You were squished into the corner and begging the world not to see you, a scrawny mouse waiting for an army of cats to pass you by, or perhaps a minnow taking shelter in the thin curtain of the weeds. In those days my head was full of her and how much I missed her. Or… nah, that’s not it really. I didn’t miss her so much as I was angry and hurt and piqued. I guess after a life of people who decided they didn’t like me after all, I should have expected it, right? Let’s be honest; I hated being me.
She had a mocking laugh, y’know? The sort that points at other people and finds what’s wrong with them so she can have a go. I guess, when we were going together, I thought that it was proof that I was something. She wasn’t laughing at me, see? I must have known somewhere deep inside that she was just biding her time till she’d had enough of humoring me. That’s why I spent all that coin on her and did everything she asked, whether I wanted to or no. I sure was afraid of her. Damn, I was lucky to dodge that one.
Anyhow, I’m talking about her because I’m trying to remember what it was to see you that day when I was feeling tragic and sorry for myself and all-round pathetic. See, I saw you, and I stopped thinking about me for a bit. You were so lost in that crowd of laughing folk, and I was the only person your age to come rescue you. You needed a friend, so I pulled up a chair and had at it. You were cute as a bug, the way you laughed behind your hands at my lame-ass jokes. Thing was, I kinda thought maybe you were laughing with me a bit too. That’s the night I gave up that stupid black hair dye and went back to being a red-bear.
In a land of pale men, you were one of the palest. At first, and pardon me that I say this, but you were one of them. I shrank from you and prayed that you would go away. But you knew better than to offer me an arm as men here were always doing, and spared me having to tell yet another white daemon that I did not wish to be touched by their fish-belly hands or smell their beer-scented breath on my face. You didn’t stand so close that I would have to keep a hand on the rusted knife in my pocket, and you asked no questions about the tattered scrap of rag I was using as a hjab. Though I had nothing to cover my face, you didn’t stare at it. You didn’t pry after my name. You reminded me that I once had had dignity.
I walked through the market with you and was not afraid. Your son (or so I thought he was at the time) seemed so horrified to see us together, but only I seemed to know why. Dark with fair, Gondorian with Haradrian, each of us failing to do as the world expected and knife each other right there in the street. You gave respect, and I returned respect. If I didn’t look, I forgot that you were white.
You fit into your surroundings like a hand to a glove. Tall, aristocratic, enigmatic, you lurked in your corner. Brooded? Almost. There was too much humor in that smile to be called properly brooding. Still, one could almost picture a jaunty raven perching on your shoulder as you stride these dark-beamed halls filled with fading tapestries and tumbling relics. Have you perhaps a lover locked away in a secret room behind that paneled wall? It would explain your smile, sir.
You were never the naughtiest tween at the fair, and you were never the best behaved lad at Dame Boffin’s school. You pulled your share of pigtails and tipped your share of sheep. We played together when we both wore skirts and you cried when I smashed mud into your glossy golden curls. When other lads were stealing kisses at the fair, you were right there with them. You almost missed getting your ribbon for that prize-winning cheddar because of Adeline Bracegirdle and her stilton tarts.
Who knows when I first put eyes on you? But I remember when I first saw you. And it wasn’t at that dance when I wore the scandalous red dress! No, this was a few weeks before. You were driving your Papa’s cows home to the barn, and one of the calves broke loose and caught his poor little leg in a mole hole. You let the herd follow the lead-goat in and went running for the bawling wee thing. It was a chore, and you nearly got your head kicked in, but you got him free, and I heard later that you nursed him till his leg healed up, though anyone else would have put him beyond his misery and had veal for supper. So if you want to know why I showed up at the Lithe dance in a bright red dress with roses in my hair, that’s why. And that’s why, Miss Marigold, we don’t eat veal like the Sackville-Bagginses do. So let’s have those taters peeled by the time Papa and I get back from our walk.
When I first looked into your big, brown eyes, I fell hopelessly in love. Your brother was a handsome fellow too, but you looked at me like I was the only woman in the world. You were so weak and I felt so helpless until I could get you someplace warm and clean where a healer could put you to rights. Both of you were grateful, but it was your head in my lap that night by the fire, and you I held in my arms as you shivered with fever. I woke that morning to your kisses on my face, my arms, my ankles! My heart beat to the rhythm of your wagging, stumpy tail.
I was bored, bored, bored that day! Verdi never had any time for me and I could tell she didn’t want me here. Nobody wants me. I’m Eleventh. Nobody wants eleven children… at least, nobody but the Bolgers. I hadn’t met the Bolgers yet. People will pat you on the head and get you out of their way and you never get anything new. Big people were better, though. They thought I was so cute! I could have as many laps and tidbits as I wanted. But still, everyone was busy and you get so bored of being petted.
You were kinda big and your long arms and legs just looked weird. But I hadn’t any sisters to play with, and you didn’t either. Didn’t take but a few rounds of ‘hold the dolly’ to figure out that big people or hobbits, little girls are just about the same anywhere. You’re my friend! Mine! I got you first and I don’t have to share you with my family. And you’re a fancy big person too! Not even Lobelia has a Big best friend. If only you could come visit me with the Bolgers, you’d be well in a trice. Mama says the air here is much healthier. Please ask your new Papa if you can come stay? I’ll let you wear my fancy ribbons and sleep in the good bed.
I had dreaded you and longed for you, sometimes both at once. I had been ready to die for you, and terrified of dying. Sometimes, I hated you for making me so ill as I worked on my Mastery trials. Sometimes, I was happy to bear the pain and fear so that you could have the chance to live. Sometimes, I would lie awake nights terrified of what could happen to you in this death-trap of a world, and terrified most of all that you would despise me when you grew old enough to see me for the flawed being I am. I did not ask for you. I did not want you. I did everything I could to keep you from coming into my life.
When I held your trembling red body in my arms and saw how your tiny chest worked to bring air to your cries, all I felt was love. No matter how loud you were, and no matter how much of the mess the ladies had missed when they claimed to be cleaning you off, and no matter how much a mess you had made of me and the linens, still I adored you. You will upset me and you will send me into fits. You will make even more horrific messes than you did on that first day, and you will present me with muddy ‘treasures’ that I will not receive with pleasure. Your friends’ mothers will always be ready to drop their tasks to kiss bumped heads and admire wobbly artwork, but yours will spend hours locked in her lab or her bedroom. There will be times when you need me desperately, and I am too pressed by my own affliction to hold you. You may even someday look at me with disgust and hide your mad, hexed mother from your friends. But you will always find as much love in my last gaze as you did in my first.