For six weeks, Rachel had been working at the Marches’ house—six weeks of lining drawers, airing closets, carrying laundry, and she still couldn’t keep the back stairs straight. One flight led from the kitchen to the dining room, the other up two floors to the bedrooms. Even the hallways confused her, twisting or stopping altogether. Wings and porches splayed out. Doors banged into each other. Twelve bedrooms and no one to use them but an old woman, the hope of one son, the ghost of another, and a girl who had died in infancy.
Even Mr. March would only come toward the end of August, if he came at all. It was a house of women. Since the beginning of the war, women had prepared the food, cleaned the floors, kept the books, given the orders, folded the sheets, scraped the dough off butcher’s block. Then there was the ironing. Rachel had scorched three damask napkins before she got it right. The Kelvinator in the pantry made her crazy with its humming. The oven smelled of gas. Something was always boiling, fueling the humidity. When she had left the convent that morning to come to work, the air was so close, the dormitory where the girls slept had grown ripe with sweat.
“Sister told us you could iron,” said the cook, Ella Mae.
Her old, black eyes rested on Rachel’s braids as though there might be bugs in there or worse.
“Remember,” Ella Mae went on, shaking a finger, their dark eyes meeting, “the Marches have took you in for charity.”
Charity. Even Sister Marie had made that clear from the start. Our campanile, our statue of Mary—all gifts from Lydia March. You may think she has everything, but fortune is a two-edged sword. The Marches have given God a son and a baby girl. They will pay you four dollars a week.
The Marches’ house smelled of must, camphor, lilacs, and decayed fish that wafted up from the beach at night. Located on the very tip of a crooked finger of land, it had the best view of all the houses on Beck’s Point. Who Beck had been, no one seemed to remember, but one of the girls at the convent told Rachel it used to be a holy place where spirits dwelled and no one dared to live. Now it was chock full of summer houses, all white and lined up like pearls on a necklace.
Across the harbor, the town of Moss Village sat at the base of limestone bluffs, residue from an ancient, salty sea. Then came the glacier, molding and carving Lake Michigan like a totem of land, the Indians at the bottom, then the French, a smattering of Polish farmers, the priests, fur traders, fishermen, lumberjacks, and, later, the summer people.
And always the church. Even after the first one burned, the Jesuits built a second, then a third, its steeple rising above everything else. Next to it—a large lump of a brick building full of girls, some small, some older, all dark. All sent or left or brought by the nuns to learn American ways and to forget all things Indian. No more dancing to spirits with suspicious, tongue-twisting names. No more clothes of deerskin. Put the girls to work, and when they were big enough, some summer family—preferably Catholic—would take them.
Beyond the tip of the point, the water widened into a bay, the trees and hills beyond the town of Chibawassee faint upon the opposite shore. From the southern edge, the bay extended west toward the horizon. To the north of Beck’s Point was the harbor—docks and trimmed lawns, raked beaches, moored boats—the best port between Grand Traverse and Mackinaw. From every window, Rachel could see water, hear water, smell it, taste it. Not like Horseshoe Lake, which was small, tranquil, almost a pond.
“So much water,” Rachel said to Ella Mae’s daughter, who was helping her with the fruit.
“Like the flood itself,” said Mandy, who could not swim. “Gives me the heebie-jeebies.” A girl had drowned once, she told Rachel. Years before. A girl from the convent.
“I know how to swim,” said Rachel.
Today, they were helping Ella Mae make cherry pie. Ella Mae worked the flour into butter until her thick, brown arms were gloved with white. Rachel pitted the fruit. It was July, and the cherries brought up from Traverse City were at their best. The juice ran down her arms. Whenever Ella Mae looked away, the girl hungrily licked them. She was always hungry, even when her stomach was full. As a child, she had licked stones and dirt, ravenous for their minerals, as if she could consume the earth itself.
Mandy was watching her. “How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” Rachel said, running her tongue around her lips. She was never quite sure.
“Sixteen? I thought you and me’s the same age.”
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” said Mandy.
The air filled with sugar, butter, cherry. Because of the war, it had been hard to get butter these last few years. That and gasoline. Stockings. Things Rachel hadn’t even known to miss.
“Chocolate,” said Ella Mae, listing the rationed items. “Try to find that.”
Ella Mae had taught Rachel to roll the chilled dough out thin and cut it so as to waste little. Rachel wadded up doughy crumbs and put them in her pocket to eat later. She wondered if Ella Mae would taste like chocolate if Rachel licked her. Same with Mandy and Jonah, Ella Mae’s husband. Their skin was darker than hers, which was the color of milky cocoa.
Outside, Mrs. March, her gray hair coiled on top of her head, pointed to the empty fishpond. Victor, the gardener followed her finger, shrugged. After the war, he seemed to be saying. After the war we will fill the pond with fish, the lake with boats, the house with laughter.
A guest was arriving that afternoon. “Before the war, we filled all five guest rooms,” Ella Mae said. “The senator from Ohio stayed a week.”
Mandy dipped into the bowl and swiped a cherry. Rachel almost reached out and touched Mandy’s lips, they were so big and wide and black. Where’d you get those lips? she was about to ask, but Mandy spoke first, fingering Rachel’s thick, black braids. “Where’d you get that hair?” she said. “I could make it better.”
Rachel touched her hair. Unbraided, it curled down her spine and spoke of something not Indian. French, perhaps. The fur trader who had taken her grandmother as his common-law wife.
“You’re plain,” Mandy said. “That nose of yours. Where’d you get that nose?”
Even Rachel had to admit her nose was different, not flat and squished like most Odawa’s, but longer and beaked like a bird of prey.
“And your cheeks!” said Mandy. She blew out her own until they were rounder than the girl’s.
Rachel looked at Mandy’s head—twenty tiny braids to her own thick two. It had been so long since someone had touched her, combed her hair. In the churchyard there was a statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus. Sometimes, the girl wanted to crawl right into Mary’s arms, her face so sad like she knew she’d have to give her baby up.
Jesus died for your sins, the nuns told Rachel.
The Marches’ daughter had died in the great influenza. There was an empty crib in one of the bedrooms, the curtains perpetually drawn. Had the Virgin Mary known her own sweet-faced son would die? Perhaps her own grief deafened her to Rachel’s pleas to send her home to Horseshoe Lake.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Rachel said, letting Mandy touch her hair. Rachel’s hands had grown sticky with cherries. Jesus bleeds for me, she thought as she picked up a towel, reddened it with her palms.
Excerpt from The Water Dancers by Terry Gamble. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022