Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings, and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. After all, her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there.
When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. But she is deeply wounded by her mother’s deceptions, and soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner—prodigal daughter of the town’s founder, suffragette, and purveyor of black market birth control who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte.
Madelyn, though, simply wants to feel beautiful and loved—and for that she will pin her hopes on William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran, in this historical novel that offers “a compelling portrait of a small Midwestern town and its residents during a period of great change” (Library Journal).
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I was three months from thirteen when Mama and I stepped off the carriage in the Mississippi River town of Reliance. We carried between us one tattered carpetbag and a hatbox of balding crushed velvet filled with lacemaking and sewing notions. And we carried a marriage proposal from a Mr. Lyman Dryfus.
Two other passengers, a consumptive old farmer and a woman in a foreign looking dress, heaved their trunks and disappeared into the arms and wagons of loved ones. The coachman hissed low obscenities to his team; then he, too, continued up Grafton Road, leaving Mama and me alone together on the outskirts of a brick-and-mortar town that looked ready to tumble from the limestone bluffs above. A white haze veiled the sun. Farmland yawned westward while the river pressing south seemed to me the source and end of all the changing colors quilting the Illinois shore.
"Read it to me again," Mama said. Upriver, a cannon boomed from a trolling steamer, all but its twin stacks, hidden by a thin, tree-lined island. "Madelyn."
"Said wait by the river road. Don't see no other river. No other road."
"Don't be smart." Mama coiled a strand of hair around one finger, sucked the split ends to a point; she gave her skirts and petticoats a shake as one would freshen long-shelved linen, and then we both became conscious of the figure hulking in the shade of a nearby oak. He was wide through the eyes, his chin studded with soft blond whiskers and angry red blemishes, and his long arms and legs had a dumb restless look about them. I slipped behind Mama, pulled my bonnet low.
"Miss Rebecca Branch?" he asked.
Beautiful women, like Mama, only pretend to be unconscious of the effect their looks have upon men. On the train to Alton, her practiced scowl warded off uninvited attention, and the smile she gave this man — no, boy, a great big boy, slumping into the light — strained Mama's neck and shoulders. We had been expecting a man with a steady business and dependable income, so his age and the frayed legs of his trousers were suspect.
The cannon boomed. The boy, recovering himself, nodded toward the steam trail. "A girl's gone missing."
"That's terrible," she said. The boy shrugged.
"If she drowned, they're looking too far up current." He deliberated, craning his neck to see me. "Isn't there only meant to be one of you?"
But Mama, stepping quickly forward, captured his full attention. "And you are Mr —?"
The boy blushed. "It's Hanley. Just Hanley. Mr. Dryfus's devil. Work for him. But I'm joining to fight out west, soon as I'm old enough."
"Hanley, then," she said and taking him by the sleeve, left me to mind the bags. "Take us to Mr. Dryfus."
* * *
Even with her humble trousseau, Mama maintained the entire journey a desperate, hopeful pride, which earned at once the slack-jawed admiration of men and the denigration of women — and made her even more a mystery to me than normal. In the days that must surely precede her wedding, she planned to stitch every scrap of lace she'd made about the collar and cuffs of her Sunday dress, in the hope that Mr. Dryfus would find her attire frugal, as opposed to poor. For in correspondence with Mr. Dryfus, Mama (that is to say I, because Mama never learned to read or write well) led him to believe she stood to inherit a respectable sum and a modest estate from an aged aunt, who, unfortunately for all involved, did not exist. Except for her hands — square, and callused as a man's — Mama could pass for twenty. But there was no benevolent aunt, no money, no land.
And of course, I did not exist in the mind of Mr. Dryfus.
No other advertisements in the Matrimonial Times featured mother with daughter, though plenty featured mutually attractive sisters, their hands full of daisies or knitting needles, sometimes a Bible. Mama decided. We both agreed. Better to make explanations as they became necessary. At the time, I'd thought little about omitting myself from the page, and nothing of the fact that Lyman Dryfus had included no photograph of himself when Mama had submitted two, a profile and portrait at great expense. His ad read simply:
254 — A man of advancing age, adequate height, & weight, with a steady business and dependable income, seeks energetic wife, fit and healthy, with a strong physiognomy. No Catholics.
He was a man. He owned a house, a business. I liked the sound of his name, Lyman Dryfus. Neither of us had known the meaning of the word physiognomy. Dot, the widow with whom we had been living — and very much a mother to us both — decided it must mean beauty, a "strong beauty," especially since there had been no other mention of appearances. Her dying wish was that we stay this side of the Mississippi, as if that muddy gash separating East from West would prove, even for her spirit, insurmountable, farther away than the spirit realm where Dot's husband, Sam, had waited with far more patience, she said, than he'd ever managed in life.
Dot needn't have worried. Ads from men living in the ethereal West promised riches with a brand of reckless confidence that made Mama wary. It was his letters, so passionate and generous next to that ad, which convinced me that Mama should, by all means, fall in love with Mr. Lyman Dryfus.
I hope you too, he had written, might one day learn to care for the river, to love the current's heavy pull, its murky unreflective face, hiding alike her deeps and shallows.
And in another: After the first snow in Reliance, but few leaves stop the eye short of the horizon. Plucked cornfields reveal blackened, old-woman skin, flaking and fallow. Color drifts downriver and after the shallows have frozen, before ice locks the riverbanks, the eagles come.
Such a curious contradiction, the ice-locked riverbank, and the fierce free flight of those eagles ...
He wrote about the sycamores in spring, the wind through the reeds, and I, who was then exceptionally sentimental, found it all terribly romantic — albeit unlike any of Dot's yellow covered literature. I, nevertheless, felt confident in my reply.
My Dear Mr. Dryfus, I wrote. My soul is sobbing and lamenting at the thought of our great distant and I have been praying our separation willn't destroy my tinter hart.
I tipped my nose for the scent of mud earth as Mr. Dryfus had described it, but smelled only the cannon's sulfur leavings. I listened in vain for the soft whisper of his river reeds and could not differentiate sycamore from maple. I had expected the river to fit neatly into his descriptions, but his words had become no more than stacked stones, and the river — its changing colors, its breadth and constant motion — a living thing quite apart.
It made me afraid to meet him.
Main Street, refusing to remain loyal to the meandering contours of the Mississippi, cut straight up the hill. Redbrick buildings, two and three stories tall, presented themselves in formal rows, and the streets they lined imposed a cage over the crumbling bluffs. I could see, beyond a steep green, the columned portico of a courthouse, shaded by a giant oak alive with blackbirds. From all directions up the hill, competing church bells chimed the noon hour. I felt glances but kept my face covered, my eyes on Mama's boots until we turned down Union Street, an older part of the town I guessed from the blackened brick and frayed trellises.
Here the clatter of Main Street softened. A trio of old men, all knees and elbows, perched like vultures on a bench before the post office, staring openly. I might have ignored them except that we stopped next door, before a narrow brick shop built, like the post office, into the side of the hill. No awning here, no flourish. Painted boldly across the shop window: The Reliance Register. Below in smaller lettering: dryfus's print shop and jobbing press. And there in the lower left corner of the window, a curious thing: a broadsheet with the outline of a human head divided into a series of irregular quadrants like a county map.
Mama's breath grew shallow, but she did not waver, even when we heard a scuffing behind the door. A body stopped the gold pinprick of light through the peephole. The shop bell jangled. The door creaked open to a tubby old woman. A film clouded her left eye and her head bobbed, in greeting I thought, until I realized she had no control over the action. In one long look, the old woman cataloged our worldly belongings. Her head stilled. She frowned, stuck her neck out, sniffed.
Mama straightened herself. "Here for Mr. Lyman Dryfus," she said.
"I told them there was only meant to be one of them," said Hanley.
But the woman had shuffled inside, mumbling and gesturing nonsense, I thought, until Hanley answered in the same language and hurried away through a passage under the elbow of an unlit staircase. On the left, the hallway opened to a shop counter, thick with dust, branded with the grimacing shadows of the stenciled window. With a gesture and grunt, the old woman bade us wait by a door on the right and went in. We heard voices through the door, then nothing, and my stomach made a fist inside me.
"I want to go. Mama, hear me? Let's go."
"Where we going to go?"
The voices inside matched the pitch of our own.
But the old woman opened the door, and from the set of Mama's shoulders, I knew I could do nothing but follow.
"Mr. Dryfus," Mama said, stepping into the room. She bent in an awkward curtsy, and though I would have preferred to stay hidden behind her indefinitely, I needed to see the man who had written so lovingly of a river.
What I found was a nervous-looking fellow, tall and thin, with a mousy, mustached face, propping himself against the scuffed corner of a large writing desk. He wore a clerk's vest. Ink spots stained the collar and cuffs of his blouse, but not one hair on his blond head defied that pale, white part. "You," he steadied himself. Nimble fingers fumbled for the pipe in his breast pocket and gripping it, calmed.
"You are Miss Rebecca Branch?"
His voice proved deeper than I imagined from looking at him, but neither this nor his thick Germanic vowels seemed to surprise Mama. They considered one another, his eyebrows remarkably active for a man whose face appeared otherwise void of expression.
"I told them," said Hanley through the door behind us. "I said there's only meant to be one of them."
Mama's hand fished behind her, and when I did not take it, she stepped back, linked her arm with mine, and forced her urgency into the shape of a smile. "Say hello, Madelyn."
"Hello, Madelyn," I said.
"I think she must be dumb," said Hanley.
"I'm not dumb!"
"Madelyn, please," and judging this a time when explanations had become necessary, Mama plunged into our tale: how aunty passed so very recently, how she couldn't leave me, her sister, behind alone. "If there was anyone else," she said, "anyone else in the world, I would have left her."
All of this we'd practiced, of course, but practice never made such a hole inside me. Maybe what struck me so hard was the way nerves thickened the Kentucky in Mama's voice, but in the pregnant silence that followed, the lilting cadence buzzed like flies between my ears and fell dead at my feet.
"You spoke nothing of a sister," said Mr. Dryfus.
"Mr. Dryfus, I ..."
But Mr. Dryfus, aided by that copper-headed cane, turned his back. Doing so seemed to give him confidence. He limped toward the bookcase and set his hand atop a hollow-eyed ceramic bust, the skull of which, like the flyer in the shop window, was divided by lines into quadrants.
"Some say, Miss Branch, that the eyes are the windows of a man's soul. Aristotle believed it was the nose. A beak or a snout, he thought, might indicate the insensitivity of a pig, the irascibility of a dog, or the impudence of a crow. We are mirrors of our animal characteristics — animals, except for our ability to reason." He turned. "And to lie."
"Mr. Dryfus, she won't be no problem. She —"
"She will have to eat, will she not?" Neither his color nor his voice rose, but Mama and I both jumped. "I would be supporting her, would I not? At least," he said, and I did not like the way his voice pitched to a question, "At least until you come into your inheritance, Miss Branch?"
He looked significantly at Mama.
"Aristotle also thought the brain's function was to cool the blood. But science advances. Our understanding grows." He paused. "I do not mean to frighten you, Miss Branch. What I mean to say ..."
At this he took from his pocket one of the photographs we'd sent: Mama in profile, hair curled, dressed in taffeta, a lace collar, holding Dot's Bible to her chest. The corners of the photograph had been rubbed smooth and he stared as if the image were infinitely more substantial than the woman, flesh and blood, before him.
"What I mean to say is that I might have predicted something like this would occur."
Something like what? Like me?
"What I mean to say is that your organs of Ideality, Industry, and Secretiveness are remarkably developed."
He circled with his pipe distinct regions of the ceramic bust and the corresponding regions on Mama's photograph, then looked up at her as if this had settled something between them. "But great strength often reciprocates in some great weakness. The phenomenon is the same in domesticated animals."
Mama bristled. "Animals?"
"Domesticated animals," Dryfus corrected, warming to his subject. "Human beings are domesticated animals, Miss Branch, no less than cattle or dogs. Consider the German shepherd, no the Pekinese, bred for the lap and nothing more, but excellent for their purpose."
"Purpose, Mr. Dryfus?"
From the angle of her chin more than the tone of her voice, I could tell that fear and indignation were turning to anger. Mr. Dryfus noticed nothing. In fact, he showed little trace of his previous nervousness; for the first time, he allowed his eyes to sweep Mama's person. The old woman said something. "Turn," said Mr. Dryfus. Mama turned once around, arms held at a doll-like funny angle; she stared nowhere in front of her. The three of them — Mr. Dryfus, Hanley, the old woman — watched, swallowing Mama whole, her small frame, her full chest, her dark curls framing tragic brown eyes. She seemed to me then like someone else, a character in a book, the beautiful heroine who must be saved. I felt like stepping in front of her, shouting at them. "Stop looking at her like that!"
But I didn't move, didn't say a thing.
It was the old woman who spoke again.
"Now your hands," Dryfus said. "We will see your hands."
"Was I not clear?" He looked from Hanley to the old woman.
Mama offered her callused man-hands for inspection and my insides cracked and bled for her. The old woman bared a yellow smile.
"What purpose, Mr. Dryfus?" Mama asked tightly, holding her hands to her chest. "Mr. Dryfus, you said something about ... What purpose, Mr. Dryfus?"
"I know, Miss Branch, that I am not a young man. Nor do I possess requisite attributes, which might impress a lady of any standing or stature.
"You" — he eyed our paltry belongings — "you are not a rich woman. Nor are you likely to be. Am I right? Am I? And from your letters, neither are you well educated."
Mama's hand dug into my arm for silence. Oh my letters! My beautiful letters!
"So, you will forgive me for observing that your prospects in civil society, lovely as you may be, are limited." Inclining his head at the last word, he took a step back to examine her again, this time with a removed, clinical interest, and began to pace crook-step with his cane, the double row of ink-drawn portraits on the wall as much his audience as we.
"I venture to guess factory work would prove fatal. You might meet some young farmer on whose bleak acreage you would labor the harsh seasons, yourself becoming as used as the land. Or perhaps you might find your way to San Francisco, where your beauty might win the arm of some rich magnate. But — " He stopped. He turned. He pointed his cane at her. "The uncertainty, Miss Branch. The desperation and uncertainty remains, does it not?"
He tapped his cane twice like a gavel and even the old woman jumped.
"You need a husband you may rely upon for shelter and sustenance; I, a wife to see Mutter and me comfortably through our latter years." The old woman, brightening, placed a possessive claw on Mama's shoulder. "And, of course, a man of a certain age desires, well," he said, looking down at the bare scuffed floor, "companionship."
I almost scoffed at this — companionship was not, in my experience, what men desired of Mama — but now he turned those pinprick eyes upon me.
"Which leaves only one question. Your sister."
I held tight the hem of Mama's skirt. Of all of our lies, he chose to believe this one? Mr. Dryfus peered closer. "What are we to do with you?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Reliance, Illinois"
Copyright © 2016 Mary Volmer.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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