19: Overheard

Edmund grabbed his bundle of clothes from the ground, and ran back to the Meeting Room, his small hard shoes scraping and clattering against the wooden floor. He had stopped just outside the room to catch his breath, when he heard the woman’s voice from inside.


Image: Old Woman in the Shadow by Colton “Colt 45″ Apodaca

“Well, I suppose he’ll have to do,” she was muttering quietly, her dry lips clicking as she spoke. “He just needs to be alive and not provoke my rancid cousins… ha! As if they wouldn’t happily chew the legs off a puppy if I brought it home. Well, we’ll see how happy they are once they see I have an heir! Spiteful little brats. I’ll show them…”

Edmund thought about this, and decided he didn’t know what the woman was talking about. It sounded like she was having trouble with her family, which was a surprising idea for Edmund. Having never had a family, he had always relied on what others had said they were like. He always been told families were happy arrangements, with parents who fed the children and children who kept quiet and stayed out of sight. That’s what Mrs. Mapleberry made it sound like, at any rate.

Edmund had been skeptical, of course, since he had also heard the stories told by the children who came back, but Mrs. Mapleberry had assured the orphans that these were rare exceptions.

Of course, this old woman was nothing like the parents he had seen walk into the orphanage before. Perhaps she was an exception too?

Suddenly, the woman’s muttering stopped. Edmund wondered if she had heard him thinking, when he began to hear the sound of heavy footfalls coming down the hall.

“Are you ready, Edmund?” came Mrs. Mapleberry’s voice. Edmund looked up to see Mrs. Mapleberry’s rotund form rolling towards him, her face red and puffing, gripping a small stack of papers in one hand and a small inkwell and pen in the other. Edmund nodded, shifting the bundle under his arm. Mrs. Mapleberry nodded back with a strained smile, took a deep breath, and walked back into the Meeting Room.

“Here we are, all ready to sign!” Mrs. Mapleberry said, her voice frighteningly gleeful. “Just put your name right here, and Edmund is all yours!”

Edmund was positive the woman hadn’t moved an inch since he left the room. If he hadn’t heard her talking, he might not have believed she had even breathed. Her eyes followed Mrs. Mapleberry as she hobbled over to the table, placed the ink and paper down, and held the small dip pen out for the woman to sign.

With a sniff, the woman plucked the small pen from Mrs. Mapleberry’s hand and stared at it. Her eyes narrowed, and for a single dreadful second Edmund was positive that she was about to change her mind. She was going to laugh cruelly, tear up the papers, throw the pen away, and leave the orphanage without taking him with her.


18: Packing to Leave

Edmund ran back to the Lads’ bedroom, heading for the trunk next to his bed, his mind still reeling. Where was he going to live? What would his new mother be like? Would there be other children there? Was she married?

The thoughts shuffled around in his brain, vying for attention as he ran, when the shifting of a wooden floorboard under his feet made him stumble, bringing him up short and shaking his mind clear.

Steadying himself, and walking slower, Edmund considered. It was a startling revelation to him how much he suddenly wanted to leave the orphanage. It had never been a possibility in his future before, but now that he had the opportunity, he realized how much he needed to experience more.

His whole life had been the orphanage, hemmed in by a thin wooden fence. He’d never been interested in the outside world — what could be there for him? But now, in the form of an ancient white-haired woman, there was suddenly so much potential!

Edmund reached the bedroom, and his hand had just gripped the trunk next to his bed, when he paused. The trunk wasn’t really his, was it? He had seen children come and go almost daily, and they didn’t always take their trunks. Most of the time they slipped their belongings into trunks that their new parents had brought for them. He considered returning to the old woman and asking if she had brought a trunk for him, but for some reason he knew the answer would be no.

Edmund quickly pulled open the small trunk and began to rummage through it. In no time at all he had a small pile of shirts, pants, socks, and jackets that he could just about carry without dropping.

Yanking the last two shirts and a pair of slacks from the chest, Edmund caught a glimpse of the hidden stack of books that lay under the once carefully folded clothes. Most of them he had saved from the fireplace, and he was certain they would return there if Mrs. Mapleberry found them. He looked back at his pile of clothes.

He could probably only carry two…

The first one was easy. He was working his way through ‘The Symphonic Physicium,’ a relatively new book that tried to explain the principles of something called ‘chemistry,’ or how different liquids might combine into other liquids of a different color, smell, and texture. Edmund didn’t quite understand most it yet, but he had been working on it chapter by chapter.

The second book was harder. His decision came down to either Alam Beet’s ‘Poetry of the Heart,’ or ‘The Epic of King Arthur.’ He loved them both, and re-read favorite passages, poems, and chapters, but they were large and bulky, and carrying both would be awkward. Torn between the two, he realized that really there was no choice. Mrs. Mapleberry would throw out the science books, but she’d keep the stories and poems for some other child to read.

His heart sinking, he closed his eyes and grabbed randomly. He was going to a new life, after all… His new house might have some books too, and with luck it might have its own books of poetry and King Arthur.

He opened his eyes and looked at the thick book in his hands. ‘The Physical and Aetherial Body: a Practicum of Study by Dr. Prissarium Killdot,’ a well worn book full of fascinating insights into the human body and what made it work.

17: Adopted at Last

“Oh excellent!” Mrs. Mapleberry clapped her hands with glee. “I’m so glad you’re happy with him — I’ll get the papers at once. Edmund! Go get your things! Quickly now!” And with that, she was bounding through the door at an incredible speed. Edmund got off the chair and headed for the doorway.

“Boy,” the woman croaked. Edmund turned to see his notebook gripped in her spindly hands. “You forgot this.”

Edmund nodded, and returned to the table to take his book. When he pulled, however, the woman’s grip was immovable. “Do we not say thank you?” she asked, her voice low and dangerous. Edmund swallowed.

“Thank you,” he said, clearly and crisply, the basics of Mrs. Mapleberry propriety lessons surfacing to rescue him at the last moment. The woman stared at him for half a second longer than she should have, and then released the notebook. Edmund clutched it to his chest and ran out of the room as fast as he could, the old woman’s eyes following him out.

He was stopped almost immediately by the massive form of Mrs. Mapleberry clutching her chest, standing between him and the Lads’ bedroom. He pulled up short as she bent down and gripped Edmund’s shoulders painfully.


Image: Henry Miller, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

“Do you know who that is?” She said, her voice quivering. Edmund shook his head. “That is the Matron of Moulde Hall! She’s the head of one of the nine founding families! And to think, she’s adopting from my orphanage! I thought she would have adopted from somewhere in the city — she must have come here on recommendation from one of her friends… maybe Lady Perfect? I think she once employed Mrs. Gillicoddy as a cook, and she was in two months ago… Oh no matter! You’re going to be a gentleman, Edmund! A gentleman’s gentleman!”

And with that, she let go of Edmund, and ran off towards her office as fast as her chubby legs could carry her rotund body. Edmund straightened his shirt, and continued his own run towards his things. A gentleman’s gentleman? Edmund had no idea what that meant, but he didn’t care. All he knew was that he was finally going to go outside the fence.

He was leaving the old clock, the rotten bookshelf, and the single sad tree in the yard. Goodbye to the rafters that he had stared at for seven years while trying to sleep. Farewell to the weevils, the bare wooden rafters, the plaster in his food, and Mrs. Mapleberry. The Mayor had said Brackenburg was the greatest city in the world, and finally Edmund was about to see exactly what made it so wonderful.

16: Matron’s Questions


Image: The Good Lady Ducalyne by Mrs. Elizabeth Braddon, The Strand Magazine, 1896

The woman moved then, her eyes dipping like a bird’s to stare at the pages full of his words. Edmund saw her pupils slowly roll about in their sunken sockets, following the scribbled lines of Edmund’s handwriting. After a long pause she extended a single claw and flipped the page.

Edmund’s heart beat faster. He swallowed his protest as the claw slowly returned to its perch on the handle of the umbrella. She stared for what felt like hours before her eyes shot up to Edmund’s again.

“You wrote this?” She snapped, her voice like brittle twigs. Edmund nodded. Her tone had not made it clear if this was a good or a bad thing. The woman’s mouth twisted further into something like a frown. “How old are you?”

“Eight,” Edmund said.

“And are you neat? Tidy? Can you do what you’re told?”

Mrs. Mapleberry gave a little sigh as she placed her thick hand over her breast in a gesture of matronly pride.

“Oh, Edmund is one of the cleanest Lads–”

“Do be silent, you old watermelon, I’m asking the boy,” the woman snapped like a shot. Mrs. Mapleberry gasped, and fell silent while Edmund thought about the question.

“I don’t have much, so I can’t make a mess,” he said, finally. “I’ve always done what I’ve been asked, but no one has ever asked much of me either.”

“Good,” the woman crackled. “Do you know anything about people? Politics? What’s your opinion on the labor situation in South Dunkin?”

“I don’t know of any labor situation in South Dunkin,” Edmund said, quietly. “I don’t even know where South Dunkin is.”

“It’s to the South,” the woman muttered, icily.

“I don’t pay much attention to politics,” Edmund replied. The woman nodded briskly.

“Good. Do you get into fights at all?” she asked, her teeth seeming to sharpen in the dim light.

“No,” Edmund shifted in his seat, “people don’t pay much attention to me either.”

“But if you got in a fight — if someone wanted to hurt you, what would you do?” she asked, leaning forward almost imperceptibly.

Edmund had seen other children fight before in the orphanage, but he’d never considered being in one himself; the other children had always seemed loathe to touch him. The closest he ever got to a fight was once when a twisting floorboard had tipped a thick older boy into him. The boy had raised his fists at Edmund, who waited, watching the boy with interest, until he dropped his fists and backed away slowly.

“I don’t know,” Edmund answered. “I would either stay and fight or run away and hide. It would depend on how many I’m fighting, and how strong they are.”

“And just how long are you planning on living?” What an odd question, Edmund thought. Parents had never asked him questions like that before. Edmund considered for a moment.

“As long as I can,” he said, finally.

“Good,” the woman nodded, and leaned back in her chair. “Get its things, I’ll take it at once.”

15: Edmund’s Epiphany

For a few moments, no one said anything. Then, with a faint quiver in her voice, Mrs. Mapleberry gently rested her hand on Edmund’s shoulder.

“This is Edmund,” she said, her hand squeezing just a little too hard.

Silence reigned again as nobody moved an inch.

Edmund felt that he was expected to say or do something, but the woman’s eyes were hypnotizing. They were two points of purest black on milky pearls that shimmered and flickered in the gloom. Edmund couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being stripped down, annotated, and cataloged like some strange species of insect that the woman had never seen before. Every word he thought to say flickered away from his mind like a fish, hiding from the woman’s gaze.

Usually by this time the parents would have asked him something about himself; what he liked to do or what were his favorite foods; that sort of thing. They never simply sat and stared. What was he supposed to do?

Mrs. Mapleberry had asked him to bring his notebook; had the old woman told her she liked poetry? Was she expecting him to show her some of his poems? At first, Edmund was repulsed at the idea. He didn’t know this woman, and she didn’t look like she wanted to know him. How could he show his work to anyone, let alone a complete stranger?

On the other hand, if this woman did like poetry, perhaps she wouldn’t leave until he showed her some. If she didn’t like what she read, then she would probably just leave, vanishing into the black smog of Brackenburg, and everything would go back to normal. He could show her one if it would make this woman stop staring at him, couldn’t he?

Maybe one about the clock, or the tree outside? Surely that wasn’t prying too deeply into his mind. He was quite proud of his sixth clock poem. He had written it after staring at the clock for two hours, letting the tocking of the pendulum burrow into his brain until it sounded exactly like a heartbeat. Besides, he had eight other poems about the clock, and at least six on the weevils…

Edmund started to feel ashamed. That was all he had in his notebook; clocks, weevils, floorboards, and a single sickly tree in an anemic yard. It was a poor showing for a prospective parent. Alam Beets had written about thousands of things that Edmund had never heard of. Trees of all kinds and sunlight filtering though white clouds. Fine wines and soaring birds with smiling friends on the hills. Such love and hate and loss that made humours almost insufficient to explain the strength of the emotions…

Edmund blinked in surprise as he realized just exactly how much he desperately needed to leave the orphanage.

Part of Edmund wanted to explore this revelation — this sudden need to break free from the only home he had ever known — but he suppressed the urge. Whatever the reason, he needed to leave. Right now the best chance he had was with this strange woman sitting in front of him.

With a certainty that he could never remember feeling in his admittedly short life, he opened his notebook to the tenth page and pushed it forwards on the low tabletop.

14: Matron Mander Moulde

Edmund became a Moulde when he was eight.

One day, just after lunch, Edmund was sitting on his stiff cork-like bed and writing a poem about the holes that riddled the warped window shutters. Spring was coming to a close, and the harsh sunlight of summer was struggling to slip through the giant black cloud that filled the sky over Brackenburg.

He was just trying to think of a rhyme for ‘shutter,’ when Mrs. Mapleberry knocked on the door frame of the Lads’ bedroom and waddled in, slightly out of breath. She panted a moment, glancing about with a look of desperate hope on her face soon followed by disappointment. Curiosity as to her desperate nature got the better of Edmund, so as she was about to leave he gave a small cough. She turned around with a sudden gasp of surprise.

“Were you looking for me, Mrs. Mapleberry?” Edmund asked, politely. Mrs. Mapleberry adjusted her apron as she caught her breath and gave a quick nod.

“There’s someone here to meet you,” she said, the faintest wisp of hope brimming in her large smile. “She’s a… a very nice old lady, and I think you’ll get along just fine! Why don’t you come along and meet her?”

Edmund was puzzled. Mrs. Mapleberry was always very fastidious about appointments; She would often tell hopeful parents to come back the next day if she was not expecting them. It gave her time to clean up the children and make them presentable.

Curious to see what on earth could throw the ordinarily unflappable Mrs. Mapleberry, Edmund set aside his poetry, slid off his rough blanket, and stood up.

“You can bring your notebook,” Mrs. Mapleberry said, somewhat hurriedly. “You might want to show her some of your poetry.”


Image: Lady in a Victorian Dress, rootsweb.ancestry.com

Edmund thought this odd too. Usually Mrs. Mapleberry was quite insistent that he leave his poetry in his room, urging him instead to bring along a ball or paintbrush like some pantomime prop. Grabbing his notebook from off his bed, he followed Mrs. Mapleberry as she waddled down the hallways to the meeting room.

The meeting room was small but cozy, humbly covered with old recycled silks and furniture cobbled together from wherever it could be found. There was a small donated table in the center of the room that was so short none of the mismatched chairs could fit under it. Edmund had only ever been in the room a few times in his life.

Seated across from the door in a thin spindly chair was a thin spindly woman. She was dressed entirely in black, and had a long hooked nose that stuck out over her mouth like a beak. Her mouth was thin and tight, and her tiny chin vanished into her neck. Her eyes were small, sharp, and a speckled blue-green, like old copper nails. Her thin talon-like hands rested on a ragged old umbrella, and her dress had thick ruffles that spouted out of her neck and wrists.

The woman didn’t move, not a muscle, as Mrs. Mapleberry herded Edmund into the room and moved him to the tall plush chair that looked like an old torn-up throne from some vanquished king. He sat down as the strange woman stared at him, eyes cold and hard.

13: The Poetry of Alam Beets

Then, one day, when Edmund was six and a half, Mrs. Mapleberry added a new book to her threadbare library called ‘Poetry of the Heart,’ by Alam Beets.

It was odd, Edmund thought, that there might be another book in the world about poetry; hadn’t Sir Ekes already written one? It made sense to Edmund that there might be more than one book for the sciences, as there seemed to be lots of different ways to interpret the natural world, but words were words. What else was there to say?

Out of a twisted curiosity, he took the old torn book and tried to read it. He was immediately disappointed; the poems were terrible. Some were short, others long, and they never ascribed to the appropriate meter or rhyming scheme for their content. Most didn’t even rhyme at all. Edmund tried asking Mrs. Mapleberry to say several words just to see if he had been pronouncing them wrong his whole life. She just gave him the same look she always gave him whenever he asked an important question, and then went back to her washing while he went back to the book.

Half of the poems were about love, the other half about nothing at all. None of them used proper allegory, or even, as Sir Ekes put it, ‘a solid reliable English simile.’ After he had read the book from cover to cover, he tossed the book aside, resolved not to think about it again.

After two days of completely failing to not think about it, he asked Mrs. Mapleberry if he could read it again.

His poems became long and winding. He began to write about the birds and the tree and the Home for Wayward Lads and Ladies. He wrote about his fingers after they turned blue in the snow, and the sound of the clock that was kept tightly wound in the orphanage. He wrote about the wood weevils and their long noses, and the orphans with their short fingers and knobbly knees. He kept writing until he completely filled one notebook, and had to ask for another from Mrs. Mapleberry.


Image by Sarah, storylabphotoworkshop

It was wonderful. Suddenly, the toolbox of his mind had found a whole new set of tools; ones that were not bound by the rules and guidelines of his old ones. He loved the feeling of connecting all the words together like mechanisms in a clock, or bones in a body. He couldn’t dissect animals, or study the ebb and flow of clouds in the sky, but he could study sound and language, and how words became art. It was still like math, but so much more complicated and delightfully organic.

He had stepped from the warm and comfortable world of learning into the wonderful and thrilling world of discovery.

It wasn’t much of a hobby, but it was his. A little oasis for Edmund — a place to be away from everyone and everything. And so, while the other children played in the yard or talked amongst each other, Edmund spent most of his time scribbling away in his notebook and filling it with strange and wonderful words that sometimes he didn’t even understand.

12: Edmund the Poet

Mrs. Mapleberry didn’t understand Edmund’s passion for reading at all. She would shake her head in amazement when he asked for another book from the bookshelf, and would tisk in dismay whenever she caught him reading one of the large ones she had intended to throw out.

“Reading is such an odd hobby for little boys,” Mrs. Mapleberry told him once after throwing away a book on the bone structure of the foot, her thick rosy cheeks barely containing her manic grin. “You should try painting with bright colors, to show off your pleasant personality. Or perhaps take up writing; parents love creative children.”

It was perhaps in a desperate attempt to kindle the creative spirit in Edmund that when he was six, Mrs. Mapleberry gave him a book on poetry titled ‘The Mechanics and Structure of Verse, a Primer to the Aspiring Poetic’ by Sir Peeres Ekes. It was full of numbers and charts, ascribing values to the different meters and rhymes used in poetry. Certain meters were best for romantic poetry, while others were used solely for epics. There was even a meter for ‘poems of a lascivious nature,’ whatever that was. The word intrigued Edmund, but Sir Ekes only mentioned it once in the whole book and didn’t elaborate as to its meaning.

There was something scientific about poetry; It was almost like math.

The prospect of actually putting anything that he had read to use intrigued Edmund, as did the idea of reading something that he had actually written himself, so he eventually asked Mrs Mapleberry for a notebook. When she gave him an old half-used one, he wrote in it constantly, filling the thin volume with tiny words.

He decided he liked poetry. Combine certain words in certain ways, and you achieve a desired result. With math the result was just another number, but with poetry it was a picture in his head, or a smell creeping through his memory like a spring fog.

He wrote several poems, practicing first by writing one about his bed. He thought it turned out well, so he tried to write one about himself, but he didn’t know how to start it. Finally, he wrote one about the rafters that framed the dining hall. He was quite proud of it, and it must have shown, because as he was putting the finishing touches on it one evening, Mrs. Mapleberry took his notebook out of his hands without asking and began to read.

Edmund was horrified. He hadn’t thought that anyone would ever actually read his poetry. His mind searched for a proper protest; some phrase or declaration that would stop her from prying into his private thoughts.

Luckily, Mrs. Mapleberry’s eyes grew wide and she gave the notebook back with alarming speed. She never talked to him about writing poetry again, and even seemed to avoid him for a few weeks afterward. Edmund was happy about that, so he kept writing.

11: A Guyde to The Humours of the Physicale Bodye


Image: Karen Watson

The pictures were so fascinating that he started over, reading carefully from the beginning so he could understand what the pictures were. It was hard at first, but Edmund persevered as he had with the other books, reading words, phrases, and sometimes whole chapters again and again until he thought he understood what Sir Prickleston was trying to say.

It was a book about the body. It fascinated Edmund to learn that these strange pictures were things that existed underneath his skin. Apparently his body was not just a simple bag of slightly squishy flesh, but an intricate network of tiny bits and pieces that all had their own color, shape, texture, and purpose. Bones to keep everything ordered and in its place, muscles to move everything about, blood to keep everything running properly, livers, stomachs, kidneys, humours, rheums, and vitaes, all working together so Edmund could breathe, chew his stale food, or turn the page in fascination.

He read through the book again and again every day until he had the whole thing memorized, word for word. A great deal of it still made no sense to him — there were a great many complicated words and phrases he didn’t understand — but he remembered them just the same, confident he would work them out someday.

Every chance he had after that, he would look for new books with tiny words next to the fireplace to take and to hide. During the Summer, he would help Mrs. Mapleberry sort any donations that came through the doors, and steal any books that looked interesting. He would study them, memorizing diagrams and formulas, learning new words and strange phrases that sounded like ancient magics or heathen curses, and then get rid of the book before Mrs. Mapleberry caught him.

Some of the books were about the whole human body. Others about the hand, or the foot. Some dealt with blood, or bile, or some obscure organ. Some compared the bone structures of the inhabitants of faraway continents, while others discussed recipes for cures and elixirs. Some of them even mentioned other books Edmund had read, and a few somehow managed to argue with each other.

Some of the books he stole weren’t about the body but about animals, metals, strange powders, or mechanical devices. He was astounded by the fact that rocks were not just rocks, but igneous, volcanic, or sedimentary. He marveled at the diagrams that defined the articulation of tree branches, or the proper ebb and flow of beach sand depending on the wind. The properties of steam, springs, levers, and pulleys had so many uses he despaired of ever finding them all.

Edmund tried to read and understand every book he could find, devouring their contents like a starving dog. Before, the world had been a strange and confusing place, but now he could see how very much like a machine it all was. Everything had a purpose and a proper place. Everything did Something, and that was it’s job.

It felt right to Edmund.