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

But it was at this hour, when the sun was a humming gold at the horizon, or a pale peach, or even just, as now, a gray pearl, that she felt the breath of God warm on her neck. It was at this hour that the whole city smelled to her like the inside of a cathedral—damp stone and cold water and candle wax—and the sound of her steps on the sidewalk and over the five cross streets made her think of a priest approaching the altar in shined shoes. Or of a bridegroom, perhaps, out of one of the romances she had read as a girl, all love and anticipation.

Sister Jeanne maneuvered her bundle through the wrought-iron gate at the front of the convent and climbed the steps to the front door. The other nuns were just coming out of the chapel, and their stillness as they walked through the dark corridor, which was untouched, as yet, by the outside light, made her feel even more buoyantly aware of the life in her veins. It was the feeling she'd had as a young child, coming from the sunshine into the solemn, shaded house and being warned, day after day, to keep her voice low because her mother, an invalid, was sleeping. She fell in line behind the other Sisters and then turned with her bundle as they passed the basement stairs. She went down. Sister Illuminata, the laundress, followed on her heels. The cellar was dark, full of shadows, although the pale morning was pressed against the small windows. The basement at this hour smelled only faintly of soap, more profoundly of dirt and brick, the cold underground. Somewhat breathlessly, Sister Jeanne told the story of the death and the fire and the baby coming, and the request Sister St. Saviour had made. Unsmiling, Sister Illuminata took the sheets and blanket and counterpane from her arms. She sent Sister Jeanne back up the stairs with the thrust of her chin. "Bring Sister her breakfast," she said. "And tell her it will be tomorrow, at best, before these things are dry. Even if I hang them by the furnace."

* * *

WHEN SISTER JEANNE RETURNED, the snow had become steady and the sidewalk was somewhat slick with it. She carried a broom and a bucket that contained both a scrub brush and the breakfast: a jar of tea, buttered bread, jam, all wrapped in a towel but rattling nevertheless inside the metal pail, a sound that added a quickness to her step and made some of the people she passed—the men mostly, who tipped their hats and said, "Sister"—smile to see her: a little nun with a pail and a broom and a determined walk. As she reached the building, Sister Lucy was just coming down the steps, wrapping her cloak around her hips and pulling down the corners of her mouth, as if the two motions were somehow connected—some necessary accommodation to what Sister Jeanne saw immediately was her ferocious anger.

"She's got the body coming back tonight," Sister Lucy said, and added for emphasis, "This evening. For the wake. And buried first thing tomorrow morning." She shook her jowls. She was a mannish, ugly woman, humorless, severe, but an excellent nurse. Among the many helpful things she'd already taught Sister Jeanne was to notice the earlobes of the dying, first indication that the hour had come.

"Tomorrow!" Sister Lucy said again. "Calvary—she's got it all arranged." She shivered a bit, wrapped her cloak around her more tightly, and dropped her mouth into a longer frown. "And why is she rushing him into the ground?"

There was a yellow tint to her pupils, which were darting back and forth as they took in the rooftops and the icy snowflakes. "I'll say only this," Sister Lucy declared. "You can't pull strings with God." She leveled her gaze and pulled again at her cloak. Sister Jeanne thought of a painting she had seen, maybe in the courthouse or a post office, of a square-jawed general in the snow—was it George Washington?—his cloak drawn about him just so.

"You can't pull the wool over God's eyes," Sister Lucy said.

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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