Panel Mania: ‘A Fire Story’ by Brian Fies

In October 2017, a devastating wildfire destroyed the home of cartoonist Brian Fies along with 6,200 other homes in Northern California. A Fire Story is an unflinching account of the experiences of Fies, his family, and their neighbors—from losing their homes and all their possessions to the community’s determination to rebuild—just before and in the aftermath of the destruction.
Originally published as a webcomic immediately after the fire, Fies’s bracing and detailed account has been expanded into a powerful work of graphic nonfiction, created as a tribute to the survivors.
The Millions is pleased to offer readers a 10-page excerpt from A Fire Story, which will be published by Abrams ComicArts in March. 

 

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.

They Are Not Calling to You: Featured Poetry by Paige Ackerson-Kiely

Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Paige Ackerson-Kiely from her new book, Dolefully, a Rampart Stands. A great second-person poem is narrated both toward us and past us, its words skimming off our shoulders but leaving marks. “Murmuration” moves far for a relatively short poem—in language, in time, and in tone—a testament to Ackerson-Kiely’s skill and willingness to shift a narrative. We are fully in this world from the poem’s first lines, smooth enough that we want to look up to “the top of the oak tree / or the wires” above, and yet the poem’s route takes us to the power of sound, childhood, and shame.

“Murmuration”
They are not calling to you from the top of the oak tree
or the wires stretched from eaves to transformer 
but they are speaking all the same—
as when you were a childyelling your own name into a box fan
your voice chopped like the long slender note of a carrotin pieces on the floor
swept up by someone else, someone who scolded dirty things
should not touch the mouth—as they threw them all away.
 

From Dolefully, a Rampart Stands by Paige Ackerson-Kiely, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Paige Ackerson-Kiely.

‘Leading Men’: Featured Fiction by Christopher Castellani

For today’s featured fiction, we present an excerpt from chapter two of Christopher Castellani’s fourth novel Leading Men, out today from Viking. The title received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called the book “[s]pectacular…moving, beautifully written, and a bona fide page-turner.”
Leading Men
Frank seldom got the chance to watch Tenn work, as he was doing now. Back home, Tenn had a separate office with a door he kept closed even when he was alone. He’d come out for another cup of black coffee, nod dazedly in Frank’s direction, then retreat back into his world of silent voices and invisible companions.

He watched Tenn stick a pencil in his mouth, tip his chair back, prop his bare foot on the desk, and close his eyes. His pants were rolled up below his knees, his hair a mess of matted curls. He sat that way a long while, his hands folded at his waist, unmoving, deep in thought. In profile like this, without both of his baby-boyish cheeks visible, he looked older and more distinguished, the man of letters he was born, if not bred, to become. An artist should paint him from this angle, in this soft morning light. They should put him on a postage stamp. Tenn shook his head vigorously, as if eavesdropping on Frank’s thoughts. Then his lips softened into a faint smile over the pencil. They remained there in a long moment of self-satisfaction. Of peace. Confidence. To witness such a moment was like catching a wild animal taking a sunbath.

Frank should have told him then and there that he loved him and would never leave him. Not how much he loved him, which was very much, but that he loved him at all, a fact Frank took for granted but Tenn claimed not to know. He should have told Tenn that he admired his stonemason life, that he was in awe of the churches he’d built and was building, their beauty and permanence, the sacred hearts that blazed within them. He should have said, I’m grateful for all you’ve brought to me, and for all you’ve brought me to, for all that you bring out of me. But Frank had never said anything of this sort to Tenn. He had never spoken the word “love.” The time was never right. He didn’t want to disturb him. His bad poetry embarrassed him. Frank was a tough guy from Jersey who worked construction, fought for his country, and imagined he might still have a kid or two someday, not to mention a woman to go along with those kids. He was afraid that once you gave something a name, it would turn on you. And maybe he knew, even then, that love was a currency he hadn’t spent all of yet, while Tenn had gone broke on Frank the first moment he saw him.

The sun forced itself on the windows. Up from the town came the clamor of church bells, and Tenn lunged for his desk. His chair dropped behind him with a thud. He stood and riffled through the stack of pages next to the typewriter and scribbled something, unaware that Frank was out of bed and walking naked in front of him.

Was this lunging the lightning strike of the new title, Orpheus

Descending? The first lines of Cat? Or just a scrap of dialogue he threw on the heap a minute later? Frank knew only as much of Tenn’s draft pages as he’d tell him, which some days was a lot—a character’s buried shame, a third-act revelation—and other days was nothing. Frank learned fast that to ask was to be denied, that the less interested he acted, the more likely Tenn was to pull a page from his typewriter, walk it out to the porch, and read it aloud to him. Mostly what he told Frank was that his writing was shit, that he was washed up, that he didn’t have another Streetcar in him and even Streetcar wasn’t the masterwork everyone thought it was, that no one worth a fig would finance another one of his plays, that he’d die poor and forgotten and not even Frank would come to his funeral, glad—giddy, in fact, relieved, ecstatic!—to be free of him. He’d fly into a rage at Frank for betraying him so heartlessly, for his secret wish to abandon him, and then, minutes later, he’d beg Frank’s forgiveness, remind him through tears of their many good years together—of Mr. Moon, of Duncan Street, of stepping off the boat in Genoa—and how many more of the good years awaited them if only he’d grant him one last reprieve. Please, Frank, please, he’d plead. Find it in your heart . . .

Frank was the palm tree in the hurricane, slashed and bent by the wind, pushed to the point of splitting, as he waited for the calm of the inevitable eye. This life with Tenn, though far from tranquil, taught him patience. Like Tenn, he fixed his hopes on the greatness of whatever tomorrow might bring—the next knockout, the next trip abroad, the next party, the next boy—and dismissed or distrusted what came before simply for belonging to the black-and-white past. Their future together promised color in bright bursts: an orange house in Liguria to return to next summer, the costumes on the set of Senso in the fall, one day the green rooftops of Marrakech, the turquoise water off the coast of Key West when they finally made it home.

“Let’s not make our new friends wait,” Frank called from the bathroom.

“You go on ahead,” said Tenn. “I’ll meet you on the beach.”

“I don’t want to go alone.”

To this Tenn offered no response. He was hunched over his desk again, biting his lip as he crossed out lines and wrote between them in his mad scrawl. Another lightning bolt. Frank gave him a quick kiss on the top of his head and stood another moment at his side, the only sound now their breathing and the shushing of pencil on paper. How lucky he was, Frank thought, to have another world to tunnel into. No matter that it couldn’t hold him or love him back. It was far more real to him, more urgent, more alive, than the world in which Frank buttoned his shirt, took one last look in the mirror, opened the door to the hallway, and shouted back, “Don’t be long.”

Adapted from Leading Men by Christopher Castellani. Published on February 12, 2019 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Christopher Castellani, 2019.

 

You Can’t Stop Mourning: Featured Poetry by Morgan Parker

Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Morgan Parker from her new book, Magical Negro. Parker’s previous book of poems, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, ends with the unpunctuated line “Why do you get up in the morning”—and Magical Negro offers playful and powerful answers. This ekphrastic piece follows conceptual artist Adrian Piper, whose “Everything” series pivoted from the poem’s enigmatic title. “Here are some ways in which,” Parker writes, “you are not free.” Her truncated lines often drift into our chests: we’ve been spoken to, and we want to hear more.

“Everything Will Be Taken Away      after Adrian Piper”
You can’t stop mourningeverything all the time.
The ’90s, the black Maxima with a tail,CD wrappers, proximity to the earth. 
Glamour and sweating in your sheets.Speaking tongues. Men, even. 
You are a woman nowbut you have always had skin.
Here are some ways in whichyou are not free: the interiors
are all wrong, you are a droughtsprawling. When you see god
you don’t like what you see.It is never enough to be born
again and again.
You like it at church whenstrangers hold your hand.
You have a mouth men bless.You look good enough to bury.

From Magical Negro. Reprinted with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2019 by Morgan Parker.

‘Bowlaway’: Featured Fiction from Elizabeth McCracken

For today’s fiction excerpt, we present a chapter from Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel Bowlaway, out tomorrow from Ecco. The title was featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview, with Edan Lepucki writing:

It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since McCracken published her first novel, The Giant’s House, perhaps because, since then, she’s given us two brilliant short story collections and one of the most powerful memoirs in recent memory. Her fans will no doubt rejoice at the arrival of this second novel, which follows three generations of a family in a small New England town. Bowlaway refers to a candlestick bowling alley that Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, calls “almost a character, reflecting the vicissitudes of history that determine prosperity or its opposite.” In its own starred review, Kirkus praises McCracken’s “psychological acuity.”

The Bowling Alley Under Glass

Salford was a city hard north of Boston, with a sliver of coastline just big enough to ramshackle the houses and web the occasional foot. Like Rome, it had been built among seven hills; unlike Rome, it was a swampy place, a city of fens and bogs. Eventually the founders knocked over most of the hills, shoved them into the bogs, declared them to be squares, and named each for the former hill at its heart. Pinkham Hill became Pinkham Square; Baskertop Hill, Baskertop Square. As for the bogs, they were nameless, then gone.

Former bog dwellers were left to wander the municipality. Prosperous beavers in their beaver coats muscled around Gibbs Square, looking as though they meant to withdraw their funds from the local banks; nesting birds lamented the coarse new immigrants in their neighborhood, like them bipedal but unwilling or unable to fly. Frogs hopped like idle thoughts past the saloon. Sometimes they went in: you had to check your bucket of beer before you poured. Animals, flushed from Salford’s pockets, were everywhere. Perhaps the Salford Devil was only some Yankee platypus whose habitat had been replaced by the dime store.

A whole colony of little bogbirds had been ousted from the swamp that became Phillipine Square. In their place was a vaudeville house, a grocery store, and a trolley stop, though the whole demesne still smelled of bog: damp and up-to-no-good.

Here Bertha Truitt declared she would build her alley.

“I am at home in a bog,” she said. “A bog is a woman by its nature.”

“And hills?” asked Jeptha Arrison worriedly. Jeptha of the Hospital! He had a sack of a head, damp eyes an eely gray, and a face that altogether seemed something caught in aspic. He stood next to Bertha on the new sidewalk of Phillipine Square, though the road wasn’t yet paved, and looked down at his shoes, frilled at the edges with mud. “That’ll make me sick.”

“What will?”

“Filth,” he said. He asked again, “What’s a hill?”

“Also a woman. There is no part of the earth that isn’t. Yes,” Bertha Truitt repeated, “I am at home in a bog.”

Hire Irish to lay brick, a doctor had told her in the hospital, and now she believed it like a superstition. The Irish called her Truitt, which they made a single syllable, Troot, and so she was known by most people: not Bertha Truitt or Miz or Mrs., not The Truitt Woman, not Mrs. Sprague once her husband arrived. The lack of honorific was the honorific: Troot. Troot runs a good house.

It took her two months to build the bowling alley. Nobody had seen a building go up with such speed, brick by brick, like knitting a sock. Truitt walked through every day, a distracted but bemused look on her face, as though she were looking not for progress but for a particular person long missing, and was preparing her face for the joke: What took you so long or I knew you’d turn up eventually or Hello, you.

Two stories and a cellar to the Truitt House. Look through the glass windows at the front, like the historic dioramas at the Salford Public Library. The title of this diorama is the Bowling Alley at Dawn. Eggshell light outside; inside, murky workingman dark. No windows except at the front: neither the rising of the sun nor its inevitable setting matter here. Balls turn. The earth (being a woman) might or might not.

There are six lanes to bowl upon. The floors are built of rock maple. At the end of the lanes is a ledge—a high wooden bench that runs the length of the wall—for the pinboys to alight upon while the bowlers bowl. Once the bowling alley has opened for the day, the pinboys will sit on the ledge like judges, or vultures, but not yet. Between lanes are three elevated cast-iron tracks—the ball returns—so the pinboys can bowl the balls back to the bowlers. The Bowling Alley at Dawn is a tidy place. The pins have been set. Only one pale matchstick pin has fallen over in the first lane. Impossible to know whether this is the carelessness of the pinboy, or the artist who made this diorama.

Nobody watches or waits. Nobody stands behind the wooden counter at the front—a large oak structure like a pulpit, with a spectacular cash register that looks ready to emit steam-powered music, a calliope of money. Nobody sits at the bar along the other wall, though the jar of pickled eggs glows like a fortune-teller. The tables and chairs in the middle of the room await lollygaggers. The ceilings are warehouse high, so that the eventual smoke coming off all those eventual people (cigarette, cigar, desire, effort) might be stored aloft. Six fluted iron columns for support, three left, three right. In the corner the first of the coin-op entertainments, a standing sculptoscope. Drop in a penny, bend to the brass goggles—you might expect to see a stereoptical Niagara Falls or Taj Mahal, but in the Bowling Alley at Dawn you see instead the Bowling Alley at Dawn in further miniature, complete with diminutive sculptoscope with its minuscule stereoptical view of the Bowling Alley at Dawn.

Below, the cellar is divided into rooms for storage. It smells of bog. The only thing of note is a broad-shouldered cast-iron safe, painted with flowers and the name of its maker (EXCELSIOR SAFE & LOCK CO., SALFORD MASS.) in excruciatingly beautiful cursive.

Upstairs, above the alleys, storage rooms east and west, with an apartment in the middle. When the sun rises—if the sun ever rises in the Bowling Alley at Dawn—the light will fall through the immense sash windows at the back onto the good furniture: an Eastlake sofa, an enamel table with turned legs, an iron bed. Even this room feels like a storehouse, the domestic objects in it arranged like unused furniture, the bathtub near the kitchen sink, the stove near the front door, the toilet in one of the closets. At the front of the building, the staircase down to the alley’s foyer, every step white, every riser green.

“For you?” the Irish foreman had asked Truitt, when shown the plans for the apartment. She had sketched them on what seemed to be the grease-stained wrapper of a sandwich; her governing aesthetic was symmetry. The foreman was embarrassed by how protective of her he felt, to own this emotion for which Truitt would have nothing but contempt: I do not need protection, Mr. Dockery, I look after myself.

“For pity’s sake,” she said. “No. It wouldn’t suit me at all. I plan to install a man.”

She’d found her man already, of course: Joe Wear, late of the cemetery. She had known from the moment she’d met him that he was a bowler to his very soul. He had that knack for pointless devotion; his body was built on bowling angles.

He’d visited her once in the hospital, had told her, “I won’t pinset. I pinset at Les Miserables. I could manage a house.” She turned to him with a gleaming expression, bright and greedy and promising as a collection plate. He said, “I never meant to end up in a graveyard. Bowling”—his voice broke, he repaired it—“is what I got.”

She hired him on the spot. All during construction he came to the alley, to give advice, to shake Bertha Truitt’s hand. Every handshake was a test, he knew. She was a prophet of bowling but she needed other people to love it, too.

“Jeptha Arrison will be the Captain of the Pinbodies,” she told him. That was her own word to describe the boys and men who set the candlepins. “Everyone else is yours to hire or fire. Do a good job,” she told him, “and one day the alley will come to you.”

There was something wrong with Jeptha Arrison—he was minuscule but had an enormous and lopsided head—and Joe Wear wasn’t sure he wanted to be joined to him in an alley wedding. There was something wrong with Joe Wear, too, but he knew how things worked. Everywhere else women bowled behind a curtain, to protect their modesty, to protect men from the spectacle of feminine sport. A steel curtain, so that you couldn’t even see the outline of waist or ankle.

“You want women in here, you’ll need a curtain,” he said.

“Well,” said Bertha, “I invented the game, so I suppose I make the rules.”

“How’s that?” he said.

“I invented this strain of bowling.”

She was older than he was, and would pay his salary, and for a moment he thought about agreeing, then found he was already saying, “Looks like ordinary candlepin to me.”

“It is not.”

“In Worcester—”

Truitt barked. With laughter? Not quite. With anger? No, she barked, a noise that meant who’s there and I’m here and nothing at all.

“I have never been to Worcester,” she said.

“Anyhow,” said Joe Wear. He could feel the long muscles of his arms spasming, and he crossed them. Not everyone would give him a job, never mind one of authority. He should be grateful and agreeable. But hadn’t he saved her from foolishness once? Hadn’t he been hired for his knowledge? “You’ll need a curtain,” he said again.

Bertha Truitt knew it was wrong to protect somebody else’s modesty. Your modesty was your own. “No curtain, Joe.”

“You’ll get gawkers.”

“Let ’em gawk.”

That was that.

Gawkers, gapers, gogglers, oglers! She couldn’t see them, she was ogle-blind. She rode a bicycle around the city in her split skirt and never wobbled even when the sidewalk boys hooted at her. She still found her way into people’s dreams, still dissolved in daylight. Perhaps she was a succubus or a vampire, the way she snuck into dreams and returned to Salford in daylight, reading the funny papers on the sidewalk, laughing so loud the pigeons scattered. She even appeared in the Salford Bugle itself, beneath the headline NEW BOWLING ESTABLISHMENT INVITES ALL WOMEN. In the photograph accompanying the article, Truitt seems to be in mourning, as all women of a certain bustline do: her very bosom grieves, and is brave, and soldiers on. Upon this bosom a bowling alley was founded.

She must have had ancestors. Everyone does. She seemed to have arrived in Salford sui generis, of her own kind, though of course genealogists don’t believe such a thing exists. No generation is ever spontaneous. We are none of us our own kind.

“I have been parented by pamphlets,” Bertha Truitt liked to say, not thinking that a bad thing. The pamphlets were outdated, quaint, quite often hateful. She was the oddest combination of the future and the past anyone had ever met.

Every month she opened the alleys for a fete. Beer and beef, oysters, pints of ice cream, brandy, a cake riddled with cherries, pies of all sorts (pork, treacle, kidney), more beer. Each fete lasted the entire day, was serially every kind of gathering: in the morning, a party for children, then a ladies’ lunch, then a tea, cocktails, then (as the day began to unravel) a light supper, a frolic, a soiree, a carousal, a blowout, a dance, and as people began to drink themselves sober, a conversation, an optimistic repentance, a vow for greatness, love. Sometimes the party circled around and began again, though on those days you had to be careful Bertha Truitt did not offer beer to your child: she liked children, but she made no concessions to them. These were the stories told later. Married people would say, Well, we got married three years ago, but we first met—we really met—at Truitt’s at either 10:00 or 2:00 A.M.

Truitt herself told no stories. In the middle of each party, she stood and picked cherries out of her slice of cake and looked hopefully at the door, happy enough at who she saw but never, it seemed, satisfied. Month after month, whoever she waited for stood her up.

The women of Truitt’s Alleys bowled right out in the open, a spectacle: LuEtta Mood, Hazel Forest, Mary Gearheart, Nora Riker, Bertha Truitt.

Nora Riker was a round-headed square-bodied woman of twenty-nine, as alfalfa-scented and jostling as a goat. She was married to a similarly sawed-off hard-cornered man named Norman. In public they wrestled. There didn’t seem to be anything carnal in it nor any meanness; they tumbled like goats, like Airedales. Even playing whist they shoved each other, guffawed. Even dancing. She was looking for a game she could beat him at.

Hazel Forest was a suffragette like Bertha. At least, Hazel thought Bertha was; they had met on a march, though she later realized that Bertha would join any march at any time, if she happened to be nearby: she liked the chance to walk and holler simultaneously. Hazel had the spectacles of a suffragette, and the bitter sense of humor, made bitterer by her job as a surgical nurse at the Salford Hospital. She’d surveyed the inside of bodies and was always threatening to tell other women what she had seen.

Mary Gearheart was the youngest, seventeen. Her father owned the vaudeville house. She had small eyes and a big mouth, like a carnivorous mouse. She bowled to keep her hands busy. To keep the throwing, smashing part of her brain busy, too.

LuEtta Mood was beautiful. She’d heard it was possible to bowl away sorrow.

Truitt bowled because the earth was an ocean and you had to learn to roll upon it.

“I do not wear the corset,” Truitt told LuEtta Mood, Mary Gearheart, Hazel Forest, Nora Riker. They had never met a woman like her. She spread her wings to display herself. “The corset confuses the organs. Besides, the game of candlepin is a boon to the female form. It trims the waist, firms the arm, and lifts the bust. Regard me.”

The women did, worriedly. Bertha Truitt was a plump five and a half feet tall, her uncorsetted torso rhomboid, sensual. They all knew the story of her arrival in the cemetery; Mary said she’d heard she’d been found with the body of her dead child, and that candlepin bowling was the peculiar way she’d gone mad with grief.

“Sorry,” Mary had said to LuEtta Mood, who had her own dead child, and LuEtta waved the apology and the fact away.

They had no idea how old Truitt was. Older than them, younger than their mothers, mesmerizing.

“Now watch my form,” Truitt said. They did, they did. Her shoes were off, her hat was on—already she was famous in Salford for her hats, which she had special made. Today’s hat was navy blue and waffled; today, she was a member of a foreign navy. She bowled in rolled shirtsleeves. Her right forearm was carved of oak, her left one of marble. Seven steps, and then delivery. Jeptha Arrison, up on the pinboys’ shelf, wrung his hands. They all watched the ball make its way down the lane.

“You got a wrong foot approach there, Troot,” called the orphan Joe Wear. What he meant: usually a left-handed bowler makes her last step with her right foot; Bertha Truitt bowled and stepped with her whole left side. It shouldn’t have worked. She knocked down six pins. Joe gave a low whistle and Jeptha Arrison echoed it, like birdcall, a nervous avian declaration.

“Thanks, Joe,” Truitt said lightly, to the pins—Joe wouldn’t have been able to hear her—then turned to look at her team. Like Nora Riker, she wanted to win. She just wanted to win everything of all time.

The invention of a sport: here is a ball, now throw it through that net, if those other guys’ll let you. Here is a bat: somebody’s going to throw a ball at you and you knock it away and run, if those other guys’ll let you. Here is a tiny ball and a stick and out of view beyond that grassy hill is a ball-size hole: you figure it out.

Here is a ball. Heft it in your hand. Nobody’s going to stop you. Some man might call out with advice, too much advice, but in the end it’s your game to play and your game to win.

Bertha Truitt picked up the second ball of the frame and tested the weight in her hand, a little toss, then brought it up and touched just the plump underside of her chin with just the cool curve at the top of the ball. She looked at how the pins lay, four standing, interlaced with the dead wood. Then she bowled.

The ball knocked over three more pins, and Joe Wear whistled again, lower, graver. He came over to watch; he stood behind the women, who sat on the rush-seated benches as though at church. LuEtta Mood asked, over her shoulder, “Is that good?” In the dark of the alley her hair shone like polished brass. It irked Joe Wear.

“I’d say so.”

In those days to knock down nine pins in candlepin bowling was a feat, no matter your age or sex or waistline. The balls were smaller, the pins narrower, the approaches not oiled or even varnished, just rough fricative wood.

The third ball knocked over the last pin. “Ten box!” said Joe Wear.

Jeptha Arrison dropped down to the wood to reset, fetched the balls and bowled them back along the return, started resetting the pins on their metal deck.

“Good roll, Troot!” he called. “A real good one.”

“All right, pinbody,” she called back fondly. Nobody had a more interesting head than Jeptha. “Set ’em up.”

The women watched Bertha Truitt bowl an entire game till they fell into the rhythm. You set your brain to bowling time and got caught up in the serial nature of it. Three balls a frame, ten frames a string. They hadn’t realized that bowling was so full of suspense. A story: our hero (the ball) sets out on his journey (the approach), travels the length of his world until he runs into trouble, acquits himself well or badly, end of chapter.

Turn the page!

The only pause was at the end of every frame, when Jeptha Arrison jumped down to pluck the balls from the pit, then set the pins back up on the plate.

“Seventy-seven!” Joe Wear called out when Bertha had finished her first string.

“No thank you, Joe!” Bertha Truitt called back. “No score, thank you!”

Well, that was like a woman, wasn’t it. No score.

What she wanted was a kind of greatness that women were not allowed. If they were allowed a small measure of it, they had to forsake love. She forsook nothing

Excerpt from Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken. Copyright 2019 by Elizabeth McCracken. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

‘Castle on the River Vistula’: Featured Fiction by Michelle Tea

Today, we’re excited to launch a new series of fiction excerpts at The Millions. And to kick things off, we present the first two chapters of Michelle Tea’s Castle on the River Vistula, the third book in her Chelsea Trilogy, out Tuesday from McSweeney’s McMullens. The title was featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview, with Ed Simon writing:
Protagonist Sophie Swankowski’s journeys in Tea’s young adult Chelsea Trilogy will come to an end in Castle on the River Vistula, when the 13-year-old magician journeys from her home in Massachusetts to Poland, the birthplace of her friend “the gruff, filthy mermaid Syrena.” Tea is an author familiar with magic, having penned Modern Tarot: Connecting with Your Higher Self through the Wisdom of the Cards, and she promises to bring a similar sense of the supernatural in Sophie’s concluding adventures.
Castle on the River Vistula
As the girl and the mermaid swam toward the mouth of the river Vistula, the landscape around them grew lush and green with underground gardens of weeds: forests of bladder wrack, their branches dotted with bean-like bulbs of air; wide leaves of sugar kelp, their edges frilled as clamshells. Bright, grassy sprigs of seaweed sprouted in between coral, like shoots breaking through cracks in a Chelsea sidewalk. Everywhere, long, flat ribbons of sea wrack undulated on the currents, over rolls of verdant algae that looked like spring meadows.

“All right,” Syrena said, pulling her tail in front of her and coming to a halt. “We stop here for some business.”

“What sort of business?” Sophie asked, eyes wide. In all their underwater travels they had never stumbled upon such a fertile-looking seascape. Poking in and out of the drifting fronds Sophie spotted the fat bellies of jellyfish and scrabbling, big-eyed crabs; a tiny, pokey fish darted behind a weed before Sophie could even tell what color it was.

Syrena removed the heavy backpack she’d been carrying for Sophie, setting it gently between a couple stands of coral. She tugged it open, and began stuffing it full of seaweed.

“Come, you help. Gather as much of the weeds as you can.” She lifted from Sophie’s tangles the octopus that had been her companion for much of their long journey through the sea. “You, too. You have many legs, you can help lots.”

Sophie watched as the octopus pulsed through the waters, grabbing at leaves with his many curling tentacles. Then she shrugged and joined the harvest. She tugged up tough handfuls of seagrass that nearly cut her palms. She rolled leaves of sugar kelp into thick, wobbly tubes. She reached out and snatched sea wrack as it floated past, and uprooted so much bladder wrack she could hardly wrap her hands around it. The backpack bulged with vegetation, tendrils spilling out the top. Syrena used all her might to squash the plants down, loading more in on top until the flaps could not be buckled, and the octopus was employed to splay itself across the top, its many legs stretched long, holding the bounty in.

“Now you,” Syrena motioned to the girl. “I’m tired of that thing bumping and banging over me.”

Sophie gaped at the backpack.  It had begun as an oversize, saggy sack drooping with the weight of the laptop she’d salvaged from the crashing submarine. Sophie got chills as she remembered locking eyes with the desperate scientist, how he wordlessly pleaded with her to take the computer so that at least his work would survive—even if he wouldn’t. A terrible moment, but she had done as he’d asked, and the mermaid had done her the favor of lugging it through the waters. But now that she’d stuffed the thing fat as a trashbag of raked New England leaves in autumn, she wanted Sophie to be the one to haul it?

“You want me to carry that?” Sophie asked.

“Is not heavy,” Syrena said. “It only, how you say, awkward.”

“How am I supposed to swim with that thing weighing me down?”

Syrena scoffed. “You no swim. Water swim for you. Come now, don’t be baby. Look how hard little octopus is helping! You can at least work as hard as baby octopus, ya?”

Sophie felt annoyed by the sparkle in Syrena’s eyes as she bent down and laced her arms through the shoulder straps. The mermaid was right, it wasn’t very heavy, but it was ridiculously cumbersome and almost knocked Sophie backward before she caught her balance.

The mermaid giggled. “Now who look silly in backpack?”

“Why are we even doing this?” Sophie sulked. “Is there no food in Poland? Aren’t we going to be swimming a river? Won’t there be tons of stuff to eat along the banks?”

Syrena’s face grew still at Sophie’s questioning; all teasing, all giggles, vanished. She was the stoic mermaid again, the one Sophie had first found in the creek—somber, serious, even gloomy.

“Sophie.” Sometimes the mermaid’s words seemed to spout from her mouth like her language was carried in her cheeks; other times they seemed dredged from the pit of her gut. The way the mermaid spoke her name gave Sophie the shivers.

“What is it? Why are you looking at me that way?”

“You know, I tell you before, your body been through very much. Your body, your mind, your heart. You been through so much, Sophie.”

“Yeah,” Sophie tried to shrug, but the backpack pressed down on her shoulders. “But I’m okay.”

“The sea water help you. The salt nurture you, help to work against the bad effects of everything that happen. From back in Chelsea, when Kishka attack the creek, to even right now. When you change into shark, Sophie, when you change into mermaid, all these things take toll, ya? When you confront the Invisible. When you go inside the heart of Blooughadda.”

“How did you know I did that?” Sophie gasped.

“Is not bad, is fine. Is fine to visit whatever heart you like, Sophie. It only take toll. The heart of a Billow Maiden a rough, wild place.”

“Tell me about it,” Sophie mumbled, remembering Bloo’s heart, how raw and hot and vast it was.

“We will be leaving the ocean shortly,” Syrena said. “Take a peek above the waters, if you like. Go ahead.”

Sophie was surprised to find herself hesitant. She hadn’t been above the waters in what felt like months, years, a lifetime. She had entered the creek in Chelsea one girl, and now, as they prepared to swim into the mouth of the river, she was another girl entirely. Slowly she kicked her legs against the water, rising upward, the light growing brighter as she ascended, illuminating everything around her. She could see herself more clearly—her kicking, scuffed-up legs; her bare toes; the once-lovely linen jumper the Ogresses had fashioned for her, now in tatters. Her head tilted back, Sophie saw blue, a new blue, sharp and wide. Sophie saw the sky. At the sight of it she gasped, inhaling a mouth full of salty seawater. She broke the surface of the Baltic sputtering, her eyes tearing, her lungs heaving. Sunlight—sunlight!—caught the droplets that shook from her as she coughed, like bits of molten gold.

It took Sophie a few minutes to adjust to the brightness of daytime on earth. Her eyes ached; she could feel them pulse as they struggled to shift from the ocean’s ambient darkness to this violent glare. She stared back down at the water, away from the sky, while they calibrated to this new environment. Slowly, she looked up.

Trees, and beyond the trees, meadow. She hadn’t seen such green, such verdant, living green, in a long time. Actually, considering she’d come from Chelsea—not the greenest place on the planet—maybe she’d never seen so much unbroken, unsullied green. There’d been the green of the seaweed forest they’d just harvested, but that was a dark and murky green. These trees, these leaves and grasses, were every shade of green, most of them such a sharp tone it practically made Sophie’s mouth water. She realized she was hungry. Hungry for earth food. Hungry for—a salad? Yes! Sophie wanted to fill her mouth with living green things torn from their roots. Were she able to reach those trees, still very far away, she would have pulled handfuls of leaves from their branches and stuffed them into her mouth like popcorn.

The water beside Sophie rippled as Syrena’s dark head broke the water.  “Arghch!” the mermaid yelped as the bright sun assaulted her eyes. She closed them, rubbing them furiously with her translucent fists. She stared down at the rippling waters, then slowly raised her face to the sky, shading her eyes with her hand.

“Polska,” Syrena said as she gazed at the green, and her voice held all the sheen of the sunlight on the water.

“It’s beautiful,” Sophie marveled. “I’ve never seen a place so pretty. It’s making me hungry for human food!”

“Oh, the food the people eat in Poland!” Syrena laughed. “Sausage and pierogi and sauerkraut and cakes with tiny poppy seeds and bigos and soups with mushrooms and soups with cucumbers, or beet soup, and kasha. Long ago they eat bear, ya? Bear paws with spicy roots, or tongue of the bear.”

“I was more thinking I’d like a salad, actually,” Sophie said, scrunching her face at the thought of eating paws or tongue.

“You might have to magic yourself some salad,” Syrena laughed. “Much food in Polska, but not much salad. Look—” The mermaid grabbed Sophie by her bulging backpack and spun her around in the water. Off to the right, clustered around the water’s edge, was a rust-colored town. If she squinted, Sophie could make out the spires of churches or castles or towers, the reddish color stained pale green by time.

“Is Gdansk,” Syrena said proudly, as if she had built the town with her own hands.

“Are we going there?” Sophie asked.

“Nie. Is not along our way. But just to see. A beautiful city, ya?”

“Yeah,” Sophie nodded. From where she bobbed in the water, it looked like a fairy-tale place, something seen only in the very oldest books. Syrena, her hand still gripping Sophie’s pack, spun the girl back around so that her eyes were filled with green.

“You see there?” The mermaid pointed to the place where the ocean cut into the green land like a wide, blue road. “That is River Vistula. That is my home. More than Polska, or Warszawa, River Vistula my home. I cannot believe we here. And that you here too, Sophie.” The mermaid paused and stared at the girl, and Sophie was unnerved by her stare. Above the water Sophie’s pale blue eyes were nearly silver, and in the sun they all but vanished.

“What is it?” Sophie said. “You’re creeping me out.”

“Sophie, the Vistula not salt water. Is fresh water.”

“Okay,” Sophie said. “So?”

“Salt water will be with us for little while, but not long. Gone very soon. Then you have the sea plants, ya?” The mermaid hit the sack of vegetation strapped to Sophie’s back. “They contain salt. Good for you to eat, to chew on, suck on, just keep in mouth maybe. Look.” With considerable effort, the mermaid lifted her weight of hair from the waters. Sophie could see strips of sea plants woven in and out of the thick tangles. “I bring more, I bring much as I can, ya? But we must swim the river quickly. We must get you to salt castle, and to Tadeusz. You will begin to feel sick on this river, ya? But you will fight it, you will suck the salt from these plants, you will swim very fast, we both will, ya?”

Sophie ingested all that the mermaid was telling her. She knew she was being called to be strong, and she bolstered herself. She could swim fast, she could command the waters to move very quickly. She would eat this whole giant bag of seaweed if it gagged her. She wouldn’t complain. The iciness of the mermaid signaled how serious this was, and Sophie made herself icy in reply.

“Of course,” she said. “I can do it. Let’s go.”

“Wait,” Syrena stilled her. “Another change. Sadly.”

“What?” Sophie’s heart thumped quickly inside her. She didn’t want so many changes. Although she’d known all along that the purpose of this epic journey was to reach Poland, leave the mermaid, and train to destroy Kishka, the ancient source of evil in the world who decided to show up this lifetime as her grandmother, Sophie had become accustomed to the rhythms of the ocean, the company of Syrena. Why couldn’t she just travel the deep forever, living a mermaid lifestyle, never mind Kishka, never mind whatever magic Sophie had inherited, whatever massive effort was expected of her just because she happened to be half-Odmieńce. Sophie never asked to be the saver of the world! She was just a kid! Really she should be back in Chelsea, wandering the halls of Chelsea High, a freshman, getting slammed into lockers by mean girls and dogged by awful boys, prepping her brain so that she could someday get out and go to college and live a normal life, whatever that was. If Sophie couldn’t shrug off her massive duty in order to live as a mermaid then—suddenly—she wished she could return to the daily misery of her old life. Enduring the taunts and bullying of her town’s roughnecks was surely preferable to taking on the ultimate evil of the universe. Right?

Syrena had moved behind her and unfastened the octopus from the backpack, causing ribbons of seaweed to unfurl into the water, floating away. She brought the creature to Sophie.

“Octopus not coming with, Sophia. Can’t live in freshwater. Is saltwater creature, ocean creature. Ya? You understand?”

The octopus, it seemed, understood. It wrapped its tentacles around the mermaid’s neck and gave her a long nuzzle, the dome of its head snug in her neck.

“Oh!” The mermaid laughed. “Such sweet creature! To think I expect you to eat it once, when was just a baby octopus! Friend, I pledge to never eat octopus again, ya? In your honor. You will be sacred friend of the mermaid, ya?” Syrena stroked the octopus lovingly with her long, pale fingers, and untangled its tentacles from around her neck, holding it out to Sophie. “Say your goodbye.”

Sophie’s eyes were full of tears at the sight of the octopus, hanging there before her in the mermaid’s hands, his tentacles undulating around him. What a strange and silent comfort he’d been on this journey, helping revive them from Kishka’s illusions and attacks with his wise head-rubbing, from his time as a baby until now. The octopus was full of love. Sophie took him from the mermaid and clutched him to her desperately, the tears in her eyes flowing into the sea around them.

“You are the best octopus friend I’ll ever have,” Sophie said, snot clogging her nose and her eyes all stinging and blurred. “Thank you for being with me. I wish I could come visit you someday but I don’t know how I ever could. The ocean is so big. Where will you go? Where will you live?”

The octopus took a tentacle and placed it over the girl’s jabbering mouth, causing the mermaid to sputter with laughter.

“Octopus be all right!” Syrena said. “Octopus be in the sea, is where they belong.”

Sophie smiled at her friend and nodded her head. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t worry about you. But I’ll miss you. I’ll never, ever forget you.”

The octopus took his tentacle and pointed it back at himself in agreement, causing more tears to leak from Sophie’s face. She felt like Dorothy in the stupid Wizard of Oz or something. As she went to release the octopus from her grasp the creature swam closer, and with deliberation placed all its tentacles on Sophie’s head. A last massage? she thought, but as the cephalopod brought its beak into view, Sophie had a flash of the deep-sea Vulcan, the octopus that had healed both her and Syrena and given her visions, shown her everything that was going on back home in Chelsea while she was on the other side of the world, at the bottom of the sea. Was her sweet little octopus friend about to do the same? Were all octopuses magic, exhaling their very own crystal balls into the sea?

Apparently so. From the octopus’s hidden black beak emerged a small bubble of air that grew in size as it floated toward Sophie. She braced herself—braced her heart—for a glimpse of her mother, or her best friend, Ella, or Aunt Hennie or Angel or her odd sister, her twin, like looking in a mirror and seeing a stranger. But the girl in the bubble was someone Sophie had never seen before. Her hair was long and glossy-dark, spanning out around her head in a way Sophie recognized. The girl was underwater, just like Sophie: no tank of oxygen, no breathing tube. She was smiling, happy, perhaps playing. When Sophie saw who her playmate was she inhaled sharply, and shouted for Syrena.