فصل 08کتاب: قبل از اینکه برای تو می بودیم / فصل 9
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The shadow of the big white house slides over the car, swallowing it whole. Tall, thick magnolia trees line the curb, making a leafy green wall that reminds me of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It hides us from the street, where kids play in yards and moms push prams along the sidewalks. There’s a baby carriage on the front porch of this house. It’s old, and a wheel is missing, so it leans. It’d likely dump the baby out if you put one in it.
A little boy squats in one of the magnolia trees like a monkey. He’s about Lark’s size—maybe five or six. He watches us drive in but doesn’t smile, or wave, or move. When the car stops, he disappears into the leaves.
A second later, I see him crawl from the tree and squeeze under a tall iron fence that circles the backyard of this house and the place beside it. The little building next door looks like it might’ve been a school or a church once. Some kids are playing on the teeter-totters and swings there, but the doors and windows are boarded shut, and there’s hardly any paint on the wood. Brambles grow over the front porch, which makes me think of Sleeping Beauty again.
Camellia stretches upward from the floorboard to see. “This the hospital?” She gives Miss Tann a look to let her know she don’t believe it for a minute. My sister has rested up on the drive, and she’s ready for another fight.
Miss Tann turns her way and shifts Gabion, who’s gone plumb asleep on her lap. His little arm flops down, chubby fingers gripping and ungripping. His lips move like he’s blowing kisses in a dream. “You can’t go to the hospital looking like that, now, can you? Stinking of the river and infested with vermin? Mrs. Murphy will take care of you, and if you are very, very good, then we will see about the hospital.”
A hope spark tries to catch fire in me, but I can’t find it much tinder. It snuffs out when Miss Tann looks my way.
Fern crawls up my chest, her knees poking into my belly. “I want Briny,” she whisper-whines.
“Hop to. Time to go inside. You’ll be just fine here,” Miss Tann tells us. “If you’re good. Am I understood?”
“Yes’m,” I try to answer for all of us, but Camellia’s not giving up so easy.
“Where’s Briny?” She ain’t happy about this whole thing and she’s working up to a blind-mad fit over it. I can feel it like a storm blowing in.
“Hush, Camellia!” I snap. “Do what she says.”
Miss Tann smiles a little. “Very good. You see? All of this can be quite simple. Mrs. Murphy will take care of you.”
She waits for the driver to come around and open the car door. Then she climbs out first, taking my little brother and pulling Lark by the hand. Lark looks at me with wide eyes, but like always, she won’t fight. She’s quiet as a kitten in the hay.
“You next.” The woman wants me, and I scoot across, my knees knocking into the brown-eyed boy and girl on the floorboard. Fern wraps her arms around my neck so tight I almost can’t get a breath.
“You two, now.”
The kids who were in the car before us clamber out onto the driveway.
“Now you.” Miss Tann’s voice lowers when she looks at Camellia. She turns Gabion and Lark over to me and stands right at the car door, her legs braced apart, her body blocking the way out. She’s not a small woman. She towers over me and she looks strong.
“Come on along, Camellia.” I’m begging her to be good, and she knows what I’m asking. So far, she hasn’t moved an inch. She’s got her hand around behind her back, and I’m afraid she’s planning to try the other door. What use would there be in that? We don’t know where we are or how to get back to the river or find the hospital. Our only hope is that, if we’re good like Miss Tann says, we really will get to see Briny and Queenie.
Or that Silas will tell them what happened and our folks will come find us.
Camellia’s shoulder jerks a little, and I hear the handle click. The door sticks, and Camellia’s nose flares. She turns around to push, and Miss Tann sighs and leans inside.
When she lumbers back out, she’s dragging Camellia by her clothes. “That is enough of that! You will straighten up and behave yourself.”
“Camellia, stop!” I yell.
“Mellia, no, no!” Fern’s voice is like an echo.
Gabion throws back his head and screams, the sound bouncing off the house and floating into the trees.
Miss Tann twists her grip so she’s got a good hold on Camellia. “Do we understand one another?” Her round cheeks are red and sweaty. Her gray eyes bug out behind her glasses.
When Camellia squeezes her lips tight, I think Miss Tann might swat that look right off her face, but she doesn’t. Instead, she whispers something close to Camellia’s ear, then stands over her. “We’ll be just fine now, won’t we?”
Camellia’s mouth still looks like she’s sucked a lemon.
The moment teeters like a bottle on the edge of the Arcadia’s deck, waiting to topple down and be swept off in the river.
“Won’t we?” Miss Tann repeats.
Camellia’s dark eyes burn, but she nods.
“Very well then.”
Miss Tann puts us in a line, and Camellia marches up the steps with the rest of us. From behind the iron fence, boys and girls of all sizes watch. Not a single one smiles.
Inside, the big house smells. The curtains are pulled everywhere, and it’s shadowy. There’s a wide staircase in the front hall. Two boys sit on the top step. One of them reminds me of Silas but bigger, except his hair is red as fox fur. These boys don’t look a thing like the kids in the yard or the boy in the tree. They can’t all be brothers and sisters.
Who are they? How many are there? Do they live here? Are they all here to clean up so they can see their mamas and daddies at the hospital?
What is this place?
We’re taken into a room where a woman waits behind a desk. She’s small compared to Miss Tann, her arms so thin the bones and veins show. Her nose pokes from her glasses, hooked like an owl’s beak. It wrinkles when she looks at us. Then she smiles and stands and greets Miss Tann. “How are you today, Georgia?”
“Very well, thank you, Mrs. Murphy. It has been quite a productive morning, I daresay.”
“I can see that it has.”
Stroking her fingers along the desk, Mrs. Murphy draws trails in the dust as she moves toward us. One side of her lip comes up and an eyetooth flashes. “Good gracious. Where did you unearth these little waifs?”
The kids cluster close to me, even the ones I don’t know. I hang on to Fern on one hip and Gabion on the other. My arms are starting to go numb, but I’m not letting go.
“Aren’t they a pitiful lot?” Miss Tann says. “I do believe we’ve removed them just in time. Have you space for all of them? It would be the simplest thing. I expect to move some of them quite quickly.”
“Look at that hair….” Mrs. Murphy comes closer, and Miss Tann follows. Miss Tann’s bulky body shuffles side to side as she walks. For the first time, I notice that she’s got a bum leg.
“Yes, quite something, isn’t it? Four curly blonds all from the same family and…that one.” She snorts and turns an eye on Camellia.
“Oh, surely she isn’t one of this batch.” Mrs. Murphy looks at me. “Is this your sister?”
“Y-yes’m,” I say.
“And her name is?”
“Quite a fancy name for such a common little thing. And all those silly freckles. Looks as though the stork dropped you into the wrong nest.”
“She isn’t one to cooperate,” Miss Tann warns. “We’ve had trouble with her already. A little black sheep, in more ways than one.”
Mrs. Murphy’s eyes narrow. “Oh my. Well, I do expect good behavior in this house. Those who fail to meet my expectations will not be allowed to keep company above stairs with the rest of the children.” She runs her tongue along her teeth.
My skin turns cold. Fern and Gabion wrap their arms tighter around my neck. It’s clear enough what Mrs. Murphy means. If Camellia makes her mad, they’ll take her away and put her…someplace else.
Camellia nods, but I can tell she don’t mean it a bit.
“These other two with the dirt-blond hair were…found along the way.” Miss Tann gathers the boy and girl who rode on the floor with Camellia. Both have long, straight straw-brown hair and big brown eyes. The way the little boy is hanging on to the girl, I’m sure she’s his big sister. “More river rats, of course, although the camp down there was nearly empty. They must have gotten word somehow.”
“Such darling faces.”
“Yes, truly. These with the curls are almost angelic. They’ll be in great demand, I predict.”
Mrs. Murphy pulls away. “But good gracious! They stink of the river. I can’t have that in my house, certainly. They’ll have to stay outside until bath time.”
“Don’t let them out until you’re certain they fully understand the rules here.” Miss Tann drops a hand on Camellia’s shoulder, and Camellia’s head twitches so that I can tell the woman’s fingers are digging in hard. “This one is a runner. She tried to bolt from the car, of all things. Those cows along the river bottom do know how to produce them, but not how to teach them to behave. This batch will need some work.”
“Of course. Don’t they all?” Mrs. Murphy nods. She focuses on me again. “And your name is?”
“Rill. Rill Foss.” I try not to say anything more, but it spills out. I can’t make sense of what they’re talking about, and my heart is pounding. My knees tremble under the weight of my baby brother and sister, but that’s not the only reason. I’m scared to death. Miss Tann plans to leave us here? For how long? “When can we go see our mama and daddy? They’re at the hospital. Mama had a baby, and—”
“Hush,” Mrs. Murphy says. “First things first. You will take the children into the hallway and sit them on the floor along the stairwell wall, smallest to largest. Wait there, and I’ll expect no noise and no shenanigans. Understood?”
Miss Tann lays a hand on my shoulder this time. Her fingers squeeze around the bone. “I do not expect to have trouble from you. Surely you are smarter than your sister.”
A pain shoots down my arm, and I feel Gabion slipping. “Y-yes’m. Yes, ma’am.”
She lets go of me. I hike Gabby up again. I want to rub my shoulder, but I don’t.
“And…Rill. What sort of name is that?”
“It’s from the river. My daddy gave it to me. He says it sounds pretty as a song.”
“We’ll call you something proper. A real name for a real girl. May will do. May Weathers.”
“May.” She shoos me out the door, the other kids dragging along with me. Camellia gets warned again not to do anything except sit quiet in the hallway.
The little ones whine and whimper like puppies as I try to skin them off and set them down. Up the stairs, the two boys are gone. Somewhere outside, kids play Red Rover. I know that game from the schools we’ve gone to. When it’s the school year, Queenie and Briny usually try to tie up someplace near a river town so Camellia and me, and now Lark, can go. The rest of the time, we read books, and Briny teaches us arithmetic. He can make a cipher out of almost anything. Camellia’s a whiz at numbers. Even Fern knows her alphabet already, and she’s still too young for school. Next fall, Lark will start the first grade….
Lark looks up at me now, with her big mouse eyes, and a sick feeling bubbles in me like a black-water eddy. It’s got no place to go. It just spins round and round in circles.
“Are they takin’ us to jail?” the little girl—the one whose name I don’t even know—whispers.
“No. ’Course not,” I say. “They don’t put little kids in jail.” Do they?
Camellia’s eyes slant toward the front door. She’s wondering whether she can light out of here and get away with it.
“Don’t,” I spit under my breath. Mrs. Murphy told us not to make noise. The better we are, the more chance they’ll take us where we want to go, I figure. “We need to stay together. Briny’s gonna come get us soon’s he knows we’re not on the Arcadia. Soon’s Silas tells him what happened. We’ve gotta be all in one place when he shows up. You hear me?” I sound like Queenie when there’s breaking ice on the water and she won’t let us hang over the rail in case a floe might hit the boat and shake us off into the river. Times like that, she wants us to know she means it when she says no. She don’t get that way too often.
Everybody nods but Camellia. Even the other little girl and boy nod.
“Mmmm-hmm.” She gives in and pulls her knees up and crosses her arms and sticks her face in the middle, letting her head bump hard enough to make sure we know she ain’t happy about it.
I ask the other kids’ names, and neither one will say a word. Big tears roll down the little boy’s cheeks, and his sister hugs him close.
A bird flies into the front-door glass and hits with a thud, and all of us jump. I stretch to see if it got up and flew off okay. It’s a pretty little redbird. Maybe he’s the one we heard by the river, and he followed us here. Now he staggers around, his feathers glittery bright in the long, lazy afternoon sun. I wish I could scoop him up before a cat can get him—we saw at least three in the bushes on the way in—but I’m afraid to. Miss Tann will think I’m trying to run.
Lark gets up on her knees to see, her lip trembling.
“He’ll be all right,” I whisper. “Sit down. Be good.”
She does like she’s told.
The bird wobbles off toward the steps so that I have to crawl away from the wall a little to see him. Fly, I think. Hurry up. Fly off before they get you.
But he just stays there, his beak hanging open, his whole body panting.
Fly away. Go on home.
I keep watch. If a cat comes, maybe I can scare it off through the window.
Words drift from under the door across the hall. I stand up real careful, tiptoe closer.
I catch bits and pieces of what Miss Tann and Mrs. Murphy are saying, but none of it makes any sense. “…surrender papers right at the hospital on the five siblings. Simple and straightforward. The easiest way to sever ties. The most difficult thing was finding the exact location of their shantyboat, actually. It was moored by itself across from Mud Island, the police tell me. The little freckle-faced one tried to swim out through the loo. That’s more than just the river you caught a whiff of.”
Laughter twitters, but it’s sharp like a raven’s call.
“And the other two?”
“Found them picking flowers near a hive of shantyboat vermin. We’ll have their papers issued soon enough. Certainly it won’t be any trouble. They seem quite mild mannered too. Hmmm…Sherry and Stevie. Those should do for names. Best to begin retraining them to them immediately. They are darling, aren’t they? And young. They might not stay long. We’ve a viewing party planned next month. I’ll expect them to be ready.”
“Oh, they will be.”
“May, Iris, Bonnie…Beth…and Robby for the other five, I think. Weathers should do for the last name. May Weathers, Iris Weathers, Bonnie Weathers…It has a ring to it.” Laughter comes again. It rises high and loud so that it pushes me back from the door.
The last words I hear are Mrs. Murphy’s. “I’ll see to it. You can rest assured that they’ll be properly prepared.”
By the time they come out, I’ve scooted into my place and checked that everyone is lined real neat along the wall. Even Camellia picks up her head and sits Indian style, the way we do in school.
We wait, still as statues, while Mrs. Murphy walks Miss Tann to the door. Only our eyes turn to watch them talk on the porch.
The little redbird has hopped to the stairs, but he just sits there helpless. Neither one of them notices.
I think of Queenie’s red hat. Fly all the way to Queenie, and tell her where to find us.
Miss Tann limps a few steps, almost hitting the bird. My breath turns solid and Lark gasps. Then Miss Tann stops to say something else.
When she starts off again, the redbird finally flies away.
He’ll let Briny know where we are.
Mrs. Murphy comes back inside, but she’s not smiling. She goes into the room across the hall and closes the door.
We sit and wait. Camellia buries her face again.
Fern lays on my shoulder. The little girl—Sherry, Miss Tann called her—holds her baby brother’s hand. “I’m hungwee,” he whispers.
“I ’ungee,” Gabion echoes, way too loud.
“Ssshhh.” His hair feels soft under my hand as I rub his head. “We have to be quiet. Like hide-and-seek. Like a game.”
He clamps his mouth and tries his best. Being only two, he’s always left out of our “Let’s pretend” games on the Arcadia, so he’s happy to be part of it this time.
I wish this was a good game. I wish I knew the rules and what we get if we win.
Right now, all we can do is sit and wait for whatever happens next.
We sit, and sit, and sit.
It seems like forever before Mrs. Murphy comes out. I’m hungry too, but I can tell by her face we’d best not ask.
She stands over us with her fists poked into her sides, her hip bones sticking out under her flowered black dress. “Seven more…” she says, frowning and looking up the stairs. A breath comes out and sinks like fog. It smells bad. “Well, there isn’t any choice about it, what with your parents unable to care for you.”
“Where’s Briny? Where’s Queenie?” Camellia blurts out.
“You will be silent!” Mrs. Murphy teeters on her feet as she moves down the line of us, and now I know what I smelled when she came out the door. Whiskey. I’ve been around enough pool halls to recognize it.
Mrs. Murphy stabs a finger toward Camellia. “You are the reason everyone must sit here rather than going outside to play.” She stomps off down the hall, her steps drawing a crooked line.
We sit. The little ones finally sleep, and Gabion falls flat out on the floor. A few other kids pass by—older and younger, boys and girls. Most wear clothes that are too big or too small. Not a single one looks our way. They walk through like they don’t notice we’re there. Women in white dresses with white aprons move up and down the hall in a hurry. They don’t see us either.
I wrap my fingers around my ankles and squeeze hard to make sure I’m still there. I almost think I’ve turned into the Invisible Man, like Mr. H. G. Wells wrote about. Briny loves that story. He’s read it to us a lot and Camellia and me play it with the kids in the river camps. Nobody can see the Invisible Man.
I close my eyes and pretend a while.
Fern needs to potty, and before I can figure out what to do about it, she wets herself. A dark-haired woman in a white uniform walks by and spots the mess running across the floor. She grabs Fern up by the arm. “We will have none of that here. You’ll use the bathroom properly.” She pulls a sack towel from her apron and throws it over the mess. “Clean that up,” she tells me. “Mrs. Murphy will have a fit.”
She takes Fern with her, and I do what she says. When Fern comes back, her drawers and dress have been washed out, and she’s wearing them wet. The lady tells the rest of us we can go to the bathroom too, but to hurry up about it and then sit down by the stairs again.
We haven’t been back in our places long before someone blows a whistle outside. I hear kids clambering around. Lots of them. They don’t talk, but their footsteps echo beyond the door at the end of the hall. They’re in there a while, and then there’s a racket like they’re hurrying up stairs, but not the stairs next to us.
Overhead, the boards creak and groan the way the gunwales and planking do on the Arcadia. It’s a home sound, and I close my eyes to listen and pretend I can wish us back aboard our safe little boat.
My wish dries up pretty quick. A woman in a white dress stops by and says, “Come this way.”
We climb to our feet to follow. Camellia goes first, and we keep the little kids between us, even Sherry and Stevie.
The lady takes us through the door at the end of the hall, and everything looks a lot different back there. It’s plain and old. Strips of paper and cheesecloth hang off the wall. There’s a kitchen to one side where two colored women are busy with a kettle on the stove. I hope we’ll get to eat soon. My stomach feels like it’s shrunk to the size of a peanut.
Even thinking that makes me hungry for peanuts.
A big staircase rises off to the other side of the kitchen. Most of the paint’s rubbed off, like it’s been walked on a lot. Half the bars are missing from the railing. A couple loose ones hang out like the leftover teeth in Old Zede’s smile.
The woman in the white uniform takes us upstairs and stands us along a hallway wall. Other kids form lines nearby, and I hear water running in a tub someplace. “No talking,” the woman says. “You will quietly wait here until it’s your turn for the bath. You will take off your clothing now and fold it neatly in a pile at your feet. All of it.”
Blood prickles in my skin, hot and sticky, and I look around and see that all the other kids, big and small, are already doing what we’ve just been told to do.
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