The Book of Ivy / Page 1

Page 1


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No one wears white wedding dresses anymore. White cloth is too hard to come by, and the expense and trouble of securing enough to make several dozen dresses, or more, is too high. Not even on a day like today, when it is our leader’s son who will be one of the bridegrooms. Not even he is special enough to be allowed to marry a girl dressed in white.


“Stand still,” my sister says from behind me. Her knuckles are icy cold against my spine as she tries to force up the zipper on the back of the pale blue dress. It was made for the wedding day she never had and it doesn’t fit quite right on my taller frame. “There.” She gives the zipper one last yank. “Turn around.”


I turn slowly, smoothing my hands down the soft material. I’m not used to dresses. I don’t like how naked I feel underneath, already longing for pants and a breath not hemmed in by a too-tight bodice. As if reading my thoughts, Callie’s eyes roam downward. “You’re bigger in the bust than I am,” she says with a smirk. “But I doubt he’ll complain.”


“Shut up,” I say, but there’s no force behind my words. I didn’t think I would be this nervous. It’s not as if this day is a surprise. I’ve known my whole life that it was coming, spent every minute of the last two years preparing. But now that it’s here, I can’t stop the tremor in my fingers or the sick fall of my stomach. I don’t know if I can do this, but I also know I have no choice.


Callie reaches up and tucks a stray strand of hair behind my ear. “You’ll be fine,” she says, her voice firm and even. “Right? You know what to do.”


“Yes,” I say, pulling my head back. Her words make me feel stronger; I don’t need to be babied.


She looks at me for a long moment, her mouth a tight line. Is she angry that I’m taking the spot that should have rightfully been hers, or is she glad to give it up, to be rid of the burden of being the daughter who holds so much hope on her shoulders?


“Girls.” My father’s voice floats up the stairs. “It’s time.”


“You go,” I tell Callie. “I’ll be right down.” I need one last minute of quiet, one last chance to look around this room that will never be mine again. Callie leaves the door ajar when she goes, and I can hear my father’s impatient voice from downstairs, Callie murmuring something reassuring to him.


On my bed is a well-worn suitcase, the wheels broken off long ago, forcing me to carry it. I heave it off the mattress, turn in a slow circle, knowing I will never sleep in this narrow bed again, never brush my hair in front of the mirror above my dresser, never listen to the sound of rain tapping against my windowpane as I drift to sleep. I close my eyes against a sudden press of tears and take a deep breath. When I open my eyes, they are dry. I walk out of my room and I don’t look back.


The weddings are performed on the second Saturday in May. Some years there is rain and with it the faint, acrid scent of burning, even after so many years. But today dawned clear, the sky a bright, hectic blue, wispy clouds floating on a mild breeze. It is a beautiful day to become a bride, but all I can concentrate on is the heavy thump of my heart and the line of sweat forming between my shoulder blades as we walk toward City Hall.


My father and Callie flank me, almost as if they are penning me in to keep me from bolting. I don’t bother telling them I’m not going anywhere. My father’s swinging hand brushes mine, and he clasps my fingers in his own. He hasn’t held my hand since I was a little girl, and the gesture shocks me so much that I stumble over my own feet, the pressure of his hand balancing me at the last moment. I’m grateful for his touch, even though touching is not something he does often or easily. He is not an offerer of comfort. When your fate is predetermined, there’s not much benefit in coddling. His job was to make me strong, and I like to think he did it well. But maybe that is just wishful thinking.


“We’re proud of you,” he says. He squeezes my hand once, hard, almost to the point of pain, and lets go. “You can do this.”


“I know,” I tell him, my eyes straight ahead. The limestone facade of City Hall is less than a block away now. There are several other girls climbing the steps with their parents. They must be nervous, anxious to find out if they will end today as someone’s wife or if they will go home and slide between their own sheets again. My anxiety is different. I know where I will be sleeping tonight, and it won’t be in my own bed.


As we reach the sidewalk in front of City Hall, people begin to turn, grinning at my father, reaching out to shake his hand, clap him on the back. A few women give me reassuring smiles as they tell me how pretty I look.


“Smile,” Callie whispers near my ear. “Stop scowling at everyone.”


“If it’s so easy, why don’t you try it?” I hiss back, but I do as she says and plaster a smile onto my face.


“I would have, remember?” she says. “But I didn’t get the chance. Now you need to do it for me.”


So she is jealous after all, angry at having her birthright stolen. I expect her eyes to be cold, but when I turn my head, she is looking at me with a softness I have rarely seen. She is the female version of our father, with his chocolate eyes and dark chestnut hair. I always longed to look like the two of them, instead of being the odd one out with my not-quite-blond, not-quite-brown hair and gray eyes, both gifts from my long-dead mother. But as little as we resemble each other, looking at Callie has always been like staring at a fiercer, more disciplined version of myself. Looking at her reminds me of who I am expected to become.


We follow the long line of brides into City Hall. All around me are girls in pale dresses, some with hands clutching small bouquets, others, like mine, empty. We are ushered into the main rotunda where a stage has been set up at one end. There is a dark curtain across the back, and I know that, even now, the boys are gathering behind it, lining up before they are revealed to find out who they are destined to marry.


The potential brides sit in the first few rows of chairs, the families of both brides and grooms seated behind them. President Lattimer and his wife, however, are seated on the stage, as they are every year. Even with a son behind the curtain, their status does not change. My father gives my hand a final squeeze before moving away. Callie brushes a quick, dry kiss against my cheek. “Good luck,” she says. If my mother were still alive, maybe she would hug me, give me final words of advice that I could actually use instead of a worn-out platitude.


I slide into an empty seat in the front row, avoiding eye contact with President Lattimer and the girls on either side of me. I keep my gaze straight ahead, focusing on a slight tear in the stage’s dark curtain until the girl next to me presses something into my hand. “Here,” she says. “Take one and pass it on.”


I do as she says, sliding the stack of programs to the girl on my left. It is the same program they give out every year. Only the color of the paper and the names inside change. It hardly seems worth the effort; I’m sure we all have it memorized by now. This year the program is a washed out pink, the words Wedding Ceremony across the front in curly, slightly smudged script. The first two pages are a history of our “nation.” Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to refer to a town of fewer than ten thousand people as a nation, but no one’s ever asked for my opinion.


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