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Mathilda Savitch

Awards: PEN Center USA Literary Award Winner; Virginia Commonweath University Cabell First Novelist Winner

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Read the First Chapter of Mathilda Savitch

I want to be awful. I want to do awful things and why not? Dull is dull is dull is my life. Like now, it’s night, not yet time for bed but too late to be outside, and the two of them reading reading reading with their eyes moving like the lights inside a copy machine. When I was helping put the dishes in the washer tonight, I broke a plate. I said sorry Ma it slipped. But it didn’t slip, that’s how I am sometimes, and I want to be worse.

I’ve hurt things, the boys showed me this. Pulling legs off spiders and such. Kevin Ryder next door and his friends, they let me come into their fort. But that was years ago, I was a child, it didn’t matter if I was a boy or a girl. It would be against the law to go into their fort now I suppose. The law of my mother. Why don’t you stay home? she says. Be careful out there, every time I walk out the door. But is it just words I wonder, how much does she really care? Who is she really thinking about when she thinks about me? I have my suspicions. And anyway, do the boys even have a fort anymore? It was probably all destroyed a long time ago. It was a fort in the woods made from sticks and blankets and leaves. Things like that don’t last forever.

And besides, now I know things about my body I didn’t know back then. It’s not the innocence of yesteryear, that’s for sure.

Awful is easy if you make it your one and only. I pinch Luke sometimes. Luke is our dog. You can’t pinch all dogs, some will bite. But Luke is old and he’s a musher, he’s all about love love love and so he’d never bite you. I pet him for a few minutes all nice and cuddly and then all of sudden I pinch him and he yelps and goes circling around the room looking for the mystery pincher. He doesn’t even suspect me, that’s how blind with love he is. But I suppose if you held a gun to my head—did I love him, didn’t I love him?—I guess I would have to say I loved the stupid dog. He’s been with us forever and he sleeps on my bed.

If you want to know, I was born in this house with this dog and those two, teachers of all things. A blue house. If you look at it from the outside, you’d swear it had a face, the way the windows are. Window eyes, a window nose, and a door for a mouth. Hi house, I say whenever I come home. I’ve said this for as long as I can remember. I have other things I say, better than this, but I don’t tell anyone. I have secrets and I’m going to have more. Once I read a story about a girl who died, and when they opened her up they found a gold locket in her stomach, plus the feathers of a bird. Nobody could understand it. Well, that’s me. That’s my story, except what are they going to find in my stomach, who knows? It’s definitely something to think about.

For a second as I watch them reading, I think Ma and Da have turned to stone. So where is the woman with snakes in her hair, I ask myself. Is it me? Then I see the books moving up and down a little and so I know Ma and Da are breathing thank god. Luke is a big puddle of fur on the carpet, off in dreamland. Out of nowhere he farts and one eye pops open. Oh what’s that? he wonders. Who’s there? Some guard dog, he can’t tell the difference between a fart and a burglar. And he’s too lazy to go investigate. As long as they don’t steal the carpet from under him, what does he care. I can pretty much read his mind. Animal Psychic would be the perfect job for me. The only animals I’m not good at getting inside are birds. Birds are the lunatics of the animal world. Have you ever watched them? Oh my god, they’re insane! Even when they sing I don’t a hundred percent believe them.

I hate how quiet it is. One smelly dog fart and then nothing, you almost think you’ve gone deaf. A person in my position begins to think about things, death even. About death and time and why it is I’m afraid sometimes at night sitting and watching the two of them reading and almost not breathing but for the books moving up and down like something floating on top of the ocean. And is Ma drunk again is the other question, but who’s asking. Shut up and mind your own business, I think. She’s a free man in Paris. Which is a song Ma used to sing when there were songs in the house. Ancient history.

Oh, and infinity! That’s in my head again. That will keep you up all night, the thought of that. Have you tried to do it? Think of infinity? You can’t. It’s worse than the thoughts of birds. You say to yourself: okay, imagine that space ends, the universe ends, and at the very end there’s a wall. But then you go: what’s behind the wall? Even if it were solid it would be a solid wall going on forever, a solid wall into infinity. If I get stuck thinking on this, what I do is pull a few hairs from the top of my head. I pull them out one at a time. It doesn’t hurt. You have to have the fingers of a surgeon, separating the hairs and making sure there’s only one strand between your fingers before you pluck it. You have to concentrate pretty hard on the operation and so it stops you from thinking about other things. It calms you down.

He’s reading a book about China and she’s reading the selected prose of Ezra Pound, that’s the long and the short of it. She’s got her shoes off and he’s got them on. Venus and Mars, if you ask me. And I’m the Earth, though they don’t even know it.

When I get a little bunch of hairs what I usually do is flush some of them down the toilet and then the rest I keep in a jar. I know this is dangerous because if someone found the hair they could use it to make a doll of me and then I would be under their power forever. If they burned the doll I would die, I would disappear. Infinity.

“What are you doing?” Ma says. “Stop picking at yourself.” She crosses her legs. “Don’t you have something to read?”

Books again. I could scream. I mean I like books just fine but I don’t want to make a career out of it. “I’m just thinking,” I tell her.

She says I’m making her nervous staring at her like that, why don’t I go to bed.

Ma was beautiful once, before I knew her. She’s got pictures to prove it. She was a beauty nonpareil, my Da says. Now she looks like she’s been crying, but it’s just the reading, and the writing too. Grading papers all the time and scribbling her notes. If she cries I don’t know anything about it, I’m not the person to ask about that. If she wanted to cry I wouldn’t hold it against her. She has plenty of reasons.

“What are you writing?” I said to her once. “The great novel,” said she. I didn’t know she was joking. For a long time I thought maybe she really was writing the great novel and I wondered what sort of part I had in it.

“Go upstairs,” she says. “Your hair could use a wash, when was the last time you washed it?”

She likes to embarrass me in front of my father, who has managed to keep his beauty, who knows how. He doesn’t care if I have dirty hair or not but still, you don’t want to be pointed out as a grease-ball in front of someone like him. Impeccable is what he is, like a cat.

“I washed it yesterday,” I say.

Ma turns to me and does that slitty thing with her eyes, which means you’re a big fat liar, Mathilda.

“Good night Da,” I say, running up the stairs.

“Good night,” he says, “sweet dreams.” This is his standard but it’s still nice to hear it. At least it’s something.

“And wash that hair” is the tail of Ma’s voice following me up the stairs.

Ma is funny, she either says nothing or else she has to get in the last word. You never know which Ma to expect and I can’t decide which one is worse. Lately it’s mostly been the silent Ma. Tomorrow I’m going to break another plate. It’s already planned.


Excerpted from Mathilda Savitch. By Victor Lodato.

Copyright © 2009 by Victor Lodato.

Published in the United States by Farrar, Starus and Giroux in hardcover, and by Picador in trade paperback.


All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.