Books that made me want to write (Carrie Snyder)By 49thShelf
Aunt Elizabeth had a more prosaic idea to account for Emily’s languor and lack of appetite. She had come to the conclusion that Emily’s heavy masses of hair “took from her strength” and that she would be much stronger and better if it were cut off. With Aunt Elizabeth to decide was to act. One morning she coolly informed Emily that her hair was to be “shingled.”
Emily could not believe her ears.
“You don’t mean that you are going to cut off my hair, Aunt Elizabeth,” she exclaimed.
“Yes, I mean exactly that,” said Aunt Elizabeth firmly. “You have entirely too much hair especially for hot weather. I feel sure that is why you have been so miserable lately. Now, I don’t want any crying.”
But Emily could not keep the tears back.
“Don’t cut it all off,” she pleaded. “Just cut a good big bang. Lots of the girls have their hair banged clean from the crown of their heads. That would take half my hair off and the rest won’t take too much strength.”
“There will be no bangs here,” said Aunt Elizabeth. “I’ve told you so often enough. I’m going to shingle your hair close all over your head for the hot weather. You’ll be thankful to me some day for it.”
Emily felt anything but thankful just then.
“It’s my one beauty,” she sobbed, “it and my lashes. I suppose you want to cut off my lashes too.”
Aunt Elizabeth did distrust those long, upcurled fringes of Emily’s, which were an inheritance from the girlish stepmother, and too un-Murray-like to be approved; but she had no designs against them. The hair must go, however, and she curtly bade Emily wait there, without any fuss, until she got the scissors.
Emily waited — quite hopelessly. She must lose her lovely hair — the hair her father had been so proud of. It might grow again in time — if Aunt Elizabeth let it — but that would take years, and meanwhile what a fright she would be! Aunt Laura and Cousin Jimmy were out; she had no one to back her up; this horrible thing must happen.
Aunt Elizabeth returned with the scissors; they clicked suggestively as she opened them; that click, as if by magic, seemed to loosen something — some strange formidable power in Emily’s soul. She turned deliberately around and faced her aunt. She felt her brows drawing together in an unaccustomed way — she felt an uprush as from unknown depths of some irresistible surge of energy.
“Aunt Elizabeth,” she said, looking straight at the lady with the scissors, “my hair is not going to be cut off. Let me hear no more of this.”
An amazing thing happened to Aunt Elizabeth. She turned pale — she laid the scissors down — she looked aghast for one moment at the transformed or possessed child before her — and then for the first time in her life Elizabeth Murray turned tail and fled — literally fled — to the kitchen.
“What is the matter, Elizabeth?” cried Laura, coming in from the cook-house.
“I saw — Father — looking from her face,” gasped Elizabeth, trembling. “And she said, ‘Let me hear no more of this,’ — just as he always said it — his very words.”
It was a cold wet afternoon in October when Rose Larkin came to live in the house at Hawthorn Bay. Rain dripped from the branches of the big horse-chestnut tree in the front yard and hung in large drops from the tangle of bushes around the house. Rose stood in the driveway, where Aunt Stella had left her, feeling that she had never been in a place more dismal in all her life. Its bleakness seemed to echo her own sense of being completely abandoned. In the weeks since the death of her grandmother she had been shipped from relative to relative and finally delivered -- like a package, she thought bitterly -- to an aunt and uncle she had never seen.
Rose was an orphan. Her mother and father had been killed in a car crash when she was three years old, and she had gone to live with her mother’s mother in New York City. Her grandmother was a business woman who traveled all over the world. An austere woman, more dutiful than loving, she took Rose with her everywhere she went, which meant that Rose spent as much time in hotels as she did in their apartment on upper Fifth Avenue in New York.
Grandmother did not believe in schools. “They teach only what’s fashionable -- and that not very well,” she snorted. So every evening, from the day Rose was five, they did lessons together. Every morning Rose had to do homework. Every afternoon she was free to do as she pleased. Wet days she read or explored the hotel. Fine days she poked around shops or went to museums or movies in foreign languages. She often sat for hours in parks, watching people -- old people feeding the birds, shoppers, strollers, mothers or fathers with their children. Rose had never known other children and they fascinated her. She often longed to speak to them, sometimes even to become part of their games, but they frightened her. They were apt to be rough and make loud jokes, and she was afraid she wouldn’t know what to say to them. Her grandmother told her more than once that she was better off without them, that she would learn more about being an adult if she associated only with adults.
In consequence she didn’t know much about living with people. She and her grandmother were like two polite strangers together. Rose had learned early that when she was quiet and obedient her grandmother was pleasant -- and not so pleasant when she wasn’t. The death of her parents had left her with a nagging fear that her grandmother too might disappear if she misbehaved, so she became a stiff, self-possessed child about whom many said she was more like a china doll than a little girl. She didn’t look like a china doll. Her bright red hair was pulled tightly into two neat braids. She had a long nose and her face was pointed, which gave her a slightly elfish look and sometimes led strangers to expect mischief or humor until they looked more closely at her set chin, her mouth so firmly shut, and the guarded expression that was too often in her large gray eyes.
Without other children, an alien among adults, Rose came to the conclusion when she was about eight that she didn’t belong in the world. She believed she was a creature from somewhere else. She could no longer remember her mother or father, and she figured that the story about her having parents was made up to keep her from finding the truth. She hadn’t the least idea where she might have come from, but she had absolute faith that one day she would go back there. Meanwhile she did her best to mind her own business and keep out of everyone’s way. She was often lonely, but she had early accepted loneliness as a condition of her life.
The year Rose turned twelve, her grandmother decided she should go to boarding school in Paris. They went to Paris together, and the first night, in their hotel room, her grandmother had a heart attack. Rose was paralyzed with fear.
“Don’t stand there gaping, child,” her grandmother croaked between gasps of pain. “Call the desk. Get a doctor.” Feeling as though her feet were made of lead, like someone in a nightmare, Rose did as she was told, and she went along in the ambulance to the hospital and sat in the waiting room while her grandmother was wheeled off on a stretcher. She forced herself to think of nothing while doctors and nurses bustled around her. Half an hour later the doctor came to tell her that her grandmother had died.
Stunned, she managed a polite nod and said stiffly, “Merci, monsieur.” She took a taxi back to the hotel, phoned Great-Aunt Millicent in New York, and waited for Great-Uncle Arnold to come on the night plane. Her hands shook and she had no appetite, but otherwise she managed to remain calm and possessed all through the trip home and the funeral afterward.
She spent a week with each of her grandmother’s sisters, after which they had a meeting in Great-Aunt Millicent’s apartment. Rose sat rigidly on the edge of her chair. Uncle Arnold said he thought she ought to be sent to school, Aunt Millicent said she wasn’t sure what should be done, and Aunt Stella said, “Why not send her to Nan Henry’s?”
The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction. This apparently impossible contradiction, made apparent and possible, still fascinated Morag, even after the years of river-watching.
The dawn mist had lifted, and the morning air was filled with swallows, darting so low over the river that their wings sometimes brushed the water, then spiralling and pirouetting upward again. Morag watched, trying to avoid thought, but this ploy was not successful.
Pique had gone away. She must have left during the night. She had left a note on the kitchen table, which also served as Morag’s desk, and had stuck the sheet of paper into the typewriter, where Morag would be certain to find it.
Now please do not get all uptight, Ma. I can look after myself. Am going west. Alone, at least for now. If Gord phones, tell him I’ve drowned and gone floating down the river, crowned with algae and dead minnows, like Ophelia.
Well, you had to give the girl some marks for style of writing. Slightly derivative, perhaps, but let it pass. Oh jesus, it was not funny. Pique was eighteen. Only. Not dry behind the ears. Yes, she was, though. If only there hadn’t been that other time when Pique took off, that really bad time. That wouldn’t happen again, not like before. Morag was pretty sure it wouldn’t. Not sure enough, probably.
I’ve got too damn much work in hand to fret over Pique. Lucky me. I’ve got my work to take my mind off my life. At forty-seven that’s not such a terrible state of affairs. If I hadn’t been a writer, I might’ve been a first-rate mess at this point. Don’t knock the trade.
Morag read Pique’s letter again, made coffee and sat looking out at the river, which was moving quietly, its surface wrinkled by the breeze, each crease of water outlined by the sun. Naturally, the river wasn’t wrinkled or creased at all — wrong words, implying something unfluid like skin, something unenduring, prey to age. Left to itself, the river would probably go on like this, flowing deep, for another million or so years. That would not be allowed to happen. In bygone days, Morag had once believed that nothing could be worse than killing a person. Now she perceived river-slaying as something worse. No wonder the kids felt themselves to be children of the apocalypse.
No boats today. Yes, one. Royland was out, fishing for muskie. Seventy-four years old this year, Royland. Eyesight terrible, but he was too stubborn to wear glasses. A marvel that he could go on working. Of course, his work did not depend upon eyesight. Some other kind of sight. A water diviner. Morag always felt she was about to learn something of great significance from him, something which would explain everything. But things remained mysterious, his work, her own, the generations, the river.
I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have sea-planes for hire. But this is still near the city limits; we didn’t go through, it’s swelled enough to have a bypass, that’s success.
I never thought of it as a city but as the last or first outpost depending on which way we were going, an accumulation of sheds and boxes and one main street with a movie theatre, the itz, the oyal, red R burnt out, and two restaurants which served identical grey hamburger steaks plastered with mud gravy and canned peas, watery and pallid as fisheyes, and french fries bleary with lard. Order a poached egg, my mother said, you can tell if it’s fresh by the edges.
In one of those restaurants before I was born my brother got under the table and slid his hands up and down the waitress’s legs while she was bringing the food; it was during the war and she had on shiny orange rayon stockings, he’d never seen them before, my mother didn’t wear them. A different year there we ran through the snow across the sidewalk in our bare feet because we had no shoes, they’d worn out during the summer. In the car that time we sat with our feet wrapped in blankets, pretending we were wounded. My brother said the Germans shot our feet off.
Now though I’m in another car, David’s and Anna’s; it’s sharp-finned and striped with chrome, a lumbering monster left over from ten years ago, he has to reach under the instrument panel to turn on the lights. David says they can’t afford a newer one, which probably isn’t true. He’s a good driver, I realize that, I keep my outside hand on the door in spite of it. To brace myself and so I can get out quickly if I have to. I’ve driven in the same car with them before but on this road it doesn’t seem right, either the three of them are in the wrong place or I am.
I’m in the back seat with the packsacks; this one, Joe, is sitting beside me chewing gum and holding my hand, they both pass the time. I examine the hand: the palm is broad, the short fingers tighten and relax, fiddling with my gold ring, turning it, it’s a reflex of his. He has peasant hands, I have peasant feet, Anna told us that. Everyone now can do a little magic, she reads hands at parties, she says it’s a substitute for conversation. When she did mine she said “Do you have a twin?” I said No. “Are you positive,” she said, “because some of your lines are double.” Her index finger traced me: “You had a good childhood but then there’s this funny break.” She puckered her forehead and I said I just wanted to know how long I was going to live, she could skip the rest. After that she told us Joe’s hands were dependable but not sensitive and I laughed, which was a mistake.
From the side he’s like the buffalo on the U.S. nickel, shaggy and blunt-snouted, with small clenched eyes and the defiant but insane look of a species once dominant, now threatened with extinction. That’s how he thinks of himself too: deposed, unjustly. Secretly he would like them to set up a kind of park for him, like a bird sanctuary. Beautiful Joe.
He feels me watching him and lets go of my hand. Then he takes his gum out, bundling it in the silver wrapper, and sticks it in the ashtray and crosses his arms. That means I’m not supposed to observe him; I face front.
In the first few hours of driving we moved through flattened cow-sprinkled hills and leaf trees and dead elm skeletons, then into the needle trees and the cuttings dynamited in pink and grey granite and the flimsy tourist cabins, and the signs saying GATEWAY TO THE NORTH, at least four towns claim to be that. The future is in the North, that was a political slogan once; when my father heard it he said there was nothing in the North but the past and not much of that either. Wherever he is now, dead or alive and nobody knows which, he’s no longer making epigrams. They have no right to get old. I envy people whose parents died when they were young, that’s easier to remember, they stay unchanged. I was sure mine would anyway, I could leave and return much later and everything would be the same. I thought of them as living in some other time, going about their own concerns closed safe behind a wall as translucent as jello, mammoths frozen in a glacier. All I would have to do was come back when I was ready but I kept putting it off, there would be too many explanations.
Now we’re passing the turnoff to the pit the Americans hollowed out. From here it looks like an innocent hill, spruce-covered, but the thick power lines running into the forest give it away. I heard they’d left, maybe that was a ruse, they could easily still be living in there, the generals in concrete bunkers and the ordinary soldiers in underground apartment buildings where the lights burn all the time. There’s no way of checking because we aren’t allowed in. The city invited them to stay, they were good for business, they drank a lot.
“That’s where the rockets are,” I say. Were. I don’t correct it.
David says “Bloody fascist pig Yanks,” as though he’s commenting on the weather.
Anna says nothing. Her head rests on the back of the seat, the ends of her light hair whipping in the draft from the side window that won’t close properly. Earlier she was singing, House of the Rising Sun and Lili Marlene, both of them several times, trying to make her voice go throaty and deep; but it came out like a hoarse child’s. David turned on the radio, he couldn’t get anything, we were between stations. When she was in the middle of St. Louis Blues he began to whistle and she stopped. She’s my best friend, my best woman friend; I’ve known her two months.
I lean forward and say to David, “The bottle house is around this next curve and to the left,” and he nods and slows the car. I told them about it earlier, I guessed it was the kind of object that would interest them. They’re making a movie, Joe is doing the camera work, he’s never done it before but David says they’re the new Renaissance Men, you teach yourself what you need to learn. It was mostly David’s idea, he calls himself the director: they already have the credits worked out. He wants to get shots of things they come across, random samples he calls them, and that will be the name of the movie too: Random Samples. When they’ve used up their supply of film (which was all they could afford; and the camera is rented) they’re going to look at what they’ve collected and rearrange it.
“How can you tell what to put in if you don’t already know what it’s about?” I asked David when he was describing it. He gave me one of his initiate-to-novice stares. “If you close your mind in advance like that you wreck it. What you need is flow.” Anna, over by the stove measuring out the coffee, said everyone she knew was making a movie, and David said that was no fucking reason why he shouldn’t. She said “You’re right, sorry”; but she laughs about it behind his back, she calls it Random Pimples.
The bottle house is built of pop bottles cemented together with the bottoms facing out, green ones and brown ones in zig-zag patterns like the ones they taught us in school to draw on teepees; there’s a wall around it made of bottles too, arranged in letters so the brown ones spell BOTTLE VILLA.
“Neat,” David says, and they get out of the car with the camera. Anna and I climb out after them; we stretch our arms, and Anna has a cigarette. She’s wearing a purple tunic and white bellbottoms, they have a smear on them already, grease from the car. I told her she should wear jeans or something but she said she looks fat in them.
“Who made it, Christ, think of the work,” she says, but I don’t know anything about it except that it’s been there forever, the tangled black spruce swamp around it making it even more unlikely, a preposterous monument to some quirkish person exiled or perhaps a voluntary recluse like my father, choosing this swamp because it was the only place where he could fulfil his lifelong dream of living in a house of bottles. Inside the wall is an attempted lawn and a border with orange mattress-tuft marigolds.
“Great,” says David, “really neat,” and he puts his arm around Anna and hugs her briefly to show he’s pleased, as though she is somehow responsible for the Bottle Villa herself. We get back in the car.
I watch the side windows as though it’s a T.V. screen. There’s nothing I can remember till we reach the border, marked by the sign that says BIENVENUE on one side and WELCOME on the other. The sign has bullet holes in it, rusting red around the edges. It always did, in the fall the hunters use it for target practice; no matter how many times they replace it or paint it the bullet holes reappear, as though they aren’t put there but grow by a kind of inner logic or infection, like mould or boils. Joe wants to film the sign but David says “Naaa, what for?”
Now we’re on my home ground, foreign territory. My throat constricts, as it learned to do when I discovered people could say words that would go into my ears meaning nothing. To be deaf and dumb would be easier. The cards they poke at you when they want a quarter, with the hand alphabet on them. Even so, you would need to learn spelling.
The first smell is the mill, sawdust, there are mounds of it in the yard with the stacked timber slabs. The pulpwood goes elsewhere to the paper mill, but the bigger logs are corralled in a boom on the river, a ring of logs chained together with the free ones nudging each other inside it; they travel to the saws in a clanking overhead chute, that hasn’t been changed. The car goes under it and we’re curving up into the tiny company town, neatly planned with public flowerbeds and an eighteenth century fountain in the middle, stone dolphins and a cherub with part of the face missing. It looks like an imitation but it may be real.
Anna says “Oh wow, what a great fountain.”
“The company built the whole thing,” I say, and David says “Rotten capitalist bastards” and begins to whistle again.
I tell him to turn right and he does. The road ought to be here, but instead there’s a battered chequerboard, the way is blocked.
“Now what,” says David.
We didn’t bring a map because I knew we wouldn’t need one. “I’ll have to ask,” I say, so he backs the car out and we drive along the main street till we come to a corner store, magazines and candy.
“You must mean the old road,” the woman says with only a trace of an accent. “It’s been closed for years, what you need is the new one.” I buy four vanilla cones because you aren’t supposed to ask without buying anything. She gouges down into the cardboard barrel with a metal scoop. Before, the ice cream came rolled in pieces of paper which they would peel off like bark, pressing the short logs of ice cream into the cones with their thumbs. Those must be obsolete.
I go back to the car and tell David the directions. Joe says he likes chocolate better.
Nothing is the same, I don’t know the way any more. I slide my tongue around the ice cream, trying to concentrate on it, they put seaweed in it now, but I’m starting to shake, why is the road different, he shouldn’t have allowed them to do it, I want to turn around and go back to the city and never find out what happened to him. I’ll start crying, that would be horrible, none of them would know what to do and neither would I. I bite down into the cone and I can’t feel anything for a minute but the knife-hard pain up the side of my face. Anaesthesia, that’s one technique: if it hurts invent a different pain. I’m all right.
David finishes his cone, tossing the carton-flavoured tip out the window, and starts the car. We go through a part that’s spread out from the town since I was here, freshly built square bungalows like city ones except for the pink and baby blue trim, and a few oblong shacks further along, tar-paper and bare boards. A clutch of children playing in the wet mud that substitutes for lawns; most of them are dressed in clothes too big for them, which makes them seem stunted.
“They must fuck a lot here,” Anna says, “I guess it’s the Church.” Then she says “Aren’t I awful.”
David says “The true north strong and free.”
Beyond the houses, two older children, darkfaced, hold out tin cans toward the car. Raspberries perhaps.
We come to the gas station where the woman said to turn left and David groans with joy, “Oh god look at that,” and they pile out as though it will escape if they aren’t quick enough. What they’re after is the three stuffed moose on a platform near the pumps: they’re dressed in human clothes and wired standing up on their hind legs, a father moose with a trench-coat and a pipe in his mouth, a mother moose in a print dress and flowered hat and a little boy moose in short pants, a striped jersey and a baseball cap, waving an American flag.
Anna and I follow. I go up behind David and say “Don’t you need some gas,” he shouldn’t use the moose without paying, like the washrooms they’re here to attract customers.
“Oh look,” Anna says, hand going to her mouth, “there’s another one on the roof,” and there is, a little girl moose in a frilly skirt and a pigtailed blonde wig, holding a red parasol in one hoof. They get her too. The owner of the gas station is standing behind his plateglass show-window in his undershirt, scowling at us through the film of dust.
When we’re back in the car I say as though defending myself, “Those weren’t here before.” Anna’s head swivels round, my voice must sound odd.
“Before what?” she says.
The new road is paved and straight, two lanes with a line down the middle. Already it’s beginning to gather landmarks, a few advertisement signs, a roadside crucifix with a wooden Christ, ribs sticking out, the alien god, mysterious to me as ever. Underneath it are a couple of jam jars with flowers, daisies and red devil’s paintbrush and the white ones you can dry, Indian Posies, Everlasting, there must have been a car accident.
At intervals the old road crosses us; it was dirt, full of bumps and potholes, it followed the way the land went, up and down the hills and around the cliffs and boulders. They used to go over it as fast as possible, their father knew every inch of it and could take it (he said) blindfolded, which was what they often seemed to be doing, grinding up past the signs that said PETITE VITESSE and plunging down over the elevator edges and scraping around the rockfaces, GARDEZ LE DROIT, horn hooting; the rest of them clamped onto the inside of the car, getting sicker and sicker despite the Lifesavers their mother would hand out, and finally throwing up groggily by the side of the road, blue asters and pink fireweed, if he could stop in time or out the car window if he couldn’t or into paper bags, he anticipated emergencies, if he was in a hurry and didn’t want to stop at all.
That won’t work, I can’t call them “they” as if they were somebody else’s family: I have to keep myself from telling that story. Still though, seeing the old road billowing along at a distance through the trees (ruts and traces already blurring with grass and saplings, soon it will be gone) makes me reach into my bag for the Lifesavers I brought. But they aren’t needed any more, even though the new road turns from pavement into gravel (“Must’ve elected the wrong guy last time around,” David says jokingly) and the familiar smell of road dust fuming behind and around us mixes with the gas-and-upholstery smell of the car.
“Thought you said this would be bad,” David says over his shoulder, “it’s not bad at all.” We’re nearly to the village already, the two roads joining here but widened – rock blasted, trees bulldozed over, roots in the air, needles reddening – past the flat cliff where the election slogans are painted and painted over, some faded and defaced, others fresh yellow and white, VOTEZ GODET, VOTEZ OBRIEN, along with hearts and initials and words and advertisements, THÉ SALADA, BLUE MOON COTTAGES ½ MILE, QUÉBEC LIBRE, FUCK YOU, BUVEZ COCA COLA GLACÉ, JESUS SAVES, mélange of demands and languages, an x-ray of it would be the district’s entire history.
But they’ve cheated, we’re here too soon and I feel deprived of something, as though I can’t really get here unless I’ve suffered; as though the first view of the lake, which we can see now, blue and cool as redemption, should be through tears and a haze of vomit.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Emily Starr was born with the desire to write. As an orphan living on New Moon Farm, writing helped her face the difficult, lonely times. But now all her friends are going away to high school in nearby Shrewsbury, and her old-fashioned, tyrannical aunt Elizabeth will only let her go if she promises to stop writing! All the same, this is the first step in Emily's climb to success. Once in town, Emily's activities set the Shrewsbury gossips buzzing. When Emily has her poems published and writes fo …
Writing Herself Out Emily Byrd Starr was alone in her room, in the old new Moon farmhouse at Blair Water, one stormy night in a February of the olden years before the world turned upside down. She was at that moment as perfectly happy as any human being is ever permitted to be. Aunt Elizabeth, in consideration of the coldness of the night, had allowed her to have a fire in her little fireplace – a rare favour. It was burning brightly and showering a red-golden light over the small, immaculate room, with its old-time furniture and deep-set, wide-silled windows, to whose frosted, blue-white panes the snowflakes clung in little wreaths. It lent depth and mystery and allure to the mirror on the wall which reflected Emily as she sat coiled on the ottoman before the fire, writing, by the light of two tall, white candles – which were the only approved means of illumination at New Moon – in a brand-new, glossy, black "Jimmy-book" which Cousin Jimmy had given her that day. Emily had been very glad to get it, for she had filled the one he had given her the preceding autumn, and for over a week she had suffered acute pangs of suppression because she could not write in a non-existent "diary." Her diary had become a dominant factor in her young, vivid life. It had taken the place of certain "letters" she had written in her childhood to her dead father, in which she had been wont to "write out" her problems and worries – for even in the magic years when one is almost fourteen one has problems and worries, especially when one is under the strict and well-meant but not over-tender governance of an Aunt Elizabeth Murray. Sometimes Emily felt that if it were not for her diary she would have flown into little bits by reason of consuming her own smoke. The fat, black "Jimmy-book" seemed to her like a personal friend and a safe confidant for certain matters which burned for expression and yet were too combustible to be trusted to the ears of any living being. Now blank books of any sort were not easy to come by at New Moon, and if it had not been for Cousin Jimmy, Emily might never have had one. Certainly Aunt Elizabeth would not give her one – Aunt Elizabeth thought Emily wasted far too much time "over her scribbling nonsense" as it was – and Aunt Laura did not dare to go contrary to Aunt Elizabeth in this – more by token that Laura herself really thought Emily might be better employed. Aunt Laura was a jewel of a woman, but certain things were holden from her eyes. Now Cousin Jimmy was never in the least frightened of Aunt Elizabeth, and when the notion occurred to him that Emily probably wanted another "blank book," that blank book materialised straightway, in defiance of Aunt Elizabeth's scornful glances. He had gone to Shrewsbury that very day, in the teeth of the rising storm, for no other reason than to get it. So Emily was happy, in her subtle and friendly firelight, while the wind howled and shrieked through the great old trees to the north of New Moon, sent huge, spectral wreaths of snow whirling across Cousin Jimmy's famous garden, drifted the sundial completely over, and whistled eerily through the Three Princesses – as Emily always called the three tall Lombardies in the corner of the garden. "I love a storm like this at night when I don't have to go out in it," wrote Emily. "Cousin Jimmy and I had a splendid evening planning out our garden and choosing our seeds and plants in the catalogue. Just where the biggest drift is making, behind the summer-house, we are going to have a bed of pink asters, and we are going to give the Golden Ones – who are dreaming under four feet of snow – a background of flowering almond. I love to plan out summer days like this, in the midst of a storm. It makes me feel as if I were winning a victory over something ever so much bigger than myself, just because I have a brain and the storm is nothing but blind, white force – terrible, but blind. I have the same feeling when I sit here cosily by my own dear fire, and hear it raging all around me, and laugh at it. And that is just because over a hundred years ago great-great-grandfather Murray built this house and built it well. I wonder if, a hundred years from now, anybody will win a victory over anything because of something I left or did. It is an inspiring thought. "I drew that line of italics before I thought. Mr. Carpenter says I use far too many italics. He says it is an Early Victorian obsession, and I must strive to cast it off. I concluded I would when I looked in the dictionary, for it is evidently not a nice thing to be obsessed, though it doesn't seem quite so bad as to be possessed. There I go again: but I think the italics are all right this time. "I read the dictionary for a whole hour – till Aunt Elizabeth got suspicious and suggested that it would be much better for me to be knitting my ribbed stockings. She couldn't see exactly why it was wrong for me to be poring over the dictionary but she felt sure it must be because she never wants to do it. I love reading the dictionary. (Yes, those italics are necessary, Mr. Carpenter. An ordinary 'love' wouldn't express my feeling at all!) Words are such fascinating things. (I caught myself at the first syllable that time!) The very sound of some of them – 'haunted' – 'mystic' – for example, gives me the flash. (Oh, dear! But I have to italicize the flash. It isn't ordinary – it's the most extraordinary and wonderful thing in my whole life. When it comes I feel as if a door had swung open in a wall before me and given me a glimpse of – yes, of heaven. More italics! Oh, I see why Mr. Carpenter scolds! I must break myself of the habit.) "Big words are never beautiful – 'incriminating' – 'obstreperous' – 'international' – 'unconstitutional.' They make me think of those horrible big dahlias and chrysanthemums Cousin Jimmy took me to see at the exhibition in Charlottetown last fall. We couldn't see anything lovely in them, though some people thought them wonderful. Cousin Jimmy's little yellow 'mums, like pale, fairy-like stars shining against the fir copse in the north-west corner of the garden, were ten times more beautiful. But I am wandering from my subject – also a bad habit of mine, according to Mr. Carpenter. He says I must (the italics are his this time!) learn to concentrate – another big word and a very ugly one. "But I had a good time over that dictionary – much better than I had over the ribbed stockings. I wish I could have a pair – just one pair – of silk stockings. Ilse has three. Her father gives her everything she wants, now that he has learned to love her. But Aunt Elizabeth says silk stockings are immoral. I wonder why – any more than silk dresses. "Speaking of silk dresses, Aunt Janey Milburn, at Derry Pond – she isn't any relation really, but everybody calls her that – has made a vow that she will never wear a silk dress until the whole heathen world is converted to Christianity. That is very fine. I wish I could be as good as that, but I couldn't – I love silk too much. It is so rich and sheeny. I would like to dress in it all the time, and if I could afford to I would – though I suppose every time I thought of dear old Aunt Janey and the unconverted heathen I would feel conscience-stricken. However, it will be years, if ever, before I can afford to buy even one silk dress, and meanwhile I give some of my egg money every month to missions. (I have five hens of my own now, all descended from the grey pullet Perry gave me on my twelfth birthday.) If ever I can buy that one silk dress I know what it is going to be like. Not black or brown or navy blue – sensible, serviceable colors, such as New Moon Murrays always wear – oh, dear, no! It is to be of shot silk, blue in one light, silver in others, like a twilight sky, glimpsed through a frosted window pane – with a bit of lace-foam here and there, like those little feathers of snow clinging to my window-pane. Teddy says he will paint me in it and call it 'The Ice Maiden,' and Aunt Laura smiles and says, sweetly and condescendingly, in a way I hate, even in dear Aunt Laura, "'What use would such a dress be to you, Emily?' "It mightn't be of any use, but I would feel in it as if it were a part of me – that it grew on me and wasn't just bought and put on. I want one dress like that in my lifetime. And a silk petticoat underneath it – and silk stockings!
Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin: she can't eat. First meat. Then eggs, vegetables, cake, pumpkin seeds—everything! Worse yet, she has the crazy feeling that she's being eaten. Marian ought to feel consumed with passion. But really she just feels...consumed. A brilliant and powerful work rich in irony and metaphor, The Edible Woman is an unforgettable materpiece by a true master of contemporary literary fiction.
I know I was all right on Friday when I got up; if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual. When I went out to the kitchen to get breakfast Ainsley was there, moping: she said she had been to a bad party the night before. She swore there had been nothing but dentistry students, which depressed her so much she had consoled herself by getting drunk.
“You have no idea how soggy it is,” she said, “having to go through twenty conversations about the insides of peoples’ mouths. The most reaction I got out of them was when I described an abscess I once had. They positively drooled. And most men look at something besides your teeth, for god’s sake.”
She had a hangover, which put me in a cheerful mood – it made me feel so healthy – and I poured her a glass of tomato juice and briskly fixed her an Alka- Seltzer, listening and making sympathetic noises while she complained.
“As if I didn’t get enough of that at work,” she said. Ainsley has a job as a tester of defective electric toothbrushes for an electric toothbrush company: a temporary job. What she is waiting for is an opening in one of those little art galleries, even though they don’t pay well: she wants to meet the artists. Last year, she told me, it was actors, but then she actually met some. “It’s an absolute fixation. I expect they all carry those bent mirrors around in their coat pockets and peer into their own mouths every time they go to the john to make sure they’re still cavity- free.” She ran one hand reflectively through her hair, which is long and red, or rather auburn. “Could you imagine kissing one? He’d say ‘Open wide’ beforehand. They’re so bloody one- track.”
“It must have been awful,” I said, refilling her glass. “Couldn’t you have changed the topic?”
Ainsley raised her almost non- existent eyebrows, which hadn’t been coloured in yet that morning. “Of course not,” she said. “I pretended to be terribly interested. And naturally I didn’t let on what my job was: those professional men get so huffy if you know anything about their subject. You know, like Peter.”
Ainsley tends to make jabs at Peter, especially when she isn’t feeling well. I was magnanimous and didn’t respond. “You’d better eat something before you go to work,” I said, “it’s better when you’ve got something on your stomach.”
“Oh god,” said Ainsley, “I can’t face it. Another day of machines and mouths. I haven’t had an interesting one since last month, when that lady sent back her toothbrush because the bristles were falling off. We found out she’d been using Ajax.”
I got so caught up in being efficient for Ainsley’s benefit while complimenting myself on my moral superiority to her that I didn’t realize how late it was until she reminded me. At the electric toothbrush company they don’t care what time you breeze in, but my company thinks of itself as punctual. I had to skip the egg and wash down a glass of milk and a bowl of cold cereal which I knew would leave me hungry long before lunchtime. I chewed through a piece of bread while Ainsley watched me in nauseated silence and grabbed up my purse, leaving Ainsley to close the apartment door behind me.
We live on the top floor of a large house in one of the older and more genteel districts, in what I suppose used to be the servants’ quarters. This means there are two flights of stairs between us and the front door, the higher flight narrow and slippery, the lower one wide and carpeted but with stair rods that come loose. In the high heels expected by the office I have to go down sideways, clutching the bannister. That morning I made it safely past the line of pioneer brass warming- pans strung on the wall of our stairway, avoided catching myself on the many- pronged spinning wheel on the second-floor landing, and sidestepped quickly down past the ragged regimental flag behind glass and the row of oval- framed ancestors that guard the first stairway. I was relieved to see there was no one in the downstairs hall. On level ground I strode towards the door, swerving to avoid the rubber plant on one side and the hall table with the écru doily and the round brass tray on the other. Behind the velvet curtain to the right I could hear the child performing her morning penance at the piano. I thought I was safe.
But before I reached the door it swung silently inward upon its hinges, and I knew I was trapped. It was the lady down below. She was wearing a pair of spotless gardening gloves and carrying a trowel. I wondered who she’d been burying in the garden.
“Good morning, Miss MacAlpin,” she said.
“Good morning.” I nodded and smiled. I can never remember her name, and neither can Ainsley; I suppose we have what they call a mental block about it. I looked past her towards the street, but she didn’t move out of the doorway.
“I was out last night,” she said. “At a meeting.” She has an indirect way of going about things. I shifted from one foot to the other and smiled again, hoping she would realize I was in a hurry. “The child tells me there was another fire.”
“Well, it wasn’t exactly a fire,” I said. The child had taken this mention of her name as an excuse to stop practising, and was standing now in the velvet doorway of the parlour, staring at me. She is a hulking creature of fifteen or so who is being sent to an exclusive private girls’ school, and she has to wear a green tunic with knee-socks to match. I’m sure she’s really quite normal, but there’s something cretinous about the hair- ribbon perched up on top of her gigantic body.
The lady down below took off one of her gloves and patted her chignon. “Ah,” she said sweetly. “The child says there was a lot of smoke.”
“Everything was under control,” I said, not smiling this time. “It was just the pork chops.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “Well, I do wish you would tell Miss Tewce to try not to make quite so much smoke in future. I’m afraid it upsets the child.” She holds Ainsley alone responsible for the smoke, and seems to think she sends it out of her nostrils like a dragon. But she never stops Ainsley in the hall to talk about it: only me. I suspect she’s decided Ainsley isn’t respectable, whereas I am. It’s probably the way we dress: Ainsley says I choose clothes as though they’re a camouflage or a protective colouration, though I can’t see anything wrong with that. She herself goes in for neon pink.
Of course I missed the bus: as I crossed the lawn I could see it disappearing across the bridge in a cloud of air pollution. While I was standing under the tree – our street has many trees, all of them enormous – waiting for the next bus, Ainsley came out of the house and joined me. She’s a quick- change artist; I could never put myself together in such a short time. She was looking a lot healthier – possibly the effects of makeup, though you can never tell with Ainsley – and she had her red hair piled up on top of her head, as she always does when she goes to work. The rest of the time she wears it down in straggles. She had on her orange and pink sleeveless dress, which I judged was too tight across the hips. The day was going to be hot and humid; already I could feel a private atmosphere condensing around me like a plastic bag. Maybe I should have worn a sleeveless dress too.
“She got me in the hall,” I said. “About the smoke.”
“The old bitch,” said Ainsley. “Why can’t she mind her own business?” Ainsley doesn’t come from a small town as I do, so she’s not as used to people being snoopy; on the other hand she’s not as afraid of it either. She has no idea about the consequences.
“She’s not that old,” I said, glancing over at the curtained windows of the house; though I knew she couldn’t hear us. “Besides, it wasn’t her who noticed the smoke, it was the child. She was at a meeting.”
“Probably the W.C.T.U.,” Ainsley said. “Or the I.O.D.E. I’ll bet she wasn’t at a meeting at all; she was hiding behind that damn velvet curtain, wanting us to think she was at a meeting so we’d really do something. What she wants is an orgy.”
“Now Ainsley,” I said, “you’re being paranoid.” Ainsley is convinced that the lady down below comes upstairs when we aren’t there and looks round our apartment and is silently horrified, and even suspects her of ruminating over our mail, though not of going so far as to open it. It’s a fact that she sometimes answers the front door for our visitors before they ring the bell. She must think she’s within her rights to take precautions: when we first considered renting the apartment she made it clear to us, by discreet allusions to previous tenants, that whatever happened the child’s innocence must not be corrupted, and that two young ladies were surely more to be depended upon than two young men.
“I’m doing my best,” she had said, sighing and shaking her head. She had intimated that her husband, whose portrait in oils hung above the piano, had not left as much money as he should have. “Of course you realize your apartment has no private entrance?” She had been stressing the drawbacks rather than the advantages, almost as though she didn’t want us to rent. I said we did realize it; Ainsley said nothing. We had agreed I would do the talking and Ainsley would sit and look innocent, something she can do very well when she wants to – she has a pink- and- white blunt baby’s face, a bump for a nose, and large blue eyes she can make as round as ping- pong balls. On this occasion I had even got her to wear gloves.
The lady down below shook her head again. “If it weren’t for the child,” she said, “I would sell the house. But I want the child to grow up in a good district.”
I said I understood, and she said that of course the district wasn’t as good as it used to be: some of the larger houses were too expensive to keep up and the owners had been forced to sell them to immigrants (the corners of her mouth turned gently down) who had divided them up into rooming houses. “But that hasn’t reached our street yet,” she said. “And I tell the child exactly which streets she can walk on and which she can’t.” I said I thought that was wise. She had seemed much easier to deal with before we had signed the lease. And the rent was so low, and the house was so close to the bus stop. For this city it was a real find.
“Besides,” I added to Ainsley, “they have a right to be worried about the smoke. What if the house was on fire? And she’s never mentioned the other things.”
“What other things? We’ve never done any other things.”
“Well . . .” I said. I suspected the lady down below had taken note of all the bottle- shaped objects we had carried upstairs, though I tried my best to disguise them as groceries. It was true she had never specifically forbidden us to do anything – that would be too crude a violation of her law of nuance – but this only makes me feel I am actually forbidden to do everything.
“On still nights,” said Ainsley as the bus drew up, “I can hear her burrowing through the woodwork.”
We didn’t talk on the bus; I don’t like talking on buses, I would rather look at the advertisements. Besides, Ainsley and I don’t have much in common except the lady down below. I’ve only known her since just before we moved in: she was a friend of a friend, looking for a room mate at the same time I was, which is the way these things are usually done. Maybe I should have tried a computer; though on the whole it’s worked out fairly well. We get along by a symbiotic adjustment of habits and with a minimum of that pale- mauve hostility you often find among women. Our apartment is never exactly clean, but we keep it from gathering more than a fine plum- bloom of dust by an unspoken agreement: if I do the breakfast dishes, Ainsley does the supper ones; if I sweep the living- room floor, Ainsley wipes the kitchen table. It’s a see- saw arrangement and we both know that if one beat is missed the whole thing will collapse. Of course we each have our own bedroom and what goes on in there is strictly the owner’s concern. For instance Ainsley’s floor is covered by a treacherous muskeg of used clothes with ashtrays scattered here and there on it like stepping- stones, but though I consider it a fire hazard I never speak to her about it. By such mutual refrainings – I assume they are mutual since there must be things I do that she doesn’t like – we manage to preserve a reasonably frictionless equilibrium.
We reached the subway station, where I bought a package of peanuts. I was beginning to feel hungry already. I offered some to Ainsley, but she refused, so I ate them all on the way downtown.
We got off at the second- last stop south and walked a block together; our office buildings are in the same district.
“By the way,” said Ainsley as I was turning off at my street, “have you got three dollars? We’re out of scotch.” I rummaged in my purse and handed over, not without a sense of injustice: we split the cost but rarely the contents. At the age of ten I wrote a temperance essay for a United Church Sunday- school competition, illustrating it with pictures of car crashes, diagrams of diseased livers, and charts showing the effects of alcohol upon the circulatory system; I expect that’s why I can never take a second drink without a mental image of a warning sign printed in coloured crayons and connected with the taste of tepid communion grape juice. This puts me at a disadvantage with Peter; he likes me to try and keep up with him.
As I hurried towards my office building, I found myself envying Ainsley her job. Though mine was better- paying and more interesting, hers was more temporary: she had an idea of what she wanted to do next. She could work in a shiny new air- conditioned office building, whereas mine was dingy brick with small windows. Also, her job was unusual. When she meets people at parties they are always surprised when she tells them she’s a tester of defective electric toothbrushes, and she always says, “What else do you do with a B.A. these days?” Whereas my kind of job is only to be expected. I was thinking too that really I was better equipped to handle her job than she is. From what I see around the apartment, I’m sure I have much more mechanical ability than Ainsley.
By the time I finally reached the office I was three- quarters of an hour late. None commented but all took note.
From the Trade Paperback edition.