In March, I’m super excited to be part of the blog tour for “The Girl From Rawblood,” by Catriona Ward, which I have just finished reading and am now obsessed with.
From the publisher – but trust me, the description can’t do it justice:
For generations the Villarcas have died mysteriously, and young. Now Iris and her father will finally understand why. . .
At the turn of England’s century, as the wind whistles in the lonely halls of Rawblood, young Iris Villarca is the last of her family’s line. They are haunted, through the generations, by “her,” a curse passed down through ancient blood that marks each Villarca for certain heartbreak, and death.
Iris forsakes her promise to her father, to remain alone, safe from the world. She dares to fall in love, and the consequences of her choice are immediate and terrifying. As the world falls apart around her, she must take a final journey back to Rawblood where it all began and where it must all end…
From the sun dappled hills of Italy to the biting chill of Victorian dissection halls, The Girl from Rawblood is a lyrical and haunting historical novel of darkness, love, and the ghosts of the past.
To get you excited, below is a Chapter One sneak peak, as well as a chance to win a free copy of the book (starting the 27!), which comes out March 7!
First Chapter Excerpt
This is how I come to kill my father. It begins like this.
I’m eleven. We find the mare shortly after noon. She’s not been there long, so the foxes haven’t come yet. The flies have, though. She is glossy, plump.
“Why?” I ask.
Tom’s bony shoulder lifts, indifferent. Sometimes, things just die. He’s learned that well. In recent months.
The mare’s mane is black on the parched turf. Kneeling, I reach a
finger to her. Tom pulls me away from the corpse. I expect a scold, but
all he says is “There.”
I don’t see it, and then I do—in a clutch of bracken, ten paces beyond.
Small and dark in the green shadow. Newborn.
“What will you do?” I ask.
He pushes a hand through his hair.
“Pest question, Iris. What would you have me do?”
This hurts. “I’m not a pest,” I say. “I’m trying to help.”
He gives me a gentle shove. “Pest.” Since his mother died in March, Tom’s voice has been blank.
We watch the foal as it lies, head tucked into itself. It sighs. Thin cotton sides heave. Its coat is still slick in places. It’s too small to live, but it doesn’t seem to know it.
“We could feed it,” I say.
He gives me a look that means I live in a big house with floors shiny with beeswax and high ceilings where the air goes up into white silence and the linen is scented with lavender and tea rose. In the mornings, I have porridge with cream, milk from my silver mug if I am good. Tom’s knees jut through the worn patches in his trousers. He lives with his silent father in the drafty farmhouse with slates missing from the roof. He is in the fields before dawn each morning. There is no we.
I squirm. My boots are tight, my feet bloodless like the flesh of a gutted fish. I shed my stockings somewhere near Bell Tor. Beneath petticoats, my bare legs are gorse striped, beaded with blood.
“Never works,” he says at last. “They won’t take it. Or they sicken.
There’s something not right for them in cow’s milk.”
“I don’t want it to die.”
“You’re a girl,” he says. “You don’t understand.”
So I know he doesn’t want it to die either.
In a March storm, Charlotte Gilmore stepped on a fold of her skirt. I see the moment reflected in Tom’s eye each day: the buffet of cold air on her face as she falls down twenty steep stairs; her dress, belling about her like a tossed blossom; the thunder that covers the sound when her neck breaks.
“Come on,” he says. When he’s upset, his voice rattles like a badly fitted drawer.
Our long shadows slide over the turf. The foal raises its head, questing. Tom seizes it. It twists and struggles and bats him with little hooves. Tom lifts the foal onto his shoulders, settles it there. Slender forelegs and hind legs are safely anchored in his fists. The tiny brush tail whisks, indignant. They go like that, back toward the farm.
“They’ll be missing you,” he tosses over his shoulder. “You go off home now. Pest,” he adds.
“Wait,” I say. “Wait! ” I run on tight feet.
Henry Gilmore leans on the farm gate. His stare is wide, full of nothing. Tom stands upright before his father. At his shoulder, the foal flicks little ears. Tom asks the question once more.
“Maisie’s colt weaned two days ago,” says Henry Gilmore. His words are slow. He gives Tom his flinching glance. Once, he looked at you straight. Not anymore. He left his eyes in Tom’s mother’s grave four months back.
“Will she—” Tom stops.
Henry Gilmore shrugs. “Could be. Don’t fuss her. If she mislikes it. You let her do what she will.” He reaches a hand to the foal’s muzzle. Its nostrils tremble, move across his skin, scent his grief.
“It’ll die either way,” he says. “Better quickly.”
“Might not,” says Tom, and the air between them grows dense.
“You’ll not make a farmer,” Henry Gilmore tells his son, touching
Tom’s shoulder with an absent hand. He leaves us, fades through the gate into the blue. Tom, the foal, and I watch him. Distance narrows him as he goes, whittles his figure to a dark drop crawling across the bones of the hill.
In the loose box, Maisie peers through a forelock the color of dirty snow. Clumps of mud cling to her tangled belly. She lifts a broad lip in our direction, shows us her butter-yellow teeth.
“You’re not to go in,” says Tom. “Pest. D’you hear? No matter what.”
He has a twitch above his eye. His eyebrow stutters with distress. The foal’s muzzle brushes his cheek. Tom’s hands tighten, sticky about its legs.
“You’ll have to hold it,” he says. “Can you? If you… Yes.”
A flurry of little hooves, and the foal shrieks like a cat. At length, it subsides in my arms. Its pounding heart, its thin new bones.
Tom says, “We have to make them smell the same.”
Pressed together, the foal and I shiver under the sun. I can’t see where Tom has gone. There’s the crack of his boots on the dry earth, the puzzling intricacy of wood, metal, catches, clasps, doors. He is back quickly.
The tin is squat and burly. He pries the lid up with his knife, plunges a hand in. It comes up a shining paw, gloved in treacle. Dark shining loops. He covers the foal’s head and withers. He puts the stuff on its hindquarters, smooths it over the heaving flanks, over its belly. When he’s finished, my arms are crosshatched as if by the path of snails.
“She won’t hurt it,” says Tom. His hand cradles the foal’s jaw. Its eyes close. Long lashes on sooty lids. “She won’t,” he says again, not to me. Over the stall door, Maisie shakes her massive head, blinks a bashful eye, lifts her rubber lip.
“No,” I say, “she wouldn’t. Good Maisie.”
The surface of the cart horse is vast. Her flanks ripple like a quiet sea. Tom watches. His eyes show the blue iris, ringed with white.
“Won’t do to wait,” he tells himself, or me. Maisie offers flared nostrils to his sticky hands. “Yup,” he says to her. “All that. Soon.” He slips into the stall, bolts himself in. His hands move to and fro, between light and the straw-scented dark. They coat Maisie’s muzzle and mouth with treacle. He works backward along the colossal sculpture of her, moves out of sight into the dim. She stands, but her head follows him, the glassy brown trail.
I pick up the foal. It lies like a sack in my arms. It has given up. Its hooves are no larger than shillings. The thud of its heart on my wrist. It smells of freshly crushed nettles, sharp against the farmyard.
“Will it be all right?” I ask.
Tom says nothing. I carry the foal to the stall door. It is quiet, leaden. He reaches, takes it through the crack into the dark. Then he’s out. He blinks in the sudden, honeyed day. His dark eyebrow quivers. I put fingertips to my wrist. The flesh there holds the memory of the foal’s heartbeat, weaving over my own. We wait, silent.
“I can’t,” Tom says.
So I look.
In the dim light, Maisie’s nostrils traverse the lineaments of the foal’s body. She licks the treacle from its muzzle, eyes. Her tongue sweeps down its length, a thick banner. The foal mews, a high complaint. Maisie levers it upright, nose under its stomach. Her ponderous head is as long as its body, an edifice of teeth and bone. The foal stretches. Its neck elongates beyond possibility, reaches upward in a graceful line. It can’t reach. It makes the high sound again. Maisie bends her legs, collapses, groaning, into the straw. Her eyes close. The foal feeds, a tiny, resolute shape by her monstrous belly. The tail whisks. Maisie breathes. Hayseed whirls in the slanting light.
“It’s all right,” I say. There is no reply.
Tom’s lips are moving silently. I shove a finger into his ribs. I fold a damp hand around his thin brown wrist.
Tom whips his hands from his ears where they have been painfully pressed. He goes to the stall door.
“Good,” he says in a rush. “Good. Oh, well done, pest.”
“Don’t call me pest anymore,” I say. “I don’t like it.”
“I know,” he says. “Sorry. I don’t mean it, Iris. You’re not a pest. It’s just…remember how you felt when the dogs got your rat?”
Sorrow comes, and anger, hot.
Tom nods. “That’s how I feel all the time now,” he says. “Every day.”
I think about this. “All right,” I say. “You can call me what you want. I don’t mind.”
For the first time since his mother died, Tom takes my hand in his. We watch the mare and the foal. Bees hum in the falling afternoon. Sound bleeds back into the day.
“Come on,” Tom says at length. “Home for you.”
“No.” I am not ready to face Papa.
“We’ll catch it if you don’t.”
I’ll catch it anyway, but I don’t tell him that. “I don’t know the way home,” I say, triumphant.
“You always say that.”
“I’ll probably end up in Belgium.”
“All right, I’ll walk you,” he says, as I knew he would. “Back to the Home of the Difficult Pest!”
“That’s not its name.” I leap on him, pummeling. “Or my name!”
“I thought you didn’t mind anymore!” he shouts through the blows. “Pest! No, ow, no biting, pest!” We roll, joyous, in the dusty yard.
I slip through the hedge. My eyes water from the sunlight, the breeze. But within the yew walls, there is stillness. The scent of lavender hangs in the air.
On the green, my father dreams. Banks of gray and purple frame him in his black suit. Open on the table beside him lies a moldering book, spine broken. There’s a lime-green jug, where glassy water shines. By the jug, a soft leather wallet, half unrolled on the warm wood. I can see the gleam of metal within: sharp, inviting. I look away. I must not go near my father’s pouch; I am never to touch it. That is one of the Rules. Behind him, the house rears up, warm and gray.
Rawblood. Home. It sounds like a battle, like grief, but it’s a gentle name. “Raw” from sraw, which means “flowing,” for the Dart River that runs nearby. “Blood” from bont, a bridge. Old words. The house by the bridge over flowing water. It has been in my family since I don’t know when. Rawblood is us, and we, the Villarcas, are Rawblood.
It’s a bulging, ungainly thing. Windows poke out along its lengths at no set distance from one another. Crazy angles of warm slate roof are purplish in the sunshine. It’s old, and everyone who has lived here has built something or taken something away. Like its name, it has shifted through time. But the house has its own sort of will. It has preserved its long U shape quietly, with the minimum of fuss. When I try to think of Rawblood, to draw it with words, a muffling whiteness comes. I can’t describe it any more than I can my own bones, my eyes. It simply is. It hangs in the foreground of everything like blindness.
These are among the first things I recall my father teaching me: that I must keep quiet and may not go among many people or to towns, because of the disease, and that Rawblood is written into us. Sometimes, I think Tom knows about the disease. Sometimes, he looks at me as if he knows something. Or perhaps I could tell him, and he’d still be my friend after all. I don’t care to test it.
I come near to watch my father sleep. His head nods to inner music. His lids shiver. I am near enough to see the low sun single out each silver whisker like a filament of steel.
A hand uncoils itself into the air between us, grasps my forearm, pulls me close. It happens fast and smooth, like the whip of sapling wood.
“What have I caught?” he murmurs, eyes still hidden. “What can it be? A lion?” He tightens his long fingers, and I shriek and say no, no, I am not a lion.
“I don’t believe it. You must be a lion. I am a famous lion catcher, you know.”
He makes a show of feeling my arm, looking for paws, looking for claws. “So. Not a lion. How’s this?” He hums. “A badger, then. A striped, snouty badger.”
“A fish. A lovely, silvery fish for my supper.” His fingers slide over my ribs, a rapid accordion, and the laughter takes all the wind out of me.
“A person,” I gasp. “I am a person!”
He opens his eyes. “So you are. Well. I must let you go, then.”
But he doesn’t. He looks me over, sharp. I had not considered my appearance. I’m covered in treacle, pony hair, and dirt. My pinafore is streaked with green, with black. The wind has teased my hair into peaks and horns.
My father says, “Is it…horse that you smell of? What have you been doing, Iris? Where have you been?”
I’m caught. So I tell him. About the foal, about Maisie, about the farm, backward, words stumbling over themselves.
He dips his handkerchief in the water jug, smooths the cool, wet linen over my arms. The ring on his finger gleams red and white and gold. The imprints of his fingers are white ghosts on my wrists.
“Gilmore’s boy, who is not a farmer,” he says. “Iris.”
I wait. The hairs on my arms stand to attention.
He says, “Gilmore’s not managing. No. Not at all.” He takes my chin in the white wing of one hand and looks. His vast eyes shine like varnished wood. Now he’ll tell me I’m not to. He’ll say I mayn’t because of the Rules… I can’t bear it. The lavender is sooty in the air, my lungs. When Papa and I fight, it is always about Tom.
“Don’t say I mustn’t have him as my friend,” I say.
“I do say so, but plainly, it has no effect,” he says. “You are heedless, and you are growing. I do not know what to do. Lock you up? We cannot continue to differ on this, we cannot…”
The handkerchief falls to the table. I am new, damp, clean. I slip from his grasp and sit beside him on the lawn.
My father does not reprove me or mention my dress. He puts his hand to my head again, light and sweet. It strokes, gently picks bracken and straw and burrs from my indignant hair. “Ragamuffin,” he says to himself. Cushioned turf tickles my unstockinged calves. Nearby, sparrows quarrel in a rhododendron. Against the hedge, lying in shadow, a single daisy breaks the immaculate green of the lawn. It will be gone tomorrow.
I pick up the collapsed book. A ledger, really, like the one I have seen for the household accounts. It falls open in my hand. Some sharp scent rises from the spoiled pages. They are damp, oily to my touch. Faint lines of copperplate.
She does not trouble me; the fact being so plain, perhaps, that I am already damned. Other things haunt my dreams. A small blessing, given to a fiend.
“What does it mean?” I ask.
Papa’s fingers drum the paper, a soft tattoo. He says, “Highly unsuit- able.” He takes the book, puts it from me on the table. Something is frightening.
I wipe my fingers on my dress. My father says, “So.”
I look up, inquiring. He is giant against the sun.
“If he is good with horses, it is settled. We need another groom; Shakes is getting on. We will have the young not-farmer. And”—his hand cups my neck—“Miller’s wolfhound has six pups. I will take you down to choose one in the morning. He will sleep at the foot of your bed. How do you like that?”
Light fingers in my hair. Inattentive, sun-dazed, the words will not at first connect with meaning. Why would Tom sleep at the foot of my bed? Then I understand. I scrub my hand across my eyes, across the grass.
“No,” I say.
“No?” he asks. “I have given you two presents; all you have for me is no?”
“Thank you, Papa. I don’t want the presents.” I know this will upset everything, though the reasons are just out of my reach.
He regards me mildly. “Iris, I am surprised at you. It will be good for the boy, and the Gilmores have mouths to feed, whether you like it or not. But you need not have the puppy if you do not want it.”
“He’s my friend,” I say.
“Now he will be your groom,” Papa says. “And you will treat him as such.” “Yes,” I say, because that is what one says to Papa. I’m dazed, ears ringing. “But I will have no one. It will be hard to remember that we’re not friends anymore…”
“You will accustom yourself to it,” he says. “We are adaptable animals. When you have called him Gilmore a few times, it will come more naturally. When he has been your groom for a year or so, you won’t remember he was ever anything but.”
“You are disobedient, Iris, and you force me to act. You will not stay quiet; you will not stay under my roof or my eye. You court the disease and will not abide by the Rules.” His hand strokes the soft leather case. His eyes have found the distance.
I rise to leave Papa there, warm and solid on the bench, silver head already nodding. I know my love for him. I am surprised by my hate. It comes like the shaft of a splinter on the smooth grain of wood.
Horror autotoxicus. The disease. Papa does not say, but I think it kills us, the Villarcas, and that is why we two are the last.