On Borrowed Wings : A Novel

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2008-09-09
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press

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Adele Pietra has heard her mother say that her destiny is carved in the same brilliantly hued granite her father and brother cleave from the Stony Creek mine: she is to marry a quarryman. But when Adele's brother, Charles, dies in a mining accident, Adele sees the chance to change her life. Enrolling at Yale as Charles, Adele assumes his identity -- and gender -- as a way to leave behind her mother's expectations and the limitations of her provincial Connecticut town.To her own surprise, hair chopped and chest bound, Adele falls in naturally with a lively crew of undergraduates: the Jewish Harry Persky with his slick Manhattan know-how, the quiet and mysterious legacy student Phineas, and the lanky, charismatic Wick. And in many ways, Adele faces her freshman year at Yale as would any undergraduate boy: she dreads invasive PE examinations and looks forward to dances, experiments with cigarettes and reads the classics. Through her work with a questionable eugenics professor and her friendship with a local Italian family, Adele confronts her class and ethnicity as never before, all the while fearing that both her crush on Wick and her mother's well-meaning interventions will put an end to her delicate masquerade.One part social history, one part comingof-age tale,On Borrowed Wingsis an impeccably researched first novel that transports us to 1930s Yale, showing us around through the eyes of an unlikely, appealing female narrator.


Chapter One

Mother once said I'd marry a quarryman. She looked at me as we washedclothes in the giant steel washtub, two pairs of water-wrinkled handsscrubbing and soaking other people's laundry. We were elbow-deep indirty suds and our fingers brushed under the foamy mounds.

"Some mistakes are bound to be repeated," she murmured.

We lived in Stony Creek, a granite town at a time when granite was goingout of fashion. There were only three types of men here: Cottagers,rich, paunchy vacationers who swooped into our little Connecticut townin May and wiled away time on their sailboats through August; townsmen,small-time merchants and business owners who dreamed of becomingCottagers; and quarrymen, men like my father, who worked with no thoughtto the future.

The quarrymen toiled twelve hours a day, six days a week. They didn'tcare that they smelled of granite dust and horses, grease and puttypowder. They didn't care about cleaning the crescents of grime fromunderneath their fingernails. Even when they heard the foreman'semergency signal, three sharp shrieks of steam, they scarcely looked upfrom their work. In the face of a black powder explosion gone awry orthe crushing finality of a wrongly cleaved stone, they remainedundaunted.

I knew why they lived this way. They did it for the granite. Nowhereelse on earth did such stone exist -- mesmerizing collages of whitequartz, pink and gray feldspar, black lodestone, winking glints of mica.Stony Creek granite was so striking, it graced the most majestic ofarchitecture: the Battle Monument at West Point, the Newberry Library inChicago, the Fulton Building in Pittsburgh, the foundations of theStatue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. The quarrymen of Stony Creekwould wither and fall before the Cottagers, before the townsmen. But thefruits of their labor tethered them to a history that would standforever.

"You'll marry one, Adele -- I'm sure of it. His hands will be tough asbuckskin, but you'll love him regardless," Mother told me, her breathwarm in my ear as the steam of the wastewater rose around us.

I didn't say that she was wrong, that she couldn't know what wouldhappen. I'd learned that from the quarry. Pa was a stonecutter and hecut the granite according to rift and grain, to what he could feel withhis fingertips and see with his eyes. But there were cracks below thesurface, cracks that betrayed the careful placement of a chisel and thepounding of a mallet. The most beautiful piece of stone could shatterinto a pile of riprap. It all depended on where those cracks teased andwound, on where the stone would fracture when forced apart.

"Keep your eyes open, Adele. I don't know who it will be -- a steamdriller, boxer, derrickman, powderman? Maybe a stonecutter like yourfather?" I turned away from her, feigning disinterest. "There's nopredicting," I told her.

In May 1936 the sun, convinced of an early solstice, shone so warmlythat the citizens of Stony Creek kept fresh handkerchiefs in everypocket to wipe off their perspiring faces. I kept three and used themall as I walked the mile from our boardinghouse to the quarry. I broughtlunch to my brother, Charles, and to Pa. Despite the heat I basked inthe freedom of my walks. Out of school until autumn, I was under theconstant scrutiny of Mother, who always had a fresh pile of laundry thatneeded attention, and if not laundry, then some other chore. I welcomedany errand that took me out of her eyeshot.

Upon reaching the work site I would look for ways to dawdle. Sometimes Icould convince one of the quarrymen to tell me a story. Most of the mendidn't mind chatting as they worked. Still steeped in the lore of theirancestors, they spoke to understand where they'd come from and wherethey were now, how it had come to pass that they spent their days in agiant crevasse hacked out by their own hands. Maybe the granite itselfkept them talking. The patterns in the stone were hypnotic,kaleidoscopic, powerfully inducive. Stare at them too long and you couldstart to see things, people and stories compressed between layers ofsediment.

Old Man Richter, a stone loader, spun the best yarns. That day I passedhim at the creek bank. Here, an estuary whooshed by fiercely beforegiving in to the sea. All around, the blades of the salt marsh bentunder gentle winds. Old Man Richter was fishing for eel -- a free lunch.He was up to his knees in the brackish water, stabbing the muddy bottomwith a hand-fashioned spear: a pocketknife tied to a broom handle. Hisrolled-up sleeves and pants' legs revealed sinew and strength, thephysique of a younger man. Yet he was the oldest worker in the quarry byat least a decade.

"Afternoon,Mr. Richter," I piped.

"Afternoon, Adele."

Though I knew I oughtn't -- Mother wouldn't have liked it -- I took offmy shoes and waded into the creek. The water nibbled the hem of myskirt. The pebbles, slick with algae, felt smooth and cool under myfeet. I sidled up to Mr. Richter carefully.

"Say, Adele, do you remember when the shanties were close to here? Whenthey were only yards away? You could get out of bed and practically tripover the edge of the quarry."

"I think I'm too young to remember."

He squinted at me, his eyes settling on my long braids, on thesmattering of freckles on the bridge of my nose.

"Oh, too young," he repeated. "Sixteen?"

Mr. Richter had always been a presence in my life. When I was a childhe'd doted on me as if I were a favorite grandchild or niece. He'd cometo my Sunday tea parties, sitting outside on a make-believe chairbetween two of my make-believe friends. I'd pour seawater from a chippedblue teapot Mother let me borrow and Mr. Richter would unearth lintysugar cubes from his pockets. He'd always remembered my birthdays, too.Once, he'd surprised me with a bicycle. It was a boy's bicycle and alittle worse for wear, but how dazzled I'd felt when I'd laid eyes onit.

"Seventeen," I corrected.

His eyes widened merrily. "My! You'll have to pardon me."

"What was it like -- living close to the quarry?" I asked him.

He jabbed the spear, stirring the already murky water. When the knifecame up empty, he sighed. "Not so different, except for the blackpowder. There are accidents now, but not like then. No one knew what toexpect from a blast, no matter how careful we planned it. My lord, wehad to watch ourselves. Stone was always flying. My wife was sure I'dlose an eye. She was sure we'd all go blind eventually. She had bigstatues of all the saints lined up on the bureau. Every night she'd savea little of our dinner and offer it to them -- a bribe to keep me safe."He smiled, the remainder of his teeth worn down and yellow-rotten. "Aloon, that woman was."

Old Man Richter's spear emerged again. This time an inky, slippery-longfish dangled from the tip. Though the knife had plainly impaled it,still the eel squiggled.

"Want a bite?" he joked, waving the spear in the air.

He couldn't have expected girlish squeals or even blushing. Mr. Richterknew as well as anyone that I'd grown up around the quarry, that I wasused to rough talk, and fish scales, and granite pebbles lodged in thesoles of my shoes. One thing I would never be mistaken for was aCottager's daughter.

"Cook it up and maybe I will," I told him, my words coming out soclipped and fearless they stopped him outright.

I pulled on my shoes and left Old Man Richter to skin and cook hislunch. After circling the work site several times I found Pa. He wassitting on an empty dynamite keg outside the cutting sheds. I wassurprised to see him at rest -- he seldom allowed himself a lunch break.I knew I had only a few minutes to give him his meal before he went backto work, his smile upon seeing me replaced by grim concentration.

Pa ate quickly, wheezing and coughing between bites. He'd tucked thedust mask Mother had sewn for him carelessly in a pocket. He'd promisedto use it, but wore it only when representatives from the insurancecompany came for inspection -- twice a year, like clockwork. It wasobvious that he was resigned to his fate: silicosis, the stonecutter'sblack lung. He'd carved his tombstone five years back, at the age ofthirty-four. All the stonecutters made this morbid gesture early.Everyone knew that their day was distressingly near, so much dust comeback to haunt them.

"Delicious, Adele," he said. I smiled, though I knew he was lying. Heate the same lunch every day: cheese, homemade pickles, and salamitucked between slices of brown bread.

"You've been helping your mother?" he asked. I nodded. His eyes werekind, and I felt buoyed by them, like the channel markers that bobbed onthe surface of Long Island Sound.

"But I hope you've saved some time for yourself," he continued, tiltingback his head, lips parted as if to drink in the sun, the blue blaze ofsky. "A day like this doesn't come around often." I, too, dipped back myhead. Together, we watched the clouds drift past like elegant ladies inwispy white gowns.

"Francisco used to spend whole days like this -- doing nothing," Pasaid. "He never felt bad about it, either. No matter how much my motheryelled at him, or how much the teacher scolded him for skipping school,he didn't give a darn. He did things his own way, at his own pace, nomatter what."

I loved to hear Pa talk about his brother and the adventures they'dshared as children. It didn't matter that I'd never met Francisco. Infact, my ignorance probably added to his allure. What I didn't knowabout Francisco, I had the privilege of imagining: the way his hair blewlazily in the wind, how his laugh lines made his face ruggedly handsome.Pa had disclosed some details over the years. I knew, for instance, thatyou couldn't pin Francisco down. He lived by neither calendar nor clock.A traveling musician, he possessed an aversion to routine andobligation. Pa said he preferred untrod continents, sun-blanched earth,pungent spices that came from across wide seas. Though he was youngerthan Pa, Francisco had already seen the greatest places in the world:the Taj Majal, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids. He sent Papostcards of these distant wonders, but I'd never seen them. Pa keptthem tucked away.

Sometimes, when I stared at the gray water in the laundry tub, Iconjured Francisco's reflection, or rather, how I pictured it to be:something like Pa's, but livelier, a thrill about the lips, eyesbrimming with intrigue. I'd feel my heart palpitating, and I'd worryMother would notice that something was different, that I was actingstrange. I knew if she asked me any questions, guilt would consume meand I'd blurt the whole thing: how I was infatuated with a relative I'dnever met.

Staring at the clouds, Pa and I were quiet for a time. The silence wascomforting -- a lull rather than a void. I felt sustained by it, evennourished, the clutter and noise of the day secondary to the vistaabove. But the foreman's whistle sounded all too soon and Pa was back onhis feet. His eyes shifted into focus. I was in the periphery now; hiswork, the splitting and drilling and polishing, at center. A pang ofregret took me. I wished we'd had more time to daydream. My fatherseemed happiest when he slipped away from normal consciousness,forgetting for a precious clutch of seconds that he was at the mercy ofhis job, and Mother, and even, I suppose, of me.

"Hurry to Charles," he said, bending down to collect his tools. "He's inTahiti." All the sheds were named after islands in the South Pacific. Noone seemed to know why, exactly. But stonecutters are storymen, and Ireckoned the blue of the tropics was more captivating than the mutedshades of New England. "By now he'll be ravenous, I can bet you."

I found my brother surrounded by a cloud of dust that billowed from thecutting and carving machinery. A raggedy cap sat askew on his head,casting a shadow over his eyes. Engine grease marked his cheeks like warpaint, contrasting starkly with his parchment-pale skin. His clothes andthick-soled shoes were coated with granite powder. Scrap rock sat inheaps and tumbling piles everywhere -- the waste of splitting andcutting the dimension stone. The air inside the shed moved sluggishly --a hot, murky, amorphous mass quite unlike the clouds Pa and I had justadmired.

"You're late again. I swear you do it on purpose," Charles said gruffly,eyeing the lunch pail. I removed a second sandwich and offered it tohim. He snatched it like a street urchin stealing fruit from a stand. Atthe same time some of the men looked up, noting my arrival withinterest. A long, low whistle escaped from the other side of the shed,followed by laughter. Girls were a rarity here. And even girls like me,perch-pole thin, sun-browned, and dressed in patched clothes, rousedexcitement.

"I can't keep waiting for you," he chastised.

"Sorry. I was just -- I was talking with Pa."

I noticed that under his hat my brother's hair was damp. The blacksmithsmust have dunked his head in the cooling barrel again, a common enoughprank, but one usually reserved for tool boys and newcomers. Charles, ayear older than I, had worked in the quarry every summer since he waseleven. By now he should have been one of the gang.

"Why do you let them do that?"

"It's not up to me," he charged, struggling to keep his voice low. "Ifit were -- if I had any choice at all -- I wouldn't be here. You knowthat."

"You shouldn't separate yourself."

Mid-chew, Charles glared at me. "And what would you know about that?You, who prance around like you're in some kind of fantasy land?"

I heard echoes of Mother in his talk. She, too, frowned upon thestonecutters, and all the quarrymen for that matter, even though she hadmarried Pa, even though our lives were weighted with granite. "Theirribald talk, how it tires the ears!" she would say, always in front ofCharles, who already eschewed the stonecutters' company, who alreadycourted their ire. He acted like he was better than they were, but thatwould mean he was better than Pa, and surely he couldn't claim that.

"I should get going," I hastened. "Mother expects me back."

I wanted to say something else, something that would extinguish theflicker in his eyes, which threatened to spark, to explode into flame.But I couldn't say what I truly felt -- that he could burn us all withhis discontent.

"Isn't it nice to have that luxury? To leave when you want? To do whatyou want?"

"We all have duties."

"Duties? You have simple chores -- things I could do blindfolded. You'reso provincial, Adele. You don't even know how small this place is. WhenI think about all the things I'll do when I get out of here, all thepeople I'll meet and plans I'll make...I tell you it makes me want tothrow in my tools this very instant."

His voice had risen and he was motioning broadly with his arms. But Ididn't know what he was waving at -- the dust clouds, the machinerynoise, the resentment of his peers?

"We all have duties," I repeated, a little ashamed, knowing that Iwasn't convincing anyone, least of all myself.

On my way home I walked slowly. By now Mother would be watching theclock, but the shoreline was simply too beautiful to rush past. Onceagain I took off my shoes, my toes sinking into the wet sand as Iwandered the beach. The sharp salt air caught in my lungs and I feltheady, almost reckless, as I dug into the lunch pail and unearthed thelast sandwich. This I tore up and fed to the gulls that spun, zipped,and dove overhead, suspended as if on marionette strings between sky andsea.

I'd always had a fondness for seabirds. When I was very young I'd founda fledgling huddled on the beach, unable to fly. Its delicate, downyfeathers had been soaked with sea spray. I'd cupped the bird in my handsgently, determined to make it my pet. Then I'd noticed its straw-thinlegs, half-crippled, snarled in fishing line. For how long? I'dwondered. I'd spent hours untwisting and unknotting. Underneath thetangle, the bird's feathers had matted, the quills digging awkwardly,viciously, into its flesh. These I'd plucked with great reluctance, forby then the gull's pain had also been my own.

I didn't know if the animal would live, lame as it was. When at last Iremoved the line, it hobbled away, wanting nothing more to do with me.Wings beating frantically, it struggled to fly. I didn't think it could,but after tottering down a stretch of beach, yellow legs regainingpurpose, it lifted. Aloft, it lurched, making desperate, lopsided bidsto right itself. I thought it would careen into the water, but it foundits way somehow, growing bolder, more confident, as if the fishing lineI'd tucked into my apron were nothing more than a bad dream.

I'd smiled, joyous. But envious, too. I'd wished my life could be sosuddenly changed. Despite what Charles thought, he and I weren't sodifferent.

When I finally arrived home, I was intercepted on the front porch byGreta Prowl, our landlady. Miss Prowl owned and managed the house fromher apartment on the first floor. My family lived in the apartment onthe second. As I made my way up the porch steps, which were rickety andin need of a fresh whitewash, she stood up from her rocking chair. Itwas the perch on which she spent much of her day. She liked to peep overan open magazine or book, watching neighbors scurry past. I was sure shekept a running tally of their goings-on.

I passed and she leaned over to yank one of my braids, a hostile actdisguised as playfulness. She had never liked me much, for reasons Ididn't understand. Indeed, the older I became, the more her aversionmanifested itself.

"It's about time you cut that hair, Adele Pietra. Don't know anyone elsewho wears it long and plaited like you do."

I shrugged, trying to get by, but she stood like a barricade.

"How is your father?" she asked. Her red lipstick had smearedclownishly. Despite the shade cast by the house's overhanging roof, shewas perspiring heavily. Large wet spots soaked her underarms. A trail ofsweat snailed past her ear.


"And your brother? He's fine, too, hey?"

"Sorry, Miss Prowl, but I need to get in the house. I'm late."

"Late for what? It seems to me you're following no one's schedule butyour own." I wondered if she spied on me, not just here but down by thewater, too. I gave her a hard look, hoping to break her momentum.Carmine laced the whites of her eyes. She smelled dankly of perfume andspirits.

"Your brother," she continued. "He's grown up handsome, he sure has. Ican tell he'll go far. But you, you're taking a while to find yourplace."

"I don't know what you mean."

"Of course you do. You know that the options in this town are limited.Hell, they're downright measly."

I didn't reply, yet Miss Prowl seldom needed a second party to keepconversation flowing. She tugged fretfully at her blouse, which bunchedat the waist, revealing her formidable girth. Her mouth pursed. At thesame time, the lines on her forehead deepened, revealing her age, whichshe tried to conceal by way of carriage and dress.

"You're almost a woman now," she continued. "I remember Gertrude at yourage -- oh, all too well. Not that you two look much alike."

I knew she wasn't necessarily referring to my mother's appearance, butto her history -- back in the days when she had been called Gertrude,Gertie, or, more commonly, Miss Mockleton. It was a subject gossipsdelighted in, which was why I suddenly saw no reason to mind my manners.

"Excuse me," I said coldly, reaching around her, making for thedoorknob. "I have chores waiting." Miss Prowl's mouth opened in protest,but I slipped away before she could reply.

When I reached the second floor, Mother was already standing in thedoorway, arms akimbo. "You're wasting your time, Adele. And mine, too."

"I'm sorry."

"Sorry, always sorry, but always late."

"Miss Prowl wanted to talk."

"Talking with Miss Prowl is no better than loitering around the workers.I've told you before what they think of girls who linger about thesheds." She sighed, smoothing her apron. "Have you had your lunch, atleast?"

I nodded. "On the way home."

"I can't tell from the looks of you." She clasped my wrist with herfingers, squeezing until she struck bone. The safe feeling I'd had sinceseeing Pa vanished completely.

"Well, have a little lemonade, at least," she continued. "I just made apitcher."

I poured myself a glass and cut a few chips of ice from the meltingblock at the bottom of the icebox. Before I could take the first sip,though, Mother handed me the sewing basket. It was piled high withsocks.

"I've been darning, but my eyes are tired," she admitted.

I thought she would retire to bed to rest. Instead, she followed me tothe kitchen table and took a seat beside me as I threaded a needle. Iwas not as nimble as she, and my fingers felt clumsy under her stare. Itwas always this way.

For several minutes we sat in silence. Unlike Pa, Mother loathed momentsof quiet reflection. Silence did not become her. She was a person ofmotion and purpose -- all fluttering hands, fleet speech, and rapidlyblinking eyes. She pretended to be idle only when she had news to share.I waited.

"Your father. By now you must realize his condition is getting worse,"she said at last. She fingered the ruby brooch at her throat. But for mymother, no other quarryman's wife wore jewelry; no other quarryman'swife owned jewelry. The brooch was a remnant from her earlier life. Itssparkle caught the sheen of her eyes, an ardent glimmer that at onceattracted people and kept them at bay.

"There is no easy way to say what I want to say, so I'm just going tocome out with it: the security you've known -- it is no longerguaranteed."

For many months, perhaps even a year, I'd heard Pa coughing through thewalls at night. The noise pierced my dreams, keeping me awake andreeling with worry. Yet his coughing was so persistent, it seemed almostinnocuous in its constancy.

"Your brother will move on," she continued. "It's in his nature to lookforward. But you -- I'm concerned that you have not yet thought aboutthe future. You're so preoccupied, Adele. So dreamy. Most of the time Ihave no idea what you're thinking."

I watched her face rather than the needle until the sharp point struckmy thumb. She swiftly grabbed my hand and wiped away the burgeoning beadof blood with a handkerchief. Her eyes strayed to the crimson blot,unnaturally bright on the starchy white cloth.

"He's been coughing a long time," I reasoned, watching the blood boil upagain from the puncture. "His health is probably the same as it was."

"Your father's father died when he was thirty-four. He died in thequarry, his hands still clasping a cutting tool." Of course I knew thisstory already, and was upset that Mother would revisit it so casually.The crisp tone of her voice had turned my skin to gooseflesh.

"That was a different time, a harder time," I argued.

"Was it? Your grandfather died of dust in the lungs, and chances areyour father will meet the same end. The only thing that's changed aroundhere is the state of the industry. Before you were born, there were fourcompanies mining the quarry. Now there's only Palanzas, and even they'reshrinking. I don't know how much longer it will be before they startlaying people off. Lord knows we all thought it would have happenedalready."

I cringed at her words, so brusque and incisive. Did the possibility ofPa's death stir nothing in her heart?

"What I am trying to say, Adele, is that you will need a man to takecare of you."

"I have Pa," I cried indignantly.

"Aren't you listening, dearest? I'm talking about survival -- yours andmine. I'll have no way to support you. We own nothing, not even thisapartment. And Adele, listen to me, you're not a child anymore, much asyou act like one."

"I know what you're getting at." And I did. She meant for me to marry;she'd hinted at it enough times. Mother had wed a quarryman, and morethan once she'd called it a mistake -- the worst she'd ever made. Sowhy, then, did she expect me to hitch my life to a quarryman's too? Icouldn't comprehend her logic. How could she assume that Charles wouldforge ahead and beyond, while she simultaneously believed I wouldretrace her steps, ensnaring myself in all the pits and traps sheherself had already exposed?

Later, with the gift of hindsight, I would revisit Mother's motives witha clearer mind. I'd think that maybe she couldn't envision my life asdifferent from hers because she was confined by her own example. Maybe,despite evidence to the contrary, she was a traditionalist at heart,believing that being a boy meant having special freedoms, while being agirl meant losing them. Her low expectations of me were not necessarilya sign of malevolence, I would try to convince myself. Maybe Mother'sattitude toward me was simply a result of misguided thinking,favoritism, limited resources, or even unacknowledged jealousy. I didn'tknow at that moment, and even later, to be honest, I'd never be sure.

Mother didn't respond and I stood up. She rose, too. She was tall,taller than anyone else in the family, and as she faced me I foundmyself eye-level with the brooch.

"It will be yours someday," she said softly, following the trajectory ofmy gaze. I didn't tell her that I didn't like her jewelry: the brooch,or the matching necklace, bracelet, earrings, and ring she kept hiddenunder a loose floorboard. Such precious items sparked talk. They madeenemies of the women who might have been our allies. Most of all, theyreminded people that Mother was different, that she had once grippedprivilege tight in her fist.

"I don't want it."

"Oh, Adele. You will, you will. You can't possibly be content with whatyou've got -- this quarry, your secondhand books. You're my daughter,after all." But I knew I would never have her taste for finery andflash.

Her hand rested on my shoulder, long fingers digging into my flesh.Mother had beautiful hands despite hundreds of hours in the laundrywashtub. Most nights she wrapped them in rags soaked in her specialsalve: cooking grease, honey, the comfrey root and lemon balm she grewin her little garden.

"Silvio Russo has been watching you for some time. He inquires about youwhenever I see him. Adele, he is a reliable worker and by all accounts agood man. Even your father likes him."

Silvio was older than Pa -- certainly too old for the likes of me. Hisface was a complicated map of wrinkles and planes, scars and pockmarks.It was a fascinating face, for it surely charted the course of his life,a life drawing toward a close. But mine was only just beginning.

"He's worked at the quarry for years. He's known this family for years,"she continued.

If I weren't so shocked, I might have been outraged. Of all the menMother might have suggested for me, she had picked one of the eldest andmost beleaguered-looking quarrymen. Why, I wanted to demand, must I doas she had done and take another turn on this luckless wheel? Instead, Istayed quiet, frozen even, thinking about the pink rock of Stony Creek,how it would be Pa's undoing and maybe mine as well.

"Just consider it. That's all I ask," she continued, and I swear Icaught a dash of resentment in her tone, just the tiniest shred. Shesearched my face, and I felt the familiar pressure of her eyes, howstartlingly pretty they were, like her hands. "Remember that what youmake of your future will affect me as well."

Her fingers slid from my shoulder then. My skin tingled where she hadpressed. A moment later she left, leaving me to tend to the nick on myfinger, which hadn't stopped bleeding.

That evening everything seemed a little different in our home. I notedthe unmistakable pallor of Pa's face, how exhausted he seemed, slumpedin his chair through dinner. I noted the friction between him andMother, two ill-fitting granite blocks grinding each other down. Iwondered if he knew of her plans for me. He said little during the meal,speaking only when addressed. Mother and Charles, on the other hand,talked endlessly of their favorite subject: the College Entrance Exam.Charles had been studying for it for a full year, and now it was nearlyhere -- only two weeks away. If he did well, Mother swore the unheard-ofwould happen: a quarryman's son would go on to higher education.

Usually college was left to the Cottagers, but Mother had long shook herhead at that notion. She said Charles made excellent marks in school. Hehad an insatiable hunger for learning -- didn't his teachers alwaysremark upon it? With the right recommendations and a full scholarship,of course a full scholarship, he would be poised for admission to thebest universities. Perhaps even Yale. And that's when Charles's andMother's eyes really glowed, for Yale to them would mean the ultimateescape: escape from this ramshackle house, from endless sacks oflaundry, from this abyss of a town.

Yale was only twenty miles away, a short trip on the railway. Yet it hadtaken on the feel of a distant Canaan. I'd been to New Haven only once,but I'd been humbled by what I'd seen: young men dapper in their suits,all gloss, snap, and pomp, bustling with determination as I tried tolook like I belonged, plunging my chafed hands into my pockets andwishing I'd styled my hair differently, not so much like a littlegirl's. The streets had been dazzling -- York and Prospect and Whitneyand Chapel -- every one of them wide and grand, shaded by enormous elms,and I'd had no means of comparison, for the street on which we livedstill turned to mud when it rained.

Mother and Charles had strolled through the city like they had everyright to be there. They'd clutched each other's arms and pointedexcitedly at sights that caught their fancy. What they saw was theirsand theirs alone. Pa and I, we walked two steps behind, staring at thesky like we always did when dreaming was preferable to real life.

When dinner ended I cleared the table. I scraped each plate clean,watching striper bones, snap peas, and bits of mashed potato fall intothe waste bucket. Mother and Charles, meanwhile, prepared for theevening's studies. During the school year, Charles had plenty of time topore over historical dates and mathematical theorems. But during thesummer, with so many hours at the quarry, he confined his studying tothe precious margins of his schedule -- evenings and all day Sunday.Mother was always ready to lend a helping hand. She'd told me once thatshe herself had dreamed of higher education, long ago, before love andits many complications had intervened. She'd grown up in an educatedhousehold, after all, her father a celebrated scholar. I still rememberthe excitement in her voice when she'd talked about the number of booksher parents had kept.

"Hundreds, Adele, simply hundreds."

I ran downstairs to fetch water from the pump, then returned to fill thesink, letting the dishes soak. From below, I could hear faint drifts ofmusic. Bessie Smith crooned "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" while MissProwl sang along, her voice tipsy, quavering, rhythmless.

In the adjacent room, Mother repeated vocabulary words from a list.Charles struggled to define them. When he missed one, Mother would cluckdisapprovingly. She'd recited the same list several weeks ago and Irecalled all the words, even the ones that baffled my brother. Iwhispered the definitions to myself as I carried a blanket to Pa. He satopposite Charles and Mother, in his favorite old chair, its springs longcollapsed, giving it a tired, droopy look. His eyes were closed. He wasseconds away from sleep, his breathing deep and somber. I draped theblanket over his chest, tucking the corners around his shoulders. Hiseyes opened briefly, brimming with thankfulness. In the past year he'dbecome so sensitive to changes in temperature. Even in the summer heat,a light breeze could make him shiver.

I sat on the floor at his feet. I was too old for such behavior, I knew.A proper young lady ought to sit on a chair, back straight, anklescrossed, hands folded in her lap, but somehow I felt better here,protecting Pa like a loyal dog might. Protecting him against what, orwhom, I couldn't say, but it was enough simply to be near him. Ilistened to his breathing, the long exhalations nearly hypnotic, andsoon I grew tired too. I forgot about the dishes in the sink, thedarning I still hadn't finished. I slipped somewhere else, maybe in thesky with the gulls. Eyes closing, I ceased to hear Mother's questions,or Charles's nervous, stutter-ridden answers, until one word brokethrough the haze.


"That which is inescapable, irresistible," I answered, suddenly awake, but not knowing, not believing, I'd spoken.

"Adele!" Mother lashed.

I was alert now, alert enough to see the contours of her face, which were sharp, surely carved of ice. Charles had turned in his chair. His eyes met mine with such naked distaste I stood up to avoid further shame.

"I didn't realize," I whispered.

"If you know what's good for you, you'll finish those dishes," Mother said tartly.

I felt her gaze, prickly on my back as I hurried to the sink. My hands dove into the water, now scarcely warm, grease and food particles floating on the foamy surface. I washed, just as I helped wash the sacks of laundry. I washed mindlessly; better for girls to work this way.

Miss Prowl's music had stopped. I imagined that she'd fallen asleep awkwardly in her itchy-tight clothes, lipstick still smeared, whiskey bottle inches away. I imagined Mother and Charles leaning closer in the other room, their profiles mirroring each other: angular chins, high foreheads sloping into straight Grecian noses. They looked so alike, identically pleated yellow waves atop their heads, while Pa and I had been cursed with pettish curls, sooty as a grackle's breast. Sometimes I wondered if Mother was swayed by color alone. Maybe the battle lines had been drawn based on something as superficial asphysical similarity.

I heard their whispers, scarcely audible over Pa's soft snores.

"You saw how she interferes. Isn't there something you can do?"

"Don't worry yourself over such trifles," Mother said, so resolutely I was sure he ought to believe her.

Copyright © 2007 by Chandra Prasad

Excerpted from On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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