The Book of Ivy / Page 2

Page 2


The history includes talk of the war that ended the world, the floods and droughts that followed, the diseases that almost finished us off. But we, of course, rose from the ashes, ragged, war-weary survivors who managed to find one another across a vast, barren landscape and carved out a spot to begin anew. Blah, blah, blah. Our rebirth, though, was not without conflict and more deaths as two sides fought to determine how our tiny nation would go forward. The winning side, the side led by President Lattimer’s father, prevailed. But the loser, my grandfather Samuel Westfall, and his followers were welcomed into the fold, promised forgiveness, and granted absolution for their sins.

I have to resist the urge to make gagging noises as I read.

And that is why we have the wedding day. Those who came from the losing side offer up their sixteen-year-old daughters to the sons of the winners. There is a second wedding day in November, when the sons of the losing side marry the daughters of the winning side. But that wedding day is more somber, the nation’s most prized daughters forced to marry subpar boys under a bleak winter sky.

The theory behind the practice of the arranged marriages is twofold. There is a practical purpose: people don’t live as long as they used to, before the war. And having healthy offspring is a much dicier proposition than in the past. It’s important that we procreate, the earlier the better. The second is even more pragmatic. President Lattimer’s father was smart enough to know that peace only lasts when the unhappy side still has something left to lose. By marrying our daughters to his side, he ensured we would think twice about rising up. It’s one thing to slay your enemy; it’s another thing entirely when that enemy wears your daughter’s face, when the man you cut down is your own grandson. The strategy has worked thus far; we have remained at peace for two generations.

It is hot in the rotunda, even with the doors open and the cool limestone walls. A small bead of sweat slides down the back of my neck and I wipe it away, pushing my hair up again as I do. Callie did her best to twist it into submission, but my hair is thick and unruly and I don’t think it cooperated as she would have liked. The girl to my right gives me a smile. “It looks good,” she says. “Pretty.”

“Thank you,” I say. She has a crown of sad yellow roses in her red hair, the petals already withering in the heat.

“It’s my second year,” the girl whispers. “My last chance.”

If you aren’t matched with anyone your sixteenth year, you are put back into the pool for the next year. This also happens on years when there aren’t enough girls to match with all the available boys, or visa versa, to give everyone the best chance of finding a match. If after two tries you aren’t matched, then you are free to marry someone of your own choice who has similarly never been chosen. Or, if you’re a woman, you can apply for a job as a nurse or teacher. Men, married and unmarried alike, work. Once women are married, they are expected to stay home and have babies, so traditional “female” jobs are filled with the ranks of the unmatched.

“Good luck,” I tell the girl, although personally I don’t think not finding a match would be such a terrible fate. But I know it will not be mine. My name has been in an envelope ever since Callie’s was removed. There is no suspense for me. The other girls here today have the benefit of personality tests and endless interviews so that there is at least the possibility of compatibility with their new husbands. With me, all that matters is my last name.

“Thanks,” the girl says. “I know who you are. My dad’s pointed your dad out to me before.”

I don’t respond. I turn my eyes back to the stage, where the curtain is beginning to rustle. I take a deep breath in through my nose, let it out slowly through my mouth.

A man approaches the podium at the side of the stage. He looks nervous, glancing from the audience to President Lattimer and back again. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he calls. His voice breaks on the last syllable and there is a smattering of laughter from the room. He clears his throat and tries again. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are here today to celebrate the marriages of the eligible young men from Eastglen and the lovely ladies from Westside. Their unions represent the best our small nation has to offer and symbolize the peace we have fought for and achieved together.” It’s not always this same man, but it’s always this same speech, so sad and ridiculous I am torn between laughter and tears.

The redheaded girl next to me clasps her hands together so tightly her knuckles turn white, her toe tapping a nervous rhythm against the floor. The man at the podium gestures to someone offstage who I cannot see, and slowly the curtain begins to move to one side. It screeches on the metal pole, a long, high shriek that sets my teeth on edge. The first boys to be revealed fidget nervously, taking their hands in and out of their pockets, rocking on their heels. A small, dark-haired boy who looks more twelve than sixteen is suffering from a fit of giggles, tucking his chin into his chest while his shoulders heave. I am glad, at least, that he won’t be mine.

They’ve put the one who will be mine right in the middle, so much taller than the other boys that they seem to flow out from him like water from a rock. He doesn’t even look like a boy compared to them, which makes sense given his age. At eighteen, he’s two years older than everyone else, but it’s more than just his years. I’m not convinced he’s ever been boyish. There is a gravity about him that none of the others possess. He does not fidget. I cannot imagine him giggling. His gaze is fixed—cool, impassive, and faintly amused—on some spot in the distance. He does not so much as glance at me.

He should have stood here two years ago. He was meant for Callie all along. But the day before the ceremony, we were notified that he was not attending, would not marry until he turned eighteen, and that it would be me standing next to him on that day, not my sister. Such whims are indulged, I suppose, when you’re the president’s son. As a consolation prize, Callie was given the option of having her name removed as a potential bride in the marriage ceremony. An option she took and one I wish were mine.

“Oh my God,” the redhead breathes, glancing at me. “You are so lucky!”

I know she means well and I try to smile at her, but my lips don’t want to cooperate. The man at the podium turns things over to the president’s wife, Mrs. Erin Lattimer. She is auburn-haired and full-figured in the way that makes men’s eyes follow her wherever she goes. But her voice is tart, cold even. It reminds me of the first bite of a sour green apple.

“As you all know,” she says, “I will read the name of a boy, who will step forward. I will then open the envelope and read the name of the girl who will be his wife.” She looks down at us. “Please come onto the stage when your name is called. If, at the end, your name is not called, it simply means the committee determined you weren’t a good match for any of the boys this year.” She gives us a brisk smile. “There’s no shame in that,” she says, “of course.” But it is shameful not to be chosen; everyone knows that. No one ever says it out loud, but it’s always the girl’s fault if she’s not matched to anyone. Always something in her that was found lacking, never the other way around.

The first name called is Luke Allen. He’s blond, with a spray of freckles across his nose like brown sugar. His eyes widen briefly as Mrs. Lattimer tears open the envelope with his name written across the front and pulls out the creamy card stock. “Emily Thorne,” she calls. There is rustling behind me, excited murmurings, and I turn my head. A petite, toffee-haired girl slides past the knees of the girls seated in her row. She stumbles a bit on her way up the stairs to the stage, and Luke hurries forward to take her hand. Some of the girls behind me sigh as if this is the grandest romantic gesture they’ve ever seen, and I will my eyes to stay still in their sockets. Luke and Emily stand awkwardly, giving each other sidelong glances, until they are shooed to the edge of the stage so the next couple can be announced.

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