I.

The light filters through the window into the still, dark air. In the whirling dust, Mary can make out the fairies, winking, disappearing, toes pointed and wings tensed. She hears them whispering her name, tormenting her. “Mary, Mary,” they say, and then are gone. There is nothing left to break the silence but the sluggish tick from the thick hall clock, its pendulum swung in lethargy, like a fat man swinging his pocket watch: and both pass time. Mother has bricked all the windows over but this one and the house presents its sleeping face to the street, where heels click by and dogs raise their legs to the rusted wrought-iron fence. Women’s rustling skirts drag on the uneven paving stones and thieves, or so Mother says, stand in shadow stropping their knives, sucking on their yellow teeth, waiting and waiting for something worthwhile to come within arm’s reach.

When Mary was just a baby, she pitched into the river, her small body dragged to the bottom by her thick woolen clothes. She was not afraid. She stared upward through the icy, sluicing water and could make out the sun—a chilled orb of splintering white—shining beyond the surface. She remembers lifting up her hand to better sense herself falling away. Then there was the dirty young man, fishing her out. Back on land, he gasped in the cold, and the nurse wailed and wailed while the small crowd of people endeavored to remind her that all was well now. Look. There’s the baby, wrapped in a coat. Take her home. Dry her off. Give the gasping, dirty young man (dirt like that takes more than a plunge in the river to rinse off) a coin.

“Mary,” Mother has said, “even a sharp little thing like you can’t remember so far back.” But she does.

Light gives Mother headaches, aggravates the neurasthenia, but even Mother acknowledges the need to see. In the hallway, the unbricked window spills the last of the afternoon sun into the gloom and Mary reaches to it. If she puts the backs of her hands together, knuckles pressing, and swims her arms around, she can pretend she is beneath the water. She strokes her way through the air in the vestibule. The fairies, nasty things, are laughing now. “Look at her,” she hears a sharp, little voice. “That’s not swimming. This is air. This is air, and for air you need wings.”

“Stupid fairy,” says Mary. “What do you know?” She swims up the first two steps and swims down. “Stupid fairies,” she says again. “I’m no little girl. I am a fi sh.”

“Mary,” comes her mother’s voice, like a ghost floating through the hallway, down the stairs. “Mary.”

Mother’s voice is always weak, weak and urgent. Mary’s heels clunk on the stairs, her vital footsteps sound on the bare boards as she walks quickly up the hall. She pauses at her mother’s door, pale eyes wide and curious.

“Mary.”

“Mother, I’m here.”

“Why didn’t you say? Come sit on my bed.”

Mary sits at the foot of the bed, careful to avoid Mother’s feet, careful not to make the covers pull too hard on her legs since they are always in pain, a pain that courses over them, like heat. Remember when you have the flu and everything feels tender, as if every tiny pain feeler in your body is waiting, alert, awake, ready to stick you? Remember that? Mother feels that way always. She’s ill and hasn’t left the house in years. She’s ill and has bricked up the windows. She’s ill and Father doesn’t like to spend time in this house, with its sluggish ticking clocks and dust-filled air, with fairies sneering at you behind the moldering, threadbare curtains, and Mother all afire with her tiny pain-people who hide where no one can see them. Father has been gone for three years, since 1867, when Mary was five. He is traveling in the South Seas as the Earl of Pembroke’s personal physician.

“Mary,” says Mother, “fix the curtain. The light is coming in.”

In the South Seas, the women walk about naked, their shining black skins right there for all to see. Father writes that the South Sea women are beautiful with big, white teeth, that the sun loves their black skin. If Mary were to walk about in the sun like that, she would sizzle up. The clean, cold air outside the house lays one bare. How could she show her arms to the sun?

“Mary, the curtain,” says Mother. She groans softly as the pain-people do their work beneath her skin.

Mary fixes the curtain. She can hear Helen’s footsteps up the stairs. It must be time for Mother’s lunch. Hers will be waiting in the kitchen. Helen appears at the door with the tray, another weak broth that could not fortify anything. Mary can tell, just by smelling it, that this soup would not fill her up. Nothing will. She will not be satisfied today in this house where there is no noise unless she makes it, where there is no one to talk to, except for Helen, who has taken to enlisting her in the housework and is best avoided. Two of the fairies are sitting on the curtain rod, smirking at Mother and her soup.

“Ma’am,” says Helen, “I must make an order with the butcher. What do you think? A nice beef roast, or leg of lamb?”

At the thought of real food, Mother blanches. “You decide, Helen. You know what the master likes.” She struggles to sitting.

“So Father is coming home?” says Mary, her excitement carefully disguised. Mary arranges cushions at the small of her mother’s back, which is how she likes it when she eats.

“Yes,” says Mother, “and I suppose that means you will be spending all your time in the study, listening to his stories.”

The fairies listen, their pointed ears picking up all the things that aren’t quite said.

“And not here with you?” says Mary, her voice quavering slightly.

Helen fixes Mary with a frank, sympathetic look. “Cold ham for you, Miss, in the kitchen. And there’s bread. And some of that cheese you liked so much yesterday.”

“The same as yesterday,” whispers one of the fairies. “And it didn’t fill you up. You’re hungry, always hungry, even when you sleep.”

 

Father will be coming soon and Mary has volunteered to dust the banister. Poor Helen is doing her best with the potatoes and carrots, the mystifying asparagus, which she has chopped to the size of peas and means to stir about in eggs—a recipe given to her by Gladys-up-the-street, whose employers order such fancy fare. The leg of lamb is set on the counter—pink, vulnerable—not roasting yet because Father likes it rare and fresh from the oven. Mary knows Father would prefer rabbit, and that the asparagus were just boiled, but she doesn’t want to hurt Helen’s feelings. In the South Seas, sometimes he eats nothing but seeds and fruit. Sometimes he eats stringy mashed roots that taste like rubber, might even be rubber, he said once, and chicken and pork cooked with so much pepper that you have to eat it in your shirtsleeves, beads of sweat rolling past your ears.

“Mary,” comes her mother’s voice. “Mary.”

“Mary, Mary,” mimic the fairies, their voices tinny and malicious. “Mary.”

She flicks her cloth at a fairy sitting Indian style on the newel post, and the fairy sneezes.

Mary makes the journey to her mother’s room. “I’m here,” she says.

“Do you hear that noise?” Mother asks.

There is a rhythmic thunk and thunk, and then it stops. Mary smiles at her mother, her eyebrows raised cheerfully. Then the thunk and thunk starts again.

“What is that?” says Mother, squinting, shuddering, as the pain-people dance along the muscle, along the bone.

“It’s Charley. Helen sent him out because he was underfoot in the kitchen. I think he’s throwing his India rubber ball against the side of the house.”

Charley is home from school to see Father. Charley hates school. He finds it boring. Mary, of course, would love to go, but she is needed to take care of Mother, to walk up the stairs every half hour, to present her pale and cheerful face at the door.

“You must . . .” and Mother’s eyes shut and she inhales sharply, so clearly in agony that it makes Mary wince.

“I’ll make him stop,” she says.

Mary rushes down the stairs. She doesn’t want to hear the chorus of voices singing at her in evil glee, their flickering wings stirring the air. In the kitchen, Helen’s broad back is hunched over the stove. At the sound of Mary’s boots on the flagstones, she turns. Helen’s face is flushed, shiny with sweat and steam. She’s holding a spoon and her face is anguished.

“Oh, Mary,” says Helen. “Come taste this.”

It’s the asparagus with egg. Mary dutifully takes the spoon in her mouth.

“Is it right?” asks Helen.

“I’m not sure. What’s it supposed to taste like?”

Helen laughs. “Well, you didn’t spit it out!” she says.

Mary pats Helen’s arm. “I have to go and stop Charley. He’s bothering Mother.”

“Bothering Mother,” Helen says, now back at the pots and stove, and quietly—to herself—but Mary hears. She knows that Helen will go on to tell the boiling potatoes and thickening gravy that this is no way for children to grow up. All this tiptoeing about. And the dark! Not good, not good at all.

 

“In the South Seas?” says Father. “In the South Seas? There are birds as big as you, Mary, with jeweled feathers, et cetera, et cetera, and people with bones in their noses, people who stick needles in their skin because it’s how they pray, people tattooed from head to toe,” Father dodges to one side to let Helen serve the soup, “from head to toe, Helen. Aren’t you going to ask me how I know?”

“No, sir,” she says, but her eyes are twinkling, “and I’ll warn you that if you wish me to keep topping up your wineglass, you should say no more of it.”

“Why don’t the natives wear clothes?” asks Mary.

“Because it’s hot.”

“But you wear clothes.”

“Of course.”

“But don’t you get hot?”

“Don’t be stupid, Mary,” says Charley. “Englishmen don’t get hot.”

“I should like to go see it myself.” Mary knows the fairies can hear her, although they’re quiet now, with Father sitting there and Charley stuffing his pointed face, but she doesn’t care.

“What would you like to see?” asks Father.

Charley smiles maliciously, although he’s not sure why. He can sense Mary’s need and knows it is the stuff of humor.

“I should like,” she says, straightening her shoulders, “I should very much like,” she says, “to travel to Samoa.”

“Oh, Mary,” says Father, “Samoa’s no place for a girl—”

“But you said, Father, that there are already girls—”

“Those aren’t girls,” says Charley, “they’re natives.” He sniggers. “They’re natives, and you’re an idiot.”

Mary sets down her fork. She takes her linen napkin and carefully touches the corner of her mouth. “If Samoa is no place for girls,” she says, “then I shall go to Africa.”

“Africa?” says Father.

“Yes,” she says, “like Burton.”

She’s past crying, never been one for tears, even though she can see pity in her father’s eyes, thinks of it—that pathetic sympathy—welling into the room and drowning her.  Father knows that she’s lucky to make it out the front gate, and wonders—he’s told her as much—if all this time without the company of girls her age, of anyone but Mother and Mother’s pain, has made her eccentric. And dinner passes in this way, with the fairies beneath the table, tugging at her skirt and pinching her legs, but Mary does not let her discomfort show. She sits straight as ever, a pleasant smile (being pleasant is one form of defiance) on her narrow face.

“Is there any dessert?” says Charley.

“Helen’s made a pudding,” says Mary.

“Pudding? It’ll be tough as leather. I wanted cake . . .”

And then Charley’s mouth moving and moving, little beads of sweat appearing on his head, his middle part looking like a great tributary through the thin, brown, Kingsley curls, as if one could sail up it, past the crest of his head, or maybe paddle in a canoe. She would like to sail up rivers, back and back to the beginning of things.

“Mary,” says Charley. “Mary!”

And Mary comes back to the present.

“Can’t you hear Mother calling you?”

Helen, serving the pudding, jerks her chin up toward the ceiling. Directly above is Mother’s room. “I’ll go, Miss,” she says.

“No, no,” says Mary, “she’s asking for me.”

“Then I’ll bring up your pudding.”

 

Mother looks quite lovely sitting there, her skin pale as ivory, her hair spread out across the pillow. Her eyes are watery and icy blue.

“Here’s Mary,” Mother says.

Mary knows better than to ask her what she needs. Mother simply needs her.

“Shall I read to you?” she says.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” says Mother. “Unless you really want to. What’s on the shelf?”

Mary sees a few dusty books, two by Uncle Charles: Westward Ho! and The Water-Babies. “Let’s read this,” she says, holding up Water-Babies.

“Isn’t that a bit young for you?” asks Mother.

“Nonsense!” says Mary. She’s read it many times and each time finds something a little different: maybe it’s her that’s different, and the words on the page shift around, like leaves floating on the surface of water, to accommodate it. “It will be your bedtime story,” says Mary.

Helen appears at the door with the pudding and some tea and sets the tray on the bedside table. “Anything for you, ma’am?” And Mother shakes her head.

“Sit here beside me,” says Mother.

“I’ll take off my boots,” says Mary. “I’ll get under the covers, and keep you warm.”

The pudding isn’t tough at all. It’s heavenly, buttery, and the sauce is so rich with rum that Mary can feel her bones warming up. She flips through the first couple of pages and, after a swallow of tea, starts to read: “Once upon a time there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it.” Mary reads in a pleasant, animated way. Mother laughs here and there, even though the book is by Uncle Charles, who never approved of Mother, who married up and never visits. Mary reads past the bit about the mysterious Irishwoman, who turns out to be a fairy, and to the part where Tom gets lost in the interminable maze of flues and pops out of the fireplace to see the beautiful little girl asleep in her snowy sheets, her golden hair spread out on the pillow. “And looking round, he suddenly saw, standing close to him, a little, ugly, black, ragged figure, with bleared eyes and grinning white teeth. He turned on it angrily. What did such a little black ape want in that sweet young lady’s room? And behold, it was—”

“It’s him,” cuts in a fairy.

Mary looks to Mother, and sure enough, her eyes are shut, her breathing slow, although she never sleeps deeply: the fairies wouldn’t speak if she were awake. And there they all are, sitting in a neat little row on the brass bed rail, their wings twitching restlessly.

“He’s dirty,” the fairy continues, “and he’s never noticed it before, and he’s all ashamed and bursts into tears.” There’s some mean-hearted laughter.

Mary closes the book, although she keeps her place with her right index finger. “Keep reading,” says another fairy.

“You’ve heard it so many times. Surely you don’t need to hear more?”

“Spiteful Mary,” say the fairies, because they do want to hear more, especially about the water fairies, who live in the rivers and travel far and wide, who aren’t trapped like Mary in the dusty, somnolent house, where the only fresh air is blown in with Father on his rare visits. “Read more.”

“Say ‘please,’” says Mary.

The fairies shift on their little buttocks, point their toes. They hate saying “please,” especially to Mary, but there’s nothing else to be done, because fairies cannot read.

“Please Mary,” they say, in a screechy little chorus. “Please read more.”

Mary looks over to Mother, who shifts a little in her sleep, but seems peaceful.

“All right then,” she says, “but you mustn’t interrupt.”

 

II.

It happens quite suddenly. First Father, in bed, because of what the rheumatic fever had wrought on his heart. And then, two and a half months later, Mother, although the stroke had done half death’s work at that point. Sometimes, it was as if the stroke had wound Mother back to childhood, as if Mother were returning to her past instead of moving on. And then one day she was asleep not to wake up and the cycle was over— discomfortingly undramatic, a stingy, unfair end.

Mother’s death should be easy for Mary. Everyone else seems relieved on her behalf, but her life’s work—twenty-nine years of constant caretaking—is now ended and Mary, who has done little but look after Mother and concoct fantasies, finds herself with nothing but a few thwarted desires, all of them absurd. This amuses her, but she is also unsure of how to proceed.

Father’s death is sad, but the house did not know him so well, and Mary has to remind herself that he is actually dead, not off with General Custer in America, not in Bora-Bora, not in New Zealand.

What is there to do but fold Mother’s seldom-worn dresses for charity? There is a woman who runs some sort of mission in Calabar who, apparently, is always looking for clothing. But what Africans wear dresses like these, buttoned up to the chin, mutton-sleeved, and made of such tightly woven wool?

“Mary,” say the fairies, “Mother’s dead and you can go anywhere you want.”

“She did not hold me prisoner,” says Mary. “She loved me.”

“What’s the difference?” says a fairy, and the others laugh heartily.

“Stupid, stupid fairies!” says Mary.

“Stupid, stupid Mary!” they mimic. “Open the curtains! Let in the light!”

And Mary does just that, sending the fairies scrambling to the shadowy corners, their eyes squinting.

There is a great deal of packing to be done. Charley wants to make the move from the Cambridge house—so much better than the one in Kensington where Mary grew up—to London. Charley wants it and so Mary wants it, although she knows she’ll miss her friends, hard-won friends that she earned with her unconventional learning—German, natural sciences in general, fish in particular, Latin, history. Anthropology. Plumbing. She is quite handy when armed with a wrench and confronted with a leak. All this awkwardness of a life spent alone with books and dark rooms and imagination has made her quite singular. This, and her cockney accent, inherited from Mother (who else was there to speak to but Mother and Helen?), make forays out of the house painful and uncomfortable, the shock of contact almost painful too. But refreshing. She does not really know how to converse, finds herself lecturing and telling jokes, and then realizing the other faces around her, smiling and unfamiliar. Face, face, face. The only face she’s accustomed to is her own—in the mirror—and there’s certainly no point wasting time meditating on that. When she’s uncomfortable, she blushes and smiles. Her teeth are fine and even if the way she smiles—sincere and fast—seems a bit immature, it serves her well when it comes to making friends. But now they’ll have to visit her in London.

The box of papers has a layer of dust on it, and when she disturbs the lid the dust rises up, making her sneeze and the fairies, sneeze, sneeze, sneeze, one after the other. What is this box? Is it Mother’s? Father’s? There are some papers inside. Father’s birth certificate. Did one keep that? And if so, why? She has his death certificate, too. Not important, but still to be kept, although a life is what happens in between. And thinking of that, where are the crates and crates of Father’s papers—his “books”— going to fit in the little apartment four flights up that Charley has chosen for their home? She rifles through the box’s rustling, whispering contents. Father bought a horse at one point. And he sold it. Two sets of papers prove this. Here’s a contract for South Sea Bubbles with Macmillan. The advance is almost embarrassingly low. Father never did make much money and Mary will have to be careful. But what would she do otherwise? Buy fashionable hats? Eat at fancy restaurants? This mourning black suits her fine. And here is Charley’s birth certificate, January 12, 1866. And here is Mary’s, October 13, 1862. And her parents’ marriage certificate. Unlike Uncle Charles, Father had married down, to the daughter of a publican who rented rooms, whose rooms he rented. And here they are, bachelor George Kingsley, spinster Mary Bailey, October 9, 1862. What’s this?

She reads the date again.

Married, October 9, 1862.

Yes. Between the two certificates a mere four days— evidence of little time and much import. Mary, not often stunned, is stunned. The fairies, sensing this, flit over. They hover around her ears, the high pitch of their wings buzzing.

“What, Mary?” they ask. “What, what, what?”

One of them steals the paper and flies up to the high corner of the room. The others follow. All the fairies snicker and giggle, because they know they’ve got something. But fairies cannot read.

“Keep it,” says Mary.

“What does it say?” they ask, and then, in clear, tortured desperation, “Please Mary. What does it say?”

“It says,” she replies, “that I belong nowhere, that I never have, and now that Mother and Father are gone, there’s really nothing for me to do.”

“It says all that?” asks a fairy, the clever one. She wrinkles her nose, unconvinced.

“Yes, yes it does. And you can keep it. It’s of no use to me.”

This might be the lowest time of Mary’s life: alone, orphaned, and spinstered. She is an accident and her parents’ marriage is not a bold, class-violating, romantic statement, but an accident as well—an attempt to remedy with poison. And this strange yet fiercely accurate truth: Mother did not give birth to her, but rather she birthed her mother: created that cradled, coddled, frightened thing by destroying what might have been love, what was surely impulsive, and that evidenced a different mother than Mary had ever known.

Mary, who excels at equations, wonders how many years she and Mother have paid each other for these acts of violation, but of course it is the same amount: twenty-nine years, Mary’s first and her mother’s final.

The fairies are lined up on the edge of the desk. They’ve grown bored of the birth certificate, as has Mary, and it’s on the floor curled back into a tube, which makes it easy for Mary to kick it across the room.

“Who cares?” she says.

The fairies aren’t sure how to respond. Which would bother Mary: if they cared or if they didn’t? “It doesn’t matter anyway, because I’m leaving.”

The fairies mass and splinter off.

“I’m going on a boat,” Mary says, now with conviction. “I’ll be gone a long time.”

“You’ll never do it,” say the fairies, challenging.

“Let me finish packing.”

“We won’t let you pack, wicked Mary, going off on a boat, when you should be cooking for Charley,” says the clever fairy. “You should be home where people get sick and need you to hold their hand—”

“And change the sheets when they mess themselves!” says another, and they all giggle.

“Who’s sick?” says Mary. “I’ll tell you. I am. And Charley’s off to China, gathering material to write a book.”

“You know he won’t,” says the clever one, “he’s even stupider than you are. He can’t do anything.”

“Nothing, nothing at all,” chant the fairies.

“You’re going to have to stay in England to cook and clean and fix his clothes and hold sick people’s hands and listen to Charley complain and complain and complain—”

“What is this beautiful thing!” says Mary, standing at the closet door. “I think it’s a piece of gold, the way it glitters.”

The fairies come over immediately. “We don’t see it,” they say.

“Look, on the floor, beside my galoshes!”

And the fairies are in and Mary slams the door shut.

She can hear them flying around, trying to get out. Stupid fairies. They’re not strong enough. Their wings sound like moths hitting a lampshade.

 

Why the Canary Islands? Because Mary needs a reason to travel and the only one that works for someone in her position— spinster—is that of tonic recuperation. And the Canary Islands are as close to West Africa as Mary can get without the possibilities for her health being reversed. And when Charley finally packed off for the Far East and no longer needed her to keep house for him, this was the easiest trip to plan. The quickest. The recuperative advantages are already being felt by Mary, who now strides across the deck, her mourning black as trim and functional as an umbrella, and who occasionally—with a “Good day, sir!”—will initiate conversation. On board this merchant steamer in all its industrial, dirt-generating practicality, Mary feels oddly herself. She has never felt this way before. What is this new ease?

She wonders who that creature is whose life she’s been inhabiting for the last twenty-nine years.

 

James Batty, who trades along the Gold Coast, has been her friend on this journey. He’s told her stories that have chilled her bones, told her stories that have made her laugh, just stopped short of finishing others off, which has made her curious. He thinks he’s being charming, falls into charm easily, as some men do, but Mary’s being provoked by a much larger spell, perhaps the spell cast by his spell. She will go to Africa. She will because she has nothing to lose. For one brief second she’s euphoric— literally dizzied—by this: her intoxicating life of value to no one. Worthless translates quite narrowly as freedom.

“And there you are, blown about by the wind and not caring at all, Miss Kingsley,” says Batty.

“Let it blow harder,” she says. “I’ve never felt better in all my life!”

“What will you do when you reach the Canaries?” he pursues.

“Take a look around,” she says. “Maybe go on to Africa. See what that’s like.”

“So it’s a holiday, is it? You seem rather determined for one so—”

“Undetermined?” asks Mary. She laughs and juts out her chin, smiles fast and strong. “It had better be a holiday. I’ve no profession. If it’s not a holiday, then it’s nothing.”

They stare out at the waves. If Mary were a different sort of person, this might be romantic: the two side by side, dark continent before her, stuffy England behind, thud of drums before her, rustling silk behind . . . and so on. But this is Mary and she does not care for that tender cage, nor any cage.

“Tell me about Africa,” she says.

“The native songs and wild beasts, the fear and beauty—”

“Don’t be silly,” she says. “How can I equip myself to travel?”

“Alone?”

“There’s no one else.”

“Well then you can’t, short of becoming a man.”

“And if you were more liberal, what would be just short of becoming a man?”

“You’re serious?”

“Don’t doubt it.”

“Well, then I’d have to say spirits.”

“Spirits?”

“Alcohol.”

Mary ponders this. “I don’t understand how my drinking would solve anything, unless, so addled,” here she has a twinkle in her eye, “I would be unable to make the journey.”

“Should it cure this desire to travel alone, such intemperance would be beneficial. However, should you find yourself wandering about Africa unaccompanied, it would make sense to have a role, perhaps as trader.” Batty takes a moment with some matches—it’s windy, but he’s skilled—and lights his pipe.

“I’ll peddle anything but God,” says Mary.

“Spirits and tobacco will open every door, where there are doors that open.” Batty puffs efficiently, like a steamboat. “The missionaries will most certainly disapprove. But they will give you a good Christian burial.”

“When I succumb to malaria.”

“Or some unnamed fever.”

“Or get eaten by a leopard.”

“Or hostile natives.”

There’s an awkward silence because this joke flies parallel with the truth. Where does one laugh? Mary sets her boots upon the railing, looks out at the water. She nods with satisfaction. “Well then, spirits it will be.”

 

Mary returns to her cabin. The door shuts with a loud creak and slam behind her. She holds her head firmly with one hand and pulls out the hat pin with the other. Her headache immediately subsides, but one must pin one’s hat tightly in such wind, even if it does pull at the scalp.

She can now indulge in some private moments with Albert Günther’s Introduction to the Study of Fishes. Even though she could not bring herself to share it with Batty, she has ambitions, an embarrassing thing for any woman, but particularly for her, who has a magpie’s education from the College of Whatever Happened to Be on Father’s Bookshelf: consisting of a whole lot of exploration, some antiquated naturalism, bully novels, introductory mechanics, and, the one thing that had actually involved a teacher, German—German to help Father in his writing, because he couldn’t be bothered to learn it himself. She knows that French would be more helpful because it is what the natives speak. But surely French is not as useful as a native dialect, Fang, or some other, but who could teach her that? Fish it is. She’ll learn about fish and maybe one day become a collector, take a river deep into the heart of it, on a canoe—her barque to sail into a new life. Just Mary and a number of naked natives and jars to fill with fish that people back in England have never seen. Preposterous. Impossible. Essential.

How is she to accomplish anything? This trip ticks to its end as she eagerly consumes it and then back to England, back to Charley, back to that other self as if she is a playing card—let’s be frivolous, let’s say the queen of spades—and this vivid woman will soon be flipped over to present only the tile pattern that is accepted and does not disturb. Think ahead. Plan. She feels England reeling her back: the shepherd’s hook on the Vauxhall stage. She would stop herself from dreaming, from entertaining these ambitions, but she cannot stop. She is too far gone.

 

Mary wonders if she has recuperated, although—back in England—her lungs already feel half-collapsed. She’s frank about her condition to herself and no one else is concerned. Then she remembers that she was supposedly recovering from grief, although she feels that she has walked back into that as one walks into a cold room. The air is dry and the dust heavy on all the surfaces. Good. English. Dust. In the apartment on Addison Road, everything has been shut tight for months. Mary wonders where dust comes from, what generates it. Charley has returned and no matter how Mary reminds herself of duty, reminds herself that she has a responsibility to keep house for him, reminds herself that he will leave again to leave her to leave, reminds herself that she does not mind, reminds herself that all this endless reminding is exhausting, useless activity, she has a hard time watching him sit.

“You hate him,” whispers a fairy. Mary can feel the pressure of the tiny feet on her collar. “Admit it,” they all chime in, “you wish he were dead.”

“Nonsense,” says Mary. The response comes fast and chipper with no thought, a rote response for a rote life. “I wish for no such thing.”

Although sometimes she wishes she were dead. She feels herself to be an animated corpse performing the actions of her days, while her mind replays her voyage. Her forays to the African mainland return more vivid than the present rotation of gas-lit rooms and long faces and sun-starved mornings. She plays through one evening when, having spent four uneventful days strolling through the crooked streets and haphazard dwellings of Freetown, she boarded the boat for the Canaries and found her cabin occupied by four dead men. When she finally tracked down the captain, he was shaking from lack of alcohol, his face flushed and sweaty, his demeanor broadly macabre, comic even. “How may I be of assistance, Miss Kingsley?” he asked.

“It’s my cabin. It’s occupied by four men.”

“Are they bothering you?”

“Not exactly. Well yes, I mean, no.” She felt herself smile and then repressed it.

“They’re all dead.”

“West Africa,” said the captain, philosophically, “White Man’s Grave.”

Mary, sensing the discussion over, returned to the deck and eventually fell asleep sitting down, her back against some wall, hoping all the while that she was truly shielded from scrutiny by a grouping of barrels. This was not her first night asleep with the elements: she’d been stranded overnight on a small volcanic island off Grand Canary and spent the night exposed to wind and pelting rain. All these things, these intolerables, are to her quite tolerable. Better the White Man’s Grave than whatever twilit life London provides.

SABINA MURRAY is the author of three novels and two short story collections, including the PEN/Faulkner Award winning The Caprices and the contemporary gothic A Carnivore's Inquiry. Her work is included in The Norton Anthology. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation and Radcliffe Institute and is on the fiction faculty of the MFA program at UMass Amherst. She wrote the script for Beautiful Country, a Golden Bear contender, for which she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Her latest, Tales of the New World, was recently published by Grove/Black Cat.

One response to “Fish: Excerpt from Tales of the 
New World

  1. Alanna says:

    What a vivid, strange imagination you have!! I was totally enthralled by this, this is the first TNB story I’ve read that makes me want to immediately buy the author’s book. I’m so looking forward to reading the rest of your book.

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