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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

In the dining room, the sideboard was as big as a boat. She found the lease and the marriage license before she put her hand on the narrow blue folder on which someone had written—it was a man's severe script—Deed for Calvary. She slipped it into her pocket.

In the bedroom, the windows were wide open, the shades rolled up, and an ashen cord pull moved slowly in what must have been a dawn breeze. The bed was made, the blankets smoothed, no trace of fire in here, although there was more soot along the far wall. No trace, either, of where the husband might have lain on the bed. She knew immediately—it was the sympathy in his gestures, toward the girl on the bed, toward the apartment above—that it was the short officer who had come back after the body had been removed, to smooth and straighten the counterpane. One of us.

Sister lifted the two pillows, slipped off their covers, and shook them good—a few white feathers falling through the air—then piled the pillows in the open window. She pulled off the sheets and the blankets, pausing for a moment to remove her glasses and look closely at the bit of mending she felt beneath her hand—small stitches, she saw, neatly made—and said to God, "As You made us," at the familiar sight of the rusty stains here and there on the blue ticking of the mattress. She pushed the sheets into one of the pillowcases and wrapped the blanket around them.

As she stepped away with the linens in her arms, she kicked something with her toe and looked over her shoulder to see what it was. A man's shoe, broad brown leather, well worn. There were two of them at the foot of the bed. Gaping and forlorn, with the black laces wildly trailing. She nudged them with her toe until they were safely out of the way.

She carried the pile of bedding down the narrow stairs. Sister Lucy was still sunk into herself, breathing deeply. Sister St. Saviour dropped the linen on the couch beside her, and when that didn't get her to stir, she touched the Sister's black shoe with her own—and felt the keenness of the repeated motion, the man's empty shoe upstairs and Sister Lucy's here, still filled with its owner's mortal foot. "I'd like you to sit with the lady," she said.

In the bedroom, the young nun—Sister Jeanne was her name—had her rosary in her hand and her eyes on the pile of blankets and coats under which the girl slept. Sister St. Saviour signaled to her from the door, and she and Sister Lucy changed places. In the parlor, Sister St. Saviour told Sister Jeanne that she was to bring the bedclothes to the convent for washing and return with a bucket and broom. The two of them were going to scrub the apartment upstairs from head to foot, roll up the wet rug, dry the floors, repair what they could, soften the blow of the woman's return to the place where the accident had occurred, the pilot gone out, because return she would, with nowhere else to go and a baby on the way come summer.

Sister Jeanne's eyes grew teary at this news. The tears suited her face, which was dewy with youth, moist-looking, the clay still wet. Obediently, the young nun gathered the linens from the couch. Sister St. Saviour went with her to the vestibule and then watched her walk delicately down the stone stairs, the bundle held to one side so she could see her tiny feet as she descended. The sky was colorless, as was the sidewalk and the street. The cold fresh air was still tinged with the smell of smoke, or maybe the smell of smoke only lingered in the nostrils. There were a few snowflakes in the air. Sister Jeanne was very small and slight, even in her black cloak, but there was a firmness about her, a buoyancy perhaps, as she hurried away, the bundle in her arms, so much to do. She was of an age, Sister St. Saviour understood, when tragedy was no less thrilling than romance.

Sister St. Saviour turned back into the apartment, peeked into the bedroom to whisper that she would return shortly, and then headed down the steps herself. Sheen's funeral parlor was only eight blocks over.

* * *

SISTER JEANNE FELT THE COLD on her hands—her gloves were in her pockets, too late to reach them now—but she felt as well the blood drumming in her wrists and in her temples. She felt her heart in her chest beating against the gathered bed linens as if she were running away with them. Last night's grief had made the new day profound, true, but for Sister Jeanne the first hour of any day, the hour of Lauds, was always the holiest. It was the hour she felt closest to God, saw Him in the gathering light, in the new air, in the stillness of the street—shades were drawn and the shops shuttered—but also in the first stirrings of life. There was the pleasant sound of a milk cart, tinkle of glass and clop of hooves, the sound of a few chirping songbirds, the call of distant gulls, of a streetcar down the avenue, a tugboat on the river, everything waking, beginning again. Deep night frightened her beyond reason; she knew herself to be a heretic of superstitions and weird imaginings, but knowing this didn't stop the terror she could brew for herself when she woke to pray at 3 a.m. And the busy, crowded sunlight hours, filled with casework, hardly gave her a moment to raise her eyes. Suppertime, ever since she'd come to the convent, was a calm that God need not enter, since the bread and the soup were always good and the company of the other women, tired from a long day of nursing, was sufficient to itself.

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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