Excerpt from Asta in the Wings by Jan Elizabeth Watson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Asta in the Wings

By Jan Elizabeth Watson

Asta in the Wings
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  • Paperback: Feb 2009,
    314 pages.

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The fingers traced and retraced the same circle around my hip bone. “What?” I asked once their motion stopped. “What is it?”

“A lump. You’ve got a lump here.”

Her eyes shone with something like satisfaction. Or was it impudence? It made me think of the nature show my brother, Orion, and I had watched the week before. The show had featured seagulls, and the plummy-voiced narrator had said that gulls sometimes liked to pluck the eyes right out of dead things, as if extracting pearls from oysters.

Mother touched my cheek with her silky, sallow hand.

“I knew you looked peaked. What did I tell you? This time I knew it.”

I released the hem of my dress. The wool fabric swatted my ankles with the force of an indictment.

“Can you imagine how such a sickness comes into my house when I’ve done everything in my power to keep you safe? It isn’t right.” Her voice had a musing quality, and aggrieved softness. She stood and disappeared for a moment into the pantry, returning with her fingers looped in the handles of pinking shears. “I guess I should take care of your hair before work, if nothing else.”

I looked at her uncomprehendingly. True, I was used to Mother’s brushing my hair in the morning before she left for work; she raked over tangles until my loosened hair fattened the brush and my head jerked backward with the vigor of her strokes. Pain aside, I rather enjoyed this. With my neck so angled, I could study the ceiling and the cumulous cloudshapes (which sometimes transformed into man-shapes or tree-shapes, as clouds often will) that had collected where the paint had peeled away.

But the scissors were unfamiliar.

I felt something cold and solid against the nape of my neck—a crisp snip. My hair fell free, tumbling over my dress front and around my feet; I blinked as wisps caught in my eyelashes, then shut my eyes completely as the scissors edged closer and closer toward my scalp.

My mother stepped back. “There, that’s a help,” she said. “Hair is the worst hive of germ activity.”

I felt my affronted hair, or what was left; it had become spare and bristly in a matter of minutes. I wanted to ask if she’d hold me up to the mirror so I could see the results but thought better of it. Don’t be vain, Asta—this is hygiene, not beautification, my mother would be inclined to say. Besides, you had scraggly little witch’s hair. Now you’re a pixie, neat and trim.

My mother turned her back to me and crossed the kitchen floor, trailing bits of my hair behind her, bits that clung to the soles of her feet. She stroked her own hair—dark, lank hair that hung to the small of her back—until the touch became an absent caress.

As soon as she was gone I pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and clambered up on it. There, in the dusty mirror framed by silver embossed roses, a truculent little boy—my brother’s face—looked back at me. Although I was a skinny child, my cheeks had remained obstinately moonchild-round, exactly as his were. And now I had his short hair to boot. I watched my expression change from truculent to grave to amused, till at last a small smile ghosted the corners of my mouth.

I could hear them—Mother and Orion—going through their usual Morning Recitation.

“Anne Bradstreet, ‘The Flesh and the Spirit.’ ‘Dost dream of things beyond the Moon . . . and dost thou hope to dwell there soon?’”

And then Orion’s echo, weak but obedient: “Dost dream of things beyond the Moon . . . and dost thou hope . . . to dwell there soon?’”

And Mother, prodding: “Vachel Lindsay, ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.’ ‘And who will bring . . . ’”

Excerpted from Asta in the Wings by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Copyright © 2006 by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Excerpted by permission of Tin House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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