|Publisher:||Penguin Group (USA)|
|Product dimensions:||5.26(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.77(d)|
Read an Excerpt
I KNEW SOMEONE NAMED NUALA. Nuala means "white shoulders" in Irish, but no one much remembers these old things anymore, not even in west Ireland. Nuala's parents spoke no Irish. Yet Nial and Maire Riordan were in love with the sound of that ancient name. They began saying it every day as soon as Maire became pregnant, though they did not know whether the creature in her belly was a girl or a boy. They had the habit of talking directly to Nuala inside Maire's swelling stomach. They were that sure.
Nuala did not disappoint them. The name suited her from the moment she left the womb, which she did with scarcely a tear or wail just before one of those rare Irish dawns when the sun slipped up over the horizon undimmed by fog banks or clouds.
Nuala's father thought that bright light was a dicey omen. The relative degrees of the sun's obscurity and the type of rain at the time of birth had specific meanings, at least in the augeries of the old folks. There was always prophesy in the weather at a birth. But an open sun at dawn? Who could be sure of anything so unusual? The wisest crones kept their opinions to themselves. From birth, there was always an uncertainty about Nuala Riordan.
Today, Nuala can count the number of people she's disappointed in her life on the fingers of one hand. The ones she knows of for sure, anyway. She doubts there are any secret ones lurking about. She's very proud of this, considering she's already twenty-eight years old, has seen a bit of life, and has her own green card, which she's earned through her profession. She's not like the Irish who sneak into America on tourist visas; staying in the Irish neighborhoods of Queens, working nonunion construction jobs or tending bars in which the bitterness of failed dreams billows thick as the blue clouds of cigarette smoke.
She's had five boyfriends. The last romance seemed full of promise, until he was killed. Her grief is still too young to behave itself, so she never lets it out.
Nuala's small, not above five and a half feet. Her shoulders are thin but broad, like a young boy's, and creamy white where I've glimpsed them. So is her face. She has green eyes that are too large and make her look startled even when she isn't. I don't believe Nuala's been truly startled very many times in her life. She can probably count the occasions on the fingers of one hand.
Nuala glows for me on rainy days. She's just luminous.
It's because rain is her natural element, I think. Never mind the strange clarity of her birth. Where Nuala comes from, it's a thin sun that ever shines. But there are three or four types of misting, at least four kinds of fog, and perhaps six or seven different rains. Where Nuala's from, they identify precipitation as discreetly as the Eskimos do snow. Nuala laughs at what people here call cloudbursts or showers or drizzles. She knows those terms are not subtle enough to mean anything about what's coming from the heavens.
Her hair is reddish brown and would be wild as bush if she didn't tame it with barrettes and rubber bands. Her hair's gorgeous. I've heard a lot of women say so, and they're the only honest judges. But Nuala's not beautiful. She's just a regular girl, though she has lovely thick straight eyebrows and her features all fit well together. On certain days in certain lights, she's pretty enough to fall in love with. But you'd have to be able to handle that Nuala is always Nuala in any light; she has no fear of storms or of the dark. "To hell with you," she'll say when she feels like it, and she'll really mean it for that moment. She's not one to let any slight or any ignorance pass unremarked.
She reminds me of a certain Balthus painting I can never get out of my head. It's the one of the girl Balthus later married, who refused to remove her brassiere when posing because she didn't want her breasts displayed in a museum anywhere. But eventually when I'm able to tell Nuala this, she just laughs and says I ought to take an art history course. "I look like none in the wide world but myself," Nuala says.
One day I'd like to find a picture of someone in a magazine who looks exactly like her, just to see her frown and deny there's any resemblance.
If you had any heart at all, you'd be pleased to hear Nuala call your name. You'd be very happy if Nuala were one day to fall in love with you. You'd think her da was dead wrong when he worried about the omen of the sun on the day of her birth. You'd bless the day.
You'd feel fond of the damp, misty Ireland that made Nuala the woman she is today. You'd thank her mother for teaching her soft ways; and the nuns in her school, who were cruel and kindhearted at the same time; and her granddad, who took her out fishing in his curragh when she was wee and made her fearless.
I SEE NUALA about three days a week. She's an early arriver; she likes to set up her tasks and prepare mentally for all she'll have to do during her shift. We never exchange many words, because her work is so utterly different from mine. She's one of the active ones. I'm just an observer in most of the procedures; other things I do all alone. We are very aware of each other, though. There are twelve like me when the Unit is full, and six like Nuala and Brigit, and others who come and go, circulating from room to room to room as they're needed. A few of them act like real friends. Brigit, for instance, is easy to get on with. She's always got something to tell you; many things happen to her in her private life that she likes to relate. But I can hardly get Nuala to smile at me, she's so serious. Some of us tease her, especially Brigit. "Lighten up, Nualala, you frustrated virgin," Brigit'll say. Something like that will make Nuala smile; she's affectionate with Brigit, who's Irish too. To the rest of us, Nuala is reserved, but equally, so she's not resented for it. And when she does at least smile and say a few words, she favors everyone equally.
I spend more time than I should watching Nuala move around the room at her scientific tasks. I like the shape of her legs; they're thin and thin-thighed, but there's a pleasing bulge of muscle on her calves. I've gotten to examine her hands pretty closely when we've done one or two things together. They're ideal, if you're someone who appreciates hands. The two wrist bones are well defined, the hands themselves are long and slender, and her fingers taper nicely and not too sharply, which can give a girl a sinister appearance as you know. No, Nuala's hands are beyond reproach.
If you had any heart at all, you'd be pleased if one day Nuala were to stroke your face.
Now generally you know you are on the way to emotional trouble when you begin to think seriously on a woman's hands, especially when you've already been admiring her legs and in particular appreciating her ankles. But I'm not worrying. This is an unusual time for me; I'm not engaged in these things the way I might ordinarily be. Let's just say for now that circumstances have temporarily limited my fields of vision, and Nuala is the most striking person who comes into range. I do think Nuala is one of life's special ones, and I hope that she likes me.
Meanwhile, we all have our jobs to do. It's serious work we're engaged in--twenty-four hours, day in, day out. It's important to check and recheck; you can't let anything slide or go undone because everything has a schedule. But I do have time on my hands, a few circumstances beyond my control. So I begin to construct a gift for Nuala in my mind.
Nuala. Not Brigit.
Brigit's much prettier; she has the air of proprietorship everywhere she goes. You know this type of woman. She's confident. She acts sure she belongs wherever she is, and she gives an impression of wondering about the rest of us. "I just don't know what you're doing here," she's said to me, not meanly, but not entirely joking either. "Really, it's inexcusable that you haven't moved on after all this time. You're a slacker, you are. A slouch, sure."
Brigit doesn't know that I've seen the tiny punctures of pediatric hypodermics in the fine webs of skin between her fingers. Something is going into Brigit that she knows ought not to be. She's doing it, but she's hiding it. She knows it's dangerous. I feel I am sharing a sort of secret life with her, aware as I am of her danger, but she doesn't know it yet. I want to talk to her about it, but it's not possible just now.
Brigit moves in this world so easily. Nuala moves cautiously as a tough but mistreated cat, eyes wide open for trouble. Part of it may be her grief. Part, I think, is that she feels she doesn't really belong; she feels separate and unknown. She's never afraid, just alert and ready to move fast if she has to.
In the world I would make for Nuala, there would be someone to whom she could tell her greatest secret without a single thought of betrayal.
In the world I would make, she would be light as a feather when she arose from her bed and always feel freshly washed. She would have the simple things that comfort her: an alpaca throw to put over her legs when she's reading, maybe a cat or a parrot for company. No takeout Chinese food; decent meals cooked at home. Plenty of hot water for her bath in the morning, and radiator pipes that don't bang like cracked old bronze church bells in the middle of the night.
In the world I would make, no one would ever again die in her arms.
In the world I would make for Nuala, she would finally arrive at a place that was always there, empty and waiting only for her.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
this review is coming from a person who HATES to read. I stumbled upon this book never having heard anything about it. I have not been able to put it down for longer than ten minutes and have loved every written word. Not even quite finished i already have a waiting list of friends wanting to borrow this on my recomendation. And i do highly recomend reading this book.