“Eggs! Fresh eggs!”
“Only a shilling!”
“Fruit, fresh from my orchards!”
The sounds of the market filled my ears as I wound my way through the open square. Vendors were everywhere, setting up shop wherever they could find space. Smells of hot tarts and sweet cakes wafted about, watering my mouth. I fingered the coins in my pocket. Temptation was never greater than at the market; but I would never steal. Something always stopped me…a gut feeling, I suppose.
I made my way towards the egg seller. She smiled, her crooked teeth giving her a lopsided look. We knew each other; after all, when one sees a person every week in one’s life, it’s hard to keep from recognizing them. I smiled back, knowing that my smile would hardly be more pleasing to look at than hers.
“Good marnin’, lass!” she called out in a thick Irish accent. “Ha much kin ah git thee?”
“Two dozen, please.”
I watched as her hand dug around in her basket. She always gave me the cracked ones. She knew the orphanage would not care.
“Here y’are, lass,” she said, placing the eggs into my basket. “G’day.” I laid my shilling into the palm of her outstretched hand and nodded.
“Thank you. Good day.”
I walked along, swinging my step as I went. The day was so bright and blue that I felt an almost irresistible urge to skip. I could hardly restrain myself, and only ended up doing so with the thought of smashed eggs and yolk all over my dress, with the side effect of a scolding, slaps, and no dinner. I meandered around tables and benches, smiling and waving at the vendors. They all knew me. I was Emily, sometimes called ugly Emily by children at the orphanage. I was used to it.
I was used to their name calling. I was used to hearing myself belittled before others. I was used to being left out. I was used to being stared at…because of my face. It was scarred.
Smallpox. It had claimed my mother when I was still small. I had barely survived. My nurse had left me at the front door of the orphanage, hoping they could provide for me. They took me in, a pathetic bundle; I had not known life without my scars. I could not remember much of my life outside of the orphanage. I could not even remember ever being called "Emily". To the children, I was either “ugly Emily” or “Scarface”. By the headmaster and his wife, I was often referred to as “the child”. Cook called everyone “you”. And to everyone else I was “girl”. But I did not care. I could not care. I had had no life experience where there was no name calling. I was not Emily. Emily was only a name, used only by the minister once a year. As a general rule, I preferred to be called “girl”, as there were no negative connotations about it.
A crisp wind whipped my hair around my neck. Shivering, I pulled my tattered shawl closer. I looked up at the sky. Fluffy white clouds had begun to roll across the blue expanse, hiding the sun. Hurriedly, I quickened my pace; looking down, I dizzied myself watching the grey cobblestones pass in a blur. I was conscious of nothing but the padding of my worn shoes and the sting of cold that wormed its way to my core.
There, at last, was the bakery, its wooden sign swinging silently in the wind. The scent of fresh bread won my heart at once, and I stepped inside. Immediately, warmth hugged me, and I, eager to return its kindness, stayed in its embrace as long as I could.
Behind the crackling roar of the fire, a distant argument could be heard between the baker’s boy and another assistant. At length, the boy puffed into sight and out the door, carrying a wide tray of steaming bread and baguettes. My mouth watered again at the sight of them; but as my eyes strayed to the face of the boy, I grinned. Chubby-cheeked, red-faced, breathing heavily, he represented an exact picture of the baker; his chunky build left no doubt whose son he was. I glanced about to see if others found his display amusing.
Across from me, I noticed a thin, pale girl leaning against the wall. Her piercing eyes stared steadily, straight into my own eyes. I stood, tried to meet her gaze, and faltered. She seemed to see right through me. In fact, the more I watched her, the more it seemed she didn’t see me at all. Those steady eyes were gazing at something far beyond me. Distant and dreamy, but steady all the same.
She straightened. Her eyes lost their dreamy look.
“Yes, Mamma, I’m coming.”
Gathering herself from the wall, she fell in step with the plump lady who swept by me. It was then that I noticed her clothes. Blue taffeta, shimmery and light, with silk stockings; there was even real lace around her collar. She must have been rich. As they walked off, I realized how petite she was; just barely a wisp of a girl, the wind seemed as if it could pick her off the road and carry her away to her dreams. It seemed as though she was floating already, feet hardly touching the stones. I fell into a reverie of who she might be. A princess, perhaps. Suppose she was really a fairy. Or maybe a wood nymph, from afar…
“Girl! Did you come here to sleep or to buy bread?” The harsh voice of the baker grated on my ears.
“Sorry,” I stammered, blinking in the light. “Two loaves, please.”
“Two loaves!” he echoed to the back room. “Hanson? Hanson!?” Growling, he threw a wink my direction, adding pointedly, “Probably sleeping over the oven. Hanson!”
I laughed silently. As unpleasant as the baker seemed, I liked him. He was humorous, and though it was not my favorite thing to see him boil over in rage, I rather enjoyed hearing the shouts he could rally at need. Now, he proceeded to tongue-lash Hanson, until I thought my ears would forever echo the phrases, “you rascal!” “Asleep, you big buffoon!” and “For bread’s sake, what were you thinking!?”
I wondered what it would’ve been like to be in Hanson’s position. I had had experiences plenty close enough. But I knew the difference. Hanson received his scoldings from a friend. I received mine from the headmaster. Not an enemy, but definitely not a friend. I sighed.
The baker bustled in from the next room, wiping his hands noisily against his floury apron and shaking his large head.
“Here y’are.” He handed me two loaves of sweet bread, muttering under his breath, “Buffoon! What was he thinking?!” snorting at convenient intervals.
As soon as I stepped out the door, the cold pierced me like a knife. The sun was all gone now, all clouds; I pondered how quickly changes could come; how changes affected me so much. Sighing, I trudged slowly back, the spring gone from my step. I walked by the hedge, hoping for a glimpse of color. There was not even a blackberry to cheer my way.
“Look at her! The child’s face is as red as a berry!”
I bowed my head, rubbing my hands to warm them, as I stood before the headmaster. As I undid my laces, his wife chimed:
“Indeed! How long do you suppose she walked outside?”
They talked of me as if I were not there, as if I were not listening to them. My head still bowed, I shivered in the dark passage. I was not ashamed. But I kept my head down all the same. It was what was expected of me, and I had no desire to be cast out of the headmaster’s good graces today.
“Well, child, you needn’t stay any longer. Take the groceries to cook and wash your face to get rid of that awful color!”
I needed no further encouragement. I gave them the smallest curtsey and left the passage. Entering the kitchen, I watched as cook boiled potatoes over the fire. Her entire face was beet red. The checked apron she wore was half off, hanging over one shoulder. If it had been anyone but cook, I would’ve smiled visibly. If she saw, a skipped dinner would be my reward. Now, I only smiled inwardly. Like the baker, I thought, but not a friend.
“Here’s the eggs and bread.” She must not have heard me. I tried again, a little louder. “I’ll set the groceries on the counter.” No answer. I shrugged. As I walked away, cook turned and saw me, her wide face contorted into countless wrinkles.
“You! What’re you doing in my kitchen? Eh?” She made a lunge at me. I tried to dodge, but her fat hands closed on one of my brown locks. “Stealing, are you?” She yanked—I winced.
“No, ma’am, I brought your groceries.” I hurried, politely, so as not to anger her more, but urgently gesturing towards the counter before she could yank again.
“Then what’re you doin’ here, bothering me, you sneaky little chick?” she barked indignantly, letting go my curls. I backed away immediately.
“I was just going—ma’am.” I just barely remembered to add the ‘ma’am’.
“Well git, then!” she said, shooing me out with a kick. “Go on! Git!”
I retreated hastily, thinking to myself, definitely not a friend; more like a fiend!
True, there were days when cook would give me an extra roll, when she was good to me in her own fashion. Those were occasional days, and I learned to take them and be grateful for them. But more often than not, she scarcely knew I was there or some other unpleasant event occurred. Unpleasant and unfair, because the blame always fell on me.
And I still had to be polite. How many times I had wanted to talk back, to tell them what I thought of them. Often, when I was blamed, or commanded to accomplish some task, I could hardly restrain myself. But I never let myself slip. I’m not sure exactly how, but every time, the right words would come out, mechanically. They had not won my respect; not even that was possible. I did not even fear them. What could they do to me? But I could not talk back. Something inside would hold me back, and after the incident, I’d always scold myself for not being bolder. I made so many promises to myself regarding my weakness; but I never kept them. I always gave in.
This attitude of submission was doubly forced on me. I treated them with ‘respect’, submitting to their every whim, and they would feed me. Or else I would starve. I never ran away for two reasons. One: everyone knew me by my scars; it would be impossible to hide. And two: I had no better place to go. Who would provide shelter for me and give me food? Who would take me in? And so, as unpleasant as life was at the orphanage, I stayed on, hoping that someday, everything would get better. I wanted freedom; freedom to talk; freedom to go away; freedom to live. And I knew one thing in my heart: while I lived in the orphanage, I could not be free.
I've made up my mind to give this story a shot. This first chapter seems a bit abrupt to me, though. Are there any suggestions? How can I make it better?