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The Giver of Stars / (by Jojo Moyes, 2019) -

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The Giver of Stars /   (by Jojo Moyes, 2019) -

The Giver of Stars / (by Jojo Moyes, 2019) -

1937 . . , , , . . , , , , , . , . , . .

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: 332
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The Giver of Stars / (by Jojo Moyes, 2019) -
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2019
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Jojo Moyes
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Julia Whelan
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,
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upper-intermediate
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13:52:35
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upper-intermediate
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Giver of Stars / :

.doc (Word) jojo_moyes_-_the_giver_of_stars.doc [1.23 Mb] (c: 22) .
.pdf jojo_moyes_-_the_giver_of_stars.pdf [1.86 Mb] (c: 11) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: The Giver of Stars

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( , ).


To Barbara Napier, who gave me stars when I needed them. And to librarians everywhere. Prologue 20 December 1937 Listen. Three miles deep in the forest just below Arnotts Ridge, and youre in silence so dense its like youre wading through it. Theres no birdsong past dawn, not even in high summer, and especially not now, with the chill air so thick with moisture that it stills those few leaves clinging gamely to the branches. Among the oak and hickory nothing stirs: wild animals are deep underground, soft pelts intertwined in narrow caves or hollowed-out trunks. The snow is so deep the mules legs disappear up to his hocks, and every few strides he staggers and snorts suspiciously, checking for loose flints and holes under the endless white. Only the narrow creek below moves confidently, its clear water murmuring and bubbling over the stony bed, headed down towards an endpoint nobody around here has ever seen. Margery OHare tests her toes inside her boots, but feeling went a long time back and she winces at the thought of how theyre going to hurt when they warm up again. Three pairs of wool stockings, and in this weather you might as well go bare-legged. She strokes the big mules neck, brushing off the crystals forming on his dense coat with her heavy mens gloves. Extra food for you tonight, Charley boy, she says, and watches as his huge ears flick back. She shifts, adjusting the saddlebags, making sure the mule is balanced as they pick their way down towards the creek. Hot molasses in your supper. Might even have some myself. Four more miles, she thinks, wishing she had eaten more breakfast. Past the Indian escarpment, up the yellow pine track, two more hollers, and old Nancy will appear, singing hymns as she always does, her clear, strong voice echoing through the forest as she walks, arms swinging like a childs, to meet her. You dont have to walk five miles to meet me, she tells the woman, every fortnight. Thats our job. Thats why were on horseback. Oh, you girls do enough. She knows the real reason. Nancy, like her bedbound sister, Jean, back in the tiny log cabin at Red Lick, cannot countenance even a chance that she will miss the next tranche of stories. Shes sixty-four years old with three good teeth and a sucker for a handsome cowboy: That Mack McGuire, he makes my heart flutter like a clean sheet on a long line. She clasps her hands and lifts her eyes to Heaven. The way Archer writes him, well, its like he steps right out of the pages in that book and swings me onto his horse with him. She leans forward conspiratorially. Aint just that horse Id be happy riding. My husband said I had quite the seat when I was a girl! I dont doubt it, Nancy, she responds, every time, and the woman bursts out laughing, slapping her thighs like this is the first time shes said it. A twig cracks and Charleys ears flick. Ears that size, he can probably hear halfway to Louisville. This way, boy, she says, guiding him away from a rocky outcrop. Youll hear her in a minute. Goin somewhere? Margerys head snaps around. He is staggering slightly, but his gaze is level and direct. His rifle, she sees, is cocked, and he carries it, like a fool, with his finger on the trigger. So youll look at me now, will ya, Margery? She keeps her voice steady, her mind racing. I see you, Clem McCullough. I see you, Clem McCullough. He spits as he repeats it, like a nasty child in a schoolyard. His hair stands up on one side, like hes slept on it. You see me while youre lookin down that nose of yours. You see me like you see dirt on your shoe. Like youre somethin special. She has never been afraid of much, but shes familiar enough with these mountain men to know not to pick a fight with a drunk. Especially one bearing a loaded gun. She conducts a swift mental list of people she may have offended Lord knows there seem to be a few but McCullough? Aside from the obvious, she can find nothing. Any beef your family had with my daddy, thats buried with him. Its only me left, and I aint interested in blood feuds. McCullough is directly in her path now, his legs braced in the snow, his finger still on the trigger. His skin has the purple-blue mottle of someone too drunk to realize how cold he is. Probably too drunk to hit straight, but its not a chance she wants to take. She adjusts her weight, slowing the mule; her gaze slides sideways. The banks of the creek are too steep, too dense with trees for her to get past. She would have to persuade him to move or ride right over him, and the temptation to do the latter is strong. The mules ears flick back. In the silence she can hear her own heartbeat, an insistent thump in her ears. She thinks absently that shes not sure shes ever heard it this loud before. Just doing my job, Mr McCullough. Id be obliged if youd let me pass. He frowns, hears the potential insult in her too-polite use of his name, and as he shifts his gun she realizes her error. Your job Think youre so high and mighty. You know what you need? He spits noisily, waiting for her answer. I said, do you know what you need, girl? Suspect my version of what that might be is going to differ a mile or two from yours. Oh, you got all the answers. You think we dont know what you all have been doing? You think we dont know what youve been spreading among decent God-fearing women? We know what youre up to. You got the devil in you, Margery OHare, and theres only one way to get the devil out of a girl like you. Well, Id sure love to stop and find out, but Im busy with my rounds, so maybe we can continue this Shut up! McCullough raises his gun. Shut that damn mouth of yours. She clamps it shut. He takes two steps closer, his legs spread and braced. Git off the mule. Charley shifts uneasily. Her heart is an ice pebble in her mouth. If she turns and flees, hell shoot her. The only route here follows the creek; the forest floor is hardscrabble flint, the trees too dense to find a way forward. Theres nobody for miles, she realizes, nobody except old Nancy making her way slowly across the mountaintop. Shes on her own, and he knows it. His voice lowers. I said git down, now. He takes two steps closer, his footsteps crunching in the snow. And there is the bare truth of it, for her and all the women around here. Doesnt matter how smart you are, how clever, how self-reliant you can always be bettered by a stupid man with a gun. The barrel of his rifle is so close now that she finds herself gazing down two infinite black holes. With a grunt he drops it abruptly, letting it swing behind him on its strap and grabs at her reins. The mule wheels, so that she lurches forward clumsily onto his neck. She feels McCullough claw at her thigh as he reaches back for his gun with his other hand. His breath is sour with drink, and his hand is scaled with dirt; every cell of her body recoils at the feel of it. And then she hears it, Nancys 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 mules 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. 1 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 backwards 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 didnt change? he murmured. You said we were late. I didnt 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 hadnt 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 wouldnt 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. Its this heat, she said. Theyre English feet. Theyre not used to these temperatures. She felt, rather than saw, her husbands weary disapproval. But she was too hot and tired to care, and the speakers 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? Wasnt 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 parlour 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. Im sure youve given us a lot to think about. As Alice slid her feet into her shoes, the pastor added, Oh, no, dont 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. Its 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 back seat. Some of you may be aware of President and Mrs Roosevelts 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 Shes an Episcopalian. What? Roosevelt. Shes an Episcopalian. Mrs Bradys cheek twitched. Well, we wont hold that against her. Shes our First Lady and she is minding to do great things for our country. She should be minding to know her place, not stirring things up everywhere. A jowly man in a pale linen suit shook his head and gazed around him, seeking agreement. Across the way, Peggy Foreman leaned forward to adjust her skirt at precisely the moment Alice noticed her, which made it seem that Alice had been staring at her. Peggy scowled and lifted her tiny nose into the air, then muttered something to the girl beside her, who leaned forward to give Alice the same unfriendly look. Alice sat back in her seat, trying to quell the colour rising in her cheeks. Alice, youre not going to settle in unless you make some friends, Bennett kept telling her, as if she could sway Peggy Foreman and her crew of sour faces. Your sweetheart is casting spells in my direction again, Alice murmured. Shes not my sweetheart. Well, she thought she was. I told you. We were just kids. I met you, and well, thats all history. I wish youd tell her that. He leaned towards her. Alice, the way you keep hanging back, people are starting to think youre kind of stand-offish Im English, Bennett. Were not built to be hospitable. I just think the more you get involved, the better it is for both of us. Pop thinks so, too. Oh. He does, does he? Dont be like that. Mrs Brady shot them a look. As I was saying, due to the success of such endeavours in neighbouring states, the WPA has released funds to enable us to create our own travelling library here in Lee County. Alice stifled a yawn. On the credenza at home there was a photograph of Bennett in his baseball uniform. He had just hit a home run, and his face held a look of peculiar intensity and joy, as if at that moment he were experiencing something transcendent. She wished he would look at her like that again. But when she allowed herself to think about it, Alice Van Cleve realized her marriage had been the culmination of a series of random events, starting with a broken china dog when she and Jenny Fitzwalter had played a game of indoor badminton (it had been raining what else were they supposed to do?), escalating with the loss of her place at secretarial school due to persistent lateness, and finally her apparently unseemly outburst at her fathers boss during Christmas drinks. (But he put his hand on my bottom while I was handing around the vol-au-vents! Alice protested. Dont be vulgar, Alice, her mother said, shuddering.) These three events with an incident involving her brother Gideons friends, too much rum punch, and a ruined carpet (she hadnt realized the punch contained alcohol! Nobody said!) had caused her parents to suggest what they called a period of reflection, which had amounted to keeping Alice indoors. She had heard them talking in the kitchen: Shes always been that way. Shes like your aunt Harriet, Father had said dismissively, and Mother had not spoken to him for two whole days, as if the idea of Alice being the product of her genetic line had been so unbearably offensive. And so, over the long winter, as Gideon went to endless balls and cocktail parties, disappeared for long weekends at friends houses, or partied in London, she gradually fell off her friends invitation lists, and sat at home, working half-heartedly at scrappy embroidery, her only outings accompanying her mother on visits to elderly relatives or to Womens Institute gatherings, where the subjects for discussion tended to be cake, flower-arranging and Lives of the Saints it was as if they were literally trying to bore her to death. She stopped asking Gideon for details after a while as they made her feel worse. Instead she sulked her way through canasta, cheated grumpily at Monopoly, and sat at the kitchen table with her face resting on her forearms as she listened to the wireless, which promised a world far beyond the stifling concerns of her own. So two months later, when Bennett Van Cleve turned up unexpectedly one Sunday afternoon at the ministers spring festival with his American accent, his square jaw and blond hair, carrying with him the scents of a world a million miles from Surrey frankly he could have been the Hunchback of Notre Dame and she would have agreed that moving into a clanging bell-tower was a very fine idea indeed, thank you. Men tended to stare at Alice, and Bennett was immediately smitten by the elegant young Englishwoman with huge eyes and waved, bobbed blonde hair, whose clear, clipped voice was like nothing hed ever heard back in Lexington, and who, his father remarked, might as well be a British princess for her exquisite manners and refined way of lifting a teacup. When Alices mother revealed that they could claim a duchess in the family through marriage two generations back, the older Van Cleve almost expired with joy. A duchess? A royal duchess? Oh, Bennett, wouldnt that have tickled your dear mother? Father and son were visiting Europe with an outreach mission of the Combined Ministry of East Kentucky Under God, observing how the faithful worshipped outside America. Mr Van Cleve had funded several of the attendees, in honour of his late wife, Dolores, as he was prone to announcing during lulls in conversation. He might be a businessman, but it meant nothing, nothing, if it was not done under the auspices of the Lord. Alice thought he seemed a little dismayed by the small and rather un-fervent expressions of religious fervour at St Marys on the Common and the congregation had certainly been taken aback by Pastor McIntoshs ebullient roaring about fire and brimstone (poor Mrs Arbuthnot had had to be escorted through a side door for air). But what the British lacked in piety, Mr Van Cleve observed, they more than made up for with their churches, their cathedrals and all their history. And wasnt that a spiritual experience in itself? Alice and Bennett, meanwhile, were busy with their own, slightly less holy experience. They parted with clutched hands and ardent expressions of affection, the kind heightened by the prospect of imminent separation. They exchanged letters during his stops at Rheims, Barcelona and Madrid. Their exchanges reached a particularly feverish pitch when he reached Rome, and on the way back it was a surprise only to the most disengaged members of the household that Bennett proposed, and Alice, with the alacrity of a bird seeing its cage door swing open, hesitated a whole half-second before she said yes, she would, to her now lovelorn and rather deliciously tanned American. Who wouldnt say yes to a handsome, square-jawed man, who looked at her as if she were made of spun silk? Everyone else had spent the past months looking at her as if she were contaminated. Why, you are just perfect, Bennett would tell her, holding his thumb and forefinger around her narrow wrist as they sat on the swing seat in her parents garden, collars up against the breeze and their fathers watched indulgently from the library window, both, for their own reasons, privately relieved about the match. Youre so delicate and refined. Like a Thoroughbred. He pronounced it refahnd. And youre ridiculously handsome. Like a movie star. Mother would have loved you. He ran a finger down her cheek. Youre like a china doll. Six months on, Alice was pretty sure he didnt think of her as a china doll any more. They had married swiftly, explaining the haste as Mr Van Cleves need to return to his business. Alice felt as if her whole world had flipped; she was as happy and giddy as she had been despondent through the long winter. Her mother packed her trunk with the same faintly indecent delight with which she had told everyone in her circle about Alices lovely American husband and his rich industrialist father. It might have been nice if shed looked a tiny bit mournful at the thought of her only daughter moving to a part of America nobody she knew had ever visited. But, then, Alice had probably been equally eager to go. Only her brother was openly sad, and she was pretty sure he would recover with his next weekend away. Ill come and see you, of course, Gideon said. They both knew he wouldnt. Bennett and Alices honeymoon consisted of a five-day voyage back to the United States, then onward by road from New York to Kentucky. (She had looked Kentucky up in the encyclopaedia and been quite taken with all the horse-racing. It sounded like a year-long Derby Day.) She squealed with excitement at everything: their huge car, the size of the enormous ocean liner, the diamond pendant Bennett bought her as a gift from a store in Londons Burlington Arcade. She didnt mind Mr Van Cleve accompanying them the entire journey. It would, after all, have been rude to leave the older man alone, and she was too overcome with excitement at the idea of leaving Surrey, with its silent Sunday drawing rooms and permanent atmosphere of disapproval, to mind. If Alice felt a vague dissatisfaction with the way Mr Van Cleve stuck to them like a limpet, she smothered it, doing her best to be the delightful version of herself that the two men seemed to expect. On the liner between Southampton and New York she and Bennett at least managed to stroll the decks alone in the hours after supper while his father was working on his business papers or talking to the elders at the captains table. Bennetts strong arm would pull her close, and she would hold up her left hand with its shiny new gold band, and wonder at the fact that she, Alice, was a married woman. And when they were back in Kentucky, she told herself, she would be properly married, as the three of them would no longer have to share a cabin, curtained off as it was. Its not quite the trousseau I had in mind, she whispered, in her undershirt and pyjama bottoms. She didnt feel comfortable in less, after Mr Van Cleve senior had, in his half-asleep state one night, confused the curtain of their double bunk with that of the bathroom door. Bennett kissed her forehead. It wouldnt feel right with Father so close by, anyway, he whispered back. He placed the long bolster between them (Else I might not be able to control myself) and they lay side by side, hands held chastely in the dark, breathing audibly as the huge ship vibrated beneath them. When she looked back, the long trip was suffused with her suppressed longing, with furtive kisses behind lifeboats, her imagination racing as the sea rose and fell beneath them. Youre so pretty. It will all be different when we get home, he would murmur into her ear, and she would gaze at his beautiful sculpted face and bury her face in his sweet-smelling neck, wondering how much longer she could bear it. And then, after the endless car journey, and the stopovers with this minister and that pastor the whole way from New York to Kentucky, Bennett had announced that they would not be living in Lexington, as she had assumed, but in a small town some way further south. They drove past the city and kept going until the roads narrowed and grew dusty, and the buildings sat sparsely in random groupings, overshadowed by vast tree-covered mountains. It was fine, she assured him, hiding her disappointment at the sight of Baileyvilles main street, with its handful of brick buildings and narrow roads that stretched to nowhere. She was quite fond of the countryside. And they could take trips to town, like her mother did to Simpsons in the Strand, couldnt they? She struggled to be equally sanguine at the discovery that, for the first year at least, they would be living with Mr Van Cleve (I cant leave Father alone while hes grieving Mother. Not just yet, anyway. Dont look so dismayed, sweetheart. Its the second largest house in town. And well have our own room.) And then once they were finally in that room, of course, things had gone awry in a way she wasnt sure she even had the words to explain. With the same gritting of teeth with which she had endured boarding school and Pony Club, Alice attempted to adjust to life in the small Kentucky town. It was quite the cultural shift. She could detect, if she tried hard, a certain rugged beauty in the landscape, with its huge skies, its empty roads and shifting light, its mountains among whose thousands of trees wandered actual wild bears, and whose treetops were skimmed by eagles. She was awed at the size of everything, the vast distances that felt ever-present, as if she had had to adjust her whole perspective. But, in truth, she wrote, in her weekly letters to Gideon, everything else was pretty much impossible. She found life in the big white house stifling, although Annie, the near silent housekeeper, relieved her of most household duties. It was indeed one of the largest in town but was stuffed with heavy antique furniture, every surface covered with the late Mrs Van Cleves photographs or ornaments or a variety of unblinking porcelain dolls that each man would remark was Mothers favourite, should Alice attempt to move them an inch. Mrs Van Cleves exacting, pious influence hung over the house like a shroud. Mother wouldnt have liked the bolsters positioned like that, would she, Bennett? Oh, no. Mother had very strong opinions on soft furnishings. Mother did love her embroidered psalms. Why, didnt Pastor McIntosh say he didnt know a woman in the whole of Kentucky whose blanket stitch was finer? She found Mr Van Cleves constant presence overbearing; he decided what they did, what they ate, the very routines of their day. He couldnt stand to be away from whatever was going on, even if it was just she and Bennett playing the gramophone in their room and would burst in unannounced: Is it music were having now, huh? Oh, you should put on some Bill Monroe. You cant beat ole Bill. Go on, boy, take off that racket and put some ole Bill on. If hed had a glass or two of bourbon, those pronouncements would come thick and fast, and Annie would find reasons to lurk in the kitchen before he could rile himself and find fault with dinner. He was just grieving, Bennett would murmur. You couldnt blame a man for not wanting to be alone in his head. Bennett, she discovered swiftly, never disagreed with his father. On the few occasions she had spoken up and said, calmly, that no, actually, shed never been a great fan of pork chops or that she personally found jazz music rather thrilling the two men would drop their forks and stare at her with the same shocked disapproval as if she had removed all her clothes and danced a jig on the dining table. Whyd you have to be so contrary, Alice? Bennett would whisper, as his father left to shout orders at Annie. She realized swiftly it was safer not to express an opinion at all. Outside the house was little better; among the townspeople of Baileyville she was observed with the same assessing eye they turned on anything foreign. Most people in the town were farmers; they seemed to spend their whole lives within a radius of a few miles and knew everything about one another. There were foreigners, apparently, up at Hoffman Mining, which housed some five hundred mining families from all over the globe, overseen by Mr Van Cleve. But as most of the miners lived in the company-provided homes there, used the company-owned store, school and doctor, and were too poor to own either vehicles or horses, few ever crossed into Baileyville. Every morning Mr Van Cleve and Bennett would head off in Mr Van Cleves motor-car to the mine and return shortly after six. In between, Alice would find herself whiling away the hours in a house that wasnt hers. She tried to make friends with Annie, but the woman had let her know, through a combination of silence and overly brisk housekeeping, that she didnt intend to make conversation. Alice had offered to cook, but Annie had informed her that Mr Van Cleve was particular about his diet and liked only Southern food, guessing correctly that Alice knew nothing about it. Most households grew their own fruit and vegetables, and there were few that didnt have a pig or two or a flock of hens. There was one general store, huge sacks of flour and sugar lining the doorway, and its shelves thick with cans. And there was just the one restaurant: the Nice N Quick with its green door, firm instruction that patrons must wear shoes, and which served things shed never heard of, like fried green tomatoes and collard greens and things they called biscuits that were actually a cross between a dumpling and a scone. She once attempted to make some, but they emerged from the temperamental range not soft and spongy like Annies but solid enough to clatter when dropped onto a plate (she swore Annie had jinxed them). She had been invited to tea several times by local ladies and tried to make conversation but found she had little to say, being hopeless at quilting, which seemed to be the local preoccupation, and knowing nothing about the names they bandied around in gossip. Every tea after the first seemed obliged to begin with the story of how Alice had offered biscuits with her tea instead of cookies (the other women had found this hysterical). In the end it was easier just to sit on the bed in her and Bennetts room and read again the few magazines she had brought from England or write Gideon yet another letter in which she tried not to reveal how unhappy she was. She had, she realized gradually, simply traded one domestic prison for another. Some days she couldnt face another night watching Bennetts father reading scripture from the squeaking rocking chair on the porch (Gods word should be all the mental stimulation we require, wasnt that what Mother said?), while she sat breathing in the oil-soaked rags they burned to keep the mosquitoes away and mending the worn patches in his clothes (God hates waste why, those pants were only four years old, Alice. Plenty of life left in them). Alice grumbled inwardly that if God had had to sit in the near dark stitching up someone elses trousers He would probably have bought Himself a nice new pair from Arthur J. Harmons Gentlemans Store in Lexington, but she smiled a tight smile and squinted harder at the stitches. Bennett, meanwhile, frequently wore the expression of someone who had been duped into something and couldnt quite work out what and how it had happened. So, what the Sam Hill is a travelling library, anyway? Alice was startled out of her reverie with a sharp nudge from Bennetts elbow. They got one in Mississippi, using boats, called a voice near the back of the hall. You wont get no boats up and down our creeks. Too shallow. I believe the plan is to use horses, said Mrs Brady. Theyre gonna take horses up and down the river? Crazy talk. The first delivery of books had come from Chicago, Mrs Brady continued, and more were en route. There would be a wide selection of fiction, from Mark Twain to Shakespeare, and practical books containing recipes, domestic tips and help with child-rearing. There would even be comic books a revelation that made some of the children squeal with excitement. Alice checked her wristwatch, wondering when she would get her shaved ice. The one good thing about these meetings was that they werent stuck in the house all evening. She was already dreading what the winters would be like, when it would be harder for them to find reasons to escape. What man has time to go riding? We need to be working, not paying social calls with the latest edition of Ladies Home Journal. There was a low ripple of laughter. Tom Faraday likes to look at the ladies undergarments in the Sears catalogue, though. I heard he spends hours at a time in the outhouse reading that! Mr Porteous! Its not men; its women, came a voice. There was a brief silence. Alice turned to look. A woman was leaning against the back doors in a dark blue cotton coat, her sleeves rolled up. She wore leather breeches, and her boots were unpolished. She might have been in her late thirties or early forties, her face handsome and her long dark hair tied back in a cursory knot. Its women doing the riding. Delivering the books. Women? By themselves? came a mans voice. Last time I looked, God gave em two arms and two legs, just like the men. A brief murmur rippled through the audience. Alice peered more closely, intrigued. Thank you, Margery. Over at Harlan County theyve got six women and a whole system up and running. And, as I say, well be getting something similar going here. We have two librarians already, and Mr Guisler has very kindly lent us a couple of his horses. Id like to take this opportunity to thank him for his generosity. Mrs Brady motioned the younger woman forward. Many of you will also know Miss OHare Oh, we know the OHares all right. Then you will be aware that she has been working these last weeks to help set things up. We also have Beth Pinker stand up, Beth a freckled girl with a snub nose and dark blonde hair stood awkwardly and sat straight back down again who is working with Miss OHare. One of the many reasons I called this meeting is that we need more ladies who understand the rudiments of literature and its organization so that we can move forward with this most worthy of civic projects. Mr Guisler, the horse dealer, lifted a hand. He stood up and after hesitating a moment, he spoke with a quiet certainty: Well, I think its a fine idea. My own mother was a great reader of books, and Ive offered up my old milk barn for the library. I believe all right-minded people here should be supporting it. Thank you. He sat down again. Margery OHare leaned her backside against the desk at the front and gazed steadily out at the sea of faces. Alice noted a murmur of vague discontent moving around the room, and it seemed to be directed at her. She also noted that Margery OHare seemed supremely untroubled by it. We have a large county to cover, Mrs Brady added. We cant do it with just two girls. A woman at the front of the hall called: So, what would it mean? This horseback-librarian thing? Well, it would involve riding to some of our more remote dwellings, and providing reading materials to those who might not otherwise be able to travel to the county libraries, due to, say, ill-health, frailty or lack of transportation. She lowered her head so that she could see over her half-moon spectacles. I would add that this is to aid the spread of education, to help bring knowledge to those places where it might currently be sadly lacking. Our president and his wife believe this project can bring knowledge and learning back to the foreground of rural lives. I aint letting my lady ride up in no mountain, came a call from the back. You just afraid she wont come back again, Henry Porteous? You can have mine. Id be moren happy if she rode off and never come home! A burst of laughter travelled across the room. Mrs Bradys voice lifted in frustration. Gentlemen. Please. I am asking for some of our ladies to contribute to our civic good and sign up. The WPA will provide the horse and the books, and you would simply be required to commit to at least four days a week delivering them. There will be early starts and long days, given the topography of our beautiful county, but I believe there will be huge rewards. So why dont you do it? came a voice from the back. I would volunteer, but as many of you know I am a martyr to my hips. Dr Garnett has warned me that to ride such distances would be too great a physical challenge. Ideally we are looking for volunteers among our younger ladies. It aint safe for a young lady by herself. Im agin it. Taint proper. Women should be looking after the home. Whats next? Women down the mines? Driving lumber trucks? Mr Simmonds, if you cant see theres a world of difference between a lumber truck and a copy of Twelfth Night, then Lord help Kentuckys economy, for I dont know where well be headed. Families should be reading the Bible. Nothing else. Whos going to keep an eye on what theyre putting out there, anyhow? You know what theyre like up north. They might spread all kinds of crazy notions. Its books, Mr Simmonds. The same you learned with when you were a boy. But, then, I seem to remember you were more keen on tweaking girls pigtails than you were on reading. Another burst of laughter. Nobody moved. A woman looked at her husband, but he gave a small shake of his head. Mrs Brady raised a hand. Oh, I forgot to mention. It is a paid opportunity. Remuneration will be in the region of twenty-eight dollars a month. So, who would like to sign up? There was a brief murmur. I cant, said a woman with extravagantly pinned red hair. Not with four babies under five. I just dont see why our government is wasting hard-earned tax dollars dishing out books to people who cant even read, said Jowly Man. Why, half of em dont even go to church. Mrs Bradys voice had taken on a slightly desperate note. A months trial. Come on, ladies. I cant go back and tell Mrs Nofcier that not one person in Baileyville would volunteer. What kind of place would she think we were? Nobody spoke. The silence stretched. To Alices left, a bee bumped lazily against the window. People began to shift in their seats. Mrs Brady, undaunted, eyed the assembly. Cmon. Lets not have another incident like the Orphans Fundraiser. There were apparently many pairs of shoes that suddenly required close attention. Not a one? Really? Well Izzy will be the first, then. A small, almost perfectly spherical girl, half hidden among the packed audience, raised her hands to her mouth. Alice saw rather than heard the girls mouth form the protest. Mother! Thats one volunteer. My little girl will not be afraid to do her duty for our country, will you, Izzy? Any more? Nobody spoke. Not one of you? You dont think learning is important? You dont think encouraging our less fortunate families to a position of education is imperative? She glared out at the meeting. Well. This is not the response that I anticipated. Ill do it, said Alice, into the silence. Mrs Brady squinted, raising her hand above her eyes. Is that Mrs Van Cleve? Yes, it is. Alice. You cant sign up, Bennett whispered urgently. Alice leaned forward. My husband was just telling me that he believes strongly in the importance of civic duty, just as his dear mother did, so I would be happy to volunteer. Her skin prickled as the eyes of the audience slid towards her. Mrs Brady fanned herself a little more vigorously. But you dont know your way around these parts, dear. I dont think that would be very sensible. Yes, Bennett hissed, you dont know your way around, Alice. Ill show her. Margery OHare nodded to Alice. Ill ride the routes with her for a week or two. We can keep her close to town till shes got a nose for it. Alice, I Bennett whispered. He seemed flustered and glanced up at his father. Can you ride? Since I was four years old. Mrs Brady rocked back on her heels in satisfaction. Well, there you are, Miss OHare. You have another two librarians already. Its a start. Margery OHare smiled at Alice, and Alice smiled back almost before she realized what she was doing. Well, I do not think this is a wise idea at all, said George Simmonds. And I shall be writing to Governor Hatch tomorrow to tell him as much. I believe sending young women out by themselves is a recipe for disaster. And I can see nothing but the foment of ungodly thoughts and bad behaviour from this ill-conceived idea, First Lady or not. Good day, Mrs Brady. Good day, Mr Simmonds. The gathering began to rise heavily from its seats. Ill see you at the library on Monday morning, said Margery OHare, as they walked out into the sunlight. She thrust out a hand and shook Alices. You can call me Marge. She glanced up at the sky, wedged a wide-brimmed leather hat onto her head, and strode off towards a large mule, which she greeted with the same enthusiastic surprise as if it were an old friend she had just bumped into on the street. Bennett watched her go. Mrs Van Cleve, I have no idea what you think youre doing. Hed said it twice before she remembered that this, in fact, was now her name. 2 Baileyville was unremarkable among the towns of southern Appalachia. Nestled between two ridges, it comprised two main roads of a stuttering mixture of brick and timber buildings, linked in a V, off which sprouted a multitude of winding lanes and paths that led at the lower level to distant hollers, as the small valleys were known, and at the higher, to a scattering of mountain houses across the tree-covered ridges. Those houses near the upper reaches of the creek traditionally housed the wealthier and more respectable families it being easier to make a legitimate living on the flatter lands, and easier to hide a liquor still in the wilder, higher parts but as the century had crept forward, the influx of miners and supervisors, the subtle changes in the demographics of the little town and its county, had meant that it was no longer possible to judge who was who simply by which leg of the road they lived on. The Baileyville WPA Packhorse Library was to be based in the last wooden cabin up Split Creek, a turning on the right off Main Street and a road that contained white-collar workers, shopkeepers and those who made a living mostly by trading what they grew. It was squat on the ground, unlike many of the lower buildings, which were set on stilts to protect them from the spring floods. Cast into part-shadow by an oversized oak to its left, the building measured approximately fifteen strides by twelve. From the front it was entered by a small flight of rickety wooden stairs and from the back by a wooden door that had once been wide enough for cows. Itll be a way for me to get to know everyone around town, she had told the two men over breakfast, as Bennett yet again questioned his wifes wisdom in taking the job. Which is what you wanted, isnt it? And I wont be under Annies feet all day. She had discovered that if she exaggerated her English accent, they found it harder to disagree with her. In recent weeks she had begun to sound positively regal. And, of course, I will be able to observe who is in need of religious sustenance. She has a point, said Mr Van Cleve, removing a piece of bacon gristle from the side of his mouth and placing it carefully on the side of his plate. She could do it just till the babbies come along. Alice and her husband had studiously avoided looking at each other. Now Alice approached the single-storey building, her boots kicking up loose dirt in the road. She put her hand to her brow and squinted. A newly painted sign proclaimed USA PACKHORSE LIBRARY, WPA and the sound of hammering emerged in staccato bursts from inside. Mr Van Cleve had indulged a little too freely the previous evening and had awoken determined to find fault with whatever anyone happened to do in his house. Including breathing. She had crept around, wrenched her way into her breeches, then found herself singing softly on the half-mile walk to the library, just for the joy of having somewhere else to be. She stood back a couple of paces, trying to peer in, and as she did, she became aware of the low hum of an approaching motor, along with another, more erratic sound she couldnt quite distinguish. She turned to see the truck, noticing the shocked expression on the drivers face. Whoa! Mind out! Alice spun around just as a riderless horse came galloping down the narrow road towards her, its stirrups flapping, reins tangled in its spindly legs. As the truck swerved to avoid it, the horse shied and stumbled, sending Alice sprawling into the dust. She was dimly aware of a pair of overalls leaping past her, the blare of a horn and a clatter of hoofs. Whoa whoa there. Whoa, fella Ow. She rubbed her elbow, her head ringing with the impact. When she finally sat up she saw that a few yards away a man was holding the horses bridle and running a hand down its neck, trying to settle it. Its eyes rolled white, and veins popped on its neck, like a relief map. That fool! A young woman was jogging down the road towards them. Old man Vance tooted his horn on purpose and he bucked me off in the road. You okay? You took quite a spill there. A hand reached out and helped Alice to her feet. She stood, blinking, and regarded its owner: a tall man in overalls and a checked shirt, his eyes softening in sympathy. A nail still protruded from the corner of his mouth. He spat it into his palm and shoved it into his pocket before offering a handshake. Frederick Guisler. Alice Van Cleve. The English bride. His palm was rough. Beth Pinker appeared, panting, between them and snatched the reins from Frederick Guisler with a growl. Scooter, you aint got the damn brains you was born with. The man turned to her. Told you, Beth. You cant run a Thoroughbred out of here at a gallop. It gets him wound up like a spring. Take the first twenty minutes at a walk and hell be good for the day. Who has time to walk? I got to get to Paint Lick by midday. Shoot, hes put a hole in my best breeches. Beth tugged the horse over to the mounting block, still muttering under her breath, then turned abruptly. Oh. You the new girl? Marge said to tell you shes coming. Thank you. Alice lifted a palm, before picking at the selection of small stones embedded in it. As they watched, Beth checked her saddlebags, cursed again, wheeled the horse round, and set off back up the road at a sideways canter. Frederick Guisler turned back to Alice, shaking his head. You sure youre okay? I can fetch you some water. Alice tried to look nonchalant, as if her elbow wasnt throbbing and she hadnt just realized that a fine layer of grit was decorating her upper lip. Im fine. Ill just sit here on the step. The stoop? He grinned. Yes, that too, she said. Frederick Guisler left her to it. He was lining the walls of the library with rough pine shelves, beneath which stood boxes of waiting books. One wall was already filled with a variety of titles, neatly labelled, and a pile in the corner suggested some had already been returned. Unlike the Van Cleve house, the little building held an air of purpose, the sense that it was about to become something useful. As she sat rubbing dirt from her clothes, two young women walked past on the other side of the road, both in long seersucker skirts and wide-brimmed hats to keep off the worst of the sun. They glanced across the road at her, then put their heads together, conferring. Alice smiled and lifted a hand tentatively in greeting, but they scowled and turned away. Alice realized with a sigh that they were probably friends with Peggy Foreman. Sometimes she thought she might just make a sign and hang it around her neck: No, I didnt know he had a sweetheart. Fred says you took a fall before you even got on the horse. Takes some doing. Alice glanced up to find Margery OHare looking down at her. She was atop a large, ugly-looking horse with excessively long ears, and leading a smaller brown and white pony. Um well, I You ever rode a mule? Is that a mule? Sure is. But dont tell him. He thinks hes a stallion from Araby. Margery squinted at her from under her wide-brimmed hat. You can try this little paint, Spirit. Shes feisty but shes sure-footed as Charley here, and she dont stop at nothing. The other girl aint coming. Alice stood up and stroked the little mares white nose. The horse half closed her eyes. Her lashes were half white and half brown and she gave off a sweet, meadow-grass scent. Alice was immediately taken back to summers spent riding around her grandmothers estate in Sussex, when she was fourteen and free to escape for whole days at a time, rather than constantly being told how she should behave. Alice, you are too impulsive. She leaned forward and sniffed the baby-soft hair at the mares ears. So you going to make love to her? Or you going to get on and ride? Now? said Alice. You waiting for permission from Mrs Roosevelt? Cmon, we got ground to cover. Without waiting, she wheeled the mule around and Alice had to scramble aboard as the little paint horse took off after her. For the first half-hour Margery OHare said little, and Alice rode silently behind, struggling to adjust to the very different style of riding. Margery wasnt stiff-backed, heels down and chin up, like the girls she had ridden with in England. She was loose-limbed, swayed like a sapling as she steered the mule around and up and down slopes, absorbing every movement. She talked to him more often than she spoke to Alice, scolding or singing to him, occasionally turning 180 degrees in her saddle to shout behind, as if she had just remembered she had company: You okay back there? Fine! Alice would call, trying not to wobble as the mare tried again to turn and bolt back towards the town. Oh, shes just testing you, said Margery, after Alice let out a yelp. Once you let her know youre in charge, shell be sweet as molasses. Alice, feeling the little mare bunch crossly under her, wasnt convinced, but she didnt want to complain in case Margery decided she was not up to the job. They rode through the small town, past lush fenced gardens swollen with corn, tomatoes, greens, Margery tipping her hat to those few people who passed on foot. The horse and the mule snorted and backed up briefly as a huge truck bearing timber came past, but then abruptly they were out of town and headed up a steep, narrow track. Margery pulled back a little as the track widened, so they could travel side by side. So youre the girl from England. She pronounced it Eng-er-land. Yes. Alice stooped to avoid a low-hanging branch. Have you been? Margery kept her face forward, so Alice struggled to hear her. Never been further east than Lewisburg. Thats where my sister used to live. Oh, did she move? She died. Margery reached up to break a switch from a branch and peeled the leaves from it, dropping the reins loose on the mules neck. Im so sorry. Do you have other family? Had. One sister and five brothers. Cept theres just me now. Do you live in Baileyville? Just a lick away. Same house I was born in. Youve only ever lived in one place? Yup. Youre not curious? Bout what? Alice shrugged. I dont know. What it would be like to go somewhere else? Why? Is it better where you come from? Alice thought of the crushing silence of her parents front room, the low squeak of the front gate, her father polishing his motor-car, whistling tunelessly through his teeth every Saturday morning, the minute rearrangements of fish forks and spoons on a carefully ironed Sunday tablecloth. She looked out at the endless green pastures, the huge mountains that rose up on either side of them. Above her a hawk wheeled and cried into the empty blue skies. Possibly not. Margery slowed so that Alice could draw level with her. Got everything I need here. I suit myself, and people generally leave me be. She leaned forward and stroked the mules neck. Thats how I like it. Alice heard the faint barrier in her words, and was quiet. They walked the next couple of miles in silence, Alice conscious of the way the saddle was already rubbing the inside of her knees, the heat of the day settling on her bare head. Margery signalled that they would turn left through a clearing in the trees. Were going to pick up a little here. Youd best take a grip, case she spins round again. Alice felt the little horse shoot forward under her and they were cantering up a long flint track that gradually became more shadowed until they were in the mountains, the horses necks extending, their noses lowering with the effort of picking their way up the steep stony pathways between the trees. Alice breathed in the cooler air, the sweet damp scents of the forest, the path dappling with broken light in front of them, and the trees creating a cathedral canopy high above, from which birdsong trickled down. Alice leaned over the horses neck as they surged forward, and felt suddenly, unexpectedly happy. As they slowed she realized she was smiling broadly, without thinking about it. It was a striking sensation, like someone suddenly able to exercise a lost limb. This is the north-east route. Thought it would be wise if we divided them into eight. Goodness, its so beautiful, Alice said. She stared at the huge sand-coloured rocks that seemed to loom out of nowhere, forming natural shelters. All around her the boulders emerged almost horizontally from the side of the mountain in thick layers, or formed natural stone arches, weathered by centuries of wind and rain. Up here she was separated from the town, from Bennett and his father, by more than geography. She felt as if she had landed on a different planet entirely, where gravity didnt work in the same way. She was acutely aware of the crickets in the grass, the silent slow glide of the birds overhead, the lazy swish of the horses tails as they swept flies from their flanks. Margery walked the mule under an overhang, and beckoned to Alice to follow. See in there? That hole? That theres a hominy hole. You know a hominy hole? Alice shook her head. Where the Indians ground their corn. If you look over there youll see two worn patches in the stone where the ol chief used to rest his backside while the women worked. Alice felt her cheeks glow and stifled a smile. She gazed up at the trees, her relaxed mood evaporating. Are they are they still around? Margery peered at her from under her wide-brimmed hat for a moment. I think youre safe, Mrs Van Cleve. They tend to go to lunch about now. They stopped to eat their sandwiches under the shelter of a railroad bridge, then rode through the mountains all afternoon, the paths winding and doubling back so that Alice couldnt be sure of where they had been or where they were headed. It was hard to gauge north when the treetops spanned high above their heads, obscuring sun and shadow. She asked Margery where they might stop to relieve themselves, and Margery waved a hand. Any tree you like, take your pick. Her new companions conversation was infrequent, pithy and mostly seemed to revolve around who was and wasnt dead. She herself, she said, had Cherokee blood from way back. My great-granddaddy married a Cherokee. I got Cherokee hair, and a good straight nose. We was all a little dark-skinned in our family, though my cousin was born white albino. What does she look like? She didnt live past two. Got bit by a copperhead. Everyone thought she was just cranky till they saw the bite. Course, by then it was too late. Oh, youll need to watch out for snakes. You know about snakes? Alice shook her head. Margery blinked, as if it were unthinkable that someone might not know about snakes. Well, the poisonous ones tend to have heads shaped like a spade, you know? Got it. Alice waited a moment. One of the square ones? Or the digging ones with the pointy ends? My father even has a drain spade, which Margery sighed. Maybe just stay clear of all snakes for now. As they rose up, away from the creek, Margery would jump down periodically and tie a piece of red twine around a tree trunk, using a penknife to slice through it, or biting it and spitting out the ends. This, she said, would show Alice how to find her way back to the open track. You see old man Mullers house on the left there? See the wood smoke? Thats him and his wife and four children. She cant read but the eldest can and hell teach her. Muller dont much like the idea of them learning but hes down the mine from dawn till dusk so Ive been bringing them books anyway. He wont mind? He wont know. Hell come in, wash off the dust, eat what food shes made and be asleep by sundown. Its hard down there and they come back weary. Besides, she keeps the books in her dress trunk. He dont look in there. Margery, it emerged, had been running a skeleton library single-handed for several weeks already. They passed neat little houses on stilts, tiny derelict shingle-roofed cabins that looked like a stiff breeze might blow them down, shacks with ramshackle stands of fruit and vegetables for sale outside, and at each one Margery pointed and explained who lived there, whether they could read, how best to get the material to them, and which houses to steer clear of. Moonshiners, mostly. Illegal liquor that they brewed in hidden stills in the woods. There were those who made it and would shoot you for seeing it, and those who drank it and werent safe to be around. She seemed to know everything about everyone, and delivered each nugget of information in the same easy, laconic way. This was Bob Gillmans he lost an arm in one of the machines at a factory in Detroit and had come back to live with his father. That was Mrs Coghlans house her husband had beat her something awful, until he came home boss-eyed and she sewed him up in his bed sheet and went after him with a switch until he swore hed never do it again. This was where two moonshine stills had exploded with a bang you could hear across two counties. The Campbells still blamed the Mackenzies and would occasionally come past shooting the house up if they got drunk enough. Do you ever get frightened? Alice asked. Frightened? Up here, by yourself. You make it sound like anything could happen. Margery looked as if the thought had never occurred to her. Been riding these mountains since before I could walk. I stay out of trouble. Alice must have seemed sceptical. It aint hard. You know when you have a bunch of animals gathering at a waterhole? Um, not really, no. Surrey isnt big on watering holes. You go to Africa, you got the elephant drinking next to the lion, and hes drinking next to a hippo, and the hippos drinking next to a gazelle. And none of them is bothering each other, right? You know why? No. Because theyre reading each other. And that old gazelle sees that the lion is all relaxed, and that he just wants to take a drink. And the hippo is all easy, and so they all live and let live. But you put them on a plain at dusk, and that same old lion is prowling around with a glint in his eye well, those gazelles know to git, and git fast. There are lions as well as snakes? You read people, Alice. You see someone in the distance and its some miner on his way home and you can tell from his gait hes tired and all he wants is to get back to his place, fill his belly and put his feet up. You see that same miner outside a honky-tonk, half a bottle of bourbon down on a Friday and giving you the stink-eye? You know to get out of the way, right? They rode in silence for a bit. So Margery? Yup. If youve never been further east than where was it, Lewisburg? how is it you know so much about animals in Africa? Margery pulled her mule to a halt and turned to face her. Are you seriously asking me that question? Alice stared at her. And you want me to make you a librarian? It was the first time she had seen Margery laugh. She hooted like a barn owl, and was still laughing halfway back down to Salt Lick. So how was it today? It was fine, thank you. She didnt want to talk about how her backside and thighs ached so badly that she had nearly cried lowering herself onto the seat of the lavatory. Or the tiny cabins they had passed, where she could see the inside walls were papered with sheets of newspaper, which Margery told her were to keep the draughts out in winter. She needed time to process the scale of the land she had navigated, the feeling, as they had picked a horizontal path through a vertical landscape, of being truly in the wild for the first time in her life, the huge birds, the skittering deer, the tiny blue skink lizards. She thought she might not mention the toothless man, who had sworn at them on the road, or the exhausted young mother with four small children running around outside, naked as the day they were born. But mostly the day had been so extraordinary, so precious, that she really didnt want to share any of it with the two men. Did I hear you was riding out with Margery OHare? Mr Van Cleve took a swig of his drink. I was. And Isabelle Brady. She didnt mention that Isabelle had failed to turn up. You want to steer clear of that OHare girl. Shes trouble. How is she trouble? She caught Bennetts flashed look: dont say anything. Mr Van Cleve pointed his fork at her. You mind my words, Alice. Margery OHare comes from a bad family. Frank OHare was the biggest shiner between here and Tennessee. Youre too new to understand what that means. Oh, she might dress herself up in books and fancy words, these days, but underneath shes still the same, just like the no-good rest of em. I tell you, theres no decent ladies around here would take tea with her. Alice tried to imagine Margery OHare giving a flying fig about taking tea with any ladies. She took the plate of cornbread from Annie and put a slice on her plate before passing it on. She realized she was ravenously hungry, despite the heat. Please dont worry. Shes just showing me where to deliver the books. Im just saying. Mind you dont hang around her too much. You dont want her ways rubbing off on you. He took two slices of cornbread and put half a slice straight into his mouth and chewed for a minute, his mouth open. Alice winced and looked away. What kind of books are these, anyway? Alice shrugged. Just books. Theres Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott, some cowboy stories and books to help around the home, recipes and suchlike. Mr Van Cleve shook his head. Half those mountain people cant read a word. Old Henry Porteous thinks its a waste of time and tax dollars, and I have to say Im minded to agree. And, like I said, any scheme with Margery OHare mixed up in it has to be a bad thing. Alice was about to speak up in Margerys defence but a firm pressure from her husbands hand under the table warned her off. I dont know. Mr Van Cleve wiped away some gravy at the side of his mouth. Im pretty sure my wife would not have approved of a scheme like this. But she did believe in charitable acts, Bennett tells me, said Alice. Mr Van Cleve looked across the table. She did, yes. She was a most godly woman. Well, Alice said, after a moment, I do believe that if we can encourage godless families to read, we can encourage them to turn to scripture, and the Bible, and that can only be good for everyone. Her smile was sweet and wide. She leaned forward over the table. Can you imagine all those families, Mr Van Cleve, finally able to truly grasp the word of God through a proper reading of the Bible? Wouldnt that be a marvellous thing? Im sure your wife would have had nothing but encouragement for something like that. There was a long silence. Well, yes, said Mr Van Cleve. You could have a point. He nodded, to suggest that that was the end of the matter, for now at least. Alice saw her husband deflate slightly with relief and wished she didnt hate him for it. Three days in, bad family or not, Alice had swiftly realized that she would rather be around Margery OHare than almost anyone else in Kentucky. Margery didnt speak much. She was utterly uninterested in the slivers of gossip, veiled or otherwise, that seemed to fuel the women at the endless teas and quilting sessions Alice had sat in on up to now. She was uninterested in Alices appearance, her thoughts or her history. Margery went where she liked, and said what she thought, hiding nothing behind the polite courtly euphemisms that everyone else found so useful. Oh, is that the English fashion? How very interesting. And Mr Van Cleve Junior is happy for his wife to ride alone in the mountains, is he? Goodness. Well, perhaps youre persuading him of the English ways of doing things. How novel. Margery behaved, Alice realized with a jolt, like a man. This was such an extraordinary thought that she found herself studying the other woman at a distance, trying to work out how she had come to this astonishing state of liberation. But she wasnt yet brave enough or perhaps still too English to ask. Alice would arrive at the library shortly after seven in the morning, the dew still thick on the grass, waving aside Bennetts offer to drive her in the motor-car and leaving him to breakfast with his father. She would exchange a greeting with Frederick Guisler, who was often to be found talking to a horse, like Margery, and then walk around the back where Spirit and the mule were tethered, their breath sending steam rising into the cool dawn air. The library shelves were almost finished now, stacked with donated books from as far away as New York and Seattle. (The WPA had put out a call to libraries to donate, and brown-paper parcels arrived twice a week.) Mr Guisler had mended an old table donated by a school in Berea so that they had somewhere to lay the huge leather-bound ledger that listed books in and out. The pages were filling quickly: Alice discovered that Beth Pinker left at 5 a.m., and that before she met Margery each day, Margery had already done two hours riding, dropping books at remote homesteads in the mountains. She would scan the list to see where she and Beth had been. Wednesday 15th The Farley children, Crystal four comic books Mrs Petunia Grant, The Schoolmasters House at Yellow Rock two editions Ladies Home Journal (Feb, April 1937), one edition Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (ink marks on pages 34 and 35) Mr F. Homer, Wind Cave one edition Folk Medicine by D. C. Jarvis The Sisters Fritz, The End Barn, White Ash one edition Cimarron by Edna Ferber, Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas (note: three back pages missing, cover water-damaged) The books were rarely new, and were often missing pages or covers, she discovered, while helping Frederick Guisler to shelve them. He was a wiry, weather-beaten man in his late thirties, who had inherited eight hundred acres from his father and who, like him, bred and broke horses, including Spirit, the little mare Alice had been riding. Shes got opinions, that one, he said, stroking the little horses neck. Mind you, never met a decent mare that didnt. His smile was slow and conspiratorial, as if he wasnt really talking about horses at all. Every day that first week Margery would map out the route they would take, and they would head out into the still morning, Alice breathing in the mountain air in heady gulps after the stifling fug of the Van Cleve house. In direct sun, as the day wore on, the heat would rise in shimmering waves from the ground, and it was a relief to climb into the mountains, where the flies and biting creatures didnt buzz relentlessly around her face. On the more remote routes Margery would dismount to tie string to every fourth tree so that Alice could find her way back once she was working alone, pointing out landmarks and notable rock formations to help her. If you cant work it out, Spirit will find the way back for you, she said. Shes smart as a tack. Alice was getting used to the little brown and white horse now. She knew exactly where Spirit would try to spin, and where she liked to speed up, and she no longer yelped but leaned forward into it, stroking the horses neck so that her neat little ears flicked back and forth. She had a rough idea now of which trails went where, and had drawn maps for each, which she tucked into her breeches, hoping she could find her way to each house on her own. Mostly she had just begun to relish the time in the mountains, the unexpected hush of the vast landscape, the sight of Margery ahead of her, stooping to avoid low branches, pointing out the remote cabins that rose up like organic growths amid clearings in the trees. Look outwards, Alice, Margery would say, her voice carrying on the breeze. Not much point worrying what the town thinks about you nothing you can do about that anyway. But when you look outwards, why, theres a whole world of beautiful things. For the first time in almost a year, Alice felt herself unobserved. There was nobody to pass comment on how she wore her clothes or held herself, nobody shooting her curious glances, or hovering to hear the way she spoke. She had started to understand Margerys determination to have people let her be. She was pulled from her thoughts as Margery slid to a stop. Here we go, Alice. She jumped off by a rickety gate, where chickens scratched in a desultory way in the dust by the house and a large hog snuffled by a tree. Time to meet the neighbours. Alice followed her lead, dismounting and throwing the reins over the post by the front gate. The horses immediately lowered their heads and began to graze and Margery lifted one of her bags from the saddle and motioned to Alice to follow. The house was ramshackle, the weatherboarding drooping out of place like a wonky smile. The windows were thick with dirt, obscuring the interior, and an iron wash kettle sat outside over the embers of a fire. It was hard to believe anybody lived there. Good morning! Margery walked halfway towards the door. Hello? There was no sound, then the creak of a board, and a man appeared in the doorway, a rifle cocked on his shoulder. He wore overalls that had not troubled a washtub in some time, and a clay pipe emerged from under a bushy moustache. Behind him two young girls appeared, their heads tilted as they tried to peer at the visitors. He gazed out suspiciously. How you doing, Jim Horner? Margery walked into the little fenced-off enclosure (it could barely be called a garden) and closed the gate behind them. She appeared not to notice the gun or, if she did, she ignored it. Alice felt her heart race a little, but followed obediently. Whos this? The man nodded at Alice. This is Alice. Shes helping me with the travelling library. I wondered if we could talk to you about what we got. I dont want to buy nothing. Well, that suits me fine, because we aint sellin nothing. Ill take just five minutes of your time. Could you spare a cup of water, though? Sure is warm out here. Margery, a study in calm, removed her hat and fanned her head with it. Alice was about to protest that they had just drunk a pitcher of water between them not half a mile back, but stopped. Horner gazed at her for a moment. Wait out here, he said eventually, motioning to a long bench at the front of the house. He murmured to one of the girls, a skinny child with her hair in plaits, who disappeared into the dark house, emerging with a bucket, her brow furrowed with her task. Shell get you water. Would you be kind enough to bring some for my friend here, too, please, Mae? Margery nodded at the girl. That would be very kind, thank you, said Alice, and the man startled at her accent. Margery tipped her head towards her. Oh, shes the one from Engerland. The one married Van Cleves boy? His gaze switched impassively between them. The gun stayed at his shoulder. Alice sat gingerly on the bench as Margery continued to talk, her voice a low, relaxed sing-song. The same way she spoke to Charley the mule when he became, as she called it, ornery. So Im not sure if youve heard from town but we got a book library going. Its for those who like stories, or to help your children get educated a little, especially if they dont go to the mountain school. And I came by because I wondered if youd like to try some books for yours. I told you they dont read. Yes, you did. So I brought some easy ones, just to get em going. These ones here have got pictures and all the letters so they can learn by themselves. Dont even have to go to school to do it. They can do it right here in your home. She handed him one of the picture books. He lowered his gun and took the book gingerly, as if she were handing him something explosive, and flicked through the pages. I need the girls to help with the picking and canning. Sure you do. Busy time of year. I dont want them distracted. I understand. Cant have nothing slowing the canning. I have to say it looks like the corn is going to be fine this year. Not like last year, huh? Margery smiled as the girl arrived in front of them, lopsided with the weight of the half-filled bucket. Why, thank you, sweetheart. She held out a hand as the girl filled an old tin cup. She drank thirstily, then handed the cup to Alice. Good and cold. Thank you most kindly. Jim Horner pushed the book towards her. They want money for those things. Well, thats the beauty of it, Jim. No money, no signing up, no nothing. Library just exists so people can try a bit of reading. Maybe learn a little if they find they have a liking for it. Jim Horner stared at the cover of the book. Alice had never heard Margery talk so much in one sitting. I tell you what? How about I leave these here, just for the week? You dont have to read em, but you can take a look if you like. Well come by next Monday and pick them up again. If you like them, you get the kids to tell me and Ill bring you some more. You dont like em, just leave them on a crate by the fence post there and well say no more. How does that sound? Alice glanced behind her. A second small face vanished immediately into the gloom of the building. I dont think so. Tell you the truth, youd do me a favour. Would mean I dont have to carry the darn things all the way back down the mountain. Boy, our bags are heavy today! Alice, you finished your water, there? We dont want to take up any more of this gentlemans time. Good to see you, Jim. And thank you, Mae. Havent you grown like a string bean since I last saw you! As they reached the gate Jim Horners voice lifted and hardened. I dont want nobody else comin up here botherin us. I dont want to be bothered and I dont want my children bothered. They got enough to deal with. Margery didnt even turn around. She lifted a hand. I hear you, Jim. And we dont need no charity. I dont want anyone from town just coming by. I dont know why you even came here. Headed to all the houses between here and Berea. But I hear you. Margerys voice carried across the hillside as they reached the horses. Alice glanced behind her to see that he had raised his gun to his shoulder again. Her heart thumped in her ears as she picked up her pace. She was afraid to look back again. As Margery swung herself onto the mule, she took the reins, mounted Spirit with trembling legs, and it was only when she calculated that they were too far away for Jim Horner to take a shot at them that she allowed herself to exhale. She kicked the mare forward so that she was level with Margery. Oh, my goodness. Are they all that awful? Her legs, she realized, were now entirely liquid. Awful? Alice, that went great. Alice wasnt sure shed heard her correctly. Last time I rode up to Red Creek Jim Horner shot my hat clean off. Margery turned towards her and tilted her hat so that Alice could see the tiny hole that scorched straight through the top of it. She rammed it back onto her head. Come on, lets kick on a little. I want to take you to meet Nancy before we break for lunch. 3 and best of all, the wilderness of books, in which she could wander where she liked, made the library a region of bliss to her. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women Two purple bruises on her knees, one on her left ankle and blisters in places she didnt know blisters could exist, a cluster of infected bites behind her right ear, four broken nails (slightly grubby, she had to admit) and sunburn on her neck and nose. A two-inch-long graze on her right shoulder from being scraped against a tree, and a mark on her left elbow where Spirit had bitten her when shed tried to slap a horsefly. Alice peered at her grimy face in the mirror, wondering what people back in England would make of the scabby cowgirl staring back at her. It had been more than a fortnight and nobody had mentioned that Isabelle Brady had still not arrived to join the little team of packhorse librarians, so Alice didnt feel able to ask. Frederick didnt say much other than to offer her coffee and help her with Spirit, Beth the middle child of eight brothers would march in and out with a brisk boyish energy, nodding a cheerful hello, dumping her saddle on the floor, exclaiming when she couldnt find her goddamn saddlebags, and Isabelles name simply failed to appear on the little cards on the wall with which they signed themselves in and out of shifts. Occasionally a large dark green motor-car would sweep by with Mrs Brady in the front, and Margery would nod, but no words passed between them. Alice began to think that putting her daughters name out there had been a way for Mrs Brady to encourage other young women to come forward. So, it was something of a surprise when the motor-car pulled up on Thursday afternoon, its huge wheels sending a spray of sand and grit up the steps as it stopped. Mrs Brady was an enthusiastic, if easily distracted driver, prone to sending locals scattering as she turned her head to wave at some passer-by, or swerved extravagantly to avoid a cat in the road. Who is that? Margery didnt look up. She was working her way through two piles of returned books, trying to decide which were too damaged to go out again. There was little point sending out a book in which the last page was missing, as had already happened once. Waste of my time, had been the response from the sharecropper who had been given The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I wont be reading a book again. Think it might be Mrs Brady. Alice, who had been treating a blister on her heel, peered out of the window, trying to remain inconspicuous. She watched as Mrs Brady closed the drivers door and paused to wave at somebody across the street. And then she saw a younger woman emerge from the passenger side, red hair pulled back and pinned into neat curls. Isabelle Brady. Its both of them, Alice said quietly. She tugged her sock back on, wincing. Im surprised. Why? said Alice. Isabelle made her way around the side of the car until she was level with her mother. It was then that Alice saw she walked with a pronounced limp, and that her lower left leg was encased in a leather and metal brace, the shoe at the end built up so that it resembled a small black brick. She didnt use a stick, but rolled slightly as she moved, and concentration or possibly discomfort was writ large on her freckled features. Alice pulled back, not wanting to be seen to be watching as they made their way slowly up the steps. She heard a murmured conversation and then the door opened. Miss OHare! Good afternoon, Mrs Brady, Isabelle. Im so sorry for the delay in getting Izzy started. She had some things to attend to first. Just glad to have you. Were about ready to send Mrs Van Cleve out on her own, so the more the merrier. Ill have to get you sorted out with a horse, though, Miss Brady. I wasnt sure when you were coming. Im no good at riding, said Izzy, quietly. Wondered as much. Never seen you on a horse. So Mr Guisler is going to lend you his old companion horse, Patch. Hes a little heavy but sweet as anything, wont scare you none. He knows what hes doing and hell go at your pace. I cant ride, Izzy said, an edge to her voice. She looked mutinously at her mother. Thats only because you wont try, dear, her mother said, not looking at her. She clasped her hands together. So what time shall we come by tomorrow? Izzy, well have to take you to Lexington to get you some new breeches. Youve eaten your way right out of your old ones. Well, Alice here saddles up at seven, so why dont you come then? We may start a little earlier as we divide up our routes. Youre not listening to me Izzy began. Well see you tomorrow. Mrs Brady looked around her at the little cabin. Its good to see what a start youve made already. I hear from Pastor Willoughby that the McArthur girls read their way through their Bible samplers without so much as a prompt from him last Sunday, thanks to the books youve brought them. Wonderful. Good afternoon, Mrs Van Cleve, Miss OHare. Im much obliged to the pair of you. Mrs Brady nodded and the two women turned and made their way out of the library. They heard the roar of the cars engine as it started up, then a skidding sound and a startled shout as Mrs Brady pulled out onto the road. Alice looked at Margery, who shrugged. They sat in silence until the sound of the engine died away. Bennett. Alice skipped up to the stoop, where her husband was sitting with a glass of iced tea. She glanced at the rocker, which was unusually empty. Wheres your father? Having dinner with the Lowes. Is that the one who never stops talking? Goodness, hell be there all night. Im amazed Mrs Lowe can draw breath long enough to eat! She pushed her hair back from her brow. Oh, I have had the most extraordinary day. We went to a house in the middle of absolutely nowhere and I swear this man wanted to shoot us. He didnt, of course She slowed, noting the way his eyes had dropped to her dirty boots. Alice looked down at them and the mud on her breeches. Oh. That. Yes. Misjudged where I should have been going through a creek and my horse stumbled and threw me straight over her head. It was actually very funny. I thought at one point Margery was going to pass out from laughing. Luckily I dried off in a wink, although just wait until you see my bruises. I am positively purple. She jogged up the steps to him and stooped to kiss him but he turned his face away. You smell awfully of horse, these days, he said. Maybe you should wash that off. It does tend to linger. She was sure he hadnt meant it to sting, but it did. She sniffed at her shoulder. Youre right, she said, forcing a smile. I smell like a cowboy! I tell you what, how about I freshen up and put on something pretty and then perhaps we could take a drive to the river. I could make us a little picnic of nice things. Didnt Annie leave some of that molasses cake? And I know we still have the side of ham. Say yes, darling. Just you and me. We havent had a proper outing together for weeks. Bennett rose from his chair. Actually, Im uh going to meet some of the fellas for a game. I was just waiting for you to come home so I could tell you. He stood in front of her and she realized he was wearing the white trousers he used for sport. Were headed to the playing field over at Johnson. Oh. Fine, then. Ill come and watch. I promise I wont take a minute to scrub up. He rubbed his palm over the top of his head. Its kind of a guy thing. The wives dont really come. I wouldnt say anything, Bennett darling, or bother you. Thats not really the point I just would love to see you play. You look so joyful when you play. The way his gaze flickered towards her and away told her she had said too much. They stood in silence for a moment. Like I said. Its a guy thing. Alice swallowed. I see. Another time, then. Sure! Released, he looked suddenly happy. A picnic would be great. Maybe we can get some of the other fellows to come too. Pete Schrager? You liked his wife, didnt you? Patsys fun. You and she will become real friends, I know it. Oh. Yes. I suppose so. They stood awkwardly in front of each other for a moment longer. Then Bennett reached out a hand, and leaned forward as if to kiss her. But this time it was Alice who stepped back. Its okay, you really dont have to. Goodness, I do reek! Awful! How can you bear it? She backed away, then turned and ran up the steps two at a time so that he couldnt see her eyes had filled with tears. Alices days had settled into something of a routine since she had started work. She would rise at 5.30 a.m., wash and dress in the little bathroom along the hall (she was grateful for it, as she had swiftly become aware that half the homes in Baileyville still had outhouses or worse). Bennett slept like someone dead, barely stirring as she pulled on her boots, and she would lean over and kiss his cheek lightly, then tiptoe downstairs. In the kitchen she would retrieve the sandwiches she had made the evening before, grab a couple of the biscuits that Annie left out on the sideboard, wrap them in a napkin, and eat them as she walked the half-mile to the library. Some of the faces she passed on her walk had become familiar: farmers on their horse-drawn buggies, lumber lorries making their way towards the huge yards, and the odd miner who had overslept, his lunch pail in his hand. She had begun to nod to the people she recognized people in Kentucky were so much more civil than they were in England, where you were likely to be viewed with suspicion if you greeted a stranger in too friendly a manner. A couple had started to call out across the road to her: Hows that library going? And she would respond: Oh, quite well, thank you. They always smiled, though sometimes she suspected they spoke to her because they were amused by her accent. Either way it was nice to feel she was becoming part of something. Occasionally she would pass Annie walking briskly, head down, on her way to the house to her shame, she wasnt sure where the housekeeper lived and she would wave cheerily, but Annie would simply nod, unsmiling, as if Alice had transgressed some unspoken rule in the employer-employee handbook. Bennett, she knew, would rise only after Annie arrived at the house, woken with coffee on a tray, Annie having already taken the same to Mr Van Cleve. By the time the two men were dressed, the bacon, eggs and grits would be waiting for them on the dining table, the cutlery set just so. At a quarter to eight they would head off in Mr Van Cleves burgundy Ford convertible sedan, to Hoffman Mining. Alice tried not to think too hard about the previous evening. She had once been told by her favourite aunt that the best way to get through life was not to dwell on things so she packed those events into a suitcase, and shoved it to the back of a mental cupboard, just as she had done with numerous suitcases before. There was no point lingering on the fact that Bennett had plainly gone drinking long after his baseball game had ended, returning to pass out on the daybed in the dressing room, from where she heard his convulsive snores until dawn. There was no point thinking too hard about the fact that it had now been more than six months, long enough for her to have to acknowledge that this might not be normal newlywed behaviour. Like there was no point in thinking too hard that it was obvious neither of them had a clue how to discuss what was going on. Especially as she wasnt even sure what was going on. Nothing in her life up to now had given her the vocabulary or the experience. And there was nobody in whom she could confide. Her mother thought conversation about any bodily matters even the filing of nails was vulgar. Alice took a breath. No. Better to focus on the road ahead, the long, arduous day, with its books and its ledger entries, its horses and its lush green forests. Better not to think too hard about anything, but to ride long and hard, to focus diligently on her new task, on memorizing routes, jotting down addresses and names and sorting books so that by the time she returned home it was all she could do to stay awake long enough to eat dinner, take a long soak in the tub and, finally, fall fast asleep. It was a routine, she acknowledged, that seemed to suit them both. Shes here, said Frederick Guisler, passing her on her way in. He tipped his hat, his eyes crinkling. Who? She put down her lunch pail, and peered towards the window at the back. Miss Isabelle. He picked up his jacket and headed for the door. Lord knows, I doubt shell be riding the Kentucky Derby any time soon. Theres coffee brewing out back, Mrs Van Cleve. I brought you some cream, given thats how you seem to prefer it. Thats very kind of you, Mr Guisler. I have to say I cant drink it stewed black, like Margery. She can pretty much stand a spoon in hers. Call me Fred. And, well, Margery does things her own way, as you know. He nodded as he closed the door. Alice tied a handkerchief around her neck to protect it from the sun and poured a mug of coffee, then walked around to the back where the horses were tethered in a small paddock. There she could see Margery bent double, holding Isabelle Bradys knee as the younger girl clutched the saddle of a solid-looking bay horse. He stood immobile, his jaw working in a leisurely manner around a clump of grass, as if he had been there for some time. Youve got to spring a little, Miss Isabelle, Margery was saying, through gritted teeth. If you cant put your shoe in the stirrup then youre going to have to bounce your way up. Just one, two, three, and hup! Nothing moved. Bounce! I dont bounce, said Isabelle, crossly. Im not made of India rubber. Just lean into me, then one, two, three, and spring your leg over. Come on. Ive got you. Margery had a firm grip on Isabelles braced leg. But the girl seemed incapable of springing. Margery glanced up and noticed Alice. Her expression was deliberately blank. Its no good, the girl said, straightening. I cant do it. And its pointless to keep trying. Well, its a heck of a long walk up those mountains, so youre gonna have to work out how to get on him somehow. Surreptitiously, Margery rubbed at the small of her back. I told Mother this was a bad idea. But she wouldnt listen. Isabelle saw Alice and that seemed to make her even crosser. She flushed, and the horse shifted. She yelped as it nearly stood on her foot, and stumbled in her effort to get out of the way. Oh, you stupid animal! Well, thats a little rude, Margery said. Dont listen, Patch. I cant get up. I dont have the strength. This whole thing is ridiculous. I dont know why my mother wont listen to me. Why cant I just stay in the cabin? Because we need you out there delivering books. It was then that Alice noticed the tears in the corners of Isabelle Bradys eyes, as if this were not just a tantrum but something that sprang from real anguish. The girl turned away, brushing at her face with a pale hand. Margery had seen them too they exchanged a brief, awkward look. Margery rubbed at her elbows to get the dust from her shirt. Alice sipped her coffee. The sound of Patchs chewing, regular and oblivious, was the only thing that broke the silence. Isabelle? Can I ask you a question? said Alice, after a moment. If youre sitting, or only walking short distances, do you need to wear the brace? There was a sudden silence, as if the word had been verboten. What do you mean? Oh, Ive done it again, thought Alice. But she was too far in now. That leg brace. I mean, if we took it off, and your boots, you could wear um normal riding boots. You could mount on the other side of Patch here, using the other leg. And maybe just drop the books by the gates instead of climbing on and off, like we do. Or maybe if the walk isnt too far it wouldnt matter? Isabelle frowned. But I I dont take off the brace. Im supposed to wear it all day. Margery frowned, thinking. You aint gonna be standing, though, right? Well. No, Isabelle said. You want me to see if we got some other boots? Margery asked. You want me to wear another persons boots? said Isabelle, dubiously. Only till your ma buys you a fancy pair from Lexington. What size are you? I have a spare pair, said Alice. But even if I get on, my Well, one leg is Its shorter. I wont be balanced, said Isabelle. Margery grinned. Thats why we got adjustable stirrup leathers. Most people round here ride half crooked anyway, drunk or no. Perhaps it was because Alice was British and had addressed Isabelle in the same clipped tones that she addressed the Van Cleves when she wanted something, or perhaps it was the novelty of being told she didnt have to wear a brace, but an hour later Isabelle Brady sat astride Patch, her knuckles white as she gripped the reins, her body rigid with fear. Youre not going to go fast, are you? she said, her voice tremulous. I really dont want to go fast. You coming, Alice? Reckon this is a good day for us to head round the town, schoolhouse and all. Long as we can keep Patch here from falling asleep well have a fine day. You okay, girls? Off we go. Isabelle said almost nothing for the first hour of their ride. Alice, who rode behind her, heard the occasional squeal as Patch coughed, or moved his head. Margery would lean back in her saddle and call something encouraging. But it took a good four miles before Alice could see that Isabelle had allowed herself to breathe normally, and even then she looked furious and unhappy, her eyes glittering with tears, even though they barely broke out of a slumberous walk. For all they had achieved in getting her onto a horse, Alice could not see how on earth this was going to work. The girl didnt want to be there. She couldnt walk without a brace. She clearly didnt like horses. For all they knew she didnt even like books. Alice wondered whether she would turn up the following day, and when she occasionally met Margerys eye, she knew she was wondering the same. She missed the way they normally rode together, the easy silences, the way she felt as if she were learning something with Margerys every casual utterance. She missed the exhilarating gallops up the flatter tracks, yelling encouragement at each other on wheeling horses as they worked out ways to traverse rivers, fences, and the satisfaction as they jumped a flint-strewn gap. Perhaps it would be easier if the girl werent so sullen: her mood seemed to cast a pall over the morning, and even the glorious sunshine and soft breeze couldnt alleviate it. In all likelihood well be back to normal tomorrow, Alice told herself, and was reassured by the thought. It was almost nine thirty by the time they stopped at the school, a small weather-boarded one-room building not unlike the library. Outside there was a small grassy area worn half bare from constant use, and a bench underneath a tree. Some children sat outside cross-legged, bent over slates, while inside others were repeating times tables in a frayed chorus. Ill wait out here, Isabelle said. No, you wont, Margery said. You come on into the yard. You dont have to get off the horse if you dont want to. Mrs Beidecker? You in there? A woman appeared at the open door, followed by a clamour of children. As Isabelle, her face mutinous, followed them into the yard, Margery dismounted and introduced the two of them to the schoolteacher, a young woman with neatly coiled blonde hair and a German accent, who, Margery explained afterwards, was the daughter of one of the overseers at the mine. They got people from all over the world up there, she said. Every tongue you can imagine. Mrs Beidecker here speaks four languages. The teacher, who professed herself delighted to see them, brought the entire class of forty-odd children out to say hello to the women, pet the horses and ask questions. Margery pulled from her saddlebag a selection of childrens books that had arrived earlier that week, explaining the plot of each as she handed them out. The children jostled for them, their heads bent low as they sat to examine them in groups on the grass. One, apparently unafraid of the mule, stepped into Margerys stirrup and peered into her empty bag in case she might have missed one. Miss? Miss? Do you have more of the books? A gap-toothed girl, her hair in twin plaits, gazed up at Alice. Not this week, she said. But I promise well bring more next week. Can you bring me a comic book? My sister read a comic book and it was awful good. It had pirates and a princess and everything. Ill do my best, said Alice. You talk like a princess, the girl said shyly. Well, you look like a princess, said Alice, and the girl giggled and ran away. Two boys, around eight years old, sauntered past Alice to Isabelle, who was waiting near the gate. They asked her name, which she gave them, unsmiling, in a one-word answer. He your horse, Miss? No, said Isabelle. You got a horse? No. I dont much care for them. She scowled, but the boys didnt appear to notice. Whats his name? Isabelle hesitated. Patch, she said eventually, casting a glance behind her as if bracing herself to be told she was wrong. One boy told the other animatedly about his uncles horse that could apparently leap a fire truck without breaking a sweat, and the other said he had once ridden a real-life unicorn at the County Fair, and it had had a horn and everything. Then, having stroked Patchs whiskery nose for a few minutes, they appeared to lose interest, and with a wave at Isabelle, they wandered off to where their classmates were looking at books. Isnt this lovely, children? Mrs Beidecker called. These fine ladies will be bringing us new books every week! So we have to make sure we look after them, dont bend the spines and, William Bryant, that we do not throw them at our sisters. Even if they do poke us in the eye. We will see you next week, ladies! Much obliged to you! The children waved cheerfully, their voices rising in a crescendo of goodbyes, and when Alice looked back some minutes later, there were still a few pale faces peering out, waving enthusiastically through the windows. Alice watched as Isabelle gazed after them and noted that the girl was half smiling; it was a slow, wistful thing, and hardly joyful, but it was a smile nonetheless. They rode away in silence, into the mountains, following the narrow trails that bordered the creek and staying in single file, Margery deliberately keeping the pace steady in front. Occasionally she would call and point at landmarks, perhaps in the hope that Isabelle would be distracted or finally express some enthusiasm. Yes, yes, said Isabelle, dismissively. Thats Handmaidens Rock. I know. Margery twisted in her saddle. You know Handmaidens Rock? Father used to make me walk with him in the mountains when I first recovered from the polio. Hours every day. He reckoned that if I used my legs enough I would level up. They stopped in a clearing. Margery dismounted, pulling a water bottle and some apples from her saddle pack, passing them out, then taking a swig from the bottle. It didnt work then, she said, nodding towards Isabelles leg. The walking thing. Isabelles eyes widened. Nothing is going to work, she said. Im a cripple. Nah. You aint. Margery rubbed an apple on her jacket. If you were, you couldnt walk and you couldnt ride. You can clearly do both, even if you are a little one-ways. Margery offered the water to Alice, who drank thirstily, then passed it to Isabelle, who shook her head. You must be thirsty, Alice protested. Isabelles mouth tightened. Margery regarded her steadily. Finally, she reached out with a handkerchief, rubbed the neck of the water bottle, then handed it to Isabelle, with only the faintest eye-roll at Alice. Isabelle raised it to her lips, closing her eyes as she drank. She handed back the bottle, pulled a small lace handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her forehead. It is awfully warm today, she conceded. Yup. And no place on earth better than the cool of the mountains. Margery strode down to the creek and refilled her bottle, screwing the lid back on tightly. Give me and Patch two weeks, Miss Brady, and I promise you, legs or no, you wont want to be anywhere else in Kentucky. Isabelle looked unconvinced. The women ate their apples in silence, fed the horses and Charley the cores, then mounted again. This time, Alice noted, Isabelle scrambled up by herself without complaint. She rode behind her for a while, watching. You liked the children. Alice rode up next to her as they started on the track to the side of a long green field. Margery was some distance ahead, singing to herself, or perhaps to the mule it was often hard to tell. Im sorry? You looked happier. At the school. Alice smiled tentatively. I thought you might have enjoyed that part of today. Isabelles face clouded. She gathered up her reins and half turned away. Im sorry, Miss Brady, said Alice, after a moment. My husband tells me I speak without thinking. Ive obviously done it again. I didnt mean to be intrusive or rude. Forgive me. She pulled her horse back so that she was once again behind Isabelle Brady. She cursed herself silently, wondering whether she would ever be able to find the right balance with these people. Isabelle plainly didnt want to communicate at all. She thought of Peggys clique of young women, most of whom she only recognized in town because they scowled at her. She thought of Annie, who, half the time, looked at her as if shed stolen something. Margery was the only one who didnt make her feel like an alien. And she, to be fair, was a little odd herself. They had gone another half-mile when Isabelle turned her head so that she was looking over her shoulder. Its Izzy, she said. Izzy? My name. People I like call me Izzy. Alice barely had time to digest this when the girl spoke again. And I smiled because it was the first time. Alice leaned forward, trying to make out the words. The girl spoke so quietly. First time for what? Riding in the mountains? No. Izzy straightened up a little. The first time Ive been in a school and nobody was laughing at me for my leg. You think shell come back? Margery and Alice sat on the top step of the stoop, batting away flies and watching heat rise off the shimmering road. The horses had been washed and set loose in the pasture and the two women were drinking coffee, stretching creaking limbs and trying to summon the energy to check and enter the days books in the ledger. Hard to say. She dont seem to like it much. Alice had to admit she was probably right. She watched as a panting dog walked along the road, then lowered itself wearily into the shade of a nearby log store. Not like you. Alice looked up at her. Me? Youre like a prisoner sprung from jail most mornings. Margery sipped her coffee and gazed out at the road. I sometimes think you love these mountains as much as I do. Alice kicked at a pebble with her heel. I think I might like them better than anywhere on earth. I just feel more myself up here. Margery glanced at her and smiled conspiratorially. This is what people dont see, wrapped up in their cities, with the noise and the smoke, and their tiny boxes for houses. Up there you can breathe. You cant hear the town talking and talking. No eyes on you, cept Gods. Its just you and the trees and the birds and the river and the sky and freedom Out there, its good for the soul. A prisoner sprung from jail. Sometimes Alice wondered if Margery knew more about her life with the Van Cleves than she let on. She was dragged from her thoughts by a blaring horn. Bennett was driving his fathers motor-car towards the library. He shuddered to an abrupt halt, so that the dog leaped up, its tail between its legs. He was waving at her, his smile wide and uncomplicated. She couldnt help but smile back: he was as handsome as a movie star on a cigarette card. Alice! Miss OHare, he said, catching sight of her. Mr Van Cleve, Margery answered. Came to fetch you home. Thought we might take that picnic you were talking about. Alice blinked. Really? Got a couple of problems with the coal tipple that wont be fixed until tomorrow and Pas in the office trying to sort it out. So I flew home and got Annie to do us a picnic. Thought Id race you back in the car and you can get changed and well head straight out while its still light. Pa says we can have this old girl all evening. Alice stood up, delighted. Then her face fell. Oh, Bennett, I cant. We havent entered the books or sorted them and were so behind. Weve only just finished the horses. You go, said Margery. But thats not fair on you. Not with Beth gone and Izzy disappearing as soon as we got back. Margery waved a hand. But Go on now. Ill see you tomorrow. Alice glanced at her to check that she meant it, then gathered up her things and whooped as she raced down the steps. I probably smell like a cowboy again, she warned, as she climbed into the passenger side and kissed her husbands cheek. He grinned. Why do you think Ive got the top open? He reversed into a speedy three-point turn, causing the dust to fly up in the road, and Alice squealed as they roared towards home. He was not a mule prone to exaggerated shows of temper or high emotion, but Margery rode Charley home at a slow walk. He had worked hard and she was in no hurry. She sighed, thinking of the day. A flighty Englishwoman who knew nothing of the area, whom the mountain people might not trust, and would probably be pulled away by that braying blowhard Mr Van Cleve, and a girl who could barely walk, couldnt ride and didnt want to be there. Beth worked when she could but her family would need her for the harvest during much of September. Hardly the most auspicious start to a travelling library. She wasnt sure how long any of them would last. They reached the broken-down barn where the trail split and she dropped her reins onto his narrow neck, knowing the mule would find his own way home. As she did, her dog, a young blue-eyed speckled hound, bolted towards her, his tail clamped between his legs and his tongue lolling in his delight to see her. What in heck are you doing out here, Bluey boy? Huh? Why arent you in the yard? She reached the small paddock gate and dismounted, noting that the ache in her lower back and shoulders probably owed more to hoisting Izzy Brady on and off a horse than any real distance she had travelled. The dog bounded around her, only settling when she ruffled his neck between her hands and confirmed that yes, he was a good boy, yes, he was, at which point he raced back into the house. She released the mule, watching as Charley dropped to the ground, folding his knees under him, then rocking backwards and forwards in the dirt with a satisfied groan. She didnt blame him: her own feet were heavy as she made her way up the steps. She reached for the door, then stopped. The latch was off. She stared at it for a moment, thinking, then walked quietly to the empty barrel at the side of the barn where she kept her spare rifle under a piece of sacking. Alert now, she lifted the safety catch and raised it to her shoulder. Then she tiptoed back up the steps, took a breath, and quietly hooked the door open with the toe of her boot. Whos there? Directly across the room, Sven Gustavsson sat on her rocker, his feet up on the low table and a copy of Robinson Crusoe in his hands. He didnt flinch, but waited a moment for her to lower the gun. He put the book carefully on the table, and rose to his feet slowly, placing his hands with almost exaggerated courtesy behind his back. She stared at him for a moment, then propped her gun against the table. I wondered why the dog didnt bark. Yeah, well. Me and him. You know how it is. Bluey, that squirming traitor, was nestling under Svens arm now, pushing at him with his long nose, begging to be petted. Margery took off her hat and hung it on the hook, then pushed the sweaty hair from her forehead. Wasnt expecting to see you. You werent looking. Without meeting his eye, she moved past him to the table, where she pulled the lace cover from a jug of water and poured herself a cup. You not going to offer me some? Never knew you to drink water before. And you wont offer me anything stronger? She put the cup down. What are you doing here, Sven? He looked at her steadily. He was wearing a clean checked shirt and he gave off a smell of coal-tar soap and something uniquely his, something that spoke of the sulphurous smell of the mine and smoke and maleness. I missed you. She felt something give a little in her, and brought the cup to her lips to hide it. She swallowed. Seems to me youre doing just fine without me. You and I both know I can do just fine without you. But heres the thing: I dont want to. Weve been through this. And I still dont get it. I told you if we marry I wont try to pin you down. I wont control you. Ill let you live exactly as you live now except you and I Youll let me, will you? Goddamn it, Marge, you know what I mean. His jaw tightened. Ill let you be. We can be exactly as we are now. Then whats the point in us going through with a wedding? The point is that well be married in the eyes of God, not sneaking around like a pair of goddamn kids. You think I like this? You think I want to hide from my own brother, from the rest of the town, the fact that I love the bones of you? I wont marry you, Sven. I always told you I wouldnt marry anybody. And every time you go on about it I swear my head feels like its going to explode just like the dynamite in one of your tunnels. I wont talk to you if youre just going to keep coming here and going over the same thing again and again. You wont talk to me anyways. So what in hell am I supposed to do? Leave me alone. Like we decided. Like you decided. She turned away from him and walked to the bowl in the corner, where she had covered some beans she had picked early that morning. She began stringing them, one by one, snapping off the ends and throwing them into a pan, waiting for the blood to stop thumping in her ears. She felt him before she saw him. He walked quietly across the room and stood directly behind her so that she could feel his breath on her bare neck. She knew without looking that her skin flushed where it touched her. Im not like your father, Margery, he murmured. If you dont know that about me by now then theres no telling you. She kept her hands busy. Snap. Snap. Snap. Keep the beans. Discard the string. The floorboards creaked under her feet. Tell me you dont miss me. Ten gone. Strip off that leaf. Snap. And another. He was so close now that she could feel his chest against her as he spoke. His voice lowered. Tell me you dont miss me and Ill head out of here right now. I wont bother you again. I promise. She closed her eyes. She let the knife fall, and put her hands on the work surface, palms down, her head dipping. He waited a moment, then placed his own over them gently, so that hers were entirely covered. She opened her eyes and regarded them: strong hands, knuckles covered with raised burn scars. Hands she had loved for the best part of a decade. Tell me, he said quietly, into her ear. She turned then, swiftly taking his face between her hands and kissing him, hard. Oh, but she had missed the feel of his lips on hers, his skin against hers. Heat rose between them, her breath quickened, and everything she had told herself, the logic, the arguments she had rehearsed in her head in the long dark hours, melted away as his arm slid around her, pulling her into him. She kissed him and she kissed him and she kissed him, his body familiar and newly unfamiliar to her, reason leaching away with the aches and pains and frustrations of the day. She heard a clatter as the bowl fell to the floor, then it was only his breath, his lips, his skin upon hers and Margery OHare, who would be owned by nobody, and told by nobody, let herself soften and give, her body lowering inch by inch until it was pinned against the wooden sideboard by the weight of his own. What kind of bird is that? Look at the colour of it. Its so beautiful. Bennett lay on his back on the rug as Alice pointed above them to the branches of the tree. Around them sat the remains of their picnic. Darling? Do you know what bird that is? Ive never seen anything as red as that. Look! Even its beak is red. Im not much for reading up on birds and such, sweetheart. She saw that Bennetts eyes were closed. He slapped at a bug on the side of his cheek, and held out his hand for another ginger beer. Margery knew all the different birds, Alice thought, as she reached across to the hamper. She resolved to ask her the following morning. As they rode, Margery talked to Alice of milkweed and goldenrod, pointing out Jack-in-the-pulpit and the tiny fragile flowers of touch-me-nots, so that once where Alice had just seen a sea of green, she had pulled back a veil to reveal a whole new dimension. Below them the creek trickled peacefully; the same creek, Margery had warned her, that would become a destructive torrent during the spring. It seemed so unlikely. For now the earth was dry, the grass a soft thatch under their heads, the crickets a steady hum across the meadow. Alice handed her husband the bottle and waited as he lifted himself on one elbow to take a swig from it, half hoping that he would just lean over her and scoop her up. When he lowered himself down she tucked herself into his arm and placed her hand on his shirt. Well, I could just stay like this all day, he said peaceably. She reached her arm across him. Her husband smelt better than any man shed ever met. It was as if he carried the sweetness of the Kentucky grass with him. Other men sweated and grew sour and grubby. Bennett always returned from the mine settlement as if he had just walked out of a magazine advertisement. She gazed at his face, at the strong contours of his chin, the way his honey-coloured hair was clipped short just around his ears. Do you think Im pretty, Bennett? You know I think youre pretty. His voice was sleepy. Are you happy we got married? Of course I am. Alice trailed a finger around his shirt button. Then why Lets not get all serious, Alice, huh? No need to go on about things, is there? Cant we just have a nice time? Alice lifted her hand from his shirt. She twisted and lowered herself down onto the rug so that only their shoulders were touching. Sure. They lay in the grass, side by side, looking up at the sky, in silence. When he spoke again, his voice was soft. Alice? She glanced at him. She swallowed, her heart thumping against her ribcage. She placed her hand on his, trying to convey to him her tacit encouragement, to tell him without words that she would be a support, that it would be okay, whatever he said. She was his wife, after all. She waited a moment. Yes? Its a cardinal, he said. The red one. Im pretty sure its a cardinal. 4 marriage, they say, halves ones rights and doubles ones duties. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women The first memory Margery OHare had was of sitting under her mothers kitchen table and watching through her fingers as her father slugged her fourteen-year-old brother Jack across the room, knocking two teeth clean out of his jaw when he tried to stop him beating her mother. Her mother, who took a fair number of beatings but would not tolerate that fate for her children, promptly threw a kitchen chair at her husbands head, leaving him with a jagged scar on his forehead that remained until he died. He hit her back with its smashed leg, of course, once he was able to stand straight, and the fight had only stopped when Papaw OHare had staggered round from next door with his rifle at his shoulder and murder in his eyes and threatened to blow Frank OHares damn head clean off his damn shoulders if he didnt stop. It wasnt that Grandpa believed his son beating his wife was inherently wrong, Margery discovered some time later, but Memaw had been trying to listen to the wireless and half the holler couldnt hear past the screaming. There was a hole in the pinewood wall that Margery could put her whole fist into for the rest of her childhood. Jack left for good that day, a wad of bloodied cotton in his mouth and his one good shirt in his kitbag, and the next time Margery heard his name (leaving was considered such an act of family disloyalty he was effectively disappeared from family history) was eight years later when they received a wire to say that Jack had died after being hit by a railroad truck in Missouri. Her mother had cried salty, heartbroken tears into her apron, but her father had hurled a book at her and told her to pull her damn self together before he really gave her something to cry about and disappeared to his stills. The book was Black Beauty and Margery never forgave him for having ripped off the back cover while doing so and somehow her love for her lost brother and her desire to escape into the world of books became melded together into something fierce and obstinate in that one broken-backed copy. Dont you marry one of these fools, her mother would whisper to her and her sister, as she tucked them into the big hay bed in the back room. You make sure you two get as far from this damn mountain as you can. As soon as you can. You promise me. The girls had nodded solemnly. Virginia had got away all right, got as far as Lewisburg, only to marry a man who turned out to be just as handy with his fists as their father had been. Her mother, thank goodness, was not alive to see it, having caught pneumonia six months after the wedding and died within three days; the same strain that took three of Margerys brothers. Their graves were marked with small stones on a hill overlooking the holler. When her father died, killed in a drunken gunfight with Bill McCullough the latest sorry episode in a clan feud that had lasted generations the residents of Baileyville noted that Margery OHare didnt shed so much as a tear. Why would I? she said, when Pastor McIntosh asked her if she was quite all right. Im glad hes dead. Cant do no more harm to no one. The fact that Frank OHare was reviled in town, and that everyone knew she was right, didnt stop them deciding that the surviving OHare girl was as odd as the rest of them and that, frankly, the fewer of that bloodline still around, the better. Can I ask you about your family? Alice had said, as they saddled up the horses, shortly after dawn. Margery, her thoughts still lost somewhere in Svens strong, hard body, had had to be spoken to twice before she realized what Alice was saying. Ask what you want. She glanced over. Let me guess. Someone tell you you shouldnt be around me because of my daddy? Well, yes, said Alice, after a pause. Mr Van Cleve had given her a lecture on that exact subject the previous evening, accompanied by much spluttering and finger-pointing. Alice had wielded the good name of Mrs Brady as a shield but it had been an uncomfortable exchange. Margery nodded, as if this was no surprise. She swung her saddle onto the rail and ran her fingers over Charleys back, checking him for bumps and sores. Frank OHare supplied moonshine to half the county. Shot up anyone who tried to take over his patch. Shot em if he reckoned theyd even thought about it. Killed more people than I know of, and left scars on everyone he was close to. Everyone? Margery hesitated a moment, then took a couple of steps towards Alice. She rolled up her shirt-sleeve, tugging it above the elbow, revealing a waxy, coin-shaped scar on her upper arm. Shot me with his hunting rifle when I was eleven years old because I sassed him. If my brother hadnt pushed me out of the way he would have killed me. Alice took a moment to speak. Didnt the police do anything? Police? She said it poh-lice. Up here people take care of things their own way. When Memaw found out what hed done she took a horsewhip to him. Only two people he was ever scared of, his own mom and pop. Margery put her head down so that her thick dark hair fell forward. She ran her fingers nimbly over her scalp until she found what she was looking for and pulled her hair to one side, revealing an inch-wide gap of bare skin. That was where he pulled me up two flights of stairs by my hair three days after Memaw died. Pulled a handful of it clean out. They say he still had half my scalp attached to it when he dropped it. You dont remember? Nope. Hed knocked me out before he did it. Alice stood in stunned silence. Margerys voice was as level as always. Im so sorry, she faltered. Dont be. When he died there were two people in this whole town came to his funeral and one of those only did cos they felt sorry for me. You know how much this town loves to meet up? You imagine how much they hated him not even to show up at a mans funeral. You dont miss him, then. Hah! Round here, Alice, you get a lot of what you call sundowners. Theyre good old boys in daylight hours, but come nightfall when they get to drinking, theyre basically a pair of fists looking for a target. Alice thought of Mr Van Cleves bourbon-fuelled rants and shivered, despite the heat. Well, my daddy wasnt even a sundowner. He didnt need drink. Cold as ice. Dont have a single good memory of him. Not a single one? Margery thought for a moment. Oh, no, youre right. There was one. Alice waited. Yup. The day the sheriff stopped by to tell me he was dead. Margery turned from the mule and the two women finished up in silence. Alice felt completely out of her depth. Anyone else, she would have commiserated. Margery seemed to need less sympathy than anyone shed ever met. Perhaps Margery detected some of these mental gymnastics, or perhaps she felt shed been a little harsh, because she turned to Alice and smiled suddenly. Alice was struck by the fact that she was actually quite beautiful. You asked me a while back if I was ever frightened, up there in the mountains, on my own. Alices hand stilled on the girth buckle. Well, Ill tell you something. Ive been afraid of nothing since the day my daddy passed. See that there? She pointed towards the mountains that loomed in the distance. Thats what I dreamed of as a child. Me and Charley, up there, thats my heaven, Alice. I get to live my heaven every day. She let out a long breath, and as Alice was still digesting the softening of her face, the strange luminosity of her smile, she turned and slapped the back of her saddle. Right. You all set? Big day for you. Big day for us all. It was the first week that the four women had split up and ridden their own routes. They planned to meet at the library at the beginning and end of each week, to debrief, try to keep the books in order, and check the condition of those returned. Margery and Beth rode the longer routes, often leaving their books at a second base, a schoolhouse ten miles away and bringing those back fortnightly, while Alice and Izzy did the routes closer to home. Izzy had grown in confidence now, and several times Alice had arrived as she was already riding out, her polished new boots from Lexington gleaming, her humming audible the whole way down Main Street. Good morning, Alice, she would call, her wave a little tentative, as if she were still not quite sure of the response she was going to get. Alice didnt want to admit how nervous she felt. It wasnt just her fear of getting lost, or of making a fool of herself, but the conversation she had overheard between Beth and Mrs Brady the week before, as she had unsaddled Spirit outside. Oh, you all are just marvellous. But I confess I am a little anxious about the English girl. Shes doing fine, Mrs Brady. Marge says she knows most of the routes pretty well. Its not the routes, Beth dear. The whole point of using local girls to do the job was that the people you visit know you. They trust you not to look down at them, or to give their families anything unsuitable to read. If we have some strange girl going in talking with an accent and acting like the Queen of England, well, theyre going to be on their guard. Im afraid its going to damage the whole scheme. Spirit had snorted and they had quieted abruptly, as if realizing someone might be outside. Alice, ducking back behind the window, had felt a spasm of anxiety. If local people wouldnt take her books, she realized, they wouldnt let her have the job. She imagined herself suddenly back inside the Van Cleve house, heavy with silence, Annies beady, suspicious gaze on her and a decade stretching ahead of her at every hour. She thought of Bennett, and the wall of his sleeping back, his refusal to try to talk about what was going on. She thought of Mr Van Cleves irritation that they had not yet provided him with a little grandbabby. If I lose this job, she thought, and something solid and heavy settled in her stomach, I will have nothing. Good mornin! The whole way up the mountain Alice had been practising. She had murmured, Well, good morning! And how are you this fine day? to Spirit over and over, rolling her mouth around the vowels, trying to stop herself sounding so clipped and English. A young woman, probably not much older than Alice, emerged from a cabin and peered at her, shading her eyes. In the sunlit, grassy patch in front of the house, two children looked up at her. They resumed their desultory fight over a stick while a dog watched intently. A bowl of unshucked sweetcorn had been left, as if awaiting transport, and a pile of laundry lay on a sheet on the ground. Some pulled weeds were thrown in a pile by the vegetable patch, the earth still on their roots. The house appeared surrounded by such half-finished tasks. From inside Alice could hear a baby crying, a furious, disconsolate wail. Mrs Bligh? Can I help you? Alice took a breath. Good maoahning! Ahm from the travelling laahbrurry, she said carefully. Ah wuz wondering if yew would lahk some bewks, fer you and the younguns. Fer to do some book learnin. The womans smile faded. Its okay. They dont cawst nuffink, Alice added, smiling. She pulled a book from her saddlebag. Yew kin borreh four and ahll jest come pick em up next week. The woman was silent. She narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips and looked down at her shoes. Then she brushed her hands on her apron and looked up again. Miss, are you mocking me? Alices eyes widened. Youre the English one, right? Married to Van Cleves boy? Because if youre after mocking me you can head straight off back down that mountain. Im not mocking you, Alice said quickly. Then you got somethin wrong with your jaw? Alice swallowed. The woman was frowning at her. Im so sorry, she said. I was told people wouldnt trust me enough to take books from me if I sounded too English. I was just Her voice trailed away. You was trying to sound like you was from round here? The womans chin pulled into her neck. I know. Said like that it sounds rather I Alice closed her eyes and groaned inwardly. The woman snorted with laughter. Alices eyes snapped open. The woman started to laugh again, bent over her apron. You tried to sound like you was from round here. Garrett? You hear that? I heard, came a mans voice, followed by a burst of coughing. Mrs Bligh clutched her sides and laughed until she had to wipe the corners of her eyes. The children, watching her, began to chuckle too, with the hopeful, bemused faces of those who werent quite sure what they were laughing at. Oh, my. Oh, Miss, I aint laughed like that since as long as I can remember. You come on in now. Id take books off you if you was from the other side of the world. Im Kathleen. Cmon in. You need some water? Its hot enough to fry a snake out here. Alice tied Spirit to the nearest tree and pulled a selection of books out of her pack. She followed the young woman up to the cabin, noting that there was no glass in the windows, just wooden shutters, and wondered absently what it must be like in the winter. She waited in the doorway, as her eyes acclimatized to the darkness, and gradually the interior revealed itself. The cabin appeared to be divided into two rooms. The walls of the front one were lined with newspaper, and on the far side stood a large wood-burning stove, beside which stood a stack of logs. Above the fireplace hung a string of tied candles, and a large hunting rifle on the wall. A table and four chairs stood in the corner, and a baby lay in a large crate beside it, its little fists pummelling the air as it cried. The woman stooped and picked it up with a vague air of exhaustion and the crying stopped. It was then that Alice noticed the man in the bed across the room. The quilted covers pulled up to his chest, he was young and handsome, but his skin had the waxy pallor of the chronically ill. The air was still and stale around him, despite the open windows, and every thirty seconds or so he coughed. Good morning, she said, when she saw he was looking at her. Morning, he said, his voice weak and raspy. Garrett Bligh. Sorry I cant stand just now to She shook her head, as if it was of no matter. Have you got any of those Womans Home Companion magazines? said the young woman. This baby is just a devil to settle right now and I was wondering if they had anything would help? I can read good enough, cant I, Garrett? Miss OHare brought me some a while back and they had advice on all sorts. I think its his teeth but he dont want to chew on nothin. Alice startled, pulled back into action. She began flicking through the books and magazines, eventually pulling out two that she handed over. Would the children like something? You got any of those picture books? Paulys got his alphabet but his sister just looks at the pictures. She loves them, though. Of course. Alice found two primers and handed them over. Kathleen smiled, placing them reverently on the table, and handed Alice a cup of water. I got some recipes. Got one for honey apple cake handed down from my mama. If you want it, Id be happy to write it out and give it to you. Mountain people, Margery had instructed her, were proud. Many of them didnt feel comfortable receiving without giving something back. Id love that. Thank you so much. Alice drank the water and handed back her cup. She made to leave, muttering about time getting on, when she realized that Kathleen and her husband were exchanging a look. She stood, wondering if she had missed something. They looked back at her, and the woman smiled brightly. Neither said a word. Alice waited a moment, until it became awkward. Well, its lovely to meet you all. Ill see you in a week and Ill make sure to look out for more articles about teething babies. Anything you want, Ill be happy to search it out. We have new books and magazines coming in by the week. She gathered up the remaining books. Ill see you next time, then. Much obliged to you, came the whispering voice from the bed, and then the words were lost in another bout of coughing. The outside seemed impossibly bright after the gloom of the cabin. Alice found herself squinting as she waved goodbye to the children and made her way back across the grass to Spirit. She hadnt realized how high up they were here: she could see halfway across the county. She stopped for a minute, revelling in the view. Miss? She turned. Kathleen Bligh was running towards her. She stopped a few feet from Alice, then compressed her lips briefly as if she were afraid to speak. Is there something else? Miss, my husband, he loves to read but his eyes aint too good in the dark and, to be honest, he struggles to focus because of the black lung. Hes in some pain most days. Could you read to him a little? Read to him? It takes his mind away. I cant do it because I got the house to mind and the baby, and kindling to chop. I wouldnt ask but Margery did it the other week, and if you could spare a half-hour just to read him a chapter of something, well it would mean the world to both of us. Kathleens face, away from her husband, had collapsed into exhaustion and strain, as if she dared not show what she felt in front of him. Her eyes glittered. She lifted her chin abruptly, as if she were embarrassed to be asking for anything. Of course if youre too busy Alice reached out and put a hand on her arm. Why dont you tell me a little of what he likes? I have a new book of short stories here that sounds like it might be just the ticket. What do you think? Forty minutes later Alice picked her way down the mountain. Garrett Bligh had closed his eyes while she read and, sure enough, twenty minutes into the story a stirring tale of a sailor shipwrecked on high seas she had glanced from her stool beside the bed and observed that the muscles of his face, which had been taut with discomfort, had indeed relaxed as if he had taken himself somewhere else entirely. She kept her voice low, murmuring, and even the baby seemed to settle at the sound. Outside, Kathleen was a pale blur, chopping kindling, fetching, picking and carrying, alternately calming arguments and scolding. By the time the story finished, Garrett was asleep, his breath rasping in his chest. Thank you, Kathleen said, as Alice loaded her saddlebags. She held out two large apples and a piece of paper on which she had carefully written a recipe. Thats what I was telling you about. These apples are good for baking because they dont go all to a mush. Just dont overcook them. Her face had brightened again, her former resolve apparently restored. Thats very kind of you. Thank you, said Alice, and tucked them carefully into her pockets. Kathleen nodded, as if a debt had been repaid, and Alice mounted her horse. She thanked her again and set off. Mrs Van Cleve? Kathleen called, when Alice had gone some twenty yards down the track. Alice turned in her saddle. Yes? Kathleen folded her arms across her chest and lifted her chin. I think your voice sounds real fine just like it is. The sun was fierce and the no-see-ums, the biting midges, were relentless. Through the long afternoon Alice, slapping at her neck and cursing, was grateful for the canvas-brimmed hat Margery had lent her. She managed to press an embroidery primer onto twin sisters who lived down by the creek and seemed to view even that with suspicion, was chased from a large house by a mean-looking dog, and gave a Bible reader to a family of eleven in the smallest house she had ever seen, where a series of hay mattresses lay on the porch. Children of mine read nothin but the Good Book, the mother had said, from behind a half-closed door, and set her jaw, as if braced for contradiction. Then Ill look out for some more Bible stories for you next week, Alice said, and tried to make her smile brighter than it felt as the door closed. After the small victory at the Bligh house, she had begun to feel dispirited. She wasnt sure if it was the books people were viewing with suspicion or her. She kept hearing Mrs Bradys voice, her reservations about whether Alice could do the job, given her foreignness. She was so distracted by this that it was some time before she realized she had stopped registering Margerys red threads on the trees and was now lost. She stopped in a clearing, trying to gauge from her hand-drawn maps where she was meant to be, struggling to see the position of the sun through the dark green canopy above. Spirit stood stock still, her head drooping in the mid-afternoon heat that managed to penetrate the branches. Arent you meant to be finding your way home? said Alice, grumpily. She was forced to conclude she had no clue where she was. She would have to retrace her steps until she found her way back to a landmark. She turned the horse and wearily made her way up the side of the mountain. It was a full half-hour before she recognized anything. She had tamped down her rising sense of panic at the creeping realization that she could quite easily end up on the mountainside at night, in the dark, with snakes and mountain lions and goodness knew what all around, or, just as worrying, at one of the addresses she was on no account to make a stop at: Beever, on Frog Creek (crazy like a fox), the McCullough House (moonshiners, mostly drunk, not sure about the girls as no one ever sees em), the Garside brothers (drunk, ornery with it). She wasnt sure whether she was more afraid of the prospect of being shot for trespass, or of Mrs Bradys response when it emerged that the Englishwoman had not, after all, known what on earth she was doing. Around her the landscape seemed to have stretched, revealing its vastness and her own ignorance at her place within it. Why hadnt she paid more attention to Margerys instructions? She squinted at the shadows, trying to work out where she might be according to their direction, then cursed when the clouds or the movement of the branches made them vanish. She was so relieved when she spied the red knot on the tree trunk that it took her a moment to grasp the identity of the house she was now approaching. Alice rode past the front gate with her eyes lowered and her head down. The weather-boarded house was silent. The iron kettle sat outside in a cold pile of ash, and a large axe lay abandoned in a chunk of tree stump. Two dirty glass windows eyed her blankly. And there they were, four books in a neat pile by the post, just where Margery had told Jim Horner to leave them if he decided he didnt want books in his house after all. She pulled Spirit up and climbed off, one eye warily on the window, remembering the bullet-sized hole in Margerys hat. The books appeared untouched. She picked them up under one arm, packed them carefully in her saddlebags, then checked the mares girth. She had one foot in the stirrup, her heart beating uncomfortably fast, when she heard the mans voice echo out across the holler. Hey! She stopped. Hey you! Alice closed her eyes. You that library girl stopped here before? I wasnt bothering you, Mr Horner, she called. I just I just came to pick up the books. Ill be gone before you know it. Nobody else will come by. You was lying? What? Alice took her foot out of the stirrup and spun round. You said you was going to bring us some more. Alice blinked. He wasnt smiling, but he wasnt holding a gun either. He stood in the doorway, his hands loosely by his sides, and lifted one to point at the gatepost. You want more books? Said so, didnt I? Oh, goodness. Of course. Um Nerves made her clumsy. She fumbled in the bag, pulling and rejecting what came to hand. Yes. Well. I brought some Mark Twain and a book of recipes. Oh, and this magazine has some canning tips. You were all canning, werent you? I can leave that if you like. I want a speller. He pointed loosely, as if that might summon it. For the girls. I want one of them with just words and a picture each page. Nothing fancy. I think I have something like that Hold on. Alice rummaged in her saddlebag and eventually pulled out a childs reading book. Like this? This one has been very popular among Just leave them by the post. Done! There they are! Lovely! Alice stooped to place the books in a neat pile, then backed away and turned to spring onto her horse. Right. Im Im going now. Be sure to let me know if theres anything particular you want me to bring next week. She lifted a hand. Jim Horner was standing in the doorway, two girls behind him, watching her. Although her heart was still beating wildly, when she reached the bottom of the dirt track she found she was smiling. 5 Each mine, or group of mines, became a social center with no privately owned property except the mine, and no public places or public highway except the bed of the creek, which flowed between the mountain walls. These groups of villages dot the mountain sides down the river valleys and need only castles, draw-bridges, and donjon-keeps to reproduce to the physical eye a view of feudal days. United States Coal Commission in 1923 It pained Margery to admit it, but the little library on Split Creek Road was growing chaotic and, faced with the ever-growing demand for books, not one of the four of them had time to do much about it. Despite the initial suspicion of some inhabitants of Lee County, word had spread about the book ladies, as they had become known, and within a few short weeks it was more common for them to be greeted by eager smiles than it was for doors to be rapidly closed in their faces. Families clamoured for reading material, from the Womans Home Companion to The Furrow for men. Everything from Charles Dickens to the Dime Mystery Magazine was ripped from their hands almost as soon as they could pull it from their saddlebags. The comic books, wildly popular among the countys children, suffered most, being thumbed to death or their fragile pages ripped as siblings fought over them. Magazines would occasionally be returned with a favourite page quietly removed. And still the demand came: Miss, have you got new books for us? When the librarians returned to their base at Frederick Guislers cabin, instead of plucking rigorously organized books from his handmade shelves, they were more often to be found on the floor, riffling through countless piles for the requested titles, yelling at each other when someone else turned out to be sitting on the one they needed. I guess were victims of our own success, said Margery, glancing around at the stacks on the floor. Should we start sorting through them? Beth was smoking a cigarette her father would have whipped her if hed seen it and Margery pretended she hadnt. No point. Well barely touch the sides this morning and itll be just as bad when we get back. No, Ive been thinking we need someone here full time to sort it out. Beth looked at Izzy. You wanted to stay back here, didnt you? And she aint the strongest of riders. Izzy bristled. I do not, thank you, Beth. My families know me. They wouldnt like it if someone else took over my routes. She had a point. Despite Beths sly digs, Izzy Brady, in six short weeks, had grown into a competent horsewoman, if not a great one, her balance compensating for her weaker leg, its difference now invisible in the dark mahogany leather boots that she kept polished to a high shine. She had taken to carrying her stick on the back of the saddle to aid her when she had to walk the last steps up to a house, and found it came in handy for whacking at branches, keeping mean dogs at bay, and shifting the occasional snake. Most families around Baileyville were a little in awe of Mrs Brady, and Izzy, once shed introduced herself, was usually welcomed. Besides, Beth, Izzy added, slyly producing her trump card, you know if I stay here youll have my mother fixin and fussin all the time. Only thing keeping her away now is thinking Im out all day. Oh, Id really rather not, said Alice, as Margery turned towards her. My families are doing well, too. Jim Horners eldest girl read the whole of The American Girl last week. He was so proud he even forgot to shout at me. I guess its Beth, then, said Izzy. Beth stubbed out her cigarette on the wood floor with the heel of her boot. Dont look at me. I hate cleaning up. Do enough of it for my damn brothers. Do you have to curse? Izzy sniffed. Its not just clearing up, Margery said, picking up a copy of The Pickwick Papers, from which the innards sagged in a weary spray. These were ratty to start with and now theyre falling apart. We need someone who can sew up the binders and maybe make scrapbooks out of all these loose pages. Theyre doing that over at Hindman and theyre real popular. Got recipes and stories in them and everything. My sewing is atrocious, said Alice, quickly, and the others concurred loudly that they, too, were awful at it. Margery pulled an exasperated face. Well, I aint doing it. Got paws for hands. She thought for a minute. I got an idea, though. She got up from behind the table and reached for her hat. What? said Alice. Where are you going? said Beth. Hoffman. Beth, can you pick up some of my rounds? Ill see yall later. You could hear the ominous sounds of the Hoffman Mining Company a good couple of miles before you saw it: the rumble of the coal trucks, the distant whumpf of the explosions that vibrated through your feet, the clang of the mine bell. For Margery, Hoffman was a vision of Hell, its pits eating into the scarred and hollowed-out hillsides around Baileyville, like giant welts, its men, their eyes glowing white out of blackened faces, emerging from its bowels, and the low industrial hum of nature being stripped and ravaged. Around the settlement the taste of coal dust hung in the air, with an ever-present sense of foreboding, explosions covering the valley with a grey filter. Even Charley balked at it. A certain kind of man looked at Gods own land, she thought, as she drew closer, and instead of beauty and wonder, all he saw was dollar signs. Hoffman was a town with its own rules. The price of a wage and a roof over your head was a creeping debt to the company store, and the never-ending fear of a misjudged measurement of dynamite, a lost limb from a runaway trolley, or worse: the end of it all, several hundred feet below, with little chance for your loved ones to recover a body to grieve over. And, since a year back, all of this had become suffused in an air of mistrust as the union-busters arrived to beat back those who had the temerity to campaign for better conditions. The mine bosses didnt like change, and they had shown it not in argument and raised fists but with mobs, guns and, now, families in mourning. That you, Margery OHare? The guard took two steps towards her as she rode up, his hand shielding his eyes from the sun. Sure is, Bob. You know Gustavssons here? Everything all right? She felt the familiar metallic taste in her mouth whenever she heard Svens name. Everyone accounted for. Think theyre just having a bite to eat before they head off. Last saw them over by B Block. She dismounted and tied up the mule, then walked through the gates, ignoring the glances from miners clocking off. She walked briskly past the commissary, its windows advertising various on-sale bargains that everyone knew to be no bargain at all. It stood on the hillside at the same level as the huge tipple. Above it were the generous, well-maintained houses of the mine bosses and their foremen, most with neat backyards. This was where Van Cleve would have lived, had Dolores not refused to leave her family home back in Baileyville. It was not one of the larger coal camps, like Lynch, where some ten thousand homes scattered the hillsides. Here a couple of hundred miners shacks stretched along the tracks, their roofs covered with tar-paper, barely updated in the forty-odd years of their existence. A few children, mostly shoeless, played in the dirt beside a rootling pig. Car parts and washing pails were strewn outside front doors, and stray dogs trotted haphazard paths between them. Margery turned right, away from the residential roads, and walked briskly over the small bridge that led to the mines. She spied his back first. He was sitting on an upturned crate, his helmet cradled between his feet as he ate a hunk of bread. Shed know him anywhere, she thought. The way his neck met his shoulders and his head tilted a little to the left when he spoke. His shirt was covered with smuts and the tabard that read FIRE on his back was slightly askew. Hey. He turned at the sound of her voice, stood and lifted his hands as his workmates began a series of low whistles, as if he were trying to tamp down a fire. Marge! What are you doing here? He took her arm, steering her away from the catcalls as they walked around the corner. She looked at Svens blackened palms. Everyone okay? His eyebrows lifted. This time. He shot a look at the administrative offices that told her everything she needed to know. She reached up and wiped a smudge from his face with her thumb. He stopped her and pressed her hand to his lips. It always made something flip inside her, even if she didnt let it show on her face. You missed me, then? No. Liar. They grinned at each other. I came to find William Kenworth. I need to speak to his sister. Coloured William? He isnt here no more, Marge. He got injured out, oh, six, nine months back. She looked startled. I thought I told you. Some powder monkey messed up his wires and he was in the way when they blasted that tunnel through Fellers Top. Boulder took his leg clean off. So where is he now? No idea. I can find out, though. She waited outside the administrative offices while Sven went in and sweet-talked Mrs Pfeiffer, whose favourite word was no but she rarely used it on Sven. Everyone across the five coal patches of Lee County loved Sven. He had, along with solid shoulders and fists the size of hams, an air of quiet authority, a twinkle in his eye, which told men he was one of them, and women he liked them, not just in that way. He was good at his job, kind when he felt he needed to be, and he spoke to everyone with the same uncommon civility, whether it was a ragged-trousered kid from the next holler, or the big bosses at the mine. Most days she could reel off a whole list of the things she liked about Sven Gustavsson. Not that shed tell him. He came down the steps from the office holding a piece of paper. Hes over at Monarch Creek, at his late mothers place. Been pretty poorly by all accounts. Turns out theyd only treat him the first couple of months in the hospital here, then he was out. Good of them. Sven knew well how little she regarded Hoffman. What do you want him for, anyway? I wanted to find his sister. But if hes sick, I dont know if I should be bothering him. Last I heard she was working in Louisville. Oh, no. Mrs Pfeiffer just told me his sisters the one looking out for him. Chances are you head over there, youll find her, too. She took the piece of paper from him and looked up. His eyes were on her, and his face softened under the black. So when will I see you? Depends when you stop yammering on about getting married. He glanced behind him, then pulled her around the corner, placing her back against the wall as he stood close, as close as he could get. Okay, hows this? Margery OHare, I solemnly promise never to marry you. And? And I wont talk about marrying you. Or sing songs about it. Or even think about marrying you. Better. He glanced around him, then lowered his voice, placing his mouth beside her ear so that she squirmed a little. But I will stop by and do sinful things to that fine body of yours. If youll allow me. How sinful? she whispered. Oh. Bad. Ungodly. She slid her hand inside his overalls, feeling the faint sheen of sweat on his warm skin. For a moment it was just the two of them. The sounds and scents of the mine receded, and all she could feel was the thumping of her heart, the pulse of his skin against hers, the ever-present drumbeat of her need for him. God loves a sinner, Sven. She reached up and kissed him, then delivered a swift bite to his lower lip. But not as much as I do. He burst out laughing and, to her surprise, as she walked back to the mule, the safety crews catcalls still ringing out, her cheeks had gone quite, quite pink. It had been a long day, and by the time she reached the little cabin at Monarch Creek, both she and the mule were weary. She dismounted and threw her reins over the post. Hello? Nobody emerged. A carefully tended vegetable patch lay to the left of the cabin, and a small lean-to skimmed it, with two baskets hanging from the porch. Unlike most of the houses around this holler, it was freshly painted, the grass trimmed and weeds beaten into submission. A red rocker sat by the door looking out across the water meadow. Hello? A womans face appeared at the screen door. She glanced out, as if checking something, then turned away, speaking to someone inside. That you, Miss Margery? Hey, Miss Sophia. How you doing? The screen door opened and the woman stood back to let Margery in, her hands on her hips, thick dark coils of hair pinned to her scalp. She lifted her head as if surveying her carefully. Well, now. I havent seen you in what eight years? Something like that. You havent changed none, though. Get in here. Her face, so thin and stern in repose, broke into a lovely smile, and Margery repaid it in full. For several years Margery had accompanied her father on his moonshine runs to Hoffman, one of his more lucrative routes. Frank OHare figured that nobody would look twice at a girl with her daddy making deliveries into the settlement and he figured right. But while he made his way around the residential section, trading jars and paying off security guards, she would make her way quietly to the coloured block, where Miss Sophia would lend her books from her familys small collection. Margery had not been allowed to go to school Frank had seen to that. He didnt believe in book learning, no matter how hard her mother had pleaded. But Miss Sophia and her mother, Miss Ada, had fostered in her a love of reading that, many evenings, had taken her a million miles from the darkness and violence of her home. And it wasnt just the books: Miss Sophia and Miss Ada always looked immaculate, their nails perfectly filed, their hair rolled and braided with surgical precision. Miss Sophia was only a year older than Margery, but her family represented to her a kind of order, a suggestion that life could be conducted quite differently from the noise, chaos and fear of her own. You know, I used to think you were going to eat those books, you were so hungry for them. Never knew a girl read so many so fast. They smiled at each other. And then Margery spied William. He was seated in a chair by the window and the left leg of his pants was pinned neatly under the stump where it ended. She tried not to let the shock of it show as even a flicker on her face. Good afternoon, Miss Margery. Im real sorry to hear about your accident, William. Are you in much pain? Its tolerable, he said. Just dont like not being able to work, thats all. Hes about as ornery as all get out, said Sophia, and rolled her eyes. He hates being in the house more than he hates losing that leg. You sit down and Ill fetch you a drink. She tells me I make the place look untidy. William shrugged. The Kenworth cabin was the neatest, Margery suspected, for twenty miles. There was not a speck of dust or an item out of place, testament to Sophias fearsome organizational skills. Margery sat and drank a glass of sarsaparilla, and listened as William told her how the mine had laid him off after his accident. Union tried to stand up for me but since the shootings, well, nobody wants to stick their neck out too far for a black fellow. You know what Im saying? They shot two more union men last month. I heard. William shook his head. The Stiller brothers shot the tyres out of three trucks headed out from the tipple. Next time they went into the company store at Friars to organize some of the men, a bunch of thugs trapped them in there and a whole bunch had to come over from Hoffmans to get them out. Hes sending a warning. Who? Van Cleve. You know hes behind half of this. Everybody knows, said Sophia. Everybody knows what goes on in that place but nobody wants to do nothing. The three of them sat in silence for so long that Margery almost forgot why she had come. Finally she put her glass down. This isnt just a social call, she said. You dont say, said Sophia. I dont know if you heard, but Ive been setting up a library over at Baileyville. We got four of us librarians just local girls and a whole lot of donated books and journals, some on their last legs. Well, we need someone to organize us, and fix up the books, because it turns out you cant do fifteen hours a day in the saddle and keep the rest of it straight, too. Sophia and William looked at each other. Im not sure what this has to do with us, Sophia said. Well, I was wondering if youd come and organize it for us. We have a budget for five librarians, and theres a decent wage. Paid for by the WPA, and the moneys good for at least a year. Sophia leaned back in her seat. Margery persisted: I know you loved working at the library at Louisville. And you could be back here in an hour each day. Wed be glad to have you. Its a coloured library. Sophias voice hardened. She folded her hands in her lap. The library at Louisville. Its for coloured folk. You must be aware of that, Miss Margery. I cant come work for a white persons library. Unless youre actually asking me to ride horses with you and I can sure as anything tell you Im not going to be doing that. Its a travelling library. People dont come in and out borrowing stuff. We go to them. So? So nobody even needs to know youre there. Look, Miss Sophia, were desperate for your help. I need someone I can trust to mend the books, and get us straight, and you are, by anyones standards, the finest librarian for three counties. Im going to say it again. Its a white persons library. Things are changing. You tell the men in hoods that when they come knocking at our door. So what are you doing here? Im looking after my brother. I know that. Im asking you what youre doing for money. The two siblings exchanged a look. Thats a mighty personal question. Even for you. William sighed. We aint doing too good. Were living off what we got saved and what our mama left. But it aint much. William! Sophia scolded him. Well, its the truth. We know Miss Margery. She knows us. So you want me to go get my head busted working in a white folks library? I wont let that happen, said Margery, calmly. It was the first time Sophia did not answer. There were few advantages to being the offspring of Frank OHare, but people who had known him understood that if Margery promised something would happen, then in all likelihood, it would. If you had survived a childhood with Frank OHare, not much else was going to stand in your way. Oh, and its twenty-eight dollars a month, said Margery. Same wage as the rest of us. Sophia looked at her brother, then down at her lap. Finally she lifted her head. Well have to think about it. Okay. Sophia pursed her lips. You still as messy as you was? Probably a little worse. Sophia stood and straightened her skirt. Like I said. Well think about it. William saw her out. He insisted, raising himself laboriously from his chair while Sophia handed him his crutch. He winced with the effort of shuffling to the door, and Margery tried not to let on that she saw it. They stood at the door and looked out at the relative peace of the creek. You know theyre fixing to take a chunk out of the north side of the ridge? What? Big Cole told me. Theyre going to blow six holes straight through it. They reckon theres rich seams in there. But that part of the mountain is occupied. Theres fourteen, fifteen families just down by the north side alone. We know that and they know that. But you think thats gonna stop them once they sniff paper money? But whatll happen to the families? Same thing that happens every time. He rubbed his forehead. Kentucky, huh? Most beautiful place on earth, and the most brutal. Sometimes I think God wanted to show us all His ways at once. William leaned against the doorframe, adjusting his wooden crutch under his armpit while Margery digested this. Its good to see you, Miss Margery. You take care now. You too, William. And tell your sister to come work at our library. He raised an eyebrow. Huh! Shes like you. No man going to tell her what to do. She could hear him chuckling as he closed the screen door behind him. 6 My mother didnt hold with twenty-four-hour-old pies, except mince. She would get up an hour earlier in order to bake a pie before breakfast but she would not bake any kind of custard or fruit pie, even pumpkin, the day before it was to be used, and if she had my father wouldnt have eaten it. Della T. Lutes, Farm Journal In the first months after she had moved to Baileyville, Alice had almost enjoyed the weekly church dinners. Having a fourth or fifth person at their table seemed to lift the atmosphere in the sombre house, and the food was mostly a cut above Annies usual greasy fare. Mr Van Cleve tended to be on his best behaviour, and Pastor McIntosh, their most frequent visitor, was essentially a kind man, if a little repetitive. The most enjoyable element of Kentucky society, she observed, was the endless stories: the misfortunes of families, gossip about neighbours every anecdote served up beautifully formed and with a punch-line that would leave the table rocking with laughter. If there was more than one raconteur at the table it would swiftly become a competitive sport. But, more importantly, those animated tall tales left Alice to eat her food largely unobserved and unbothered. Or, at least, they had. So when are you two young uns going to bless my old friend here with a grandchild or two then, huh? Thats what I keep asking them. Mr Van Cleve pointed his knife at Bennett and then Alice. A house isnt a home without a babby running through it. Maybe when our bedroom isnt so close to yours that I can hear you break wind, Alice responded silently, scooping mashed potato onto her plate. Maybe when Im free to walk to the bathroom without covering myself to the ankles. Maybe when I dont have to listen to this conversation at least twice a week. Pastor McIntoshs sister Pamela, visiting from Knoxville, observed, as someone invariably did, that her son had gotten his new wife with child on the very day of their wedding. Nine months to the day the twins came. Can you believe that? Mind you, she has that house running like clockwork. You watch, shell wean those two and the day after shell be carrying again. Arent you one of those packhorse librarians, Alice? Pamelas husband eyed the world suspiciously from under two bushy brows. I am indeed. The girls gone from the house all day! Mr Van Cleve exclaimed. Some evenings she gets back so tired she can barely keep her eyes open. Strapping lad like you, Bennett. Young Alice there should be too tired to get on a horse in the first place! She should be bow-legged like a cowboy, though! The two men roared with laughter. Alice forced a wan smile. She glanced at Bennett, who was steering black beans around his plate with intent focus. Then she looked at Annie, who was holding the sweet-potato dish and gazing at her with something that looked uncomfortably like satisfaction. Alice hardened her look until the other woman turned away. You got monthlies stains on your breeches, Annie had observed, as she brought Alice a pile of folded laundry the previous evening. I couldnt get it all out so theres still a small mark. She had paused, and added, Just like last month. Alice had bristled at the idea of the woman monitoring her monthlies. She had the sudden sensation of half the town discussing her apparent failure to fall pregnant. It couldnt be Bennetts fault, of course. Not their baseball champ. Not their golden boy. You know, my cousin the one over at Berea she couldnt fall pregnant for love nor money. I swear her husband was at her like a dog. She went to one of the snake-handling churches Pastor, I know you disapprove but hear me out. They put a Green Garter around her neck and she was with child the very next week. My cousin said the baby has eyes as gold as a copperheads. But then she always was the imaginative type. My aunt Lola was the same. Her pastor had the whole congregation praying for God to fill her womb. Took them a year, but they got five children now. Please dont feel obliged to do the same, said Alice. I think its all this riding the girl is doing. Its no good for a woman to sit astride all day. Dr Freeman says it jiggles up a ladys insides. Well, yes, I do believe Ive read as much. Mr Van Cleve picked up his salt-shaker and waggled it between his fingers. Its like if you shake a jar of milk up too much, it turns sour. Curdles, if you like. My insides are not curdled, thank you, Alice said stiffly, then added, after a moment, But I would be very interested to see the article. Article? said Pastor McIntosh. That you mentioned. Where it says a woman shouldnt ride a horse. For fear of jiggling. Its not a medical term Im familiar with. The two men looked at each other. Alice dragged her knife across a piece of chicken, not looking up from her plate. Knowledge is so important, dont you think? We all say at the library, without facts we really do have nothing. If Im putting my health at risk by riding a horse, then I think it would be only responsible for me to read the article youre talking about. Perhaps you could bring it with you next Sunday, Pastor. She looked up and smiled brightly across the table. Well, said Pastor McIntosh, Im not sure I could lay my hands on it just like that. The pastor has a lot of papers, said Mr Van Cleve. The funny thing is, Alice continued, waving a fork for emphasis, in England, nearly all well-brought-up ladies ride. They go out hunting, jumping ditches, fences, all sorts. Its almost compulsory. And yet they pop out babies with extraordinary efficiency. Even the Royal Family. Pop, pop, pop! Like shelling peas! Do you know how many children Queen Victoria had? And she was always on a horse. They couldnt pull her off. The table had grown quiet. Well said Pastor McIntosh that is most interesting. It cant be good for you, though, dear, said the pastors sister, kindly. I mean, strenuous physical activity is not good for young women at the best of times. Goodness. Youd better tell some of the mountain girls I see every day. Those women are chopping firewood, hoeing vegetable patches, cleaning house for men who are too sick or too lazy to get out of bed. And, strangely, they too seem to have all those babies, one after another. Alice, said Bennett, quietly. I cant imagine too many of them are just floating around, flower-arranging and putting their feet up. Or perhaps they have a different biological make-up. That must be it. Perhaps theres a medical reason I havent heard of for that, too. Alice, said Bennett, again. There is nothing wrong with me, she whispered angrily. She was furious to hear the tremor in her voice. It was what they had needed. The two older men exchanged kindly looks. Oh, dont you get yourself worked up now. Were not criticizing you, Alice dear, said Mr Van Cleve, reaching across the table and placing his plump hand over hers. We understand it can be a disappointment when the Lord doesnt bless you straight off. But its best not to get too emotional about it, said the pastor. Ill say a little prayer for you both when youre next in church. Thats most kind of you, said Mr Van Cleve. Sometimes a young lady doesnt always know whats in her own interests. Thats what were here for, Alice, to mind your best interests. Now, Annie, wheres that sweet potato? My gravys getting cold here. What did you have to do that for? Bennett sat beside her on the swing seat as the older men repaired to the parlour, finishing off a bottle of Mr Van Cleves best bourbon. Their voices rose and fell, punctuated by bursts of laughter. Alice sat with her arms crossed. The evenings were growing cooler but she positioned herself at the far end of the swing seat, a good nine inches from the warmth of Bennetts body, a shawl around her shoulders. Do what? You know very well what. Pa was just trying to look out for you. Bennett, you know that riding horses has nothing to do with why Im not getting pregnant. He said nothing. I love my job. I truly love my job. I will not give it up because your father is under the impression that my insides are jiggling. Does anyone say you play too much baseball? No. Of course they dont. But your bits are jiggling all over the place three times a week. Keep your voice down! Oh, I forgot. We cant say anything out loud, can we? Not about your jiggling bits. We cant talk about whats really going on. But Im the one everyones talking about. Im the one they think is barren. Why do you mind what people think? You act like you dont care for half the people around here anyway. I mind because your family and your neighbours are harping on about it all the time! And theyre going to keep on unless you explain whats going on! Or just do something about it! She had gone too far. Bennett rose abruptly from the swing seat and strode off, slamming the screen door behind him. There was a sudden silence in the parlour. As the male voices slowly picked up again, Alice sat on the swing seat, listening to the crickets and wondering how she could be in a house full of people and also in the loneliest place on earth. It had not been a good week at the library. The mountains turned from lush green to a fiery orange, the leaves forming a coppery carpet on the ground that muffled the horses hoofs, the hollers filling with thick morning mists, and Margery observed that half her librarians were out of sorts. She watched Alices uncharacteristically set jaw and shadowed eyes, and might perhaps have made an effort to sway her out of her mood, but she herself was antsy, still not having heard back from Sophia. Every evening she attempted to repair the more damaged books among their haul, but that pile had grown to a teetering height, and the thought of all the work, or all those wasted books, dismayed her even more. There was no time for her to do anything but get back on the mule and take another load out. The appetite for books had become relentless. Children followed them down the street, begging for something to read. Families they saw fortnightly would beg for the same weekly allowance as those on the shorter routes, and the librarians would have to explain that there were only four of them and they were out all the hours of the day as it was. The horses were periodically lame from the long hours up hard, flinty tracks (If I have to take Billy sideways up Fern Gully again I swear hes going to end up with two legs longer than the others), and Patch developed girth sores so that he was off work for days. It was never enough. And the strain was starting to show. As they returned on Friday evening, mud and fallen leaves treading in on their boots to add to the mess, Izzy snapped at Alice after she had tripped on Izzys saddlebag and broken the strap. Mind yourself! Alice stooped to pick it up as Beth peered at it. Well, you shouldnt have left it on the floor, should you? It was only there a minute. I was trying to put my books down and I needed my stick. What am I supposed to do now? I dont know. Get your ma to buy you another? Izzy reeled as if she had been slapped and glared at Beth. You take that back. Take what back? Its the damn truth. Izzy, Im sorry, said Alice, after a moment. It it really was an accident. Look, Ill see if I can find someone to fix it over the weekend. You didnt need to be mean, Beth Pinker. Shoot. Your skins thinner than a dragonflys wing. Can you two stop bickering and enter your books? Id like to be out of here by midnight. I cant enter mine because you havent done yours, and if I bring my books over were just going to get those mixed up with the ones by your feet. The books by my feet, Izzy Brady, are the ones you left yesterday because you couldnt be bothered to shelve them. I told you Mother had to pick me up early so she could get to her quilting circle! Oh, well. We cant get in the way of a damn quilting circle, can we? Their voices had reached a pitch. Beth eyed Izzy from the corner of the room, where she had just emptied her own saddlebags, along with a lunch pail and an empty lemonade bottle. Ah, shucks. You know what we need? What? said Izzy, suspiciously. We need to let our hair down a little. Were all work and no play. She grinned. I think we need to have us a meeting. Were having a meeting, said Margery. Not this kind of meeting. Beth strode past them, stepping neatly over the books. She opened the door and stepped outside, where her little brother was sitting on the steps, waiting. The women occasionally bought Bryn a poke of candies in return for running errands, and he looked up hopefully. Bryn, go tell Mr Van Cleve that Alice here has to stay late for a meeting on library policy and that well walk her home when were done. Then head over to Mrs Bradys and tell her the same actually, dont tell her its library policy. Shell be down here faster than you can say Mrs Lena B. Nofcier. Tell her tell her were cleaning our saddles. Then you tell Mama the same thing, and Ill buy you a twist of Tootsie Rolls. Margery narrowed her eyes. This had better not be Ill be right back. And, hey Bryn? Bryn! You tell Daddy I was smoking and Ill rip your damn ears off, one after the other. You hear me? What is going on? said Alice, as they heard Beths footsteps disappear down the road. I could ask the same thing, said a voice. Margery looked up to see Sophia standing in the doorway, her hands clasped together and her bag tucked under her arm. One eyebrow rose at the sight of the chaos. Oh, my days. You said it was bad. You didnt tell me I was going to want to run screaming back to Louisville. Alice and Izzy stared at the tall woman in the immaculate blue dress. Sophia looked back at them. Well, I dont know why you all are just sitting there catching flies. You should be working! Sophia put down her bag and untied her scarf. I told William, and Ill tell you. Ill work the evenings, and Ill do it with the door bolted, so nobodys going to get aerated about me being here. Those are my terms. And I want the wage we discussed. Fine by me, said Margery. The two younger women, bemused, turned and looked at Margery. Margery smiled. Izzy, Alice, this is Miss Sophia. This is our fifth librarian. Sophia Kenworth, Margery advised them as they began to get to grips with the stacks of books, had spent eight years at the coloured library in Louisville, in a building so large that it had divided its books not just into sections but into whole floors. It served professors, lecturers from Kentucky State University, and had a system of professionally produced cards and stamps that would be used to leave date marks when anything came in and out. Sophia had undergone formal training, and an apprenticeship, and her job had only come to an end when her mother died and William had had his accident within three short months of each other, forcing her to leave Louisville to look after him. Thats what we need here, Sophia said, as she sifted through the books, lifting each to examine its spine. We need systems. You leave it with me. An hour later the library doors were bolted, most of the books were off the floor and Sophia was whisking through the pages of the ledger, making soft sounds of disapproval. Beth, meanwhile, had returned and was now holding a large Mason jar of coloured liquid under Alices nose. I dont know Alice said. Just sip it. Go on. Its not going to kill you. Its Apple Pie moonshine. Alice looked at Margery, who had already declined. Nobody seemed surprised that Margery didnt drink moonshine. Alice raised the jar to her lips, hesitated, and lost her nerve again. Whats going to happen if I go home drunk? Well, I guess youll go home drunk, said Beth. I dont know Cant someone else try it first? Well, Izzy aint going to, is she? Says who? said Izzy. Oh, boy. Here we go, said Beth, laughing. She took the jar from Alices hands and passed it to Izzy. With an impish grin, Izzy took the jar in two hands and raised it to her mouth. She took a swig, coughing and spluttering, her eyes widening as she tried to hand the jar back. Youre not meant to be glugging it! said Beth, and took a small sip. You drink like that and youll be blind by Tuesday. Give it here, said Alice. She looked down at the contents and took a breath. You are too impulsive, Alice. She took a sip, feeling the alcohol burn a mercury path down her throat. She clamped her eyes shut, waiting for them to stop watering. It was actually delicious. Good? Beths mischievous eyes were on her when she opened them again. She nodded mutely, and swallowed. Surprisingly, she croaked. Yes. Let me have another. Something shifted in Alice that evening. She was tired of the eyes of the town on her, sick of being monitored and talked about and judged. She was sick of being married to a man whom everyone else thought was the Good Lord Almighty and who could barely bring himself to look at her. Alice had come halfway across the world to find that, yet again, she was considered wanting. Well, she thought, if that was what everyone thought, she might as well live up to it. She took another sip, and then another, batting away Beths hands when she shouted, Steady now, girl. She felt, she told them, when she finally handed it back, pleasantly squiffy. Pleasantly squiffy! Beth mimicked, and the girls fell about laughing. Margery smiled, despite herself. Well, I have no idea what kind of library this is, said Sophia, from the corner. They just need to let off steam, is all, said Margery. Theyve been working hard. We have been working hard! And now we need music! said Beth, holding up a hand. Lets fetch Mr Guislers gramophone. Hell lend it to us. Margery shook her head. Leave Fred out of it. He doesnt need to see this. You mean he doesnt need to see Alice all inebriated, said Beth, slyly. What? Alice looked up. Dont tease her, said Margery. Shes married, anyway. In theory, muttered Alice, who was having trouble focusing. Yeah. Just be like Margery and do what you want when you want. Beth looked sideways at her. With who you want. You want me to be ashamed of how I live my life, Beth Pinker? Because youll be waiting halfway to the heavens falling down. Hey, said Beth. If I had a man as handsome as Sven Gustavsson come a-courting me, Id have a ring on my finger so fast he wouldnt even know how hed found himself at church. You want to take a bite out of the apple before you put it in the basket, thats up to you. Just make sure you keep hold of the basket. What if I dont want a basket? Everyone wants a basket. Not me. Never have, never will. No basket. What are you all talking about? said Alice, and started to giggle. They lost me at Mr Guisler, said Izzy, and belched quietly. Good Lord, I feel amazing. I dont think Ive felt like this since I went on the Ferris wheel three times at Lexington County Fair. Except No. That didnt end well. Alice leaned in towards Izzy, and put a hand on her arm. I really am sorry about your strap, Izzy. I didnt mean to break it. Oh, dont you worry. Ill just ask Mother to go get me another. For some reason they both found this hysterically funny. Sophia looked at Margery and raised an eyebrow. Margery lit the oil lamps that dotted the end of each shelf, trying not to smile. She wasnt really one for big groups, but she quite liked this, the jokes and the merriment, and the way that you could see actual friendships springing up around the room, like green shoots. Hey, girls? said Alice, when she had got her giggles under control. What would you do, if you could do anything you wanted? Sort out this library, muttered Sophia. Im serious. If you could do anything, be anything, what would you do? Id travel the world, said Beth, who had made herself a backrest of books, and was now making armrests to go with it. Id go to India and Africa and Europe and maybe Egypt and have me a little look around. I got no plans to stay around here my whole life. My brothersll have me minding my pa till hes dribblin. I want to see the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China and that place where they build little round huts out of ice blocks and a whole bunch of other places in the encyclopaedias. I was going to say Id go to England and meet the king and queen but we got Alice so we dont need to. The other women started to laugh. Izzy? Oh, its crazy. Crazier than Beth and her Taj Mahals? Go on, said Alice, nudging her. Id well, Id be a singer, said Izzy. Id sing on the wireless, or on a gramophone record. Like Dorothy Lamour or she glanced towards Sophia, who made a decent fist of not raising her eyebrows too far Billie Holiday. Surely your daddy could fix that for you. He knows everyone, dont he? said Beth. Izzy looked suddenly uncomfortable. People like me dont become singers. Why? said Margery. You cant sing? Thatll do it, said Beth. You know what I mean. Margery shrugged. Last time I looked you didnt need your leg to sing. But people wouldnt listen. Theyd be too busy staring at my brace. Oh, dont flatter yourself, Izzy girl. Enough people got leg braces and whatnot around here. Or just she paused wear a long dress. What do you sing, Miss Izzy? said Sophia, who was arranging spines into alphabetical order. Izzy had sobered. Her skin was a little flushed. Oh, I like hymns, bluegrass, blues, anything, really. I even tried a little opera once. Well, you got to sing now, said Beth, lighting a cigarette and blowing on her fingers when the match burned too low. Come on, girl, show us what you got. Oh, no, said Izzy. I only really sing for myself. Thats going to be some pretty empty concert hall, then, said Beth. Izzy looked at them. Then she pushed herself up onto her feet. She took a shaky breath, and then she began: My sweethearts murmurs turned to dust All tender kisses turned to rust Ill hold him in my heart though he be far And turn my love to a midnight star. Her eyes closed, her voice filled the little room, soft and mellifluous, as if it had been dipped in honey. Izzy, right in front of them, began to change into someone quite new, her torso extending, her mouth opening wider to reach the notes. She was somewhere quite distant now, somewhere beloved to her. Beth rocked gently and began to smile. It stretched across her face pure, unclouded delight at this unexpected turn of events. She let out a Hell, yes! as if she couldnt contain it. And then, after a moment, Sophia, as if compelled by an impulse she could barely control, began to join in, her own voice deeper, tracing the path of Izzys and complementing it. Izzy opened her eyes and the two women smiled at each other as they sang, their voices lifting, their bodies swaying in time with the beat, and the air in the little library lifted with them. Its light is distant but it warms me still Im a million miles from heaven but Ill wait here till My sweetheart comes again and the glow I feel Is brighter than the stars above Kentucky hills. Alice watched, the moonshine coursing through her blood, the warmth and music making her nerves sing, and felt something give inside her, something she hadnt wanted to acknowledge to herself, something primal to do with love and loss and loneliness. She looked at Margery, whose expression had relaxed, lost in her own private reverie, and thought of Beths comments about a man Margery never discussed. Perhaps conscious she was being watched, Margery turned to her and smiled, and Alice realized, with horror, that tears were sliding, unchecked down her cheeks. Margerys raised eyebrows were a silent question. Just a little homesick, Alice answered. It was the truth, she thought. She just wasnt sure she had yet been to the place she was homesick for. Margery took her elbow and they stepped outside into the dusk, hopping down into the paddock where the horses grazed peacefully by the fence, oblivious to the noise inside. Margery handed Alice her handkerchief. You okay? Alice blew her nose. She had begun to sober immediately, out in the cool air. Fine. Fine She looked up at the skies. Actually, no. Not really. Can I help? I dont think its something anyone else can help with. Margery leaned back against the wall, so that she was looking up at the mountains behind them. Theres not much I havent seen and heard these thirty-eight years. Im pretty sure whatever you have to say isnt going to knock me off my heels. Alice closed her eyes. If she put it out there, it became real, a living, breathing thing that she would have to do something about. Her gaze flickered to Margery and away again. And if you think Im the type to go talking, Alice Van Cleve, you really havent worked me out at all. Mr Van Cleve keeps going on about us not having any babies. Hell, thats just standard round here. The moment you put a ring on that finger theyre all just counting down But thats just it. Its Bennett. Alice wrung her hands together. Its been months and he just he wont Margery let the words settle. She waited, as if to check that she had heard right. He wont ? Alice took a deep breath. It all started well enough. Wed been waiting so long, what with the journey and everything, and actually it was lovely and then just as things were about to well Mr Van Cleve shouted something through the wall I think he thought he was being encouraging and we were both a little startled, and then everything stopped and I opened my eyes and Bennett wasnt even looking at me and he seemed so cross and distant and when I asked him if everything was okay he told me I was she gulped unladylike for asking. Margery waited. So I lay back down and waited. And he well, I thought it was going to happen. But then we could hear Mr Van Cleve clomping around next door and well that was that. And I tried to whisper something but he got cross and acted like it was my fault. But I dont really know. Because Ive never so I cant be sure whether its something Im doing wrong or hes doing wrong but, either way, his father is always next door and the walls are so thin and, well, Bennett, he just acts like Im something he doesnt want to get too close to any more. And its not like its one of those things you can talk about. The words tumbled out, unchecked. She felt her face flood with colour. I want to be a good wife. I really do. It just feels impossible. So let me get this straight. You havent I dont know! Because I dont know what its supposed to be like! She shook her head, then covered her face with her hands, as if horrified that she was even saying the words out loud. Margery frowned at her boots. Stay there, she said. She disappeared into the cabin, where the singing had reached a new pitch. Alice listened anxiously, fearing the sudden cessation of voices that would suggest Margery had betrayed her. But instead the song lifted, and a little burst of applause met a musical flourish, and she heard Beths muffled whoop! Then the door opened, allowing the voices to swell briefly, and Margery tripped back down the steps holding a small blue book, which she handed to Alice. Okay, so this doesnt go in the ledger. This, we pass around to ladies who, perhaps, need a little help in some of the matters youve mentioned. Alice stared at the leather-bound book. Its just facts. Ive promised it to a woman over at Millers Creek on my Monday route, but you can take a look over the weekend and see if theres anything in there might help. Alice flicked through, startling at the words sex, naked, womb. She blushed. This goes out with the library books? Lets just say its an unofficial part of our service, given it has a bit of a chequered history through our courts. It doesnt exist in the ledger, and it doesnt sit out on the shelves. We just keep it between ourselves. Have you read it? Cover to cover and more than once. And I can tell you it has brought me a good deal of joy. She raised an eyebrow and smiled. And not just me either. Alice blinked. She couldnt imagine prising joy out of her current situation, no matter how hard she tried. Good evening, ladies. The two women turned to see Fred Guisler walking down the path towards them, an oil lamp in his hand. Sounds like quite a party. Alice hesitated, and thrust the book abruptly back at Margery. I I dont think so. Its just facts, Alice. Nothing more than that. Alice walked briskly past her back to the library. I can manage this by myself. Thank you. She half ran back up the steps, the door slamming as she entered. Fred stopped when he reached Margery. She noted the faint disappointment in his expression. Something I said? Not even halfway close, Fred, she said, and placed a hand on his arm. But why dont you come on in and join us? Aside from a few extra bristles on that chin of yours, youre pretty much an honorary librarian yourself. She would have laid down money, said Beth afterwards, that that was the finest librarians meeting that had ever taken place in Lee County. Izzy and Sophia had sung their way through every song they could recall, teaching each other the ones they didnt know and making up a few on the spot, their voices wild and raucous as they grew in confidence, stamping and hollering, the girls clapping in time. Fred Guisler, who had indeed been happy to fetch his gramophone, had been persuaded to dance with each of them, his tall frame stooped to accommodate Izzy, disguising her limp with some well-timed swings so that she lost her awkwardness and laughed until tears leaked from her eyes. Alice smiled and tapped along but wouldnt meet Margerys eye, as if she were already mortified at having revealed so much, and Margery understood that she would simply have to say nothing and wait for the girls feelings of exposure and humiliation, however unwarranted, to die down. And amid all this Sophia would sing out and sway her hips, as if even her rigour and reserve could not hold out against the music. Fred, who had declined all offers of moonshine, had driven them home in the dark, all crammed into the back seat of his truck, taking Sophia first under cover of the rest, and they had heard her singing still as she tapped her way down the path to the neat little house at Monarch Creek. They had dropped Izzy next, the motor-cars tyres spinning in the huge driveway, and had seen Mrs Bradys amazement at her daughters sweaty hair and grinning face. I never had friends like you all before, Izzy had exclaimed, as they flew along the dark road, and they knew that it was only half moonshine talking. Honestly, I never even thought I liked other girls till I became a librarian. She had hugged each of them with a childs giddy enthusiasm. Alice had sobered completely by the time they dropped her off, and said little. The two Van Cleve men were seated on the porch, despite the chill in the air and the late hour, and Margery detected a distinct reluctance in her step as Alice made her way slowly up the path towards them. Neither rose from his seat. Nobody smiled under the flickering porch light, or leaned forward to greet her. Margery and Fred drove the rest of the way to her cabin in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Tell Sven I said hey, he said, as she opened the gate and Bluey came bounding down the slope to meet her. I will. Hes a good man. As are you. You need to find yourself someone else, Fred. Its been long enough. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. You have a good rest of your evening, he said finally, and tipped his forehead, as if he were still wearing a hat, then turned the wheel and drove back down the road. 7 In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, agents for land companies had swept through the [Kentucky] mountain region buying up mineral rights from residents, sometimes for as little as 50 cents per acre the broad form deeds often signed over the rights to dump, store and leave upon said land any and all muck, bone, shale, water or other refuse, to use and pollute water courses in any manner, and to do anything necessary and convenient to extract subsurface minerals. Chad Montrie, The Environment and Environmental Activism in Appalachia The prince told her she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and then he asked if she would marry him. And they all lived happily ever after. Mae Horner brought the two sides of the book briskly together with a satisfying slap. That was really very good, Mae. I read it through four times yesterday after I collected the wood. Well, it shows. I do believe your reading is as good as any girls in this county. Shes smart all right. Alice looked up to where Jim Horner stood in the doorway. Like her mama. Her mama could read since she was three years old. Grew up in a houseful of books over near Paintsville. I can read too, said Millie, who had been sitting by Alices feet. I know you can, Millie, said Alice. And your reading is very good too. Honestly, Mr Horner, I dont think Ive ever met two children take to it like yours have. He suppressed a smile. Tell her what you did, Mae, he said. The girl looked at him, just to check for her fathers approval. Go on. I made a pie. You made a pie? By yourself? From a recipe. In that Country Home magazine you left us. A peach pie. I would offer you a slice but we ate it all. Millie giggled. Daddy ate three bits. I was hunting up in North Ridge and she got the old range going and everything. And I walked in the door and there was a smell like He lifted his nose and closed his eyes, recalling the scent. His face briefly lost its habitual hardness. I walked in and there she was, with it all laid out on the table. She had followed every one of those instructions to a T. I did burn the edges a little. Well, your mama always did the same. The three of them sat in silence for a moment. A peach pie, said Alice. Im not sure we can keep up with you, young Mae. What can I leave you girls this week? Did Black Beauty come in yet? It did! And I remembered what you said about wanting it so I brought it with me. How about that? Now, the words in this one are a little longer, so you may find it a little harder. And its sad in places. Jim Horners expression changed. I mean for the horses. There are some sad bits for the horses. The horses talk. Its not easy to explain. Maybe I can read to you, Daddy. My eyes aint too good, he explained. Cant seem to aim the way I used to. But we get by. I can see that. Alice sat in the centre of the little cabin that had once spooked her so much. Mae, although only eleven, appeared to have taken charge of it, sweeping and organizing so that where it had once seemed bleak and dark, there was now a distinct homeliness, with a bowl of apples in the centre of the table and a quilt across the chair. She packed up her books and confirmed that everyone was happy with what she had brought. Millie hugged her around her neck and she held her fiercely. It was some time since anybody had pulled her close and it provoked strange, conflicting feelings. Its a whole seven days till we see you again, the girl announced solemnly. Her hair smelt of wood smoke and something sweet that existed only in the forest. Alice breathed it in. It certainly is. And I cant wait to see how much youve read in the meantime. Millie! This ones got drawings in it too! Mae called, from the floor. Millie released Alice and hunkered down by her sister. Alice watched them for a moment, then made her way to the door, shrugging on her coat, a once fashionable tweed blazer that was now scuffed with moss and mud and sprouted messy threads where it had caught on bushes and branches. The mountain had grown distinctly colder these last days, as if winter were settling into its foundations. Miss Alice? Yes? The girls were bent over Black Beauty, Millies finger tracing the words as her sister read aloud. Jim looked behind him, as if making sure their focus was elsewhere. I wanted to apologize. Alice, who had been tying her scarf, stopped. After my wife passed I was not myself for a while. Felt like the sky was falling in, you know? And I was not hospitable when you first came by. But these last couple of months, seeing the girls stop crying for their mama, giving them something to look forward to every week, its its Well, I just wanted to say its much appreciated. Alice held her hands in front of her. Mr Horner, I can honestly tell you that I look forward to seeing your girls just as much as they look forward to my visits. Well, its good for them to see a lady. I didnt realize till my Betsy was gone how much a child misses the more feminine side of things. He scratched his head. They talk about you, you know, how you speak and all. Mae there says she wants to be a librarian. She does? Made me realize I cant keep them close by me for ever. I want more for them than this, you know. Seeing as how smart they both are. He stood silent for a moment. Then he said: Miss Alice, what do you think of that school? The one with the German lady? Mrs Beidecker? Mr Horner, I think your girls would love her. She doesnt take a switch to the children? You hear some things Betsy got beat something awful at school so she never wanted the girls to go. Id be happy to introduce you to her, Mr Horner. She is a kind woman, and the students seem to love her. I cannot believe she would ever lay a hand on a child. He considered this. Its hard, he said, looking out at the mountain, having to work all this stuff out. I thought Id be just doing a mans job. My own daddy just brought home the food and put his feet up and let my mama do all the rest. And now I have to be mother as well as father. Make all these decisions. Look at those girls, Mr Horner. They glanced to where the girls, now lying on their stomachs, were exclaiming over something they had just read. Alice smiled. I think youre doing fine. Finn Mayburg, Upper Pinch Me one copy The Furrow, dated May 1937 Two copies Weird Tales magazine, dated December 1936 and February 1937 Ellen Prince Eagles Top (end cabin) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott From Farm to Table by Edna Roden Nancy and Phyllis Stone, Arnotts Ridge Mack Maguire and the Indian Girl by Amherst Archer Mack Maguire Takes a Fall by Amherst Archer (note: they have read all current editions, ask if we can find out if there are any more) Margery flicked through the ledger, Sophias elegant handwriting neatly transcribing date and routes at the top of each page. Beside it sat a pile of newly repaired books, their bindings stitched and the torn covers patched with pages from books that couldnt be salvaged. Beside that lay a new scrapbook The Baileyville Bonus this edition comprising four pages of recipes from spoiled copies of the Womans Home Companion, a short story titled What She Wouldnt Say, and a long feature about collecting ferns. The library was now immaculate, a system of labels marking the back of every shelved book so that it was easy for them to find their place, the books precisely ordered and categorized. Sophia would come by at around 5 p.m. and would usually have done a couple of hours by the time the girls returned from their routes. The days were growing shorter now so they were having to return earlier because of the falling light. Sometimes they would all just sit and chat among themselves while unloading their bags and comparing their days before they headed off to their homes. Fred had been installing a wood burner in the corner in his free time, though it wasnt finished yet: the gap around the flue pipe was still stuffed with rags to stop the rain coming in. Despite this, all the women seemed to find reasons to hang around a little later each day and Margery suspected that once the stove started up she would have trouble persuading them to go home. Mrs Brady looked a little startled when Margery explained the identity of the newest member of their team but, having seen the altered state of the little building, to her credit she simply compressed her lips and raised her fingers to her temples. Has anybody complained? Nobodys seen her to complain. She comes in the back, by Mr Guislers house, and goes home the same way. Mrs Brady mulled this for a moment. Are you familiar with what Mrs Nofcier says? You know of Mrs Nofcier, of course. Margery smiled. They all knew of Mrs Nofcier. Mrs Brady would shoehorn her name into a conversation about horse liniment if she could. Well, I was recently lucky enough to attend an address for teachers and parents that the good lady gave where she said hold on, I wrote this bit down. She riffled through her pocketbook: A library service should be provided for all people, rural as well as urban, coloured as well as white. There. Coloured as well as white. That was how she put it. I believe we have to be mindful of the importance of progress and equality just as Mrs Nofcier is. So youll have no objection from me about employing a coloured woman here. She rubbed at a mark on the desk, then examined her finger. Maybe we wont actually advertise it just yet, though. Theres no need to invite controversy, given were such a fledgling venture. Im sure you catch my drift. My feelings exactly, Mrs Brady, Margery said. I wouldnt want to bring trouble to Sophias door. She does a beautiful job. Ill give her that. Mrs Brady gazed around her. Sophia had stitched a sampler, which hung on the wall beside the door To Seek Knowledge Is To Expand Your Own Universe and Mrs Brady patted it with some satisfaction. I have to say, Miss OHare, I am immensely proud of what you have achieved in just a few short months. It has exceeded all our expectations. I have written to Mrs Nofcier to tell her as much several times and I am sure that at some point she will be passing on those sentiments to Mrs Roosevelt herself It is a profound shame not everyone in our town feels the same way. She glanced away, as if deciding not to say more. But, as I said, I do believe this is a true model of a packhorse library. And you girls should be proud of yourselves. Margery nodded. It was probably best not to tell Mrs Brady about the librarys unofficial initiative: each day she sat down at the desk, in the dark hours between her arrival and dawn, and she wrote out, according to her template, a half-dozen more of the letters that she had been distributing to the inhabitants of North Ridge. Dear Neighbour It has come to our attention that the owners of Hoffman are seeking to create new mines in your neighbourhood. This would involve the removal of hundreds of acres of timber, the blasting of new pits and, in many cases, the loss of homes and livelihoods. I write to you in confidence, as the mines are known to employ devious and harsh individuals in the interests of getting their way, but I believe that it is both illegal and immoral for them to do what they plan, that it would be the cause of abject misery and destitution. To that end, according to law books we have consulted, there appears to be a precedent to stop such wholesale rape of our landscape, and protect our homes, and I urge you to read this extract provided below, or, if you have the resources, to consult the legal representative at Baileyvilles court offices in order to put such obstructions in place as may be required to prevent this destruction. In the meantime do not sign any BROAD FORM DEEDS for these, despite the money and assurances offered, will give the mine-owners the right to mine under your very house. If help is needed with the reading of such documents, the packhorse librarians may be happy to assist, and will, of course, do so with discretion. In confidence, A friend She finished, folded them neatly, and placed one in each of the saddlebags, except Alices. She would deliver the extra one herself. No point making things more complicated for the girl than they already were. The boy had finally stopped screaming, his voice now emerging as a series of barely suppressed whimpers, as if he had remembered himself to be among men. His clothes and skin were equally black from where the coal had almost buried him, only the whites of his eyes visible to betray his shock and pain. Sven watched as the stretcher-bearers lifted him carefully, their job made harder by the low pitch of the roof, and, stooping, began to shuffle out, shouting instructions at each other as they went. Sven leaned back against the rough wall to let them pass, then turned his light on those miners who were setting up props where the roof had fallen, cursing as they struggled to wedge the heavy timbers into place. This was low-vein coal, the chambers of the mines so shallow in places that men were barely able to rise onto their knees. It was the worst kind of mining; Sven had friends who were crippled by the time they were thirty, reliant on sticks just to stand straight. He hated these rabbit warrens, where your mind would play tricks in the near dark to tell you the damp, black expanse above your head was even now closing in on you. He had seen too many sudden roof falls, and only a pair of boots left visible to judge where the body might be. Boss, you might want to take a look through here. Sven looked round itself a tricky manoeuvre and followed Jim McNeils beckoning glove. The underground chambers were connected, rather than reached through new shafts from the outside not uncommon in a mine where the owner championed profit over safety. He made his way awkwardly along the passage to the next chamber and adjusted his helmet light. Some eight props stood in a shallow opening, each buckling visibly under the weight of the roof above it. He moved his head slowly, scanning the empty space, the black surface glittering around him as it was met by the carbide lamplight. Can you see how many they took out? Looks like about half remaining. Sven cursed. Dont go any further in, he said, and, twisting, turned to the men behind him. No man is to go into Number Two. You hear me? You tell Van Cleve that, said a voice behind him. You got to cross Number Two to get to Number Eight. Then nobody is to go into Number Eight. Not till everythings shored up right. He aint going to hear that. Oh, hell hear it. The air was thick with dust, and he spat behind him, his lower back already aching. He turned to the miners. We need at least ten more props in Seven before anyone goes back in. And get your fire boss to check for methane before anyone starts work again. There was a murmur of agreement Gustavsson being one of the few authority figures a miner could trust to be on his side and Sven motioned his team into the haulage-way and then outside, already grateful for the prospect of sunlight. So whats the damage, Gustavsson? Sven stood in Van Cleves office, his nostrils still filled with the smell of sulphur, his boots leaving a fine dusty outline on the thick red carpet, waiting for Van Cleve in his pale suit to look up from his paperwork. Across the room he could see young Bennett glance up from behind his desk, his blue-cotton shirtsleeves marked with a neat crease. The younger man never looked quite comfortable at the mine. He rarely stepped out of the administrative block, as if the dirt and unpredictable nature of it were anathema to him. Well, we got the boy out, though it was a close thing. His hips pretty bust. Thats excellent news. Im much obliged to you all. Ive had him taken to the company doctor. Yes. Yes. Very good. Van Cleve appeared to believe that was the end of the conversation. He flashed a smile at Sven, holding it a moment too long, as if to question why he was still standing there then shuffled his papers emphatically. Sven waited a beat. You might want to know what caused the roof fall. Oh. Yes. Of course. Looks like props holding up the roof have been moved from the mined-out area in Number Two to support the new chamber in Seven. It destabilized the whole area. Van Cleves expression, when he finally looked up again, betrayed exactly the manufactured surprise Sven had known it would. Well, now. The men should not be reusing props. We have told them as much many a time. Havent we, Bennett? Bennett, behind his desk, looked down, too cowardly even to tell a straight lie. Sven swallowed the words he wanted to say, and considered those that followed carefully. Sir, I should also point out that the amount of coal dust on the ground is a hazard in every one of your mines. You need more non-combustible rock atop it. And better ventilation, if you want to avoid more incidents. Van Cleve scribbled something on a piece of paper. He no longer appeared to be listening. Mr Van Cleve, of all the mines our safety crew serves, I have to inform you that Hoffmans conditions are by some distance the least satisfactory. Yes, yes. I have told the men as such. Goodness knows why they wont just get on and rectify matters. But lets not make too big of a deal of it, Gustavsson. Its a temporary oversight. Bennett will get the foreman up and well uh well sort it out. Wont you, Bennett? Sven might reasonably have pointed out that Van Cleve had said exactly this the last time the sirens had gone off some eighteen days previously because of an explosion in the entrance of Number Nine, caused by a young breaker who hadnt known not to go in with an open light. The boy had been lucky to escape with superficial burns. But workers came cheap, after all. Anyway, alls well, thank the Lord. Van Cleve lifted himself with a grunt from his chair and walked around his large mahogany desk towards the door, signifying that the meeting was over. Thank you and your men for your service, as ever. Worth every cent our mine pays towards your team. Sven didnt move. Van Cleve opened the door. A long, painful moment passed. Sven faced him. Mr Van Cleve. You know Im not a political man. But you must understand that its conditions like these here that give root to those agitating for union membership. Van Cleves face darkened. I hope youre not suggesting Sven lifted his palms. I have no affiliation. I just want your workers to be safe. But I have to say it would be a shame if this mine were considered too dangerous for my men to come here. Im sure that would not go down well in the locality. The smile, half-hearted as it was, had now vanished completely. Well, Im sure I thank you for your advice, Gustavsson. And as I said, I will get my men to attend to it. Now, if you dont mind, I have pressing matters to attend to. The foreman will fetch you and your crew any water you might need. Van Cleve continued to hold the door. Sven nodded then as he passed, thrust out a blackened hand so that the older man, after a moments hesitation, was forced to take it. After clasping it firmly enough to be sure he would have left some kind of imprint at least, Sven released it and walked away down the corridor. With the first frost in Baileyville came hog-slaughtering time. The mere words made Alice, who couldnt tread on a bug, feel a little faint, especially when Beth described, with relish, what happened in her own home each year: the stunning of the squealing pig, the slitting of its throat as the boys sat hard on it, its legs pumping furiously, the hot dark blood pouring out onto the scraping board. She mimed the men tipping scalding water over it, attacking the bristles with flat blades, reducing the animal to flesh and gristle and bone. My aunt Lina will be waiting there with her apron open, ready to catch the head. She makes the best souse thats from the tongue, ears and feet this side of the Cumberland Gap. But my favourite part of the whole day, since I was small, is when Daddy tips all the innards into a tub and we get to choose the best bit to roast. Id elbow my brothers in the eye to get to that old liver. Put it on a stick and roast it in the fire. Oh, boy, nothing like it. Fresh roasted hog liver. Mmm-mm. She laughed as Alice covered her mouth and shook her head mutely. But, like Beth, the town seemed to greet the prospect with an almost unseemly relish, and everywhere they went the librarians were offered a lick of salt bacon or on one occasion hog brains scrambled with egg, a mountain delicacy. Alices stomach still turned at the thought of that. But it wasnt just the hog-slaughtering that was causing a frisson of anticipation to run through the town: Tex Lafayette was coming. Posters of the white-clad cowboy clutching his bullwhip were all over town, tacked hastily onto posts, and scrutinized by small boys and lovelorn women alike. At every other settlement the name of the Singing Cowboy was spoken like a talisman, followed by Is it true? Are you going? Demand was so great that he was no longer booked to appear in the theatre, as originally planned, but would perform in the town square, where a stage was already being constructed from old pallets and planks, and for days beforehand whooping boys would run across it, imitating playing a banjo, ducking their heads to avoid the flat hands of the irritated workmen as they passed. Can we finish early tonight? Not like anyones going to be reading. Everyone for ten miles yonders already headed to the square, said Beth, as she pulled her last book from her saddlebag. Shoot. Look at what those Mackenzie boys have done to poor old Treasure Island. She stooped to pick up the scattered pages from the floor, cursing. Dont see why not, said Margery. Sophia has it all under control, and its dark already anyhow. Who is Tex Lafayette? said Alice. The four women turned and stared at her. Who is Tex Lafayette? Havent you seen Green Grows My Mountain? Or Corral My Heart? Oh, I love Corral My Heart. That song near the end just about broke me, said Izzy, and let out a huge, happy sigh. You didnt have to trap me For Im your willing prisoner broke in Sophia. You didnt need a rope to corral my heart they sang in unison, each lost in a reverie. Alice looked blank. You dont go to the picture house? said Izzy. Tex Lafayette has been in everything. He can bullwhip a lit cigarette out of a mans mouth and not leave a scratch on him. He is a grade-A dreamboat. Im too tired to go out most evenings. Bennett goes sometimes. In truth, Alice would have found it too strange to be beside her husband in the dark now. She suspected he felt the same way. For weeks they had taken care that their lives crossed as little as possible. She was gone long before breakfast, and he was often out for dinner, either on work errands for Mr Van Cleve or playing baseball with his friends. He spent most nights on the daybed in their dressing room, so that even the shape of him had become unfamiliar to her. If Mr Van Cleve thought there was anything odd about their behaviour, he didnt say: he spent most of his evenings late at the mine, and seemed largely preoccupied with whatever was going on there. Alice now hated that house with a passion, its gloom, its stifling history. She was so grateful not to have to spend her evenings stuck in the dark little parlour with the two of them that she didnt care to question any of it. Youre coming to Tex Lafayette, right? Beth brushed her hair, and straightened her blouse in the mirror. Apparently she had a thing for a boy from the gas station but had shown him her affection by punching him twice on the arm, hard, and was now at a loss to work out what to do next. Oh, I dont think so. I dont really know anything about him. All work and no play, Alice. Cmon. The whole town is going. Izzys going to meet us outside the store and her mama has given her a whole dollar for cotton candy. Its only fifty cents if you want a seat. Or you can stand back and watch for free. Thats what were doing. I dont know. Bennetts working late over at Hoffman. I should probably just go home. Sophia and Izzy started to sing again, Izzy blushing, as she always did when she found herself singing to an audience. Your smiles a rope around me Has been since you found me You didnt need to chase me to corral my heart Margery took the small mirror from Beth and checked her face for smudges, rubbing at her cheekbone with a moistened handkerchief until she was satisfied. Well, Sven and I are going to be over by the Nice N Quick. Hes reserved us an upstairs table so we can get a good view. Youd be welcome to join us. I have things to do here, said Alice. But thank you. I may join you later. She said it to mollify them and they knew it. Secretly she wanted just to sit in peace in the little library. She liked to be on her own there in the evenings, to read by herself, in the dim light of the oil lamp, escaping to the tropical white of Robinson Crusoes island, or the fusty corridors of Mr Chipss Brookfield School. If Sophia came while she was still there she tended to let Alice alone, interrupting only to ask if Alice might place her finger on this piece of fabric while she put in a couple of stitches, or whether she thought this repaired book cover looked acceptable. Sophia was not a woman who required an audience, but seemed to feel easier in company, so although they said little to each other, the arrangement had suited both of them for the past few weeks. Okay. Well see you later, then! With a cheery wave, the two women clumped across the boards and out down the steps, still in their breeches and boots. As the door opened, a swell of anticipatory noise carried into the little room. The square was full already, a local group of musicians fiddling to keep the waiting crowds happy, the air thick with laughter and catcalling. You not going, Sophia? said Alice. Ill have a listen out the back later on, said Sophia. Winds carrying this way. She threaded a needle, lifted another damaged book, and added quietly, Im not crazy about places where there are crowds. Perhaps as a kind of concession, Sophia propped the back door open with a book and allowed the sound of the fiddle to creep in, her foot finding it impossible not to tap along occasionally. Alice sat on the chair in the corner, her writing paper on her lap, trying to compose a letter to Gideon, but her pen kept stilling in her hand. She had no idea what to tell him. Everyone in England believed she was enjoying an exciting cosmopolitan life in an America full of huge cars and high times. She didnt know how to convey to her brother the truth of her situation. Behind her, Sophia, who seemed to know the tunes to everything, hummed along with the fiddle, sometimes allowing her voice to act as a descant, sometimes adding a few lyrics. Her voice was soft and velvety and soothing. Alice put down her pen and thought a little wistfully of how nice it would be to be out there with her husband of old, the one who had taken her in his arms and whispered lovely things in her ears and whose eyes had promised a future full of laughter and romance, instead of the one she caught looking at her occasionally with bemusement, as if he couldnt work out how she had got there. Good evening, ladies. The door closed gently behind Fred Guisler. He was wearing a neatly pressed blue shirt and suit trousers, and removed his hat at the sight of them. Alice startled slightly at the unexpected sight of him without his habitual checked shirt and overalls. Saw the light was on, but I have to say I didnt expect to find you in here this evening. Not with our local entertainment and all. Oh, Im not really a fan, said Alice, who folded away her writing pad. You cant be persuaded? Even if you dont enjoy cowboy tricks, Tex Lafayette has a heck of a voice. And its a beautiful evening out there. Too beautiful to spend in here. Thats very kind but Im just fine here, thank you, Mr Guisler. Alice waited for him to ask the same of Sophia, then grasped, with a slightly sick feeling, that of course it was obvious to everyone but her why he wouldnt, why the others hadnt pressed her to go with them either. A square full of drunk and rowdy young white men would not be a safe place for Sophia. She realized suddenly that she wasnt entirely sure what was a safe place for Sophia. Well, Im going to take a little stroll down to watch. But Ill stop by later and drive you home, Miss Sophia. Theres a fair bit of liquor flying around that square tonight and Im not sure itll be a pleasant place for a lady come nine oclock. Thank you, Mr Guisler, said Sophia. I appreciate it. You should go, said Sophia, not looking up from her stitching, as the sound of Freds footsteps faded down the dark road. Alice shuffled some loose sheets of paper. Its complicated. Life is complicated. Which is why finding a little joy where you can is important. She frowned at one of her stitches and unpicked it. Its hard to be different from everyone around here. I understand that. I really do. I had a very different life in Louisville. She let out a sigh. But those girls care about you. They are your friends. And you shutting yourself off from them aint going to make things any easier. Alice watched as a moth fluttered around the oil lamp. After a moment, unable to bear it, she cupped it carefully in her hands, walked to the partially open door and released it. Youd be here by yourself. Im a big girl. And Mr Guisler is going to come back for me. She could hear the music starting up in the square, the roar of approval that announced the Singing Cowboy had taken centre stage. She looked at the window. You really think I should go? Sophia put down her stitching. Lord, Alice, you need me to write a song about it? Hey, she called, as Alice made for the front door. Let me fix up your hair before you go. Appearances are important. Alice ran back and held up the little mirror. She rubbed at her face with her handkerchief as Sophia ran a comb through her hair, pinning and tutting as she worked with nimble fingers. When Sophia stood back Alice reached into her bag for her lipstick and drew coral pink over her lips, pursing them and rubbing them together. Satisfied, she looked down, brushing at her shirt and breeches. Not much I can do about what Im wearing. But the top half is pretty as a picture. And thats all anyone will notice. Alice smiled. Thank you, Sophia. You come back and tell me all about it. She sat back at the desk and resumed tapping her foot, half lost already in the distant music. Alice was partway up the road when she glimpsed the creature. It scuttled across the shadowy road and her mind, already a quarter-mile ahead at the square, took a moment to register that something was in front of her. She slowed: a ground squirrel! She felt, oddly, as if the talk of all the murdered hogs had hung a sad fog over the week, adding to her vague sense of depression. For people who lived so deep in nature, the inhabitants of Baileyville seemed oblivious to the idea of respecting it. She stopped, waiting for the squirrel to cross in front of her. It was a large one, with a huge, thick tail. At that moment the moon emerged from a cloud, revealing to her that it wasnt a squirrel after all, but something darker, more solid, with a black and white stripe. She frowned at it, perplexed, and then, as she was about to take a step forward, it turned its back on her, raised its tail, and she felt her skin sprayed with moisture. It took a second for that sensation to be supplanted by the most noxious smell she had ever breathed. She gasped and gagged, covering her mouth and spluttering. But there was no escaping it: it was all over her hands, her shirt, in her hair. The creature scuttled off nonchalantly into the night, leaving Alice batting at her clothes, as if by waving her hands and yelling she could make it all go away. The upper floor of the Nice N Quick was thick with bodies pressed against the window, three deep, some yelling their appreciation for the white-suited cowboy below. Margery and Sven were the only ones left seated, the two in a booth beside each other, as they preferred. Between them were the dregs of two iced teas. Two weeks previously a local photographer had stopped by and persuaded the ladies onto their horses in front of the WPA Packhorse Library sign and all four, Izzy, Margery, Alice and Beth, had posed, shoulder to shoulder, on their mounts. A copy of that photograph now took pride of place on the wall of the diner, the women gazing out, decorated by a string of streamers, and Margery could not take her eyes off it. She wasnt sure she had ever been prouder of anything in her life. My brothers talking of buying some of that land up on North Ridge. Bore McCallister says hell give him a good price. I was thinking I might go in with him. I cant work down those mines for ever. She pulled her attention back to Sven. How much land you talking about? About four hundred acres. Theres good hunting. You havent heard, then. Heard what? Margery reached round and pulled the template letter out of her bag. Sven opened it carefully and read it, placing it back on the table in front of her. Whered you hear this? Know anything about it? Nope. Everywhere we go theyre all about busting the United Mine Workers of Americas influence just now. The two things go together, I worked it out. Daniel McGraw, Ed Siddly, the Bray brothers all those union organizers they all live on North Ridge. If the new mine shakes those men out of their homes, along with their families, its that much harder for them to get organized. They dont want to end up like Harlan, with a damn war going on between the miners and their bosses. Sven leaned back in his seat. He blew out his cheeks and studied Margerys expression. Im guessing the letter is you. She smiled sweetly at him. He ran a palm across his forehead. Jeez, Marge. You know what those thugs are like. Is trouble actually in your blood? No, dont answer that. I cant stand by while they wreck these mountains, Sven. You know what they did over at Great White Gap? Yes, I do. Blew the valley to pieces, polluted the water, and disappeared overnight when all the coal was gone. All those families left without jobs or homes. They wont do it over here. He picked up the letter and read it again. Anyone else know about this? I got two families headed over to the legal offices already. I looked up legal books that say the mine-owners cant blow up land if the families didnt sign those broad form contracts that give the mines all the rights. Casey Campbell helped her daddy to read all the paperwork. She sighed with satisfaction, jabbing her finger onto the table. Nothing more dangerous than a woman armed with a little knowledge. Even if shes twelve years old. If anyone at Hoffman finds out its you, theres going to be trouble. She shrugged, and took a swig of her drink. Im serious. Be careful, Marge. I dont want nothing happening to you. Van Cleve has bad men on his payroll on the back of this union fight guys from out of town. Youve seen whats happened in Harlan. I I couldnt bear it if anything happened to you. She peered up at him. Youre not getting sentimental on me, are you, Gustavsson? I mean it. He turned so that his face was inches from hers. I love you, Marge. She was about to joke, but there was an unfamiliar look to his face, something serious and vulnerable, and the words stilled on her lips. His eyes searched hers, and his fingers closed around her own, as if his hand might say what he wasnt able to. She held his gaze, and then, as a roar went up in the diner, she looked away. Below them Tex Lafayette struck up with I Was Born in the Valley, to loud whoops of approval. Oh, boy, those girls are going to go hog wild now, she murmured. I think what you meant to say is I love you too, he said, after a minute. Those dynamite sticks have done something to your ears. Im sure I said it ages ago, she said, and shaking his head, he pulled her towards him again and kissed her until she stopped grinning. It didnt matter where theyd said they were going to meet, Alice thought, as she fought her way through the teeming town square: the place was so dark and dense with people that she had almost no chance of finding her friends. The air was thick with the smell of cordite from firecrackers, cigarette smoke, beer and the burned-sugar scent of cotton candy from the stalls that had sprung up for the evening, but she could make out almost none of it. Wherever she went, there was a brief, audible intake of breath and people would back away, frowning and clutching their noses. Lady, you got sprayed by a skunk! a freckled youth yelled, as she passed him. You dont say, she answered crossly. Oh, good Lord. Two girls pulled back, grimacing at Alice. Is that Van Cleves English wife? Alice felt the people part like waves around her as she drew closer to the stage. It was a minute before she saw him. Bennett was standing over near the corner of the temporary bar, beaming, a Hudepohl beer in his hand. She stared at him, at his easy smile, his shoulders loose and relaxed in his good blue shirt. She observed, absently, that he seemed so much more at ease when he wasnt with her. Her surprise at his not being at work after all was slowly replaced by a kind of wistfulness, a remembrance of the man she had fallen in love with. As she watched, wondering whether to walk over and confide in him about her disastrous evening, a girl standing just to his left turned, and held up a bottle of cola. It was Peggy Foreman. She leaned in close and said something that made him laugh, and he nodded, his eyes still on Tex Lafayette, then he looked back at her, and his face creased into a goofy smile. She wanted to run up to him then, to push that girl out of the way. To take her place in the arms of her husband, have him smile tenderly at her as he had before they were married. But even as she stood, people were backing away from her, laughing or muttering: Skunk. She felt her eyes brim with tears and, head down, began to push her way back through the crowd. Hey! Alices jaw jutted as she wound her way through the jostling bodies, ignoring the jeers and laughter that seemed to swell in bursts around her, the music fading into the distance. She was grateful that the dark meant barely anybody could see who it was as she wiped the tears away. Good Lord. Did you catch that smell? Hey! Alice! Her head spun round and she saw Fred Guisler pushing his way through the crowd towards her, his arm outstretched. You okay? It took him a couple of seconds to register the smell; she saw shock flicker across his features a silent whoa and then, almost immediately, his determined attempt to hide it. He placed an arm around her shoulders, resolutely steering her through the crowd. Cmon. Lets get you back to the library. Move over there, would you? Coming through. It took them ten minutes to walk back up the dark road. As soon as they were out of the centre of town, away from the crowds. Alice stepped out of the shelter of his arm and took herself to the side of the road. Youre very kind. But you really dont need to. Its fine. Got almost no sense of smell anyway. First horse I ever broke caught me in the nose with a back foot and Ive never been the same since. She knew he was lying, but it was kind and she shot him a rueful smile. I couldnt see for sure, but I think it was a skunk. It just stopped in front of me and Oh, it was a skunk all right. He was trying not to laugh. Alice stared at him, her cheeks flaming. She thought she might actually burst into tears, but something in his expression felled her and, to her surprise, she began to laugh instead. Worst thing ever, huh? Truthfully? Not even close. Well, now Im intrigued. So what was the worst? I cant tell you. Two skunks? You have to stop laughing at me, Mr Guisler. I dont mean to hurt your feelings, Mrs Van Cleve. Its just so unlikely a girl like you, so pretty and refined and all and that smell Youre not really helping. Im sorry. Look, come to my house before you go to the library. I can find you some fresh clothes so you can at least get home without causing a commotion. They walked in silence the last hundred yards, peeling off the main road up the track to Fred Guislers house, which, being behind the library and set back from the road, Alice realized she had barely registered until now. There was a light on in the porch and she followed him up the wooden steps, glancing left to where, a hundred yards away, the library light was still on, only visible from this side of the road through a tiny crack in the door. She pictured Sophia in there, hard at work stitching new books out of old, humming along to the music, and then he opened the door and stood back to let her in. Men who lived alone around Baileyville, as far as she could make out, lived rough lives, their cabins functional and sparsely furnished, their habits basic and hygiene often questionable. Freds house had sanded wood floors, waxed and burnished through years of use; a rocker sat in a corner, a blue rag rug in front of it, and a large brass lamp cast a soft glow over a shelf of books. Pictures lined the wall and an upholstered chair stood opposite, with a view out over the rear of the building and Freds large barn full of horses. The gramophone was on a highly polished mahogany table and an intricate old quilt lay neatly folded to its side. But this is beautiful! she said, realizing as she did the insult in her words. He didnt seem to catch it. Not all my work, he said. But I try to keep it nice. Hold on. She felt bad, bringing this stench into his sweet-smelling, comfortable home. She crossed her arms and winced as he jogged upstairs, as if that could contain the odour. He was back in minutes, with two dresses across his arm. One of these should fit. She looked up at him. You have dresses? They were my wifes. She blinked. Hand me your clothes out and Ill douse them in vinegar. Thatll help. When you take them home get Annie to put some baking soda into the washtub with the soap. Oh, and theres a clean washcloth on the stand. She turned and he gestured towards a bathroom, which she entered. She stripped down, pushed her clothes out through a gap in the door, then washed her face and hands, scrubbing at her skin with the washcloth and lye soap. The acrid smell refused to dissipate; in the confines of the warm little room, it almost made her gag and she scrubbed as hard as she could without actually removing a layer of skin. As an afterthought she poured a jug of water over her head, rubbing at her hair with soap and rinsing it, then rough drying it with a towel. Finally she slipped into the green dress. It was what her mother would have called a tea-dress, short-sleeved and floral with a white lace collar, a little loose around the waist, but at least it smelt clean. There was a bottle of scent on top of a cabinet. She sniffed it, then sprayed a little on her wet hair. She emerged some minutes later to find Fred standing by the window looking down at the illuminated town square. He turned, his mind clearly lost elsewhere, and perhaps because of his wifes dress, he seemed suddenly shaken. He recovered himself swiftly and handed her a glass of iced tea. Thought you might need this. Thank you, Mr Guisler. She took a sip. I feel rather silly. Fred. Please. And dont feel bad. Not for a minute. Weve all been caught. She stood for a moment, feeling suddenly awkward. She was in a strange mans home, wearing his dead wifes dress. She didnt know what to do with her limbs. A roar went up somewhere in town and she winced. Oh, goodness. I havent just made your lovely house smell awful but youve missed Tex Lafayette. Im so sorry. He shook his head. Its nothing. I couldnt leave you, looking so Skunks, eh! she said brightly, and his concerned expression didnt shift, as if he knew that the smell was not the thing that had so upset her. Still! You can probably catch the rest of it if we head back now, she said. She had started to gabble. I mean, it looks like hell be singing a while. You were quite right. Hes very good. Not that I heard a huge amount, what with one thing and another, but I can see why hes so popular. The crowd does seem to love him. Alice Goodness. Look at the time. Id better head back. She walked past him towards the door, her head down. You should absolutely head back to the show. Ill walk home. Its no distance. Ill drive you. In case of more skunks? Her laugh was high and brittle. Her voice didnt even sound like her own. Honestly, Mr Guisler Fred youve been so very kind already and I dont want to put you to more trouble. Really. I dont Ill take you, he said firmly. He took his jacket from the back of a chair, then removed a small blanket from another and placed it around her shoulders. Its turned chilly out there. They stepped onto the porch. Alice was suddenly acutely aware of Frederick Guisler, of the way he had of observing her, as if looking through whatever she said or did to assess its true purpose. It was oddly discomfiting. She half stumbled down the porch steps and he reached out a hand to steady her. She clutched at it, then immediately let go as if shed been stung. Please dont say anything else, she said silently. Her cheeks were aflame again, her thoughts a jumble. But when she glanced up he wasnt looking at her. Was that door like that when we came in? He was staring at the back of the library. The door, which had been open a sliver to allow in the sound of the music, was now wide open. A series of distant, irregular thumps came from within. He stood very still, then turned to Alice, his ease of the previous minutes gone. Stay there. He strode swiftly back inside and then, a moment later, emerged from his house with a large double-barrelled rifle. Alice stepped back as he passed, watching as he walked towards the library. Then, unable to stop herself, she followed a few paces behind, her feet silent on the grass as she tiptoed down the back path. What seems to be the problem here, boys? Frederick Guisler stood in the doorway. Behind him Alice, her heart in her mouth, could just make out the scattered books on the floor, an overturned chair. There were two, no, three young men in the library, dressed in jeans and shirts. One held a beer bottle, and another an armful of books, which, as Fred stood there, he dropped with a kind of provocative deliberation. She could just make out Sophia standing, rigid, in the corner, her gaze fixed on some indeterminate point on the floor. You got a coloured in your library. The boys voice held a nasal whine and was slurred with drink. Yup. And Im standing here trying to work out what business that is of yours. This is for white folks. She shouldnt be here. Yeah. The other two young men, emboldened by beer, jeered back at him. Do you run this library now? Freds voice was icy. It held a tone she had never heard before. I aint I said, do you run this library, Chet Mitchell? The boys eyes slid sideways, as if the sound of his own name had reminded him of the potential for consequences. No. Then I suggest you leave. All three of you. Before this gun slips in my hand and I do something I regret. You threatening me over a coloured? Im telling you what happens when a man finds three drunk fools on his property. And if you like, just as easy, Ill tell you what happens if a man finds they dont leave as soon as he tells them. Pretty sure you aint going to like it, though. I dont see why youre sticking up for her. You got a thing fer Brownie here? Quick as a flash, Fred had the boy by the throat, pinned against the wall with a white-knuckled fist. Alice ducked backwards, her breath in her throat. Dont push me, Mitchell. The boy swallowed, raised his palms. It was just a joke, he choked. Cant take a joke now, Mr Guisler? I dont see anyone else laughing. Now git. Fred dropped the boy, whose knees buckled. He rubbed at his throat, shot a nervous look at his friends and then, when Fred took a step forward, ducked out through the back door. Alice, her heart pounding, stepped back as the three stumbled out, adjusting their clothes with a mute bravado, then walked in silence back down the grit path. Their courage returned when they were out of easy range. You got a thing for Brownie, Frederick Guisler? That why your wife left? You cant shoot for shit anyway. I seen you hunting! Alice thought she might be sick. She leaned on the back wall of the library, a fine sweat prickling on her back, her heart rate only easing when she could just make them out disappearing around the corner. She could hear Fred inside, picking up books and placing them on the table. Im so sorry, Miss Sophia. I should have come back sooner. Not at all. Its my own fault for leaving the door open. Alice made her way slowly up the steps. Sophia, on the surface, looked unperturbed. She stooped, picking up books and checking them for damage, dusting their surfaces and tutting at the torn labels. But when Fred turned away to adjust a shelf that had been shoved from its moorings, she saw Sophias hand reach out to the desk for support, her knuckles tightening momentarily on its edge. Alice stepped in and, without a word, began tidying, too. The scrapbooks that Sophia had so carefully been putting together had been ripped to pieces in front of her. The carefully mended books were newly torn and hurled across the room, loose pages still fluttering around the interior. Ill stay late this week and help you fix them, Alice said. And then, when Sophia didnt respond, she added: That is if youre coming back? You think a bunch of snot-nosed kids are going to keep me from my job? Ill be fine, Miss Alice. She paused, and gave her a tight smile. But your help would be appreciated, thank you. We have ground to make up. Ill speak to the Mitchells, said Fred. Im not going to let this happen again. His voice softened and his body was easy as he moved around the little cabin. But Alice saw how every few minutes his focus would shift to the window, and that he only relaxed once he had the two women in his truck, ready to drive them home. 8 Given the speed at which news travelled through Baileyville, its snippets of gossip starting as a trickle, then pushing through its inhabitants in an unstoppable torrent, the stories of Sophia Kenworths employment at the Packhorse Library and its trashing by three local men were swiftly deemed serious enough to warrant a town meeting. Alice stood shoulder to shoulder with Margery, Beth and Izzy, in a corner at the back, while Mrs Brady addressed the assembled gathering. Bennett sat two rows back beside his father. You going to sit down, girl? Mr Van Cleve had said, looking her up and down as he entered. Im fine right here, thank you, she had answered, and watched as his expression turned disapprovingly towards his son. We have always prided ourselves on being a pleasant, orderly town, Mrs Brady was saying. We do not want to become the kind of place where thuggish behaviour becomes the norm. I have spoken to the parents of the young men concerned and made it clear that this will not be tolerated. A library is a sacred place a sacred place of learning. It should not be considered fair game just because it is staffed by women. Id like to add to that, Mrs Brady. Fred stepped forward. Alice recalled the way he had looked at her on the night of Tex Lafayettes show, the strange intimacy of his bathroom, and felt her skin prickle with colour, as if she had done something to be ashamed of. She had told Annie the green dress belonged to Beth. Annies left eyebrow had lifted halfway to the heavens. That library is in my old shed, said Fred. That means, in case anyone here is in any doubt, that it is on my property. I cannot be responsible for what happens to trespassers. He looked slowly around the hall. Anyone who thinks they have business heading into that building without my permission, or that of any of these ladies, will have me to answer to. He caught Alices eye as he stood down, and she felt her cheeks colour again. I understand you have strong feelings about your property, Fred. Henry Porteous stood. But there are larger issues to discuss here. I, and a good number of our neighbours, am concerned about the impact this library is having on our little town. There are reports of wives no longer keeping house because they are too busy reading fancy magazines or cheap romances. There are children picking up disruptive ideas from comic books. Were struggling to control what influences are coming into our homes. Theyre just books, Henry Porteous! How do you think the great scholars of old learned? Mrs Bradys arms folded across her chest, forming a solid, unbridgeable shelf. Id put a dollar to a dime the great scholars were not reading The Amorous Sheik of Araby, or whatever it was my daughter was wasting her time with the other day. Do we really want their minds polluted with this stuff? I dont want my daughter thinking she can run off with some Egyptian. Your daughter has about as much chance of having her head turned by a Sheik of Araby as I do of becoming Cleopatra. But you cant be sure. You want me to go through every book in this library to check for things that you might find fanciful, Henry Porteous? There are more challenging stories in the Bible than there are in the Pictorial Review and you know it. Well, now you sound as sacrilegious as they do. Mrs Beidecker stood. May I speak? I would like to thank the book ladies. Our pupils have very much enjoyed the new books and learning materials, and the textbooks have proven very useful in helping them progress. I go through all the comic books before we hand them out, just to check what is inside, and I have found absolutely nothing to concern even the most sensitive of minds. But youre foreign! Mr Porteous interjected. Mrs Beidecker came to our school with the highest of credentials, Mrs Brady exclaimed. And you know it, Henry Porteous. Why, doesnt your own niece attend her classes? Well, maybe she shouldnt. Settle down! Settle down! Pastor McIntosh climbed to his feet. Now I understand feelings are running high. And yes, Mrs Brady, there are some of us who do have reservations about the impact of this library on formative minds but But what? There is clearly another issue here the employment of a coloured. What issue would that be, Pastor? You may favour the progressive ways, Mrs Brady, but many in this town do not believe that coloured folks should be in our libraries. Thats right, said Mr Van Cleve. He stood, and surveyed the sea of white faces. The 1933 Public Accommodations Law authorizes and I quote here the establishment of segregated libraries for different races. The coloured girl should not be in our library. You believe youre above the law now, Margery OHare? Alices heart had lodged somewhere in her throat, but Margery, stepping forward, appeared supremely untroubled. Nope. Nope? No. Because Miss Sophia isnt using the library. Shes just working there. She smiled at him sweetly. Weve told her very firmly she is under no circumstances to open any of our books and read them. There was a low ripple of laughter. Mr Van Cleves face darkened. You cant employ a coloured in a white library. Its against the law, and the laws of nature. You dont believe in employing them, huh? Its not about me. Its about the law. Im most surprised to hear you complaining, Mr Van Cleve, she said. What do you mean by that? Well, given the number of coloured folk you got over there at your mine There was an intake of breath. I do not. I know most of them by person, as do half the good people here. You listing them as mulatto on your books doesnt change the facts. Oh, boy, said Fred, under his breath. She went there. Margery leaned back against the table. Times are changing and coloured folk are being employed in all sorts of ways. Now, Miss Sophia is fully trained and is keeping published material in commission that wouldnt otherwise be able to stay on the shelves. Those Baileyville Bonus magazines? You all enjoy them, right? With the recipes and the stories and all? There was a low murmur of agreement. Well, those are all Miss Sophias work. She takes books and magazines that have been spoiled and she stitches what she can save back together to create new books for you all. Margery leaned forward to flick something from her jacket. Now, I cant stitch like that and neither can my girls, and as you know, volunteers have been hard to come by. Miss Sophia isnt riding out, visiting families or even choosing the books. Shes just keeping house for us, so to speak. So until its one rule for everyone, Mr Van Cleve, you and your mines and me and my library, I will keep on employing her. I trust thats acceptable to yall. With a nod, Margery walked out through the centre of the room, her gait unhurried and her head held high. The screen door slammed behind them with a resounding crash. Alice had said nothing the whole journey back from the meeting hall, walking a way behind the two men, from where she could hear the kind of muttered expletives that suggested an imminent and volcanic explosion. She didnt have long to wait. Who the Sam Hill does that woman think she is? Trying to embarrass me in front of the whole town? I dont think anyone felt you were Bennett began, but his father threw his hat on the table, cutting him off. Shes been nothing but trouble her whole life! And that criminal daddy of hers before her. And now standing there trying to make me look a fool in front of my own people? Alice hovered in the doorway, wondering if she could sidle upstairs without anybody noticing. In her experience Mr Van Cleves tantrums rarely burned out quickly he would fuel them with bourbon and continue shouting and declaiming until he passed out late in the evening. Nobody cares what that woman says, Pop, Bennett began again. Those coloureds are listed as mulatto at my mine because theyre light-skinned. Light-skinned, I tell you! Alice pondered Sophias dark skin, and wondered, if she was sister to a miner, how siblings could be completely different colours. But she said nothing. I think Ill head upstairs, she said quietly. You cant stay there, Alice. Oh, God, she thought. Dont make me sit on the porch with you. Then Ill come At that library. You aint working there no more. Not with that girl. What? She felt his words close around her like a stranglehold. Youll hand in your notice. Im not having my family aligned with Margery OHares. I dont care what Patricia Brady thinks shes lost her mind along with the rest of them. Van Cleve walked to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a large glass of bourbon. And how the heck did that girl see who was on the mines books, anyway? I wouldnt put it past her to be sneaking in. Im going to put a ban on her coming anywhere near Hoffman. There was a silence. And then Alice heard her voice. No. Van Cleve looked up. What? No. Im not leaving the library. Im not married to you, and you dont tell me what I do. Youll do what I say! You live under my roof, young lady! She didnt blink. Mr Van Cleve glared at her, then turned to Bennett, and waved a hand. Bennett? Sort your woman out. Im not leaving the library. Mr Van Cleve turned puce. Do you need a slap, girl? The air in the room seemed to disappear. She looked at her husband. Dont you think of laying a hand on me, she told him silently. Mr Van Cleves face was taut, his breath shallow in his chest. Dont you even think about it. Her mind raced, wondering suddenly what she would do if he actually lifted his hand to her. Should she hit back? Was there something she could use to protect herself? What would Margery do? She took in the knife on the breadboard, the poker by the range. But Bennett looked down at his feet and swallowed. She should stay at the library, Pa. What? She likes it there. Shes doing a good job. Helping people and all. Van Cleve stared at his son. His eyes bulged out of his beet-red face, as if someone had squeezed him from the neck. Have you lost your damned mind as well? He stared at them both, his cheeks blown out and his knuckles white, as if braced for an explosion that wouldnt come. Finally he threw the last of the bourbon down his throat, slammed down his glass and set off outside, the screen door bouncing on its hinges in his wake. Bennett and Alice stood in the silent kitchen, listening to Mr Van Cleves Ford Sedan starting up and roaring into the distance. Thank you, she said. He let out a long breath, and turned away. She wondered then whether something might shift. Whether the act of standing up to his father might alter whatever had gone so wrong between them. She thought of Kathleen Bligh and her husband, the way that, even as Alice read to him, Kathleen would stroke his head as she passed, or place her hand on his. The way, sick and frail as he was, Garrett would reach out for her, his hollowed face always finding even the faintest smile for his wife. She took a step towards Bennett, wondering if she might take his hand. But, as if reading her mind, he thrust both into his pockets. Well, I appreciate it, she said quietly, stepping back again. And then, when he didnt speak, she fixed him a drink and went upstairs. Garrett Bligh died two days later, after weeks of hovering in a strange, rasping hinterland while those who loved him tried to work out whether his lungs or his heart would give out first. The word went round the mountain, the bell tolled thirty-four times, so that everyone nearby could tell who had departed. After they had finished their days work the neighbouring men gathered at the Bligh household, carrying good clothes in case Kathleen had none, ready to lay out, wash and dress the body, as was the local custom. Others began to build the coffin that would be lined with cotton and silk. Word reached the Packhorse Library a day later. Margery and Alice, by tacit agreement, shared out their routes between Beth and Izzy as best they could, then set out for the house together. There was a sharp wind that, instead of being blocked by the mountains, simply used them as a funnel, and Alice rode the whole way with her chin pressed into her collar, wondering what she could say when she reached the little house, and wishing she had an appropriate greetings card, or perhaps a posy to offer. In England a house in mourning was a place of silence, of vaguely whispered conversation, shaded by a cloak of sadness, or awkwardness, depending on how well the deceased was known or loved. Alice, who often managed to say the wrong thing, found such hushed occasions oppressive, a trap that she would no doubt fall into. When they reached the top of Hellmouth Ridge, though, there was little suggestion of silence: they passed cars and buggies dotted lower down the track, abandoned on the verge as the passing became impossible, and when they reached the house, strange horses heads poked out of the barn, whickering at each other, and muffled singing came from inside. Alice looked over to a small bank of pine trees, where three men were digging in heavy coats, their picks sending clanging sounds into the air as they hit rock, their faces puce, and their breath pale grey clouds. Is she going to bury him here? she said to Margery. Yup. His whole familys up there. Alice could just make out a succession of stone slabs, some large, some heartbreakingly small, telling of a Bligh family history on the mountain stretching back generations. Inside, the little cabin was full to bursting. Garrett Blighs bed had been shoved to one side and covered with a quilt for people to sit on. Barely an inch of space remained that wasnt covered with small children, trays of food, or singing matriarchs, who nodded at Alice and Margery as they entered, without breaking off their song. The windows, which, Alice remembered, had contained no glass, were shuttered and carbide lamps and candles lit the gloom so that it was hard to tell inside if it was day or night. One of the Bligh children sat on the lap of a woman with a prominent chin and kind eyes, and the others nestled into Kathleen, as she closed her eyes and sang too, the only one of the group to be somewhere far from there. A trestle table had been set up on which lay a pine coffin, and Alice could just make out within it the body of Garrett Bligh, his face relaxed in death, so much so that, for a moment, she wondered whether it was him at all. His hollowed cheekbones had somehow softened, his brow now smooth under soft, dark hair. Only his face was visible, the rest of him covered with an intricate patchwork quilt and strewn with flowers and herbs that scented the air. She had never seen a dead body, but somehow here, surrounded by the songs and warmth of the people around him, it was hard to feel shock or discomfort at its proximity. Im so sorry for your loss, Alice said. It was the only phrase she had been coached to say, and here it seemed sterile and useless. Kathleen opened her eyes and, taking a moment to register, smiled vaguely at Alice. Her eyes were rimmed pink and shadowed with exhaustion. He was a fine man, and a fine father, said Margery, sweeping in and holding her tightly. Alice wasnt sure shed ever seen Margery hug someone before. Hed had enough, Kathleen murmured, and the child in her arms looked at her blankly, her thumb thrust deep into her mouth. I couldnt wish him to stay any longer. Hes with the Lord now. The slack of her jaw and her sad eyes failed to mirror the conviction of her words. Did you know Garrett? An older woman with two crocheted shawls around her shoulders tapped the four inches of bed-space beside her, so that Alice felt obliged to squeeze her way in too. Oh, a little. I Im just the librarian. The woman peered at her, frowning. I only knew him from my visits. It came out apologetically, as if she knew she shouldnt really be there. Youre the lady used to read to him? Yes. Oh, child! That was such a comfort to my son. The woman reached out and pulled Alice to her. Alice stiffened, then gave in to her. Kathleen told me many times how much Garrett looked forward to your visits. How they would take him quite out of himself. Your son? Oh, my goodness. Im so sorry. She meant it. He really did seem the nicest of men. And he and Kathleen were so very fond of each other. Im much obliged to you, Miss Mrs Van Cleve. My Garrett was a fine young man. Oh, you didnt see him before. He had the broadest shoulders this side of the Cumberland Gap, didnt he, Kathleen? When Kathleen married him there were a hundred crying girls between here and Berea. The young widow smiled at the memory. I used to tell him I had no idea how he could even make his way into that mine with a build like his. Course, now I wish he hadnt. Still the older woman swallowed and lifted her chin not for us to question Gods plan. Hes with his own father and hes with God the Father. We just have to get used to being down here without him, dont we, sweetheart? She reached out and squeezed her daughter-in-laws hand. Amen, someone called. Alice had assumed that they would pay their respects and leave, but as morning became afternoon and afternoon swiftly fell to dusk, the little cabin grew fuller, with miners arriving after their shift, their wives bringing pies and souse and fruit jellies, and as time slid and stalled in the dim light, more people piled in, and nobody left. Chicken appeared in front of Alice, then soft biscuits and gravy, fried potatoes and more chicken. Somebody shared some bourbon, and there were outbreaks of laughter, tears and singing, and the air in the tiny cabin grew warm, thick with the scents of roasted meats and sweet liquor. Someone produced a fiddle and played Scottish tunes that made Alice feel vaguely homesick. Margery occasionally shot her a look, as if checking she was okay, but Alice, surrounded by people who would clap her on the back and thank her for her service, as if she were a military man, not just an Englishwoman delivering books, was oddly glad just to sit and absorb it all. So Alice Van Cleve gave herself to the strange rhythms of the evening. She sat a few feet from a dead man, ate the food, sipped a little of the drink, sang along to hymns she barely knew, clasped the hands of strangers, who no longer felt like strangers. And when night fell and Margery whispered in her ear that they really should get going now, because a hard frost would be setting in, Alice was surprised to find that she felt as if she was leaving home, not heading back to it, and this thought was so disconcerting that it pushed away all else for the whole of the slow, cold, lantern-lit ride back down the mountain.

  • Gullivers Travels /   (Swift, 2014)    Gullivers Travels /
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  • Thumbelina /  (Disney, 2014)    Thumbelina /
  • Cinderella /  (Disney, 2006) -   Cinderella / (Disney,

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