Excerpt from Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Church of Marvels

by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry X
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
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  • First Published:
    May 2015, 320 pages
    May 2016, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Chapter One
New York City, 1895

Sylvan found the baby on a balmy summer night, when he was digging out the privies behind a tenement on Broome Street. All night long the damp air had clung to his skin like a fever, and now, with only a few blocks left before his shift ended, he was huddled halfway inside a buckling stall, his vision blurring and his arms growing numb. Beside him the other night-soilers, slope backed and sweating in the privy doorways, bent and pushed and hoisted and slung. They kept up a rhythm—shovels scraping at the bricks, waste slapping in the buckets, mud sucking at their boots.

Sylvan was hunched over the pit, sifting through the mire, when his shovel came up under something solid and heavy. He stopped and squinted, but it was too dark to see anything. He gripped the handle and watched the shovel head quiver up into the lamplight. Five pink toes pearled above the falling slop, then a foot, then an ankle. Leaning in closer, he saw a small face, still as a mask, floating in the dark.

He drew up the shovel and shouted. He dropped to his knees, closed his hands around the slick body, and, trembling, fell back on his haunches. The head was limp and slippery in his palm, the hair like moss under his fingers.

The night-soiler next to him, a gaunt and graying man the others called No Bones, leaned his shovel against the open door of his privy and lifted his lantern. "What's it this time?" he asked. "Good one? Piece of china? What happened to that pitcher from last week—you keep it?"

Sylvan didn't answer. In his arms the baby was slack and still, lighter than the bucket he hauled across the yard and emptied into the barrels of the slop wagon. He unknotted the kerchief at his throat. In the dark he mopped the baby's lips and cheeks and the blue bulbs of its closed eyes.

No Bones took a small, curious step forward. The heady smell of kerosene and lime powder and sweat emanating from his clothes made Sylvan's nose sting and head pinch; he could taste it, burning, in the back of his throat.

"Lemme see there," the old man muttered, raising the lamp over his head. "Let's see what you brung up now."

Light fell across Sylvan's lap. For a moment neither man moved or breathed. The only sound that passed between them was the steady creak of the lantern.

"What is it? What'd he find?" came voices from across the yard.

No Bones turned his head and whispered hoarsely, "It's a baby— a white baby. Girl."

Sylvan stared at her. She was pale, with a small nose and a dimpled chin like a pat of butter someone had stuck their thumb in. Whorls of dark hair were greased against her scalp. Slowly and gently he drew her up to his chest.

The other night-soilers dropped their shovels and crowded around him. Their faces were grim and green in the swinging light of their lanterns.

"Looks like a Polack," someone said.

"No, a Scot—see the way the ears point up? That's a kelpie."

No Bones whispered, "Is it dead?"

Sylvan tried to nod but only managed to drop his chin. He had unearthed all sorts of things in the privies: coins, buttons, bottles of hair dye and bourbon, a set of grinning false teeth. But nothing even close to this. Night-soiling was summer work—he and the crew collected waste from the slums and delivered it to a fertilizer factory on the river, always hoping for a small treasure of their own. Back in his cellar on Ludlow Street, the walls were lined with things he'd smuggled home in the dark—loot all the way from Essex Street to Centre, from Canal up to Delancey. He knew it was foolish, but he kept hoping he might discover a gold watch chain, or an heirloom stone slipped from its tarnished, Old World bezel, some small fortune that would allow him to leave Ludlow Street forever. A ticket away from the sickness and noise, the nostrums hocked on street corners, the heavy-lidded undertakers who haunted the halls with their burlap and twine.

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From Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. Copyright 2015 by Leslie Parry. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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