So begins The Whitsun Daughters, a story of three girls in a small Midwestern town, narrated by the ghost of a young Irish immigrant who, over a century earlier, lived and loved on the same small patch of farmland the girls and their mothers now call home.
Award-winning author Carrie Mesrobian weaves the story of the girls’ day-to-day struggles with the fractured and harrowing memories of their unseen observer. The threads of the tales are familiar: An arranged marriage. An impulsive proposal bitterly refused. Secret affairs. And pregnancies, both welcome and not. Each young woman fights her own lonely battle in the generations-long war of those who would no longer settle for haunting the margins of a world that wants to ignore them.
|Penguin Young Readers Group
|5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)
|14 - 17 Years
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Across the sea from where I was born, what was" Cathaiseach is faded away to the mere unmusical Casey; my kin, " Murchadha, descended from the sea wolf, in this place shriveled like a salted snail: Murphy. According to the pages in their Bible and the blessing of a traveling priest who left after breakfast the following morning, I am a Ganey (once" Geigheannaigh, alas).
They did not before, but now, how names especially vex me.
I am not a Ganey, and I only belonged to Patrick Casey for a time. I must be a Murphy, then. Though truly my end would shame the sea wolf.
I am caught here. Remaining was my choice. This mostly soothes me. But time has become peculiar. When once hours flowed from day to night in measured drams, now ungainly bits catch in time’s spout, slowing a gush to a trickle. Nights, I glide above treetops over the lines the living have drawn (and redrawn, soaked with their blood and sweat and rage, traded and cut to suit, named and renamed), until the morning sun swells over fields bristling with growth, and for a moment I cannot remember who I was.
But I always come back to myself. And to the fact of the names, too: dripping with meaning one minute, wrung dry of all sense the next.
The names of my girls are never in my mouth. I think of them as Patrick might, in the colors of horses. The eldest a golden palomino, prancing, arrogant; the middle child a flossy white unicorn, shimmering in her slightness; the youngest a cautious dark bay whose eyes are always watching. She does not see me; at times I wish she could. A living body contains such fires, and my body, so long underground, is become earth itself, not merely beneath it. Sweet woodruff and gentian, ferns and milkweed, the orange fringe of mushrooms, a sturdy oak: what was me became as something whispered in the dark, a secret turned up like a clutch of newborn rabbits under a plow. I am naught more than the sound of a pipe pitching out notes before a revel. All angles, yet no set size. Only nights when the moon turns its face can I move freely, traveling above rooftops and along windowsills until dawn calls me back.
I am no longer a creature, yet my habits remain. My desires, still the old ones. Lurking amidst the brush, watching squirrels collect acorns and deer drink from puddles. Watching my girls. I am allowed pleasure here, too, despite the warnings of the Bible my mother loved so well. It is pleasure, and my delight, to see my girls, their skin supple and sweating, their mouths eating, their fists clamping over their hips as their legs bend and stretch over the earth. The work of bodies never ends. I particularly like their hair, how it grows long and shaggy until lopped off by one of their mothers, the priestly one whose thoughts swirl like perfume in lilac time; she finds such joyful thrift in snipping the little girls’ tresses. Where I had watched Patrick feed Arthur Ganey’s horses is now a kitchen with an unlikely polished floor; over what was dirt and hay, the priestly mother sweeps up the girls’ lost tresses—gold, white, mahogany. The priestly one’s sister, a midwife, makes each daughter gulp down spoonfuls of castor and fish oil; one year, they each suffered needle jabs, given for their own good. Their tears brimmed and they winced under the puncture, their betrayed howls ringing out through the open windows.
The palomino girl loves so harshly; she sees everything as a prize to be won or lost. The unicorn girl’s love ripples uncontained; her soul is flimsy, easily stained by sadness or goaded into laughter. The dark bay foal, who has since become steady on her feet in a manner that I envy, rushes through the brush. She is a thirsty creature. I ache when I see her touch the cool water at the bottom of the ravine where Patrick liked to wash.
A house helmed by two sisters, and their three daughters. The mothers’ love, borne of their sister pact, has made a world where no men ever deigned to rule. The daughters’ love sometimes passes heavy, a pail of milk to a waiting hand; other times it passes light, easy, a hairbrush before a Sunday service. It is most visible in their hands: what they make and toss away, what they strive to hold. I watch for restfulness. The after hours of tables cleared and dishes washed and floors swept and pencils and needles jabbing at paper and cloth; here their thick love dreams and wraps over each other, like hair in a braid. This reminds me of my own sister, and I recall my beating heart, strong beneath my chemise, galloping in grief for her. I think of my own hair—long gone, a cat’s cradle for the faeries—and the relief of unwinding it each night, the burden heavy no more. I think of my own hands and what they learned about desire.
How quickly everything in God’s world disintegrates. Everything but the loneliness of young women.
"Okay, you know what’s metal?” Wade asked. “An angel comes down to earth, smashes a guitar against the ground, and a whole shitload of bats flies out.”
“What’s metal about that?” Lilah asked. “The guitar? Is that even actually made of metal? Is it an acoustic guitar? Because those aren’t metal at all.” She laughed and poked Wade in the ribs, which made him jerk the whole truck, slamming Daisy into Poppy, who groaned and put on her sunglasses.
“This is so stupid,” Poppy said.
“I think it’s kind of funny,” Daisy offered.
“Lilah’s turn,” Wade said.
Lilah pushed her hair out of her eyes while she thought. They sat four across in Wade Dunedin’s truck: Poppy at the opposite window, then Daisy, then Lilah smashed against Wade, who took up a third of the cab. Daisy pressed her knees together, tense and sweaty. Sometimes, Lilah was unaware of how long she took to say something, even in a normal conversation, not a game like this one. Even on regular days when they weren’t coming back from a funeral.
“Jesus, Lilah!” Poppy said. “It’s not like it’s fucking astrophysics! Just make something up!”
“I’m thinking!” Lilah shouted.
“Good things take time,” said Wade as he steered his truck out onto Warren Street, diverging from the convoy of other funeral goers.
Daisy agreed. She wished Poppy would stop being such a bitch. Half an hour earlier, Wade had been in tears in the pew next to them, watching his best friend, Hugh Isherwood, and Hugh’s older brother, Brian, set flowers beside a blown-up photo of their mother, Evie Isherwood. The whole service had been nonstop bawling, which Daisy expected. But seeing Evie Isherwood’s younger son in tears had never been anything she expected to see in her entire life of knowing him: Hugh and his handsome, brash pride, whether they were in the hallway at school or running along the dirt roads off Old Blackmun Road. She herself had not cried at all.
“All right,” said Lilah. “I’ve got one. Wouldn’t it be, don’t you think, so very metal if, say, an eagle swooped down from the sky just as a bear was swiping a fish out of a river and poked out its eye?”
“Whose eye?” Poppy asked. “The bear’s or the fish’s?”
“It’s pretty metal either way,” Wade said.
“Poking out a fish eye isn’t metal,” Poppy said. “You dissect a perch in ninth grade; the eye pops out like a little ball of rubber cement. It’s gross, not gory.”
Daisy thought Poppy had a point, but she knew Wade was just trying to be nice to them, and there were plenty of people in the town of Hogestyn who didn’t bother. The Whitsun girls were more accustomed to giving help than receiving it, but not today. Wade had invited Poppy and her mother, Carna, to sit in their pew; when Daisy and Lilah trailed behind with their mother, Violet, who, though she wasn’t in charge of the service in this church, had been with the Isherwoods helping out behind the scenes all morning, Wade stood up and ushered them all farther down the row. He handed Violet a program and offered sticks of spearmint gum and pushed hymnals toward them when it was time to sing; he put his arm along the back row of the wooden pew. He did all this, though Poppy made it clear she didn’t like him, and Lilah acted like a space case the whole time, and Violet murmured little dorkyhmms and ahhs while the pastor spoke, as if she were being talked to, singularly, and Carna looked sea green, like one of her migraines was coming on. Wade asked his father to drive Carna and Violet home once they were done collecting the flowers for the family, and Wade took on their daughters as his own responsibility.
“What kind of bear should it be?” Lilah asked.
“Who cares?” Poppy said. “They’re all nine-hundred-pound carnivores. They’re all scary as hell.”
“A full-grown bear, though,” Wade added, turning toward the SuperAmerica across from the Dollar Tree, where the guy selling fireworks under a big tarp in the parking lot was doing a brisk business despite the ungodly heat. It was the last week in June, and he’d been there two weeks. Poppy lowered her sunglasses and muttered something snobby about the people lining up to buy sparklers and spinners; she disapproved of fireworks.
“Make it a polar bear,” Daisy said, feeling that she could use a blast of the arctic right now.
“Why are we stopping?” Poppy snapped.
“Eagles and polar bears are in the same ecosystem,” Lilah said. “So that would work, I think. Poppy, can you look it up?”
Poppy didn’t answer, though she was scrolling through her messages, and obviously had enough bars. Daisy marveled at how Poppy could be so mean and get away with it. It was probably because everyone thought she was so beautiful. But Daisy had never seen this. Poppy was tall and her body was strong and sure in lots of places, slight in others. But her thighs were thick from swimming, her calves long but not especially curved, her nose was too snubbed, her skin prone to breakouts. Even her blond hair, thick as the pages of a textbook, was starting to darken as Carna’s had. Poppy’s beauty was not constant; it was far from irresistible.
For Daisy, who had spent her entire life observing her older cousin, living with her as a sister, sharing bathtubs and bedtime stories and closets of hand-me-down clothes, the truth was that people were captivated by Poppy merely because she intended them to be. This was because Poppy, more than anything, was smart. She was calm yet sharp, poised but ultracompetent. When Violet and little Lilah had come to live with Violet’s older sister, Carna, Poppy was five, and Daisy still in her mother’s belly. The story their mothers liked to tell was how that first night, when she had learned that not just Lilah would be moving into her room, but another little baby, Poppy cried and cried. Her attic domain in the house on Old Blackmun Road, painted sweet yellows and lavenders, would be invaded by two others. But the tears didn’t last. Soon she ruled over Lilah’s wayward naughtiness and delighted in ordering her younger cousin’s days with picture books and cups of carrot sticks and laces of yarn they held between their fingers in complicated twists. Once Daisy came along, Poppy was as inevitable as a brick wall. A force of discipline beside Lilah’s silliness, a bright line underscoring the wavy haze of Violet’s fuzzy Unitarian theology and the thick slap of Carna’s blood-and-guts reality as a nurse-midwife.
It was within these competing realms that Daisy had grown up, and this entire summer, she found herself running from them toward the creek at the bottom of the ravine behind their house every single morning. With the return of an all-knowing Poppy from her first year of college, there was no room in the Whitsun house for anything beyond blatant disobedience or bland compliance. The house was stuffed with opinions and proclamations and defensiveness for any given stance; Violet wanted to endlessly discuss these differences, while Carna worked to tamp down rage. The past year had been difficult, sure, but the return of the eldest Whitsun girl, who couldn’t stop complaining about the slow internet and shit cell reception, brought with it more tension and conflict than her absence had.