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.

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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.

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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

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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.

10: Edmund’s Books

Edmund loved to read.

Mrs. Mapleberry was not an avid reader herself, only sporadically flipping through strange adult novels that had watercolor pictures of men with no shirts on the cover. She did her best to keep her orphans well-read, however, keeping a lopsided bookshelf in the hallway full of ancient ragged children’s books from generations ago given as donations from wealthy estates. As such, the closest thing to a library the orphanage had was no more than ten or twenty ragged and sagging books sitting quietly in the dust.

Edmund had read them all, often times more than once. Not because he enjoyed them, however, but because they confused him so terribly. He could never quite understand why the wolf was still so hungry after eating an entire grandmother, or how a cat could wear boots without falling over. And even when he ignored the parts that didn’t make sense, there was never anything about what happened after. The reader never learned what happened to the kingdom with its new king and queen, or if the recently saved farm lasted for years or succumbed to a drought the next Spring. So he read the books over and over again, searching for some piece of information that would finally reveal itself and make sense of the entire story.

The only story he really enjoyed was a long epic retelling of a story from long ago–the tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, though he would have liked it more without the silly romance story between the queen and the king’s friend. Even with some of the strange bits, he loved reading about the good and handsome knights who rode off to fight against evil bandits, ugly monsters, and saved the land for the honor of their king. The king even died at the end, so there wasn’t any part of his story that wasn’t told. The good knights were kind and just, while the evil monsters were cruel and greedy. It felt right to him, and he knew almost the entire book by heart.

Then, one winter, Edmund found a stack of books next to the fireplace where the wood was usually piled. Mrs. Mapleberry had deemed them Not Fit For Children, and thrown them there with the intent to use them as kindling. They were the thickest books that Edmund had ever seen, and he was curious as to what stories could possibly be so long.

So, one afternoon he stole one and hid it away in his trunk to read late at night when the other Lads had all gone to bed and Mrs. Mapleberry had closed the door of her small office for the night.

The book was titled ‘A Guyde to The Humours of the Physicale Bodye,’ by Sir Knickle Prickleston, Ph. D, MDA, RMD, ZMA, Ph. A, AMAZ. It was thick and the words were small, but Edmund flipped through anyway because there were pictures in it.

9: The Wickes

It wasn’t just the children who would return to the orphanage with regularity.

Mr. and Mrs. Wickes were two stern aristocrats who stopped by the orphanage at least five times every year. They were a cold pair, always dressed in fine black clothing with Mr. Wickes carrying a thick cane that looked like a wrought-iron horse-post, and Mrs. Wickes wielding a silvery lace fan that she could snap open and close like a whip. They always wore thick black coats and large hats. Mr. Wickes’s hat was always very tall, while Mrs. Wickes’s brim was always very wide. This contrasted their respectively thick and thin bodies, which gave them a curious symmetry. Leeta said they look like they were in perpetual mourning, so they had to have been very rich.

A sure as the seasons changed, several times a year a thin brown letter would be delivered to Mrs. Mapleberry, proclaiming a not-so-humble request to be ready for the Wickes’s arrival. Mrs. Mapleberry would immediately turn into a steam-engine of preparation, cleaning up the orphanage and washing children left and right, making sure that everyone was ready to be presented.

They would always arrive just after dinner–an unorthodox time to visit–and slowly walk through the orphanage, the loud crash of Mr. Wickes’ cane echoing through the hollow walls. Periodically, Mrs. Wickes would slowly bend down and stare a child full in the face, her mouth bending into something like a smile.

“And what’s your name?” She would ask, as though reciting a well learned lesson. The child would answer or, more often, mumble awkwardly as Mr. Wickes stared from behind his wife.

“Too short,” he would grumble. Or perhaps too tall, or too thin, or not quite thin enough. Mr. Wickes was never satisfied with the child his wife would select. Instantly, Mrs. Wickes’s smile would vanish, her back straighten, and then they would move on to the next child.

Inevitably they would find a child that they could agree on, and vanish into the city for several months. Then, one day, another letter would arrive announcing their intent, and the process would begin again.

None of the children they adopted ever returned to the Orphanage. Rumors circulated amongst the children that they ate the orphans they adopted, or at least forced them into slave labor.

They even looked at Edmund once.

“And what’s your name?” Mrs. Wickes face leaned closer.

“Edmund,” he said.

“You cannot be serious,” Mr. Wickes harrumphed behind his wife. “His head is far too large.”

“We could adjust it,” Mrs. Wickes smile twitched from the strain.

Mr. Wickes harrumphed again, and circled Edmund with a piercing eye.

“No,” he said finally. “Not worth the trouble.”

And with that, they moved on to the next child.

That day, they adopted Leeta. She didn’t come back either.

8: Edmund’s Solitude

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Image: Haunted by KittyKitty-BangBang

It didn’t trouble Edmund, though; he enjoyed being alone. Of course, it was hard to find a place to be alone in the orphanage. The building would have been able to fit twenty children snugly, but there were often more than sixty children of varying ages waiting to be adopted.

When it was warm, and most of the other children were playing outside, he would stay inside and do his best to keep out of sight. In the winter, when it was too cold for the children to play in the yard, he would bundle himself up in his scarf, sneak out into the snow, and find a place to sit alone and read until his fingertips turned blue.

When Edmund wasn’t reading, he was watching. He liked watching things and listening to them too. When he was outside he would watch the snow fall, or the skyline of the city’s smokestacks as they faded deeper and deeper into the black clouds of industry. He would listen to the old autumn leaves crunching under animal paws, or birds singing as the first dawn of spring peeked its head over the hills.

When he was inside, he would watch the weevils burrow in and out of knots in the wooden floor or holes in the wall. He watched the leaves fall off the single thin tree that sprouted in the yard through the bent shutters. He would listen to the children play at their games of catch, tag, and stick-ball, or to Mrs. Mapleberry muttering to herself or scolding another child when they had done something ‘not befitting a Wayward Lad or Lady.’

He was so good at watching, in fact, that the children had a tendency — as did Mrs. Mapleberry, for that matter — to forget he was even in the room. Sometimes, while the children were playing inside or studying, Mrs. Mapleberry would enter the room and asked if anyone had seen Edmund around the orphanage. The children would always be very polite and say that no, they hadn’t seen him, to which Mrs. Mapleberry would cluck in exasperation and vanish again.

Most of the children would return to their games, while some of the crueler ones would immediately begin to guess where he was and what he was doing.

Had he run away? Was he digging up a corpse from the graveyard in the city? Was he being re-wound by his creator? Or had he run off into the sewers to grow into a monster that would feed on the flesh of naughty children?

Of course, Edmund was usually sitting in the corner of the room the whole time reading, but no one ever seemed to notice and he never thought of drawing attention to himself.

And so it was that Edmund lived his days in the drearily morbid surroundings of the orphanage, dealing with the depressingly cheerful Mrs. Mapleberry, and avoiding the speedily rotating roster of the other children.

7: The Problem of Edmund

When Edmund was young, he had been a problem for Mrs. Mapleberry.

At first she tried to make him fit for the upper-classes, as he was clean and very quiet and therefore probably smart. He had trouble with the etiquette lessons, however, and no matter how polite the greeting or clean the offered hand, Edmund would simply stare and not say a word.

As Edmund grew older, she noted that he never seemed to get sick, so she tried fitting him with the simpler and healthier children. He could handle small tasks, but as soon as she gave him a job that lasted longer than ten minutes, his mind would wander. She would often times find him staring out the window at a bee, or studying a particularly interesting hole in the wall.

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Image: Henry Leonard Stephenson, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

Eventually, Mrs. Mapleberry gave up and begrudgingly put Edmund in a category all his own, which only served to segregate him from the other children even further. At first, he was perfectly happy with this arrangement; He wasn’t particularly interested in more lessons on elocution or poise, and washing dishes or digging in the ground became boring after a while.

Edmund soon realized this was a mixed blessing. When prospective parents came by, he wasn’t allowed to run off to the bedrooms any more. Whether the parents were rich or poor he was forced to walk around the orphanage with all the other children in the vain hope that someone would take a shine to his odd stare or gangly limbs.

Having to present himself twice as often as the other children didn’t seem to make much difference, however; none of the prospective parents ever gave him a second glance.

Sometimes, unfortunately, Mrs. Mapleberry got it into her head that all Edmund needed was to be a bit more like everyone else, and all he needed for that was a bit of help. Then, there was no escaping her for weeks — she would descend on Edmund and hover next to him like a balloon on a string for days at a time, clucking and twittering in his ear about the secrets to a good life and the world outside the orphanage gates.

She would constantly nudge him towards the other children. She would offer helpful suggestions on how to be friendly, or try to get him exercising or playing games with the other lads to broaden him, but it became clear very quickly that they had no interest in playing with him, and he had none in them. Thankfully, after a time Mrs. Mapleberry would always decide that Edmund simply wasn’t worth the trouble, and mostly leave him alone.

Nevertheless, she tried to keep him presentable. She kept giving him new clothes from the donation bins, and tried parting his hair in different places almost every day in the vain attempt to have him attract some parent’s attention. “The orphanage is an unsteady life for a growing boy,” she would tell him, clucking in sympathy.

Edmund disagreed — very little ever seemed to change for him–but he never said anything. He wasn’t even sure he wanted a family; what was the point?

Edmund suspected the truth was that she didn’t want him around any more than the prospective parents did.

6: Leeta

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Image by Lucia Whittaker

One of these children was Leeta.

If Edmund had one friend in the orphanage, it was Leeta. Of course, it was difficult to call her a friend, since they never spoke to each other. She never bothered giving him a second glance, while Edmund found little of interest in Leeta’s short dusty hair, and fire-red temper. She was short, stocky, and had a lopsided nose from when a boy twice her age had broken it before she knocked him to the ground and kicked him unconscious.

She had been adopted several times. The first was to a hopeful and well-meaning farmer, the second to a fairly well-to-do shop-owner. Both times, she had returned within the week. She hated family life, she said; too full of rules and they tried to make her wear dresses. Eventually she started to stay adopted for a few months at a time, but she always returned.

“I liked it better here,” she would always say.

She was rough, gruff, and destined for the life of a dock-worker or laborer’s wife, everyone knew. She didn’t seem disappointed with the idea, and had claimed the one pair of workman’s trousers that had been donated to the orphanage. She wore them to breakfast one day, and the entire orphanage had to go hungry after Mrs. Mapleberry decreed that no one would eat until she changed.

Finally, after lunch-time had come and gone and no-one had eaten, Edmund suggested to Leeta that she wear the trousers under one of her long skirts, so everyone could eat.

She had smiled at him from across the table that evening at dinner.

She was a trouble-maker as far as Mrs. Mapleberry was concerned, an instigator and rotten-apple that if left untamed would spoil the entire orphanage. Every chance she got, she would shove Leeta in front of any lower-class parent and go so far as to almost demand they adopt her.

It rarely worked. Leeta had a way about her that gave her ‘airs’ as one prospective parent put it. Somehow, even though she seemed eager to be adopted, her forthright nature and abrasive attitude caused even the most understanding and hopeful parents to shy away from her.

But often times their understanding and hopeful natures would win out, and Leeta would vanish from time to time for a month or two. Every time she did, it seemed to Edmund that there was a new spring in Mrs. Mapleberry’s step, and a glint in her eye. It never lasted, but she didn’t seem to care.

Of course, when Leeta was gone, that meant Mrs. Mapleberry could focus her attention on her second biggest problem in the Orphanage.

5: Mrs. Mapleberry

Mrs. Mapleberry was a rotund disciplinarian, full of boisterous energy and a loud voice that she could use to reach the ears of any child inside the orphanage’s fence. Her cheeks and nose were rosy, her mouth locked into a wooden smile; unless, of course, one of her children misbehaved.

Edmund didn’t like Mrs. Mapleberry very much. While he was rarely the object of her discipline, her voice made his ears itch and his fingernails tingle. He did his best to avoid her, which was usually easy to do considering how many children she had to deal with and all the hopeful parents that would come by to shop for orphans. She was devoted to her job, and would spend hours showing prospective parents child after child, swapping height, hair-color, and demeanor until her client was satisfied.

To help keep everything organized, Mrs. Mapleberry had a system. She segregated her orphans, not by age, but by several qualities that allowed her easy access to the children her clients wanted to see.

Every child that passed the orphanage’s gate was quickly assessed by Mrs. Mapleberry and placed first into one of two groups. The first group was for the handsomest, cleanest, and quietest children. The other group was comprised of the thickest, healthiest, and strongest.

From there, the children were categorized and itemized in a small notebook that was always tucked in Mrs. Mapleberry’s blouse. She knew which of her children were best at standing still and holding trays, or excelled at pushing plows and holding small pigs. She knew which children had the wide eyes and charming smiles that were expected of chimney-sweeps, and which were pale and sickly, perfect for the ennui-enamoured upper-class.

The children never saw the contents of this notebook: all they knew were the two groups. She taught each group separately, insuring that the right children knew how to clean chimneys or wash dishes, while others were given lessons on etiquette and proper behavior. The cleverest of both groups were taught how to read, write, and do sums to prepare them for a possible future in accounting or clerical work, the only possible jobs that had so far managed to straddle both classes like a rickety bridge. They were all given appropriate clothing and ate on one of the two long tables in the dining room.

Both groups had a bell hanging in the common room connected to a string, and whenever prospective parents stopped by, Mrs. Mapleberry would discern her customer’s class and status at a glance, and yank hard on the appropriate bell-pull. The other children would run and hide in the bedrooms while the customers were ushered around the grounds, and the proper children displayed like horses.

4: The Children

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Image: Uncredited, VictorianChildren.org

For their part, the other children seemed to find Edmund just as odd and unnerving as the hopeful parents, and would quickly stop talking or avoid his gaze whenever he was near. They always found themselves playing on the other side of the yard from where Edmund sat, but if you asked them they wouldn’t be able to tell you why.

Once, at the ever insistent urgings of Mrs. Mapleberry, Edmund tried to join in a game of stick-ball. He had watched the other children play before, and it had seemed a simple enough game. The other children had reluctantly acquiesced, and Edmund found himself swinging languidly at a gently tossed leather ball.

Before long, he was bored. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as it had seemed from across the yard. No one was shouting or laughing, and they were definitely throwing the ball a lot more timidly than they had when he was watching.

No one seemed to mind when he set down the stick and walked away.

Edmund never tried very hard to make any friends. It wasn’t that the children were cruel (although some of them were) or stupid (which several definitely were), it was just that Edmund didn’t see the point. Why bother when they could be gone in a week, never to be seen again?

There were exceptions, of course. While many of the orphans who entered the Home for Wayward Lads and Ladies would vanish again within the year, quite a few would show up again. Some of them were orphaned again by industrial accidents, while others were returned by parents who asserted they had done quite enough of their patriotic duty, thank you. Others were picked up and returned by the local constabulary as vagrants, having run away from their new homes for any number of reasons.

A few just walked back through the wooden gate, as though they had never been away.

As fashionable as adoption seemed to be these days, turnover was quick, with some children leaving and returning as much as three times a month. They would always return full of stories about how marvelous or terrible it had been to have a family.

Edmund only partially paid attention; after a while, the stories had all begun to sound the same. Sometimes it was chocolates and clothing and three square meals a day. Other times, it was beatings and rotten bread. Sometimes there were siblings, other times dogs. Sometimes the houses were large, other times small. Sometimes it was a lovely tale, other times a horror story, but it ended the same way; the children came back to the orphanage.

It was an academic point for Edmund to say the least–everyone seemed sure he would never have to deal with it.

Mrs. Mapleberry, however, was unable to give up.