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The World Below


Imagine it: a dry, cool day, the high-piled cumulus clouds moving
slowly from northwest to southeast in the sky, their shadows
following them across the hay fields yet to be cut for the last
time this year. Down a narrow dirt road between the fields, a
horse-drawn carriage, two old people wearing their worn Sunday
clothes seated side by side in it, driving to town for their grown
daughter's funeral. Neither of them spoke, though you could see, if
you cared to look, that the old woman's lips were moving
ceaselessly, silently repeating the same few phrases over and over.
It was her intention, formed over the long weeks her daughter lay
dying, to rescue her grandchildren from their situation, from their
motherless house. To take all three of them back to the farm with
her. She was rehearsing what she'd say, though she wasn't aware of
her mouth forming the words, and her husband didn't notice.

Imagine this too: later in the afternoon of the same long day, the
two older grandchildren, the girls, laughing together. Laughing
cruelly at the old woman, their grandmother, for her misguided

But perhaps it wasn't truly cruel. They were children, after all.
As thoughtless as children usually are. What's more, they'd spent a
good part of this strange day, the day of their mother's burial,
laughing. Laughing nervously, perhaps with even a touch of
hysteria, mostly because they didn't know what they ought to feel
or think. Laughter was the easiest course. It was their way to ward
off all the dark feelings waiting for them.

They'd been up before dawn, long before their father and little
brother were awake, long before their grandparents started in to
town, almost giddy with the number and variety of their chores. The
meal after the church service was to be elaborate--deviled eggs,
ham, scalloped potatoes, rolls, three kinds of jellied salad,
pudding, and butter cookies--and they each had a list of things to
do connected with it. They worked in the kitchen in their
nightgowns, barefoot, as the soft gray light slowly filled the
room. When the housekeeper, Mrs. Beston, arrived, she chased them
upstairs to get dressed.

They had ironed their own dresses the day before because Mrs.
Beston was so busy. They hung now on hangers from the hook behind
their bedroom door, smelling of starch, smelling just slightly
still of the heat of the iron--that sweet, scorchy odor. As they
pulled them on over their heads and then helped each other plait
their long braids, they were convulsed, again and again, by lurches
of laughter that felt as uncontrollable as sneezing. Sometimes it
was wild, almost mean. It fed on itself. Just looking at each
other, or at their sleepy little brother, Freddie, who'd come in in
his nightshirt, his hair poking up strangely, to sit on their bed
and watch them, could set it off.

Maybe this explained it then--why, later in the day, when their
father told them of their grandmother's notion, they couldn't stop
themselves: why they gave way again to the same ragged hysteria.
They laughed at her. They laughed at her and their grandfather's
having clopped into town with horse and buggy; their father had had
a motorcar forever, it seemed to them (it had been seven years).
They laughed because she had only eight teeth left in her head and
therefore smiled with her hand lifted to cover her mouth--they
could both imitate this awkward, apologetic gesture perfectly. They
laughed because she wore a ridiculous straw hat shaped like a soggy
pancake, and an old-fashioned dress, the same old-fashioned dress
she wore to all ceremonial events. They laughed because she had
thought their father would so easily give them away.

"They are still children," is what the old woman said to her
son-in-law. "They need a childhood." The two of them had gone
together into the parlor after they greeted each other, and when
she told him it was private, what she had to say to him, he shut
the sliding pocket doors. It had been such a long time since anyone
had pulled them out that a thick gray stripe of dust evenly furred
all their decorative molding.

They sat not really looking at each other, the new widower and the
dead woman's mother, and the grandmother forced herself to keep
talking, to try to explain her plan to him. She wasn't a good
talker, even in the easiest circumstances, and none of this was
easy, of course. She hadn't imagined very much beyond her first
statement ahead of time either. It was really her entire

What's more, her son-in-law had always made her shy. He was a
large, almost handsome man with slicked-down hair, getting burly
now as he approached forty-five. He was a salesman, of vulcanized
rubber goods, and his way of dealing with the world came directly
from that life: he wanted to amuse you, to charm you. When he was
courting her daughter--Fanny, her name was--he had flirted with the
grandmother, and this had made her tongue-tied and silent around
him. Once, after she'd served him a blueberry cake he found
especially delicious, he'd grabbed her and waltzed her around the
scrubbed wooden floors of her farmhouse kitchen. This had so
unnerved her--his energy and strength, and her helplessness against
them--that she'd burst into shameful tears.

That's what she felt like doing now, weeping, she was making such a
mess of getting this said. It had seemed so clear to her as she
moved through her solitary days while her daughter was dying and
then since. The children needed her. They couldn't be left alone
through the week any longer. The girls couldn't be asked to be so
responsible--taking care of themselves and then their little
brother too. It was too much. It was simply too much. They needed a
home: someone to take care of them. She would offer to bring them
to town on Fridays to be with him for the weekend. Or he could come
out and stay with them on the farm. Oh, they'd be happy to have

All this planning had kept the image of her daughter--wasted,
curled on her side, rising to consciousness only to cry out in
pain--from her mind; though she'd spoken to Fanny often, another
version of Fanny, as she'd made her preparations: as she'd shaken
out the extra bedding, as she'd set out the framed pictures of her
in the unused rooms she'd made up for the children. "Oh my dear
girl," she had whispered. "They will be fine, you'll see. They just
need someone to tend to them for a change, that's all, and I am the
one to do it."

Her son-in-law waited a moment now, out of kindness and sorrow,
before he answered. Then he cleared his throat and said that he saw
things somewhat differently. His older daughter was almost sixteen,
the younger thirteen--not really children at all. They were big,
good girls. He needed their help, he said.

Of course, this was exactly her point. She didn't press it, though.
She sat silently and nodded, just once, furious at herself. She was
giving up. This easily.

And they were, he continued gently (very gently: he was fond of his
mother-in-law, this cadaverously skinny and stern old woman), his
children, after all.

She stood up and turned away from him, but not before he saw her
mouth pull down, grim and defeated.

It had taken Fanny several years to die, of cancer, though no one
had ever spoken the word in the house or in front of the children.
And the truth was, as the grandmother would have admitted if she
weren't wild with a grief that turned in like self-blame, that
Fanny had been so unusual a young and then a nearly middle-aged
woman that the girls had been in charge of the household long
before anyone had guessed she was ill. So much for needing a

The girls were named Georgia and Ada. Georgia, the older, could
remember even in the years when her mother was well, coming home
from school for lunch, a privilege of the town children, to find
the house silent, Fanny still in her housecoat, lying on the sofa
in the parlor reading, just as she had been when Georgia left.
She'd look up, surprised and dizzy. Her face was round and full,
with fat, childish lips and a baby's startled blue eyes: a pretty,
oddly unformed-looking young woman. "Why, Georgia," she'd say, day
after day. "How can you be back so soon?" And then she'd rise and
ineffectually pat at her hair or her robe. Often she was barefoot,
even in winter. "Well, we'd better go see what we can scratch up
for you girls to eat, hadn't we?"

It was a disgrace, really, though the children didn't care; they'd
gotten used to it long before. In the kitchen, the breakfast dishes
were still on the table, the grease congealed, the skin of the
syrup pools lightly puckering with the unseen motion of the air.
Upstairs, the beds would gape, unmade. When the baby, Freddie,
came, Georgia's first task at noon would often be to take him up to
the nursery to change his drooping diaper. "Oh, you pooper," she
would say. "You big flop maker. Look what you've done now, you
wicked boy." She would keep a steady stream of this insulting talk
flowing, so that he would lie still in fascination and amusement
and make her job easier, but also so that she wouldn't gag--she
never got used to the piercing scent of ammonia, and worse, that
she released each time she unpinned his sagging, weighted

It was a little while after Freddie came--Georgia later thought it
must have been then that her mother had first become ill--that they
began to have regular help, finally. Mrs. Beston. Her name was
Ellen, but no one ever called her that, not even their mother. Mrs.
Beston, always and only, though their father sometimes called her
Mrs. Best One when she wasn't around to hear it. She was tall and
raw-boned and strong. Entirely without humor, and yet endlessly,
bottomlessly cheerful. She arrived Monday mornings, just as their
father was leaving for the week. "You must take these children in
hand, Mrs. Beston," he'd say, pulling on his coat. "They're spoiled
rotten. A daily whipping, I should think, and gruel for supper four
nights a week at the minimum." The children, sitting on the stairs
waiting to say goodbye, would look at each other with wicked

"Oh, Mister, don't say that!" Mrs. Beston would cry uneasily.

"No, no, we count on you, Mrs. Beston. Lock them in their rooms.
Send them to bed with no supper. Hang them up by their thumbs till
they promise to obey."

"Oh now, Mr. Rice!"

"I'm off now, Mrs. Beston. By Friday, I have every confidence,
you'll have instilled in them the fear of the Lord."

But she didn't. She forgave them everything. Everyone, to her, was
a poor dear, most of all their mother. Mrs. Rice, the poor dear. It
was only slowly that Georgia came to understand that this was more
than peculiarly expressed affection, that Mrs. Beston was referring
to something specific, something sad and wrong about her

She was supposed to leave by three-thirty or four--she had her own
family to get home to and cook for--but often she stayed after her
chores were done, just to do a few pieces in the puzzle with them,
just to play one more hand of Slapjack, one round of War. When she
did leave, the house was clean, the laundry was done if it was
laundry day, and--after their mother was really ill--there was
always something prepared in the kitchen and the girls left with
instructions on how to warm it and serve it. Though by then Fanny
didn't have much appetite, Ada or Georgia would always take a tray
to her room before they served themselves and Freddie at the
kitchen table. And after dinner one of them would go to fetch the
nearly untouched tray back down. Both of them were good at keeping
track, both of them always knew whether she'd eaten more or less
today than yesterday, though they never commented on this to each

But they'd all gotten skilled by this time at never acknowledging
what they knew, at pretending they didn't see what they saw.
Everything conspired to encourage them in this--Mrs. Beston's
determined good cheer, their father's strained, sometimes desperate
gaiety, their neighbors' polite silence about what was happening in
their house.

And their mother: well, hadn't she always been this way? Indolent,
half the time in bed anyway, reading or just daydreaming? Oh, she
was sick, they certainly knew that, but they all expected--or
pretended to expect, and then forgot they were pretending--that
she'd be herself again by spring; or then by summer, when they'd
drive over to Bucksport and have lobsters at the pound; or surely
by fall, when they'd need to go shopping in Pittsfield for new
school things.

Late one afternoon the summer her mother lay dying, Georgia came
out onto the screened porch off the kitchen. Mrs. Beston had gone
for the day, but she'd left Fanny's sheets soaking in a galvanized
metal tub of cold water. The blood had colored them evenly a
beautiful shade of deep sherbet pink. They looked like snow-covered
mountains at sunset. Caught by surprise at the sight, Georgia
stopped short and gasped. Her heart was pounding. But then quickly
her mind performed its familiar, useful trick: they were having
chicken stew for dinner that night, and what she told herself was
that the blood was of course from the slaughter of the chicken,
somehow spilled onto these cloths.

There was a world of knowledge that she had to ignore to hold on to
this thought, starting with the fact that the chickens were
slaughtered out behind the henhouse, but she was practiced at it,
it was all accomplished in seconds. She started to whistle as
loudly as she could, "Where E'er You Walk." She went outside into
the overgrown yard where the lupines and lemon lilies were slowly
being choked out by weeds, and began savagely to pluck them,
singing now, ignoring the occasional cry of her mother, audible
even through the windows she insisted stay shut.

She wanted her father, Georgia thought, yanking at the flowers. She
wanted him home right now. But he was out on the road for two more
days, until Friday, driving his usual circuit of general stores and
hardware stores in a radius of several hundred miles. He carried
samples of his wares in his motorcar, and the car had come to have
that rubbery odor permanently, an odor Georgia would find
reassuring even into her old age...

Excerpted from THE WORLD BELOW © Copyright 2005 by Sue
Miller. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a Division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The World Below
by by Sue Miller

  • Genres: Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345481062
  • ISBN-13: 9780345481061