Authors: Chris Struyk-Bonn
Tags: #JUV059000, #JUV031040, #JUV015020
ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
Copyright Â© 2014 Chris Struyk-Bonn
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Struyk-Bonn, Christina, author
Whisper / Chris Struyk-Bonn.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
9135wh 2014Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â j813'.6Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
First published in the United States, 2014
Library of Congress Control Number
: Whisper, a teen girl with a cleft palate, is forced to survive in a world
that is hostile to those with disfigurements or disabilities.
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
Design by Chantal Gabriell
Cover image by Juliana Kolesova
Orca Book Publishers
PO Box 5626, Station B
Victoria, BC Canada
In the United States:
Orca Book Publishers
PO Box 468
Custer, WA USA
17 16 15 14 â¢ 4 3 2 1
For Eric, Quinten and Eli.
On the very first day of my existence, hands
pushed me into the cold water and held me
down, waiting for me to drown, but even then
I was quiet and knew how to hold my breath.
It was my job to catch the crayfish for dinner. I didn't mind. I tried not to let Jeremia and Eva know that I actually liked it. They saw it as punishment, standing in the cold water, waiting and watching for the pinchers to appear from beneath the slippery rocks. Jeremia thought that he should catch them as a man wouldâleap high, pounce, grab anything he could get hold of. He emerged from the stream wetter than the crayfish, frustrated with work that produced so little and took so long.
Eva quickly lost interest in the task. She gazed up into the branches of the trees and then hummed to herself, distracted by zooming dragonflies or the light fractured by the leaves. She would swim with the fish, paddle with the ducks and become part of nature rather than try to capture it. We would starve if we had to depend on her ability to gather food.
I was quiet and still, like a leaf floating in the stream. The crayfish became accustomed to my clammy feet occupying space beside their favorite rock, and they started to trust me. I could almost hear them, even beneath the water, as they crept across the bottom of the creek. Everything else became background noiseâthe screech of the crickets, the gurgle of the water, the rustle of rubbing leaves. Then I eased my hand through the water and grabbed them just behind the pinchers, swift and sure.
But that day, just as I was about to grab a crayfish with only one pincher, the warning call interrupted me, and I missed.
The warning call meant a visitor. I crouched, twisting my head in a frantic search for a hiding place that would protect not me from them, but them from me. My breath came in short bursts, and the pounding of my heart drowned out all other sounds. I'd dropped too low and the seat of my shorts had soaked up the water, clinging to my skin. The silence of the woods felt unnerving, like the heavy air before a storm.
We only ever received two visitors at our secret forest hideaway where the leaves of the oaks, strangler figs and skyreaching pines shaded us from sight. The nearest village, a tiny place with four more huts than ours, was a day's walk through the trees, and the villagers didn't like to come upon our camp of outcast children by surprise. The messenger came once a month, and we prepared for his appearance by hiding. The only other visitor was my mother, who always came on my birthday, but my birthday was still four weeks away.
I hid low in the bushes and inched forward, pushing aside branches, crushing the forest debris, silent as breath. The sudden buzz of a cicada vibrated the air around me. I approached the back of my log-and-mud hut and crept around it until I was huddled between Jeremia's dwelling and mine. Our camp, so tiny and cloistered, consisted of four huts: mine, Jeremia and Eva's, Nathanael's and the storage hut. They squatted in a rough circle, with our fire pit and sitting logs creating the hub. Trees darkened the sky around our camp, leaving only a small round opening above us where we could see the stars at night, the sun during the heat of the day and the silver flash of an airplane as it drew lines across the sky. We knew about airplanes, refrigerators, trucks, toiletsâNathanael had educated us about the world beyond our campâbut knowledge and experience are two different things.
Jeremia crouched in the shadow of his hut, five-year-old Eva beside him. Both stared at me with wide eyes. Jeremia had his good arm around Eva, stilling her motions and calming them both. They had less than I didâthey didn't even have mothers who visited themâbut they also didn't have fathers who had tried to drown them. Nathanael had told them of my history so their jealousy wouldn't consume them when my mother came to visit.
I flattened myself against the rough log wall of my hut and peeked around the side. Nathanael stood by the fire pit in the middle of our camp. The sun behind the trees cast dappled shadows over his face. He waited, and while he waited he seemed to shrink. His clothes, which used to fit him, now flapped, loose and baggy, about his body. Even his shoes looked long and awkward. We didn't know what would happen to us when Nathanael, now sixty-nine, became too old to care for the unwanted. Where would we go? What would we do?
“Who are you?” Nathanael said, his voice wavering with age and perhaps fear. “What do you want?”
The messenger, who had never come mid-month, trampled the leaves and sticks of the woods, pushed through the hanging branches that shielded our huts from view and stepped out from the shadows. He wore the bill of his hat sideways, his pants so yellow they glowed, his shirt so red it flashed like a cardinal through the trees. His colors alerted all the creatures of the woods, including ourselves. I didn't understand why he had come; usually he carried the heavy load of our supplies. This time, all he had was his own food pack, a bundle under his shirt and something black strapped to his back. And then I heard the peep.
It sounded like a kittenâits high mewl made my hands flutter. I put my palm against my chest, afraid that my heart would respond to the cry and reveal my hiding spot. The messenger sat on the log and opened his shirt. Nathanael sat beside him. The messenger took out a small bundle wrapped in cloth and laid it on his knees. Both Nathanael and the messenger looked down at it. I stopped breathing. Nathanael grunted.
“They come so often now, one every three years. Before, it was one every ten or twenty,” Nathanael said.
I glanced toward the graveyard. Low-hanging limbs, vines and shrubs obscured the space between me and the four graves, but I knew they were there. One had died after I came, before Eva arrived, before I understood that some babies lived.
“How old?” Nathanael asked.
The messenger shook his head and said, “Clemente and Maximo's fourth. They don't want it.”
Nathanael nodded. He reached down and picked up the tiny bundle. He placed it on his own knee, his broad brown hands stretching beyond the cloth.
“I'm too old for this,” he said. “Someday I may need to consider finding a replacement.” He didn't look at the messenger.
The messenger's laugh sounded like the bark of a coyote. “No one else wants this job,” he said. “Can't one of the rejects do it?” His hand waved outward. I crouched in the shadow of the hut, ten feet away from where they sat. I could see sweat trickle down the messenger's face.
“They won't want the job either,” Nathanael said. One of his hands pulled back the cloth around the bundle, and a brown nose peeked through the blanket's opening.
“You want me toâ¦you know”âthe messenger leaned in toward Nathanael and spoke lowerâ“get rid of it?”
My body betrayed me then. My hands clutched at each other, gripping and wringing. Earlier I had been holding my breath; now it came fast, hard and shallow. I felt light-headed, and before I thought about revealing myself (and the possible consequences), I pushed off from the wall, heard my feet hitting the packed earth of the camp's meeting place and listened to the wind whistle past my ears. I grabbed the bundle off Nathanael's knees and leaped into the forest. I was jaguar, I was puma, I was hidden behind the nearest tree before they could react.
I peeked around the trunk. The messenger faced the forest, his eyes focused on the woods but not seeing me. He crouched low, next to the log where Nathanael still sat, and spread his hands out, as if warding off evil. The sun beamed down on him, his nose creating a shadow that stretched across his mouth, down his chin and onto his neck. The black oblong object on his back, attached with a strap across his chest, banged against him a couple of times. He was clearly braced for an attack, and I smiled. His head turned back and forth. I hid only ten feet away from where he stood, but he didn't see me, he couldn't hear my heart hammering, he couldn't hear the breath I sucked in through my nose. He had seen too much already.
“What was that?” he asked. His eyes were wide, the whites showing all around his dark irises.
Nathanael turned his head and glanced into the woods.
“That was Whisper. She doesn't want you to get rid of it.”
“That was Belen's child? Belen and Teresa's? She's an animalâand her face isâ¦” His hands touched his own face, his unsplit lips and undamaged nose. “Is she dangerous?” The messenger backed away from the woods and stood near the fire pit. From his pocket he pulled a cell phone, and he held it up in the air, turning it this way and that. He pushed some buttons and shook the object.
“What, will you call for help?” Nathanael asked. “Ask for a helicopter to lift you out of this dangerous place? You'll have to climb the tree to get even the weakest of signals.”
I snuggled the bundle against my chest and rocked my body back and forth. No movement came from it, nothing but a faint touch of breath. I gently flipped up the edge of the blanket and examined the round face. How anyone could think her ugly was astonishing to me, but I'd seen my own face in the creek on a clear day, and someday she would look exactly like me. I touched the tip of her nose against mine and breathed in her freshness.
Nathanael brushed a fly away from his ear. “What do you have on your back?”
The messenger pulled the black strap over his head and handed the oblong objectâI could see now that it was some kind of caseâto Nathanael. His eyes continued to look into the trees, trying to find me. I moved through the underbrush a few steps closer so I could see better.
Nathanael unlatched the locks on the case and removed something made of wood, with strings stretched from the narrow end to the rounded end.
“It's from Whisper's mother. She won't be coming on her birthday.”
The wind howled in my head, and I sat down hard on the forest floor. I didn't care that twigs snapped beneath me and leaves rustled. When I slumped to the ground, the smell of moss, earth and crushed scorpion flower wafted into the air, making my head feel insubstantial. I didn't care that the messenger might have seen me, could have come through the trees and found me crouched with the baby in my arms.