I knew I would be caught. I couldn’t stop fidgeting in my chair, adjusting and readjusting the filthy handkerchief tied around my head. I sat up the right way and tucked my dress in the right way and even folded my arms on my lap the right way, but it all fell apart when I heard her heavy footsteps approaching the door. My fingernails clung to the bottom of the chair as the door swung open and a familiar old lady stomped in.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she said.
I watched her as she paced the room. Her long, lacy dress fluttered at the hem with every turn, just narrowly escaping getting caught on the uneven wooden floorboards. She didn’t have enough space to take more than two steps in either direction, but she kept going. It was making me dizzy. She was like an overweight cat clawing its way out of a bag. A very expensive bag.
“I-I mean…I’m not really sure.” I said.
“And that is all?”
My eyes darted around. To the floor. To the mahogany cabinet against the wall. If I had made any mistakes, I wanted to see them before the Orphanage Mother did.
“Tell me the truth, and I may still forgive you.”
She gave up pacing and instead stood to glare at me. “You must take me for a fool!”
At this point my fingernails had dug so aggressively into the bottom of my chair that I was sure the chair itself would bleed. “I’m not sure what—”
“Don’t play games with me. We all know that the word of a witness undoes the lie of a witch!” She said, “And there has been word that a certain young girl was spotted this morning, peeking into the schoolhouse! How many times have I told you not to go anywhere near….”
Without thinking, I let out a tiny sigh of relief.
By the look on her face I guessed that Mother had misinterpreted it.
“You’re to stay away, do you understand me? Away from the market, away from the schoolhouse, away from the Churchyard! If I hear one more thing about you and your wretched little face in any of those places, you’re to be thrown out!”
I stared at my feet. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to act.
“Ashamed? Good. Then this is your punishment. You’ll be doing Marianne’s work all day today and tomorrow, and no supper for you until every chore is completed.”
I stood up to leave, and didn’t dare raise my head until she’d closed the door behind me. I waited for her to start yelling, calling me a scoundrel and demanding that I returned what belonged to her before she had my hands chopped off at the butchery. But the hallway remained silent. Taking a few deep breaths to steady my nerves, I pulled the folded paper out of my dress pocket. My heart pounded in my ears as I read what little words I could understand.
It was only a list of the orphanage staff. Not even a list of the actual orphans.
I’d taken the most important-looking document in my immediate sight, afraid that Mother would walk in any moment and see me.
All that work for nothing. I re-folded it and placed it back into my pocket. In a way, I was relieved. That was likely the most terrifying thing I’d ever done in my life.
I found Marianne, the housemaid, and told her I’d be taking care of all her duties for the rest of the afternoon. She gave me a pitying look like she always did, but only after giggling to herself about the different things she would do with this unexpected day off.
Soon I was stepping out to run my first errand.
A refreshing summer breeze swept down the main road, playing with the hem of my dress so it tickled the back of my knees. The only sound besides the melodic chirping of birds was the rustling of tree leaves along the road. I took it in, closing my eyes for just a moment.
Then it was gone, and I was left at the mercy of the sun. Summer had come far too early this year. Now the gravel of the roads hurt my feet through the worn leather boots I wore and it felt so stuffy and itchy underneath the handkerchief covering my head. Although neither of those problems changed with the seasons, I noticed them the most when it was hot out like today.
And as usual things had to be worse than necessary, I thought to myself, because the further I went down this road the closer I came to the edge of hell.
I turned towards the voice, and was startled to see that its owner was right beside me.
There was William on his speckled grey horse, trotting at my left side. Suddenly the day didn’t seem so bad.
“Oh good, you have your handkerchief.” he grinned down at me. “Where are you headed?”
“To the garden,” I said. “But what did you do to your hair?”
Not unlike all respectable young men in Relige, William let his hair grow out. Now it was one long, messy braid resting on his back.
“You noticed!” He lifted a hand to touch the braid. “I had a beautiful lady do this for me last night. It was very nice of her.”
The smug look on his face said it all.
It was such a pain, listening to him go on and on all the time about beautiful women. I’m sure I could be beautiful, too, if given the chance. But here I was in a ragged old play dress that came up to my knees while most of the other girls my age were already wearing corsettes and linen nightgowns.
“It’s not very well done.”
“Really? But now my hair isn’t always in the way while I ride. I think it’s a brilliant new change.”
For a moment the conversation was forgotten. Summer does that to people, sometimes. You both feel the need to stop talking and enjoy the air around you--except I was beginning to enjoy it less and less.
To our right, behind a line of trees, the grass was growing taller. With each step the road narrowed. The area seemed more and more deserted to me. William was a guard so of course he would never fear this unearthly part of Relige as much as someone like me would. It was because men like him understood it more, I think. When we were younger he always used to tell me that people only fear what they don’t understand. He wasn’t talking about the Wall when he said so, but it still applies.
“Red, I wanted you to hear this from me. The men have been talking and apparently the Reverend is coming to the orphanage today.”
I met his eyes. They reflected far less panic than mine.
“Please don’t give me that look. You know the Reverend makes occasional visits to this side of—”
“But why here? What for?”
“Sorry. I don’t know.”
It’s about me. It has to be. They’ve finally found out.
“Try not to worry too much about it, Red. Okay? Lord above, will you calm down?”
“Don’t call me that out here!”
He sighed. “Now in exchange for that information, I want you to bring this to the Churchyard. For You-Know-Who.” He reached for his left side, pulling a wrapped loaf of bread out of his satchel.
I took it, still in a daze.
“I’m on my way to a meeting with the guards, so farewell. Send the old hagfish my greetings.”
And with that, William’s horse pulled away. I watched him lead it down a dirt path and disappear into the shade of the trees above him. Not a care in the world.
I’d already passed the road that led to the community garden, where I was supposed to find radishes, so instead of turning back I kept going. The Churchyard was around the corner, preceded by a canopy of oaks over a beaten path. It reminded me of a crumbling castle, trapping the princess behind its wiry metal gate. And that’s what it was when you think about it. Ever since the new Sacred Church had been built, no one had come here except to visit the nuns. It was such a sad, lonely place, and especially frightening at nighttime—but it was where my family left me.
“Hello? Anyone here?”
I listened for any signs of life but the building seemed more deserted than ever. Of course the nuns wouldn’t respond to me yelling at them like this even if I was outside of the gate.
“I have a gift from William! For….um, for one of you! I swear I mean no trouble!”
This time seconds passed before the front door was opened. Standing in the doorway was a dark-skinned nun with long hair, wearing a scold’s bridle. Most of her face was covered by it. She must’ve been in so much pain, but by the way she stood there it was hard to tell.
“Oh, hello. Good afternoon. Like I said I’m here on behalf of William.” I held up the bread. “He wanted me to give this to you. Don’t worry, it’ll be just as good tomorrow so you can eat it then.”
She stepped down and took it from me without so much of a blink. No nod of gratitude, nothing.
“And I’m terribly sorry about you having to wear that. I hope it doesn’t hurt—”
She shut the door behind her, leaving me alone.
I didn’t know much about that woman but I really didn’t like her much. It was tempting to tell myself that she probably deserved the punishment. Then again, having to wear a cage on your face all day puts anyone in a bad mood. I’d seen her once without it and she’d been nice enough.
“Hey. Little girl.”
I glanced around. Just the Churchyard, and the trees without birds in them, and the bushes. Whispering bushes. Whispering bushes were definitely a bad sign.
I took slow, careful steps away from the building, which turned into little frantic steps.
”Hey! Stop, you’ve gotta help me!”
To my right, by one of the trees, was a boy. He looked about my age but taller, and had a mess of curly black hair much like the thicket behind him. Guessing from his soiled trousers he lived around this part of town.
Suddenly the boy was close enough to grab my arm. He towered over me, only tightening his grip when I tried to squirm away.
“Now that I look at ya, I suppose you’re not so little after all.”
“Please….” I swallowed and tried again. “Please don’t hurt me.”
He shook his head. “Who said I was gonna hurt anybody? All I want is for you to show me where I can get some free food. All this abandoned place’s got is an apple tree and I’m sick of apples.”
So this boy was an Illegal. That changed everything.
“Are you telling me that you stole apples from the Churchyard? Once I report you they’ll chop your hands right off!”
The boy’s expression went from surprised to amused. “Really? No joke? I can get in trouble here for a dumb thing like that? Huh.” Keeping one hand on my arm, he reached into the bag hanging from his shoulder and pulled out a knife.
Without thinking I brought my foot down on his shoe. He didn’t let go, so I kicked his shins and jumped away. I suppose that would have been a good opportunity to run but for some reason I was paralyzed, only able to stand there and shiver.
“Pretty cool,” the boy said, raising both hands. “But it’s really not a good idea for you to go and tell on me. Because if you tell my secret….I’ll tell yours.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t have any secrets. I’m normal.” I said, struggling to sound indifferent.
“Ah hah! You wouldn’t say you were normal if you really were. If you were normal, you’d say you were special.”
“Just give up already. There’s no use in makin’ a big deal of things.” Keeping his eyes on me, the boy slipped his knife back into the bag. “Are you going to help me or not?”
“I….I’ll do whatever you want, and then we both forget this ever happened. Just don’t hurt me.”
“Done and done! Lead the way, Shorty.”
And I’d thought that stealing a document from Mother’s office was the scariest thing I’d ever done.
It’s funny, how things can change so quickly.