Excerpt: Frances Itani’s Tell
In her Giller-nominated novel, Frances Itani (author of the beloved book-club staple Deafening) returns to familiar CanLit themes: small-town isolation, unhappy marriage and post-war depression. Read Quill & Quire’s review.
Toronto: November 1, 1920
Zel glances around the room: oak floor, oak desk, wooden cabinet, two windows that look down over city streets three storeys below. Shelves behind the desk are stuffed with black binders. These, she suspects, are guarding secrets stored for generations.
She is in this room with three other women, a man and a baby. The baby, six weeks old, sleeps while nestled against her mother’s arm. Papers are arranged neatly before a woman who wears a tailored jacket over a grey dress. Zel sees compassion on her face; she senses it from her manner and her voice. A brooch in the shape of a miniature sleigh, with silver slats and curved gold runners, is pinned to the woman’s jacket. A tiny gold chain droops from the crossbar to represent a rope attached to the front of the sleigh. It’s as if the woman, who has introduced herself as Mrs. Davis, has a playful side, though not here, not as the official who will ensure that the documents on her desk are duly signed. In other circumstances, Zel would ask Mrs. Davis about the brooch, its origins, its maker.
A low rumble from the street railway outside seems far off, though sounds are muffled because the windows in the room are sealed. Tracks are being laid on nearby city streets, and in some areas it is difficult to cross from one side to the other. After a rain, the roads here must be a morass of mud, Zel thinks, and she looks down at her boots as if she will have to shake them later, dust them off. Earlier, from inside the cage of the ascending elevator, she glimpsed, as she passed the second floor, rows of women at sewing machines, whirring spools, strewn garments spread over long tables in a large, open room. She had already noticed the sign outside advertising LADIES’ WHOLESALE LINENS, and her fingers itched to manipulate folds of material on her own work table at home. There had been no advertisement for the office used by adoption officials, only a number beside the door at street level, which matches the number of the room where everyone is now tensed, waiting for the proceedings to end.
The woman who holds the sleeping baby is thin, green-eyed, taut with nerves. Her arms have begun to tremble and she rearranges the baby’s knitted blanket in an attempt to disguise the shaking left hand she can barely control as she leans forward to sign. Zel moves quickly to stand behind, to place her hands on the woman’s shoulders. To help her through this moment, this day. The baby stretches. A small fist is raised to her plump cheek; there is a tiny indent like a star in her fist. She does not wake.
The young couple rise together and now, as parents, receive the baby. They cannot hide their joy, their happiness at leaving with this new and precious daughter. Each of them embraces the woman who has given up her child. The two do not linger; they are first to exit the room. The baby, still sleeping, has shown no sign that her life has been set, this very moment, on a new path.
Zel watches the young man tilt his cap over his forehead as he steps through the doorway, shadowing his face before he returns to street level. There are many such men on the streets below, now that everyone is back from the war.
The three women who remain sit in silence, their thoughts perhaps stretching back to earlier moments in each of their lives. A noon whistle pierces the air from somewhere inside the building. Footsteps can be heard in the sewing room on the second floor. Feet clatter down the stairs to the street below as workers take their midday break. Mrs. Davis pushes back her chair and rises to her feet. She nods to Zel and then extends her hand to the mother, who has already begun to feel the physical absence of her child as if it were a spectre that has insistently returned to fill out its former shape.
“You have a long journey ahead,” says Mrs. Davis, “if you’re to travel across the lake to Oswego today.” She adds, as if she has said this too many times to too many women, “Try not to look back. It will be easier if you don’t. Put your efforts into moving your life forward.” She goes to the window and looks down. The sleigh’s golden chain sways slightly with her movement. “Somehow,” Mrs. Davis says, as if the words have been cut from the cloth of her own experience, “somehow, we manage to survive.”
Excerpted from TELL by Frances Itani. Copyright ©2014 by Itani Writes Inc. Excerpt reproduced with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.