The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf: A Novel

The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf: A Novel

by Kathryn Davis

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ISBN-13: 9780316735032
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 09/28/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 13 Years

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The Girl who Trod on a Loaf


By Kathryn Davis

Little, Brown

Copyright © 1993 Kathryn Davis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-73503-5


Chapter One

In the thirty-fourth year of my life, tragedy having turned my basic languor to indolence, my skepticism to sorry, I came to be haunted by the ghost of a woman almost twice my age. Helle Ten Brix, composer and murderess, impenitent Helle!-within a week of her death she'd managed to peck her way through the eggshell-thin wall that separated her world from mine. And how did she do this? you might ask. For the moment let's just say that she planned my haunting as carefully as she planned each of her operas: with the same attention to detail, to elaboration of motif; with the same blurring of distinctions between the sublime and the vulgar. Darling sly Helle, seraph and magpie, light of my life and infernal engine of darkness. The truth is I still miss her, even now, long after I have finally laid her ghost to rest.

My guess is she was putting the finishing touches on her plan during the month before she died, after she'd at last admitted that she was too sick to take care of herself and had checked into the hospital. "Dammi la mano in pegno," I remember her saying. Her voice was practically inaudible, a whispered croak; but don't be fooled, there was nothing pathetic about her. The words are those of the Commendatore at the end of Don Giovanni, just before he drags Don with him down to hell. "Marco understands, don't you, Marco?" she asked; and the man in question, a heavyset male nurse with the radiant eyes of an ingenue, answered, "Sì, signorina." By then he was the only member of the hospital staff Helle would tolerate, although I knew that even Marco was going to have a hard time getting her to swallow the medicine from its pleated paper cup, or to let him take her blood pressure. I could hear it rattling behind me, that wheeled apparatus which registered so matter-of-factly the faltering of a human heart.

"La mano, Frances," Helle repeated. While her voice seemed to be a little stronger, almost irritable, it continued to come from that place at the back of her throat where she used to claim the Danish language-her mother tongue-likewise came from. Her arm lifted stiffly, straight above the white thermal blanket, and it made me sad to see the blue plastic band strapped around her wrist instead of the usual bracelet of silver birds, linked beak to claw, their eyes made of emeralds. She said that when she was a girl in Jutland her mother used to take her by the hand and lead her into the bog. "Like this," she said, and through her glove of loose skin I could feel a tremor in the bones, as if she'd been hit at the root with a mallet. You had to be careful, she said; the light in the bog was weak. If you weren't careful you'd blunder into a peat hag and drown. How could I know what she was up to? I thought she merely wanted to reassure herself that I was there, to get me to warm her hand, which was like a lump of ice.

By now Marco no longer bothered to try to draw blood from her. The veins were too brittle, collapsing immediately; the blood wouldn't come out and instead made a dark pool under the skin. When you're as old as I am, Helle said, the body's production of everything-cells, marrow, hair, oil-slows down; so why should any old woman in her right mind give up even a single drop of blood?

"Close your eyes, Frances," she said. "Can you remember the tufts of cotton grass brushing against your legs, the cloud of midges buzzing around your face?" But I was too dull and weary to be suspicious. It never occurred to me that what she really wanted was for me to provide the girl's hand with a layer of subcutaneous fat, with ten nails bit to the quick, with a feathering of dark hair just below the knuckles. Meanwhile all I could hear was the sound of the water cooler as it choked up a bubble of air, cards being shuffled across the hall, the chiming of the intercom, an obscenity and a sigh.

Of course she knew what she was doing. Even toward the end, when she claimed the disease had clouded her mind, she knew, she was preparing me for my legacy: "To Frances Thorn, whose distrust of material wealth provides me with no alternative, I leave the conditional wealth of my final opera, regrettably unfinished at the time of my death, secure in the knowledge that she will complete it in a manner of compatible with my intentions." Her lawyer explained that I'd find a package in Helle's trailer; the trailer itself, and everything else in it-as well as her financial holdings and control of her musical estate-she'd left to two ten-year-olds, Flo and Ruby, my twin daughters. Her intentions, I thought. Good luck, Francie.

In this way I was forced to return to what the newspapers had called the scene of the crime, to that turquoise-blue trailer mounted on cinder blocks where Helle spent the last two years of her life. It was cold, bright afternoon in early April-April third, to be precise, Helle having chosen to die on April Fools' Day. As I walked down the Branch Road past the sloping meadow that separated my house from hers, I had to squint my eyes to keep from being blinded: a layer of snow still adhered to the hillsides, covered with an icy crust that mirrored back the sun's own brilliance; and the puddles which had formed in the road during an earlier thaw were like smaller outcroppings of the same substance, diamonds in the mud. For some reason I was wearing sneakers. Was this because, despite the snow, it was spring? Was it because I felt stealthy, an interloper? Whatever the explanation, I remember how wet and chilled my feet were by the time I'd opened the trailer door and walked inside.

Helle used to keep a fire going in the wood stove, an iron box enameled dark green, with a reindeer on each side in a raised medallion. This stove was one of the few things she'd actually gone out and bought when she moved into the trailer; for the most part she'd preferred to make do with whatever austere and makeshift furnishings its former tenants-Flo and Ruby, who'd been using it as a clubhouse-had left behind. Thus the kitchen table was nothing more than a plywood panel that swung down from a hinge in the wall opposite the door, and the three chairs arranged around it were the kind you take to the beach, their frayed blue and white webbing patched with duct tape. Helle had even retained the pictures Flo and Ruby cut from seed catalogues and taped to the walls, all those zinnias and pansies and roses, their placement obviously dictated not by any aesthetic sense but by a desire to cover up holes.

You couldn't visit Helle until four o'clock, after she'd finished working for the day, when she'd give you a cup of tea-strong black tea in a glass cup, since Flo had refused to let her keep the yellow plastic tea set. In winter, the trailer was always warm; in summer, fresh air would blow through the louvered windows, at least one of which Helle kept cranked open all year long. But when I came looking for my inheritance that day in April, the air was frigid and stale, like breath from a stranger's mouth. I was doing all right, though, until I found three onions sprouting in the wire basket that hung above the countertop. Helle would never have let such a thing happen. Never. Just as she would have found it amusing that onions had made me at last break down and cry.

I was wretched, heartsick, inconsolable, I cried and cried, crying as you sometimes do for the whole sorry universe, for the inexplicable machinery that set it in motion and then kept chugging away without regard for all of the tender shoots, as forlorn as these green onion sprouts, that lived and died in it. I cried for Helle and I cried for Sam and for myself. For the twins at school, for the rapidly approaching moment when Flo would realize that Ruby's charm would win more friends than her own strange talent; when Ruby would lose Flo as an ally and, without ballast, float away from me forever. It had been a long time since I'd cried like that-what I'd forgotten was that, at least for me, such tears stop as abruptly as they begin. Sorrow spends itself, its currency evidently not governed by those economic rules that every day allow men like my father to get richer and richer. I turned the handle of the window above the doll-sized sink, then blew my nose on a dish rag so I could smell the air: melting snow and dirt warmed by the sun. A car drove by. Water was dripping from the bushes. And there on the floor at the far end of the trailer, wedged into the corner between the bed and the wall where Helle had left it for me, was the package.

It was a cardboard carton-highly waxed and faintly moist, as if it orginally had been used for shipping lettuce-with "Frances Thorn" printed on the envelope taped to its lid. Such a difficult old woman! Did I expect that the envelope would contain anything so obicous as a set of instructions? Instead, what I found inside, wrapped in a twelve-stave composition paper on which the first four staves were filled with the music and words of what appeared to be a song, was a key with a red plastic head. Helle would have expected me to recognize the key, at least by type, immediately; she might have been less certain about the song. But she'd trained me well. I knew right away that she'd stolen it from Mozart; that it was, note for note, Barbarina's cavatina-a sweetly plaintive melody in F minor-from the beginning of the fourth act of Le nozze di Figaro. "Oh, miserable me," Barbarina sings, "I've lost it!" She's talking about a pin, one of the many small inanimate objects, including keys, around which the plot of that opera revolves.

However, aside from its indirect reference to the subject of search and retrieval, the libretto for the song I found in the envelope bore no resemblance to Da Ponte's. "How can it end, Frances my sweet," the song asks, "if you open the lock before it's complete?" Bitter your fate if first you look under the bait to find the hook."

The carton contained four smaller boxes, the top one of which, a Whitman Sampler, still smelled like chocolate when I lifted its lid, as I did the photographs stored inside. These seemed to have been gather together haphazardly and, with the peculiar exception of a complete set of dental X-rays, were unlabeled. That woman sitting on a park bench in the middle of a snow-covered town square, the photographer's shadow falling across her wide, serious face, partially obscuring the features-could she possibly be Maeve Merrow? And whoever she was, why did looking at her make me feel so inadequate, as if not matter how hard I tried, I'd never be able to figure out what she was doing sitting there in the cold with her unbuttoned, or whether her presence was calculated to help me or to throw me off course?

Under the chocolate box there was a quilted, pale blue glove box, crammed full of old letters and newspaper clippings, a disorderly pile dotted with empty matchbooks and scraps torn from paper napkins. Many of the letters were in Danish; the clippings, in a variety of languages, including several I'd never seen before. The messages scribbled on the matchbooks and the napkins, even when they were in English, were too private and elliptical to decipher: "Snowy owl. Koo koo skoos. Oh I am sorry. Oh I am sorry." "Monday without fail." As for the remaining boxes, their contents consisted of the 1950 Salzburg Don Giovanni-the only thing Helle had listened to during the last months of her life-and the five spiral notebooks in which she'd been composing her final opera, her feminist masterpiece, the capstone to a brilliant, if enigmatic, career.

I've come, eventually, to the conclusion that she left it unfinished on purpose. In fact I sometimes wonder whether her plan started to take shape as long ago as that night in June when our paths first crossed, when she claimed to see flickering around me the faint light of possibility. Never mind that I was sitting on a porch between two lamps. Never mind her persistent urge to revise history. Maybe all Helle wanted was for me to admit that was right. Maybe, if you want to haunt a skeptic, you have to devise a task to which the skeptic's preferred tools, the scalpel and the scales, resist application. I have no other way of explaining it, really: she left the opera unfinished because she wanted to haunt me forever.

Because certainly it had nothing to do with music. The only pratical use I'd found for the manual agility developed during my four unhappy years at Juilliard was shoplifting. Would it have made any difference if, as Helle once suggested, I'd studied clarinet rather than piano? The clarinet, that dark tube glistening with silver buttons and knobs, an instrument designed for the expression of love and passion, fury and parody. Just like you, Frances, she'd said. At the time she'd been busy reworking her melancholy Shoe Aria, in which a contralto voice and solo clarinet first articulate what will emerge as a central motif, the voice ascending, the clarinet descending-on the edge of a bog.

I put everything back into the carton, folded shut the flaps, and returned it to where I'd found it. My dull life, I thought, would continue; I would continue to boil macaroni, to pair socks, to scoops tips from the crumb-laden tabletops in the diner. The wins would be getting home from school, expecting a snack, I had no idea, then, where I was headed, no idea of how, in the end, I wouldn't be able to stop myself. Of course Helle was counting on that-that once I'd conjured her up, I wouldn't be able to stop myself from scraping away at her fiendish garments, weighing the residue, the minute heap of chalk dust which had been a human soul.

At first I tried to ignore those faint, develish stirrings, the early stages of possession. An image would come to me and I'd ignore it: Helle Ten Brix in the guise of a skinny dark-haired girl, regarding me with a familiar combination of impatience and fervor, her eyes darting this way and that. Go away, I'd say, and she would, but not before she'd left behind a little hole, a gap which, until I acknowledged its presence-until I finally began to figure out how to fill it in, sifting through the papers in the carton, through remembered conversations, through the trailer's scant furnishings-deeply disturbed my peace of mind. Little by little it became clear that an entire landscape was taking shape. The girl wasn't alone; she was squirming to get free from a young woman's grip, from the grip of her mother, pretty Ida Johansdatter, and the two of them were poised in their green rubber botts near the lagg of what had to be the Great Bog at Horns. This would have been in late May or early June. The first spring flowers, crowfoot and sundew, would have been starting to open, the first baby tortoises starting to poke from their eggs. Understand, I did my research. I learned, for instance, that the sundew is carnivorous, that its complex digestive system is capable of turning the body of a fly into a spray of white, starry blossoms.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Girl who Trod on a Loaf by Kathryn Davis Copyright © 1993 by Kathryn Davis. Excerpted by permission.
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Girl Who Trod on a Loaf 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
DieFledermaus on LibraryThing 20 days ago
This is a well-written book with some plotting issues. Like many books, it has some parts that take place in the present and some in the past and the past parts are better than the contemporary ones. The story follows two women, Helle Ten Brix, a prickly celebrated composer, and Frances Thorn who comes to know her later in life. Helle dies at the beginning and Frances feels compelled to finish her final opera, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf. She reflects on her relationship with Helle and describes Helle¿s past.The opening section is a bit hard to get into. However, the author¿s imaginative, lyrical prose kept me reading. Davis does spend a lot of time describing scenery and setting, which might not be to everyone¿s taste, but it was very well done. In the first section, multiple beginnings are thrown at the reader ¿ it¿s all a bit confusing and doesn¿t catch your interest. There¿s Helle¿s death and Frances¿ haunting shortly after. There are some glimpses of Helle¿s friendship with Frances and her twins in its later stages. The story of Helle¿s childhood starts. We get the folktale of the girl who trod on a loaf. Then there¿s their initial meeting and Frances¿ affair with one of Helle¿s relatives. We get some glimpses of Frances¿ life as a strapped single mother to two girls working as a waitress and some hints of past problems but not that much, which makes it hard to care about her as a character. In the later sections, Helle¿s story takes prominence which made the book more interesting plotwise.Helle¿s story is told by Frances ¿ she notes several times that Helle was rather slippery in her story-telling, so there are a number of fantastic elements in the descriptions of the past, though that added rather than detracted from this narrative. Helle¿s childhood, spent in the bog-filled Danish countryside, provides plenty of atmospheric inspiration for her musical pieces. Davis gives some detailed descriptions of her operas. Some people might not like this, but I quite enjoyed them. It sounds like they would be fun operas to see. Never thought about a Virginia Woolf opera, but Helle has set one of her most challenging books ¿ The Waves ¿ to music. Interesting. One of them features a singing prow of a ship, another a princess turned into a moth, another a group of birds that are most definitely not a Hitler allegory according to Helle. Helle soon goes to the conservatory in Copenhagen and meets several people important to her career and life ¿ her landlady, dictatorial former beauty Daisy, two sailor friends, her also dictatorial music teacher Binegger and capricious singer Maeve Marrow. In later sections, the transition between the past ¿ early to mid 20th century ¿ and the present 1960¿s is handled with more ease than the first section. However, the Frances parts are never as interesting as the Helle parts. Frances¿ relationship with Sam isn¿t given much justification or logic, but to be fair, Frances herself never gives much thought to that. Towards the end, after the climactic WWII scenes in Helle¿s story, her thread loses momentum. She composed a several other operas and pieces ¿ it would have been interesting to hear the backstory on those. A number of plotlines were left hanging, but that does in the end make it more realistic than tidy conclusions. The prose generally made up for any plot issues.