Thistles

The wind whistled through the trees, skipped along shutter slats, and twined itself around the strands of hair pulled loose from Enid’s hastily tied bun. She rocked back and forth, her legs passing in and out of the sun.

The warmth was wonderful on her skin. Each time she pushed the glider forward into the sunbeam, the light caught the bruises on her legs, and the warmth soothed the ache. She kept swinging, half-convinced that if she just swung fast enough, the bruises would warm and blur until they were wiped away, like raindrops drying out in the sun. She was examining the worst one, the deep purple splash closest to her ankle, when it happened.

Or at least, when it could have happened, anyway.

She stilled on the porch swing, bruised legs coming to rest as her feet caught the wood of the porch, and let the wind rustle her hair for just a moment.

Martha’s red face swung round the other side of the screen door.

“What are you doing out here on the porch?” Her apron was marred with dusty hand prints and she clutched a mixing bowl to her hip.

Enid leaped up from the bench. “Just uh, just taking a break, ma’am,” she said, folding her hands behind her back.

“Oh, you have time for breaks, now, do you?” Martha’s broad mouth stretched sounds in ways that Enid found repellent and fascinating, making ‘you’ sound more like ‘yuh’ and ‘now’ like ‘nah’.

“No, ma’am,” said Enid, eyes downcast. “I s’pose not.”

“Then you’d better get inside,” Martha snapped.

I’d better get out of your sight, is what. Enid scooted around the large red face, the flour-stained apron as Martha muttered about orphans and what a drain they were on the system.

The bruises on Enid’s shins, deprived of sunlight, had begun to ache again.

#

“I h-have all the best issues,” Esther was saying, as they scrubbed floors later on that afternoon. “The one where Superman fights Batman. The one where Superman helps them fight. The one where Superman fights them. The one where Superman dies. The one where it turns out Superman is—”

Enid bent her head over the hard, wooden brush, pressing into it with the fingertip that was developing a blister. The small, sharp ache helped her concentrate on something other than Esther’s wheezy voice. Esther was a small girl who kept an inhaler in the pocket of her pleated skirts at all times. Privately, Enid believed that Esther’s lungs were not underdeveloped like she’d heard some of the other girls say; it was just Esther’s non-stop chattering that worked her poor lungs so hard.

Finally, Enid couldn’t help herself any longer. “What about books?” she demanded. “Do you got any books?”

Esther paused to take one raggedy, drawn-out breath, then dove right back into her stream of words. “What kind of books? Picture books? Detective books? H-horror books? Them magazine-type books with the big pictures of ladies all in fancy dresses—”

Enid shook her head.

Esther had stopped scrubbing altogether and was looking at her through her Coke-bottle glasses with the interest of a scientist looking at something wriggling under a microscope.

“No, no,” Enid said. “Not those kinds of books. The story kinds. The ones with ordinary kids, like us, in ordinary places. Stuck somewhere awful until something carries them away. You know, like a door to a secret garden. Or a letter carried by an owl. Or an inter-dimensional portal at the back of a junkyard—”

A pair of hands clapped ringingly behind them. This had the immediate effect of knocking Esther backward, where she fell bum-first into the suds bucket, splashing black, soapy water all over. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been spreading over the part of the floor they—mostly Enid—had spent the last hour scrubbing.

“Girls!” declaimed a shrill, nasal voice. “What are you doing?”

Two very shiny, black patent leather shoes inserted themselves into Enid’s field of vision.

“Sorry, Mrs. Quondam,” Esther gasped, righting herself with a tragically comic sloshing noise. “We was just getting to—”

“It’s far too late for that,” snapped Mrs. Quondam. “The donors will be here in nearly half an hour. How can we expect to raise any good will for this establishment when its residents are in such derelict attire? Excuse yourselves at once and go find something suitable to wear for dinner.”

#

The woolen pinafore itched something awful, so much so that Enid was sure she’d take it off later and find she’d sprouted welts underneath it. She’d tied her wiry hair in two tight braids, which weren’t very tight considering her hair was thick and she usually asked Esther to do it for her. But Esther had more washing up to do since she’d fallen in that bucket of soap water, so Enid had to make do.

She nearly ran into Emma waiting nervously outside her door in the hall.

“Where’s Esther?” Emma demanded. “What took you so long?”

“She tipped over the suds bucket again,” Emma told her, without so much as a hello.

Enid frowned. As far as she was concerned, Emma was trouble. All the drugstore comics, penny candies and other small delights the girls could get for themselves were always confiscated by Mrs. Quondam and her staff right after Emma caught wind of them. The last time, it had been Enid who had suffered the caning for the stash of licorice she’d been saving in a small pouch inside her pillowcase. The memory of it made her bruised shins ache.

“We’re late for dinner as it is!” Emma said, still in a low tone. “We can’t wait for her.”

“You go on ahead, then. Don’t linger on my account,” Enid said coldly.

With a huff, Emma turned heel and strode off in the direction of the dining room. Several minutes passed before Esther appeared, slightly out of breath as usual but with a her face freshly scrubbed and a woolen smock that matched Enid’s.

“Emma went ahead,” Enid told her.

Esther nodded without surprise.

“Are you ok?”

“I am,” Esther said, with a significant amount of dignity for someone who had earlier inserted her rear-end into a suds bucket.

Enid shot her a small smile. Esther likely wouldn’t have been her first choice of a friend, if they hadn’t found themselves in current circumstances, but she found it hard to stay glum with the other girl around, her clumsiness and word-spew notwithstanding.

“Let’s go, Martha will shoot a brick once she sees we’re late,” Esther said breathlessly, and they scurried down the hall.

#

Dinner was a dull affair, at least from where Enid and Esther were standing.

The furs and velvet dresses of the ladies filled the dining room with vibrant colour, striking against the fresh white of the gentlemen’s starched shirts and the satiny black of their bowties. Enid didn’t care for the clothes; she always looked for the jewels adorning throats and wrists, strung together like diamantine water droplets on fine silver wire, or hanging from lobes like rich, clustered berries. From Enid’s post at the back of the room by the water station, the light from the massive candelabra chandelier glinted and glimmered over the table, catching reflections in the silver candlesticks and crystal goblets that Emma and some of the other girls had helped set out earlier while she and Esther were doing the floors.

“H-hey,” Esther whispered to her now, on the other side of a tray bearing a massive silver decanter that was nearly the size of her head.

“Shut it, you mook,” Enid responded, staring straight ahead and speaking out of the side of her mouth. “You know Mrs. Quondam will have our hides if she catches us engaging in ‘idle chatter’.”

“Mrs. Quondam would love—” here Esther paused for a puff on her inhaler “—to h-have our h-hides, wouldn’t she?”

Enid did not need to look to know that her friend was grinning. “You’re demented,” she said, still not looking, but she couldn’t suppress a slight smile.

“What did you mean about them books?” Esther asked in a breathy whisper. “What you were asking me for. Them books about…people…going places?”

There was a prolonged silence and Enid realized Esther was waiting for an answer.

“What do you mean? Like, adventure books?”

“Well that’s what my comics are, aren’t they?” Esther sniped.

They were momentarily interrupted when a tuxedoed man, likely one of the dinner guests’ personal valets, approached their cart to freshen up a glass of sparkling water. Esther, carefully gripping a set of small silver tongs, sent him away with three cubes of ice.

“No, that’s not what comics are at all,” Enid said in a low voice through clenched teeth. “All a bunch of muscly men and women wearing skin-tight pyjamas, flying about hither and thither beating people up. These books are about adventures—things happening to ordinary people. Finding a ring in a box under a loose floorboard that belonged to your grandma, only it wasn’t just your gran’s, see? It were a ring that belonged to the queen of a fairy land, and it’ll get you there right quick if only as soon as you slip it on your finger, like your gran did when she was a girl. Or a mysterious man comes riding out of the woods one day, all the way up to the door of the orphanage, and says he ought to speak to the headmistress. And when the headmistress agrees to see him, he tells her one of the wards is the long-lost princess, what lost all her memories in a horrible accident, and he come to reunite her with her family—”

“—and then Mrs. Quondam tells him, ‘Thank you all the same but h-who will wash the floors in the foyer before the donors’ dinner if men like you came round h-here all the time asking after princesses what lost their memories?’” Esther whispered back, drawing out the word “foyer” so that it sounded three syllables longer, like “foy-yaaaaaaaaay”. She let out a quiet giggle that she expertly turned into a rattling cough.

Several guests murmured and looked around as Esther pulled out her inhaler and sucked in a gasping lungful of mist.

“Well if you’re so smart, what do you need me to tell you for?” Enid demanded. She noticed a man with a bright blue cravat staring at her, and busied herself arranging the napkins on the silver service tray.

Emma emerged from one of the pocket doors. She wasn’t meant to be in the dining hall, since Mrs. Quondam had her doing the extra washing up for Martha. Her pinafore was even dingier than even Enid’s, and she stank of roasted meat and dishwater.

“What are you doing out here?” Enid hissed.

“Mind your tongue or I’ll slap it right out of your head, Enid,” Emma retorted. “Esther, I need your help. Can you come with me to the kitchen? Martha will be back any second and I—”

“Not a chance, I h-heard you tell Enid I weren’t worth getting in trouble over if I made you late. What kind of ‘friend’ does a favour like that?”

Enid stifled a smile. Best not to make matters worse. If she knew Emma at all, Esther would pay dearly for that comment—if not now, then down the line with some missing penny candies or the like.

“Suit yourselves, then!” Emma said, going red-faced. She fled back into the kitchen.

“So, tell me more about this fairy land that your gran’s ring can get you to,” Esther asked after a moment. “Do you think a ring like that could be made of tin and come out of a drugstore dime machine?”

#

Sometime later came the careful clinking of glasses as they tidied the table, empty of its earlier guests. Esther had taken responsibility for the napkins and cutlery while Enid stacked crystal goblets carefully on their silver service tray. She had seen Mrs. Quondam go absolutely gonzo on a girl once for chipping a crystal champagne flute, so she did it very carefully, while Enid heaped used napkins on their tray in a snowy white mound.

“Excuse me,” came a voice so close behind her that it nearly made her jump out of her skin. “Enid, turn to face me, please.”

It was Mrs. Quondam, sure enough, come to inspect the work she and Esther had done so far. Enid had no reason to be nervous—they’d done a good job—but she couldn’t help it. Sweat pricked her underarms.

“Yes mum,” she said demurely. “Er—ma’am.” Mrs. Quondam, being an American, liked the girls to say ‘ma’am’ in the way most familiar to her. “What is it, ma’am?” The broad a’s felt like they were stretching Enid’s mouth.

Mrs. Quondam looked right past her. “Esther, you will stay here and continue on with the tidying. Enid will come with me.”

Esther blinked owlishly over a stack of napkins so high it nearly brushed the bottom of her nose. “Yes ma’am.”

“Follow me, Enid.” Mrs. Quondam strode toward the dining room doors without waiting.

Enid trailed Mrs. Quondam meekly through the halls until they stopped at the heavy oak door, behind which lay her office. Enid had never been there herself, but had heard the stories of enough of the other girls to recognize the foreboding, heavy look of the door when she saw it.

Inside a small fireplace gave off a rosy glow that didn’t quite reach into the furthest corners of the room. The carpet was the plushest Enid had ever felt, her threadbare Mary-Janes sinking several inches into it as she stepped forward. Mrs. Quondam took up a standing position behind a vast oak desk. Atop it was a solitary object, limned with the cherry red glow of firelight. Mrs. Quondam picked it up.

“Do you recognize this?” She spoke slowly, in tones that suggested Enid should think very carefully before answering.

“Uh—” Enid hesitated only a moment. “No. Ma’am,” she added hastily.

“Well it was conveyed to me by someone concerned that it had been removed from its owner through,” Mrs. Quondam took an enormous breath and hissed out the last word, “subterfuge.”

Enid frowned. “An…underground tunnel, you mean to say?”

Mrs. Quondam blinked. “What?” Then her eyes flickered with annoyance. “No, not subterranean. Really. What is Mrs. Mauss teaching you? Subterfuge. Deceit. Dishonesty!” She gesticulated with the object still in her hand.

“May I ask, what is it?” Enid tried.

“What is it? It is the personal drinking vessel of a most esteemed guest, a member of the donors’ dinner this evening!” Mrs. Quondam, who was quite good at getting herself all agitated, seemed well on her way to making use of her talents tonight.

“Oh, I see,” said Enid, letting out a slight sigh of relief.

It was the wrong thing to do, judging by how Mrs. Quondam’s eyes bulged in their sockets. “Are you aware, Ms. Roth, just how valuable such an object—”

“Lydia, really.” A smooth, masculine voice seemed to emanate from the fireplace. “There’s no need to frighten the poor girl. It’s obvious she’s never seen the thing before.”

Enid nearly rubbed her eyes. She swore she hadn’t seen anyone else come into the room. Yet there was a man, the tallest she had ever seen, in formal attire that matched the earlier dinner-goers tuxedos, rising from the depths of a winged-back chair that had been facing the fire right in front of her. His cravat was a striking blue, the shade of the purest summer sky.

Mrs. Quondam blustered for a moment, the first time Enid had ever seen her at a loss for words. “Well—you—I—I’m aware you wanted to see her, sir, but there was the small matter of this theft that needed to be dealt with—”

Did something in the room shift imperceptibly, following Mrs. Quodam’s words? Enid’s shoulders lifted slightly, and quite without meaning to, tilted her chin up until she met the steady grey gaze of the man standing before her. They were the oddest thing about him—in that they were the exact shade of Enid’s own.

“Enid, I am quite certain now that I’ve seen you,” the man said calmly, “that you are in fact my late brother’s daughter and thus, my niece.” He smiled politely at her and pulled a pipe from his trouser pocket, stuffing it with a small pinch of tobacco seized from a pouch in his coat. He spoke as if this were the most normal thing in the world, that he should find himself in the study of an orphanage in the poorest part of Wales, talking to a girl who’d been deposited there six years earlier when her father had been declared dead in the second great war, and her mother had taken to bed ill and never gotten up again. A girl he’d never once laid on eyes, so that Enid herself would not have been able to tell him from Adam.

“Oh no,” Mrs. Quondam snapped. “I think not. There is nothing so suggest any familial link between your and Ms. Roth, and now I really must insist—”

“Wait!” Enid cried, as Mrs. Quondam gestured with the silver flask still in her hand. The light from the fire had struck the outline of a familiar image. “What is that engraving?”

“On the flask?” The man looked startled. “Why, it’s a thistle, our family crest.”

“Can I see it, please?” Enid begged, sensing the moment slipping away as Mrs. Quondam’s expression hardened into something immovable.

“I hardly think that’s appropriate, given the circumstances. It was found by another girl who saw that you had taken it right off the table—”

“Is it this thistle?” Enid cried, pulling a small, battered objective from the front pocket on her pinafore. It was a slim, leather-bound volume, no bigger than the width of a man’s hand, which Enid could see when the stranger took it from her. It fit neatly in the length between the heel of his hand and the tip of his longest finger. The stained leather cover had been stamped with the raised relief of a Scottish thistle.

The man’s eyes, the same color as her own, filled with tears. He tugged gently at his dark, neatly trimmed beard. “It is,” he said, raising his eyes to her.

A tremor ran through Enid’s body.

“This book belonged to my brother.”

#

Mrs. Quondam sat her desk, poring over her ledger. She had scarcely finished filling out the paperwork to legally assign Enid’s guardianship to her uncle before the man had started blathering on about his great family estate and how much Enid would love it there. It was, to hear him tell it, enrobed in the most alluring, nearly mystical forest, which had been left unexplored and overgrown for some time.

Damn it and blast. Was anything going to turn out in her favor today?

Mrs. Quondam had been young, once. In another life, she’d had a mother and father. That hadn’t prevented fate from intervening as it saw fit, and relegating her to the most wretched orphanage run by nuns when she was fourteen.

If it hadn’t been for Eraats—with its violet skies, its twisting towers that pierced the clouds, the nymphs she had found there who in time, came to crown her as their Queen—well, Euphegenia Quondam would have given up hope of anything good in this life long ago.

But that had all been taken from her. Ashes in her mouth. The only remaining ability—the only thing she had been able to take from Eraats, once the way to that world was sealed against her forever—had been the ability to discern similar fates for orphaned children in this world. There was a glint about them she could always pick out, a faint glimmer, some ephemeral quality that spoke to their destinies, tied to something greater than their current reality.

Enid had been one of many—in fact, each girl in Mrs. Quondam’s orphanage had been hand-picked by her, upon the first detection of such a spark. And now she had failed at her only mission—to keep a girl from suffering the same disappointment she had, upon experiencing her destiny before cruel, inescapable fate separated her from it forever, as surely as it had separated Mrs. Quondam from hers.

She put the ledger carefully aside, locking its cover before she did so. An opened letter had been flattened underneath the enormous volume. Upon it, the name of the addressee had been inked in a shaking hand, as though the transcriber had been wound tight with some vibratory emotion—anticipation, perhaps, or overwhelming hope of someone long-lost finally being brought back to a family’s embrace.

Mrs. Quondam tossed the letter carelessly onto the fire, where bright flames quickly blackened the edges. The first name—Enid—withered away to hot ash. She smiled. Next time, she would have time to prepare.

Next time, she would not fail in her mission to keep a little girl safe from whatever destiny awaited her.

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