In today’s “lean in” era, debut novelist Siobhan Adcock casts the issue of whether women can ever “have it all” into a superbly written novel that will have readers everywhere talking. Bridget has given up her career to raise her daughter, but now a terrifying presence has entered their Texas home—and only Bridget can feel it. In 1902, motherhood spurs Rebecca to turn her back on her husband, despite her own misgivings. As Adcock crosscuts these two women’s stories with mounting tension, each arrives at a terrible ordeal of her own making.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Bridget is sitting in the glider in Julie’s room. It’s past four in the morning and her thoughts are wandering, trailing through familiar places, picking up slight objects and then putting them down again. Julie is sick with a summer cold and cutting two teeth, waking every three hours to cry so piteously that even Bridget, a steadfast cry-it-outer, can’t leave her baby girl to wail in the dark. So here she is, sitting with a warm, buttery bundle of mostly sleeping girl in her lap.
And, as has become more or less customary for her, Bridget is thinking about death, plucking at it in her mind like fingers plucking at the curled edge of a bandage. Later, when she is at her most terrified, she’ll wonder whether she brought the ghost into her house somehow just by thinking about death so habitually, so unwisely. When I should have been thinking about educational toys, I was thinking about death. When I should have been thinking about weaning or baby swim classes, I was thinking about death. And that’s why she’s here. That’s how she found me.
Bridget wouldn’t call herself morbid by nature. If anyone were to ask, Bridget would say she is fixated on death for two perfectly good reasons: One, because she is a new mother, and motherhood—as everyone tried to tell her, and as has turned out to be completely true—means imagining the worst that can happen, every day, all day long. And two, because she’s married to an interactive game developer. All the ways a body can change shape, change definition, die, and avoid or cheat death—these are the things, Bridget thinks, half asleep and rocking gently, that preoccupy mothers and technologists alike.
Now that Bridget is home full time and thinking more about Mark’s job than she feels safe thinking about her own (the job she left behind, that is, her job as an attorney at a midsize firm up in Austin), she finds herself with more time to think about this stuff.
Gently, she touches baby Julie’s hair, the feathery spot right at the sleeping girl’s temple. The fact is, everything that other women tried to tell Bridget about motherhood has turned out to be true, and yet it still surprises her to realize that no one was lying. It is different when it’s yours; you do like other people’s babies more after you have one of your own; the weight does take nine months to come off, if it ever does; and then the worst, the most ludicrous and pat saying about motherhood there is: You don’t know what love is until you have a kid. All of it, all just as unilluminating and condescending as it was before Bridget gave birth, and all of it true. The weird, dreamy fixation on death, though. No one told her about that. But everybody must feel that, too; everybody must think about it.
No. Probably that’s just me.
Probably that’s my problem.
But if everybody isn’t thinking about it (because she’s thinking about it, here in the glider with her daughter snoozing in her lap), how else to explain all the movies and shows and books about it? Every time she looks at the news or the TV, she sees something that reinforces how vulnerable children are, to neglectful parents, to glib and hilarious sitcom parents, to breakfast cereal advertisers. And to worse, of course, far, far worse. Aren’t we all, she thinks, drowsing and gliding with her ten-month-old daughter in her lap, deviled and tormented by thoughts of our little dear ones coming to harm, and isn’t it true, after a while, that those feelings of torment come to be sensations we long for—manufacture, even—in order to prove that we’re capable of feeling tormented, in the same way that conservatives and liberals long to hear each other say something infuriating? A seductive self-justification, sure—the former attorney in Bridget can recall constructing stronger arguments to prop up flimsier claims.
And not just death in general, but death in particular, death as a particular inevitability for all the people she loves. Case in point: Lately it hits Bridget with increasing frequency that her own mother, Kathleen, currently alive and well and living three towns away with her second husband, might die—will die, is bound to die eventually— and the howling loneliness she feels at the thought is (she muses, half asleep) probably not unlike how Julie feels upon waking up in her crib, with her imperfect sense of time and object permanence. For Julie, the universe begins anew after every nap, with terror and curiosity and the aching search for the familiar: Mother. Mother.
So (pushing with one foot so that the glider’s rocking motion lengthens), what if her mother were to die. What kind of world could Bridget inhabit if it turned out to be possible for Kathleen to leave it. Or, okay, what if Mark were to die. What would she and Julie have to do, how would they have to live then—when she, Bridget, has just taken this strange huge step of exchanging her old life for this new one and is, for the first time in a decade or so, without any means of supporting herself, or any other creature for that matter, without help from someone else? Or, what would Mark do, for that matter, if Bridget were to die—who would care for Julie?
From there, Bridget’s next irresistible thought is the really unthinkable one: What if Julie were to die. How would Bridget live in a world where Julie was not. Bright, plump, fearless Julie, with her throaty, truck driver’s chortle and her endearingly spazzy baby ways.
She can’t know it until later, but it is at this moment, just as she is finishing this peculiar logical circle in her mind, the one that has led her so naturally to thoughts of her own daughter’s death, that she first senses the ghost nearby. There is a scent in the air, a smell that someone half-asleep could mistake, at first, for the smell of summer-time, for mown lawns and flourishing shrub beds, and it moves into the room like a secret and brushes across her face like a veil, sweet and sorrowful.
In the days to come this scent will become synonymous with panic, and hiding, and heart-stopping fear, but in this moment it is almost comforting, familiar. In the yard alongside their house, there’s a strip of ground that’s always a little bit muddy and damp, even in the heat of summertime, thanks to a creek that used to run through the neighborhood and now resurfaces between the houses only during the wetter spring and winter months, the merest temporary glimmer, like a bracelet emerging from a velvet pouch. Bridget likes to see the little creek surfacing and receding, likes the way its muddy scent floating through the window screens means the start of the green season, although both she and Mark have wondered whether it might be undermining their foundation. Their neighborhood is all new construction, quickly planned—the houses here aren’t bulletproof. She knows from her neighbors that some of them have poor insulation, bad drainage. She thinks tiredly, We should get that side of the house looked at for cracks, I guess. I’ll have to talk to Mark about it.
When Bridget hears the noise out in the hallway—a thump, something heavy and soft meeting the wall—she assumes it’s Mark, even though he never gets up with the baby, or hardly ever. Mark works, she doesn’t; ergo, she gets up with the baby. The logic seems straightforward enough, even when the execution of that logic leaves her stumbling and glassy-eyed and foulmouthed, and when Mark complains constantly that he’s tired, which Bridget is always too tired to challenge. Still, she sometimes loves being with her little girl when the world is dark and it’s just the two of them. The turtle night-light in Julie’s room glows warm orange, as if the world is shining through a piece of amber. To pick up a reaching, sweet-smelling baby girl in the orange turtle light, to tuck her head under your chin, to shuffle sleepily to the glider chair and settle in for some long, edgeless minutes while the trees shush outside in the heat and the air-conditioning blows a soft, cool breeze—it is lovely to be clung to by a curled-up baby in the middle of the night. Bridget still nurses Julie sometimes, when Julie’s half-asleep anyway and won’t be made impatient by the scantiness of Bridget’s milk, which was never plentiful to begin with and which began to dry up when Julie started solids. Bridget is nursing Julie when she looks up and sees, for the first time, what has just moved through the doorway into her daughter’s room.
At first her mind supplies a nonsensical explanation, and she thinks she’s seeing a piece of furniture—a white couch—that has somehow reared up, massive and shambling and improbable, and is trying to bump into the room. But immediately, by the horribleness of its continuing movements, that first comical impression is erased. Because it is clearly human, and yet not. Even before Bridget sees what it is, what it is doing, her breath stops.
It moves as if struggling for every inch; each step has to be swung for, lunged into. Every movement costs it something.
Then Bridget sees a hand.
It hits the doorframe with a slight, soft thud that makes Julie twitch in Bridget’s lap. The baby’s weight feels like all that is keeping Bridget attached to the bottom of the world, all that’s keeping her from following her insanely accelerated heart in a flight backward out the bedroom window and into the black-and-green night. It takes several long moments for Bridget to realize she is not breathing, and she swallows a gasp of air.
But the air itself has changed, and she suddenly feels as if she can’t get enough oxygen into her lungs. The smell of earth, of soil and moisture and things growing out of the dark, has gathered close around her even as the quality of the air in the room seems to have thinned, as if all the nourishment has been sucked out of it. This is what it’s like inside a coffin, Bridget hears herself thinking over the terrified hammering of her heart. This is what the air tastes like inside a coffin when you wake up and find you’ve been buried alive. Bridget lunges forward in the glider and gasps for breath again, the lungs in her chest feeling flattened and strained.
The ghost, pulling herself painfully through the doorway, pauses and shifts at the sound, with a sharp, quick snap in Bridget’s direction, and unwillingly Bridget finds herself looking directly into her. Her eyes are like glittering wells, like stone-rimmed quarries, deep and cold. Bridget feels her own hand clap over her mouth, feels her other arm scoop around Julie’s back, creating a barrier between the ghost and the girl on her side on her nursing pillow, still mostly asleep.
The ghost is a dead woman. Her hair, like her eyes, is black, and she seems to be wearing white, or to be made of something white, but it is nearly impossible to tell anything else about her because the edges of her body, her head, her limbs, seem constantly to be shifting, growing enormous and grotesque and then shrinking, angling away, diminishing to an equally grotesque size, out of proportion to what her body seems to want to be. It is like watching a maddened Picasso try to struggle out of its frame. Impossible to tell whether the ghost really has two eyes or just the combined force of two eyes, impossible to see whether she is slender or full figured or weak or strong. She seems to be dissolving and resolving through a field of static.
Now she moves toward Bridget, bringing with her that smell of damp earth. Watching her move is horrible, each step a reminder that the body can die. But watching her eyes is worse.
Bridget doesn’t think of herself as a brave person—it doesn’t occur to her to confront the ghost or to fight, for example, although later she will wonder what might have happened if she had. Her first instinct is only to lean forward to cover Julie’s small sleeping body. “Don’t,” Bridget pants. Her lungs are white fire. “Please don’t, please don’t.”
The ghost stops in the middle of the room and with difficulty lifts her arm, or the haze of impressions that seems to be her arm. Is the ghost pointing at her? Gesturing for her to rise? Beckoning for her to come? Begging? Bridget’s eyes are now blurred by hot tears. No no no no no.
The baby sleeps on, peaceful and unaware. Bridget can’t bear to look away but can’t bear to keep looking, either. Finally she buries her face in her baby’s side, eyes burning, chest aching, breathing Julie’s smell of sun-warmed skin and pee and laundry detergent. Now she’ll strike. Bridget realizes her mistake too late: She should never have looked away from the ghost, even for a second, even to blink, because now, when she looks up, the ghost’s face will be there, inches away, glaring and staticky and furious, before it becomes a huge black mouth and swallows them both whole.
Panicking, Bridget weeps into the crook of her daughter’s small arm. The baby sighs. Oh God, please save us. Save her.
When Bridget looks up again—it could have been moments later, or it could have been hours—the ghost is no longer standing in the middle of the room. The smell of wet mud is gone. Bridget kisses Julie all over: her fat thighs, her cheeks, her sweet starfish hands. Julie latches on again and nurses for a few moments, then falls back asleep. Mark finds them both there in the morning light.
Ignoring the smell, Bridget and Julie go ahead with their normal Bridget-and-Julie routine. Playtime, morning nap, out in the car for errands, back for lunch, afternoon nap during which Bridget dozes off herself on the couch, then some distracted housework, then some more playtime while Bridget returns a couple of emails on her phone, then yet more playtime (bored by now, so heart-failingly bored, and counting the hours until Julie will be asleep) and dinner and bath time and bedtime and waiting for Mark to come home, which he won’t do until much later, after Bridget herself has fallen asleep. It’s as if nothing has happened at all. Bridget hasn’t exactly forgotten the ghost so much as decided it is unlikely she will see her again—the ghost was some product of a dream, not even a dream itself. And so, the night after seeing the ghost for the first time, Bridget puts Julie to bed as usual and goes to sleep waiting for Mark as usual, albeit later than she’d expected to, given her uncomfortable, long hours in Julie’s glider, folded in half around her baby with tears of relief and terror drying on her face.
Julie awakes crying at three a.m., and Bridget opens her eyes and sees the ghost standing close at the side of the bed, filling the room with her watery indistinctness, her coldness, her smell like a fresh-turned grave.
The ghost is waiting for her, black eyes neutral and expressionless.
With her heart stuttering and her eyes already tear-filled with horror, Bridget scrabbles for Mark’s hand under the covers.
He murmurs, “Not you.”
The ghost turns and effortfully begins slicing her way out of the room.
“Marshland,” Mark says, still in a dream he doesn’t know is a dream. He smells her, too.
Bridget lies stiff with fear until she realizes the ghost must be going to Julie’s room. Then she throws back the covers and flies out into the dark hallway, heedless and terrified. “Mark!” she cries. “Julie!”
The ghost is entering Julie’s room as Bridget hits the upstairs banister and rebounds, hip singing with pain. She’s never moved so fast, and yet suddenly she doesn’t seem able to catch the ghost in her slow, struggling deliberateness. Her breath is short again, and she can’t seem to get enough air into her lungs—it’s like being on top of a mountain, where everything is cruel and thin.
Mark is awake now, calling worriedly from bed. “Bridget? What happened? Is she all right?”
Get up and help us, damn it! But Bridget can’t speak: Horror and airlessness have stopped her voice. The ghost is standing next to Julie’s crib, turning to face Bridget as she halts in the doorway to the baby’s room.
The ghost lifts her arm, as if pointing in Bridget’s direction. For the first time, but not the last, Bridget understands that it is a command.
To do what?
Bridget can’t keep herself from snatching her sleeping baby up and away, out of reach. Her movements are the jerky, panicked whirs of a clock reversing its wheels. And then Bridget has Julie in her arms and finds herself standing two feet from the ghost, the closest she’s come, close enough to feel the radiant coolness coming from the dead woman’s form, almost like a soft wind that her ceaseless shape-shifting seems to create, the kind of wind that would stir light curtains at a window in the half hour before a rainstorm.
At this range, surrounded as she is by a shifting cloud of static, she is even more clearly dead—dead and moving, dead and yet alive, dead and yet standing before her, an abomination.
“Who are you? What are you doing here? Go away!” Bridget whispers fiercely. But her lips feel numb, she’s shuddering to breathe, and she staggers with Julie’s weight and falls against the wall near the crib’s headboard. “Go away and get out of my baby’s room!” Julie is fully awake by now, jostled out of sleep and crying—wailing, really. Her face is a mouth; her eyes stream tears. Bridget clutches her daughter. “Go away!”
The baby cranes her neck around, still screaming, looking in all directions until she locates the source of her troubles. The ghost. Bridget’s heart falls. She can see it.
Julie points a chunky fist at the ghost—shakes it at her, in the way that she does when something angers or excites her.
The ghost watches Julie. In her mother’s arms, Julie begins to still herself and grow serious, staring at the dead woman.
Mark shuffles belatedly, sleepily into the room.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong? Is she okay?” Without fully opening his eyes Mark takes their little girl from Bridget and cuddles her, and as always, Julie responds by grabbing him around the neck while simultaneously craning to keep her mother in view. I can have this, but you have to stay mine, too. “What’s the matter, little Jujubee? Mmmm. Little bee. Bzz bzz.”
Julie leans into her father and extends a balled-up fist toward her mother, who closes her own hand around it. Bridget feels knock-kneed, dumbfounded—her jaw, she’s sure, must be hanging open in stuporous shock. The ghost is real. Her daughter can see it. Her husband can’t.
The ghost is still there, right next to Bridget at the side of Julie’s crib. But the dead woman isn’t looking at them anymore. Her gaze seems to be fixed out the window. Bridget can hardly bear to look at it, can hardly bear the thought that it is still here, still real—Jesus, no, she can’t be real, but she’s still here, she’s still here, look at the way Julie’s looking at her. She swallows, hard.
“Do you mind if she sleeps with us tonight?” Bridget asks hoarsely.
Mark sniffs and gives Julie’s cheek a game smooch. “I thought that was a bad idea, you always said. Crib death. All that. Is she sick or something?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I just want her close by so I can watch her.” Bridget puts a hand on Mark’s lower back and gives him a gentle push, trying to herd them all out of the room, back into their bedroom, where she can shut the door against the ghost and keep them all safe.
“Should I be worried? Are you worried? Don’t let me roll over on her.”
“I think she’d squawk before she’d let you do that,” Bridget says, guiding Mark and Julie out, away, but keeping her eye on the ghost, flickering in stillness near the baby’s window. As soon as Bridget’s small family is out in the hallway, she can breathe again, and she begins to really push, shoving Mark along as swiftly as he’ll let her.
“Hey. Whoa. Hey. I’m still half asleep here, Bridge. Take it easy.”
She shuts the door behind them and quietly locks it while Mark settles Julie in the middle of their mattress in the near dark. Bridget turns on the closet bulb and closes the closet door partway, creating a warm triangle of light across the floor that will almost reach the three of them, snug and safe in the bed.
Julie whispers some nonsense words. She is happy, if confused. Bridget crawls into bed next to her and opens her pajama top to let Julie nurse. Mark rolls onto his side to face them and sleepily pats Julie’s hair, then Bridget’s shoulder. Nothing can reach us here. Nothing can harm us as long as we’re together.
“Good night, dear ladies,” Mark murmurs. Julie nuzzles in. Bridget closes her burning eyes in relief, exhausted, every part of her body humming with satisfaction and tiredness. They’d gotten away. The three of them, all close, all safe, here in the dark.
Julie and Mark are asleep, and Bridget is almost asleep herself, breathing the heat and scent of the little blanket-shrouded valley between parents where baby Julie sleeps—detergent, skin, a faint whiff of pee (she should have changed Julie first, she supposes)—when the bedroom door opens and the smell of dirt enters the room.
Bridget learns to avoid places where the scent of wet earth is strong. The second morning, climbing the stairs to put Julie down for a nap, smelling grass and mud more distinctly with each step, feeling a bit short of breath but attributing it to the climb (and to her own denial that this could be happening, that this could really still be happening, to them, in their neat little house), Bridget almost walks right into the ghost standing in the upstairs hallway at the top of the steps near the door to Julie’s room, still and alert.
She’s looking for something.
It’s the first thing that comes into Bridget’s mind—and once she has the idea, she can’t help but think and rethink it, over and over, because for now it’s a question she can’t begin to imagine how to answer: What is she after? What is she after? Julie makes a small, low sound in her throat, and Bridget kisses her head, in her favorite spot, right at the little girl’s feathery temple. It can’t be her. If the ghost wanted the baby, she would have just taken her, or tried to. She’s after something else. Got to be. Got to be. What does she want? The ghost turns toward them, and Bridget backs away down the stairs, keeping the ghost in sight—promising herself she would not make the mistake, ever again, of shutting her eyes. Better to see the unimaginable than try to imagine what it could be doing while you’re refusing to look. The ghost doesn’t pursue them, and Bridget brings Julie downstairs to sleep on the couch, which the little girl does almost right away, with her mother leaning over her in protective terror, her breath coming fast and shallow.
It’s not lost on Bridget that Julie seems less afraid of the ghost than she is herself. The ghost is, for all Julie knows, just another grown-up in the house. Just another strange person watching over her. For all Julie knows, they could come in all sizes and shapes, every variety of solidity and transparency. Sure. Why not? If the ghost is just another watchful presence in Julie’s life, that would explain why it seems to spend so much time flickering back and forth between the hallway, her mother’s bed, and Julie’s bedroom, a field of static restlessly shifting channels on itself in an endless loop between the window, the bed, and the stairs, the window, the bed, and the stairs. She probably seems more real to Julie than her own father does. She’s certainly around the house more.
She’s looking for something up there. But what?
Bridget can sense the dead woman nearby at all times, even in the broad light of afternoon, but the ghost never seems to want to come downstairs—at least not when Bridget has been around to notice—which makes her easier to avoid. Like a lot of other things in Bridget’s life at home with a baby, maneuvering around a ghost in the house soon becomes a sort of challenging-but-doable routine. The ghost stays upstairs all day, doing God knows what, and Bridget contrives ways for herself and Julie to stay away from her. Sometimes, when she and Julie are in the living room, Bridget senses the ghost looking down over the banister at them, flickering and watching, but when she looks up, nothing is there.
It is only during the dark hours that the ghost seems to come looking for them. Night after night, Bridget surfaces from a miserable half-sleep to feel her breath coming shorter and shorter, the scent of damp earth approaching, even before the door to her bedroom opens and the flickering presence in the hallway makes herself known.
Sometimes it’s possible for Bridget to believe that she isn’t frightened. When she’s out of the house with Julie, mostly—at the neighborhood pool, or aimlessly wandering the aisles of the grocery store, or driving the long way home. During the hours that Bridget is not in the house, which naturally have begun to spread and lengthen with the ghost’s arrival, she can almost decide it’s funny, almost hear the jokes she would tell if anyone, anyone at all, were prepared to believe her. The thing I don’t get is why she doesn’t do some fucking laundry if she’s just going to be hanging around the house all day.
She’s looking for something. But what?
In her deepening exhaustion, Bridget can only guess that the ghost, in the fashion of most ghosts she’s read stories about, wants something specific—an offering of some sort—and what, exactly, she should do about it finally comes to her days later, on a sparkling Wednesday morning that she spends, like every Wednesday, at the coffee shop with the redoubtable Gennie, Gennie of the beautiful thick hair and the well-behaved, artistic toddler. The ghost wants something from Bridget’s house—something from Julie’s room, perhaps?—and Bridget will have to give it to her. An offering. A sacrifice.
They are at a Starbucks, of course. In their mid-Texas suburb there is no other kind of coffeehouse. The four of them, Bridget and Julie and Gennie and Gennie’s nineteen-month-old son, Miles, arrive after the morning rush and before the afternoon loiterers and poem writers, just post morning nap, and immediately squat in the plushest, most remote corner and proceed to cover it with rice puffs and little bits of half-eaten tofu cubes and cooked apple. A guy at the other end of the room is trying to read the paper and keeps sighing loudly and glancing at them as he turns the pages. They all ignore him.
“I can’t believe Julie’s cruising already! She’s going to be an early walker,” Gennie is saying. “Yes, you!” This last is addressed to Julie, who has been wriggling ardently in Bridget’s lap, trying to reach for Gennie, just get at her, with no thought of what she’ll do once the object of her searing baby desires is achieved. Bridget knows she should try to listen to Gennie but can’t seem to stop herself from staring into space, thought after thought drifting out into blackness like a series of hapless astronauts stepping out of the capsule. She is dead tired. It’s been days.
What can she offer the ghost. What should it be. Some little thing from Julie’s room, some token of appeasement? Bridget finds herself cataloging Julie’s less-favored toys in her mind as Gennie talks. Floppy Bunny—too crusty. Laughy Giraffey—too crusty. Plus, Julie still sucks on his legs when her gums hurt. That horrible monkey thing Mark’s mom gave her—inappropriate? Would the ghost somehow guess it didn’t matter, that she’d been given something valueless? But how could anything from the world of the living— particularly from the world of a plump-wristed, rosy ten-month-old girl, with bright eyes and a beating heart and a pulse just discovering what it could do—be of no value to the dead?
It is a sign of something that I’m even considering this. It is a sign that some corner has been turned, Bridget thinks, as if being stern with herself somehow excuses it. But this can’t go on. This is worse than sleep training. I’m being chased out of my own house by a ghost, like Ms. Pac-Man. So she will offer the ghost . . . something. A talisman. Or maybe it’s more like a payment. I’ll pay up. Julie is so little and easily pleased, she’ll never miss whatever it is Bridget takes away to give to the ghost—who will . . . what? Pick it up in her hands? Flow through it like a sunray? Or shove it hungrily into her mouth?
But Bridget is trying not to go into that dark place—she’s trying to be reasonable and practical about it, which seems possible at least while she’s here, in the coffee shop with Gennie.
Gennie takes one of Julie’s hands and swings her arm gently in space. “I thought maybe we could come up with a budget cap for the craft projects so nobody gets too crazy—you know some of the mommies will make this into a bigger deal than it needs to be. Yes, hello, sweet pea,” Gennie says to Julie, who, judging by her grasping and reaching and grunts of effort, seems to want to change mothers. Gennie’s son, Miles, meanwhile, is playing quietly on the floor with some kind of nontoxic wooden puzzle. “I do hate to sound judgey about other moms. I do.”
If only I could talk to Mark. If only. But even if Mark could see the ghost, which he can’t, he’s never around, and at any rate the two of them aren’t exactly in the practice of solving problems together. Not now. Maybe they were once, but not anymore.
The very first person Bridget realized she couldn’t talk to about the ghost was, of course, Mark. The ghost is invisible to him, even though she stands over his bed every night. Even though she’s there waiting when he comes home close to midnight and crawls into bed with his wife, and she’s there in the hallway when he rises early to beat the traffic in. Throughout the dark hours, Bridget is a sentry for Mark and Julie both, overtired nerves sensing and scenting, seeking the ghost, imagining where she might be. She’s never far. And every night, while Bridget lies in bed, fluctuating between stiff terror (she’s here, she’s right here with us) and helpless half-wakefulness (the hallway, the top of the stairs), punctuated by periodic visits to Julie’s room to stand guard over the baby while the ghost flickers near Julie’s window, Mark is asleep.
More frightening than the ghost is the suspicion, which Bridget briefly entertained, that she might be utterly bonkers, a complete lunatic. But as far as Bridget can tell, she is not insane, inasmuch as she knows the ghost is real. Mark may not see the ghost, but he smells it—she’s seen his face change when he enters a place the ghost has recently occupied, as if he’s smelling something off and is too polite to mention it. Since Bridget’s been at home, Mark has become cagey about anything that might be construed as a critique of Bridget’s housekeeping. He made one harmless comment too many when Julie was small and still up half the night, and Bridget laid into him with real ferocity, whisper-screeching that he could do them all a favor and sweep the kitchen himself if he was so sick of catching crumbs on his fucking socks, which, by the way, I wash for you so what exactly is your problem exactly? It’s not a sexist thing in him, not really—he’s just never been as tidy or fastidious as Bridget, and even before she quit her job to stay home, Bridget was doing most of the housework. Almost all. Mark helps with laundry and handles the trash and does ineffectual puttering things, like pruning the houseplants. Which is actually fine, really fine—she’d rather do it herself and know it’s been done right than have to nag Mark to be sure he wipes the little rim behind the toilet seat. It’s only when Bridget is exhausted that she minds.
And she’s exhausted all the time now.
Gennie says, “Sometimes I wish that we could all just hang out without talking about the kids, because inevitably we start comparing the kids, I don’t know how it happens but it always, always does. And then I think, well, Jesus, what the hell would we all talk about if it weren’t for the kids, you know? So that’s part of why I really want to make this work. I just want to give us something we can share and do together, as a group, without it becoming a competition.”
At this point Bridget realizes that Gennie has actually been talking to her about something on and off for a few minutes. A summer project Gennie’s come up with for all the neighborhood families with little kids. And she ought to at least pretend that she’s listening to her, her good friend Gennie. (But oh God, this, this is a matter of life and death: There is a dead person in my house who stands over my bed at night, and sometimes over Julie’s, and I might be crazy or I might just be tired—of course I’m tired—but oh God, Gennie, I couldn’t tell you, I couldn’t ever tell you in a million years what I’m really thinking right now, and it’s not just because you’re what I’m not, not really, not in my heart, not even though that’s also what I am.)
It’s the art camp. Gennie has been talking about the art camp she’s been trying to organize for the summer, an idea she may have read about in a magazine or just come up with on her own, so creative and kind- and sweet-hearted is she: Gennie and Bridget and the other mothers they know with young children will each take turns hosting an art camp morning once a week all summer long. Week one at Gennie’s: Make your own superhero capes, design your own sidekicks! Week two at Pilar’s: Finger painting outside on the deck and sidewalk chalk! It sounds fun. It’s a nice idea. Please, oh God, let this be the end of it, let us escape the ghost and have art camp. Floppy Bunny will be fine. In her mouth.
To prevent herself from thinking of the ghost—from clutching at thoughts of the ghost the way one clutches a handlebar, and for the same reasons: the instinctive physical reaction to fear, the sensation of falling—Bridget bends down to Julie and lands a series of kisses, swock after swock, all over the dear little musk-smelling head of the child in her lap. As Bridget does so, she is aware that Gennie is watching her do it, and that the look on Gennie’s face is tender and appreciative but also, and here’s the slightly menacing thing, proud. Bridget has seen this expression before, on Gennie’s face and on the faces of other mothers they know, and to her, that familiar expression says, We got you. We so got you.
Bridget’s phone buzzes in her skirt pocket, and she plucks it out from under Julie’s plumply diapered butt and peers at its screen, entertaining half a second’s hope that it’s Mark. But in fact it’s Martha, an old friend from law school who is also a mom and also an attorney (although Bridget supposes she can no longer call herself that, strictly speaking).
quick q? about estates. ur my only hope. call me!
She is too tired. She puts the phone on the wobbly little table in front of them. Gennie has taken the opportunity to check her phone, too. Like all the mothers they know, they live and die by their phones. “I know that women used to do this without smartphones,” Bridget says by way of apology, “but I can’t imagine how.”
“What, you mean motherhood?” Gennie smiles absently. She’s still reading something on her screen. “Yeah, it does seem impossible. I take a picture of Miles every day, probably.”
“I’m not even talking about the camera. Although that’s obviously good, too. It’s more like the news and the weather and the clock and the messaging other humans with vocabularies. How did women get through the day, I’m asking.”
Gennie gives Bridget a half-wink over the top of her phone— she’s tapping out a message. “They talked to other women, probably. Instead. Like I should be talking to you. Instead. Of doing this.” She finishes, looks up. “But you know, compared to our washing machines, smartphones are like the least important advancement in technology for women like us.”
Bridget smiles, but her tired brain is circling the words “women like us,” like something caught in a drain. But I’m not like you, I’m not, I’m not. I like you, but in my heart I’m not.
Gennie goes on wryly, “Living without a phone might be boring, but if I had to wash my own dishes, I might as well go live in a box in a hole in the ground.”
“A hole in the ground?” Bridget shivers and stands up suddenly, pretending she needs to stretch her legs. She is adept at pretending she has been listening when she hasn’t been, a skill she developed in her former life as an attorney, and which she’s certain will be useful once Julie starts to talk in earnest. “Sorry, I’m sorry. Let’s talk art camp. I’m listening.”
“It’d be easier if we could do it in a neutral place and not at people’s houses, I know,” Gennie goes on, agreeing with an argument Bridget hasn’t even made. “But the playground’s too hot and the pool’s too crowded and the clubhouse is too much. I looked into it, believe me. But we’ll just make that a ground rule: If a kid has a meltdown at someone else’s house, no one can hold it against anyone. You know?”
Bridget smirks and puts Julie on the ground so that she can cruise alarmingly between small, easily toppled tables and find bits of napkin to put in her mouth. “You’re thinking of Sandra.”
Sandra is one of those mothers who finds a way to blame other mothers whenever her son misbehaves. At my house he never does that! Oh, but I guess I don’t leave stuff like that out for him to find. In the group of neighborhood mothers that Bridget and Gennie run with, Sandra is known as a bit of a pill, which, perversely, is just what makes her so indispensable—to Bridget, at least. As Bridget put it to Mark one night, crowing, a little drunk after all, “No one joins a mothers’ group—no one hears the words ‘mothers’ group’—without thinking, shit, that sounds awful—unless there’s a chance that they all might kill each other!”
When Bridget first quit her job, she’d had not a single stay-at-home friend, and she knows that as new friends go, she is truly lucky to have found Gennie, and not only because of Gennie’s many lovely qualities. Gennie is the tacit leader of their small group of neighborhood mothers, and her friendship has paved Bridget’s way right into the center of their social set, a position she’s not sure she would have tried to achieve on her own steam. Because, actually, it had been more a sort of prurient anticipation of lurid mommy spectacles that drew Bridget into the mothers’ group at first: She’d imagined lunacies erupting over snacks and playdates, and she’d imagined herself retaining the slightly superior attitude required to be entertained by them.
But the truth is she understands, even truly likes, these women of her new world. They are all kind of lonely, and they live near each other, and they want their kids to have other kids to play with, and really everybody is mostly pretty nice, in the way that people are. They’ve gotten to know each other, the mothers, at Friday evening neighborhood cookouts in the central green in their subdivision (Gennie organizes, texts everybody with details, makes sure people know what to bring), cookouts to which everybody comes early, with coolers full of snacks and drinks, and from which everybody leaves drunk, with their kids asleep and sticky in their strollers. Sandra’s the only one who says things like “I saw a kid with her nanny at the pool today and I just felt sorry for the little thing” and “I just think working mothers are kind of selfish, you know? Like, what could be so important about their jobs that they’d miss out on being with their own children?”
Bridget’s law-school friend Martha tried to warn her against becoming too entrenched in what she calls the “mommy scene” when Bridget “opted out,” as Martha insists on calling it. “Before you know it,” Martha said, not quite winking, “you’ll have twenty things to do every day and you’ll be trying to figure out how you got so overcommitted when the whole point was to have all this time to focus obsessively on your baby. Basically, don’t hang out with any grown women who refer to other grown women as mommies. But even then you might not be safe.”
The last time Bridget saw Martha, about a month ago, they’d arranged to meet up for drinks at a Mexican place while Mark put Julie to bed, not very successfully, and Martha’s husband, Graham, put their two kids to bed, in equally calamitous fashion. If their husbands were a little more competent they’d have dinner more often, they agreed, and then ordered another round of margaritas. It was then that Bridget told Martha about the summer cookout-and-drinking scene that Gennie had organized in their neighborhood, and Martha was drunk enough to sigh, “God, that sounds nice. Can I come sometime?” Which of course she could, and Bridget arranged it by texting Gennie that very moment. Then Martha changed the subject to something happening at work—she was at a larger firm than the one Bridget had left—and let slip some comment about how glad she was to have something to really do, you know? Something to keep her in the world when the kids felt overwhelming. And Bridget was drunk enough to say, “Gennie says she doesn’t understand women who get their identities from their jobs.”
Martha snorted. “She’s five years younger than you. She opted out before she ever had a real job.”
“You’re right.” Bridget nodded.
“The first time you quote me to Gennie, I’d really like to know. I’d like for you to give me a call when that happens,” Martha declared.
Mark, somewhat to Bridget’s surprise, can’t stand Gennie. “She’s too cute” is all he’ll say. To her face he’s as polite as an auditioning tenor, but whenever Bridget brings her up—which is, she’ll admit, weirdly often—he tends to grimace and shrug and be generally dismissive. While Bridget tries not to take Mark’s tepid judgment of her friend as anything more than a lack of interest, she can’t help but feel betrayed, a little, in the sense that Gennie is exactly the kind of person Bridget is supposed to want to be now. Gennie is a choice, essentially, that she, Bridget, made in order to benefit all three of them, and Mark should at least try to be consistent in what exactly he’s after in a wife. If it’s not Gennie’s best qualities—her humor, her charm, her thinness, her creativity and patience on rainy days—then Bridget will have to admit something she’s not prepared to admit, beyond the obvious fact that Gennie is a person and not a symbol, a convenient one that Bridget herself has constructed. She’ll never be as good at this as Gennie, even though she is what Gennie is now, even if in her heart she suspects she’s not.
Gennie checks her phone again for the time. “We have to go soon. You’re coming to the mommy yoga class, right?”
“Yep. My only exercise.”
“You get plenty of exercise just chasing her around,” Gennie says cheerfully.
“Do I?” Bridget watches Julie plump herself down on the floor, in frowning study of a found, probably unclean plastic cup lid that will within moments make its way into her mouth. She honestly cannot think of a single occasion when she’s chased Julie around. Bridget thinks this is something that mothers of boys do and assume that all mothers do also, because otherwise they’d try to trade their sons in for girls.
“Well, you’re doing something right. You look great.”
Bridget manages not to roll her eyes, but as she removes the cup lid from Julie’s chubby fist, prompting a bellow from the girl, she is forced to acknowledge that this is precisely the sort of blithe, perhaps willful generosity that Bridget associates with Gennie, because Gennie is the one who looks great. She’s actually slimmer now than she was before she had Miles—Bridget has seen her wedding pictures, over at the house. Gennie has milkmaid skin, chestnut hair, and a twinkly air, and wears only delicate, handmade jewelry. Just looking at her makes Bridget happy. And, of course, jealous. But mostly happy.
“Gennie, you are a force for good,” Bridget says, again without quite thinking what she’s saying, but this time she means it.
Gennie’s cheeks flush prettily, and she smiles with real pleasure. “So I guess that means I should go punch that huffy guy with the newspaper right in the neck.”
But in fact there is a text from Mark on her phone, as Bridget discovers once she has gotten Julie into her car seat and settled herself behind the wheel to follow Gennie’s car to the yoga studio. (Could they have carpooled? Would it have saved a polar bear if they had carpooled? Index under “pangs: first-world problems, caused by.”)
b home late tonite. sorry. love.
It’s not his fault.
It’s not anybody’s fault. But it would almost be easier if she believed he was having an affair—with, say, some frisky young developer at his mobile gaming company, a pixieish, overpaid recent college graduate bending over for him in the heat of the server room late at night.
It’s not another woman, though; it’s just work. She knows because she was the same way before she quit her job to stay home with Julie. Bridget and Mark have been married for two and a half years now, and before Julie was born, they had still had appliances from Bridget’s bridal shower they’d never used. Vacation time they’d never taken accrued like cholesterol in their calendars; unread magazines piled up in slick stacks under the coffee table, so high sometimes that it seemed the table’s legs must be about to lift off the floor.
They still haven’t taken a vacation, actually. That’s the joke. How could they now, on one income? Ha ha ha. A week full of ha’s. It’s not his fault. And she’s not so cruel as to throw that irony in Mark’s face.
Other than the ghost, the only thing that makes Bridget feel terror, real terror, is the thought of how dependent they are on the guys—young, slick, prone to handing out business cards—who own Mark’s company, PlusSign. (It’s called “PlusSign” because it’s a digital gaming company, Mark once explained to her, in an email from the office his first week on the job. If they made dog collars or shoehorns, they’ d be called “Plus Sign.”) The little boat of Bridget and Mark and Julie is now entirely afloat on the sea of PlusSign; for better or worse, they have entrusted their small family’s fortunes and future to two young men in their late twenties who made an enormously popular mobile game in which you run from house to house in an increasingly complex warren of animated subdivisions, sneaking into people’s homes and robbing them, the old-fashioned way, while they sleep. Stuffing their belongings into a sack—which, in a metaphor that Bridget supposes is the analog of Mary Poppins’s carpetbag, expands infinitely to accommodate your loot—while you caper and cavort and race the sunrise and other robbers. In this game, you get extra points if you stop to clean out your victim’s refrigerator.
Bridget rereads the text from Mark on her phone, then turns her eyes to the rearview mirror to gaze at Julie, snug in her rear-facing car seat and looking expectantly into the mirror Bridget has affixed to the car’s back window, so that both of them—just inches away from each other but cocooned in their separate seats and facing in different directions—can look at reflections of each other, just like they’re doing now, whenever the fancy strikes them. Bridget raises her phone to the rearview mirror and takes a picture of Julie, smiling into two mirrors at her mother. She sends it to Mark. She doesn’t expect a reply, although a reply would be nice. She looks at the picture of her daughter, her daughter with her clear hazel eyes and her beautiful lashes and the curls of dark hair just now growing long enough to fringe her shell-pink ears.
“Baby girl,” Bridget announces, “we are not going to yoga.” Because the strange fact is, sometimes she wants to see the ghost as much as the ghost seems to want to see her.
She married two months after her twentieth birthday, in the second year of the century. She left her father’s immaculate brick house in town—the unused piano, the gas lamps, the heavy, severe parlor furniture, the lock of her mother’s hair—and moved to the new house that John Hirschfelder had inherited along with sixty acres of good land when his parents died. In the months leading up to the wedding it was said, and Rebecca herself often felt, that if her mother were still alive she might not have married a farmer.
Why did she marry him then. Well. Rebecca and John had always known each other. They’d gone to school together in the stout brick schoolhouse in town. But she’d gone to school with other boys, too, whom she’d always known, who had annoyed her when she was younger, and who had grown into men who stopped by the house to try to impress their suitability on old Dr. Mueller and his daughter. At the time that Rebecca Mueller married him, she couldn’t articulate why she’d chosen John over the others. He had a handsome face, and a good sense of humor, and long, browned hands. She liked him. She’d always liked him. She wasn’t especially easy to please—oh, yes, some might say she was impossible—and she liked him.
In fact John was generally well-liked among the few hundred Texans—mostly second-generation and immigrant Germans—who peopled their town, a thriving ten-road outpost in the lower-central latitude of the state. Even before he somehow managed to convince Rebecca Mueller to marry—and to marry him, of all people—the town loved to tell and retell how young Hirschfelder had lost both parents to influenza within days of each other. The town loved even better the story of how he, their only child, barely well enough to walk himself, had made sure his parents were buried properly. He was a favorite in town. He was a favorite of Dr. Mueller’s, and Rebecca’s, too.
Rebecca knew that her old friend had seen a terrible year. The deaths of his mother and father had made him grave and intent. John’s father had purchased a new acreage the spring before his death, and John was now responsible for the improvement of that land, besides the acres that were already producing. He had two out-buildings to construct, and half of the upstairs rooms in the new house still weren’t finished. The farm’s prospects excited and terrified him at once, and John was smart enough, even at his age, to admit that. But not to just anyone.
He admitted it to her, one soft evening early in the spring following the hard months in which he’d buried his mother and father. He came by the Doctor’s house to take Rebecca for a drive—or, rather, to steer them both out to where the town’s perimeter met the roads that led out toward the farms and then relinquish the reins to her so that she could drive, as she loved to do. Riding down these country lanes in his parents’ buggy was something they had done together since before they were teenagers. Better to do it in the evenings, when the earth seemed to give up in a long, slow gasp the heat it had collected all day.
Now that they were older, of course, this kind of behavior actually meant something—it wasn’t the companionableness of childhood, or even the stormy friendship of their adolescence, but two grown people, a man and a woman, climbing into a buggy together to ride out into the country. In other, less wild and independent places, they would already be considered a scandal. They were no longer children.
All this Rebecca knew. That night in the buggy, she wore a sage-colored dress and a fierce look. She could see the road opening out in front of her, and she almost felt that she could see straight through the man next to her on the unembellished, flat seat. The boy she’d grown up with had been completely transformed, wrung out by what the winter had done; for the first time in his life he had been made to understand what it meant to be a man. The change in him was so absolute, she saw, that he expected everything else in the world to have undergone a similar shift of gravity. Including her.
Maybe there was something scandalous about them after all, she thought. They made each other nervous.
“I’m feeling tired and different these days, Beck,” John said to her that night, when he’d finished telling her about his plans for the farm, and about how certain smells or tunes, certain slants of light, affected him in ways he couldn’t always predict or account for— “peculiar moments,” he called them.
“Are you?” Rebecca’s eyes, a gray that her many would-be beaux swore reminded them of everything from storm clouds to silverware, turned back to the road out ahead of the horse’s ears. She was afraid. Or, even if she wasn’t afraid, she sensed in herself all the physical symptoms of being afraid—the shortness of breath, the lightness of head, the quickened clumsiness of perception, which all, perhaps, amounted to the same thing, regardless. “You don’t seem much changed.”
“I don’t?” John had to laugh. It wasn’t a happy sound.
“All right, you do.” Rebecca sighed. “I don’t know why I said that.” But she did know why she’d said it—she was determined not to let John Hirschfelder say anything she would have to agree with. She felt she had to stop him from asking her anything, any question at all, that she might say yes to. “I just mean to say that I think of you the same way as ever,” she said relentlessly.
John cleared his throat, but she was too uncomfortable at the thought of causing him pain to look at him. Instead Rebecca blinked down at her gloved hands, holding leather reins, which were, really, among the strangest things on earth, when you thought about them for a minute—that these rough straps had been made by some human hand for this purpose exactly: to connect her to an animal, to let her express her wishes to an animal without their being able to communicate in any other real way.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m being untruthful. You’re different. Everybody knows it. I know it, too,” she added quietly. But John had already decided to speak.
“Well, the honest fact is I think I’m frightened, Beck.” John was now the one whose gaze had turned out toward some distant point across the fields. His admission had been sudden, and it aroused an unfamiliar sensation in them both. Is this what it’s like. Is this what it would be like, us two. In an instant she saw the two of them at the kitchen table at his house, in the morning, at breakfast. She saw herself passing him something, some little thing. She saw him reach for it, his brown hands. “I don’t know how I’m going to manage.”
“Everything. There’s too much . . . land. I sometimes think I’m killing myself at it,” he said, and he meant it as a joke, but of course one didn’t say such a thing as a joke, particularly if it were true.
She was alarmed but tried not to show it. “Oh. I—I know so little about farming,” Rebecca said, lamely. “You know—we’ve always lived in town, my father and me. Everything I know about farms I know from listening to—to you,” she rushed on. “You seem to know everything, you always make it sound so easy. You practically ran the place even before . . . your parents’ passing—I’m sorry. I don’t mean to bring it up that way. But I believe you can do it. If anyone can do it, you can.”
The funny thing was, of course, she meant it. For all his fears he was considered the most capable of the young men in their community, and he probably knew it, and if he didn’t, well, there, she’d told him. Dark-eyed John Hirschfelder and his easy, competent, surprising— Goddamn it. This was his way; this was how he got to her when she didn’t mean to let him think she could be got to.
She’d be a terrible farmwife, and she knew it even then, even that night in the buggy, on the road between the fields.
She would be the first to admit it: She didn’t know how to do anything. Her father, the town doctor, had raised her himself, with the help of his poor spinster cousin Fräulein Adeline, whom Rebecca had always half respectfully, half irreverently called Frau and who oversaw all the cooking and washing and housekeeping and made sure the Doctor had coffee at three o’clock. Frau kept house pretty well, but she hadn’t made it her especial priority to teach Rebecca how to do it. Oh, Rebecca could sew, at least she could do that. The thought of marriage made her miserable, even shy—she, who cared so little about what people thought. She supposed she’d have to do it eventually, get married. She supposed she could do worse than to marry someone who loved her well enough to overlook the fact that he’d have to survive on cornmeal cake and boiled potatoes.
Oh, for God’s sake.
“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Rebecca blurted.
“I know. I know, Beck. I want to, though. You know I do,” John said tiredly. Her heart ached with pity for him then. The air was purple, and the fields stretched out to either side of them like long hounds under a tent of sky, and her childhood friend sat next to her on a wagon bench, weary and worried and still grieving for his mother, and longing for her, for Rebecca Mueller of all people, without much hope. How could she be so cruel, she wondered, not to love him back. How could she be so foolish, when half the women in town would dearly love to take her place, take his hand, here in the dust and clatter where no one but the two of them existed or cared. You stupid girl. You know what you have to do.
So she held the reins with one hand and with the other reached over and clasped John Hirschfelder’s hand with her gloved fingers and squeezed hard, harder than was strictly romantic. Too hard. Dark- eyed John Hirschfelder, with his beautiful face and his strong back and his good heart. The poor man.
They were to be married in the Lutheran church in town, and in the short weeks before the wedding that spring Rebecca took steps to avail herself of some little understanding of what might be expected of her as a farmwife. She consulted Frau, who managed in the amount of time they had left under the same roof to teach her how to tend the stove and bake a loaf of bread, which at least gave Rebecca some confidence that she and John wouldn’t starve. Also she got a few lessons in cooking and laundering, which went as poorly as she thought they would—not because the principles themselves were especially difficult but because laundering was as back-breakingly boring as Rebecca had always suspected it to be, and because the kitchen in the Doctor’s house was infamously smelly and hot and unventilated. Rebecca began to grasp with some disappointment that she probably could run a farmhouse, after all. Not well enough to please her own pride but well enough that she might not kill her husband or his hired men through her own negligence or ignorance.
Frau taught her as much as she could about managing a kitchen garden, which was considerable. Frau had accepted the humiliations that life had forced on her as a foreign spinster—and an ugly one at that—who spoke little English and lived on the charity of a distant widower cousin, and she compensated for the long hours of boredom and halfhearted work and scripture reading by becoming a remarkable gardener. (Or it might have had nothing to do with Frau’s ugliness and unmarriedness. It might have just been in her all along to grow a lovely, abundant garden, given the opportunity and the leisure.)
Still, it was difficult for Frau, an instinctive expert in pruning and soil moisture, to take a long-enough step back from her own intense interest in her growing things to be able to explain to a new-comer just what she was doing or how she did it. The hours were beautiful, anyway. They spent quite a few of those May afternoons in the kitchen garden, Frau talking mostly in German, Rebecca half-comprehending and meditative, pinching bright-green leaves and breathing in the scent of the sweet earth and its good promises.
“I wish I were as good at something as you are at this,” Rebecca said one afternoon a few days before she was to be married to John Hirschfelder. The bees were drowsing around in the grass, and Rebecca was trailing Frau through the vegetable beds.
Frau turned on her the warm, indulgent expression she’d worn half her life. Frau was the Doctor’s favorite aunt’s only daughter; her true name was Adeline. She said, charmingly, in English, “Oh, your mother wasn’t good at anything, either.”
“Except making men fall in love with her,” Rebecca answered, eyes shaded.
“Ja, except for that.” Frau laughed and then coughed. Frau had known her mother, who had died shortly after Rebecca’s birth. Rebecca understood that her mother had been instrumental in convincing the Doctor to take Adeline in, and that the two of them, despite their inability to communicate in the same language, had been merry conspirators against the Doctor’s dourness and pipe smoking. Rebecca’s mother had been of Italian descent, beautiful, strong willed, and all the other things that one said about long-dead, romantic mothers. Frau loved nothing more than making Rebecca unhappy with stories about her. “Well, they say you’re good enough at that, too,” Frau allowed.
Rebecca snorted, patted Frau’s shoulder, and went up to the house to try to find a cool, dark place to sit and think. Of these there were many: The Doctor, her father, had one prevailing philosophy when it came to equipping a house, and that was to furnish every available corner with a place to sit and read a newspaper. Rebecca pulled herself through the kitchen door and made her way, blinking like a fish at the transition from the bright afternoon to the dim murk of the house, to a chair she favored in the dining room, where just that morning she’d laid a thick old copy of Practical Housekeeping, which had probably been given to her mother when she had married. It read like a good joke. A practical joke. One that Rebecca was going to be relying on to keep her and her good-natured husband alive. Not for the first time, Rebecca reminded herself that she wasn’t a prairie forty-eighter who had to learn to survive a harsh winter in the Dakota Territory. She had only to learn to live in a farmhouse without an icebox, for heaven’s sake.
In the warm dimness of the room Rebecca gathered the book into her lap and sat down, feeling the weight of it on her thighs. She reached into her bodice and pulled out her reading glasses, which the Doctor had insisted upon, to save her eyes.
And suddenly there he was, looming overhead.
“Your John is coming here for dinner?” the Doctor demanded. Rebecca looked up at him. Typically her father’s sudden appearances and disappearances had an invigorating effect on her, although she suspected they were calculated to surprise. Swoop, here I am in my chair under the lamp, frowning at a newspaper. Zop, I am gone to my office to see patients and I may not return for dinner. Whish, here I am standing over you in the doorway between the parlor and the dining room as you sit down to read and be alone—nothing escapes me, and especially not my freedom to do as I wish; I am an old man. The Doctor’s summer suit was pressed and fresh; he held his watch in his hand. Live forever, Rebecca thought suddenly, and almost managed a smile up at his unamused face.
“Papa, how should I know? He has a lot to do on the farm now. He’ll come to dinner if he can.”
At this rejoinder the Doctor looked at her approvingly, which nevertheless reminded her that she ought to have smoothed her hair and washed her face before she sat down. “I like it better when he comes here. You and Frau bore me.”
Rebecca snorted again and balanced her glasses on her nose. “I might be more diverting if I knew how to break a field or build a chicken coop?
“You might!” the Doctor almost bellowed in his glee at the thought. “Ja, you might!”
For all his intelligence the Doctor had raised her unthinkingly. She’d gone to the village school, and at night in the parlor she’d read the newspaper with him, or novels, but if her father had ever considered sending her to college, he’d never mentioned anything about it, and she wasn’t the type who would beg for such a thing. Her mother’s family was all dead or in New Orleans or back in Italy. In a more adventurous version of her own life, Rebecca imagined, she might have traveled abroad to know her mother’s family better, but she didn’t believe herself to be a particularly adventurous person.
She was modern enough—she’d been up to Austin, of course, and to San Antonio and Galveston, like many of the other girls her age. Trips to the cities reinforced for girls like her just how country they were, but still, the modern way of thinking found them all, even out here in the hill country. Some girls Rebecca knew wondered “what they’d do with their lives,” what it was that would make them happy the way they believed they deserved to be. One thing—every man, woman, and child gets one thing: It is the thing you must seek out and sacrifice for, the thing that will make you happy. Perhaps for one girl it’s mothering babies; for one girl it’s an ambition for the stage; for another girl it’s marrying well; for another girl it’s an education and a large life in a strange city. But one thing only, one key. To desire more than one thing, to pursue more than one thing in the name of your life’s happiness, was unseemly and greedy.
Rebecca still didn’t know what her one thing would be, and that above all was what caused these smothering moments of panic. She supposed she’d always believed she’d have more time to think about it; she hadn’t anticipated life rushing at her like this and demanding that she step into its cold, busy current before she’d even had a chance to take off her shoes.
“I am endeavoring, you see, to be of use to you and Mr. Hirschfelder, too,” she said mildly, lifting the corner of her book and letting it drop again. Her father made an unflattering sound and moved toward the kitchen door, on his way to smoke on the back porch. As usual, her father had no remark to make on the subject of her moving out of the house. “Boring or not, you’ll miss me, mein Herr,” she warned his retreating back.
When John next came to visit—it was that evening after all— Rebecca told him what her father had said that afternoon, just to make him laugh, which she loved to do. “I have to wonder what the good Doctor’s reaction was when you asked him permission to marry me,” she teased.
They had gone to the backyard for some fresh air after dinner and found the night loud with insects, and heat lightning scattering the breezes, and the small-leaved bushes clustered around the house trembling.
John walked close enough to her that his sleeve brushed hers. “He said, ‘Gott im Himmel, you?’ ”
Rebecca halted midstep. When she saw that he wasn’t making a joke, she cackled with laughter. John smiled on—he was used to this sort of outburst from her, she thought. Still, she sensed she wasn’t behaving quite correctly toward her fiancé, and wiping her eyes, she said, “I’m sorry, John. I think we owe you an apology. He’s just a rude old thing.”
“Oh, I didn’t mind. I don’t know but that I had the same thought myself at the time.”
“Don’t say that,” Rebecca said warmly, and she smiled up at him and then her breath caught. His brightness was back. She never knew what to do with it. “He just loves to make a man’s knees knock if he can,” she hurried on. John, meanwhile, had slipped an arm carefully
“Is this all right?” John said in a low voice. Rebecca nodded, her throat dry.
In four days they would be married.
She knew, naturally, what that would mean. She wasn’t stupid. It wasn’t just gardening and cooking that she’d have to learn. Marriage was an entire vocabulary she didn’t know yet. A married woman was a wise thing, an experienced thing, a careful thing. A married woman has crossed an invisible bridge.
So she forced herself to turn in toward John Hirschfelder, there in the humid, flashing night on the grass, her whole body tense like an arrow just shot. Something coursed through the tree branches overhead, and she realized it was only the wind, not a ghost, not her soul, not a tribe of witches. Her lips parted, and she took in the disturbance of the breeze with a little click in her throat. She closed her eyes and then forced herself to reopen them.
Rebecca was known as a tall woman, with a slim figure, but John stood several inches taller than she. John was well formed and well built, but like her he was thin, still thinner than most men in town. I’ll feed you, she found herself thinking in that moment, looking up at his brightness, breathing the gentle heat of his breath. I’ll nourish you, it can’t be so hard. His face had never been so close to hers, and she found that she liked it; she liked to see his broad cheek and his dark lashes, she liked to see his strong mouth, with lips that curved up on one side and down on the other, and she liked the straight dark hair that fell over his forehead. “You’re looking at me strangely,” he said to her.
“Am I?” she whispered. Her lips were tingling as if someone were tickling the roof of her mouth.
“Like you’re an animal who wants to eat me.” John grinned. He was joking, of course. His sense of humor, famous, irrepressible, even when she wished he’d be serious. “I recognize that look. I shot a mountain lion once for giving me that look, on a hunting trip with my father.” But he did not move away from her; he stayed close, where she could study his face, his brightness—the term she’d begun to attach to a phenomenon she’d noticed early in their engagement and kept noticing, even when it made her unhappy. When she looked at John sometimes, in the mornings or evenings, it was like looking at a gem underwater. Parts of his face would seem to glint at her, like a mermaid’s hair glimmers to a drowning sailor, and she saw now where it originated: around the eyes, yes, but also at the corners of his mouth, sometimes—yes, just there. And his arm, still around her waist, and she, still so close to him, but she could step closer, couldn’t she? Yes, to be sure.
John’s smile had faded, but the brightness was still present. They were still for a moment, and then Rebecca seemed to feel as if she’d been holding her arm aloft, and then simply let it fall, softly, so that her hand rested on his chest—with that same sense of muscular relief she experienced when she realized she’d been sitting hunched over a book or a piece of handwork and simply stretched her neck and pulled back her shoulder blades.
When he spoke, his voice was hoarse. “Are you all right, sweetheart?”
“You had better kiss me, John,” she said raggedly. “My heart—”
“Mine, too,” he said. He smiled at her, with what they both knew to be false bravery. He brought his lips to meet hers. To her surprise— and his, she thought—a small sound escaped his throat as their lips touched, and her body tensed in response to his. It broke her heart.
John looked more handsome than she’d ever seen him, in a dark- gray suit, his eyes sparkling, and she knew herself she was pretty today, wearing an ivory embroidered dress with lace at the sleeve tips and collar. She kept John close to her throughout the wedding reception that afternoon, leaning on his arm when she could and leaning to keep him within sight when he had to move away. He brought her cold tea, fried chicken, sweet light peach cake that Frau and some other women had made for the party. The Doctor’s house was fairly turned upside down. The old man was nowhere to be seen.
At five o’clock Rebecca and John were to leave for the farmhouse. Frau showed the young men, John’s friends, where Rebecca’s trunks were—her clothing and books and small possessions, and the wedding gifts that had been sent to the Doctor’s house. John told Rebecca that there was a pile of presents waiting for them at the farmhouse, too, dropped off by their country neighbors, including “enough pickle and pie to keep us until next summer, probably,” a bit of good news that Rebecca tried to absorb with equanimity. Now begins my life in the kitchen, she thought. Now begins my life in the vegetable patch; now begins my life in the coop, in the barn, in the cold cellar. Now begins my life as a woman who has married a farmer instead of staying where she belonged, in a chair by the stove in the dark, with an old, grumpy man reading a newspaper under a light across the room, and a furtive, friendly spinster waiting for me to take her place.
At four forty-five Rebecca began to hunt for her father in earnest. He couldn’t possibly mean to send her off to the farm without wishing her well or indulging in a few archly delivered parting words. She couldn’t find him. Upstairs, downstairs. Oh, their good house. She was looking for her father but she was finding evidence that a trap had sprung around her: It was going to happen, after all. She was going to move from this good, comfortable house, with its kitchen and garden and yard from which came delicious and good-smelling things, on a leafy street in town, near stores where she could buy cakes of soap and bricks of butter, near the post office where mail and magazines came, near the seamstress, the laundress, the school, the sidewalks where she could meet and talk to neighbors. . . . From here she would step back in time. She would go to a place where she could no longer be careless about bread, or buttons, or jelly jars.
She had been thinking about her future, knowing she was about to step back in time to meet it. She had come to some conclusions, but not enough of them for her own peace of mind. Unlike the world in which, say, Rebecca’s German grandmother had been raised—the Doctor’s mother, who had in fact been married to a forty-eighter— the world that Rebecca had inhabited here in a small town in the beginning of the new age was one in which a woman received both less and more training than her mother had had. She knew that until now, she had needed to be neither talented nor clever nor useful. Indeed she had needed to be very little to anyone, even to herself. And now, she thought, she would step backward into a place where a woman, her comfort, and everything she cared about could be destroyed in one bad season if she weren’t all three. Am I talented and clever and useful? Dear God, please let me be. Don’t let me fail myself— it’s the only test I’ll ever get to take.
Her mother, Florencia, by all accounts talented and clever, had not been especially useful, at least not in the traditional way. Rebecca had grown up listening to chapters in the saga of Florencia’s ineffectiveness at keeping house; it was one of Frau’s more hilarious subjects. Most of Frau’s stories about Florencia concerned some disaster brought on by an unwise choice or impulse, for reasons that perhaps seemed plain given the strange choice Florencia had made in marrying the Doctor to begin with, and given the fact that she died so young, so far from her family, and after only a few years of marriage.
As Frau told them, the stories of Florencia’s adventures in house- keeping were never intended to help Rebecca absorb any of the useful knowledge that her mother might have lacked. The stories tended more toward fairy tales than Practical Housekeeping, and usually traced the same plot: Florencia has decided to do something she’s never done before—make a cake for a church social, get out a blood- stain in one of the Doctor’s shirts, sew a dress for a party—only to fail resoundingly, with consequences ranging from sorry to ridiculous to dangerous. In one story, Florencia almost burns the house down; in another, she almost kills one of the Doctor’s patients after ambitiously restocking the medicine vials in his traveling bag. The young woman’s pride prevents her from asking for Frau’s help, which would have been gladly and lovingly given (no doubt for the younger Rebecca’s benefit, when Frau told these stories, she tended to paint a portrait of Florencia as a bright but inexperienced child rather than a grown married woman). Just as Frau discovers Florencia’s predicament and is on the point of teaching Florencia the right way to do whatever it is she’s attempting—and at this point in the story, Frau always leaves the kitchen to go down cellar for more apples for the cake, or goes upstairs to find her needlework kit and put it to use— the good world intervenes on Florencia’s behalf. A magic stone smashes the bloodstain out of the shirtfront; a cat knocks a tin of milk into the batter; a bird singing to her from the backyard reminds her to check something twice. “The good world loved that girl as much as she loved the world, and it never once forgot her,” Frau liked to conclude.
Rebecca finally found her father out in the yard, near the small shed where they normally kept the buggy and the Doctor’s one horse, the mare whose name Rebecca liked to change every month or so since she had always figured horses to be too indifferent to care—on her wedding day the horse’s name happened to be Lucy.
Even though she had gone to search for the Doctor, the effect of actually finding him was still as if he’d come around a corner to surprise her rather than the other way around. She had been tired and dispirited, but the sight of his trim, compact self, whiskered and competent and yet endearingly helpless, invigorated her as it always had. Nothing could be so wrong in a world in which her father still lived. The Doctor was sitting on a low bench near the horse shed, squinting into the dusty stillness where Lucy stood, bored, staring in the way that some horses do.
“Papa,” Rebecca said, then cleared the dust from her throat. “We are going.”
“Yes, Mrs. Hirschfelder.” Dr. Mueller stood as briskly as if she hadn’t just found him in an attitude of inert melancholy and faced his daughter. “Come here and give me a kiss, dear girl. And you had better rename my horse one last time, too.”
Rebecca moved toward her father and embraced him tenderly. It wasn’t his fault. However she felt now, however unprepared and unutudied and untethered, it wasn’t the Doctor’s fault. She could only blame herself for never having bothered, never having tried. And now she would see what she was made of.
“Primrose,” she whispered, and gave his cheek a peck. “Or, no. Patience.”
“Patience, ja. Like ‘patients.’ ” Her father smiled at her. His eyes were wet. “Sehr gut.”
“Ja.” She smiled.
“You are not a German girl,” Dr. Mueller reminded her. “You are an American girl. Go be an American wife.”
He led her on his arm around the house to the farm wagon in the street in front of the porch, where John Hirschfelder waited to take her away, and where the wedding guests had gathered to see them off. When her father had led her down the aisle that forenoon, Rebecca had hardly been aware of him. She had been thinking of how good her dress smelled, the fresh, clean linen smell of the new fabric, and how hot it was in the church; she had been thinking about the cool, stiff stems of the rosebud nosegay she held; she had been thinking about John’s arms, the yard, the nighttime. She had allowed her father to relinquish her at the altar without so much as a second glance back at the old man, and she had stepped toward the spot where she would stand and be married like a high-strung pony steps into a market stall, all the same bright anxiety and prancing dismay and all the same fundamental lack of understanding of how she had come to this place.
Now, as she neared John’s wagon, she turned and embraced her father again the way she felt she ought to have in the church. She was sorry for him, sorrier by far than she was for herself. What had he raised her for, after all. To keep her dead mother as close to him as he could, for as long as he could, until at last he had to open his fingers and watch her walk toward another.
Excerpted from "The Barter"
Copyright © 2015 Siobhan Adcock.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Barter:
"A thoughtful and surprisingly witty novel. It weighs its horrors precisely...What you're afraid of is part of who you are." –The New York Times Book Review
"Eerie and atmospheric, this psychological thriller will twist its way into readers' psyches."—Booklist
"Motherhood is the destabilizing bod that nearly undoes two women linked across a century in Adcock’s suspenseful debut."—Publishers Weekly
“The Barter is a delightful and utterly unique portrait of parenthood across the ages. Siobhan Adcock manages to express what is inexpressible about motherhood and marriage, deftly capturing the banal and the divine, the give and the take. As funny, profound, otherworldly, and terrifying as love itself, this is a debut novel not to be missed.” –Amy Shearn, author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn and How Far is the Ocean From Here
“Absolutely outstanding. The Barter is a ghost story haunted by love, a love story haunted by ghosts, and a literary mystery propelled by the unsaid secrets of marriage and motherhood. In Adcock's world, you won't know whether it's fear, love, or outright beauty making your heart beat like a drum. You won't know, and you won't care at all. You'll just have to keep reading.”
–Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River and The Cradle
“Reading The Barter is like standing at the edge of an abyss: deep, dark, and terrifying, it is also a gripping and exhilarating story about fear, courage, and the demands and sacrifices of love. An enthralling page-turner of a novel that had me on the edge of my seat from the first page and continued to haunt me after the last.” –Catherine Chung, author of Forgotten Country
“Siobhan Adcock takes a very contemporary question – can women ever really “have it all” or are trade-offs invariably exacted? – and examines it through the startling prism of a ghost story. Part comedy of manners, part historical fiction, and part genuinely creepy page-turner, The Barter casts a lively eye on the sacrifices, willing and involuntary, women make as they endeavor to weave together the heart’s various desires.” Leah Hager Cohen, author of No Book But the World
“Siobhan Adcock’s impressive debut is a spellbinding blend of historical fiction and ghost story, made all the more believable—and harrowing—by its realistic depiction of the tenuous balance between fulfillment and sacrifice within a marriage.” —Jennifer Chiaverini, author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Did I enjoy this book: I loved the back and forth. I loved reading about how much (and how little) changes for wives and mothers after a hundred years, and I liked Adcock’s characters (though at times I did want to reach through the pages and give Bridget a good slap). I did not, however, like the supernatural aspects of the story – they were distracting at their best and downright confusing at their worst. I love ghost stories, but I think this book would have worked much better without any actual ghostiness. Would I recommend it: If you’re looking for a great novel about two captivating (if not always likable) women, give it a whirl. If you’re interested in a spooky ghost story, keep looking. As reviewed by Melissa at Every Free Chance Books. Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
An intricately written novel woven with elaborate descriptions - Adcock has a way with words. The story line itself wasn't what I expected, so I never got involved with the characters. However, I truly appreciated Adcock's details; she made me consider concepts in a way I never had before. ***A copy of this book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.***