Erick Setiawan Of Bees and Mist: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781416596240

Of Bees and Mist: A Novel

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9781416596240: Of Bees and Mist: A Novel
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In a community out of time where supernatural beings are an everyday reality, sixteen-year-old Meridia attempts to escape her alienating childhood by eloping with a young man whose family harbors its own secrets, a pair of sisters are groomed to hate each other from birth, and a formidable matriarch forges grievances that swarm in the air. 75,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Erick Setiawan was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents and moved to the United States in 1991. He is a graduate of Stanford University and currently lives in San Francisco.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

Few in town agreed on when the battle began. The matchmaker believed it started the morning after the wedding, when Eva took all of Meridia's gold and left her with thirteen meters of silk. The fortune-teller, backed by his crystal globe, swore that Eva's eyes did not turn pitiless until Meridia drenched them in goose blood three months later. The midwife championed another theory: The feud started the day Meridia held her newborn son with such pride that Eva felt the need to humble her. But no matter how loudly the townspeople debated, the answer remained a mystery -- and the two women themselves were to blame. Meridia said little, and Eva offered conflicting explanations, which confirmed the town's suspicion that neither one of them could actually remember.

The town first took notice of Meridia at the hour of her birth. That evening, following what would be remembered as twenty-seven hours of labor, she was extracted blue and wrinkled from Ravenna's womb. Her lungs, despite the ten slaps administered to her rump, refused to take even one breath. The midwife was about to bundle her away when Ravenna scolded: "What are you doing, woman? Give her to me!"

In her calm, ordinary voice, Ravenna told the baby that after putting her through eight months of discomfort and twenty-seven hours of unadulterated pain, after ruining her figure and swelling her breasts and wreaking havoc on her appetite, the least she could do was give her mother a farewell cry. "The tiniest squeak would do," said Ravenna. "A yowl would be even better." Ravenna went on for some minutes, rocking her daughter gently, and by the time she recited the intimate details surrounding the baby's conception -- "if you could only see the ungodly contortions your father had me do" -- Meridia spluttered a cough and inhaled her first breath.

"Stubborn little creature," chuckled Ravenna. "Do you think you're too good for this world?"

The midwife waited in vain for the baby to cry. Meridia gasped and grimaced, but one thing she did not do was cry. An hour later, shaking and scratching her head, the midwife departed. To every person she saw she confided, "One hundred babies delivered, and I've never seen one like her. Whether she is an angel or a demon only time will tell."

A few months shy of Meridia's first birthday, a blinding flash of light traveled at great speed in the dark of night and awakened her. There was a crash and a tumble, followed by a terrible scream, and suddenly she was snatched up from her bassinet and crushed against Ravenna's bosom. At the age of three, after Meridia learned enough words to speak, she tried to articulate to Ravenna what she had witnessed. All her mother did was sigh and mutter, "Some things are better left as dreams, child." Was it a dream then? Meridia wanted to ask, but Ravenna had turned to her vegetables and forgotten her. Her mother's back was straight and sturdy -- capable, Meridia suspected, of holding unknowable secrets.

The house at 24 Monarch Street was made of glass and steel. Perched on a high hill, it boasted a mansard roof, large latticed windows, and a veranda banked by daffodils. Stone steps climbed the sloping garden to the front door, over which an ivory mist hovered regardless of weather. The mist was a bane to peddlers and visitors alike, for it often held them suspended in midair, stole their hats, or chased them away with terrifying noises. Inside, the house obeyed a law of its own. The wood floors echoed no sound of footsteps, and people simply appeared in doorways without warning. The spiral staircase shortened and lengthened at random, and it could take toddling Meridia two seconds to two hours to go from one floor to the other. Mirrors were especially treacherous: In them Meridia could glimpse unfamiliar landscapes and all shapes of apparitions. Despite the large open windows, dusk never quite left the rooms; the sun could be blazing yet inside, the brightest objects looked dim and unappealing.

It was always cold in the house. Even at the height of summer with the fire going, Meridia was unable to keep warm. In the mornings, the nurse dressed her in heavy winter clothes as though a storm was brewing. At bedtime, the good woman wrapped her in two or three blankets and still her bones chattered. The cold emanated from one room, where at all hours a frosty wind fluttered curtains and rattled lamps. Meridia did not know how Ravenna could sleep in that room; her father, Gabriel, certainly never did. Meridia was four when she noticed that no words had ever passed between her parents. Five when she realized that the three of them were never in the same room at the same time. Gabriel spent his days in the study at the front of the house. Exactly what it was he studied, no one could say. In hushed tones, the nurse and the maids referred to him as a man of science, a celebrated scholar, an astute investor who had doubled his inheritance and was now living for the sake of knowledge. They were all terrified of him. No sooner did they sight his shadow than they trembled like leaves. Gabriel seldom spoke to them. A gesture or a look was all he needed to convey his command, which everyone but Ravenna followed like a mandate from heaven.

Meridia regarded her father with both fear and respect. A tall and elegant man, Gabriel was direct in manner, limited in patience, scrupulous in appearance. He had a firm chin and a grim mouth, and his dark eyes were severe and without warmth. He walked with a slight stoop, which gave him the appearance of a swooping raptor. Not once had Meridia heard him laugh. That he resented her -- for reasons that would not become clear until years later -- was the first thing she noticed about him. If he were to ever take her in his arms or speak a kind word to her, she would not have the slightest idea of what to do.

One day, despite the nurse's warnings, Meridia stole into the study when no one was looking. She had simply meant to peek around the door, but when she saw that Gabriel was out, she braved herself to enter. Though she had no previous recollection of being there, the room looked welcoming and familiar. She grinned at the towers of books that made up the walls, at the hanging maps and graphs full of numbers. Cabinet after cabinet was jammed with flasks, beakers, burners. Meridia skipped toward the massive desk by the window. Jars of growing seeds populated the surface, and they were all winking at her. She was reaching to touch them when a shadow fell across the desk.

"Who gave you permission to enter?"

Meridia turned and shrank. Her grin instantly melted from her face.

"Speak up! Don't just stand there drooling like an ape."

"I -- I -- "

Gabriel had not raised his voice, yet Meridia felt the whole world was screaming at her. Confronted with his immaculate suit and shiny oxford shoes, she felt dirty, small, purposeless. As she beseeched the maps and books for a way out, every object in the room darkened like an artifact of hate. Meridia dropped her eyes and did not dare lift them.

"You are five years old and quite capable of forming a sentence. Do you mean to stand there and insult me with your silence?"

"Papa -- I -- "

She was saved from further agony by her nurse, who ran into the study trembling with fright.

"It's my fault, Master. I didn't think -- "

Gabriel did not deign to look at her. "It is immaterial what you think or don't think. If I ever find her in here again..."

Quick for her considerable bulk, the nurse yanked Meridia out of the study. Once upstairs, she berated her charge soundly, but soon took pity and enfolded the child in her arms.

"You darling girl," she said with infinite tenderness. "Don't you mind your father too much. Some men can't help themselves when they're battered."

Her eyes pale and small, Meridia stood without moving. What had she done wrong? Why did Gabriel despise her like an enemy? Failing to stop the chill where his shadow had touched her, she wondered if all fathers were cruel and all mothers forgetful.

If the study was Gabriel's shrine, then the kitchen was Ravenna's sanctuary. In this large, bright room where the ceiling soared two stories high and the tiles were scrubbed four times a day, the lady of the house poured her venom into the endless meals she cooked. As she chopped, grilled, and boiled, Ravenna addressed the vegetables in a dark and private language, telling them of sorrow and despair. The fury of her pots and pans kept visitors away, while her air of absentmindedness spun a web of solitude about her. These endless meals, much more than her family could eat, were invariably donated to the poor. Apart from the kitchen, Ravenna entrusted the house to the care of the nurse and the two maids. This included the rearing of Meridia, whose existence she seemed able to recollect only with difficulty.

Ravenna's attire was limited to a plain black dress, which she kept protected with a white apron while she cooked. Long-sleeved and high-necked, the dress hid her pale arms and pointed shoulder blades, but did little to soften her appearance. Her face was so sharply angular it was saved from gauntness simply by her generous nose. Perfumed with verbena, her black hair was swept up into an implacable knot, so tight and bonelike it seemed a natural projection of her skull. Ravenna moved in a stiff and sudden manner, as though the aim of her action was decided at the tail end of a moment.

Due to her mother's forgetfulness, Meridia did not correctly estimate her date of birth until she was six. For years, using her own approximation, the nurse had always given her a present -- her one and only -- on July 2. However, on the morning of July 19 in her sixth year, Ravenna made a great clatter in the kitchen and summoned her. "Child!" she said breathlessly. "Why do you wear such a long face on your birthday? Look, I've made you a caramel cake. Go up to your room and put on a nice dress. I hope you don't mind that our party will be smaller this year." Meridia did not care for caramel and Ravenna never ...

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