The Giver of Stars Page 2

And then she hears it, Nancy’s voice in the distance.

    Oh, what peace we often forfeit!

 Oh, what needless pain we bear—


His head lifts. She hears a No!, and some distant part of her recognizes with surprise that it has emerged from her own mouth. His fingers grab and pull at her, one arm reaching for her waist, throwing her off-balance; in his determined grip, his rank breath, she feels her future morphing into something black and awful. But the cold has made him clumsy. He fumbles as he reaches for his gun again, his back to her, and at that moment she sees her chance. She reaches behind into her saddlebag with her left hand, and as he turns his head she drops the reins, grabs the other corner with her right fist, and swings the heavy book as hard as she can, smack, into his face. His gun goes off, the sound a three-dimensional crack! ricocheting off the trees, and she hears the singing briefly silenced, the birds rising into the sky—a shimmering black cloud of flapping wings. As McCullough drops, the mule bucks and lurches forward in fright, stumbling over him, so that she gasps and has to grab the horn of the saddle to stay on.

And then she is off along the creek bed, her breath tight in her throat, her heart pounding, trusting the mule’s sure feet to find a hold in the splashing icy water, not daring to look back to see if McCullough has made it to his feet to come after her.


   Three months earlier

It was, everyone agreed, fanning themselves outside the store or passing in the shade of the eucalyptus trees, unseasonably warm for September. The meeting hall at Baileyville was thick with the smells of lye soap and stale perfume, bodies wedged together in good poplin dresses and summer suits. The heat had permeated even the clapboard walls so that the wood creaked and sighed in protest. Pressed tight behind Bennett as he shuffled his way along the row of packed seats, apologizing as each person rose from their chair with a barely suppressed sigh, Alice swore that she felt the warmth of each body leach into her own as it leaned backward to let them pass.

So sorry. So sorry.

Bennett finally reached two empty seats and Alice, her cheeks glowing with embarrassment, sat down, ignoring the sideways glances of the people around them. Bennett looked down at his lapel, brushing at non-existent lint, then spotted her skirt. “You didn’t change?” he murmured.

“You said we were late.”

“I didn’t mean for you to come out with your house clothes on.”

She had been trying to make cottage pie, to encourage Annie to put something other than Southern food on the table. But the potatoes had gone green, she hadn’t been able to gauge the heat of the range, and the grease had spattered all over her when she dropped the meat onto the griddle. And when Bennett came in looking for her (she had, of course, lost track of time) he could not for the life of him see why she wouldn’t just leave culinary matters to the housekeeper when an important meeting was about to take place.

Alice placed her hand over the largest grease mark on her skirt and resolved to keep it there for the next hour. Because it would be an hour. Or two. Or—Lord help her—three.

Church and meetings. Meetings and church. Sometimes Alice Van Cleve felt as if she had merely swapped one tedious daily pastime for another. That very morning in church Pastor McIntosh had spent almost two hours declaiming the sinners who were apparently plotting ungodly dominance around the little town, and was now fanning himself and looking disturbingly ready to speak again.

“Put your shoes back on,” Bennett murmured. “Someone might see you.”

“It’s this heat,” she said. “They’re English feet. They’re not used to these temperatures.” She felt, rather than saw, her husband’s weary disapproval. But she was too hot and tired to care, and the speaker’s voice had a narcoleptic quality so that she caught only every third word or so—germinating . . . pods . . . chaff . . . paper bags—and found it hard to care much about the rest.

Married life, she had been told, would be an adventure. Travel to a new land! She had married an American, after all. New food! A new culture! New experiences! She had pictured herself in New York, neat in a two-piece suit in bustling restaurants and on crowded sidewalks. She would write home, boasting of her new experiences. Oh, Alice Wright? Wasn’t she the one who married the gorgeous American? Yes, I had a postcard from her—she was at the Metropolitan Opera, or Carnegie Hall . . .

Nobody had warned that it would involve so much small-talk over good china with elderly aunts, so much pointless mending and quilting or, even worse, so many deathly dull sermons. Endless, decades-long sermons and meetings. Oh, but these men did love the sound of their own voices! She felt as if she were being scolded for hours, four times a week.

The Van Cleves had stopped at no fewer than thirteen churches on their way back here, and the only sermon that Alice enjoyed had taken place in Charleston, where the preacher had gone on so long his congregation had lost patience and decided, as one, to “sing him down”—to drown him out with song until he got the message and rather crossly closed his religious shop for the day. His vain attempts to speak over them, as their voices rose and swelled determinedly, had made her giggle.

The congregations of Baileyville, Kentucky, she had observed, seemed disappointingly rapt.

“Just put them back on, Alice. Please.”

She caught the eye of Mrs. Schmidt, in whose parlor she had taken tea two weeks previously, and looked to the front again, trying not to appear too friendly in case she invited her a second time.

“Well, thank you, Hank, for that advice on seed storage. I’m sure you’ve given us a lot to think about.”

As Alice slid her feet into her shoes, the pastor added, “Oh, no, don’t get up, ladies and gentlemen. Mrs. Brady has asked for a moment of your time.”

Alice, now wise to this phrase, slid off her shoes again. A short middle-aged woman moved to the front—the kind her father would have described as “well upholstered,” with the firm padding and solid curves one associated with a quality sofa.

“It’s about the mobile library,” she said, wafting her neck with a white fan and adjusting her hat. “There have been developments that I would like to bring to your attention.

“We are all aware of the—uh—devastating effects the Depression has had on this great country. So much attention has been focused on survival that many other elements of our lives have had to take a backseat. Some of you may be aware of President and Mrs. Roosevelt’s formidable efforts to restore attention to literacy and learning. Well, earlier this week I was privileged to attend a tea with Mrs. Lena Nofcier, chairman of the Library Service for the Kentucky PTA, and she told us that, as part of it, the Works Progress Administration has instituted a system of mobile libraries in several states—and even a couple here in Kentucky. Some of you may have heard about the library they set up over in Harlan County. Yes? Well, it has proven immensely successful. Under the auspices of Mrs. Roosevelt herself and the WPA—”

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