Excerpt from The House of Gentle Men by Kathy Hepinstall, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The House of Gentle Men

by Kathy Hepinstall

The House of Gentle Men
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2000, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2001, 354 pages

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Belinda was telling the story of how she'd met her perfect boyfriend, although everyone had heard it before. She was standing in a green field, in a dress once worn by her grandmother...

Charlotte drank another glass.

And the sky was so blue...

Charlotte drank another glass. Her head was filled with patterned light. Her breath fast. Thirst like a seizure.

And his plane came out of the clouds as if in a dream...

Charlotte leaped to her feet and staggered behind the house. She was drinking from the hose when Belinda found her.

"Charlotte," she said severely, "what are you doing? Why did you interrupt my story?"

Charlotte didn't answer.

"Listen to me. None of the girls really likes you any more. You won't talk. You do strange things. And now you're drinking from the hose like a dog. I'm sorry about your mother, Charlotte, but there are other people suffering too. My boyfriend's gone. And he may not come back."

But Charlotte hated soldiers, even soldiers of the sky, and could not feel grief at the thought of one dying.

Steeped in salt and vinegar, the baby grew. She felt it within her, and yet when she stood naked before the mirror the curve in her figure was slight. She didn't have to guess at whether it was a boy or a girl. She knew it would be a boy, although he was girlishly quiet in the womb. The deed had been unforgivingly male--would not the product of that deed be male as well? She tried not to think about it. Instead she busied herself. Chores had to be done around the house, for grieving men still stain their clothes, wait for dinner, track mud in the kitchen.

Her father did not ask about the look in her eyes, or her suddenly missing voice or her new habit of writing down her words on paper. His wife was dead and his faith in God had left him, for nothing in the Bible had told him what to do when flames fill up a cotton dress. And so he drank whiskey in prodigious amounts, from a small blue glass through which the liquor had turned the color of skin exposed to creosote. He drank in gulps, laughed at the fire it made in him.

Charlotte wrote him notes:
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE FOR DINNER?
I IRONED YOUR SHIRT.
DOES YOUR BACK HURT?

These were Charlotte's words of love, delivered to her father in fragments. Most of the time he didn't answer her.

Charlotte's family lived less than two miles from the new air base, and in March of the new year her brother Milo was caught trying to burn down one of the outbuildings there. He was taken to jail for a night and then released into the custody of his father and his silent sister. And the parish felt a new and deeper scorn for this crazy boy who had burned up his own mother and now was trying to set the war effort aflame Milo at twelve became a traitor to the cause of freedom. Banished. Avoided by the other boys, who used to be his friends. Only Charlotte knew the reason why her brother had gone to the air base with his father's old Zippo lighter in his hand. She found him sitting cross-legged on the propane tank behind the house, crying. Went to him and touched his face.

He looked at her, his eyes red, his hair grown wild. "I hate them, Charlotte. Those pilots."

She stroked his black hair.

As the dogwoods bloomed she turned inward, avoiding the other girls, let the spring fill her dress with wind, wore brightly colored scarves and a haunted look to distract the gaze of others. In her eighth month she went to the parish library just before it closed, checking out as many books as she could on the subject in question. Once home, she spread the books out on her bed and poured through them. Some girls, she discovered, swelled up like watermelons, and some like herself didn't show a pregnancy nearly as much. She saw illustrations of babies in the womb in various stages of growth. The brain forming. Eyes opening. Fingers separating. She shook her head. Her baby was not a human, not a creature even, but a demon. A condemnation from God, an atrocity nurtured by the trimesters until it took form and weight.

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