Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sylvie's Story

I started my own National Novel Writing Month and three days into it, I decided I did not like the way it was going. Since I already broke "the rules" by not doing it in November I didn't see any reason why I couldn't start over if I felt like it.

My motivation came in part from this post on Kay Kenyon's blog, arguing that good writing is really telling a story. There are a lot of stories in Calhoun, Missouri. If I ever write that novel, it will be titled "Some of this is true."

The story I want to tell, though, is about a child who didn't grow like everyone else. Think about this for a moment ... what would you do if you knew you were going to live for four lifetimes? This is Sylvie's story. (I wrote the first page months ago and I thought I would finish it for my very own national novel writing month.)

Gram is Dead

It was precisely because she was not the rebellious type that Mamie had run off with a gypsy. Gram herself had been a strong woman, but somehow that blood never made it into her daughter. Mamie had always been scared of her own shadow, going along with whatever the loudest,pushiest person in the room told her, whether she agreed with it or not. So, it was no real surprise when the gypsy insisted that she come with him when the band left town that she packed her meager possessions and went right along.

Fifteen years went by, years of traveling from town to town, doing as the gypsy bid her, before Mamie came through again, bringing her children, a girl of fifteen, a boy of ten and a toddler. Her mother welcomed her without much comment, hugged the children, and sat up evenings rocking and talking, catching up on their now separate lives. She hadn't bothered to remonstrate Mamie. She was what she was, and no amount of lectures, well-meaning as they might be, would turn a rabbit into a wolverine. A few weeks later, the gypsy came back for Mamie and she left, as she had before, in the middle of the night, taking two of the children with her.

The next morning, the grandmother had been sitting in her rocking chair, stirring her tea with a cinnamon stick, while she waited for the toddler to awake. Sylvie was sure now that wherever she went, the smell of cinnamon that filled the cottage would always remind her of her childhood.

“Well,” Gram had said dryly, “your mother seems to have forgotten something.”

She had been a bit taken aback when the child did not carry on or cry, did not even seem surprised, really. “She didn't forget me. She left me here on purpose.”

It had started to rain and a chill was settling over the small cottage. The grandmother walked slowly over to where the logs were laid in the fireplace, sprinkled something from her right hand and the wood burst into cheery flames.
“Hmm. Did your mother ever tell you that I'm a witch ?”
“No. Did she ever tell you that I'm thirteen years old?”

The grandmother had looked at the child in front of her, black hair carelessly cut short and ragged, head not reaching the table top, chubby legs far above the floor. She put on her spectacles and looked again. She fiddled with her gold medallion of the Divine Princess that she always wore around her neck, although that might as well as been a nervous habit as any magic. Then, she had taken a small blue bottle out of her pocket, shook it, looked inside and put it back again. Finally, she said “You're not a dwarf. You're not lyin'. There isn't any spell on you, and yet you're not getting' any older.”

“I'm getting' older,” the tiny girl had insisted, in a baby voice, “if'n I wasn't I'd still be an infant. I'm just not gettin' older as fast as everybody else.”

That morning, the whole story tumbled out, while Gram drank numerous cups of tea and Sylvie ate enough bread smothered in butter and jam for her grandmother to mutter, “I can see it's not lack of eatin' that's stoppin' your growth.”

No one noticed a gypsy child at all, and even if they had, with the band traveling from town to town, if anyone had remembered there had been a baby with this crew three years ago, they'd just think this baby was a new one. That made a lot more sense than thinking it was the same baby that refused to grow older at a respectable rate. No one did remember, though, because no one cared about a gypsy child. As for the gypsies themselves, they were outcasts and a child who was lame in one leg or blind was not only accepted but welcome. Such a one could be set out to beg by the temple and more than earn her keep. After a time, even the gypsies' tolerance had worn thin. A small child who looked like a small child was of no particular use. When Cyndee, who had been born just a year before her had a child herself, the whispering became a little louder. Sylvie suspected that Cyndee had started it to throw the attention from herself. Even for the gypsies having a baby at fourteen was a bit off. It was not nearly as off, though, as having a 'baby' around who was nearly the same age as the mother.

As for the gypsy man himself – his name was Toff, not that Sylvie or Gram cared to remember it – he'd started  to push and shout at Mamie about her 'crazy child' and how it was all her fault that the band was talking about throwing them out. One day when he was more drunk than usual he had threatened that if she didn't do something about 'her freak child', he would. That was the day they had set out for the small cottage in Missop, waiting until after he had drunk himself safely into a stupor, of course.

When she had finished this story, Sylvie had half-expected that Gram would call her a freak, push her and tell her she could not stay here and that she had enough to do taking care of herself. It's what everyone else had been doing these past several years. Instead, the old woman had simply pulled another cinnamon stick out of her apron pocket, and stirred her tea for a while in quiet reflection. Finally, pushing herself away from the table she stood and said,
“You're here with me and here you'll stay. I can teach you a bit about being a witch because a bit is all I know. I wanted to be a proper witch myself, you know, but it didn't work out. I met that man o' mine and witch isn't a living for a married woman and mother, so I gave it up. We'll tell the neighbors you're two. I'm not out much except for going to temple and all the people there are old and most o' them half-blind. In a few years, when people might start to wondering, we'll find you a place as an apprentice far north o' here. Does that sound fair to you? Well, there it is then. “

It was then that Sylvie had fallen in love with her Gram and decided she would do anything not to let the old woman down. Of course, over the years, as does any child, she had broken that promise many times, starting with the day that Shorty had called her a freak and she had punched him so hard she broke his nose. That was the day she and Gram had taken the trip to her first apprenticeship, at the hunting lodge in the northern woods. It was not, as Gram explained, a punishment for hitting Shorty, who certainly had it coming, but a sign that soon even adults would notice the child who wasn't getting older. In a small town, 'different' is never good, and there was reason that Gram had kept her knowledge of witchcraft secret. While burning witches was no longer within the law, that didn't mean it never happened, especially this far from the capital where laws were made.

Even though she was signed on as a cook's helper, Sylvie had learned much in that first apprenticeship, how to set a trap, skin a rabbit (though it made her sick to her stomach), stitch up a dog hurt in the hunt, throw a knife, and, of course, cook. It was a good choice of a place for a girl who did not want to be noticed. There were no neighbors, the guests were lords with their lady friends their wives pretended not to know about. No one was going to pay attention to a girl in the kitchen, especially since the 'older' girls all came and went, often going with a child from one of the lords in their bellies.

It was there, too, that she first killed a man. A band of outlaws had come to the lodge seeking easy loot, lined up all of the lords and taken their pick of the gold and jewels. Then they started in on the kitchen girls. Sylvie had slipped out the back door but a rogue had broken away from his fellows and followed her. She was nigh on to twenty but looked to be, at most, a smallish seven-year-old. When the outlaw climbed up the tree after her, she had thrown her knife as hard as she could. His death was more luck than anything else. He was coming up, the knife was going down and the two met in the middle, it piercing his eye. Automatically, he let go with both hands and reached to pull the blade from his eye socket. The fall did the rest.

It took her three weeks to find her way home through the woods, always remembering that the sun set in the west. If the sun was going down on her left, home was in front of her. It was rather convenient that everyone believed her killed by the outlaws, more convenient than explaining how the daughter Mamie birthed twenty years past was still a small child.

When Sylvie came home from the lodge, Gram had bustled her off with a new name and a new master, east this time, to another apprenticeship, this time with a real witch.

The girl knew it was nearing time to leave when she would catch the witch watching her speculatively out of the corner of her eye. She knew the day had come when her mistress had asked curiously, “You know, child, I don't believe your grandmother ever told me, how old are you exactly?”

Sylvie had mumbled some excuse about how she wasn't sure exactly, they never were much for celebrating birthdays not having parents around and all. Her answer clearly did not satisfy the witch. Before the mistress had time to ask more, Sylvie announced she had received a letter from home saying her grandmother needed her to come home, producing as proof the letter she had written weeks earlier in preparation for this moment.

So it had gone for the past thirty years, from one apprenticeship to another, from one town to another. For a time she had even visited her brother and then her sister, both had married and settled down in a town with their in-laws, raising families of their own. She had helped care for their children, who looked to be no younger than Sylvie herself.  Then, two years ago she really had received a letter saying Gram needed her at home. Without a second's hesitation, she had gone.

Apprenticed to a witch, a midwife and a healer, she had learned a great deal about cures for sickness, but, sadly, there is no cure for old age. Sylvie was wise enough to resign herself to making the old woman as comfortable as possible. She cooked meals that smelled delicious, even when Gram could not eat them. She made endless pots of tea, stirred with cinnamon sticks. She helped the old woman hobble slowly to the temple, leaning on her granddaughter on one side and her cane on the other.

Gram had introduced her as “Sylvie”, the daughter of the grandchild who had been left behind years before. No one questioned the story. After all, who would believe that this was the same child who had been a toddler back when today's selectmen and masters were not yet born?

On the day that Gram had breathed her last, Sylvie dressed her for burial, called at the temple and sent notice to  the few elderly churchgoers, friends and neighbors who her grandmother had not outlived. She walked back from the temple with an even more elderly neighbor than Gram leaning on her arm. The two old women had often took hobbled back and forth to temple together. Now, the neighbor was left alone, awaiting her own soon-to-be fate. The entire walk she asked the girl about her family, her “mother” that had been left with the grandmother years before. Sylvie answered easily, telling about the farm, the husband, the other children. The old woman was satisfied, it had all the details and the ring of truth, which it should because it was all true, except for one tiny lie. The woman in the story was Sylvie's older sister. It was a much more believable story than the truth, that the youngster from long ago was this same child walking beside the old woman now.

When they reached the house, the neighbor paused and said, “Here I am getting' on in my dotage. Your grandmother gave me these things when she first took ill. I was to give them to you if you didn't make it back in time. You were so taken up with carin' for her when you came back, and she was so sick, we both clear forgot, and here I am almost forgettin' again. Wear this for protection. Don't ever take it off. And, this, I believe it is a letter to where you should be goin' next.”

With that surprising pronouncement, she had dropped a chain with the gold medallion of the Divine Princess into the girl's right hand, shoved a letter in her left, turned and shuffled into her own dusty cottage, shutting  the door tightly behind her.

Gram had not been in her grave two days when the magistrate strode importantly down the dusty street and knocked at the small white cottage. Even though she was sore with grief, Sylvie greeted him as politely as she knew Gram would have wanted.

“I'm sorry if you've come to speak to my grandmother, sir, but she has gone to heaven with the Divine Princess, not so many hours passed.”

“Uh-hum. Yes, of course I know that. Not much escapes my attention in this town, you should know. I am, after all, the magistrate. It is about precisely regarding this matter that I have come calling.”


“Well, you are but a child and obviously cannot live her alone.”

“Beggin' your pardon, sir, but I've been here takin' care of my Gram just fine. So, I appreciate your thoughtfulness but - “

The magistrate waved his hand, interrupting her, “It is just not proper for a child to live alone. The town, that is, I, will administer this dwelling, collecting fair rent as the town sees fit, and you will be apprenticed in a proper place -”

“Thank you just the same, but I'd rather not.”

At this challenge to his authority, the magistrate frowned in what he thought was his most intimidating manner, the same frown he gave to defendants just before pronouncing them guilty. Not only did the girl not quail before his authority, she didn't even seem to notice.

“Uh-hum, well, you see, being a minor this is not up to your discretion - “

This time the girl seemed to actually pay attention to him,

“You mean that you would take the cottage that was left by my Gram, take the money that was earned, keep it for yourself, have me work for little or no pay and then maybe some day, I would receive some gold when I am old enough or married to some lout of a blacksmith? Thank you for your concern, but all the same, I'd rather not.”

“We'll see about that - , “ said the magistrate,  reaching for her, but the look in the girl's eyes gave him pause.

“Don't touch me.”

He pulled his hand back, “Well, we'll see about that.”

“Indeed, we shall.”

Offended, the magistrate turned on his heel and stalked from the clean but humble cottage. Immediately, Sylvie began to stuff her few belongings into a pack, set to leave as her mother had those many years before. At least she would be exiting through the door instead of the bedroom window. On the other hand, her mother had someone she was leaving with, even if she didn't know where she was going. Sylvie had neither, but she was damned if at forty-four years old she was going to be apprenticed to the village baker.

“Well, there it is then,” she muttered to herself as, for the last time, the cottage door slammed behind her.

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