Excerpt of The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
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The young woman, twenty-one, walks gingerly down the dusty street between her father and the American consul here in Aleppo, an energetic fellow almost her fathers age named Ryan Donald Martin, and draws the scarf over her hair and her cheeks. The men are detouring around the square near the base of the citadel because they dont yet want her to see the deportees who arrived here last night--there will be time for that soon enough--but she fears she is going to be sick anyway. The smell of rotting flesh, excrement, and the July heat are conspiring to churn her stomach far worse than even the trip across the Atlantic had weeks earlier. She feels clammy and weak-kneed and reaches out for her fathers elbow to steady herself. Her father, in turn, gently taps her fingers with his hand, his vague and abstracted attempt at a comforting gesture.
Miss Endicott, do you need to rest? You look a little peaked, the consul says, and she glances at him. His brown eyes are wide and a little crazed, and already there are thin rivulets of sweat running down both sides of his face. He is wearing a beige linen jacket, which she imagines to be infinitely more comfortable than her fathers gray woolen suit. She brings her free hand to her own face and feels the moisture there. She nods in response to his question; she does need to sit, though it embarrasses her to admit this. Still, it may be a nonissue. She cant see where she might on this squalid street. But Ryan quickly takes her arm and guides her from her father, leading her to a stoop on the shady side of the thin road. He wipes off the squat step with his bare hand. There is a ramshackle wooden door behind the stoop, shut tight against the midmorning heat, but she presumes that whoever lives there wont mind if she sits. And so there she rests and breathes in deeply and slowly through her mouth, watching the women in their headscarves and long, loose robes--some hide all but their eyes behind burqas--and the men in their ornate blazers, their voluminous, shapeless trousers, and their flowerpot-like fez hats. Some of the men glance at her sympathetically as they pass, others with a brazen want in their eyes. She has been warned.
Theres a nice breeze today, Ryan says cheerfully, and while she appreciates the slightly cooler air, wafting along with it is the stench from the square. Before you arrived, the heat was just unbearable.
She cant imagine it being hotter. At the moment, she cant imagine anywhere being hotter. And yet she found their apartment last night unexpectedly comfortable after the endless weeks aboard a ship, then a horse-drawn carriage, and finally two train cars that boasted only wooden seats. It was warm, but she had stood at her window for nearly half an hour in the middle of the night, gazing out at the row of statuesque cypress on the hill beyond the American compound and the bower of trees just inside the walls. She saw more stars than she ever saw in Boston, and the half moon seemed to dangle eerily, beautifully close to the earth.
Her father is surveying the rows of sand-colored two-story buildings that curl toward an alley, his arms folded across his chest, his face stern, and then she notes him arch his back suddenly and stand up a little straighter. Ryan sees what he sees and murmurs just loud enough for her to hear, Oh, Jesus, no. Not more. Both Ryan and her father glance down at her, but they realize there is absolutely nothing they can do; there is not a way in the world to shield her from what is coming. Besides, this is why she is here, isnt it? Didnt she volunteer to be a part of this aid mission? To chronicle what she sees for their organization, the Friends of Armenia, and to volunteer at the hospital--to do, in essence, whatever she could to help? Still, discomfort leaches from both men like perspiration, and she finds it interesting that they are as embarrassed as they are disgusted. If they had been here alone--if she had remained back at the American compound--her father and the American consul now would be experiencing only rage. And so she presses the palm of her hand against the wall of the house, the stone unexpectedly cool, and rises.
Excerpted from The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Copyright © 2012 by Chris Bohjalian. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.