Excerpt from Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Dark Earth

A Novel

by Rebecca Stott

Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott X
Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2022, 336 pages

    Jul 25, 2023, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Katharine Blatchford
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"Mother told me," Blue says again, her eyes closed, drawing shapes in the air with her long fingers. "She did. She said. She knew."

Blue makes Isla wild sometimes with the things she says.

"You're making it up," Isla tells her. "Mother didn't say any such thing. Anyway, how would she know? The Sun Kings left a hundred winters ago. The Ghost City is empty. There's nothing living in there now except kites and crows. It's all just mud and broken stone."

"And ghosts," Blue says, "and the Strix."

Isla gives up. Blue's face is flushed. She's been sitting in the sun too long. Father says Blue is touched. Isla sometimes wonders if there is something wrong with her sister that often she seems to know what Isla is going to say before she says it, or she sees things others can't see. Fanciful, Mother used to say. Your sister's just fanciful, Isla. You mustn't mind her.

"You've listened to too many of Old Sive's stories," Isla says. She can't help herself. She is cross and hot and tired and the old darkness is gathering down inside her. It's making her want to run again.

Wrak, the crow that Blue has raised from a chick, calls out to her sister from the thatch of the forge, then lands on her shoulder in a flurry of black feathers. Wrak. Wrak. Though she would never say it to her sister, Isla wishes Wrak would fly off to join his kin, the crows roosting in the Ghost City. He is dirty, full of fleas and ticks. Always looking for scraps. Stealing food. Up to no good. The way he looks at Isla sometimes, his head cocked to one side, his eyes shiny black like charcoal, that tuft of white feathers under his beak. It makes her skin crawl. But Wrak doesn't go. He stays.

"Hush, we're your kin now," Blue says to him when she sees him gazing up at the birds flying overhead. "Hush, hush. Ya. We're your kin." She cradles his dirty oily feathers in her long fingers as if he is a child.

Blue has secrets. At low tide on the night of each new moon, she takes the path down through the wood to the promontory on the south side of the island, where she keeps her fish traps. She tells Father she's checking the traps, but Isla knows she's gone to speak to the mud woman. When the tide falls down there, the woman's bones make a five-pointed star in the mud, her ankles and wrists fastened to four stakes with rusted iron cuffs, her bones white, the remains of her ribs the upturned hull of a boat. Curlews wade between her thighs.

Isla went only once. She won't go again. She doesn't want to look at that open jaw a second time, the black holes of the woman's eye sockets.

Blue says that when the moon is full, the mud woman whispers.

"She's dead," Isla says. "Bones can't whisper. They drowned that poor woman hundreds of years ago. Stop making things up."

"Sometimes on the new moon," Blue says, "she roars and swears to kill the men who pegged her. She pulls at her straps."

"Enough. Enough of all that. Stop it. Just say nothing."

"But sometimes," Blue says, "she just calls for her mother."

When Isla had once asked Father about the bones, he'd said the elders of the mud woman's tribe must have staked her out to teach the rest of her people to hold their tongues and do what they were told. He said they'd made a scapegoat of her. They'd done that back in the Old Country too, he said.

"Poor creature," he'd said.

"What's a scapegoat?" Isla had asked.

"You put all the bad luck in the village into one goat and then you drive it away," he said. "Or you kill it."

"Are we scapegoats?" Blue said.

"Not yet," Father had answered. "Not if I can help it."

The lights on the river have started to bleed in the dusk. Isla can't see one thing from another out there. When she sits down next to her sister again, Blue drapes her necklace of flowers between the pair of brooches that Isla wears in the crook of each of her shoulders. When she's got the flowers where she wants them, Blue puts her fingers on Isla's eyelids and closes her own. She seems to be praying. She kisses each of her sister's eyelids in turn, and then each of her brooches. Isla can't tell if she is playing some new game or just being Blue.

Excerpted from Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott. Copyright © 2022 by Rebecca Stott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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