by Elizabeth Graver

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From a small, bogside cabin in rural New England, 38-year-old Aimee Slater unravels the story of her life, attempting to make sense of the tangled thread that leads from her mother's house-a short, unbridgeable distance away-to the world she now inhabits. It is soon after the Civil War; Aimee lives alone, but is graced with visits from two friends, a crippled man and a troubled eleven-year-old girl. She is perpetually caught between the sensual world she so desires and the divine retribution passed down to her by her mother's scorn. How Aimee ultimately creates a life for herself and bridges that distance makes for a moving story of love and loss. Told in a voice of spare New England lyricism, Unravelling is a remarkably haunting account of the power of redemption.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156006101
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 08/12/1999
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 316
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

ELIZABETH GRAVER is the author of Unravelling and The Honey Thief. She teaches at Boston College and lives in Massachusetts

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

This for the two stones inside me,
The two shadows gone from me--
That they may begin to understand.

    At night, because it is summer and the air is hot and close, the mosquitoes float like snowflakes over the bog. I step onto the peat, which gives like a mattress, and the insects circle me in clouds. When I was a child playing here, my flesh was plump and sweet and they flocked to me and drank my blood; now I am no longer a girl, but still they swarm me. On my bog there is heat lightning, and lightning bugs too, blinking across the pond which grows bigger one year, smaller the next. In the beginning I thought that pond would mark my life, its circle growing smaller every year, hemmed in by the peat until it was only a puddle, a drop, a memory in the sludge. Then I noticed how the mass of floating land inched forward one year only to inch back the next.

    My mother liked to say that life is a long straight road if you live it right, but mine has turned and tumbled. In 1829, when I was born, she picked my name from an article in The Ladies' Pearl. Aimee. At Factory Improvement Circle, I learned how in French it meant Loved. My mother did not know.

    "It was a lady's name," she told me. "You were born with fingernails like a lady's. You waved your fingers in the air and howled like you owned the world."

    First I was loved, like my name. Then I was unloved. Now I have Amos and Plumey who visit me, the village cripple and the village orphan, as they are known in town. I have my rabbits who give me fur to spin into yarn. I have my house, built to last, chickens who leave me eggs, clear vision and a strong back, a mother I never see. Amos brings me trinkets and sings me songs about pretty girls, though I have lived thirty-eight years on this earth.

    In beauty I am no longer a great believer, nor proud the way I used to be. It is a fact that I was prettier than most at the factory, pretty as an angel, I was told. When the strangers came through, the factory owners from England looking at how it was done, I was one of the girls who was led to the front looms and asked to demonstrate. When the men from Washington came through, I was one of the girls to carry the banner: "Welcome to the City of Spindles." We wore white muslin dresses with blue sashes that day. We carried parasols edged in green. We marched singing to the factory: "How Doth the Busy Bee." Afterwards they made us give the dresses back.

    I wove that, I wanted to say, or if not that one, then one like it. I knotted the knots when the thread broke, and ran from one crashing loom to another, and threaded the two thousand weft threads until my fingers swelled like rising dough.

    Mine, I wanted to say.

    I only looked like an angel.

    Perhaps if I had been named something else, things would have turned out differently. I might have been named Charity, or Faith, perhaps, or Grace. But Grace can go crooked and Charity is often no more than a guilty conscience, and of Faith I have my portion--or would I still be waiting every day?

    This morning, like most mornings, I make my way over the peat and wash my face in the dark green water of the pond at the center of the bog. Once a fortnight in the mild seasons I bathe there, too, and if I raise my leg to see the kiss of a black leech or feel a water snake circle my ankle, I do not shriek the way I would have as a child, do not flounder and splash and make the birds cock their heads toward my voice. A leech is a leech; a water snake, a water snake. I am in the habit. My body in the water is as bare as when I was born, and if they come while I am bathing--if the tribes of boys or some hunters spot me there--I try to take no notice, but keep cleaning myself with my sponge of brownish moss.

    The hunters, when they see me bathing, crash like awkward bears into the woods. The boys, when they come, usually hide behind trees and peek at me, but today they grow brave and start to chant:

There once was a woman
and what do you think?
Bok bok bok!
She lived upon nothing
but victuals and drink.
Bok bok bok!
And though victuals and drink
were the whole of her diet,
this dirty woman
would never keep quiet!

    Then they stick out their necks, fold their arms into their armpits and flap like chickens. "Never mind them," I can hear Amos saying, though he is not there. "Just a stupid song they'll sing about anybody. They didn't even make it up."

    But later, when they are gone and the song is still circling my head, I must wonder: What do most people live on? What do I?

    "Victuals," I might have told the boys, "and drink and love."

    The chickens and rabbits are scrambling with hunger, so I feed them. The twig brooms I started yesterday are crooked, so I trim them. In this way, the hours pass. It is almost noon when Amos comes to me with blueberries and sits down for a cleaning. They did a poor job of it, the doctors who cut and sewed him up. Over the years the skin on the end of his thigh has healed in deep folds like the inside of a navel. Amos will not clean himself, says it makes the bile in his stomach rise. He sits on a log stool by my door and unpins his coverall leg, and I lower myself down, kneel, and lean over the place where he lost his calf to gangrene, the surface veined and marbled with a month of stubborn dirt.

    "You'll lose the rest of it," I tell, "the way you treat it."

    "Clean," says Amos, "or I'll throw the berries to the birds."

    He tries to whistle a birdsong, but it comes out thin and plain.

    "The blueberries come in strong this year?" I ask him. I dip my rag in the water he has carried in a bucket from the bog pond and begin to wipe.

    He shakes his head. "I found you all there is in the state of New Hampshire. Spent a week going after them."

    "I found some myself," I say, "with Plumey--the low, wild ones. We meant to pick enough for a pie, but we kneeled right down and ate them there."

    "If you have found honey," Amos tells me in his holy voice, "eat only enough for you, lest you be sated with it and vomit."

    He was studying to be a preacher before he lost his leg, and with it the love of a woman and all faith in the workings of the Lord.

    "Stay still," I tell him, for he is squirming, the skin still tender, he says, after all these years, the ghost of his leg still begging to be scratched.

    The bog water is cloudy in the bucket but clear on my rag--strong, preserving water; bodies in the bog do not decay. Cows have been found along the bottom whole years after they went missing, still with flesh on their bones and their brandings left intact. People, too, though not in my lifetime. A witch, they say, with recipes for potions scratched needle-thin up and down her body. A hunter with his quiver of arrows still strapped to his back. No maggots and worms do their speedy work here. Water like this does not forget.

    I pour the water over the skin, into the scarred folds so that they fill like rivers at melting time, then run into a waterfall down where his calf should be. Between my fingers I mash some jewelweed and rub my fingertips stained green with juices along the ridges of his stump to keep the rash away.

    Month after month I have tended Amos's leg, year after year. In the beginning, he would hardly look at me, his mouth pressed in a bitter line, but then one day he must have felt how my hands were touching him where he would not even touch himself, for his hands moved from where they were clenched at his sides to rest lightly on my head.

    I did not smile or look up, except deep inside myself. I cleaned.

    He did not ask me to do it, the first time--so many years ago by now. He had fallen in the woods, not far from my house, and I found him with his wooden leg cradled in his arms, his wound new then, the bandage come undone, attracting flies. I brought a bucket of water to where he was, cleaned him off, wrapped him up. He was silent, went off just like that, but the next month he returned with a jug of cider strapped to his back, sat by my house and rolled up his trouser leg. That was the start of us; soon the town was talking. Soon Amos was staying through the night.

    "Say another part of the Book," I tell him now, not because I want to learn how to walk on the righteous path, but because I have been hearing those words for longer than I can remember and love the turnings of his voice.

    He grins, shifts on the log that is his seat, and says, "Your lips distill nectar, my bride. Honey and milk are under your tongue. The scent of your garments is the scent of Lebanon."

    "Another part," I say.

    "Why not this?"

    "No nectar in the cupboard, and I'm not a bride."

    And Amos answers, "All right, the scent of your garments is the scent of your rabbits?"

    I cannot help smiling.

    "And you have snakes under your tongue?"

    I open my mouth and lift my tongue. Amos peers, but when he gets close I clamp my mouth shut.

    "Nothing," I say. "No honeybees or snakes."

    "They're just hiding," says Amos. "Let me see."

    He cups my chin and tries to kiss me.

    "Stop," I laugh. "I have to wash you. You'd think we were children."

    "Come here, pretty girl."

    "I'm no girl."

    "But pretty."

    I believe Amos when he says he likes how the skin around my eyes shows the prints of where I've been. We get better and better, like fine wine, he said to me last week, and I pictured how vinegar turns to cider, cider to wine--rich, full, and only slightly bitter. Time, I thought, as I lay in Amos's arms, is supposed to smooth the edges of all things, so why am I so jagged sometimes, still, so filled with shards?

    Now I lean forward and run my finger down his face, over the curve of his steep nose, along the cleft above his lip. He is older than I am by four years. His face is scarred from the pox, lined from the weather; his hands are rough from work. But his eyes are the deep, keen gray of slate after a rainstorm--slate flecked with the yellow hanging-ons of moss.

    "Can't stay," he says, nibbling my palm. "Too much work to do."

    "It can't wait?"

    He shakes his head.

    "What is it?"

    "A new henhouse door at the Bacons'. A fox keeps getting through."

    "The Bacons?"

    "They came a few months ago, related to the Prescotts somehow, living over on Osterhold's land."

    "How many of them?"

    "A Mister and Missus and four or five little porkers. And the mother, they brought her along. I saw her coming from the church."

    "An old lady?"

    He shrugs. "Not so old, old enough. Like some other mothers." He pauses to let his silence gather, but I will not linger there.

    "Time to go," I say briskly, though we both know he is not going anywhere. I must still wind his leg with bandage, pick up the wooden part, strap it on with the leather thongs and let the blue cloth fall. I must cover him up until he becomes something the people will look at when he goes to town. I will wash him clean as the inner petals of a bud.

    "Get along," I say, but I take my own sweet time.

    On the beams of my house are things I have not thrown away: a shell comb, a brooch pin wound with hair, a blue sash, letters from my mother. Over the door hangs my rifle, my powderhorn, and bullet pouch. At night, sometimes, I bring the rabbits in to sleep with me; there are foxes in the woods, and owls. In the twelve feet by twelve feet of my house, my rabbits eat from my hand. I give them oats and barley, apples, corn and carrots. Outside, milkweed and lupine could kill them, mudholes could suck them down. "Shush," I say, stroking back their ears. Near the door I have hung a salt lick on a piece of wire. When I set the blind one before it, she lifts her nose and sniffs, then licks, and I watch as she tastes comfort in its roughest shape, the salt of tears and skin.

    Plumey, who has no parents, sleeps in town, in the Doctor's house. Amos sleeps, most nights, in his cottage at the foot of Red Skunk Hill. My father is under the ground, not preserved in the bog. My brother Jeremiah died of consumption when I was still at the mills; my sister Harriet died of a thickness of the blood after I had come back and moved into this house. They lie beside my father in the churchyard. My brothers Thomas and John live out West--a place I cannot picture and will never see. And my mother? Just through the fields, over the hill, living out her days with my brother Luke in the house where I grew up. A few heartbeats, a short walk, an impossible distance away.

    Still, it must be said that in my way, I am rarely alone. My thoughts have been dense with voices, thick with bodies, and I have heard coughs and hiccups, breaths and cries and other things. Sometimes the crowd inside my head makes the days move faster. Other times the days move slowly, and I worry that I am nothing but a stubborn woman spiraling in on herself--the way they must think of me in town.

    Mostly the days move like days, and sometimes I gather things to eat or tend the animals, and sometimes I sit with Plumey on the bank, and sometimes I lie back on my bed with my knees bent up, as if I were birthing. Or I lie on my side with my head bowed and my knees tucked to my chest, as if I were waiting to be born.

Reading Group Guide

1. Unravelling is a contemporary novel set in the nineteenth century. In what ways does it feel modern? In what ways does it seem to be about another time and place? Do you think that girls and women today struggle with similar issues and concerns? What links do you see between Unravelling and other recent novels set in the past, such as Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Jane Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, or Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain?

2. The novel opens with an epigraph: "This for the two stones inside me/The two shadows gone from me/That they may begin to understand" (p.l). How does the image of the stones reveal Aimee's struggles throughout the novel? How do you interpret the image of thread, which begins in the title, appears again when Aimee leaves for the mills (p.108), and reappears after she gives birth (p.217)? What other images have stayed in your mind?

3. Aimee says, "I could have been born a child who walked the middle road; instead I needed both solitude and touch with a hunger that left me breathless, split in two" (p.250). What is it about the world Aimee lives in that makes her dual desires for solitude and touch so difficult to negotiate? How do her relationships with Jeremiah, William Tanning, her mother, Amos, and Plumey reflect or contradict this description of herself?

4. Unravelling is full of stories: the fairy tales Aimee's mother tells her in Chapter Five; the accounts of the mill that Aimee gathers from various sources before she goes; the story Plumey finally manages to relate about her past. Why does storytelling seem to be such an important activity for these characters? How dothe two fairy tales illuminate the themes of the novel? Do stories tend to help the characters or lead them astray? To whom is Aimee telling her own story, and why?

5. The Lowell textile mills were one of the first planned industrial communities in the United States and allowed young women from all over New England to leave home, earn money, and gain some independence for the first time. Yet the mills were also places of long hours, strict regimens, enforced behavior, and dangerous working conditions. Overall, what was your reaction to them? Do you think Aimee would have been better off heeding her mother's advice and staying home? Did she have any other options?

6. After she returns from the mills, Aimee says that the mere thought of her mother fills her "with a rage so distilled I felt it like a fine-ground powder in the marrow of my bones." How do you understand Aimee's anger toward her mother? Is it justified? Why did it endure for so long? What makes this mother/daughter relationship so tense and complicated? In what ways are the two characters different? In what ways are they alike?

7. Unravelling is narrated from two distinct points of view: that of the young Aimee as she struggles with her desires and goes forth into the world, and that of the middle-aged Aimee living by the bog. What purpose does this dual perspective serve? Were you equally interested in both portions of Aimee's life? How would the story be different if one strand were missing?

Copyright (c) 1999. Published in the U.S. by Harcourt, Inc.

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