Following is the opening chapter of IPPY Award Winner Chris Cander‘s novel Whisper Hollow, which will be released by Other Press on March 17th. Described by the publisher as “an evocative portrait of life in a small Southern mining town, spanning fifty years,” the novel tells the stories of Myrthen, Alta, and Lidia — three women whose lives collide dramatically and irrevocably.
October 17, 1916
Myrthen’s mother and father had carried more hopes than means with them when they crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of January 1910. Rachel Engel was just sixteen when she left her home and family in Saxony, Germany, brave and willing and fiercely in love with Otto Bergmann, but nonetheless glancing over her shoulder all the way to the southern shore of the river Elbe, the gateway to the world.
Myrthen’s grandparents disapproved of Rachel’s choice for a mate, and so she and Otto, a twenty-nine-year-old miner with black cuticles and an uneasy cough, stole away in the middle of a star-filled night. She wore all the clothing she owned and packed everything else in her mother’s upholstery bag: a photograph of herself with her parents and younger sister, a silver creamer that her mother loved, a hairbrush, her Bible. In her arms she carried an unlikely treasure: a divided cutting of the myrtle tree she had been tending since she was a little girl, dampened and wrapped in muslin for protection from the cold. They traveled north to the Port of Hamburg and boarded the steamer Scandia with 804 other passengers. “We Germans are like this tree,” Otto said to Rachel three nights into the hard, dirty twenty-four-day journey to New York. “No matter where we go, we will take root again.”
They were married on the ship by a Prussian Catholic priest, a Bavarian wheelwright and his wife as witnesses. The only bridal accoutrement Rachel wore was a simple wreath across her brow, woven from the thinnest myrtle branches off the cutting she’d brought. Their honeymoon was taken in the bowels of the ship, during a brief interlude of privacy in a cabin that rarely offered it. That night, as the hulking ship moved quickly over the ocean’s unknowable depths, Myrthen and her twin were conceived.
“Was bedeutet das?” Rachel peered out into the window-framed dawn and wiped her hands on her apron. “ ‘Red sky in the morning, shepherds take warning’? Is that how it goes?” Otto coughed as he sat down to his breakfast of oatmeal and black coffee. “Das ist richtig,” he said. Then, a moment later, after wiping his long, prematurely gray mustache and beard with a threadbare but pressed cloth napkin: “That is correct. Your English is becoming so good, Rachel. I’m proud for you.”
“Thank you,” she said. It was nearly six years ago that they’d arrived in West Virginia, young Rachel still thinking the morning nausea was leftover seasickness from the journey across the Atlantic. Fueled by their unlikely passion, they’d hastily exchanged the Erzgebirge mountain range for the Appalachian; uranium mining for coal; the town of Niederschlema for the town of Verra. There were many similarities—the metallic cold of winter, the lush patina of foliage in the spring, the graduating blue of the eastward-looking slopes, the toil and promise that awaited underground. But once they slowed down long enough for their breathing to steady and their heat to subside, the differences were too numerous to count.
The local speech that sounded nothing like the English she’d studied at school in Germany was just one of them. She didn’t understand when a neighbor said she could hang up a line for her “warsh” or that the likelihood for rain was “chancy.” The idea that a man “hain’t good for nothing” was not quite as difficult to comprehend —though she didn’t believe it in her own case —as the idea that “he don’t know no better.” Even Whisper Hollow, the small valley across the creek from Verra where the Catholic church was situated, was pronounced in a way that suggested something irreconcilable; they called it “Whisper Holler.” She didn’t know if it was the lax and tense vowels and the strange conjugations that made her queasy, or the undeniable undercurrent and swell beneath her apron.
It took her longer than she would have liked to adjust to being in another country among so many other foreigners, being married, being pregnant, then becoming a mother. Her husband went to work for the Blackstone Coal Company, and they rented one of the small camp houses. On a rainy night that same year, Rachel gave birth to identical twin girls, Myrthen and Ruth.
Rachel had decided upon these two names early on, liking them equally well. “Ruth” was the name of Otto’s mother, the only person in either of their families who supported their marriage and emigration. “Myrthen” came from the title of a work by Rachel’s fellow Saxonian the composer Robert Schumann. She liked the story about his opus 25, Myrthen —he’d dedicated it to his wife on the occasion of their wedding. The name came from that, and from the myrtle branch she’d stolen from her mother’s garden and carried across the sea.
She purchased an English dictionary from the company store with one of Otto’s first meager paychecks, and looked up the definitions of the words she learned. Out of curiosity, she decided to look up the names she was considering for her child. There was no entry for Myrthen. But for Ruth:
ruth \’rüth\ n. Compassion for the misery of another.
This made it easy for Rachel to choose her favorite. Ruth it would be. She patted her voluminous teenage belly, full of compassion, imagining the plaits she would braid into her daughter’s hair, the piano lessons she would give, the German poetry and history she would recite. Already she knew she would need nothing more: a tiny family comprised of herself and Otto and baby Ruth. It would be perfect.
But after a bloody, waist-down battle on October 20, 1910, two little girls emerged instead of one, identical in every way but their temperaments.
“Come, Mädchen,” she said to them. “Come look out the window at how red this sky is.” Ruth sat with her legs splayed on the floor, sorting buttons from her mother’s collection by size. She dropped them in an instant, scattering them like buck- shot, and ran to where her mother stood. Dragging one of the wicker-seat chairs over, she climbed on it to have a better view. “Pretty,” she said in a reverent voice.
“Myrthen, come look. Stand here and let me braid your hair.” Rachel patted the high back of the chair upon which Ruth stood and then turned to follow Ruth’s polite gaze out the window. Myrthen cached her own stack of buttons in her pinafore pocket, then walked over to the handful that Ruth had dropped on the other side of the braided rag rug and, glancing to make sure nobody was looking, pocketed them as well. Then she went and stood obediently in front of her mother and allowed her to part and pull her thick, dark hair so tightly off her face it made her eyes water.
“Sit still, Myrthen. Be like your sister. See? She’s had her hair done for a half hour already.”
“Red sky in the morning,” said Otto, thumbing up his sus- penders and glancing again out the window. “It will be foul weather today. I can smell something is coming.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine. We have plenty to do inside today, don’t we, girls? Plenty canning to do. Squash and zucchini and beans.” “You’re a good wife, Rachel.” Otto smiled at her, cracking his gaunt, ashen face in two. His white teeth and sparkling demeanor were the only two things about him that didn’t seem somber and gray.
“Danke,” she said, putting her palm against his cheek. “Come home safely.”
“I always do.” He kissed her first, then Myrthen, who was still standing on the chair. Then he went over to Ruth —who was looking, uncomplaining, under the rug for her missing buttons —and tapped her on the shoulder. She stood up and he bent to kiss her on the nose. Then he pretended to pinch it and sleighted his thumb between his fingers and showed it to her. “I got your nose,” he said, and put his hand into his dun- garee pocket. “I’ll keep it with me for good luck.” He winked at her, picked up his brimming dinner bucket and pickax, and was gone.
The day collapsed into darkness as strong winds from the west blew the clouds into huddled masses, thick and cumulonimbus. Throughout the gloomy morning, Rachel worked as she typi- cally did, domestic needs dictating the course of the day while her husband labored in a two-foot-high tunnel underneath the rain-soaked mountain. There was always so very much to do: tending the children, laundry and gardening, mending and sewing, prepping and kneading and cooking and baking. She was forever beginning the next meal just as she finished the last one. And her efficiency was only ever stalled by the twins’ nearly constant, one-sided feuding.
“Girls, go outside and play,” Rachel finally said. Beads of sweat mustached her lip as she stirred the contents of the pot. A dozen jars lined the narrow countertop. Already she’d put up forty-eight cans of vegetables, taking them down to the cellar four at a time. It was nearly two o’clock; Otto would be home by 3:30 p.m. She hadn’t, on this rare day, begun a soup or a meal of any kind to feed him when he came home. “I’ll be finished soon, go play. Go down and get your cousin Liam. He’s prob- ably awake from his nap by now.”
“We can’t go outside, Mama,” Myrthen said in her flat and factual tone. “It’s raining too hard.”
Rachel sighed and wiped her face with her tea towel. They heard a rifle report of thunder. “So it is,” she said. She tapped the wooden spoon against the pot and set it down, wiped her hands on her splattered apron. “Come along then. Let us see what I have for you in my sewing basket.”
A stuffed doll, dressed in a pinafore matching the girls’, with blue button eyes and raven hair the same as theirs, but made out of yarn. There was another one, identical, but the hair and eyes had not yet been sewn on, the outfit was not quite ready. Rachel handed the finished one to Ruth. “This is for your birthday, only a little bit early. Almost six years old!” she said, cupping Ruth’s face with her hand. “What big girls you are!” Then she turned to Myrthen and cupped her face the same way. “Myrthen, I’ll finish yours tonight. I was going to give them to you both on Friday, but perhaps now is a good time to have it, yes?”
Ruth flung her arms around Rachel’s waist. “Thank you, Mama!” she said. Myrthen hung her head in a pout.
“Ruth, you share yours with your sister today, yes?”
“Myrthen, don’t be sad. I’ll have yours finished tonight after I do this canning.” She lifted Myrthen’s chin off her chest. “You be a good girl.
“Now go play,” she said, and picked up her spoon. She wanted to finish the canning and have something ready for Otto to eat.
Myrthen and Ruth went back to the sitting area and began to play with Ruth’s doll. Myrthen sulked on the rug, finger- ing the buttons in her pocket while Ruth made the doll walk and sit and dance and lie down in a make-believe cradle, all the while delivering her own version of a lullaby their mother sang at bedtimes: Hush, my baby, do not cry, in your cradle now you sing, then you weep, I softly swing, lullaby, lullaby.
“You don’t know how to play baby,” Myrthen said. She snatched the doll by the hair from its imaginary bed.
Myrthen turned away and held the baby close to her chest, pinching its neck as she ran.
“Gimme! Gimme her back! Gimmeherback!” Ruth caught up with Myrthen after a few rounds about the kitchen, where Rachel continued spooning stewed beans into glass jars, doing her best to ignore the bickering. Otto could be home any time.
Ruth grabbed the doll’s legs and Myrthen hung on to her neck, and the two of them tugged and yanked, back and forth, silent but for the swish of cloth and pant of breath. The pair moved the entire process forward a few inches at a time until they were standing in front of the open cellar door, at the top of six downward steps.
Back and forth they grunted, until the doll’s neatly sewn hair was torn askew, its pinafore ripped, its seam allowances exposed at the most private areas. Myrthen stared, unblinking, at her twin, who would normally have allowed her sister anything she wanted —but this doll was somehow different. Mama had given it to her first. Ruth flinched, but this time she would not let go. She gripped the doll’s legs as though clinging to life itself.
“She’s mine. Mama gave her to me.”
Ruth yanked the doll forward with all her strength, pulling Myrthen off balance and swinging them both around until Ruth was the one with her back to the cellar.
Seesawing, they glared at each other, tethered only by the doll, and Ruth said with all the force she could, “You meanie!”
Myrthen’s cheeks flushed. “I’m not a meanie! You are!”
Rachel appeared behind them, carrying more jars to add to the four dozen she had already left at the base of the stairs to be stacked later. “Girls, please,” she said in a tired voice. “Stop arguing.”
“But she won’t give me back my birthday doll,” Ruth said, holding fast.
“Myrthen!” Rachel said. “Enough! Give the doll to your sister.”
Myrthen looked down at the bare, flat legs of Ruth’s doll, and felt something she couldn’t have described: a mix of shame and self-pity and anger. She narrowed her eyes at her twin and said, “I don’t want it anyway. It’s ugly.” When Ruth gave the doll a final yank, Myrthen opened her hands in defiant acqui- escence and let go.
In a slow-motion tumbling backward—doll over ankles, pinafore flying—Ruth’s eyes flew open and the doll rammed against her tiny chest from the sudden tug-of-war victory, and then they were both bump bump bump bump bump bump crash splat gone.
Myrthen stopped. Her movement, her breath. She stood at the top of the steps and stared, wild-eyed and speechless. A flash of lightning from the cellar window lit the floor: Ruth, splayed at the bottom of the stairs, one leg bent at a sickening angle; blood pooling beneath one ear; her eyes and her mouth with its perfect baby teeth, open; shattered glass and beans spilled across the dirt floor; the birthday doll lying a few feet away, likewise limp and torn.
“No!” Rachel shoved Myrthen aside with one arm and took the stairs in two lurching steps. “No!” She fell to her knees next to Ruth, and lifted her limp torso up against her own. The jar glass cut into Rachel’s knees like shrapnel, adding her blood to her daughter’s as she rocked back and forth, back and forth, begging and pleading with God.
Myrthen looked down, seeing only what the lightning allowed —her mother, rocking her limp twin, like she did when Ruth couldn’t easily fall asleep. Outside, the thunder gnashed and roared. Ruth was scared of thunder. Yes, she didn’t like the thunder or the rain or the dark. Mama was comforting her because she was scared, and she should go down and get her doll and give it to Ruth because it would make her feel better, wouldn’t it, Ruth? It was so dark outside, shepherds take warn- ing, it was probably almost bedtime and she wasn’t hungry so she must have eaten and it was probably time to go to sleep.
“Mama, I’ll get our bed ready,” Myrthen called quietly down to her mother, who was still rocking, rocking with knees bleeding into the spill of blood where Ruth had fallen. Ruth looked so tired; they were both so very very tired, and Myrthen thought she should go and get their bed ready before it was past their bedtime and she heard the door begin to open —Papa’s home —and she didn’t want to be caught up late; it was so dark and Ruth was already fast asleep, so she ran, quickly, quietly to their room and pulled back the covers and climbed inside, and moved all the way to the wall so that Ruth would have enough room when her mother brought her sleeping body in.
She closed her eyes and promised God that when her mother finished her doll that night after the canning was done, she would give it and all the buttons to Ruthie.
Three days later, it was her birthday —their birthday —but there was no wreath on the table, no burning life candles, no colorful flowers. Instead, six-year-old Myrthen was eye-level with shades of gray. Her mother’s flannel dress. Her father’s threadbare suit, the one he had worn when they left Saxony for a better life. Father Timothy’s cassock. The clothes of mourners, the coal-dusted handkerchiefs that the adults pressed to their eyes.
Beyond them, the morning sky was complementary, with thick, dark clouds. Even the sounds were gray: the low drone of prayer, the sniffles, the throat-clearings, and the belching of the trains, heaving their heaping loads of slick coal down the mountain. But the darkest gray of all —the one from which Myrthen couldn’t tear her eyes—was the black casket that hovered over a fresh hole in the cemetery behind St. Michael’s.
“We therefore commit Ruth’s body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life,” Father Timothy said. Myrthen heard a steep pitch in her mother’s sobs, which sounded both raw and scabbed after three endless days. Myrthen had hardly seen her, but her crying had filled every crack in their small house. It was the sound to which she fell asleep, when she finally did in her suddenly wide bed; the sound to which she woke, always with a few groggy minutes before she remembered why.
Then Myrthen’s father and the other men stooped through her line of gray sight, and lowered her twin’s body into the ground. Poor Ruthie. Ruth didn’t like the dark. Maybe her eyes were closed; maybe she was playing hide-and-seek. Then she wouldn’t be scared. She always hid in the same place when they played that game, always under her parents’ bed. Myrthen always counted to ten before she went looking, and she had to act like she didn’t know where Ruth was. She looked in different places to keep the game fun, and Ruth always acted surprised when she finally found her.
Myrthen tugged on her aunt’s dark sleeve. “How many do I need to count?”
“Was ist das?” her aunt whispered down at her. Her mother’s sister, Agnes, and family —her husband, Ian, and their son, Liam —had joined them in Verra when the twins were two, but Agnes’s English still lagged behind.
“Until I can go get her?” Myrthen said, pointing to the hole.
“Shhh,” someone said, a man or a woman, Myrthen didn’t know. She hung her head, aching. The only sound besides Father Timothy’s dulled voice was the grasshoppers clacking, search- ing for their mates. The sound of loneliness. She didn’t know it then, but she would suffer that sound for the rest of her life.
Chris Cander is a novelist, children’s book author, freelance writer, and teacher for Houston-based Writers in the Schools. Her novel 11 Stories was included in Kirkus’s best indie general fiction of 2013.