3: The Orphanage Tax

It wasn’t that Mrs. Mapleberry lacked for money; Orphaning was a lucrative business these days. Adopting was the patriotic duty of the working class, a prestigious badge of honor for the middle class, and a trendy fad for the affluent. At least four times a week, prospective parents would arrive and walk along the outside of the fence or stand in the hallway or dining room next to Mrs. Mapleberry like statues, watching, selecting the children they wanted to purchase.

Sometimes they would ask to speak with one child, sometimes several, but almost never with Edmund. For some reason, prospective mothers and fathers consistently passed him by after seeing his pale skin and black matted hair. His dark sunken eyes and small mouth seemed to unsettle them, and they always seemed to think he should blink more often than he did.

The other children didn’t seem to have the same problem. Almost seven or eight beds in the sleeping hall were emptied of their former inhabitants every week, and filled again with new street-toughs, urchins, and other newcomers by the next. There always seemed new orphans to adopt, and with no shortage of orphans there was no shortage of income.

The Mayor of Brackenburg was quite adamant, however, that any true orphanage had to be poor, dilapidated, and a miserable place for children; otherwise, why would the children need to be adopted? So, most of the money vanished as quickly as it came, returning to Brackenburg through a large Orphanage tax.

Yet for some reason that Edmund couldn’t quite understand, the Mayor’s speech — the one he had given on that rainy day so many years ago — had been hung in the common room. It had been printed in all the newspapers the following day, and Mrs. Mapleberry had cut it out and framed it, hanging it with pride, as though it were some stuffed animal head.

The speech spoke of industry and progress. It spoke of a towering infrastructure of machines, of steam and oil. It spoke of a city full of hope and duty, of strength and unity. It spoke of a place which would provide a beacon to the entire world, full of light and smoke and fire and steam. A place that would guide humanity to a new and better future. It spoke of a brave new world, and the brave young people that would inhabit it.

Edmund had decided to take the mayor’s word for it. He had never ventured beyond the small wooden fence and into Brackenburg proper to see this great and prosperous city that the Mayor so admired. Mrs. Mapleberry didn’t allow it for one thing. For all the wonderful things that the Mayor seemed to see in the city, Mrs. Mapleberry saw a host of dangers for a young and unsupervised child.

Of course, that didn’t stop some of the older boys and girls from sneaking over the fence late at night, and scampering down the long cobbled road to the city’s edge, but Edmund never went with them.

They never asked him to follow, anyway.

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