The movers are late and adrenaline runs high! So here’s some angst for the angst god.
There were dust motes floating on the beam of light coming through the apartment’s third story window. Her bed was still just a trundle box bought second hand at short notice, though it never went under Uncle Leafcutter’s. His was in one corner, hers in the other. Everything was in pairs here. There were her two shoes and his two shoes, his bed and her bed, his bowl and her bowl, his comb and her comb. It made her sad somehow that the shoes paired with her clogs were a scholar’s indoor slippers and not sturdy work boots. She imagined sometimes when her head swum from pain and the draughts that never seemed to do more than make her pained and confused that the work boots were there too. One: slippers, Two: clogs, Three: boots. That would be better.
Today when the healer peeled back the bandages and their foul-smelling poultice from her back there wasn’t even so much as a twinge, but her shoulders tensed all the same against the memory of flesh coming away with the linen. There was silence a while, then Uncle’s voice asking, “How long left till it heals now?”
The healer said with that brisk false cheer she was starting to hate, hate, hate more than anything, “This is healed, Master Leafcutter. Good pink flesh with no suppuration. That’s what comes of an aggressive cautery; clean healed wounds.”
“But it’s uneven.”
“Can’t make everything symmetrical.” There was an awkward silence and she craned her head to look. The skin on her neck pulled funnily even though there were no stiff bandages now to account for it. She looked up at Uncle anxiously and his horrified expression was hastily converted to a tight smile.
“Don’t fret, Helvia. It’s all better now. Does it hurt?”
She considered that a moment. Her bare arms didn’t look right anymore. The skin swirled like pulled pink taffy and there were odd lumps and hollows like the sort you get when you toss a quilt over rumpled bedclothes. She tried to pull it smooth, but it stayed. It was ugly. Was she ugly now? How could you go from Papa’s pretty Helvie-flower to hideous so quickly? She couldn’t smooth herself better, so she worked at the sheets.
“Poor thing’s probably fever-addled. It happens often with children that when they’re so sick for so long, they lose their wits.”
“She learned to read in a week. That seems like a full set of wits to me.”
The healer’s laugh was condescending. “Nobody learns to read in a week! She’s probably looking at the pictures. But she may learn some simple words again, if you’re patient with her. Teach her to clean, I say. She can still be useful and active, even with half her wits.”
Helvia gave Uncle a distressed look, and he said firmly, “She’s got a full set of wits, and a little more besides.”
The healer’s tone indicated that he was humoring the deluded as he set out a few pots of oil. “We’ll see, won’t we?” Then his awful, fleshy hands started to rub something greasy and nasty smelling into her back. She whimpered and tried to squirm away, but he held her fast.
“Rub the goose grease in every day and it’ll keep the scars softer. We don’t want her to lose mobility.” He was smearing it on her legs now and she shook like a rabbit with revulsion. Goose grease didn’t sound like something that belonged on people. “Make sure she works the joints and gets exercise. The atrophy’s pretty bad, but that’s what you get in these cases.”
Uncle sounded about as enthusiastic about this as she was. “Will it make it look less…. less?”
“She’s lucky to be alive. Just remember that.” This time, there were no bandages before she was shuffled back into her tunic and smock. She pulled the sleeves down to her wrists and there! Those were normal arms. It would be fine if she just kept her smock on. She didn’t look at the healer as her uncle’s coins chinked into his palm.
The odious man was gone and Uncle said awkwardly, “Don’t mind him, er, Helvia. You look just fine.” He sat on the stool by her bed and handed her a box. “Congratulations! No more bandages. This is for you.” She recognized the housekeeper’s handwriting on the label. “Hel.. vi..a… Leaf…cut…ter…” her lips moved as she sounded it out. She pointed to the surname and gave Uncle a worried look.
He looked startled and said, “I suppose it is Leafcutter now.” Startled and nervous. She smiled to show him it was all right, and he looked startled, nervous, and uncomfortable. He wasn’t quite looking at her when he said, “I’ll take good care of you for your Papa, don’t you worry. I don’t know much about little girls, but you’ll help me learn, won’t you?”
She worried and looked to the shoe tray again. One: slippers. Two: clogs. Three…. Something was very wrong and she didn’t know how to fix it. So she opened the box and her face pulled as her jaw dropped.
It was a beautiful doll. A city girl’s doll! She had one back home that a kindly neighborhood lady had made for her from rags and buttons and yarn. She wondered what had become of Miss Trudy sometimes, but not now. This new doll had a pretty china face and glossy blonde china curls. Her sawdust body was perfect in the most lovely lacy pinafore over a pink gingham dress. She had petticoats around her little china feet! Helvia could hardly stand to touch her for fear of ruining that beautiful doll. She looked up at Uncle and wanted so badly to say thank you, but all that came was, “Th…Th…..Th….”
He looked touched, and oddly teary. His hand came briefly to her shoulder and he said, “Never you mind. We’ll work on you talking soon enough. Just… ah… play nicely now. I’m already late for work.” He was twitching a bit, so he must be very late indeed. She leaned to kiss his cheek, and the teary look got worse. He slipped his feet into his shoes, and out he went. Her clogs looked lonely.
Uncle had taken to hiding the mirror, but she saw the cupboard where he’d put it. Kittenishly weak, she got out of bed with her doll clutched tightly. Her body didn’t feel right. It moved differently. Her joints still felt like they were wrapped up, though she knew they weren’t. Her dress felt rough against some bits of her, and other bits felt nothing at all. She had to start over a few times. She’d feel a floorboard’s crack against a toe and get the most horrid feeling. It was the feeling she’d gotten on that Last Night Ever when the world started to slide under her. She hated it and would do anything to keep it away.
She had to reach for the mirror, but she got it. She clutched her beautiful doll tightly as she looked, and her breath turned to mud in her chest. “Who is that?” she thought, and then she realized, “That’s me!” Her own horrified eyes watched her watching herself as she saw how ugly she looked. Not just ugly but wrong! Ugly people just had funny noses and warts. She didn’t even look like a people!
She shoved the mirror back in the cupboard and reeled for the bed feeling like she might be sick. She hugged her doll like she used to hug Miss Trudy, but the beautiful porcelain face was hard and unyielding against her chest. Like the truth of the face that her mind still saw in its every detail.
In a fit of passion she dashed that doll’s perfect face against the bed rail and felt a grim satisfaction as it too cracked. Look like me! She thought angrily. A dolly ought to look like its Ma. The ruined doll in its beautiful dress mocked her with its fractured smile as she cried herself to sleep. Uncle never bought her pretty things again.