Wednesday, April 28, 2010

An excerpt from the new book (please excuse the formatting inconsistencies):

“To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”

--Mary Oliver

Partway, Minnesota

Eveline LeMay came after the water. She arrived on a cool morning in early September, asleep in a rowboat without paddles as if she knew the river currents would carry her past the tamarack and black spruce forest, around Bone Island, a fen, and a bog, all the way to Partway and her new husband Emil, who was waiting for her on the rocky shore. 
The flood had delayed Eveline’s trip north two months and forced her to travel by boat as the dirt roads had been washed away and no plans were made to restore them. Emil had sent word for her via the forest service to stay with her parents in Yellow Falls, a lumber town twenty miles south of Partway, until the water receded since he was living on the roof of their cabin, subsisting on whatever happened to float by. The newspapers blamed the flood on the whims of nature, but everyone knew the government had been building a dam to harness the power of the Snake and Owl Rivers in order to, in their words, bring light to all that was dark, but in everyone else’s, to build a paper mill and clear cut the forests.
“Liebling,” Emil said, and Eveline opened her gray eyes.
“I lost the paddles,” she said, sitting up in the rowboat, stiff from floating all night. On either side of the river, a forest of towering white pines shaded the shore. When the wind blew, long green needles fell onto the water like rain.
      Emil lifted her out of the boat as if she were a child and waved away a mosquito from her face. “But you’re here now,” he said, kissing her. “You’re home.”
For the first time in two days, Eveline felt warm again though the air was cool and she was wearing a thin cotton dress, which she’d chosen because Emil had said the daisy pattern reminded him of the meadows behind his house in Germany where he’d played as a boy. She’d pinned up her long wheat colored hair into a bun, letting a few strands fall loosely around her face. Until she fell asleep, she’d pinched her cheeks every few hours to give them the rosy color Emil had admired when they first met.
      “Lob der Jugend,” he’d said. In praise of youth.
Emil was ten years her senior, gray at the temples, which made him look both dignified and a little rueful. His shoulders were broad and strong from working outside most of his life, which belied the stiffness in his chest he called winter in the heart.
      “They’re boots,” he said now, handing Eveline a pair of black rubber waders that rose to her thighs. “The country’s all mud.”
      “And the cabin?” Eveline said, struggling with them.
      “I stopped living on the roof three weeks ago,” Emil said, helping her. “They’re not like stockings. You won’t break them if you pull harder.”
     Once she secured the waders and lifted the hem of her dress, Eveline took Emil’s hand and the two of them walked up the rocky riverbank into the woods, which were alive with the hum of mosquitoes and groaning tree trunks. Emil had set down pine boards for her to walk on in the places where the mud gurgled and spit sulfur. Where Emil didn’t set down boards, the mud came up to her ankles and in one place her calves.
    “At least the water came before the government did,” Emil said, pointing to a stand of old growth pines trees the flood had uprooted and tossed like matchsticks onto their sides. “It’ll make good firewood.”
    “Do we have a fireplace?” Eveline said.
    “A woodstove,” said Emil.
    “Electricity?” Eveline said.
    “A year or two yet. I’m working on running water.” 
    Eveline had agreed to move to Partway because she’d always wanted to live in something other than an apartment with a view of an overgrown back lot, that peculiar mix of town and country, and because she wanted to be wherever Emil was, and Emil wanted to open a taxidermy shop on the edge of the wilderness like his father and his father’s father in The Black Forest of Germany. Eveline’s mother had yielded similarly when she was nineteen and agreed to live in their apartment above the laundromat, despite her allergy to heavy detergents. At the end of each day, Eveline’s mother would sit in a spearmint oil bath to clear her sinuses, but she’d always be dressed and at the door by the time Eveline’s father came home from the lumberyard, ready to greet him with a kiss.
Before Emil proposed to her, Eveline worked at Harvey Small’s, the only restaurant in Yellow Falls, serving plates of hamburgers and fries to lumberjacks and their families to relieve some of her family’s financial burdens. After her shifts, she’d go across the street to Lenora’s Fine Gowns, the place she’d met Emil, to brush with China silk and French chiffon, party dresses too fine for Northwood’s parties. The dress shop was tucked between a live bait stall and a hunting emporium where camouflage jackets and buck knives hung from strands of twine in the front window, which made its endurance that much more surprising. Eveline would circle the shop, reliving the moment when Emil had walked by and saw her twirling before a mirror and was drawn into the shop and to her side, as if, he said, by a magnet. After that, she’d go home to wash the scent of bacon fat out of her hair and freshen her skin with juice from the lemons she’d swiped from the restaurant.
Coming into the country meant Eveline no longer had to work in the restaurant, where children poured milkshakes onto the Naugahyde seats and stray dogs circled out back for leftover bits of gristle, but it also meant she and Emil would have to live off the land and whatever supplies Emil had salvaged from the flood. Eveline was nervous about her instinct for survival since it had only been tested in her imagination, but she trusted Emil’s completely. He was a man who’d survived the hardships of war as a boy and yet wasn’t hardened. Eveline thought of his butterfly collection and squeezed his hand more firmly. All around them, great pines lay like injured soldiers, sap streaming from their bark like blood.
   “I packed too many dresses,” Eveline said, surprised at how the modest silver band on her ring finger had made her lose sight of the place she was packing for. She’d tucked a pair of heels into her suitcase at the last minute.
     “You won’t always have to wear waders,” Emil said, as if he’d heard her thoughts.           
There’s something else, Eveline thought, but couldn’t say in the middle of all this death.
Before Emil had decided to move them north, they’d shared her childhood bedroom in the apartment above the laundromat and had only twice been daring enough to take off their nightclothes and move together as man and wife until they and the sheets settled back into their places, but it had been enough for life to begin inside of her, life she felt as queasiness in the morning and wakefulness at night.
Her mother didn’t speak of her condition directly, but each morning she brought Eveline a cup of herbal tea with a spoonful of honey. She let out the seams of Eveline’s clothes, too, and found an oversized winter coat for her at the secondhand shop. 
     “Mom?” Eveline had said the morning before she left for Partway, when her mother passed by the threshold of Eveline’s bedroom door.
     Eveline had looked around her small square room, at the shelves of dolls wearing pink lace dresses and tiny patent leather shoes, dolls her mother had picked out for her and with whom Eveline had acted out her future with countless times. The question she wanted to ask her mother she couldn’t find the tongue for because even though her mother seemed cheerful enough and complained little, her face had grown heavier over the years, weighted down by something Eveline recognized but didn’t yet understand.
Are you happy? Eveline had thought.
Her mother had said, “I’ll get more tea.”
      Although plenty of women still had babies at home, Eveline only knew of one woman who’d given birth in a cabin in the woods and that woman, Lulu Runk, who’d been normal by Yellow Falls standards, now wore a coat made of coon skins and talked to people only she could see when she came to town for supplies. “Ain’t no life in trees,” she’d say, dragging her grubby child up and down Main Street by his sleeve. “No, Sir, it ain’t no life.”
     Emil let go of Eveline’s hand when they got to a clearing in the forest and the mud gave way to bright green moss then switch grass that rose to her thighs.
     “It’s not much farther,” he said, tossing aside a limp weasel so Eveline wouldn’t have to step over it. A raven circled overhead. “Everything’s been displaced.”
     Eveline wondered if Emil meant killed. Sometimes he’d use words that meant something different than they did to Eveline. When he’d asked her to marry him, he’d said, “in case we’re separated,” which Eveline took to mean, “so we won’t ever be separate.”
The two walked through the thigh-high grass, over fallen branches that snapped beneath their feet and spongy earth that gave beneath them, Emil with a hand in his trouser pocket and the other wrapped around the handle of Eveline’s tweed suitcase.
    Overhead, the clouds lumped together until Eveline couldn’t discern their shapes individually anymore. The air smelled of wet earth. Ox-eye daisies and milkweed thistle, which grew in the back lot outside her window in Yellow Falls, gradually took the place of the tall switch grass and made Eveline feel more sure of herself. This will be a good spot for a garden in the spring, she thought. My first real garden! Although she’d been married several months now, up until today, this very moment, she’d felt more like a daughter than a wife since she was still living with her parents, minding their rules and habits. From now on, she’d be the one to decide what was for supper, what day she’d do the washing, and how she’d arrange their new home—all of this felt wonderfully liberating, the sudden ability to decide the simplest things for herself. She’d always wanted to plant a garden and now she could. In place of the milk thistle, which scratched at her waders like fingernails, she imagined everything from pumpkins to malva flowers to Miss Wilmot’s ghost—what her mother called seeds with a story. Maybe even a row of walnut saplings, which would grow up with their child. When Eveline was a baby, her mother planted a forsythia shrub behind the laundromat so each March Eveline would be the first one in town to glimpse spring in its bright yellow petals.
The raven flew away, despite the abundance of food, and a flock of wood finches fluttered out from their nests into the cool air, chirping without restraint.
      “Will it rain?” Eveline said, looking at the clouds.
      “Only if you want it to, my wife,” Emil said. “I’ve been practicing saying that.”
      “The wife part or the lying part?” Eveline said.
      “Both,” Emil said, smiling.
       Before they were married, Eveline had written the word husband in her journal as if she were in grade school again, forced to practice her penmanship because her teacher called her work sloppy and haphazard. Quit daydreaming, she’d say to Eveline, and Eveline would try to make her mind focus on her l’s and s’s. But she’d eventually drift off again into her fantasies and her teacher would tap on her desk with a ruler to bring her back to the classroom. Though she was no longer in school, husband was a word Eveline wrote out carefully, as if hers and Emil’s happiness depended on pretty lettering.
      “Emil?” Eveline said, but before she could finish her thought the cabin rose out of the tangle of milk thistle in front of them like the prow of a ship on a wave.
For a brief, stark moment, Eveline saw her future in the black water stains that licked the brown logs, in the boarded up window Emil had yet to fix because he’d have to float a pane of glass twenty miles down the river. She saw it in the mud bubbling out from beneath the porch steps and the yellow liquid oozing like puss from the chinking between the logs.
And yet, on the porch were two rocking chairs Emil had built and an evergreen wreath decorated with winterberries. A white-throated sparrow, what her father called fortune birds, sat on the perch of a bright red birdhouse, which hung from the eaves.
“What is it?” Emil said, setting down her suitcase.
Eveline placed a hand on her stomach, a future that nudged her through the sunny material of her dress. “I’m pregnant.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Emily Dickinson

These are the days when Birds come back-

A very few-a Bird or two-

To take a backward look.These are the days when skies resume

The old-old sophistries of June-

A blue and gold mistake.Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee-

Almost thy plausibility

Induces my belief.Till ranks of seeds their witness bear-

And softly thro' the altered air

Hurries a timid leaf.Oh Sacrament of summer days,

Oh Last Communion in the Haze-

Permit a child to join.Thy sacred emblems to partake-

They consecrated bread to take

And thine immortal wine!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Gun Must Go Off!

I'm sure you've all heard the old adage about guns in fiction: if one presents itself in a scene, it must go off or else it risks being a plot device, a gimmick. Well, in my second novel, the gun does go off and terrible things happen and some wonderful things, too, by the end. Still, I have never encountered a gun in my work and was suprised by this one, a pistol, appearing so blithely in the corner of my scene.

"Get out of here at once," I said. "I am not writing a mystery or a thriller; this is literary fiction!"

So, the great challenge began. How do I take an extraordinary plot--I am usually not a huge, loud plotter--and give the sentences their much needed art, their air, their life? Fear not the gun, that's how.

Hold me in your hands, the WWI pistol urged. Feel my cold metal trigger, my worn rosewood handle, my ability (your ability) to change lives.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Blurb for The Bird Sisters

A blurb for the Bird Sisters from the lovely Aryn Kyle, author of bestsellers The God of Animals and Boys and Girls Like You and Me:

"In shining prose, Rebecca Rasmussen brings to life the world of Milly and Twiss—characters written with such grace and tenderness that I fell in love with them at once. The Bird Sisters is a lush and moving story about discovery and disappointment, failing and forgiveness, and the enduring bond of family. It’s a beautiful novel."

Thank you, Aryn!

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."