Martje II (novel excerpt)
The knock sounded on the door like an intrepid woodpecker. Martje answered it with her apron on and flour caked on her hands. Lior stood there on the snow-drifted porch, his hands in his pockets. His cheeks were flushed and dewy. Martje looked at him blankly for a moment, and then said, “Come in, Lior!” -- her face molded into a picture of Christmas cheer.
He didn’t. He kept his hands in pockets and rocked up and down on his feet. “I was hoping you’d maybe want to take a walk with me.”
She cocked out her hands. “I have –”
“Oh. Well. Can’t your – is your mother cooking with you?” He bent his body sideways to look past her through the door. “Ingrid?”
“No, I – it’s just me and I wouldn’t want to… Well. You could come back.”
“It is a long walk home.” He looked over his shoulder.
“Or you could come in. I don’t know if you’d find it dull.”
“Maybe I’ll come back later, then, or tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, Lior.”
“I just thought we’d have a walk today. The snow is so untouched.”
“It’ll stay, though. The weather’s cold enough.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insist. I think frozen toes puts me in a sour mood. I have to move to stay warm. Once I get walking again…” He turned to go.
“There, come in by the fire and warm yourself. No, no, come in!”
“Really? That’s alright?” He was half-turned away, hands still in pockets.
“Of course it is! Come have tea, too.”
“And maybe we could walk afterwards?”
Martje hesitated. “Well, I may have to do things to get ready for the party.”
“I can help you with that. - You sure your mother won’t mind I’m here?”
“Nonsense. We love guests.”
He followed her, looking bigger in the cramped hallway, though his shoulders were hunched forward. He unfolded himself once he was the kitchen.
“I like your dress today,” he said.
“Why, thank you, Lior,” she said, not looking at him but waving her arms around the kitchen, looking for spices, and grabbing the wrong jar and shaking it into the batter. “Stained and muddied and all.”
“I didn’t notice.”
Martje pulled down her sleeve. “Sauce, and –” she whirled her skirts around with her hem to show a dark spot: “Goat.”
“Still, I think you look like a winter…spirit.” He sat on a chair by the fire, tucking his feet up on the bottom rung and dangling his elbows over his knees. “What festive weeds are you wearing tonight?”
“-- Oh! I should remember the slips I said I would cut up for the paper games.”
“Can I help you with that?”
“No, you just stay right there and warm up.” She washed her hands and dried them.
“Where are the kids today?”
“Let’s join them.”
Martje laughed. “You can. I won’t.”
“Oh, come on. It’d be fun.” He put his feet down on the floor with force and turned to her. “Come on, Martje.”
"Maybe." She struggled with her apron. “But I would probably fall. If I flop on my face, it is your fault. - Catch!” She flung her apron at him and he almost did not catch it. He held it up like it was a foreign glob, sticking to his hands like a web. “Where do I –?”
“See the hook above your head?”
He hung it up. “So let’s go outside, then.”
“Aren’t you too cold to go back out?”
“Well, these will take, what – an hour?”
“Three quarters of an hour.”
“So there; that’s not long. I won’t become an icicle in that time.”
“Alright. I guess we can go.”
“Are you scared?”
“No. Not yet. Are you?”
“I haven’t coasted since I was a boy. I’m a little worried. I might be too big.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine. Olaf goes down still. I see him sometimes.”
“Yes, but I’m bigger than him.”
“Taller only, and I think its weight that makes you go too fast.”
He was towering above as she was pulling on her overshoes and hat, and he was smiling like a kitten. “I’m just so awkward sometimes.”
“Jea, me, too.”
“If I fall, don’t laugh.”
“I can’t promise that."
He reached up and pulled her hat down over her eyes. She squawked and wiped her hand through the air at him, with purposeful futility. "But, no! I’ll be down in the snow with you, too.”
Martje II (novel excerpt)
A youth dropped out of a tree.
“Ah! Rowan. Thou gavest me a fright.”
He laughed, too, and slung his bow farther up his shoulder.
“What quarry art thou hunting?”
“Trees, wood, bark, yews. I do not sport for blood, so.”
“Not even for sustenance?”
“For sustenance: for sport, nay. Seest thou the targets?” He pointed to wooden discs nailed to trunks.
“And does the arrow fly true?”
He pulled a shaft out a nearby tree. “Sooth, and if the target did not exist, it would.”
Martje clipped her fingernail into the injury. “Rowan, there is something I must tell thee.”
He fitted the arrow. “Tell, dearest friend.” He was looking farther into a glade.
“I am leaving.”
“Aye." He aimed. "For what matter of time?”
“Approaching the length of a year.”
The arrow flew askew with a twang and was lost in the distance. He looked after it, not blinking, and she could not read him. “That was not true,” he said.
“The arrow, or mine words?”
“The arrow.” He then moved quickly, rustling his hand into his quiver. He took one out and fitted it.
“Harken; please. I am torn apart.”
“To where art tha gain?” He stretched his arm and locked his elbow. He was searching again into the pines. He had fallen into the country dialect.
“To the mountains of the north.”
He shot. The arrow struck its mark deeply and a chip flew into the air.
“For what purpose, my friend?”
“To read great texts, and contemplate, and learn from the masters of knowledge.”
He now turned to her. His eyes were the color of the forest around him. He hugged his bow close.
“Thou left,” Martje reminded him.
“For two years, Rowan! Thou left me, to study for two years. ’Tis my turn.”
He seemed to have nothing to say.
“Rowan…” She tugged at his sleeve. “Rowan!”
“I shall come back. I shall.”
“But not to here.”
“Aye, to here!”
“To Sagolandet, aye. But not to this sameness. Thou shall be different. The woods different. Us, different.”
She turned to the great field, and her hands reached for a tree to hold. “I still need to go.”
Martje II (novel excerpt)
“Girls, is my neckline too low?” she called, tracing her fingers along her collarbone.
“What? Let me see.” Sasha Rusakova bustled over. She barked out a laugh. “Martje. Honey. Dearie. You’re fine. Oh, my golly. Look at me. It looks like I have ostrich eggs.” She then splatted her palm under Martje’s collarbone. “And what are you, not even four fingers down? Come – come here.” She smacked her hand down over Martje’s hand, squeezing the slender fingers in her own coarse ones. She pulled her out into the common room. Martje felt exposed as everyone turned to look at her. Her shoulders cringed in.
“Look at her. Look at this girl!” Sasha gave Martje a little shake like a spaniel shakes a pheasant to break its neck. “Is she alright or what? Tell her her neckline is not too low.”
“That’s my dress,” said Livy.
“I know, but sometimes dresses fall differently on different girls,” stuttered Martje.
“But I wouldn’t give you a dress that was too low.”
“I just worried about how it might sit on me, uniquely.”
Adelarde came over and plucked at her neckline. “I understand. You can – I mean you can put a bit of lace there if you want. But you really don’t need it if you don’t want it.”
“Nothing is showing,” said Livy.
Sasha dug her fingers into Martje’s shoulder, and shook her. “You are a goose! You ain’t naked.” She laughed and shook again. “What a little lamb. Martje's a babe in the woods.”
“Leave her alone." It was from Jem, in a corner, with a sudden ferocity. “If she’s concerned, she’s concerned.”
Sasha let her go. Martje rubbed her hand over her shoulder unconsciously - “I can just wear a shawl."
“Oh, darling. -- Really.”
“Here,” stood up Jem, handing Martje a cashmere swath. “Take mine. It’ll match your dress.”
“And I have earrings if you want,” supplemented Adelarde.
“I don’t have my ears pierced.”
Sasha bit her fingers down on Martje’s earlobes. “Yes, you don’t!”
“I said I didn’t,” she flinched back.
Martje II (novel excerpt)
Martje slipped a thin silver knife across the top of Lyra’s envelop, like bursting the pod of a milkweed, and fatness spilled out – a hunk of a letter, with paper-thin rose petals between the sheets. Four of them fluttered out like bruised butterflies, landing on the quilt of her bed. They rested there, brown, with remembering pink at their edges. She caught one up and put it to her nose, but there was no scent, so she pressed the silken cheek to her lips. She lined them up on the top of her bookshelf, making a semi-circle at the foot of her statue of Mary. Then she curled up into her nest of pillows, glad she was alone in the room. She was glad there was a spray of aster and goldenrod on the windowsill by her elbow, and she was glad there was a cup of steaming sweet tea, along with two shortbread cookies, on a plate on a stool, produced for the occasion.
As she settled back into the pillows, she readied her soul to connect with Lyra’s. Their correspondence had existed for over half a decade and was another world to her, almost like Sagolandet. It was a world of cursive castles, and paper secrets, and crinkled longings: the two girl walking together through black-ink meadows, with paper wands and pen petals in their hands. Lyra contained within her soul the substance of Martje's imaginings and realities, because Martje put them all there. And she, the same, for Lyra.
Her gaze ran down the first page. Her fingers thrilled to the texture of the paper; her pupils curved to the marks with quick ease – but suddenly, her eyes stopped, and fluttered, and stopped again. A hot blush suffused her face.
She whipped the page around and read the top of the back. “Oh!” she cried. She squeezed the pages with her fingers in an aggressive crunch. Her face reddened a shade darker. “Oh.” Then she shucked the letter aside and stared straight ahead, silent, for a few moments. Suddenly her boots hit the floor and she struck out of the room, leaving the rest of Lyra’s twenty pages on the quilt -- husks.
She broke into the sharp September air – she had forgotten a shawl – and made her way to the chapel. Her face was lifted, blind to all of the people passing.
She pushed against the heavy oaken doors and entered the sanctuary. It was cold in there, too, and smelled of musky smoke. She dropped an abbreviated genuflection. The chapel was empty, still. She walked into a pew and knelt on the red cushion. Her fingers were trembling when she looked down at them, and her breath came ragged.
“God,” she said in her mind, “don’t let me hate her. Help me…help me to see it from her side. Help me to cool my anger and look at her with compassion and love and calm. Help me understand. Help me to forgive. You know I want to be meek and mild like you."
But she leaned her forehead against the pew in front of her and the hot rage only hit harder through her body. She wrestled with it, taking the anger by its arms and stretching it high, trying to subdue it. She could not hate Lyra. It would be a bleeding cardinal on a white width of snow. “Oh, God," -- now aloud. "Help me know how to handle this. I feel like I can’t speak to her again. I can't.”
She sat back against the hard pew. She stared at the golden curls on the tabernacle box, next to the flickering candle, and felt how removed she was to it, how unreachable the goal. “Be ye perfect as I am perfect.” How could she ever answer that call, when she wanted to spring at another’s throat, and her veins protruded at her throbbing temples. “Turn the other cheek.” She took out a square of paper and a pencil from her pocket.
“Look at the gold. Look at the beauty. Look at Jesus’ bruised soul looking at yours. Be higher and better.”
“I just read the first page of your letter. . ."
Faith and Fidelity II (short story excerpt)
Skenan and Orenda Duquois arrived in the oily forest of bricks which purrs like a jungle cat just before sundown. The red sun was smudged behind the smog and the bleared circle looked like a decrepit man’s eye to Skenan. The liver-colored clouds made bruise marks above the factories.
“Where the underprivileged and the orphaned go to die,” said Orenda cheerfully, shifting her carpet bag to her other bony hand. Her elbows looked sharp under her green jacket.
Mr. and Mrs. Linmoor had given Skenan money and she put her hand in her jacket pocket just to feel the reassuring silver. “Where do we go now?” she asked, raising her voice above the rolling carriage wheels and the blowing steam.
“There’s a knacky place just a few streets down. I done know the owner so she’ll knock us in, with no dilemma.”
“Is it clean? Safe?” asked Skenan.
“Safe? And what’s that?” laughed Orenda, already setting off at a brisk pace down the cobblestone street, bobbing and weaving, her thin legs and torn straw hat making her look like a mobile scarecrow.
“But I have money to pay for a better place,” she called. Her scarf snagged on a woman’s basket. “Oh, beg pardon! Orenda, wait up!” She panted. She felt as if she were dodging a rockslide. “I have money –”
That stopped Orenda. She came back, limping, her shoes clomping lopsidedly under the weight of her bag. She stuck her face close to Skenan’s. She stared at her sister fiercely, her eyes white and black. “Don’t say that – don’t ever sat that.”
“I want us to have a good life here,” said Skenan, feeling thin, young, ineffective.
“And I want you to keep hold of what’s in your pocket. Capisce? What will you do when it runs out after a week at your ‘nice’ place? …We’ll have the life here of every other orphan girl who works. Come on.”
They began to walk and Skenan kept up.
“But we’ll get work, right?”
“I gave up my mill job to find you. Mr. Arger is a pig and might not take me back, just out of spite.”
“Because people are mean. But I have my ways of penny-earning till our good turn comes around, and there are plenty of mills not owned by the porker.”
“Now you – you they’ll look at funny, with your way of talking and dressing, if you ask for a place at a loom.”
“But I must. It does not matter if they laugh. – Oh, sir! beg pardon!” She had bumped into something solid and her nose filled with the smell of burning oil and yeast. She had nearly made a factory worker drop his newspaper full of chips.
“Watch where yer going,” tossing his greasy fingers at her, "ye hussy." But the movement had unbalanced him and he sagged into a doorway.
Wounded and frightened, Skenan pressed closer to her sister, who laughed.
“Shoulda bowled him over. I bet his babies’ food money is sloshing in his belly right now.”
“But what – what were you saying about work?”
“I’m saying, with you being you, you might get a better slot as a maid in a house.”
“Like washing dishes or ironing?”
“Something like. You look more respecting than the Irish girls come here…and your Injun doesn't really shine through that bold. You just say Duquois and tell them you’re French and they’ll think themselves so grand to have you.”
"Like the front cusp of society."
“Worth a whack, I'd say.”
“But - so - why did you never –?”
“Oh, I like my independence too much. No do this – do that – from some high-stepping lady. But I think it’s my slummy accent. And I can’t read.”