Excerpt from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Ninth Hour

A Novel

by Alice McDermott

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott X
The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 256 pages
    Sep 2018, 256 pages


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Lisa Butts
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Print Excerpt

She helped Annie undress and get comfortable in Mrs. Gertler's bed. And held a candle over his shoulder while Dr. Hannigan examined the girl, put a stethoscope to her belly and her rising chest.

As he was leaving, she asked him to go by the convent to tell them where she was—"So they don't think I've been murdered." And to please, as well, go by the morgue to tell them Sheen and Sons Funeral Home would be making the arrangements. She bent her head back to see him better, to make sure her small black eyes were right on his own. There were some details, she added, she'd ask him to keep to himself.

Later, two Sisters from the convent arrived with more blankets and two hot water bottles wrapped in rags, and a dinner of biscuits and cheese and hot tea, which Sister St. Saviour ate in the chair she had pulled up to the side of the bed.

She dozed with her rosary in her gloved hands and dreamed, because of the cold, no doubt, and the familiar, icy ache of it in her toes, that she was on her stool in the vestibule of Woolworth's. She startled awake twice, because in her dream the woven basket, full of coins, was sliding off her lap.

When the darkness had lifted a bit—there was a whiteness to the dawn that made her believe the day would be something more promising than gray—she stood and walked into the parlor. The two Sisters who had brought the supplies, Sister Lucy and a young nun whose name she couldn't recall, were still there, sitting side by side on the couch, asleep, puffed into their black cloaks like gulls on a pier. Slowly, Sister climbed first one flight, then the second, until she found the apartment that had burned. In the growing light it was difficult to say what had been ignited in the blast, although the smell of smoke and burned wool was strong. And then she saw on the floor a man's overcoat and the sodden cushions of a high-backed couch and the black traces of a large burn across the waterlogged rug. In the kitchen, there were the charred remains of a pair of muslin curtains and an arc of soot all along the oven wall. She ran her finger through it, only to confirm that it would be easily removed. What would be difficult to remove, she knew, was this terrible odor, which she was certain the night air had sharpened. It was the smell of wet cinders. The smell of doused peat, of damp stone and swollen wood. Fire, shipwreck, the turned earth of graveyards. She went to the single window in the narrow kitchen. The courtyard below was full of deep shadow and the movements of some small gray birds, but looking down into it disheartened her in a way she had not been prepared for. She sat on the sill, lifted the twisted tea towel that had been left there.

Outside, most of the facing windows were still dark, only a small light here and there: an early worker, a mother with an infant, a bedside vigil. Reluctantly, she cast her eyes down into the courtyard again. The sun would have to be well up in the sky to light that dark tangle, but even at this hour there was a variation in the shadows that caught her attention. It was, no doubt, the movement of the birds, or of a stalking cat, or of a patch of puddled rainwater briefly reflecting the coming dawn, but for just a moment she thought it was a man, crawling, cowering was the word, beneath the black tangle of junk and dead leaves, the new, vague light just catching the perspiration on his wide brow, his shining forehead, the gleam of a tooth or an eye.

She shivered, flexed her stiff fingers. She smoothed the towel on her lap and then folded it neatly.

She could tell herself that the illusion was purposeful: God showing her an image of the young man, the suicide, trapped in his bitter purgatory, but she refused the notion. It was superstition. It was without mercy. It was the devil himself who drew her eyes into that tangle, who tempted her toward despair. That was the truth of it.

Excerpted from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2017 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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