Heather Tucker’s debut novel, The Clay Girl, is a beautiful tour de force about a child, sculpted by kindness, cruelty, and the extraordinary power of imagination, and her families — the one she’s born into and the one she creates. It follows the story of eight-year-old Hariet, known to all as Ari, who — despite being from an abusive family and denied the comfort of her loving, supportive aunt — defies the odds and is able to love and be loved.
Chosen as an Indies Introduce Summer/Fall 2016 pick, The Clay Girl is a definite must-read!
“In Ari Appleton, Heather Tucker has created an unforgettable little girl whose resilience in the face of heartbreaking circumstances is remarkable. The Clay Girl tackles a difficult subject with tenderness, empathy and unflinching honesty.” — Lynne Kutsukake, author of The Translation of Love
“WOW! Incredible writing meets an absolutely devastating story in this amazing poetic debut novel. The struggle to overcome brutal emotional and physical trauma in childhood colours every aspect of the lives of the Appleton sisters. Tucker’s writing is edgy, sparse, and inventive as she expertly shows us the inner thoughts and workings of a truly dysfunctional family that manages to maintain hope and grace despite incredible odds. Achingly beautiful!” — Phyllis Spinale of Wellesley Books
“Ari Appleton has been dealt the worst hand ever in terms of parents: her dad is an incestuous pedophile who’s both charismatic and cruel, and her mother is an incredibly egocentric addict who bore six girls and has not an iota of love for anyone but herself. But Ari attracts goodness and mines kindness even from the most surprising people, and because she is a story weaver, she reroutes her own story. Ari moves away from the drug culture and sexual revolution in Toronto in the 1960s to Pleasant Cove, an idyllic place where she is surrounded by love and nurturing. This novel is full of those take-away-your-breath lines, the ones you want to write down and keep in your pocket for when you need them. Ari joins the ranks of heroines like Lyra Belacqua or Liesel Meminger, girls who take the worst society has to offer and turn it into strength and kindness.” — Linda Sherman-Nurick, Cellar Door Bookstore (Riverside, CA)
The Clay Girl
My sister-house collapsed—again. Our aunties collected us up.
St. Patrick’s midnight bells shiver up my neck hairs. I quiet-step over my sleeping sisters, sneaking through Auntie Elsie’s front door to the wishing sewer. Carved on the iron grate is 1953, the year I came out of the water and became a girl. I release one smooth stone, a wish. Pebble small, pebble white, let me stay here all my nights.
Second stone carries a spell. Abra-can’t-grab-ya, no beans can have ya.
Third stone, an offering, a prayer. Oh, suffering children Lord, deliver us from Aunt Moral Corruption. Sacrifice swallowed. There, that’s done it, Jasper. We’ll be okay now.
Back inside, I crawl into the spy cave, resting my cheek on a rug that smells like an old man’s suit.
Tires ringing over the grate snap me up. I peek through the curtains. A car marked POLICE MONTRÉAL creeps like a panther against the curb. Bleedin’ Jesus, they’re back.
Auntie’s slippers slap down the hall to the knock. Boots, big as tool boxes, step in, crushing the blue flowers on the runner. “Just checking everything’s settled, ma’am.”
“Their mother is at St. Mary’s and we’ve made arrangements for the girls.”
“You hear of these things, but you never think . . . Hope things improve.”
“Well, they can’t get worse.”
Hear that, Jasper? No worses. We’re staying.
In the kitchen Auntie hums “Joyful, Joyful” and motes swirl on the sunstream like they know the words by heart.
Sister number one skedaddles out the front door and into Scotty Davenport’s convertible.
I duck when Reverend Lowry swoops in like an angry owl, snatching sisters two and three, walloping them with a prayer before leaving, “And for these lambs, so scarred by man’s depravity, give strength and travelling mercies. Amen and amen.”
Down the path they go, shoulders freshly loaded with the sins of our father who aren’t in heaven.
Aunt Dolores pulls into the empty spot by the curb. Sister four bounces away. “Hey, Auntie Dee, you get the pick of the Appleton tree.”
Sister five slips out the back door without making a sound.
Mr. Whiskers chases rainbows sprinkled on the rug from the fancy vase. Look, Jasper, a sign, like when the Almighty delivered Noah.
Tell me the boat story, Hari.
Um, one night, a slice of moon fell into the ocean. Kangaroos welcomed us aboard Jasper’s Jewel. We sailed to Kentucky where all the reindeer wore blue sweaters and—
“Hariet.” Aunt Elsie tilts the green velvet chair. “Come on out, now. Mrs. MacLaren is here. Where’s your coat?”
“At the MacLaren’s. Under Jinxie’s head.”
“It’s near freezing today.” A grey sweater is sacrificed from the back of the closet. “You know, we wish we could keep you, too, but one is all we can manage and Jennah needs to be near her job.” Auntie’s pretty fingers triple roll the sleeves. “There, how’s that?”
The wool is the prickly kind. “Spectacular, Auntie.”
At the train station I wait where I’ve been told to stay put. I can’t see the dragon’s tail, but a worrisome blackness puffs from nose to middle. Cripes, Jasper, it’s coughing like Grandpa before he went to meet his baker. Riding a red-nosed dragon train to the ocean twists Jasper with excitement. I shove him down. You forgetting the horrification waiting at the end? Indescriptable acts upon my person, that’s what.
Mrs. MacLaren comes hurrying down the platform with the ticket and takes me by the hand to feed me to the dragon. “Up you get.” The step is half as high as me, which would be no trouble except for the situation under my dress. “Come on, Hariet, you’re too heavy for lifting.”
I oblige, hoisting up my eight years of flesh and bone.
“Good Lord, child, where are your panties?”
“Jory got the last ones.” One thing learned being smallest of six: you get what you get and most times you don’t.
She sacrifices fifty cents. “No time now. If you see a five-and-dime could you manage to buy a pair?”
If I can travel my lone self from Montreal to Halifax to Sydney, I can buy underwears. They’ll be pink . . . no, green, with little flowers. “Mrs. MacLaren?”
A salt-moon winks on my scuffy shoe as I tap the metal step like a world famous rocket dancer.
“Spit it out.”
“Is Daddy in a whale like Jonah?”
“He’s where he can’t hurt anyone ever again.”
“But what if his going hurts in my belly?”
“Just drink some warm milk and you’ll be fine.”
“What is it now?”
“Jinxie likes her white ear scratched best.”
“Soon as your mummy is on her feet you’ll be back scratching her ear yourself. Off you go now and find a seat.”
I can read so I know the brass-buttoned ticket-puncher is William. Jasper quivers in my pocket. Don’t be scared. Mr. Brassbuttons is just a walrus with a fancy biscuit tin on his head.
“Ticket, miss.” I dig inside Grandma’s broke-strap carryall, past my swirl-coloured ball, Jasper’s matchbox bed, toothbrush, bottle of hero ashes, and mittens that Grandma knit, to reach the ticket. “Quite the journey you’re taking. Someone meeting you in Halifax?”
“No. My Auntie Moral Corruption is collecting me in Sydney.”
“After my sisters got doled out she was the only one left.” I heave the God-have-mercy load off my chest. “Beans. There’s big trouble with them.”
“There’s no trouble in beans, little miss. Settle in. You’ve a long haul ahead, but there’s nothing like October pictures from a train to pass the miles.”
Walruses have lovely whiskers and a lot of goodness tucked in their folds. I push back the stress-curls forever jouncing out of my braids. “You got kids?”
“Three little misses and a mister.”
Well, there’s a universe of a letdown, Jasper. He won’t be wanting another miss.
A stop brings travelers hurrying for seats. A green-suited badger. A silky Siamese, her parfum d’lilac tail brushing noses down the aisle. A plaid-vested beaver risks sitting with a half-dressed Hariet. Not that the lady has big teeth, she’s just the busy kind that thought to pack a good lunch, plus she knows about dams, and that too many paper cones of water has me at bursting. “Come on, little dearie, facilities are this way.”
I’ve never had anything so shocked with tongue pleasers as what Mrs. Beaver stuffed between two pieces of bread. “Thanks, lady, this is spectacular.”
“And where are you from?”
“The sister-house is where I live most the time.”
“Like a convent?”
“Nothing like. There’re no grey nuns with rulers. In my sister-house, June makes the walls. Jory is the roof. Jillianne is the floor. Jennah, she’s the windows, fluttery with lacey curtains. And Jacquie is the yellow door. And Jasper and me tuck ourselves safe inside and tell stories.”
“Well, yes. I’m sure you do.” She licks her hankie and swipes mustard from my cheek. “You’re awfully little to be travelling on your own.”
“My mummy’s sick with a conniption. Auntie Elsie’s keeping Jennah. Grandma’s puttin’ up with June and Jacquie. Auntie Dolores nabbed Jory. Jillianne and my dog are with Mrs. MacLaren. But Jasper’s come along with me.”
“Jasper your brother?”
“No, ma’am, my seahorse.”
“Let me guess, your name is Jane or Jessie?”
“I was a hoped-for Joshua. Everyone said with another girl my daddy had a string of jewels.”
“Ah, so it’s Jewel.”
“No, Hariet. A one r Hariet. Mummy messed up the papers on account of I used up her neverlasting nerve.”
“Bet your father is Harold then.”
“And where is he?”
“Um . . . incarcerated in a Turkey prison.”
“For . . . poaching tigers.”
Don’t tell he put a bustard in Jacquie’s oven or we won’t get another brownie.
“What really happened is . . . this flash tidal wave reared up and he drowned trying to save my dog who fell into the vast Saint Lawrence. Jinxie washed ashore downriver but a giant otter dragged Vincent out to sea.”
A consoling brownie lands in my hand. “And where will you be staying?”
“With Auntie Mary Catherine and her lady friend. They eat little girls like bean burritos, but everyone else was already too full up with me. You got kids?”
Mrs. Beaver opens a photographic accordion of kids dancing ballet and blowing at birthday candles. The pictures make a grey-socked, one r’d Hariet wish she hadn’t swallowed the second brownie.
“Let’s get you comfy for the night.” William Walrus makes a bed on two seats with sheets that don’t smell a bit of piss or snot and a pillow so feather-puffed a thousand eider-ducks must be naked somewhere. He gives me three digestives and warm milk. On the strawberry side of his chocolaty hand he writes: 1961. “You know what this is, little miss?”
“The year of our Lord?”
“Watch old William’s hand.” He turns it right around. “See? The whole world can get turned upside down and this year still lands right. There’s good ahead. Old William sees it.”
“You see a store to buy underwears for fifty cents?”
“There’s an hour between trains tomorrow and I know just the place. Hunker down this way so you’ll see the sky when you wake.”
When riding a dragon, chomp-chomp, chomp-chomp, chomp-chomping away the miles from where you came there’s nothing nicer than a walrus singing, “There’s a place for you, somewhere a place for you. Peace and quiet and underwears. Take my hand and we’ll buy a pair . . .”
Mrs. Kramer of Kramer’s General Store is a hen clucking over my circumstances. My new panties are white with a tiny pink flower and a green bow so I get everything I ever wanted.
“Lord a tunder, darlin’, Sydney’s too cold this time a year for bare legs. On with these woolies.” She snaps me into tights like Dr. Herbert takes to a glove.
It’d be nice living with a wing-over-the-shoulder hen. “You got kids, Mrs. Kramer?”
“Comin’ out my ears.”
“Oh.” I hold up the fifty cents. “I can special deliver the rest once I get settled.”
She plucks a quarter. “This’ll do it, with change for a sweet.”
William Walrus tucks a wrapped sandwich into my carryall. “This train will take you right to Sydney.”
I hug him big. “Thank you, mister. It’s been spectacular knowing you.”
“Hang onto that little fellow riding with you.”
“He’ll lead you to your heart’s double.” He buttons my sweater. “And your true home.”
With my bum snugged into blue woolies I’m set for anything, even the devil herself. Binocular-eyed, I search for a wolf or a serpent.
“Hello, sweetheart.” She sneaks up from behind. “I’m Mary. Just look how you’ve grown.” She’s transfigurated into a gentle-Jesus-sweet-’n-mild getup, but Hariet Appleton knows about the snake hiding under the little sweetheart.
“Under this sweater I’m scrawnier than a starving weasel. Dr. Herbert says there’s not much on me worth eating, and for certain I’d give a body heartburn.”
“Is your trunk inside?”
“Wasn’t much for bringing.”
“You’re shivering. Come on, there’s a blanket in the truck.”
No matter how hard I swallow, my bally lunch scrambles up, landing a whisker away from Auntie’s red shoe.
“You’re safe here, I promise.” She offers a tissue. “Come meet your cousins.”
“You’ve got kids?”
Three exuberant mutts leap from the truck. “This is Hoover, Cork, and Wabi-sabi.”
“Can I ride in back with them?”
“The road can be a little bump-and-throw, but Wabi loves a lap up front. Let me get a bucket in case your tummy ups it again.” She moves butterfly-over-flower quiet. A fat rope of hair hangs to her bum and the escaping curls are more like a party than a stress.
“If you’re my mummy’s big sister how come you’re younger?”
“Your mummy’s had a lot of hard things.”
Wabi has one ear up and white splotches like paint spilled on her black fur. “Could she ever sleep with me?”
“She’ll have your bed warmed before you climb in.” I sometimes wondered where Mummy’s smile went and here it is on Auntie Mary Catherine’s face.
On the long drive, Jasper wraps his tail around an escaping curl and near unscrews my head from its connecter. Look, over there. Mmm, smell that. Oh, what’s that?
“You okay, Hariet?”
“You grow jewels here?”
“You’re seeing the sun on the ocean. Just so happens it’s in our backyard.”
Up ahead, a painted roof on a fat grey barn looks like the tin has been peeled back to let fish swim in the sky. Oh, don’t you wish we could live there? Like the god-listeners hear us the truck turns into the lane. A stone-faced house with two big window eyes says hello. Jasper’s nose squishes against the windsheild. Look, it has a yellow door.
“Well, here we are.”
“It’s . . . it’s like the sister-house.”
“Inside the locked room.”
She hushes my hair like she knows everything about outsides and ins.
Jasper, there’s a pot boiling somewhere, sure as sure.