Excerpt from Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Birdcage Walk

by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore X
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2017, 416 pages

    Oct 2018, 416 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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March 1792
I woke up first. His arm lay across me and I shifted a little but still it lay there, heavy and full of muscle, holding me down. My head cleared and I remembered how we had fallen asleep. My eyes settled to the darkness and found objects in it: the heavy lodging- house furniture that cluttered the room even though I had cleared out as much of it as I could. It seemed to breed in the night.

There were shadows everywhere. The shutters were open and the windows stared. There was the moon in the top right- hand pane.

But the moon was inside too. It had got into the bedroom while we were sleeping. Its light walked about over the bedstead, over the chest, the basin in its stand and the blue- and- white jug. It was a restless thing and I could not lie still.

I moved my legs a little. Our skin unpeeled, thigh from thigh. I was sticky. I wanted to wash myself, but his arm held me down. There was clean water in the jug. I wanted to pour some into my hands and drink it, and then fill the basin and wash myself.

He breathed softly, steadily. He was deep asleep and would not wake until dawn. Usually he rose before me, and often he was out of the house before I stirred. Last night he had drunk off a bottle of wine and for a while he snored, but he could always sweat out his drink.

The moon was growing stronger. It slid over the sheets and touched his face. I thought he must feel it for he muttered and heaved himself on to his side, pulling the blankets with him. He was turned away from me now, towards the window, and the weight of his arm had gone.

The air washed over my body. It was cool; cold even. I did not pull the blankets back over myself. Instead I lay there and now it was not only the air washing me but the moon too. I looked down my body and saw the curves and channels of it. It looked like something that had never been touched. It was my own, even though I ached and my thighs were sore.

He did not mean to hurt me but he was a strong man and did not always know himself.

Inch by inch, I slid away from him. The bed creaked, and then was still. I listened for any catch in his breathing, but it went on evenly, just the same. I raised myself on my elbows and saw how the room was packed with shadow and everything that was ugly by day was made fantastical by the moon. I would not go back to sleep now.

I swung my legs over the side of the bed. I stood up and the moonlight stood with me. The chill wrapped me around. I slipped past the end of the bed, went to the washstand and tipped the jug very gently, so that there would be no plash of water. The bowl filled. It was clean water and I leaned forward, scooped out a mouthful and drank. I had not known how thirsty I was until I swallowed, and then I must scoop up more water and more until it dripped over my chin and spilled in runnels down my body. I dipped both hands into the water now. This time I tipped back my head and let the water run over me. The cold made me shudder but my skin thirsted for it. Water ran over my breasts and belly and thighs. I dipped and lifted and dipped and lifted, careless of the water running over me and on to the floor. All the time the moonlight covered me too, following the stream of the water, penetrating every hollow of my body. I did not know what I felt. I knew that I was cold. I thought that there was water running over my face now and along my tongue and down the parched crevices of my throat.

There was a sound. A stifled sound, like someone trying not to cough. My heart jumped and I turned. He was lying on his side, just as before. He was still deep asleep, breathing steadily. But then I saw something glisten as the moonlight licked his face. His eyes were not quite shut. He was watching me.

A shiver flickered over my skin. I had to fight not to cover myself with my hands. He had watched me like this once before, when I was washing myself and had left the door half open behind me. I didn't know how long he had been standing there. That time I had cried out, 'Diner, you startled me!' and snatched my shift around myself, but he had come to me and pulled away the shift and stared me from from head to toe, saying:

Birdcage Walk © 2017 by Helen Dunmore. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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