Longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People's Literature
Stonewall Book Award Honor
“McLemore’s second novel is such a lush surprising fable, you half expect birds to fly out of the pages… McLemore uses the supernatural to remind us that the body’s need to speak its truth is primal and profound, and that the connection between two people is no more anyone’s business than why the dish ran away with the spoon.”
Jeff Giles, New York Times Book Review
Anna-Marie McLemore’s debut novel The Weight of Feathers was greeted with rave reviews, a YALSA Morris Award nomination, and spots on multiple “Best YA Novels” lists. Now, McLemore delivers a second stunning and utterly romantic novel, again tinged with magic.
To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.
Atmospheric, dynamic, and packed with gorgeous prose, When the Moon was Ours is another winner from this talented author.
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When the Moon Was Ours
By Anna-Marie McLemore
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Anna-Marie McLemore
All rights reserved.
sea of clouds
As far as he knew, she had come from the water. But even about that, he couldn't be sure.
It didn't matter how many nights they'd met on the untilled land between their houses; the last farm didn't rotate its crops, and stripped the soil until nothing but wild grasses would grow. It didn't matter how many stories he and Miel had told each other when they could not sleep, him passing on his mother's fables of moon bears that aided lost travelers, Miel making up tales about his moon lamps falling in love with stars. Sam didn't know any more than anyone else about where she'd come from before he found her in the brush field. She seemed to have been made of water one minute and the next, became a girl.
Someday, he and Miel would be nothing but a fairy tale. When they were gone from this town, no one would remember the exact brown of Miel's eyes, or the way she spiced recado rojo with cloves, or even that Sam and his mother were Pakistani. At best, they would remember a dark-eyed girl, and a boy whose family had come from somewhere else. They would remember only that Miel and Sam had been called Honey and Moon, a girl and a boy woven into the folklore of this place.
This is the story that mothers would tell their children:
There was once a very old water tower. Rust had turned its metal such a deep orange that the whole tank looked like a pumpkin, an enormous copy of the fruit that grew in the fields where it cast its shadow. No one tended this water tower anymore, not since a few strikes from a summer of lightning storms left it leaning to one side as though it were tired and slouching. Years ago, they had filled it from the river, but now rust and minerals choked the pipes. When they opened the valve at the base of the tower, nothing more than a few drops trickled out. The bolts and sheeting looked weak enough that one autumn windstorm might crumble the whole thing.
So the town decided that they would build a new water tower, and that the old one would come down. But the only way to drain it would be to tip it over like a cup. They would have to be ready for the whole tower to crash to the ground, all that rusted metal, those thousands of gallons of dirty, rushing water spilling out over the land.
For the fall, they chose the side of the tower where a field of brush was so dry, a single spark would catch and light it all. All that water, they thought, might bring a little green. From that field, they dug up wildflowers, chicory and Indian paintbrush and larkspur, replanting them alongside the road, so they would not be drowned or smashed. They feared that if they were not kind to the beautiful things that grew wild, their own farms would wither and die.
Children ran through the brush fields, chasing away squirrels and young deer so that when the water tower came down, they would not be crushed. Among these children was a boy called Moon because he was always painting lunar seas and shadows onto glass and paper and anything he could make glow. Moon knew to keep his steps and his voice gentle, so he would not startle the rabbits, but would stir them to bound back toward their burrows.
When the animals and the wildflowers were gone from the brush field, the men of the town took their axes and hammers and mallets to the base of the water tower, until it fell like a tree. It arced toward the ground, its fall slow, as though it were leaning forward to touch its own shadow. When it hit, the rusted top broke off, and all that water rushed out.
For a minute the water, brown as a forgotten cup of tea, hid the brush that looked like pale wheat stubble. But when it slid and spread out over the field, flattening the brittle stalks, soaking into the dry ground, everyone watching made out the shape of a small body.
A girl huddled in the wet brush, her hair stuck to her face, her eyes wide and round as amber marbles. She had on a thin nightgown, which must have once been white, now stained cream by the water. But she covered herself with her arms, cowering like she was naked and looking at everyone like they were all baring their teeth.
At first a few of the mothers shrieked, wondering whose child had been left in the water tower's path. But then they realized that they did not know this girl. She was not their daughter, or the daughter of any of the mothers in town.
No one would come near her. The ring of those who had come to see the tower taken down widened a little more the longer they watched her. Each minute they put a little more space between her and them, more afraid of this small girl than of so much falling water and rusted metal. And she stared at them, seeming to meet all their eyes at once, her look both vicious and frightened.
But the boy called Moon came forward and knelt in front of her. He took off his jacket and put it on her. Talked to her in a voice soft enough that no one else could hear it.
Everyone drew back, expecting her to bite him or to slash her fingernails across his face. But she looked at him, and listened to him, his words stripping the feral look out of her eyes.
After that day, anyone who had not been at the water tower thought she was the same as any other child, little different from the boy she was always with. But if they looked closely, they could see the hem of her skirt, always a little damp, never quite drying no matter how much the sun warmed it.
This would be the story, a neat distillation of what had happened. It would weed out all the things that did not fit. It would not mention how Miel, soaking wet and smelling of rust, screamed into her hands with everyone watching. Because everyone was watching, and she wanted to soak into the ground like the spilled water and vanish. How Sam crouched in front of her saying, "Okay, okay," keeping his words slow and level so she would know what he meant. You can stop screaming; I hear you, I understand. And because she believed him, that he heard her, and understood, she did stop.
It would leave out the part about the Bonner sisters. The four of them, from eight-year-old Chloe to three-year-old Peyton, had been there to see the water tower come down, all of them lined up so their hair looked like a forest of autumn trees. Peyton had been holding a small gray pumpkin that, in that light, looked almost blue. She had it cradled in one arm, and with the other hand was petting it like a bird. When she'd taken a step toward Miel, clutching that pumpkin, Miel's screaming turned raw and broken, and Peyton startled back to her sisters.
Once Sam knew about Miel's fear of pumpkins, he understood, how Peyton treating it like it was alive made Miel afraid not only of Peyton but of all of them. But that part would never make it into the story.
This version would also strip away the part about Sam trying to take Miel home like she was a stray cat. His mother's calm conviction as she diced potatoes that they would find a place for this girl. And she was right. In less time than it took the saag aloo to finish cooking, Aracely, the woman who had seemed to Sam as much like an aunt as a neighbor, appeared at their door saying she might have space in her rented house for this girl made of water.
It would not mention how Miel's hair had barely dried when the first green leaf of a rose stem broke through her small wrist. That was a different story, strange and bloody and glinting with the silver of scissor blades. A story for older children, ones who did not fear their own nightmares.
And this version of the story would scramble the order of events. No one but Sam had heard what Miel was screaming into her hands. I lost the moon, she had said, sobbing against her fingers. I lost the moon.
He never asked her what she meant. Even then, he knew better. Her feeling that the moon had slipped from her grasp seemed locked in a place so far inside her that to reach it would be to break her open. But this was why Sam painted shadows and lunar seas on paper and metal and glass, copying the shadows of mare imbrium and oceanus procellarum — to give her back the moon. He had painted dark skies and bright moons on flat paper since he was old enough to hold a brush, old enough to look through the library's astronomy atlases. But it wasn't until this girl spilled out of the water tower, sobbing over her lost moon, that Sam began painting so many copies of the brightest light in the night sky.
He would never let it seem lost to her again.
Moon had become his name to this town because of her. Because of her, this town had christened him. Without her, he had been nameless. He had not been Samir or Sam. He had been no one. They knew his name no more than they knew who this girl had been before she was water.CHAPTER 2
lake of autumn
They'd touched each other every day since they were small. She'd put her palm to his forehead when she thought he had a fever. He'd set tiny gold star stickers on her skin on summer days, and at night had peeled them off, leaving pale constellations on her sun-darkened body.
She'd seen the brown of her hand against the brown of his when they were children, and holding hands meant nothing more than that she liked how warm his palm was in the night air, or that he wanted to pull her to see something she had missed. A meteor shower or a vine of double-flower morning glories, so blue they looked dyed.
All these things reminded her of his moons, and his moons reminded her of all these things. He'd hung a string of them between her house and his, some as small as her cupped palms, others big enough to fill her arms. They brightened the earth and wild grass. They were tucked into trees, each giving off a ring of light just wide enough to meet the next, so she never walked in the dark. One held a trace of the same gold as those foil star stickers. Another echoed the blue of those morning glories Sam could find even in the dark. Another was the pure, soft white of the frost flowers he showed her on winter mornings, curls of ice that looked like tulips and peonies.
The one she passed under now was the color of a rose that had grown from her wrist when she and Sam were in ninth grade. She remembered it because, in the hall at school, her sleeve had slipped back, and the rose accidentally brushed the elbow of a girl who recoiled, yelling, "Watch where you're going."
That same afternoon, when the girl's boyfriend broke up with her, she'd blamed Miel and that brush of petals. She cornered Miel in the girls' bathroom, and looked like she was about to backhand her when Sam came up behind her and said, "Oh, I wouldn't do that if I were you." His voice had been so level, more full of advice than a threat, that the girl had actually turned around. "You know the last girl who did that turned into a potted plant, right?" he said, and he sold it with such caution and certainty that the girl believed it. She sank into all the rumors about Miel and Aracely, and she backed away.
If Miel hadn't known Sam was her friend before, she knew after that. That was the first and last time he ever went into the girls' room by choice.
Miel could chart their history by these moons, lighting the path between the violet house where she lived with Aracely and the bright-tiled roof of Sam's house.
The closer she got to him, the more she felt it in her roses, like a moon pulling on a sea. Since she was small, the roses had grown from her skin, each bursting through the opening on her wrist that never healed. One grew, and she destroyed it, and another grew, and she destroyed it. But now she hesitated before cutting them, or pushing them underwater so the river's current carried them away. Because for the past few months, they'd responded to Sam. The more time she spent around him, the more her wrist felt heavy and sore. He caught her holding her forearm during school, and stole bags of crunchy, fluffy ice from the chemistry lab for her to put against her sleeve.
If she thought of him too much, her roses grew deeper and brighter; the one on her wrist was now as dark pink as her favorite lipstick.
Tonight, he was waiting behind his house, hands in his pockets. His stance showed neither impatience nor boredom. She always wondered if he saw her from his window, or if he just came outside early, and didn't mind waiting.
"I stole something from work today," he said. The moons gave enough light to let her see he was holding his tongue against his back teeth, proud of his own guilt.
"You what?" she asked.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'll bring it back. I just wanted you to see it. Come on."
Inside, he showed her the brush he used to pollinate each pumpkin blossom by hand.
They only opened for one day, Sam had told her when he started at the Bonners' farm. An explanation for the slow, careful work of taking pollen from each anther and brushing it onto each flower's stigma. That small act made a blossom become a pumpkin. The Bonners gave Sam this task because they thought his skill with brushes covered in paint would translate to brushes coated in pollen.
But Miel had never seen one of the brushes before. Now Sam flicked the oat-colored bristles first against her forearm and then against her rose. For those few seconds, the tiny birthmarks on her arm were grains of pollen, and her rose was the corolla of a pumpkin blossom.
The bristles made her flinch, like the petals growing from her wrist had as much sensation as her fingers. They didn't. Yes, pulling on the stem would hurt her. Knocking the flower head against a kitchen table stung the opening her roses grew from. But the petals themselves were like her hair, rooted in her, but not the same kind of alive as her skin.
For that moment though, of those bristles skimming over that lipstick-colored rose, the sense that those petals could feel as much as her lips or her fingers shimmered through her.
Her eyes flashed up to his.
His eyes were a little more open than they always were, the brown clearer.
The brush and his fingers stilled on her skin.
He hadn't meant it like that. She knew that. She could tell by that startled look.
This wasn't his fingers tracing her back and shoulders, finding stars. This wasn't her checking the flush of his forehead and then leading him home in the middle of a school day. This was a thing that turned into his mouth on hers. This was the pollination brush he'd forgotten to set down, still in his hands as he held her, bristles feathering against her neck. This was the breaking of the strange nervousness that had grown between them over the past few months, a hesitancy to touch that would vanish one day and reappear the next.
She felt the shape of pumpkin blossoms glowing on her skin, waiting for Sam's fingers.
The understanding settled on her that it was Sam, not that wooden-hilted brush, that held the magic of turning a vine-laced field into a thousand pumpkins.
Now Miel's body felt like soft, papery petals. She kissed him back, pushing him toward the stairs, him stumbling up them without turning around. Even with his eyes shut, taking the stairs by muscle memory, he was careful not to crush her rose. She reached for his belt and the top button of his jeans, and he let her. He slid his hand under her shirt, and she let him.
He let her, she let him, and then they were in his bed. The smell of paint made the air in his room bitter, sharp. A tarp covered the floor, his brushes and paints and the makings of half-finished lights scattered in a way that looked disordered to her but made sense to him.
Light from the moons spilled a layer of milky lilac over the floor. They were covered in the blue-green of his bedroom walls, and the smell of spices from his mother's kitchen that soaked into his hair and came off onto his sheets. Orange flower. Green cardamom. Pomegranate molasses. It was so sharp and vivid on him that it made her bite the back of his neck. He startled, then settled into the soft pressure of her teeth, and set his fingers against her harder.
He didn't take off his shirt. She didn't try to take it off him. He never took off his shirt for the same reason he worked on the Bonners' farm. Their school let his work weeding the fields and cutting vines stand in for the PE requirement he'd put off since ninth grade. He couldn't meet it any other way, not if it meant changing for class or team practice in a locker room.
His skin smelled like warm water, not taking on the scent of his soap. She ran her fingers over the faint scarring that shadowed his jawline, from acne he had both grown into and out of early.
The petals of her rose skimmed his neck — she did that on purpose — and then along the inside of his thigh — she did that without meaning to. He shivered, but didn't draw back. Even when her touching him made her rose petals flick against his body, she kept a little distance between him and her wrist so the thorns wouldn't scratch him.
When he traced her skin, the thought of everything he told her about the moon skimmed across her, about the lunar seas and bays. Mare nubium and mare undarum, the sea of clouds and the sea of waves. Lacus autumni and sinus iridum, the lake of autumn and the bay of rainbows. The features he painted with brushes and with his bare fingers.
Excerpted from When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore. Copyright © 2016 Anna-Marie McLemore. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
sea of clouds,
lake of autumn,
bay of harmony,
lake of hatred,
sea of islands,
bay of the center,
sea of vapors,
bay of trust,
lake of death,
lake of fear,
lake of solitude,
sea of serenity,
lake of forgetfulness,
marsh of sleep,
sea of waves,
bay of roughness,
lake of winter,
bay of honor,
ocean of storms,
bay of billows,
lake of sorrow,
sea of the edge,
sea of tranquility,
lake of summer,
lake of softness,
lake of dreams,
lake of joy,
lake of goodness,
sea that has become known,
bay of dew,
bay of mists,
lake of spring,
sea of showers,
lake of time,
sea of cold,
lake of perseverance,
bay of rainbows,
bay of love,
sea of nectar,
lake of hope,
Also by Anne-Marie McLemore,
About the Author,