Under the Light, page 1
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Sample Chapter from A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT
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About the Author
Copyright © 2013 by Laura Whitcomb
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Houghton Mifflin is an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Poem on [>] reprinted by the permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Under the light: a novel / by Laura Whitcomb.
Companion book to: A certain slant of light.
Summary: “Helen needed a body to be with her beloved and Jenny needed to escape from hers before her spirit was broken. It was wicked, borrowing it, but love drives even the gentlest soul to desperate acts.”—Provided by publisher.
[1. Ghosts—Fiction. 2. Spirit possession—Fiction. 3. Love—Fiction.] I. Title.
Thanks to my family, especially Cyn for Binny-sitting and Binny for being such a good sport; my essential and overlapping circles of friends (WSG, Chez, SRS, Revels, and my supernatural tea partyers); my fabulous agent, Ann Rittenberg; and my awesome partner in lit, editor Kate O’Sullivan.
For my son, Robinson David, my Binny. My spirit is made young, my heart full, my world new.
Oh, the cleverness of you.
Under the Light, yet under,
Under the Grass and the Dirt,
Under the Beetle’s Cellar
Under the Clover’s Root,
Further than Arm could stretch
Were it Giant long,
Further than Sunshine could
Were the Day Year long,
Over the Light, yet over,
Over the Arc of the Bird—
Over the Comet’s chimney—
Over the Cubit’s Head,
Further than Guess can gallop
Further than Riddle ride—
Oh for a Disc to the Distance
Between Ourselves and the Dead!
I USED TO PRACTICE LEAVING MY BODY. Closing my eyes in the shower, letting the spray beat on my forehead, forcing my pulse to drop. I’d breathe in the steam as slowly as possible. I’d pretend to drift out of my flesh and over the top of the shower curtain, slip out the open window.
The first day that it actually worked, it lasted only a few seconds. I was in bed, in the dark, too restless to sleep. I imagined I was a shooting star falling backwards away from earth, and the next moment I wasn’t under the covers anymore. I opened my eyes to find myself cocooned between silver foil and cotton-candy-pink insulation, planted halfway in my bedroom wall. I could lean down and look out through the wallpaper. At first it felt normal. My body lay below like a crash dummy, pale and too stupid to save itself. Is that what a dead body looks like? Then the idea of being dead made my spirit zip into my flesh again so fast, the mattress shook.
But the second time, when it really worked, I wasn’t thinking about leaving my body at all. I didn’t even realize what was happening until it was too late. Some part of me decided to escape without needing permission from my brain.
For the first fifteen years of my life, I had survived lots of bad days and never once ran away from home. Like the afternoon my parents discovered the photos I’d taken of myself—I never saw that camera again. I should have stashed the pictures in a better place. I thought I’d been more clever about hiding my diary. Still, on the day I left my body, I came home from school and found my father was holding it in his hands.
For such a small book it held an enormous weight—the most disturbing things my father could imagine, I guess: my true thoughts and feelings, things about me he had no control over.
My parents had been giving me a hard time that week because I didn’t get straight-As on my midterms. They couldn’t understand that I wasn’t slacking off—I was sick. I couldn’t sleep for more than ten minutes at a time. Light bothered my eyes. Sudden sounds made me jump and want to cry.
According to my father, the problem was that I was failing to live up to my potential. He reminded me that the devil tempts us with idle distractions.
I was in trouble so often, I’d gotten in the habit of pretending not to understand that my faults were sins, then acting grateful when my parents taught me the right way to behave. That worked for the little stuff: failing to excuse myself from a sex education lecture at school, talking to a strange man in the grocery store parking lot who wanted directions, walking to the park without asking permission. But this was serious, worse than the photos of myself that my father fed into the shredder.
Now, with my secret writing in his hands, my father looked victorious. I knew you were wicked, his eyes told me. And you’ve proven me right with your own words.
The Prayer Corner, at one end of our family room, was just three chairs used for family Bible study, prayer, and punishment. My mother and I sat down in our usual seats, but my father wouldn’t sit.
“Is this a true reflection of your soul?” he asked me.
Why hadn’t I kept it in my school locker?
“You may answer,” he said, as if I was waiting for permission to speak.
“I don’t know.” In my mind I ran through what I’d recorded on those pages. What was the worst thing?
“Your mother and I live our lives before you as daily examples of walking with Christ,” he said, “but it seems we’ve been giving you too many freedoms.”
He set the diary on his chair and slipped a shiny black square from his pocket. As he unfolded it, I saw that it was an extra-large garbage bag. I felt like a kitten about to be sacked and drowned.
He didn’t command us to come, but when he walked out into the hall, my mother followed, so I did too. She glanced back at me, and I thought her face would be stiff and angry, but she looked afraid. Maybe I wasn’t the only one who had a secret diary tucked away.
When we got to my bedroom, my father was already sliding around hangers in the closet, examining my clothes. He studied my skirts and sweaters, dresses front and back, leaving som
I knew why he took away my blue tank top and the cotton camisole; the necks were a little low, the straps narrow. But I could only imagine why other items were unacceptable. My black jersey jacket. Was the cut too rock-and-roll for him? And my brown knit skirt. It was expensive, from Nordstroms, one my mother picked out. She gasped as he unclipped it from the hanger, but when my father paused, not even looking at her, she put a finger to her lips and said nothing. Was it because that skirt came more than an inch above my knees?
He opened my dresser drawers and began to rifle through my underwear. I felt dizzy. Not because my father was touching my panties and bras, but because I was afraid that when he got to the lowest drawer he’d discover the false bottom and the secret compartment below. I stepped back and sat on my bed, breathing slowly, in through my nose, out through my mouth, trying not to throw up. That bottom drawer might seem too shallow to him. He might rap on the bottom, knock the cardboard loose, and find those few black-and-white photographs that he’d missed before. And the Polaroid camera I could use without getting the pictures developed at the store or downloading them on the computer. I felt my knees shaking and clamped my hands over them.
Both my demi-cup bras and the black cotton one went in the garbage bag. I could feel my mother longing to object, seeing as how neither of my parents would want a white bra showing through under a black dress. But Mom held her tongue and the black bra, perhaps a sign of goth tendencies, disappeared into the plastic bag.
My father hesitated in earnest about the pantyhose. My mom stiffened, folded her arms, afraid he would make a mistake and I would be caught in Sunday School with naked legs like some pantheist. But he left the stockings and moved on to the pajamas. He passed over the long-sleeved flannel nightie, but banished the thin white cotton one. He felt the jersey pajamas between his fingers perhaps to test how flimsy they might be. Did he imagine I would answer the door in them some Saturday morning and seduce a Mormon missionary?
He left the pajamas, an innocent color of pale yellow, and moved to the bottom drawer. I held my breath. But all he did, when we saw the mass of mittens, gloves, knit hats, and mufflers, was pull out a black lace shawl. He slid the bottom drawer closed without disturbing the secret chamber.
I was sure it was over, but he stepped to my dressing table and started picking things up. He stole my violet perfume and lifted the lid of my jewelry box. I didn’t have pierced ears, so there wasn’t a lot to choose from. Still, he took a silver bracelet formed from a row of running figures holding hands, a cheap mood ring, a plain gold anklet chain, a pendant of a pewter feather. He left the crosses and the birthstone hair clip from when I was ten.
I already missed my tank tops, my soft black jacket, but more heartbreaking, he went to my bedside table and unplugged my CD player. I had already learned to check out books I wanted to read from the school library and to leave them in my locker until I returned them. My parents were not novel readers and seemed suspicious of literature. But my music, it was so safe. Words of protest stuck in my throat like clay.
“You can listen to appropriate music in the front room or the family room,” he said as he dropped my player in the trash bag, the wires of my earplugs flipping over the rim like spaghetti. “Not alone in your room.”
Where I dance naked? I wanted to ask, but I was weak and silent.
He looked at my tiny collection of CDs. Our house was a couple decades behind, when it came to electronics. My father said they were Satan’s playthings. The smaller, the more suspicious. So here was my only store of music. And he took everything—the ballet that helped me fall asleep, the Celtic dance music that got me going in the morning, the soundtrack that cheered me up when I closed my eyes and lay under my covers. The beautiful cases clattered into the swelling bag in my father’s hand. All my favorite things were being swallowed up.
In my bathroom, he opened the cabinet and started to pick up my mascara.
“She needs to be presentable.” My mother finally spoke up.
“She’s fifteen. She should not be trying to attract men.”
“She can’t wear coveralls and wash her hair with a bar of soap,” she said, and he must have believed her because he left my toiletries alone.
Again, he did not invite us to follow, but we did. He walked out of the bathroom, down the hall, through the kitchen, into the garage, and up to the garbage can. He lifted the lid, paused to tie a knot in the top of the bag, and gently lowered it into the can, letting the lid fall closed.
The product of my self-expression was not good enough for the Salvation Army. I was already scheming how to get my music back and hide it at school, but the game wasn’t over yet.
“Follow me.” He was ordering a dog to come. My mother and I sat down obediently in the Prayer Corner.
The spine of the diary crackled as he ripped out a handful of pages and thrust them in front of my face. “Read.” When I just stared at the papers he shook them under my nose. “Take them and read.”
The pages looked wounded, jagged paper teeth dangling from the left side. The writing at the top of the page started in midsentence so I began with the next paragraph. “I don’t know, but I don’t think God did that. Not the God I believe in. Could we really worship different Gods?”
My father reached down and tore the page from my grip, jabbed his finger at the next page down. I read out loud from the first line: “. . . dreamed I was walking down a staircase at school and a guy who looked like a guy from that movie we saw in history class walked right up to me and put his hand under my blouse . . .” I hesitated. I remembered the dream, but I couldn’t remember how many details I’d written down.
“Go on.” My father took his seat now, ready to be entertained. My mother sat with arms folded, legs folded, the foot that wasn’t on the floor vibrating as if she were wired to a socket. My vision blurred for a moment—my ears were ringing. I couldn’t look at my mother. Something bothered me about the way her foot suddenly stopped shaking.
That was the last thing I remember before I found myself far away: my mother’s shoe freezing in midair.
The world disappeared.
I wasn’t in the Prayer Corner anymore. I was sitting on something slanted—birds were chattering away. The shadow of a tree crossed over me . . . no, through me. Sunshine and little shadows moved in the breeze. I was sitting on the roof of a house, but not mine. Our roof was flat and covered with white painted gravel—I’d been up there to save a kite once. This roof was covered with brown shingles, the wood all dried out and warped. I recognized our street below. I’d landed two doors down from my house.
Stupidly, the first thing I did when I was free of my life was to fly back to it. When I left the neighbor’s roof, I didn’t climb down like a human. I floated down like a bird.
I’m dead! I thought. I was as light as smoke. I was sure I must be a ghost. The idea that I might have had a brain aneurysm right in the middle of the Prayer Corner panicked me—I rushed home expecting to hear my mother’s screams ring out or sirens to fill the streets, but it was so quiet, you could hear the leaves in the trees fluttering.
I expected to find my body lying on the floor in the family room, though when I flew around the side of our house and stopped at the glass doors, I saw I was wrong.
My parents weren’t trying to revive my corpse, because there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with me. My body was sitting up straight, my head bowed over my diary. There was a pen in my right hand.
The sliding door was closed, but I could still hear my mother’s voice.
“Exodus twenty,” she read from the Bible in her lap. “Then God spoke all these words, saying: I am the Lord your God.”
The Jenny I used to be took dictation, slowly writing in the journal as my parents watched. Now I noticed there was something wrong with me, but nothing my parents could detect.
My flesh was e
MY BODY LOOKED HEAVIER TO ME, like a statue of a girl. Maybe my spirit was what gave my flesh and bones their lightness. Since I didn’t have any control over my body anymore, it was sickening to watch it move on its own. My hand held the pen, my elbow and shoulder shifted back and forth as I actually wrote in the journal, my eyelids blinked, my head tilted slightly. The worst part was the way my mother and father seemed to have no idea.
Finally my father took the journal from my hands. My back bent forward, feet shifted, as I knelt in the middle of the Prayer Corner. My fingers interlaced, ready for praying, and my parents laid hands on my strange doll head. Why didn’t they feel my absence like a chill under their palms? All those things that made me who I was since I was born didn’t matter to my parents. I sat outside the glass doors and cried like a baby.
I knew I couldn’t take my body with me and I knew I couldn’t stay, so without saying goodbye, I abandoned my life. My spirit slid up the wall of my house, rising as slowly as a raindrop in reverse, and glided over the white rocks on our roof. I could see every rotting leaf there as I swam the air over my home and then up high into our neighbor’s tree. Like Wendy from Peter Pan, I flew through the branches, beyond the leaves, and into the sky.
Was anything possible now? Paris or the pyramids in Egypt? Could I sit on the shoulder of the Statue of Liberty if I wanted? All I knew for sure was that I wanted the opposite of my old life.
My wish was granted—I was there in a single heartbeat.
The painting was huge, three feet wide and six feet high. A girl, probably life size, rode on the back of some half-hidden sea serpent in the middle of an aqua lake. She stood up straight between the monster’s fanlike fins and held a glass bowl in her hands. Calmly, as if this kind of thing were totally normal, she poured the water from the bowl into the face of the creature. Her gown was dark blue and fell off one of her white shoulders. Her hair was gypsy black.