The following is an exclusive excerpt from Unsheltered, the new book from award-winning author Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible). The novel weaves between two timelines — the 1860s and the present-day — and is set in a Vineland, New Jersey community; two families who lived in the same house more than a century apart navigate personal struggles and tumultuous political periods. Unsheltered publishes on Oct. 16, and is available for pre-order.
SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS (from Chapter 4)
Thatcher returned from his meeting to find Polly inconsolable. He’d walked home from the schoolhouse in foul temper himself, and now here was his wife’s little sister braying. The dogs, she shrieked, missing for hours. Kidnapped. She had evidence!
Thatcher took off his hat and prepared to tread cautiously. The two hounds had come with the house, an unexpected gift. His mother-in-law despised them, his wife ignored them; Thatcher was sufficiently indifferent that he could not distinguish one from the other. It was Polly who knew their hearts. She claimed they held different temperaments: Charybdis was Congregationalist, while Scylla was Baptist.
But their principal inclination was to run away to the neighbor’s house and lie flanking the door like sphinxes. Day after day Polly fetched them back and scolded them for disloyalty. Today’s crisis surpassed the ordinary. Polly was sure they were being held captive by Mrs. Treat.
“By Mrs. Treat,” he repeated. Polly hadn’t let him ten paces into the house before collapsing at his feet, the bell of her striped skirt wilting around her. “The lady doesn’t strike me as treacherous.”
“They visit her every morning because she lures them. She gives them titbits. Which isn’t fair! Mother won’t let me feed them anything special at all.”
Through the open parlor door Thatcher could see the corseted bulwark of his mother-in-law at her desk. Her hobby was to write letters to the newspaper reporting corruptions on their town: Youthful disrespect for officers of the law. Spirits flowing in the Italian quarter. Thatcher lowered his voice.
“Are you positive she has them, Polly? It will be too embarrassing if I’m bringing a false charge.”
Reluctantly he went, hat in hand, apologies rehearsed. He knocked on the front door and made himself wait. A suspendered gang of working boys came down Sixth Street with picks on their shoulders, pausing for a loaded wagon to pass. Thatcher was poised to abandon his mission and frankly disappointed to hear a faint voice encouraging him to enter. He wandered into the parlor where Mrs. Treat sat at a desk near the window, a book lying open before her. He sensed he was intruding on some private ceremony. She seemed in proper order in a brown day frock, but oddly, she did not get up. Her eyes darted toward him but she held herself perfectly still.
“I’m Thatcher Greenwood.” Hat in both hands, held to his chest like a shield. “I live next door.”
“Of course you do. I am Mary Treat.”
“I’m sorry my wife and I haven’t called in. Settling into a house should not be a turmoil and yet we turn over a new one every day. This morning I am commanded to come inquiring about our hounds. Oh, and here they are!”
They lay under the desk at her feet. One lifted a cocked head briefly, then dropped its chin to the floor again with a sigh.
“Please sit,” Mrs. Treat urged, sounding deeply unhappy to offer the invitation.
“I don’t need to trouble you. If I could just relieve you of—”
“No, please do stay a few minutes. I need the diversion, more desperately than you can imagine.” Her stiff countenance was at odds with her appeal, but the words were so extreme, it seemed wrong to refuse. He looked around at the room, nicely wallpapered, comfortably used. A pair of very muddy women’s shoes stood on the hearth drying out from some misfortune. Bookcases lined one wall. Dr. Treat was rumored to have run off to New York with a suffragette. His wife must be missing him terribly to have shut herself into this parlor, harboring dogs, begging for the company of a stray neighbor.
Thatcher put himself down on the settee facing Mrs. Treat at her desk. Half a dozen large glass candy jars crowded the table near his elbow, each one half filled with soil and planted with a miniature garden. “These are unusual,” he said. “Would you call them terraria?”
Mrs. Treat remained rigidly in place, not even moving the hand that lay across her open book, holding her place with a finger until this interruption ended. She gave him a long study. Her eyes were an uncommonly dark brown, deep as wells. “You are the science teacher, or will be when the high school opens. Is that right?”
“Yes. I was just there now, preparing for opening of the term.”
“Then I will make a confession.” Her face slipped into a slight grin, the first sign of a thaw. “The ferns are a ruse. I put them in so my lady friends can admire the little gardens without being shocked. Which they would be, if they knew. Each jar is the home of a large spider.”
Thatcher took care with his tone of voice. “A spider?”
“Yes. Tower-building spiders of the genus Tarantula. They make more interesting pets than even your excellent hounds, Mr. Greenwood.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” he said. Vividly she rose in his memory, the lady facedown in the grass. His wife watching her through the parlor window. Rose believed their neighbor was mad. “Do you capture them with persuasion, or stealth?”
“It isn’t difficult. I dig them out of the ground with a trowel, and settle them into these candy jars. The spiders don’t seem to mind the relocation. They go on about their business.”
Thatcher felt his day had taken a turn for the better. “And what is their business?”
“House building. Can you see?”
He peered into the jar and found the neat octagonal turret made of sticks as fine as string. The complete domicile would have fit in his hand. “What an absolute marvel.”
In the blink of an eye Mrs. Treat became a new person. She twinkled.
“Isn’t it? The little builder would agree. She is terribly house proud. Her favorite position is sitting on the top of her tower with her legs folded under her. Can you see her there?”
Thatcher got up and inspected every jar on the table, finding in each one the perfect little turret. But not a single landlady. “I confess I can’t. They don’t seem to be at their posts.”
“I’m afraid your entrance has frightened them all. You might not see one today.”
Thatcher turned around and studied Mrs. Treat for some sign that she was having him on. She looked earnest, her dark eyes vivid. “Will they come out again, after I leave?”
“Oh, yes. They’re completely accustomed to me. But if a stranger comes in the room they always seem to know it.”
“Are they all females?” He sat down again.
“Yes. If I offer them husbands, it doesn’t end well.”
“Alas. I apologize for intruding on your sorority.”
“Amply forgiven. One must not become too isolated from human society.”
Indeed, he thought.
“I would offer you tea, only my girl Selma has taken the day off to look after her mother. I’m afraid I didn’t plan very well.”
“You couldn’t know I was coming.”
“No, but . . .” She shifted in her chair. “I mean for my experiment. I did not think ahead. I’ve accidentally shut the dogs in for hours, and now you are here and I can’t offer you tea.”
Thatcher turned his hat in his hands, a little alarmed, mostly curious. “Your experiment.”
“Did you not see? I’m allowing this Dionaea to have a bite of me.”
“A Venus flytrap. Please come have a look, it’s a good specimen. They thrive in the marshes in the Pine Barrens. I think the poor soil in those swamps encourages the flora to adapt themselves to carnivory.”
He approached and leaned in for a look, astonished to have missed the most important activity in the room. She was not idly holding her place in an open book. Mrs. Treat was allowing the tip of her finger to be digested by a carnivorous plant.
“Gracious,” he said. “Does it hurt?”
She laughed. “I was asking myself that question when you came in. It may be a problem for the psychologist. I resolved this morning to be a voluntary prisoner for five hours at least. I pulled up my comfortable chair here, and gathered plenty of reading matter. Normally I can be happy to sit reading from dawn until dark. But in less than fifteen minutes I found I couldn’t concentrate for the pressure on my finger.”
“How long have you and this plant been locked in combat, Mrs. Treat?”
“Since ten o’clock. For the first hour the pressure seemed to increase, and then my arm began to pain me almost unbearably. I feel ashamed that I cannot control my nerves.”
Thatcher could not stop himself smiling. “Perhaps I could bring you a cup of tea.”
“Oh Mr. Greenwood, I’m too much in your debt already. You’ve extended my resolve for an extra quarter hour.”
“But it would be my pleasure. In the interest of science. What outcome do you anticipate? Surely you don’t mean to sacrifice a digit?”
“That would be a feast to go down in the Dionaea history books, wouldn’t it? But I don’t think my little friend is up to the task. I only wanted to see whether the digestive secretions would ooze from the trap, which has happened, as you see.”
Together they took a silent moment to regard the little plant acquiring its species’ first taste of human flesh. From jars throughout the room, tarantula matrons might have joined them, peering with their many eyes over their thresholds at the historic tableau.