Excerpt from The Nightingales of Troy by Alice Fulton, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Nightingales of Troy

by Alice Fulton

The Nightingales of Troy
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2008, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2009, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Rigby

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Print Excerpt

Happy Dust

Mamie Flynn Garrahan

In the twentieth century I believe there are no saints left, but our farm on Bog Road had not yet entered the twentieth century. At that time, around 1908 it would be, I had a secret I could tell to no one, least of all a saint or an arsenic-eater. In my experience, it is better to keep away from saints unless you have business with them. The same backbone that makes them holy virtuosos makes them eager to mind other people’s p’s and q’s. But some of the saints I knew were family, and this made them hard to fend off. Don’t think I am speaking of my sister-in-law, Kitty. She was not a saint but a lost soul.

It was through Kitty that I first got wind of the spiritual genius down the road. My sister-in-law had mixed up a batch of French chalk and gumwater colored with Prussian blue and was using this to fashion veins on her face. I was washing the bedroom windows. As she painted, Kitty let it slip that she’d brought some extra milk from our dairy over to St. Cieran’s Home. I knew the history of this “extra milk.” And I knew only a lost soul would give it to an orphanage. That part of her saga rang true.

While searching for a foundling to take the milk, Kitty said she’d wandered into St. Cieran’s garden. It was full of crispy white flowers, and in the midst of these blooms, a nun was standing with her arms outstretched “like an oaken figure on a cross,” Kitty said. The nun had her back to Kitty, who was about to vamoose when the sister fell to her knees, kissed the earth, and commenced to speaking Latin.

I put no stock in this at first because Kitty had very refined nerves. I’d sized her up the minute I saw her alighting from our dairy wagon in full feather and needletoed kid shoes. My brother-in-law, Bill Garrahan, was holding a parasol dripping fringe like a horse’s fly sheet over her head with one hand and steering her around cowflops with the other. My husband Joe tagged behind, lugging her trunks and looking dumbstruck. Oh Mary! I thought, what kind of rigamarole is this? Why would a fine tall man with Bill’s black curls and his eyes like bachelor buttons hitch up with such a helplessness?

“Enchanted,” Kitty said in that voice you’d need an ear trumpet to capture. She extended her hand in glove to me in my leaky shoes and dress so mended it fell apart in the wash. I shook it thinking this girl’s a lost soul.

When we moved to the farm, I was a young woman of twenty, hardy though never comely, with lanky dark hair grabbed back in a bun. They called me Mamie Come Running because if anyone needed help, I was the one that would go and do. Now, at twenty-six, I was chapped and thoroughly sweated from the care of four children and the day-in day-out labor of the place. The washing and mangling, blacking and beating, scrubbing and baking, the making of soap and babies had taken all the calorie out of me.

I was thin as a cat’s whisker. I had a hacking cough and pallor. My face had taken on shadows. Though I was in a bad state of wilt, I couldn’t admit it. In 1908, a wasting disease was a blot on the family name.

Kitty’s delicate ways had me all the more overtasked. She was supposed to do the sewing, but left to herself she’d make only belle-of-the-ball garments and nothing for everyday. And everyday was all there was on the farm. Our little brick house was neat as the Dewey decimal system but meager and common as could be. We had windows but no curtains, rooms but no closets, walls but no wallpaper. It was mostly brown and coarse, and Kitty shed tears when she saw it. She and Bill lived on the second floor. We took our meals together, and I soon discovered she could make a cup of tea at most. She’d drink it in little sips while Joe and Bill poured their coffee into their saucers and slurped. I don’t know what she thought of them. She had that way of soft-soaping a man till he felt he was her all-in-all no matter what was in her head.

Reprinted from The Nightingales of Troy by Alice Fulton. Copyright (c) 2008. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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