as Penelope was concerned, was that although Seychelles had been a British Crown Colony for over a century and a half, nobody she knew in England had ever heard of it.
So the minute they reached the house Rupert had rented for them, she crawled into bed, even though it was still early morning, as sick with resentment as she was from the sea, and lay there watching a wicker fan wobble dangerously in the ceiling and trying to muster the strength to face it all. "Stay away, little ones," she told Zara and Chloe when they poked their heads around the bedroom door. "Mummy's still not feeling well." Rupert, she sent to stay in the study.
The house was soon all a-bustle. Marguerite Savy, the combination maid and nanny the office had hired for Rupert, cleaned and clucked, humming hymns as she watered the potted plants, uprooted every sign of grass from the front courtyard and swept its pink dust into graceful, symmetrical patterns with a broom of bundled sticks. Sylvie Ballon, the rotund and very dark cook, put together mysterious concoctions in the kitchen. Zara and Chloe explored wildly. And Rupert bossed and grinned, disappearing for a couple of hours to introduce himself at the government office, then returning to direct the unpacking of bags, the arrangement of furniture, the placement of pictures. After which he sat in a high-backed straw chair on the veranda, ran long fingers through his woolly beard and marveled at his good fortune.
Rupert had been plucked from a lowly and ineffectual position in the British Colonial Office for this job in the Seychelles, a posting some might have regarded as banishment but he saw as hard-earned recognition of his worth. His assignment was to produce a report on the Seychelles' economy and how to improve it — a Herculean task, as his superiors well knew, because the islands were crushingly overpopulated and had suffered over a century of spectacular neglect. Seychelles had long been an unwelcome burden to the British, so removed from civilization that nobody but birds, turtles and pirates had noticed it for hundreds of years. The place wasn't even settled until 1770, and even then only by a motley group of fifteen Frenchmen, their seven African slaves, five Indians and one solitary black woman. ("Given how crowded the place is now, that one woman must have been kept awfully busy," Rupert liked to say.) The French had governed the colony in a desultory manner until the British took it off them during the Napoleonic wars, after which it had prospered for a time, being rich in timber and fertilizing guano. But once the Emancipation Act of 1835 had freed all the slaves and thus the labor from British territories, the islands had plummeted into poverty. Now Seychelles was in debt up to its very tall mountains, produced nothing of interest to the world but a sprinkling of cinnamon, vanilla and the dried coconut meat known as copra, and was regarded by Her Majesty's Government as unfit for anybody but junior civil servants and lepers.
If Rupert's post was undistinguished, it was nonetheless a step up from the one he'd had in England. Yet, as he sat on his breezy veranda, listening to the rhythmic warbling of the local doves, he found himself hard-pressed to care. He was too thrilled at having exchanged the gloom and push of London for a tropical paradise to think of anything as bothersome as steps up to anywhere. Instead, he sat in his straw throne, sipped at a cold Tiger beer and surveyed, with some astonishment, the unexpected beauty of his new Seychel-lois house.
He and the children had fallen for the house the minute they'd seen it. Built a century earlier by a French landowner, it looked as un-English as possible, with nary a blackened brick or gray stone in sight. Made entirely of wood, it was painted white from top to bottom and was as fanciful as a cream cake. It had a wraparound veranda, rows of open doors and windows on every side and an oversized sloping roof like a sun hat. The veranda was fenced in by an ornately carved white balustrade, above which hung bamboo shades, pale green and rolled up like lizard tongues, ready to be unfurled against the afternoon sun. The edge of the corrugated iron roof was fringed with lacy Indian carvings. Every one of the tall, glassless windows was protected by a nut-brown shutter that levered open at the bottom to let in the evening breeze. In front of the house was the dusty pink courtyard, behind it a riotous garden of tropical plants, and all around it a dense and verdant forest.
The children loved the house for its secrets. Their bedroom upstairs had a narrow closet that ran behind the entire back wall like a smuggler's tunnel. Their beds were tented with gossamer mosquito nets, which to Zara looked like spiderwebs and to Chloe like princess curtains. Instead of a basement, the house was perched on stone pillars to protect it from rats and termites, leaving a crawl space full of satisfying dangers: red ants that bit and burnt, mysterious holes plunging deep into the rust-orange earth. And in the back of the house was an extra-wide veranda with bamboo deck chairs crouching like grasshoppers and a round, glass-topped cocktail table. Zara liked to lie underneath it and pretend she was trapped in a fishbowl. "Let me out, Chloe, let me out!" she would beg, laughing. Marguerite, small and sturdy and rusty-skinned as the local cinnamon bark, scolded her for leaving fingerprints all over the glass.
The children played all day long. Zara was queen, Chloe anything Zara made her — servant, horse, prey or punching bag. And if they missed their mother, no matter, they had Daddy. When they tired, he put a daughter on each knee and told them their favorite stories, featuring them as heroes rescuing babies from evil wizards and witches with names like Flappy Flopbottom and Snotty Snoot-nose. He didn't make them do much about quotidian affairs such as eating or washing. Zara, already brown as a rabbit, turned darker than ever from scrabbling in the dust, her long hair so matted no comb could get through it. Chloe's pink skin grew smutty with dirt. But Rupert wasn't bothered. After all, they were free of the old conventions now, free of all those dull rules that so mummified the British — wasn't that the point of coming to a place like this, really? So why make the children fuss with tedious things like baths and hairbrushes, the way they had back in London?
Penelope stayed in bed. Marguerite brought her food — a curry, a row of tiny bananas, a mango — but Penelope still felt too queasy to eat anything much. She could only lie there and wait out her paralysis, watching the translucent house geckos cling to the walls and rock back and forth on their gluey splayed feet. Once in a while she would drag herself up to look through the window at the tangle of foliage in the garden: the banana palms, their shaggy leaves as long as oars; the great spread of mango tree, its fruit dangling from strings like orange kidneys; the fan-shaped palm leaves the size of baby blankets. But the mass of greenery, so fleshy and alive, would drive her back to bed, stomach clenching, heart afraid, just as she had felt in the war.
Penelope had been only six when her mother and Nanny had packed her clothes into a brown cardboard suitcase, hung a hideous gas mask around her neck and taken her to Paddington Station. They'd told her they were going to the family's summer cottage for a holiday, but the minute they'd walked into the station she'd grown alarmed. All around her were hundreds of children, some afraid, others excited, address labels pinned to their overcoats, their own gas masks dangling. Mothers were weeping. Harried grownups in armbands were blowing whistles and herding the children this way and that, and the din of voices and cries, train hisses and whistles cut through to Penelope's bones.
"Why are all these children here?" she'd asked, squeezing her mother's gloved hand in fear. No answer. "Why are the grown-ups crying?" No answer to that either. When they reached the train, Nanny climbed on first, then lifted Penelope inside. But when she called, "Hurry up, Mummy!" her mother wouldn't move. The porter blew his whistle but still her mother remained fixed to the platform. "Aren't you coming?" Penelope cried. "You said you were coming!"
"I can't." Eyes skittering, mouth tight. "I must stay here to work for the war. Now don't cry. Mind Nanny and be good. We have to keep you safe from the bombs."
"Mummy!" Penelope screamed as the train chugged away. "I don't care about bombs!"
For five years and nine months, Penelope was kept in that Devonshire cottage, her only contact with her parents their letters and crackly telephone calls. "Why don't you visit me?" she would ask her mother. "There are two boys in the village whose mummy visits them."
"No, darling, I'm busy making you a little brother." Penelope missed the birth of that brother, James, and then of a second as well, Roddy.
"Why don't you sent the babies away like me, to keep them safe?"
"Because they're too young. Don't worry, poppet, we've put a Morrison Shelter in the sitting room. It looks like a giant rabbit hutch. We sleep in it together every night to keep your brothers safe."
Penelope's longing for home, for sleeping like rabbits with Mummy and Daddy, became a permanent part of her, following her to the village school, where she was considered too glum to make friends, to the fields she roamed alone for hours and to her cold room under the cottage roof, where she lay shivering each time a German plane rumbled overhead. Otherwise, she remained in the clutches of Nanny O'Neill, who filled her with Catholic prayers and ghost stories, slapped her hard and scrubbed her with icy water the many times she wet her bed, and left her alone night after night to weep for her mother.
Penelope was beyond weeping now, but she was not beyond outrage. How could her own husband, who had promised never to do to her what the war had done, have torn her away from home like this?
For a long time in that cottage, Penelope had comforted herself with the assurance that she still had a home. She allowed herself to hear welcome in her parents' rare telephone calls, and to read affection into the occasional letters and presents they sent through the post — once a rag doll but most often books. "Mummy, I'm frightened you'll all be hurt," she wrote during the Blitz. "Mummy, can I come home now?" she said on the telephone once it was over. "Mummy, can I speak to Daddy?" She pushed aside the gentle denials, the hurrying off the phone, hearing instead, "As soon as the war is over, darling, of course you can come home."
But the war refused to be over. The London Blitz might have ended, but in Penelope's little corner of Devon the worst was still to come. It began in April of 1942, when Lord Haw Haw, the German propagandist, declared that Hitler was going to bomb the nearby cathedral town of Exeter until its streets ran with blood. The Nazis were angry, Nanny's radio explained, because the RAF had bombed the cathedral in their town of Lubeck. Nanny reinforced the burlap she'd glued onto the cottage windows, checked the blackout curtains for traitorous holes and made Penelope come down from her attic bedroom to sleep in the cellar amongst moldy potato sacks and piles of maggoty wood. Then it began. The thud of approaching bomber planes like blows to the chest. The howls of air raid sirens growing to a great desperate scream. The whistle of incendiary bombs dropping all around them. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Nanny muttered in her rough Irish brogue, crossing herself frantically as she hunkered down next to Penelope, who was curled tight on the floor, hands over her ears. "And your daddy t'ought we'd be safer here than in Richmond, Lord help us." Penelope was nine years old by then, but each of the seventeen air raids that devastated Exeter made her wet herself. And after the worst night of all, she emerged to find the woman next door sitting beside her flattened house, rocking and screaming for her children, and the school hall filled with the wounded and the dead.
Please God, please don't kill any more people, Penelope prayed every night. Please let the war end.
And then, at last, it did. VE day — victory! Freedom and quiet and sleep. Bees buzzing over flowers, yawns in the sun, the jubilant songs of blackbirds in the morning.
People came from all around to fill the village green with long tables draped in sheets and to cook whatever they could scrounge for an all-day feast: sandwiches and chickens, cakes, jellies and tri-fl es, even homemade ice cream — a wildness of riches in those half-starved times. Posters went up in shop windows, surrounded by gay red, white and blue rosettes. Flags snapped in the wind. Bunting streamed from trees and lampposts. The boys brass band squawked and blared, and effigies of Hitler and Mussolini were burnt in a bon-fire. The grown-ups got drunk on beer and relief, and the children ran and laughed under the May sky. The Jerries are done for! Hitler's defeated! Even Nanny allowed herself to be pushed about by a burly farmer in some form of a dance.
Penelope sat at the corner of a table, a thin, long-legged eleven-year-old, sucking a strawberry ice lolly and watching the scene with lonely blue eyes. A few of the children from school asked her to play, having grown used to her sadness and bookish ways over the years, but she shook her head. She could think of only one thing: Home.
They returned to London by train the next week. Penelope hunched in her seat, heart squeezing at the thought of seeing her mother and father again, and stared out of the soot-grimed window. Nanny sat opposite, her swollen hands knitting. Devon in spring was a palette of colors, of undulating green hills, fields of sunny buttercups and dandelions, pale primroses and summer blue violets. But the closer they drew to London, the more the color drained away, until Penelope could see what war had really done. The Germans may have almost burnt Exeter to the ground and flown their terrorizing bombers back and forth over Penelope's village all the war long, but that was minor compared to what they'd done to London. She stared out of the window in shock. Blackened brick and rubble. Rows of sooty houses with every fourth one or so missing, like gaps in a mouth of rotting teeth. Buildings in shreds. The city looked frightened and broken, as if a giant's foot had stamped down and crushed it. Maybe Mummy's dead, she thought. Maybe the voice on the phone wasn't Mummy at all. Maybe it was somebody else, pretending.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Edge of Eden"
Copyright © 2009 Helen Benedict.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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