yannick murphy
Photo by Clark Hsiao

“The Call is the only book I’ve read by Yannick Murphy, but it has made me a fan ... It was a total unexpected pleasure.”
– Librarian Nancy Pearl discussing The Call in her webinar Nancy Pearl Presents: Books that Make Great Gifts

Yannick Murphy is the author of the novels, THE CALL, SIGNED, MATA HARI, HERE THEY COME, and THE SEA OF TREES. Her story collections include STORIES IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE and IN A BEAR’S EYE. Her children’s books include THE COLD WATER WITCH, BABY POLAR, and AHWOOOOOOOO!. She is the recipient of various awards including a Pushcart Prize, a Laurence L. and Thomas Winship/PEN New England Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, a National Endowment for the Arts award, and a Chesterfield Screenwriting award. Her story IN A BEAR’S EYE was published in the 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories.

Reading Room

Excerpt from THIS IS THE WATER

This is the water, lapping the edge of the pool, coming up in small waves as children race through it. This is the swim mom named Dinah wearing the team shirt with a whale logo on it, yelling at her daughter Jessie to swim faster. This is Jessie who cannot hear Dinah because Jessie is in the water. Jessie is singing a song to herself: She is singing, “This old man, he played one. He played knick knack on his thumb.” Dinah is red in the face, standing in the stands. Dinah moves her hand in the air as if to help hurry her daughter along. Behind the starting blocks the water comes up over the edge of the pool and splashes the parents who are timing on deck.

This is the facility. The long shafts of sunlight that come in through the windows and hit the water on sunny days. The showers whose pressure is weak, whose tiles need brush-cleaning in the grout. This is Dinah after her daughter Jessie doesn’t win the race. Dinah is sitting back down on the bleachers in the stands. She is writing down Jessie’s time; she is comparing the time to the last time Jessie swam that event. She is telling herself at least her daughter beat her previous record. This is how much she beat it by: one one-hundredth of a second.

This is the racing suit some of the swimmers wear. It feels like the skin of a shark when rubbed the wrong way. Rubbed the right way it’s smooth and gives you the feeling that you can beat your old times, that you can beat anyone’s times. The suits are supposed to fit tight, as tight as a corset probably. The suits, the girls all say, are terribly uncomfortable. They ride up their crotches. They cut into their legs. They dig into their shoulders. They flatten their chests. They make it difficult to breathe. But they love their suits nonetheless and after a meet they rinse them and hang them up dutifully to dry, unlike their practice suits, which they sometimes let stay in their bags overnight in a wet ball, allowing the chlorine from the pool to eat away at the fabric.

This is the bathroom in the locker room where a girl changes into her suit. In the bathroom grunting can be heard. Many hands are on the girl and the suit trying to help her get into it. If you look under the bathroom door, you can see so many legs. From the stall you can hear the pull of the swimsuit fabric, the sucking sound of skin being pushed and shoved.

This is the mom named Chris who is timing with another parent she doesn’t know from another team. Chris is not wearing the swim team tee shirt with the whale logo. She did not think to put it on when she left the house at five a.m. with her daughter in the car and her daughter’s swim bag stuffed with towels to last throughout the long day of racing, with the moonlight flowing over the field lighting up a deer and a doe nibbling at the edge of the forest. Chris does not cheer for her daughter. She only realizes her daughter is swimming in the race when she looks out across the lanes of the pool and sees someone who looks like her daughter swimming. She still doesn’t cheer when she realizes it is her daughter because she knows her daughter would not hear her over all the other noise. Chris also thinks it’s silly how many parents are so involved in their child’s swimming and cheer so loudly, as if the cheering will make their child go faster, as if it were the Olympics or if winning or losing a swim down the length of the pool and back were a matter of life and death. Chris’s daughter, Cleo, is becoming more interested in swimming every season, even though Chris doesn’t ask her much about it. Cleo keeps a record in her journal of all of her past times and of the times she needs to qualify for certain meets. Cleo has begun sharing her times with her father, Paul, because he seems more interested than her mother in how she’s able to shave off time by tucking tighter in her turns, or keeping her hips up in the backstroke. This is Chris, being splashed by the water when a swimmer dives in and liking the way the water feels through the leg of her blue jeans, making her feel cool when it is so hot in the facility. These are the windows of the pool, covered over in mist so thick it looks purposely sprayed on, as if what were being done behind the glass were not to be seen by anyone on the outside.

Excerpt from THE CALL

A cow with her dead calf half born.

Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.

Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs, and torso are still inside the mother.

Thoughts on drive home:
Is there a nicer place to live?

What children said to me when I got home:
Hi, Pop.

What wife cooked for dinner:
Something mixed up.

Old woman with minis needs Bute paste.

Drove to old woman’s house, delivered bute paste. Pet minis. Learned their names, – Molly, Netty, Sunny, and Storm.

Minis are really cute.

Thoughts on drive home:
Must bring children back here sometime to see the cute minis.

What children said to me when I got home:
Hi, Pop.

What the wife cooked for dinner:
Steak and potatoes.

Sick sheep.

Visited sheep. Noticed they’d eaten all the thistle.

Talked to owner, who is a composer, about classical music. Admired his tall barn beams. Advised owner to fence off thistle so sheep couldn’t eat it. Sheep become sick from thistle.

Thoughts on drive home:
Is time travel possible? Maybe time is not a thing. Because light takes a while to travel, what we’re seeing is always in the past.

What the wife cooked for dinner:

Castrate draft horse.

Pulled out emasculators, castrated draft horse.

Draft horse bled buckets. Pooled around his hooves. Owner said she had never seen so much blood. It’s okay, he’s got a lot of blood, I said. She nodded. She braided the fringe on her poncho, watching the blood.

Thoughts on drive home:
What’s the point of a poncho if it doesn’t cover your arms?

What the wife cooked for dinner:
Nut loaf.

What I ate for dinner:
Not nut loaf.

Horse is colicking.

Drove to farm. Gave horse Banamine. Watched him sweating. Watched him rolling on his stall floor. Watched owner cry. Just a few tears down a freckled cheek. Listened to horses in other stalls whinny, worried for the colicky horse.

Stayed for hours, until night. Moon was full. Walked horse out to field by the apple tree. Gave him a shot to put him to sleep. Patted his neck. Left owner with her head by his head, not saying anything. Maybe just breathing in his last exhaled breath.

Thoughts on drive home:
When I go I want to go in a field by an apple tree on a full moon night.

What I saw when I pulled up to the house:
Bright lights in the sky, an object moving quickly back and forth. Not a plane.

What I heard from children when I got home:
gentle snoring.

What I heard from my wife when I got home:
loud snoring.

Excerpt from Signed, Mata Hari:

I cheated death. I walked across the sea. When the tide was low I went over the furrowed sandbanks in my small bare feet. I skipped school one day and traveled to an island near my home called Ameland. I had heard stories, every child who lived in the Netherlands knew the stories, about the mud like quicksand and about the water like a great grey wall when the tide came in and how it could catch you and knock you down and pour into your mouth and drown you so that you couldn?t ever return, no matter how hard you tried to climb out of the mud like quicksand and over the great grey wall. But I returned. I went back to the nuns who had been tolling bells, looking for me. When they found me they showed me their palms, raw from pulling the bell?s rope and they took me to the headmistress for punishment. Walking to her chambers I whispered proudly into the black folds of their habits. I have walked across the sea. Later, my whispers came out as the nuns kneeled for Mass, released like cold air once trapped in a cellar, now mixing with their prayers.

I knew my walk at low tide to the island of Ameland would always be with me. I was to walk it years later, again and again, in bed with men who snored beside me, a meaty arm of theirs across my chest. In the hot sweaty jungles of Java I walked the wet sand to Ameland and did not always smell the smell of the lotus growing out my window, but instead I smelled the cold salt spray of the ocean of my homeland. I walked my walk to Ameland most often in the prison of St. Lazare, where every stone on the floor of my cell held a trip for me across the darkened sand where, when I walked back, I turned around and looked over my shoulder to watch the sea advancing. Try and catch me, I said out loud and what answered back was the sky, at first in low rumbles, then louder as thunder rolled closer. But it never did catch me, and I outran the tide and lived.

* * *

First there is flour, mother said in the kitchen. Then the eggs. With the flour on her hands, puffing up along her arms, she was already becoming a ghost.

The cake she made was for my birthday. My father said that in a country called Mexico the birthday child?s face is pushed into the cake. For good luck and a long life, he said.

Not in this country, my mother said and she slid the cake away from me so that I would not push my face into her frosting, spread with a spoon so that it looked like small cuppy waves, curved tips held suspended in a gentle roll.

Father said, Next birthday when you are fifteen Marguerite, you can do it.

Later, in his store, father showed me a hat.

Touch it, he said. He rubbed the soft felt against my cheek. Think of the animal that died so that this hat could be made from its fur, he said.

I pushed the hat away. I wanted to think of all the men who would wear the hat and the parties they would wear it to.

Father put the hat in the window to display it, but I knew that in an hour or so he would take it down and replace it with another hat from a shelf inside the store. By doing this, he kept the colors of the hats from fading in the sun.

Father was not there for my next birthday. He closed up his shop. He took down all the hats and sold them at reduction and held the cash in his hand and licked his fingertips to count without making a mistake. I sat in the storefront window. The sun beat down through the glass and I now knew how quickly the hats could fade and lose their color and I thought how funny that was because everyone had always told me to stay out of the sun, saying it would make my olive skin darker.

After he was gone, all that was left of him was a flowered vest he once wore that hung in the closet. The cloth of the vest was stretched around the waist, where the girth of him had pushed against the cloth. Mother never put anything else in the closet and if I opened the door quickly, the breeze would set the flowered vest in motion on the wooden hangar.

He gave us no address. He left saying he would come for us after he found a job in the south.

Mother cried at night. There were holes in the walls, large patches where the paint was peeling and the plaster was crumbling. I thought her cries would enter the holes and stay forever in the house, trapped and ricocheting behind our walls. I tried to drown out the cries by pounding out songs on the keys of the piano, but all that happened was the paint peeled even more, the plaster crumbled to the floor and left small white piles like those inside a sand timer, marking hours that could not be turned upside down.

I found mother dead in the kitchen. The white flour was on her apron. It was up her arms. It was between the laces of her boots. It was in her mouth. The doctor said she died from an infection in her lungs. I thought she died from breathing in the flour. From the inside out, it turned her into a ghost. I never went into that kitchen again. The kitchen can kill you, I thought. I closed my eyes and was walking across the sea. Each time I remembered it, it was as if I was more there than the first time. I noticed more things. The white sand crabs burrowing beside my feet. The water coming in, the bubbles springing up from beneath me, filling in between my toes, creeping up the hem of my silk skirt.

Excerpt from HERE THEY COME

Here come the hot dog men. Fuck, if they aren’t all foreign, all coming from lands with camels and beaches with black volcanic ash for sand or lands with wives with scarves up to the eyes, lands where love is through a hole in the bedsheet, lands where marriages are on hilltops, and goats, bell-necked, graze nearby. They are silent down the avenue except for the wheels of their carts and the slosh of the water their long skinny hot dogs float in. So early down the avenue there are hardly any cars, and they own the lanes, pushing their carts down the middle wearing sometimes three sweaters, their arms bulging in nubby hand-knitted yarns, their shoes sometimes not shoes, just sandals worn with socks, their hair greased or just greasy, the dandruff held tight behind bars of coarse strands of thick prickly hair at the napes of their cross-hatched necks.

I see them coming down the avenue from my fire escape, their cart umbrellas folded in. Their slow walk is like an amble through a still sleeping village alongside a donkeydrawn wooden-wheeled cart loaded with bundles of sticks for starting small fires.

I know the one walking past the Charlie Bar across the street. He is named John. He gives me a Hershey from the bin at the bottom that stores the spongy buns. In summer I sit on his lap when it is slow, and morning, and eat the Hershey while I feel his fingers creeping up my waist and to my tits. Meanwhile, the hot dogs boil, the sauerkraut warms, and the sodas cool on ice.

John doesn’t have front teeth. He says it’s from eating rocks baked in bread where he comes from. He takes pictures of me with a camera he wears around his neck and shows me them developed. Bad pictures where the sun is behind me and I’m a whoosh of bright light, or under a park bush, too dark to be seen, maybe just my leg on the dirt that is patted-down park dirt, run over by rats at night and where minty gum wrapper is thrown throughout the day.