On the day of my mother’s funeral, we all wore white. My father said that dressing ourselves in the stiff, pale cloth would be a mitzvah. I ran the word over my tongue as I straightened a starched new shirt against my shoulders. I was twelve when she died, and Rebbe Davison had told us about mitzvot only a few days before—how every good deed we did for the other citizens of the ship would benefit us, too. He said that doing well in school was a mitzvah, but also other things. Like watching babies get born in the hatchery or paying tribute at funerals. When he said that, he looked across the classroom at me with a watery gleam in his eyes.
That’s when I knew that Momma was really dying.
In the hours after the fieldworkers took away her body, Ronen locked himself in his room, like he always did back then. That left me with my father. He didn’t cry. He wore a thin smile as he pulled off his dark work clothes and tugged the ivory shirt down over his head. I watched him while I held my kitten, Pepper, to my chest. It wasn’t until the cat pulled away and tumbled to the floor that I lost it.
“Pepper! Pepper, come back!” I said, drawing in a hiccuping breath as he scampered out my parents’ open bedroom door. Then I brought my hands to my cheeks. Back then I cried easily, at the slightest offense. Knowing I was crying only made my grief cut deeper.
My father turned to me, the stays on his shirt still undone.
“Terra,” he said, putting a hand against my shoulder and squeezing. My answer was an uncontrollable bray, an animal noise. I let it out. I was naive—I thought that maybe my abba would draw me into his arms, comfort me like Momma would have done. But he only held me at arm’s length, watching me steadily.
“Terra, pull yourself together. You’re soaking your blouse.”
That’s when I knew that he wasn’t Momma. Momma was gone. I brought my hands up to my face, veiling it, as if I could hide behind my fingers from the truth.
After a moment, between my own panted breaths, I heard him sigh. Then I heard his footsteps sound on the metal floor as he drew away from me.
“Go to your room,” he said. “Compose yourself. I’ll get you when it’s time to go.”
I pulled myself up on weak legs. My steps down the hall were as plodding as my heart. When I reached my bedroom door, I launched myself over the threshold and thrust my body down into my waiting bed. Pepper followed me, his paws padding against the dust-softened ground. He let out a curious sound. I ignored him, my hands clutched around my belly, my face pressed against my soggy sheets.
• • •
Usually it was Abba’s job to ring the clock tower bells. But that day, the day my mother died, the Council gave the job to someone else. As we marched through the fields of white-clad people, I couldn’t help but wonder who it was who pulled those splintered ropes. Perhaps my father knew, but his jaw was squared as he gazed into the distance. I knew that he didn’t want to be bothered, so I held my tongue and didn’t ask any questions.
I walked between them, Abba on my one side, his hands balled into fists, and my older brother on the other. Ronen slouched his way up the grassy atrium fields. That was the year he turned sixteen and shot up half a head in a matter of months. His legs were nearly as long as my father’s by then, and though he seemed to be taking his time, I had to scramble to keep up.
The bell tolled and tolled beneath a sky of stars and honeycombed glass. Underneath the drone of sound I heard words—murmured condolences from the other pale-clothed mourners.
By then we’d learned in school about Earth, about the settlements that had held thousands and thousands of people. They called them “cities.” I couldn’t imagine it. Our population was never more than a thousand, and so the crowd of people—a few hundred, at least—felt claustrophobic. But I wasn’t surprised by the throng of citizens that gathered in the shadow of the clock tower. Momma had been tall, lovely, with a smile as bright as the dome lights at noon. She’d made friends wherever she went. As a baker, working at a flour-dusted shop in the commerce district, she had encountered dozens of people daily.
Everyone wore white. On a normal night we’d be dressed in murky shades of brown and gray, the only flashes of color the rank cords the adults wore on the shoulders of their uniforms. But there were no braided lengths of rope on our mourning clothes. Rebbe Davison said that rank didn’t matter when we grieved.
“Terra! Terra!” A voice cut through the crowd. My best friend Rachel’s lips were lifted in a grim smile, showing a line of straight teeth. She was the kind of person who couldn’t stop herself from smiling even at the worst times, especially in those days before she started saving most of her smiles for boys.
I moved my slippers through the muddy grass, afraid she might apologize, offer empty words like all the others had done. But she only reached out and took my hand in hers. As we walked across the field together, she looped her pinkie finger around mine. We neared the clock tower and the grave dug deep below it; her hand offered a small, familiar comfort.
When we reached the grave, she pulled away. She gave my fingers one final squeeze, but she had to go join her family, and I had to join mine. I watched her leave. At twelve she was already willowy and lean, and her dark skin seemed to glow against her dress in a way that reminded me of freshly turned soil. I knew that in comparison I was little more than a shadow, faded and pale, my complexion sallow and my dirty-blond locks stringy from tears.
This is why I was surprised when I turned and saw a pair of black eyes settle on me. Silvan Rafferty was watching me. He was my age, in my class. The doctor’s son. His lips were parted, full and soft. I hadn’t told anyone yet, but I knew those lips. Only a few days before, Silvan had followed me home after school.
That afternoon he’d called out to me across the paths that spiraled through the dome. At first I blushed and walked faster, sure he was only teasing. But then he broke into a jog, his leather-soled shoes striking the pavement hard. When he neared me, he reached out like he meant to take my hand.
“I heard your mother is sick,” he said. “My father told me. I’m sorry.”
I wouldn’t let his fingers grace mine. Abba had always said that good girls didn’t hold boys’ hands until they were older and ready to marry. I didn’t want to give Silvan the wrong idea. We’d never even spoken before that day.
“It’s all right,” I told him, fighting the strange desire to comfort him. His eyelashes trembled. He looked so sad. I didn’t want to be pitied. So I did the only thing I could think of—I stood up on my tiptoes and pressed my mouth to his.
It was a quick kiss, closed-mouthed, but I could smell the sharp scent of his breath. He tasted like strong tea and animal musk. He leaned in . . . then I pulled away.
“I have to go,” I said, trying to ignore the heat that spread over my ears and face. “They’re waiting for me at the hospital.”
As I walked I didn’t look back. I thought of the things Abba had always told me about being good, about not giving boys the wrong idea. Over the dinner table Momma scolded him. Don’t be so old-fashioned, Arran, she always said. Perhaps she was right. Even Rebbe Davison said that there was nothing wrong with going with boys, once they’d had their bar mitzvahs. And Silvan was nearly thirteen. Still, Abba insisted he knew better. He’d been a boy, after all. And standing there, still and stupid and blushing at my mother’s funeral as Silvan’s eyes pressed into me, I wondered if he was right. This was no time for flirting. It was time to do my duty, to be an obedient daughter.
Abba and Ronen stood at the head of the crowd. I drew in a breath as I pushed through the crush of bodies. My mother waited in the black earth, her body wrapped in cloth. I told myself it wasn’t her, that all those stories about how the dead wandered the atrium dome on lonely nights were just kids’ stuff. Momma was gone, and this was only flesh. But I couldn’t deny the familiar shape of her—her long thin figure—underneath the cotton wrappings.
My throat tightened. I squeezed myself between Abba and Ronen, doing my best to resist taking either of their hands.
It’s a mitzvah, I told myself. To be brave. To be strong. To stand alone. And then I cast my gaze up to my father to see if he noticed how hard I worked to keep my trembling mouth still. But his eyes were just fixed forward.
The sound of gossip crested beneath the bell’s final toll. I watched as the crowd parted, making way for the captain’s guard. The square-shouldered soldiers were dressed in funeral whites, ceremonial knives dark and glinting against pale cloth. As they marched, their boots drummed like rain against the grass.
In their wake Captain Wolff appeared. Everyone pressed two fingers to their hearts in salute. But my own fingers hesitated at my side.
I knew that I was supposed to believe that Captain Wolff was brave, noble, and strong. She’d instituted the search for capable shuttle pilots, lowered the sugar rations to make room for more nutritious crops, and raised the number of guards to almost fifty in order to better keep peace among the citizens. Her leadership skills and self-sacrifice were going to lead us straight to Zehava’s surface. It was treason to think otherwise.
But she frightened me. She always had. Whether staring back at me from the pages of my schoolbooks or making speeches to a crowd, her sharp, hawkish features and her long, white-streaked hair always moved a shiver down my spine. Perhaps it was the scar across her face, a gnarled line that ran from her left cheekbone to her chin. They said it was from an accident when she was small—she’d saved a boy who’d gotten caught up in a wheat thresher in the fields. That noble act had been the first thing she’d ever done for the good of the ship, and the scar, a memento of her bravery.
But I always thought it made her look creepy.
As she turned toward us I focused on her eyes—drops of pitch-black ink. Her gaze willed me to do what I had to do. I pressed my fingers to my heart.
“Honored citizens. I come to you on behalf of the High Council to lead you in your mourning duties,” she began. I noted how she spoke of our mourning duties, not her own. Her words always excluded her from the rest of us. “Today you bid farewell to your cherished sister, Alyana Fineberg, spouse of Arran Fineberg, mother of Ronen and little Terra.”
My jaw tightened. I was twelve, but I no longer thought of myself as a child.
“Alyana was a baker, but her loving smile warmed your spirits just as much as her work warmed your bellies. She was, indeed, a true Asherati.”
Captain Wolff paused as she surveyed the people spread out across the field before her. It looked like she expected someone to disagree. My eyes darted out to the citizens gathered in the pasture.
Most of the mourners were solemn as they waited for Captain Wolff to go on. But to my surprise a few men and women wore faces as pale as their clothing. Their eyes were wide. Their lips trembled. They were afraid of Captain Wolff.
At least I wasn’t the only one.
No one spoke. Satisfied with our silence, Captain Wolff lifted her hands through the air. “Now let us sing the kaddish,” she said, and began to croon. Her old voice warbled.
Numb, I sang along, moving through the verses by rote. “On our hallowed ship or on Zehava,” I sang, hardly feeling the words. “May there come abundant peace, grace, loving kindness, compassion. . . .”
A few verses later it was all done. Captain Wolff was the first to step forward. She bent low and took a fistful of black dirt in her delicate hand. Against the spotless cloth that waited, she cast it down. Then, wiping her palm on a rag that one of her guard members provided, she turned and was gone.
We all watched her disappear. At the far edges of the field, sheep bleated. Finally, at last, Rachel came forward, her family trailing after—her curvy, beautiful mother; her handsome father; her younger brother tottering behind. Rachel pressed her lips into a thin smile. Then she bent down and tossed another fistful of dirt into the grave. Three more handfuls followed. Then dozens more.
Every family stepped forward together to throw their own dirt down over my mother’s body. Each family had a mother, a father, a daughter, a son. When it was at last our turn, I couldn’t help but notice how only three clumps of dirt were cast down. For the first time I realized how we were different. Broken. I stood there for a long time, waiting for the fourth handful of dirt to fall, until Ronen touched my shoulder and told me it was time to go.
• • •
That night they invaded our quarters. I’d never seen our home so full of people before. Busy and crowded, it felt completely alien. Pepper seemed to agree with me. He ducked behind the bath basin, crouched down beneath the tangle of pipes, and refused to come out.
I couldn’t hide. It was my job to take the kugels and pies and tuck them away into our icebox. But I decided that I didn’t have to be nice about it. I pushed out my lower lip, sulked and stomped. I knew my father’s eyes were on me as I snatched a tray of salted meats from Giveret Schneider’s hands. But Abba wasn’t the one who had to rearrange all the shelves in the icebox to make room.
I wanted them all to leave us alone, but they wouldn’t. They mingled and joked and then grew silent again, as if they suddenly remembered why they were there. I glared at them from my place in the corner. I watched as Abba’s family crowded around him, ignoring me. It had been years since we’d seen them last, not since Grandpa Fineberg had twisted Ronen’s arm as a punishment for feeding their dog table scraps. Momma had refused to visit them after that, but now that she was gone, they had no reason to stay away.
Ronen sat on the stairwell, making out with Hannah Meyer. Since they’d turned sixteen, she’d been hanging around more and more. Her parents had come too, and though they weren’t wearing their gold-threaded cords, you could tell that they were Council members. It was the way her father held himself, posture stiff and proud. Abba saw it too. When they came in, he practically fell over himself trying to shake the man’s hand. Momma would have laughed at that. I could almost hear her voice in my ears.
Arran, you’re such a suck-up.
But there was one visitor he ignored. Mar Jacobi, the librarian. He was a small, copper-skinned man, serious-looking, and he wandered in through the front door holding a tin in his hand and looking lost.
“I’ll take that,” I said, scrambling up from my chair when I realized no one else would. The corners of his eyes went all crinkly. He bowed his head.
“Thank you, Terra,” he said. I tensed at his words. Before that day, we’d only ever spoken at the library’s checkout counter. And even then our words had been polite—perfunctory. “Hello,” and “This is when they’re due,” and all of that. But now he held out the tin for me. “I brought you macaroons. Chocolate. Alyana told me they were your favorite.”
“I didn’t realize you knew Momma,” I said, taking the tin from him. The metal box had been recycled many times, rust ringing the edges. The glue seemed hardly strong enough to hold the label down. I tugged on one of the loose ends of the paper, lifting wary eyes to the librarian. His smile was small, strained.
“I certainly did.”
But it didn’t make sense. He didn’t fit into our tiny galley, packed with familiar mourners. He floated around alone while Momma’s bakery coworkers drank all the wine they’d brought for Abba, and while Rachel came in and sat with me, holding my hand and gossiping about the other girls from school. Mar Jacobi stood there with a plate in his hands, stirring the food around and not eating anything. And then, when people began to leave, yawning their apologies once again, the librarian stayed, sitting across from us at our galley table.
“I don’t know why they keep saying they’re sorry,” I said to him at last, eager to plug up the silence that had begun to fill our home. “It’s not like it’s their fault Momma died.”
The librarian lifted the corners of his mouth, quietly amused. But Abba didn’t find it funny.
“Terra,” he said. “It’s time for you to go up to bed.”
“Ronen gets to stay up!”
My brother had slipped out with Hannah, his arm draped over her shoulders. But Abba wasn’t hearing any of it. He only shook his head. “Your brother is sixteen, a man. He can stay up as late as he wants. You’re still a child.”
Mar Jacobi’s eyebrows were knitted up, but he didn’t argue with Abba. I pushed my chair away from the table, huffing.
“Momma would let me . . .,” I started. Hearing my father’s silence answer me, I winced.
“Sorry,” I muttered. My father’s hard gaze softened. Still, he urged me toward the stairwell with a tilt of his chin.
“Bed, Terra,” he said.
I pulled myself up the stairs. When I reached the dark second story, I stopped, my hand curled around the banister. It felt like I had broken some sort of sacred rule, reminding Abba that Momma was gone.
Gone, I said to myself. Gone. And then I began to wonder whether she felt anything now that she was dead. Maybe she just stared into the empty darkness of the atrium, a darkness not so different from the one that waited for me in my windowless bedroom.
I shuddered at the thought of it—an endless black so dark that sometimes you couldn’t even tell if your eyes were open or closed. Meanwhile the warm light of our galley flooded the metal wall along the stairwell. I couldn’t bring myself to face the darkness. I sat down at the top of the stairs, holding my head in my hands. Pepper crept out of the bathroom to curl up at my side. I tucked my hand against his soft belly, listening to the men talk.
“She’s a good girl,” Mar Jacobi said. I sat forward at the words, desperate to hear what they were saying about me. “There’s much of her mother in her.”
My dad let out a snort of disagreement. “Alyana wasn’t so good.”
“No, not good. Kind. But you knew that.” Another pause. When my father’s voice came again, it was garbled. He wasn’t crying. But he was closer than I’d ever heard him. “She was mine.”
“I’m so sorry, Arran.”
My father kept talking as if the librarian hadn’t said a word. “All these years of mitzvot, all these years of working up in that clock tower alone, doing my duty. I’m a good man, Benjamin. But what has it brought me?”
“You’ll reach Zehava. Only four more years. Then we’ll be rid of this ship.”
“I’ll be alone.” My father’s tone wasn’t wistful or sad. He said it like it was a simple fact, like there would be no arguing with him. I knew that tone all too well, even at twelve. “Alone, Benjamin. Alone.”
“You have your children. Your daughter. Your son.”
Another snort. “Ronen’s all but ready to declare his intentions to the cartographer girl. He won’t be living with me for more than a season. If it weren’t for Terra, I’d . . .”
“Arran.” There was a warning in Mar Jacobi’s voice. “You’ll take care of your daughter until she’s grown. You’ll do your duty so that she can join you on Zehava. It’s what our forefathers wanted. What Alyana wanted. It’s why you’re here.”
Chair legs squealed against the scuffed metal floor. I tensed, afraid that my father was coming close. But his voice went to the far end of the galley instead.
“A burden,” my father said. “That’s what she is. Trouble. Like her mother.”
My stomach lurched. I bent forward, pressing my face to my knees, and squeezed my eyes shut. I could see stars against my eyelids, but they didn’t distract me from the pain that I felt.
I heard the slosh of liquid then as my father spilled wine into a cup. There was a long pause, then a crash as he slammed his tumbler back down on the countertop. He filled it again.
When he spoke at last, his voice had hardened. “Leave me, librarian,” he said. “Leave me to my grief.”
I didn’t wait to hear Mar Jacobi’s reply. I knew that my father would soon come stomping up the stairs. He was going to slam his bedroom door, blocking out the world. And I didn’t intend to get in his way. I knew what would happen if he found me here, still awake. There would be yelling, and lots of it.
So I picked up Pepper, clutched him to my chest, and retreated to my room. When I stepped inside, I pressed the door closed behind me. I stood there for a moment, still as stone, waiting to hear my heart beat out its rhythm in the dark, a reminder, however small, that on the night my mother died, I still lived.
“This richly textured first novel deserves to be widely read” (Publishers Weekly).
For generations, those aboard the Asherah have lived within strict rules meant to help them survive the journey from a doomed Earth to their promised land, the planet Zehava—which may or may not be habitable, a question whose imperative grows now, in the dwindling months before touchdown.
Sixteen-year-old Terra’s situation is tough. A dead mom. A grieving dad. A bitchy boss, and a betrothed who won’t kiss her no matter how bad she wants it. She’s doing her best to stay afloat, even when she gets assigned a vocation she has no interest in: botany.
But after Terra witnesses the Captain’s guard murder an innocent man, she’s drawn into a secret rebellion bent on restoring power to the people. The stakes are higher than anything she could have imagined. When the rebellion gives Terra an all-important mission, she has to decide where her loyalties lie for once and for all. Because she has started to fall for the boy she’s been sent to assassinate…
- Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers |
- 464 pages |
- ISBN 9781442459540 |
- July 2014 |
- Grades 7 and up