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As Bright as Heaven
 


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As Bright as Heaven


  OTHER NOVELS BY SUSAN MEISSNER

  A Bridge Across the Ocean

  Stars over Sunset Boulevard

  Secrets of a Charmed Life

  A Fall of Marigolds

  The Girl in the Glass

  A Sound Among the Trees

  Lady in Waiting

  White Picket Fences

  The Shape of Mercy

  BERKLEY

  An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

  375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

  Copyright © 2018 by Susan Meissner

  Readers Guide copyright © 2018 by Penguin Random House LLC

  Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

  BERKLEY is a registered trademark and the B colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Meissner, Susan, 1961– author.

  Title: As bright as heaven/Susan Meissner.

  Description: First edition. | New York: Berkley, 2018.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2017024594 (print) | LCCN 2017027171 (ebook) | ISBN 9780399585982 (ebook) | ISBN 9780399585968 (hardcover)

  Subjects: LCSH: Influenza Epidemic, 1918–1919—Fiction. | Mothers and Daughters—Fiction. | Domestic fiction. | BISAC: FICTION/Historical. | FICTION/Contemporary Women. | FICTION/Literary. | GSAFD: Historical fiction.

  Classification: LCC PS3613.E435 (ebook) | LCC PS3613.E435 U53 2018 (print) | DDC 813/.6—dc23

  LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017024594

  First Edition: February 2018

  Jacket photos of Philadelphia and of woman by H. Armstrong Roberts/Classic Stock

  Jacket design by Colleen Reinhart

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Version_1

  For my mother

  Event succeeds event;

  accidents, people, happenings,

  one after another come toward us.

  Each must be met and dealt with. . . .

  For this process of adjustment is life,

  and the mastery of it is the art of living. . . .

  —KARL DE SCHWEINITZ,

  The Art of Helping People out of Trouble, 1924

  Contents

  Other Novels by Susan Meissner

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Part One Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Part Two Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Chapter 51

  Chapter 52

  Chapter 53

  Chapter 54

  Chapter 55

  Chapter 56

  Chapter 57

  Chapter 58

  Chapter 59

  Chapter 60

  Chapter 61

  Chapter 62

  Chapter 63

  Chapter 64

  Chapter 65

  Chapter 66

  Chapter 67

  Chapter 68

  Acknowledgments and Author’s Note

  Readers Guide

  About the Author

  Part One

  CHAPTER 1

  • January 1918 •

  Pauline

  Morning light shimmers on the apricot horizon as I stand at the place where my baby boy rests. Stouthearted chickadees are singing in the day, just like they have done every other winter’s dawn, but when this same sun sets tonight, I will be miles away from them, and inside an unfamiliar house. There will be no reminders anywhere that Henry was ever mine. Not visible ones, anyway.

  I kneel on the dead grass, brittle with icy moisture. The fabric of my skirt draws in the chilled damp, as if it is parched with thirst. The growing wetness at my knees is unhurried and easy, like a clean, slow blade. I look at the little marble slab that bears Henry’s name and the carving of a sweet lamb curled up among lilies, and I’m reminded again that he was my angel child, even before he flew away to heaven.

  From the moment I held my boy, glistening and new, I knew that he wasn’t like the other babies I’d given birth to. He wasn’t like my girls. They’d slipped out annoyed by the noise and chill and sharp edges of this world. Not Henry. He didn’t cry. He didn’t curl his tiny hands into fists. He didn’t shout his displeasure at being pulled out of the only safe place he knew.

  When the doctor placed him in my arms, Henry merely looked at me with eyes so blue they could’ve been sapphires. He held my gaze like he knew who I was. Knew everything about me. Like he still had the breath of eternity in his lungs.

  He didn’t care when I parted the folds of his blanket to look at his maleness and marvel at the pearly sheen of his skin against mine. I could scarcely believe I’d given birth to a boy after three girls and so many years since the last one. I just kept staring at Henry and he just let me.

  When Thomas was let into the room, he was as astonished that we had a son as I was. The girls were, too. They followed in right after their father, even though it was the middle of the night, and we all gazed and grinned at the little man-child, the quiet lad who did not cry.

  My father-in-law came over the next morning, as did Thomas’s brothers and their wives, all of them smelling of dried tobacco leaves and spice. My parents came, too, and my sister, Jane, who was newly pregnant with her own child after several years of hoping and praying for a baby. They all marveled at how beautiful Henry was, how calm, how enchanting his gaze and how sweet his tempe
rament. My mother and Thomas’s sisters-in-law stared at him like I’d done the night before, amazed as I had been at how serene this baby was. They had known, too, without knowing, that something wasn’t right.

  The few months we had with Henry were wonder filled and happy. He did all the things a baby does that make you smile and laugh and want to kiss his downy head. When he needed something, like my breast or a clean diaper or affection, he didn’t wail; he merely sighed a sweet little sound that if it were made of words would have started with “If it’s not too much trouble . . .” We didn’t know he didn’t have the physical strength to exert himself. His perfectly formed outsides hid the too-small, too-weak heart that my body had made for him.

  And yet had God asked me ahead of time if I wanted this sweet child for just shy of half a year, I still would have said yes. Even now, eight weeks after Henry’s passing, and even when I hold Jane’s sweet little newborn, Curtis, I would still say yes.

  I don’t know if Thomas feels this way, and I know the girls don’t. Evelyn is still sad, Maggie is still angry, and Willa is still bewildered that Henry was taken from us. I can’t say why I am none of those things anymore. What I feel inside, I’m not sure there are words to describe. I should still be sad, angry, and bewildered, but instead I feel a numbness regarding Death that I’ve told no one about. Not even Thomas.

  I no longer fear Death, though I know that I should. I’m strangely at peace with what I used to think of as my enemy. Living seems more the taskmaster of the two, doesn’t it? Life is wonderful and beautiful but oh, how hard it can be. Dying, by contrast, is easy and simple, almost gentle. But who can I tell such a thing to? No one. I am troubled by how remarkable this feeling is.

  This is why I changed my mind about moving to Philadelphia. I’d said no the first time Thomas’s uncle made his offer even though I could tell my husband was interested. Back then I couldn’t imagine leaving this sleepy little town where I’ve lived all my life, couldn’t imagine leaving my parents, though I’ve never been especially dependent on their subtle shows of affection. I didn’t want to move to the city, where the war in Europe would somehow seem closer, didn’t want to uproot the girls from the only home they’ve ever known. Didn’t want to tear myself away from all that was familiar. Uncle Fred wrote again a couple months after Henry was born, and Thomas had said we needed to think carefully before turning down a second invitation.

  “Uncle Fred might take his offer to one of my brothers,” Thomas had told me.

  I truly would have given the matter more serious thought if Henry hadn’t begun his slow ascent away from us right about the same time. When my son’s fragile heart finally began to number his days, nothing else mattered but holding on to him as long as we could. Thomas didn’t bring up the matter again when the third letter from Uncle Fred arrived last week. My husband thinks I cannot leave this little mound of grass.

  But the truth is, I have come out from under the shroud of sorrow a different person. I no longer want to stay in this place where Henry spent such a short time. I don’t want Thomas shading a view of the wide horizon with hands calloused from binder leaves. I don’t want the girls to end up mirroring this life of mine, in a place where nothing truly changes but the contours of your heart.

  More than that, I want to know why Death seems to walk beside me like a companion now rather than prowling behind like a shadowy specter. Surely the answers await me in Uncle Fred’s funeral parlor, where he readies the deceased for their journeys home. Thomas would’ve gone to his grave rolling cigars for other men to smoke, but now he will one day inherit Uncle Fred’s mortuary business and then he won’t be under the thumb of anyone.

  I don’t know what it is like to be the wife of an undertaker. I only know that I need to remember how it was to keep Death at a distance.

  I kneel, kiss my fingertips, and brush them against the H carved into the cold stone.

  And I rise from the wet ground without saying good-bye.

  CHAPTER 2

  Maggie

  I will miss the curing barn in autumn, when the tobacco leaves hang from the laths like golden skirts in a wardrobe. I’ve always loved how in October the papery leaves smell like cedar, molasses, and tree bark. There won’t be anything like them in Philadelphia. And we’ll be long gone by the time October comes around again.

  The curing barn is my favorite place because it’s either as busy as a beehive or as still as a painting. After that first killing frost it’s like the painting, so still and quiet you can forget there’s a changing world outside. No one has to do anything in the curing barn in the fall except have a look-see now and then to make sure none of the tobacco leaves are getting moldy. In the fall, we’re all in the rolling room. I’m twelve but I’ve the delicate hands of a young woman, Grandad says, so I roll a nice cigar. Evie just turned fifteen and doesn’t like rolling; she’d rather be reading under the locust tree when the weather’s nice, but she likes to buy books with the money she earns. Our younger sister, Willa, is only six. It would’ve been a long while before Grandad told her she had hands as graceful as a dancer and rolled a cigar better than a man did.

  I don’t usually spend much time in the barn when the tobacco leaves are finished with their curing, but that was where I was when Mama told Papa she’d seen Uncle Fred’s letter. I’d come home from school, done my chores, and then walked across the snowy field from our house to lie among the few remaining wooden slats that still held their toast-colored leaves. I’d been going to the curing barn a lot since my baby brother died, but Papa had forgotten I was there.

  “I’ve been thinking about Philadelphia,” Mama said. Papa had been checking the empty laths for rot and weak spots. He was a couple rows over from me, and I was on my back on the dirt behind a crate, looking up at the leafy ball gowns. The last time Mama had been to Philadelphia was when Henry was still alive. She and Evie had taken him to see a doctor, and they’d come home with the awful news that he wasn’t going to get better. There was no doctor in the city or on the face of the whole earth who could cure Henry.

  “I think we should go,” Mama had said.

  At first I thought Willa must be sick now, and that was why Mama wanted to go to Philadelphia again. Or Evie. Or maybe I was the sick one and I didn’t even know it yet. But then Mama added she’d seen Uncle Fred’s latest letter asking Papa to come work for him in Philadelphia, and now she was thinking it was a good idea after all.

  “What made you change your mind?” Papa sounded surprised.

  A second or two went by before Mama answered him. “Everything.”

  Papa paused a moment, too, before he said, “If we do this, I don’t think we can undo it.”

  “I know.”

  “We won’t be able to get back here that often, Pauline. Not at first.”

  “I know that, too,” Mama said. “If I can bring the girls back to see the family for a week or two in the summer, I can be content with that.”

  “I don’t suppose your parents will be too keen about this. Especially your mother.”

  “No, maybe not. But you know how she is. She’ll quietly stew on it a bit, and then she’ll be done. I think in the end she wants us to be happy. I know that’s what I’d want for us if I were her.”

  A funny, spirally feeling had started to wind its way inside me as my parents talked to each other. Papa and Mama were talking about moving to the city to live with Uncle Fred, a man I had only met once. He came out to Quakertown when Granny died. Not Mama’s mama, Papa’s. When I was eight.

  Papa had said, “Are you sure now? Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

  “It’s what you want to do, isn’t it?” Mama replied.

  “It will mean a good life for you and the girls. A much better life than what I’m giving you here.”

  “You’ve given us a good life, Tom,” Mama said.

  “I want to give you a better one
.”

  Then Papa said he needed to tell Grandad and break the news to the family and they’d need to sell the house. They talked for a few more minutes, but I wasn’t listening to everything they said. I was thinking about leaving my friends and the other family members and the curing barn. I couldn’t remember what Uncle Fred’s business was, but I was positive it wasn’t growing tobacco and rolling cigars. Not in the city. It was so strange to me that my parents could just decide we were leaving and we’d leave. How could we move away from where we’d buried Henry?

  When Mama left, I stood up slowly so that I would see Papa before he saw me. But he was looking my direction and he saw my head clear the laths. I’m not afraid of my father. He doesn’t yell or curse or storm about when he’s angry, but he can look like he wants to. He’s tall like Grandad and has the same coffee brown eyes that glitter like stars both when he’s happy and when he’s sad. And I guess when he’s surprised, too.

  “I didn’t know you were still in here,” he said.

  “I know.”

  “Did you hear everything?”

  I nodded.

  He gave me a very serious look. “You can’t say anything to anybody, not even your sisters, until I talk to Grandad first. You understand?”

  “Are we moving to Philadelphia?”

  He hesitated a second or two before answering, like he almost couldn’t believe it was true himself. “Yes,” he said.

  “Why? What’s wrong with where we live right now?”

  Papa moved from his row to mine. “There’s nothing wrong with where we live right now. I just have a chance to give you girls a much better home. Better schooling. Better everything. My uncle Fred doesn’t have any children. He has no one to leave his home and business to. He wants to leave them to me when he dies. To us. He has a very nice house, Mags. Electric lights in every room. Hot water from the tap.”

  “And so just like that, we’re going?”

  “Mama and I’ve been thinking on it awhile.”

  “All my friends are here.”

 
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