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Madame Zee Excerpt ~

Chapter One ~ 1897

Madame Zee by Pearl Luke Edith Mabel Rowbotham lies contentedly in a lowland meadow in Lancashire County. Partially hidden atop a soft bed of flattened fescue and sedge, sweet vernal grass and cocksfoot, saxifrage and marigold, she and her older sister Honora stare up at the hard blue sky suspended overhead. A delicate, copper-toned butterfly lands atop a spike of crested dogstail, and a brown hare races close, stops still and grinds its teeth in startled warning, then makes a quick zigzag around their legs to disappear as quickly as it arrived.

She nudges Honora as the hare bounds away, and then she settles back on the grass. A moment later, not knowing how it is possible with her eyes wide open, Mabel sees herself, perched atop a large boulder, facing water. Sharp, wartlike barnacles encrust the sides of the rock, but its smooth bald top holds the sun’s heat and warms her from below. Salt air mingles with the odours of seaweed and fish, and gulls circle with their anguished child’s cry. Waves—greenish, greyish—roil toward her, and when she turns her back on them the incoming surf roars up behind her as if it means to crush everything in its path. Bits of kelp and floating debris catch in the shoulder of each wave before it crests, and then they smash against an outcropping of rock with such force she wonders why the earth’s surface doesn’t shatter like glass beneath her feet.

She hears each explosion like a cannon shot and sees the resultant spray discharge in all directions. A splash hits her leg, as cold as a bucket of ice water, one tiny portion of one vast arc that might have drenched her from head to foot and sucked her out to sea.

The ocean is powerful in its attack. Rock is equally powerful in its resistance. But for all their fierceness, the waves, momentarily expended, lap the innermost shore like a gentle, healing tongue, so that as each one withdraws, she hears the pleasant rattle of shallow water draining off pebbles.

And then all the tin-plate colours of rock and sea—all the sensory information she can’t possibly know—recede, so that once again she lies motionless in the meadow with Honora. Her sister’s hot, familiar arm encircles and supports her neck and, rising from it, Honora’s faint ocean scent joins forever in her memory with the smell of crushed grass.

“I had another daydream,” she says, breaking the silence. Honora has explained that daydreams are like night dreams but easier to recollect.

“Just now? Was it good?” Honora rises on one arm so her face hovers over Mabel’s.

“There were birds and the sea. It was warm, but the water was cold.”

“Well, you’re the lucky one. I never see anything, even when I want to.”

The yeasty scent of fresh baking lures the two girls inside, into their grandmother’s kitchen, a haphazard space with a low, woodbeamed ceiling, where pastries and pots share workspace with any number of more improbable items—buttons, string, pins. Supplies lie where their grandmother last laid them, rather than where a more orderly person might put the same items. Squat, reflective jars of canned goods sit like colourful lanterns on the floor along one wall. A green towel dries over a chair, and a papery gold onion glints on the windowsill, atop a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It is mid-afternoon, but here the sun filters through windows surrounded by ivy, giving the room a cool aquatic quality despite the heat and welcoming aromas.

Mabel emerges, blinking, into the kitchen and drops Honora’s hand to begin a separate exploration of floured countertops and painted, freestanding tables. The two girls exchange a glance. Is it here? Or here?

Grandmother Castle’s cottony head lifts as they enter, and her smile contains just enough hint of impatience that they keep their distance—until she beckons both girls over to where she has sugar cookies cooling on a rack. As hot as it is, three loaves of freshbaked bread also rest on the counter, and alongside them, a pan of cinnamon rolls.

She has shaped the largest cookies into numbers. Last year she baked threes, sixes, and eights; today she passes a seven to Mabel.

“Careful of that pan now. It’s still warm.” She slides the hot tray farther back on the countertop and selects the number nine from the rack for Honora. She calls her by her pet name. “Your last single digit, Honey. And when William wakes, I have a four for him.” She scoots both children aside. “Now, out from under me so I don’t step all over you.”

She no longer cuts and bakes the ages of Mabel’s four elder brothers into cookies. They are past all that, but hidden amongst more mundane shapes on a plate of circles, diamonds, or crosses, they’ll still discover a boot, a hat, a moustache—any of the rich possibilities their grandmother sees as she slices through the dough.

“You’re almost ten.” Mabel latches on to her sister’s freckled arm, a look of awe on her narrow face. “And there are ten of us.”

“Imagine that,” Grandmother says. “Ten already.”

Honora has crammed her mouth full. She pops the last bit of cookie between her lips just as their mother opens the kitchen door and pushes through, her face damp, her expression hazy.

The two girls rush over.

“You’re a welcoming sight.” Margaret Rowbotham drops her shopping sack on the floor and stumbles as her daughters throw their arms around her waist. “Let me put this down before it tears open.” She carries another package, brown-wrapped and tied with hempen yarn, which she sets securely on a wooden chair, and then she stoops to give her daughters a joint hug. As they pull away, she glances around. “Where’s little William? Still asleep?”

The girls nod, and Honora accepts her mother’s hat and hangs it on a peg next to the back door.

“I’d better check on him.”

Honora’s face has flushed petal-pink, and their mother hardly leaves the room before she nudges Mabel. “Do you think that’s it?” Her eyes go to the parcel on the chair.

“Let’s feel it,” says Mabel.

All summer they have admired the new child-doll propped in the shop window two doors down from their father’s pawnshop. It has younger features than most dolls, with blue sleep eyes that open and close, curled fingers, and two tiny, rounded teeth between parted lips. They each have a rag doll already, simple stuffed figures their grandmother sewed for them in their infancy. Maggie belongs to Mabel and Holly to Honora, but they’re nothing compared to the beautiful, bisque-headed child in the window. They pleaded for her, just the one doll to share.

“Look at her.” Their mother gazed through the window with open admiration when they showed her. “Skin finer than an eggshell. Even if we could afford her, she’d be in pieces in a minute.”

No amount of begging or cajoling has changed her mind since, but Honora wants nothing else for her birthday. Not a new dress, or shoes, or a satin ribbon. Only the girl with the two darling white front teeth, the pouty pink mouth, the fine painted brows.

“Oh no you don’t.” Grandmother heads them off as they move toward the chair. She shoos them away with a mock frown. “I heard that. Both of you, out of my kitchen now.”

“But, Gram. Is it? Is it the doll?” Honora looks covetously at the package.

Grandmother Castle rubs her nose with the back of her hand and then secures a few loose tufts of grey hair into the distracted knot on the back of her head. “I honestly don’t know. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Now out with you both. Play with William, or I’ll set you to washing up.”

She softens the brusque words with a quick peck to the tops of their heads, and sets them free. As an afterthought, she touches her hand to Honora’s forehead. “If Billy’s awake, play with him in the shade, why don’t you. It’s too hot in the sun.”

The three children sit in a semicircle around a tin bowl of water and a large heap of dandelions collected from the patchy meadow across the lane. They remain in sight of the family gate so they can watch for the return of their father and brothers. Mabel squeezes sticky white milk from a stem and touches it to Honora’s arm.

“Don’t.” Honora pushes her away.

Mabel feels the sudden surprise of rejection, and then a little cramp of anger that demands retaliation. She turns to William. “Smell this.” She holds a dandelion beneath his nose and pushes the golden crown into his nostrils so that a hundred fi ne petals tickle him. “Smell the pee-a-bed.”

“Don’t.” William copies his sister’s warning and bats at her hand with his chubby, sun-browned fist.

“Leave him,” Honora says.

“Mother makes him smell the pee-a-bed so he won’t wet the mattress anymore.”

“I don’t pee the bed!”

William’s wide blue eyes begin to fill, and Honora changes the subject. “Did it work when Mother put dandelion milk on your wart?”

She examines her fingers. “I don’t have a wart.”

“Then it must have worked. Gram says they bring good luck, too.”

She nods. She has helped her grandmother wash young, tender dandelion leaves for salads, brew spring roots for a medicinal tea, and dry larger ones in the sun to be ground for coffee. She tosses a handful of dandelions into the air. “If the pee-a-beds bring luck, then you’ll get your baby doll.”

“It won’t matter.” Honora’s words belie her expression, which says it matters very much. “Gram must know something. They must have bought me shoes like last year.”

Big thick brown ones, Mabel remembers. She watches as the neighbours’ black-and-white cat sidles near a dignified covey of feeding quail. Their soft pit, pit, pit sounds escalate, and the cat’s rippling, well-groomed coat shimmers as it moves—a black silk jacket over immaculate white trousers. The cat approaches stealthily, nose twitching.

“Or a new winter coat so I can give you my old one.”

“No. They can’t have!” Her exclamation is so sudden that the cat darts away; two leaps and a bound and it is gone. The quail scatter— a gentle drum roll from those that take flight for a few feet, the others propelled in all directions by comical stick legs racing.

“Why should this year be any different? They mightn’t have the money for a doll. And I can’t hurt their feelings, can I? Whatever they’ve got me, I’ll be happy for it.” Honora glances at Mabel. “I will

She turns away from Honora and holds a dandelion under William’s chin. She won’t be happy with a stupid old coat. She checks for the amount of yellow reflected against her brother’s skin. Bright means he is very sweet, pale means he is not. The bottom of his chin is bright gold.

She pulls the flower off the dandelion. “You’re not very sweet,” she lies.

“Of course he is,” Honora says. When Honora turns her gentle smile on him, William’s face loses its threat of tears, and he rolls over in the grass and laughs.

Mabel ignores him and slides closer to Honora, so close that their arms press together. Honora’s is hot and dry. Hers is damp and sticky. Together, they pull all the heads off the hollow dandelion stems.

“We’ll make a chain.” Honora demonstrates to William how to poke the thin end of the long stem into its larger, opposite end to create one link after another. “And then we’ll go inside. My eyes hurt.”

Later that evening, Margaret Rowbotham boils huge pots of cabbage and potatoes, saving the fattened chicken for tomorrow’s birthday dinner. The family eats the meal with a little bacon fat and thick slices of brown bread as they sit around the table— Grandmother Castle; Mabel’s parents; her brothers Angus, Julian, Paul, Albert, and William; Honora; and she—all of them grinning wide moon-slice grins at one another.

After dinner, Julian swings William up onto his shoulders. Second oldest of the boys, Julian is underweight, his shoulders square, broad, and bony. But his face is angular and cheerful because he resists all things unpleasant, and at nineteen, he is not too old to play. With William clutching his head, he chases Paul and Albert outside, where the three brothers engage in a game of catch, an hysterical William tossed between them.

Mabel watches for a while, until William wets himself and the fun stops.

“He stinks,” Paul says.

Julian swats him when William’s shrieks of laughter turn to wails. “Don’t say that.”

“Why not? It’s true.”

“Doesn’t matter if it’s true. He has feelings, too.”

Angus, the eldest, the quiet one, reads by the window. It is his copy of Sherlock Holmes on the windowsill. He looks up when he hears his brothers arguing, but he’s never drawn in easily, and Frankenstein holds him fast.

Mabel joins Honora, who is already washing and dressing for bed. She combs Honora’s hair. In exchange, Honora hums “Brother John” over and over.

“That’s all,” Honora says. “My throat’s sore.” So the two girls curl together under their flannel blanket. She rubs the smooth surface of Honora’s thumbnail with the pad of her own smaller thumb, the circular movement slowing until she falls asleep, still holding Honora’s hand in their narrow iron bed.

Near morning, when light at the window is no longer black but is not yet bright either, she wakes to find Honora breathing in rapid gasps, shivering with such violence that Mabel can hear her sister’s teeth tapping together.

“I’m cold,” Honora whimpers, when Mabel pushes her face close. “So cold.”

She wraps her arms around Honora. “Is that better?”

Honora gives her a weak push and cries, “You’re cold. You’re too cold.”

She’s not cold at all, and Honora is as hot as the sun. “Wait,” she says, thinking fast. “I’ll get the lamp.”

The coal-oil lamp is on the bureau, pushed to the back, close to the mirror. She can just see its tin bottom in the dim light, but she’ll need a chair to reach it. Her parents have said she’s not to touch the lamp ever, not even to turn it down and certainly not to light it, but this must be an exception. Honora is shaking, and the lamp will be hot enough to warm her.

She slides a chair in front of the bureau drawers and stretches forward. Oil spills onto her hand as she drags the lamp closer, but she is careful and it stays upright. She wipes her fingers on her nightdress and checks the top drawer of the bureau for the box of kitchen matches kept there. Finding them, she lifts the glass globe with the wire and strikes a match against the brick set on the bureau for this purpose. She has seen her parents do this a hundred times, and Honora as well.

She lights the wick, lowers the globe, and blows out the match. Now she has only to take the lamp closer to Honora.

But something is not right. She pushes the lamp back and bats at a ring of fire still burning on the bureau. As she does, a flame ignites on her wrist. She screams out and rubs her hand against her nightgown. When the flames ignite there as well, she panics and tumbles off the chair, rolling onto the floorboards. As the chair knocks against the bureau, the lantern tips and shatters on the floor. Quicker than the hare in the meadow, fire jumps forward and the bedclothes near Honora ignite.

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