About the Author
Daniel Wallace is the author of five novels. His first, Big Fish, was made into a motion picture of the same name by Tim Burton in 2003, and a musical version on Broadway in 2013. He is a contributing editor to Garden & Gun magazine and is the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he teaches and directs the Creative Writing Program. Visit his website at DanielWallace.org.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Kings and Queens of Roam THE GIRLS
Rachel McCallister and her sister, Helen, lived together in the home they grew up in, and as far as anyone could tell (Rachel and Helen included), this is where they would die as well. Though they were both quite young—Helen was twenty-five years old, and Rachel was only eighteen—their paths seemed clear and predictable, each girl so closely bound to the other that to imagine even a day apart was a pointless foray into fantasy. You might as well imagine building a cabin on a cloud.
They lived in a town called Roam, a town founded a hundred years ago by their great-grandfather Elijah McCallister and his Chinese friend and hostage, Ming Kai, where they hoped to make the finest silk the world had ever known. Bordered by a great mountain on one side and a bottomless ravine on the other, and shadowed by dark green forests full of bears and wild dogs, the town—even after a century’s existence—felt like the abandoned capital of an ancient civilization: still a wonder to behold, out here in the middle of nowhere, but worn down, broken, nearly empty. One day the vegetable world would reclaim it and all the evidence of every man and woman who had called it home, and those who still lived there (227 people at last count, though the number grew smaller by the day) could only serve as witnesses. The dead outnumbered the living tenfold now. There were so many dead their spirits could no longer be contained in the darkness, and, like deer, their population had spilled over into parts of the town reserved for the living. Sometimes they formed a cool shaft of stray light that leaked into dark rooms, beneath closet doors, into alleyways. There was nowhere you could go in Roam without feeling them, but only rarely would they actually allow themselves to be seen.
Then there was Rachel and Helen.
Rachel and Helen were known simply as the girls. That’s what people called them. Have you seen the girls? they might say. Or, There go the girls. For the last seven years, ever since their parents had died, they had never been not together: never. Helen had been taking care of her sister all this time—but it was more than that. It was as if their common losses had brought them so close that a biological metamorphosis had occurred, fusing them forever at the metaphorical hip. The wonder of it was that they were thought of as girls at all, and not simply girl, so close were they, so much had one come to depend upon the other.
As inseparable as they were, though, they were more different than alike. One was blind, the other could see; one had the face of an angel, and the other—the other did not.
Rachel was the sweet, the beautiful, the blind one. Her eyes were the color of honeybees, dark eyes with an amber light glowing softly behind them. She wasn’t completely blind. She saw shapes and sudden colors, a flashing shadow-world. Her eyes showed her the dark mystery-forest where we get lost in our dreams. If she brought something very close—so close she appeared to be kissing it with her eyes—then she could view that very, very small part of it. In a book she could make out a letter or two at a time. O n c e u p o n a t i m e. This is how she learned to read. She read part of an entire book this way—a small book with pictures called Mark the Magical Dog—but it took her weeks and completely exhausted her. She never read a book again. Still, she liked letters. She traced them in the bare dirt at the end of their driveway the way other children etched houses or trees.
She’d been blind since she was three, when one night she was overcome with a strange fever so intense the town doctor, Dr. Carraway, refused even to use a thermometer. He had seen a fever like this years ago: the thermometer had burst in a boy’s oven-hot mouth, and the tiny shards of glass sliced his throat open, the mercury flowing into the wounds. The boy died. Old Dr. Carraway—who still wore a bowler hat and was never without a bloodred rose pinned to his lapel—had seen it all. Combustible hair, earworms, the sudden and inexplicable loss of a man’s entire face. He was there the day Roam was besieged by a flock of poisonous butterflies, the night the vines snatched a baby from its crib. He knew Rachel would most likely die from this fever. She was too hot to touch; the edge of her sheets dripped with sweat. The only sound she made was a soft, melodious moan—a death song. But after three days the fever broke; miraculously, she recovered. And, as if it had never happened, as if she had not been halfway to the hereafter, she was soon back to her sweet, happy self. It wasn’t until she wandered off into the woods and fell into a gulley that anyone even knew she was blind. Dr. Carraway returned, examined her, and determined that her optic nerves had been singed by the fever, or frayed perhaps; the truth was he had no idea. But if he was right (which he wasn’t), it was possible, though unlikely, the nerves might, with time and prayer, grow back together again.
“I was hoping for something having more to do with medicine or science,” Rachel’s father said.
Dr. Carraway smiled. “Science is a good thing. But prayer is a great thing. After all,” he said, “what harm can it do?”
So Mr. and Mrs. McCallister began praying every day for Rachel’s eyesight to return. They made Rachel pray as well, though she had even less an idea of what she was doing than her parents did. This was the first of their two fruitless attempts at restoring their child’s eyesight. They would literally die trying.
As the years passed, however, it was clear that Rachel was going to be an extraordinary beauty, as if, unable to see herself, she would make the most of being seen. Her mother trained her eyes to remain relatively steady, and used tape to keep her eyelids open, in an effort to avoid what she called “that unfortunate blind girl look.” She even taught Rachel to blink, and Rachel blinked quite well, and at all the right times. At seventeen Rachel had lava red hair flowing in curls to her shoulders, and smooth almond skin, light brown freckles, and lips—full and fresh, deep orange—that were almost too big, like her mouth, into which it appeared you could fit a tangerine when she smiled. She smiled not because she didn’t miss what she’d lost from life, but because of what she still had: her parents, a home, and, most of all, her sister, Helen.
Helen. Her story was even sadder than Rachel’s. She was ugly from the day she was born. Dr. Carraway, who by his own account had seen everything, had never seen anything like this. Even one-day-old Helen must have known, as she felt the effect her little face had on those who viewed it. Only her mother smiled when she saw Helen; only a mother could. Her parents did their best to love her, but Helen was the one who went to sleep every night with that face and woke up every morning the same, and no one would know what that did to her.
In town, people turned away when they saw her coming, or walked past her without a word: it was easier for them to pretend she was invisible than it was to pretend she was pretty. Shopkeepers—forced to speak with her—asked after her parents, after her little sister Rachel, but they never looked directly at Helen, not unless she tricked them. “Watch out!” she’d say, and sometimes they’d look her way. Smiling she’d say, “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Helen was eighteen years old when her parents died, and her first act after burying them was to cover every mirror in the house with old grocery sacks. They were covered to this day, the tape yellowed and peeling at the edges. Without a mirror to reflect herself back at herself, there were moments Helen forgot she was the way she was. But the moments were brief. She only had to look at Rachel to remember: I have this face, and she has that one—the faces they were born with. Helen wasn’t evil, but there was a part of her that certainly was. She discovered this part almost accidentally, with her sister on a rainy summer’s day.
Helen remembered, would always remember, how it all began. They were alone together in the room they shared—not because the house wasn’t big enough for them to have their own room; they could have had two rooms each if they wanted—but because, back then, they loved each other. They’d planned to go outside and play that morning, but all of a sudden a storm blew in, and they were stuck inside. The rain made a gray noise as it fell. Helen brushed Rachel’s hair. Rachel’s little hands were folded in her lap, and she was thinking, worrying a thought like a river washes over a stone until it becomes smooth and round: Helen knew these things about her sister, knew sometimes exactly what was going on inside her sister’s head. But not today. Usually, after these long quiet moments, Rachel would ask Helen something everybody else knew—what rain looked like (she’d forgotten), or what color dirt was, or why people wore hats, and Helen would patiently describe and explain these things, because she thought that was her job.
But that’s not what Rachel wanted to know today.
“Helen?” she said.
Helen sighed. “Yes, Rachel?”
“What do I . . . look like?”
Helen stopped brushing midstroke. The idea that Rachel didn’t know what she looked like—well, of course she wouldn’t know. But it had never occurred to Helen. Rachel knew faces—she could feel them—but she didn’t know what they meant. She was only six years old.
“What you look like,” Helen said. “Well . . . that’s a big question, isn’t it? Have you tried the mirror?”
“It doesn’t work for me,” she said.
“I know. I was only having fun.”
Rachel let this thoughtless admission drift away.
“I ask Mother,” she said. “A lot.”
“And what does Mother say?”
“She says, ‘You shouldn’t concern yourself with it,’ ” Rachel said. “She says it doesn’t matter what the outside parts look like.”
Helen absentmindedly finished the stroke, and smiled. Smiles were so rare to her face she’d almost forgotten how to make them. “You really want to know, Rachel?” Helen said. “That’s what you want?”
Rachel nodded, and in her smallest voice asked, “What am I? Pretty, or—something else?”
“Keep still,” Helen said. “I can’t brush your hair when you’re fidgeting.”
Rachel sat up straight.
“I just,” Helen started, “I don’t know what to say.” But she did know; she knew exactly what she wanted to say. This was how it began, all of it, as just a bit of fun—a made-up story.
“I’m not pretty,” Rachel said. “If I were pretty, that’s what you would say.”
“No.” And Helen made herself sound so sad that Rachel took her hand. “No. I’m afraid you’re not.”
“That’s okay,” Rachel said quickly, though there was water welling in her eyes.
“Good then,” Helen said. She gave her sister’s lovely hair one more stroke. “Then you’re not sad?”
She sighed. “Some. A little.” A tear fell.
“It’s okay to be sad,” Helen said. “It is sad.”
“But you’re pretty?”
“Yes,” Helen said. “I am. I’m blessed. Blessed as much as you are cursed.” Oh, this felt good! She almost believed it herself—even though the truth was that they were both cursed, each in their own way. “I’m as pretty as the first day of spring, people say. I wouldn’t say that about myself, of course. But people say that. I’ve heard them.”
Rachel gently touched her sister’s face. “So this is what pretty is,” she said, and Helen nodded. Then Rachel touched her own face. “And this is not.”
“Oh, my sweet dear Rachel,” Helen said, taking her sister’s little hand in her own. “Why would you even want to know this? Can’t you think of your blindness as a good thing?”
“I mean because you don’t have to look at yourself, sweetheart.”
Rachel was waiting. “So . . .”
“All right,” Helen said. “But know that when I tell you this I’m not being mean. I’m only—”
“I know,” Rachel said.
Helen took a deep breath and picked up the silver-stemmed hand mirror on the bed beside them. She looked—not at Rachel—but at herself. “Well, it’s kind of hard to describe.” She brought the mirror closer. “But I would say that your face is just a bit . . . not right. It looks like a face made of little pieces, a face stitched together from the discarded odds and ends of other people’s faces.”
“Oh. That’s not good.”
“No, it’s not. At the place where they make faces? The face factory? These are the pieces they didn’t use, and they gave them all to you.”
“The face factory is God, isn’t it?” Rachel said. “God made my face.”
“That’s right. God did this to you. No one else.”
“Maybe that’s why He took my eyes away. So I wouldn’t have to look, like you said. It’s a gift.”
“You’re such a strong little girl.”
Rachel, though she was still crying a little, said, “Keep going.”
Stop, Helen heard a voice telling her. But she didn’t. “Does your face feel pretty? When you touch it?”
“I knew you would ask me that,” Rachel said. “I don’t want to say it but—yes. A little. I thought—”
“That’s because you don’t really know what pretty is. Because you went blind before you figured that out. Your face is soft but—honestly, Rachel—people turn away when they see you.”
“Because they’re afraid of you. They’re afraid of your—”
“That’s enough!” Rachel said. She grasped her sister’s hand, because she was shivering like a struck bell. “I don’t think I like you very much now.”
“You asked,” Helen said.
“I know. I know I asked. I still don’t feel like I like you.”
But Helen wasn’t through. “People will tell you that you’re pretty, Rachel,” whispering now. “I’m sure you’ll hear that all the time. Oh, you’re so pretty, Rachel. Aren’t you the pretty one? I’ve never seen a face more lovely in my entire life! But they’re just saying it to make you feel better about yourself. People do that: they lie to make other people feel better.”
“That’s nice,” Rachel said. “If you’re going to tell a lie, I mean, better a good lie than a bad lie, right?” She smiled.
“And when they do say that, just say Thank you very much. It’s not polite to tell them they’re wrong. They know they’re wrong.”
Rachel and Helen sat together for a long time, quietly, their legs hanging off the side of the bed. A moth banged against the window screen; another flew in and out of the lampshade, unable to rest. Helen could have told her then that it was all just a story, that really it was Rachel who was the beautiful one, and Helen who was not. But she didn’t. She liked this story, and she liked that there was someone who believed it was true. She wanted the world to be like this, just for a little while longer.
“Don’t tell anybody,” Rachel said, almost too softly to hear. “But if I had to choose between getting my eyes back and being pretty, I’d choose pretty.”
Helen kissed her sister on the forehead. “Wouldn’t we all,” she said.
This is how Helen changed everything, sowing the seeds of the rest of their lives togeth...
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