Talullah Bridgestone pinched a bit of the smooth fabric between her fingers, pulled it closer to her eyes. She squinted, her tired eyes watering. It was late, or depending on how she looked at it, quite early. The sun was already beginning to rise over East Hill, just visible out Talullah’s bedroom window.
She sighed, releasing the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Early or not, she had to finish this now. There wouldn’t be time later today, and the festival was tomorrow. Pennilyn needed something to wear.
Talullah blinked a few times to refocus and returned to her task. Just one more line of stitches on the hem and she would be finished. She pinned the fabric and set it on the rough wooden desk, trading it for a threaded needle and a thimble. As her practiced hands worked, weaving the needle in and out in a perfectly straight line, her mind wandered.
She couldn’t believe that the Sunflower Festival was in two days. The celebration of the founding of River Hill. It surprised her every year when September 1st arrived, bringing with it joy and laughter, but also the memories. They were always stronger on that day, and no matter how hard Talullah tried to focus on the party and the dancing and the food, she couldn’t help thinking about the other event marked by September 1: the day her mother left.
Talullah’s normally deft fingers faltered now and the sharp needle pricked her finger. She flinched as a small bead of blood welled on her fingertip. She checked the fabric first. Good, no blood on it, she thought. A bloodstain on Penny’s new dress was the last thing she needed.
She sucked the dot of blood from her finger, and its metallic flavor made her gag. She reached for her mug of tea and took a sip to wash away the taste. The tea was ice cold, though that shouldn’t have surprised her since she’d made the tea hours ago. Tea was meant to be drunk hot, or warm at the very least, like a hug in a cup. Still, she was thirsty and the cool liquid refreshed her.
She scolded herself for letting her mind wander, but she was exhausted and couldn’t help it. Her thoughts always drifted to her mother just before her eyes closed in sleep. She didn’t know how many waking hours she’d spent wondering where her mother was or if she’d ever come home. Too many, probably.
Talullah bandaged her finger and finished the last few stitches on Penny’s dress. As she lay the dress across her still-made bed, she glanced out the window again, this time at the row of hazelnut trees that lined the Bridgestones’ property. Talullah’s mother, Eldora, had planted them many years ago, and they were fully mature now and producing large quantities of nuts. It seemed like so long ago that Talullah had sat on the front porch and watched her mother dig the soil for the saplings and brace the new trees with string.
"Mother, how come you have to tie the string to the trees?” she had asked.
“The trees need to grow their roots deep into the ground. That’s how they stand so tall and strong for many years to come. Right now the trees’ roots are small, so they need the string to help them stand up against the wind, rain, and snow. But very soon the roots will be strong enough to hold up the tree all by themselves. That’s when we will cut away the string.”
Talullah had screwed up her face in confusion. “But, Mother, how will we know the roots are strong enough if they’re buried under the ground? We won’t be able to see them.”
Eldora had smiled. “We don’t always see with our eyes, my dear.”
Now that the dress was finished, Talullah crept through the house silently, trying to avoid waking her father and sisters. She pushed open the door to the porch and stepped out into the morning air, setting her mug of tea on the porch steps. She welcomed the cool breeze blowing against her skin, knowing it wouldn’t last long. They hadn’t seen the last of summer yet.
She rounded the house to the line of hazelnut trees, still thinking about the day her mother had planted them. She was just as confused now as she had been all those years ago. What had her mother meant, we don’t aways see with our eyes?
She lifted her hand to touch one of its branches, lost in her memory. It felt warm beneath her fingertips. A few rebel tears escaped her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She brushed them away with both hands. Talullah’s father, Daniel, always said she wasn’t very good at hiding how she felt. No matter how hard she tried, her eyes always revealed her truth.
Talullah suddenly wished she could talk to her mother, but the next moment she dismissed the thought. Eldora had been gone for a long time now, and it didn’t seem like she’d be coming back any time soon. No amount of tears or wishing could change that fact.
“Tuley, that tea in the kitchen is strong. And cold,” Pennilyn said brightly, bouncing out the front door and onto the porch. She knocked over Talullah’s tea mug and spilled the herbal liquid all over the hem of the brand new dress Talullah had finished only moments before. “My dress!” she shrieked.
She must have snuck into my room after she heard me open the front door, Talullah thought. Penny had never been good at waiting.
"It’s okay, Penny. I’ll wash it when we go inside. Don’t worry. And that dress is for the festival, you know.” Talullah approached her youngest sister and pulled her in for a hug.
“I know, Tuley. But it’s so pretty! And I just wanted to try it on. Just for a few minutes.”
“Tell you what. You go inside and change and leave the dress on the counter in the wash room, and I’ll make a fresh pot of tea for us. I’ll even add an extra lump of sugar to your mug, okay? Don’t tell Father.” She winked.
“Tuley, I can’t wait. I’m going to be a Sunflower Princess!”
“You most certainly are. We have a lot of work to do before then, though. And today is Margot’s birthday, so we have to focus on her today. Let’s go inside and make breakfast, shall we?” she said, grabbing Pennilyn’s hand.
“Okay. Thank you again for my dress. It’s so soft and it spreads out when I spin around!” Talullah held Penny’s hand as she twirled, a look of pure joy shining on her face.
Staying up all night was worth it, Talullah thought, stifling a yawn. Even though I’m going to be tired the rest of the day. If she could make Margot as happy as Penny, she would consider it a good day.
In the kitchen Talullah filled a mug of tea for Pennilyn, adding the extra cube of sugar like she’d promised.
“What should we make for breakfast?” Talullah asked, though she already knew the answer.
“Cinnamon pancakes!” Penny squealed. They were Margot and Penny’s favorite, and Talullah always made them on special occasions. But only on special occasions, because cinnamon was expensive these days, a result of the shortage in Terrapese.
“Did someone say cinnamon pancakes?” The sentence came out in one big yawn and the owner of the voice shuffled into the kitchen. Margot always slept the latest out of the three sisters, and she appeared still wearing her pajamas.
“You’re not going to wear that to into town, are you?” Pennilyn asked, incredulous.
“Of course not,” Margot answered. “I didn’t want to spill anything on my clothes, so I’m changing after breakfast.”
Talullah laughed to herself. Margot was the most pragmatic ten year old she’d ever known. And yet, she appreciated her foresight. It was doubtful that the tea stain (which she’d successfully removed) would be the only thing she’d have to scrub out of Pennilyn’s dress before the Sunflower Festival.
A syncopated thud-THUD thud-THUD echoed through the hall, followed closely by the warm, deep voice of Talullah’s father. “Do I smell cinnamon?”
He rounded the corner and Talullah rolled her eyes. He was using that horrible cane again, the one that he’d found in a closet last week. It had a garish carved fish on top, which looked like it had tried to swallow the rest of the cane, but had just ended up stuck on the end instead. It’s tail curved backward, making the body a suitable handle. One of its eyes gleamed red. The whole image gave Talullah the creeps.
“Morning, Dad,” all three girls chorused in unison.
“I don’t know why you insist on using that thing. You have a perfectly good cane already. One with a nice, sensible handle,” Talullah said shaking her head.
“Oh yes, but this one is much more lively. Has more personality. And what’s wrong with fish?” Daniel examined the cane fondly, running his fingers over the carved scales.
“Nothing’s wrong with fish, I suppose. I just think the other one looks more...dignified.”
“Ah, who cares about looking dignified? I’m an antiques man. How am I supposed to sell anything if I don’t believe in the product myself? I’d forgotten all about this one. Had it for a long time. Plus, I thought you loved all of the old things.” He stared at the cane, a wistful look in his eyes.
“I do love the antiques, I really do. The stories behind them are fascinating. But that thing...I don’t know.” Talullah plopped down four plates of cinnamon pancakes on the table and took her place in between Margot and Pennilyn.
“I bet it’s got a great story, though. So, what’s on the agenda for today, girls?” Daniel said, winking at Talullah.
“Dad, you didn’t forget, did you?” Margot’s hand froze halfway to her mouth, a bite of pancake speared in its tines, syrup dripping on the table.
Daniel laughed and his eyes twinkled. “Of course not, Mar! How could we forget? Today is your tenth birthday! Double digits, very impressive.” He raised his mug of tea in cheers.
Margot heaved a sigh of relief and ate a few bites of her pancakes. “Tuley said we could go into town today and I could pick out my own present!” she said, her mouth full.
“I think that’s a fine idea,” Daniel replied, wiping syrup off his chin. “And swallow your food before you speak, Margot. It’s good manners not to spray your companions with your breakfast.”
“I need to stop by the library for a while afterward,” said Talullah. “I have some cataloguing to do so we can get the new inventory settled before tomorrow.”
Talullah had known all her life that upon reaching fifteen she would begin work at her father’s antique shop. Formally working, because she had been helping out part-time since she was old enough to hold a broom, counting inventory and dusting and sweeping daily. At first the thought had thrilled her. She loved the history of all the objects, the stories behind them, and she spent many of her after-school hours doing extra research on the items at the town library. But lately she had begun to realize that a life of this trade meant that she was destined to live and work in River Hill forever. Once her dad reached the age of retirement, and with her mother absent, Talullah would inherit the shop and be fully responsible for it.
The thought saddened her a little. She had always dreamed of exploration, of seeing some of the places in the books she so vigorously read. She longed to see something other than the small village and the river that sustained it. But, this was how River Hill worked, and it was much safer to stay in town than to venture out into the unknown. Besides, her father was growing older and needed a lot of help around the house doing chores and taking care of Margot and Pennilyn. With her mother gone, her family needed her, and she would gladly sacrifice her desire for adventure to remain with them. She still had moments, though, when she wished she’d been destined for a different trade, something more adventurous.
Talullah subconsciously touched her necklace, thinking. The small, gold and silver eye-shaped trinket was the only thing of value that Talullah had ever owned, a family heirloom she received from her mother on her seventh birthday. She’d spent countless hours that first year trying to find record of it in the books in the library, convinced it had a thrilling backstory. She never found anything about it, and had long since accepted that it was just an ordinary necklace, though she treasured it all the same. After all, it was all she had left of her mother.
“Not a problem, Talullah. We’ll go pick out Margot’s present, grab the final few necessities for the festival, and then you can meet us at home when you’re finished. Oh, I did forget something. Before we get into town I’m supposed to stop by and see Mr. Palmer about a magic teapot he just acquired from someone in Viltresor.” His eyes lit up. “Apparently you just boil water and it changes the flavor of tea depending on who is touching the pot. It reads your energy and picks a flavor to suit. Clever, huh? Imagine never having to buy tea leaves again. And we could all have a different flavor at the same time! He said he was going out of town soon...” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “Ah, we’d better hurry if we don’t want to miss him.”
Despite all of their hurrying they were still behind schedule.
“I hope he hasn’t left yet. I would love to be able to display that teapot at the festival. People love things like that. Magical and functional.” Daniel was so distracted by the thought that he was trying to put his left shoe on his right foot.
Pennilyn snagged her dress (not the new one, thank goodness) on an old cabinet in the shop (“I’ll sand it down first thing when we get home,” Daniel said) and Talullah told Pennilyn she’d mend the dress later. The tear was on a seam wasn’t too big. It could wait a few hours.
Just as they were about to leave, Margot announced she couldn’t find her shoes (“No, Dad, not those shoes, the ones with the bows!“) and they were all reduced to crawling on their hands and knees to look underneath the furniture. Talullah finally found them wedged between a dresser and a desk that had arrived the day before and Margot slipped them on.
“Let’s go now!” Pennilyn had lost all patience.
“Okay, we’re going,” Talullah said, and they all filed out into the front yard.
“Wait,” Daniel said, “I forgot my cane.”
“I’ll grab it for you, Dad. I think I saw it right inside the door.” Talullah re-entered the house and immediately spotted the grotesque fish handle across the room. She made a fake-gagging noise as she approached it. “I don’t know why he likes this thing.”
Grimacing, she reached her hand out to grab it, and as soon as her fingers grazed the carved scales her eyes went fuzzy.
Suddenly she was somewhere else. Or, she seemed to be, anyway.
Emerald stone rose above her, seeming to go on forever into the heavens. Ice cold wind whipped across her face. She was in a cave, that much was sure. So then where was the wind coming from?
She spotted something else--no, someone else! But she couldn’t make out their features. The whole scene was blurry, like she was watching through someone else’s glasses. She squinted, trying to focus her eyes, but she could only see a green, person-shaped blob move deeper into the cave.
Talullah followed the person at a distance as he or she wound through a narrow hallway, squeezing between sharp rocks, emerging finally into a circular room.
A large dark lake rippled in the middle of the space and dozens of tiny rivers snaked off in different directions, each a bit different than the next. Two shadowy figures loomed in the background.
The blurry person approached the edge of the lake, turned back toward the shadows, then dove headfirst into the abyss.