I. Anyone born and bred in Massachusetts learns early on to recognize the end of
winter. Babies in their cribs point to the brightening of the sky before they can crawl.
Level-headed men weep at the first call of the warblers. Upstanding women strip off
their clothes and dive into inlets and ponds before the ice has fully melted,
unconcerned if their fingers and toes turn blue. Spring fever affects young and old
alike; it spares no one and makes no distinctions, striking when happiness is least
expected, when joy is only a memory, when the skies are still cloudy and snow is still
piled onto the cold, hard ground.
Who could blame the citizens of Massachusetts for rejoicing when spring is so close at
hand? Winter in New England is merciless and cruel, a season that instills a particular
melancholy in its residents and a hopelessness that is all but impossible to shake. In
the small towns surrounding Boston, the leaden skies and snowy vistas cause a
temporary color blindness, a condition that can be cured only by the appearance of
the first green shoots of spring. It isn't unusual for whole populations of certain towns
to find they have tears in their eyes all through the month of March, and there are
those who insist they can see clearly for the very first time.
Still, there are some who are slower to discern the signs of spring. They distrust
March and declare it to be the most perilous time of the year. These are the stubborn
individuals who continue to wear woolen coats on the finest of days, who insist it is
impossible to tell the difference between a carpet of snowdrops and a stretch of ice
in this slippery season, even with twenty-twenty vision. Such people cannot be
convinced that lions will ever be turned into lambs. In their opinion, anyone born in
March is sure to possess curious traits that mirror the fickle season, hot one minute,
cold the next. Unreliable is March's middle name, no one could deny that. Its children
are said to be just as unpredictable.
In some cases, this is assuredly true. For as long as their history has been known,
there have been only girl children born to the Sparrow family and every one of these
daughters has kept the family name and celebrated her birthday in March. Even those
babies whose due dates were declared to be safely set within the snowy margins of
February or the pale reaches of April managed to be born in March. No matter when
an infant was due to arrive, as soon as the first snowdrops bloomed in New England, a
Sparrow baby would begin to stir. Once leaves began to bud, once the Blue Star
crocus unfolded, the womb could no longer contain one of these children, not when
spring fever was so very near.
And yet Sparrow babies were as varied as the days of March. Some were calm and
wide-eyed, born with open hands, always the sign of a generous nature, while others
arrived squalling and agitated, so full of outrage they were quickly bundled into blue
blankets, to ward off nervous ailments and apoplexy. There were babies in the
Sparrow family who had been born while big, soft snowflakes fell and Boston Harbor
froze solid, and those whose births took place on the mildest of days, so that they
drew their first breaths while the robins built nests out of straw and twigs and the red
maples blushed with a first blooming.
But whether the season had been fair or foul, in all this time there had been only one
baby to be born feet first, the mark of a healer, and that child was Stella Sparrow
Avery. For thirteen generations, each one of the Sparrow girls had come into this
world with inky hair and dark, moody eyes, but Stella was pale, her ashy hair and
hazel eyes inherited, the labor nurses supposed, from her handsome father's side of
the family. Hers was a difficult birth, life-threatening for both mother and child. Every
attempt to turn the baby had failed, and soon enough the doctors had begun to
dread the outcome of the day. The mother, Jenny Avery, an independent, matter-of-
fact woman, who had run away from home at seventeen and was as unsentimental as
she was self-reliant, found herself screaming for her mother. That she should cry for
her mother, who had been so distant and cold, whom she hadn't even spoken to in
more than a decade, astounded Jenny even more than the rigors of birth. It was a
wonder her mother wasn't able to hear her, for although Elinor Sparrow was nearly
fifty miles from Boston, Jenny's cries were piercing, desperate enough to reach even
the most remote and hard-hearted. Women on the ward who had just begun their
labor stuck their fingers in their ears and practiced their breathing techniques, praying
for an easier time. Orderlies wished they were home in bed, with the covers drawn up.
Patients in the cardiac unit felt their hearts race, and down in the cafeteria the lemon
puddings curdled and had to be thrown away.
At last the child arrived, after seventeen hours of brutal labor. The obstetrician in
charge snapped one tiny shoulder to ease the birth, for the mother's pulse was rapidly
dropping. It was at this very moment, when the baby's head slipped free and Jenny
Avery thought she might lose consciousness, that the cloudy sky cleared to reveal
the silvery splash of the Milky Way, the heart of the universe. Jenny blinked in the
sudden light which poured in through the window. She saw how beautiful the world
was, as though for the very first time. The bowl of stars, the black night, the life of
her child, all came together in a single band of light.
Jenny hadn't particularly wanted a baby; she hadn't yearned for one the way some
women did, hadn't gazed longingly at rocking horses and cribs. Her stormy relationship
with her own mother had made her wary of family ties, and her marriage to Will Avery,
surely one of the most irresponsible men in New England, hadn't seemed the proper
setting in which to raise a child. And yet it had happened: this baby had arrived on a
starry night in March, the month of the Sparrows, season of snow and of spring, of
lions and lambs, of endings and beginnings, green month, white month, month of
heartache, month of extreme good luck.
The infant's first cries weren't heard until she was tucked into a flannel bunting; then
little yelps echoed from her tiny mouth, as though she were a cat caught in a puddle.
The baby was easily soothed, just a pat or two on the back from the doctor, but it
was too late: her cries had gone right through Jenny, a hook piercing through blood
and bones. Jenny Sparrow Avery was no longer aware of her husband, or the nurses
with whom he was flirting. She didn't care about the blood on the floor or the
trembling in her legs or even the Milky Way above them in the sky. Her eyes were
filled with dizzying circles of light, little pinpricks that glimmered inside her eyelids. It
wasn't starlight, but something else entirely. Something she couldn't comprehend until
the doctor handed her the child, the damaged left shoulder taped up with white
adhesive as though it were a broken wing. Jenny gazed into her child's calm face. In
that instant she experienced complete devotion. Then and there, on the fifth floor of
Brigham and Women's Hospital, she understood what it meant to be blinded by love.
The labor nurses soon crowded around, cooing and praising the baby. Although they
had seen hundreds of births, this child was indeed exceptional. It wasn't her pale hair
or luminous complexion which distinguished her, but her sweet temperament. Good as
gold, the nurses murmured approvingly, quiet as ashes. Even the most jaded had to
agree this child was special. Perhaps her character was a result of her birth date, for
Jenny's daughter had arrived on the twentieth of March, the equinox, when day and
night are of equal length. Indeed, in one tiny, exhausted body, there seemed to exist
all of March's traits, the evens and the odds, the dark and the light, a child who
would always be as comfortable with lions as she was with lambs.
Jenny named the baby Stella, with Will's approval, of course. For despite the many
problems in the marriage, on this one point they agreed: this child was their radiant
and wondrous star. There was nothing Jenny would not do for their daughter. She,
who had not spoken to her own mother for years, who had not so much as mailed a
postcard back home after she'd run off with Will, now felt powerless to resist the
mighty forces of her own maternal instinct. She was bewitched by this tiny creature;
the rest of the world fell away with a shudder, leaving only their Stella. Jenny's child
would not spend a single night apart from her. Even in the hospital she kept Stella by
her side rather than let her be brought to the nursery. Jenny Sparrow Avery knew
exactly what could happen if you weren't there to watch over your child. She was
quite aware of how wrong things could go between mothers and daughters.
Not everyone was doomed to repeat history, however. Family flaws and old sorrows
needn't rule their lives, or so Jenny told herself every night as she checked on her
sleeping daughter. What was the past, after all, but a leaden shackle one had a duty
to try and escape? It was possible to break chains, regardless of how old or how
rusted, of that Jenny was certain. It was possible to forge an entirely new life. But
chains made out of blood and memory were a thousand times more difficult to sever
than those made of steel, and the past could overtake a person if she wasn't careful.
A woman had to be vigilant or before she knew it she'd find herself making the same
mistakes her own mother had made, with the same resentments set to boil.
Jenny was not about to let herself relax or take the slightest bit of good fortune for
granted. There wasn't a day when she wasn't on guard. Let other mothers chat on
the phone and hire baby-sitters; let them sit on blankets in the Boston Common on
sunny days and on blustery afternoons make angels in the snow. Jenny didn't have
time for such nonsense. She had only thirteen years in which to prevail over her
family's legacy, and she planned to do exactly that, no matter the cost to herself.
In no time she became the sort of mother who made certain no drafts came in
through the windows, who saw to it that there were no late-night bedtimes or playing
in the park on rainy days, a sure cause of bronchitis and pleurisy. Cats were not
allowed in the house, too much dander; dogs were avoided, due to distemper, not to
mention allergies and fleas. It did not matter if Jenny took a job she despised at the
bank on Charles Street or if her social life was nonexistent. Friends might fall away,
acquintances might come to avoid her, her days of reviewing mortgage applications
might bore her silly, but Jenny hardly cared about such distractions. Her only interest
was Stella. She spent Saturdays chopping up broccoli and kale for nourishing soups;
she sat up nights with Stella's earaches, stomachaches, bouts of chicken pox and flu.
She laced boots and went over lessons, and she never once complained.
Disappointments, fair-weather friends, math homework, illnesses of every variety were
dealt with and put in their proper place. And if Stella grew up to be a wary, rather
dour girl, well, wasn't that preferable to running wild the way Jenny had? Wasn't it
better to be safe than sorry? Selfish pleasures dissolved the way dreams did, Jenny
knew that for certain, leaving behind nothing more than an imprint on the pillowcase,
a hole in your heart, a list of regrets so long you could wrap them around yourself like
a quilt, one formed from a complicated pattern, Love knot or Dove in the window or
Soon enough, Jenny's marriage to Will Avery fell apart, unwound by mistrust and
dishonesty, one thread and one betrayal at a time. For quite a while there had been
nothing holding these two together but a shared history, the mere fact that they'd
grown up together and had been childhood sweethearts. If anything, they stayed
together longer than they might have merely for the sake of their daughter, their
Stella, their star. But children can tell when love has been lost, they know when
silence means peace and when it's a sign of despair. Jenny tried not to think what her
mother might say if she knew how badly their marriage had ended. How self-righteous
Elinor Sparrow would be if she ever found out that Will, for whom Jenny had given up
so much, now lived in his own apartment on the far end of Marlborough Street, where
at last he was free to do as he pleased, not that he hadn't done so all along.
That Will was unfaithful should have been evident: whenever he lied, white spots
appeared on his fingernails, and each time he was with another woman, he developed
what Jenny's mother had called "liar's cough," a constant hacking, a reminder that
he'd swallowed the truth whole. Every time Will came back to Jenny, he swore he was
a changed man, but he had remained the same person he'd been at the age of
sixteen, when Jenny had first spied him from her bedroom window, out on the lawn.
The boy who had always looked for trouble didn't have to search for it after a while:
it found him no matter where he was, day or night. It followed him home and slipped
under the door and lay down beside him. All the same, Will Avery had never presented
himself as anything other than the unreliable individual that he was. He'd never
claimed to have a conscience. Never claimed anything at all. It was Jenny who had
insisted she couldn't live without him. Jenny who forgave him, who was desperate for
one of his dreams, one that would remind her of the reason she fell in love with him in
the first place.
Indeed, if Elinor Sparrow found out they had broken up, she certainly would not have
been surprised. She had correctly judged Will Avery to be a liar the moment she met
him. She knew him for what he was at first sight. That was her talent, after all. One
sentence and she knew. One shrug of the shoulders. One false excuse. She had
marched Will Avery right out of the house when she found him lurking in the parlor,
and she'd never let him return, not even when Jenny begged her to reconsider. She
refused to change her opinion. Elinor was still referring to him as The Liar on the
brilliant afternoon when Jenny left home. It was the spring of Jenny's senior year of
high school, that feverish season when rash decisions were easily made. By the time
Jenny Sparrow's classmates had been to the prom and were getting ready for
graduation, Jenny was working in Bailey's Ice Cream Parlor in Cambridge, supporting
Will while he managed to ruin his academic career with hardly any effort. Effort, on
the other hand, was all Jenny seemed to possess. She washed dishes after a full day
of work; she toted laundry to the Wash and Dri on Saturdays. At eighteen, she was a
high school dropout and the perfect wife, exhausted, too busy for anything like