There are several stop signs in the tiny foothills-of-the-Adirondack-Mountains town (Welcome to the Hamlet of Holland Patent, pop. 300 – don’t you love the word “hamlet”?), but no stop light. Take Route 365 on your way north or south or east or west and you’ll drive right through it.
You probably won’t stop unless you need gas or unless you’re hungry – there’s one small restaurant, where the portions are upstate New York large, which is something that I personally appreciate.
Small expensive portions that look like pretty little sculptures on a large plate make me anxious and tense. They make me worry, wondering if I’ll have enough food. Having enough food is important to me. Will I have to ask for another basket of bread and extra butter, just so that I can leave the table full?
I’ll take a diner anytime.
If you’re eleven years old, and walking from the middle school to your 4-H club meeting, held at the Fire Hall – which is a big barnlike place housing the volunteer fire department, a meeting room and an industrial-size kitchen – you can take a shortcut behind a few houses and come upon the Fire Hall the back way.
Wait until the bell rings for the last class of that middle school day. Gather up your books – this is before the days of backpacks or book bags, and long after the days of straps that held them all together – and clutch them to your chest.
What are you wearing? A smocked blue dress. Keds.
Your books are clutched to your chest and you walk the three blocks from school to the Fire Hall to your meeting, which begins right after school, after all the girls gather. You don’t much like 4-H. You don’t much like clubs of any kind, nor will you ever, as it turns out, but you go to 4-H because that’s what you do, and your parents haven’t yet given you permission to quit.
It’s fall. Back then you loved fall because winter didn’t yet fill you with such dread. The maples are on fire and their leaves crunch under your Keds. You are walking alone under a September blue sky, that late September almost-slate blue.
There is no color like it in all the world. There are no leaves like these on-fire leaves in all the world. These books that you hold to your chest are the only books you will ever need, and this day is the one day, and that sky is without end, without boundaries to hold you in.
Your heart begins to beat outside your body, in rhythm with a bigger beat, a beat so big that it’s far beyond you. You can only be filled with it, and with each step – behind the white house, through the alley, there it is, there’s the Fire Hall – you grow more powerful.
This is my life, you think, there is no end to what I can do with it.
You are walking above the cracked sidewalk now, above the weeds growing through the cracks, you are walking without knowing you’re walking, and the feeling pulsing through you is a feeling you will feel a few more times in your life, but this time, this moment, is the one you will come back to all your life when you hear the word joy, the word power, the word infinite, the word universe.
You are eleven years old.
Later in your life you will think of eleven as the magic age of girls. One day you will sit down to write a novel about an old man, an old man who is walking away from you through snowy pine woods, in far upstate New York, holding a candle lantern in each hand, lighting up the woods for the cross-country skiers.
As you begin to set this image down on paper, a girl will appear in your mind, bent over a school desk, scribbling furiously on a yellow pad of lined paper. She will not look at you. Long messy hair will obscure her face. She will be angry, and smart, and in her anger and her smartness there will be great power.
What she is scribbling down on that yellow pad of paper is the book you want to write. She will write it for you. Early on, she will write these lines:
Let me tell you that a girl of eleven is capable of far more than is dreamt of in most universes. To the casual passerby a girl like me is just a girl. But a girl of eleven is more than the sum of her age. Although it is not often stated, she is already living in her twelfth year; she has entered into the future.
She is eleven years old, that girl. The book will become a novel called Shadow Baby, published by the wonderful Shaye Areheart of Shaye Areheart Books. To this day it feels to you as if that girl, Clara, wrote it. You wish you knew her. You wish you could be her, walking with such purpose down the streets of that little town.
* * *
Shadow Baby has just been re-released in a new edition published by Three Rivers Press. Here’s a teeny photo of the new edition, teeny because I’m a photo idiot and have no idea how to make it bigger.
I always saw the cover photo as a girl in a long coat, her arms stretched around a tree from behind. Others have seen it as a pregnant woman, holding her belly. As Clara would say, “Who’s to say? Who’s to know?”