We’re so excited about Emma Donoghue’s newest, The Wonder, about an 11-year-old girl who isn’t eating and believes herself to be living off manna, and Lib, a nurse trained by Florence Nightingale who is hired to keep watch over the girl and see if her claims are true. Religious fanaticism! Conspiracies (Maybe?)! Irish village life! Enjoy this exclusive excerpt, and the rest of the book when it comes out September 20th.
to guard someone, as a keeper
to be awake, as a sentinel
a division of the night
In her dream the men were calling for tobacco, as always. Underfed, unwashed, hair crawling, ruined limbs seeping through slings into stump pillows, but all their pleas were for something to fill their pipes. The men reached out to Lib as she swept down the ward. Through the cracked windows drifted the Crimean snow, and a door kept banging, banging —
“Here,” Lib croaked.
“A quarter past four, you asked to be waked.”
This was the room above the spirit grocery, in the dead centre of Ireland. So the voice in the crack of the door was Maggie Ryan’s. Lib cleared her throat. “Yes.”
Once dressed, she took out Notes on Nursing and let it fall open, then put her finger on a random passage. (Like that fortune- telling game Lib and her sister used to play with the Bible on dull Sundays.) Women, she read, were often more exact and careful than the stronger sex, which enabled them to avoid mistakes of inadvertence.
But for all the care Lib had taken yesterday, she hadn’t managed to uncover the mechanism of the fraud yet, had she? Sister Michael had been there all night; would she have solved the puzzle? Lib doubted it somehow. The nun had probably sat there with eyes half closed, clacking her beads.
Well, Lib refused to be gulled by a child of eleven. Today she’d have to be even more exact and careful, proving herself worthy of the inscription on this book. She reread it now, Miss N.’s beautiful script: To Mrs. Wright, who has the true nurse- calling.
How the lady had frightened Lib, and not only at first meeting. Every word Miss N. pronounced rang as if from a mighty pulpit. No excuses, she’d told her raw recruits. Work hard and refuse God nothing. Do your duty while the world whirls. Don’t complain, don’t despair. Better to drown in the surf than stand idly on the shore.
In a private interview, she’d made a peculiar remark. You have one great advantage over most of your fellow nurses, Mrs. Wright: You’re bereft. Free of ties.
Lib had looked down at her hands. Untied. Empty.
So tell me, are you ready for this good fight? Can you throw your whole self into the breach?
Yes, she’d said, I can.
Dark, still. Only a three- quarter moon to light Lib along the village’s single street, then a right turn down the lane, past the tilting, greenish headstones. Just as well she hadn’t a superstitious bone in her body. Without moonlight she’d never have picked the correct faint path leading off to the O’Donnells’ farm, because all these cabins looked like much of a muchness. A quarter to five when she tapped at the door.
Lib didn’t like to bang harder in case of disturbing the family. Brightness leaked from the door of the byre, off to her right. Ah, the women had to be milking. A trail of melody; was one of them singing to the cows? Not a hymn this time but the kind of plaintive ballad that Lib had never liked.
But Heaven’s own light shone in her eyes,
She was too good for me,
And an angel claimed her for his own,
And took her from Lough Ree.
Lib pushed the front door of the cabin and the upper half gave way.
Firelight blazed in the empty kitchen. Something stirring in the corner — a rat? Her year in the foul wards of Scutari had hardened Lib to vermin. She fumbled for the latch to open the lower half of the door. She crossed and bent to look through the barred base of the dresser.
The beady eye of a chicken met hers. A dozen or so birds, in behind the first, started up their soft complaint. Shut in to save them from the foxes, Lib supposed.
She spotted a new- laid egg. Something occurred to her: Perhaps Anna O’Donnell sucked them in the night and ate the shells, leaving no trace?
Stepping back, Lib almost tripped on something white. A saucer, rim poking out from beneath the dresser. How could the slavey have been so careless? When Lib picked it up, liquid sloshed in her hand, soaking her cuff. She hissed and carried the saucer over to the table.
Only then did it register. She put her tongue to her wet hand: the tang of milk. So the grand fraud was that simple? No need for the child to hunt for eggs, even, when there was a dish of milk left out for her to lap at like a dog in the dark.
Lib felt more disappointment than triumph. Exposing this hardly required a trained nurse. It seemed this job was done already, and she’d be in the jaunting car on her way back to the railway station by the time the sun came up.
The door scraped open, and Lib jerked around as if it were she who had something to hide. “Mrs. O’Donnell.”
The Irishwoman mistook accusation for greeting. “Good morning to you, Mrs. Wright, and I hope you got a wink of sleep?”
Kitty behind her, narrow shoulders dragged down by two buckets. Lib held up the saucer — chipped in two places, she noticed. “Someone in this household has been secreting milk under the dresser.”
Rosaleen O’Donnell’s chapped lips parted in the beginnings of a silent laugh.
“I can only presume that your daughter’s been sneaking out to drink it.”
“You presume too much, then. Sure in what farmhouse in the land does there not be a saucer of milk left out at night?”
“For the little ones,” said Kitty, half smiling as if marvelling at the Englishwoman’s ignorance. “Otherwise wouldn’t they take offence and cause a ruction?”
“You expect me to believe that this milk is for the fairies?”
Rosaleen O’Donnell folded her big- boned arms. “Believe what you like or believe nothing, ma’am. Putting out the drop of milk does no harm, at least.”
Lib’s mind raced. Both maid and mistress just might be credulous enough for this to be the reason why the milk was under the dresser, but that didn’t mean Anna O’Donnell hadn’t been sipping from the fairies’ dish every night for four months.
Kitty bent to open the dresser. “Get out with ye, now. Isn’t the grass full of slugs?” She hustled the chickens towards the door with her skirts.
The bedroom door opened and the nun looked out. Her usual whisper: “Is anything the matter?”
“Not at all,” said Lib, unwilling to explain her suspicions. “How was the night?”
“Peaceful, thank God.”
Presumably meaning that Sister Michael hadn’t caught the child eating yet. But how hard had she tried, given her trust in God’s mysterious ways? Was the nun going to be any help to Lib at all, or only a hindrance?
Mrs. O’Donnell swung the iron crock off the fire now. Broom in hand, Kitty flicked the hens’ greenish dirt out of the dresser.
The nun had disappeared into the bedroom again, leaving the door ajar.
Lib was just untying her cloak when Malachy O’Donnell stepped in from the farmyard with an armful of turf. “Mrs. Wright.”
He dumped the sods by the fire, then turned to go out again. She remembered to ask: “Might there be a platform scales hereabouts on which I could weigh Anna?”
“Ah, I’m afraid there would not.”
“Then how do you weigh your livestock?”
He scratched his purplish nose. “By eye, I suppose.”
A child- size voice in the room within.
“Is it herself up already?” asked the father, face lighting.
Mrs. O’Donnell cut past him and went in to their daughter just as Sister Michael stepped out with her satchel.
Lib moved to follow the mother, but the father held up his hand. “You had, ah, another question.”
“Did I?” She should have been by the child’s side already to prevent a moment’s gap between one nurse’s shift and the next. But she found it impossible to walk away in the middle of a conversation.
“About the walls, Kitty said you were after asking.”
“The walls, yes.”
“There do be some, some dung in there, with the mud. And heather and hair for grip,” said Malachy O’Donnell.
“Hair, really?” Lib’s eyes slid towards the bedroom. Could this apparently ingenuous fellow be a decoy? Might his wife have scooped something out of the cooking pot in her hands before she rushed in to greet her daughter?
“And blood, and a drop of buttermilk,” he added.
Lib stared at him. Blood and buttermilk — as if poured out on some primitive altar.
When she finally got into the bedroom, she found Rosaleen O’Donnell sitting on the little bed, and Anna on her knees beside her mother. There’d been enough time for the child to have gulped down a couple of griddle cakes. Lib cursed herself for the politeness that had kept her chitchatting with the farmer. And cursed the nun, too, for slipping away so fast; considering that Lib had sat through the entire Rosary yesterday evening, couldn’t Sister Michael have stayed a minute longer this morning? Although they weren’t supposed to share their views of the girl, surely the nun should have given Lib — the more experienced nurse — a report on any pertinent facts of the night shift.
Anna’s voice sounded low but clear, not as if she’d just bolted food. “My love is mine, and I am his, in me he dwells, in him I live.”
That sounded like poetry, but knowing this child it was Scripture.
The mother wasn’t praying, just nodding along, like an admirer in the balcony.
“Mrs. O’Donnell,” said Lib.
Rosaleen O’Donnell put her finger to her dry lips.
“You mustn’t be here,” said Lib.
Rosaleen O’Donnell’s head tilted to one side. “Sure can’t I say good morning to Anna?”
Face closed like a bud, the child gave no sign of hearing anything.
“Not like this.” Lib spelled it out: “Not without one of the nurses present. You mustn’t rush into her room ahead of us or have access to her furnishings.”
The Irishwoman reared up. “Isn’t any mother eager for a little prayer with her own sweet child?”
“You may certainly greet her night and morning. This is for your own good, yours and Mr. O’Donnell’s,” Lib added, to soften it. “You wish to prove you’re innocent of any sleight of hand, don’t you?”
For answer, Rosaleen O’Donnell sniffed. “Breakfast will be at nine,” she threw over her shoulder as she left.
That was still almost four hours away. Lib felt quite hollow. Farms had their routines, she supposed. But she should have asked the Ryan girl for something at the spirit grocery this morning, a crust in her hand, even.
At school Lib and her sister had always been hungry. (It was the time the two of them had got along best, she remembered; the fellow feeling of prisoners, she supposed now.) A sparing diet was considered beneficial for girls in particular because it kept the digestion in trim and built character. Lib didn’t believe she lacked self- control, but she found hunger pointlessly distracting; it made one think of nothing but food. So in adult life she never skipped a meal if she could help it.
Anna made the sign of the cross and got up off her knees now. “Good morning, Mrs. Wright.”
Lib considered the girl with grudging respect. “Good morning, Anna.” Even if the girl had somehow snatched a sip or a bite of something during the nun’s shift or just now with her mother, it couldn’t have been much; only a mouthful, at most, since yesterday morning. “How was your night?” Lib got out her memorandum book.
“I have slept and have taken my rest,” quoted Anna, crossing herself again before pulling off her nightcap, “and I have risen up, because the Lord hath protected me.”
“Excellent,” said Lib, because she didn’t know what else to say. Noticing that the inside of the cap was streaked with shed hair.
The girl unbuttoned her nightdress, slipped it down, and tied the sleeves around her middle. A strange disproportion between her fleshless shoulders and thick wrists and hands, between her narrow chest and bloated belly. She sluiced herself with water from the basin. “Make thy face to shine upon thy servant,” she said under her breath, then dried herself with the cloth, shivering.
From under the bed Lib pulled out the chamber pot, which was clean. “Did you use this at all, child?”
Anna nodded. “Sister gave it to Kitty to empty.”
What was in it? Lib should have asked but found she couldn’t. Anna pulled her nightdress back up over her shoulders. She wet the small cloth, then reached down under the linen to wash one leg modestly as she balanced on the other, holding the dresser to steady herself. The shimmy, drawers, dress, and stockings she put on were all yesterday’s.
Lib usually insisted on a daily change, but she felt she couldn’t in a family as poor as this one. She draped the sheets and blanket over the footboard to air before she began her examination of the girl.
Tuesday, August 9, 5:23 a.m.
Water taken: 1 tsp.
Pulse: 95 beats per minute.
Lungs: 16 respirations per minute.
Although temperature was guesswork, really, depending on whether the nurse’s fingers happened to be warmer or colder than the patient’s armpit.
“Put out your tongue, please.” By training Lib always noted the condition of the tongue, though she’d have been hard- pressed to tell what it said about the subject’s health. Anna’s was red, with an odd flatness at the back instead of the usual tiny bumps.
When Lib put her stethoscope to Anna’s navel, she heard a faint gurgling, though that could be attributed to the mixing of air and water; it didn’t prove the presence of food. Sounds in digestive cavity, she wrote, of uncertain origin.
Today she’d have to ask Dr. McBrearty about those swollen lower legs and hands. Lib supposed it could be argued that any symptoms arising from a limited diet were all to the good, because sooner or later, surely they’d provoke the girl to give up this grotesque charade. She made the bed again, tightening the sheets.
Nurse and charge settled into a sort of rhythm on this second day. They read — Lib caught up on Madame Defarge’s nefarious doings in All the Year Round — and chatted a little. The girl was charming, in her unworldly way. Lib found it hard to keep in mind that Anna was a trickster, a great liar in a country famous for them.
Several times an hour the child whispered what Lib thought of as the Dorothy prayer. Was it meant to strengthen her resolve every time emptiness cramped her belly?
Later in the morning Lib took Anna out for another constitutional — only around the farmyard, because the skies were threatening. When Lib remarked on Anna’s halting gait, the child said that was just how she walked. She sang hymns as she went, like a stoical soldier.
“Do you like riddles?” Lib asked her when there came a break in the music.
“I don’t know any.”
“Dear me.” Lib remembered the riddles of childhood more vividly than all the things she’d had to memorize in the schoolroom. “What about this: ‘There’s not a kingdom on the earth, but what I’ve travelled o’er and o’er, and whether it be day or night I neither am nor can be seen. What am I?’ ”
Anna looked mystified, so Lib repeated it.
“ ‘I neither am nor can be seen,’ ” echoed the girl. “Does that mean that I amn’t — I don’t exist — or I amn’t seen?”
“The latter,” said Lib.
“Someone invisible,” said Anna, “who travels all across the earth —”
“Or something,” Lib put in.
The child’s frown lifted. “The wind?”
“Very good. You’re a quick study.”
“Hmm, let’s see. ‘The land was white,’ ” Lib began, “ ‘the seed was black. It’ll take a good scholar to riddle me that.’ ”
“Paper, with ink on it!”
“It was because of scholar.”
“You should go back to school,” Lib told her.
Anna looked away, towards a cow munching grass. “I’m all right at home.”
“You’re an intelligent girl.” The compliment came out more like an accusation.
Low clouds were gathering now, so Lib hurried the two of them back into the stuffy cabin. But then the rain held off, and she wished they’d stayed out longer.
Kitty finally brought in Lib’s breakfast: two eggs and a cup of milk. This time greed made Lib eat so fast, tiny fragments of shell crunched in her teeth. The eggs were gritty and reeked of peat; roasted in the ashes, no doubt.
How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized — as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.
The child accepted a spoonful of water as if it were some rich wine.
“What’s so special about water?”
Anna looked confused.
Lib held up her own cup. “What’s the difference between water and this milk?”
Anna hesitated, as if this were another riddle. “There’s nothing in the water.”
“There’s nothing in the milk but water and the goodness of the grass the cow ate.”
Anna shook her head, almost smiling.
Excerpted from the book THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue. Copyright © 2016 by Emma Donoghue. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.