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Excerpt: Madame Zee

Author: Canadian Living

Community & Current Events

Excerpt: Madame Zee

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Chapter 1

1897

Edith Mabel Rowbotham lies contentedly in a lowland meadow in Lancashire County. Partially hidden atop a soft bed of flattened fescue and sedge, sweet vernal grass and cocksfoot, saxifrage and marigold, she and her older sister Honora stare up at the hard blue sky suspended overhead. A small, copper-toned butterfly lands delicately atop a spike of crested dogstail, and a brown hare races close, stops still and grinds its teeth in startled warning, then makes a quick zigzag around their legs to disappear as quickly as it arrived.

She giggles and nudges Honora as the hare bounds away, and then she settles back on the grass. A moment later, not knowing how it is possible with her eyes wide open, Mabel sees herself, perched atop a large boulder, facing water. Sharp, wartlike barnacles encrust the sides of the rock, but its smooth bald top holds the sun's heat and warms her from below. Salt air mingles with the odours of seaweed and fish, and gulls circle with their anguished child's cry. Waves -- greenish, greyish -- roil toward her, and when she turns her back on them the incoming surf roars up behind her as if it means to crush everything in its path. Bits of kelp and floating debris catch in the shoulder of each wave before it crests, and then they smash against an outcropping of rock with such force she wonders why the earth's surface doesn't shatter like glass beneath her feet.

She hears each explosion like a cannon shot and sees the resultant spray discharge in all directions. A splash hits her leg, as cold as a bucket of ice water, one tiny portion of one vast arc that might have drenched her from head to foot and sucked her out to sea.

The ocean is powerful in its attack. Rock is equally powerful in its resistance. But for all their fierceness, the waves, momentarily expended, lap the innermost shore like a gentle, healing tongue, so that as each one withdraws, she hears the pleasant rattle of shallow water draining off pebbles.

And then all the tin-plate colours of rock and sea -- all the sensory information she can't possibly know -- recede, so that once again she lies motionless in the meadow with Honora. Her sister's hot, familiar arm encircles and supports her neck and, rising from it, Honora's faint ocean scent joins forever in her memory with the smell of crushed grass.

"I had another daydream," she says, breaking the silence. Honora has explained that daydreams are like night dreams but easier to recollect.

"Just now? Was it good?" Honora rises on one arm so her face hovers over Mabel's.

"There were birds and the sea. It was warm, but the water was cold."

"Well, you're the lucky one. I never see anything, even when I want to."

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The yeasty scent of fresh baking lures the two girls inside, into their grandmother's kitchen, a haphazard space with a low, wood-beamed ceiling, where pastries and pots share workspace with any number of more improbable items -- buttons, string, pins. Supplies lie where their grandmother last laid them, rather than where a more orderly person might put the same items. Squat, reflective jars of canned goods sit like colourful lanterns on the floor along one wall. A green towel dries over a chair, and a papery gold onion glints on the windowsill, atop a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is mid-afternoon, but here the sun filters through windows surrounded by ivy, giving the room a cool aquatic quality despite the heat and welcoming aromas.

Mabel emerges, blinking, into the kitchen and drops Honora's hand to begin a separate exploration of floured countertops and painted, freestanding tables. The two girls exchange a glance. Is it here? Or here?

Grandmother Castle's cottony head lifts as they enter, and her smile contains just enough hint of impatience that they keep their distance -- until she beckons both girls over to where she has sugar cookies cooling on a rack. As hot as it is, three loaves of fresh-baked bread also rest on the counter, and alongside them, a pan of cinnamon rolls.

She has shaped the largest cookies into numbers. Last year she baked threes, sixes, and eights; today she passes a seven to Mabel. "Careful of that pan now. It's still warm." She slides the hot tray farther back on the countertop and selects the number nine from the rack for Honora. She calls her by her pet name. "Your last single digit, Honey. And when William wakes, I have a four for him." She scoots both children aside. "Now, out from under me so I don't step all over you."

She no longer cuts and bakes the ages of Mabel's four elder brothers into cookies. They are past all that, but hidden amongst more mundane shapes on a plate of circles, diamonds, or crosses, they'll still discover a boot, a hat, a moustache -- any of the rich possibilities their grandmother sees as she slices through the dough.

"You're almost ten." Mabel latches on to her sister's freckled arm, a look of awe on her narrow face. "And there are ten of us."

"Imagine that," Grandmother says. "Ten already."

Honora has crammed her mouth full. She pops the last bit of cookie between her lips just as their mother opens the kitchen door and pushes through, her face damp, her expression hazy.

The two girls rush over.

"You're a welcoming sight." Margaret Rowbotham drops her shopping sack on the floor and stumbles as her daughters throw their arms around her waist. "Let me put this down before it tears open." She carries another package, brown-wrapped and tied with hempen yarn, which she sets securely on a wooden chair, and then she stoops to give her daughters a joint hug. As they pull away, she glances around. "Where's little William? Still asleep?"

The girls nod, and Honora accepts her mother's hat and hangs it on a peg next to the back door.

"I'd better check on him."

Honora's face has flushed petal-pink, and their mother hardly leaves the room before she nudges Mabel. "Do you think that's it?" Her eyes go to the parcel on the chair.

"Let's feel it," says Mabel.

All summer they have admired the new child-doll propped in the shop window two doors down from their father's pawnshop. It has younger features than most dolls, with blue sleep eyes that open and close, curled fingers, and two tiny, rounded teeth between parted lips. They each have a rag doll already, simple stuffed figures their grandmother sewed for them in their infancy. Maggie belongs to Mabel and Holly to Honora, but they're nothing compared to the beautiful, bisque-headed child in the window. They pleaded for her, just the one doll to share.

"Look at her." Their mother gazed through the window with open admiration when they showed her. "Skin finer than an eggshell. Even if we could afford her, she'd be in pieces in a minute."

No amount of begging or cajoling has changed her mind since, but Honora wants nothing else for her birthday. Not a new dress, or shoes, or a satin ribbon. Only the girl with the two darling white front teeth, the pouty pink mouth, the fine painted brows.

"Oh no you don't." Grandmother heads them off as they move toward the chair. She shoos them away with a mock frown. "I heard that. Both of you, out of my kitchen now."

"But, Gram. Is it? Is it the doll?" Honora looks covetously at the package.

Grandmother Castle rubs her nose with the back of her hand and then secures a few loose tufts of grey hair into the distracted knot on the back of her head. "I honestly don't know. You'll have to wait until tomorrow. Now out with you both. Play with William, or I'll set you to washing up."

She softens the brusque words with a quick peck to the tops of their heads, and sets them free. As an afterthought, she touches her hand to Honora's forehead. "If Billy's awake, play with him in the shade, why don't you. It's too hot in the sun."

From Madame Zee. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright (c) 2007 by Pearl Luke. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

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Excerpt: Madame Zee

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