"What do you think of her?" one girl had written.
"Let's go easy on her," another, later I identified the handwriting as Athena's, had answered.
I realized then that the girls' goodwill did not come from anything I had said or done. It came because they knew, with the uncanny instinct of teenagers, that I must have messed up as badly as they had to end up here.
Today they leave shaking the cramp out of their hands and comparing answers from the test. Vesta--the thin, studious one, the one who tries the hardest--holds the textbook open to read out the declension and conjugation endings. There are moans from some, little cries of triumph from others. Octavia and Flavia, the two Vietnamese sisters who are counting on classics scholarships to college, nod at each answer with the calm assurance of hard studiers. If I listened carefully I wouldn't have to mark the tests at all to know what grades to give, but I let the sounds of sorrow and glee blur together. I can hear them all the way down the hall until Myra Todd opens her door and tells them they're disturbing her biology lab.
I hear another door open and one of my girls calls out, "Hello, Miss Marshmallow." Then I hear a high nervous laugh which I recognize as that of Gwendoline Marsh, the English teacher. It won't be Gwen, though, who complains; it's Myra I'll catch hell from later for letting them out before the bell. I don't care. It's worth it for the quiet that settles now over my empty classroom, for the minutes I'll have before my next class.
I turn my chair around so that I face the window. On the lawn in front of the mansion I see my girls collapsed in a lopsided circle. From here their dark clothing and dyed hair--Athena's blue-black, Aphrodite's bleached blond, and Vesta's lavender red, which is the same shade as the nylon hair on my daughter's Little Mermaid doll--make them look like hybrid flowers bred into unnatural shades. Black dahlias and tulips. Flowers the bruised color of dead skin.
Past where the girls sit, Heart Lake lies blue-green and still in its glacial cradle of limestone. The water on this side of the lake is so bright it hurts my eyes. I rest them on the dark eastern end of the lake, where the pine tree shadows stain the water black. Then I pick my homework folder up off my desk and add the assignments I've collected today, sorting each girl's new assignment with older work (as usual, I'm about a week behind in my grading). They're easy to sort because almost all the girls use different kinds of paper that I've come to recognize as each girl's distinctive trademark: lavender stationery for Vesta, the long yellow legal-size sheets for Aphrodite, lined paper with ragged edges which Athena tears from her black-and-white notebooks.
Sometimes the page Athena gives me has something else written on the reverse side. A few lines at the top that look to be the end of a diary entry. I know from the scraps I've read that she sometimes writes as if addressing a letter to herself and sometimes as if the journal itself were her correspondent. "Don't forget," I read in one of these coda. "You don't need anyone but yourself." And another time: "I promise I'll write to you more often, you're all I have." Sometimes there is a drawing on the back of her assignment. Half a woman's face dissolving into a wave. A rainbow sliced in two by a winged razor blade. A heart with a dagger through its middle. Cheap teenage symbolism. They could be pictures from the book I kept when I was her age.
I recognize the paper she uses by its ragged edge where it's been pulled out of the thread-stitched notebook. If she's not careful, pages will start to come loose. I know because I used the same sort of book when I was her age, the kind with the black-and-white- marbled covers. When I look down at the page I think I've got another piece of her journal, but then I turn it over and see the other side is blank. Athena's homework is on a separate page at the bottom of the stack and I've lost track whether the page I'm holding is one that was just handed in or was already in the folder. I look back at the page I thought was her homework. There is a single line of tiny, cramped writing at the top of it. The ink is so pale that I have to move the paper into the light from the window in order to make it out.
Excerpted from The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman Copyright 2002 by Carol Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, 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.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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